The small, sleek, white spacecraft made slow progress through the endless space. Anyone able to take a peep inside through the triangular front windows could have seen two men occupying the pair of cockpit seats.
The image on the screen on Supreme Commander Servalan's desk wasn't detailed enough to discern the men. Their spacecraft was easily recognisable though.
Servalan, resplendent in a white dress with wide sleeves and matching collar, sat at the large desk, which was as uncluttered and functional as her conscience. Leaning back in her large, comfortable swivel chair, she was staring intently at the tiny image of the white ship.
A sudden bleeping disturbed her perusal of the screen. Irritated, she activated the intercom.
"The Space Administrators are assembled in the conference hall, Supreme Commander," a harassed voice at the other end announced. "You are eight minutes behind schedule."
It sounded almost as if he was reproaching her.
"I left orders," Servalan reminded him icily, "that I was not to be disturbed. I will not see or speak to anyone!"
"But the conference--"
"Cancel it," she snapped, cutting off his protest. "It will be reconvened when I am ready."
"Yes, Supreme Commander." The man sounded suitably subdued.
Disconnecting, Servalan turned her attention once more to the image on the screen.
"Surveillance tracer transmitting," her desk computer reported. "Computer visualisation of Spacemaster ship is on-line."
* * * * * * *
From the inside of the spacecraft, the cockpit windows provided a splendid view of a red planet surrounded by orange bands of clouds.
"Take a look up there, Maryatt," the man at the controls said, indicating the planet with a nod. His name was Ensor. He was the elder of the ship's two occupants, a stocky man with a square face.
"What is it?" Maryatt, taller and slimmer than his companion, was ill at ease.
"That's the planet Cephlon, which means that we're on course and speed," Ensor replied while punching a string of buttons. "Six more days and we'll be at our destination."
A frown of frustration momentarily clouded Maryatt's vaguely handsome face. "You keep saying 'our destination'. Just where is it? What's its name?"
"You'll find out," Ensor said. "All in good time."
"But why the secrecy now?" Maryatt persisted. "We're on our way. There's nothing to lose by telling me where we're going."
Ensor didn't budge: "Security's become a habit with us. It comes second nature. Because of it, we've enjoyed thirty-odd years of complete independence. That's something we value."
Seeing he wasn't going to get his curiosity satisfied, Maryatt switched his attention to the planet: "Is there anything down there?"
"There was, once." Ensor seemed willing enough to answer questions that didn't refer to their destination, although he sounded a bit distracted. "Yes, once it was the trading and cultural centre for this entire star system. Very important, once."
"What happened?" Maryatt asked.
"War. Reversion to primitive. Nobody's certain if there's any people left down there. At one time it--"
Ensor was interrupted by a loud, continuous beeping.
"What's wrong?" Maryatt felt his stomach contract. "What's the matter?"
Face alarmed, Ensor read a scanner. "We're... we're getting trajectory shift!"
The ship was seized by vibration.
"Compensators aren't holding us up," Ensor said, busy at the controls. The light from the monitor was reflected on the shining metallic bands on his tunic. "Going over to manual. Come on, come on, pull us back," he cajoled the ship. "Come on! Come on!"
The ship kept shifting.
Maryatt tried to fight down his panic: "We're picking up speed!"
"Yes, it's gravity drag from Cephlon." Ensor worked frantically to get the ship back under control. "I must have misjudged and got too close."
Maryatt focused on the key question: "Can you get us out?"
The reply came in gasps: "I'm on three-quarter boost as it is. She's not responding! I'm going to maximum. It's all right..." He was talking to himself now. "It's all right. She's slowing. Compensators beginning to hold."
To his unspeakable relief, Maryatt could feel the ship beginning to steady.
"Come on," Ensor said, "come on, that's my beauty. That's... Come on! Pull us back, pull us back... All right, she's coming back." He heaved a huge sigh of relief. "We're all right."
Maryatt found himself still shaking. "Don't do that too often, will you? I'm a very nervous passenger."
Ensor gave him a brief smile. "I'm a very nervous pilot."
The flash of an explosion caught them nearly in their faces. Flames shot up from the dashboard. The men recoiled, trying to shield their faces.
* * * * * * *
"What's happened?" Blake asked, entering the flight deck. The others were already there, Jenna and Vila in front of the main screen, Avon and Cally at the couch console and Gan at his own station.
"There was an explosion," Avon replied without taking his eyes off the screen that showed the image of a sleek white spacecraft. Of course he couldn't resist giving the others the benefit of his technical insight: "Could have been a power unit burnout."
"Zen located her about five minutes ago," Jenna said, addressing Blake over her shoulder. "We put her on the scanner to run a security check. Suddenly she just went off course."
"Shouldn't we try and help them?" Cally suggested while Gan began to check his console for possible transmissions.
"If they're still alive." Blake raised his voice to address the computer: "Identification?"
"The ship is a Spacemaster, Series Five. Four neutron power units with a maximum thrust of four by six." As always, Zen's voice was calm and precise.
"Does she carry life capsules?" Blake asked.
"Standard equipment specification lists two high-impact, unpowered survival modules."
Avon had kept his eyes on the screen. "She's entering the atmosphere." His voice was as matter-of-fact as Zen's. "Beginning to burn up."
* * * * * * *
In the white ship fierce flames were emitting thick smoke. Ensor was struggling to stand but got thrown down again by the ship's movement. Persisting, he managed to sit up, then stagger to his collapsed companion. "Maryatt! Maryatt!" He began to shake him frantically. This man's life was worth more than his own was - he had to get him to safety! "Get yourself out, lad!" His voice was almost drowned by the roar of the flames. "We must get into the life capsule."
To his relief Maryatt began to respond. Gathering his strength, Ensor picked him up and shoved him into the direction of the life capsules. Then he reached out to grab a box. Almost forgot the microcells, stupid! Stuffing the box into his pocket, he quickly followed the straggling Maryatt to the life capsules.
"Come on, Maryatt," he urged when the other slowed. "You've got to get out!"
And quick! He could feel the ship accelerating under the influence of Cephlon's gravity. In minutes it would hit the planet.
* * * * * * *
On Liberator's flight deck they followed the death struggle of the white ship.
"Navigation computers estimate six minutes to impact," Zen announced dispassionately.
The main screen was now showing the wildly rotating ship against the backdrop of a computer representation of the planet. Suddenly two objects could be seen emerging.
"They've ejected." Blake hadn't realised he'd been holding his breath. "Zen, lock tracers on to those capsules. I want to know exactly where they land."
"Trace locked on," Zen replied.
Traced by Zen's scanners, the life capsules began their descent towards Cephlon. Meanwhile the white ship plunged towards the planet. With a huge explosion it crashed into the surface.
In her office at Space Command Headquarters, Servalan's gaze had not left the screen on her desk. Suddenly the ship's image was replaced by a pulsating square. She reached out to press a button on her computer console.
"Surveillance tracer has ceased transmission," the computer reported. "The ship has exploded."
Smiling, Servalan switched the machine to standby mode. The pulsating square gave way to an image of the Federation logo.
On Cephlon the huge explosion was visible from afar. The inhabitants of the nearby settlement - hardy, hairy, unkempt and dressed in animal skins - abandoned their daily pursuits to stare at the black smoke coming from the site of the impact. From where they stood, the wreckage of the ship was hidden from view by a snowy ridge, but the thick plume of whirling smoke told them that something had come to disturb the monotony of their lives. Something that needed investigation.
* * * * * * *
On Liberator's screen Cephlon showed up as orange with its cloud bands a pale yellow. Blake switched off the image and sat down onto the couch.
"Surface conditions?" he asked Zen.
"The planet Cephlon has a breathable atmosphere with a high oxygen content. The radiation level is in excess of normal tolerance levels, and prolonged exposure could result in tissue damage. Massive variations in temperature levels. Gravity is one point two five G."
