To my taste, those men who steal away from common obligations and from that infinity of thorny, many-sided conventions which a punctiliously decent man treats as binding when living in society spare themselves a great deal, no matter what singular penance they inflict upon themselves. That is to die a little so as to flee the pain of a life well lived. They may win some other prize, but never, it seems to me, the prize for difficulty; for where hardship is concerned there is nothing worse than standing upright amid the floods of this pressing world, loyally answering and fulfilling all the duties of one's charge.
Michel de Montaigne, Essays, II, 33: 'The tale of Spurina'.
Cally, gun drawn and crouched down, looked around carefully, then moved a short distance before crouching down and looking around again. She was in a wooded part of the planet's temperate zone, with plenty of undergrowth. Her breath came out in thin, misty wisps due to the late autumn cold, a contrast to the temperature of the Liberator; she was glad that she had come warmly dressed.
While Blake's choice of her as his companion for the mission was the logical one, she being the only crew member with experience of fighting in rural areas, she still felt nervous. Not only was the terrain different from Saurian Major's hills and jungles; the Liberator's close environment had, she felt, dulled her reflexes, though she had kept herself physically fit. At least she had arrived at the rendezvous point after successfully avoiding Federation patrols and (she hoped) any surveillance devices.
Her caution was rewarded again; she saw two Federation troopers coming through the undergrowth before they could see her, and quickly hid behind the undergrowth surrounding a large tree, feeling that her reflexes were still too slow. The troopers moved to a nearby dirt road, passing her by.
She heard a twig break, then looked back to see Blake approaching her, his gun also drawn, carrying a toolbox. "Guards!" She used her telepathy to give him a silent warning. "Don't speak or make a sound." Blake got her message, moving to crouch beside her. Both saw the two troopers meet with two more. All four appeared to talk, then left together up the road.
Cally did not praise her abilities. "My reflexes are dull," she told Blake. "They almost fell over me before I heard them." The long dead commander of her unit on Saurian Major would have criticised her quite harshly, she thought
Blake smiled. "I've forgotten how useful telepathy is."
"Oh, I must practise that, too," was Cally's reply.
Blake looked around. "No sign of him." His remark was a question.
"Just patrols, lots of them."
"I think I've found where he's being kept," Blake said.
"Is it as we were told?"
"It's certainly very strange, the weirdest prison I've ever seen." Blake could speak from experience.
"Listen." Cally turned her head. A strange sound was heard.
"Keep down," warned Blake. Both crouched lower. The sound grew louder, and a strange, ancient looking, dark red, four-wheeled vehicle came down the nearby surfaced road, emitting nasty-smelling smoke. In what looked like the driver's seat was a young, blonde-haired woman in a red jacket, perhaps part of some uniform. In the rear seat sat a grey-haired man, wearing a black hat and cloak, beside a Federation trooper, who was sitting on top of the seat.
Cally had seen nothing quite like it. "What was it?"
Blake was equally bewildered, wishing that he had taken that extra history course. "I don't know." But he quickly returned to the mission, asking, "But in the back position, that was President Sarkoff, wasn't it?"
"That was President Sarkoff, yes." Cally confirmed his observation.
That was what they needed to know. "Come on, let's go," Blake ordered, both of them leaving. Unfortunately, their precautions came to nothing as they crossed in front of a Federation sensor hidden among some fallen leaves.
On a path, a short distance away, was a squad of troopers with their second in command, Sub-Commander Cheney, who had raised his helmet's visor. One of them placed a communicator in his hand. "Yes?" was his brief question.
"I think we've got some intruders," announced the officer in charge of surveillance.
"Are you sure?" Cheney wanted something more reliable.
"Electronic surveillance is usually reliable."
"Very reliable, yes," Cheney replied in a tone heavy with sarcasm and annoyance. "Last time it turned out to be a local rodent digging a hole under one of your listening devices. We spent two hours chasing our tails on that occasion." He gestured to the trooper carrying the electronic map pad to bring it to him.
"That wasn't our fault." The officer was defensive.
Cheney let the argument go. "All right, give me the co-ordinates," he ordered, looking at the pad's screen held in front of him.
"Five one..." As the co-ordinates were given out, Cheney consoled himself that at least it would give the troopers something to do. While the planet was certainly not the worst posting in the Federation, it and the task of being a VIP's bodyguard were regarded by them as monotonous and boring, with effects felt on efficiency and morale. The fact that the base commander spent all the time he could off-planet did not help the situation.
Cheney resorted to the old but effective commander's strategy of keeping the troopers busy. The fact that he frequently went out on patrol with them, behaviour that was a contrast to his superior's, led them to regard him with a grumbling respect.
He quickly dismissed this scenario after checking the co-ordinates on the screen. "If they are there then they've already penetrated two of our security perimeters."
"Have you got them all?"
"Yes." Cheney then changed the communicator's channel. "Sub-Commander Cheney to all units. This is a red alert. I repeat, this is a red alert. Electronic security reports intruders in Sector Three. All units are now on Red Standby. Out." He then gave orders to the six troopers, who were assembled in formation, two abreast. "At the double, move it." All, led by Cheney, marched away quickly.
The vehicle reached an area of land that looked maintained and artificial, in the midst of which was a building, composed of a ground floor with a many-floored tower. It appeared to have been built to resemble an ancient fortress; but the design, Blake had quickly realised after first seeing it, was intended to be ornamental rather than to have any actual defensive function. A pointed metal framework topped the tower. Two troopers guarded the ground floor entrance, which was decorated by various arrangements of the Lindorian flag.
The vehicle stopped at the entrance; the trooper jumped out, while Sarkoff made a more dignified exit, the female driver having opened one of the back doors.
"Thank you, Tyce," he said in a pleasant voice. "You may put the automobile under cover now."
"Don't forget the base commander's gift." Tyce took a large, silver, hexagonal box from the seat next to where she had been sitting and handed it to Sarkoff. The latter looked at it, trying, like all gift receivers, to see if he could correctly guess what was inside.
"Ah, yes, it was very courteous of the base commander, don't you think, to spend part of his leave getting this and then to bring it all the way from Earth."
"He values your friendship," Tyce replied, smiling.
"Yes, I think he does."
"And he's a social climber." Her voice grew thick with sarcasm. "Probably works your name into every conversation. 'My friend, ex-President Sarkoff.'" Not to mention that he's fed up with being posted here, she silently added. She had heard plenty of grumbling from troopers wishing that they could leave as often as he did.
Tyce, that is a most ill-mannered remark," responded Sarkoff, quietly rebuking her.
"It's the truth," said Tyce categorically, no longer smiling.
Sarkoff implicitly accepted this statement, quietly saying, "Civilization has always depended on courtesy rather than truth. And I need civilization. Now more than ever." He turned and went through the entrance. Tyce climbed back into the driver's seat of the automobile, sorry that she had hurt him, but not sorry that she had spoken the truth.
Blake and Cally had been watching them from some nearby trees. "He looks older," Cally commented.
"He is older," observed Blake, smiling. "It's seven years since he came into exile." He spoke into his teleport bracelet. "Liberator, come in Liberator."
On the Liberator's flight deck, Avon, Jenna, and Vila were staring at the blinking fot on the main screen, which Gan, in his control position, was trying to contact, "Liberator to space craft. Liberator to space craft. Can you hear us?" he asked three times.
While this was going on, Jenna observed, "Looks like some sort of cruiser." She was dressed in black, her top festooned with white dots of various sizes.
"Not making much headway," Avon observed. All were apprehensive at the new factor that had, perhaps too co-incidentally, entered into the mission. Was it a ship in distress or a trap?
Blake's voice came over the communicator. "Blake to Liberator, do you read me?"
Jenna went over to the nearest control position and pressed a button to reply, "We read you."
"Do you think he's ready to come up?" Vila, seated in the central seating area, asked Avon.
The latter turned to face the former, perhaps to reply; but Blake then answered the question, stating, "We've run into more security than we expected. It's going to take longer."
Jenna hastened to make Blake aware of the situation in space. "Listen, Blake, we've got a problem. There's an unidentified ship moving in on our position."
"Federation?" was Blake's question.
"Zen says not, but Gan can't make a voice contact. Seems to be closing in all the time." She did not bother to conceal the apprehension in her voice.
"Well, what do you want to do?" Blake asked her opinion. After all, she was the one he left in command up there, as well as a smuggler who knew something about deception.
"Well, be careful." Blake did not conceal the concern in his voice.
