NETS OF AVARICE
by Sue Little and Larasati Widara
a series1 Blake’s 7 story, set somewhere around Bounty, but before Deliverance
It was a sight that Cally had never before witnessed.
A fleet of ships; strung out like a necklace of pearls, each with an arching arm reaching out from their main bodies and hanging from that arm, a glistening net of shimmering gossamer.
The Auron woman was transfixed.
They moved through space as if dancing a silent ballet; slowly and gracefully, buoyed along by the Stellar Wind.
“It’s so beautiful,” she murmured.
“Yes it is, isn’t it?”
She turned to face the owner of the voice.
He was leaning against Vila’s command station. How long he had been standing there, she didn’t know. Perhaps it was the image on the view screen; a mute vision of exquisite elegance mesmerising her so much that she had been totally unaware of his presence.
Obviously her preoccupation with the scene unfolding on the screen had dulled her senses.
“I didn’t hear you come in. I……”
“Obviously your fascination with that, was the reason.”
Cally allowed herself a small, private smile. She continued looking at the screen as he came and sat down opposite her, “What exactly are they doing?”
“Fishing, I expect.”
“Zen, scan and identify the vessels off our starboard bow.”
+The ships are from the planet of Casta in the Mendeleyev system. The people are referred to as The Gatherers. Their only system of commerce is that of gathering the precious cosmic dust particles free floating in space; refining them and then supplying the results of that process to their numerous customers, such is the rarity of these particles.+
“Casta?” Cally asked.
+A planetary system in the 22nd sector.+
“They are a long way from home,” Avon murmured, “Zen, why are they ‘gathering’ here?”
+Due to the decreasing amount of free floating particles, the ships are having to venture further out into the galaxy to continue their trawling, as it is called.+
“Zen. What are those nets of theirs made of?” Cally enquired.
“Not the best way to carry their catch back to their home planet.”
“They don’t have to,” Avon put in, “They seem to have brought their processing plant with them.”
On the viewing screen was another ship; a long way off, but still of a substantial size to be quite visible.
“A mother ship?” Cally surmised.
“That’s one way of describing it,” Avon smiled. But it was only a fleeting smile as one of the ships broke formation and began to veer towards the Liberator.
“Zen. Evasive action….now!” Avon ordered.
Cally was up and running before he had finished, “Deflectors up!”
But it was too late.
The smaller ship caught the Liberator broad side and exploded into a countless myriad of particles.
“And you are sure that no suspicions have as yet been raised?”
“Completely. These are old ships; a long way from home. Accidents are bound to happen.”
“And how many more before your people decide to return home and take up something far more benign?”
The ear splitting noise ripped through the air.
“What is that?”
“Something has happened. I may be needed on the bridge.”
“Until the next time…and hopefully it will be the last. My superiors are becoming impatient…”
“It will not be long. Please assure them that soon they will have direct access to the riches that they so covet.”
The young man turned off the small device and returned it to its place of concealment. He had no idea who it was he was speaking to; all he knew was that they were prepared to offer him a small fortune to sabotage this fleet….at whatever cost.
His intercom lit up. He pressed the button but found it difficult to make out who it was speaking over the screeching sound of the blaring klaxon, “What is it?”
“……get up here…….another ship…….crashed…..”
“Crashed?” That worried him. How could an out of control ship crash into something? He’d worked it all out. There was nothing out here to crash in to.
By the time Blake had made it to the Flight Deck, Zen was reading off a seemingly endless list of malfunctions and system failures.
Gan was attempting to get Avon off the floor and onto a forward couch, but finding his efforts rewarded by a refusal to accept any help at all.
Vila was tending to Cally, and Jenna was desperately trying to get the Liberator on an even keel. It was as if the entire Flight Deck had erupted from deep within; smoke filled the air and flames danced upon blown circuits.
“What the hell hap……” Blake began.
“We’ve been hit,” Jenna hissed back,”…..the controls won’t respond.”
“Maybe you should ask that Commander of that fleet out there. He’s trying to make contact.”
Through the bedlam, Blake could just make out a faint voice, coming over the main speaker, “This is Commander Trega….please respond….do you require assistance? Please answer.”
“Who do you think they are?”
Commander Trega could only shrug in response to the question from his Second Officer, “I don’t know. I just hope they don’t see it as an unprovoked attack. Where is Kran? He should have been here by now.”
“I shall call him again, sir.”
The ship to ship communications burst into life, albeit filled with static, “This is the Liberator…My name is Roj Blake….and I hope you have a very good reason for what has just occurred.”
