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Solitaire

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Chapter One

Vaclav was a survivor. He'd served loyally in the Terra Nostra his whole life, never rising beyond the middle ranks but always trusted by his superiors. In the Terra Nostra, trust was better security than gold or guns. He'd seen Chairmen come and go, and made it through their purges, but the new one was a real horror.

He waited by the viscreen, nervously picking fluff from his jacket sleeves, smoothing down his thinning blond hair. She (and that was part of it—a female chairman!) always seemed to know everything that happened everywhere and she had a mind like a steel trap: sharp, quick and tenacious.

Right now, the tenacity was his problem. She had asked him to make some very specific enquiries, which had all drawn a blank. So she'd come up with another set and he'd failed to satisfy those questions, either. This was his third failure to report and the interview was going to be difficult, and potentially dangerous.

Vindictiveness was also one of her virtues. At least at the moment she was off-station.

Finally, the screen flickered into life.

"Madame Chairman."

That always grated. But he'd heard unsettling reports suggesting she didn't like 'Chairwoman'.

"Vaclav. I hope you have some interesting news for me?"

"Madame Chairman, I'm afraid that—"

"So. You've failed to do as I asked. Again."

The arctic chill in her voice panicked him into excuses he'd meant to avoid.

"It's impossible, Madame Chairman. We don't have contacts in those sorts of places. Since the Galactic war, since we broke away from Federation control—"

She cut him off with a gesture. "Never mind, Vaclav. I've made other arrangements. I shall be putting the matter into other hands. Hands outside the organization."

Shock tripped his tongue into action before his brain could censor it. "No! You can't!" He caught himself and continued more calmly. "Madame Chairman, that's fundamentally against the traditions of the organization. I strongly recommend that—"

"Vaclav, you knew my predecessor, I believe?" Her voice dripped smoothly, turned to poisoned honey.

"Yes, I did."

"Was he a man who believed in the traditions of the organization?"

"Yes."

"And what happened to him?"

Vaclav licked suddenly dry lips. "Uh, no-one knows, Madame Chairman."

She smiled, a razor-sharp knife of satisfaction. "No, no-one does. Would you like to find out, Vaclav?"

"N-no, Madame Chairman."

"Very wise."

"I'm sorry, I—"

"No need for apologies." The smile transmuted instantly into faux friendliness. "If I punished everyone who disappointed me, my resources would quickly become very small indeed. I shall be returning to Space City in four days time."

He stared at the monitor, utterly thrown by the sudden change of topic.

"Here?" he said stupidly.

"Yes, Vaclav, there. See that arrangements are made. I shall see you very soon."

The monitor went blank before he had a chance to reply.

Vaclav dropped into a seat, breathing unsteadily. He wasn't at all sure whether he had been lucky, or not.

* * *

Chapter Two

One of the problems of living and working with someone twenty-four hours a day (apart from having to keep an eye out for the occasional homicidal impulse) is that conversations become very predictable. This has a bad side, in that it exacerbates boredom. It also has a good side, in that simply tuning out most of the words and supplying non-specific comments in the appropriate places can significantly reduce the boredom.

Tarrant had carried on what he thought was a conversation for some time before he realized Avon was functioning on near total autopilot.

"So, I think the problem's with the aft starboard stabilizer."

"Oh?"

"Yes. It's not there all the time though. It depends on the acceleration. I'd say that makes it a control fault, wouldn't you?"

"Possibly."

"Computer or linkage, do you think?"

"Hard to say."

"I'd say more likely linkage, because there haven't been any other problems. At least not that I've noticed. Of course, if it's flight configuration dependent, there could be other things we just haven't tripped over yet. I suppose the sensible thing to do would be to ask Orac for a full diagnosis."

"Mm."

Tarrant stopped checking figures on the screen and looked over at Avon. He sat at the co-pilot's console, staring at the main screen without apparently seeing anything much.

"Avon?"

"Mm?"

"Avon."

Avon gave a slightly guilty start, and looked round. "I'm listening."

Tarrant could see him rewinding the conversation in his head, ready to answer any questions. He'd have every bloody word, too. Tarrant bit his tongue. It really wasn't worth the bother of calling him out over it.

Instead he asked, "What's so important, then?"

"I'm not entirely sure. Perhaps nothing."

"Tell me anyway. Might as well have both of us listening to something."

That got a dirty look, then Avon shrugged.

“All right. Orac gave me some interesting data. Actually, more suggestive of something interesting. Do you know what a double X security rating is?"

"Federation top secret project. Nothing about it is stored on computer."

"Right. Orac gave me the name of a double X project."

"What is it?"

"Solitaire."

"No, I mean, what is it about?"

"The only thing Orac could find out was that people working on the project have been accessing the controlled beaming project files. And that it has a budget of somewhere in the region of fifty million credits."

Tarrant whistled. "Some project. What's controlled beaming?"

"The old Federation codename for artificial telepathic control. I had a very loose connection to the project for a while. The technology never came into widespread use."

"Does it work?"

"Yes, to an extent. It uses a prearranged hypnotic trigger to implant ideas and actions to be carried out later. It forces the subject to obey the sender's commands, as long as the signal operates. But it was abandoned years ago—it proved unreliable and the effects were rather crude and obvious to observers." He hesitated slightly. "Someone once used it to control Blake."

Tarrant used to feel guilty about tripping over old Blake references. These days it just made him slightly annoyed. It was an impossible topic to avoid. Even after he'd been dead for nearly two years, the man was everywhere.

He changed conversational tack. "But hang on a minute, if it's double X security, nothing on computer, where did Orac find the name?"

"Orac didn't. Someone sent the name to it."

"Sent it? Who?"

"Someone with access to highly secret Federation project information, obviously. Other than that your guess is as good as mine."

"Could it be someone who worked on the controlled beaming project with you?"

"I can't think of anyone who'd likely be on a new project and who would want to tell me about it. Or who would know how to get a message to Orac. Anyway, I never met anyone directly involved. I worked on data analysis, not the main research."

"So, not someone from before, then." Tarrant thought about it for a while then gave up. "It could be anyone."

Avon smiled thinly. "Actually, no. In absolute terms knowledge of Solitaire is probably limited to a few hundred people at the very most. More likely dozens. But since we can't get at their names, that doesn't help." Avon leaned back in his chair, looking dispirited. "I dislike unsolvable mysteries. Intensely."

"There must be a way to find the answer," Tarrant said with sudden confidence.

"Why 'must'?"

"Because otherwise there's no point sending the message. Look at it a different way. Who would know how to reach Orac? Come to think of it, how did they?"

"Ah. They used..." Avon trailed off. "Yes. Interesting."

"Well?"

"They used an old Federation cipher, destandardised for forty years or so."

"And?"

"And the last person who did that to make contact was Travis."

"Travis?" Tarrant had heard the name before, of course. "I thought he was dead."

"Very. Which leads one towards considering friends of Travis, in so far as such creatures existed. Which rather suggests...Servalan."

"I thought she was supposed to be dead as well."

"She was reported dead, Tarrant, which is most definitely not the same thing. In fact, in Servalan's case, it's a positive sign of robust good health. But if it is Servalan, that still doesn't help us to find her."

"There must be a clue somewhere. In the message, in how it was sent."

Avon got up and fitted Orac's key.

"Orac, what was the point of origin of the Solitaire message?"

"As I have already told you, the message entered the Federation communications system through a communications booster station and therefore the point of origin cannot be determined."

"Try guessing."

"'Guessing' is not—"

"Oh, not again. Try deducing then."

"You must specify the parameters more exactly."

Avon tapped his fingers thoughtfully on Orac's case. "Very well...assume that the message came from a non-Federation source and that the original signal path length was as short as possible to reduce the chance of interception. Also assume it did not come from a ship."

"Based on the parameters given, the most likely point of origin is the inhabited space station known as Space City."

"Are you sure?"

"No, I am not. I am speculating on the basis of the information and assumptions you provided. However, yes, within those constraints the probability is a high one."

Tarrant frowned. "Why assume it's not a ship?"

"Because, as you pointed out, the clue has to be in there somewhere. If it had been from a ship, she would have had to provide us with another clue, and I can't see one."

"If it is Servalan."

"If, indeed, it is."

"Shall we go and find out?"

Avon shrugged. "We don't have anything better to do right now, do we?"

And you can't resist trying to find out what she wants, can you? Tarrant thought. On the other hand, to be honest, neither could he.

* * *

Chapter Three

On the main screen, Space City gleamed in the perpetual sunlight, a staggering monument to human ingenuity and engineering excellence. Tarrant had been there a handful of times, in the days before he had met Avon, and he knew how deceptive it was. Inside, Space City showcased other, quite different, human qualities.

The station, and the Terra Nostra that ran it, had survived intact through the collapse of the Federation, the Galactic war and the Federation's new wars of expansion. Like its cousin, Freedom City, it was the sort of place that would always survive, because it satisfied so many human needs. Even if it were physically obliterated it would simply reappear elsewhere, in a slightly different guise. Less metaphysically, four impressively armed cruisers patrolled at some distance from the base, discouraging breaches of the station's neutral status.

Tarrant had always rather liked Space City.

Space City Central control came through the communicator.

"Independent scout-class ship Meegat, shuttle facilities are available if you do not wish to dock."

"Avon?"

He received no response. Avon stared into mid-space, turning Orac's key over in his fingers.

"Avon, central control wants to know if we plan to dock, or take a shuttle in?"

"Hmm? Oh, tell them we'll stand off for a while and think about it."

Tarrant relayed the message and put the ship in a stable holding position.

"Second thoughts?"

"And third, fourth and fifth."

"You think it's a trap."

Avon smiled briefly. "With Servalan potentially involved? I'd be more surprised if it wasn't. But, as always, the bait is very good."

"So, we're going to get ourselves caught?"

"I think so. Or at least, try to inspect it more closely without triggering anything unpleasant."

"All right. Dock or shuttle?"

"No. We ought to use the teleport."

Tarrant looked at the teleport console with deep distaste. It had taken Avon and Orac a long time to get their first attempt working, and the bugs in the system were far from ironed out. It was safe, in so far as anything that dematerialised in the first place rematerialised intact, but it was unreliable. It would teleport a single person only about eighty percent of the time, but a double pick up succeeded barely more than half of that. Not the best thing to rely on to escape trouble.

And, only a few weeks ago, it had dumped him some way off target, in an unpressurised cargo hold. A space pilot's worst nightmare come true. Space Academy-trained reflexes made him exhale in time to avoid any serious injury, and Orac picked him back up only seconds later. But as the hold faded out around him he had distinctly felt the saliva on his tongue beginning to boil.

Avon swore that particular hiccup in the coordinate circuits had been fixed, but the next couple of teleports after that incident left Tarrant slightly queasy. Avon and Orac had recently completed a second and allegedly much superior system that was awaiting installation, but Tarrant hadn't pressed Avon to fit it. He didn't relish the idea of a whole new set of problems to resolve.

He sighed. "Yes, I suppose that's the best plan. We can't land with Orac on board."

"Exactly. And I am inclined to trust a Space City shuttle even less than the teleport."

"All right. Do you want to get changed before we go over? Make ourselves look at least a little less recognizable?"

Avon looked faintly amused. "A disguise?"

"Well, I wasn't planning to go quite that far, but there's no point asking for trouble. The bounties haven't got any smaller."

"I think we'll be safe enough. Space City is neutral territory. And if you believe Orac, the Terra Nostra has been keeping its distance from the Federation since the Galactic War. There's no percentage in getting a reputation as a dangerous place for outlaws."

"Let's get going, then," Tarrant said without enthusiasm.

* * *

They materialised beneath a staircase just beyond the docking area. It was quiet, shadowed and there were no witnesses—a good choice by Orac. Tarrant was just grateful for a breathable atmosphere.

"Which way?" Avon asked.

"How would I know?"

"I've only been here the once, and we were only passing through. Where would be a good place to have someone watching for us?"

Tarrant gave it a moment's thought. "The arrivals lounge?"

"Which we just bypassed. Yes, well. Next guess?"

"There's a concourse just outside. All the inbound traffic funnels through it. If they missed us arriving, that would be the best place to pick us up afterwards."

"Let's hope we're expected."

* * *

In the end it was surprisingly easy. After they'd spent a few minutes in the concourse, doing their best imitation of tourists gaping at the multi-level atrium, Tarrant spotted a heavy-set blond man working his way through the crowd towards them.

"Over there."

They paused and watched him approach. Whoever he was, he'd obviously had a lot of practice approaching heavily armed men who might have good reason to be nervous. He stopped a few yards short, his hands held well away from his body, waited until Avon met his gaze, then approached slowly.

"Avon?"

"Yes."

"I have a message for you."

He offered a piece of paper, which Avon took. Then he turned and disappeared back into the crowd. He was good at that part too—Tarrant lost track of him after only a few seconds.

"Well?"

"It's the name of a bar. And a time. If this is a trap then it's going to be very easy to fall into."

* * *

The bar proved to be somewhere in the middle of Space City's extensive range in both price and class. There was a great deal of female flesh on display, both waiting staff and the rather languid performers on the raised central stage. The decor ran to black and silver, with a prominent feline motif that included a pair of live specimens of some exotic panther-sized black cats with silver points. Their heavy diamante collars picked out stray beams of light as the cats prowled in their narrow cages.

They bought moderately extortionately priced drinks and took a table not too far from the door, which afforded a good view of the whole room. There were other customers, but the night was still young—in so far as Space City acknowledged day and night at all—and the bar had an empty, early evening feel. Tarrant was considering the big cats again, and wondering if they featured in the entertainment at any point, when he saw her step through a black-curtained doorway.

Tarrant thought she was amazingly tastefully dressed, for Servalan. In black, obviously, but with the minimum of extras one of her dresses could have and still look as if it belonged to her. Fur seemed to have replaced feathers as her trimming of choice.

She strolled across the bar, imperious as ever. Although she didn't look at anyone in particular, Tarrant noticed that every member of staff had suddenly acquired an ostentatious air of industry. Even the terminally bored-looking dancers picked up their pace.

"Tarrant, Avon, how perfectly lovely to see you."

Avon simply gave her a guarded smile. Tarrant started to rise, quite reflexively, but she had already taken the unoccupied chair, utterly at ease. To Tarrant she didn't look a day different to the last time he had seen her, on Gerin. And that seemed like a lifetime ago.

As if she had read his mind, Servalan smiled suddenly. "It seems like a long time since we last met, don't you think? I hope your leg is quite better, by now?" She leaned over and ran a finger down Tarrant's thigh, the scrape of pointed fingernail on fabric setting his teeth on edge.

"Yes, quite."

"Very good. I'm delighted there were no...complications."

She smiled again, and Tarrant felt a sudden twinge of phantom pain. Not in his leg but in his back, where Avon's near-fatal accidental shot had hit him. Tarrant wondered if Servalan knew what had happened on Gerin after she fled with their ship. If she did, and if she were fishing for a rise from Avon, this could all too easily become messy.

Avon glanced round the room. "You know, Servalan, somehow I've always imagined you ending up somewhere like this." He looked her up and down, eyes hooded. "Water finds its own level, and so on."

Her return look should have spontaneously combusted the air between them. "I own this place," she snapped.

He smiled slowly. "Did I say that you didn't?"

Tarrant decided to step in before things got more heated than was absolutely necessary. "We got your message. You forgot to sign it, though."

Servalan looked over to him, her expression flowing like quicksilver from fury to pleasure. She laughed delightedly. "I knew there was no need. I am impressed that you worked it out and got here so quickly, though."

Avon was always open to a little flattery, and when he replied Tarrant was relieved to hear the edge had faded slightly from his voice.

"The message was very interesting, but not very informative. I assume that you have more to tell us."

"Oh, yes, indeed. But not out here."

Tarrant laughed. "You want us to follow you back into your lair? Now why does that strike me as a bad plan?"

"Tarrant, if I wanted you dead, you already would be. You've been watched from the moment you stepped off the shuttle."

So her employees were occasionally a little economical with the truth, Tarrant noted. Not that, knowing Servalan's attitude to staff management, he could blame them.

Tarrant looked at Avon, who shrugged.

"We have come rather a long way."

She led them back the way she had come. The staff showed a range of reactions, from veiled glances to open curiosity, but no one failed to look. Tarrant checked that his teleport bracelet was secure beneath his sleeve. It had a quick-teleport button which should trigger Orac to bring them back immediately, but that was only marginally reassuring.

As they walked past the cage near the doorway by which Servalan had entered, the black cat became still—stock still except for its head turning to follow them. It fixed him with dilated golden eyes, perhaps hoping for a treat or for release from its prison. Then it broke the gaze and turned sinuously, returning to its restless padding to and fro.

"Tarrant?" Servalan stood in the doorway, holding the velvet curtain aside.

"Sorry."

* * *

The office turned out to be sparsely furnished and bordering on the austere, with a white decor that reminded Tarrant of Space Command Headquarters. Servalan offered them both a drink and smiled at their polite refusals. She took one herself and sat behind the expansive desk.

"Solitaire," she said, then paused.

"Controlled beaming?" Avon offered.

Servalan smiled. "Very good. Yes. The Federation has resumed the controlled beaming research. It has been underway for some years. After the plague on Auron some of the scientists there sought refuge with the Federation."

Avon looked skeptical. "That seems an unlikely place for them to look for sanctuary, in the circumstances."

"I understand that conditions on the planet were...unpleasant."

"Understand?" Tarrant interrupted. "You should know—you were there after all."

Servalan ignored him. "The Federation naturally did what it could for those Auronar who could offer them something in return."

Even after knowing her for so long, it amazed Tarrant that Servalan could refer to perpetrating genocide on a planetary scale and make it sound like a regrettable incident in which she had been only accidentally involved.

"So," Avon said after a moment. "They have made progress?"

"Yes. I have evidence that the system is reliable and effective at very long range. The signal cannot be blocked or effectively countered. Once the proposed network of beaming stations is built, no part of Federation space will be safe, and the effects will extend some way into the territories beyond. Mobile ship-mounted units will cover any requirements beyond that. And the process of mental control itself is more subtle and far less obvious."

"How do you know all this?" Tarrant asked.

"I have my sources—if no longer friends—inside the Federation. The project is not universally welcomed there, either."

I bet it isn't, Tarrant thought, if her sources have the same sort of loyalty to the Federation as she did.

"Solitaire is nearing completion. At the moment all the information about the project is confined to the research base in the Velde system. Once the testing is complete, in a matter of three or four months, production will begin to be moved to a dozen Federation worlds. At that point, any chance to destroy it is lost. We must act before that can happens.”

Avon raised an eyebrow at the 'we', but all he said was, "One assumes that such a valuable asset has not been left unguarded."

"No, indeed. The Federation has a picket force guarding the base. But in a few weeks' time, a magnetic storm will pass through the system. Ship-to-ship scanners and communications will be disrupted for its duration. An attack on the station made then will have a good chance of engaging and destroying the guard force quickly, and before they can get a message out."

Avon glanced over at him, and he shrugged slightly. It sounded reasonable enough, but the Devil, as always, would be in the details.

"Solitaire requires a great deal of power. The Velde base is fitted with a substantial reactor to supply it. If the reactor were to go critical—something that I know is within your expertise to arrange—the station, the remains of the picket force and any other evidence of the attack will be quite thoroughly destroyed. No-one will know who was there or what happened." She sipped her drink. "The elements within the Federation opposed to Solitaire will make sure that the reactor failure is blamed on a malfunction of the Solitaire systems. If the project isn't killed outright, it will be buried in red tape and politics for decades."

Avon nodded. "As neat as I would expect. That leaves one real question: why do you need us?"

"Simple. I don't have any combat ships at my disposal. A single fast ship—not unlike yours—and that is all."

"Then why assume we can help?"

"You have contacts with rebel forces. I have no such contacts and if I did, I very much doubt they would be receptive to any proposal of mine."

Avon raised an eyebrow. "I may have no better luck."

"I have a great deal of faith in you, Avon. You'll be able to persuade them."

"Perhaps. Why don't you ask your new friends, instead?"

Servalan did a passable imitation of puzzlement.

"Who?"

His gesture took in the whole room, and implied the bar and the station beyond.

"The Terra Nostra own Space City. If you are here, it is because they tolerate you here. I don't imagine you used up all your Federation secrets buying a safe haven. Buy yourself some help with the rest."

For a moment, Tarrant thought Servalan looked almost discomforted. Then her poise returned and he wondered if he had imagined it.

"I haven't shared this information with my hosts."

"Oh?"

"I imagine they would require a change in the plan—capture rather than destruction. Some of the Terra Nostra leadership have passed through Federation hands, but by no means all of them. Those who have never been interrogated have no need to fear Solitaire. In their hands it would be a weapon which could be used against the Federation."

Avon laughed shortly. "I would be impressed by your patriotism, if I thought you had any."

She shrugged. "Very well. It could be used against me."

"Really?"

"Others have had doubts about my loyalties in the past. So, yes, I am vulnerable," she spat the word out, "to Solitaire. It could be used against me."

