He and his men had watched as the small, Federation craft had beaten them to the planet and the awaiting prize, and then seen the beautiful ship appear as if from nowhere. It hadn’t landed, but had run at full speed over the area where Bethol’s base was situated and now it was hurtling away out into the vast void of Space........
by Sue Little and Larasati Widara
He had failed his people.
And now it was not a good place to be.
And without any life support.
But he had had no choice in the matter.
They had come along side; threatened him, and his family, and he had had no choice.
He had anticipated that they would come after him.
And he was right.
They had carried out their threat and now he was alone, adrift in space aboard his disabled ship. Bound securely within the confines of his cabin and sealed in.
He could only wait.
For how long?
The breathable air was getting thinner, his lungs were straining.
He didn’t know how long he would last without the life support system, but they had switched that off and made sure that no-one could contact him, before disabling every system on the ship.
Now he waited.
Waited for rescue…..or death.
It wouldn’t be long now.
They had smiled before they shut the door, but he had heard the name of his friend mentioned; Arne French.
They were going to stop him now….
…and no-one was going to help either of them.
They were dead men.
Only, in his case, his sentence was being carried out at this minute.
And it was only a minute, but enough to think on and consider the future.
He had none.
He had failed.
And it looked as though French would fail.
Which meant the two of them had let their people down; had left them all at the mercy of the ruthless man who had ordered this execution.
He drew in a deep breath.
And he knew that it was his last.
For the first time in his life, Arne French was scared.
He had obtained the part; that was easy enough, but getting back to his ship had proved to be a problem.
His entry into the compound had been barred by two officials who announced that his ship had been impounded due to unpaid taxes.
“What unpaid taxes?” he had queried. And then he had seen them; skulking in the shadows.
He knew immediately that they were Bethol’s men. Sent to stop him, and that spare part from ever returning to Adurat. Bethol ruled that colony as if it were his own fiefdom. And in a way it was, Bethol was a bitter Federation officer, literally dumped on the colony, ‘as a presence’ it was stated. But he was determined to prove his ‘employers’ wrong. He was going to show them that this seemingly unrewarding planet classed as having nothing of value was in fact a place to be reckoned with.
He knew that Bethol would stop at nothing to keep an iron grip on his somewhat unwilling vassals on Adurat. But French also knew that he had to get back; without that spare part the crops would fail and mass starvation would result.
He had tried to find another ship to take him home, but everyone had politely declined, such was Bethol’s reach. And now he sat in a dark corner in an eating establishment, picking at the contents of the plate before him, knowing that they were here, in this same place, just waiting for him to leave.
He sighed. Hopefully his last message to Grove had got through. A warning not to follow as Bethol’s men were waiting for him. If the message hadn’t got through, or if Grove had ignored it, then there was every possibility that another poor soul would fall foul of Bethol’s hunger for power and recognition.
Space Commander Travis was fighting the anger welling up deep inside his core. The plan had so very nearly worked; everything had played out exactly as it was supposed to do.
And yet he had escaped.
And that ship of his.
A shining beacon of hope; once more allowed to roam the Galaxy at will; to engender a belief that things would change; could be changed.
Such thoughts were dangerous. As far as Travis was concerned, the Federation was a force for stability. To have one man openly defy it and its all-encompassing control, was an anathema. He had to be stopped; at all costs. Even if it cost Travis his own sanity, such was the burning hatred in his soul.
He marched along the serried ranks of soldiers; some new, raw recruits among them, outwardly inspecting them, but inwardly trying to find a distraction from the gnawing pain of failure.
At least in this large loading bay he was away from the recriminations now echoing around the airwaves of Federation Space Command. But he knew, that even here, she was watching.
Maybe even mocking him.
Supreme Commander Servalan.
One of the most powerful women in the Federation; maybe soon to be the most powerful. If the ascent of the ranks continued, Travis believed that one day, Servalan would be the President.
And that possibility, he believed, should concern a great many people in the higher echelons of the hierarchy that called itself the Federation.
An orderly approached. He stood to attention and handed Travis a small handheld device.
Travis had little time for reading lines of chitchat. “Well?” he asked in an abrupt manner.
“One of our outlying stations picked up a strange message. It was going to be catalogued as a routine communication from one of our outlying bases….”
“It was suggested that I give you the message.”
“I’m afraid I am not party to……”
“Don’t flatter me with your fine words. Read out the relevant message then get out of my sight.”
The orderly was suddenly flustered. “Err, yes sir.” He quickly scanned the small screen, “Yes, here it is sir, ‘A message relayed from Adurat. It states that they have someone wanted by the Federation under arrest….”
Travis took the device and quickly glanced at the screen. He raised an eyebrow, “Are you sure?”
“It was going to be dismissed as another false report...”
“But we were ordered to bring it to your attention, sir.”
Travis looked up at a security camera, “I wonder who by?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I am…..”
“…not party to. I know. You are dismissed.”
Travis remained staring at the single lens camera set high in the ceiling. She was watching him.
And she knew that he would be unable to ignore that message.
A message that would reignite the need.
The need to find his nemesis and finally destroy him.
“So, why are we going to Laternar?” Vila asked. He was still puzzled by the apparent decision to go somewhere other than a nice, peaceful recreation planet.
Blake turned around to answer, trying his best to sound as patient as he could, “We need supplies which both Jenna and Cally agree are available there and Avon requires reactive computer wire…..”
“And an isolation primerator.”
“Whatever that is.”
Blake drew in a deep breath, “According to Jenna, Laternar has a good market for such things, and, most importantly, it is outside of Federation control.”
“Speaking of Jenna,” Gan interrupted, “I think you need to look at this message.”
All three looked at the main screen.
On it was a blur as Gan rewound the decoded messages.
And then, there is was;
‘Adurat, 302175, Base Commander Bethol to Terran Space Command Headquarters. I have in custody the escaped smuggler Jenna Stannis. She will remain as such until you have her….”
“Does Jenna know?” Vila asked, getting to his feet with every intention of going off to tell Jenna the news.
“It would be better that she doesn’t.” It was Avon; standing quite still; his eyes fixed on the main viewing screen.
“I think it only fair,” Vila retorted.
Vila ignored the question, but smiled at the taciturn man as he passed him.
Avon allowed himself a very small smile, “Oh yes, why not put the idea into her head to go and see this Base Commander and find out just what he is up to?”
Vila turned to say something, but was thwarted by Avon continuing, “It would take a Delta Grade to think of that.”
Base Commander Bethol slowly walked around the young, blonde woman. She stood quite still, staring determinedly into the distance, defiantly refusing to be intimidated by her captor. He shook his head, wondering how on Earth such good fortune had literally fallen into his grasp.
“So, you claim to be Jenna Stannis?”
“I am Jenna Stannis. Why do you find that so hard to believe?”
“Because the image that I have in the Federation records concerning you does not……do you justice.” As he spoke, he touched her hair.
She shied away from him.
Undeterred, Bethol continued, “I understand that you are a somewhat up and coming celebrity wanted by the Federation for all sorts of wrongdoings. And yet, here you are, alone. What of your colleagues?”
She didn’t reply.
“You do realise that running contraband is a serious crime…”
“….bringing in provisions for starving people is not a crime.”
“It is when you do it without my express permission. Now where are they?”
Bethol was not known for his patience, and this woman was beginning to try it. “Please, do not demean my intelligence. I speak of your associates. Do you expect me to imagine that you came here.…alone?”
“I’ve decided to become an independent.”
“I find that very hard to believe.”
“Believe whatever you want,” she replied stubbornly, “but I am here, on Adurat, quite alone.”
“We’ll see just how independent you are once the news is out about your capture. It should be interesting to see who comes to your rescue, won’t it?” Bethol murmured, once again raising a hand to touch the glistening blonde hair. This time, the prisoner lashed out and caught the base Commander’s pudgy face with a stinging blow.
It didn’t faze him in the slightest. Smiling, Bethol slowly shook his head, “Meanwhile, I think a lesson in manners is needed.” He waved his hand towards one of his men, “Show Miss Stannis to her cell. Perhaps a spell in there will make her more cooperative.”
The Liberator’s journey to Laternar was brought to an abrupt halt.
The on board sensors had picked up a slowly drifting space craft showing no signs of life either human or mechanical. It was not emitting a distress signal but showed every sign of being in serious trouble.
Gan was trying to make contact, without success, while Avon checked the scans being relayed to his station.
“Anything?” Blake asked, scrutinising the ship on the main view screen.
“Nothing,” Gan replied.
“There are no life signs and it would appear that the life support system, along with every other system on board is not functioning, However, Zen has detected a humanoid body in the early stages of rigor mortis on board.”
“Has that ship sustained any battle damage?”
“Apparently not. It would seem that the systems have merely been turned off.”
“Why would anyone do that?” Jenna asked out loud.
“Why indeed?” pondered Blake.
“Either way, it doesn’t concern us.” Avon announced, mindful of the last encounter they had had with a drifting, seemingly lifeless spacecraft.
“Jenna,” Blake began, totally ignoring Avon’s reservations, “You said this was a favourite trick of pirates and the like.”
“……and we are literally in the middle of their hunting ground,” Jenna pointed out.
“Charming,” Vila murmured.
“Cally, could you carry out a 360 sweep of the immediate area,” Blake asked, “See if there is another ship out there.”
“Nothing,” the Auron reported a few minutes later.
“Well?” Blake asked, looking at each of his crew in turn, “Something has happened to that ship and whoever was on it. I’d like to find out what…..and I know that you, Avon, don’t like a mystery.”
A few minutes later, Blake was waiting by the airlock, with Jenna and Avon. Rather than teleport over into an atmosphere quite devoid of oxygen, they decided to dock with the small ship and use the Liberator’s life support, at least until they could fathom out why this quite new, well equipped ship was languishing adrift in space with its owner possibly aboard and quite dead.
“Maybe it was a hijack that went wrong?” Jenna suggested, “The thief who stole it didn’t bargain for any security systems.”
Vila’s voice drifted over the intercom, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, prepare to meet thy doom…”
Blake shook his head. Vila was being overdramatic again.
“He could have a point,” Jenna said, “There could be plague on the other side of this door.”
“I have had Zen check that very thing,” Avon murmured, idly turning his gun in his hand, “It has run a full spectrum scan of what remains of the atmosphere and there is nothing injurious to us aboard that ship.”
“Are you sure?” Jenna asked.
“Do you seriously think that I would be standing here waiting to board that ship if I wasn’t?”
The flight deck of the strange craft was eerily silent. Everything seemed in order except that none of the displays on the instrument panels showed any sign of life. Neither was there any sign of damage. Only the stale air made breathable by the Liberator’s own life support sucking out the carbon dioxide and replacing it with its own atmosphere, was a clue to something untoward.
Avon reached for a switch and activated it; the ship’s own life support cut in.
“Merely turned off,” he said quietly.
“By whom?” Blake wondered, “Avon see if you can get anything from the computer. Maybe whoever owned this ship kept a daily log. Jenna and I will have a look around….”
“Remember, Zen said there is a body on board,” Jenna reminded him.
“Maybe the answer lies there.”
“You know,” Avon remarked, “This could just be a very elaborate way to commit suicide for someone.”
They found the body.
Behind a door whose lock had been destroyed from the outside.
Blake had forced it opened and now both he and Jenna were looking at the trussed up body of a man, possibly the pilot of this ship.
Blake knelt down, then silently shook his head, He had hoped that somehow Zen had been wrong with his assertion that the one body on this ship was in the first stages of rigor mortis.
“This isn’t suicide,” Blake murmured.
“But who would do this? Tie him up, seal him in his cabin and then leave him without any life support?”
“See if you can find any ID. Search the drawers and cupboards.”
While Jenna did that, Blake searched the dead man. Nothing.
Avon’s voice came over the teleport bracelet.
“I think you had better get back up here, Blake. I’ve found what passes for a log record and it doesn’t make for pleasant listening.”
“What have you found?”
“This ship belongs to one Kel Grove. I presume that is the body back there?”
“Jenna’s trying to find any kind of ID. Go on.”
“He is out from Adurat…..”
“Adurat? But that’s where some Base Commander claims to have arrested Jenna….”
“Indeed. He was bound for Laternar to find and meet a friend, an Arne French. He has a very important spare part vital to the survival of the inhabitants of Adurat.”
“The last entry concerns a ship coming along side and forcing him to stop. ‘They’ve found me’, Grove says and then just before it goes dead, the recording hopes that French will escape these mysterious people’s reach and return in safety.”
“And then the people from that ship board this one and do that….” Blake pointed his finger towards the aft cabin. “He must have been scared witless.”
“There is one more thing. I looked at the transmission record. A message came in from an Arne French on Laternar. Less than a day ago. He stated that he was unable to leave and was waiting for Grove in an interesting little watering hole.”
“He could still be there,” Blake mused.
“More to the point, whoever did this has a head start on us and could be about to do the same to this French as they have done, so expertly, to this poor unfortunate man.”
Jenna returned to the flight deck. In her hand she had a small card holder. She opened it up to reveal the face of the dead man and another picture of a woman and a child.
“His name is…was Kel Grove. And he hails from Adurat. The Base Commander of that place has a few things to explain.”
“Later,” Blake said,” Right now we need to get to Laternar and find a man called Arne French. He could hold the key to this whole mystery.”
Laternar was a bustling space port, so far unsullied by the Federation and its determination to bring every habitable star system under its auspices.
For Jenna, it was a chance to rekindle old friendships. She had helped these people a few years ago.
Smuggling in food and other supplies when the Federation had first attempted to ‘convince’ the locals of the wisdom of accepting the rule of a benign presence. But once the Federation had realised that Laternar, like Adurat, lacked anything of value, then that interest had died, if only temporarily.
However, unlike Adurat, Laternar was left to its own devices and no resident Base Commander had been left to keep an eye on things.
Blake’s first inkling that Jenna was held in some respect was when they were both shown into the Council Chamber and the man who was referred to as one of the founding fathers, almost crushed Jenna in an over enthusiastic bear hug.
“Jenna! Why didn’t you contact me and let me know that you were coming?”
“I’m sorry, Mason, but under the circumstances we thought it best not to broadcast our arrival.” Jenna managed to release herself from Mason’s embrace.
“What circumstances?” Mason asked.
Jenna took a deep breath, “This is Roj Blake. He and I…..”
Mason’s eyes lit up. For a moment Blake was convinced that he was about to be on the receiving end of an encompassing hug; thankfully Mason merely offered his hand, “We had heard some rumours. But news is fragmented. It is a pleasure to meet you, Blake. Forgive me, where are my manners? Please take a seat.”
Blake and Jenna did so and then waited as their host busied himself with some refreshments.
“What do you know about Adurat?” Blake asked, taking a sip from the proffered glass and finding it to his liking.
“It’s not pleasant. The Federation left an officer there who feels just a little hard done by. His name is Bethol and he intends to make a name for himself. Unfortunately, he is turning the colony into his own private kingdom. No-one can leave without his express authority, but if you have money….then that’s a completely different matter.
“Most of the people there are suffering hardship, not enough food, crops failing, but Bethol and his men seem to be doing just nicely. He’s seen how some other planets and space ports have flourished by turning to, shall we say, places of entertainment…..”
Blake looked at him.
“Only small scale,” Mason continued, “But if you like to gamble…well amongst other things, that’s the place to be.”
“We picked up a message,” Jenna said, “This Base Commander Bethol has informed Federation Headquarters that he has me in custody.”
Mason fell silent; the warm, broad smile no longer on his face, “I warned her not to go. I said it was too dangerous.”
“Who did you warn?”
“I don’t know her name,” Mason began, “She came here, looking for someone. She wouldn’t go into specifics, only that that she had discovered that the people responsible had come here. I think she was told that what she was looking for was on its way to Adurat. She came to me for advice.”
“And you advised her not to go?” Blake asked.
“I did, but it looks as though she went anyway. And now it would seem that Bethol has her.”
“But why use my name?” Jenna wondered.
Mason’s smiled returned, “There are many on this planet who remember you, Jenna, and are grateful for what you did. I can only presume that she heard about you and how good a pilot you were and it’s possible that people commented that she looked just like you…and for reasons known only to her, when the time came she decided to claim that she was Jenna Stannis.”
“What will he do?” Blake asked, somewhat worried about the answer he might receive.
“When he finds out that she isn’t Jenna? I don’t know.”
