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Breaking the Chain

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It was a good thing no one ever had the spare time to repair any of the cooking equipment in the individual quarters, Tarrant thought, or none of them would ever have seen each other. They might have shared living quarters, but their paths seldom crossed during the course of a day. Tarrant and Soolin were a team when Avalon sent them out on a mission--they'd presented themselves to her that way on their arrival, eighteen months before, neither of them wanting to get used to someone else--but here on base, each was working in a different area.

Tarrant performed ship maintenance when he wasn't training some of Avalon's people in the basics of piloting in case of an emergency; Soolin was working on weapons repair and firearms training. Vila spent all of his time overhauling the base security system; he never left the base. Meals had become the one time they could count on seeing one another.

Soolin slid into the chair next to Tarrant, setting her tray down on the table. "I may be speaking too soon," she said, "but I actually think one of the clods might be able to fire a gun without killing herself." She'd been despairing of Avalon's latest bunch of recruits, whom she described, in her better moods, as "suicidally uncoordinated."

Vila shrugged. "Really think she'll be any good?" He'd heard the complaints as often as Tarrant had.

"Yes, at least I hope so. It's Jia Cason. Remember her, Tarrant? She went to Markess with us about two months ago."

She'd spent the entire flight strapped into her chair with her eyes closed, trying not to get sick. She hadn't succeeded. "How could I forget? I spent half the trip cleaning the flight deck."

"Speaking of trips," Vila said, "there was a message for you two. You're up again." Although some rebel groups had marshaled substantial troops to attack the Federation, and Avalon had built her reputation doing just that, she now focused on collecting and training small groups to carry out more covert--"less gaudy," she said--work.

"When?" Tarrant groaned. One of Avalon's other pilots had wanted him to go on a test flight in one of their newly-acquired ships, and he had been looking forward to it for days.

"Day after tomorrow," was the reply.

Well, he might just be able to squeeze in that test flight. He'd talk to Herrera after the meal, see if they could take the planet-hopper up the next day. Even though the other man would be piloting the ship, Tarrant wanted to get an idea of how she handled before he had to fly her. And he would have to fly her sometime; Avalon only had four fully-trained pilots, just two with combat experience. Not that he minded; he missed the amount of time he'd spent in space on Liberator and Scorpio.

They ate silently, without the laughter and good-natured bickering that passed for polite dinner conversation at the rest of the tables. Soolin's general reticence had not, as they'd once thought, vanished as she became more familiar with the others; her friends had accepted the fact that she wasn't much for small talk, and didn't expect it of her. That only left Vila to talk to, and Vila had lost most of his former volubility, or had it kicked out of him, over the past few years. Now he was even more taciturn than Soolin.

Unexpectedly, he hadn't really made the acquaintance of anyone on the base unless he worked with them; Tarrant's attempts to lure him out with promises of card games and pretty girls had been useless, so he'd given up. If Vila wanted to be antisocial, let him. He'd had enough banging his head against a wall back on Liberator, dealing with Avon.

As always when he thought of Avon, Tarrant could feel his blood run cold. He couldn't forget the last time he'd seen Avon, on the flight deck of their stolen ship, aiming his gun at Tarrant's heart. That had been the first moment in his life that he really believed he was going to die.

And then Avon had fallen to the deck, and Vila was standing in the doorway, tears streaking his face, a gun held loosely in his shaking hand.

That was the picture he still saw when he looked at Vila and met the desperate sorry in the wide brown eyes; that was why he and Soolin tolerated Vila's new silence and moodiness. He'd earned the right to be moody; it wasn't every day you killed a friend.

All the same, Tarrant didn't linger when he'd finished eating. As he stood up, Soolin spoke. "Going to be late?"

"Probably not. I've got to see Joaquin Herrera, but that shouldn't take long. Why?"

"I thought I'd go by and get the details of this mission from Avalon. I'd like to go over them tonight."

"No problem. I'll see you in a little while."

He left the two of them to their silent meal while he sought out more cheerful company. Joaquin Herrera was certainly that. Fifteen years Tarrant's senior, he'd dropped out of the Federation Space Academy three days before being commissioned into Space Command. He'd been a smuggler, a mercenary, and several things he didn't particularly care to talk about--which was no real loss, and the man almost never stopped talking anyway.

Tarrant found him in the main hangar, half-hidden under one of the control consoles, swearing at the out-dated equipment. "Joaquin?"

There was a muffled thud and fresh curses, then Herrera emerged from under the console, rubbing his bruised forehead. "Del! Want to help me with the pre-flight on this bucket of bolts?"

"Ordinarily, I'd love to," Tarrant said in a mock-rueful tone. "But I promised Soolin I'd go over the specs of our next flight in a little while."

"You're up? Ah, hell, my turn in a few days, then," Joaquin said. "Time's gotten away from me. So, when are you leaving, and does this mean you're not going to help me put this mongrel through her paces?"

"Will you be ready to take her up tomorrow? We leave the day after."

"Probably. I'm having problems with the long-range detectors, but I think I know what's wrong with them. If we've got the right replacement parts in stores, I'll have it fixed in a couple of hours."

"I'll check with you in the morning, then," Tarrant said. He looked at the ship again and frowned. "What class is she, anyway?"

"Who the hell knows? That bit's Wanderer-class, that console's from the Mark 3, the flight computer's from a cruise liner...like I said, she's a real mongrel. Gonna be a bitch to handle."

"Where'd she come from?"

"Believe it or not, we bought her, all legit and respectable-like, from a salvage team. Avalon figured if we couldn't get her running, she'd at least supply spare parts for half the ships in the hangar. Which is true, believe me; there are parts from at least eight ships here."

"Compatibility problems?"

"Remarkably few. Whoever put her together knew what he was doing."

Tarrant was impressed; the three ship classes Herrera had named off were sufficiently different that it would be hard to get them running together without major problems. "Want me to come back after Soolin and I are finished?"

"Nah. Not that much more to do; knowing how thorough Soolin always is, I'll be done long before you are. Come by after breakfast and we'll take her up."

"Right, then." Tarrant left Herrera to his work and started back toward the quarters he shared with Vila and Soolin.

Soolin hadn't returned yet, but Vila was there, sitting at the table with a jumble of equipment in front of him.

"What are you doing?"

"You're in my light," Vila said sharply.

"I asked you a question," he pointed out, moving over slightly.

"And I heard you. Now, stop bothering me, Tarrant. I've got work to do."

Not really in a mood to argue, Tarrant let Vila get on with whatever it was he was doing. He sat down in an armchair to wait for Soolin. If he happened to choose one that let him watch Vila work, well, curiosity was one of his failings.

He noticed, suddenly, that deep lines had etched themselves around Vila's eyes and mouth. Suppose we're all getting old. Now there's a cheerful thought. Still, it's better than the alternative, I suppose.

Soolin came home a few minutes later, bearing a thick folder. "We've been entirely too successful," she announced, dropping into a chair next to his. "This is not going to be fun."

"Where are we going?"

"Would you believe it doesn't even have a name? There are survey coordinates; want those?"

Planetary surveyors clung to their own obstinately confusing coordinate system, and Tarrant had never managed to learn it. "There's not much point. They won't mean much to me until I run them through Nighthawk's flight computer." An unpleasant thought occurred to him. "We do get Nighthawk, don't we?" That was the ship they'd escaped Gauda Prime in, finally named by one of the other pilots who was superstitious about flying nameless ships. Tarrant had had close to two years to modify her to his satisfaction, and he far preferred her to the rest of Avalon's ships.

"Would Avalon dare assign someone else your baby, even if she wasn't still technically ours?"

"So why are we going to this nameless dirtball? I mean, there can't be much on it worth bothering with."

"A shipload of rebels--some of Cauder's people from Albian--crashed there. They're all right; they've got survival gear, but they're not crazy about the neighborhood. They got a message off to Cauder, but his only other ship has a three-meter hole in her hull, so it's our lucky day."

"It doesn't sound so bad," Tarrant said dubiously. "What's the catch?"

"We've got to go through several light-years' worth of Federation space to reach them. Not to mention the fact that the dirtball itself is Federation territory; they've got a mining operation there, and they've surrounded the planet with a minefield...which explains how Cauder's bunch crash-landed there."

"Wonderful. Who's going with us?"

"We get Langston," she said.

Langston was another ex-Federation officer; they'd worked with her before, and Tarrant couldn't complain about her assignment to the group.

Soolin had answered him far too quickly, though; she had to be hiding something. "Who else?"

"Couple of recruits," she said. "I've been training one of them; he's totally useless. The other's a med-tech. I've met him; I think we can get through the mission without strangling him, but whether or not he's any good...."

"We'll manage, I suppose. So, what other exciting news did Avalon have for us."

Soolin hooked a small table with her foot and dragged it over. She spread the folder out in front of them, and they began sorting through the hardcopy of all the data Avalon thought relevant to their mission.

Feeling eyes on him, Tarrant glanced behind him once while pointing out some bit of data to Soolin. Vila had put down the component he'd been working on and was watching them both. When he saw Tarrant looking back, he quickly returned to his work.

****

"Vila, have you seen Tarrant?" Soolin asked before she was even fully through the doorway.

"Not since breakfast," he replied. "What's he done?"

"It's getting late. He should have been back from the test flight with Herrera hours ago, and I want him to look at some of the energy consumption readouts on the ship."

"He and Herrera are probably still somewhere bragging about how terrifically brilliant they are."

"I ought to skin him alive," Soolin muttered. "He was supposed to be back early enough that we could check out Nighthawk tonight." She paced the length of the common area a few times. "The hell with him. I'm going to bed. If you're awake when Tarrant gets here, tell him he can run the damned pre-flight checks by himself." She disappeared into her bedroom.

Vila shrugged. He wasn't Tarrant's keeper, thank goodness. If he wanted to stay out all night, it wasn't Vila's problem, was it? The others were old enough to take care of themselves. He didn't recall Avalon assigning him babysitting duty along with everything else.

And right now, he had more important things to worry about. The palmprint reader at one of the secondary exits had started malfunctioning, leaving two people with serious burns on their hands. Techs had removed the unit and put in another one, but with supplies never so plentiful they could be wasted, he was trying to get this one fixed. The replacement reader had come from a rarely used exit that they had barricaded from both sides, but he wanted to get that door functional as quickly as possible. It might end up being the only way out of the base one day.

He'd worked for another hour or so--he tended to lose track of time--when the communicator chimed. He switched it on quickly; the chime was better than an alarm clock, and he didn't want to wake Soolin if he could avoid it. "Yes?"

"Vila, it's Avalon. We just got a message from Del and Joaquin."

"I hope they've got a good excuse for being late; Tarrant was supposed to help Soolin run some tests on Nighthawk this evening." Avalon might have had the habit of calling everyone--except Soolin, whose hand invariably went to her gun--by their first names, but the pilot had been "Tarrant" so long to Vila that he couldn't have called him "Del" if his life depended on it.

"They have." The voice over the communicator was soft, unbearably gentle, and Vila felt something cracking inside him. "It was a distress call. They were crash-landing."

Yes. That was definitely something breaking. "Is there a rescue mission planned?"

"No," she said. Then, quickly, expecting a protest, "The rebels on Piedra have already agreed to look for them. But not even the tracker is responding." All of Avalon's ships were equipped with a tracking device to help them locate crashed or missing ships. It was well shielded; if anything of the vessel had survived, the tracker should have returned the signal.

"It was a test run. Was there even a tracker on board?"

"Yes. I'm sorry, Vila. The Piedran rebels are looking for them, but I don't expect they'll find anything."

Vila switched off the communicator and sat down on the couch. In a moment, he'd have to go wake Soolin and tell her the news, but he wanted to put that off as long as possible, and not just because Soolin woke up mean.

They'd lost another one. One more of his friends dead, and Vila hadn't been able to stop it. And just like all the others, it'd been completely pointless.

He started shaking uncontrollably. This was what it all came down to; they could struggle against it all they wanted to, but they were going to die for nothing.

You're getting maudlin, he told himself. Tarrant's dead, and all the tears in the galaxy won't help him. Besides, it's not as though you were friends or anything.

