Author's Note: First of all I should emphasize that this is an unfinished novel that I expect will remain unfinished. I began it before I'd even seen all of the series, from hearing the rumor that Avon went nuts by the end of fourth series (a diagnosis that I didn't agree with, BTW, once I'd actually seen all the series)…I thought, "well, if he's nuts, we'll just have to get him a good psychiatrist, that's all" and so one of the major characters in the following was born.

Then I abandoned the novel because of the same character…I'd been out of B7 fandom for several years and, once I got back in and looked over the ms. again, I felt that the addition of another crewmember (who was, frankly, also a romantic interest for Avon) was a mistake and, since the novel was so built around Seinne that it was impossible to take her out, that just abandoning the novel was the only thing to do.

So why am I putting it up on this site? Well, to be embarrassingly frank about my ego, I put months of work in on the thing and I hate for it to completely go to waste. And I do think there are some good scenes in it, though some of the characterization is a little off what I'd do today. Also, I wrote an adult story in the same universe that's been published and put on my adult site and I thought it'd be good to have what there is of the original universe available for those who are interested.

 

 

Rumors of Life

by Pat Nussman (counseled and abetted by Another Lady)

 

Prologue:

 "So, they've thrown the bitch out, eh?"

The viscast threw flickering light over the darkened tavern, creating half-shadows rich with the scent of soma and whiskey and more potent drugs. A peeling cromimum bar held a half-dozen early patrons, attention rapt on the central screen, drinking sensationalism along with their afternoon brew.

"Eh?" The thin-faced laborer nudged his neighbor again companionably, drunkenly insistent for his answer.

"So it appears." A thin black cloak hid the woman's form, threw shadows over the ivory skin. Just beneath the hood could be glimpsed a hint of blood-red lips, a glitter of cropped midnight hair.

"Mind you." The man ran a finger alongside his nose, looking wise. "They never could've done it if she hadn't up and disappeared like she did. She was that smart, even if she was a right royal—well. But then she was gone and when the cat's away..." The man buried his face in his tankard.

"...The mice will steal the cream?" the woman suggested smilingly.

He shook his head, as though to clear it. "Something not quite right about that...but that's the idea, true enough. Still, there's no doubt we're shot of her and good riddance, too." He motioned the bartender over with an expansive gesture. "Will you drink one with me, lady? To our new president?"

"Indeed." She waited until a glass of pale golden liquid was placed between her slender, crimson-tipped fingers. "To our president, then...to our once and future president...a toast."

She drank, her hunting beast smile hidden in the shadows of her hood.

The laborer followed her lead, slopping his brew on the already well-stained bar. "And to the downfall of President Servalan." He drank again, slumped forward across the tarnished metallic surface.

"Yes," his companion agreed, "she has indeed fallen. And yet..." Her voice was soft, words spoken to herself more than to the drunken man beside her. "I believe they may have underestimated their empress. True enough, she lost all. But if she lives..."

"Eh?" The man fumbled at his tankard, too drunk for a firm grasp.

"If she lives..." The voice was scarcely audible now behind the shadow of the inky cloak. "...she may well have secrets of which the council never dreamed. The president was not the most confiding of women. Or so I have heard."

But she had lost her audience. Her neighbor frankly snored, alcohol overcoming his fleeting interest in matters of state.

The woman smiled again. Just as well. Killing him now would be conspicuous, and she could not afford to be conspicuous. Not just yet.

She rose, tossing a credit piece across the bar and melting into the shadows beyond the perimeter of the flickering screen. Near the odoriferous loo a public combooth stood black and empty. She slipped quietly inside, sealing the entrance and quickly keying in a number, then a code.

A moment later a stunned face appeared on the fly-specked screen.

"Commissioner? Commissioner Sleer?"

She shook off her hood. "You sound surprised, Commander."

"To say the least." The man swallowed, then hurriedly twitched his uniform jacket into straighter lines. "Commissioner, no one's ever seen you or even known your location. You've been a complete mystery to the entire security department—"

"Until now." She leaned back against the lumpy combooth as though it were a velvet throne. "With the usurper Servalan overthrown, I can at last take personal charge of Security. You may send a vessel to these coordinates." Slender fingers punched up another series of numbers.

"Of course, Commissioner. At once."

"That is all." The whey-faced commander faded, and Servalan smiled into the darkened screen. Secrets. A secret identity, held in reserve, a weapon against possible adversity...

She might indeed have lost all—a warship rightfully hers, titles and power, the puppeteer who had fled what should have been her moment of glory. But she had life still and a portion now of power.

Oh, yes, she might have lost all. In the darkness, the huntress smile returned, fierce and sharp as a blade. But sooner or later, she would have it all again. All she had lost.

And more.

*

 Part One: Angel of Death

Being a psychiatrist, Seinne Alasdair knew hero worship when she saw it. Unjustified, exaggerated hero worship. She saw it in herself, every time she was around Roj Blake.

Sometimes it amused her. Sometimes it annoyed the hell out of her.

Like now.

He stood a few meters distant, reassembling the truth detector, a piece of delicate and totally unnecessary machinery. And with those big hands of his, making an unavoidably clumsy job of it.

She covered the ground between them with a few clicks of her bootheels. "Here. Let me." She took the tiny electrodes from his hands, all too aware that it was merely an excuse to touch him, to stand a little closer to the massive warmth of the man.

"Thank you." He squeezed her shoulder in a typical gesture. She had counted on that, as well. Another fleeting touch.

While she worked, Blake took the seat she had vacated, leaning his head on one hand, watching her labor. "You're an invaluable asset to us, you know."

Her amber eyes flickered up to glance at him. Any excuse. "I know." Only two psychostrategists had ever defected from the Federation. And the other was reported dead, though one never knew with Carnell. "And with me you don't need this—" She gestured to the plastic-and-microchip device under her hands. "—thing."

Blake smiled slightly, the expression incongruous on his scarred face. "Well, it never hurts to have a backup," he said easily.

"No." That was Blake for you. Plans with plans. Sometimes she wondered if he had a backup for himself. She smiled at the thought. Although with his increasing edgy excitement lately, his almost-paranoia, she would hardly be surprised at anything.

"Something amuses you?" Blake regarded her quizzically.

"Yes." She bent again to her work. "You. Me. The galaxy."

Blake's forehead crinkled. "Sometimes I can't figure you out."

She smiled at that. Being Blake, that would bother him more than anything. Perhaps the mental exercise would do him good. "Sometimes I can't figure myself out," she replied quietly.

And being herself, that bothered her more than it possibly could bother Blake. Figuring anyone out—even herself—was her job. And once she had been very nearly the best. Once.

"Seinne. Do something for me, will you?"

Anything. Her hand tightened over the device's plastic casing. That was the worst of it, the corrosion of her judgement, just as it might be needed the most. "What?"

"That emergency headquarters we set up last week. I want you to check it out, make certain the systems are in order. Take a team with you."

"Why?" She looked up sharply. Blake was keeping information from her, she knew it. Had been for some weeks. And without ever shred of available fact... What was happening? What was the meaning behind his secrecy, his air of suppressed excitement, the plans which no one knew but himself? "Do you expect a problem?"

"Just trust me." He said it persuasively, with all the considerable charm Blake could muster.

It was by no means an answer. Seinne's hands clenched in frustration.

"I do trust you." But he didn't trust her. Or anyone. That was all too patent now. "But as your psychostrategist I need to know everything. As you are well aware. One missing fact and the whole structure—"

"Then indulge me."

He said that too much lately. Entirely too much.

Seinne finished the connection, staring down at the mass of circuitry beneath her fingers. If trouble came, a functional emergency base would be vital. A few hours only to make the checks, eight or ten at most, then she would be back to sort out whatever secrets Blake had seen fit to conceal from his "invaluable asset."

A sensible decision. But for all of that, it was only an excuse. So that she could do—as always—precisely what Blake had asked.

Gently, she closed the plastic casing, job completed. "All right, Blake, I'll go. But do try not to blow away the base while I'm gone."

"I'll make the effort." He stood and stretched, smiling. Once again, he had gotten his own way.

It wasn't good for him.

Seinne watched his retreating back, one hand worrying at the palm of the other. Then she stooped abruptly to depress a button on the nearby communications panel.

"Deva here." The tinny voice sounded morose. Maybe Blake had been at him, as well.

"Alasdair." She spoke briskly, giving nothing of her own feelings away. No need to send morale down still more. "I'll be taking a team to the emergency HQ in about an hour. Give me a portable communications unit patched into the main computer."

"Any particular reason?" A faint growl colored the disembodied voice. Yes, Blake had definitely been at him.

"No." Was an itch a reason? If so... "I just want to keep track of what's happening back here. It's my job, you know."

Deva's tone was equivalent to a verbal shrug. "Seems like extra bother, but your business. Pick up the unit in half an hour."

"Right." She keyed off the connection. Her business: manipulating information, people. A job made impossible without the vital facts...

What wasn't Blake telling her? And why wouldn't Blake trust her? She smiled to herself, a little ruefully. Why should he? She hadn't told Blake the whole truth, either...had held back the most bitter of her own secrets.

Perhaps Blake's silence was only justice.

*

"Is all in place?"

She wore black, as always. An act of ceremonial mourning for the deaths of the past and the present and of deaths still to come, all the grisly sacrifices to the god of her power. Necessary sacrifices. Always necessary.

"Yes, Commissioner." The squad leader did not know, could not guess at the scope of her sacrifices, the depths of her sorrows. He knew only duty and the touch of fear her presence inspired, and that was as well. If he lived, he would know sorrow soon enough.

If he lived. If he did not fail her.

She laid her hands, palms flat, upon her desk. Today, even her nails were painted black, talons of prospective grief. "You are certain?" Her voice whispered tales of the sepulcher. Promises.

And he heard the tomb haunting her voice, the threats meant for his ears alone. His face paled, and she fancied she could glimpse the grinning skull beneath the taut skin. "Yes, ma'am."

Her fingers were white against the desk, whiter than the marble surface, whiter than bone. "You laid the trail? Carefully?"

"Carefully, ma'am." The squad leader became stone, like an animal frozen before the hunter, camouflaging himself with stillness.

But it would do him no good. No. Not if the hunter smelled his blood. The blood of failure.

"Because if you are not careful, he will suspect." She used the words as a litany, telling a rosary of destruction. "And if he suspects, he will escape. And if he escapes..."

"He will not escape. Ma'am."

Seeing the fine tremor of his hands, she was satisfied. No, he would not fail her. And her prey would not escape. Not this time.

This, then, would be another sacrifice to her god, the ultimate sacrifice, worthy of her dark mourning. Another mark of blood to be placed beside her unborn children, her unburied lover. For that first love had been sacrificed at the altar of her power.

Now, so would her last.

*

Avon took the flyer down into the thick, labyrinthine darkness of the landing silo, twisting and turning through a network of unmarked tunnels, guided only by Orac's abstract electronic commands. Minutes passed, then lights flickered ahead, threads of sullen crimson.

An unnatural silence descended upon the occupants of the flyer, as if they all sensed the imminence of some final disposition, awaiting them beyond the vermilion glow of lights.

Death and glory, Tarrant might have said. Had he been here. Death and glory.

And it was odd, Avon thought. Peculiar, that for perhaps the first time in a life fueled by the drive for survival at what cost, he now felt that death might be preferable to glory. Although, unlike Tarrant, he had no particular appetite for the latter.

For a minute, he let his thoughts drift into the wasteland of memory, seeking verification. Anna? No, his brain told him, he had not sought glory with Anna. Safety, yes, the security which could be found only by purchase. But not glory. Blake? That was more difficult. Blake's revolution had seduced him despite his best efforts to resist, dragged him down into its fatal net. But not for the sake of glory.

He didn't know, himself, why he still looked for Blake after all this time. Why he fought doggedly onward after this last year of failed plans and farcical outcomes.

But it had become a habit now...like life itself. A wearisome, worn-out habit he would willingly discard if someone—anyone—would force him to shed it.

It was not, apparently, a thing he could do for himself.

He could only continue on the treadmill, move forward in blind flight from one disaster to the next, hacking his way through the jungle of ironies fate laid in his path.

He blinked against the onrush of light as the flyer entered the silo, alert again to the exigencies of the moment. Always, the exigencies of the moment.

Somewhere...somehow...it had to end.

*

The Outside still bothered Seinne.

Even leaden with approaching rain, the sky bore no resemblance to the comforting curvature of the Domes, with the gray reassurance of metallic supports protecting her from undreamt-of dangers, sheltering her from harm.

That most of those dangers were imaginary few knew better than she who had helped shape psyche programs that reinforced that perception of danger, kept the populace safely cloistered and quiescent. And yet...

Childhood myths died hard. Seinne kept her head ducked against the hard, unwinking stare of the cloud-dimmed sun and inhaled the sharp scent of pine as though it were poisoned gas.