“Well, I’ve seen what he and his men are capable of and it’s not pretty. Which brings me to the reason we are here. Someone called French left Adurat to obtain a spare part for some sort of plant facility that had broken down. He is here, somewhere, hiding in fear of his life. Bethol’s men have traced him here and we need to get to him before they do.”
Mason thought for a moment, his mind still wondering what fate awaited the young woman who had gone to Adurat, “Have you any idea where he might be?”
“Well,” Jenna began, “the last message he got out was that had tried to get back to his ship, but had been stopped somehow and that he was waiting for Grove in one of the establishments here.”
“I’ll call in a few favours….see if anyone has seen a stranger….”
“And a very scared stranger at that,” Blake added.
Bethol’s patience was wearing thin and the young woman’s refusal to divulge the whereabouts of her friends was beginning to try what patience he had left, to the limit.
Were they already here? Waiting for the right opportunity? He had a vague idea who he was dealing with, but maybe it would be prudent to reread the Federation reports. However, at this moment he had other concerns.
He sat in his ‘office’ watching the display of screens. His ‘guests’ were evidently all enjoying themselves and money was changing hands; but most importantly, the ‘house’ was doing very nicely.
Bethol’s ‘office’ wasn’t exactly a lavish room; it was little more than a partitioned off section of his larger living quarters and even those were part of a utility sectional building favoured by the colonists out here as each section could be joined together and then used as and how they so desired. Which made things very easy for Bethol as he had appropriated several sections of abandoned buildings, or even taken parts of the colonists' ‘house’ in lieu of payment for debts incurred.
Such was his desire to have a building that he felt reflected his status as the Base Commander of Adurat; he hadn’t had time to provide himself with a satisfactory building for incarcerating anyone who displeased him.
That problem had been solved, partly, by the creation of a holding cell up in the hills behind his ‘house’. It had been a cave at one time, but with the front of it barred by a make-shift metal fence, it served as a prison.
It wasn’t weather proof by any imagination, but it served its purpose.
So far several of the people on this small planet who had upset him, or disagreed with him, had found themselves put in that cell……and then been forgotten about. No-one knew they were there and no-one actually cared. With no food or water and almost open to the elements, the ‘cell’ had become a death sentence for anyone ending up there.
And the more he thought about his uncooperative prisoner, now ensconced in one of the rooms just off his living area, the more he thought of putting her somewhere where his expected visitor wouldn’t find her.
He thought about it….then decided that he would boast of his good fortune. This would show his visitor that Bethol was not some small time Federation officer, but a big up and coming player in the scheme of things.
His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of a helmeted Federation Guard.
Bethol sighed, “At least attempt to look like a Federation officer. What is it?”
“Yes….sir. A message has just come in. It seems that our friend Grove has had an unfortunate accident.”
“I’m so sorry to hear it. And what of that interfering French?”
“He has been located. Our…your men are waiting for the right moment. The place he is in is too crowded at the moment, but once that crowd disperses…?”
“Good. The last thing we want are witnesses to what could be an ugly scene. I have to welcome a visitor soon and he will expect to see Federation guards here…so at least try and act like one.”
“Yes…sir!” The man saluted, but it wasn’t very convincing.
Bethol waved him away. He smiled to himself. Perhaps being appointed as Base Commander on this miserable planet had been a blessing in disguise. Soon, those who had made that decision would see Bethol for what he really was; a man to be reckoned with and once they had seen just how easily he had captured one of the rebels who had begun to cause serious trouble to the Federation, then they would sit up and take notice.
Bethol could sense his career being in the ascendant and he was determined to enjoy every minute.
Mason’s contacts had located a man hiding in the shadows of a rather down at heel establishment. And it was obvious that he was being watched. As the place emptied, the man grew more nervous by the second.
For Blake this was proving a little unnerving as well. Both he and Jenna were nothing like the types who frequented such places and even Mason had queried the whole exercise. But there was someone who did fit in; it was just a matter of convincing him.
Vila was a bit dubious. “So, you want me to walk up to this French and not spook him? Where is he?”
“Apparently he’s right over in the corner,” Blake murmured, “You can’t miss him. He’s been nursing the same drink for hours.”
“And what about those people who are out to get him? You know, they might not take kindly to me interfering.”
“Just do it, Vila. We’ll be watching…don’t worry.”
“Don’t worry, he says. All right, but the first sign of trouble……”
French had realised that his friend wasn’t coming to get him out of this mess. And he knew that very soon he would fall victim to whatever plan Bethol had in mind. How could such a minor Federation representative have such power to reach this far? Even the men who patrolled the compound for all the ships that visited here were in his pay.
He took a deep breath. The other men sent by Bethol would be closing in soon and all because he, French, had wanted to get that spare part for the plant. He reached down and pulled the carefully wrapped package out of the bag and placed it on the table. One simple component and yet Bethol saw it as a threat to his empire.
Someone walked by. French was rigid; so they were about to make their move. And no-one would come to his rescue.
Then someone sat down opposite him.
French looked up.
The man opposite smiled at him, “Well, I told her to find a seat and now I can’t find her. Just typical. Well, it seems a shame to let this go to waste. Here, you look as if you could do with a drink.”
French pushed the drink away. Poison. That’s what it was.
“No…oh well, more for me,” The man took sip, “You know, between you and me, I think she’s found someone more interesting…if you know what I mean? Can’t say I blame her. You really should try this drink. It’s the house special.” He took another sip, “Not quite sure what’s special about it….but you look as though you could do with it….”
“I’m waiting for a friend……”
The man lowered his voice, “He’s not coming.”
French stared at the man. Who was he? Suddenly, French could feel the panic rising in his stomach as the dawning realisation that they were about to strike and kill him….
“Oh, there you are.” The woman was blonde and very attractive and she seemed to know this man.
“Ahh…this is Jenna. In case you’re wondering, my name is Vila…..and we are about to get you out of this mess. Take this,” Vila said, handing over a bracelet along with the drink.
“We found your friend, Grove,” Jenna explained, “He led us to you.”
“Dead, I’m afraid.” The voice belonged to another man; taller and with an air of authority about him. Vila put the bracelet round French’s wrist; the latter seemed in a daze.
“Liberator, Blake. Four to come up.”
On the Liberator, a totally dazed and bemused French stood in the teleport section, not quite sure what to do next. These three people seemed friendly enough, but he had no idea who they were or what they had planned for him. In his grasp, he still had the vital spare part; surely they weren’t interested in that?
“Who are you?” he finally uttered, watching in fascination as the others removed the strange bands from around their wrists and replaced them in the rack to his right.
“Friends,” replied the man who had ordered this strange mode of transport, “My name is Blake.”
“You’re lucky we found you,” the man replied, taking the bracelet from French’s wrist.
“How did you……”
“We found a friend of yours.” This time it was another man, not as tall as Blake, but one who also seemed to have some authority about him. “His name was Grove.”
“Yes…well, we’ll explain everything in a moment,” Blake said, “First of all, I think you’d like to get cleaned up?”
“And no doubt,” Vila put in, “have something a little more appetising to eat than whatever they were serving down there?”
French had gratefully taken up the offer of something to eat and drink from these strangers; but he still held on to the spare part which meant life or death to his people.
Now he was seated on the Flight Deck on one of the forward couches, “You said your name was Blake?”
“I was so certain that you had been sent by Bethol……I can’t believe it. Of all the people…..I had heard rumours. They try to suppress it, but word gets around. What are you doing in this part of space?”
“We picked up a message from Adurat informing Space Command that a Base Commander Bethol had taken Jenna Stannis into custody……”
“…..except that no-one had told me,” Jenna put in.
“Why would Bethol do that?”
French took a deep breath, “He’s a nobody determined to become somebody and he doesn’t care how he does it. Tell me, how did Grove…..die?”
“Not pleasantly,” Avon informed him.
“I told him not to follow me. I had enough trouble convincing Bethol to let me leave and fetch that part. I think he conceded, just to get rid of me.”
“Why?” Blake asked.
“I was questioning his judgement. Trying to make him let us live as we wanted, not how he demanded.”
Blake was acutely aware that as French spoke those words, Avon was staring in his direction.
“So what do you want to do now?” Blake asked.
“Go back to Adurat, of course. My people need this part for the processing plant. Adurat has no natural resources, but the settlers there have been able to farm what land there is. We can feed our families, even sell on the excess. It’s not a rich colony, but it is a good life…well it was. The Federation came, decided that we didn’t exactly fit into the scheme of things. We don’t have anything they want, but they realised there was potential, so they built a plant to enable us to turn to hydroponics and grow more food and maybe allow an expansion of population. They need a foothold out here and they decided to leave Bethol, a man of little consequence, to be a presence. We need that plant so that we can also use any excess from it to fertilize our fields.”
“But this Bethol doesn’t see it that way.”
“No, he says Adurat doesn’t need that plant any longer….or me for that matter.”
“And he’s quite adamant about that?”
“Oh yes, he’s quite adamant. Somehow he managed to persuade certain people on Laternar to stop me from leaving…..and he even got to Grove.”
“Avon found the log on Grove’s ship. Another ship waylaid him, the crew came aboard and…well, they left him without any life support.”
Avon was pensive. He stood just behind Blake, “To have that sort of power requires a certain amount of collateral. So what does this lowly, nondescript Base Commander have that wins over and influences people? By the sound of it, certainly not his charm.”
“There’s something else you should know. The Federation guards that were left with him? Well, they are no longer those guards. Oh they’ve got the same IDs, but they are not the same men.”
“And how do you know that?” Jenna asked.
“…..because two of those who ‘agreed’ with my way of thinking went over to his side. It was the only way they could think of to protect their families. Join Bethol as he replaced those loyal to the Federation and at least keep us apprised of Bethol’s plans.”
“Well now, that didn’t seem to help you, did it?” Avon stated.
“……the problem is the other men are off-worlders; keen to join Bethol in which ever enterprise he has decided upon.”
Vila had been listening to the conversation with interest, “So just what has this delightful gentleman got that can buy that sort of devotion? You said that the Federation had discovered nothing of value on Adurat?”
“Well,” Gan said, pointing to the main viewing screen as the planet Adurat came into view, “Somebody has.”
There, at the limit of magnification, was Adurat; and surrounding it were a number of space craft, circling it like a swarm of bees.
Bethol greeted the man as if he were a long lost brother, except that this long lost brother did not take kindly to being greeted in such a fashion. It was not the sort of thing his people went in for. His home planet of Amagon did not encourage such familiarity; just in case the need ever arose to dispose of a close family member. Should the reward, of course, be substantial enough.
Tarvin smiled at Bethol. The rotund man in front of him was, as far as he was concerned, just another client. But he had potential. So it was worth keeping him on side.
For Bethol’s part, it was still a strange experience to deal with a man from another culture, dressed in such a showy manner that more than anything outlined this man’s more extravagant nature, “I see you have brought guests, Tarvin?”
“Indeed I have, friend Bethol. And I have the supplies that you requested. I trust you have the payment ready?”
“It will be put aboard your ship upon receipt.”
“Good. I also have some items that I wish to dispose of. I’m sure that there will be some discerning clients here who would welcome the chance to purchase such commodities.”
“And I have something to show you,” Bethol said, eager to impress his guest, “I have not been idle. She came to this planet on some pretext or other. Something about helping these poor, helpless colonists.” He motioned to the guard standing by the door, “Fetch our lovely guest.”
“Your guards do not exactly show the Federation at its best, Bethol.”
“Purely for show. Which they will be, when the Federation come and see who I, the oh so humble Bethol, have captured.”
“You intrigue me. Who is this person?”
The door opened and the young woman was pushed in; this time her hands bound securely behind her back. After their last meeting, Bethol had decided not to take any risks. He tilted her chin up towards the Amagon.
“I present to you, Jenna Stannis…..”
Tarvin smirked, “That is not my dear sweet Jenna Stannis.”
“Not Jenna Stannis? But she told me….”
“I’m sure she did, but this is not her.”
“Are you sure?”
“My dear Bethol, Jenna Stannis and I spent a most……….shall we say, that I am acquainted with her. This woman, as beautiful as she is, is not Jenna Stannis.”
“Not Jenna Stannis?” Bethol repeated in disbelief.
“No, which is a great shame.”
“But, I’ve contacted the Federation….I’ve told them….”
“Then I suggest that you inform them that you have been mistaken; that you have been the victim of a gross deception.”
Bethol could hardly contain his anger, “Then who is she?”
She stared defiantly back at him; a triumphant smile playing across her features.
“It would appear,” Tarvin smiled, in return, “that this delightful young lady wishes to keep that information to herself.”
Bethol raised his hand, but the Amagon stopped him. “No Bethol, that wouldn’t do. She is, shall we say, very spirited. I’m sure there is another way…….but first, I think you should contact the Federation; and I think you do it sooner rather than later,” Tarvin advised, matter-of-factly, “Because if they come here on a whim and find that she is not who you say she is…then they may start to take an interest in what exactly you are doing on this so-called desolate, worthless planet.”
“Not worthless for much longer,” Bethol smiled, regaining his composure.”
“Indeed,” Tarvin said, “But what to do with this delightful creature?”
“What do you suggest?”
Tarvin reached out a hand to touch her face, but then thought better of it. The burning fire deep in her eyes told him that she would not appreciate such familiarity.
But there was something familiar about her. He tentatively reached out to touch her blond hair; so much like his Jenna’s. She jerked her head away, determined to escape his unwanted caress, but he was equally determined and with one gentle movement, the blonde hair fell to the floor to reveal a mass of dark curls. He sighed. She was familiar; very familiar.
She glared at him, “Are you happy now?”
“You know her?” Bethol asked, still shocked by the events of the last few minutes.
“Not exactly,” Tarvin replied, his gaze firmly fixed on the young woman. “You know, friend Bethol, it would be such a waste to destroy this beauty; however, I think I have the solution.”
“You intrigue me, but time is short, and I have new customers arriving. I need to make sure that all is well.”
“Indeed.” Tarvin smiled, a cold calculating smile that sent a cold chill running down her spine. He continued, his eyes never leaving hers, “As I said earlier, I have brought some merchandise with me which I think will be most appreciated by your customers. It is considered highly immoral among your people, but out here, away from the old ideas, I believe this new venture that I have in mind is growing in popularity….and those in the Federation who consider themselves elitist, are the most ardent supporters. If your guards would be so kind as to escort ‘Miss Stannis’ to my ship, then I can explain everything to you.”
Bethol was intrigued. Anything that would raise the status of his small enterprise would be most welcome, “You have my complete attention.”
“Where is this Adurat?” Travis asked.
“You do not need to know that,” Servalan’s voice drifted back over the speaker set above the small screen.
The screen, itself, was blank, for even in this quiet corner of Federation Space Command, it was still prudent to make sure that she was not seen to be communicating with her currently leashed Space Commander.
Travis tried to remain calm; to become angry would attract prying eyes. As it was, he knew that the schemers who would want him dismissed the service were watching, waiting to pounce on any little misdemeanour.
“Besides, Travis,” Servalan’s almost inaudible voice purred, “It would appear that the sender of that message has now called in a case of mistaken identity.”
“And I suppose you have taken that at face value?”
“The High Council has decided to accept that…”
“They would. Who is this Base Commander, anyway?”
“He is no-one of importance. A man called Bethol. He is, shall we say, not exactly officer material, for one reason and another. The Federation decided to leave a presence on Adurat and it was decided that he should be left in charge. There are only a few settlers there; they will not cause any problems.”
“Because Travis, the Federation needs a foothold in that quadrant, one that will not put up any resistance. In fact, those on Adurat are grateful for our presence. We have, after all, furnished them with a processing plant to supply their hydroponics and enable them to grow more in their fields….”
“What can a failed Federation officer possibly do?”
Travis was thoughtful, “Why would he send a message saying that he had one of Blake’s people under arrest? What would he gain from such a move?”
“Notoriety, I expect. Now, Travis, why don’t you return to your task? Those new recruits will need a hard taskmaster. This is why I chose you.”
“I find that the best way to bring new recruits up to scratch is to blood them, in the field of battle……”
Servalan audibly sighed, “And you will, Travis, when the time is right.”
The connection went dead. Travis studied it for a moment. Blake was out there somewhere, and he was being denied his right to find and bring to heel the man who was singlehandedly stirring up unrest in the outer reaches of the Federation’s spreading power.
It would be difficult to find anyone to aid him in his quest; the debacle of the Freedom Fighter Avalon’s escape hung over him like a leaden weight. But Travis felt that his quarry was out there; for someone to announce that they had captured Jenna Stannis was either the act of a man desperate to gain acceptance, or an act of sheer stupidity.