She looked at Avon very directly. "And against you."

He returned the look, impassive.

"You've been under Federation interrogation, Avon," she continued after a pause. "More than once. I've seen the files."

That got a reaction, very quickly suppressed, but Servalan caught it easily.

"The triggers Solitaire exploits are implanted quite routinely. You are no exception. They are implanted in other situations, as well." Her gaze drifted over to Tarrant. "During psychoevaluation of officer recruits at the Space Academy, for example."

Tarrant suddenly felt cold, and he knew the shock must have shown on his face because Servalan smiled.

"Oh, yes, Tarrant. Ordinary deserters will be quite far down the list, I imagine, when Solitaire comes into routine operation. However, in your case I'm sure that you will be a sufficient celebrity for early and thorough attention."

Her voice held an edge of what Tarrant hoped was unconscious pleasure at the idea. Either that, or she was trying to unnerve him and doing a damn good job of it.

"We'll have to think about it," Avon said.

Servalan looked away from Tarrant. "Why?"

"The main reason? Because it's you. I appreciate the aesthetic qualities of your traps, Servalan, but not enough to want to die of admiration in one. Give us the information you have, let us do what we can to verify it."

She pushed a stack of data cards across the desk. "Here is all the information I have."

"I shall have Orac check it out, then we'll give you an answer."

"How soon?"

"We'll send you a message when we have decided."

Servalan raised her glass. "Then I hope to hear from you very soon. Would you like to stay for a little while? I really don't feel that I have been hospitable enough."

Tarrant smiled. "And talk over old times? No, I don't think so."

"A pity. I have so few old friends left; or old enemies."

She showed them back into the bar. Outside the office door, she paused by the cage, resting one hand on the bars. The cat was still pacing and Tarrant wondered if the collars were real diamonds. It's a good job Vila isn't here, he thought suddenly, or he'd lose a few fingers at least.

Servalan put her free hand on his arm, and drew him over to the cage. "Do you like them, Tarrant?" she asked in a low voice.

"They're, um, very nice."

"Very expensive, especially for a mated pair. I'm glad you like them." She looked up and smiled wickedly. "You should, you know."

"Why?" he asked, puzzled.

She turned back to the office, paused in the doorway and looked back over her shoulder, posing for maximum effect.

"They were your suggestion."

Then she was gone.

"What was all that about?" Avon asked as they walked back across the bar.

"Um. Nothing."

Avon looked at him sharply, but didn't ask anything else. Tarrant suspected he had made at least a partially correct guess about the time when he might have made such a suggestion, if not the exact details.

Tarrant decided he stuck by the assessment he had made of Servalan on Virn. Very like a panther, only far, far more dangerous.

* * *

They teleported back to the ship without trouble. Avon immediately went over to Orac.

"Orac, I want you to monitor all communications traffic to and from Space City. Decode anything in cipher. I want anything which might be at all relevant to Solitaire, especially anything to do with Servalan." He waited. "Well?"

"The effort expended will be considerable and the chance of uncovering useful information will be small."

"Do it anyway. And I have a lot of information here that I need verified from independent sources. Every piece of it, preferably several times over. But before you get started, I want you to find Soolin for me and get a message to her."

"Very well."

Orac sounded even huffier than usual. Demands on him had been light recently, and Tarrant suspected he was getting used to having his time to himself. Sometimes he considered asking Orac what he did with his spare time, but had decided he probably either didn't want to know or wouldn't understand the answer.

Tarrant sat down in the pilot's seat. "Shall we get out of here?"

"We might as well wait until we know where Soolin is. It shouldn't take long, unless she's changed her ship since the last time we saw her."

It took Orac five minutes to find the ship. When Soolin appeared on the monitor she looked understandably surprised to see them.

"Hello. How are you? And what do you want?"

Tarrant grinned. "Are we that predictable?"

"Usually. Well?"

Avon grimaced. "Well, you're right. We need a favour."

"I'm listening."

"Soolin, you stay in contact with the rebels, don't you? Blake's people?"

"Yes."

"I need to meet them."

Soolin stared at him for a moment, obviously wondering if she had misheard.

"Meet them?"

"Yes. I need some ships."

Now she looked frankly incredulous. "Avon, they aren't going to hand ships over to you. And you know why."

"Yes, of course I know," he snapped. "But in this instance I think they might, if you'll help me put a case to them."

"What's it about?"

"I'll tell you when we meet, which needs to be soon. There isn't much time."

Soolin considered for a moment, then shrugged. "This I have to hear. How soon can you get to Hibiki?"

Tarrant checked the computer. "Four days. Can't you make it any closer?"

"I have a prior engagement on Hibiki. I have a contract to fill. You can wait there afterwards while I go back to base and speak to the council."

"We could meet you directly at their base," Avon suggested.

"I have to speak to the council before I can give you the location. I'm sorry, Avon, but that's just the way it is. It's information we can't risk getting out. We all have some discretion about it but, well..."

"But, considering who I am, you can't exercise it."

"Yes. If you really want their help, Avon, you're going to have to let me do it my way."

* * *

"The question," Avon said as they laid in the course away from Space City, "is how much to tell her."

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing about Servalan, that's obvious. If the rebels get wind of her involvement there is no chance of their helping us. I suppose we will have to tell her enough of the rest to persuade them to see us. We will have to tell them the rest then anyway."

"I'm not sure I like that."

"What? Why not?"

"I don't like lying to friends. To crew mates."

Avon looked surprised. "You've done it before."

"Yes. But that doesn't mean I like it. When it's necessary, yes, but not about something as important as this. She has a right to know about Servalan. Why not just ask her not to tell the rebels?"

"Because she isn't a crew mate any more and there is every reason for her to feel her loyalties lie elsewhere. Besides, this is Soolin. Do you really think that if she wanted to tell the rebels about Servalan either of us could change her mind?"

Tarrant had to concede that point. "I still don't like it."

"Well, that is unfortunate. But we cannot risk losing the rebels' help because you have unexpectedly developed a conscience."

Tarrant blinked at the sudden venom. "We don't even know if Servalan was telling the truth. On her past record it's a pretty dubious assumption."

"Servalan is a lot of things but she is not a fool. She will have said nothing that Orac will not be able to confirm. We still need to check everything, naturally, and there may be a great number of things she has not told us, but I'm certain that what she has told us is true. And that includes the length of time before Solitaire is moved away from Velde. We have one chance to keep this genie in its bottle."

Avon stood up and walked over to the main screen, his back to Tarrant. "If we lose it and Solitaire goes into operation, we will both be dead within the year. Unless, that is, the Federation has managed to forget we exist in the past two years."

Which of course they wouldn't have. At least, they wouldn't have forgotten Avon, who had Orac, and a better understanding of teleport systems than anyone else alive. Not to mention knowledge of the lost Liberator and a great many other secrets the Federation interrogators would be keen to tear out of him. Tarrant could hear the fear underlying Avon's voice, see it in the set of his shoulders.

"Yes, of course, you're right." There was nothing else he could say.

* * *

Chapter Four

The base on Capris Four had been established as a Federation fleet supply depot when the Federation first started to expand into sector six. A research section had been added some time later because of the unusual properties of the Capris system's star.

Consequently, the base was deep underground and well shielded to resist the hard radiation it had been built to study. Its budget had been another casualty of the Federation contraction after the Galactic War, and the base had sat, unoccupied, until the rebels moved in.

The base was spacious and, compared to some of the rebels' previous hideouts, positively luxurious. But Vila would have been glad to land if it was nothing more than an empty cave. It had been a long, exhausting journey back. The ship was far too small for the size of the crew and instead of a four day return trip it had turned into three terrifying weeks of mechanical failures and patrol dodging.

As he left the ship he took a deep breath of sweet, clean, properly recycled air. It felt almost as good as the idea of the clean bed waiting for him to pass out in. By the time they had ridden the packed lift down into the base, the air was rancid again with the stench of dirty bodies. Vila tried holding his breath but the descent took too long.

As he stepped through the airlock, he was surprised to see Soolin waiting for him. Surprised because he hadn't seen her around for a couple of months, and surprised because it was very late and he hadn't been expecting any sort of reception at all.

The rest of the rebel crew disembarking from the ship dispersed quickly, eager to get to real, comfortable beds. Those who knew Soolin paused just long enough to say hello to her then followed the others. They'd all been excused mission debriefing until the morning.

Vila had rather been hoping to get to bed himself. He stifled a yawn, but Soolin looked as fresh as if she'd just got up. In fact, she looked distinctly excited about something, which was most surprising of all.

Vila went over to her. "Where've you been?"

Not terribly welcoming, but then he didn't really feel in the mood for company. Soolin just smiled.

"Hibiki, amongst other places. I brought a case of wine back with me, for you."

"Why?"

That got an even broader smile.

"Think of it as a welcome home present. I've got some news, too. Come on."

She started to walk off, then turned back when he hesitated.

"Come on."

"Can't it wait until tomorrow? Not that I'm not grateful for the bribe."

"Present. And no, it won't wait."

Made bad-tempered and obstinate by exhaustion, Vila stood his ground.

"Soolin, you've got no idea what a horrible time I've just had. There were bloody Federation ships everywhere, nowhere to sleep, and the oxygen system went on the blink and..." Vila realized he was whining, and managed to shut up.

Soolin came back over. She went to take his arm, then stepped back, her nose wrinkling. "Was the waste recycling broken too? Never mind—it won't take long, I promise. But, go on, just guess who I've seen again."

Vila blinked. Soolin and he shared very few mutual acquaintances whose reappearance would be interesting. Most of those were definitely dead, which left only three real possibilities. Since she looked happy about the news, that narrowed it down to two. He picked one.

"Avon?"

"And Tarrant."

So, two out of three.

"Where?"

"Hibiki. But don't tell anyone."

Vila nodded. Avon wasn't officially persona non grata amongst the rebels, but neither was he likely to want his movements widely known. There were still mutterings about Gauda Prime, and questions about justice, which actually amounted to little more than demands for vengeance. Vila didn't hear much of it, but he'd got used to the occasional conversation ending abruptly when he entered a room.

"How are they?"

"Fine. No, actually, I'd say they were looking pretty good. They haven't been putting in the hours that we have."

"What did they want?"

Soolin looked around the large open area, quite pointlessly because there was no one in sight. Vila took the hint.

"All right, all right. I'll come. The wine had better be good."

* * *

Soolin opened the bottle and cleared a space to sit in, while Vila stood under a near-scalding shower and tried to scrub away the stink of three weeks in space. After a while he heard her call through from the other room.

"Vila? Where are the glasses?"

"Try on the side, by the plants."

"No, the clean ones."

"Those are the clean ones."

The door to the bathroom opened and through the steam and frosted plastic Vila could make out the indistinct shape of Soolin. She went over to the sink and started to fill the basin.

"Soolin! Do you mind?"

Glasses chinked. "I'm not drinking out of these. They're unhygienic. And, by the way, your plants are dead."

"Oh, no. Shenna promised she'd water them for me if we got delayed."

"What happened to Shenna, anyway?"

"What do you mean, 'what happened'?"

"Your room's a disgusting pit, Vila, and the fur rug's gone. Unless it got better and walked out on its own—which I could understand—she must have taken it back."

"Oh."

Vila made ostentatious I'm-washing-my-hair spluttering noises while he framed a dignified answer.

"Irreconcilable differences," he said eventually. Not only dignified, but pleasingly non-specific.

There was a gurgle of water as Soolin emptied the sink.

"I'd ask if there was a clean towel, but I can see not."

He heard the door close behind her. What fun this was turning out to be.

* * *

Vila finished his shower and dressed. The fresh clothes improved his mood and even made him feel a little more kindly disposed towards Soolin. If she hadn't turned up he would probably have gone to bed filthy and felt lousy in the morning. If only she hadn't mentioned Shenna.

Back in the main room he sank into a chair with a sigh and accepted a glass of wine.

"Mmm...not bad."

"I should hope not."

"Expensive?"

"Cost me about half a clip. The revolution on Hibiki is running a bit short of ready cash. The wine is part payment for the job I did for them. I don't usually do barter, but I'd already killed the targets and, well, I thought of you."

"I'm touched."

Soolin grinned maliciously. "But not recently."

"Hey, not funny!"

"She was much too young for you, anyway."

Vila sat up indignantly. "She was not!"

"Oh, yes she was. Come on, Vila, how old is she?"

"Uh, I don't remember." Vila looked back down at his drink. "What the hell does it matter, anyway? It's not as if any of us are likely to get the chance to grow old together."

Soolin shrugged. "Point."

"Anyway, you've got no room to talk. People who've lived in two hundred year old glass houses shouldn't throw stones, you know."

It was Soolin's turn to sound defensive. "Dorian was entirely different."

"Oh, he definitely was that."

She gave him a thin-lipped glare and Vila decided to call a truce before things got to the point of physical violence. He held out his glass for a refill, and Soolin topped it up without comment. But she did the look.

"Give me a break, Soolin. I haven't had a drink for weeks. I've been stuck on that hideous ship with a load of suicidally keen new recruits."

"No adrenaline and soma?"

"That was medicinal. Now you're starting to sound like bloody Shenna."

"You can drink as much as you like as far as I'm concerned. I don't want you falling asleep before you hear the news, that's all."

"You're not my—"

In mid-indignation, Vila was startled by a huge yawn. He looked at the glass and decided that slowing down might be a good idea, after all.

"Why don't you just tell me about Avon and Tarrant, before I do pass out?"

"They're coming back."

That woke Vila up.

"Here? They're mad!"

"There's something important they want to see us about."

"Us? You and me, us?"

"Yes."

"Wouldn't it be better for us to go and meet them somewhere else? Avon isn't exactly Mr. Popular around here."

"They want to talk to the council as well. It's legitimate anti-Federation business."

"I thought they'd given all that up?"

Soolin shook her head. "Well, they did, for a while. Then Avon started feeling poverty-stricken, or at least that was his excuse, and they took out a Federation gold shipment. With the profits from that and some other things, they've been scamming their way around the outer planets. With Orac's help."

"Sounds like Avon."

"To be truthful, I don't think they've made that much. Avon was rather cagey about the actual numbers."

"Definitely sounds like Avon."

"But they've been putting a crimp in some of the Federation's plans for expansion. Something to do with, er, 'transaction transfer security and systems integration into the central financial network'."

Vila looked blank and Soolin laughed.

"I don't understand it, either. Avon explained it at length, which really didn't help. I was going to ask Tarrant about it afterwards, but frankly he looked as glassy-eyed as I felt and it didn't seem fair. Still, from what I've heard they've got the Federation banking system in a bit of a tizzy."

"Does the Federation know who's doing it?"

"I don't think so. Strictly for the credits and not the glory this time."

"How come you know all this?"

"Well, I've spoken to them before, off and on."

Vila felt hurt. "And how come you didn't tell me?"

"Avon asked me not to."

That stung too, but Vila could see the sense in it. Avon didn't have any delusions about Vila's ability to keep his mouth shut and, to be honest, neither did Vila himself.

"So, what's so important now?"

"Avon wouldn't exactly tell me."

Vila drained his glass, prompted another refill. "Some things don't change, do they? When're they arriving?"

"Tomorrow."

"That soon?"

"I cleared it with the council nearly a week ago."

Stirred into action by the discussion of time, his brain produced a worrying idea.

"Soolin, it's...nearly the anniversary, isn't it?"

"Yes. Just over three weeks." She checked her chronometer. "Exactly three weeks, now."

"Yes, of course." Vila shook his head. "His timing doesn't get any better, does it? He's not staying until the commemoration, surely?"

"I don't think so. Whatever it is that Avon wants to see the council about, it's urgent. I don't think they're planning to stay more than a few days at the most."

Vila was simultaneously relieved and disappointed. "Good. I mean, I do want to see them. But, God, they'd nail him to the wall, you know they would. You remember what it was like last year? Awful."

"That was the first year, Vila."

"I don't think one more year is going to make much of a difference, do you?"

Soolin avoided the question. "They'll be long gone by then. In fact, I was beginning to think you wouldn't get back in time to see them."

"I was beginning to think I wouldn't get back at all."

Soolin laughed. "Poor Vila. It always happens to you, doesn't it?"

Vila nodded, and lay back in the chair, closing his eyes.

"You'll get a crick in your neck, sleeping there."

He cracked an eye open. "Want to help get me into bed?" Not his best, but he was terribly tired. Making a pass at Soolin when they met up again had become a sort of ritual and he felt he had to make the effort; it wouldn't be a proper reunion otherwise. One day she might even say yes, and the shock would probably kill him.

Soolin was clearing the glasses away and pretended not to hear. But she did smile. "I'll see you in the morning, Vila."

By the time the door closed behind her, he was already asleep.

* * *

Soolin walked back to her own room through the silent base corridors. On the way she amused herself by practicing quick draws as she rounded corners. Practice was never a waste of time, and she hoped, vainly, that it might distract her from thinking about Avon and Tarrant's imminent arrival.

Despite everything she had said to Vila, she was more than a little worried. She had argued Avon's case to the council, but at the back of her mind had been the possibility that the vengeance for Gauda Prime, which had been avoided two years earlier, could be played out now. Soolin could understand the feelings of those rebels who wanted Avon to pay for his crimes.

It would have been better for Avon to stay away. She'd said as much to him, and to Tarrant. Tarrant had listened, and looked very much as if he agreed, and then said they didn't have a choice. Avon had simply refused to discuss it, with the same set determination with which he refused to talk about Blake, or Gauda Prime, or the weeks afterwards. Well, if he came to Capris, he might find that strategy didn't work so well.

There were other reasons she felt uneasy about their return. Time heals, but not quickly.

Soolin hadn't wanted the life she had been given, but she had done with it the best she could. She had spent years driven by the desire for revenge, and afterwards she had taken the skills those years had given her and used them well. They had saved her life, and the lives of the few people she had ever counted as friends. But, on Gerin, those carefully honed skills had killed Dayna.

Since Gerin, that memory had given her more than a few sleepless nights. Although in the cold light of day she could tell herself it had been an honest, unavoidable accident (or, rather, mistake) that didn't help at night.

Since Gerin, she had lost some of the pride she had always had in her talent, her undoubted superiority. Good as she was, she hadn't been quite good enough to control her reflexes when it had been important.

Since Gerin, she had felt more alone than she had for years.

That was ironic, considering that among the rebels she had found a kind of home, even if it were one she visited only intermittently. But it wasn't the same kind of home she had made for those months with the others on Xenon base. She had been as happy as she had ever been, despite the frantic fight, and the danger, and the awful ending.

Sometimes she wondered why she liked Avon as much as she did, given the number of times he had come close to getting her killed. He was certainly the most dangerous employer she had ever had. Come to think of it, he still owed her money for her time on Scorpio. That sort of thing wouldn't do her reputation any good.

Soolin had always preferred to call herself a mercenary. For one thing, it was a nicer word than the truth of what she had become, what she had perhaps always been: a killer. An assassin.

She knew that was how she was described amongst the rebels. 'The assassin', or sometimes, 'the blonde assassin', although Soolin wasn't aware of any others she might need to be distinguished from. The designation set her apart from the rest. They were revolutionaries, freedom fighters, although in the end the people they killed for the cause were no less dead.

And so, cause and consequence, she charged them for her services. Not as much as other people, perhaps, but it was easier to think of them as employers. It didn't matter if employers were a little frightened of you, even a little repulsed, as well as respectful.

Avon didn't care. To Avon, her talent for killing was simply a useful skill, and that was all. It was something he treated no differently to Tarrant's piloting, or Vila's light fingers, or even his own love of computers.

He had never blamed her for Dayna's death; how could he, of all people? She had never looked in his eyes and seen the unease she'd caught in so many other people's, and for that alone she liked him. Tarrant also accepted her without judging, and whilst Vila's friendship was tinged with a little fear, it was no more than his perennial apprehension of life in general.

On reflection, perhaps all this said more about the somewhat irregular morality of the ex-Scorpio crew members with regard to issues such as murder than it did about her in particular. But in an imperfect universe, Soolin was willing to take what she was offered. She had been willing to love—or at least accept—Dorian for no more reason.

Soolin reached her room, opened the door, and caught herself reflexively scanning the room before she entered. She really needed to relax. Everything will be fine, she told herself.

She believed it no more than Vila had.

* * *

Chapter Five

Vila had been hovering around the landing area airlock, on and off, almost all day when Soolin appeared silently behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.

Vila jumped and clutched his chest dramatically.

"Do you mind? I could have a weak heart, you know. In fact, I think I do, now."

"I could've told you that. They're landing."

"There's nothing on the control screen."

"Orac let me know."

"Oh."

Soolin leant against the wall and Vila started to pace, because it was better than fidgeting on the spot.

"I think they want to keep their arrival quiet, Vila, that's all."

"Doesn't look like it's worked, does it?" Vila paused briefly and nodded towards a small group gathering a tactful distance away. He could see Mai and Duncan, and a handful of the other rebel council members. Returning to his pacing, Vila tried surreptitiously to judge their mood.

