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Beloved Adversary, Part One

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Well, here we are again.
I guess it must be fate.
We've tried it on our own,
But deep inside we've known
We'd be back to set things straight.

I still remember when
Your kiss was so brand new.
Every memory repeats,
Every step I take retreats,
Every journey always brings me back to you.

After all the stops and starts,
We keep coming back to these two hearts:
Two angels who've been rescued from the fall.
And after all that we've been through,
It all comes back to me and you.
I guess it's meant to be
Forever you and me
After all ...

(From "After All" by Tom Snow/Dean Pitchford, love theme from CHANCES ARE, sung by Cher and Peter Citera)

 

I

 

This will not do, Kerr Avon thought to himself, as the voices reaching him from the other side of the door arrested his attention. He opened the door just a crack and peeked through.

Vila Restal, drink in hand, was weaving a tale of suspense and anguish for his rapt audience.  "It was right after Gan died," Avon heard Vila say.  "Blake is overcome with guilt and temporarily strands himself on this planet to reconsider everything and to give us the chance to do the same.  Avon is making like he doesn't buy a bit of it, saying Blake is only trying to make us feel sorry for him so we'll excuse what he did, even suggesting we leave Blake there and make off with the Liberator and all its wealth.  Then we start detecting disturbances on the surface of the planet--well, Zen and Orac do, that is--and we calculate that some huge earthquake or something is coming that will swallow Blake up, and the teleport isn't programmed to come back into operation for another 45 minutes.  And Avon jumps up with this grim, determined expression on his face and says, 'Blake doesn't have 45 minutes,' and off he goes to reprogram the teleport and save him."

"No," Avon repeated to himself, "this will not do at all.  Someone has to put a stop to it."  He quietly closed the door.  "Blake has to put a stop to it," he muttered decisively.  "Now all I have to do is find him."

On the other side of the door, Vila continued the story for Tarrant and Dayna while Soolin and Deva moved across the room to start a fire in the fireplace.  It was a large room, old and drafty, like the old and drafty farmhouse it was a part of.

"So you were born and raised on Gauda Prime, is that right?" Deva queried, piling on the logs.

"Yes.  In a place not too different from this one."  Soolin's eyes scanned the walls and ceiling.  "Only my family wasn't as lucky as Klyn's.  They didn't run fast enough when the mining interests moved in."

"We are lucky that Klyn's family abandoned this place," Deva mused.  "And that Klyn had told Blake about it.  And that Blake knew how to get here."

"And that no one took notice of two stray flyers putting down in the forest last week," Soolin continued.

She handed Deva a match, and he ignited the kindling material. "Vila seems to think our greatest luck was finding that stash of wine in the cellar," he remarked.

Soolin chuckled, stirring the newborn flames with a stick.  "Tell me," she said, "Blake and Klyn, were they ...?"  Her voice trailed off suggestively.

"Lovers?"  Deva supplied, clearly startled by the question. "No, of course not."

"Why 'of course not'?"

"Well, because Blake hasn't time for that sort of thing, you know."

"Really."  Soolin leaned back, pondering it.  "But I seem to recall something about him and a Jenna Stannis."

"Jenna--yes--the smuggler."  Deva obviously recognized the name. "She was Blake's pilot on the Liberator, I believe.  I never actually met her.  She died a couple of months before I joined Blake.  You'd have to ask Vila about her and Blake."

Soolin looked across the room.  "I just might do that," she murmured. 

Now the flames leapt up noisily, their crackling warmth attracting the trio sitting apart from them.

"Mind if we join you?"  Dayna invited herself.  Tarrant put a hand on her arm and chivalrously ushered her across the room.  Vila followed suit, escorting his recently refilled glass.  The five of them settled into a relaxed semicircle on the rug in front of the fireplace.

"Vila's been trying to explain Blake and Avon to us," Tarrant said.         

"Still?"  Deva remarked.

"Is there a more interesting topic of discussion?" Dayna grinned.            

"Not lately," Soolin agreed.  "I don't think I'll ever forget the moment when they first came face to face."  She paused.  "Or anything that followed it, for that matter."

"Did you see the way Avon looked when Arlen was about to shoot off Blake's--you know?"  Dayna's question ended on a note of virginal embarrassment.

"I don't think he'd have looked that way if she'd been about to  shoot off his own--you know," Soolin replied, conceding to the other  woman's modesty.

"I think he'd have stepped in front of Blake, if it hadn't been  physically impossible, you know," piped up Vila.

That produced looks of skepticism from all directions.  "Avon put someone else's well-being ahead of his own?"  Dayna exclaimed.  "Come on, Vila."

"No, I mean it," the thief maintained.  "He always did with Blake.  Would have died sooner than admit it, of course.  But it was true all the same."

"I thought Blake was rather cruel to Avon afterward," Tarrant observed, without a trace of criticism in his voice.

"Nah, that's just part of their game," Vila declared.  "Blake knows Avon can take it.  Avon's not as fragile as he doesn't look, you know."

"Really, Vila!" Dayna chided, as she often did when Vila's incipient inebriation got the better of his sentence construction.

"No, I mean it," the man repeated.  "Remember that time with Shrinker?"

"Don't remind us," Tarrant pleaded.

"Some of us never knew," Soolin pointed out, and Deva nodded eagerly.

"Right," Vila beamed, needing only the barest encouragement to continue.  "Well, Avon had this girl friend once who died under torture protecting him.  Well, actually she didn't.  Die, I mean.  Or even get tortured.  But Avon thought she had done, and he was out to avenge her.  He went tracking the man he thought responsible."

"Shrinker," Deva put in.

"Right.  He got himself arrested so he'd be interrogated so Shrinker would come to him when he didn't break.  Five days he held out like that.  Five days of torture, and he never even gave them his name."

"That is impressive," Deva remarked.

"Oh, Avon's nothing if not impressive," Tarrant murmured.

"Blake's obviously impressed with him," Deva observed.  "Blake used to talk about your Avon all the time."

"Our Avon?" Dayna giggled.

"I like that," Soolin smiled.

"Avon wouldn't," Vila told Deva.  "Like it, I mean.  Leastwise he'd say he didn't."

"Yes," Deva continued.  "It was always 'when Avon gets here, this, when Avon gets here, that'."

"Hard to figure those two," Soolin muttered.

"Not really," Vila said brightly, and all eyes turned his way. "Blake brings out the best in him.  Avon tries to make him pay for it every step of the way.  Blake thrives on it."  It was a simple enough pronouncement, but spoken with stunning confidence and surprising clarity.

"And Avon?" inquired Deva.

"That is hard to tell," Vila answered.  "He's not very open with his feelings, in case you haven't noticed."

"Oh, I've noticed," Deva assured him.

"It would be difficult to miss," Tarrant added with a smile.

"So where have they got to now, do you suppose?" asked Dayna.        

"Avon and Blake?"  Vila shrugged.  "Well, wherever it is, at least they're not together."

"How do we know that?" Soolin challenged, frowning.

"Listen," Vila directed.

"I don't hear anything," she protested.

"Neither do I," Dayna agreed, and the other two nodded assent.

"Exactly," Vila said smugly.  "That's how we know."

*****

Roj Blake did not want to be found.  For a week he'd been waiting for an opportunity to get to the bottom of Avon's bizarre suggestion concerning Orac, and now he finally had it.  He carried the computer stealthily up the winding staircase, which led from the second floor where the bedrooms were located to a tiny attic room on the third.  He set Orac down, closed the door behind him and inserted the computer's activator key.

As the familiar hum greeted his ears, he glanced around self-consciously.  Clearly no one could hear him, but embarrassment was rarely subject to the rigors of rationality.  "Orac," he said, rising above his sense of utter foolishness, "I love you."

*Self-confrontation program is now available and running,* came back the response.  *Please pose your question.*

Blake broke into a stream of hearty laughter.  "Is this Avon's doing?" he asked.

*Define 'this',* Orac demanded testily.

"This, uh, self-confrontation program."

*The self-confrontation program was designed by my creator Ensor.  He was prone to frequent fits of depression brought on by the stress of prolonged isolation.  The self-confrontation program was his tool for coping with those episodes.*

"I see.  But Avon knows about it?"

*Well, of course.*

"Of course," Blake echoed.  Then a look of amazement crossed his face.  "Has he used it?"

*He has.*

"When did he use it?"

*Seven time units ago.*

Seven time units.  A week.  But that must mean...  "Where did he use it?"  Blake persisted, moving into increasing conversational proximity to the computer.

*In the forest.  Here on Gauda Prime.*

Curiouser and curiouser.  Blake was curious now, intensely curious, so much so that he didn't even stop to consider whether what he was doing was a violation of the other man's privacy.  "What question did Avon pose?"

The slightest of pauses while Orac accessed the information. *Question: How did I get myself into such a mess?*

"What answer did he receive?"

Another pause.  *Answer: You came here pursuing the thing you love most in the universe.*

Blake was thunderstruck.  "Oh," he breathed in slightly irreverent awe.  "Oh, poor Avon."

*That is inaccurate,* Orac declared, startling his interrogator.

"Oh?"

*Both Avon and yourself are the beneficiaries of his interaction with the self-confrontation program.*

Blake was totally baffled. "Explain, please," he requested.        

*Probability analysis indicates that in the alternate universe in which Kerr Avon does not run the self-confrontation program, he kills Roj Blake.*

"What?!" gasped the rebel leader, jumping up in horrified disbelief.

*****

"Having fun, Blake?" inquired a voice at the door.  Avon walked into the room and stood with his arms folded imperially across his chest.

"You were the one suggested I tell Orac I love him," Blake managed to sputter.  Then, "Oh, thank you, Orac, that will be all."  He removed  the activator key.

"I had hoped you might learn something about yourself," Avon  declared.

"I did--I think."

"That is not what I had in mind."

"What did you have in mind, Avon?" Blake demanded.  "At the base, I mean.  Did you come there to kill me?"

"Don't be more absurd than necessary," Avon retorted.  "Of course I didn't come there to kill you."

"But you might have killed me?" Avon turned away, and Blake grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him back around.  "No, tell me, Avon.  In those first few minutes when Tarrant said I had betrayed you, were you going to kill me?"

Avon met his gaze unflinchingly.  "I don't know, Blake."

"Because you believed him?" Blake persisted.  "How could you believe him?"

"There was some evidence pointing in that direction, if you recall."

"Evidence?"

Avon was incredulous.  "Blake, you told him you were planning to hand the lot of us over to the Federation to collect the bounty on our heads!"

"And you believed him."

"Were you really that certain I wouldn't?"

"Yes!"

He must have been, Avon realized suddenly.  How else explain the man facing him unarmed when he knew what Tarrant had to have told Avon?  Even Blake's apparent "bodyguard" hadn't really been armed.  Avon shook his head in amazement and said, "You are the epitome of arrogance, Blake."

"Well, you should know if anyone does," the other shot back. Then he got control of himself.  "So you see that certainty as my arrogance, do you?" he queried softly.

"What do you see it as?"

"As my faith in you, Avon."

It had been unbearable at Star One.  It was only marginally less unbearable now.  "What's the matter with you, Blake?" Avon sneered.  "Hasn't anyone ever told you that it's foolish to put that much trust in people, that they'll let you down?"

"Yes, but I have an inherent problem with that advice," Blake said quietly.

"Which is?"

"Which is that the person who's told me that the most often is  the person who's never once failed to disprove it."

Avon flinched.  "Careful, Blake, I very nearly did a week ago."

"What's the matter with you, Avon?" Blake parried, smiling.   "Hasn't anyone ever told you that 'almost' doesn't count?"

There was an awkward pause.  "Well," Blake said finally, "Shall we move Orac back to its usual location before one of the others decides it's gone missing and sounds the alarm?"

"In a minute, okay?  I came looking for you for a reason."

"No doubt."

"It's Vila," Avon said.  "He has managed to get hold of some  alcoholic beverage, and he is regaling the others with tales about the bad old days.  Mostly about you and me."

Blake shrugged.  "So?"

"That doesn't bother you."

"Why should it?"  Then, with a grin, "Are his stories untrue?"

"Not exactly," Avon admitted uncomfortably.

"Well, then, it's only natural, don't you think?  You're an unknown quantity to Deva.  I'm an unknown quantity to the rest of them.  And they can't have failed to observe, even in this short space of time, that you and I together are--unusual."

"I do not enjoy being on display, nor the subject of gossip."

"You're telling the wrong person, Avon," Blake pointed out.

Mulling that over, the other man mumbled--seemingly more to himself than to his companion--"I can't tell Vila.  If I tell Vila, he'll know."

Blake burst into spontaneous, uncontrollable laughter.  "I'm sorry," he apologized, seeing Avon's look of consternation.  "Really, I'm sorry."

"I'm just asking you to exercise some leadership, Blake."

"No, you're just asking me to exercise some dictatorship.  And that's what we're fighting, remember?"

"Blake--" Avon attempted one last time.

"Settle it yourself or let it go," was the rebel leader's clearly final pronouncement.  Blake did not often indulge in direct displays of his authority.  He preferred the appearance of democracy in principle and the feeling of democracy in fact.  Both of which served to insure that when he did "lay down the law", it was nearly always heeded without question.  Even by Avon.

 

II

 

In the ten days since their narrow escape from capture by the Federation at Blake's base, the rebel band had been hiding out in reasonable safety at Klyn's family's abandoned farmhouse.  The pair of flyers in which they had effected their getaway, concealed amongst a nearby configuration of rocks and trees when not in use, was being used in two ways and for two purposes: stintingly by day to gather information, and liberally by night to gather all that could be salvaged of supplies and spare parts from the Scorpio crash site.

The ship itself was beyond repair--it would never be spaceworthy again.  But some of the tools and most of the medical supplies had survived intact, as, miraculously, had the photonic drive unit. And various components of the communications system and even some of the components of the teleport system were judged by Avon to be worthy of reclamation--which is to say, he believed that with a bit of "creative rearrangement", he could press them into service towards their immediately pressing goal.

That goal being to find a way off Gauda Prime and onto some other more appropriate planet.  More appropriate to Avon meant "safer."  More appropriate to Blake meant "suitable for continuing the struggle against the Federation."  The Federation being, of course, the reason that Gauda Prime was no longer safe--not for them, at any rate.

