The Playís The Thing
"Is this one of your idiotic attempts at humor?" Kerr Avon scowled at Vila Restal from across the Liberatorís flight deck. "Because itís rather feeble, even by your standards."
"Donít blame me. I thought Tarrant was having me on, as well," Vila defended himself. "Thereís certainly no accounting for tastes, is there?"
"I was not questioning our pilotís tastes," Avon snarled, turning to face a convenient control panel. He began to punch at the controls, dividing his attention between the display terminal and the ongoing discussion. "I was questioning his sanity. One does not simply run off to attend the concert of a favorite entertainer while one is a notorious fugitive from Federation justice."
"There are lots of historical precedents," Dayna put in smugly, crossing her arms. "My history studies show that wanted fugitives frequented their favorite entertainment places even when their lives were at stake."
Avon sneered at her. "Yes, and the same history studies will show you exactly what happened to many of them: John Dillinger, Lee Harvey Oswald, Fenson Derry, Rue Wend...need I go on? They were all captured whilst indulging their quixotic whims."
"Never mind the history lesson," Vila interjected. "You arenít pulling us out of orbit, are you? We canít just abandon Tarrant on Osiris III without so much as a by your leave!"
"Let him eat popcorn," Avon muttered, adjusting some controls further.
Cally stepped into the fray, her tone typically reasonable. "Avon, Tarrant is young. Young people sometimes have sincere attachments to things they enjoy; and Tarrant has certainly earned a few hours of enjoyment."
"Donít patronize me. Tarrant is not an adolescent. His lark is being taken at our expense. My sincere attachment is to my own survival," Avon said. "We are making ourselves entirely too conspicuous here, hovering about over Osiris for no good reason. Tarrant is bound to attract someoneís notice in such a large gathering."
"A large crowd is just as likely to be a perfect hiding place," Dayna pointed out, settling onto the flight deck couch. "He didnít exactly teleport down without adopting a disguise, you know. Heíll be back just as soon as the play is over. Thereís no need to get excited over it."
Avonís dark eyes looked upward and his glance touched each of the crew in turn. "There is a fine line between the frivolous and the reckless. I think Tarrant has more than proven his propensity for recklessness in the past. My only objection is the jeopardy his little escapade places the rest of us in."
"Heh," Vila grunted. "And they call me a coward. I donít mind a little fun at the expense of a little bit of danger, Avon. Remember the Big Wheel?"
Avon sneered. "We certainly all know your reputation when it comes to running risks, donít we? As for the Big Wheel, that was a calculated risk."
"And I suppose you never had any fun at it," Vila scoffed.
"Yes, well we were both more impetuous then," Avon said irritably. "I donít call getting hunted down by the Federation and shot a Ďlittle bití of a danger."
"Look, if it bothers you so much, why donít you teleport down to Osiris and tell Tarrant yourself?" Vila suggested boldly. "We arenít his caretakers, yíknow. He can be every bit as pigheaded as you and just as unwilling to listen to reason."
This declaration left Avon suspended between an urge to laugh at Vila or to heap verbal abuse on him. He stood and considered briefly, rubbing his hands together. "All right. If none of the rest of you are willing to make an effort to preserve your own personal safety, itís left to me once more. Orac, do you have a fix on Tarrantís location?"
The little computer buzzed from its stand. *I am aware of the coordinates of the teleport bracelet that Tarrant used. He is not, however, currently wearing it.*
Dayna smirked. "My guess is he didnít want you interrupting his fun by teleporting him up against his will, Avon."
Avon was not amused. His face was one shade closer to rage red, in fact. "Orac, has our idiotic pilot also switched off the communicator on his bracelet?"
*He has adjusted it so that only he can initiate contact.*
Dayna shook her head, anticipating Avonís reaction. "Well, it isnít as dumb as it sounds, Avon. He would attract an awful lot of attention in the theater if his bracelet suddenly started to chime." She sauntered over to the lounge and settled there.
Avon stared at her stonily, fully aware that the expression made the young woman acutely uncomfortable. He turned back toward Orac. "Has the performance Tarrant wanted to see commenced yet?"
*Must we pursue this line of questioning?* Orac complained bitterly. *I am not an entertainment guide!*
"Youíd be a lot more useful if you were," Vila muttered sarcastically.
"Answer the question," Avon ordered.
*Very well. Although the production of Gilbert and Sullivanís Pirates of Penzance is scheduled to commence promptly at nineteen hundred hours, there is a built-in delay to actual curtain time of one half hour. Therefore, Tarrant has probably been seated, but the performance has not begun.*
"Fine." Avon straightened and strode toward the flight deck exit. "Iím going to teleport down outside the theater. Come on, Vila."
"But I donít like culture! Itís totally wasted on me!"
"Youíre going to operate the teleport, fool."
Vila rose wearily, shrugged at the two female rebels in resignation, and strolled after the tech.
Avon peered around the huge base of the buttress he had taken cover behind. The theater was an impressive structureóa huge public auditorium done in classical Earth architecture of some period that Avon was not familiar with. He didnít particularly care at the moment. The most pressing things on his mind were preserving his own anonymity and getting Tarrant out of the concert hall and back aboard the Liberator where the pilot belonged, as quickly as possible. His mind was still reeling at the utter recklessness Tarrant had displayed, not to mention the total irrelevancy of the younger manís mission. Avon wasnít about to stop and admire the scenery. Ever since the untimely death of Tarrantís brother, Deeta, Tarrant had been prone to strange moods and introspection, but this was his wildest escapade yet.
Avon could understand Tarrantís distressóhe remembered his own devastation when the news came that his brother, Kori, had perishedóbut he was unwilling to see himself and the Liberator crew placed at risk because of it.
It was late evening on this part of Osiris III, and the last of the theatergoers were hastening to file in and collect their tickets for the play. Avon realized he would have to purchase one in order to enter the theater himself. As he paid for the ticket, it suddenly struck him that he didnít have the slightest notion of where Tarrant might be seated in the mass of the huge audience, nor could he probably identify the man if he did... Dayna had mentioned that Tarrant was wearing a disguise.
He muttered a curse under his breath at his own shortsightedness and hurried into an empty communications alcove so that he could key on his bracelet. "Liberator, this is Avon."
"Liberator here," Dayna responded. "Have you found him already?"
Avon ground his teeth together. It was obvious that Dayna had anticipated the very problem Avon was calling about and she hadnít volunteered the question before he had stormed off the flight deck. Clearly, she was in sympathy with Tarrant and wasnít going to assist Avon any more than she had to.
"If you would be so kind as to activate Orac, I need it to help me do just that."
He could almost imagine Vilaís silent smirk in his physical absence. Aha! Weíve put one over on Old Avon, was probably what Vila was thinking right about then.
Dayna simply said, "Activated."
"Orac," Avon snarled.
Was it his imagination, or was the computer laughing at him too? Paranoia was fast becoming his first response to everyone and everything. Next Iíll be jumping at shadows and seeing ghosts, he thought mockingly, well aware that he was fast losing any sense of humor he might have possessed regarding the current situation.
"Based on the layout of this theater and the coordinates of Tarrantís bracelet, I need to know where Tarrant is currently seated." As a calculated challenge, Avon added, "As precisely as you can manage within the limitations, Orac."
The idiosyncratic computer took the bait. *Tarrant is seated in section Zed in either seat sixteen or one hundred and sixteen. It is impossible to determine whether he is in the balcony above or the main orchestra section because of the structural overlap.* Orac sounded mildly smug.
"Thank you. Avon out." He terminated the conversation tersely and started toward the auditorium.
The opening sounds of the orchestra tuning up enveloped him as he stepped into the cavernous concert hall. His eyes took several moments to accustom themselves to the dim lighting, but as they did the sheer sight and sound of thousands of people in a single place made him uneasy.
There didnít seem to be any law enforcement personnel on hand to scan the mob, however. He recalled that although Osiris was a Federated world, the planet had been at peace for a very long time. No doubt the lack of civil disobedience had given the local Federation representatives confidence that their presence was not needed at every social event. Doubtless, Tarrant had counted on this when he had made his choice of amusements, Avon realized. It didnít do a thing toward improving his respect for the pilot or what heíd done. Tarrant might be fairly inconspicuous in this rabble of playgoers, Avon knew, but the Liberator in orbit overhead would be difficult to miss.
