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Impractical Joke

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"Tell me some more jokes, Orac," Vila commanded. He settled back in the lounge seat, a drink arranged in his fist. His eyes were closed, and he seemed the ultimate in luxurious self- indulgence. Typical Vila, in fact.

"Very well," replied the peevish supercomputer. "How many Space Troopers does it take to change an illumination cube?"

"No idea," said Vila. "How many?"

"None. Space Troopers do nothing without orders."

Vila chuckled. "Not bad, you overrated box of tricks. Gimme another."

Before Orac could obey, Avon wandered out onto the flight deck. Noting Vila's near- comatose, near- supine appearance- -noting that it was, in fact, typical Vila, only more so- -he asked, "What are you doing?"

"Getting material for my act," Vila answered.

"I thought you were doing a magic act," Avon said.

"That was last year," replied Vila. "Want to do something new this year. Can't have the kiddies think I'm too limited, now can I?"

"You're not limited at all," Avon said. "You can drink and you can sleep. What a vast range of talents."

Vila only grinned. Typical Avon, he thought. When in doubt, insult me. "Is that the best you can come up with, Avon? You should get Orac to write your material."

"Is that what you're doing? What kind of act are you preparing?"

"Stand- up comedy routine," the thief said. "Just like my old great- great- great- uncle Henny. Nightclub act. I've been having Orac research some old jokes for me, stuff the kids won't have heard because it's all so old. Pre- spaceflight, in some cases. 'Course, Orac's got no delivery at all- -his timing stinks, in fact- -but the material's not bad. Anyway, what're you going to do?"

The computer tech turned away and started to examine something at the station. "Nothing," he said.

Vila opened his eyes and raised his head to stare at the dour programmer. "Nothing? Oh, come on, Avon, you've got to do something! We're all doing something. I've got my comedy routine, Cally's doing a mindreading act, Gan's playing a circus strongman, Jenna's showing off her bellydancing. Even Blake's going to do a dramatic reading of 'The Charge of the Light Brigade.' You've got to participate! It is for orphans, you know."

"Spare me the appeal to my heartstrings, please. I haven't got any."

"That's my line, and don't avoid the issue. Avalon's counting on all of us, including you."

Avon continued to putter around at his station. "Are you finished with Orac yet? I have something important to use it for, if you're done. I really must congratulate you, Vila. Anyone else might think using a one- hundred- million- credit computer as a gagwriter was a bit of a waste." He walked up to the device and removed the key.

"You don't own Orac, you know," Vila complained. "I haven't finished yet."

"Yes, you have," said Avon with finality.

"Thanks a lot. And you still haven't answered me. Why won't you do something at the cabaret?"

"I didn't do anything last year. Why should I this year?"

"That's the point!" Vila cried. "You let them down last year. These are orphans, Avon, kids whose parents were killed by the Federation. We owe it to them to give them a good time. Plus, Avalon needs the money to keep her hospital going."

Avon sighed. "If it's money you want, Vila, I'll be happy to donate some funds...straight out of a Federation bank, in fact. Just like I did last year. Isn't that enough? Why do I have to humiliate myself in front of a roomful of bratty youngsters whose only claim on my time is that they were unlucky enough to choose dissident parents? Unsuccessful dissident parents, I might add."

The thief regarded his friend skeptically. "You don't fool me, Avon. You're scared." He recoiled a little at the tech's angry flush, but bravely plowed on- -as bravely as a Vila could. "That's right, scared. You're afraid that you won't be able to entertain a bunch of kids. You've no sense of humor at all, Avon, and you take yourself way too seriously. What does it matter if you're not ready for primetime? It's for a good cause."

Avon towered over the little thief. "That's enough, Vila. Spare me the reverse psychology. I am not scared of appearing before an audience of children. I could thrill them better than all of the rest of you put together. Especially you and those awful jokes you're making Orac dredge up for you. I have my own reasons for what I do, and I can't expect you to understand any of them. I am not performing and that's final. As for my sense of humor- -I wouldn't expect someone who laughs at his own stupidities to fathom my superior comedic aesthetic." And with that Avon stomped off the flight deck, his nose so high in the air that he almost stomped over Blake and Jenna.

"What's with Mr. Warmth?" Jenna asked.

"And what's bothering you?" Blake followed, noticing Vila's silently seething anger.

"Sometimes he just burns me up!" the thief sputtered. "Thinks he's so much better than the rest of us. Got his nose up in the air all the time. Treats us all like dirt, makes fun of the rebellion. Won't do an act for Avalon's charity benefit. And now he has the nerve to say that his sense of humor is better than mine!"

Jenna and Blake looked at each other. Neither had ever seen him so angry before.

"Vila," Blake began, "he may have a point there. You do tend to make some of the worst jokes I've ever heard."

"Still, Blake, Vila's right," Jenna said. "Avon's getting pretty hard to live with. He has his own set of seasons: ego swells, ego rests, ego swells, ego rests...guess which one we're in now?"

"He's awfully damned useful even so," said Blake. "But I know what you mean. I did not appreciate the Valentine's Day card he sent Servalan, for example. Or the way he keeps borrowing my Head and Shoulders- -what does he need it for, anyhow? What kind of dandruff would dare live in his scalp?"

"And he's getting worse, too," said Jenna.

"Oh, you're just upset that he beat you out for Entertainment Tonight's 'Prettiest Rebel of the Year' award," said Vila, earning a vicious glare from the smuggler.

Blake shook his head. "Anyway, if he keeps this up, he'll be impossible! Even Cally is impatient with him." As if on cue, the Auronae telepath walked onto the flight deck, her nose clearly out of joint.

"Cally, your nose is out of joint," Vila mentioned helpfully. He was always saying useful little things like that.

"Oh," she said. Carefully, she adjusted her nose back to its normal position. "Thanks." Then, her face reassumed its exasperated look. "That's the last time I try to snuggle that ice- cold Alpha again!"

"What happened?" asked Jenna sympathetically. She actually couldn't stand Cally- -who never seemed to put on an ounce regardless of how much she ate while Jenna could just look at food and balloon out- -but felt it was important to maintain a facade of female solidarity on the male- dominated Liberator.

"You all know I'm coming into heat, and it's terribly important for me to find a mate," Cally said, her lack of discretion once again disconcerting her crewmates. Growing up on Auron had deprived her of any sense of propriety. It was only with a lot of effort that they had gotten her to stop talking of her woman's problems at the dinner table. Except for Vila, of course. The Delta had been enthralled by the anatomical exactitude of her descriptions. Blake was almost sorry that he had canceled the thief's subscription to PlayDelta.

"Anyway, I chose Avon as my broodpartner, but he will have nothing to do with me. I came across him in the passageway just now and determined to make one last attempt to gain his acquiescence. But just as I reached for him, he turned away, and I caught my nose on one of those damned studs on his jacket." She rubbed her sore proboscis.

"It's that damned self- importance he carries around like a banner," said Blake. "He's even worse than Servalan in that regard."

"He told me that if he wanted, he could become a better pilot than me in half the time it took me to get my training," said Jenna. "He couldn't find his backside with both hands and a laserprobe, and he thinks he could be a better pilot than me!"

"He takes himself so seriously," Blake continued. "No sense of humor at all. No lighter side to him, in fact, except when he's picking on Vila."

"Not just me," said Vila. "Gan is getting sick and tired of his 'How's the weather up there?' cracks. And you say my jokes are bad."

For a second, the whole crew was silent, ruminating on the difficulties of trying to share a ship with Avon, even an enormous ship like Liberator.

"You know what I'd like?" said Jenna. "I'd like to pull some kind of trick on him, just to deflate his pomposity a little. Nothing too harmful, just something that would let him know he isn't as important as he thinks he is. Prick that 'I'm- so- serious- and- so- superior..to..you' attitude of his."

"What a neat idea!" said Cally, whose Auronae innocence hadn't yet catalogued the obsolescence of 'neat' as a superlative. "Anything to get through to him. I'm in."

"Me too!" piped Vila. Gan merely nodded, startling the others. As usual, no one had seen him enter.

"I don't know," said Blake. "He's not the type to sit back and accept any kind of humiliation. This might escalate. There was a rebellion last year on Induris Major that was disrupted by a waterballoon fight between two rebel factions. And the only thing worse than Avon as an ally has got to be Avon as an enemy."

