Winning Is The Only Safety (2) Hide and Seek
by Kathryn Andersen
The first thing I felt was the cold. Right to my marrow -- cold. They say you aren't supposed to remember, but they say a lot of things. I felt cold, and I didn't want to remember why. It was all a blur, and I knew I didn't want to face whatever was going to be there when I woke up properly. It's always sure to be worse than you think. And I was right, wasn't I? Because the first voice I heard after I'd woken and slept and woken and ignored the med-techs and slept was -- her.
"Hello, Vila," she said, bending her so elegant head to look down on me. Not that she didn't always look down on me, when she looked at me at all. Not that I ever wanted her to look at me. Like being looked at by some mythical animal that freezes you with one look. And then eats you up later.
"S-S-Servalan," I stuttered.
The ex-President of the Terran Federation gazed down at me, as I lay on the cot, dressed in shapeless white warmers. "Ah, the effects of cryo-freezing aren't pleasant, I know," she said, "but you must know how dangerous you are, Vila. Those gallant citizens who brought you in considered that it was the safest method of transport." She smiled, her patented false smile. "But I'm so glad to see you arrived in one piece." She laid one taloned finger on my cheek. "It cost me a little more, but I'm sure you'll make it worthwhile, won't you Vila? Or I might get a little upset at wasting the bonus I paid for you alive. And that wouldn't do at all."
Of course I babbled. I always babble when I'm terrified. "What do you want me for? I'm no use to you really, I don't know anything, I was only just along for the ride..."
"You're the only one left, Vila," she said. "Why they left you with the Scorpio I don't know..."
"But they didn't," I protested. "Scorpio crashed. Plastered over GP. We got away by teleport."
"Ah," she said. "But you're still the only one left. The only one who knows where Orac is. It wasn't with you on Freedom City, so you must have hidden it somewhere. Where's Orac, Vila?"
Me, tell her where Orac is? "Avon would kill me," I answered.
"What, you've taken to talking with ghosts?" Servalan inquired. "Avon is dead and buried on Gauda Prime."
"Wouldn't stay buried, not Avon," I blurted.
She laughed at me. "Poor little Vila, afraid of ghosts." She leaned forward and breathed on me. Her breath smelled of mint. "You should be afraid of the living."
"I am, I am," I squeaked, and didn't realize what an idiot I'd been until her sharp reply.
"Are you saying that Avon is alive?"
Ooops. Avon was supposed to be dead, that's what they all thought. Well, Avon had died on GP, actually. He just didn't stay dead. "Um, no, I didn't say that..." I stuttered.
Servalan smiled. "Why, I do believe you're lying to me, Vila. So Avon is alive, after all..."
"Avon's going to kill me," I muttered. Unless Servalan did first. Which seemed much more likely. Avon didn't even know where I was. Mind you, I didn't know where I was. Last thing I remembered was going to pick up a package for Avon, and then it was lights-out time.
She touched one finger to my chin. I shivered. "Where is he, Vila?" she asked.
I shut my mouth and shook my head.
"You don't want me to bring my interrogators in here, do you Vila?" she said softly. One soft word from her is more terrifying than the yells of any crack-troop sergeant yelling for his men to make the enemies' guts into shoelaces. I never wanted to join the military, too much shouting, besides, it got you killed. Thieving was much safer -- until I got stuck with Blake, that is. "They can be very creative with pain," she continued.
"I have a very low pain threshold," I protested.
"Then tell me where Avon and Orac are, and you won't get hurt," she said reasonably.
So I told her. "He's on Pharos," I said. Because surely Avon wouldn't still be there. Surely he'd have moved on as soon as he realized I was missing? How long had I been in cryo? Long enough, surely?
And that was the best that I could hope for. Because even I wasn't fool enough to expect that Avon would try to rescue me. I wasn't worth rescuing. Just a fool and a drunk...
... drunk far too much, I knew it. But what else was there to do, really? I suppose I could have stolen the antique swords in Ryan's collection, there in his exercise room, but I'd just have to put them back. It was Ryan's ship, nowhere to go. I had had a chat to Orac, when Avon wasn't there, and I was thinking about what that plastic box had said.
"D'ya wan' th' good news or th' bad news, Vila?" I said to myself. "Is there any good news? I'm alive, I s'pose that's good news. I haven' been captured -- yet. Only a matter of time, though. Two million credits! I'm worth more than Bayban..." I trailed off, thinking of the time when I had met that most unpleasant outlaw. "Sell your own mother... I'd sell meself if I could figure out how..." I wrinkled my brow, puzzling. "Betcha Avon could figure out... He wouldn' need to figure out -- he could jus' sell me. No price on his head any more. They think he's dead." I giggled inanely. "They're all dead. No prices on their heads. No point in paying for a dead man..."
I giggled again, and took another swig from my bottle. "Y'know, if they knew he wasn' dead, they'd put the price back on." A thought percolated into my pickled brain. "I know he's not dead. If they caught me, they'd find out he wasn't dead. So he can't let them catch me."
I grinned foolishly, until I was abruptly sobered by a sudden chilling thought. Of course I couldn't talk if I was dead. I shook my suddenly-pounding head. "Nooo," I whimpered. But the thought wouldn't go away. Ever since the overloaded shuttle over Malodar, I had known that Avon wouldn't hesitate to kill me if Avon's own survival was at stake. And I was the last person alive, apart from Orac, who knew that Kerr Avon was alive and kicking. If I was dead, the last tie to Avon's old life would be gone, and Avon would be free to start over completely. Need me? Avon would never need me. He didn't need anyone. He didn't want to need anyone.
I remembered the look on Avon's face, there on Gauda Prime, when Avon had thought he was in Hell. It was not the face of a sane man. Avon would never want to commit suicide, not the Avon I knew. And if Avon wasn't the Avon I knew -- completely unpredictable men could do anything, anything. The only thought in my head was that if Avon didn't know there wasn't a price on his head any more, then Avon wouldn't have any reason to kill me. But if he did know, then he would kill me to shut me up, so that they wouldn't know he was alive.
Following this tortuous logic, I staggered back to Avon's cabin.
"Orac", I declared as soon as I had re-activated the computer, "don't tell Avon about the price on his head."
"Avon no longer has a price on his head," the computer stated.
"Yep," I hiccupped. "That's what I don't want you to tell him."
"I cannot comply with this request," Orac demurred.
"Whyever not?" I demanded.
"I have previous instructions not to obey any of your requests when you are inebriated," explained the computer.
"Inbrated? Wha's tha'?"
"I'm not drunk -- I can still stand up!" I protested.
"I cannot follow your instructions," Orac reiterated.
"Fat lot of good you are!" I grumbled, and took out Orac's activator key. Then I looked at it. Orac couldn't tell Avon if Avon couldn't ask Orac, could he? And Avon couldn't ask Orac if Avon didn't have the key. And Avon didn't have the key now, it was right here. I had picked Avon's pocket earlier, just so I could have my little talk. I was going to put the key back, but now...
"Have to find somewhere to hide it..." I muttered, and tiptoed into the corridor -- right into Avon.
"Thank you, Vila," he said sarcastically, snatching the key out of my hand. "I was looking for that."
I just stood there with my mouth open, and Avon went into his room...
...room they put me in was pretty bare, but more like a room than a cell. There was a mutoid on duty at the door round the clock. That's the problem with having a reputation; if I hadn't been famous, Servalan would have just locked me up in a cell and I would have been out of it in five minutes. But she made a point of telling me, before she left, that this place was a station on a deserted asteroid that nobody knew about, that didn't get regular ships, and if something happened to her, then I'd stay there until the food ran out. And if the mutoids she left there ran out of plasma before I ran out of food, then I'd be the first item on their menu. They aren't nicknamed vampires for nothing. Not a pleasant prospect. Not at all.
