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Over the next few days, Avon prepared several hundred innocuous-sounding coded messages with a different code tag on each one. The only one of consequence contained ORAC's command frequency. No point in using the command code thought Avon. ORAC would recognize the frequency number and would respond with the real information to this message only. Anyone clever enough to recognize and use it as a communication frequency would receive no reply because the command code had not been given.
Tess sent the messages to all available public message boxes; each one was sent via a different route and bounced across several communication routing stations so they could not be traced. She was very good.
As they had expected, the Federation Surveillance Division instantly recognized the traffic and flagged them for immediate analysis and decoding but o no avail. The messages meant nothing and the real message among so many meaningless ones, also had no meaning.
The responses came exactly one day after the last message was sent.
Avon and Tess lay back on the reclined chairs in the computer room, he was monitoring as Tess accessed each message box. It was an added security measure in case of traps. They had checked over two thirds of them when Avon made his move, he had already read ORAC's reply to his coded message but he gave no indication of it.
"Tess, " the note in his voice stopped her cold, "don't stop. Act normally, there's something wrong. Continue what you're doing but slowly while I look around."
A few moments later, he spoke again. "It's there, just at the edge."
Tess tuned her awareness in the direction he indicated but noticed nothing. By now, she knew that Avon could see a little further into the network than she could. He had made no secret of it, that was why he was providing additional security as she checked the message boxes.
"I can't see anything. What is it?"
"I think it's a Federation ASP virus. It's been watching us for a couple of days, since you sent the messages, maybe even longer. I couldn't tell for sure until now. It's very clever, it appears as the background noise and it always stays right at the periphery. These security viruses are programmed to report back every few weeks, to avoid detection. We can't allow it to report back, we have to trap it in order to find out what it has found out so far about us."
"What do you suggest?" Tess could not see how that could be done. She had never attempted an offensive move using the bio-interface but in working with Avon the past week, she had come to appreciate and trust his abilities.
"Release me. At least allow me enough freedom to chase it, you can remain tethered and follow every move I make but you need to do everything I tell you to, it's essential otherwise we will lose it."
She didn't have a choice. She knew that she would have no chance but Avon did.
She concentrated and released the links which would allow him to initiate movement on his own. "Alright, it's done."
"Now I want you to make some adjustments to the hand unit." He knew the guards would never allow him to tamper with the unit.
She followed his precise instructions. Sato had been the computer engineer, but she knew enough about circuitry to follow instructions.
"What will this do?" she asked.
"It will give us some added abilities and a place to store our little friend once we've trapped it. Ready?"
"Lead the way."
For the next half hour, Avon maneuvered carefully. Tess followed his orders without question. It was like an intricate game of chess, he had to trap it before the ASP realized it was in trouble and either self-destructed or sent a warning to the control network. The only way to do that was to back it into an electronic equivalent of a corner, but make it seem normal.
In order to do this, Avon had expanded his awareness to it's outermost limits. He knew he was taxing his energy beyond what the drugs were allowing him and physically he was at the point of collapse. Having experienced this point many times in the past year, he knew how much longer he could hold out.
Finally, the trap was sprung. The ASP had a protective mechanism and instantly struck back but Avon had prepared for this, it was one of the modifications he had instructed Tess to make to the hand-unit; it provided a defensive shielding capability of sorts. He countered with the shield and pushed the ASP towards the hand-unit's portal. The shield was too weak to provide effective protection for both of them, it was bound by the limitations of the hand unit. Avon used the shield to protect Tess. Pain blasted his mind as he corralled the electronic virus into the place he had Tess prepare earlier.
"Detach the hand unit now!" he shouted to her as his heart stopped.
"How is he doing doctor?" Jenna asked. Tess had already given them her report of what happened and Argus was questioning her further in a nearby meeting room.
"He's very weak, his heart stopped because he pushed beyond the limits of energy we were allowing him and his mind also appears to have received severe shock from some kind of attack of which I am unfamiliar."
She nodded, Avon had risked his own life in order to save them. He had done that before, on the Liberator but usually he had something to gain as well. She had no doubt that this time was no exception but one thing it did tell her, as with the Liberator group, Avon had judged it more advantageous to help them. A reluctantly helpful Avon had proven very useful for Blake. She hoped that Argus would also see this, sometimes the rebel leader could be very stubborn.
Approaching the door to the meeting room, Jenna heard Tess talking.
"No, I was not able to see the ASP until he cornered it. He has a larger awareness within the network than I have but I already knew that, he never kept it a secret."
"And you didn't see fit to tell us? I had asked you to report if he got past you, " Argus was berating her but inwardly he was kicking himself for not watching them more closely.
"You asked me to tell you if he ever got beyond my control, there was never any danger of that. He couldn't do anything other than observe, the limits were still in place. In the time I worked with him, he never once did anything that even hinted that he was trying to harm us. He always did exactly what I told him to and he never tried to stretch the boundaries of his restrictions."