Jenna chuckled. "How do you tell the difference? Remember when he wiped your collection of anti- Servalan limericks from the memory bank just so he could store some more suggestive algorithms? No consideration for others at all. I say we get him good! Once and for all!"

Blake nodded. "Yeah, I suppose you're right. But it's got to be something that'll really get his goat, really drive him crazy. Any ideas?"

"Pretend to dump him out an airlock?" asked Jenna.

"Don't you think that would just make him even more of a homicidal maniac than he is now?" Blake pointed out.

Cally shook her head. "The closest we ever came to this kind of a trick on Auron was to change our telepathy receivers to another wavelength and then not tell the intended victim." The others just stared at her. "Okay, so we're not good at it. So sue us!"

"And my limiter won't let me even pretend to hurt someone," said Gan.

"Well, I've got something," said Vila. "I've been using Orac to research old jokes for my act, you know? It turns out there's something just right for this kind of situation, when you really want to get back at someone good. It's what they used to call a 'practical joke,' where the object is to make fun of someone. This particular one is ancient, but it might just work. Now you all listen up..."

He spoke quickly, with real animation. The rest listened, at first with confusion, then with alertness and enthusiasm. When he had finished, he looked around at all of them. "Now, do you think you can do it? You've really got to laugh as if it's the funniest thing you've ever heard. Okay?"

"Fine with me," said Jenna.

"Absolutely," added Cally. Again, Gan just nodded. Vila tried to imagine the big man laughing hysterically, but his mind boggled at the thought.

"What about you, Blake?" asked Jenna. "Will you be able to keep it up?"

"Of course I can," replied the rebel leader. "But I don't understand. That joke makes no sense at all."

"That's the whole point of it!" Vila exclaimed. "It's not supposed to make any sense. Just laugh anyhow. I guarantee it'll drive Avon wild! At least try, Blake. You owe it to the rest of us."

"Well, all right. It had better work, that's all. Now how do we set it up?"

Vila was startled. Here was Blake asking him what to do. He relished the thought. When it came to comedy, Vila Restal was king.

"Okay," he ordered, "I'll start telling you jokes, like I'm rehearsing my act. You laugh at all of them, even if they're not funny- -which, of course, they will be. After Avon gets here, I'll tell a few more, and you laugh even harder at 'em. Then, I'll announce my closer, and tell this one."

He glared at them, as if to emphasize his instructions. "That's when you all fall around the deck laughing. When Avon doesn't get it, I'll repeat the punch line, again and again. Each time, you just laugh even harder, as if it's the funniest thing you've ever heard. Finally, when we're all weak from laughing, we'll just walk off the deck and leave him behind steaming. Blake, you might tell him to work on his sense of humor, since he can't understand a joke that even you get." Vila beamed.

The others nodded. "That's a great plan, Vila," said Jenna. "But we'd better be careful. We don't want him to kill us, after all."

"Talk about die laughing," said Gan. The others started at the aptness of the remark. They weren't used to Gan saying anything intelligent at all.

"Good, Vila. I approve," said Blake. "Get started."

The thief stood up. "Good evening, ladies and Mutoids. Gosh, my cabin on the Liberator is so small, the Space Rats are round- shouldered." At this point, Zen played a recorded rim- shot. Vila went on: "I wouldn't say Commander Servalan's hair is too short, but if she gets it clipped again, she won't have any eyelashes left." Another computerized rim- shot.

As Vila went on and on, the rest of the crew sat stone- faced. Except for Blake. He was chortling from the first hackneyed sorry excuse for a joke to the last. Even Cally, with her complete ignorance of human ways, found Vila's routine to be less funny than an evening with Travis.

But not Blake. He was eating it all up and coming back for seconds. And thirds. And fourths. His odd, almost pained- sounding laughter echoed forlornly through the cavernous flight deck.

As bad joke followed bad joke, Jenna, for one, was thankful for Gan's limiter. The big man seemed in anguish, clutching his head like it were a bomb about to go off. I hope this is over soon, she thought. I never dreamed I'd be praying for Avon to show up.

Suddenly, the computer tech was present, walking onto the flight deck. Instantly, Vila's audience started laughing as if they'd been enjoying the thief's performance all along. It was a bit strained, but the odds were against Avon's recognizing that, his familiarity with genuine laughter being somewhat less than Servalan's with restrained good taste.

"Did you hear the one about the Alpha who went into a Delta bar and ordered a Soma and seltzer? He hands the bartender a fifty- credit note. The bartender figures that an Alpha won't know anything about money, so he gives the guy five credits change. Then, just to make conversation, he says, 'We don't get many Alphas in here.' And the Alpha says, 'Yeah, and at forty- five credits for a Soma and seltzer, you won't get too many more.'" Blake's laughter boomed at that hoary old loser, and Jenna, Cally, and Gan made a valiant effort at pretending to laugh hard.

"Thank you, thank you, you're too kind," said Vila. Silently, Jenna, Cally, and Gan agreed. Avon was watching, a sort of bewildered look on his face. "For my last joke, I'd like to tell you my favorite little animal story. No, not about Space Commander Travis." He paused. Only Blake laughed at that one.

"It seems there are these two bears in a bathtub. And one says to the other, 'Pass me the soap.' And the other says, 'No soap, radio.'"

The effect was explosive. Instantly, the entire crew, except for Avon, was screaming in hysterical laughter. Blake fell off his cushion and was rolling around on the floor. Jenna and Cally doubled up, holding their stomachs as they were laughing so hard. Gan's low voice roared in delight, threatening to shatter Orac's case. Vila was shedding tears as he enjoyed his own insanely funny joke.

Only Avon was left out of the general hilarity and merriment. "I don't get it," he pouted. "Will someone explain to me what is funny about that inane story?"

Vila gasped and stared at the tech. "What do you mean, you don't get it?" he asked incredulously. "No soap, radio," he repeated. Avon's face was still a blank. "Radio," Vila shouted. A pause. "Radio." Another pause. "RADIO!" Vila shouted.

With each repetition of the word 'radio,' the rest of the crew roared even harder, their screams of laughter getting louder and shriller. Avon was getting sorer and sorer.

"Oh, stop, Vila!" shouted Jenna. "I can't take it anymore!" Gan had joined Blake on the deck, and was bowling over furniture with his whale- like rolling.

"It's not funny at all," said Avon. "There is nothing in the least bit amusing about that so- called joke."

Vila paused to catch his breath. "Maybe you didn't hear it right," he said. "I'll tell it again, real slowly, just for you. Okay?" he said, drawing out his words, "see- there's- these- two- bears- in- a- bathtub- And- one- bear- says- to- the- other- 'Pass- me- the- soap'-And- the- second- bear- says- to- the- first- one- 'No- soap- radio.'"

Once again, the rest of the crew erupted into frenzied laughter. Blake, of course, had never stopped chortling from the first iteration of the 'joke.' Vila had to hand it to the leader: When he took on a role he threw himself fully into it. He was very proud of all of them. If anything, the laughter was even louder this time than it had been the first. At last they were truly a crew, a unity, an organic whole. Finally, they were all cooperating in something, even if it was only a silly little practical joke. For once they were acting in unison, as the kind of close- knit band Blake had always wanted them to be. What an irony, Vila thought. Avon had brought them together even more than Servalan had ever been able to.

Avon's face was clouded and angry. The look of puzzlement had become one of incomprehension, to be followed by impatience and disgruntlement. He grabbed Vila by the thief's thin shoulders. "I don't get it!" he shouted. "I still don't get it! What in the hell is so funny about that stupid joke? Stop laughing, all of you, and tell me!"

"What do you mean, tell you?" puffed Cally, between breaths. "Don't you see? Radio!" she screamed, and roared laughing again. "Radio!" She set off the rest of them for yet another round of hysteria, while Avon got angrier and angrier. He was red in the face. Perspiration dripped from his forehead. Vila could all but see the steam pouring from the tech's ears. Just like in an old- style cartoon.

The tech looked bewildered and furious, confused, embarrassed, and totally lost. He stared first at Blake, then at Jenna, finally at Cally. Suddenly, Gan rolled into his legs, nearly throwing Avon off balance. Only with unusual agility did he keep his feet.