He forced himself to remember all of the times Tarrant had pushed him around. Never mind that he hadn't done it lately, or that Vila had usually deserved it. He'd done it. Tarrant wasn't his friend; he was just someone Vila had spent far too much of his life around.

He didn't have friends. So many years around Avon had shown him the stupidity of trying to care about anyone; you never knew when they'd turn on you. He was only shaking--only crying, he realized as he tasted salt on his lips--because he didn't like being reminded of his own mortality. A perfectly normal, human, reaction.

When he'd repeated that often enough that the shudders racking his body had faded into a slight tremor, he got up and went to wake Soolin. Three years' acquaintance had taught him to stand well back from the bed.

"Soolin?" he called quietly as he turned on the lights. She didn't stir. "Soolin!" Finally, he gave up on subtlety. Returning to the living area, he pulled a cushion off one of the chairs. This time, he stood just outside the doorway to heave the cushion in the direction of the bed.

It hit Soolin on the leg. Vila watched as she knocked it to the floor and grabbed the gun she kept under the mattress. Then she rubbed her eyes. "What the hell?" she muttered, still only half awake.

He cleared his throat.

"Vila?" Soolin said. "What do you want? I was dreaming--well, never mind what, but this had better be good."

"It's not," he said. "Avalon just heard from Tarrant and Herrera."

She got up, pushing her hair out of her eyes. "Did they explain why they were late?"

"Sort of."

"If he leaves me and Langston with those stupid recruits, I'll kill him. Kendal is the most useless, ham-handed--I'll kill him. Slowly."

"You're not going to get the chance."

"What?"

"The message Avalon got was a distress call. Tarrant and Herrera are dead."

"Dead?" she repeated.

He nodded. "The ship crashed on Piedra. She's having the local rebel cell check it out, but there's not much chance."

"So they might have survived and just not have been able to contact us."

"No," he said flatly. There didn't seem much point in hoping. It would just mean another disappointment later.

"You can't know that."

"The ship crashed, Soolin. Crashed so thoroughly that the tracker unit doesn't work. Those tracker units were herculaneum shielded; Tarrant and Herrera weren't." Vila held his voice steady. He could still remember the gentle pity in Soolin's voice after he'd killed Avon; he couldn't stand any more of that. Not now, when it would probably erode the last remnants of his determination not to let Tarrant's death get to him.

"Have you asked Orac if there's been any mention of them being found?"

"Eh?"

"Remember Orac? Plastic box, about so big, currently driving the weapons development team to drink?"

"I remember." "Vila weighs seventy-three kilos." Oh, yes, I remember Orac. "I just don't see why we should waste Orac's time when Avalon's already got the Piedrans looking for them."

"Hell-bent on replacing Avon, aren't you?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You just told me that Tarrant might very well be dead. And not only don't you want to try and find out for sure--which I suppose I can understand, I'd rather not have it proven to me either--you don't even appear to give a damn."

"Calm down, Soolin. There's no point getting angry at me--"

"You're right. There's not." She opened her closet, pulling out a jumpsuit. "I'm going to run the pre-flight checks on Nighthawk. Cauder's people need help, and I can't stick Langston with the job alone. And when I come back, I'm taking Orac and going to find Tarrant. I don't leave my friends to die."

Vila went to his own cabin and sat down on the bed. Was Soolin right? Had he been acting like Avon?

Hell, what good would that do? Even Avon wasn't terribly good at acting like Avon, in the end, or he wouldn't have shot Blake.

Vila reconsidered that. No, he might've shot Blake. But he wouldn't have blamed Tarrant for it; he'd've kept the blame--or the credit; you never could tell with Avon--for himself.

Soolin was just overreacting. She was upset; he shouldn't take anything she said right now seriously. All the same, he thought it wise to stay in his quarters until she was gone.

He could hear the shower running, and then, a few minutes later, the sound of the door closing.

There's no need to be melodramatic about this. She's planning on coming back, he told himself sternly, but he couldn't quite silence the voice at the back of his mind that said, So did Tarrant.

****

"There's not much water left," Tarrant reported, checking the small bucket in the corner of their cell.

Herrera was lying on the only bunk, unlike Tarrant, he'd been injured in their forced landing. It hadn't been all that rough, but he hadn't gotten the chance to strap himself into his flight chair and had been thrown across the deck when they touched down. "You take it, Del; with all the muck that got in these gashes, unless he gets me a doctor, or at least a broad-spectrum antibiotic--which I very much doubt, the way things are going--all the water in the galaxy won't help me."

"Nonsense," Tarrant insisted, dipping out some water in the cracked plastic cup their captor had provided and managing to get it to Herrera before it all leaked onto the concrete floor. "He's just making sure we are who we say we are. Avalon will vouch for us, and he'll have us out of here in no time."

"Wechsler doesn't seem like he's just being cautious. He's a complete nutter, or he's a Fed. Take your pick."

"You're getting paranoid, Joaquin." Despite his dismissal of Herrera's concern, Tarrant was developing doubts of his own. It would be typical of the way things were going for them at the moment, ever since they'd taken the new ship up. Only a couple of hours from base, the detectors had cut out, and they'd been hit by some floating space-junk. They'd managed to transmit a distress call--both a general call and one directed back to Avalon--before they'd had to land. They'd stayed close to the wreckage, knowing that it would be easier for any would-be rescuers to find them, but after several hours, they had been ready to give up hope.

Then a flyer had landed, bearing a man Herrera had recognized as a fellow rebel, Calum Wechsler; they'd met once when he'd come to talk with Avalon. Wechsler had told them that Avalon had alerted him and his colleagues there on Piedra, and they'd mounted a search for the wreck. Avalon had given them the frequency of the tracker unity, but it didn't appear to be working, he said.

Herrera groaned. "That's the last time I let Goll touch one of my ships. He may be a halfway decent pilot, but give him a spanner and he's useless."

Wechsler and Tarrant had helped Herrera into the flyer. "We think the Federation picked up your distress call," he said. "You're going to have to hide out until someone from your base comes for you."

"What about Joaquin? He's hurt--"

"We've got a doctor. I'll bring him to you."

That had seemed perfectly reasonable; they'd agreed to the plan, and Wechsler had landed the flyer near what looked like an abandoned building. "This is one of our safe houses," he told them. "There's a passage that leads to our headquarters, eventually. I'll get you down there, then go on for help."

They'd followed him inside and down a ladder hidden in a closet. "There's not much light," Wechsler apologized. "But the authorities were asking about the power drain, and we couldn't explain it without giving ourselves away."

Again, perfectly reasonable. They walked about a kilometer without incident, feeling their way down the dimly-lit passage. Then, without warning, Wechsler shoved them into what Tarrant had thought a side passageway. Before they could react, a metal door was being closed and locked, barring their exit.

They hadn't seen Wechsler since then; neither of them had the slightest idea why he had locked them in. He'd obviously planned it in advance, though; in addition to the water--much of which had been spilled as he pushed them through the door--he'd left a small supply of ration bars, the sort packed in military survival kits. Tarrant had identified them with disgust, taking a perverse comfort in the thought that they'd die from dehydration before hunger compelled him to eat the tasteless bricks.

"So, which do you reckon?" Herrera asked. "Crazy, or working for the Federation?"

"Hmm? Oh, Wechsler. Federation, I suppose."

"I vote insanity, myself. I mean, he's a well-known rebel, after all."

"Rebels have sold out before," Tarrant said. "Or he may have been a plant from the outset."

"Don't suppose it matters, really. Either way, he's got us trapped like a pair of rats, hasn't he?"

Tarrant nodded, then realized that in the darkness, his companion probably couldn't make out the gesture. "Try not to think about it," he suggested.

"Try not to think about it, he says. It's not you lying here bleeding, is it?"

"No. Sorry, Joaquin."

"Nothing to apologize for. We're in this together, aren't we? Just wish I knew why."

For that matter, so did Tarrant. He understood suspicion; it would be easy for a pair of Federation spies to masquerade as rebels in need of help. Ignoring Herrera's injuries, however, was another matter. If there was even a chance that they might be who they said they were, surely he'd provide at least basic medical care, just in case?

Unless Wechsler was Federation himself. It was a plausible alternative. Herrera's suggestion that the man was a lunatic didn't really work. How would a lunatic have ended up in charge of a rebellion?

Avon's face flashed through Tarrant's mind, and he laughed to himself.

"What's so funny, Del?"

"Nothing, really. I was just thinking."

"Want to share the joke?"

"No joke. I was wondering if Wechsler were mad."

"Oh, yeah, that's absolutely hilarious," Herrera said. "You should go on the nightclub circuit. You could play all the big venues: Freedom City, Del-10, the slave pits on Ursa Prime...."

Tarrant got up and began feeling around the door to their cell. If Vila'd been there, he could have had it open in seconds, he was sure. Still, he prided himself on being a resourceful man, and he had been watching Vila work for years now.... "Joaquin, do you have your toolkit with you?" He knew that the other man never went anywhere without a kit of the sort used for small-but-urgent ship repairs.

"You want it?"

"If you don't mind." Herrera tossed something toward him. It only got about halfway, and Tarrant had to feel his way along the damp, mossy floor--at least he hoped it was moss--until he found the pouch. Opening it, he took out a small probe, generally used for drawing wires and connectors out where they could be seen, and started to work on the lock.

An hour and a half later, he put the probe back int the tool pouch and returned it to Herrera. "I give up."

Herrera sat up to make room for him on the bunk. "Anything happen?"

"I think I bent your probe." It looked so easy when Vila did it, but he'd been poking around in that lock for ages and never got anywhere. "How're you doing?"

"The bleeding's stopped, I think. Which is good, because I'm fond of my blood and like to keep it with my body whenever possible, but it means that nothing's cleaning things out. What do you think my chances are that there are no pathogens floating around down here?"

"The same chance you have of being appointed Supreme Commander."

"That good, eh?" They fell silent for a few minutes. Then Herrera straightened up. "Did you hear something?"

"No. What was it?"

"Sounded like footsteps. I don't think friend Wechsler forgot about us after all."

"The question is, is that a good thing?"

"I don't know, but we're about to find out."

The door to their cell opened. Light flooded in, and Tarrant winced. When his vision cleared, he saw that Wechsler was carrying a pair of electronic cuffs and a small blaster.

Feds. But why only one pair of cuffs? Unless-- He glanced over at Herrera. It had been twenty years or more since he'd deserted, and even then he hadn't been particularly important to them; he hadn't been political until much later. And as most of his work with Avalon kept him on board ship, it was doubtful that the Federation had renewed their interest in him.

But Tarrant had been on Liberator, he'd known Kerr Avon, he'd once been considered a major threat. And he hadn't been careful enough; he'd kept using his own name even after Orac had faked his execution in the Federation records.

He got to his feet even before Wechsler made a move. He had no hope of fighting; he was unarmed and exhausted, and Wechsler had a gun pointed at him. His best chance was to cooperate and hope that Herrera was well treated because of it. He'd try to cut a deal at his earliest opportunity.

"For me?" he said. The light words nearly choked him, but he'd be damned if he'd act cowed just because someone pointed a gun at him. "Really, Wechsler, you shouldn't have."

"Shut up, flyboy," the older man snarled, snapping the cuffs around Tarrant's wrists.

Tarrant could feel the tingle of the current running through them. If he struggled against them, the current would get stronger until eventually, he would receive a fatal shock. If the cuffs were broken open, the fatal voltage would come immediately.

Tarrant waited for Wechsler to give an order. Some models of electronic cuffs also had an external control, and he wasn't partial to the idea of being electrocuted.

Wechsler grabbed him and shoved him toward the door. "Move."

Tarrant moved. Once he was out in the hallway, Wechsler stopped to lock the door behind them. Then he pushed Tarrant down the corridor.

"I don't suppose you're going to tell me why you're doing this?"

"I thought I told you to shut up."

Tarrant decided against talking any more. He'd probably have a better chance of coming out alive if he didn't. The chances still weren't good; Wechsler couldn't possibly want information from him. As the leader of the Piedran rebel cell, and one of Avalon's trusted allies, he probably knew as much as Tarrant did. Besides, Herrera had been there longer, and knew more about Avalon's operations; he'd be a better choice if it was information Wechsler wanted.

