Vila took a sip of strong, black coffee, leaned back in his chair, and thought about how lucky he was. And not before time, either.
He was lounging in the small rest room of the base Del Grant had offered them when they'd gone to him for help. The coffee he was enjoying was a Kenyan blend that he'd spent the last week or so perfecting in the food processors. Bringing the mug up to his lips, and tasting, he thought he'd just about managed with this try.
He smiled to himself. What would it do to his reputation if it got out that Vila Restal was taking great pleasure in drinking coffee. Time was when he would have been searching for the perfect blend of alcohol, or any blend of alcohol at all, but since he'd survived the hell of Gauda Prime, and then managed to rescue Avon, the only other member of the crew to make it out alive from Servalan's base, booze no longer held the same attraction.
Now, a really good cup of coffee, he reflected, that was something you could enjoy.
He was also enjoying the spare time he suddenly seemed to have. This was the first time in years he'd had any real time to himself. On Earth, there had always been another security system to outfox. And on the Liberator, there had been Blake, and Avon, and the Federation trying to find new ways to blow them to bits. Even the boring parts of that time had managed to be stressful.
The first few weeks on this base hadn't been particularly relaxing, either. When he and Lahr hadn't been trying to keep one recalcitrant computer expert from doing himself damage before he recovered, they were trying to get the systems on the base up and running. There hadn't even been time to set up a training program on security systems for Lahr.
It was fortunate, for all of them, that the young man got on well with Avon. Vila had trusted Lahr to look after Avon, though many others they'd encountered since his rescue had wished him dead. And after, when Lahr decided to stay with the two of them as Vila's apprentice, he'd spent even more time with Avon.
Lahr had discovered what Vila had learned long ago: that you had to ignore Avon's black moods and harsh words, and look more at his actions.
Lahr had also discovered that he and Avon shared a common interest in computers. As Avon gained bach his strength, the younger man had started working almost as much with Avon as with Vila. He supposed the two of them were off in the base's work room, now, playing with their latest gadget.
Vila was aware of a stab of jealousy that Avon had partially appropriated his apprentice, but he was equally glad that Avon had found someone with whom he could share his passion for electronics. Vila's own interest in computers only extended as far as their integration into security systems; beyond that, the devil could take the scruffy little boxes.
Vila had just attained a state of mellow contemplation when one of the objects of his thoughts entered the rest room behind him.
He could tell by the hesitancy of the steps that it was Lahr in the room with him. Kerr Avon was never hesitant.
"C'mon in, Lahr," Vila said, without turning around. "Try a cup of coffee. I think I've nearly got it this time."
The younger man moved to the processor and got himself a cup of Vila's blend before joining the other man on the couch. Taking an appreciative sip, he nodded his approval before settling back.
"So, how is Avon's latest project going? Has he got the base computers to sit up and beg yet?"
The young man paused before answering, and Vila would have sworn he saw guilt behind his eyes.
"It's all going fine. We've just about finished overhauling the base systems, including communications, and we should be able to start updating the ship's computers tomorrow."
"So soon?" Vila smiled to himself. "I'll have to put together a wish list of changes to make on Defiant." He had bought the small scout ship with his share of the profits in the raid which had resulted in Avon's rescue. He'd never even piloted a craft before the Liberator, and had never thought of owning one, but now he was rather fond of the small ship. "Maybe Avon could build another detector shield for her."
"Yeah, maybe he could."
Lahr took a quick sip of coffee, put the mug down on the table and started twirling, looking down all the time.
"Um, Vila, you know I said that we'd got the base communications up?"
"Yes," Vila answered carefully. He wasn't sure where this was going, but he realized that Lahr's distractedness was more than just his usual awkward nature.
"Well, we were concentrating on that system, particularly, because Avon wanted to try and contact someone. Well, something actually."
"What was that?" He thought he already knew the answer to that question, and he didn't like it at all. His mouth tasted like he had a copper disk clenched in his teeth.
Vila slammed his own mug down sharply on the table but said nothing. Lahr flinched, and began to speak rapidly.
"We talked to Orac yesterday. He's still on Gauda Prime, and there's no one left in the base. The Federation never found him. He's still where you two hid it, and Avon thinks it would be safe if we went and got him now." Lahr stopped for a deep breath, and then added, "I thought you should know what he's planning. He didn't want me to tell you."
For what seemed the longest time, Vila couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't do anything. One word kept going through his mind, and that word was . . .
"No." He managed to look up as he voiced the thought. "No, I won't let him do it. He can't."
The ability to move returned. He stood, and walked out of the room, having utterly forgotten about Lahr. The young man stared after his mentor for a long time, before following behind.
Vila stormed into the room Avon had set up as a computer lab, and found the other man turned away from him, bent over a mass of tangled wiring and circuits.
"Are you completely mad?" He allowed the anger and frustration he felt to enter his voice.
Avon turned around and looked at his friend. Vila was startled to note the signs of age beginning to mark the darker man, and wondered how he had missed this before. The lines in his face had deepened, and new ones had appeared. The weight he'd lost while in the custody of Space Command had never returned. Vila could even detect grey beginning to salt the dark hair.
The sombre face brightened in a quirked grin, and in spite of all the signs of age, Vila found himself looking at the man he had known on the London, and before.
"Well now, I see Lahr was unable to keep my secret." A low chuckle escaped the throat. "I had expected as much. His level of discretion matches that of his master."
"Damn it, Avon, it's not funny. How can you even think of going back to that place?"
The grin dissolved into a pinched frown. There was a long pause before he answered, and when he did, it was with the voice of the man they'd found in Servalan's cell.
"I don't want to go back to that place, Vila, but I can see no alternative. We need Orac to survive. It won't just be the Federation looking for us now; I suspect the rebellion will also be out for my blood."
"We can survive without that wretched little bunch of circuits."
"No we can't, Vila. At least, not as easily."
"And how do you know it's not a trap?"
"I installed several fail-safe programs in Orac, along with a coded reply sequence. If he was being used as bait by the Federation, or anyone else, I would know it."
"Still, I . . ."
"Listen," Avon cut him off, "we both know we need Orac. The risks appear acceptable, and I am willing to take them. You do not have to come. In fact, I insist that you and Lahr both remain on the base. I don't want either of you coming to harm because I miscalculated."
"If you're going--and I'm not saying you are--then I'm coming with you. You're going to need backup."
"But, Vila . . ."
"It's my ship, Avon."
In some corner of his mind, Vila knew how out of character this argument was for both of the men they had been. Avon admitting he was doing something to protect someone else. Himself, insisting on going into a potentially dangerous situation. The others would never have believed it.
In the midst of the argument, just as he and Avon were about to get into some serious name calling, of the sort that the other members of the Liberator and Scorpio crews definitely would have believed, there came a sound from the door of the lab.
Both men stopped, and turned to face the intrusion. Lahr stood at the threshold, looking both very young, and very determined.
"What did you say." Avon turned his best arrogant bastard look on the youngster. Lahr, as usual, ignored it.
"I said, I'm going too."
"No," both men answered simultaneously.
"Absolutely not," said Avon.
"You're not leaving this base," Vila added.
"Look, neither one of you is going to go into that base alone, right. So you're going to need someone to stay with the ship, right." He looked directly at both men. "You need me to go."
Vila tried to muster an argument, and stumbled. He turned to Avon, and found the same dilemma mirrored in his face.
"You both know I'm right." Lahr had just a hint of the smugness of someone who had won an argument with unexpected ease. A grin appeared on his face, making him look even younger. Vila found himself starting to return the expression. Avon was doing his best to hang onto his scowl.
"How did I end up with the two of you coming, when I didn't want either one?"
"Just lucky, I guess." Vila laughed, and clapped his hand on Avon's shoulder.
It seemed they were all going to Gauda Prime.
Del Grant arrived at the headquarters of the rebellion on Quarid IV to find the usual array of bustle, bluster, and organized chaos. He also found, to his surprise, that he had a visitor.
"Del," one of his aides called to get his attention. "There's a woman waiting to see you in the tactical room."
Grant violently expelled a breath, and shook his head.
"I haven't the time, Tharl. I have to see to the plans for the attack we're launching tomorrow. Tell her it will have to wait."
"I think you're going to want to see her." Tharl moved forward, and placed his hand conspiratorially on Grant's shoulder. "She says her name is Avalon."
"Her identity checks out. A few of our people have been on worlds she helped organize, and they recognize her."
"What is she doing here? And why does she want to see me?" Grant tried to think of any possible reason the best known leader of the rebellion, after Blake, would want to consult with him. He couldn't bring one to mind.
"I don't have the slightest idea, but I wouldn't keep her waiting. Word is she is not a patient woman."
"No doubt." Grant patted Tharl on the back. "I suppose I had better go see what she wants." He strode towards the tac room, chewing on his lip as he went.
Tharl watched him go.
"Better you than me," he murmured under his breath.
The tactical room, in spite of its grand name, was actually little more than a glorified broom closet. It had, in fact, started life as a supply room, and had only been appropriated later, when it became clear that the leaders of the rebellion needed some place to lay out their strategies. The room contained much of the computer hardware of the rebellion, and its walls were covered with maps of the various fronts. It still bore the traces of its earlier life, however, in the boxes stacked in every available corner.
When Grant entered the room, he found the lights dimmed, in contrast to the harsh glare that filled most of the base. He stopped at the door, and blinked, trying to adjust to the gloom.
"Del Grant?" A woman's voice came out of the darkness. It was a clear voice, and pleasant, but it also held the resolve of one used to command.
"I'm Grant." He strained to see who the voice was attached to.
"And I'm Avalon." The woman stepped into the nimbus of light thrown by the still open door, and at last Grant could see her.
She was a slight woman, red hair starting to be shot with gray. Her face was thin, and determined. The way she held her jaw made it clear that she was not used to being disobeyed, and would not tolerate anyone foolish enough to do so.
"So, I've heard." Grant held out his hand. "I'm honoured to finally meet you.'
She did not take his hand, but continued without really acknowledging him.
"I have a request to make of you. But first I would like you to watch something." She turned, and pulled a data cube from the pocket of her jacket, and inserted it into one of the computers Grant and the others used for viewing records of troops movements.
Grant followed Avalon across the room, and sat down in one of the functional, if rickety, chairs which dotted the room. He marveled at the strength of this woman's will, which could reduce him, no slouch at leadership himself, to a tongue-tied lackey. Best to just wait, and see what she had in mind.
Avalon, meanwhile, had finished with the equipment, and turned back to her audience of one.
"This recording was received through our intelligence networks. It was made on a planet called Gauda Prime. You may have heard of it." Avalon looked directly at him, and he nodded in acknowledgment. "The tape is not of the best quality, and the audio track has been lost, but I'm sure you'll find that it conveys the essentials."
With that, she turned back to the screen, and set the recording in motion.
Avalon was right, Grant reflected. The tape was of very poor quality, and the sound was limited to the hiss of static, but it spoke volumes for all of that. He watched as the tragedy played itself out in the tracking gallery of Gauda Prime. Watched as a young man--Avon's pilot?--ran into the room. Watched as Avon, and the rest of his crew entered, and greeted the man. Watched as Blake, older now, and scarred, entered, unarmed and seemingly in welcome. Watched as Kerr Avon shot Roj Blake three times in the gut.
After it was over, the two of them sat in silence for several minutes, Grant overwhelmed by having a rumour he had completely discounted suddenly revealed for the truth, and Avalon wrapped in her own thoughts. Grant was the one who finally could take no more, and broke the silence.
"My god, I didn't think it could be true."
Grant put his head in his hands. "There has to be something we're missing."
"You saw the tape. What could we possibly be missing."
"But we couldn't hear what was said."
"What difference could that make. Kerr Avon shot a friend down in cold blood. That's all I need to know."
Grant clasped his hands in front of him and looked down at them. He didn't know what to think of this mess. He couldn't believe that there wasn't some sane explanation for what he had seen, but he couldn't think of what it could be. He was beginning, however, to see why Avalon had come to him.
"Okay, you've shown me the tape. Now what do you want?" His voice sounded dead to him.
"My contacts suggest that you know where Kerr Avon, and Vila Restal, are. I want you to tell me their location."
"And then?" Grant looked up.
"And then, I will find them, and have Avon brought back to my base, and tried for shooting Blake." Her voice sounded calm, but Grant could see a gleam of fanaticism in her eyes. He didn't like it.
"And if I refuse your request."
"Refuse? After what you've seen?" The calm in her voice broke on a shoal of disbelief and anger.
Grant held up his hand in what he hoped was a placating gesture. "We don't know what was said. It may not be what it looks like."
"How could it be anything else."
"Are there any witnesses?"
"None, except Avon and Restal, and I hardly think they can be trusted, under the circumstances. And Blake of course.
"Blake! You mean he's still alive."
"One of our people managed to smuggle him off Gauda Prime in the confusion. But if you're hoping he can clear Avon, you can forget it. He hasn't regained consciousness since he was shot It's not clear if he'll ever recover."
"It sounds like you've already convicted Avon."
"Kerr Avon is guilty. He must be guilty." There it was. Grant could quite clearly see the woman's obsession now. She was convinced she was right, and that was the most dangerous thing he could imagine.
"You never said what you would do if I refused to give you their location?" Grant was afraid he knew the answer to the question.
"Your efforts here require the assistance of other groups. If you do not tell me where Kerr Avon is, I will personally make certain that no other rebel groups in the Federation, or unaffiliated worlds will help you."
That was it. Grant did not want to turn Avon over to this woman and her kangaroo court, but he had other responsibilities. How could he endanger the lives of everyone he was working with, was working for, for the sake of one man. There was no way out, but he'd be damned if he'd give up without a fight.
"I have no choice then. But I insist on one condition."
"And that is?"
"Before you convict Avon, you will make an honest attempt to find what happened on Gauda Prime."