Trega swallowed. At least the man speaking to him hadn’t assumed it was an act of war, “I can explain. Do you require any assistance? Do you have any casualties?....We can…”
“That will not be necessary. We are all accounted for, but you and I need to talk.”
“Yes, of course. How…..”
“Don’t worry. We have a fix on you. I shall be there shortly.”
Trega exchanged a nervous glance with his Second Officer.
“He sounded somewhat angry, sir.”
“So would you be if you were in his situation. Prepare to receive a guest. I just hope we have a good explanation for this.”
“You speak for yourself with regards to no casualties,” Avon snapped. He was holding his side, a result of crashing into the forward control station. The sudden lurch of the ship had caught him unawares; but despite his obvious discomfort, he still refused any help from Gan or anyone else.
“I don’t think wounded pride counts,” Blake retorted. “Well, Jenna?”
“Auto-repair coming on line, but we may have to stay here for a while. Are you seriously going over to see that Commander? How do you know that wasn’t a deliberate attack?”
“Judging by his tone of voice, he’s just as worried as we are. Vila, I need you to operate the teleport.”
“Blake,” Jenna said, her eyes still firmly fixed on the readings on her station, “Be careful.”
Commander Trega had no idea how to greet the sudden arrival who had materialised on his bridge and was now standing, glaring at him. He didn’t seem to be in uniform, but Trega hadn’t dealt with many other people aside from his customers and he was indecisive as to whether or nor he should salute.
He decided to be polite and saluted.
Blake smiled, “That’s not necessary, Commander Trega. I’m a civilian…not military.”
“I think you’ll find it is me who should be deferring to you…Commander. Now, perhaps you could explain what just happened and why my ship has sustained damage.”
“Your ship?” Trega asked in a wondrous tone, looking out at the distant vessel hanging in space.
“Yes, we call it the Liberator.” Blake waited to see if the name had any meaning.
“She’s a beautiful ship, si..” he stopped, remembering the other man’s words, “….you must be very proud of her?”
Obviously, from Trega’s reaction, the name, Liberator, meant nothing to him.
“We are a civilian vessel, out from the Terran Federation.”
“Really? I was given to understand that that was a military force, not given to allowing individual freedom.”
“Yes, well…I’m not here to discuss me. I’d like an explanation for what just happened. I have a damaged ship and crew members who aren’t in the mood for banal excuses.”
“It was an accident,” Trega blurted out.
“An accident? What about your crew members?”
“That ship, like the others, is unmanned…”
“Not this time.”
Both Blake and Trega turned to look at the young man who had spoken.
“This is my Second Engineer, Kran,” Trega explained, “What do you mean ‘not this time’?”
“There was a problem with the guidance system and I’m afraid Palu was on board, trying to put it right, when….when it failed completely.”
Blake returned to gazing out of the large panoramic window at space, the Liberator and the sprinkling of particles of what was once a ship and a man, “He wouldn’t have stood a chance. I’m sorry Trega.”
“It’s something we are used to. These ships are old, but they do their job and that’s what counts.”
“And what exactly is that job?”
“My people are the Wani from the Mendeleyev system.”
Blake didn’t seem to recognise either name.
“We are known, by some, as the Gatherers…..”
“You have heard of us?”
Blake had a sense of recollection, but after the Federation’s efforts to wipe his mind and erase his memories, there was only a very faint echo, “I seem to recall a myth…a story. A fleet of ships with silken nets, that sails through space and ‘fish’ for rare metals and elements.”
Trega smiled, “It is no myth. We exist and have done so for many eons, but our ‘fishing’ grounds have become depleted and we must explore further and further from our home. This ship that you are on is the mother ship; the refinery, so to speak. Whatever the nets gather is collected and then put on a small freighter and sent home.”
“Kran said ‘not this time’. What did he mean by that?” Blake asked, still in the thrall of an old tale he seemed to have a very faint recollection of, but a recollection that lay just beyond his reach; such was the effectiveness of the Federation’s ‘treatment’.
“I mean,” Kran replied, “that this is the third such accident. These ships are old. They need to be replaced. I warned Palu not to go aboard, but he wouldn’t listen…they never do.”
Blake was finding the attitude of this young man somewhat irritating.
“Please forgive Kran,” Trega asked, “he doesn’t understand the old ways. But I have been most remiss; your ship; is it badly damaged?”
“Bad enough. It may take some time for the auto-repair systems to do their job. I’ll contact Jenna. She may have more news.”
“Zen is shutting down most nonessential systems…and that includes the teleport. The starboard bow took quite a hit and he wants to divert all systems to that area,” Jenna replied to Blake’s question.
