The white shimmer of Liberator's teleport beam defined two diverse shapes in the open field. Olag Gan turned, squinting in the failing sunlight, and spotted their goal. The factory complex lay some 300 metres beyond them, a clutter of small, squat buildings stretching out behind it. "There's the settlement," Gan said.
Beside him, Avon completed a full turn, holstered his weapon and brought the teleport bracelet up to his mouth.
"Down and safe," he reported. "And from the look of it, Blake, this complex is crawling with Federation personnel. That information of yours had better be accurate."
There was a deliberate pause before the bracelet responded,"That is what you're there to find out. And Avon--" Gan could have sworn he heard a wry smile in Blake's voice. "Belleron is a Federation planet, after all. Take it slowly, and watch yourselves."
Annoyed at Blake's penchant for stating the obvious, Avon managed to sound both bored and irritated at the same time. "I'm touched by your concern," he said. "We will call in on the hour. Out."
Gan glanced skyward, and ignoring Avon's scowl, said conversationally, "There's only another hour or so of daylight left."
"That may be to our advantage."
Not bothering to explain further, Avon started off toward the complex. Gan fell into step alongside him, wondering as he often did why Avon openly opposed Blake at every turn, yet continued to follow him. The argument between them over this mission had been long and bitter, Blake insisting that the Cepheus signal translator reportedly in use on Belleron could greatly aid the rebellion; Avon equally insistent that its value did not exceed the risk involved in stealing it. Yet in the end, it had been Avon who'd agreed to go. He was, after all, the only one able to identify the Cepheus by its components. And from his description of its probable size and bulk, only Gan would be able to lift it. Assuming, Gan mused in afterthought, that it was here at all. And assuming they could get inside. Perhaps they should have brought Vila down after all ...
No fences guarded the compound. Workers, most of them Gamma and Delta grades by their clothing, poured from the towers as Avon and Gan watched from behind a metal storage locker. The human throng flowed east toward the settlement, dissipating into the nondescript rows of dwellings that mingled haphazardly with smokestacks, chimneys and the scaffolded outlines of other factories.
"They're getting off shift," Gan whispered as the last of the workers disappeared down the path.
"Yes, I can see that." Avon warily searched the grounds for Federation guards, but nothing stirred; the multiple towers appeared to be deserted. Most of the workers had come from the towers -- probably manufacturing work silos. It was the building attached to them that interested Avon. Administrative offices. The most likely place to contain a computer complex -- or a decoder unit.
When he was certain that the last of the workers had likely gone, Avon headed toward the administration building with gun in hand and Gan at his heels.
Five corridors and three levels later, they had still not encountered anyone, and Avon had located the computer room. He eased the door open, glanced briefly inside, then ushered Gan quickly past him. When he had closed the door again, he activated the light switch and strode to the centre of the room, surveying the equipment lining the walls and positioned at intervals around the floor.
"What is it?" Gan had correctly read the dubious look on Avon's face.
"Museum pieces," the computer expert said acidly. "A collection of antiquated circuitry and--"
Abruptly, the door was thrust open. Gan shouted a warning, reaching for his gun, but Avon had already drawn and fired. A Federation guard, paragun half raised, crumpled into a heap at the door. Heading for the corridor, Avon walked over him, prepared to deal with any backup troops.
Cautiously, Gan approached the door. "Any more?" he whispered.
Avon came back inside, stepping once again over the dead man. "No."
"What about the translator unit? Is it here?"
Avon shot him an acid look, then motioned with his gun toward the prone guard. "Get him all the way inside and close the door."
"Just do it."
Complying with Avon's demand, Gan heard the comlink being reopened, and Blake's voice coming crisply over the voice pick-up.
"Yes, Avon," it said. "Have you got it?"
"It is not here, Blake. Your sources, as usual, were misinformed."
Unbaited, Blake's acerbic response was, "Perhaps. But you've hardly been there long enough to be certain, have you? I want all of the possibilities explored."
"We are standing in what passes for the computer centre." Avon's tone was that of a schoolmaster addressing a particularly slow-witted student. "It contains an accumulation of antique electronic circuitry and one irreparably damaged Federation stormtrooper. No Cepheus unit. Nothing that remotely resembles a translator unit at all."
"Then consider the possibility that they may not keep it in the most obvious place. Keep looking, Avon. We've got to be certain."
"That," Avon said measuredly, "will require time."
"Then take time. Take all day if you have to, but find that unit." After a moment's pause, he added in more reassuring tones, "I have undying faith in your abilities."
Exasperated, Avon slapped the communicator's cut-off switch. One day, Blake and his unsubtle psychological manipulations were going to push him too far. And then...
"The corridor's still clear," Gan said from the door. "We can check the rest of the rooms on this level." He carried his own gun ready, though he and Avon both knew it served only to intimidate. The limiter implant would prevent his firing it directly at anyone.
That thought gave Avon pause. "I trust," he said, "that this limiter of yours does not extend its function to inanimate objects. Computers, for example."
"No." Gan blinked at the seemingly out-of-place question. "Why?"
"Because if the Cepheus unit is here, if we can steal it, and if it is to be of any use to us, everything surrounding it will have to be destroyed. Like Centero. It will hardly do to advertise to the Federation that a translator unit has been stolen. In any case, that may amount to rather more destruction than I can manage in the allotted time with only one gun."
Gan nodded, still digesting the flood of words. "Guess I'll just have to help you then." His friendly smile evoked another scowl from Avon, who strode to the door with his weapon aimed upward.
He paused at the open door, leaning momentarily against the frame. "Blake is grasping at straws," he said quietly. "This is not of a sufficient level of technological development to conceal a unit as sophisticated as Cepheus, let alone construct one. Someone would appear to be manipulating Blake for a change."
Gan tried and failed to make sense of that. "Now you've lost me," he said.
Avon's expression could have melted a polar cap. "I have yet," he said tonelessly, "to be so fortunate."
They'd started into the corridor when the rumble of something mechanical made both turn back into the room. An energy bolt seared its way past Avon to burn a hole in the nearby wall.
"The next one goes through your head." The man with the plasma rifle wore Federation captain's insignia. He levelled the weapon at them as two more black uniformed men came through the newly-opened automatic door. It had been well concealed, Avon noted, behind a movable bank of storage bins.
The captain's rifle motioned as he spoke, an extension of his arm. "Both of you, take off the guns. Slowly."
Wordlessly, Avon and Gan complied. Power packs followed hand weapons to the scuffed and dirty floor.
For a long moment, the captain and Avon studied one another, the latter concluding that this was a typical cog in the Federation's war machine. The lined face, cruel eyes, stern mouth... and the laser scar that cut an ugly path across one cheek to his left ear. He wore them all like hard-earned medals, as much a part of his regalia as the uniform, and the gun.
"Who are you? What did you want in here?" The captain's eyes darted to the body, propped where Gan had left it in the corner. He motioned one of his men toward it.
With an easy grin, Avon answered the question facetiously. "Nothing really. It merely looked like a delightful place for a holiday."
His sarcasm had no visible effect. The captain's expression darkened further when his trooper rose from his inspection of the body with a curt shake of his head.
"All right, move. Outside, both of you."
