She had tried so hard.
So hard to fend off the onslaught, but it had proved too much.
Ilva could only watch as the woman reached down and took the necklace from her.
The Carcanet; the symbol that united the Outlaw Accord. And now she had it.
The woman stood erect above her fallen rival and allowed one of her warriors to fasten the glistening jewel about her own throat. For a moment both women looked at each other; one victorious; the other defeated.
Ilva tried to reach out; ask for pity; but there was no response. The other woman’s victory was complete and she had no reason to stay in the wrecked ship, surrounded by the dead and dying and the encroaching flames.
With one last look of contempt, Bel Santini turned on her heels and swept out of the mangled remains of the ship her own small fleet had hunted down and destroyed.
Ilva sank back into the mound of twisted metal, cold against her skin. She was alone. All she could hope for now was that the last message had reached its destination.
On the twisted deck, hidden by a mangled, useless communication array was her last hope; a small transceiver. She painfully reached out and held it in her hand. She silently prayed that her last words, before the array had expired, had somehow escaped into the void of space and sent her plea out to him.
If it did by some small chance find him, then she might not die alone, after all.
He would come.
And he would find that woman.
For she had taken something that was far more valuable than a mere trinket; its value was known to Ilva, as it was known to him. And he would hunt down Bel Santini.
He would find her and ultimately it.
For the Carcanet was more than an ornate neck decoration; it contained everything the Outlaw Accord knew of the galaxy. And such information could prove most useful to his enemy.
Blake studied the box before him; its mass of flashing lights resembling anything but a super intelligent computer of the highest order. At least, that was how Orac described itself.
“And the message was directed to me?”
+It was. +
“And it came from outside the known Federation Territory?”
+That territory is expanding as you well know. The Outlaw Accord’s range has been severely curtailed of late. +
“And you think the sender of the message was Ilva?”
+It was very faint, but she did persist with the warning that the Carcanet was soon to be no longer in her care. +
Blake pursed his lips and then looked at Jenna, “If Ilva no longer has it, then someone else has and that could be very dangerous….”
“The Federation?” Jenna asked.
+No, + Orac informed her, + It would seem that another member of the Outlaw Accord has appropriated the device for her own ends. +
“Can you trace the source of that message?” Blake inquired.
+Of course I can. +
“Jenna, we need to get to Ilva and find out exactly what has happened to her, the Outlaw Accord and the Carcanet.”
“That could be a risk….”
“It’s an even greater risk if that necklace falls into the hands of the Federation. With the information on it there is no telling what they could do.”
“…but worth it.”
It had been a strange eerie journey to the source of the message and Orac had maintained throughout that this, indeed, was its place of origin; a desolate planet surrounded by wreckage from every conceivable ship one could imagine…except those belonging to the Federation.
“Who could have done this?” Jenna asked quietly.
“The question is, are those responsible still in the area?” Avon mused, his eyes scanning the instruments before him.
Blake stood in front of the view screen. He knew that Avon would answer his own question a few moments later.
“Well?” Blake eventually dared to inquire. He waited for a swift response, a usually mocking retort, but it didn’t come.
“Nothing here,” Vila murmured.
“No radio transmissions across the whole spectrum…. everything is dead. Whoever did this, wanted to make sure.”
“Make sure of what?”
“To make sure no-one was alive to tell the tale, I would imagine,” Avon said. “The residual energy signatures are not those of the Federation, but these ships are those of the Outlaw Accord; or what is left of them …the rest may have been lost in battle and the remainder came here, trying to escape.”
“Ilva among them, I presume. Her ship isn’t one of these wrecks orbiting this planet?”
+No, + Orac interrupted, + the message originated from an area directly below us on the surface of this planet. +
“Zen, any life readings?”
//Heavy radiation residues are impeding the instruments function, but there is a faint trace of a humanoid…//
“Vila, patch those co-ordinates to the teleport. Gan, Cally with me…”
“Are you seriously teleporting down to that wreckage?” Avon asked.
“Ilva thought it a serious enough matter to try and contact me,” Blake explained, reaching for a gun from the rack.
“This would seem to be the result of some internal rivalry…it doesn’t concern us.”
“Ilva obviously thought it did. While we’re down there, I want you and Jenna to see if you can find any evidence as to who carried out this atrocity and where, exactly, they have gone….”
Avon drew in a deep breath and was about to make a pronouncement.
“…….Please,” Blake added.
“You only had to ask, but that does make a difference.”
The acrid smoke billowing from the remains of what was once a sleek space craft, caught in the back of Blake’s throat.
It was dark, but the light from the single moon illuminated the surface of this planet just enough to make out the wreck and the numerous bodies strewn around it.
It was Cally who found her.
The Auron softly called out to Blake and at the same time alerted Gan to her find.
“She is badly injured,” Cally whispered, crouched down by the side of Ilva; her body trapped beneath the twisted metal of her once proud ship.
Blake knelt down. “Ilva? It’s me; Blake.”
“You came...I hoped you would…I knew you would.”
“Let’s get you out of here.” He bent down to lift her in his arms, while Gan bodily hefted the obstructive metal out of the way.
Away from the ship, by the shelter afforded by a low rocky outcrop, Blake set Ilva down and waited for Cally to administer first aid. Gan stood by, the basic medical kit at hand.
Cally shook her head.
“Perhaps we should teleport her…..” Blake suggested.
“The stress would be too much,” Cally replied.
Blake sat down and cradled the dying woman in his arms, “Who did this, Ilva. The Federation?”
“She did. Her name is Bel Santini. We welcomed her to our Accord and this is how she repaid us.”
“She did all this?”
“No….The Federation ambushed us and what was left of our fleet ran……and then she had her chance…my ship, my crew. We had crash landed here and she and her people walked among us, killing those that lived and then she found me and the Carcanet…she had seen it and wanted it……”
Blake brushed a tear away from Ilva’s blood stained cheek. “But why leave you alive?”
“As an object lesson. She does not know the true nature of the Carcanet, but she has claimed it and now wears it. But my fear is that once the Federation know that she possesses it, then they will seek her out.”
“And how will they know?”
“Because Bel Santini will want everyone to know that she is now the keeper of the Carcanet and will demand allegiance….I’m so cold.”
Gan looked around for something to cover her, but found nothing. Without further hesitation, he removed his own top coat and placed it over the shivering form of the dying woman.
“We have to get to her before the Federation does,” Gan murmured.
“I agree.” Cally whispered.
“The Carcanet contains the names, locations and much more of those who have provided succour for the Outlaw Accord; those who have sought to be free from the onslaught of the Terran government. Please, Blake, you must stop her……”
“I know,” Blake said almost inaudibly.
Ilva’s breathing was becoming shallower, “Hold me…I’m so scared.”
“I’m here, Ilva, we all are…..”
Blake pulled her closer and knew the time would soon come. But he would stay here, on this dark, cold planet; the last resting place of a once mighty force, now rendered impotent by the will of one woman.
And as Ilva’s life force slipped away, Blake vowed to avenge her death and make sure that the adornment so esteemed by this woman would be tracked down and retrieved.
Avon stood a short distance away from the makeshift funeral pyre, watching, in silence. Blake surveyed the flames as they slowly died down, returning the bleak planet surface to a cold, still darkness.
Avon found it strange how much Blake could bring himself to care for someone he hardly knew. And he wondered if those feelings could ever be extended to those of his crew who didn’t particularly agree with his ideals.
Blake threw one last shard of timber onto the pyre and took a deep breath.
“What sort of person could do this, Avon?”
“Why ask me?
