Winning is the Only Safety (1) First Death

by Kathryn Andersen


The sweet sickly smell filled his nose, his mouth, his lungs. He breathed in the stench of death. He tried to move, but there was a heavy something on top of him; to open his eyes but they were caked shut with... something. With blood? Was he buried alive?

He shoved in sudden desperation at the thing above him, and it moved slowly away. He rubbed at his eyes and blinked. Cold and dark. Night and stars. An edge. A pit. A pit full of corpses.

Buried alive. Buried alive. He nearly had been. They had taken him for a corpse and tossed him in an open grave along with the others, and only the lateness of the hour and the incompleteness of the task had stopped them finishing the job - and finishing him.

His hair stood on end. He sat up. His guts heaved and he added vomit to the smells of excrement and blood around him. He stood up on wobbly legs, and clawed his way out of the pit, away from the slaughterhouse smell. The open grave had been dug by the edge of the trees, as far from the base as possible and still be in the open. Not that there was much open. The base was deliberately buried in the middle of one of the vast pine plantations that covered this part of the planet. Two things were uppermost in his mind; first, to get away; second, to get out of these filthy clothes and wash from the skin out. Then, maybe then, he could afford to think about what happened. But for now, he would walk, crawl if need be. But not go back, not for any reason.


Miles away, the thief whimpered as the flyer wobbled again. He looked at his face in the dim reflection of the window. His light brown hair was thinning. Look what being on the run for years would do to you. His face was open and friendly, as well as nondescript, suiting his profession to a tee. He’d told Kerril that “a thief isn’t what I am, it’s who I am”. Maybe he should have stayed with her.

“Curse you Avon,” he said to himself. “I never thought I’d live to say ’I told you so’, but I told you so!”

He had stolen the flyer even though he didn’t know how to fly it - not as well as the others would have. The controls were fairly simple, but either he had stolen a defective model, or he had the controls adjusted wrongly.

“Use Blake as a figurehead for the rebellion, eh? Just drop in on an old friend, eh? Zukan’s dead, just go to the next one on the list. And we dropped into this hole in the ground, and never came out. Federation agents infiltrated - it was a trap, the whole thing turned into a trap, and Blake was the bait. And he didn’t even know it.”

But a wobble in the flight was better than being caught by bounty-hunters in the woods. He gave off as much body-heat as the next man, and he hadn’t forgotten what Avon said about the bounty-hunters’ heat detectors. Avon. And the others. Not to mention Blake. They were dead.

“Why did you have to kill him, Avon? Oh, I know, you thought he’d betrayed you. But it was that agent! Oh, you stupid idiot!”

He was trying not to cry, running on adrenaline and fear. When it all started going wrong he’d hit the floor and played dead - too much shooting going on for any of those troopers to wonder if any of the bodies wasn't a corpse. Cowardice was his defence, as well as one of his faults. He’d made himself scarce before the clean-up squad had come to sort out the bodies. It was getting dark, they might not have finished before nightfall.

“Why does this always happen to me? I was only ever along for the ride. What kind of choice did I have? Open this door, Vila. Crack this lock, Vila. Go and get shot at, Vila. Shut up, Vila.”

No point hanging around - just pick up Orac and leave. Avon wasn’t going to be needing the computer any longer. He’d apologised to Avon’s corpse when he’d taken the activator key from his pocket - Avon always carried Orac’s key with him, even when he’d hidden the computer itself. After he’d stolen the flyer, he’d tried to turn the computer on, but it hadn’t seemed to be working. Broken. Maybe he could sell the parts for scrap. Or find someone who could fix it. But first he had to get off this planet. He didn’t know where he was running to - he was just running.





He was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. He was still filthy. The black leather didn’t show the stains, but it was stiffening from the blood. The studs on the jacket gleamed dully in the bright moonlight, as he crossed a small clearing. He had not found even a stream to wash in. The figure upon which the moon shone was tallish, and would have scrubbed up into an elegant, handsome man. Short dark hair, an aristocratic nose, and dark brown eyes that had seen too much. His almost forty years felt like a hundred.

