The President of the Terran Federation, Ruler of the High Council, Lord of the Inner and Outer Worlds, High Admiral of the Galactic Fleets, Lord General of the Six Armies, and Defender of the Earth sat in her office, her back to the door, gazing out into the darkness of space. A slight echo of a smile played on her lips. She allowed herself this small display of unschooled emotion. After all, there was no one here to see it. And she deserved it, now of all times.
She was now as close to eradicating the one of the chief menaces to her power as she had ever been. The smile grew, and her gaze turned inward. And to think that the seeds of her enemy's destruction had been within him all along.
"Oh, Avon, " she said quietly to herself, "I have you now. I have you, completely and absolutely." She paused and looked again out at the starscape gleaming coldly outside of her office window. "I could almost feel sorry for you and what you are about to suffer." The slight smile did not leave her lips, but underneath, in the eyes, was a hint of . . . regret? The emotion was gone almost before it could be seen.
She turned slowly away from the window and hit the communicator button on her desk.
"You may show my guest in." She deliberately removed he hand from the button--all her actions must be deliberate from this point on, no missteps--and carefully controlled her features. Her victory depended upon her control, now more than ever, for the person she was about to meet with would sense any hesitancy, any prevarication. Prepared, she allowed a wide, and completely planned, smile to greet her guest as the door to her office opened.
Vila had chosen to take the night watch, glad of the chance to be by himself. No one was acting quite like themselves, not since their encounter with the alien tomb. Not since before then, come to think of it. Everyone was feeling on edge, out of sorts, particularly Cally and Avon.
At least Vila could understand why Cally was acting odd. She'd had some creature try to take over her brain, her life. That would be enough to unsettle anyone.
Avon was a different story entirely. Vila reckoned he knew Avon better than anyone on board, although that was not necessarily saying much. He often had no idea what motivated the man. He was reticent to the point of paranoia. Avon'd barely told Vila much more than he'd already known about Anna, which wasn't much, when he'd asked Vila to set up things for Shrinker, but he had told Vila more than he'd trusted the others with, and that was something.
Vila supposed she was what must still be wrong with Avon. Avon had held to Anna as an ideal for over three years, now; he wasn't going to give up her memory now. He'd cling to it with a fierceness that defied all reason. Not that she deserved such devotion, Vila thought to himself.
Leave it to Avon to get involved with a woman even more devious than he himself was.
Vila leaned back and stretched out on the couch. Someone was going to have to talk some sense into the man. Figure out what was going on in that maze that passed for Kerr Avon's psyche. Convince him to let it all go. Vila shuddered, considering how large a task that would be.
Tarrant would be no help at all, of course. In a lot of ways, he was too much like the other man for Avon ever to trust him. And Tarrant could be such an arrogant git, sometimes. Dayna was too young to even notice something like Avon behaving abnormally. If she couldn't shoot at it, Dayna wasn't likely to see it.
Then there's me, thought Vila. He shuddered again. He owed Avon a lot, including his life on more than one occasion, but he wasn't sure that even that debt could make him confront Avon on a personal matter. Not unless Avon was completely inebriated at the time. He wondered idly if there was enough brandy in the known universe to get Avon that drunk.
The only person who could probably have a personal chat with Avon and live, thought Vila, was Cally. He and Avon understood each other, on a scheming sort of level, but Cally seemed to have a real emotional understanding of the dark computer expert, always assuming Avon had emotions, of course. Cally might just be able to pull it off.
Except, he suddenly realized, Cally was in no shape to be having any such conversation with Kerr Avon. Vila had seen the look on Cally's face after she had finally freed herself from the alien, a look of pained confusion. She needed time to recover. Avon was liable to get nasty, and Vila was not about to let Cally undergo that sort of treatment. Especially not from Avon.
It looked like the whole mess might just have fallen back into the lap of a very reluctant thief.
As Vila tried to convince himself that he could deal with one recalcitrant computer expert, Zen's extreme range sensors were beginning to detect a small ship, drifting in space ahead of them. Zen began analyzing the information available, and setting up algorithms to obtain new data. When he was finished with the task, he would inform the crew of what he had found.
Vila would have been disturbed, but just a bit relieved, to know that at the same time he was considering the problem of Kerr Avon, Cally had also realized that something must be done to help the man.
Cally approached the door of Avon's cabin with trepidation. She wasn't entirely sure why she was here, but she was absolutely sure that she was the only possible choice. She wasn't sure the others had even noticed the change in Avon's behaviour since the alien had tried to take over her mind. Noticed how he had begun avoiding them all, but most especially avoiding her.
After she had recovered, herself, Cally thought that the encounter would enable Avon to overcome the barriers he'd set up around himself. It had seemed, for those first few hours, that he had begun to reach out to her, something for which she'd hoped for so long.
Then, inexorably, he'd begun to pull away, from all of them. She wasn't sure what had begun the change. She had no idea what drove the man. He'd always been secretive, hiding away any possible personal information. Except for the fact that Blake and Jenna had told her that he had mentioned a brother when they first boarded the Liberator, Cally would have thought that Avon had been produced without the benefit of any family whatsoever, sprung fully grown from some computer console.
As he'd hidden any family connection, he was hiding whatever was wrong now. And something was definitely wrong, eating at him, bringing back the haunted look that Cally had first noticed after he had been forced to kill Anna.
Too many traumas, she thought to herself. He's been through so much in the last few weeks, it's no wonder he's not acting like himself. He needs some sort of help, but will he allow himself to accept that help.
She reached the door and paused for a moment, gathering her courage and her arguments. When she felt she was ready, she knocked.
There was no answer.
"Avon? Open the door."
Still no response, but she heard footsteps within, and then the door slid open in front of her. Avon stood at the door panel. She could see a mass of electronic equipment strewn on his work desk. The desk, and indeed the whole room, were in a disarray markedly different from his usual meticulousness. He did not look at her, but immediately turned back to his work, looking down at the equipment.
"What do you want, Cally?" His voice was a rough, barely controlled whisper.
"I came to check how you were doing. We've been worried about you."
"I rather doubt that."
"All right, then, I've been worried about you."
"Yes, well, what makes you think I need help from any of you." Cally could see his shoulders begin to tense beneath his tunic, which was a soft grey, so different from the black leather which he so often chose to wear on duty.
"You've been distracted the last few days, when any of us see you at all. I don't want to intrude, I was just afraid that contact with the alien had caused you some trauma."
Avon picked a laser probe up from his table, and begin to distractedly poke at some of the components.
"I do not require any help from you."
"Avon, I'm a trained telepath and that creature nearly defeated me without a second's thought. You've no such training, and it must have tried some sort of mind manipulation with you. The others have all reported similar experiences."
"As I said, I have no need of your help." He spat the last word out. Cally was startled at his reaction.
//Avon . . .//
"Get out of my head!" He whirled on her, at last looking her in the eye. Cally was shocked by what she found in his eyes: hurt, distrust . . . madness. She backed into the wall of the cabin to escape from the virulence of that glare.
"Avon, I didn't . . . " Cally couldn't go on. She didn't know what to say, didn't know how to counteract whatever was provoking this reaction. She had not expected this.
"Didn't what? Think? I wouldn't expect rational thought from an alien. Just stay out of my thoughts. I had to open them up to defeat that thing, but I will not willingly repeat that experience. I consider it a violation."
Cally was dumbstruck by Avon's response. She'd contacted him many times telepathically, and he'd never expressed discomfort with the process. Contact with the alien must have affected him.
"I must get on with my work. Would you leave now." He was beginning to recover some of his composure, to resume the cool facade he usually projected to the world.
"Avon, please listen to me."
"Leave!" The single word was spoken with a viciousness, a hatred which Cally would not have believed possible. There was no response to it. She turned to the door to leave, only pausing at the threshold.
"I'm sorry," she said, without turning back, before stumbling down the hall.
Avon watched Cally flee the room, the snarl of rage still in place on his face, hiding the conflict he felt within. He hit the control panel, and the door snapped shut in front of him. Only when the door was shut, and he was again hidden from view did he allow his careful control over his features to slip. Suddenly, his face showed all the grief he had been hiding for the last few weeks, along with a new grief.
Hurting Cally had not been his goal; he had only intended to protect himself. Cally had gotten too close to him, something he could not allow. Not after Anna. She had hurt him too much; that would not happen again.
And Cally with her damned telepathy could get so much closer to him than Anna had done.
The alien had made him see the danger in allowing anyone with such power to become close to him. The creature had nearly defeated him, forcing him to admit how much Cally meant to him, and he to her. That strategy had been its downfall, ultimately, for he had used Cally's emotions against it to gain his victory.
A pyrrhic victory, it had turned out to be, for it had turned him against Cally. Not at first, or all at once, but he began to be mistrustful of any contact with her. Flinching, as if she would try to take over his thoughts as the alien had done. Illogical, the rational part of his mind said, but the reaction was not rational. He had no means to deal with this sort of hurt, could only make sure that he would not suffer again. Could only pull away from any contact with those around him.
Avon felt his legs give way, felt himself slip to the floor. He felt himself gasping for breathing, and his cheeks grew damp. He realized he must be crying, but he cut himself off from any emotion. His fist hit the floor, angrily. He would not feel, anything.
Cally stopped thinking as soon as she left the room. She let motor memory take her through the ship, as she tried to fathom what was happening. Her hand found an open door, and she went through it. She found herself sitting on a couch, her knees drawn up to her chest, her arms clutched around them.