Whichever way you looked at it, I was doomed. And Avon? I suppose Avon was doomed too. I used to say that I wanted to live forever or die trying, but it looked like Avon was going to do just that. And the "die trying" part looked pretty likely, as far as I could see. Because what Ryan said was pretty convincing...
...convincing me, you've failed," said Avon. "I am not buying into your absurd fantasies."
"But you've got to know the rules of the Game," Ryan insisted.
"I am not deaf," Avon answered. "I am just not interested."
"You can't just opt out of the Game," Ryan said. "You're immortal. You're already on the board." He suppressed an exasperated sigh. "Consider this, as you're so fond of rational argument. It doesn't matter whether you believe in the Quickening or not. Or whether you dislike the Game. What matters is that there are people out there who will kill you because they believe in it. The first rule is this: There can be only one."
"Then why didn't you fight me when we met?" Avon asked bluntly.
Ryan tilted his head and gave a hard smile. "I needed the cash to get off-planet," he answered. "And there's another rule: no duels in Space," he said, with a sharp edge to his voice. "It's a relatively new Rule. But very practical." Was there pain in his voice, then? "Back in 2420, old calendar," Ryan paused to calculate, "about 500 years ago, Duncan Macleod and Zimazino Kalter had a duel on board the Rogue Star. I don't know who won. Immaterial, really. When the loser's Quickening was taken, it shorted out all the ship systems. Total systems failure. All hands were lost. All they found were the pieces." He returned his gaze to Avon, as if to bore his next words into his brain. "After that, no immortal will duel in space. Ever."
"This 'Quickening' can short out a ship's systems? Maybe in the past, but -"
"Look here, buddy," Ryan interrupted, "I'd gladly demonstrate it on your neck, but I happen to be quite fond of my own neck, and of my ship. They found the black-box recording, okay? I listened to it. The official verdict was sabotage, but I know what caused it. And if you don't want to be a menace to yourself and everyone else, you'll bloody well listen!"
Avon just looked at him. Looked through him, more like. Me, I just tried to make like the Invisible Man. Avon was doomed...
... doomed, as I said. Ryan didn't manage to convince him, even though he convinced me. When he was talking I was convinced, anyway. All this immortality stuff, chopping off each other's heads to win this Prize thing, it sounds pretty wild. But I'd seen those cuts on Avon's wrists heal in front of my eyes. That's pretty convincing. But it wasn't me who needed to learn how to use a sword.
After we got to Bucol-2 -- the part with the settlement, on a completely other continent than Justin had been on -- we parted ways with Ryan, travelling on to Onus-2. I was just tagging along for the ride, of course. As long as you don't get in his way, really, standing behind Avon is a relatively safe place...
...place was a dump. But Avon wasn't into spending money like water, for all the false accounts he'd had Orac set up. Didn't want to attract attention.
So there it was, a narrow alley, just the place to get mugged, and when the fellow in the long dark coat walked up, I thought that was just what was going to happen. But it was worse than that. And if I'd been paying a little more attention to Avon, I would have guessed the kind of trouble that the fellow was.
"My name is Agastya Pingala," the stranger said, and pulled out a sword. He looked as exotic his name; black hair, narrow face and a swarthy complexion, one of those smooth, bland, handsome faces that could be anything from eighteen to thirty. But obviously the sword-stuff meant that he was a lot older than that. An immortal. An immortal who wanted to have a duel. "Tell your friend to get lost."
"Get lost, Vila," Avon said calmly. I scooted out of that alley as fast as I could, but I couldn't just leave it like that. I peered around the corner, to see what happened.
"There's no need for that," Avon said coldly to Pingala. "I'm not playing your game."
"There can be only one," Pingala replied. "Put up your sword."
"I advise you to turn around and forget me," Avon said. "I am not going to fight you."
"All that much easier for me to take your Quickening," Pingala said.
"That's all you have to say?" Avon asked, hand inside his own coat.
Pingala just stepped towards Avon, holding his sword in a guard position.
Avon shot him.
"You've got to learn to take 'no' for an answer," Avon remarked.
"Cheat..." Pingala croaked with his last breath.
"Only if I take your head," Avon murmured.
The fellow must have been pretty surprised when he woke up, head intact.
The Ryan's Pride landed at Lindor spaceport with no trouble or fanfare, one of many ships that landed at that busy independent port. Ricardo Kidd, red-headed and curly, wearing a veneer of careless youth, breezed through customs with no problems, despite one piece of unusual luggage in his possession. Lindor customs were looking for energy weapons, not swords.
Kidd made his way to the apartment of the friend he had come to Lindor to visit. Kidd could tell that he was in, he could feel his presence. The presence of another immortal, anyway. It was impossible to tell who or even exactly where another one was, only that there was another immortal nearby. Though sometimes he wondered if some immortals could tell more than that. He jogged his way up the stairs, not because the lift was out of order, but simply because he felt like it. Too much time in space left him in danger of getting soft, despite the custom gym that he had had built into his ship. It wasn't as if Meth -- no, his current name was Bren, wasn't it -- was going to challenge him to a duel as soon as he arrived.
He knocked on the door, it opened -- and he was greeted by a sword.
"Hey, Bren! That's no way to greet an old friend!" Kidd exclaimed, jumping back nervously.
The lean, dark-haired immortal, currently known as Bren Keenan, sheathed the sword, saying, "Oh, it's you, Richie. I thought you were someone else." He gestured him inside and shut the door.
"Obviously," grumbled Richie Ryan. "So much for keeping a low profile -- you practically chased me away a month ago because there was a Watcher convention in town, and then you open your front door waving a sword!"
Bren sighed. "Someone's been hanging around the past few days. I thought you were him, finally coming out and challenging me."
"You're being stalked?" Richie queried, dumping his bags by the door and sitting in one of the low comfortable chairs nearby. "Do you know who it is?"
Bren shook his head. "No. I haven't seen him. Just felt him, not just here, but other places. I'm being followed."
"It must be bad, to make you jumpy," Richie said.
"I don't like being watched," Bren said.
"So you joined the Watchers," Richie said.
"Well, it's logical," Bren said. "Want a beer?" he asked, stepping towards the kitchen.
"I wondered when you would ask," Richie answered. As Bren slid him a bottle and opened another himself, Richie added, "You're so fond of the stuff I've sometimes wondered if you invented it."
Bren smiled. "No," he said, "but I have re-invented it a few times. Wouldn't do to let such an essential art die out."
"I thought 'Civilizations rise and fall' was your favourite saying," Richie returned.
"That doesn't mean I can't help them along in the rising part," Bren said. "You've given it a go yourself, haven't you?"
Richie blew a sighing breath. "No matter how you try, it doesn't seem to do much good." He raised his hand...
...to wipe his brow, smearing more dirt on it. He patted the fresh earth of the grave with his spade a few more times and put it down. Another one. He wondered why he bothered burying them any more. It was something to do. Something to delude himself that he was making a difference, however small. He put the spade back onto his bicycle, and continued on down the road. His motorbike had run out of gas three days ago. None of the gas station pumps he had found would work, and he couldn't be bothered trying to siphon up more. Better to face the facts and get something that didn't rely on gas.
He was lucky he'd had most of his gear with him, because the rest was gone. In his parents' time, they grew up expecting the war. Two world powers, poised at each others' throats. It was only a matter of time. But then the Soviet Union broke up. The threat of a generation was gone. They were safe -- or so they thought. But old hatreds run deeper than newer ones. They grind themselves deep into the soul of a people, like a river into bedrock, carving valleys, for as long as the memory remains. Old hatreds did them in. Old hatreds and computer reflexes. Once the missiles started flying it seemed like everyone with an atomic bomb was joining in the fray. There he had been, travelling from point A to point B, when suddenly point A and point B were both heaps of radioactive slag. If he'd been in either place, he wouldn't have made it. He doubted even an immortal could survive ground zero of an atomic blast. There would be nothing left to regenerate.