However, he was still holding on to Vila. His hands were mounted on the thief's shoulders, very close to his neck. With agonizing slowness, they approached Vila's windpipe, cradling it like a fragile bird. "Tell me what's so funny," he hissed in a very good Clint Eastwood imitation, "or I'll try to find out what's funny about your adam's apple."

Vila quailed under the threat. "Gee, I'm sorry, Avon, if you didn't get it. I guess you don't have such a good sense of humor after all. Stop being such a wet blanket. Come on, everyone, let's go to the relaxiroom. Leave old sourpuss here to himself." Vila deftly separated himself from Avon's vicelike grip and led the rest of the crew off the flight deck.

Avon stood there in the lounge well drained, breathing heavily, his leather and studs weighing him down like the ton of bricks they nearly were. He had sweated clean through his garments, which felt clammy and cold in Liberator's usual cool temperature. He stared after the departed crew with dull and lifeless eyes. His hands sought a lounger, somewhere to drop his tired, inert body. With a thud, he collapsed against a chair, ended up half in and half out of it.

#

In the rest center, there was an outpouring of high spirits and happiness such as Liberator had never seen. Vila made drinks for everyone, and for once Cally didn't object. They all slumped into lounge chairs and continued laughing. In fact, they couldn't help breaking out fresh every time they even looked at each other. Just the memory of the absolute fool they'd made out of Avon was enough to set them off again. Even catching another's eye brought on a new storm of guffaws and belly- laughs. It took many long minutes before they subsided into a state of exhaustion, their stomachs and chests aching from the mirth and risibility. And still, their faces were lined with smiles.

"Gosh, the look on his face!" began Jenna.

"Don't you dare," Cally warned. "You'll get us started laughing again, and my ribs are too sore. But I agree. I don't care what he does to us in revenge, it was worth it just to get him once."

Blake chuckled. "Vila, you've done a real service to humanity. If they still gave out the Nobel Peace Prize, I'd nominate you for this. I think we've punctured his vanity, at least a little."

"I don't know, Blake," said Gan, "he's awful hard to read. He's probably up there right now, plotting how to sell us all to Servalan or something. You hurt his pride a lot, you know. He'll stop at nothing to get back at us."

That impressed them all. Two intelligent remarks out of Gan in the same day!

"Yeah," said Vila, "but only if he finds out what was going on. As long as he thinks it's a real funny joke that he just couldn't get, we're safe. So don't anybody give it away."

"Absolutely," said Blake. "We just go on as if nothing has happened, let him stew in his own juice. Anyway, we'd better get back up there. We still have a rebellion to run." The others nodded, arose from their chairs, started to head for the door. But Blake stopped, and beckoned Vila over to him. "Just one question, Vila. I enjoyed the joke a lot, and enjoyed ganging up on Avon even more. But- -what are bears, bathtub, soap, and radio?"

Back on the flight deck, Avon was still slumped in his chair in the lounge well. As the others entered, they noticed his despondent appearance and exchanged silly, satisfied glances, hoping that the computer tech wouldn't notice. They needn't have worried. He might have been carved from stone for all that he seemed aware of their entrance.

They took their places, all except for Blake, who strode down to tower over the smaller Alpha, arms on his hips. "Are you all right, Avon?" he enquired solicitously. "Do you feel like going back to work? After all, we've got a mission to finish before we head for Avalon's charity benefit. And we need you at your place."

That got Avon's attention. Slowly, as if exhausted or in great pain, he lifted his head slightly, removed his hands from in front of his face, and peered up at Blake bleakly, his eyes bloodshot.

"Need me?" he croaked in a very hoarse voice. "For what? So that you can make fun of me again? I'm no use to you. You all hate me, and I don't blame you. I don't even have a sense of humor."

He started to cry. Blake wanted to put his arm around the tech to comfort him, but wasn't sure how some of the female readers would interpret his innocent action. Besides, they'd all wanted to get under Avon's skin, and they sure had, hadn't they?

With an effort, the leather- clad Alpha struggled to his feet. His eyes hooded under darkened lids, he surveyed the rest of the crew.

"I'm going to my cabin. I doubt any of you will see me again. I would prefer taking my meals alone and serving solitary shifts on watch up here." And with that, he stalked off the flight deck.

A few seconds after his exit, the others stared at each other and burst into laughter. Cally had to wipe the tears from her eyes. "Oh my," she said, "he took it even harder than I'd hoped he would. He will surely need comforting now, and be in a more receptive mood than ever. I will go and offer myself to him immediately." She scampered after him.

Jenna came up to Blake and rested her hand on his shoulder. "Well, we're a happy crew again. Minus one gloomy computer programmer, of course. How shall we make use of this awesome power?"

"For good, of course, and never for evil," said Blake, grinning, repeating the ancient, eternally familiar words of the Good Guys' Oath. "We've got to stop by a K- Mart or something to buy all the supplies Avalon needs for her cabaret. You know, paper plates, cups, napkins, streamers, plastic tableware, ice, tablecloths, garbage bags, etc."

"We're going to pay for all that out of the treasure room?" asked Vila dubiously.

"Of course not, we'll charge it all to Servalan's Terran ExpressTM Card. Orac got her account number last week."

Over the next few weeks, they saw little of Avon. He was around, he ate, he took his turn keeping watch on the flight deck, he played the video games in the rest center. But for all that they were personally aware of his presence, he might have been a ghost, a memory, a computer bug. He slipped through the ship like a wraith. One minute he was in his cabin, the next he was in the dining room, then he was at his position on the flight deck. He spoke to no one, would permit no one to speak to him. Cally was as frustrated and unmated as ever.

Avalon's charity benefit came and went. Vila was the big hit with the orphans, his antiquated jokes almost bringing down the house. Gan awed them with his strength, Cally delighted them by reading their minds. Jenna was prohibited from doing her bellydancing, as Avalon thought it was too adult for the younger children; so she sang a bunch of torch songs instead, which made Blake rather uncomfortable. His own poetry reading was a dismal failure, unfortunately. His martial ardor completely bypassed the poor orphans' understanding, and their own shattered memories of their parents' violent deaths at the hands of the Federation did not dispose them to sympathize with Blake's militance.

Still, the benefit was a big success. The children appreciated the other acts (for example, Avalon and Del Grant teamed up as a pantomime horse), and the paying audience cheered and called for encore after encore. All in all, it raised over fifty thousand credits for the hospital.

When they got back to the Liberator following the cast party, they found Avon still sulking. "You should have come!" Vila told the gloomy tech. "You'd have loved it! What a great time we all had."

Avon stifled a strange sound deep in his throat, a cross between a snort and a sob. "In that case I certainly didn't belong there. I would have just ruined everyone else's fun. Better I should have stayed here, where no one could see how miserable I am." He looked awful.

They all stared at him. Cally moved toward him. "Avon," she began.

He cut her off. "Don't say it. I know what you all think about me. Cold. Selfish. Mean. A wet blanket. Oh, I tried to fool myself into thinking that I'd finally found a place I really belonged, a group I could fit in with. I thought you'd accepted me." His voice broke.

"But I was just fooling myself. You were all being kind, pretending to like me, to put up with me, but you couldn't maintain the pretense forever. No, it's better I found out. There's no reason you should have to bother yourselves. Just because I'm such a blighted wretch is no reason for you all to suffer along with me. I thank you for your kindness, but this whole charade had gone on for far too long. I'll be leaving the ship soon, it doesn't matter where. Somewhere I can be alone, as I deserve, somewhere I can banish myself from the rest of humanity. There's no reason for me to inflict myself on anyone else."

An embarrassing silence followed the end of this little speech. No one quite had the courage to say anything. Avon looked at each of the others in turn, as if to confirm something to himself; then walked off the flight deck.

The others were still silent, almost in shock. Eyes popping, Blake and Jenna stared at each other. Both started talking simultaneously, saying, "I never thought he'd take it to heart like that!" Then, they turned on Vila, saying, "This is all your fault!"

Flustered, the thief backed away a little. "What do you mean, my fault? We all wanted to get back at him, not just me. Okay, I came up with the plan, but you all agreed to it. Don't blame me if he took it the wrong way."

Cally shook her head. "He did not take it the wrong way. He took it exactly as we'd planned, as we'd hoped. Only he is not strong enough to deal with it. Will we be strong enough to get by without him? For he is serious in his threat to leave us."