“A few hours...a day at the most.” Jenna waited for a response, but none came, “Blake….”
“Commander Trega would like to offer us the use of his ship until the auto-repair systems have completed their task,” Blake’s voice drifted back after a while, “It would certainly be more comfortable if Zen is shutting down some of the systems.”
Avon, though, wanted answers, not an unexpected break on some unknown ship, “And how does Commander Trega explain that collision?”
“It was an accident,” Blake replied, “Their second engineer explained…look, why don’t you come over and find out for yourself?”
“The rest are more than welcome,” Avon said bluntly, “I, for one, will continue to find out why that accident occurred.”
“All right. Jenna, seeing as the teleport isn’t on line, perhaps Trega could dock with us?”
“As long as we don’t have another accident!” Avon remarked.
Jenna smiled, “Preparing for Commander Trega to come alongside. Out.”
“….he sounds annoyed.”
Blake shook his head, “No, he just gives that impression. But he won’t be satisfied until he has found out why that ship crashed. You can be sure of that.”
“Blake, our culture is very old and some of our ideas are lost in the past, but we, too, have found that impressions can be misread. To counteract that, our ancestors devised a solution. While my Second Officer, Treece, prepares for my ship to dock with yours, perhaps I have time to explain to you our code.”
“Your code?” Blake asked, intrigued.
“Yes…..you will understand, once I explain it to you. Come, we can talk as we go to the airlock and there I can meet your people.”
“I’m sure I will find it most interesting.”
Kran watched as the two men left the bridge. He was just a little concerned; one of the strangers was obviously suspicious.
“How can our Commander trust that man?”
Treece, the Second Officer, didn’t seem at all concerned, “Because that man wears the trust colour.”
“Colour. That old creed.”
“You may mock it, Kran, but it works for us now, as it has always.”
“I’ll never understand how you people insist on holding on to the past.”
“Why change something that works?”
But Kran wasn’t listening. He was more worried about these new people and the problems they could cause.
“Colour?” Blake asked incredulously.
“A simple thing. I actually thought that you were aware of this idea. You are wearing predominantly green. That stands for good, that you can be trusted and you make someone welcome.”
“I hadn’t really given it much thought….”
“I wear green for that reason, too. Soon you will see some of our people in white, especially those who were close to Palu. White means that one is in mourning.”
“Strange, the colour black represents that in my culture.”
“It would be impossible for your crew to embrace our ways in such a short time, so we have devised a system to cover such an eventuality; colour coded arm bands. While we wait, one of my crew will fetch the bands and you can decide which is most appropriate for them.”
Blake inwardly smiled. An advanced culture like this, able to traverse space and yet still clinging to an ideal that must have been created long before they had even considered reaching for the stars.
As he and the Commander of this aging craft walked along a corridor towards the airlock, Blake couldn’t help but notice just how archaic the ship’s structure appeared; a mottled brown superstructure with hints of green and blue; almost organic in appearance. And it seemed to Blake as if the corridor stretched the whole length of the ship.
Occasionally they were met by another of Trega’s people, dressed simply in a green two piece outfit, tied at the waist, and barefooted, but as they progressed, Blake noticed that those Wani they encountered were now wearing plain white.
“They have heard,” whispered Trega, “Palu is dead and they mourn him.”
“If this is a difficult time,” Blake began, “I do understand. I’m sure my crew would rather that you mourn your loss in private…”
“No…no. I have offered you the facilities of our ship, until yours has repaired itself. It was our doing that caused its damage; it’s the least that we can do.”
Blake accepted that with gratitude, “This is a very big ship, yet I can see only one deck.”
“Everything we need is on this level. The main body is for the cleaning of the nets and the refining of their catch. Once we have a certain quota, we send it back to our planet on a freighter, and anyone of our people are free to return home with it and others come out to take their place.”
“Yes,” Blake murmured, stopping to feel a bulkhead. It was warm beneath his touch, unlike the Liberator; cold, but reassuring, in its own way. Perhaps its clinical appearance resulted from being made by machines for…..he wasn’t too sure. But whoever had designed and built the Liberator had obviously not experienced a life such as these people. Blake sighed, “It’s very peaceful here. The pace seems so much more……”
“Slow?” Trega suggested, “When your ships sail space at the speed ours do, it tends to rub off.”
“Relaxed,” Blake finally said, “Much more relaxed.”
“I think you and your crew will like it here, even if it’s just for a few hours.”
“A few hours is we all need. Even those of us who refuse to accept that need.”
