Author's note: At first, this story was to be 15-20 pages, Tarrant had no part in it, and I had no continuity problems. In the manner of most stories, the darn thing started writing itself and changed all that. I can hear the question now: if Tarrant became this familiar with Blake, how come he doesn't recognize him on Gauda Prime? Good question. Even better than: Wasn't Tarrant ever curious enough to look at the Liberator's log tapes ("Orac" episode proved the ship kept them)? Or: Tarrant and Blake are from Earth, and Blake was a controversial and/or public figure; didn't Tarrant ever take note of him then? Anyway, all I can say is, it was a choice of scrapping the story or living with the continuity problem. Obviously, I chose the latter. You can, 1) Skip the story altogether; 2) Take Ye Olde Editor's suggestion - made jokingly, I assure you - that between the end of the story and BLAKE Tarrant hit his head and had selective amnesia; 3) Consider this an alternate universe story, although I never meant it to be. The choice is yours.
Nobody had bothered to find an original name for the sun, let alone the planet. The world was called AS-612, its designation on the initial survey chart. The primary of the small, inhospitable system floated somewhere inside the triangular area of space, the points of which were defined by Deneb, Aquila and Altair. By virtue of being closer to Aquila than the other two suns, it was simply referred to as Aquilasan. Avon didn't know where that 'san' suffix had originated, but it was prevalent enough to have a root. Something for Orac to track perhaps, sometime. Something else to chase, Cally would've said. At least, intellectual pursuits were safe - as long as there was no idealist around to turn ideas into actions, idealism into fanaticism.
Well, both Cally and Blake were no more, so it was a moot point anyway.
The bar at a remote corner of the freeport was dark, smoky, noisy, and stank unbearably. It was stifling Avon. He yearned to get up and leave. He hadn't wanted to come in the first place, but Avalon had been tediously insistent in sending messages left and right for Orac's tarial ears, and now she was late. He'd be perfectly justified if he left. However, she would only badger him for another meeting. These rebels never knew how to quit. Or when.
He spotted her as soon as she entered the bar and headed for the booth purposefully. Avon noticed she was limping. As she sat down, he also noticed she was favoring one arm. Typical, that. Their futile fight took away pieces of the rebels until it claimed all of them eventually. Sometimes, the wounds were visible. Sometimes they went deeper than that.
'Thank you for coming," she said.
"You did your best to make it impossible not to," he grumbled. "I don't appreciate my name being broadcast all over creation."
"You're a hard man to find."
"I should sincerely hope so. I'm here, you're here, get on with it."
"I need you," she said simply.
He glared at her. "Unless you can prove why I should need you in return, I don't see this conversation going far."
"Actually, I need something from you. Rather, someone. The Cause needs him."
Avon grimaced at the way the word audibly acquired a capital letter when a member of Blake's rabble used it. "If that's your pitch, I could've saved myself this trip. Just for the sake of clarification, who precisely are we talking about?"
She told him. Avon stared at her for a long minute. At one point, Blake must've told her or how could she know? Avon's immediate reaction was refusal - perhaps because, since Terminal, for some aberrant reason, the idea had occurred to him as well. He had refused himself too.
Avalon seemed to notice he wouldn't be forthcoming. "Listen to me, Avon. It's important - no, vital. Once the Federation ruled with the power of the mighty. Now it's weak, splintered. The Pacification Program is the only reason it can still control. Lately the resistance movement is getting more and more support; we have ships, fighters, resources. We have..."
Avon interrupted impatiently. "I know what you have. You have a beast with too many heads, each determined to lead in the direction of its own nose. In short, Avalon, you have a movement that is going precisely nowhere. It's a contradiction in terms and a waste of time. So don't waste mine."
"Exactly. The Federation is fragmented, and so are we. If you know all that, surely you realize why I have to have him. What other name, which other voice, can pull the factions into a comprehensible whole?"
"No," Avon said firmly. "'It's a foolhardy notion. Besides, I'm not your errand boy."
"I wouldn't ask you to run my errand if I could run it myself," Avalon snapped. "Would you care to tell me where to find him then?"
So Blake had kept some secrets after all. "I will not. You're going to have to find another figurehead," Avon refused again, then found himself adding in almost a sigh, "Leave him be."
"We're talking of Blake," she insisted. "He'd want this himself."
"We're not talking of Blake - merely a construct who happens to wear Blake's face."
He remembered the one time he had heard that man's voice: so familiar, yet with a difference in it, a patient, level tone, heard only in the voices of spirits at peace with themselves. Something Blake's rebellious, restless spirit had always lacked...and now, would never know.
"Blake is dead," he finished.
"How do you know?"
"I was told," he answered shortly.
"And you, of course, are given to taking things on faith."
During the days spent among the Liberator's original crew, Avalon obviously had learned a few things about him. Annoyed, Avon shook his head. "That is no way to convince me to go dashing off on your errand. Effective arguments require consistency. If Blake is alive, why should you need his replica?"
"Look at it this way, Avon. If a Blake is evidently heading the resistance, the Federation will have to present irrefutable proof of the real Blake's fate."
Then I'll know one way or another, Avon thought, suddenly finding himself getting ensnared by Avalon's scheme.
"Also," the woman continued, "if Blake is alive and free, the replica will serve as a decoy to throw the Federation off his tracks. We might actually be preserving his life. Maybe he'll be able to reach us then, some way."
Avon couldn't decide if he cared to put one Blake on the firing line to get the other out of it.
Suddenly, his own inconsistency struck him. The clone was not Blake - just a construct. With Blake's body and face - presumably, since Avon had never seen him. Not cloned from real tissue, merely from a blueprint, he reminded himself, memory supplying Blake interrogating his twin about his existence, looking both fascinated and revolted at the idea.
Some other being had to be living in Blake's body, which was why Avon had always resisted his curiosity. But as each lead, each rumor had turned false or deadly, the curiosity had become - temptation? But could a blueprint have possibly resulted in a being to whom Avon could say: take it back, set me free?
Probably not. Still, Avalon had a point. Blake would have used his twin without hesitation if he thought it would further his precious cause. If the clone willingly picked up the banner Blake had dropped - the banner Avon had neither the inclination nor the capacity to carry - it would, in a sense, discharge an obligation and free Avon.
Avalon was watching him patiently, but expectantly. "Two conditions," Avon said. "I will do it my way, and it'll be his choice.
"Of course," Avalon readily agreed.
* * *
"Okay, we're out of orbit," Tarrant announced. "Where exactly are we going?"
"You wouldn't know it," Avon answered. "Orac, give Slave the coordinates you have listed under the code 'Coser' - just to Slave, Orac, no need to speak up."
"There's a need to speak up," Tarrant objected. "Surely you don't expect me to fly blind."
"I expect you to do precisely nothing but sit there. You're just going along for the ride. Or would you rather take shore leave on AS-612 until I get back - would any of you?" He cast a look around the flight deck of the Scorpio. No one looked inclined to take him up on his offer.
Neither, it seemed, was Tarrant, but of course that wouldn't make the young pilot keep his mouth shut. "We're all sick of your highhanded attitude, Avon. I demand to know where you're taking us and why."
Vila spoke up, forestalling the fireworks about to erupt between Avon and Tarrant. "Coser! I remember now - come on, Avon, why're we going back there? It did us no good last time, if you'll remember, that weapon's best left buried forever, and there's nothing there anymore that any of us could be interest..." Abruptly, he broke off, then continued, "Except... oh, come on, Avon!"
"What are you worried about?" Avon snapped. "You weren't marked. Slave, make certain we're not followed."
*I humbly point out, Master, that I always do my best to make sure that you are free of pursuit by the Federation.*
"It isn't only the Federation I'm worried about at the moment. I don't want to be followed by anybody."
*Yes, Master, I shall be most vigilant.*
"Well, Avon," Tarrant piped up again. "Slave is willing to obey your every whim, and Vila seems to know what's going on for a change. I don't fall into either category - what exactly are you up to?"
"This concerns none of you. I don't want any of you involved. It is my problem alone."
"That's what you said the last time," Vila grumbled, "and look what happened. That time you were chasing after Blake, too."
"Blake?" Dayna evidently considered it time to join the discussion. "Are we running after ghosts now? What has Blake got to do with anything anymore?"
"Not a damned thing!" Avon snapped, his forbearance - never in large supply - severely frayed. "If only people could make the simplest distinctions." He glared at Vila, then took in the rest of the crew. "Just for the record, we're going to a certain planet where I will, if he is still there, talk to somebody. You don't know him, you have no reason to know him. Even I don't know him, but I have decided to comply with a request from Avalon, period."
"How forthcoming of you," Tarrant said, while Dayna mumbled simultaneously. "Sound the alarms, someone."
"I know him," Vila added.
"No, you don't!"
The thief argued. "Well, strictly speaking, maybe not, but I know Blake and I'd say he has a lot to do with Blake."
"You're an idiot; you'd say anything," Avon retorted, wondering why Vila had chosen to talk to him at this moment, and over this issue, when for the last weeks the thief had cultivated a policy of icy silence toward him.
"At the risk of being included in the list of idiots," Dayna spoke up. "I'd like to know who has what to do with whom, and why are we going to heaven knows where? Well, Avon?"
If the pushy inquiry had come from Tarrant, it would've been Avon's pleasure to ignore it. Dayna was a different story. To a slight degree. "I can see there'll be no peace until your curiosity is satisfied. Very well. Almost four years ago, while the Clone Masters still existed, they created a clone of Blake for the Federation's purposes. It was not a true clone, merely a replica. Evidently, it had enough of Blake's characteristics to go rogue on them. As far as I know, it's been living in exile on a deserted world since then, providing it's still alive. Avalon seems to feel it could be useful to the resistance.
"So what's our involvement with it?" Dayna wanted to know.
"None. As I've already told you."
Tarrant picked up what was now approaching interrogation in Avon's opinion. "All right, what's your involvement with it then? Any Blake will do in a pinch?"
"I've said all I care to on the subject."
Tarrant didn't know when to quit. "Well, I haven't. You say we're just along for the ride. Remember that, Avon. If you get yourself into another mess and expect us to get you out of it."
"I never expect anything from you. If only you were capable of comprehending that all this browbeating could be avoided. The subject is closed."
"We'll see about that," Tarrant shot back.
Avon spun on his heels. "Slave, keep me informed," he threw over his shoulder, and did something he had never done aboard the Scorpio before. He climbed into one of the sleep alcoves, and lowered the opaque, soundproof shielding to shut himself off from the rest of the crew.
Now they would interrogate Vila to their hearts' content. Fine. As long as Avon didn't have to be involved in it. Blake's name had already been bandied about more often than he cared to hear that day, or any other day.
But it took only a few seconds before the relief of being isolated from the claustrophobic presence of the others gave way to a more immediate form of isolation and claustrophobia. Suddenly, it was hard to breathe, and perspiration broke out all over him. This was the reason he never entered the coffin-like alcoves, preferring to forego sleep and merely rest on one of the couches on the flight deck.
Firmly, he reminded himself he could get out any time he wished, concentrated on the clean air being pumped into the chamber, fresh enough to erase any lingering presence of anybody else who had lain there. He forced himself to breathe deeply at a slow, even rate.
Not confinement. Privacy. Peace.
Not isolation. Solitude. Quiet.
There - a little rational thought was all it took.
He didn't sleep. It had never come easily. Lately, it simply didn't come. But second thoughts did.
Why had he let Avalon talk him into this bit of nonsense? To call it by its name, Dayna was right, ghost-chase pretty much covered it.
He didn't really give a damn what happened to Blake's banner, did he? So why?
Hope? No. Ridiculous.
Perhaps in order to be simply doing something. Why not? As long as it wasn't something vitally important. Something that didn't have the power to hurt or disappoint. If he didn't find the replica, what did it matter to him? If he did, well, what did that matter? The clone would either accept Avalon's proposal or reject it. Six of one, half a dozen of the other, both adding up to the same zero as far as he was concerned. This Blake, who was no Blake, would have no rights to Orac or anything else that was Avon's. He wouldn't be asking uncomfortable questions.
No, we didn't find Jenna. Frankly, I never looked for her. Not for her.
The Liberator? Well now, that's a long story.
Cally? You won't like that answer either
Oh, no, Vila isn't dead - although it wasn't for want of trying on my part.
If you're dead, Blake, kindly have the grace to stay that way. I've grown used to my own disappointments.
No, the clone, if found, would be safe. Even if he were as revolutionary-minded as Blake, what could he want with the Scorpio? It was not a fighting ship. The stardrive, maybe, but who said he had to know about it? Of course, as things stood since Malodaar, Vila just might leave with the replica. Fine, he could go and be someone else's parasite.
Avon didn't care.
* * *
The forward thrusters of the Scorpio cut off abruptly enough to bring Avon rushing out of the sleep alcove. "Slave, what the hell's going on?"
*I apologize most sincerely, Master," the ship's main computer whined. *But I can approach our target no further. My insignificant capabilities cannot cope with the obstruction in a manner that can assure your safety.*
"What obstruction?" Avon demanded.
*It is referring to the mine field,* Orac supplied, *which it would have missed until too late if it weren't for me. The space around the planet has been extensively seeded with proximity mines that prohibit approach.*
Tarrant was sitting with his long legs propped up, his hands laced over his lap, radiating insolence. "Sounds like you're not wanted, Avon."
"Don't be ridiculous, it can't possibly be personal." Soolin snubbed the pilot. Avon knew the gunfighter wasn't defending him. She just frowned on haphazard shots. She liked precision in an attack.
Tarrant was undaunted. "Well, someone on the planet doesn't like visitors."
"Wrong again," Avon commented then addressed Orac. "Proximity mines were there before. The Liberator could achieve orbit. Why can't the Scorpio?"
*At that time they were not this dense.*
Servalan had taken extra precautions. She wouldn't want anybody accidentally stumbling on Imipak, or the clone to be able to leave this world with the weapon. It was too much of a personal threat to her.
*Further,* Orac continued, *the Liberator had shields. The Scorpio may sustain serious damage.*
"What do we do now?" Vila asked.
"Tuck tail and run?" Tarrant suggested. "And why not?" he continued when Avon didn't deign to reply. "You've done it often enough lately."
Vila shrugged. "So what's wrong with tucking tail and running away?"
Tarrant smiled at the thief unkindly. "Say something surprising for a change, Vila.
"Well, I don't see anything wrong with it."
*If you will all stop bickering!* Orac interrupted, sounding like a patriarch saddled with a pack of juvenile delinquents. *The mine field does not preclude teleportation and I should have the coordinates soon.*
Avon went to stand by his console. "Give me some visuals."
*At this distance, how do you expect me to get ground visuals?*
"Then by what means are you setting the coordinates?"
*I'd appreciate closer attention to accuracy. I did not say I was setting the coordinates. I am merely waiting to be informed of them.*
Avon whirled on the machine. "Inform... Orac, did you already establish contact?"
Sometimes it was a shame Orac was not vulnerable to a solid thump on its proverbial head.
"So much for surprise visits," Tarrant gleefully put in.
Avon was too busy scowling at the computer. "Since when have you started volunteering information to strangers?" Vila had started laughing, a sound Avon had not heard since Malodaar. He spun to face the thief. "And what do you find so amusing?"
"Don't you see?" Vila sputtered. "He's not a stranger. He's Blake."
"Vila, if you insist on that idiotic..." Avon started menacingly.
"But I'm not. Orac is. Your precious, oh-so-perfect collection of circuits couldn't tell the difference. Gods, that's rich."
Avon turned back to the computer, indignant on its behalf. "That can't possibly be true, can it, Orac?"
"Orac, I asked you a question!" There was more silence. Avon sighed. He really wasn't ready to speculate on the embarrassment quotient of a machine. "All right, give me a straightforward report then."
*Thirty-four minutes ago, through subspace contact, we were asked to identify ourselves and state the purpose of our approach. After confirming the caller's identity...*
"Through voice pattern match, I take it?"
*Correct. I supplied the requested information, and was in turn told to stand by for the teleport coordinates.*
The machine had recited in a dry, mechanical voice it had never used before, probably its way of dealing with its lapse. Vila was still cackling. Avon threw him a dirty look. "And there were no objections to our presence?" he asked Orac.
*None that was expressed to me,* came the careful reply.
"So you are wanted after all," Tarrant interjected. "I think somebody down there doesn't know you, Avon."
Avon ignored him pointedly. "While you were being so forthcoming, Orac, did you happen to mention me by name?"
"And the response was?"
Orac answered after a pronounced hesitation, perhaps for the first time in its existence. *Blake said he was looking forward to seeing you.*
All of a sudden, Avon felt precisely like tucking tail and running away. Instead, he addressed the computer sternly. "Blake said nothing of the sort. How could you be incapable of making that distinction, Orac? Have I been overestimating you all this time?"
An unlikely source, Vila, came to the computer's defense, strolling close. "Oh, give the thing a break, Avon. As you keep reminding us, it's just a machine. The voice pattern matched exactly and the circuits immediately identified it as Blake's."
"It knew about the clone," Avon argued, wondering why he was letting himself get drawn into an argument with, of all people, Vila.