"We can handle things," said Avon to Jenna, moving towards her. "If it turns out to be hostile, we'll do a part orbit and lose it."
"We can't just wait for it to close in," she announced to Blake, who knew what she had left unsaid.
Blake became impatient. "Well, if you've got to move off-station, you've got to, but be as quick as you can, and don't take any stupid risks," he snapped, then attempted to crack a joke. "We're taking enough of those down here."
Jenna smiled at this. "Don't worry."
"Well, I will if you're not back in time to get us out." Blake was still trying to see the humour in the situation.
Jenna, still smiling, reassured him. "We'll be here."
Gan had left his control station and was standing beside Avon, looking at the dot on the screen.
"I don't like the look of that," commented Vila.
"Not again, Vila," was Gan's weary response.
"I'm entitled to my opinion," Vila insisted.
"It is your assumption that we are entitled to it as well that is irritating." Avon's sardonic remark routed Vila's completely.
"What do you think?" Jenna asked Avon, after joining him.
"As a matter of fact, I don't like the look of it either." Avon's confession surprised Vila, who said to himself, quietly but distinctly, "He agrees with me."
"The flight path is too erratic," was Avon's explanation.
"Makes it all seem worthwile somehow," continued Vila to himself.
"It looks deliberate to me," Avon concluded, looking at Jenna.
"It could be an injured pilot," the latter pointed out, looking at the former.
"It could be a trap," was Avon's emphatic response.
"Not a very good one, then," said Gan, turning around to face them. "We're suspicious of it already."
Avon made it clear to Gan that he had missed the point. "The test is not whether you are suspicious but whether you are caught."
"Then we'll make sure we're not," commented Jenna decisively, though Avon and Vila's comments had made her even more worried, as they both had a highly developed sense of danger. She began giving orders. "Vila, clear the neutron blasters for firing. Zen, put up the radiation flare shields." Vila began to move to his control position.
"Confirmed," answered the computer.
"Keep trying to establish a voice contact," she ordered Gan, "I'll fly her on manual." She then gave Avon an order phrased like a request. "If you'll read the detectors and scanners".
"First sign of trouble, we get out, right?" Avon would obey her order, but wanted to be sure of her strategy.
"Goes without saying," she half muttered before moving to her control position.
"I only wish it did," was Avon's final remark as he moved to his seat.
After scouting around, Blake rejoined Cally behind a tree near Sarkoff's residence. "We attack the guards or climb," said Cally, in what seemed like a question but didn't quite sound like one.
Blake took it as a question. "There's a door on the ground floor; it's the only entrance," he explained, gesturing at the residence with his gun. "There is an open window round the back but it's high up. We've got to get onto that roof."
"We climb," was Cally's conclusion.
"We don't want to risk raising an alarm. Come on." Both left.
Deeper in the wood, Cheney, kneeling down, moved a gloved hand over one of the footprints discovered by him and the troopers around the sensor, firmly stating, "It's not a burrowing rodent this time. Looks to be two intruders, two at least." He gestured for the communicator, then spoke into it. "Cheney to all units. Red Standby Alert is now Red Mobilisation, repeat, Red Mobilisation. All units to move in on the residence."
On the Liberator's flight deck, Gan, wearing headphones, was still trying to contact the unidentified space craft. "Liberator to space craft, Liberator to space craft."
"You're closing too fast for me to get an accurate scan," Avon complained to Jenna.
"All right, I'll reduce speed."
"Liberator to space craft. Can you hear us?" continued Gan.
"Blasters are ranged and ready to fire," announced Vila.
Avon now had an accurate scan. "No sign of any external damage. Carries no heavy armament."
"I'm getting a voice, very faint, a lot of static," Gan then announced.
"Boost it to the main channel," ordered Jenna.
Gan obeyed; and, through a background of static, a firm male voice was heard. "...Star Queen. General distress call, general distress call. This is the civilian cruiser Star Queen. If anyone can hear me, we need help. Please help us. General distress call, general distress call." The voice then faded. Most of those on the Liberator's flight deck began to relax internally.
Gan, who had left his control position to stand in front of Zen's screen, asked the computer, "Zen, are we in teleport range?"
"Liberator will be within teleport range of the civilian cruiser Star Queen in seven minutes," announced the computer, its lights flickering.
"Good," was Gan's comment.
"No." Avon did not share Gan's belief regarding the voice being sufficient proof that the ship was in genuine distress.
Gan turned to face Avon. "They need help."
Gan pointed back over his shoulder to Zen's screen. "Well, you heard him."
"It's not quite the same thing," Avon pointed out.
Jenna supported him, well aware of her own experience of the dangers of space. "Avon's right. We need more information."
Gan said something unexpected. "Let me go across and get it," he volunteered. "If it is a trap I'll warn you." He looked at Vila. "Then Vila can open fire."
"With you on board?" Vila was incredulous.
"If necessary." Gan's steady reply left no room for ambiguity.
"You feeling all right?" This kind of self-sacrifice was foreign to Vila's nature.
"Fine," was the answer.
Avon was secretly impressed that Gan had thought of the possible scenario of him being used as a hostage, but he wanted to be sure that he was serious. "You would give the instruction for your own death?" he asked Gan coldly. "You expect us to believe that?"
"Yes, I expect you to believe that." Gan again left no room for ambiguity, and finished any further discussion.
Behind a tree near the base of the residence's rear wall, Blake took a grappling hook and some attached rope out of the toolbox. "Cover me whilst I climb," he ordered Cally, "then hide the box." He moved to the wall, and threw the hook upwards, while Cally, her gun drawn, moved to the wall's left corner and looked around, ready for anyone coming around.
Blake pulled the rope, then, satisfied that the hook had a good hold, began to climb the wall. Cally then saw a trooper (presumably one of the two guards at the ground entrance) come into view, heading in their direction. She moved back and used her telepathy. "Blake! A guard is coming!"
The guard came around the corner and looked around, at first seeing no one there; then he looked up and saw Cally, as well as Blake, on top of the wall. Cally wasted no time, falling on the guard and knocking him out. She looked at Blake and said telepathically, "You must get to Sarkoff. I will hide this one and then follow you." Blake nodded and moved away, while Cally dragged the unconscious guard away.
Vila, alone on the Liberator's flight deck, muttered to himself, "Come on, Gan. What's taking so long?"
The communicator chimed. "His time's nearly up," announced Avon's voice, which ordered, "Stand by to fire on that ship, Vila."
Vila's finger moved to hover over the fire button. "I still don't think this is such a good idea," he pleaded, remembering the nice things about Gan, particularly the willingness to sacrifice himself for everyone else.
"I didn't ask for your opinion," Avon said impatiently. "Are you standing by to fire?"
"We don't want to do anything hasty." Vila was still reluctant.
"Vila!" It was a one word order.
"Yes, I'm standing by," was the gloomy response. I'm sorry, Gan, he said to himself. You wanted to go.
AoAvon and Jenna were in the teleport room, the former seated at the console, the latter pacing around. The communicator chimed, and a welcome voice was heard. "This is Gan. It's all right. You can bring me back across now. There's no danger to us, but they need our help all right. I've got all the details. Bring me back." Vila began to leave the flight deck, when he was stopped by an announcement from Zen.
"Information. Analysis of voice print confirms that was not Olag Gan speaking."
Vila ran back to his control station, and pressed the communicator button. "Avon! Avon!" he desperately called. He was too late; in the teleport room, Jenna ordered Avon, "All right, bring him up." Avon obeyed and activated the teleport controls; and as the teleport operated, and Jenna turned around, opening her mouth in surprise as she saw what had been teleported over, Vila's voice came through. "Avon! Avon! Avon! Answer me!"
There was no reply. Vila persisted. "Avon! It's not Gan! ...Avon? Jenna?" He grew frightened. "Now don't let's be silly. Answer me, one of you." He then spoke quietly to himself. "I shall come out in a rash." He turned to the computer for help. "Zen, has something happened to them?"
The computer was of no help, announcing, "Data is not available."
"I don't want data; I want to know what's happening," was the scared reply.
Again, Zen did not assist him, simply stating, "It will be necessary for you to make a personal investigation."
"Oh, you're a big help," was Vila's muttered reply, as he left his station and went over to the gun rack, muttering, "'Personal investigation.'" He put on a gun belt, his anger at Zen temporarily beginning to overcome his fear. "'Personal investigation,'" he nearly spat out in a more determined tone that began to grow louder. "The next time Avon wants to make a personal investigation on how you work I shall make a personal point of handing him the instruments," he shot a look at Zen's screen, "personally." Gun drawn, he left the flight deck by the starboard corridor.