Ironically, it had never been safer for its ordinary inhabitants. The "open planet" status, which had once rendered the place a safe haven for every sort of profit-seeking and psychopathic criminal, had been officially rescinded.  The bounty-hunting clean-up campaign in which Blake had seemingly taken part, using it as a recruiting  mechanism for potential converts to the rebel cause, had been enormously successful and was, likewise, officially over.  Already the bounty hunters were shutting up shop and departing Gauda Prime in search of bloodier pastures.

The Federation realized, however, that Blake and his newly-acquired entourage had to be still hiding out somewhere on the planet's surface and was determined to haul them in.  A further irony was where the Federation had established its new central headquarters on Gauda Prime:  No place other than Blake's old base.  The rebels learned this on one of their intelligence-gathering missions--a hasty and furtive visit to one of Blake's underground supporters.  "Well, why not?" the rebel leader had commented upon receiving the information.  "It was built to resemble the hub of a Law and Order clean-up operation.  It has all the necessary accoutrements.  I saw to that."  "Count on Servalan to recognize a ready-made setup when she sees one," Avon had replied.  Although "Commissioner Sleer" (to use her current title and alias) had not, as far as they knew, set foot on the planet personally, none of them doubted she was behind all the decisions concerning Federation operations on G.P.  Having heard that Blake and Avon were here, they knew she would have insisted upon it.

At this point their night forays to the Scorpio crash site were over.  They had stripped the ship of every conceivable useful item, and it but remained for them to build what they required for their escape.  They had Orac, of course, so they were in a position to communicate with other nodes in the rebel network off-planet. But doing so exposed them to the risk that their communications might be intercepted, revealing both their plans and their location. And so they wanted to keep the use of Orac in that fashion to a minimum.  In fact, they hadn't used the computer that way yet.  Avon was working on a device to keep the Federation from picking up Orac's signal.  No one else, with the possible partial exception of Blake, really understood the principle behind it, but Avon described it as an "auditory analog" to the detector shield he had once built for the Liberator.  As soon as it was ready, they would attempt to contact Avalon.

Presently running one of the most successful rebel operations in the galaxy, Blake's old ally was based on the planet Iridian in the Argulian star system at the edge of Sector Six.  It was hoped that she would be able to arrange for a rescue ship to come to Gauda Prime and pick them up.  Not that that prospect wasn't fraught with problems of its own--problems they'd been painfully reminded of every time they had visited what was left of Scorpio...  But, Blake said wryly, they would cross that blockade when they came to it.

In the meantime, the farmhouse afforded them all the comforts of home.  Well, not quite all.  Houses that no one has lived in for years tend not to be bursting at the seams with fresh food, and, while a welcome array of canned goods and jarfuls of passably palatable jams were found alongside the wine Vila had laid claim to, it was proving necessary to supplement their diet with small game animals and freshwater fish.  Fortunately, Dayna had a natural talent for hunting and a more than adequate liking for it.  Every day she'd go out and bring back some juicy morsel for dinner.  Some days Tarrant went with her, some days Soolin.  Blake insisted that none of them venture any further than the flyers without a companion and that anyone who did venture further take a tracking device as well as a companion.

*****

"What do you mean you had to outshoot yourself?" Blake asked Soolin as they walked across the grass.

"Belkov's computer projected an image of whoever was challenging it," the woman replied.  "Unless one is feeling particularly suicidal, it creates an unnerving dilemma--and it matches the challenger's own skill level."

"So how did you maintain your awareness that the image wasn't real?"

Soolin smiled.  "By never for an instant losing sight of the fact that the bullets were."

They stopped now, having reached their intended destination--an area of completely level ground, unobstructed by trees or shrubbery, still well within view of the front of the farmhouse.

"Okay," Soolin said, as she produced a set of six wooden disks and handed them to Blake.  They were, he observed, of graduated sizes, the largest perhaps the diameter of a small dessert plate, the smallest not even filling out the space between his thumb and forefinger.  "Now, what I'd like you to do is hold these, like so," she pressed one of them into his hand, "at arm's length from your body.  Start with the largest and work your way down."

"And you'll be where exactly?"  Blake's voice was edged with worry.

"Oh, I'll just step back a bit."

"A bit?" Blake repeated as the woman kept moving further and further away.  Finally she stopped.  "You're joking, of course," he declared.

"No, I'm perfectly serious."  She pulled out her gun and inspected it casually.  "As I said, start with the largest.  Be sure to replace each one as quickly as possible after I hit it.  I'd like to polish off all six in less than a minute."  She reholstered the weapon and flashed him a smile.

"Uh, Soolin," he stammered.  "I don't want to create the impression that I lack confidence in you or anything.  It's just that I've grown rather attached to these fingers of mine."

"Don't worry, Blake," the woman called back.  "When I'm through, you'll still be attached to them.  I promise."

"I'll hold you to that," he muttered under his breath.

At that point they were distracted by the sight of Avon strolling by, his silk shirt glistening in the sunlight.  Several closets full of clothing had been another fortuitous find at the farmhouse, and, miraculously, something fit everyone.  Seeing Avon out of studs and leather and wearing colors other than the black for the first time in over a year was creating something of a culture shock for the erstwhile Scorpio crew, though Blake naturally remained unaffected by the change and seemingly even largely unaware of it.

"Good morning, Blake," Avon greeted him cheerfully.  "I see you've discovered Soolin's special talent."  He moved close to the man, put his arm around his shoulder and whispered, "Don't worry.  She can do that.  I've seen her."

"Yes, but have you seen it from this particular vantage point?" Blake whispered back.

Avon moved off aways and smiled.  "Me?  Of course not.  That requires a trusting soul like yourself."  And he continued on his stroll without so much as a backwards glance.

"Thank you, Avon, for that reassurance," Blake called after him. "I feel ever so much better now."

"Glad to be of help," came the snappy retort as Avon disappeared into the nearby trees.

"All right, Blake," Soolin said merrily.  "No more last minute reprieves."

"Do you have to put it that way?" he winced.

"Sorry."

"All right, Soolin," he agreed, assuming the position she'd requested.  "My hands are in your hands.  Ready any time you--"

His words were cut short by the firing of her first shot.  The disk flew out of his hand, and he barely had time to replace it with the next one before she'd fired again.  Another bull's eye.  By the third disk Blake was so astonished at her skill that anxiety completely gave way to rising excitement.  So swift and so smooth and so centered was each shot that he scarcely felt the impact.  Only at the very end, with the very smallest of the disks, did he fall prey to a surge of instinctive fear.  Faster than the speed of thought, it caused him to flinch, and the disk splintered in his fingers, which caused him to jerk back even further.

Soolin spun her weapon with a fancy flourish, holstered it and came running up to him.  "Fantastic!" he exclaimed.  "Absolutely fantastic!  Could I ever have used you on a couple of dozen well-chosen occasions!"

Soolin bent over and, with a stick, scooped up the first 5 disks. The bullet holes were aligned dead center; the stick passed through them like the string of a beaded necklace.  She held it up, beaming. "You are a trusting soul."

"And you're every bit as good as they say you are," Blake responded, then, a bit sheepishly, "Sorry I flinched like that at the end."

"I said 'trusting'," Soolin reiterated.  "I didn't say 'superhuman'."

"You allowed for my moving when you aimed, didn't you?" Blake said.

"Naturally."

"How did you know which way I would move?"

"Common sense," Soolin answered.  "Now, if it had been Vila--"

"You get Vila to do this," cut in Blake, "and I'll eat Orac's activator key."  Soolin burst out laughing, whether at the image of Vila standing still in a hail of bullets or at the image of himself  consuming Orac's key, Blake wasn't sure.  "Seriously now," he said, "Can you teach me that sort of precision firing?  I mean, I'm no neophyte with a gun, but--"

Soolin held up her hand.  "Basic skill to be mastered," she stated, "is concentration.  You focus in on your target, no matter how small, and blot everything else out."

"I see," Blake grinned.  "So, for you, my fingers didn't exist."

"Exactly--which is why they still do."  Soolin beckoned to him to follow her to the end of the field where Avon had disappeared into the trees.  She took the 5 disks she had shot and used the holes to hang them on twigs on a branch of the nearest tree she could reach. "Have you had any training in concentration?" she asked.

Blake chuckled softly.  "On the job training, you might say." Soolin frowned.  "During torture," he clarified.  "During efforts to break my conditioning and regain my memory.  Does that count, do you suppose?"

"I would think that compared to that this should be child's play," Soolin answered.  "But there's only one way to find out, isn't there?"  She moved away from the target.

Blake drew his own projectile weapon, his "bounty hunter's" gun, and began firing.  Five shots in quick succession, albeit not as quick as hers had been.  And 5 wooden disks split apart and fell to the ground.

"Very good!" Soolin exclaimed.  She examined the remains of her equipment.  "All but one were direct hits," she reported.

At that moment, a familiar face emerged from behind the line of trees.  "Is it safe to come out?" Avon inquired humorously.  Blake holstered his gun in reply.  "Promising pupil, Soolin?" Avon asked the woman.

"Oh, very," she assured him enthusiastically.

His gaze travelled analytically from one to the other.  "Mmm-hmm," he commented mysteriously.

"Mmm-hmm, what?" Soolin demanded.

He gave her a knowing look, but did not reply.  Instead he turned to Blake.  "We need to have a group meeting to discuss the masking device," he declared.  "I've run into a critical resources snag."

"I see," Blake responded with concern.  "All right.  Why don't you go back to the house and round everyone up.  We'll be along straight away."

"Yes.  See that you are," Avon murmured and broke into a half-run.

"What's gotten into him?" Soolin wondered aloud.

"I've absolutely no idea," Blake shrugged.  He touched her arm lightly.  "Shall we?"

*****

When Avon arrived at the house, he found Vila reclining on the front porch, looking towards the open area where Blake and Soolin had been conducting their target practice.  The thief's posture was what might most accurately be described as a "lazy sprawl", and he was yawning repeatedly.  The only thing missing from the picture, Avon thought wryly, was the alcohol he presumed responsible for it.  He looked down and inquired in a mildly sarcastic tone, "Does one need a password to get by?"

Vila blinked a few times, then slowly shifted position.  "Sorry. Didn't realize I was taking up so much space.  What's been going on out there anyway?"

"Where?" Avon countered, momentarily surprised that Vila had been aware enough to observe anything.  But then, of course, the gunshots would have been difficult to ignore.  "Oh, that," he responded finally.  "Soolin is making a play for Blake."

That assertion seemed to rouse Vila from his stupor.  "No kidding?" he exclaimed, getting to his feet.  "So that's why she asked me all those questions about Blake and Jenna."

"No doubt," Avon muttered, taking satisfaction in this independent confirmation of his suspicions.

"Is Blake going to respond, do you think?" Vila asked.

 A sly smile spread across Avon's face.  "Well, that could prove difficult," he answered coyly and leaned in toward Vila with a conspiratorial whisper.  "He has to notice first."

Inside the house footsteps could be heard and the sound of heavy equipment hitting the floor.  "Dayna and Tarrant back from the hunt," Vila surmised.

"Good," Avon said.  "That leaves just Deva to locate."

"Oh, he's upstairs shaving and dressing," Vila reported. "He slept late.  Why?"

"We're having a meeting."

"When?"

"Now," Avon said as Blake and Soolin arrived on the scene.

Vila flashed them a perfunctory non-verbal greeting and went inside.  "Have I time to freshen up first?" Soolin asked, dividing the question between the two men with a split glance.

"Well, actually--" Avon started.

"Of course," Blake cut in.  Soolin ran a hand down his arm in an apparent gesture of gratitude and stepped through the door.

"Everyone's here," Avon told Blake.  "I think Vila just went to get Deva.  I'll go find Tarrant and Dayna."  They had the living room to themselves as they entered.  "So tell me," Avon continued, trying to sound casual, "are you impressed with Soolin?"

Blake whirled around, his eyes filled with fire.  "Oh, yes, of course," he answered passionately.  "She's going to be a tremendous asset to the rebellion."

Avon's eyes were filled with whimsy.  "That's about what I thought you'd say."

Blake caught the note of mockery in his voice, but didn't understand it.  "What are you driving at?" he sighed with exasperation.

"Nothing, nothing," Avon replied with exaggerated innocence.  He sauntered from the room, still looking like the proverbial cat who'd swallowed the canary.

"In a pig's eye!" Blake muttered after him.

*****

As everyone gathered for the meeting, Avon observed Blake interacting with the others.  He had seen Vila but briefly this morning and the rest of them--apart from Soolin and himself--he  had not seen at all.  Now, with an off-handed casualness that looked too perfect to be genuine, he was finding a way to greet each of them individually.  Utterly trivial words accompanied by nearly imperceptible gestures of physical contact:  A pat on the head for Dayna, a squeeze of the shoulder for Tarrant, his fingers brushing Deva's as the man passed him some papers...  And they all seemed to glow with added life beneath his touch, and it was a shared glow, a unifying glow, like some kind of invisible glue binding them to one another in seamless harmony.

Avon slowly shook his head, marveling at the utter perfection of it--and allowed himself, for the first time, to entertain the possibility that what Blake was doing came naturally to him, that it was spontaneous rather than calculated.  Then Blake's voice jolted him out of his reverie: "... was Avon who called this meeting, I shall now turn it over to him."

He moved from his isolated observation post and stood at the head of the table.  "I'll come right to the point," he began.  "As you all know, I've been working on a masking device to enable us to use Orac to contact Avalon on Iridian without any fear of Federation interception."

"The auditory analog to the detector shield," Vila interrupted importantly, provoking looks of politely suppressed mirth in the others, who knew he didn't know what he was talking about.

"Yes, quite," Avon smiled.  "Well, I'm just about finished, you see.  All that remains for the device to be rendered operational is a small quantity of herculaneum."

"Beautiful," Tarrant exclaimed.  "No problem."

"One problem," Blake corrected.  "Avon is trying to tell us that we don't have any herculaneum."

Tarrant's joy turned to gloom.  "No."

"Yes," Avon confirmed.  "Which is to say, no, we don't have any."        

"But I do," Blake cut in.  "Or, rather, I did.  There was a supply of it at the base."

Now Vila jumped into the conversation.  "As Tarrant said, no problem."

"As Blake said, one problem."  And Avon looked at Vila sharply. "It's not his base any longer."

Vila withered visibly.  "Oh.  Oh, right, I'd forgotten that."