When he made camp that night, he took out his radio. There it was again. Weak, but there. "This is Clearwater Radio..." He'd quipped to himself when he first heard it, that he hoped their water was still clear, but it wasn't funny. He checked the map again. Two-three days and he should be there. If they let him in. Some of the towns he'd passed were barricaded Survivalist enclaves with no tolerance for strangers.
He needn't have worried. They were cautious, but friendly. He wasn't the only one to be attracted by the radio broadcasts. The group's headquarters were in the local high school. They were relatively well-organised, wrote down his name, and insisted he be taken to a doctor to be examined. His full head of hair testified that he wasn't suffering from radiation sickness, but they blathered on about community health, and he decided it wasn't worth making a fuss. All that they would find would be that he was, er, healthy.
He was nearly at the doctor's office when he felt it. The buzz. There was an immortal nearby. And his sword was outside with all his gear. He stopped. A woman in a white lab coat came rushing out a door and nearly ran into him.
"What are you doing here?" they both said at the same time, and laughed.
Grace was looking worn, but still beautiful, petite and dark-haired, just as she'd been when he met her for the first time in Paris some years before. Back when he was still a mortal. Richie was wondering how to greet her when she took the matter out of his hands by hugging him. Mighty friendly, but maybe she was as starved for familiar faces as he was. Then she stood back and looked around.
"Where's Duncan?" she asked, as if expecting him to come around a corner any minute.
"He's in Paris -- I hope," Richie answered, slightly puzzled.
"Then who...?" she began, frowning. "There's one of us -"
Richie grinned, gesturing at himself. "C'est moi," he said.
"You? How?" she asked. "Not -- on the Day?"
Richie shook his head, understanding her to mean, had he become immortal on the Day of the war. "In '94. When Tessa died. The same punk got us both. She died. I became immortal," he said, not meeting Grace's eyes. "Sometimes... well, if it had been the other way around, Duncan..."
"Would have been happier?" Grace finished. "He loved Tessa very much." She smiled. "Don't blame yourself. You can't live with that sort of guilt. If I blamed myself for every death..."
Richie shook himself. "I'm sorry," he said. "So what brings you to this neck of the woods?" He waved his hand around....
..and lowered it again. Richie sighed. "But you gotta try," he finished.
"Do you?" Bren said softly, catching on to Richie's suddenly morose mood. "You can't save everybody, you know."
"I dunno," Richie said. "When I was on my way to see you before, I came across this new immortal. Ren Perera. Tried to tell him about the Game. He wouldn't listen. And I'm not sure if I'm sorry or glad."
"Why not?" Bren prompted.
"If he doesn't believe in it, he'll be a victim of the first unscrupulous immortal he comes across. If he does... I don't know what to think of him. He could be bloody dangerous, if he put his mind to it." He stared unseeingly....
...unseeingly at the ceiling of his cabin, having a silent argument with his mentor. With the memory of his mentor. He could imagine, clearly, in his mind's eye, everything that Mac would say, what Mac would do. And right now, Mac was looking downright reproachful.
Why aren't you teaching Perera?
Richie scowled. Remember Felicia Martens? She suckered you into thinking she was a newbie, so that she could learn from you, learn your weaknesses.
But Perera is a new immortal, came the answer. You know that.
But just as likely to stab me in the back.
Were you any better? When we met, you were robbing my antique store.
I wasn't a killer! He has murder written all over him.
Then that's one thing he doesn't need to learn -- how to dare to kill.
But does he know how not to kill?
So you want him to learn from someone who will teach him to be worse? He deserves a chance, Richie. Like the chance Tessa and I gave you.
I was just a kid. I learned better. He isn't a kid. He won't learn.
You don't know that.
Oh yeah? I don't know a heck of a lot. I don't even know his real name.
You think he lied about that?
He's got the look. I know that look.
He probably has his reasons.
Reasons I won't like. Reasons you wouldn't like.
Like he's a murderer?
Yeah, exactly like.
And you aren't?
I don't mean the Game, you know that.
That was war. And justice.
Everyone has reasons.
I don't know his. And that's what bothers me.
Richie smiled ruefully, remembering.
"I didn't know you believed in ghosts," Richie said.
Duncan looked down at the floor, at his sword, and answered, "I believe in the kind you carry with you. Everyone you've loved and everyone you've killed. They never leave you. When you stop feeling, when you stop hurting, that's when you're dead inside. And that, my friend, is when I'll worry about you."
You don't need to worry, Mac, Richie thought. You're still haunting me. The echo of Macleod faded from his memory, but he was no closer to a decision than he had been.
But it turned out to be pointless...
...pointless to worry about it, I know," Richie said. "It was his choice, but I just can't get it out of my mind."
"You're as bad as Macleod," Bren grumbled. "Enough with the guilt already!"
"I'm not so sure it's just that," Richie said thoughtfully. "I think, I think part of me is worried. Worried that if he becomes a hunter, if he goes bad, I'll have to kill him."
"I just wonder. If he went that way, whether I would be able to take him."
"He's got no experience," Bren said dismissively.
"He's got the willpower," Richie said grimly. "And that's the most important thing."
"You," Bren pointed his half-empty beer-bottle at Richie, "are borrowing trouble."
Servalan wasn't happy. She radiated anger and frustration like a small sun. And, unfortunately, her scorching attention was on me. "We missed him on Pharos, we missed him at Freedom City -- now, Vila, tell me where he would go next?"
I shook my head. "Do you think Avon would tell me anything?" I protested. "I don't know."
"Come now, you must know a little of what he was planning. You must have noticed something."
I shrugged. "He was looking for somebody. That's all I know."
"Who was he looking for, Vila? What was his name?" She trailed her taloned finger down the side of my face. "Imagine that's a knife, Vila..." she breathed in my ear. "A very sharp knife..."
"Hey, even Avon didn't know his name!" I gabbled. "The fellow was a computer cracker, covered his trail like anything. Even Orac was finding it difficult!"
Servalan stepped back and started pacing. She picked up a report she had brought with her, and flicked through it. "And you don't know what was in the package he sent you to Freedom City to collect?"
"I told you that before. He wouldn't tell me. He just didn't want to pick it up himself."
"He obviously changed his mind," Servalan said. "Tell me, Vila, do you have any idea why Avon would consider it so important to purchase an antique sword?"
"A sword!?" I exclaimed. "What the hell!?"
Fortunately she took my alarm for surprise. "No explanation?" she said dryly. "Surely you can think of some reason?"
"Um," I said, trying to gather my scattered wits together. Avon had a sword? He had believed Ryan all along? Or was it the close encounter on Onus-2 that had convinced him? "He, er, wasn't really, er, stable after he killed Blake," I babbled. Half-truths are wonderful things. "He thought he was in hell." Better to let Servalan think Avon was nuts than tell her the truth -- which would sound pretty loony anyway. Half the time I didn't believe it myself. "Thought they wouldn't let him die. Thought he couldn't die." There. Just the right touch of madman's megalomania, I hoped.
Servalan laughed. "Avon is insane?" She touched my nose, as if I were a child. "Tell me, Vila, why did you stay with him?"
"I wonder that sometimes myself," I said honestly.
The sound of the curtains being drawn open sounded like a drumroll in Richie's ears. He groaned. He wasn't a morning person. "Whadaryoudoingupsoerly?" he mumbled.
"You sleep on the couch, you get disturbed," Bren said cheerfully. "I have to get to work."
"Work?" Richie rubbed his eyes. "Wha'cha workin' on?"