They didn't walk that long before Wechsler stopped him and unlocked another door. This looked like a lab that had been commandeered for the purpose; unlike the first cell, it was well-lit and clean. Well, it's some improvement.

Wechsler unfastened the cuffs and shoved him toward a high-backed chair. Seeing what could be his one chance to get away, Tarrant drove an elbow back into Wechsler's midsection, only to feel it wrenched cruelly backward and twisted until he felt something tear. Wechsler frog-marched him to the chair and strapped him down.

His final touch was a restraint around the neck; as long as Tarrant left his head leaning against the back of the chair, it wasn't that uncomfortable, but if he tried to lift it, it threatened to cut off his air supply. Whatever Wechsler had planned for hi, it didn't involve Tarrant being able to move.

Wechsler moved out of sight; it sounded like he was searching through a storage locker. Then he was standing behind Tarrant, and then--

The split second before his nerves erupted with agony, Tarrant thought, calmly, Oh. It's a hammer. Then he was trying to bite back a scream. He couldn't let Wechsler hear him scream even though the weight of air touching his arm was too much when the bones were shattered in it, even though he'd bitten through his cheek in an effort to keep silent....

And finally the room stopped spinning, and the red haze in front of his eyes faded. Although his arm felt like the bone had been replace of hot lead, he could spare a fraction of his awareness for something other than the Herculean efforts of not screaming and not being sick.

He swallowed blood and bile. "Why?"

When Wechsler spoke, his voice was low and harsh with an attempt to restrain emotion. "You really don't know, do you?" He slapped Tarrant once, hard, across the face. "You don't even remember, that's how important it was to you, you bastard."

Tarrant could only stare.

****

Soolin and Langston had gone, taking one of the trainee pilots along. Vila hoped theyd idn't run into trouble. Of course, if they did, it'd be their own fault; Avalon had given them the option of not going. She offered to contact another group and have them send someone instead; Ro's people on Horizon were no farther away. But Soolin had chosen to go, and if something happened to her, it would be no concern of his.

Vila was glad Soolin had gone. Light-years away, she wouldn't be able to try forcing him to get upset about Tarrant's death.

And without Soolin there, nobody could point out that since she'd gone, all that Vila did was wander around their quarters, occasionally doing a little work, then changing his mind and undoing it. But he wasn't worried about Soolin, or grieving for Tarrant. It was just the stress of becoming respectable--or as respectable as a rebel could be, he supposed--after all these years. The responsibility was wearing on him.

That was all it was. And with Soolin gone, he didn't have to explain why the burdens of responsibility had convinced him to borrow Orac back from the weapons team long enough to get the little plastic traitor to agree to scan all communications bands and alert Vila immediately if Soolin or Tarrant's names were mentioned.

Not that it would have been any of her business anyway.

The communicator chimed, and Vila hit the button. "I'm busy," he said quickly, in hopes of discouraging the caller.

Orac's dry voice crackled through the speaker. +So am I, yet you persist in giving me your idiotic tasks to perform--+

"Spare me the self-pity. Did you pick anything up?"

+Soolin is on her way back,+ the computer replied.

Oh. It was only a routine report, then. "Is that all?"

+No. There has been a communication from Piedra.+

They've found the wreckage, then. Found the bodies. "And?" he asked, trying to sound calm.

+The wreckage of the Nighthawk has been found,+ Orac said, echoing Vila's thoughts.

"And her crew?"

+There is no sign of them. There have been unconfirmed reports that a Federation official named Calum Wechsler has two unidentified prisoners; there is an eighty-seven percent chance that those prisoners are Tarrant and Herrera."

Not dead, then. But Federation prisoners, which is worse. But not dead. Vila's thoughts circled around uselessly until Orac interrupted him.

+If there are no other fascinating tasks you wish me to perform, I shall return to my own research+

"So shut up already." Vila switched off the communicator. He sat still, too numb to move, for a moment.

Avalon. He had to find Avalon. Tarrant was alive somewhere, probably, and they had to rescue him. Of course they had to rescue him; he and Herrera could reveal far too much about the base and their activities. And if Tarrant were identified, Space Command would know that at least some of the Scorpio crew had survived. So they had to rescue Tarrant. It was perfectly sensible.

Three minutes later, Vila burst into Avalon's conference room, interrupting her meeting with an intelligence team. "They're alive," he announced.

"You very nearly weren't," said one of the men, reholstering a blaster. "What the hell were you playing at?"

"They're alive, Avalon! Orac intercepted a message from Piedra."

"They found the ship," Avalon corrected. "I was going to tell you as soon as I finished here. There weren't any bodies--any recognizable bodies, at least--but there weren't any signs of life, either."

"Orac can read Federation channels as well, you know," Vila said, watching one eyebrow lift in surprise. She hadn't known, then. He'd assumed one of the others had told her. "They've been captured. A Federation official has them. We've got to go after them," he added.

Avalon looked thoughtful."McRae, Davies, would you wait outside for a few minutes?"

"All right," the man who'd spoken earlier said. "C'mon, Dav, let's see if the coffee's improved since we left."

"Can't have gotten worse," Davies muttered, following his partner.

When the door had closed behind them, Avalon turned back to Vila. "A government official, you said?"

"Right. So we've got to go after them. They know where the base is."

"Did Orac tell you who it was?"

"I don't see why that matters," Vila argued. "No matter who it is, they're--we're--in danger."

"It matters. Who was it?"

"Wester? Weber? I can't remember."

"Wechsler?"

"That's it. Now come on, Avalon, before the Federation comes knocking at our door."

Avalon relaxed visibly. "They're safe, Vila."

"The hell they are!"

"Calum Wechsler's one of ours. He works for the Federation, but he spends most of his time releasing prisoners and falsifying reports. Del and Joaquin are perfectly safe, and I'm sure Calum will contact me soon to make arrangements for their return."

"How do you know this Wechsler's not a double agent? There's a good-sized price on Tarrant's head. It'd tempt anybody. I think you should at least let him know you know he has them. That should make him think twice about selling out."

She smiled. "If you're that worried about Del, I will."

"I'm worried about me, thank you very much. Tarrant knows where we are, he knows I'm still alive, he knows who killed Servalan--none of those are things I really want made public knowledge."

"Of course. Still, as you're that concerned--I have to contact him when I'm done with McRae and Davies, anyway; they've got some information about the Federation's plans for Piedra that Calum needs. I'll be sure to thank him for rescuing our pilots."

"Thanks. You really shouldn't be so trusting, you know, Avalon," Vila said as he got up to leave.

Avalon's response was to smile sadly at him. "I never thought I'd hear you say that."

"People change."

"So I've noticed."

Vila closed the door.

****

So far, Tarrant still hadn't been able to figure out what Wechsler was after. Shortly after breaking Tarrant's arm, Wechsler had left. He hoped the man would return soon; his muscles were beginning to cramp from the restraints, and his arm throbbed mercilessly. In a way, he was grateful for the restraints; if it hurt that badly immobile, he didn't want to know what motion would do. Now he wished he hadn't left the water for Herrera; he was beginning to get uncomfortably thirsty.

"You don't even remember," Wechsler had said. Remember what? He was sure he'd never seen the man before, unless he'd changed his appearance in some way. The name was vaguely familiar, but he'd probably heard it on Avalon's base. Or, if he was a Federation agent, he could have seen it on a report or an order when he'd been in Space Command. Tarrant had no way of knowing for sure. What he was sure of was that he had no idea why Wechsler hated him.

The possibility of being able to cut a deal for Herrera's release was shrinking with every minute, Tarrant realized. Wechsler was unlikely to listen to him. Then again, if he was Wechsler's only target, he might let Herrera go anyway.

And you used to get angry when Avon called you naive, Tarrant thought in digust. He'll kill Joaquin to get rid of witnesses, if nothing else.

He couldn't say how long it was before Wechsler came back. It felt like days, but he was sure it wasn't more than a few hours. He was dozing fitfully, exhausted from the pain, when the sound of the door closing woke him up.

"Can I have some water, or are you planning to let me die of dehydration?" he asked before he even opened his eyes.

"I don't plan to let you die at all." Wechsler filled a cup with water and crossed to Tarrant, loosening the neck restraint enough that Tarrant could raise his head to drink. "That would be stupid of me, considering that Avalon knows you're here."

"Then you might as well let us go. If Avalon knows where we are, she'll be sure to send a rescue mission as soon as possible--and if anything's happened to us, they'll come looking for you." Surely Wechsler would see the logic in that; whatever deal he'd worked out with the Federation couldn't possibly be worth his life. Even if Avalon decided to be merciful, Soolin wouldn't.

Then again, Wechsler didn't know Soolin.

"True. But nothing's going to happen to you--not that Avalon will know about, anyway." Wechsler unlocked a closet door and wheeled out a nasty-looking piece of equipment--all the nastier because it looked as though the minute Wechsler ran current through it, it was likely to burst into flames.

Other than that, however, its function was completely unfathomable to Tarrant. He could recognize most components of most starships currently in use, and having known Dayna and Soolin, he wasn't bad with weaponry, either. But this was completely beyond him. No matter; he had no intention of letting Wechsler get anywhere near him with it. "You don't expect me to keep quiet about it, do you?"

Wechsler smiled, but if anything, his pale gray eyes grew even colder. "I don't expect you to have much choice."

"I thought you said you didn't plan on killing me."

"I don't. I won't need to."

"You might as well; I don't intend to tell you anything."

"I'm not asking you anything," Wechsler snapped. "I don't want information from you, I don't want to use you as a hostage, and I don't want to turn you over to the Federation as a prisoner. You're not going to tell anyone because you won't remember anything to tell."

A maniac. Wonderful. All the training and experience in the galaxy is no match for one really determined lunatic. "Why go to the trouble of erasing my memory? What do you want?"

Wechsler's voice was very quiet, so quiet that Tarrant had to strain to hear him. "I want you to suffer... for the rest of your life."

Lovely. A maniac with a grudge, no less. "You might at least give me a hint about what I've done to deserve this. Or do you just not like my face?"

"Darin was right," Wechsler muttered, half to himself. "You don't know when to shut up."

Darin. Now, that name sounded familiar... and suddenly Tarrant knew where he'd heard Wechsler's name before. "Darin Wechsler. He was navigator on my last Space Command ship."

"My brother. He got that post right out of the FSA."

"He was good, even back then," Tarrant admitted. "I hate to think I might run into a squadron he commandes, one day."

"You won't." Wechsler turned his back to Tarrant and opened another storage locker. "Darin isn't a pilot these days. He was discharged from Space Command after the Galactic War, once they determined that he wasn't going to be able to walk again."

"I'm sorry." The kid--only a couple of years younger than Tarrant, but the difference between twenty-three and nineteen had seemed like centuries, when those four years meant at least four battles lost, at least four friends' bodies orbiting nameless stars--had been good, if a bit enthusiastic. With experience, he'd have been far more than merely "good."

"Sorry? That's priceless, considering you did this to him."

"That's ridiculous. Darin was fine the last time I saw him--and if he was flying a Federation ship I shot down, I didn't know about it."

"You didn't have to. Darin sent me vis-tapes every week; he told me that you'd disappeared, taking a scout-ship with you. It was only a couple of months later that Darin got a field promotion; they needed a captain for your ship. Then the aliens invaded."

Despite the water, Tarrant's mouth suddenly felt dry. He knew how this story was going to end. "I had to leave," he said, weakly. "I couldn't do what they were asking me to. I only applied to the FSA in the first place so I could fly something better than a freighter."

"Darin didn't even get to the front. He couldn't get his ship through an ion storm--something an experienced pilot could have managed without a problem. But the experienced pilot was nowhere around." He paused. "He was my half brother, twenty years younger than me. I practically raised him."

"And you've had this ready for all these years, just waiting until you ran into me?"