"So? How's he supposed to tell who's which when there's nothing to distinguish one from the other? He did this before, remember? He couldn't tell the difference between the Liberator and its sister ship - same configurations and all, I'd suspect - until there were two of them side by side. He kept us sweating for days.
Avon glared at him. "What makes you a computer expert all of a sudden?"
"What do you think Federation security locks are made of, dead bolts?" Vila said, in a totally uncharacteristic tone, straightening his back and lifting his chin.
Avon found himself looking, not down at Vila, but almost directly across at him, and realized - after five years - that the thief was not considerably shorter than himself as he had always assumed.
"Besides," Vila continued in a voice that didn't carry past Avon, "I know there are some judgments no machine can make...and so do you. Or you'd have trained Orac years ago to open the locks you keep me around for and cycled me out of an airlock long before Malodaar." With that, he spun around and went to his usual seat.
Avon suddenly felt an overwhelming need to be anywhere but on this ship. "Do you have those damned coordinates yet?" he snapped at Orac.
*Affirmative.* Orac was very subdued. *They just came through. Should I confirm?*
It was Tarrant who jumped in. "No," then asked when Avon glared at him, "If you're welcome here, what took thirty-something minutes?"
"Thank you, Tarrant, I'm sure I couldn't have thought of the implications myself. If it is a trap, what do you care?"
"Not a whit. As long as you understand you're alone with it once you leave the ship, which might or might not be here when you feel like returning."
"You're being redundant, Tarrant. Orac, confirm the coordinates."
He selected a weapon from the gunrack. Dayna came over and picked one up for herself. She slipped it into her belt holster and strolled back to her seat. "Tarrant doesn't make the decisions on this ship," she said loudly, patting the gun with a casual gesture.
Avon knew Dayna wasn't exactly taking his side. Since Tarrant had admitted to his activities on Virn, she had been repeatedly opposing the pilot just for the sake of opposing him. That one lapse in judgment, she wouldn't ever forgive.
Avon put on a bracelet and tucked two more into a pocket then went to Orac. "Can you teleport me half a mile from the coordinates?"
*It would be inadvisable. My only guide from this position is the homing signal of the subspace communicator now transmitting from a new location. I cannot guarantee where you will materialize if I veered from it.*
Everything was a gamble lately, why should this be any different? "All right then, stick to the coordinates." He commandeered Orac's key, met Tarrant's glare with one of his own, and took his position inside the teleport chamber. Scorpio was more likely to stick around if Orac's key was on the planet with Avon. The levers on the teleport control moved as if of their own volition.
* * *
Avon whirled around, sweeping a circle with his gun, at the bottom of a dry crater, with the subspace communicator next to his feet. He backed into the closest wall of rock, surveying the mouth of the pit.
Nothing and no one moved.
"Well now, if you were so looking forward to this, where the hell are you?" he mumbled, sliding the gun into its holster. This close to Imipak the gun was hardly much use.
He studied the communicator, then picked it up to sling across his shoulder by its strap. It didn't look like it had been dropped into this cavity. So there had to be a path out of it. He found it easily. Halfway up he had already decided that the clone must be a lot more agile than Blake. He was almost at the top when a shadow fell on him. He looked up at the large figure crouching on the edge, one hand extended down to him. For a brief moment, Avon couldn't move, told himself he was only breathless because of the climb. Framed against the blazing sunlight, the clone's features weren't clear, but his solid bulk and shape were unmistakable. So was the deep voice. "Let me help you up."
"No, thank you," Avon grumbled when he found his own voice. Why had it suddenly felt like something had touched a scabbed-over place inside, when he hadn't even known he was carrying a scar?
He pulled himself up, climbed to his feet, then promptly started dusting off his clothes, studiously delaying the moment he had to look at the clone, who was now standing right next to him, giving the impression of taking up more space than any one man should. "So you also believe in playing games - according to your own rules, no doubt."
"Sorry for the inconvenience," the all-too-familiar voice said, sounding all-too-familiarly unrepentant. "I thought it prudent to have some time to watch you before revealing myself. To make sure you are Avon. I do know what you look like, you realize."
Avon studied his surroundings, directing his eyes anywhere but at the man by his side. He hadn't seen this part of the planet. It was hilly, densely wooded, probably far from the abandoned industrial complex he had been in before. "You, of all people, should realize resemblances guarantee nothing."
"True. So are you Avon, the real one?"
It was early afternoon and the height of summer it seemed, as Avon squinted up at the red sun. "Yes, but why should my answer guarantee anything?"
"I'm willing to take your word for it."
"Then you're a fool. You might have a lot in common with Blake after all."
"If you're going to insult someone, Avon, you should at least be able to look him in the face." But he didn't sound insulted, only smug.
How dare he notice exactly what Avon was avoiding, this stranger? Avon whirled on him, with a suitably cutting remark at the tip of his tongue - where it stayed.
He couldn't decide what fascinated him more, the similarities or the differences. Or the differences he could see in the clone which by now must be in fact similarities. This was a man who definitely belonged outdoors, and it was hard to identify his stock as an Alpha from a dome city of Earth. The wild mane of curls, much longer than Blake would have allowed it to grow, had been bleached by the sun until it had acquired copper glints. But the same hair - and the full, unruly beard - was also liberally sprinkled with gray. That had to be genetic, so Blake's own hair would also look like this now, at the age of not-yet-forty.
The tip-tilted, heavy lidded eyes looked lighter against the dark tan of the broad face, their green flecks more evident, with added lines crinkling their corners. Perhaps aging, perhaps squinting against uncontrolled light.
The clone was also a harder, firmer man within the same frame, a sign of doing more bodily work in these few years than Blake had done in all his life. Avon noticed he wore loose pants from some rough, thick material, and heavy boots, as had been Blake's preference as well, but all he had on otherwise was a long-furred vest that left his arms and wide chest bare. His attire was totally at odds with the weather, and judging by the moist sheen covering every visible inch of his skin, he couldn't be unaware of it. It dawned on Avon that he probably wasn't used to clothing himself on this empty world, except in cold weather. Or now, for a stranger dropping in out of the sky. He wondered how Blake's sensibilities would handle it if he were to lay eyes on his uncivilized-looking counterpart.
The question brought Avon's wandering mind to the here and now with an embarrassing jolt as he realized he had been scrutinizing a stranger with unfitting intensity. "Irrelevant. There's no issue that might be satisfactory or unsatisfactory." About to avert his eyes, he was caught by a very familiar, if rare, smile that had always seemed to light those generously-drawn features from within. He sneered in response, because he was not totally immune to it. "Any reason why the occasion requires that supercilious smile?"
The clone's expression turned hesitant, almost childlike, and most of his resemblance to Blake was gone as if swept away by a careless hand. "I...I don't know. I feel I know you, but I don't, do I? I've never even seen you before, so why do I feel like I...missed you...or...should have missed you?"
"I'm sure I don't know," Avon snapped, thoroughly unsettled by the sincerity. "Kindly remember that I'm not accountable for anything they saw fit to program into your brain circuits. Why they should've impressed me upon them, in whatever fictitious form, is beyond me in the first place. You're not a true clone. Why should you have Blake's memories anyway?"
"I didn't, not at first. I think I had a rudimentary background - a sense of identity. It's hard to remember now. At least, distinctly. But later..." He frowned, looking like he was reaching for things he had not thought of for a long while, "...after I was taken from Master Fen...I was...trained, or so Servalan ordered. That's when the memories came. Because it wasn't going to stop with a single impersonation for Coser. I was to take Blake's place, actually work with the people he knew, who knew him. Until I could turn over the whole resistance movement to Servalan, along with the Liberator." He trailed off, dropped onto a nearby boulder as if pushed down by some weight, placed his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands in front of him.
So they had given him Blake's memories, what they knew of them at any rate. The holes had probably been filled with some rather accurate projections by a pyschostrategist. Pawnbrokers of a most despicable sort, Avon thought, first they rip away Blake's memories, then they loan them out like some recycled, patched-over commodity. But they wouldn't have made those memories a too-integral part of the clone, or they would have been simply creating an identical Blake who'd have proved as intractable as the original. Of course, that was pretty much what had happened. Still, the clone seemed perfectly aware that he was only a clone.
"The memories aren't mine though," the seated man said as if in confirmation, then refuted himself, "yet they are. I don't know how to explain it. Like a biography I have carefully memorized, but it was an autobiography. Like seeing two different images through each eye, but they get interlaced in my head. I know I'm 38 years old, yet I also know I have only been alive for 4 years. I realize I did not grow up in a family, or ever had any friends, but I feel them all the same, I can name them, describe them, even miss them on some level. I know you're a stranger, but you still feel familiar." The earnest eyes met Avon's. "Is this pathological psychosis?"
Avon had to swallow hard before he could answer. "You don't realize how much you're taking for granted by asking me that."
"I'm sorry." His gaze dropped back to his clasped hands.
Avon had thought the clone's similarities to Blake would be the most uncomfortable part of this meeting. Clearly, he had miscalculated. There was something defenseless about this being, a terrible innocence that was different than Blake's occasional naivete. "I only meant that most people would say I'm the wrong person to answer that particular question." He realized he was about to place his hands on the hunched shoulders and arrested the wayward impulse. "If you're worried about your sanity, don't waste your energy. There isn't any to be found anywhere out there. Even if you decide to leave this world after you hear the proposal I've brought, you should fit right in."
"Is that why you're here? Did...did Blake send you?"
"Blake doesn't send me anywhere anymore - if he ever did. In all likelihood, Blake is dead. He's certainly lost. I haven't seen him in over two years."
"Long story. Do you want to know why I'm here or not?"
"Yes, of course I do. It's just...well, whether I really knew them or not, there are people who populate my head. Like...Vila. Where's Vila?"
"Beyond the mine field, on the ship I just left. Are you through? It's bloody hot out here to be standing around, talking of the good old days that weren't all that good in the first place."
The clone rose to his feet. "My home is past the trees, about a twenty minute walk." He led the way; Avon followed. "Is it the Liberator out there? Who else is...?"
"No, it's not the Liberator and that's enough!" Avon interrupted with a sudden rush of hostility. "If I wanted an interrogation, I'd be out there still looking for your namesake rather than here. Avalon - they must've mentioned Avalon somewhere - has a proposal for you, which I personally think is as harebrained as any these revolutionaries come up with. I'm merely the message bearer. Do not presume past that."
The clone had stopped at his outburst, and was now studying Avon. "Am I ever likely to say anything that's not going to get your back up?"
"I doubt it," Avon answered in all honesty, then shrugged. "Conditioned reflex."
The curly head shook solemnly. "Not by me."
Chalk one up to the clone. "True," Avon admitted grudgingly. "I know you're not Roj Blake."
"I am Roj Blake. I'm just not your Roj Blake."
Avon scowled. "I don't care for the way you put that."
"What would you prefer? The real Roj Blake? I feel just as real. The older Roj Blake? We're exactly the same age. The original? The blueprint? The master?"
Avon couldn't help a half-smile. "Well now, that last has a certain ring that might have appealed to Blake - although he wouldn't have admitted it."
"For the sake of clarity," the clone continued, "since you seem used to calling him Blake, we can refer to him by that name..."
"I'd prefer we didn't refer to him at all."
The other man continued as if uninterrupted, "and you can call me Roj." He cocked his head inquisitively at Avon's expression. "What's the matter? You don't care for familiarity either?"
"Not much, no."
"Think of it as expediency to start with. Time will take care of it eventually."
"Even if I plan to live that long, I don't intend to stay around for the duration," he cast a look at the surrounding trees, "that is if you can stop wasting time and get us to wherever it is we're going."
They continued on their way.
"So what does this - who, Avalon? - want with me?"
* * *
"There." The clone pointed as soon as they were out of the wooded area. Avon studied the almost featureless clearing. Past it, there was a power plant, now overrun with trees, limbs and branches entwining and competing with metal towers in reaching for the sky, like a strange sculpture built in a moment of cooperation between nature and technology. On top of a spiral tower perched a rotating scanner scope, probably what had spotted the Scorpio's approach. The power plant was operational, at least partially.
To one side of the clearing was a squat, transparent building, rectangular in shape and obviously a greenhouse. But Avon could see nothing that could serve as a residence, let alone an entrance to it, unless one cared to burrow into the ground, over there, by the mound of dirt...
A passageway abruptly opened on the side of that mound. Something rushed out of it with a movement Avon could only describe as a cross between a dash and a wobble. He stopped dead in his tracks, and upon closer inspection labeled it as a small child, about three or so. He became aware he was gaping and closed his mouth, wondering why he was surprised. He knew there was a female also left on this empty world. An offspring, he supposed, was a natural progression.
The clone had also stopped, hands at his waist, radiating disapproval. "Didn't I tell you to stay inside until I got back?" he sternly demanded of the little figure coming at them on stubby legs.
The boy - Avon concluded it was a boy despite the riotous curls tumbling every which way - seemed to know something about the better part of valor. He did an about-face and attempted to make himself scarce. His father covered the distance easily in two long strides and scooped him up, seemed to consider shaking him, then sighed. "I suppose I should've moved the latch higher."
The child looked more indignant at being manhandled than worried about the consequences of disobedience. In another second, he was ignoring his father and curiously but warily studying the stranger from under lowered lashes.
"'Areth, say hello to Avon." The boy's thumb went into his mouth as he ducked his head into the crook of his father's neck. "Sorry, he's not used to seeing anybody new."
"That's perfectly all right; I'm not used to children."
Avon was led through the opening half in and half out of the ground. It was a makeshift entrance, uneven steps hewn out of stone and dirt, followed by a low, dim passage. It led directly into a metal-walled corridor, and the ceiling lifted into the strut-lined, glow-paneled style of an industrial building. This had to be some underground part of the power plant, a corner of it now converted into living quarters.
They entered an elongated room in which lights and air circulation had been restored. Not everything was operational; the pneumatic door, for one, had to be pushed open. The place held a mishmash of couches, tables, chairs - some salvaged, some built from rough wood. A section of the room was paneled off, and there were various doors that must lead to other parts of the abandoned complex.
"Why do you live underground?" Avon asked.
"The temperatures get into the extremes, and the heating system never really worked. It's easier to keep cool or warm down here. Besides, there are some nasty life forms, mostly in or around the main complex. One of the reasons we don't live there. Sometimes, especially in winter when food is scarce, they venture into the woods." He put the little boy down, who then promptly wrapped himself around one of his father's legs and kept peering at Avon. "Make yourself comfortable, I want to talk to Rashel. She must've gone to the tower to watch for me." He disappeared through a half-open door. The boy scampered after him.
Avon looked around. The wall with the inset array of electronic equipment instantly absorbed him. Some of the equipment was obsolete, not in technology, but in their use to a couple of exiles, so they had been left dormant. The room had to have served as a small rec-hall to people working in the power plant, who had probably been just as uprooted as the present occupants. Avon concluded that the planet had temporarily housed a central complex of factories, research and/or processing stations, with a few auxiliary power plants, and had been deserted once whatever it offered was exhausted or became too costly to exploit.
A computer terminal on the wall could be called functional if one didn't mind using too generous a term. It worked after a fashion, but to a limited degree and rather capriciously. Avon's professional instincts itched.
He found some tools piled in a corner. Using one, he removed the access panel along the lower half of the wall, and sat back on his heels, glaring at the innards of the thing. Someone with only a slap-dash idea of what he was about - no need to guess who - had let loose in there and turned the intricate, precise mechanism into a mangled maze of circuitry, disrupting most functions while restoring basic operation. On closer inspection, Avon concluded that the clone evidently had a reasonable grasp of mechanics, and to a lesser degree, electronics, but a computer wasn't an engine. He leaned into the opening to see what could be done to...
He felt...something...right next to him, and jerked back. The boy was standing there, again studying him with intense concentration in his direct, artless gaze. Shouldn't this child be scared of a stranger? Perhaps he was too curious to be wary of the adult, but the adult was certainly wary of him. Avon scooted back, suddenly suspecting he was about to be poked or prodded as if he were an interesting specimen. Growing up in a strictly compartmentalized dome city, he had never been around children after he had stopped being one himself, and not very extensively even then. From the age of five, he had been put in groups of children far older than himself, behind them in age and size, usually ahead of them in capability, always the odd one out. His main recollection from that time was a certain pride that he had never been easy prey. He felt acutely uncomfortable and totally inadequate at finding a child in close proximity all of a sudden.
The boy's attention was drawn to the inside of the computerized wall. Only when a curious, pudgy finger aimed unerringly at a live flux-fiber did it occur to Avon that children and exposed circuitry might not make a healthy combination. Quickly, he grabbed the small wrist while with the other hand he slammed the cover into place. With a yelp, the boy squirmed. Avon realized he wasn't accustomed to toning down his strength to a child's scale and immediately let go.
The boy didn't seem to cower unduly. As Avon secured the cover, he had approached again, watching the procedure closely. As bad as having Vila around, Avon decided, wondering if the child's pesky presence would be as impossible to discourage as the thief's.
