A Furry Tale

Leah Rosenthal & Ann Wortham

Vila Restal woke in a cold sweat, gripped by the worst panic of his life. He groaned, before his throat constricted in dry, coppery fear at the very sound. He was lying safely in familiar quarters…his own cabin on the Liberator, in fact, and there was no particular reason that he could see for the sudden onslaught of stark terror. At least, that's what the rational part of his mind said. The other side was swamping him with blind fear. Unable to control his trembling, a remembered instinct from his childhood seized him and became a compelling drive. He had to find someone; he would be safe, if he could only find someone to share the danger with him and make it all go away. But between himself and his goal lay the yawning chasm of his darkened cabin to cross: black, invisible corners hiding unguessed-at monsters.

He should never have taken that little amulet, a small voice of retribution spoke somewhere inside of him. The thief in him objected and laid the blame elsewhere. It was Blake's fault; Blake who had teleported himself and Cally down that day to the nameless planet below. Blake had told them to explore the temple ruin as a possible hiding place for an armory. Vila didn't care about armories. For all he knew, the dissidents of Tau Remus 2 could hide their bombs in their attics, and he wouldn't care. But Blake had insisted that the dissidents needed somewhere off-planet to stash their arsenal, and he'd volunteered the services of the Liberator (and Vila, by extension), to find it.

Vila had found the temple and its graphic murals of a long-dead race disconcertingly spooky. Since he was a confessed coward, all he had wanted to do was leave.

Still, when he had seen the little gleam of gold in one wall niche of the Great Hall of the temple, he had investigated. Greed made him take the amulet he found, and guilt made him hide it from Cally and the rest. It was an insignificant-looking thing anyway. He'd looped the gold chain around his neck and tucked the four-legged gold lump under his tunic to conceal it. It still lay under his tunic, and Vila knew with every terrified nerve of his being that it was the retribution of some angry, violated demon that was frightening him out of his wits and immersing him in this unending nightmare.

Gathering up the last of his courage in desperation, he rushed the door and slid through, his heart hammering. Outside, the corridor was also darkened to simulate night. With determination from some unguessed-at source, Vila dashed to the nearest cabin to his own, broke his own record for getting through a lock and threw himself at the bed inside with a gasp of relief. He landed beside the sleeping occupant with considerable impact, and curled up, trembling, under the covers.

Kerr Avon shot bolt upright, his mind still a sleep-riddled fog. "Wuzzat?" he rasped, the bed still reverberating from the lingering force of Vila's entry. He peered through the darkness at the trembling lump under the covers beside him and cautiously reached over to peel them back. He stared at Vila for a moment.

"Vila," he said softly, "What the hell are you doing in my bed?" His tone belied the unspeakable violence he wanted to do at that moment.

"Please…," gasped Vila. "Please, Avon… I'm so sc-scared…just let me stay for a little while…."

"What have you been drinking now, you unrepentant sot?" snapped Avon.

"I ha-haven't drunk anything! I'm just so f-frightened…."

"Delirium tremens will do that," hissed Avon. "Go back to your own cabin."

"No…please…," Vila begged, clinging to Avon in terror at the thought of returning over that perilous course.

Avon rolled his eyes upward. Fate seemed to be hell-bent on destroying his every effort to maintain some semblance of a dignified existence. On top of the circumstances that had brought him to Blake and his band, he was now faced with playing security blanket for a fully-grown Delta grade thief in an alcoholic daze. He swung his legs and shoved Vila off his bed. Vila landed on the floor with a start led yelp.

"Go and curl up with Blake," he told the man venomously. "I'm sure he's cuddlier than I." He wrapped the covers around himself and flopped back down on his side, his back to the whimpering man.

A sudden, prickling sensation started to sweep over Vila, rapidly replacing the stark terror. He froze as the prickling began to turn to an itch. Something was happening! The fear returned, this time with good reason. Vila scrambled up off the floor and hit the bed again, shaking Avon.

"I need help! Avon, you've got to help me!"

Avon clung to his covers, unable to believe that this was happening to him. "Do I strike you as an advice columnist, Vila?" he said, not bothering to open his eyes. "Do I look like a brain surgeon?"

Vila realized that the itch had gradually changed to a raging fire in his bloodstream. What was happening to him? "AVON!" he shouted. "AVON, something's wrong!"

"I might have gone into politics—or the military," mumbled Avon. "But alas, the computer field beckoned. Little did I know I was condemning myself to a life of insomnia…."

"AVON, PLEASE!!" Vila cried.

"Will you let me sleep, you idiot?"

"I don't feel well!" moaned Vila.

"That makes two of us now. I have a headache!"

"What's the commotion?" came a voice from the open doorway. Avon looked up to see Roj Blake staring stiffly at the scene inside Avon's cabin. "Oh…didn't mean to intrude," he said, starting to back away.