Avalon appeared on the verge of objecting, but the flash of anger was replaced in her eyes by a reasonableness which scared Grant as much as her obsession. She inclined her head.
"Fine. If you'll come to my quarters, I'll give you their co-ordinates." He stood, and held the door open for Avalon on his way out. She started through, stopping alongside him.
"One further warning, Grant. I'll be monitoring all transmissions from this base. If I find that you have warned Avon or Restal, I will make sure all your aid is cut off."
She swept out of the door with a toss of her head.
Avalon was still furious by the time she had made the two day journey to her own base. She couldn't see how anyone could offer a defense of that murdering bastard, Kerr Avon. He seemed to her to be everything that she had fought against, all of her life. She hadn't known what Blake had seen in the man, even on the Liberator. In the brief time she had known him then, he had seemed to do nothing but argue Blake's orders.
He wouldn't be able to argue with anyone, after she saw to him.
She had promised Grant to make certain of what happened on Gauda Prime, but she was certain what had happened on that barren little world.
She landed her craft in the bay, and left it to her ground crew to re-provision it. She strode quickly towards the refectory, where the communications controller had told her that Deva could be found.
Except for Deva, the room was empty when she reached it. That wasn't surprising, since Deva seldom remembered to eat at the usual times, and only sought out food when one of his people had harassed him into looking after himself.
He looked up from his meal, and gave Avalon a quizzical look.
"You sometimes have a habit of stating the obvious, Deva."
"Yes, well, we can't all be original. I leave that to you charismatic, leader types."
Avalon snorted. Deva was always teasing her; she had observed he did the same with Blake.
"So, was the mission a success?"
"It was." She sat down across from him. "Grant gave me their location. It's a small planet in an uninhabited system, two days from here."
"I'm surprised that he told you."
"He didn't have a choice."
"What do you mean?"
"I told him I'd make certain no other groups would work with him if he didn't tell me where they were."
"You had no right to do that!"
"I had every right."
"Yes, I suppose you think that." He gave a weary sigh and brushed his fingers through his hair. "I'm going to have to straighten this out with Grant. And don't look at me like that. We can't afford to fight amongst ourselves. Surely you can see that?"
Avalon bit back what she really wanted to say, and merely nodded. She could tell that Deva knew she hadn't really changed her mind, but they both let it go for the time.
"And now that you have their location, what do you intend to do."
"I intend to find Kerr Avon, and gun him down, as he deserves." Avalon didn't allow her gaze to stray from Deva's face. Outwardly, his expression didn't seem to change, but she could see disapproval lurking beneath the surface. "You don't favour my plan?"
"No, I don't, as I'm sure you knew before you even stated it. I don't approve of summary executions, no matter who is performing them." Deva pushed his plate away from him, and leaned toward her. "That is exactly the kind of thing we are fighting against."
"No. Kerr Avon is what we are fighting against. Someone capable of his kind of betrayal can have no place in the rebellion."
"But we don't know what happened, not really."
"Is everyone intent on defending this man?" She allowed her exasperation to creep into her voice. "You were there. You saw the results of what he did."
"But even I don't know what happened. I was against Blake using that bounty hunter front from the beginning, and for just this sort of reason. It was bound to get him hurt, or killed."
"You make it sound like it was Blake's fault."
"I believe it might have been."
"You heard me. Everything I know about Avon I know from Blake, and I knew Avon would shoot Blake if he thought he was being betrayed. Blake should have known that, too. Somehow, he didn't."
"So, he's responsible for being shot himself."
"In some ways, yes." Deva paused. "Look, I'm not saying Avon bears no guilt for what he did. What I am saying, is that I don't think we can judge him without knowing more of what happened. Yes?"
Avalon didn't respond for a long time. A part of her was screaming that this was wrong, that Kerr Avon didn't deserve to live, not when he had gunned down Blake, and that she should be the one to see to that injustice. But part of her agreed with Deva. She clamped down on her mercy. Mercy led only to more betrayal.
"If I agree to this, and we find that Avon is guilty, what then?"
"Then, I'm afraid we'll have to follow your original plan. But we cannot execute him before we are sure he deserves it."
"Fine. We'll investigate the shooting before any execution." Was all of humanity going to hold her to this promise? "If that's all, I'll get ready to leave."
"I also don't think you should be the one to pick him up."
"Don't you trust me, Deva?" Avalon managed a rather blood-thirsty grin at this. "Think I might disregard our agreement and kill him anyway?"
"Frankly, that's part of it. However, I also think you've been off the base too much lately, and you're taking too many risks. We can't afford to have the two great leaders of the rebellion injured. It's not been too long since you recovered from your last escapade."
"Who do you intend to send in my place?"
"Bek and Veron have volunteered to go. They've both met Avon and Restal."
"Why do I get the impression that you have had this planned out for weeks?"
"Avalon," Deva said with a smile, "I am shocked you could think such a thing." He stood, and started out of the refectory. "I'll summon Veron and Bek, and we can give them their briefing. That is, if you're ready."
"I'm ready." Avalon nodded to Deva as he left the room. Her anger had slowed since she had landed--Deva had that effect on her, she'd noticed--but it still remained. In spite of what everyone had said, she still was convinced that Avon was guilty. They would go through the formality of an investigation and trial, but she knew, absolutely knew, how it had to end.
Veron Kasabi nursed the controls of the freighter as they took it out of orbit. She'd piloted a lot of heaps in her time with the rebellion, but this one had to be the worst. The ship was slow to respond, and just plain slow. It would take four days to reach their destination, when a newer ship could have done it in two.
Once they were clear of the system, she took the old ship up to its maximum speed and locked in the auto pilot. There wouldn't be much for them to do until they reached their destination, apart from avoiding Fed patrols and pirates.
She leaned back from the controls and looked at her companion, who was running yet another sensor sweep.
"I don't think the Feds have snuck up on us in the two minutes since your last sweep, Bek."
Bek looked up at her with a frown.
"You can't be too careful, Veron. You should know that."
"There's careful, and there's obsessed." She leaned over and poked him in the arm. "And you, my friend, are definitely obsessed."
"You shouldn't complain. It's kept you alive more than once."
"I know. I just like to wind you up. You're too serious." Veron put her hands behind her head, and stared at the paint peeling off the ceiling. They were really going to have to do something about this ship. "What do you suppose they're like now?"
"You know very well who. Vila and Avon."
"Did you know them well?"
"Not really. I only met them the once, when they tried to take Central Control."
"So, why did you volunteer for this mission."
"I think Avon deserves a fair chance to explain himself. There's some who'd as soon see him dead. Besides, I'm not sure Blake didn't make a mistake himself." She closed her eyes and cast her mind back three years. Avon had been a dark presence haunting Blake's side then. "I got the impression that Avon would always protect Blake, no matter how much he argued with his plans. I think Blake must have done something to change that."
"Or Avon changed."
"I suppose that's another possibility. Is that what you believe?"
"Dunno. I think I volunteered to find out."
"Did you know them well."
"No. But. . ." Bek suddenly cut himself off.
"Well, I suppose I sort of admired Avon. I mean, I didn't like him all that much--he was far too sure of himself, and it didn't help that he pointed out that Hanna, my sister, had killed herself with Shadow long before she actually died--but there was something about him."
Veron carefully scrutinized Bek. Though it had been several years since he'd joined the rebels, he still managed to look like the street scruff he'd been when he'd first encountered Blake and Avon. His hair was still a dark tangle, and even longer now, his skin too white from time spent in space, and his clothes were the same collection of odds and ends they'd always been, but now she saw a certain intensity lurking in his expression that she'd noticed a few times before.
"You know, you remind me a bit of him."
"Pull the other one."
"No, really. I mean, how many other cynical, paranoid bastards do we know?"
Bek let out a strangled yowl, and reached out and lightly cuffed her across the head, but Veron could tell he was just a bit chuffed. She smiled at him.
"Just for that, you can stand the first watch." She stood, stretching out her stiff muscles. "I'm going to take a nap."
"Yes, sir," Bek said, in an insolent tone of voice.
Laughing, Veron left the flight deck and walked towards the one, cramped cabin. The smile faded from her lips as she thought about what may lay ahead of them. In spite of their respect for him, the fact remained that Avon had shot Blake. No matter how much responsibility Blake might bear for that action, Avon might not be quite sane. Certainly, the man in Avalon's vid had looked a little mad. And even if he had survived that encounter whole, what had a month in Federation custody done to him?
Ah well, she shrugged to herself. They would find out soon enough, and until then, there was nothing to be gained from such useless speculation. She cleared her mind with practiced discipline, and prepared for a much needed rest.
Even though he had insisted on coming, Gauda Prime was the last place Vila would have chosen to go. All the time they were approaching the planet he could not help but think of the last approach he had made to this godforsaken ball of mud, tumbling out of control in a damaged ship.
Their landing this time was not nearly as spectacular as Tarrant's had been. Since the rebel base had been crushed and Federation law had been reestablished, the planet was no longer subject to blockade . Still, Vila found that he was gripping the controls of his console far more tightly than necessary when they landed.
They set down perhaps a mile from the base. Vila had insisted on that, on the chance that Orac had been influenced somehow, and the base was still inhabited. He and Avon would walk the remaining distance. Lahr, after an argument, stayed with the Defiant. He seemed to have forgotten that he was on this trip as backup.
The walk through the forest was a quiet one. Avon didn't say anything, and after his first few attempts at conversation had been rebuffed, Vila decided to indulge him. He found his own thoughts becoming more crowded with the ghosts they had left behind in this place. He felt his shoulders begin to hunch over defensively, as they had not in months. Consciously, he shook out the muscles, and forced himself to stand up straighter. Reverting to old patterns would help none of them now.
They found the base, already starting to be taken over by the grove of trees which surrounded it. The entrance was overgrown with ivies, or whatever passed for them on this planet. As they forced their way through the green, Vila started a chant, unvocalized for the time: please let there be no bodies. He didn't know which one of them would be more badly affected by that, and he didn't want to find out.
As they entered the outer chambers of the base, it appeared someone had heard Vila's plea. The last time he had seen these areas, on his flight out of the base, bodies, both rebel and Federation, had lain everywhere. Now there were merely empty rooms.
They walked further into the heart of the complex. Before he knew it, Vila found himself in a room he remembered too well: the tracking gallery. He'd managed to make himself forget that they'd have to go through this place to get to where they'd concealed Orac. Now that they were here, he intended to get out again as soon as possible. Nearly running, he crossed the floor, heading towards the landing area. Before he got very far, however, he realized he had lost his companion.
He turned, and found Avon, standing in the centre of the gallery, frozen in the spot where Blake had fallen. Avon's face was frozen and desolate. Vila hadn't expected that. Though he hadn't been sure that his friend had been sane the last year on Scorpio, he had seemed his old self after his rescue. Now, Vila was wondering if he hadn't overestimated the man's power of recovery. He moved towards him.
"Avon." He kept his voice deliberately gentle. "Avon, we've got to go on."
"Hmm." Avon looked at him as though he'd forgotten there was anyone with him. His eyes sharpened their focus. "Yes, of course." They were the first words Avon had spoken since they had left the ship, and his voice sounded as harsh as it had after his rescue him from Servalan's torturers.
He started to move, and Vila let him pass and take the lead. He wanted to keep an eye on Avon. The man's movements seemed stiff and awkward, as if he had aged twenty years in several minutes.
By the time they reached the access panel where they had unceremoniously tossed Orac two months previously, Avon was moving with his old grace, but something told Vila he would have to keep watch on him.
Orac was as pleasant as ever. They had left his key in, and Vila heard the wretched box begin to complain before they even had the panel open.
"I must say, it is time that you removed me from this space. I have been in constant danger of discovery or damage."
"Nice to see you too, Orac." Vila was reminded all over why he didn't like the wretched little box. He pulled the key out with a yank. "That'll take care of him for a while."
Vila pulled the computer out of the crawlspace they had set him in, and placed it on the floor. Brushing his hands on his pants, he stood. Avon had another lost expression on his face when Vila looked at him.
"Avon, we're finished here." He bent down to pick up Orac. "Let's get out of here."
"I'll take Orac." Avon reached out to take the computer, but he still hadn't come back from the place where he'd lost himself. Vila let him take the burden, hoping that giving him something to do would somehow bring him back.
"Fine. Now let's move."
Vila led the way out, wasting no time before he could put distance behind himself and this reminder of their brutal past. He kept an eye on Avon, and when they had to cross the tracking gallery again, he stayed at the other man's side, offering a hand on one arm as support. He didn't know whether to be relieved or frightened that Avon accepted the contact without complaint or comment. He said nothing himself, but kept the hand in place long past the gallery's confines.
They crossed the distance to the ship in silence once again. Vila could see Lahr watching nervously from the flight deck when they entered the clearing where they had landed. He gave a wave of encouragement to the youngster, to let him know things were all right, even though he wasn't sure of that.
As they entered the flight deck, Vila saw Lahr's face go from a cheerful welcome to questioning concern. Lahr looked to Avon, then Vila. Vila knew what he wanted to know, but it would have to wait until he could get his protégé alone. He shook his head, promising with his eyes that he would tell him everything as soon as he could. Lahr nodded his acceptance.
Avon didn't notice the exchange, but set down Orac, and started readying the craft for liftoff. He was intent on his job, when he suddenly looked up. It was only then that Vila realized that he and Lahr were still studying the darker man.
"Well," the rough voice demanded, "are the two of you just going to stand there, or are we going to get the hell off this planet."
It was the impetus they needed, and all of them were soon doing the preflight checks necessary. Vila knew he should be relieved that Avon's sharp temper had returned, but there was still something behind his eyes that Vila didn't like. He supposed they would just have to wait and see.