Down below, in Sarkoff's residence, Blake, after exploring the first floor, went down the spiral staircase to the ground floor, gun at the ready; and he found himself in what looked like another exhibition room, with a raised entrance to yet another. As before, the floor was composed of black and white squares, and the walls were of a silver colour. Again as before, he quickly marvelled at the artefacts, some displayed on shelves, others on stands of various kinds.
Some he was able to recognise; regarding others, he had to confess his ignorance. It had been the same on the first floor. He had been able, for example, to recall who Elvis and Britney Spears were, after looking at copies of their Greatest Hits; but he did not know the significance of the political slogan I SHOT J.R., although he liked the poster entitled THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE; and why was that girl called Buffy so important? This was due to the sparse numbers of labels for the items; but then Sarkoff's collection was not open to the public; and he probably knew everything about the artefacts.
Blake picked up a small, unknown (to him) artefact, blew the dust off it, and placed it back. Seeing and hearing no one around, he holstered his gun. Another artefact caught his eye: a box with a clear top, itself on a clear-topped table. The box contained a number of winged insects, their wings showing a multitude of beautiful colours.
Blake, taken with the colours, bent over the box to read the labels, letting his hand stroke the surface. This resulted in him being taken completely by surprise by the question, "Beautiful, aren't they?"
He turned around, his hand instinctively moving to draw his gun, before relaxing on recognising the man who had uttered the question: Sarkoff. He had come from the other exhibition room and seen Blake's back. He wore a white, open collared shirt with ruffled cuffs and a black neck cloth, as well as black trousers and a black jacket with gold edges.
Sarkoff showed no fear, moving towards the table, describing the contents of the box. "Earth insects of the order Lepidoptera."
Blake was able to translate. "Butterflies," he said, looking at Sarkoff with a slight smile of triumph.
The latter was interested. "Ah, so you're an historian, are you?" he asked, behaving as if armed strangers barging into his exhibition were normal to him. Of course, thought Blake, the Federation would have given him plenty of practice in that area.
He was quite taken aback by Sarkoff's seeming calmness. He decided that it was best to play along with him for the moment. "No," he answered, "but I did study some natural history."
Sarkoff proceeded to earnestly explain the term, raising his voice in the last sentence. "It's interesting, isn't it, that when the term 'natural history' was originated, it referred to the study of living things. It was much later that it came to mean the study of things long since past and dead. History in its more conventional sense." He looked directly at Blake, having wandered around him towards another large artefact: a wooden box, with a large golden and green funnel at its side, and a reddish disc on the top. He had not bothered to look much at Blake while giving the explanation, behaving like a guide in a museum.
While inwardly fascinated by Sarkoff's explanation, as well as by the artefacts, Blake remembered his mission. "You don't seem surprised to see me," he said, in an amused tone that was almost a question.
"I've been expecting you," was Sarkoff's matter-of-fact reply. He then qualified that sentence, turning his back. "Oh, not you specifically, but someone." He picked up a flat black disc with a circular label at its centre. "Do you know, uh, what this is?"
Blake tried to keep to the previous subject, with the puzzled query of, "Why are you expecting someone?"
"Assassination has always been a legitimate tool of statecraft." Sarkoff gave Blake a look and sounded a little more serious. He then turned his attention to the large artefact. "Its respectability and public acceptance has varied from civilization to civilization; but its practical application has remained remarkably consistent." He moved what looked like a needle on a metal arm over the black disc, which he had placed on the artefact's red disc, and caused both discs to rotate. Music came from the funnel: ancient, with a male voice and a lot of whistling, of bad quality, but still distinct, bringing the minds of the listeners back to a time when mankind had only begun to leave the confines of his home planet. Obviously, the ancient artefact was an audio player of some kind, Blake concluded. He also tentatively remembered that the black disc was called a...record.
"I..." Blake began to speak, but was stopped by Sarkoff's raised hand and his comment that the record contained "Echoes of a more civilized age." His smile indicated that his mind was contemplating such a period.
Blake closed his mouth, pursing his lips, brought his hand to his forehead, then opened his mouth to speak, inwardly cursing his approach so far. "I didn't come here to murder you," he said incredulously, hoping that he sounded convincing because he spoke the truth. But I can understand why you could have thought that, he said to himself.
Sarkoff held the fingers of his right hand to his mouth in a gesture of silence. "You know," he said, stopping the audio player and removing the record, "this is the finest collection of twentieth century Earth objects anywhere in the galaxy." He raised his voice, and indicated some of the objects with his arms while moving around the room a little. "Even on Earth itself you would find no collection like it! This building is a replica of a typical residence of that period, set in an authentic Earth garden." His love for the building and the objects it contained was evident.
"I said, I'm not a murderer," Blake insisted, following Sarkoff, a little fearful that exile with the objects had made him a little insane, rendering him politically useless.
Sarkoff's reply, however, dispelled such thoughts, being able to return to the original subject. "I'm grateful for your semantic precision," he evenly said. "Political assassination I can...live with." He picked up a dark, metallic object from an ancient desk. "To be murdered would be the final, sordid indignity." He displayed the object. "Now, my educated friend, do you know what this is?"
Blake did. "Uh, it's a projectile weapon."
Sarkoff accepted his answer, holding the weapon in his right hand, indicating its functions with his left, while adding his description to Blake's brief definition. "It's called a revolver. Explosive charge here, projectile emerges with great force and considerable accuracy, over short distances anyway. Primitive," he paused, cocking the revolver's hammer before pointing it at Blake's head, "but efficient enough for my purposes."
Blake was frightened. He's insane! he silently thought. He tried to plead with Sarkoff, speaking quickly and loudly, not bothering to hide the rising panic in his voice. "President Sarkoff, I must speak with you. Will you listen to what I have to..."
His sentence was left unfinished by Sarkoff pulling the revolver's trigger. The hammer clicked on an empty chamber. Blake had closed his eyes, fearing the worst. His life did not flash in front of him; all that did was the irony of being shot by someone he had come to help.
"Ex-President," Sarkoff said firmly, lowering the revolver.
Blake opened his eyes, then took a deep breath and touched his forehead, as if seeking inspiration, in fact to cover up the anger he now felt. "I haven't got time for the niceties of this game that you're playing," he said to Sarkoff in exasperation.
"Just time for a hasty rationalization," countered the latter quickly, as if he was back in the Assembly, putting down a stupid speaker.
"I just want you to listen."
Sarkoff already had his counter argument prepared. "I've wasted my life listening," he explained, turning his back to Blake, moving back to the desk to put the revolver down, "Listening to people who are arrogant, or vacuous, or just plain vicious." He then moved back to the audio player. "I smiled and acquiesced in the face of prejudice and stupidity. I've tolerated mediocrity and accepted the tyranny of second-class minds." He grew quieter. "But now all that is over." He turned to face Blake. "I am ready to die, here among the things I value," he told the latter, whose right hand was pressed to his face in frustration at the present turn of events. "I am ready to let you kill me but I am not ready to listen to you justify the act."
Blake then felt the muzzle of a gun pressed against the back of his neck.
"Quite still," said a quiet female voice. Tyce disconnected Blake's gun from its power pack and removed it from its holster, placing it down, then picked up a second gun similar to her first, also pressing it against his neck.
Blake licked his upper lip and signed with resignation. "Very good," he said to Sarkoff while nodding.
"I meant what I said," was the reply. "Put those down, Tyce," he ordered the woman with the two guns. Tyce moved back a little; and Sarkoff moved towards Blake, who whirled around and recognised her as the driver of the vehicle, as well as the companion of Sarkoff's exile.
The two guns he also recognised as projectile weapons, but less advanced than Sarkoff's revolver. The latter seemed to understand what Blake was thinking, pointing out, "I'm afraid they do work." He then repeated his order to Tyce. "I said, put them down."
"I heard what you said; I heard every feeble, self-pitying word," was Tyce's scornful, emphatic denunciation. "Why should they send assassins for you? You're already dead, Sarkoff." She then turned her attention to Blake. "Before I kill you, who are you and what do you want?"
Blake - glad that the two questions he had expected to be asked first had finally been asked - drew breath before giving his two answers. "I came here to take President Sarkoff back to his people." He then turned to face Sarkoff. "My name is Blake."
