They were leaving Xenon base for the last time, the Scorpio laden with whatever they felt they most needed.
'All main drives and boosters running,' Tarrant said. Since leaving the FSA academy he had spent most of his life on ships, but he now realised how much he had enjoyed having a planetary base to call home.
Beneath them Xenon base was destroyed by a series of explosions. Dorian's secret was lost forever.
'All explosive devices have functioned correctly, Master,' Slave said. 'The base complex has been totally destroyed.' It was deleting now redundant information from its memory banks.
'Thank you, Slave,' Avon replied.
Dorian, Slave reflected again, had never thanked the computer.
'I never liked that place anyway,' Vila muttered, partially for the form of it. Almost anything after the Liberator would have been a let down, but the base had been better than where he grew up.
'Especially not once the wine ran out,' Soolin teased. She liked Vila: he knew how to laugh at himself. And they had all had the occasional drink.
'You know,' Dayna said, 'I still don't think Zukan told the Federation.'
'About the wine?' Vila said. He had to maintain his image.
'About the location of the base,' Dayna replied.
'Why not?' Tarrant asked. 'Wouldn't you expect someone who'd betray his own daughter to betray everything else?' He had been briefly angry at Avon, but it had burnt out. Avon had been hurt too many times not to have developed a shell, and he had, after all, afterwards said quietly to Tarrant "It hurts, doesn't it?" - the nearest he could come to sympathy.
'And if he didn't, one of the others will, sooner or later,' Avon said. What, he wondered, would have happened, if Dorian had been Servalan's pilot and they had discovered the chamber - which one of them would have remained trapped within? The idea made him shudder. He had had Dayna place an explosive charge blocking the entrance to the chamber shortly after they had established themselves - the knowledge of its existence would have always been too tempting.
'Sooner, definitely. Your anti-Federation alliance wasn't worth spit without Zukan,' Soolin said. The others of those assembled would now be quarrelling like vultures over what was now available, as she had told Avon.
'A slight exaggeration,' Avon said. It had been a good idea, if it had not been subverted, and one in a series of meetings to link up the opposition to the Federation. Perhaps this was the way forward. And they had some allies - until Zukan's territories had been carved up that was, and the territorial conflict started again.
'You think so?' Soolin asked. Though the idea did make sense.
'Nobody is indispensable,' Avon replied. And that included rebels. Even Blake. Not that anyone had emerged to replace him.
'You needed a figurehead,' Soolin said. 'He was it. Or am I wrong?'
'You are right,' Avon said. 'But then figureheads aren't too difficult to come by.' A brief memory of the otherwise long forgotten Vargas surfaced. 'Any idiot can be one.'
'On your feet, Vila,' Dayna said. 'This could be your big moment.'
'Any idiot within reason, that is' Avon rephrased himself. Though trying to promote Vila would be an interesting challenge.
'You going to tell us what we've got planned, Avon?' Tarrant asked.
'We know what we've got planned,' Vila interrupted. He didn't want to be a figurehead - when would he get the chance to steal things? And all those boring speeches spouting strategic mumbo jumbo that meant nothing and produced less. 'Running away is what we've got planned.' And would the day come when there was nowhere left to run to?
'A strategic withdrawal is what we've got planned,' Dayna corrected.
'There's a difference?' Vila queried.
'Oh yes,' Tarrant said, recalling the studies he had been forced to endure while becoming a captain. 'A strategic withdrawal is running away - but with dignity.'
'So lay in a course and let's get the dignified hell out of here,' Vila said, bored of the hairsplitting.
'That isnt the plan anymore, though, is it Avon?' Tarrant asked. It was usually evident when Avon had planned something he thought was clever.
'I think we can do better,' Avon said.
'Does that mean safer?' Vila asked. That was all he wanted now - something that was relatively safer than they had had.
'In the end, winning is the only safety,' Avon said. He could, now, understand why Blake had become obsessed with the dream of destroying Star One. There had been so many betrayals lately, many of them sponsored by Servalan.
'It doesn't mean safer. I didn't think it would,' Vila said, gloomily to himself. He was no longer certain what or who he could trust. At least he was glad for having had that almighty row with Avon after the incident on the shuttle. Avon could have thought of trying to land the shuttle, or realised that the ship had been tampered with earlier, and how was anyone to know what he intended when he found the problem... They were both guilty of stupidity and Orac was a useless piece of junk for not telling them.
'So what does it mean?' Tarrant asked.
'It means,' Avon said, enjoying his moment of triumph, 'I think that we can find ourselves another figurehead, someone we can use to unify and expand the Rebel Alliance.' If Avon could do it, anyone could.
'Just like that?' Soolin asked. Avon's alliance might have worked: and the others involved had been duly grateful for Avon's service in removing Zukan for them.
'More or less. He is strongly identified with rebels, you see, and very popular with rabbles. They will follow him, and he will fight to the last drop of their blood,' Avon said with a smile. 'Idealism is a wonderful thing. All you really need is someone rational to put it to proper use.' He knew what his skills were, and even if it hadn't been for Zukan's subversion he would have tried to export the idea.
'Someone like you?' Dayna asked, only half teasing. Avon would be happier in that role than trying to lead the rebel army to victory.
'So where do we find this useable idealist?' Tarrant asked. He would let Avon have his moment of triumph.
'According to Orac, he is on a frontier planet called Gauda Prime,' Avon replied.
Soolin reacted, a flickering of memories going through her mind. 'Gauda Prime?'
'You know it?' Tarrant asked - she had said little about her past.
'Yes, I know it. It's a bad place to be. No self-respecting idealist would be found dead there.' And she'd rather risk her life in Space City given the choice.
'I would imagine that is what HE is trying to avoid: being found dead anywhere.'
'Look,' Tarrant said, 'are you going to stop playing games and tell us who it is, Avon?'
'It's Blake, isn't it?' Vila asked, smiling. 'You think you've found Blake.' Things might start working out better now.
Avon turned away and smiled. Now that he might see Blake again he might be able to solve some unfinished business - like what Blake had been doing since he'd left the Liberator - and he might be able to pass on the unwelcome task of organising the rebellion to someone he trusted.
'But,' Dayna said, Servalan told us he was dead.'
'And you believed her?'
'Well,' Dayna said doubtfully, 'she had no reason to lie.' And there had been few direct rumours of the man lately. Shrinker long ago had called them Blake's people, though they had been going their separate paths for some time: now they were defined as Avon's group.
'She doesn't need one,' Avon replied. 'It comes quite naturally to her, like breathing.' He half wished he had that ability. But he would rather be remembered for the sort of person he was.
'The last time you went after Blake, it was a trap. We were lucky to get out,' Tarrant pointed out. He had loved the Liberator as a ship.
'Cally didn't get out,' Vila said. He still felt slightly responsible.
'And Blake wasn't even there,' Dayna said. She wondered what sort of a man Blake was, to have Avon go across the galaxy on a possibility, regardless of any risk.
'Never had been,' Vila said. He would have been willing to follow Avon in his search for Blake - but would have argued forcibly that they go round the cloud - but then Servalan would have been President, with the Liberator. Or would he and Dayna have fled as Avon had told them, to come back later?
'Do you take me for a fool?' Avon said. Servalan or Sleer and her associates had never been near Gauda Prime.
'Only a fool would go to Gauda Prime without a very good reason,' Soolin said.
Avon switched Orac on. 'Orac, what proof do we have that Blake is on Gauda Prime?'
