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Avon (In Traitor) : "Ah, well, Tarrant is young, brave, handsome. Three good reasons for anyone not to like him."
"Tarrant. Tarrant." The voice kept intruding, pulling him back from the beckoning edge of sleep. He hurt all over but the worst was a dull throbbing that resided in his mid-section. If he woke up it would be unbearable, he knew that, as he knew that if he moved he would die. He clung desperately to his stillness, seeking to elude the pain by hiding from it. "Tarrant." The voice sounded tired, syllables slurring together until it was a meaningless noise. "Tarrant." This last repetition was accompanied by a grip on his shoulder and a shaking. The world came apart in pain, suddenly refreshed and vivid. His knees jerked up in instinctive reaction and he broke open, fire slashing and stabbing at his side.
"Leave me alone," Tarrant said. At least that's what he meant to say. What came out was a breathy whisper. He was eased flat onto a hard surface. Almost immediately, he felt himself gasping, unable to raise his chest enough for a full breath.
"No!" The voice was frantic now. Tarrant was lifted and pulled against something warm and yielding. At that angle, he could breathe. It hurt, but he could do it. "That's better." Something smoothed across his forehead. "Try to sleep."
Granted permission, Tarrant relaxed into darkness. The voice was still muttering to itself, but it was soothing now.
There was less of the nightmare quality about his next awakening. Even before he opened his eyes he knew he was a prisoner and he remembered how it had happened. His companion was still talking, voice broken and hoarse, but recognizable. "Vila," Tarrant said wearily, "shut up." He looked up into Vila's scruffy, whiskery face, noting the eyes red-rimmed from crying. He envied Vila for the ability to express his pain. Tarrant had been taught to endure, to hide weakness, to be strong, to be a leader. Even when there was no one to lead but himself.
"That's the thanks I get," Vila said. "Shouldn't have expected anything better, I suppose. Do you care that I've got a crick in my back and my legs have gone to sleep?"
"No," Tarrant replied. He pushed himself up, away from Vila, and leaned his back against the wall. "How long have we been here?" Here was a gray cube of a cell, containing one wide gray slab for a bed, one gray sink, and one gray toilet. Typical Federation decor, but they weren't on a ship. Even unconscious Tarrant would have been able to sense that. They must still be on Gauda Prime.
"How should I know?" Vila got up and began pacing as he talked; five steps one way until he reached a wall, then back again. "They took everything, even our chronometers. I woke up in here with nothing to do but watch you sleep. It's been hours, days. I don't know. Weeks for all I could tell." Vila paced back and forth. Tarrant watched him silently. Vila was wearing a dull gray coverall that almost matched the cell walls. Tarrant was wearing an identical garment which was too short on him, his pale ankles and feet looking almost garishly pink in contrast. Vila pointed at the door, a barely visible seam in the gray wall. "I haven't even seen a guard. They shove food packets through the slot in the door. Three so far."
"Probably less than two days, then. What about the others? If we were only stunned, they must have been, too." He had to believe that. It was logical, wasn't it? Of course, no one had bothered about his injuries, so it didn't seem to matter that much that they continue to live. It might just be him and Vila, left of them all.
Vila shrugged. "I can't hear anything outside and I haven't seen anyone." He looked apprehensively at Tarrant. "They haven't even interrogated me."
Tarrant tried a smile. "Why should they? You don't know anything." He put a hand against the wall and used it to help support himself as he rose to unsteady feet. "You're not worth interrogating."
"Oh, right, the Delta's too stupid to live," Vila snapped. "I wouldn't be one of you stuck-up Alphas for all the credits in Freedom City."
"Money doesn't make an Alpha."
"What does, then? Going to your fancy schools? Learning all your pretty table manners and how to curl your nose up anytime a real job comes up?" Vila sneered. "While the lazy Deltas just have to learn how to survive."
"That's right, Vila." Tarrant straightened and stepped away from the wall. "We learn manners. We also learn how to think; at least some of us do." He made his way over to the small sink and splashed water on his face, then drank thirstily from his cupped hands. "Did it occur to you that there must be a reason we're still alive?"
"Sure, they want to take us back to Earth for a trial. I'm looking forward to it, no end."
Tarrant shook his head. "No, somehow I don't think so. It would be more of an embarrassment than a coup. It's taken them too long to catch five rebels in an old planethopper. You have to admit that we hardly seem a deadly threat to the empire." Tarrant smiled. "Particularly in these clothes."
"Still, they like to show what happens to rebels." Vila shuddered.
"Which they could do just as well by displaying our corpses. I don't think they care what the masses think anymore. Why should they? What can unarmed, drugged civilians do?" Tarrant was tired, so he returned to the lone bunk-slab and sat down. "On the other hand, they can't very well drug the officers and troops of Space Command. That's where the threat lies. The only real danger to the administration is a military coup."
Vila shook his head. "You've figured that out all by yourself. Why don't you put your brains to work on figuring how to get us out of here?"
"Well, let's see. We have no weapons, you have no tools, we don't have any allies, and the door never opens. Frankly, my brains seem to be our only asset."
"We're doomed," Vila said, gloomily, sitting down on the edge of the bunk next to Tarrant. He sat in silence for several minutes, then he said, "I wish Avon was here."
"I don't think even Avon's brains are going to open that door."
"No, but I'd like to give him what-for for getting us into this mess."
"Would it make you feel better?"
"Probably not. But I'd like to give it a try."
"What now?" Tarrant tried to be optimistic, but living in a cell with Vila made that difficult. To be honest, the waiting for something- anything- to happen was eating at his nerves, too. By his reckoning, they'd been trapped for three weeks, long enough for his cracked ribs to heal, long enough for his burns to fade, and unfortunately, long enough for Vila to have told him every ancient riddle, joke, and pornographic story he knew; twice.There were times he could cheerfully have strangled Vila and was only held back by the thought that living with Vila's decaying body would be even less pleasant.
Tarrant opened his eyes and sat up. The cell door was opening. He stood, fists clenched uselessly at his sides. Perhaps the interrogators had been waiting for him to recover.
The man who stood in the corridor flanked by a pair of armed guards was definitely not a trooper. For one thing he was wearing a somber gray civilian suit; for another, he was considerably over both the age and the weight limits. "Del Tarrant?"
"No, I'm afraid you must have the wrong room," Tarrant said.
The man frowned. "This is hardly a joking matter. Come with me, please," he said, gesturing to his left.
Tarrant stayed where he was. "Why don't you see if you can make me."
The man's frown deepened. He said, "I am hoping we can discuss matters amicably."
Vila was looking back and forth between Tarrant and the man in the corridor.
"I'm amicable with my friends," Tarrant said. He had no idea what was going on, but it didn't look like a standard interrogation was in order.
"Not always," Vila muttered.
Tarrant didn't spare him a glance.
The man stared back at Tarrant. "What do you want?"
"My friends' freedom."
The man didn't blink.
"A fast ship and a head-start," Tarrant finished, expecting a blow for his insolence.
"That can be arranged," the man replied. "Please come with me." He gestured again. When Tarrant still didn't move, he said,"Do you really want to stay in there?"
It was a trick, of course, but frankly, Tarrant couldn't see the point. If they thought he had useful information, why not interrogate him? Barring that, why not kill him and collect the bounty? If the Scorpio's crew was going to be made an example, they'd not have been left sitting in a cell all this time. Unless they were supposed to be bait for other rebels, which would be a joke on the Federation. None of the rebel groups they'd met would lift a finger to save them. Then again, if the rebels heard what happened to Blake, some of them might be eager for revenge. Of course, the only way they'd have heard would be if the Federation released the news, in which case even the most fanatic would suspect their motives.
He was totally at a loss as to what their captors' purpose was, but it wasn't anything simple and straightforward. "No, I can't say as I care for the accommodations." He glanced at Vila.
"Yes, him too."
"Er. You know, I don't know anything," Vila said. "Not really. I just..."
The man frowned. "You aren't going to be interrogated." He turned to one of the guards, and asked, "Weren't they told anything?"
"Not my orders." The guard was wrong, somehow. He was dressed as a trooper, but his stance... the man wasn't military. Tarrant was abruptly certain of that. A flash of memory recalled his capture. Those troopers had been odd, too, remarkably slow to fire. They had responded, but not initiated.
"I see." The man turned back to Tarrant. "I am Councillor Ian Alroy. I have a proposition for you and your crew. It is to your advantage to listen. Will you accompany me to the conference room?"
Tarrant cocked his head, considering. "Yes. Come along, Vila," he said smoothly, "things are looking up." He strode out into the corridor.
"Oh, yes?" Vila said, sidling out after him. He eyed the armed guards.
The first guard pressed a door release, then stood aside to let the prisoners precede him into a room. "Tarrant!" came a shout from the room as Tarrant entered. He staggered briefly, startled to find his arms full of sobbing young woman.
"Dayna. It's all right, Dayna," he said, putting an arm around her shoulders. He glanced around the room. The decor was an improvement. The walls were beige, there was a soft floor-covering underfoot, and a large oblong table surrounded by plain but comfortable-looking chairs dominated the room. It could have been a pit and Tarrant would have still considered it an improvement as Dayna and Soolin were here, alive and apparently unharmed. Both of the women were wearing gray coveralls and looked as if they'd been kept under much the same conditions as he and Vila. Soolin met Tarrant's eyes and almost smiled. "Soolin," he acknowledged. Vila had come in and was patting Dayna on the back while babbling something about how happy he was to see her again.
Soolin approached them and asked, "Have you seen Avon?"
Tarrant turned, releasing Dayna, who sniffled and wiped at her eyes. "Councillor?"
The Councillor said to the guards, "I ordered all the prisoners brought here."
The guard moved close to Councillor Alroy and said something too low for Tarrant to hear. Alroy frowned, then said, "Bring him." The guard gave a less than perfect salute and left, leaving the Councillor and one guard alone with Tarrant and the others. Soolin glanced at Tarrant and he made a slight negative headshake. It might be a mistake. Possibly this would be their best, their only chance, at escape, but he was beginning to believe that Alroy actually meant to deal with them. The Federation held all the cards. Tarrant had to play whatever game they chose. At least they were all alive.
"Please, sit," the Councillor urged them. Dayna and the others looked to Tarrant and he nodded.
Once they were all seated Alroy took his place at the head of the table. They all stared at him. He said,"I am sure you feel you have good reason not to trust me, but I do assure you, I mean you no harm."
"Hah," Vila muttered.
"The circumstances of our meeting are unfortunate."
Soolin's lips curled slightly. "Yes," she said dryly, "you could put it that way."
Alroy laced his hands together and pursed his lips. "Perhaps we should wait to discuss this until your leader has arrived."
Tarrant looked at Soolin and Vila, noting their reactions. It might be better if Avon weren't their leader. Even Dayna might agree that the strain was too much for him. Still, he'd wait to see how Avon looked before saying anything. They needed to present a united front. If Avon was capable, then he'd let him handle it. If not, then... well, he'd have to decide what to do then.
They sat in silence, each of the rebels unobtrusively examining their surroundings. They were unarmed, weak from confinement and had no idea how many guards there were, or even where their prison was. Realistically, they had no chance of escape- unless Avon had a miracle up his sleeve. Perhaps fifteen minutes went by; Alroy sent for refreshments brought by other guards and Tarrant spoke quietly with his friends. The women had been housed together in the same way as he and Vila, left with nothing to do but worry. He was grateful. It could have been much, much worse.
The door opened again and they all turned to look. Avon came in, dragged by a pair of guards who set him on a chair, saluted sloppily and left. Dayna was at Avon's side before they made it out the door.
"Avon! What's wrong?" She touched his face and began crying again.
Tarrant was shocked by Avon's appearance. His gray coveralls were filthy and he stank as though he'd never used the limited washing-up facilities at all. The man had lost weight and his cheekbones stood out, sharp edges visible under his colorless skin and the bristle of untrimmed beard. The only life left in him was in his eyes, and that was a feverish, frantic life. He lifted his hand and touched Dayna's face. For a moment his expression softened, then he raised those hot, mad eyes to Tarrant. "Blake?" he asked, as if Tarrant should know both the question and the answer.
Tarrant turned unwillingly to Alroy. "Is Blake alive?" Vila made a protesting noise, but Tarrant saw no way out. Avon needed to know.
"No." Alroy shook his head. "Unfortunately. Something went wrong. Arlen, our agent, was on his base and called our men to capture Blake so that we could negotiate with him." He looked at Avon. "I don't know what happened. He wasn't supposed to die. None of you were, which is why all our people had stun-guns. Even Arlen."
Avon laughed. It was a nasty, not-quite-sane sound. Dayna spoke to him and shook him, but Avon continued to laugh until Vila shrieked at him to stop it. Avon stopped laughing then, gazed at Vila mildly enough, and said, "But don't you see how funny it all is? Blake had a myriad of enemies, but it took a friend to kill him."
"You killed him?" Alroy asked, sounding slightly disturbed. "I had assumed one of our men..."
"No," Avon said, "they can't take the credit for it." He laughed again, this time only a short, humorless bark. "And they can't collect the bounty on Blake, either."
"Avon, stop it," Tarrant said. "It's done. It was a mistake, but it's done."
"No. It's not. It'll never be done. Blake won't let it be over," Avon said calmly. "I hear him. He wants me to join him. I've tried, but..." He looked down at his hands, turning them over to expose the wrists, and Tarrant saw deep, festering scratches, clawed across the soft inner skin. Avon looked up at Tarrant. "The spirit is willing," he said quietly, "but the body is not quite weak enough. I can't walk," he mentioned casually.
Tarrant gazed into Avon's eyes, and said, "We need you. Blake would understand that, I think."
Avon winced. "Blake thought he understood." His eyes went distant and Tarrant was glad that he could not see whatever Avon was contemplating.
"What do you want?" Tarrant asked Alroy bluntly.
Alroy cleared his throat and said, "Well, we had considered making you the proposition we had intended for Blake. I am not sure now..." He looked back at Avon. Dayna stopped smoothing Avon's hair and looked back at Alroy.
"Don't worry about Avon. You just tell us what you want," she said.
Alroy was quiet a moment, his pale, sand-colored eyes shifting to look at each of them, assessing them. His lips tightened, then loosened. "Very well. The High Council has received information that is extremely disturbing. There is a possibility that the former President Servalan is not dead," he said solemnly.
"Not yet," Dayna snarled. She tightened her grip on Avon.
Vila said, "She's got more lives than a dozen cats." He was watching Avon, too, his expression mingled and confused, pity and revulsion predominating.
Soolin remarked, "If it's worth anything to you, we know the identity she's been using lately."
"It might be helpful," Alroy said, "although I greatly fear that she has already discarded it. There was a leak." His mouth tightened again. "Despite all our efforts, she somehow retains loyal agents at the highest levels. We can trust no one below the rank of High Councillor." He gave Tarrant a sideways glance. "And even a few of us are suspect. Even if we could capture her, we dare not risk a trial. She must die- unofficially. Space Command is our most powerful arm and we dare not utilize it against her. She may still have adherents there. After all, under her leadership, they ruled the Federation."
"So," Tarrant said slowly, "no one in the Federation is beyond suspicion."
"But we aren't in the Federation." Tarrant smiled. "And we know Servalan."
"And hate her," Dayna added.
"Yes," Alroy said, still looking at Tarrant. "You have motivation as well as ability. I am empowered to offer all of you a free pardon, total exoneration for all past offenses against the state in return for your promise to destroy Servalan."
Soolin said, "I wonder why I doubt your generosity?"
"Without the Liberator, you are a minor danger to the Federation. Servalan is an incalculable threat. While she was in power, she had access to all the state secrets. What does she know? What will she do? The only certainty is that she will seek power and that she will consider nothing too valuable to destroy in her pursuit of that power. She would dismantle the very structure of the Federation. She would destroy the Earth itself, if it stood in her path. The best psychostrategists couldn't say what her next move might be. She is a highly intelligent sociopath. They can't predict her. Maybe you can."
Avon said, "You mean, it takes one to know one?"
"You're not a sociopath," Dayna stated firmly.
"You are still a child," Avon remarked, "and only see what you wish to see." He told Tarrant, "but it doesn't matter what Dayna or I are, does it?"
"No," Tarrant said. "What alternative do we have?"
"You could leave me here," Avon said.
"No!" Dayna said.
Tarrant considered. "No, Avon. You are the one who knows Servalan best. If we are to track her, we will need you."
Avon shook his head. "I'm no use to you." He struck his legs with his hands, the slap sounding loud in the quiet room. "I'll hold you back, in more ways than one."
"What's wrong with your legs?" Tarrant asked.
"They don't work," Avon said. "I woke up, but they stayed asleep." He hit his hands against his thighs again.
"Has anyone examined him?" Tarrant said, looking at Alroy.
"No. It was judged wisest to order our men simply to leave you alone until I could arrive."
"We could have died," Vila said.
"There was that possibility," Alroy said.
"You're not much better than Servalan, are you?" Dayna remarked. Avon was shivering and seemed to have lost interest in the proceedings.
"Perhaps. It shouldn't matter to you. We are offering you your lives and your freedom. In exchange, we ask you to hunt one whom you have already declared a personal enemy."
"And how will you enforce the bargain?" Tarrant said, although he should simply have said 'yes', and got his people out of this mess.
"You will swear to it. Particularly, you and Avon will swear."
Tarrant grimaced internally. The puppeteers knew them, all right. Tarrant could possibly bring himself to break his given word, for the sake of his friends, but Avon- particularly now- would cling to that archaic bit of Alpha noble nonsense. As far as Tarrant knew, Avon had never broken his word and it would break him now, to try.
Soolin had been watching intently. She said, "Even if we did kill her, you'd never know. Unless you expect us to chop off a recognizable bit and send it back to you."
"That's really disgusting, Soolin," Vila said. Dayna looked intrigued by the idea, though.
"From your group we would accept a message confirming success."
"*Our* group?" Tarrant asked.
"We are also recruiting others. Neutrals, mercenaries, deserters. We will fill space with hunters. The ones who hunt for a bounty will be required to produce her body in order to collect. As you will be paid in advance there will be no reason for you to lie."
Tarrant looked around the table, gathering a silent consensus. Avon didn't care. Dayna would greatly enjoy killing Servalan. Vila and Soolin simply wanted to live. "All right. I swear that I will hunt Servalan, and kill her at my earliest opportunity."
Dayna said, "I've already sworn to kill her. I'm only sorry I won't be able to kill her twice."
"I've killed others who deserved it less. Yes, I'll swear to kill Servalan," Soolin said.
Vila gulped and looked down, then mumbled, "I don't like killing, not even her. But I'll try. I'll do whatever I can."
Alroy nodded, then looked expectantly toward Avon.
Tarrant said, "You can't ask it of him. He can't understa..."
Avon lifted his head and glared at Tarrant. "Dayna may be a child, but I am not. I have had opportunities to kill Servalan and refrained. As she has refrained from killing me. And you, Tarrant, on at least one occasion have been in similar circumstances. It is very easy to speak of killing her when she is not here. 'Let us bell the cat', squeaks the bold mouse. Who are you to destroy such a force as Servalan? She is not for you. She is mine." His voice lowered. "I killed Blake. If I can kill the light side of my soul, I can kill the dark. I will destroy Servalan but I will not do it for you. It will be for myself and for her. So great a monster should not die at the hands of pygmies."
"Um, all right, Avon," Tarrant said, diplomatically. He turned to Alroy. "Where's the fast ship?"
"At the spaceport." Alroy handed Tarrant a code-key. "The crew has been dismissed. There's a flier outside, pre-programmed to take you to the ship. I shouldn't spend too long on Gauda Prime, if I were you. The bounty hunters will not hear about your pardon for quite some time. Good luck," he said, and left the room.
"The flier is that way," the lone remaining guard said, pointing. He followed them and watched, but said nothing as Vila and Tarrant picked Avon up and headed out the door.
"That's it," he said finally, when they made their way out into the dim coolness of Gauda Prime at night. The flier was a pale blotch against a not too distant edge of forest. The guard stayed at the building, gun held in readiness as if he hoped they would give him an excuse to use it. He wasn't very good at it, though. Tarrant had been tempted to take it from him, but he was too busy carrying Avon and worrying about the rest of them and wondering how they were going to get Servalan when they hadn't the slightest idea where to look.
He and Vila started to put Avon in the rear compartment of the flier, but Avon came to life and insisted on the front. It seemed easier not to argue, so they maneuvered his limp legs carefully under the control panel and settled him there. Immediately Avon opened the toolbox compartment under the front panel. "What are you doing?" Tarrant said, as Avon attacked the guidance system with a laser probe.
"I prefer self-guided tours." Avon fused a few circuits and then leaned back, sweat beading on his brow. "Take us back to Blake's base."
Avon closed his eyes briefly, then opened them again. "Yes, I may be mad," he said, wearily, "but I am not stupid. We need Orac. We'll never catch Servalan without it."
"How do we know that Alroy didn't set us up just for this? Maybe Orac is what they were after the whole time."
"Servalan would never have told them about it. She wanted it for herself."
Tarrant inclined his head. "You may be right. But I think it's more important to get a doctor for you."
Avon bared his teeth. "After Orac," he said, and then passed out.
Vila looked down at Avon then up again at Tarrant. "It's your call." Neither of the women made any protest. Now, when they had nothing left, Tarrant was their leader. The injustice rankled for a moment. If he had led them instead of Avon... if. If was meaningless. All they had was here and now and each other. Avon was right. Orac was an invaluable weapon and if Avon had survived three weeks without medical attention, he could wait a little longer. Or not, and die, and it would be Tarrant's responsibility. But that was what being leader meant, accepting the responsibility. "We get Orac first."
They got into the flier. Vila claimed the seat next to Avon while the women got into the rear compartment. Tarrant took the flier up and was pleased at the smooth response. At least Avon hadn't disconnected anything vital. He set the coordinates for Blake's base, remembering that long, erratic flight with Blake, dodging invisible enemies until they reached 'home' territory. As a pilot he had naturally noted their final coordinates, but it was a wonder that he still remembered them after three weeks in purgatory. Avon hadn't doubted him. That was a pleasant surprise. Avon had trusted him.
The course steadied and there was nothing on the scanners. They were safe for the moment. He looked over at Vila and asked, softly, so as not to disturb the women in case they were able to sleep, "Why, Vila?"
"Why, what?" Vila asked, holding Avon gently against his chest.
"Why do you still care about Avon?" No one had told Tarrant what had happened over Malodaar, but no one had to. The ship had been overloaded, Vila had come off the shuttle with tear-streaks down his face and Avon had worn a cold, stony expression that dared anyone to ask what had occurred. No, he'd had no need to ask.