"Not far now." The lanky service grade at her side liked the Outside no better than she. He trod over the pine needles with a half-mincing gait, as if expecting the ground to slid malevolently from beneath his feet. Fear, the great leveler.

She managed a curt nod. They were almost home. The emergency base had checked out perfectly, so perfectly she had wondered at Blake's insistence that it be inspected. She hadn't cared for the location, so deep in the forest that she felt the sensation of being swallowed alive, devoured by the trees or by the rotting dampness of the earth. But it was, as Blake said, well-hidden from the paths the Federation would take through Gauda Prime. Safe.

So far as anywhere was safe.

Sub-leader James jogged to the front of the line, displacing the service grade. The Outside seemed to hold no terrors for him, but then he had grown up on a frontier planet, his outworld accent so thick that his speech could hardly be called Terran.

"Hear anything?" She glanced nervously at the computer link he had hooked to his belt, an island of technology amongst this wilderness of rioting nature. Her only connection with the enclosed world of the main base. Her only connection with Blake and whatever Blake's mysterious schemes might be.

Almost home, she reassured herself. Almost safe.

"Flyer coming in." James frowned, holding one hand to the earpiece receiver, the other adjusting the unit at his belt. "Not one of ours."

Seinne froze. Pieces fell into place, a jagged tapestry of horror. This unnecessary expedition, custom-made to clear her from the scene. Blake's air of secrecy—or more of an air of suppressed anticipation. There was only one man for Blake to expect with that amount of secrecy, with that anticipation.

No wonder Blake hadn't told her. Just as she hadn't told him the full story of her past life, the full extent of her knowledge.

The sun slipped from beneath a bank of clouds, casting a pale white glare across Seinne's face. The pine scent seemed suddenly overpowering, choking the breath from her lungs. She broke into a trot. "Come on. Hurry."

The others scattered behind her like confused sheep, bleating unheard questions. "Come on." Pine needles slid from beneath her boots, trying to snatch away her balance. Branches snapped against her face, the forest itself seeming to bar her path. She crashed through them, bare-armed, heedless of pain.

She had to get to Blake before he confronted Avon. Before he discovered, too late, that the Avon he thought he knew had been utterly, horribly destroyed.

She should know. She'd been there at the end.

The bitter, bitter end.

*

Nothing left. Nothing to live for.

Avon stood alone, a shadow of black among the flashing amber lights of the control room. Vaguely, he was aware of his companions at his back, the hefty weight of the projectile weapon in his hands. But only vaguely, like the hazy outline of a nightmare made tentative flesh, the merest counterfeit of reality.

And as in a dream, Tarrant's voice echoed and reechoed through him, the sound piercing some vital organ he hardly knew existed, with pain as shocking and vivid as a scream. "He sold us, Avon, all of us. Even you."

Even you. Even you. Even you.

The searing pain stabbed his gut. He wanted to lie down and scream, but practice kept him on his feet, the practice of survival. Amber-washed mirages swirled around him as he moved forward, the gun dragging heavily at his hands. No reason left to live, but one more task to fulfill.

His death and mine...

The gun tingled in his fingers, like the residue of an electric charge. He raised it, spoke to the man centered in its sights. "Is it true?"

But he knew before he spoke. That the only truth in his life was betrayal.

He got ready to fire.

*

Seinne was just in time to watch Blake die.

In her desperation, she had nearly clawed down the hidden access plate, only half-remembering the sequenced code. Vaguely, from somewhere behind, she could hear the comunit on James' belt squawking its electronic warnings: Federation troops had entered the base.

But invasion had become the least of Seinne's worries.

At last, the access yielded to her frantic promptings, yawning inward to reveal an entry where no entry should be, a web of corridor known only to Seinne and Deva...and Blake.

Blake. Damn you, Blake.

Stale air flavored with machine oil and flyer exhaust from the nearby silo rushed out, setting her backward a pace. She felt for the mask in her belt pouch and put it on, then retrieved a hand torch from the same source. The pinpoint light shone dimly against the all-encroaching darkness.

"Wait here. Keep out of sight." She grabbed a smaller comunit from James, shoved it into one pocket. "I'll keep in contact."

James and the rest melted obediently into the bushes. They had ceased to exist to her an eon ago.

Stooping, she crawled in, pulling the access half-shut behind her. The corridor was in reality no more than a maintenance tunnel, a crawlspace webbed with wiring and pipe, with little air and less room, she humped along awkwardly, trying by the inadequate light of the torch to find the side-corridors that led into the main sections of the base.

A stronger smell of exhaust, a sudden draft, revealed the outlet to the silo. She looked that way, undecided, then shook her head. No, Blake wouldn't confront him here, amongst the workmen and pilots...he'd wait for him to come up. And the corridor from the silo led to the tracking gallery.

She crawled faster, skinning her elbows and knees against snarls of pipe. She was beyond fright, not knowing how she would tell that side corridor from any other side corridor, only knowing she must hurry at all costs.

In the event, she hadn't had to wonder. She smelt out the side corridor from the acrid smell of gunfire. An awkward turn, a long, frantic scramble and she was there, pulling herself up to the barred maintenance shaft...

...And watching Blake die.

The great gouts of blood exploding from his chest, the slow forward stumbling movements were like the slow-motion from some obscene, bloody holo-flick—his body deeper, then paler crimson in time with the rhythmic flashing of lights.

He fell.

Then all hell broke loose. Deva dying, another horror in a horror almost beyond comprehension. Then more people falling, dead or stunned, she wasn't sure which. And black uniforms entering, shooting, encircling. She was almost too numb to care.

But not quite. She flipped open the panel Deva had installed in the shaft. Red button: Hidden doors to the tracking gallery slid closed. Black-helmeted heads turned in confusion and she heard more shots.

No matter.

Blue button: gas seeped from hidden grates. Seinne firmed the seal of her mask and watched the black-hued figures fall, one by one, until there was only one standing in their center, as if only his will kept him upright. Then he too collapsed into a dark heap atop the man he had slain.

Seinne fumbled in her pocket, trying not to throw up into her mask. "James." Her voice shook; she couldn't help it. "James, to the control center. Masks on and cautious."

She stood up in the cramped space. Carefully, she removed the grate to descend into the carnage, her movements slow, deliberate.

There was, after all, no need to hurry now.

*

"Any word?" Black enameled nails glittered in the light, starker than midnight against the white of her desk.

"No, Commissioner." The voice, distorted by the communications unit, was impersonal, unsatisfying. Servalan could not bend or break the voice. No now, not yet. One hand clenched, white-knuckled."

"There should be word."

"Yes, Commissioner." The hint of a tremor shook the voice's blandness, affording her temporary satisfaction. "Any instructions, Commissioner?"

Kill him. Kill him now. Give me my mourning. "No." Her finger lifted from the lever, then descended again. "Yes." She had been foolish to entrust this task to others, to let them gather the treasure she had long desired for herself. But that could, would be remedied. "Prepare my personal craft for immediate departure."

"At once, Commissioner." Curiosity colored the voice now. "May I ask where to, ma'am?"

"Gauda Prime." She smiled, a slash of crimson against ivory. "Set the coordinates for Gauda Prime."

*

Carefully, Seinne dropped the few meters from the open vent to the floor. Bodies were scattered heedlessly around the room, as if some monstrous child had tired of her human playthings and tossed them carelessly aside.

She stepped around a Federation trooper, not really seeing him. Not really seeing any of the bloodless forms sprawled around her. Not seeing anything but the single, blood-covered form centering the room. A form larger than life, even in death.

Blake.

She would have known, with her training, the probabilities of this. If only Blake had given her the final piece of the puzzle, Scorpio's presence, Avon's presence, before—

Before it was too late.

Blake, why didn't you tell me? What was I with you for, if not for this? But she knew why. Blake had liked to play his own game. But this one, he had lost.

Stumbling, she made her way across the room, kneeling awkwardly, pushing that other—traitorous—body from him, feeling for the pulse she knew wouldn't be there.

Blake. Roj. White-hot anguish lanced through her, mixed with numb disbelief, rejection. She bowed her head, smearing blood on her forehead. Blake's blood. It seemed right. I'll avenge you, Blake. She knew, somewhere in her mind, that her grip on sanity was tenuous at this point. Somehow that seemed right, as well.

But she was running out of time. She raised her head, assessing the situation, seeing the room for the first time—sona-gassed Federation troops mixed incongruously with the stunned Scorpio crew. She'd have to get them out safely. She owed Blake that much, at least.

And so much more.

Stepping over bodies, she returned to the entrance, motioning in her gas-masked team. "Blake's dead." Her voice echoed emptily over the tiny communications units.

The others looked at her blankly, expressions hidden by the masks. She wondered if they felt as dead as she. As hopeless. As helpless.

She moistened her lips. "Take those." She pointed, reeling off the names from the tapes Blake had shown her once, before the game had begun. "Restal. Tarrant. Mellanby. Soolin. Take them back to the emergency base, take care of them. Afterward..." She tried to think, to reason as Blake would have done. "Afterward, they can stay and help or leave, as they wish."

James nodded at the figure in black leather, half-draped over Blake. "And him?"

Him. The man who had been her greatest mistake. The man who'd just destroyed the cynosure of her world. "Take him," with an effort, she kept her voice steady, "and put him in the next room." She indicated the small adjourning medunit. "I'll stay with him."

She'd stay with him. Just long enough.

The sub-leader's eyes widened behind his mask. "But—"

"Leave me."

And since no one—no one but Blake—had ever failed to follow a puppeteer's orders, James complied. Soon, she was alone in the shattered base, peopled only with sleeping troopers—and Kerr Avon.

Roj Blake's murderer.

*

The ground swung beneath Tarrant's feet in a long, lazy arc, patches of faded green and stark brown alternating, first one, then the other, as if he were captive in some oversized open-air metronome.

"Here." A service grade voice spoke next to his ear. But not Vila's. Vila was dead, as they were all dead. Dead and buried. "I think he's coming 'round."

Coming around. Yes. Like a pendulum. Coming around. His arms, caught in its swing, hung loose in their sockets, but that was nothing to the constant, grinding pain in his ribs, as if giants were making flour from his bones, like in the fantastic tales his brother once told him, late into the night.

But he had no brother now. No brother to tell him stories, to teach him to fight. No brother ever again.

"Looks bad." A lower-pitched voice, Beta by its accent, murmured into his other ear.

He felt bad. He hurt, down to the very depths of bone and muscle, pain combined with a drowning sort of nausea at the sight of the tilting earth, swinging around and around beneath his feet. His stomach pitched sickeningly as it had when Scorpio had taken that final plunge down into trees and ground... He closed his eyes.

"If you'd stop hauling him about..." A familiar voice, fuzzed at the edges, brought the pendulum to a halt, one blessed moment of non-motion. Sensing a faint trace of perfume, he opened his eyes long enough to see her brown hand on his cheek, cool against his fever. Yes. She was there, always there. Would be there beside him in hell.

"He was hurt when our ship crashed." Weariness and anger clashed in her voice. "He can't stand this."

Maybe she was beside him in hell. He wanted to tell her he was grateful for the company, but couldn't find the mechanism for speech through the pain. His bones were being ground into piles of pale flour. Fe. Fi. Fo. Fum.

"Got to keep moving, Miss." The service grade again. "The Federation'll be after us, and if we was to stop, your friend won't be just hurt, he'll be dead. Got it?"

The voice roughened with anxiety. "Here, Miss, think you'd better get some help yourself. You're looking none too good."

The cool brown hand retreated and the ground resumed its slow, sickening swing. They were carrying him, he understood that now, carrying them over their shoulders like the giant's flour bag in his brother's stories. Fe. Fi. Fo.

...Fum. The pendulum kept swinging, but Tarrant no longer felt it. The giants had ground him up.

*

His face was that of a dark angel. An angel of death.

No modern face, this, but one reaching back through the Earth's pre-atomic past, into the mists of antiquity—a brooding face, with a symmetry of jaw and lips and deep-set eyes that seemed sculpted from dark, sultry marble. In the past year, its stone had only hardened.

Now, it was a true murderer's face.

"Damn you." The curse was pathetically inadequate.

Seinne rechecked the restraints binding the unconscious form to the medtable. Glancing up at the readings, she swore again.

What the hell had the man been doing, when not murdering his friends? The stress readings stood at the highest level a man could endure while still remaining whole. And for all his outward fitness, the readouts were redlined across the entire screen, speaking of elevated blood pressure, reduced resistance, nutritional deficiencies, exhaustion—readouts placing this Kerr Avon at the very edge of breakdown.

Almost, she went for her medical kit, for the injections that would set his body into new balance, for an IV setup to feed nutrients into his enervated system. The instinct was that strong, that instinct for healing strangled by the Federation, then slowly and painfully resurrected by one Roj Blake.