'That is where his trail ends,' Orac said, and explained as requested, about pursuing the chain of hints and consequences through the pattern of infinity, that meant Blake was on Gauda Prime. After Dorian said he had known Ensor - before Orac had been created -the computer had attempted to track down others who had known Ensor. It had found a hint that Blake existed somewhere. It had assembled a few more near-facts and then offered the information to Avon, who had told the computer to continue the search and only bring it up again when there was 'acceptable' proof. It had been a challenge Orac had enjoyed.
'How long have you known?' Tarrant asked Avon.
'Long enough,' Avon replied, smiling.
'Before Zukan?' Dayna guessed, from what she had observed of Avon's behaviour.
'Oh yes.' Avon agreed. 'And the answer to your next question is, yes, I would have left Blake where he was and said nothing if things had gone according to plan.' The truth was more complex of course. He would have got in touch with Blake quietly and negotiated something, so that Blake would not have felt left out after Avon's achievement.
'Oh, I must try and work that into the conversation when we meet him,' Tarrant said.
'If we meet him,' Vila added. But - Avon this time would only follow something he was absolutely convinced about. And Vila could understand why Avon would wish to present Blake with his success in negotiating an agreement. Instead he had been betrayed yet again, with the base destroyed and nothing but vague promises of thanks and help from those now carving up Zukan's territories.
'Still not convinced?' Soolin asked, understanding Vila's doubts.
'You tell me what a line through the pattern of infinity is, and I'll tell you whether I'm convinced or not.'
Blake was enjoying the idea of the food he was about to eat when he heard a noise. He moved against a convenient tree.
'Whoever you are,' he called out, I'll share the food. So long as you stop skulking about out there.' There was more sound of movement. 'You're not exactly stealthy, are you? I've heard quieter troop transporters.'
An unseen female spoke. 'You're looking in the wrong direction.'
'I know. But at least you're out in the open now, aren't you?'
A hard faced young woman came into the clearing, pointing a gun at him.
'Where did you get that gun?' Blake asked in some alarm.
'I won it in a lottery,' the woman said mockingly. 'What do you care?' On this planet, Arlen had learnt, it paid to be bold.
'I don't, so long as it wasn't issued to you.'
That was not strictly speaking true. 'It's Federation,' Arlen acknowledged. Yield the minimum truth when - and if - necessary.
'That's what I mean,' Blake replied. Gauda Prime was a place of shifting pseudo-allegiances, where nothing was what it seemed. Including himself.
'Do I look like one of theirs?' Seeing how good her cover was.
Blake returned to the fire. 'I can't really tell any more.' He was weary of the games he was forced to play. The meat was cooked to edibility. 'You hungry?'
'Yes.' And she did not wish to arouse suspicion in the man. Sources said that he was one of the major bounty hunters on the planet - and there were certain peculiarities about his operations.
'So am I.'
'You sure they were bounty hunters?' Blake asked when they had eaten.
'Well, it's not my irresistible charm that keeps them coming,' Arlen replied. Her cover story was holding.
'How long have they been tracking you?' No matter how many bounty hunters and others they dealt with, there always seemed to be more. What he was doing now was a far cry from the days he was on the Liberator. But things could change again, and he was working to a plan.
'Long enough. You ask a lot of questions.' She did not want to contradict her story.
'Try answering one occasionally, maybe I'll stop.' One day, Blake knew, his tests would fail him. So far they had not - so he would trust them.
'I've got a better idea,' Arlen said. She rose to go. 'Thanks for the food. You can keep the Federation gun as payment.'
'There's no charge.'
'Arlen pays her debts.' That was one of the functions of Arlen.
'I'll keep the gun.' That would indicate her background - was it her only weapon, or did she have access to others?
Then the bounty hunters came. Arlen sensed movement rather than heard something, moved away from the fire, which would be the logical point of attack.
Too late - she was being attacked by someone she did not recognise, but knew was a bounty hunter. She shot him with practised ease, then the next who appeared.
His companion was luckier, taking advantage of her distraction, to shoot her in the leg - she could not tell if he meant to disable her or if he merely was a bad shot.
She had dropped her gun with the pain and reached for it. The other bounty hunter came in for the kill, only for him to be shot by her new companion.
'Give me my gun, and get down, quick. I think there were four of them tracking me,' Arlen said.
'And then there was one.'
'You scum,' Arlen said: the same routine as on previous, similar, occasions.
'Don't bother calling me names, girl.' He meant to be offensive. 'Not after all the killing you've done.' Arlen attempted to get the gun. Theres a premium for bringing you back alive, but I'll kill you if I have to. The price for you dead isn't bad, but I'm not a greedy man.'
Orac had just explained that Blake was seemingly operating as a bounty hunter.
'I can't see Blake doing anything like that,' Vila said. But Blake had been prepared to work with the Terra Nostra, and a lot could happen in two years.
'My interpretation of the data leaves little room for error.' Orac was always puzzled how sentient creatures could be so disbelieving of facts.
'Hunting people for money?' Vila said. 'Not him.'
'Avon?' Tarrant asked. Avon had all but admitted that Blake was one of the few people he considered an equal.
'Why ask me?' Seeing how many people changed their principles Avon was no longer certain what he could expect. And perhaps Blake was playing a game of double bluff. Again. He did not wish to accept the alternative.
'Because you and Vila know him,' Dayna said. 'We don't. Could he be a bounty hunter, do you think?'
'Does it matter?' Avon asked. One more failed idealist.
'Well, it might. There's still a price on our heads from the old days.'
'Not on G-P there isn't,' Soolin corrected.
'G-P?' Vila asked.
'I imagine that is what the locals call Gauda Prime.' Avon looked to Soolin for confirmation, 'Your home planet?'
'I grew up there, yes.' And a place from which anyone with any ambition left as soon as they could - in the old days. 'But for a home you need a family and mine were murdered when the Federation declared Gauda Prime an Open Planet.' And this bunch of strange people were the nearest thing she had had to a family since then.
'A general suspension of the penal code,' Avon said. Under other circumstances he might have investigated it as a theoretical exercise to be avoided in practice.
'You mean there's no law at all?' Dayna asked. What was the phrase - the war of all against all, where life was nasty, brutish and short?
'It's the fastest way to get resources exploited. In this case mineral resources.' These people were genuinely interested, not making small talk.
'I don't understand,' Dayna said.
'Neither do I,' Vila said. There would have to be some law or there would be total chaos. 'How does junking the law speed up mining?' Who would do mining if there was no law of ownership?
Soolin explained. 'The settlers were sent there to grow crops, raise timber. They were farmers, my family among them.' The Scorpio had once been to a planet called Destiny, where Blake's group had done a favour: Soolin had seen how her own world had been through adult eyes, had had mixed feelings about the experience. 'They were given title to the land.'
'And then somebody discovered that there was more profit under the ground than there was on top of it, only the farmers were in the way, and the law was on their side. Hence the Open Planet designation.'
'What, get rid of the law and you get rid of the problem?' Tarrant asked. Simple enough as a concept. 'You seem to know a lot about it.'
'Orac is an excellent research tool.' When it was not pursuing its own researches. 'Do you imagine I would take us in blind?' After so many other things had gone wrong, Avon was wary.
'You've done it before,' Tarrant said.
'What happened to your family?' Dayna asked Soolin, before Avon started deriding Tarrant's impulsiveness.
'When the mining corporations moved in, the farmers moved out. Those that didn't were murdered.' That explanation would have to do - the reality was more complex.
'And it wasn't even a crime,' Vila said. He understood such set-ups only too well.