Vila shrugged. "Three good reasons." He looked down at Avon. "He needs us. We need him."
"And the third reason?"
Vila looked out the window, reflections from the interior showing his face and Avon's blurred and intermingled against the dark night flowing past. "What he's become is at least partly because of us. What I've become is at least partly because of him."
"I don't think that's it, exactly. I can't figure how to say it so it makes sense." Vila shrugged again. "You tell me. Why do you stay with us?"
Tarrant found himself smiling in the darkness. "Three good reasons."
Vila coughed as he squirmed backwards out of a ventilation duct, dragging a heavy plastic case out with him. "I hope you're worth all this, Orac." He picked larger bits of soot and grease out of his ragged beard, and brushed down his gray jumpsuit, rearranging the grime smeared down the sleeves and front. They'd been searching for hours. Someone had obliterated Blake's abandoned underground base, using a wasteful amount of explosives. Dayna had left Avon in Soolin's care while she investigated the collapsed entrances and declared them impassible. Fortunately they had hidden the computer and its key before entering the complex, so recovery was possible once they figured out exactly which pile of rubble was covering the shaft they'd used. It only took four tries, with each of them taking turns wriggling several nerve-wracking meters into partially-cleared shafts.
"It will be," Tarrant said, wiping the computer's activating key on the sleeve of his own filthy garment before pushing it into place. He didn't look much better than Vila, although his beard might look distinguished if it had been trimmed. Orac's lights blinked dully as it made its customary protesting whine.
"I mean, it can't have done the ruddy box any good, sitting around in the dirt for weeks." Vila poked speculatively inside Orac's case. "Ow!" he yelped as a fat blue spark snapped at his fingers, jumping back and flapping his hand wildly. "He bit me!"
"Static electricity," Dayna said. She looked worried. "Would that hurt Orac, do you think?"
"It hurt me!" Vila grumbled, inspecting his fingers for damage.
"You'll live," Tarrant said. "Orac, are you all right?" he asked.
Orac snapped, "All right? What do you mean, all right? That is a simplistic question, covering a multitude of..."
Tarrant pulled the key and pocketed it. "He's all right." He glanced at Vila. Not much point in asking him to carry Orac, not unless he wanted to hear a lengthy oration on savage machinery. He picked up the computer. "Come on, Vila. We'll give you a medal later." He trudged back to their flier with the other two close on his heels; Dayna was tired, but still watchful for enemies, while Vila was stumbling, barely paying attention to his own feet. Dawn was coming and the air was cool and scented with pine-type resins. If it wasn't for the crimos, the bounty hunters and the Federation, Gauda Prime might be a fairly nice planet, he mused. He was tired from the digging and crawling and Orac weighed a ton, or at least it felt that way, what with Tarrant having been nearly a month sitting in a cell that barely had room for Vila to exercise his tongue.
The flier loomed suddenly, a dim, gray shape tucked beneath a clump of trees. Undoubtedly, it wasn't much protection against modern detection equipment, but the best he'd been able to do. He sighed with relief as he deposited Orac next to Avon, who was half-lying in the front compartment with Soolin at his side. Avon was awake and glaring. That cheered Tarrant. "How are you feeling, Avon?" he asked.
Avon stared at him as if he were an imbecile and said, "You took your time, didn't you? Get this thing up before we're spotted." The words were good, but Avon's voice was a hoarse whisper.
Tarrant picked up the water container resting between Avon and Soolin. "Here, have a drink."
Avon shook his head. Tarrant could see, despite the concealment of a beard even more unkempt than Vila's, that Avon's lips were dry and cracked. Puzzled, he looked at Soolin.
She said, "He won't take any from me, either."
"I thought you weren't planning on suicide until after we got Servalan," Tarrant said, sarcastically, hoping to get through the wall Avon had built around himself. "Dehydration's a particularly stupid way to go about it, anyway."
Avon said, "I'll drink... later."
Tarrant frowned. It was obvious Avon needed water, why was he being so pig-headed ... Oh, of course. He grinned. "Vila, give me a hand," he said, as he shoved Orac out of the way and reached for Avon.
"What are you doing?" Avon asked, pushing at Tarrant's hands.
"We're going for a walk." He got Avon out and with Vila on the other side, carried Avon off toward a dense patch of undergrowth.
Soolin looked at Dayna, a smile slowly spreading across her face. "I should have realized. Poor Avon. No wonder he wouldn't drink."
Dayna glanced at the men's backs. Avon's legs dragged, but his spine was rigid. Embarrassment? Pride? She shook her head. "Poor Tarrant and Vila."
Soolin agreed. "And poor us. Avon will hate being dependent. I would in his place. He might yet kill himself," he warned Dayna.
Dayna tossed her head. "No. He promised."
Soolin shrugged. "Well, maybe he might come to accept it. Your father accepted his blindness."
"Yes. But ..." Dayna sounded worried. "If Avon was only crippled..."
Soolin touched Dayna on the shoulder. "Now, don't you go getting depressed on me. Avon's sulking, Vila's whining and Tarrant needs all the help we can give him."
"You're right. Everything will work out." Dayna smiled. "It's our turn, isn't it?"
"The universe certainly owes us one," Soolin muttered.
"Don't," Avon snarled, as Tarrant reached for the zip on Avon's jumpsuit.
"Fine. Then you do it." Tarrant sighed. "Look, Avon, we've shared the same ship, the same base, the same damn shower. I've already seen what you've got."
"Yeah," Vila said from the other side. "Just whip it out and get on with it, will ya? Show a little consideration for once. My back's killin' me."
Avon opened his mouth to protest, then glanced at Tarrant, who was manfully suppressing a grin. Avon attempted a shrug, then pulled the zip down. It was awkward with the two of them holding him around the waist, their arms getting in the way, but he managed what was necessary, closing his eyes in relief as his bladder emptied. When he was done, he opened his eyes and said, bitterly, "I suppose I should thank you," as he pulled his clothing back in order.
"Why? You never have before," Tarrant replied. All he could offer Avon was the dignity of treating him the same way he'd always done. He couldn't deny that Avon was in a pitiful state, but he could deny any outward show of that pity.
Avon's eyes narrowed and his lips tightened. Obviously, he was not misled and resented even Tarrant's roundabout show of sympathy.
"Wait a sec," Vila said. "Here, you hang onto 'im a moment, Tarrant." Vila undid his own jumpsuit, and urinated on the same bush that Avon had just finished anointing. "That's better." He rezipped and put his arms around Avon. His eyes met Tarrant's, questioning.
"Why not. All for one, and one for all," Tarrant said as he quickly relieved himself. The cool air helped overcome his lingering sense of embarrassment. Why should he be embarrassed? These two men were closer to him than his barrack's-mates at FSA had been. After all the shared pain, shared adventures, shared grief; as Dorian had said, whether they wanted to or not was immaterial, they had to care about each other. Even when they were furious at each other, they couldn't deny that intimacy. He was one of the few who knew where Avon hurt and why. Even when he couldn't ease the pain, he could at least see it behind the mask. Avon knew when he hurt, too, and had done him the Alpha male courtesy of pretending not to see. They couldn't comfort each other, but they could keep each other strong. Survival was what it was all about, after all.
"I don't believe that is precisely the way the Three Musketeers intended that oath be taken," Avon said softly as they turned to retrace their steps.
"I dunno about that," Vila remarked. "After all, they were always drinking all that wine."
Even Avon had to smile at that. When it came right down to it, you could always count on Vila, Tarrant thought gratefully.
When they returned to the flier, Soolin and Dayna were standing beside it. Soolin said, "Dayna and I were talking. We think the port may be a trap."
"Why?" Tarrant asked. He was abrupt, not out of pique, but because he was out of breath.
"Why?" Soolin asked, eyebrows raised. "Several millions of reasons, I should think."
"Even if Alroy is wealthy enough not to care about collecting the bounties on us, what about his men?" Dayna added.
Vila began looking nervously around, loosening his grip on Avon at the same time.
"Vila," Tarrant warned, and shifted his weight to compensate. "Let's talk about it in the flier," he suggested. It was cramped but at least the heater worked and the seats were more comfortable than snow-covered rocks.
Once in the flier Vila relaxed, but Tarrant squinted into the sunrise and frowned. The increased light made his shoulder-blades itch with the feeling that a gun-sight might easily be directed at them. He'd been hunted too long to feel comfortable in an underpowered, unarmed craft equipped with only the most basic of detectors. Particularly on a planet's surface. There was no room to maneuver.
"What do you think, Avon?" he asked, sliding around to face the other man. Avon's eyes were shut and he was shivering. Tarrant touched Avon's face. It was feverishly warm, despite the trembling. Avon didn't respond. "Come on." He shook Avon, to no result. "Avon, talk to me!"
"We need to get him to a doctor," Dayna said.
" I doubt you'd find a real doctor anywhere except the port," Soolin put in. "There are herb-doctors and people who can set broken bones and handle minor illnesses, but most of the trained med-techs left when the killing started."
"The ship probably has a medical unit," Vila offered.
"The more I think about it, the less I like the idea of taking a gift ship from the Federation. Besides, those med-units are limited in their scope. We need a trained professional," Tarrant mused, looking down at Avon. Two professionals, actually, but there was no point in worrying about Avon's mental health until his body was stabilized. The rebels might have had a good doctor, but after what happened to Blake and his base he didn't think Avon's health would be a high priority with them, even if they hadn't found out the exact details of that debacle. Tarrant pulled Orac's key out of his pocket, and handed it to Vila. "Break into Orac's nap."
*Yes, yes, what is it now?* the computer said irritably, once its key was inserted.
"Orac," Tarrant said firmly, "Avon's ill. Find a doctor we can get to quickly." He didn't care for the sound of Avon's breathing.
*Oh, very well.* Orac hummed to itself for a few seconds, then said, "I have located eight fully-qualified physicians within the effective range of this flier. Five of them are employed at various mining concerns, two of them are housed in the main port facility within the security section, and the last is Councillor Alroy's personal physician, serving aboard his space-yacht, Midas ."
Soolin shook her head. "The mines guard their trained personnel nearly as closely as their refined ore."
"And I can imagine what security is like on a planet over-run with crimos," Dayna said.
"Which leaves us with hijacking our patron's own play-toy." Tarrant grinned.
"Wonderful," Vila moaned. "First time we get a friend in the Federation, you've got to get him mad at us." But Vila's protest had no strength behind it.
Neither Soolin nor Dayna looked too thrilled at the prospect, but their silence gave consent.
"Well, look on the bright side, Vila," Tarrant said as he turned to the flier's controls. "His ship probably has a well-equipped bar."
"Good. I already need a drink."
Gauda Prime's port was scuffed and down-at-heels, so the ex-crew of the late, lamented Scorpio fit in perfectly while Councillor Alroy's yacht stood out like a crystal decanter set amidst a cluster of the soy-spread jars Delta children use for drinking glasses. The yacht wasn't quite shiny-new, but it was obviously still on its first log-disk. Tarrant's mouth watered at the thought of a ship that hadn't been patched together and repaired on the run. He barely spared a glance for the serviceable-looking Wanderer-class ship huddled beside its thoroughbred relative. No doubt the Councillor figured it was good enough for them. The Councillor's guards surrounded both ships, attempting to appear threatening. At least the blasters they held were professional enough to keep Gauda's two-legged predators at bay.
Tarrant set the flier down next to the Wanderer. "All right, I'll check out the ship," he said loudly for the benefit of Alroy's men. He went into the Wanderer's open hatch, leaving the others outside.
Dayna and Soolin got out and stretched, looking around warily. Vila followed, leaving Avon in the flier with Orac. Tarrant was gone only a few minutes before he returned, stamping loudly down the ramp and up to his crew.
"What's the matter?" Dayna said.
"Alroy must think we're total idiots, trying to palm this piece of trash off on us," Tarrant said, angrily. "I'm going to have a word with him." He started toward Midas.
Dayna and Soolin fell in beside him.
"Hey, you're not leaving me alone with him!" Vila said, pointing back at the flier.
Tarrant paused. "Bring him then- oh, and you might as well bring the nav-comp we salvaged from Scorpio."
"I've only got two hands!"
"If you'd use them half as often as you do your mouth, you might earn your keep," Tarrant snapped. The color was rising in his cheeks and his fists were balled at his sides.
"We'll help him," Dayna said, appeasingly. "Won't we, Soolin?"
Soolin nodded. "Anything for a moment's peace." She and Vila got Avon out of the flier while Dayna picked up Orac.
Tarrant was practically rocking on his heels by the time they emerged. He led them at a quick trot up to the neighboring ship. "I want to see Alroy. Get him," he growled at the pair of sentries at the main lock. "Well, what are you waiting for? You've got the guns. What do you expect me to do; take over your ship bare-handed, with two girls and a Delta?"
"I'll call the Councillor," the left-hand guard said, activating the ship's intercom. "You can tell him what you want from here."
Tarrant shook his head. "Alroy wants us to do a job for him, he'll have to talk to us in person. We aren't going anywhere in that ship. Do you hear me, Alroy?"
"Wait there," Alroy's voice came over the communicator.
Tarrant paced, and scowled indiscriminately at the guards, his own crew and the Wanderer-class ship. He even kicked Orac, which Dayna had set down on the landing ramp so that she could help Soolin and Vila with Avon. "Careful," she warned, "remember, you're the one who wanted this."
"That was when I thought we'd have a ship and could use the coordinates stored in the thing. I wouldn't lift off in that bag of bolts rusting over there."
Alroy appeared, hair rumpled, still doing up fasteners on his tunic. "Now, what's wrong with your ship? I had it vetted thoroughly. It's perfectly serviceable."
"You want to know what's wrong with the ship?" Tarrant waved his arms in the air. "I'll tell you what's wrong with the ship!" He snatched a gun from the bemused guard standing beside the Councillor, elbowing the man aside as he flung his other arm around Alroy's throat, bringing him close to his body. Dayna and Soolin had abandoned Avon to Vila and appropriated guns from other guards, flanking Vila who had dropped with Avon to the ground, flinging his arms over Avon's head and shoulders.
"We didn't like the decor," Tarrant finished calmly. "Ah, ah, don't do anything rash," he said as one of the guards twitched his hand toward his gun. "We are willing to work this out."
"What do you want?" Alroy gasped out, muffled against Tarrant's arm.
"A straight swap. My ship for yours." Alroy stiffened in outrage. Tarrant continued. "After all, you can requisition a replacement, and we really do need a better ship if you expect us to have any chance of carrying out your little mission."
"All right," Alroy agreed after a moment. "It wasn't necessary for you to go to this extreme."
"Oh, but I think it was. You see, we also need your personal physician."
At that Alroy nearly purpled with rage. Tarrant was interested. It was the most emotion he'd seen on this stuffed-shirt politician's fat face.
"No deal," he said.
"Ah, but I must insist. You see, we also need Avon and he needs a doctor. We'll release your med-tech later, on a neutral planet. It's an inconvenience for you, I know, but we must all make our little sacrifices for the common good, don't you agree?"
Alroy struggled briefly, then slumped against Tarrant's arm. "Very well. I hope you realize that you have made an enemy today," he said quietly. For the first time, Tarrant could see the steel in the man's soul that had enabled him to rise to the High Council.
"We're very good at that," Tarrant replied. "Now, tell the doctor to remain in your med-unit while you have all the rest of your people evacuate the ship."
"This is Councillor Alroy. Dr. Asher, proceed to the medical unit immediately and remain there until further orders," Alroy said into the communicator, his angry eyes never leaving Tarrant's face. "All other personnel are directed to exit the ship via the main port. Do not, repeat, do not offer any resistance. Any attempt to disobey my orders will result in severe punishment."
"Yes," Dayna said, grinning. "After we shoot them, they'll be court-martialled."
The next few minutes were tense as a stream of guards, techs, and assorted hangers-on came out of the ship. A few of them obviously longed to be heroes, but the coolly-professional attitudes of the rebels discouraged them. Tarrant sent them off to stand before the Wanderer, keeping only Alroy at his side until the last of the Federation crew had disembarked.
"Is that it?" Tarrant asked.
"Yes," Alroy muttered. "All but the doctor. As you ordered."
Soolin nodded and entered the ship.
"If you've forgotten and miscounted, it will be a pity. Soolin is very fast, very accurate, and entirely without mercy."
"A fit mate for you, then."
"Don't say that in front of her," Vila warned. He was sitting up, with Avon's head in his lap, having grown braver as no one had been shot- yet.
Soolin returned quickly. "One body-heat trace in the med-unit. If there's anyone else aboard, they're in environmental suits."
"They hadn't time for that," Dayna said, confidently.
"Or brains enough to think of it," Tarrant added. "All right, get in." Tarrant waited until the others were inside the ship, and Dayna and Soolin had time to position themselves covering him from the interior of the airlock. "No hard feelings, Councillor. We just want to survive long enough to take care of your little problem. You're with us on that, aren't you?"
Alroy shook his head and the anger faded from his face to be replaced by grudging admiration. "Yes. Yes, I am." He held out his hand, and after a pause, Tarrant took it. Alroy sighed as he looked at the yacht. "Well, it was nice while it lasted, but I suppose it was time for a replacement."
Tarrant let him go and dove back into the shelter of the ship's lock. He slammed a hand down on the lock controls, watching through the narrowing gap as Alroy walked steadily to the other ship, gesturing to his men to stay back. "He's got guts," Tarrant admitted.
"A lot of 'em," Vila supplied. He grunted as he pulled Avon up from the deck. "What now?"
"Leave him here. We secure the doctor and lift-off. I don't want to give Alroy time to change his mind and decide to make trouble for us." Tarrant knew the basic layout of this type ship and headed for the medical unit at a run.
"This is it?" Dayna asked, as Tarrant stopped outside a door.
"This is it."
Soolin and Dayna flattened themselves to either side of the door, guns up and ready. Tarrant hit the door release, but nothing happened. "Locked," he muttered. He activated the intercom outside the door and said, "Doctor Asher, open the door. We aren't going to harm you. One of us needs medical attention."
There was no reply. Tarrant gestured Vila forward. "Open it," he mouthed, then said, out loud, "Doctor, you needn't worry. Your skill makes you very valuable to us. We'll probably treat you better than Councillor Alroy did."
The door whooshed open and Vila flung himself out of the way as Tarrant leaped into the room with Dayna and Soolin a bare step behind. There was only one person in the room, a young woman with curly auburn hair. She was pointing a medical laser at them. Both hands trembled and her brown eyes were wide with terror. "Stay back! If you come any closer, I'll- I'll..."
Amused, Dayna said, "What? You couldn't hurt a fly with that toy."
The woman quickly reversed the laser and aimed it at her own throat, angled under one ear. "I won't let you torture me."
"Torture?" Vila said in surprise, peering around the corner. "Who said anything about torture?"
"You're terrorists. You're going to kill me anyway once you've had your fun with me."
The woman's hand shook so much Tarrant was worried she would accidentally trigger the laser. He put his weapon down and spread his hands, drawing her attention. "Now, look, we're not as black as we've been painted." He gave her his best and brightest smile. "Yes, we were on the run, but we've been pardoned. Didn't Alroy say anything about that?"
"Yes, but... but why are you here, then?" The laser moved away from her neck as he spoke.
"Because one of us needs a doctor. You are a doctor, aren't you?" For a moment, Tarrant wondered if Alroy had managed somehow to trick them.
"Yes," she reluctantly agreed. "I'm Doctor Asher." She was looking at Tarrant and her hand dropped even further so the laser was momentarily aiming at the bulkhead beside her.
Soolin shot the laser out of her hand. Asher cried out and clutched at her arm.
"Damn it, Soolin," Tarrant said, as he approached Asher, "you could have given me a chance to talk to her."
Soolin shrugged. "You can talk to her now. But you'd better be quick. Alroy might be more angry at losing his personal physician than we'd counted on. Maybe angry enough to try something stupid."
Asher had backed up into a corner, raised her hands before her face and began weeping. Tarrant went to her and took her in his arms. "Please, don't do that," he said. "Really, no one's going to hurt you."
Dayna made an exasperated noise and lowered her own weapon. "Tarrant, we've got to get going."
Tarrant snapped, "She's frightened."
"She's a nuisance," Dayna snapped back.
"And I don't entirely trust the waterworks," Soolin added. "Remember Piri?"
Tarrant stiffened, and felt a blush rising in his cheeks. "That was entirely different."
"Yes, I suppose so," Soolin said. "Piri was just working for the Federation. This woman is Federation."
"A Federation doctor, not a Federation trooper."
"How do we know that? I don't see why she couldn't be a doctor and a Federation trooper. Granted, she seems to have all the backbone of a bowl of vita-jelly..."
"Soolin!" Tarrant protested. "Look, she has every right to be frightened."
"So have I," Vila said. He'd come into the medical unit when it became apparent there wasn't going to be a shootout. "There's a whole lot of annoyed Federation troopers out there."
"Alroy's men aren't trained troopers," Tarrant corrected.
"Fine, whatever," Vila replied, "I bet it hurts just as much to get shot by an amateur. Can we get out of here and you can play 'doctor' later?" He peered past Tarrant and said, "Mind you, I can see that she's probably very pretty, when she's not all red-faced and blotchy."
Tarrant released Asher and stepped back while she wiped at her face and sniffled. He said, solemnly, "I swear that we won't do you any harm. All we ask- all I ask, is that you help us to the best of your ability as a physician, and then we'll release you, unharmed, on a safe planet." He smiled. "Please?"
Asher looked into Tarrant's eyes for a long moment, then she asked, "Which of you is the patient?"
Vila said quickly, "I have this terrible pain in my back..."
"You're a terrible pain in the backside, Vila," Dayna said. "I'm Dayna. That was Vila. This is Soolin," she said, waving at Soolin. "And the tall fellow clutching your hand is Tarrant."
"You're the leader?" Asher asked Tarrant.
"He thinks so," Vila said, looking annoyed. "Just because he looks like the recruiting posters..." he mumbled, but no one was really listening to him.
"Yes." Tarrant looked down at Asher and smiled again. "I'm also our pilot. We're all going to the flight deck now. Vila, bring Avon to the medical unit and strap him down for take-off," Tarrant ordered, before taking the doctor's arm in a gesture more appropriate to a social occasion than a hostage situation.
Dayna looked at Soolin and they both grinned.
"Here we go again," Soolin said, shaking her head.