"However," contributed Dayna, "we do have a master thief in our midst."

"Who's always telling us he can break into anything," added Soolin.

"And that stealing's easier," concluded Dayna.

Vila's gaze travelled between the black woman and the blonde.   "Eh?" he emitted stupidly.

Avon smiled triumphantly.  "As Tarrant said, no problem."

Dayna leaned back in her chair and muttered to herself, quasi-inaudibly, "As Soolin said, I have a sense of deja vu."

"Deva," Blake addressed his long time Gauda Prime associate. "I'd like you to draw up a floor plan of the base for us.  As detailed as you can make it.  Include the escape tunnels."

"Can we assume the Federation hasn't found them?" Soolin's voice was filled with incredulity.

"Can we even assume the Federation's base resembles yours recognizably?" Avon added.

"No, and no," Blake conceded.  "But I hardly think they'll have filled in the escape tunnels with concrete out of spite.  So unless we plan to take the flyers in through the silos, the tunnels remain our most likely means of undetected access."  He turned to Soolin and Avon.  "As for general changes, they can't have changed the architecture of the place in less than two weeks."

"They could reinforce the perimeter defenses in less than two weeks," Dayna observed.

"And possibly have," Blake agreed.  "But the layout inside should be the same.  Even if they move furniture and equipment around, the walls and doors will be unchanged.  The size of rooms, the distance between points of possible entrance and egress--and frankly, I don't think they will move the equipment around all that much.  As we've discussed before, they presumably selected that place for their headquarters because it was already so functionally suitable."

Deva rose from his seat, obviously convinced.  "I'll get on it right away," he promised and left the room to do so.

"Not to change the subject or anything," Vila piped up, "but what's for dinner?"

"Vila, it's not even lunchtime yet," Soolin scolded him.

"But I know what's for lunch," he returned.  "The same thing that's always for lunch.  Canned fruits and vegetables."

"Bottled wine," Dayna whispered to Tarrant.

"What's that you say?" Vila addressed her.

"I said why don't you go to the kitchen and look," Dayna suggested.  "You'll be preparing it, after all."

"I will?"  Vila sounded none too pleased at the prospect.

"I caught it, you're cooking it," the girl declared firmly.

Vila looked towards Blake.  "Sound's fair enough to me," the rebel leader murmured lightly.

Hopelessly outnumbered, the designated chef got to his feet reluctantly and headed for the kitchen.

"And go easy on the wine," Dayna called after him.

"Yes, Vila," Tarrant added to her admonition.  "Not all of us share your indelicately fortified constitution."  They heard the kitchen door slam closed in irritated reply.

"Dayna," Blake said next, placing his hand over hers on the table. "You're our resident weapons and demolitions expert.  Do you suppose you could manage to put together some explosives for me?"

"I thought we were raiding the base, Blake, not blowing it up," Avon remarked.

"For diversionary purposes," Blake clarified.  "Dayna?"

"What am I supposed to build these diversionary bombs out of?" she wanted to know.

"Whatever's left in our Scorpio stash," he replied.  "Whatever Avon hasn't cannibalized for his project."

At that, Avon gestured towards a pile of assorted materials lying in a corner on the floor.  Dayna got up and inspected it.  "That's all I've got to work with?" she protested.

"If you can't do it, just say so," Blake urged.

"Oh, I can do it," she declared, her face and voice radiating anything but confidence.  "I think."  She started to pick through the pile.

"Would you like a hand?" Tarrant offered, jumping up to join her. "Or two?  How about two hands and two feet?"  His words were accompanied by a series of flamboyantly flirtatious gestures. 

"How about one brain?" she retorted.

"Here, let me help you carry all that," Soolin said.  The three of them gathered up the materials and left the room.

Blake turned to Avon.  "Are they an item?"

"An item?" Avon repeated with amusement.

"You know, a couple."

"Oh, I know.  I just wasn't sure you did."  Blake let that pass. "To answer your question," Avon continued, "no. I think they may have been at one point, but it never quite happened.  And lately Tarrant has had other interests."  He paused for effect.  "A young girl named Zeeona, and an old enemy named Servalan."

"Servalan!" Blake gasped.  "Servalan and Tarrant?  You're joking."

"One night stand," Avon elaborated.  "Unusual circumstances." 

"They must have been.  And this Zeeona?"

"Dead.  Quite recently in fact."

"Oh, I'm sorry."  That news seemed to trigger an unanticipated association in Blake's mind. "Avon," he said, "About Cally.  Do you want to tell me what happened?"

"The same thing that happened to Gan," was the curt reply.  "A wall fell in on her."

"You don't want to tell me what happened."

"She's dead, Blake.  Talking about it can't help her."

"No, but it might help you."

Avon's face effected annoyance.  "Guilt is your speciality, Blake," he said.  "You really shouldn't project it onto others."

That was so like the man that Blake couldn't help smiling.  "It's good to have you back, Avon," he beamed warmly.

Avon's expression changed to one of deeper consternation.  It never failed.  Just when he thought he had all of Blake's moves down pat, the man threw him a new and wholly unexpected curve.  "Just so long as you don't expect me to say it's good to be back," he conceded grudgingly.

Blake gestured acceptingly.  "There's something else I'd like to say."

"Not more sentiment, I hope."

"It's a failing of mine.  Indulge me."

Don't I always? Avon thought.  Aloud he said, "Very well.  Let's try to get the whole thing over with in one huge uncontrollable gush."

Blake reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder.  "I want to say thank you, Avon, for looking after the Liberator--and Vila--and Cally."

Avon squirmed out from under the tender grip.  "Your gratitude's misplaced," he said.  "We each looked after ourselves."

"I see."

"It's the truth, Blake."

"But not the whole truth."

"No.  The whole truth is that of the Liberator, Vila and Cally,  only Vila is left."

"I thought you said guilt was my speciality."

Avon looked away.  "After you left," he related, "it wasn't a team in the same sense.  There wasn't that cohesiveness, that loyalty."

"Oh, I don't know," Blake returned.  "Stranding yourself in a Federation prison for five days, relying on the others to get you out. Not to mention their relying on you not to talk."

Avon swallowed uncomfortably.  "I must remember to strangle whoever told you about that," he said without a trace of humor.

"Then I must remember never to reveal who it was," Blake responded in kind.

Avon turned away again; in fact, this time he walked away and sat down in a chair by the fireplace, hoping to end the confrontation.  But Blake followed and pulled up another chair right in front of him. "Avon," he continued, "I always knew that if anything happened to me, you would take over, that you would take charge of the others, you would lead them and protect them and--"

"How, Blake?" Avon snarled.  "How did you 'always know' that?  Did I ever tell you I would?"

"No--"

"Did I not in fact tell you repeatedly that I wouldn't?"

"Yes--"

"Then how the hell can you have the gall to sit there and tell me you always knew?"

"I wasn't wrong, was I?"

"Damn you, Blake, damn you!"  Avon sprung from his chair. "And another thing, while we're waxing nostalgic--"

Blake rose too.  "By all means.  Let us have out with it in one huge, uncontrollable gush."

"What gave you the right to say what you did to me at Star One?"

Blake seemed incredulous.  "About trusting you?"

"Yes, what gave you the right to impose that kind of bondage on me?"

"Avon, I didn't impose any kind of bondage on you," Blake insisted vehemently.  "I'm sorry that you experienced it as bondage at all, but however you experienced it, it was life that imposed it on you.  Hell, it was you that imposed it on you.  Your own sense of integrity wouldn't allow you to turn your back on your responsibility to others."

"I never wanted that responsibility."

"Yes, well, 'wanting' doesn't have a whole hell of a lot to do with it, does it?"

Avon sat down again, seemingly exhausted, drawn into himself  protectively, almost shielding his face from view with his arms.  The rebel leader read that as his cue to leave and started to do so, when suddenly the other man barked "Blake!"

He stopped, turned around and with unconcealed irritation barked back, "What?"

Avon was still hiding his face and when he spoke again, his voice was muffled.  "About Cally's death.  There is one thing."

"I'm listening," Blake said, marginally less angry.

"At the very end, she called out telepathically--one word. One--name."

The remaining anger melted away in a sudden welling up of compassion.  "Oh, Avon--" Blake murmured, moving closer to him.

Instantly he was assaulted by the raw emotional outburst of the man in the chair.  "No, Blake!" Avon screamed.  "It was you!  She called your name!"  His face was fully visible now, and it concealed nothing, not one iota of the agony that moment had inflicted on him.  As Blake waited, Avon gradually regained control of himself.  "I just thought you had a right to know that you're the one she called," he finished quietly.  He didn't add, "Not me."  He didn't have to.

Blake looked down at him with utterly tender and selfless affection.  "But you're the one who heard her, Avon," he said gently.

 

III

 

It had taken Deva less than 24 hours to come up with a floor plan of the base.  Blake and Avon were studying it together now, along with a map of the general surrounding area.  The explosive encounter of the previous day had, by its release of tension, resurrected that precarious equilibrium between them upon which their ability to function as a partnership depended.  It had been that way for as long as Blake could remember:  moments of heightened confrontation alternating with moments of relaxed harmony and humor.  In general, Blake thought, Avon had been much less hostile since their reunion of two weeks ago.  But the potential for hostility remained beneath the surface--as yesterday had demonstrated.

It had demonstrated something else as well, Blake realized: Avon's profound capacity for honesty in the midst of anguish.  That was a gift the man had handed him at the conclusion of their quarrel, that revelation about Cally, and Blake could only hope his own instinctive, loving response had been received in the same spirit.  There had always seemed to be a special bond between Avon and the Auron woman, a bond which--from what Blake could gather--had deepened after his own departure from the Liberator.  Cally was the one crew member who had shared Blake's zeal for the rebellion from the start, and she had also been the only one to share his pure appreciation for Avon.  The others--Jenna, Vila, Gan--had always seemed a little in awe of the computer genius, but it was an awe amply tainted with fear and dislike.  Cally, on the other hand, had never been intimidated by Avon: she'd seen through his harsh, often brutal exterior to the sterling soul shining within.

Avon had drawn solace from that, more than he would ever allow himself to admit, and the knowledge that Cally's dying thoughts had been for Blake must have cut him to the core.  What his inability to save the woman from death had done to him was almost beyond Blake's power to imagine altogether...

But now strategy and tactics were the order of the day.  "I suggest we put the flyers down here and here."  Blake indicated locations on opposite sides of the base.  "Tarrant, Dayna, and Vila at the entrance nearest the storage room.  You, me, and Soolin with a straight line of access to the tracking gallery."

"What about me?" inserted Deva.

"You're not coming," Blake replied almost off-handedly.

"Orac could open the silos for us," Avon counterproposed.  "Just as he did for me when I followed you and Tarrant in."

"He could," Blake replied, "but this time there's no one friendly waiting inside."

"True," Avon conceded.

"So our best chance of effecting a clandestine entry is on foot through the escape tunnels."

"Agreed," Avon nodded.

At that moment Vila came charging into the room.  "Vila," Blake greeted him.  "Just the man I wanted to see.  Come here.  Let me show you where the herculaneum used to be stored and most probably still is."

"Later," Vila panted, out of breath.  "We've got a more pressing problem."

"Oh?  What might that be?" Avon murmured.

"We've got a thief in the house!"

Stunned silence fell over the room.  Blake and Avon stared at Vila, then stared at each other with unvoiced amusement.  "It's finally happened," Avon declared.  "He's gone 'round the twist."

For a moment Vila looked bewildered.  Then exasperation covered his face.  "No, I mean another thief.  A hostile thief."

"Someone steal your wine, Vila?" Deva taunted.

"No, my gun," the other moaned.  "Part of it, anyway.  The micro-grenade magazine."

Blake frowned.  "Let me get this straight now.  You are missing the micro-grenade magazine from your Scorpio clip-gun?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you."

"So you misplaced it," Avon surmised, "so--"

"Blake," called a woman's voice, and Soolin walked into the room. "Oh, there you are.  Good.  Blake, the weirdest thing has happened.  The micro-grenade magazine from my clip-gun has disappeared."  A round of puzzled looks met her pronouncement.  "What?" she reacted.

"I'd better check mine," Avon said.  While he was gone, Vila indicated to Soolin with non-verbal gestures that he shared her predicament.  Then Avon returned.  "Guess what?" he announced.

"Well, now, we do have a mystery, don't we?" Blake murmured.

"Good morning, everyone," Dayna said brightly.  She entered the room, followed by Tarrant.  She was carrying some equipment not immediately recognizable, but then she laid it out on the table for all to see.

Avon glanced down at it and smiled.  "I think we've found our gun thief," he declared.

“I apologize for appropriating property without authorization," the woman said.  "Well, actually, I had authorization, didn't I?  I was told I could use whatever I needed to build those bombs you wanted, Blake."

The rebel leader examined her offering dubiously.  "Will it work?" he asked.

"Blake!" Tarrant chided.

"I'll have you know it took real ingenuity to come up with this," Dayna said defensively.

"But will it work?" Blake repeated.

"Well, it's not as dramatic as nuclear compression charges or as versatile as ultrasonic fuses," Dayna replied, "but it should suffice for diversionary purposes."

"Give the girl credit for knowing her trade," Tarrant teased.

"Dirty as it is?" Blake grinned back.

"What?" exclaimed Dayna.

"Private joke, Dayna," Deva informed her.  "You'd have to have been there."

"Well, we're all here now," Blake observed, giving Dayna's hand a half-appreciative, half-apologetic squeeze.  "Why don't we run through what we've got planned."

"We know what we've got planned," Vila declared.  "Stealing herculaneum is what we've got planned.

"Creatively acquiring," Soolin corrected.

"There's a difference?" he said dubiously.

"Creatively acquiring is stealing," Tarrant exulted, "but with style and subtlety."

"Oh, that's all well and good for you to say," Vila shot back.   "You're not the one's going to have your hands chopped off at the wrists if I'm caught."

"Do they still do that?" Dayna exclaimed.

"Vila's exaggerating--as usual," Avon smiled.

"We're all in it, Vila," Soolin pointed out.  "To hear you talk, one would think Blake is sending you in alone."

"Almost all," Deva muttered under his breath.  Blake detected the dissatisfaction in his voice and made a mental note of it.

By now everyone had managed to take a seat around the table.  "Okay," Blake addressed the group.  "We go at night.  This night--if no one has any convincing objections."