While Zen was imparting this information Avon entered, buckling up his gun belt. He was warmly dressed in a silver coloured parka.
"Life forms?" Blake asked while Avon checked his gun.
"There is no current information," Zen replied. "Logic units suggest that remaining life may have mutated through exposure to high radiation."
"None of which sounds very promising." Blake gave Avon a hard stare. "You're sure you want to go down?"
Avon's offer to lead the rescue party had thrown him; he wished he could guess his motive. There had to be one!
Avon's answering stare was vaguely challenging. "Are you afraid that I'll be able to cope with it better than you?"
Which meant he wasn't going to reveal his motive. Could it be a subtle dig at Jenna - a desire to prove himself, now that her reputation was tarnished by having let Liberator fall into the hands of the Amagons? True, Avon had been in that as well - operating the teleport on Jenna's orders - but he'd made no secret of the fact that she had been in charge and therefore responsible for the consequences.
These thoughts racing through his mind, Blake gave a deliberately amused chuckle. "No."
A shadow of affront passed over Avon's face, quickly replaced by a haughty smile. "Well, perhaps you ought to be."
Blake wasn't in the mood for playing games. "Down and back as fast as you can, right?"
Avon put his hands on his hips. "Naturally."
He left the flight deck. Blake rose and followed him to the teleport room.
* * * * * * *
In the teleport room Jenna was adjusting her gun belt when Avon entered with Gan and Vila. Like her, Gan and Vila were wearing the standard surface suits. Trust Avon to want to show his independence by choosing a different attire, she thought sourly.
Cally was already seated behind the console, ready to operate the teleport.
"We're going to have to make this fast." Avon said, moving to the rack and taking a bracelet. Gan and Vila followed his example, the latter looking apprehensive.
Jenna, still struggling to get the belt fastened to her satisfaction, had already donned a bracelet.
"The chances are," Avon continued, "that any survivors won't have come through the landing impact anyway."
"I disagree." Jenna gave him a challenging look. "They may well be alive."
"That's why we're going down." Avon reached behind Jenna to pick up his gloves from the console. "If we run into any kind of trouble, we teleport back up immediately. All right, Cally?"
"Do you know exactly what we're looking for?" Gan asked. "Because I don't think I've ever seen an impact life capsule."
"They're bullet-shaped," Jenna said. "Built to be energy absorbing. Theoretically they could free fall from the edge of the atmosphere onto solid rock without even bruising the people inside."
"Is there a life-support system?" Cally asked.
"Basic respirator," Jenna replied while Blake entered. "That's about all." Satisfied about her gun belt at last, she joined the others in the teleport bay.
"The co-ordinates place both capsules within one square mile," Blake said, handing Cally the data. "We're going to put you down in the centre of the search area."
Cally punched in the data. "Co-ordinates set."
"One of us will stay by the teleport," Blake told the rescue party. "Be careful."
"All right." Avon looked at Cally. "Put us down."
Cally worked the controls. The four began to shimmer, then disappeared.
* * * * * * *
The members of the rescue party found themselves on a bleak, rocky landscape covered with a thin layer of snow. Low, poorly developed trees grew sparsely. Black smoke rose from behind a craggy ridge. The cold made their breath visible.
"That must be the wreck of the ship," Avon said, indicating the column of smoke. "No point in checking it. We'll split up into pairs to search. Jenna, you take Gan and cover that area. Vila, you come with me."
Better keep the one most likely to get into trouble in his sight. Jenna could look after herself and what Gan lacked in brains he made up for in strength.
They began their search. Neither group noticed the native who silently started to follow Jenna and Gan.
It was hard going over the snowy landscape. Jenna led the way. She found it difficult to orientate - all these rocks looked the same.
Suddenly they came upon a strange, gate-like structure set into the rock wall. Jenna drew her gun.
They advanced cautiously. The structure turned out to be a metal door, looking distinctly out of place in these surroundings.
The door withstood all Gan's attempts to open it. Giving up, he scanned the ground. Except for their own footsteps, the snow was untouched.
"No tracks," he observed, while Jenna holstered her gun. "Can't be in regular use, anyway. I wonder what's behind it?"
"Half the hill, probably." No use losing any more time over it, Jenna decided. She touched Gan's shoulder. "Come on, let's go and look for those capsules."
In their haste to leave, neither Jenna nor Gan took the trouble to look back. And so they didn't see the circular panel of the door move sideways, revealing a peephole with an eye behind it.
Very soon they came upon a grey, bullet shaped object which Jenna immediately recognised as an impact life capsule. They hurried towards it.
"Let's get it open," Gan said.
It took their combined efforts, Jenna pulling and Gan pushing, to get the heavy hatch fully open. Inside was a man, lying on his side, unmoving.
Gan hastened to remove the man's oxygen mask, then proclaimed: "He's dead."
Jenna wasn't surprised; the body had that quality of stillness only death can achieve. She pressed the communicator button on her bracelet.
"Avon," came the reply.
"We've found one of the capsules," Jenna reported, "but the man inside is dead."
"See if you can find any identification on the body," Avon said. "Then seal up the capsule."
"Right." Jenna released the button.
At the place where he and Vila had stopped to respond to Jenna's call, Avon lowered his bracelet. "One down, one to go."
The look of apprehension on Vila's face deepened.
Meanwhile, at the place where the first capsule had come down, Gan removed a wallet-sized folder from the dead man's brown jacket. He handed it to Jenna. "That's all there is."
She skimmed through it, not liking what she saw. Federation! Better not alarm Gan. She closed the folder and handed it back. As she'd anticipated, Gan pocketed it without taking a glance at the contents. Nobody could accuse Olag Gan of being inquisitive!
She helped him to close and seal the capsule's lid.
* * * * * * *
Having resumed the search, Vila stayed close to Avon. He didn't like this cold, snowy vastness at all. Give him the controlled environment of an Earth dome! A pleasure centre, plenty of drinks and a relaxing massage by scarcely clad virgins with good legs and--
Vila blinked. Yes, that was a large bullet-shaped object lying in the snow.
"There," he said, then followed Avon who was already running to the spot.
The capsule lay on its side. A few feet from its open hatch, a man was lying sprawled out.
They knelt at his side. Avon put his hand on the man's neck to feel for a pulse and was slightly surprised to catch one. It was very faint, though.
"He looks pretty far gone," Vila remarked.
"There's nothing we can do for him here," Avon said. "We must get him up to the Liberator."
"Will he live through the teleport stress?" Vila asked, as always ready to expect the worst.
"We'll have to take that chance." Avon held out his hand. "Give me a bracelet."
Vila took a spare bracelet from his pocket and handed it over.
* * * * * * *
Walking through the snow in search of the second capsule, neither Jenna nor Gan was aware that their progress was being watched.
Suddenly Gan caught a sound. Dislodged pebbles were rolling down the slope. Gan frowned, he was sure that couldn't have been caused by them! He stopped, motioning to Jenna to wait. On her nod, he climbed up the hill, moving as silently as he could. Reaching the top, he looked down the other side. Nothing. He was about to return to Jenna when his communicator chimed.
"Gan," he replied.
"We found the second capsule, and the man's alive," Avon reported. "We're going to get him up to the Liberator. Stand by for teleport."
"Ready," Gan said, immediately forgetting about the alarm - and Jenna.
* * * * * * *
In the Liberator teleport area Blake and Cally were sitting waiting on the steps. Cally wore a headset from which extremely loud and unmelodious music issued. Head in his hands, Blake wondered whether the din was a typical example of Auronar taste or a sign of Cally rebelling against her people. Whatever, it gave him a headache.
He started as the communicator came to life.
"Bring us up, Cally," Avon instructed.
Cally tore off her headset and rushed to the console. She moved the first set of switches. Avon and Vila materialised, bending over a man in a white tunic with metallic bands, who was lying face down.