She laughed suddenly. Hysterically. Even Blake would acknowledge the lunacy of healing the man she intended to execute. Certainly, he would condemn the stupidity of remaining on base, waiting for the Federation backup teams that would certainly follow sooner or later, and most probably the former.

She should kill him now, she thought, and leave. Or simply leave, trusting to the Federation's less-than-tender mercies.

But, in the end, she hardly moved. Except to shut the medical panel down into mute darkness. Except to pick up the weapon she had set at ready on a nearby table. Then she settled down to wait. He would waken soon, her dark, death-dealing angel. And then...and then...

He would never wake again.

*

For once, Dayna Mellanby felt very little desire to fight, even with words. She was, very simply, grateful to be alive.

She lay back against a gray cot in a gray concrete room. Yes, she understood, they would be cared for. Two of her friends were just down the corridor and Tarrant in a cot just across the room, his face as gray as the decor. Two self-styled medics fussed over his ribs, winding plasteen supports and murmuring about hairline cracks.

She understood all that, and about that she would give them no argument, in their treatment of Tarrant or their care for her. They had given her nourishment and water and restored her weapon and that was—almost—enough.

But there was no sign of Avon and no talk of Avon, and when she tried to institute such talk, she found their leader, James, to be strangely reticent. And, about that, she was prepared to be quite argumentative indeed.

But perhaps later.

For the present, she found her warrior strength irritatingly depleted, a lack she would have expected in Vila or Tarrant, but never in herself. Deprived of her strength in weapons or words, her body insisted on relaxing, her eyes on drifting closed.

Until there was only darkness. Only limpness of body. And the blessed quiet of sleep.

*

The problem.

Avon tried to bend his mind to the problem, vaguely surprised at the difficulty such a simple equation presented. His brain felt full of webs—of thick, sticky filaments spun over the corridors of thought.

He almost preferred it that way. But, still, the problem remained.

The problem of himself, strapped—no, restrained—to a sort of medical table. The problem of the woman who stood scant meters away, leveled gun in her hand.

Yes, that problem. Avon let his eyelids sink closed again. So tired. So tired of solving this particular type of problem. So tired of the struggle required merely to sustain life. But still. He must solve the problem.

His eyes slitted open. The woman remained statue-still, weapon held at ready. A tall, slender woman, with hard amber eyes and short hair edging the border between brown and blonde. No one he recognized. But the look in her eyes he knew very well. Death.

"Ser...v.." His voice came out in a harsh croak, his lips stiff and disused, unable to form the syllables. Besides...the name was wrong. She didn't call herself that these days, did she? It was difficult to remember with those webs cluttering his brain. "Sleer," he managed finally. "You're one of Sleer's people."

The woman's head moved in a curt negative. "No. I'm Blake's."

Ah. The webs cleared. He remembered now. "You mean," his parched lips still moved with difficulty, "you were Blake's."

The fingers holding the weapon tightened. "Yes. That's what I meant."

Equation solved. Avon closed his eyes wearily. "Then kill me now."

"I intend to."

A moment passed. Then another. Nothing happened, except that Avon's weariness increased, threatening to suck him down into the vortex of half-remembered nightmares. With an effort, Avon forced his lips to move again. "Kill me now," he repeated. Yet another irony—the man who had worked so hard to survived, now wanted with equal ferocity to perish.

He felt a slight shimmer of air currents as the woman moved closer to where he lay. "Open your eyes."

So. She was that sort. He opened his eyes. It made no difference.

The woman stood directly over him now, gun carefully aimed, finger half-squeezed over the trigger. But he did not move, nor did her forefinger complete that final, fatal gesture.

"Get it over with." He was tired of repeating himself. He wished she would simply carry on with the job. He wished, beyond anything, for her to finish the job.

Slowly, she lowered the gun. "No." The hard eyes glanced from him to the weapon, then back to him. "No, I don't believe I will. Not yet."

*

"He's mad, you know. Absolutely, nattering mad."

Restal stared into the depths of the glass, features half-hidden in late afternoon shadow. "Mad," he repeated.

Soolin half-nodded in response. Her right forefinger itched annoyingly, just above the palm, and she worried at it absently with its companion thumb. Something wrong here. Yet the situation should be considered flat normal: Vila consuming other people's intoxicants, Vila complaining about real or imagined threats to his cherished personal safety. All standard operating practice.

Except...

Soolin's head jerked up, the sounds associated with resistance headquarters—footsteps, voices, the ever-present hum of machinery—all fading like so much white noise.

Except...that the level in Vila's glass had not dipped appreciably during the past half-hour. And now that she thought of it, the pitch in Vila's voice had shifted as well, losing the whining, almost sing-song cadence that Soolin had so early learned to tune out.

Restal sounded much like a normal man. A normal and exceedingly frightened man.

"He tried to kill me, you know. Tried to throw me out the airlock. Very nearly succeeded, too." He stuck his nose into the long, thin tumbler in empty pantomime—the viscous green liquid tilted, but came nowhere near his lips.

The glass came down again to parade rest, held dead still between the thin, deft fingers. "And now he's gone and killed Blake. That's all he needed, wasn't it, to kill Blake. Now he'll be even worse. Right over the edge, mark my words."

He set the glass down. Actually down and away from him, pushed to the very edge of the scarred night table, as if alcohol was not now and never had been of account to Vila Restal.

"Who knows who he'll kill next?" His voice was very quiet. Very quiet and very scared. "Probably me. Probably finish the job right, this time. He's a thorough man, our Avon."

Soolin rubbed at her forefinger with added force. For once, she thought Vila innocent of exaggeration. She'd seen—as who had not—the increasing irrationality of Avon's behavior these past months.

And she had seen the look in his eyes just before he'd killed Roj Blake. She didn't care to come too close to that look, those eyes, again.

"This time you're right, Vila." She levered herself off the narrow cot, automatically checking the weapon strapped to her waist. Secured and ready. "It's time to leave."

"Leave?" For the first time, she had Vila's full attention. He stared at her blankly.

"Why not?" Surprising, the effort it took to make her voice curt, matter of fact. "It's all over. Blake's dead. Avon's gone dangerously mad. Scorpio's destroyed. What's the point of even trying to go on? Nothing's left."

Vila's throat worked, as if trying to swallow something hard and terribly bitter. "You're right," he said finally. Reaching out blindly, he retrieved the discarded glass, downing half its contents in a swallow. "You're absolutely right. It's over. Four years..."

She'd never heard such desolation in any man's voice. "So let's go." Soolin forced her voice level.

"But Tarrant—Dayna—"

"No." Make the break clean. After all, she'd gone it alone before, more often than not. Vila's talents would be useful, especially at the first. But she piloted well enough herself and the gun at her waist was all the weaponry expertise she needed. "Just you and me."

Soolin laid one hand lightly on her hip, fingers just touching the blunt end of her gun. "First," she said consideringly, "we'll need to steal a ship."

*

Wakefulness again. No choice.

Avon opened his eyes. Again, the woman stood over him, gun in hand, watching him like a cat at a mousehole. The sensation was becoming familiar, carrying the taint of monotony. Still—

Better bored than dead. Perhaps.

"So. You're awake." She took a glass from a nearby table, held it to his lips.

He drank. If it were poison, then at least this charade would be finished. But it wouldn't be poison, not now. And simple water was welcome enough to parched tongue and throat. She waited until he had finished, then set the glass aside.

Painfully, Avon lifted his head to survey his surroundings, his shoulders stretching the restraints to their limits. Blank gray walls stared back at him, unrevealing. "Where am I?"

"Does it matter?" The taste of death had not left her eyes. Nor her voice. And the words might have been lifted from his own mind, in a different time and place, spoken in his own voice. Interesting. Barely.

"Apparently not." He sank back against the rough cushion, easing the bite of the straps, waiting for the slight lightheadedness caused by motion to pass. "What do you intend to do with me?"

"Well, you'd hardly make a good pet."

The tight reins that leashed his mind jerked, yanking back against hysterical laughter, delivering it stillborn. Not a muscle moved.

She laid the gun against his cheek, cold metal against warm flesh in a deadly caress. "So I suppose I shall have to kill you. Eventually."

"You could have done that before." He lay unmoving, eyes not even flickering toward the gun. It was all so familiar. Too familiar. The weapon slid up the line of his cheekbone, then away.

"Killing you then would have been a kindness." Her face was hard, with the faint shadows of a madonna's tragic softness, just the slight trace of an exploitable weakness. "And I didn't feel particularly kind."

"And now?"

"I still don't." Cat-cruel eyes watched him. "But I might change my mind." She turned to a portable scanner propped beside the empty glass. he read a hint of indecision, a hint of—fear?—in her half-averted face.

"What is it?"

She answered automatically, as if he had the right to ask. "Federation troops, a couple of kilometers away and closing." She looked at him then, a slight, self-mocking smile on her lips. "To answer your previous question, we're still at the base."

"That," he commented, "was stupid."

"Yes." Her fingers slid absently up and down the gun's barrel, as if contemplating its smooth, lethal reality. "But it would've been difficult to move you far in your condition."

"And you had envisioned a rather swifter execution." He understood the meaning of that half-conscious gesture, understood it in a way she probably did not. It was beyond familiarity now, so predictable as to be boring.

"That, too." She glanced at the scanner again. Her voice became cool. "You can travel now."

"Possibly, yes." He pushed against the restraints again. Some strength had returned. Perhaps even enough. "Is there a point?"

"A few hours more of life, if that interests you."

As a matter of fact, it did not particularly interest him. Death, at least, would be novel. But survival had become a habit to him, to survive as all around him died. He shunted aside the thought, and the bloodied memory of Blake that accompanied it. "You'll need to remove the restraints."

She stared at him a moment with flat, yellow eyes, then nodded, and started working at the straps one-handed, the gun still held at ready. The lioness lying in wait, not yet inclined to the kill, bloodlust concealed beneath a veil of feline deception.

A woman, he thought dispassionately. Gun or no, merely...a woman.

As she freed him, he sat up gingerly. He was dizzy and weak and bruised from where the straps had pressed the studs of his jacket into his flesh. But he was ambulatory.

Standing, he automatically dusted off his jacket, his hand coming away with flakes of dried blood. Blake's blood.

Looking up, he followed her gaze back to his reddened hand, seeing her knuckles whiten around the metallic surface of the weapon. A moment of total silence held, like the shock following an explosion.

Then the world moved again.

Carefully, he wiped his hand clean on the linen covering the medtable, leaving a ragged streak of rust across the white cloth. "Shall we go?"

"After you." Her voice sounded uneven. Death still stood very close.

A few paces from the door, her voice stopped him. "Avon."

Turning, he found her weapon pressing against his stomach, a hard, cold weight even through the multiple layers of leather and cloth. "Yes." His voice was indifferent.

"One mistake and you're dead, Kerr Avon." The gun pressed closer. "Remember. Just one mistake."

And she was praying for him to make it.

*

But Avon made no mistakes.

He trod cautiously through the carnage of the control room, avoiding the litter of sprawled forms as a cat might step fastidiously around pools of stagnant water, with a confident yet cautious disdain.

He noted, without comment, those both present—and absent. No Vila. No Tarrant. No Dayna or Soolin. No sign of them or their bodies. It might well mean they were still alive.

Or not.

The woman behind him—the woman holding the gun at his back—spoke. Spoke with a neutral quiet he distrusted, as if she were a probe poking delicately through the microcircuits of his brain. "Your crew is alive. My people removed them to our emergency base."

He halted, dry-mouthed and silent. Just stopped, for the space of a heartbeat. Then took a shallow breath and walked again.

So. They were alive.

"Do you care?" The voice became less neutral, with a lick of venom at its heart, the flick of an invisible lash.

He made no reply, not really knowing what answer he might return, even had he felt the inclination to speak. He felt no such inclination.

He walked on.

But not so carefully now, for he found his way blocked by a body not unconscious but dead, lying within a sea of dried, rusted blood that seemed to lap at his very boots.

Blake.

The woman's gun was very close to his back, but he hardly felt it. Looking down, he felt something stir in his face, below the surface of his mind, like the undercurrent of a depthless sea.

"Will you move?" Her voice lost all neutrality, strangling on the force of its own grief.

Still, he hesitated, gazing down at the large, bloodied body. At the scarred face.

At the face.

"I said move." The gun nudged his spine.

For a moment he lingered still, looking down. Then he stepped up and over, not touching the corpse, putting it behind him without another glance. His gait was once more, smooth and steady, leaving the body with its circle of Federation troops behind to emerge into a long, echoing corridor that debouched into an empty stretch of trees and grass.

He glanced around into wilderness. "Where now?"

"Left. There's an abandoned storehouse, about a kilometer away." The woman's voice had not—quite—recovered. He could taste the flavor of tears and of hate. "It's a good place."

He looked back. Saw her face.

She smiled, an illumination of lethal promise. "A good place to die."

Expressionless and silent, Avon moved forward, into forested emptiness. Anyplace, now, was a good place to die.

