Tarrant did the two-second post-materialization sweep: small cell, off-green walls, breathable air, a bit cold, open door to the right (watch that way for reinforcements), and directly in front of them –
Avon, being held down by a larger man;
Avon, in off-green pyjamas to match the walls;
"Tell me about your friends?" the larger man asked, "You still have one eye."
Avon struggled uselessly away from the laser probe being held over him, weakly repeating the same phrase over and over, his trademark monotone cracking into something more desperate: "I have no friends. I have no friends. I have no –"
Dayna shot the larger man before the exchange could go any further. She and Tarrant rushed forward.
"I'm hurt," Tarrant said, slipping under Avon's arms. "I'd thought our relationship was closer. Are you all right?"
It was a stupid question. Avon clearly wasn't anywhere near all right, but Tarrant was hoping for the reassurance of a sarcastic rejoinder. It didn't come.
"You killed him," Avon said. He could barely keep his head up, but the malice in his remaining eye was terrifying. "I wanted to kill him."
"Never mind that," said Dayna. "Tarrant, get a bracelet on him."
Avon fought against the attempts to put on a teleport bracelet. Loud shouts and the sound of running feet came from the corridor outside.
"We don't have time for this," Tarrant said.
"I waited for him," Avon said, trying to lunge forward out of their grip and reach the slumped corpse on the floor. "I waited and I thought he'd never come, and then –"
"Well now everyone's coming!" Dayna shouted. They finally managed to get a bracelet on the struggling Avon.
"Cally, teleport!" Tarrant shouted.
They dematerialized just as the reinforcements crashed into the cell.
Tarrant and Dayna arrived back in the teleport bay with Avon slumped between them. He'd fainted during the re-assembly. Vila stepped forward with a tall glass of Adrenaline and Soma.
"I thought you might need this," he said, before noticing the situation. "On second thought…" He downed the entire glass in one go.
"Cally, Vila, get him to medical," Tarrant ordered. "Dayna, I'll need someone on the neutron blasters if those pursuit ships come back."
"What's going on?" Vila asked, stepping forward to accept the burden of a limp and bleeding Avon.
"I'm getting us the hell away from here." Tarrant strode away towards the flight deck.
"What happened to Avon?" Vila called after him.
"His plan went wrong."
"The man I am going to kill is listed as Shrinker in the Federation records. That is not his real name. I do not know his real name. Orac has been unable to link a conclusive identity to the alias. There are fifty-three possibilities, all of whom are high ranking officials."
Avon stood at the front of the flight deck addressing his crew minus one. Cally was notable in her absence. Avon had, in his usually tactless fashion, wasted no time between dropping off the surviving Aurnae on Khan and announcing that he intended to continue his interrupted vengeance mission on Earth. Cally had gone to her cabin. Avon had followed her. Tarrant didn't know what words were exchanged, but Avon had come back to the flight deck alone.
Tarrant fiddled with the navigation settings. Dayna looked bored. Vila looked asleep. Avon stood under Zen's reference point rubbing his hands against each other.
"I hope your plan doesn't involve fifty-three doors then," Vila said, giving up the façade of rest when it became clear that Avon required a response. "I got caught the one time I played knock-a-door- run in the domes.
"That is because you are stupid," Avon said.
"Am not! I didn't want to play in the first place. I've got a weak chest. They forced me into it. I told them I was slow."
"In your own words," Avon said.
"Vila's right," Tarrant said, looking up from the pilot's console.
"Thank you," Vila said said, relaxing back into his seat.
Dayna glanced over at him. "Don't let this unique moment go to your head. Besides, Tarrant may be agreeing with you about your intelligence."
"Now wait a minute –"
"I am," Tarrant said, viciously, "But as it so happens, I think that Vila's original point is valid. Avon, checking fifty-three residences is a suicidal risk. Unless you can pin-point the identity of your target this isn't going to work."
"I agree with Tarrant," Dayna said, "You can't hunt unless you can track."
"I do not have any intention of hunting. I intend to lay a trap and wait for Shrinker to come to me."
"And what will you be using for bait in this trap?" Tarrant asked, "Or do I want to know?"
Avon's fidgeting hands stilled. He gave a brief, frightening smile.
It was a stupid plan. Avon expected them to wait in orbit for an indeterminate length of time as he got himself captured, interrogated, and more than likely killed. All in pursuit of vengeance on the behalf of some woman none of them knew.
Tarrant thought that Avon was putting a hell of a lot of trust down that they wouldn't leave him stranded as soon as the teleport went off. Avon didn't trust, and Avon wasn't suicidal.
"What have you done to the ship?" Tarrant asked him as soon as they were alone together on the flight deck.
"Nothing," said Avon.
"Forgive me for my disbelief. As soon as we put you down something is going to lock."
"You wouldn't be able to run from pursuit ships," said Avon.
"Not that you care."
"Not that pursuit ships will be a problem. I've done an extensive refit of the detector shields. No one will be able to see you. So unless you plan on contacting Space Command yourself, Tarrant, you will all be perfectly safe in orbit."
"Unless you talk."
"Yes, well, I don't feel entirely confident trusting my life to your masochism. Besides which, there is no way of telling if the Shrinker in the records is the same man who killed your girlfriend. For all you know, all of the Federation's torture technician go by that pseudonym. You're putting everyone onboard this vessel in danger over a will-'o-the-wisp."
"They don't, and he is. Orac was able to find me visual interrogation records for forty-three of Shrinker's victims. It is always the same man."