Mai was in one of her smart-and-formal outfits, looking more like a middle-aged Federation businesswoman than a rebel. It was a rarely seen and possibly unencouraging look. Duncan looked as scruffy as ever, but the fact that he'd come away from the lab at all meant he attached some importance to the visitors. Davrin, the chief medic and also a busy man, was there too—hopefully in his role as council member, rather than because Mai thought he'd be needed in a professional capacity. The manner of the others present ranged from neutral to unimpressed. Still, they'd agreed to let Avon and Tarrant land, so presumably things would be all right.

Slightly more worryingly, there were a few more people on the fringes of the arrival area and in the corridors. Vila could feel the tension in the air and it was worse than he had expected. Looking at the faces, he realized how many of them had joined the rebels in the last two years and had never actually met Blake in person. All they had were the legends that ended, bloodily, on Gauda Prime.

He stopped pacing and went over to Soolin.

"Soolin," he whispered, "I don't like—"

And then the airlock opened.

Soolin was right, they did look well. Or, at least, Vila imagined they would do so under other circumstances. As it was, Avon was moving very precisely and carefully, a sure sign of nerves, and his face reflected it, too. The past two years didn't seem to have altered his dress sense at all, and overall he looked like someone attending a funeral, very possibly their own.

Tarrant looked much more relaxed on the surface, but Vila noticed his right hand twitch once or twice. That made him realize they had no guns (or rather, Vila mentally amended, no visible guns). Tactful, he thought, very tactful.

Still, they both looked a lot better than the last time he'd seen them. They took a few steps away from the airlock to let it close, and then halted. Vila could see them both quite automatically scanning the room, assessing potential threats and cover. Then Tarrant caught sight of them and smiled cheerfully.

"Vila! Soolin!"

Soolin took Vila by the elbow and urged him over.

"Hi, Tarrant. Avon." Vila and Soolin stopped in front of them and there was an awkward pause. The idea of shaking hands seemed ridiculously formal, but anything more demonstrative would be deeply uncomfortable.

Tarrant looked around. "Nice place you've got here, Vila. We'd have come back sooner if we'd known you were living it up."

"You picked a good time. This one's nearly new. The last place was a dump and the one before that was actually condemned by the Federation as unfit to keep prisoners in. I'm hoping this one lasts a bit longer than..." Vila caught hold of the flow of words and cut them off. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Avon half-smiling, an expression that disappeared as soon as Vila looked over.

"Avon. How are...things?"

"Things are as well as can be expected. And you?"

"Um. Fine." Wow. Just like old times, huh?

Apparently feeling that the reunion had gone on long enough, Mai led the rest of the council members across. Vila and Soolin moved aside.

"You're welcome here, Kerr Avon, Del Tarrant." Her voice was clear and pitched to carry further than was strictly necessary.

She stood on tiptoe to kiss their cheeks, another obvious signal to the onlookers. Unsurprisingly, Avon looked startled, but Tarrant bent down to accept and return the kiss.

"We're very pleased to be here," he said with easy charm that, even to Vila, sounded almost natural.

"I remember you, of course, Mai." He turned to the others. "And Duncan." Tarrant offered his hand and Duncan took it. He also gave Tarrant an immediate and genuine smile. Two people at least, Vila thought, willing to offer an open welcome.

Tarrant gestured to the rest of the group. "But I don't think I know anyone else? I apologise if my memory is at fault."

"Not at all, Tarrant..."

Mai began the round of introductions. Vila was watching Avon, who seemed to be giving Mai half his attention and keeping the rest on the gathering crowd beyond. Word was obviously spreading. The atmosphere still felt like taut wire—not yet dangerous but capable of breaking disastrously under the tension. Vila knew Avon was thinking exactly the same thing he was: if things turned nasty, they might not make it back to the ship.

Vila remembered that Mai had been one of the rebels who had interrogated him—well, talked to him, to be fair—after Gauda Prime. Three days of trying his best to come up with a version of events which would somehow disarm the rebels' anger and keep Avon alive. Vila had almost forgotten about it, but suddenly those three days seemed very clear and the two years since almost unreal.

"...If you would be so kind, Vila?"

Vila scrambled to recapture the conversation, came up blank.

"I'm sorry?"

"I said, if you could show Avon and Tarrant to their room, we can arrange a meeting with the council, tomorrow morning."

Vila nodded eagerly. Anything to get away from the arrival area. He judged the size of the groups in the corridors, took the other three towards the smallest. It was a long way round, but Vila didn't care.

The watchers parted before them and Vila could feel the weight of eyes as he walked between them and away. Then, as they reached the first junction, he heard the conversations starting up. Only one word came down the corridor, not shouted, just unfortunately standing clear from the buzz of voices.

"Murderer."

Avon didn't even break stride, but Vila heard a gasp of protesting breath from Tarrant as Soolin elbowed him in the ribs.

"Shut up, Tarrant," Vila said quickly—far too quickly for Tarrant to even begin to speak.

"I didn't say anything!" Tarrant protested.

Avon lengthened his stride a little. "Just make sure you don't."

* * *

"I wasn't going to say anything," Tarrant repeated as the door closed behind Vila and Soolin, leaving them alone again.

Avon looked at him darkly. "No doubt Soolin and Vila remembered you used to be somewhat impulsive. And I know you still are."

From the edge in his voice he was really spoiling for an argument. Tarrant decided that he didn't feel like playing the part of verbal punch-bag while Avon worked off his nerves. Calm and reasonable was the best approach, with perhaps just a little bit of subterfuge.

"Much as I love you, I am not planning to spend my time here getting into fights in order to defend your honour."

'Love' was a word he hardly ever used, so, even slipped in as a throwaway line, it still tended to stop Avon dead in his tracks. This time it worked like a charm. Avon looked at him with faint suspicion, then shrugged.

"All right. Let's get settled in. Vila said he'd be back in an hour."

Their few bits of luggage had been brought from the ship by the automatic loading system and someone had left them just inside the door. Avon had wanted to carry everything off the ship, but Tarrant had persuaded him that a show of trust would be a good idea. Besides, if they couldn't trust the rebels that far, there was precious little point in their being there. Still, the trust had a limit. Orac stayed on the ship, activated and ready for teleport, if it would work through the base's deep shielding.

The small set of rooms certainly counted as spacious in comparison to spaceship standards. The door from the corridor opened into a generously sized seating area, with a bedroom opening off it. Tarrant was delighted to discover that the bedroom in turn lead to a bathroom which boasted an actual bath. In the seating area, there was a desk with computer terminal, several easy chairs and a sideboard with glasses and a couple of bottles of wine—courtesy, Tarrant suspected, of Vila.

Avon checked the labels on the bottles as Tarrant came back for the last bag.

"Not bad. Do you want something to drink?"

"No. If Vila's got something organised there'll be plenty of opportunities later on."

"True. Well, in that case, we have an hour to fill." His voice dropped into the darker tone that meant he was either in a very bad mood, or a very good one. "Any ideas?"

Keeping up with Avon's mood changes was sometimes a little tricky, even after a few years of practice, but this one was definitely an improvement on five minutes ago.

"We could unpack," Tarrant suggested blandly, hiding a smile at the tiny flicker of annoyance that escaped onto Avon's face.

Avon crossed the room, took the bag from Tarrant's hand and dropped it. "Or...we could not?" And then he caught Tarrant by the collar and pulled him down for a kiss which made answering the question quite impossible.

Very definitely an improvement.

* * *

Chapter Six

On the edge of the Capris system, something began to move. The ship had tracked the Meegat from extreme detector range, hanging back even further as its target finally entered a star system. Now it accelerated hard and briefly, masked from any watchers by one of the outer planets. Then, drives silenced, it passed through the system.

Passive scanners on the ship picked up the energy traces from the Capris Four base. Dull smears marked where the complex breached the surface, and brighter spots indicated the location of the reactors. The scanners even detected a faint suggestion of the latent heat signal from cooling drives in the landing bay.

The pilot ensured he had the data logged and safe, then began preparing a message for later dispatch. Mission accomplished, and a good result under difficult conditions. There was no doubt that this was where the trail ended. Once clear of the base's likely detector range, he engaged the ship's drives again and it went on its way, its departure unfortunately as unobserved as its arrival.

* * *

Chapter Seven

Part of the old science base on Capris Four had been turned into a recreation area. It was actually a complex of half a dozen rooms, nicely suited for apportioning into areas for drinking, watching vids, talking or playing games. And, when there was a larger gathering, it meant that more or less everyone could circulate round without the deafening effect of having a few hundred people in one large area.

Tonight, there was more/p/p of a crowd than normal, perhaps because of Avon and Tarrant. Excepting those who weren't willing to let go of Gauda Prime, there was plenty of curiosity to meet the visitors. Rebellion, like most occupations, is rather boring for ninety percent of the time.

After the reaction provoked by their arrival, Vila had been tempted to change his plan of taking Avon and Tarrant along to the rec area. But the alternative was for them to spend their time skulking in their room, which wouldn't make a terribly good impression either.

To Vila's relief he found the atmosphere considerably warmer. He suspected that Mai had put out the word that she wouldn't tolerate open discourtesy and that anyone who had problems with her guests should stay away. Vila spent a while introducing Avon and Tarrant to assorted people, then left them for Soolin to look after. He wandered from room to room, stopping to talk for a while here and there, but really looking for Shenna.

Before setting off for the rec room he'd decided that he very much wanted to make up. He didn't really know why, other than, perhaps, that comparing the state of his life with those of his old crewmates made him feel as if he ought to make more of an effort. Sitting in his room, looking at the dead plants, he'd suddenly felt bitterly lonely. He'd even prepared what he was going to say, if he ever found her.

He interrupted his search to get another drink. He was checking the open bottles when he noticed Tarrant, sitting in the middle of an attentive audience, spinning what Vila imagined to be attractively polished-up accounts of crew exploits. Adding to the stock of impossible legends, Vila thought. It took a few seconds longer for him to spot Shenna.

She was curled up neatly on the floor right by Tarrant's feet, holding a glass and with her elbow resting on his knee. She gazed up with rapt attention and, every so often, she took a sip of her drink and then licked her lips in a way that brought back a rush of rather pleasant memories for Vila. Then Tarrant said something that got a ripple of laughter, and Shenna flicked her dark hair back and laughed along with the rest.

As it happened, Tarrant didn't seem to be paying an undue amount of attention to her but, as far as Vila was concerned, that was entirely beside the point.

It wasn't Tarrant's fault, of course it wasn't, the bastard. Shenna was a navigator herself and she enjoyed heroic space combat stories, so she was bound to be at the front of the crowd. Vila looked again, hoping he had somehow completely misinterpreted her body language.

No such luck. Mentally, Vila tore up his apology-and-reconciliation speech and flushed it into the recycling system. He filled his glass from a spirits bottle selected more or less at random and downed the contents. He wondered if Soolin was still around and hoped she wasn't, because she would just love to see all this. It was when he started checking the rest of the room for her that he noticed Avon.

Avon stood—or rather lurked—in a shadow by the door, giving the impression of a neatly turned-out and very bad-tempered raven. He also was watching Tarrant. If only looks could kill, Vila thought wistfully.

There wasn't a mirror handy, but Vila knew that if he could see his own reflection he would look slightly drunk, and probably a little flushed and maybe, if he was lucky, a bit cross. Avon, on the other hand, looked like the righteous wrath of God about to smite the unfaithful.

Vila half expected him to storm across to the little storytelling group, but he quickly realized that Avon would do no such thing. Suggestively licked lips or not, there was nothing, really, that an ostensibly reasonable person could make a fuss about. And anyway, Avon would probably stand and watch Tarrant being given a blow job by every single woman on the base in turn, rather than make a fool of himself in public. Or even in private.

Still, the situation had potential. Misery loves company, and so on.

Vila refilled his glass and worked his way around the room so that he could come up next to Avon from a direction where he plausibly might not yet have seen Tarrant.

"Avon, there you are."

Avon looked round with an expression that almost made Vila take a step back, before he smoothed it away. Then he merely looked profoundly irritated.

"Vila." Avon looked down at Vila's glass. "Enjoying the party, I see."

"Oh, yes, you know me. If there's something to drink and a pretty girl or two..."

Vila took up a position right next to Avon and pretended to survey the room. "The atmosphere's a bit friendlier than it was earlier anyway. I suppose no-one who really objected to your coming back bothered to turn up."

Avon didn't deign to reply. This was almost fun.

"Tarrant looks to be enjoying himself," Vila added innocently.

Avon nodded. "Showing off, as usual," he said with commendable calm.

"Just like old times," Vila agreed.

"Who's the girl?" Avon's voice modulated to ultra-casual. "The one with the dark hair?"

The one with her hand on his leg? Vila was tempted to ask. Instead, he said, "I'm not quite sure. I think her name's Shenna."

Avon looked round, then smiled unpleasantly.

"Ah. Shenna."

It took just a second for understanding to dawn. "Bloody Soolin!"

"She's a fount of knowledge." Avon looked back at the group across the room. "And accurate knowledge in this case. She's really rather pretty."

Vila chose to ignore the unspoken, 'so what was she doing with you?'

"Isn't she, though?"

"Mm. But Soolin's right, you know. She's far too young for you."

Vila restrained himself from a comment that undoubtedly would have seen him flattened against, and probably through, the nearest wall. He settled for the next best one.

"Doesn't look like I'm going to get another chance to find out, does it?"

Avon glowered. "Don't push it, Vila."

Vila shrugged. "As I bet Soolin told you, it's already over."

They stood for a while in almost companionable silence, listening to Tarrant.

"...Through the force shield, which destroyed the first one. Once the odds were back down to two to one, we weren't really in trouble any more, although they were still Mark Tens—best things the Federation had at the time. We rolled and took the second one on the turn whilst they were expecting an attack on the other ship. Then we rolled again, maximum thrust, and Dayna took out the last one before they had a chance to fire again. Then, we took off after the Kairopan shuttle..."

Vila took a sly, sideways look at Avon. His face had softened; the anger replaced by amusement and a hint of a deeper something else that made Vila look hurriedly away again.

"I wonder how he's going to get round the bit where we nearly lost Liberator to Servalan?" Vila said after a moment.

Vila could hear the smile in Avon's voice. "Oh, I expect he'll find something positive to say about it. He always knows how to look good, does Tarrant."

There was another silence, then Vila suggested tentatively, "Do you want to go get a drink? Or there are some games going on in one of the other rooms—Soolin said you weren't short of ready cash at the moment."

"Looking for a loan, Vila?"

"Actually, I thought I'd point out the really rotten players and we could fleece them between us. We can split the winnings."

"All right, why not?" But he hesitated, still watching Tarrant. Tarrant smiled in response to a question from the audience and, briefly, Vila could almost appreciate what Avon saw in him.

Vila decided to take a risk, expecting to get his head bitten off but unable to stop himself anyway. Without looking round he said, "Nothing's going to happen, you know."

Avon sighed. "Yes. Yes, I do know." He clapped Vila on the shoulder and turned for the door. "Come on, then. Seventy-thirty?"

"In my favour?"

"I very much doubt your play has improved that much in two years. It never seemed to on Liberator, no matter how often I showed you how it was done..."

* * *

Vila and Avon made a tactfully modest profit over the course of the evening, and after a while Soolin and Tarrant joined them. Eventually the games broke up and the four moved into a quieter alcove to talk.

Avon and Tarrant explained the reasons for their visit, in fairly general terms to be sure, but in enough detail that Vila could appreciate why they had risked coming to Capris. He could almost see the council being willing to help stop something like Solitaire, even considering...everything. He was incredibly relieved the subject of Gauda Prime hadn't arisen during the evening, and he suspected Soolin was as well.

It grew late, but none of the reunited crew felt particularly tired. The recreation rooms slowly emptied until they were the only ones still there. Eventually, the volunteers on the cleaning rota made it clear that it was time to leave.

They stopped at one of the main corridor junctions.

"What do you want to do, now?" Soolin asked. "Drink? Talk? Sleep?"

Avon checked his chronometer. "I really need to go over some things for the meeting tomorrow. But I'd be grateful if you could keep Tarrant out of my way while I'm doing it."

"Actually, Tarrant," Soolin said, "I thought you might like to come down and have a look at the firing range. See if you're any better a shot than you used to be? I'll take a handicap, if you like."

"Why not? Anyway, I know when I'm not wanted. Coming, Vila?"

Vila hesitated. "No...no I don't think so. Guns aren't my idea of a fun way to spend the night. Avon, do you need me to show you the way back to your room?"

"No, I think I can find it. Good night."

Avon set off down what was at least the right corridor to begin with. Vila watched him go as Tarrant and Soolin turned back towards the lifts down to the firing range. Then he set off towards his own room.

Vila made it part of the way, then hesitated. Back in the Liberator or Scorpio days Vila might have laughed at the idea, but it had been really good to see Avon and Tarrant again. And he didn't think that was entirely due to the alcoholic haze of a pleasant evening. Maybe the firing range would be more enjoyable than going back to his empty room. He could always find some ear defenders and pass the time counting Avon's winnings. Avon really should learn to keep a closer eye on his pockets.

He was on his way back when he caught sight of the group approaching down the corridor opposite. Some instinct nudged him into hiding in a doorway. He heard them reach the junction, then stop.

"There are only two ways he would have gone. Split up, whoever finds him first calls the others."

"And make sure you leave some until everyone gets there, eh?"

There was some unpleasant laughter and the group split. They sounded excited, on edge, high with the anticipation of violence. Vila waited until they were out of sight. Then, feeling as stone cold sober as if he hadn't touched a drop all night, he started to run.

* * *

Chapter Eight

By the time he got to the lift area it was empty, but he yelled anyway. "Tarrant! Soolin!"

Tarrant caught the lift door just as it was about to close, and stuck his head round the corner.

"Changed your mind?" Then he caught sight of Vila's face. "What's wrong?"

"Come on." Vila turned and started back down the corridor. Soolin and Tarrant ran to catch up with him.

"Vila, what's wrong?" Tarrant repeated.

"I think I just saw a lynch mob, heading after Avon."

Tarrant swore. "How many? When?"

"I'm not sure. A dozen? It was just a few minutes after you left. We should probably go and get some help."

Soolin shook her head. "There's no time. He could be dead by the time we can bring anyone else."

"The way they were talking, they weren't planning on rushing things," Vila said without thinking, and then really wished he hadn't as he caught a glimpse of Tarrant's face.

* * *

The route back to his room proved more complicated than Avon remembered. He was concentrating on the sequence of corridors and that was why he didn't register the footsteps behind him until the hand landed on his shoulder. He spun away from the contact, putting his back towards the wall, at the same time catching sight of the second group rounding the corner ahead of him. They moved quickly to block the corridor and the way they held themselves told him everything he needed to know.

A quick glance round counted eight of them. They had all partly covered their faces, something Avon found marginally reassuring. It meant they were at least pretending to themselves that there was a chance they would leave him alive.

One of them stepped forwards and Avon tensed, ready for the first blow. "Murdering bastard," the man hissed, and despite himself, Avon flinched.

Fight or flight quickly resolved itself into 'flight'. He held the fear in check, waiting for the right moment. Avon would never classify himself as an elegant runner, but he was fast, especially with a suitable incentive. If he could make it back to the rec rooms there would be other people and, therefore, safety.

"You aren't welcome here," the self-appointed spokesman continued. He spat on the corridor floor at Avon's feet in an appropriately dramatic fashion. "You or your boyfriend."

Oh. And you'd think that Blake's death would have been excuse enough. Avon felt an absurd flash of confidence. This was far easier. This he'd done before.

He looked up at the other man, gave him a chill half-smile. "I prefer 'lover', actually."

It was a gamble, but it paid off. The man stepped back slightly, temporarily stuck for a reply. Avon turned away a little, lowering his voice, trying to draw the men blocking the corridor round far enough to open an escape route.

"As for our being here," Out of the corner of his eye, Avon caught sight of the men following his turn. A tiny space offered itself. Barely enough, but the group was closing in and Avon knew it was the best chance he would get now. "Since Mai welcomed Tarrant and myself, I really don't see that we have anything further to—"

Avon lashed out. He felt a solid contact but he was already moving, aiming for the small gap in the net around him. For a moment he thought he was going to make it, then a fist smashed into him just below his breastbone, sending him crashing to the ground.

* * *

Back at the junction they had parted at, Soolin halted them and stood still, listening. Everything was silent.

"He'll have gone back the way you brought him. Vila?"

Vila hesitated.

"Think, Vila. Come on."

Soolin held up her hand. "Tarrant, that's not going to help. Take your time, Vila, but just be sure about it."

"I remember the way."

"Sure?"

"Yes."

They went as fast as they could, given that they had to check each side corridor as they came across it. It was late, and the base lights had been lowered for the night. Vila began to feel sure he'd mistaken the route. Then, as they rounded a corner, he heard the noise ahead.