“Well, whoever it was must have been a cold hearted, unfeeling individual.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Avon replied.
“Only Ilva was left alive, everyone else was butchered where they lay. Whoever is responsible……”
“It’s not your problem, Blake.”
“Maybe not, but I owe it to Ilva to find that woman and get that necklace. Because if it should fall into the wrong hands then it could cause a lot of problems for a lot of people….”
Avon thought for a moment, “Including us, I presume.”
“The information on that necklace could possibly sign the death warrants of whole planets; anyone who has occasion to deal with the Outlaw Accord will be marked on that device and once that information is revealed, then they could be in serious trouble.”
“Only if, say, the Federation have the expertise to extract that information…”
“The man who caught you….”
Avon nodded. That was indeed possible. He had forgotten about the man responsible for discovering his fraud, “That could well be problem.”
“Could he do it?”
“Much as it pains me to say this……but yes.”
“I owe it to Ilva to stop that happening…and I don’t want to have to do this again. I’ve buried too many friends.”
“Really,” Avon said, not at all impressed by Blake’s humility.
Blake looked up and in the fading light afforded by the glowing embers, stared directly at the man opposite, “I’d even do it for you.”
“So you know this Bel Santini?” Vila asked cautiously.
He, along with the others, was sitting on the forward couches, discussing their options.
“Not as such,” Jenna replied, “but I knew someone called Santini. He wasn’t the most pleasant person to know.”
“So, who is she?” Blake enquired. He sometimes wondered just what sort of people Jenna had actually mixed with in her previous ‘life’; not that her present company could be held up to close scrutiny.
“Daughter; sister; wife. I don’t know. But if she is anything like her namesake, then there could be trouble.”
“And this unknown woman has taken the Carcanet,” Gan said to no-one in particular.
“Yes,” Blake replied, “but according to Ilva, she doesn’t actually know its true meaning. I think she believes that possessing it will make those that are left of the Outlaw Accord turn to her as their new leader.”
“She will be in for a shock then, won’t she?” Avon murmured.
“Look, Avon, I appreciate that you don’t share my thoughts on this, but I promised Ilva that I would stop this Bel Santini and prevent that necklace falling into the hands of the Federation.”
“I never doubted your intention. But first, you must find her…and it.”
Cally had been quiet for the duration of the conversation, preferring to listen and observe. Her alien eyes glanced towards Avon, “And you already know, don’t you?”
Avon stared impassively at the Auron woman as the others first looked at her and then turned to focus their attention on him. How could she possibly know about that? Now was not the time to discuss the matter; as it was, he was finding it just a little uncomfortable that everyone was now looking in his direction and waiting for an answer.
“Naturally,” he said matter of factly.
“So, where is she, Avon?” Blake asked. He had thought, that by now, Avon’s tendency not tell anyone pertinent information would have worn off; it hadn’t. He was still determined to undermine Blake’s authority by steadfastly refusing to divulge important facts.
“The analysis of the energy signatures from the craft that Orac has identified as belonging to Bel Santini, have led to the conclusion that she is heading for a small planetary system that is far enough from the Federation to be outside its control, but near enough to be able to call upon it if so required. There is only one habitable planet, and all indications are that she and her very small fleet are going there.”
“But won’t the occupants of that planet take exception to an armed gang turning up out of the blue?” Vila asked.
“Shouldn’t we warn them?” Gan suggested.
“No need,” Avon replied, getting to his feet, “The sole occupant left that planet, with his family, some time ago.”
“Why?” Blake queried.
It was Orac who supplied the answer, +No reason was ever given; only that circumstances dictated an immediate withdrawal to Earth. +
“Sole occupant? He must have been very high up in the Federation…” Jenna began.
“…or very wealthy,” Vila sighed, “Just imagine, so wealthy, that you can have your own planet.”
Jenna smiled, watching Avon as he studied the view screen, “Some of us have already imagined it.”
Avon turned. He remembered his failed attempt to persuade Jenna to leave Blake and come with him, on the Liberator, and use its vast wealth for themselves. It wasn’t a warm smile that was directed back at her, but more like a bitter memory of a lost chance; a missed opportunity.
“Some of us still do,” Avon said pointedly.
It was a remark not lost on Blake.
Vila was surprised by the knock at his cabin door.
He was flat out on the bunk having just had one of Cally’s delightful concoctions for the headache that was now slowly subsiding.
“Yes!” he barked.
“Vila.” It was Avon.
“Whatever it is…no!”
“Vila…you have something that I would like to borrow.”
That was a turn up for the book, thought Vila. He begrudgingly got to his feet and went to the door.
He opened it and came face to face with Avon who was smiling a smile that sent shivers down Vila’s spine, basically because he knew, from experience, that this was a precursor to him, Vila, being asked by Avon to take part in something. And that usually meant trouble for Vila.
“Whatever it is...no,” Vila repeated.
“So you said.”
“You have something that I would like to borrow.”
“So you said,” Vila smiled back, folding his arms and leaning against the door frame.
“I presume that you still have that gemstone from the Carcanet...”
“What makes you think that?”
“Because it isn’t in the strong room. And that is where our great leader consigned it.”
“What makes you think that I have it?”
Avon just held out his hand.
Vila realised that his act of innocence wasn’t working. With a deep sigh, he reached inside his breast pocket and withdrew the elusive gemstone.
“But I want it back,” he warned as Avon’s fingers closed over the glittering stone.
“Ah...that may not be possible.”
“What do you mean, that may not be possible? Make it possible. That’s mine. I stole it…you know what they say, nine tenths. Or something…”
“Just console yourself that you are aiding your glorious leader to fulfil his promise.”
“Oh yes, that makes all the difference,” Vila retorted, as Avon spun on his heels and walked off to his next victim.
This time it was Jenna’s turn.
She was none too pleased to find herself face to face with Avon at her door. She, too, had been endeavouring to rest, but that now seemed to be a thankless task.
“I’m so sorry to disturb you,” Avon said, his casual attitude making her wary.
“As long as it’s for the right reason and not to recruit me to your side, again.”
Avon allowed himself a faint smile, “Oh, it is…..the right reason, I mean. I would like to borrow your necklace, if I may?”
“Why?” She was still suspicious of him and his motives, even after all this time.
“To assist Blake. And you would want that, wouldn’t you?”
“All right,” she said eventually. She reached up to undo the necklace.
“Let me help,” Avon said.
For a moment, Jenna stared at him, and then allowed him to undo the necklace. She shivered involuntarily as she turned her back on him and he gently released the catch.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
“As long as I get it back; that’s all I have from my old life.” She turned to face him.
“You will. I promise.”
She held his gaze for a moment. There was something about him that made her feel uncomfortable; yet she trusted him…to a certain degree.
She wondered if Blake shared that trust.
Bel Santini descended the wide, spiral staircase and allowed her hand to caress the smooth, wooden rail. Everywhere she looked there was opulence; a distinct sign of wealth the like of which she could only dream.
Well, maybe that dream was now within reach.
Standing at the bottom of the stairs were an odd assortment of ill-dressed men, totally out of keeping with the luxurious surroundings.
One of them stepped forward, “You look good, Bel.”
“I feel good, Jeago. Is there anyone around?”
“No. The men have searched everywhere. I’m waiting for the others to report back. It’s strange how the power is still on.”
“All the better for us. Yes, I think this will do nicely. A fitting monument for the new leader of the Outlaw Accord…and her escort. I presume the news has gone out?”
“Indeed it has,” Jeago replied, taking her offered hand, “It won’t be long. Soon they will come here and honour you and pledge their allegiance.”
“As you do?” Bel studied the man before her. He seemed momentarily flustered.
