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Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
–Samuel Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Three ships. He, Orac, and Zen could take on any two Federation ships, but three would be enough to destroy the Liberator.

And three ships were on their way.

Damn all of them, anyway, for leaving him here to make this decision! First Blake and Jenna, then Gan and Vila, then Cally, all went down to the planet and immediately disappeared. Of course they were dead. Whatever Cally might say–might have said–it was irrational to assume anything else. And he didn't need them anyway. With Orac and Zen and the Liberator, he would be perfectly safe, as long as he didn't take any unnecessary risks; a course in which he had always firmly believed and almost always followed–at least until recently.

If they hadn't wanted to be abandoned, they shouldn't have left him up here alone. They all knew he might run; he had always been quite clear about that. Hadn't Blake just reminded Jenna of that?

Besides, they were dead.

So Kerr Avon made the only rational decision he could make. "Zen, take us out of orbit on the standby course plotted previously."

+Confirmed.+

He dropped into his seat and checked the instruments. Zen didn't actually sound disappointed, of course; it was only a computer, and therefore incapable of any such nuance.

The Liberator left the Horizon system at standard by six, easily evading the incoming Federation vessels.

When it returned four hours later, there was no trace of Blake or the others: only burning buildings, heaps of mangled bodies, and some very unfriendly natives.

: : :

Jenna smothered a curse as she tripped over something in the thick bracken. The news had filtered into the mines that Ro was dead, murdered by the Federation agents on the planet, and most of the Federation troops had headed toward the palace to deal with Ro's remaining guards. Blake had decided that he could wait no longer. The sight of a bare-chested Blake exhorting the wretched mine workers to overthrow their oppressors had certainly been inspiring, but once the remaining guards had been felled by the mob, things had gone downhill. As it turned out, the people of Horizon wanted nothing to do with the Federation–and seemed uninterested in distinguishing between the Libertor crew and any other outsiders. "Blake, they don't want us here either!" an agitated Vila had screamed as he finished untying Gan, and the truth of his statement had become clear as they fled from the mines just ahead of the bloodthirsty crowd. Fortunately, most of the mine workers had been in the radioactive mines for a longer time than the rebels, and they easily outpaced their weakened pursuers.

However, now they were lost in the woods, with no teleport bracelets or weapons. "Don't worry," Blake said calmly, "Avon's still on board the /Liberator/ and will find a way to track us. We'd just better keep moving." He looked down and discovered he had acquired a small Federation pistol in the melee. "Hold on to this," he said, handing it to Cally, "You're a better shot than I am. And I've got nowhere to put it," he added ruefully, looking at his tattered clothes. Then he tramped confidently off in a direction that seemed to be away from the sounds of a developing full-fledged riot.

Jenna followed his form through the gathering dusk and kept her own council. Blake was almost certainly unhappy at the sudden shift in their fortunes–would the man never learn that he wasn't automatically the good guy to everyone?–and she didn't wish to sour him further by doubting Avon. At least out loud. At least not right now. The rest of the group shared either Blake's confidence or her feelings and kept silent as they limped along, except for Vila's background whining as he stepped in puddles or came across biting insects.

They hadn't gone very far when a figure stepped out from behind a tree, gun raised. The lone figure and the group eyed each other warily. Cally had apparently tucked the gun under her skirts, and chose not to try and draw it. The man clearly was not a native of Horizon, with his pale skin and shock of blond hair, but he was wearing a coverall of some pale fabric that didn't look Federation either. After a moment, Blake broke the silence. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"

The stranger's teeth flashed in the twilight. "I could ask you the same thing. And I seem to have the advantage here." When Blake didn't answer for a second, he lowered the muzzle of his weapon slightly and added, "However, I am willing to forgive your reticence simply because you do not appear to be with the Federation, who I bear no love for." Never taking his eyes from the group, he gestured with his head toward the red glow building on the horizon, and the wisps of smoke coming from that direction. "If you are eager to be leaving this planet, I do have transportation and you are welcome to join me."

Cally's voice spoke in her mind, pitched in such a way that Jenna could tell she spoke to all of them. //I do not trust him. I sense something...unwholesome...about him//. Blake sighed. He didn't say anything out loud, but Jenna knew he was considering their options and discovering they had very few.

"We will only have to stay with you long enough to make contact with our ship, which is waiting in orbit around this planet," Blake said somewhat grudgingly. "We wouldn't want to inconvenience you further."

The man holstered his gun with a metallic click. "It's no inconvenience at all," he said cheerfully.

My ship is just a few minute's walk from here." He started to walk away, gesturing for the other to follow, then stopped suddenly and turned back to the group. "Oh, but I haven't introduced myself! Where are my manners?" His teeth gleamed again as he flashed a smile. "My name is Dorian. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

: : :

Dorian checked the instruments on the pilot's panel and waved for the Liberator crew to take seats. Discovering there was no seat left for him, Gan sat stoically on the floor, bracing himself for acceleration. "Slave, take us into orbit now," said Dorian. A--cringing?–metallic voice answered him.

"Most certainly, Master."