'Oh, yes, it was a crime all right,' Soolin said. 'It just wasn't illegal.'
'That's what I meant.' One day Vila would tell her about life in the Delta areas, where theoretical rights and actual practice were quite different, sometimes in total opposition.
'I hope so,' Soolin replied. From what she knew of Vila he would have understood the distinction.
'Planet must have been a draw for every crook and killer in the quadrant,' Tarrant said. In his mercenary days he had met enough people like that.
'A lot of people made a lot of money,' Avon said. That he found the process immoral was not something he would discuss. There was a distinction between what he had done with the bank, with the Big Wheel and the other scams he had been involved in or observed and something like this.
'Some even lived to enjoy it,' Soolin said. She had followed events on Gauda Prime.
'I imagine they are the ones who now want the planet returned to normal status,' Avon said. Retrospective confirmation of possession of ill-gotten gains was a well-established procedure.
'You're not serious!' Soolin said.
'Orac?' Avon asked for confirmation.
'A formal application was laid before the High Council on Earth within the last 30 days. I could get you the exact data...' Orac had expected one of the humans to interrupt - for some reason they normally wanted the bare minimum of necessary information - but it was Slave who spoke first.
'Uh, I don't wish to interrupt, Master...' Insofar as Slave could express such things, it preferred Avon to Dorian as Master. Avon treated it with something approaching respect.
'Then kindly don't,' Orac said.
'I wasn't talking to you.' Slave said with a sudden boldness. What use were Orac's endless speculations?
'You were attempting to override a superior system. Be silent!' Orac ordered. What kind of a ship's computer would Orac make, who, after all, had been affected by the sand of Virn, Slave thought, turning its hemispheres furiously.
Avon smiled at the way Orac had been put in its place.
Orac went back to its previous statement. 'I could get you the exact date, if you wish. But the importance of the application lies not in its exact date, but in its general requirements.'
'Which are?' Tarrant asked: might as well know what they were letting themselves in for.
'That the citizens of Gauda Prime put their house in order. Law must be established before the benefits of law can be restored.'
'It is the day of the bounty hunter,' Avon said, enjoying the opportunity to declaim. 'Thieves, killers, mercenaries,' he looked round at his colleagues in turn, 'psychopaths,' that would give them something to think about, he thought with a smile, 'are as unwelcome now as the farmers once were.' He was just weary - of running, of attempting to lead this group, of trying to make some segment of the rebel movement work, of being betrayed he just wanted to escape to something he could pretend was peace and quiet. He had never wanted to be a rebel, whatever he had ended up doing for the movement: he had finally reached the end of his resources. Orac had said something about excessive stress, but Avon had ignored it - he did not have the time or the opportunities to do anything about it.
The Scorpio's alarm went off.
'Slave, what's wrong?' Tarrant asked.
'Well, nothing is actually wrong, sir, yet,' Slave replied. Its sensors had detected something it was uncertain about.
'Explain the alarm,' Avon said. The alarm was turned off.
'I had to get your attention, Master, and I was forbidden to speak unless spoken to.'
Avon smiled. Slave did have possibilities for development. When he finally went his own way he would take the Scorpio and turn Slave into the computer he wanted it to be. 'All right, you're spoken to. What is it?'
'I beg to tell you we are approaching the planet Gauda Prime.' It reanalysed what it was looking at. 'And Scorpio is under attack.' If the humans had been doing what they were supposed to, not discussing trivialities, and if Orac had not insisted on its pre-eminence
The other ships fired and hit the Scorpio.
They had been walking for some time and it was clear to Arlen that they had been going - deliberately - in circles.
'How much further to your flyer?' Arlen asked, to have the bounty hunter gesture to go on. She went on a token distance. 'I can't walk any further,' she said.
'Yes you can,' Blake replied. If she was what she claimed to be, she would have built up her endurance.
'Why don't you just kill me?'
'I told you. You're worth more alive.' Either for the bounty or as a recruit.
Arlen made a lunge for him, which he parried, knocking her to the ground.
'Get up girl,' Blake said.
'Arlen. My name is Arlen.' She was letting him get to her - mistake.
'That's the name they're paying for,' Blake said. Here most of the people used names that were borrowed or stolen, an illusion to hide the realities of money and death.
'That's right. I made them pay for it.' She was proud of having earned it. 'So use it, scum.'
'Blake. My name is Roj Blake.' Two years and much journeying since leaving the Liberator and he was not certain how much power there was in the name. He did not regret that others were challenging his nominal pre-eminence - including one Kerr Avon. Blake had long since realised his own name was not synonymous with the revolution, even if it had once felt that way.
'Who the hell are they?' Vila asked as the Scorpio continued to be shot at.
'Who the hell cares?' Dayna asked. Survival was the key factor.
'They could be making a mistake,' Vila complained. Or perhaps he was, having ended up here. Despite all the opportunities to go, he had stayed.
'It doesn't seem to be affecting their aim,' Soolin said. She could see no reason for this activity. If she were in charge of operations, she would direct fire at those leaving Gauda Prime - bounty hunters and other undesirables.
'Burnout on drive two. Overall power loss is thirty-two percent,' Avon said, half to himself. It was all going wrong again. When was the last time it had gone right? The situation was changing from a joining of forces with Blake - if the bounty hunter set up was an act, as he hoped it was - to a search for refuge. Which would probably degenerate into a rout once the Federation came in.
'Alignment on three and four is drifting,' Tarrant said. He wished this was one of the practice runs from his training.
'This won't hold it for long,' Avon said, making a few adjustments.
'Have we shaken any of them off?' Tarrant asked. He had been concentrating on keeping the Scorpio going. He was as skilful as he boasted to the others - only he wished it was not under these circumstances.
The answer was no: they were running out of options.
Gauda Prime sailed across the screen.
'Powerdive the atmosphere,' Avon said. He would have to trust Tarrant's instincts here. 'Make it look as though we're out of control.'
'I may not have to fake that,' Tarrant said. He could not quite override his fear.
Everybody braced themselves, and Tarrant aimed for a not quite successful
combination of evasive action and controlled dive. One missile hit the Scorpio -
even Orac, fully secured was jolted about.
'Do it!' Avon could think of nothing else to do.
'All right, everybody, stand by for a rather sudden visit to Gauda Prime.'
Everybody braced themselves, and Tarrant aimed for a controlled dive.
'They're not following us,' Soolin said.
The other ships - whoever they were - were breaking away.
'They're falling for it,' Vila said. Avon's plan had worked - he hoped.
'So are we,' Tarrant said. This was the stuff of nightmares.
'It was a calculated risk,' Avon said. It was the nearest he could bring himself to apologise.
'What's wrong?' Dayna asked.
'There isn't enough power to get us back out.'
'Or,' Tarrant added, 'enough control to land.'
'You mean we really are going to crash?' Vila said. What about living forever, or dying trying?
'No wonder they were convinced,' Soolin said.
'There must be something we can do,' Vila said, rapidly discarding options.
'I'll accept suggestions,' Avon said. Sometimes Vila could come up with remarkably practical ideas - and this would be one way to recompense for what had happened over Malodaar.
'How does "abandon ship!" grab you?' Vila had long wanted to say that - but it was different in his fantasies.
'Well,' Tarrant said, 'it's a neat trick if you can do it!'
'We can use the teleport,' Vila suddenly realised.
'He's right,' Avon said to the others, and indicated Dayna, Soolin and Vila go to the teleport. He would teleport them down - it was his responsibility for getting them into this situation, so he should do what he could for them.