He started toward the seat indicated on his ticket, trying to look like a late arrival among the many, searching for his place. The atmosphere of the auditorium began to envelope him in a subliminal fashion as he progressed, despite his efforts at ignoring it. He felt the thick carpeting under his boots, the vibration of the musical fragments escaping from the orchestra, the riotous yet subdued murmur of the crowd. He saw muted colors and faces and overwhelming detail everywhere, everyone in the crowd seemingly dressed in finery and jewelry. The scent of a hundred perfumes and colognes wafted through the air. Overhead there was row upon row of balconies stacked one on top of another, climbing to the ornate, cavernous ceiling. He caught glimpses of artfully concealed speaker systems and light equipment among dark red velvet draperies.
With a start, he realized he had not been to a theater of this kind since he was a teenager; the memory was one of the very few pleasant ones amidst the morass of his otherwise miserable youth. Angrily pushing those thoughts aside, he turned and squinted down and then up toward the sections Orac had indicated, searching for the disguised Tarrant.
He didnít see him in the orchestra section below, so he turned his attention upward and almost immediately spotted Tarrant. His face didnít give him away; it was his height. Apparently, most of the locals on Osiris were roughly one head shorter than the average Earth colonist. Even seated, Tarrant stood out in immediate contrast to the surrounding people...or at least it seemed that way to the increasingly nervous Avon.
Either he opted for the cheap seats, or else he didnít think it was safe to risk sitting further forward. All of this bother and potential danger for a stupid play... Fueling himself anew on his anger, Avon strode back up the aisle and mounted the rear stairway, heading toward Tarrantís location.
He was stopped at the top of the stairs by a gruff usher who demanded to see his ticket. Gritting his teeth, Avon handed over the piece of paper with a show of outward serenity.
"This is a more expensive seat," the usher pointed out. "Your seat is in the front of the theater." He gestured downward.
"You are most helpful," Avon purred softly. "However, Iíve just spotted the love of my life sitting back here, looking all forlorn. I would be a cad if I were to leave her there alone...you understand." To aid the usherís comprehension, Avon slipped him a high-denomination credit note.
"Naturally, sir," the usher hastily agreed, cocking one eyebrow. He pocketed the note with a smile and moved along to harass a different latecomer.
Grimacing, Avon moved down the aisle toward Tarrant. Once he reached the correct row, however, he realized he would need to appropriate the seat beside the pilot in order to talk to him. All the seats in this section were already occupied.
Pardoning himself past dozens of discomfited and happily settled theater patrons, Avon worked his way to the seat beside Tarrantís. He saw the pilotís startled reaction as he recognized the computer tech almost immediately in front of him. Instead of bellowing at Tarrant, however, Avon graciously bent to talk to the middle-aged Osirian in the seat next to Tarrantís.
"My most humble apologies, Madam. My own seat seems to be situated unfortunately too close to the front speakers." He showed her his ticket. "My hearing is rather sensitive. I saw an acquaintance of mine sitting up here...," he gestured at Tarrant, "...and thought I might join him, instead. Could I beg your indulgence to switch seats with me?"
The woman goggled at Avonís fifth row center ticket. She nodded in wordless acceptance, fumbling wildly for her cloak as if she was afraid he would retract the offer at any second; she retreated back to the aisle, stepping on just about everybodyís feet in her haste.
Avon watched with some amusement before rearranging his face into his best stony mask of disapproval. He settled into the vacated seat and turned to stare directly at his miscreant pilot.
"You do a fine imitation of a basilisk," Tarrant finally murmured, not looking intimidated in the least.
Avon found he didnít need to keep his voice down to a whisper. He doubted anyone would hear him above the raucous noises from the orchestra and the sounds of the babbling audience. "You do a lousy imitation of an Osirian."
Tarrant fingered his fake mustache and beard ruefully. "Yes, well, it was the best I could do on short notice. Disguises arenít my specialty."
"No. It seems clear stupidity is your forte," Avon hissed. "I can scarcely believe youíve endangered all of us for this little adventure in culture."
Tarrant turned his gaze toward the stage, unaffected. "On the contrary. I have planned this little jaunt with a minimum of peril to everyone as the main objective. You see, Avon, I do care about my crew."
Avon resisted the temptation to immediately rise to Tarrantís deliberate bait. His crew, indeed! "Would you care to enlighten me as to how your thinking ran on the topic of our safety?" Acid etched Avonís voice. "Iím curious to know what makes you believe that both you and your starship are invisible to the local Federation authorities."
"If the local hazard were as great as youíre pretending, you wouldnít have stomped in here without a disguise yourself," Tarrant pointed out. "Donít exaggerate...my friend. As for the shipó" Tarrant gestured in the air with a couple of fingers and flashed a brilliant smile. "Orac has given us a cover registration with the orbital traffic control that should serve very nicely for the next six hours. The play will be nowhere near that long. The only way we are in any danger is in the unlikely event that some Federation installation puts the ship up on their visual scans." He glanced back at Avon, smiling widely. "At Zenís last count, there were sixteen hundred individual craft orbiting Osiris on missions of commerce, transportation, science, repair...and quite possibly transactions far more dubious than our own."
"So you calculated the odds, and in your opinion they were good enough to take the chance?" Avon gritted out, unconvinced. "I believe you know how I feel about individuals who risk my life without my consent," he said.
"Why should I bother to ask, when you wouldnít have agreed?" Tarrant shrugged. "Everyone else already had. Cally, Dayna...even Vila."
"When the subject is potential suicide, I believe I am entitled to an opinion!" Avon kept his voice low with an effort, but his tone was savage.
Tarrantís expression finally darkened to match the techís. "If we are on the subject of going on personal missions and endangering the lives of our companions, I would be very careful what I say. If you will recall, none of us on the ship refused you a recent adventure to Earth on a little matter of revenge."
Avon found himself temporarily speechless at the reminder of his disastrous effort to avenge Anna Grant. As badly as he wanted to strangle the pilot, he could not deny the truth of the young manís words. To his credit, Tarrant did not sound vindictive about it. At the moment, in fact, he looked more honestly interested in the increasing activity taking place around the stage. It was clear that curtain time was moments away.
Diverted and somewhat defused, Avon followed the otherís gaze and his grim expression softened. "I never would have pegged you for an enthusiast of the performing arts," he commented.
Tarrant smiled again. "Not just any type of performance. I confess I love musicals, especially Gilbert and Sullivan. I was exposed to quite a bit of it in my callow youth."
Avon sighed. "Thatís charming. Now are you going to come to your senses, recall that we are quite popular among certain Federation personnel, and return to the ship with me? Willingly?"
"Out of the question," Tarrant pronounced, settling more comfortably into his seat as the orchestra suddenly found a single, centered note and held it in prelude to the overture. "But as long as youíre here, why in heavenís name donít you shut up and watch the play? You might even enjoy yourself." Tarrant leaned slightly toward Avon with a conspiratorial wink. "I promise I wonít breathe a word of it to the rest of the crew."
Avon framed an appropriately acid reply, but he was prevented from voicing it by the opening crescendo of the overture. As the musicians began to play and the curtain began to rise, it was clear to the tech that he would have no further opportunity to argue with Tarrant without calling unwanted attention to them both. With a grunt of resignation, he settled back into his seat, folded his arms, and glowered at the stage.
Meanwhile, on the aisle, the usher whom Avon had bribed was doing a casual check to make certain all the patrons were safely seated. His gaze skimmed over Avon, then froze there as his brain registered that the darkly handsome, generous theatergoer was not seated beside a woman. Instead, the seat beside him was occupied by a tall, very clearly masculine figure. In astonishment, he noticed the patron glancing at the man beside him.
The usher turned and shook his head, going back to his duties. No accounting for off-worlder tastes, he thought.