In the momentary confusion of moving into the corridor, Avon allowed his right hand to creep surreptitiously to his teleport bracelet. Gan had noticed the movement. Unfortunately, so had their captor. He caught Avon's arm, wrenched it backward and shoved him hard against the wall, pinning him there. Gan found himself in a similar position, the hands of one of the troopers expertly searching him for other weapons. The teleport bracelets were removed, and having searched Avon thoroughly, the captain yanked him roughly back around to shake the device under his nose.
"What is this?" he demanded. "A weapon? Is that why you were reaching for it?"
Eyes smoldering, Avon's only answer was a tight-lipped smirk that clearly said, 'figure it out for yourself.' Hard blue eyes glared back at him, eyes that enjoyed manipulating, wresting control from others. It was for that, more than anything, that Avon hated him.
When his question went unanswered, the captain brought the rifle's barrel up and pressed it firmly to Avon's throat. The only response it evoked was something only Gan saw. The loathing in those dark eyes deepened.
Cheated of a fearful response, the captain shoved them both back into the corridor. "Walk," he ordered.
They all fell into step together. Captors and captives marched down three flights of steel-corrugated stairs through several more corridors and ultimately into an earthen-floored room with metal walls and no windows. An ancient filament bulb glowed naked overhead, the only break in a monotonous steel ceiling.
When the heavy double doors had thudded shut and the rattle of securing chains died away, Gan turned to find Avon already sitting against the far wall, arm wrapped tightly over one knee, gaze fixed intently on nothing at all. Gan started to speak, then quietly thought better of it. He knew a sulk when he saw one. And genius or not, Avon was exceptionally good at them. Shrugging, he turned his attention to something more useful. He began testing his weight against the strength of the door.
It might have been an hour later that he finally wearied of the effort and came to sit beside his statue-like companion.
"Another three hours and I might just have it open," he said halfheartedly. "Maybe if we both tried..."
"Another three hours," Avon said to the indeterminate space in front of him, "and it will hardly make a difference. There will be nowhere for us to go."
Confused, Gan squinted at him in the dim light. "Nowhere to go? We can look for the others -- they're probably looking for us already. Or we can find that Federation captain and take back the teleport bracelets."
"The bracelets are useless if there is no Liberator to teleport to."
Gan, only just beginning to understand Avon's implication, shook his head. "They wouldn't go without us, Avon. They wouldn't."
"Don't count on it."
"Blake told you to take all day, don't forget. He said to take all the time we needed."
Avon's stare remained fixed, glassy. "And when we do not call in he will assume we are either dead or taken and he'll take the Liberator out of orbit. That is what any competent ship's commander would do. It is what I would do."
Gan was silent for a long moment. Then, with quiet resolution, he said, "You don't know Blake very well then."
For the first time, Avon looked at him, the near-black eyes filled with indifference and worry and contempt all at the same time. They had each known Blake for precisely the same length of time -- all told, not very long at all. Their escape from the London and Cygnus Alpha had been over six standard months ago. Yet Avon harbored the distinct impression that somehow in that brief time, everyone aboard Liberator -- even Gan -- had come to understand Blake far better than he.
"He won't leave us," Gan repeated with rather more assurance than he felt.
"Right now I'd bet he's getting ready to come down here and search this complex. Personally."
In a dull voice, Avon said, "That would be foolhardy. But probably no less typical of an idealistic fool like Blake."
Gan smiled thinly. "Make up your mind, Avon. Do you want to be right, or do you want to be rescued?"
* * *
"You could be rushing things a bit, you know." Jenna finished strapping on her hand weapon, watching Blake repeat the action with his own.
"She's right," Cally said from behind the teleport console. "It's only been two hours."
"And two missed reports." Blake drew, checked and reholstered the gun. "That isn't like Avon."
"Are you sure?" Jenna's voice dripped cynicism, earning her a harsh glance from Blake. But he chose to ignore the comment.
"Still getting kitted up," Cally replied. "He doesn't want to go."
"Does he ever?" Blake moved to unslot one of the teleport bracelets and snap it on his wrist. The object of his amused derision appeared on the steps as he turned, struggling with the clasps on a bulky utility belt.
"Never could get these things to work right," he complained. "Damned alien technology."
Blake was unamused. "Stop dithering, Vila."
Wide-eyed, the thief looked up at him. "Oh, you're in a hurry are you? Well don't mind me. You go on ahead. I'll be glad to stay here, lend Cally a hand."
"I'm sure you would be. But I may need your talented fingers on Belleron."
"What, rescuing Avon? He won't even appreciate the effort. Avon's idea of a helping hand is one with a very large knife in it -- aimed at the nearest back. Mine. Or yours."
Ignoring the outburst, Blake crossed the room to hand the thief a bracelet. "Shall we go?"
Vila eyed the bracelet warily, took it but did not put it on. "I don't have to do this," he asserted. "We have a choice. You said we all had a choice."
"I was talking about leaving the crew. Are you saying that's what you want to do?"
Vila briefly affected a hurt look, then resignedly snapped the bracelet into place and trudged to the teleport alcove. "All right. But I'd still like for someone to tell me why I'm doing this."
Her own bracelet in place, Jenna turned to favor Vila with a dazzling smile. "Perhaps because at heart," she said cheerfully, "you're really a fine, upstanding, brave and noble individual."
"Oh," Vila said miserably. And as the teleport beam took them, he was heard to add, "I knew there was a good reason..."
* * *
A noise outside the door brought both Gan and Avon to attention. In moments they had positioned themselves on either side of the opening, and stood ready as the chain clanked against metal. With a reverberating ring, something heavy struck it; three, five, seven times before the links must have given way. A long moment of fumbling with the broken chain and the latch preceded the inching open of one side of the door.
"It's all right," a young male voice said from the other side. "I'm a friend."
Avon didn't move, so Gan came within view of the door. "So we'd gathered," he said. "Let's see you then."
Squealing on rusted hinges, the door eased back to reveal a thin young man in Delta coveralls. His face fell when he saw Gan's clothing, as though he had expected someone else to be locked in the storage room.
"Oh. I thought..."
"You thought what?" Avon's sudden question made the boy jump.
"That ... That you were Deltas. Workers. That's who they usually put in... Well I stayed late and I saw them bring someone in here, but I was too far away to see who. There's only--"
"Tell us about it later," Avon interrupted impatiently. "Just now I have a Federation captain to find."
The boy reacted as though Avon's words had been somehow electrically charged. "You mean Davin? But you can't. I mean he's gone. Back to Command Headquarters. Can't figure why he didn't take you with him if you're not..." He paused, staring curiously at Avon. "What are you?"
"Never mind. Take us to this Command Headquarters."
The boy looked desperately to Gan for some support against this obvious insanity, but none was forthcoming. Instead, the giant man said calmly, "I'm afraid we really do have to get there."
"Your Captain Davin has appropriated certain items from us," Avon explained curtly. "Items which it is vital we retrieve."
"Well you can't do it tonight. And not alone in any case. CHQ is swarming with armed guards -- you'd be dead before you got within a hundred metres."
"That's a comforting thought," Gan quipped. "But we have to get those bracelets back."
"Bracelets?" the boy echoed. "Davin took your jewelry?"