Avon hated her. The thought kept running through her mind. How could he. How could she have miscalculated so. She considered him a friend; why could he not see that. She could think of nothing else, and could find no resolution to these thoughts. Time wound in on itself, as she considered this puzzle with no solution.
Around her, the ship finished its night cycle, and the light level began to rise, in preparation for the busier day cycle.
Vila finished the night watch, thankful that another shift had gone by with no attacks by Servalan, aliens, or another crew member. There had been nothing more unusual than a bit of stepped up activity on the sensors, but Zen had given no indication that anything was wrong.
Vila decided to stop in the rest room for some refreshment before going back to his cabin. The lights were low when he entered the room, so at first he didn't notice anything unusual. As his eyes adjusted to the lower light level, however, he noticed a small figure, quietly sitting on the couch.
"Cally?" He approached the woman, at first not realizing there was anything wrong, though some instinct was even then beginning to alert him.
Then he saw her face.
Vila thought that he had never seen anyone look that bereft in his life. She looked worse, even, than Avon had after he had killed Anna. She looked as though someone had just taken away her belief in everything.
"Cally. What's wrong?" Concern flooded Vila's voice. He quickly crossed the room and sat down beside her. Gently, he put his hand on her shoulder
Cally did not answer, but slightly shrank from the touch of his hand.
"Cally, it's all right." Vila kept his hand in place and slowly took the Auron woman into his arms with an assurance the others would have found surprising. Gradually, Cally relaxed, putting her arms around the little thief.
Still she said nothing.
They sat like that for many minutes--Vila was never sure exactly how long. Finally, he could feel her relax in his grip, and only then did he let her go.
"Cally, what is it."
She finally looked him in the eye.
"It is fine Vila. There are just some things I do not understand."
"Understand? About what?"
"Humans." She put her hand up to her face. "It's not important, Vila." She started to stand up.
Vila caught her hand, and kept her on the couch.
"Of course it's important, Cally. Something's upset you. I'd like to help."
"There is nothing you can do to help, Vila." She tried to pull away again.
Vila caught something in her eye, and began to realize what must have happened. Realized that she must have been thinking the same things as he had been this night.
"It's Avon, isn't it. He's done this to you."
"He hasn't done anything to me, Vila."
"But it was him," Vila insisted. His voice grew hard, more determined than usual.
Cally recognized the change in Vila's tone of voice, and tried to reassure him.
"It's not his fault. You must realize that, Vila. There are just many things which neither of us understand."
"Well, I understand enough to know he hurt you. He can't get away with that; I don't care what he's been through." Vila abruptly let go of Cally and stood up, moving to the door.
Cally followed him, reaching for his arm.
"Vila, don't blame Avon, I merely did not understand his reaction." She hesitated. "I'm still not sure that I do, but I do know that he is not to blame."
Vila stopped under pressure from her grasp, rival instincts warring in his mind. He knew, as Cally must know, that Avon was ill-equipped to confront emotions, either his own or those of others. He also knew, however, that Avon had hurt Cally. His compassion for Avon fought with the anger over his treatment of Cally. The anger won.
"No, Cally, there's no excuse for his behaviour. This time, he's going to hear about it."
Vila shook off Cally's grip, and stalked down the hall.
Cally leaned against the doorway, unsure of what to do. It was all going horribly wrong, and she wasn't sure what any of them could do to stop it. Shaking her head, she slowly made her way back to her own cabin.
Vila was too angry to knock. He wanted Avon as off balance as possible, so he quickly forced the lock on the cabin and entered.
He found the lights inside turned off, and the cabin's lone occupant fitfully sleeping on the bed. Vila crossed the room, and roughly shook the sleeping man.
"Avon, wake up." Vila's voice was low, but anger boiled just beneath its surface. "Wake up you bastard."
Avon opened his eyes, which showed a momentary disorientation, as if he wasn't quite sure where he was. Then they cleared, and Avon took in the sight of Vila standing over him, the thief's face set in murderous determination.
"Vila, have you taken leave of your senses?"
"No, but I think you finally have. What have you been doing to Cally, you bastard."
Avon pulled his lips back from his teeth, considering how he could possibly respond to this question. Before he could say anything, however, Vila acted. The thief roughly pulled Avon up from his bed, throwing him against the bulkhead at its head.
"Answer me, damn you."
"I . . . do not know what you are talking about Vila."
"You liar. I found Cally in the rec area looking like someone had just taken her entire world away. I asked myself, now, who could do that, who among our happy little crew would be so cruel to Cally. And know what? I kept coming up with your name." He threw the tech against the wall again, letting go of the man this time.
Vila stood in the centre of the cabin, his shoulders slightly hunched forward, hands clenched into fists, the anger he felt visible in every line of his body.
Avon stood for a long time, trying to collect himself, construct a cutting comeback to Vila's intrusion, but for once, his vaunted wit failed him. He could not say anything without admitting to things which he would not admit to anyone, least of all a Delta grade thief. He stood, looking down at the floor of the cabin, oddly aware of the minute network of scratches on the metal plates, and shook his head.
"I have nothing to say to you, Vila. Would you please leave."
Vila had been expecting a fight, nasty remarks. This total lack of response startled him, scared him, in fact. But beneath the fear, the anger remained, pushing him to do its bidding.
"Fine, I'll leave Avon, but just you remember one thing. Stay away from us, Cally and me. Do that, and we'll get along fine."
Vila turned and left the room, hitting the wall of the corridor sharply on his way out.
He'd been right. He could not allow himself to become close to anyone. All that could ever lead to was misunderstanding, and hurt, and betrayal. Never again would he let another person get as close to him as these two had. Why should he concern himself with a petty thief and an alien, anyway.
Avon remained standing in the centre of the room, his back ramrod straight. He deliberately clasped his hands behind him, and willed all emotion from his being.
To a casual observer, he would have appeared a figure of absolute calm. Only the tightening of his lower lip betrayed the turmoil which lurked beneath the surface.
Tarrant had taken the watch over from Vila early in the morning. Never having been a morning person, Tarrant generally spent the first hours of this shift drinking as much coffee as possible, and impatiently waiting either for someone to join on the flight deck, or for something to happen, so he could call someone to the flight deck. Tarrant hated being alone, and he hated being bored.
This morning, however, events were conspiring against him. No one had come to the flight deck, until Dayna had joined him at an hour which she considered civilized, and he considered unconscionable. To make matters worse, there was nothing to do. They were on a leisurely course through an empty bit of space. Absolutely nothing of interest out there. Tarrant thought he would go mad if he checked the sensors one more time and found nothing.
"I'd almost prefer one of Avon's mad schemes to this boredom." Tarrant paced restlessly around the upper deck.
"I'll have to remind you of that the next time you're complaining about one of those schemes." Dayna smiled to herself. She wasn't as impatient as Tarrant, but she could understand his reaction to inactivity. She'd also much rather be doing something, than waiting for something to happen.
Just then, something did happen.
*Information. Forward sensors detect a small craft. Bearing 002.*
That was more like it, Tarrant thought.
"Is it a Federation ship, Zen?" Tarrant moved to the pilot's controls, as Dayna moved to the weapons stations.
*Craft is a small civilian cruiser. Capable of holding two crew members.*
"What's it's heading?"
*Craft is holding stationary position. It appears to have only minimal power and life support. Detectors show one life form on board.*
"I think it's time to call the others in, Tarrant."
"Yes, I do believe you're right." Dayna could hear the eagerness in Tarrant's voice. "They should have been here ages ago, anyway. Even Vila doesn't usually sleep in this late." He hit the intercom control. "Avon, Cally, Vila, come to the flight deck."
Tarrant flashed Dayna one of his winning, space hero smiles. "Now, something's going to happen."
Avon was the first one onto the flight deck. He moved to his station.
"What's going on?" Dayna thought that he was just a bit more tense than usual, but with Avon, who could tell.
"Sensors have picked up a small ship up ahead. It's power is at minimum, and there's one person aboard."
"And does this ship have a name?"
Well, now, I suppose you two want to check out this mysterious craft?" He looked at the two youngest crew members.
"It seems they need assistance." Tarrant held out his hand in a conciliatory gesture.
"So it seems." Avon paused, analyzing the best course of action.
In the lull, Cally and Vila appeared on the flight deck. This time, Dayna was sure she could sense something odd in her crewmates. Cally seemed too quiet, not that she was ever overly talkative. And Vila appeared to be angry. Dayna frowned, unsure what to make of it all. She never quite understood the older crew members--they had been through things that bound them together in a way that she and Tarrant felt excluded from, which was why she supposed she and Tarrant got along so well together--but one thing she would have bet on was that Vila Restal could not get angry, not really.
Yet, she could sense the hostility radiating from the thief. She wasn't entirely sure who it was directed toward, until she saw him look at Avon. That look conveyed a malignancy Dayna would not have thought possible. It shocked her more than she would like to admit. She had always considered Vila and Avon to be friends, though she wasn't sure why. Each of them seemed to trust the other implicitly, though they hid the fact with insults and banter. What had happened?
"What's going on, then?" Vila directed his question toward Tarrant, and sat on lower deck, conspicuously far from Avon, Dayna thought. Cally silently took her position at the back of the deck.
"Zen's detected a small ship that appears to be in trouble." Tarrant pointedly looked at Avon. "I think we should go after it."
"Do you now?" Avon turned his glare on the pilot, but it seemed to lack his usual fire. "It seems to me that the last time we investigated a ship on your insistence, we were nearly destroyed."