Blake rose from the steps and hurried to them while Cally moved the second set of switches and Gan began to materialise. Kneeling at the man's side, Blake asked: "Is he still alive?"
"Just about," Avon replied, feeling for the neck pulse again.
As if in reply, the man began to moan softly.
"Get him to the surgical unit," Blake said, turning to lead the way. Gan took the man's arms, while Avon and Vila took a leg each. None of them had time to spare for Cally, or did even notice that she was still operating the teleport.
The man was a heavy load; Avon and Vila were panting under his weight.
"Easy," Gan said while they negotiated the bend to the sickbay door.
The man began to stir. "Compensators...," he gasped.
"Okay," Gan said to his fellow carriers while they manoeuvred their charge through the door of the medical unit.
"Not holding," the man continued, barely audible.
"All right. Okay." Gan was now speaking to the man as well as the others. "Here we are now." They lowered the man onto the surgical couch. "Here we go."
"Out of the way!" Avon pushed Gan aside and placed a gloved hand on Ensor's chest.
"Okay," Gan reassured the patient.
"Respirator," Avon called. Vila handed him the instrument and he set to work.
His attention no longer on the patient, Gan remembered the folder he'd taken from the dead man. "Oh," he told Blake, taking it from his pocket and handing it over, "I uh... I found this on the other man down there."
Blake took the folder and opened it. Distracted by the sound of approaching footsteps, he put it on a side table.
Cally came rushing in, a look of worry on her face: "Jenna's not back yet."
Vila turned to Gan: "Where is she?"
Avon looked up from his ministrations with the respirator. His voice held a tinge of accusation: "Gan, you were with her."
"Well..." Gan began to feel confused. "She was right behind me when we teleported."
Blake shook off his sudden acute memory of that other time when a crewmember had been left behind. "Cally, look after him! You three, come with me."
He ran back to the teleport room, Gan and Vila following on his heels. Avon handed the respirator to Cally, then went after them.
Blake sat down behind the console and moved the switches. The familiar sound of the activated teleport was not accompanied by a materialisation.
"Jenna," Blake shouted into the communicator. "This is Liberator. Do you read me?"
If he'd had a videolink, he would have been able to see the reason Jenna wasn't responding. She was lying unconscious in the snow, her dislodged bracelet at her side. Two bearded men in animal skins were bending over her, searching through her things. One of them picked up her gun, shook it, then tossed it away.
In vain Blake tried the controls once more. Leaning over the console, Avon tried them with the same lack of result.
"We'll go back down," Avon said.
Blake's stare held all the frustration and anguish this repeat of Centero had brought on: "I think you'd better!"
Something flickered in Avon's eyes. Face inscrutable, he gave Blake a hard stare, then joined Gan and Vila in the teleport bay. Blake moved the switches and they disappeared.
* * * * * * *
"This way." Gan took off at a run as soon as they had materialised. Avon and Vila followed him. They climbed over a ridge, Avon managing to overtake Gan in the descent.
"I left her here," Gan said.
They stared at the telltale marks in the snow.
"The ground's scuffed about," Vila observed, as always prepared to state the obvious. "And there's a footprint - a large footprint."
Something shiny caught Avon's eyes. Squatting down, he picked it up: a necklace of sturdy silver links.
The others squatted at his side.
"That's Jenna's," Gan said.
Avon held up the chain in his gloved hand. "Obviously somebody, or something, attacked her."
"And obviously it won," Vila commented.
"She might have made a run for it," Gan, ever the optimist, remarked.
"She would never have taken off her teleport bracelet," Avon said. "Therefore somebody else must have."
This brought a frown of worry to Gan's face: "Do you think they've killed her?"
"Probably not." Avon was clinging to cold logic. "If they've robbed and killed her, why drag off the body? Why not just leave it?"
"So, she's a prisoner," Vila said.
Gan's face brightened. "So let's find her."
Gung ho, Avon thought. But there really wasn't any other option. He wished he'd taken the time to find some radiation-proof clothing. "We'll do it a lot faster if we work separately."
"Agreed," Gan said.
Avon turned to Vila: "Well?"
Vila looked uneasy, not relishing a meeting with the owner of the footprint. "Bit of a risk, though."
"With the radiation level on this planet," Avon reminded him, "just being here is a risk!"
Gan rose. "Let's get started."
"Unless one of us finds something, we'll meet back here in an hour," Avon said. No comment forthcoming, he went in his chosen direction. Gan had already started on his way. Left alone, Vila cast a wary eye over the landscape, then reluctantly set out, promptly stumbling over a loose rock.
* * * * * * *
In Liberator's surgical unit Cally was busy cleaning Ensor's wounds. On the brink of consciousness, the man was groaning incessantly.
Never one to take waiting calmly, Blake was pacing to and fro. "They should have found her by now."
"They will," Cally said, gently wiping the blood from Ensor's face. "It's just a matter of time. They'll find her."
Idly, Blake picked up the dead man's identity folder and began to look through it. Cally put away the cleaning pad and joined him.
"What about him?" Blake asked with a nod at their patient.
"I don't know. He's in a great deal of pain." Cally indicated the folder. "What's that?"
"Gan found it on the man in the other capsule."
"Who was he?" Cally asked, dividing her attention between the folder and her patient.
"His name was Maryatt. According to his ID he was a Space Surgeon in the Federation Medical Corps." Blake turned over another leaf, then exclaimed: "He's got a double-A security clearance! He's got a pass for any area in Space Command!"
"He must have been very important," Cally remarked. "Anything else?"
"No." Blake closed the folder and handed it to her. "Some pictures, a woman and two children." He walked over to the wounded man. "Let's see if he's got any identification."
Searching through the man's pocket, he came first upon a navigation log. The other pocket held a box. He extracted it with some difficulty. The box was white, decorated with red bands. Blake opened the lid, revealing some small round disks emitting a faint hum.
"What are those?" Cally asked.
"I don't know," Blake said. "They look like micro power cells."
"I've never seen that type before," Cally observed.
A strangled whisper from Ensor broke their conversation: "Help... help... help me. Help me!"
They bent over to him.
"You're quite safe," Blake reassured him. "We've given you something to ease the pain. You're going to be all right."
"Maryatt," Ensor groaned. "What about Maryatt?"
No use beating about the bush, Blake decided. "We found his body. He was probably dead before you left your ship."
The news seemed to hit the man hard. Then, as if caught by another thought, his hand went to his pocket. "Energy cells..."
"They're here," Blake said, speaking slowly and with emphasis. "They're quite safe." He put the box back in Ensor's pocket.
It didn't stop the man's agitation. "M-Must... get to my father. Without them, has only a few days to live."
"Gently, gently," Cally said. "Shhh." She placed her hands on Ensor's chest, trying to still his movements.
"He'll die. Don't you understand?" Ensor grabbed Cally's arms. "He'll die without them!"
"Now stay calm," Cally told him.
"You... you... get to him." Ensor's voice was barely audible. "Please. Promise!"
"We'll do everything we can," Blake said. "Now what was your destination?"
He had to strain to catch the reply: "Planet Aristo."
Blake couldn't say he'd ever heard of it. "Where?"
"Nav... Navigation log... give all flight details you need."
"All right. We'll run it through our computers." Blake opened the log, checked it was undamaged, then closed it again.
"When you reach him...," the man seemed on the brink of collapse, "tell him... Federation have agreed... all terms..."
Blake felt a surge of excitement. It sounded as though they had stumbled upon a Federation deal; any information about such a matter might be of value to him.
"Will pay..." the man continued, "one... hundred million credits for Orac..."
Blake blinked, not sure he had heard the sum right. That must be some deal! "What is Orac?"
"Or--" The word ended in a groan.