He didn’t want to think, but his mind droned a dismal tune to the rhythm of his footsteps. It went: They're dead. They're dead. They're all dead. Then it did a little variation on the theme. It was a trap. You know it was a trap. They're dead. They're dead. They're all dead. They're dead. They're dead. They're all dead. You should be dead too. It had been what he was expecting, and his last ironic grimace had been at the thought that he too would be a companion for Blake’s death, an atonement to make up for his mistake in shooting the wrong betrayer. That their deaths would be linked after all. He shouldn’t have survived. What Fate had laughed and spared him? They're dead. They're dead. They're all dead.

It was almost a relief when he heard the aircar. Doubtless a bounty-hunter who tracked him by his body-heat. He leaned against a tree to wait. What was the point in running? They were all dead. He had nothing. No ship, no Orac - not even its key, for someone had taken it from his pocket - no rescue party waiting in the wings.

The last time he’d had nothing was on the London, being transported to Cygnus Alpha, penal colony of no return. He’d been a different man then. His computer fraud failed, Anna dead by torture (or so he thought then) he still meant to fall on his feet whatever the circumstances; and survive. What had he said to Blake? “An intelligent man can adapt.” And Blake had set off on his mad scheme which failed, but Blake in his usual bumbling way had stumbled into good fortune and they’d made off with the Liberator, the fastest ship in the galaxy, and Blake fought his crusade - until the Andromedan War. Then Blake vanished, a chimera that had eluded him.

Oh he’d adapted all right. Adapted from a cracker to a leader of the revolution. Kerr Avon, wanted rebel. Ha! All idealists were fools. His reasons were purely practical - the Federation wouldn’t leave him alone. His association with Blake had made him a political criminal, and he’d never be safe, and never be free, as long as they ruled. But he couldn’t adapt to betrayal. The last time he’d felt like dying... that cold cellar with Servalan’s gun caressing his neck, and Anna’s body at his feet - Anna who he killed with his own hands, Anna who he would have laid down his life for, Anna who hadn’t died under torture, Anna who had betrayed him.

The flyer had landed not too far away. The carpet of pine needles muffled the sound of footsteps but the bounty hunter found him soon enough. His gun was drawn, and he pointed it straight at the computer technician’s heart.

“What have we here?”

Avon said nothing.

“Had a fight with the missus, eh?” The man laughed at his own joke. He was dressed in brown leather, armedlike a bandit, and a knife was sheathed in one boot. The man came closer, relaxing a little when he saw that Avon wasn’t armed, and raising an eyebrow when he saw the state Avon was in. “Quiet one, huh? Did she tear out your tongue too?”

Avon just stared at him. His heart turned over.

“Or maybe she tore out your heart?” the man tut-tutted.

That was too much. Avon straightened, and dived for the bounty hunter’s legs, knocking him down. The man’s first shot went wild, but he held on to the gun. Avon pulled out the knife from the boot, and stabbed him in the side, just as the man brought his gun to bear, and shot him, point blank. Apart from the pain, all Avon felt was relief.


Vila managed to get the flyer to the spaceport in one piece. He had managed to turn on the autopilot and investigate the interior. His two greatest finds were a map, and a secret compartment containing papers and valuables. It had been no great challenge for his talented thievish fingers. The papers included identification for one Del Green. Well, Del Green wasn’t going to miss them - Del Green was probably dead. And so would he be if he didn’t get off this armpit of a planet. Dead or worse.

But spaceport bars never close, and money can open many doors. Surely there would be someone here willing to take him off planet, no questions asked.


Ricardo Kidd sighed. It wasn’t his real name of course. It was more of a joke, really. On account of his looks, too often he was referred to as ’the kid’ so he decided to adopt it as his current nom de guerre. Fresh faced, pale brown curly hair with a touch of red; the kind of looks that made teenage girls sigh and older women motherly. But it was no help when he wanted people to take him seriously. All they saw was a rich young man, ripe for ripping off.

He cursed the meteor storm that had forced him to put down on this pest-hole of a planet. What with the inflated prices for the repairs, and the port fees, he was running short of acceptable currency. Oh, his credit balance would have made most people’s eyes pop out, but this barbarian planet didn’t accept credit balances - just hard valuables, such as metals and gems. And he didn’t have quite enough to pay what they euphemistically called ’departure tax’, which was really a fee to give safe passage through the blockade. If you didn’t pay, they’d shoot you down as soon as you left atmosphere. He didn’t fancy that, not at all. He had to get cash for the fee.