"Blake…BLAKE! This is not what it looks like!"

"It's none of my business," said the rebel leader.

"BLAKE!!" Avon finally shouted, trying to get up and reason with the retreating figure. Vila was clinging to him, making the process difficult.

"What's going on here?" Cally's voice sounded sleepily from down the corridor. "Is anything wrong?"

"CALLY!!" Vila cried, upon hearing her voice. "I need help! Quickly!"

Blake turned back. "Avon, just what are you doing to poor Vila?" There was some amusement in the big man's voice.

Avon was strangling on inarticulate rage. Before he could frame an intelligent reply, Vila screamed. In the general vicinity of his left ear. The high-pitched bellow rendered him temporarily deaf and made him jump backward, and he promptly fell off the bed in a tangled heap of covers. "Ooof," he said.

"Woof!" said Vila.

Blake and Cally stared, their mouths agape and eyes widened. They looked like a matched set of bookends. "What's that thing?" she asked.

"That…is a dog. An Earth animal," Blake gawked. "It was Vila…until a moment ago." They were now gazing at a very bewildered, floppy-eared, brown and white spotted beagle. It lay where it had fallen on the floor, panting at them and whining.

Cally started forward, still staring. She knelt gingerly beside the animal and laid a cautious hand on its head. She felt a familiar set of emotions jump out at her and she fell backward, startled, and sat down hard on the floor.

"Woof!" said Vila. "Woof! Woof!" He barked and ran around Cally, extremely agitated. "He's…he's shape-shifted!" Cally told Blake. "It must have had something to do with the temple we explored yesterday…there were murals all over the walls about animals." She reached over to Vila and drew the dog closer to examine the gold amulet that was still hanging from his neck. She didn't dare touch it.

"What is that thing?" asked Blake, crouching to join her beside the unhappy animal.

"It's some kind of talisman. I'm willing to wager this is what did it," mused the Auron. "He must have found it and pocketed it before we teleported up."

"He must have felt the change coming on and he ran for help," Blake guessed. "Have you ever heard of anything of this kind happening, Avon?" Blake looked up. The computer expert was nowhere to be seen. In the silence broken only by Vila's enthusiastic panting, Blake and Cally looked around in confusion, then exchanged apprehensive looks. "You don't suppose…," Blake started, in growing alarm.

"Don't be silly," snapped Cally. "Only Vila was wearing the talisman. Unless he was in direct physical contact with anyone when he started to change, they wouldn't turn into a dog as well." She paused at the growing horror in Blake's eyes.

A darker shadow had detached itself from the shadows surrounding the cabin and shook itself. A rather small, furry shadow.

"Avon…?" Blake breathed.

The computer expert hissed and lashed his tail.

Vila sat panting and whining on the flight deck, watching Blake pace back and forth. "Orac, I don't want to hear how impossible this is,'" he told the clear computer on the table impatiently. "The evidence is right here."

*A canine and a feline are here,* Orac qualified. *Sensors register normal physiology in both. It is physically impossible to transform human beings into lower life forms.*

Blake was developing a headache. His nose was itching as well. He had a vague suspicion that he was allergic to Avon, who sat on his computer console, watching Blake sullenly. "This is not going to help," he told Cally. "Unless we can figure out what's happened and how to undo it…."

"Yes, what's happened?" Jenna spoke up, yawning from where she stood at the doorway to the flight deck. "Are we all awake from some good reason?"

"Woof," said Vila, disconsolately.

Jenna stared. Her newly-alert gaze shifted to the black cat sitting on the computer console, glaring at her with an uncannily familiar expression. "How…Blake! Where did you get them? They're adorable!" She descended the stairway and reached to pet Vila, who wagged his tail and panted happily. "I haven't seen Earth animals in ages!"

"Uh—it's rather difficult to explain," started Blake.

"I'll bet," Jenna said, reaching to pick up the cat. Avon arched his back and hissed warningly. The pilot withdrew her hand quickly. "Mmmmm…nasty, bad-tempered beast."

"Isn't he, though?" Cally commented. "Jenna, I know this is going to sound unbelievable…."

*It is impossible,* Orac put in again insistently.

"Quiet, Orac. Jenna, these two animals…that is, the two animals you're looking at, are actually Avon and Vila." Cally pointed.

"You woke me up for a practical joke like this?" Jenna said peevishly.

"No joke," said Blake grimly, folding his arms. "We saw them change, right in front of our eyes. What's more, they're fully sentient, inside those bodies. Go on…ask them a question. Something that will prove who they are."

"All right, I'll play along," Jenna grinned. "Oh, 'Vila,' be a good doggie and fetch the adrenaline and soma from the medical unit."