*

Sleer had come prepared for death and now death would not be denied her.

"You failed me."

She stepped over the bloodied body centering the room as if it did not exist, a whisper of black silk echoing in her wake. Dark enameled nails glittered in the dimmed light, somber counterpoint to the metallic sheen of the weapon she held so daintily, so dangerously in one slender hand.

She would not be denied.

"Commissioner." The squad leader paced back before her advance, a pathetic, useless gesture of retreat from his destiny. "Commissioner, listen..." He swayed on his feet, the faint drowsing legacy of the sona-gas slurring his words. It made little difference to Sleer.

Perhaps she should wait, perhaps she should listen. Perhaps. Listen and learn, for her next dance with that dark partner who dominated her life, the grinning skull that matched her every turn. But she had gone too far into this, her cinquepace of sorrow.

She would have her carnage. And she would have it now.

The squad leader fell, his body jerking spasmodically, almost as if in some obscene parody of the final act of passion. At last...at long, long last...he lay still.

But it was not good enough. Not near.

The room stood very quiet. Sleer revolved on the edge of one spike heel, gazing at each trooper in turn, as if defying them to speak, to move, to so much as breathe.

At last, a white-faced soldier did speak, as though compelled to fill some unbearable, unknowable void. He was wet-lipped with fear. "At least we have Blake."

Sleer whirled on the hapless private. "Have we." A ghastly smile twisted her crimson lips. "Have we indeed?"

It was all the reason she needed. She fired. Again. And again. And...

Yes. She would have her death now. Her dark mourning would by no means be in vain. Blood would fill her nostrils and her dread god would for now be appeased.

And she would have Avon yet, as well. Oh, yes, she would have him, writhing at her feet, as this trooper was now, twisting in a final agony unendurable, yet for a countless eternity to be endured. Yes. Soon she would have him.

And that, that would be the sweetest death of all.

*

"Over there," Seinne ordered, reinforcing the command with a gesture of her weapon. Her prisoner obeyed with an air of negligence.

Standing with his back to the crumbling wall, his gaze methodically measured the distance between himself and the barrel of the gun. His face—the face that belonged on an ancient coin, the face of a Caesar—showed no animation or interest in the proceedings.

So. He was further gone than she'd realized. No man in his right mind would look at his own death and react with boredom.

Seinne held the gun leveled at his chest. No matter. Sane or mad, he was about to die. She had waited long enough.

"Who are you?" he asked in a flat voice. As Seinne hesitated, his eyes narrowed. "Surely I have a right to know my executioner's identity."

"As Blake knew yours." Contempt filtered through her voice, layered over raw pain. Blake. Blake, who had taken her in when she'd nowhere to go, given purpose back to a purposeless life, helped her when she had been helpless. Blake, who had been this man's friend, even as the fatal shots were fired.

Blake...The pain surged, became one with vengeance.

Alasdair raised the barrel of her gun, her finger tightening on the trigger. No, not the heart. The face. That cold, self-contained centurion face would be wiped out of existence, those lifeless eyes obliterated forever...

God, she was as mad as he—she, the puppeteer, as crazed as her puppet. But again, no matter. It only mattered that he should die, die tasting the bitterness of futility like bubbles of blood in his throat.

But first...he asked her identity? Very well. He would know who she was, what she was before he died. Carefully, Seinne lowered the weapon to its earlier position.

"Dr. Seinne Alasdair." She struggled to keep her tone level. "Psychiatrist, specializing in psychostrategy."

Insanely, Kerr Avon smiled. "A puppeteer. Yes, of course. That would be Blake's style."

"How dare you—" For him to sneer at the man he had only just killed... The weapon jerked up in her hand.

Coldly and deliberately, Avon spoke. "It wasn't Blake."

"You're mad." But she hesitated.

"Did you look at his face, Puppeteer?" The words were low and clipped, piercing as bullets. "Did—you—see—his—face?"

His face... The unwanted scene rose before her eyes, horribly clear, running like a film in slow-motion frames. That echoing, empty room...empty but for the bodies...her weapon trained on Blake's murderer...Blake's inert form lying amidst the death and carnage...

His face.

Somewhere...somewhere, she had seen that look before. Not the look that had been on his face in the moment of death, but another look that came in the minutes that followed...

"No..." Her lips moved without a sound, sickness consuming her. It couldn't be. It couldn't be. And yet, Blake's face had taken on a mindless, inhuman look. A look they called—

"Factory normal, Puppeteer."

It was lunacy. Impossible, that all this time—

Avon's mocking voice finished the thought for her. "You've been worshipping a construct."

Stunned and nauseous, she could only stare. He threw back his head and laughed. The harsh sound seemed to go on and on, echoing into infinity.

She must, must kill him now. But the hand holding the weapon felt numb, even as she tried to raise it and aim, tried to pull the trigger to destroy that mocking voice, that sneering laughter. Her hands were shaking and the mechanism of the trigger somehow frozen. Again, she tried to pull the gun up...

Then it was lifted from her nerveless fingers.

Frozen, Seinne watched the barrel of the weapon swing around to contemplate her midsection. For a single instant, she'd been off her guard. A single instant was all it took with a man like Kerr Avon.

"Now, Puppeteer—" His voice was flat, chilling.

Adrenaline flooded her body, woke her brain from its stupor. He could kill her without a second thought, as casually as swatting an insect. And would, unless—

"So you have the weapon." Desperation gave her a surface calm, brittle bravado in the face of certain death. She had to survive...and survival depended on concealing her sharp, sudden fear. Survival meant matching his own previous indifference—he would respect nothing else. "What good will it do you? I'm no use to you dead, and you don't have the guts to turn it on yourself."

"Don't I?" No shadow of interest showed in his voice, and only disdain colored his eyes.

"No." For a moment, she felt a flicker of confidence. "You don't." It wasn't quite the truth, the truth was more subtle and of no use to her right now. The Kerr Avons of the universe never surrendered. They might fail, but they never gave up. If she had not forgotten that one crucial fact, the gun would still be in her hand. But his expression displayed no change and her momentary assurance vanished. Struggling to keep the renewed fear hidden, she repeated. "I'm no use to you dead."

"Probably not." The gun never wavered. "Nor are you of use to me alive."

Involuntarily, Seinne took a step backward, even as she knew she had nowhere to run, no chance to escape. Panic began to poke through the mask, coloring her voice. "I can help you."

"As you helped Blake?" Cold eyes raked her face.

He advanced upon her, narrowing the space between them—the centurion in victory, the conqueror claiming his plunder.

"Or perhaps I should say Blake's construct. A biosimulation, Mistress Puppeteer." His tone mocked, cut at her lacerated nerves like a hot knife through butter. "How does that make you feel?"

Her hands clenched. She longed to wipe that scornful smile off his face. Off the face of the universe. Her gaze dropped to the weapon in his hand. But that was it. He was trying to push her, she realized, push her into an attack that would end in death. Her death.

"How do you think it makes me feel?" she returned tonelessly, her brain hurriedly pasting the pieces together beneath the mask of her features. He could not or would not, then, kill her in cold blood. Only if she gave him cause...

"Betrayed." His voice sounded, suddenly, almost pleasant. Seinne looked up, watched his taunting smile widen. "You feel betrayed. And manipulated. A novel sensation for you, I should think."

"But not novel for you," she said softly. Deliberately.

The smile faded instantly, Avon's deep brown eyes going hard and distant. "No. Not novel for me." But then she already knew that...

At last she had a wedge. A weapon, of sorts, to even the odds. Seinne forced herself against a betraying reaction, calculating the applications. If she could just keep him talking... She swallowed, saliva burning a painful path down her dry throat.

If she could just keep him talking long enough, he might decide to let her live.

Taking another careful step back, she found a piece of rotting machinery and sat down. Transform the threat of a standing target into casual innocence; undercut the instinct to kill. She crossed one leg over the other, hands laid palm-up and empty over one leather-clad ankle. "So. How was it done?"

"Rather easily, I should think. With enough credits, anything is possible." His voice matched the hardness in his eyes. There was no sign he recognized the simple psychological trick she was employing. No sign that he even noticed. "Transfer Blake's memory to a construct and there would be no way for anyone—not even you, not even the construct himself—to determine that he was not the completely genuine article. Rather neatly done, actually." Avon paused, his eyes again growing distant. "But by whom?"

"Then...you don't believe—" Nervously, Seinne watched the gun give an infinitesimal jerk.

"That Blake cooperated?" His expression grew brittle with cynicism. "Possibly. How unlikely would it be for an idealist—" His inflection made the word a travesty. "—Like our friend Blake to decide the galaxy needed two Blakes, two figureheads to harry it into reluctant freedom?"

Seinne stared at him, lips parted over a response that lay dead on her tongue. Was it only yesterday? This morning? When she had wondered at Blake's obsession with back-ups, wondered if he had one for himself as well?

"Not so unlikely, then, is it?" Avon's voice mocked. "You may be right. You may be more useful alive." He raised the gun, but at an angle, merely to consider it. "I'll keep this, if you don't mind."

As if it made any difference. He wasn't going to hand it over to her in any event. Nonetheless, she relaxed slightly—too soon.

Swiftly, Avon leaned forward, his free hand grasping her throat with casual deadliness, eyes cruel and predatory, the eyes of a hunting hawk. His fingers tightened fractionally, a hint of threat.

"One mistake, Puppeteer. Remember. Just one mistake."

*

"We need to find Avon."

No reply. "I said—" Dayna stayed her restless pacing and looked around. Her audience lay half-propped against the gray concrete wall, his arms crossed protectively over bandaged ribs. Dark smudges shadowed his closed eyes, making him seem at once older, yet youthfully vulnerable.

Dayna bit her lip, torn between pity and impatience.

She had lost enough time in the weakness of her sleep. They had to move. The base appeared secure enough, but something—perhaps a scent, perhaps a taste in the air—made her teeth itch. She wanted to be gone.

She wanted to find Avon.

"Tarrant, we—"

"I heard you." His eyes opened, the vivid blue dulled with pain and something that went far beyond pain. A kind of despair. "But tell me, can you provide any particular reason why? Seems to me the game's over, Dayna. Over and done." He leaned his head back wearily. "Even Vila and Soolin recognized that—though they might have had the decency to say goodbye."

Almost incredulously, Dayna recognized the note of genuine hurt in Tarrant's voice and wondered if he might actually be growing up. At last. She dropped to her knees beside his cot, her voice turning gentle. "Del—"

"It's for him. Is that it?"

She stiffened. It was answer enough.

"What is he to you, Dayna?" His eyes opened full again, his voice taking on an oddly bitter, jeering note. "I didn't notice you sharing his quarters. Or was it unrequited love?"

Her estimation of Tarrant's maturity plummeted, leaving her with a strong inclination to put her knife to—and possibly into—his throat. She stood abruptly, moving back from him. Leaving her knife in her belt, she used her tongue instead. "I owe him."

"If so, you've paid up a hundred times."

"You owe him."

A flush hit. Tarrant's hand, tan against the white plasteen bandages, clenched. "I didn't know about Blake's little game."

She said nothing. There was no need. The blow had been dealt squarely to Del Tarrant's honor, his most vulnerable point. All she had to do now was wait. A long moment passed before he spoke, a lingering bitter silence. He hauled himself up against the wall, trying to straighten his back into a semblance of military precision. "All right."

Dayna stiffened. Whatever agreement she had expected, she hadn't expected it this quickly or easily. Not from Tarrant.

"But first we need to steal a ship."

"What?" Not so easy, after all.

He grinned faintly at her outrage, a mere shadow of his usual smile. "Use your head, Dayna." He shifted his shoulders against the wall, his smile recast into a grimace of pain. "Even if we can find Avon, working on foot—and he could be anywhere by now—how are we supposed to snatch him away? On our backs?"

"But every moment we delay..."

"It's a calculated risk. Besides, Avon's a survivor. He'll keep until we get back."

Dayna paced the length of the floor, half-tempted to pull out her knife, after all. She didn't much care for Tarrant's calculated risks, and she cared even less for his attitude. Trouble was, this time he very well could be right. They had all of Gauda Prime to search through and, on foot, that could prove an extremely lengthy hike.

"So, do you have an idea where we can steal this ship? Or is this just another of your pipe dreams?" It was as close to a surrender as Dayna would—or could—approach.

Tarrant struggled to his feet. She let him manage it alone, painful though it obviously was. He'd have to do for himself, soon enough, and she didn't feel particularly sympathetic at the moment, come to that.

"As a matter of fact, I do."

He smiled. It was the patented Tarrant smile, returned full-force, and that, Dayna found, she distrusted...

Almost as much as Tarrant's calculated risks.

*

"Why are we here?"

The silo lay in shambles, destruction personified: flyers smashed into recognizable wreckage, the comptroller's board shorted into blackened ruins, even the network of raised walkways crushed into twisted fragments of metal. A faint scent of spent explosives lingered, the legacy of the Federation's passage.