"A very special sort of jewelry, yes," Gan said patiently, stepping on Avon's angry retort. "We'll have to find this Davin. Will you help us?"
The boy shook his head. "He'd only take a thing like that for one reason. He'll be sending through a fingerprint check to Federation Central. He must figure you're wanted for something."
Avon paled slightly at that, exchanging an alarmed look with Gan.
The look had not been lost on their youthful rescuer. "It's all right," he added quickly. "He won't have an answer for at least 30 hours. His transmitting equipment's as old as the stuff in this place. Pre-historic. Doesn't even have tariel cells." He paused, considering for a moment. "Look, the night guard doesn't come on shift for 20 minutes yet. I can get you out of here, show you a safe place."
"I doubt that." Avon brushed past him to march out the door. But despite his biting comment, he stopped again in the corridor, apparently waiting for them.
Gan offered the boy a sympathetic shrug. "He doesn't mean to be ungrateful," he apologized. "It's just that he's..."
"An Alpha," the boy finished with the slightest hint of derision edging his voice. "It shows. I don't suppose you could convince him to fake just a little humility for one evening? Where we're going, he could be a problem."
Gan nodded, understanding. "I'll do my best." He clapped a hand to the boy's shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. "I never got your name."
"It's Drolis. My friends call me Dro."
"Olag Gan. And my friend is..." Gan stopped himself, considered, then went on. "Let's just call him Myan for the time being, shall we? It may be better for you if you don't know his real name." Better for all of us, he added privately. Avon's name, unlike Gan's own, attached a certain notoriety. News of his daring attempt to defraud the Federation Banking Cartel had travelled far, and since his alliance with Blake, farther still. No. It wouldn't do to tell them Avon's name...
Dro's blue eyes reflected curiosity at Gan's evasion, but all he said was, "Come with me, then."
Gan pretended not to notice Avon's glare as they started off after Dro. He knew, as Avon must, that they had little choice. Staying here would be dangerous with the night guard about. He wondered briefly if there had been any communications equipment in the computer room capable of reaching the Liberator. But Avon would have thought of that. Avon thought of everything.
The computer expert's willingness to leave the complex bothered Gan more than a little. They should have stayed, waited for Blake to come after them. Surely even unarmed, they could deal with a few Federation guards. But Avon did not believe Blake would be coming.
Silently, Gan prayed that he was wrong.
* * *
"Someone's been here. And not long ago." Blake knelt on the earthen floor of the holding cell, examining scuffed prints of what appeared to be three people. One of them was certainly large enough to belong to Gan.
Jenna came back through the double doors holding a metal bar retrieved from the corridor. "The chain holding the lock was broken... with this."
Before Blake could answer her, a distraught Vila, whom he had left on watch, burst into the hall at a run. "Blake! There's a whole squadron of Federation troops! They're in the courtyard. We've got to--"
"All right, Vila. Calm down. Did they have Gan and Avon with them?"
Vila looked befuddled by the question. "No. I mean, they're on the way here."
"To pick up prisoners?" Jenna ventured.
"Possibly," Blake said. "Which means they may have escaped."
"Someone did break the chain," Jenna added, hefting the iron bar. "From the outside."
"Can't we discuss this somewhere else?" Vila pleaded. "Like back on the ship?"
"Not just yet."
"But there are troops--"
"Then you'll just have to take us around them, won't you? If Gan and Avon are free then they've got to be in the settlement somewhere. We're going after them."
"Oh terrific," Vila moaned as they headed out of the corridor. "Just go parading through a whole horde of stormtroopers as though we were invisible. And I can take you around them, can I? I'm a thief. I never said I was a bloody magician, did I? Well, did I?"
Neither Blake nor Jenna paid his diatribe any heed. By now, they'd grown more than accustomed to it.
* * *
Captain Amas Davin was engaged in a contemplative study of the confiscated bracelets when a masked trooper entered his office and came to stand silently before his desk.
"Yes. What is it?"
"Surveillance Officer Reeve reporting as ordered, sir."
Davin looked up at him. "You mean they've been released, already?"
Davin fingered one of the bracelets and chewed his lower lip. "And you saw who released them?"
"A Delta plant worker by the name of Drolis. No previous record, but it's likely he's been involved with the resistance for some time."
"And also likely he was responsible for the release of the Delta dissidents previously locked in that holding cell."
"It's a strong possibility, yes sir. Shall I have them all picked up?"
Davin set the bracelet down decisively. "Not yet."
"Sometimes, Reeve, when you set one trap you accidentally spring another. You remember that story Command Central sent out about our concealing the new Cepheus translator unit here on Belleron?"
The faceless helmet bobbed once. "One of Supreme Commander Servalan's orders."
"Yes, it was. I've no idea just who she was trying to net, but I think I'd like very much to find out. Tell Drang I want two pursuit ships sent out on search patrol; report sightings of any unauthorized craft to me immediately."
When Reeve had gone, Davin thumbed an intercom tab on the desk, one hand absently stroking the scar across his cheek. "Oma, see what you can do about expediting that fingerprint check, will you?" He cut the circuit then, but aloud to himself he added, "I'd like very much to know who it is the Supreme Commander is so interested in. And how much she's willing to give for them..."
* * *
Zen's voice startled Cally from a routine check of the Liberator's orbit status.
+Information+ he intoned. +Federation pursuit craft are approaching Liberator on vector zero zero four from planet's surface. Interception will occur in fourteen point seven minutes.+
"How many ships, Zen? And have they detected us?"
+Two pursuit vehicles have been launched. Flight pattern indicates standard search formation. Sensors have not recorded scanner radiation.+
"Orbit adjustment to one-eight-five, Zen. Keep Belleron between us and those ships for just a few minutes longer."
Cally did not hear the computer's reply. She was already halfway to the teleport section.
Minutes later, a retrieved landing party was on its way back to the flight deck with Blake in the lead. Vila trailed behind, secretly pleased at the excuse to come "home," yet hoping Blake would not be foolhardy enough to tackle Federation pursuit ships head on, even with the Liberator.
"Status report, Zen." Blake slid into his flight position, encumbered by the gun and field equipment he'd had no time to remove.
+Pursuit craft have split formation. Now approaching Liberator at opposing vectors zero two zero and zero seven five.+
"I didn't think it would work for long," Cally murmured.
"Let's get out of here," Vila prompted from his own chair. "They know we're out here."
"They suspect we're out here," Blake corrected. "So they sent up search craft. That can only mean one thing."
Of the three gazes that fell on him, only Jenna's was understanding. "The Federation have Avon and Gan," she said.
"Very probably. But they don't know who they -- or we -- are yet."
"So let's not send them a paid advertisement, shall we?" Vila urged. "Can we go?"
Blake made a swift systems check before stepping down to the deck area in front of the alien ship's computer. "Zen," he said. "Take us out of orbit, standard by three. Take us out 500 spacials and hold. Keep me informed on the pursuit ships' movements at regular intervals."
Cally made adjustments to the flight console as the huge ship began to vibrate gently beneath them. "Are you going to wait them out?" she asked.
"We'll be out of their detector range. When they don't find us, maybe they'll go home again."
Jenna frowned. "And if they decide to start searching farther out instead?"
Blake gave her a hard look, his jaw set with stern determination. "Then we'll deal with them," he said.
