1.1.1 BETA CEVIA

Morrigan

2 August, 2000



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Beta Cevia was supposed to be a safe planet for us, at least that's what Blake said. Truth to tell, he was always a little too trusting, particularly when it was another resistance leader that told him something. Avon was officially our computer technician, our electronics genius, but his real job was to find what was hiding in Blake's blind spots. Avon had a knack for ferreting out a trap, particularly a Federation trap. I suppose it came as bonus feature with the suspicious personality. All I know is that it saved my hide a time or two. Well, Avon couldn't find fault with the arrangements or the planet so he grudgingly gave approval to our visit. I suppose he wasn't to blame, no one could have expected something that wasn't there now, could he?

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2.1.1 Chapter One

2.1.2 1.1

Avon hadn't imagined such complete peace could be found in the contemplation of water, yet walking along the shore of the lake his chest loosened as if he had relearned to breathe. The lap of water against stone calmed him and he sat cross-legged in reflection for hours, simply letting his mind drift. This time of contemplation absolved him from needing to know the time or status of anything. The quiet sounds of Beta Cevian insects humming and night birds calling nearly induced a hypnotic state.

As Blake had promised, there were only two days of meetings with Boulis, Shaw, and Nesbitt and then the promised freedom of leave. However, this leave was not the normal anonymous disappearance into a city where each could find personal pleasure, or pain, as desired. The Beta Cevian resistance base was set back in the mountains near a spring-fed lake and Blake's band of rebels had use of a number of cabins through the rest of the week, or longer to their preference. Back to nature, Avon had thought dismissively. Clearly to Blake's tastes, and Cally's and Gan's as well. He had sighed heavily, decisively in Vila and Jenna's camp of reluctant participants in Blake's back-to-nature plans.

Despite initial disdain, he found that he had been drawn to this spot for the last three nights. They'd developed a routine of splitting into groups to swim or hike during the day, reassembling in the evening for a shared meal. Boulis or one his people built a fire at nightfall and most of the camp gathered there for quiet conversation and story-telling. Avon found his escape in the dark. At night, there was no one insisting that he accompany them on hikes or for a swim. He moved, cat-like, about the camp in the darkness. He joined the others for their evening meal but moved away to his solitary pursuits afterwards.

"Avon?"

Well, so much for peace and solitude. Blake's call was nearby and Avon reluctantly announced his position. Blake came through the brush and eased himself into a sitting position nearby. He remained silent for a while, absorbing some of the tranquillity Avon had found in the quiet sounds of the lake.

"This is wonderful. I now see why you disappear every night." Blake turned to him and Avon waited for the 'but.' "I found out that Boulis' cook is a native of these parts, one of the indigenous people that lived on Beta Cevia before the settlers came after the Atomic Wars. I convinced her to tell us about her people."

Consistency demanded that Avon derisively describe his interest in these primitive people in ruthless language. Surprised, he found himself mellowed by the days of sun-warmed skin and fresh air. Avon rose to his feet, brushing sticks and debris from his canvas trousers. A Blake shade of green, they suited the environment and temperature far better than Avon's normal choice of clothing.

"As you've callously trampled my solitude, I might as well abandon any chance at recovering my thoughts."

Even his rebuke lacked vitriol. He smiled to himself as he followed Blake. It's not the back to nature so much as the solitude, the escape from constant demands. His gunbelt caught on a shrub as he pushed back onto the lightly trodden trail and his mood quickly darkened. A reminder that as restful as I find this lake, there is nowhere in the galaxy that I am safe.

Blake left him to his thoughts as they strolled back to the camp. Set at least 60 metres from the lake and hidden in the deep woods, it was undetectable from the air. Of course the Beta Cevian resistance was not actively fighting the Federation on this independent planet. Still, Avon mused, they really should consider something underground and more easily accessed.

The others were grouped around the fire. The cook is probably a wizened old crone who learned these stories from her grandmother, Avon decided. Blake, Cally and Gan will be entranced. Jenna will view the stories cynically and Vila will be frightened of any mysticism. I, he decided magnanimously, will allow myself to be entertained. This is a performance; I shall consider it theatre.

"Snake," announced a sturdy woman whom Avon had never seen. She was watching as he approached the circle with Blake. "Come into the circle with us."

"We know which one of you she means," Jenna tossed.

Avon's eyes narrowed to a slit but he ignored Jenna. He sat cross-legged as the others made room for them. The stranger was no ancient storyteller; she was likely closer to Avon's own age. A stocky build gave her the illusion of size, which she did not possess. In the firelight, her deep- set eyes seemed black, set in a brown, lined and compelling face. She was peering intently at Blake and nodding.

"Yes, it is rare to see a snake."

Jenna's mouth dropped and Blake looked at his companions with amused inquiring eyes.

"Seryn was just telling us that her people believe each of us has a power animal which helps us walk in balance with the Great Spirits."

For a moment, Avon admired that Cally managed to deliver that sentence without laughing. Then he realised that she was perfectly serious.

"Each animal has certain traits and abilities that relay messages to those capable of understanding," Seryn explained. "Each of us learns from the animal the lessons of being human and achieving wholeness with all that is."

"I am a snake?" Blake inquired hesitantly.

Gan laughed. "It's all right, Blake. I am an ant, if you can believe it."

"Snake people are very rare. You are called Blake? Snakes experience life, death, and rebirth through the shedding of their skins. Understanding the power of the snake can help you to accept all aspects of your life. Your animal can teach how to be a universal being. Snakes have very powerful energy levels: passion, ambition, resolution, dreams, and leadership. When you are in touch with the spiritual plane, you can achieve wisdom and wholeness. Being a snake person indicates that there is a need within you to transmute thoughts or desires to achieve wholeness."

Blake's mouth was open, his eyes glistening. Avon rolled his eyes. For God's sake, Blake, all she had to do was read a little about you to make those statements.

"Seryn," Avon interjected smoothly. "We want to learn of your people. Perhaps that will help us better understand our power animals."

He had the oddest feeling that she saw right through his charming words. Not difficult actually. Most of the others did too, he acknowledged without betraying his thought through expression. I wonder if she's a telepath.

"My people are the Eyanyi. We have lived here for as long as memories go back, hundreds of generations, perhaps more. This planet that you call Beta Cevia, we call it Wudem. The Eyanyi lived in the vicinity of this lake, which we called Aphahi. The Great Spirits reside within Aphahi and it is the centre of all activities."

That is interesting. I've spent hours staring at this residence of the Great Spirits, almost as if I was drawn to it. Stop right there, Avon. Remember that this is simply entertainment.

"Life comes from Aphahi as fish and other things to eat. Aphahi gives us the water of life. The Eyanyi always lived around Aphahi, but never in one spot. We followed the game and stayed where we found the berries and roots that supplemented our diet. Always, we tended the area where we stayed. I might look at it now as some sort of crop rotation, allowing regrowth in the seasons before we moved back, but my ancestors acted to achieve balance. It is a basic code of our existence. All things are equal in creation. Everything taken must be replaced."

Blake had recovered. "What happened when the planet was colonised?"

Seryn's face changed to one of hatred and then back to calm so swiftly that Avon might have thought he imagined it.

"At first, the Beyah, that is what we called the strangers, settled far from here. There are still not many Beyah in the mountains. The Beyah took all of the good farming land and surrounded the rivers and lakes. They pushed the other tribes back into the mountains and there was much conflict." Seryn dropped her head sadly. "In the beginning, we killed each other far more than did the Beyah." Her head rose and anger flashed through her eyes. "Then the Beyah took even more of our land and there was conflict with the Beyah. They called us savages. Some still do. Over the last hundred years, that has lessened and many of the Eyanyi live amongst the Beyah, embracing their ways, seeking material gain instead of wholeness."

"Tell us more about seeking wholeness." Cally asked sincerely. "You said that in the basic code of existence, all things were equal and everything taken must be replaced. How did the Eyanyi accomplish that?"

Good, we are off the subject of Terran people being vicious intruders and back to theatre. Avon sighed in relief.

"For the berries we take, we plant more bushes. For the roots we eat, we plant more. We give thanks and offer prayers for the animals we hunt and in return for each that we kill, we leave food for the other animals. For the trees we cut down for shelter, we plant new trees."

"What about replacing that given by the Aphahi?" Avon interrupted.

He won a frank appraisal from Seryn. "Yes, you are catalupi. You understand."

What is it that I understand, he wondered? He kept his gaze level, locked on Seryn's black eyes, unwilling to confess his ignorance.

"What is catalupi?" Jenna interrupted.

"It's the name of a wild animal, smaller than mountain lion, but within the cat family." Boulis wrinkled his nose. "They're scarce around here now. They were prized for their coats, sleek black things, and were hunted nearly to extinction."

Jenna laughed. "A vicious wildcat. That he is."

Avon was aware of Cally's glance between he and Seryn and then back again. He sensed Cally's discomfort and suspicion.

"Seryn, tell us of the catalupi as you did of the snake," she requested firmly.

"The catalupi is sacred to the Eyanyi. It is the power animal of my people. Catalupi is the keeper of secrets. He knows all, but it is difficult to get him to tell it. He can see the truth and the future. The Eyanyi respected the tradition of the catalupi, and so he shared his secrets with us. We were protected by the catalupi. My people did not hunt him, nor were any ever killed by him. This man is catalupi."

"Keeper of secrets and difficult to get him to tell. Damned if that's not spot on!" Blake announced.

"But what does that have to do with replacing what was given by the Aphahi?" Gan was puzzled.

Seryn was silent, watching Avon until he understood. He spoke quietly, slightly mesmerised by the dark woman.

"The Eyanyi could not replace fish or water, Gan. Remember that the Aphahi is the residence of the Great Spirits. The Great Spirits gave freely of what they alone could give. The only way to wholeness was for the Eyanyi to give equally freely, of what they alone could give. Am I right, Seryn?"

She nodded.

"But of course, that custom ended long ago. We are civilised people now."

Avon's eyes flickered over his companions. Vila still seemed confused, as did Gan, but the others understood. Perhaps it is better to move on, rather than dwell on this awkward subject. Vila will be entirely too spooked by the concept of human sacrifice and I'd rather not have him in my cabin with nightmares tonight.

"Will you tell us each our power animal?"

2.1.3 1.2

Snake? Well, I've been called worse, I suppose, and I do quite like the idea of rebirth. It almost makes the tampering the Federation did palatable to view it in those terms. Almost.

I've missed this; this quiet companionship of others dedicated to the same cause. Sitting in the dirt, in a circle, brings on flashes of the past. I suppose it was times with the Outsiders. Odd the things that trigger memory: the smell of crushed grass and damp humus, wood smoke, the background sounds of insect and animal life. I wonder how often I was Outside? I remember parts of those visits better than the inside meetings. They're fragments but they are very clear fragments while the inside meetings are hazy.

My crew is different here, quieter, less tense. Their guards are still up; really none of us knows each other willingly. I cannot imagine any of them searching out a Freedom Party meeting. I doubt I'd have met any of them were it not for The London. That's not exactly true. I might have met Avon in conjunction with The Aquitar Project, but I wouldn't have spared him a second thought. Arrogant and condescending, he was the very picture of the Federation status quo. Surfaces are deceiving. Even Avon wanted something other than the status quo.

I suppose I was lucky in what I gathered from The London. If not that, then I've been more successful in moulding individual skills to suit resistance needs than I realise. I'm still perplexed how few rebels want to join Liberator's crew. Too high a profile or is it the idea of having nowhere to run? Of course those we've met have been part of intact groups, unlike Cally. It's harder to walk away from an existing group. Even these highly idiosyncratic members of my crew have formed some type of bond, tenuous and prickly.

A snake? Yes, I rather like this the more I consider it. Once one gets past the existing connotations associated with these power animals they are fascinating. I'd never have labelled Gan an ant, but the description of ants as patient and community minded, well, that's on target, as is the idea of slow and deliberate.

Interesting how well Seryn assessed each of us. Avon a keeper of secrets, that he is. I don't remember Jenna's animal but it sounded aggressive. Cally was some type of night bird and I don't remember the description except that at the time it seemed very accurate. Wish I had Seryn on The London; might have helped recruiting.

I'm glad Cally convinced me to extend our visit with Boulis. I quite like him actually. He reminds me of Avon in the way he can analyse events and pinpoint patterns, alternatives, and solutions before the rest of us have even sorted through the data. I wonder if Avon was ever like Boulis, at ease with himself and those around him? Smart man, good-looking too. I doubt he'll stay a local resistance leader; he seems more the type to head towards politics. Not your basic commando leader. I wonder if Boulis is committed to the resistance solely because of increasing Federation influence over their government or if he truly abhors the Federation?

"You're rather quiet. Are you all right?"

Jenna, ever-present ally, often whether I want it or not.

"Yes, just enjoying the company and conversation."

Laughter overflowed suddenly from the redhead across the fire.

"Vila's found a soul-mate."

If Jenna's words were meant to be derisive, they were tempered by her smile as Vila pulled a long series of brightly coloured scarves from inside the redhead's camp shirt. Blake's face eased into a smile. A carnival atmosphere here in the deep woods, trust Vila to add an element of gaiety to the most subdued of groups. Even on holiday they run true to form. Cally's in a deep discussion with Seryn, with Gan hovering behind her but not saying much. Vila's found a pretty girl and is performing. Jenna's latched onto me, and Avon and Shaw have their heads together discussing equipment

I suppose that every resistance leader now requires an electronics expert. When I was in the Freedom Party, we were surrounded by true believers, but had few technology experts. If I had had an Avon then, might we have prevented Travis' surprise attack? Could he have monitored the meeting place with far more precision? He might have influenced the outcome…no; Avon would never have involved himself in those matters then. The difficulty in acquiring such a skilled person is that he or she rarely sees a need to rebel against the existing government.

Boulis is quite fortunate to have someone of Shaw's apparent expertise. Avon treats her with respect, as an equal, something I don't think I've ever seen from him. Some type of scientist; I suppose I should have paid closer attention. She and Boulis make a golden couple: he with his thick black hair, she with her sleek golden cap. If he goes for politics, I imagine she'd make a powerful image, beauty and brains in one package.

"Seryn, you didn't tell me my power animal!"

Blake looked up. That was Vila's redhead. Nesbitt, he remembered; Liv Nesbitt. A bouncy thing, young, exuberant, and as rich as Croseus, according to Boulis. I wonder if Vila knows that last part or perhaps he can just smell money.

Seryn turned from her conversation with Cally and gave Nesbitt an affectionate glance.

"You are turtle, my Livbit."

Blake caught Jenna's slight turn of the head as Nesbitt howled with laughter.

"Turtle? Slow and steady, you mean?"

Boulis leaned in from Blake's right. "Nesbitt brought Seryn to our group; apparently Seryn worked for her family or something along those lines. They've known each other for ages, since Nesbitt was a small girl."

I see that Boulis calls the women by their last names. I wonder if Jenna would prefer to be called Stannis? Probably too late, she's firmly Jenna now. Blake drifted as various streams of conversations lifted him, caught his interest, allowed him to bob along in their current.

"Turtle is Mother to us all. You must be mindful of the cycle of give and take, to give back to the source of all as she has given to us…"

"…we use it primarily for tactical strategizing. Of course, we're not in the same position as you…"

"…I wouldn't recommend learning as I did. Saurian Major allowed few mistakes. I suppose we could set up some type of training utilising Orac and the Medical Computers…

"…it would improve processor performance by a minimum of 50%, thus freeing your units…"

"…so Seryn works for your group, she's not a volunteer?"

"…develop your ideas before bringing them into the light. Developed at their own rate, in their own season, the berries are sweet and can be shared…"

Blake's chin was drifting towards his collarbone, the murmuring of familiar voices acting as a lullaby. I haven't known such peace in so long. This is what I want for all humanity; this sense of peace, of safety and joy in the company of curious and stimulating friends. Within the Federation, one is never entirely safe unless you submit to the dull greyness of a sanctioned life. Mankind is not meant to walk head bowed, but with head raised to the stars, with pride and joy and individuality.

His left arm was seized and then shaken roughly.

"Blake, you're snoring."

2.1.4 1.3

At first Avon had been greatly put out by the cabin assignments. He accepted that the camp had only six cabins, but hadn't predicted or – honestly -- given sufficient thought to the potential combinations that would entail. Boulis had set aside three of the cabins for Liberator's crew and Gan and Vila linked up before Avon could open his mouth.

Blake had demonstrated more consideration than Avon might have expected. Like most of his Beta Cevian experience, Avon anticipated the worst and was pleasantly surprised by the actuality. He'd seen the inside of Blake's cabin and expected to be swallowed in Blake's clutter as he had been by Blake's cause. Arguably, Blake had less potential for clutter down planet as he, like the others, brought only two or three sets of clothing. He had managed to collect maps and various profiles on Beta Cevia, its business community, its government, and its resistance, and those data cubes and printouts filled the tiny table in the shared cabin. As a concession to his cabin mate, they were neatly stacked.

"Gan's predicting a thunderstorm."

Blake moved to the nearest window, gently drawing aside the curtain. As if he needs to verify what I just told him.

"Wind's up, it looks as if he might be right."

"Perhaps we should close the windows," Avon said as he cranked the old- fashioned windows in towards the cabin.

"Close them? Not entirely or we'll suffocate."

Trust Blake to exaggerate the airflow in this wooden cabin. We could seal the windows and survive on that which comes through the gaps in the walls. Gaps? Hell, I wonder if there are any in the ceiling?

"Fine, leave your windows open and let the rain in; I'll shut mine." Avon moved on to the next window crank, leaving each window open at least 2 inches to allow for air but deter the rain.

How the hell does he sleep in those pyjamas? They resemble something my father might have worn, or my grandfather. I wonder if Jenna knows he sleeps in those? I realise he didn't have unlimited choice from the clothing room but we've visited more than one planet where he could have purchased something other than those silly yellow and brown stripes.

Avon carefully turned back the light blanket on his bed and slid in. This was made considerably easier by the dark green, silk pyjama bottoms that allowed him to glide into bed. Arranging the blanket to his satisfaction, he began to study the circuit drawings Shaw had provided. Their computer was fairly impressive, but a few additions would allow significant gain.

The rush of rain against the windows sent a cooling breeze into the cabin. Yea gods, that's wonderful. If we could only synthesise air that smelled like this aboard Liberator… The flashes of lightning and the rolling thunder seemed to draw closer. That must be marvellous to view over the lake. I wonder if these windows…no, too many trees in the way. Security, of course.

Avon returned to his study of the diagrams. Yes, we can interconnect here…

The overhead light went out.

"Blake!" Avon was indignant. If the man wanted to get to sleep, all he had to do was ask.

"'Twasn't me, Avon. Must be the storm."

Avon listened in silence as the rain pelted the windows, a staccato rhythm that seemed to be increasing.

"Damn."

"If you really want to read, I think I saw some candles in that cupboard."

Blake, ever helpful. I suppose he helped the elderly across hazardous aircar junctions.

"No thank you. I'm afraid you'd burn us down."

Avon interrupted Blake's answering silence as 'Fine, be that way," which, he supposed, was just. I had wanted to review those diagrams. I'm nowhere ready to actually sleep. He crossed his arms across his chest and studied the ceiling. No leaks. Yet.