Jenna saw Blake raise his eyebrows at the exchange, but the rebel said nothing. As the ship rose above the atmosphere, Dorian asked Slave to check for ships in the area. The computer whirred for a bit, then responded nervously, "My most humble apologies, Master, and far be it from me to make such judgments, but your top priority may be the three Federation pursuit vessels in the system."

"What?" barked Dorian.

It shouldn't have been possible, but the computer seemed to flinch. "I apologize most profusely for my lapse, Master, but I'm afraid they are on an intercept course with this vessel. What is your command, Master?"

Before Dorian could respond, Blake said, "Wait. Just...wait." Dorian glared at him, then suddenly seemed to comprehend what the rebel leader was getting at. "Very well, Slave. Wait."

The computer nearly whimpered with anxiety as the ships approached. Vila joined in. Blake merely nibbled on a finger, his thoughts clearly elsewhere, hardly responding when the three ships blew up spectacularly upon contact with Horizon's magnetic field.

Dorian had another of his incandescent grins for Blake. "You guessed they didn't know about the barrier and hadn't de-magnetized their hulls. Very nice."

Blake grunted absently. "The question is," he said, flashing a keen look at Dorian, "How you knew about the barrier and how to get through it."

"I'm a salvage collector. I had picked up some information that let me know there might be something very valuable on this planet." Dorian smiled as if at a private joke. "I mean the monopasium, of course. That stuff is worth a fortune. However, the situation on the planet appears to make retrieval a...difficult proposition."

"And how did you find about that magnetic barrier?"

"Oh, I have my means," Dorian said airily.

Blake seemed uninterested in exploring the topic further. "If you'll contact our ship, we'll be on our way."

"As you wish. Slave, could you contact our friends' ship?"

The computer made a sound almost like a nervous throat clearing. "I deeply regret being unable to comply with your most illustrious request, Master, but there is only one other ship left in the system, and it is a Federation freighter."

There was a sharp silence on the flight deck, and then Blake was bounding out of his chair, brushing off Cally's sudden, sympathetic hand on his elbow. "What? That can't be right." He paled. "The three pursuit ships–is there debris in the system? Dorian, ask it to check for debris," he snapped at the pale man when Slave didn't respond.

At Dorian's command, Slave whirred for a bit before saying, "There is no sign of any debris in the system. My resources are humble indeed, honored guests, but if there had been a battle, I would detect the remnants of a destroyed ship. The system is empty of non-Federation vessels."

"But–that isn't possible," said Blake blankly. The others all stared at him, and he started to laugh, lifting his hands in a shrug. "You're not seriously suggesting that–that–"

Jenna jumped from her seat and grasped Blake by the shoulders. "Damn it, Blake, face facts. He's left us. You know he has. You knew he could, and he has."

Blake just stared at her, shaking his head slowly, a terrible hurt building in his dark brown eyes. She shook him once, then dropped her hands. "I'm sorry."

The rebel looked at each of his crew, reading their expressions, looking last at Cally's sorrowful, pitying eyes. Then he stepped backwards and dropped heavily into his chair, putting a hand over his eyes. There was a long and awful silence, broken eventually by a discreet cough from Dorian.

"I'm terribly sorry for your loss, but I must point out that more Federation ships may be on the way. Horizon is not a safe planet for you, so I offer you haven at my base." Jenna and Cally exchanged glances, but before they said anything, Blake spoke.
"We wait here." He didn't remove his hand from his face.

Dorian glanced at the other members of the crew for support. "It's folly to stay here much longer–"

"We. Wait." Blake removed his hand and looked levelly at Dorian for a moment. Their gazes clashed, and Dorian's pale eyes dropped first.

"We'll wait for an hour. Beyond that, I refuse to endanger my ship and my own life. And you should refuse to risk the lives of the rest of your friends–your remaining friends–after that point as well."

"Very well. One hour," said Blake tiredly.

When Dorian told them that an hour had gone by, Blake said nothing, staring down at his hands. Jenna, Cally, Vila and Gan exchanged glances. "We're ready to go," Cally said very softly, and Dorian gave the command for Scorpio to leave the system and head to Xenon Base.

"Your new home, if you wish," he said heartily, but no one responded and he soon fell silent as well.

: : :

Dorian ushered them into a room on Xenon base and–to Vila's highly vocal delight–poured each of them a glass of bright red wine. As he handed Jenna her glass, his fingers brushed up against hers and she found herself shuddering. The man was quite handsome under the grime of his trip, but he unnerved her somehow. Maybe it was the way many of his statements seemed freighted with a double meaning only he was privy to. As the rebels sipped their wine uneasily, Dorian looked them over and smiled warmly. "Please make yourselves at home. There are baths through that door, and you may wish to wash up. It will be time to dine soon, my friends. But first, I must refresh myself." With that, he ambled out the door. Jenna put down her glass hastily. The words had been polite, even banal, but the glint in his eye had been clearly predatory. She tried to tell herself she had dealt with his kind before, but she didn't feel reassured.