Of course, it had taken a drastic measure, but he had managed to discourage Vila. It seemed he had a genius for getting what he wanted, in a more generous dose than he had ever wanted, and realizing too late that he hadn't wanted it in the first place.
A mewling sound made him jump to his feet. As he followed the noise to a box-like thing carved out of wood and cautiously peered into it, the sound had become a high-pitched wailing.
Estimating the age of this one was beyond him. It was small, pink, and loud. And getting more pink as it got louder.
The boy had come to stand on tiptoe to peek into...the crib, Avon supposed. He looked up at the adult with large, solemn eyes and said something. All that proved was that the boy could indeed talk. What he said was anybody's guess. But he kept repeating it until a syllable here and a tone there started to make sense, at least enough for Avon to decipher that he was being told the baby wanted to be picked up.
He moved away with all haste. No way was he touching that thing, not even to stop the noise. It looked like it could break.
The clone resolved it all by returning and picking up the baby, cradling it inside the curve of one arm. "She's hungry."
"It seems to me she's wasting her time," Avon commented, watching the baby stop crying as she rolled her head searchingly against the man's chest.
The clone chuckled, then called out, "Rashel."
The woman who came in, wearing a simple tunic, was young, delicate, and very pretty with long, straight dark hair and grey eyes. Those eyes were also unmistakably hostile when they raked over Avon.
"Rashel, this is..."
Before the introduction could be completed, she had grabbed the baby and disappeared again.
"I'm sorry," the clone said. "She's upset."
Avon decided he already had his share of hostility from people who were normally around him. "I'll wait on the ship," he raised the bracelet to his mouth, "until you make a decision."
Unexpectedly, the clone's hand was on his, pushing it down. Blake had never touched him so casually. Neither had he had calloused palms.
"I should've said scared, not upset."
"Either case, it'll be best if I..." Avon started.
"It won't make any difference. Anyway, the decision is made."
"Well?" Avon prompted when he wasn't readily informed of it.
"Why delay?" Avon shot back, deciding anew that he could get just as easily annoyed with the replica as with the original.
"You're right, I'm being self-indulgent. You must have other things to do, places to go, and your friends are waiting."
Put like that, Avon suddenly couldn't think of the first reason to be in any hurry. "Take your time," he mumbled. He realized the clone would think it a sarcastic comment, but didn't care to explain that he no longer had a place or a purpose that drew him, and 'friends' were a joke.
"Will you walk out with me? I won't take too much of your time."
"Very well," Avon said, stifling the sigh at the thought of the heat outside.
Under the trees, the heat was bearable. The clone leaned against a tree trunk, absentmindedly letting one of his arms be used as a swing by the boy who had followed them. "Rashel was born a labor grade bond slave," he started. "That's all she knows of the life out there. Then she was abducted by a madman who could've killed her or gotten her killed. This empty world is the only place of freedom she's known. The only time in her life she didn't have to live in constant fear, or wasn't abused and scorned. She's terrified of doing back."
By then, Avon already knew what the decision was, and that should've been enough, but he found himself arguing. "She won't be going back to that. These rebels have more shortcomings than I can count. Class prejudice isn't one of them. You won't be joining a guerilla band fighting in the ditches. Lately, Avalon is backed by the free government of Lindor, by President Sarkoff. My guess is, the threat of the Pacification Program was the last straw for him. Avalon has resources now, and a vested interest in keeping you safe. You'll be in civilized company."
"You don't understand. Rashel tells me I can't really understand either. This has little to do with how people might act toward her. It's something inbred. It's emotional, and probably not very rational. Would you believe, when she was carrying 'Areth..." That reminded him of the boy. He looked down, then leaned over and swung him up over his shoulders, and the child settled there, clutching fistfuls of his father's hair. "...she tried to keep it a secret, tried to run and hide. In her experience, for her to have my child is a crime. She even expected me to blame her. She still wakes up screaming sometimes, convinced they're taking her babies away to be destroyed. I realize it sounds like paranoia..."
Avon shook his head. "No, it doesn't." He knew on how many worlds Rashel's fears were too immediate a reality. The issue of a bond slave and an Alpha wouldn't be allowed to contaminate the Federation's carefully controlled genetic peg holes. "On top of that, these children carry, for all purposes, the genes of one Roj Blake. I'm afraid your woman's instincts are more accurate than you might care to believe. But nobody's proposing to take you to one of the federated worlds."
"I know. That doesn't mean anything to Rashel." The boy was now trying to reach an overhead branch, losing his balance. His father steadied him and stepped away from the tempting tree limb. "To her there's an outside world. And then there's this one and us. I can't force her to leave."
It wasn't any of his business, but Avon asked anyway. "Do you want to leave?"
The clone thought a long while before answering. "I've been content here, I think, but it is...lonely. And I...sometimes...wonder. Sometimes I even feel there's a part of me that wasn't made for contentment." Then he shook his head firmly. "But it's impossible now."
When had that ever bothered Blake - any Blake? And why, Avon wondered, was he still arguing when he had already decided that the man's acceptance or refusal didn't mean a thing to him. "Actually, it might be the only time when it's not impossible. You don't have any other means to get off this planet. Even if somebody friendly happened by, they can't get through the mine field."
"I know. We lived here for four years. We can live longer."
Avon concluded he had intruded more than seemly into a stranger's life and kept his jaw clamped, despite grave misgivings. If he voiced them, it might sound too much like concern, but he did wonder what would happen when the children came of age.
Perhaps his expression mirrored his thoughts, for the other man continued, sounding almost apologetic. "This is a particularly bad time for Rashel. She gets very insecure when she's pregnant."
"What, again!"' Avon couldn't help bursting out. "What are you trying to do, single-handedly repopulate the whole planet?"
"Medicine is not my field; there are no contraceptives here."
"Ever heard of abstinence?" Avon mumbled, not intending to be heard.
But obviously, he was. "What's wrong with creating life?" A defiant tone came into the clone's voice, making him sound just like Blake again.
"I wouldn't know." He seemed destined to specialize in the taking of it. "Not my field." He changed the subject. It had been none of his business in the first place. "I'll tell Avalon you've refused." He raised the bracelet. "If there's nothing else..."
Suddenly, the sun-dappled eyes looked forlorn. "I'd like to think of something, but I can't."
It was just as well this man was staying on this world. He wouldn't survive long out there if he insisted on broadcasting his feelings.
"I am glad I got to meet you. Goodbye, Avon," the clone finished, and turned away.
His arm suspended halfway to his mouth, Avon watched the wide back recede from him, with the boy bouncing on top of it. "Roj," he found himself calling out. Well, he had to call him something. 'Hey you', just didn't seem appropriate, and he wouldn't, couldn't, call him Blake.
"I'll leave as soon as I restore some proper function to that atrocity you call a computer."
The man turned, his smile giving serious competition to the glaring blaze of the sun.
* * *
"He said what!?" Tarrant burst out.
Vila patiently repeated himself. "He said he'll be staying for a while."
The thief shrugged. "Till he's good and ready if I know Avon."
"Did he happen to say what he found so captivating down there that he can't tear himself away?"
"Nope. I asked him if he found Blake and he just growled at me."
"I think it was the way you put it, Vila," Soolin interjected. "He's been at pains to point out it isn't Blake there."
"So why doesn't he remember that and come on home?" Dayna asked. "How long does it take to get a yes or no to a proposal?"
Tarrant glared at the screen displaying the revolving planet. "It just might take longer than I care to stick around for."
"Do you have a pressing engagement we don't know about?" Dayna demanded.
"Do you have a pressing reason to cool your heels here?" Tarrant shot back.
Dayna faced the pilot squarely. "Care to try and move me?"
"Aw, come off it, both of you," Vila said. "What reason do any of us have for doing anything anymore? What difference does it make? Might as well drift here; it's as good as any place else."
The pilot and the warrior kept bristling at each other. Soolin walked between them. "Whatever reasons you both have, they aren't good enough to fight, so knock it off."
"What business is it of yours?" Tarrant wanted to know.
"Principle. One fights for profit or survival. Anything else is just a..." she looked from one to the other pointedly, "temper tantrum."
Vila sighed, propped his legs on the console, slid down the seat and closed his eyes. They'd bicker endlessly and end up staying. Wasn't that what they always did? It was called inertia or something.
* * *
Once she was assured they weren't going anywhere, Rashel seemed willing to stay in the same room with Avon, but still distant and mostly silent. It could be her nature; as a bond slave, she'd have had to learn to be unobtrusive, especially toward an Alpha. Still, Avon suspected she couldn't wait for him to leave. Her distrustful attitude did not bother him. In fact, it was an easier attitude to deal with, one he could understand. He wished some of it had rubbed off on her man. While Avon and Rashel ignored each other as if by mutual consent, the clone seemed to want to cram a lifetime of conversation into the brief period he was getting to share with a stranger. Blake had also had the inclination to intrude where he wasn't necessarily wanted, but he had never been this socially inclined.
Or perhaps he could've been. Perhaps he had been at one time. Before he had learned better. Before he had been taught the dangers. In a different reality, he might've been...
And that train of thought was for fools and dreamers. Avon preferred to consider himself neither.
Roj - as he gained individuality in his own right, it was getting hard to think of him as merely a clone of an original - had wandered away, but only momentarily. He returned, carrying two plates, one of which he offered to Avon.
Avon poked at the food. "Something is right." He tasted it and then, perhaps because he was essentially honest or perhaps because the man who had settled on the floor across from him looked eager to please, said, "Not bad, actually." He inspected the contents of the plate. "Isn't the local fauna fit for consumption?"
"I'm sorry, do you prefer meat?"
"Not necessarily. I merely asked a question."
"It's edible, but I don't like indiscriminate hunting." He laced the fingers of two hands together as if creating a symbol. "All life is linked."
Memory echoed: the ragged creatures called Decimas that were, in Avon's opinion, a long way from sentient, and Blake claiming something ridiculous like living beings couldn't be separated; being alive involved them together. The same man had later considered billions of deaths acceptable just to prove he had been right.
Avon snickered, looking pointedly from the fur vest to the homemade boots. "Oh?"
"I said indiscriminate. In winter, it becomes a matter of survival."
"Ah. Interesting, isn't it, how priorities reshuffle themselves then it comes down to basics?"
"Would you blame me for that?"
"Me?" Avon shook his head, genuinely amused. "I'd be the last person to blame anybody for trying to survive, by whatever means. Just the opposite, I find lofty idealism pompous. It's untenable to go against the nature of the beast."
They ate in silence. Avon was enjoying it, until he realized he was enjoying it, and froze with a spoonful of food halfway to his mouth. When the silence became comfortable...
He had stayed too long.
He put the plate to one side and gave his attention back to the work. He had to finish it and leave.
"Mind you, I'm not complaining," Roj broke the silence, "but why are you spending time and effort on that? It was adequate to our needs."
"It's the principle of the thing," Avon said shortly.
"As you wish."
It was the type of condescending statement Blake would've made when he was in his I'm-humoring-Avon mode. He glared over his shoulder at the man who wore Blake's face, and got a guileless smile in return.
"I, for one, wouldn't have any objections if you just visited."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Avon demanded.
"You don't have to be useful to me to justify your presence."
Avon snapped, "Don't tell me you're that unlike Blake."
"I thought we weren't supposed to refer to him."
Then don't look so much like him. Don't be perceptive. Don't be charming. Or at least have the decency to have his countless faults as well. "It's inherent in the situation, I'm afraid," he said, in almost a snarl. "We both have to live with it." Thankfully, he didn't have to, not for much longer.
"I do," Roj said in a subdued voice. "How can I avoid it? I was made in his image. It's the only reason I exist, the only reason Avalon wants me. The only reason you're here."
It suddenly occurred to Avon he had been too focused on his own reactions to consider how the other man might feel. "I'm sorry," he apologized sincerely. I didn't realize it bothered you."
"It's all right. I don't expect anything else."
"Maybe you should."
"It won't change the facts."
Avon indicated the woman and the children at the other end of the room. "You need proof of your individuality, there they are. What do they care about Roj Blake, the savior of the masses? I'd say you've justified your right to your own existence in ways Blake could never have." Blake would have liked to have put the whole universe on his shoulder to burp it, Avon thought, but he wouldn't have known what one crying baby needed.
Roj thought for a while, then smiled at Avon. "All right, I'll believe that if you'll believe I like your company even without the benefits I can reap from your talents."
It was time to retreat to the insides of the machine. "I do have a purpose for what I'm doing," Avon said as he ducked under the panel. "I'm attempting to expand the subspace communicator's range by splicing it into the local power source. Then I'm going to program a code into it. Do you know about Orac?"
"I know what it is."
"Only Orac and I will recognize the code. Transmit it when you're ready to leave this place." He had to come out from under the console to look for a tool. "It's going to take a teleport or an exceptional pilot to get through that mine field." Where had the magnetic probe got to? "The Scorpio has both." He found the instrument in his hand, looked up at the man who had put it there.
"You'll come back for me?"
Avon fidgeted, uncomfortable with the expression in the man's eyes, but unable to get away from it. "I can't promise I'll hear it. I can't even promise I'll be alive to hear it. But if I do, and if I can..." He didn't finish the sentence. Commitments were awkward enough without words.
Roj seemed to have excellent instincts. He let the subject drop immediately and became efficient. "I should be helping you." He put away his plate. "But these are two different technologies. Can they be made compatible?"
"From primitive to advanced, technology is different levels of the same thing. They all work on the same basic laws." Avon held up the coupler links, one from the power source of the local complex, the other from the Federation-issue communicator, visibly at odds with each other. "It's things like this that confound you. I don't suppose you happen to have a converter handy?"
"No, but I think we can fashion one. There's a molding press in a work room, and discarded spare parts from all over the place."
Avon climbed to his feet. "Show me."
* * *
"So what is all that?" Vila inquired, peering at the readout screen over the pilot's shoulder.
"Some ghosting, at the far edge of the detectors."
"Shouldn't we tell Avon?"
"Tell him what?" Tarrant snapped impatiently. "It can be anything. We don't own space, you know. Now, if Avon had seen fit to leave us Orac's key, we might have a better idea. As it is, he's going to have to stay as ignorant as the rest of us."
* * *
The twin moons had turned the landscape into a spectrum of blue, from the dark indigo shadows to an electric-silver glinting along the edges of the metal turrets and pylons of the power plant. With the night, the temperatures had dropped to comfortably cool. But along with it had come a breeze from the lower valley where Avon estimated the main complex lay deserted. It carried whiffs of a smell he remembered as permeating those buildings. An unpleasant smell, giving him the impression of something that bubbled gaseously as it decayed, reminding him of a sulphur pit, and leaving a faint acidic taste in his mouth.
He would be more comfortable inside, but he kept sitting at the edge of the clearing, against a tree. He should leave, but he wanted to run one systems check on the computers, and it had to wait until the morning.
After putting the children to bed, Rashel had sat silently, hands folded on her lap, not even looking at the two men. But it was so obvious she was waiting that Roj had finally suggested that they could all use a rest. He had offered Avon one of the couches and taken his woman to bed. They slept behind the panels, which had to have been erected to give them some privacy from the children, but still let the parents hear if one stirred in the night. Which meant any stirring on one side could be heard on the other.
Avon had chosen to come out and sit in the open air. It wasn't as fresh, though, as he'd have preferred. If he could just get over the unpleasantness of the smell, he felt he could identify its source.
The night was eerily quiet. The slight groan of the hidden door to the bunker alerted him instantly. Roj looked out from it, spotted Avon, and approached, carrying the baby pressed against his shoulder.
"She started fussing and I didn't want her to wake you up. But you were gone already."
Avon stayed silent, resigned to the end of the solitude.
The other man, wearing only the same pants he had on earlier, settled down next to him. "Couldn't sleep?"
Avon shook his head.
"Do you mind company?"
It seemed a belated question, but Avon restricted himself to shaking his head again.
They stayed quiet for a long while, until the baby started squirming and making little sounds. "What did you name her?" Avon asked, watching her father bounce her lightly, trying to decide if this one also looked like him. She had light eyes like her mother, but looked just as sturdily built as the boy within her tiny proportions.
"Gwynn. Rashel named them both. I don't seem to have a name I can freely lay claim to."
They fell silent again. The baby yawned. Roj slid down to stretch out on his back, and laid his daughter on his chest, one large hand rubbing the small back rhythmically. After some gurgling and kicking, the baby was asleep, softly rocked by the man's breathing, drooling freely onto his chest, but he didn't seem to mind.
"Tell me about Blake," the quiet, deep voice broke the silence.
Avon concluded the man didn't care for comparisons, but he was obviously curious. Perhaps as a child would be curious about the one who had spawned him. But Avon didn't feel like humoring him. "Not my favorite subject."
"All right." A soft sigh. "Tell me about yourself then." When Avon stayed silent, "That's not your favorite subject either?"
"I choose not to be a subject."
"Is it me specifically, or am I getting the silent treatment by proxy?"
Avon heaved an exasperated sigh. "What have I done to deserve all this interest?"
"You're such a paradox."
"That's a new one."