"Give me time to come up with some," Vila mumbled.

"As long as we are dropping in," Avon began with a smile.

"Yes?" prompted Blake.

"Why settle for just the herculaneum?"

Blake smiled back at him.  "My thoughts precisely."

"Oh, no," he exclaimed in feigned horror.  "Now I'm really worried."

"Shopping list, anyone?" Blake invited.

"A vis-screen would be nice," Avon replied.

"One vis-screen," Blake echoed.

"A layout of the atmospheric defenses," Tarrant proposed.  "It might come in handy when our rescue ship arrives."

"Good thinking," Blake agreed.

Soolin spoke up next.  "How about information on civil administration matters for the folks who'll be staying behind to fight here?"

"Check," Blake responded.

Then it was Vila's turn.  "How about a different variety of wine?" he suggested.

"Vila!" Dayna scolded sharply.

The thief looked hurt.  "Well, don't I deserve some reward for stealing all the rest?"

Avon laughed.  "Your reward, Vila, is survival and safety," he declared.

"You would say that," the other scowled, then more brightly,  "Well, at least you didn't say it's 'the satisfaction of fighting for freedom and justice'."

Avon leaned pompously back in his chair.  "No, that's Blake's reward," he said coyly.

"Speaking of the folks who'll be staying behind," Soolin picked up her earlier theme.  "Should we be thinking about destroying any of Blake's old records at the base?"

Avon stared at her.  "A little late in the day to be asking that, don't you think?"

"Yeah, the Federation's been all over the place like boils on a victim of one of Servalan's plagues," Vila chimed in.

Dayna emitted a loud exclamation of disgust at the imagery.

"There are no such records," Blake announced, putting an end to it.  "Never were.  Deva and I have the names of all our supporters and other relevant information filed in our personal memory banks."

"Safest place for it," Deva added.

"Safest place for the information," Avon observed.  "Most dangerous place for the information holder."

"Neither of us plans on being caught," Blake informed him firmly.

"No one ever does," he purred back.

"Almost no one," corrected Tarrant, flashing Avon a significant look.  Dayna grinned broadly, savoring the sight of her close friend getting the best of his erstwhile competitor.  Even Blake had to suppress a chuckle.

And then he was all business again, drawing Vila over to point out the most likely location of the herculaneum.  "Vis-screens will be in the tracking gallery," Avon observed.  "As will data concerning both atmospheric defenses and--how did you put it, Soolin?"

"Civil administration matters," she repeated.

"Yes--well, Vila, looks like you won't be the only one stealing--pardon me, creatively acquiring--the various objects of our pursuit this evening."

The thief considered this for a moment.  "Somehow that doesn't make me feel any better," he declared.

"Tarrant," Blake addressed him.  "You'll be piloting the second flyer.  Are you clear on where to put down?"  The younger man nodded, indicating the proper location on Blake's map.

"Dayna, how many explosive devices did you manage to squeeze out of five micro-grenade magazines?"

"Only two, I'm afraid," the woman sighed.

"Use them judiciously," Blake advised.

"What about guards?" Soolin inquired.

"Well, we've no way of knowing how many we may encounter," Blake answered.

"Or where," Avon inserted.

"But we have to be prepared to take them out."  He turned to the weapons expert again.  "Dayna, I trust you left the stun and drug magazines unmolested?"

"Drug, Blake?" Soolin frowned.

"We'll load them with long-acting tranquilizers," he clarified.

Avon cleared his throat conspicuously, drawing everyone's attention.  "Is killing ruled out on this mission then, Blake?"

"No, it's just not a first line option," was the calm reply, ignoring the challenge in the other man's tone, refusing to be riled or goaded.  "Have you a problem with that?"

Avon retreated awkwardly.  "No, of course not."

"Good.  Then, if there are no further questions, I suggest everyone try to get some rest.  We'll rendezvous at the flyers at sunset."  The majority of the group got up to go.  But Avon lingered at the door, and Blake's Gauda Prime associate made no move to leave at all.

"You, too, Deva," Blake insisted.  "You'll be standing by for transmission of data to Orac.  I'll need you alert."

"Are you sure you don't need me at the base with you?" Deva responded.  "I know the layout of the place better than any of them, after all."  That same edge of resentment which Blake had detected earlier was back in his voice.

Blake glanced briefly across the room at Avon, wishing he weren't standing there.  "Indeed you do," he assured the man at his side, "as these floor plans amply attest.  But commando actions are not exactly your cup of tea.  What gives with the sudden eagerness to be part of this one?"

"Perhaps your sudden lack of eagerness to have me be part of it."

"That's ridiculous," Blake exclaimed.  "What's gotten into you?" Behind Deva's back, he motioned frantically to Avon to go away, but Avon was enjoying the spectacle.

"You don't need me anymore, Blake," Deva said softly.  "You have him back again."

The rebel leader's face was a mixture of sympathy and irritation. "Oh, Deva," he breathed, "That's unworthy of you."

The other man seemed suddenly to screw up his courage.  "You want to know what I'm thinking?" he said.  "All right.  I'll tell you what I'm thinking.  I'm thinking that you're thinking that you don't want me on this mission because you're afraid that if I'm captured, I'll talk."

"Nonsense!" Blake said sternly.

"You're not afraid I would talk?"

"No more than with anyone else."

"Yes, but I have all those names in my personal memory bank, don't I?"  He made a small gesture of despair.  "Blake, the thing is, I can't tell you you're wrong about me.  I believe I would resist them to the last ounce of my strength, but it might not be enough."

"That could be true of anyone," Blake said kindly.

"Even Avon?"

"Even me."  Deva flinched at the unexpected admission. "They did get to me once, you know," Blake continued.

"I'd heard stories," the other man stammered.  "I discounted them."

"Which just goes to prove you can't disbelieve everything you hear."  Blake alternately smiled at Deva and scowled at Avon behind Deva's back.  Avon never stopped smiling.  "Look, Deva," Blake said, putting a hand on his shoulder.  "The simple truth is, I need you here.  If anything should happen to me, you are the only one who knows how to make contact with all our supporters."

"You haven't told Avon their names?"

"No, I have not."

That seemed to please the other man.  "Whatever happened to 'no one is indispensable'?" he asked.

"It's undergone a transformation," Blake answered.

"To what?"

"To--some are more indispensable than others."  It was obvious that he was making it up as he went along.  But that didn't seem to bother Deva.  Blake had bypassed the cognitive element in his distress, gone straight to the heart of it and healed it as only Blake could.

"I'll stand by Orac for you tonight," he promised.  "I won't let you down."

"I know you won't," Blake said firmly.

Deva turned to leave, and Blake again gestured frantically to Avon to make himself scarce.  This time Avon complied.  He stepped outside the room and concealed himself until Deva was gone.  Then he stepped back in, clapping his hands dramatically.  "Bravo, Blake, beautiful."  His voice dripped with sarcasm.

Blake stared incredulously.  "You think I was being insincere with him."

Avon smiled.  "Does it matter?"

"If you think it, no.  If I was, yes."

Avon faced him.  "What I think is--that you should take your own advice and get some rest, too.  We have a hell of a night ahead of us, Blake."

The rebel leader nodded in concession, squeezed Avon's shoulder and walked past him through the doorway.  At the foot of the staircase, he turned back.  "We are going to pull this off," he said confidently.

"Of course we are," Avon murmured supportively.  He was leaning casually against the wall like a man without a care in the galaxy.   But the instant Blake disappeared at the top of the stairs, he pulled himself up into a tensely erect posture.  "I hope," he added menacingly.

 

IV

 

From the perspective afforded them from the flyers, the Federation base on Gauda Prime looked remarkably unchanged.  The perimeter fence, for example, seemed not to have been altered from the fairly flimsy construction which Blake had employed.  There were, however, a half dozen Federation guards patrolling the perimeter.  Their black uniforms rendered them virtually invisible against the night sky, but the flyer's sensitive heat detectors pinpointed each of them individually.

"Blake, do you see what we've got down there?" Tarrant asked through his communicator.

"Yes, and I'm glad actually," the rebel leader replied from the other vehicle.  "It almost certainly means that the fence is not booby-trapped and the field is not mined.  The guards would be redundant if their security were of that caliber."

"That's Blake for you," Vila muttered to Dayna seated beside him behind Tarrant.  "If a Delugian Sea Monster were charging at him with all 50 of its fangs bared, he'd cheerfully point out that the creature isn't poisonous."

"Brace yourselves," Tarrant instructed.  "We're going down."  Both vehicles had overflown the base but once and as rapidly as possible.  It wouldn't do to call attention to themselves, lest some overzealous guard wonder whose flyer that was and what it was doing out this time of night.  A few short weeks ago no one would have given it a second thought; the bounty hunters frequently did their best work after dark, but now--

Blake's flyer landed on the opposite side of the field from Tarrant's, equally well away from the base perimeter.  Avon picked up the infrared detector and exited the vehicle first, followed by Blake and Soolin.  Blake spoke into his communicator.  "Unit One down and safe."

"Unit Two down and safe," replied Tarrant's voice.  "Dayna's going to see if she can provide enough of a distraction to lure those guards away for a bit."

"Say a final farewell to your micro-grenade magazines, everybody,"  added the woman's voice, with an audible grin.

The next sound they heard was an explosion, accompanied by an impressive amount of smoke off in the distance.  Immediately all six guards headed in that direction.

"Let's go," Blake whispered, and his companions followed him down to the fence.  It would have been easier in some ways just to stun or drug the guards, but Blake had figured that they probably reported in to the base at regular intervals.  If so, the consequences to his raiding party of a missed "all is well" signal might easily prove catastrophic.

And now they were at the fence, and Blake was about to step through it when Avon, training the infrared detector on the ground beyond, signalled him to stop.

"Oh, hell," he muttered, realizing why.

"What is it?" Soolin asked.

"The field is crisscrossed with sensor beams," Avon answered.

Long before the words were out of his mouth, Blake had hit the button on his communicator.  "Unit Two, come in."

"Tarrant," came the response.

"Tarrant, don't let anyone step through that fence," Blake instructed.

"Why the hell not?" the pilot retorted.  "We were just about to."

"Well, don't," Blake repeated.  "There's a problem.  Stand by." 

"Blake," Tarrant protested.  "Those guards won't be gone forever."

"Tell me about it," Blake snorted.  He looked up at Avon.  "Well?"       

"Well, this detector might get a man through if he's careful," Avon said.  "I suggest only one person venture across, get inside, and shut off the scanner beams from that end."

Blake nodded.  "All right.  I'll go."  He reached for the detector.

"I will go," Avon corrected, pulling the instrument away from him.

"Why?"

"Because once I'm in, I can get a headstart on those computers in the tracking gallery."

Blake released his hold on the detector.  "Okay, that makes sense," he agreed.

"Inform Tarrant," Avon said.  "Instruct him to wait for my signal."  As Blake did so, he swung the device he was relying on back and forth in an arc, selecting the first safe spot to stand on.

"Good luck, Avon," Soolin called after him.

It was a nerve-wracking wait in more ways than one.  If Avon miscalculated a single step, the scanner beams would report his presence to the computers inside.  An alarm would go off, and guards from inside would be on him in an instant.  If he were lucky, that is. It was also possible that the scanner beams were keyed in to some automatic weapons system that would home in on his position and cut him down without the need of human intervention.  Soolin wasn't so sure which of these alternatives was the lucky one--for Avon or the rest of them.  If he were taken alive, and they couldn't get to him...

She glanced at Blake, his face a study in tense concentration.   He never took his eyes off the other man; it was as if he were willing Avon to choose wisely with each step, as if he believed that the very force of his unbroken attention could somehow protect his friend.  Avon moved across the area slowly, but steadily. He had complete confidence in the scientific efficiency of the technique he was employing, and he employed it methodically, neither rushing out of haste nor stopping out of fear.

He was about three-quarters of the way across when what Tarrant had feared began to happen.  Blake didn't even notice the perimeter guards returning.  Soolin had to nudge him and point.  Again he activated his communicator.  "Unit Two, come in."

"Tarrant," acknowledged the pilot.

"Tarrant, our local sentries are on their way back."

"Yes, we're watching them, too."

At Tarrant's end, Vila grabbed the communicator.  "Blake, do something!" he pleaded.  "Get us out of this!"

"Vila, get off the channel," Blake's voice ordered.  "Tarrant, tell Dayna to go for broke."

The woman heard the instruction and understood it.  She leaned into Tarrant's communicator and answered, "Consider it done."  Then she took the second explosive device and hurled it as far as she could--in a different direction from the first device.  Once again, it worked. The guards took off after it in futile pursuit.

But the sound of the explosion made Blake realize that Avon hadn't been expecting it.  He turned back and looked across the field in apprehension.  Avon had, indeed, been startled by the noise.  He had come to a complete halt for the first time and stood there, awkwardly poised, his arms semi-extended as he maneuvered to regain his balance.

"He's okay, Blake, don't worry," Soolin murmured, touching the rebel's arm.

A moment later Avon resumed his trek, and moments after that, he was safely across the field.  Blake heaved a huge sigh of relief, then smiled as if nothing had happened.  "Nerves of steel, hasn't he?"

Soolin seemed to find the remark puzzling, or perhaps it was the depth of feeling behind it she found puzzling.  "No more so than you," she replied with a shrug.

At this point Avon had disappeared from sight.  They presumed he was following Deva's diagram and his own memory into the escape tunnel which led to the tracking gallery.  The diagram had included the placement of the alarm circuits--again, they made the assumption that the Federation wouldn't have bothered to alter these--and it was only logical to further assume that the master control for the scanner beams would have been installed in convenient proximity to those circuits.  What they couldn't anticipate was how many guards or other Federation personnel Avon might encounter between the escape tunnel and the tracking gallery.

As they waited for word from him, Blake and Soolin were suddenly astonished to see a group of six men strolling across the field from the direction of the building.  They were in Federation garb, but minus the helmets, and they were laughing boisterously as if on their way to a party.

"Must be going off duty," Blake whispered.

"How can they cross the field like that?" Soolin exclaimed.

"Must be wearing frequency emitters which the scanners read as non-hostile," Blake guessed.  "That's not our problem.  Our problem is they're headed this way."

They were out in the open with nowhere to hide.  If they ran, they would only call attention to themselves that much sooner.  They were still on the "legal" side of the fence, to be sure, but that technicality wouldn't save them from some very pointed suspicions.