I wonder if the camp has a backup generator to ensure its computer remains operational? I don't remember seeing one on the tour we had the first day, though I wasn't entirely paying attention at the time. Backup power would be necessary to retain water pressure, for hygiene and cooking purposes. Damn, I fancy a cup of tea right now. Sitting inside, warm and dry, listening to the storm with a cuppa and something to read… Yes, well that's not going to happen.

"Avon, are you still awake?"

Avon considered not responding, but was uncomfortable with the inherent dishonesty of that act.

"I am."

"Since the lights are out, and we're both wide awake, I thought we could tell ghost stories or something."

"Ghost stories?"

"Yes. We used to tell ghost stories when I was a child. My sister, brother, and I would huddle under a blanket and try to scare the pants off each other by telling the most terrifying, gruesome stories."

"Really."

"Oh, come on, Avon. Didn't you listen to or tell scary stories when you were a child, assuming you were ever a child?"

"No, I did not."

"Never?" Blake sounded incredulous. Was this something so fundamental to childhood? "Did your parents read you stories when you were small?"

Avon thought about it, and then thought with considerable concentration. I really don't know. It's a strait-forward question: yes or no. "Probably."

"But you don't remember what they were?"

"Blake, I doubt either of my parents would inflict terrifying or gruesome stories on a small child. My father…" Avon stopped abruptly. If I leave it there, Blake will worry it to death, like a small terrier. "My father would have chosen something to stimulate my ability to learn or something to emulate."

"That wasn't what you began to say, was it?"

"Haven't you had enough entertainment for one evening? Seryn provided you with a wealth of stories. If you're expecting me to entertain you, well, you should have selected Vila as a cabin mate. That is not my forte."

Blake's chuckle warmed the dark cabin. "No, it's not, is it? Shall I tell you a story, then?"

"No," Avon interrupted abruptly. "I've remembered one my father used to tell. Shall I?" He waited for Blake's answering encouragement. "It was one of those designed to instil certain behaviours. It was about twin brothers, both of whom were brilliant achievers. Both were admitted to select schools, offered University scholarships, and their choice of positions throughout the Federation. One brother chose to work in Space Command. He constructed programs that allowed Space Command HQ to be in touch with their fleets around the galaxy, all at the same time. He was successful and happy. He married and made his own family. The other brother chose poorly. First, he chose to work on the Aquitar Project. He was unhappy there so he jumped to the Federation Banking Cartel…"

"Avon," Blake warned. "I think I've already heard this story."

"Fine. The moral of the story is that the choices one makes affect the opportunities one is presented, and that unwise choices might saddle a foolish person with associations he would never deliberately choose."

"And a price on his head. Yes, yes, I have heard that story. Perhaps you'll let me tell a real ghost story now."

"That wasn't terrifying or gruesome enough for you?" Avon asked. "Perhaps I should describe his associates."

"Did you know that the ghosts of the Eyanyi, and all they've killed, haunt this lake and this campsite?"

Avon groaned and rolled onto his stomach as Blake continued without mercy. Oddly enough, the sudden gusts of wind and the thunder that rocked the camp were a perfect accompaniment to the story Blake wove. Of course he's good at this; he spends his life creating stories for people to believe. As Blake concluded the story, nature provided an impressive crescendo: a series of lightning strikes that continued for what seemed minutes. Avon could smell the ozone; the lightning was close, the thunder immediately overhead.

"Well?" Blake demanded, sounding rather impatient.

Avon was sorely tempted to respond as Orac usually did to that question. Actually the story was well constructed, interesting, and fairly stimulating. He sighed.

"Blake, if the victims of the Eyanyi rise, as you said, at the moon's peak and wander among the living, you might reconsider closing your windows. At least one of the Beta Cevian moons is full tonight."

"Are you really a twin?"

I suppose I should be astounded that he waited this long. "No, I used that only for illustrative purposes."

"But you do have siblings?"

"Why the sudden interest?"

"Not so sudden, Avon. We have had few moments to discuss personal lives, you and I."

"I'm sure you've read my file, Blake. Wasn't that information listed?"

Blake's sigh of disappointment floated across the cabin and wrapped itself around Avon. Yes, another person I've let down. I keep warning them, but they won't listen.

"You've an unusual first name, Avon. Does anyone call you Kerr?"

Ah, a change of tactic. Blake embodies the 'Never Say Die' hero. I fear he was told too many stories as a child and imbibed the nectar of mythology.

"Not any more. Does anyone call you Roj?"

This sigh was infinitely sadder. "Not any more."

Christ, that was stupid, Avon.

"Haven't you family somewhere? Aunts, uncles, cousins?"

"Yes," Blake responded hesitantly. "Now that you mention it. I suppose it slipped my mind, but I've an uncle and a cousin on a penal colony. That is, I believe I still have an uncle and cousin."

All right, then. Blake is restored and I can rest easily.

"What about you? You've family, don't you, Avon?"

"Yes." Abrupt, a warning; don't go there, Blake.

"You studied the classics, didn't you?" Blake asked cordially.

Blake might have made a good interrogator, just shifts to another line of questioning, keeps pulling the answers out.

"If you mean classic literature, history, and sciences, then yes, I did."

"What about mythology?"

Ah, I knew it. I'll wager that Blake was weaned on stories of the gods.

"Of course. I consider that part of classical literature."

"Which of the gods or goddesses do you think you'd be?"

Oh, hell. I'm not certain I even remember all of them and then the Roman mix with the Greek, and there are some Celtic and Indian gods as well. Let's see, Zeus, Athena, Mars, Hera, Hermes, Apollo, Lugh, Poseidon, Hades, Diana, Venus, Vishna, Mercury. I'll have to consult Orac tomorrow. I don't remember all of them, nor what each represented.

"I have never given that a thought, Blake. Was this something else you did as a child?"

"Yes, actually." Save me from laughing at him, he's so deadly serious. "I'd an aunt who taught classical literature and she made mythology a great deal of fun for young children. My brother, sister, and I played gods and goddesses, just as we played Capture-the-Flag, Federation troopers and hairy aliens invading Earth and other games."

"So, have you a particular god, or goddess, with whom you identify?"

This is the whole point of this conversation, isn't it? You want to tell me who you are, as you see yourself, perhaps as a rebuttal to all of my snide comments. Avon was momentarily breathless. I do not want an intimate tour of your psyche, Roj Blake. Let us leave our relationship as it is, thunder and lightning.

"Blake, you do realise that the Federation permitted mythology to be taught as a means of discrediting the monotheistic religions of the previous two millennia?"

"Yes, though my aunt saw it as humanity's need to believe in something greater than itself."

"It's more likely man's inability to acknowledge the essential randomness of existence. Existence is anarchy; religious beliefs attempt to control it, make it less frightening. There is no need for religion now; the Federation exists to eliminate anarchy, or so they say."

"You don't believe in God, in a higher consciousness, do you?"

"I don't believe in anything, Blake. I reason."

Blake was silent after that. The rain was slowing, a steady and peaceful drumming on the rooftop, and Avon allowed it to lull him to sleep. Just before he drifted off he remembered that Blake had never told him the god with whom he identified.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~, Beta Cevia was a good deal nicer than most of planets Blake chose to visit. Not only was it not brown, dusty or Federation occupied, we had a lake practically to ourselves, wooded mountains to hike, and a number of people who had never heard any of my jokes. I admit that the cook, Seryn, spooked me a bit that night she told us our power animals, but the people on Beta Cevia were as unlike my mates from Liberator as one could possibly imagine. Boulis was sharp, don't get me wrong, but Shaw and Nesbitt were open and fun. They didn't have that haunted, always looking over your shoulder tic that we've worn forever. Of course, they're not fighting yet, just organising politically to stop Federation influence on their Governor. The best part was that they were both women! Adding in Seryn, out of politeness mind, and it balanced, five women and five men. It was a natural environment for pairing up and using what nature gave you. I tell you it was as if pheromones were released in that camp!

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2.1.5 Chapter Two

2.1.6 2.1

"True to form I see," Avon drawled.

Blake didn't even open his eyes. The hike had been more arduous than he had predicted and he was expecting Avon to needle him about it. This lovely rock outcropping was too perfect to ignore; he lay stretched out on his back and basked in the sun.

"The hike, you mean?"

"No." That sounded like a snicker, damn him. "Snakes are fond of lying in the sun. One of the things you watch for when hiking or climbing."

"That was odd, wasn't it?" Blake rumbled. "Jenna's still quite put out about her power animal, it sounded like a nasty little creature."

"Something like a Terran badger, I think."

Damn him! That was a snicker. Blake opened his eyes and glared at Avon who lay beside him, sunning himself, eyes closed, on the rock. "I see wildcats like the sun as well."

Gan answered before Avon could open his mouth. "Power animal to an entire people. I think she was quite taken with you, Avon."

As Blake watched lazily from his position, he saw the smug smile flicker across Avon's face in lieu of a response.

"Do you think she was a telepath?" Blake asked after a silence.

Cally was poised on the rock just above him. Though Avon was supposed to be the cat, something in Cally's position reminded Blake of a sleek feline. He half expected a purr. No, she was supposed to be some type of night bird.

"No, she wasn't. Avon asked last night and so did Jenna. I don't understand why you'd think telepathy had anything to do with it."

"Just an astute judge of character then?" Blake offered.

"Hardly. She'd watched us interact for three days. For all we know, she made up the animals on the spot and then fit observed characteristics to it. It was entertaining. It was theatre. Let it go."

"You brought it up," Blake retorted. "Besides, you're the one who's been meditating beside the Aphahi every night."

"I was not drawn by the Great Spirits, just the desire for solitude, and it appears that I shall have to find a new spot."

Blake stretched his back and then pressed against the sun-warmed rock. Ahh, damn that felt good. I feel as if I am a million light years from the Federation and the Cause. I feel as if I am the Blake that might have been had they not tampered with my mind. Is this what it would be like to be a normal man in a normal world? Roj the Crusader immediately reminded him that normality under the Federation was a great deal different and that he was fighting to give this freedom to the normal man. I could travel the galaxy and I won't escape the Cause, he concluded ruefully. As long as the Federation exists, it oppresses, and I could never ignore that oppression.

Although Avon's probably right about it being simply entertaining, I like the idea of being a snake, of a snake shedding its skin. It makes what I've experienced almost palatable to view it in the light of rebirth, each time a new Roj Blake.

"I hate to leave, but shouldn't we start back?" Gan asked hesitantly.

Blake opened his eyes again and glanced at Beta Cevia's sun. Past midday I think. I wonder when I stopped wearing a chron? I know I'm relaxed if I don't have to know what time it is. I see no one else is answering. Are they deferring to me for leadership or just reluctant to depart?

"Not just yet, Gan. Let's enjoy this."

How often do I have a sense of tranquillity when surrounded by my crew, or most of my crew? It was worth every argument from Avon to force him on this hike. A holiday, as if I've time enough to just rest. It's the ideal opportunity to bridge defences, to see each other as something other than criminals and crew mates. Perhaps if I understood Avon as a person, we'd quarrel less. I suppose his participation in that understanding would be necessary but at least this might be a first step.

2.1.7 2.2

Hell, Gan was right and now we are pushing through woods at dusk. It's not that I'm afraid of the dark, Blake thought with some amusement, but there seems to be a geometric increase in biting insects at this hour. Fortunately there are no predators in the area, just small animals now.

"They've more money than most resistance units. Avast antennas are not inexpensive, even if they are second-hand. Neuropia regenerators are top of the line."

Blake frowned and pushed through some low branches, sending his words back over his shoulder to Avon.

"Too much money? Are you concerned?"

"In other circumstances I would be, but this seems to be exactly as portrayed. The businesses on Beta Cevia dislike the idea of Federation interference and are still independent enough to do something about it, including funding an opposition. It seems more a political party than a resistance movement."

"To our benefit," Blake responded. "I doubt we'd be allowed this tranquillity were it a normal resistance group combating the Federation."

"It just begs the question why we are here." Avon exhaled quickly, climbing over a prickly shrub. "Not leave, what I meant was why did Boulis invite us? We're not politicians."

Blake sighed. "You sat with them. They picked our brains on what to expect from the Federation. I think it's that, and perhaps a little name dropping to drum up finances. I'm grateful for use of their resources."

"Gratitude. Perhaps that is it," Avon answered thoughtfully. "When the Federation does come to Beta Cevia, we'll be in their debt."

"You've a suspicious nature, you know."

They pushed on in silence for some time. Blake heard Cally and Gan conversing a slight way behind them.

"Avon, I was just thinking…"

"You should be careful, you're out of practice."

"Bastard," Blake replied automatically. "How did you know about the Eyanyi sacrificing their people to the Aphahi?"

"We're back on that again?"

"It does seem a bit odd."

"Only because you've bought into the mysticism. I reasoned it, Blake. I do not possess the secrets of the Eyanyi. They viewed the lake as the residence of their Great Spirits and it is common among primitive people to make sacrifices to their gods. Seryn was quick to volunteer how they replaced everything else so it was obviously something she did not want to mention. Once you add her reluctance with sacrifice, and their inability to replace fish or water, it does not require an anthropology degree to conclude what type of sacrifice was made."

"Well, after the fact it seems logical," Blake held a branch so that Avon could pass. "At the time, it was a bit unnerving to have you answer that question."

Avon's smile was self-satisfied. "It's rather standard practice on the Liberator."

"No electronics or computers here," Blake argued.

"Logic and reason are not limited to machines, Blake, though I agree they rarely make appearances elsewhere. Damn these bugs!"

"I was a bit surprised that Vila and Jenna went swimming today."

"The Eyanyi stopped the practice of human sacrifice to the lake quite some time ago," Avon replied with obvious amusement. "Besides, Shaw and Nesbitt were swimming as well; Vila and three women, three wet women wearing very little. The Aphahi would have to be full of bodies before he'd miss that opportunity."

"I wonder what tonight's entertainment will be."

"If you like, I can tell everyone what animals I think they resemble."

Blake nearly choked. "Christ, no! Let us do something less dangerous, say Russian Roulette?"

"It's your entertainment," Avon snorted. "I suppose I'll be able to hear the results while meditating near the residence of the Great Spirits."

"Give them my regards," Blake joked.

2.1.8 2.3

It is disturbing how the same woods that provide solitude and tranquillity while gazing on the lake seem rather intimidating without the lake or camp in view.

"You'll likely take this as a criticism of your leadership, but I'm obligated to inform you that we have been walking four hours and we have not reached camp."

Avon moved closer to Blake, sensing the other man's frustration. They waited for Cally and Gan to catch up.

"Avon's right. I think we are lost." Blake spoke rapidly and in disgust.

"But we're on the path. How can we be lost?"

Avon held his temper and let Blake answer Gan's question.

"Because, Gan, it took us only two hours this morning from camp to the mountain we hiked. According to Avon, we've walked four hours and still haven't reached camp."

"We're on a different trail, you mean?"

Avon watched Blake as the other man attempted to control his defensiveness.

"It was definitely the same trail when we left the mountain; I had marked it. It is possible that in the dark, I missed a turn or made a turn that I should not have done."

Dusk had given way to night and it was difficult to see the faces of the others. Pale faces danced around Avon at various heights and the dark brush across one was likely Blake's finger near his mouth. Sight gave way to sound as the predominant sensory mechanism. The night was alive with sounds: small animals darting through the underbrush, the sudden sharp shots of breaking branches, the rushing air of night birds seizing prey.

"Our options…" Avon and Blake began simultaneously. Each stopped and waited for the other to continue. "Go on, Blake," Avon insisted.

"Our options are to reverse our steps and head back toward the mountain, looking for a path crossing this one or to try to find a familiar landmark to get our bearings." Blake turned to look at Avon for agreement. "Avon?"

"I was going to say that we have the option of staying put until daylight, or trying to make it back to camp tonight. As far as we know, there are no predators in the area so it should be quite safe to camp out."

He glanced up without expectation. This was not a familiar star system to determine direction. Hell, I can't even see the stars for the tall trees! No wonder it's so densely dark.

"The others will be worried and come searching for us," Cally insisted.

"Yes, they will," Blake sighed. "We could wait until we see torchlight or hear them."

"It strikes me," Avon said, thinking aloud, "that as the Aphahi was the central point of Eyanyi life, most of the trails should either lead there, or intersect with ones that do."

"Large lake," Gan protested.

"Do you have any other ideas?" Avon snapped.

2.1.9 2.4

Blake was a little disconcerted by the group's preference to stay in motion rather than wait for rescue. What does that say about our choices while on Liberator? Do they support my goals or are they executing missions simply because acting is preferable to waiting? He certainly wouldn't raise that question for fear of Avon's barbed answer.

The mist slipped in gradually. He glanced down at his feet and found them covered in grey, which progressively covered his hips and continued upward.

"Grab the belt in front of you!"

His bellowed order was nearly swallowed up in the mist or fog that now surrounded them. Damn and hell! I knew we should have stayed put. In this soup it's impossible to see an intersecting path. He was hauled to a stop by the hand that gripped his belt. Avon's mouth was at Blake's ear so suddenly it startled him.

"The mist is coming from the lake meaning we're moving in the right direction but it will make it difficult to see the camp. Stay alert, you might walk right into the lake."

Avon gave a friendly shove without releasing Blake's belt to restart forward motion. Low hanging branches loomed suddenly in Blake's face, allowing little reaction time. Hell, I should let Avon lead for a bit, he's shorter than I am. We'll move for another 30 minutes and then I'll call a halt to this farce. I cannot see a damn thing. The camp could be ten metres to my left or right and I won't see it.

The mist muffled sounds so that Blake could not hear the others behind him. Avon's firm hold of Blake's belt was reassuring; he wasn't alone. A sudden rush of sound, a screech racing towards him, above him, around him, sent a spasm of fear pounding through his chest and down to his loins. Blake realised it was a night bird after his gun was already in his hand. At least the others didn't see me panic, he thought, heart thudding relentlessly as he holstered his gun. He continued forward without breaking stride.

Blake blinked; he could have sworn he saw something moving across the path in front of him. Don't be ridiculous, it's impossible to see anything more than a few centimetres ahead. Maybe we should stop now. I'm seeing things, we are all tired, and there is no way we could even see the camp in this fog.

The face appeared suddenly, less than a third of a metre in front of him. Blake jerked to a halt. It was male, shorter than he and hairless. The stranger's face was a deep mahogany and he would have blended into the dark were it not for the dramatic face paint. That and the glinting blade that was closer to Blake's neck than was comforting.

The stranger spat out a number of syllables – words? – that were nonsensical to Blake. Blake raised his hands chest high and spoke soothingly.

"We are friends. We won't harm you."

"Ah, Blake," Avon interrupted dryly. "They are surrounding us."

Blake took a step back and half-turned. His group had bunched together, and he could make out the faces, mostly because of face paint, of at least six more dark men. Eyanyi?

"A-yon-yee?"

As he said the word, Blake hoped he hadn't butchered the pronunciation. The man in front of him glared suspiciously and then began shouting. A vicelike claw gripped Blake's shoulder, pushing him down to his knees. Biting his lip, trying not to evince any manner of pain, Blake felt sharp rocks slice through his trousers and into his knees. An angry cry behind him and sounds of a scuffle warned him that the others were also endangered. Cloaked in this mist, his hand began moving slowly to his gun. Four of us, all armed, against at least seven. No, make that three; Gan couldn't shoot anyone with that gun he wears. Not impossible odds, but those knifes might cause some damage.