Outside the residence, Cally was around the back, testing the rope, while at the front Cheney angrily shouted at a trooper, "Idiot, why didn't you report this to me immediately?" He then pointed to two others, then to one of the building's corners. "You two, around the rear!" he ordered.
Luckily for Cally, she had managed to climb to the roof, hide behind its fake battlements, and haul the rope up before the troopers arrived at the back wall, and began checking it and the surrounding area.
Inside the residence, Sarkoff, who had sat down at the desk, told Blake decisively, "I won't do it." He looked at Blake. "No, Blake, what you say is impossible." With this, he looked away, as if in dismissal. "It would be a mistake for me and the people of my planet," he explained quietly. "I am not the same man."
"To them you are," Blake insisted, looking down at Sarkoff, back slightly bent, hands resting on the desk.
Sarkoff looked again at Blake. "I am no longer a politician," he further explained. "But if I were, I would tell you that your timing is wrong, anyway."
"And if I were," Blake retorted, "I would tell you that if you wait any longer it will be too late."
"You don't understand," said Sarkoff, shaking his head.
Blake was (finally!) about to explain things to him, angry that so much time had already been wasted, when Cally made a loud entrance, at the point of Tyce's guns. "Blake?" the latter asked in a one-word question.
"She's with me," Blake confirmed.
Cally turned around to stare at Tyce. "I did tell you that," she said, a touch resentfully.
Tyce ignored this. "Are there any more?" she asked Blake.
"No, just Cally."
"Something has alerted the guards," Cally urgently told Blake. "Are we safe in here?"
"Yes." Tyce answered her question. "But I'll go and check." She turned and left the room.
"Did you hide the box?" Blake asked Cally.
"Of course. Is he ready?" Her question was understandable, but the worst one she could have asked in the circumstances. Blake wondered if things could get any worse.
"Well, Cally," said Sarkoff, now on his feet. "Must I listen to you, too?"
"No," was her simple reply, as she looked at him.
Sarkoff was curious. "Have you no opinions?"
"None. You are needed to unite your people." Cally sounded perfectly sincere, because she was.
Sarkoff was polite but probing. "I see. Facts, not opinions."
"Would we have risked our lives for an opinion?" Cally did not think it the time to discuss such niceties, wanting them all to be off. Blake was proud of her retort, while realising that she had sounded far too like a fanatic.
Sarkoff did something that surprised Cally. He walked to the centre of the room, indicating some of the objects with one hand. "What do you think of my collection?"
Cally, who had not expected the question, tried to be polite. "Ah, it is most..." she searched for a description, "ah, impressive."
"'Impressive', only?'" Sarkoff sounded surprised, although her answer had told him most of what he needed to know, something explained in his question. "Ah, but then your people don't originate from Earth, do they?" He pointed at her.
"My people are the Auronar." Cally supplied Sarkoff with the answer he was looking for, moving next to him.
He looked pensive. "Yes, I remember in my last years of office, we received an ambassador from Auron." He looked at Cally. "His name was..."
"...Leeharn". Cally again gave him the answer. Blake, watching all this, wondered how much of Sarkoff's behaviour was an act. Politicians tended to have good memories, he recalled. Would he really have forgotten the name of the Auron ambassador?
"Yes, Leeharn," Sarkoff confirmed. "I remember how alone he seemed."
"He did not return to us," stated Cally.
"Because he failed," concluded Blake.
"Because I failed him?" speculated Sarkoff, looking at Blake, before looking back at Cally. "I wanted that alliance," he emphasised.
Cally shared that sentiment. "So did we," she agreed. "To resist the Federation."
Blake, puzzled at Sarkoff's attitude, moved closer and made a disapproving observation. "You seem to have shifted your ground somewhat since then."
Sarkoff began his explanation of his behaviour. "I was leader of the planetary government on Lindor for five years. During that period I resisted political pressure to join the Federation," his voice took on a slightly ironic tone, "even from factions within my own party." He walked to the centre of the room, continuing his explanation. "Eventually I decided to settle the issue by trying to get a vote of confidence. So I called elections."
"And he was beaten," added Tyce, who had just returned down the stairs. She carried a projectile weapon, roughly the same age as the revolver, Blake presumed, but smaller and differently shaped.
"Of course he was beaten," said Blake, his face expressionless.
"My friend, I was totally annihilated, complete rejection," Sarkoff added more details as he turned to face Blake. "And no precise decisions followed my political disgrace. Lindor did not join the Federation." Sarkoff had arrived at the kernel of his explanation. "You see, it wasn't a rejection of my policies; the vote was merely a rejection of me."
Blake's face had been expressionless throughout all this; but he remembered the accounts about how wildly popular Sarkoff had been at the time of the first election; and how most people had believed in his assertion that he had a 'special feeling' for what the people of Lindor wanted. His shattering defeat in the second election caused a revision of this opinion to try to explain why this had taken place. Many concluded, particularly after he went into exile, that Sarkoff was a fraud and a hypocrite.
Tyce's lips curled back as she provided the scornful ending. "So he ran away and hid, here on this empty, nameless planet which the Federation so generously provided."
"Together with a security force," contributed Cally.
"And you're right; something has stirred them up," observed Tyce. Since there's nothing else that's any threat to them," she gave Sarkoff a look, "they must know you're around here somewhere."
Sarkoff clutched her right arm with his left hand and gave her right wrist a couple of affectionate pats with his right. "I'm afraid that Tyce has never been able to accept that I am no longer important."
Blake, while silently guessing that relations between the two during their exile must have been difficult, chose to follow up on Tyce. "It's a very impressive bodyguard for someone who is no longer important," he scornfully observed.
Sarkoff had a ready, plausible answer. "Courtesy. Besides, it would be politically embarrassing for them if I were to be killed while I was their guest."
"Not unimportant, then," concluded Blake. "Not naive, either. I mean," he became louder and more indignant. "Surely you must realize you're a prisoner here!?"
Tyce answered for Sarkoff. "Of course he does. Don't you see it, Blake; he relies on them keeping him here."
"No, no; that's not true." Sarkoff denied this; but he did not sound convincing.
At least Tyce is an ally. Blake silently congratulated himself on this fact; they had no idea when they went down as to what her attitude would be; but the congratulations were quickly cut short by a telepathic nudge from Cally. "Blake, we're running out of time," his mind heard her say urgently before she went into the second exhibition room.
Blake moved quickly, after so many diversions, to tell Sarkoff the true situation on Lindor. "President Sarkoff, your planet is in total chaos. There are dozens of factions fighting for power. They're on the brink of civil war."
"That cannot be true," replied Sarkoff. "I get regular reports."
Blake continued. "When the fighting starts, the Federation will move in a peacekeeping force. They'll take over the administration and the government and your planet will have lost its freedom. Just swallowed up into the Federation. All quite legitimate and not a single voice raised in protest."
"That cannot happen," denied Sarkoff evenly. "I know the situation on Lindor. I get regular reports."
"From the Federation communications, yes?" asked Blake, as if to a child, though he was inwardly shocked at Sarkoff's naivety.
"Yes." Sarkoff smiled slightly, acknowledging the patronising tone in Blake's voice. "But I have proof of their authenticity."
Blake smiled; he was now going to destroy Sarkoff's complacency. "The Lindor Strategy. That's what they called it." He began to explain. "It began with the rigged elections which removed you from power and will only end when you return to your planet as," he enunciated the last words of the sentence one by one, "the puppet leader of a subjugated people."
"I knew!" quietly explained Tyce, who looked at Sarkoff, glad to have her beliefs confirmed by hard evidence.
"Nonsense," responded Sarkoff, but quietly.
"No." Blake quickly moved on. "We captured a Federation cipher machine. Now before they changed the code, we picked up a lot of information. Our computers have been unravelling it ever since. One of the things they came up with was the Lindor Strategy." He finished simply. "We have checked. It is happening."
"Why should I believe you?" Sarkoff asked when Blake had finished.
"Well, what have I got to gain by lying?"
Cally, who had returned to the room, backed up Blake's rhetorical question. She fixed Sarkoff with an intense look. "You are the only man who can reunite your planet. If you act now, you can save it from war and from the Federation."
"Well?" Blake's question finished the argument and challenged Sarkoff. The latter bowed his head slightly, and walked towards and then past the desk, looking bewildered, his hands clasped behind his back.
"He won't go with you," Tyce explained sadly, shaking her head, which was also bowed.
"He must," insisted Blake.