Blake was sitting on one of the sofas, absently swirling the wine in his glass and staring straight ahead. He hadn't spoken a word on the long journey, and Jenna was concerned–how much had Avon's defection damaged the rebel's sometimes-fragile psyche? So she was surprised when Blake set down his glass with a thump and addressed the group. "So. Your impressions of the man and our situation?" he said calmly, as if assessing any other tactical problem. At the surprised looks from the others, he quirked a smile. "It seemed wisest to let our...host...think that I am entirely incapacitated. So I decided to put on a bit of a show." Jenna saw Cally's dubious look and knew the other woman was also wondering which part, exactly, was the performance. But they needed Blake alert and fully functioning, so she was happy with even a facade of normality right now.

Vila finished swigging a glass of wine and poured himself another. "He seems like a great guy to me," he said enthusiastically.
Cally sighed. "I told you earlier I had a bad feeling about him, and I do more than ever since arriving here. I sense great menace."

"I thought you could only send telepathically," Blake commented, and the Auronar shivered.

"Yes. That's why I find it so disturbing here."

Gan crossed his arms and leaned forward on his chair. "What's an Alpha doing collecting garbage, that's what I'd like to know."

Blake frowned. "Why do you think he's an Alpha?"

The big man snorted. "Oh, come on. He walks Alpha, he talks Alpha. They can change the clothes, but not the attitude. The arrogance leaks through." At Blake's sharp glance, he added a rather unremorseful "Sorry."

"Jenna?"

The smuggler shrugged. "There's nothing about him that's overtly untrustworthy. But–" She paused and glanced at Cally. "I agree with Cally. There's something disturbing here."

The rebel's brown eyes glinted. "And I for one make it a policy not to trust a man who names his computer Slave." He thought for a moment, then nodded. "Cally. You go scout the base out while we keep him busy. See what you can find. Report back to us telepathically. And–keep that gun I gave you." He stood up and deftly removed Vila's wine glass from his hand. "You go with her, Vila, so she can get through any suspicious doors." The thief started to protest, but Blake cut him off. "Vila. I'm not in the mood to tolerate shirkers," he said with a dangerous levelness. Vila swallowed and went with Cally.

Shortly after, Dorian returned, dressed in a surprisingly luxurious black velvet suit with glittering silver studs. Seeing Dorian like this, Gan's analysis became blindingly clear–here was a man who was used to getting what he wanted. Jenna's uneasiness returned in full force as the blond man sat down next to her and met her eyes. "You haven't used my bathing facilities yet. I would think you'd welcome the chance to make yourself...even more lovely."

She heard Blake's voice from behind her. "Our other two friends decided to use them first, and we prefer to give each other as much privacy as possible."

"Oh," Dorian almost purred, "How very tedious." He seemed to be addressing Blake, but he didn't take his eyes from hers, and Jenna started to feel like a mouse in front of a black-and-silver cobra.

//There are some rooms full of intriguing technology here, but little else so far.// Cally's voice echoed in their heads. //Wait, there's a trapdoor here.// There was a pause. //Vila is complaining he can't open it with the few tools he has on him.// A touch of the telepath's laughter sparkled in her sending, and Jenna imagined the whining Vila was doing.

"–enjoy your stay here." She became aware that Dorian was still talking, and was absurdly glad for the telepathic interruption that had drawn her attention elsewhere. His eyes glittered and he frowned, as if realizing her thoughts were not completely with him.
//Vila's gotten the door open and we're going down.//

"I think my companionship can be...quite rewarding." He reached out an elegant hand to cup Jenna's chin, but before he could finish the gesture, the telepathic cry ripped through all their minds.

//By all the gods of Auron!// shrieked Cally's voice. Jenna flung her hands up to her head in an instinctive, futile effort to block out the scream, seeing Gan do the same. Then things got very chaotic.

Jenna was no telepath, but she could feel Cally reaching out in the extremity of her fear, catching up the minds of the other crew members and weaving them like a cloth. She felt her consciousness pulled and spun with the others', glittering like the studs on Dorian's jacket which loomed before her eyes. She heard Dorian's laughter, starting low and spiraling upward into realms that left sanity and humanity far behind. The glistening psychic structure Cally had made stood against something dark and formless and ravenous, but the part that was Jenna realized distantly that it was not strong enough–there was something missing–something missing–they would be consumed–

And then Blake was surging up out of his chair, calling Cally's name. "The gun! Use the gun!" he roared, and suddenly Dorian's laugh splintered into an anguished, gagging scream and he lurched sideways. Cally's structure unwove, leaving each of them in their own bodies again, and Jenna was staring in horror at the rapidly decaying body and then the dust that spilled across her.

: : :

"Damn him," Blake seethed, for probably the twentieth time since they had begun to explore what was, of necessity, their new home. He never specified who exactly was being damned, but since the outbursts had tended to happen when he was wrestling with Xenon base's computer systems there wasn't much doubt in anyone's mind. "Vila," the rebel called down the hall, "Have you got that door open to the launch silo yet?"

"I told you the last four times you asked, I don't have my best tools and this is a tricky little lock." Vila yelled back, sounding uncharacteristically irritated. "It's only been three hours, so just hold your horses. Where you're in a big hurry to run off to in that tub, I have no idea," he added, just barely loud enough to be heard.