"But this time we know the ship is a civilian craft, not alien. I don't see how they can be a threat to us."
"Of course you don't." Avon grimaced. "Well, what do the rest of you think." There was something subdued about Avon's manner, now that Dayna was alert for changes. Instead of raking his glance over the crew, which would have been his usual tactic, he remained staring ahead. This would bear watching, thought Dayna.
"I think we should offer assistance as well." Dayna thought she might as well side with Tarrant. In return, she received one of Avon's pointed glares.
There was silence for several, long moments on the flight deck, as Vila and Cally failed to offer their opinion, and Avon failed to ask for it. Tarrant finally took it upon himself to ask them.
"Cally, what about you?"
"Why not." Dayna thought her voice sounded rather lifeless, as if someone had drained away all personality from her.
"Vila." Tarrant gave the thief a look which clearly stated that he expected no opposition. Vila didn't give him any.
"Even if I objected, would anyone listen? I thought not. Right, Tarrant, let's go chase your space ship."
To Dayna's ear, Vila sounded sharper than he ever had before. She looked at Tarrant and found, as expected, that he hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary. She really would have to have a talk with him sometime. He might be, marginally, older than she was, but sometimes he really was such a child.
"Right, then, let's move in to match her course." He looked to Avon, as if expecting an argument, but Avon merely gave him a dismissive wave.
They failed to raise the ship on any of the communications channels, and it continued to lose power steadily. It was decided that since the ship was a small one, it would be just as easy to move it into the cargo bay as to dock with it. Once the ship was safely aboard, Tarrant kept watch on the flight deck, with strict orders to monitor the craft, while the others went down to check on their guest. Avon insisted that they go armed, in case the whole thing was an elaborate plot by Servalan, which caused the others to think him paranoid, not for the first or last time. This was one time, however, that they might have profitably listened to him.
They entered the cargo bay carefully, Avon leading the way, weapon drawn. Vila, as usual, brought up the rear. Dayna thought, however, that he was dragging even further behind than usual.
"I think this is a bad idea. After all, how do we know there isn't a hoard of hairy aliens aboard, waiting to kill us all."
"Vila, you baby, Zen only detected one life form aboard. One's hardly a hoard."
"It's all very well for you, Dayna, you can defend yourself. I'm more delicate."
"Cowardly, is more like it," Dayna muttered to herself, though she was careful that no one overheard her. It didn't seem quite the time.
"Quit bickering you two, and come on." Vila's eyes hardened at Avon's order, but he didn't say a word.
The cause of all the discontent sat quietly in the centre of the cargo bay. The ship's hull was pitted from meteor strikes, but otherwise was in good shape.
"Vila, get up here and see if you can open the hatch." Avon's voice was not quite as abrasive as usual, not quite as demanding. He avoided looking in the thief's direction, as Vila avoided looking at him. Much more of this, Dayna thought, and even Tarrant might begin to notice the change.
Vila crossed to the ship without a further word, pulled out his tools, and set to work. He didn't make a sound during the whole procedure, which seemed unnatural for Vila, and might have been why he didn't seem to perform the task with his usual efficiency.
Vila finished, and with the dramatic flair for his job which nothing could take away from him, he opened the hatch.
The whole process seemed anticlimactic, somehow. The door slid open, with the faint hiss of equalizing pressure, and then nothing happened. Nothing attacked them, none of Vila's hairy aliens stalked out brandishing weapons. There was just silence.
They all held their breaths. They only started to relax when it began to look as though their worst fears were just fancies, ungrounded in reality. Dayna was about to suggest that she take a look inside the craft, when a figure finally became visible inside. Dayna immediately came on guard again, raising her weapon to firing position, not wanting to take any chances.
The figure moved forward out of the hatch, and gradually resolved into that of a man. He was of a distinguished age--perhaps in his late fifties, perhaps older--with greying hair, and a carriage that suggested dignity and a life spent expecting obedience. Still, there was the hesitancy in his step of one confronting the unknown.
The man moved slowly down out into the bay, and only when he was standing fully outside the ship, did he speak.
"I hope all of those weapons aren't on my account." His voice was cultured. He was definitely an Alpha. "My name is Dalon Mehta, and I'm terribly grateful to all of you for rescuing my ship. It was damaged in a meteor storm, and I had begun to despair of being found." The man smiled, a smile calculated to put its recipients at ease, to assure that the one conveying it was no threat.
Vila found himself instinctively trusting the man, and moved forward to greet him.
"Nice to meet you. I'm Vila. This is Cally, and Dayna." He looked around the bay for Avon, who had suddenly moved very far indeed away from the ship. "And Mr. Personality, over there is. . . "
"Kerr. Kerr Avon."
Avon looked about the room, as if searching for a door.
"Kerr, I hadn't expected to ever see you again." The man's face lit up in a more natural smile, and he crossed to where Avon stood. Dayna thought that Avon looked almost shy, and definitely uncomfortable.
"Kerr," Dalon said, one more time, before engulfing the computer expert in a gruff bearhug.
It was a tie as to who looked the most shocked: Dayna, Vila or Cally. None of them had ever considered the possibility of the existence of someone whom Avon would let touch him, let alone hug him. The three members of the Liberator crew stared at each other, or the walls, or the ceiling, not knowing what to do.
If the others were shocked, Avon was paralyzed. His arms had been pinned by the hug, and hung awkwardly at his side. His face had that abstract expression that it only had when he was trying to process emotions that he was incapable of managing. He froze, and endured the hug while it continued.
Dalon must have realized the stir he was causing, for he soon released Avon, holding him at arm's length.
"It's so good to see you. I'd only heard rumours about you. News is difficult to obtain when you're trying to keep your head low."
He turned to the others in the bay.
"I'm sorry, you must be wondering how I know Kerr."
"You might say that." Dayna was the only one who seemed to be able to find her voice. "We haven't met many of Avon's friends." She shot Avon a meaningful glance, but the man was still too distracted to take notice.
"Well, I'm not quite a friend. I was Kerr's advisor in university. He was the youngest student we'd ever had in our department. Admitted on my recommendation, I might add." He looked again at Avon, a glance suffused with the pride of a teacher for a favourite student. "I pretty much had charge of raising the boy." A flash of indignation crossed Avon's eyes at being referred to as a boy, but he didn't act on it.
"It is . . . good to see you," Avon finally found his voice, uncertain though it was.
"Why don't you join us on the flight deck." Dayna took charge, since no one else was taking up the position. "You can tell us how you came to be here." She flashed a wicked grin in Avon's direction, then added, "And you can tell us what Kerr was like as a boy." She purposefully avoided Avon's sharp look, calculating that it would be well worth Avon's wrath to be able to embarrass him this thoroughly.
Dayna led Dalon out of the bay, followed by Avon, and, at a distance, Vila.
Cally remained alone in the bay. She walked over to the ship, and placed her hand lightly against it's skin. She felt distinctly uneasy about this chance meeting. Dalon seemed just a bit too charming to be true. An air of danger seemed to shadow the man, though what form that shadow would take, she could not tell. She drew her hand across the surface of the ship, feeling it's rough texture under her fingertips.
No good would come of this meeting, of that she was sure.
Shuddering with her misgivings, she withdrew her hand, and slowly left the bay.
Dayna chatted with Dalon all the way back to the flight deck. How such an outgoing person had ever stood Avon, she had no idea. Dalon was charming in the extreme, and he seemed to know it. She smiled at another of his jokes as she led the way onto the flight deck.
"Tarrant, I'd like you to meet Dalon Mehta, our guest." Dayna smiled widely at the pilot. "It seems Dalon was Avon's instructor at university."
"Oh really." Tarrant smiled in return, sensing in Dayna's manner an opportunity to give the computer expert some of his own back. "Is that right Avon."
Tarrant got a black look in reply to his question before Avon finally replied. "Yes, he was a professor in computer science at the university on earth." His voice was tight, held completely in control.
Avon went to his station, refusing to join the others on the flight couch.
"Dalon said he practically raised Avon," Dayna added cheerfully. "I'll bet he has some stories. . . " She trailed off meaningfully.
"Oh, I'm afraid that Kerr was a model student. I never had any trouble with him."
"Oh." Dayna sounded disappointed
"Except for the time when he reprogrammed the replicators in the cafeteria, of course. They made nothing but ice cream for a week. We weren't ever sure exactly how he did it." Dalon smiled to himself, and Dayna and Tarrant exchanged a glance. Both were thinking of the blackmail material they could obtain if they kept working on this man.
Vila sat on the couch with the others, taking pleasure from Avon's discomfort. In fact, Dayna thought that Vila was being quite cruel. Even when the object of his attention was Avon, Dayna had never seen Vila actually be cruel. Now, however, there seemed to be real venom in his tone.
Cally took her station without a word. She could not shake the concern she felt about Dalon, and did not feel comfortable enough to join in with the others, playfully ribbing Avon. In spite of how Avon had treated her, she still felt concern for the man. She had realized that his reaction to her had been fear. It had nothing to do with her, no matter how much it had hurt.
She hoped Vila could understand that.
The thief was reacting solely on his emotions, not thinking about how much he was hurting Avon. He had even come to her cabin earlier that morning to tell her she didn't have to worry about Avon anymore. When she had berated him for confronting Avon like that, he had just said "You don't understand, Cally," but she was afraid that it was Vila who did not understand. She and Vila were closest to Avon of all the crew. If he no longer felt he could depend on them, he might never recover.