Tyce looked up and at Blake. "He was broken; can't you see that?" she lamented, almost angrily. She looked wistful, heaved a tiny sigh, and shook her head slightly. "If you'd known him before, you'd understand," she continued quietly and sadly. "He was a very special man, brilliant and proud. Failure never occurred to him." Again she shook her head.
"But the elections were rigged," Cally pointed out.
"It was still failure." This did not console Tyce.
"That's something you should understand." Blake quietly reminded Cally of what she had been like when he met her on Saurian Major.
"I thought I could help him," Tyce lamented, her head again bowed, thinking of the years she had wasted on the planet.
"He must come with us, by force if necessary." Blake spelt out what needed to be done.
"I know." Tyce nodded. "You will take us both?"
"Put this on." Blake took a teleport bracelet and fastened it around her right wrist. "And put one on him." He took out another bracelet and gave it to her. Tyce nodded and left to go to Sarkoff, who was in the second exhibition room, visible through the entrance.
"I'll go and check where the guards are," said Cally, who also left.
Blake spoke into his bracelet. "Liberator, are you back on station yet? Respond, please." There was no reply. Blake tried twice again. "Liberator, do you read me? Respond, please. Liberator, do you read me?"
Any further attempts to contact the ship were interrupted by the return of Sarkoff, holding up the bracelet Tyce had given him. "What is this?" he demanded.
"It's a teleport device," Blake briefly explained, before trying to contact the Liberator again. "L..."
Sarkoff, not to be so easily dealt with, interrupted again. "Something to do with getting me to your ship?"
"Yes, when I can contact them."
"Well, I shan't need it. I'm not coming with you." Sarkoff put the bracelet down in a gesture of rejection.
"I'm sorry," said Blake simply.
"So am I." Sarkoff tried to explain. "It's too late, Blake, it's been too long. Defeat has become a habit."
Tyce came down the stairs. "Blake, if you ignite this it explodes." She gave him a small cylinder, white with a broad blue band. "I thought it might be useful."
Cally, who had also returned down the stairs, told him the situation. "The whole of the front is cordoned off and there are two men searching the woods at the back."
"Looking for the missing guard," Blake concluded. "Do you think they'll find him?" he asked Cally.
"Well, I should think so," was her admission.
"Very soon they'll check in here, too," said Sarkoff, who insisted, "You two must go now while you still have a chance."
"Liberator's still not back on station," a worried Blake said to Cally.
"Well, perhaps we'd be safer on the move," she said, giving him the benefit of her experience.
Blake did not care how worried he sounded, showing Cally the palms of his hands. "It depends how long they take to get back."
Tyce offered a suggestion. "There is a place you could hide, safer than this. Deserted mine workings."
"How far?" asked Blake.
"About twenty miles."
"Well, that's too far," was Cally's analysis.
Blake had an idea. "That...vehicle you use?" he suggested, moving to pick up his gun and replace it in his holster.
"The automobile?" Tyce named the vehicle.
"Yes. Can you get to it without being seen?"
"I think so," was the quiet answer.
"All right, come with me. Cally." Blake left and went up the stairs, followed by the two women.
After the three left, Sarkoff picked up another record, placed it on the audio player, and started the latter. He stood and listened for a while to the music, this time of a female voice. He then moved over to the desk and sat down, still listening.
Blake came down the stairs. He opened the outer door and checked what was going on outside. He then went over to the desk, sat on it, and checked his chronometer.
"What are you planning to do?" Sarkoff asked evenly.
"I wish you hadn't involved Tyce in whatever it is..."
"She is coming with us," Blake pointed out. He then irrelevantly wondered why the female singer he was hearing was calling, "Blow the wind southerly." No climate control in those days, was his silent explanation.
At the rear wall of the residence, Cally and Tyce came down the rope, the former drawing her gun as soon as she reached the ground.
Back in the residence, the female singer could still be heard, while Blake looked again at his chronometer. Sarkoff, who had got to his feet and was pacing around, said, "I should have realised."
"Realised what?" Blake was still looking at his chronometer.
"That Tyce wouldn't stay with me, not now." Sarkoff had stopped pacing about.
"Does it make any difference?"
"To my decision? Of course not."
"No, of course not." Blake's voice indicated that he was thinking about something else. He finished looking at his chronometer, got of the desk, and went to go up the stairs, saying, "Right. Stay here, please."
"Where else would I go?" remarked Sarkoff sadly, as he looked around at his collection. "This is all I have left."
Blake, on the roof at the back of the residence, threw the cylinder Tyce gave him onto the ground. He then fired at it, causing it to explode.
At the ground floor entrance at the front of the residence, Cheney and three troopers heard the explosion. He pointed and shouted a simple order, "The rear, quickly!" before running with them.
A little distance away, Cally put the toolbox onto the automobile's back seat, then sat down beside Tyce, who was already in the driver's seat, causing the latter to drive away.
Blake rushed back down the stairs, and pulled on his gloves. "Right. Come on," he ordered Sarkoff, who did not respond. The song had finished, the record played out; and Sarkoff was looking at the box of butterflies, which he was holding in his hands. Blake fixed him with a look. "You must come with us," he insisted.
Blake looked around, and saw the still revolving record on the audio player. He realised the perfect way of forcing Sarkoff to come, more powerful than any physical threat. His anger at Sarkoff's self-pity, his refusal to face up to his responsibilities, and his obsession with his collection, came to burning point as he took the record from the player and smashed it.
Before an aghast Sarkoff, he picked up the butterfly collection. "All of it," he said menacingly. "Piece by piece." He held up the box in one hand and let it drop.
"No!" Sarkoff almost screamed, grabbing the box at the same time as Blake's other hand did. "No, please!" he pleaded, almost inaudibly. "All right. All right. All right, I'll come," he conceded quietly, head bowed in defeat, one hand covering half his face.
Blake held out a bracelet. "Put that back on," he ordered. Sarkoff complied. Blake put down the box and went over to pick up Sarkoff's hat and cloak.
Tyce drove the automobile to a stop in front of the residence's main entrance, as Blake and Sarkoff left through it. As the latter got in, however, the engine died.
"The starting handle", said Sarkoff. Tyce left the automobile and began to turn with difficulty a handle at its front.
At the residence's rear, Cheney and the troopers investigated the source of the explosion. "It's a trick! The front, they're at the front!" their commander cried.
Blake, having noticed Tyce's difficulties, got out. "You get back inside. Let me try," he half-offered, half-ordered. Tyce got back in; and Blake managed to start the automobile's engine. This happened just as Cheney arrived.
"Hey!" he cried. Blake crouched behind the front of the automobile.
Cheney pointed his gun at the occupants. "Get out. Everybody get out," he ordered. Blake, unseen, moved behind him, knocked him down, got on; and Tyce drove them away, as the other troopers arrived from behind the back.
"Cheney to all units, this is Blue Mobilisation," their commander announced through his communicator. "I repeat this is Blue Mobilisation."
As the automobile drove along the road, Blake held on and made increasingly urgent attempts to contact his ship. "Liberator, this is Blake. Do you read me? Respond. Liberator, respond please." His voice became more desperate. "Liberator! Do you read me? Come in!" As the automobile went around a bend, a roadblock became clearly visible. "Liberator, we need teleport, now!"
All the occupants of the automobile dematerialised seconds before it crashed into the roadblock.
The Liberator's teleport room was empty when the four rematerialised. Blake and Cally were puzzled at this.
"Where are they?" she asked, as Blake drew his gun.
"I don't know," he replied.
"What is it?" asked Tyce, looking at them both.
"Stay here with them, Cally," Blake ordered. She drew her gun. He smiled slightly to the others, trying to pretend that all was well. "Wait here, please," he requested, before he left to go to the flight deck.
Sarkoff looked around at the teleport room. "Yes. Well it's faster than the automobile but, uh, not as amusing," he observed of the teleport system. "Ah." He handed the toolbox, which he had been carrying, to Cally.
Blake entered an empty flight deck and looked around. "Where are they, Zen?" he enquired of the ship's computer.
"Please specify question more precisely." The computer was not going out of its way to help him.
"The others," Blake explained. "My crew!" he exclaimed, annoyed. "Where are they?"
"Their absence from the flight deck is the only data available."
"Thank you, Zen," Blake said flatly, and left. He had hoped to relax a little once he had brought Sarkoff aboard; but he was at least certain of one thing: the rest would have to wait.
When he returned to the teleport room, the others had gone. In their place was Jenna, leaning back against the teleport console, wearing a blue neckband with a horizontal whitish stripe, a shocked expression on her face.