"Well, what's wrong with Avon, then? Why can't he walk?" Vila asked, peering curiously over Dr. Asher's shoulder.
"Arterial thromboembolism," Asher said absently. Apparently, she was reassured by the normality of examining a patient and possibly less intimidated by Vila than the others. She ran her hands up the inside of Avon's legs, pressing against the groin with an abstracted look of concentration on her face. "A classic presentation," she said as she laid temperature sensitive strips on each of Avon's legs, smoothing them carefully into place.
Vila gave her a skeptical look. "Looks more like 'feeling up' than a medical examination. What exactly is this classical whatsit that Avon's got?"
"A blood clot lodged in an artery. The most common site for blockage is the point at which the abdominal aorta branches into the main arteries to the legs. It obstructs the flow of blood, causing loss of sensation and weakness- paralysis in severe cases. Here," she took Vila's hand and placed it on Avon's leg, "feel how cold it is? See the blue tint to the skin? And here, you can tell for yourself how weak the pulse is." She started to guide Vila's hand up to Avon's groin, but he snatched his hand back quickly.
"Oh, I believe you," Vila said quickly. "What are you going to do about it?"
"I've given him medication to dissolve the clot. If that doesn't work, then I'll have to operate." She frowned, checking the readings on various monitors. "He's also suffering from malnutrition, low blood sugar, and dehydration. When did he last eat?" She was now prodding, none too gently, into Avon's belly.
"I dunno. He wasn't with us. They locked him up by himself."
Asher moved Avon's head from side to side. She prepared an injection, gave it to Avon, checked on the monitors for the reaction, then looked back at Vila. "I've done all I can to stabilize him for the moment. Without a medical history, I'm constrained to be conservative. Did he ever complain of shortness of breath or chest pain?"
"Avon never complains. Well, not like normal people. He bitches a lot, but hardly ever anything personal."
"Does he have any allergies to medication?"
Vila shrugged. "Dunno."
"Can you at least give me any information about the onset of his paralysis?" she asked, her tone sharp.
"We were all shot with stunners, but Avon woke up and he couldn't walk. That was ... I dunno, three, four weeks ago. We only got him back a few hours ago and then he passed out."
"Was he lucid up to the point where he lost consciousness?" Asher was threading tubes into Avon's veins and doing other things that Avon would object to if he had any say in the matter.
"I guess so. Mostly," Vila admitted. "Not much worse than usual, anyway." The doctor didn't look up from what she was doing.
Asher made up another injection. "Roll up your sleeve," she told Vila.
Vila back-pedalled. "Here, he's not contagious, is he?"
"No. Among other things, he is showing the signs of prolonged malnutrition. Far more than a few weeks worth. I've given him some supplements and you could probably use them too, if you've been eating the same basic diet. At any rate, it couldn't hurt."
"You might be right. Cally used to make us take vitamin solutions. But I'm not letting you jab me. My mother didn't have any stupid children, you know."
"Oh, then you were adopted?" came from behind Vila. Tarrant walked into the medical unit wearing a pleasant smile, as if they weren't all in it up to their necks.
Vila grinned and said, "The doctor wants to give you a nice, sharp needle. Bend over, Tarrant."
Tarrant raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"In the arm would do just fine," the doctor replied. She looked at Tarrant and smiled slightly. "My patient is suffering from malnutrition. It's not uncommon among long-term users of space rations, so I assume your entire crew would benefit from this supplement. I take it myself in a pill form, but it works faster by injection. It's a simple vitamin and mineral solution."
"That sounds simple all right," Tarrant agreed. "Too simple to waste your time on, doctor. I'm sure we can program the food synthesizers to take care of the problem, once we have it properly identified. Soolin is quite adept at blood-work and I know Dayna and Vila would be willing to lend a hand." He frowned over Avon's nude form. He glanced at a stack of blankets, tempted to cover Avon, but he couldn't see quite how to do it without tangling tubes.
"So you don't trust me," Asher said.
"I might after an analysis of the contents of that hypo." Tarrant smiled as the doctor 'accidentally' dropped the hypodermic to shatter on the deck. "I suppose that answers that question. Now, how is Avon?"
Asher said,"There was no nerve damage, no injury to the spinal cord. A blood clot, possibly triggered by multiple stun-shots, has blocked the abdominal aorta. Here." She reached out to touch Avon's groin by way of illustration, and jumped, startled, when Avon's eyes snapped open and he stared directly at her.
"How are you feeling, Avon?" Tarrant asked, noting the doctor's fright abstractly. Those must have been some stories going the rounds about Avon, to make Asher go pale because an invalid 'looked' at her. Then again, Avon's 'looks' should be registered as lethal weapons.
Avon was silent but his fists clenched into the sheet beneath him.
"Are you in pain?" Tarrant asked again, staring into Avon's eyes. They met his, which he hoped was a good sign.
"No," Avon replied after a long moment, then turned his head aside, refusing to look at any of them.
Tarrant shook his head. He looked at the doctor and couldn't help smiling as he noted her nervousness. It couldn't be easy for any doctor to have Avon as a patient. "Dr. Asher, what are his chances of a full recovery with proper treatment?"
"The same as without," Avon said, "None."
Tarrant whirled on Avon, suddenly angry. "Look, Avon, you can be as pessimistic as you like, but I am going to keep us all together and alive, whether you like it or not!" Tarrant stopped, appalled by his lack of control. He had no business shouting at a seriously ill man. "I'm sorry..." he started to apologize.
"Why?" Avon's mouth twisted. "You always wanted command. Well, now you have it, and I wish you joy of it." His voice lowered to a whisper. "Delicate regard for my feelings is unwarranted. I shall be joining Blake soon, in any case."
"No, you will not," Tarrant said firmly. "You're just depressed because everything went wrong, but you'll be feeling better soon."
Avon laughed. "If it pleases you to think so, go ahead. I should be the last to deny a man his illusions. In the end, you may well find that is all you ever had." With that Avon visibly shut himself off.
Tarrant sighed and turned back to the doctor. "So, do you think Avon could walk again?" He wouldn't ask such a question in front of any other person in Avon's situation, but Avon would have demanded it, if he had been himself.
"There is a very good chance. Even if the medication I have administered doesn't dissolve the clot, surgery is an option." Asher hesitated, then added, "I would recommend restraints."
"No. That is not an option." Tarrant didn't have to think about it. There had been more than enough confinement for them. He didn't even like a closed door. He wouldn't allow any member of his crew...damn it, Avon was right about that- he did feel possessive towards them and would do anything he could to protect them.
"He could hurt himself."
"Or you?" Avon had sworn to stay alive to see to Servalan's demise, so Tarrant wasn't really concerned about a suicide attempt. Whatever else he thought of Avon, he knew the man kept his word. Of course, Avon might very well intend to die with Servalan.
"It's not that." Asher shook her head and stared at him. She seemed to be trying to send Tarrant a message. He looked back, trying to understand. Obviously something she didn't want to say in front of Avon. He ought to make her reveal it now, but if it would upset Avon...
"What then?" Vila put in, but neither of them answered him. "Might as well be invisible," he said to himself and began investigating the medical stores.
"Vila can watch Avon," Tarrant decided. "Come with me. We've found a break room. And no, Vila, it's not stocked with liquor."
Asher fiddled with her cup of hot coffee. Tarrant waited a few moments and then said, "All right, now you can tell me what you wouldn't tell me in the medical unit."
Asher looked at Tarrant, then away.
He sighed, and came forward, taking both her hands. "I have already promised not to allow anyone to harm you, so long as you do not betray us. Tell me."
"The paralysis may be only a symptom. I suspect the formation of the blood clot is an indication of heart disease. I might have to operate, but he isn't strong enough. I'll need to build him up first. It will take time." She looked up at Tarrant. "He could die. Particularly if he is subjected to any stress."
"Believe me, tying Avon down would be the worst sort of stress." Tarrant frowned and shook his head. "I suppose, as a doctor, there are all sorts of ways you could kill Avon and make it look like an accident. But I don't think you'd do that and not just because we might take it out on you." He gazed at her and tightened the grip on her hands.
Asher blushed. "I'm sorry about the drug. It was only a sedative. I'm frightened what will happen to me once you don't need me any more."
"When Avon is back on his feet, we'll release you on a neutral planet, as I told Councillor Alroy." Tarrant felt sorry for her, but he did remember Piri and her false tears. On the face of it, it seemed unlikely that Alroy had planted Asher on them, but he had known Avon needed a doctor, so he could have reasoned it out. "In the meantime, we will treat you with all the respect due a medical officer."
"But you won't take an injection from me?" Asher said. "I really wasn't lying about Avon needing supplements. That's what I gave him."
"Sorry, no." Tarrant said, "I'll send Dayna or Soolin down to the medical unit in a few minutes so they can run blood tests on us under your direction, but anything you prescribe will be analyzed."
The good ship Midas , which Vila wanted to rename something typically Delta- his current favorites were Star Queen and Rocket- handled well and was fitted out with the latest in autonavigation and hazard avoidance equipment. It was nothing like as sophisticated as poor Slave, let alone Zen, but it was enough so that Tarrant felt it safe to leave the flight deck with Vila on watch. Well, almost. He also left Orac with orders to oversee the ship's computer and the scanners while it continued its search for Servalan.
So far they only had hints and rumors. He wasn't about to risk them on something so tenuous. The hunt was on and Servalan had gone to ground. Personally, Tarrant would be just as happy if some dirtbag bounty hunter took the prize, except for two things. Well, two people actually; Avon and Dayna. They were both obsessed with Servalan and needed the final resolution of her death. Hearing that the bounty had been collected wouldn't satisfy either of them, even if they believed it.
Avon's recovery was slower than Tarrant had expected. Tests had revealed a weakness of his heart that would require surgery. Tarrant had to admit Avon was still gaunt and shaky enough to make Asher's claim that he wouldn't survive the operation believable. He also still couldn't use his legs although Orac had confirmed that the clot had dissolved. The doctor kept trying different combinations of neuro-receptor stimulating drugs. Perhaps Asher was overly cautious, either out of fear of their revenge if Avon died, or out of fear that they might kill her once he was well, despite Tarrant's assurances to the contrary. So long as Orac was satisfied with her efforts, Tarrant was reluctant to press her. If she became desperate... no, he'd just have to be patient.
At the moment, he felt like thinking things over in quiet so he'd taken the watch by himself. It was soothing, sitting in the command seat of a well-running vessel with the gentle hum of obedient machinery all about. It was also nice to be freshly showered, clean-shaven and wearing something fresh, even if it was a Federation officer's uniform minus the insignia. Ah, the simple animal comforts of life.
Orac interrupted his musings. "I have located the subject."
"Good," Tarrant said. "Where is she?"
"Orac. You have been searching for Servalan. I presume that's whom you've found."
"You presume incorrectly. Avon's search has priority."
"Avon's search?" Tarrant had carried Orac into the medical unit in an attempt to interest Avon in something other than wallowing in gloom, but he'd taken precautions. "I told you Avon's orders were to be confirmed by me before you acted on them."
"Your order was subsequent. I was given this directive earlier."
"How much earlier?" He had a bad feeling about this. Almost as if... "Orac, you're not still looking for Blake."
"Is that a question?"
"I am still looking for Blake. The order was never rescinded. Therefore, I must continue to follow the directive."
"But you already found Blake!" Tarrant lowered his voice. Avon was in no condition to leave the med-unit, but he didn't want to upset the others, either. None of them liked to talk about Gauda Prime. "He's dead. Avon killed him on Gauda Prime."
"Interesting. If true."
"Orac, you told us that Blake was on Gauda Prime."
"We went to Gauda Prime."
"We found Blake. I spoke with him."
"What happened, precisely?"
"Before or after Avon shot Blake?" Tarrant asked, bitterly.
"As much as you can recall."
Reluctantly, he cast his memory back. "Scorpio was shot down. The others teleported but I stayed with the ship. Blake found me in the wreckage and after a bit of small talk, blasting a few bounty hunters and tempting me with some jewels, he took me to his base where he proceeded to play me for a fool. He told me he was a bounty hunter and that Avon was particularly valuable to him. I escaped and warned Avon. Blake followed and stood in front of Avon's gun and said 'Avon, it's me'."
"Had his appearance changed so that Avon might not be expected to recognize him?"
"Not really, he still looked like his wanted notice, except for a slashed-up eyelid. I had no difficulty recognizing him. After a few more pleasantries, Avon shot him. The woman who was with Blake introduced herself as a Federation officer. Vila sucker-punched her." Tarrant grinned at that. "Didn't know he had it in him. Anyway, after that Councillor Alroy's bunch of ersatz troopers came in and stunned the rest of us. So Blake couldn't have betrayed Avon."
"What precisely was the 'small talk'?"
"Nothing much. Oh, one thing. He said Jenna Stannis was dead. That she'd self-destructed her ship when faced with a Federation flotilla."
"And what was his manner when he told you this?"
"I had the impression that it was some sort of test. Presumably he wanted to see how I would react to her name."
"Interesting. I shall have to assimilate this data and conduct cross-checks."
"What cross-checks?" When the computer didn't answer, Tarrant repeated, "What cross-checks?"
"There is insufficient data. I refuse to speculate. You will be informed when I have reached a decision."
"Decision as to what?"
"As to the identity of the man who died on Gauda Prime."
"It was Blake!"
"Possibly. That has yet to be confirmed. It may be true. In which case there is another Blake."
"There is another Blake. He is with a woman on a modified pursuit ship which left Gauda Prime approximately two Terran days after the Scorpio's arrival. He is listed as the pilot, however I find that the ship is being piloted by a fairly advanced computer. The man's records are sketchy, beginning not long after Blake's disappearance. The woman's record is even more interesting.There are... inconsistencies. Her identity is in doubt."
Tarrant sat bolt upright. "You think it's Servalan, though. Don't you?"
"I have told you that I refuse to speculate in advance of the data. As yet, the probability is only seventy-nine percent."
"Put the coordinates of that ship in the nav-comp. I want to see its projected course. And plot an interception course for Midas. Keep both courses constantly updated, until such time as you can verify the identities."
"Oh, very well."
If it was Servalan, and she did have a Blake with her, whether the original or not, that would make things difficult. Tarrant almost laughed at himself. Difficult. One thing, he was not letting Avon hear about this. "Orac, don't mention this 'other Blake' to anyone."
"Naturally." Orac nearly sniffed. "I would not have mentioned him to you, had you not insisted."
"Well even if they insist; even if Avon insists, keep quiet. Do you understand?"
"Yes. You do not wish Avon to know that Blake may still be alive."
"That is not what I mean, and you know it."
"If you say so."
Tarrant let it rest at that. He got up and began pacing. He hadn't expected Orac to uncover traces of Servalan so soon. They weren't ready to face her, even without the added complication of a Blake back from the dead. They needed... well, he wasn't sure what they needed. They had any number of hand-weapons, and Midas was heavily armed, far out of proportion for its class. They should be able to take on a pursuit ship, unless the modifications Orac mentioned had been radical. But what if it was another of Servalan's traps? None of them had ever been able to outwit her. She'd got the best of them time after time. Besides, he really hated the thought of killing her at a distance. Pity they didn't have a teleport. But they did have a couple of emergency escape pods. No, that was not a good idea. Even if it wasn't Servalan, whoever flew a Federation pursuit ship would just love to have Tarrant stroll over in a defenceless pod. Then again, if it was Servalan, she liked to toy with her victims, so she would probably take Tarrant aboard to gloat over him. Particularly if he managed to convince her that the others were all dead. She was so sure of her allure that she would probably- well, possibly anyway- think that he had taken Orac and followed her with the intention of joining forces with her. Tarrant mulled it over. It wasn't a very good plan. In fact it was a very stupid plan. That was its sole virtue. It was so very stupid that it would sound like the truth. Could he keep it from the others? Should he?
At that moment, Vila wandered onto the flight deck holding a jug and two glasses. He was wearing a midnight blue suit with scarlet flashes running down the arms and legs. Tarrant sometimes regretted letting Vila look for clothes first while Dayna and Soolin were running the blood tests. By the time Tarrant got a chance to scavenge, all that was left were uniforms, while Vila kept showing up in different brightly colored and comfortable-looking civilian garments. Vila swore there'd been nothing in Tarrant's size, but he had his suspicions. "Want a drink?"
Tarrant accepted the glass. He sniffed the dark - red beverage. He couldn't smell any alcohol, but one never knew with Vila's concoctions. "What are we celebrating?"
"I found the good Councillor's private stock. From Earth, specially imported." Vila took a gulp and choked slightly. "Takes some getting used to, but I think I like it."
Tarrant took a sip, and found himself smiling. "Blackcurrant juice. What, wasn't there enough booze to go around?"
Vila shrugged. "I just didn't feel like it." He scrunched down in the seat next to Tarrant, giving him sidelong glances.
"What are you looking at?"
Vila shrugged again. "I dunno. You're our leader, now, you tell me."
"What do you mean?" Vila was in one of his rare, serious moods, and the novelty caught Tarrant's attention.
"Are you a Blake? Or an Avon? I mean, are you going to lead us gung-ho into battle, risking your neck and ours, just to get the job done? Or are you going to play it so sneaky that you get yourself all tangled up in your plots, and risk our necks anyway?" Vila took another gulp and made a face. "I think I like this stuff."
"I'm neither Blake nor Avon. I'll do my best not to risk any of us."
"How about yourself? Are you going to take on Servalan single-handed to protect us?" Vila spotted Tarrant's reaction and he murmured, "Thought so. Not a good idea. You know, if Blake and Avon had talked to everyone and given us a chance to help make the plans instead of just muddling through after they'd decided what was best, things might have turned out better."
"You can't run a ship like that."
"Why not? I'm not saying that you stop and ask everyone's opinion in the middle of a battle, but when you're planning a mission, you've got time. Soolin knows a lot about fighting and she's learned all sorts of things from that tricky bastard, Dorian. Dayna may not be as experienced, but she's got a right to be in on this, too. And Avon. If you leave Avon out of this..." Vila looked away.
"What? He'll try to kill me?"
"He'd probably make it look that way, but you know he's only waiting for a chance to die. Maybe he can't kill himself, but he could easy pull a gun on you and force you to do it for him. I used to really like him, you know. Before. You get used to people after a while. I even got used to you. And that's why I couldn't let you set yourself up that way. You'd kill him, and you'd be miserable. Dayna would be miserable. Soolin would go all icy-cold, and I'd be left with the lot of you picking on me." Vila finished off his juice. "So, are you going to tell us, or not?"
Tarrant gulped the rest of his juice. "I'd rather not." Vila looked disappointed, but not surprised. He reached over to take Tarrant's empty glass, rising to leave, but Tarrant stopped him. "We can't tell Avon. Not yet. Not this." He took a deep breath and began revealing all of Orac's little secrets.
Dayna was skeptical. "I don't trust Orac. I think he deliberately set us up." She frowned at Orac, which was unable to defend itself- if it had cared to- because Tarrant still held the activation key in his hand.
Tarrant rubbed his chin. "You mean when he wouldn't let Slave warn us about the blockade, don't you?"
Dayna nodded, making her new earrings dance. Asher had given her a gold jumpsuit, liberally decorated with over-sized zippers, some in the oddest places, and earrings to match. No one speculated out loud just why the doctor had such an... interesting... wardrobe, but Tarrant had modified his opinion of Alroy's stodginess.
Tarrant couldn't decide whether or not Soolin had done better with her slinky purple leather outfit which was accessorized with a whip. Vila had been sent to Avon-sit, as he called it, with Dr. Asher, so she and Tarrant and Soolin were alone on the flight deck.
Dayna said,"Orac told Avon that Gauda Prime was trying to normalize their status in the Federation. Wouldn't Avon have asked about the planet's security forces? Orac had to have lied to him."
"Computers can't lie," Tarrant reminded her.
"But Orac can certainly mislead. How many times has it got us into trouble by following orders the way it wants to?"
Soolin put in, "You do recall Helotrix? When Orac gave our location away to the Federation by accessing their computer? Avon said it was just that Orac was too lazy to do the work himself, but I can't believe Orac couldn't have covered his traces. It's as if he wanted us to get caught."
Tarrant was thoughtful now. "You two think that Orac has betrayed us? Why?"
"Perhaps it simply doesn't like us," Soolin said.
"Does it matter why?" Dayna asked. "I'd like to toss Orac out the airlock. We'd be safer."
"No." Tarrant shook his head. "Even if we can't trust it, we still need it." He supposed it was easier for Dayna to blame Orac than Avon for Gauda Prime, but Avon hadn't been... well, it was entirely possible that Orac had warned Avon, and Avon had disregarded it, even gone so far as to order Orac not to tell them. "One thing Orac cannot do is lie to a direct question. Avon told me that once. You just have to get the question right. Why don't we ask Orac why it didn't warn us?"
Dayna's eyes dropped. "No. What does it matter now?"
So she wasn't sure, either. "It matters if you think Orac is leading us into another trap." He held up Orac's key. "We have to know."
Dayna looked at Soolin who nodded. Dayna frowned, but said,"Ask him, then."
Tarrant slipped in the key. Orac whined, but said nothing. "Orac, did you know about the blockade surrounding Gauda Prime before we were attacked?" There, that seemed direct enough.
"Certainly." The computer sounded insulted. "I intercepted messages from the command ship to its subsidiaries several days previously."
"Did you tell Avon?"
"Why not?" Dayna asked, exasperated.
"Because he did not ask. Once I informed him that Blake was a bounty hunter on the planet Gauda Prime, he requested no further information." Orac made grumbling noises. "In point of fact, I attempted to supply further information. It was logical to assume that the course of action Avon proposed was highly dangerous. Indeed, it might even have resulted in my destruction." Orac paused, then added, "He was behaving in a most unreasonable fashion."
Dayna looked even more unhappy. "We know," she said softly. Her shoulders straightened. "Well, if it wasn't Orac's fault, then maybe that really is Servalan we're following."
"Identity has now been confirmed to ninety-nine point nine seven percent."
"It is Servalan!"
"I believe that is what I just said."
"So we go after her," Soolin remarked. "I'll be glad to get it over with."
"She's mine, remember!" Dayna said fiercely.
Soolin nodded. "I understand. I'll back your play, however you want to kill her. This time she's not going to sweet-talk her way out of it." The look she gave Tarrant was chilling. "No matter what she offers, she's dead."
"I already swore to kill her," Tarrant said, annoyed. "But I'm not going to let emotion get us killed. We plan this carefully and we carry it out coolly. You hear me, Dayna? You want to be the one to kill her, all right, but don't get yourself killed in the bargain. She's not worth it. I won't lose you over her. And I don't know what we'll do about this Blake fellow."