Cally snatched up the respirator. "Hand me the spazzer. Quickly."
"He won't take the shocks," Blake protested, nevertheless fetching the instrument that looked like a dentist's drill. "It'll kill him!"
"Without it he'll die anyway." Cally held the respirator to the man's face. "Come on!"
Blake took over holding the respirator while Cally brought the spazzer to the patient's throat. It took three shots before the man resumed breathing.
Cally gave a sigh of relief. "He's coming through."
"That was close." Blake took the spazzer and put it back in its place.
With his consciousness, Ensor's frenzy was returning: "Must... get... started!"
"Yes," Blake assured him. "We'll do everything we can. Now you must relax."
The man didn't seem to hear. "Must go. Now! So little time."
"We will leave as soon as the others get back on board," Blake told him.
That went through. "No. Can't wait. Go! Now!"
"You must rest." Cally brought all her powers of persuasion into her voice. "Shhh."
* * * * * * *
Vila took a cautious peep over the ridge. Seeing Gan already waiting at the meeting point, he hurried down the slope. "Anything?"
"Not a single trace," Gan replied. "You?"
Vila shook his head, then turned on hearing Avon approach. "So what do we do now?"
"Start again," Avon said. Better report back to the others first, though. He raised his arm to speak into his bracelet. "Liberator."
On the ship, Blake and Cally were just entering the flight deck, having left their exhausted patient in the medical unit, when the message came through: "This is Avon. Do you hear me, Liberator?"
Blake hurried to the forward console, dropping the navigation log he'd been carrying onto the couch.
"Avon," he spoke eagerly into the communicator. "Have you found her yet?"
"No." The monosyllable caused a stab of disappointment.
"We're going to start searching again," Avon continued.
Oh, you'd better! Blake tried to keep his frustration from his voice; he was never good at leaving the action to others. "Is there anything we can do?"
A pause, then Avon said: "I'm open to suggestions."
That must be a first! "Well, if you haven't found her in four hours, you come back." Blake exchanged a quick look with Cally. "Cally and I will take over."
"Whatever you say."
"Just," Blake urged, "don't give up on her!"
Surveying the bleak landscape of Cephlon, Avon said grimly: "No. We won't do that - not yet. We'll be in touch." Lowering his arm, he looked at his companions, who stood waiting in uncertain expectation. "Let's get started."
* * * * * * *
On Liberator's flight deck Avon's last words were still ringing when Ensor staggered in.
"Must go," he panted, tottering to the couch area. "Now! If we delay any longer, we'll be too late."
Cally let go of the back of the couch she'd been leaning on and hurried to support him.
"One of my crew is lost on that planet," Blake said, moving to the pilot's position. "Right now finding her is all I care about."
"But... but he'll die if I don't get to him," Ensor protested. "Don't you understand? My father will die!"
Cally took him by the arms. "Liberator is ten times faster than the ship you were travelling in. We will get there in time!"
Her words failed to convince him: "But I can't risk that! We must go! Now!"
"No." Blake's tone was final. "We're staying here for as long as it takes."
Before Cally knew what was happening, Ensor had his arm round her neck. Dropping on his knees, he forced her to the floor. In vain she tried to free herself from his grip.
Holding her down, Ensor drew a gun with his free hand and aimed it at Blake.
"Keep back!" Ensor pointed the gun at Cally's head. "I'll kill her. I mean it."
Cally had no doubt that he would. She kept very still, furious about letting herself be taken by surprise. Her reflexes must have become even duller since her visit to Sarkoff's prison!
Blake, who'd jumped from his seat, stopped his forward rush at seeing the gun being held against Cally's head.
"Now you get this ship started," Ensor ordered. "Co-ordinates eleven, two, intersect five, nine."
"Not a chance!" Blake told him, indignation momentarily overriding caution. "Do you think I'll abandon my crew, leave them on the surface?"
"That's their problem." The man's gun didn't waver. "Now you do as I tell you." Sweat was glistering on his forehead. "Look! I don't want to harm either of you, but I will. I'll kill her, and you." He pushed his gun harder against Cally's temple. "Her first, and then you. Now, don't force me to do it. Now get it started. Now!"
Slowly, unwilling, Blake returned to the pilot's console.
Seeing him still hesitate to start the ship, Ensor shouted: "Do it!"
Gritting his teeth, Blake obeyed.
Liberator, grand and majestic, abandoned her orbit.
"In flight and on your course," Blake reported, silently cursing himself for failing to search the man properly. Or to restrain him. The man's connections with the Federation should have been a warning.
"Check it on your computer," Ensor ordered.
Blake glared at him. "Don't you trust me?"
Ensor raised his head but not his gun. "Computers can't lie. Put it on line!"
"Zen," Blake said, "confirm course."
"Liberator is on flight course co-ordinates eleven, two, intersect five, nine."
"Good." Ensor seemed to relax a bit. But not enough for Cally to try and free herself.
"Are we to stay like this for the whole flight?" she asked.
"I've got no choice. I'm sorry about that."
"The drugs I gave you keep back the pain," Cally said. "How long will you last once they wear off?"
"I'll manage," was the grim reply.
"You'll get tired," Blake predicted, taking over her reasoning. He was getting fed up with the man's hollow apologies. "The pain will start eating into you. Sooner or later you'll lose concentration. It will need ONE second and then we'll take you."
"Perhaps," Ensor said. "But pick that second very carefully," he warned. "Misjudge it, you'll both be dead."
* * * * * * *
On Cephlon, the search party had gathered for another progress report. Or lack of progress, more accurately, Avon reflected. Irritated, he checked his communicator. "There's no signal. No response at all. Try yours," he told Vila.
Vila obeyed with zeal: "Liberator. Blake. Cally. Do you read our signal? Respond!"
With sinking heart they listened to the static.
"Nothing," Vila said, his face betraying his dismay.
"There can't be a fault on both communicators," Avon reasoned. "They must have moved out of range."
"Without warning us?" Gan asked. "Why?"
"I wish we could ask them," Avon snapped, irritated by Gan's superfluous question. "There could be Federation ships in the area, I suppose."
"Meanwhile we're stuck down here," Vila said.
"That's largely academic at the moment." Avon wasn't going to crawl back to Blake and admit defeat! "Let's hope they're back on station when we find Jenna. We'll cover the ground again." He nodded at a slope where short, tough grass was struggling through the snow - the area Vila was supposed to have searched. "In that direction."
* * * * * * *
In the Supreme Commander's office Servalan was once more sitting at her desk. Reacting to a bleep on her intercom, she replied: "Yes."
"Space commander Travis is here."
"Send him in." She leaned over her desk, punching buttons on her computer with an air of deep concentration.
Travis entered. Servalan didn't look up. He went to stand before her desk, back rigid and hands on his back in stiff military manner. Servalan kept ignoring him.
He took longer than she'd expected, before breaking the silence. "You sent for me?"
Still not looking up, Servalan played with her computer keys for some moments more before remarking: "You've lost some of your fire, Travis. Whatever happened to your pride?"
His voice was bland. "My pride, Supreme Commander?"
At last she deigned to look at him. "I ignored you. A calculated insult. You obviously recognised it as such."
"I did." Again the lack of fire.
"And yet you remained silent. There was a time when you wouldn't have taken an insult like that from anyone." She gave him a crocodile's smile. "Not even me."
"True. I want my command back. To get it I'll do whatever's necessary." At last some spirit entered his voice, if not his stance. "If you think my silence is weakness, you mistake me."
"Better," she said. "I was afraid that the suspension and the court of inquiry into your mishandling of the Blake affair might have broken your spirit."
"I don't break that easily."
She gently swivelled her large chair to and fro. "You were expected to resign the service. Why didn't you?"
"I've told you, I want my command back. It's the only way I can catch--"
Uttering an incredulous laugh, she interrupted him: "You really are obsessed with Blake, aren't you?"