“That goes without saying, Bel.”
“Good, see that the men are fed, and make sure there is ample food and drink for the ceremony.”
“There’s plenty of that.”
“But it bothers you, doesn’t it?”
“It’s almost as if they just left everything and ran; food, drink, jewellery.”
“Make sure everyone gets his and her share. Whoever owned this planet will wish he had never left it to its own devices….”
“And if he comes back?”
Bel smiled and ran her finger along Jeago’s chin, “Then we will have to break the news to him, won’t we. This is my planet…just as this necklace is mine. And no-one is taking this or the planet from me.”
“Well, she’s down there all right,” Gan said, “but it doesn’t make sense. For a deserted planet, there seems to be a lot of energy being expended.”
“In what way?” Blake asked.
“According to Zen, there are several power plants dotted around the planet and running at full capacity.”
“What would one man and his family need with all that? Especially as, according to Orac, the owner left.”
“Maybe he left in a hurry and is expecting to return at some point.”
“Well,” said Jenna, “If this Bel Santini is anything like her namesake then he could have a real battle on his hands.”
“What will she say when I turn up. She may mistake me for the real owner…”
“That will be highly unlikely,” Avon informed Blake, as he entered the Flight Deck, “You would find it very difficult to pass as a member of the elite ruling class. Whoever owns this planet has style.”
“And I don’t?”
Avon studied him, “No.”
“Whereas, you do. Perhaps you should come down with me and give me the benefit of your experience?”
“I think not. Gan has picked up messages that would indicate that the new keeper of the Carcanet wants to show everyone, to whom it matters, that she is now the proud possessor of the famed necklace. Personally, I would rather not find myself in their dubious company. However, the problem remains. How to stop the information on that necklace falling into the hands of the Federation?”
“And you think you have the solution?”
“We introduce a ‘virus’ which effectively wipes the Carcanet clean of every iota of information.”
“And how do we do that?”
Avon raised his hand. In it was Jenna’s necklace and on that was the single stone, so expertly removed by Vila, “Orac has installed a viral program into this stone. Once reintroduced to the Carcanet, it will send that virus to every other stone and wipe the ‘memory’. The Carcanet will be just an ordinary beautiful piece of jewellery. All you need to do will be to replace this stone.”
“I don’t think I could do that,” Blake confessed.
“No. You need the touch of a master craftsman; someone who knows how to handle such delicate workmanship.”
Vila strolled onto the Flight deck, feeling refreshed after his sleep. He stopped dead when he realised that everyone was staring at him.
“Why does that ship stay in orbit?”
Bel Santini did not expect an answer. She was standing beneath the huge glass dome, looking up at the night sky, and the brightly illuminated ship. It was slowly traversing the star field and did not seem in any hurry to land and make itself known.
“Perhaps whoever is aboard is waiting to see if anyone else has answered your call,” Jeago suggested. He was sitting on one of the sumptuous seats that lined the edge of the circular wall upon which the dome rested. In his hand was a finely crafted glass, and in that a brightly coloured liquid; one that he found to his taste.
“And has anyone answered my call?” Bel asked.
“What remains of the Outlaw Accord is spread far and wide. The Federation saw to that. Hopefully, though, those remnants will come to your side and accept you as their leader.”
“Good. Is everything ready?”
“It is, Bel.”
“Tomorrow, I will begin to welcome my followers.”
“And that ship?”
“Perhaps a polite message; to ascertain their intentions.”
“And if those intentions are hostile?”
“I hope for their sakes, that they are not.”
“So, I just reattach this stone and then I can leave,” Vila asked for the umpteenth time.
Blake nodded, “But you will also need to use this,” he held a small silver device in his hand, “to extract all the information from the Carcanet before that virus takes hold and transmit it to Orac.”
“Oh, charming. She’s bound to notice you know? But why take the risk?”
“Avon thinks it could be useful.”
“What to us….or him?”
“Just do it, Vila.”
“You know, I wouldn’t want to be around when she finds out that the necklace isn’t what it once was.”
“I’ll deal with that,” Blake promised. He turned to Cally, seated at the teleport console, “Are the co-ordinates fixed?”
“I’ve moved them slightly. Two ships have landed and I thought it wise to give the appearance that you, Jenna and Vila have arrived on one of them. And that will also allow you a rather grand entrance.”
“It’s the exit I’m worried about,” Vila moaned.
“Blake.” It was Avon’s voice over the intercom, “It looks as though Gan may have come up with a reason for the sudden departure of the owner of this paradise.”
“And what’s that?”
“Seismic activity. There seems to have been some major earth movements recently. All appears quiet at the moment; but I wouldn’t advise an extended visit. Zen is calculating the possibility of the next event…”
“Orac maintains it has other more interesting things to study.”
Blake smiled ruefully, “I’ll take your advice on board. Ready Vila?”
“I’m not happy about this. There’s a hoard of criminals down there….”
“Which means,” Jenna said, playfully, “that you will be right at home.”
“Avon?” Gan’s questioning voice stirred Avon from his concern about the virus he and Orac had been working on, and whether or not it would actually deliver the proposed end product.
“Another life sign has just registered…”
“No. It’s coming from one of the other residences down there. It’s just appeared. One moment there was nothing and then Zen did another sweep and there is was.”
“Just the one?”
Gan nodded, “Apart from that building and the place where Blake is to meet this Bel Santini, there are no other life signs anywhere.”
“Perhaps it belongs to one of the wildlife…a deserted building would prove inviting.”
“Orac, has Blake walked into another Federation trap....or were you going to surprise us?”
+The Federation are not in the immediate vicinity. They have no reason to be here...yet, + Orac intoned, sounding distinctly bored.
“So who or what is that life sign?”
+It is one of the human inhabitants. +
“How can you be so sure?” Gan asked.
+One merely has to look to see. +
In answer, the main view screen burst into life.
On it was a woman who appeared to be preparing food in the comfort of her own home, seemingly unaware of the fact that she was being watched.
+It is a live feed from the security cameras located in various locations around the habitations on this planet. And everything that is occurring on this planet is being transmitted.+
“To whom?” Avon asked.
+To the owner of this planet; one Mr Culver. +
“And if he knows that Blake is down there…” Gan said.
“Oh, he is already aware of Bel Santini, isn’t he Orac?” Avon asked, “But I doubt if he sees her as a threat. I presume he was more concerned about the seismic activity.”
+Indeed, + Orac replied, +That is why he left, taking the other inhabitants. +
“But now he has seen Blake, he’ll alert the Federation.”
+Although by then, there is every possibility that this planet will be inhabitable. The seismic activity has ceased, for the moment, but indications are that they will resume quite shortly. +
Gan was studying the woman on the screen, “Does she know we are watching?”
Just then she turned and looked up at the camera, and smiled.
“She obviously knows someone is watching,” Avon murmured.
“Could it be the mysterious Mr Culver?”
“Judging by her expression…oh yes.”
Gan stepped down from his station and went to the gun rack.
“What are you doing?” Avon asked, very slowly.
“She’s not Federation…”
“We don’t know that..”
“And she certainly isn’t one of those Outlaws.”
“And your point is?”
Gan handed Avon a gun, “You heard Orac, this planet won’t be around for much longer. We just can’t leave her there.”
“I’m sure we can.”
“Are you coming or not?”
Avon looked at the woman again. She was still smiling. Why?
“If you insist,” he said eventually, “Orac, I want you to block those live feeds…”
+Very well. +
“And if anything untoward comes up…I want to know about it. Zen. All detectors to maximum range.”
“Why do that?” Gan asked.