"No, really. I don't think you give a damn about what Avalon wants, but you delivered the message anyway. I get the feeling you came looking for Blake, but you get angry when I remind you of him. In fact, I don't think you know which bothers you more - that I'm like Blake, or unlike Blake. What do you want, Avon?"
"An end to this inane dissection!" he snapped.
The eyes that seemed to have acquired metallic glints in the twin-moonlight bore into Avon. "What did he do to you?"
He almost made me believe. "Nothing," he said shortly. "What are you going to do anyway, apologize for it?"
"No. But I've upset you again, and I do apologize for that. I have no excuse for it. Except maybe I fear that once you leave I'm going to regret the questions I should've asked when I had the chance."
"What can it possibly matter? What use are the answers to you?"
"Not everything has to have a tangible use to me - but I've said that before." He shifted the baby gently and climbed to his feet. "I have a feeling that boring you is a bigger mistake than angering you. I'll go back in."
Before Avon could say anything, the teleport bracelet came to life. "That's it, Avon," Tarrant's voice issued. "I'm bringing you up. Two patrol ships and a Phantom Class scout are heading this way. We're getting out of here."
Avon jumped to his feet. "Hold it!" Then, to make sure, he yanked the bracelet off. "They must be passing by. There's no reason for Federation ships to be interested in this place."
"Tell it to them. And put that damn bracelet back on, or you can rot there."
"They are coming this way, Avon," Dayna's voice verified. "Come on up. If there's someone you can't leave, we have room."
It wasn't that easy. The bracelets were made for adults. Avon had no idea if they'd work on a tiny baby, couldn't guarantee simply holding the children would be sufficient, and this was not something he cared to learn by trial and error.
"Did Vila manage to infect all of you?" he said with a sneer into the communicator. "There's no need to panic. It must be a coincidence."
"You guarantee that, do you?" Soolin's voice came through. "You're fine there, behind the mine field. In case you forgot, we don't have any way to protect ourselves."
"You have the stardrive. Don't draw attention, to yourselves or to me. Try to stay hidden and keep radio silence. If they get too close, move out. You can come back later."
"Don't count on it," Avon heard Tarrant say before the communicator went dead.
He turned to Roj who had been following the exchange closely. "Does this happen often?"
"Ships coming by? At the beginning they did, but I didn't have the scanner-scope up then. The only reason I know is we used to catch chatter on the subspace communicator. I suppose they were laying the mines."
"Nothing, until you showed up. As you've said, it must be a coincidence."
"Yes, well, that's what I said to them. Nothing for four years, and in the space of twelve hours four ships converge here? Comparatively speaking, that's not coincidence, that's a bloody convention. Come on, I want to know what's happening up there." He started for the bunker, came up short when Roj didn't readily follow. "What?"
"You misled them." He was disapproving.
"They can take care of themselves. The Scorpio can outrun even a plasma bolt. Worry about yourself."
"Why? Nothing can land here."
"True. But then why are three ships wasting their time in futility? It doesn't balance. I don't like equations that don't balance. Come on." This time, Roj followed him. Avon knew that the most sensible thing to do was to take himself back to the Scorpio and get the hell away. But if a threat from outside came up, Avon doubted this man was equipped to deal with it. And it was just possible that Avon had led the Federation to this little sanctuary.
* * *
Slave's detectors reported that the scout ship was going into orbital entry. Tarrant wished them luck. The patrol ships were deploying a search pattern around the planet. A very purposeful one, as if they knew there was something to find. Too soon, it would dawn on them to check into the moon shadow, where one of the satellites partially eclipsed the other. "Avon's out of time," Tarrant announced to the others, and saw Dayna throw a suspicious look at him over her shoulder. "By the Master's own orders," he reminded her with heavy sarcasm. Dayna didn't seem to have an answer.
Tarrant angled the ship's nose away from the curvature it was following around the satellite. "This will be interesting," he warned, "going from drift straight into stardrive. Take a few deep breaths; they may have to do for a while."
The sudden shift slammed the crew back against their seats as the Scorpio hurled itself into and through deep space. A stray exchange between two Federation ships was caught on a communication frequency just as the stardrive shot the ship away. It crackled through the console at the sluggish speed of sound although the source was by then left light distances behind.
"Negative on initial search pattern. Expanding the parameters," a man reported in clipped tones.
"Acknowledged, Patrol Leader. Contin..." came a too-familiar voice, then it was lost.
Tarrant fought the force of their momentum driving the air from his lungs. "Power down, Slave," he managed to get out and slowly the cruel pressure lifted until he could breathe freely again. He disengaged the stardrive altogether and sent the ship into an arch.
Then he froze. He was looking straight into Dayna's gun.
"Turn it around, Tarrant. We're not leaving Avon to Servalan."
"You don't need the dramatics, Dayna. I wouldn't give my worst enemy to Servalan - Avon qualifies."
"After Virn, how do I know what you will or won't give to her?" she snapped. "Turn around."
He waved at the front screen. "I already have."
"Hold it, hold it," Vila jumped in. "You mean we're going straight into those Federation ships? In this tub?"
"All we need is a careful approach and a quick pass, just long enough to teleport Avon up. Then, even if they fire at us, we can outrun it." He programmed the stardrive to take them back but cut off short of the system. This time they couldn't afford uncontrolled entry.
"I got the feeling Avon didn't want to be brought back up," Vila argued, "let alone snatched away. We might find ourselves at the business end of his gun."
"Do what I do. Duck fast."
* * *
According to the information being relayed to the computer terminal from the scanner-scope, there were two patrol ships up there, at a respectable distance from the mine field, seemingly chasing their own tails. The Scorpio must have left.
"Where's the third ship?" Avon muttered.
"Could be out of range," Roj suggested, coming back after putting the baby down.
Or it could've gone after the Scorpio. Avon sank onto the couch in front of the computer screen. "Keep watching," he told the other man, leaned his head back and closed his eyes. His brain resisted sleep insistently, but it did slow down periodically, and he had to concentrate to bring it back from the sluggish state. The patrol ships didn't seem to be an urgent threat. So far.
Roj sat on the couch. Avon almost smiled. He could always tell it was Blake taking a seat next to him on a padded surface. Because of the depression the man's weight caused, Avon's body got an inclination to lean his way, which had to be consciously resisted. He rearranged his own weight, becoming aware of other subtle but familiar signals. The clone might be a whole different being, but he occupied the same amount of space Blake had, felt like him, moved like him, softly grunted like him when concentrating on something - even smelled the same.
Eyes closed, Avon could almost feel himself back on the Liberator in the early days. Air and sound acquired a certain quality within metal walls, here in the bunker as well as in a spaceship. That, coupled with the presence of the man beside him, and the slight vibration of engines going through the soles of...
Avon jerked upright, the fog in his brain lifting instantly. "Do you have any large machinery operating close by, or is this place prone to quakes?"
"Hmm?" Roj turned away from the screen. "Neither. Why?"
"What's causing the vibration?"
"The vib...? Oh, yes, I feel it. I don't know what it can be."
Avon was at the console. "It can be a ship streaking through the atmosphere."
Both men turned at the inquiry. The sounds had awakened Rashel. She was watching them with wide eyes, already looking scared. Roj went to put an arm around her protectively. "It's all right, it's all right," he soothed.
Avon thought that a particularly idiotic utterance. He ignored both of them and gave his attention to the terminal. No sightings, but the computer did report an atmospheric disturbance, a tail of superheated particles slowly dispersing. Avon cursed. "It must be under the horizon, but it's here."
"The mine field," Roj objected. "How could anyone...?"
Viciously, Avon flipped off the switch. "Servalan," he spat out. Then he noticed the wordless question the others were directing at him. "Who else? She'd know how to circumvent the field." He'd wager anything that the information on the placement of the mines would have been purged from all data banks a long time ago. Servalan would have kept that knowledge for herself alone. "We weren't followed. There must've been a leak at Avalon's camp. Servalan is the only person who'd know where I had to come to find you. But why is she taking the chance? You still have the Imipak, don't you?"
"Yes, of course."
"I'm here, she's here," Avon said, not paying much attention to Rashel who shook off the arm around her and ran into the bed alcove. "It's not a coincidence. She's here because I'm here. Still, I can't believe she wants me bad enough to risk her life.
"She isn't," Roj said, "not as long as you're here. I can't activate the disrupter. You're marked, too. It'll kill you as well."
"That's impossible! It's a stupid way to build a weapon, if you can't choose your victim."
"I assume you can, but I don't know how to do it. She must be aware of that. She heard how much Coser told me about it."
Avon decided he should've listened to his finely-honed survival instincts and left with the Scorpio. By staying, he not only had put himself in danger, but also this man and his family by negating their one sure protection. "Can she?"
Roj thought briefly. "Yes, she can. She killed a guard. It didn't touch anybody else she'd marked. Must be a specific frequency. But I don't know who was marked on what frequency." He sounded frustrated.
Avon had his own frustrations to worry about. "Marvelous. We can't use the Imipak against her, but if she gets her hands on it, she can use it on me."
"She won't find it. It's well hidden."
"Well, we're not," Avon cast about, thinking furiously.
The other man wasn't being much of a help. "It's a big planet, Avon. How can she..."
He interrupted impatiently, waving in the direction of the power plant. "Not so big when there's only one spot that emanates energy. A couple of passes, and she'll zero in." He felt as if he were about to jump out of his skin, standing around gabbing uselessly when his whole being clamored for some kind of action. "Unless...unless we give her something else to focus on. Something specific, mobile, to lead her away from this place."
Rashel caught his attention by rushing out of the bed alcove. She had dressed and had a kind of harness strapped around her chest. She was also carrying weapons. Without a word, she thrust a rifle into Roj's hands, slung the other one around her own shoulder. Then she grabbed the baby, wrapping her inside a cover with the same move, to place her snugly into the harness. She went to wake up the boy, ignoring the sounds of sleepy protest from the children.
Avon found himself drastically re-evaluating his opinion that the woman was a rather decorative but thoroughly discountable part of the furnishings. She might be a naturally quiet, reticent creature, but obviously she wasn't stupid or helpless. Neither did she look scared anymore. However, she wouldn't be much use, lumbered with the children. They couldn't run - not as a group.
Searching for something, anything useful, Avon dug into his pocket and came up with Orac's key. The computer itself could've been of value, but the key was useless. Fleetingly, he remembered that without its activator Orac was also useless to the Scorpio's crew. Next, his hand came into contact with the two spare teleport bracelets. He pulled them out. Three bracelets in all.
"Are there any vehicles around? Remote controlled ones" he asked Roj, who was helping Rashel dress the boy. At his father's one firm admonishment, the child had stopped complaining and was now cooperating. The baby had no such compunctions. She was whining incessantly. Avon tried to shut off the distracting noise, and explained further, "These bracelets have tracer signals I can activate. Servalan will be expecting to find three people, and she'll think we're trying to signal the Scorpio. If we can put them in something heading away from here..."
"Come on," Roj interrupted, obviously catching on, and already on his way out the door that led into the power plant.
In the bowels of the structure was an underground transport tunnel and a free-floating cab that was just a metal envelope with no controls of its own. Avon leaned into the dark mouth of the shaft. It seemed to lead down, into the hill. Judging by the cab suspended in the air, mutually repelling magnetic fields controlled its movement through the tunnels; the whole set-up didn't look sophisticated enough for anti-grav systems.
"It's an automatic conveyer," Roj explained, "linking the plant with the main complex. It had stations at various mine shafts, but all of those have caved in. In winter, when it's impossible to walk down into the valley, I use it. But not often. Some sort of corrosive substance is filling the terminal at the main complex. It isn't very safe and the smell is unbearable."
It suddenly connected for Avon. "Zygonax," he identified the substance. No wonder the mode of transport was frictionless. A spark would be very dangerous. "That's how Coser knew of this place. He was a weapons tech, and zygonax is used in explosives. It's highly volatile. Tell me, is the terminal a self-contained, shielded area?" It would have to be, to keep the rest of the installation safe, but he liked to double check.
Avon smiled. Suddenly it was starting to look hopeful. He activated the tracer signals of the bracelets and threw all three into the cab. "Can we get down to the main complex ahead of this thing?"
Roj leaned into the control booth, starting to throw some switches. "If I program it to go slow, stop at every terminal, and if we hurry."
Avon ran back toward the living quarters. Soon, Roj caught up with him. "We have to go alone. We can't afford to be slowed down," Avon told him, wondering how the man was going to take it. "You might prefer to stay with your family, but I'm going to need a native guide down there."
Roj didn't argue. "Rashel can hide here with the children. I'll tell her."
He was quick about it. After a few words and hugging the woman briefly, he was ready to go.
Avon let him lead. It was dark, shortly the ground sloped at an acute angle, and it became more of a matter of sliding down the hill rather than running. At one point, Avon spared a look at the sky. Westward, he saw the pale orange streak of the scout ship's engines, in slow cruise mode, hopefully tracking the bracelets. The landing lights weren't on yet.
"Hurry," he said nevertheless, needlessly.
* * *
"Just bring him up, Dayna," Tarrant said as he positioned the Scorpio for a tangent pass, and Soolin carefully watched the sensors for any sign of the Federation ships. "Never mind any niceties."
"Not quite in range," Dayna told him, poised over the teleport controls. The ship edged closer. "We're going to have guests. I'm receiving tracer signals from three bracelets. A little more, Tarrant, come on."
"Finally came to his senses, did he?" Tarrant commented as he complied, thinking it would've served Avon right if they had not returned.
Soolin spoke up. "I'm getting a....there comes one of them."
"Hurry up, Dayna."
She was already manipulating the controls deftly. Lights halfheartedly swirled within the teleport chamber, but it stayed empty.
"What the hell's the matter?" Tarrant shouted at her, keeping an eye on the patrol ship that had popped out from behind the planet.
"I don't know." She kept trying, to no avail. "Nobody's wearing those bracelets."
Tarrant cursed. "What is he playing at now?"
Soolin spoke up again, "And there's the other one."
Tarrant swung the ship away from the path of the two patrol ships, now coming at them from two different directions. Without using the stardrive he could keep the Scorpio out of weapon range for, oh, another minute or so. They were seen, so there wasn't any sense in keeping radio silence. "See if he answers," he told Dayna.
"Avon, come in, Avon, are you there? Avon?" She slammed her palm on the console. "Nothing!"
"We're out of time," Tarrant warned, watching a plasma bolt shoot across the bow as he cut down momentum to keep from flying straight into it.
"Then let's get out of here already!" That came from Vila, anchored to his seat with white-knuckled grips.
"Where's the other ship?" Soolin was asking, intent on the sensor readouts. "Could it have landed?"
That was a galling possibility. Tarrant hadn't quite dared to attempt the mine field despite staring at it endlessly, while Avon had left him stewing in far-flung orbit. "Slave, anything on the scout ship?"
A bolt short of the mark, but still too close for comfort, rocked the ship while Slave obediently answered. *Yes, sir, it is low in the atmosphere.*
"Who cares?" Vila shouted. "Let's go."
Dayna jumped to her feet and drew her gun. "Soolin, put me down."
The gunfighter also stood up. "I'm going with you. Vila, work the teleport."
Two plasma bolts came simultaneously, one front and one aft, prohibiting Tarrant to adjust speed to avoid them. For a split instant, it felt hopeless, then more with instinct than evidence or reason, he knew the shots weren't perfectly synchronized. Just as automatically, he introduced an unconventional seesaw motion to the ship, making it squeeze out from in between by a very narrow margin. Vila let out a squeal, while the two women grabbed the closest stationary objects. Tarrant realigned the ship's nose on a different heading.
"Vila," Dayna shouted. "Move!"
"You're out of your mind!" the thief shouted back at her. "What makes you think we can wait around for you?"
"Just put me down and then scamper, you damn coward!"
"Sit down and shut up, all of you," Tarrant bellowed at them. "Slave, all sensors, directly ahead."
Three sets of eyes went to the forward screen to see that the Scorpio was now aimed at the planet like an arrowhead. All heads swiveled toward the pilot.
He spared them a flashing smile. "That mine field is starting to look like a personal challenge to me."
"Oh, no!" Vila wailed.
* * *
"They're inside," Roj said.
"I know," Avon replied as the thuds of booted feet against metal and concrete echoed through the abandoned complex and reached the dispatch booth of the transport terminal. Right before the two men had entered the central dome, they had seen the scout ship come down toward a clearing to the north, then tall structures had obscured it. It had not taken long for the troopers to find their way around the buildings, but it had been sufficient to give Avon time for a quick reconnaissance to finalize his plans.
Thankful for the self-generating power cells that had been used throughout the installation, he confirmed the main controls were in this booth, and took all other terminals off line. Then he carefully blanked the indicators for the time being. A strident chime announced the arrival of the cab at the platform of the terminal, directly across the hangar from the booth, behind large, trititanium doors.
"Avon," Roj said urgently.
The sounds of running feet down the main access corridor were demanding immediate attention. After one last look to memorize the placement of switches and levers, Avon flicked off the glow panels, and in the darkness pulled Roj with him into the recess between two supply lockers.