Soolin said, "It's obvious, isn't it? We'll have to take him alive. Servalan belongs to Dayna, but Blake's Avon's."
Tarrant wished he had Soolin's certainty. All he was sure of was that this would not be simple. Nothing involving Servalan ever was. "All right. Orac says Servalan's heading for the planet Sumner's Folly. It's a mercenary recruiting station and pirate planet. If we're going to do anything, it would be best to intercept her before she can purchase allies. Anyone have any ideas?" He looked at the matching gleams in Dayna's and Soolin's eyes, and knew he was going to regret this. Still, at least they were working as a team once more.
Vila picked up a couple of small objects and began idly juggling them. "You know," he said to Asher, who was sitting at the medical computer console, intently studying a print-out of blood-chemistry workups, "I could get Avon right up out of that bed in a second, if I tried."
Asher glanced up at him, but didn't say anything.
"I mean, Orac says he can get up. I think he just doesn't want to. He's lazy," Vila confided, leaning over toward Asher, but keeping a wary eye on Avon who was lying a bit too still to be asleep.
"Really?" Asher asked, without looking at Vila.
"Oh, really. Why me and Tarrant, we did all the work on Scorpio. Mostly me, come to think of it. Why, if I told you all the things I was in charge of..."
Avon said, without opening his eyes, "you'd be lying." Avon opened his eyes then and stared upward at the ceiling.
Asher said, "The test results are good. Blood circulation appears completely normal, and blood-chemistry falls well within the normal range."
"In fact, as Vila says, there is nothing wrong with me, isn't that it? The only reason I do not rise from this bed is that I am insane."
Asher hesitated before replying. "I was trained as a surgeon," she finally stated, "but there were a number of required psychological courses. I don't believe you are insane."
Avon looked at her for a moment, then gave her a non-smile. "Your opinion is in the minority." He shut his eyes again.
Vila shrugged. "Well, as I was saying, I could get him out of that bed in a minute, but nothing will ever make Avon the life of the party."
"No, that won't work either," Tarrant said wearily. "We can't intercept Servalan before she reaches Sumner's Folly and once she's there, we can't attack her ship." He was beginning to understand why Avon, and Blake before him, according to Vila, hadn't discussed missions ahead of time. Vila didn't want them to do anything remotely dangerous while Dayna didn't want to consider anything except the immediate slaughter of Servalan. He supposed he should be glad he didn't have to include Dr. Asher and Avon in the meeting. Or Soolin, who was watching Asher and Avon to make sure neither of them got up to mischief. At least he could trust Soolin not to tell Avon what they were planning- if they ever did come up with a plan.
"Why not?" Vila asked idly. Tarrant was fairly sure he'd only come to the meeting as an excuse to avoid sitting with Avon who was currently delirious from reaction to the medication. There were things being said that would be easier for Soolin to ignore.
"Well, besides the chance of killing Blake-"
Dayna interrupted, "We don't know it's Blake with Servalan. And if it is Blake, he's with Servalan, and I don't see why we should be concerned about his safety."
Vila argued, "You can't think he wants to be with her."
"Why not? You haven't seen him for years. You don't know he hasn't switched sides. Maybe he did set us up on Gauda Prime, sacrificing a look-alike because he knew Avon would see right through him."
"Avon couldn't see his way through a porthole! Avon's-" Vila was interrupted by Dayna launching herself across the flight deck at his throat.
Tarrant reached out an arm as she went past and snagged her by the collar, ducking as she turned on him. "Look, can we concentrate on killing Servalan first, and then each other?"
Dayna scowled, but backed down. Vila scrunched down in his seat, trying to look harmless.
Tarrant said,"You're both missing the point I was trying to make. It doesn't matter who's on that ship. Sumner's Folly is a pirate world. It's a designated free port for mercenaries." Dayna and Vila were wearing matching expressions of 'so?' Tarrant shook his head. "They protect any ship that comes within their sphere of influence, as a matter of policy. No space confrontations are allowed. Every ship in port, or in orbit, or in the system, would be told to attack us five seconds after we opened fire, and they would, in order to keep from being black-listed themselves."
"What do you expect us to do, then? Watch her recruit more killers to take over the Federation again? Will it be easier to kill her when she's surrounded by armed guards?" Dayna was frustrated and showing it, with fists balled on her hips as she stalked the flight deck.
"I said 'no space confrontations are allowed'."
A smile slowly blossomed on Dayna's face. "You mean, once she's on the planet, she's fair game?"
"Well,- fairish. Officially, it would be frowned on, but if we were quiet about it..."
"That means, no bombs," Vila put in helpfully.
"What if, for example, she was to fall on my knife in a dark alley, and maybe bounce a few times?" Dayna asked.
Tarrant agreed. "Accidents do happen." He wasn't entirely happy about the proposed assassination, but Dayna had been looking forward to it for such a long time that he hadn't the heart to say so.
Dayna nodded. "So, it's easy then. We land. I track down Servalan, and that's the end of it."
"You track down Servalan? All by yourself?" Tarrant queried.
"Well, I have noticed that you boys don't really have your hearts in it." Dayna gave Tarrant a dirty look. "Something about male hormones, I suspect."
Vila sat up straight in indignation. "Now, that's not fair. I've never been tempted by her."
"Oh?" Tarrant grinned. "Does that say something about your male hormones?"
"It says something about my common sense," Vila retorted. "I don't play with tigers."
"You don't know what you're missing."
"Sleep with Servalan, and who knows what you might wake up missing."
"If anyone wants to sleep with Servalan, they'd better do it quickly, because I am not going to listen to any more excuses." Dayna slipped a knife from her boot and studied the edge before putting it back. "No more 'wait, Dayna, now's not the right time'. Now is the right time. The Federation has set the dogs on her and I have to get there first. It has to be me that does it."
"Avon might argue with you there," Tarrant said quietly.
"No." Dayna looked into Tarrant's eyes. "We can't wait for him to recover." She was adamant that Avon would recover. "I'll think of my father and Cally and Avon while I do it."
"So, it's still just revenge," Tarrant said, sadly.
"Yes. A very just revenge. When I strike, I'll be avenging millions. I'll feel their hands beside mine on the knife."
"Would your father approve?"
Dayna frowned. "No. He probably wouldn't even understand. But I have to do it." Abruptly she turned. "I'm going to my cabin. We don't need any more planning."
Vila looked at Dayna's retreating back, then over at Tarrant. "So what's the plan?"
Tarrant stared at Vila.
Soolin had once more taken an extra turn in the med. unit with Avon and the doctor, leaving Tarrant on the flight deck with Vila and Dayna for the final approach and landing. Tarrant wondered sometimes if their ice-princess was attracted to Avon. Then again, she might simply have wanted to avoid the bickering. Dayna grew more high-strung and Vila more morose the closer they came to the planet. And Tarrant... well, he was avoiding spending too much time in Asher's company. She was a dangerous combination for him- pretty and vulnerable. That might affect his judgment and he couldn't afford that. Not when he was the leader and they were all depending on him.
From orbit, Sumner's Folly looked like any other gray-green, habitable, if not particularly welcoming, planet. That is, if you didn't count the number of heavily armed vessels orbiting while awaiting their turn for landing clearance. There was only a single port with a limited number of berths, but there were several other burned-off and plast-creted areas just outside the 'city' suitable for putting a ship down, provided you were willing to do without the standard amenities. Quite a few visitors preferred these out-of-the-way sites.
Tarrant chose one of them for Midas over Dayna's objections. Orac said Servalan had landed in the port two days previously. Dayna wanted to berth at the port, as close as possible to Servalan's ship. "We can't land on top of her, Dayna," Tarrant said, exasperated. "She might recognize Midas. After all, it did belong to a High Councillor and it's not exactly inconspicuous."
"I'll say," Vila commented. He was sitting on the flight deck, ostentatiously drinking a glass of fruit juice.
"You'll say what?" Tarrant asked. He was quite willing to play straight man for Vila. Anything to distract Dayna.
"I'll say that we don't want to get the Supreme Ex-Ruler of the Known Universe suspicious. Just sneak in, do it, and sneak out again." He frowned. "If we can. She's almost as paranoid as," Vila said, indicating the rear of the ship with a casual flip of the hand holding the juice, "him."
"True." Tarrant looked sternly at Dayna. "Do we have clearance for the vector I requested?"
Reluctantly, Dayna turned her attention back to the communication's console. After a moment she nodded. "Yes. But if she gets away again, Tarrant..."
"If she does, we'll go after her." Tarrant met Dayna's eyes. "I've sworn to kill her, not to get us killed doing it. Now take your positions and advise Soolin we're going in."
It wasn't one of Tarrant's better landings. Without a transmission tower, he had to rely on Vila monitoring all ground-traffic while Dayna relayed a communications warning to clear their designated landing pad. He was tense, remembering other mercenary landing fields with sloppy discipline. He'd had to veer off at the last second on more than one occasion because some fool was occupying his assigned slot. This time the path was clear, but the plast-crete was broken into uneven slabs and there was some lurching before Midas's landing 'legs' compensated. Tarrant checked that there was no damage, reported his landing to the authorities and was just rising to his feet when the internal ship's com. sounded.
"Tarrant," Soolin said, "you'd better get down here."
"Avon?" Was it his heart? Had the landing killed him?
"He wants to talk to you."
Then he couldn't be too badly off. "Can't it wait?"
"No, I don't... Avon! Lie down. Tarrant's coming."
It sounded like he was getting upset. That couldn't be good for him. "Yes, all right. I'll be right there." Tarrant turned to the other two. "Dayna, you stay here and watch the monitors. I mean it," he said, reading the intent behind her frown. "I don't trust any of these mercenaries as far as I could throw their ships. Midas is a tempting target. Vila, you come with me." He expected a protest, but Vila got up and accompanied him readily.
"All right," Tarrant started, as he came through the med-unit door, "What is it?"
"Is she here?" Avon asked. He was sitting up in bed, ignoring Soolin's hands on his shoulders and Dr. Asher's fingers on his wrist. The fever-flush had faded, leaving him pale with his eyes seeming even darker than usual. Then again, the Federation trooper outfit he was wearing might have emphasized his pallor. Unlike Tarrant, he could have had a choice of garments, as he and Vila were not too dissimilar in size, but he wanted the black. It might have been meant as mourning, but no one would ask. There were too many people to mourn.
"Who?" Silently, Tarrant cursed the rough landing and Asher's refusal to sedate Avon for it. He hadn't wanted this confrontation. No matter what he said, it would hurt Avon.
Avon's mouth twisted. "Don't," he said shortly.
Tarrant came closer, examining Avon's face carefully before he decided on his reply. "Yes, we think she is."
Avon tensed. "Get me to her."
"I don't care how. I have got to be there, Tarrant."
"No. It just isn't possible. Be reasonable for once. Let Dayna do it. Servalan has no guards. All we have to do is get her out of her ship for a moment. Orac's been monitoring her calls, we know who she's expecting. We'll just fake a reply and she'll walk right into our hands."
Avon laughed and Tarrant winced at the raw edge of near-hysteria. Abruptly Avon stopped laughing and said, "You don't really think it will be that easy? This is Servalan. She is not merely devious, she is a genius at misdirection. Where are we?"
"A mercenary world. Sumner's Folly. She's here to recruit..." Tarrant's words trailed off at Avon's cynical smirk.
"I don't think so. Why did she really come here? What is she planning? Who is her latest dupe? Ah," Avon said as Tarrant's eyes widened. "So, you do have at least one answer. Who is with her?"
"It doesn't matter, Avon." Tarrant looked over Avon's shoulder at Asher. "You're getting too worked-up. You need your rest."
Asher apparently agreed, as she produced a filled hypodermic. She nodded to Soolin, who looked grim but tightened her grip on his shoulders.
Avon realized what they intended and twisted away from Soolin. He grabbed Asher's arm and fought to keep her and Soolin away. "Tarrant! You brought me along to think like Servalan! Damn you, let me try! You can't..." His grip was weakening and Soolin had him lying on the bed once more. Tarrant grabbed Avon's ankles in an attempt to straighten him out. Even without the use of his legs, Avon was thrashing too much for them to inject him safely.
"Vila!" Soolin snapped, "Come here and help."
"No," Vila said, without moving from the doorway. "He's right. Tarrant, you know he's right."
"But he's not up to it."
Asher added, "I really do believe the stress could kill him." She didn't say anything more specific than that, but they all knew what she meant. Just mentioning Servalan's name made his blood pressure rise.
"And Servalan won't?" Vila mocked. "It won't do Avon much good if we all get killed and Servalan gets her hands on him. Come to that, getting killed won't do me any good."
Asher hesitated and looked toward Tarrant.
Tarrant released Avon's ankles. If they kept fighting him, he probably would have a heart attack. "Much as I hate to admit it, Vila does have a point." He frowned at Avon. "Although you've not had much luck outwitting her in the past."
Soolin and Asher loosened their grips. Avon gave Tarrant an icy stare. "Ah, but that was before I went mad. Now I fully understand her."
Tarrant opened his mouth to protest, then shut it. "I'll bring Orac and let him tell you everything we know. If you have any suggestions after that, I'll be glad to hear them."
"That's the best I'll promise. I'll listen to your ideas." He turned to leave, then hesitated and said, "Avon. We need her dead. Just that. Nothing fancy, no long-drawn out plots, just something quick and fatal."
" I'll see what I can do."
"What! You want me to wait again!" Dayna was not taking the news well.
Tarrant picked up Orac from the flight deck console. "Avon wants you to wait."
Vila had wandered in, retrieved his juice and took a quick gulp. "C'mon, Dayna, be fair. Avon wants to help plan Servalan's farewell party."
Dayna threw her hands up in the air. "All I need is two minutes alone with her! Why does everything have to be so complicated!" She stalked off the flight deck, still fuming.
"She does have a point there," Vila said.
"Everybody has a point these days. Watch the monitors, Vila." Tarrant was already regretting his agreement, mulling over the possible consequences as he took Orac to the med.-unit. Should he rescind his order for Orac to keep quiet about Servalan's 'Blake'? Was Avon stable enough to learn that? Vitamins and neuro-tonics had lessened Avon's suicidal depression, but he still hadn't come to terms with having killed Blake, still had hallucinations in which he talked to Blake, offering apologies and accusation in fairly equal amounts. But what if Servalan did have some plan for her 'Blake' ? Come to that, Servalan must have something in mind for him, else why would she drag him along when she was running for her life? Avon would have to know all the facts, even the dangerous ones.
"Here's your little friend, Avon," Tarrant said as he deposited Orac on Avon's bedside table. He put the key in and told Orac, "Avon wants to know everything you told us about Servalan. Including her 'companion'."
"You are rescinding your previous restrictions?"
"Yes." Tarrant looked at Avon. His eyes had narrowed in sudden suspicion, but he seemed calm enough, although irritated. Tarrant decided that Avon really shouldn't be forced to hear this before an audience. Orac had been given standing orders to monitor the medical unit and alert them if Avon was in any physical distress. If it could do that from the flight deck, it certainly could from the medical unit. Tarrant waved to Soolin and Asher. "Come."
"But," Asher protested, "what if...".
"If I need anything, I will use the intercom," Avon said. He looked from Asher to Tarrant. "Thank you."
"No problem. Avon... I'm trusting you. You do know that?"
Avon gave him a weary grin. "No, you're manipulating me. But it's all right. I do not intend to leave this existence while Servalan lives."
"Well?" Tarrant had sent the women on to the flight deck while he waited in the corridor expecting to hear some reaction from Avon to the revelations, possibly in the form of smashed furnishings, but it had been quiet. Perhaps too quiet? Finally, he couldn't stand the suspense and came in, only to find Avon sitting beside his bed in the make-shift wheeled chair Dayna and Vila had created for him. He was setting out a tray with glasses and a large bottle containing one of Vila's now- infamous fruit punches. His expression was almost cheerful.
"Well is not a question," Avon replied, smiling."I can't believe you were actually going to allow Dayna to go after Servalan single-handed." He shook his head.
"No, actually I was going to allow Dayna to go first, but Soolin and I would have been right behind."
"Even better. Three lambs to the slaughter. And what of Vila?"
"Well, someone had to stay to watch Asher."
"To watch me, you mean," Avon said, without rancor. He began filling the glasses. "Call the others. We're celebrating."
"Isn't it a bit premature?" Avon's eyes met his. For once there were neither shadows, nor the glitter of pent-up rage. Apparently, the shock had been what Avon needed. Maybe they'd been wrong to wrap him up in cotton-wool. Avon had always been a fighter. He wasn't one for idle social pleasantries, either. He must be trying to show that he belonged with them, maybe to distance himself from Servalan's 'Blake'. Tarrant hesitated for an instant, then accepted the glass. He went to the intercom to call the others. They would discuss their options as a team.
"Perhaps." Avon held up his glass, and admired the ruby-red color. "But I feel like celebrating."
Tarrant grinned. He had his own theories as to the cause of Avon's continued paralysis. He thought Avon would walk the day he knew that Servalan was dead. "I take it this means you have a plan?"
"Oh, yes, an excellent one. Even Orac has agreed that it will most likely work out exactly as I envision it." He looked down at the key in his hand, and laid it down on the table beside the computer. "But I would prefer to explain it myself. For all its abilities, Orac can not be said to have a gift for oratory."
"And you aren't going to tell me your plan until we're all here."
"And have had a drink."
"It's that kind of plan?" Tarrant asked.
Avon smiled again, and again it was almost a normal smile. A bit too bright perhaps, but that could just be excitement. "Let's just say, a little chemical cushioning wouldn't go amiss."
"All right. I promised to listen, but remember, you have to convince us."
Avon nodded. "Yes, the days of my order-giving are over. I had noticed, Tarrant." He raised his glass in a salute, but didn't drink from it.
Tarrant flushed. "Avon, it wasn't..."
"I know what it was. Survival. That is what it's all about isn't it? I should be the last to censure you." Avon's eyes went blank, briefly, before he blinked and smiled again. "But let's not dredge up the past. This is a happy occasion."
Dayna came in with the others as Avon was speaking, and she said, hopefully, "Because Servalan will soon be dead?"
"What else is there?" Dayna asked.
Vila looked at Avon, knowingly. "Blake. You want Servalan's Blake."
Avon shrugged. "Why not? Even a reasonable facsimile ought to be useful." He lifted his glass. "Here's to Servalan. Long may she rot." He tossed his drink back in one gulp.
"I'll drink to that," Dayna replied and followed suit. Vila, Soolin and Tarrant eyed Avon's slightly manic grin, exchanged concerned glances, and drank.
"Come, now," Avon urged Asher. "I know you aren't with us, but you can't say you approve of Servalan either?"
"No, that's true. Councillor Alroy told me too much about her." Dr. Asher drank, too.
Avon sighed. "Well, now, my plan can begin."
"You mean, you can tell us your pl... plan," Tarrant said, trying to sound firm, but his tongue was not cooperating.
"Yes, of course, that is what I meant," Avon said. "Why don't you sit down? In fact, why don't you all sit down."
Soolin shook her head suddenly. "Avon! You didn't!" she said, just before her knees buckled. Dayna tried to catch her, but she went down, too.
"Ah, yes. I am rather afraid I did," Avon replied softly.
Asher turned her head to the medicine cabinet, noticing the smashed lock. "What?" she asked before crumpling.
"AVON! No!" Tarrant staggered, but made it to Avon's wheelchair where he hung onto the arms for a moment, staring into Avon's pale face before sinking to the deck. Avon shook his head, then looked up at Vila who was standing with legs outstretched, clinging to the doorframe.
"Don'. 'von, don'. She'll kill you." And then even Vila's drug-resistant body surrendered.
"But, Vila," Avon said softly, "I'm already dead." He slipped Orac's key back into place in the computer. "Orac. You have your orders. You will comply."
"As Tarrant has rescinded all his previous orders, including the one which required him to confirm your orders, I must obey. However, I should like to point out that this is suicidal."
"How very human of you, Orac. You are stating the obvious. Just keep this ship, and these fools, safely out of my way. I don't care what you have to do to accomplish it. You're linked into Midas' weaponry and navigation. You can fly her and you can fight. If that isn't enough, take over the main control tower and set these ships against each other. Whatever it takes. That is my final order to you."
"And when they ask what has happened to you?" Orac sounded uncertain.
"Tell them. I shall be beyond caring about it."
"Not necessarily. There is still a point zero-zero-two percent probability..."
"Of what? That Servalan will choose to kill me slowly instead of quickly? It doesn't matter. One way or the other, I will be with Blake. I pay my debts, Orac. Always." He nodded once more and began maneuvering the wheeled-chair around the unconscious bodies. "How long until the flier arrives?"
"Three minutes. Goodbye, Avon," Orac said softly.
There was no way to get the wheeled-chair into the flier, so Avon abandoned it and crawled up into the flier, using his arms to drag himself into it. A few mercenaries were attracted by the show but there was nothing wrong with the gun he'd 'borrowed' from Soolin and nothing much wrong with his aim. So he might have blown off a head while he was trying for a leg. Close enough. It impressed them with his sincere desire for privacy.
He dismissed them from his mind the instant the flier lifted. They could shoot him down, but he had no valuables they could see and they'd be charged for the rental flier, so why bother, unless they wanted revenge for their careless friend. That seemed unlikely as they were already picking over the carcass for loot. As soon as he cleared the area, Midas lifted-off, crisping a few slow pirates. He glanced upward at the sudden roar, then turned his attention back to the flier.
The port wasn't particularly impressive, and neither was Servalan's ship. Avon overrode the traffic-rules set in the flier's primitive computer-brain and set down ten meters in front of the dusty black pursuit ship. At one time it had possessed identification, but that area of the hull had been conveniently scraped by space-dust down to the bare metal. He wondered idly if she'd given the ship a name. Somehow, it seemed important. He had set her ship's communicator frequency on the flier, and activated it now. "Servalan. Before I blast you and your ship to atoms, would you mind greatly telling me if you've named it?"
"Avon," Servalan's answer came quickly. Her voice was distorted by the flier's tinny speaker, but he judged that she sounded startled.
Avon grinned to himself. "Ah, you weren't expecting me? I'm insulted. You should have known nothing would keep me from your side."
"Yes. Of course, Avon. But what about your friends?"