The dog jumped up and scurried off the flight deck like a shot, heading in the correct direction. There was the sound of distant barking after a moment, and Cally sighed.

"I think he knows where it is, but he's just discovered that you can't pick a lock with paws." The dog returned, whimpering.

Jenna stared hard at the animal, then turned to the cat. "Avon…?" she asked cautiously. Large green eyes blinked at her.

"Uh…indicate the switch for data loop recall," she ventured. The cat turned lazily and patted at the correct button with one paw. Jenna gaped. "How did this happen?"

"The amulet, hanging around the dog's—around Vila's—neck," Blake pointed at the necklace in question. "Some little arcane trinket he swiped from the temple yesterday. Orac insists what's happened is counter to a dozen laws of physics, genetics and matter dynamics, and has no record of a precedent, except in various legends."

"Well obviously, someone made it work," Cally sighed. "The amulet changed Vila, and Vila apparently spread it to Avon somehow."

"Any ideas yet as to how we can change them back?" Blake wanted to know.

Cally frowned, deep in thought for awhile. Avon stopped glaring for a moment to absently wash behind his ears.

"There's a chance that if we get them far enough away from the talisman, the effects will reverse. I've heard stories about this kind of thing before, in legend, at least," Cally finally said.

"That shouldn't be difficult on a starship," Jenna said. "Just jettison the thing and run Standard by Eight for a bit." She grinned. "We don't want to waste time, either. I'm not sure the Liberator can provide pet food."

Avon yowled in annoyance. He obviously didn't see anything particularly funny about the situation. Blake eyed him with some amusement. For once, the computer expert was unable to frame a properly acid comment at anyone, and he rather suspected that this annoyed Avon more than his current physical state.

+Information,+ Zen suddenly spoke up, causing Vila to jump and whine.

"What is it, Zen?" Blake asked the flight computer.

+The data that you requested has been located.+

"Damn," Blake muttered, striking a fist into his palm. "Bad timing."

"What information was that?" Jenna asked, reaching down to scratch Vila on the head. The dog's hind leg made delighted, scratching motions in sympathy.

"I told Zen to initiate a cross-reference program on any Federation movement within the sector," said Blake. "He's found something."

+A Federation flagship and several escort ships have arrived at Tau Remus 2. Records indicate that Supreme Commander Servalan was the most probable individual for whom this convoy was initiated.+

Blake turned and eyed the strange assembly on the flight deck for a few moments, one hand supporting his elbow while the other rubbed his lip. "Zen, set course for Tau Remus 2, Standard by Eight."

"Blake…aren't we going to get rid of the amulet first?" Cally asked, a worried expression on her face.

"Yes, of course. How soon do you think it should be done?"

"Immediately, of course, what do you mean?"

"How soon would you estimate we would have to jettison the amulet and reverse the effects before any permanent damage is done?"

"I'm not sure I approve of what you're thinking." Cally eyed Blake warily. "I don't think there will be any serious consequences within a few days…possibly a week, but—after that, there's a fair chance Avon and Vila might start to lose the ability to think…the change might become permanent."

"How is that?" Blake asked intently.

Cally walked over to Avon, who was listening sullenly. She pointed at the cat's head. "There isn't room in that feline cranium to hold a human consciousness. I don't know why he's intelligent, even now. But eventually, the feline and canine hormones will swamp them, and they'll both start to forget who and what they are…it's a simple matter of time and chemistry acting on physiology."

Vila whimpered and trotted up to Blake, looking up at him with sad, doggy eyes. Blake looked down at him impassively. "A few days, you said?"

"Blake." Cally glared at: him.

"Will they be safe, Cally?" he insisted.

"Yes. I'm fairly sure. Just what are you thinking?"

"I am thinking," said Blake, "That an ordinary cat or dog could go anywhere they pleased inside a Federation Base without being unduly noticed."

"WOOF!" Vila protested. "WOOF! WOOF! WOOF!" He was drowning out Avon, who was hissing at Blake and flexing his claws.

"They don't seem to think much of the idea," Jenna commented.

"You aren't serious! You intend to take advantage of their current condition that way?" Cally asked.

"Normally, I wouldn't even think of it. But, as it happens, I've received information that the Federation forces on Tau Remus are planning some major covert measure against the population in general and the Resistance in particular. But the base has unusually tight security, and we can't find out any more details about it…which makes me more apprehensive. Now that Servalan has arrived, I'm even more certain it's something disastrous. We can't afford to pass up a one-of-a-kind opportunity like this." Blake walked over to the black cat and faced him directly. "Think rationally, Avon. If you were a Federation officer, would you worry about a cat or dog breaching security?"

The animal's tail lashed, but he remained silent. Of course, he didn't have the ability to do much else.