The dimly lit corridor allowed Vila to see only a group of shadowy figures kicking hard at an even darker shape on the ground. The sounds he had heard were the sickening thud of boots and the grunts of effort as the blows went in.

Then the sharp crack of a gun echoed down the corridor.

The sheer speed of Soolin's reflexes never failed to astonish Vila. In the time it had taken him to register the scene, she had drawn her gun and planted a shot into the floor only a few feet from the group. Two more shots followed before anyone could move, lighting sparks from the walls on either side of the suddenly frozen tableau. A moment of absolute stillness followed, then the attackers turned and ran, one of them pausing briefly to put in a departing kick.

When the three of them reached him, Avon was still curled up on the floor, fighting for breath in between wrenching dry retches. Vila realized that someone must have got in a lucky or deliberate hit early on which had winded him too comprehensively to let him call for help.

Tarrant and Vila stopped, but Soolin carried on past with barely a glance downwards. Vila briefly considered warning her not to get too free with her gun, but she knew that already. There was no point going with her. He was unarmed, as, he realized, were Tarrant and Avon.

Good thing too, Vila thought. He felt suddenly cold as the alternative possibilities went through his mind.

Avon waved away their attempts to help, but it took a good ten minutes before he managed to get to his feet. He leaned against the wall, still unable to stand up straight, looking pale in the dim light. Before he'd recovered enough breath to speak, Soolin reappeared.

"Lost them," she said tersely. "There were eight of them. They split up and went down into the supply sections. I didn't fancy hunting them through the stores, not on my own. There's no advantage in a gun if someone drops a crate on you first." She turned to Avon. "How are you?"

Avon touched the back of his hand to his lower lip, inspected it and licked away blood. "I'm...all right."

"You don't sound it."

"Just...catch my breath."

Vila turned to the others. "We need to tell the council. Soolin, go and?."

"No."

They all looked at Avon.

"What?" Tarrant said after a few seconds.

"Don't...don't tell...the council. No point."

Soolin's eyes narrowed. "Avon, they easily could have killed you."

He shook his head.

"Don't be stupid," Tarrant said angrily. "Eight on one? Of course they could." He looked off down the corridor, fingers curling round an absent gun. "Cowards."

Avon managed a couple of almost normal breaths. "Don't tell the council. There's nothing they...can do." He looked at Soolin. "Did you get a look at them? To...recognise them?"

"No."

"Vila?"

"No."

"Neither did I. So. What can they do about it?"

Tarrant sighed. "Except suggest we leave, yes? So it's more important to stay and get the council's help than it is for you to stay alive?"

Avon smiled wryly, then winced and touched his cut lip with his tongue. "No. But...it's more important to get their help than to...make a fuss about a few bruises." Tarrant tried to interrupt but Avon cut him off. "I was careless. I won't be again."

Tarrant started another protest, but this time it was Soolin who stopped him.

"All right, Avon. It's your neck. Tarrant, give me a hand with him."

Pale as Avon was, he went a lot paler when Soolin put her arm around his back.

"Ah...no! I'll manage."

* * *

Over the course of the walk back to his room, Avon's breathing eased but he didn't change his plan. At the door he turned round.

"Remember, not a word to the council. Is that understood?"

Soolin nodded. "Not a word, I promise."

"Vila?"

"Yes, all right."

Avon waited.

"I promise."

"Good. I'll see you in the morning."

He disappeared into the room. Tarrant lingered on the threshold for a moment. He didn't say anything, but Vila noticed a very significant exchange of looks going on with Soolin. He saw Tarrant mouth something, although he couldn't tell what, and Soolin reply equally silently. Then Tarrant shut the door.

Soolin stood for a moment, deep in thought, then sighed.

"Come on, Vila."

They set off down the corridor.

"Where to?" he asked.

"We've got to tell Mai what happened."

Vila stopped dead and stared at her.

"Soolin!"

She turned, her face tight with anger. "We're not on Scorpio any more. We have more loyalties to consider. Half a dozen people just tried to kill someone Mai publicly welcomed here. She has to know about it, right now."

Vila could just imagine what Avon's reaction was going to be when he found out about this. And which part would make him angriest.

"You gave Avon your word."

"Yes, I did. I lied. I also cheat at cards. And I kill people for money, which I think puts the other things into perspective. Come on."

She set off towards Mai's rooms. After a few seconds, Vila went after her. There was no point trying to change her mind and besides, as usual, she was right.

"Soolin?"

She waited for him to catch up. "Yes?"

"Do you really cheat at cards?"

It had been a purely reflexive attempt to ease the tension, so Vila was pleasantly surprised when she actually laughed.

* * *

After the others left, Avon disappeared into the bathroom and locked the door. Tarrant could hear him being sick, but he forced himself to sit on the bed and wait. Banging on the bathroom door and demanding to be let in was hardly going to improve the situation.

When Avon finally emerged he was white and shaking with delayed reaction. He walked straight through into the sitting area and poured himself a drink, hands barely steady enough to open the bottle.

Tarrant followed him in. "You have to go to the medical unit."

"No." Avon leaned on the sideboard, his hands flat against the metal, perhaps waiting for them to stop shaking sufficiently to let him pick up his glass.

Tarrant somehow kept his voice level. "They could have done some serious damage. You know they could."

"I'm...I'll be fine."

"Then at least let me take a look at you."

"There's no need."

Tarrant's enforced calm evaporated. "Avon, for God's sake, stop being such a complete bloody idiot!"

Faced with fire, Avon performed his usual manoeuvre of retreating into ice. "I said 'no'."

However, Avon didn't hold an exclusive patent on pig-headed obstinacy and Tarrant wasn't willing to give up. When Tarrant eventually persuaded him to strip, he found Avon's body was a mass of blooming bruises, every one from a blow delivered with real intent to injure. Tarrant felt like throwing up himself at the certainty of what would have happened if Vila hadn't found Soolin and himself as quickly as he had.

Avon's back and ribs had taken the brunt of the damage. He had managed to protect his head, except for the glancing blow that split his lip. Unfortunately, this meant his arms and hands had taken a battering, including what Tarrant suspected was a broken finger.

Infuriatingly, Avon still flatly refused to go to the medical unit, insisting instead on a bath and solitude. Tarrant was getting to the point where he had run out of both arguments and the patience to make them, and was about to go looking for the medic himself, when he heard a tap on the door.

He opened it cautiously, not immediately recognizing the dark-haired young man outside.

"Yes?"

"Vila sent me along? My name's Davrin." He lifted a heavy-looking bag. "I'm in charge of the base medical unit?"

Of course. He had been part of the welcoming committee when they arrived. Tarrant let him in.

"Did Vila tell you what happened?"

Davrin nodded. "And I'm sorry about it, truly I am. None of us on the council had any idea, I promise you."

"I didn't think you did. Avon's in the bath. Wait here a minute."

This could be the difficult part. Tarrant rapped on the bathroom door. "Avon? The medic's here."

There was a long silence.

"Avon?"

"All right. I'll be out in a minute." To Tarrant's surprise, he sounded resigned rather than angry.

* * *

Soolin sat in Mai's office, waiting for her to return. When they arrived at her rooms, the council leader had been asleep and she had listened to Soolin and Vila's initial report in her dressing gown.

Then Mai decided that it would be politic to include some of the other council members in any decisions, and sent a message off while she disappeared into the private rooms beyond her office to dress. Soolin took the opportunity to send Vila along to Davrin.

Vila went off obediently, but still proclaiming his conviction that Avon was never going to forgive them. Soolin herself was more sanguine. When Avon fixed himself on a course of action he could be the most insanely stubborn man she had ever met in her life. And the more illogical and indefensible his position, the more impossible he was to reason with. However, given time, he usually saw sense, even if he wouldn't admit it in so many words.

Mai re-emerged, wearing her authoritarian look and with her grey-threaded dark hair once more neatly pinned up. Anticipating problems with the others, Soolin thought.

"Where's Vila?"

"I asked him to send Davrin along to Avon."

"Ah, good idea. And how are you?"

Soolin looked at her, puzzled.

"I'm fine. Why?"

Mai touched her shoulder gently. "I know you were afraid of what might happen, if they came here, my dear. And it's never easy to see friends hurt."

Soolin shook her head. "It was Avon's idea. If he thought it was worth the risk, then it probably is."

"Soolin, while we're alone, I wanted to ask you..." Uncharacteristically, Mai hesitated.

Soolin thought, Avon was right—she's going to ask me if I think she should tell them to go. She's already exerted her authority to try and keep them safe and it didn't work. They're causing trouble for her just by being here.

"What is it?"

"Do you trust Avon?"

Soolin was surprised into honesty. "About some things, yes I do."

"And about this?"

"Well, I only know as much as I told you. I'd want to hear the rest, first. But, from what I do know, I'm sure he believes the danger is real, and I'm sure he believes that he can't do anything about it without your help." Soolin paused, then added, "He wouldn't be here if he didn't."

Mai nodded slowly. "Yes. Yes, a very good point. I don't imagine he has any great wish to be here." She smiled. "I had almost begun to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake in allowing them to come here at all."

There was a knock at the door, and Mai went to open it.

Soolin rehearsed her account in her mind again and wondered if she, too, had just made a mistake.

* * *

Tarrant thought about leaving the room completely during the examination, which he was sure was what Avon would have preferred. But he didn't want to risk getting the doctor's report filtered through Avon's determination not to take the injuries seriously. Instead he hung around near the door, listening to Davrin's patient questions and Avon's increasingly sharp answers.

Eventually, and with very bad grace, Avon took the tablets offered him and went to bed. Tarrant and Davrin went into the outer room.

"How is he?"

Davrin shook his head. "He ought to be in the medical unit."

"But will he be all right here?"

"Yes, he will. Otherwise I would've insisted rather more forcefully. I've put a splint on his finger—it's not a bad break—and I've left some painkillers for tomorrow. He'll sleep until the morning anyway. Call me back down if you're at all worried." Davrin hesitated. "I'll keep this as quiet as I can."

Avon certainly hadn't said it, so Tarrant did. "Thanks."

"It's the very least I can do, under the circumstances. I was against your coming here in the first place, to be frank, because I was worried something like this would happen. But Soolin can be very persuasive."

Tarrant shrugged. "It was...something we accepted might be a risk."

"Mai will try her very best to find out who was responsible."

Tarrant nodded. Of course she will, he thought, if only because of the challenge to her authority.

Davrin pointed towards Avon's heavy leather jacket, discarded on a chair. "Is that his?"

"Yes."

"He's probably got that to thank that things aren't a lot worse. If you can persuade him to come down to the medical unit tomorrow, I can make sure I haven't missed anything."

"I'll do my best."

Davrin smiled. "I won't be holding my breath."

* * *

Chapter Nine

In the morning, Tarrant watched Avon dress. The more something hurt, the less it showed on his face. It inspired the mixture of admiration and intense irritation that Avon so often did.

"What are you going to tell the council?"

"Nothing."

"Avon, they're going to notice."

"I've taken the painkillers, we've got an hour before the meeting."

"What about your lip? And the finger splint? You'll have to tell them something. Or why not let Soolin or Vila talk to them?"

Avon carefully eased into his jacket, his back to Tarrant.

"Give it up, Tarrant. As you well know, there's no need to tell the council anything, because they've already heard all about it. Haven't they?"

He turned round quickly enough to catch Tarrant's expression of shock, and actually smiled.

"I didn't get kicked in the head, at least not that hard. Since Davrin turned up so promptly, I hardly imagine that Soolin and Vila would have left Mai in the dark."

"I'm sorry."

The smile vanished abruptly.

"Don't bother lying, particularly since I expect it was your idea in the first place. Admittedly, it would make a pleasant change if you could bring yourself to trust my judgment, just occasionally, but...in this case you were right. She had to be told. So."

Avon finished fastening his jacket and ran his hands through his hair, wincing when he jolted his finger.

"Shall we go and look for some breakfast?"

Apparently taking silence as agreement, Avon turned and left. Still temporarily speechless, Tarrant followed him out of the room.

* * *

They met Soolin on the way to the mess. Avon merely bade her good morning and went on ahead, leaving Tarrant to fall into step beside her.

"Did you tell him?"

"I didn't need to—he guessed."

"And?"

Tarrant shook his head, still smarting from the earlier conversation. "He said it was the right thing to do."

Soolin grinned smugly.

"What?"

"I just won a bet with Vila, that's all. And he hates paying up."

"What did Mai have to say?"

"She's going to let you stay and have the meeting this morning as arranged. Some of the others wanted her to tell you to go, but she talked them round. But if there's any more trouble, I don't think you're going to get the help you want. She won't risk a real split over it."

They entered the mess, joined the queue for breakfast behind Avon. He seemed content to leave them to their conversation. Actually, he looked a little distracted. Probably worrying about the upcoming meeting.

Tarrant surveyed the room cautiously. There were a lot of glances coming their way, hastily averted when Tarrant looked over. Despite Davrin's promise to keep things quiet, news had obviously spread.

However, from Tarrant's reading of the mood, the attack had shocked the majority of the rebels. That was what he'd expected—or at least hoped—would be the case. From everything Soolin had told them, Mai was widely loved and respected; the attack was an insult to her hospitality and judgment. It might even turn out to be good thing, from the point of view of the purpose of their visit. Avon would probably say so, anyway.

Tarrant started to say as much to Soolin, when he saw her staring over his shoulder, her eyes wide.

"What is...?"

He turned, the question dying on his lips as he caught sight of Avon.

Avon leant against the wall, staring sightlessly past Tarrant, his face grey. No, not grey, but blue and his already bruised lips bluest of all. He was trying to speak without being able to breathe, and as Tarrant watched, frozen in horror, he began to crumple and fall. Soolin pushed Tarrant aside and reached to catch him. For a moment Avon's hands tightened reflexively around her arms, then he collapsed against her, unconscious.

"Medic! Someone get a medic!" She lowered Avon to the floor and knelt beside him, checking his airway, searching for a pulse, her movements unhurried and efficient. "Get Davrin, now!"

There was a scattering of chairs, shouts and running. Tarrant stood like a statue in the middle on the commotion. All he could think was, the idiot. The complete bloody idiot.

* * *

As they waited outside the medical unit, Vila talked, endlessly, until finally Soolin sent him away with the promise she would call him back the moment there was any concrete news. To be honest, Tarrant hadn't minded him, and with Vila gone the silence was oppressive. Soolin was calm, even calmer than she'd been in the mess, and Tarrant himself felt numb with the suddenness of events.

News trickled out, conveyed in agonizingly small bites by kind, sympathetic staff. There was an operation. It might take some time. They could give no more details, other than yes, he was alive, still alive. They were doing everything possible. Every message bringing with it the fear that this could be that last one.

After about a hundred years, someone Tarrant didn't recognise told them they could see Avon.

Soolin excused herself to find Vila, letting Tarrant go in alone.

Davrin was waiting there for him. Behind the plastic shell of the intensive care capsule, Avon looked so pale, so still, that Tarrant had to search for the slow rise and fall of his chest before he was convinced he was still alive. And his skin colour was better. Pale, yes, but no longer the horrible, deathly colour Tarrant remembered from the mess and had been seeing in his mind ever since.

Helplessly, Tarrant put his hand on the warm plastic, trying somehow to transmit the touch through it. Seeing Avon, of all people, so vulnerable, so defenseless, seemed like a violation of the natural order of the universe.

Tarrant felt like two people occupying the same body. One of them seemed to have very kindly taken charge of his voice and was asking questions of Davrin, sounding almost normal. The other was entirely occupied in watching Avon and repeating a silent prayer: please, God, don't let him die, please, God, don't...

"Yes," Davrin said. "He has a very good chance. An extremely good chance, now he's made it this far."

"But?"

"But it's not quite a hundred percent, no."

Tarrant didn't want to hear a number, not just then. "What happened?"

"It was a rupture of the thoracic aorta. It's difficult to say for certain but the most likely explanation is a tear resulting from blunt trauma—that it was damaged when he was attacked. Terribly bad luck. But once the aorta was weakened, it could have ruptured at any time."

Tarrant nodded, filing the words away to think about and understand later.

Please, God, don't let him die.

"We repaired the artery, and the operation went very well."

"How long will he be out?"

"A few hours, at least. We'll keep him sedated until we're absolutely sure the repair is good. If it fails, we'll need to go in again at once."

"Can I wait in here?"

"Of course. Stay as long as you like. I'll be back, soon." Davrin started to leave, paused with his hand on the door. "If..." He stopped, but Tarrant knew what he wanted to say.

"Yes. If he'd gone to the medical unit, you would have spotted it and this wouldn't have happened." A little generosity would cost him nothing. "It wasn't your fault, you told him to go. He's...impossible, sometimes."

That's my cue to break down, Tarrant thought distantly. Instead, as Davrin closed the door quietly, he sat down by the bed, dry-eyed, and waited for Soolin and Vila.

It was like the silent bargains he remembered making as a small child. Only let this thing happen, only let this thing not happen, and I promise I won't cry, I'll do what I'm told, I'll be good, forever. Bargains that had seemed to hold such power at an age when he had still believed that wanting something desperately enough could make it come true.

Now, he didn't believe that at all. No amount of tears or prayers or promises would change whatever was going to happen.

Please, God, please don't let him die.

* * *

The others were only about five minutes. The door opened and Soolin entered followed, reluctantly, by Vila. He stared at Avon for a long time from just inside the doorway.

"Is he...?"

"He's going to be all right."

Vila grinned. "See, I knew he would be. I told you, I told you before, outside. Didn't I tell you? Didn't I say he wouldn't..." His voice went suddenly hoarse. "Oh, sorry, 'scuse me."

He turned and bolted out of the room.

Soolin's reaction was different again. She stood by the medical capsule for a moment, touched it much as Tarrant had, then shook her head.

"The idiot." She sounded furious.

Tarrant laughed, shakily. "That's exactly what I thought."

She stamped over to the other chair and flung herself into it, breathing quickly.

"Just wait. Next time. Oh, next time he—" She put her hand up to her mouth and bit her finger, looking away.

There was a long silence.

"Davrin said he's going to be fine," Tarrant said, trying to reassure both of them.

"Yes, I know, I spoke to him just now before we came in. But sometimes I could just slap him, I really could."

Tarrant nodded, understanding whom she meant.

"I have to go and speak with Mai," she said suddenly. "Will you...?"

"I'll be okay. Could you tell her I'll need to talk to her as well? And the rest of the council? Since Avon can't."

"Of course."

* * *

Tarrant sat by the bed and thought about Avon. Nothing terribly coherent or conclusive—bits and pieces from the last few years. Every so often he would catch himself wondering if something had been done or said between them for the last time. He chased those thoughts away by repeating Davrin's assurances—everything would be fine. It almost worked.

Soolin returned later in the evening with the message that the council would see them in the morning. She tried to persuade Tarrant to go and get some sleep, but he couldn't bear the idea of Avon waking up and finding himself alone. Instead he slept in the chair, badly, disturbed by the coming and going of medics and the humming of the regen field inside the capsule as it cycled on and off.

As it was, Avon hadn't come round by the time Soolin came back in the morning. Tarrant couldn't postpone the meeting, but he didn't want to leave him alone either. He was still hesitating in the corridor outside the room, when Vila arrived unexpectedly.

"Sorry I'm late," he said to Soolin. "How's the patient?" He looked through the doorway, and then back up at Tarrant. "God, you look worse than he does."

"Davrin says he's doing well."

"'Course he is. Davrin's very good, you know. Remind me to tell you about my shoulder sometime."

As he spoke, Vila went over and occupied the chair Tarrant had only just vacated. He peered into the capsule at its unresponsive occupant. "Still out, huh? Well, he'll be better company than he usually is, then." He tapped on the plastic shell. "'Morning."

After a moment, he looked across at them. "Well, go on then. They don't like to be kept waiting. Oh, and try not to fall asleep on the council table—creates a bad impression."

Tarrant looked at Soolin, who just shrugged.

"I'll do my best," he said.

* * *

Chapter Ten

Tarrant took a quick detour for a shower and a change of clothes and then he found himself in the council room. He tried to focus on the job in hand, helped by Soolin's quiet presence.

Mai opened the meeting with an introduction to those council members he hadn't yet met. As well as the council members there were two or three spaceship captains and a few other specialists Avon had requested be present.

"...And I would like to say, on behalf of everyone here, how very sorry we are about what has happened to Avon. Whatever he...whatever reservations we had about his coming here, I promise you that everything will be done, to help him and to find and punish those responsible."

"Thank you."

"If you would like to begin?"

Tarrant pulled out the notes Avon had prepared.

"We came here, as Soolin has already outlined, to ask for your help against a new threat from the Federation..."

* * *

"Tarrant?"

The voice was very weak, and caught Vila by surprise. He'd been resting his eyes.

When he looked round, Avon was blinking at him blearily.

"Nope, sorry. It's just me. Vila," he added after a moment. After a few seconds, Avon nodded slightly.

"Tarrant's gone...to get cleaned up. He'll be back."

Avon nodded once more, and smiled very faintly. "Good."

Then he fell asleep again.