"Jenna!" exclaimed Blake. "Where are the others?"
"They're all dead," was her simple answer. Still looking shocked, she turned around, and slumped down, resting her elbows on the console.
"I still don't know what happened; there was a distress call..." she broke off, covering her nose and mouth with her hands.
"Yeah, but I mean..." Blake tried to make sense of what he had heard as he put a hand on Jenna's shoulder. "...how did all the... What, are you all ri..." Sensing something behind, he whirled around and saw a blue-robed figure, who sprayed him with gas from a similarly coloured gun.
Jenna quickly ran out of range of the gas, while Blake's eyes were the first to be affected; he then fell to his knees, then lay on the floor and lost consciousness.
When Blake regained consciousness, he was still lying down, wearing a blue neckband similar to Jenna's, his hands secured behind his back. He looked around and recognised the rest of the crew, also wearing neckbands: Gan seated on the floor; Cally, Avon, and Vila crouched down. The latter was working on his handcuffs. He also recognised where they were: a storage room aboard the ship, now used by their captors as a prison cell.
He spoke for them all. "That was stupid."
"None of us showed conspicuous intelligence on this occasion." Avon spoke for all of them as well.
Blake wriggled, in order to try to get up. "Keep still," said Vila, still working on his handcuffs.
"Who are they?" Blake asked about their captors.
"They're Amagons," replied Cally.
"Amagons?" Blake was puzzled. He wriggled so that he could sit up; Vila continued working on his handcuffs. "I thought smuggling was the Amagon speciality."
"It is," conceded Avon, "but they also manage a little robbery, piracy, murder..."
"t"Anything to turn an honest profit," finished Vila. "There," he commented, as he finished unlocking Blake's handcuffs.
"This lot are headhunters," said Gan as Vila handed him the handcuffs.
Vila fingered his neckband. "I wish you wouldn't call them that," he complained.
"Bounty hunters." Gan corrected himself, his face grim as he threw the handcuffs away. "They're going to sell us to the Federation."
"But how did they get on board?" Blake wanted to know.
"Gan?" Avon's answer sounded like a question but wasn't.
"It wasn't Gan's fault." Vila spoke up in his defence.
"They used me and a voice synthesizer," Gan grimly explained. "It was very well planned."
"Was Jenna behind it?" Blake wanted to know this most of all.
"No." Avon answered for them. "But when it was clear that we had lost, that is when she changed sides."
tAll thought the same thing. While the possibility of any of them leaving had always existed, Avon being the favourite, none had expected that any of them would betray the group to the Federation. Because she was emotionally closest to Blake, Jenna had seemed the most unlikely candidate to do this.
While this discussion was going on, Jenna was on the flight deck, having her neckband removed by the Amagon leader. He was between medium and tall in height, with slightly brown skin, and dressed in blue robes that covered his body and head, except for his black moustachioed face and his hands. The scalp part of the robes was covered by flat spaced pieces of golden metal.
The electronic key having done its work, the Amagon took the neckband off and threw it away. His hands rested on her shoulder and at her waist as he welcomed her. "Good to have you back with us, Jenna."
Jenna easily broke away from him, her hands on her hips, pointing out as she walked away from him that, "This is only a business arrangement, Tarvin." Her voice was even.
Tarvin followed her slowly. "You weren't always so cold."
"You weren't always a bounty hunter," countered Jenna, who turned her head to look at him.
Tarvin kept her gaze as he came around her. "Have you forgotten Zolat Four?" he reminded her.
"Is it worth remembering?" was her slightly flirtatious and amused response.
"Just the two of us in the mountains."
Jenna was on the verge of a smile as she reminisced. "And three hundred customs guards."
There was a slight nod. "You saved my life." Tarvin, like Jenna, almost smiled.
Jenna, smiling slightly, pointed out, "We all make mistakes."
Tarvin gave a slightly pained look. "I thought you liked me."
"Oh, I did. Then." Jenna looked serious.
Tarvin also looked serious; the reminiscing was over; but it was enough for Jenna, who knew that he had been sufficiently infected by the disease of nostalgia. "Have I changed so much?" he asked.
"One of us has." Not a direct answer, but it told Tarvin what he needed to know. He walked around Jenna, took a device from his belt, pointed a cylinder on the device at Jenna's neckband lying on the floor, and pressed a button.
The neckband exploded. "I just saved your pretty neck," Tarvin observed, quite serious now.
"I didn't like the price," Jenna insisted. There was no point, she had decided earlier, in trying to pretend that she still had feelings for Tarvin. She had, correctly as it turned out, decided to stick to the truth about that and hope that there was enough nostalgia remaining about old times.
"You paid it," Tyce nearly spat out. She and Sarkoff were seated in the central seating area, both with neckbands, she having let her hair down to her shoulders and taken off her red jacket.
Tarvin ignored her, asking Jenna, "What's Blake to you? We'd have got him anyway."
"I don't think you would," she countered.
Tyce spoke again, denying this. "You just made it easy for them," she said scornfully. "As betrayals go, it was really rather ordinary, wouldn't you say?"
Jenna began to leave the flight deck, but was stopped by Tarvin. "Jenna! Stay here."
"Don't you trust me?" she asked, trying to gauge his attitude.
"I trust you. Here." Tarvin's reply told her what she needed to know. He trusts me, but not too much, she thought. She decided to try the limits of the trust in another way. "Then shut her up," she said, looking at an unimpressed Tyce.
Tarvin went over to Sarkoff area and leaned over at him, showing his control box. "Keep your woman quiet, or I'll do it."
"Don't presume on my gratitude too much, Tarvin." Sarkoff, not looking directly at him, gave a diplomatic answer. Tyce was expressionless, while fighting a desire to laugh aloud. As if Sarkoff could tell her to keep quiet!
Tarvin was the one who laughed, at Sarkoff's unexpected response. "I wonder if there's a price on your head anywhere?" he speculated.
"No. But I imagine there is on yours, though."
Tarvin laughed, this time with pride. "I'd be ashamed if there weren't." He briefly looked at Zen, asking, "Computer, how long before we rendezvous with the Federation ships?"
"Two hours and seventeen minutes," was the reply.
In the store room turned cell, Vila was trying to unlock Blake's neckband, under the gaze of the others, Cally playing with a tendril of her hair. He stopped, and said, nervously, "I can't do it, Blake."
"Keep trying," was the firm response.
Vila explained his fears. "Look, there are two ways to set this thing off. One is that control box they all carry..."
"Microwave transmitter," interrupted Avon, who had stood up. "Just point it in the direction of the neckband and press the button."
"The other way is to force the lock..." continued Vila.
"You're not going to force it, are you!?" Blake nearly shouted.
"...and if I get it wrong, bang, no head!" Vila finished.
"I trust you!" Blake tried to be as supportive as possible.
"And if it blows up and I'm right behind you..." Vila let Blake and the others imagine the consequenses.
"That's why I trust you," Blake explained quietly.
Avon went over to the cell door's lock, opened the cover, exposing its innards, and removed the right shoe. He then removed a device from the heel, and began to pick the lock.
On the flight deck, Tarvin, now in the pilot's seat, gave Zen an order. "Computer, give me a visual. We ought to be in range by now."
Zen's scanner screen showed no ships. "I suppose I can wait a bit longer," was Tarvin's comment, half to himself, half to Jenna, who now stood beside him.
"Tarvin, how much are the Federation paying you for this?" she asked.
"Thirteen million credits for the crew and ship intact. Or twelve million if I don't give them you." The bargaining had started.
Jenna, knowing this, looked down, then back at Tarvin before making the first steps to a bid. "Supposing I made you a better offer?"
Tarvin misjudged her, laughed a little, and shook his head. "You're a pretty woman, Jenna, but not that pretty."
Jenna corrected him, making it clear that she was not offering herself. "If you hand over this ship, you'll lose a fortune."
"Me? How can I lose?" Tarvin was puzzled.
"Oh, I'd expect a share," said Jenna, ensuring that he was eager to know about her bid.
"Of what?" He was interested
She made her bid. "Three hundred million credits. Give or take the odd ten million."
Tarvin smiled, then looked serious. "You always did underestimate me, Jenna. It seems that now you take me for a fool."
Jenna allowed her voice to adopt an ironic tone. "Oh, no. I think you show great public spirit, giving up all that wealth just to bring Blake to justice."
Tarvin looked down then up, having decided. "You can prove what you say, of course?" he said, a little hesitantly.
"Of course," Jenna replied, smiling. She moved away from the pilot station and began to leave the flight deck.