"Let me take them out," Soolin said, reaching for her gun.

Blake restrained her.  "There's six of them, Soolin.  Even if you hit them all inside a minute, even if I help you, there'll be more than enough time for at least one of them to get off a call for help before he goes down."

"So what do we do?"  It was not like Soolin to panic, but alarm was evident in her voice.

A flash of sudden insight crossed Blake's face.  "Lie down in the grass," he commanded.

"What?"

"Quick.  Lie down in the grass.  Unbutton your blouse."

She fell back obediently, albeit with bewilderment in her eyes. Blake came down on top of her, pulling her blouse open with one hand and undoing the belt which held up his pants with the other.

At that moment Avon's voice was heard over Blake's communicator. "All right.  I'm in.  The control for the scanner beams is where I expected it to be.  I'm shutting it off and disconnecting the alarm circuits--now."

Frantically Blake groped for the communicator to shut it off. "Acknowledge," Avon requested, then, "Blake, do you read me?  Blake?"

Blake's fingers found the button just as the group of off-duty guards spotted them.  He barely had time to stifle the sound of Avon's voice and push the device between his body and Soolin's to conceal it. What the guards saw were a man and woman in apparent passionate carnal embrace, his face covering hers, their limbs intertwined... From the sounds they were making and the way they were moving, it was easy to imagine the part they couldn't see.  They looked at one another with knowing smirks and the whetted anticipation of their own planned revelry for later that evening and moved on...

When he was sure they were gone, Blake lifted himself off Soolin. She looked up at him, flushed and speechless.  He fumbled with his pants, awkwardly pulling them back up and held out a hand to her. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

She continued to stare at him dreamily.  "Whatever for?"

"Your blouse--it's still unbuttoned," he mumbled.

She finally stood up.  "Why don't you button it for me?"

"Oh, sure, of course."  He reached out to do so, as casually as if he were tying his shoelaces.  "I said I was sorry, didn't I?" he repeated.

"I said, whatever for?" she repeated.

"Thank you.  That's very sporting of you," he replied, dead serious.  "You were--extraordinarily cooperative.  I do apologize."

Soolin couldn't believe her eyes or ears.  "Blake!" she exclaimed in exasperation.

"What?  Oh, my God, Avon," he remembered suddenly.  He switched on his communicator.  "Blake to Avon.  Avon, do you read me?  Come in."

But now it was Avon's turn not to be able to answer.  He was pressed flat against a corridor wall, watching two Federation guards patrolling the hall outside the tracking gallery.  When he'd failed to make contact with Blake moments earlier, he'd made contact with Tarrant's group and told them the field was safe to cross.  They'd acknowledged his signal and presumably were on their way to carry out their part of the mission.

Avon waited until the guards passed unsuspectingly in front of him, then fired off two silent shots of tranquilizing drug in quick succession at close range, hitting each man in the back of the neck in the space between his helmet and the rest of his uniform.  They first froze in their tracks, then staggered forward a few steps, then collapsed.  Glancing around to make sure no one else was in sight, Avon dragged the drugged bodies one at a time down the corridor to a supply closet he'd noticed earlier.  Inside there was just enough room for him to maneuver between the unconscious men and the miscellaneous paraphernalia.  He bent over and methodically stripped the first guard down to his underwear.  He pulled the uniform on over his own clothing and stood for a moment holding the helmet.  The drug his gun had been loaded with in the amount delivered by a single shot was guaranteed to keep an average-sized man unconscious for 12 hours.  "You should thank me really," he murmured, looking down at  his victims.  "It's been conclusively demonstrated that night duty shortens one's lifespan."  Then, affixing the helmet in place as well, he took out his communicator.

*****

The perimeter guards were now making their way back from Dayna's second diversion, grumbling amongst themselves, none too happy for having been on a wild goose chase.  Blake and Soolin looked at one another. "Did Avon say he was going to turn off the scanner beams or that he had done?" the woman asked, unable to remember.

"I'm not sure," Blake replied, "but we're about to find out. Move!"  He pushed her through the fence onto the ground and followed himself, lying flat.

"Looks like we crawl from here, huh?" she muttered.

"Looks like we're okay, too," he responded.  It was obvious why. The length of their bodies easily traversed the space between any two points of what had been the scanner beam grid pattern.  They proceeded to cross the field on their bellies, and, as the guards were looking for people outside the fence, not inside, they reached the other side undetected.

Only then did the rebel leader respond to the insistently repeated "Avon to Blake, Avon to Blake" sounding through his communicator.  "Yes, what happened?  Are you all right?"

"Fine," Avon's voice assured him.  "I'm about to enter the tracking gallery.  I've left a present for you in a large closet about 15 meters down the hall.  Sorry I couldn't manage one for Soolin as well, but good thing it's she that's with you and not Dayna."

"What do you mean?" Blake returned.  "What kind of present?  Avon--"

"Out," came the crisp reply, and contact was broken.

With a shrug at Soolin, Blake spoke again.  "Unit One to Unit Two, acknowledge please."

"Unit Two," responded Tarrant's voice.  "Where are you?"

"About to enter the escape tunnel.  Avon's already at the control center.  Where are you?"

"Intended destination,"  Tarrant said cryptically.

"Any obstacles?"

"We had to put a couple of sentries to sleep, that's all."

"Anyone spot you?"

"Negative.  I don't think they even realized what hit them."

"And the item you're there to collect?"

"Vila's working on it."

In the background, Blake and Soolin could hear Dayna shout "Boo!" Then Vila's startled protest, "Hey, what'd you do that for?"  Then Dayna's voice again, "You once said you could open any lock if you were scared enough."

The rebel leader and his companion choked back chuckles simultaneously.  "Keep at it, Tarrant," Blake advised.  "We'll stay in touch."

*****

"Two separate explosions, you say, Section Leader?" the female, but hardly feminine, voice inquired.

"Correct, Base Commander," confirmed the guard at the perimeter fence through his communications device.

"And you could find no plausible explanation for either one when you reached the location where the charges went off?"

"None whatsoever, Base Commander."

"Are the scanner beams functioning normally?"

"I presume so, Ma'am."

"You presume so?" bellowed the disembodied voice.  "Haven't you checked?"

"Well no, Ma'am--"

"Well, check immediately."

The reprimanded guard removed his frequency emitter and stepped through the fence.  He moved around sufficiently to convince himself he wasn't being scanned and stepped back out.  Swallowing hard, he mumbled apprehensively, "There seems to be a problem, Base Commander..."

*****

Blake and Soolin stood looking down at the two drugged bodies in the supply closet.  "So that's what he meant about me rather than Dayna," the woman said, smirking at the nearly nude guard.

"And about having a present for me, but not for you," Blake added.  He was already stripping the second guard and donning his uniform as Avon had done.  "I think I'll take advantage of this outfit to check out the adjacent corridors.  Why don't you lay low until I do."

"Fine, but not in here."

"Afraid they'll wake up?" Blake joked.

"Very funny," Soolin retorted.

She accompanied Blake as far as the end of the next corridor over.  There they found the base kitchen facilities.  An unlikely place to be visited in the middle of the night, so Soolin decided to wait there until Blake signalled her that all the corridors were free of Federation guards.  Functional, awake ones at least.  The plan was for him to make one complete circuit of the area before joining Avon in the tracking gallery.

*****

He didn't go back past the supply closet again.  So he wasn't aware of the fact that someone else did.  Someone moving through the corridors as stealthily as any of Blake's people.  Someone who knew the layout of the place better than any of them.  A hand carefully turned the doorknob.  A pistol preceded the hand which held it into the closet.  The two unconscious bodies clad only in underwear lay absurdly side-by-side, alerting the person who discovered them to lurking danger as unmistakably as any high-tech scanner beam-tripped alarm could have done.  The intruder's exit from the closet was as silent as her entrance.  But now she knew where she had to look next.

*****

Once inside the tracking gallery, Avon had set to work on the master computer.  It didn't take him long to gain access to the records it stored.  All the mundane information on the civil administration of the planet which Soolin had suggested acquiring for the Gauda Prime rebels was there.  And so were detailed specifications for the atmospheric defenses which Tarrant had asked for in the hope that Avalon's rescue ship--if it ever came for them--could be spared the fate which had befallen the Scorpio.

Avon had contacted Deva and downloaded all the pertinent data onto Orac.  Unusually mellow and cooperative tonight, Ensor's brainchild had only protested once that the transfer was a menial operation unworthy of its time and energy and had proceeded to accept the influx of information.

That task now completed and contact with the farmhouse terminated, Avon had moved on to the--for him--menial job of separating one of the gallery's vis-screens from the communications console it was attached to.  As he was prying the last screw loose, he heard a harsh voice behind him.  "That's far enough, Trooper," it said.  "Drop your weapon and turn around slowly."

*****

Bored waiting for Blake, Soolin had started exploring the kitchen area.  She was mildly hungry and thought she might help herself to a bit of food if any could be found.  There was a standard drinks dispenser, but nothing it offered interested her.  There was a fair-sized refrigeration unit against the back wall, so she decided to see what that might hold.

The door did not respond to her initial efforts to pry it open. That's odd, she thought.  Not even the Federation keeps food under lock and key.

She unclipped the drug magazine from her gun and replaced it with the laser attachment.  She used the laser to burn through the circuits that were welding the door in place.  There's going to be a hell of a lot of spoiled food here by tomorrow, she thought with amusement.  But then the guards waking up after their involuntary interlude of sleep were not very apt to have much of an appetite until the effects of the drug they'd been given wore off.  That thought only added to her amusement.  Soolin admired Blake's tender sensibilities, but she didn't really share them--especially where her adversaries were concerned.  She was much more like Avon in that respect; causing discomfort to an enemy did not cause her the slightest bit of it.

Now the laser had done its work.  Soolin holstered her gun and lifted the door straight off its hinges.  What her eyes beheld was not food at all; it was, in fact, the last thing she'd expected to see.  So taken was she by her find that she scarcely registered Blake's voice on her communicator.  He was through with his sweep of the area, he informed her, and was heading for the tracking gallery.  He'd be there in 5 minutes, and she should meet him.

She mumbled some sort of half-hearted acknowledgement and went back to staring at her horrifying discovery.

*****

"Now remove your helmet."  Even before he turned around, Avon thought he recognized the woman's voice.  He caught his first glimpse of her as she was bending down to retrieve his gun.  When he took off the helmet, they reacted almost simultaneously.

"Well, well, Avon."

"Well, well, Arlen."

"Base Commander Arlen," she corrected.

"Really?" he murmured with just the slightest hint of contempt. "Forgive me if I'm not impressed."

"I don't need for you to be impressed, just informative.  Where are your friends?"

"You flatter me, Arlen."  Avon smiled.  "I wasn't aware that I had any."

"Don't be clever," the woman snapped.  "Where is the man you came with?"

Avon looked around innocently.  "As you can see, there's only me."

Arlen pointed her pistol at his head.  He tensed slightly as she released the safety catch.  "Then who has the other missing Federation uniform?" she hissed.

"I do," said a voice from behind her, and Blake, removing his helmet, leveled his gun at her head.  "Pull that trigger and I'll drop you where you stand," he declared.  His weapon was not one of the Scorpio clip guns.  It was obviously loaded with something deadlier than tranquilizing drugs.

"That won't help him much," Arlen pointed out, nodding towards Avon.

"Nor you," Blake countered steadily.

"You're bluffing, Blake."

"Am I, girl?"

Avon watched the standoff between them without betraying the slightest flicker of emotion.

Arlen had first seen these two men together in this very room. She'd been fascinated by their interaction then, and she wanted to push it to the limit now.  "What do you say we give him a vote?" she proposed.

Avon realized what Arlen was doing and that asking Blake to spare his life or asking him not to would be equally falling into her trap. "It appears to be out of my hands," he said, shrugging.  "I abstain."

Arlen's face tightened in fury, then relaxed as she reckoned the value of keeping her own cool.  "I can't quite decide," she said lightly, caressing his cheek with the muzzle of her gun.  "Is it that you care that little, or is it that you trust him that much?"

Avon looked right past her at Blake.  "Interesting question," he declared.  "I'm not sure I know the answer."

Heaving a sigh, Blake tossed his weapon across the floor to Arlen.  She picked it up and motioned him to go stand by her other prisoner.

It was just like that time with the Decimas, Avon thought.  The alien had prodded him with a high-voltage rod, demanding to know where the flutonic power cells were hidden.  The pain had been excruciating, but he'd kept silent.  Even when the alien threatened to increase the voltage to lethal levels, he'd stood his ground.  It was his companion who'd capitulated--then, as now.

"You have a disconcerting habit of doing this, Blake," he commented wryly to the man now beside him.

"Well, if it displeases you so, at least this way you are alive to complain about it," Blake retorted.

Arlen looked from one to the other in disgust.  "Take off those uniforms this minute," she ordered.

"With pleasure," Blake replied.  "If I'm about to die, I don't intend for it to be attired like this."  He peeled away the black garment, and Avon did likewise.

"Oh, you'll get to the dying--eventually.  Have no fear," Arlen taunted.

"Curious juxtaposition of sentiments, that," Avon observed to Blake under his breath.

"Let's see what we can do to improve our prospects," the rebel leader whispered back.  He cleared his throat loudly.

Arlen looked at him mockingly.  "Do you have something to say?"

"As a matter of fact, I do.  I have a proposition for you."

"Oh, Blake," Avon exclaimed in feigned horror.  "Even you can't be that hard up."

"Shut up, Avon," the other man retorted.  Soolin should be here any minute, he thought.  If I can keep Arlen talking, Soolin will realize we're not alone.

"I'm listening," Arlen said with casual disinterest.

Projecting his voice towards the corridor but without raising the actual volume of it, Blake began.  "You're not going to be able to hold on to the two of us by yourself."

"I'm not by myself," Arlen replied incredulously.  "Even if you managed to drug all 6 guards on duty in here, there are 6 more at the perimeter fence."

"There were," Blake lied smoothly, filing away the numerical information for later reference.  "We've taken them all out."

"That's impossible.  They were there after you breached the perimeter," Arlen reasoned aloud.  "The two of you couldn't have--"

"Who said there's just the two of us?" Blake parried.  Come on, Soolin, what the hell is keeping you?