Despite being considered an outcast by all and sundry of the upper echelons, Travis still had the respect of all those men who had had the privilege, as they regarded it, of serving with him. Although they felt it unwise to communicate directly with their former senior officer, they were able to keep him informed of events by way of trusted comrades; one of whom was Travis’ Sergeant.
He was a lean, gaunt man, hardened by years of fighting. And he saw the High Council’s efforts to side-line and ridicule Travis as an act of treachery.
As the two men stood silently watching the recruits going through their paces again, the Sergeant decided to voice his opinion.
“Permission to speak, sir?”
“I think it is time we took these soldiers out of the confines of this station sir.”
“And where do you suggest we take them?”
“On a routine training flight. See how they handle deep space.”
“And where do you have in mind, Sergeant?”
“Maybe in the direction of the planet, Adurat.”
Travis smiled, “So you have heard the rumours as well?”
“I usually find that there is no smoke without fire, sir. And my informant is eager to have permission to check out that rumour.”
“And you don’t think that the Base Commander is mistaken?”
“Only in that he shouldn’t have announced his capture of one of Blake’s crew so suddenly, without being sure of his facts, sir.”
“But it wouldn’t be wise to go there with a troop carrier. You wouldn’t want to alarm the good settlers, or even warn Blake off…if he is there.”
Travis thought for a moment. “Then what would you suggest?”
“Me, Space Commander? I’m a mere Sergeant. However, some of the men who have been on leave have heard that Adurat is not the nice quiet planet it used to be.”
“In what way?”
“Those poor, down trodden farmers? It would seem that they have decided to diversify; can’t say I blame them, farming the land can be back breaking……”
“As I have said, sir, there’s no smoke……”
“…….without fire. Yes, I know, Sergeant. Maybe it would be prudent for the Federation to investigate these smouldering flames.”
“But discreetly. We wouldn’t want to alarm anyone, would we?”
“I wonder what is going on down there.” Blake thought out loud. He was standing in front of the main screen, watching the small fleet of ships in stationary orbit. In amongst them there were smaller craft, seeming flitting from one to another of those in orbit, and then making their way down to the surface.
“French,” he said, turning to look at the other man who, likewise, was engrossed in the scene being played out before his eyes, “What exactly is Bethol doing down there to attract so may ships?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. I know that he had requisitioned Vargo’s shelter about a month before I decided to leave.”
“One of the original settlers. He was determined to find a water source on his land to supplement the water he had….you know, an irrigation scheme. And then he left….”
“Left? Did he say why?”
French shook his head, “One day he was there and then Bethol informed us that they had come to an agreement and Vargo had left for pastures new….leaving his property for Bethol. All those houses down there are sectional buildings. A basic structure which you can build onto as and when….you know, extend. Once you’ve got the basic structure up you can do whatever you want with them.”
Jenna was watching the screen at her station, “We can’t stay out here for ever, we’ve already been scanned.”
“Take us in to close orbit, Jenna. At least give the impression that we are here with these other ships.”
“You want to go down there?” Cally asked.
“Scan the surface Cally. Let’s see just what exactly is down there.”
They had their answer in a few minutes.
To all intents and purposes, the area where once Bethol’s small, unremarkable centre of operations had been, now seemed to be a hub of activity.
There was a cluster of small flyers around a large, sprawling building of some nature. And even French seemed surprised at how Bethol seemed to have extended his living quarters.
“Well?” Blake asked.
“You tell me. I know that he had some idea about diversifying. Bringing in more trade, so to speak.”
“Well, he’s certainly bringing something in,” Vila mused.
Cally had been listening to the communication channels and seemed amused about a request she had received, “It seems that Jenna was correct, we have indeed been scanned and whoever is down there wants to know if we require landing permission.”
“Landing permission?” Blake said, “For what?”
“Well……they are asking if we want to take advantage of the latest establishment. No limit.”
Vila’s ears pricked up, “No limit? He’s got some sort of gaming establishment down there.”
“What?” French was disgusted, “My people are on the verge of starvation and he’s… he’s….”
“Then maybe we should do something about it,” Blake suggested, “That spare part? Maybe it’s time we went to that plant and got it online again.”
“They are waiting for a reply,” Cally said.
“And if we don’t reply, they may get just a little suspicious,” Jenna pointed out.
“What do you suggest?” Blake asked, “That we send someone down there just to keep up appearances?”
“It would make sense,” Avon said, “While you and French replace the faulty part we will need someone to, shall we say, divert attention from our true intentions.”
“Vila….” Blake began.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
Blake smiled, “Just don’t overdo it. Maybe Cally should go with you, just to make sure. Cally, let them know that you and Vila will be more than happy to take up their kind offer.”
“And landing?” Jenna reminded him.
“They may have to wait for one of these other ships to send a flyer down. The last thing we want is for Cally and Vila to arrive unexpectedly. Well, French, I think it’s time you got to work on that disabled plant. I presume you can repair it?”
“I can, but I will need help.”
“Avon, if French and I could get inside that building and replace that part….could you bring the computers on line?”
Avon gave him a bored look.
French stared at Blake wide eyed with amazement. “You can help me do that?”
“Of course I can,” Blake replied, a little taken aback.
“Yes,” put in Avon, “before he was running around the galaxy fighting the good fight, he was an engineer…..at least that’s what he claims.”
“Thank you, Avon. I think we ought to get started. The sooner that plant is back on line, the sooner we sort out this little despot.”
“He won’t like it,” French said.
“Despots hardly ever do.”
“Travis, I cannot countenance this,” Servalan insisted, staring up at the man who was now standing in front of her office desk.
"The High Council is most insistent that you stay here, away from active service while they investigate your handling…..”
“I presume they have heard of that unfortunate episode with Space Station XK-72. Do they blame that on me as well?”
“How can they blame you?”
“Oh, I expect they will find a way. But Blake was there for some reason and now it seems that he is in the area of Adurat.”
Servalan leant back in her chair, “We have no proof of that, only a Base Commander’s assertion that he had Jenna Stannis in custody. And then he reported that as a mistake.”
“And you believe that?”
“I have no reason not to…”
“So who told this man that he was wrong? And if so, why?”
“I cannot afford to investigate every rumour connected with Blake and his crew.”
“But you cannot afford to ignore that something is happening out there. There are rumours circulating among the lower ranks.”
“Have you heard the saying ‘There is no smoke, without fire’?”
Servalan looked at him blankly.
Travis continued, putting his hands down on the desk top and leaning forward, “I am not asking you to send me to Adurat on what could well be wild goose chase; but it would be prudent to have someone go there and make sure that the settlers are safe and well.”
“What of me?”
“Oh Travis. Please do not take me for a fool.”
Travis narrowed his eyes; a questioning look on his face.
Slowly, Servalan rose to her feet and elegantly walked from behind the desk towards him, “If I give you a command….”
“I did not ask for a command. I have recruits who need to be trained. I intend to take them out on a troop carrier, to test their mettle in armed combat in a confined space.”
“And Adurat?” Servalan asked, gently tapping the Federation emblem on his uniform.
“A scout ship would suffice.”
“A scout ship? How convenient. You seem well informed about Federation activities.”
“I may not be party to Blake’s schemes, but I make it my business to be fully conversant with those of the Federation. My information is that a scout ship is currently in that area.”
Travis stared down into the deep languid eyes that belied a heart of cold steel; almost like his. “A cursory sweep; nothing more. Out of concern for those poor, wretched settlers.”
“But if Blake is there, such a move could frighten him off.”
“So be it. But aren’t you intrigued by his reasons for being there?”
“But Travis, it was a case of mistaken identity. The Base Commander……”
“I know. But he announced that for a reason…and I think it only right that the Federation investigate that reason.”
“I have a training flight to arrange, but if required I’m sure I could divert to a more promising, real life simulation.”
“Yes,” Servalan smiled, “I’m sure you could.”
Vila and Cally materialised amongst the assortment of small craft ‘parked’ some way from the noisy structure. Vila looked nervously about, waiting to see if they had been spotted, but it seemed that their rouse had worked.
“Are you sure about this, Cally? I mean this isn’t exactly what you’re used to is it? What if someone starts to ask questions?”
“They may well do. But, considering what you’ve got in your pockets, I hardly think anyone will dare.”
Vila patted his tunic breast pocket, “No, I don’t think they will. How do I explain you though?” As he spoke he looked Cally up and down. A beautiful woman with a powerful looking weapon sitting easily on her waist.
She slipped her arm through his, “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
Blake handed French a bracelet.
“We’ll give Vila a few minutes then we’ll teleport down to that plant. Have you got the co-ordinates ready Gan?”
“Co-ordinates set. You will let us know if you have any problems, won’t you?”
“It’s not us I’m concerned about,” Avon said, plugging the lead into his gun, “It’s the few minutes you’re giving Vila.”
“What could he possibly do in a few minutes?” Blake asked, looking from one man to the other.
Their silence was all the answer he needed.
‘So, I’m your bodyguard?’
Vila stopped and smiled uneasily as Cally’s voice sounded in his head, “Why not? Besides, if there is any trouble, then you’re the one I’d trust to get us out of it.”
‘Now remember, you don’t do anything to draw attention.’
As they walked into the less than salubrious main room, Vila became acutely aware that several of the other customers of the establishment were suddenly looking in his direction.
“I don’t think I’m the one who’s drawing everyone’s attention. Do you?”
Blake and French had left Avon in the main control room and made their way down into the bowels of the plant. It was strangely quiet, like a sleeping giant. Yet Blake knew that this gift from the Federation was Adurat’s only chance of survival. As French had explained, the soil was good, but needed enrichment to produce better yields. And the hydroponics were an even greater boost to the agriculture of this small colony.
Yet Bethol seemed determined to put a stop to anything that could feed every man, woman and child and have produce to spare.
French located the faulty component and set to work with the tools provided by Blake.
“What do you think Bethol will do when he finds out about this?” French asked, handing the damaged part to Blake.
“I expect he already knows. We’ll just have to play it by ear. Hopefully, we will get this plant up and running before he gets a chance to do anything stupid.”
“And then what?”
“Maybe reason with him?”
“Reason? With Bethol? Now that I would like to see.”
The subject of that conversation was seated at the very back of his new project. Beside him, anxious not to be seen by any of the gathered guests, was Tarvin.
“So, my friend, what is this new venture you have for me?” Bethol asked, watching as the room began to fill with more somewhat dubious characters.
“Something that I think your distinguished clientele will find quite diverting. Some fellow traders had a debt that needed collecting. Unfortunately, the debtor died before it could be settled, so they took the only two things of value…and then they passed them onto me, because they know that we deal with this sort of cargo.”
“I’m intrigued, friend Tarvin.”
“Just as I hope these customers of yours will be. Just a little longer, and then one of my men will be the master of ceremonies.”
“Just what is this cargo?”
Bethol suddenly understood, and he smiled, “I see. And that young woman?”
“A welcome addition. She seemed familiar to me, and I was right. It would appear that the poor unfortunate debtor had more than two items of value….she is the third. The older sister who was away at the time of her father’s demise. She came here to rescue her younger siblings. But her misfortune is my gain. I may even recoup my losses.”
Any comment Bethol was about to make was halted by the arrival of one of his ‘guards’.
“What is it?”
“We have visitors…….sir. They are in that processing plant.”
“Wasn’t that place under surveillance?”
“It was…but nobody saw them enter.”
Bethol got to his feet, “Duty calls. Even now I have those who do not agree with how I run things. This shouldn’t take long. Hopefully, I will return in time to see this new venture, friend Tarvin.”
Avon was running his eyes over the somewhat antiquated systems, waiting for the long dead circuits to wake from their hibernation. He knew there was power inside the large control station in front of him, but getting it to the right part of the computer system, was proving difficult to say the least.
He pressed another large button, and the hum from within the device grew. One of the power registers showed a sudden surge. Avon raised an eyebrow. At least something was getting through; now all he had to do was get that power into the computer and the machine could run itself and produce enough high yield supplements for all the residents on this somewhat dried up piece of space rock.
He was suddenly aware of movement, but chose not acknowledge it.
He just waited for whoever it was to make himself known.
“What have we here?”
Avon didn’t react at all, but he knew that the owner of the voice wasn’t making friendly inquiries.
“Step away from there please.”
“Don’t you want this plant on line?” Avon asked, still not looking at the man who was now standing right beside him, but fully aware that the answer he sought was a negative one.
“It’s not needed.”
“That’s not what I’ve been told.”
“Then you haven’t been asking the right people, have you?”
This time, Avon deigned to turn his attention to the man. “And you must be Bethol, I take it?”
“That is correct. I have no idea who you are, but I must insist that you step away from this device.”
Avon stepped back. He wasn’t one for useless heroics, especially as he knew that Bethol was not alone.
“I see that you understand the situation,” Bethol said, “The question is, will your friends?”
“Why don’t you ask them?” Avon suggested, pointing to the communications console.
Bethol noticed the bracelet on Avon’s wrist, the moment he reached forward to indicate the communicator, “And what is this, I wonder?”
“It is nothing of value,” Avon replied.
“Then you won’t miss it, will you? Especially as it is worthless.”
Avon knew that it would be useless to try and contact the Liberator; he would have been killed in an instant. So, he allowed Bethol’s thug to remove the offending device.
“And,” Bethol continued, “I don’t think you require that weapon of yours, either.”
Vila’s innocent act of being someone who was just having a lucky streak seemed to be working. He pulled the pile of money and other assorted valuables towards him and then decided to ask the four other men at the table if they would like another hand. He knew he would have to start losing sometime, but it seemed that the men’s concentration was elsewhere. Possibly it had something to do with Cally who was standing right behind him.
“Maybe we should raise the stakes?” he offered, only to feel Cally’s fingers dig into his shoulder.
‘I think enough is enough, Vila. You’ve made your point.’
“Oh, all right then,” Vila replied, still forgetting that no-one else could actually ‘hear’ the Auron woman’s voice.
But any attempt to get up and leave was thwarted by a bright spotlight illuminating the centre of the room. A flamboyantly dressed man stepped into the circle of light.
“Gentlemen. Welcome to the planet Adurat and to our new place of entertainment. I trust that you will tell your friends and return to enjoy our hospitality. But now, we have something new for you. Totally unexpected, but a prize bounty for anyone who feels so inclined. An auction, gentlemen. One I think you will all find most interesting.”
Any thoughts about leaving were dashed, as Vila’s eyes fell upon exactly what was to be auctioned.
There were three of them.
Three young women.
“Now for our first lot. What am I bid?”
Cally’s heart sank.
‘Oh, Vila, no.’
Blake was wiping oil from his hands with an old rag when he heard the voice over the tannoy. He got to his feet and looked round for an intercom.
“I can’t allow you to do that,” a voice was saying.
“I’m sorry, but I insist,” Blake replied, depressing the button and looking at French, “Bethol, I presume?”
“That’s right. I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”
“A close friend of yours has told me all about you.”
“Really.” The voice paused, “Actually, it’s me who should be sorry.”
“And why should that be?”
“That is entirely incumbent on what you are planning to do.”
“French and I have replaced the damaged part and once Avon has the computers on line, then there’s nothing you can do.”
“As I said, I’m sorry,” the voice continued, “but he can’t do that.”
Back in the control room, Avon could only watch as one of Bethol’s rather large companions slowly crumpled his teleport bracelet with one hand while another helped himself to the gun.
“There,” said Bethol, his attention now turned to Avon, “I presume that was important to you? But now we can all be so much more civilised.”
Avon didn’t seem in any hurry to complain, so Bethol, resumed his conversation via the tannoy, “As I said, your man, Avon, is not able to carry out your request. Now, why don’t you go back to where you came from and leave me, and my people, in peace. We don’t need you interfering in matters that are of no concern of yours.”
“I can’t do that. There are people on this planet who could die…..”
“There’s no need for anyone to die. All they need to do is put their trust in me. And to help you realise just how futile your actions are….I’m going to hold your man in protective custody. I will release him, once I know that you promise to leave and stay away.”
There was silence. Bethol smiled and then turned to face Avon, “I know he’ll see sense…..”
“I wouldn’t bet on it if I were you.”
The minutes ticked by and Bethol grew tired of waiting.
“Leave the way you came,” he said after a while, “and I assure that no harm will come to this Avon. But if you do not leave within 5 minutes, then I shall have no other course of action but to kill him.”
“Not very original,” Avon pointed out.
“He’ll have no option but to leave.”