After a long four days, Veron and Bek finally arrived at the remote base where Avon and Vila were reported to be staying. Against Bek's advice, Veron had tried to contact them before landing, but there had been no answer. Veron didn't know if that meant the base was deserted, or they were being ignored. Whatever the reason, she kept broadcasting their identity all the way in, just in case.
They landed in a clearing, a short walk from the base. Veron enjoyed the hike thoroughly. The world they were on may have been small and unnamed, but it was beautifully green, and the air had a sweet tang that was welcome after the recycled atmosphere of the freighter. She turned to her partner, to comment on how wonderful it was to be on a planet again, only to notice that he seemed nervous, and kept glancing up, as if he thought the sky was going to fall in on him. She always forgot Bek had been raised in space. He'd been on many planets, especially since joining the rebellion, but he'd never gotten comfortable with them. Old habits died hard. She almost made a joke, but decided keeping silent would be the best course of action.
They entered the base using the access codes Avalon had obtained from Grant. Veron crossed her fingers as she keyed them, hoping they hadn't been changed. And that there were no booby traps waiting for them. She did know Avon's reputation, after all.
But they met with no booby traps, and the codes worked perfectly. As they entered, Bek had started to draw his weapon, but Veron had restrained him. She had no doubt that if they met either Vila or Avon with a weapon drawn, someone was going to end up dead.
They first investigated the outer workrooms, and storage chambers. The spaces were silent, except for the occasional rumble of the ventilation system. They moved on.
They came to the living spaces. First, the rest room. A small space, it contained the food processor, as well as a number of comfortable looking chairs. The bedrooms were next. Three of them appeared to be occupied. The first one they entered was unremarkable. A few clothes lay on a chair next to the bed. There was a picture of a young man and woman on a table, along with a few tools, and what appeared to be an advanced exercise in computing.
The next room was much different. Clothes, of every style imaginable, lay on every available surface. Objets d'art lay side by side with the cheapest sort of souvenirs from the cheapest sorts of pleasure planets. The whole room gave the effect of having been accumulated by a drunken magpie.
As they entered the room, Veron looked over at Bek, who looked back at her. They both smiled.
"Vila," they both said at once, then started laughing.
"Well, at least we know some things don't change," Bek said. "Christ, I think the man has worse taste in clothes than I do."
"So, you're finally admitting you have abominable taste in clothes."
"You've told me so often enough. C'mon, let's try the next room"
The next room said Avon as much as the previous one had said Vila. There wasn't a speck of dust out of place. Veron suspected that there was no dust mote in the universe that would have dared cross the owner of this room. The clothes were all neatly hung in the closet, and they were much more subdued than Veron would have suspected. Finally, the desk had the guts of a computer neatly laid out on it, with tools stowed on a wall rack above it.
"At least we know both Avon and Vila have been here. Do we know who the third person might be?" Veron looked over at Bek. He always seemed to have squirreled away every possible piece of information that might be necessary.
"Word is that a member of the crew that rescued Avon stayed on with them. Young bloke. Nobody know much about him, except he's interested in security systems, and computers."
"I suppose we'll meet him soon enough."
"How do you know they haven't gone for good?"
"Look around, Bek. Does it look like any of them packed for a long haul? I'd say they're going to be back in a day or two."
"Yeah, I s'pose you're right. Why don't we go back to the rest room. Wait there for a bit. If we have to, we can kip in one of the extra rooms."
"Sounds like a good idea. Let's just make sure we keep alert. They may not exactly consider us friends."
"Hey, who's the paranoid one in this outfit?" Bek shot her a grin, and then moved out, towards the rest room.
"Admitting you're paranoid, and a bad dresser in one day. I knew I'd be a good influence on you, Bek."
A muffled "sod off" was her only response.
Vila was serving his watch on the flight deck as they approached their base. He was really going to come up with a name for this bloody planet if they spent much more time on it.
Over his protest, Avon had installed Orac on the deck to take care of sensor scans. Time had not softened Vila's dislike of the computer, but he could see its use, and didn't argue, too much. Orac didn't have much time for him, either, so, after a few traded insults, they maintained a silent truce.
Vila jumped when Orac finally spoke up, as they were on final approach.
"There appears to be a ship landed just outside of the base area."
"What?" Vila scrambled over to the sensor console. "Is there any sign of who it belongs to?"
"I cannot find a registry for it."
"Keep trying Orac. It may just be some of Grant's people. I hope."
"I do not see why I should perform so simple a task. It is a waste of my talent and time."
"Just shut up and do it, Orac." Vila hit the intercom. "Avon, Lahr, I think you should get up here. We've got visitors."
The other two men arrived promptly on the deck. Lahr checked on the sensor readings.
"It looks like a cargo carrier. Pretty old. It's a wonder it made it here at all."
"Any life signs?"
"None on the ship, but there appear to be two signatures in the base itself."
"Great. We have two unidentified somebodies lounging around our home. Probably drinking all of our booze."
"We don't have any booze, Vila" Avon's voice dripped with sarcasm.
"Yeah, well they don't know that."
"Should we still use the landing pad?" Leave it to Lahr to be the practical one, thought Vila.
"I don't see why not. Whoever they are, they'll hear the ship come in, no matter where we land." Vila looked to Avon, and received a nod of confirmation. "We'll just have to check out the base. After all, they might be friends."
"The way our luck goes, Vila? Don't make me laugh" Avon clenched his jaw. "I'll get out guns. We can plan our search strategy."
"Lahr'll get the guns." He turned to his apprentice, who quickly disappeared to do just that. "And you, old friend, are going to stay on the ship while the two of us search the base."
"You, Vila, playing the hero?"
"Yeah, don't you laugh. Look, if it's not Grant's people, then chances are it's going to be someone looking for you. If it is, we'll convince them you're not here."
"And how are you going to that?"
"Oh, I don't know. I can be very persuasive."
"I suppose you are going to insist on saving me from myself?"
"C'mon, Avon. Admit it. I'm right, this time."
Avon gave Vila a disapproving look, but didn't say anything right away. He held the other man's eye for several long moment, before answering.
"All right, Vila. I will stay here, for the time being. But I am not going to remain here forever. If you take too long, I'm coming in."
"Fine, just don't be too quick."
Lahr chose that moment to make his return to the flight deck. Vila would be willing to bet that the young man had been waiting outside the flight deck for the two of them to reach some resolution. The kid was quiet, but he could be too smart for his own good.
Vila turned to Lahr, taking the offered gun. "You ready?"
"Yeah. Let's get going."
Vila could hear voices ahead, coming from the rest room.
They had already searched the outer areas of the base--mostly storage space and work rooms--with no success. Now that they were approaching the living areas, it appeared they had found their intruders.
He motioned to Lahr to follow him, then took the lead himself. Both had their guns out, and Vila could feel his palms begin to go clammy with tension. As they drew closer, he could begin to hear the tone of their voices. It was a man and a woman. They sounded relaxed, not at all what one would expect of either bounty hunters or Federation troops. Pausing just outside the door, he glanced back to make sure Lahr was with him, then entered the room, his gun held steadily in front of him.
"Don't move. Keep very still."
The two intruders looked surprised, and froze where they sat. Their eyes met, and then both looked to Vila.
"Now, who are you, and what are you doing here?" He hoped his tone was as menacing as he meant it to be.
It was the woman who spoke first, after shifting slightly in her seat.
"Vila Restal, we have come seeking you and Kerr Avon. Avalon has requested that we find you, and bring you to our base for," she hesitated, and looked to her companion, as if searching for the right word, "assistance."
"Wait a minute." Vila frowned, an image teasing at the edge of memory as he looked at the woman in front of him. She was young, barely twenty, he would guess, but self-assured and at ease with herself. He suddenly had a vision of her several years younger, holding a weapon on Travis and Servalan. "You're Kasabi's daughter."
"Yes. You should also remember my friend, Bek. I believe you met on Space City."
Vila nodded acknowledgment at the dark young man staring at him. Then motioned to Lahr.
"This is my student, Lahr."
There was an exchange of greetings, before Veron again brought up the reason they were there.
"And where is Avon?"
Vila set his mouth, then said the only thing he could think of to keep Avon safe.
"I'm afraid you're too late. Avon died two weeks ago. He was badly hurt, and never managed to recover." He hoped that Lahr would have the good sense to play along.
"Dead?" Veron seemed confused, and Vila noticed that Bek's face became a shade paler than it already was. "But we saw his room, his clothes, when we searched the base."
"Yeah, I know. I haven't had the heart to clear that lot out. Would make it too final, you know." He dropped his eyes to the ground, and prayed that Avon never found out about this. Vila had always known the uses for sympathy, but he suspected that Avon wouldn't approve.
"We're sorry. Grant hadn't told us." Veron looked flustered, as if her script had just been radically rewritten while she wasn't looking, and she was unsure of what to say next. "You have our condolences, of course."
There was something so patently absurd about the situation that Vila might have been tempted to laugh, if the whole thing hadn't also been deadly serious. For all Veron's polite concern, he could only think that the leaders of the revolution had finally decided to rid themselves of one Kerr Avon. He was not about to allow that, not after all he, and Lahr, had gone through in saving the man. He collected himself to make some sort of appropriate reply, when he heard a noise at the door behind him. He turned, and found the subject of discussion staring at them all.
"And what, may I ask, are you offering condolences for? The fact that Vila has clearly lost his mind?" The usual threat had returned to Avon's voice, but there was also a suggestion of humour running beneath it.
"Avon!" If Vila could have wished the other man back to the Defiant, he would have done so. He didn't know, now, what else he could do to save him.
Veron and Bek had been as thrown off by the sudden appearance of the late Kerr Avon as they had been by the report of his demise. Veron was the first to recover.
"Kerr Avon, we have been asked by Avalon to bring you and your companions back to our base."
"To what purpose?"
Again, Veron hesitated. Vila definitely got the feeling she was not particularly happy with the task she had been given.
"Questions have been raised about the incident on Gauda Prime. It was thought that you should have the opportunity to speak for yourself."
"He's not going with you. It wasn't his fault."
"Shut up, Vila." Avon cast a quick look at the thief, before turning back to Veron. "I agree to return with you."
"No!" Vila felt panic begin to squeeze at his chest. He'd been a fool to think things were finally going to turn out well, for any of them. "Don't you know what's happening. They're going to take you back and put you on trial for Blake's death. They'll kill you Avon."
"You do not understand, Vila." Veron's voice was gentle. "We would not sanction an execution, and Avon is not charged with Blake's death. Blake is still alive."
"Alive." The whispered word came from Avon. Vila was truly worried now. Avon's voice sounded much the same as it had when he had questioned Blake on the tracking gallery floor.
"Yes. Deva managed to get him off planet in time for our doctors to save him."
"Well that's it, then. Blake can tell you what happened." Vila saw a chance now. Whatever had taken place, he knew that Blake would stand up for his crew. Especially Avon.
"That won't be possible. Blake has not yet regained consciousness."
"But it's been nearly two months."
"He was in stasis a long time, Vila. No one is quite sure what the effects will be."
"He may yet die." Avon was not so much asking a question as requesting confirmation of his worst fears.
Reluctantly, Veron agreed. "It is possible. As I said, no one is sure."
"Blake's too stubborn to die. And I still don't think we should go with them."
"Think, Vila. If I don't go, someone else will come later. And they may not be as willing to listen."
Avon's reasons made sense, but Vila still didn't trust him to make a sound decision. This, coming so soon after the visit to Gauda Prime, seemed to have disintegrated the distance Avon had been able to place between himself and the madman he had been in that place. In this state, he just might do whatever seemed the most self-destructive, no matter that he had always claimed to be a survivor. Vila did not intend for all the decisions to be taken out of his hands.
"All right. We'll go back with you. But I want it understood we're going of our free will. And I want your promise that Avon won't be taken into custody."
"I will inform the Council that you are returning with us freely. As for your other condition," Veron paused yet again, causing Vila to feel as if they'd started something here that none of them would be able to control, "I can offer you my personal promise, but I have to tell you, that I do not speak for the Council. I can, however, offer my voice on your behalf."
Vila considered. Veron seemed to have become the woman the adolescent had promised--loyal, secure, with a strong sense of personal integrity. He felt that he could trust her to do as she said. Her companion, though he hadn't said much, also seemed worthy of their trust. And, on top of it all, Avon was right. If they did not go with these two, someone else would be sent looking for them. And that someone else might not be as polite as Veron and Bek.
"Sounds fine to me. Avon? Lahr?"
Both men nodded their agreement.
"Right. Looks like we're back with the rebellion."
Vila wished he could feel more happy about the whole thing.
Vila and Veron shared the flight deck of Defiant as they took her out of the system. It had been agreed that the two groups should split up. Bek hadn't wanted to leave Avon, Vila and Lahr on the Defiant, and Lahr hadn't trusted Bek and Veron to keep their word if they were alone on the freighter. The compromise settled on was for Lahr to stay with Bek on the freighter, while Veron went with Avon and Vila on Defiant. Both ships would travel at the best speed the freighter could manage. It was an imperfect solution, but one they could all live with.
Avon had taken to his room as soon as they'd boarded the ship. Vila wasn't sure he should leave Avon alone for too long, but he was going to let him try to work things out on his own first. If Avon started acting like that bloody maniac again, then he'd try and talk to him, if he had to tie him up to do it.
Vila took the ship up, and out of the system, with the freighter following at a comfortable distance. He still wasn't as good a pilot as Avon, and certainly not even close to Jenna or Tarrant, but he was proud of this newly learned skill.
Once they had cleared the system, he turned over the controls to Veron so she could lay in the course to the rebel base. That task completed, she turned to Vila with a request.
"I need to use the com system, to contact Deva, and tell them when we will arrive."
"Be my guest." Vila swept a hand toward the appropriate console.
Veron moved over to the console, and began to enter the proper frequencies and codes. She spoke, as she completed the task.
"Vila, do not take this personally, but I should like to make this call alone."