He leant forward over her desk. "It's my right."
She rose and moved to a small table against the wall, that held some carafes and a glass. "It's my intention that you should get another chance to exercise that right, and at the same time redeem your somewhat blemished record." She began to pour a drink from a carafe with green liquid. "However, there are more important things than Blake."
"Not for me," Travis hissed.
"More immediate, then." Glass in hand, Servalan turned, elegantly resting her buttocks on the table. "Orac, for example."
Now she had his attention. "Orac?"
"There've been rumours about it for years. A scientist called Ensor has been working on it. Despite considerable investigation, we've never been able to locate him."
Travis was still standing to attention. "And you want me to find him for you."
Uttering a dismissive purr, she moved slowly towards him. "It's no longer necessary. A little while ago, Ensor's son came to see me." She stopped in front of Travis. "His father was ill. He needed medical help and equipment. While he was here, he showed me plans of his father's creation - Orac. It is a brilliant achievement. There is nothing else like it in the universe. And he wanted to sell it."
Seeing him about to interrupt, she raised her voice. "Expensive, Travis. He wants one hundred million."
Taking a sip from her glass, she watched the figure sink in.
"One hundred million?" he echoed. "Are you sure whatever it is, is worth that much?"
"It's worth ten times that much."
She took another sip. "So I agreed to buy it."
His military brain went straight to the point. "Do you have the authority?"
She smiled at him. "No." Then she became serious, briskly getting down to business: "Now listen, Travis! I've told no one of this. Ensor and his father live alone on the planet Aristo. He made it clear that if there was any attempt to take Orac by force, he would destroy it."
"Would he do that?" Travis asked.
"Oh yes." Servalan had no doubt about it. "He thought it through very carefully. He wouldn't even reveal the location of the laboratory until I'd agreed to all his terms."
"A Space Surgeon was to go with him. I sent Maryatt."
The name was familiar to Travis. "How much did you tell him?"
"Only what his orders were." She offered him the glass.
Travis took it. "He's a good man."
But expendable. Servalan moved to a settee and gracefully draped herself into its soft curves. "Maryatt was to remain with Ensor as a hostage until the transaction was complete. I was to get the hundred million, take it in an unarmed ship, and in return I'd get Maryatt and Orac." She produced a beguiling smile.
Travis followed her to the settee. "So now all you have to do is to persuade the Federation to let you spend one hundred million."
"That could take years," she said.
He parked his backside on the settee's elbow-rest. "You have an alternative?"
"Yes. It occurred to me that if Ensor didn't get back in time, then in a very little while his father would die. So I took the precaution of placing a small explosive device in his ship."
Some of the colour drained from Travis's face. "You said Maryatt was on board!"
"Yes, that was unfortunate - but unavoidable, I'm afraid," she quickly added. Who'd have thought Travis would display signs of a conscience?
"Don't you see?" she went on, irritated. "Orac is ours for the taking."
The glimmer of conscience in Travis died out. "When do we leave?"
Satisfied she had him where she wanted, Servalan issued the orders: "Start making arrangements, maximum security. No flight plan is to be filed. When we do leave, it must be in total secrecy. However long it takes, Travis, you must cover our tracks completely. No one must know anything about it."
"Right." He rose and started towards the door. After two paces he stopped. "You're almost as ruthless as I am."
Forget the 'almost'! "You underestimate me, Travis."
"It begins to look that way." He downed his glass and put it on the table with such force it nearly shattered.
"What's the matter?" Servalan asked.
"What about him?" She was genuinely puzzled.
"His disappearance," Travis said. "There may be questions."
Did he think she hadn't thought of that? "In twelve hours I shall have him posted as a deserter."
His face went very still. "And his family go into slavery on one of the frontier worlds."
"It is the normal procedure in a case of desertion." She couldn't see why he would care.
"Of course." Travis moved towards her, touching his eye patch. "Do you remember the medic that saved my life?"
"You're wasting time," she told him.
"It was Maryatt."
She gave him a level stare. "Does it matter?"
He looked at her, then lowered his eye. "No." Then, more convincingly: "No, only Blake matters now."
"And Orac," Servalan reminded him.
He met her gaze, a slight nod recognising her authority if not her priorities. "Right."
* * * * * * *
On Cephlon, despite a diligent search the rescue party was not making any progress - Jenna as well as her abductors seemed to have disappeared from the planet's surface. Yet they kept up a rather aimless patrol, Avon leading at a fast pace with Gan keeping up easily and Vila, slightly panting, making up the rear. A sudden sound made them halt. An object flew past them, landing with a thud in the snow. More followed. The men looked up the hill. Two unkempt, fur-clad men stood hurling rocks at them.
In a reflex Avon drew his gun and fired. One of the men tumbled down the hill. The other dived behind the ridge.
"Let's get out of here!" Avon broke into a run. The others followed. Not too soon, as another group appeared in hot pursuit. The natives were carrying sticks and spears and looked intent on avenging their fallen comrade.
Too many to shoot! Avon ran on, too late realising he was going up a hill that would provide no cover. He turned and ran after Gan, who was traversing a more promising slope, Vila in his wake. They jumped over the ridge and found themselves in front of the door in the hillside.
"There's hordes of them," Vila panted, instinctively making for the door. "And they don't seem to like us much!"
"How can you tell?" Gan asked in a display of gallows humour.
Stones were landing around them again.
"Get down!" Avon said. They crouched by the door. The bare hill didn't give any protection - that door was their only chance. Better not ponder on the likelihood of there being another bunch of warlike primitives at its other side!
"See if you can open the door," Avon told Vila.
While Vila obeyed, more men appeared from over the hills. Avon drew his gun.
"I can't do it!" Vila was near to tears.
What now? They were cornered. More stones were falling around them. Avon aimed his gun. If he could shoot some of them, that might deter the others. Fortunately their aiming didn't seem all that accurate - not one stone had found its target yet. But it couldn't last...
Suddenly he heard a sound behind him. Turning, he saw the door move inwards. Avon pushed Vila through the opening and quickly followed him.
"Gan," Vila shouted, but his comrade was already working his large frame through the low door. Avon helped Gan to shut the door in the faces of their pursuers.
Catching their breath, the men blinked, trying to see in the sudden darkness. They were in a kind of room, sparsely lit by a few candles, its walls lost in the darkness.
Perceiving a movement in the shadows, Avon aimed his gun.
For a moment Vila thought he must be dreaming. Stupefied, he stared at the apparition emerging from the dark: a beautiful young woman, clad in a flimsy white gauzy dress with a thin veil over her blond hair.
"Who are you?" Avon asked, as surprised as Vila.
Her face lit up in rapture. "And you shall answer..." She dropped to her knees at Avon's feet. "My name is Meegat, Lord."
"Lord?" Vila echoed, bewildered.
Avon frowned at the figure about to kiss his boots, wondering what to make of her. Better try the practical approach. "You opened the door?"
"I opened the door," she confirmed, still kneeling.
"We're grateful." Feeling increasingly embarrassed, Avon decided to stick to facts. "We seem to have made a few enemies outside."
"That my Lord might find safety from his enemies." She sounded vehement.
Vila looked from the woman to Avon, then exchanged a look with Gan.
"Well," Gan remarked, "she seems to be on our side."
"Yes," Vila said, "but the poor woman's insane."
"Not necessarily," Avon told him, still trying to make sense of her behaviour.
Vila's look was very eloquent.
* * * * * * *
In the camp of Jenna's abductors, the people not involved in the hunting down of her companions were busy building a fire in the centre of the circle of primitive tents. Inside one of those tents, Jenna came to, nursing a headache, dry throat and cramped limbs. Trying to move into a more comfortable position, she found her hands tied behind her back. Tied round a pole, in fact. Her feet were tied too, with what seemed to be a primitive kind of string. It was strong enough for its task, though.