"Of course not. This equipment is standard issue for the job I perform. One of the reasons our organization has been so valuable to Avalon is that we've got access to all but the highest-security Federation prisoners for this sector... and the chief interrogator has an unfortunate tendency to kill his subjects. Or so the Federation thinks, anyway. Actually, I let them go."

"You're a Federation interrogator?"

"Not a good one, no; if the Commissioner for this sector wasn't a rebel himself, I'd be out of a job--and probably dead. But it does mean that I have access to memory-erase facilities."

It had to happen, Tarrant supposed; luck and coincidence had been in his favor so many times that it was only to be expected that it'd be on someone else's side this time. "So you're going to torture me, then erase my memory? I can't see how that'd be much satisfaction--particularly as you've already said you want me to suffer for the rest of my life."

Wechsler stepped closer, and now Tarrant could see what he held in his right hand, though he still couldn't see the purpose of a medical laser.

"Darin told me a lot about you, and what he didn't mention, I filled in from your service record. You're a lot like my brother, you know, Tarrant. Nothing mattered more to Darin than being a pilot. I think he'd have rather died than lose that chance." He refastened the restraint around Tarrant's neck. "He almost did, when he was a boy. He was in an accident, and for a while we thought he would lose the sight in one eye. Can't be a pilot if you can't see--at least, not much of one."

So that's what the laser's for. That was the last coherent thought Tarrant had for some time; as the laser burned out his optic nerve, his mind emptied itself of everything but searing, gut-twisting pain. This time, he couldn't hold back the screams.

****

When Nighthawk returned to base, Soolin had very little on her mind beyond getting off the ship and putting the entire disastrous mission behind her. The entire thing had been an example of incompetence in action, from what she could tell. With a third trainee assigned to the ship in lieu of Tarrant, getting through the Federation sector between them and Cauder's group had been almost impossible; the ship had taken quite a bit of hull damage, and all the damned pilot could do was shrug and wail that the enemy ships weren't behaving like the training simulators did. They'd managed to cross the minefield by dumb luck, which had left her and Langston on edge; the recruits hadn't even noticed the danger.

Then, they'd reached the coordinates the stranded rebels had transmitted--only to find that they'd already been rescued, and that the Federation was scouring the area for any rebels the rescue party might have missed. The medical trainee had gotten himself gut shot; he'd survived the return trip, but only just.

As she looked around the hangar, reassuring herself that they had made it home in one piece, she noticed Langston standing off by herself, eyes closed. "Are you all right?"

"Fine, Soolin." Langston smiled and pushed her thick gray hair back from her face. "Just giving thanks to the gods who protect fools, for bringing us home safely."

"It wasn't an experience I'd care to repeat," Soolin agreed.

"My dear, I think you've made the understatement of the century. Why Avalon couldn't have sent a trained pilot--"

"There aren't any." Soolin kept her voice soft, hoping any waver would be lost at such a low volume.

Langston looked stricken. "Damn! I'm sorry, Soolin."

"It's all right." She couldn't run away from it forever. She could tell herself that Tarrant and Herrera simply hadn't been found, but they'd been gone four days, and if there was no news now, there probably never would be. She could stall all she wanted to, but eventually she'd have to go home... and Tarrant wouldn't be there. Only Vila, and she didn't know Vila anymore.

Soolin forced herself to quicken her steps toward the hangar door. She'd get it over with as quickly as possible; she'd check with Avalon to see if they'd heard anything... and then go home and pack up Tarrant's belongings.

She didn't know what she'd do with them. Avalon usually sent them to the next-of-kin, but Tarrant didn't have any. She'd pack his stuff up and give it to some of the endless stream of refugees; they'd be grateful for the clothes, at least, and it would empty out the room for whoever Avalon assigned to the space.

Maybe she'd ask Cason if she'd like to move in, since she still lived in the general barracks; she'd like to be around someone she could talk to, to keep the long evenings from being left to silence and the ghosts of the too-numerous dead, and Vila wasn't likely to be much help in that respect.

She'd nearly reached the entrance when the door opened. After the way she'd left the base, Vila was the last person she'd expected to see welcoming her home, but there he stood. Even more surprising was the bag slung over his shoulder; he was obviously on his way somewhere. I hope he doesn't expect me to go with him. Right now, I couldn't outshoot a four-year-old with a water pistol.

She smiled wearily at him. "Hello, Vila. Good to see you. It'll be better to see you once I've had a shower and a night's sleep, so if you'll excuse me--"

"Tarrant's alive," he said without warning.

Soolin froze. "Are you sure?"

"Orac and Avalon both confirm it. Is that sure enough for you?"

"When did you find out? Where are they? Are they all right?" Suddenly, she noticed that Vila looked as tired as she did, and cut off his reply. "No, wait. We can talk about this at home. I've got to sit down before I fall down, and you don't look much better."

He shrugged. "I'm all right."

"Well, I'm not." She didn't give him a chance to argue, leading the way down the corridor at a brisk pace. As brisk as she could manage after four days of almost all no sleep, anyway.

Vila followed behind her, arguing the entire time that this was too important to wait for her to get comfortable, but she ignored him. Not until the door of their flat had closed behind them did she start paying attention.

"All right, Vila, tell me." She sank down in one of the armchairs in the living area, hoping she could stay conscious long enough to hear him out.

"I found out about two days ago. Tarrant and Herrera did crash on Piedra, and the leader of the rebel cell there found them."

"That's a stroke of luck." The Piedran group wasn't officially part of Avalon's organization, but the two groups worked together often. The two pilots would be among friends on Piedra.

"Is it? Orac says the leader of the Piedran rebels is a Federation interrogator. Avalon says he's a double agent, but I'm not so sure."

"Why not? We've got a Security Commissioner on our side, why not an interrogator on a backwater like Piedra?"

"Because he didn't contact us to tell us he had them. It was a Federation message Orac picked up. We didn't hear anything from Wechsler--that's his name--until I got Avalon to call him. He said he'd be in touch to arrange for pickup, and we haven't heard anything."

"Are they hurt? Maybe he's afraid to move them."

"Herrera is."

"And Tarrant?"

"He didn't say Tarrant was hurt. But he didn't say he was all right, either."

"You've talked to Avalon about this, of course." Vila'd been more and more secretive lately, and Soolin was afraid he hadn't bothered. She'd hate to go into Avalon's office making a lot of noise about her inaction in a situation she hadn't even known about.

"Of course I have! What d'you think I am?"

Soolin took comfort in the indignation in his voice. Perhaps she'd been a bit harsh on Vila. He was still concerned about his crewmates, after all.

That comfort lasted until Vila's next sentence. "They could be telling the Federation everything they know, right now. We're all in danger until we get them back and find out how much they told."

"What about them? They're in a hell of a lot more danger than we are."

Vila shrugged. "You know Tarrant. Those dashing young hero types thrive on that sort of thing." Ignoring Soolin's disgusted protests, he continued. "Avalon doesn't want to jeopardize our connections with Wechsler's outfit by making a lot of noise about two slightly dented pilots. She won't listen to me when I try to tell her how much danger we're in."

"Have you pointed out what kind of trouble they may be in? Unlike some people, Avalon doesn't want to see her friends suffer."

"I take it you mean me?" Vila stood with his back to her. He wasn't going to give anything away if he could help it.

You're good, Vila, for no longer than you've been trying to play the strong, silent, heartless type. Of course, you did have Avon to learn from.

Vila continued speaking. "Does it matter? Either way, we've got to get them back. Which means we need a ship...and an incredible amount of luck. It's the only way. Now, are you with me, or are you going to abandon Tarrant to his fate because you don't like my principles?"

"I'm with you. Someone has to keep an eye on you."

"Didn't know you cared." Vila's grin was bitter.

"What makes you think I do. I just don't trust you."

"Suit yourself. Now, about the ship...will Nighthawk fly at all, or is she grounded?"

Soolin mentally tallied up the damage reports she'd seen, trying to translate codes and percentage readings with their effects on the ship's spaceworthiness. "She'll fly, but she wouldn't last in a fight."

"Good enough. Let's go."

If anyone had told her, back on Xenon Base, that Vila would be gung-ho to go into danger, for any reason, Soolin would have injured herself laughing. Now, she could only stare at him. "Shouldn't we at least try talking to Avalon again?"

"What's the point? She's already said that we'll have to wait for the Piedrans to give us the word. She doesn't want to make it look like she's overruling them."

"The point, Vila," she said through gritted teeth, "is that if Avalon backs us, we stand a better chance of success. We can take Nighthawk, but I'd prefer a ship that's not on the verge of disintegration, a crew larger than the two of us, and backup if we end up needing rescuing ourselves."

"Oh, all right, Soolin. By all means. Let's ask Avalon's permission before we go prevent Tarrant and Herrera from giving the Federation our address, shall we?" Vila waved toward the wall communicator. "Go ahead. Make it quick, though; every hour we delay is another hour closer the Federation is to being able to walk in here."

Soolin got up, her muscles protesting with every move. The walk to the communicator had never seemed so far. Some rescue party we'll be. I'm tired and stiff, and it's a real pity Vila didn't adopt Avon's shooting ability along with the attitude. Avon could at least hit the broad side of a freighter.

She tapped in a code and waited.

The reply was quick. "Avalon."

"It's Soolin."

Vila disappeared down the hall that led to the sleeping quarters.

"Welcome back, Soolin. I've just heard from the medical section that young Khoury is going to be all right."

Khoury? Oh, yes, the idiot medic. "That's good, but he's not exactly what I'm calling about. Vila tells me you've located Tarrant?"

"That's right. The Piedrans have him; he's quite all right, and as soon s they give the word, we can go get him."

"Vila also tells me that the leader of the Piedran cell is a Federation interrogator who hasn't been exactly forthcoming with information about our friends. I don't like the sound of that, Avalon."

Avalon's voice was sharper when she spoke again. "I know that you and Vila are used to poorly planned but dramatic raids, but I'd like to live a bit longer than either Blake or Avon did, if you don't mind. I'm not in command of that cell, and I don't have the right to interfere with them. Cal Wechsler says that it would be too dangerous for us to come to Piedra at the moment, and his group doesn't have the resources to come to us. I respect Cal's judgment. If he says we need to wait, then we wait." She paused for a moment. "Is there anything else?"

A sigh from the hallway drew Soolin's attention to Vila's return. He shrugged, mouthing, "I told you so."

"No, Avalon, there's nothing else." She broke the connection and scowled. "You know, Vila, I thought I'd like having a careful leader for a change, someone who actually considered other people's opinions. I think I was wrong."

He handed her her flight bag. "I've already packed your gear," he said.

"You're assuming I'm going with you?"

"Aren't you?"

She nodded. "You're on first watch, though," she added. "I plan on sleeping the entire way to Piedra."

****

In his first year at the FSA, Tarrant had had an instructor who used to give the cadets advice on how to survive interrogation. If he remembered it right, it had been during astrophysics class, but Burtner had been ever-so-slightly obsessed with the subject and worked it in at every opportunity.

"Keep track of time," Burtner had said. Tarrant recalled starring at the muscle that twitched spasmodically at the old man's temple and wishing he knew some technique for enduring long, dull, off-topic lectures. "You need something to anchor you to reality, and that's one of the best ways. You ought to have an idea of how long a minute is by now; you've had enough timed exercises. Count off minutes, hours, days if you have to, but don't let it slip, or you'll be sure that the pain has been going on forever, and you'll start believing it'll last forever as well."

He could believe that. He hadn't worried about keeping up with how long he slept when the pain ebbed and he could doze again until the next bout, just started counting again when he woke up, but still he'd lost track completely during what he thought was the second day. He no longer had any idea if a particular interval was a minute, an hour, or a week; the only guesses he could hazard were that the times that the pain hit him were days long, and the moments when it was almost bearable were scant seconds.

Wechsler kept him off balance as well, keeping him restrained and turned so that he could only see the wall, and standing on Tarrant's right side whenever possible to disorientate him.

Tarrant had made one attempt at defiance after Wechsler had severed his optic nerve with the medical laser. "Avalon will never believe that was an accident," he said, gritting his teeth against the pain. "It's too neat."