“Because if Mr Culver has received those live feeds, I don’t want to be here when he comes looking.”
Blake had watched the small group walk off towards the brightly coloured marque sitting incongruously in the middle of the flat plain. The entrance to it was flanked by a series of flags; each a different colour and with a different symbol.
“Any ideas?” Blake asked Jenna.
“The Outlaw Accord used to have these flags to indicate exactly which group was present at any meeting.”
“But we know that most of the Outlaw Accord has been either routed or destroyed. So who put those flags there?”
“I expect Bel Santini salvaged them from Ilva’s ship, just to give herself respectability. These Accord remnants will most probably be wondering the same thing as you are.”
“I wonder how she intends to explain herself.”
“More to the point,” Vila muttered, “How do you intend to explain yourself?”
“I am here to return a valuable piece of the Carcanet. I’m sure she will appreciate that,” Blake replied.
“The problem is, it would appear that no-one else has returned her call,” Jenna began, “She is expecting a huge turnout of Outlaws all flocking to join her….and those two ships and those weary, down hearted men are not what she will appreciate.”
“Oh dear, this is not going to go well, is it?” Vila moaned.
Just then, Blake’s bracelet chimed.
It was Cally, informing him that Gan and Avon were about to pay their own visit to the planet.
“Why?” Blake demanded to know.
“Something about rescuing a damsel in distress,” Cally answered.
“That is all they would say. I did offer to go, but they insisted.”
“Damsel in distress?” Vila sighed,” Now I’ve heard everything. What about me? I’m in distress.”
“Ah,” smiled Jenna,” but then again, you’re not a damsel.”
Avon and Gan materialised on the hill side just up from the building where the life sign had originated. It was an impressive edifice and Gan was in awe of it. He had never seen anything like it; glass and metal, shimmering in the early morning mist.
“Well….that really is something.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Avon agreed, “And according to Orac, there are eight of these buildings dotted around this area of the planet’s surface. Yet only this one has any life signs. The others are deserted, or partially destroyed.”
“I wonder why?”
“Perhaps the woman you’ve come to rescue can tell you that. So why don’t you go and ask her?”
“Do you think she knows that we’re here?”
Avon cast a casual glance around, “I can’t see any surveillance devices, but it wouldn’t hurt to assume that she does.”
Gan nodded and set off towards what he assumed was the front door of the building. Then he stopped and turned back to face Avon.
“Aren’t you coming?”
“Not at the moment. I want to see what transpires.”
Gan accepted that and continued his walk.
Avon slowly shook his head and watched his unlikely comrade in arms make his way down the hill side, towards a possibly hostile reception.
Gan found the front door slightly ajar.
Which worried him.
But only for a moment, as a very appetising aroma filled the air.
“Why don’t you come in?” a husky voice inquired, “I’ve cooked enough for all of us….and that includes your friend, when he decides to stop skulking about out there. It really is most tiresome.”
Blake studied the gathered throng of rather dubious looking characters all now standing within the marque; waiting.
But waiting for what?
So far neither Jenna, Vila, nor he had been approached by anyone purporting to belong to the Outlaw Accord. In fact, according to Jenna, she didn’t think any of these men were Outlaws at all. She thought that maybe they were opportunists, eager to see just who was behind the ‘call to arms’, and what, if anything was in it for those who answered that call.
One thing Jenna did know, however, was that she was the centre of attention. She sighed; some things never changed.
“Can we get this over with?” Vila muttered, “I don’t like the look of those men; I don’t like the feel of this place and don’t like being here at all.”
“You surprise me,” Blake replied, acutely aware that the large group of men standing opposite him were looking him up and down trying to figure out who he was and where he stood in the order of things. He was also aware that they were staring at Jenna; he just hoped that his demeanour had convinced then that she was already spoken for.
“You know, if something doesn’t happen soon, things could get ugly,” Jenna whispered.
“As long as we can get that stone back where it belongs, then we can get out of here.”
“What do you think this Bel Santini is waiting for?” Vila asked, “Keeping your guests waiting isn’t exactly the height of good manners.”
“And what would you know about good manners?” Jenna smiled.
Blake hushed them, “I think something is about to happen. Here she comes.”
The procession came through the main entrance of the marque and made its way to the small stage at the far end. A woman was at its core, her hand in that of a well-built man whose narrow eyes were darting around the assembled personages. His attempts not to be disappointed failed as he saw that the expected turnout was not what he had hoped for.
As the woman passed Blake, he bowed slightly, a gesture that she seemed to find pleasing.
Seconds later, she took her place upon the makeshift throne.
She slowly cast her eyes over those gathered. She had expected more to come and pay allegiance, but that would come, once the word went out that the Outlaw Accord had a new leader.
The man, who had escorted the woman, stepped forward and hushed the crowd.
“My fellow Outlaws, you are most welcome. And the Keeper of the Carcanet is most honoured that you have come here to pledge your allegiance.”
There was a low murmur of discontent.
“Oh dear,” Vila whispered, “this isn’t going well.”
“It will get even worse,” Jenna said, “I don’t think this keeper actually understands the concept of the Carcanet.”
The man continued his welcoming speech.
“Gentlemen, I present to you Bel Santini; the new Keeper of the Carcanet.”
The low murmur of discontent grew louder and Blake decided that if he was going to act, then it had to be now.
He stepped forward, “I seek an audience.”
“All in good time…”
“How can we pledge allegiance when the Carcanet is not complete? I have here, one of the stones, imparted to me by the Outlaw Accord and one I wish to restore.”
“How did you come by that stone?” the man demanded.
“As I said, the Outlaw Accord. One of the previous Keepers…”
“Which previous Keeper?” This time it was Bel Santini who spoke. She had so far remained quiet, content to let the man do all the talking while she surveyed her somewhat diminished band of would be followers.
“Does it matter?” Blake asked, “As it is you who now have that honour.”
“Jeago, let him approach.”
The man stepped back and watched in silence, his inherent hostility quite obvious, as Blake obliged and stepped forward.
“This is the stone,” Blake said, opening his hand and watching as Bel Santini’s eyes took in the sight of the single exquisite jewel nestling in his palm.
“Do you have the means to reattach it?”
“Yes. I have brought with me a man of great skill. He will be more than pleased to do the honour.”
Vila had been nervously watching the crowd and didn’t hear his cue, until Jenna gently nudged him.
“What! Oh yes; a simple enough procedure. But I will need to have the necklace to hand.”
Bel studied him, “Very well. You,” she said, turning her attention to Blake, “may remove the Carcanet, so that your friend may carry out his task.”
Blake smiled and did as he had been told. He walked towards Bel, mindful that Jeago was watching his every move. As he removed the necklace, Bel asked him the one question he didn’t really want to answer.
“By the way, who are you?”
“I hope you don’t mind” the woman began, “but I really would like to know exactly who I have invited into my home.”
“Your home?” Gan asked, slowly turning around to look at every facet of the room he was now in.
“Well…not exactly. I live here. But please, where are my manners? Why don’t you sit down? I’m renowned for my breakfast.”
“Renown by whom?” Avon asked. He was leaning against a stantion; one of several which appeared to hold the entire edifice up.
“So you decided to join your friend? There’s enough for three.”
“No thank you.”
“Suit yourself. It really is quite delicious.”
Gan nodded his agreement as he sampled one of the items on his plate.
“You didn’t answer the question,” Avon pointed out.
“The man who owns this house, this planet….but not me, not anymore, anyway.”
“And he would be a certain Mr Culver?”
“You’re very well informed.”
“I make it my business to be well informed. It saves a great deal of trouble.”