She was in some kind of tent, built from wood and animal skins, by the look of it. The pole she was tied to probably kept the whole structure up. She tried to budge it, but found it wedged firmly into the ground.
A hairy, smelly man in pelts, sitting at the entrance with his back to her, looked over his shoulder. Jenna didn't like his hostile stare at all. Satisfied she wasn't going to run away, the man returned to his task of beating flints from a stone.
Jenna couldn't remember anything from the moment Gan had gone to check on the sound they'd heard. This brute must have knocked her out and taken her to his home. She gritted her teeth. If Blake had been leading them this wouldn't have happened! She should have bailed out of the rescue party the moment it became clear Avon, not Blake, would be in command. But she'd already volunteered to take part in the search before Avon had made his unexpected offer. What was he playing at? Trying to get rid of her?
A persistent feeling of hunger told her it must have been hours since she got detached from the others. Surely if they were searching for her, they should have found her by now. Did this mean Liberator had left? Had Avon snatched this chance to be rid of her? Or, even more callous, was that why he'd offered to take Blake's place, so he could 'lose' her during the expedition?
Jenna was in the way of Avon's aspirations. He coveted Liberator, and by now it must be clear to him that she would never allow him to take the ship away from Blake. So he must have decided to eliminate her.
How would he go about explaining her disappearance to the others? Tell them she was dead? Surely Blake wouldn't take his word on that? He'd insist on retrieving her body. But maybe Avon had managed to convince him that exposing themselves to the planet's high level of radiation for a corpse was irresponsible.
But she wasn't dead yet! And she wasn't going to sit here waiting for that brute to lay his filthy hands on her! Jenna began to feel around her as far as her bound hands could reach. She came upon a large stone with a sharp edge. Just the thing she needed to saw through her binds... Yes, it worked!
Steady, she told herself, when her captor gave her another searching look. She waited until he had turned his attention back to his task, then continued sawing with renewed vigour. Her heart leaped when the last strand came loose. No time to lose! She picked up the stone. Feet still bound, she crept up on her guard and whacked him on the head with the stone. Her pent-up frustration gave strength to her move - he collapsed without a sound. Jenna risked a quick peep around the tent flap. About half a dozen people were busy at the fire. No chance of her getting out that way.
She quickly undid the ropes round her ankles. Gently she lifted the skin at the back of the tent and peered out. The coast seemed clear. Jenna fell to her belly and began to crawl out. She was just thinking she'd made it when she heard a sound. Raising her head, she looked into a stern, dirty, bearded face.
* * * * * * *
The tension was high on Liberator's flight deck. At the pilot's position, Blake was waiting. The man, gun still on the prostrate Cally, looked about to collapse. Not long now.
Slowly, silently, Blake began to edge forward. The man's head sank further onto his chest. Cally didn't move. Blake took another few steps.
Suddenly the man looked up. He raised his gun, pointing it at Blake's heart.
Cursing his bad luck, Blake resignedly raised his hands. No use in getting himself killed. They'd have to wait for another chance.
"Get back in your place," the man said.
* * * * * * *
In the candlelit chamber on Cephlon, Avon's feeling of unreality persisted. The woman, still kneeling at his feet, seemed indeed to be on their side. He could have done with a less ostentatious demonstration of allegiance, though.
"I will describe the way to the scavengers' camp," the woman offered, "so that you may rescue your follower."
"My follower?" He allowed himself a moment to savour the choice of words. "I never really thought of her in those terms." Better stick to the facts. He still held his gun ready; this all seemed too good to be true. "Are you alone here?"
"Yes, Lord." Meegat's eyes remained down, her head bowed. "Everything is as it was written. One waits."
Now she looked up at him. "For you."
"I told you she was mad," Vila whispered to Gan.
Gan addressed Meegat: "How long have you been waiting?"
Her gaze didn't leave Avon. "All of my life, as those before me waited." Her eyes began to shine. "But it is I who welcome you. Welcome, Lord, welcome!"
She embraced his ankles.
Avon quickly took a step back. "Yes, well, let's not start all that again!"
The woman turned her head away as if bitten.
"You've hurt her feelings now," Gan reproached Avon.
"I have offended you," Meegat said.
"No, you haven't offended me." Avon couldn't manage the friendly tone needed to make his words convincing.
"Forgive me!" Meegat pleaded.
"I forgive you." Apparently the only way to get the women from his feet was to help her up. Resignedly, Avon bent through his knees and brought her to her feet.
"You're enjoying this, aren't you?" Vila said.
"Probably." In truth the only thing he could find pleasure in right now was Vila's resentment. Avon changed his gun over to his left hand and took Meegat's arm with the other. "How many of your people are there?
"Less than a hundred now. Our numbers grow smaller. More die."
Not surprising, under the planet's conditions. Avon began to lead her further into the chamber. "And the scavengers?"
"Perhaps twice as many, but they too are dying." She stopped. "We expected you to come long ago."
Suddenly she stepped forward to open and pass through a set of double doors. A bit warily, the men followed her into another large room. This place also was dark and dusty, with cobwebs hanging from the ceiling. It contained four large banks of consoles holding screens, dials, buttons, wires and every other kind of electronic equipment imaginable. Burning candles, set on the consoles at regular intervals, provided a dim light.
Vila and Gan remained standing just inside the entrance. Avon followed Meegat to the far wall, which seemed to consist of dirt-covered windows.
His curiosity overcoming his caution, Vila moved to the nearest bank, gun in hand. Gan came after him.
"Most of this stuff looks operational," Vila said, eyes skimming over the knobs and dials. "There's no sign of any damage." Baffled, he addressed Meegat: "You have a technology like this and still get your light from those?" He waved his gun at the banks, then at the candles.
"Technology?" Meegat asked, looking enquiringly at Avon.
"All this." Vila again indicated the banks.
"But it does not provide light," Meegat said.
"Well, it could, Meegat," Gan told her, "if it was working."
"Of course," Avon exclaimed with belated insight. "That's why they were waiting for us."
Meegat stared at him in open adoration. "All things are known to you. You are truly Lord." Again she knelt before him, taking his hand.
"Counting yourself," Vila observed, "that makes two people who think you're wonderful."
Unable to come up with a suitable reply, Avon dealt him a withering glance. He lifted his hand, making Meegat rise; he was beginning to get intrigued. "Tell me about the prophecy."
She was all too happy to oblige: "The ancients promised that strangers not of this world would be the means of our deliverance..."
Gan decided it was time for a bit of realism: "Look, Meegat, we're not really gods from the skies, you know. We're just men from a spacecraft."
"With problems of our own," Vila added from the depth of his heart.
Her attention fully on Avon, Meegat didn't seem to hear them. "You have come. The waiting is over. As it was promised, the Lord Avon will save our race."
Now where did she get his name from, Avon wondered idly. He couldn't remember Vila or Gan having used it...
While Meegat was talking, Gan ambled over to the window. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and began to wipe away the dirt. The scene at the other side made him whistle softly. "Look at this!"
Avon joined him, took a look and voiced his assessment: "A chemical rocket in launch position."
A heavenly smile spread over Meegat's face. "He shall recognise deliverance and speak its name." While reciting the old prophecy instilled in her from childhood, she began to walk towards Avon. "He shall speak its name as a thing known and understood. As to him all things are known and understood." Again she fell to her knees at his feet, taking his hand.
"Been alone too long, definitely," Vila whispered to Gan.
Still holding Avon's hand, Meegat rose.
"Is there a legend of deliverance?" Avon asked, his curiosity now overcoming his embarrassment.
"Tell me about it."
She looked surprised. "But you know it."
"Ah." He hadn't thought of that. "Well, tell me about it anyway."
"Our fathers fought a great war, and Kashell the Wise dreamed that all life would end in this place."