As they both quietly squeezed into the opening, a tight fit, it suddenly dawned on Avon he had taken to treating this man more like Vila than Blake. Blake, he would've pushed into an opposite hiding place. Vila, he tended to shelter alongside himself. Not any longer, of course. Anyway, the analogy didn't really fit. While Vila would have fidgeted endlessly, Roj seemed to have the knack of perfect stillness. In such close quarters, Avon appreciated it no end.
Beams of light played across the dark expanse of the hangar, sweeping all around, then the figures holding those lights burst into the area. There were about twelve to fifteen of them, the crossing, bobbing lights making an accurate count impossible. In the erratic illumination, Avon identified the uniforms. A squad of mutoids, Servalan's preferred minions. A scout ship could have carried a complement of, at most, twenty. The odds were due to be considerably evened.
Lights swept into the transparent booth, making him press further back and hold his breath. The next time he glanced around the corner of the locker, the shadowy figures were crossing the hangar to the large doors guarding the entrance to the transport tunnel. Chafing with impatience, he watched them finally locate the manual control on the central panel of the door and then take their time with it. In that time, Vila would've been through each and every locked door of the Federation's most secure installation. Mutoids were obedient, and competent about things programmed into them, but nobody could accuse them of improvisational thinking.
Once the doors were open, they poured into the tunnel like hounds on the scent of prey. Stealthily, Avon slid out from their hiding place, reaching back for the other man. A guiding tug on the arm, and Roj obediently followed. Avon mused that he could get to enjoy this, the novelty of a docile Blake willing to be led by him.
Right on the heels of that thought came its perverse follow-up. He might enjoy it, but somehow he didn't like it much. It went against the grain. A lackluster, challengeless thing, it made mockery of the respect Blake had tenaciously drawn out of him bit by painful bit; resentfully, grudgingly given, never admitted, but respect all the same. Something in Avon admired sheer audacity as long as there was enough power and determination behind it to back it up.
While Roj patiently waited at his elbow for his next directive, Avon found the auxiliary control of the cab by feel, and manipulated the lever that would make the vehicle back out of the terminal slowly, tempting the mutoids to follow it. Whines from paraguns were conspicuous by their absence. Obviously the mutoids were intelligent enough to realize the inadvisability of discharging weapons in an enclosure filled with zygonax gas. But they were following the cab, judging from the way the reflections of their lights got swallowed up by the tunnel.
"You can turn on the glow panels now," he told Roj when all the lights disappeared from the mouth of the terminal. What couldn't be detected from one direction couldn't be detected from the other.
Once he could see, Avon kept one hand on the lever, steadily backing up the cab, and with the other he reached for the switch to close the doors. The heavily-shielded metal panels slammed into place with a shockingly jarring sound. Avon threw a lock on the manual systems, prohibiting the doors from being opened from inside the tunnel. Now there was a measure of safety.
"Take the..." he started, only to notice that Roj was already on his way out of the booth. "Where are you going? Come back here." He could understand the man's urgent need to return to his family, but Avon didn't leave jobs half-done. And Servalan was still out there.
"I thought we were done."
"Not yet. Take this lever. Keep backing up the cab."
Roj looked puzzled as if he didn't understand why he had to do it, but obeyed anyway. In the breakneck rush to get to the main complex ahead of the Federation troops, Avon had not had the time or the breath to specify his intentions, and Roj had not demanded to know so far.
Avon went to the power systems monitor. He lifted the panel of the console. The polarity coils that controlled the magnetic fields throughout the tunnels were in there.
"What are you doing?"
At the inquiry, Avon glanced at the other man to see him looking totally lost, bewildered. For a second he indulged in the contemplation of that expression on that particular face. Blake had always liked to look in possession and in charge of any and all factors whether he actually was or not.
Once and for all, Avon decided, this man was not Blake. He had been proving it all along. Avon found himself annoyed at his own unwarranted expectations - good thing he had never actually labeled them hope. He forbade himself to make any more baseless comparisons. It was ridiculous to search for known landmarks in an alien landscape. However familiar, this face belonged to a stranger, just one of many that crossed his path.
"Evening the odds," he answered. "Now shut up and let me work." Then he totally ignored the man.
Close inspection showed him the main junction, the nerve center of the system. Suddenly he noticed that Roj was looking over his shoulder. "You're supposed to be moving the cab."
"It cleared the access pier. They can't reach it unless they can fly."
"Take it back farther, up the angle of the approach shaft."
Avon let out an impatient hiss. "Because I want it to have a long slide down," he drew his gun, "just as soon as I disrupt the magnetic field."
"Disrupt the...? But that'll cause friction to..."
Avon finished for him. "Set off the zygonax, exactly."
"Avon, there are people in there!"
"Not people. Mutoids. Servalan's mutoids."
"That doesn't give you the right to indiscriminately deprive them of their lives."
Avon spared him a sideways glance. "You think not? Very well, I give myself the right. Now do as I tell you and take that cab up."
Avon spun on his heels, intending to do it himself, but found the large man planted in his path.
"There's no need for it, Avon. They can't get out this way, and they can't scale the sheer walls up the hill. All they can do is try to dig out at one of the mine shafts. It'll take a long time. They should at least have that chance."
"And when do they get out? Do you fancy a squad of those creatures loose on your world? Did you ever see a mutoid drain a person? They prefer their blood fresh, so they won't even grant the victim a quick death first. Think of them getting a hold of your children."
The man paled, but didn't budge. "If and when they're a threat, I'll fight them. I won't condone wholesale slaughter."
"I don't need your approval," Avon snapped. "If you're squeamish, go away and leave me to it."
"That will not absolve me. All life is linked."
There was that symbolic laced-fingers sign again. That and the words repeated as if by rote pointed to something cultish. Avon suddenly understood that the attitude had been absorbed from the Clone Masters. He had had enough of highfaluting notions from Blake. He wasn't taking it from this man who wasn't even Blake. "Get out of my way," he hissed threateningly, and brought the gun up.
Roj didn't react to the threat, didn't move, didn't say a word, didn't so much as blink. He simply stood his ground, a solid block of resolution.
At that instant all discrepancies fell away and Avon found himself looking into Blake's eyes, felt himself again crashing head-first into that formidable will, bigger even than the man, a tangible force in its implacability. His next feeling was one of...resignation? Yes, alongside the anger that had always been a symbiotic companion of resignation for the man who never could surrender gracefully. But also...contrarily...
Relief, he identified it. In some small measure, relief. As if an askew scale had righted itself.
Neither man said a word or made a move for a long minute, but at the end of it something seemed to be settled.
"Close the panel, Avon," Roj said levelly, quietly, although he could have just as easily closed it himself, and closing it or leaving it open did not matter in the slightest for any practical purpose.
Slowly, Avon reached back and closed it.
He noticed he was still pointing his gun uselessly at Roj and lowered it. The one time it had happened, Blake had not been impressed with Avon pointing a weapon in his direction either. A dangerous habit to get into, in Avon's opinion.
It was ironic really. The man had turned into Blake as soon as Avon had decided once and for all that he wasn't. Had he believed in divine beings he'd attribute a perverse sense of humor to them.
"Thank you," Roj said solemnly.
Avon shrugged. "It was too late anyway. It had to be done quickly. By now someone must've gotten a report off to Servalan. I hope your woman can hide well."
Uncertainty once more softened the eyes, making them look more vulnerable, but Avon wasn't fooled. He had seen the steel. He wouldn't underestimate the man again. Neither would he spare him. Anybody who could demand the lion's share had to be tough enough to take it. "That was as far as we could fool Servalan. If there were an explosion, she might have spent time looking for bodies. She'll recognize the diversion for what it is now. It's her move. Once you lose the move to her, you tend to lose, period."
"All right. Now she'll head straight for the starting point of the tracer signals."
Avon couldn't resist some venom. He had never been able to. "Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn't it? Too bad it's also belated."
It was wasted, however. Roj was already gone.
It wasn't until they were out of the building that Avon almost caught up with him, and then only because he had slowed to watch the scout ship rise in a cloud of dust. It lifted at a tilt toward the hill, cut a swath across the top of it, then disappeared behind the tall trees, but not before the jets along its bottom could be seen to spurt to cushion its landing. Roj broke into a run again. Avon followed but couldn't catch the man running as if his life depended on it.
Roj had started climbing the steep incline when Avon could finally get his hands on him, and he suspected if it weren't for the gravity's aid, throwing his whole weight into holding him still wouldn't have been much use. "Not so fast!" he panted. "Charging headlong into a situation in Servalan's control is suicidal."
"It's my family."
"I know. And I know you have to go. But take it easy. She won't harm them, why should she? Not when she can use them as bait to lure us. Don't play into her hands."
The worry in the expressive face didn't diminish. "Avon, that's not the only reason, you don't realize - the Imipak is up there with Rashel. If she feels the children threatened, she'll use it."
He broke away. This time Avon followed just as fast. If her children were in danger, why should a mother spare a thought for an intrusive stranger? It was surprising enough that their father had done so.
* * *
It was light by the time they reached the top of the hill. There was a guard at the open door to the bunker. To one side, on the ground, was the motionless body of another mutoid. Rashel had not let them in without a fight.
Avon raised his gun only to have Roj's hand clamp onto his wrist. "Let's not start that again," he breathed harshly.
"No, the discharge might be heard inside."
That reasoning, Avon could understand. He nodded and moved off, keeping behind the trees. He gestured forbiddingly when Roj attempted to follow him. "Let me," he mouthed. He didn't think covert operations were this man's forte. In this situation, he would've preferred Blake by his side.
Avon circled the clearing until he was at the rear of the mound. Quietly, he left the safety of the trees and advanced to climb on it. Crouching on the top, he confirmed that he had not attracted attention, slid his gun into the holster and gathered himself to jump.
Peripherally, he saw another trooper come around the greenhouse. She shouted a warning and raised her weapon.
Poised on the top of the mound in clear view, Avon had no choice but to follow through with the jump and hope she would shy away from hitting her comrade accidentally. Little chance of that, he also knew, as he crashed into the alerted mutoid below. The pararifle discharged as if in confirmation and he felt the searing beam miss him narrowly. To protect himself from the more immediate danger, he let the mutoid roll on top of him. He heard another whine, but this came from the opposite direction, followed by a shout of pain. He glanced sideways and saw the trooper fall, then concentrated on the one he was entangled with. But he had already given up the advantage and mutoids were very strong.
Suddenly Roj was there, yanking the guard off Avon by wrapping one of his large arms around the man's throat. While Roj pulled him back, Avon, never one to prolong a fight when he could expediently end it, grabbed the front of the uniform in his fists and jerked forward. The spine snapped at the neck with a loud crack.
Avon pushed out from under the limp body Roj had immediately let drop. "No time to hold a wake," he told the man staring at the trooper who had suddenly gone lifeless in his hold. "Let's go."
Roj tore his eyes from the corpse to look at Avon. "You're terribly good at this, aren't you?" It wasn't a compliment. Neither did it condemn. Just a flat statement of realization.
"I'm alive. Welcome to the real world." He indicated the other mutoid's body as he drew his gun, "And thank you. Now, let's go."
The door to the bunker was scored by pararifle blasts. Cautiously, but quickly, they entered the short tunnel. Halfway into it, Avon whirled at a sound behind him, only to see the boy throw himself into his father's arms from somewhere behind the rafters overhead.
Roj hugged the child tight. "Yes, yes, I know," he said in response to incomprehensible babbling he seemed able to decipher. "You didn't make a sound. You're a good boy. Where's your mother, do you know? 'Areth, pay attention, where's your mother?"
A small finger pointed in the direction they had been going already. "Just a minute," Roj said when Avon started to continue on his way. He reached up into the rafters with one hand and brought out the Imipak, both the marker and the control box. "It's yours." He handed it to Avon. "Whatever happens, you shouldn't stay in fear of it."
Avon took it. He had not thought about it for years, until a little while ago, but he could remember how it felt to be under a death sentence and not know when it would arrive. While both Blake and Gan had accepted the clone's word then, Avon had put more faith in distance.
They hurried, and were soon in the corridors of the underground installation. After being quiet for so long, the child now seemed intent on making up for it despite all his father's attempts to hush him. To be fair, Avon granted he sounded more hysterical than disobedient.
Rashel burst into the corridor from the living quarters, no doubt alerted by the child's voice and thinking him in danger. Avon was suddenly glad he wasn't the one holding the boy. She looked like an enraged lioness ready to rent someone apart. She stopped when she identified them, then stayed still as if frozen.
Roj crossed to her in long strides and pulled her to his chest. "It's all right, we're here. Are you hurt? Rashel, what's wrong? Come on, we're back now."
Avon looked into the room to make sure no nasty surprises lurked there. There was another dead body on the floor. "I'd say she didn't need us all that badly."
Roj's inquiries were starting to sound frantic the longer the woman stayed silent.
"I think she's all right," Avon answered instead, his experienced eye identifying her condition more readily, despite the liberal amounts of blood covering her. "It's adrenalin drain, shock. Give her a minute."
Upon inspecting the body, he realized the woman had fought him tooth and nail, literally. A sonic probe was embedded in his neck, still spurting blood. The female of the species, he thought. Threaten theirs, and they were deadlier than the male. He threw a cover on the corpse.
Roj pulled Rashel into the room and closed the door. She was trembling with reaction now, but answering him in short gasps.
"That might have been all of them, Avon. Rashel hasn't seen anybody else."
Avon started checking behind all the doors leading further into the installation. "I still haven't seen Servalan. I suppose she could've stayed on her ship."
"Where's Gwynn?" Roj asked of the woman.
"She wouldn't stay quiet. I hid...hid her in the watch tower. I was up there...saw the ship come...come down."
Roj sat her down and disengaged the boy, with some difficulty. "Take it easy, you did fine. I'll get her."
Avon put down the Imipak and crossed the room to check the building through the surveillance monitors of the computer. The screens came to life. He detected movement on one and called out. "Roj, wait." He sharpened the image, then sighed. "She had to be somewhere."
Servalan was inside the power plant. Flanked by a guard, she was climbing a long spiral staircase, incongruously dainty in her ever-present long skirts and high heels.
Rashel took one look and screamed.
Avon concluded it was the watch tower. Maybe they could get there before Servalan reached the baby. Both men headed out at a run.
"You won't touch her, you bitch," Avon heard Rashel cry out. It gave him a prickling sensation all over and he spun around.
She was all the way across the room, her eyes glued to the screen. The Imipak's control box was in her hand.
"Rashel , no!" Roj shouted, stepping in front of Avon, not that it would do any good. "Put that down."
She didn't, of course.
Avon decided he really, truly hated waiting.
Roj advanced on the woman. "Give it to me. Now!"
"You'll kill Avon. Please, give it to me."
"She doesn't care." Avon discovered he was curiously breathless.
"Stay back!" Rashel screamed at Roj, whirling on him as if he were the enemy. He stopped when her finger poised over the button. "I have to. I must."
Still too far from the woman, Roj lunged to grab the rifle-shaped marker. Dumbfounded, Avon watched him turn the weapon quickly to his own chest, pull the trigger and mark himself. "If you still must, go ahead."
Slowly, her hand holding the control box fell to her side. Roj crossed to the woman and attempted to hold her. She pushed away from him violently, but not before he had taken possession of the control box. Rashel went to the boy who had burst into tears when his parents had started screaming at each other. She wrapped him protectively in her arms.
Avon remembered to breathe. It took longer to remember to close his mouth.
Roj was holding the box out to him. "I said it was yours."
Avon took it, pulled out its small power pack and put both parts in his pocket, thinking it was what he should have done in the first place. He was tired and he was getting careless.
"But Servalan doesn't have to know that," Roj continued.
It brought Avon's attention back to the screen. Servalan and her guard had stopped on one of the high, circular landings of the watch tower. She had found the baby and was holding her at arm's length, by the straps of the harness, as if inspecting a strange apparition.
Roj threw open the intercom systems and instantly the baby's shrill cries reached them. "Let her go, Servalan. I have the Imipak."
Servalan didn't so much as give a start. Leisurely, her eyes found one of the pick-up monitors. "Ah, there you are, my rogue. Forgive my skepticism, but I doubt if you'll use it. Just in case, though..." Her arm swung out over the rails to hold the baby suspended in the air. "Oh my, it's a long way down, isn't it?"
Rashel made a strangled sound. Roj clenched his fists. Avon found himself pitying both. He had extensive experience in being at the losing end of Servalan's cat-and-mouse games.
"But I do thank you for letting me know this noisy brat is worth something," Servalan continued sweetly. "Why don't you join me and we'll find out how much? Be nice and come unarmed. Hurry up, I fear my arm might get tired soon."
Roj turned off the intercom, caught Avon's eye and motioned at the woman and the boy. "Look after them, please, if you can." He started to leave.
Avon grabbed him by the arms. "Listen, I know that woman too well..."
"She has my daughter. I have to go."
"Know the facts before you do. She'll say she has no use for you anymore and offer a deal. Me and the Imipak in exchange for leaving you alone. Don't believe her. If there wasn't a leak at the rebel camp, she wouldn't be here. She must know Avalon's plans for you. She won't let you live."