* * *
Through many back alleys and lesser-travelled roads, the building into which Dro eventually led Gan and Avon was one of several long, woodframe dormitories built to house the Delta workers. He ushered them into a back room, where racks and shelves of drab brown clothing lined the walls, and began rummaging immediately for something large enough to fit Gan. Ultimately, he selected two sets of clothing and handed the entire bundle to Gan, still casting wary glances at Avon.
"Put these on," he said. "You can wash in the next room. Then just follow this hall into the main dining room. I'll introduce you to my family."
"What about Davin?" Avon demanded before Dro could turn to go. "We still need to retrieve those bracelets."
For the first time, Dro looked Avon directly in the eye. He waited a long time before he answered. "There's a small resistance movement on Belleron," he said. "I'll talk to our leader, Argus. If he thinks these bracelets of yours are worth risking an organized raid, he'll let you know. Tomorrow."
"Tonight would be better. I'll want to talk to this Argus. If he--" But Dro had gone before Avon could finish. Incensed at the affront, Avon turned his fury on Gan. "Tomorrow will be too late!"
"Relax, Avon. Blake is not going to leave us here."
"Blake is the least of our worries. If Davin succeeds in identifying me--"
"Then the last place he'll be likely to look for you is among a dormitory full of Deltas." Gan pressed the smaller of the brown tunics into Avon's hands. "Go on. Change into these." When Avon eyed the clothing with obvious distaste, he added, "Davin's not the least of our worries either, you know. If you want to survive the night right here, we've got to somehow convince those people out there that you're a Delta."
At that, the look of distaste grew into unsheathed repulsion.
Gan permitted himself a mildly amused smile. "I know that won't be easy, Avon. But try. For both our sakes?"
When they had each donned the borrowed clothing, Gan checked Avon over and frowned at the result.
"Only you could still make Delta drab look Alphan," he complained.
Avon's glare had withered lesser men. "Sorry," he said, clearly not meaning it. "But I'm afraid I fail to see the point of this exercise at all. We are wasting valuable time."
"You said you wanted to talk to this Argus," Gan said patiently. "He's probably the only one can get us to Davin, or better yet to a communications station where we can contact the Liberator."
Avon's contempt receded a little as he chided himself for not considering that possibility. There were times when Gan surprised him. Aloud, he said, "These are your people. Or they were. How do you go about passing yourself off as one of them again?"
"It's not the same," Gan told him. "Not exactly, anyhow. Well, try not to stand so straight, for one thing. And let me do most of the talking, till it comes to Argus anyway. And..."
Gan looked hard at him. The dark eyes glittered back. "You'd probably do better to keep your eyes down."
He saw bewilderment cross Avon's face at that. Could he really not know that his eyes were the most articulate part of him? They spoke more of arrogance, of pride and wealth and upper class than words could ever do. His eyes alone were enough to label him an Alpha, and in this place, that would not be an advantage.
"Just do it, Avon." Gan had no idea how to vocalize his concern. "Trust me. "
It was the wrong thing to say. Avon trusted no one. Gan wondered if he ever had.
The dining hall was a din of human voices laced with the aroma of roasting meat. Tables crowded with brown clad workers stretched under the high-beamed roof. An enormous central firepit labored to cook several haunches of meat on rotating spits. No one seemed to notice the newcomers' arrival until Dro materialized from the crowd to grasp Gan's arm and pull him toward a table.
"Come in, come in. You're just in time to eat."
Avon hung back as Dro enthusiastically introduced Gan and "Myan" to the table full of people, most of them relatives. Only one name seized Avon's attention. Dro had called the broad, red-bearded man with the wool overcoat "Argus." He was presently pumping Gan's hand, having risen from the table, and proceeded to do the same to Avon, mouthing "happy to meet you" platitudes. He did not look like much of a resistance fighter to Avon, who met the man's eyes and said quietly, "It is important that I speak with you. Alone."
Argus' broad hands moved to clasp Avon's shoulders, a gesture apparently meant to be congenial. The reaction was anything but, though Argus chose to ignore that. "Glad you could join us," he said loudly. "Be sure to stay for the festivities after dinner, will you? They're sure to be interesting."
Gan was summarily guided to the table and sandwiched in between two of the relatives. Avon declined both the seating and the meal, preferring to stand against the nearby wall, in partial shadow, and watch. Whenever too-curious gazes were directed his way, he studiously admired the wooden floor. Lost in thought, he had tuned out most of the table conversation until he heard Argus say, "You're friend doesn't say much."
"Don't mind Myan," Gan said, perhaps a little too quickly. "He's a very good worker, really, but a little... well ... slow."
Avon did not look up, but Gan could sense the dark eyes burning holes into the floorboards.
Dro's sister Syl, who was thirty and not at all unattractive, spoke quietly to one of the brothers, then rose from the table and disappeared into the kitchen. She returned a moment later with a plate of food and pressed it resolutely into Avon's hands.
"Eat," she said in sympathetic tones. "You'll need your strength to work tomorrow." Squeezing his hand, she returned to her place at the table. Gan found himself wishing he could have bottled the look on Avon's face to show Vila and the others later, when they were back aboard Liberator. That thought made him frown for a moment, remembering Avon's pessimism about Blake's returning for them. It was pointless to worry, of course. Avon was wrong, that was all. Even an Alpha-prime genius could be wrong, couldn't he?
Shunting the thought aside, Gan bent to concentrate on his meal, noting with some satisfaction that Avon, though he still stood aloof against the wall, had done the same.
* * *
Jenna Stannis drummed bored fingers on her flight console. "They're still out there," she said.
Blake gazed wearily at Zen's visual display of the pursuit ships encircling Belleron. "Yes, I can see that."
"Well, are we just going to sit here?"
"They haven't extended the search pattern."
"That isn't what I meant." The hard edge in Jenna's voice reflected more than boredom. Cally cast her a sharp glance.
"What are you suggesting?" she asked.
Vila's sleepy voice came from the lounging area. "That we leave. What else?"
Blake shook his head, a slow and contemplative gesture. "We're not going anywhere."
"They could both be dead by now," Jenna said coldly.
"We don't know that."
"No, but I'm not sure finding out is worth the risk." At Blake's questioning look, she added, "Avon would have left you, you know. On Cygnus Alpha."
"But he didn't."
Jenna's scowl deepened. "He would have done." She left the rest unspoken, though it was clear enough to Blake. If it hadn't been for me.
"I'm not concerned with what Avon may or may not have done," he said curtly. Jenna's -- and Vila's -- willingness to abandon the others both annoyed and disappointed him. He had hoped that by now, their criminal backgrounds notwithstanding, his crew might have developed some semblance of loyalty toward one another. What galled even further was the knowledge that Jenna was right about Avon. Of them all, Blake knew Avon to be the most untrustworthy, and that also made him the most dangerous...
"Zen," he said, the abrupt command making Vila start. "Can you monitor outgoing messages from the Federation base on Belleron?"
"Have there been any such messages concerning prisoners taken near the Delta grade manufacturing complexes?"
Zen's lights meandered slowly across the amber fascia for several moments before he answered. +There has been one subspace transmission of data requesting fingerprint identification.+
"Transmission to where?"