Tarvin stopped her with a question. "You mean it's actually on the ship, this fortune of yours?"
Jenna half turned to reply, in a cynical tone, "Naturally. Why else do you think that I'd remain with Blake and his friends?" She sounded appropriately greedy.
"Go with her," Tarvin ordered another Amagon, who had been guarding the flight deck.
"No one is going with me," was Jenna's stern response.
"You think I should let you run around lose?" Tarvin asked dangerously, leaving his seat and going towards Jenna.
She moved to meet him. "Now you take me for a fool," she complained. "Do you think that I'd show him where the money is?" She still sounded greedy.
Tarvin called her bluff. "Then stay here. I'll be satisfied with thirteen million credits. Or twelve million, if the fancy takes me," he stroked her chin, "and I decide to keep you."
"Very well." Jenna smiled as she conceded. "Come on," she ordered the Amagon; and she left the flight deck, the latter following.
Zen then made an announcement. "Information. Federation ships are within scanner range."
"Where?" demanded Tarvin. He, Sarkoff, and Tyce then saw three dots on the scanner screen displayed by Zen.
"Yes. Look! It's almost done." Tarvin was quietly exultant.
Just after she entered the teleport room, followed by the Amagon, Jenna overpowered the latter and took his gun. Pointing it at his head, she muttered, "Tarvin underestimates me," before realising that he did not need to be shot. She placed the gun behind the teleport console and left.
In the cell, Vila and Avon still worked on their respective locks, still watched by the others. The tension was such that a frustrated Gan suddenly flung a pair of handcuffs to the floor, causing all the others to jump. "Sorry," he mouthed silently.
"I told you I couldn't do it!" exclaimed a frightened Vila to Blake.
"I believed you all along," commented Avon.
"Nobody could open it!"
"I thought you could open anything; that's always been one of your more modest claims." Avon tried to remain calm.
"I could open that door in two minutes!" Vila contended.
"This door is not quite the problem at the moment, is it?"
"It seems to be a problem to you!" Vila's voice had risen to a dangerous level during the outburst.
"Keep your head, Vila!" shouted Blake, knowing that he needed calming down. He then tried some quiet gallows humour. "That way I might have a chance of keeping mine." No one laughed, but the tension in the room fell a little.
"Yes." Vila continued working. "Avon?" he asked.
"What?" was the response.
"Shut up! Please." The last word was a plea. Avon said nothing, but smiled and returned to work.
On the flight deck, Sarkoff, now standing, and the others were still watching the three dots on the screen. He went back and sat down beside Tyce. His voice had a note of finality when he spoke to her. "Blake is finished, I'm afraid."
Tyce had that scornful smile he knew too well. "You really want to believe that, don't you?" she said mockingly.
"I want you to recognise a fact," said Sarkoff, looking at her.
"Because I'm afraid for you."
"Don't be," was the brusque reply.
"Accept it, Tyce; or it will destroy you," was the plea.
Tyce rejected this in a ten word criticism of what he had done since his resignation. "You gave up. You were wrong. You are still wrong."
Defeated, Sarkoff tried to make conversation with Tarvin, who had left the pilot's seat to come down and press some buttons on the central seating area's control panel. "Tell me, Tarvin," he began. "You Amagons recognise facts."
"You talk too much," was the reply, as Tarvin sat down near to Tyce, still pressing buttons.
"Yes, it's an occupational hazard, I'm afraid," Sarkoff graciously conceded, before asking a question. "What then is your reality?"
Tarvin turned to face Sarkoff. "Wealth," was his answer.
"Is that all?" Tyce scornfully asked.
Sarkoff elaborated a little. "Well, as the rallying cry for a crusade, it lacks a certain...inspiration."
Tarvin looked at the three dots on the screen, now nearer. "There's my inspiration. The Federation are coming to me. I summoned them." He turned back around to face Sarkoff and Tyce. "I'm going to sell them a crusader."
Tyce nodded. "You'd sell your grandmother, wouldn't you?" He reminded her a little of a notoriously corrupt politician on Lindor. Even as a little girl she knew that he was up to no good.
"I did." While unexpected, Tarvin's admission was not surprising. Tyce and Sarkoff exchanged knowing looks. Tarvin explained the transaction. "She was going to sell me." He smiled slightly. "I got in first."
Jenna, going down a corridor to get to the cell, stopped after being ordered to by another Amagon. "You! Stop!" He moved to stand behind her, holding his gun steady. "What are you doing here?"
"Tarvin sent me to check on the others," Jenna bluffed.
"Why?" The Amagon was suspicious.
Jenna turned to face him. "Why don't you go and ask him yourself?" she challenged him, hoping that her temporary reprieve by Tarvin would lead him to be reluctant to act without his approval. "Well?" she asked.
"I'll come with you," the Amagon decided. Jenna went down the corridor to the cell door, the Amagon following closely after.
"Open it," Jenna ordered. The Amagon obeyed, moving around her slowly, keeping his gun trained on her. He removed his card and placed it in the slot in the lock. He then carefully opened the door with one hand, and gestured with his gun for Jenna to enter, ensuring that he was able to cover from the doorway.
Jenna entered the cell to see her five former crewmates sitting cross-legged on the floor by the walls, their hands behind their backs. All gave her hostile looks. "Hello, Jenna," said Gan, in a tone of rejection. She ignored this and began to walk around the cell. She noticed the pile of discarded handcuffs, paused, and moved on, saying nothing about them.
Instead, she made an announcement. "I'm glad to see that you're all behaving yourselves. Tarvin doesn't want you damaged, unless necessary."
"We're touched by his concern," was Blake's ironic reply on behalf of himself and the others.
"It'll be more impressive if he can hand you over alive," Jenna said, still walking.
"A man who takes pride in his work." Gan followed Blake's ironic example.
"What do you take pride in, Jenna?" asked Cally, without any irony.
The subject of her remark turned to look at her. "Survival," she answered.
"t"At the expense of your friends?" Avon asked an unexpected question.
"I didn't know that you cared, Avon." It was Jenna's turn to be ironic.
Vila provided the final, cynical, response. "He didn't. And he was right."
Jenna turned and left the cell. "Wait." The Amagon stopped her, locking the cell.
She tried to be haughty. "Tarvin gets impatient. Shall I tell him that you delayed me?"
The Amagon called her bluff. "I'll come with you and tell him myself." While young, he was not stupid.
"Move," was the simple order.
"You'll regret this," was Jenna's angry reply. She left, the Amagon following behind.
Back in the cell, Cally was listening at the door. "They've gone," she announced. She moved away as Avon resumed work on the door's lock.
Vila had also resumed work on the lock of Blake's neckband. "I wouldn't have thought it of Jenna," he observed.
"I'm still not sure that I believe it," was Blake's tentative conclusion.
Avon turned around. "What does she have to do to convince you, Blake?" He asked impatiently. "Personally blow your head off?"
The response was a half joke from Vila. "If this goes wrong she won't get the chance."
In the teleport room, Jenna and the Amagon noticed the body of the one she had previously disposed of. She pretended concern, saying, "Something's happened."
The guard moved to examine the body. This gave Jenna the opportunity to overpower him and take his gun. "I told you you'd regret it," she said to his unconscious body before she left.
In the cell, Gan speculated, "I wonder how long before they make contact with the Federation?"
"Soon," was Cally's answer.
"If I could just get close to some of them..." Gan threatened.
"The one called Tarvin, for example?"
"Right," Gan almost growled, then asked Cally to remind him of something she had once said. "What's that expression of yours?"
"Companions for our death."
"That's a bit morbid, isn't it?" commented Vila. He had no chance to follow it through, as he successfully picked the lock. "I've done it! I've done it!" he shouted.
"Gently, gently!" Blake tried to calm him down.
"Now that is genius." Vila congratulated himself, then unfastened Blake's neckband.
"You could well be right." A much relieved Blake took the neckband off.
"You want more proof?" Vila moved to the cell door with an "Excuse me;" but before he could do anything, Avon moved away from it, announcing, "It's done."
"Oh, yes?" Vila was sceptical. Avon wasn't bad with locks, but, he had thought, not that good. He had to give him more credit than previously, though, as the door was open. "Oh... Yes," he conceded.
As he opened the door wider, an Amagon guard on the other side aimed his control box at Blake, who shouted, "Get down!" throwing his neckband at the guard. It was close enough to kill the latter when it exploded.