“That would be the normal reaction of any other man…but he’s not just any other man….”
“All right,” Blake’s voice crackled over the tannoy, “you win. I’ll leave.”
Bethol smiled broadly, “You were saying that he’s not just any other man?…..”
“So I was,” Avon smiled back, “But we are all entitled to make mistakes, aren’t we?”
The two men who appeared to be Federation Guards didn’t seem to fit the recollection of those that Avon had had the misfortune to make the acquaintance of on Earth while awaiting trial.
As he walked with them, and Bethol, out of the still hushed plant towards the latter’s thriving new business venture, Avon became more convinced that things were not what they seemed.
“While we wait for my men to escort your friend out and back to his ship,” Bethol began, “I think you need to be placed somewhere nice and secure. As an insurance, you understand.”
“I hope you don’t mind me drawing attention to the rather obvious fact that these two Federation Guards are not all that they would seem?”
“Is that a fact?”
“An obvious one, to the trained eye.”
“And you’re trained, are you?”
Avon didn’t answer but preferred to ask his own questions, “So, where are the actual men who were left here with you?”
“They deserted.” Bethol stopped walking and turned to face the new intruder who was beginning to irritate him, “And that’s all you need to know. Now, these two Guards will escort you to our temporary holding cell, while we wait for your friend to leave.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“He will. And then I can arrange for you to join him. We’ll put you aboard a ship……”
“Just like Grove?”
Bethol glared at Avon. How could he know about that?
“Quite possibly,” the Base Commander said, somewhat taken aback. He studied the impassive man before him and then continued, “And Grove was an interfering, busybody as well. Escort our new guest, Avon, to his quarters. I have business to attend. It’s been so nice talking to you.”
Gan tried the teleport controls again.
Still no Avon.
“They’ve removed his bracelet,” Blake murmured.
“We should go down and get him,” Gan thundered.
“No…..no. We’re dealing with a man who thinks nothing of taking another life.”
French could see the concern in Blake’s face, “Would they kill him?”
“Not at the moment, but what they’ll do when they can’t find us in that plant…well that’s another matter. I think it’s time to get Vila and Cally back.”
Gan faced the same problem, “They’re not wearing their bracelets, either.”
Blake rubbed a hand over his face, “Don’t draw attention, I said. What’s Vila done now?”
The walk didn’t take long, but it was up an incline leading into the mountains which stood guard over the settlement below. Avon could see the buildings scattered on the plain below and knew that the largest and brightest no doubt held Vila and Cally. But they didn’t know that he was now being led to goodness knows where.
As the small group rounded a steep cliff, Avon began to wonder if Blake had managed to teleport out of the plant and was, maybe, hiding up here in these mountains just waiting to launch a last minute rescue. If he was, then any moment now…..
The guards didn’t seem worried that he was deliberately slowing down; they seemed more interested in discussing which alcoholic beverage they were going to try next. At least they weren’t discussing how they intended to dispatch their latest ‘guest’.
They rounded another outcrop and there, set back into the cliff face, was Bethol’s idea of a prison. A natural cleft in the mountain side barred across the entrance by purpose made steel rods, imbedded in concrete at their base and rammed home into the cliff face above. The only purpose made part of this hastily erected penal unit was a solid door and a strong electrostatic lock.
One of the guards fumbled for a key, while the other watched their guest. Avon was idly scanning the cliffs above, but in the dimming light it was getting difficult to see anything.
The guard found the key and opened the door. They motioned to Avon to enter the cell.
“Make yourself comfortable. You could be here for some time.”
They slammed the door shut the moment he had stepped inside as if to emphasise the finality of it all. For a moment he stood still.
Blake hadn’t launched a surprise attack; but maybe that was because he had no idea where Avon was. At least, that was a plausible reason. The next problem would be when Bethol’s somewhat not quite convincing Federation guards announced that they couldn’t find Blake or French in the plant.
Avon drew in a deep breath, realising the seriousness of his predicament. He turned to face the barricaded entrance and lightly touched one of the cold metal bars which stood firmly between him and any possible escape. Somewhere up in that increasingly darkening sky was the Liberator, but without the teleport bracelet, those on board would find it very difficult to locate him. All he could do now was to wait until either Blake arrived to carry out his overdue rescue, or Bethol realised just who was incarcerated in this mountain hell-hole.
The once quiet room was now in uproar.
It was a noisy enough distraction which allowed Cally to slide into a shadowy corner, replace her hidden bracelet and contact the Liberator.
“Liberator, this is Cally….”
“Ready to bring you….” Blake’s voice echoed back.
“……No, not yet. We will need two more teleport bracelets.”
“Two more? Why?”
“It’s difficult to explain, but Vila got a little caught up in the moment.”
“Please be quick. I’m afraid things are turning quite nasty down here.”
“I’ll go,” offered Gan, “I could do with a change of scenery.”
“You let me know the minute you’re ready.”
Gan shimmered out of view.
French shook his head, “You seem to live an exciting life.”
“I wouldn’t call it exciting. With Vila around, it just tends to more interesting. Now, French, the next question is where would Bethol have taken Avon?”
“Well, either down in that establishment of his or…..I’ve heard from others that he has a special, secure place up in the mountains. It’s pretty isolated. No-one can see or hear you.”
“I need you to figure out just where that place is…and quickly.”
Bethol had returned to his establishment, wondering what all the noise was about. He found Tarvin in his living quarters, smiling quite broadly.
“It would seem that you have been successful.”
“Successful enough. I have broken even, that is what counts, but alas, I was not able to dispose of all my cargo. I’m afraid your beautiful intruder proved too much for those who frequent your establishments.”
“So what will you do? Try again?”
“No, she is excess baggage. It is shame, but she is too much trouble. She is yours Bethol; you may do with her as you wish.”
“You want me to tame this tigress and then what?”
“Maybe once you have broken her spirit you may have more success. You never know, there may be someone who can manage her.”
Bethol laughed, “It would appear that my temporary ‘prison’ will have another inmate. If she doesn’t co-operate, then she stays there and dies. Very simple, really.”
“I wish you luck. Tell me, Bethol, there is a most beautiful ship in stationery orbit above your planet; to whom does it belong?”
Bethol eyed the extravagantly dressed Tarvin. This man always seemed to be looking for a new business angle; one that would make him, and his colleagues, a great deal of money. “Why do you want to know?”
“It is a ship the like I have never seen before…I am intrigued to know what company you keep.”
“I can find out for you. But there are many new visitors here; since the Federation decided that we were of no use to them.”
“But for how much longer, Bethol? Word will soon reach the ears of the higher echelon of your Federation. And they may take a dim view of your activities here.”
“And I will show them that I have made a success of a planet that their own surveyors cast aside as worthless.”
Tarvin examined his finely manicured hands, “And they will want to know exactly how you have managed this small miracle.”
“And I will tell them…once I have made sure that I have prospered from my good future.”
“Indeed. Maybe the next time I come calling you will have the information…and maybe your clientele will be more eclectic.”
“I look forward to doing business with you in the future. Good bye Tarvin.”
“Farewell, friend Bethol.”
The Federation Base Commander watched as the Amagon Trader left to join his ship. As one man left, then another deigned to ask for an audience. This time it was one of Bethol’s thugs.
Bethol hardly bothered to acknowledge his existence, “Have my uncooperative guest taken to our new ‘prison’. Maybe a spell in there will loosen her tongue or make her more accommodating.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“So be it. She has had her chance.”
“I will see to it at once….sir.”
“And what of that interfering French and his new friend, have you located them in that plant yet?”
“We can’t find them. It’s almost as if they have just vanished into thin air.”
“Did you check that plant thoroughly?”
“We did. Neither man is in there. And no-one was seen to leave.”
Bethol was silent; deep in thought. “Have the men search again. They have to be somewhere. If they’re not…”
“Then maybe that Avon will know?”
Bethol watched as the other man left to check on his fellow guards who were still busy searching the plant; to no avail, it seemed. But Bethol had other things on his mind. The name Avon.
It seemed familiar.
He went to his desk and scrolled back through the several meaningless reports of the last few days. Somewhere in the mass of Federation general orders was the one report which had triggered his decision to announce the capture of one Jenna Stannis.
In the teleport section, Blake watched in amazement as Cally, Vila and Gan shimmered into view accompanied by two very frightened young ladies.
“Look, before you start….I bought them.”
“What?” Blake gasped.
“There was an impromptu auction down there…and I bought them.”
Vila lowered his gaze.
Cally explained, “He joined in a game of cards and…..”
“Vila, you’re going to have to give them back…,” Blake began.
“No, you can’t,” one of the young ladies begged, “He has saved us. But not our sister…”
“I only had enough money for these two and anyway, their sister was a handful….they had to drag her away screaming and kicking. Pity the poor soul who ended up looking after her!”
Avon’s silent observation of the planet’s night sky was interrupted by the distant sound of screaming, which suddenly stopped…not by choice, but as if someone had decided that enough was enough.
Whoever was coming up the trail was finding it difficult. That much he could hear. It was just a matter of seeing who was actually coming his way and trying to envisage what they had planned.
Avon peered through the bars; they formed an interesting frame for the night sky. The planet’s moon was now reaching its zenith and casting a strange, ethereal light over the surrounding rock, and allowing some degree of illumination into the otherwise darkened ‘cell’.
His unknown visitors were nearing this rather nondescript hidey hole and it sounded as if something was now being dragged.
It was difficult to make out the shapes of exactly who was rounding the cliff as the light from planet’s moon didn’t quite penetrate that far. There appeared to be a struggle of some nature and then the door was opened and someone was thrown into the ‘cell’.
Whoever it was, hit the ground with a thud and then the door was once again closed.
This time the guards didn’t speak. They merely laughed amongst themselves and then walked away, disappearing into the gloom.
Avon sat quite still, his back against the rough side of the cave wall, wondering who was now opposite him. Had Bethol decided to finish him off before Blake had made a decision?
The new addition moved…..and Avon braced himself for what could be a full frontal attack. He reached inside his jacket for the tool he carried should he be required to get into the innards of any machine. It was small, and discreet; his captors hadn’t found it when they had frisked him before putting him in this place His fingers closed around it and he steadied himself.
“Vila, we’ve got a serious problem here,” Blake was saying, “Bethol has taken Avon hostage and I don’t know where he is being held.”
“To stop Blake and French from getting that plant working again,” Jenna explained, looking at the two women who were looking most uncomfortable in the garb they were dressed in. “So just what are we going to do with these two?”
“I bought them; fair and square,” Vila informed her.
“There’s nothing fair and square about human trafficking, Vila,” Blake said. He turned to the two women, “Where do you come from? We can return you…..”
“Not without our sister,” one of them said, “We need to find her…just as you need to find your friend.”
That was a good point, thought Blake, “Well, French, where would Bethol put his guests?”
Avon was staring into the bluest pair of eyes he had ever had occasion to see. They were set into a round face, framed by a mass of unkempt curls, and they were looking daggers at him.
“If you come near me, I’ll scratch your eyes out.”
He didn’t answer.
He had watched in silence as the young woman, to whom the eyes belonged, had, with difficulty, levered herself up to a sitting position, her hands presumably tied behind her back. And now she was opposite him; looking him up and down.
She smiled a wry smile, “So, they couldn’t sell you either?”
“Strange as it may seem, I’m not for sale.”
“Am I your entertainment for this evening?.......”
“Because I will kill you rather than……”
Avon sighed, “I am not for sale and you are not my entertainment. I am a prisoner…just like you. And frankly your threats to subject me to violence are, perhaps, redundant; as it would appear that you are incapable. Now, would you like me to undo that rope...?”
“Very well. I’m more than happy to leave you tied up like that, but we do have a long night ahead of us. If you prefer to be trussed up like some captive animal, then by all means…”
She chewed on her lower lip, obviously weighing up her chances should this man not keep his word. He didn’t appear to pose a threat; his demeanour seemed almost detached, as if it were no concern to him whether she wished to remain fettered or be free of her bonds. She decided to take the risk.
A few minutes later, Avon was seated and casually winding the rope into a coil, still watching the woman who was now on her feet pacing the ‘cell’.
“Thank you is the usual expression of gratitude.”
“Thank you,” she said tartly, absently rubbing her wrists.
“You’re welcome…..I had no idea that our most gracious host, Bethol, was now branching out into slave auctions. He obviously believes in diversity.”
“It wasn’t him who did this. My father owed money to a group of men and he was unable to pay. He died a few months ago and his creditors came to call in the debt….unfortunately there was nothing of value…only my sisters. And those men decided to take my sisters as payment.”
“I was away at the time…but I was able to track them down. But I was too late; they had been brought here…..”
“I can hardly see this colony as being the best place to get their money’s worth…..”
“I assure you that they made sure that those creditors grew tired of having them as company on their ship, and so they were passed on to cancel out yet another debt…
And I made sure that these new men grew tired of me…as well.”
“Now, that I can believe.”
“I have no intention of pointing out your obvious displeasure at finding yourself in this rather unpleasant position. And I’m certain that you made that fact known to them….quite vehemently, I presume.”
“I can see why you’re here! Those brutes must have found your eloquence most annoying. I am ....Jenna Stannis.”
“Of course you are.”
She seemed a little taken aback by the utter conviction of that remarked, but continued, “And I would like to know the name of the man who speaks so well.”
“Avon,” he replied, avoiding her gaze.
“And now, Avon, how do we intend to escape from here.”
“Well now, I hadn’t actually given it much thought.”
“No one throws me into a cell and leaves me to die, not when my sisters are out there.” ‘Jenna’ surveyed the cell and its barred entrance, “Have you tried this door?”
Without another word, she set about examining the lock, then the bars, testing them to see if they could be moved or prised apart. She removed one of her shoes and closely studied its stiletto heel, its metal tip glinting in the moon’s light, “I’m so glad they ‘insisted’ that I wear this dress and shoes.”
“I presume that they are not your normal attire?” Avon asked.
“I am the daughter of a miner…what do you think?” With that she began to drive the tip of the shoe’s heel into the base of a likely looking bar, trying to remove the concrete which held it fast. “This may take some time, but I, at least, will attempt to free myself.”
“Very commendable,” Avon admitted, getting to his feet.
Almost immediately, ‘Jenna’ was on her guard. She held the shoe, dagger-like, in her hand and watched as Avon stood up. It was evident that her dealings with men had, by the looks of it, been fraught.
He held his hands in a gesture of surrender. Very slowly, his eyes never leaving hers, he reached inside his jacket for the small, sharp, metal tool, “This, however, may be of more help.”
Bethol’s intense study of the past communications from his Federation masters had come to an abrupt halt. There on the screen was the information he had vaguely recalled; the rebel leader and his crew of criminals, on an unknown ship roaming the Galaxy and intent on causing trouble for the Federation by destroying vital installations and stirring up unrest on the outer worlds.
There was the name that had evoked a memory; Kerr Avon. Along with Jenna Stannis, Vila Restal, Olag Gan; led by a man called Roj Blake.
Bethol looked at each picture in turn. Could that man in the plant, along with French, have been Roj Blake?
And was that beautiful ship so highly thought of by Tarvin, the Liberator?
There was one way to find out.
He called in one of his guards. “That man, the one called Avon. I think it’s time he and I had a little chat.”
“But they are still searching for French and….”
“Forget French and his new friend! Get up to that ‘cell’ and bring Avon here. I know he hasn’t had time to, shall we say, mellow, but I want him here, now.”
French pinpointed the most likely looking area for what could pass as a holding area. It was up in the hills overlooking Bethol’s ever expanding ‘estate’.
“People who displease Bethol tend to disappear,” he began, “Those two colonists; the men who decided to take the place of the original Federation guards and gain protection for their families? They said that Bethol had some sort of holding facility up in the mountains. It’s off limits to everyone. He makes sure of that.”
Blake shook his head, “I bet he does. Jenna, it might be an idea to allow our two visitors a chance to get cleaned up.”
“And then what?”
“I’ve always wanted a nice quiet walk in the hills.”
“You’ll need another two bracelets,” Gan pointed out, “Maybe even three.”
Blake raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Just in case you meet up with the missing sister, or even ‘Jenna’?”
Blake smiled, “That should be an experience. Ready Cally?”
They materialised quite someway up the hill. It wasn’t dark, but a strange ethereal light bathed the entire area. Below were the dots of light signifying the location of the houses of the colonists. But by far, the most amount of light came from the expansive house which no doubt belonged to the new power that was Bethol.