"All you have to do is teleport down with Vila, scatter, and have a look around. After you return, we'll get rid of the talisman and you can tell me what you saw…and exactly what you, no doubt, think of me. A quick and unique surveillance, Avon. Nothing more."

The cat yowled deep in its throat. Blake did not need a translation. "Right. We should be orbiting Tau Remus in a week. Cally, is there a chance it would be less hazardous to let them change back in the intervening time?"

"None whatsoever," she answered. "I can't begin to calculate the odds on something like this. It might be impossible. It might not work quite right a second time. It's nothing short of a miracle that it's happened at all. You would be compounding the risks tremendously."

"All right, then," Blake said quietly. "I think the teleport bracelet would just about fit you as a collar, Avon. We'll have to rig something a little larger for Vila."

The dog suddenly started to whine again and began to run in little circles. Jenna stared at it for a moment. "Um…Blake. I think Vila needs walkies…."

Jenna's little joke turned out to be more prophetic than anyone would have imagined, It turned out that the changes in Avon and Vila affected everyone and everything on the Liberator to some degree.

Avon and Vila seemed to carry over much of their individual personalities into their animal forms. It was Cally's theory that the amulet had somehow matched up the characteristics of the individual with the choice of beast they most resembled. This seemed farfetched, to Blake…until one watched a beagle climb onto a chair when it thought no one was looking and steal food off people's plates, which is what Vila frequently did. Until one caught Avon satisfying an insatiable curiosity by crawling into computer access shafts that had formerly been too small for a human to negotiate. Until one saw Vila following members of the crew everywhere, affably content as long as he had company.

Blake secretly suspected that Avon was finding his new form a mixed blessing. While he seemed to enjoy the ability to leap huge distances and see in the dark, his tail was constantly getting stepped on. Blake supposed that avoiding this problem was a reflex that cats learned while in long-term human company. Avon was also apparently subject to urges peculiar to his feline body. In the next few nights, Blake was awakened by loud "yowling" in the Liberator corridors and had to resist his own impulse to throw a boot. Even rebel leaders needed their sleep.

Jenna's reactions were slightly different. She seemed to find small furry animals irresistible and enjoyed watching their antics. While Avon still pointedly resisted her efforts to indulge him, Vila loved the attention. He was patted, scratched, rubbed and pampered by the normally cool pilot, and the black cat looked on in disgust as Vila encouraged her. He would sprawl with doggy abandon on the flight deck lounge, begging to have his tummy scratched, enjoying the enforced leisure and loving the special attention. This escalated slightly when Vila took to scratching himself and Jenna made an amused comment about his possibly "having fleas" and needing a bath. Blake rather suspected that Vila was hoping Jenna would volunteer for the job.

Some of Avon and Vila's new activities were less whimsical. They were frequent reminders of the chance Blake was taking by leaving them in their current state. One night, Avon appeared on top of Cally's console with a rodent in his mouth. The startled Auronae demanded to know what Avon thought he was doing, and the cat seemed to look momentarily confused and abashed. For his own part, Blake wondered where on board Avon had found a mouse…possibly it had come up in some supply crates or cargo. The idea of such things on the Liberator was a new one to him. He couldn't fault Avon for looking for things to do for distraction—the computer expert could not operate his computers.

There were problems and more problems as they raced for Tau Remus 2. Blake, Cally and Jenna began to discover cat and dog hair everywhere. It had never occurred to them that shedding could constitute a navigational hazard. Blake found himself having to clean off the flight consoles to keep the fur from working its way down into the circuitry.

On the third day out, Cally was eating a midday meal when Avon strolled in to the mess area and sniffed the air. Cally had no idea about the relationship between felines and fish, but it was clear that Avon did. Blake and Jenna watched covertly as Avon stared in obvious agony, fighting every instinct in his new body. He had made more of an effort to behave in a human fashion than Vila, but the strain was telling. Winning the battle with himself this time, the cat set himself down with his back turned indifferently toward the table and started to wash his face.

Vila bounced in, tongue lolling and nose twitching. With no hesitation, he zeroed in on Cally and sat up, begging for some of her lunch. The Auron smiled at his antic and broke off a piece of the fish, handing it to Vila. Blake noticed with a growing apprehension that Avon was watching this display over his shoulder, eyes narrowed. As Blake observed, Vila trotted up to the cat and plopped down nearby to eat the fish. Blake sensed what was coming; while it was unthinkable for Avon to descend to begging such irresistible fare from the other members of the crew, he had no such compunctions about Vila. He hooked a paw into the fish and yanked it away from the startled dog. Vila's instincts immediately overwhelmed him. He rose with a yelp and lunged at Avon, barking viciously. The cat arched his back and stood his ground, hissing.