Intermission came too soon, Avon was surprised to realize, as the curtain came down and the lights came up. In spite of his stubborn intentions, heíd found himself not only enjoying the show, but actually losing himself in the story. Heíd never seen Pirates of Penzance before and, in spite of himself he kept thinking of how much the feckless lead actor reminded him of... Del Tarrant. No wonder the fool likes this play, he thought with some amusement. With a shake of his head, he noticed that the object of his thoughts was staring at him.
"What?" he snarled.
"Nothing." Tarrant grinned hugely. "You just donít look yourself, is all."
"Donít be more obtuse than usual."
Tarrant shrugged. "You neednít worry. I wonít tell anyone that you enjoyed itó"
Avon stared back stonily. "I didnít," he denied automatically.
Tarrant shook his head. "Petulant. Like a child."
"Thatís it! Weíreó" Avon choked off his words and froze, half out of his chair, staring down into the jostling Osirians in the lower sections.
"Youíre quite white," Tarrant said softly, openly concerned. "Maybe you should sit back down." He placed a hand on Avonís arm.
Avon ignored him, his gaze riveted to two men below. A million thoughts whirled through his mind, but the most prevalent one was: Thereís the very ghost I was anticipating...what the hell is he doing here?
"Someone is watching us," Ralen Fen whispered, tugging hard at his companionís forearm.
Roj Blake smiled indulgently at the man next to him. They were about the same height, although Ralen was slighter of build, fairer of color, and lacked Blakeís presence, all of which gave him the appearance of being smaller than Blake. His blond hair, worn longer on the sides than the Federation fashion, shadowed the stubble of beard on his face as he leaned forward with an intent expression.
"Of course they are." Blake gestured at the surging throng of people. "Hundreds of Osirians."
"No," Ralen insisted. "Someone who knows you is watching us."
Ralen shrugged. "More than that. I hear your name echoing from them." He glanced upward. "They are above usóone of the balcony tiers."
Blakeís smile slowly faded. Heíd learned to trust Ralenís limited psi abilities, just as heíd once trusted Callyís somewhat different talents. His eyes flicked upward involuntarily. "Bounty hunters?"
"I donít know," Ralen admitted. "But they are angry."
Blake had already begun to push his way through the crowd. Ralen kept his hold on the other manís arm so as not to lose him, and followed in his wake.
"Are they angry at me?" Blake continued, as he and Ralen worked their way quickly and efficiently through the Osirians streaming out into the lobby toward the lounges.
Ralen cocked his head, as if he was actually listening to a conversation. "They are angry at... each other? I canít quite tell, Blake, but they are now moving. I think they are following us."
Blake smiled grimly. "Not for long," he growled.
"They are closer than before," Ralen warned.
Blake hailed an aircar taxi as they finally made their way out into a cold, foggy night. "Weíll lead them on a chase," Blake said, climbing into the taxi before it had fully stopped. "Once we pick up our own transport, weíll have no trouble losing them." He clapped the other man on the back as Ralen joined him in the back of the taxi. "Donít look so worried. I know what Iím doing."
"You enjoy this too much," Ralen muttered, settling back in his seat.
Blake laughed somewhat bitterly. "Itís just a habit."
"Avon!" Tarrant sputtered angrily, stumbling across feet and seats after Avon as the computer tech took off to the aisle and down the steps, heading as fast as he could toward the lobby. "Wait!" He finally caught up to the other man just as Avon reached the lobby. Grabbing at one of Avonís sleeves, he was shocked to find himself the recipient of a furious glare.
"Let go of me!" Avon hissed, his attention momentarily diverted from whatever had sent him on a mad scramble downstairs. He jerked at his arm and Tarrant released it, his confusion deepening.
"What is the matter with you?" Tarrant asked warily. Avon was hardly his best friend, but heíd never seen such an irrational look of anger on the techís face before, and certainly never directed at him.
Avon had already turned back to surveying the crowd, peering over the heads of the jostling people. With a soft snarl, he stalked toward an exit, his attention once again focused on something Tarrant couldnít determine. With a shrug of resignation, Tarrant followed.
Once they were outside, Avon stopped again, looking up and down the street, obviously searching for something.
"Look, are you going to tell me whatís going on?" Tarrant finally demanded, totally exasperated. He glanced down at his watch. "Weíre going to miss the second act if we donít get back inside."
"We wonít be going back," Avon said. Before Tarrant could protest, he lifted his arm and keyed on his bracelet communicator. "Liberator, come in."
Vila answered after a momentís hesitation. "Are you ready to come up? Did you find Tarrant?"
"Oh, yes, I found him," Avon replied. "I found someone else, as well. See if you canít raise him on his bracelet."
Vila sounded puzzled. "Eh? Raise who, Avon?"
"Blake," Avon said succinctly, raising one eyebrow as his eyes met Tarrantís. "Iíve just seen him in the theater but heís bolted and run. See if you can get him to respond to a call signal."
"Blake! Stand by," Vila said, sounding both astonished and confused.
A few minutes ticked past before Avonís bracelet chimed for attention again. "Well?" Avonís tone was calm but Tarrant could see the coiled tension in his body language, even in a slight trembling in his forearm.
"No answer," Vila told him. "But there is a trace... Someone down there besides you and Tarrant is registering on Zenís sensors. Maybe you can track him. Shall I wake Cally and get her down here to help run the trace?"
"No, sheíll only want to come down and help. Let her rest," Avon said. "You can do it; teleport us to his location."
There was another lengthy silence while Vila worked. "I canít do it, Avon," he finally said. "The signal isnít stable enough. Thereís something wrong with it."
"Then tell me what direction heís gone so we can get after him. We might not have much time. Who knows how long it will be before the Liberatorís presence here is discovered."
Vila read off the directional coordinates. "Thatís as close as Zen can give me right now," he finished. "The bracelet is in motion, he says."
"Put Orac on it, as well," Avon instructed, hailing a taxi with one upraised arm. He motioned Tarrant into the vehicle ahead of him. "Weíll stay in touch. Avon out." He joined Tarrant and gave the aircar computer directions.
"I hope you know what youíre doing," Tarrant said. "Are you certain it was him?"
"Oh, yes." Avon bit at his lower lip. Somehow the sight of Avon disconcerted made Tarrant feel slightly ill at ease. "It was him, all right."
"Why do you think he ran out of the theater that way, then?"
Avon shook his head. "I donít know." He suddenly smiled, the effect rather frightening. Tarrant wasnít certain whether Avon was amused or angry. "Perhaps he saw us as well and wants to avoid us...me."
"That doesnít bode well for a reunion, then," Tarrant pointed out. "Why would he want to avoid you?"
Avon shrugged. "I donít know that, either, Tarrant. We must remember to ask him when we catch up."
If Tarrant didnít know better, he could have sworn that Avon sounded worried. Then again, maybe he had reason to be. Reunions with Avonís "old friends" never seemed to work out very well. The unyielding expression on Avon's face discouraged him from commenting on it, however.
They sat in uncomfortable silence for several moments, only the hum of the aircar breaking the silence. Fog surrounded them, making it appear that they were standing still in a cloud of vapor. It was spooky, and Tarrant gave an exaggerated shiver. He would have preferred to be back in the theater, watching his favorite musical.
"How long are we going to follow them?" he finally asked, shifting in his seat. He pulled at his fake beard, trying to scratch underneath it. The itching was suddenly becoming unbearable and he wondered why he had ever thought it would be a good idea to wear facial hair.
"Until we catch him," Avon said blandly.
Tarrant shook his head. "Iím surprised you want to find him, Avon. Wonít Blake demand his ship back?"
Avon turned to pin him with an unreadable look. "His ship? Oh, I donít think so. He gave the ship to me, and I donít mean to return it."
"Why do you want to find him, then?" Tarrant realized that he was genuinely curious. Every time the Liberator had received a report of Blakeís whereabouts since Star One, Avon had surreptitiously followed up on it, whether Cally and Vila urged him to or not. It certainly was something that worked in Tarrantís favor most of the time, but it still puzzled himóand Dayna, too. They constantly speculated on it. Just what kind of hold did Blake have on Avon, anyway? Avon didnít come across as one of the most loyal men, and he certainly never had anything kind to say about his former leader. And that was another thing Tarrant couldnít understand: why would someone like Avon ever have followed Blake in the first place?