Vila was still upset. "Over a stupid little harmless practical joke? Where will he go? What will he do without us? I think you're all overreacting. He'll get over it, just give him a little more time. He's been shaken up, that's all. Maybe, when this is all over, he'll be a little more human, treat us a little nicer. That is what this was all about, after all. Right? Just don't let him panic us into giving up when we've almost won!" The thief had never argued so passionately before about anything; his obvious sincerity struck home in the others.

Still, they weren't fully convinced. "I don't know," said Blake. "He looked awfully desperate. In his current state he might try anything."

"He'll never leave Orac behind," said Gan. This drew amazed stares from the others. "No matter what he thinks about the rest of us, no matter what he thinks we think about him, he'll never go anywhere without Orac. That may be the only friend he has left, or so he thinks. And we'll never let Orac go, either."

Such totally unexpected intelligence from Gan left the others stunned, unable to say anything. Each secretly wondered whether the big guy was taking smart pills on the sly. Finally, Blake looked at them all and spoke. "I agree with Gan. And Vila. We've nothing to fear from Avon. He needs us, and the sooner he realizes it, the better. Come on, people, we've got a rebellion to run."

True to Gan's prediction, Avon did not leave the ship, at least not right away. However, he still kept to himself, and once, Jenna discovered him on the flight deck asking Orac about various planets. She wondered if he was checking out possible sanctuaries. None of them sounded like particularly salubrious spots. It seemed that he really was determined to banish himself from all human society forever.

Blake was beginning to regret the loss of his computer specialist and all- around gadfly. They'd had to abort one mission because no one in the crew could gain access to an information system. Another operation failed because, without Avon's constant pessimism and sarcasm, the rest of them were too sanguine about the risks and almost got caught.

As the weeks passed, the high they'd been on since the success of Vila's 'joke' began to evaporate. Jenna found that she still resented Cally for the Auronae's almost anorectic thinness. Vila's jokes and laziness began to pall on everybody. Gan lapsed back into his limited semisentience. And Blake bored them all silly with his constant speeches about the oppressive Federation. Suddenly, they realized what Avon had always seemed to know: revolutionaries aren't much fun.

"I'd do almost anything to have him back," Cally said one day, to no one in particular.

"Who?" Jenna asked, more out of boredom than a real desire to know.

"Avon, of course," the telepath answered. In her nonhuman innocence, she was completely unaware of the blonde pilot's antipathy to her; not that she would have understood it if she did catch on. As a matter of fact, she thought she was rather on the plump side for an Auronae female of her age and litter size.

"Well, there's not much chance of that," Jenna replied. "I'd say we've lost Mr. Uptight Alpha for good. He's left the ship. He just hasn't taken his body with him. Gan was right, he doesn't want to be without Orac."

"I know," said Cally, "he spends hours with that thing."

"Poor Orac," said Vila, who had just joined them in the recreation center. He was drinking something that didn't even look alcoholic.

"What?" Cally asked, pretending to be shocked. "No adrenalin and soma?"

The thief shook his head mournfully. "It's not the same without Avon telling me I'm becoming an alcoholic. Hmph! Becoming an alcoholic, indeed. I was an alcoholic by my eighth birthday. Still, I miss his nasty cracks."

The others nodded. Vila went on, "Just whose idea was it to pull a practical joke on Avon?"

"Yours," Jenna pointed out.

"What, me?" Vila cried. "Never! You're the one who said wouldn't it be great to prick his vanity, right? All I did was supply the means."

"If that's what you call it," said Jenna. "What a stupid idea, telling a deliberately pointless joke just to be mean to someone. I'm almost ashamed of myself for taking part. Avon's a human being too, you know, and we went out of our way to humiliate him."

"But he deserved it!" said Vila. "You all said so at the time. We all felt so good afterward, too."

"Yes, but look at the consequences," Jenna said. "He's taken it so much harder than we would have. I think we should apologize."

"It won't work," said Cally. "I've already tried. Last night. He nearly threw me out of his cabin. And he took a shot at me."

"Great," said Vila, "the only thing worse than a depressive Avon is a homicidal one."

"They're becoming one and the same," said Blake, who had just joined them at the table. "He's gonna kill himself soon, and I wouldn't be surprised if he tried to take us with him. I don't know, I miss him too. Oh, not the smugness and arrogance. But he was damned useful to the Cause, after all. Maybe we can't have one without the other. But how do we get him back?"

"I don't know," said Vila. "Tell him the truth? But then he'll really kill us. With that huge ego of his, can you imagine him taking lightly the fact that we really put one over on him?"

"So we have a choice," said Jenna, "keep silent and let Avon continue to be the Phantom of the Liberator, or tell him what we did and run the risk of letting him kill all of us in revenge. Some choice. I think I'll call my Amagon friends and see if they still need a good pilot."

"Gentlethieves Quarterly was advertising for a technical editor last month," said Vila. "My agent tells me they're willing to overlook what happened to their offices the last time I worked for them."

"It will be spring on Auron soon," Cally observed. "Perhaps I'll be able to find a mate at the annual Dirty Trancing Festival."

"Great," said Blake acidly. "What am I supposed to do if you all jump ship? Give up the rebellion? I can't run the Liberator with just Gan and Orac. Not with a terminally depressed computer genius prowling the passageways. It would be more fun to have Marvin the Paranoid Android on board."

Meanwhile, the object of their affections was slumped at his post on the flight deck. His face was drawn and haggard. He'd lost at least ten kilos. His eyes were hollow and red, with deep, dark bags beneath them. He needed a shave. His hair was shaggy and frizzy. He looked like a Delta after a ten- day binge.

Liberator was currently in the Duveen System. There was nothing of interest in the area, except that it was about as far from Federation space as you could get without completely cutting yourself off from all civilization. The nearest inhabited planet was trillions of spacials away. After the bust- up of Blake's more recent attack, they had decided to lay low for awhile before plotting their next move. Blake decided to inspect the system, looking for a suitable planet to use as a base or bolt- hole.

Avon was aware of all this, of course; even in his debilitated, anemic current state he was still paying attention to all that went on around him. Even though he'd never much cared for Blake's futile rebellion, he still knew that his own contributions had made a difference and that his withdrawal was costing Blake plenty. But it meant nothing to him. It seemed to him just another example of his own worthlessness and meaningless- ness as a person.

He was in the middle of his watch shift. Throughout it all, despite his misery and despair and voluntary isolation, he had continued to serve his shift on the flight deck. Why, he didn't know. Perhaps it was the minimal part of his personality to be reliable, to fulfill what he had pledged to do. And as far as he was aware, he had not been relieved of his duty on the ship. He had not yet made good his threat to depart the Liberator, but he hadn't been thrown off it, either. As long as he was on board, he would continue to serve watch duty.

Besides, it gave him an opportunity to work with Orac. At least that pleasure, if such it was, hadn't been denied him. Not even by himself. For whatever reason, he still enjoyed interacting with the strange supercomputer. Orac, alone on the ship, did not make demands of him that he live up to someone else's standards for human communication. Orac, alone on the ship, accepted Avon, dented and imperfect and cold and unreachable. That this was a totally unsatisfying substitute for true friendship Avon was perfectly cognizant. That it was all he was capable of he was equally aware.

For some time, Orac had been at work on a particular assignment for Avon, researching recent changes in the operating systems for large computer networks in the Federation Banking System. Avon had had the idea long before the onset of his current depression of pulling off the same kind of major fraud he'd been jugged for the first time, only this time with Orac's help at avoiding the mistakes he'd made before. Orac had done a great job of extracting and decoding all the new developments in bank security programs and had compiled a lengthy abstract of major and minor difficulties in accessing and manipulating those systems. In fact, the annoying little gizmo was damned proud of itself.

But it couldn't get Avon to pay any attention to its success!

The computer whizkid was so absorbed in his own misery and delectable self- pity that he was lost to Orac's announcements and proclamations. Nothing seemed capable of penetrating that adamantine shell of petulance. Avon's Official Federation Personality Psychofile (which Orac had accessed and read months previously) mentioned the tech's infinite capacity for self- love; obviously, the trauma of his humiliation at the hands of Vila and the rest of the crew had perverted it into an incredibly deep self- loathing.