She decided she could take no more of the tension on the flight deck
She descended from her station, and moved down towards Avon. She touched him on the shoulder to get his attention, which seemed far from the deck of the Liberator. She was disappointed to notice that he flinched from the contact.
"Avon, I'm tired. I'm going back to my cabin." Cally kept her voice soft, not wanting to attract the attention of the others, listening raptly as Dalon told yet another embarrassing story of Avon's undergraduate days.
Avon looked back at her with an face that was completely empty of any expression. He was allowing nothing to show; even his eyes, which always managed to show some vestige of emotion, were dead.
He merely nodded to acknowledge her.
Cally felt that she couldn't leave like this. She kept her hand, lightly, on his shoulder.
"Avon, I don't want you to take what Vila said too seriously." Her voice was a whisper. "He was angry, but that will pass. You know you can count on us."
All that met these words were that dead stare. Not a word passed his lips. Cally could only pat his shoulder reassuringly, and escape from the flight deck, hoping that some of her words had gotten through, penetrating this new barrier of Avon's.
Avon watched Cally leave the flight deck. How dare she pity him. How dare she forgive him for what he'd done. How dare she yet again try to get close to him.
They would all end up hurting him, if he let them. At least Vila had gone about it honestly, not pretending to be his friend. But Cally . . . she seemed to think that he could somehow still trust her. She was as big a fool as he'd been. Trust was impossible, as he'd always known. Except . . .
He looked towards the flight couch, towards one man whom he had trusted, though it was many years ago. Dalon had taken charge of him at a time when all stability, everything he had thought he had believed in, had been taken away. He had kept him safe, and taught him all he knew. In return, Avon had granted him his trust. Even now, he found that trust difficult to revoke.
Maybe it wasn't impossible . . .
Eventually, even Dayna and Tarrant became tired. Their need for sleep won out over their delight at finding someone who knew an even vaguely human side of Avon, and was willing to share it. As they drifted back to their cabins, so did Vila. Vila only paused look once in Avon's direction. An unreadable look--for once the thief was concealing his emotions as completely as Avon did. Avon was staring into space himself, however, and did not see the look, though Dayna did.
So, only Avon and Dalon were left on the flight deck.
Dalon approached his old student. The man was no longer the awkward, slightly diffident teenager Dalon had known so long ago, but he was the man that boy had promised. And then some, Dalon thought. There were things that had happened to Avon since he'd last seen him that had, inevitably, inexorably, shifted the direction of his life.
He was still Kerr Avon however.
Dalon smiled, and put his hand on Avon's shoulder, noting the shutters that had clamped down on the man's expression, like those on a house weathering a storm.
"Kerr, it is good to see you." Dalon put all the warmth he could find into his voice. "I hope you didn't mind my telling tales out of school, but I can't help it somehow. In many ways, I consider you my son, and all parents are obliged embarrass their children." He kept the smile on his face, hoping to encourage a similar response from Kerr.
And was rewarded with a slight opening of the shutters. It would have to do. It seemed the man showed even less of himself than the boy had.
"It is good to see you, Dalon," Avon replied. "I had not expected to ever see you again. Especially after your defection from the Federation."
"I wasn't exactly expecting to see you either. And especially not as a rebel. Not after . . . "
"Believe me, circumstance rather than choice got me involved in all this," Avon interrupted. "You of all people can appreciate my reasons for disliking rebellion."
Dalon knit his brows together. "Yes, it did seem a rather unlikely occupation for you. Still, I suppose the seeds were there."
"You know nothing about it." Avon's voice brought Dalon to a halt.
He looked at the man again, really looked this time. He saw the familiar features of the face, as well as the lines time had carved. He saw the old hurts that time had dulled, but not erased. And he saw something like a new wound, something fresh enough that it had not yet scarred over, not yet become insensitive to exposure. That could prove difficult, Dalon thought to himself.
"I'm sorry Avon. I know better than to pry." Dalon patted his one time protegé on the shoulder before removing his hand. "I suppose we should both follow your friends and head for bed."
"You go. I have to stand watch for a few hours yet."
Dalon nodded and, bidding Kerr goodnight, he walked slowly to the cabin he'd been shown on his tour of the ship, considering the vastly different fates that had been meted out to him and his former student.
The crew of the Liberator settled quickly into a new routine. Avon rose before any of them, and set to work on Dalon's ship, repairing the damage, and improving the systems. On occasion he would commandeer Dayna's help, but he usually preferred to work alone.
The other members of the crew stood their watches on the flight deck, usually with Dalon in attendance. Dalon's presence generally drew those not on duty to the flight deck as well. The man's charm, as well as the possibility that he might let something else about Avon drop, made him an irresistible draw to everyone.
Cally alone remained uninfluenced by Dalon's charm, never seeking him out as the others did, never talking with him unless it was necessary. Dayna and Tarrant put her behaviour down to the malaise she'd been experiencing since the alien tomb had invaded their lives. Vila merely blamed Avon, nursing the grudge, and making cruel jokes at Avon's expense at every opportunity.
Dalon, however, took Cally's apparent antipathy very seriously.
One night found Cally on the late watch. She was alone, as she preferred to be these days. A crowd would generally mean that she had to encounter Dalon, and she felt a growing sense of oppression whenever she was around the man. It was similar to the feeling she'd had from the spacecraft at Fosforon. The feeling itself was bad enough, but what was truly disturbing to her was Avon's reaction to encountering his old mentor. Though Avon had hardly been effusive in greeting the man, Cally had seen him look at Dalon with what could only be admiration. Certainly, the way he had allowed Dalon full run of the ship almost immediately spoke of a trust which Avon would be hard-pressed to admit too. And that was what truly worried her. Cally feared for Avon's life and his sanity if it turned out that her suspicions were right, and Dalon became yet one more person who had betrayed the trust of Kerr Avon.
She replayed the scene in his cabin for the hundredth time in her mind, seeing clearly the hurt that had caused him to act as he had, seeing the pain that was etched into his face as he struggled to evade still more pain. Another betrayal would certainly destroy all trace of the man she had come to know and admire.
"Is this a private reverie, or can anyone join in?"
Cally started, and turned from her position in front of Zen.
Dalon stood at the entrance to the flight deck. He was wearing a black tunic, with matching turtle neck, and the rather impressive black riding boots he'd had on when he'd arrived. Cally was suddenly struck by Dalon's clothes, wondering if Avon affected black in emulation of his mentor. The thought both amused and disturbed her.
"You're always welcome here, Dalon." Cally's voice, however, did not convey the same emotion as her words. She moved to the flight couch, and Dalon entered the area, sitting across from her.
Dalon stared at her for a moment, a contemplative look firmly on his face. Cally felt uneasy, coming under such scrutiny from the man.
Finally, he spoke.
"I've been worried that I've somehow offended you, Cally." Dalon's voice held his concern.
"Now, why would you think that." Cally tried to keep her tone light, to shake his comment off.
"You have been rather quiet. And judging from the concern I've seen from the others, that isn't a usual condition for you."
Dalon continued to look at her. His worry about her seemed genuine. Cally could see, and not for the first time, why this man had won over the others so completely. She wished she could rid herself of the feeling that he was not to be trusted.
"I haven't been myself, no. I'm sure the others have told you some of what has happened to us recently. It's just taking me a bit longer to recover than them." Cally hoped her subterfuge wasn't as transparent as it felt. Dalon appeared to take it at face value.
"I know how such a trauma can affect a person." He stopped, appearing to consider something. He rose from the couch, and paced the deck. Cally watched him, seeing, as well as sensing the tension pour off the man. He appeared to reach some sort of decision, and returned to the flight deck, sitting beside Cally this time. He did not look up, but kept his gaze to his hands, which were tightly clutched together.
"I need to talk to one of you. And from everything I've seen I think that you are the most sympathetic." Dalon stopped, and looked directly at Cally. His green eyes appeared to be hiding nothing, and indeed, seemed to be showing her everything he had to offer. Still, a part of her mind screamed not to believe him. She was torn, but decided to listen to what he had to say.
"You see, I'm concerned about Kerr. He never was the most outgoing person, but he seems to have withdrawn even further than I would have expected. I thought perhaps you might know what the problem might be?" Dalon finished, and continued to look at Cally, a look of anticipation upon his face.
Cally wasn't sure what to do. She wanted to share her burden with someone, and here was a person offering to help her with her charge of Avon. The offer was tempting.
Ultimately, however, she decided that she couldn't take the risk. Her instinct's warning against Dalon was too strong.
"No, I'm sorry Dalon. I don't know what is wrong with Avon. I'm afraid I've been a bit too wrapped up in my own troubles." Cally stared at the man, and then broke off her gaze, looking down into her own lap. "I wish there was something I could do to help him, though," she said, honestly.
"I see." Dalon stopped. "How much has Kerr told you about himself."
"Virtually nothing, unless we absolutely need to know it. And that hasn't amounted to very much at all." Cally tried to keep any curiosity out of her voice. As much as any of them, perhaps even more than the others, Cally wanted to know about Avon's past, about the events which had formed him. But she wanted to hear it from Avon himself, to have him give her that confidence. She did not want to hear it from a man who was a stranger to her, if not to Avon. A man whom she did not trust.
Dalon, however, was not to be stopped.
"Perhaps if you knew something about his youth, you might understand him, and my concern better." Dalon stood up and started pacing around the flight deck.