Blake pulled his jacket closer; it was chillier than expected, quite a difference from the regulated atmosphere on the Liberator.
He watched as Cally scanned the area, “Anything?”
She was deep in thought. Blake had brought the Auron along for several reasons. Firstly, he knew that Cally’s combat training would stand him in good stead if any of Bethol’s men came across them; secondly, if anyone could find Avon, then she could. It wasn’t something that Blake wanted to draw attention to, but Cally’s unspoken affinity with the stubborn man now being held prisoner somewhere on this hill side was a blessing in disguise for both Blake and Avon, except that the latter would most probably refute the validity of that most vehemently.
Blake shivered…and then Cally moved off, low to the ground and up a barely visible trail. A few hundred metres further and she stopped. She motioned for Blake to stand back.
‘There are people coming up the trail.’
It was still very strange to hear Cally’s voice in his head, “Who?” he whispered.
‘He is not far.’
“Is he with them?”
‘No…….but he is not alone.’
“You are not afraid of manual labour?” ‘Jenna’ said, trying to loosen the concrete around the base of one of the bars with the instrument handed to her by her co-prisoner.
He didn’t seem to hear. He had returned to sitting on the hard ground, his gaze fixed on the mountain trail. He had sat for a while and watched her, but she realised that there was something else that held his rapt attention now; it was almost as if she was invisible, such was his total disinterest.
“It’s not something I relish,” he replied, eventually, “but if it means escaping, then I’m all for it.” He turned to look at her, “What makes you think otherwise?”
‘Jenna’ stopped digging. In her hand was the metal tool. “When you gave me this….I could tell by your hands.”
“Yes…well. Discussing whether or not I’ve ever had occasion to do manual labour will not get us out of this cell…will it?”
“And yet you are not planning any escape, are you? It’s as if you are waiting for someone.” She cast a side long glance at him, “Who?”
That seemed like a challenge to Avon. He had indeed spent the last half hour merely watching the outside world as the totally inappropriately dressed young woman had begun her attack on the solid concrete.
He inwardly sighed. There was no sign of Blake; in fact, no sign of any rescue attempt. He pursed his lips, hoping that ‘Jenna’ hadn’t seen the disappointment in his face, “It seemed a good idea at the time. But it won’t be long before Bethol actually realises who I am. And that could be just a little difficult.”
“Me.” As he spoke, he got to his feet and slowly walked in her direction.
‘Jenna’ stiffened, unsure of what this distant, aloof man had planned. Avon, though, seemed unaware that his actions were causing alarm. He crouched down and studied the lock.
“And why should it be difficult?” ‘Jenna’ asked.
He looked up at her, “Because of my associates.”
“I don’t understand.”
“One of those associates is actually the woman whom you are impersonating.”
“Impersonating?......” She seemed genuinely shocked by his revelation that he knew her pretence to be a fraud.
“….. And once Bethol discovers exactly who I am, then I believe he will take great pleasure in persuading them to hand themselves over….”
But Avon didn’t reply. It was obvious that his thoughts were elsewhere.
“Well?” ‘Jenna’ asked, digging the tool into the unrelenting concrete. She was surprised when Avon’s hand stopped hers.
“There’s someone coming towards us, up the path. Three of them….”
“How could you possibly know that?”
Avon turned to face her with a dazzling smile, “Trust me.”
The three men had no idea what hit them.
Cally’s first attack, launched from her hiding place above them, had sent all three sprawling to the ground, totally disorientated and unable to defend themselves from the follow up attack by Blake.
They were now all lying, out cold, on the hillside.
Blake didn’t stop to gloat; he followed Cally up the trail and towards the sharp, ragged outcrop of rock. There set back in the mountain side was a cavern; its entrance barred.
Cally stopped, then motioned for Blake to join her. In the strange pale light afforded by the planet’s moon now high in the sky, he could just make out two figures behind the bars.
Blake slowly approached the makeshift prison, wondering what he would find.
Sitting casually on the ground, Avon appeared to be totally unconcerned that he was incarcerated in something so primitive.
“Well,” Blake began, “I trust you made yourself comfortable?”
Avon seemed quite nonchalant, “As comfortable as one could, under the circumstances….”
Standing right by the door was a woman whose demeanour seemed to that of a warrior, ready to do battle with anyone who ventured near.
Avon got to his feet, “Allow me to introduce ….”
“I have no time for niceties. You will get me out of here so that I can find the man who bought my sisters.”
Blake realised who was addressing him, “Your sisters are perfectly safe. They were bought by one of my crew, a man named Vila….”
‘Jenna’ turned and glared at Avon, “…..and you are one of this man’s crew?”
“Unfortunately, yes....and as for being perfectly safe with Vila…..”
“I haven’t touched them…I swear…..” Vila tried to seek protection from behind the teleport console as ‘Jenna’ strode out of the bay straight towards him.
“I assure you, they are unharmed,” Blake promised, about to put a reassuring arm around her, but finding his move met with an outright intimidating glower. “If you don’t believe me, Jenna…..”
“Jenna?” she queried.
“….. will take you to them. They’re resting in one of the cabins…why don’t you go and see for yourself?”
‘Jenna’ studied Vila and then turned her blazing blue eyes, once more, on Blake, “If this is a trick?”
“Can I trust him?” she asked, looking at Avon.
“That question is open to debate….”
“Yes or no?”
“So you are Jenna Stannis,” Jenna stated, meeting the hostile glare with equal enmity, “I think you have some explaining to do.”
“In what way?” ‘Jenna’ replied, still unsure about the people with whom she now found herself dealing.
“Come this way…. please.”
Blake watched the firebrand stalk out.
“Well, thank you for that show of support, Avon,” Blake murmured, putting his bracelet back in the rack, “I’m surprised you’re still in one piece. She is one feisty lady.”
“Feisty doesn’t come near it. When you found us, she was attempting to escape by removing the concrete on the bars.”
“And what were you doing?” Cally asked, “I think you were perfectly capable of picking that lock.”
“True, but I knew that Blake would come back for me. I decided to let her carry out her plan. Quite honestly, it was much safer that way.”
“And if we hadn’t found you in time?”
“I don’t think those three men would have stood a chance, do you?”
Blake had to agree with that, “Now, we have to decide what to do next.”
“Leave, I would have thought that was the obvious choice.”
Cally shook her head, “We can’t leave these people, these families, to the whims of this maniac.”
“No, we can’t,” Blake said, “Unless, of course, Avon, you have any objections?”
Avon was studying his hands, “Even if I did, you have already made up your mind, haven’t you?”
Bethol was furious, at first.
Another squad, sent to find out what was causing the delay with returning his well-spoken, if irritating prisoner, had returned with bad news. Not just that there were three unconscious men, but also the fact that the prisoners had simply vanished.
But it didn’t really matter, not now.
In the intervening time, since discovering that the intruder ensconced in his hillside cell, was one Kerr Avon, Bethol had not been idle. He had studied the Federation reports that had come into his communications centre and now he was completely aware of exactly who was aboard the ship still orbiting his planet; the ship that had drawn admiring praise from his new friend Tarvin.
The ship was indeed the Liberator and aboard it was, as suspected, Roj Blake.
Quite what the rebel leader was doing here was a puzzle. Maybe he had picked up the message so erroneously sent, at the time, to Federation Space Command. Bethol had corrected that assertion, reporting that it was a case of mistaken identity. He hadn’t received any message back, just the usual, casual, ‘message received’ code.
But why was Blake still here? Surely he had satisfied his curiosity? Or maybe he had other plans; plans that involved these poor, impoverished settlers. Maybe, Blake would pay him a personal visit. If that was the case, then it would be prudent to prepare for that eventuality.
Bethol was thoughtful; here was an opportunity to become someone; show those in power that he was, indeed, not to be overlooked any longer.
But then, Bethol began to think about another way; one that would make him rich. It would mean sharing the proceeds of any reward, and a third party would have to become involved.
Maybe it was time to contact his friend Tarvin again. He would be interested in a plan that involved making a lot of money, and this way would mean that Bethol would be rewarded too, not with a promotion and the undying thanks of his superiors, but with enough cold, hard cash to leave the Federation service that had promised so much, but was now delivering so little.
He turned to his communication desk. Surely, Tarvin would be somewhere out there, not too far away, and he would be most conducive to making a deal; one that would make of them very rich; very rich indeed.
“So you managed to convince Space Command that it would be prudent to send a scout ship to that quadrant, sir?”
Travis smiled. He was beginning to warm towards this Sergeant, if that were at all possible, but considering he had very few other people he could actually trust it would pay to keep this man on side, “It was not too difficult. The High Council are nervous enough as it is. A scout ship would not be considered an extravagance, unlike a pursuit ship. Tell me, Sergeant, the Captain of this scout ship, you know him well?”
“Served together, sir. If he suspects something amiss, he will not hesitate in reporting it.”
“And how convenient that a troop carrier on a training exercise is close by to quell any trouble.”
The Sergeant returned the smile. He had heard a great deal about Space Commander Travis, some good; some bad. But so far he had found himself dealing with a professional soldier, a man whose loyalty to the Federation could not be in any doubt. So why the whispers? Why the doubts about his credibility?
“Sir, if Blake is there on Adurat, or at least a member of his crew, do you think we could have a fight on our hands?”
“Would you relish one?”
“I would be lying if I said no.”
“I have already fought him; man to man. I was, shall we say, hampered that time by events beyond my control. He is a worthy opponent, but not invincible. He could have killed me; in fact he should have killed me, but he missed his chance.”
“So, he has qualms about such matters, sir?”
“And his crew?”
“Maybe we will find out once your good friend, the Captain of that scout ship, has established the facts. They may not be so fervent in their hatred for the Federation.”
“A great pity,” sighed the Sergeant.
“I was hoping these untested, raw recruits would be baptised, so to speak, by their first blood.”
Travis studied the man standing before him. A man whose florid language seemed so out of place in this stark, sterile troop carrier.
“They will have their moment, Sergeant, sooner or later.”
The reunion of the three sisters in the Medical Unit had been a very emotional affair and Jenna had allowed them a few minutes before asking the one question she desperately wanted an answer to.
“So why exactly did you decide to say that you were me?” Jenna asked.
The three women became quiet; the younger two not sure about the reason for the question.
“I must apologise for causing you any trouble, but I was desperate to find my sisters. I have admired you since you saved the people of Laternar by smuggling in food while they faced the threat of the Federation. Because you are still held in high regard, I thought that using your name would allow me to access the right contacts and obtain information. I was not aware, though, that your life had taken another path; that my pretext would endanger your friends.”
Jenna pondered that response; moved by the young woman’s admiration, “So what is your name?”
“My name is Djara. These are my sisters, Hadra and Tedra.”
The two younger siblings nervously smiled hoping that the woman called Jenna wouldn’t be angry.
Jenna wasn’t angry; not now that the reason for the deception had been explained, “Perhaps your sister, Djara, would like a chance to freshen up. There are some clothes over on the bunk for you. I’ll take your sisters to the Flight Deck…let you rest for a while.”
“Thank you,” Djara replied, grateful that Jenna had understood her reasons.
She watched her sisters leave and then turned her attention to the clothes laid out before her. They were much more suitable than her current attire; something she was most grateful for.
But something else caught her attention; lying on one of the cabinets. The tool given to her by the man who had briefly shared the ‘cell’ with her.
No doubt he would like it returned.
But not like this.
Djara picked up the outfit, no doubt selected by Jenna.
She could wait to have a rest; there were things to be done.
“French, you know your people better than we do,” Blake said, looking at the man sitting opposite him, “Even if they have that plant up and running, would they still trust Bethol to keep it operational?”
“What do you think, Blake? The problem is, he has seen how other colonies have expanded; how money can be made and being in charge of a lowly agricultural planet where we farmers work all hours does not have its attractions. When he realised that the Federation was going to leave him here, on this planet with no way to improve himself, I think he decided that someone was going to pay for what he perceived as a slight……but then something happened, and that’s when he decided to start diversifying. Do something to make this a more prosperous planet and possibly further his ambitions. It’s only a small scale operation, but it’s starting to bring in so called ‘clients’ and money. I can’t say I blame him.”
“Vila,” Blake began, “You were down there…..”
“Purely on a fact finding mission,” insisted the thief.
“……what did you make of Bethol’s set up?”
“He won’t attract any high rollers, just small fry; his ambitions don’t match his facilities. As it was, the people down there weren’t too pleased with me…..I took them for every credit they had, and I’m not the Galaxy’s greatest card sharp.”
French was pensive, “This outpost has only ever been a small farming community. People came here because it offered a good place to settle and bring up children, and then the Federation arrived. But there was nothing of value to them. We foolishly thought that life would return to the way it had always been, but suddenly things changed. Almost overnight Bethol had that establishment built and people started to take notice of him. His influence even stretches out to other planets in this region.”
“So what is it that has made Bethol become somebody?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care. I…we just want things back as they were.”
“Maybe you could all leave, start anew,” Blake suggested.
“You saw what happened when my friend Grove tried to leave?”
Blake recalled the discovery of Grove aboard his own ship, sealed up in his cabin and then the life support turned off.
“That was Bethol’s doing. He has said, that no-one can leave, without his express permission. He even managed to stop me getting back. If you hadn’t found me Blake, I think that I would have met a similarly gruesome end.”
“If we arranged for Bethol and his friends to be out of the way, then maybe you could leave, unhindered, in small groups of course. You wouldn’t want to alert the Federation to a mass exodus.”
“But where do we go, Blake? The only thing we know is farming. Where do we run to?”
Avon was making his way back to the Flight Deck, when he heard his name being called.
He turned to acknowledge the caller and found himself once more being scrutinised by those blue eyes.
“This is a very big ship,” she began, “I’m surprised you don’t ever get lost on here.”
“Sometimes it isn’t big enough,” Avon replied as ‘Jenna’ fell into step alongside him.
“You savour your solitude?”
“Loneliness and isolation can be a bad thing.”
“I’m afraid I welcome it.”
“Oh yes, I forgot.” She stopped walking and handed over the somewhat blunt tool Avon had given her while they were imprisoned in that cell, “I’m afraid my attempts to return it in the same condition as before have proved futile.”
Avon took the tool and turned it over in his hand, “Not to worry, I’m sure I can repair it. And even if I can’t, Vila can always steal another one.”
She laughed, “I can see why you stay with these people.”
She studied him. There was no warmth; just an acceptance of the situation he didn’t seem to really want to be in. She decided it would be wise to change the subject, “I presume my sisters are on the Flight Deck? Is it this way?”
“Yes,” Avon replied, “I’ll just take this back to my cabin…..”
“……as I said, this is a big ship. One could easily get lost. By the way, my real name is Djara. I have apologised to Jenna and explained my reasons.”
Avon thought for a moment, “It’s this way.”
“Thank you,” Djara smiled.
She received a smile in return, “You’re welcome."
Djara was most forthright in her dealings with Blake, “Now that I have my sisters, you may take us back to our planet. We have a mine that will need reopening…..”
“We can’t leave yet,” Blake said, meeting her determined look.
“Well,” Jenna put in, “We can’t stay here for much longer. Sooner or later, someone will realise exactly who is orbiting this not so important outpost…and judging by the way we’ve been scanned by a couple of Bethol’s visitor’s it will be sooner.”
“Djara, this mine of yours,” Blake began, “I presume the rest of the planet is just as habitable?”
“Of course, but I don’t see what that has…….”
“And is the land capable of cultivation?”
“If someone was prepared to put their backs in to it, yes.”
“And the Federation?”
“Not yet. But they will come, eventually”
“French, I presume your people have seeds ready to sow?”
“Some had already started, but then that plant went out of commission……”
Blake was on his feet, “Give me time to pay Bethol a visit and then start contacting your people, in person; we don’t want anyone informing Bethol that his little empire is about to be devoid of subjects. Jenna, perhaps it’s time Bethol made the acquaintance of the real Jenna Stannis.”
“I look forward to it…”
Blake stopped in mid- sentence. Whatever he was about to say went unsaid. Avon was standing right in front of him.
“You’re not seriously going down to that planet and confront that lunatic, are you?”
“People like him succeed because no-one does confront them. Besides, French’s people need time to get their belongings together…..”
“Blake, there are over one hundred people down there; you’ll never get them all on board this ship!”
“There’s no need,” French informed him, “They’ve all got their own craft. They’re in a compound watched over by Bethol’s men, but they are all flight worthy. My people can use those craft to live in until…….”
“…..he most probably knows who we are by now,” Avon continued, ignoring French’s pronouncement, “what makes you think he hasn’t contacted Federation Space Command?”