"Cataloguing the Watcher collection," Bren answered. "When Sarkoff was exiled it got into a terrible state, what with everything being shoved into boxes, higgledly-pigledely, not to mention the pieces that he took with him into exile -- it's a real mess. Take years. Interesting stuff, though."
Richie's brain caught up with his ears. "Sarkoff? You mean the President? Of Lindor?"
"Yes, of course," Bren answered. "Nobody has a collection like his unless they're immortal -- or a custodian for the Watchers."
"Oh." Richie yawned.
After a breakfast of eggs on toast, Richie was feeling a bit more human.
"Lindor's pretty civilized," Bren commented. "At least they have real eggs, instead of that soy stuff that passes for food on Earth." He grimaced. "Ramirez used to say he wouldn't eat anything he couldn't recognise -- he'd have starved on present-day Earth."
"You knew Ramirez -- Connor's teacher?" Richie said. "Figures -- you probably knew everybody."
Bren laughed. "Even I cannot be in more than one place at the same time," he said. "Which means I'm going to have to leave you to your own devices today. Don't draw attention to yourself -- there's naturally a lot of Watchers coming and going, what with Lindor being a major HQ."
"You want me to leave again?"
"Naw -- I'd have to ask you to come back in ten years, if that was the case. And then I wouldn't be here."
As he was going out the door, Bren said, "I'll be back tonight -- but I might be late."
"Lost in a book of ancient Latvian recipes?"
Bren grinned. "Something like that."
Richie spent the day sight-seeing, and when Bren hadn't come home before he slept, he wasn't surprised. It wasn't until the next day that he started to worry, remembering the unknown immortal who had been shadowing his friend. Bren's bed hadn't been slept in at all. He hadn't come home.
Bren was missing -- or else, more likely, he was dead.
The colour scheme of the room was dusty rose, chocolate brown, and cream. The literature on the bed-side table and on the desk declared this to be the Gates Hotel, and the size and style of the suite declared it to be expensive. Indeed, the only things that were out of place were the man on the bed, and the man who was watching him.
The man lying on the quilted brown velvet bedcover was thin, dark-haired, and dressed in the casual disarray of a student or academic. What made him out of place was the gag over his mouth, and the rope around his limbs, and the fact that he was unconscious.
The man who was watching him sat in one of the suite's plush velvet-and-wood chairs, dressed in a charcoal-grey tunic and pants of the style favoured on Earth. A long black coat hung on the back of the chair, its folds pooling onto the floor. What made him out of place was the antique that he was gripping in his right hand. It was a sword, its tip resting on the dusty-rose carpet, but ready to be lifted into deadly action at a moment's notice. Deadly, because, unlike a sword one might see in a museum, this one was gleaming-sharp.
After an hour, the man on the bed stirred, blinked, and tried to move. His hands, however, were tied behind his back with reinforced mountain-rope, his legs, the same, and a rope joined the two together. The watching man allowed the bound one a few minutes to realize his predicament, then stood over the bed and rested the sword against the other's neck. The bound man froze. Though he could not see his captor, behind him, he could feel the sword.
"Let me make it clear," the standing man said, "before I take off your gag, that if you yell, it will be the last sound you ever make. Is that clear?"
The bound man nodded.
The gag untied, the man grimaced and coughed, as if to get the taste of it out of his mouth. He then muttered, "Let that be a lesson to me not to share drinks with a beautiful lady that I don't know." He rolled his eyes behind him to try to see the other man. The sword withdrew, and he rolled himself over, and looked at his captor. They were both lean, dark-haired, pale -- and immortal. Oddly enough, the captive, fresh-faced, seemed more relaxed than his captor, whose hawk face was hollowed by stress as well as age.
"I take it you're the one who's been haunting me this past week?" inquired the man on the bed.
"I don't believe in taking any chances."
"I can see that." He jerked at his bonds. "Is all this really necessary?" If his captor had been after his head, he could have taken it when he was unconscious.
"Call it a healthy respect," came the answer.
The captive smiled disarmingly. "Me? Dangerous? You're the one with the sword."
"And if I untied you, how long would that last? A man who is six thousand years old must be assumed to be very dangerous."
The other laughed uneasily. "Six thousand years old? Someone's been pulling your leg -- very hard. I'm just -"
"Bren Keenan," his captor interrupted. "I know. You're also Oran Lanzo, who has an account with the First Federation Bank, whose account was started by money transferred from the account of Volo Derain, whose retina prints match. Twenty years ago." He then proceeded to reel off a series of names and accounts, finishing with 'Adam Pierson'.
"That's where I've seen your endearing face before," Keenan said, leaning on one elbow, partly for comfort, and partly to hide his nimble-fingered exploration of the bonds on his wrists. "You're Kerr Avon. Cracked the Federation Banking System. Then you were with Blake. I had no idea you were one of us."
"Neither did I," Avon said dryly, "Methos."
"You only got back as far as the twentieth century -- A.D." Keenan said calmly, but there was a calculating look in his eyes. "Hardly six thousand years."
"That's when computers were invented," Avon pointed out. "I had to try another line of investigation. Watcher records."
"But you were very efficient in hiding yourself -- I expected that," Avon interrupted. "It was a necessity that you would have to have access to their records, in order to maintain your status as merely a myth." Avon shrugged. "I was almost fooled by the notation that an immortal calling himself Methos was killed around that time by William Culbraith who was in turn killed by Richard Ryan. That might have been the end of it -- except that Ryan thinks that Methos is still alive. Rather odd for someone who killed his killer, don't you think?"
"That doesn't mean that I'm Methos," Keenan protested.
"I found Joe Dawson's memoirs," Avon declared. "The one watcher who knew that Adam Pierson wasn't mortal, that he was the very Methos he was supposed to be researching."
"But those memoirs are -"
"Lost? Encrypted?" Avon interrupted. "You should know that nothing can't be cracked. You said that yourself -- Oberon."
"Oh-" Keenan mouthed, though it was unclear whether he meant it as an exclamation or the first syllable of the name of the King of the Fairies. His eyes flicked over Avon's face and figure as if he were measuring him up for something, to see if he fitted. As last he said, "Chevron." It was a statement, not a question. Then he continued, with irritation, "If you knew that I was Oberon, why the hell did you kidnap me?"
"If I'd needed to talk to Oberon the compnut, I would have sent him a message. But I need to talk to Methos, and Methos I don't trust."
Methos, currently known as Bren Keenan, lay back down on the bed, stared at the ceiling, and tried to get at the knots from another position. Oberon! Oberon had been his handle on the computer security discussion circuit. His alias. He and Chevron had carried on a lively correspondence years ago, discussing anything that took their fancy. Chevron had been a civilized man. What had brought him to this? Becoming immortal, or becoming a fugitive? He said, "Then how can you trust what Methos might say?"
"Because I've got the sword."
Methos sighed. "There's one problem with that logic. I have no wish to lose my head because I told the truth and you didn't like it."
"I'm used to bad news," Avon replied.
Methos leaned up on his elbow again. The knots were hopeless. He wouldn't be able to get them undone without some serious contortion exercises. "So what's this question of Life, the Universe and Everything that you wanted so desperately to ask me?"
"The Game. The Prize. There Can Be Only One. Is it for real, or was it invented one winter night by some sadistic bastard because he was bored?"
Methos stared through him, as if something else had just fallen into place. How many new immortals could there be who had just met Richie Ryan recently, and who didn't believe in the Game? He nodded to himself, then looked back at Avon. "There are two answers to that question," he said, "and you aren't going to like either of them. Maybe you'd better just chop off my head and be done with it." He didn't believe for one minute that Avon would do it.
"The first answer is, 'I don't know.'"
"You don't know?!"