"Seems he was right," Gan mumbled. He stood listening while Vila had started on another tour of the equipment banks.
"So Kashell sought a way to preserve our race," Meegat continued. "A way for it to survive in a new place among the stars. And the way was found."
Vila looked up from a console. "That ship couldn't carry enough people to establish a new community."
"It could carry dormant cells," Avon said.
Gan nodded, remembering the guardians that had caused them so much trouble over Saurian Major: "Genetic banks and brood units. Like those in the projectile we took on board the Liberator?"
"The same principle, yes," Avon replied. "These seem to be a little more advanced, though."
"But did they do it?" Vila asked.
"And the way was found..." Avon turned to Meegat: "Does it go on?"
She went on as if not interrupted: "Deliverance was prepared. And Kashell the Wise was satisfied that it was good."
Gan's thoughts were still on the fertility cells: "If there are cells on that ship, would they still be viable? I mean, could they be incubated into a new race of men after all these years?"
Avon was always prepared to show his knowledge. "Theoretically the fertility span would be unlimited. The brood units would be programmed to activate on landing. If they set it up right, there's no reason why it shouldn't still work." He gave Meegat a gentle, encouraging smile. "Go on."
"All that was needed to complete deliverance was the word of Kashell. But our fathers killed him, and the word was forgotten. And so we wait for a new word from beyond the stars. We wait for deliverance. We wait for the nameless Lord whose name shall be spoken by the one who waits. Meegat speaks his name. His name is Avon."
While he was idly listening, Vila's eyes fell on a blue, square button on the bank. It took him a moment to realise that the button was flickering.
"Avon." Having caught his attention, Vila indicated the button.
Avon strode to his side. "It's an active power source register."
Vila nodded, feeling a surge of excitement. "That's what I thought. The automatics have closed it down."
"Well, if we could find the manual override we should be able to reactivate it." Avon began a systematic perusal of the controls.
Vila tried another button. "Output control is locked."
Avon walked over to the next bank. "There's a circuit breaker here." He reached over and flipped the switch. "Try the output control now."
"It's free," Vila announced.
Gan went over to check another bank. "This alpha scale is registering."
Avon holstered his gun, then began to remove his gloves. "Take it to level one, see what we get."
Vila checked. "No, nothing's showing."
"Nope," Gan confirmed.
Meegat looked on in admiration while Avon moved to another section of the bank.
"Then there must be a secondary fail-safe." Avon spotted the button and pressed it. "Try it again, Gan."
A soft buzzing started.
"It's coming in!" Gan exclaimed triumphantly.
"Take it to level two," Avon said, trying to keep a calm voice.
"Level two," Vila confirmed. "And we have power."
A croaking sound started to emerge from a rusty piece of equipment on one of the banks.
"Let me see now..." Avon turned some knobs and the croaking turned into a human voice:
"Telemetry and guidance are holding... systems rebalance... fuel and ignition, capability is green... inboard computers are green and functioning. Programs are stable..."
One by one the monitors on the consoles came to life, showing various readings and displays.
"It's coming in," Gan said in a rush of excitement.
The voice was still relating the countdown: "...environment is... solid and stable. Countdown minus sixty and holding... telemetry and guidance are balanced..."
Avon flipped another switch and the lights came on, brightening the room.
Enraptured, Meegat stared at the lights. "Behold, deliverance!" She turned to take a look through the window.
Section by section the lights in the launch area were coming on.
The countdown check was continuing in the background: "...Secondary stage is clear for count... meteorology checks confirmed. Clear for count... control checks confirmed... are cleared, green, and stable... telemetry systems..." Nobody took any notice of it.
"Do you really think we could launch that ship?" Gan asked, suddenly awed.
"If the people who built it did their job properly, I don't see any reason why not," Avon replied. A bout of mischief made him add: "And it does seem we have a reputation to live up to."
As expected, Vila took the bait: "Oh, you certainly do, Lord Avon! I wonder why she picked on you?"
Meegat chose that moment to cast Avon a devoted gaze.
Avon put his hands on his hips. "Well now, you are hardly the stuff that gods are made of."
"And you are, I suppose?" Vila countered.
Avon smiled; teasing Vila was always rewarding. "Apparently."
Gan had moved to stand behind Meegat. He made a gesture of urgency. "Look, before we try to fulfil any more prophecies, could we uh ... "
"Yes," Avon said, remembering their mission. "We must find Jenna."
* * * * * * *
On Liberator's flight deck Ensor was adjusting his gun without taking it away from Cally's head. His hands were shaking badly. "I've put the energiser onto automatic," he said. "If I let it go, it will spring back and the gun will fire. If I pass out, the gun will fire by itself."
Blake licked his lips, all too aware of the danger to Cally.
"Now you make certain," Ensor continued, "that I don't go to sleep!"
Cally kept absolutely still, nerves tautly tensed. If that gun went off now, she wouldn't even be able to take her captor as companion for her death.
Meanwhile, in the control room on Cephlon, Avon had drawn his gun again.
"If she is alive," Meegat said, voice and eyes full of confidence, "you will find her."
"IF she is alive." Avon was never one for unfounded optimism. He took Meegat's hand and began to lead her towards the antechamber.
"Well," he asked his companions, "are we ready?"
"We're ready," Gan replied.
Vila nodded reluctantly.
They left the room. Gan closed the double doors.
"I will await your return," Meegat announced.
"You'll wait up there by the door?" Vila asked, in need of reassurance. He wasn't keen on another confrontation with those stone throwing savages. Even if their aiming was appalling, by the law of averages sooner of later a stone was bound to find its target. And, by the way of things, that target would be HIM, rather than Gan or Avon!
"If we make it," Gan said with bland disregard for Vila's feelings, "we'll be back."
"The Lord Avon will protect you," Meegat assured him.
Not in the slightest reassured, Vila exchanged a sceptical look with Gan while they left the room.
Avon lingered in the doorway. "Meegat."
Her overt adoration and rapturous gaze unsettled him. Better keep this firmly on a business basis. "Make sure that it is us before you open the door. The scavengers know about it now."
Her face was very close. Almost against his will he caressed her cheek. About to kiss her, he abruptly turned and left.
* * * * * * *
Following Meegat's directions, they soon found the camp. It was situated in a small valley surrounded by steep hills, reason why they had managed to miss it during their earlier searches.
From their vantage-point on the crest of a hill they had a good view on the settlement. The primitives were gathered round a big fire.
"Vila and I will go round and take a closer look," Avon said, adding to Gan: "You stay here."
Gan nodded. "If it comes to killing, remember my limiter implant."
Avon stifled a tart comment; why did the moron think he'd chosen Vila to accompany him?
"I'll stay up here if you like," Vila offered hopefully. Dealing him a disdainful look, Avon began to descend towards the camp. After a moment, Vila followed him.
They made it unseen to the back of the nearest tents.
"You keep a watch," Avon whispered. "I'll try and find her."
They drew their guns. While Vila headed for the nearest cover, Avon approached the tent. From the hill Gan tensely followed his movements.
Avon cautiously pulled the skin of the nearest tent a fraction aside and took a quick peep inside. Empty. He moved on to the next tent. Suddenly a man crawled out from the tent. Avon quickly retreated while Gan ducked out of sight. The man disappeared round the corner. Avon checked the tent. Empty again. He proceeded to the next.
Not having been able to find an adequate hideout, Vila was vigilantly casting his gaze around, expecting to be jumped upon by a horde of savages at any moment.
Avon checked another tent - and there was Jenna, bound and looking sick but clearly alive. A scavenger sat guarding her. His back to Avon, he was gnawing the flesh from a piece of bone.
Avon holstered his gun. This could be dealt with by more primitive means. He picked up a heavy stick that was conveniently lying about. For a moment he balanced it in his hands, then swung it against the tent. He could feel the impact.