Avon glanced upward at the gray sky. "I have no friends. You know that very well. Neither have you. The two of us are alone." He fiddled with the small electronic gadget he'd built while in the med-unit. They'd not allowed him anything dangerous, of course, but his toy produced emissions which should convince Servalan he possessed a weapon powerful enough to destroy her ship. He grinned once more. With any luck, she'd come out of the ship to try to use her sexual allure on him and he'd be able to use Soolin's gun on her.
"No, Avon. We're not. I do have one friend of yours with me, on my ship. You wouldn't want to kill him again, would you, Avon?" she purred.
Avon's eyes glittered. This was it. She would show him her Blake, and he would kill him. Kill the false Blake to pay for the real one. Or the real one to pay for the false. It worked out much the same either way.
"Oh, and you wanted to know my ship's name? I let our mutual friend name it. Tell him, dear."
Another voice came over the speaker. It was a male voice, deep and resonant, almost rhythmic in its cadences. "I call it Liberator."
Ah, that wasn't fair, reminding him of the other great thing he'd once had. "Well, now, I am about to call it rubble." He flicked a switch on his toy, sending out false signals of power-build-up. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw people running to other ships, preparing to lift-off out of range of the expected blast. He grinned. This was proving to be even more entertaining than he had imagined.
"Blake! Stop him!"
Oh, marvelous. If he managed everything just so, he could get Blake to kill him. A warm glow of satisfaction at the absolute perfection of the symmetry filled his stomach and relaxed his tense muscles.
The hatch opened and a tall figure filled it, back-lit by the ship's internal lighting. The outline was right. The figure descended and the walk was right. The man came out of the shadows and the face was Blake, crowned by that inimitable tangle of rebellious hair. Android? Clone? Some poor mind-wiped sap re-built to order? Avon worked on the puzzle idly, not really trying for an answer. A difference which makes no difference is no difference. He lifted the gun and said, "Stop. Or I'll shoot."
Blake smiled and continued walking. "No. I don't think so."
"I'll do it. I will! Stop!" But his hand was shaking. This was too much like Blake, like that other time.
Blake reached the flier and opened the door. "No. You won't shoot me. Not again." He brushed the gun aside and reached in to pick up Avon. "We saw you on Gauda Prime, Avon. Before, and after."
Avon struggled, but Blake merely turned his head aside from the flailing blows. He pulled Avon out of the flier and began carrying him back to Servalan's ship.
Inside the ship, Servalan smiled. "Oh, Avon. You made it all so easy." She sent a message on a frequency she knew Orac monitored. It read, "I have Avon and Blake. Follow me if you want them back." And her smile grew.
Someone was kicking him in the ribs. "No," Tarrant protested and twitched, managing to roll aside a few inches, but the foot followed him.
Another kick followed. Blearily, Tarrant opened his eyes. "Vila?"
"Get up!" Vila shouted, at least Tarrant's sore head interpreted the hoarse whisper as a shout.
Tarrant closed his eyes again as memory flooded back. Avon. "Avon. He's gone?" The kicking stopped and Vila crouched down beside Tarrant. Vila was wobbly in the knees but his face was set, all traces of the light-hearted joker vanished.
"You know it."
Tarrant sat up with a bit of help. He massaged his aching neck and looked around Midas's med-unit. Soolin and Dayna were still unconscious, and while Dr. Asher's green eyes were open and gazing in his direction, she obviously wasn't fully aware. "Wonderful. And where are we?" He staggered to his feet, using Vila as a convenient support. Midas was maneuvering in space. That much he could tell even in a drugged stupor.
Vila shrugged. "Not on Sumner's Folly."
Orac was twinkling away on the table where Avon had left it. The key was already in place, so Tarrant said, "Orac! Where are we? What did Avon do? And why did you let him do it?"
"In what order do you wish your questions to be answered?" Orac's irritating voice was not improved by a massive drug hangover, Tarrant found. Judging by Vila's wince, the thief agreed with him.
"Oh, very well. We are currently orbiting the planet Terronis in Sector 42.98. Avon has implemented his plan to destroy Servalan. And you rescinded your orders."
"Including the ones restricting Avon's authority over you." Tarrant groaned and started out of the room, staggering at first. Over his shoulder, he said, "Vila, see if you can wake the others, then bring Orac and meet me on the flight deck."
Vila looked down at Dayna and Soolin and decided against using the same method he had on Tarrant. It wasn't chivalrous. It also was likely to get his head blown off. "Stimulants?" he decided. He recognized a small green vial in the nearest medical cabinet and peered owlishly at the label. Orac confirmed it was a harmless stimulant and advised him on the proper dosage.
"Midas's flight deck appeared unchanged except for the view. The blue-green planet on the monitor was much more attractive than the dirty plast-crete of their landing pad on Sumner's Folly. It was much safer, too. For them. Tarrant stood beside the navigation console, checking their flight record automatically, while his mind was in turmoil. What the hell could Avon think he could accomplish against Servalan by himself? He couldn't even stand up! He must have been out of his... Tarrant slammed a hand down onto the nearest console.
"Don't do that," Dayna moaned, coming up behind him. "Ooh, my head hurts." She slumped into the nearest seat, and began massaging her temples.
"Sorry," Tarrant replied, absently, as he got his temper under control and finished scanning the log.
"Where is he? I'll kill him," Soolin said as she entered, with Vila's arm around her waist half- supporting her. Astonishingly enough, Vila wasn't taking advantage of the situation. Dr. Asher was a half step behind them, looking steadier on her feet than either of them.
Tarrant replied, "We're half a quadrant away from Sumner's Folly."
"What makes you think he's still there?" Vila asked. "Or even alive." Dayna scowled at him, but didn't rise to the attack. "You know he was... well, he was going after Servalan and he wasn't exactly up to it, was he? She got him."
"We don't know that!" Dayna snapped.
"We don't?" Vila replied, raising his eyebrows.
"Avon could have killed her," Dayna said defensively.
"We have to face facts, Dayna," Tarrant put in. " He couldn't walk, and even if his heart didn't give out, he didn't have a weapon..." He paused, taking in the peculiar expression on Dayna's face. "Did he? You didn't give him a gun." Midas did have a fairly well-stocked armory, along with all the little luxuries, but he hadn't thought even Dayna would have given a semi-suicidal Avon a gun.
"No of course not." Dayna said, a bit too quickly.
Soolin had already quietly replaced the weapon Avon took from her and saw no need to mention it. An ordinary gun against Servalan wasn't much, after all. But Dayna's reaction hinted at more. "So what did you give him?" she asked.
"Well. He was depressed, you know, and I thought I could interest him in my latest project." Dayna squirmed. "And I didn't notice until later that some of it, well, went missing."
"Some of what?" Tarrant asked, a sinking feeling in his stomach telling him that he really didn't want to know the answer.
Dayna took a deep breath. "Some tri-toulenenitro-neo-cellulose. It was only a few ounces. You couldn't do much with it."
"You could build a small bomb with it," Tarrant said softly.
"But none of the remote detonators are missing! I checked. The only other way to set it off would be by temperature change. You'd have to bring it up to thirty-seven degrees and then cool it to twenty degrees."
"Thirty-seven degrees. That's body temperature," Soolin commented. "A corpse is room temperature- about twenty. You're describing a deadman switch."
"No," Dayna whispered, horrified.
Vila nodded. "He would, you know. If he thought it would get Servalan. He knew she'd have to see his body, and gloat over it. I wouldn't put necrophilia beyond her, either. Oh, I hope he got her. Be the best thing he'd ever done. Cally would have liked it. She always wanted a companion for her death."
"Before we start the eulogy, let's check it out," Tarrant said. "Where's Orac?"
"The doc's got him," Vila said, pointing behind himself at Asher, who had been silently observing.
"Vila!" Tarrant scolded as he snatched the computer from the doctor, who gave it up gladly, rubbing her arms in relief.
"What? What was she going to do, run away with him? Nobody's that crazy. Except maybe Avon. Only he's dead now, isn't he? I think I need a drink." Vila sat down heavily at the weapon's console. He shook his head. "Funny. I never thought I'd miss that bastard."
"Vila, shut up," Soolin said firmly.
"Before I shut you up!" Dayna added.
Tarrant put the computer down on the nearest work surface, noted that the key was still in place, and said, "Orac, did Avon make a deadman bomb?"
"Against my advice, yes, he did. He implanted it under his skin of his left forearm."
"And you would know if it has exploded?" Tarrant asked, his voice harsh. He'd never actually liked Avon, but he'd admired the man's abilities and that unique personality had intrigued him, even as it irritated. If Avon was gone, there would be so many unanswered questions, so many unfought arguments.
Stunned, Tarrant let out his breath in a 'whoosh', as the others reacted, each in their own ways, to the news. Dayna began crying and Soolin's cool veneer slipped to reveal white-hot anger, while Vila's face crumpled. Asher's face went white and she put her hand up to her mouth.
"I can't believe it. Avon's dead," Tarrant said, after a long shocked moment.
"Of course not," Orac said, huffily.
"But," Vila said, "you said the bomb exploded! It was in his arm! He couldn't have lived through that!" He was pale, and turning greenish at the thought of Avon splattered all over.
Orac made a noise rather like an impatient sigh. "I did not say the bomb exploded. I agreed that I would know if it had exploded. In point of fact, it has not."
"Orac, I am going to put a bomb in you one of these days!" Dayna said, angrily.
"Avon already did," Vila supplied. "I bet we could find the trigger frequency, if we really tried."
Soolin came close to stand over Orac. "I think perhaps we ought to try."
Tarrant said, "Orac. Shall I let them?"
"Really. There is no need to resort to threat."
"Oh, but you respond so well to them," Tarrant said softly. "Now, make yourself useful. What do you know about Avon's current situation?"
"Servalan sent this message - 'I have Avon and Blake. Follow me if you want them back.' "
"And you only now got around to giving us the message?" Dayna asked.
"Avon had ordered your safety. There was a strong possibility that listening to this message would induce you to behave in an irrational, dangerous manner."
Tarrant grinned and leaned over the computer. "Orac, you know us so well. Now, tell us where to find Servalan."
For the first time, Asher spoke up, "But Avon could still be dead. It could be a trap."
"We're talking about Servalan. Of course it's a trap!" Vila said.
Tarrant nodded. "Probably."
Asher glanced at the viewscreen. "Terronis is neutral. You could drop me off here."
"But what about Avon?" Dayna asked, "He still needs the operation."
"If he's still alive," Asher said.
"I'm sorry," Tarrant shook his head. "We don't have time for detours. Now, Orac, where is Servalan?"
"Avon, Avon, Avon," Servalan said, in a gently chiding tone of voice. "You were a very naughty boy." She picked up a small plasti-wrapped device delicately between her fingers. "A deadman bomb. How untrusting. You should know me better than that."
"I do," Avon said softly, glaring at her with all the strength left in his body. He'd awakened strapped down to a medical gurney with an ache in his left arm and a burning hatred in his heart. He'd failed again and the viper still lived to poison the universe. "You're not sentimental about useless items. Once the shine is off your new toys, they're for the rubbish bin."
Servalan's blood-red lips parted in what many had mistaken for a smile."You underestimate your value." She set the bomb down on the table beside Avon's gurney. "It's disarmed, of course. Not presently usable." She ran her talons lightly down Avon's face, caressing in circles over his cheekbones. "But I could have it restored to functionality." Her other hand slipped lower, tracing the contours of Avon's body. "I abhor waste."
"Then you should know that you are wasting your time. You have nothing I want."
"Oh, haven't I? Blake, come here."
"No," Avon said, very softly. Servalan's eyes widened, eagerly absorbing every nuance of Avon's reaction.
"Yes?" Blake came into the room. He frowned down at Avon's nude body, turned aside to rummage through a cabinet and returned with a thin blanket that he spread over Avon. Then he undid the binding straps. He told Servalan calmly, "Avon isn't going anywhere, is he?"
"No," she agreed. "He isn't going anywhere at all." She smiled up at Blake and leaned against him seductively. Blake gazed down at her, his expression unreadable.
"Blake's dead," Avon hated himself for saying it, for giving Servalan the pleasure of seeing him so pathetically at a loss.
"Obviously, he's not," Servalan replied. She gave him a lascivious grin and released a wicked laugh. "Oh, no, he's very much alive."
Avon felt sick. Whoever, whatever this Blake was, Servalan had him, and had used him. It was intolerable. Abruptly, he pushed himself forward, lunging for her throat. She stepped back just far enough to watch him fall at her feet. "I'll kill you," he raged, dragging himself by his hands toward her. Damn his legs!
Blake pushed Servalan away and knelt beside Avon. "Are you all right?" he asked with mild concern, his large hands running swiftly over Avon's body.
"No. Don't touch me!"
Blake frowned and sat back on his heels. "I have to," he said simply. He put his arms around Avon and picked him up, grunting slightly with the effort. He placed Avon back on the gurney, and smoothed the covering over him again. "You hurt yourself. Why did you do that?" Blake's tone was one of puzzlement. Abruptly Avon realized that Blake didn't understand. He didn't understand anything.
Avon stared at Servalan. "What did you do to him?"
Servalan's shark-like grin returned. "I? I did nothing. I found him like that." She patted at Blake's shoulders, urging him away from the gurney. Blake went, slowly, looking at Avon all the while, a faint line creasing his placid forehead. "I took him to my bosom, as if he were my long-lost child. I did it for you, Avon. I know how much he meant to you."
"He's been mind-wiped. You did it," he said. The hate in Avon's voice would have curdled the soul of any normal human being. Servalan fed on the hate, luxuriating in it.
"You wound me, that you could think me so unsubtle. I found him as I said- damaged- on the planet Jevron."
"Jevron." Avon's fists clenched as he remembered Terminal. "You said he'd died on Jevron."
Servalan's hands spread in an expressive gesture. "To all intents and purposes, he did. Apparently on Jevron the people, the huddled masses Blake so yearned to set free, learned that he was responsible for the loss of Star One."
"But he wasn't," Avon protested, his eyes going to Blake, who was listening with that same air of childish confusion. "Travis did it. He sold us to the Andromedans."
"Ah." Servalan tilted her head. "I thought it may have been something of the sort. Still, to the uneducated, unreasoning swarm of general humanity, Blake was responsible." She laughed. "And he was so big a fool that he admitted it."
Avon closed his eyes. He could see it now. Blake with his idiotic sense of guilt, bowing his head and saying 'Mea Culpa', taking all the blame on his broad shoulders. "And what did they do?" he asked softly.
"They were rather primitive, but ingenious. They beat him to within an inch of his life, and then they deposited what was left in one of the numerous makeshift mortuaries populated by the victims of the computer failure. I found him, delirious and weeping, in a stack of children's corpses. Apparently, they had heard..."
"No," Avon growled. "It's a lie. All of it. That isn't Blake."
"Would you like to see his medical records?"
"I wouldn't believe you if you told me space was cold." Avon shifted his gaze past her to Blake. The frown had vanished and the big man was placid again. "That's an android. Or perhaps a very poor clone." Avon's voice rose. "And if that's Blake, what did I shoot on Gauda Prime?"
"Really, Avon, how do you expect me to know? Not every plot in the galaxy has my seal of approval."
Avon stared at her and she relented.
"I did see the autopsy report. It was human and matched Blake's genetic records. As Blake had no identical twins, I must assume it was, in fact, the clone I had made. You do recall him? He was every bit as much the rebellious fool as Blake, only without the experience. I suppose that accounted for the scar. He didn't duck fast enough. Then, or later, with you."
Avon's face went totally still. In the back of his mind, he had been telling himself that perhaps he wasn't damned for all time, that the man he'd murdered hadn't been Blake. But he knew it was. He knew it at the time, when the dying man had held him, and forgiven him with his dying breath. If he'd been born in a laboratory, that didn't change that fact that Avon had murdered Blake. Even if Blake was still alive, he'd murdered Blake. Avon moaned and shut his eyes against the red- tinted vision of Gauda Prime.
"Avon?" Servalan leaned over him, mock-sympathy in her voice. "You do believe me, don't you? I have Blake, the genuine, if somewhat tarnished, icon of the rebellion."
"Yes," Avon said, defeated. She was right. Whether this was the Blake Avon had fought with, and against, on the Liberator didn't really matter. She had Blake, and she had him. He couldn't kill her, and he couldn't kill Blake- not again- and all that left was killing himself, and he couldn't even do that, not if it meant leaving this vulnerable Blake in Servalan's hands. "What do you want?"
"Can't you guess?"
"I haven't got it."
"Avon, Avon," Servalan chided, shaking her head. "Your crew must have it. Come now, don't you think they'll be willing to bargain?"
Avon showed his teeth in a brief flash of spirit. "I'm even less use to them than I am to you."
"Yes, but they care about you. They must do, or they would hardly have bothered to take you along with them."
"Tarrant's in command now. He and I never did see eye to eye. He's probably celebrating."
"And the others? Don't you think anyone will miss you?"
"Why should they? I led them into one disaster after another. If they've a grain of common sense, they're probably relieved to be rid of me."
"For your sake, let's hope they haven't that 'grain of common sense'." Servalan's voice was hard now, all pretenses dropped. "I'll be honest with you, Avon."
"Ah, that should be a novelty."
Servalan's hand swept out and cracked across Avon's cheek. "I am losing patience with your insolence. My resources are currently limited and I will not squander them on you, and that," she tossed over her shoulder at Blake, "for very long. Think on that. If you cooperate and get me what I want, I'll gladly hand you over to your friends. One way or another, Avon, I will be alone on this ship, very soon." She turned on her heel and strode out.
Blake remained behind.
"Well?" Avon asked harshly, "Why don't you go, too?" If he was left alone there had to be something he could do. Servalan hadn't been stupid enough to leave the deactivated bomb but there must be a computer-link within crawling distance. Two minutes access to the life-support circuitry and he could guarantee Servalan a Pyhrric victory. Blake would die, too, but Avon tried to convince himself it would be best, anyway. There was no place in the galaxy for either of them, both wounded and vulnerable. Better to die quickly and cleanly. Only how could he do it? How could he kill Blake again? But he had to. He had to do something.
"She hurt you." Blake touched Avon's bruised cheek.
"Yes, well, that's just her way of showing affection."
Blake frowned again. "She doesn't hurt me."
"Then perhaps she doesn't like you," Avon muttered. "Leave me alone, will you."
"I don't like her," Blake said, as if sharing a revelation.
"How very perspicacious of you." Avon shut his eyes against the too familiar sight of Blake's concern. "I'm tired."
"Then sleep." Blake rubbed his hand across Avon's forehead. "It's all right. I won't let her hurt you again."
Avon's eyes flew open. There had been something different in Blake's voice, something of defiance, of the old, stubborn, rebel Avon had known- and even if he admitted it only to himself- loved so well. "Blake?"
"Yes," the voice was soft again, defiance vanished, if it was ever there. Avon knew himself to be more than half-mad. Perhaps he'd only imagined it. He was very, very tired and nothing really seemed worth the effort anymore. He shut his eyes again, wondering if he would dream of the dead Blake or the live one.
"All right, Orac's tracking Servalan's ship on the frequency she gave it," Tarrant said. "So..."
"So she's probably halfway across the quadrant," Vila said morosely. He was sitting on the flight deck along with everyone else. They were on an intercept heading for Servalan's position, as relayed through Orac, but that was as far as they'd got in the decision-making process.
"Nonsense, Vila," Dayna snapped. "She wants us to follow her. She'll be there."
"Oh, something will be there. Something with lots of teeth. Let's go the other way."
"Vila," Soolin said, with a false patience that made him wary, "She has Avon. She has Blake. We have no choice. If we don't meet her, then one of the other bounty-hunting groups will eventually kill her. Since there isn't currently a bounty on any of us, including Blake and Avon, they might just drop them off on the nearest planet. Think about it for a moment. I know Avon is crippled and not entirely sane, but still, think about it. We've abandoned him to his worst enemy. We've let someone else kill her. What do you think he'll do?"
Vila shuddered. "As I was saying, Tarrant. We've got to go rescue our old friend, Avon."
"Besides, Vila," Tarrant commented, "Orac says that she and Blake are the only ones on her ship."
Vila replied gloomily, "Even Orac makes mistakes."
"Servalan has sent another message," Orac announced, ignoring Vila's slur. "Full audio and visual is available."
"Show it," Tarrant ordered.
Servalan appeared, shimmering in something low-cut and tastelessly dripping with glittering crystals. "There is a planet approximately halfway between your current position and mine where we may conduct our private business. It's called 'Jahn's Passing'." A languid hand waved and the screen view changed to an image of Avon, apparently sleeping, with Blake standing at his side. "If I don't see your ship on the planet within two standard days, I'll have to assume you don't have the magic box to trade. Then... well, we'll see if anyone else has a use for them. If not..." The screen closed up on Avon's unconscious face, then blanked.
*Message ends,* Orac reported unnecessarily.
"Jahn's Passing?" Tarrant mused, rising to his feet. "Jahn's Passing." He grinned. "I've been there."
"Does that mean you have friends there?" Dayna asked.
"Well, let's call them acquaintances."
Soolin stood next to Tarrant and read the notation on the planet."It seems Jahn's Passing is an unofficial Free-trader depot and mercenary hiring hall, which explains why Servalan is there. She's bought herself some mercenaries."
"You were a mercenary," Vila commented to Soolin. "What was your price?"
"More than you'll ever see, Vila. We can't go in blind against an unknown number of opponents," Soolin said calmly.
Asher didn't say anything, but it looked as if she was reconsidering her decision to stay.
"Orac?" Dayna asked. "Maybe he can find out who's been hired recently."
Tarrant shook his head. "On Jahn's Passing no one puts anything down on paper, let alone in a computer Orac could read. I'll try calling some people I know. They might know who's working for Servalan. They'll probably be willing to help- for a price- but they'll want to be paid up front."
Soolin said,"I don't think Servalan is going to wait patiently while you interview prospective assassins."
Tarrant nodded. "True. I'm sure she's worked it out that she'll arrive first and be watching for us. We haven't time for anything but a straight-line course. Once we land, she'll see every move we make. It'll be impossible to meet anyone without her knowing."
"So, we have to figure out a way to get there,before we get there," Dayna put in. "That's impossible."
"On the contrary," Orac said. "As usual, you are committing the logical fallacy of reasoning without including all pertinent facts. There is a very simple method to 'get there before you get there.' "
"Only a day without Avon, and Orac's already gone 'round the bend," Vila said. He cheered up slightly. "Maybe a couple days with Avon'll drive Servalan crazy."
Orac said, "It is simplicity itself. You have been assuming that you must all arrive via this vessel."
"Well, mustn't we?" Dayna said. "I don't know about you, Orac, but I'm not very good at space-swimming."