“Avon?” Trega ventured.
Blake sighed, “….even Avon.”
Avon was too engrossed in the read outs being relayed to his station by Zen, to answer the question directed at him by Vila.
“……I said, Aren’t you coming?"
Whatever was holding him in its thrall was obviously of considerable interest.
The voice in his head jerked him from that interest, but only briefly. Cally came round and fell into his line of sight. This time she spoke out aloud.
“Avon, can whatever it is that is so obviously so fascinating, not wait? Commander Trega has offered us the comforts of his ship while the Liberator’s auto repairs finish their work.”
“I’m sure he would have more than enough with which to contend with all of you and Vila. I have far more pressing things to do here.”
Jenna didn’t seem impressed by that excuse, “You know that it will start to get cold…and then, of course, there is the matter of breathable air……”
“I’m sure I’ll manage.”
“Anyway,” Gan said, “he may take that as rudeness on your part.”
“Then you’ll have to explain, won’t you?”
“And what is it we have to explain?” Cally asked, her tone quite insistent.
This time Avon looked up to find four pairs of eyes fixed on him, “There is something not quite right about that so called accident. It was a minor detail which Zen bought to my attention. I am analysing that anomaly now. And the sooner I am allowed to continue then the sooner I can join all of you aboard Commander Trega’s most interesting ship.”
“What anomaly?” Jenna asked.
Her query was met by a stony silence.
“Look,” Vila interrupted, “why don’t we leave him to do what he finds so interesting. He can join us later….meanwhile, we have a party to go to….”
“I hardly think it’s a party,” Gan pointed out.
“You know what I mean. And I certainly don’t want to stay here and get cold…not while we have had the offer of a nice warm ship.”
“He does have a point,” Jenna concurred.
Cally could see that Avon was not going to change his mind, no matter how much they pressed him to do so.
“Very well, once you have finished, then you will come and join us?”
“I will. And then Zen can do whatever it wants with all the systems. This should only take an hour or so.”
“In one hour, we will come looking for you,” Jenna smiled.
“If you insist.”
He watched them go, then returned to his study of the telemetry of the out of control ship. Zen had been quite right in its suspicion. Something was wrong; very wrong indeed.
Blake was waiting for them on the other side of the air-lock. Trega was with him; in his hands several coloured bands. He had explained to a bemused Blake what the colours represented.
“So each colour has a unique meaning?” Blake asked.
“Exactly, and you can decide which is best for your crew. It saves us a great deal of trouble,” Trega said, “and no-one has to endure constant questions as to how they feel. They wear the colour that most suits their frame of mind.”
Blake didn’t seem at all convinced, but he decided to go along with the notion. Somehow it felt an easier option.
As each of his crew emerged from the Liberator and came aboard Trega’s ship, Blake handed them a coloured band and tried to explain what exactly was going on. He was mildly surprised that they accepted the code and seemed more than happy to oblige.
Trega, for his part, warmed to the new arrivals, as did his own people, and soon the strangers were mixing with those of his crew who weren’t on station.
“And what of the one named Avon?” Trega inquired.
“Oh, he’ll join us when he’s ready,” Blake replied, “He just wants to be thorough.”
“Why? What is there to be thorough about?”
“Avon doesn’t actually think that it was an accident. Zen, our master computer, drew his attention to something that wasn’t quite right. Don’t worry, as soon as he finds what he’s looking for he’ll come and join us.”
“He sounds a most interesting person,” Trega smiled.
“That’s not a word most people would use to describe him,” Blake smiled back.
Kran was nervous,
He had listened to the strangers.
He had listened to the conversation between Trega and Blake. It was possible that the man referred to as Avon could cause a slight problem. He would have to seek advice on the matter.
Making his excuses, he took his leave and returned to his quarters. He quickly found his transceiver and contacted the man who had promised him so much.
“So what do you think this man will find?" the voice crackled back.
“I think he already suspects that the collision that crippled his ship wasn’t an accident.”
“What ship is it?”
“They call it the Liberator. I’ve never heard of it.”
“And who is its commander?”
“That’s the odd thing. He’s a civilian. He is called Blake. Does that mean anything to you?”
There was silence for a moment.
“This could be of great interest to my board members, but you must make sure that this Blake and his crew do not find out about your actions, that could cause serious problems for us. Make sure that the man who suspects you does not contact his friends.”
“They are becoming more frequent. No, I think something more in keeping with the people that you are with; something that will make sure he does not get anywhere near them. When is the next shipment?
“A few days time.”