"Avon…," Blake spoke warningly.

Neither of the shape-shifters seemed to hear him. Vila got one step too close and a black paw lashed out, claws bared. Vila whimpered in sudden pain as a bloody scratch appeared across his snout, then he bared his teeth in a growl and flew at Avon, barking. The cat's eyes widened and he fled, closely pursued.

"Oh, god," moaned Blake, wearily rising to his feet and following the sound of furious barking out toward the flight deck. "This isn't a crew…it's a zoo."

Vila was chasing Avon around the flight deck when the three remaining humans arrived. Then, with a mighty leap, Avon found refuge on top of Zen's flashing display and crouched up there, peering sullenly down at the dog, who seemed to be enjoying himself. Vila had his forefeet up on the wall and was barking his head off. Blake had had enough. He stalked up to the animals and put his hands on his hips. "Gentlemen," he said quietly.

Vila seemed to suddenly remember where and who he was and meekly quieted down, slinking off with his tail between his legs.

+Request permission to initiate vermin elimination program,+ Zen suddenly spoke. The noise and lights startled Avon off his perch and he jumped down and fled to the computer console.

"Permission denied," Blake sighed. "We need these 'vermin.' "

Avon was intensely unhappy with his situation. He wasn't going to live this experience down, nor did he intend to forgive Blake for prolonging the ordeal. Among all the inconveniences and embarrassments, however, one of the worst was unexpected. The Liberator was too cold for his taste, in this feline form. He found himself fighting irresistible urges to sit on something warm, and since there were precious few of these that wouldn't compromise his dignity, he was getting desperate. Even the human laps were starting to look good, but he refused to sink to the self-indulgent level that Vila had so cheerfully embraced. Orac protested loudly on the occasion that Avon chose to curl up on top of him. His own room was as cold as the rest of the ship, and he had absolutely no way of communicating it to anyone. This did nothing to improve his temper.

On the fourth night, he stood watching Vila, sprawled on the lounge of the flight deck in deep sleep. Avon wondered if there was some way he could steal some body heat. Not with Vila, certainly. That slobbering hound would probably never give him any peace, and it was Vila who'd gotten him into this fix to begin with. He stalked off the flight deck on silent feet and passed the cabin area, resigning himself to another cold night on his own covers.

Blake's door was slightly ajar. Avon eyed it, his tail twitching for a moment, then curiously slipped in. "Mrowr," he announced at Blake, who was sitting up and reading.

"Oh, it's you," Blake said gravely. "Anything I can do to help?" Avon stared at him balefully. Of course there was something he could do to help, the idiot…he could forget his ridiculous scheme and throw the talisman out the airlock, and he knew it. Unfortunately, the feline mouth was not designed for witty comments. Well, if Avon was going to be uncomfortable and inconvenienced, so was Blake, he decided. Stalking up to the bed, he jumped up and set himself down comfortably on the cover, a glare challenging the big man to toss him off.

Blake stared down at the cat on his legs. "I can't guarantee I won't move in my sleep," he warned.

"Hissssss."

"Well, just don't sit on my face. I once had a cat when I was a boy, and he had the annoying habit of sitting on my face." Blake looked amused.

Avon could think of something to use Blake for that would be more satisfying, like a scratching post. Instead, he tucked his legs under him and narrowed his eyes sleepily.

"I know how angry you are. I suppose you're justified, but you should look on the bright side. We've got some inkling of how to reverse the process. And you just might be undergoing one of the most unique experiences a human being has ever had."

Avon realized with some annoyance that Blake was enjoying his own "unique experience": the ability to harangue the computer expert with his conversation without having to worry about Avon talking back. As Blake chatted on, Avon resigned himself to a noisy but warm evening and yawned.

Vila was dreaming. His paws twitched as he imagined he was chasing a dozen beautiful virgins in skimpy red fur outfits, his hands outstretched. Suddenly, the women turned into red-furred rabbits. Vila blinked awake with a whine and shook himself. Perhaps this dog business was growing old, he thought. For one thing, he couldn't pick any locks in this form. For another, he didn't think anyone was going to offer a dog an alcoholic beverage, and living the rest of his short lifespan out in constant sobriety was a little too much to bear.

The Liberator was finally in orbit around Tau Remus 2, shielded from any stray Federation detectors. Blake, Cally, Jenna, Avon and Vila were in the teleport chamber—the moment of truth had arrived. Blake crouched beside Avon, adjusting a teleport bracelet around the cat's neck. It was a snug fit, but Avon didn't indicate any discomfort.

Jenna covered the smile curving her mouth; it looked an awful lot as if the cat was wearing a fancy collar.