Back in the main computer room, Jenna, Cally, and Blake were trying to figure out the Xenon system. They had managed most of the basics, but the few essentials remained out of reach, including the /Scorpio/. "It's odd, " mused Cally, "But this area here looks a lot like a teleport bay." She indicated a blank space on one side of the room.

"Dorian didn't seem to have a teleport system," Jenna said without looking up from the screen she was working on.

"You're right, Cally, it does look like a teleport bay," Blake said. "Maybe he never got it functional." He whacked a couple of buttons desultorily. "Not that we're likely to either. Damn him." He opened a channel to Scorpio again. "Slave. Slave, respond. This is Xenon base, respond." There was no response, and Blake's face revealed that he had tried this many times before.
"Damn him," he muttered to himself.

Vila wandered into the room and dropped onto a chair. As the other three glared at him he raised his hands defensively before they could speak. "I can't work four hours straight on something this delicate. I have to rest now and then. I tell you, I'm this
close. I just have to clear my mind a little."

"That shouldn't take too long," Jenna muttered sardonically.

Blake stood up. "I'm not getting anywhere here either. I'm going to go check on Gan and see what we have for stores." He brushed by Vila, who raised his eyebrows at Jenna.

"He just wants to feel like he's getting something accomplished," the smuggler said, sighing. She raised her arms above her head in a weary stretch, and as she did a screen on the wall suddenly flickered.

"Xenon base, this is Melita. Please come in, Dorian." The visual came in slowly after the audio, revealing a middle-aged woman with a hawk-like nose and close-cropped red hair dressed in flowing beige robes. "Dorian, this is Melita, please respond." After a moment she sighed and said, "Dorian, I know you've never bothered to help us actively in the past, but we have received information that the Hommiks intend to launch a major raid in the next three days. We implore you to give us the weapons we need to protect ourselves."
She paused again, and Jenna jumped from her chair to open a channel. "If there are people on this planet, we're going to need allies," she said tightly before flipping the switch. Cally joined her as the older woman stared at them in shock.

"Who are you?"

"We're travelers Dorian took in...and tried to kill," Jenna said levelly.

The red-haired woman eyed them warily. "So I take it he is dead?"

"Yes," said Cally. There was a tense silence, and then the woman on the screen broke into a wide smile.

"This is good news. Dorian was...difficult to deal with. I hope we can convince you that good relations between you and the Seska will be advantageous to both of us."

Cally tilted her head. "In what way?"

"Well, we can show you how to unlock the door to the launch silo without automatically setting off the nuclear compression charge. Of course, it's on a timer and may go off at any time anyway." Behind Jenna and Cally there was a sudden agonized choking noise, which they ignored.

"Perhaps we can...come to some mutual understanding?" Jenna said with her sweetest smile.

: : :

Vila put down his clipboard and stylus and smiled at the young woman in front of him. "How about we take a break, Lia-love?" he suggested, reaching out to rumple her tangle of silvery blonde curls affectionately. She batted his hand away with a grin, and he continued, "We're pretty much done with the cloth inventory anyway. You didn't bring as much this time, did you?"

"No, we were too busy working on your wine," Lia said pointedly, putting down her list as well and joining him as they left the small storage room and entered the bustling main staging area.

Vila looked about the room, enjoying the chaos. He always liked it when the encampment brought their latest batch of supplies to the base. It wasn't even really an encampment any more, it was almost a village now, with twenty-two regular inhabitants. Soon to be twenty-three, he reminded himself.

Lia had joined three of the other Seska to double-check the bolts of silk they had brought. She looked up, caught his eye and smiled again.

There had been twenty Seska a year ago, when the former Liberator crew had arrived on Xenon. Melita and her second-in-command, Pella, had helped them de-activate the compression charge and gain control of Slave, despite being disturbed at the discovery that some of the newcomers were Hommiks. Blake had, predictably, refused to simply give them the advanced weapons they wanted from Dorian's strongholds. Instead, he had brought all of his considerable charisma to bear in convincing the Seska and Hommiks to meet and "attempt to overcome their differences." Vila remembered how pleased Blake had been when his three weeks of bargaining had finally paid off with a summit between Gunn Sar of the Hommiks and Melita of the Seska.

He remembered all too well what had happened at that meeting.

They had chosen an abandoned hall halfway between the Seska and Hommik camps, presumably deserted when the two sexes had split. Blake had been sitting between Gunn Sar and Melita at the high table, while a crowd of Hommiks and Seska–and the Liberator crew–watched them warily. A blonde woman in a plain blue dress stood behind Gunn Sar, and Vila had gotten the impression that she was following the negotiations more carefully than the Hommik leader. In fact, at a few points the burly Hommik was clearly being prompted by subtle nods and eye contact from the woman. Finally, Gunn Sar and Melita stood to shake hands, with Blake beaming between them.

Which was when all hell broke loose.

Amongst the explosions and smoke, Vila found himself outside the collapsing hall with Jenna, Blake, Cally, and Gan. Later they would learn that Pella had finally managed to break into Dorian's storerooms and had armed her small cadre of Seska with enough firepower to massacre all the Hommiks. At the time, though, there were only flame and soot and screams. Suddenly Gan brushed by Vila and barreled back toward the hall.