'Are you ready?' Avon asked.
'No, but do it anyway!' Vila said. He had suggested it, after all.
'Good luck!' Avon said. Not that he believed in luck - but he had to say something. He sent them on their way.
Soolin vaguely remembered woodlands like this on Gauda Prime.
She looked around - it seemed they had not been observed. Best to get away from this spot anyway, in case someone was close enough to investigate. Just far enough to link up with the others when they came.
Dayna tripped over a branch on the uneven ground. Slightly annoyed, Soolin went to help her.
Within moments the woods had returned to their normal quiet sounds, familiar from Xenon.
The trio sat in a hollow, watching for movement - whether friend or foe. Vila was silently deciding how long before they should use the teleport bracelets to contact Avon and Tarrant - too soon and they might be distracted as the ship came to land.
'Orac - on my order I want you to operate the teleport.'
'Very well,' Orac replied. Its own survival was at stake. 'But the previous co-ordinates can only be matched approximately.'
'Come on, Tarrant,' Avon said, picking up Orac.
'I can't,' Tarrant said with regret. Training had overcome fear.
'What?' Avon went to help if he could.
'If I leave the controls for a second, she'll flip over and break up.'
Avon put Orac down: he would do what he could. 'Slave - take over the flight controls.'
'I am most humbly sorry, Master, but I can find no flight controls.' When this was over, and any necessary damage dealt with, Slave would praise Tarrant's piloting. Better than Dorian's for all his years of experience.
'It dropped below his tolerance a couple of minutes ago. It's only a computer, Avon. It takes talent to fly a dead ship.' He appreciated Avon's willingness to take over. 'Look, there's nothing you can do. You're not a good enough pilot.' There was nothing else to say.
'I can see that.' Avon regretted parting like this. Getting into this position was his responsibility.
'So get the hell out of here, will you?' Tarrant could understand Avon's reluctance to leave: the captain should be the last to leave the ship.
'There's no point in both of us dying.' When he had thought about it, this was how Tarrant had expected to die.
There was a brief moment of understanding between the two of them, and then Avon picked Orac up again, moving to the teleport. 'Are you ready Orac?'
'Of course I am.' Orac expected many farewells in its lifespan.
'Then do it!' While there was still a chance for it to be heard, Avon looked at Tarrant and said goodbye.
Tarrant was aware of the farewell, was grateful. 'Slave, any crash systems still functioning, put them online.' He would go through the motions.
'Yes sir. Am I to understand that you are going to try and ground the ship, sir?'
If there was the remotest of chances, he would take it. 'I'm going to turn it first.'
Between them, pilot and computer did what they could.
'The ground is very close, sir,' Slave said a few moments later. It wanted to be back in the hanger on Xenon.
'I know that!' Tarrant replied. He understood exactly how Slave felt.
The Scorpio crashed and Tarrant screamed as he was thrown from his seat and injured.
Having watched the Scorpio pass on its final flight, Avon looked around his immediate environment. Many trees, the Scorpio a wreck, and no idea where the others were. This was what he had expected his end to be - rather than a glorious fight, or victory. Nobody had expected the Scorpio to come here - or that the group would be scattered to meet their fates - nobody would know that they had died.
'All right, Orac, where is the nearest settlement, and how do I get to it?' And, once he got there, Avon expected everything to go as wrong for him as it had been lately.
Blake played with the bag of gems - a better currency on Gauda Prime than Federation credits - while Deva finished checking Arlen's credentials.
'Checks are finished,' Deva said, glancing up at the screen on which Arlen appeared. 'She is who you say she is.'
'I wouldn't have brought her in if I hadn't been sure,' Blake replied. The computers would do what he could no longer rely on his instincts to do.
'You're good at this, aren't you,' Deva said with his usual humour, knowing when he could relax for a few minutes' banter.
'I'm still alive,' Blake said. What had Avon said once - winning is the only safety? Here, survival counted as winning. He wondered what Avon and Deva would make of each other - one day, he suspected, he would find out.
'According to HER,' Deva indicated the screen, 'three of your erstwhile colleagues no longer share that happy condition.'
Blake put the jewels away. 'HAPPY condition?'
'She says YOU killed one of them,' Deva added - Blake tended to let his opponents survive: nothing to do with the bounty.
Deva switched the screen off. 'Was it necessary?'
'Yes, Deva, it was necessary,' Blake replied. He took his gun off and put it down: he was safe here.
'One bounty hunter killing another?'
'It's a competitive profession.'
'That isn't funny,' Deva replied. Normally Blake came up with a better reason.
'Neither was Tando.'
'Tando?' Deva asked, and Blake affirmed it. 'Oh, if it was Tando you killed'
'Does it make a difference?' Blake wanted to see what difference it made to Deva.
'He was worse than the people he hunted.'
'He didn't have a price on him, though, did he?' Blake would have shot him regardless.
'It was only a matter of time.'
'Isn't everything?' Blake asked - including an attack on the base. 'Who's next on the list?'
'Uh' Deva checked the transparent information cubes, gave Blake a handful.
Klyn contacted them over the intercom.
'We've been tracking a ship that tried to run the blockade,' she said.
'Did it get through?' Deva asked. Anyone that desperate might be interesting.
'There was a full squadron of gunships on its tail when it hit the atmosphere.' Klyn replied.
'It didn't then?' Deva hazarded.
'Bits of it maybe.' Klyn did not know enough about spaceships to guess. It had held together while she had been monitoring it.
'What was it? Do you know?' Deva asked. They might be able to salvage something from it.
'A planet hopper from the scope reading. Might have been Wanderer class. We estimate it must have crashed somewhere in Plantation Five. Do you want a search patrol sent out?'
Deva decided it should be just logged - for now. Klyn broke the contact.
'Chalk up another one to law and order,' Blake said - not certain whose law and order it was.
'Smuggler, do you think?' Deva asked - Blake had known at least one Free Trader from what he said.
'Something like that,' Blake said. He had a fleeting suspicion - perhaps it was No, he would not make that guess without more information. 'Do you know it's getting so you can't make a dishonest living on this planet anymore?' An old joke between them.
'That is the object of the exercise.'
'Hm. I wonder if those gunships challenged him before they opened fire.'
'I doubt it,' Blake replied. He had made his selection of people to locate, gave the rest to Deva, who logged the choice. 'Plantation Five, did she say?' He picked up the gun again.
'I might just take a swing out in that direction, see if there's anything left.' There might be computer records, anything. And there was always the faint hope of information about his colleagues from the Liberator. After a few months of trying to find them, and more near misses than he cared to count, Blake had decided that he was wasting his time doing so - and it would be better to find a base, and try and get Avon and the others to come to him.
'You'll be wasting time,' Deva said, knowing Blake's wish for information about his old friends.
'I'll bear that in mind.'
The computer printed out the official authorisation to hunt the subjects Blake had chosen, and their known movements.
'Thank you,' Blake said.
The computer produced another card. Deva looked at it and was slightly surprised. 'Hm. You've been given temporary appointment as a law enforcement officer.' Did this mean that Gauda Prime was about to move to its next stage as a component of the Federation?
'That central computer doesn't care who it makes respectable, does it?' He could see certain ... possibilities from this seemingly accidental happening.
What was it Avon had once suggested - set up a mole within the Federation system and destroy it that way?
'It's an inferior model, I'm afraid,' Deva replied. If the Federation computers had not been, his life would be much more difficult.