Vila sat back in the chair and felt quite ridiculously pleased.

* * *

Tarrant felt cautiously optimistic about the way that things were going. He'd outlined the capabilities of the controlled beaming project and the threat it would pose. There were a number of council members who had been in Federation hands at one time or another and Tarrant could see in their faces the same fear he had felt when Servalan had explained it to him.

Servalan, was, of course, the major problem. Tarrant resolutely referred to her as 'our contact' and several of the questions directed at him were about her identity.

"Is this contact a Federation employee? A Federation defector?" Mai asked.

"A defector, yes."

"Then the information must be regarded as highly questionable. What guarantee do we have that this person is not still a Federation agent?"

"Virtually everything our contact told us has been verified by Orac. I can give you copies of all the information it has retrieved to support the details of the plan."

"Yes, that will be necessary. And we will have to use our own sources to confirm that information, or as much of it as can be confirmed."

"The window for the attack—"

"Yes, of course. But I—we—cannot commit a significant proportion of the ships we have available to this plan unless we are quite sure that the rewards will be worth the risks."

"Of course."

"Now if we could return to the details of your plan for attacking the base. Santor, you have the most experience of ship-to-ship combat..."

* * *

When Avon woke up again, he seemed more with it. Vila noticed he was awake when he lifted his hand and ran it across the plastic beside him. Then he touched his bandaged chest very gingerly and winced.

"How do you feel?" Stupid question, but Vila couldn't help it.

"I feel—" Avon swallowed. "I feel like someone split...my chest open with an axe."

"Um." He wasn't far wrong. Vila tried not to think about the description he'd overheard of the state of the operating room when they'd finished. But 'swimming in blood' is a hard phrase to forget.

"I don't remember what..." Avon frowned. "What happened?"

"Don't worry about it right now. You're fine."

Avon gave him a faint approximation of his 'do you think I was born yesterday?' look. "What happened?"

"Look, I think I ought to get someone. I'm supposed to, when you wake up."

"Vila." He'd been conscious for about two minutes and already he sounded like Avon again. "I was supposed to talk to the council this morning. I remember last night." He touched his cut lip, as though to make sure of the memory. "Yes. And setting off for the mess in the morning...then nothing afterwards. What happened?"

Vila thought about the long list of things that Soolin had strictly instructed him not to mention. Everything Avon would want to know was on it. He tried to think of a safe answer, then gave up. He knew Avon much better than she did anyway—one quick run through the basic facts would cause less stress all round.

"'This morning' was yesterday morning. You passed out in the canteen and they rushed you in here. You've been out of it since then. Something to do with your heart, after those bastards beat you up, but it's fixed now so don't worry about it. You'll have to ask Davrin if you want the gory details. I didn't pay attention—makes me feel queasy."

Faint smile. "You should try it from this end."

"No, thanks."

"What about the council?"

"Tarrant's talking to them right now. He's got all your notes and he knows what to say. He'll charm 'em. And Soolin's gone in with him to back him up. That's why I'm doing duty in here."

"What about—"

"Oh, no. That's your lot. Soolin's going to kill me as it is."

For a moment he thought Avon was going to argue about it. But he seemed to be struggling just to stay awake at all.

"All right." His eyelids drifted closed, then he forced them open with an obvious effort. "Tarrant's...talking to the council?"

"Yes. Right this minute. I promise."

"Hmm."

He shut his eyes again, and Vila went to tell the medic on duty.

* * *

Tarrant was still hopeful when the meeting eventually broke up, although by that time he was so exhausted he was having trouble seeing straight. They had given him a fair and considered hearing, which was more than he'd honestly expected when they arrived. At least they hadn't rejected Avon's proposal outright.

"Two days," Mai said to him as the rest of the councillors began to leave. "That will give us time to make as many checks as we can. I promise we will let you know as soon as we've made up our minds."

He nodded. "Thanks," he said, rather belatedly. He sat down on the edge of the table, rubbing his eyes.

Mai smiled and left. On the way out she stopped to talk to Soolin. Tarrant could just hear her. "I want to discuss this with you, my dear, in private and then with some of the others." Mai glanced back towards him. "But first, make sure he gets some sleep, poor boy."

Tarrant had to fight down a rather alarming urge to giggle. God, yes, he was tired and sleep sounded wonderful.

But he'd go back to check on Avon, first.

* * *

Chapter Eleven

Vaclav hated surprise visits. Chairman Gardiner had control of the Terra Nostra interests that bordered Servalan's so he was a not infrequent visitor to Space City, but notice should have been given. At the best of times, Gardiner made Vaclav nervous. Unlike Servalan, Gardiner was a scion of the Terra Nostra, young and ambitious but undeniably 'one of us'. However, he had a ruthlessness that marked him out even amongst his peers.

As it was, Vaclav heard about the arrival with barely enough time to reach the landing area before Gardiner's ship docked. Waiting on the landing grid, he spotted the Chairman's short, dark-haired form at once.

"Chairman Gardiner."

Vaclav dispatched minions to collect the Chairman's luggage and then escorted him through Space City customs without impediment. He hoped that the hasty preparations made in the guest quarters would be satisfactory.

They walked through the concourse towards the luxury quarters of Space City. Gardiner seemed quite at ease, humming softly under his breath.

"I regret, sir, that Chairman Servalan is not aboard the station. She plans to return in three days time."

Gardiner shrugged, his neat black jacket falling flawlessly back into place after the gesture. "I did not come here to see Servalan."

Vaclav closed his eyes briefly. Nothing good could come after a statement like that.

* * *

In the guestroom, Gardiner waited until the flunkies had departed and then turned to Vaclav, deadly serious.

"I have come for information, Vaclav."

"Sir?" Vaclav hedged.

"I have heard certain...rumours. That the new and shining star in our midst may have tarnished herself?"

"I don't know—"

"That she has made an unfortunate error of judgment? That she has been consorting with elements beyond the organization, perhaps?"

Vaclav felt the chill as the blood rushed from his cheeks, and the Chairman smiled. "Come, Vaclav. We have known each other a long time, no?"

"Yes, Chairman."

"Please, not so formal." Gardiner crossed to the generously stocked bar, and poured drinks for both of them. Vaclav took his with a barely steady hand.

Gardiner leaned against the bar, quite at ease, drink in one hand, stroking his short, dark beard with the other. "The rumours I have heard have been most disquieting. No doubt they are untrue, or at the least exaggerated. It would reassure me to hear a fuller account than Servalan has been prepared to render."

Still, Vaclav hesitated.

"Of course, were these rumours of activities—activities so very much against the traditions we both value—to be proved accurate, then the wrath of the organization might regrettably spread beyond the true culprit." He shrugged against, elegant and deadly. "That could prove unfortunate for..."

The sentence hung, unfinished, in the air. There was no need to follow it to its end—the only place it could lead was into a world of pain. Vaclav made his mind up.

"Gardiner, I'm afraid that I can't give you a reassuring answer. There are certain...things I have heard. There are plans..."

Gardiner took a seat and gestured to the sofa beside him. "Please, let us be comfortable."

He smiled, and Vaclav thought how exactly he resembled a viper, coiling to strike.

* * *

Chapter Twelve

It was the second day since the Council meeting, the third since Avon's collapse. He had been moved out of the intensive care capsule that morning. When Soolin went into his new room around lunchtime she was surprised, but pleased, to find him on his own. She wanted to talk to him in private. The fact that he looked rather irritated to see her wasn't such a surprise. She sympathised. It was boring and frustrating in the extreme to be out of action, particularly under these circumstances.

"Where's Tarrant?" she asked, hoping he wasn't just about to come back.

"I sent him away to get some proper sleep. The constant snoring from the chair was playing hell with my blood pressure. Well? Is there any news?"

"The council are still waiting for reports."

"Damn it. They said two days." Avon shifted restlessly. "It'll be too late if they don't make a decision soon. Maybe I should—"

"Not even think about sitting up, never mind getting out of bed, until Davrin tells you otherwise."

Avon glowered. "Not you as well. That's the last thing Tarrant said before he went."

"Well, Tarrant has very occasional flashes of good sense. How are you feeling?"

"Fine," he snapped.

Soolin sat down. "I wanted to have a word with you, about the plan. If you're up to it."

The irritation sharpened into annoyance and he took a deep breath. His face twisted with pain. "Yes I'm...up to it. Or at least I would be if people would stop saying things like that."

"Sorry. I've been talking to Davrin—"

"Oh?"

"Yes. Avon, you won't be able to teleport down to the base. In fact, Davrin's opinion—and he was pretty forceful about it—was that if the council approves the plan, you should stay here."

"No." He didn't pause even for a second. "Out of the question."

"Davrin says you need a lot more regen treatments before you'll be fit to go anywhere."

"He should have thought about that before he made such a damn mess on his way into my chest."

She held his gaze steadily. "Avon, be sensible about this. You can't go. You know you can't."

"I have to."

"No. All that you have to do is program the override for the reactor. Orac can check out the system plans, you can prepare everything in advance and tell us how to do the rest when we get there."

"And what if there's a problem?"

"If there's a problem you'll be here, alive and well and able to tell us what to do about it. Instead of up on the ship and dead or too ill to be of any use to anyone."

He looked away.

"Well?"

There was a long silence.

"Well?" she repeated.

"Don't tell Tarrant."

"What?"

He looked back at her, almost smiling. "Don't tell Tarrant that I'm staying here. Not until the council have decided."

"Why ever not?"

"Because he's not going to be happy about it."

* * *

Chapter Thirteen

Vaclav kept himself as much in the background as he dared. He wanted to be present, but unnoticed. An obvious absence would be the worst thing. From his position behind Gardiner he could see the faces of all the Chairmen on the monitors, but it was Servalan he was drawn back to, trying to watch her without attracting her attention.

The figures on the screens were reassuringly small. He imagined how Servalan would see Gardiner—a face in a screen, himself an insignificant figure in the background. She wouldn't even notice him, and if she did she had no reason to put two and two together. He had left Space City with Gardiner on legitimate Terra Nostra business. She wouldn't suspect him of passing on her plan. Of course she wouldn't.

Now, if only he could convince the meteor storm in his stomach.

On the monitor, Servalan was a picture of bewildered outrage. "Perhaps, Chairman Hounsell, you could explain the reasons why the board has chosen to interfere in my personal business?"

Hounsell cleared his throat. Vaclav knew him by reputation as a tough, competent conservative, and a likely figure around whom opposition to Servalan might coalesce. However, there was something about Servalan that could unnerve anyone.

"Traditionally, it is the prerogative of the board to take action when the behaviour of any individual Chair...man is against the interests of the organization."

Servalan raised the outrage a notch. "In what way am I acting against the interests of us all?"

"You have concealed information, valuable information, Chairman Servalan."

"The matter is a delicate one, as I'm certain you appreciate. Limiting knowledge limits the possibility of information going astray."

Had she looked directly at him for a second?

"That does not explain why you chose to involve outsiders in the business," Houndsell said.

"Sometimes one must invoke reliable aid, even if the source is a little disreputable."

Hounsell went a fine shade of crimson. "Rather than aid from your fellow Chairmen, Servalan?"

Uh-oh. The courtesies were failing. Vaclav looked around the faces of the other Chairmen, trying to judge how many would back Hounsell, how many would follow the new player, how many were still undecided.

Gardiner touched the button to transmit. "Chairman Hounsell, if I may?"

Vaclav tried to shrink discreetly back out of shot. He had begun to wonder if conspicuous absence wouldn't have been the best tactic after all.

"Please, Chairman Gardiner."

"Thank you. This discussion is beside the point. Chairman Servalan, you have been summoned here not to explain but to submit. We will have the information you have acquired, and the details of your plans. Your ships will have no part in any action. You will return to your interests within the organization and you will be informed of the results of the mission in due course." His voice softened slightly, a belated gesture. "As I'm sure you would have informed us."

Servalan's voice virtually crackled with fury. "The operation is mine. I demand a vote."

Gardiner inclined his head courteously. "That is, of course, your right. Chairmen?"

When the results of the vote came through, Vaclav was surprised to see that almost a third of the Chairmen had backed Servalan. After such a comprehensive humiliation, he would have expected her to be stripped of support. He wondered what she was holding over them.

Most of the rest had backed Hounsell and Gardiner. There were only a handful of abstentions—this was not a topic where neutrality would be advantageous.

"Than the matter is decided," Hounsell declared with a solemn dignity only slightly tinged with vindictive triumph. "Thank you for your time, Chairman Servalan."

Without a word of farewell, Servalan cut off her monitor. The Chairmen who had supported her or abstained also severed their connections. The remaining Chairmen exchanged looks of deep satisfaction.

"And now, down to business." On a different monitor, Gardiner called up the information brought to him by Vaclav.

"I feel that that woman's strategy is fundamentally sound. We will gain control of the direct beaming technology; the Federation will blame the rebels and concentrate its punitive efforts upon them. The only difference to the plan is that instead of Servalan and her regrettably misguided allies destroying the rebel ships and hijacking the fruits of their labours, we will do so ourselves. Does anyone have any objection to following the basic plan?"

One of the more junior Chairmen said, "It seems to me a little...unwise to remove the bulk of our fleets and leave no-one to monitor Servalan and her friends."

Gardiner nodded. "A very sound point. Do I have any volunteers to watch the serpent in the garden?"

There was a silence. Vaclav saw mistrust and unwillingness to miss having their forces in at the kill written plainly on every face.

Gardiner chuckled and raised his hand. "I will keep my forces behind. They are strong enough to hold a watch for as long as this will take. And I'm sure my interests will be safe in your hands."

Hounsell beamed. "Then I think matters are settled. Thank you, gentlemen, for your assistance in upholding the traditions of the organization."

The remaining monitors went blank. Gardiner leaned back in his chair and blew out his cheeks.

"Well. What do you think?"

Vaclav tried to hide his surprise at being asked the question. After a few seconds consideration, he ventured, "I think she makes a dangerous enemy, Chairman."

Gardiner smiled. "So she does, Vaclav. So she does."

* * *

Chapter Fourteen

Early the next afternoon, the council sent a message to Tarrant to say that they had reached a decision. He was in the mess at the time, so it took the messenger a little time to find him. As he hurried across the base, he hoped that Avon somehow wouldn't hear about it until it was over.

However, when he reached the council meeting room, he found Avon already sitting in a wheelchair in the waiting area outside, talking to Davrin and Vila. Soolin stood nearby, looking tense. Clearly she didn't have any prior knowledge of the decision.

He went over to Avon.

"What the hell are you doing?"

Davrin coughed.

Avon smiled, rather too brightly. His eyes were also glassy bright, and the pupils a little dilated. "I'm not here. And Davrin isn't here to keep an eye on me. Just pretend you can't see me."

Tarrant smiled back, because it was good—reassuring—to see him outside the medical unit again. Even if he did look as if he'd downed half the contents of the pharmacy to get here. "That would be difficult."

Avon's smile slipped over the edge into smug satisfaction, but his reply was lost when the door to the council chamber opened, and Mai beckoned them in. Ignoring Davrin's hasty objections, Avon struggled to his feet.

"After you, Tarrant."

* * *

Davrin took his place at the table. The entire council was present, their expressions giving no clue as to their intentions. Tarrant, standing with Avon, Soolin and Vila, suddenly had the strangest sensation of being judged. It reminded him of exams and interviews at the Space Academy. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Vila crossing his fingers behind his back, and Avon swaying slightly until Soolin steadied him.

Mai stood up at the head of the long table to deliver the verdict.

"We have decided that the evidence you have given us, which has been supported by our own contacts, is sufficiently compelling that we must take the threat of Solitaire very seriously. Given that Soolin, whose opinion is respected by everyone here, has supported your proposal strongly, we have decided to offer our help and accept your plan as the basis for action against the Federation. Santor will be in operational command of the mission."

And that was it. They'd agreed. Despite his optimism after the first meeting, Tarrant had readied himself for disappointment and he found the reality of success almost hard to grasp. Beside him, he heard Avon let out a long breath, but he seemed content to let Tarrant make any reply.

"Thank you," he said, because it was all he could think of. They'd agreed.

Mai paused. "Does anyone have anything to add? No? Then I suggest we begin preparations. The ships will depart tomorrow."

The council members rose and began to file out. Davrin caught Avon by the elbow and steered him out of the room too, despite his protests.

"We did it." Tarrant grinned, then put his arm round Soolin and squeezed her tight. "You did it! Well done you."

Soolin disentangled herself. "Tarrant! Of course we did it. Mai recognizes logic when she sees it. You can't blame her for being cautious, not with your mysterious nameless contact behind everything."

Tarrant shook his head. "Doesn't matter now, anyway. Let's go celebrate."

Vila cleared his throat significantly.

Soolin looked around the now deserted council room. "Yes, all right. Tarrant, before we do, there's something I need to tell you."

* * *

After ten minutes of argument, Soolin was just about ready to reassign her 'Most Stubborn Man Alive' award. In the past two years, Tarrant had clearly been taking notes. At this precise moment he sat at the council table with a mulish set to his jaw which reminded her acutely of Avon.

Soolin herself paced around the table, because it helped keep in check her growing urge to try to thump some sense into Tarrant. She quite fancied hitting Vila as well. He lounged in a chair with his feet up, being absolutely no help at all.

"There's nothing to discuss," she said, hoping that saying it with sufficient firmness would make it true. "Travelling will kill him, so he stays here. It's the only way."

"I'm not leaving him here without a ship," Tarrant said, for what seemed like the twentieth time. "If he stays—which is a completely different question—the ship stays with him."

She stopped circling and leaned on the table. "Nothing's going to happen."

"No? It did before. I don't see any reason why those nasty little thugs, or some of their friends, shouldn't try again. Do you?"

"Tarrant." Soolin tried very hard to keep her voice reasonable, but her patience was wearing paper-thin. "We need the teleport. If we have to land and fight our way into the base reactor, a lot of our people will get hurt."

"Do I look like I care?"

She had to admit that he didn't. And if she considered it from the point of view that somep of those people were almost certainly the ones who had beaten Avon to a pulp, she could almost sympathise. The fact that most of them weren't didn't seem to be registering with Tarrant right now. Logic was clearly a waste of time, so she tried a different line of attack.

"Avon says he's quite happy to stay."

"He said he didn't need to go to the medical unit, either."

Soolin closed her eyes, and tried counting backwards from ten.

Vila finally chimed in, sounding bored. "He can't fly the ship anyway, on his own. What's the point of leaving it?"

"He can fly it with Orac's help."

Soolin decided to go back to the fundamental point, from lack of options rather than any optimism that it would get through this time. "We need the teleport."

"Why don't you use the other one?" said a voice from the doorway.

They all spun round, Vila losing his balance and tipping his chair over backwards with a crash.

Avon leant on the doorframe, casual pose only slightly spoiled by the careful way he held himself and the sweat dampening his fringe. After waiting a few seconds, apparently to admire the effect, he came over to the table, not stopping to help Vila to his feet on the way past.

"Shouldn't you be back in bed?" Vila enquired from the floor.

"Yes, he should," Tarrant said.

Avon ignored them, probably because walking was taking up all his concentration. Soolin stepped back to let him sit down, before he fell down. "What other one?" she asked.

He lowered himself slowly into the chair. "There's a new design in pieces in the ship. All it needs is fitting together, and it'll work just as well in one of the rebel ships as it will in ours."

She considered the idea. "New design?"

"It will be better, actually, for this particular purpose. It ought to be more reliable for multiple pick ups and have far deeper penetration of shielding. It should even pick up from within the control room shielding, if necessary."

"Ought to? You haven't tested it? Will it work?"

Underneath the glaze of painkillers, Avon developed the hurt expression he always did when someone impugned his technical prowess. "Of course it will."

"All right. If it works when it's fitted, that should be acceptable." Soolin turned to Tarrant. "Are you happy with that?"

Clearly, Tarrant wasn't at all happy with the idea of leaving Avon behind in the uncertain care of the rebels. Equally clearly, he had no intention of restarting the argument with Avon sitting right there.

"Yes, perfectly," he said through gritted teeth.

* * *

Preparations for departure continued at a hectic pace during the rest of that day and into the next one. Avon was confined strictly to his room. Tarrant and Vila had had to half-carry him back from the council room, and Davrin had been livid to discover he'd left the medical unit on his own. He'd threatened to strap him to the bed if he even got out of it again without asking first.

So Avon sat in bed and fretted. It wasn't just that his chest still hurt like hell—which it did—or that he wasn't going along with the others to Velde. It was that he couldn't concentrate properly for long and he worried that he had made a serious mistake somewhere. He tired so quickly.

He had spent the morning using information provided by Orac to create a program to disable the Velde research base's reactor safety systems and push the reactor towards critical. Then he had gone through the procedure for loading the program, step by step, with both Soolin and Vila. Tarrant had been away all day, supervising the installation of the new teleport system in the rebel ship Veritas.

Orac had also produced the reactor plans and he and Soolin next marked out the places to lay charges in order to disable the mechanical failsafes.