Blake's eyes moved from the stranger; a slight turn of his head gave him a view of the others. Gan knelt, surrounded by three of the men, or warriors, each armed with a blade. His eyes flickered nervously from the blades to his comrades, seeking direction. Cally had been forced against a tree, blade to her throat, her head straining away. Avon was on his back, pinned to the ground by two warriors, one holding Avon's arms and the other straddling Avon and touching a machete-like blade to the hollow of Avon's throat.

Cally and I might be able to draw and fire but Gan and Avon would be killed instantly. Perhaps I can still talk my way out of this. Fear left his heart racing and heightened his breathing. Blake was preternaturally aware of minute details, the buzz of an insect against one arm, the sweat that slipped from his temples. Though the mist had muffled sounds, Blake clearly heard a rising chant, almost a singing, coming from his right. More of these attackers? A roar of an animal, a predator by the sound, came from the left. I thought Boulis said there were no predators in these woods anymore. The man in front of him shouted again and waved his knife. Was that a signal? Avon's attacker raised the blade and Blake watched in mute horror as the blade swiftly descended. He grabbed for his gun knowing that he wouldn't be in time. His own attacker pushed him roughly to the ground.

"Cha! Ku lehi ba! Rei ne arihoni mahe bo."

Behind the darkness of closed eyes, Blake's sense of perspective swirled in a dizzying manner. Those words were barked from a voice behind him, a familiar voice. Avon's voice. What the hell?

"Agiheno bo Eyanyi. Da noritu bo Aphahi recenyi cartanu."

Blake heard a quiet reply from the man in front of him in the same tongue. He opened his eyes. He was standing on the path and there was no one in front of him. He spun quickly. Avon stood behind him wearing a startled look.

"What is it, Blake? What's wrong?"

Cally and Gan seemed to be disoriented. Cally was rubbing her face and bending over slightly while Gan leaned against a thick tree trunk. Blake blinked as he turned his head, slowly pacing around in a full 360-degree circle. The four of them were alone, in the dark woods, and the mist had suddenly lifted.

"Blake, are you all right? Why did you stop?"

Now Avon sounded concerned. Blake felt a tentative hand on his shoulder and met the puzzled dark eyes.

"Avon, what did you say to them?" he whispered, completely unnerved.

"Say to whom?" Avon snapped.

"The Eyanyi, if that is who they were."

"Blake, perhaps we should rest. I think you're overtired."

Avon's hand was on Blake's shoulder forcing him to the ground and Blake resisted, pulling away in sudden fear. He backed away from Avon without tearing his eyes from Avon's face.

"No! Those men, those warriors! You spoke to them and then they disappeared! How did you know their language?"

Avon appeared irritated, as if he were trying to understand and failing.

"Blake, there is no one else here. You just suddenly stopped."

"Where's the mist?" Blake demanded. "They were going to kill you, I saw the blade coming down, and then you spoke to them, gave them orders in a language I've never heard before."

Avon's expression warred between disbelief and concern. He swallowed and raised his hands as if to show Blake he meant no harm. Blake glanced beyond Avon.

"Gan! Cally! Tell him! What did you see?"

Cally was shaking her head as if clearing the cobwebs from it. "As you said, Blake. There were more than half-dozen strangers, wearing face paint, armed with some type of blade. I thought they would kill us."

"Yes, that's what I saw as well," Gan added breathlessly.

Avon was shaking his head steadily, looking around at the trees. "I would suggest some sort of hallucinogenic spores in the woods though that does not explain how all of you experienced the same hallucination."

"It wasn't a hallucination!" Blake insisted.

"Blake, neither they nor the mist you mentioned are here now! I saw nothing. Are you suggesting that I hallucinated seeing nothing?"

"No, but perhaps there is a reason you don't remember. After all, you were the one who spoke to them."

Avon sighed heavily. "I spoke to no one. I suggest we continue on. The camp is not much further."

Three heads swivelled and Blake stepped forward and grabbed Avon's jersey. Pulling the other man toward him, he growled, "How do you know that?"

Avon smiled derisively. "Shall I say I learned it from the Eyanyi warriors you saw?" He shook his head mockingly. "I recognise the area. This is where I have come at night for peace and quiet. You should recognise it, Blake. You were here last night."

Blake looked around the path. In the complete dark, it was difficult to see any familiar landmarks.

"I'll lead, shall I?" Avon said as he pushed past Blake.

Blake stumbled after him, tired, confused, and thoroughly rattled.

2.1.10 2.5

"Avon, where the hell have you been?" Jenna pushed past him hurriedly. "Blake, thank the stars you're all right. What happened?"

Avon bit back a crooked grin at the disparity in welcomes, but as he turned he saw Cally's laughing eyes and allowed his grin to widen.

"Vila was attacked!"

"What!?!" Blake's voice overlapped Avon's.

"He's all right, just scratched really."

Avon closed the distance, pinning Jenna between him and Blake. "Scratched by what?"

"Some type of animal. He didn't see it."

Blake pushed past her, striding rapidly. "Where is he?"

Jenna hurried to catch up, matching Blake stride for stride. "In his cabin. He's all right now."

Frowning, Avon sighed and trudged after them. This has been a long day, a delayed return from the hike and now this. Damn, it was an almost perfect leave until today. He caught a scent of the fire and glanced in that direction as he turned toward the cabins. Boulis and Shaw were the only ones there tonight and Avon returned their greeting with a nod. So much for the evening's entertainment. He heard the footsteps gaining behind him; Cally by the sound. Yes, she and Gan fill the medical role in our little band of merry rebels. They'll be looking in on Vila.

Vila's cabin, which he shared with Gan, was already crowded. Avon pushed into the doorway, inching past Seryn and Jenna to stand on the far side of the door. Vila reclined on his bed, attended by Liv Nesbitt and a fiercely frowning Blake. As Avon had expected, Cally and Gan forced their way in to oversee matters as well.

"I was just having a rest in the sun. I'd been swimming for hours. The next thing I knew something was taking a nip at me. By the time I woke the little bugger had gone but left me this token of appreciation."

Avon smiled slightly. Vila was not only all right, he seemed to enjoy being the centre of attention and he was well tended by Nesbitt. Avon leaned against the rough wood wall, pressing his back into a beam as if it could unknot his tired muscles. He half listened to Blake's demands about local animal life and Nesbitt and Seryn's patient answers. Vila lifted his leg to proudly display his wound and that caught Avon's attention, wrestling him back from his daze. What type of creature left a bite mark in an inverted V? Obviously it was something small, and fairly bold to approach and attack a human. I wonder if it was Jenna's power animal, Avon thought viciously.

He glanced over at Jenna and caught Seryn starting at him. Not again, he groaned internally, not more of this primitive mysticism. He looked away and caught Cally's glance between Seryn and him. Avon caught her eye and Cally joined him against the wall.

"You look done in," she murmured.

"I am. As Vila is obviously all right, I think I'll shower and turn in." He smiled tiredly. "I don't think he'll need your medical care. In fact, I think he'll toss you out if you try." Avon looked pointedly at Nesbitt and Cally laughed quietly.

"Yes, of course I noticed. You're not the only one with eyes, Avon."

Avon pushed away from the wall and moved towards Vila's bed. "It is typical of you to cause this excitement over something so trivial, Vila. Are you sure you didn't cut yourself shaving?"

"These magnificent legs? You're confusing me with you, Avon," Vila replied proudly. "The women love my legs just as they are."

"Well, perhaps one of them branded you," Avon smiled evilly and made his exit amidst laughter.

Avon saw Blake heading towards Seryn. Guessing the purpose, he hastened his pace. Footsteps behind him again announced company. Too light for Blake. Seryn? No, Cally again. She seemed content to trudge beside him in silence. This part of the camp was not lighted and he wondered idly if she wanted company as she headed towards her cabin. Perhaps she was distressed by what happened earlier. It was not like Cally to be afraid of anything; still, he walked her to her cabin door.

"Avon?"

"Hmm," he answered tiredly, glancing at her.

"Stay with me?"

Christ, this is out of the blue. Bad idea. Why? Too small a crew in too contained an environment. This is hardly the time to weigh the pros and cons.

"Because of what happened earlier?" he asked carefully.

She smiled, amused. "No. I had planned to seduce you properly but events didn't co-operate."

He cleared his throat. God, this is awkward! "What about Jenna?"

"Oh, I think she'll be sleeping in your cabin tonight," Cally answered knowingly.

Oh. I wonder if Blake knows that yet? Is this just for leave or do you anticipate something more? Playing twenty questions is rather a mood breaker. Besides, I'm tired. I just want a shower and some sleep.

He opened the cabin door. "I need a shower, Cally. Perhaps you'd care to join me?"



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~

I must say that Shaw and Nesbitt seemed more put out by the odd occurrences than any of the Liberator crew. Of course we'd seen and experienced a lot more of the galaxy than they had and some of those experiences were fairly hairy situations. Between that and the endless game of cat and mouse with the Federation… Well, a little spookiness in the woods or the bite of a woodland animal is hardly enough to hold our jaded crew's attention for longer than it takes Avon and Blake to pick a fight, meaning no time at all. Though for most of our "working leave" (Blake's term, not mine; that's an oxymoron if I've ever heard one) the two of them managed to get on fairly decently. If you really want the truth, they got on well most of the time anyway, which no one ever noticed because it was boring. Their arguments, well you'd have to be dead not to notice those!

Anyway, as I was saying, after taking on the Federation, we'd hardly let a little matter like this interrupt our leave. We were overdue for it and as Jenna said, we were damned if we'd let anything get in the way of our enjoyment. At the time, I thought she meant the outdoor activities, but things heated up in unexpected ways. I had always suspected Jenna had an interest in Blake, and Cally in Avon, but they had never before acted on them, at least to my knowledge. I suppose the freedom of leave made them bold.

If you ask me, life's a lot like a game of cards. I suppose Nesbitt, Shaw, Jenna, and Cally were the four Queens, and in this deal poor luckless Gan seemed stuck with the Old Maid. I mean Seryn of course. Although, come to think of it, perhaps I should have wooed her myself. She might have influenced matters to come out differently than they did. But what did I know? I was hardly aware of anything that was going on. My attention was firmly in the grasp of the wondrous Liv Nesbitt, my personal Queen of Hearts.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~

2.1.11 Chapter Three

2.1.12 3.1

Avon yawned as he poured coffee from the fresh pot Seryn placed on the server. Breakfast, like all of their meals, was buffet-style for drinks or cold food. A selection of muesli, yoghurt, something resembling brioche, jam, butter, and fruit covered the sideboard. Seryn would bring a hot breakfast if you desired, but it was chef's choice; each day she made only one type of hot breakfast. Today it seemed to be eggs, scrambled with cheese and chives, served with a thin slice of prosciutto.

Avon was later than normal and though he steeled himself for invasive questions, his companions seemed otherwise occupied. He and Cally had agreed to enter separately, a pretence which seemed rather absurd in the face of Jenna's near occupation of Blake's lap while Nesbitt and Vila shared a plate. Who are these people and what is Seryn putting in the food or drink? Avon chose to sit with a seemingly forlorn Gan, a selection that placed him directly across from Blake who grunted a greeting. Avon contained his smile; it appears that Fearless Leader did not get much sleep either.

"Planning on hiking again today, Avon?"

Gan's conversational opener depressed Avon for a reason he could not immediately fathom. If I go hiking again, I'll ensure that I'm not following any of you.

"I have not decided yet, Gan. What are your plans?"

I'm already bored with this conversation. I'm too restless this morning; maintaining social niceties, difficult under ideal circumstances, is damn near impossible when I feel this way. I'll have a battle on my hands if I don't sublimate this energy. Avon saw Cally enter, saw Blake glance from Cally to him and back, and bit his lip. Let it go, Avon. Jenna stood and went to greet Cally. Blake's eyes sought Avon's across the table.

"I appreciate your discretion. Just curious, did Jenna approach you beforehand or was it providential that you didn't sleep in the cabin last night?" Blake's question and manner was nonchalant as he sipped his coffee.

Avon affected wide-eyed innocence. "Oh, I slept there. I just took pains to remain quiet and not be a bother."

Blake spit out his coffee, spraying both Avon and Gan who made rather a show of cleaning themselves with their napkins.

"You did not sleep there!" Blake hissed as he passed them his napkin as well.

"That's true, I did not get much in the way of sleep. By the way, do you always make that particular bull elephant sound when you come, Blake?" Avon whispered conspiratorially.

Gan's attempt to constrain his laughter to a snort led to a coughing spasm so loud and long that Avon had to thump Gan on the back three times before the big man caught his breath. By that time, Jenna had returned and Cally joined them, sitting on the other side of Gan. Jenna watched the three men suspiciously and Avon stared into his coffee cup to escape her piercing gaze. More coffee? Christ no, I am jumpy enough as it is. I might start a war if I had more caffeine.

Just then Seryn delivered his eggs and Avon tucked into breakfast without a word, taking care to keep his eyes from meeting Blake's furious ones. He listened to Jenna and Cally's overly loud and really unnecessary discussion of how well they had slept – as if anyone really cared which bed they had occupied – and the possibility of going berry-picking, seeking out what remained of the bushes that had been planted by the Eyanyi.

Everything taken must be replaced and generations later, the investment still produced. Avon mulled the impressive long-range planning. I doubt Terrans give that much thought to their children's needs. Imagine a people living in such balance…what is the matter with me? I don't even like the outdoors. Usually. These people had no technology, no civilisation that I would recognise. How is it possible to admire them? Avon shook his head at his own mental wandering and cleared his plate, bringing it into the kitchen, as was the custom.

Seryn smiled wanly as Avon deposited the plate in the dishwasher. He nodded a combination greeting and thanks for the food. Expecting her to raise the mysterious encounter in the woods, Avon was pleasantly surprised that she said nothing. Back in the dining area, Blake, Gan, Jenna, and Cally seemed to be evaluating the safety of remaining at this camp after the previous nights' incidents. It sounded as if Blake was reluctant to depart and Vila joined the conversation, in fierce opposition of an early departure. Avon seized the possibility of escaping without question. He headed for the door, restlessness demanding an outlet, movement. Sex would be nice – not that I haven't already had more than my share today -- but rather than dispel energy, sex seemed provide even more energy.

"Avon, wait!"

Blake's voice. So much for an unheralded escape.

"Where are you off to?"

Good question, Blake.

"I thought I'd take a walk, if that meets with your approval," Avon said rather more nastily than the situation deserved.

Well it's not as if they are not used to me. Blake rose from his seat.

"Alone."

Avon turned and escaped through the door, jogging away from camp before he could be followed. Now that was odd. Why did I do and say that? I do need some time alone. I grew accustomed to my nightly meditations and not only missed it last night, but shared a bed as well. Yes, that's it. I am just out of sorts. A private walk is just the tonic.

He found the path to the lake without conscious thought and then deliberately chose to walk to the right. Yesterday's hike had traversed the left-hand or southerly side of the Aphahi, as did his previous nightly exploration. Time for a change, he thought, and turned north.

2.1.13 3.2

Blake cursed Avon for the seventieth time as he trailed behind Jenna and Cally. Berry picking seemed a lovely way to spend a day, at least theoretically. Blake found that the damn bushes had prickles that slit right through his canvas trousers and drew blood. Between the purple juice of the berries and the blood, the trousers had evolved from a sporty khaki to a mottled maroon. He, of course, was carrying the large basket. Cally and Jenna picked and deposited their trophies into smaller buckets. When full, the buckets emptied into Blake's basket. All right, Gan has one too, he grumpily admitted, and Cally seemed to cheerfully deposit her berries there as Jenna was sending out possessive signals that could be seen in another star system. Blake's basket was only for Jenna's berries.

Vila and Nesbitt had elected another day of swimming, undaunted by the previous day's experience, and Shaw and Boulis promised to join them. Personally the idea of a swim seemed a capital idea, but later, to wash off the dust of a hike or, he scowled, the juice of the berries. Damn you, Avon, the idea of a walk sounded wonderful. Curse you and your moodiness. I dislike walking alone and couldn't persuade these determined berry pickers to join me. Blake had even sought out Seryn to see if she'd join him for a walk. Now that would have been interesting, something of a guided tour I'd think. She was nowhere to be found and Boulis shrugged when asked.

Blake followed as the others moved onto to another clump of bushes. Thank the stars! A downed tree made a perfect bench and Blake strode rapidly for it, Gan on his heels. Sitting with a sigh, it crossed his mind that the galaxy's foremost rebel and saviour of the Common Man was being pulled in the wake of a woman much like a henpecked husband on a shopping spree. He expelled a sigh of resentment and looked to Gan in the hopes of improving his mood.

"What do you think of Seryn?" Gan asked, without making eye contact.

Blake opened his mouth to respond and then took a second glance at Gan. "In what way, Gan?"

Gan almost seemed resentful. Now that was odd.

"Well, as everyone's paired up except for me…"

"Hold on!" Blake said nervously. "Who says everyone's paired up?"

Gan scowled at him. "Vila and Nesbitt; you and Jenna; Boulis and Shaw; Avon and Cally. That leaves me and it leaves Seryn. Now it's not that she's unattractive, but she wouldn't have been my first choice. It's just that I didn't seem to even get a choice, I didn't know that everyone else was pairing off."

You're being kind Gan. Seryn is clearly unattractive, stocky, and stands about waist high next to you.

"Come to think of it, Gan, nor did I," Blake said, somewhat amused. "I think the female of the species led that dance and I don't know for a fact that the others have paired up. Anyway, you're considering Seryn?"

Another scowl from Gan. Two in a row! When was the last time I saw Gan scowl? He's always so even tempered, excepting that time when his limiter malfunctioned. I don't think that's the case here. I think it's a different body part that needs attention.

"Well, it is either Seryn or no one. Not much of a choice, Blake."

"Has she given you any indications that she might be interested?" I can't believe I'm having this discussion. The last time I had a discussion like this… Shit! Another memory missing. Well, it was likely school years.

"No! Avon already has Cally, but Seryn seems to constantly stare at him."

Fucking marvellous, jealousy too! Perhaps Cally had a point about early departure. Being hunted by the Federation seems to keep everyone occupied and out of this type of trouble. Seven days on this planet might be pushing our luck. Blake adopted a patient tone, what he hoped was a fatherly tone.

"Gan, you know you that she stares at Avon because of that catalupi thing. I do not think she is interested in Avon. I think you should seek her out and find out if she's interested in you."

**Blake**

Blake blinked. What was that? Oh, Cally. He jerked his head in her direction and she motioned with her hand. Blake put the large basket of berries on the ground and started forward. As he walked, he squinted, trying to see what had caught Cally's attention. Cally stood straight as a rail, stretching her back and her neck as if she could make herself taller and achieve a better view. Jenna had stopped picking as well. Looking puzzled, she was headed towards Cally.

Blake reached Cally's side before he could see the women that she watched. They were in the distance, difficult to see between the trees that separated the two positions. This part of the forest was not as dense as the southern part. Sunlight poured in between the trees, allowing the berry bushes and other life to thrive, and providing better lines of sight. The four of them stood silently, watching the women in the distant berry patch picking berries and placing them in baskets, much as they were doing. The only thing worthy of attention was that the women they watched were small with dark brown skin, very like Seryn's. Their nearly black hair was pulled back by a leather thong worn around the forehead and they were dressed in animal skins.