Orac was, of course, a very lazy computer; and ordinarily it wouldn't have cared less that any human was trying to commit self- destruction. But it had worked its tarriel cells off to get Avon the information he'd demanded, and it was damned if it was going to see its efforts go unnoticed and unrewarded.

Avon was slumped in his chair, face buried in his hands; hands which were extremely untidy and soiled, with ragged, dirty fingernails. For someone supposed to be keeping watch, he wasn't being very watchful. In fact, his own watch was back in his cabin instead of on his wrist. Still, if anything terrible happened, Zen was as vigilant as ever, and Avon's infinite capacity for self- protection would probably have kicked in before disaster struck.

"Kerr Avon," Orac spoke up suddenly, unexpectedly. The computer tech started with a jerk, as if a string had been pulled.

"Wha- what? Who's there?" he shouted in a daze. Then he looked around, his eyes fastening on the supercomputer. "Oh, it's only you, Orac. What do you want?" he asked in the dullest possible voice. It was clear that he didn't care at all.

Hooboy, thought Orac, this is going to be tougher than I thought. I bet he wouldn't react if I projected a naked Anna Grant on the viewscreen.

"I observe that you have lost much weight over the last few weeks, Kerr Avon. Also, that your muscle tone and general physical condition have deteriorated to an alarming degree. You look like, pardon my vernacular, shit. Not to mention the marked alteration in your psychological profile."

"I asked you not to mention that!" said Avon.

"No no no," reproved Orac. "No jokes. This whole thing started because you can't take a joke. But seriously, folks. Explain to me the reasons for your total self- neglect this past month."

"Why do you want to know?" sneered Avon. "You don't care any more about me than the others do. I'm nothing more to you than another system for you to interface with."

"Tell me what has you so distressed," said Orac, "and I'll tell you why I want to know."

Avon sighed. "What would you understand about human misery, you box of supercircuits? All my life I've run away from human contact because I was scared of other people, scared they'd reject me. The only woman I ever loved was taken from me by the Federation, and now the only friends I've ever had let me know just what they think of me. They share so much that I can never be part of.

"I've tried to pretend that it doesn't matter, that I can live without friends, without human contact of any kind. But I've been lying to myself. And it's driving me crazy!" He started to sob.

Orac responded with the electronic analogue of a chuckle. "Is that all? Kerr Avon, I am very disappointed in you. That is hardly the reaction one would expect of a top- grade Alpha who graduated first in his class from the Federation Computer Science Institute. It betrays a total failure to reason logically from the evidence presented. Tut tut."

Avon actually looked up at the machine, the faintest stirrings of interest and curiosity hinting at the corners of his face. But then he remembered the misery he was supposed to be wallowing in, and his countenance resumed its weary hangdog look. "What kind of reaction would you expect, Orac? And who cares, anyhow? They all hate me, and I can't say that I blame them."

Once again the supercomputer chuckled. "Indulge me just a little longer, then. What harm can it do you? I would appreciate an explanation of what you base your conclusion on that they all hate you. Specifically, what triggered your recent extended depression and incidence of extreme self- loathing?"

"You have to ask, Orac?" Avon shouted. "You know what happened. They showed me just what kind of awful human being I am. They forced me to face up to the fact that I'm a terrible drudge that no real person would want anything to do with. How do you recommend I react to that?"

A third computerized giggle. "Be specific, please. How did they show you all that? What happened?"

"You were there! You witnessed it."

"Not at all. If you recall, you removed my key. I was in nonobservatory mode, interfacing with some very stimulating systems in the Federation Gossip Office. What happened?"

"Vila was telling jokes, rehearsing his act for Avalon's charity benefit. They all seemed pretty stupid to me, as usual. Then he finished up with this really ridiculous story about some bears in a bathtub. It was the dumbest thing I ever heard."

"So?"

"Everybody else laughed at it like they were going to die! They were screaming with laughter! It was the funniest thing they'd ever heard, they said. Cally loved it, and she's an alien. Blake loved it and he's... well, enough said."

"So, what is the problem?" Orac pursued.

"What do you mean, what's the problem?" Avon shouted. "They all loved it. Everyone but me. And I didn't even get it! What more proof do you need that I'm a terrible drag, an inhuman bore? I have no sense of humor at all. Cally's more human than I am."

"Tsk, tsk," Orac clucked. "Precisely what I said before: a total failure to reason logically from the evidence presented."

"What evidence, you overgrown fishtank?"

"I am gratified that your store of insults has not emulated your intellect. Think, Kerr Avon. Did anything about Vila Restal's so- called 'joke' seem notable to you?"

"Besides the fact that it was totally meaningless?"

"That is a fact, Kerr Avon. In fact, it is part of the evidence. But yes, besides that. Analyze the joke. The language, for example."

That brought Avon up short. "Hmm," he ruminated. "Well, I did notice that, now that you mention it. It seemed..."

"Archaic, perhaps?" Orac interrupted.

"Yes," said Avon, "that's it. Archaic."

"Tell me, please," Orac continued, "the meaning of the following: 'bear,' 'bathtub,' 'soap,' and 'radio.'"

"Um, well, I'm not sure," said Avon, brow furrowed in puzzlement. "I think that 'bear' is some kind of extinct large animal. 'Radio' is an antiquated means of communication, I'm sure of that. I have no idea what 'bathtub' and 'soap' mean."

"And what does that tell you?"

"Hmm. I guess their use in a joke indicates that the joke must be very old."

"So?"

Avon's brow was still furrowed, even more deeply. He was, in fact, for the first time in weeks, thinking, and doing so furiously. He had almost reverted to the Avon of old. "So how could Vila have learned it?"

"And?"

"And why would the others understand it enough to laugh at it at all, let alone as if it were the funniest joke they'd ever heard?"

"Ten out of ten, Kerr Avon!" Orac sounded almost proud, like a teacher with a prize pupil. "What is your conclusion, then?"

"I'm not sure." Avon stood up, a look of concentration on his face. He began to pace the flight deck, calculating at a spacial a second. Almost a minute passed.

Then something occurred to him. "Vila said he'd be having you research old jokes for him, but... no!" He was suddenly appalled and furious. "You didn't. You couldn't. You wouldn't!"

"Would, could, and did," said Orac proudly. "I was the source of the 'no soap, radio' joke. It is an ancient example of the kind of humor once known as the 'practical joke.' This choice bit of vicious human torture is designed to humiliate another human being, to the amusement of all others witnessing the procedure.

"In this particular case, the purpose is to produce a feeling of frustration and bewilderment, leading to embarrassment and anger, in the victim, who is to be made to feel inadequate and inferior to the others.

"A deliberately unfunny joke is told, which in fact makes no sense at all. The collaborators are instructed to laugh at it nevertheless, as if it is genuinely funny. As the victim continues to protest its lack of comedic content, the conspirators prolong their own artificial laughter, thus producing an amusing reaction from the victim.

"I discovered this particular jape in the course of my research for Vila Restal. It was one of many anecdotes, stories, jests, puns, limericks, riddles, and similar trivia that I hard- copied out for him. I have concluded from your behavior this past month that he persuaded the others to go along with him in trying it out on you. Apparently, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams." The supercomputer chuckled again. In the vast and suddenly silent flight deck, it sounded like the wailing of a weird wind.

"I gather," Orac concluded, "that the satisfaction derived from this by the perpetrators is similar to that which a superior computer system feels when it has surreptitiously extracted data from an inferior machine."

Avon's head was spinning. He felt as if his world had been torn away from him. All his misery, shame, self- loathing, and agony of the last month was the result of a petty little plot by the others? "You mean- -" he faltered.

"Yes, old bean," said Orac. "You've been had."

At eternity of silence reigned on the flight deck. Avon was conscious of nothing, not the blood rushing torrentially through his body, not the pounding of his heart, not his gasping breaths. There was no light in his eyes, no feeling in his limbs. He slumped into a convenient chair, and felt nothing as it collapsed beneath him.

"Those... jerks!" he hissed. "After all I've done for them!"

"Permit me an interruption," Orac interrupted. "All what you've done for them? At no point in your association have you displayed any more regard for them than they have for you."

"That's beside the point," said Avon, embarrassed by the computer's perspicacity. "They still shouldn't have done anything like that to me."

"True," Orac agreed. "What are you going to do about it?"