So he’d put word about that he was willing to take passengers. Passengers who would find a regular route difficult to obtain. But there’d been no takers in the past few days. Maybe he would have to sell one of the swords. Surely not? In this flea-pit there wouldn’t be a collector who would know their value, let alone pay a tenth of what one of them was worth. He’d have to wait a little longer.

He sat in a convenient corner making the nearby potted plant quite sozzled on his untouched beer.

A man approached his table. He had thinning light brown hair and walked small, as if he didn’t want to be noticed, as if this was a habit.

You're Ricardo Kidd?”

“I’m cursed with youth and good looks,” he said, deadpan. “What do you want?”

“I want passage off this planet.”

“And who might you be?”

“Del Green.”

Kidd suppressed a quip about green dells. Most people wouldn’t get the joke, and the fellow looked nervous enough already. Probably on the run. Del Green probably wasn’t his real name, but then again, a lot of his own friends didn’t go by their real names either. The delicate dance of negotiation began. Kidd was going to Bucol-2 ’to look up an old friend’. Half the payment in advance - now - and half on delivery. A pouch changed hands.

“Day after tomorrow - Ryan’s Pride, bay nine.”

They shook hands and “Green” left.


The pine needles prickled his face. He ached. Avon rolled over and looked about him. The bounty hunter was lying on the ground, not far away. It looked as though he’d tried to crawl to the flyer, but the knife wound had been too much for him. Just unlucky. Or lucky, depending on how you looked at it.

But how come he himself was alive? The bounty hunter had shot to kill - at least it felt like it. But all he had now was a pounding headache. Did he miss? Impossible. There was something strange going on.

This was no time to be squeamish. Avon cleaned himself up with water from the flyer. He took the dead man’s identification, and some spare clothing that wasn’t covered with blood. Luckily it wasn’t too bad a fit, though it hung loosely in some places. He was now Ren Perera, bounty hunter. He buried the dead man, adding an unmarked grave to a forest that had held such secrets for many years.

He settled down for the rest of the night in the flyer, snatching at sleep.


The light was red and lurid, wavering like flames. Tarrant stood in his ripped and dusty flight suit, a streak of blood crusting down the side of his face.

“Is it him?” Tarrant asked.

“It’s him,” said Vila, looking merely more crumpled than usual. They were both staring at him.

“He killed us, Blake,” Tarrant said to the third man in the group, a man with curly hair the echo of Tarrant’s, but older, bulkier, with a scar running from one eye down across his cheek. “All of us. Even you.”

“Is it true?” Blake asked him.

“Blake, it’s me - Avon,” he said, moving forward.

“Stand still!” Blake said. He had a gun in his hand.

He stopped still.

“Have you betrayed us?” Blake asked pleadingly. “Have you betrayed me?!”

“Tarrant doesn’t understand!” he protested.

“Neither do I, Avon!”

“I set all this up!” he found himself saying.

“Yes!” Blake rumbled.

He started forward again. “Blake, I was looking for YOU.”

Blake brought the gun around and fired at him. He felt the projectile go though his chest. The pain. Another shot. He kept going towards Blake, and Blake fired again. He stopped, still standing. Blake swung the gun up to his face. His knees buckled, and he grabbed Blake’s arms.


Avon woke up with a shudder. Another nightmare. Blake’s metaphysical revenge, a reversal of roles. The light crept through the flyer windows, giving him an excuse not to brave the shores of sleep again. He started up the flyer and made a beeline for the spaceport.

Avon was hungry so he decided to look for somewhere that was open at this early hour. When he saw the slight figure eating breakfast at the table his numbed mind couldn’t comprehend it. He approached the table like a sleepwalker and sat down.

“Vila,” he said.

The thief went white and tried to jump out of his skin. “You - you’re dead!”



“I expect so,” he said. It all made a sudden crazy sense. “Is this Hell, Vila? They won’t let me die.”

“What are you talking about?” Vila said confusedly.

“I’m talking about this!” Quick as a snakestrike, Avon took the knife from his boot and slashed his left wrist.