"Eyanyi?" Blake whispered.

"They do not seem threatening. I would like to speak to them," Cally answered quietly.

"Cally, I spoke with Seryn last night. She said there are no members of the Eyanyi living in these woods." Even as he spoke the words, Blake's eyes countered the truth in that statement.

"Perhaps they are not Eyanyi, but another tribe."

"The people we encountered last night were not friendly," Gan said sternly. "I think it would be dangerous to approach them. The warriors might be nearby."

"Blake?" Cally asked.

He nodded and set off, keeping pace with Cally as they walked slowly and carefully through the trees. He heard the sound of a gun drawn; Jenna providing cover. The sun was warm on his back and the top of his head. Far from the claustrophobic encounter of the previous night, today he saw the Eyanyi in bright daylight, no swirling mists to deceive and alarm.

They had crossed half of the distance between the two berry picking groups when one of the Eyanyi women turned and looked directly at Blake and Cally. She called out and her words floated in fractured phrases over the distance. It sounded as if it were the same language Avon spoke last night. All of the women, Blake saw now that there were five, turned and fled in the opposite direction.

Blake stopped, exhaling in defeat and then grabbed at Cally who had continued walking.

"Cally, we scared them. I don't think chasing them will increase their trust."

"Blake, if we keep moving, we might find their camp." Cally's eyes were glowing with excitement. "Imagine meeting some of the Eyanyi living just as their ancestors did."

"We have met primitive people living in those conditions. In this case they seem to be frightened of us. It would be cruel to pursue them."

She shook off his hand, but sighed her agreement. "You're right, of course. I don't know what I was thinking."

"We've been out in the sun for a while. We might want to consider returning to camp. A cool drink sounds rather appealing just now."

2.1.14 3.3

Walking near a spring-fed lake has its advantages, Avon decided. He had set out on this walk impulsively, without a water bottle. The lake water, though not pure, was tolerable and he scooped it with cupped hands. Certainly at this end of the lake, there were no human contaminants. As he walked, he had picked ripened berries from the few bushes he passed, eating them as he moved. By the time he found the rock outcropping at the far end of the lake, his restlessness had been exorcised.

This was too long a hike to replace my site of evening reflection but this is certainly just what I needed today. The rock extended into the lake and was nearly four metres long, three metres wide. The rock was smooth, a mottled grey as if it were granite but without the texture of granite. Avon walked out to the very edge of the rock and turned slowly to examine the expanse and beauty of the lake. The sun dappled the small ripples in the water; its constant movement driven by underground springs that kept it oxygenated and clear. Absurdly pleased with himself for his discovery of this rock, Avon sat cross-legged near the water, centring his breathing and calming his mind. The sun warmed his face and a light breeze slipped through his hair. The area was alive with sound but Avon focused on the irregular slap of the lake against the rock. In very little time, he had achieved that near hypnotic state of earlier evenings. The petty stresses and annoyances with his colleagues flowed down his arms, onto the rock, and out into the water where they were absorbed.

Between the tranquillity and the warmth of the sun, he fought the urge to sleep. Why not? I did not sleep very long last night, nor was it a restful sleep. So difficult to sleep in another's bed, such an adjustment to have a partner beside me. It's not just a physical adjustment, though the extra body heat is nearly as uncomfortable as the subtle and constant adjustments of arms, legs, hair and face. I never stay afterward; it implies something more personal than physiological. Waking with Cally's scent, limbs entangled, seemed almost more intimate than the sex. Did I wake so often and then lie awake because it was uncomfortable or because it was so intimate? That's irrelevant to the question of sleeping now. I did not sleep well and I am tired, therefore I should sleep. Avon stretched out on the rock, pillowing his head in the crook of one elbow and lay basking in the sun. He slept almost immediately.

He woke sometime later, unsure how many hours had passed. That's odd, I thought I was wearing my chron today. Muscles stiff from the hard rock, he stood and stretched his back and shoulder muscles, then rotated his head until he heard his neck crack. In the corner of his eye he saw movement and felt he was being watched. Remaining completely still he listened but heard nothing that could not be explained by the small animals that populated this forest. He moved slowly, hand slipping automatically to his gun, just resting on its handle. Turning completely around, he peered into the trees around him and saw nothing abnormal. Avon sighed; I am overanxious and still a bit jumpy.

He sank to a sprawl on the rocks and stared out over the lake. Based on the sun, it's sometime in the afternoon but still early. Damned if I'll be in the woods again tonight. He heard the crack of branches, the clear movement of someone – or something, admittedly – moving toward him and making no attempt to hide.

"Avon?" Cally called before charging in on him. "Are you fit for company yet or should I leave you to your solitude?"

"You are welcome to join me, but I do appreciate you asking first."

He stood, in order to appear somewhat welcoming, and waited for Cally to reach his rock. Offering a hand to help her clear the final hurdle, he gazed at her expectantly. She took his hand and smiled as she joined him.

"Spending the afternoon swapping myths with Seryn?"

Avon blinked; he could not think of anything less likely. "No, why?"

"I thought I passed her. I could be wrong. Lately I've been accused of seeing Eyanyi that aren't there," she said with a sly grin.

Avon sighed. "Come, sit down. No, I haven't seen Seryn though I thought I heard someone or something here just before you arrived. It was shortly after I woke."

"Wore you out, did I?" Cally gave him a devilish grin.

You and an easy hike that turned into an endless trek. He smiled. "Yes, you did."

"Are you going to let me wear you out again tonight?"

Avon raised an eyebrow. "Do I have a say in the matter?"

"Of course you do!"

"Then yes, of course." He ignored how closely that paralleled half his arguments with Blake. "How did you locate me?"

"Vila and some of the others were swimming earlier. Boulis saw someone standing on this rock but it was too far to identify more than a figure. You were the most likely candidate."

"So much for escaping," he complained and stretched out on the rock. He lay on his back and rested his head in interlocked hands. "It's very peaceful here."

"Yes," Cally answered simply, apparently contented to lie beside him. She closed her eyes.

No chatter, no questions. Cally's very restful that way, he thought gratefully. He shifted his head into one palm, enclosed her closest hand in his and saw the fleeting smile that crossed her face. Clever of you, Cally, not to pressure me. I doubt you can maintain this; it seems impossible to make love without emotional handcuffs quickly following. I'd rather not get to that level of histrionics.

Avon caught her glance, the question, and turned on his side to face her. A gentle kiss gave way to one more searching. Avon felt as if he had slipped into the lake, down into the depths of the murky water, past sunlight or oxygen, going further and further, into the dark. There was no mud or rock, it was bottomless. The one part of his brain that wasn't sinking decided that this position was fairly uncomfortable. Without separating, he rolled Cally on top of him. Hmm, that's better. My shoulder is not grinding into the rock and I have full body contact. Oh, I see Cally has realised the advantages of that! Yes, this is certainly just what I needed today.

2.1.15 3.4

After, she remained on top of him and returned to being quiet, a persona not evident in the last thirty minutes. Her weight felt wonderful atop him, not heavy enough to crush him but just enough to make him feel enveloped in another. I like someone on top of me he realised sleepily. Never knew that before, isn't it odd that I've reached this advanced age without knowing?

"Avon?"

"Hmm," he answered, eyes closed.

"Who calls you Kerr?"

He sighed and felt her body rise and fall with his chest, fingertips dancing on his shoulders. "My parents did." He thought for a while. "Perhaps other family members. That's it."

"Siblings?"

"No, my brother calls me Avon as I do him. Silly, really. I suppose it's a holdover from school where everyone went by last names. We were both called Avon unless we were together. Then, I was Avon Major, he was Avon Minor."

"Just the one brother?"

Another sigh, but it didn't feel invasive to have Cally ask these questions. "No, actually I've an older one as well, but he's years older. I'd rather not repeat what he'd likely call me."

"Let's go swimming."

He opened his eyes, somewhat incredulously. "Now? Here?"

Cally grinned. "Why not? We're already naked. We can just jump from the rock into the water."

"And dry off in the sun. I see." He considered all the reasons why they shouldn't do it, and then pushed his hand through his hair. "All right, but slip in, don't jump. We don't know the depth."

Cally stood, pulling him upward by the hand. God, she's strong!

"Are you always this cautious?" she teased.

"Apparently not or I would never have met Blake," he answered dryly. "Sit down at the edge. All right, just bound in ahead of me."

Cally splashed water at him.

Avon slid into the very cold lake, complaining. "Damn this is cold! You do realise that it's likely full of sacrificed bodies? In a lake this cold, they might have been preserved."

She dunked him.

2.1.16 3.5

"It's about time you showed your face," Blake complained.

Avon slid into his seat at the dinner table, thoroughly composed, freshly showered and wearing clean clothes. He even smiled.

"I had a wonderful day, Blake. I hope that yours was equally pleasant."

Blake snapped his fingers several times and then waved a hand in front of Avon's face.

"Hello! I'm looking for Avon, Kerr Avon. Have you seen him anywhere?"

"You're quite amusing when you try. Pity that it's so rare and that now is not one of the occasions," Avon answered calmly.

"Avon, if you do have multiple personalities, where have you been hiding this one?" Blake demanded.

"I suppose it would be rude to mention that it emerged only after spending the day far from all of you, wouldn't it?"

"Liberator is a very large ship. Perhaps we could relocate your cabin."

"And his flight deck position," Jenna added.

"What is our lovely chef Seryn serving for dinner this evening?" Avon politely asked Boulis.

"Gaep, it is a fresh fish from the lake. It's quite good," Boulis replied smiling.

Avon's mood darkened. "A gift from the Great Spirits. One I hope that we will not have to repay."

"Speaking of the Great Spirits, you'll never guess what we saw today," Blake said cheerfully.

Avon shot a glance around the table. Apparently the rest of them already know.

"Enlighten me, Blake."

Avon listened half-heartedly to Blake's description of sighting what he believed were Eyanyi berry pickers. While he kept his head turned toward Blake, Avon let his eyes follow Seryn as she served all of them dinner and then joined them at the table. She seems a bit discomforted by Blake's story.

"What do you think about all of this, Seryn?" Avon asked, as soon as she sat.

She raised her gaze calmly and met his eyes. "I have already told Blake that there are no Eyanyi living in these woods. The closest Eyanyi, besides me, live nearly fifty kilometres from here and they do not wear animal skins."

"Perhaps another tribe, then. Is it possible that some younger people might be camping, adopting the old ways for a short period?"

"No. Our people are few now and I would know if that were so." Seryn's face informed Avon that the matter was closed.

"So, Blake, did everyone see the people this time?" Avon continued.

"Yes," Cally answered, drawing his attention. "All of us saw them, Avon. There were five women and they fled when they saw us approach."

Hell, Cally, you needn't jump to Blake's defence. Avon turned his attention to his dinner pensively, shooting surreptitious glances at Seryn.

"Of course, that's not all you missed," Blake said expansively. "Nesbitt was bitten, likely by the same animal that bit Vila."

Avon listened to the story in disbelief. How could anyone be stupid enough to sit in the same position where someone else was attacked? She and Vila apparently belong together. Avon feigned concern. "Are you all right?" Nesbitt nodded. "Well, you've matching brands now." He lifted his glass. "A toast! To the happy couple!"

"Charming," Blake said sourly. "Utterly charming."

2.1.17 3.6

After dinner, Avon waited outside the gathering hall for Seryn. He had deflected Blake and Cally's questions with an irritable look. In truth, he wasn't sure what he was doing. Group hysteria could possibly have explained seeing primitive warriors in the dark; Blake provided the details and the others went along with it. We were all tired and suggestible. Unlikely but possible. It's considerably less likely as an explanation for four well-rested and occasionally reliable people to see primitive women in broad daylight.

"Seryn," he called quietly as she exited. "I'd like a moment of your time."

The glance she gave him was clearly unfriendly.

"Do you have time for a cup of coffee?" he continued, as if addressing a friend.

"If you want to talk to me about the people your friends said they saw, no I do not."

"Actually that wasn't it at all." Avon gestured to the door, and then followed her as she re-entered the gathering hall.

The front of the gathering hall remained lit for those who required a hot or cold drink at other than meal times. Avon followed Seryn to the table and took the seat opposite her. She waited patiently and he decided she probably possessed enough patience to outwait him. Fair enough, he had requested her time.

"Honestly, Seryn, I'm a bit intrigued by the catalupi idea but I don't want the others to think it's gone to my head. I was hoping you could tell me more," he said, with what he hoped was the right hint of embarrassment.

Seryn bit her lip. "I may have misled you. If catalupi is your power animal, it may signify that you do not know something about yourself or others. Catalupi is the knower of secrets, it does not mean that you are."

"I see. Does that mean that it complements me, provides what I lack?" She nodded. "What secrets might catalupi know that I should know?"

She frowned and sat in silence while Avon waited, head tilted as if in sincere curiosity.

"Catalupi can move through time and space and unlock mysteries. The power can be accessed through mental pictures…"

"Similar to clairvoyance?" he interrupted.

"Yes. Catalupi power can help you see things that have been hidden, fears, lies, self-deceptions. You should remain open to mental pictures, omens, or an inner voice. You must listen."

"As I knew about the Aphahi?" Avon asked gently.

She peered at him intently, her eyes narrowing as if searching for deceit. "Yes, and as you knew the rock of the Eyanyi."

Avon nodded intently and adopted a thoughtful expression. He spoke slowly and watched her carefully.

"Seryn, in the past, when the Eyanyi gave freely to the Aphahi of what they alone could give, in order to achieve wholeness, how was it decided whom would be given?"

Her black eyes flickered, and in the lit room Avon could see that they were truly black as he had first thought.

"I do not know," she answered.

Avon was convinced she was lying. "I think you do," he said with deliberate gentleness, "but that's immaterial. Just one more question then, if you will? Everything taken must be replaced. The bushes would bear fruit; the trees would grow and provide seedlings; the food for the animals would produce more animals. It would have to be a pair given to the Aphahi; it would have to be a man and woman to bear fruit, now, wouldn't it?"

She was good; he gave her credit for that. The flinch was barely visible and if he hadn't been expecting it, it might have escaped notice.

"No. Why would you think that?"

"Private research." Avon smiled and stood, extending his hand graciously to help her rise. "Thank you, Seryn. I didn't mean to monopolise your time. I imagine you have many things yet to do."

2.1.18 3.7

The group was gathered around the fire and Avon uneasily approached them. What do I say? I have a bad feeling? I don't believe in instinct, nor should they. The facts are puzzling, but there is nothing explicitly incriminating.

A few glanced up as he approached – Jenna, Blake, Cally – and he motioned to Blake to join him. Avon began walking from the fire toward the lake, expecting Blake to follow him into the darkness.

"Decided to be sociable again?"

Blake fell into step beside Avon, and relapsed into silence as if he sensed the other man's mood. Avon listened to the voices fading as he passed out of hearing range and into the sounds of the lake at night.

"Blake, you know my distrust of instinct, but I am not yet in possession of enough facts to call this anything other than an experienced application of judgement."

"That's a nice phrase for guessing, Avon. Do you mind telling me what it is that has you guessing?"

"The Eyanyi and the Aphahi." Avon stopped walking and faced Blake, frowning. "I would like you to send Vila back to Liberator." He waved off Blake's immediate protest. "With Nesbitt and as many bottles as he'd choose. We certainly don't want to save his life at the expense of his leave."

He was uncomfortably aware of Blake's probing eyes less than a metre from him. As if to increase the intimidation factor, Blake shifted and moved closer.

"Is that a request? Probably not. Knowing you, it was an order. The answer is no, unless you tell me a little more about your experienced application of judgement."

Avon exhaled. How do I say this and not seem a total fool? He began walking again, as if motion would alleviate his intent to compound what might prove to simply be an overactive imagination. Blake again fell into pace beside him, remaining close.

"Without any facts, there are simply several unexplained and apparently unconnected incidents, of which you are already aware. The two encounters with what you believe to be Eyanyi people and the attacks on Vila, and on Nesbitt. Correct?"

"Hmm," Blake agreed.

"Let me attempt to tie them together. Seryn denies that there are any Eyanyi or other aboriginal tribes in the area. Do you believe her?"

"No."

"Everything taken must be replaced… Seryn told us how her people replanted bushes, trees, and left food for the animals. After dinner, I asked her several questions and I think she lied again. All of the methods of replacement bore fruit, new bushes, trees dropping saplings, more animals being born. It is logical then that when the Eyanyi sacrificed to the Aphani, they did so with a couple, a man and a woman who could symbolically bear fruit."

"You think Vila and Nesbitt are in some danger?" Blake's voice seemed to be rising in fear and anger while simultaneously attempting to sound calm and rational. Avon could not see Blake's face in the total darkness but the sound was a reasonable approximation of his own churning emotions.

"Possibly. I asked her how the selection was made and I am quite certain she lied when she said that she did not know. I acknowledge that it is a considerable leap from a logical conclusion about the Aphahi sacrifice to implying Vila and Nesbitt's injuries have a sinister connotation. However, both were marked with a rather unusual sign, an inverted V, which none of the locals can associate with an animal."

Blake was rubbing his face and frowning. "Your instincts are usually good…"

"I have never come to you with instincts," Avon snapped. "In the past I have always come to you with facts."

"Fine, call it what you will," Blake returned irritably, "I was just trying to say that I trust your judgement."

"I'll remind you of that some day on the flight deck. I do not know if Seryn is mentally unbalanced, or if she, in association with other Eyanyi whose presence she denies, have continued the practices of their ancestors or plan to rekindle them. It would seem a precautionary measure to protect Vila and Nesbitt, since they have apparently been marked, from any potential danger."

"It sounds reasonable, Avon. Would you mind explaining it to Vila and the rest of the crew?"

No, I was rather hoping you would just order Vila to safety, damn you. Avon bit his lip.

"I'd rather wait until I have more information. After I spoke with Seryn, I accessed Orac through the base computer. I requested everything known about the Eyanyi and the Aphahi. Orac will contact me via the teleport bracelet when the information is complete."

"Fine. In the meantime, I'll tell Vila to remain on guard." Blake smiled conspiratorially. "You did pick up a hint of Federation activity in the area, didn't you Avon?"

Avon turned around, smiling slightly, and began tramping back to the fire.

"Well, I suppose you could honestly say that I've identified some inexplicable activity and am investigating to determine if there are any Federation implications."

"A bit long-winded even for you."

"Yes, but it is true, where you were simply dissembling." Avon sighed. "One other thing, though it may be irrelevant. It's almost as if Seryn wants me to be suspicious."

"Why do you say that?"

"I eased into the conversation by asking about the catalupi, that ridiculous mysticism that the rest of you have embraced."

"And?"

"She told me that the catalupi as my power animal," he nearly choked over the words, "complements me in that it provide abilities I do not possess. Using its power could help me see things that have been hidden and that I should remain open to omens or an inner voice. In an odd way, it's as if she was encouraging my distrust."

Blake exhaled slowly. "As you say, she may be mentally unbalanced. Perhaps one part of her wants to make the sacrifice to the Aphahi and the other is crying to be caught. It's not unheard of, Avon."

"Perhaps, but I think there is more to it. When I asked her about the catalupi, she was reluctant, but she told me despite herself, as if she was unable to lie. When I asked her about practices of the Eyanyi, she lied easily."