Heíd never considered Avonís motivations for being a rebel when he first came aboard Liberator, but lately, since Deetaís death, heíd found himself pondering lots of things. Including his own motivations for being with Avon, in the first place. He had a decision or two to make in the near future and this situation with Blake placed him in a very awkward position.
More than awkward. Iím trapped between the jaws of duty and conscience... He cut the rebellious thought off before it could take hold of him again. Heíd planned this jaunt to Osiris in order to forget his troubles, not to be reminded of them yet again. Deetaís death had made him stop and think...the problem was that now he couldnít stop thinking.
Avon turned away again. "There are other matters unsettled between us. Leave it at that." The street lights illuminated his face sporadically as they flickered past.
He looks haunted, Tarrant thought. Heís as haunted as I am. Itís better when the dead stay that way.
The aircar came to a stop at the coordinates Vila relayed to them. "Thatís where he stopped moving for a moment," Vila told them over the communicator. "His aircar must have landed there."
When they got out of the taxi they were in the middle of a filthy deserted back alley.
"What now?" Tarrant turned in a circle, searching the shadowed corners for any signs of movement. He finally gave up on trying to scratch underneath the fake beard and pulled it off, casually tossing it into the nearest waste receptacle. The itching on his face almost immediately subsided.
"We continue to follow the trace." Avon keyed on his bracelet again. "Vila. Which way now?"
"They are still following us," Ralen said quietly, glancing back over his shoulder. "They are no longer angry. Just puzzled and frustrated."
Blake stopped a moment, turning to face the way they had come. The streets behind them were enveloped in fog, but appeared to be deserted and silent. "How far behind are they?"
Ralen shrugged. "I canít tell. Far enough that we wouldnít be able to see them or hear them."
Blakeís forehead creased. "Then how are they tracing us? I donít understand!"
"Heat sensors?" Ralen suggested.
"On a planet this size? How would they ever differentiate us from everyone else?"
"Weíve been keeping to deserted areas. It could be that if they are tracking us with heat sensors or telepathy, somehow, we are easier to find. If they catch us here, nobody will notice," Ralen pointed out. "Perhaps we should go back to a crowded area."
"They followed us through the crowd at the theater." Blake rubbed one hand in an unconscious gesture down the newly healed scar on his face. "They are using something else...maybe they have psi abilities, like yours."
Ralen shook his head. "My abilities are rare," he said with bitter irony. "I donít sense anyone touching my mind. Do you?"
Blake laughed softly. "No. But how would I know, if they were any good at it?" He pulled out his blaster, a very large ZK40, and checked the charge on it. "Letís try to lose them a while longer. If we canít," his expression hardened, "weíll have to stop and make a stand. Iíd rather not get into a fight, but we canít have bounty hunters following us back to the base, if we can help it."
"I told you it was a stupid idea to go to that concert," Ralen said, exasperated. "You take too many risks, Blake. Even Deva agreed with me that you shouldnít go."
Blake smiled, walking off into the fog. "Thatís why you came along, isnít it? To baby-sit me? You and Deva worry too much. Whatís the fun in life if you donít indulge in a little entertainment and danger once in a while." A gleam came into Blakeís eye. "In fact, I have an idea," he said.
"I donít like that tone, Blake. It usually means youíre about to get me into trouble." Ralen clutched at Blakeís sleeve. "What I wouldnít give for a few of Bekís strong-arm types to run interference for us right now..."
"Nonsense," Blake scoffed. "We donít need them. Whereís your sense of adventure? I think weíll just take a little detour through the Matrixó"
Ralen groaned. "Blake, no. Please not that. You know it frightens me every time you drag me through there...it scrambles my brain."
Blake laughed softly. "Your shielding could stand the practice. These people following us are amateurs, else theyíd have caught us by now."
"We havenít lost them yet," Ralen reminded him bluntly. "Donít be too quick to dismiss them. Theyíre tracing us somehow."
Blake walked a little faster. "Yes, well, weíll see if they can continue to follow through the Matrix, eh?"
Ralen sighed in resignation. "I suppose youíre right. It is quite a maze in there." He pointed to the corner of the street. "Thereís a callbox for the taxis. Weíd best take one. Itís a long walk from here."
Blake nodded in agreement and quickened his pace.
"What the hell is that?" Tarrant panted, standing at the edge of a sprawling, brightly lit section of town. It seemed to cover every square inch of space to the horizon. He blinked in the face of the pink and blue neon, surprised at the number of Osirians streaming through the huge garishly decorated archways and into the brightly lit area.
Avon stared at him, genuinely surprised. "You mean you donít know?"
Tarrant shook his head.
"It appears to be an amusement park. A very large, very gaudy, very noisy one."
"Well, what would Roj Blake be doing in an amusement park?" Tarrant wondered.
Avon growled softly. "I do not know, Tarrant. Yet another item we can add to our list of questions when we catch up to him. In the meantime, it looks as if we will have to follow him through there."
Tarrant blinked again. "Well, I suppose it could be fun." He suddenly gave a huge grin. "Iíve only read about such things."
"Donít get any ideas about pursuing some more Ďentertainmentí this evening," Avon hissed. "I get sick on roller coasters." He dug in his pocket and pulled out some Osirian money, which he handed over to the ticket taker. "This little jaunt on Osiris is proving expensive," he commented as they entered the gates in the company of the latest crowd.
"Doesnít anyone on this planet ever sleep?" Tarrant gestured around at the huge numbers of people. "Itís got to be past midnight, local time, by now."
"This area houses a lot of gambling establishments," Avon explained. "The casinos and surrounding businesses operate all day and night. Didnít you even study up on the culture before you risked everything for your little night out on the town?"
Tarrant smiled self-deprecatingly. "I suppose I didnít take as much care as I thought I had. But, then, Iím not the very model of a modern major-general, nor did I ever expect to be spending more than a few hours here."
Avon raised an eyebrow at him and surreptitiously called up to the ship. "Which way next, Vila?" He began to walk in the direction Vila indicated, motioning Tarrant along.
Before long they found themselves stopping again, this time in front of a large sign which proclaimed "Ride the Wild Matrix."
"Where does this ride exit?" Avon politely asked of the attendant shepherding people aboard.
The attendant shrugged, looking bored. "No one ever knows for sure. There are three possible exits and itís always a surprise. It runs on a random program. That way our patrons can experience the ride multiple times and still find it new."
Avon paled. "Surely you must have some idea where it comes out?"
The attendant shook his head. "No. But I do know the pattern repeats itself every third time."
Avon stepped back away from the ride to confer with Tarrant. "If he just got on the last one that leftówhich is probable, based on how close we appeared to be just nowóthen we can wait until the one after this and weíll hopefully end up at the same exit as Blake."
"And if we donít?"
"Weíll worry about that if it happens." Avon swallowed hard and got back into the line forming outside the ride.
"You donít look too happy, Avon," Tarrant noted. "Come onóit might be fun."
"Iím going to be sick, Tarrant. Iím warning you right now."
"We could always wait and let Vila tell us where he comes out...and then try to get there on foot."
Avon gave a sharp shake of his head. "No. Weíll lose too much time if we do it that way. According to the description, this ride comes out clear on the other side of the park."
Tarrantís gaze on Avon sharpened. "Why are you doing this? What kind of hold does Blake have on you, anyway?"
Avon couldnít meet the pilotís eyes. I donít know. I wish I did, he thought, almost desperately. But he could never admit such uncertainty to Tarrant. The other man might try to use it against him in their ongoing battle for control of the Liberator and her crew. "Blakeís little disappearance was mysterious. I do not enjoy mysteries."
Blake was laughing when he and Ralen exited the Matrix, enjoying, as always, the feeling of freedom and release he experienced on the twisting, turning roller coaster ride. The illusion of being suspended in space, with thousands of stars all around, while the ride plunged and wove its way through the stars was exhilarating. He could almost understand Jennaís excitement at piloting a fast ship when he rode the Matrix. The difference was that this vicarious thrill was relatively safeóat least it was under normal circumstances, when there werenít two relentless bounty hunters on his tail. The danger this time did somehow sharpen the kick of the ride, though.