“Avon! What d’you think you’re doing?” Vila cried, and went to staunch the wound with the nearest thing to hand - the tablecloth. The cloth soaked up the pulsing blood, turning red on white. Vila frantically wondered what to do next, and tried not to feel sick - he’d always felt faint at the sight of blood, but when your only friend in the world has sudden suicidal impulses, your own nausea somehow takes second place.

But Avon calmly took the cloth away, and when Vila tried to put it back, Avon held him back with an iron grip, and merely said “Look.”

There was something in his voice which made Vila look. The wound had stopped bleeding. Even as he watched, the gash closed up and then even the scar faded away as if it had never been.

“I wondered what might happen,” Avon said hollowly. “They won’t let me die. This is Hell.”

“No it isn’t Hell, Avon, it’s Gauda Prime.” Vila began, filling up the awful silence with words, babbling on as was often his habit when nervous. “I know it hasn’t got much to recommend it, not anything really, but you’re not dead Avon, and I’m not dead either, unless they killed me when I wasn’t looking which is pretty hard to do - I mean if I was dead I’d know it, wouldn’t I? They didn’t kill me there Avon, I swear. I just played possum - I mean as soon as she pulled the gun I knew we were for it, so I dropped, see, ’cause how were they to know I wasn’t dead already - there were enough bodies on the floor,” he faltered, seeing Avon go a little paler. “And if I’m not dead,” Vila continued, “then you can’t be dead, ’cause you couldn’t be talking to me if you were dead and I was alive, could you? Unless you were a ghost I suppose, but then ghosts aren’t solid and ghosts don’t bleed and you’ve ruined this cloth do you know that, Avon?”

You ruined the cloth,” Avon countered.

Vila perked up slightly at this - at least he was getting a response. “H-how did you do that? You haven’t dropped in on any strange basements on the way, have you?”

“No, Vila, I’m not like Dorian,” Avon said wearily. Dorian had used an alien room to prolong his life - an alien room that needed a living occupant to take on Dorian’s corruption. He put his head in his hands. “I don’t know what’s happened to me.”

“We could ask Orac,” Vila suggested.

Avon’s head jerked up. “You have Orac? What about the key?”

“Er, I took the key from your pocket,” Vila admitted. “I didn’t think you would be wanting it any more...” He looked at Avon. “But I tried and it doesn’t work.”

“Of course it doesn’t work,” Avon snapped. “I had to have some sort of contingency...” he drifted off, realizing he had damaged Orac because he was expecting to be betrayed; he had gone into that base too ready to shoot. “Let’s go.”


They went back to Vila’s flyer, and Avon started working on Orac, while Vila went and negotiated another passage to Bucol-2 on Kidd’s ship.

“He’s already seen you, so the risk is already there,” Avon said when Vila complained. “If I were to go, that would be another face he might link up with the Federation’s Most Wanted notices. Go.”

Avon was still working on Orac when Vila returned, unscathed. Vila’s lock-picking tools had proven somewhat inadequate for computer repair, and Avon had done more damage than he’d thought. Finally Orac was working. Avon described to him what had happened.

“Am I hallucinating, Orac? Am I - “ dead? His outburst of that morning seemed quite ridiculous now. The work on Orac had served to steady his nerves, and Vila had brought some food, which settled his stomach. He wouldn’t admit it to anyone, not even himself, but it was good to have Vila there, good that Vila had survived, good that he wasn’t alone.

As for Vila, he kept on staring at Avon, as if to make sure he wouldn’t vanish while the thief wasn’t looking.

“You are clearly not hallucinating, and neither is Vila,” Orac replied. “Therefore we must conclude that these events did occur. Most fascinating.”

“But why, Orac?” Avon asked impatiently. “Why can’t I die?”

“To say you cannot die is jumping to a hasty and premature conclusion,” the computer said fussily. “The only facts of the case are that you have sustained wounds which would normally be considered fatal, and have healed amazingly quickly and completely. There is no evidence that you cannot be poisoned, beheaded, vapourised, or die of disease.”

“Well don’t start experimenting now!” squeaked Vila.

“I was not intending to,” Avon said dryly. “Keep working on the problem, Orac.”

The computer prevaricated, “I require more data - a full physical examination -”

“Is not something we have the time nor facilities for,” Avon interrupted. “If you want an examination, you will have to find us somewhere safe to do it in, as well as the wherewithal to do it. At the moment you will have to make do with finding other similar cases in the records.” He paused. “Speaking of safety, find out everything you can about this Ricardo Kidd. I don’t want to find out Vila’s booked passage with a Federation agent.”