"No, you're lying," Arlen insisted.  "I've spoken with my troops at the gate."

"Just after the explosions, right?"  It was a gamble, but from Arlen's expression, Blake knew he had won it.  He pushed his luck further.  "How recently since then?"  Alarm on her face, Arlen reached towards the communications console.  "Go ahead, by all means," Blake continued to bluff, "but before you do, consider that if I'm not lying, you'll be alerting my troops to the situation in here."

"The situation in here is that you're my hostages," Arlen pointed out, her confidence returning.

Blake shook his head.  "They have strict instructions not to jeopardize themselves for anyone who's taken prisoner.  They won't believe you have me anyway unless I speak to them.  And if I speak to them, believe me, you won't like what I say."  In response, Arlen pointed her gun at Avon's head.  Dammit, Soolin, where the bloody hell are you?   Blake thought with agitation.  Aloud he said calmly, "That only got you me.  It won't get me to give you anyone else."

"That you may be certain he means," inserted Avon, who'd barely been able to bring himself to look at Blake, lest his amazement at the man's sheer audacity show in his eyes and give them both away.

Arlen retracted the immediate physical threat.  "All right," she said, "What's your proposition?"

"As I was saying," Blake resumed, "you'd have a hard time trying to hold the two of us on your own.  Impossible, in fact.  My troops would mow you down.  It's true I might be killed in the process, but that's all right--probably better than what awaits me if I'm not killed."

"You can count on that," the woman promised.

"But he might be killed as well," Blake continued, indicating Avon.  "And that's not all right."

"Blake--" the other man cut in with alarm.

"Shut up, Avon," Blake ordered.

"So?" Arlen prompted.

"Well, I'm the one the Federation really wants, right?"

"I like that for ego!" Avon interrupted again.

"They want you both," Arlen declared.

"But they want me more," Blake insisted.

"Maybe," she conceded cautiously.

"See?" Blake beamed at Avon.

"Oh, I'm hurt," Avon cooed, feigning offense.

"So?" Arlen repeated.

Guess we have to do this without Soolin, Blake realized silently. The operative word was "we".  The 64 million credit question was:  Would Avon catch on to his scheme?  "So take me," he replied.  "Let Avon go.  I'll order my people to disperse and leave you unmolested with me in your custody."

"No!" broke from Avon in horror.  That was instinctive--the right noble instinct at the wrong bloody time.

"Yesss," Blake countered, looking deep into his eyes and drawing out the end of the word unnaturally, hoping the hiss would serve as a signal that complex intentions lurked beneath the simple assertion.

"Yes," Avon echoed, a light beginning to dawn.  That was calculated.  Much better.  Avon still didn't get it, but at least he knew there was an "it".  It seemed safe to assume he would take his cue from Blake from this point on.

And what Blake did next was to toss back the word a third time, only now in a tone of angry outrage.  "Yes?!"

"Well, you offered," Avon stammered.

"Well, I didn't think you would accept," the other shot back.

"Then why did you offer?"

"Because I'm Roj Blake.  It's what people would expect me to do."

"Well, I'm Kerr Avon," came the swift rejoinder, "and accepting is what people would expect me to do."

Arlen stared at them, incredulous. Had they both lost their minds?        

"You slimy, disloyal--"  Now Blake actually reached out and gave Avon a shove.

"I should have left you at Cygnus Alpha," Avon snarled, shoving back.

"I should have left you at Exbar," was the retort, punctuated by a stronger shove.

"Or Horizon."

"Or Albion."

They kept pushing one another, getting farther apart with Arlen between them, unable to keep the gun on both of them simultaneously. "Stop it, you two, settle down," she commanded.  "Stop it, you two, settle down."  At some level of her mind, the unreality of it was counseling suspicion, but there was a passion to it which was not unreal, and that passion held her mesmerized.

"Screw your pompous, messianic madness!" leapt from Avon's lips as he seized Blake by the collar of his shirt and flung him against the communications console.  Tools and charts and assorted electronic components went flying in all directions.  Blake fell to the floor with a thud and sprawled there, motionless.

"Damn you, Avon, if you've killed him before we're through with him, you'll wish it was you who had died here tonight," Arlen swore.  She kept her gun trained on the man standing there as she knelt to examine his victim.

She did not, therefore, have any weapon pointed at Blake.  In an instant he'd pulled her off balance and disarmed her.  "As you can see, girl," he declared with a grin, "Avon didn't even damage me."

Now more sounds were heard, and Soolin came charging into the room, weapon drawn.  "Freeze!" she commanded, then looked around, confused.  "Blake?  Avon?"

"Ah, Soolin," said the man on the floor.  "Nice of you to bother dropping by."  He got to his feet and brushed himself off.

"Maybe she couldn't bring herself to interrupt our marvelous teamwork," Avon suggested coyly.

"It was rather, wasn't it?" Blake smiled.  "Thank you, Avon."

"Anytime."  He was grinning from ear to ear.

Blake brushed by him and whispered, "I think you enjoyed that a little too much."

"What--you didn't?" Avon whispered back.

Soolin meanwhile had sauntered over to Arlen.  "You look familiar," she observed mockingly.  "Let's have a closer look."  She grabbed the prisoner by the hair and yanked her to her feet.  The pain showed in Arlen's face, but she made no outcry.  If she felt any fear, she hid that too.

Blake watched the interaction out of the corner of his eye as he was straightening out the mess he and Avon had caused.  "Hey, easy over there," he admonished.

Soolin snorted.  "Why?  Do you think she would show us any mercy?"

"No," Blake said quietly.  "But that's the difference between her and us, isn't it?"

"If you say so," Soolin conceded nonchalantly.

"Well, are you going to tell us what kept you?" Avon asked her.

"I'd rather show you," she answered.  "But for that I'll need an extra pair of strong hands."

"I think it's time we called in the troops," Blake said ironically, looking at Arlen.  "First a little elementary arithmetic. There were six guards on duty inside."

"I took care of two," Avon declared.

"And I of two more while securing the corridors," Blake added.

"Tarrant said his group took out two," Soolin recalled.

Blake was counting on his fingers for effect.  "That leaves only the six at the perimeter." he announced.

Arlen stared at him.  "But you said--"

"You never learn, do you, girl?  I told you before that words, like appearances--"

"Can be deceiving," she finished, her cheeks flushed with anger. "You really are scum, Blake.  You're a disgrace to the social order that raised you."

"Oh, I fervently hope so," he replied.  Then, "Avon, check on Unit Two for me, will you?"

Avon took out his communicator.  "Avon to Tarrant.  Come in, Tarrant."

"Avon, it's about time," the pilot's voice replied.  "We've been waiting forever to hear from one of you.  We very nearly called you."

"It's a good thing you didn't," Avon returned, thinking of what would have happened if the call had come through while Blake was bluffing Arlen so expertly.  "Tell me, did you get the herculaneum?"

"We certainly did."

"What do you mean 'we'?" protested Vila's voice in the background.

"Marvelous," commented Avon.  "Stand by."  He looked towards Blake who looked towards Arlen.

"Okay," said the rebel leader.  "Here's what you're going to do. You're going to contact the guards at the perimeter and tell them you have a pair of armed intruders trapped in the main storage area.  The two guards normally patrolling there have been wounded and the other four are occupied pursuing an unknown number of accomplices through the tunnels.  Be sure you say two intruders precisely.  That's enough to justify calling all six of them away temporarily, but not enough to cause them to be unduly cautious."

Arlen shook her head.  "I'm not going to do it.  You can't make me do it."

Blake sighed with impatience and placed his gun against the side of her head.  "Now, listen to me very carefully.  I haven't killed anyone here yet tonight.  I'd like to keep it that way.  I'm not going to kill your guards, but I am going to kill you if you don't help me get them out of my way.  I would have you note that my weapon is not set on 'stun' this time."

"What will you do to them?" Arlen asked.  "What did you do to the others?"

"A long-acting tranquilizing drug," Blake replied.  "It wears off in about 12 hours, leaving no ill effects beyond some transient residual drowsiness and nausea."

"How do I know you're telling the truth?"

"You don't, I suppose.  But you know the men you found in that closet were still breathing."

"True."

"Are you prepared to die on the off-chance that I'm not telling the truth?"

With a sigh of resignation, Arlen reached for the communications console.  Blake signaled to her to wait a moment and gestured to Avon, who spoke into his communicator again.  "Tarrant, listen carefully.  Six Federation guards are about to come looking for you.  Position yourselves so that you've got the drop on them when they enter the storage area and give them each a dose of instant dream.  Call us back when it is done.  Out."

Now Blake gestured to Arlen.  She switched on the communications console.  He held her tightly against him, his gun pressed firmly into the flesh of her neck as she spoke.  "This is the Base Commander calling Security Patrol Alpha."

"Security Patrol Alpha acknowledging Base Commander," came the response.

"Listen carefully, Section Leader," Arlen instructed.  "I have a job for you to do."

******

It all went off without a hitch just as Blake had choreographed it.  Afterward Dayna and Vila brought the herculaneum to the tracking gallery while Tarrant, at Soolin's request, rendezvoused with her in the kitchen area.  Blake was guarding Arlen and Avon preparing the vis-screen they were stealing for transport when Vila and Dayna arrived.

"Well, here it is," the thief announced.  "More than you asked for.  And I'll be glad when we get it and ourselves back to the--"

"Careful, Vila," Blake cut in.  "Watch what you say in front of the lady."  He indicated Arlen.

"Oh no, not her again," Vila moaned.

"What went through here?  A meteorite storm?"  Dayna murmured, surveying the still untidied debris of Blake and Avon's fight.

"Okay, everyone," said Soolin's voice from the doorway.  "Brace yourselves for an unpleasant shock."  She and Tarrant carried in the refrigeration unit, minus the door, and set it down in the middle of the room.

Arlen reacted first, rising from her chair, a look of horror on her face.  Avon pushed her down again.  "How did you find that?" she demanded, her voice choked with tension.

"Find what?" Vila wanted to know.

"See for yourself," Tarrant invited.

The others already had.  "Pylene‑50," Dayna exclaimed. "Boxes and boxes of it."  She picked up one and examined it more closely. "These are deep space shipping crates.  I thought this stuff wasn't stable enough to travel and had to be made on the planet where it was to be used."

"No one's been using it on Gauda Prime," Blake said firmly. "I'd have known."

"No one's been using it on Gauda Prime yet," Tarrant amended.

"The Federation's only been here three weeks," Vila reminded everyone.  "Give them time."

"Bad point," Soolin muttered.

"I still can't comprehend the shipping crates," Dayna insisted.

"Oh, the marvels of modern science," Avon exclaimed sardonically. "It would appear that the Federation has solved the stability problem. Isn't that right, Arlen?"

The Base Commander smiled smugly and said nothing.  Having gotten past the initial shock of realizing that her enemies had uncovered this secret, she was now enjoying their distress.

Blake approached and leaned over her with intimidating intimacy. "Where does it come from. Arlen?" he asked.  "Who brings it in?  What is the shipping schedule?"

She shrunk away from him, more in disgust than in fear.  "You don't really expect me to tell you, surely?"

"The information's got to be lying around here somewhere," Dayna declared.

"No, it doesn't," Avon disagreed.  "I didn't see one reference to Pylene‑50 when I was downloading the computer's data onto Orac.  And I'm not surprised that I didn't.  This is the sort of information that the Federation would make almost as inaccessible as the location of Star One."  He turned towards the prisoner.  "Reinstituting the old principle of the XX code, are they, Arlen?"

Dayna frowned.  "XX code?"

"A pre-Intergalactic War designation meaning 'nothing related to the matter in question is to be recorded in any form'," Blake explained.

"Arlen must know," Tarrant said confidently.  "This is her base. She's the Base Commander."

"Arlen doesn't want to tell us," Soolin pointed out.

"Arlen's not going to have a choice," Blake declared.  "Dayna, can you prepare a dose of Pylene‑50 for our taciturn guest here?"

"It'll be my pleasure," the woman replied.

Arlen, however, just continued smiling.  "The prospect doesn't seem to faze her, Blake," Avon observed.  "I wonder why."

Blake pondered for a moment, studying the woman, then reached out to forestall Dayna as he shook his head.  "Because she's immune, that's why.  She's had the antidote.  Haven't you, Arlen?"

"You didn't really think the Federation would leave its own leadership vulnerable, did you?" the woman retorted.

A strange look came over Avon's face.  "Oh, that's a pity," he murmured.  "It could have been so much easier, so much more civilized."

Blake glanced at him uneasily for an instant, then let it go.  "All right, girl," he sighed.  "I'm running out of time and patience. Where does the Pylene‑50 come from?  Who brings it in?  What is the shipping schedule?"

"You're wasting your breath, Blake," Arlen said contemptuously. "I'm not going to tell you a thing."

The rebel leader walked around her chair several times, as if viewing her from every possible physical angle would give him mental perspective as well.  "Loyalty to the Federation?" he queried softly.

"Is that so hard for you to conceive of?" she shot back.

"No," Blake answered honestly.  "Just to understand."

"Well, understand this, Scum.  I'm prepared to die for it."

"Well, now," Avon's voice cut in, smooth as silk.  "I don't recall that death was stated to be one of your options."

This time Blake didn't let it go.  "Avon!" he said harshly.            

The rebuke floated past the other man as if he'd never even heard it.  "Why don't you take a walk, Blake?" he suggested.  All the while his eyes were fastened on Arlen's, and she never dropped her gaze either--she knew that to do so would be to lose points in the unspoken contest which had just begun.

"What are you planning to do, Avon?" Blake asked, his voice skirting the edges of accusation.

Avon let go of Arlen's eyes now and fixed his own on Blake's.  "I thought you trusted me," he said blandly.

Blake stared into those eyes, taking their measure.  It was a mutual locking of minds and more than minds.  Each knew precisely what the other was thinking, desiring, demanding--and in the ultimate extremity, pledging.  "All right," Blake said finally and turned to go.

"Want some company?" Soolin called after him.

"All right," he repeated.

"Why, Soolin," Avon taunted, as the woman walked past him, "I never would have taken you for the squeamish type."

Blake stopped in his tracks, but did not turn around.  He could feel Avon's eyes on his back.  That was for Arlen's benefit, he told himself.  You just said you trusted him.  Now prove it.  The very fact that he had stopped could be perceived as a rescinding of his trust. To cover for that, he extended his arm to the side and held it there until Soolin caught up with him and stepped into the space.  Then he ushered her from the room.