Instead of shaking off his hands as Avon was half-expecting him to do, Roj gently removed them. "I won't give her the Imipak, and I won't give her you. Your life is not mine to give. If she wants mine, she can have it, as long as she leaves my family alone." He left.
"She won't. Damn it, you don't know her," Avon called out after him.
What was the use? Blake had never listened to sense either. He refused to follow another Blake into another foolhardy situation. It would only get him caught in the same trap. He should try and locate Servalan's ship while she was occupied. There couldn't be more than a pilot and, at most, another guard on the ship. It would give him mobility.
Suddenly, he found his arms full as Rashel thrust the boy into them and rushed off after her man. "Oh, marvelous," Avon grumbled, standing there, holding the child quietly sobbing into his neck, and feeling more awkward than he ever had in his life. He tugged, but found out that the boy, for a strange reason, had come to accept him as some sort of security. The little arms clung tenaciously.
Avon sighed. He was not cut out to be a nanny. It suddenly occurred to him that if both parents were lost he just might get stuck with the boy. Oh, no.
He looked at the monitor. Servalan was still waiting. Avon studied the area. The watch tower started from the bottom of a central, hexagonal chamber and went up, connected to the five levels of the power plant with catwalks that fanned out from it like the spokes of a wheel. Anybody on those narrow bridges or the open staircase would be seen instantly. The tower reached the high ceiling, then went past it. Having seen it from outside, he knew it extended another forty meters or so and terminated at the scanner-scope. Servalan and her guard were standing at the highest landing still inside the building, directly below the circular opening left on the roof to accommodate the tower. There might be a way to climb onto the roof from the outside.
The child's sobs had become intermittent sniffling. Avon took him into the paneled alcove and put him on the bed. It took some effort to disentangle himself. "Stay here and be quiet," he ordered and left fast.
Luckily, metal rungs were sunk into the outside walls of the building, all the way to the roof. Avon was already too tired to attempt climbing otherwise. He transferred the Imipak's control components into his pants' pocket. He wasn't letting go of that again. He took off his boots, studded-jacket and leather vest, then pulled loose the tails of the turtleneck to drape over the gun in its holster, so nothing would clink against metal or squeak. He started up the rungs.
* * *
The voices from below reached Avon on the roof as he crept closer. "I don't have it. I gave it to Avon," Roj was saying.
"Then you'll just have to take it back, won't you? While you're at it, bring Avon to me as well. I haven't seen him for a while, and I so look forward to our meetings."
"I told you, he's gone."
"You're even worse at lying than the real Blake."
"I'm not lying."
"Shall we find out? My arm is tired. It'll be such a relief to let go of this pesky thing."
"No!" Rashel shouted.
By then Avon was over them. He saw Servalan had draped the long straps of the harness over the rails. She was holding one end while the baby dangled freely on the outside. She could let go very easily. Avon decided if he was going to surprise her, he should do it from arm's reach.
"Why don't you give me a reason not to then?" Servalan asked Rashel.
Roj stepped forward. "She has nothing to say to you."
"Really? So what worries you? This is getting wearisome."
Avon gathered himself and dropped onto the landing. In all reason, he knew he should concentrate on the guard holding the weapon. In the instant of surprise that greeted his arrival, though, he saw Servalan loosen her hold on the harness and found himself lunging for it. He managed to snag the end of the strap before it cleared the rails, but had to drop to his knees to keep his uncontrollable momentum from carrying him over them.
Beyond movement for a second, he knew the guard had to be aiming at his back, a perfect target. The shot didn't come. Or rather, it didn't touch him. He heard the whine of discharge, and a commotion. Before he could collect himself, Servalan was on him from behind, long nails raking at his hand holding the strap and at his face. He ducked his head into his chest, and reached back with his free hand. He touched the spiky ends of her hair, but it was too short to afford any sort of hold. Then something descended on her and she let go of Avon.
Quickly taking advantage of the reprieve, he got to his feet, pulling the harness into safety. A long scream made him turn in time to see the guard lose the grapple with Roj and go tumbling over the rails. One less problem.
Another problem, though. A wound in Roj's thigh was bleeding freely, and the man seemed intent on ignoring it. He turned to pry Rashel off Servalan. "Stop it, Rashel, that's enough. Gwynn's fine, Avon's got her. Rashel, stop it."
Avon found the gun he didn't remember dropping, and stepped between Servalan sprawled on the metal floor and Roj struggling to hold Rashel away from her. "Enough!" he ordered Rashel. "If you don't want him to bleed to death, stop fighting him and do something about that wound." That redirected her attention immediately.
Avon looked down at Servalan. "Well now, I heard you say you were so looking forward to our meeting. Is this what you had in mind?" He smirked when she glared at him, prostrate at his feet, disheveled. "Hardly," he answered himself. "But you don't mind if I enjoy it, do you?" He glanced over his shoulder to confirm Rashel was caring for Roj. She was fashioning a tourniquet from his belt. "So, Servalan, we might be here for a while, and..."
An unexpected voice interrupted him. "Now that has to be seen to be believed. Who left you holding the baby, Avon?"
Tarrant was standing at the other end of the catwalk, level with them, carrying 'Areth, his most impudent grin plastered on his face. And Avon realized he was indeed holding the baby, not by the harness, but pressed to his chest - when had he done that? - where she was contentedly chewing on his shirt and soaking his shoulder. Somewhere along the way, she had stopped crying.
He heard a sound of dismay from Rashel, who had seen a stranger in possession of her son. "Relax," Avon told her as he leaned to unload the baby on her, "he's friendly...well, relatively speaking." Tarrant started toward them across the catwalk. "What are you doing here?" Avon asked him, relieved that the Scorpio was near, but annoyed at the pilot anyway.
"As impossible as it sounds, looking for you. I started from the teleport coordinates, and when I found dead bodies strewn about, I knew I was on the right track. Along the way, I met this little fellow. He seemed to want his father." He nimbly stepped down onto the landing, looked around and focused on Roj. "You must be him." He put the boy down. "There you go. Didn't I say I'd find him for you?"
"Your good deed for the day, I take it," Avon grumbled.
"Since rescuing you doesn't count as a good deed by anybody's standards, I'll settle for that one. Aren't you going to introduce me?"
Avon gave him a nasty look and turned back to Servalan.
"This is quite uncomfortable, Avon," she said in her sweet-reason voice. "You wouldn't have any objections if I got up, would you?"
"It'll be a waste of time." He approached to stand over her again. "You see, you might have been useful to get me off this planet, but now that the Scorpio is here, I can't think of a single use for you. So I'm going to keep a promise I made to myself a year ago and kill you."
"Avon, you don't mean that," Roj said.
Avon ignored him and continued. "If you'd rather be on your feet just to fall down again, be my guest."
Servalan didn't move. "Come on, Avon, after all this time? Think how dull life would be."
"I dare say I'll learn to live with it."
"You'll be bored to death."
"It might make a pleasant change. Make up your mind, Servalan. Stand up or stay down there, it's all the same to me."
She rose with a sinuous move, almost sliding up along his body. He stepped back to keep the gun steady between them. "I don't believe you can do it," she whispered intimately. "Prove me wrong if you can, Avon. Look in my eyes and do it."
"I'd like to oblige, but I'm fastidious. I really don't want half of you splattered on me, so..."
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Rashel grab 'Areth and hide his face against her chest. Well, somebody believed him. Slowly, he backed up, raising the gun with each step. He noticed Roj struggle to get up. "Stay where you are. This doesn't concern you."
"Stop it, Avon. You can't do that to yourself."
He almost laughed. His ghosts were too numerous for Servalan to bother him much. She had to wait in a very long line.
"Please, put the gun down," Roj was insisting. "You can't do this."
"Yes, I know, one must have reverence for all life. Well, she doesn't have it. You've seen what she's capable of. I've seen her murder whole planets, millions, without batting an eyelash. And she'll keep on doing it if I let her live. How do your scruples balance that?"
Roj's voice acquired a familiar, deep intensity. "Can you honestly tell me you're doing it to keep millions safe?"
He smiled at that. "No. No, I'm not doing it to keep millions safe. I'm not even doing it to avenge the millions already dead." Once he had thought he'd like to do it for Cally. She deserved a companion for her death. But even that was past now.
The weapon came to rest, aimed between her lovely eyes. In those eyes, he saw her finally believe him. That was fitting, for he also believed himself for the first time, feeling not even hatred or satisfaction, but a straightforward purpose. If this was madness, it was the clearest state of mind he had known lately. "I'm doing it for myself."
"Avon, no!" he heard Roj repeat, tuned him out, and tightened on the trigger.
A heavy blow landed on his arm and the shot went wild. Caught off guard, he couldn't react before the gun was snatched out of his hand. He was roughly shoved aside.
"Wrong, Avon, you're not doing it, period," Tarrant said.
He collected himself and turned on the pilot. Finding himself at gun point, he restrained his rage, but barely. Icy purpose may have been simpler, clearer, but fierce fury had a savage edge he suddenly decided he preferred. "I'll settle for you."
"I once said I may have to kill you one day. I didn't come here to turn on you, so don't force me to make it today." Wisely, his eyes and the gun on Avon didn't waver as he addressed Servalan. "I owe you something, Servalan. I'm paying it back."
Avon sneered. "Must've been your gaucherie, Tarrant. She couldn't have been that good."
Servalan had collected herself. "You could've found out, Avon," came the sultry voice.
"My taste doesn't run to wasps. And be careful, you wouldn't want to make your rescuing hero jealous."
"Sore loser, isn't he?" Servalan said to Tarrant, sliding up to press seductively against the young man.
Tarrant grinned sideways at her. "Hate to cut this short, but I seem to have a tiger by the tail. You'd better go. Return to your ship while you can."
Servalan had always known what was best for her. She wasted no time in leaving. "Don't dawdle," Tarrant called out after her. "Dayna is out there somewhere. Believe me, you don't want to run into her."
They all stayed in a frozen tableau until the click of her heels against metal disappeared. Tarrant casually tucked the gun into his belt, quickly holding up a hand when Avon started for him. "If you can postpone eviscerating me, we have to get to the Scorpio before she takes off with her ship." He tilted his head toward Roj. "And you can't carry him alone."
Avon paused, suddenly suspecting he had missed something. "Where exactly is the Scorpio?"
"About a mile north."
"You brought it through the mine field?"
"It was that or play tag with the patrol ships. Miraculously, it's in one piece, but feeling her age. I'd rather not try for a second miracle. The only way we're getting out of here is by making Orac track Servalan. I doubt if she'd have let us play follow-the-leader even if we had asked nicely." He bestowed a smug grin on Avon. "Why do you think I played that charade? Let's go, while she thinks we're spending our time mangling each other."
Avon glared at him furiously. "One day, Tarrant, you're going to take one stupid chance too many with me."
The young man kept on grinning as he turned to Roj. "Avon's not much on social graces. I'm Del Tarrant. May I help you up?"
Roj took the offered hand. "You must be the exceptional pilot Avon mentioned."
Avon could have cheerfully strangled him.
* * *
The Scorpio carried scorches across its hull, and one gaping hole was visible on the side. Avon calculated it to be over one of the empty cargo compartments and dismissed it. Vila had stayed with the ship and he let them in. Dayna and Soolin piled in right after them.
"We'll get everything sorted out later," Tarrant shouted over the babble of questions. "Everybody, take a seat." He helped Avon lead Roj to one of the couches, and held out his hand. "Orac's key."
Avon gave it to him. Tarrant activated the computer and took his post. "Orac, a ship just left the planet. Track it precisely and feed in the data to my station. Let's go, Slave." The ship started to move, shuddering and groaning. "Strap in. She's feeling rough."
"You seem to be leaving whether you want to or not," Avon said to Roj as Soolin, the most experienced of them in field injuries, took away the tourniquet and strapped a pressure pack to the wound. Dayna was getting Rashel and the baby settled on the other couch.
"It's all right. There wasn't much choice left." He called the boy to him, but gasped with pain when the child climbed on his lap.
"That's not going to work," Avon pointed out.
"I'll take him," Vila offered, standing over them instead of securing himself. "That is, if it's all right. Uh, I'm Vila."
"Yes, I know," Roj said.
"You... you do?"
"Yes, and it's all right, of course."
"Don't just stand there gawking," Avon snapped at the thief. The ship was already lifting off. "Take the child, strap in and be quick about it." Vila took the boy, who squirmed and protested loudly, but by the time Avon had strapped himself in, the child had stopped whining and was starting to giggle at Vila playing the fool for him.
The Scorpio rolled and pitched. Avon couldn't tell if it was handling that badly or if it was due to sudden, convoluted changes of direction through the mine field. Only Tarrant and Orac seemed to know what was going on while everybody else just held tight. At the moment, Avon was way too tired to care. He closed his eyes and tried to bear the nauseating ride.
They finally broke free of the mine field, still in one piece, and Avon thought it time to rouse himself. He had not forgotten about the patrol ships. "Slave, put the stardrive on line."
*If you wish, Master, but I have the unpleasant task of inform...*
The screen showed the patrol ships bearing on them. "Now, Slave!"
*Oh, Master, very well, but....*
The indicators for stardrive controls came on, most of them flashing red. "What's the matter, Slave?"
*I was trying to tell you, Master, that the stardrive is damaged. Oh, I am most humbly sorry. I attempted to inform your worthy pilot when it happened, but I was ordered to concentrate on navigation.*
Avon craned his neck to glare at Tarrant. The young man lifted his shoulders. "It was tight, we had a few close ones. I didn't have time for everything."
Avon decided to wring his neck later. He snapped open the restraints and jumped up. "Pressurize the engine room, Slave."
*I have anticipated your wishes, Master, and I have already done so.*
"Even that idiotic machine has got more sense than you, Tarrant," Avon threw over his shoulder. "Orac..."
The computer interrupted him. *I have been surveying the damage. The main functions of the stardrive are intact. Melted connectors and shorted out circuits are causing relay problems. They can be replaced, but it will be time consuming."
"Time might be a problem," Dayna observed. The patrol ships, although not firing so far, had bracketed the Scorpio, and Servalan's scout ship was maneuvering into view directly ahead.
"Scorpio, do you read me?" her voice came through. "Who is in charge there?"
With a muffled oath, Avon sat back down and flipped the transmit toggle. "Who do you think, Commissioner?" He deliberately avoided using her name, for the time being.
"We meet again, Avon. So soon, and so much more auspiciously this time. By that fancy flying, I take it Tarrant is fine. But something seems to be wrong with your ship, if indeed that's what you call it. Quite a comedown from the Liberator, isn't it?"
"What do you want, Commissioner?"
"How about something simple? Surrender."
"Don't get presumptuous. If you'll notice, I've been addressing you discreetly, but that can change."
"Oh, I do so like discretion. Which is why I insist that mutoids hold all key positions on the ships under my command. They can be programmed to disregard anything."
One pawn gone - and the board looked hopeless already.
"Avon," Tarrant called quietly.
He cut off the transmission. "Yes?"
"Something's heading this way fast, and it's big."
"Don't tell me she's called in a tug for us," Dayna said.
"Orac, what is it?" Avon asked.
*There is no identification beam, and it is silent. The configurations I get do not correspond to any Federation ships in the data banks, which is not to say it cannot be.*
"Put it on the screen as soon as you can."
"Servalan must be aware of it, too," Soolin said. They saw one of the patrol ships move off to hover over the scout protectively. "Yes, she is."
"And not very comfortable about it," Dayna added.
"The proverbial cavalry?" Tarrant suggested.
The first response any unknown factor generated in Avon was suspicion. "Let us not jump to conclusions."
*The unidentified ship is on screen,* Orac announced.
It was big...and barreling in. "That's a carrier if I ever saw one." Tarrant frowned at the image fast filling and overflowing the screen. "But if they're interested in our little gathering, they should've started braking procedures. They're going to overshoot."
The ship did overshoot, but as it passed over them, launch hatches along its bottom opened up, and suddenly there was a swarm of fighter-flyers all around. They were tiny, wedge-shaped, two-seater ships made only for fast hits. About half of them protectively circled the Scorpio like bees buzzing around a hive. The others dived and darted at the patrol ships.
Everybody was out of their seats and converging around the consoles to watch the screen, including Roj who laboriously pulled himself along. Dayna gave her seat to him. "Whoever they are, they're friendly," she observed.
Avon was skeptical. "That remains to be seen.
The patrol ships were returning fire. Although numerous, the small fighters would eventually lose against the firepower of the Federation ships. Two of them flared. Some went tumbling, spinning out of view.
"They are protecting us."
"If they were so intent on protecting us, why is that big ship acting shy?" Avon asked. The carrier could've made the difference. "Orac, where is it?"
*Coming into station keeping behind the Scorpio, two thousand spacials.*
Tarrant grumbled, "Somebody thinks this is a spectator sport."
A flaring fighter streaked across the screen. The boy, still on Vila's lap, let out a delighted laugh and clapped his hands.
"Stop that, 'Areth," his father scolded. "It's not funny."
"Aw, come on, he's only a little boy," Vila objected. "He doesn't understand, it's just pretty to him."