Gan took a sip from a delicate china cup and found its contents to his liking, “Our information also says that he is very rich…well he must be to own an entire planet.”
“Oh he is; very rich and very powerful.”
“And how do you figure in all this?” Avon asked, casually wondering around the large, open planned living area.
“Mr Culver uses this planet for his own personal rest and… recreation,” the woman replied.
Gan almost choked.
“There’s no need to be shocked,” she smiled.
“And you’re his recreation,” Avon stated.
She met his gaze, “Some of the time.”
Avon found himself on the receiving end of an impish look.
“Only some of the time?” asked Gan, somewhat taken aback by her revelation.
“Yes. Mr Culver believed in variety……. You must have seen the other residences.”
“We did,” Gan said, “Are you saying that each one is occupied by…..but we didn’t detect any other life signs in those buildings.”
“As a matter of fact, we didn’t detect any life signs in this building,” Avon pointed out, “and then, suddenly, one appeared.”
“I was in the panic room. When those thugs arrived, I thought it best to hide. They took everything of value, except me.”
“How do you know that we aren’t one of those thugs?” Gan asked.
She looked at him, “I have spent a life time learning to tell the difference.”
Gan studied her. She was, perhaps, in her mid-thirties, her shoulder length auburn hair parted to one side; a curtain of hair covering her left cheek.
“You said there were others,” Avon began, “but you appear to be alone here.”
“As an object lesson,” she explained.
“An object lesson?”
“When the seismic disturbances began to increase in intensity, Mr Culver took the others with him and left me here, alone, to suffer whatever fate this planet decreed.”
“Why would he do that? You’re a beautiful woman….” Gan said, just a little puzzled.
“Because I defied him. One of Mr Culver’s associates made me an offer I could not refuse. And somehow, he found out. And he made sure no-one would ever make me offer again.” As she spoke, she flicked back the length of hair covering her face.
Gan’s breath caught in his throat as he saw the scars etched over her left eye.
“This is lesson number one,” the woman murmured.
“And lesson number two is for when this Mr Culver returns,” Avon guessed.
“I’m afraid so.”
Gan was horrified, “Avon, we can’t leave her here…”
“There is every possibility that there won’t be a planet for him to return to. Not if the readings that Zen is monitoring are to be believed.”
“That’s why he left and took the others with him. Either way, I’m dead. I could, I suppose, approach those other people. There is a woman with them and I get the impression that she is in charge.”
“How do you know that?”
“The closed circuit system, of course... Every house has one…that’s how I knew you had arrived. Look. You can see for yourself.”
She pointed to a bank of small screens just above the food preparation area.
“We know about the surveillance system,” Avon began, his eyes glancing at the screens, “that’s how Gan knew you were here.”
“Really. And here was me thinking that only Mr Culver could access those transmissions.”
“If every house has a set of those,” Gan said, “Then is it possible those thugs, as you call them, know about us?”
“Only if they know where to look.”
“We have to leave,” Avon decided. He pressed the comms on his bracelet but there was nothing, only static. He silently cursed.
“A problem?” she asked.
“This building must be shielded. We need to go outside…”
“Not like this, surely?” she said, pretending to show off her outfit. She had a point, thought Avon, trying not to stare too long. She was dressed in black satin night clothes with a long black satin loose fitting dressing gown over them.
“It will take me but five minutes; besides, I need to collect my insurance.”
“Insurance?” Gan asked.
“Oh yes. Every single piece of expensive jewellery I’ve ever prised from that man’s grasp.”
“Five minutes,” repeated Avon, “Gan, you stay here. Make sure she’s got everything she needs. I’m going to contact Cally…”
“By the way, ‘she’ does have a name,” the woman smiled, “It’s Laurel.”
“I know,” Avon smiled back.
“You’re brighter than you look.” With that she swept past the two men to the sanctuary of her quarters.
“Laurel. That’s a pretty name,” Gan mused.
“Five minutes…then we leave.”
Vila made a grand gesture as he restored the stone to its rightful place and then insisted on checking that every other stone was perfectly aligned. He had no idea how long it would take for the information to transfer from the small silver device nestling in amongst the stones to Orac, or how long for ‘virus’ to do its work, so he was stalling for time.
“How long will this take?” Bel Santini purred.
“Oh, he is a craftsman, it will take as long as he think it is warranted,” Blake informed her.
She was standing beside him, obviously enamoured of his presence, “So, you are Blake. I understand that you have a most remarkable ship.”
“We like to think we have.” He was trying to ignore her blatant overtures.
“The Keeper of the Carcanet should have a powerful vessel, don’t you think? After all, I will need such a craft to carry on the good work of the Outlaw Accord.”
“I thought the Federation had seen the end of that good work.”
“I think the future lies outside the Federation now. With no-one to offer protection, the neutral, unaligned planets will be easy pickings for the new Outlaw Accord. And with your ship…..”
“I only came here to return that stone. I have my own agenda.”
“Fighting the Federation is hardly a worthwhile pursuit.”
“It is for me. Vila, have you finished yet?”
“Yes…I think so. Everything seems to be in order,” Vila replied, quickly palming the small silver device.
Blake was suddenly aware that the man called Jeago was in deep conversation with one of his associates. Whatever passed between them, Blake was unable to make out.
Jenna, though, had the distinct feeling that things were about to turn rather ugly, “I think it’s time we left,” she whispered to Vila, “Something has unsettled them.”
Vila nodded. “Here you are. All complete. Good as new. You wouldn’t even know…”
“You,” Bel said to Blake, “may place it about my neck.”
“Of course. I would be honoured.”
Vila backed away as Blake took the now complete, and hopefully wiped, Carcanet and fastened it about Bel Santini’s neck.
“Thank you,” she purred again, something that Jenna was beginning to find just a little tiresome.
“Bel,” It was Jeago, “It would seem that our future ally has not been entirely truthful about his intentions.”
“I’m afraid I have no idea…..” Blake began.
“You have men, further up the valley.”
Blake looked at Jenna.
“Are you planning an attack?” Jeago sneered.
“Well, are you?” Bel asked, “Because I would not take kindly to that.”
“I have no idea who you are talking about….”
“Oh, I think you do,” Jeago insisted, “They have bracelets on…just like these.” With that, he wrenched Jenna’s from her wrist.
“Really,” Bel enjoined, “Well, we can’t have that, can we?” As she spoke she slowly turned and removed Blake’s bracelet.
“Look, we came here to return that stone…..” Blake implored.
“Liar!” Bel shouted, slapping Blake’s face with unbridled fury.
Vila gulped, realising that it was time he disappeared.
He whispered urgently into his bracelet, “Cally, get me out of here!”
“Vila!!! Where are Blake and Jenna?” Cally demanded.
“Look, it’s about to kick off down there. They’ve spotted Avon and Gan. All hell is about to break loose!”
Cally studied the thief’s face. He was petrified.
She reached for the communications channel, “Avon, Gan. Come in!”
Avon listened impassively to the news.
“Avon!” It was Gan.
“Yes, Cally. I understand. Keep trying…What is it Gan?”
Gan, followed closely by Laurel, carrying a small case in which, Avon surmised, were her meagre possessions, was walking up the path, looking over his shoulder, obviously concerned. “We’ve got company; three, maybe four. It looks as though they found that closed circuit system.”
“Cally, bring us….”
A shot rang out. All three hit the ground.
“I think,” Laurel murmured, “They mean business.”
“You could say that,” Avon replied, “Cally, now would….”
And then the ground shook.
“Earthquake?” Gan asked.
From somewhere above them came an ominous rumble.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Laurel said.