It was hard work and he'd heard himself getting more and more snappish without meaning to. And then, made thoughtless by exhaustion, he said an unforgivable thing.

"Dayna would know where to put it."

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he realized what he had said. Vila sucked his breath in sharply and became terribly interested in the reactor plans.

"Soolin, I'm sorry."

She shook her head. "You're right. It would have been much more her field than ours."

He had wanted to say something else, but her stony expression told him further apologies would be unwelcome. So they'd gone back to the plans and that had been the end of it. However, now he was alone again, it nagged at him. He knew how to hurt with words and when he did so, he did it deliberately. He had been careless and stupid. What else had slipped past him, unnoticed?

Just then, Tarrant put his head round the door, a welcome interruption to his thoughts.

"Did you hear me?" Tarrant asked.

"Did I hear you do what?"

"Hmm. My communicator's broken." Tarrant came over to the bed. "I tried to call you with it just now."

Avon took the bracelet and pressed the button. Nothing, not even static. The next diagnostic step was a quick shake. That produced no obvious rattling, so the problem was clearly more complicated than he could be bothered with just now.

"Leave it in our room. I'll have a look later. Take a new one from the ship, and take a few spares with you, in case it's something to do with the new system."

"All right." Tarrant hesitated, then sat down.

"How's the teleport getting on?" Avon asked.

"Fine. Finished, really. You were quite right; it's much better than the other one. It picks up from well inside the base. I left some of the others practicing locator fixes. Orac's still fine-tuning it from the tests."

Tarrant lay back in the chair with a sigh and closed his eyes.

"Planning on staying long?" Avon asked.

"Not really, no. I just need a rest."

"I'll change places if you like. I've done nothing but rest." Untrue, and also annoyingly self-pitying.

Tarrant didn't seem to notice. He held his hand out and Avon took it. A hard day's work on the teleport was evident in a collection of tiny cuts and scrapes. He massaged it gently, palm and fingers.

"Mmm." Tarrant sank further down into the chair. After a few minutes his breathing slowed and turned into the faint beginnings of a snore.

Avon considered letting him sleep, but he had said he couldn't stay.

"Tarrant. Tarrant." No effect. Leaning over to the chair was too painful to contemplate, so he lifted Tarrant's hand to his lips and kissed his fingers. That produced a faint smile, but no sign of awakening. So he bit Tarrant's hand gently, then, when that had no effect, a little bit harder.

"Ouch!" Tarrant sat up and snatched his hand away. "What was that for?"

"You were asleep."

Tarrant smiled. "No, I wasn't."

Avon looked at him, then laughed, which turned out to be a very bad idea. The laugh brought on a spasm of pain, which in turn triggered a coughing fit that brought tears to his eyes. By the time he had everything more-or-less back under control, there was a medic in the room and Tarrant was hovering anxiously by the foot of the bed.

Wonderful.

"I'm fine. Fine." It would sound more convincing if he could stop gasping for breath.

The medic went into the usual spiel about the fragility of regenerated bone and tissue and the delicate state of the grafted artery, which Avon had heard a dozen times before.

And at that moment Vila appeared in the doorway.

"Tarrant, we have to go. Santor wants—" Vila stopped and surveyed the scene and Avon saw the question forming on his lips.

If he asks if I'm all right, Avon thought, I'll kill him. Even if getting out of bed to do it kills me.

His expression seemed to have transmitted the message adequately, because Vila closed his mouth and went over to Tarrant instead.

"Time to go. Santor wants to move out in ten minutes."

Tarrant nodded without looking at Vila. "I'll just be a minute."

Avon waved him away irritably as the medic started his examination. "Go on. I'll see you when you get back."

Tarrant nodded, understanding. "Yes, of course. See you, then."

Vila was already halfway through the door. "Bye."

And then they were gone.

* * *

Chapter Fifteen

The journey to the Velde system passed slowly. They took a somewhat circuitous route, avoiding any major space trade lanes and occupied systems. The transit time was estimated as six days, which would give them just long enough for a scouting pass through the Velde system before the magnetic storm started to build.

Tarrant occupied himself with learning the quirks and responses of the Veritas, which turned out to be a surprisingly good ship with a nicely responsive drive system. Soolin spent her time doing whatever it was she did; Tarrant had never been quite sure. Vila divided his time between complaining, sleeping and running over the reactor security systems. It was quite like old times, except that Avon wasn't there.

* * *

Back at the base time passed even more slowly. They were maintaining communicator silence with the fleet and there could be no news expected until the mission was completed. As the day drew nearer, tension rose.

At Davrin's insistence, Avon remained in the medical unit. As the days passed, punctuated by boring regen treatments and the occasional visitor, he began to feel more like his old self. The after-effects of the operation dwindled to a dull ache, which occasionally tempted him to stop taking the painkillers for a while, until the pain kicked back in.

He thought about making a fuss about moving back to the guestroom, but he couldn't be bothered. The medical unit was comfortable enough and there was no point asking for more trouble by being out and about the base on his own. He suspected that his continued residence in the medical unit was more for his personal safety than any sound medical reason.

The day before the Solitaire attack was due, Avon ended up taking a couple of sedatives and going to bed early. Waiting with no news was becoming unbearable and although he was heartily sick of having nothing to do but rest, sleep was better than useless worrying.

* * *

"Avon."

He woke, briefly disoriented, wondering who had called his name. It didn't sound like Tarrant. Then he caught the low click and hum of medical monitors and realized where he was. The small room in the medical unit was pitch dark.

"Avon?"

It was Davrin, speaking through the door.

"Yes?"

The door opened, making Avon squint in the bright light from outside. He couldn't have been asleep for long.

"There's a message." Davrin sounded a little bemused.

"From the Veritas?"

"No, from Orac. It came directly into the central communication system."

"Ah. Well, what does it say?"

"Just to go up to your ship."

Avon frowned, wondering what it was that Orac didn't want to transmit directly.

* * *

After so many days empty, the ship was cold and the air felt stale from lack of recycling. He lifted Orac out from behind the concealed panel in the flight deck wall.

"Well, Orac?"

"I have partially decoded a Terra Nostra transmission which is concerned with the controlled beaming project."

"What? Show me."

Breathless from the walk over, Avon sat in the co-pilot's seat and listened to the fragment of transmission. Then he listened to it again. It began abruptly, as though there was a portion missing at the beginning, and only the sound had been decoded.

A male voice he didn't recognise spoke first.

"How can you be sure the attack will be successful?"

The response was unmistakably Servalan.

"Oh, I have confidence in my contact, a great deal of confidence. The controlled beaming technology will be stolen, the base will be destroyed and the Federation ships will send off news of the rebel attack before they are themselves eliminated. The Terra Nostra will never be implicated."

"It's an excellent plan, Servalan."

"Do you think it will convince the other Chairmen?"

"Yes, I do believe it will."

"Good. Now—"

The transmission abruptly shifted into the still encoded portion.

"She's working with the Terra Nostra." Avon said after a moment. "Or maybe even for the Terra Nostra, by the sound of it."

"That is the substance of the transmission, yes."

"The people she didn't want to ask for help. I'd say an ordinary Servalan betrayal, and yet...she's lying to them about the plan. I wonder why?"

"Was that a question?"

"Only if you have the answer." Avon considered the problem, then decided he didn't have enough information to make even an uneducated guess. "How old is it?"

"The transmission was intercepted the day after our arrival on Capris."

"Ah." He didn't like the implication of that one bit. "What about the rest?"

"The encoding is complex and requires further work. At that point in the message, the encoding system is changed to an even more secure variant. If you would permit me to delegate the task to—"

"No. I can't risk any transmissions being traced to this area."

"Then I will continue decoding attempts, as time permits."

"Make it a priority, Orac. How long?"

"That is not possible to predict with accuracy."

* * *

Avon waited outside the council room, trying to contain his impatience.

The only sound he could hear, other than his boot heels rapping the floor as he paced, was the thumping of his heart. He was acutely aware of it in a way that he never would have been before. It was beating too fast, partly because he had hurried over—pointlessly, since the council members wouldn't be there yet—and partly because he was worried, for the others and for himself.

He knew, consciously, that it was irrational to think about it. Davrin had assured him that the artificial artery was knitting well and (provided that he was sensible until it fully healed, etcetera, etcetera) there would be no recurrence. But the brush with death had scared him in the worst way—it had been something he had had no control over. His survival had depended entirely on others.

And now, waiting, he felt alone, and he hated it. Hated the feeling itself, hated the fact that he felt it at all. It had seemed like such a good idea to send Tarrant and the others with the rebels. The mission had been too important to leave entirely to the kind of people...the kind of people who would follow Blake.

But now he needed the others here, on Capris. He needed someone else to talk to the council, someone who wasn't automatically regarded with suspicion. They'd agreed to an urgent meeting, late as it was, but that didn't mean they would listen. Perhaps he should simply have asked Orac to transmit a message directly to the Veritas. However, such a blatant disregard for their authority would alienate the council for good.

Avon breathed slowly, trying to calm his heart. They would listen. They had to.

And that, he thought, is no sort of reasoning at all. That was hope, and he hated that too.

* * *

The meeting did not go well. After only a few minutes Avon could hear the anger creeping into his voice, but still couldn't stop it. "It's a trap."

"There was always that danger, you've said so yourself."

"That was a risk. This is a certainty."

"All you know is that your contact is probably working with the Terra Nostra."

Avon cursed himself roundly and silently. They should have used Servalan's name from the beginning, except that if they had the plan would never have got this far. It was much too late to mention her now. Instead, he tried a different tack.

"At least get in touch with the ships and let them hear it. Allow Santor to decide what to do about it."

"We agreed to maintain communicator silence, and I don't see that this information is worth changing that."

"One message."

"Not without more evidence."

He never should have tried. Half of them weren't even listening to him and probably never would. Without Soolin and Tarrant it was hopeless. He felt Blake's death hanging over the room, colouring their perception of his every word.

Avon gave up, retreated into icy reserve. "Very well. If that is your decision."

He started to walk out, but Mai's voice halted him on the threshold. "Avon, give me your communicator."

Damn. He turned, feigning incomprehension and probably doing it badly. "What? Why?"

"Don't treat me like a fool, Avon. Your ship is quite capable of sending a message whether I give you permission or not. Give me your communicator and go back to the medical unit. Davrin will escort you."

Davrin, or no doubt some less congenial escorts. Reluctantly, he handed over the bracelet.

* * *

Chapter Sixteen

If Avon had had a little more time, he would have found a way to get to Orac. The security in the medical unit was half-hearted at best and he co-operated uncomplainingly with Mai's instructions, so they seemed disinclined to treat him as a prisoner. He planned to leave it for the rest of the night, then simply walk out as the shifts changed in the morning.

However, it was only a few hours before the attack came. The ships came in fast, so fast that there was no time for the alarm to be given before the missiles hit home.

The explosions rocked the Capris base, deep and well protected as it was. As debris began to rain down there was a long moment of absolute darkness, made worse by the slow, horrifying plunge of life-support systems starting to power down. Then the emergency power kicked in and the lighting came back up to a subdued, reddish glow.

In the medical unit, the damage was confined to fallen suspended ceilings and broken equipment, but other sections were not so lucky.

When the wounded began to arrive, Avon had already dressed, collected his belongings and set out to look for Mai. No one remembered that he wasn't supposed to leave. He passed the first stretchers on the way in, barely registering the blood and hastily compressed wounds, the moans of pain. Calm, efficient staff had begun to put up the signs designating triage areas.

A medic swore at him as he pushed impatiently past a knot of people working around a motionless girl. Avon thought she looked vaguely familiar. Blood, black in the emergency lighting, pooled on the floor beneath her, pouring from a deep gash in her head, soaking her long hair.

It wasn't until he was halfway across the base that he realized it had been Shenna.

When he reached the office, Mai was nowhere to be found. What he did find was his communicator bracelet, mangled uselessly beneath a fallen beam. That did nothing to improve his temper. He pocketed the bracelet anyway, and left.

Back out in the corridor, Avon grabbed the first person passing.

"Mai. Where is she?"

He aimed for an air of rightful authority and obviously hit close enough. The young man blinked, then stammered, "I, uh—the command centre."

"Take me there."

* * *

The base command centre was a hellish confusion of people and shrieking alarms. Avon worked his way through the mayhem until he found Mai, at the centre of a mass of people shouting for her attention. She was working intently on the main computer station. She seemed to be quite capable of ignoring people and alarms alike. Avon's respect for her rose slightly.

He pushed his way to her side, took a look at the monitors. Half were blank, and the rest showed a flickering mess of scrambled information.

"What's wrong?"

Perhaps because he pitched his question at normal conversational levels, Mai registered his presence at once.

"I can't get anything. Either all the sensors are out or the computer has been destroyed."

Avon studied the readouts again. "Both unlikely. Where are the power inputs?"

"Over there."

"Get this lot out of the way."

Mai turned. "Everyone who doesn't have a job to do in here, get out now. No, I don't care. Report to your positions, everyone!"

She cleared the crowd with commendable efficiency, allowing Avon access to the command centre power feeds. As he suspected, the emergency power had proved inadequate for the demands upon it. He tripped out the less critical systems one by one, until Mai called out, "It's back!"

"Good." He took out another system, just to be on the safe side, then rejoined her.

"Thanks."

"Don't thank me yet. That shouldn't have happened at all. The emergency power is either inadequate to start with, or it is failing."

She stared at him. "Which?"

"Let's see."

They started to flick through the status reports.

* * *

After ten minutes, the real extent of the damage became clearer.

"We've lost atmosphere on the top five levels." Mai's words provoked a fresh outbreak of noise until she gestured impatiently for silence.

She turned to a hovering assistant. "If people made it to the emergency areas there's a good chance they could still be alive. Get people up there in suits, if they can find a way through. Try the access core."

Meanwhile, Avon checked the power schematics. "Two of the emergency power units have been destroyed. The good news, such as it is, is that the other two seem to be undamaged. Lucky, if you can call it that."

"The communications systems are completely gone."

"At least they haven't taken out the landing bays."

"They didn't need to." Mai pointed to a section of the map. "They've destroyed the lifts and automatic loading access. They must have had the plans for the base."

Avon nodded. Maximum damage with the expenditure of minimum firepower. They were trapped and silenced. If all four of the emergency power units had been destroyed, they would already be dead, or dying. "Impressive. Very neat."

Mai stared at him for a moment, and Avon suddenly registered what he'd said. He decided not to bother with an apology.

"How long do we have?" he asked. "Power, air, water?"

"Ten days at least, even on half emergency power. Perhaps as much as three weeks, if we isolate as much of the base as we can. It depends if any more systems fail. But that doesn't help. To get to the landing bays we'd have to cut through the doors and the lifts are open to vacuum now. If we try to clear them we'll lose the air in the base."

"Don't you have internal airlocks?"

"Not so far down. Perhaps we could build something, I don't know."

Avon considered for a moment. "But...from outside, it should be possible to open a route through?"

"Yes. If there was anyone who could come to find us."

Avon managed to keep his face almost expressionless, except that to do so he had to clench his jaw hard enough to hurt and he saw in Mai's eyes that she had seen it.

"I'm sorry, Avon. But if the Federation attacked the base, we have to accept they probably knew about the mission. We should have sent the signal."

He ignored the admission, satisfying as it was. "There's no reason to assume it was the Federation who attacked."

Mai blinked at him.

"Who else could it have been? The Terra Nostra?"

"I'm not sure. But it doesn't add up. Something...why now?"

"Why what now?"

"Why attack us before the others get to the target?"

"Coincidence?" Mai considered the idea then dismissed it. "Perhaps they already ran into an ambush."

"Unlikely, in deep space. The logical place to set the ambush is at the destination. If we had got a signal out, warned them...did you get any detector readings of the ships which attacked?"

"I don't know. Look for yourself, if you like. I have other things to do." She turned away, dismissing him. "Right, everyone, attention please. Get those alarms switched off. I want section by section damage and casualty reports. I want a check that the crews sealing air leaks are in place and..."

Avon found the information quickly. He looked at the ships, the blurred streaks of missiles on the last images before the external sensors were destroyed, and he remembered the cruisers holding station off Space City. A few more pieces of the puzzle locked into place. He couldn't see it all, but it was painfully clear that, even if the ships had not yet been destroyed, the attack on the research base would not be going according to plan.

He touched Mai on the arm, spoke without really caring if she heard him.

"I need to get something from my room. I'll be back."

* * *

Their room had been only slightly damaged in the attack but it took Avon a while to find what he was looking for. He sorted through clothes and other jumbled possessions, trying not to focus too closely on the things that had been—were—Tarrant's.

Eventually he found Tarrant's faulty bracelet, buried in a drawer and hopefully protected from further damage. He activated it, more from optimism than expectation. Silence.

Another couple of minutes search produced a tool roll. Sitting on the bed, he pried open the panel on the bracelet. For a long few minutes he couldn't find the fault and he cursed himself for not remembering to deal with it before. Then, suddenly, the problem was obvious. And, wonderfully, repairable, although the signal would still be weak. He quickly disassembled his own smashed bracelet, salvaged what he needed.

If Avon had ever prayed in his life, he would have done it just then. As it was, he merely snapped the mended bracelet back together and pressed the button. He was rewarded with faint static.

"Orac? Can you hear me?"

Static.

"Orac?"

Far too much shielding, of course.

With a last look at the familiar contents of the room, Avon went back out into the corridor and started trying to work his way across the base to the airlocks beneath the landing bay.

* * *

As he got nearer to the entry area, the damage became worse and he had to backtrack down several blocked corridors. When he made it through he found the room in ruins, with a work crew sealing minor leaks in the battered airlocks. Keeping the base plan in mind he made his way over to the spot closest to the landing bay above. There was no point trying anywhere else. If it were going to work at all, it would work there.

"Orac? This is Avon. Respond."

Static, and then, faintly, "Yes, Avon?"

Avon let out a breath he hadn't noticed he'd been holding.

"Orac, what's the status of the ship?"

"The ship is minimally functional. It sustained non-penetrating damage to the hull and several internal systems are inoperative. Drives and basic control systems are functioning and lift off and flight are possible, although not recommended."

"Communications?"

"The communications system is one of those non-functional due to electromagnetic pulse weapon damage."

Interesting. The Terra Nostra had made quite sure there was no way of sending a message off base and that implied, perhaps, that the rebel fleet was still there to receive that message. Avon kept a grip on the sudden surge of hope; there were other explanations.

He considered what to do next. First of all he ought to speak to Mai. For one thing, he would need her authority to alter the mission plan.

"Orac, can you to get a link to the internal communications system down here, so that I can talk to you from elsewhere in the base?"

There was another static-y pause, then, "Yes, although complete coverage is impossible. Damage to the base systems is extensive."

Avon looked round at the mounds of rubble, at the crews sealing off the last hissing air escapes. "Really? I hadn't noticed."

Regrettably, sarcasm was always wasted on Orac.

"The damage should be obvious."

Avon was about to start the painstaking journey back to the command centre when he thought of something else that he should check. Something best not checked in company.

"Orac, is the teleport operational?"

"Yes."

"Would it be possible to pick me up out of here?"

"No. The signal is very weak and the shielding extensive."

"Is the ship still linked up to the base power grid?"

"Yes."

"If you drew as much extra power as possible for the teleport, would it work then?"

"The probability of successful teleport would be significantly better, yes. However, the process would damage the teleport to a degree which cannot be specified but which has a high probability of rendering it permanently inoperable."

"Only one teleport possible, then." Well, there was only one of him. And at least then he would be on the ship, able to limp away from Capris. Unless, that was, Davrin's dire predictions about the effect of teleportation on healing grafts came true.

"Do you require teleport now?"

Avon hesitated. "No...no, not yet. Work out the optimum overload and set it up for activation on request. But get the communications link established first."

* * *

Back in the command centre, Avon decided not to bother looking for Mai. She would be along soon enough. He tried one of the internal communication units. "Orac? Do you hear me?"

"Yes, Avon."

The people nearby stopped work to stare in surprise.

"Orac, can you get the external base communications functioning?"

"No. It would be necessary to repair the structural and electronics damage first."

"Then can you get a direct link into the communications unit on the Veritas? I have to talk to Tarrant and the others; I don't care how you arrange it."

Out of the corner of his eye, Avon noticed Mai approaching.

"It will take some time to locate the ship."

"Do it."

He turned to Mai, smiled thinly. "You were right. I should be able to get in touch with the others."

Hope broke across her face like a new day dawning. "How long will it take?"

Avon shrugged. "Some time. If that's Orac's best guess, I can't improve on it."

* * *

Avon sat alone in one of the recreation rooms, under the gloomy emergency lighting, and thought about Tarrant. He was too tired to stop himself. The trip to his room, then to the arrival area and back again to the command centre had exhausted him. It was still frightening how little stamina he had.

He had given Orac five minutes to find the others, and then he hadn't been able to bear waiting in company any longer. There were only two reasons that Orac's search should take so long. One was that it was hunting for one small ship in a large galaxy, and a ship that was deliberately keeping its detectable activity low at that. The second was that the ship no longer existed. The longer it took, the more likely the second reason became.