"Gan!" Blake cried out and went after him.

The bigger man had simply yelled over his shoulder, "There're still people in there!"–as if that was some kind of reason. He plunged back into the flaming building. Moments later, he appeared, framed in the doorway, holding the woman in navy blue. The building had given a last groan and collapsed, and Gan had flung himself over the woman as the burning wall came down on both of them.

Vila shook himself back to the present, noticing Lia was still looking at him, her smile softened to a sympathetic gaze. He pulled a comically wry face and turned away. Even a year later he still sometimes woke up nights seeing Blake's face, streaked with soot and tears, as they had pulled the smoking rubble from Gan's body. The big man was still breathing, but the left side of his body was a broken ruin. "Gan, you stupid brave bastard," Blake had groaned as he tried to staunch the blood, "Don't you go and leave me too, damn you."

Vila sighed and shook his head, then suddenly smiled as he saw Cally. Not surprisingly, Cally hadn't noticed him yet, her attention being wholly taken up with the dark-haired man she was standing next to. Vila decided she was looking at him like a glass of soma on a dust-dry day and wondered what they must be saying to each other in the privacy of their minds. He decided not to interrupt their reunion.

Gan had been hurt the worst physically, but the first few months had been hardest mentally on Blake and Cally. It took Blake a long time to accept that without the Liberator and without Orac, his guerrilla warfare approach was unworkable. He kept pushing at Jenna to find a way to make Scorpio a battle-worthy ship, although both Slave and Jenna–the former apologetically, the latter angrily–insisted it was impossible. He seemed to be most galled by the fact that he had finally been ready to hit Central Control. To have his decisive strike snatched away from him and to lose the Liberator, Orac, and his computer expert all at the same time made him seethingly angry. Vila hadn't been sure at what–Avon, himself, the universe in general.

After it became clear that Gan was going to survive but be crippled, Blake seemed more furious than ever. Gan had been philosophical about it–"After all, it could have been worse, Blake"–but the rebel had drawn fiercely into himself. Then one day he had disappeared from Xenon base entirely, apparently striking off across the countryside on some soul-searching quest or other. There had been some argument about whether to let him "have his sulk" or not (as Jenna had put it), but it was clear with things so precarious they couldn't allow him the luxury. Cally went after him, ostensibly because she was the most experienced outdoors tracker.

In reality, Vila and Jenna had been worried about Cally as well. Where Blake had become explosive, Cally had withdrawn into near-silence. Vila didn't know if it was her experience with Dorian's creature or her pain at Avon's betrayal or both, but she had become quiet and distant.

They were never sure what had passed between Cally and Blake when she found him, but they came back together with a new sense of purpose, somehow. With the aid of the few remaining Seska, they had started to turn Xenon base into an actual military base, slowly collecting sympathizers from around the galaxy. The Seska camp had become a support site, where food and other raw materials were produced in an attempt to become as self-supporting as possible. And Cally had started to gather up other outcast Auronar to start training as an information-gathering and dispersing cadre–"Spies, Vila. We're going to be spies," Cally had explained for him. Half of the six Auronar lived on the base and the other three lived in the former Seska camp, honing their telepathic skills together. Being among other telepaths–especially the fiery and argumentative Bay–had helped Cally come out of her shell. She and Bay lived apart right now, but Vila doubted they ever went too long without touching minds. However, he also noted, they looked quite happy to be touching hands right now as well.

Vila broke into another wide smile when he saw the man standing in a far corner, his arms around two blond women–Jenna and Nina. "Gan!" he called happily, and went over.

Jenna finished hugging Gan, then turned to Vila. "Gan brought the first shipment of your wine," she said teasingly. "I hope you'll lay off the poor man now."

"I haven't been pressuring him," Vila protested indignantly. "I just happened to notice Dorian's stores were running low..."
Gan interrupted him with a laugh, handing him a flask filled with a pale yellow liquid and a glass. "I'm afraid it won't be up to Dorian's standards," he said apologetically. "The soil here is very acidic."

The glass clinked as Vila poured himself a glass. "To old friends," he said cheerfully, toasting Gan and Jenna, and took a sip. "Very...uh, very nice," he managed to say as his mouth puckered painfully. "Very nice indeed. It has a...youthful quality."

Gan laughed again and pulled Nina closer. Vila pretended to be enjoying the wine, but really he was savouring the sight of his friend, looking happy and healthy.

Well, as happy and healthy as someone missing an eye and unable to walk without dragging one foot could be. Vila went to the camp pretty often to see Gan and Cally (and the two or three "special friends" he had made in the community), but Gan's visits to the base were rare, and not simply because it was difficult for him to get there.

When Blake had pulled his disappearing act, Gan had taken the opportunity to move to the Seska camp. The others had tried to talk him out of it, but Gan had held firm. "In case you hadn't noticed," he said, folding his arms, "It makes Blake furious to have to look at me." At Cally's protest, he continued, "Oh, he's not mad at me. He's mad at himself and–-well, at the universe in general." They didn't speak Avon's name often, but Vila knew they had all wondered if the Liberator's better medical facilities could have saved Gan's eye and leg. But the Liberator was gone, and Blake probably hated to be reminded of that. "It's really better this way." Gan had insisted with a smile. "They need someone around who can lift things, and I like being useful. Besides, it's good rehabilitation."