+Message destination is the planet Azrus.+
"The nearest Federation computer link," Cally supplied. "And by subspace beam transmission. Avon was right. They really do have antiquated facilities."
Blake sat down at his flight position, unconsciously biting at the knuckles of his right hand. After a long moment, he said, "Why ask for fingerprint ID? Why not voiceprint, or better yet a hologram of the prisoners themselves? Unless..."
"Unless they don't have prisoners," Cally finished. "Only something that belonged to them. Something they'd touched."
"Like guns," Blake said. "Or teleport bracelets. Zen, maintain surveillance of messages coming in or out of Belleron. And I want periodic status reports on those pursuit ships. I want to know the instant they break formation."
Vila's head came up over the back of the couch, trepidation written in his eyes. "Should I ask what that means?" And then half to himself, "Do I really want to know?"
Blake leaned back, arms folded over his broad chest. "It means," he said, "we're staying."
* * *
Their evening meal completed, Belleron's Delta workers were preparing for an hour's entertainment. Six burly musicians had taken up positions near the barbecue pit and even as the dishes and furniture were cleared away, had begun a rapid-paced, lively dance tune. Syl wasted no time urging Gan toward the newly-cleared dance floor. He started to object, then looked questioningly at Avon.
"Oh, you go ahead," the computer tech said laconically. "I have... other matters to attend to."
Not at all certain what that meant, Gan allowed himself to be led into the gathering crowd. Avon watched them go, arms crossed protectively in front of him, eyes taking in every aspect of the huge, firelit room. The meal he had found surprisingly palatable. Better, in fact, than many he had savored in Alpha circles, and that disconcerted him a bit. He had expected Delta fare to be substandard at best.
Laughter from the crowd just beyond him drew his attention back to the dancers. The orchestra had struck up a new tune on their ancient stringed instruments, and in the midst of the merriment, Syl was leading a surprisingly graceful Gan around the floor in a circular folk dance. Others crowded round them, joining in, clapping, or tapping feet to the rhythm.
Avon watched, fascinated in spite of himself. It seemed impossible that these could be the same social grades who had once served him his meals, cleaned his house, and... his face clouded at the thought... guarded his cell door. Later, it had also been Deltas who had aided the Federation's sometimes brutal efforts to subdue and break him, delighting in taking revenge on a fallen Alpha.
Avon, stripped of his own class, had no longer been their superior, but a sub-caste. To them and to all the stratified culture of Dome City, he had become a classless, faceless cipher. They had robbed him of wealth, status, dignity... and control of his life.
"Not dancing, my friend?"
The voice dragged Avon back to the present. Argus stood looking at him, hands on hips, the crowd of revelers a blurred, gyrating mass beyond him. Avon blinked, focusing on the bearded man and only belatedly remembering to answer the question.
"No," he said simply.
The rebel leader studied him for a long moment. "I have the distinct impression," he said softly, "that you're nowhere near as 'slow' as your friend Gan says you are."
Though Avon said nothing, his look spoke volumes. Argus grinned, though the source of his amusement was lost on the recipient. "You wanted to talk," he said finally. "So let's talk."
Avon hesitated, casting aside inherent suspicions, then came straight to the point. "It is imperative that I reach a long- range communications station. You have one on this planet."
Argus pursed noncommittal lips. "Maybe," he said. "And maybe I know where. What do you need it for?"
"That is my concern."
"Oh? Well it's my concern if I risk my hide taking you, isn't it?"
Avon drew a measured breath, regretting the brief display of temper. "It is vital that I contact certain... acquaintances," he said guardedly. "Even with antiquated communications equipment it should be possible to modify--"
Argus snorted, a short, derisive sound. "Oh, I was right," he murmured. "You're not slow at all. Quite the opposite, in fact, eh?"
Avon impaled him with a glare and said icily, "Will you help me or not?"
Suddenly all business, Argus conceded. "I'll need time to check with my own contacts first."
"How much time?"
"A day. Maybe two."
"I haven't got that long."
"You haven't got a choice either, have you?" Distrust mingled with curiosity in Argus' eyes. "I'll do what I can. You'll just have to be patient."
Patience never having belonged on Avon's brief list of virtues, he stopped Argus' arm as the bigger man turned to go. "Tell me where the com station is then," he demanded. "I'll break in on my own."
"You'd die trying." Argus gazed casually down at the hand holding his arm. Aware that their exchange was beginning to draw curious looks, Avon released him. "You're just going to have to trust me," the bearded man went on. "We Deltas are a very trusting people. You'd do well to remember that."
With that he disappeared into the crowd, leaving Avon to ponder the possible veiled threat his words had held. Dro materialized from the same crowd a moment later, concern knitting his brows together.
"You were supposed to avoid attracting attention," he said in admonishing tones.
Avon did not look at him. "Is that what I was doing?"
"You could try blending in just a bit. Alone in a crowd, aren't you? Is that what they teach you in Alpha training?"
Ignoring the barb, Avon said suddenly, "I'm very tired. Perhaps you have a place I might rest for a while..."
Mercifully forgoing further conversation, Dro led him down a shadowed passageway that smelled, not unpleasantly, of sawdust and oiled wood. They passed a seemingly endless succession of rough-hewn, unmarked doors and finally stopped before an open one.
"These are used for the married and family quarters," Dro explained. "But we usually have a few unoccupied, on reserve for the new-marrieds -- or occasional visitors. The rest of us are in the communal barracks on the other side."
When the privileged sleeping arrangements failed utterly to impress his guest, Dro turned and quietly retreated down the hall. Avon never noticed. He entered the small, stuffy room to sit wearily on the double bed that was almost the only furniture. Frustration and impatience had compounded an already throbbing headache, and indecision nagged at him still further. The com station was at best a long shot: if Liberator had left Belleron, no amount of modification would amplify the "long range" beam sufficiently to contact her. They might, on the other hand, have had better luck trying to retrieve the bracelets from Davin. If Liberator were still in orbit ...
Avon rubbed tired eyes, striving to make sense of his own contradictory impressions. The naked truth, he admitted to himself, was that part of him hoped Blake had left them behind. Had it not been for Gan, he might even have suspected that that had been Blake's intention all along. To rid himself of the threat. The thorn. The one who would not follow.
And Avon would never do that. To be led was to be weak; to relinquish control. His life was his own again for the first time in more than a year. He had no desire to see it manipulated by one man's fanatical crusade.
Not that Blake's methods came anywhere near the Federation's impersonal, calculated ruthlessness. No, his was a control exerted not by force but with benevolence, tempered with quaint notions of loyalty and... Avon's mind recoiled at the word... trust.
No one had ever exerted a benevolent control over Kerr Avon before. No one except Anna.
She had made him believe in her. And innocently -- foolishly -- she had trusted him as well. In the end it had been that very trust that had betrayed her. Killed her.
She should never have allowed herself to care. Not for him. Anna's trust had unwittingly taken his control from him, for he'd permitted himself to care in return. He would have done nearly anything she'd asked of him, and that had given her control. Subtle, benevolent, administered in simple innocence, but control nonetheless. Anna had died because of it.
And now had come Liberator and Blake and others who sought to impose ideals on him with manipulations equally soft, equally guileless. Avon did not intend to give them that one vulnerable emotional lever. He would not allow them to care.