"But that was different, there was real danger if the ASP had been allowed to continue and to report back what it had gathered. He only asked me to release his ability to initiate movement along the network, everything else was still within my control. I was still linked to him, there was nowhere he could go without my being able to monitor his movements."
"What about the modifications to the hand unit. You said that he was able to use a shield of some sort, that tells me that he was able to initiate action, not just movement."
"Yes, I'm not an engineer but he gave me instructions to adapt some of the circuits to produce an electronic shield of some kind. He was able to control it because it was new, I had not had the opportunity to place limits on it. Besides we didn't have time. Look, Argus, if I hadn't , I would probably be where he is now. When the ASP realized it was trapped, it struck back. Avon used the shield to protect me and he took most of the blast himself."
Jenna interjected, "That's true Argus. Dr Alberay says that Avon has sustained a type of shock, an attack of some kind that he is unfamiliar with."
"How is he?" Tess asked, the concern in her voice was evident.
"The doctor is trying to stabilize him. His heart stopped because he pushed past the limits of the drugs and his system collapsed."
"He must have felt what it was doing to him but he never gave up, never backed off, " Tess said.
Still mistrusting, Argus said, "He knew what would happen if the Federation ever got their hands on him again. He had as much of a reason for stopping the ASP as we did."
"But he didn't need to save me."
"He made a calculated risk that he was able to withstand more of the attack than you. He is trying to convince us that we can trust him, that is all, " he told her.
You are clever Avon. If Tess had been hurt, I would have killed you myself.
Jenna disagreed. "Argus, Avon never needed anyone to trust him and he never trusted anyone; he never hid that. In that respect, he is very straight forward but you are right when you said that he calculates the risk, Blake told me that once, Avon calculates the odds; that is why he stayed with us, it was more advantageous for him to work with us. I think he has made that decision with us and if that's true then we have gained a very valuable resource."
"You mean, he will work for us?" Argus asked skeptically.
"No, Avon will never work for anyone except himself and he does not accept other people's leadership but he will follow out of self-interest."
Argus was getting a clearer picture. Tess trusted Avon and Jenna did not, but was willing to work with him. Avon had maneuvered it skillfully.
Argus was grudgingly inclined to accept Jenna's assessment but with certain reservations. He agreed that Avon was a man who worked the angles and with the state of things the way they were, with the entire universe out for the analyst's head, it was much safer for him to work with them, he had no choice.
I will make sure of that.
Argus still wasn't sure if always having to watch their backs was worth having this dangerous man working with them.
"You realize Jenna, that even if Avon's account of the events at Gauda Prime is the real one, he still killed Blake, nothing can change that. It may have been a mistake but the others will always hold him responsible."
"I still hold him responsible."
"That means that for his own sake, he can never be allowed to go free. The others may accept that we will not kill him but the moment he leaves, he will be free game for anyone holding a grudge."
"He's used to being hunted."
"He will see it as a form of slavery, he will never accept it, he would rather die."
"You have a suggestion?"
"We need to make it worth his while if he is to stay and work with us."
Argus nodded his agreement, "Yes."
"That means that we will have to give him some level of freedom."
Under the doctor's care, Avon recuperated quickly. After a week, he was able to be returned to his cell but this time it was different. The restraints were no longer used and the drug level had been decreased. They were allowing him greater freedom of movement, although he was still constantly under guard.
He was now helping Tess to infiltrate the Federation computer network. He had greater freedom there too and she was following his lead but he was still not allowed to take any direct action on the system..
His calculations had been correct, it was now a matter of how much Sester would be willing to risk with the ASP destroyed. The strategist could put it down to an unfortunate accident, misjudging Avon's ability with the bio-interface but would the progression of the scenario, seemingly in the direction they were hoping for, be worth the risk of losing the ASP monitor. So far it seemed that it was.
Avon had reviewed all of the response messages sent by ORAC. The one he was interested had a single coded sequence. DSVV
It was confirmation that the Federation had risked a simulation that was real enough to allow him access to the genuine communications network. Only the real ORAC would have known the command frequency and the content of the message was the additional failsafe. He had never revealed to anyone his standing order to ORAC to find another Deep Space Vehicle like the Liberator.
This added a new element to his plans, the finding of the DSV had been fortuitous; the problem of retrieving ORAC and escaping had just become easier. But he would have to be careful, the ship would not have his advanced anti-detector screen which prevented anything except close-range visual scanners from discovering it. The Federation must not find the ship. With both the DSV and ORAC, Servalan would become invincible, he could not allow that to happen.
He would lead them to Gauda Prime, it was the next logical step from their perspective. It would keep Sester from ending the simulation. There were many avenues for opportunities to present themselves between Earth and the outer sector, he would be ready.