As he and Ralen walked quickly away, he couldnít help but glance over his shoulder, half expecting to see someone chasing after him still. "That should have confused them," he said, clapping Ralen on the shoulder.
Ralen frowned, his head down, his expression intent. "No," he finally said.
Blake pulled to a halt. "What do you mean, Ďnoí?"
"They are still coming, Blake." Ralen lifted his head, his eyes focused on the distance. "One of them is very nervous about...something. The other one is...sick."
"Theyíre on the Matrix and theyíre coming to this exit. One of them is feeling nauseous from the ride. He is cursing you."
"Serves him right. Iíve had about enough of those two," Blake said. "I think itís time we stopped playing games and got down to really losing them."
"Iíve been saying that all along!" Ralen protested.
Blake flashed his teeth in a grim parody of a smile. "Yes, you have. First thing weíd better do is ditch our clothes. I canít think how else theyíre following us. Someone must have planted a microtrace on us."
Ralen pointed ahead to the Boardwalk. "There are shops among the establishments up there. Think the rebellion can afford to finance some new clothing for us?"
"We donít have much choice," Blake agreed, heading for the Boardwalk and a shop which sold souvenir shirts and the like. He quickly picked out a simple T-shirt and pants for himself, along with a fringed leather jacket. Ralen chose similar clothing, although he went for a less ornate jacket. On a whim, Blake tossed a cap across to Ralen and the blond man caught it with a grin. New boots and belts completed their outfits.
After paying for their purchases, Blake slipped the clerk a few extra dollars and asked if they could change in a back room. With a wink, she ushered them into the back of the store and left them to their own devices.
Both men stripped efficiently, Ralen only pausing for a moment when he saw the Liberator teleport bracelet Blake took out of his pocket. "Are you still carrying that thing around?"
"A man can hope," Blake said serenely, struggling into his new pants. He seemed to have bought them a little too tight.
Ralen snorted softly. "Your friend Carnell thinks you are obsessed with Liberator and its crew, you know."
Blake exhaled and pulled in his stomach, just managing to zip up the pants. "Yes, well, Carnell says a lot of things. I donít have to believe them all."
"Youíre the one whoís always saying Carnell is never wrong."
Blake slanted an exasperated look at his companion. "It doesnít hurt anyone for me to carry the bracelet. It means something to me, thatís all. I cared about the people it represents."
"And the ship," Ralen insisted.
"Yes, the ship, too. Jennaó"
"ódoesnít carry hers any longer," Ralen interrupted. "She leaves it in a drawer onboard the Star. She told me she gave up on the Liberator ever finding either of you a long time ago. She thinks Kerr Avon took the ship and has no intention of even trying to find you."
Blake sighed loudly, pulling his new shirt on. At least it fit loosely, unlike the pants. "Avon was always hard to understand. Jenna never quite got the knack."
"And you did?"
"Sometimes I thought I had," Blake admitted, heading for the back door of the establishment. "Sometimes I thought Iíd never understand him. Right now, I quite frankly wish he was here, along with the Liberator. Wouldnít it be miraculous to just teleport out of here, in the blink of an eye? I wonder what our mysterious bloodhounds would do about that?"
Impulsively, Blake turned the teleport bracelet around in his hands and pushed the communicator button. "Liberator," he said, wondering if the longing in his voice was as evident to Ralen as it was to him. "Come in, Liberator." There was a long drawn-out hissing sound and nothing more. He sighed again. "Someday theyíll answer, Ralen. Youíll see." If he didnít know better, he would have sworn the bracelet was tingling in his hand. He slipped it into a jacket pocket, patting it carefully into place.
Then he went through the door and out into the cold night, Ralen close behind him.
"Avon!" Vilaís voice sounded very excited, even over the tinny bracelet communicator.
"What is it?" Avon answered quickly, holding one hand up over the bracelet at his mouth. The last thing they needed was to attract the attention of someone in the crowd of locals. He clutched one hand over his stomach, trying desperately to still the heaving of his insides. Heíd warned Tarrant he was going to be nauseous, but the younger man didnít seem to believe him until it actually happened. To his credit, Tarrant had not left him to be sick alone, even though the pilot did look a little green around the gills himself.
"Blakeís just called the ship!" Vila exclaimed.
"What!? Did you teleport him up?"
"No! I tried and tried to answer him, but I donít think he could hear me. I even tried to bring him up, but nothing happened. His bracelet must still be broken, or heís not wearing it. But why would he call us if he didnít know we were here?"
Avon thought it over a moment. "Are you certain it was Blake?"
Vila seemed puzzled. "Yes. No. Oh, I donít know. It sounded like Blake to me. What is going on down there?"
Avon sighed heavily, grimacing at Tarrant as his insides spasmed in protest again. "Frankly, Vila, I have as much idea as you do about what is happening here. Does Orac have any theories?"
"No. He just keeps feeding me the coordinates to give to you."
Avon raised an eyebrow at Tarrant. "Without protests?"
"Surprisingly not," Vila reported.
"Patch me through to Orac," Avon ordered. "Orac."
"Why are you being so unusually cooperative?"
*Your natural suspicion is not unexpected, Avon.*
Avon shared a rare smile of understanding with Tarrant, shaking his head at the little computerís idiosyncrasies. "Just answer the question, Orac."
*Very well. The odds against you and Roj Blake randomly encountering one another on Osiris with no prior planning on either of your parts are astronomical. I am finding it a fascinating case study, simply fascinating.*
Tarrant rolled his eyes heavenward, pointing down at his watch. "Theyíre getting ahead of us again," he mouthed.
Avon nodded in agreement. "All right, Orac. Enjoy yourself. Just tell us which direction to go in next."
Using Oracís relayed instructions as a guide, they soon found themselves leaving the amusement park for another facility slightly down the road. Unlike the amusement park, however, this place was locked up tight with an heavy wrought iron gate, bolted and chained. From the looks of things, there was a roving security guard as well.
"Are you certain they went this way?" Avon frowned at the gate, scanning up and down the length of the ten foot high fence that surrounded the area. A sign over the gateway proclaimed the place a wild animal sanctuary.
"Itís a zoo of some kind," Tarrant exclaimed, looking intrigued. "I havenít been to an animal park since I was a very young child on Earth. My uncle raised us; he used to take me and Deetaó"
"Weíre not going into this one anytime soon unless we bring Vila down," Avon interrupted Tarrantís musings, uncomfortable at the mention of the other manís recently dead brother. Sympathy was not his forte and he didnít care to stand by while Tarrant lapsed into morbid sentimentality.
Tarrant shrugged, examining the huge padlock which secured the heavy duty chain on the gate. "I agree. I suppose itís time for Vila to join in the festivities, eh?"
He smiled nastily, and Avon couldnít help but grin back, glad to see Tarrantís thoughts had been diverted from memories of Deeta. Vila wasnít going to be pleased to come down in the middle of the cold, foggy Osirian night in order to break into a sanctuary full of howling animals. As if to punctuate Avonís thoughts, a hooting and grunting sound came from the other side of the fence. Both menís smiles widened. For once they were in perfect accord, delighting in the opportunity to bedevil their resident thief.
"Vila," Avon called up to the ship yet again. "Wake Cally, fill her in, and have her take over the teleport for you. We need you down here to open something."
"Now wait a minute," Vila immediately protested. "Itís chilly down there, according to Zen."
"Quit wasting valuable time and get down here."
"Iíll teleport you to the other side of whatever it is," Vila offered, his voice desperate.
"Without exact coordinates? And without knowing whatís waiting on the other side when we pop in out of nowhere in some enclosure?" Tarrant cut in. "Put on a thermal jacket, collect your kit, and come on down, Vila." He traded a glance with Avon. "Weíre having all the fun, after all."
"And hurry it up," Avon added. "Remember: this is for your beloved Fearless Leader."
"Iíll take it up with him, once we find him," Vila mumbled. "All right. Hang on a minute while I rouse Cally."