Alasdair kept talking. Asking. A puppeteer would, of course. The probing, the questioning, the continuing discourse would be natural to the character of that profession. Avon would have preferred the silence, but had become accustomed to muting out unwanted voices this past year or more.

He concentrated on his search and on the aim of his weapon. Nothing more. He hardly noticed when her inquiries, her comments, ceased.

Yes, there. "Stop."

Alasdair halted, half-turned, alert to the cant of his gun.

He knelt amongst the ravages of a flyer bay, keeping the barrel of his weapon carefully aimed even as he pried, one-handed at an almost invisible panel inset into the echoing metallic floor. No sign of damage or tampering showed to the naked eye and the panel gave upward only reluctantly, as it had scant hours before. No revealing trace of relief appeared in his face. He simply thrust one hand into the compartment and pulled.

"Orac." The puppeteer moved slightly, only a twitch of motion, quickly suppressed.

An eyebrow lifted. "Blake kept you well informed." He paused, measuring a beat of time. "Blake's construct kept you well informed."

He bypassed her reaction, dividing his attention between the computer and his gun. One-handed, he dug Orac's key from inside his jacket, sliding it home with a single, deft movement that elicited a small electronic whir of circuitry. The computer did not speak, but then Avon neither expected nor wished for conversation. He wanted only to ascertain function and that he could do visually.

For long moments, she left him to it. He had almost forgotten her presence, except as a target for the weapon he held. But then she spoke again. The queries seemed inevitable.

"Do you think the real Blake is dead?"

Ah, yes, the probing, the delicate exploratory surgery inside the gray-folded mysteries of the brain. Inevitable, indeed. Perhaps.

"You are presumably the psychostrategist." His gun tilted at a dangerous, elegant angle. "You tell me."

"Do you care?" Move and countermove.

"Should I care?" He spoke around a sudden lance of pain. Ignored the pain. He was used to that.

"You came to find him." She was pushing. Mere professional reflex or an attempt to throw him off his stride, to regain the advantage and the weapon?

Useless, if so. His expertise at survival was gained in a more relentless school than she could ever have attended. "I came to find a figurehead. He was convenient."

"Or so you thought."

"Or so I thought." He stood, putting paid to the conversation. It was becoming wearisome. The weight of Orac dragged at one hand, the deadliness of cold metal lightly balancing the other. "Come."

"Where?"

He herded her through the wilderness of twisted concrete and metal within to the greater wilderness without. More questions. Always questions.

But none that he hadn't asked himself. And the answers were always far, far out of his reach.

*

Fear.

Servalan could smell the fear on him, clinging to his dark uniform like the remnants of stale perfume. Good.

She undulated around her desk, fingertips just caressing the smooth marbelite surface, then sank back into the padded chair. Leaning back, she laid her slim, white hands palm to palm, fingernails gleaming with the color of blood. "Sub-commander Elven." She let a hint of threat seep into the purring tone.

"Commissioner...Sleer." His voice stumbled, nearly broke over her name.

Very good. Fear sharpened the spurs of duty. Duty to her. The only duty that mattered. Her painted lips stretched into a huntress smile. "I require a report, Sub-commander. On my ship. Is it complete?"

"Commissioner..."

Acid etched her voice, slashing out like the tainted edge of a well-honed blade. "Is my ship complete?"

"Commissioner." She could taste the desperation in Elven's voice. "It is a complex project."

"Yes. And I have given you nearly a year to complete it." She raised a single crimson-tipped finger. "One ship. A year should be more than sufficient for the task." She had tasted failure on Gauda Prime and would not sup that bitter draught again. With this ship...and her hidden weapon she would at last win. She had to win.

Sweat beaded Elven's forehead, trickled into the collar of his tunic. "Commissioner, the technology of the original was alien, almost beyond our comprehension. And with only a few actual schematics, supplemented by eyewitness reports and speculation..."

"I am not interested in excuses." She rose in a rustle of black beads, hawk eyes as cold as the grave. "You have been provided with the Federation's finest scientists and engineers. At no small cost, I might add. I repeat, you have had sufficient time to reproduce a single vessel, given these resources. Are you telling me you have not?"

She allowed one hand to stray lightly over the smooth pseudo-stone of the desk. The deceptively seamless surface contained a dozen weapons that could vaporize Elven in seconds, and the sub-commander knew it.

"No...no." The man took a half-step back. "Your ship is nearly complete, Commissioner. One week. Commissioner. You'll be able to install your voice print in one week."

"Very well. One week." The taloned hand stilled. "I suggest you return to your Shipwright Center, Sub-commander, and use your time wisely." Her satin tone did nothing to disguise the underlying menace.

"Yes, Commissioner." Elven scuttled crab-wise to the door and was gone.

Sleer sank back into the velvety depths of her chair, smiling. One week. One week and the most powerful, most legendary ship in the galaxy would be hers. The new plan was nearly complete, her players well-cued and set into place. All she needed now was the ship.

Her ship. At last.

*

"Where are we going? Looks like the middle of nowhere to me." Dayna's suspicious gaze flickered to the viewscreen, sparse with scattered starpoints. "Tarrant, do you actually know where we're going? Or have you finally gotten us hopelessly lost?"

"Trust me." He accompanied the admonition with one of his more blinding smiles.

"You must be joking."

Well, it had been worth a try. The smile flickered and died. Not that he minded, really. Dayna's apparent indifference to his charm constituted one of the more interesting challenges he had faced with the female sex. And he did so appreciate a challenge. "You mentioned something about wanting a ship, if I recall correctly."

"So I did. And we stole a ship on Gauda Prime. The one you're currently piloting, in case you hadn't noticed." Folding her arms over her chest, Dayna shot him an irritated glance. "I don't understand why we should need another. And the longer we leave Avon..."

That again.

The more chance Avon would dry up and blow away. To Tarrant's way of thinking, no great loss. He kept that particular observation to himself. Aloud he said, "We'll need a better craft than this if we're to continue evading the Federation's finest. And while I don't know about you, I rather enjoy living."

"I suppose you have a ship in mind?"

Tarrant raised a complacent eyebrow. "I rather suppose I do."

"Well, you needn't be so mysterious about it." The sharp tone spoke volumes about just how near to her limited patience Dayna had come. A good thing he rather enjoyed a touch of jeopardy in his life.

"Let's just say I like surprises," he replied lightly.

"Someday," Dayna said in a tight voice, "I'll surprise you, Tarrant. With a knife between your ribs."

"Promises, promises. You know you'd never hurt me, Dayna. Where else would you find such a superlative...pilot?"

"I suppose you're right." Dayna smiled broadly, showing a set of surprisingly sharp incisors. "You are, after all, marginally useful. For the time being."

"I'm so glad you think so." Tarrant's return smile was savagely brilliant. One day, he vowed, he'd prove to Dayna Mellanby just exactly how useful he could be. In more than one way. For the present, however, he had a ship to steal.

A very special ship.

*

The Outside dragged at Seinne's spirits more savagely than before, the forest a malevolent presence hanging over her senses, more frightening than the gun or man that followed behind.

Or perhaps frightening because of the man who followed, a cold act of nature, as ruthless as the wild, as unreachable and untamable. None of her questions or probings had swayed him, nothing could seem to turn him from whatever implacable path his intellect had decreed. Or his madness.

Seinne swayed, nearly falling into the soft, poisonous layer of pine needles that covered the ground. She had to rest, she had to think.

She had to survive.

"We can't get there, Avon." She halted, regardless of man or gun or threat. "Look at the sky. We can't get there before dark."

"So?"

"I can't find it in the dark." No more than the truth, if he could hear the truth through the single-minded obsession—or madness?—that had captured his mind. She could barely find the base in the light. "And you can't find it without me."

And why should he want to find the base, that was the question. Perhaps merely to destroy it. But that wouldn't quite fit, fit what she knew of him, from the days she had known the terrain of his mind like a well-worn path. Then again, he was changed...

She could feel him behind her, the slight movement of his head as he glanced up through the tangle of branches and leaves to the darkening sky.

"Very well." The gesture of his gun stirred a slight movement of air, so close was he. "You may sit."

She didn't sit. She dropped. Leaning back against the alien texture of a tree, she drew in deep gulps of sickly pine-laden air. Her eyelids drooped, but she did not sleep. She had to rest, yes. But then she had to escape, if only to more wilderness, more stultifying fear.

Even the Outside was safer than Avon.

*

Finally, they neared their destination. Tarrant double-checked his coordinates, then activated the forward viewscreen. "I think we should be about—"

His hands froze on the controls. "—there. Yes, we're just about..."

A ship floated regally in space before them—still pinpoint small, but achingly recognizable—framed rather than confined by the remains of her construction girders. A very special ship. And this time, his ship. No matter what Avon or anyone else cared to say on the matter. His.

"Impossible." Dayna sat immobile at her station, staring at the DSV looming larger and larger on screen, the other ships in the complex mere toys in comparison. Her voice sounded numb. "No. It's impossible."

"So I would have said." Mesmerized, he nearly set course for the DSV's nearest airlock. But no. His plan would leave scant margin for error. This mission would proceed by the book, however much that went against Del Tarrant's grain.

But he wanted that ship. And he wanted it now.

Reluctantly, he set a course intercept for the main installation, the center web of the shipbuilding complex. "You have those toys of yours ready, Dayna?"

"Yes, but I don't..." With obvious difficulty, she tore her gaze away from the screen. "Tarrant, how did you know?"

"Explanations later. Just now, we have a few trifling details to mop up." Just a few. Inwardly, Tarrant admitted to more than a bit of trepidation. A hundred things could go wrong, starting with the false IDs purchased in GP's main port, IDs that, with luck, would see them through this admittedly audacious scam.

Grimpt was one of the best, as Tarrant had discovered during his pirating days, but there were limits to the expertise of even the most skillful forger, and he had the distinct feeling he was nudging those boundaries rather closely. Still, danger did give the game its thrill.

"Dayna, open a communications channel."

She complied without comment, doubtless sensing his imperfectly concealed tension. She was good, that way, was Dayna.

Ignoring the lingering pain in his ribs, he straightened until his back was ramrod stiff against the pilot's seat, schooled his voice to that clipped preciseness learned so early in the labyrinth halls of the FSA. "Federation Ship Thames calling Shipwright Center Three. Do you read?"

"Shipwright Center Three reading you, Thames. What are you doing in this sector?"

Now for it. "Special priority mission for Commissioner Sleer."

From the corner of his eye, Tarrant saw Dayna start, then swiftly compose herself. Yes, Dayna was good. But he had no doubt of that from the beginning.

"Commissioner Sleer?" Even through the sprinkling of static, the voice sounded startled. "She wasn't to be here until...well, never mind. Federation Ship Thames, please transmit your security code."

"Transmitting...now." He nodded to Dayna, watched her slender dark fingers press the transmit button. Unconsciously, he held his breath. Within a minute, they'd be in. Or Federation Ship Thames would be so much space debris.

Static crackled over the line again. "Cleared for docking in Bay A-17. Welcome to Shipwright Center Three, Thames."

Tarrant took a moment to steady his voice. "Thank you, Center Three. Docking will commence in two point oh three minutes."

"Confirmed, Thames." The connection flickered off.

Dayna rose, one hand on her console, as if for support. "Tarrant, I hope you know what you're doing. You've gotten us into some tight places, but this..."

"I know." Tarrant wiped his hands carefully on the tunic of his stolen uniform before once more grasping the ship's controls. "It will work, Dayna."

It had better. Or else he had just condemned the both of them to a particularly unpleasant death.

*

"You can't stay awake forever."

"Can I not?" Gun metal shimmered in the deepening twilight, a brief waning flicker of silver against black, vivid amongst the shadows. Waiting. Waiting for her to move, for an excuse to kill.

If he killed her, then he could sleep. And he wanted so desperately to sleep.

"No." Gold eyes studied him through the shadows, searching out his weaknesses. "I took readings while you were unconscious. You're in an advanced state of exhaustion. You can't hold out much longer."

Perhaps. And he had no means to bind her while he slept, not so much as a stray vine. Avon deliberated, weighing the gun in his hand. If so, he should kill her now. Or feign sleep, so that he could kill her as she tried to escape. Surely, those alternatives must have occurred to her, as well as to him.

Or was that what she wanted? Avon almost smiled. Perhaps they had more in common than he had suspected. Or perhaps she was merely demonstrating her professional expertise.

He shook both thoughts aside, as if swatting away a troublesome insect. Leaning back against the tree trunk, he considered her through half-closed eyes. "Come over here." Again, the weapon in his hand flashed in the fading light, emphasizing his command.

"Why?" Questions again. But she stood, a new wariness to her posture.

"Do it." He leveled the gun toward her shadowy midsection. She could still make a break for it, allowing him to kill her.