That had been when Wechsler had drawn the laser downward, slicing Tarrant's cheek open. "That's better."

He'd waited until Tarrant stopped screaming before he spoke again. "No, this will never do." Tarrant could hear him rummaging in a cabinet. "You're still in too good of shape."

After a short time, Tarrant felt the sting of an injection and a feeling like acid in his veins. "What--" he gasped.

"Nothing much, just some verosil."

Suddenly, every muscle in Tarrant's body seemed to spasm. The restraints tightened against him as he convulsed, but they couldn't stop the awful muscle contractions.

Wechsler chuckled. "Rather a lot of verosil, I'm afraid, though."

Tarrant recognized the name of the drug. They'd learned about it in his field first aid course, as it was part of the standard intravenous drugs for someone in a cryo-capsule. Verosil was a stimulant usually used to prevent muscle atrophy when someone was immobile for long periods of time. In normal doses, it caused minor muscle contractions, just enough to keep tissues healthy and functional. In an overdose, though, it produced muscle spasms--as he was experiencing firsthand.

That had been some time ago, and Wechsler had left him alone since then; apparently, the knowledge that Tarrant was in pain was enough. Tarrant wondered what Wechsler hoped to gain by it--as far as the lecture had indicated, the effects weren't permanently debilitating. The thought trailed off into a scream as a spas jerked his broken arm too hard against the restraints. That was when he realized the purpose. After a day or two--however long it took the drug to wear off--of this, he'd be bruised and battered--looking more convincingly like an accident victim.

Help was coming. Avalon wouldn't leave him here forever, no matter who Wechsler was and what he'd told her. And even if she would, Vila and Soolin wouldn't. Not when they'd risked more to save him before. If Vila had shot Avon to stop him killing Tarrant, surely he'd be willing to confront a stranger, one who apparently didn't want to make trouble for himself, for Tarrant's sake?

When the next round of convulsions eased, Tarrant grimly began to mark time again, the throbbing of his fractured arm setting the cadence.

****

Soolin hadn't slept all the way to Piedra; after a few hours' nap, she'd returned to the flight deck so that Vila could stagger back to one of the cabins to sleep. They were operating at a great disadvantage, since they hadn't been able to find a pilot willing to disobey Avalon's instructions and take them to Piedra; all they could do was hope they didn't run into any trouble.

Fortunately, there wasn't much traffic around Piedra, and what there was didn't seem much inclined to challenge one smallish ship limping along at half speed.

At least, that had been true on Vila's watch, and since he'd managed to sleep--well, stare at the ceiling and wonder what the Federation was doing to Tarrant--without any interruptions, he assumed it had held while Soolin was in charge.

Blearily, he splashed some water on his face and wandered back onto the flight deck. "Are we there yet?"

"Almost." Soolin punched some data into the flight computer and frowned at her readout. "The recognition codes for Piedra aren't stored in here," she said after repeating the action a few times.

"And?"

"What do you mean, 'and'?"

"And that's bad, is it?"

She scowled at him for a minute, then her face cleared. "That's right, you haven't been off-planet lately. All the rebel groups we work with have a system of recognition codes set up, so we'll know who's who. They're computer-generated; nobody but the techs who programmed the system know how to get at them."

"Well, just send them our code, and we'll trust them."

"It doesn't work that way. The code doesn't just identify us, it identifies who we're talking to as well. The code from us to Piedra isn't the same as the code from us to Albian, or the code from Albian to Piedra," she explained. "We can't just use another one."

"If we explain to them--"

"Explain what? Anyone transmitting the wrong codes who's unable to correct the transmission is treated as an enemy, Vila. We're hardly likely to make ourselves popular as it is, since we're planning on walking in saying, 'Hi, we were in the neighborhood and thought we'd rescue our friends from your leader, the Federation butcher.' Without those codes, if we try that, we'll be shot on sight."

She punched one more sequence into the computer and snorted in disgust. "Most of the code databanks were wiped out," she reported. "It must have happened some time on that last trip. We can't go anywhere but home--and considering that we basically mutinied, we might not be able to go there, either."

Vila peered over her shoulder to stare at the readout. The numbers didn't mean much to him, but then again, computers weren't really his thing. He could make them open doors for him, he could trick them into believing he wasn't there, and he could, just about, pry information out of them if the security system on it wasn't topnotch. Beyond that, he liked a nice computer you could talk to. Something like Zen, or that games computer Belkov had had, or Orac--well, perhaps calling Orac "nice" was stretching it. "Wish we'd brought Orac."

"Well, we didn't," Soolin snapped. "There's only one thing we can do."

"I'm not turning around now." Who knew what was happening to Tarrant. Visions of Tarrant spilling everything he knew to the Federation flashed through Vila's mind, to be followed by other, even worse, images in which Tarrant only screamed, and even those were better than the ones where he was silent.

No, he couldn't turn around. He was used to Tarrant, and that meant a lot, these days, where most of the people he met weren't alive long enough to get used to. Besides, Tarrant had saved him, more than once; Vila owed him.

And he'd have to break in another pyramids partner without Tarrant there, Soolin proving to have no aptitude for the game. Yeah, that's it. I'm risking my life for a pyramids partner. Wonder if anyone else will believe that? Myself, I can't quite swallow it.

"I'm not talking about turning back," she snapped. "You'll have to contact Avalon and ask her to transmit the codes to the flight computer."

"Me? Why me? It was your idea," he protested.

"This whole business was your idea," she replied, neatly overlooking her own determination to save Tarrant. "Besides, you always say you can talk anyone into anything if you put your mind to it."

He'd said that? Wait, he remembered. Tarrant had been kidding him once back on Xenon about his failure to charm Soolin into his cabin. Lucky they'd had enough respect for Soolin--or the business end of her blaster--not to put it to the test. "Of course I can."

"Here's a chance to make a believer out of me, then." In Vila's opinion, her smile was just a shade too smug for his liking.

Dreading the confrontation that was to follow, Vila activated the long-range comm link and entered in the Nighthawk's call code. After a few minutes, a young woman's voice crackled through the speakers. "Nighthawk, this is base. Confirm identity, please."

Vila re-sent the call code, and then said for the benefit of the voice-recognition computers, "This is Vila Restal."

Another pause. "Confirmed. You're clear, Vila. Is Soolin with you?"

"Right here," she said.

"Was I so hopeless at weapons practice you're having to stay off-world to avoid me?" The woman laughed.

"Cason?" Soolin asked.

"Yup. I drew communications this week, lucky me." All the new recruits rotated through the duties that didn't require special skills. If anyone else wanted those jobs, they could have them, but most people didn't want them, unless they had small children or had been injured. As new recruits came in, those who'd been on trainee rotation longest got permanent assignments in their specialties.

"We need to talk to Avalon," Vila said. "Can you do that for us? It's urgent."

"Avalon does not love the pair of you just now," Jia Cason said doubtfully.

"The feeling's mutual," Vila said, "but we've got to talk to her, just the same."

"All right, but I'll expect a glowing report on my progress in weapons training, Soolin. Hold on while I patch you through."

As soon as Avalon answered the communicator, Vila said, "Avalon? Vila here. We need the recognition codes for Piedra."

The frost in Avalon's voice would've done Avon credit, Vila thought. "Oh really?" she replied. "Those codes are only for my personnel. Are you still part of this organization?"

"That depends. Would this be the same organization that's leaving its only two combat-trained pilots--who know more about base security than they ought, mind you; Tarrant's an incorrigible snoop and he's read all my reports--in the hands of the Federation?"

"Very smooth, Vila," Soolin muttered. "She'll be dying to help us after that."

"Sounds just the place for a man who's only saving his friend's life out of fear the friend will tell the Federation where to find him," Avalon said. "But it might be too good for a man who shoots his friends in cold blood."

It wasn't cold blood, it wasn't! Vila protested silently. He was going to kill Tarrant! And if he let Tarrant die now, it would have been for nothing. He might as well have let Avon kill him. Just as then, there was only one choice he could bear to make.

He couldn't tell Avalon that, though. It was obvious she didn't care about her personnel, just her "organization." The way Avon was, when he got serious about the rebellion. The way even Blake got, there at the end. It made me sick then, and I haven't changed so much that it doesn't make me sick now. A rare flash of honesty compelled him to add, Even when it's me who's doing it..

Anything he could say would either be a transparent lie, or would have to crack through more of his defenses than he could risk at the moment. He resorted to the only other option he could see, and retreated from the deck.

"Vila?" Soolin called.

"You take care of it," he replied. He waited outside the cabin, eavesdropping on the conversation.

"Avalon, I'm sorry we took off like that," Soolin said, "but neither of us wanted to wait any longer."

"Letting you tow go down there to confront Wechsler will probably ruin the six months' planning I put into an alliance with the Piedran group. Other than us, they're the largest cell in this sector, and they've got supply lines that are closed to us." Avalon sounded like she was talking to herself. "If I don't give you the codes--"

"We'll go down there anyway, we'll probably have to wipe out half the rebels, and there goes your alliance anyway," Soolin pointed out. "Those men are our friends, and I don't intend to let them die for the sake of some political maneuvering."

"Your friends, maybe," Avalon said, "but Vila's?"

Vila had to strain to hear Soolin's response. "After I'd been friends with Avon that long, I wouldn't want to call anyone my 'friend,' either; it'd have nasty connotations."

There was a silence. Then Soolin spoke again. "I respected you, Avalon. I thought you valued human lives above politics. Was I wrong?" Vila moved closer to the flight deck to hear the reply.

Avalon's sigh was audible even over the link. "All right, Soolin, spare me your attempts at subtle manipulation. At least with the recognition codes, you won't have to slaughter our allies. I'll transmit them straight away."

"It's about time," Soolin muttered. "Oh, and Avalon? Thank you."

"Did you give me a choice?" Avalon broke the connection.

"D'you believe her?" Vila said from the doorway. He crossed the flight deck and flung himself into the navigator's chair. "Doesn't care at all that there are two people down there probably getting killed--even when it's the two best damn pilots she'll ever see. Oh no, she only helps us because she's afraid we'll jeopardize her precious alliance. Self-serving, cold-hearted, unfeeling bitch..." He suddenly realized that Soolin was staring at him, a smile quirking her lips, and got himself under control.

"What are you smirking about?" he demanded.

Soolin's grin only broadened. "Nothing you'd want to hear, believe me."

"Then stop grinning so loudly," he grumbled. Just then, the recognition codes reached the computer. Vila entered the transmit sequence and settled back to await the signal from Piedra.

****

No matter how many of them he saw--and he'd seen more than he cared to remember--Vila was always surprised that Federation interrogators looked human. In his nightmares, they usually had claws, fangs, and glowing eyes, but Calum Wechsler wasn't someone he'd have looked twice at. He was the picture of a minor civil servant on a backwater planet: more gray than brown in the hair, more lines around the eyes than could be explained by age alone, but the sort of face you felt you could trust.

Except, Vila reminded himself, that the face belonged to a man who--rebel sympathies or not--had, according to the information Orac had given him, tortured people for disagreeing with the Federation, and still did go through with the questioning of other criminals. Like thieves. A man who had Tarrant and Herrera and was blocking their return to their friends.

Wechsler had greeted them warmly enough when their ship landed at the Piedran spaceport--using forged authorization, of course--but had been quiet as he led them through the capital city to a small dwelling on its outskirts.

"One of our safehouses," he explained.

Vila looked around. Down to the mass-produced "art" hung slightly crookedly on the walls, it was, by all appearances, a single-family home of the sort favored on colony worlds where space wasn't restricted. He supposed that was the point.

Wechsler unlocked a desk and produced a hand-held detector unit. After a few minutes, he pronounced it safe to talk. "Sorry about the cloak-and-dagger business," he said, "but one never knows when the Federation is watching."

He motioned to them to sit down. Both of them waited for him to choose a chair before they sat, making sure they were between him and two of the room's exits. The third doorway led to the back of the house, and they could probably catch him before he got away if he chose to run in that direction.

"You're from Avalon," Wechsler said. "I take it you've come about our little arrangement?"

Arrangement? If Avalon was in on this... From the expression on Soolin's face, she was thinking the same thing he was.