"Well?" Blake halted outside the pacing Osirian veranís cage, turning to face Ralen. Under more pleasant circumstances, he might have appreciated the alien beauty of the tawny spotted veran, a native Osirian feline creature. Instead, he hoped his expression didnít betray the desperation he was beginning to feel. Whoever these bounty hunters were, they were damn good. Maybe the best heíd come up against. He certainly had to revise his initial impression of them as "amateurs." No one else had ever managed to track him for so long and through so many obstacles. Changing their clothes should have removed any trace that might have been planted on them during their stay in the theater earlier.
Ralen concentrated hard, his expression distant and intent. "Now..." He blew out his breath explosively. "Now there are three of them. One of them is very smug and the other two are amused."
"Three of them! Where did the new one come from?!" Blake couldnít hide his agitation any longer. Of course, he didnít know why he bothered to try to hide it from Ralen, anyway. The empath could feel anything he had a mind to when in this close proximity. The only person who could read Blakeís emotions as easily was perhaps Jor Carnell.
Ralen shook his head. "I donít know. He seemed to have joined them rather suddenly; I suppose to help them get inside. It was a very strange sensation. All of them thinking about you. They donít seem to know I am here...or if they do, they do not know who I am."
Blake paced up and down for a moment in front of the exhibit. They had been lucky, he thought, to have the wild animal park as a sanctuary, mainly through the auspices of one of the night watchmen who worked for the local rebel forces. Since Blake knew the local code words, they were admitted into the park with no questions asked. The after-hours park made a good rebel bolthole.
"Weíd better move quickly," Ralen suddenly said. "They are through the gate and coming straight for us."
"Impossible!" Blake swore. "Howó? Oh, never mind. I think we had better take the shortest route back to our own flyer and then head for the base. We might have to make a stand after all."
Ralen frowned. "Do you think itís wise to lead them back to the base?"
"We canít stay out here on the run forever, Ralen. Do you have any better ideas?"
The empath shrugged, reaching up to straighten the cap Blake had picked out for him. "No, I suppose not. Maybe youíd better call Jenna and warn her."
Blake turned away. "As soon as weíre out of here I will." He began to jog, heading for the rear exit of the park. For the first time, he began to wonder if they would even make it back to the base. These bounty hunters were following them with unfailing accuracy, no matter what twists and turns they tried to take.
"Weíll cut through the casinos," he said to Ralen, who was keeping pace at his side. "Maybe the maze of slot machines will slow them down or distract them."
"Itís worth a try," Ralen said, sounding unconvinced. He aimed a calculating look sideways at Blake. "Are you still enjoying this?"
Blake set his jaw grimly. "No."
Vila dusted himself off as he stood up, carefully opening the padlock on the gate. "Still got the touch," he crowed happily, pushing the ornate gates open and slipping through to the other side. "Coming?"
Tarrant and Avon followed him through, quietly shutting the gate behind them and motioning at Vila to refasten the seals from the inside. It wouldnít do for any roving security guards to notice the gates had been breached.
Vila nodded in understanding and set to work quickly. When he finally finished and turned to face the two Alphas, his gaze sharpened on Avon. "Say...you look kind of white, Avon. You okay?"
Avon nodded, swallowing down the nausea that was still threatening to embarrass him. He knew from bitter experience that it was a bad idea for him to get on a roller coaster ride, but there was no way he was going to let Roj Blake slip through his fingers when they were this close to catching the rebel leader.
"Cally says sheís been trying to reach Blake with her telepathy," Vila said, still staring at Avon. "She wasnít too happy when I woke her up and told her what had been going on. She wants to find Blake pretty bad, you know."
Avon raised an eyebrow, chagrined to realize that he hadnít considered asking the Auron to attempt contact. "And?"
"She couldnít do it," Vila explained, repacking his kit of tools. "She thinks itís been too long since she had had any personal contact with Blake. She canít seem to locate his particular mind in order to send a message."
There was a sudden roar which reverberated around them, shaking even the gates, and causing Vila to jump sideways. He clutched at Avonís sleeve, his face now as white as the computer techís. "WhĖwhatís that?"
Tarrant had jumped as well, but recovered quickly. "Weíre in a wild animal park, Vila. Didnít you read the sign over the gate?"
"Reading it wonít save me from getting mauled!" Vila swallowed hard and shook his head. "CĖcan I go back to the ship now?"
Avon was seized with a sudden cruel perversity and carefully detached Vilaís fingers from his sleeve. "I think not. We might need you again." He headed off into the park.
Tarrant shrugged at Vila and followed, leaving Vila to scramble after them when another roar ended his momentary hesitation. "Iím tired of being Ďneeded,í" he mumbled, glaring at Avon and Tarrant once he caught up to them.
Avon ignored him. If Vila hadnít been complaining about something he might have been worried. They all expected Vila to fuss, after all. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, it was when Vila got quiet that Avon knew to worry. They were usually in real danger then, and Vila was enough of a survivor to know when to drop his facade of reluctant coward. Of course, Avon knew that Vila really was frightened most of the time, but who wasnít? Only a mad man would enjoy the constant danger the Liberator crew lived with.
Vila was tugging at his sleeve again, and Avon halted, his impatience barely concealed. "What now?"
"We seem to have lost Tarrant," Vila whispered. Avon could feel his hand trembling.
The park was dark, with only the illumination of the moonlight through the fog to light their way. The structures housing the animals were shadowed and menacing looking but Avonís eyes, accustomed to the darkness, could not make out Tarrantís tall figure anywhere.
"Tarrant?" he hissed softly, turning in a circle. "Tarrant, where are you?"
Could Blake and his companion have stopped and picked Tarrant off somehow? Without us hearing? After all, Blake wouldnít know who Tarrant was if he happened to chance upon him. He hesitated, unsure of what to do. If he tried to call Tarrant on his bracelet, he might place the other man in a compromising position.
"He was here just a moment ago," Vila maintained. "He was right behind me."
"Damn!" Avon wasnít certain whether they should go on or they should now mount a search for Tarrant. And, in the meantime, Blake was moving further and further ahead of them.
Suddenly, Tarrant loomed out of the darkness, right next to them. "Something wrong?"
Vila jumped a foot sideways, clutching his chest. "You about gave me a heart attack, you idiot!"
"What the hell happened to you?" Avon didnít try to conceal his annoyance. "We were about to leave without you."
"Iím surprised you didnít," Tarrant said evenly. "Call of nature."
"Next time, tell us where youíre going, why donít you?" Vila complained.
Tarrant grinned. "I was calling up the Federation to tell them where we are. I couldnít very well warn you, could I, Vila? Now, hadnít we better get moving?"
Avon bit at his cheek, swallowing down his irritation. "Donít try to be facetious, Tarrant," he snapped. "It doesnít become you." Without another word, he turned and stalked off across a large courtyard.
Ralen pulled to a sudden halt, right outside one of Osirisí largest casinos, reaching to stop Blake as well.
Blake raised an eyebrow in mute query, wondering at the sudden paleness of Ralenís face.
"Theyíre Federation!" Ralen gasped. "They are Federation, Blake!"
Blake shook his head in disbelief. "Nonsense. They canít be. If they were Federation, they would have had half the planet cordoned off by now. They have to be independent bounty hunters. The Feds would be using much more sophisticated techniques."
"Iím telling you, Blake. At least one of them is Federation. He was talking to someone..."
Blakeís jaw tightened, and he turned toward the beckoning doors of the casino with determined resolve. "Thereís nothing we can do about it if they are, then. Weíve got to lose those bastards!"
"Call Jenna," Ralen urged. "At least give her a warning."
"What if they trace our communication back to the base?"
"Youíd better risk it. Theyíve got to be warned whatís going on."
"All right," Blake capitulated. He ducked into a hallway inside the plush lobby and pulled a short-range communicator out of his pocket. "Jenna, respond."
"Blake!" Jennaís voice over the communicator sounded relieved. "We were beginning to worry. The play was over hours ago and no word from you or Ralen. I was beginning to think all sorts of things might have happened to you..."
"Weíre being chased," Blake explained to her briskly. "Apparently bounty hunters. Weíve tried to lose them, but so far no luck."
"Youíd better get back here as quickly as you can, then," Jenna said. "Somethingís stirring up the local garrison and weíve had unconfirmed reports of Federation pursuit ships moving in out on the planetary perimeter."