It soon became clear that it was more than just his desire to be working and outdoors that had drawn him to the camp, as he and Nina, the woman he had saved from the collapsing hall, spent more and more time in each others' company. She had sincerely grieved at Gunn Sar's death, but Gan had been patient and his gentle ways and warm heart had won her over. When they had announced that the baby–due in two months now–would be named Villi, Vila had almost burst with pride. He suspected he had even become a trifle annoying to the rest of his crewmates on the topic.

Glancing over his wine glass, Vila caught sight of Blake. Tyce Sarkoff and the Mellanby kid were showing him some new weapons system. Vila wasn't sure how Blake had convinced Hal Mellanby to part with his daughter, but her engineering skill had proven invaluable to the rebels at Xenon base. Tyce was gesturing vigorously, explaining the strategic value of whatever new toy Dayna had come with–something about takyins or some such, Vila remembered vaguely. The two young women had hit it off immediately–in no small part, he suspected, because of their shared adoration of a certain dashing rebel leader.

Blake smiled at the pair and said something which must have been a compliment, because their faces lit up like supernovae. Dayna stammered some kind of response, clearly in the grip of paralyzing hero-worship, then bolted for the door, her dusky face flushing a bit.
Vila's own smile suddenly faded when he glimpsed Blake's face as the rebel turned away. For a brief moment, it was as if Blake had let a mask slip, and pain and self-disgust sparked from his eyes. Then he saw Vila looking at him, and the Great Leader mask was back up. He gave a lopsided, rueful grin to Vila, then slipped out another door.

The thief took a bigger gulp of his wine, grimaced, and sighed. He knew Blake often hated his role as "the last best hope of the galaxy." He didn't often let it show even as much as it had today, but when it was bothering him Vila knew where he'd go. Sometimes Vila followed him, just to sit together, not even to talk much. But why would Blake be in one of those moods this happy night–
He finished off his glass hastily and gave it back to Gan with some kind of compliment and some kind of excuse, then hurried after Blake. Because he had suddenly remembered: it was exactly one year ago...

Vila climbed the small hill just outside the access hatch. Dusk was almost over, and the night sky above Xenon was a deep, rich indigo, studded with burning stars. At the top of the hill he could see the bulky shadow of Blake, sitting silently. The hill itself was covered with the nameless, small white flower that grew all over at this time of year. As Vila walked toward Blake, a scent like lavender and cinnamon rose around him from the bruised petals.

He sat down near Blake's looming shape, breathing in the scent of the crushed petals and watching the sky. Xenon was closer to the galactic core than Earth, and the sky above Xenon was thick with huge, incandescent lights, trembling in the darkness. Usually when he joined Blake on his hill, they would just sit together without speaking. It wasn't something Vila was particularly good at, but he managed, for Blake's sake. Sometimes Blake would talk and Vila would mostly just listen. He didn't have much useful advice to give about having to be a hero, or having to make decisions that could change lives. He didn't have much advice to give about being lonely, either, although Blake never talked about that. Not out loud. He couldn't see Blake's eyes in the fading light, but he didn't need to. He knew Blake was watching the stars. Looking.

He was wondering if this would be one of the silent nights when Blake spoke, his low burr seeming to be the voice of the darkness himself. Without taking his eyes from the stars, he said softly, "He must be lonely."

Vila started a little. This was one thing Blake had never talked about. Feeling himself on uncertain ground, he held his silence.
The other man chuckled very low in his chest. "No," he said as if Vila had actually responded, "He never did seem to be type to be lonely. But...he must be anyway."

Vila rather hoped so. In fact, he had often rather hoped that Avon had somehow accidentally walked out of an airlock. But that wish didn't seem to match Blake's mood tonight, so instead he tried a non-committal, "You miss him."

The shape beside him almost shrugged, almost flinched. After a long moment, Blake answered, "Yes. I shouldn't miss him, but I do. I shouldn't want to forgive him."

"But you do."

A longer silence. "But I do."

Vila shrugged. There were a lot of things about Blake he didn't understand, like his huge capacity for forgiveness. However, as that capacity had worked in his benefit a few times, he accepted it. "You should look for him then."

Blake made a small snorting sound. "If he doesn't want to be found, he won't be found. Without Orac, we have no way of tracking him. It would be like finding one grain of sand on a beach."

Vila had nothing to say to that, and they lapsed back into silence. The thief laid back on the thin grass, inhaling the scent of the flowers and watching Blake scan the heavens, as if he were looking for one star in all that vastness.

: : :

"We are entering the Helotrix system," Slave said respectfully. Cally felt the engines on Scorpio shudder to a slower pace as they approached their goal.

"Prepare for a landing on the night side," Blake said.