For to control him -- to care about him -- was to die.
When Gan arrived some time later, it was to find Avon stretched supine on the bed, hands propped behind his head. He opened his eyes as Gan gently eased the door shut, but said nothing.
"Didn't mean to wake you," the big man apologized.
"You didn't. I've merely been considering our possibilities for getting out of here."
"Well you needn't worry about it so much," Gan said. "Argus is taking care of it."
"He didn't sound all that eager to 'take care of it' when I spoke to him. A day or two is far too long for us to wait. Davin and his Federation lackeys may already have processed those fingerprints."
"But we won't have to wait days," Gan told him, leaning casually against the closed door. "We should be able to go by tomorrow noon -- as soon as the work crews break for mid-day meal."
Avon was puzzled. "But Argus said--"
"Oh, I know." Gan folded tree-limb arms across his chest. "But I talked to him again just now and he promised me tomorrow noon."
Avon came suddenly upright, umbrage lacing his voice. "You talked to him? You persuaded him?"
Gan nodded slowly. "As you say, these are my people. Maybe things will be better if you just leave all the talking to me."
Visibly annoyed, Avon looked away, for the first time taking in the crude furnishings around them. An unshielded light globe, like the one in the holding cell, provided the room's meager light. There was sawdust on the splintered floor.
Avon's lip curled with contempt. "How do they live like this?"
Gan's expansive shrug made the door behind him creak slightly. "You can't miss what you've never had," he said profoundly. "Or as an ancient scribe once put it, 'I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content.'" At Avon's wondering look, he shrugged again. "Well don't look so surprised. I do know how to read, you know."
"I never doubted it. I've just never known you to quote philosophy before. Particularly not from a book which has occupied the Federation's Purge list for well over three hundred years."
Gan beamed. "So you've read it too, eh?" He seemed suddenly far away, lost in some private memory. "Bryn used to own a copy, passed down by her family. She read it to me sometimes." He looked again at Avon, and a sad smile crossed his wide face. "Bryn was my woman. My ... fiancee."
Something vaguely like empathy stirred in Avon's eyes. "You said once, aboard ship, that you had killed the man who killed her."
"Yes." Gan absently touched the back of his head. "That's why I was convicted. And the limiter..."
He broke off, suddenly aware that Avon was no longer listening. His gaze had lost focus, as though some force had taken him away, drawn him back to some other time and place. Gan watched him for a time, then turned to pull the borrowed tunic off over his head. He came toward the bed then, smoothing the homespun undergarment with thick fingers. It reminded him of home. Of the Delta warrens on Earth. Of Bryn...
He sat down on the opposite edge of the bed, ignoring the protesting springs. After a long time, he said softly, "What was her name, Avon?"
The dark eyes came swiftly up to meet his, immediately feigning ignorance. "Who?"
Gan looked down at his hands, spreading the broad fingers. "That's one kind of pain I know too well. Every time I let myself remember."
A lengthy silence fell between them. Finally, Gan said, "They killed her too, didn't they?"
The pain in Avon's face was an answer. But it was quickly masked by something not unlike the Liberator's force wall. He rose quickly from the bed and paced to the single window, fidgeting.
"We are still wasting time," he snapped. "We should be out there, devising some means of finding that com station, or the teleport bracelets, or some other way off this miserable planet."
Gan smiled at the inadvertent echo of Vila. "Well why not throw in the Cepheus unit while we're at it?" he added. "It's what we came for, after all."
His levity evoked only a smirk from Avon. "I doubt if that was ever here. Another of Blake's little foibles is risking other people's lives for nonexistent prizes."
"I don't know about that. He's kept us all alive so far."
"At this rate, his record is unlikely to hold much longer."
Having no answer for that, Gan pulled the woollen blanket up over one shoulder and lay down on his side of the bed. "Good night, Avon."
He heard the computer expert stride angrily to the door and depress the light switch. Then the footsteps returned to the window, paced once, and remained there.
Gan settled into the too-soft mattress, and concentrated on finding some much needed sleep.
* * *
He was home on Earth again.
Gan moved with practiced ease through the Delta warren's dirty streets. Brick walls and arched doorways all blurred at the edges of his perception, the cloudy imprecision of dream.
He did not want to be here.
His feet took him unwillingly past familiar doors, through alleys deep with refuse, prowling dogs and squawking children. He saw and yet did not see them, and with a cold, gnawing dread he knew where the feet would guide him. Through the twisting alleys to the well-remembered door.
It stood open, paint peeling, on rusted hinges, revealing the musty foyer within, the worn and carpetless stairs. The smell of onions wafted from above.
The stairs creaked beneath his feet, and from somewhere, an infant cried, choked and cried again. A door slammed.
The hall above was shadowed, a march of fourteen recessed doors. Their door -- his and Bryn's -- lay at the end, beside the dusty, curtainless window.
He heard her scream before he'd half-traversed the hall. Running, he reached the open door and hurtled through it, nearly tripping on a piece of overturned furniture. The room was in shambles, and he turned, confused, until she screamed again.
The door had been locked, but proved no barrier. It splintered under the applied weight of his shoulder, spilling him headlong into the room.
He saw Bryn before anything else. She was a still, nude figure tangled oddly in the bedsheets. Someone's hands were clasped at her throat; large hands that had strangled the screams. Their owner turned on Gan. He saw a blur of black uniform, then the hands releasing their limp burden to swing upward, trying to ward off the human mountain that suddenly struck and bore him to the wall.
Huge hands closed over the officer's throat. The inexorable grip slammed him hard against the plaster, again and again. A startled cry died unborn on his white lips, and the eyes grew wide only to roll back, unseeing. He ceased to struggle, but Gan did not let go of him. He pounded the wall with the dead man's head until all of the fury in him was spent. Then he let the corpse slide gracelessly to the floor.
When at last he went back to the bed, it was to lift what lay there gently into his arms, and cradle it lovingly against him.
He remained that way until they came for him...
* * *
Sunlight reflected on an unfamiliar ceiling. Gan blinked, disoriented, then followed the light source to the window, where a lone figure stood silhouetted.
He sat up, rubbing the back of his neck tiredly, images of the nightmare receding into welcome obscurity.
"Don't you ever sleep, Avon?"
A rap at the door obscured the other man's reply, and young Dro edged apologetically into the room.
"Morning meal's in twenty minutes," he announced. "You'd both better get dressed. We're all due on the work lines in an hour."
At Avon's iron glare, Dro retreated a step and looked beseechingly at Gan. "You didn't tell him?"
Gan smiled thinly. "Thank you for the word, Dro. We'll be on time."
The door had scarcely closed before Avon exploded. "What the hell is he babbling about? Didn't tell me about what?"
"Our cover," Gan said patiently. "Argus is to meet us during afternoon break, to take us to the com station. Until then, we blend, Avon. And if we're to blend, we work."
"I have no intention of--"
Gan interrupted the tirade before it could properly begin. "Well, I have," he said, rising from the bed to shuffle sleepily to the door. "Oh, you can try staying here if you like. But bear in mind, Davin's friends from Security make periodic inspections of the dormitories. They're not particularly sympathetic to truant plant workers... or escaped prisoners."