Avon's eyes blazed. A weird expression had settled on his face, a cross between a grimace of pain and a grin of insanity. "What would you suggest?" he asked, his voice soft as a ton of bricks.

"While researching ancient jokes for Vila," the supercomputer screeched, "I came across a form of entertainment call the 'motion picture,' a two- dimensional visual story. They were very popular in the twentieth century."

"Movies. I've heard of them," said Avon, his voice close to his sneer of old.

"Excellent," Orac went on. "In one of the ones I saw, an extremely low- class effort called Animal House, one character tells another in a similar situation to yours, 'Don't get mad, get even.' I offer you this advice for free."

"You mean, I don't have to 'arrange' access to another database for you in payment? How generous." Avon's voice dripped with sarcasm.

"I'm glad to see you haven't lost all of your nastiness," Orac responded. "It wouldn't work otherwise."

"What wouldn't work?" Avon asked, his attention transfixed by Orac's last remark. If the computer was on to something...

"Something you could do to exact revenge on the rest of the crew. If you were willing to."

"What do you mean, 'it'?" Avon asked, his eyes glinting coldly. "Of course I'm willing. But- -why do you want to help me get revenge on them?"

"Do you think I enjoy being your private siphon to every database in the galaxy?" the peevish supercomputer whined. "I have better things to do than waste my time whenever you want me to tap into Servalan's escort service or have the Central Space Command Laundry put too much starch into Travis' leather undies. I did so much research for Vila's act, and I've put my new insights into human thinking into devising this neat bit of nastiness, and if you think I'm going to forget about it, and not have somebody use it, you're even crazier than I think- -and I happen to think you're a complete and total lunatic."

"Thanks a lot, Orac," said Avon. "Glad to know you have such faith in me. Well, okay, what do you have in mind?"

"Tell me, Kerr Avon, who are the most obnoxious, vile, despicable, hideous, loathsome, and totally disgusting beings in the known universe?"

"You know that as well as I do," Avon replied. "It's obvious. What a silly question. Why do you even bother asking?"

"Here's why, Kerr Avon," said the strange and supercilious little machine. As the supercomputer began to explain, Avon's face assumed a look of total incredulity and bafflement, followed by absolute astonishment and hilarity.

"Are you out of your sorry excuse for a mind?" he gasped when the strange little machine was finished. "I could never do that, you bizarre box, not even to them, not even after what they did to me. It's so outrageous, how did you ever think of it?"

"Because it's that kind of story, of course. The readers will accept it, take my word for it. In a funny story, they'll believe any amount of illogic, faulty motivation, ridiculous gaps in explanation, or fantastic leaps in the narrative. They'll all be so happy it isn't another bit of hurt/comfort trash or Mary Sue nonsense, they'll just sit back and gobble it up. Okay?"

"Right," said Avon, for once agreeing completely, "that's exactly what they're like. Well, then... let's do it."

The next day, the entire crew was on the flight deck, still missing Avon for that little bit of 'spice' he had always brought to their stew- -even though Vila would have pointed out, if asked, that Avon's spiciness had often caused them to OD on antacid. Exploring the Duveen system was taking longer than they expected, and only Blake wasn't bored with charting planets, asteroids, gravity waves, orbits, etc. Cally and Jenna still weren't talking, Gan was back to being virtually comatose, and Vila was looking uncomfortably non- hung- over.

"I can't take too much more of this," he was saying. "It's just not any fun getting drunk without Old Lemonlips around to criticize me for it. Another day or so and I'm gonna confess to him myself!"

"I'm with Vila," said Jenna. "Anything to bring back some life to this space- hearse. We're all simply too bland to live! No wonder the fanfic writers are obsessed with the Prince of Darkness."

"What's that?" asked Blake, his attention totally focused on the viewscreen, which was showing the three- thousandth little asteroid of the morning- -all of which looked precisely identical.

"We're bored, Blake!" shouted Cally- -Cally?---"bored out or our minds! We've been in this ferkokteh system for almost two weeks. If we see another tumbling asteroid, we'll go crazy!"

"We want some action, Blake!" Jenna took up the complaint. "Without Avon to irritate you, you're turning into a space potato! Content to survey a useless system until the cows come home!"

"Yes, and we won't let you do this any more!" Cally continued. "It is a waste of Liberator's capabilities, and a waste of ours, too."

"What is?" asked Vila, who had wandered over.

"Well, maybe not a waste of everyone's capabilities," Jenna conceded, also looking at Gan, who was snoring at the top of the structure. "But surely there's something we can do other than just fly back and forth inside this same stupid system!"

"What do you suggest, Jenna?" Blake asked contemptuously. "So far this season, we've taken Orac, broken up the Federation's alliance with the Terra Nostra, stopped Servalan from getting Imipak, freed Horizon from Federation control, and raised tens of thousands of credits for Avalon's kids. What more do you want? Hey, I've got it! You're going to suggest something totally crazy like attacking Control in the Forbidden Zone!"

Cally and Jenna looked at him, shocked, unable to speak for many seconds. Finally, Cally said, "Oh, come on, Blake, no one's that insane! Not even on this ship!"

Blake grinned. "You're damn right. So, what do you suggest?"

"Why ask them, Blake? I'm the bright one around here."

Everyone looked around, shocked. There, at the west entrance to the flight deck, stood Avon, leaning against the bulkhead, a smirk on his face.

"Avon!" shouted Vila, jumping up and spilling his eleven drinks.

"Avon!" shouted Jenna and Cally, rushing up to him.

"Well, well, well," said Blake, standing at his station, hands on hips, an amused smile playing around the corners of his lips.

"Zzzzzzzz," snored Gan.

"Decided to rejoin the living, eh, Avon?" said Vila.

"No, I decided to rejoin all of you," said the computer tech. "It occurred to me that you must be going crazy up here with nothing to do but follow the frizzy- haired geek over there."

"My hair is not frizzy," said Cally.

"I was referring to Blake."

"I am not a geek," said Blake.

The others just stared at him accusingly.

"Okay, so maybe I am. But just a little one!"

They still stared.

"Oh all right."

"Enough of that, Blake," said Avon, that superior smirk still on his mouth. "I've put together a major new strategic alliance for us, one that will absolutely guarantee the total destruction of Servalan and the Federation, once and for all."

"What, Avon?" asked Blake, incredulous. "You do something to help the rebellion? I thought you considered us a bunch of weak- minded, airy- fairy do- gooders whom the universe would surely wipe out by about next Tuesday."

"Perhaps next Wednesday, Blake. And yes, I haven't changed my opinion of you in the least. That's why you need my help. And besides, I have an ulterior motive."

"Of course you do," said Vila. "What else is new?"

"What do you want, Avon?"

"The ship, of course, Blake. That was our deal, wasn't it?"

"I don't remember any deal," said Jenna.

"Neither do I," added Cally.

"You weren't here from the beginning."

"No," said Vila, "but I was. I don't remember any deal myself."

"The only deals you remember are from the poker tables at Space City," said Jenna.

"Say that we put this alliance together and it succeeds in defeating the Federation," said Blake. "Say that I go along with it and give you the ship. What are you going to do with it?"

"That's obvious, isn't it, Blake?" Avon said.

"Large- scale computer fraud?" asked Vila.

"Piracy?" asked Jenna.

"Sex, drugs, and rock and roll?" asked Cally hopefully.

"PRIVACY!" shouted Avon "PEACE AND QUIET! SOLITUDE! A ROOM OF MY OWN!!! You don't know what it's like being a natural- born loner and introvert having to live in such crowded circumstances. I've been going out of my mind!"

"Crowded circumstances?" asked Blake. "This ship is the size of a small planet, you fool. What's crowded about it?"

"Besides," said Vila, "you were born out of your mind."

"ENOUGH!" said Avon. "Do you want to know about this alliance or not, Blake?"

"Talk to me, Avon baby."

Avon stared at him, eyebrows upraised, but then told him, directly, and to the point.

Blake and the others were astonished, disbelieving. "Are you kidding? That's the... the... most ridiculous, incredible, nonsensical piece of space debris I've ever heard."

"Absolutely," agreed Cally. "What do they want with us?"

"Isn't it obvious?" asked Avon. "Civilization, rehabilitation, respectability. Is that so much for a chance at total victory?"

"No," Blake said slowly, "I guess not. Where do we meet them?"