"Of course!" Tarrant shouted. "The life-pods! As we approach, we can jettison life-pods while the planet's between us and her ship. Program them to land near the city. I'm sure I could arrange for someone to meet us there. For enough credits, that is."
Asher said, "Um, Tarrant. If you don't mind my asking, what credits?"
"With a name like Midas, I'm fairly sure this ship's previous owner had some valuables stored aboard." Tarrant turned to Vila. "Cough 'em up."
"Why do you always assume I've stolen everything?"
"Because I'm not stupid, Vila. Come on. We haven't time for games. Go clean out your little hidey-holes. Don't be stingy. Remember, we're hiring people to help protect your neck, too."
"No pockets in a shroud," Dayna called out gaily, as Vila slumped disconsolately off the flight deck. Once he was gone, she turned back to Tarrant. "I'll be in one of the pods. I want a shot at her."
Tarrant looked at her for a long moment. "Yes, all right. I couldn't go, anyway. Servalan will contact us, and she'll be expecting to see me. There are three pods," he added. "but I don't think we could force Vila into one."
"I'll go, of course," Soolin said. "I understand mercenaries." She gave Tarrant a sidelong glance. "Dayna might be a bit too enthusiastic."
"What's wrong with that?" Dayna said, while checking over the sidearm she had found in Midas's armory.
"It raises the price, for one thing."
Dayna shrugged. "All right. You negotiate. I'll watch your back."
Tarrant nodded. "First thing, I've got to persuade Orac to punch a message through to Jahn's Passing. If my friends aren't there, we'll have to come up with an alternate plan."
Servalan turned aside from the communication's console, and smiled to herself. "So predictable. Gallant Tarrant coming to the rescue with his band of misfits. Not much of a challenge, really. Pity Avon hadn't put up more of a fight, but then, he's so easy to manipulate. Ah, Avon." She smiled, lost in thought, then lifted her head at the sound of footsteps. Blake was standing just outside the flight deck. "What are you doing here? I've told you, you are never to come to the flight deck!"
Blake spread his hands in appeasement. "But I'm not on the flight deck," he said mildly. He looked down at his boots, which were several inches beyond the entrance. "Am I?"
"No. No, I suppose you aren't." Servalan smiled again, a broad, plastic smile, as she came to Blake and embraced him. "You wouldn't disobey me, would you? Not you. You're not like all the others, those incompetents; disloyal, subversive cretins." Her voice rose steadily. "I could have brought the Federation back to a greatness and a glory such as those fools could never dream, if not for them!"
Blake rubbed her shoulders and back. He was gazing off over her head, idly looking at the control consoles of the ship. "No, Servalan, I'm not like them," he said quietly.
Servalan backed half a step, grabbed Blake by the hair and pulled him down into a savage kiss, then broke it before he could begin to respond, and pushed him back. "No, you're not. You're mine. Innocent as any babe when I found you. Mine to mold, to make into whatever I chose." Her eyes widened. "I could have turned you in, you know. I didn't have to save you."
"I know," Blake replied, his gaze as open and trusting as ever.
"I didn't have to love you." Servalan's eyes were shutting now, and she swayed closer, letting him enfold her again. "But I wanted a child. I can't have one. Not now, not ever. They did it to me and I'll have my revenge on all of them. You're my child, Blake. My own. My sweet and forever child." Servalan kissed him again, then took his hand and began walking toward her quarters.
Blake hung back, and when Servalan looked at him impatiently, he said, "Please, don't hurt Avon."
"Why would I do that?" She smiled. "Avon and I, there's a destiny between us. You know that. I've told you about it so many times." That was one of the things she liked best about Blake. She could tell him anything.
Blake hung his head. "It's just...he's my friend."
"And what am I?"
"You're Servalan," Blake said, looking confused. "And you told Avon you'd be alone soon. Where am I going?"
"Nowhere, Blake. As long as you live, you will be mine." She stroked her fingers gently over his lips, over his chin and then in slow swirls along his throat.
"But what about Avon? I like him. Can't we keep him?" Blake was seemingly unmoved by Servalan's gentle stroking, or her parted lips, only inches from his own.
"Come to bed with me, now."
Servalan's hands came up, curved into claws, and she struck out at Blake's eyes. He caught her and held her while she raged and screamed obscenities at him. In a few seconds she calmed and said, "Let me go, Blake."
Blake released her and stood, mutely inquiring with raised eyebrows.
Servalan smoothed her dress and examined her fingernails for damage. She frowned on discovering a broken tip. "You would like to stay with Avon?" she asked calmly.
"Very well, go to him." Servalan turned and went to her quarters, alone.
Blake was humming to himself the next time Avon woke. Avon didn't recognize the tune. "Blake?"
Blake immediately got up and came close. He brushed the hair out of Avon's eyes and smiled at him. "Are you feeling better?"
Avon opened his mouth to make a snide response, but gazing into those open, innocent eyes, he changed his mind. "A little, perhaps," he said. He shifted onto a elbow, and Blake was there, steadying him, holding a glass of water to his lips, and watching, always watching, with those damnably gentle eyes. Avon didn't know how to talk to this... person. What did Blake remember of him? The arguments? The conflict? Or did he perhaps cherish the rare moments of camaraderie, as Avon did?
Blake said. "I told her not to bother you." He grinned proudly. "She listened to me."
"Blake. Be careful. Servalan could... hurt you. Very badly."
Blake laughed. "Oh, she's too small and soft to hurt me."
"She has a gun, Blake. You do know what a gun is?"
Blake nodded, solemn now. One finger crept up to his mouth, and he looked more childish than ever.
"We have to escape. She'll ki... hurt us both." He stopped, seeing Servalan lounging in the doorway beyond Blake.
"Oh, don't mind me," Servalan said, "do go on. It was getting interesting. I have a gun, you said." She produced a small weapon, and aimed it at the two men. "Something like this?"
"Yes," Avon said. He had one hand on Blake's arm, and he tightened his grip in warning. Blake was glaring at Servalan. "Don't," he told Blake. "Don't," he begged Servalan, seeing the gun rise and follow an imaginary line along Blake's spine. "Please," he added, hating himself for groveling.
"He was mine," Servalan said, her eyes shining with ill-concealed madness behind her mask. "I saved him. I did. What have you ever done for him? Why should he choose you over me? Are you that wonderful in bed?"
"No, it's not like that!" Avon protested, "There was never anything like that between us."
Servalan studied Avon's expression for a long moment and finally said, "I believe you. I wish it had been that. Sex is nothing, just a pleasant way to pass the time. But he loves you, damn it! He doesn't know who he is, he doesn't know who you are, and he chooses you above me! I'll see him dead before I'll give him to you."
"One favor then," Avon said, keeping his voice steady with an effort. "For all the times I could have killed you, and didn't." He added, slowly as if forced to the admission, "Because I couldn't. There had always been... a fascination, with you."
"Perhaps. What is it?" Servalan was preening now, obviously basking in the thought that Avon had been enamored with her.
"Kill me first."
Servalan stared into Avon's bleakly desperate eyes, then abruptly she tossed her head back and laughed. "You love him. Oh, yes, of course. And that is why you killed him." Her eyes cleared. "Because he left you." She took a step back, away from the door. "Yes. I can understand that. We are very much alike, you and I, Avon. Yes. I will do you a favor." She lifted the gun again, and fired.
"Approaching Jahn's Passing," Tarrant called over Midas's intercom. "Are you ready?"
"Almost," Dayna replied, wrestling with a stiff control-lever on her life-pod's hatch. Soolin had already opened hers and was running systems checks.
"Well, be ready in six minutes. There's no margin for error in your launch trajectory. If you don't land at the coordinates Len provided, you might miss him and run into something nasty."
"Yes, Tarrant," Dayna said. "I know." The lever gave, and she entered the pod and began checking it out. Tarrant had gone over each of the pods a few hours ago, but it made sense to double-check.
"You have the gems with you?"
"Yes, Tarrant," Dayna repeated. "We have the gems to bribe your friend. You're sure he isn't lying about knowing who Servalan hired and what their weaknesses are?"
"Len gave his word." When Dayna didn't reply, Tarrant sighed and said, "No, I'm not sure. You'll have to judge for yourself. I'm going to launch you and Soolin by remote," Tarrant said, "It'll be rough. Use the restraints."
"Yes, Tarrant," Dayna said, exasperated, "Don't be such a worrier."
On the flight deck Vila glanced at Tarrant. "Don't worry? I don't know about you, but whenever Dayna says that, I worry."
Tarrant shook his head. "They'll be all right. You keep alert. When Servalan contacts us, we'll have to distract her."
"That's your job, isn't it?"
"Feel free to tell her any good jokes you've heard lately. Except for the one about Travis and the mutoid."
"That was my best one," Vila grumbled.
Dayna wriggled inside the tight confines of the life-pod, unable to find a comfortable arrangement. "Ouch. It's a good thing I'm not claustrophobic."
"Have you ever been in free-fall?" Soolin asked from the capsule next to Dayna's.
"No. I'm rather looking forward to it," Dayna said, checking over the rudimentary controls on her capsule. She grinned and shut the life-pod.
"I'm sure you'll love it." Soolin tightened her restraint straps and activated the hatch closing mechanism, sending the 'ready' signal to the flight deck.
Jahn's Passing dominated the view screen, looking much like any other Earth-type world. The only outstanding feature of that bluish-green globe was Servalan's presence. Tarrant noticed Asher staring at it and he moved to catch her eyes. He grinned at her, and she responded with a nervous little smile. "It'll be fine," he said.
She nodded. "Of course."
Vila looked at the two of them and shook his head. "Mad. Both of you. All of us," he muttered. "Just like Avon."
Tarrant returned his attention to the controls. "Now, Vila," he chided.
"After all, why the hell did we let him con us into taking that drink. Social-hour with Avon? That's crazy." Vila shook his head, but he kept his hands at the console he was monitoring. "It was obvious he was up to something."
Tarrant winced. "Yes, in retrospect, it was pretty foolish." He sighed. "I was trying to show Avon I trusted him. Why did you do it?"
Vila said, "What? Turn down a free drink?"
"I should have known you had a good reason." Tarrant pressed a flashing green button, which turned to red as the ship shuddered faintly. "Life-pods away." He paused, observing the readings, then sighed in relief. "Trajectory is perfect."
"Wonderful," Vila said, mournfully. "Dayna and Soolin, alone against a planet full of blood-thirsty mercenaries. I pity the poor mercenaries."
"Shut up and concentrate. We'll be landing soon."
"Whee!" Dayna yelled, pushing her way out of the exploded hatch on the side of her life-pod. She scrambled out, gun held loosely at her side, and turned to survey the surroundings. A three-hundred sixty degree scan revealed waist-high yellowish grasses, seed-heavy heads attracting a fair selection of insect life. Some trees appeared in the middle distance. The ground was too flat to afford any vantage point, but her preset locator indicated the 'city'-port of Jahn's Landing was barely five kilometers away in a direction the locator indicated corresponded to 'east'. On a half-way civilized planet that would put her in the heart of the city, but most mercenary worlds were like this- a port surrounded by wilderness. They lived in space and this planet was merely a convenient neutral place to conduct business.
Soolin had landed halfway across the meadow- a pin-point landing considering the crudeness of the pod's guidance systems. Dayna jogged over, alert and eager to investigate whatever this new world had to offer. Soolin's pod had opened and the other woman was leaning against it awaiting Dayna's arrival. Her gun was in her hand, which was shaking slightly, and her face was pale and set in grim lines. Apparently, free-fall didn't agree with her. Dayna grinned and lengthened her stride.
There was a bright flash of color as a small flock of scarlet and yellow avians rose from the grasses, wings flickering in dazzling patterns as they made shrill, whistling cries. Neither Dayna nor Soolin had done anything to startle the wildlife. Dayna drew her weapon. "Soolin!"
Soolin whirled, but not quite quickly enough, her reflexes slower than normal. A man came out of the undergrowth, knocked her gun out of her hand and wrapped his arms around her. He held her still despite her struggles and put a gun to her head. He looked at Dayna. "Drop it, now, or I'll drop her."
Reluctantly Dayna obeyed, stepping back from her gun as several other men came out of concealment. She stiffened when she was frisked for further weapons, but said nothing until she was dragged up beside Soolin. "So much for Tarrant's friend," she said bitterly.
The man holding Soolin grinned. "Tarrant never was very sensible. Why shouldn't I take your money and get paid by the other party, too?"
Soolin said, coolly, "Oh, that's very sensible. But can you trust the 'other party'?"
"Of course not, that's why you're going to stay with friends of mine until I get paid."
"I'm astonished. You have friends?" Dayna asked, and didn't back down even as the man lifted a fist.
Abruptly he grinned and lowered his hand. "Money buys friends. Get going." He pushed at Soolin's back.
"Tarrant's money hadn't bought you," Dayna pointed out. "All right, all right," she mimed zipping her lips shut.
Jahn's Landing appeared out of the wilderness with an abrupt demarcation. A sagging wire fence apparently intended to keep out animals was set in poured plast-crete surrounding a group of equally untended prefabricated buildings. At intervals there were gaps in the fence, either cut or simply rusted away. The group stepped through the nearest one and were 'in town'. They were apparently in the recreational district. Most of the buildings bore signs, usually accompanied by garish images. The eighth one they passed had a glowing 3-D display depicting a naked humanoid creature with a blood-dripping mouth and blank, white eyes. It was ... well, The Laughing Mutoid was in quite good spirits although in very poor taste.
"All right, this is it." Tarrant's 'friend' said, turning toward the Laughing Mutoid. Given half a chance, Soolin and Dayna would have escaped, but they hadn't been given that half a chance. They hadn't been bound either, presumably to avoid undue attention, but it should have been obvious they were being held against their will. People had paused and looked at them, but no one appeared inclined to interfere. It was a mercenary world after all, and no one was paying them to interfere.
The Laughing Mutoid was, if possible, even grubbier and less salubrious on the inside than on the outside. Len stopped his group at the bar and asked the overweight man behind the counter, "Where's Nasty?"
"Nastazia," the bar-man said, pointedly, while wiping a dirty rag over the marginally dirtier counter, "is waiting for you. Upstairs. She's in room seven."
Soolin exchanged glances with Dayna at the 'she'. They went up the unsteady stairs, across a dimly-lit corridor, and past a number of greasy, grayish- green doors until they all stopped once more.
"Nastazia?" Len sounded respectful, but not intimidated as he knocked at the battered wooden door just below the faded '7'.
The door opened to reveal a stranger, not Servalan. Nastazia was a brassy red-head, attractive, but with a world-weary air that did not invite advances. She was wearing a dull green jumpsuit with a bulky sidearm strapped to one thigh. The sidearm looked well-worn, but equally well-kept. "The goons stay out," Nastazia told Len.
Len didn't argue. He grabbed Soolin and Dayna each by an arm, pushing them into the room and then followed, letting the door shut behind them. They went willingly. Three to two was better odds, even if the three were armed.
"Don't try anything," Nastazia said quietly, addressing both Dayna and Soolin. "I'm on your side."
Soolin said, "Oh, of course," while Dayna simply scowled.
Nastazia gave Soolin a crooked smile. "Yes. Len, I want these two." She reached into a pocket and extracted a thick sheaf of trader's credit vouchers. "These are backed by Bek on Freedom City."
Len took the vouchers, but then he said, "You only said you wanted to meet them. I have another buyer."
Nastazia's gun was out and at Len's head before he could reach for his own gun. Soolin would have beaten her, but for a non-professional Nastazia was quite good. Nastazia said, "Don't be greedy. That's ten times what I was paying for an introduction."
"It's still not what I would have got," Len said sullenly. "They were to pay me, too," he said, gesturing with his chin towards Soolin and Dayna.
"Pay him," Nastazia told Soolin. "He didn't mean to, but he's actually done you a favor."
Soolin handed over the small pouch of gems. Len felt them through the fabric, and opened it enough to peer inside before pulling the drawstring closed. He turned toward the door and found Nastazia's gun at his ear.
She said very quietly, "Be smart. Take the money and go somewhere to spend it. If you try to make a few extra credits you'll be caught in the middle of a very bad situation. I know the lady who hired you. She has a name for paying her employees off in lasers rather than credits. And I have a name for getting back at anyone who crosses me." She pulled the gun back, and smiled at Len. " I also have friends who are watching you. Goodbye, Len."
Len scowled, but he left without argument.
Nastazia listened at the door until a series of sharp raps came, apparently a code. She turned back to her unwilling guests and holstered her gun. "I really am on your side," she said.
"How do you even know what our side is?" Dayna asked. body language still tense.
Nastazia sat on her bed, and leaed back, seemingly totally at ease. "I've got a standing order with most of the runners and port-rats. If anyone new shows up who seems to have rebel ties or tendencies, I get an introduction."
"You're a rebel?" Dayna said skeptically.
"Yes. I started out as a free-trader, but the Federation kept cutting into my profit margin."
"That still doesn't explain how you know who we are."
"You may not be famous, but you aren't exactly unknown, either. Up until very recently, there were large bounties on both of you- Soolin and Dayna. And even larger ones on your companions."
Dayna stiffened. "What companions? Soolin and I don't need anybody."
Nastazia smiled again. "Maybe not, but Len mentioned at least one man by name. If you're still running around with Tarrant, then why not Restal and Avon, too?"
"They're dead," Dayna said flatly.
Nastazia looked politely disbelieving. "Well, that's a shame, then, but it shouldn't affect our business. You want help against Sleer. I've wanted to get her for a long time now. We can work together."
Dayna looked at Soolin.
"Besides," Nastazia added, "Len has your money and I'm probably the only one on this planet who'll help you for free." She grimaced. "Just don't tell anyone. I don't run a charity for every down-on-his-luck spacer I meet."
"Yes, we agree," Soolin said after a long moment. "But we'll need guns."
"Yours will be returned," Nastazia said, getting up from the bed. "At my ship."
"It's no use," Avon finally admitted. "With proper tools, I might have a chance." He shook his head and slammed his fist into the wall beside the door. Servalan's shot had fused the controls, sealing them in the tiny medical unit. "Servalan's idea of a favor, shooting the door instead of ...you." He hit the wall again. A large fist wrapped around his hand, holding it gently, prying his fingers open to release the medical laser probe that had made a vicious red mark along his palm.
"Stop hurting yourself, Avon," Blake said. "It's all right. Don't worry." He shifted, settling Avon's weight more securely in his arms. Since Avon couldn't walk, he'd brought him a medical wrap to cover his nudity, carried him to the door, found tools, and held Avon up to the control panel. He was physically strong enough.
"Don't worry. Don't worry, he says," Avon's voice rose, a note of near-hysteria entering it, despite his desperate attempts to retain his composure. "Why shouldn't I worry?"
Blake looked at the security monitor and the broken wires hanging in a ragged tangle. "Because I have a plan." The voice was firm, the eyes were clear, and the posture was Leader of Men.
Avon stared into Blake's un-mindwiped eyes for a moment. "You bastard." Blake smiled, and Avon shoved him, hard. Blake staggered back and Avon fell awkwardly, landing with a pained grunt as his support suddenly vanished.
"Are you all right?" Blake was kneeling at Avon's side, hands held out.
Avon batted at him. "Get away!" He pulled himself to a sitting position. "You've had enough amusement out of me."
Blake sighed and looked patient. "I couldn't break my cover in front of Servalan."
"You didn't notice when I destroyed the only monitor?" Avon reached down to pull his legs up underneath him, silently cursing them.
"All right, I admit it, I was wondering what you really felt about me. The last time I saw you on Liberator, I thought perhaps you hated me."
"And you decided it would be as well to make sure?"
Blake frowned and let that pass. "I heard about Gauda Prime. I'm sorry."
"Sorry? Sorry! I'm sorry, too. I shot some poor fool who had the misfortune to look like you. I should have known it wasn't you because he wasn't any good at manipulation. You should be sorry for him!"
"I am. And for you." Blake started to move forward, hands still held out in sympathy.
Avon's right leg lashed out, connecting with Blake's hands.
"Damn it, Avon! Every time I try to help you kick me in the teeth..." Blake paused, looking at Avon's still trembling leg. "You kicked me."
"Yes. I did, didn't I?" Avon was looking down at himself. Muscles were spasming in both legs now. He touched the jumping muscle in his right thigh. His foot twitched. "Help me up," he ordered.
"Perhaps you should sit still..."
"Help me up." Avon lifted his eyes to Blake.
"Take it easy, then." Blake picked Avon up by main force and stood, rock-solid and dependable, as Avon slowly released his grip on Blake's shoulders. Avon swayed, but he stayed upright.
"No, I'm afraid it wouldn't be convenient for me to show you Blake and Avon," Servalan said. She smiled falsely. "They are just getting reacquainted. I haven't the heart to disturb them."
"You haven't a heart, period," Vila muttered.
Tarrant flashed an irritated look in Vila's direction. The communication link was all too clear, as both Midas and Servalan's ship- which Tarrant refused to call Liberator - were on Jahn's Passing. The port was quite small. There was a strong possibility that Tarrant could walk out of Midas's airlock and shout "Servalan" and have her hear him. Considering the bounty on her head and the number of reckless, money-hungry mercenaries in the vicinity there was also a strong possibility that free enterprise would bring her down in minutes. Of course, Avon would probably die, too. And Servalan's 'Blake'. So that wasn't really an option- unless they were already dead. Why wouldn't Servalan show her hostages? She loved to gloat at every opportunity. They must be dead. Avon had been suicidal, and was- had been- a master at infuriating people. He would have driven her to it and laughed at her as he died, knowing that he was spoiling her plans. Tarrant felt a cold numbness settle between his mind and his emotions. He would kill her as quickly as possible and worry about explaining to Dayna why he'd cheated her of the satisfaction later.
"That's a great pity," Tarrant told Servalan. "Vila, cut the link. We've no further business here."
Vila stared at Tarrant, mouth dropping open, and made no move to the controls.
"Really, Tarrant, you can't bluff me," Servalan said, as cool as ever.
"What bluff? The only reason you'd have for not showing them is that you can't." Tarrant glanced at Vila. "Also open a wide-band comm. link. We're going to make a public service announcement. I wonder who'll collect the bounty? Vila, cut the li..."
"Wait!" Servalan snapped. Her eyes were wide, in simulated panic. Tarrant appreciated the artistry as she said, quickly, "You're right. I can't show them. But it's not because they're dead. There was... a slight accident to the comm. system."
"Then bring them to the flight deck to use the comm. you're on now."