"I told you and the others that I raised Kerr, but not why I was given that charge. You see, the Federation had been watching his progress for some time. He'd been recognized as a prodigy quite early on. He was earmarked to attend the university under me from before he even knew I existed. However, there was a problem."
"You see, his parents were becoming an increasing security risk. They had started to develop resistor tendencies. That caused quite a bit of concern in the Federation. They still wanted Kerr, but standard procedure for such cases was the exile of the entire family."
"That was where I came in. I desperately wanted to work with Kerr. And I wanted to save him from exile on some backward prison planet. I managed to convince Space Command to leave him in my care. There was nothing I could do for the rest of the family, however. Kerr's parents, and his younger brother were sent to some unnamed world."
Cally listened to all of this with a strangely detached feeling. Her limbs felt as if they belonged to another person entirely, and there was a hollow feeling at her centre, where her heart used to be.
Dalon looked again at Cally, seeing her isolated expression. He paused briefly, before continuing.
"Kerr was only fourteen when he came under my care. From what I understand, he was never an open child, was always self-sufficient. He became even more withdrawn after his family's exile. I was continually fighting to get him interested in anything."
"After nearly a year, he finally threw himself into his classwork. It was nearly as bad as having him interested in nothing, to have him interested only in computers."
"Did Avon ever say anything about his parents?" Cally felt that she had to ask something.
"No. He seemed to cut himself off from everything that had happened to him before he entered the university. He shunned all talk of politics, especially any that might have been viewed as subversive. I'm told he received yearly messages from his family, but he never mentioned them, even though he'd been quite close to his brother. It was as if he'd never lived before the university."
"It took a long time, but I finally got him interested in some things outside of work, got him to open himself up a bit. He never become an outgoing person, as I'm sure you've noticed, but he overcame that dreadful isolation he'd imposed on himself when I first knew him."
"During this time,During this time, I was also beginning to feel disaffected with the Federation. Soon after Kerr graduated, I decided to defect. I bought a small spacecraft, and disappeared. I tried to keep track of what Kerr was doing--he was the only thing resembling family I had myself--but it was difficult in the places I was forced to stay. I completely discounted the reports that he was with Blake. I think you can understand why."
"Yes. It would seem rather improbable." Cally still couldn't quite make contact with her self. She felt as though she'd been cut off from her body, though her body kept doing the things which she told it to do, like talk, and breath.
"Yes. Rather." Dalon rubbed his brow with one hand. "You see, I'm afraid I see all the signs that Kerr is again cutting himself off from the world. I don't want that to happen again. Not after I worked so hard to prevent it before."
Dalon finished, and remained looking downwards. Cally thought she saw a slight tremor in his hand.
Cally, for her part, remained still in the silence that followed Dalon's story. It was one thing to speculate on Avon's background--they had all played that parlour game, at one time or another--but it was quite another thing to hear the exact cause, from someone involved. She replayed bits of the past two years, fitting them into patterns which only now seemed clear. She saw that Avon, as much as any of them, had reason to hate the Federation, even though he might play the part of the indifferent observer.
She suddenly found she was able to put away the fear and distrust she had felt towards Dalon. Perhaps, she reasoned to herself, it had just been the jealous recognition of another who cared for Avon.
Dalon looked up
"So you can see my concern. And my problem. I need someone to help keep Kerr from becoming what he was before."
"Yes, Dalon, I see." Cally paused, steadying her voice. "It makes so much sense. Of everything." She still didn't want to confide in the man, but she did trust him now. "You can count on me, Dalon."
"Thank you, Cally. That means a lot to me." He smiled, a friendly, open smile that Vila would have been hard pressed to match, and gently grasped her hand. Cally smiled in return.
She was overcome by nervous energy, as her feelings suddenly returned to her. She stood up, and began to pace the flight deck.
"I'm sorry, " she said, unsteadily, "but this is all a bit much to take in right now." She brought her hand to the side of her face. "I need some time to think."
"Of course." Dalon tried his best to sound reassuring.
"Do you think you could take the rest of my watch for me." Cally knew it wasn't quite standard procedure, but then, she reflected, it wasn't as if the Liberator had a standard procedure to begin with.
"Certainly, if you think that's all right. If the others won't mind, I mean."
"No, they won't mind. Thanks very much, Dalon." She smiled again, and began distractedly to leave the flight deck.
She stopped halfway up the stairs.
"Oh, I almost forgot. You might need to contact Zen. Has Avon given you authorization?"
"No. Do I really need that?"
"Just to be safe. Zen, you will now accept the commands of Dalon Mehta. Dalon, just tell Zen your name."
"I am Dalon Mehta."
"Right, then. If you need any help, I'm sure Tarrant or Dayna will be glad to come down." Cally started back out of the deck, pausing at the top of the stairs.
"And Dalon . . . "
"Thank you. For everything." Cally looked at Dalon with gratitude.
Dalon returned the look with an easy smile that showed he understood just what she was talking about.
A number of things filled Cally's mind as she left the flight deck. Relief, that she had finally allowed herself to trust Dalon. Concern for Avon. Reproach for not seeing what was happening to Avon sooner.
And at the back of her mind was the image of a much younger Avon, suddenly being torn from what family he had known.
No wonder the man had such problems with people. He is always fearful that they might leave, or be taken away from him. How much worse must that have made the bond he had formed with Blake, for, as everyone could see, something drew those two together. To care for someone who actively fought the Federation, as his parents had, who defied the Federation openly, must have terrified him, or at least the part of him that was still that fourteen year old boy.
She could now see that the encounter with the alien made him realize how vulnerable his connection to her had made him. She, herself, had forced him to acknowledge that connection too soon after the encounter. And Vila had unwittingly driven him even further away.
She had to talk to Vila, make him see what was truly going on. He had to stop baiting Avon, and to try to repair the damage that had been done to their friendship, before it was too late, for all of them.
Vila had decided to pass the evening by barricading himself in his room with a bottle of booze--or rather, several bottles of booze--and getting really drunk. Only problem was, he couldn't seem to get drunk at all, no matter how much he consumed.
Bloody cheap stuff, he thought to himself, downing another glass in a single toss.
He threw himself down in his favourite chair and tried not to think. About anything. Especially not about what he was trying to forget.
Somehow, though, he couldn't quite put it all out of his mind. He'd always thought of Avon as a friend. Well, as much of a friend as a Delta could expect from an Alpha. They both liked scheming, though Avon was better at it than he was. They both liked taking the wind out of Tarrant's sails, whenever possible. And they were both fond of Cally. Or so he had thought.
It seemed that Avon cared for no one, at least none of the crew of the Liberator. He was the cold bastard he'd always appeared to be.
Vila got up to pour himself another drink, then returned to the chair, tucking his legs underneath him. He cradled the glass in his hands, and closed his eyes, trying to relax all the muscles in his body.
He was finally beginning to ease all of the tense spots when the chime on his door rang.
"Who is it," he said, a slightly annoyed tone in his voice.
"It's Cally. I need to talk to you, Vila."
At the sound of Cally's voice, Vila immediately roused himself, and quickly unlocked the door.
"Come in Cally." Vila ushered her into his sanctuary, and suddenly realized just how messy that sanctuary was. He cleared off a chair for her, and walked towards the drinks cabinet. "Care for a drink?"
"Yes please, Vila." Cally thought that one of Vila's concoctions would help her right now.
Vila poured a glass of one of his better cognacs, and brought it over to where Cally sat before resuming his position in his favourite chair.
"So, what's so important that you had to tell me in the middle of the night?"
Cally wasn't sure exactly where to start, so she took a drink, and started at the beginning.
She told him about her conversation with Dalon, as completely recounting what Dalon had told her of Avon's early life as she could. She hoped Vila would see the significance of the tale, but he was intent on being difficult.
"So, Avon had a hard life. Haven't we all. Am I supposed to excuse him just because of that." Cally thought Vila sounded even more callous than he had the last few days. His eyes showed a hardness that seemed strangely familiar, but out of place on Vila's face.
"Vila, surely you must understand how difficult this has been for Avon." Cally couldn't prevent a certain amount of reproach from creeping into her voice.
"Yeah, it's so difficult for Avon. So difficult for him, that he forgets how difficult it is for everyone else. Well, I've had enough of it. He can go to hell for all I care."
"Vila!" Cally was shocked. She didn't know what to say, but just stared at Vila. Vila's face hadn't changed; it still held that hardness, one which dared the observer to try to find fault with him. But lurking beneath the hardness was a vast hurt.
Cally at last knew why that look seemed familiar; Avon had worn it when she confronted him in his cabin.
Her anger at Vila evaporated with the realization that the thief was hiding just as much as Avon had been. It was unusual to think about the thief having some dark secret in his past--he didn't seem the type--but Cally was suddenly struck by how little they knew about him.
She moved over to Vila's chair and crouched beside him, taking his hands in her own.
"Vila, you know you don't mean that. Now tell me what is really the matter."
Vila tried to twist his hands out of Cally's grasp, but she held tight and looked him in the face.
"Listen, there's nothing wrong, except Avon, so just leave me alone."
To her surprise, Vila merely looked down at their hands and started to silently weep.
Cally didn't say another word, but merely wrapped Vila in her arms and held him. He didn't make a sound, but Cally could feel his shoulders trembling beneath her touch. She lightly stroked his back, whispering to him that he would be all right. Eventually, Vila quietened in her arms. She gave him a final squeeze and released him.
"I'm sorry Cally." His voice was steady, but slightly congested.
"You never have to apologize to me Vila." She held his gaze, firmly. "Now do you want to tell me what brought that on."