He'd left the tense, silent group waiting round the communicator and wandered into the first quiet place he'd come across. It wasn't until he'd brushed fallen plaster off a chair and sat down that he realized he was in the same room where he and Vila had listened to Tarrant telling the Kairos story.

So, Avon sat alone and thought about Tarrant. Specifically, about something which had happened on the way to Capris, although it had happened with minor variations in other times and places over the last two years.

Avon had dreamed about Blake.

The dreams weren't frequent, but they were terribly real. Sometimes they started on Scorpio, as she performed her death-dive over Gauda Prime and he said goodbye to Tarrant. Sometimes, they began with the chimera of Blake he'd talked to on Terminal. Rarely, it would be some incident from the Liberator days. But every one proceeded, with twisted dream logic, to the tracking gallery on Gauda Prime.

It was never just once, either. The final segment would play through over and over again. It wasn't an actual memory of the time but rather of the tape he had seen later. It would loop endlessly until Tarrant woke him, or he finally woke up by himself because of the cramping of clenched muscles. This time, the time he was thinking about, it was the latter. It was a relief, briefly, because the physical pain was so much more bearable than the dream.

He'd struggled out of bed as quietly as he could, and tried to walk off the cramp, which wasn't at all easy with red-hot knives stabbing through both his calves. He supported himself against the wall, hissing pain through his teeth.

He'd hoped Tarrant was still asleep, but after a minute he said, "Avon? What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Cramp. Go back to sleep."

Tarrant brought the lights up, just enough to see him. The he threw back the sheets and got out of bed, in one enviably easy movement.

"There's no need. I'm all right."

Tarrant knelt down beside him. "Just stand still."

Avon closed his eyes and had a sudden flash, horribly clear, of Blake falling in front of him. He could feel his hands, hear his voice. Then Tarrant touched his leg and the vision vanished in a gasp of pain as his calf knotted again.

Tarrant worked the cramp out of the muscles with a brutal efficiency that made a perfect cover for the few tears escaping through Avon's lashes.

"How's that?"

"It's fine now."

Tarrant looked at up him for a moment, then shook his head. "Liar. Come back to bed."

Once they were in bed, Tarrant held him until the other pain, too, had started to ease and he drifted into a dream-free sleep.

And then, the next day, he had been limping a little and unreasonably bad-tempered, and Tarrant had been slightly more careful around him than usual, and nothing at all had been said about it.

Sometimes Avon felt almost tempted to ask if Tarrant knew what—who—the dreams were about. Avon knew he must sometimes make some sound during the nightmares, maybe even say something, or Tarrant couldn't know to wake him. However, it was a conversation he didn't want to have. It wasn't the sort of thing he was any good at, and he always preferred to play to his strengths.

Luckily, Tarrant was equally as bad at those kinds of conversations. So they went along together, reading between the lines, hoping they understood the silences.

There were a lot of things, on reflection, that he probably ought to have said to Tarrant but never had. Things he'd never been able to find the words for.

And now, perhaps, it was too—

He crushed the thought ruthlessly. He didn't believe that—he was tired, that was all. His chest ached abominably.

Someone came into the room. "Avon?"

"Yes."

"We've got a signal."

* * *

As Avon came into the command centre he heard Mai speaking.

"...heavily damaged, but if you can get back within a week, we should be able to evacuate."

A voice he recognised as Santor, the mission commander, came tinnily through the speakers. Orac's connection to the distant ship seemed quite tenuous.

"What about the Solitaire base?"

"The council's recommendation is to abort the mission."

Avon went cold. "No!"

The group around the communications console turned to look at him.

"The council has made its decision," Mai said.

Avon backtracked hastily, tried to find the correct form of words. "Everything Orac checked out about the base was genuine. Everything my source said was accurate. We have to assume that they were right about the completion date. If we let this opportunity slip past, there won't be another."

Mai shook her head. "It's too dangerous. We need the ships back here."

"Controlled beaming, Mai. Think about what that means." Avon looked at the group, mainly councillors, gathered around them. "Everyone who has ever gone through the hands of Federation interrogators, or Space Academy training, will be vulnerable. Everyone. You, me, how many others here?"

There was an uncomfortable silence.

"At least let me speak to Tarrant."

After a moment's hesitation, Mai surrendered the console.

"Tarrant?"

There was a long pause, then, "Avon? I'm here, go ahead."

A second's unbelievable relief at hearing his voice, then Avon turned his attention to the mission. "What do you think about the situation?"

"Well, the magnetic storm is coming up right on schedule, and the picket force is as advertised. We scouted the edge of the system, fast pass, and it's clear."

"On the vector our contact gave you?"

"Yes."

"So if there's a trap, it's wherever the scout didn't see."

Silence, then Tarrant said, "They'll be behind the planet, opposite the base. We attack the Federation ships, they run behind the planet, we follow them into an ambush?"

"Sounds reasonable."

"So if we let them run, we should be able to get in and out all right."

"Possibly. There's something not right, yet. What's our contact getting out of it?"

"Killing us?"

"It's a flattering thought, but there are easier ways she could do it. Did Mai tell you what Orac found out?"

"Yes. Maybe we're a peace offering from the Terra Nostra to the Federation?"

"Sounds rather more likely. But I'm not sure."

"So, you think we should pull out?"

"I think—" Avon weighed his words, wondering if this was going to be a death sentence. "I think that the chance to destroy the controlled beaming project is worth taking a risk for. I think—"

Mai interrupted him. "If the ships are lost, everyone on this base dies."

Santor came back onto the communicator. "Mai, we could send some of the ships back now. If it is a trap, then the Federation force will run even if we're weaker than they're expecting."

"And if it isn't, you could be destroyed before you reach the base."

"Do I still have operational command?"

Mai hesitated, looked at the other council members. There were shrugs, a few nods. They clearly wanted her to decide.

"Yes."

"Then I say that we should continue the mission. I'll dispatch three ships back to base immediately."

"Very well."

Mai cut off the communicator, and looked at Avon. "You're only guessing about what's going on there."

He held her gaze steadily, although he could feel his heart beating too fast again. "I know."

* * *

Chapter Seventeen

After the link to central command cut out, a controlled pandemonium of orders and activity broke out on the flight deck of the Veritas. Tarrant was in the middle of it but Soolin stood on the edge, outside the chain of command and feeling a little lost. Suddenly, she felt a hand on her shoulder.

"Get Tarrant out of here," Vila whispered into her ear. His voice was thick with fury. "Get him down to my cabin. Now."

She had never heard Vila sound so angry. By the time she turned, he was already leaving the flight deck.

It took Soolin nearly ten minutes before she could disengage Tarrant from tactical discussions. On the way down to Vila's cabin she fended off his questions with genuine bewilderment.

When they got to the cabin, Vila looked even angrier than he'd sounded. Still, he managed to contain himself until the door was closed behind them.

"Servalan! It's Servalan, isn't it? Your precious contact. It's bloody well her."

Soolin's heart skipped a beat. Yes, it was so clear, so obvious, that she couldn't imagine how she'd missed the possibility. But surely, surely even Avon wouldn't be that stupid? And surely if he had been, Tarrant wouldn't have gone along with it? One look at Tarrant's face banished her hopes.

"Oh, how could you?" she breathed, but her words were entirely masked by Vila's continuing indignation.

"Why didn't you tell us, Tarrant? Avon I can understand. God knows, I actually expect it of him by now—I must have been insane to even think about trusting him. But you? Why?"

Tarrant had the grace to look somewhat abashed.

"Avon didn't want—"

Probably not the best name to start the explanation with, Soolin thought.

Vila cut Tarrant off before he managed another word. "Avon didn't want you to tell us? What, you don't even open your mouth without his permission, now? Must be a bit inconvenient for him when you're—"

Tarrant took a step forward, anger chasing away embarrassment, and Soolin hurried to interpose herself before things got completely out of control.

"All right, all right, this isn't going to help. Let's just all calm down, shall we? Vila, hear him out."

Vila rounded on her, outraged. "Soolin!"

"Shut up, Vila. Tarrant, I want an explanation right now and make it a very good one or I'm going back up to the flight deck to tell Santor exactly how unhealthy trusting Avon can be."

The tone of her voice seemed to satisfy Vila, because he threw himself down on the bunk and looked up at Tarrant expectantly.

Tarrant took a deep breath. "Avon—" he paused and looked at Vila.

"Well, go on then," Vila said.

"Avon received a message through Orac. We worked out who it was from almost straight away. Servalan left enough clues, she obviously wanted us to know. Then, when we met her in Space City—"

Vila sat bolt upright. "Met her? In Space City?"

Soolin couldn't tell which part upset him most. "Shh, Vila."

"She gave us the information, just like I told the council. Servalan was the only part we lied about, if you want to call it that—"

"If?" Vila cut in, incredulous.

"All right, it was a lie, yes. But only about who the contact was. Mai asked if it was a Federation defector, and Servalan is definitely that. Everything else was true. Avon knew—we knew—that there was no way the rebels would help if they knew Servalan was involved. We had to have their help. We didn't have a choice."

Soolin shook her head, annoyed by the logic of the argument that so utterly failed to address the important points. "But you must have known it was a trap."

Tarrant shrugged. "It did seem fairly likely, yes. But Orac was sure about the controlled beaming project. Servalan has as much reason to want it stopped as any of us. The plan had to succeed that much."

"You had no right to do what you did. Neither of you."

Tarrant looked down at the floor for a moment. "No...maybe not." He looked up. "What would you have done?"

"This isn't about—"

"Yes it is. I said we didn't have a choice. All right, what would you have done?"

Soolin couldn't think of a reply. Actually, she couldn't think of anything much beyond the fact that Tarrant had definitely spent too much time with Avon.

"Tarrant, that's not why..." She picked out the central, painful part of it. "You lied to us. To Vila and me. You used us, so that you could use our friends."

He shrugged again, uncomfortable but defiant. "Yes."

Soolin turned away, because if she kept looking at him she was going to do something she might even regret. Later, anyway.

"What are you going to tell Santor?" Tarrant asked after a moment.

"I don't know. Vila?"

Vila got up off the bunk. "Nothing, of course." He still sounded angry, but also resigned. "It's much too late, which it was always going to be by the time we found out, wasn't it? Avon and Servalan. What a pair. And now you, which makes a nice threesome."

He pushed past Tarrant and left, closing the door with an exaggerated care that was far more effective than slamming it.

"Soolin, I'm s—"

"Don't make it worse."

"I am, anyway."

* * *

The magnetic storm was reaching its peak as they began the run into the Velde system. As expected, they came within a couple of minutes of the Federation guard ships before they were spotted. The ships fired a single salvo, then turned and ran for the planet beyond.

Santor spread the ships as far apart as he dared, to maximise scanner range, and took the Veritas into teleport range of the base. Silence from the base confirmed the lack of defence systems.

So far, all predictions were spot on.

"Ready?" Santor asked.

Soolin, Vila and Tarrant stood in the teleport bay, carrying cases of primed charges.

"Yes," Soolin said.

"No," Vila muttered.

"Yes he is, and so am I." Tarrant nodded to the man standing by the teleport. "Put us down."

* * *

Brightly lit white walls materialised around them, and a quick glance confirmed the room to be the outer chamber of the main reactor. Two technicians stared at them in open-mouth shock for a moment before ignoring Tarrant's warning and making a dash for the exit. Soolin shot them down before they made more than a few steps. Vila looked at her.

"They'd be dead anyway, when the reactor goes," she said.

"Oh, sorry. Of course."

"Still a pity about the noise, though." Tarrant checked the corridor outside. "No-one here, yet. Hurry it up, Vila."

The heavy door to the main reactor control room proven stubborn. The Federation seemed to have improved the design and it took Vila a couple of false starts before he found the right technique.

"Come on, Soolin. Quick. I think I might have tripped an alarm or two."

Between them they hauled the cases of charges through the door.

Vila began feeding the program Avon had prepared into the computer, while Soolin laid the explosives.

After a couple of minutes Vila heard Tarrant call from the other room. "Someone's coming!" And then the sound of rather a lot of firing. Soolin drew her gun and headed for the door, nearly colliding with Tarrant as he came skidding through.

"Get the door closed. There's dozens of them."

The door closed easily and Vila locked it thoroughly and permanently before he realized that meant they would have to teleport out from within the core shielding.

Avon had said it would be possible, he thought, half an eye on the control computer. Not a source he was placing a lot of faith in right now.

He watched Tarrant and Soolin hurrying to finish the charges. He heard the sound of hammering against the door, then muffled shouts. Locked or not, the base guards would get through the door eventually. They had plenty of reason to. It didn't take a genius to work out what intruders in the reactor were probably up to.

"How are you doing with the charges? The timing's very important, you haven't forgotten?"

The question was just nerves, and he didn't expect or get a reply.

* * *

Back on the ship, Santor watched the planet on the main screen. There was no sign of the picket force reappearing, or of any ambush. It was beginning to look as if Avon had been wrong. A pity they had missed the chance to destroy the Federation ships.

The scans officer, Mahri, broke into his train of thought, disbelief in her voice. "Ships coming in."

He looked at the screen again, saw nothing. "From the planet?"

"No. From the edge of the system. I'm sorry, they were masked by the magnetic storm."

"How many?"

"I can't tell. Thirty at least, maybe more. They don't look like Federation."

He stared at Mahri for a moment, simply unable to believe the news. "How many? No, never mind. How long before they reach us?"

"Four and a half minutes."

"Hell."

Santor hit the communicator button. "Commander to all ships. Run for home, now."

Six different voices started to protest. He cut them off. "They'll tear us to pieces. Get out of here. If they pursue, scatter and get home any way you can."

He switched channels. "Tarrant? We have company. How long will it take?"

"A minute, no more." The sound of a muffled explosion came over the communicator.

"What was that?"

"We have company down here, too."

Then there was nothing to do but wait.

* * *

"We're done," Tarrant said into his bracelet. "Bring us up."

To Vila's intense relief, the flight deck shimmered smoothly into view without delay, as did Soolin beside him. Tarrant did not.

The rebel operating the teleport console looked down at it in panic. "I did it right! I did exactly what he said!"

Vila rushed over to the makeshift teleport area and pushed the man aside. Most of the lights on the console were still alive, which was something at least. With luck it was just a temporary overload due to the extra shielding, or something else which would clear itself. Anything else, just as long as the system hadn't failed totally. He tried the communicator button.

"Tarrant?"

"I'm still here, Vila. Although I'd appreciate it if you could do something about that, while there's still a here to be in."

Vila flicked the teleport switch once, twice. "It isn't working!"

"It has to recharge." Vila thought that Tarrant's voice was amazingly calm, considering the circumstances. "Wait for the three yellow lights to come on, or you'll discharge the circuits without making a pick up."

Vila snatched his hand back. "How long?"

"I don't know," Tarrant said. "But if it's any more than, um, two minutes twenty-five seconds, it's academic anyway."

Santor shook his head. "We need to start moving out of blast range at least a minute before then."

Vila looked at him in horror. "You can't! I'm not going back and telling Avon I left him down there."

"We'll wait as long as we can."

"Two minutes until lead ships are in firing range."

Vila stared hard at the teleport console, willing the lights to come on. The first flicked into life and the seconds crawled by until the next one followed suit.

"Thirty seconds until we have to move."

The last light came on and Vila flipped the switch almost before it had reached full brightness.

The teleport sparkled into life and Tarrant appeared. He gave a rather sickly grin. "Do you know, I'd forgotten how much fun we used to have doing this sort of thing."

He dropped the empty explosives box and took over the pilot's seat.

"Get us out of here." Santor sat down at the navigation console, strapping himself in. "Directly away from the incoming ships."

"Past the planet?" Tarrant asked.

"We have to risk it."

Vila and Soolin grabbed for support as the acceleration temporarily outstripped the compensators.

"One minute thirty seconds until the lead ships can fire," Mahri said.

Vila was wondering whether the ships would stop at the station or pursue them, when he caught sight of the Federation fleet pouring round the edge of the planet ahead, accelerating hard.

At first he thought it was the small force from the base, returning to the fray. But the ships kept coming, dozens of them, matching and then exceeding the size of the fleet behind them.

Vila saw Tarrant and Santor exchange looks.

"What do you think?" Tarrant asked.

"We don't have a choice. Go through them."

"Turn. Turn, Tarrant!" Vila's voice was high with panic.

Tarrant shook his head. "We're too close to the station. Plasma bolts might miss us, the blast from the reactor definitely won't."

"Raise the force wall," Santor said calmly.

A second protest frozen on his lips, Vila watched the Federation fleet growing rapidly closer on the main screen. Beside him he could see Soolin, for once looking as pale as he felt, her eyes also locked on the screen. Looking round, he saw the majority of the rebel crew was equally transfixed.

Only Tarrant didn't spare a glance for the enemy. His eyes were on the console in front of him and his hands moved smoothly over the controls. He looked the picture of confidence and for a moment Vila almost thought he saw the shadow of a smile on his face.

He's enjoying this, Vila thought dazedly. He's actually enjoying it. He's madder than I must be for being here with him.

"Plasma bolts launched and running." Mahri didn't sound to be having fun.

"Evasion course," Tarrant said.

There was an agonizing pause as the computer produced the new heading and laid it in. Vila felt the flight deck shudder as the ship changed course, still under maximum acceleration.

"I wish we had Orac," Vila muttered.

To his surprise, Soolin responded. Her voice was harsh with fear channelled into anger. "Avon doesn't consider Orac to be expendable."

Vila felt a perverse impulse to defend Avon. But before he could even open his mouth, a glancing hit rocked the ship, banishing any charitable feelings towards the man who'd got them into this.

"Another salvo."

"Evasion course."

This time Vila didn't think the computer managed the calculation at all because he saw Tarrant turn the ship himself, his lips moving silently. Vila hoped it wasn't a prayer. He tightened his grip as the ship shook under another impact, followed quickly by a third. This was it—this was definitely it.

Then the Veritas was running right under the noses of the oncoming Federation fleet, passing almost between the leading ships and away into free space on the other side.

"We're clear." Mahri switched between scanners. "No-one's coming after us—they're all heading for the station."

Tarrant grinned. "And we'll be behind the planet in a minute."

They started the turn to round the curve of the planet. On the rear screen view, the flaming comets of plasma bolts began to streak across the starry backdrop. The two fleets closed, the firing becoming more intense. Outnumbered, the Terra Nostra seemed to have decided to stand and fight. Two ships exploded silently, then a third. If neither side retreated, the losses were going to be high.

And then the small dark ring of the research station became a pinpoint of brilliant light.

The dot blossomed, slowly unfurling fiery petals in almost the precise centre of the battle. It expanded with deceptive speed, because now it was engulfing ships, Terra Nostra and Federation alike, until the brightness wiped out the screen contrast, leaving nothing to see but blank whiteness.

The crew stirred uneasily.

"We're safe at this range," Santor said.

The screen dimmed slowly to reveal a peaceful starscape. No station, no ships, no battle. There was only an expanding cloud of debris to show that anything had ever been there. Then the Veritas moved behind the planet and there was nothing to see at all.

* * *

Chapter Eighteen

It had taken the rebel fleet six days to make the journey from Capris to Velde. They made it back in just under four. With a direct course at maximum speed, Tarrant had little to do except listen to the communications traffic relayed from Capris by Orac. The emergency power generators were failing under the load and with each message they received, the estimate of the time the base would be able to maintain life support fell a little further.

The three ships Santor sent back early arrived a day before them, and the reports of damage to the landing bay only added to the bad news. Access to the lifts and cargo loaders had been thoroughly destroyed and without suitable equipment it would take a long time to move the rubble. They would be lucky to be able to clear a way through at all before it was too late for those trapped below.

Tarrant, Soolin and Vila teleported back down into the base almost as soon as the Veritas touched down in the wrecked landing bay. Soolin and Vila pointedly went off together, to speak to Mai, whilst Tarrant set off in search of Avon. He found him in one of the subsidiary computer rooms, replacing burned out circuits.

When Tarrant said his name, Avon looked up and scowled. He didn't seem surprised, though—perhaps Orac had told him about their arrival. He did look shockingly ill, as well as in a filthy temper. Tarrant wanted to ask if he'd been resting and knew Avon would hate it if he did. Anyway, the answer was obviously 'no'.

"You should have stayed up on the ship." Avon's tone matched his expression.

"It's no safer up there. There are some stupendous cracks in the structural supports. People are putting the ships down like the landing bay's covered in eggshells."

"Then you should have stayed in orbit."

"And leave you down here?"

Avon shrugged. "Davrin says I still shouldn't teleport."

Tarrant refrained from commenting that that looked to be the only piece of Davrin's advice Avon had taken since he'd left.

Avon gestured round the banks of computers. "Besides, the backup systems are all that's keeping the place habitable and they're failing piece by piece."