Wechsler had continued talking, oblivious to the worries he'd stirred up in his audience. "Central Security has given me the official date for my audit, but I imagine they'll show up before then--they usually do. The 'official' audit is never taken too seriously; they figure you'll fake all your records. That doesn't give me much time, so I'd like to get off-planet as quickly as possible." He smiled. "I can leave now, if you'd like."

"Who said anything about your leaving?" Soolin asked.

"You are from Avalon?" Wechsler repeated.

"That doesn't mean we're running a taxi service," Vila said.

Surprise and horror mingled on Wechsler's face. "But that was our deal. I make the arrangements for Avalon to get the supplies and components she needs, and she gets me off Piedra and into a new identity before the Federation discovers that I've been letting prisoners go for five years." At Vila and Soolin's blank expressions, his voice broke. "We had a deal!"

Vila shrugged. "We'd like to help you, Wechsler, really we would."

"But you see, we're in no shape to help anyone go anywhere. We're rather short of pilots at the moment," Soolin added sweetly.

"Although there have been rumors that you might be able to help us out with that."

"I suppose one of our pilots could be persuaded to lend a hand; Feagin has been saying he'd like to leave Piedra, so there's no risk he'd be caught on his return here."

"We prefer our pilots," Soolin said. "Two, in particular."

Wechsler paled, but he kept his voice level. "I'm afraid I can't help you with that. Tell Avalon that if she won't keep her end of the bargain, I'm afraid Piedra won't be able to send her supplies, after all."

Out of the corner of his eye, Vila saw Soolin reach for her gun. Apparently her patience, never in limitless supply, had just reached an end. "Oh, but I think you can help us," she said. "Del Tarrant and Joaquin Herrera. Where are they?"

"Tarrant and Herrera? Those were the two pilots that crashed here, weren't they? We haven't found them; Avalon knows that."

"That's funny," Vila said. "According to Avalon, she's already told you she knows you have them."

Soolin drew her weapon, aiming it at Wechsler. "So where are they?"

Without warning, Wechsler produced a blaster of his own, which he kept pointed at Vila. "That was supposed to be kept secret," he said. "The security of our organization here depends on it."

"Oops," Vila said, and grinned. "Anyway, as we know you have them, hadn't you better let us take them home now?" When Wechsler didn't respond, he continued, "Soolin will kill you, even if you shoot me. It won't do me any good, I know, but you won't like it much either."

Wechsler sighed and dropped his blaster, which Vila promptly picked up. "They were injured in the crash," he said. "They should recover, but they're not in particularly good shape now."

"Just take us to them," Soolin said.

"Do I have a choice?"

"Of course you do," she answered. "You can take us to our friends, or you can die here."

Wechsler stood up slowly, careful not to make any movements that might startle her into shooting him. "Shall we go?"

****

Wechsler led them on a meandering route through the city, until Soolin lost her patience and reminded him, rather savagely, that while she hadn't been able to keep her gun drawn on their journey, she could still kill him before he could run away. After that, they took far fewer turns and side streets, and a few minutes later, he led them into an abandoned warehouse.

"This has better not be a trick, Wechsler," Vila said.

"No trick. There's a passage under this building that leads to our headquarters. Your friends are down there."

"I don't like this. Soolin, keep your gun ready."

Soolin hadn't needed to be told. They followed Wechsler down into the passage and through the corridors. He stopped in front of a door. "I should remind you, Tarrant was injured in the crash," he said nervously.

"Just open the door."

Wechsler began fumbling with the lock. Vila bit his lip. If Tarrant really had been hurt in the crash, surely Wechsler wouldn't be so nervous. Injuries were only to be expected, after all, and if he'd been given medical treatment.... That line of thought cut off as the door swung open.

Oh my god...

He could hear Soolin draw in a sharp breath. "What the hell have you done to him?" she demanded.

Wechsler paled, and Vila thought he could see beads of sweat appearing on the man's brow. "I told you, there were injuries....difficult to get medical help...." he babbled.

Vila looked again at Tarrant. There was so much blood caked on his face that Vila couldn't begin to tell what injury had caused it. Even strapped down as he was, Vila could see that his left arm was bent at a strange angle. Though Tarrant was unconscious, he was still moaning softly in pain. But there were too few injuries to support Wechsler's story; if he'd been hurt that badly, there would have been more marks on him. And whether or not medical help was possible, he could have been cleaned up.

Soolin advanced on Wechsler, backing him against a wall. "You'll pay for this."

"We may need his help getting out of here," Vila called. "Don't damage him too severely--yet."

Soolin restricted herself to a punch to the stomach that left Wechsler doubled over and gasping for air. "We're not finished," she told him.

"Never mind him, Soolin, help me with Tarrant," Vila said, pulling a lockpick out of his pocket and beginning to work the restraints open. They were standard issue interrogation restraints; nothing too difficult to undo, but definitely not just hospital restraints designed to keep a patient from injuring himself.

"Find me something to immobilize our friend with first."

Once Vila had freed Tarrant--the last restraint, the one on his broken arm, took what felt like forever, with Tarrant whimpering in agony the entire time, and Vila was grateful that he hadn't been conscious for it--he began dumping out drawers and rummaging through their contents. "Sealing tape?" he asked.

"It'll do."

Vila tossed her the roll of dark brown, plasticized tape. It would hold Wechsler without much problem; it was the same stuff they used to repair the air hoses on space suits. He'd have trouble breaking through that.

Soolin quickly spun Wechsler around, yanked his arms behind his back, and taped his wrists together tightly. She knelt down and taped his ankles as well, leaving enough space between them that he could walk, although slowly.

Tarrant's eyes were open now, though the glassy, unfocused look in them made Vila wonder how much he was seeing. He'd managed to bind Tarrant's arm; it wasn't a professional job, and Vila hadn't had the stomach to try to set the bone, but it would hold it still long enough that they could get Tarrant back to the ship.

"This'll teach you to go off without Soolin to look after you," Vila said as he examined Tarrant for other injuries. He had a number of bruises, and the restraints had bitten into his skin deeply enough to draw blood, but he seemed relatively unhurt. Vila kept up a constant stream of chatter, trying to draw Tarrant's attention outward again.

Soolin joined Vila at Tarrant's side. "Want me to help you carry him?"

"I want to get the blood off his face first. I'd like to know what's happened--it might not be safe to move him--and I can't see the wound."

Tarrant picked that moment to stir. "Vila?"

"Your one-man backup team, reporting for duty," Vila said, forcing a light tone. At the sound of a clearing throat from his side, he added, "Oh, and Soolin."

"Thanks a lot," she muttered.

"Knew you'd come get me," Tarrant said, his voice pitched so softly they had to lean over to hear. "If you killed Avon t'...save me, this wouldn't be...." his voice trailed off.

Vila stood there a moment, unable to answer. And I told Avalon and Soolin I was worried about Tarrant betraying us. Despite the fact that Tarrant knew none of that, he couldn't help feeling that he'd let Tarrant down somehow.

Soolin put a damp cloth in his hand, and Vila busied himself trying to clean the dried blood off Tarrant's face. The wound wasn't that bad, he was pleased to note. It was shallow, but long, stretching from Tarrant's eye down almost to his jawline--

His eye. Suddenly, something seemed wrong to Vila. If Tarrant had had part of his face sliced open, and Vila brought the cloth up to his eye to wipe off the blood, surely Tarrant would have flinched away?

Under the guise of cleaning off the rest of Tarrant's face, Vila covered his left eye with the cloth, and then waved his hand in front of Tarrant's right eye. There was no reaction.

"...no good, Vila," Tarrant said, divining what Vila was up to. "I can't see anything."

Dropping the cloth, Vila turned back to Wechsler. "You bastard!" he yelled. "There's no way that happened in the crash. That gash is too neat, and it didn't go through the eye. You did this to him. I ought to--"

Wechsler flinched and shrank away, as best he could, with his ankles taped together.

Vila broke off. He wasn't used to anyone being afraid of him; it was usually the other way around. He didn't much like the feeling. "I ought to," he repeated, "take you back to Avalon, and let her deal with you. And that's what we'll do."

"Vila--" Soolin began.

"Leave it, Soolin." He wanted the decision taken out of his hands, true, but he also thought that the only way Avalon was ever going to believe their story was if she heard it from Wechsler himself. "Come on. Help me get him standing up."

"I can walk," Tarrant protested, sounding more alert.

"Fine, fine, you can walk. Go ahead." Vila watched as Tarrant took half a step and stopped, swaying dangerously.

Soolin caught him, slinging his good arm around his shoulder and putting one arm around his waist to steady him. "You keep an eye on our friend, Vila." Vila nodded, drawing his weapon and making sure Wechsler saw it was aimed at him.

"Let's get back to the ship," he suggested. "I'll feel a lot better when we're all safe at home."

"Joaquin's around here somewhere," Tarrant protested. "We've got to find him."

"Do you know where?" Soolin asked.

"I can't remember."

Vila jabbed Wechsler with the gun. "Take us there," he ordered.

Wechsler's shoulders slumped. "If you insist."

****

By the time Wechsler stopped outside a metal door, Tarrant was leaning very heavily on Soolin's shoulder. He responded to questions with a single word, less if he could get by with it, and Vila didn't like the grayish color of his face, broken only by spots of unnatural flush on his cheeks. Hope Herrera's better off, or we'll never make it back to the ship. Have to put friend Wechsler on stretcher duty.

When he realized where they were, Tarrant tried to look a bit more lively. "Unlock the door," he ordered Wechsler.

"I haven't got the key," Wechsler said flatly. "I wasn't expecting to need it."

"Did I hear my cue?" Vila asked, pushing Wechsler out of the way. He pulled a lockpick from his pocket. The lock wasn't especially difficult; the room probably had been designed for cold storage, not as a cell. Within a few seconds, he felt the mechanism give way. "There you go." He turned the handle and pushed the door open. "Herrera?"

There was no answer.

"Joaquin was hurt when we landed," Tarrant said. "He might be unconscious."

The cell was so dark Vila couldn't really see inside it. "Lights?" he asked Wechsler.

He nodded toward a control panel on the opposite wall of the corridor. "Third row from the top, second switch from the right."

"If you're lying to him, you won't live to enjoy it," Soolin warned him.

"I'm not lying." Wechsler's voice held a note of hopeless resignation. "Why should I bother?"

"I could ask that question about a number of things you've done lately," Soolin pointed out.

Holding his breath, Vila flipped the switch, expecting alarms to go off, or half a million volts of electricity to shoot through his body, or any of a dozen equally nasty possibilities.

The lights went on inside the sell.

"Joaquin?" Tarrant called again.

"He's either asleep or unconscious," Vila said, spotting a huddled form on the bunk. "I'll go in and check."

Vila shuddered as he noticed the filth on the floor of the cell. To have left an injured man in conditions like that...still, they'd known Wechsler wasn't out to make a name as a humanitarian.

He bent down over Herrera and shook him gently by the shoulder. "Herrera? Hey, Joaquin, it's us." His hand slipped, and his fingers brushed Herrera's cheek. It was cold, and there was no pulse in the man's neck.

Vila looked down at Herrera's corpse for a few agonizing heartbeats, uncertain of that to say. Then Tarrant spared him the necessity. "Joaquin's dead." It wasn't a question.

"I'm sorry, Tarrant."

Tarrant's knees sagged, and Soolin had to haul him back to his feet. "He was hurt," he repeated. "The wound was already infected when he pulled me out of here, and there wasn't much water.... You haven't been back here since then, have you?" he accused Wechsler.

"Why should I? He wasn't important."

"Not important?" Soolin said. "A man's life isn't important?"

When it became obvious that Wechsler wasn't going to answer, Vila said, "We'll give him a star-orbit burial, all right, Tarrant?"

Tarrant nodded slightly.

"Soolin, free Wechsler's hands. He can carry Herrera."

"No!" Tarrant said. "Don't let him touch Joaquin."

"Somebody has to carry him," Soolin said, reasonably. "We may need Vila to open doors, and I need my gun hand free."

"Don't let him touch him," Tarrant insisted.