Tarrant sucked in a deep breath as the implications of that sunk in. He wondered how many times Avon had watched those vids. He'd probably even convinced himself it was nothing but research. The poor, pitiful bastard.
"Damn." Tarrant shook his head. It changed nothing. He wasn't going to risk his life for Avon's inability to cope with loss. "If you've watched, then you know what they can do to a person."
Avon's reply was soft and matter-of-fact, like he was discussing the weather or the price of copper link couplings, "I already know, Tarrant, first hand."
Of course he did. He was a bloody criminal, a convicted embezzler. Tarrant had forgotten how the original crew had come on board the Liberator. "Did you talk?"
The corner of Avon's mouth twitched upward.
"Eventually." He turned away from Tarrant and busied himself with some wiring. "You will be free to fly away at any time. The tracker I have implanted will transmit an audio record of my... incarceration. If I begin to say anything which makes you feel nervous then you may flee."
"Oh, we may, may we?"
"There is a small explosive device twinned to the transmitter."
"I'll bet there is. We run away and off it goes. Thank you for the freedom to choose our method of destruction."
"You misunderstand. Cally has the detonation switch. If you feel that you are in extreme danger you are welcome to persuade her to use it."
"You have a bomb in your neck."
"It was taken out of an Amagon restraint necklace. Are you satisfied that I have taken every precaution?"
"We could strand you there. We could kill you here, right now."
"You could," Avon said. It wasn't a challenge. It was a statement of fact. Avon wasn't suicidal and he didn't trust, Tarrant knew this. Avon played the odds. Perhaps he'd put this situation forward to Orac to see whether or not the rest of them would run out on him. Tarrant wanted to, but he already knew he wouldn't. He knew, too strongly, what it meant to need vengeance. Dayna knew as well. Vila would fuss, but he wouldn't abandon Avon. Nor would Cally. Did Avon know that? His expression was unreadable.
"I will kill this man, Tarrant," Avon said, slowly. "I do not care if I die in the process. But I will not place this ship or its crew in any unnecessary danger. Do not take this as an admission of affection or comradeship. It is not. The mission I am undertaking is completely selfish in nature and I will not endanger others in order to complete it."
"I hope you kill the bastard," said Tarrant.
"That is the preferred outcome," Avon said. Then he walked away.
Time crawled by. Cally, Dayna, and Tarrant took shifts listening to Avon's transmissions – Vila had fainted half-way through first hour and had pointedly not shown up for his watches after.
The Space Monopoly was brought out, just for something to take away from the tedium of the indeterminable vigil. There hadn't been any questions for a long time. The only incoming data was Avon's vital signs (strained, but acceptable), and the quiet in-out, in-out of his breathing.
It was the cold, dark cell treatment, Tarrant knew. It could last for ages, or until the Federation became impatient. And then, possibly, Avon's target would arrive. Or they'd shoot Avon. Or forget about him.
In the meantime, pursuits ships flew by the Liberator every few minutes. They were protected only by Avon's detector shield and if that failed… Vila had drunk himself into a stupor worrying about it, not that Vila needed much excuse for that.
In the end, they didn't need to worry about the shield not working. It did its job well – too well. The lead ship of a small squadron ploughed blindly into the starboard engine. The shield flickered from the impact and the remaining pursuit ships laid down a round of fire. The Liberator fled.
It took the better part of a day to shake off the trail, repair the shield, and return to Earth orbit. By the time they were able to check it, Avon's transmitter had been turned off for nearly five minutes.
Tarrant and Dayna armed themselves and teleported down.
Their hasty repairs to Avon's detector shields didn't hold. The pursuit ships resumed their firing a few seconds after Tarrant returned to the flight deck. He scrambled across the tilting deck to his char and then struggled to hold himself in position. Tarrant wondered how stupid the Liberator's original designers had to have been not to have included seatbelts. His fingers played against the controls, swerving to avoid Earth's satellite network and the parting gift shots of the pursuit ships.
"Zen, activate the forcewall!"
Sparks fell from the ceiling. Tarrant jerked his fingers back from the control panel, narrowly missing a nasty burn.
"Dayna, lay down covering fire. I need a clear path to get us out of here."
Dayna didn't reply. She leaned on the neutron blasters with a look of grim satisfaction and made the path.
"Get us out of here, Zen!" Tarrant shouted. "Standard by twelve. Now!"
The time distort momentarily pressed Tarrant's skull backwards into the headrest. Then, with an inaudible pop, it was over and they were free. Tarrant slumped forward in his seat, haphazardly setting a random course to nowhere in particular.
"Do you think they'll need our help?" Dayna asked, glancing over her shoulder towards the corridor.
"I think Avon's had enough of our help for the moment. I don't particularly feel like being there when he wakes up again and starts accusing us of ruining his plan. Do you?"
"Do you think he'll recover?"
Tarrant doubted it, but what did it matter? It was his own fault and Avon had never been completely sane to begin with. If he did go mad, would they even be able to tell the difference? "A good prosthesis shouldn't be too hard to find."
Avon asked to be dropped off on Gauda Prime. It was an absolute dump of a planet. Formerly agricultural, but ravaged by mining. It had an Open Planet designation. Tarrant thought that Avon probably had contacts there among the criminal class. It was no concern of his. Tarrant was glad to see the back of him. Of both of them, because Vila made his exit at the same time.
Steering away from the planet, Tarrant felt a brief twinge, like he'd narrowly missed some relentless disaster. Like he was free. He was free. He had a ship. He had a crew. He was in charge. It didn't get much better than that.