Avon noted that Blake had stopped moving, though they had not reached the fire. As his gaze had been on the ground in front of him to avoid a misstep, Avon raised his head and looked sharply at Blake and then ahead.

"Gan, we were just discussing the need for a team meeting, sometime later tonight or first thing in the morning."

Gan was staring at Avon malevolently. "Stay away from Seryn! You already have Cally, isn't that enough?"

Good Lord, he can't possibly…yes, apparently he is under the misapprehension that I might want Seryn for something other than information.

"Gan," Avon began, only slightly patronisingly, "I have no interest in Seryn…"

He must have slipped, for it was impossible for Gan to strike him. Avon knew it was impossible for Gan to have done so but as pain came and consciousness fled it definitely felt as if he had been slugged.



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~

I suppose in retrospect it seems funny to have two of our crew fighting over Seryn, particularly hilarious if you consider one of them was Avon who couldn't be bothered to notice about 99% of life forms around him. I wasn't there when it happened mind. Liv and I were taking in the night air. I heard about it afterwards, but didn't put any faith in Jenna's insistence that Gan had hit Avon. Come on! First of all, Gan can't hit anyone; his limiter kicks in before he can do so. The second point is that Avon, though probably deserving of a good right, is too much on guard. The man never relaxes. The chances of Gan hitting Avon are about the same as Blake defeating the Federation.

When you're on leave, nothing seems quite that bad and I suppose we let slide some of the clues that normally would have alerted us, or alerted me anyways. I've always considered self-preservation a strength of mine, probably one of the reasons that Avon and I get on, though neither would ever admit it. Ah, I suppose even self-preservation instincts retreat in the face of love. I know my instincts were well and truly asleep when the show began. Who knew I'd be a star? I always knew I had it in me to be a star, or at least play a truly significant role. And anyway, everything happened so quickly…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~

2.1.19 Chapter Four

2.1.20 4.1

The ship was stationary in space, he knew that intellectually but it had not stopped the room from spinning. He felt awful. The pain in his head exceeded anything he remembered. It hurt to open his eyes or to move his head. Sounds reverberated inside his skull and if his ears didn't stop ringing he thought he might rip them from his head. It was necessary to remain exceedingly still in order to contain the nausea that had already spilled across his clothing, the medical unit bed, and the floor. He wanted darkness and silence; instead Cally was attempting once again to shine something into his eyes.

"No!" Avon mumbled. "Leave me alone." I'm pathetic; can't you just let me lick my wounds in peace?

"Avon, stop whining and let her get on with it."

Oh, thank you very much for your profound consideration, Blake. I'll remember that, you bastard, the next time you're injured. Don't think I won't.

Avon tasted blood in his mouth and wondered if he had any internal injuries. What the hell had happened anyway?

"You've a concussion," Cally divulged. "You went down hard and hit a rock outcropping when you fell. You are very lucky, Avon, that it is not worse than a concussion."

"Blood," he complained.

"Yes, there was quite a bit of blood."

So why is it in my mouth? He pursued his lips and immediately found the answer in the split that ran across his lower lip. When did I fall? I went hiking…no, I remember dinner so it was not when I was hiking. It hurts too much to think. I am tired. I want to sleep.

He was dimly away of Cally's slim fingers unbuttoning his shirt. Not now, Cally. I'm not up to anything, he thought sleepily. Anyway, Blake's here. Right, we're in the medical unit. He heard their voices as if from another room, words indistinct, but understandable from the tone. A cold wet flannel cleaned his face, neck, and chest, sending an involuntary shiver throughout his body. Oh fuck, that hurts!

Nausea rose again in response to the throbbing pain and it sapped every ounce of energy to consciously contain it. He kept lips pressed together, concentrating his breathing through his nose. When at last Avon felt it safe to open his mouth, he was thoroughly drained. He heard Cally say something to him, but it was as if it was a foreign language. It was so much more pleasant to slip into the darkness.

2.1.21 4.2

According to all the tests I have run the limiter is functioning normally

Blake chewed at his finger, both in concern and to gain the time to consider the facts Orac presented. He had been off-guard when Gan attacked Avon. Hell, even Avon was off-guard. Gan couldn't do what he did; all of them knew that. Blake shuddered as he remembered the frozen seconds after Gan's immense fist connected with Avon's left jaw. The power in that punch had driven Avon backwards, towards a jumble of rocks and when he had hit the rocks, Avon's head snapped to the side. Blake's stomach had turned over, certain that he had heard Avon's neck break. He had been too terrified to take the two paces that would tell him whether Avon still lived. Cally had raced past him, had slipped one hand under Avon's head and then withdrew trembling bloody fingers from the limp body.

Blake shook himself back to the present. Avon would recover; they had been breathtakingly fortunate that his injury was not serious. Gan, however, was another question entirely.

Hell, if anyone else had slugged Avon I would have given him a tongue lashing or looked the other way while Avon returned the blow and then it would be over. I am not overreacting; this has nothing to do with Gan's previous limiter malfunction…even though he could have killed us all when that happened. No, it's not that at all, it's simply significant that the limiter failed. The limiter should have prevented Gan from hitting Avon and it did not. That could be good or bad. If it is malfunctioning again, the rest of the crew could be endangered. If its failure means Gan could defend himself and more fully participate in missions, this could be good news.

"What you're telling me, Orac, is that the limiter is not malfunctioning. Correct?"

Was it not clear when I stated that the limiter was functioning correctly?

Supercilious little box of lights!

Gan, somewhat abashed but retaining an edge of resentment, lay on the medical bunk furthest from a now sleeping Avon. He stared at the ceiling sullenly while Blake ran tests.

"I've often wondered if the limiter could be overridden by the right drugs. Gan, do you know the answer to that?"

"How would I know?"

Blake exchanged glances with Cally; the words of Gan's answer were perfectly appropriate but the tone was strikingly outside the norm for Gan. I might describe it as petulant, Blake decided.

"Orac, as Gan's limiter acts neurologically, is it possible for its design or purpose to be overridden by pharmaceuticals or any other known means?"

The limiter acts directly upon the section of brain where it is implanted and does not use neurological pathways to transmit messages. However, it would seem to be possible, at least theoretically, that pharmaceuticals could negate the action of the limiter by affecting the part of the brain where the implant exists. There is no known example where this has occurred, nor is it currently possible to speculate on what pharmaceutical combination could do so

"Orac, scan the medical computers and analyse all chemicals from the earlier blood test. Identify any that might have properties that would negate the effect of the limiter." Blake rubbed his eyes and turned to Cally. "If the limiter is functioning properly, then the only explanations for what occurred are that either Gan did not feel its effects or that he felt its effects and was able to continue despite what in the past has seemed to be tremendous pain and agitation."

Cally nodded tiredly. Her eyes were shadowed and worried and she regularly rubbed at the bridge of her nose.

"Gan, I know we've discussed this earlier, but it was somewhat brief. What do you remember feeling just before hitting Avon and while hitting Avon?"

Gan continued staring at the ceiling, but remained silent with the exception of loudly grinding his teeth.

"Gan?" Blake prodded.

Gan's eyes shifted quickly to Cally and then back again to the ceiling.

"Cally, would you give us a moment?" Blake requested.

With raised eyebrows, she exited the medical unit, but remained nearby.

"All right, Gan," Blake sighed. "Will you tell me now?"

Gan sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. "Why do you let him get away with everything, Blake? He just tramples on the rest of us and you never say a word! We always accommodate Avon. Why?"

Taken aback, Blake felt at a loss for words. "Gan, you hit Avon and you hurt him. You might have injured him quite severely and you seemed to do so without provocation."

"Oh, I've enough provocation for a lifetime," Gan sneered. "He's had that coming. It's not enough that he's some famous brain that lords it over the rest of us, he has the women tripping over him too. Cally's fallen for him and look how shabbily he treated her; off to make eyes at Seryn."

"Gan?" asked Blake not quite sure to whom he was listening. "You sound a bit out of sorts." That is a considerable understatement, you sound possessed. "I happen to know that Avon was not making eyes at Seryn. He and I were discussing his conversation with her when you struck him. He asked her a number of questions about the Eyanyi." Blake stopped. "Why? Did you see otherwise or did someone tell you otherwise?"

"Seryn told me he was bothering her, that he wouldn't let her be!"

"And you believed a relative stranger over one of your crewmates?" Blake controlled his temper. "Gan, as I recall he was telling you he had no interest in Seryn when you hit him. Back to my questions. This time I'd like you to answer them. What did you feel just before and when you struck Avon? Did you feel any effects of the limiter or any discomfort?"

"No," Gan said sullenly. "I was furious and I struck out. I don't remember it very clearly, just that."

"So it wasn't that you felt the limiter kick in, but were able to hit Avon anyway? You felt no effect from the limiter?"

"Yes, that's correct."

"All right, Gan. Just stay here a bit longer. We may need to run some more tests."

It works but he doesn't feel it, therefore it cannot be working effectively no matter what Orac says. Blake walked to the door of the medical unit and motioned for Cally to return. He shook his head in frustration at her curious gaze. No Cally, I don't think you'd want to know why he wouldn't talk in front of you.

"Orac, report on chemical analysis of blood scans."

Analysis shows no indication of any pharmaceuticals whatsoever

Hell, now what? Blake saw Cally's questioning glance as she lifted a tranquilliser pad. He tried to smile in return but his face was tight and he felt the tension of too dry lips force the smile into a flat line. Yes, let Gan get some sleep. Let all of us get some sleep. I'm too tired to reason this out.

2.1.22 4.3

Jenna had been waiting for him in his bed and Blake slipped gratefully into the warm comfort. Amazing how she knew his need without words. They came together slowly, comfortably, as if lovers of long standing. Afterwards, tangled limbs, sheets, and blankets combined with the considerable peace she had given him. It was the closest to home that he could remember and he slept without nightmares.

Bed warmer, lover, comforter, and sounding board, Jenna listened sceptically as Blake outlined his concerns the next morning.

"Let me understand," she said with a frown. "You want to leave now because you saw some primitive people in the woods that gave you a good scare but did not harm any of you; because Vila and Nesbitt were nipped by some unknown small animal; and because Gan hauled off and gave Avon what he's been asking for since The London?"

"It's not the individual occurrences, Jenna, but the cumulative effect. Perhaps we're not meant for long holidays."

"Blake, even Avon's been nicer here than he is normally. It's just what we've needed." She grinned lasciviously and her hand slipped from his broad chest to his groin. "Me especially."

"It's just that…yes, oh that's marvellous, don't stop. Certainly some of the holiday benefits would continue aboard Liberator, like this… how am I supposed to think when you're doing that?"

"What, this?" Jenna's attempt at innocence failed miserably. "I'll stop if you really would prefer to think."

"Personally, I'd like to stay but I've the welfare of the crew to consider. Vila's been bitten and though he's been pumped full of every possible drug, we really don't know the effect of that animal bite. Then there's Gan." Blake sat up. Leadership demanded sacrifice. "Avon will recover but there's no question that his holiday is over."

"As is Cally's," Jenna grumbled, pulling the sheet up to cover bare breasts. "If you're cancelling the holiday because Avon was rapped in the head, you'll have mutiny on your hands. Avon's been shot for chrissakes, I think he can handle a headache."

"Shot? When was he shot?"

"On Earth, before his arrest or weren't you paying attention to the few minor details that we've pried from him about his past?"

"Last night I froze. I couldn't believe what I was seeing; I didn't know what to do."

Jenna's eyes narrowed. "For Avon or about Gan?"

"Both, I suppose. I'm still not sure what to do about Gan. Orac says that the limiter is functioning properly but somehow he does not feel its effect. This might be manageable except for the fact that he's not quite himself."

"Based on what? Because he struck Avon?"

Blake shook his head. "No, not that. He's argumentative and sullen. It's as if his very personality is different. I noticed it yesterday while you were berry picking. He was all put out, as he said, by the fact that everyone had paired off but him."

"Oh, thinking with that head, is he? That's a problem easily solved."

"Really?" Blake glared at her. "Who did you have in mind to solve it?"

"Think again, Blake. I'm very selective, or hadn't you noticed? Cally's out, she's always been a bit parochial about Avon. Right now she might take care of your Gan problem permanently. Nesbitt, Shaw," Jenna blew out a burst of air. "Seryn? That's why Gan let fly, wasn't it?"

"Right, and I'm not approaching her to say that I'd appreciate her assistance." And why is it my Gan problem?

"Being in the woods does limit ones choices. Perhaps you could send Vila and Gan on a field trip to one of the cities."

"The possibilities of that are positively appalling! Besides, would it do to reward Gan for his behaviour? That's hardly fair; Avon's concussion is serious."

"Sex as a reward or sex as a solution? Your choice, Blake, but you'd better decide before we leave. They'll be no solutions back on Liberator, at least not for Gan." Jenna smiled and Blake saw in her face that the discussion was over.

2.1.23 4.4

"How is he, Cally?"

"He is perfectly capable of answering for himself," Avon snapped. "I'm fine." The lower left side of Avon's face wore the livid colour of a bruise not yet darkened to its full extent.

Blake scowled. So much for a good night's rest improving one's disposition. "Perhaps I wanted an objective opinion." You are not known for volunteering information about yourself.

"He is still suffering from dizzy spells, hasn't been able to hold down food, and is weaker than he'd like to admit."

Cally's tolerance was worthy of admiration though her bemused glance at Avon was a give-away that the topic had already been discussed. I wonder how Avon managed a shower by himself? Silly bastard, what makes you imagine that he was by himself? Showered, dressed, and back in bed, although propped to a sitting position. Cally is considerably more forceful than I had credited. The object of Blake's admiration had pushed her patient's legs to one side and she sat comfortably on his bed. The better to restrain him or did I interrupt something?

The medical unit was remarkably free of the stench of nausea. Liberator's ability to recycle air was appreciated most at times such as this.

"Did Cally tell you what happened?"

"Yes, and that the limiter is functioning normally which indicates some unknown factor."

Blake pushed his hands into his pockets and moved towards Avon thoughtfully. I wish he had been conscious for the tests last night, he might have thought of something I missed. Blake quickly summarised the little he had learned, closely watching Avon's face. No signs of vengeance, just curiosity, though Avon is never an easy read.

"No drugs and he felt nothing." Avon frowned and immediately winced. "Shall we wake the brute?"

"Avon, I understand that you might…"

"For pity's sake, Blake, it was a joke."

As Cally made no move to leave her protective perch beside Avon, Blake removed the tranquilliser pad from Gan's forehead. Gan woke quickly. His eyes flickered open and his face was soft and confused. Puzzled eyes greeted Blake.

"Gan, do you remember what happened last night?"

Gan's eyes closed again and Blake heard the deep intake of breath as if the man was steeling himself. Tension returned to the massive body that lay on the bed. Hands clenched and then flexed. Arms stretched defining tendons and muscles and the broad chest rose and seemed to visibly grow with the increasingly strained breathing. Gan's jaw firmed, and his eyes were clear and suspicious when he again opened them.

"Yes, I do."

"Have you remembered anything more, anything that could help us understand what happened?"

"No." Clipped, abrupt, unhelpful.

Blake sighed and scratched his forehead, then looked to Avon for input. Avon wore that distant look of concentration that heralded a search of his internal databanks much as Orac's flashing lights conveyed its activity. Avon waved Blake over with an abrupt jerk of his left wrist. Blake leaned towards Avon's head. With Cally's head nearly touching his, he had the irrelevant memory of a huddle.

"Make him angry," Avon whispered, "and let the diagnostic computers monitor his reactions."

Right. Last time Gan was angry, you ended up in the medical unit, you bastard. I'm not making him angry.

"You've a gift for it," Blake responded.

"Perhaps you'd like him to kill me this time."

Cally's hiss of protective anger made audible Avon's narrowed glare. Blake pulled away from Avon's bedside and moved slowly towards Gan. He was conscious of Cally's presence beside him. Offering him moral or physical support?

"Gan," Blake began with an authority he did not feel, "you appear to be angry and defensive, and though I might understand your defensiveness, you do not have the right to be angry."

Yes, that got his attention. Gan's head turned away from the wall and his sullen expression became wary.

"Avon has a right to be angry. He has a serious concussion and is in considerable pain. Cally has a right to be angry because she's been nursing Avon and keeping an eye on you instead of enjoying her leave. And I have a right to be angry." Blake moved closer to Gan's bed. "Do you know why I'm angry, Gan?"

Blake had worked himself up to a good rage; the deep timbre of his voice was both compelling and menacing.

"I'm angry because last night I thought you had killed Avon. I thought I heard his neck snap. How dare you do that to me or anyone else!"

Gan shifted uncomfortably. His expression seemed mired between regret and resentment.

"Now I don't know why the hell you've been so pissy the last few days, but I'd like an explanation. Yesterday you were complaining to me that everyone had paired off but you. Is that it? Is this a matter of sublimating sexual frustration into violence? Do I need to send you to a brothel to keep the rest of my crew alive and unharmed?"

Heart pumping wildly, Blake's heavy breathing and clenched jaw gave the sound of a snorting bull, inciting violence. The air around Gan reverberated with undispelled anger and impotent rage; the medical unit air seemed super-heated, charged with electrical potential.

"Well?" Blake spat. "I want an answer, Gan."

The sharp sound of two hands coming together split the silence. It repeated. And then again. Blake spun on Avon in fury. How dare the man clap? From the corner of his eye, he saw Gan surge forward in a frenzy that promised physical destruction. If he reached Avon, he might very well kill him.

Cally darted forward and slapped the tranquilliser pad on Gan's forehead before he left the bed. The anger drained from him and he slipped backward onto the bed, deflated and drained. As the tension seeped from the air of the medical unit, Blake was left with the lingering rush of anger-powered adrenaline and the unsettling understanding that he was missing part of the puzzle.

"Avon, what the hell?"

"Simple. You made him angry but you did not incite him to violence. As you said, I apparently have the gift."

Blake sagged into the nearest chair, exhausted by the confrontation with Gan, confused by Avon's actions.

"Last night…are you saying…he thought you were mocking him?"

Avon shrugged and lay back against the bed, paler and obviously more tired than he had been earlier.

"I thought that might be so," Cally answered quietly. "From what we just witnessed, it is likely."

"Although sublimating sexual frustration was a novel theory, Blake, I'm not sure Gan understood it." Avon turned his head toward Orac. "Orac, access the medical computer and analyse biochemical, cardiovascular, respiratory, and neurotransmitter activity and levels of Olag Gan with particular focus on activity within the past ten minutes, from the time of consciousness to the restoration of unconsciousness. Specify any abnormalities."

Grasping at straws? Blake closed his eyes. I suppose while sexual release seemed an easy solution, it's difficult to envision that frustration could overwhelm a limiter. If that were true, the limiters would hardly be useful to the Federation.

"You might have told me, you know." Blake was bone tired and spoke without opening his eyes.

"Yes, but then I would never have realised the depth of your concern for my wellbeing."

"Overstepped his bounds," Blake growled. "Snapping your neck is my prerogative."

Fascinating

At Orac's interest, Blake's attention and hope soared and his eyes opened. He saw Avon's eyes open as well.

Analysis of activity in the previous five minutes indicate significantly higher than normal amounts of the hormone epinephrine

"In Standard, Orac."