"Sure, of course." Vila tried to keep his voice light, but he couldn't help feeling just a bit hurt. "I'll wait in my cabin. You can call me there when you're finished."
As he left the flight deck, he heard Veron's voice.
"Defiant to Monako base. Come in."
He finished the walk to his cabin, and shut the door behind him. He wasn't averse to a little eavesdropping, but he wanted Veron to have no reason not to trust him. Again, he thought about going to Avon's cabin, not that he'd ever stopped thinking about it, but decided to let the other man alone, for the time being. Instead, he idly fiddled with a few of the tchachkes he'd accumulated and tried not to let the worry he could feel clawing at his mind get the upper hand.
Finally, when he thought he couldn't stand any more inactivity, and was trying to decide between listening in on Veron or confronting an unstable computer tech in his lair, Veron summoned him to the flight deck. He was so relieved not to have to make a decision as to which foolhardy thing to do, that he arrived at the deck in record time.
"So, everything all right on the base."
"Yes. They will be waiting for us when we arrive."
"I don't know as I like the sound of that."
"I will do everything I can to make sure no injustice happens."
"But what does that mean?" Vila looked over at Veron. "I'm not even sure I know what justice is anymore. If I ever did." He played with the controls, running useless checks on systems with triple redundancies. Veron wisely kept quiet, letting him work out what he had to.
"You know, I think I must have gone a bit mad myself after all this time, 'cause you know the only thing I'm sure of? That after all that's happened, after Avon's nearly killed Blake, nearly killed me--you didn't know that, did you--that somehow he's not responsible for it all. I don't hold him responsible. And the gods know, anything he is responsible for, Servalan made him pay for long since past."
Veron let the silence fall. The only sounds were the nearly inaudible hum of the drive system, and the occasional chatter of the onboard computer, making course corrections, adjusting the gravity or some such. When she felt the silence had gone on long enough, she spoke.
"Don't worry, Vila. I've known Blake long enough now to know how much Avon means to him. And there are others who know the same. The Council will not automatically call for Avon's blood."
"I hope you're right." Vila mentally shook himself, attempting to dislodge the cloud he could feel engulfing him.
"Enough of that. I can't do anything until I know what's going to happen. Tell me about Deva."
"Deva was a minor Federation official, responsible for the computer systems, and communications. He's good with computer systems, though he can't begin to match Avon, of course. He'd become disaffected with the government by the time he met Blake. Blake had been injured in the war, and Deva got him patched together as best he could, in an illegal clinic. When Blake had recovered, the two of them began working with the rebellion. They set up the base on Gauda Prime, and started coordinating with Avalon."
"So, why contact Deva, and not Avalon."
Veron let her glance skate over Vila's.
"Avalon has become . . . somewhat fanatical in the last few months. I don't entirely trust her motives."
"I know the type."
"No, actually. I was thinking more of Blake." Vila thought back to those last few months aboard the Liberator with Blake. The way Blake had become obsessed with Central Control, and then Star One. Even Cally had not been able to make him see reason.
"Blake?" Veron sounded surprised. "He's always seemed so steady to me. He would always try to slow Avalon down." She smiled. "Of course, that was when Bek and Deva weren't trying to slow him down."
"Bek, hmm? Sounds like your friend was taking Avon's place. Avon always did try to throw a spoke in Blake's wheel, if only to make him think about what he was doing."
"That's funny. I told Bek on the way here that he reminded me of Avon. Or at least, what I could remember of Avon."
"That's all we need. Two Avons." Vila laughed. "I'm sure they're going to love each other."
"They will have the two of us to make sure they get along." Veron placed a hand lightly on Vila's shoulder. Vila covered the hand with one of his own.
"Keep on like that and I might almost believe that we're all going to be safe."
"We are, Vila. I promise."
Veron leaned over and planted a chaste kiss on Vila's forehead. He sighed to himself.
"If only I were twenty years younger," he said wistfully.
"If you were twenty years younger, you'd be younger than I am."
"Yeah, but then I always did like older women." He grinned, then ducked as Veron threw a data reader in the general vicinity of his head.
"You are incorrigible." Veron couldn't keep the laughter out of her voice, or her eyes.
"That's what everyone keeps telling me." Vila gave her his best long-suffering look, before they both dissolved into fits of giggles.
Avon heard their laughter from his cabin. He smiled slightly to himself, glad that Vila seemed to be getting on so well with the young rebel. But then, Vila always had had the knack of getting on with people. Even on the London, he'd managed to carve out a niche so that neither the prisoners, nor the guards, would touch him.
He'd never managed to learn that skill himself. People had always seemed to him to be more trouble than they were worth. It was far easier to stick to computer systems; with them there were no questionable motivations, no chance of being betrayed. No chance of betraying.
He leaned forward and put his head in his hands as his thoughts returned to what he was going to have to face once they reached their destination. He didn't know what to think of it all; had managed not to think at all, after Vila had been foolish enough to rescue him. The memories of Gauda Prime still lingered but hadn't the weight to draw him back into the blackness that had possessed him after Servalan had tangled him in her web.
But now he was going back to face Blake, to face the fact that the man might yet die because of what a friend had done to him. He didn't know what Blake's reaction would be when he was confronted with the person he had made such a point of trusting, and who had betrayed that trust. He wasn't even sure if the Blake they had met in that tracking gallery had still been capable of that kind of trust. They had both been changed before that bloody encounter.
He supposed he should be more upset with the possibility that Vila's fears would be realized: that the rebels would execute him. Instead, the thought of his own death almost came as a relief. He was tired. Tired of fighting, tired of running. Tired of caring.
He didn't want to die, had been through too much in the last few months to seek his own death, but the guilt for having shot Blake still hung upon him, refusing to be shaken loose. He didn't want to die, but he didn't think he would avoid death, if it sought him out.
Well, whatever happened to him, he had to make sure that Vila remained safe. The idiot had risked everything to free him from Servalan. He owed him. And more than the debt, he couldn't bear to think of anything happening to Vila. The thief was his only friend still alive, the only person foolish enough to risk his own life to save Kerr Avon.
No, he would keep Vila safe, if he had to bring the wrath of the rebels on his own head to do it.
Judging by the round of good-natured laughter that rang again from the flight deck, Vila would have at least one other ally in the rebel camp. Avon found that thought comforting. He never seemed to be able to protect those close to him. Perhaps, with Veron's help, he could do a better job this time.
The journey to the rebel base, Monako, passed uneventfully. On the freighter, Lahr and Bek developed an uneasy alliance, their mutual distrust dissolving. Though both were still fiercely protective of their friends, they came to realize they were, probably, on the same side.
Vila and Veron passed the time more pleasantly, trading stories and getting to know each other. Veron was a true child of the revolution--her father had been a soldier in Kasabi's army, killed when Veron was still an infant--but Vila was surprised to learn how much they had in common. Both had lost their families and both had had to develop survival skills young. At the end of only a few days, Vila felt closer to Veron than he did to anyone outside of Avon.
And Avon . . . Avon mostly stayed quietly out of the way. He kept to his cabin, or would work silently on the flight deck computers, listening as Vila and Veron spun their tales. His reticence made Vila watchful, but the madness did not seem to be returning, so he let well enough alone.
After four days, they reached Monako. The freighter led the way to the landing bay, Defiant close behind. Avon had joined Vila and Veron on the flight deck to watch the descent, and he followed the pair out as they left the ship. Lahr and Bek waited for them outside the freighter.
The bay smelled as all such places do: of fuel and metal from the machines, and of the sweat of the people who worked on them. Vila always associated the smell with running away, with escaping from some scheme gone wrong, with avoiding a danger either Avon or Blake had flung them into. He'd never liked landing bays.
He looked around this particular bay, and his unease settled firmly in his gut. They had arrived during the daylight hours, a time when there should have been at least a technician working on one of the base's ships, yet the place was completely deserted. The echoes of their footsteps coiled around them, the only sound in the cathedral-like space.
Vila looked at his companions. Lahr and Bek looked unhappy, but then neither of them had been pleased with any of this. Avon refused to acknowledge anything was wrong, and answered Vila's look with the same bland expression he'd been wearing for four days. It was Veron who really worried Vila. She had been the one calm person in his life the last few days, and now she was wound so tightly that he could see the cords of muscle standing out on her neck and her fists clenched so hard that he was sure her nails must be drawing blood. He caught her gaze and gave her an encouraging smile, which she returned. Vila suspected that his own smile had been no more convincing than hers.
They waited by the ships for several minutes. Just as Vila was about to suggest doing something--like getting the hell out of there--they heard a door opening on the far side of the bay. Ships, ranging from several small scouts, to a large cargo transport, were scattered through the bay. Whoever had entered was obscured by some of the larger ships, but their footsteps were clearly audible. Vila and his group turned to the direction the sounds were coming from. He could feel the others tense up around him even more.
The newcomers swung around a captured Federation pursuit craft, and continued forward until they stood perhaps two metres from Vila and his people.
There were six people in the welcoming party. All six wore side arms on their belts, and all of them carried larger paraguns trained on the interlopers. Five of the people were obviously foot soldiers. The three men and two women were all hardened looking, with short cut hair that emphasized the harsh lines of their faces. The sixth person was Avalon.
If her soldiers looked hardened, Avalon looked like tempered steel. She also had cut her hair short, and grey now dusted the red. Lines pulled tight at her mouth and eyes, and Vila didn't think she'd gotten any of them from laughing.
Avalon's people were grouped tightly around her, and Vila unconsciously put himself between her and Avon. He only noticed what he'd done when he realized Veron and Lahr had done the same. He looked steadily at Avalon. She returned his look, briefly, and then seeming to dismiss him and the others as unimportant, settled her gaze on Avon.
"Kerr Avon." Avalon's voice was as clear and high as it had been the last time they'd met, but now it had a dark edge to it that cut at Vila.
In response to the summons, Avon stepped forward between Vila and Veron. Vila nearly held him back, but Veron's hand on his arm stayed the action.
"Avalon." Avon's voice was without inflection. It didn't challenge, as it would have done even months ago; it merely waited.
"You are under arrest for the attempted murder of Roj Blake. My people will escort you to the cell block to await trial." At the end of this speech, two of Avalon's people came forward and took hold of Avon. The remaining three held their rifles ready, keeping their eyes carefully on the rest of them.
Vila moved forward, in spite of Veron's hand tightening painfully around his wrist.
"Just a minute. Veron told us the Council wouldn't detain any of us."
"Veron had no authority to promise such a thing." Avalon shot a cool look to her younger colleague. "I represent the Council in this matter. I am in charge."
Vila could feel panic begin to close his throat. He spoke again.
"What about Deva? Does he know what's going on?"
"Deva has other concerns." Avalon looked to her people and motioned them to leave. They started marching out the way they'd come, Avon going quietly in their grasp.
"Avalon, don't do this. Please." Vila's voice raised with every word till it reached a peak, and he pulled forward. Before he could register what had happened there were four guns pointing at him and three sets of arms straining to hold him back. No one moved, and Vila found the tension so pronounced that he had to force himself to breathe.
Avalon was the first to break the tableau. She tucked her pararifle under her arm and unholstered her sidearm. Vila found her weapon suddenly stuck in his gut. He felt the barrel strike his ribs, and stopped breathing again.
"I've promised the others I won't harm you, Restal, but I'll consider that promise void if you get in my way." She ground the gun further in to his ribs, then turned and swept out ahead of her entourage.
Vila managed to get a quick look at Avon before he was pulled out behind Avalon. Avon returned Vila's glance with a frightening calmness, and shook his head once. Then he was gone.
Vila could take no more. His knees buckled, and the hands which had held him back became supports, lowering him slowly to the ground. He felt Veron's arm around his shoulders, and could hear the three of them, even Bek, telling him that things would be fine. He knew they were wrong, though. Dead wrong.
As Kerr Avon was led away from the landing bay into the centre of Monako Base, he wondered if he'd seen Vila Restal for the last time. He hoped so.
He couldn't help Vila now, that much was clear. And if he saw the man again, it might be because Vila was trying yet again to foolishly rescue him. Avon knew that could only end badly. Death had claimed him, several times over, and Vila only ran the risk of being taken down as well if he continued to pull him from her grasp. Avon wouldn't let that happen.
No, the best thing that would be for Avalon to finish what Servalan had started.
He'd gone beyond the initial guilt he'd felt at shooting Blake, but now he was so tired, he merely wanted it all to end. And if he died, Avon reckoned the rebels would feel so guilty that Vila's safety would be guaranteed forever. That might make it all worth while.
At last his entourage reached their destination, somewhere in the bowels of the station. He was thrown into a bare room, with only a toilet and sink in the corner. He lowered himself against a wall as the last of his captors left.
Lahr and Bek wandered through yet another level of the base's storage rooms, this one even more abandoned than the last. Lahr had been told the base was large, but he hadn't known exactly how large until he and Bek set out to search every corner of it.
The two days since they'd arrived had been the most disturbing Lahr had experienced in his admittedly short life, worse even than when he'd left the planet where he'd spent his whole life to join a father he'd barely known.
It had been bad, watching Avalon hustle Avon away, with Avon acting like it didn't mean anything. Worse had been seeing Vila seem . . . he supposed helpless would be the word. One minute he's been standing, the next it was as if he were a puppet whose strings had been cut. They'd all managed to break his fall, but it had been some time before he could stand and leave the bay on his own. And Vila's face had been totally lacking in expression, but not like Avon's. More like he'd gotten lost somewhere inside and couldn't find his way out again. Even two days later, his expression lacked it usual spark.
And now Avon had disappeared.
The last they had seem of him was when Avalon took him out of the landing bay, under arrest. They had all assumed he would be taken to the detention cells, no one there had seen him. No one they'd talked to had knew where Avalon was holding him, and any one who did know was remaining well hidden.