“Then make it sooner. Maybe make sure that the shipment contains one more consignment. That way, you can let me arrange matters.”
“I’ll see to it right away. Kran out.”
Blake was deep in conversation with Trega in the latter’s spacious meeting room, set aft of the Bridge, and an altogether more welcoming and relaxing environment. The outer wall was an expansive window, following the curve of the ship’s hull, and the room itself was furnished with numerous tables and comfortable seating, lit by a series of low energy spotlights set in the vast ceiling.
Vila was happily entertaining some of the Wani with a selection of tricks, while Gan had found himself the centre of attention by some of the ladies aboard who seemed fascinated by the fact that he was so unlike their own menfolk. His tall, well-built frame towering over all of them.
Jenna was finding the company of Trega’s second officer most interesting; they seemed to be discussing the finer points of piloting the old, but trustworthy fleet, while Cally had been drawn towards the ship itself. Just as Blake had found himself entranced by it, she, too, was totally absorbed by its natural beauty.
And Kran was watching them all, trying to figure out just who they were. His contact had promised to get back to him, but Kran had concluded that that could wait. He needed to be around when the other stranger decided to appear; the one who had suspicions about the entire 'accident’.
He hovered in the background, pretending to make small talk with those of the Wani who were standing slightly apart from the others, seemingly in awe of the strangers.
And then, the message he was waiting for came,
“Blake, I’ve finished my check….”
“It makes interesting reading. I think the Commander should see my conclusions…in person. I’m on my way over. Zen is most eager to shut down every system to facilitate a speedier repair of the ship.”
“I’ll come and meet you at the airlock…”
“That’s all right.” It was Kran. Suddenly standing right by Blake, “I’ll go. I wouldn’t want you to interrupt your talk with the Commander. You must have so much to discuss.”
Blake studied him for a moment, finding his eagerness somewhat intense, “All right. But be careful.”
“Avon tends to be forthright. And given the damage to our ship, he may be a little, shall we say, intimidating when you meet him.”
“I’m sure we will find common ground.”
Blake watched the young man leave, “I hope he realises what he’s letting himself in for. I doubt if Kran has ever had the opportunity to meet anyone so different from your people.”
“Kran is not one of our people,” Trega explained, “Palu came across him when obtaining some supplies for these old ships. Kran was eager to help out and so he was invited to join us. He has been most helpful, especially with the problems we have since encountered.”
“It should be interesting to see how he copes with his next encounter.”
“Come now, Blake. Surely you exaggerate?”
But Trega received no reply. Blake was watching the eager young man leave the friendly confines of the meeting room for what he could only think of as a chilly reception.
Avon sensed that he was being watched but didn’t turn to see who was observing him until the Liberator’s hatch silently shut behind him and locked into place. It was only then that he slowly raised his eyes to meet the steadfast gaze of the young man who was standing at the far end of the connecting tube.
For a moment, both stared at each other.
There was something unnerving about this young man’s expression and the slow smile that spread across his face unsettled Avon even more.
“My name is Kran. I am to take you to the main meeting room where your friends are waiting. Have you been successful?”
“I’m sure Commander Trega will be most pleased to see your conclusions.”
“I’m sure he will.”
And still the young man smiled; a fixed self-satisfied smile that was beginning to irk Avon; just a little.
Avon stepped over the threshold of the connecting tube, then had the distinct feeling that Kran was impeding his progress. Standing just behind the young man were two other, slightly younger men, both of whom seemed to suddenly change from a welcoming demeanour to one of outright shock.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Kran began, apparently aware that his two companions were unsettled, to say the least. “There seems to be a problem.”
“A problem?” Avon glanced from Kran to the other men, “In what way?”
“My associates believe that you have a contagion and insist that you accompany them to the Medical Unit.”
“I do not have any con…”
“I’m sorry, but they think otherwise. I think it advisable to go with them to the Medical Unit; purely as a precautionary measure, you understand.”
Avon considered his options, “If they insist.”
“I think it wise. If only for continued good relations. This way please.”
The room was white.
Completely white. It was difficult to know where the room started or stopped, but Avon had already discovered its dimensions. He had walked its length twice; there and back again. Maybe a total of three meters. And still no-one had come.
He had infinite patience, but being confined to a windowless white room, was beginning to gnaw away at him.
“How much longer?” he asked.
A voice came over a hidden intercom, “Sorry about this, but they do insist that you remain in quarantine for a few minutes more while they get prepared.”
“Prepared? For what?”
A panel slid open and there was Kran, with that self-satisfied smirk on his face again.
“Come this way please, they are ready for you now.”