Inside, the man tumbled forward. Jenna looked up and saw Avon enter. She gave him a grin of relief - apparently her mistrust of him had been unfounded. Anyway, she should have known that Blake wouldn't abandon her! Quickly she turned her back to Avon so he could untie her hands.
Outside, Vila's luck was running out. His attention fixed on Avon's exploits, he failed to notice the scavenger who was sneaking up on him. Suddenly he was grabbed from behind. Struggling, he began to cry for help.
Emerging from the tent, Avon and Jenna were confronted by the sight of Vila trying to prise himself loose from a scavenger.
At the fire, people looked up, alerted by Vila's cries. They began to run towards the sound.
Seeing the prisoner escape, the scavenger holding Vila threw his struggling charge to the ground. Growling, he began to advance upon Avon, instinctively going for what he saw as the strongest foe.
Avon dealt him a savage kick. Not waiting for the man to recover, the three ran off. Ignoring the pins and needles in her limbs, Jenna made a fast pace. Vila held a hand to his protesting side, having no breath to spare for moaning. Gan joined them. The scavengers came in hot pursuit, wielding the sticks and bones they used for weapons.
"This way," Gan panted, taking the lead with Jenna. Soon the door came in sight. "We'll be safe there."
Jenna spurted to the door. She'd nearly made it when a scavenger jumped her. Furiously she tried to fight him off. Other scavengers fell upon Gan, who began to defend himself with gusto.
Arriving at the scene, Avon and Vila hurried to Jenna's assistance. Forgetting his fear in the heat of the moment, Vila helped Avon pull the assailant away from her.
Gan was holding his own in the scuffle, lashing out with his fists left, right and centre. His limiter might prevent him killing, it didn't prevent him beating the guts out of his opponents!
Having dealt with Jenna's attacker, Vila ran and knocked on the door. As soon as it opened Jenna, Vila and Avon stumbled in.
"Gan," Avon called.
Shaking off the last of his attackers, Gan rushed in, shutting the door in the faces of the angry scavengers.
"That was close," Avon told Meegat.
"No respect," Vila drawled, still panting. "They obviously didn't realise who you were."
"Thank you," Jenna said to Meegat, but the woman didn't acknowledge her, having eyes only for Avon. A bit peeved, Jenna followed the pair into the room.
At the door, Vila and Gan were catching their breath.
"You all right?" Vila asked, noticing with relief that the pain in his side was subsiding.
Leaning on his shoulder, Gan gave him a broad grin. "You know, Vila, for a minute out there, I was actually quite beginning to enjoy myself."
Vila shook his head in mock reproof. "You're as mad as Meegat."
Gan just laughed.
* * * * * * *
On Liberator's flight deck Ensor was on the point of losing consciousness. Suddenly he lost his grip on the gun.
"Cally!" Blake shouted, running towards her.
Cally rolled away just as the gun went off. The shot hit the side of a flight console, causing no damage.
Ensor had collapsed. He lay on the floor, groaning.
Blake put his hand on Cally's shoulder. "You all right?"
"Yes." She was shaken but unhurt. "Yes, I think so."
Blake bent over the hijacker. "He's almost gone."
The man still had the gall to make demands. "The microcells," he whispered hoarsely. "Get to father... Orac..."
He went limp.
"He's dead," Blake said, feeling for a pulse and finding none. He took the box from the man's pocket and opened it. Packed tightly, the cells were still emitting their low buzzing. How insignificantly they looked, yet their owner had been prepared to commit murder to get them to his father.
"What is Orac?" Cally asked, watching Blake.
"I don't know." Blake was still staring at the cells. "If we deliver these, perhaps we'll find out." He closed the box with a decisive gesture and stood up. "Got to get the others first. Zen, direct route for the planet Cephlon. Maximum speed."
"Confirmed," Zen replied.
Liberator changed course.
* * * * * * *
On Cephlon, the rescue party members were in the control room, prowling round the banks. Meegat stood watching Avon who was busy at a console. At another bank, Jenna was studying the various pieces of equipment with professional interest. In the background, the automated countdown was still continuing.
"Avon," Jenna called. "Look at this." When he joined her, she said: "It's a sub-beam communications system."
"It's an interesting antique," he remarked, irritated about being disturbed in his work.
"Look at the range scales," she said.
"Yes." Now he caught her meaning. "Liberator can receive and transmit sub-beam. Try it."
While she did, he surveyed the consoles. "Right. I think everything is functional. We are ready for countdown."
On Liberator, Blake was at the pilot's position and Cally at Vila's. Suddenly the monotony of their flight was disturbed by a voice coming through the communicator: "Liberator, this is Jenna. Do you read me, Liberator?"
Relief surging through him, Blake replied: "We read you, Jenna. Are you all right?"
"I'm safe and well," she reported. "What happened to you?"
"A slight detour." He caught Cally's smile at the understatement. "We'll be in teleport range in about four hours."
"We'll be waiting," Jenna said. "In the meantime, Avon's about to become a legend."
Blake frowned, wondering whether he'd heard that right. He eyed Cally, who looked equally nonplussed. "What?"
"Out," came the reply.
In the control room Jenna cast Avon a mischievous smile while breaking the connection. "They're on their way."
"So are they," Avon said, flipping the final switch. On the monitors a new countdown began: "Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four..."
They listened in awe.
"Three. Two. One. We have lift-off."
In the hangar, the roof opened and the rocket soared into the air.
For once her eyes not on Avon, Meegat followed the rocket's launch through the window. A wave of accomplishment engulfed her. She, Meegat, had been the one chosen to witness the prophecy come true! Nothing else mattered now. As it was foretold, the Lord Avon would leave, and she and her people would stay and die. But their race would live on. The prophecy was fulfilled. Behold, deliverance!
Feeling a bit drained, now their mission was completed and Liberator was on her way to pick them up, Avon moved over to her. "Meegat, I'm sorry you've waited so long."
Still radiant, she turned to face him. "Our waiting brought you."
Avon experienced a rare bout of humility. "That seems like a poor reward, somehow."
* * * * * * *
The rocket continued its journey through space. On Liberator's flight deck Zen, dutifully monitoring its progress, reported: "The rocket is now beyond sensor range."
The whole crew had gathered on the flight deck. Avon sat on the couch at the forward console. Cally was standing at his side. Vila and Gan were watching Zen's screen from the other side of the console. Jenna was at the pilot's position. Blake, having taken the position usually occupied by Vila, listened idly to the conversation between Avon and Zen. Both were concise and to the point, which was usual for Zen but not for Avon who was never averse to hearing his own voice. Since their return, Avon appeared to be in an unusual contemplating mood.
"Have the navigation computers made a projection?" Avon asked Zen.
"It is calculated that the rocket will make planet-fall in the system Magdalen Alpha."
"How many suitable planets are there in that system?"
"There are four with compatible biospheres."
"Five hundred earth years."
"You won't be a legend in your own lifetime, then," Vila observed.
"Fertility cells wouldn't know about us, anyway," Gan said.
"Meegat does." Cally looked at Avon, not sure how much to believe of Vila's gleeful report. "Did she really think you were a god?"
His smile was uncharacteristically serene. "For a while."
Sensing the experience might have given Avon a lesson in humility, Blake asked: "How did it feel?"
Immediately back to his usual manner, Avon snapped: "Don't you know?"
"Yes." Blake held his gaze. "I don't like the responsibility either."
Avon rose. Head held high, he left the flight deck. Following him with their eyes, Vila looked amused and Gan grinned openly.
"Now we have another," Blake said, concentrating on his plan. "Ensor's father." They'd found an identity disk on the man's body, giving their hijacker a name. "Zen, have you laid in a course for Aristo?"
"Course for the planet Aristo is computed and laid in."
"Speed standard by six, Jenna," Blake said.
"Standard by six," she confirmed.