Which is why Lahr and Bek were skulking around in one of the unused subsections of the base: trying to find Avon.
Vila and Veron were going about the same job through official channels. Veron was using her contacts and friends in the base, and they'd made appointments with every member of the Council who would see them. Bek, however, had not trusted official inquiries, and had insisted that he and Lahr launch their own search. Vila didn't like official channels either, but as the oldest of their group, and one of the 'Seven,' they all reckoned he had the best chance of getting through to the Council.
Lahr and Bek were dressed in the loose-fitting, tan flight suits that most members of the base tended to favour. Both were armed, but instead of obvious sidearms, they carried smaller pistols, concealed in their pockets.
They finished the circuit of yet another level, full of dimly lit hallways and empty, echoing storage holds.
"This level looks clean, unless they've found a way to become invisible." Bek glanced back at his companion and pulled a small torch out of his pocket. "D'you wanna try the stairs to the next level?"
"Sure," Lahr said, without much enthusiasm.
"C'mon, the rats, or whatever they are, won't get you." He gave an evil smile. "I'll protect ya."
"Thanks ever so much," Lahr said, aiming a sour look at his companion before following him into the stairway.
The stairwells this far down were unlit, except for the torches they had brought with them. Occasionally, they would catch sight of a member of the local rodent species. Calling them rats was being charitable. They had a hard, armoured body, and seemed larger than the nastiest space rat Lahr had ever seen.
He shuddered and heard a laugh from Bek.
"You really don't like them, do you?"
"I'd rather face Servalan again than get stuck in a space with those things."
"I don't see why they bother you so much."
"I was the smallest one on Stahl's free trader, so if anyone had to work in the crawl ways, it was always me. The ship was infested with rats, and I was always running into them. Dirty things." Lahr shuddered again.
"So, how did you end up on a free trader in the first place?" Lahr sensed Bek was just trying to take his mind off the dark shapes dogging their trail, but he didn't care.
"My dad was shipping with Stahl when he decided I was old enough to join him in space. Neither of my parents were much interested in raising a kid, so they'd dumped me with my father's sister and her family. I grew up on a small colony world. Farming mostly."
"You were a farmer." Bek laughed.
"Not really. I was awful at it. I didn't like the animals, and chores like baling hay bored me stiff. I mostly looked after the machines, after my aunt found out that was one thing I was good at."
"Your dad's still with Stahl, then?"
"Nah. He left a couple of years ago. I decided to stay because I liked the crew, and my job. I didn't know my dad all that well, and neither of us felt any need to stay together."
"That's too bad. My best friends growing up were my brother and sister."
"Are they on the base too?"
"Both of them are dead."
Lahr saw the black look cloud Bek's usually placid face, and wished he could take his question back.
"Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean . . . "
"No, s'allright. It's been years, and they were dying anyway. They were both Shadow addicts."
"Oh." Lahr had only heard vague rumours of Shadow. It had never made it to the world where he had grown up, and Stahl had strictly forbidden all narcotics on his ship.
"Yeah, well, it was how they got through the day. I just pissed about and caused trouble."
"What about your parents"
"They abandoned us when we were small. Or they were killed. One day they just didn't come home. I had to look after Hanna and Petey after that."
"Can I ask you something?"
Bek laughed. "Go ahead. You might as well know the whole story."
"Well, I just wondered how you ended up in the rebellion."
"Blake showed up around the same time Hanna and Petey died. He showed me that you could get back at the Federation, and the Terra Nostra, and then left me on Space City. I used my natural talent for getting into trouble to make life miserable for the local capo. Even had a few people working with me."
They reached the landing, and entered the next floor. It was as quiet as the last one had been, so Bek dropped his voice and continued with his story.
"I got a bit cocky, took too many chances, and a couple of my people were killed. I sort of lost my taste for leadership after that, and went looking for another group to join up with. I found Veron, and she brought me to Blake and Deva. Full circle."
Lahr let his breath out, as he waited for Bek's clear signal at the first corner on the floor. The signal came, and he moved forward. He stared at Bek's back with a slight frown. The other man must have felt the stare, since he turned around.
"I don't know how you got through it."
"I had to. Besides, I found Veron, and she helped me keep it together. I just don't go around thinking about it all the time."
"So, you and Veron are . . . close."
A grin appeared on Bek's face, the first real smile Lahr could remember seeing there.
"Yeah, you might say that."
"I thought maybe her and Vila . . ."
"Nah. I think he reminds her a bit of her Da. Or at least what her Mum told her about him. He was a Delta. And as much of a troublemaker as Vila, from what I've heard.
The two of them turned the last corner of the floor, ending up back at the entrance to the stairs.
"Vila, a troublemaker?" Lahr had always considered Vila to be one of the more responsible people he'd met.
"You'd be surprised, mate. Blake's told me a few stories. Ask Vila what he got up to on Freedom City sometime." Bek flashed another smile, and entered the stairway.
They descended another level, following the light of Bek's torch. Lahr still didn't like being in the enclosed, dark space, with vaguely seen shapes chittering just outside the range of their light, but at least he was beginning to feel more comfortable with Bek now. They reached the door to the next level, and eased it open.
This time, instead of silence, they could hear voices echoing down the corridor from somewhere on the level. They moved silently down the corridor in the direction the voices seemed to be coming from. At the first turn, Bek peered around the corner.
Fifty metres from where he stood, four men leaned against a door. The door was an imposing, reinforced affair, blocked with a large metal bar. All of the men were armed with pararifles. Bek eased back from the corner and whispered to Lahr.
"They must have him down there. You're going to have to check it out. Remember, you're checking space availability for Veron. Don't take any stupid risks."
"What if they recognize me?" Lahr was suddenly struck by panic worse than when he and Vila had pulled Avon out of Servalan's headquarters.
"I doubt any of 'em were looking at you in the landing bay and I doubt they would have seen you any where else. I'll be covering your back. Just relax, and you'll have no worries."
"Yeah, right." Lahr mumbled under his breath, but he moved out in the corridor anyway. He kept his steps quiet, yet made his movements large enough that he wouldn't come upon the sentries unawares. One thing he did not want to do was surprise Avalon's pet thugs, even if he was armed himself.
The sentries caught sight of him when he was perhaps twenty metres away and immediately had their guns trained on him. Lahr didn't like the feeling one bit, but tried not to let his nervousness show as he drew near.
He was nearly on top of the group where one of them finally spoke.
"Hold it there, boy. What do you think you're doing?"
Lahr had seen a lot of hard cases when he was shipping with Reevan Stahl, but these four gave the impression of having absolutely nothing left to lose. He wondered, briefly, where Avalon had found such men, then decided he didn't want to know.
He forced himself to remain calm, and to assume the pleasant, slightly vacant expression that Vila had assured him would get him past most obstacles in his life.
"Sorry to bother you. The Council asked Veron to complete a survey of space usage in the lower levels, and she passed it on to me." He pulled the datapad he'd stowed in his pocket as part of their cover story, and keyed past a number of screens to convince them. He hoped none of them could read quickly enough to realize that the screens only contained a list of independent communications bouys, a letter from an old friend and a couple of recipes his aunt had sent him off into space with.
"No one told us about any survey."
"You know the Council. One minute they have to have a survey. Two minutes later they've forgotten they've even asked for it." Two of the men chuckled appreciatively. "But I do know Veron'll have my guts for garters if I don't finish this."
"Know what you mean, mate," the apparent leader replied. "Avalon always wants everything done yesterday." The men appeared to be reasonably friendly, in spite of the gun barrels which still pointed directly at him, but Lahr wasn't about to let his guard done.
"So, what have they got you lot hidden down here for?" Lahr tried to keep the question as off-hand as possible, but he still saw the leader's eyes narrow as it was asked.
"Nothing unusual. Avalon has some farming equipment she wants kept under extra security."
"Tough luck for you. I'll let Veron know this bit's used up, then.
"You do that." The men still had their guns aimed at him, but Lahr got the feeling they'd already disregarded him. Fortunately.
"Yeah, I'll just finish the rest of this floor and move on to the next," Lahr said, moving past the men and the door. "Cheers."
He hoped Bek was paying attention, as he couldn't risk returning the way he'd come. He looked at the door, with its steel bar and padlock, and hoped that if Avon was behind it, as he must be, that he'd heard Lahr's voice and knew that they were looking for him. Lahr could think of no worse fate than being held in a place as desolate as this and knowing that no one knew where you were.
He hurried around the floor. Fortunately, each of the levels were mapped out in a rough octagon, so you would eventually, end up where you started. Bek was waiting for him at the entrance to the stairs. They both entered the stairs without a word, and ascended several levels, then, by mutual consent, exited on one of the unused floors. They both left the stairwell and slumped on the floor. Bek grinned at his co-conspirator.
"Well at least we know where he is." He patted Lahr on the leg. "Vila would be proud of you, boyo. You didn't flinch a bit."
Lahr only nodded. He suddenly found there was too much adrenaline in his system. His hands shook, and he didn't trust his voice not to do likewise. Bek seemed to understand how he was feeling, and squeezed his shoulder, then gave him a hand as they both stood.
"C'mon, we'd better let them know we've found'im." Bek steered him back to the stairs. "I don't like to think of Avon being stuck in there with that crew for any longer than he has to."
"Yeah, you're right. Vila'll want to know as soon as possible." Lahr was surprised that his voice held, but the shock of adrenaline was already fading from his system.
"Let's just hope Veron and Vila can convince the Council to let him go. I'd hate to have to break him out of this base."
Lahr looked at Bek in surprise.
"You'd do that?"
"Well, you don't think I'd leave him to those thugs, do you?" Bek appeared almost offended.
"But Avalon is one of your leaders."
"I choose who I follow. I respect Blake, and Deva, and I'd do anything Veron asked. Avalon, however, hasn't been quite right for a while."
"But you barely know Avon."
"Yeah, but I know you, and Veron knows Vila. If you're both convinced he deserves our help, then so am I."
"Thanks," was all Lahr could manage in reply. They both stood still for a moment, before Bek finally broke the awkward silence.
"But we're not going to have to break him out, so enough of this sodding sentimentality."
They entered the staircase, and set off to find Veron and Vila.
Vila approached the door to the med unit with more hesitation than he'd expected. After all, he'd been trying to get permission to see Blake for two days, nearly since the moment they'd arrived on this mud ball. And he'd been thinking about seeing Blake from the time Veron had let them know he was still alive.
He'd spent the months after Gauda Prime wishing Blake weren't dead, and now that he'd gotten his wish, he wasn't sure what to do about it. He laughed to himself.
"They always said I was a coward," he muttered. Drawing in a breath, he took the last few steps through the door. "Time to prove them wrong."
Once inside, he was overwhelmed by the equipment, sounds and smells of the place. He'd been expecting something more like Liberator's facilities, which weren't built to handle more than one or two people at a time. This place, however, was the size of a small hospital. Numerous med techs flitted from one patient to the next, adjusting machinery, administering medication, and looking like they were altogether too busy to do anything like answer the questions of one insignificant Delta.
Vila stood nervously against one wall, trying to stay out of the way, and wondering yet again what he was doing here. He was just about to make a break for it, and write the whole thing off as a bad bargain when an older woman, who seemed to be in charge, caught sight of him. She was a small, compact woman, with short dark hair that curled slightly at her collar. She approached him, a neutral look on her face.
"Vila Restal?" Her voice was a mix of honey and sandpaper that Vila thought nearly perfectly suited her person. He could only nod in response.
"I thought you must be." Her face broke into a smile. "Blake talked about you often." She held out a hand to him, and he took it, in somewhat of a daze. "I'm Kalon Devries, head of surgery. Well, head of it all, really, since no one else wants the job."
Kalon took Vila's arm, and began leading him through the maze of beds, diagnostic equipment and people. He could see that there were in fact a number of single rooms which opened off of the main one.
"We put Blake in his own room as soon as he stabilized. It tends to be a bit of a zoo around here at the best of times. Someone is always breaking a bone, or spraining a wrist, or getting a bit too hung over." She laughed. "And that's just on a normal day."
They had arrived at the door to one of the private rooms, and Kalon pulled up and stopped. She looked through the small window in the door, then back to Vila.
"Now Vila, I know you're aware of how seriously Blake was injured, that you were there, but I just want you to remember that. He doesn't look good, but he's definitely stabilized, and he's even beginning to regain consciousness." At the brightening look on Vila's face, she looked as serious as she had when he had first seen her. "Don't go thinking he's out of the woods yet. He could still relapse, but he is getting better."
"Can I see him now." Vila realized these were the first words he'd said since he'd met this woman. And Avon thought Vila talked too much.
Kalon hesitated, as if measuring up the man standing in front of her, then nodded.
"Yeah, go on. I just wanted to prepare you. You can stay with him as long as you want. We try to have someone with him at all times, anyway, so it might as well be you. You can ring for help if it looks like he's in any distress."
So saying, Kalon opened the door to the room. She nodded at the orderly sitting at Blake's bedside, and the man removed himself from the room. She then gently pushed Vila towards the bed, before leaving herself.
"Remember, ring if you think he needs any help. Or you do."
Then she was gone.
And Vila was alone with a man he thought he'd never see again. As he moved toward Blake, he could see why Kalon had thought she should warn him.
He almost didn't recognize the man. He seemed to have shrunk, and there were more lines on the face and grey in the hair than there had been even on Gauda Prime. He seemed fragile, as if he would crumble to dust if Vila were to so much as brush his forehead.
Vila sat down, rather harder than necessary, in the chair the orderly had vacated.
He shifted awkwardly in his seat, not quite knowing what he was meant to do now that he was here. He even reached out to take Blake's hand, but, thinking about the vital figure the man had been on the Liberator, he felt slightly foolish doing so, and settled for merely patting him on the arm instead.