Vila sighed. "I'll carry him, Soolin." He began the unpleasant task of hauling Herrera's body out of the cell. Their progress, which had been slow to begin with, was now reduced to a crawl by Vila's having to set his burden down to open doors and activate light switches. He wondered how long it would be before they had to carry Tarrant as well; he was still alert, but his strength was giving out. Not surprising, actually, after days exposed to Wechsler's tender mercies.

Vila was occupied trying to shift Herrera to a less awkward position when there was a sudden sound from behind him, and he found himself sprawling on the floor. Oh, gods, what am I lying on top... ugh. What the hell--? Then there was the sound of blaster fire, and the thud of a body falling to the floor.

He couldn't get up quickly enough to be much use; his foot was tangled in Herrera's legs, but he could still see. Wechsler had fallen behind once Vila no longer had a gun on him, and he'd been too worried about the state Tarrant was in to notice. Now, as they passed a side corridor, Wechsler had taken the opportunity to run, while Vila and Soolin were unable to stop him.

Not that Wechsler could run that quickly, hobbled as he was. Soolin started for her gun, but she needed her hands to hold Tarrant up. Tarrant, on the other hand, had one arm free. He grabbed Soolin's blaster from its holster. Soolin, years of experience and finely-honed instincts seizing control from her brain, moved backward quickly, steadying Tarrant from behind rather than from the side.

Wechsler looked back. "Enjoy your retirement, flyboy. Darin certainly has."

Tarrant fired.

Vila winced. The corridor Wechsler had taken was to their right, on Tarrant's blind side. They'd been lucky Tarrant didn't hit either of them in his attempt to stop Wechsler.

"Did I get him?" Tarrant asked. "Is he dead?"

Slowly, Vila got to his feet. "I'll check." His ankle hurt like hell--he'd wrenched it when he'd fallen--but he limped down the corridor to where Wechsler lay. Still breathing: slightly stunned, bleeding slightly from one leg, unable to regain his footing, but very much alive.

Soolin and Tarrant hadn't turned around; Soolin was busy trying to keep Tarrant from falling down, which meant Vila was still on Tarrant's blind side, with Soolin between them. He clamped one hand viciously down on Wechsler's mouth and nose to ensure his silence. "He's dead, Tarrant. You got him."

Now Soolin did turn her head to stare at Vila in amazement. "Really?" she mouthed.

He shook his head quickly. "Get him out of here," he mouthed back.

Soolin helped Tarrant find his balance, and began half carrying him down the corridor. Vila waited until they were some distance away before drawing his gun. He pressed it into Wechsler's temple, hoping the flesh would muffle the sound, and fired.

You got him, Tarrant... with a little help. I won't tell you that, though, and I doubt Soolin will, either. You needed to kill him too badly.

Once he was quite sure that Wechsler was dead, he reshouldered his macabre burden and went to rejoin his friends.

****

Vila caught up to Soolin and Tarrant when they stopped at a ladder leading upward. "Tarrant says this is where he brought them down," Soolin told him.

"It's going to look awfully suspicious if I'm hauling a dead body around," Vila ventured.

"I don't like the thought of just leaving him here, though," Soolin said.

"I'm not saying we should just leave him. We could go back to the ship, take off, then contact the authorities. It's not the greatest idea, but it beats dragging Herrera across the city." Vila looked at Tarrant, who was leaning heavily against the wall, eyes closed. "And you might need some help."

"I can walk," Tarrant muttered.

"So you keep saying. Have you been paying attention?"

Tarrant nodded. "Leave him if you have to," he said. "Suppose it doesn't matter now."

"All right, then." Soolin rubbed the shoulder Tarrant had been leaning on. "The sooner we get moving, the sooner we'll get home."

That sounded like the best suggestion Vila had heard all day. "Open the door; I'll help Tarrant."

Soolin climbed the ladder and pushed open the trapdoor. "Wait a second. I'll check things out up above." She disappeared from view. A minute or so later, she called, "It's all right."

Vila helped Tarrant to the ladder. "Get a good grip," he warned Tarrant.

"It's just a ladder; I think I can manage." But Tarrant swayed as he climbed to the first rung, and Vila had to steady him. He climbed the ladder a few rungs behind Tarrant, expecting that any minute they'd both wind up at the bottom again, this time with a few more broken bones between them. The ladder was short, however, and before long Soolin was reaching down to help Tarrant up.

Vila scrambled up, glad that the pain in his ankle had subsided, and closed the door behind him. They made their way as quickly as possible back to the spaceport, sticking to less crowded areas to avoid questions about Tarrant's battered appearance. Even there, he noticed people giving them strange looks.

"Play along with me," he murmured to Soolin, who was on the other side of Tarrant to catch him if he stumbled. "You too, Tarrant. Don't argue with anything I say."

Tarrant mumbled something Vila took to be assent, and Soolin nodded briefly. He took a deep breath and then said, rather loudly, "I told you he was no good for you. Look at him--drunk again! And picking bar fights.... We'd take you in, you know we would; whyn't you just leave him?"

Soolin picked up her cue immediately. "This is the last time." She glared at Tarrant. "You hear me? I'm not bailing you out any more. Just get in another fight and see what happens. I'll leave you to rot and go home to my mother."

Vila noticed that the looks they were getting from passersby had turned from suspicious to sympathetic. "It's working," he whispered to Soolin, and saw her quick grin. They continued their act until they reached the spaceport.

When they got close enough that the Nighthawk was visible, Tarrant seemed to become a little more aware of their surroundings. He shrugged off Soolin's steadying hand and leaned a bit less heavily on Vila as he made doggedly for his ship.

The burst of strength lasted him until he reached the flight deck. He stopped suddenly, holding onto the back of a chair with his good hand. Vila once more slung Tarrant's arm around his shoulders. "Come on, let's get you to a cabin," he suggested. "Get us out of here, Soolin."

Vila helped Tarrant to one of the cabins and then went to fetch the medical kit.

I'm useless at this, he thought. Never could stand the sight of blood. Wish Cally were here; she used to always know what to do...

That was a bit too morbid for him to want to cope with at the moment, so he concentrated on getting Tarrant cleaned up as best he could and dressing the worst of his injuries--the gash down his face and the places where the restraints had bitten into his flesh.

There wasn't much else he could do with the supplies they had; other than bandages and a mild antibiotic, the only other thing in the kit was a bottle of painkillers. The ship had never had much in the way of medical supplies, and they hadn't thought to restock before leaving base. Vila hadn't realized that nearly everything had been used up on the last mission, when Soolin's pilot had gotten hurt.

Right now, he wasn't going to try to get Tarrant to swallow a pill. He'd slipped into unconsciousness the minute he realized he was safe; he'd been running on adrenaline since they'd freed him. Vila wished they'd tried to find a doctor, or at least a med-tech, who'd have been willing to come with them; Tarrant worried him. His pulse was strong, though, if a bit rapid, and Vila decided to put off panicking for the time being.

They could have lost Tarrant. Even if Wechsler hadn't killed him outright, he could have died.

He shivered. I could have left Tarrant to die, and I wouldn't have worried about it, except to wonder if the Federation was going to find us.

He'd shut himself off from the rest of the rebels so that their deaths could be treated as just so many statistics. He'd barely been able to put a face with most of the names he'd seen in reports; while Soolin and Tarrant mourned for the loss of another comrade, he'd gone about his work untouched. That had been one thing, but to be that callous about Tarrant's life--not a stranger, but Tarrant...

Soolin may have been right. Maybe I have been hell-bent on out-Avoning Avon. And maybe "hell-bent" was the right term, as well. Avon certainly hadn't gotten much out of it, after all, unless alienating most of your friends, killing another one, and then losing your grip on reality was more fun than it sounded like to Vila. And when all was said and done, it hadn't worked, anyway. If it had, Avon wouldn't have cracked after he shot Blake, now would he?

I could have let Tarrant die. Vila had never had any illusions about himself. He wasn't brave, or noble, or particularly good; but he didn't like the thought that he would have abandoned one of his friends. Soolin and Tarrant were all he had; the only two people who really cared whether or not he lived or died. And he'd been pushing them away, all because he was afraid they would die. Because he was still afraid they'd die.

After reassuring himself that Tarrant would be all right left alone for a few minutes, Vila went back out to the flight deck.

"I called the authorities," Soolin said, her voice brittle with worry and exhaustion. "Don't worry; I didn't tell them who we were, or how I knew about the bodies."

Vila let that wash past him. "How do you stand it?"

"What are you talking about?"

Vila moved to stand in front of her. "Dayna's dead, Avon's dead, Tarrant could have died. Everyone we care about keeps getting killed. How do you stand it?" he repeated.

"There's no 'how' about it. You stand it because there's no other choice. People die; that's a fact of life. A fact of our lives, more so than a lot of people's. What else would you suggest."

"I don't know," Vila said softly. "There's got to be something that hurts less than this."

"As though this bothers you--what happened to going after Tarrant so he wouldn't tell the Federation anything?" Soolin looked up at him, and the tone of her voice softened. "Decided to drop the act?"

"It didn't work."

"I didn't think it would." She shrugged. "I also didn't think it was an act, at first."

"What made you change your mind?"

"You're crying," she pointed out. "If you really didn't care, you wouldn't be crying."

"Maybe I hit my head on something." He forced a smile.

"Maybe I ought to hit your head on something. Mind telling me what all this was about, or were you just trying to provoke me into shooting you?"

He could hear a very real note of concern in her voice. She's half of all I have. And I almost let Tarrant die, and made her hate me. "How can you go on knowing that Tarrant could die before we get home? Knowing all your friends stand a very real chance of not seeing their next birthday?"

"You've only got two options," she pointed out. "Go on, knowing that, or go through your life without having any friends at all. I've done both; this is the easier option."

"How the hell can this be easier?"

"Because I'm here going through it with you."

He remembered the first few weeks on Xenon, when they had all been too full of bitter recriminations to turn to one another, and thought about how long Cally's death had eaten away at him. It wasn't like that when Gan died. He and Jenna and Cally had taken on the job of packing up Gan's cabin--Blake had been too wracked with guilt to face it, and Avon had disappeared into his own quarters.

They'd spent a lot of the time talking about Gan, trying to fix his image firmly in their memory. And when the last box was put away, they'd felt better. They missed Gan--Vila still missed him, even now--but it had been a little easier, knowing the others missed him as well.

And he'd been trying to carry everything alone, because Avon would have done it that way. Like you really ever wanted to be like Avon. It had been stupid, really. But Avon had usually managed to get through everything without seeming to be touched by it. Only Anna's death, and Blake's, had visibly affected him. Maybe the rest did hurt him, down where it didn't show. And maybe it didn't, but I'm not Avon, and I can't do that.

Soolin got up and awkwardly put an arm around his shoulders. "Why don't you go in and keep an eye on Tarrant," she said. "I'll get us home."

****

When they arrived back at the base, Vila and Soolin only waited long enough to make sure Tarrant was safely in the hands of the medical staff before heading for Avalon's office. In the outer office, the trainee who was this week's receptionist/bodyguard tried to stop them.

"She left orders that she wasn't to be disturbed," he said nervously. If they hadn't been base personnel, he'd have made more of an effort to stop them--at least, Vila hoped so--but he obviously recognized Soolin and was attempting to stay on her good side.

Must be one of the ones on weapons training right now; she terrifies nine-tenths of them, and the other tenth want to get better than her so they can shoot her.

"I imagine she said something about 'except in case of emergency'?" Soolin said calmly.

"Well, um... yes, but...."

"You might want to decide this is an emergency," she suggested.

The young man looked them over again, taking in the casual way Soolin rested her hand on her blaster. Vila doubted she'd actually have shot him, but he didn't know that. Even Vila wasn't quite sure.

"I suppose it is," he admitted.

"Smart fellow," Vila said to Soolin. She opened the inner door.

Avalon looked up from a pile of reports she was reading. "Jeral, I thought I said...." Her voice trailed off as she noticed who was standing there. "So you decided to rejoin us, after all?"

"Tarrant's in the medical unit," Vila said. "We're staying until he's all right."