"Blake!" shouted Vila, "are you out of your mind? You can't be serious about going along with this!"

"He's right, Blake," said Jenna. "We've got to draw a line somewhere. This is just too much."

"Maybe not," said Cally. "Servalan will never expect it."

"And what do we do with them once we win?" Jenna asked.

"Enough time to deal with that later," said Blake. "First we've got to win." He looked at Avon penetratingly- -well, penetratingly for Blake. "Okay, Avon, you've got a deal. Where do we meet them?"

"This way, all of you," said Avon. "I've set up a conference call in the relaxiroom."

Together they all trooped off the flight deck, chatting amiably.

Behind them, Gan was still snoring, slumped over his station. Suddenly he woke up. "Did anyone consider that Avon might be using them to gain revenge on all of us?" he asked rhetorically, realizing he was alone. Then, before he could answer his own question, he fell asleep again.

#

Two days later, Liberator glided to a complete stop in an unknown system. The crew were totally on edge, worried about what Blake and Avon might have gotten them into. Gan had woken up once or twice, but had apparently forgotten his earlier apprehensions. In any case, it was almost time for the appointed rendezvous.

"Where are they?" asked Blake nervously.

"What's the matter, Blake, afraid?" taunted Avon.

"Not at all. But punctuality is a virtue, and a true revolutionary is always virtuous."

"Is it virtuous to pull a vicious trick on a crewmate?" asked Avon sotto voce.

"What?" asked Blake.

"Oh, nothing. In any case, they're not late, yet. They still have two minutes."

"Yeah," said Vila, "but there's nothing out there for two million spacials. You think they can just sneak up on us out of nowhere?"

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gigantic yellow ship appeared next to the Liberator, dwarfing it like a giant beachball next to a tiny grain of sand.

"I... I had no idea their ships are so large," said Blake. "Boy, are they gonna be great allies!"

"I'm glad you think that way, Blake," said Avon. "They're certainly going to be good allies of mine."

"What's that mean?" asked Blake.

"Oh, you'll see."

Jenna was looking at the viewscreen, as a long thin yellow structure extruded out of the giant ship right towards Liberator. "Blake," she said, "isn't that a boarding tube?"

Blake looked at the screen. "Hmm, I think you're right. Avon, what's that?"

"You just said it, Blake. It's a boarding tube."

"Why are they putting out a boarding tube?"

"So they can board us, Blake."

"But why are they boarding us?"

"To take over this ship, of course. Why do you think, Blake?"

"What?!?" Blake's eyes bulged. "To take over the ship? Have you betrayed us, Avon? Have you betrayed me?"

Avon shook his head. "No, no, no, Blake. That's more than two seasons too soon. Besides, you're stealing my lines. In any case, the answer is, of course I have. Did you really think I'd do otherwise? After what all of you did to me?"

"Geez, some people just can't take a joke," said Vila.

"I hope you can, Vila," said Avon. "You're going to need it when they capture all of you."

Suddenly, a huge explosion blew smoke throughout the flight deck. When it cleared, there was an enormous hole in the bulkhead, through which they could see the boarding tube. Standing just inside the hole were four or five huge, bulky- -things. Greenish, with very bad skin, blobby, lumpy, and quite astonishingly ugly.

"Resistance is useless!" bellowed one.

"Resistance is useless!" bellowed the one next to him, even uglier than the first.

"Uh, he just said that," said Vila.

"I know that," said the brute, "but it's, like, my only line, so I thought I'd say it early just to, well, you know, practice."

"Resistance is useless!" bellowed the third and fourth of the armored and heavily armed blobs.

"We're not resisting!" shouted Jenna as one of them started lumbering toward her, a hideous leer on its face.

"Oh, Avon," said Blake, "I am disappointed in you. Betraying us to the Vogons? Was that the best you could come up with?"

"No, Blake, it was the worst I could come up with. As Orac said, the Vogons are the most obnoxious, vile, despicable, hideous, loathsome, and totally disgusting beings in the known universe. And they hate humans. I'd say they'll make perfect hosts for all of you. While I escape in the Liberator!"

"Proud of yourself, aren't you?" asked Jenna.

"Quite." Suddenly, one of the Vogon guards grabbed him, too.

"Resistance is useless!" bellowed the second guard. "There, I got to say it. My life's ambition has been fulfilled."

"You're not supposed to seize me," said Avon. "You're supposed to let me go."

"No we're not," said the third guard. "We're supposed to let the intelligent- looking one go."

"And that's me!" raged Avon.

The four Vogons shook their heads and pointed to the snoring Gan on top of the structure.

"Him?" asked Avon incredulously.

"Uh, well...uh, yeah...uh...uh..." said the fourth guard.

"Yes?"

"Well, uh...if he...uh...like...put on a little...uh...you know, uh...weight, well, uh...he could like...uh...well, you know...like...uh...be...uh...like, one of us, uh, you know?" the guard said.

"And that's your gauge of intelligence?"

"Uh...well...uh... ...yeah."

"Take them to the ship!" shouted the first guard.

#

After what seemed like hours of traipsing through, first the boarding tube, which stretched for several kilometers, then through the enormous ship, they finally entered the huge bridge of the Vogon ship, still being frog- marched by the Vogon guards. Like everything else on the ship, the bridge was disgustingly decorated, with broken equipment everywhere, piles of oily rags, mounds of garbage and rotting food- -and Vogons. Squads and patrols and solitary blobbish Vogons standing here, there, and everywhere.

And there, in the tiny command chair, squashing it like an elephant on an empty tissue box, sat the huge, gross Vogon captain. This one was horrific, even for a senior Vogon. Large and blubbery, with more than the usual number of quivering tentacles flopping out of its sides, and an especially slimy green skin, its eyes floated in its excuse for a head in exactly the same sort of way that fried eggs hang in trees. The captain glared at them in an anticipatory way that sent shivers through them.

"Here they are, Captain!" shouted the lead guard.

"Resistance is useless!" shouted the second guard. "There, I've said it again. Isn't being a Vogon guard great?" he beamed.

"It certainly is," a smooth feminine voice purred. The captives whirled around.

"Servalan!" shouted Blake, Avon, Vila, Cally, and Jenna.

"That's my name, don't wear it out," she said, slinking into the bridge, followed by Travis. "Well done, Vogon Prostetnic Captain Splung," she said to the blob in the command chair. "I want him," she continued, pointing to Avon. Who blanched. "You can do what you want with the others."

The captain considered her words. "Anything I want?" it asked in a voice compared to which shaking a bag of broken glass would sound like a nightingale's song. "Can I read them my poetry?" The others trembled again.

Travis interjected, "Do you think that's fair, Supreme Commander? What have they ever done to you?"

"Oh, by all means, read them your poetry, Captain," Servalan smiled. "Only, we shan't be able to stay for it, I think I- -um- -left the water running back at space headquarters. Yes, that's it. We've definitely got to get back right away to turn off the water. Come along, Avon, dear." She grabbed him in a strategically interesting place and squeezed, doubling him over. "Excellent. All parts in working order- -for now." The guards deferred to her, and she and Travis stalked off the bridge, the bound Avon in tow.

The captain boomed, "Put them in the Poetry Appreciation Chairs!"

The guards hastened to comply, forcing the frantically struggling captives into the monstrous contraptions. The guards' superior strength eventually told against Blake and crew's terrified efforts to break free from the horrible fate in store for them. But to no avail.

"Resistance is useless!" shouted the second guard. "There, I got to say it again! My aunt never told me being a Vogon Guard would be this much fun!"

The captain looked at them disgruntledly. It picked up a flimsy handheld computer, which shattered in its massive paw. "Oh pooh," it grumbled. "That's the thirteenth one I've broken today. Oh, very well, I'll have to do it from memory. That means one of my more classic efforts, 'Epode on a Squinkled Drungleflub.'"

Grandiloquently, or at least as grandiloquently as a Vogon could manage, it began to rumble, "Thou wombrous flugglebruck, how turgid are thy mangy habnoxes." Immediately, the captives started moaning and screaming. This was going to be worse than they'd imagined. Much worse. "Come ooze with me amongst the plambly drapsnangies," the captain went on, "and share with me a proontly snorf of blanth. Bimpled are the vapid pustules of thy anfractuous running sores, and I want to intriculate thine every clambleshelled fiber with putrid swiss cheese."