Ralen gave Blake his patented "didnít-I-tell-you-so" look. Blake acknowledged it with a nod. "All right," he told Jenna, keeping his voice carefully level. "Weíll make our way back."
"Keep in touch," Jenna pleaded. "Itís difficult not knowing."
Blake ended the conversation and gestured Ralen into the wash facilities at the end of the hallway. "I think weíd better take a shower," he suggested. "Obviously changing our clothing didnít do the trick. Perhaps weíve got something on our skin."
"Make it quick, then," Ralen warned. "They arenít that far behind again."
"I should have stayed behind on that nice planet with that pretty girl, Kerril," Vila moaned, hopping on one foot as he tried to remove a stone from his shoe. "This isnít fun anymore, Avon. In fact, it never was!"
"Do I have to listen to you going on about that pirate again?" Avon snapped. "Iím growing tired of hearing about her."
Vila finally dropped to the ground, giving up on taking his shoe off while standing up. "Hold up a minute, would you?" He pulled the shoe off quickly and emptied the offending pebble out of it. "I canít help it, Avon. I canít get her legs out of mind. They were so pretty.Ö"
Tarrant snorted contemptuously.
"You shut up," Vila warned, shoving the shoe back on and lacing it up. "I wouldnít have ever been in trouble if it wasnít for you bullying me."
"Letís not start up that old argument again," Avon cut in, seeing Tarrant about to reply. "Weíve got more important matters to worry about."
Tarrant shut his mouth and turned away. "They seem to have gone into one of those casinos ahead." He pointed to another brightly lit section in front of them.
Avon noticed Vilaís face light up in hopeful anticipation. "Donít get any ideas," he said warningly. "We donít have time to stop and gamble."
"Orac says our luck is incredibly good right now," Vila argued. "Maybe I could stay behind andó"
"Come on," Avon interrupted. He strode off without checking to see if Vila was following. He knew the other man wouldnít want to be left behind and would make every effort to keep up.
They soon found themselves inside one of the largest casinos with the ostentatious name of "The Golden Palace."
Vilaís eyes lit up at the sight of the huge cavernous room spread out before them full of wall-to-wall slot machines, blackjack tables, and the like.
Avon fancied he could almost see the credit signs reflected in Vilaís wide-eyed stare. Vila turned to him beseechingly and he found he couldnít resist the lure of all that money to be made himself. "On our way through, Vila," he gave in, handing the thief some Osirian change. "If you stop too long Tarrant and I will leave you behind...and Iíll tell Cally not to teleport you up, either."
Vila grabbed the change eagerly and began to count it. "Iíll keep up," he promised. He practically ran to the nearest slot machine and began to play.
Tarrant looked disgusted, which actually amused Avon. "You have something against gambling?" he queried innocently.
"No," Tarrant answered shortly.
"Good. I would hate to have to remind you of the various acts of piracy you have committed." He smiled nastily and began to make his way through the Osirians and off-worlders crowded into the casino. Behind him, he could feel the force of Tarrantís answering glare. His smile widened for a moment, and then faded as he recalled their reason for being in the casino in the first place.
Damn it, Blake. Donít you realize who is following you? Or is it that you do realize and you donít want us to catch you? Why havenít we heard from you since Star One? He lost himself in his musings, letting the clink of the slot machines fade into the background.
"One last ditch effort to throw them off," Blake suggested, coming to a stop outside a large, open air stadium. From the sounds of a wildly cheering crowd inside, something momentous and exciting was taking place.
Ralen considered the building, thinking over the option of pushing their way through yet another crowd of Osirians. "Do you think there is another entrance? On the other side?"
"It seems likely," Blake said. "Itís probably some type of local sporting event. Most of these stadiums are built along the same lines." He tried to keep his tone light, but the truth was ever since Ralen told him that even taking showers hadnít thrown off the bounty hunters, he had found himself growing increasingly depressed and worried. He didnít want to have to compromise his base on this planet. Everything had been going so well for them here. The imminent threat of Federation activity and Ralenís feeling that the "bounty hunters" were somehow connected to the Federation added to Blakeís apprehension. Why couldnít they shake them?
"A sporting event in the middle of the night? Itís got to be three or four in the morning local time," Ralen exclaimed.
"Itís the casino district, remember," Blake pointed out. "Nothing ever closes in this area. In fact, most of the action takes place in the middle of the night. In-between gambling, the high-rollers want entertainment." He nodded at the building. "Letís give it a try. It will only keep us from the base a little bit longer, and it might confuse them or at least slow them down. Give us time to prepare for them at the base."
"Why donít we stop right now and take them out?" Ralen snarled, finally losing his composure.
Blake smiled. It took a lot to get Ralen angry, but once he felt threatened or defensive he could be hell on wheels. Blake could still remember the first time Carnell and Ralen had got into an argument over methods. Ralen still hadnít quite forgiven the psychostrategist for winning that argument and he insisted on referring to him as "Blakeís blue-eyed know-it-all," but Blake thought that Ralen secretly harbored a lot of respect for Carnell.
"What if they capture us?" Blake said gently. "Weíd hardly be better off and we might compromise the entire rebellion, especially here on Osiris."
"We have the advantage of surprise," Ralen maintained. "They might not even know that we are on to them."
"Oh, Iím sure they know by now." Blake caressed his holstered gun absently. For some reason he suddenly found himself thinking of the Liberator again; he pushed a hand into his jacket pocket to check that his bracelet was still safely stowed there. Reassured that the braceletóhis lucky talisman, he sometimes thought of itówas secure, he walked up to buy them tickets for the stadium event and led Ralen into the upper levels of the arena.
Tarrant and Vila were both starting to look frazzled as they began to climb to the top of the stadium. Avon knew he probably didnít look any better. He glanced upward, scanning the masses of shouting people, aware that somewhere up there, according to Orac, was Roj Blake. Damn the man, anyway!
Why am I doing this? he thought, bone weary and disgusted with himself. It had been almost two days now since heíd slept, and he wasnít used to traveling so far on foot. If it hadnít been for the foolhardy promise heíd made to Blake at Star One, he supposed he would have been long gone with the Liberator by now. Probably hiding out safely somewhere outside of Federated space; maybe making a few piracy runs to satisfy Tarrant and running a few gambling scams with Vila. Cally wouldnít have been happy to leave the rebellion behind, and Dayna probably would have been bored, but they all would have been a lot safer, in the long run.
But heíd promised Blake heíd fight the Andromedans and...more. He promised heíd keep the ship and crew safe, yes. But also that he would continue the fight against the Federation. At the time, he'd thought Blake was going to die. He knew I wouldnít refuse him a dying request, damn him! He knew he could manipulate me and I would keep my word. It was almost enough to make him hate the man sometimes. Other timesómost of the timeóhe wondered why he felt such a strong tie of loyalty to the man. It was damnably close to an obsession.
Vila was huffing and puffing next to him. "I canít make it much further," he said. "Iím not used to all this footwork!"
"Youíre not used to any sort of work. Still, I agree," Avon said, actually feeling sympathetic for a change. "Weíre almost to the top."
"Weíll probably have to go right down again, by the time we reach it," Vila complained.
Avon knew he was right, so he didnít even bother to reply. Tarrant held his tongue, for once, but Avon could see that even the younger man was sweating. They all needed to pay closer attention to Callyís exercise programs, it seemed.
"We were beginning to give up on you," Jenna said, relief evident in her voice. She jumped up from her place in front of the communications console and ran to give both Ralen and then Blake a hug. "Did you manage to lose them?"
Blake shook his head, returning her hug with enthusiasm and running one large hand through her long blonde hair. "Ralen says theyíre still following, although we put a little distance between us once we picked up our aircar for the trip back here. Weíve tried every trick in the book, but somehow they managed to trace us. If it hadnít been just the two of us out there, I would have been tempted to say we had an informant in our midst. But we didnít even contact you until recently, so it couldnít be anyone back here at the base."
Ralen grinned. "It could always be me, Blake. Maybe Iíve betrayed you.Ö"
Blake snorted. "Right. You made yourself go on the Matrix. The fact that you went with me on it would have convinced me of your loyalty, if nothing else did," he teased.