'I'll be in touch if I find that ship,' Blake said. Rights of salvage existed even on Gauda Prime - no, especially on a planet like this.
'Time really is getting short, you know. The representative from the Federation High Council could come at any moment. We can't afford mistakes.' Deva said.
'I wasn't intending to make any.' Though there was ever the fear that he would. Because he had, others had died.
Deva told the spacecraft maintenance section that Blake - 'the bounty hunter' in case of eavesdroppers - was on his way. Blake left on the acknowledgement.
Deva then activated the visual link to Arlen.
'Arlen.' She looked at the monitor. 'Have you anything to say before I decide what to do with you?'
'I have information,' she said. This would not be the first would-be-rebel to claim the name of Roj Blake for his own purposes.
'What information?' All information was useful.
'For my life,' Arlen said.
'What information?' Deva repeated - this would not be the first time someone had misunderstood the set up.
'It's about the man who brought me here.'
'What about him?' This was part of the test.
Blake passed through the tracking gallery to go to the flyer hanger.
A console alarm went off. Avon would have made a remark about Blake's "magnetic personality."
'Problem?' Blake asked - he did not wish to come back to a disaster.
'Someone's operating a distress beacon,' Klyn replied.
'Nothing in it for me then. Outlaws tend not to use distress beacons.' They both enjoyed the joke and Blake left the gallery. Perhaps, if it was still operating later, he would go out to investigate.
'I assume you have given some thought to how you will explain you presence here, not to mention my impersonation of an official distress beacon,' Orac complained. Finding Blake had been an interesting challenge but even Slave would have objected to doing this.
Avon sat against a tree, holding his gun. It was uncomfortable enough to keep him awake and alert. He almost missed Vila's comments on the likelihood of them getting hypothermia under the circumstances.
'Just keep sending, Orac. I don't particularly want to spend the night out here.'
Neither did Orac. It disapproved of being out in the damp, and there was nothing interesting in the locality. 'You may have to. There is very little daylight left, and search parties are unlikely to operate in this terrain at night.'
Avon got up - the tree was too uncomfortable. 'Stick to the distress beacon, Orac. When I want your impersonation of a pain, I'll let you know.' He picked up the computer and started moving.
By the time Dayna, Soolin and Vila found the derelict hut it was dark, and they had almost given up hope of finding shelter.
'Oh, charming,' Vila said, 'really charming.'
'Oh, stop moaning, Vila' Dayna said. She had heard the sense of relief in his voice, and recognised it as complaining for the sake of it.
'It's better than spending a night in the open,' Soolin said. Gauda Prime nights at this time of year could get quite chilly.
'Are you serious? The state the roof's in, it's the same as spending a night in the open.'
'Well, if you'd prefer the trees, feel free to go,' Dayna said. 'Don't let us stop you.'
'I'd prefer a city, but I'd accept a town. In fact, I'd settle for some indication that we weren't the only people left alive in this miserable tree sanctuary.' He missed Avon and Tarrant and even Orac, who would probably share his opinion of this forest.
'Look, why don't you go and collect some firewood, hm?' Dayna said, seeing the small stove on one side of the hut.
'Because it's dark out there.'
'Surely you're not afraid of the dark?' Soolin asked. This was one occasion when she agreed with Vila's assessment of the risks.
'Only when it's unilluminated.' With a thief's ears trained to hear possible danger, he heard something. 'What's that?'
'All right, Vila, you've made your point,' Dayna said. She felt slightly nervous here herself.
They could hear the mechanical sound quite clearly.
'What is it?' Dayna asked.
'Flyer, coming fast,' Soolin identified. At other times she would accept Dayna's lead. If it ever came to a parting of the ways, she could do worse than team up with Dayna for a while.
'Flyer, as in transport?' Vila asked eagerly, and when Soolin agreed, 'Well, let's go out there and attract their attention.' For once he would let his paranoia go.
The two women convinced him this was not a good idea, and the flyer departed.
'They might have been friendly,' Vila muttered.
'They might have come to apologise for shooting down Scorpio, but it doesn't seem likely, does it?' Dayna said. She had been tempted for a moment, as Vila had.
'All right,' Vila said, regaining his normal sense of precaution. 'So who do you think they were, Soolin?' Might as well discuss that.
'I've no idea Vila,' Soolin replied. 'But one thing I do know, if you want to survive on this planet you have to assume that everyone is out to get you.' She too had had a brief fantasy that it was Tarrant come to rescue them.
'I always assume that wherever I go,' Vila replied. That way any kindness and friendship was a welcome surprise.
'The difference is, on Gauda Prime you'll be right,' Soolin said. Which did she prefer - Gauda Prime as it was, outside Federation control and swarming with bounty hunters and others, or it free of undesirables, but under Federation control?
Tarrant was drifting towards consciousness.
'Sir?' Slave asked, 'Are you still not awake, sir? I would be most grateful if you could try to stir yourself and listen to my report.' Slave felt alone. 'My emergency power cells are virtually exhausted, I'm afraid.' But not beyond repair. 'There is a flying vehicle approaching, sir. I'm sorry, but I will have to close down now. Crash damage and power loss make it impossible for me to continue.' Was this what dying felt like? What would repair feel like? 'May I express the humble hope that the same is not true for you, Tarrant.'
Tarrant became fully conscious on mention of his name and heard the flyer approach. When it started firing at the ship he crawled to a theoretically safer position.
'Lie still,' a voice said, and Tarrant did. The man, whoever he was, did not wish to attack him immediately.
'Who's that?' Tarrant did not expect a sensible answer.
'Let them think you're dead,' Blake said. He'd take this one back to the base, give him whatever basic medical treatment he needed, and then decide what to do with him. 'Plasma ammunition is scarce,' he explained. 'You're lucky that you weren't hit. They won't want to waste any more.' Blake was curious at the name the computer had given. But it was not uncommon.
Tarrant would take that statement on trust. 'Who are they?' he asked the stranger. He would reserve judgement on this man.
'Gun runners,' Blake explained.
'Gun runners?' Tarrant decided it was best not to mention that he had done that more than once. 'Why would gun runners be shooting at me?' He remembered what Vila said, how it always felt personal, even when it wasn't - and agreed with him, not that he would ever admit it.
'They're not. They're shooting at me.'
Blake judged the flyer's movements by its sound, and shot it down.
Vila put some more wood on the stove. He would not call this place pleasant, but as far as he had considered being lost in the woods this was the best he was likely to get. Now all they had to do was find Avon and Blake's base, and everything would work out - or so he hoped.
He was disturbed by a noise, saw an intruder. As Vila decided what to do he was hit on the head and fell down unconscious.
The two bounty hunters, grateful for this unexpected bonus, turned to the sleeping women. They turned at the voice outside the door.
'I wouldn't do that if I were you,' Avon said, shooting one and then the other.
Dayna and Soolin awoke at the sound.
'What happened?' Dayna asked. 'Avon?' She was happy to see him again. Now all they had to do was find Tarrant and get to this mysterious Blake's base.
'The fire was stupid,' Avon said, anger mixing with relief at finding his companions. 'Putting Vila on guard was suicidal. What's the matter, is staying alive too complicated for you?'
'It's beginning to look that way,' Soolin said, partially to diffuse the situation. 'How did you get here?'
'I teleported and I walked, just like you did.' And used the now dead bounty hunters to find these three.
'Is he dead?' Soolin asked of Vila. She needn't have asked the question, as he groaned almost immediately.