Then he settled into watching Blake, taking comfort as the man's chest rose and fell with each breath. As he overcame his shock at the changes time and injury had wrought on him, he began to see that somehow his presence had survived it all. Even unconscious, he managed to inspire the quiet confidence that had led a group of misfits and criminals to follow a cause that wasn't their own. He allowed himself a weak smile, and sat forward, elbows resting on his knees.
"Blake, it's me. Vila. They let me in to see you, so I thought I'd pop around and say hello." He shifted in his seat again, finding a more comfortable position.
"I'm glad you're alive, Blake. And I know Avon is too." He took a deep breath. "I know Avon's sorry about what happened. We both are. There's no way to justify what he did, Blake, but you don't know how it's been. Things started getting bad a while ago. Maybe even since before we lost the Liberator."
He stopped himself short. This wasn't at all what he'd wanted to talk about.
"Well . . . you don't need to know any of that. Let me tell you about our new base."
Vila sat for hours with Blake, sometimes telling him about Lahr and Veron and the base Grant had lent them, sometimes just sitting quietly. Once, he got over his initial unease, he found he was reluctant to leave, as if Blake would be snatched away again if he should leave Vila's sight.
Vila had settled in, and dropped off into a light sleep, still sitting in the chair, when he heard Blake begin to move. He woke immediately.
Blake was straining against the blankets covering him, trying to push them off. His eyes were open, but it was clear he wasn't yet totally aware of where he was.
Vila called Kalon on the intercom, then returned to stand at the bedside of his former leader. He arranged the covers and stroked the other man's hands, hoping to soothe him.
"Blake, you're fine. Just lay back and rest."
At the sound of Vila's voice, Blake stopped fighting the covers, and recognition lit his eyes.
"Vila?" He frowned. "You're not supposed to be here. You're dead."
"I am supposed to be here, and no one's dead, Blake." He hoped Blake would forgive him the lie. "Don't try to move. You're still healing."
Blake appeared to accept that, and finally stopped his futile attempt to sit up. Vila could hear Kalon and her medical team at the door behind him, but as Blake was in no danger, they did not enter.
"You're here, then." Blake's voice was rough and barely audible, but it was still the same voice he remembered.
"And you're stating the obvious."
"So it seems." Blake paused, then looked directly at Vila, making the effort to focus on him. "Avon?" he asked, hesitantly.
"He's here, too." Vila hoped that was the right answer.
"Good," Blake smiled, and his eyes began to close. Vila could see his body begin to relax into sleep. Before he lost consciousness completely, he had one more thing to say.
"Look after him." He lost the battle to sleep, and lapsed into the slow breathing state he'd been in when Vila had arrived.
"I will," Vila whispered, before moving back to allow the medical team access.
So the stupid bastard had forgiven Avon already. Vila shook his head in wonder. He knew it was inevitable. Even in his blackest moods, Blake had always forgiven Avon the worst of his sins, but Vila had thought that this sin would take more time to forgive. Apparently Blake was as foolish as Avon had always said. Good thing, too, with Avon's life resting in the balance.
Kalon came over to where Vila stood in the doorway after she finished her examination. One of her assistants remained behind to make some arcane adjustments to the machines monitoring Blake.
"He's definitely getting stronger. He should be completely conscious in a couple of days."
"I though you'd think so." Kalon started to move away, then changed her mind. "What was that he said to you at the end."
"Nothing, really. Just wanted a small favour." Something on Vila's face must have made it clear that was all the answer she was likely to get, since Kalon merely nodded, and moved off to attend to her duties.
As Vila was leaving the med unit, Veron appeared in the hallway. From her face, he wasn't sure if she had good news or bad.
"Vila, Bek and Lahr have finished the search of the base."
"And . . ." he took her by the arm and began walking quickly to the section where their group had been quartered.
"They've found him."
Vila let a smile creep across his features.
"Looks like we're finally getting some good luck. And not before time."
Two days later, Vila was beginning to think that his optimism had been misplaced.
He and Veron had visited every member of the Council who would see them--which was only about half of them--and none of those wanted anything to do with either Avon or Avalon. Most had been very polite, but seemed embarrassed when the subject was even broached. Vila was glad he had Veron's experience in dealing with the Council on his side, or he might just have forgotten protocol and decked a Council member in frustration.
On top of dealing with ineffectual bureaucrats, Blake was not responding as Kalon had hoped he would. He'd been conscious several more times since Vila had seen him, but never for more than a few minutes. And he wasn't entirely lucid when he was awake. Vila had begun to realize that he couldn't count on Blake to take charge and sort out Avalon. Avon might be dead long before that could happen.
The last hope Vila had for getting out of this situation was now waiting for them in his office.
Deva had been called off-planet after Veron had left to pick up Avon, and he'd only returned this morning. Vila had his doubts that Deva would even want to see them--he had, after all, been on Gauda Prime--but Veron assured him that Deva was sympathetic to their cause.
Vila felt himself bracing for battle as he and Veron walked toward Deva's rooms. He looked over at Veron only to have her laugh at him.
"Vila, don't look so morose. Deva will be able to help us. You'll see." She gently shook his elbow as if to shatter his mood.
"This is our last chance, Veron. You know that, don't you."
She was serious again.
"Yes, I know, but Deva won't let us down. I trust him."
They were ushered into Deva's reception room by a series of nervous aides. Vila could hear whispering as the door closed behind them. He supposed the whole base must be talking about them.
Deva was not yet there, so they both sat in two of the not very comfortable chairs that were scattered throughout the room. The place had the appearance of having been furnished by purchases from jumble sales. Nothing matched anything else, and everything looked on the verge of collapse. Just goes to show you, thought Vila, that rebellion doesn't pay.
Deva entered several minutes later, through a door which seemed to lead to a private office. He greeted them both warmly before sitting across from Veron.
Vila was surprised that Gauda Prime seemed to have left no mark on Deva. He knew the man had been hit by Arlen and yet had managed to get Blake to safety, but he still had a remarkably open face, and no more lines than you would expect of a man his age. Which was more, Vila thought wryly, than he could say for himself.
"You know why we're here?" Vila decided to sod the small talk and get to the point. He'd waited long enough.
"I haven't heard the details yet, but I know it has to do with Avon."
Vila looked to Veron, and she took over the case.
"Avalon arrested Avon as soon as we landed, in spite of my promise that that would not happen."
"But that's not all," Deva prompted.
"No, it's not. Avon was never taken to detention. We only found out yesterday that he's being held by Avalon's people in one of the lower storage areas. Avalon will allow no one to see him, and frankly, we're afraid what might happen if we force the point."
"I see." Deva pressed his lips together and frowned. "And no one else has prevented this?"
"You know the problems, Deva. Half the base wants Avon dead; the rest aren't quite so bloodthirsty, but wouldn't be unhappy if an "accident" happened. Vila thinks, and I agree with him, that Blake would have stopped this long ago, but he still hasn't been conscious long enough to assume any sort of responsibility."
"Not a good situation." Deva's mouth twisted into a slight smile.
"You can say that again," Vila burst out. "Look, time's running awfully short. Do you think you can help?"
"Yes. And no." Deva held up his hand to stop any outbursts from his two guests. "I can't revoke the arrest. I know you're not going to like it, but unless Blake recovers soon enough to pardon him, Avon will have to face a Council tribunal. I don't think you need to worry about that, though. The Council will be reluctant to call for extreme punishment if they have time to think about it. And I will speak for Avon."
"You will?" Vila was surprised, if Veron wasn't.
"Yes, I will. I always thought the bounty hunter bit was a criminally stupid ploy, but there was no arguing with Blake."
"No, the tribunal won't be a problem. What is a problem is that Avalon is making this a private vendetta. And that's where I can help."
"I will personally make certain that Avon is held in the detention area, and that he's not harmed."
Vila found the tension draining from his muscles as Deva talked. Veron's trust in the man had been well placed.
"You know where Avon is being held."
"Bek and Lahr found out two days ago. It's the next to last storage level."
"Fine. If you send Bek to guide me, I'll have Avon escorted to the detention area."
"When?" Vila didn't want any more delays than were necessary.
"Would an hour from now be soon enough?"
Vila nodded and looked to Veron. She wore a cautious smile, which he found himself mirroring.
"It's almost over, isn't it." he whispered to her.
"Not quite, but almost."
She gave him a quick hug, and he said a silent prayer to the old gods that everything would go well.
At the appointed time, Deva found himself descending a disused staircase through the storage levels. He could feel Bek at his side, and the two security guards behind him, but his anger had narrowed his vision to the area immediately in front of him.
His hand tightened around the gun he held. The weapon felt unfamiliar and wrong, but he had been the one to insist that they all go armed. He knew, as did Bek, that Avalon's guards wouldn't hesitate to fire at them. His anger flared as he thought of the kind of people Avalon had taken to recruiting in the last months.
He was angry at a lot of people.
He was angry at Avalon, for forcing him to carry a gun today. He was angry at Blake, for using his bounty hunter act on the one person he shouldn't have. He was angry at Kerr Avon, for not seeing through Blake's games and rising above them. But most of all, he was angry at himself.
He should have known better; all the way down the line, he should have bloody well known better.
He should have stopped Blake's strategy on Gauda Prime, and he hadn't. He should have been on base when Veron and Bek brought Avon in, and he hadn't been. And he should have recognized the increasing bitterness Avalon was beginning to show.
Looking back, Deva could see that the changes in Avalon had started after she had been wounded when a rebel cell she had been organizing was betrayed from within. It hadn't been her first injury, or her first betrayal. It hadn't even been that serious a wound. It had just been the last one she could bear.
Deva could see the pattern now. Avalon, always a moderate, had begun to take the hard line in the Council. She had advocated using the Federation's own methods against it. She had begun to train her own hand-picked troops, rather than drawing her teams from base personnel, as everyone else did.
Rationally, Deva knew that there wasn't much he could have done, but he didn't feel like being rational. Avalon had been his friend, his best friend next to Blake, for nearly two years. He was reluctant to accept what she had seemed to become.
He was so wound up in his thoughts that it took a moment to register when they finally arrived at the place where Avon was being held. The door was as Bek had described it--large, substantial and with a solid-looking metal bar across it. It was guarded by two of Avalon's men carrying the nastiest pararifles Deva had ever seen. Those rifles were now pointed directly at him. He refused to even acknowledge them.
"I have come to claim your prisoner, in the name of the Council." Deva dredged up his poshest accent in the hope it would either intimidate or persuade. He didn't hold with the class system, but it could be useful.
The two guards seemed unimpressed with both Deva and his accent. They raised their weapons so they were pointing right in his face. The older of the two took a step toward Deva before speaking.
"We only take orders from Avalon, and she doesn't want 'im going anywhere."
"What's your name?" Deva fixed the man with a steady stare, and found more doubt behind the eyes than he would have guessed. Good, he could use that.
"Joss, if it's anything to you."
"Well, Joss, this base is run by a Council, not any one person. I don't care if Blake himself gave you that order; you will hand your prisoner over to me, as a representative of the Council, or face exile."
"You couldn't do. . . "
"I could and I would," Deva said, cutting the man off. "Now are you going to step aside, or not?"
Deva gave a slight motion of his hand and Bek and their security people raised their guns, pointing them firmly at Joss and his companion.
"I'll have to talk to Avalon first."
"Get her. I need to speak with her as well."
"Well, she's . . . uh, interrogating the prisoner." Joss's voice trailed off as he saw the fury gather on Deva's face.
"Then, open the bloody door." Deva let go of his anger, using it as a weapon as he seldom allowed himself.
Joss quailed, and turned to release the bar on the door.
Avon had been in the cell for four days. Perhaps. He'd lost track of the days some time ago, and none of his jailers were about to tell him anything. In fact they'd all had as little to do with him as possible.
Oh, a couple had aimed a few blows at him. He had a bruised cheek, which he knew must be yellowing by now, and ribs in the same shape, but once they'd gotten over the initial anger of being near the would-be assassin of Roj Blake, the attacks had stopped. Now, he was left quite alone; even his meals were delivered through a slot in the door. There had been nothing left for him to do but sit and pace and think.
Thinking was something he'd been avoiding since Vila rescued him. Well, before that, even. But now there was nothing to keep him from it. He spent his time speculating on when Avalon would get around to killing him--not that he cared--and hoping that Blake would recover, and reminding himself that hope was for fools.
Another foolish hope he'd had was that Vila and his friends wouldn't get themselves into trouble trying to rescue him. He'd heard Lahr's voice in the hall, yesterday it must have been, so they knew where he was. But Avalon's people seemed a bad lot, and he didn't want anyone hurt over what happened to him. Not that he'd tell any of them that, of course. If he ever got that chance. Which he doubted. His mouth took on a slight smile.
The smile faded as he heard a sound at the door. He looked up from the floor he had been unseeingly focused on. It didn't feel like the usual meal time. This was something different.
The door opened, and Avalon strode into the room, surrounded by three of her troops. They all stared at Avon as if he were a particularly nasty medical specimen that none of them quite wanted to dirty their hands with.
Avon uncrossed his legs, slowly, and stood to meet his captors.
"Avalon." He acknowledged her with a nod.
She forewent any niceties, and started right in on business.
"I've promised a number of parties I would get your side of the story before any action is taken."
"How very fair-minded of you."
"Don't you start in on me. I know what happened at that base, and I'll kill you myself if you so much as twitch the wrong way."
"And you'd enjoy it, wouldn't you."
"As you say."
Avon considered her tone of voice, and decided to indulge his curiosity.
"I know why you want me dead, but I don't know what's made it so personal for you."
"You don't believe it's my need for justice." Her voice took on a temporary lightness. Avon didn't let himself be fooled by that.
"Possible, but no."
"Very well." Avalon looked him full in the eye, and he could see the anger radiating from her. "You betrayed your leader, the man who had trusted you with his life, and trusted you to help him." He could hear a slight tremor in her voice. "Betrayal is the one thing I cannot and will not tolerate."