Avon hesitated, but only for a second.
“It will only take a moment and then we can clear this matter up. Please….this way.”
“I wonder what’s keeping Avon,” Blake said, his eyes fixed on the majestic ships hanging silently in space.
“Perhaps he has asked Kran to show him around,” Trega suggested.
“Yes,” Blake said, “That must be it.” He was finding it strangely relaxing in this vast meeting room, its windows revealing space in all its beauty, “Obviously whatever he was concerned about isn’t of any concern now.”
“I could get someone to go….”
“No…no, don’t worry about it. Avon has his reasons for taking his time. Besides, until the Liberator’s systems are up and running again, this is the ideal place for us.” As he spoke, Blake cast his eyes around the room; the others were obviously enjoying this enforced furlough. Blake took another sip from his glass, “Avon has no idea what he’s missing.”
Avon was facing the two young men again, this time they seemed to be encased in protective clothing and they were standing, quite still, by a diagnostic bed.
“Please, would you be so kind?” Kran asked, indicating the bed, “Then they can run their checks more thoroughly.”
Avon didn’t answer. He did as requested, reasoning that the sooner they ran their checks and discovered that they were in error, the sooner he could join Blake and inform Commander Trega of his findings.
“There, that wasn’t too difficult, was it?” Kran said, ensuring that all the sensors on the bed were in contact with Avon’s body, “This won’t take long.”
“What exactly won’t take long?” Avon asked, looking at the two masked men who were busy checking the instruments on a panel on the other side of the room.
“They are running a complete diagnostic.”
“I see. Well, I don’t think that they will find anything out of the ordinary with me. Our medical unit is just as thorough.”
“Perhaps it is,” said Kran, his smile now decidedly cold. But Avon didn’t see it. His attention was on the two men, deeply engrossed in the instruments and readouts on the far wall.
“What exactly do they expect to find?”
“The contagion that you are carrying.”
“The one, it would seem, that they believe you have,” Kran whispered, “And the one that I believe you acquired just after you ship was holed by our own, out of control craft. Your ship’s ventilation system may have drawn in some of the radiated particles that we are ‘fishing’ for in this area and unwittingly contaminated you. So perhaps, it would be prudent to give them a positive result.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” Avon said evenly. He didn’t want to aggravate an already fraught moment.
Kran was looking down at him when the alarms went off, “Oh dear. It seems that something is amiss.”
“You know full well…..”
“Our patient seems a little distressed. Secure him.”
The two suited Wani did as Kran said. They depressed a button on the board in front of them and restraints curled around Avon’s arms and legs, holding him firmly.
Kran produced a hypo and, in a staged manner, held it up to the light, “This really is for your own good.”
Avon could only watch as Kran delicately placed the hypo against Avon’s upturned wrist. Slowly, the clear liquid emptied into his system. There was no pain; just an encroaching numbness and then…..nothing.
Cally felt as though the whole room had shuddered. She leant against the wall, her hand feeling the warmth of the ship beneath her fingers.
“Cally.” It was Gan,” Is everything all right?”
“I don’t know. I just suddenly felt….Where’s Avon?”
“He should be here any moment. Kran went to get him.”
“Something’s wrong; very wrong.”
Blake had noticed the commotion and had hurried over, “Cally, what’s happened?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered hoarsely, “I was trying to contact him to find the cause of his delay, but then something….I can’t explain it…..but Avon is….”
Commander Trega joined the small group, obviously concerned. He knelt down. “Is there a problem?”
“Cally seems to think there is.”
“I’ll explain later……”
The air was suddenly rent by a blaring klaxon.
Commander Trega was on his feet in an instant, “Treece, what is going on? Why the alert?”
“Lock down, sir.”
“A lock down?” Blake repeated, “Why?”
“I am attempting to find out,” Treece replied, “But it looks as though it’s centred on the Medical Section.”
“The Medical Section? Why?”
Treece ran his eyes over the information coming upon a nearby screen, “Contagion.”
“Contagion?” Trega repeated, “How?”
“All indications are that a contagion has been identified and is now in quarantine.”
“Where did this contagion come from?”
Treece swallowed hard, “Someone brought a serious threat aboard.”
“Avon?” Blake asked.
Neither Treece nor Trega replied, but their expressions were all the answer that Blake required.
Avon’s world had suddenly descended into a black, all-encompassing morass; devoid of any sensation. He could hear disembodied voices, far away and unintelligible. He tried to move; but his body refused to obey the simplest requests.