Strong emotions, such as fear and anger, cause epinephrine to be released into the bloodstream, producing an increase in heart rate, muscle strength, blood pressure, and sugar metabolism. This reaction, often called the fight or flight response, prepares the body for strenuous activity

"Orac, that is not helpful. It only indicates that he became angry. Please concentrate upon neurotransmitter activity."

I was just coming to that, Avon, if you would cease your interruptions. Simultaneous to the release of significant levels of epinephrine, there was an unusually high presence of endorphins in the region of the brain where the limiter is implanted. Analysis of neurotransmitter activity at the initiation of testing reveals traces of a previously high level of endorphins

"Explain," Blake barked.

Endorphins affect mood, perception of pain, memory retention, and learning. They attach to specific receptor sites in the brain and act as the brain's own natural painkiller

"Are you suggesting a relationship between the high levels of epinephrine and the unusually high presence of endorphins?" Avon demanded.

They appear to be somewhat related but it is impossible to determine causality

"So, somehow now when Gan becomes angry, there are enough endorphins released to regulate the pain of the limiter? Is that your theory, Avon?"

Avon's grin was weary. "It is now. How that is so, I do not have any idea. The endorphins are concentrated in the area where the limiter is implanted, which indicates that it is deliberate. I am not aware of any individual possessing the power to induce endorphin release on command or train the body to release endorphins as an effect of a specific hormone; it is usually triggered by some physiological activity."

"Now what?"

"I could rewire the limiter."

Blake frowned. "When it malfunctioned, you said that was a speciality of neurosurgeons, that you could not do so safely."

"That depends on whose safety is at issue."

"It would seem in your best interest to help me solve this."

Avon gazed at Gan's sleeping figure. "You might want to keep Gan here, though I'm not sure what else we'll learn. His own body seems to be overwhelming his limiter; it's not being done by any external influence that I can determine. I don't know whether this is permanent or not but in the interim it would be wise to monitor his emotional reactions and stimuli."

Stretching, Blake stood and removed the tranquilliser pad from Gan's forehead and let him drift back into consciousness. Blake watched Avon and Cally's heads lean together in quiet consultation. Cally was frowning slightly when they finished.

"I think you should keep Gan away from Avon."

Blake smiled. "I was planning on doing exactly that, Cally, although it would help if you kept Avon away from Gan."

"I will defend myself if again attacked."

Cally's eyes flickered between Avon and Blake. "We're going down to the planet. Fresh air might help his headache."

Avon sighed. "Before I go, Orac, have you made any progress on gathering information on the Eyanyi and the Aphahi?"

Research of local, regional, and Federation databases has not located any data that would indicate the existence of any aboriginal people or tribe with the name Eyanyi

"What?" Blake heard Avon and Cally's voices at the same time as his, with varying degrees of disbelief.

The Beta Cevian historical society lists seventeen separate aboriginal tribes, none of which resemble the name Eyanyi or any derivation of the name Eyanyi. There is no reference to the word Aphahi in any of the databases searched nor any of the aboriginal languages referenced

Avon recovered first. "Orac, I gave you a list of words that Seryn used in her description of the Eyanyi people. Were you able to locate any information on those terms?"

Catalupi is indeed a regional species of feline with a dark coloured coat, generally black. It is primarily nocturnal, carnivorous, and covers a wide territory. The term Beyah is unknown on the planet Beta Cevia, although there are references to its use in the Kiraldian Star System. The term Wudem is unknown on the planet Beta Cevia and the historical society shows no use among the aboriginal peoples. Interestingly, there are also references to its use in the Kiraldian Star System. There are no definitions or details about the phrases Beyah or Wudem as used in the Kiraldian Star System

"She lied?" Blake whispered in disbelief. "The whole story was a lie?"

"Theatre," Avon responded finally. "I must say, Seryn is an excellent story teller. I was convinced."

"No, Avon. That makes no sense," Blake protested. "What about the people we saw? They all resembled Seryn."

"She may be a member of another aboriginal tribe. Why she used the term Eyanyi, only she can say. You can ask her about it; my attempt gave me a headache." With grudgingly accepted assistance from Cally, Avon quietly exited the medical unit.

Blake sat in silence, in thought. I don't understand any of this now. He heard Avon's demand through the commlink for Orac to teleport them back to Beta Cevia. Blake roused himself and peered at Gan. Poor bugger seems as confused as I am. Time to act the commander.

"Gan, I don't know or care what your relationship is with Seryn. My only interest is that you hit another crewmember based on statements that she made and that you did not give him even a chance to answer. You injured him and might have killed him.

"If your recent behaviour abnormalities are due to sexual tension, which cannot be satisfied at camp, I will make special arrangements to teleport you to a city with appropriate accommodations. I expect you to notify me if this is the case, as I am not a bloody mind reader!

"For some reason your body is overriding the limiter which means that you'll need to be especially careful and avoid any potentially frustrating situations. Combined with your recent abrasive behaviour, this concerns me. For his safety and for your own, I order to keep your distance from Avon. If you have a problem that affects the Liberator or its crew, I expect you to notify me, not resort to physical violence. Do I make myself clear?"

Gan nodded, but his sullen attitude had been replaced by obvious gloom. Hell, I'm the commander not a cheerleader.

"Good, let's go back down to Beta Cevia and try to enjoy the rest of this leave."

2.1.24 4.5

The camp was not designed for holidays; its furniture was strictly functional. As they were all accustomed to making do with the materials at hand, lacking lounge chairs, the bathers chose to carry some of the beds to the edge of the lake.

"This is wonderful, I never want to go back." Cally stretched her body on a bed. "No one is shooting at us, the food is real, the air is fresh. When we're too hot, we jump in the lake. When we're chilled, we lie in the sun."

Jenna leaned forward, pulling her sticky back from the bed. The sheets were sodden from the perspiration that dripped from her body. I hope we've some extra sheets. I wonder whose bed this is.

"You're beginning to sound like Vila. What happened to the Auron warrior?"

"She's a ground warrior, dirt and rock under foot, sky above."

Jenna laughed. "You can have your mud and rain. Space is much cleaner."

"Yes, but most of our activities involve going planet-side, so we have the risks without the pleasures."

Jenna eyed Cally speculatively; the other woman was in deadly earnest. I wonder if she's thinking of leaving Liberator. She could certainly find a place within any number of resistance groups but… To her surprise, Jenna felt a pang. I'd rather that she not leave. I'd never call her friend, but we need her, Blake needs her, she keeps us in balance.

"Tell us about your adventures, please. We've heard rumours, but they can be unreliable."

Shaw's request seemed sincere and Jenna was loath to put off someone who was essentially her hostess of this lovely holiday. Still, reliving any of the past year was something better left to nightmares. She applied another layer of sunscreen while answering.

"It's not all that exciting. We've raided and destroyed a few Federation bases, rescued some people, transported members of the resistance. The glamour evaporates quickly when it's the third time that week that someone is shooting at you or at your ship."

Cally began laughing. "No wonder then that we haven't more recruits. Join the Liberator, become a target is somewhat off-putting as a slogan."

"You're looking for recruits?"

Jenna caught Cally's eye before replying to Nesbitt. "Blake is always interested in enthusiastic supporters of the resistance. Are you interested?"

Nesbitt turned serious for a moment and Jenna blinked. It was as if the young woman could turn off the brightness of youth and assume a more mature demeanour at will. Perhaps I've underestimated this one.

"No, I'm not personally. I was thinking about some of Seryn's people. They've no love for settlers and even less for the Federation."

Cally pulled herself to a sitting position and wrapped her feet underneath her body. "Liv, you've known Seryn for a long time, haven't you? I find her fascinating."

"She is, isn't she," Nesbitt replied breathlessly as she too sat up. "I've known her since I was five. I think she was fifteen or sixteen then. She worked in my father's store until one day our cook suddenly quit. Seryn won the job and she stayed until I was nearly twenty."

"You mentioned her people," Jenna prodded.

"Yes. Well, you heard a bit about them the night before last…no, three nights ago. The Eyanyi are so spread out that their culture, their way of life, is being lost. Seryn is determined to reunite them, to restore their honour, and their importance in this world."

"Another crusader." Jenna's voice was flat and she forced her mouth into a smile to compensate.

"Yes, actually I think that's why she spoke about them that night. She's usually reluctant with strangers but I imagine she felt a kinship with Blake. He has a cause. So does she."

"Blake is one of many," Cally said. "He is very visible because of his past and because of Liberator, but there are many who oppose the Federation. Does Seryn work with an existing group?"

"I think that she does but I really don't know." Nesbitt seemed a bit saddened. "She's very private about her activities with her people. I've asked her if I could attend some of their gatherings, and she's always promised that I will another time. As much as I've known her nearly all my life, I think that I'm still Beyah to her."

Cally pushed her hair from her face. "Are the Eyanyi a large presence in the cities?"

Shaw remained silent and Nesbitt flushed. "I don't know. There are many aborigines and I cannot differentiate between the various tribes."

"What about Seryn's family or friends? Surely you've met some other Eyanyi through her."

"I think her family is dead. She never speaks of them and as I said, she's very private about her friends."

"Ara, how does her desire to rebuild the Eyanyi civilisation fit within your plans to oppose the Federation?"

Although Shaw's eyes were closed, Jenna had seen the infinitesimal tilt of Shaw's head towards each speaker and knew she had been actively listening.

"Quite frankly, the business leaders will not support efforts in that vein. Personally, I do not believe that those of Eyanyi descent will rally to Seryn's cry. They've been integrated to such an extent into Beta Cevian society that I cannot see them giving up modern luxuries to return to the woods."

"I don't understand."

Jenna contained a smile. Cally's deliberate disingenuousness allowed for more probing and direct questions than any other manner.

"Ara, what you said sounds as if your group will not support Seryn's goals to unite her people. Why then, does she work for you?"

Now Shaw sat up as well, mimicking Cally's pose. "Please don't misunderstand. I don't oppose what she hopes to accomplish, nor does Lorin. Our twin goals are to keep the Federation from influencing our government and to resist any attempts at occupation. In this, all Beta Cevians must be united. Seryn supports both of these goals."

Nesbitt picked up as Shaw finished speaking. "Seryn's people have already been dispersed by the influx of the settlers. A Federation take-over would destroy any chance at a united Eyanyi civilisation. She cannot undo what has been done, but she is determined to prevent any further damage."

How would you know this since you've never met any other Eyanyi, Jenna wondered.

"I would like to speak with her about this, Liv. In the worlds we've visited, we've seen many leaders uniting their people against the Federation. Perhaps some of their tactics would help Seryn."

Jenna pursued her lips and closed her eyes to keep her amusement to herself. Yin and yang. The idealist almost by necessity must be balanced by a realist. Blake and me. Cally and Avon. Why does Cally care about Seryn's cause or is she just curious about the lack of any reference to the Eyanyi people?

"I'll approach her when she returns but please don't be offended if she chooses not to speak to you. Seryn is committed to her cause, but very private."

"That's hardly helpful," Jenna blurted. "How can she rally her people if she works in secrecy? Any type of activity like that requires a strong leader, someone with whom people can identify."

"Such as Lorin Boulis, you mean?" Nesbitt said with a teasing glance at Shaw, who coloured prettily.

"Or Roj Blake," Jenna said with a smile. "A charismatic leader is more convincing than any logical argument or appeal to common sense."

Shaw's blush had changed to a frown. "Liv, you said when Seryn returns, I didn't realise she had left camp. Did she tell Lorin?"

Jenna observed Nesbitt's reaction. Irritation; I'd guess she resents being treated as Seryn's keeper.

"I would think she did. She left shortly after the men."

"Presumably not for the same purposes," Cally quipped.

"Gods, that's embarrassing. I shan't be able to look Gan in the eye for fear of laughing." Nesbitt shook her head, red curls tossed to and fro.

Grow up! What do you think men do when they have a bit of leave? At least we don't have to pay though sometimes that's the better option. You get exactly what you want and no surprises.

"I doubt you could look him in the eye in any case," Jenna said. "By the way, where has your lovelorn fool wandered to? I thought he went in search of a cold beverage but that was some time ago."

"He'll turn up." Nesbitt seemed unconcerned.

"And our resident catalupi?"

"In a foul mood when last seen," Cally sighed. "He has a devil of a headache and he's best left alone. I hope Vila hasn't gone in search of Avon."

"Dinner will be late tonight as we're waiting for the brothel party to return. That leaves more time for us girls," Shaw said with a broad grin. "Now, let's share tips. Do you prefer a handgun or a pararifle?"

2.1.25 4.6

The resident foul-tempered catalupi was sticky, irritable and questioning his own irrational urge to follow Seryn when she slipped from camp. While life was rarely logical, humans and humanoids were generally predictable in Avon's experience. When they lied, especially when it was a large elaborate lie, it was for good reason.

He had been walking for at least two hours, keeping Seryn at a lengthy distance, just within eyesight. He had passed the area where Jenna and Cally had picked berries at least an hour previously and assumed Seryn was making for the camp of the primitive people.

The heat of the day and his ever-present headache left him mildly nauseous and occasionally dizzy. This is the height of crass stupidity, Avon. I already know that Seryn lied. It is possible that following her might provide an explanation, but it's more likely that it will only raise more questions. Is this a mystery that I must solve? Does it affect me, or anyone from the Liberator, in any way? Perhaps. Vila's animal bite and Gan's irrational behaviour might be connected with Seryn's mysterious people. On the other hand, neither is life threatening, nor is there any direct link to Seryn or the people that Blake and the others saw.

I've invested two hours already; it would be foolish to turn back now.

2.1.26 4.7

A whole day wasted. An investment in crew safety and physical well being, Blake corrected. Still, it would not have been my choice to spend most of a day in Fauru, especially the penultimate day of leave. It might be any city, anywhere. Hot, sticky, crowded with extraordinary pungent smells, people living one atop the other with no room for individual space.

Though Gan is embarrassed, he seems more at ease. Our usual leave allows each to seek his own pleasure. Perhaps I limited the crew. I hadn't considered that expending sexual tension might be an important aspect of leave. Hiding in the woods hardly provided the anonymity or selection of Fauru. Jenna and Shaw seemed remarkably indifferent to the prospect that Boulis and I accompanied Gan. Well, it's not as if we actually accompanied him in that way, but we could have done so.

Boulis led the way into an alley, an empty space from which they could disappear. Orac operated the teleport, bringing them briefly to Liberator and then deposited the three men back into the mountains of Beta Cevia. Even if his eyes had been closed, Blake would have known his location. The strong scent of pine from the forests that surrounded the lake blended with the lingering wood smoke from their nightly fires. The air was crisp and clear and it was gloriously quiet. He drank in the sounds that drifted up from the lake, soft rustlings and birdcalls. The camp itself was empty.

Boulis smiled and unclasped his teleport bracelet. "That's a lovely way to travel. I wish I could travel the planet like that. Imagine the ability to meet with business leaders in Faura in the morning and in Barkt in the afternoon!"

Blake accepted the bracelet back. "It might seem less tempting when you realise that it would act as an invitation to the Federation. They want the teleport technology as much as they want Liberator."

Boulis raised his hands in mock surrender. "In that case, I'll pass. I imagine some of our group is gathered lakeside. Shall we?"

Blake glanced at Gan, but already sensed the answer. Gan appeared enormously uncomfortable with the idea that the others knew where he had been and why. He muttered an excuse or two and headed quickly towards his cabin. Blake sighed in frustration as he followed Boulis towards the lake.

2.1.27 4.8

Avon stirred, limbs tangled and trapped in a perspiration-soaked sheet. Blinking, he looked around his cabin. It was nearly dusk and the heat of the day had relented. The ceiling fan, suspended from the centre beam, sent a cooling breeze down onto his now-freed limbs. He shoved the twisted sheet to the side and stretched leisurely.

He felt wonderful. The decadence of a late afternoon nap brought rare contentment and an effortlessness that spread through loose muscles and lazy limbs. He sniffed, detecting a strong hint of sweat and a musky odour. He was sticky and in need of a shower.

Avon kicked past his scattered clothing with only a hint of curiosity. I'm usually neater than that. He was approaching the small bathroom attached to the cabin when the front door opened. Avon dashed into the bathroom as modesty suddenly awoke from its lazy nap.

"Avon?"

Avon stuck his head out of the doorway of the bathroom in response. Blake appeared tired and uncomfortable. He'd likely want a shower, but he'd have to wait unless he goes to Jenna's cabin.

"We were wondering where you were."

Blake slammed the front door behind him and began stripping off his grimy clothing. Belt, tunic, shirt in rapid order and then boots, socks, and trousers

"Well, now you know."

"How's your headache? Cally was a little concerned about you as she hadn't seen you most of the day."

That was odd. When had he seen Cally last? Avon rubbed his eyes, but things seemed hazy as if he was still half-asleep. He was sticky and languid, as if he had just been with her.

"I'm fine. Just going to shower; be out in a minute."

The stall shower was small and it was all too easy to smash one's elbow while soaping. The blessed cool water poured through Avon's hair, onto his face and chest, waking him and washing away surface impurities. He carefully soaped his entire body, each limb, his groin, torso, neck and back, feeling the clean penetrate, cleansing more than simply his exterior. He was made human again, clean, crisp and ready to face the others.

Towelling off, he finger-combed his hair into a resemblance of its normal look and squinted in the mirror to determine the necessity for a shave. Ah hell, it's holiday; I'll do without. Draping the towel around his waist, he waved an arm haphazardly as a signal that the shower was Blake's.

"Dinner is late tonight. Apparently Seryn was off visiting friends."

Blake's tone was indifferent but something caught Avon's attention. There was something he wanted to tell Blake. He frowned in concentration, but as he heard the shower water pounding against the wall, he shrugged. It would wait.

His clothes were filthy and redolent of that heavily musky odour that he had washed clean in the shower. Avon tossed them in the laundry basket in the corner of the room and fossicked through his remaining clean clothing, emerging finally with black trousers and shirt. Hardly holiday gear but perhaps appropriately formal for their last night in camp.



2.1.28 Chapter Five

2.1.29 5.1

"I saved this wine for our farewell dinner," Boulis announced. The hand that clasped a glass of wine swooped about dangerously, spilling blood red drops on the tablecloth and on his own cream coloured shirt. He grinned, a charmingly decadent grin. "We have nearly twelve bottles so there is no cause to worry."

I definitely see politics in his future, Blake concluded. While the resistance leaders of his acquaintance welcomed an excuse to celebrate, they hardly did so with nearly a case of twenty-year old Zepharian relemer wine. Already four bottles uncorked and breathing on the sideboard in addition to the two Seryn had used to pour. We might need all of tomorrow to recover.

Gan seemed to have overcome his embarrassment and Blake felt a surge of affection for his crew and Boulis' people, all of whom were treating Gan exactly as they had before, though Blake noted that Avon was careful with his barbs. Nesbitt was entertaining that end of the table with an amusing story of how she became involved in the resistance. Blake lost track of the tale after the third fiancée and a long diversion into how she was distantly related to Boulis through her maternal grandmother's second cousin.

Their previous meals had not been arranged but to Blake's amusement tonight Shaw was acting as hostess and each of them were seated rather formally with Blake to Boulis' right and Cally to Boulis' left. Shaw was seated at the other end of the table and whimsically it appeared as if she headed the children's section while Boulis headed the adult. The conversation around Boulis, from Blake, Jenna, Cally and Avon was muted and polite, while that around Shaw was effervescent and boisterous.