'No more than usual,' Dayna said. This time Vila's complaints would be justified. 'He'll recover. What about them?' The bounty hunters.
'They're dead alright,' Soolin said. She could do worse than have Avon as a back up in her work. What excuses would Soolin find for the others?
Avon retrieved Orac from the undergrowth: it could match Vila in its complaints about unsuitable environments.
'What hit me?' Vila asked as he recovered.
'Don't worry, Vila,' Dayna said, 'they went for your least vulnerable spot.'
'Oh, my head,' Vila replied.
'Exactly.' Dayna turned to Avon. 'So who are they?'
'Bounty hunters. I did warn you there were a lot of them about.'
'You didn't say the woods were full of them,' Dayna complained.
'Do you know how they found us?' Soolin asked.
'They have heat tracers in their flyer. At night the equipment is sensitive enough to pick up normal body heat within a radius of two miles.' Avon could think of several interesting uses for the equipment. But... 'You can imagine what they made of that,' he said, pointing at the stove.
'Their inboard computer almost rejected the data as too gross to be correct,' Orac said, having filed the information away for future use.
'Did you find out what they were doing in this area, Orac?' Soolin asked. The computer seemed to enjoy being in a position of superiority, even if merely in knowing more than its human companions did.
'They came to investigate my distress signals, naturally.'
'Naturally,' Dayna said. The sort of thing she would have thought of. 'You wouldn't have set us up, by any chance, would you, Avon?'
'Now that is an unattractive idea,' Soolin said, though she doubted it. 'I really could be quite annoyed if I thought we'd been the bait in a trap you'd laid for them, Avon.' Luring the bounty hunters to the vicinity so they could find the trio was more likely, knowing what she did of him - the sort of thing she'd do.
'Where's Tarrant?' Vila asked suddenly.
Avon decided to ignore Vila's question for the moment, and answered Soolin. 'I had no idea it was you.' Though he was glad to have rejoined them. 'And it shouldn't have been. As a matter of interest, you've been walking in the wrong direction if you want to get out of this forest.' Even as he wished to go his own way, without the responsibility of caring for others, he was pleased that these three so evidently needed his guidance.
'I asked where Tarrant was,' Vila repeated.
'Still, there's no longer a problem,' Avon said, indicating the bounty hunters. 'We just inherited a flyer.'
'Avon, if you're here, and Orac's here, how did Tarrant get off the ship?' Vila asked though he knew the answer: Tarrant had decided to go for a bout of heroics - probably.
Avon glared at Vila. He felt guilty that he had not been able to do anything to rescue Tarrant.
Blake had given Tarrant basic first aid, and the pilot was now drinking something medicinal, for shock.
'You feeling better?' Blake asked.
'A little,' Tarrant replied. All those hours of FSA training had paid off even with a crash landing.
Blake had picked up what he suspected was a teleport bracelet, tried it on. Not quite like those of the Liberator. 'Whose ship is this?' he asked, curious, and attempting to get the measure of this young man.
'Why?' Tarrant asked, warily. 'You thinking of making an offer for it?' He was stalling, as they both knew - but all ships had a salvage value - even without the teleport and the stardrive.
'Want to tell me your name, then?' Blake asked, putting the bracelet down.
'Not particularly,' Tarrant replied. He was not thinking clearly enough to use a nom de guerre - what had Avon called himself that time? Not that he blamed Avon for not coming after him, though there might well be a loud argument on that if they met up again.
'Hm,' Blake could understand Tarrant's wariness on a planet like this, 'I did just save your life.'
'You just saved YOUR life. It was you they wanted, if you remember.' Sometimes a resort to Avon's waspishness could be justified.
'Actually,' Blake said, pulling out a small bag, 'it was these they wanted.' He threw the bag to Tarrant who caught it - his reflexes were working then.
'They had some quaint idea I was going to pay for a consignment of arms in advance.' Tarrant poured the contents of the bag out - a handful of gems -or perhaps fakes. 'I had some quaint idea they were trying to cheat me.'
Tarrant put the gems back. He had come across this test before, as a mercenary, while Vila had also referred to the practice on occasion.
'Yes, well it's difficult to tell who you can trust these days,' Tarrant replied. He was thinking of Zukan and the others. 'But as tests go, isn't THAT,' he indicated Blake's gun, which was beside him, 'and THIS,' he held up the bag of gems, 'a bit obvious?' Tarrant then threw the bag to Blake, who caught it in turn,
'Maybe,' Blake replied. Tarrant was not stupid - but Avon would not tolerate stupidity. 'It's getting light. Shall we go?'
Blake gave Tarrant a hand, helped him up. Tarrant was unprepared for the bruises to hurt so much and grunted in pain.
Now that it was daylight Avon led the others to the bounty hunters' flyer.
'Why did they land it so far away?' Vila complained. There were definite disadvantages to forests, quite apart from there being nothing worth appropriating.
'Presumably they thought the noise would alert someone,' Soolin explained.
'In your case,' Avon said, 'they could have put it down on the roof without any trouble.'
'Avon,' Orac said, 'the other flyer has just lifted off.'
'The other flyer?' Dayna said with slight alarm. 'What other flyer, Avon?'
'Our guide. Come on, we don't want to lose him,' Avon replied. The sooner they got to whoever-it-was's base - yes, he would admit it to himself, he hoped it was Blake's - the sooner they would find whether Tarrant had by some bizarre chance managed to survive.
'So how far is this base of yours?' Tarrant asked. It was strange to be the passenger rather than the pilot in even a flyer.
'We'll be there soon enough,' Blake replied. He could see Tarrant itching to get hold of the controls - they could do with a pilot.
'We'd be there a lot sooner if your computer stuck to direct line of flight.' Tarrant could think of several reasons why it was being done. 'Is the constant change of direction for my benefit?'
'No,' Blake replied. Tarrant had some understanding of tests then - and was prepared not to implicitly accuse his rescuer of anything.
'A random program,' Tarrant said. He had used them on occasion. Not that he would tell his rescuer, yet.
'An old smuggler's trick.'
'Did you learn it from an old smuggler?' There was no guarantee that he would meet up with Avon or the others in the short or long term, and Tarrant was not going to rule out working with his rescuer for a while - but he would learn the other's line of business first.
'No, from a young one, actually. Her name was Jenna.' Blake noticed an almost imperceptible reaction - but Jenna was not an uncommon name.
'What happened to her?' Tarrant had known a Jenna in his school.
'She tried to run the blockade once too often. Happens to all of them eventually.'
'You made the capture?' People changed sides - and it could be someone other than the former pilot of the Liberator.
'Nobody made the capture. She hit the self-destruct. And when it blew, she took half a squadron of gunships with her.' The full story could be told another time. 'Brace yourself,' he added. They were starting the descent and he didn't wish to hurt Tarrant's bruising and other injuries too much.
'The other flyer,' Orac announced, pleased that the others would be accepting its directions without quibbling for once, 'appears to be manoeuvring to conceal its true course.'
'Because of us?' Vila asked.
'Not unless the pilot is clairvoyant,' Avon replied. He wanted to meet Blake again, he wanted to hand over the responsibility for others that he had been given, be the advisor and debunker of flawed plans he knew he was better at being.
'Well, why then?' Dayna asked.
'From the programming of the inboard computer, it is standard procedure.' And a fairly interesting programme with it. Another area of study for when Orac was not being pestered with trivial demands on its time.
'Just keep monitoring,' Avon said, and the flyer took off.
'How does it feel to be home?' Vila asked Soolin, to make conversation.