Desperately he fought to assemble his thoughts into some kind of cohesive pattern; to no avail. Then he remembered Kran; leaning over him; smiling that odd, cold, knowing smile. And the hypo.
What the hell was in it?
A sedative? A nerve agent?
Slowly, his vision came into focus. Not enough to see clearly, but enough to see that immediately above him was a glass panel. Then he heard the distinct sound of something locking into place. Once again he tried to move, to try and sit up, but again he couldn’t. He was firmly strapped down.
But now he had the sense of movement. Whatever it was that he found himself in was being wheeled somewhere. He forced himself to look in the direction of the strange sound; the sound of a lock getting engaged.
Nothing but a wall of dull, featureless metal.
Then it hit him.
He was in a casket.
A metal casket with a glass lid.
And the coffin was being taken somewhere.
The fear welled up inside him.
He was entombed and immobilised in a sealed coffin.
“Can you override the system?” Blake asked.
Both he and Trega were standing before a stubborn, locked door.
“No,” the Commander replied, “Once activated, there’s nothing we can do until the emergency is over.”
“And how long will that be?”
“Trega, we can’t get back to the Liberator unless this door opens.”
“I understand that. But we have to wait until the originator of the emergency declares that emergency over. Only then will these doors open. Any access to your ship or even an attempt to find your man is not possible.”
Vila, meanwhile, was busying himself with the keypad set on the front of the closed door.
“Any luck, Vila?” Blake asked with an urgency that underlined the seriousness of the situation.
“Oh I can open it, all right. My main concern is what is actually behind it. If there is some sort of contagion…..”
“And the other problem is,” Trega began, “Any attempt to force these doors open could activate the defence system…”
“Defence system?” Blake repeated.
All this time, Vila had been studying the lock. He absently pressed a circuit…..and the door silently slid open.
Unfortunately for Vila, he discovered exactly what that defence was. From a small unassuming probe, set above the apex of the door, came a bolt of energy. It lifted him clear of his feet and sent him crashing into the others; knocking them down like so many skittles.
Treece was the first to recover; his horrified eyes catching sight of the device seemingly readying itself for another salvo.
“Everyone, back down the corridor. Move!” he cried.
Even Trega was taken aback by the urgency inherent in his second officer’s voice, “Do it….now!”
Blake and Trega dragged Vila with them to the relative safety of a side corridor.
“What the hell was that?” Blake demanded.
“The defence system,” Trega replied, attempting to see if the device had ceased its onslaught.
“Is that on every door?”
“That depends on the level of emergency.”
“What about the rest of your crew beyond that door?”
“They will seek the safety of their cabins or assigned stations. Once the emergency has cleared, then it will be safe for them to continue their tasks.”
“Trega, I need to get through that door and get to Avon.”
“You think this concerns him?”
“Oh I most certainly do.”
Cally joined them.
“How is he?” Blake asked, nodding his head in the direction of Vila still out cold on the floor.
“He’ll have a headache when he wakes up. That was some sort of electrical discharge.”
“Your friend, the one called Gan,” Trega said, “He is not with us…….”
Treece stepped forward, “He was standing right by the door as it opened. He must have …….”
Blake peered round the corner. The corridor was quite empty and the door had slid shut again.
“Gan must have gone in there after Avon. Trega, we….I need to find a way into that section.”
Gan’s heroics hadn’t gone unnoticed.
He was running down the corridor towards the medical centre, his every move being tracked on a monitor in the medical unit. He rounded a corner and came face to face with Kran; a Kran who seemed to be waiting for him.
“How nice of you to join us.”
“Where’s Avon?” Gan asked, getting the distinct impression that this man, for all his pleasantness was anything but.
“Comfortable,” Kran replied, “Just as you will be.”
As he spoke, two men in protective clothing came out of the medical centre; a metal case on a gurney between them. Gan looked at the far shorter man in front of him and didn’t like what he saw.
“What are you doing with that?”
“That? Putting it aboard the freighter, of course. After all, a dangerous contagion needs to be quarantined.”
“I don’t think so.”
Kran stood quite still, as if waiting for the strange party to disappear. Once they had gone out of earshot, Kran turned his attention to Gan, “In fact, it would seem that you, too, need to be quarantined; purely as a precaution…..”
Kran stepped back. For a moment Gan was puzzled, wondering what this jocund man was planning. A few seconds later he had his answer. The probe above the medical unit door swivelled silently round and fired.
The burst of energy surged through Gan’s body. For a moment he staggered, trying to maintain his balance. It felt as if he had been hit by bolt of lightning; it was if every nerve end was seared with pain. And then it was over; the pain had gone to be replaced by a numbing blackness as he fell to the hard, unyielding floor.