Ah, of course. Tarrant suddenly recognised all the signs of Avon on a guilt trip. Trying to repair the damage for which he'd decided he was responsible. Maybe that would even appease Vila and Soolin a little. And that was something Avon had to know about, however unwell he looked.

"I'm afraid Soolin and Vila found out about Servalan."

"You told them?"

"No, they guessed. Vila guessed."

Avon's mouth quirked into a half-smile. "Really? I suppose it had to happen eventually."

"Their finding out?"

"Vila making a correct deduction." The smile faded. "Where are they?"

"Went to see Mai."

"Damn. Will they tell her?"

"I don't know."

Avon stood silent for a moment, frowning, and Tarrant could see him struggling to think through the possibilities and options, fighting against a haze of near-total exhaustion. He looked to be having enough trouble simply staying on his feet. Tarrant tried to come up with something to say, but couldn't think of anything that wouldn't simply raise more questions.

Instead he went over and laid his hand on Avon's back. Avon looked up at him for a moment then closed his eyes, resting his head on Tarrant's shoulder. Tarrant held him close and Avon exhaled a long breath of words, almost too soft to hear.

"Thank you for coming down." Then even more quietly. "I wanted to say...I missed you."

Tarrant nodded, Avon's hair tickling his cheek. They stood together for a minute, two minutes, and then Avon sighed and pulled away. "Come on. Let's go see the others."

* * *

They found Soolin and Vila still waiting outside Mai's office, along with a large number of other people. Inside her office, Mai spoke with Santor and the other captains about the logistics of the evacuation and other business had to wait.

Neither Soolin nor Vila looked particularly pleased to see them. Vila spoke first.

"Hello, Avon, nice to see you, bet you weren't expecting to see us again, were you?"

His flat tone drew surprised looks from several people around them. Good start, Tarrant thought. "Can't we at least do this somewhere else?"

Vila looked ready to argue, but Soolin nodded. "Yes."

They found a quiet side room, still full of uncleared debris.

Avon seemed unwilling to start the conversation, so Tarrant did. "What I told you on the ship's still true, Soolin. We did it for the best."

"For what you thought was the best. Anyway, I want to hear it from him."

Avon grimaced. "If you like. 'We did it for the best.'" Not a trace of remorse or apology collared his voice.

Soolin stared at him for a long moment, then her eyes narrowed. "Mai should know about it."

This was what Tarrant had been worried about. "Is there any point in telling her?" he asked, trying to sound reasonable. "She has enough to worry about."

Soolin laughed. "I'm sure she'd be touched by your concern."

"He's right," Vila said suddenly.

"What?"

"He's right. There's no point telling her. But more than that—what's the date, Soolin?"

She looked at him blankly, then her expression cleared. "You're right. Four days."

"They'd be getting everything ready now if it wasn't for all this. I suppose it's not all bad after all."

"Getting ready for what?" Tarrant asked.

"The memorial service." Vila turned to look at him. "Blake's memorial service."

Avon looked away from them, simply blanking out the conversation.

"They make a big thing out of it," Vila continued, his voice suddenly passionate. "I think it's pretty ghoulish actually, at least it was last year. Really grim. Or what I remember of it, which is thankfully not much. It wasn't about Blake at all, not how I remember him, just some ideal they've made him into. He wouldn't have liked it, which you'd have thought would be the point. Doing something he would have liked."

He sighed, continued more quietly. "But the real point is that by the end of it all they were one step away from burning him in effigy." He pointed to Avon. "And if they don't need to go to the bother of making one they might actually do it. If they get worked up enough. I don't think we need to give them any more excuses."

Tarrant considered the danger, which seemed horribly plausible. "Mai wouldn't..."

"No, Mai wouldn't, but I'm not sure she could stop the rest." Vila shrugged. "Or she might think it wasn't worth trying. If I were you, I'd get out of here. Now."

"I can't teleport," Avon said distantly.

"You might have to." Vila looked at Tarrant. "Talk to Davrin. In the meantime, Soolin and I won't say anything. Will we?"

Soolin looked surprised by the firmness of his voice. "All right. I'll wait until you're gone."

"Thanks," Tarrant said, but she had already turned away.

* * *

Teleport became the focus of the next few days. Without the teleporter on Veritas, it would have been impossible even to begin the evacuation. They moved the teleport system from Veritas into the landing bay and managed to teleport up the heavy equipment they needed to begin clearing a way through to the base below. Orac directed Tarrant as he did the necessary modifications whilst Avon listened in and proffered advice.

He was still not allowed to teleport, and Davrin had been quite clear about it.

Although the recharge for teleport through the thick shielding of Capris base was agonizingly slow, it also let them begin taking out the lightly injured and the healthy who weren't required for the operation of the ailing base. The badly injured—and there were a lot of them—would have to wait until a route through the rubble had been cleared.

Work continued without pause in intense four-hour shifts. There was no shortage of volunteers, only of space to work in the shattered lift shafts. They began work simultaneously on as many routes as possible, closing them down one by one as the damage proved impassable.

In the base below, people worked just as frantically to prop up failing systems. They hooked up the landed ships' power supplies to the base grid, and the boost added another three days onto Orac's estimate of the base's ability to maintain life support. They moved Orac down into the base proper and—despite his vocal displeasure over the mundane task—he was able to take over directly the running of some of the fragile systems.

Over everything hung the fear that the ships that had attacked the base the first time would return to complete their work. There was no way of telling whether their escape from the Velde system had been reported before the fleets had been destroyed.

After two days, Mai began to send fully laden ships away from the base, on to the next hideout. She remained behind, along with most of the rest of the council. Vila and Soolin stayed with them. Soolin's ship had been destroyed in the attack and Vila refused a place on one of the early evacuation ships. Shenna was still in the medical unit, listed as one of those too ill to teleport.

Tarrant and Avon were still there as well. Tarrant spent most of the days in their ship, repairing the damaged systems so that they too would eventually be able to leave. He spent most of his evenings and nights harassing Avon into eating and sleeping.

* * *

Tarrant woke up, quite suddenly, and lay in the dark wondering what had awakened him. It took a little while to realize that he was alone in bed. Ten days away and he had slept right through every night without really noticing Avon's absence. Now, on the third night back, his radar seemed to be operational again.

"Avon?" he said quietly.

No answer. He sat up, noticed the dim light filtering under the door into the outer room.

He pushed the door open and halted in the doorway. The only light in the room came from a lamp turned down low on the desk, and from the computer screen where Avon watched something with intense concentration. There was a low murmur of voices from the speaker.

"Avon?"

Avon touched a button and the screen went blank. "Yes?"

"You're supposed to be resting."

Avon ignored the reminder. "Orac had some information for me."

"What was it? And couldn't it have waited until the morning?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact, it could. It wasn't anything important."

"Then come back to bed and go to sleep."

Avon stood up, and to Tarrant's surprise he was smiling. "On my way."

And go to sleep he did, as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Tarrant watched him for a while. He hadn't seen him relax so completely into sleep since before they had come to Capris. He was half-tempted to get up again and ask Orac what the unimportant news had been, but in the end he decided he didn't want to risk waking Avon. Eventually, he fell asleep too, and dreamed about flying a pursuit ship, light and responsive, through the battle at Velde, until the stars were wiped out in a wash of burning light and he dropped into a sleep as deep and dreamless as Avon's.

* * *

The next day, Tarrant spent the morning testing out the repairs on the ship. It seemed to be fully operational again, as far as he could tell without a test flight. Consideration for the precarious state of the landing bays made unnecessary take-off and landings out of the question. Once they could get Avon onto the ship they could leave.

Only a few minutes after he teleported back down into the base, the alarms started to ring. There was no announcement and it could have signalled one of any number of disasters, but he knew what it had to be—Servalan was back.

When he reached the corridor outside the command centre he met Avon, coming the other way, carrying Orac.

"Servalan," Avon said.

"I guessed. What are we going to do?"

Rather disconcertingly, Avon smiled. "See what she wants, of course."

* * *

Chapter Nineteen

Vila and Soolin had been in the command centre when the ships were spotted on the sensors. It had been too late for the rebel ships in orbit to run, and on the screens Vila could see the dark shapes of the Terra Nostra cruisers in formation around Capris.

All things considered, he couldn't see a way out of this one. The only even slightly promising sign was the fact that they hadn't yet opened fire. However, he knew what that meant—they wanted something before they blew the survivors into oblivion.

Mai and the rest of the remaining council had already joined then around the still silent communications screen by the time Avon and Tarrant arrived. Avon put Orac down on a console and came over to the monitors. Tarrant stopped next to Vila and Soolin but Avon pushed his way through the council members to stand next to Mai.

Vila felt a tiny, irrational burst of hope. Avon had an aura of confidence that was startlingly obvious when compared to everyone else in the room. "What's he up to?" he whispered to Tarrant.

Tarrant shook his head. "I don't know."

Just then Avon spoke. "Did you have something to say to me?"

Servalan had appeared on the monitor, looking extremely pleased with herself.

"Hello, Avon." Her brow furrowed in mock concern. "Why, you look terrible."

A faint shadow of a smile crossed Avon's face. "I wish I could say the same. Shall we skip the traditional preliminaries? What do you want?"

"The usual list. Yourself, Orac, the others—if they are still alive. Oh, and the renowned Mai and her compatriots, who also have a most gratifying price on their heads. In return I might be persuaded to let the less profitable members of her organization go."

"You're lying," Avon said flatly.

At exactly the same moment, Mai said, "You must think we're stupid."

Servalan smiled. "Your ships are surrounded and outnumbered. If any of them start to move, I will destroy them. You have five minutes to consider my offer, starting now."

Servalan cut the transmission dead.

"I know her," Mai said suddenly.

Soolin nodded. "Yes. It's Servalan. Ex-president Servalan. More recently known as Commissioner Sleer." She paused and Vila realised what she was going to say next. "Avon's contact."

"Soolin!" Tarrant said.

Avon merely shot her a glance promising death later. Soolin looked resolutely unimpressed.

Mai's reaction was almost comic, if the situation hadn't been so desperately serious. Sheer astonishment made her thoughts transparently clear on her face. Vila watched her run through the same emotions that he had felt on the Veritas when he had finally worked things out for himself. And she ended up in the same place—anger.

To Vila's surprise, before she could speak, Avon started to do so, quickly and almost desperately. "We—I dealt with her, yes. I thought I knew what she wanted and, yes, I was wrong. But I also know some things that she doesn't think I do. Things which will do her a lot of damage if they get out."

"Giving her another incentive to destroy the base?"

"No. Orac could get the information out before the missiles hit. She won't risk it. I know she won't. I know her."

Mai started at him in disbelief. "After everything...everything you've done, you—"

"There's no time to say sorry. Mai, you have to let me send the message," Avon's voice was quiet and deadly earnest. "There's no other way of stopping her."

Mai gave it a few seconds thought, then nodded. "Go ahead. But whatever you send, you show us, too."

Avon hesitated, then fitted Orac's key. "Orac, send the transmission to Servalan's ship. Use the cipher she sent her first message in." Avon looked round at the hostile eyes. "And put it on screen in here, as well."

The monitors on the main console flickered, and then resolved into a picture split between Servalan and a neatly dressed dark-haired man.

The man spoke first. "How can you be sure the attack will be successful?"

"Oh, I have confidence in my contact."

'My contact', Vila thought. He glanced at Soolin and caught her eye. She had obviously made the same comparison.

"A great deal of confidence," Servalan continued. "The controlled beaming technology will be stolen, the base will be destroyed and the Federation ships will send off news of the rebel attack before they are themselves eliminated. The Terra Nostra will never be implicated."

"It's an excellent plan, Servalan."

"Do you think it will convince the other Chairmen?"

"Yes, I do believe it will."

"Good. Now, have you considered the rest of it?"

The man nodded. "Servalan, what you propose is interesting but..."

"Disloyal to the organization? Untraditional?"

"Precisely."

Servalan's tone sharpened impatiently. "Don't be ridiculous, Gardiner. I know the Terra Nostra, perhaps better than most of its members. I was President of the Federation and the Federation owned you. Tradition will take us back into their hands."

"Us?" Gardiner queried softly.

"Yes, us. Do you imagine I could go back to the Federation, even if I wanted to?"

"The Terra Nostra will be weakened by this."

"Regrettably, yes. I predict seventy to eighty percent casualties amongst Terra Nostra ships. But those ships are important primarily in the, ah, territorial negotiations between chairmen, rather than the organization's day to day operations."

"True." The man appeared to leaning towards acceptance, before he frowned. "But still..."

"The important point is not how many ships are lost, but how many remain and who controls them." Servalan's voice softened, coaxing. "Once the Federation ambush destroys the Terra Nostra fleet, we will control the remaining military power of the organization. We will be able to dictate our own terms to the other Chairmen—those still alive—and we will avoid a disastrous split."

Gardiner nodded slowly. "It certainly seems that civil war is inevitable otherwise." He smiled wryly. "Although were I to attempt to place my finger upon the point at which it became inevitable, I might be tempted to select the date when a certain new Chairman was elected."

Servalan smiled lazily at what she apparently decided to take as a compliment. "So, do we have an agreement?"

"No one is to know of this except us?"

"Naturally."

"The Federation?"

"They will lose ships too. Overstretched as they are, they won't risk pushing back."

"What about the rebels?"

Servalan waved the question away impatiently. "I have already tracked my contact to the rebel base. By the time their fleet is wiped out, my ships will have destroyed the base and be on the way back to Space City."

Vila looked up sharply from the screen. Avon was unreadable, but Tarrant appeared shocked. Vila nudged him with his elbow, and Tarrant looked down at him. "I didn't know," he whispered. "We didn't know." But Vila wasn't at all sure Tarrant believed the second part.

Gardiner took his time to make his mind up, but eventually he nodded. "Acceptable. Very well, I agree. If we are to proceed, the idea must be leaked to the board, of course."

"I suggest that Vaclav would make an excellent source for the information for you to pass to the board. He is terribly loyal," the smile widened a fraction, "and expendable."

"I have known Vaclav all my life." Gardiner's voice was quiet.

"Then he will be a convincing witness, no?"

There was a long pause, then, "Just as you say, Servalan." He smiled thinly. "As we both know, the only real traditions of the Terra Nostra are power and control."

"And we will have both."

The recording cut out, leaving the screen blank. The only sounds in the room came from the equipment—no one spoke, or even seemed to breathe. Vila looked around at the others. Mai and Soolin, unsurprisingly, seemed to have grasped whatever the full implications of the recordings were at once. Tarrant looked nearly as confused as Vila felt, and also rather angry. He clearly hadn't seen any of the tape before.

Avon stood by the scanner, paler than Vila had ever imagined it was possible for a human being to look and still be alive. After a long thirty seconds, the colour flushed back into his face.

"They're moving away," he said quietly. Then he looked up and broke into a wide smile. To Vila it looked more like overwhelming relief than anything else. "She's going!" He sat down abruptly in the chair by the console.

Vila felt rather like sitting down himself. He wasn't sure she'd go, Vila thought. He was hoping, but he wasn't even half sure.

Mai seemed to have reached the same conclusion. "Are you satisfied, Avon?"

Avon looked up at her. "Yes."

He leaned back in the chair, suddenly back in control and utterly self-contained. Clearly the delayed apology was not going to be forthcoming now. Vila felt Tarrant, beside him, tense up.

"Was it worth it?"

"To stop Solitaire? I think so. Don't you?"

If Avon ever considered other people's feelings at all, Vila thought, even for a moment, he wouldn't keep doing this. But he'd been right and it was over now and he had won, and so that justified everything. None of the rest mattered: not the deaths, not Shenna and the dozens of others injured in the attack, not what it would mean for the effectiveness of the rebels.

Mai sounded almost as angry as Vila felt. "I think I'd have to ask the dead about that."

Flicker of irritation. "It was a victory against the Federation."

"It was a victory for Servalan."

"Does that matter?"

The tension between them kept everyone else in the room frozen in place. Vila could just hear Soolin, whispering urgently to Tarrant.

"Do you know what day tomorrow is?" Mai asked.

Avon's gaze slid away for the merest second, then returned. "Of course."

"Then I suggest you get out of here before the morning. I won't make any promises about your leaving at all, after that."

Even then, Avon wouldn't look away. Neither of them would. Vila was almost ready to break the tension himself, when the door opened. Simultaneously, Mai and Avon looked towards it.

The woman who'd entered stood in the doorway, sensing the atmosphere. Then the importance of her news brushed her hesitation aside and she said, "They've broken through from the landing bays. We can start the evacuation."

* * *

Chapter Twenty

Tarrant had sincerely meant to wait until they were back on the ship before he brought up the topic of the message. While they packed their belongings on the base was hardly the time or the place to start a conversation that was bound to end up as an argument. But somehow he found himself asking the question.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Avon paused briefly, then carried on sorting clothes into piles. "About what?"

"The message from Servalan. You lied to me."

He looked round. "I did nothing of the kind."

"Don't quibble semantics with me, Avon."

"It isn't semantics. I didn't lie. I simply, as you pointed out, didn't tell you. There is a difference."

"Why didn't you tell me, then?"

"Well, there wasn't time."

And that hurt, because that was a lie. Tarrant thought back to the angry confrontation with Vila and Soolin on the Veritas and thought, yes, I suppose this is a kind of justice. A reminder of how it feels to be on the receiving end.

"I was there when you found out, remember? That was when you found out, wasn't it? The information from Orac that wasn't anything important?"

"And it wasn't anything important. Everything was over by that point. Its only value was as a potential weapon against Servalan, and it functioned admirably in that respect."

Avon turned away, his final 'end of argument' gesture. Tarrant caught him by the shoulder, pulled him back round.

"That's not good enough."

Avon shrugged his hand away sharply, but his voice still sounded cool and controlled. "What do want me to say? That I'm sorry?"

"Are you?"

"No."

Well, he'd wanted honesty. "And you'd do it again, I suppose?"

"Given the same circumstances, yes."

"Well, then." And the familiar conversational void yawned in front of him, swallowing the things he wanted to say. Doesn't the idea of 'us' mean anything to you? Can't you bring yourself to trust me, even now? How can I love you if I can't trust you? Nothing he wanted to risk seeing bounce off Avon's indifferent facade.

"Well, then?" Avon asked.

Easier, maybe, to say, 'Well then, nothing,' and go on from that and finish things right then and there. Tarrant was almost shocked by how easy it would be, compared to saying other things.

Avon was still watching him, his eyes dark. "Do you really want to know why I didn't tell you?"

He voice had changed, the mask of coldness slipping briefly, and suddenly, Tarrant wasn't at all sure he did. "Yes."

"Very well." Avon turned away again and began to fold clothes with exaggerated care. "I didn't say anything when Orac gave me the full decoding because I didn't want to worry you."

"Didn't want to what?"

Avon's voice was as precise as the creases in the shirt he held. "I didn't want to place you in a position where you would be forced to lie to Vila and Soolin again. It upset you, which, all evidence to the contrary, is something I dislike a great deal. So I didn't want to ask you to do it again, particularly when it wasn't necessary. And..."

"And?" Tarrant prompted.

Avon packed the shirt, picked up another, but almost at once seemed to forget he was holding it.

"And I thought that you would tell them about the message. Or that, more probably, they would guess that something was wrong."

"You didn't trust me."

"I didn't trust you to lie convincingly to your friends again, no. That is rather more my forte."

And, damn him, he was probably right, too. Tarrant took a deep breath. "And is that all true?"

Avon turned slowly, and looked up at him. "Yes," he said simply.

"Oh." Tarrant found that he believed him. More fool you, a tiny voice said.

"If I misjudged you, I apologise for that," Avon added.

"No, I think I'll trust your judgement. Just this once."

"Is that all, then?"

All the other things were still there, still unsaid. And this really wasn't the time or the place. "No. No it isn't. But it'll do for now."

"Then let's get out of here."

* * *

They said goodbye to Soolin and Vila in the same place they had met up again, by the airlock in the arrival area. Not quite the same place in fact—that particular spot was buried under several tons of rubble. It was late and in ordinary times they would have been alone. As it was, a constant stream of people passed them: walking wounded, the more seriously injured on stretchers, and the able-bodied carrying equipment.

The sense of urgency hadn't abated. Servalan might still return or she might direct the Federation to Capris.

Tarrant hadn't been at all sure that the other two would come to say goodbye, but they had been waiting when they arrived. The four of them stood together, and the awkwardness also echoed the reunion.

"We'll see you again, then?" Vila asked, with terrifically unconvincing brightness.

Avon smiled fleetingly. "Not for a while, I expect."

Tarrant shifted bits of luggage around awkwardly until he could offer a hand to Vila. After a moment's hesitation he shook it.

"Goodbye, Vila. Soolin?"

There was a longer pause before she too accepted his hand. "Take care, both of you," she said.

"And you," Tarrant said.

The silence stretched out until Avon said, "We'd better get going." He turned away without waiting for a response.

Tarrant smiled apologetically at the other two. "I'm, well—" But what could he say? So he settled for, "Goodbye," once more before he followed Avon over to the cleared lift and away from Capris.