Jenna laughed. "Poor Ralen. He dragged you on that roller coaster ride again?"
Ralen nodded, looking pitiful. "What I do for the rebellion.Ö" He placed one hand on his heart earnestly.
"Weíd better double the patrols," Blake said, ignoring Ralenís play for Jennaís sympathy. The man was a notorious flirt. "Theyíre going to follow us right into the base, no doubt."
"If they donít simply call in Federation troops to overrun us," Ralen said, suddenly completely serious.
"Youíre still convinced that they are connected to the Federation?" Blake moved to take a seat next to the communications array, where Jenna was already monitoring incoming and outgoing messages again.
Jenna looked up. "There is increased Federation activity out there, as I told you when you called in earlier. I heard the local garrison commander sending out a plea for a flotilla. It was coded, so Iím not exactly clear on whatís going on yet. It could be your bounty hunter friends calling the Feds down on us."
"This base is secure," Blake protested, frowning. He still wasnít quite sure he agreed with Ralenís assessment of the situation, but if Jenna thought the Federation was closing in, too, then they were going to have to start evacuating the base.
He leaned forward to rest his elbows on the edge of the console. Rubbing at his eyes, he sighed heavily; he was too tired and burned out to deal with yet another crisis so soon after the debacle at Sadlerís Stop. Theyíd lost a lot of good men when the Federation had moved in on their base there and they still didnít know who had betrayed them. Blake hated to think that perhaps this time his desire to take in a little culture had unwittingly compromised their base on Osiris.
Itís because Iíve become too comfortable here, he thought wearily. I stopped taking precautions and I ignored the warnings from Jenna and Deva and Ralen. I wonít make the mistake of relaxing my guard againÖ.
Tarrant landed the small aircar they had appropriated just outside the perimeter of what appeared to be a compound of buildings, camouflaged in the forests surrounding the city. "If they are somewhere in that compound," he said, "we had best try to find a way to contact them. Itís probably Blakeís base and weíre likely to get shot trying to get in without any passwords."
Vila lifted his head from where he was bent over counting the credits heíd won in the casino earlier. It appeared to be quite a nice pile of change, Avon noted. Oracís "prediction" concerning their current lucky streak appeared to have been true.
The computer tech nodded in answer to Tarrantís suggestion, opening up a channel to the Liberator. "Callyó"
"Youíve got to come back up," Cally interrupted urgently, before Avon could say anything else. "Zen says there are Federation pursuit ships converging on the planet."
Avon raised an eyebrow at Tarrant and Vila. "How many?"
"An entire flotilla and perhaps more behind them," Cally said. "Shall I teleport you now?"
Avon bit at his inner cheek, torn between taking a chance on finally making contact with Blake or simply running, hoping to come back and find Blake still here. Then again, if they were to stay much longer, and the Federation was after the Liberator, they could be unwittingly leading the Federation straight to Blakeís hidden base. Getting Blake captured or killed was not his intention.
Tarrantís expression was unreadable.
"Avon?" Vila was distressed, his gaze locked with the computer techís.
Avon could see the same play of emotions crossing Vilaís features as had no doubt crossed his own. Vila knew and liked Blake and wouldnít want to let this chance pass them by. But, they had done as much as they could to try to make contact. If only Blake had stopped for a moment to determine who was chasing him, they could have all gone back to the ship together. Avon didnít care to examine his own extreme disappointment too closely at the moment.
Sighing in defeat, Avon gave Cally the order to teleport.
Blake straightened up quickly as the blood visibly drained from Jennaís face. She was holding one hand over her earpiece, listening intently. "What is it?" he asked in alarm. "Are the Feds coming in?"
Jenna shook her head mutely. She started to speak and then simply switched on an audio control, piping the communication she was listening to into the speakers so everyone could hear what she did: "Bring us up, Cally. We donít want to accidentally lead the Federation to Blakeís base, if we can help it," a familiar voice boomed from the speakers, unnaturally loud.
"Thatís Avon," Blake all but whispered, his expression frozen in horror. He spun to confront Ralen. "Thatís Avon!" he bellowed.
Ralen was as white as a ghost himself. "I didnít know," he said. "I swear, Blake, I didnít know. There were three of them... I swear one of them felt like Federation."
Blake was shaking uncontrollably, unconsciously clutching at the Liberator bracelet still safely tucked inside of his jacket. Peripherally, he was aware of Jenna holding his forearm in an iron grip, betraying her own agitation. "Weíve been doing our damnedest to avoid the very people I would most like to find," he growled, glaring at Ralen.
The other man looked shaken, but still adamant. "One of them is Federation. He called in the pursuit ships, Blake."
Blake tried desperately to calm himself; he knew that if Ralen said one of Avonís people was Federation, the chances were it was true. If Avon unknowingly harbored a Federation spy in his midst, it would be wise to take precautions when he finally did reconnect with Avon and his crew.
"Can you make contact with them? With Orac?" Blake suggested, turning back to Jenna.
Jenna shook her head. "Thereís no response. Iíve been trying, but nothing. Theyíve probably left at Zenís top speed, which is very fast indeed."
Blake stood up and stared blankly at the opposite wall, not certain whether he should laugh or cry. He realized with sick dismay that the tingling of his teleport bracelet he thought he had imagined earlier had probably been Avon attempting to answer his own call. My lucky charm, indeed! Obviously, the bracelet was defective.
He pulled out the bracelet and contemplated it with a frown of frustration. Finally he settled for simply throwing it against the far wall where it shattered into three pieces. "Damn it to hell! I must be the unluckiest man in the entire galaxy!" He turned to Jenna and Ralen. "Sound the alert. Evacuate the base."
As they went to work, Jenna biting her lips and looking just as unsettled as Blake felt, he turned his back and stared upward, knowing that somewhere out there Avon was probably cursing him. And I dare not even leave a message or anything to let him know where we have gone from hereÖ.
"We have to go back!" Cally protested, following Avon onto the flight deck of the Liberator. "We canít just leave Blake there! The Federationó"
"The pursuit ships are our immediate concern," Avon said calmly, going to his station. He hoped the faint trembling of his hands didnít give away his own turmoil. He really had to get some rest and soon.
Tarrant had already taken the piloting controls from Dayna and was increasing their speed. They were already out of the system and away, the pursuit ships far behind them within moments.
"Be reasonable, Cally," Vila said from his station at the weapons. "It wonít help Blake much if we get captured or killed. I want to find him, too."
Cally sighed loudly. "Itís the closest weíve ever come."
Avon didnít raise his head. "Heíll be gone by the time we make it back."
"You sound certain of that," Tarrant said.
"Heís not a fool, Tarrant. He knew someone was chasing him. Heíll evacuate his base now." Avon took a moment to glance over his shoulder at the younger man, wondering at the peculiar look on his face. If he didnít know better, he would have sworn that Tarrant was... disappointed? Confused? He couldnít quite put his finger on it, but something about Tarrant had definitely been strange lately.Ö
He shrugged and turned back to the computers. "Next time you want to take in a little culture, Tarrant, try limiting yourself to a booktape or something else relatively safe, would you?"
"Yeah," Vila put in. "I nearly got eaten by something large and noisy down there."
Tarrant snapped, "You wouldnít have won that tidy little pile of credits in the casino, either, if we hadn't gone." He turned back to Avon. "I donít know what youíre complaining about," he continued sullenly. "If I hadnít gone down, you never would have found your precious Blake."
"He is neither Ďmineí nor Ďprecious,í" Avon disagreed with one of his patented eerie smiles, "but you are correct that we would not have located him without your foolhardy adventure."
"Your stubborn insistence on chasing Blake put us in more danger than my innocent little play ever did," Tarrant scornfully pointed out. "I think you have an unhealthy obsession with the man, quite frankly. Should you decide to go on another such jaunt in the future, I would like a say in the matter."
Avon turned to study Tarrant once again, still struck by Tarrant's cryptic expression. He continued to smile at the other man, but said nothing more.
Should I ever hear from Roj Blake again, Del Tarrant, you shall be the last to know.Öhe vowed.