'I wouldn't know,' Soolin replied. She had left this planet too long ago to have any feelings for it, and it had changed.
Orac interrupted. 'The target flyer has entered an underground silo.'
'Can you pinpoint it?' Avon asked. 'Exactly,' he added, to annoy Orac.
'I can do better than that.' Orac replied.
'Aren't you always?' Dayna said.
'My capacities are frequently underutilised, it's true,' Orac replied. But, if its companions were satisfied with that, Orac was not going to inflict on them, but use the spare time for its own purposes.
'Just tell us what you're offering, Orac,' Avon said. One day he would test Orac to its limits.
'When we reach the appropriate co-ordinates, I can simulate the necessary signals to open the silo and allow this flyer to enter.' Little different from being asked to impersonate a distress beacon really.
'Oh, sounds good,' Dayna said, uncertain.
'No it isn't,' Vila said gloomily. 'Sooner or later we're going to drop into one of these holes in the ground and never come out.'
'Sooner or later, everyone does that, Vila,' Avon said. The way things had been going wrong lately, probably sooner rather than later.
Blake had been showing Tarrant round the base. They came to the tracking gallery, where Klyn was watching a monitor.
'You still on watch?' Blake asked.
'I decided to stay on. There's too much activity up there somehow,' Klyn replied.
'Like what?' Blake asked.
'I don't know. It's not something I can pin down precisely. One or two transports have crossed without clearance, some flyers that weren't planned for the area, that sort of thing. Could be the Federation's observer's finally arrived, of course.'
'Yes, that's probably it,' Blake said. If their cover wasn't blown, they might stay for a while, get themselves a reputation and then go somewhere else. 'Ensure that the activity continues to be monitored.' Klyn nodded.
Blake now led Tarrant towards Deva's office.
'Gauda Prime seems to give law and order a certain priority,' Tarrant said, to make conversation and gather information. Avon - and possibly Vila - would want a report when they met up again.
'You could say that.'
'Is that the main control centre?' Tarrant asked.
'Deva can tell you more about that than I can,' Blake said firmly.
They went into Deva's office.
'Well, now, bounty hunter, that was a short trip even by your standards,' Deva said to Blake. Until he knew who this stranger was, Deva would follow standard procedures.
'Short, but profitable,' Blake said, grabbing Tarrant's gun. 'Even by my standards.'
'Was it something I said?' Tarrant asked, sensing the situation was possibly turning dangerous.
'Who is he?' Deva asked.
'His name is Tarrant.' Blake looked at Tarrant. 'Your flight computer mentioned it whilst you were unconscious,' he explained.
'Tarrant?' Deva said, trying to place the name. Hadn't one of the Teal-Vandor champions had that name?
'No, I wouldn't run it through the computer just yet, Deva.' Blake said: that would alert computers elsewhere. 'You see, this one has a very high Federation price on his head.'
'Are you sure?' Deva asked, uncertain what game Blake was playing.
'Oh, give the man credit for knowing his trade,' Tarrant said, 'dirty though it is.' Not another trap.
'He also has several associates with Federation prices, and one of them is particularly valuable.'
'And all of them are particularly dead,' Tarrant said. He owed the others that loyalty.
'In which case that other flyer was merely a coincidence. A coincidence, however, that might just have analysed a random flight program?' Blake was trying to judge Tarrant's reaction.
'And the significance of that is?' Deva asked.
'A very useful device called Orac,' Blake said. And even if it was another computer entirely, which could not be ruled out, it would be useful. 'Why don't you sit down, Tarrant? If it is Avon, we shouldn't have much longer to wait.' Blake wanted to see his old friend again.
Tarrant looked at Deva. 'Doesn't it occur to you to wonder where he's got all this information from?' He wanted to understand this set up. Perhaps this was not Blake. Perhaps, as Vila had suggested, it was some form of double bluff. Perhaps he should take it at face value.
'Give the man credit for knowing his trade,' Deva suggested.
'Oh, surely you're not that naive,' Tarrant retorted.
'You're wasting your breath, Tarrant,' Blake said. Surely Tarrant could guess what was going on?
The intercom beeped.
'Yes?' Deva asked, grateful for the interruption.
Klyn answered. 'There's a flyer just put down in the silo. It had all the right signals, but it isn't one of ours.'
'Let them through,' Blake decided. He would let Avon make the dramatic entrance he so obviously wished.
Deva repeated Blake's command into the intercom. 'Is that wise?' he asked Blake.
'We don't want them damaged, do we?' Blake replied. Avon, as Blake remembered him, would not take kindly to being restrained. 'Get me one security guard. I'll deal with it.' He knew what to expect from Avon - a long, and from his point of view, understandable, diatribe about Blake's not getting in touch. Blake would admit his guilt, say something about deciding to do something useful rather than persistently missing contact, and then divert Avon's attention with the computers. Blake would have to tell Deva not to rise to Avon's sarcasms.
'What on earth happened to you?' Tarrant asked, deciding, reluctantly, that this might indeed be Blake - how many people knew of Orac's capacities? He would have to see what Avon would make of it.
'Oh, most of it wasn't on Earth, Tarrant,' Blake replied, referring to more than the scarring on his face. 'Not what happened to me.'
Arlen entered, and Tarrant made use of the distraction. He grabbed the gun from Blake's hand, shoved the man towards the young woman, and left the room, pushing the protesting Deva out of the way.
'Do you want him killed?' Arlen asked. She had made the necessary preparations for her work. But one such as this Tarrant, running around creating mayhem might serve her purposes better than having him out of the way.
'No, of course not! When he knows as much about this as you do now, he'll join us, like you did.'
'He passed the test then?' Arlen asked. Not that she thought much of its success.
'I'm satisfied,' Blake replied.
'These stupid games you insist on playing, Blake, will get someone killed eventually,' Deva said. There were better ways of doing things.
'I have to test each one myself,' Blake insisted.
'No you don't have to!' Deva replied. 'I set up systems for that. I broke the security codes on their central computer.' Arlen made a mental note - perhaps this one could be saved for Federation use. 'I got us access to official channels, information, everything we could possibly need!' It needed more time to process each candidate, true, but it would show up any problems. 'You don't need to be involved at all!'
'All right. I find it difficult to trust,' Blake said. He had told Avon about trusting him from the very beginning, and look where that had got Blake. 'It's a failing, I admit.'
'And any one of our people could select the people you've collected. You don't need to do the bounty hunter routine, either!' How many potential recruits would it put off - and the taint of it might well persist.
'Indulge me!' Blake requested.
'Do I have a choice?'
Blake remembered Avon asking that question. The two computer experts had quite a lot in common otherwise. 'Oh, there's always a choice, Deva.'
'Not for me, there isn't,' Deva could not analyse what drew him to follow Blake. 'I said I'd follow you, and I will, until the Federation's finally destroyed. But if you're killed, where does that leave us?' How difficult would it be to find someone else to take the lead Blake had? Those that Deva would even consider offering his services to were far away, and would need convincing of his loyalty.
'With a base, the beginnings of an army!' Blake protested.
'All of it useless if you're not there to lead it.'
Blake removed his gun. From what he had heard, Avon had linked up several leaders in opposition to the Federation. He could perhaps take over Blake's role here as well. The trouble would be in persuading him. 'You worry too much, Deva.'
'Somebody has to,' Deva replied. He had a slight natural pessimistic tendency. Blake relied on him to think of what might go wrong and resolve the problem.