I resent feeling as if I'm an old man, Blake thought resentfully and signalled for more wine. He caught Avon's narrowed glare and noted his empty glass, seconds before Boulis did so.

"The wine is not to your liking?" Boulis was astonished.

"I rather enjoy…" Avon began.

"He cannot drink with a concussion," Cally murmured quickly.

Oh hell, sleeping with Cally must sometimes be like sleeping with Mother Knows Best or the nurse from school.

"I've always wanted to sample that particular year," Avon said calmly. "I think I shall have some."

On the other hand, sleeping with Avon must be akin to sleeping with a near constant truant, always challenging if not outright breaking the rules. Blake looked to Jenna to change the subject, but Boulis and Avon had begun a spirited discussion of wine. Instead he turned his attention to the appetiser, which was artfully arranged but resembled no food he had ever seen. A taste or two convinced him that it was purely decorative and he waited impatiently for the main course.

Boulis rose to retrieve and open more of the wine and Cally used the opportunity to quietly share what she and Jenna had learned earlier.

"Could Orac be wrong?" Blake wondered.

"Highly unlikely," Avon said quietly. "It's more likely that the phrase Eyanyi is meant to mislead…" His words trailed off and he touched a hand to his forehead. "I'm fine," he muttered to Cally's instant ministrations. "Perhaps a glass of water."

Cally stood to fetch some water and disconcertingly swayed. She quickly grabbed the edge of the table to steady herself and then sat again. "I suppose I don't have a head for wine."

Alarmed, Blake turned and looked around the table. The swift motion of his head left his eyes swimming. He closed them tightly until he felt steady and opened his lids carefully. Everyone seemed perfectly fine, although most were leaning onto the table in a particularly undignified manner. How many bottles have we already had? Six? Among nine of us?

"Jenna?" he asked fearfully.

"I'm a bit dizzy." Jenna sounded short of breath and she was perspiring. "I've only had two glasses of wine; it's never affected me this way."

The sound of glass shattering in the kitchen silenced the table and all heads swung around. Shaw's eyes narrowed and she stood to investigate. She took two forceful steps and then fell to the ground.

"Something wrong with the wine?" Blake asked, trying to blink away his confusion.

His hands and feet began to tingle and gradually became numb. This numbness spread up through his arms and legs. Poison? Cally was trying to rouse Avon who was slumped face down on the table but her movements seemed awkward and clumsy. Leaning against the table, Blake watched as the others gradually began to sway in their seats, struggling for control. The only who seemed unaffected was Gan.

"Gan?" Blake called. "Are you all right?"

"A bit dizzy, but I think it's not that bad. What shall I do?"

Blake's answer was swallowed by Seryn's entry. She was followed closely by a group of men. It's the men from the woods, he realised in amazement, though they're not in animal skins or rags now. Seryn spoke to the men quickly, pointing rapidly at people around the table.

"Thank God, Seryn!" cried Nesbitt. "I think we're all sick. It must have been the wine!"

Blake felt two strong sets of arms pull him to his feet and watched as two other men wrested Avon from Cally's protection. What is the pattern? Who is she selecting and why? Blake fought to remain focused. Shaw, one of them is picking up Shaw. Ah there, Nesbitt and Vila, just as Avon predicted, but why the rest of us?

The two men holding him up propelled Blake through the door to the outside. The fire burned still but it had not been fed in some time and had evolved from the bright orange flame to the hot red glow of embers. It leant an eerie light to his escorts, both of whom were smaller than he, standing less than shoulder height. Blake tried to pull away from their grasp. To his horror the orders from his brain were ignored, his arms did nothing, felt nothing. They've immobilised any resistance; we cannot fight them.

2.1.30 5.2

The path was familiar, Avon thought as he was dragged along. The men with guns seemed in a hurry; though he was being dragged between them, Avon was gasping. Running was one thing, this another entirely. He stumbled and fell, using the precious seconds to gasp at air before he was roughly hauled to his feet and pushed forward. Bastards!

Without hands to brush them aside, low branches and vines thwacked into his face. In the dark, at this pace, he could not see them, found no way to avoid them. What is this? What did I miss? Orac said there is no Eyanyi, indicating Seryn lied. I was a fool to assume that meant there was no danger. The unexplained incidents and the marks on Vila and Nesbitt were real enough, even if the Eyanyi were fabricated.

He was blinking constantly. The combination of blood and sweat dripping into his eyes limited his vision and compounded the thudding inside his head. There was a glow ahead. Fire? This is familiar. I know this place. Yes, this is where I hiked yesterday. Was it just yesterday? Chest heaving, he stumbled into a clearing. This wasn't here yesterday. There's the rock, but someone has cleared the brush away. His escorts relented and slowed to a walk.

The clearing is at least fifteen metres in diameter. Why so large? Do they intend some type of ceremony? He watched as Vila and Nesbitt were dragged to the rock and deposited there. So I was correct that they were singled out; it usually feels better when I'm right. Why am I here? Why did they take Shaw and Blake? There's a small bench in front of the rock. That wasn't there yesterday.

Seryn arrived and began shouting directions. I wish I understood what she was saying. He was dragged towards the centre of the clearing and deposited roughly on the ground. Blake lay to his right, Shaw to his left. Avon tried to sit up and was frightened when he couldn't move his arms or legs.

"I can't move either," Blake called quietly. "They've drugged us, immobilised us."

"Any idea why?"

"I was hoping you might have thought of something."

Avon lay still, heart pounding as he tried to calm his breathing. Whatever the drug is has not affected respiration and circulation, at least not yet. How was it administered? That's obvious.

"If I hadn't had that wine…damn it! I hate being helpless!"

"I thought of that already. If you hadn't had any wine, they might have hurt you. Seryn apparently knew whom she wanted. Shaw?"

"Unconscious, I think." Avon closed his eyes. Why? Why the three additional people? We were not marked in any way. How did Seryn select whom she wanted? "I drank less than half a glass."

"With a head injury. It clearly affected you more quickly than it did the rest of us. I drank at least two glasses. One bit of good news: Gan wasn't as affected as the rest of us."

"Marvellous. My life is in the hands of the man who tried to kill me last night."

2.1.31 5.3

Cally was sprawled forward on the table, conscious, but unable to sit upright or even lean upon an arm. She focused inside her mind, demanding that it somehow overcome whatever drug was inhibiting movement.

"Cally?"

She opened her eyes, fighting an urge to scream in frustration. Her face lay on her appetiser plate, part of it upon the appetiser. It smelled strongly of vinegar and black pepper; her nose itched.

"Jenna?"

That voice again. Gan? Cally struggled to concentrate. She could see Jenna on the other side of the table in a similar sprawl. There was some movement at the other end of the table, someone struggling to rise.

"Gan?" she called weakly.

"Oh Cally, thank the stars you're all right. Those men are gone, Seryn too."

"Gan, can you move?"

She saw the form rise and stumble; heard it collide with the sideboard.

"Yes, I'm up. I pretended to be out so they wouldn't know I wasn't as affected as the rest of you."

"Do you have your teleport bracelet with you?"

I cannot believe I didn't wear mine. Blake told us to keep them on at all times in event of an emergency.

"No." Gan sounded abashed.

"Jenna? Do you have your bracelet?" Cally demanded.

Jenna's eyes opened slowly but remained unfocused.

"Teleport bracelet!" Cally insisted. "Gan, check Jenna's wrist."

She heard rather than saw Gan crash into the table. Wine glasses fell, red wine ran across the tablecloth, its fumes intoxicating. Oh no, that's what got us in trouble. Suddenly Gan was next to her, reaching across the table and grabbing for Jenna's arms. Luckily Jenna had listened to Blake, perhaps the only one of the group. Gan took the bracelet and put it on his own wrist.

"I'll teleport up, get some more bracelets and be right back." He seemed suddenly more confident and Cally was grateful to place their fates in his hand. "I'll get you up to the medical unit and get Orac working on some type of antidote."

"We don't have much time. We don't know what she's going to do…" Cally trailed off, unwilling to consider Seryn's plans. "Please hurry." If any of what Avon had feared was true, but why did she take the others?

He was gone and back again before she completed her thought. Gan fastened a teleport bracelet around her wrist, another around Jenna's. The air on the Liberator was cool and vaguely chemical after that near the lake. Cally immediately missed the smell of pine though not the smell of vinegar or pepper. She longed to clean her face as Gan half-carried, half-dragged her to the medical unit. Sprawled on a medical unit bed but unable to begin any of the testing, Cally was nearly crying in frustration by the time Gan returned with Jenna.

"Hurry, Gan," she urged. "Please hurry."

He began running blood scans and then left to retrieve Orac. Teleport, Cally thought. Teleport Avon, Blake, and Vila. Why didn't I think of that already? She waited impatiently for Gan.

"Teleport!"

Remarkably he understood her. "I tried Cally. Someone must have removed their bracelets, if they were wearing the bracelets. It was the first thing I tried when Orac brought me up."

We must compensate for this drug somehow. Gan cannot go after them. Anyone alone would have difficulty; his limiter would make it impossible.

2.1.32 5.4

The fire burned steadily between the rock and where they lay. Blake had landed on an angle, allowing a view of Seryn's activities and his companions. He watched as Seryn tossed a bundle of dried sticks upon the fire. Immediately it began pouring forth a thick smoke. The smoke was enveloping, its smell strong, and Blake's head began to sway as he inevitably inhaled it. Some type of incense? Another drug? He felt the edge of his panic recede and fought to keep it. No, I don't want to die complacently!

Vila and Nesbitt lay upon the rock, unmoving and apparently ignored for the present. The men that had accompanied Seryn in her raid upon the camp ringed the circular clearing. Armed muscle or do they have a role in this…whatever this is? Seryn was chanting, gazing into the fire. I don't understand this. Cally said that Seryn was trying to reunite the Eyanyi. Is this some type of ceremony to accomplish that goal?

A hand touched his shoulder and his instinctive reaction to flinch occurred only in his mind. He could not pull away from this stranger. Blake's eyes shifted from Seryn and the fire to the woman who now knelt beside him. She was one of the ones we saw berry picking! Except that now, like the men, she was dressed in normal clothing, or at least clothing that I would consider normal. Gently she began to remove his tunic. Blake's panic returned. He glanced at his companions and noted that Eyanyi women were also removing clothing from Avon and Shaw. Neither of them seemed able to resist.

As the woman bent over him, loosening his trousers, her hair brushed his naked chest. Blake caught his breath. Arms and legs he could not feel but his torso remained unaffected by the drug. That long braid swept back and forth as she worked, an electrifying touch. I suppose it would be too much to hope that whatever Seryn wants is sexually related, he thought wistfully. The women were efficient. All too quickly he lay naked and defenceless in the clearing. Suddenly the evening seemed cold and the fire all too far away.

"The smoke," Avon rasped. "Some type of psychostimulant."

Brilliant deduction, Avon; now what are we supposed to do about it?

"For Seryn, not for us."

Blake returned his gaze to Seryn and it seemed Avon had a point. The woman seemed energised and euphoric. His eyes wandered to the men who ringed the clearing. They too seemed affected, their previously fierce faces had gentled, were smiling and soft. Smoke rises; we're lucky to be on the ground, less affected that way. Well, I suppose that concept of luck is relative.

Suddenly the Eyanyi women, the berry pickers he still labelled them, returned. Blake gazed up at the woman who hovered over him. She was the same one who had removed his clothes. She held a pail in her hand and balanced it carefully as she knelt beside him. Dipping her hand in the pail she cupped some type of paste and smoothed it into his chest. It stung; hot paste against chilled skin and Blake winced. The woman continued, her fingers rubbing circles onto his torso, her palm smoothing the paste, covering the naked skin. She worked quickly, each handful deposited before he was ready, as he was still rebounding from the previous sting. Gentle hands painted his torso, his shoulders, arms, groin, and legs with this thick pale paste. The burn faded slowly; as the paste cooled it became less irritating. She never once looked at his face or met his eyes.

"Why?" Blake asked.

Her eyes moved upward, past his face, above his head and her quick hand drew lines of paste on his cheeks and forehead. She turned and left without answer.

Blake turned his head back to his companions. Avon and Shaw were covered in paste and each lay still.

"Avon!"

Avon's eyes opened slowly and his head turned. "Headache," he answered flatly.

"I think Seryn may give you a permanent cure if we don't come up with something soon."

Avon opened his mouth and then hesitated. "Blake, I'd like to accommodate you but I cannot move."

"You have to! You had less wine than I did, than Shaw did. You were affected quickly but you should recover more quickly. Your body should metabolise it faster."

Avon squinted as if he was considering the logic of that statement. "Perhaps you could wield your great powers of persuasion on Seryn. Create another follower for your cause and save our lives simultaneously."

Blake wanted to spit he was so irritated. "Fine, go ahead and die. I'm going to try to fight."

Avon's eyes turned toward Seryn and the rock, and Blake's gaze followed. Seryn was standing at the edge of the rock, facing the lake, chanting loudly in a strange tongue, but it was not Seryn that drew their attention. Beyond her the lake churned, waves splashing against the rock as if it were rough seas. In the midst of the spray a vortex was forming in the air, water and air spinning together at speeds his eyes could not comprehend. As he stared, the funnel grew in size until it was nearly a metre wide and three metres tall. Surprisingly the air around the fire seemed unaffected by this mini-tornado which hovered just in front of the rock as Seryn's voice strained against the noise of the vortex.

Blake glanced at Avon, hoping for a scientific explanation. Some hope! Avon's face was rapt, his eyes slightly narrowed but moving constantly. Blake had seen that look before; Avon was assessing for understanding and danger. Hell, I thought that any sacrifice to the lake would involve tossing Vila and Nesbitt into the lake. It never occurred to me that the lake might come up and get them.

Blake looked around the clearing. The armed men knelt, heads bowed, facing the lake. Blake heard a quick intake of breath and glanced back. The funnel was moving toward them, following Seryn as she slowly took large backward steps.

Blake wanted to stand, wanted to back away from this thing. Every instinct in his body screamed for movement.

Seryn halted, standing in the clearing just in front of the rock. The funnel hovered over the two still forms on the rock, its cone tracing a circular pattern around Vila and Nesbitt.

"Vila!" Blake breathed. "Do something! Don't just lie there!"

It was difficult to see Vila through the veil of swirling water. Blake could see that Vila's eyes were open, staring ahead, unblinking. Blake felt a sudden spasm of fear for Vila. Avon was right; I should have ordered Vila to the Liberator. Perhaps that would have aborted this entire…whatever this is.

"What are they doing?" Blake demanded in abject frustration.

"Look. Nesbitt." Avon's response was clipped, to a degree greater than Avon's norm.

Peering through the wall of the ever-shifting funnel, Blake saw no motion from Nesbitt. Her arms and legs remained still. Her head, like Vila's faced upward, eyes open and unblinking. Wait. What was…yes, something is moving. Nesbitt is growing? Her stomach is growing…

"She's pregnant," Avon breathed.

Well yes, Blake thought, she might well be, but she showed no signs of pregnancy while swimming in the lake. Yet her stomach kept growing, expanding, as if, somehow, all nine months of gestation was happening before their very eyes.

"A new life form," Avon sighed, as if in understanding.

The funnel continued swirling its circular pattern around Vila and Nesbitt. Nesbitt's stomach enlarged until it seemed impossible for it to grow any more. A new life form, Avon said. Whatever Seryn's doing involves bringing forth life. She wants that baby; that baby that was barely an embryo if I'm guessing correctly. Christ, if Vila's fathered this child, and apparently he did or he wouldn't be up there, it's barely more than a fertilised egg!

The Eyanyi women returned and surrounded the three painted captives in the clearing.

Nesbitt's scream refocused Blake's attention on the rock. Nesbitt screamed again and Vila stirred. Moving as if sleepwalking, he went to her side. Vila knelt next to Nesbitt and began stroking her hair. His lips moved as if he was speaking but no sounds emerged. The funnel had cocooned them. She's in labour. Nine months of gestation in less than ten minutes and now she is already in labour. What is capable of doing this?

Seryn turned and began chanting again in that strange tongue, but she now faced away from the funnel and towards the clearing. Her face was blissful, incandescent with joy. Blake was drawn to her, entranced by the sounds she uttered, bewitched by the fierce light in her eyes. What is it? What is so powerful that it speeded up the very development of life? In the background, behind Seryn, Blake saw a glow. It's backlighting Seryn, radiating around her. No! It's the funnel. The funnel had light within it. It's glowing, becoming brighter. Blake winced and attempted to pull away from the brightness.

Blake isolated a phrase in Seryn's chant. He heard it repeatedly, offered prayerfully with devotion: wudem. That was the name she had used for the planet of Beta Cevia. His head ached, aural assault from the noise of the funnel and Seryn's chanting, had been joined with a steady sing-song from the group of kneeling warriors. Think, Blake! Obviously she worships Wudem, but it is not this planet. Orac found that phrase in the Kiraldian Star System. What do I know about that system?

Seryn shouted and Blake's head jerked, drawn to her figure almost unwillingly, unable to see anything but Seryn, hear anyone but Seryn. She spoke in Standard Terran. So that we can understand, wondered Blake?

"Wudem is once. Wudem is again. We serve you, in past, present, and future, through time and space my beloved. It is time.

"We welcome our beloved. In assumption of imperfect form we will offer it the keen sight and spirit of the eka so that Wudem lives in the realm of the spirit. Eka has great heart and soars above the lowly ground creatures. We offer our beloved its courage and its ability to see beyond."

One of the Eyanyi women stepped forward and began placing long white feathers tipped with black upon Shaw's arms. She carefully covered both arms and then arranged more upon Shaw's chest. Shaw never moved.

Damn it, she must have hit her head when she fell. Seryn's voice rang out again when the Eyanyi woman finished.

"We welcome our beloved. As it assumes imperfect form, we offer it the knowledge of the catalupi. Catalupi can move through time and space, unlocking mysteries and seeing that which is hidden. We offer our beloved its insight, its secrets of lost magical systems and occult knowledge."

Damn, damn, damn! She picked us based on the power animals? How? Why? And what does this mean?

Another of the Eyanyi women stepped forward and gently arranged strips of animal hide on Avon. She covered his arms, legs, and torso. The hide was black, it had been scraped only on one side and the catalupi's fur covered Avon's frozen form.

"We welcome our beloved. As it assumes imperfect form, we offer it the rebirth of the snake. Snake experiences the transmutation of the life- death-rebirth cycle that restores the wudem. The power of the snake is the power of creation; it embodies reproduction, sexuality, and ascension. We offer our beloved this, the most essential of energies, the energy of wholeness, consciousness, and transmutation."

It was the same woman again; the one who had removed his clothing and painted his body. Now she carefully placed narrow strips of golden- coloured snakeskin on his body. To Blake's immediate embarrassment, she began by placing the snakeskin around his groin, wrapping it about his penis. It was stiff, as if he was covered in some type of resin. Life- death-rebirth, yes, I understand, Blake thought but he closed his eyes. The woman placed the snakeskin on his chest, over his heart and on his face. His arms and legs remained uncovered. The woman was finished and Blake opened his eyes and turned them to Seryn.

Seryn was singing. Yes, that's singing. She is celebrating. Somehow whatever she is doing is bringing her something –whatever wudem is. Blake watched numbly as the funnel behind Seryn faded, the water just evaporated and there was a swirl of air that seemed to rush between Nesbitt's legs. Vila? Thank heavens, Vila is still alive, Blake thought. Then Vila was holding a baby and Blake heard the baby's cry.