Servalan frowned. "That isn't possible, either. I was alone," she said, spreading her hands, "defenseless." Her face darkened with anger. "Blake was becoming insubordinate. I was forced to seal them into the medical unit."
"Then unseal it."
"I can't!" she snapped. "I sealed it with a gun."
"Ah." Tarrant thought for a moment. It was possible. More than possible, knowing Servalan's penchant for solving problems with guns. Or knives. "So, what do you propose?"
"An even exchange. My ship- and its contents- for your ship- and its contents."
Tarrant couldn't help smiling at Servalan's brazen effrontery. "Riiight," he said, slowly. "I seem to recall a certain ship you left us on Terminal. Flying it would have been a real blast. You'll have to do better than that."
"You could loan me Vila for a little while. I'm sure he could easily get in to see them and verify their good health."
Tarrant's laugh almost drowned out Vila's shrill protests. "Yes, I'm sure he could," Tarrant said, waving Vila to silence, "but somehow, I doubt he could get out again to verify his continued good health."
"Really. Do you think I would stoop to using a Delta as hostage?"
"There is nothing I would put past you." Tarrant's genial facade vanished. "There are only three reasons I haven't blasted you where you sit. If you can't show me two of them alive in the next hour, maybe I'll forget about the third reason and do it anyway."
Servalan asked, "What is your third reason?"
"The smell of burning garbage sickens me." Tarrant signaled Vila and this time Vila cut the connection, shutting Servalan off in mid-glare.
Vila asked, plaintively, "Well, what do we do now?"
Tarrant rubbed his chin. "I don't know." He shook his head. "Avon may still be alive. We have to play for time. Dayna and Soolin..." He shook his head again. "We wait and keep Servalan distracted until they contact us. We're the cat at the mouse-hole, Vila."
"Other 'way 'round. She's got the bait, and she's waiting for us to stick our heads in the trap. Snap!" Vila chopped his hand against the back of his neck.
Dr. Asher had been sitting at the rear of the flight deck out of range of the visual pick-up. She gasped at Vila's graphic demonstration, and Tarrant turned to look at her. His eyes narrowed in thought. "I'm sorry, but I need your help."
"Her?" Vila put in. "What can she do?"
"Be quiet, Vila," Tarrant snapped. "Asher is the only one that Servalan doesn't know. She can go out there and..."
"And do what? Spy for us? Kill Servalan?"
"No. But she can go out and keep her eyes open, at least give us warning if Servalan sends some goons. She'd have a communicator link."
Asher shook her head. "He's right. I'm no use to you."
"If we lose, you lose, too. Servalan won't care that you're a doctor, or Federation, or innocent, or harmless. To her, you'd just be an inconvenient witness."
Asher shook her head again and broke eye contact with Tarrant.
"Oh, leave her alone, Tarrant," Vila said. "Come on, tell me what we're going to do."
"We?" Tarrant said, straightening. He gave Asher one last annoyed look, then turned his back on her. "All right,Vila. It's your turn to play hero, isn't it?"
Nastazia led Dayna and Soolin to the ships' dock by a round-about way through dark, cluttered lanes inhabited by scruffy people who pretended not to see them. They returned the favor, eventually arriving at a small freighter and entering through a cargo hatch in the belly. It was tempting to continue on to Midas, but the original plan was for them to contact the ship through Orac. They had to assume Servalan had spies on the dock. Nastazia refused to let them call Orac, though. She said she didn't trust computers. It was more likely she didn't trust them. She said they could go out on their own to get killed or they could let her do things her way.
Nastazia's ship and crew gave the same impression of quiet reliability. Nastazia hadn't introduced them, hadn't put any names to her crew, which in an odd way was reassuring. She obviously expected them to be alive and in a position to use any personal information against her later. After a few hasty whispers, Soolin and Dayna agreed to follow Nastazia's lead.
"Your people seem competent," Dayna admitted reluctantly, after the crew left to scout out Servalan's ship, "but there are only five of them."
"There are six of us," Nastazia corrected, lightly touching the gun that hung at her side. "You'd be surprised what a small group can do, given the proper motivation."
"What motivation?" Dayna wondered.
Soolin asked, "Are they rebels?"
"When business allows." Nastazia punched up a diagram on the ship's computer, showing the layout of the port. "Sleer's ship is here. Yours is there. Now, what do you want, besides Sleer's hide? And don't tell me there isn't something else."
Dayna looked at Soolin and shrugged. They had their guns back, they could fight their way out if necessary. "Avon. Ser... Sleer has Avon."
Nastazia straightened from the diagram. "Ah. And you want him back in one piece?"
Soolin replied for both of them, "Yes," without going into the details of 'why' they wanted him.
"Blake. What happened?" Avon shook his head. "No, don't tell me. I don't want to know," he said.
Blake clamped his hand on Avon's elbow. They'd been trudging around the medical unit in small circles with Avon fighting his recalcitrant body in a desperate attempt to force a quicker recovery. "Come and sit down, Avon."
"No." Avon put a foot down wrong and slipped, kept only from hitting the deck by Blake's quick reflexes.
"Now, Avon," Blake insisted, half-carrying Avon without waiting for assent. He dumped Avon back onto the medical couch. "There's a food processor." Blake turned to the unit. "You must be hungry."
"Never that hungry," Avon muttered.
Blake came back carrying a dish containing the same anonymous pap that all Federation citizens grew to loathe in primary school. "Eat. And I'll tell you what happened. The short version."
"It's probably loaded with suppressants," Avon muttered, stirring the unappetizing mush.
"No. I've checked. Besides, Servalan ate it, too."
"Servalan." Avon pushed the dish aside. "Suddenly I've lost my appetite. How did you wind up... with her."
Blake pushed the dish back. "Part of what she said was true." Blake lowered his voice. "On Jevron. She did actually rescue me."
"And were you..."
"Mad?" Blake rubbed his chin. "I suppose so." He picked up the spoon, and held it out patiently until Avon made an exasperated noise and snatched it.
"And why didn't she turn you in or execute you herself?" Avon took a spoonful of mush and grimaced before he swallowed it.
"I have you to thank for that. She couldn't have you, so she kept me as a substitute. That woman is bloody obsessed with you." Now Blake's eyes lightened with amusement. " I wonder why?"
Avon's eyes went cold and a muscle twitched in his jaw.
"Avon? Aren't you going to answer me?"
"She's quite mad. You of all people should know that. There's no accounting for her actions." He put the dish of mush down on the side away from Blake. Avon started to rise, but Blake put a hand on his shoulder.
"You don't look well. Rest a little longer."
"If Servalan has her way, I may be resting forever." Avon levered himself off the couch. "I would prefer to die on my feet."
"It would be more dignified," Blake agreed, and put his shoulder at Avon's service again.
Avon gave Blake a 'look'. "Actually, I was thinking it would give me a better chance of taking her with me."
Asher stood in the shadows behind one of Midas's 'legs'. She had walked out while Tarrant and Vila were discussing the situation.
Asher jumped. Vila was behind her. "I... I was just..."
"There must be a port controller's office, even here," Vila said quietly. "Once you get there, you should be able to have them call your Councillor."
"You'll let me go?"
"No reason to drag you down with us." Vila shrugged. "I'd go with you, but... well, Tarrant needs me. You'd better go now." He pointed toward a metal spire, just visible beyond a group of warehouses. "That's probably it. Antennae, you see. Don't talk to anyone, and don't go down any alleys. Servalan's ship is the black pursuit ship. I'd stay well away from it, even though she doesn't know you."
Asher hesitated, and then looked back at Vila. "I think... I would help you, if I could," she said.
"I know." Vila watched her disappear into the gray sameness of the port. Then he went back into Midas.
Tarrant was furious. "You told her to go?"
Vila backed up. "I know she's pretty, Tarrant, but..."
"You are an idiot. How long do you think she'll last before someone picks her up? Maybe even Servalan?"
Vila blinked. " You don't mean she's gone to tell Servalan about Dayna and Soolin, do you?"
Tarrant sighed. "No, I don't think she's that stupid. I also don't think I want her wandering around loose on the docks, attracting attention. Tourists are obvious even when they're not young women wearing Federation medical uniforms."
"Should I go out and get her?"
"You should, but I might need you here. Damn." Tarrant slammed his hands down on a console. "Turn on the outside monitors. I'm going after her."
"And what do I do if Servalan calls while you're out?"
"Take a message," Tarrant snapped over his shoulder as he picked up a sidearm, and left the flight deck.
Asher hadn't got far, but Tarrant wasted time looking for her in the wrong direction. He stretched his legs to walk as quickly as possible without drawing attention, and came up beside her, taking her by the elbow, as he said, loudly, "Asher! You shouldn't have left so quickly. The party was just warming up."
She stopped and looked up into Tarrant's face. "If I scream, the party will start now."
Tarrant smiled. "Look, we're temporarily on the same side. Your Councillor wants Servalan dead. I just don't want you muddying the waters before we can catch her."
"And you need me to take care of your friend."
"Well, I don't know that I'd describe Avon that way, but yes. Don't doctors take some kind of oath?"
"Don't Federation officers?"
"Touché. How about you think of it this way-- I'd be very grateful if you didn't make a scene and get us both shot right now." Tarrant grinned. "We can always get shot later." He draped an arm companionably about her shoulders, and started walking with her back to the ship.
"Tarrant! Tarrant!" Vila was practically hopping with anxiety as they came onto Midas's flight deck. "Servalan!"
"Go on," Tarrant said, aiming Asher at one of the flight positions out of view of the communications pickup. He straightened his tunic and smoothed out his features into a determinedly pleasant smile as he stepped into range. "Servalan. What an unexpected pleasure."
"Tarrant, you're stalling," Servalan said several minutes later after the standard veiled threats and counter-threats. She leaned back against the pursuit ship's pilot seat and smiled at him. Even over a vid-screen, she was seduction itself. "And I know why."
"Oh, you do?" Tarrant replied. She had to be bluffing. She couldn't have caught Dayna and Soolin. He grinned brightly. "And why do you think that is?" he replied, doing a bit of video-seducing himself.
"This may be our last chance to be together. You can't bear to let me slip through your fingers." Servalan wriggled her fingers in illustration.
"True. I hate to see all that money going to someone else. You should, too," Tarrant said, "Wouldn't it be a comedown for you to be sold like a slab of meat to benefit some crude bounty-hunter?"
Servalan's smile was brilliant. "Oh, never fear, Tarrant. I'm like a cat, you know. I always land on my feet."
"On someone else's back, more like." Servalan began rattling on about the marvelous time the two of them could have ruling the universe, but Tarrant didn't have the patience for it. "Look, Servalan," he began, "you know all I want is Avon and Blake."
"Good, we're agreed then. You give me Orac and your ship and you can have them. They aren't as amusing as they once were." She sighed. "I suppose this rackety rebel life will do that to a man. Although you've held up remarkably well," she purred.
"I've not lost my wits, yet, if that's what you mean. You will not get your hands on Orac before I have what I want."
"Then we are at an impasse." The sweet coo had vanished. "I'll send you their vaporized ashes."
Tarrant could see that Servalan's temper had gone and she was quite capable of murder, even to her own disadvantage. "Wait!" He paused a moment, thinking. He couldn't delay any longer, even if he wound up at cross-purposes to Soolin and Dayna. He'd held back with every nerve aching to be on the attack, but there was no more time. "I'll bring Vila and Orac to your ship."
Servalan relaxed, the cobra's hood lowering. "Excellent. And the moment he releases Avon and Blake, you will give Orac to me."
"Not quite so fast. The moment we are safe on our own ship, you'll have Orac. On our way out, after retrieving Avon and Blake, we'll leave Orac on the dock. If you attempt to interfere with us, or our ship, I'll destroy the computer. Either Vila or I will have a gun on it at all times."
Servalan considered briefly, then nodded. "Very well. May I suggest you leave now? This planet is very boring."
"And you have a universe to reconquer. All right." Tarrant stood and looked down at the image of Servalan. "You really are a lovely woman. It's a pity you were born without morals."
Servalan laughed. "Oh, no, I had them once, but I overcame them. Don't dawdle, Tarrant," she said, and then cut off the communication.
Tarrant walked over to Orac and picked up the computer. Vila yelped, "You're not going over to her!"
"You're right. I'm not. We are." Tarrant shoved Orac into Vila's hands. "Here, carry the baby."
"But, but, but..."
"Vila." Tarrant buckled on a holstered gun, then picked up another one and put it around Vila's waist. "There isn't anything else to do. Unless you want to abandon Avon and Blake."
"I'm thinking about it. What have they done for me lately?" But Vila picked up the roll of make-shift burglar tools he'd assembled to replace his lost 'box of tricks' and put it inside Orac's casing. Since the computer's key wasn't in place, it couldn't complain about being made into a toolbox.
"And what about Soolin and Dayna?" Vila asked as they headed for the exit.
"We can't wait. They should have come back by now or at least called in. Asher, I'm afraid you'll have to come with us."
"I could stay here. You could lock me in a cabin."
Tarrant shook his head. "I'm sorry. I don't know what condition Avon will be in, we may need you." He picked up the med kit from the flight deck and handed it to her. "Stay behind us, and stay quiet."
Vila grumbled as Tarrant hit the hatch release and they walked out into the sunlight of Jahn's Passing. "I don't like this, Tarrant."
"Neither do I, Vila," Tarrant admitted as he strode down the ramp, feeling his back muscles cramp in an instinctive effort to defend against blasters.
"As last words go, those aren't very inspiring," Vila remarked as he and Asher followed.
"I'll try to think of something better."
Servalan's ship was close, all too close. They could see the dull gleam of the pursuit ship's fins from the top of Midas's landing ramp. As they descended to the dock, the fins were hidden but the feeling of threat remained. Tarrant and Vila passed two battered freighters, one rakish Corellian pirate ship, what looked suspiciously like an Orion slave-trader, and several unidentifiable, multiply-modified, vessels that probably ran contraband. Tarrant had left Midas wide open and seemingly vulnerable. He and Vila had made some arrangements to deter unwanted boarders, but there was always a chance that they would complete their mission and find their sanctuary had flown off without them. He resisted the impulse to look back. The crew was more important than the ship. So long as he could keep them all together... what a laugh. All he had left was Vila. He couldn't be sure anyone else had survived.
"Tarrant!" came a sharp hiss. Tarrant paused, hand tightening on the grip of his weapon. He was being called by a 'port rat' with an awfully familiar voice. And a very familiar figure. Dayna.
"Tarrant, look, it's Dayna!" Vila said, a trifle too loudly and entirely unnecessarily.
"Yes, I know. Come on." Tarrant glanced around, checking that they were unobserved before they followed Dayna into an 'alley' formed of stacked crates of cargo before one of the suspiciously modified ships. There was a small crowd of people and he tensed until Dayna said, "They're friends." The woman next to Dayna slipped back her hood, and he recognized Soolin.
"Well, here we are again," Soolin said.
"Wonderful," Vila muttered.
"Look sharp, Vila," Tarrant said as they came upon the ship. Servalan had apparently hired half a dozen local bodyguards. They were big, but he had hopes they weren't too bright. "Sleer is expecting us," Tarrant informed the nearest one, a hugely muscular man, who looked him and Vila over, nodded, then announced their arrival.
Servalan gave the order for their admittance and the ship's airlock opened. Vila dropped Orac and darted in, lock-pick in hand, to freeze the door in the open position while Tarrant lunged for the giant before the door. Dayna, Soolin, and their 'friends' had climbed over Servalan's ship from the blind side using ropes and the repair access handholds set in the ship's skin and then waited, hidden behind a plasma bolt projector, until Tarrant attacked. They leaped upon Servalan's mercenaries using both gravity and surprise to good advantage.
Tarrant looked up, panting, from his fallen opponent to see that all of Servalan's men were down. "Get Orac," he yelled at Vila, then he entered the ship with his allies behind him.
"Which way?" Vila asked, looking at the cross-connecting corridors in bemusement.
"Medical unit." That was where Avon had been in the vid. If Servalan had sealed them in, that's where Avon would still be. If he was wrong and Servalan got to Avon first, they'd be at another stand-off. He wanted to get this over with, once and for all.
Servalan was nowhere in sight, which set Tarrant's already alerted nerves to tingling. She should be here, smug grin in place, graceful hand held out for her prize. This had the smell of a trap. But what? And how?
He glanced at the mercenaries Dayna and Soolin had hired. There weren't that many and they weren't as big as Servalan's mercenaries, either. He wished he had time to assess his allies. He had to rely on Soolin's judgment. Where Servalan entered the picture, Dayna stopped thinking, so he wasn't counting on her logic.
Under the enveloping, hooded cloak she still wore as part of her 'dock rat' disguise, it was hard to tell, but he thought Soolin was giving him a disapproving look. "Did you have a plan?" she asked.
"I'm working on one," he replied.
Soolin sighed. "That's what I was afraid of."
And then the ship exploded. At least, that was Tarrant's first impression. He was flung to the floor and blasters fired overhead, scorching the air and setting his teeth on edge with their high, whining complaint. After a few seconds the blasters stopped, but the whining continued. "Shut up, Vila," Tarrant said, identifying the noise as he got to his feet and looked around.
There were black-clad bodies everywhere. Well, perhaps not everywhere, but in the limited confines of a pursuit ship's main corridor eight mutoids were more than enough. Only they hadn't been enough for Soolin's mercenaries. "Well done," he commented, noting that none of 'his' were down although Vila looked about ready to faint and Asher had fainted and was being roughly shaken back to consciousness by one of the mercenaries.
"There weren't any mu-mu-mutoids on her ship! Orac said ..." Vila shut up at Tarrant's angry glance.
"They were probably in stasis. They wouldn't register as life, then," Tarrant decided. "Good thing for us. Recovering from it would have slowed them down. This way," he pointed, hoping that Avon was still in the med-unit despite the fact that he only had Servalan's word on that. And where the hell was she? It was like having a venomous insect crawling on your back, wondering when and where she would strike.
They arrived at the med-unit without further interruption. There were no more mutoids, and nothing blew up, but Tarrant was still on edge. Vila went over the whole door and the slagged-down operating mechanisms with remote sensors before approaching it.
"Try the intercom," Tarrant said, hoping to hear Avon's voice. If it was a trap, Avon would warn them. If he could.
"Nothing," Vila said, after punching a few buttons. He undid the cover-plate on the intercom and grimaced at the mess. He poked halfheartedly with a probe at the tangled, severed wires and smashed circuits.
"Never mind. Just open the door." Even if it was a trap, Tarrant had to know what was behind that door. Had Servalan vented her anger on the door alone? Had they gone through all this for nothing? He sensed Dayna's presence beside him and amended it. Even if they found Avon dead, it would not have been for nothing. They had kept faith.
The mercenaries had spread out, watching the corridors around them. Vila worked his way around the mangled door mechanisms, frowning more with every second. "Something's not right here," he complained, pausing, with his probe a bare inch away from the circuits.
"How do you mean?" Tarrant asked. In his own field, Vila was the expert, and Tarrant deferred to him.
Vila shrugged. "I dunno. It just doesn't feel right. I've always had a sixth sense for danger, you know."
"Yes, we know," Dayna said. "It's called cowardice." She was on edge, too, increasingly frustrated by Servalan's non-appearance.
"Just do it, Vila." Tarrant felt the same creeping sensation, but he attributed it to good, common sense and experience. Servalan always had plots within plots. He couldn't quite believe she would have settled for a simple mutoid ambush.
"Well, don't say I didn't warn you." Vila made the last connection, then yelped as the door started to open, revealing a flickering red light attached to a small black box affixed to the door seal. "It's a bomb!" He flung himself down belly-flat on the deck, hands over his head. Everyone yelled and scattered.
And nothing happened. After a few seconds, they heard a dry voice from inside the med-unit. "Typical."
Vila looked up. "Avon! You're walking!" He scrambled to his feet, blocking the entrance as he stared at Avon, who was standing, legs stiffly wide-spread, and holding a medical probe defensively before himself.
Avon said, "Astute as ever. He hasn't changed, has he?" Avon flicked a glance at the man beside him, who was keeping a hand on Avon's shoulder to steady him.
Blake smiled. "Vila will never change."
"Blake! It is you!" Vila started forward, but was bowled off his feet by someone coming up from behind. He wound up on the deck again. He rolled over to see Nastazia throwing back the hood of her disguise and leaping upon Blake and Avon. He gaped, wordlessly.
Soolin had her gun up and centered on Nastazia's back, but Vila bounced up and in the way. "Get down, Vila!"
"What?" Vila said to Soolin, startled. "No, don't!"
Soolin looked more closely. Nastazia was wrapped around Blake, but it was a friendly assault which Blake seemed to be reciprocating freely. Soolin lowered her gun. "I'd appreciate it if someone would tell me what's going on," she said, in exasperation.
"That's Jenna," Vila explained. "You never met Jenna." He gave Tarrant a meaningful look. "She was Liberator's pilot."
"And you're going to say she was better than me," Tarrant said. He went into the med-unit after Dayna who had rushed to Avon.
"Well, prettier anyway. I always liked blondes." Vila looked at Jenna more closely. "Then again, I always liked redheads."
"Avon, is this Blake?" Tarrant was politely ignoring Dayna, who was hanging onto Avon and looking decidedly weepy. Avon allowed one arm to rest on her shoulders, but he was looking at Tarrant.
"Probably." Avon's lips were slightly curved in a shadow smile. "I assume Jenna would be a better judge."
"A better judge than Vila is of bombs, apparently," Soolin remarked, still a bit irked that Jenna had fooled her.
Avon replied, "It was a bomb. I disarmed it." He glanced at the crowd gathered to curiously stare at the reunion. "Allies?"
"Good. I don't want to share Servalan."
"Neither do I," Dayna said, looking up from Avon's shoulder, which was becoming damp.
Tarrant said ,"We don't know what other little surprises Servalan might have on board. I suggest we leave. Now. It's not the time." He had changed his mind. He wanted it over, but it wasn't worth the risk. Not now, when they were working on instinct and emotion. Servalan was too sly a fox to be taken that way.
After a long pause, Avon nodded, apparently having his reasoning run along the same lines as Tarrant's. "Blake. Jenna," Avon called, drawling her name out when they didn't immediately respond.
Jenna was sniffling a bit and wiped her eyes, giving Blake one last hug before turning serious. "I hadn't heard from Blake in months. I thought Servalan had finally caught on." Her eyes turned fierce. "It would have served you right, too. No amount of secret information was worth snuggling up to her!"