Avon turned back to the prisoner; his eyes held her with mounting menace.  Neither of them spoke for a long while.  It was Arlen who broke the silence first.  "You don't frighten me, you know."

"Really?"

"Blake would never torture a prisoner."

"No, Blake wouldn't," Avon agreed.  "Not even one who once had every intention of permanently altering his manhood.  However, in case you hadn't noticed, Blake isn't here anymore."

"Yes," Tarrant chimed in.  "You're at Avon's mercy now."

"Or, more likely, lack of it," Vila contributed.

"Much more likely," added Dayna sadistically.

Arlen's glance traveled back and forth from one to the other and came to rest on the man who had never for an instant taken his eyes off her.  "What are you going to do to me?" she asked.

Avon's expression was one of cold, unwavering indifference.  "Whatever it takes," he said simply.

*****

"Still angry with me?"  Soolin asked.  She had managed to slip her arm through Blake's, and though he continued to allow the contact, she had the distinct impression that she could just as well have been Dayna.  Indeed, for that matter, she could just as well have been Tarrant or Vila.

It took a minute for Blake to register the meaning of her question.  "No, of course not."

At least the answer was reassuring.  And there could be no doubt that it was honest.  He might run rings of deception around his political enemies, but in this most basic human way, Roj Blake was incapable of lying.  "Good," she said.  "I really should have been there much sooner.  It's just that when I saw the Pylene‑50--I don't know.  I didn't think I had any special attachment to this planet, but I guess I was wrong.  The thought of the people here being--what's the word the Federation uses?"

"Adapted," Blake supplied.

"Right."  She shuddered.  "It just got to me, I guess.  And the thought of that witch Arlen refusing to give us any more information about it--"

"You have to give her a perverse sort of credit though, I suppose," Blake reflected.  "Little slip of a girl like that facing a band of armed and dangerous terrorists so defiantly.  Ready to die for something larger than herself.  Abominable taste in causes, of course. Still--"

"You were afraid Avon might really hurt her, weren't you?"  Soolin cut in.

"It had crossed my mind," Blake admitted.

"He's capable of it."

"I know that."

"Would it be so wrong?"

"Yes."

Soolin shook her head in amazement.  "You are a remarkable man, Roj Blake," she declared.

"I'm a very simple man, Soolin," he corrected.  "Avon is the remarkable one."

That amazed her even more.  "You really admire him, don't you?" she marveled.

"There's a great deal there to admire," Blake replied.

She responded with a snicker.  "I'm afraid I hadn't particularly noticed."

"That's your loss then," Blake said sadly.  "And his."

They had arrived at the kitchen again, and this time Soolin was thirsty enough to settle for what the drinks dispenser had to offer. Blake dialed a cup of a hot herbal brew for each of them, and they found a table.

"Actually, something rather extraordinary did happen between us," she recounted.  "Not too long ago.  None of the others knows about it, and Avon and I have never discussed it."

"Are you sure you want to tell me about it?" Blake asked.

"Yes." Soolin nodded intensely.  "Yes, I do."  She paused to sip her drink.  "It involved the anti-Federation alliance that Avon tried to put together with a number of warlords shortly before we came to Gauda Prime looking for you.  One of them, the ruler of Betafarl, a man named Zukan, double-crossed us, cut a deal with Servalan.  But before we discovered his treachery, Avon and I were lured to Betafarl by the promise of raw materials for the manufacture of the antidote to Pylene‑50.  When we got there, we discovered it was a trap.  We were surrounded by Federation guards, and the odds in a gunfight would have been insurmountable."

Blake smiled.  "Even for you?"

Soolin smiled back.  "It happens.  Anyway, I did the only thing I could think of.  I pointed my gun at Avon and ordered him to drop his. Masquerading as Zukan's daughter, I handed him over to the Federation guards, who dragged him away and staked him out.  They obviously had a slow, painful death planned for him.  Well, he kept looking at me, but he never said a word to give me away.  I don't know to this day if he realized I was just playing for time, or if he thought I'd sacrificed him to save myself and was going to let me get away with it.  Fortunately I was able to get a drop on the guards soon after that, and we escaped, but I really couldn't tell what was going through his mind until that moment."

Throughout Soolin's account, Blake had hung on her every word.  Now it was his turn to speak.  "Well, in the first place, Avon wouldn't have blamed you for acting to save yourself.  It's what he always claims he would do in such circumstances, so if the situation was as you say, and it was either save one of you or save neither one of you, Avon's logic would have told him that he was gone either way while you still had a chance.  He would not have taken you down with him out of spite.  That I know."  Once more Soolin was amazed:  Blake spoke with such utter conviction, as if the possibility that his analysis might be wrong had never occurred to him. "But," he added with a smile, "I'd still prefer to believe that he did know what you were up to, that he trusted you--"

"I'd prefer to believe that, too," Soolin admitted.  She paused. "Blake, about what's going on right now in the tracking gallery--if you were so worried that Avon might hurt Arlen, why did you leave her to him?"

"Because he promised he wouldn't," Blake answered.

Soolin stared across the table, a look of utter bewilderment in her eyes.  "I didn't hear that," she exclaimed.

Blake shrugged lightly.  "You weren't listening for it," he said.

*****

In the tracking gallery, the war of nerves continued.  Avon and his erstwhile crew surrounded Arlen, looking as threatening as they could manage to look.

"Dayna here has taught me a great deal about Sarran interrogation methods," Avon declared.  "Haven't you, Dayna?"

"Everything I know," the woman answered.  "They're the best in the galaxy."

"Or the worst," Avon shot back.  "Depending on which side of the interrogation you are on."

"I'm surprised you're not familiar with them, Arlen," Tarrant put in.  "I should think the Federation kept abreast of such matters."

Arlen said nothing.  Showed nothing either.  Avon allowed himself a sliver of respect for her coolness under pressure.  "Unfortunately," he continued, "we don't have the proper equipment for that here.  Let's see what we do have."  He began rummaging casually through the assorted tools strewn about during his staged altercation with Blake, continuing to speak as he did so.  "The mark of a true expert is his ability to improvise under all circumstances, did you know that?  Of course you did.  Ah, here we go."  He rose from his crouching position, holding a laser probe.  He held it up dramatically.

Tarrant and Dayna exchanged glances.  Vila looked slightly queasy. Avon picked up a power pack and clipped it onto the instrument in plain sight of his prisoner.  For the first time, Arlen's composure faltered.  She gripped the sides of the chair she was sitting in, as if to steady herself, and swallowed hard a couple of times.

"Ever work on Earth, Arlen?" Avon inquired conversationally.

"No."  It was the first word the woman had spoken in some time, and it was barely audible, issuing from a mouth and throat gone dry.

"Then I don't suppose you ever met a man called Shrinker."  Her eyes widened suddenly in reaction to the name.  "Ah, but I see you've heard of him," Avon persisted in the same conversational tone.  "He had some unique ideas about the creative use of this tool."

An odd sound escaped from Arlen, seemingly involuntary.  She rose from the chair, but Tarrant grabbed her and forced her down again. Standing behind her, he gripped her head firmly and held it, offering her exposed and vulnerable face to the man standing in front of her.

Avon waved the laser probe under Arlen's nose.  "Ever seen what this can do to human flesh?" he taunted.  She didn't answer.  "Well, let's find out, shall we?"

Arlen was trembling now, and her breathing came in short, little gasps.  For an instant Avon thought what he'd done so far was going to be enough, but then he caught the gleam of undiminished defiance in her eyes, and that hope evaporated.  There remained only one way to extinguish that defiance...

He ran a quick internal check on his own external demeanor.  The element of surprise was crucial to his scheme; he must be certain to give nothing away prematurely.  His face remained a blank mask; his eyes betrayed no hint of his own pulsing fear.  And--deeper than fear--the desolation he felt to be trapped this way again by him.  To be doing this mad thing for him.  Laying aside all rationality and common sense, overriding his own best judgment because he'd given his word to him.  But he had given his word--as surely as if there'd been words...

As the others watched, he rolled up first one sleeve and then the other.  They thought he was just settling in to work, drawing it all out to intensify Arlen's terror.  They were wrong.  "Last chance," he said now to her menacingly.  "No?  Very well then..."

By the time they realized what he was actually about to do, it was too late to stop him.  Dayna screamed, "Avon!"

Vila moaned, "I think I'm going to be sick."

Tarrant cried out, "Avon for the love of--"  He never got the final word out.

Avon had taken the laser probe with his right hand and applied it to the skin on the outer surface of his upper left arm.

Dayna emitted a sickening groan.

Vila said, "I am going to be sick," and promptly was.

Tarrant just stared in speechless horror at the afflicted area. In one brief instant of contact, the skin had been totally destroyed, exposing a mass of badly charred muscle and blackened bone.  A horrible stench filled the air.  And Arlen--the object of all this, though not in the way any of them had imagined--went totally to pieces, shrieking  hysterically and fleeing to a corner of the room where she curled up against the wall, clutching herself protectively.

Tarrant made no attempt to restrain her.  He was far more concerned about Avon--they all were.  Avon did not look particularly well himself.  At the moment of contact with the laser probe, he had gasped in pain and gone deathly pale.  Dropping the probe, he dropped into the chair Arlen had vacated, unable to speak, his breathing labored.  An instant later he pitched forward, retching violently.

Recovering herself, Dayna rushed to his side.  She pulled out her emergency medi-kit and prepared an injection, a combination of pain killer and anti-shock medication.  She plunged it into his other arm.

As the heaving subsided, the color returned to Avon's face. "Thank you," he said weakly.

"Avon, that needs serious looking after," Dayna exclaimed.  "It needs to be cleaned and dressed, and you'll need antibiotics and probably--"

"Later," he interrupted, staggering to his feet.  "Business before battle patching."  He retrieved the laser probe with his uninjured hand and advanced toward his prisoner once more.

Arlen had remained frozen in the corner to which she had fled, but now she moved at the speed of mortal panic, crawling on all fours through the debris and vomit like a trapped animal.  "Keep him away from me!" she screamed to the others.  "He's mad!  Can't you all see that?  He's stark raving mad!"  She was huddled on the floor, a shivering ball of terror.

Avon looked down at her with contempt and remarked, "The dignity of Federation officers isn't what it used to be."  He continued to finger the laser probe suggestively.

"All right. All right," the woman gasped.

"All right, what?" Avon snarled coldly.

"All right, you win," she yielded with a whimper.  Every last ounce of resistance had gone out of her.

Avon pulled her to her feet and flung her into the chair like a limp rag doll.  "Start talking," he commanded.

*****

"I'd like you to do me a favor, Soolin."

"Yes?"

"Pay more attention to Deva."

The woman's jaw dropped.  Of all the things she'd imagined Blake might be about to say, "Pay more attention to Deva" was the last she'd expected--and the very last she wanted to hear.  "What?" she exclaimed.

"No, I don't mean that way," Blake hastened to clarify.  "Well," he reconsidered aloud.  "If it happened, it would be very nice, of course--"

"Oh, it would, would it?" Soolin shot back.

"If it happened," he repeated emphatically.

"Just what do you mean, Blake?" the woman demanded.

"Well, I think Deva's been feeling a little left out lately--"

Soolin snorted.  "You're the one who decided to leave him out of this mission."

"Yes, I know, and that was a correct decision.  What I'm talking about goes deeper.  I suppose it's to do with the fact that the rest of you were already a group."

"And you think we've been excluding him?"

"Not deliberately.  Certainly not maliciously.  But when people have a history in common and someone else doesn't share that history--but, you see, that's why I was thinking you'd be the best person to approach about this."

"I don't follow you.  What's why you were thinking I'd be the best person to approach?"

"Shared history.  You and Deva.  He's lived all his life on Gauda Prime, and you grew up here.  I got the idea when you were telling me how you discovered you still had special feelings about the place."   He looked at her earnestly. "Well?  Am I making sense?"  Soolin opened her mouth to reply, but before she could get a word out, Blake's communicator beeped, and he acknowledged it.

"Tarrant here," said the voice on the other end.  "Party's over. We hit pay dirt."

"On our way," Blake responded.  He took Soolin's hand excitedly and pulled her along with him.

Tarrant met them at the entrance to the tracking gallery.  "Arlen's told us everything," he announced.

"Wonderful," Blake responded.  Then he saw the pilot's odd expression.  "What's wrong?"

Tarrant sighed.  "I think you'd better see for yourself."

A look of non-specific alarm came over Blake's face.  Without another word he rushed inside. 

"What is wrong?" Soolin asked pointedly.

Tarrant made a few false starts, then said simply, "Avon used a laser probe."

"Oh, my God," the woman exclaimed.  "Blake was so certain he wouldn't do something like that."

"No, you don't understand," the pilot returned.  "It wasn't Arlen he used it on."

Soolin's expression changed from one of bewilderment to one of horrified comprehension.  She pushed past Tarrant as Blake had done.

*****

The spectacle that greeted Blake's eyes was positively unreal. Everyone seemed to be in a state of shock.  Dayna was picking up tools one by one, slowly and inefficiently, and depositing them on tables and desktops with no sense of order.  Vila was pushing a mop back and forth over a puddle of vomit, spreading it around rather than cleaning it up.  Arlen was sitting on the floor, her hands covering her face, sobbing inconsolably.  And Avon was sitting off by himself, staring vacantly into the distance.

Blake was dimly aware of Soolin rushing past him and of Tarrant returning and starting to help Dayna.  Soolin went straight to Avon, gently removed his shirt and assessed the damage.  Blake blinked a couple of times and slowly shuffled over to the two of them.  "Third corridor over," Soolin said, searching her memory of Deva's floor plan.  "Second door to the left, right?"

"What?" Blake stammered.

"The medical supply room."

"Oh, yes, right."

"I'll be right back," she promised, and hurried off.

Blake's presence seemed to bring Avon out of his semi-autistic trance.  He shifted the position of his body and turned to face the man.  Blake looked down at him, only now piecing it all together.  "Well, what have you got to say for yourself?" he asked.

"Ryanec 5", Avon answered.

"Come again."