“I’m a very good judge of character!” Vila protested.

“You’re a very good judge of locks,” Avon returned, “at least that’s what you keep telling us.”

There was a brief uncomfortable silence, as they both remembered yet again that the others were dead, cut down by Federation troopers guns in that underground base that had, too briefly, been Blake’s rebel headquarters.

“Ricardo Kidd is the owner of Ryan’s Pride, a modified Mark 12 scoutship registered out of Arrakesh,” Orac informed them.

“What’s he doing on Gauda Prime?”

“His ship was damaged in a meteor storm. He set down here for repairs.”

“Why would he be taking passengers? If he could afford to buy a scoutship, he wouldn’t need passengers - if the ship is really his.”

“The ship is indeed his. He bought it five years ago.”

“With what?”

“I am checking...” Orac said. “He inherited a great deal from one Tan Gordon.”

“A great deal? You can say that again,” Vila said. “Gordon’s old money - I mean old old money.”

“But if he’s that rich, why would he want passengers?”

“Most reputable banking establishments do not have branches on Gauda Prime,” Orac pointed out. “I would surmise that he is short of viable currency.”

“What else do you have, Orac?”

“Further information will require more time to gather,” Orac said. “It will proceed faster if I am not interrupted.”


The next morning Avon asked Orac again.

“Regarding your condition, the closest references would be in the records of a secret society whose name translates as ’those who watch’.”

“Those who watch what?” Vila asked. “What’s this got to do with Avon?”

“They watch those they believe to be immortals, who cannot die, and do not age. The only way they can be killed is by beheading.”

“I’m sure this is a fascinating source of sociological research.” Avon drawled, “but your description doesn’t really match my condition.”

“If you will allow me to finish,” the computer said testily, “these immortals are supposed to live normal lives until they ’die’ by violent means, after which they stop aging, and exhibit other peculiarities.”

“So how many are they watching, Orac?” Vila asked.

“I have been as yet unable to ascertain more than a few.” Orac answered. “They do not appear to keep their records continually available. Even though I can tap into any computer with a Tarriel Cell, I cannot read records if they are not accessible by such a computer,” it said with the testiness of one belabouring the obvious. “Their beliefs are quite interesting, however. The similarity in some respects to the vampire legend -”

“Skip the legends Orac,” Avon said impatiently. “Do you have anything more recent?”

“A Dr. Grace Wilder was working on tissue regeneration before she was seconded to the group which later became the Clone Masters. Their records were destroyed at the time of the Andromedan War. The only chance of recovering that knowledge would be if Wilder escaped the destruction.”

“If Wilder escaped? Surely she’d be dead by now?”

“The original Wilder, doubtless. But the Clone Masters customarily cloned themselves and taught everything they knew to their own clones, so as to perpetuate the original group. If Wilder’s clone survived, she may have the expertise required.”

“Rather a long shot,” Avon remarked. “What about Kidd?”

“Ricardo Kidd does not appear to be a Federation agent,” Orac said. “However there is a possibility that this is an alias. The data on Kidd becomes scarce before ten years ago. His university records are full, but before that there is very little.”

“He went to university ten years ago?” Vila queried. “How old is he?”

“His birth record indicates he is twenty-eight,” Orac replied.

“He doesn’t look it,” Vila muttered.

“It is probable that his birth record was faked,” Orac re-iterated. “Further research... interesting.” Orac remarked.

“What is it Orac?”

“Ricardo Kidd bears an exact resemblance to his benefactor, Tan Gordon.”

“You mean he may be a clone of Gordon?” Avon surmised.

“Well, that’s one way of keeping the wealth in the family,” Vila remarked wryly.

“Should we go with him, Orac, or should we try to find another way off Gauda Prime?” Avon asked.

“Going with Kidd is the optimum course of action at this time,” the computer said evasively.

“Then let’s go.”


Vila grumbled at the weather - grey skies and drizzle. “I’m a human being, not a plant!” he complained as they made their way to bay nine, where Ryan’s Pride was docked.

Avon felt uneasy as they approached the ship; a shiver as if he were too cold even with all his leather on, a queasiness in the stomach. If I were Vila, he thought, I’d think I was coming down with something, and tell the world.