But no, she moved cautiously, taking the few paces between them with hands spread. Perhaps she would not force him to kill her, after all. Perhaps.

"Sit down." He slid aside, leaving room against the broad tree trunk.

This time she asked no questions, silently doing as she was told. Loose dirt shifted as she settled herself on the ground. Her face was clearer now, shiny with sweat, taunt and wary.

"Closer."

She slid over a few centimeters, eyes questioning.

"Good. Now lean back against the tree." She did so, and he leaned beside her, making himself as comfortable as possible against the rough bark. Then he took the back of her head in his free hand, threading his fingers through the short crop of hair and twisting it.

A sharp gasp of pain escaped her. "What?"

"Insurance. You move and I will feel it. Then I will kill you. Understood?"

She leaned back further against the tree, against the pull of his hand, her breathing harsh and shallow. "Your fingers will fall asleep." Her tone was almost whimsical.

"I'll take that chance." He twisted his fingers more firmly against the tug of her hair. "Understood?"

"Yes. Damn you." He could see water standing in her eyes from the pain. She tilted her head against the strain. "Just don't pull it out. It's all I have."

"I'll keep that in mind."

Satisfied, he tilted his own head back against the hard cushion of wood and let himself fall into darkness.

*

 

"But I had assured that Commissioner Sleer herself..."

Yes, well, he'd known the question would arise soon enough. Now, if he could only talk with sufficient swiftness to make Servalan's absence convincing. Avon had always claimed Tarrant's mouth to be his most formidable weapon—here was the time, if ever, to put that weapon to the test.

"Commissioner Sleer is a busy woman, as I'm certain you realize, Sub-commander, with very little time to waste on trifling errands." He filled his voice with all the trained arrogance he could muster. "Having little leisure herself, she instructed me to pilot her ship to headquarters." He performed the necessary self-introduction with a half-nod suited to their respective ranks. "Space Commander Lazur, at your service."

The name and rank were perfectly genuine, and with luck, the physical resemblance between himself and the real Lazur would be sufficient to fool the odd security check. Official holos always left so much to be desired.

"Space Commander." Sub-commander Elven very nearly stuttered over the title. Whatever could have frightened the man so? "The commissioner assured me personally that I would have several more days to fully prepare the craft. I'm not sure..."

Ah. So the man had had personal contact with the commissioner. That explained much. Trust Servalan to frighten her subordinates beyond reason and call it clever policy. Well, it was a stroke of luck for them, at any rate.

"Commissioner Sleer assured me that her ship would be in readiness when I arrived. Do you wish for me to convey to her that, in fact, it is not?"

Dayna jumped into the conversation with impeccable timing. "I fear Commissioner Sleer would be seriously...displeased," the "sub-commander" at his side purred. She sounded seriously threatening, a passable echo of the commissioner herself.

"No...no." Elven turned dead white. Definitely, his prior contacts with Servalan had not been pleasant occasions. "I mean, we haven't received the commissioner's voice print to install into the master computer. Otherwise, naturally the ship is complete."

He lied, of course. But as long as the ship was indeed operational...

"Commissioner Sleer will install her voice print personally. For temporary purposes, however, you will install my voice print so that I may convey the ship to the commissioner."

"But Commissioner Sleer specified, no voice print but hers was to..."

Tarrant overrode the man's protest ruthlessly. "Don't be an imbecile; I need voice print activation to convey the ship to the commissioner. Naturally, she will erase it once we arrive at her headquarters."

The man hesitated, and Tarrant wondered how close to death they stood. One suspicion, one word, and a dozen security guards would be upon them in an instant. Time for another calculated risk.

"Call the commissioner, if you don't believe me. But I'd be careful about how you annoyed her. Her temper is a bit short these days. Or perhaps you hadn't noticed."

Elven obviously had noticed, to judge from the faint beading of sweat that appeared upon his forehead. "Yes...well, of course, Space Commander. I'm sure all is as you say. After all, your security clearance is quite in order and..."

"Just so." They could not stand here and listen to the man blither indefinitely. "One more thing. The commissioner wants copies of the computer disks on your research."

"But why?" The smaller man looked genuinely puzzled.

"I'm afraid I didn't have the audacity to ask. But if you..." Tarrant felt safe in repeating the offer. Clearly, Elven preferred the prospect of a lengthy holiday on Cyngus Alpha to a moment's conversation with his superior. Tarrant could hardly blame him.

"No...no." It appeared to be Elven's favorite phrase. "If you'll just follow me, Space Commander."

They followed. Tarrant assumed his best stiff-legged FSA gait, Dayna in the closest approximation she could manage. She didn't manage badly, Tarrant noted.

As Tarrant had hoped, their destination was the computer room, deserted at this off-shift hour. As soon as Elven turned his back to prepared the disks, Dayna began pulling magnetic charges from whatever mysterious cache Dayna Mellanby used to secret such items. Tarrant had often speculated upon the subject, to very little purpose.

Swiftly and silently, she padded about the room, attaching the explosives to the sides and undersides of various compunits, under the guise of idle curiosity. Tarrant stood quiet and watched, knowing he could never match her particular style of stealth. Better not to try.

And better still of this idiot Elven hurried with his task. Or he and Dayna would go in the way of this complex in exactly twenty minutes.

*

She could take him now. Maybe.

The night had set in, bleaker than space and rife with the small noises of verdant life. Above Seinne, branches scraped together in a horrid whispered cacophony, while deeper in the forest came a twisted mutter of bestial voices, now disconcertingly close, now further away.

The man at her side never stirred.

Tilting her head, she stared at the still face, stark in the dim starlight. Be quick enough and she could free herself, pull the gun from his slack hand before he could fully awaken. And be free. Be in charge.

Maybe.

But she'd been wrong before about Avon, wrong despite all her intimate, hard-won knowledge. She tilted her head back further. And even asleep as he was, the hand that twisted her hair slowed no sign of slackness, the pain so intense she could have screamed.

Oh, yes. Maybe she could escape. Or maybe she could die. Looking at the strong, exhausted contours of his face, Seinne thought the latter seemed the more likely alternative.

She closed her eyes against the pain, against the noises of the night, against despair, and waited for the light to come again. It seemed a lifetime away.

*

"That's it, then." Elven handed Tarrant a thick stack of computer disks. "I've instructed the ship's systems to accept your voice print. As soon as your activate your print, you'll have control of the master computer.

"Very good." Tarrant's curt tone hid a large measure of relief. Five point oh four minutes and counting. They were cutting it rather fine. "Now, if you'll just supply us with teleport bracelets—"

If possible, the man turned even whiter than before. "About that...we haven't quite managed...that is..."

Of course. Tarrant cursed himself for not guessing that before now. Without a really brilliant computer designer—not to mention the special knowledge provided by Orac—the teleport would remain a mystery. And the finest computer mind in the galaxy was presently stranded on Gauda Prime, possibly a prisoner, and most certainly mad as the proverbial hatter. Well, it did make the game interesting.

"Give us a shuttle, then." He could hear Dayna at his shoulder, counting just beneath her breath. Four point oh three minutes. "My pursuit ship is not designed for ship-to-ship docking." Not to mention being on its last legs. "I'll send for it later."

"But—"

"The longer we delay in delivering this ship, the unhappier Commissioner Sleer will be." Tarrant bared his teeth in an expression only technically a smile. "Do you wish Commissioner Sleer to be unhappy?"

"No. Of course not." Hurriedly, the man punched into a nearby intercom. "Veeck, is the shuttle at Bay C-8 ready for launch?"

"Yes, sir."

"Which way?" Tarrant covered his terror with a generous layer of arrogance. Three point oh one minutes. Stupid. He should have had Dayna set a longer delay circuit.

Elven pointed dumbly down a side corridor. "But Space Commander—"

Walking briskly, at a pace just short of a run, Tarrant and Dayna left his protests behind. Elven's suspicions would be aroused, but in another two point oh five minutes, that would hardly matter.

Once out of Elven's sight, they began to run. Startled personnel scattered in their wake. The bulkheads dissolved into a gray blur.

One point oh nine minutes.

Bay C-8 appeared in front of them. They slowed to a desperate walk, saluting the officer on duty. "Space Commander—"

"Out of my way. This is a priority mission." Tarrant pushed past him into the shuttle, Dayna close at his back. The hatch sealed.

One point oh one minutes.

Somehow, he found himself on the flight deck, flinging himself into the pilot's chair. The drives, mercifully, were already on line, warmed and ready.

One point zero minutes.

No time for delicacy. The controls twisted under his fingers. He rammed the shuttle forward, its drives whining from the strain, tearing out the docking tube, the station airlock, and half the docking area with it. So much for the officer on watch, or anyone else in the immediate area.

Twenty seconds.

He asked for all the drives could give, then demanded yet more, his skilled hands dancing frantically over the controls, simultaneously plotting a vector away from the station, and toward the ship that hung like a vast mirage in the remains of its construction dock.

Ten seconds.

Dayna's mouth moved silently, counting down. His own lips formed half-forgotten prayers to outlawed Earth deities. Just a little further, just a spacial further before it blows. Please, Mary Mother, just a few more...

Zero.

Debris from the explosion rattled the shuttle like a child's toy, throwing Dayna halfway across the cramped flight deck. Tarrant clung to the pilot's controls with the strength of sheer desperation, managing somehow to keep the course steady, despite the battering they received from escaped air and pieces of the demolished station.

A short eternity passed. At last the shuttle steadied, returned to stability, sanity. Tarrant clung weakly to the controls, his breath coming fast and shallow. "That," he managed finally, "was a trifle close."

"I agree." Dayna pulled herself up, leaning against a console. "Put a rear view on screen."

The flight computer complied. One side of Shipwright Center Three showed only jagged edges surrounding the blackness of space. Tarrant guessed that much more of the station had lost air. It was, he thought, one of Dayna's more thorough pieces of work.

"We made one hell of a mess," she observed.

"Necessary." He sank back against the pilot's seat, still catching his breath. "Loss of computer records—not to mention skilled personnel—should slow the construction of another ship for perhaps a year. Possibly much more. I don't particularly want a ship fully as powerful as our own pursuing us about the galaxy."

"Nor do I." Dayna rubbed at the shoulder impacted during her recent acrobatic flight across the deck. "Well. What do you say we go examine our new possession?"

"Sounds good to me." Tarrant changed the screen to display a front view.

His ship. At last.

*

Slender, carmine-tipped fingers slid restlessly over the smooth marbelite desk. Walters watched the movement uneasily, knowing how swiftly the commissioner's restlessness became impatience and her impatience became calm, deadly rage.

Hurriedly, he gathered together a pile of scattered reports, turning toward the distant haven of the door.

"Walters."

Reluctantly, he pivoted back. "Ma'am?"

Sleer's gaze remained distant, unfocused, her fingers tracing intricate invisibilities against the ivory wasteland under her hands. "Gauda Prime."

"Ma'am?"

"The bodies were too few." Soft death inhabited her tone, a dream, deadly contemplation.

"Ma'am." Formless dread surrounded him, familiar companion to his days. He had seen the report. Death had been plentiful on Gauda Prime. He found the scent of charnel on the very pages.

Green-gold eyes turned swiftly upon him and a smile gathered around the crimson lips. She could smell fear, could the commissioner, and she fed upon it, like a vampire upon living blood. "Rebel bodies." Her eyes turned inward again, thoughtful, calculating.

Walters glanced at a report in his hand, fear fading to the level of dull dread, an ever-present ache. It was true. For an operation the size of Blake's the bodies were too few indeed. Not to mention those five other bodies the commissioner sought, gone mysteriously missing.

"A secondary base." He spoke cautiously. One always spoke cautiously with the commissioner. If one expected to live.

Her fingers stilled. "Yes. Deep in the forest, I would think." She smiled anew. "Blake always was something of a savage."

Walters waited while she pondered, one finger at her lips, colors in perfect concert. "Contact the commander at Gauda Prime. Tell him to search the plantations for that base."

"And when he finds it?"

Long, black lashes lifted in surprise. "Tell him to blow it up. To destroy it." Creamy satisfaction sat on her face, anticipation in the slight curve of her lips. "Utterly."

"Ma'am." He half-bowed, poised for escape.

"And Walters..."

He halted, his body resisting the movement, his nerves screaming for deliverance from the constancy of terror. "Commissioner?"

She had swung her chair around to contemplate the viewscreen, the silver and black of stars against stark space. "Put in a call to Elven. Tell him I'm waiting for my ship."

"Yes, ma'am." Thankfully, Walters found the door and the peace that lay beyond. The ship, at least, was Elven's problem and none of his. That fear the sub-commander was welcome to bear alone.

*

"It isn't Liberator, is it?" Dayna's voice was uncharacteristically hushed. She knew as well as he that Liberator was gone. And yet...