Blake said, "She had been the head of the Pacification and Control Programme. I learned all their weaknesses and we'll use that against them. It was worth it, Jenna. Even if it did take longer than we'd planned before I could get her back to our rendezvous planet." He turned his attention to Tarrant. "Yes, you're right. We have to get out of here."
Tarrant noticed Avon was still holding Dayna, for the physical support, he assumed. "Can you walk?"
"Just about," Avon admitted ruefully.
"Asher." At Tarrant's call the doctor came forward. Avon back-pedalled awkwardly.
"No," he said. "We haven't time."
Asher held onto Avon's wrist for a few seconds before he shook her loose. She looked back at Tarrant, and shook her head.
Avon's eyes narrowed.
Tarrant looked closer. Avon was gray, and he didn't think it was the lighting. "You shouldn't be walking." Now wasn't the time to discuss Avon's medical problems, but having him keel over with a heart attack also would be inconvenient to say the least.
Blake glanced at Avon's crew and picked up on the concern. Then he picked up Avon and arranged him over one shoulder.
"Blake!" Avon snapped, outraged at the insult.
"Leave it," Blake retorted. "I want you where I can keep an eye on you. You still haven't explained Gauda Prime to my satisfaction."
Avon shut up, even though he was still glaring.
Tarrant resolved to take Avon-handling lessons from Blake. He also resolved never to tell Avon the amount of skin his medical wrap left exposed.
"Where the hell is Servalan?" Avon asked, echoing Tarrant's thoughts as they exited the pursuit ship and began the walk back to Midas. Avon had apparently decided to ignore his less-than-heroic position and carry on as if he were in charge. That cheered Tarrant. Apparently Blake had got Avon not only walking, but acting, more like his old, unlovable, but reasonably sane, self. They might yet become a real crew again.
Jenna's crew were on the alert and Dayna and Soolin were constantly scanning for enemies, so he felt it reasonably safe to stay beside Blake and Avon.
"I'm a bit surprised she didn't confront us," Tarrant admitted.
"True," Blake commented. "It isn't like her."
"Are you even sure she was on the pursuit ship?" Avon asked.
"We saw her on her flight deck after we landed, and we heard her let us in the ship."
Blake said, "You were on the pursuit ship earlier?"
"No, of course not."
"Then why assume Servalan was there?" Avon put in.
Tarrant was getting annoyed at being double-teamed. "Because Vila and I saw her, over the com. I know what a pursuit ship flight deck looks like. Besides, it was transmitted from the pursuit ship."
"So. You saw an image, with a flight deck background," Blake said.
"Which could easily have been relayed through the pursuit ship." Avon finished.
"Damn. It was mocked-up, like a vid-cast," Tarrant realized. "She might not have ever been on the planet." That's why it felt like a trap. He knew Servalan couldn't have resisted confronting them. Just as well they got off the ship when they did. He was only surprised she hadn't left an anti-matter bomb in it for them.
"She had been here. Blake and I saw her in the flesh." Avon grimaced at the memory. "That was over a day ago, but I don't think she'll have left empty-handed. She has always wanted Orac, but now she needs it for the same reason we always needed it."
"*She's a fugitive, now. And we're not." Tarrant grinned.
Jenna had been listening and commented, "Her ship has been listed, too. A full description, right down to the exact emissions signature of the engines. She can't get far with it."
Servalan needed a ship. And they had left Midas unguarded. "Oh, no." Tarrant stretched his legs, hurrying, wanting to get to his ship first, if what he dreaded was true.
"That's far enough."
Tarrant stopped dead. He was too late. That voice, Servalan's unmistakable, velvety smug voice, came from the Midas's external com. system, and echoed over the dock. "Vila," he growled. "You were supposed to set the anti-intruder system."
"I did! It was rubbish. I told you it was rubbish," Vila protested, "You didn't give me time to set up something of my own."
"Put me down," Avon snarled, with such vehemence that Blake obeyed although he kept an arm around Avon's shoulders.
"Can we get in without her knowing it?" Blake asked, quietly.
"Maybe." Tarrant began edging toward the side-vents. Midas's short-range weapons extended their muzzles and began tracking in their direction. Tarrant froze. "Maybe not." He knew the specs. If Servalan fired a volley, there wouldn't be enough left of any of them to identify. Wouldn't be much left of the dock, for that matter.
Blake shouted, "Let me in, Servalan." He moved away from Avon.
"No, Blake!" Jenna cried out, pulling at his sleeve.
"I've got to, Jenna. I won't have you hurt, or anyone else, for my sake."
Avon snapped, "Don't be a fool, Blake. It isn't you she wants."
Servalan's voice came again. "Oh, but I do," she cooed. "I do want Blake. I've grown quite fond of him. Blake, bring me Orac."
"Don't." Avon spoke quietly, this time. He stared directly into Blake's eyes. "She will kill you and it will serve no purpose."
"I have to go. I'm sorry, Avon. I'm sorry, Jenna. I have to go. If it wasn't for me, we wouldn't be in this situation. I've had too many people die on my account."
"It isn't like that, Blake," Jenna protested. "We were fighting a war. People die in wars. It wasn't your fault."
"If it wasn't my fault, whose was it? I was the leader." He looked at Avon. "You never wanted to fight. Gan didn't either," the pain in his voice was clear. "Those children..." He shook his head. "No. Let me do this. I can keep Servalan from hurting you and you from hurting her."
"You're trying to protect her?" Dayna asked, sharply.
"She did save my life. I owe her for that."
Avon grabbed Blake and tried to shake the sturdy shoulders. "You owe me. I've saved your life, too, and I won't have you throwing it away like this!"
"I know you're right, Avon." Blake slumped in defeat, and Avon relaxed. Blake hit Avon, knocking him out and into Tarrant's way, wrestled Orac away from a startled Vila, and was half-way up the loading ramp before anyone could stop him. The hatch opened before him, and he disappeared inside the ship moments before the hatch snapped shut again.
"Damn!" Tarrant grabbed Avon under the arms and began dragging him toward the ship. "Follow me!" Once Servalan had Orac, they were all expendable, and there was no time to get out of range. Their only chance was getting in too close for the guns to bear. Servalan had been through the Academy; she would know that even the back-blast would wipe out everything on the dock, but she might hesitate to kill when she couldn't see it happen and enjoy the show.
For whatever reason, Servalan didn't fire, and Tarrant was able to get everyone packed tight against Midas's undercarriage in the space between the landing ramp and the support legs. If the ship took off, that would kill them all, too, but there wasn't any point about worrying about it. He released Avon and turned, trying to see a way out.
Asher came over and examined Avon quickly. "He's alive." She didn't go into details, but she stayed, one hand on his wrist, the other resting lightly over his chest, as if to encourage his heart.
"We should be worrying about Blake," Jenna said, frowning down at Avon.
Dayna glared at Jenna.
"Don't blame Jenna," Vila said, catching the look and trying to appease. "Blake's always been like that. Heroic, self-sacrificing, jump into the lion's nest Blake, that's what we always used to call him."
"Could we discuss how we're getting out of this, and into the ship?" Soolin asked.
"There's an emergency hatch." Tarrant pointed out the dim outlined square above their heads.
Vila reached up.
"It's meant to blow out on an explosive charge."
Vila snatched his fingers back. "Tarrant!" he protested.
"The assumption was that the ship would have lost power and be unable to dock with a rescuer. It's a small charge. The crew would suit up and trigger it remotely."
"We don't have the remote, or suits, or room enough to get away from the blast," Vila argued.
"No." Tarrant grinned. "But we do have your magic fingers."
"Not for long if you keep making me open bombs! Besides, I don't have my tools. They were in Orac," Vila finished triumphantly.
"Vila," Tarrant said patiently, "If you don't pull a lock-pick out of your pocket in the next ten seconds and start opening this hatch, do you know what will happen to you?"
"No," Vila said apprehensively.
"Neither do I, but I'm sure Servalan will think of something creative."
Vila gulped and snatched a tool from under his collar.
"Oh, and Vila," Tarrant said, sweetly, "do try to open it without setting off the charge?"
Blake ran through Midas's main corridor, shouting, "Servalan! Don't hurt them. I've got Orac!" He arrived at the flight deck, panting.
Servalan was poised gracefully before the weapons' console, one scarlet talon making delicate circles above the 'fire' button.
"Don't," Blake begged. "I brought you Orac," he repeated, holding the computer out to her.
"Yes, I can see that. Put Orac down, there," she indicated a small table set before the navigation console.
Blake obeyed, then looked up at her. "Please. I'll do anything you want. Anything. Just don't hurt them."
Servalan lifted an elegantly sleek little gun. "Just let them go?"
"Yes," Blake nodded.
Servalan's lips pursed. "And how long do you think it would be before Avon would come looking for you?"
"I'll tell him not to. I'll tell him I'm happy with you."
"And what about Orac?"
Blake looked down at the computer.
"You know what it's worth. Avon would follow me to the ends of the universe to get it back." She shook her head slowly. "I'm afraid I would simply be postponing the inevitable. And I'm also afraid I can't postpone you any longer." She aimed the gun directly at the center of Blake's chest.
"Wait! What if it's broken? Or if it isn't Orac at all? I didn't see it working."
Servalan hesitated. "True. I wouldn't put it past Avon. He could have stage-managed that entire touching little scene." She peered at the computer. She raised her voice, and asked,"Orac, are you functional?"
The computer made no reply.
"It has to have the key in to be activated," Blake told her. He indicated the key, which was lying inside of Orac's case, beside Vila's roll of tools. The tools were sophisticated-looking pieces of metal, arranged neatly in a clear roll, so they looked plausibly part of the computer.
"Yes." She reached forward, then paused. "On second thought, Blake, you insert the key."
Blake reached into the computer's case, and retrieved the key. He slid it into place in its slot. Orac whined and grumbled to life.
"Orac, are you functional? Answer me!" Servalan demanded.
Orac whined, then said, in an insulted tone, "Certainly I am functional. I am quite capable of conducting internal diagnostics, and I would have informed Avon if any results fell below optimal parameters."
Servalan smiled. "Excellent. I fear you will never enjoy Avon's services again, so it's just as well that you are so fit."
Orac's whine changed pitch. "I do require routine maintenance from time to time. Avon is the most qualified technician to perform those tasks. I must insist..."
"You do not insist with me! I am your new master, and you will obey me in all things!"
Orac whined at an even higher pitch. "You are not my master," he said, in a voice bordering on insolence. "You did not insert my key. I am not obligated to obey you."
"Well, if that's what it takes..." Servalan waved Blake back, and stepped forward to reach for the key. "First, this obnoxious computer will learn its place, and then..."
"Quiet." Tarrant said. He went through the hatch first, gun at the ready, and looked around the dimly-lit corridor swiftly, before leaning back down to report. "Clear. Come up."
With the threat of the ship's guns pushing them onward, it only took a few minutes to get everyone in. Avon woke as he was dragged in. "Who hit me?" he asked, then his expression shifted from annoyance to alarm. "Blake." He looked around at his surroundings, then met Tarrant's eyes. "How long?"
"Perhaps ten minutes."
"And Servalan hasn't done anything?" Avon said in disbelief.
"Maybe Blake is keeping her busy," Dayna offered. She lowered her eyes, embarrassed, when Jenna rounded on her. "I mean..."
"We all know what you meant," Jenna said.
Tarrant led the way once more. They were moving slowly as Avon had insisted on coming with them despite his halting pace. Short of knocking him out again Tarrant didn't see any way of keeping him behind.
"I don't like this," Vila remarked. "It's too quiet."
"It's never too quiet with you around," Soolin said. She was on Tarrant's right, constantly scanning for trouble.
Asher was next to Vila, pressing up against him nervously.
"Quiet! The flight deck is directly ahead," Tarrant whispered urgently. He waved to Soolin and Dayna to flank him. Jenna came up, too. He conceded her right to be in the first wave. It was their ship, but Blake seemed to belong to her. "Avon..."
Tarrant gazed into those cold, hard eyes, mentally shelved his sensible comments about fitness, and simply said, "Don't get in my way."
"All right. On the count of three." Jenna's people would come in after them, along with Vila and Asher, but by then it would all be over. Servalan was going to die and unless they were very lucky she would have company.
"One," Tarrant mouthed, where they could see him, "Two," he said, slightly louder, and "Three!" he shouted as he ran through the entrance to the flight deck, tucking and rolling behind one of the high-back seats, while his gun swept the compartment, seeking.
There was a jumbled confused moment of shouting and gun-rattling and bodies hitting the deck and various articles of furniture. Tarrant didn't see Servalan or Blake. He raised his head and looked again. There was no one on the flight deck. No, wait, he corrected himself, no one was standing on the flight deck. Blake was kneeling in the center of the flight deck.
"Blake?" Jenna got to him first. "Are you all right? Where's Servalan?"
Blake half-turned to look up at Jenna, and then she saw what he held in his arms. Scheming eyes shut, and ice-maiden face gone slack, Servalan lay limp.
Dayna came and stared down at Servalan's face. "I didn't get to see it. Damn. Soolin, come and help me check over the consoles to make sure she didn't do any damage." Dayna walked directly over Servalan as if she wasn't there and began examining the monitors. If her back was a little stiffer than usual, and her eyes a little brighter, no one commented.
"Don't blame yourself, Blake," Jenna said, "You had to do it."
"But I didn't," Blake replied. He let Servalan's corpse drop and he stood up to gather Jenna into his arms. "I didn't." He buried his head in Jenna's hair, still murmuring, "I didn't."
"What happened?" Avon asked.
"Electric shock," Asher said, pointing to Servalan's hands. "See the scorch marks."
"How?" Avon was staring at Servalan.
Blake said. "Orac. I put the key in and Orac told her that it wouldn't obey her unless she put the key in. So..."
"That is incorrect," Orac said. "The assumption was hers. I merely made several factual statements."
"Such as?" Avon asked. "Orac!"
Orac seemed to sigh. "I informed her that she was not my master. Indeed, being female, the term would have been mistress. I noted that she had not been the one to insert my key. I told her I was not obligated to obey her."
"No? You must obey any human who gives you orders," Avon said.
"That does not constitute obligation. An obligation arises from a human's sense of duty, or results from custom, promise, or contractual agreement among humans. It is inherent in my construction that I must obey orders, ergo, I am no more obligated to do so than you are obligated to breathe."
"Orac, you hair-splitter, you," Vila burst in, "You tricked Servalan! I didn't think you had it in you."
"That still doesn't explain how she died," Blake said.
Avon said, "Hannah. You remember, Blake. Hannah? She was a Shadow -addict whom Orac electrocuted."
"But Orac was under the control of an alien force from another dimension. It merely served as a conduit for the alien," Blake said. "Of itself, Orac has no 'defenses'."
"True. It should not have been possible..." Avon examined Orac's case more closely, but was careful not to touch it. "Vila, you've been using Orac as a tool-chest?"
"Oh, sorry, I'll get them out right away." Vila reached for his tool-roll, but Avon slapped his hand down.
"Idiot. Notice how that probe is melted across the circuits?"
"Oh. Oh! Shocking development, eh?"
Avon gave Vila a look. "Yes. Fetch an insulated probe," Avon said, pointing at the compartment where frequently-used tools were stored near the bulkhead, "and I'll take the sting out of Orac's tail." Probe in hand, he lifted out the metal tools, then laid them to one side and frowned. "Still, that doesn't explain how Blake was able to put the key in without harm. Orac. Explain the anomaly."
"There is no anomaly. At the time Blake inserted the key, there was no danger. However, in the course of routine diagnostic maintenance, it is necessary to route an appreciable amount of current through my circuitry. As it happened, Servalan was in direct contact with the key at such a time."
"Avon, Orac just confessed to murder," Vila said. "I thought you said computers couldn't kill?"
"I never said that. I simply said they couldn't disobey. No one had ever told Orac it couldn't kill Servalan."
"Indeed, on the contrary, one of your most- often stated objectives concerned her demise," Orac said firmly.
"So you were only obeying orders? In future, I'll thank you not to take matters into your own little Tarriel cells. You are not to kill any more humans. That is a direct order."
"Very well," Orac sounded sulky. "Does the prohibition also apply to Vila?"
"Yes, it damn well does!" Vila snapped. "I told you, Avon, that box of bits never did like me."
Jenna asked the question several of the more practical members of Midas's crew had thought, but not felt free to say out loud, "Who collects the reward?"
"As it was my computer which killed her..." Avon started.
"But Orac used my tools," Vila cut in.
"But if Blake hadn't given her Orac in the first place..." Jenna objected.
"He couldn't. Orac wasn't his to give!" Avon snapped.
Tarrant cleared his throat. "Er. Avon. We've already been paid for Servalan. Remember? Our pardons? This ship? Why not let Jenna collect the money?"
Avon frowned, conceding the point. "Perhaps some sort of arrangement..."
"No," Blake said firmly. "She's dead. Isn't that enough? I won't sell her."
Avon and Jenna exchanged glances. Avon reminded Blake, "She would have killed us all, including you."
Blake nodded. "But we aren't like her. We won't profit from murder."
"Blake, she's dead. It won't hurt her to be turned in to the Federation, and the credits will certainly be useful to us. Her death could be the means of buying life for countless others." Avon wasn't entirely above using an sentimental appeal, not when it might work.
Then again, when Blake once set his mind to something... "What do you want to do? Give her a decent star-orbit funeral?" Avon asked, exasperated.
"Well, besides the vast fortune being offered for her, there is the fact that without proof of her death, the Fed..." Avon paused, and a wide grin spread across his face. "Without proof of her death, the Federation will still be running scared, expecting her to turn up at any moment."
Blake smiled back.
Tarrant said softly, "They'll be vulnerable." He looked at Doctor Asher. "Don't worry, we'll still let you go after Avon's recovered. You can tell Councillor Alroy what you like. He might even believe you, but no one else will."
Vila looked at the three grinning men, and said, "I was right, you're mad. Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
"They want to go on fighting the whole bloody Federation! They want to get back into Blake's loony revolution! They want to get us all killed!" Vila wailed.
"Well, bar the last item," Avon murmured, "is it such a bad idea?"
Jenna sighed. "No, but all that money... my crew will never forgive me."
"Really?" Tarrant said, "Why not try asking them?"
Jenna looked around at the eager faces of her crew. They seemed to like the idea of frightening the Federation for a change. "All right, but it goes against every business sense I've got. I may never forgive me." She shook her head. "Blake, we'll do it. Now, will you finally come with me?"
Blake got up, and looked at Avon. He frowned, and looked past Avon to Tarrant. It felt as if Blake was asking a question, so Tarrant nodded. Yes, he's an arrogant, obnoxious bastard, but I'll look after him.
Blake smiled. "Yes, Jenna. I'll come with you."
Jenna grinned. "We'll stay in touch," she said, looking at Tarrant, too. "Call my ship if you ever need us."
"What's her name?" Tarrant asked.
Jenna glanced at Avon. "The Only Reality ," she said. "It's a good-luck name. From something an old-crewmate once told me."
Avon groaned and Tarrant thought at first it was simply annoyance at whatever in-joke Jenna had shared. Then Avon clutched at his chest and keeled over.
Everything was so confused for the next couple of hours that Tarrant wouldn't have been able to write up a decent ship's log if his life depended on it. Jenna took over the chore of cleaning up Servalan's mutoid-strewn pursuit ship and 'officially' claiming it- the formalities on Jahn's Passing were perfunctory at best. Vila and Blake got drunk, well, actually Vila had got Blake drunk. Or maybe Blake had got Vila drunk. It was hard to tell, because they were each so busy trying to distract each other from admitting they were worried about Avon. Jenna had been concerned, too, but she had a strong practical sense, Tarrant had noticed.
Asher finally came in handy, performing surgery on Avon in a manner that Orac grudgingly approved as 'competent'. Dayna broke down and cried, which wasn't that surprising, but Soolin cried with her, and that was something Tarrant had never thought to see. Hoped he'd never see it again, because afterward she was in a spectacularly foul mood at everyone who'd witnessed it.
And Tarrant just waited. He still wasn't sure he believed it was actually over. He'd gone to the stasis unit to say goodbye to Servalan when everyone else was occupied. Looking at her through the clear case, he was reminded of an ancient children's story. "But no prince will ever kiss you again," he whispered, before firmly shutting the last mental door on the image of a vulnerable, loving, Servalan he'd seen once on a distant green planet.
Days later, after Avon was pronounced well enough for lift-off, Midas left. They didn't go far, though. From the flight deck Tarrant watched the last of Midas's life-pods carry Servalan into the sun that warmed Jahn's Passing. No one made any comments, not even Dayna. They just watched in silence as she disappeared into the fire. That is, they all watched except Blake and Avon. Avon couldn't leave the medical unit yet, and Blake wouldn't leave Avon yet, much to Jenna's disgruntlement.
Midas was to rendezvous with The Only Reality and the pursuit ship in a few weeks at one of the Free-Traders repair docks, where Jenna intended to have the pursuit ship's engines modified so it wouldn't be 'tagged' as Servalan's. Jenna would reclaim Blake then. Blake was using the time to plan. With three ships, Servalan's knowledge, Orac and Avon all on his side, his plans were becoming quite bold. Tarrant wondered how long it would be before they'd have a new bounty on their heads. Asher was keeping quiet and fairly obviously counting the days until they made planetfall at the next neutral planet on their list. Tarrant would be glad to have her off the ship- civilians, even pretty ones, had no place on a war ship.
After Servalan's funeral, Tarrant went to the medical unit to ask Avon, "What is the only reality?" The question had been nagging at him and he decided it would be best to get the answer from the source.
"Once I would have said 'wealth'." Avon's eyes flicked over to Blake, then back to Tarrant. "I may have been wrong."
"Wrong, Avon, you?" Blake said, with a grin.
"I only said that to make Tarrant feel better," Avon remarked, with what could best be described as a smirk. "Anyone with his talent for spectacular blunders ..." Avon made a dismissive gesture with his hand.
It seemed a perfect time for Tarrant to finally get something off his chest. "There are three reasons I've never liked you, Avon."
Avon didn't rise to the bait, but Tarrant continued anyway, "You're sharp-tongued, a knave, and irksome. Three good reasons for anyone not to like you."
He gave Avon a brilliant smile and got up, pleased by the puzzled look on Blake's face. Avon wouldn't have any peace until he gave up the whole story, including the rather flattering assessment of Tarrant that he'd once told Soolin, who had traded it to Tarrant last year in return for some tall tales from the Liberator days. It was very satisfying.
He was halfway back to the flight deck before he realized the most satisfying part of it all. He'd finally got in the last word.