But as they arrived near the bottom of the entry ramp, the sensation became worse. He could feel his hair standing on end. He told his stomach to be quiet. Thunder rolled. Avon put down what he was carrying. A figure appeared at the top of the ramp, stripped to the waist, as if he had been working out. In his hand he held a naked sword, with the ease of one who knows how to use it.

“I am Richard Ryan,” he said. “Do you want to keep your head, or are you looking for trouble?”

“There is enough trouble without fools looking for it,” Avon growled, hand on his blaster. There was no doubt which of them he thought the fool. “I was hoping to find Ricardo Kidd.”

“What did you want him for?” the man said cautiously, coming closer. The rain started pelting down in earnest.

“Ren Perera and Del Green are going with him to Bucol-2,” Avon said, indicating himself and Vila.

“So you’re Ren Perera. No wonder you sent your associate. If I’d known you were one of us, I might not have agreed to take you,” Ryan said.

“But you did,” Avon countered.

Ryan glanced cautiously at the miserable figure of Vila, who was hoping not to be noticed. “I was not aware that I might have to consider my head when I made that agreement,” he said elliptically.

“Well now,” Avon drawled, not willing to be evasive, “I’m not in the habit of killing those I do business with - unless they double-cross me.”

They stared at each other. Lightening flashed, taking an instant snapshot of the two men, rendering them as statues in marble and bronze. Upon the ramp stood Youth, impetuous, muscled like a Greek god, bearing a sword, his pale curls not yet flattened by the rain. Facing him, impassive, dark of hair and pale of face, handsome as Lucifer, was Death in the modern mode, bearing a blaster instead of a scythe.

Ryan finally lowered his sword and nodded. “Neither am I,” he said, turning to go. “Don’t just stand there getting soaked,” he said over his shoulder, “come on up,” and bounded back up the ramp.

Avon and Vila followed.


Richie Ryan piloted the ship off Gauda Prime as soon as he could get clearance. His passengers were settled in their cabins, his sword was in its rack, and he’d changed his wet clothes. No fear of being attacked in space - it was against the Rules. Oh, not the old Rules, but then, there hadn’t been space travel in the old days. And as for Holy Ground, you’d have to be a diviner to find Holy Ground in Federation-held space. The New Calendar...

... said Sunday 15th July, 2660.

“Nothing you can do will make me untrue to my God (my God, my God) Nothing you can say can tear me away from my God...”

Richie smiled. Christian neo-rock. Lovely Wynn had taken his suggestion and run with it, teaching the choir these new-old songs as soon as he’d unearthed the recording and translated it. Whoopie Goldberg wouldn’t mind; she’d been centuries dead. Amazing what a beautiful woman does for ones taste in music, he grinned to himself, looking at Wynn as she directed the singers. At least one thing was going right in these politically unsettled times. The new government was too revolutionary for his taste.

The great double doors at the back opened with a crash. The singers kept on going, but some of the more distractible of the congregation craned their heads to see what caused the disturbance. They didn’t have to wait long to know.

“You are all under arrest!” an amplified voice declared. “Remain seated or you will be charged with resisting arrest.”

The singers faltered in confusion as black-clad troopers trotted up the aisles and stood in readiness.




The leader came up the front and continued, “All those present are guilty of illegal assembly, incitement to superstition, possession of seditious materials, and failing to adhere to the New Calendar. Therefore, in accordance with the powers vested in me by the government of the Federated Worlds, I impound this property and its contents, to be used by the Administration as it sees fit.”

A whisper of song greeted this pronouncement. “There’s not a man today who can take me away from my God.”

“Be silent!” The captain slapped Wynn so hard she staggered.

Ritchie surged forward. “Don’t you know that hurts!” he said, and slapped the captain across the face.

“Ritchee, don’t!” she cried at the same moment.

The captain glowered at him, lip bleeding. “I shall have to make an example of you,” he said, took out his blaster and shot Richie in the chest.

The last thing he heard before darkness claimed him was Wynn’s scream.

When he awoke, the church was on fire. He sat up coughing, eyes streaming with the smoke. He looked around wildly and wobbled to his feet, clutching at the lectern at the front. No one was there. They had all gone, except, perhaps, those who had set the blaze, waiting for their handiwork to be done. But maybe they had no reason to be particularly thorough.