Avon couldn't help himself. He began to laugh quietly, which only made Avalon angrier.
"What's so bloody funny?"
"Irony. I don't know if you can appreciate it."
"Well now, I shot Blake because I thought he had betrayed me, and he refused to deny it."
"You should have known better."
"How should I have known better." Avon became heated himself. "My ship had been shot down, several of my crew injured. I was facing a man I hadn't seen for two years, who had been psycho manipulated at least twice in the past, and he wouldn't deny that he had betrayed me." He stopped, and took a deep breath, attempting to regain the detachment he depended upon. "I felt I had no choice."
"I don't believe it." Her voice had, if possible, grown harder.
"I didn't think you would." He allowed himself another small smile.
"And why not," Avalon asked, with equal parts curiosity and contempt.
"You said you came to hear 'my side' of the story. I think you've already made up your mind as to what 'my side' is. I'm guilty, and nothing is going to get in your way. Not even the truth."
"How dare you." Her face had gone flush red, and her voice had dropped to a menacing growl. "I don't manipulate the truth. I'm not Federation."
He saw her soft spot, and decided to exploit it.
"No, you're not Federation, but you are a fanatic. And fanatics tend to look the same, no matter what side they're on."
He knew he'd found the line and crossed it as he saw her hand come toward his face.
The door opened just in time for Deva to see Avalon backhand Avon across his cheek. He was frozen in shock as the tech dropped to his knees from the force of the blow.
For a moment, all movement was suspended. Deva couldn't quite take in what he'd seen, anger temporarily displaced by surprise. Avalon stared at Deva, her face blood red, clenching the hand that had just struck Avon. The two guards from the door and the three that had been in the cell froze, waiting for Avalon's orders. Bek and the security officers also stood paralyzed.
Kerr Avon alone seemed unaffected by the moment, and he was the first to break the stillness.
He stiffly pushed himself to his feet, one hand rubbing where he'd been struck. Deva noticed his other cheek bore the faded remains of bruise.
Avon laughed once, a sound completely devoid of humour.
"At least both sides will match, now."
The spell was broken, and suddenly there were ten voices, all clamouring to be heard. The noise level rose and rose until it was nearly unbearable in the small room. Deva could take it no longer.
"Shut Up!" Deva was surprised at the volume his voice managed to produce. The others were also surprised, and they all stopped their racket. Deva pushed back the hair that was suddenly in his eyes, and looked around the room with exasperation.
"Now that I have your attention, I'm here to inform you that I'm taking control of your prisoner in the name of the Council."
Avalon had pushed her way to the front of the group.
"Avon is my prisoner. You're not taking him."
"We follow rules here, Avalon. We can't start making exceptions now."
"I'd say you're more dangerous than he is right now."
"I'll ignore that." Avalon paced around the room like a caged cat. A very dangerous cat. She stopped moving and looked at Deva. "Take him to detention now, but we both know there is still only one way this can end."
"Perhaps. But we'll still do this openly, in public, not in some secluded room where you're not responsible to anyone else."
Deva watched as Avalon's features closed off completely.
"That's what you think of me?" she asked.
"That's what I see, Avalon." Something in her manner made him reach out to reassure her, but she backed away with a glare.
Deva walked through the corridors to Avalon's rooms, trying to keep a firm grasp on his feelings and remain as rational as possible.
It wasn't easy.
He didn't know any more what role he was playing, though other people seemed to have strong enough opinions on the matter. He was sure that Avalon saw him as a weak meddler. Vila and Veron seemed to think of him as Avon's rescuer. From the unfailingly polite and reserved manner with which Avon had treated him, Deva was certain the man saw him as a well-meaning fool. The way he felt at the moment, Deva thought that Avon might be the closest to the truth.
Now, he was on his way to deliver the Council's reluctantly arrived upon decision as to the disposition of Kerr Avon to the woman who had taken it upon herself to be the man's nemesis. The best Deva could hope for was that it would be only mildly unpleasant.
He knocked on Avalon's door, and it slid open immediately. She stood just inside the door, her arms crossed, a formidable look on her face. Deva calculated his best chance of surviving the next few minutes was to simply get on with it and get out as quickly as possible. If he could.
"I've just come from the detention area."
"Oh yes." She made no attempt to hide the contempt in her voice.
"Kalon's been to examine the prisoner." Deva thought his best chance was to keep things as formal as possible.
"Oh, for gods' sake, Deva, I didn't hit him that hard."
"Well, apparently a few of your people did. He has a number of bruises from the last few days."
"You'd have thought they could do better than a few bruises," Avalon muttered.
"Avalon," Deva said sharply, before reining his emotions back in. "Did you also know that he's still recovering from injuries received from Federation interrogation? There was extensive scarring, indication of past internal injuries, a skull fracture, broken ribs. Not to mention psychological damage, which of course he denies altogether."
"Why bother to tell me all this?"
"I thought you should know that the man you consider a traitor to the cause was hated enough by the Federation to be subjected to the worst they could manage."
"So, my enemy's enemy is my friend?"
"In a word, yes."
"No!" Avalon paused, as if attempting to restore some remnant of control. "That man is poison, pure and simple. The Federation would have done us all a favour if they'd destroyed him. I don't know why Restal bothered with his rescue."
"You would just have us kill him."
"With no hearing."
"You're becoming just like them, you know."
"You and Avon must be reading from the same script. He said much the same thing to me earlier."
"Shows how perceptive he is."
"Or how deluded you are."
"I don't think I'm the one with delusions. You're the one who insists she knows what is right."
"You were there, Deva. You saw what happened."
"We've been through this before. I only saw after. And I know how Avon looked when he thought he'd killed Blake. I know the damage they had to inflict to take him down. I pulled him off Blake, when I got Blake out of there."
"You're blinded by sentimentality, Deva."
"Well, we're all going to get a chance to find out for ourselves. I've called for a tribunal tomorrow afternoon. Since you're so eager to prove your case, you will prosecute. I will speak for the defence."
"You would stand for Kerr Avon."
"I promised Veron I would. I keep my promises." He moved to the door. "You have until midday tomorrow to prepare your case. I won't wish you luck." He gave her an anemic smile, and was gone.
Vila was approaching Avalon's door when he saw Deva sweep out of the room. The look on the slight man's face gave him pause, and so he pressed himself back into a convenient alcove. Deva stormed away in the opposite direction, and Vila would have bet hard credits that Deva was not a man who could storm anywhere.
He remained where he was, gathering his thoughts. He wasn't sure what he was doing here, but when Bek had told him that Deva was coming to speak with Avalon, he felt the need to be here. Now that Deva had gone, and in a foul mood, he wasn't sure if this was still a good idea.
Perhaps a minute had passed, though to Vila it seemed like forever, when two men turned into the hallway and stopped at Avalon's door. Vila thought he recognized them as being with the party who had originally arrested Avon. They knocked at the door, and Avalon came out. Vila could just barely make out what the three were saying. Avalon spoke first.
"Joss, Atland, get the others and take the detention block. I think it's time to end this farce. Make certain everyone is fully armed. I'll meet you there in ten minutes."
The two men looked slightly hesitant.
"What if Security resists," Joss asked.
"Shoot them. Nothing is going to stand in my way."
Joss set his jaw, and nodded. His companion followed suit.
"Right, then. I'll see you at detention."
Avalon returned to her room, and the two men set off the way they'd come.
Vila felt his breathing grow faster by the second, and his arms and legs all seemed made out of some infinitely heavy material as he heard those words. Jeezus, now he had no alternative. He had to see Avalon, and, what was more, make her see reason. Else, it would all have been for nothing, and Avon would end up just one more corpse.
Before he could think about it, he had the door open--locks such as this had been no problem to him since he was eight--and entered the room.
Avalon had her back to him, and clearly thought that he was one of her men.
"What is it now?" Her voice betrayed her impatience.
"Ummm, I've come to . . . "
"Restal!" Avalon cut him off and spun to face him. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Umm." Vila's determination foundered in the wake of the woman he had come to confront. "I've come to . . ." He suddenly down and saw the blaster Avalon had strapped on and stopped.
"I suppose you've come about that friend of yours. Well, you won't have to worry about him for much longer. I intend to see to that."
Vila felt his own anger begin to flow back.
"So I'd heard. You can't really mean to go through with this."
"Of course I do. I can't believe you're still defending him. Blake was your captain, your leader."
"Blake was, is my friend. But so is Avon. And both of them made mistakes, on Gauda Prime and before. And I've forgiven them both because they are my friends."
"I don't intend to give Kerr Avon a chance to make any more mistakes."
"And who gave you the right to make that decision?" He felt desperation creeping into his voice.
"The rest of you are too weak to see what must be done."
"And you're the only one who can do it? You're the only one strong enough." Vila gave a bitter laugh. "It's that kind of thinking that got Avon where he is today."
"How dare you compare me to that man. You refuse to see what a monster he is."
"Kerr Avon is not a monster."
"What else can you call a man who tried to kill a friend."
"It wasn't his fault."
"You can't believe that."
"Oh yes, I do. I was there, remember? I know what happened between them. And I know Blake won't thank you for what you're planning."
"Ask him. Ask Blake." Vila felt desperation edging into his voice. "Please." He wouldn't let it end this way. Not after he'd gone through this much.
"Absolutely not. Blake is in no condition to hear this nonsense." Avalon turned, her shoulders set determinedly as she left the room.
Without conscious thought, Vila launched himself at the woman. He wasn't as unskilled at fighting as he liked people to believe, and he had the advantage of surprise. However, Avalon had spent all of her adult life engaged in warfare, and Vila's advantage was brief. She easily pinned him to wall, then sent him sprawling.
"No one is gong to stop me. Especially not you, you pathetic little man."
She stormed out, and the door closed behind her. Vila heard the locking mechanism engage, and he had a flashing hope that she'd somehow forgotten about his skills. But then he heard the sound of her blaster, burning the lock, and the door frame itself into slag.
"Let's see you get out of that, thief." Avalon's voice carried her contempt through the door.
Vila spent a stunned few seconds lying on the floor. He felt the old helplessness bleed into his veins, making it impossible to move, to even consider moving. But then the anger kicked in, the strength that had gotten him through the last few months. He found a roar building in his throat.
"Noo!" He threw himself at the door, kicking at the barrier that would not yield to his skill. "You don't have the right to judge him."
From somewhere in the back of his memory he could hear Tarrant's response to a similar comment.
"Right? No one survives as long as you have, Vila, without learning the facts of life."
Tarrant had made sense, in his brutal way. You had to make your own rights in this life. Which was why he was a thief. He'd found a way to cheat, to make things come his way, when all reason said there was nothing left.
So, how could he cheat this time? How could he get out? If he didn't get out, Avon would die. Avon would die. Avon would . . .
He shook himself. It would do no good if he were to panic now. He had to think. What options did he have. There were no cutting tools in the cabin. Nor was there a communications panel in the room, so he couldn't warn the others. What would Avon do?
Then it came to him. What Avon would do, had done, in fact, on the London. He could use the ventilation shafts. It would be a tight squeeze--he wasn't a kid anymore--but he reckoned he could make it. It might even be an advantage. If Avalon had warned her people about him, he could stay out of sight.
Prying open the grate to the shaft, he entered the confined space, and began to crawl. After a momentary attack of nerves--he'd forgotten how much he'd disliked small spaces, even as a kid--he set to work.
It wasn't far to the medical centre, perhaps 100 metres, but his knees were already sore, and his hands beginning to get raw by the time he reached it. By some miracle, the centre was nearly deserted. He checked that no one was near, then kicked out the grate. He winced as it clattered loudly to the floor, but no one came running to demand what he was doing.
He quietly entered Blake's room. The rebel was beginning to look stronger than the last time he'd seen him, but there was still a fragility about him. Vila couldn't afford for him to be fragile now; he needed Blake's strength. And Avon needed his forgiveness.
"Blake. Wake up." Vila laid his hand on the rebel's arm, and gently shook him. "C'mon, Blake, you have to get up."
Blake could hear someone, very far away, calling his name, but he didn't want to answer. He was in a vague, warm place that was somehow comforting, and where he didn't have to think about anything. He wanted so desperately not to think.
But the voice wouldn't go away, kept calling him, and finally, reluctantly he rose to meet it.
Opening his eyes, he blinked until he could focus on the face that hovered above him. That face was part of the thing he didn't want to think about. But who was this man? Ah, yes . . . He'd been here before.
"Blake, c'mon. You've got to help." Hands helped him to a sitting position.
"Vila, what's going on? Where's Avon." He tried to keep his voice steady, but it only ended up sounding pathetic to him. The other man hesitated. Blake felt himself being questioned, tested in a way he couldn't fathom. He wasn't entirely sure he'd passed the test, but he could see that Vila had decided to trust him anyway.
"You have to help us . . . me." Vila's mouth tightened perceptibly. "Avalon's going to kill Avon."
Somehow this was the one thing he'd never considered. That one of his friends would try to avenge him, would try to kill Avon.
"She can't do that. She . . ." A harsh gasp sounded from his throat, and he curled in on himself, eyes clenched shut. It was too hard. No one should have to bear this.
Then, comforting hands grasped his shoulders, rubbed his back. He felt himself rocked. When the hurt finally began to east, Vila's voice began again.
"Avalon will listen to you, Blake. You can save him."
He felt safe enough to open his eyes, and looked at the other man. Vila met his eyes squarely.
"I can get you to detention, and then you can talk to Avalon. Explain things to her."
Keeping his gaze fixed firmly on Vila, Blake sat up. The panic was fading, though he still felt hollow at the core. He didn't know if he had the strength for what he had to do, but he knew he had to find it.
"So, Blake, can you help?" A pleading tone had entered Vila's voice, and for the first time in memory, Blake didn't think it belonged there.