"I've worked up something special for you, Vila," said Blake, proudly showing the dog an enlarged version of a teleport bracelet. "Put my previous experience on the teleport project and engineering to good use and did some molecular expansion." He snapped the collar closed around the dog's neck, carefully avoiding contact with the amulet that still hung there. Blake straightened. "As I've said, this is a very simple operation. I'm having Orac teleport you directly into the unshielded above ground portion of the Federation Base. The two of you will split up and cover as much ground as possible. I'm asking you to do only one thing: observe. Gather as much data as you can as quickly as possible and then get back to the original teleport coordinates. We'll watch for you and bring you back up as soon as you return there." He looked at Avon and Vila gravely. "I don't like sending you down there with no means of defending yourselves; I don't like it one bit. But you can also take comfort in the fact that your identification is virtually impossible, even if you get caught."

Avon and Vila did not miss the irony in Blake's tone. If the two of them got caught and detained for any length of time, they would shortly be only two captive animals, no human identity left. It was a fate worthy of the Federation's best torturers.

"Orac," Blake turned to the computer. "Set coordinates for the upper level of the base as given and put them down. Then maintain a watch for their reappearance."

The computer flashed and spoke, *It is unpleasant enough that you require me to function as a transportation monitor for yourselves,* it said haughtily. *Are you requesting that I interrupt my research in order to perform this function for lower life forms?*

"They are not 'lower life forms,' Orac," Blake said with a patient sigh. "They are Avon and Vila, in a transmuted form. Kindly follow instructions."

*I fail to see the reasoning behind your claims,* protested Orac. *Or that of your priorities. What I see are a pair of unpleasant Earth quadrupeds, one of which is salivating excessively on the deck.*

"Just do it, Orac," said Cally.

Avon rose to stalk up onto the teleport platform. Vila started to follow, then hesitated for a moment, eyeing the clear computer. He took a quick detour up to Orac…and contemptuously raised a hind leg over it.

"Oh, Vila," said Jenna, laughing.

*Oh, help!* moaned Orac.

Avon and Vila materialized at the appointed spot and the two peered around quickly, orienting themselves. They were unobserved, but both of them scented humans nearby, and the leather and polish of boots. Avon hurried off at a silent lope down the ramp ahead and Vila followed, trying not to whine at the fear he felt. At the bottom of the ramp, they split up, Avon going down one corridor and Vila reluctantly following another.

Avon found the going remarkably smooth. He passed several Federation guards and officers, but managed to successfully hide in the shadows until they passed or slip by below eye level. He kept a sharp lookout for observation lenses, but realized that even if he were seen that way, the observing monitors would hardly send up a general alarm at someone's escaped pet. He slid into every open doorway he could find, loading down his memory as quickly as he could.

Vila wasn't having quite as much success. He realized that his toe-nails were clicking on the hard surface of the metal floors and he kept forgetting not to pant. At one point he walked right into a mess hall filled with uniformed Federation guards and froze. Several of them looked up and spotted him, and one or two pointed and made a humorous comment, but Vila was too frightened to pay much attention. The men were apparently engaged in some kind of recreational activity.

One of the guards got up and swaggered up to Vila. "Nice doggie. Here boy." He extended a hand. Vila whined and tried to look innocent, a purely reflex action. "Where did you come from?"

"Hey, Sokol, maybe he's Travis,' " laughed another of the troops. "Can you imagine that black hole having a cute little puppy?"

This brought a lot of local laughter. Vila wagged his tail with a courage he did not feel and bluffed a food handout from one of the soldiers, then carried it off on a pretense of eating it in private. Once outside the room, however, he dropped the food and ran.

Avon found it first. He had climbed down an access stairway to the lowest level, observing that it was some kind of lab area. Leaping onto an empty desk and sliding underneath, he sampled the chemical smells in the air distastefully and watched several pairs of feet walking by.

"How are the cultures testing out?" One voice sounded from nearby. The chair suddenly was pulled from behind the desk and someone settled into it. Avon moved aside. "It's all nearing completion. The success rate is up to ninety-six percent."

"Has the strain weakened at that rate?"

"Not enough to matter. When they pump the virus into those rebel hideouts, nobody's going to crawl out alive."

Avon's whiskers twitched. Germ warfare! Blake's little hunch was correct. They were planning something particularly nasty.

"Any idea when they plan to release it? I want to make sure I'm well off the planet."

"At the rate we're refining, it shouldn't be more than a couple of wee—say, what's that?" The voice interrupted itself. "Looks like a dog! What's it doing down here?"

Avon crouched down and spotted Vila, large brown eyes widened with surprise as he was scrutinized by the technicians.

"Woof?" said Vila, wagging his tail in a friendly fashion. When it didn't appear he was winning any hearts here, the animal dashed back off down the corridor he'd come from.