Blake left the cell; and when Cally and Gan left as well, he gave orders. "No, you stay back. Keep out of sight." He gestured towards the body. "Get him in there." Gan picked up the body and carried it into the cell.
"Vila," Avon said.
"Take this off."
Vila knew what he was talking about. "Well, that's all very well, but who's going to take mine off?"
"Get on with it," was all Avon said.
"Who's going to take mine off?" Vila repeated plaintively. Avon's only response was to turn his back on Vila, such that the lock of his neckband was accessible. Vila, conceding defeat, began to work.
Cally came over. "And Vila, do be quick," she urged him. "I'll be next."
Blake moved carefully down a corridor towards the flight deck, when, where it intersected with another, he met another Amagon guard. Before the latter could do anything, Jenna rushed him and grabbed his gun, giving Blake the chance to knock him out. She then handed the gun to Blake, having one of her own.
"Thank you." Blake was immensely relieved that she had only pretended to betray them to the Amagons.
"Come on, we haven't got much time," was Jenna's rushed response, as she left down the corridor.
On the flight deck, Sarkoff was still seated, while Tyce had come over to look at the main screen. Tarvin came over to join her, commenting with satisfaction, "They're almost here now." The screen clearly showed three Federation pursuit ships.
"I must congratulate you, Tarvin," said Sarkoff pleasantly, also looking at the screen. "It looks as though you have accomplished what no one else has been able to do: you have taken Blake and his crew alive and his ship intact."
Tarvin smiled, bathing in Sarkoff's flattery. "I will be a prince among my people."
"Oh, at the very least."
Tarvin felt that Sarkoff was making fun of him. He looked at him, his face serious. "Do not mock me, old man!" he warned.
Sarkoff looked unaffected by this. "Nothing was further from my mind. I welcome Blake's capture."
Tarvin's curiosity was aroused. "Why? What's he done to you?"
He didn't give up," was Tyce's scornful explanation. "He fought. Blake shamed him."
"And in the end lost. It was inevitable." Sarkoff bowed his head.
"Inevitable," agreed Tarvin. "I am the better man." He visibly preened himself.
"You?" Tyce's lips curled in contempt. "Selfish, greedy, vicious..."
"I won," Tarvin pointed out.
"Yes, my dear, you see, it's a paradox," Sarkoff pointed out. "He won because he is not the better man."
"What!?" Tarvin was insulted by this remark, as by his people's standards, the qualities he had exhibited would lead them to regard him as a great man.
"And yet by winning, it seems," continued Sarkoff, "he becomes a prince among people."
"Among my people," Tarvin pointed out.
"Does it matter which people, Tarvin?" Sarkoff's voice then took on a note of contempt. "Do you care?"
A little while later, Tarvin, in the pilot's seat again, spoke into the communicator. "Tarvin calling Federation patrol. Tarvin calling Federation patrol. Do you read me? Tarvin calling Federation patrol."
A male voice replied. "Report," it simply ordered.
"Tarvin calling. We will be at the rendezvous point in seven minutes. Request you have a boarding party standing by."
"Confirmed. Out." Tarvin left the position, at the same time that Tyce removed the small projectile weapon she had earlier from its hiding place in her boot.
"Jenna was obviously lying," Tarvin observed. "Thirteen million credits, I think." He turned to notice Tyce pointing the weapon at him. "Turn the ship round, Tarvin," she ordered.
While Tarvin had raised his hands, he pretended ignorance. "Is that a weapon?" he asked in an amused tone.
"Guess. Turn the ship round." Tyce was impatient.
"We'll die together," Tarvin pointed out.
Sarkoff stood up. "Be careful Tyce!" he warned, sensing that Tarvin had a plan. He was right; Tarvin moved his right hand towards the control box at his belt.
"Leave it!" Tyce snapped. Tarvin raised the hand. "You think I'm afraid?" he asked, acting amused.
"No, but a dead prince, where's the fun in that?" Tyce knew that Tarvin was not going to sacrifice himself for some greater good.
Tarvin laughed. He looked at Sarkoff and spoke his name. "Sarkoff!" This distracted Tyce's attention enough for him to knock the weapon out of her hand, enabling him to knock her down, then point his control box at her. Meanwhile, Sarkoff had picked up the weapon.
"Shoot him," Tyce requested.
"We don't have a quarrel," Tarvin pointed out. This was incorrect, and all three knew it; if he could gain any more credit, financial or otherwise, with the Federation if he handed them over along with the Liberator and its crew, he would do so.
"Shoot him now!" Tyce repeated.
"Throw it away," Tarvin ordered. "You couldn't kill me in time to save her," he pointed out. "A reflex, a dying spasm, and she's gone."
"Shoot him, father." Tyce was now pleading. "You owe it to me! You owe it to our people!"
Tarvin was angry. "Put it down, Sarkoff; you can't win! You haven't got the will for it!"
"Do it!" Tyce ordered.
The matter was resolved when Blake entered with Jenna. "Tarvin," he said, causing that person to whirl around, pressing the button on the control box. Blake laughed; and Tarvin whirled back, in time to be shot by Sarkoff. Jenna went over to check his body, crouching down.
Tyce and Sarkoff ignored this. The latter sat back down beside his daughter, asking, "So it really means that much to you?"
She smiled. "Aren't I President Sarkoff's daughter? Perhaps I just sounded as though I meant it."
Her father looked wistful. "Then perhaps I'd better sound as though I mean to be President Sarkoff."
Jenna got to her feet. "The Amagon's dead," she reported to Blake.
The latter knew that she meant to sound indifferent, but detected a note of regret. He placed a hand on a side of her face in comfort. "Take us out of here, Jenna," he said. Both smiled.
Later, after the Liberator had gone into orbit around Lindor, the teleport room was full. Sarkoff, wearing his hat and cloak, and pulling on his gloves, expressed a mixture of feelings. "I should thank you, but I'm not sure I have anything to be grateful for."
"I have, and I do thank you." Tyce felt she should be more grateful.
Her father then continued. "But as I'm supposed to be a politician, I will thank you anyway."
"Well, if ever you have need of our help again..." Blake knew that Sarkoff would need a lot of help to get back into power.
"I think you've helped enough," Sarkoff interrupted, moving towards Cally. "Goodbye, Blake." He shook hands.
"If you see Leeharn..." Cally said.
"I have work for Leeharn." Sarkoff sounded determined. "He and I have an alliance to put together." He smiled.
Cally smiled in response. "Then tell him he can go home to Auron." They shook hands.
Sarkoff then shook hands with Jenna. "Goodbye, Jenna."
Tyce decided to be more grateful. "Goodbye Blake," she said. "You'll always be welcome on Lindor."
"Yes, we may have need of thirteen million credits." Sarkoff patted Blake's shoulder.
"Over my dead body," replied Tyce.
Her father gave her a look. "I hope you're not going to make a habit of that particular threat." He turned to look at the Liberator crew. "Ready," he announced.
"Would you move back, please?" asked Jenna. Sarkoff and Tyce moved back to the main teleport area.
"Good luck," said Blake, who set the controls. He knew that Sarkoff would need it. While the planetary elections were a few years away, his party was in such disarray, along with everything else on Lindor, that it could be questioned if one man, no matter how good, could make the difference.
Despite this, Blake had felt that he had to do something, and made sure that he had had no dealings with anyone on Lindor regarding Sarkoff's return; this was to ensure that the latter's enemies could not accuse him of making deals with terrorists.
"Goodbye, Blake," said Tyce, smiling. Jenna and Cally looked at each other as the former activated the teleport.
After Sarkoff and Tyce had dematerialised, and Blake began to leave, Jenna made a teasing remark to Cally. "I had the feeling she didn't mean all of us."
Cally also took part. "Yes, I had that feeling," she said.
Blake looked annoyed. "Well, don't just stand there." He left the teleport room, while a smiling Jenna and Cally left it by another route. He was, in fact, glad of the joke; because his mind had been on his smashing of Sarkoff's record and his threat to destroy the entire collection.
Was the coercion of one person by threatening to smash his valuable relics from the past not something the Federation would do? Did they, in fact, allow Sarkoff to build up his collection to ensure their hold over him, so that they could threaten to smash it, as he had done?
While Cally had originally agreed with his assertion that he would possibly have to force Sarkoff to leave, she had looked uncomfortable and did not believe that this would be necessary. She suspects that I used force, Blake thought; but she won't ask the question, because she's afraid of the probable answer. He recalled the poster he had seen. The truth was certainly out there, but did people want to hear all of it?