"Not quite. The Federation scientists aren't that good." Tarrant's throat threatened to close. He was astonished at his own unguessed sentimentality, at how much he wanted this ship to actually be Liberator, how much he wanted the flashing fascia before him to be the long-dead Zen. "However, it is a reasonable facsimile—the fastest, the best, the most powerful vessel the Federation's finest could construct."

"Servalan's ship."

"Servalan's prototype, yes. Her pet project, if you like." Tarrant moved to the pilot's station, automatically checking calibrations and settings. Yes, a very reasonable facsimile, indeed. He could feel Dayna one level above, taking up her own accustomed station.

"Makes sense, in a twisted way and Servalan is nothing if not twisted." Dayna's voice had regained its accustomed acerbity. "She was obsessed with getting Liberator and with Liberator destroyed..."

"...She decided to build her own. As you say, it makes sense in a twisted way." The drives flared to life under his fingers. Liberator. Or close enough. He could run her on manual if he had to, was one of the few people living who could.

"But how did you know about the project?"

With difficulty, Tarrant pulled his attention at least partially away from the well-remembered controls. "Orac. While Avon was busily searching for Blake, I decided to put Orac's resources to rather more practical uses. We'd lost one ship and it seemed likely, the way Avon was going, that we'd sooner or later lose the second. So, I had Orac monitor the Shipwright Centers' computers."

"And found out about Liberator?" Dayna's tone sharpened. "You could have told us."

"I wasn't sure. I only knew the project to be immense and that the specifications were...suggestive. Dayna, I wasn't certain until we got here."

"You weren't..." Dayna's voice faded. "Tarrant, if we had come here for nothing, I would have killed you."

"No matter. We probably would have been dead, anyway. That pursuit ship was on its last legs and our forged identities wouldn't have held up for long."

"Tarrant." He kept prudently silent while Dayna struggled with her temper. "All right," she said at last. "What do we do now?"

"First, I suggest we tap into this master computer." He raised his voice slightly, not certain how to proceed. "Hello? Are you there?"

*Affirmative.*

He heard a sharp indrawn breath behind him, could hardly restrain his own start of surprise. That slight bonking sound, like a throat clearing, the deep, flat tones. All so painfully familiar, the echo of a voice fallen silent since Terminal.

Somehow, he forced his lips into speech once more. "Your name is...Zen?"

*Affirmative.*

Of course. What else could be expected? Servalan had wanted it all, right down to the distinctive personality of their ship's master computer. Well, she wouldn't have it now, he thought savagely. She'd never have it, if Del Tarrant had any say in the matter.

"Zen. My name is Del Tarrant." The formula came back to him smoothly, as if the space of two years were nothing at all. "Register my voice. From now on you will obey my requests and commands."

*Confirmed.*

"Dayna."

"My name is Dayna." Her voice shook slightly with that same sense of wonder he himself felt. "Dayna Mellanby."

Tarrant cleared his throat free of unwanted emotion. Just a computer, that's all it was. "Register her voice as well, Zen. You will obey her requests and commands."

*Confirmed.*

Momentary silence fell upon the flight deck, thick as black velvet, as they both stared at the flickering fascia. Home, Tarrant thought suddenly. It was like coming home.

Finally, Dayna broke the silence. "What next?"

Tarrant wrenched his mind back into practical channels. "I suppose we leave. We may have destroyed most of the Center, but they might have a pursuit ship or two remaining. No sense in taking chances."

"Go on." Her voice was affectionately mocking now, and a smile flashed startlingly white against her dusky skin. "You live to take chances."

"You should talk." His own devastating smile surfaced. At least, he hoped she might find it devastating one day. "Let's say I feel cautious, just this once. Zen!" The name felt odd on his lips, but pleasantly so. "Take us out on these coordinates." He depressed a lever, inputting the figures he had entered manually moments before. "Standard by Six."

*Confirmed.*

The battered Shipwright Center slid from the viewscreen as their ship slipped from its few remaining girders, gathered speed with the sleek majesty of only one ship Tarrant had ever known. Liberator.

Liberator. They had Liberator. And they were on their way.

At the moment, nothing else mattered.

*

The nightmare continued into daylight.

Nothing had changed, not the forest, nor the man behind her, nor the implacable steadiness of his aim. Emergency headquarters lay a bare kilometer distant now and still Seinne had no clue as to his intentions, if indeed he had any. Delay had gained her little besides a sore scalp and a sleepless night.

Fear walked beside her now like an old acquaintance, accompanied by an unaccustomed sense of impotence. Her skills had deserted her, except for the bare minimum that kept her amongst the living. She tried to think, reason out the thoughts of a man who might no longer be governed by reason.

What did he want at headquarters? Did he expect to take the base with one gun and a hostage?

Perhaps he did. And perhaps he could. She knew him that well, at least.

"Faster." If he had benefited from his night's sleep, he showed little of it, displaying nothing except a grim impatience she could feel crawl up her very spine.

She walked faster.

But just as she picked up her pace it started...a tremor vibrating up through the soles of her boots from the rock and soil below. She stopped, aware that the man behind her halted as well, head cocked, listening. The roar became louder, the thunder of some vast, subterranean storm.

Then the forest ahead exploded into flame. The blossom of fire grew, expanded like some macabre Roman candle, eating away the dense screen of foliage and outshining the malevolent sun.

The base...

Pieces of debris spun out of the fire, twisted metal and concrete chunks thudding through the swelling pall of smoke in a kind of technological hail.

The base.

"No." Seinne turned swiftly. Raw savagery ground through Avon's voice, contorting his face into a feral snarl that flung her backward like a physical blow.

She was a fool. With anyone else, she would have known immediately why he had come. With anyone but this man of stone, who had now become fire.

"Avon." Her voice was gravelly with fear. He wanted to kill, that was clear, wanted to destroy her in a virulent, unthinking rage. Was seconds away from doing precisely that. She broke into desperate speech. "They were my friends in there, too."

Make him stop, make him think, defuse the rage that ran through him like a storm of flame.

"They were my crew."

Not a claim of friendship, then; a claim of ownership. And as such, possibly more dangerous. One wept for a lost friend, but one killed for a stolen possession.

And Seinne Alasdair had sent four of Avon's possessions to her emergency base. To their deaths.

*

Very well. If I must, I must.

Dayna had spent the last hour or so staring at Tarrant, who in turn passed the time gazing grimly into the viewscreen. No prize for figuring out the subject of Tarrant's meditations. And whether Tarrant would believe it or not, she could understand, even sympathize, with his feelings on the subject.

Still, they couldn't float aimlessly in space forever. And Dayna hadn't noticed him inputting any particular coordinates, much less the coordinates for their next obvious destination.

At least, the one obvious to her.

Having made the decision, she characteristically wasted no delicacy in broaching the subject. "Tarrant, I want you to set course for Gauda Prime."

"I already have." His head moved not a fraction in her direction. "Manually."

"What? I thought—" Her teeth snapped shut over the incautious words. She didn't want to say them aloud, make the emotion real. I thought you hated Avon.

"You thought correctly." The clipped Academy accent was very evident now, lending added venom to his words. "But it appears the only way we're to have teleport is to find Avon and Orac. The computer systems are a trifle outside my field."

"Well." She tried for a neutral tone, anything to defuse the explosive atmosphere on the flight deck. "You don't sound particularly happy about it."

He turned his head at that, displaying a profile that could have been chiseled from stone. "You expect me to welcome the presence of a madman aboard my ship?"

"Your ship?"

"I discovered this ship's existence. And I stole it—with your help, naturally," he added generously.

"Thanks for the recognition."

"You're quite welcome."

Cold silence reigned. This wasn't getting them anywhere at all.

She stood up, leaning casually against her console. "Well, I can see that this will be a pleasant voyage. Especially when you present Avon your deed of ownership. Tell me, will you inform him of this interesting fact before or after he provides your ship with teleport? Do you really believe Avon—mad or sane—is that stupid?"

"Dayna." She could almost hear the grinding teeth.

"Sorry." She wasn't really. Not in the least. "I didn't mean to interject a note of reality into your neat little fantasy world."

Tarrant spun around in his seat, jaw set. "If you think I stole this ship just so I could hand it over to that—"

"Tarrant!"

"—Madman! Do you deny it?"

Dayna fought to control her temper. Yes. She could understand Tarrant's feelings, especially now. And yet... "I'm not denying anything. All I'm saying is that if we are to survive, we need to work together. Together, Tarrant. Not ripping at one another's throats."

She moved to the pilot's station, her body fluid with a warrior's tension. If Tarrant wanted confrontation, so be it. She'd be more than willing to oblige him. "We need Avon. That is obvious, even to you. The computers aboard Liberator are beyond either of us. With Avon—"

"All right." He sat rigid, staring into the main screen. "I have said we're going to Gauda Prime. And we'll fetch Avon, if Avon is to be found. After that—"

He looked up, and his expression reminded her suddenly, chillingly of the man of whom they spoke. It was that cold, that impenetrable. "After that, what happens is entirely up to him."

*

"So. We're even." Avon had recovered so quickly she could hardly believe it, turning from beast to man within the space of a breath. A slight, inappropriate smile upturned his lips. "I killed your construct. You killed my crew."

A debatable point, the latter, but Seinne saw no profit in argument. She saw no profit in much of anything. But the silence needed filling. "So. We shake hands and go our separate ways?"

Unlikely. He wouldn't let her go now, his only remaining possession. She was his now, to keep...or to kill. That knowledge was as bitter as any her profession had ever given her.

"I think not."

She hardly needed the confirmation. And where would she go, even if she could? Her base was destroyed, her only companions now carrion. She was shackled to Avon now, bound up with the chain of necessity.

For one long moment, she allowed herself the luxury of hate. Of despair.

"Where is the nearest settlement?" Yes, definitely back to himself, whatever that state might be. She was sick of trying to decipher the man.

"Ten kilometers." She jerked her head in the general direction of the sun, still brightening the smoke-filled sky. "East." She was sick of the whole damnable mess. Her shoulders slumped under her soiled tunic, her whole body dirty, tired, and still aching from the night before. Neither of them were beautiful, come to that. Avon needed a shave and they both could have done with baths, with a generous portion of scent thrown in with the water.

She ran her hand through her limp hair. God.

"Come." The gesture had become so old, Seinne almost ignored it, almost disregarded the threat of the weapon in his hand. She stared at him, wondering if she looked as sick and haggard and tired of life as he.

Probably. But neither of them had a choice, did they? Except if they wanted to lie down and die here in the stinking, smoke-filled forest. And neither of them would do that. They were alike there. Each might invite death, but neither of them could pull the trigger that would bring darkness.

Perhaps they were both afraid of the dreams.

So, they were tied together, Avon no less than she herself. He might as well let her hold the gun. Or throw it away altogether. It made little difference now. She would have laughed had she not been so weary.

Instead, she straightened her shoulders and walked east, not bothering to see if Avon followed.

*

The return trip to Gauda Prime proved to be both silent and unpleasant, the former state broken only as Liberator reached the planet's outer defenses.

"Just how do you plan on running the blockade this time? If you'll recall, our last trip in was something other than a total success."

Tarrant kept his eyes on the readouts. He admired Dayna. He wanted Dayna. Most days, he even valued Dayna's companionship. But just now he found himself not caring much for her at all. "Last time, I was piloting a garbage scow. A technologically-advanced garbage scow, but a garbage scow, nonetheless."

Liberator, flawed though the resemblance to the original might be, did not fit that category. Not his ship.

"Zen. Have you spotted those blockade ships yet?"

*Affirmative. Vessels are at vector zero-three-zero.*

"Have they detected our presence?"

*Negative.*

No, he didn't think they would have. Small and short-range as the ships were, their scanning capabilities would be curtailed accordingly. "Very well. Plot a stationary orbit around Gauda Prime that will keep the planet between us and those vessels. And inform me immediately of any change in their search formation."

*Affirmative.* Zen possessed an admirable succinctness when compared to Slave or Orac. He had nearly forgotten that.

Turning from the computer, he raised an eyebrow at his companion. "Well?" Perhaps success would sweeten her temper.

"You did your job. Do you expect a medal for it?"

So much for that idea. "A thank you might be pleasant."

"Thank you." Impatience and sarcasm held equal space in her voice. "Now can we get on with it?"

"We are getting on with it." He disposed himself nonchalantly in the pilot's seat. Two could play at being unpleasant and he had just decided to join the game.

"What?" She had assumed her hunter look. Much good it would do her. For once, he had the upper hand and he had no intention of relinquishing it.

"If Avon is alive and free, he will have retrieved Orac. I have Zen scanning for Orac. It works on quite a distinctive frequency."

"And if Avon is not free?"

Then I pity whoever is saddled with him. "Let's try it my way before we consider the alternative. Unless you want to reprogram Zen to search for an exact specimen of Caucasian Earth human." And not even Avon himself could do that or they would have found Blake long before.

"So we just sit here and wait?" He could not have devised a worse purgatory for Dayna Mellanby if he had thought on the matter for a week.