"Gladly, Master," responded the computer, and Cally saw Blake wince. Pella had re-programmed Slave to respond to Blake, but hadn't bothered to alter its personality at all. For over a year Blake had tried to find someone to change its servile attitude, with no success. Every time Slave kowtowed to Blake, it seemed like fingernails across slate to the rebel–a constant reminder of both his hated exalted position and his missing computer expert.

Jenna touched a few buttons from her pilot's seat. "I'm going to put us down about three miles from the Leendenbrank campus. That should be far enough to escape detection but not a terribly long walk."

//If Vila were here I'm sure he'd dispute that second assertion.// Bay's voice flickered in her mind like gentle firelight. Cally smiled at him but didn't respond otherwise. Blake had decided that Vila's skills were unlikely to be needed on this trip, so it wasn't worth trying to tear him away from his newly-born namesake. She had been sorry to leave Gan, Nina, and their little daughter as well, but a potential alliance with the Helots was too valuable to neglect.

Scorpio settled to the ground with a small thump, and the main cabin unsealed. Cally, Blake, and Tyce Sarkoff checked their weapons and prepared to leave. "Don't do something stupid and get Cally killed," Bay warned Blake in half-joking tones.

"Thanks for your concern," the rebel leader responded dryly. "You stay alert in case we need to get in touch with you to prepare to leave in a hurry." He smiled at Jenna and stepped out of the ship, followed by Tyce and Cally.

"I wish we could have contacted Igin before we showed up," Tyce grumbled as they picked their way across the damp moor. In the near distance, the low black stone towers of what appeared to be a university town crouched in the misty air. "It's too dangerous to just drop in on someone and say 'Hi! We heard you were rebels! You may remember us?"

Blake sloshed through a puddle, head down against the wind. "Helotrix has a long history of independence and resistance. We've heard that Igin is against the Federation from a variety of sources. It's worth the risk to try and expand our reach a little bit."
Cally heard the frustration in Blake's voice. Their slow building of forces and alliances was often tedious to him; he had gotten used to being able to "strike blows" and cause concrete damage. After losing the Liberator, her former crew had been forced to "disappear" entirely for many months as they adjusted to their new, rooted life. In that time, Servalan and Travis had been able to claim credit for their defeat, and the Supreme Commander's grip on the Federation power structure had become more secure than ever. Unwilling to risk the non-combatants and strategic value of Xenon base, Blake had spent the next year staying almost entirely unnoticed, revealing himself only to those he could be absolutely certain he could trust. It was slow going, and even though Blake saw the wisdom of his course, he chafed at the restrictions it put upon him.

//We're almost to the city,// she sent back to Bay.

//No rush,// his mental voice came back to her. //I'm nice and warm and dry here, and there is this attractive blonde...// He trailed off teasingly. She sent him a thought designed to make him sit up a little straighter in his chair, and looked up to find they had reached their destination.

Professor Igin had been startled to find three damp and windblown rebels on his doorstep, but had regained his composure and called his colleague, Hunda, to come to his office. Cally looked about the office as Tyce took up position near the door, her hand on her gun handle. Cluttered with books and maps, it looked like any academic's office; it was difficult to credit that it was actually the headquarters of one of the few remaining viable rebel groups in the galaxy.

A cautious pattern of raps sounded at the door. Tyce shot Igin a look and, at his nod, opened the door to reveal a younger man in professorial robes. His wary and alert face, however, belied his academic garb. As he entered the room and made out Blake's face, his eyes widened in shock. "You! What are you doing here?"

Blake arched an eyebrow at the other's surprise. "Did you really believe the propaganda the Federation has been putting out about my defeat?"

Hunda shook his head in both negation and confusion. "No, but–no, that's not it at all. I just didn't think the Liberator was *that* fast."

Like a wince, Blake's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

Hunda glanced from one rebel to the other. "Your ship. The Liberator." He seemed to realize he was missing some vital information as he turned to look at Blake squarely. "I just received word this moment that today it has destroyed a Federation research vessel in Sector 9–on the other side of the galaxy."

: : :

They were all gathered on the flight deck of the Scorpio--all of what he still thought of as "his Liberator crew," even after a year and a half. And they were all opening their mouths to argue with him simultaneously.

Vila's voice won out through the babel, perhaps because he spoke loudest. "Are you out of your wooly head, Blake? We're not letting you go over there alone. I mean, who knows what is waiting over there? It could be anyone, or any thing!"

"Look." Blake braced himself to sound as reasonable as possible. "For the last three months, the pattern has been the same. The Liberator has appeared out of nowhere, attacked some important but ill-guarded Federation position, and then disappeared for three or four weeks, only to reappear and attack again. This is the first time we've actually managed to track it down and dock, and I'll be damned if I let it disappear again without finding out what is going on."

"No one has responded to our hails, and we have no proof that it is actually Avon on the ship," Cally pointed out

"I'd say there's good evidence it *isn't* Avon," Vila broke in. "Why would he suddenly start fighting the Federation after a year?"