He paused at the door, giving the words time to penetrate the quietly smoldering storm that was Avon. "Well," Gan said expectantly. "Are you coming or not?"
They had never stopped to consider just what the plant had been designed to manufacture. As the reported hiding place of the Cepheus translator, it should logically have dealt in electronic components of one kind or another.
The reality came as a surprise.
Gan and Avon's assigned work crew were sent into one of the silos and gathered round a shallow-rimmed wooden table over which hung a massive delivery chute. Each of them was handed a long, gleaming knife, further adding to the mystery that was at last solved when the chute delivered a mountain of glistening pink flesh onto the table.
Chickens, Gan realized as hands began reaching for the carcasses. Or some native fowl that closely resembled them. He reached out, pulling one of them free of the mound, and began attacking it at likely junctures with the knife. He happened to glance then at Avon, who stood with his own knife still poised, watching Gan with an expression that bespoke both bewilderment and revulsion.
Grinning, Gan attacked the bird with renewed vigor, severing a leg. "Go on, Myan," he said loudly. "Trust me. It's past biting you back."
Avon glowered at the thing under his knife as though it might do just that, then he tentatively poked at it with the tip of his blade. It had a sickly, spongy consistency. When he tried to grasp it with one hand to steady it, he found it was also deceptively slippery. Awkwardly, he sawed at one stubby leg until the knife struck bone and refused to go further.
Gan watched him for several painstaking minutes, wondering idly how hands so skilled with a laser probe and other electronic tools could be so utterly inept at a simpler art. But then, perhaps it wasn't so odd. Alphas never had to prepare their own food, did they?
When two husky male workers across the table began taking notice of Avon's distress, Gan decided to risk intervention. He placed his hand over Avon's, and having incurred nothing more than an exasperated look with that, proceeded to guide the knife at a new angle.
"Here," he said gently. "You just have to find the joint is all. Like this."
The limb fell neatly away under Gan's guidance, after which he retreated again, leery of provoking Avon too much. The two men across the table leered. One of them nudged the other.
"You hear him say this one was slow?" he asked, deliberately loud. "Well they aren't supposed to let retarded ones out of the hatchery, are they Laird?"
"Shut up," the bigger of the two snarled. He'd just collided with Avon's gaze, and had seen something that unsettled him. The momentary eye contact broken, Avon ignored him and continued stubbornly hacking at the dead fowl.
Five sliced fingers and one avowal to embrace vegetarianism later, Avon was relieved when a strident whistle summoned the workers to their mid-day meal. The multitude crowding the silo filed noisily into a central courtyard, joining others from the surrounding towers. They queued up at a food distribution window, to which Gan had been headed when Avon gripped his sleeve.
His voice was coldly patronizing. "Where do you think you are going?"
"Where everyone else is going," Gan said good-naturedly. "To eat. I only hope it isn't chicken."
"Never mind that now. You and I are going to find that com station, with or without Argus, and we are going now. I've had my fill of waiting for unfulfilled promises."
Ever-calm, Gan reached out to carefully prise his sleeve from Avon's grasp. "All right then," he said. "You go. Me, I always prefer keeping my end of a bargain. I'll meet Argus, as we agreed."
"If he comes."
"No. When he comes. Meanwhile I don't see any reason why I should starve. You coming?"
Having received only a glacial silence in answer, he shrugged, and turned to amble off again toward the food line. Avon's glare singed holes in the back of his tunic all the way.
Laughter and loud conversation dominated the courtyard as the workers clustered round benches set at intervals around the area. Avon watched without seeing them, lost in thought.
Two things were wrong. No, more than wrong. Suspicious. Why had Davin left them in the holding cell instead of taking them back to Command Central? And why circulate the story that a Cepheus device was in use here in the first place? Unless they were hoping to pull in big game with an impossibly attractive lure. Game like Blake, perhaps, and the Liberator?
Where was Blake? Despite every vocalized claim to the contrary, Avon did not believe he would have flown off without them. After this many hours without any word, he surely would have come storming doors down. Unless of course, the Federation's trap had already been sprung...
"Don't you ever answer when yer spoken to?"
Avon spun, expecting the voice to be Argus'. He was disappointed to find only the oversized lout from across the cutting table. Laird, the other one had called him. He was every bit as ugly as his name.
"Were you addressing me?" The words were a velvet threat, and though Avon knew them to be foolhardy, he had no desire to retract them now. Nor could he have hoped to erase that knowing look on Laird's sweating, porcine face: it had been too late for that the moment they had locked gazes across the table.
"Had your fill of waiting for unfulfilled promises, have you?" Laird mimicked Avon's words to Gan. He had been nearby somewhere, eavesdropping. "You don't talk like any 'slow one' I ever saw. You don't talk like any Delta I ever saw neither. In fact, you look and sound like a bloody Alpha grade to me. That what you are, pretty man? An Alpha spy?"
Avon met the man's glare head on and returned it in kind. "Well now that would probably depend on who you were to ask."
Laird made a rumbling sound, half growl and half laugh. It ended in a swallowed oath as his hand, slowly and deliberately, drew one of the butcher knives from under his soiled tunic.
"Y'should see what I done to the last damned Alpha spy they sent in here. You will see. First hand."
Avon's face reflected only bored disinterest, a response that clearly infuriated Laird. His leer turned into a snarl. He lunged at Avon with the knife, and uttered a surprised cry when his target dropped, grabbed his arms and carried through to send him hurling head first toward the cinderblock wall of the work silo. He struck it hard, swearing again as light specks swam in his vision. He tried to stand, groping for the knife, only to find himself knocked flat by a vicious kick. The blade was swept up from the concrete and came relentlessly to rest against his Adam's apple. A knee pressed itself painfully into his chest.
"Don't," he gasped hoarsely. "Please..."
Avon's smile was definitely not of the sort that endeared him to people. Applying a firm but steady pressure to the blade at Laird's throat, he flashed the man a predatory grin and in lethally pleased tones, said, "Say that again."
Instead, Laird choked out three anguished words. "Who are you?" Another voice intruded on their exchange then. "His name," it said crisply, "is Kerr Avon."
The knife at Laird's throat came away. Avon let it drop, turning to look up into Davin's smug face. He was flanked by four helmeted Federation troops, all of them armed with blasters. The flock of curious Deltas crowded behind them, staring.
Avon noted fleetingly that Gan did not appear to be among them.
Davin's rifle gestured savagely. "Get up."
Freed of the grip that had pinned him to the ground, Laird scuttled back against the silo wall and watched wide-eyed as his Alpha adversary rose to face Davin's guns.
"My name--" Avon started to say, but Davin cut him off.
"Your name is Avon. You escaped the prison ship London en route to penal colony Cygnus Alpha six standard months ago -- in the company of a rebel leader named Roj Blake." He paused for a moment, then added with emphasis. "That's who you're going to give me."
Avon's unpleasant smile abruptly returned. "A worthy feat," he said lightly. "If I had any idea what you were talking about. Which I haven't."
It was an empty bluff, but it had the marginally advantageous effect of making Davin bristle. Anger could sometimes be as useful a tool as fear.
"Search the compound," Davin ordered the troopers. "Find his friend. We'll see how eager either of them is to co-operate with a gun to the other's head."