“Gan, have there been any outgoing messages?”
There was a stilted silence.
“Besides,” Blake explained, “If I turn my back on these few people on this unimportant planet, how am I going to face all those millions who live on Earth and the inner worlds.”
“I know that you could, but I’m not like you.”
For a brief second, both men just stood their ground, in a silent challenge. No-one else on the Flight Deck moved for fear of disturbing the fraught tableaux.
It was Djara who broke the strained atmosphere, “I will go with French to assure his people that they are making the right decision.”
“And I shall also go,” Cally announced.
Avon knew he had been outvoted on the matter, but he still didn’t want to step aside, “I presume those new colonists are going to need co-ordinates to reach their new home.”
“If it’s not too much trouble?” Blake asked. He knew that the defiant look was in fact hiding a bitter disappointment, “Vila?”
“Yes,” Vila replied somewhat dreamily, his gaze fixed on the two sisters.
“I need you in the teleport.”
“Really? I thought maybe I could help out up here.”
His dreams were cut short by Djara suddenly stepping between him and her sisters.
“On second thoughts……”
The boisterous establishment was now strangely quiet.
It was a darkened shell; empty of the throng who, just a few hours ago, had been bidding on human lots in an impromptu auction and placing bets on the turn of a wheel, or the cut of a pack of cards.
Most had returned to their ships to sleep off the drink they had been so liberally imbibing, or had left the planet completely in disgust after a seemingly innocent stranger had wiped them out, leaving them penniless.
Blake and his small party had teleported to just outside the hushed building and were waiting for Cally to report back from her reconnoitre.
“There are no guards,” she whispered, rejoining the huddled group.
“He’s most probably expecting us and has pulled all the muscle he has back inside. French, you and Djara start getting your people organised. Tell them to take only the essentials. They can pick up supplies at Laternar.”
“They don’t have anything to buy…..”
“We’ll take care of that later. Cally, Gan…I need you to stay out here. Once he realises what’s going on, I expect he’ll send a few guards out to stop it. Just make sure they don’t get out. Jenna, you and I are going to pay Bethol a visit.”
“Do you think that’s a good idea?” Jenna asked. Although Blake had complete confidence in everything he did, she somehow lacked that conviction.
Blake tried to reassure her by placing an arm around her shoulder, “It’s only fair that he meets the actual Jenna Stannis and then, maybe, we can find out just what exactly has made a lowly Base Commander such a man of influence.”
Bethol’s gaze shifted from the screen which showed that the Liberator was still in orbit above the planet, to another screen which showed that his empty ‘games’ room was no longer devoid of activity. Moving amongst the various tables were two figures; one a tall, well-built man, the other a slim, blond woman. Bethol ran his fingers over his mouth; so this was the actual Jenna Stannis? Tarvin hadn’t been amiss in his admiration of such beauty.
“We have guests,” Bethol murmured, “It would be bad manners not to make them welcome.”
Blake was idly playing with a pair of dice.
He knew that he was being watched.
It would only be a matter of time before both he and Jenna were joined by the owner of this not so sumptuous concern.
“It’s so nice to actually meet you face to face, at last.”
Blake didn’t look up, “I’d like to share that sentiment, but I don’t.”
Bethol motioned for his guards to move out into the large room and surround his most welcome visitors. He signalled one to activate the lights and the darkened space was suddenly filled with a soft, soothing glow.
“So,” Bethol began, “You decided to come and meet me in person. Just you and your……very welcome friend. And the others?”
“They don’t share my interest.”
“Shame…and I was so looking forward to having a more in depth discussion with….Avon.”
Blake smiled at that, “The feeling wasn’t mutual.”
“I must have caught him on a bad day.”
“No.” It was Jenna, “You probably caught him at his best.”
Bethol found himself staring at the one-time smuggler, “You know, Jenna, your picture does not do you justice.”
“I’ll try better next time.”
“That’s if there is a next time. Before we go any further….those devices on your wrists please. We wouldn’t want you to suddenly disappear at a most inappropriate time.”
“So, you know about them?” Blake asked, handing his bracelet over.
“Let’s just say, I’m a fast learner. I presume this is not a social call?”
“We need to talk.”
“Of course we do. But I think we would be more comfortable in my office. And then, once we have had our little chat, we can discuss the small matter of getting the rest of your colleagues to join us.”
“They will take some persuading.”
The sudden sound of Avon’s voice on the intercom jerked Vila from his day dream.
“Yes?” he answered back sharply.
“So, you’re not asleep then?”
“I’m poised. As I always am. You know me.”
There was a long silence.
“Anyway,” Vila said, deciding to risk further ridicule, “Is there a problem? I haven’t heard a thing.”
“There may be. I’m going to make sure you have someone there to keep you comp…..alert.”
“Oh? Really?” Vila said, suddenly finding the thought of sitting in the teleport section with someone, actually more alluring than usual.
“Yes……it goes against my better judgement…..”
Vila’s smile said it all.
Both of Djara’s sisters were staring at him.
Avon found himself trying to phrase the request as best he could without causing embarrassment.
The eldest of the two, Hadra, saved him the trouble, “I’ll go. I need to do something. My sister could be at risk and I want to help.”
“I assure you, I’m quite capable of looking after myself. On a mining planet where females are in the minority that’s something you learn very early on.”
Avon smiled to himself. Vila could possibly be about to get the shock of his life.
He watched her leave the Flight Deck, then turned his attention to the communications channel again.
“Cally. This is Liberator.”
Cally was crouched down near the main exit.
She had sent Gan to keep a watch on the other side of the building. She knew he would be unable to do anything if someone came out guns blazing, but at least he could warn her to that effect.
“Nothing to report so far.”
“It could all kick off when the first ship lifts off. That could be any minute now,” Avon advised.
“What do you think is going on in there?”
“Knowing Blake, not a lot.”
“You don’t seem very concerned about me being here,” Blake said. He was seated in one of Bethol’s more comfortable chairs; his bracelet and gun out of reach on the desk.
“I’m not. It’s just a matter of waiting,” Bethol replied, sitting on the edge of the desk, absently-mindedly pushing one of the bracelets with the tip of a gun.
“You know, Avon could be back in that plant, getting it back on line. These settlers will need it…”
“No, they do not need that plant. They have me. And you had better be wrong about Avon being in there, finishing the job…” As he spoke, Bethol depressed a button on the desk.
There was a loud thunderous explosion from the direction of the plant.
“Another installation destroyed by the Federation’s most wanted criminal…..and hopefully one of his friends was in it when it blew.”
The ball of fire that followed the deafening explosion drew everyone’s attention. The strange semi-dark night sky was for a moment brightly illuminated and anyone of French’s people who was having serious doubts about leaving suddenly found themselves having a change of mind.
The word went from house to house; family to family and any fear about retribution from Bethol’s men was quickly evaporated by the presence of the extremely confident young woman who was keeping her eye out for trouble and watching French’s back.
Djara swung round to face the smoke plume now rising from the ruins of the processing plant, “That man Bethol, he really means business. I think it’s time your people started leaving. I shall re-join Cally, just in case anyone decides to try and stop you and your people. I will see you once all this is over.”
French nodded then watched her leave. He turned to the several families who were with him, all carrying everything they held dear and, most importantly, the seeds for the crops that they would soon be sowing on a new world.
“Let’s get to the compound, now….”
“But Bethol will stop us!” one of the women said.
“I’d like to see him try.”
The explosion had registered on Liberator’s surface scanners. For a moment, Avon stared at the read outs. It was obvious that Bethol was determined to run things his way, but by destroying the one thing the Federation had installed to help this planet and its people could possibly be a big mistake. That one act could, quite literally, blow up in his face.
Djara’s other sister, Tedra, shook her head, “Why do that? Why destroy the one good thing provided by the Federation?”
“It’s all to do with power and besides, Bethol can blame us for its destruction. Zen, have there been any communications from the planet?”
+ Confirmed. +
“To whom? Was it directed to the Federation?”
+Negative. It was not directed to the Federation. +
“Then to whom did it go?”
+That information is not available. It was directed to an unknown recipient beyond the range of the Federation.”
Avon’s mind was racing, “He has Blake, the real Jenna and we are up here waiting, but he hasn’t contacted the Federation to tell them his good news. So else would benefit?”
“Maybe one of those people who he has been dealing with?” Tedra suggested.
“But why just two of us?” Avon wondered out loud, “Unless he is hoping we will join them.”
Tedra nodded, “That would be a great boost to his standing if he could hand over all of you.”
“Then he’s in for a long wait.”
“Tell me, Bethol,” Blake began, “This going concern of yours, I presume the Federation know about it?”
“Why should it be of interest to them?”
“They will want their cut; a percentage of whatever turnover you have.”
“You think so?”
“And then there’s the matter of your guards. How will you explain the fact that these men are not the original men who were drafted in to patrol this planet?”
“Deserted. All of them.”
“That’s a serious offence. You know that a man’s entire family is punished for such an infraction. Why would they risk something like that?”
“You’ll have to ask them…won’t you?”
“And why this place? It’s hardly something mere farmers would suddenly decide to start up.”
“Who am I to argue with their aspirations?”
“But why? What reason could they have?”
“It was my idea, actually,” Bethol smiled, “Although it was one of the settlers here who brought it about. He was digging on his land, something about a well…when he came across something totally missed by the surveyors who supposedly had done a thorough examination of this worthless piece of rock. He brought it to me and I realised that he was sitting on a fortune. He had found a large deposit of these.”
Bethol reached for one of the drawers on his desk and removed something from it. Slowly he opened his hand and revealed a dark mass of rock, “It’s called Esagon. Harder than Diamond and far more valuable. This is uncut…but once an expert gets to work, you get this.”
His other hand reached inside his breast pocket. Very carefully, Bethol undid the small piece of cloth and held its contents between his thumb and forefinger. The multi-facetted round stone caught the light and sent a rainbow of colour around the room, “Beautiful, isn’t it…and it’s about to make me and my business partner, very rich.”
“Business partner?” Blake asked, a little perplexed.
“Oh yes. My business partner.”
“I can’t see the Federation going along with that?”
Bethol leant forward, the glinting stone between him and Blake, “Who said anything about the Federation?”
The first of Adurat’s ships lifted off, quickly followed by another.
Both Cally and Djara were keeping an eye on the entrance and yet, no-one seemed in a hurry to come out and stop the exodus.
“If only we knew what was going on in there,” Cally wondered out loud.
“I cannot understand why no-one is coming out. Surely that man Bethol is concerned about these people leaving. Perhaps we should go in there…”
“No,” Cally replied, “We cannot afford to risk a full blown fire fight. We will wait a little longer, until all these people are clear.”
“What about Blake?”
Cally was thoughtful, “He does not seem too concerned at the moment.”
Djara stared at her, “How could you possibly know that?”
“There is much I can sense from these people. Being from Auron can be both a blessing and a curse.”
Djara suddenly remembered that moment in the ‘cell’, when Avon had seemed distracted and then told her of the approach of the three men, “You knew where to find Avon, didn’t you?”
Cally bit her lip, “Yes, I did.” She didn’t want to elaborate on that fact, especially as he did not know to what degree Cally’s abilities extended.
Djara studied the Auron woman who was now steadfastly staring into the distance, her gaze fixed on the building. Perhaps this was something unique to these people on that ship. But either way, Djara suddenly found herself just a little flustered. Whatever thoughts she had about Avon were quickly put aside; the last thing she wanted was for someone close to him to sense her fascination for this distant and complex man.
“You don’t seem concerned that the people of Adurat are leaving,” Blake said.
“That’s their choice,” Bethol replied matter-of-factly.
“And how will you explain their absence?”
“They decided to leave because you destroyed their only hope of getting their crops to grow successfully and of course, you threatened me and my men…”
“Speaking of which…..I believe at least two of your command are in fact colonists.”
“So they are. They came to me offering their support and I granted them and their families my protection. They have food, water and other necessities.”
“And now that their families are leaving?”
Bethol shrugged, “That’s up to them.” As he spoke he looked towards two of the men standing slightly apart from the others, “You can both go with your families if you would rather…but you won’t get your share. Think on it, stay here and benefit from our good fortune or leave with your families to face an unknown future. The decision is yours.”
As one, the two men put down their weapons and hurried towards an exit.
“You are making a big mistake,” Bethol called after them. But they didn’t hear him. “Still, that’s more for all of us to share. Now, I want you to contact you ship and order your crew to surrender to me.”
“It’s not as easy as that,” Blake said, “Avon will not hand over that ship to anyone.”
“He will once he knows the price of not complying with my request.”
“I wouldn’t bet on that if I were you.”
Bethol stopped dead. Wasn’t that exactly what Avon had said about Blake?
Gan appeared, walking across the open ground between Cally and the building that she and Djara were watching. In either hand he held fast two men, both claiming, quite loudly, that they were on his side.
“Look what I found? They came running out of that building and are demanding that I let them go…. Something about their families leaving and they want to go with them.”
“Who are you?” Cally rasped.
“We are both colonists. French can vouch for us…we only wanted the best for our families…we joined Bethol…you must believe us.”
“Why did he let you go?”
“Look…I don’t know. It was Blake who suggested it...”
“Whatever Bethol has planned we don’t want any part of it.”
“And what exactly has Bethol got planned?” Djara asked.
“He’s planning to hand Blake and his people over to get the reward…except he doesn’t intend to deal with the Federation.”
“So who is he planning to deal with?” Cally asked, knowing that the two were desperate to get away and be with their families.
“We don’t know his name.”
“I could shake it out of them,” Gan offered.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the man who brought my sisters here,” Djara put forward, “He is an independent trader from a long way off.”
Cally stared at the two men; she sensed that their story was true, “Go, quickly. Join your families.”
They gratefully ran off towards their homes, hoping they would find their families waiting for them.
“How many men do you think he has in there?” Gan asked.
“More than enough for us to risk an attack,” Cally conceded, “We will wait until all the ships have gone and then return to the Liberator. There is nothing we can do alone, not against fully armed men, be they Federation or not.”
“I’m not a patient man, Blake, and my business partner also lacks that quality. I want you to contact your people and advise them to join you. Of course one of them will be needed to operate the device that these bracelets are used for.”
“Not a chance.”
“Blake, I have no intention of losing the opportunity of a lifetime just because of your intransigence….”
“You will just have to hand Jenna and me over to your business partner, won’t you, because Avon will not surrender that ship or anyone else aboard it.”
“My business partner can be very persuasive.”
“Just who is this mysterious business partner?” Blake asked.
“He’s the man who will hand you over to the Federation and then we will divide the reward between us. It was he who actually showed me the true value of these stones. Our arrangement has proved most beneficial; I provide the raw, uncut stones and he gives me supplies in exchange then returns with these beautiful, cut gems. The reward that he will get for you and Jenna will make us both very, very rich.”
“But not as rich if you had all of us to hand over,” Jenna pointed out.
“No, that’s true, but there’s every possibility that he may not want to hand you over, Jenna. It was he who informed me that the young lady who was calling herself by that name was not, in fact, you.”
“And how would he know that?” Jenna asked.
“Because, he is a mutual friend and he told me so much about you, Jenna; so much…” As he spoke, Bethol gently caressed Jenna’s face, acutely aware that Blake was visibly annoyed, “Now, Blake, I want you to contact your ship…..”
“And I’ve already told you, Avon will not……”
“Then persuade him! I don’t intend to spend the rest of my life being passed over for promotion; just because I don’t have the right connections and don’t come from the right family. Well, being dumped here was the last straw. Once you are handed over, my men and I will take our share of the reward, plus the Esagons……and no-one will be able to touch us…No-one!”
“And I’m telling you……,” Blake tried to stand, but two of the men grabbed his shoulders and forced him back into the seat.
Bethol smiled, quite coldly, as he held the Esagon between his thumb and forefinger, the light from one of the lamps catching it and sending a shower of colour over the room, “Tell me, Blake, in your somewhat pampered upbringing as an Alpha, have you ever had occasion to experience a paper cut?”
“I can’t say I have….”
“Well, I have, many a time. It doesn’t hurt, at first, but then, as the skin realises that it has been slit, the pain can be quite exquisite….”
“I’ll take your word for it…”
“And that’s just a thin slice of paper…imagine what a well cut Esagon can do….”
Bethol had Blake’s open hand in his and then deliberately dropped the precision cut gem onto it. Blake stared at Bethol and then at the glittering stone sitting innocently in his palm. Slowly, and quite deliberately, Bethol closed Blake’s fingers over the jewel.