"I'm going to inform security," said the standing technician, as he walked to the wall. "I don't need any exotic bacteria being carried in and out of here at a time like this."

Avon took his cue, and streaked out from under the desk in the direction Vila had gone. He didn't think he'd been seen, but he made haste all the same. He shortly caught up with the beagle. Vila glanced back at him and slid to a halt, forcing Avon to collide with him. Vila was plainly glad to see him; he started to lick the hapless cat. Avon hissed and backed away quickly in disgust and Vila whined as they resumed moving upward. They already had more than enough information for Blake. The only concern now would have to be getting back to the Liberator to communicate that information. The sound of approaching boots brought them up short in a hall crossing.

Plainly, some guards were responding to the technician's call from the lab. Avon streaked down another corridor and Vila followed at a gallop. One doorway was open off the hall. In the glaring light of the corridor, Avon decided they needed the cover and slid inside. He and Vila peered around. It was a stark looking office, furnished with a desk and some computer consoles and screens; obviously a military affair. There didn't appear to be many places for a cat and a dog to hide. Nevertheless, Avon and Vila crouched behind the desk as the boots marched by outside. Avon wished Vila would stop panting so loudly. When the footsteps faded, they started for the door again and froze.

"...can't release the culture until we're positive that our informants are out, Travis. I disagree, of course. This is too vital an operation to risk on some perfectly expendable operat—" Supreme Commander Servalan stopped, staring at the two animals in the middle of her office floor.

"What's the matter?" a male voice sounded from outside. Space Commander Travis strode in quickly, shutting the door behind him. He cast a baleful eye down at the creatures that held Servalan's attention.

Vila whimpered softly.

Avon thought quickly. The next few moments could decide whether he and Vila would live or die, and it was no time to consider his own ego. He put on every ounce of charm he could muster, swaggered up to Servalan with a soft "maiow," and rubbed himself against her ankles.

"I suppose this is what I get for leaving the door open," smiled Servalan, bending down to lift Avon into the air. She looked him over as he dangled there, his hind legs stiff. "My, what a lovely creature. Obviously pedigreed."

"There aren't supposed to be any animals inside a base," sneered Travis. "I would have a little talk with the commander about regulations. The discipline seems to be lax."

"I'm sure these are only escapees of some sort," said the Supreme Commander, holding the cat up against her to stroke his head. "They seem to have matching collars. Someone thinks a lot of them."

Vila's whining was becoming conspicuous. It was clear to Avon what he thought of the cat's predicament, but Avon couldn't take the risk of sparing him a glare. The dog's tail was tucked between his legs and he tilted his head in indecision.

"Those collars seem familiar somehow. I can't quite place them," Travis murmured. He reached over to finger the one around Avon's neck.

"I never thought you would take an interest in pets, Travis," said Servalan, walking to the desk and settling down in the chair behind it, still holding Avon.

"I could say the same for you. Supreme Commander," Travis said, with a feral grin.

"I may have some surprises for you yet," she retorted. "After Tau Remus 2 is cleaned off, I want to repeat the process on the Industry City Space Station near Vallg. I've heard the entire population has an unhealthy attitude about Federation occupation."

"We can't use the virus too many times. It will begin to look suspicious if only planets with high incidences of dissidents are—shall we say—susceptible to an epidemic?" Travis folded his arms, ignoring the trembling Vila at his feet.

"Of course. I have other possibilities of a similar nature to explore. My main concern is that no one publicize this policy in the general population of the galaxy. No one like, say, Blake." Servalan started to scratch gently behind Avon's ears.

Avon gritted his teeth; the motion had a strange, calming effect that he found highly undesirable in this situation. If there were ever a time to stay alert….

"If I have my way, Blake won't be a factor in the future," Travis snapped. "I have plans of my own."

"Just be certain they all leave me the Liberator," smiled Servalan. She suddenly realized that the animal against her was purring loudly, its eyes at half-mast.

"What do you intend to do with that?" asked Travis, an amused smile on his thin lips.

"I've always fancied having a cat of this color," she said, resuming her stroking. "I think I might keep him. Felines are not as common as they used to be, and this is a handsome specimen. Of course, I don't want him to do anything unpleasant, so I'll have him neutered."

The cat suddenly erupted in her arms, tearing himself free with a panicked leap. Avon streaked for the door.

Travis cursed and raised his arm to fire at the unpredictable animal, pivoting for a good aim.

Then Vila did one of the bravest acts of his life. He bit Travis on the bum.

The Space Commander lurched and shouted, his shot going wide. A smoking hole appeared on the wall and he spun to kill the offending animal, but Vila hung on, growling. Fear quickly overcame Vila's bravery, however, and he let go and bolted for the doorway, barely avoiding another blast from Travis' gun.