"Hey, you try keeping six thousand years straight in your head!" Methos replied. "I've forgotten more than you ever knew about anything. The time before I took my first head, well, it's just a blur. A very blurry blur. I can't remember when I first heard about the Game. I don't know whether it is intrinsic to our nature or not. But you see, the second answer is, 'It doesn't matter.'"
"Pointless killing doesn't matter?"
Methos sighed. "Let me tell you something. Something that happened to someone we both know. Once there was an immortal who took to calling himself Methos, styled himself a messenger of peace and goodwill to all immortals. Said, wouldn't it be nice if we all laid down our swords and stopped all this pointless killing. He left disciples wherever he went, convinced by his sincerity and his own refusal to carry a sword. And not very long after he left to move on, each erstwhile disciple was a headless corpse, killed by the first opportunist who came along. Whether this Methos character knew about the fate of his disciples, I don't know, but it certainly didn't stop him. Then, one day, he preached the word to William Culbraith and Richie Ryan. He convinced Richie despite all of Macleod's best efforts, including persuading me to point out that the fellow was a fraud, since I was the real Methos, and he wasn't. Didn't work. Dear Richie gave up his sword, and nearly gave up his life, since in the meantime, Culbraith had gone for another listen to the preacher, and taken the preacher's head. So much for peace and goodwill. He would have killed Richie too, if Duncan hadn't turned up in time to toss Richie a weapon." Methos took a deep breath. "Moral of story -- it doesn't matter how it started, the Game has a life of its own, and you can't stop it, and you can't ignore it. That's the way it is."
"It would be, wouldn't it?" Avon said darkly.
"From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving,
Whatever gods may be --"
"That no life lives forever," Methos continued,
"That dead men rise up never,
That even the weariest river
winds somewhere safe to sea." He paused. "But it isn't true. Nothing is really safe, not for us."
"Winning is the only safety," Avon muttered. "Winning, or hiding."
"You can't hide forever," Methos said.
Avon raised an eyebrow. "Really? You seem to have made a pretty good job of it." He stood up, and lifted up the sword.
"Until now," Methos said, eyeing the sword with alarm. Was Avon going to kill him now, now that he had told him the hard truth?
"I wouldn't worry about that," Avon said, and plunged the sword into Methos's heart.
Richie had spent a day of frantic detection. He didn't dare go up to the Watcher HQ -- for one thing, he didn't know where it was. And unlike other times, he didn't currently have any contacts in the Watchers apart from Methos.
He managed to track Methos to a bar where he was a regular. He'd had a drink with an attractive red-head, and left with her. A niggling doubt made Richie wonder if he hadn't made a mountain out of a molehill, until the bartender mentioned that Bren looked as if he'd had rather a lot more than he usually did. Knowing Methos's capacity for drink, his suspicions were on the alert again. But no-one could tell him where the pair of them had gone.
He finally headed back towards Methos' apartment, figuring he couldn't do more until the next day.
And then, when he got to the building, he felt another immortal. Was this the stalker? Had he taken Methos? Was he now after Richie? There was only one way to find out.
When he opened the door, he had his sword ready.
And so did Methos.
"Methos! You're all right!" Richie exclaimed.
"We really must stop meeting like this," Methos said dryly. "Come in, why don't you?"
Richie came in. "What happened?"
"Your friend Perera kidnapped me," Methos said. "His real name's Avon, by the way. Kerr Avon."
"Avon?!" Richie exclaimed. "One of Blake's people? No wonder he wouldn't give me his real name." Richie turned abruptly to the door, but Methos's next words halted him.
"Don't bother, Richie," Methos said. "He's long gone."
"How did you get away from him?"
"Well, after he killed me -"
"He killed you? I'll kill him!" Richie started for the door again.
"Richie!" Methos shouted. "He could have taken my head. He didn't. Killing me was just a way of slowing me down. And tying me up in ropes that an elephant couldn't get out of. As it was, it took me nearly all day..."
"Why aren't you hopping mad? I'd want to flay him!"
Methos gave him a distant look. "What I do about it is my business, Richie. Not yours."
Richie took one look at Methos's face, and said, "I think he'll be wishing he'd taken your head when he had the chance."
"Perhaps," Methos said.
"Orac, have you found Vila yet?" Avon sat in another room in yet another hotel, this time on Carthanos. He was going to have to do something about that. There were only so many false names one could leave, even with Orac's help. And he hadn't had a decent night's sleep in far too long.
"There has been no trace of Vila Restal since he arrived at Freedom City," the computer declared. To the untrained eye, the flashing lights of the Tarriel-tapping computer were just a pretty light show, but to Avon they were as reassuring as a steady heartbeat to a doctor. "I must conclude, therefore," Orac continued, "that either he is dead and his body is as yet undiscovered, or he is in the hands of someone who is aware of my capabilities."
"Servalan!" Avon exclaimed.
"It is a finite probability."
"If Servalan has Vila," Avon mused aloud, "then she'll know that I'm alive." His eyes narrowed. "That could be a problem." He tapped absently on the table. "And Jenna?"
"I have located Jenna Stannis," Orac announced. "She is on Gedden, under the name of Fleta Dillon, and she is in financial difficulties."
Avon smiled. "Really?" He stood up and paced about the room while Orac gave him the details. He stopped, and picked up his sword where it leant against the wall. The sword glinted in his hand...
.. as the Sarran prepared to stab Avon. Avon struggled like a pinned butterfly, in vain. The Sarran raised his sword -- and cried out in pain. He collapsed with a feathered arrow in his back. Weak still, Avon lost consciousness.
He awoke to the feel of water on his forehead. He started up, head pounding. It was a small cave, and a dark-skinned young woman was hovering over him. She wore a white garment almost like a toga.
"Are you feeling better?"
"Not really," Avon said, rubbing his nose, and lying back down on the hides at his back. "But at least I'm still alive," he remarked. "If I were dead I don't think I'd have this blinding headache."
She kissed him, full on the mouth.
"What was that for?" Avon asked, wonderingly.
"I'm all in favour of healthy curiosity," he said, turning his head towards her. "I hope yours isn't satisfied too easily," he continued. He turned his head away. "I think you've cured my headache."
"What's your name?" the woman asked, getting up and stepping away from the pallet.
"You are very beautiful, Avon," she said, returning.
He didn't correct her vocabulary. "So are you." Her wiry black hair was cropped short, and her face had a youthfulness and energy that was refreshing.
"Dayna," she informed him.
"Are you a native of this planet?"
"The ones who tried to kill you are the natives," she said scornfully. "Do I look like them?"
"So where do you come from?" he asked.
"I was born on Earth. My father brought me here when I was a baby."
He looked at her sharply. "Are there many Earth people here?" He propped himself up, reclining, leaning on his elbows.
"Just father and myself."
"Just the two of you?" Not a colony, then.
"And Lauren," Dayna amended. "She's of this planet, but she's lived with us since she was a child."
"Three of you. How do you survive? The natives, what do you call them?"
"The Sarrans don't seem exactly friendly."
Dayna gave a half-laugh. "They don't trouble us much," she smiled. "Father says they were a problem when we first arrived, now they leave us alone. They're afraid of us." She smiled again, wolfishly. "They're afraid of me, particularly."
"Presumably, it's the bow and arrow," he said sardonically.
"I like the ancient weapons," she declared enthusiastically. "-- the spear, the sword, the knife. They demand more skill. When you fight with them conflict becomes more personal. More exciting."
"More dangerous," he pointed out.
"Of course," she said with another wolfish smile. "Without danger there's no pleasure."
He smiled. "That must limit your range of pleasures a bit," he said, thinking of the kiss. But it didn't go any farther...
...farther, but it may not be necessary," Orac was saying.