"It was nothing."
"It wasn't nothing, Vila. Tell me." The last statement was a command.
"Promise you won't laugh."
"I will not laugh at you, Vila."
"It's just I started thinking about when I was a kid. That's all. Nothing spectacular." Vila tried to get up and move away. Cally pulled him back down to her.
"That is not good enough. What is really wrong."
Vila opened his mouth several times, but he couldn't manage to say anything. He finally gave up altogether, and just squeezed Cally's hands.
"I can't," he whispered.
Cally didn't force the issue. She was not about to force another person she cared about away from her, but instead just returned the friendly squeeze Vila had given her hands, then drew him into a hug.
"That's all right, Vila. When you're ready, you can tell me."
Vila nodded and buried his head in Cally's shoulder.
"In the meantime, you must try and forgive Avon."
Vila stiffened at the mention of Avon's name. After a moment, he relaxed. Hearing about Avon's youth had been painful, for reasons no one would understand, but somewhere in the telling, all the anger Vila had felt towards the other man had burned away, to be replaced by . . . compassion.
"Yeah, I forgive him." Vila pulled back from Cally. "I just wanted to give the bastard some grief."
Cally raised her eyebrows.
"Just a joke." Vila smiled. It wasn't quite up to his usual standards, but it was the first real smile Cally had seen on the thief's face for days, and she welcomed it. She rose from her stance, and ruffled his hair.
"You are incorrigible."
"That's what they tell me." He stood and stretched out his arms. "Cally?"
"I am glad you trust Dalon now."
"So am I."
"Funny thing, though. I didn't trust him at first either. Not when I heard his name." Vila rambled on inconsequentially. "I'd heard a few years back that the Terra Nostra had a Dalon Mehta running their computer operations. Could hardly be the same bloke though, could it."
Cally suddenly felt very cold. She was again struck by the sense of helplessness that had seemed to take her over too many times in the last few days.
No. This time she would fight it. She would not let things get beyond her control again.
She stood and walked over to where Vila was standing. She grasped Vila's arms firmly in her hands and looked down at him with a clearly determined gaze. Vila thought that Cally looked more alive than she had in a long time, and slightly frightening.
"You're sure, Vila. That Dalon's name was associated with the Terra Nostra?"
"Yeah. Why? You're not thinking that he's still . . . I mean, Avon's trusted him this far."
"Yes, but I have to be certain." Cally let go of him and headed for the door. "If you don't hear from me in ten minutes, get Avon, and come to the flight deck." Vila made to protest, but Cally cut him off. "I don't want any complaints, Vila. If anything goes wrong, you will both be needed."
"All right, then, " he agreed, hanging his head.
"Ten minutes, mind," Cally said, before leaving the room.
"Why is it always me," the thief asked the universe in general.
Before going back to the flight deck, Cally went to her cabin and got the rifle she still had from Saurian Major. She couldn't get to the Liberator's weapons, not with Dalon on the flight deck. The rifle was the only weapon she had personally. It was not a subtle weapon, but Cally had no wish to be subtle.
She hefted the rifle under her arm. It's weight, more substantial than the light alloy of the Liberator's guns, comforted her. She automatically charged up the weapon and set it on safety, her training returning to her in a moment. It had been a long time since she had been called upon to use these skills fully. Now they would not only further the rebellion, but would save her friends as well. She hoped.
She set off down the corridors towards the flight deck, and Dalon Mehta.
Once she reached the entrance to the flight deck, she remained out of sight, listening, judging how best to proceed, unsure if she even should proceed.
What she heard angered her.
Dalon was talking with Servalan, and she, Cally, had made it possible.
"You were right, Supreme Commander. The others are terribly easy to manipulate. With the possible exception of the Auron woman. She took rather more time to win over than the others, but even she believes now. Due to my skillful handling, of course."
"Yes, Dalon, you've made your brilliance clear. Now when can I expect you at the rendez-vous."
Cally chose this moment to make her presence known. She quickly strode onto the flight deck, snapping the rifle off safety as she went.
"I'm afraid he won't be making that rendez-vous, Supreme Commander." Cally turned the title into a curse. "Dalon, if you'll move away from the controls." She motioned him aside with the barrel of the rifle.
"Cally, so good of you to join us." Dalon's face maintained it's jovial appearance without slipping a crack. She concentrated on his every movement, all too aware of how dangerous the man was.
"Shut up, Dalon."
"Crude my dear. I would not have expected crudeness from you. But then, I also didn't expect you to discover my deception until it was too late. What made you suspect?"
"Vila mentioned he'd heard you were involved with the Terra Nostra some time ago. And we both know that no one quits the Terra Nostra, just as we both know who really controls it."
"Flawless reasoning, my dear. I'm afraid you have caught me out." Dalon made a graceful bow of concession. Too late, Cally saw the flick of his wrist at the bottom of the bow; too late she saw the thin throwing knife launched towards her. Too late.
As the knife struck her in the side, she was at first stunned at the sensation. She almost laughed as she realized that getting stabbed didn't feel anything like a stabbing pain. More like hot death intruding in the flesh.
Her rifle dropped from her hands. She found it impossible to stand, and fell painfully to her knees, her hands lifeless at her side. A mere stab wound should not have this effect.
"What . . . " she tried to complete the sentence, but her mouth would not form the words.
"I'm afraid the knife had a little added something. A neural paralyser." Dalon smiled brightly. Cally was horrified to note that the man looked as trustworthy now as he had a bare half hour ago; he was an extremely skillful actor. She'd been a fool, and now she would die because of it.
"The drug isn't fatal by itself." Dalon walked closer towards her. "You see, that would spoil my fun." Dalon lashed out with his foot, catching her precisely where the knife still stuck in her side.
Not physically. The drug had stripped her of her ability to perform even that basic reaction. But in her mind. A scream of anguish, and betrayal, and warning.
Vila had been anxiously pacing the cabin since Cally had left. He wished she'd told him exactly what was going on. That was the problem with this lot: nobody ever told him what was going on. They all trusted him to follow orders, to do what he was told, and to not complain, too much. It wasn't fair.
He continued pacing, picking up various objects that lay strewn around, and putting them down without even realizing what they were.
All he could think of was that Dalon Mehta might be in the Terra Nostra, that they were all in a lot of trouble, and that Cally was facing that trouble by herself.
It wasn't right.
Vila didn't know what to do. He needed to protect Cally, but he was afraid to leave the cabin. Some hero I'd make, he thought to himself.
Unable to act, Vila worked, unsuccessfully to convince himself that nothing was wrong.
Then came the scream.
Vila grabbed the back of a chair for support as his mind was assaulted by pain and fear. He was overwhelmed, not knowing what to make of the sensation, until Cally's voice gradually arose from the maelstrom.
//Vila, Dalon is turning us over to Servalan. You must get Avon. Vila, you . . . //
Abruptly, the pain and the voice were gone from his head. He was shaken, but he knew he had to act, and quickly.
He stumbled out of the cabin, having trouble with a door for the first time in his life, and ran down the corridor to Avon's cabin. He banged on the door.
"Avon, open up." Fear poisoned his voice, pushing it into a higher register than usual.
"What is it, Vila, did you see your own shadow?"
The door slid open to reveal Avon, looking even more severe, and even more drained, than usual.
"No jokes, Avon. Cally's hurt. She's on the flight deck."
Without even waiting an answer, Vila set off at a run. He took it as an article of faith that if Cally were in trouble, Avon would help, in spite of everything. He was, of course, right.
The two men arrived together at the flight deck. The sight which met them shocked Vila, even though he had suspected how much she'd been hurt from the force of her sending.
Cally lay behind the flight couch, in a slowly growing pool of blood. Her face was a mass of bruises. Vila would have thought her dead, if she still hadn't been moving. He had to restrain the urge to be sick.
Dalon stood over her, inspecting his work, a smile on his face. Vila noted the smile with the growing knowledge of the kind of monster they had let on their ship.
Then Dalon looked up, seeing the two men for the first time, and his smile widened.
Vila froze. He could not go near this abomination, could not act. His mind raced in circles, but it had lost the ability to connect with his body, to make him move.
"Welcome, gentlemen." The voice had the same pleasant tone it had always possessed, but under the circumstances, Vila found it more terrifying than any of Avon's worst moods. "I'm afraid your friend can't greet you. She's rather indisposed at the moment." A slight laugh escaped from his lips, behind the smile.
A low moan arose from Avon. Suddenly, the dark man rushed forward, kneeling at Cally's side as Vila, immobile, watched.
He held another dying woman in his arms, and tried again to convince himself that it wasn't happening, that Kerr Avon had not yet again trusted someone who would betray him, and who would kill not only him, but one of the few people he almost found he could connect with. For he found he did still care about Cally, as much as he'd tried not to. He tried to act, for Cally's sake, if not his own, but he could not. This betrayal was too much. This time would be the death of him. He held Cally tighter to him, trying to staunch the blood which flowed from the wound in her side, even as he prepared for his own death.
"I'm sorry," he whispered into her hair, but he wasn't even sure she could hear him.
Mehta stared down at his former pupil, pitying the man for a brief instant. He hadn't stood a chance. Avon's weaknesses had always been readily apparent to Mehta. It might appear that the man had no chinks, but they were there, if you knew how to find them. And once found, those chinks were especially vulnerable. It had been pathetically easy, really. It was the ones who wouldn't bend who would break most readily.