Avon and Vila ran for their lives, slipping and sliding on the polished hall floors. There was no question that a general alarm would be issued for them in moments. Travis and Servalan would not let a pair of stray pets get away with compromising their dignity or wills. They were moving fast—there were certain advantages to having four feet—but it still seemed to be taking an eternity to reach the upper level in the endless maze of corridors.

Vila slid again on a sharp turn and scrambled to regain his footing. Avon turned to hiss at him impatiently, only to see a guard emerge from the junction and raise a blaster at the dog. Avon leapt, claws bared, directly for the guard's head. There was a wild moment of spitting and cursing and the guard toppled backward, more in fear at the unfamiliar attack than harm done. Vila barked at Avon and the two resumed their flight.

Avon felt deep fear at the incident. He had not been rational when he had attacked the guard—it had been the blind rage of an animal. He realized that more and more of his actions were becoming those of an unthinking cat and less of himself, and that he and Vila were fast approaching the critical limit for remaining safely in this form. As they dashed down another hallway, Avon suddenly pulled up short and spun on a bewildered Vila. The dog stopped himself, wildly sprawling in a tangle of legs, and barked at Avon testily. The cat ignored him and lunged at his throat. Vila jerked back, startled. The effect was momentarily obvious. The amulet came free over Vila's head in the cat's teeth, and Avon spat it out on the floor. They resumed their mad dash, and with a final skidding halt, they slid onto the original coordinates and vanished in a brilliant flash of light.

Blake removed the teleport collars from the panting animals and stroked them both in relief. "Get us out of here, Jenna—standard by ten," he told the pilot over the intercom.

Cally examined them for injury with a critical eye, but they both appeared to be fine, if tired. "The amulet's gone," she told Blake.

"Woof," said Vila happily.

"You needn't be so smug," the Auron grinned at him. "After all, we are now leaving it behind at standard by ten. When the two of you change back in a little while, neither of you is going to be wearing any clothes."

Vila and Avon exchanged alarmed looks for a moment, then executed a mad dash down one last corridor—presumably to their quarters.

Cally could scarcely restrain her giggles. Blake resisted for a moment, but it became too much for him and he too started to laugh.

"I've got a scratch on my nose!" protested Vila, from his seat on the flight deck. "You clawed me," he glared at Avon. The computer expert had resumed his computer station and was pointedly ignoring the restored Restal, doing his best to return to status quo.

"I'm just glad the transformation was complete," Cally sighed from beside Vila. "It was a terrible chance to take. This should teach you a lesson about pocketing artifacts." She poked Vila in the ribs with a grin.

Blake turned away from Orac, where he'd been relaying all the information Avon and Vila had gathered to the dissidents on Tau Remus 2. Their strategy to defuse Servalan's scheme was simple and beautiful. They were going to broadcast it in detail in an hour or two. The Federation could hardly carry out a plot undetected after everyone had been notified in advance exactly what to expect. It simply wasn't good public relations. Blake grinned, imagining the Supreme Commander's rage at the inexplicable destruction of her plans.

"Very well done," he commented to Avon. "I doubt Servalan would ever believe how you two actually pulled it off."

"Why not?" Vila grunted. "Avon was right under her very nose. You should have seen it, Blake," he said slyly. "Our computer expert pressed against that woman's bosom, purring… doesn't take much to turn him traitor, does it?"

Avon didn't favor Vila with so much as a glare. "I saved your neck down there," he said acidly. "You simply sat there whining and sniveling. If I hadn't done something, we would both be experimental lab animals for the Federation by now."

"Well, I returned the favor," Vila protested. "And I didn't have to lick Travis' boots to do it, either!" he said proudly.

"I would have loved to have seen it," Blake smiled honestly.

"I wish I could have arranged your presence," hissed Avon. "You took a tremendous risk with our lives, Blake."

"I've been guilty of that before," Blake said impassively. "If it matters at all, I apologize."

"I'm glad that's done with," Cally said. "I hope that there aren't any other talismans like that one floating about."

Vila suddenly started to laugh. "We left it in the hallway on the base. I do hope someone brings it to Travis and Servalan, and they give it a good, close look. "

Jenna grinned. "That would be worrisome. I suppose we'd have to start looking about for power-hungry snakes and rats with eye-patches."

"Well, that's over," said Vila. "I for one am glad to be back on my own two feet." He stood to demonstrate and grinned at Avon.

The computer expert was already deep in his own morose thoughts. As the crew of the Liberator looked on, he absently licked his wrist and started to make washing motions behind his ear, then caught himself abruptly and looked up at them with resentful anger. None dared to do anything more than smile…no one except for Vila, of course, who burst out laughing and rested a hand on Orac, doubled over.

*Get away from me!* screeched the computer.

Now the whole crew was laughing.

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