“No, it doesn’t,” Avon agreed, still trying to contact Cally but realising that the forces of nature being unleashed would prove a barrier.
Another shot rang out.
“We’re sitting targets here, out in the open,” Gan said, echoing Avon’s own thoughts on the matter, “That rock over there should give us some sort of cover.”
Avon nodded, then raised his gun and aimed in the direction of the other gunfire.
Seconds later, all three were sheltering behind the makeshift barrier.
“Where are they?” Avon asked.
“I think they’re down in that depression….” Gan suggested.
“That,” Laurel explained, “is the old watercourse…and I take it your friends are down in that rather tawdry edifice that was erected by those thugs.”
“Well, at the time I wondered why they chose that spot; it’s the flood plain.”
“There used to be a rather stunning water feature running past this house. It was the run off from the hydro- electric station which powered all the houses here. The last earth movement dislodged some boulders and dammed the watercourse up. I can only imagine that the water is still moving somewhere as I still have power….”
Avon cast a glance at the small case clutched in Laurel’s hands, “You wouldn’t have a gun or some explosive device in there?”
“Oh no, this is my freedom….”
“Somehow I don’t think that that will help us.”
Jeago wondered exactly what had hit him as he thudded to the ground; and Jenna wasted no time in retrieving her bracelet from his hand.
“I’ll shoot the first person who moves,” Jenna stated, very calmly, “Now, give him back his bracelet.”
Bel stood quite still, secretly marvelling at this other woman who had so far been quietly standing in the back ground as the men had discussed business.
“You are making a big mistake. There are only two of you against all of us,” Bel smiled.
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that. Most of these so called outlaws have only come out of curiosity; to see who has declared herself the Keeper of the Carcanet. They haven’t come to see you, or to swear allegiance; they’ve come to see that, the Carcanet, and I expect many of them are already planning to take it from you.”
“You are lying. My father spoke of this necklace; of the power it gave you; how people bowed down to whoever wore it.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Blake said, “I think your father was misinformed. The Outlaw Accord pledged allegiance to the necklace; the Keeper was literally that. He kept it, safely so that no one person could claim it as his own….not even your father.”
“You are lying,” Bel replied, shaking her head.
“And I don’t think these men here will swear allegiance to you...as Jenna said, they are here, no doubt, to take the necklace for themselves.”
“And you are not?”
“I’ll just take my bracelet and leave you, and them, to discuss the matter. I’ve achieved what I set out to do.” Blake reached out his hand to take his teleport bracelet, but Bel had her own agenda. As Blake began to slip the bracelet around his wrist, her stiletto knife found its mark. He felt the slim blade pierce his side and he crumpled to the ground.
“Blake!” Jenna caught him as he fell.
“You’re next,” Bel jeered, but it was a brief triumph.
The ground began to shake and the other ‘guests’ suddenly stirred from their so far casual observance of the entire spectacle.
Jenna had no idea who fired the first shot, but as Vila’s words came true, she could only try and scrabble for Blake’s fallen bracelet as all hell, did indeed, break loose.
Avon was trying to see exactly where the other men were. He hoped that the earth tremors would dampen their enthusiasm for an all-out fight.
As it was, the tremors were giving him problems too. Gan was still unable to contact the Liberator.
“So what exactly do you have in that case? Obviously nothing useful for our present predicament,” Avon pointed out.
“Admittedly, not in my current situation, but I have worked hard for this….”
“I’m sure you have…”
“…and I’m not giving it up to anyone. Even if I have to fight for it.”
“It’s your choice.”
“Yes, it most certainly is.”
Gan shook his head in answer to Avon’s unasked question, “Still too much interference. So what do we do? Just sit here?”
Avon peered round the boulder and another shot was let loose, “Well now, I’m open to suggestions. It would have been most useful if that case had something other than your freedom in it.”
Laurel was sat beside him, “Oh no, Mr Culver couldn’t risk that. I would have killed him.”
“I can imagine.”
“But Gan could help you.”
“Unfortunately, no. I’m sure he’ll enlighten you later.”
It was strangely silent, prompting Laurel to ask, “Do you think they’ve given up?”
In response, there came a deafening explosion from somewhere in front of them.
“What was that?” Laurel asked nervously.
“A percussion shell of some nature,” Avon murmured, “No doubt they are trying to find the range.”
“And what happens if they find the range?” Gan asked, equally nervous.
Avon didn’t reply. Their options were running out. Without teleport they were dead.
Another shell thundered overhead and disappeared somewhere into the adjacent hill.
“You said something about boulders creating a dam up there?” Avon enquired.
“Yes, “Laurel replied….
Gan silenced them, “You know, I think something’s happening up there……”
His words were stopped by a sudden resounding roar as he threw himself down, instinctively protecting both Laurel and Avon who had likewise sought the safety of the ground.
Somewhere up in the hills, water burst through the ‘dam’, throwing debris up into the air and then surging down, once more filling the watercourse and engulfing the unwary attackers, before carrying them towards the ill placed marquee.
“That’s going to make a hell of a mess,” Gan whispered.
“One that I, no doubt, will have to clear up,” Avon remarked, wiping the dust from his eyes. He hit the comms button on his bracelet, “Cally…?”
“Well, there’s one thing,” Laurel smiled, shaking the dirt from her hair, “You two certainly know how to show a lady a good time.”
The distant explosions had caught everyone’s attention and the approaching rush of water had not gone unnoticed. Those vagabonds, in the know, were hastily beating a retreat and running towards their grounded ships, but still Bel Santini’s men kept firing; at least their attention was elsewhere, as Jenna finally managed to get the bracelet round Blake’s wrist.
“Cally; teleport now!”
“No!” shouted Bel. But it was too late.
Jenna and Blake shimmered out of sight, leaving Bel too shocked to realise that the torrent of water was bearing down on her and her band of men.
“Help me,” Jenna begged.
Gan was at her side in a moment.
“I don’t know how bad it is. She stabbed him.”
Jenna didn’t recognise the voice.
“This is Laurel,” Gan explained, lifting Blake to his feet.
Jenna nodded a greeting; she decided not to ask who this stranger was on the Liberator; not yet, anyway.
“I’ll go to the Flight Deck,” Cally said, watching as Blake was hustled out towards the Medical Unit.
“Not quite yet,” Avon stated.
“But we need to….”
“We have unfinished business.”
“Bel Santini; or what is left of her. Orac.”
+Yes, Avon. +
“Is that tracker operating?”
“What tracker?” Cally asked.
Avon smiled at her, “Did you really think I…we would leave that priceless artefact down on that planet?”
“But I’ve only just been able to get the teleport to function; it required a great deal of power. And that planet is on the verge of blowing itself to pieces.”
“How long, Orac?”
+Seismic readings are increasing. You will have, at the most, a few hours. +
“And the tracker?”
+Operating as required. Setting the co-ordinates, now. +
“But you don’t know if any of those outlaws are still alive down there?” Cally said.
“Then you had better come with me. Vila won’t mind operating the teleport…and besides, you do want Blake to keep his promise, don’t you, the one he made to Ilva?”
Vila absently tapped his fingers, waiting for Avon to request immediate teleport.
He stopped tapping and his eyes again fell upon the metallic case, hastily left on the console by the mysterious ‘damsel in distress’.
He had tried to ignore it, but its allure was beginning to wear his resistance down. It was just so inviting.
He bit his lip.
It would only take a second; if that.
What harm would there be?
He knew he shouldn’t, but the temptation was just too much to bear.
A second later, he had the case in his hand, and was busy opening it.
The lid suddenly opened, to reveal a mass of dazzling jewels.