Avon spared the thief a surprised glance. Come to think of it, through all this Vila's incessant whining had been curiously absent. But this was no time to consider the thief's sudden-found fortitude. Sooner or later, Servalan was going to do the expedient thing. Avon jumped up. "Let's fix the stardrive," he told Tarrant. "All those ships are going to manage is to draw fire on us eventually."
A female voice through the comm channel halted him. "Avon, come in, Avon."
"Ah, another faction heard from. I should've known." He opened transmission. "Didn't I tell you to leave me to it, Avalon?"
"And look where you got yourself."
"I had help. You've got spies in your camp."
"Don't you think I know that?" she snapped. "We found out about it in time, as you can see."
"And came rushing to the rescue. Tell me, Avalon, just how did you know where to come?"
"Not on an open channel, Avon. Don't waste any more time. Teleport everybody into my ship now."
"Everybody, and incidentally one Roj Blake.
"Yes, of course."
Avon chuckled. "Oh, yes, of course, or what would be the point of this exercise?"
"Avon, you're wasting time!"
"I have to take a vote. You must know what that is. Democracy and all that." He cut her off.
"You wouldn't recognize democracy if you tripped over it, Avon," Tarrant said, coming around the consoles from his position in the back. "What are you playing at?"
"I don't trust her."
"Surprise me. For any specific reason?"
"How did she find us?"
"Obviously spy business works both ways."
"Or did she deliberately leak the information? She knew she didn't have a chance in hell following the Scorpio on stardrive. Servalan, she could follow. And when the Federation showed up, that planet stopped being a sanctuary. Now Avalon arrives offering one? Too many things seem to have worked out to her advantage."
"Avon, come on!" Avalon's voice came through again. "You're under fire."
All heads turned toward the screen. The plasma bolts were coming their way. The only reason they had not noticed it yet was because the fighters flanking the Scorpio were getting in the way. Incredulous, they all stared at the screen as another small ship willingly threw itself into the line of fire, then another.
"Why are they doing this?"
The outburst from Roj brought Avon's attention to the man who, through no design of his own, had been made the point of contention. He had left his seat and backed into the consoles behind him as if he wanted to get away from it all. "Why?" he asked of Avon, looking cornered. "Because of me? Are they dying for me?"
"Don't take it personally. It's not you. It's the potential use of your name to their cause."
"I don't want them dying in my name. It isn't even mine!"
Avon saw and heard the man's agitation, and felt outraged on his behalf. Blake, his name, his image had a way of trapping, possessing people, even when they were not converted to his cause or saddled with his name. He knew the burden of it well, and he was not an innocent. Suddenly, he found himself focused, to the exclusion of everything else, on the one question nobody was bothering to even consider, let alone ask.
"Oh, yes, it is," he told Roj. "Now decide if you prefer to play it safe or take your chances with it."
Locked with his, Roj's eyes asked what his choices were. They beseeched, but there was also an unsettling trace of trust in them.
Avon continued. "We can teleport you and your brood into Avalon's ship. She has the power to protect you at the moment. I don't. If you stay, I will not give you to the Federation or the rebels even if it means letting Servalan destroy the Scorpio. Be warned, that is a very immediate possibility."
"If I refuse Avalon, will she keep protecting this ship and your people?"
"But you'll still let me refuse her?"
Roj searched the tense faces around him.
"It's your choice, Roj," Avon asked. "Make it freely, but make it now."
"I will take my chances with you."
Avon nodded. "Fine. Then let's try and not disappoint you. What we need is time." He opened a transmission channel to the rebel ship. Servalan would, of course, monitor it. "I'm sorry, Avalon, but this Roj Blake doesn't know you. In fact, right now he can't see any difference between you and Servalan. Frankly, I'm also at a loss to point them out to him. So he doesn't want to have anything to do with your offer."
"Does he realize we are the only shield between everybody on your ship and annihilation, Avon? Do you?"
"We both resent being manipulated, Avalon. The answer is still 'no.'" He glanced at Tarrant to see how the young pilot was taking all this. "Try to accept it gracefully. It's not going to change."
"Hold it right there, Avon," Tarrant jumped in. "If it's a choice between us and him, he goes, whether he wants to or not."
"You heard me give him my word."
"You didn't give him anybody else's. You didn't so much as ask our opinion. Avalon wants him; he goes."
"Over my dead body, Tarrant."
"That can be arranged, Avon!" He moved forward.
Suddenly, Roj was between them. Surprised at the man's ability to move so fast on an injured leg, Avon threw his arms around the wide shoulders to restrain him. After all, a pilot with a broken neck would be no use to anyone.
Tarrant completed his move and cut off the transmission. "Did they buy that, you think?" he asked Avon, then smiled audaciously at Roj. "You certainly did."
"Why shouldn't they buy it?" Avon released Roj and glanced at the screen. A tentative cease fire seemed to be in effect, both sides waiting for the fallout from the drama they imagined taking place on the Scorpio. "It wouldn't be unexpected of you."
"Keep the flattery for later. How long should I wait?"
"Oh, ten minutes shouldn't be excessive. I'd be highly offended if they weren't expecting me to give you that much competition." He picked up Orac. "Your problem might be in getting them to believe you came out the winner."
Tarrant gave him a dirty look. "I'll try to be convincing."
"Since you seem able to move on that leg, come and give me a hand," Avon told Roj. "We have a stardrive to fix."
* * *
"Well, if you prefer to fight it out, ladies, I can't stop you." Tarrant's voice was coming over the shipwide intercom Avon had left open so he could hear what was happening on the flight deck. "But don't make any mistake, I won't let the winner invade this ship and take what she wants. Servalan, we're even now. There's a certain button on a contraption here in my hand. Avon is in no shape to stop me, and I don't have enough concern for him to refrain from pushing it. You ...Avalon, right? If you try to take the clone by force, I'll use Orac to transmit to all and sundry that he is the clone. So why don't we all act like civilized beings, and get on with the auction?"
Roj had settled on the floor, his injured leg stretched out in front of him, passing on tools and spare parts, and shining the light into the machinery whenever Avon needed it. He was quite good with machines, even when he didn't exactly know their scope. Orac kept imperiously issuing directives. Avon calculated twenty to twenty-five minutes should be enough for a patch job.
Roj seemed to notice that was all Avon was doing. "Those connections are never going to tolerate the amount of energy this drive unit must put out."
"A proper job will take days. All we need right now is for them to hold long enough to relay one burst, then they can melt to a puddle for all I care."
"And they will too," Roj observed dryly.
Avon installed shunts, didn't bother with resistors. They wouldn't be much use for now, and later would be that many more components to replace.
Tarrant was in full swing, his voice a constant companion. "I haven't heard any good offers yet. Come on, ladies, for sale are an interesting weapon, a second-hand Roj Blake, and with a bit more incentive I might be persuaded to throw in a slightly-dented computer expert."
Avon cursed under his breath as he reached into the conduit funnel and tightened the couplings.
"What?" Roj asked, doing his best to hold the light steady for him.
"He's enjoying himself, the insufferable pup!"
"He seems to be a resourceful young man."
"Let's just say he's useful," Avon grumbled, then added, "It'd be so much simpler if he weren't - and as close as the nearest airlock."
"Are you serious, or is your bark worse than your bite?"
Avon spared him a glare. "We don't know each other well enough for you to start analyzing me."
Avon couldn't afford another look at him, but the tone of the apology refuted itself, again reminding him of the Blake he had known longer. "Tarrant will be all right," he went back to the safer subject, "when he grows up - oh, in about a hundred years or so."
They kept on working as fast as possible. Avon was pleased when he heard Tarrant persuade Avalon to pull her fighter-flyers off Scorpio, claiming she had terrible pilots and he was having a hard time avoiding the small ships as the Scorpio drifted. They'd need the space when the stardrive could be activated.
"Now, now," Tarrant was telling Servalan, "you don't really expect me to auction off Orac as well, do you? It's too useful to me. Besides you want Avon. One ill-mannered computer to a customer is plenty."
Avon tightened the last bolt, rose, and helped Roj up.
Tarrant cut off all transmission when they returned to the flight deck. "About time. The offers were getting too tempting by half."
"No doubt." His seat was the closest, so he eased Roj into it. "Strap in." He held the back of the seat and the console, and braced his legs apart. "Now let's get the hell out of here."
The whole ship seemed to hold its breath around him for an instant, then the sudden shift threatened to throw him off his feet as the Scorpio dropped out of the elliptic plane and propelled itself headlong into deep space. It only lasted a short while before it became a heavy, laboring progress, until the stardrive cut off and the remnants of momentum carried the ship forth. It eventually slowed down to the gentle sway of drift.
Roj had put his arm around Avon's waist to keep him from being tossed around. As soon as he could steadily do so, Avon pulled away. "Where are we?" he asked Tarrant.
"Far from where we were, and that's what counts. Orac, coordinates?"
The computer supplied them precisely, and told them they were free and alone. It was time to take a breath and get everybody settled in. At a conservative estimate, they were going to be stuck on the ship and with each other for a few days.
* * *
Tarrant pointed toward the engine room. "It's a mess in there," he told Avon who had just come back from cleaning up. "I left Orac to sort it out. For now, we're stuck with standard speeds. I'll get us underway, then I'm going to sleep for a week."
Avon, in the process of fastening the belt on his dark green coveralls, threw him a look of annoyance.
"What's the point in rushing?" Tarrant asked in return. "We'll be crawling for days unless you can straighten out that mess. What course do I set, by the way? Xenon?"
"Most certainly not," Avon snapped. "Xenon is not a refugee camp."
"Funny, that's exactly how it looked to me when we first got there," Tarrant mumbled as he turned to his console.
For the time being, one bed alcove had been given to Rashel and the baby and the other to Roj. Vila was dozing on one of the couches, with the boy stretched out on top of him. He seemed to be enjoying the privileges of the 'baby sitter.' Otherwise, with both beds already occupied, someone without a place to sleep would have kicked him off the couch.
Avon went to Roj to ask him a question, looked down at the man and suddenly forgot what he had been about to say. On his back, with his eyes closed, the sight of the bearded face took Avon back to the last time he had seen Blake - or thought he had.
The eyes fluttered opened, looked straight into his, doing nothing to dispel the illusion. A slow smile started, then turned hesitant. "Something wrong, Avon?"
"Bla..." Avon bit it off, rubbed his face furiously to rid himself of the unwanted sense of deja-vu. "No, nothing. I seem to be more tired than I thought."
"You're exhausted, who wouldn't be? Get some rest."
"Yes, in a little while. First, we have to set course. Where do you want us to take you?"
The already uncertain smile became a ghost of one. "How can I possibly determine that?"
Avon knew it was a stupid question to have asked. "We can probably find you another uninhabited but habitable world, if you've grown fond of pioneering life."
"Fond of it?" A beat of silence. "Yes, I suppose I have."
Never had a chance to try anything else, Avon read into it, despairing of himself. He wasn't normally given to one thick-headed utterance after another. "But it would hardly be in the interest of the children," he amended. "Let me think a minute." It wasn't easy to come up with a place where Roj's looks would let him live in safety, let alone peacefully. Avon was sure the man would prefer to live in peace. He had fought, even killed, when necessary, but he was also serious about his beliefs. Being drawn into Blake's cause would destroy him. It had almost destroyed Blake who had had fewer compunctions.
"Where do you live, Avon?" Roj's voice cut into his thoughts. "Surely you don't live on this ship all the time."
"Hmmm? Oh. No," he answered, distractedly.
"Where do you call home then?"
"Nowhere, not by the wildest stretch of the imagination. We have a...base."
"You wouldn't know it."
"No, I suppose not."
"It's far away."
"Why do you ask?"
"No reason. Curiosity."
Having just thought of a suitable place, Avon dismissed and changed the subject. "Kaarn, I should think." It could be hours or weeks away, depending on the condition of the stardrive, yet to be determined. "Providing they will accept outsiders and you can live with five thousand Auronae children."
"The Auronae? Cally's people?"
"All that's left of Cally's people." Avon proceeded to tell him of the place.
Roj listened quietly, then he readily agreed. Although, perhaps not enthusiastically. But they were all too tired to be terribly enthusiastic about anything, Avon concluded and went to tell Tarrant to set the course.
It was about three hours later, shortly after Avon had had enough of the semi-aware state that simulated sleep for him and taken himself to the engine room, when Roj joined him. He was limping on his bandaged leg. "You're supposed to be resting," Avon told him.
"So are you."
"I happen to find work restful. Besides, someone has to fix this thing. In our present condition, we're going nowhere fast."
"And you're eager to get somewhere."
Roj didn't answer directly. "It'd be faster if you had help," he said instead, settling on the low casing over the engine coils. "What can I do?"
Avon handed him the striated cannister that held the injector rods. "See if you can scrape the melted wires off the grooves and pry those rods out. Let's hope they aren't all fused, or we may not have enough spares." He turned to his own job, lifted the syncromesh and grimaced. "The gyroscope has to be replaced." He rummaged through the supply locker.
"I'm sorry you got stuck with a handful of refugees," Roj said quietly, making him suspect his comment to Tarrant had been overheard.
"You weren't the one who sought me out," he felt obligated to say. "By all rights, if anybody has to apologize..."
"Nobody has to," Roj cut him short. "Hand me that spanner, will you?"
* * *
The work on the stardrive progressed slowly. Two days later it still wasn't done. Avon knew he could hurry it along, not insist on perfection every step of the way and still stay within acceptable operational parameters, but he preferred a properly-done job. It also sounded proper in case someone questioned the delay. Anyway, he was only one man, and the most intricate parts of the job fell to him while the rest of the crew took turns in lending a hand, as long as each individual's patience persevered. Mostly, they just left him and Roj to get on with it.
After checking the results of the latest part of the repairs through the indicators on Tarrant's console, Avon took a look around. It was getting tight on the flight deck with the new additions, but everybody seemed to have adjusted with a remarkable degree of tolerance. At the moment, Soolin and Dayna were nowhere to be seen. Vila and Roj were seated on the steps next to the teleport chamber, talking to each other in low tones. Over by the couches, Tarrant had engaged Rashel in another lengthy conversation. As always with a pretty face, he had turned on the charm full force - rather nauseatingly in Avon's opinion. He decided to go back to work.
On his way, he passed by the small alcove, which held the fresher and the food dispensers, off the main corridor. Dayna and Soolin were there, talking.
"...and who knows for how much longer?" the gunfighter was saying.
"Oh, I don't really mind," Dayna answered. "I rather enjoy it, in fact."
"What is it you enjoy? You're not the motherly sort so it can't be the children. The woman doesn't have two words to say to anyone except Tarrant. Don't tell me that big bear of a man is to your taste."
Dayna laughed. "Not in that sense, no. But I like having him around. It makes me feel like I'm back on the Liberator."
"Come now, you were never on the Liberator with Blake."
"It isn't him. It's how Avon's been acting since he came on board. You didn't know Avon before Terminal. He was different then. I'd almost forgotten, but the last two days..."
Not wishing to hear any more, Avon continued into the engine room and closed the door. Really, Dayna was still a silly, fanciful child.
There were too many children around lately. Avon heard the door slide open and turned to see 'Areth slip in. "Vila!" he yelled automatically. It had come to be taken for granted that the thief was the boy's keeper.
Vila rushed in. "Sorry, Avon, he's slippery as an eel." He scooped up 'Areth before he had a chance to get into any mischief. "There's a story about a young man who went into the lion's den," he told the child, "but you've gotta understand, that boy took a thorn out of the lion's paw, at least I think it's the same story, but anyway, Avon's got no soft spots so it won't do you any good, you see."
Avon glared at the thief, who instead of taking his charge and leaving, seemed to feel at liberty to settle on the supply cabinet with the child on his lap. "Oh, look, we're about to hear him growl," Vila continued cheerfully.
Avon bit back what he was about to say. Let them sit there if they wanted to. If the boy got into something he shouldn't, it was going to be Avon's pleasure to make Vila very sorry. He could invent a reason for the thief to go into the glycoline ballast tank again. Now that was a thought. He almost wished the boy would misbehave. But he seemed content on Vila's lap, poking at a discarded junction box the thief had handed him.
"He looks like Blake, doesn't he?" Vila asked, looking down at the curly head.
Avon glanced up. "He looks like his father."
"Yes, that's what I mean."
Avon sighed pointedly.
"I mean, well, you know what I mean."
"Vila, you don't know what you mean, and I already have one vacuous tangle to worry about here."
"Isn't 'vacuous tangle' a, uh, contradiction in terms?"
"So is 'Vila's mind,'" Avon put into the opening left for him, wondering at the banter Vila had initiated. Was this a reconciliation attempt? If so, why? "What are you doing here anyway? Weren't you entertaining one of our guests?"
"You mean Blake?"
Avon winced. While the others followed Avon's lead and called the clone Roj, Vila kept right on using the name that was most familiar to him. It kept catching Avon unawares.
"Dayna cornered him," Vila continued. "She likes him, I think. I think he reminds her of her father."
For a change, Vila could have a point. Dayna was always in search of a father figure to replace the one she had lost. Even in someone so totally unsuited to the task as Avon.