Blake hesitated, then gave the only answer he could.
Avalon left her cabin in an even blacker mood than she'd been in when Deva had arrived, if that was possible. She navigated on instinct, without being aware of any activity around her. Anyone else walking the base at the same time had the sense to turn tail and run before they encountered her, for she saw no one.
She took the extra time to go to the refectory, to gather any of her people that Joss might have missed. Two of the women in her group were talking over coffee when she got there. Upon seeing her, they put down the coffee, picked up their weapons and joined in behind her without a word being exchanged.
Time seemed to slow down on the trip to detention. She suddenly had the time to think, no longer functioning strictly on anger and hatred. The unquestioning way that the two women had followed her was beginning to make her nervous. Part of her mind--a very deeply buried part at the moment--was beginning to whisper that she had become a fanatic, that the thief and Deva and Kasabi's brat and even that bastard Avon were right. The other, dominant part assured her that she was merely being stronger than the others, and tried to blot out the whispering. But the doubt continued.
They reached the detention block at last. Her people had taken over and had the Security staff gathered in the reception area. She was somehow not surprised to see that Bek was among them.
"Still trying to save a murderer, Bek," she said.
"Still trying to prevent murder being done, Avalon." The young man met her gaze squarely. The whispering threatened to grow louder in her mind, so she simply turned away.
"Half of you guard these ones, the rest of you, come with me." Avalon left the area without looking back, her mouth pressed into a thin line.
They walked through the labyrinth of cells, arriving, at last, at their destination.
Avalon paused a moment in front of Avon's cell, collecting herself, before she finally keyed it open.
The man inside was sprawled on the narrow cot in the room, but rose when he saw who was standing at the open door. An ironic smile graced his features, though Avalon wasn't sure if it mocked himself or her.
"Well, now," he began, then as suddenly stopped.
"You were about to say?"
As she watched, the smile bled from his face to be replaced by . . . nothing. He was suddenly as devoid of expression as she felt.
"It hardly matters now. Go ahead and do what you came here for."
"You are a cold-hearted bastard, aren't you?"
"Yes, I suppose I must be." For a moment, Avalon thought she could see something besides disinterest and irony in his eyes, but it was gone as soon as detected. She didn't let herself think about it.
She nodded to the two men at her side, and they quickly grabbed Avon's arms, and forced him to his knees.
She unholstered her blaster and set it to kill, then placed it against her enemy's skull.
"Kerr Avon, I hereby execute you in the name of the Revolutionary Council."
She could see the muscles in his back tense under his leather tunic, but there was no other sign that he'd even heard what she'd said. She braced herself to pull the trigger.
Vila rushed through the halls at Blake's side. The corridors were deserted at this time of the evening, which Vila was glad of. He didn't want to explain why he was risking the life of a glorious hero of the rebellion trying to save an embezzler and traitor.
He kept wishing they could go faster, but it was a miracle Blake could walk at all. The rebel leader was as weak as a kitten, and was only kept upright and moving by Vila's support.
Still, Vila couldn't escape the panicked thought that they would arrive too late; that it was already too late.
The faces of Dayna, Soolin and Tarrant kept floating about in his mind. He'd been too late to save them, only by a matter of days for Dayna. He didn't want Avon's face to join them.
Turning a corner, they arrived, at last, at the detention block.
Another deserted hallway greeted them, but Vila thought that this one should probably have people in it. Blake seemed to agree. Leaning more heavily on Vila, he forced the other man to stop.
"I'll go in first. They'll probably be expecting you, but I'll be a surprise and that might give us the edge."
"Blake." Vila's voice was a squeak. He forced himself to relax to ease it down into its normal register. "What if they shoot you. They'll string me up for that."
"They won't dare shoot me." Blake smiled, and somehow the ravages of time and injury seemed to disappear. Vila found himself looking at the cocky sod who had planned to take over the London.
"Fine, you go first. But if I get killed over this, I won't be well pleased."
Blake let go of his hold on Vila, and stood upright under his own power. Vila watched as he transformed himself by force of will, from a man recovering from a near fatal injury to a charismatic leader of men. Transformation complete, he led the way into the reception area of detention.
As they'd been expecting, there were a half dozen of Avalon's people with pararifles. The weapons were trained on a number of base Security personnel, one unconscious--only stunned, Vila hoped--and Bek. Blake seemed to gain strength from his anger that such a scene would happen, and waded right in, not giving anyone, including Vila, a chance to think.
"How dare you draw weapons on your allies. Put those guns down. Immediately." No one could manage righteous indignation like Blake, Vila thought to himself. And no one would dare cross him when he had that tone of voice. Except Avon, of course. The soldiers were not made of the same stuff as Kerr Avon, and they all laid down their weapons with only the briefest flash of defiance.
As soon as the guns were down, the Security people had them in their hands. Vila even found he was holding one himself, though he couldn't remember picking it up.
"You two stay with this lot," Blake ordered two of the Security guards, "the rest of you come with me." He looked to Bek, who quickly took the lead.
It was perhaps fifty metres, through winding corridors of closed, barred doors to Avon's cell. Vila felt like it might be fifty light years, it took so long. Bek flew in front of them, his obvious panic making Vila even more tense.
They reached a final corner, and Bek turned and told them with a look that this was it.
Then they were standing in front of an open cell door. Vila had somehow gotten in front of them all. The scene he was staring at was impossible.
Avon was on his knees, unresistingly held by two of Avalon's thugs arms outstretched, his back to them. Avalon held gun to his head.
Vila acted before he could even think about it. Suddenly, Avalon's weapon was flying out of her grip and he found skill and strength in his panic to pin her to the floor and keep her there.
Bek was next inside the cell. He raised his gun to cover the room. Another of Avalon's men beat his draw, and he was shot in the arm. His weapon fell from his hand and Vila saw a bloom of red on his sleeve. The shot activated the Security guards, and they swept in with raised weapons, bringing Blake before them.
Everyone froze when they saw Blake. He ignored them all, except for the man on his knees at the room's centre. Avalon's people had released their prisoner when they realized who led the guards. Avon's arms hung loosely at his side. He had made no attempt to rise.
Blake moved to stand in front of Avon. When he saw who was before him, Avon seemed to become both more relaxed and more tense. Vila couldn't see Avon's face, but he could see the quiet smile on Blake's.
Blake held out his hands. Avon accepted the offer, and got to his feet. The two of them stood there, Blake beaming and Avon with a convulsive hold on Blake's forearms. They remained that way for so long that Vila thought he was going to start screaming soon.
Finally, it was Blake who broke the tableau as he pulled an unresisting Avon into an awkward hug.
"Welcome back, Avon."
Avon tensed even more, uncomfortable at where he found himself, then just as suddenly relaxed.
"You always were a fool, Blake," he said, before returning the hug with a childlike diffidence.
Blake started laughing and Vila had to join in. Vila looked to Bek.
Bek offered a weak smile of his own, though Vila noticed the colour was rapidly draining from his face.
"Well, thank the gods that's over," the young man said, before his eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed in a heap on the floor.
Bek could hear someone stirring in the room, but it was so deliciously warm in his bed that he merely closed his eyes tighter and buried his head under a pillow.
"Bek, it's past time to get up."
He decided to ignore the voice, too. He didn't hear it; it wasn't there.
"Bek." The voice was definitely getting closer. "You lazy bastard." He didn't like the way this was going. At all.
Finally the voice was right next to his ear.
"You are going to get up right now."
His only response was to wriggle even further into the covers.
Suddenly, the blankets were gone, and there was a seven and odd stone weight on his back.
"Get up you lazy sod."
He sat up quickly, and aimed the pillow at his tormentor. She, anticipating his move, had already jumped off the bed and ducked.
"'Aven't you got any respect for an injured hero?"
"Hero?" Veron laughed. "Getting illusions of grandeur, are we? Been hanging about with Blake too much?"
"And who've you been with, saying things like that?"
"Never you mind." She moved toward the bed, again, this time bringing the covers with her. She crawled in the bed, wrapping them both with the blankets, and Bek with her arms. "I thought the "Injured Hero" might want to know about Avalon's hearing."
"Yeah, that I would." He settled back into her embrace. "How'd it go, then. About how we expected?"
"About. Avalon got a slap on the wrist. Doesn't seem much, but she was so embarrassed I think it was enough."
"Avalon embarrassed? I'd've paid to see that."
"I think what did her in was when Avon came to her defence."
"He did. There's definitely more to him than meets the eye. But then, that was the point, wasn't it." Veron sighed, then continued. "Anyway, on Blake's suggestion, and I suspect with Avon's urging, Avalon's been given charge of a new commando unit. It'll be made up of both her people and the general base population. The membership will rotate. Hopefully, that will prevent anything like this ever happening again."
"Sounds like a good idea, really. And Avalon's the one to lead something like that."
"Avalon's even publicly agreed to work with Del Grant. Although I think Deva had to hold a blaster on both of them to get them to agree to it." She stopped and let a large grin spread across her face. "The best part, though, is that they're going to use Avon and Vila's bolthole as a base."
"Not with Avon and Vila in it, I hope. I mean, I know everyone's kissed and made up, but there are limits."
"I suspect you're right. No, Avon and Vila are going back to collect their things, and get the place ready. Avalon and company will take it over in about a month. Oh, and Vila decided to finally name the place. He's calling it Tranquility."
"I suspect it's Vila's idea of a subtle hint."
"Sounds like Vila."
"I get the feeling Vila's a bit relieved they won't be staying here right away. I think he wants to keep Avon and Blake apart for a bit."
"I think I know why. Those two would be hard to stop if they both put their minds to something."
"Impossible, according to Vila. He sees himself as the voice of reason."
"There's a frightening thought."
"Not really. Kalon trusts him enough. She told Vila he's to keep his eye on Avon. Make certain he doesn't relapse."
"Yeah, well he'll do that anyway."
"I think Kalon's got her eye on Vila."
"You're joking. I don't know which one of them talks more."
"They can drive each other crazy, instead of the rest of us."
"There is that." Bek let a slow smile spread across his face. "Does have a certain symmetry to it, though, doesn't it."
"That it does."
Bek leaned comfortably back into Veron's arms and closed his eyes.
"Kalon's cradle robbing, you realize. She's five or six years older than Vila, at least."
"That's okay. Vila likes older women."
Bek turned and frowned at her.
"That's what he told me," Veron said, archly.
"I don't think I even want to know why he told you that."
"Jealous?" She ruffled a hand through his hair.
"Of Vila? Don't make me laugh."
"Oh, I don't know."
Bek nudged an elbow into her rib. "Watch it, you. Anyway, I thought he reminded you of your Da."
"Can't take a joke, can you."
Bek frowned one more time, then decided to change the subject.
"So, how is everyone taking the continued existence of Kerr Bloody Avon. No one else tried to blow his head off?"
"Not since Blake threatened to kill anyone who so much as uses bad language in Avon's presence. I don't think it hurts that almost everyone on the base has wanted to throttle Blake more than once. It's just that no one else had gone so far as to shoot him three times at close range." She smiled. "I think some of them are jealous that Avon beat them to the punch."
"You're awful, you are."
"You'd know, wouldn't you," Veron said, laughing.
"So, when are Avon and Vila leaving?"
"They left this morning."
"You're the one who couldn't be bothered to get up."
"Whine, bloody, whine."
"That's what I like: sympathy from my partner." Bek stopped talking for a moment. "I suppose Lahr went with them."
"No. He stayed here to start working on the computers. He's very good, so Avon says. And Avon should know."
"Great," Bek said, a large grin on his face.
"I'll send him 'round, shall I? To visit the invalid?"
"Yeah, cheers. I'm going to need distraction until Kalon decides I'm fit enough to go back to duty."
"I had an idea, to keep you from getting too bored."
"And that would be ... "
"As soon as Kalon gives you the okay, I think we should do some repairs on the freighter and take her for a test run."
"Bloody wonderful idea, that. Why don't you just send me to a Federation slave labour camp."
"Hang on a mo' and listen, would you. If we're on a proving flight, we don't have to file an exact flight plan, and we can go where we like, for how long we like."
"Yeah, so we can have ourselves a little vacation." She stopped and caught hold of his arm. "We can go and see Avon and Vila on Tranquility."
He smiled, as the devious machinations of his partner's mind opened up to him.
"I like the sound of that: going to Tranquility."
"I thought you might."
"He really does remind you of your Da, doesn't he?"
"What I can remember of him, and what my mother told me about him. I think she would have liked Vila, if they'd ever met."
"Then I think we should take the freighter on a proving flight."
"Thanks, love." She got out of the bed, giving him a quick kiss as she wrapped him back in the covers. "I'll go make the arrangements, then, shall I?"
"Go on." He aimed a slap at her retreating figure, but she danced out of the way and, laughing, left the room.
Bek lay back in the warmth of his bed, and contemplated the state of things. He was surprisingly pleased that Veron had decided to chase a surrogate father; he had always thought that she tried to act far more independent than she actually felt, at least some of the time, and he knew Vila's sweet disposition would be a good influence on her.
Besides, he might find a father figure of his own. Or a mentor, rather, for Avon wasn't remotely like the mercifully few memories he had of his own father. He reckoned he could learn a lot from Avon; at the very least, the man seemed the undisputed master of sarcasm.
And there was always the newly formed friendship with Lahr. Perhaps he'd even ask Veron if they could spring the young man from his computer duties to work on the ship.
Bek found his smile deepening as he realized that for the first time in a long time he was hopeful that every one he cared about--and he marvelled slightly at how the ranks of those he cared about had opened to admit an unrepentant thief, an acid tongued computer expert and a callow kid--was going to find a little peace. At least for the moment. At least until Avon and Blake put their heads together to cause trouble. But he'd take that when it came.
He burrowed deeper into the blankets, and with thoughts of hope and Tranquility, swiftly fell asleep.
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