"The Pylene‑50 is being manufactured on Ryanec 5, which is the only inhabited planet in its star system.  It's at the edge of Sector Four.  All the Pylene‑50 that the Federation is currently manufacturing is being manufactured there and shipped out across the galaxy to every planet under Federation control.  The shipments to Gauda Prime had only just started.  The plan was to transport it here in cargo freighters specially equipped with maximum time distort capacity at intervals still to be determined.  This was--is--the first shipment.  I imagine whatever shipping schedule was being contemplated will be altered as a result of our destroying this batch."  Avon stopped to get his breath and to wipe an accumulating layer of sweat from his forehead.  "We are destroying it, aren't we?" he added.

"Yes," Blake said softly.  "Of course."

"Good," Avon returned with a weary sigh.

Blake moved closer to him with evident trepidation.  "Let me see," he requested.

"If you insist."  Avon extended his left arm, but looked the other way so as not to be looking at Blake when Blake examined it.

Blake lifted the arm gently, realized the extent and depth of the wound and exploded in rage.  "God!  What the hell were you thinking?"

Avon stared at him as if that were the stupidest question he had ever heard.  "That it would work, Blake," he answered.  "And it did."

"Did it?"

"Demonstrably."

Blake shook his head helplessly.  "I just don't know what to say to you, Avon."

The other man smiled weakly.  "Why?  Does 'thank you' seem too anti-climactic?"

"To put it mildly, yes."

"I got your bloody information for you, Blake," Avon muttered angrily.  "Let's leave it at that."

Now Soolin arrived back, her arms loaded with sundry medical supplies.  "Most of this is for later," she told Blake, handing him the bulk of it. "Make sure we don't forget to take it with us."         

"Don't worry," he assured her, "I'm only too aware that we don't have access to the medical unit of the Liberator anymore."

Avon watched as she opened a bottle of antiseptic.  "There aren't going to be any germs, Soolin," he said mockingly.  "There was enough heat in that thing to kill a vial of Phobon plague virus the size of Orac."

"And to cauterize the blood vessels, thank goodness," she added, mostly to herself.  To Avon she said, "Well, it's still a hole, you know, and it's not going to remain free of germs."  She inverted the open bottle over a sterile cloth.  "This isn't going to feel very good," she warned.

"It already doesn't feel very good," Avon retorted impatiently. "Just get on with it."  The others--Tarrant, Dayna, and Vila--had gradually ceased their cleanup activities, and were now gathered in a semi-circle nearby, watching.  "What the hell are you gawking at?" Avon growled.  And to Blake, "Do you think I might be allowed some privacy?"

The rebel leader nodded.  "Come on, everyone," he beckoned to the others.  "Let's finish packing up this place."  As they proceeded to carry out his instructions, they heard Avon wincing.  Blake glanced back over his shoulder and could see the man gritting his teeth, struggling not to cry out.

"Blake," Tarrant said, diverting his attention.  "What about the Pylene‑50?"

"Use your guns," Blake instructed.  "Blast through every bit of it.  We can't just flush it into the waste disposal system.  Too much risk of its finding its way back into the water supply."

Tarrant grinned.  "It would be ironic if we did the Federation's dirty work for them, wouldn't it?"

"See to it now," Blake said, patting him on the shoulder.

"Dayna," Tarrant called.  "Want to lend me a hand?"  As the two of them commenced destruction of the drug, the sound made by their weapons masked all other sounds in the room.

So no one noticed that Arlen, whose sobs of unendurable shame had continued steadily in the background, had finally stopped crying.  No one paid her any attention as she crawled across the floor on her hands and knees.  No one saw her pick up the laser probe which Avon had discarded after his humiliating triumph over her.  And no one saw her lunge with it until Vila happened to turn his head.  "Blake, look out!" he cried.

The rebel leader heard him and was alerted to the danger just as Arlen made a beeline for his groin with the laser probe.  He sidestepped the attack with no more than a second to spare, grabbed the woman from behind, wrested the instrument from her grip and pulled the power pack out of the probe.  Tossing the separated components aside, he seized Arlen under the armpits and chuckled as she struggled uselessly to free herself.  "This girl redefines the meaning of one-track mind, doesn't she?"

By now everyone had stopped what they were doing and were watching Blake with Arlen.  The Base Commander felt their mocking eyes upon her, burned at the sound of their derisive laughter.  Every last shred of her pride and dignity as a Federation officer had been mercilessly assaulted, and while it was Avon she passionately longed to destroy,  it was Blake she happened to be able to reach.  Or perhaps she blamed him even more than Avon, blamed him for leaving her with Avon...  Whatever her reasoning, whatever her motive, she twisted around in Blake's grip until she faced him, pulled back as far as his hold on her would allow and spat straight in his eye with all the force she could muster.

In that moment all hell broke loose inside of Blake.  Anger over Avon, at Avon, at Arlen--and at himself--mushroomed into one blind mass of rage.  Before he could stop himself, scarcely realizing what he was doing, he hit Arlen across the face and sent her flying.  A hush fell over the room.  No one could quite believe what they had just witnessed.

No one except Avon.  Avon grinned like a self-indulgent child getting his own way and exclaimed, "Good, Blake."

Those were precisely the wrong words, uttered in precisely the wrong tone, and they elicited precisely the wrong response.  "And you," Blake shouted angrily, whirling on Avon, "Learn to keep your toys out of harm's way!"

Only an involuntary gasp from Soolin punctuated the horrified silence which followed.  A stricken look came over Avon's face, as if he'd been stabbed through the heart.

Immediately Blake realized what he had done.  "Oh, God, Avon," he exclaimed.  "Forgive me."

Slowly the anguish in Avon's eyes turned to livid anger.  Tarrant's hand went involuntarily to his gun--he was that alarmed by what he saw in Avon's eyes.  Soolin's hands remained clasped over her mouth as if to hold in any further outburst.  Avon moved slowly across the floor towards Blake and stood directly in front of him, eyeball to eyeball, piercing the air with an accusing finger.  "The only reason I didn't use that on her to begin with is you," he hissed viciously.  "The only reason, Blake."

It took all the other man's will power not to flinch from that devastating look.  "I do realize that," he answered steadily.  "In fact, that's why--"  he broke off in mid-sentence, knowing that "why" wouldn't matter in the least, that the last thing desired from him now was a proclamation of his own guilt feelings. He said instead simply, "I'm sorry, Avon."

The apology was not getting through.  Avon turned away from him and dropped into a chair, exhausted.  "Oh, you should be," he breathed.

Realizing that there was nothing more he could say or do at the moment to rectify the situation, Blake turned and walked across the room.  All this time Arlen had lain motionless on the spot where Blake's blow had landed her.  Not so much injured--the blood on her mouth was already beginning to clot--but utterly intimidated.  Blake and Avon fighting in earnest was a far different thing from Blake and Avon pretending to fight.  It was an awesome thing; it dripped danger like nothing she had ever witnessed before; it seemed to threaten an annihilation greater than that of physical extinction.

Blake stood over her, devoid of even the slightest hint of mercy. "On your feet," he commanded coldly.  She tried to obey him, but her legs wouldn't obey her.  She remained there, shivering.  "I said, get up."  Without waiting for a response this time, he reached down and grabbed the first thing he could reach.  It happened to be the front of her blouse.  He yanked her up unceremoniously, indifferent to the fact that the blouse came open and that she scrambled to rebutton it, desperately groping to salvage some small shred of dignity.  He hurled her into the nearest chair and muttered to no one in particular, "Somebody tie this woman up.  I don't trust myself to touch her again."

Dayna stepped forward to comply, assisted by Vila.  As the thief secured the prisoner's hands behind the chair, Dayna yielded to a fleeting impulse of female solidarity and discreetly rebuttoned Arlen's blouse, hoping no one saw her do it, embarrassed by her own compassion.

"Are you going to kill me, Blake?" Arlen asked apprehensively.

The rebel leader indulged one last moment of vengeful satisfaction. "Why?  You care suddenly?"  Then he saw the panic in her eyes and softened.  "No, I'm not going to kill you."

From the corner where he'd been rebuttoning his own shirt over Soolin's makeshift dressing, Avon spun around in astonishment, momentarily certain he couldn't have heard right.  Then, considering who'd been speaking, certain that he had.  "You're not going to kill her?" he repeated.

"That's right."

"Blake, you have to kill her.  If we don't kill her, she can tell the Federation that we know about Ryanec 5."

Blake looked at Arlen.  "She can, but somehow I don't think she will--under the circumstances."

Avon slammed the nearest table top in frustration.  "Oh, that's beautiful.  You don't think she will.  What if you are wrong?  What if she has an uncontrollable attack of belated loyalty?"

"It would be suicide for her," Blake observed.

"Yes, possibly," Avon conceded.  "But I can't fathom why you'd expect that to stop someone."  He hurried over and stood close to the man.  "Blake, kill her," he implored.  "Please kill her.  All right, don't kill her, let me kill her.  It will be my pleasure."  He reached for his gun.

Blake made a gesture to forestall him.  "Avon, even if she does tell them, what can they do about it?  Dismantle the whole operation  and move it elsewhere?  And if they do go to such lengths, that will set them back significantly and buy us time."

"You've an answer for everything, haven't you?" Avon retorted. "What is this--Travis revisited?"

Blake smiled quasi-nostalgically.  "Travis always said my not killing him was my weakness."

"Travis was right."

"Really?"

"If you had killed him on any one of the numerous occasions when you had the opportunity--"

"Five, Avon, five occasions," Blake corrected.

"All right, five," Avon conceded.  "If you had killed him on any one of those five occasions, he wouldn't have been alive to cut a deal with the Andromedans, and all that senseless slaughter might have been averted."

"But I couldn't know that, Avon, could I?" Blake countered.  "I couldn't look into the future.  What I did know was that if I took his life when he wasn't a threat to me, I would move that much closer to becoming what he was.  Don't you see that?"

"I see that you see it that way," was the grudging reply.

They made ready to vacate the base and return to the flyers.  The Pylene‑50 was destroyed, the scanner beams remained off, and the guards remained asleep.  Soolin confirmed this by running a last-minute visual scan of the premises inside and out, using the tracking gallery's own equipment.  The others packed up everything they were taking with them:  the herculaneum, the vis-screen, the two Federation uniforms (never can tell when they might come in handy again, Blake said)--and, of course, the medical supplies for Avon.  Mostly more antiseptic, bandages, antibiotics, and drugs for pain.  Not that any of that could offer him the treatment he really needed:  surgical removal of necrotic tissue and skin grafts to close that gaping hole and replace the dermal layers which the laser probe had simply obliterated.  Soolin felt she could do an adequate job of caring for the wound in the short term, but, absent the tissue regenerator of the Liberator, sooner or later they would need to enlist the services of a surgeon--an unlikely prospect while they remained on Gauda Prime.  All the more reason to have Avon complete that communications masking device as soon as possible.

Soolin signaled to Blake that her scan of the base was finished. "All set, everyone?" he inquired.  Their arms loaded, Tarrant, Vila, and Dayna nodded.  "Okay, let's go," he said.

"Blake."  The unexpected call had come from Arlen.  He walked over to her.  "You can't just leave me tied up here like this," she protested.

"You would rather I put you out?" he asked, alluding to the tranquilizing drug.

That clearly frightened her more.  "No--please--" she begged.

Blake heaved a sigh.  "Look, in less than nine hours, the first of the guards should be waking up.  They'll find you."  She didn't look reassured.  "It's not that long a time, Arlen," he added.  "And it is nothing compared to what your people do to their prisoners every day."

She struggled visibly to subdue her anxiety.  "Can I have some water at least?" she requested.  Blake brought her a glass and held it to her lips while she drank.  Then he took out his handkerchief and gently wiped the blood off her mouth.

Avon stared at the interaction, shaking his head in disbelief.  Why the hell was Blake coddling her?  Out of contrition for having  struck her?  No one but you, Blake, he thought angrily.  No one but  you...

"Thank you," Arlen said, finishing the water.  "What about for when I'm alone here?"

Avon's eyes widened in mounting amazement as Blake actually scrounged around for a large bowl, filled it with water, and placed it on the table close to Arlen's face.

The woman stared at the bowl in dismay, understanding that to take a drink she would have to lower her head into the water. "It's not very dignified, I realize," Blake conceded, reading her expression, "but it's the best I can manage in the circumstances."  She met his gaze, seemed to understand that he was genuinely not trying to humiliate her, and nodded appreciatively.

Now the group started to move towards the exit, but Avon hung back.  Blake looked at him questioningly.  "You go on ahead," he said.  "I just want to take one last look around to make sure we're not leaving behind anything traceable."

A hint of suspicion flickered in Blake's eyes as his glance travelled back and forth between Avon and Arlen.  Avon sighed.  "Do you want my gun, Blake?"

Blake sucked in his breath.  "Oh, Avon--"

"Here, take it."  The man had actually removed the weapon from its belt and was holding it out.

"I certainly will not," Blake said hotly, his voice dripping with disgust.

"Fine.  As you please."  Avon reholstered the gun.

"Everyone move out," Blake said to the other four, who stood seemingly mesmerized by the spectacle being enacted in front of them. "Now!" he barked emphatically.  They scrambled to obey.  Blake shot one last disbelieving look at Avon and followed them.

Arlen's eyes followed him till he was out of sight, then jumped back to Avon.  At first the man ignored her, moving about the room, apparently doing precisely what he had said he was remaining to do.  When he'd finished, he came and stood in front of her.

He stared down at her silently, not saying a word, just watching her squirm as she tried to pretend she wasn't looking at his gun.  It felt like cycling through the process of breaking her all over again, but it held no challenge this time for her reserves of resistance were long since spent.  When he finally moved, she stiffened in terror, her eyes wide with alarm--but all he did was to dip a cup into the bowl of water on the table and drink from it.

The seconds ticked by, and Arlen's heart was pounding so loudly she was sure he could hear it.  Avon finished quenching his thirst, then lifted the bowl off the table, pretending to examine it.  "The trouble with Blake," he articulated smoothly, "is that while he has lots of enemies, he's never really learned how to be one."  A slow smile spread across his face as he added, "I don't suffer from that problem."  Raising the bowl above Arlen's head, he carefully inverted it, letting the water spill over her, running through her hair and dripping down her back...

He left her that way, wet and shivering--effectively severed from the rebel leader's parting show of human kindness.  It was an appallingly petty and impotent gesture, he realized, not remotely commensurate with the revenge he wanted to exact from Blake, but it was all he could manage--for now.