"Orac," Avon snapped, "be quiet for a minute, let me think." Why was he brooding about Dayna? Because she would have liked being immortal? Because she would have enjoyed all the fighting? But she was dead now, dead before she could have her revenge on Servalan. Was he going to allow himself to be swayed by sentiment? Lying low was logical. But there were also good, logical reasons for him to act. Self-defence was one. If sentiment added to its savour, so be it. "Orac," he said at last, "there are some arrangements I want you to make. We're going to Gedden."
Jenna sighed as she looked at the notice. She'd almost managed to make a go of it, her own ship, a fast little freight-runner, just a little loan, sure that she'd be able to make enough to cover the payments -- then the Zerok market closed up, and Taldorn decided to have wonderful weather, which had brought down the price of Taldornian spices... and, well, she'd fallen behind.
Foreclosure. It was small comfort that they weren't going to take the interest out of her body parts -- she wasn't that much of a fool, to have taken a loan from a shark. No, they were just going to take her ship. Her wings.
She picked up the other letter, the one that had arrived that morning. She read it again.
In view of your present situation, I hope you will consider my offer... buy out your loan ... taking into consideration the invaluable ... forty percent to be ... retain your services as pilot ... full veto ... your considerable experience in this area ... discretion ... profitable ... consider carefully ...
Jenna shook her head. Allow her to retain 40% ownership of the Peregrine? He must be crazy. She was in no position to bargain; he could have just bought the ship outright and she wouldn't be able to do anything about it. Buying out her loan was tantamount to buying the ship anyway. Why was he being so generous? If he was a rich eccentric philanthropist, she was a little chirping bat.
What was his angle? Drug smuggling? She didn't want to get mixed up with the bad boys of the Terra Nostra, not at all. He wanted her services as pilot. Rich enough to try to sweeten the pot? But he could have hired her anyway. But if he hired her, she could leave any time sweeter pastures beckoned. As part-owner of the ship, she wouldn't be tempted to leave. She would be more committed to whatever the Peregrine was doing. To whatever Lanby wanted to do. But Lanby was offering her full veto! She would be able to put her foot down about unacceptable risks. Including drug smuggling. Which meant he couldn't be Terra Nostra. But what was he? You didn't hire a freight-runner to go on pleasure cruises.
Jenna narrowed her eyes, and ran her hand through her brown-dyed hair. There was still a price on her head from the old days, so the old, flamboyant blonde look was out. She had loved satin and glitter and tall boots, so she never wore them any more; tailored tunics and sober colours were the costume of choice. It didn't stop her looking beautiful; she told herself that she was exploring another aspect of her personality. But it was another reason to be wary. Another reason to want her own ship, her own freedom, like nothing else. No matter how you looked at it, whatever his angle, Lanby had made her an offer she couldn't refuse.
She sent back her answer that afternoon. The papers to sign came by messenger the next day, along with a note that Lanby himself would be arriving "soon". She went over the papers carefully, and they were exactly what he had said they were. She signed them. The note was handwritten, unlike the original letter. She stared at the handwriting with the uneasy feeling that it reminded her of someone. But she couldn't think of whom.
Three days later, Jenna returned to the Peregrine from the Portmaster's office, to find someone already there before her, sitting in the copilot's seat, his back to the door. All she could see was dark hair and a long black leather coat. She pulled out her blaster. An intruder?
"What the hell are you doing on my ship?!" she demanded.
The stranger swivelled the chair around, unperturbed. "I own it," he said. "Sixty percent, anyway."
"You!" Jenna recognized that brown-eyed saturnine face. "Avon! You -" She was almost speechless, frozen in surprise. "You're Dar Lanby? But you're dead!"
Avon's mouth quirked. "I was. But you can only stay dead so long."
Jenna's surprise melted before her anger. "Why, would you like me to make it permanent?" she said, and levelled her blaster at him. "You killed Blake -- you bastard."
Avon's eyes narrowed. "And what version of the truth did you hear, then?"
"That you quarreled over money, and shot him," Jenna said coldly.
"Well, I haven't heard that one before," he said, steepling his hands together. "I suppose the Federation propaganda people thought that anything closer to the truth would be harder to swallow."
"And I suppose you're going to try to tell me that you didn't kill him, that it was all a mistake, all a lie."
He put his hands down on the arms of the chair. His face was cold. "It was all a mistake," he said. "But I did kill him." His eyes were bleak, looking past her into memory. "If anyone lied," he gave a short bark of a laugh, "it was Blake. He had taken to bounty-hunting; a cover for more bleeding-heart recruitment, but I didn't know that. I just didn't care. When Tarrant told me that Blake had sold all of us, I believed him. And when Blake said he'd been waiting for me... well. There seemed only one interpretation of that. So I shot him."
"Overkill," Jenna said.
Avon inclined his head towards Jenna's blaster. "And that isn't?"
"Why should I believe you?"
Avon shrugged. "No particular reason. It just happens to be the truth." Avon gave a wry smile. "Would it give you that much satisfaction to kill me? It won't bring back Blake, will it? And it will make an awful mess of your flight deck."
Jenna stared at him. He was too confident. He should have been afraid. Afraid of the death in her hand. Trying to persuade her. Telling her what she wanted to hear.
"Do you really want to kill me Jenna?" he said. "Make up your mind, because it's rather difficult to work with someone who wants to kill you."
She shook her head. That was Avon all over: take it or leave it. And he had never been all that good at lying. Not in important things. Was she willing to forgive him for a mistake? If she had thought Blake was going to sell her out, would she have killed him? But she would never have thought it of Blake. Not even if he'd collected bounties on others? she asked herself. Not even if someone I knew and trusted told me that Blake was going to sell us all? Not even then? Avon was not that much of a fool. The Federation had brainwashed Blake before, they could have done it again. She holstered her gun. "You're forgiven," she said.
Anyone else would have looked relieved. Avon was so cool, he might not even have been worried. "You've changed, Avon," she said, leaning back against one of the consoles. "What happened to you?"
"I went to Hell and back, then I talked to a wise man who told me to accept the inevitable," he said, "and now I've decided that the best defence is a good offence."
"Oh no," Jenna shook her head, "you're not dragging me into another crusade. That's why I left Blake."
"Very wise," Avon said. "I am not planning on any crusades. A quiet life is all I desire. Unfortunately, one of the flaws in this plan is that Servalan knows I'm alive." His mouth hardened. "I just want to kill her, that's all."
"But Servalan is dead -" Jenna declared, "they killed her in the counter-coup that removed her from the Presidency."
"You've really been keeping away from the Federation, haven't you?" Avon remarked. "Servalan is alive, under the name of Sleer. Commissioner Sleer. In charge of the Pacification Programme."
"A commissioner," Jenna frowned. "You're still crazy to go after her. I'm not risking my ship -"
"Our ship," he corrected. "You don't have to. Just get me where I want to go. I'll take the risks. They're mine to take. Don't worry, I'm not going to rush in like Blake. This is going to take careful planning, and I plan to be very careful." He stared blackly into the future. "Servalan is mine." He focused back on Jenna. "After that, we can smuggle to your heart's content."
"The term is Free Trader," Jenna corrected him. "All right," she said, and held out her hand, "I'll go along with that. Partners?"
They shook hands.
Two months later, the Peregrine was in orbit around Palmero.
Avon and Jenna had first made a quick trip to Gauda Prime, to see what they could salvage from the wreckage of the Scorpio. Local scavengers had been there before them, and ripped out some of the components of Slave and the obvious pieces of the flight system that weren't in fragments all over the forest, but they hadn't known what to make of the teleport system, so the vital components were mostly intact. The Stardrive had been pulverised in the crash, so all they had of that were the plans which Orac had stored away.
They had rebuilt the teleport system on the Peregrine, tested it, and pronounced it working. Jenna had not really known what to make of Avon's insistence on being the first to test it.