Vila’s breath caught in his throat; it was a beautiful sight to behold.
“Do you like what you see?”
“Oh yes,” Vila breathed, not looking up to see the questioner, and then realising that it was neither Jenna nor Cally.
“Good, I’m glad you approve.”
This time he looked up and came face to face with the lady in question.
“Vila!” It was Gan.
“Have you any idea how much you have here?” Vila asked.
“I’ve a pretty good idea,” Laurel confessed, “You weren’t thinking of taking it were you?”
“Me? Oh no? The thought never entered my head.” Vila smiled nervously as she took the case and carefully shut the lid, “You know, there must be about 4 million credits there.”
“That’s a lot of money.”
“I know, and I earned every bit of it.”
Laurel smiled, “Perhaps you could show me to my quarters, Gan? I’d rather not be here when Blake gets patched up. I think he could be on the warpath.”
“Warpath? Why?” Vila queried.
“He’s not best pleased that Avon and I teleported down to get Laurel,” Gan explained, “and he is even unhappier that Avon has gone down to get that Carcanet.
“And Jenna wants to leave right now…something about the seismic activity down there making the entire planet unstable…”
“I get your drift.”
“Where is he, Vila?” It was Blake; newly emerged from the medical unit and looking decidedly angry.
“If you don’t mind,” Laurel began, “I’ll leave you two to it.”
“This way,” Gan said, guiding her out of the teleport section.
Vila allowed his gaze to follow her.
“Forget it, Vila.” Blake said, as she disappeared from view.
“What?” he asked, puzzled.
“She’s way out of your league.”
“Now, are you going to tell me just what Avon is up to? And is it something that I should know about?”
Avon was following the signal on the hand held device. Both he and Cally were walking along the banks of the river, its course now reinstated.
“Surely, we should have found some sign of her by now?” Cally said, her eyes busily scanning the immediate area. So far, they had found only dead bodies; either drowned from the sudden flood, or battered into unrecognition by the rocks and other debris washed down in the deluge.
“According to this, we are in the right place. Either she is here, or the necklace is.”
“In the water?”
Avon nodded. Getting wet wasn’t something he was particularly keen on, but on this occasion the rewards would justify such an incursion.
“And you’re doing all this for the sake of a necklace?” Cally asked.
“Of course,” Avon replied, “Why else?”
Somehow, Cally found that explanation totally implausible. She knew that the contents of the Liberator’s strong rooms held more monetary value than any number of Caracanets. There had to be some other reason for Avon to risk not just his life, but hers also. Such was his concentration, she was unable to even guess what was going through his thoughts.
Then he spotted her. Bel Santini. In the shallows, tangled up in a mass of overhanging branches. The Carcanet was still in place around her neck and it held her fast.
Avon found a firm handhold and stepped into the fast flowing water. Bel Santini was quite dead, her sightless eyes staring up at him.
There wasn’t time for niceties and Avon quickly cut the necklace from the young woman’s throat. And once released from the deadly stranglehold, her body floated away.
“Some would call that justice,” Avon murmured, “I call it payback.”
Blake didn’t say anything as Avon stepped out of the teleport area, but it was obvious that he was angry.
“I take it your injuries were not as serious as we thought?” Avon said.
But Avon’s attention was now elsewhere, “Vila, you had better advise Jenna to break orbit and….”
“…Just what are you trying to prove?” Blake asked.
“…and more to the point, just what the hell do you think you are doing allowing that woman on this ship. You don’t even know who she is?”
“On the contrary, I know exactly who she is. Did you really think that I would allow a complete stranger on board without first establishing her identity?”
“Meaning?” Blake was aware that Avon was alluding to Avalon; or at least the android constructed by the Federation and unwittingly brought aboard the Liberator.
“I meant nothing. Only that Orac is very useful in these matters. Now, if you don’t mind, I really would like to get cleaned up….”
“Not without some sort of explanation.”
“You took a big risk going back to get that necklace.”
“Yes I did, didn’t I. Now why don’t you just say thank you and allow me to …..”
“Thank you? For what?”
Avon drew in a deep breath, “For allowing you to keep your word; the promise that you made to Ilva. I presume that is what you wanted…after all.”
Blake was silent. He looked down and there in Avon’s hands was the priceless Carcanet…a little battered, but still a costly piece of jewellery. It had cost Ilva her life.
“Where did you find it?” Blake asked.
“She was still wearing it…and it had caught in the branches further downstream. It hadn’t occurred to her to remove it.”
“She was dead, I take it?”
“Very…now do we stand here and discuss Bel Santini’s demise, or do you want Jenna to get us out of here? I don’t particularly want to escape one death trap and then be caught in another as this planet tears itself apart.”
“You could have been killed…..”
“Maybe you should thank me later. Obviously your encounter with Bel Santini has left you just a little shaken.”
“Possibly. It wasn’t exactly her finest hour.”
Cally had listened as the two men had exchanged, what for them passed as, pleasantries. She had seen Blake’s pallor; for all his efforts to appear totally unfazed.
“I think you need to rest…,” Cally stated.
“It wasn’t anything serious…” Blake retorted.
“Maybe not, but it wouldn’t hurt to make sure.”
“And this?” Avon asked, holding the bedraggled necklace out.
“I’ll take care of that,” Vila offered, taking it from Avon’s outstretched hand, “A nice deep clean, it will be as good as new.”
“And then in the strong room, Vila,” Blake called back as Cally escorted him to the medical section.
“That goes without saying.”
“Oh, if only it did,” Avon replied.
The planet, or what was left of it, was a long way off as the Liberator sped away into neutral space. It’s next destination a topic of urgency on the Flight Deck.
“Did you have any particular destination in mind?” Avon asked.
“No. I thought that my days were numbered,” Laurel replied, “It never occurred to me that I would be rescued by two such daring heroes.”
“You could join us,” Blake suggested.
“No….I don’t think so,” Laurel replied. She seemed to sense that that particular suggestion hadn’t gone down to well with some of Blake’s crew.
“Why not?” asked Vila.
“I’m not a fighter,” Laurel explained, turning to face him, “At least, not in the way that you are.”
“Then what will you do?”
“That’s a very good question. I’m open to suggestions.”
“You could go anywhere,” Jenna pointed out.
“I’m sure I could, but where ever I went, he would hunt me down and finish his little game.” She drew back her hair to reveal the deep lacerations around her left eye.
“But what about that colleague of Mr Culver who made you an offer you couldn’t refuse?” Gan asked.
“I’m afraid that arrangement is most probably null and void. No-one will go near, or help, Laurel Bacalla now.”
Avon smiled as he produced a thin card, “But what if Laurel Bacalla is dead; killed when Mr Culver’s planet blew itself to pieces?”
“A nice trick…if you can do that.”
Avon handed her the card, “Marie Page, a very wealthy recluse.”
“Really,” Laurel said, taking the card from him, “And is this Marie Page a good woman?”
“How boring. Still, maybe it is time to settle down; live a mundane life. But where?”
“Just how much of a fortune, Avon, does Marie Page have access to?” Jenna asked.
“Including the bank account now strangely no longer in the hands of Mr Culver? Marie Page is an extremely wealthy woman,” Avon replied.
“So she could have her own planet and no-one could touch her. I seem to have heard that before?”
Avon realised that Jenna was referring to his own personal ambition, so quickly snatched from him when Jenna had refused to acquiesce to his suggestion after he had discovered the vast amount of treasure trove the Liberator was carrying, “She can do anything; go anywhere. She is her own person, with no-one to tell what she can and cannot do.”