"This is all so very touching, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to end it now. Madame President is eager to take possession of her ship." Mehta pulled another knife from his sleeve, and stepped towards his former pupil, meaning to end the man's life, as he had surely ended his companion's.
"Stop right there, Dalon." Vila's voice was shaky, but held more steel in it than Mehta would have given him credit for. Still, he was merely a Delta grade thief, used to being intimidated by his superiors. A minor set back. He turned to meet his opponent.
"Well, Vila, playing the hero are we." Mehta smiled disarmingly, he hoped, at the smaller man.
"You can't get around me this time. I know what you're up to now." Cally's gun was held, unsteadily, in Vila's hand. Mehta wondered how he had missed hearing the thief move to retrieve the weapon.
"I don't think you're actually prepared to use that gun, Vila. I've done a lot of research on all of you. Especially you. How many jobs did you pull before you were caught? Hundreds. And you weren't armed for any of them. I don't think you've even used a gun since you've been on the Liberator, have you. I don't think you're prepared to pull that trigger."
Vila tried to look firm, but he wasn't sure that Dalon wasn't right. He'd always hated guns, or weapons of any sort. But he couldn't hesitate now. He had to save Cally, and Avon. They were dead unless he could act.
"You're wrong Dalon."
"Well, now, I'm afraid you're going to have to prove that to me." Mehta kept his best confident look firmly in place, and advanced on the thief.
"Stop right there, Dalon. I'm not afraid to use this." Vila waved the gun in what he hoped was a menacing manner. He was going to have to shoot the man, a stunned part of his brain realized. Mehta slowly approached his position.
Avon was no longer on the flight deck of the Liberator, but back in an underground room on Earth. Grief blurred his vision, and Cally became Anna, gasping out her last breath. NO! This could not happen again. The dreams were bad enough, but it all couldn't happen again. He pulled even further inside himself than he had before, hoping that the end would come quickly, that Dalon would not be inclined to play games with him, as Servalan had, but would kill him outright.
Cally fought her way back to consciousness through a cloud of blood red pain. Her body tried to fight back, to keep her in the less agonizing darkness, but she could sense what was going on, and knew that she was needed. If she couldn't reach Avon, her life would not be the only one lost.
//Avon,// she called to him, and found the walls he'd constructed against her more firmly in place than ever. //You have to act. If you do not, Vila will die.//
She began to feel Avon respond, if only a little. It was not enough. She would have to try again.
//Avon, you must listen to me. Vila is not strong enough to act on his own. He needs you to help him. If you do not, he will die.// He still would not listen. //If you do not act, I will die, and Servalan will win.//
//NO!// The force of the sending nearly sent Cally back into the oblivion of unconsciousness, so strong was it, but she knew she must hold on, for all their sakes. She wasn't sure if he was going to surrender completely, or to begin to fight back.
//For all our sake's, you must do something.//
Avon was not in the dungeon, but on the flight deck. In his arms he held not Anna, but Cally, not an illusion of the Federation, but someone real. He had returned to reality, for the time, but he would have to work to stay there. He laid his burden back on the deck, smoothing her hair as he did so.
"I'll be back for you," he whispered, and Cally nodded watching him go.
Avon silently approached his mentor, the only adult who had been able to protect him as an adolescent, the man who was trying to kill them all.
He'd approached as quietly as possible, hoping Dalon would be distracted by Vila, but something must have warned the older man. Just as Avon reached striking distance, he whirled on Avon.
Time slowed down, for everyone in the room.
Dalon faced Avon, and immediately acted. He drew back the knife, lunging towards Avon. Avon, realizing what was coming, raised his arm to ward off the blow. The knife ripped into his forearm, and the pain threatened to send Avon to his knees, but he could not fall now. He kept telling himself he could not fall, even as his legs buckled, and the floor rose to meet him.
Vila watched the struggle between the two men with a growing sense of detachment. As Avon fell, the last of his doubt about what he needed to do evaporated. He knew that he must kill Dalon; and he knew that he could do it.
Vila raised the gun, held it steadily, and squeezed the trigger.
Dalon fell, collapsing with the boneless look that marked a corpse.
Time resumed it's normal course.
When Dayna arrived on the flight deck in response to a short, cryptic call from Vila, she wasn't expecting what she found, which was: one corpse, two badly injured crewmates, and one hysterical thief.
She took it all in in a moment, and immediately took charge. Vila was barely coherent, and Tarrant would want all sorts of tedious explanations before he got 'round to doing something.
Dayna had Vila immediately carry Cally to the med centre, and then got Tarrant to help her with Avon, when he arrived. As she'd expected, he wanted to know what had happened as soon as he arrived, but as she couldn't tell him, he quickly shut up and set about doing what he could to help. Even he seemed to realize that asking anything of Vila would be useless, and would probably just upset the small man more. Even so, Dayna made a point of warning Tarrant, in no uncertain terms, not to bother Vila until he was ready. She knew Vila was in shock, but she doubted Tarrant would recognize the fact if it fell on him.
As for Cally and Avon, to put it mildly, they were a bit of a mess. Both were unconscious by the time they reached the medical area. Cally had lost a lot of blood, but otherwise, Orac confirmed that she hadn't any serious internal injuries. Avon was another story entirely. He hadn't lost as much blood as Cally, and his wound wasn't as deep, but he had a reaction to the neural paralyser that had been on the knife shortly after they had reached the med centre. He'd gone into convulsions, and they'd had to restrain him until Orac came up with a way to counteract the reaction.
Between stitching up Cally, and medicating Avon, it was a long night, and morning. Tarrant had taken the earliest opportunity possible to leave, mumbling something about checking the flight computers. Dayna couldn't really blame him; it hadn't been easy for any of them, and she figured Tarrant was less equipped to deal with a purely medical emergency than any of them.
Vila, on the other hand, had been helpful, and surprisingly adept at patching up his friends. He'd also remained completely silent on exactly what had happened, and everything else, for that matter. He did what he was told, suggested several things, and otherwise kept his mouth shut. Dayna never thought that Vila keeping quiet for once would drive her crazy, but it did.
Finally, both of their patients appeared to be out of danger. Both were sleeping soundly, with the help of tranquilizer pads, and both their vital signs were steady.
When she was finally certain the worst was over, Dayna suggested that Vila return to his cabin to sleep, but he insisted both on his staying, and on her going to take a rest herself. Dayna hesitated in accepting the offer. Vila looked like death on ice, but he also had the haunted look of a man who would not find sleep for some time.
Dayna left the med centre, as relieved in some ways as Tarrant had been to get away from the area. She was beginning to feel crisp around the edges, and could do with some sleep. And the feeling that the older crew members had something to work through themselves was stronger than ever before. She hoped they would tell Tarrant and her what had happened. She didn't want to die of so mild a malady as curiosity.
She checked in briefly on Tarrant on the flight deck before returning to her cabin. She noted he'd disposed of the body and cleaned up the blood, but she didn't want to know the details. Once in her cabin, she slept the dark, dreamless sleep of total exhaustion.
Vila fussed over Avon and Cally after Dayna had left. He moved back and forth between his two charges, tending to their needs, not daring to stop for a minute lest sleep, or, worse, thought, find him.
An hour passed, then another, and several more. Vila lost track of all time, knowing only that he must check Cally and Avon's vital signs, make sure their medication was adjusted, and make certain they were comfortable.
Vila felt Avon's forehead, and finding it still warmer than normal, he soothed it with a cool cloth. He sat down beside the other man's bed and brushed a stray hair from Avon's face.
"You'd better not give me a fright like that again, you bastard."
"You really do care about him, don't you?"
Vila jumped, trying not to look embarrassed. He found Cally sitting up on her elbows, staring at him, a slight smile on her face.
"Cally! You're awake." He jumped up and went to her side. "You shouldn't be sitting up yet." He caught her beneath the shoulder blades and eased her back down to the bed. Cally's breath caught in pain, and she did not fight him. When she was again lying down, she looked at him squarely.
"You didn't answer my question, Vila."
Vila evaded her gaze, and didn't speak. They both knew the answer to her question.
Cally reached out and touched his hand.
"It's o.k., Vila. You don't have to say it."
She gasped as she moved, pulling at the regenerating tissue in her side.
"Cally, are you really o.k.?" Vila's voice betrayed the concern he felt. He held her hand strongly.
"Yes, I'll be fine. Just keep talking to me. It'll keep my mind off the pain."
"What should I talk about?" Vila felt at a loss for words, for the first time in his life.
"Why don't you finish what you started before, in your cabin."
Vila realized he had been outmaneuvered, but he couldn't think how to begin. Cally helped him out.
"What reminded you of your childhood, Vila?"
"Go on." Cally knew Vila must tell someone what had happened to him. She was not going to let him stop now.
"It's just a bit close to what happened to me, is all."
Vila drew a breath and began, making sure his grip on Cally's hand never wavered.
"I grew up in the domes, like Avon. Except my family were Deltas, factory workers. My parents had to work hard to keep the lot of us fed, but we managed. I started learning how to pick pockets early, to help out. Mind you, my mum would have knocked me into next Tuesday if she had found out exactly what my part time job was. I made sure she never found out.
"One day, I came back from school. I'd stayed late talking to one of the older kids about doing a job where they needed someone small. When I got home, there wasn't anyone there."
Vila stopped, unable to continue, remembering what it had been like to come back to the normally bustling household and find it deserted, all trace of his family's existence erased from the very structure of the building. He had wandered the empty rooms, not knowing what had happened, or what to do. He would probably have shared his family's fate if a neighbour had not found him and hidden him.