They then argued over what to do about the Stardrive. Neither of them had quite enough experience to build the thing from scratch; and they would need to get the parts from somewhere anyway. The problem was, they didn't really want to lose their advantage by giving the plans to someone to build for them -- if they had gone to Scholeria, for example, the Stardrive plans would have been common knowledge within a month; not because security was so lax there, but because Scholerians were notoriously good at industrial espionage.
Finally, Orac worked out a plan which would enable the parts to be bought separately in different places, the custom-made parts to be built, and most of it assembled in a manner which concealed its true purpose and potential. After all, Plaxton's original design had been elegant enough that it could simply plug into Scorpio's existing standard system. But this was going to take months.
And a window of opportunity had just opened on Palmero.
Commissioner Sleer, architect of the Pacification Programme, was going to Palmero. The Pacification Programme had ground to a halt on many worlds, thanks to the availability of the Pylene 50 antidote. Palmero was one of them. Before the Andromedan War it had been one of the Outer Worlds, and one of the first victims of Andromedan sabotage -- its weather-control systems had gone haywire. Once a producer of tropical fruit, its economy had collapsed. And since tropical fruit wasn't of particular military significance, it had been left to rot. It had joined in alliance with Lindor, and the Federation had not turned its eyes toward it until recently.
And Servalan was going there, in a "diplomatic" mission, to gain by guile where the "secret weapon" of Pylene 50 had failed.
So the Peregrine was in orbit about Palmero, pretending to be innocent.
Avon pulled on thin black gloves, and picked up the long black leather coat he had taken to wearing recently.
Jenna studied him as he put on the coat. "There's something I've been meaning to ask you," she said. "Why the sword?"
"Sword?" Avon said blandly, adjusting the fall of the coat, and checking the pull of his blaster.
"I'm not blind," Jenna said. "That lovely long coat you're wearing has a built-in scabbard and a sword to go with it. That fancy-looking thing with the twisted cross-piece. Why do you carry it?"
Avon shrugged. "I might need it."
"Right," Jenna said sarcastically.
Avon clipped on one of the new teleport bracelets and stepped into the teleport circle.
"Is this where you say, 'don't worry, nothing could possibly go wrong'?" Jenna said, after she set the co-ordinates on the teleport controls, or to be more specific, watched Orac set them.
Avon shook his head. "No, it's where I say, 'if something goes wrong, make sure you steal my body from the morgue'."
Jenna's eyes opened wide. "What?!"
"It shouldn't be that difficult," he said, with a twinkle in his eye.
"What's the point?" she said. "You'd be dead anyway."
Avon's mouth hardened. "Just consider it a last request."
Jenna raised her eyebrows. "If it's that important to you..."
"Please," he said. He waved at the teleport controls. "Let's get on with it."
Jenna flicked the switches, and Avon vanished. A moment later, Avon's whispered voice came though the speakers. "Down and safe." Another minute, then, softly "It's her room all right. The wardrobe is full of black satin and feathers. Be ready to pull me out on call. Out."
Then there was the wait. Though it was evening, it was still light outside -- the cloudy twilight of summer in high latitudes. Avon could see the pavement outside the second-story window, still wet from some earlier rain. Servalan would have to be coming soon, she would have to sleep sometime.
And then he felt it -- that churn of nausea that presaged, for him, the presence of another immortal. The reaction, Ryan had told him, was idiosyncratic; most immortals just got headaches, or tingling, or the like, but there were more unusual reactions -- one he knew of actually sneezed when other immortals approached. But whatever it was, Avon recognized his own reaction, and his heart sank. Not now! He couldn't afford to be discovered, let alone fight a duel. He raised his hand to call for teleport, when he heard a voice from the corridor outside.
"Good night, Ferra," Servalan said. "I am going to retire. I have a sudden headache."
Then Avon knew. Servalan. It was Servalan whom he had sensed. So much for his plans. He would just have to make new ones. Right now.
He drew his sword and stood in the lee of the door. A woman in a slinky black dress entered. Avon quickly shut the door with his foot, and pointed the tip of his sword at Servalan's throat.
"Would you like me to relieve you of that headache?" he growled.
She started back, and opened her mouth to shout. A prick of the sword brought blood welling at the base of her throat. "No calling out," he said.
"Well, Avon," she said softly, recovering her poise. "Vila said you were alive. Maybe I won't kill him after all."
Avon's smile was full of knives. "You would kill him no matter what I did. I think it's just simpler to take your head here and now."
She eyed the sword with distaste, putting one of her hands behind her back. "You've taken to a rather strange weapon. Isn't that rather primitive?"
"I haven't gotten around to making my light-sabre yet," he said dryly, and drew back his sword to take a sweep at her head.
Servalan jumped back and put up one arm protectively, while the other drew out a small gun she had had concealed in the small of her back. As Avon's sword swung swiftly in an arc determined by physics, the sharp edge lopped off, not Servalan's head, but her left arm below the elbow. At the same time, Servalan fired, point-blank, at Avon, twice. Both shots hit their mark.
Then Servalan was screaming like an animal in a trap, and Avon was falling to the floor. He was dead before the guards came in.
"I don't know why I let Orac persuade me to do this," Jenna muttered to herself. The morgue was cold and dimly lit with pale blue lights near the floor. She didn't dare turn on the main lights for fear of attracting attention. "It's just a body, for goodness' sake." But Avon himself had asked it of her -- and then Orac wouldn't let her go without doing it.
She pulled open the steel drawer that Orac had pinpointed as the one with Avon's body in it. She partly undid the zip on the black body-bag, and peered at the face inside. It was Avon all right. The blue light made him look grey and washed-out, or was that just the ghastly colour of death? They had already stripped him of his clothes, but she couldn't see any sign of the wounds that had killed him. The records said he had been shot. She put her hand on his chest, and pulled it back in shock. Had she felt that? She put her hand back, over his heart, and felt it. His heart was beating. He was breathing. She pulled her hand back again as if it were scorched. He wasn't dead. That was impossible. Her eyes jerked to his face -- and his eyes opened.
She held her breath as his gaze jumped around the room and then rested on her. "Jenna," he said, and smiled.
"Avon?" she said shakily.
He sat up, legs still encased in the body-bag. "You don't know where they put my clothing, do you?"
"Avon," Jenna said, "aren't you supposed to be dead?"
Avon pulled out of the body-bag, stood up, and wrapped it around him like a skirt. He looked at Jenna. "I'll explain later," he said. He was shivering, and his skin was covered with goose-bumps. "Right now we need to get my things and get out of here."
Avon's clothes were a write-off, except for the leather coat and his boots. He looked rather odd in black coat and boots, with the small gap where his bare legs showed, but at least he stopped shivering. His sword was locked up separately, but his teleport bracelet was with his other things. Fortunately, no-one came by -- it was a hospital, not a prison, and the one night-watchman was at the other end of the complex. Orac teleported them up without incident, and Jenna took them out of the system while Avon changed clothes, and made a hot cup of caf to warm himself up.
When they were drifting in a nicely neutral part of space, Jenna turned around, folded her arms, and stared at Avon. "I'd like that explanation now," she said.
Avon put down his drink. "Short version: I'm immortal," he said.
"And what genie did you bribe for this gift?" Jenna asked.
"Perhaps you should ask what demon I was cursed by," he said lightly.
"All right, what demon were you cursed by?" she asked.
"Fate," he smiled.
Jenna put her hands on her hips. "Right. Fate. Do be serious, Avon."
Avon raised an eyebrow. "You were the one who brought up genies."
"I stand corrected. You did not bribe a genie. Nor, I expect, were you cursed by a demon. So how come you're immortal and the rest of us aren't?"