Vila was holding a baby, but it is not a baby anymore. It is twisting out of Vila's hands. It's growing, as rapidly, no, more rapidly then the unnatural gestation period. It is a girl, now a young woman, a shapely attractive woman with unnatural eyes. Seryn was kneeling before this young woman. Blake's eyes flickered around what he could see of the clearing. All of the Eyanyi were kneeling, prostrate before this woman, this child of Vila and Nesbitt.

2.1.33 5.5

It's taking too long, Cally wailed internally. Even with Orac's assistance, it took ten long minutes to identify the drug and another brutally long five minutes to synthesise an antidote. As Gan injected her, Jenna, and then himself, Cally fought off panic. Seryn might have killed them already. I don't know where they are.

"Zen," she cried suddenly.

Gan smiled and moved to the commlink. Activating it, he nodded at Cally to continue.

"Zen, have sensors detect concentrations of life forms in a radius of thirty kilometres from the point from where we just teleported."

Confirmed

"You're very capable in a crisis, Cally."

Cally tried to move her right arm. She felt a tingling sensation but it did not obey her brain's commands.

"Gan, help me. Push my arms and legs back and forth, I'm starting to feel something."

Gan towered over her, but he reached down gently. A massive hand encircled her right wrist and pushed the arm upward, bending at the elbow. Up and down, as if he were lifting a weight, in an exercise routine.

"I think that's helping," Cally said in excitement. Or perhaps I just want this, or anything else, to help. "Can you do both arms at once?"

"Hey, what about me?" Jenna protested.

"Gan, can you reach both of our gun arms?"

Information. Sensors detect largest concentration of life forms within parameters specified at co-ordinates 531 by 811, ten kilometres northwest of the point of last teleport

"Zen, set those new co-ordinates into the teleport!"

Teleport co-ordinates set

"Gan, Jenna and I will go down directly to where they are, to where we think they are. You can get to Boulis and give him the antidote."

"I can do that now, Cally." Gan was frowning. "I'd prefer to come with you when you're ready. My limiter is a bit unpredictable right now. I may be able to help."

Cally glanced quickly at Jenna.

"I'm getting feeling in my right arm, enough to begin exercising my left," Jenna answered. "Go down to Boulis now, Gan, but remember to save the teleport co-ordinates that Zen just set."

2.1.34 5.6

This new person, this figure to whom Seryn knelt, raised her arms and Seryn came to her feet as if the arms had pulled her upward. The young woman – wudem? – spoke to Seryn in a strange language. Avon compared it to that he had heard previously. It was very different, very strange, and for some reason its guttural, clipped quality evoked something long dormant, cobweb covered and ancient.

Seryn bowed to the young woman and then turned and shouted a single command. As the Eyanyi men began to stream forward, Avon watched Vila return to Nesbitt's side, kneeling next to her, one arm around her back. He seemed a steadying presence but after that small bit of movement, both Vila and Nesbitt remained still, as if frozen.

"Avon!"

Blake's hoarse whisper pulled Avon's attention from the rock. The Eyanyi men now surrounded them, one on each side of Shaw, Avon, and Blake. Avon glanced up; the men towered above him but their faces were fixed on Seryn and that strange young woman. If I could move… Avon concentrated, urging his limbs to co-operate, he felt movement and grew excited until he realised he had only arched his back.

Two men lifted Shaw, one holding her shoulders, the other her feet. They carried her gently, slowly, towards Seryn and the young woman. The white and black feathers moved gently in the breeze from the lake but did not fall.

Avon's heart began pounding, each second slightly faster, slightly harder. Now we'll know Seryn's plan for us. Vila and Nesbitt are all right, or at least alive. She did not sacrifice them to the lake, to the Aphahi. Perhaps Seryn's ceremony is not as dangerous as I had feared. Then again, nothing is what she said it was.

The men placed Shaw very carefully on the bench that was perpendicular to the rock. Shaw's head was at the rock, her feet near the fire. As the men stepped away, each retrieved a bundle of sticks and tossed them on the fire, building its intensity and size.

Dry-mouthed, Avon watched Seryn as she stepped away from the young woman. This child of Vila and Nesbitt is not human. It obviously required a new life form to emerge and it took human form, but whatever inhabits that body is clearly alien. Perhaps not alien to Beta Cevia, but unknown to me. Orac said Wudem was a term found in the Kiraldian Star System. Is it from there? If it existed purely in a spiritual or energy form before taking this new life, what is Seryn's role? Clearly she worked to bring it to life in a concrete form, but is she of the same species? Does she also only occupy a humanoid form or is that thing controlling her?

Seryn stood to the left of the bench on which Shaw lay. Though her body was turned towards Shaw, her face was fixed upon the young woman. Wudem, for lack of a better word, Avon decided. Wudem inclined her head slowly and Seryn began speaking.

"We give joyous thanks for the return of our mother, our sister, our daughter, our beloved. We ask your forgiveness for the many, many years of darkness. In your honour we offer up to you beauty and strength as a measure of our devotion. We offer the protection of animal spirits to complement this imperfect form."

Avon continued trying to move his limbs. He swore steadily in frustration and watched Seryn with increasing anxiety. The flames of the fire, which lay between him and the bench, danced higher, intermittently eclipsing Seryn and Shaw. Firelight glinted off the bright blade as Seryn raised it above her shoulders. If he had been religious, Avon might have said a quick prayer; instead he swore viciously as Seryn's arm dropped. She buried the blade in Shaw's chest and wrenched a cry of agony from the unconscious woman.

Avon's eyes met Blake's. Blake is trying to look brave and confident to encourage me. It's not working. It never worked on me, Blake, and it's certainly not helping now.

Shaw's cries continued unabated. Seryn's knife carved a path, opening Shaw from the hollow of her neck to her abdominal area. Her task finished, Seryn wiped the blade in Shaw's golden tresses and placed it at the feet of Wudem. She bent over Shaw and though Avon strained, he could not see what Seryn was doing.

Suddenly Seryn stood upright, holding a flattened bowl in both hands. Avon squinted. In the dark, in the flickering firelight, the bowl might have been constructed of anything: wood, rock, glass, ceramic. It was a dark substance, holding a dark substance. Seryn handed it to Wudem and then bowed.

"We offer our beloved this life, this strength, this beauty. Drink deeply of the spirit of the eka to bring its protection and guidance to you. Eka will guide you, help you to soar above the lowly ground creatures, lend its courage and its keen sight. Accept this, our gift to you."

It's blood. It's Shaw's blood and that thing, that Wudem is drinking it. Avon's breathing bordered on hyperventilating; wouldn't it be wonderful if I passed out right now. Oh shit, I'm going to die. Not someday, not intellectually, but right now! They are finished with Shaw; I'm next. It's perverse to be killed by something so primitive.

His eyes shifted toward Blake's again and this time read fear. Yes, you're afraid; well, I'm fucking terrified. They're going to kill me now and then you afterwards. Some way to die, eh Fearless Leader? I have no ideas, no brilliant plan to stop this from happening. I can't even move my arms!

"Which god was it?" he croaked. Bastard, my voice sounds shaky. I don't want to be this scared, but I don't want to die. There are so many things I have planned, expected.

Blake's face was blank and Avon was breathing too rapidly to repeat his question. He closed his eyes as a man's hands slipped under his shoulders; another grasped his ankles. Open your eyes. Don't die in darkness. He stared at the sky, at the star configuration that had gradually become familiar over the past six days. Somewhere up there, Liberator glides in stationary orbit.

Orac, the greatest computer in the galaxy, what are you doing to save us now? So far you've been an unlucky piece of machinery. Ensor's son, the doctor, and then Ensor himself; all dead. Now us.

A shudder shook his body as his naked neck, back and thighs touched the cool rock of the bench. I expected it to be sticky from Shaw's blood, but it's not. Odd how little things stand out now. His arms hung limply down towards the ground. He begged for some sensation, some strength to return to them; felt nothing. The soles of his feet were scorched by the heat of the fire.

Seryn was moving to his side. I don't want to die. Oh God, I'm afraid. With force of will, his eyes remained open, staring upward at the stars. I've travelled a long way from a life sentence on Cygnus Alpha. I've had more than a year of freedom. I wish I could be grateful for that but I want so much more. He saw the silver blade slicing down towards him, heard its rush of air.

The force of its impact sucked all of the air from his chest and then pain spread like a fire, like a burning virus running through his blood. Mouth open, he gulped at the air. It, too, burned as he sucked it in. Everything faded except the pain. He lived in the pain. Pain was a place, and he floated it in as it devoured him.

Something dragged downward, pulling at his chest. Avon sobbed as the pain intensified. How can it increase? It's already consumed everything. I have been ripped open, I am being ripped apart, turned inside out. Oh, please, let it stop, make it stop.

There were voices above him, something pressing against him, but nothing mattered. He curled up, mentally, into a ball whispering prayers and begging for an end to this. Finally, the pain lessened. Avon felt it slip away, leaving its echo, leaving in its wake a residue, but like the tide, it gradually receded. He could see it retreat, the fierce red colour dissipating, its brightness draining away until finally there was nothing remaining except its echo.

Avon felt the ache; it came with him and seemed a part of him. Gradually he realised that the voices around him had faded and he no longer felt the cold rock pressing into his spine. It was cool and dark and quiet and pain began to seem a memory. Why was I afraid? This isn't frightening. He was moving but it was not clear if it was up, down, sideways, or in any particular direction. He sensed his movement, a change in the air or his context perhaps, something elusive in the total darkness.

A glimmer caught his eye. Something golden and flickering, just out of reach. It seemed above him but he wasn't falling down, just away from it. It became stronger, assumed a shape: a golden tendril, long and twisted and dangling down just out of reach. Avon strained for it, arms fully extended. It brushed his hand but slipped away. It felt warm and familiar. In frustration he threw himself forward and his right fist closed around one curl.

Avon sighed as he dangled from this golden tendril. Somehow it seemed a lifeline thrown to him. But where was he and who had thrown him this assistance? He twined both wrists around this lifeline and clung to it. He buried his head against the tendril and inhaled a familiar scent. I know this, it's safety, it is trust.

The lifeline had slowed his movement but gradually Avon became aware that he was still moving. It's coming with me. Should I climb it? He shifted one fist above the next, intending to climb upwards, but realised to his horror that each grasp pulled the tendril towards him. It's not pulling me out; I'm pulling it down with me! I don't want to let go. If I don't let go, I'll pull this down. I cannot, I will not pull anyone else down; I cannot do this. Cally, please understand.

He released his grip on his lifeline and slipped into the dark.

2.1.35 5.7

Cally stumbled and cried out in anguish. Gan reached for her before she fell. She came up white-faced and trembling. They were so near that she could hear Seryn's voice. It was just beyond those trees; the fire burned fiercely.

"Hurry," she whispered hoarsely. "Blake."

Jenna's look was strange but she increased her pace, outstripping Cally and Gan. They burst through the trees, too frantic to attack tactically. All three opened fire somewhat indiscriminately; anyone they didn't know was by definition dangerous.

Cally's eyes scanned the clearing quickly. This wasn't here yesterday. Seryn stood between the blazing fire and a rock. A young woman, a stranger that looked familiar, stood on the rock facing Seryn and behind her, Vila huddled with Nesbitt. Cally saw Seryn's hand rise, saw Blake lying still on a bench before Seryn; Cally screamed Blake's name as she opened fire. The blade flashed down. Seryn followed it, slumping over Blake's motionless form.

Jenna howled something unintelligible, firing steadily at the men who had raided their farewell dinner less than an hour before. The seconds were elongated, decades passed before the Eyanyi resistance was overcome and Cally could move forward.

Jenna stalked toward the rock, her eyes glowing and her mouth set in a fierce scowl. Cally thought that no more dangerous animal had ever stalked these woods. The strange young woman was pushing Seryn aside, searching for something. Cally saw her swing round, hand wrapped around the handle of a blood-covered blade. Jenna opened fire, and fired over and over again until the young woman fell back onto the rock.

Cally moved past Jenna, breaking into a jog as she passed the fire. She saw Avon's body, mangled and bloody, tossed to the far side of the bench. He lay near Shaw's equally torn body. Cally knew before she reached it that his body was lifeless. Kneeling, she tilted his head back, opened his mouth and began forcing air back into his lungs.



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~As I said, everything happened very quickly. Now I had heard Blake tell the story about meeting a group of savages in the forest but honestly, I thought he imagined it or something. I'm not much for forests myself, and it's easy to see things in the shadows between trees and shrubs, especially at night. That's one of the reasons I stuck to the lake myself. Anyway, when the men appeared my first reaction…well, I'm loath to admit it. I was pretty put out with Nesbitt. You see I wanted to head back to our cabin – it was our last night together -- and she felt it was necessary to pretend to be social. If it weren't for that, we would have been safely away from the table when the men with guns showed up. Everything after that's a bit of a blur. The next thing I clearly remember was standing on this rock, facing out into a clearing. There was a baby, but she wasn't a baby. It seemed in just seconds she had grown through at least two dozen visible stages. All I knew was that she looked just like my sister Val and somehow I knew she was my daughter. I stood there staring. I couldn't take my eyes off her. I'd always wanted kids and I never knew they'd be this beautiful. The next thing I remember after that is when Jenna shot her.

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2.1.36 Chapter Six

Blake woke with a start. There was no slow drifting upward as he had experienced previously, just a sudden and near instant shift from unconsciousness to consciousness. His eyes snapped open and he said the only prayer he knew when he recognised the medical unit of the Liberator.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you…"

He might have gone on murmuring it for quite a while but Jenna had heard him and called his name.

"Blake! Welcome back. You gave us quite a scare, you know."

Blake blinked. I feel as if I missed the last half of a vid-film. Would someone please fill me in? Avon? He glanced around the medical unit and the euphoria that had filled him upon recognition of his surroundings fled. He was the only patient in the medical unit. Grief settled in his chest, a dull aching heaviness.

"Tell me everything, Jenna."

"I'll give you the details another time, when you're fully yourself," she said judiciously. "The highlights

are that we're very lucky that Gan either drank very little wine or was less affected than the rest of us. He was able to get Cally and me to Liberator to counteract that drug."

Jenna began moving about and Blake could sense her frustration and her restless energy.

"It took far too long to identify and counteract the drug. Ten minutes to identify it, five to synthesise, and at least another ten before it was effective enough for us to move. Blake, if we were five minutes earlier, ten minutes sooner…"

"It's all right, Jenna. I knew that you were trying, that you were doing every possible to reach us." Blake said the words automatically. Yes, it's true and I do believe it but just now I don't feel strong enough to really mean them.

Jenna had allowed herself that moment of weakness. She visibly squared her shoulders and ceased her pacing. Blake watched her sadly, wondering what that strength cost.

"Avon's in stasis. He was clinically dead when we reached him. Cally revived him twice; once on the planet and again when we got him to the medical unit. Even with all this equipment we were losing him again; we didn't have enough blood or the time or expertise to save him. Stasis was his only chance. We'll need to find a surgeon, an expert, Blake. Seryn ripped him apart."

Avon's not dead; there's still a chance. The grief lifted, though worry slipped into its vacancy.

"I'll do whatever it takes to save him, Jenna. The others?"

"Seryn stabbed you but Cally killed Seryn before she could do any more damage. Shaw was dead; I suppose we could have tried to revive her, but it was Shaw or Avon. Nesbitt and Vila were both pretty traumatised. Vila won't speak with me," she sighed. "I was hoping you could speak with him."

"Did you get any answers? All I know if that Seryn somehow had brought this thing to life, but I don't know what it was or where it came from. What was Seryn? Why did she choose us"

"I know less than you do. All of the Eyanyi were killed. Cally shot Seryn to save you. That stranger, the young woman, is dead; I killed her. Vila said she was his daughter, which I don't understand."

So we don't even know why? Despair weighed in heavily on him

"I'll talk to Vila, Jenna. Thank you for all that you did. You saved my life."

She smiled briefly. "You should thank Gan. Without him, both you and Avon would have died, and I don't know what Seryn would have done to Vila and Nesbitt."

"You know what I meant," Blake said more insistently. You, Cally and Gan saved us."

"Cally was hit pretty hard, Blake." Blake's head tilted in puzzlement and Jenna continued. "I think she was in telepathic contact with Avon when he died. She won't talk about it." She sighed. "Gan was able to shoot the Eyanyi, fight, do whatever he had to do as if he didn't have a limiter. He could do all of that up until the moment I shot that young woman, Vila's daughter. Then he tried to fire the gun and couldn't do it. His limiter kicked back in somehow."

Blake exhaled. I can't reason it through right now. If Avon were here, he could do it. Somehow that thing must have been affecting the endorphins in Gan's brain.

Jenna gave him another wan smile and then went to seek Vila. Blake was pleased to see she had left him Orac.

"Orac, I want you to analyse the physical area in and around the lake which we knew as Aphahi for evidence of intragalactic flight, specifically from the Kiraldian Star System. I also want to know as much as possible about that system. Wait, before you do that, I need you to produce a list of the best cryosurgeons associated with neutral planets, independent planets, or with the resistance. That's top priority."



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Oh, I suppose grief fades and you might think that it was foolish of me to even grieve in the first place. It wasn't as if I even knew her but she was my daughter and it tears me up inside to think that she might have been my only child. I've always wanted children, you know.

In retrospect, we realised that the thing, as Jenna called it -- Cally calls it the Wudem since Blake explained a little of what happened -- probably influenced us, inspiring much of the passionate coupling. It needed a foetus, a new life form to assume. It's not as if any of us needed much convincing, certainly not Jenna since she'd been trying to bed Blake since day one. Since then though, it seems almost painful. Jenna and Blake are rather tentative with each other, and naturally Cally can't even touch Avon. Nesbitt and I both survived a brief trip to parenthood, but I couldn't quite maintain the same enthusiasm afterwards. I hope she's doing all right. She's a lovely girl, you know, and she was easily as distraught as I was when Jenna killed our daughter. I feel worst for Boulis. The rest of us care for each other and it would have been nice if we stayed together but he really loved Shaw. She was his fiancée; they were the only real couple.

I spent some time speaking with Blake afterward and as much as he's usually talking so much that no one else gets a word in, he sat with me and listened. He really listened, and I think he understood. That's another man who would probably have liked to have been a father but knows he never will. Instead, his Cause consumes all of his passion, except for right now. Right now all of Blake's energy is going to arranging the surgery that will bring Avon back. For all they fought like demons, Blake visits that stasis chamber regularly with longing eyes asking for what he can't reach. I didn't see it happen, but I saw both Avon and Blake afterwards. It still gives me the shudders.

At the time it seemed to be a pretty neat trick. While Seryn nailed the descriptions on Gan, Blake, and Avon, she must have run out of ju-ju power or whatever she used when she described me. Imagine, a hedgehog! I didn't know whether to be bothered about it, having never seen nor heard of the damn animal. Innocence, she said, and the power of faith and trust. We all got a laugh when she said that trust could open doorways – that was on target -- so that others can open their hearts to me. It could have been worse, I suppose. She told me later that hedgehogs are gentle, loving creatures and non-aggressive. They only use their quills when trust is broken. I suppose that's not so bad.

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