"Whether it's Avon or not, the fact that the attacks are so well planned indicates Orac at least is still on board. And the fact that the attacks are against the Federation should indicate that whoever is on board is not going to be hostile to me. I'm going alone because if the auto-defense systems are in place, I know I can deal with them. And if Avon is there, I think I'm the one he's least likely to shoot." Everyone opened their mouths again, but he cut them off. "I want my ship back. I want my computer back. And I'm going over alone. End of discussion." Something about his tone of voice or his face must have finally convinced them, for they let him head for the air lock without argument after that.

: : :

As the air lock door opened, he took a deep breath and stepped gingerly back onto the Liberator--back onto his ship. *His* ship. He had finally gotten her back. The familiar hum of her huge engines wrapped around him as he made his way toward the flight deck. Soon he would have Orac back too, and the revolution would go the way it was supposed to again. Now that he was back on board his ship, it would all be all right. He would deal with whoever was on the flight deck and take back his ship and his computer.

He found his feet slowing as he pondered that "whoever." He hadn't let himself think about Avon much as they had chased down the Liberator, but now that the moment was here he felt apprehension grip him. Vila was right--if it were Avon piloting the ship, why would he be risking his all-precious personal safety to fight the Federation? And why did the attacks happen so rarely, yet so regularly? Every three to four weeks.

Perhaps Avon was...gone, somehow, and it was Zen and Orac planning and executing the attacks. They were very sophisticated AIs, after all. He halted abruptly and put a hand against the bulkhead to brace himself at the sickening sense of disappointment that washed over him at that thought. No, he admitted to himself: despite all that had happened, if he got his ship and his computer back without a certain irascible and sardonic computer genius, this would be no victory. No victory at all.

He set his jaw, straightened up, and continued down the corridor. He hadn't gotten far when he heard another sound. Whistling. Someone on the flight deck was whistling to himself.

Blake followed the low, wistful tune down the corridor and emerged onto the flight deck behind what had once been Cally's position. From there he could see the person standing at the pilot's console, his back to Blake, whistling softly.

It was definitely Avon. His dark hair was a little longer, curling slightly over the neck of the black turtleneck he was wearing. As Blake moved forward, he could see the pale hands resting lightly on the controls, and the curve of a clean-shaven face. He may have made some sound then, or perhaps Avon simply caught motion out the corner of his eye, for he turned and saw Blake.

For a moment, a flash of panic moved across the familiar features, but it was quickly gone. Avon bent one of his most dazzling and superficial smiles upon the man in front of him and waved a languid hand. "Here already?" he asked carelessly. "You're a bit ahead of schedule, aren't you?"

Of all the things he had expected Avon to say after a year and a half, this was not on the top 20 list. Shocked and confused, Blake simply stood there as the computer tech turned away and tinkered with the controls, studiously ignoring him. He was still searching for words when the other man huffed a small breath and turned back to him.

"Well, if you're just going to stand there and be earnest and not go away nicely, I suppose I shall have to talk to you." He studied Blake's face, cocking his head slightly to one side. "The question is, why are you breaking the established pattern? I just destroyed that surveillance outpost two days ago; that usually buys me at least a week of time..." His voice was musing and quiet--more as if he were speaking to himself than to a man he had abandoned.

Blake tried to speak, cleared his throat and tried again. "What is the 'established pattern?''"

Another smile glinted as briefly as a flash of mica in granite. "Usually you all give me a week or so off after a mission--for 'good behaviour,' I suppose. And you never show up first. No, that honour is reserved for Gan, who rarely says anything and thus is mercifully easy to ignore. He just crosses his arms and glowers at me. Vila is somewhat more difficult, as he is usually complaining about his slow and unpleasant death by radiation poisoning and overwork in the Federation mines. However, after a day or so it becomes merely background noise again." Avon looked away from Blake for a moment. "Jenna, predictably enough, mainly talks about you--how disappointed you were with me, how you cursed my name before dying, and so on." He turned his gaze back to the rebel. His face was blank, but his eyes were dark with pain; the combined effect was not entirely a sane one. "Cally is another quiet one. Beyond the occasional 'companions for my death' comment, she also...merely looks at me. Sometimes Anna comes by after Cally." His hands twitched on the controls. "They are all, of course, quite angry with me. They all insist I do some suicidal, symbolic action of repentance against the Federation. But I always manage to deny them--until you show up," he spat, glaring at Blake. "And there's no arguing with you, is there--and there's no ignoring you, and--" suddenly his voice cracked-- "and I can't even touch you; my hand just goes through you, like this--" and with three fluid steps he crossed the room to Blake and swung at the rebel leader's face.

It wasn't an actual blow, really; Avon waved his hand as if he expected it to pass through Blake like smoke. The palm of his hand collided firmly with the side of Blake's face and stayed there as the sound of the impact reverberated through the suddenly silent flight deck.

For a long, long moment the two of them stood there, Avon's eyes wide in shock, his hand resting against the impossible reality of the other man. Then his knees buckled and Blake had to grab him by the shoulders and hold him up as he fell forward. His head resting on Blake's solid shoulder, Avon made a brief, wild sound somewhere between a sob and a laugh, then fell silent.

Blake felt the other man's shoulders trembling. He raised one hand to brush through silky, dark hair and closed his eyes.

"Thanks for keeping my ship safe," he breathed.