“But why imagine when you can experience it…at first hand?”
In in one, swift move, Bethol slammed Blake’s hand down onto the bare wooden arm of the chair with his own hand and pressed down with all of his weight.
“You will contact Avon....and this is just for starters.”
Cally felt the pain in her hand at the same moment that Avon’s voice came over the comms on her bracelet.
“Cally, the last ship has just lifted off; I’m bringing you up…”
“You can’t. Blake is in trouble, I need…..”
“And I need you back up here. There could be upwards of a dozen, well-armed paid killers in that building and we are not going to get into a full blown fire fight.”
Djara inwardly smiled; those had been Cally’s words just a few moments ago. She wondered about this telepathic connection these people shared and just how deep it reached into each of their thoughts. But she did know that he was right. Going into that building, not knowing who was there would be nothing short of a suicide mission.
“……and I have no intention of getting involved in a suicide mission. Are Gan and Djara with you?”
“You cannot leave Blake down there with that madman,” Djara stated.
“What do you suggest I do? Ask Bethol nicely ‘can we have Blake back?’ ”
“…well, it wouldn’t hurt to ask,” Vila put in, ambling onto the Flight Deck.
“What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in the teleport area just in case our great leader decides he’s had enough and wants to come back?”
“No, Tedra’s sister can handle that. I just wanted to see what you intended to do now. Whatever is happening down there isn’t pleasant. Cally’s ‘feeling’ quite a lot of pain, in case you hadn’t noticed…..and he hasn’t even started on Jenna yet.”
Avon was pacing the Flight Deck, acutely aware that several pairs of eyes were watching his every move. He knew what he wanted to do, but he was fully aware that no-one else on that Flight deck would support such a move; any attempt by him to leave Blake to the mercies of Bethol and take the Liberator, and him, away from this planet of no importance, would result in an uproar of mutinous proportions.
“You know, it’s at times like this when I ask myself ‘where is the Federation when you want them?’” Vila said to no-one in particular, although he was actually looking at Avon, quite intently.
Avon stopped his pacing. Bethol’s original message to the Federation had been instrumental in getting Blake and the Liberator into this mess. Yet there had been no response, possibly because Bethol had retracted the claim so soon after. However, there was at least one person within the Federation who would have received that message with undisguised pleasure.
“Zen. Scanners at maximum range. Are there any Federation pursuit ships on their way to this location?”
+ Negative, there are no Federation Pursuit ships. +
+Information. There is a Federation Scout ship patrolling this area. +
Avon smiled, “So Travis had to make sure.”
“You seem very pleased with yourself,” Djara said quite pointedly.
“Yes, I am, aren’t I? Cally, I think it’s time we let Federation Space Command know that their newly installed Base Commander has been overthrown and his men possibly murdered by a renegade group of colonists; and that we, as loyal subjects, request immediate assistance.”
Cally was still lightly rubbing her right hand, “But….”
“No buts…do it,” Avon could sense that both Vila and Djara were plainly not at all happy with his somewhat brusque manner. He relented and softened his tone of voice, “And then maybe you could utilise your unique abilities to ‘tell’ Blake that help is on its way. You, Vila, will need to get back to the teleport. I’m taking Liberator out of orbit and using Adurat as a shield. We don’t want the Federation to see us, until it’s too late…”
“And what about Bethol’s partner?” Djara enquired, “He could be on his way here as well.”
“Yes, well, we may have to pick up the pieces; literally.”
Bethol was still leaning on Blake’s right hand knowing full well that the exquisitely cut edges of the Esagon were biting deep into his palm. In his other hand, Bethol held a bracelet, “Call him, Blake, and the pain will stop.”
Blake was biting his lip; anything to stop the pain searing up his arm and into his brain. But then, he heard it. So very faint, so far away as if she was being taken from him.
Cally’s soft voice, cutting through the red veil, telling him to be ready, help was on its way…and then silence as the echo in his mind slowly seeped away.
“All right,” Blake agreed, “I’ll do it.” He took the bracelet and pressed the comms button. Beside him was Jenna, obviously concerned for him, but also evidently in receipt of the same message.
“Now then. That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Bethol leered.
“Liberator. This is Blake…”
Bethol leant on Blake’s hand again.
“Liberator. Come in. Avon, where the hell are you?”
Static; a steady stream of static.
“Don’t you lie to me…” Bethol thundered.
“Why don’t you check you scanners. The Liberator’s gone! I told you, didn’t I, that Avon will not give that ship to anyone?”
Bethol released Blake’s by now bloodied hand and quickly walked round his desk. He punched buttons; stared at screens. The Liberator had indeed vanished and with it, most of Bethol’s dreams.
The Captain of the scout ship relayed the message to Space Command Headquarters, fully aware that another interested party would be in receipt of his urgent communication.
Not surprisingly, the answer was quick and succinct. Proceed at full speed to Adurat; assess the situation and if necessary take action to suppress any uprising; at least until reinforcements were able to assist.
He didn’t need to be told twice.
Travis could hardly contain his satisfaction on hearing the message. He had been called to the Flight Deck of the troop carrier and as the Superior Officer he had ordered an immediate change of course to Adurat.
The pilot informed him that it would be a few hours before planet fall.
“I am aware of that. But make good speed.”
Travis seated himself at the rear of the cramped Flight Deck. He was somewhat puzzled by the message; the Base Commander overthrown; his men murdered and a group of colonists turned renegade? How did Blake and his crew fit into this scenario?
His Sergeant didn’t seem to have any concerns, at all. He took a seat next to the deep in thought Space Commander.
“We have Federation soldiers murdered and a group of colonists who have turned renegade. This training exercise has suddenly taken on a more interesting aspect, sir,” he said.
“The question is, Sergeant, how does Blake fit into this?”
“Has he set a trap?”
Travis shook his head, “No, that is not how his mind works. Someone wants the Federation to intercede, but for what reason?”
“I’ve never been one for speculation, sir, our men are in trouble. That is enough for me.”
The simple, clear cut thinking process of a Federation soldier. Travis inwardly smiled. He had been like that, once. Able to think clearly and do his duty without any question. But Blake had changed that; Blake and his unlikely crew. A mismatch of misguided enemies of the State.
“Sergeant, go aft; tell your fledgling Federation soldiers to prepare themselves. Adurat hides a secret. It will be up to them if it gives up that secret willingly, or with a fight.”
The Sergeant grinned; a strange gratified look on his face, “Yes sir.”
Tarvin had taken his time to consider Bethol’s offer; hand over Blake, his crew and the Liberator to the Federation and both he and Tarvin would share the reward on offer. It was a substantial amount. Enough to make both men, and their colleagues very well off.
It was an offer too good to miss. And, besides, Tarvin thought, he could always renege on the agreement and keep the bounty for himself…and his crew, of course.
“It would appear that we have further business at Adurat. Bring the ship about. We have a rendezvous to keep.”
Bethol’s anger was growing.
“You will order that ship of yours back here, now!”
“They’ve gone off station and somehow I don’t think Avon would agree to that statement of yours.”
“The ship being mine.”
“Don’t try any delaying tactics, Blake. You will contact Avon using my communications relay. You will tell him to get back here or….”
“Or what?” Jenna asked. It was the kind of question that guaranteed a threatening reply.
Bethol almost swaggered in her direction, “Let us just say, it would be a shame for one so beautiful to lose that beauty.” He was holding another Esagon, and grabbed her wrist, “I’ve heard it called the death of a thousand cuts.” He dragged the jewel across Jenna’s palm. “One.”
“So, not content with punishing me, you have to turn to Jenna….”
“I can fight my own battles, Blake,” Jenna hissed, taking a sharp breath.
“Now, Blake, contact Avon…..” Bethol murmured.
“I’ll try. He could be in a blind spot…..”
Avon didn’t need to know what was happening down in Bethol’s gaming establishment. It was quite obvious from Cally’s discomfort that the game that Bethol was playing had now taken a turn for the worse.
And still there was no sign of the scout ship.
Avon was at his station, studying the screen in front of him, acutely aware that he was being scrutinised by the others on the rather crowded Flight Deck. He had decided to gamble with the lives of both Blake and Jenna but it looked as though his bluff was about to be called.
Deep down, he was concerned that he had made the wrong decision; a decision that he would come to regret especially as all those present, at this moment, would make sure he would never forget.
He became aware of Gan standing right by him; Gan the voice of reason; Gan who seemed to have no fear of the unknown, but whose abilities to fight back against any oppression were now seriously curtailed by the device implanted in his brain.
“We can’t just sit here and hope that scout ship arrives in time to get…”
“…to get Blake out of this mess; a mess of his own making. I do seem to recall warning him about the stupidity of the whole exercise.” Avon didn’t look up as he spoke.
“Avon, have you considered the possibility that the other man may get here first?” It was Djara; asking the one question Avon didn’t want to actually hear.
“Then I will have no choice.”
“And what choice is that?” Gan asked, arms folded. He may not have had the ability to actually carry out any implied threat, but Gan’s physical presence was still, none the less, very threatening.
“Yes, Avon, I would like to know that choice.” It was Cally; even she was beginning to query him and his judgement.
“It is irrelevant who gets here first,” he replied, still not daring to look up and face his accusers, “If Blake and Jenna are not able to retrieve their teleport bracelets, then there is only one option.”
It was obvious from Cally’s horrified expression that she had already guessed what that option was; at least he hoped it was a guess. Sometimes he wondered if Cally’s telepathic gifts went a little deeper than she would admit.
“You can’t!” Cally almost cried out.
“Do you seriously think Blake would like to be in the hands of the Federation again? Can you even start to imagine what they would do to him?” This time Avon was looking at all his accusers.
And they, in turn, were staring back at him.
Djara swallowed, finding it difficult to equate this quiet, well-spoken man with the terrible choice he would have to make, “You will kill them yourself. That is what you are saying.”
Gan was trying not even to think about the option they were about to face, “If we can’t get them back, you’re going to launch an attack?”
“You will target that building down on the surface and fire the Neutron Blasters?” Cally said softly, almost repeating, word for word, Avon’s own thoughts.
“Yes.” It was quite emphatic. Avon betrayed no emotion. To him, it was a natural and logical solution, “None of you need play any part in this. I will take the responsibility.”
“And what about Blake?” Gan asked.
“Blake will understand.”
“I hope,” Djara said, her blue eyes glaring at Avon, “that he does.”
“There’s nothing I can do.”
“What will it take to make you understand? Threatening me and Jenna will not make him change his mind. As far as he’s concerned, when it comes to the Liberator, I’m expendable.”
Bethol studied Blake for a moment, “Are you seriously expecting me to believe that your friend will willingly leave you here to face the Federation alone?”
“Both of you?”
“Avon doesn’t have any friends,” Jenna said quietly, her voice trying to disguise her discomfort, “Just people who are useful to him.”
“At least you will be able to assist the Federation when it decides to go after him and that ship of yours.”
“I doubt that. I know what the Federation are capable of, just as he does. The moment he gets the opportunity, then he’ll make sure I can’t assist anyone……it’s possible that right now, he’s considering his next move, and that, Base Commander Bethol, should be of great concern for you.”
“He would dare to launch an attack? But he will kill you....both of you.”
Blake shrugged, “As far as he will be concerned, we will just be casualties of war…..his war.”
“Any sign of that scout ship, Gan?”
Avon was standing in front of the view screen, his back to the others. He found it a little less hostile than facing them.
“Can you identify it?”
“It’s still some way off…”
“Zen. Detectors to maximum. I….we must know what ship that is.”
“Does it really matter?” Djara asked, “They are both Blake’s enemies.”
“True. But one of them isn’t a friend of Bethol.” This time he turned to face them all, but directed his answer at Djara, “And that could make all the difference.”
Bethol’s complacent mood had changed.
The ship approaching had not responded to any request to identify itself.
It certainly wasn’t the Liberator.
And it didn’t seem to be his friend Tarvin; that ship’s signature he would have recognised.
The strange, unknown craft landed a small distance away, then disgorged its cargo of fully armed Federation soldiers.
Bethol stared at the screen, his expression a mixture of confusion and horror.
“You must keep trying, Vila,” Cally said.
“We don’t even know if they got the message; maybe he’s destroyed their bracelets; maybe they’re dead…”
“No, they are not dead.”
Vila tried the teleport controls again. If there was no contact this time, he knew that the Liberator would have to make another run; and if that didn’t work, the next fly by would result in utter annihilation for the base and all who were in it.
“You in there!” The voice sounded throughout the building. “You will come out, unarmed, with your hands raised. You have one minute.”
“This is your doing, Blake,” Bethol bellowed.
“I think you had better do as the man says; he doesn’t sound the patient sort.”
“There’s only a handful. We can take them…”
But Bethol’s boast fell on deaf ears. The men, who had mockingly watched as their ‘leader’ had tried to persuade Blake and Jenna to do his bidding, were now in a state of panic. One by one, they left the room, running towards the exits, hoping to find a way out that was no longer there.
It was a fleeting moment.
Bethol tried to reason with the last few, but was roughly thrown to the floor.
But all it needed was a fleeting moment.
Blake and Jenna reached for their bracelets and were vanishing into a mass of disassembled particles before Bethol’s unbelieving eyes.
Avon felt as if the seconds were dragging by.
If this didn’t work; if the Federation did indeed finally get their hands on Blake…..then he would have to destroy that base. It was what Blake would want.
Of course it was.
But that didn’t make it any easier to bear.
“Got them!” Vila’s voice echoed round the Flight Deck.
“Zen. Get us out of here,” Avon ordered with palatable relief, “Pre-designated course to Laternar, Standard by 8.”
“You took a big risk,” Djara murmured. She had been watching him all through the last, nail biting minutes, but not once did he show any emotion, “You both did. You know, that if this had failed, then you ……”
“I know,” Avon interrupted her. He didn’t want to hear from anyone what the consequences of failure would have meant.
“You both take risks don’t you?”
“I think you both do it deliberately; to test each other.”
“It’s like you’re playing a game.”
Avon found himself staring into those blue eyes again, “A game? Perhaps we are.”
“One day, you’ll play one game too many…and there won’t be anyone around to pick up the pieces.”
He averted his gaze, “Maybe.”
Tarvin studied the screen.
He and his men had watched as the small, Federation craft had beaten them to the planet and the awaiting prize, and then seen the beautiful ship appear as if from nowhere.
It hadn’t landed, but had run at full speed over the area where Bethol’s base was situated and now it was hurtling away out into the vast void of Space.
From the communications channel it would appear that his friend Bethol was no longer able to participate in any commercial arrangement, but Tarvin was determined to achieve that which Bethol had so elegantly laid before him. Catch Blake, his ship and his crew and hand them over to the Federation for a very substantial reward. And with Bethol now out of the picture, there would be no need to share that promised bounty.
“We will follow that ship,” Tarvin said out loud, “and when Blake has his guard down then we will strike. And if indeed my lovely Jenna is with him, then I will count that as a bonus; a very welcome, beautiful bonus. But we must not stay too close, we do not want anyone to suspect they are being followed.”
Tarvin’s ship turned and began to trail in Liberator’s wake; she was fast, but not fast enough to escape Tarvin’s greed, “Farewell my friend Bethol. It was so good doing business with you. I just hope that your new associates treat you as well as me.”
“That was a close call, Avon.”
“Yes, it was, wasn’t it? But it was most ironic that your greatest enemy should have been the one to facilitate your rescue.”
Both men were making their way to the Flight Deck; Blake’s right hand was encased in a thermo bandage, but it was still causing some discomfort, despite the best efforts of Gan.
“It could have been worse, though,” Avon continued, “It could have been me down there experiencing Bethol’s idea of persuasion.”
“And I think he would have really enjoyed that. You do have the knack of rubbing people up the wrong way.”
“If you ask me,” Vila put in, joining them in the corridor, “It’s a gift.”
“As a matter of fact, no-one did ask you.”
“…Any way,” Blake quickly added, interrupting the flow of insults that invariably left Vila floundering, “I presume all the colonists got off?”
“And on their way to Laternar. I have arranged for us to meet them there with the co-ordinates of Djara’s mining planet. Speaking of Bethol, What exactly did he use to such good effect on your hand?”
“He called it an Esagon. Have you……?”
Obviously, judging by Avon’s expression, he had. “It’s a substance harder than diamond, of great rarity and therefore great value. It can be used in laser weaponry to increase the power and range. But it is also highly sought after by those in the production of jewellery. And Bethol had it in abundance on that planet?”