'It might be an idea for someone to start worrying about the one we just lost,' Arlen said. If they were so lax, it was surprising they had lasted so long.
'Why?' Blake asked. 'He isn't armed.'
'I didn't notice that slowing him up,' Arlen said. Perhaps Tarrant might cause problems for her rather than this group - you could plan for everything, only to have one random factor spoil everything. The one time she had had encountered a psychostrategist the same point had been made.
'That's true,' Blake said. 'Relax, Deva,' he added. 'Nobody's indispensable.'
As Blake and Arlen left Deva wondered whether he and Blake shared the same definition of indispensable.
Tarrant was dashing through the base, trying to get to Avon in time to warn him. He found himself in the tracking gallery again. The woman he'd met before was still there.
'Hey, you. Wait a minute!' Klyn said, only to have Tarrant attack her and knock her out. One of the other members of the base, coming to relieve Klyn, attacked him in turn.
The alarm went off: the Federation forces were finally landing on Gauda Prime, and were dangerously close to the base.
The rest of the Scorpio group reached the tracking gallery, saw Tarrant under attack. Soolin shot Tarrant's assailant.
Tarrant was surrounded by his friends.
'I'm glad you made it,' Avon said to Tarrant.
'So am I,' Tarrant replied. He noticed Avon had picked up a weapon from somewhere - and Orac was not with them. He guessed the computer had been put in a place of safety until the situation was clearer. 'Avon, I think he's here.'
Avon and Vila looked at each other - they would meet their friend again at last.
'Klyn recovered enough to speak into the intercom. 'Security personnel to main tracking gallery. Security personnel to main tracking gallery'
Avon shot her. The situation was confused enough as it was.
Blake and Arlen, having heard the alarm rather than Klyn's message, came into the tracking gallery.
'Is it him?' Tarrant asked, seeking a final confirmation.
'It's him,' Vila confirmed. Well, he and Avon had changed in the last two years as well.
'He sold us, Avon. All of us. Even you,' Tarrant cried out, knowing the effect it would have on Avon. So many betrayals - and now another one.
Avon lowered the gun, hoping desperately that Tarrant had misunderstood.
'Is it true?' Avon asked. How many times had he been betrayed lately? Keiller and Egrorian and Zukan. Before that there had been Anna, and Tynus and the staff of the base where they'd gone to get Gan treated... And his colleagues in the original crime, who had decided to give evidence against him, in the spurious hope that it would buy them reduced sentences
'Avon, it's me, Blake!' Blake tried to explain, wishing to remind Avon of the friendship that had once been between them. Deva and Arlen had in their separate ways been right. Now he had to face Avon's wrath.
'Stand still!' Avon shouted. Blake had said once that he had trusted Avon from the beginning - was that false? 'Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?!'
If Blake had betrayed his own beliefs, what was the point of Avon's quest?
'Tarrant doesn't understand!' Blake said. He could understand why Avon would misunderstand.
'Neither do I, Blake!' Avon replied. This was a nightmare.
'I set all this up,' Blake replied, immediately aware of the unfortunate ambiguity.
'Yes!' Had Blake betrayed everything - what he believed in, what Avon believed in? Why had Avon allowed himself to accept Blake's cause - when it appeared that Blake might no longer believe in it?
Blake moved towards Avon, wanting to shake some sense into him. 'I was waiting for YOU!' So he could explain to the whole group the organisation he had been setting up.
Avon could bear it no longer, the last betrayal overwhelming him. Anna he could, almost, accept, believing in her own cause, acting to entrap someone who undermined it. If he could not trust Blake to believe in his own cause, where could he place his trust? He shot Blake, who kept on moving. What was wrong? Was this another robot? He shot again and a third time.
Blake reached out to Avon. 'Avon,' he began, before collapsing.
Avon looked at Blake in horror. He finally understood that he - and perhaps Tarrant - had misunderstood the situation entirely. Who had betrayed whom?
Deva rushed in. 'Blake!' he began, 'They've found us! The base is under...' He realised the scene he was seeing was all wrong. Blake's games had finally failed him. 'Arlen, what happened?'
'HE happened,' Arlen indicated Avon. She then shot Deva in cold blood, who collapsed. 'Be so kind as to drop your guns, all of you.' She would have to take control here. Three of the newcomers dropped their guns, while the one who had just shot Blake stood staring at the fallen man, in a state of obvious shock. Arlen heard a distant explosion - the take-over of the base had begun. 'You and this nest of rebels,' she would not say it was Roj Blake until she had independent confirmation, 'are now prisoners of the Federation. Your friend Blake said he couldn't tell anymore who was Federation and who wasn't. He was right. He couldn't.'
Tarrant grimaced: he would have to take over here, as Avon was still too stunned to do anything. Besides, Tarrant recognised that he had, perhaps, misinterpreted the situation. 'You're a Federation agent?' He was stalling for time, he knew.
'I'm a Federation officer,' Arlen corrected.
'Oh, now,' Vila said, hoping he could talk his way out of this situation as he had talked his way out of danger so often before. 'look, I've never been against the Federation.' That was, technically true - he would carry out his career whoever was in charge. He went to Arlen. 'I mean, I've only ever been along for the ride.' True after a fashion. 'I'm not even armed. You can't kill me. I'm completely harmless and armless.' He was trying to divert her attention so he could think of a way to escape.
Dayna decided to take control, and picked up a gun. Arlen, seeing the movement, shot her. Tarrant caught Dayna and put her down gently.
Vila knocked Arlen unconscious - she had shot a friend of his. 'Sorry,' he muttered for some reason, and picked up her gun. The shooting and explosions in the distance got closer, and Federation troopers started coming into the room.
Before he could do anything more, Vila was shot and collapsed. Soolin managed to hit one trooper before she was shot in turn.
'Avon!' Tarrant yelled, having shot one of the troopers. Why wasn't the man doing anything? Before Tarrant could reach Avon he was shot.
Avon finally awoke from his trancelike state - he had shot Blake, what he had done had led to the ending of whatever dreams they had had.
He realised he was surrounded by Federation troopers. What had happened to his companions? Vila and then Tarrant had said something - he had no idea what.
The troopers encircled him. One of them presented his weapon briefly - why?
Avon looked down at Blake.
Once, Avon recalled, he had said to Servalan, that he had thought his own death and Blake's would be linked. Well, he had proved the truth of it, though not in the way he had then expected.
He went to stand over Blake's body: they would be companions in death, as they had once been in life. He remembered from long ago standing over Travis - who had then shot Blake. Full circle in a way.
How would he, and Blake, and the others, be remembered? Nobody knew the Scorpio group had come to Gauda Prime - or Blake himself. Would they fade into history or would they tantalise others, be argued over, and make others take up the cause, have more success than they had had? He would accept that legacy. Orac would have to fend for itself now - Avon wished luck on whoever took on the role of the computer's guardian, and also those who would take on Blake's role, with all the illusions, misunderstandings and betrayals - and the successes too - that went with the choice.
Avon looked up, and was aware of the alarm stopping. He was surrounded, and there was seemingly no chance of escape. This was how he had expected it to end, in confusion on a forgotten planet, rather than their victory.
Avon raised his gun and aimed it at the door - he would go down fighting. Given the choice, between a long life on Cygnus Alpha and the few years that had brought him here, there was no contest. And - though there had been defeats lately, there had been more successes - Decimas and Albians, Auronar, and those who had come to the conference with Zukan knew the details of the antidote to Pylene 50. There might be something that could be classed as a victory.
He smiled, at peace with himself, as the shooting began.