Somehow, the look in those cold eyes told Davin that that particular method of persuasion would be of no use at all on this one. Perhaps the other way round, though...
The troops having obediently dispersed, Davin produced one of the confiscated teleport bracelets and held it out to Avon, the blaster still carefully aimed.
"Save me the trouble," he said. "Call Blake. He evaded my search parties for quite a few hours, but I'd bet anything he's still out there. Waiting for you. Get him down here."
"Go to hell," Avon said flatly.
"Oh, he wants to hear from you," Davin crooned sarcastically. "Been calling you on this thing night and day."
Mentally, Avon damned both Blake and the bracelet. With Blake calling his name over the comlink every hour, Davin had scarcely needed a print ID.
"I wouldn't count on any help from that Argus fellow, by the way." Davin grinned crookedly. "He and his pathetic little following were exterminated this morning, trying to break into one of our communications centres. Your idea?"
Avon regarded him dispassionately and said nothing.
"We expected the Cepheus story to attract the rebel element," Davin went on proudly. "Perhaps Supreme Commander Servalan even had your particular element in mind, eh?"
"Servalan." On Avon's lips, the name became a curse. "I doubt she would be pleased to know you had left such 'valuable' prisoners in a holding cell any child could break into."
Davin shrugged. "We didn't know you were valuable then. And the cell was only bait for another rebel element. One who's made a petty habit of releasing our plant detainees. We'll deal with him too, now we know who he is. Quite a neat little package, all around." He chuckled. "I may even get a promotion out of it."
He hadn't finished the sentence when gunfire erupted from somewhere in the complex behind him. Instinctively, he started to turn, then checked and brought the blaster up to halt Avon's move forward.
More shots sounded. Antique projectile guns, by the echo. Just the sort of weapons a rebel force might employ. Avon decided that Davin's 'extermination' must not have been a thorough one after all. He echoed the captain's laugh, hollowly. "Your promotion would appear to have been deferred."
Laser fire, answering shots and a strangled cry finally dragged part of Davin's attention toward the complex. The crowd of Deltas scattered for cover as one of Davin's men stumbled from a building under a barrage of projectile fire. He collapsed in the yard, rolled over once and lay still.
In the moment Davin had looked toward the trooper, Avon reached to knock the rifle aside, aiming a kick at the man's groin. But Davin had anticipated him. His kick was neatly sidestepped. The blaster came up again and Avon was slammed hard against the wall, the weapon's muzzle shoved viciously into his throat.
"The reward for you," Davin hissed, "can as easily be collected for a corpse."
He jerked the gun back, then raised it to a point just between Avon's eyes. Those eyes reflected no fear of the threat, no emotion at all, and that further angered Davin. He closed his finger over the trigger.
Avon watched this small movement with an oddly clinical detachment. His only thought was one of derision for the man whose crusading idealism had brought them to this planet in the first place.
Damn you, Blake.
The gloved finger flexed once, then began a slow squeeze of the trigger.
Something struck Davin from behind, hard. His body slammed into Avon, who wrenched desperately at the blaster, forcing it upward. The charge went off, scorching a gaping hole in the block wall. Then the dead weight that had once been Davin bore them both downward, and Avon had lowered him all the way to the ground before he saw the blood staining the back of the black uniform. Standing just beyond was Laird, the gore-covered butcher knife still in his hand.
Avon's surprised relief at this sight was short-lived. In a moment, Laird had touched the bloodied tip of the knife to Avon's chest.
"So," he sneered. "Just how much is your corpse worth, Alpha?"
Avon gave vent to a world weary sigh. "More than you would probably have the intelligence to spend," he said drily.
"Or the lifespan, I imagine, since you wouldn't have one for long."
Laird whirled to find Dro behind him, holding one of the old projectile weapons. His brothers and Gan, all similarly armed, were approaching from the buildings with two of the Federation troopers marched in front of them at gunpoint. Gan, carrying the captured Federation blasters, was managing to look menacing in spite of the limiter implant.
"Put the knife away, Laird," Dro demanded. "Don't we have enough trouble without turning on each other?"
Laird tossed the butcher knife down beside Davin's body, but cast a contemptuous leer back at Avon. "Each other," he echoed snidely. "This bastard's no more one of us than Davin was."
"That's where you're wrong," Dro told him. "Liberator has done a great deal to aid the rebellion. Everyone knows that."
"You snivelling little idiot. Turn the lot of them over and you'd have enough money to support ten rebellions!"
Dro, looking far older than his years, motioned calmly with the ancient gun and said, "Get out of here, Laird."
The heavy man pinned Dro with a final glare before marching away. Avon, ignoring the entire exchange, had bent to retrieve two teleport bracelets from Davin's wrist. When he straightened, Gan was beside him, the seized blasters still in hand.
"You took your time getting here," Avon said brusquely.
Unconcerned, Gan merely smiled. "Never can turn my back on you, can I Avon? You know, trying to disguise you as a Delta is like trying to hide a lion in a herd of sheep. I should have known better."
Avon shoved one of the bracelets at him. "Spare me the philosophical homilies," he growled. "Let's just get out of here."
Gan took the bracelet from him, but to Avon's consternation, did not put it on. Instead, he turned to Dro, whose brothers had gathered around him, and proffered the captured weapons.
"I think you may need these," he said. "Especially if you're to fill Argus' shoes."
Nodding, Dro handed the guns to the man beside him. "You shouldn't believe everything you hear," he said. "The rebellion lost two men on the com station foray this morning. Argus and three others are being held at Federation Security. We're going to get them out."
"Blake might just be willing to help you out there," Gan told him, ignoring Avon's warning look. "A teleport system can be useful for that sort of thing. You'll have to be careful, though. They know who you are now."
Dro grinned. "I'll be part of a distinguished list then, won't I?" He held out a hand, which Gan grasped and pumped hardily. Dro proceeded to offer the same hand to Avon, who stared at it for a long moment before he took it. Gan watched Dro meet the computer expert's eyes, the boy's openly expressing gratitude, Avon's, as always, impassive.
"We'll be in touch," Gan promised, and snapped on the bracelet.
Without further hesitation, Avon struck the comlink button. "Liberator," he said. "We're ready to come up, now."
Scant seconds later, Jenna Stannis was regarding them coolly from behind Liberator's teleport console.
"It's about time you checked in," she said.
Avon's stinging retort was curtailed by Blake's arrival. "Where the hell have you been?" he demanded without preamble. "And where's the Cepheus unit?"
Avon's expression went from mildly annoyed to seething, yet his voice remained utterly toneless. "It wasn't there," he said. "It was never there."
He brushed past Blake to slot his bracelet into the rack, and with his back still turned, added, "The next time you decide to chase castles in the air, Blake, don't bother to send me." He rounded on Blake, and each word became its own small island of fury. "I am not expendable."
He stormed out of the teleport section then, leaving Blake to stare helplessly at Gan.
Forcing an almost laughable calm, he asked innocently, "What's the matter with Avon?"
A smile crept onto the big man's face. "Nothing at all," he said sincerely. Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, "Except that he's Avon."
Understanding, Blake smiled back; a smile that very shortly erupted into laughter for both of them.
Nothing more really needed to be said.