"I don't know, but I expect it's something genetic."
"So all your kids will be immortal too?"
Avon shook his head. "I'm sterile."
"Oh," Jenna said. "But your parents were immortal?"
"I'm adopted. No records."
"How convenient," Jenna said.
Avon smiled slyly. "Isn't it, just?" he said. "But that appears to be the usual pattern."
Jenna picked up on that very fast. "The usual pattern?" she echoed. "You mean this has happened before?"
Avon nodded. "There have been immortals before me, yes." And still were, of course.
"And when did you find out that you were immortal?" Jenna asked. "I mean, you obviously didn't know about this on the Liberator."
Avon picked up his drink again and took a sip. "I found out when I died. For the first time. On Gauda Prime." He shuddered. "Not a pleasant experience."
"So that's how you got away," Jenna mused. "When everyone else was killed."
Avon nodded. He refrained from mentioning Vila. What Jenna didn't know couldn't hurt her. "Immortality doesn't manifest itself until the first death. Before that, one is perfectly normal. After the first death, one doesn't age, injuries heal rapidly -- and death is only temporary." He sipped his drink. "Pain, however, is just as excruciating."
"Ouch," Jenna said. She eyed his leather coat. "And where does the sword come into it all? I'm sure it does, so tell."
"Self-defence," Avon replied.
Jenna raised an eyebrow. "Against what?"
"Other immortals," he replied.
"Who just happen to be wandering around waving swords so that they can fight with random immortals in a duel which can't possibly be to the death?" Jenna said dryly. "What am I missing here?"
"There is a way to kill an immortal," Avon said.
"Which involves swords," Jenna deduced.
"And then there's the Game." Jenna could hear the capital letter in the last word.
"The destiny," Avon said with irony, "of all immortals to fight, one on one, for the Prize, until there is only one left. The ultimate battle of Good and Evil." His voice was dripping with sarcasm. "Or, the other explanation, that somebody thought it would be fun if all the immortals eliminated each other for a Prize that didn't exist. Nobody knows what the Prize actually is, you see," he added. "Unfortunately, enough of them believe in it that the whole thing is basically unstoppable." He touched the sword where it hung inside his coat. "Self defence."
Jenna absorbed this in silence. "So you could be attacked by another immortal without warning?"
"Oh, there's always warning," Avon said, "if you pay attention. You can tell when there's another immortal nearby."
"Something like that." He frowned in thought. "I wonder if I could build one," he muttered.
"An Immortal detector," he answered. "Probably not."
Jenna asked the question she had intended to ask first, before she got side-tracked by things like people not being dead and swords and the like. "So what went wrong down there?"
"Servalan's an immortal."
"You can't be serious!" Jenna exclaimed.
"Deadly serious," Avon replied. "I don't think she knows about the Game, though. A possibly short-lived advantage for me."
"You're not still going after her?" Jenna protested.
"It is imperative that I go after her," Avon declared. "Who else is? It's not like I can go away and wait for her to die of old age, now." He gave a dry smile. "It seems that I am destined to live in interesting times."
"And how long did you say the average lifespan of an immortal was?" Jenna muttered.
Avon smiled. "Hers is going to be shorter than mine," he said.
A month later....
Servalan regarded the long leather glove, and the rather chunky ring that went with it. Not quite her style, but effective, very effective. She smiled, and stretched out her fingers. Her very dangerous fingers. Odd -- you would expect there to be some kind of noise, the clicking of relays, the hum of power. Instead, this silent efficiency.
Poor Doctor VanAtta. Simply no survival instincts at all. His worst mistake was simply doing his job too well. His second mistake was telling her he wanted to write a paper for the next cyber technology conference. On her... remarkable recovery rate. What nonsense. She was just fortunate. But she certainly didn't want papers written about her. Papers that someone might notice, and realize that ex-President Servalan wasn't dead. But she didn't protest. She had merely replied that she wanted to test out the modifications she had requested. In person.
She glanced down at the white-clad body at her feet, with the neat hole, slightly scorched, in its chest. The concealed laser in her new hand had worked perfectly. "Travis, you may have been tiresome," she said to herself, "but you did have some good ideas."
Servalan came to me personally to tell me that Avon was dead. She had shot him when he tried to kill her.
"He was quite insane," she declared. "Came at me with that sword of his! Did he think he was in ancient times?" She regarded the large glittering ring on her gloved right hand for a moment, and then left in a swirl of black, muttering things about silver linings and the cost of feeding me.
Me, I didn't know what to think. Maybe Avon was insane. Maybe he really was dead. I thought the sword things were just for fellow immortals. And Servalan wasn't one, she couldn't be! Could she? After all, how had she survived all that mess on Terminal? I didn't know what to think.
But one thing was pretty sure. Avon wasn't going to rescue me. He was either dead for sure, or he was going to be busy pretending he was dead. And no-one else even knew I was alive. Servalan wasn't going to keep me alive much longer, and no-one was going to rescue me.
I'd have to try to rescue myself.
I stared at the collection of odds and ends on the bed. Of course I'd been keeping my hand in all the while, having light-fingered those around ever since I'd woken from cryo-sleep. But loose credits and pins and pocket knives and the odd pill and medical pricker bore no resemblance to a list of instructions on how-to-escape-from-an-asteroid. The door was no problem, it was the mutoid on duty. Mutoids were so literal though, it might not hurt to find out what its orders were.
So the next time one came in with my food, I tried chatting to it.
"No chance of letting me stretch my legs a bit?" I said cheerily.
"The prisoner is not to be allowed outside this room, except on Commissioner Sleer's orders," the mutoid answered.
So much for that.
One of the odds and ends I'd stolen from one of the doctors in the sick-bay was a one-dose injection of something. But I had no idea what it was. There was only one chance it was what I wanted -- something strong enough to knock out a mutoid. But it could be anything -- a pain-killer, a growth hormone, a stimulant, a blood-pressure thing, whatever. I had no way of knowing. The label just said "Talindane. For intravenous injection only. 0.2 mil per minute. WARNING: Anaphalactic reactions may occur at faster rates." The warning sounded nicely dangerous, but it didn't sound like a sedative, which is really what I wanted. But what did I have to lose, really?
So the next day, I lifted the mutoid's next dose of plasma, stuck the drug into it, and then gnawed my fingers to the knuckles watching for when the plastic-head would take the doped plasma. Fortunately, I didn't have that long to wait, but it felt like forever.
It took the plasma... and nothing happened. No sign of it getting sleepy at all. If anything, it started pacing in front of the door even faster than usual. In fact, much faster than usual. Damn! I'd given the cyber-souled thing a stimulant!
It took me by extreme surprise when the thing keeled over about a minute later. I just stared through the narrow window with my mouth open. Then I opened the door like lightening, terrified in case the thing was faking it. But it wasn't. It was out cold. Must have been a case of too much of a good thing.
I skedaddled down the corridor, never having seen more than the little I could see out of the window in my door. As soon as the collapsed mutoid was out of sight, I slowed down, even though my heart was beating ten times faster than it ought to be. Remember, act as if you belong. Protective colouring. I belong here. You belong here, Vila. Legitimate business. I belong here, I belong here, I belong here. One of the first things that any good thief learns; it isn't the theft that catches you, it's looking suspicious.
I hadn't been wandering very long before I figured that Servalan had lied to me. This wasn't a deserted asteroid base. This was a space station! A very busy space station. Judging by the number of troopers and civilians, it might even be Space Command itself. I belong here, I belong here, I belong here. You aren't escaping, you're stealing something. I belong here, I belong here.
Half an hour later, I was quivering in the cargo hold of a supply ship. It wasn't until it blasted off an hour later that I could believe I'd actually done it. I'd escaped! Without help from anybody.
Maybe I could make it on my own after all.