"And then?"

"What happens then is up to you," Soolin told her. "We like it here. But there are a few things we need to settle before we make a decision."

Avalon nodded wearily. "Go on."

They both sat down. Vila was suddenly aware of how tired he was. I want to sleep for a week, he thought. Maybe a month. "Wechsler's dead," be began.

"What?"

"We don't have many details yet," Soolin added. "Tarrant might know, but Tarrant isn't in any condition for a prolonged conversation right now."

"And Joaquin? What's happened to him?"

"Wechsler happened," Vila said grimly. "The man was a complete lunatic, Avalon; Herrera's dead." He described what they had found on Piedra.

"So you killed him. Is that your solution to everything?"

"We were trying to bring him back here. He got away, and we decided--Tarrant decided--it would be better to make sure he couldn't do anything to anyone else. I'm telling you, he was insane."

Avalon rubbed her eyes. "I was trying to work out a supply agreement with Wechsler's group. You two have just set things back months, if not ruined it permanently."

"The man left one of our friends to die and nearly tortured another to death," Soolin said. "Isn't that a little more important?"

"I'm trying to save our lives here!" Avalon shouted.

"You've got a funny way of doing it," Vila said. "If saving lives matters so much to you, why didn't you want me to go after Tarrant?"

Avalon turned her chair so that she was facing the wall. There was a long moment of silence. Finally, she spoke. "Because Cal asked me not to."

"So you were just going to let him do whatever he wanted to them?" Vila's voice shook with the effort of controlling his anger.

Avalon turned back to face them, and he could see the shock and horror in her eyes. "No! Cal said that neither of them was seriously injured, but that it was too risky for the Piedrans to bring them back, or for us to go to Piedra for them. He said he'd let us know when it was safe and asked me not to contact him in the meantime unless it was absolutely necessary--it was too much of a security risk. I thought it was a reasonable request."

"It got Joaquin killed," Soolin said. "And Wechsler used a laser on Tarrant's eye."

"Can the medics repair the damage?"

"I don't think so," Vila said. "They said they could do some cosmetic work, but Wechsler seems to have known what he was doing. The nerve's severed."

Avalon buried her face in her hands for a minute. When she raised her head, she had regained her usual composed demeanor.

"I think I may have made one of the worst mistakes of my career," she said quietly. "I thought I knew what I was doing. We're going to need a lot more supplies--medicine and food, especially. I want us to concentrate exclusively on transporting and relocating refugees. I thought a deal with the Piedran cell would be the best way to do that."

"You're giving up attacking the Federation?" Soolin asked in amazement.

"It's too risky. We've grown too large; we couldn't change bases quickly. And too many people here have children. There are several rebel groups in this sector. We can let them do all the blowing-things-up parts, and focus on picking up the pieces after they've left." Avalon sighed. "I was counting on your help."

"It's a good idea," Soolin said quickly.

That was a little too quick a decision for Vila. He didn't like the way things had gone, and even if Soolin was prepared to forget that Avalon was partly responsible, he wasn't. "Soolin, don't you think--"

She cut him off. "If someone had been doing that twenty years ago, I might not have had to try surviving on my own when I was eight. I'd like to help you, Avalon. But," she said, "we've got to get one thing straight. If someone gets captured or hurt, the only tie we don't go after them is if we've got no chance of saving them."

"That's the way it should have been this time," Avalon said.

"That's easy to say," Vila interjected.

"Joaquin Herrera was a friend of mine. After Blake rescued me from the Federation, he was one of the first people to join me, one of the most vocal in assuring the other rebels I hadn't betrayed them. My hesitation got him killed." There was a long moment of silence, and Vila wondered if Avalon was going to continue. Finally, she said, "So no, I don't think I'll forget about this."

"That's what I was waiting to hear. All right, Avalon, I'm staying," Soolin said.

"And what about you, Vila?" Avalon asked.

He didn't know if he'd ever be able to accept her judgment without question again. Then again, following blindly along after someone was a good way to fall into a hole in the ground.

Avalon had made a hideous mistake, but so had Blake and Avon, and he'd still followed them. He might as well give her a second chance.

And Soolin was right. She'd told them some of what she'd endured before she'd learned to fire a blaster, and it sickened him to think of it. If they could find a way to rescue people in the same situation, well, it wasn't as glamorous as blasting pursuit ships out of space, but it also wasn't as fatal, and it did need to be done.

"Who, me? Oh, I suppose I'll stick around a while. Where else would I go, anyway?"

"I'm glad to hear it. And now that we've implemented your new security system, perhaps you'll consider a reassignment to some other area?"

Vila thought about it for a minute. He'd liked the challenge of trying to make a system good enough that he couldn't break through it, but he'd hated the long hours spent with only circuit diagrams for company. "We can talk about that later," he said. "Right now, I ought to have some time off coming to me."

At a choked sound from his right, he turned to Soolin. "All right, what's so funny?"

Soolin grinned. "You. Tarrant and I had been wondering when you'd start complaining about all the work you'd been doing."

"She had me slaving night and day over that security system. If it were anyone else, you'd be agreeing with me, but since it's me, you don't care. Completely unappreciated, that's what I am. You'd all be lost without me, and you know it. What would you do next time you need a door opened?"

Soolin gave up trying to hold back laughter. "Oh, be quiet, Vila."

"I mean, just listen to you. You're always picking on me...." Vila was hardly listening to what he was saying. It had been a long time since Soolin had teased him. A long tie since he'd relaxed enough to joke with her.

For the first time in what felt like forever, he thought things might just go right for them, for a change.

****

"Good news," Vila announced as he entered Tarrant's room in the medical unit. "Well, good for you. Soolin and I aren't so lucky; we're going to have to put up with you all the time now."

Tarrant's face lit up. "I'm getting out of here?"

"Yeah. I told them to keep you until they fixed your personality, but they said you were a hopeless case." He'd known the news would be greeted enthusiastically; Tarrant had been asking to get out of the medical unit since he had been strong enough to stay awake for more than half an hour at a stretch. He'd been driving Vila and Soolin insane, and they didn't have to put up with him all day; Vila imagined the staff would be happy to get rid of him, as well.

"So, how much longer do we have before we're stuck with him again?" Soolin asked. She and Vila had spent most of their free time with Tarrant; first because they were afraid they were going to lose him, and later because the visits seemed to distract him somewhat from the fact that the doctors hadn't been able to restore his sight.

Physically, Tarrant was healing well; he was still weak, but he'd be recovered in a few more weeks. He was unusually quiet, though, and the doctors had warned them tat he might not have come to terms with losing the sight in that eye yet. They thought it would be best for Tarrant to get back to a "normal" routine as soon as he could; while he was still in the medical unit, he could afford to pretend nothing had happened.

"Tomorrow morning, so we've got to celebrate tonight," Vila said, sitting down on the edge of Tarrant's bed. "Oh, and Soolin, Avalon says she's worked out that trade agreement with the Piedran group. If we'll handle their refugee problem--and it sounds like it's a big problem; being on a main trade route means most of the rebel groups in this sector take all the people they 'liberate' from the Federation to Piedra and leave 'em--they'll make sure everybody gets food and medical treatment. She wants you on the ship going to get the first bunch of them."

Once they'd gotten the story of what happened on Piedra out of Tarrant, Avalon had quickly contacted the Piedran rebels with the details. They had been horrified by what their former leader had done, and had been more than willing to continue the alliance with Avalon, "if only," their spokesman had said, "to make up for what Cal did your people."

"Refugees?" Tarrant asked.

"Oh, that's right, you haven't heard. We're getting out of the sabotage business and going in for baby-minding," Vila said cheerfully.

Avalon's group had never been as devoted to the explosives-and-plasma-bolts part of rebellion as Blake had been; they'd always done a fair bit of rescuing people in need of asylum, so this wouldn't be that enormous of a change. "Though how we're supposed to rescue half the galaxy when our own people keep ending up needing rescued--"

"I never did thank you for that," Tarrant said, his serious tone contrasting with Vila's bantering one.

Vila tried not to wince. It was hard to know Tarrant was grateful when he also knew that he almost hadn't gone after him, and that he'd stalled long enough to cost Herrera his life.

"Put it behind you," Soolin had suggested. "There's nothing to be done about it, and you won't repeat the mistake. Don't let it eat away at you." He was trying, but it wasn't exactly easy.

At least I've got some good examples of what happens when you don't let things go. That's what happened to Avon; Wechsler, too, from what Tarrant said. Even Blake, I think. I'd rather not end up like any of them, thank you.

Aloud, he said, "I noticed that. You're starting to take me fro granted, aren't you, Tarrant? I've already saved your life at least three times I can think of," he went on. "It's beginning to be a bad habit, and it's high time I broke myself of it. So next time you get yourself in trouble, you can just get yourself out of it."

"What if it's you in trouble?"

"Then I expect you and Soolin to come to my rescue immediately, of course, out of deference to my age and experience."

"That reminds me, old man," Soolin said, "while I'm off playing knight in shining armor, where are you going to be?"

Vila grinned. "Teaching a bunch of young idiots how to pick locks."

"Avalon's going in for petty theft as well as rebellion?"

"No, but she realized that since we're going to be trying to rescue prisoners as well as transporting people someone else has rescued, it might be nice if more than one of us had a flea's chance in a supernova of getting the doors open."

He'd have to practice before he started in with the trainees; it had been too long since he'd really done much stealing. And I've spent enough time in the medical unit lately to know which cabinet has soma in it, he realized cheerfully. Perfect practice.

"You haven't said what you think about Avalon's new strategy," Soolin said.

"I'm not sure yet," Tarrant said. "I'll have to see how things go before I have much of an opinion." He shrugged. "Besides, it doesn't matter much to you what I think of it, does it? You and Vila have already made up your minds."

"So? You've still got a few weeks before the medical unit pronounces you fit. If you still want to go off blowing things up after that, we'll take Nighthawk and go."

"We?"

"That's right, Tarrant. We. We're a team, aren't we, Vila?"

Vila didn't answer. He was too busy studying Tarrant's face. He didn't think Tarrant minded Avalon's plan at all; what he minded was that he'd had to be left out of a lot of the initial stages of the planning. With Tarrant in the medical unit and Herrera dead, the pilots had been represented by Goll, the most experienced of the remaining pilots, and two trainees. Tarrant hadn't even known about the plans until just now. And to someone as accustomed to making decisions as Tarrant was, that had to be irritating.

"Aren't we?" Soolin repeated, elbowing Vila lightly in the ribs.

"Aren't we what?"

"A team," she repeated patiently.

"Oh. Yeah. I guess we are."

"Don't sound so enthusiastic, Vila," she said. "We might actually start thinking you like us, or something."

He let that go. I guess we are. Not the most imposing of teams, at the moment, not taken without the backup of Avalon's base. But they'd been through enough that he knew Tarrant and Soolin, knew them well enough to know he could depend on them for whatever help they could give him.

One of the med-techs stuck her head in then. "Haven't you two got homes to go to?" she asked. "Go on, clear out of here. Enjoy the freedom while you can," she added. "Some great revolutionary hero this one is. Great revolutionary nuisance, more like it."

"You'd better go," Tarrant said. "Just be sure you're here early tomorrow. They won't let me out of here unless someone comes to claim me, and I'd rather not spend any more time here than I have to."

"We'll be here around nightfall or so, then," Vila said, as he and Soolin left. On their way back to their quarters, the doubt that had been nagging at the back of his mind since he'd found out Tarrant was being released took full shape. "Soolin? About me not caring about what happened to Tarrant...."

"When was that?"

"Eh?"

"I don't remember you not being worried about Tarrant," she said.

Vila let out the breath he'd been holding.

"But if you ever do what I don't remember you doing, ever again," she added, "I'll nail you to the wall and use you for target practice."

Vila smiled. "There's no chance of that."

"I didn't think there would be. Welcome home, Vila. I've missed you."

"Missed me? I'm not the one who goes traipsing off to god-knows-where all the time..."

Soolin laughed at the fresh stream of complaints, and Vila couldn't help but grin back at her.

Welcome home, indeed.

****