"It's all right, Vila, go on." The sound of Cally's voice made Vila realize there were tears rolling down his face, but he went on.
"They had all disappeared. My brothers, and sisters, my mum and dad. It happened in the Delta areas, sometimes. A family just disappearing, and everyone to afraid to ask anything about it. It wasn't like my family were even political."
"I was only ten, mind you. I hid with friends of my parents at first, but they couldn't afford to feed another kid, any more than they could afford to get caught looking after me.
"I heard them talking about turning me in one night--not that I blamed them--and ran away. Started picking pockets for real. Learned from anyone willing to teach a kid. Stayed out of sight as much as possible.
"I didn't always stay out of sight enough. I got caught when I was fourteen, sent into detention. Didn't tell them who I was, and the conditioning never seemed to stick with me, so it wasn't too bad. I'd just go through it, pretend to be 'cured,' and disappear as soon as possible.
"I've always wondered, though, what happened to my family. Why the Federation decided to take them, and not the family next door. Whether they're still alive.
"I still miss them."
Vila stopped talking, and the tears from his eyes became a flood. He put his hand on Cally's shoulder, and she put her arm around him, as best she could.
"It would seem we all have good reason to hate the Federation."
Both Vila and Cally started at the sound of the voice. They looked over at the other inhabitant of the room.
Avon lay on his cot, staring at the two of them, looking gaunt and tired, but most definitely alive. His face was its usual expressionless mask, but Vila thought he saw amusement and compassion in the eyes.
Vila wiped his eyes and nose swiftly on his jacket sleeve, pulling himself together.
"How long have you been listening to us, you sneak?" Though the words were reproachful, the tone was not.
"Long enough," confessed the other man.
A silence grew between the three as each struggled with what to say, if anything. Vila was the first to speak.
"Avon, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said what I did. I didn't mean anything by it." The words tumbled from the thief's mouth in an uncontrollable rush. He hoped he got it right.
"Vila. . . " Avon paused. "I should be the one apologizing, to both of you." He looked from the thief to Cally. "I behaved . . . badly." The corners of his mouth quirked in an unwilling, ironic grin before he reigned in control once again.
"I have never found it easy to trust. I seem to make rather bad choices when I do, as you both have seen."
Avon stopped, and his two listeners could see the enormous struggle taking place within the man. The habits of a lifetime were fighting with newly revived instincts of friendship. He clenched his jaw in an expression that was definitely not a smile, and continued.
"I was afraid.
"I was afraid of trusting, so I pushed away the only two people I could trust. Both of you.
Avon lay back, overcome once more with exhaustion. He did not look at his companions, but it seemed to Vila as if the tension which the dark man had radiated dissolved and slipped away.
The thief looked over at Cally. She, too, had visibly relaxed. He saw on her face a look of peace which he had not seen for days, the peace of one who has reached a goal long sought after.
Vila was,himself, simply in awe of the gift which had been presented to him: Avon's trust.
This time, no one wanted to disturb the silence, but there was no tension in it. Now, it was the silence of people who had spent time together, and were comfortable being alone together. They remained there for sometime, occasionally catching each others' eye, as if to confirm what had actually happened.
After some time, Vila felt the need for sleep catching up with him. He stood up, and quietly made sure his charges were out of danger, then left them alone, after giving orders to Orac to inform him of any change in their conditions. He knew they had things to discuss that they'd rather he didn't hear.
He looked back as he left the room, and was slightly embarrassed, but more pleased, to see a look of complete understanding pass between the cold human and the giving Auron. Vila squelched the growth of the seed of jealousy he felt within him. They were his friends, and he would respect their choices. And, he felt, they needed each other, more than anyone else on the ship, to complete parts of themselves stunted or destroyed by the hardships of their lives.
As he passed through the door of the med centre, Vila caught a flash of movement to his left. He turned in time to see the quickly retreating figure of one overly heroic space pilot. The speed with which Tarrant sought to avoid him told Vila that their resident pain in the neck had overheard their conversation.
At first Vila was indignant that Tarrant, of all people, had been evesdropping on them. As he thought about it, however, a slow, radiant smile spread across his face. Tarrant would hardly be likely to use any of his ill-gotten information against them, not when it involved Avon and Cally as well. And it might give that overgrown adolescent something to think about.
Whistling to himself, Vila headed to his own cabin, and the first peaceful sleep he'd had in some time.
As soon as he realized Vila was leaving the med centre, Tarrant had broken free of the horrified fascination that had led him to listen to the others in the first place. He very nearly ran down the corridor--quietly, he hoped--not stopping until he reached his own cabin. He closed the door behind him and sat down on his bunk, trying to sort through what he'd just overheard.
He had been walking back to his quarters and had decided, more out of guilt at having abandoned Dayna and Vila earlier than anything, to check on their patients. But he had been stopped at the door by what he had heard.
He was ashamed at having evesdropped on Cally and Vila, but had been unable to stop himself.
Vila's revelations about himself had been the most shocking to Tarrant. It had never occurred to him to be the least bit curious about the other man. He had never stopped to consider how Vila might have ended up with the rest of them on the Liberator. It had never seemed to matter before.
Now, however, he had been confronted with the fact that Vila had a past, like all of them, that he had loyalties and feelings. Tarrant could now see why Avon had been so upset with him when he had bullied the thief into going down to Keezarn: he had seen what Tarrant had failed to recognize: that Vila was a person.
It seemed such a basic concept, yet Tarrant now recognized that he had never considered Vila a person, not even when confronted by Avon. Like most Alphas, he had merely considered Vila a thick-headed Delta, to be used when possible, and tolerated otherwise.
He couldn't do that any more. At least he hoped he couldn't. There was the undeniable fact that Vila could be annoying, whinging, and incompetent. He could also be amusing, resourceful, and talented. He performed to the level expected of him, and sometimes, Tarrant realized, the level expected of a Delta was not exactly high.
Maybe he would discuss the whole thing with Dayna. Then again, maybe he would respect Vila's privacy, and keep the small man's secrets to himself.
"Avon . . ."
"You know how much you mean to Vila, don't you?"
"Do you know how much you mean to me? . . . Avon?"
"Cally, I . . . can't say the words. It's not possible. I . . ."
"It's alright. I know. Sleep now, Avon."
It took some time, but eventually Cally and Avon were well enough to be released from the med centre. Vila had surprised everyone, including himself, by being a complete tyrant on the subject of his patients' care. He even managed to stand his ground when Avon decided he'd had enough of being looked after and tried to return to his cabin, in spite of the fact that he could barely stay on his feet. Vila had threatened to get either a blaster or Tarrant if Avon didn't get back in bed. He still wasn't quite sure which threat had been most effective.
Feelings on the Liberator returned to what passed for normal on the ship, or maybe even a bit better. Dayna was pleased to note that Avon and Cally seemed to stay rather close together these days, which didn't stop Vila from flirting with the Auron, as usual. The three of them seemed more comfortable than Dayna had seen since she had joined the Liberator.
As for Tarrant, he seemed a bit more subdued than usual. He even seemed to use some consideration when dealing with Vila, when he thought about it.
The first day that Avon and Cally were fit for duty, the two of them and Vila insisted on taking watch together, shooing the younger crew members off the flight deck. Dayna had the feeling they had some unfinished business, so she managed to convince Tarrant that it would be the best course of action.
As soon as they were alone, Avon turned to the others.
"Are you two ready?" He looked steadily at the others, and received nods from them both. He then activated Orac.
"Orac, we have a small task for you."
*I hope that it is a small task. I have much more important things to do.*
"I'm sure you have, but this is important to us. We want you to send a message to President Servalan at Space Command. Message reads: Servalan . . .
Servalan finished reading the communication on her screen, and glanced up. The stars glittered outside her office window, eternally unblinking eyes, staring her down. She met their challenge with her own, as hard as theirs. Then something cracked in her expression, and she started to laugh. The sound of the laughter bounced off the walls of the office, diamond bright, and sparkling. A smile remained on her face even after the laughter ceased.
They had escaped her trap. She should be devastated, but somehow it all seemed too funny. And exciting. She had underestimated all of them. Cally had been a potential problem from the start, of course, but the others . . . Avon's profile had suggested that he could not help but trust his old mentor, yet he had broken free from the trap. Even that little fool, Restal, had managed to surprise her. And this final threat they had sent her, it was too delicious. She had finally found prey worthy of her skills.
She sat back and thought, yet again, about what it would be like to have Avon fighting at her side. She had made him the offer several times, and each time she had been almost serious. She knew, of course, that they could never really work together, not as long as he held some infatuation with the ideas of the rebel, and eternal thorn in her side, Roj Blake, but she still amused herself by toying with the idea on all too regular a basis.
Ultimately, she knew, they could not help but destroy one another. And she had become too accustomed to power to allow herself to be destroyed. The next trap would have to be even more foolproof. Now, were there any of Avon's weaknesses that she hadn't exploited?
She had heard of his attempts to find Blake several times in the last year. He was even more determined to find that idealistic fool than she was, it seemed. Perhaps that tie would prove even stronger than the others. And, if she played this one right, she might manage to break them all.
A more subdued smile broke her lips as the plan began to form in her mind. This time, the smile held no sympathy, no regret, only the cold, hard enjoyment of the predator on the scent of her prey. She closed her eyes, shutting out the glare of the stars.
"Avon," she breathed, "this time you will be mine."
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