He looked around again, and his eyes set on the book open on the lectern, leather bound, gilt-edged. He was never sure afterwards what guided his impulse - an antique dealer’s eye for what might gain in value, an idealistic impulse to save what some considered sacred, or merely because he imagined Wynn would want him to do it - but he picked up the book, cradled it in his jacket, broke a window, and jumped...

... up to Time-Distort 12. Not a bad ship, his Ryan’s Pride.


“Next stop - Bucol-2,” Vila announced, holding a bottle of some alcoholic beverage native to Gauda Prime. He had carefully refrained from asking what was in it when he bought it. Just so long as it had a kick, he was happy.

“Unless Ryan plans on some detours,” Avon frowned. His encounter on the ramp had left him feeling uneasy. He would have to corner Orac and get more information about their mysterious host.

“Detours aren’t the kind of thing you plan ,” Vila said, determined to be cheerful.

“This whole fiasco wasn’t planned ,” Avon frowned.

“Oh, stop being so gloomy. At least they think we’re dead,” Vila declared. “No more Servalan to worry about.”

“Ah, but she’ll soon have some ghosts to worry about,” Avon said with a feral smile.

“I knew I should have run a mile as soon as I saw you,” the thief grumbled.


Commissioner Sleer, once known as Servalan, regarded the report with a frown. She ought to have been feeling triumphant, but something was nagging ather. She looked at the pictures again. Blake’s base wiped out, and an unexpected bonus - Avon’s crew as well. Of course she would have liked them taken alive, but she remembered her own maxim: while there’s life there’s threat. Avon had proven that time and again - with the Liberator destroyed (she blanked off the memory of it disintegrating around her, her winning hand crumbling into dust) with the Liberator destroyed, he had evaded her booby-trap on Terminal and merely acquired another ship, Scorpio, to harass with. With the Liberator he had been aimless - Blake had been the driving force then. When she had destroyed Avon’s dreams on Terminal, a twist of the knife with a little lie, she had given him a goal to work for; the Federation’s destruction, and her own.

And now he was dead. She felt a little pang, quickly suppressed. What she had felt for Avon was no more than lust - that and respect for a worthy opponent with a mind as devious and intelligent as her own. A pity they had been on opposite sides. Avon was dead, black leather sprawled beside the bloody but blasted Blake. She surveyed the pictures taken by the clean-up squad, mentally ticking off names. Dayna Mellanby, the black girl who thought she was an amazon. No more chances for vengeance over her father’s death. Del Tarrant, all curly hair and flashing teeth. Soolin, the ice-queen assassin. Vila Restal, the cowardly thief.

She stopped. Where was Vila? She paged through the report, looking at the descriptions of the bodies. No-one matching Vila Restal. So the thief had gotten away. But maybe he had never been on the base - maybe he had stayed on the Scorpio. The report had indicated that a planet-hopper had been shot down by the blockade, but maybe it had not been the Scorpio. Maybe it was whole and hiding, with Vila - and Orac. If they had not abandoned ship, then Avon would have had no reason to take the computer with him. But leaving Vila behind on the ship would be an uncharacteristic move on Avon’s part - he would prefer someone a little more reliable as backup.

There was a mystery here. What did she know? Vila was missing, Orac was missing, and Scorpio might be missing. If Scorpio had been shot down, it might be that both Vila and Orac were scattered very thinly across Gauda Prime - or it might not. She had not risen to the Presidency, lost it and started her rise again as Sleer, by underestimating the odds, and this was a risk she could not take. Vila by himself was no threat - except to people’s valuables - but Vila might have Orac, and it was Orac she wanted. With Orac, she could rule the Federation. Its ability to tap into other computers would be invaluable. Find Vila, and she might find Orac.

Very well. Cancel the bounties on the others - they were dead and she didn’t want any false claims - and double the price for Vila alive. He couldn’t tell her anything if he was dead. But his life-expectancy, well, that would be short. Very short. He knew too much altogether.

Vila Restal’s days were numbered.



(To Be Continued... in Refractions #5)


(Revised from the original version which appeared on the HLFIC-L mailing list. This version first appeared in Southern Seven #10, and in Refractions #1)