"He is fatherly, I suppose. Like Blake, you know, I mean the other Blake, of course," Vila went on babbling.
Avon sighed again. "No, I don't know."
"You wouldn't, would you? Anyway, I think..."
"Vila, shut up!"
For a rare occasion, it worked. The thief fell silent, but wouldn't leave. Avon managed to forget his presence until he spoke up again.
"Avon, why do they have to go to Kaarn? Why can't they come to Xenon with us?"
I should've known, Avon thought, he's here being chummy because he wants something. He glared at the thief. "Am I supposed to take that seriously?"
"Why not? What's wrong with it?"
"Xenon base is not a nursery."
"So okay, you don't want them underfoot, but the Seska left a settlement up there, and I bet we can get the hydro plant working again, so why can't they just live on the surface? I mean, that way, they're not with us for those who don't want them there, but still there for the ones that do, see?"
"And who exactly are the ones that do?"
"Me, for one."
"I see. Well, Vila, if you're so desperate for the company of someone at your own mental level," he indicated the boy, "feel free to stay on Kaarn with them."
"I just might."
Vila started to leave, obviously angry. Dismissing him altogether, Avon turned to the machine, but the thief paused by the door.
"Avon it's been five years. Is it too much to ask that you at least think about it?
"I'll give it all the consideration it deserves " Avon replied sarcastically, fully intending that to be his only so-called consideration. But Vila left, and he found himself actually considering it.
In all likelihood, Tarrant and Dayna wouldn't object. Soolin would, but only if the Xenon base was offered as a residence. She wouldn't care one way or another who inhabited the surface. Now that they were cast out of their sanctuary, Rashel would go where Roj took her, and Roj seemed willing to take Avon's suggestion. That left himself.
Come to think of it, it might actually be a welcome change to have someone to talk to - but only if he wanted to - who wouldn't be constantly out to score points.
Nothing much seemed to be wrong with Vila's suggestion, except...
Except he hated to admit it. There wasn't anything wrong with taking them to Xenon instead of Kaarn. Neither did Xenon have anything to recommend itself over Kaarn. So was he supposed to walk out there and issue an invitation without a plausible reason for having changed his mind? Just because...
...he wanted to? No, it wouldn't do.
He stood, picked Orac and carried it out with him.
"Don't tell me the stardrive is fixed," Tarrant said when he saw Avon.
"Not yet." He put the computer down. "Something just occurred to me. I need to check it out, Orac?"
"The Auronae long had a policy of isolation."
"It is altogether probable that they, most importantly their children, are susceptible to alien bacteria and such that might be brought in by outsiders, isn't it?" He saw Vila beaming at him, as if now willing to forgive and forget the transgressions of the past.
"As I thought. It would not be wise to introduce outsiders into their midst." All right, now he could safely...
However, Orac continued, *There is no reason to go by suppositions, Avon. We can make that determination now if those in question will submit to a complete physical.*
Avon remembered telling someone recently that Orac either gave too much or too little information, never the information one wanted. "How can you do comparative analysis when you don't have access to..." he cut off, remembering. Prior to dropping them off, Orac had done a thorough biological work-up on the gene stocks to assure compatibility of the settlers and the planet. The information would still be in the data banks of the computer that forgot nothing. "Yes, I see," he finished. It still was a valid concern, and whichever way it went, it would be a prudent measure. "Well then, if you don't have any objections," he said to Roj.
"Of course not. How do we go about it?"
"Show him, Vila." Avon nodded toward the small med-chamber presently covered by its panel. "Orac will do the rest." Now it was out of his hands. He went back into the engine room. Someone would let him know.
* * *
It was Vila who came in. "Well?" Avon asked, not lifting his head from the repair job.
"Orac wants you out there before he gives out the results."
"Oh, for the..." He rose and wiped off his hands. "Very well, let's go."
*The subjects are all healthy at this moment and are carrying no organisms or infections that will be detrimental to the Auronae settlement of Kaarn,* Orac announced succinctly, making Avon wonder why his presence had been needed.
So there was no reason why the family couldn't go to Kaarn, no handy excuses. "All right, Orac..."
The computer interrupted. *Further specifically detailed prognosis on the subjects will be available on request.*
Huh? He had not asked for anything more specific than Orac's opinion. What could any of them do with detailed biological data anyway? Nobody on the ship carried a medical degree. "No need, Orac," he said, betraying none of the apprehension that had started to creep through him. "We'll take your word for it. That's that," he told the others. "Now I need Orac in the engine room."
* * *
He closed the door, this time latching it carefully. "I got the message, Orac. We're alone. Explain."
The computer didn't dissemble. *The subject that carries the nomenclature 'Roj Blake' will be dead within a standard year.*
It took Avon a while to get his voice past his throat, and then he only managed a single word. "Why?"
*He has been programmed to do so during his construction.*
Of course. Why should the Federation need Blake's replica for too long? But weren't the Clone Masters supposed to have held respect for life above all? Perhaps even they had bowed to Servalan's pressure. Or maybe they had been given a blueprint with a fatal trait already incorporated and they hadn't known any better. Or...a thought struck Avon.
"Orac, it...it wasn't intrinsic to the original gene pattern, was it?"
*Negative. But the only reason I know that is because I have Blake's own DNA pattern to use as comparison.*
So. Out of intent or ignorance, the Clone Masters who had given Blake's clone his reverence for life had preempted his. The irony threatened to choke Avon. "Is there anything you can do? Anybody can do? Anything, anywhere? Anywhere at all?"
*No, Avon.* Did the recalcitrant machine actually sound apologetic? *It has been interwoven into his DNA pattern. It is now his nature. There is nothing to be done."
"How...uh, how will it happen?"
*He is not aging more than normal. It is not an accelerated deterioration process. He will function well until the end and will simply shut down. He is, essentially, a self-destructing mechanism.*
What else was there to say?
Suddenly, something registered. "It's in his genes? Did he pass it on to the children?"
*It is a recessive trait. The fetus is free of it, but one of the children is carrying...*
"I don't want to know which," Avon interrupted. That way he may not have to lie to Vila.
I'm so tired.
*Should they be informed?* Orac asked.
"No!" The answer was immediate. Then he stopped to consider, and affirmed it, this time quietly, resigned. "No." Why should they need to know? He wished he didn't. "Let them live. Just...live."
He sat on the floor next to the machine and stared at nothing.
"You lied," he said long minutes later, disassociated from his words, with a stranger's interest in an uncommon phenomenon.
*As you well know, I am incapable of lying,* Orac answered with its usual disdain for absurd statements.
"Nevertheless, you lied. You had the diagnosis and you held it back. Are you turning human on me, Orac?"
*Kindly stop insulting me!* the machine snapped. *Delaying information is not synonymous with lying.*
"All right, you didn't lie, you evaded. You're splitting hairs."
The computer chose to take him literally. "And what purpose would that idiotic action serve, even providing I were capable of such?"
"Nothing, Orac, nothing at all."
He put his arm across the machine. The casing was cold, hard, sharp-edged. But he rested his head against it. Just for a little while.
I'm sorry, Vila. I'm not up to a deathwatch. And I can't, once more, take another ghost from the past to rise up only to die again while I watch.
Kaarn, it is.
* * *
When Avon emerged onto the flight deck, even before he said a word, something about his attitude seemed to alert everybody. Silence fell and all eyes turned to him.
"If you can stop being sociable for a while," he told Tarrant, "you can do the recalibrations on your console so we won't waste any more time when the connectors are installed. Vila, the teleport lights were never meant to serve as an exhibit, so cease displaying them for the child's amusement. Dayna, if you can assemble weapons, you can help assemble an engine; get in here. You too, Soolin." He spun around to go back into the engine room.
"What the hell...?" he heard Dayna ask behind him.
"I told you that halfway-human act was too good to last, didn't I?" Soolin muttered. "Ours is not to question why."
Five hours later, the stardrive was fixed. Three hours after that, they went into orbit around Kaarn.
* * *
"Orac," Avon ordered. "Contact whoever is in charge, preferably Franton, and..." Even talking felt like an impossible feat; the last days seemed to have caught up with him suddenly. It wasn't fatigue exactly, but a sense of utter futility. He waved vaguely with one hand. "Tarrant, deal with it. I need to put the engine room to rights."
He left the flight deck. In the engine room he sank onto a casing, rubbing one hand with the other, disinterestedly looking around at the scattered tools and discarded parts littering the place.
"Can I help?"
His head jerked up at the inquiry to see Roj had followed him. Shouldn't he be more interested in whether he'd have a home or not on the planet down there? "No," Avon said. As short a word as that was, he realized it was more than he had said directly to the man in the last eight hours. He looked away again.
"You must be tired."
"I am tired." He rose and made a pretense of being usefully engaged.
"Surely this can wait. You should rest."
Avon dropped some tools into a box with a satisfying clatter. "I told you, I find work restful. If I can possibly manage to do it without interruption," he added pointedly, "I prefer to rest alone."
Dayna stuck her head in. "Franton wants to talk to you, Roj, come on," she said and disappeared again.
Roj didn't follow her immediately. He stood looking at Avon for another minute. "Sooner or later, Avon," he said softly, quietly, "everybody rests alone." Then he left.
Avon sighed, casting about the room he had to himself once more, trying to find something, anything, that would occupy his mind as well as his hands. Too bad there was nothing more left to fix. He could deal with broken machines and if they were unfixable, it was no hardship to dump them - any junk heap would do.
Ironic that it seemed to work pretty much the same way with people too. If only it were as easy. Even more ironic that he had started on this search precisely because he had thought it wouldn't matter to him however it turned out. Another miscalculation.
Tarrant came in. "We're invited to teleport down. I think Franton was surprised by our unexpected arrival."
She would be. Cally had promised her the Liberator would be back to help the colony. Neither she nor the ship had lived long enough to let her keep her promise. Franton must have given up long ago. "We're not here for R&R," Avon snapped. "Will she take him in?"
"The name is Roj, Avon, in case you forgot these last hours, and don't make it sound like you're talking of a homeless stray animal."
Avon glared at the young man. "Surely homeless is exactly what he is. Was Franton amenable?"
Tarrant looked disgusted, but didn't seem to think it any use to belabor the point. "In general. We'll discuss the details face to face. Coming?"
"To what purpose? He's got a mouth. He can make his own arrangements."
Tarrant scowled at him, then shrugged and left without another word.
Vila was the next person to invade the makeshift privacy he had fashioned for himself. The thief stood by the door repeatedly shifting his weight from one foot to the other, looking like he had no desire to be there, nor say the first thing to Avon, but he spoke anyway. "We're ready to go."
"Go then," Avon said shortly.
"Aren't you coming?"
"No, I'm not and if one more person asks me that question..." He left the threat unspoken but clear.
"Fine with me," Vila snapped back. "Beats me why he should care in the first place."
Ah, so that was the reason for this pesky insistence on his company. No, Avon wasn't going. He had always considered a quick amputation preferable to drawn out misery.
"No use asking if you're at least coming out to say goodbye, is there?" Vila continued sneeringly.
"What is this sudden fascination with pomp and ceremony?" Avon grumbled.
"I'll tender them for you, shall I, along with your regrets, I mean, seeing how you're so unavoidably occupied here? What's a lie or two between friends?"
"You shouldn't attempt sarcasm, Vila, you don't have the knack for it."
"You're a bastard, Avon. Is that direct enough for you?" He spun on his heels to leave.
Avon called out, "Vila." The thief turned. "It's unlikely that a little struggling colony has locks they need you to open, and I suspect they won't tolerate larceny just so you can keep your fingers in shape. I doubt if they'll feed and house you for the pleasure of your company. You might actually have to work. So, will you be staying?"
"What's it to you?"
"No more than it has always been. You're useful."
"Go to hell, Avon."
"Let me know when you need a kick in that direction. I'll be around to oblige."
The thief went back out. Well, he had answered in his own way.
However, obviously Vila wasn't going to forgive this either.
When the engine room looked tidier and cleaner than an engine room had any right to look, Avon went to the flight deck. Apart from Orac it was deserted. He was a little surprised that Soolin had also gone down. Cool and distant as ever, she hadn't seemed interested in Rashel and the children in any way, except as mildly irritating obstructions to the normal traffic of the flight deck. Once she had expertly treated Roj's leg wound she had taken to sidestepping him as well. She had probably teleported to stretch her legs after being confined to the ship for days. Avon could understand that. He was chafing too.
The teleport whine made him turn, expecting to see the crew come back. They could finally leave. But the materialization effect solidified into a single large form - the last person Avon wanted to see.
"Problems?" he asked grudgingly.
"Hmm?" Roj stepped out of the teleport chamber. "Somewhat disconcerting, isn't it?" he said, rubbing his arms as if to make sure he was all there. "But, I don't know, exciting I guess." He looked at Avon and seemed to remember his question. "No, no problems. From what you said, I expected to find a very primitive colony--"
"How would you know the difference?" Avon mumbled.
Roj continued as if not interrupted, reminding Avon of Blake's habit of blithely ignoring what he considered ignorable. "But there are almost a hundred adults there. They were off planet during the plague and they seemed to have found their way to their own. There are also ships - stolen, I gather - so they have supplies. It's a simple colony but not -"
"Yes, fascinating," Avon interrupted. "If I were interested in the colony, I'm sure I could have made an effort to find out without all this. What about our reason for coming here?"
"Franton says she can always use more adults, and who'd notice a few additional children. She gave me quarters, even a patch of land for me to plant." He smiled brightly, as if he liked the idea of having his own land.
Avon kept himself from shaking his head. The man would toil on that land and at most see a single season of the results of his work. "It all seems to be in order then. Why are you here and where's my crew?"
"They were about to come back, but I asked Tarrant to give us a few minutes first." He approached - too damn close for Avon's comfort. He tilted his head a little, smiled; something that instantly made Avon brace against its lure. "I wanted to say goodbye. Before that though, I must say thank..."
Avon interrupted hastily. "There's no need. After all, my interference caused all your problems in the first..." The oversized hands came to hold him by the upper arms and made him pause.
"Hold your tongue for a change and let me say this. And you don't even have to say you're welcome. Thank you for--"
Avon kept himself from squirming, but interrupted again. "It really isn't -"
"Will you shut up and let me finish!" It was a sudden and impressive roar - a Blake special.
Avon shut up.
The deep voice softened again as if it had never been raised. "As I was saying, thank you for giving me the first choice of my life. I made only one free choice before, when I opposed Servalan. Even my mate became my mate because there was nobody else for her or for me. In any case, making choices is one thing, being given a choice, that means someone is acknowledging you and your right to your own existence. Nobody ever gave me a choice before, Avon. A human being should always have a choice, I think. If only to know he is human and not merely a manufactured thing."
Avon swallowed hard, wondering what was causing the tightness in his throat. The man's disconcerting sincerity? Or watching him learn, this big man who was very much a child in many ways, the one concept that had underlined Blake's personality and existence: a passion for freedom of choices. Sentiment did breed weakness, literally. Avon felt unsteady, and wished the man would stop.
Perhaps Roj sensed it, for he removed his hands. "Thank you," he repeated.
Avon nodded, somewhat distrustful of his voice.
Keeping Avon's eyes with his, Roj stepped back into the teleport chamber, smiling wistfully.
Avon found his voice, hoarse, but serviceable. "Goodbye, Roj."
He touched the controls and the teleport beam carried the man and his warm gentle smile out of his life.
* * *
Avon's quarters at the underground base on Xenon felt like a haven to him. If for nothing but a door that could be closed. Any appreciable amount of time spent inside the single habitable space on board the Scorpio, with no way to distance the others, always left him yearning for a space of his own.
They wouldn't bother him for a while. There was nothing to do that would require his attention. There was never anything to do lately that had any point. If Blake had been good for nothing else, he had been excellent in providing purposes. Suicidal purposes, but purposes nevertheless.
For one thing, he wouldn't have left this sitting around uselessly, Avon thought, picking up the container that held the antidote to the pacification drug. It had been left on a shelf for months, ever since Tarrant had handed it to him. Orac had already said it was impossible to synthesize. But its raw, organic base had to be growing somewhere or it wouldn't exist.
Yes, Cally, I know, something else to chase.
The last time, some days ago, he had thought of those words, he had gone chasing a ghost of Blake, finding someone both not-quite and too-much Blake. It was ironic, really. Blake's counterpart was alive somewhere, waiting to die. Blake could be alive somewhere else, considered dead, waiting...to be found?
Once and for all, Avon decided.
"Orac," he said, inserting the key. "Clear all non-essential circuits."
*Contrary to humans whose components are mostly frivolous, I have no non-essential circuits,* the machine snapped.
Avon smiled. "My mistake. Let me rephrase. Belay, for the time being the work being carried out by as many circuits as you have that are not presently involved in immediately vital matters." That should cover it. "I have a challenge for you."
*What do you want now?*
Orac sounded as bad-tempered as ever, but Avon knew it was intrigued. He worded his request very carefully to keep the machine's interest. "If you're capable of it, I want you to see if you can trace one single line through the pattern of infinity."
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