Tarrant found bitter satisfaction in her frustrated impotence. "Just so." He smiled, showing the sharp edges of his teeth, the surface of every last incisor and molar. "We wait."

*

*Avon.*

He motioned the puppeteer to a halt. She dropped to the ground, sprawling and listless, not bothering to look at him or even at the computer. Apathetic.

He felt little difference in himself. But something within forced him to continue, had always forced him on, to little obvious gain. He wiped on grimy hand over his equally besmirched forehead. The dirt was worse than the futility.

"Well?"

*A signal is coming in. From Del Tarrant.*

An emotion flickered through him, unplaceable. But then it had been long since he felt emotion, much less put a name to it. Since Anna? Since Cally? Perhaps since forever.

"He is more resourceful than I expected, then." He glanced down at the plastic box. He felt not quite so numb as before. "Is there a message?"

*No. Tarrant is merely attempting to ascertain your location on the planet surface.*

He had a ship then. And a powerful computer, to attempt contact with Orac.

"You are certain it is Tarrant?" Suspicion, his other self, his shadow in the sun. A fragment of half-forgotten poetry surfaced like flotsam in his mind... Since from myself, my other self I turned. He shook his head, as if to free his mind from whimsy. There was no room there. No room for any thought but survival.

*The recognition code is exact.*

Recognition codes could be faked. "There are times when even the most cynical must trust to luck."

"What?" The woman half-turned, looking at him through blurred eyes.

"Quoting myself. A bad habit." Unconsciously, he had let the gun droop. He must be tired. The weapon drew back into a straight line. "Orac, give Tarrant our location. Tell him we'll—I'll—await his arrival."

He glanced at the puppeteer. Her gaze had sharpened with wary interest. "Better brush yourself off," he advised. "We're about to have company."

*

"Shut it off."

The thin, unremitting shriek—the exhausted remnants of a dozen alarm sirens—abruptly cut off, leaving only the labored breathing of overworked life support systems to break the sudden silence. A ragged thread of smoke drifted across the room like an undulating snake, obscuring the remains of wrecked machinery and hastily-patched bulkheads.

Little of Shipwright Center Three remained.

Not that Servalan cared. Not that she cared if the entire sector had exploded into its component atoms. She moved away from the half-ruined hatch, her gown floating behind in a murmur of black satin. Her ship was all that mattered.

Her missing ship.

"Sub-commander Elven." She lingered caressingly over the syllables of his name. The man—the wreck of a man—pressed back against the bulkhead as if to remove himself physically from the sound of her voice, his face a mask of blood and fear. "Where is it? Where is my ship?"

"H-he had the correct clearances, C-commissioner."

"He?" Who would dare? Who would dare penetrate the heart of the Federation shipbuilding program, into her secret project... Her hand clenched into a fist, driving sharpened nails into the skin of her palm. Who indeed? She moved over to the security scanner, keying it into life.

A picture leapt into motion, all youthful impetuousness, arrogant self-confidence. Well. Perhaps not such a surprise. A memory touched her face, shadows of another time, another place. Not the lion, but the lion's cub. And no less dangerous for his juvenile claws. "Del Tarrant."

"Ma'am?"

She ran the tape through to its conclusion. Only the Mellanby girl accompanied the tall pilot. If Avon were not yet with him...

Then she knew precisely where Tarrant was headed...with her ship.

Her lips curved into a smile. Yes. She had reason to know Tarrant's innate chivalry, had reason to be grateful for the trait that had, against all reason, spared her life.

And so she was grateful, grateful for her life and for the insight into an enemy's character. Thanks to Tarrant and Tarrant's nature, she knew exactly where her ship would be...

"Gauda Prime." She turned. Smiled at the battered figure still cowering against the bulkhead. "Patch me through to my flotilla. At Gauda Prime."

*

The shuttle banked sharply, overhanging branches grasping at the polished hull as Tarrant angled in for the almost impossibly steep descent into a minuscule clearing between plantations. Trust Avon to require him to land on the head of a pin.

Trust Avon to know he could do it.

Shrugging impatiently, Tarrant released the safety webbing from across his chest. If he were to start in making allowances for Avon, he'd be as bad as Dayna before he knew it. Besides, it was only Avon playing his games again. Momentarily, he was tempted to nose the ship right up out of the forest again and into space, leaving one problem, at least, stranded on the surface of Gauda Prime.

But no. Expression sour, Tarrant powered the engines down to a quiescent purr. As reluctant as he was to make the pickup, better he should take the job than Dayna.

He wouldn't be greeting Avon with open arms.

The starboard airlock opened, obedient to his signal. Straightening his uniform tunic, he stepped out into the leaf-dappled sunlight, blinking a little at the brightness. Perhaps, if he were fortunate, the Federation garb would give Avon a nasty turn. That would be entertaining at the very least, but he doubted it would happen.

He was right.

Avon stood at the edge of the clearing, looking as dirty and as ragged as Tarrant had ever seen him, but awaiting his approach with unruffled calm.

Not alone. A slender, short-haired woman stood in front and slightly to one side, exactly centered to the aim of Avon's gun. The woman James had told—warned—him of before they'd left base? If so, it appeared Avon had ample control over the situation. He needn't have worried.

Tarrant's lips tightened. He hadn't worried. He left that useless task to Dayna.

He'd taken a single step into the clearing when a thin, ascending shriek cut through the still forest air. The shriek of highly-tuned drive engines. As he raised his head a massive shadow, like a swooping predatory bird, swept over his face to block out the filtered light of the sun.

The Federation had arrived.

*

  Part Two: Dance Macabre

He wanted to go home.

Instead, Vila poured himself another drink, watching the slow, unsteady rise of liquid in his glass. Vile stuff, this roseta was, sort of a cloudy deep pink, with a sickly sweet aftertaste to match its cloying color. But it had the kick of an ion drive, leaving a pleasant, numb muzziness behind, making him forget...

That he wanted to go home. And that he had no home to go to.

Never had, of course. No real home. Just a dirty plastiform cubicle exactly like every other service grade cubicle, crowded and stinking of unwashed bodies, stale food, and cheap drink. And his mum, reeking with the acrid perfume of gin, staring at him with dead, hating eyes. "Who are you, Vila? You're not one of us." Then hitting him, over and over, driving him away. "Not one of us."

No. No home there.

No home in the dome warrens, either, in those underbelly corridors where the homeless, the vagrants, the unwanted gathered. Just more hitting, more blank, venomous stares. "Think you're so smart, Restal." Big, ham-fisted bully of a boy, that had been. There were always big bullies, tossing him against some wall that smelled of garbage and urine, saying, "Think you're so smart." Bullies didn't like you being smart, but they used it. Oh, yes, they used it.

Just like Soolin used it.

Vila poured himself another drink. Just one more wouldn't hurt, would it? And no matter how foul it tasted, it made him feel comfortable, relaxed, floating...as if he were home, after all.

Soolin wouldn't like it, no. But then Soolin could just...go away. Soolin could just go away. And leave him alone.

But he didn't want to be alone.

Oh, he missed Liberator, he did. Scorpio, too. But most of all, he missed Liberator. He'd been protected there from the bullies. Even Avon had protected him. Before he'd gone mad.

Avon. Vila raised his hand shakily, letting the liquor roll down his throat in a long, cooling stream.

When you came down to it, it was all Avon's fault, wasn't it, this mess he was in? If Avon hadn't gone mad, Vila would still be safe, still be protected from the bullies. Snug at home, or as close to home as he'd ever known.

All Avon's fault, this was, just like always.

Though he couldn't blame the man, he supposed, for going mad. Wasn't Avon's fault was it, after all? It just went to show how much good brains did you in the end. If you had brains, you'd go mad, just like poor old Avon.

Better to be dumb. He motioned to the bartender for another bottle of roseta. Better still to be both dumb and drunk. Safer.

The tavern door opened with a decided click and a tall, blonde figure strode toward him. Morosely, Vila poured himself another drink. Not that it protected him from the bullies. Neither dumbness nor drunkenness did that, or at least well enough. Only being home did that, and home was nowhere to be found.

Reluctantly, he looked up. Soolin stood over him, the hardness in her eyes unchanged since that last day on Gauda Prime. "Got a job for you, Vila."

A job. Vila stared at her dully. They always had a job for you, didn't they? Reluctantly, he set down the glass and pushed to his feet, a trifle unsteadily. "Right."

No point in whining now. No point in fighting. Because the bullies always won.

In the end.

*

A hail of leaves and pine needles rained down on the clearing as the shuttle slowly descended, as if the Federation had brought with it a premature ending to the year. It certainly brought a premature ending to their mortal existences, if they didn't leave at once.

Avon seized Orac up off the forest floor, glancing swiftly across the clearing at Tarrant.

The pilot stood stock still, staring across the short distances that separated them like a wild animal caught in the harsh glare of a hunter's searchlight. Avon's lips folded into a grim line. Let the young fool die, then...what did it matter? Die now or die later, it was all the same.

He swiveled around, carrying the precious burden of computer in one hand, then unwillingly looked back. Tarrant's face—intent as it had been in that moment when Avon had left him on the doomed Scorpio—gazed back at him like a fragment of tormented memory.

"Leave it, Tarrant." He shouted the words above the whine of the descending ship. "There's no point in both of us dying."

The younger man shook himself, as if out of a trance, and their and their eyes locked across the clearing. His lips moved and Avon could read the words not uttered aloud. "Goodbye, Avon." The figure in the dark Federation uniform retreated among the trees.

Avon's lips twitched into a shadowy smile. History repeated itself, always with strange new turns. At least Tarrant now had a fighting chance... which was the most one could say of any of them.

He holstered his gun and glanced at the puppeteer. "Coming?"

She looked from the retreating pilot to Avon's face, some strange and unplaceable current of thought moving just below the surface of her eyes. Scrambling to her feet, she nodded.

"Then let's go."

They plunged into the underbrush, the shuttle's downward course an almost deafening roar behind them. No matter. By the time the troopers disembarked, he hoped they would be well and truly lost from sight among the dense foliage. On foot, they might still have better odds than Tarrant and his shuttle.

But then Tarrant had never been terribly clever at calculating the odds.

Unconsciously, he paused just out of the troopers' line of sight, watching the young man's shuttle as it rose against the dimming afternoon sky. Then, turning without a backward glance, he led the way among the dense trees toward temporary—perhaps temporary—safety.

*

A recessed signal on the white marbelite desk chimed. Servalan slammed at it one-handed, face frozen in rage. "I was not to be disturbed." She had been disturbed enough lately, this last month, thwarted too often.

Someone would pay and it might well be Walters.

The door slid open and Walters appeared. Not alone. Her teeth drew back in the parody of a snarl, anger deflected from her aide to a more worthy target...that he would dare come back, after the way he had failed her.

"Commissioner, I tried to stop him, but—"

The familiar silken masculine voice washed over her aide's, submerging it with scant effort. "Sorry. But since I was in the neighborhood..."

"Come in, Carnell." She waved Walters' into exile, and sank back into her padded chair, rage swiftly smoothed away, the slight tilt to her eyebrows suggesting mildly curious inquiry. "But I forgot. You are in."

"So I am." The smooth, arrogant gait remained. He gained her desk in a few steps, his cape swinging gently in a self-created breeze.

"Since last I've seen you..." She had risen and fallen. Succeeded and failed. And the man before her knew too much of it all to continue to draw breath. Except...

"Matters have changed." He seated himself unasked, his hair bright against the black silken headrest of the chair. "You don't want my head now. You want my help."

"Do I?"

"Oh, yes." Not one inch of his supreme arrogance had withered in exile. "Your plans are excellent...Sleer. But not quite good enough. I've watched them crack around the edges."

"I'm flattered you've taken such an interest."

"You should be." The blue eyes widened: innocent, guileless. Watchful. "You've lost too much, Sleer. Your ship. Your enemy. Both slipped between your fingers. You really should be more careful."

"I'll keep that in mind." He knew too much. But he might well be too useful to kill. He had every confidence of that, or else he would not be here. "I do have alternate plans."

"Ah, yes." He picked up a record cube from her desk, examined it as if it captured his rapt attention. But she could feel herself in the periphery of his vision, watched for the slightest reaction. Well, he was supposed to be the best. "Phase Two, I believe you call it. And, of course, your backup, your ultimate weapon. Hidden away on...what is the name of that planet?"

She held up one hand imperiously. "Very well. You are very knowledgeable. What else?"

"I can help you."

"So you said." Too dangerous to let live...and yet too potentially useful to kill. At least for now. She forced a gracious smile to her lips. "Perhaps you'd care to supply me with specifics?"

"Of course. But first," he set down the cube at last, and shrugged apologetically, "perhaps you'd care discuss my fee. You see," he smiled, displaying expensively perfected teeth, "I don't like to make the same mistake twice."

 

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