“You sound quite envious,” Laurel said.
“Maybe I am. But this could be chance to put your past behind you…”
“You know about that?”
“Orac’s research capabilities are not, as yet, fully known, but yes, it was able to find out exactly what it is you are running from.”
Laurel bowed her head, “I’m not proud. But they killed my mother, and if I wanted to stay alive…then I had no choice. Mr Culver was just another man in a long line of men. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride. It’s the only way that I have survived.”
Jenna was silent; suddenly her disapproval of this woman had evaporated. Jenna, too, had witnessed the death of her mother and had turned to being a smuggler, a woman of independent means and a top class pilot; Laurel, though, had used other methods to get where she was. It must have been just as difficult for her, though.
“Perhaps a space port, one not under the jurisdiction of the Federation; at least not yet,” Cally suggested.
“I suppose I could bide my time,” Laurel said thoughtfully, “You never know what may turn up…..maybe another Mr Culver; or even a whole line….”
“Yes, well,” Blake interrupted, “but first, we need to get you there.”
“Don’t rush,” Laurel smiled, “not on my account, anyway.”
Gan, Cally and Laurel teleported down to a quiet corner of the bustling space port. To all intents and purposes, Laurel had arrived on one of the recently docked cruisers; and Orac had ensured that any one searching for her on the passenger list would find her there.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” Laurel said.
“Stay free,” Cally replied.
“I’ll try.” Laurel slowly placed her two cases on the floor and looked up at Gan, considering her next words, “Your friends have told me about the limiter in your brain...how barbaric. Tell me, Gan, is it true that you killed a man?”
“And he killed the woman you loved?”
“You need to be with these people, don’t you?”
“I do; it’s the only way that I know I can stay alive.”
“This woman; did she love you?”
“I like to think she did.”
“You are a good man, Olag Gan. Perhaps when this is all over, your friend Orac will be able to find me...”
“I’m sure it will.”
“That is strangely reassuring. Well, I suppose it is time Marie Page made her entrance.” She stood still for a moment, then reached up and kissed Gan’s cheek, “Stay safe, Olag Gan.”
Laurel Bacalla smiled at Cally and then picked up her two cases before striding confidently out onto the main concourse as Marie Page. Almost immediately, several gentlemen rushed forward to volunteer their assistance.
“I wouldn’t worry, Gan,” Cally murmured.
“It’s not her I’m worried about….”
“Is it true?” Vila asked.
Gan seemed perplexed by the question. He and Cally had returned to the Liberator, only to be confronted by a very vexed Vila.
“Is what true?” asked Cally.
“She did say something about upsetting the status quo...”
“I’ll explain later.”
“Well, it wasn’t that.”
“Good, I’ll see you on the Flight Deck,” Cally smiled, and quickly left.
Gan continued to put away his teleport bracelet, aware that Vila was still awaiting an answer.
“Well?” the small thief asked again.
“Avon told me that when you two found her she was in the middle of cooking a meal…and she invited you to dinner!”
“I think it was breakfast…”
“That’s neither here nor there; the point is, while I was facing Bel Santini and her horde of unruly cut throats…a beautiful woman invited you to din…”
“Breakfast,” Gan corrected him, thinking back to that strange first encounter.
Vila stared up at the genial giant of a man and gently slapped his shoulder, “Some people have all the luck!”
Jenna absently caressed the newly cleaned stones of the much desired Carcanet, now a mere bauble of the utmost beauty. Its secrets were no more, vanquished by a man-made virus, but that didn’t detract from its radiance.
She paused to think, for a moment, of all those who had perished because of this necklace, latterly Ilva and then Bel Santini. Both had been victims of this necklace and its assumed power. But its power had long gone, along with the Outlaw Accord which had used this piece of priceless jewellery to bond several desperate gangs of criminals into a single entity.
Those groups had now been consigned to history; wiped from the Galaxy by the all-powerful, expanding Federation, who would no longer tolerate such blatant disregard for the rule of law; their law.
Jenna wondered how much longer Blake could defy that growing power….and at what cost.
“Was it worth it Blake?” she asked.
Blake was sitting opposite her, deep in thought, “It was to Ilva.”
“And to Bel Santini, it seems,” Avon said.
“So what do we do now?” Jenna enquired, “We hardly qualify as the Keeper, do we?”
“We consign it to history,” Blake replied, “Just like the Outlaw Accord will be.”
“Careful with that.” It was Vila. He carefully took the necklace from Jenna’s grasp.
“It’s only a necklace, Vila,” Jenna pointed out.
“Maybe so, but it’s still a very valuable piece of jewellery, even if someone has been a bit heavy handed with it.”
Avon knew that remark was directed at him, “There wasn’t time for niceties, Vila.”
“There never is. It’s going to take some time to return this to its former glory, Blake,” Vila said.
“Take as long as you want…but then, into the strong room with it. We wouldn’t want to leave you open to temptation too long, would we?”
“Well, Bel Santini’s loss was our gain,” Avon began, “All the information from the Carcanet is now ours. Orac, do you have a summary of the Carcanet’s information prepared?”
The computer didn’t seem too keen to respond.
“Orac, you did get all the information?” Blake asked.
“What do you mean unfortunately?” Vila cried, “I did everything I was told to do and went through a very trying time I’ll have you know.”
+…there is no information available. +
“Explain,” Avon demanded.
+The interference from the planet’s abnormal ionisation of its ionosphere, caused by the emissions of the strong electromagnetic waves from the focal zone of the forthcoming earthquake unfortunately rendered it impossible to decode any of the data into useful information from the Carcanet. +
“I went through all that for nothing?” Vila asked, just a little peeved.
+So it would appear. +
Vila held the necklace in his hands, feeling totally deflated, “So, it is just a bauble.”
Avon was silent as Orac’s pronouncement sank in.
He hadn’t factored in the seismic interference.
“It appears, Vila,” Blake began slowly, “That you weren’t the only one who went through a lot of trouble for nothing. Don’t you agree…Avon?”
If Avon did agree with those sentiments, he wasn’t about to espouse them.
Avon got to his feet, hoping that his disappointment wasn’t too obvious. Without a word, he made his way off the Flight Deck, aware that several pairs of eyes were watching him.
“But still an expensive bauble, Vila,” Blake continued, “and one which cost a lot of people their lives,” Blake stated, realising that any advantage that they could have gained from the necklace had been snatched away by the death throes of a dying planet, “Do what you can with it, Vila. It still needs to be treated with some reverence, even though it’s lost its power.”
Cally noticed that Gan was now standing in front of the view screen; his thoughts elsewhere, “Gan, she will be all right. She is a strong minded, independent woman.”
“I know, but I can’t help thinking about the others.”
“The others?” Blake asked.
“Yes. Mr Culver took the rest of his ‘family’ with him. They deserve better.”
“But at least Laurel is free,” Jenna said, “you saw to that. There’s nothing more than you can do.”
“We can’t save everyone, Gan,” Blake murmured, “It’s impossible.”
“Not to mention, foolish,” Vila countered.
“Anyway, we have work to do.”
“Not until that wound in your side is fully healed,” Cally warned.
Blake nodded, “You know, Gan, Laurel was lucky to meet you.”
Gan thought back to Laurel’s voluble hatred for the man who virtually enslaved her and everything he had done to her, “Somehow, I don’t think Mr Culver will share that sentiment.”
“You think she’ll go after him?” Jenna asked.
“Oh yes, eventually,” Gan said confidently, “She’ll bide her time. But she will have her revenge. And in Laurel’s case…revenge is a dish best served cold.”
© 2015 LaraSue-Lectori Salutem