“That’s what that establishment of his was all about. A way to get the raw material out and exchange it for goods.”
“No wonder he was able to command so much power…and now the Federation have got it…..”
“Not all of it,” Blake said.
They had reached the Flight Deck and Blake was suddenly at the centre of a welcoming committee. He managed to extract himself and sat down on one of the forward couches.
“I brought you a souvenir.” He gingerly brought out the large gem, with which Bethol had taken great pleasure in ‘persuading’ him. The Flight Deck was suddenly awash with a swathe of colour.
“So that’s an Esagon,” Vila said, reaching for it.
“Careful…..” Blake warned.
Too late. Vila was cursing under his breath and holding his cut fingers.
“….It has a deadly bite.”
“Base Commander Bethol, I presume?” The Federation captain’s tone seemed laced with sarcasm.
“Thank goodness you got here. Blake and his crew…..”
“The message we received spoke of an uprising of renegade colonists and that the men left here were no longer Federation troops…”
“…..Whoever sent that message was lying; trying to stir up discontent. You must let me explain and we can clear up this little misunderstanding…..”
“Indeed you will explain this little misunderstanding, Base Commander.”
“But not to me. My men have orders to search this settlement and its environs, as a matter of course, you understand?” the captain said, casting his gaze around the room and wondering just what had taken place here, “No, sir, you will explain everything to Space Commander Travis. He is on his way now.”
Space Commander Travis.
Bethol knew him by reputation. He just hoped that whatever punishment was to be meted out by that man would be quick…and not too painful.
Laternar’s hospitality towards the refugees was a welcome relief after the horrors of the last few months.
Mason had made sure that everyone had all the supplies needed for the long trek out to their final destination. He hadn’t asked where that destination was; just in case the Federation came asking.
Blake’s offer to pay for the supplies had been met with a blank refusal.
“It’s the least I can do,” Mason said, “You never know, I may need some assistance to relocate if the Federation insist on this expansion of theirs.”
“And you would be most welcome,” Djara stated.
“Won’t the other miners on you planet object to all these new people arriving?” Blake asked.
“It’s a big planet. And, besides, we need farmers. If any of them object, then they can deal with me.”
“Now that,” Mason said, “I can believe.”
They were seated in Mason’s office. It was a little crowded, but it afforded a little respite from the journey ahead.
“You know, we can only accompany you so far.” Blake said, “Somehow, having the Liberator following you might just draw some unwanted attention.”
“At least it will give us a good start,” French smiled. Suddenly, he was serious, “Grove’s widow asked me to thank you.”
“For finding him.”
“I just wish we had been a little earlier. Maybe we could have saved him.”
“But you found me and you have saved my people. So something good came out of it. And I get my ship back.”
“So Bethol’s men left it one piece?”
“Thankfully. Mason’s got some of his engineers to go over it; just to make sure.”
“I must get back to the Liberator now. Gan wants to have another look as this hand…”
“I hope Jenna wasn’t too badly hurt by that thug. You will give her my regards, won’t you?”
“That goes without saying, Mason. And thank you again. I suppose I ought to find out where Avon is. The whole point of coming out here in the first place was to obtain some reactive computer wire and an isolation primerator; somehow, that little matter got overlooked.”
Djara found it strange that Blake didn’t know where Avon was; she had thought that the crew of the Liberator were, somehow, attuned to each other. Was it just the woman Cally who possessed that ability? She was curious about just how deep that ability went.
“May I speak with you, Blake, in private?” she asked.
“By all means.”
They moved out into the spacious corridor, leaving Mason and French to carry on their discussion about the needs for supplies, including food and sectional buildings for permanent housing.
“I hope you don’t mind me speaking my mind…”
“…..as long as you don’t mind a likewise response.”
“You and Avon are very alike…..”
“He won’t thank you for that….”
“You both take risks. What are you trying to prove?”
“I’m not trying to prove anything…”
“One day, you will push him too far….”
“Whatever idea that you have of Avon is not entirely accurate. He’s his own man and he can do what he wants when he wants….,” Blake averted his gaze, “Djara, you obviously find him, shall we say, fascinating, but he is a very dangerous man.”
“Aren’t all men?”
Blake coughed slightly then abruptly changed subject,”…. I’m sure we would all welcome a respite one day. I would like to see this mine of yours, wouldn’t we, Avon?”
Djara caught her breath. It was obvious that the subject of the conversation had suddenly put in an appearance; just how much of the conversation had he heard?
“Well, there won’t be any respite for anyone unless I can get on with this.” In his hand was a container filled with an assortment of equipment.
“So you managed to get what you wanted?” Blake asked.
“Yes…it’s most strange that the merest mention of your name elicited unbridled assistance.”
“Then there’s something to be said for being a celebrity….”
“…..what it exactly says is beyond me. Have we finished here?”
“Yes. Djara has invited us to pay her a visit, once the colonists are up and running.”
“Very nice. I presume that invitation does not extend to Vila?”
Blake laughed. The last day or two had seen Djara fending off Vila’s advances with great skill; to the utter amusement of her two sisters, “I think he may be allowed, as long as we guarantee his behaviour.”
“Will you be able to do that?” Avon asked, his voice laced with sarcasm.
“Thank you, anyway,” Blake said, looking at Djara.
She was facing Blake, but her back was towards Avon. He was approaching them; but if he had overheard the exchange then he certainly wasn’t showing it.
“I’ll consider everything we’ve discussed,” Blake promised. He reached for the comms button on his bracelet, “Liberator, two to come up…” As he spoke, he looked at Djara who had now turned to face the enigmatic man, who for some reason didn’t seem to incur her belligerent attitude towards most of the males of the species.
“Good luck, Djara,” Blake murmured.
But Djara’s blue eyes were on Avon, “If the Liberator ever does become too small…..you will be most welcome.”
Space Commander Travis was not in the best of moods.
He was prowling the large room with its selection of tables, its decks of cards waiting to be dealt and its several pairs of dice waiting to be thrown.
He casually threw a pair. They clattered to the end of the table and hit the raised border.
One of his officers approached. They spoke in hushed tones.
Whatever was being said, Bethol couldn’t hear. But judging from Travis’ expression, it was not good news.
Travis spun a roulette wheel and allowed the single ball to dance over it, until it came to rest on number 13.
And yet another expression which made Bethol’s heart sink even further.
Travis spread out a pack of cards and selected one. He smiled, quite coldly, and allowed the card to fall face up on the table.
“It is not your lucky day, is it, Base Commander Bethol?”
“I can explain….”
“Of course you can.” As Travis spoke, he picked the fallen card up and showed it to the quaking base Commander.
The Ace of Spades.
“Whose idea was all of this?”
“The colonists; it was their idea. They wanted to diversify…”
“And where are these colonists who wanted to diversify?”
“They left; all of them.”
“Now why would they do that? The Federation, in its generosity, built them a processing plant that would provide nutrients for their hydroponics plus their fields. They had everything they needed.”
“I told them that…”
“And what happened to that plant?”
“It was destroyed. Blake and his crew came here and they blew it up…and the colonists left, soon after.”
“I presume that Blake came here because he had picked up that message concerning the capture of Jenna Stannis, which you suddenly recanted.”
“It was a mistake; the woman was not who she claimed to be. As soon as I knew, I……”
“And yet Blake still came and blew up that plant.”
“I was as shocked as you are...”
“Blake’s argument is with the Federation and the installations that allow it to operate as successfully as it does. Am I supposed to think that he would destroy something that helps those people who he claims to represent?….Where are the men who were left here with you to represent the Federation and its benevolence?”
Travis swung round to face Bethol this time. He had been absently wandering around the room, listening to the feeble excuses.
“Deserted? That is a serious accusation, Base Commander Bethol. Men who do so know that their families are rounded up and transported to a life of slavery on some forsaken outer world. If they are lucky they are executed the moment they step off the ship.”
“I know....I did tell them.”
“And who are the men who tried to run out of this building? The ones who survived claim that you hired them to replace those original guards, with a promise of shared riches and rewards.”
“I had to do something….”
“So if the original men deserted…just whose remains are those up in the mountains? Flung into a deep crevasse, their bodies food for the scavengers.”
“And then there is this.” Travis motioned for two of his men to come forward with the metal chest. They placed it on the roulette table and opened it.
Inside was a cascade of glittering colour. A treasure trove of Esagons; each reflecting the light from the above.
“When did you intend to tell Federation Space Command about your good fortune?”
Bethol didn’t know where to look.
“Our survey teams did not locate these when they came here. This was a serious oversight on their part.”
“One of the colonists....he found them. He was digging a well and he came across them. Naturally he came and told me about his good fortune and…..”
“And you chose not to impart that information to the Federation. And this colonist…he left with the others, did he?”
“……Was his name Vargo? A body, bearing the ID of that man, was found in the same crevasse as your men. This is not looking good for you....at all Base Commander Bethol.”
Another officer approached, this time with a very familiar gun in his hand. Travis cradled it in his un-gloved hand.
“You had Blake here, in this building, didn’t you, or at least one of his crew. So when were you going to announce that?”
“I have had enough of your lies and excuses. Your service record is abysmal; your promotion has been slow…”
“That’s because I don’t have the right connections…..sir.”
“So you decided to do something about it. I presume these stones, in their natural state have been exchanged for goods and services and then your share returned to you. I find it difficult to believe that you could have conceived of this establishment all of your own accord. And I suppose it was your unknown conspirator who saw to the unprocessed stones being transported off and turned into these beautiful, elegant gems. I know that Space Command would put these to good use, as would Supreme Commander Servalan, but she would find them useful in other ways.”
Travis picked the largest stone he could find out of the box and held it up, “Yes, Supreme Commander Servalan would be most delighted.”
His Sergeant approached, obviously enjoying the growing discomfort of the man standing nervously before the Space Commander. Travis listened as his Sergeant imparted more information, and then smiled, again.
“We have a unit on its way here to fully mine out these stones, but until they arrive, I think we should put those imposters to work. Get them to dig out the stones, by hand if necessary, Sergeant.”
“If they are still alive, then I believe summary execution is the usual punishment for impersonating a Federation Officer.”
“Indeed it is, sir.” The Sergeant was thoughtful for a second, wondering if he should speak his mind. His own troops were angry that loyal Federation guards had been unceremoniously thrown into that crevasse. He stood to attention. “Permission to speak, sir?”
“I think we should remove our fallen comrades from the crevasse, sir, and their bodies returned to their grieving families for proper burial….”
“And?” Travis said, his eyes still fixed on Bethol.
“…..and those imposters thrown into it; as punishment.”
Travis allowed a faint smile to cross his mouth, “An excellent idea. See to it, Sergeant.”
The Sergeant saluted and left, taking some of his men with him.
“And that just leaves you, Base Commander Bethol.”
Bethol swallowed, wondering what his fate was to be. It was obvious that things were not looking good for him.
Travis motioned for two of his men to remove the metal case and its gleaming contents from the table, “Have it put aboard the ship. I intend to deliver it and its contents to Supreme Commander Servalan in person.”
“But…..” Bethol began.
“You object to that?” Travis asked, halting the men.
“Maybe we could come to some arrangement, Space Commander Travis. Those men, who I enlisted, they, too, have their own share; maybe we could give those to……”
“Are you suggesting that you and I keep these ill-gotten gains for ourselves?”
The Sergeant had returned and found himself facing a disbelieving Travis.
“This Base Commander would like to share his good fortune with me, you and, I presume, the rest of the men here. What do you say to that, Sergeant?”
“I would say that that sounds like a bribe, sir.”
“Yes, my thoughts exactly.” Travis turned to face his cowering prisoner, “I am first and foremost a Federation Officer; these baubles are of no concern to me. My duty comes first; just as it should have done to you, Base Commander Bethol.”
Travis could see that Bethol’s eyes were fixed on the gemstones, so tantalisingly close, yet now so far away, “You seem enamoured of these stones. They are obviously to your taste.”
“Excuse me, sir,” the Sergeant said, “Perhaps this Base Commander needs to be an object lesson to all those who seek to deceive the Federation.”
“An object lesson?”
“Yes sir. He seems to have an unhealthy appetite for these stones.”
“Indeed he does.”
“Do I have your permission, sir, to teach this renegade a lesson he will never forget?”
Travis stepped back, “Permission granted.”
“Be seated, Base Commander.” It wasn’t a polite request. The Sergeant was most forthright.
Bethol obeyed immediately. He thought it best to at least try and behave as someone should, given his status.
The Sergeant motioned to two of his men, “The Base Commander may need some assistance to remain seated.”
Suddenly Bethol found himself being held down, his arms fixed behind his back.
“Base Commander Bethol seems very fond of these stones, sir.”
“Indeed he does,” Travis retorted, “See to it that he gets his fill, but be careful, Sergeant, these stones, although very beautiful, hide a deadly secret. They are like shards of glass; they can cut someone so very easily.”
“With pleasure sir.”
“And when Base Commander has had….his appetite sated, make sure to have every stone removed from his body before it is thrown into that crevasse.”
Bethol’s eyes bulged with outright fear.
“Yes,” said the Sergeant, “Otherwise the scavengers will have rich pickings!”
“Quite,” Travis responded, finding the Sergeant’s comment a little amusing, in a macabre way. He watched as his Sergeant slowly put on a glove and selected a shining stone from the box before him.
Space Commander Travis didn’t need to stay and see the punishment carried out. He was fully aware of the capabilities of the lower ranks under his command. Satisfied that justice would be served, he turned on his heel and marched out, towards the waiting ship.
Bethol’s fate would be a warning to any other Federation officer who decided to turn renegade. But now, Travis had other pressing matters.
To find Blake;
And his ship.
Those of the Liberator’s crew who were on the Flight Deck watched as the strange flotilla moved off towards its new home.
“You know, I’m really going to miss those girls,” Vila sighed.
“Somehow, I don’t think the feeling was mutual,” Cally smiled.
“Given time, I’m sure they would have come to realise just what sort of man I am…”
“And that was Djara’s concern; being given time.”
Blake smiled. It had certainly been an interesting few days. He rubbed his bandaged hand.
“Don’t you think you should let Gan have a look at that again?” Avon said. He had been staring unblinkingly at the view screen. Whatever was going through his thoughts was something he didn’t want to share; with anyone.
“Maybe I should. Cally, take Liberator out to some nice quiet place. We have a few things to repair…..”
“…. And I have a computer system which needs my attention,” Avon remarked, “That shouldn’t take anywhere near as long as your hand.”
“Vila, Cally, we’ll leave you to keep watch. Maybe you could check on Jenna….”
“She is sleeping; her injuries are almost healed,” Cally said, “And Avon is right, you really should let Gan check that hand over again. You could have some nerve damage.”
“I paid a lot of money for those two,” Vila moaned, “And no-one even thanked me.”
“Thanked you?” Blake asked.
“Exactly,” Vila replied, looking at him, “The auctioneer was an Amagon. Those people make money by slave-trading and other criminal activities. Those girls were paraded around in front of a baying crowd, scared witless. What was I supposed to do? Leave them? You weren’t there, Blake. I had to buy them to free them. I bid on those two because I knew that you would have done the same thing.”
Blake was lost for words.
“You could always go back and demand a refund, although you may have to deal with Travis on that matter,” Avon put in.
“Still, I suppose it was money well spent. I’ll just have to put it down to experience.”
“You do that,” Blake said, patting Vila’s forlorn shoulder, “Coming, Avon? I’m going in that direction.”
They both walked in silence towards their respective destinations; the ship’s medical unit for Blake and one of the computer centres for Avon.
Blake absently rubbed his hand.
“Bethol certainly made an impression on you with that Esagon,” Avon remarked.
“And it seems you made an impression, as well,” Blake replied, slyly.
Avon stopped and turned to face Blake, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Blake studied the man opposite him; blank eyes, expressionless features, “No, I don’t suppose you have. But Djara was, shall we say, quite fascinated by you.”
“She told you that.”
“Not in so many words….”
“Then you are imaging it…”
“You did notice that she said you would be welcome on her planet…if the Liberator ever got too small.”
If Avon had noticed it, he certainly wasn’t going to let Blake know.
The two men stood facing each other. For a moment there was a strained silence, and then Avon allowed himself a faint smile; one that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Blake, you need to know that she accused us of playing a game; a deadly game.”
Blake stared back into the ice-cold eyes that betrayed no emotion, “And…. are we, Avon?”
© 2013 LaraSue-Lectori Salutem