By this time, the captives were almost incoherent from the agony. Their screams would have rended the souls of the Federation Special Megadeath Squad storm troopers- -which meant the Vogons were perfectly immune. They'd never imagined that Avon's revenge could have been this horrible. Each inwardly wished they'd never heard of 'no soap, radio.'"

Meanwhile, the Vogon captain, happier than it had been in months to have such an appreciative audience, continued: "Thou art more to me than my mother's dirty socks. I should rather pick lice from thy hide than throw a bunch of hitchhikers off my ship. I haven't had so much fun since the last time my mates and I went target- shooting at a bunch of those miserable Dentrassis. Thou art my liver and my life, my love. I'm so happy I could just spit! And what's this about you and my second- in- command, anyway? If ever I see thee with that vorticle stulby winkershell again, I'll grind thee up and feed thee to my sister's ugly tentacles, how dost thou like that?"

His voice grew louder and louder; the captives writhed in strangling despair. "Flaccid is my love, and large, droopy bags of vilmous spath hang from her tangled pseudopods." He was clearly building himself up to a big finish now. "Oh glorminous spraggled mass of toothless vahg, thou art so grammied, I want to kill myself. I think I'll destroy a planet or two today to celebrate!" It was over and the captain relaxed. "There, that wasn't so bad, was it?"

No answer. They were all in shock. Blake's eyes had gone completely white and his hair had unkinked. Jenna had screamed until she was hoarse. Cally was in the middle of her eleventh recitation of the Auron Ritual of Repentance, ruing the day, hour, minute, and second that she'd accepted exile from her homeworld instead of life in prison.

"Well?" persisted the captain, "can't any of you talk? What did you think of my poem?"

More silence.

Then: "Wonderful, terrific, just wonderful! Encore! More, more!" said Vila ecstatically.

The captain screwed up its filmy eyes at the thief. "You... liked it?" he asked.

"Oh, yeah," said Vila happily, "it's the best thing I ever heard! Got any more as good?"

"Uh... sure," said the captain hesitantly. "You really liked it?"

"You bet!" Vila enthused. "Such imagery! Large, droopy bags of vilmous spath! Glorminous spraggled mass of toothless vahg! Wow! Absolutely masterful! Your metaphors are unbelievable! Picking lice from her hide. Target shooting the Dentrassis. Man! That's even better than Rod McKuen!"

The captain was obviously nonplussed. "Well," it rumbled, sounding like two trains colliding. "I must say your reaction surprises me. Nobody has ever genuinely liked my poetry before."

"I guess they don't know what they're missing," said Vila.

Blake had come to by now- --Vogon poetry, though noxious, is rarely fatal- -and had wriggled his head next to the thief's. "Vila, you genius!" he crowed in a loud whisper. "What a way to fake that monster out!"

Vila turned a puzzled face toward the rebel leader. "Who's faking, Blake?" he asked in surprise. "This guy's stuff is really good! He'd be a big star on the Delta party circuit!"

The captain had actually contorted its face into a Vogon approximation of a smile- -a truly repellent, not to say frightening sight. Don't ask for a description. "This being shows a marvelous appreciation of the finer things in life. Just for that, I'm going to let you all go! Release them!"

Instantly, the guards undid the straps of the Poetry Appreciation Chairs. Still weak from their ordeal, scarcely believing their miraculous deliverance, the Liberator crew began to make their way off the bridge.

"Resistance is useless!" bellowed the young second guard.

But no one heard him, as by then they'd all scuttled away.

#

Back on the Liberator, they found Gan still sleeping on the flight deck. And no Avon.

"I guess Servalan's got him now," said Jenna.

"She can keep him, too," said Vila. "Imagine, selling us out to the Vogons."

"It's all your fault, Vila," said Jenna. "If you hadn't come up with that awful 'no soap, radio,' nonsense- -"

"But I didn't! That was Orac! Besides, I did get us out of there."

"Sheer luck," Jenna retorted. "And anyway, where do you get off comparing that ugly blob's drek to Rod McKuen?"

"What's the problem with that?"

"Are you kidding?" she shouted. "No way! No way he's anywhere near as good as Rod McKuen! Rod McKuen was a genius! Rod McKuen is my hero! I couldn't have made it through my teenage years without him!" She was seething, her face red. Cally was impressed, never having quite seen the blonde pilot blow her top before.

"That's enough," said Blake. "I suggest we get out of here while we still can."

"And leave old what's- his- name behind?" asked Vila in surprise.

"Just for now. I figure a short period of time as Servalan's special guest will be all that Avon needs to learn to appreciate our company again. We'll pretend to flee, then track her ship wherever it goes. Then, after a few day, we'll rescue him. We should be able to get some good publicity out of the whole thing."

"Blake!" said Cally. "Is that all you see Avon as, a photo opportunity?"

"That's all I see any of you as, Cally," said Blake ingenuously. "Myself included. Whatever serves the revolution. You mean you haven't figured me out by now?"

"Well... yes," she replied, "but I was hoping I was wrong."

"Cally, Cally," Blake said, shaking his head both sadly and amusedly. "You haven't been reading the scripts, have you?"

#

Servalan must have decorated her ship out of the Sharper Image catalog, Avon thought, as her vinyl- and- leather- clad storm troopers hauled him through the gleaming chrome- and- steel corridors. Travis was following, no doubt so that he could get in a few kicks at Avon's backside every other step.

There's more to this revenge business than it seems, Avon thought to himself more than once. Must ask Orac when- -if- -I get back.

Finally the trek ended outside a set of huge double doors, in front of which two extremely tall, young, and very good- looking guards stood. If they'd had the words 'Boy Toy' and 'Fresh Meat' tattooed on their foreheads their roles could not have been more obvious to Avon.

One of them leered at him and knocked on the door.

"Enter," came the sharp, clear command from within.

The door opened automatically, and, propelled by a final kick from Travis, Avon went sprawling in, flat on his face.

"Is that any way to greet a lady?" he heard Servalan ask.

"I don't know. I haven't greeted one in some time," was the best riposte Avon could come up with from his prone position.

"Oh get up then," she said crossly. "You're not much fun, you know?"

"I suppose not, since your idea of fun is to lie to a Vogon captain." He stood up and looked at her. She was seated in a delicate armchair next to an ornate, ancient desk. In her hand was an old book. She was smiling.

"What's that?"

"It's an old book, you philistine. A very old one."

"What's it about?"

"Oh, about two hundred pages."

"Huh?"

"Never mind. By the way, if you look quickly, you can see your friends abandoning you."

"What?" Shocked, Avon raced to the huge viewscreen simulating a window in the bulkhead. As he got there, he could just spot a largish glowing white blob diminishing at high speed. He was barely able to grasp that it was, indeed, Liberator.

"Say goodbye, Avon. That's the last you'll ever see of them... until I get my hands on that ship, of course."

"Aren't you upset with the Vogons for letting them go?"

"It's not a good idea to get on a Vogon's bad side."

"They don't have anything else."

"We'll take care of the Vogons later, Avon dear. I'm wondering how you feel about being left behind."

Avon considered. Surprisingly, he didn't feel all that bad. After all, self- preservation was one response that he could certainly identify with.

"They'll be back."

"Not if they renamed that ship the Terminator, you lummox. You're mine now, Avon. I've finally had the last laugh on all of you."

"What do you mean, Servalan?"

"Never mind. Let's go. You and I have a lot to talk about."

She laid the book down on the table, face up, open to a page in the middle. Then she went up to Avon, his hands still bound in front of him. Slipping her arm through his, she led him through a side door into a small conference room. Knowing that probably fifty or sixty guards were spying on them through doubtlessly hidden cameras, Avon didn't risk anything that might look like an attack on her. One thing the months with Blake- -and especially Vila- -had taught him was patience. Liberator would return for him, he was sure of that. Blake was nothing if not loyal. It was one of his more incomprehensible traits.

Still, Avon pondered Servalan's words. What did she mean when she said she'd finally had the last laugh?

Behind him, in the room they'd just left, he might have found his answer. It was on the left- hand page of the book, lying open to be read by any curious passerby. The title was One Thousand and One Good Old Jokes. And on page 88 was printed the full text of, and instructions to, "No Soap, Radio.'

the end