Kran stood over the fallen giant. Having control of the ship’s defence system was proving to be an added bonus.
Just then, one of the suited men returned. He stared down at Gan and then looked at Kran.
“It seems that these new visitors are a great danger to us,” Kran said, “Help me get this man to the freighter…..”
“But sir…you are infected.”
“I need to stay here, to make sure that the infection goes no further than this section. Hurry. Launch is imminent.”
“So how can I get past this system?”
“There are service shafts. Treece can show you the way. What do you intend to do?”
“Convince whoever has declared an emergency that he is wrong.”
“That may not be necessary,” Treece said, “It looks as though the emergency is over. The door is opening.”
Cautiously, they all stepped out into the corridor, wandering who was about to emerge. It wasn’t long for before that question was answered.
Kran came staggering towards them, blood pouring from a wound in his forehead. He stumbled and fell.
“They were waiting….took Avon….quarantine.”
“Who was waiting?” Blake demanded, crouching down.
“Two of the Wani. I was late getting there and they assumed that he had a contagion.”
As Kran spoke, another noise reached them. A strange metallic sound. Trega looked up.
“The freighter is launching.”
“The what?” Blake asked, now completely confused.
“Our consignment for this trip. It is transported back to our home planet and then sent on to our waiting buyers. But it’s not due to leave yet.”
“Well it seems that it has other ideas.”
“All is in hand,” the grey haired man said, trying to sound convincing, “And it would appear that we will be in receipt of more than just their latest ‘catch’, so to speak.”
“I do so hate riddles, Senna. Please explain.”
Senna hated conducting business in such a one way manner. He would much rather see the person to whom he was speaking. It made it easier to gauge their actual thoughts; to see if they were actually being truthful. But in this case, the rewards outweighed that little inconvenience. He shuffled in his chair and smiled at the screen.
“It would seem that our contact has not only procured that cargo, but also two other items of interest to the Federation. Two of the crew members from the Liberator….”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Madame Director. A cunning ploy on his behalf as one of them was about to reveal our contact’s true nature. So, it would seem that not only will we be able to provide the Federation with a sample cargo from your business venture, but we shall also hand over two of the Liberator’s crew…..”
“……And that fleet of outmoded, ancient ships?”
“If our contact is to be believed, that fleet will go the way of all old and ancient artefacts……turned to dust.”
“Thank you, Senna. You will let me know the moment the consignment is in your hands.”
“My pleasure, Madame Director.”
Senna signed off. He had so enjoyed that good news. Now he had to make plans to be with his new fleet and be ready to receive the ill-gotten gains. Not that the Federation would care about how the precious metals had been acquired. As long as it had them, at a good price, then they would be happy.
Senna smiled; very soon his new fleet would be trawling the space between the planetary systems in this and the immediate area and the Gatherers would be no more; their ships consigned to the scrapyard or even destroyed.
He rubbed his hands together. He and his unknown patron would soon be rich; very rich.
“Can we stop that freighter?”
Trega shook his head, knowing that that wasn’t the response the man standing by him wanted.
“Well?” Blake demanded.
“It’s on a pre-set course.”
“Our home planet.”
This time Blake turned his attention to Kran, who was sitting down, hand to his head, wondering why everyone was looking at him.
“So just what exactly happened?”
Kran shifted in his seat, “It’s my fault.”
“Your fault?” Trega asked, aware that Treece was busy at his station, “In what way?”
“I was called away....by the time I got to the hatch, they had taken him and…..”
“Now why would they do that?” Blake enquired.
“I don’t know.”
Trega motioned to Blake, “What colour did your man have?”
“Well, when I last saw…….”
“Black,” Jenna informed him.
“That explains it,” Trega murmured.
“Explains what?” Blake asked, his tone one of exasperation.
“The Wani who were there believed that your man was carrying a contagion and that he required immediate medical assistance.”
“What contagion could they possibly think he had?”
“Until they were able to carry out tests, they would be unsure,” Trega explained.
“But he didn’t have any contagion. So what made them think otherwise?”
“It’s my fault,” Kran insisted again, “I wasn’t able to get to him to give him an arm band. I tried to stop them getting him aboard that freighter; but they were most insistent.”
Kran shrugged, “You’ll have to ask them that.”
“But why would your crew decide to put him aboard that freighter along with Avon?”
There was no explanation forthcoming.
“So what happens when that ship gets to your home planet?” Blake said, “I presume you can contact them and explain that there has been a terrible misunderstanding?”
“Normally, yes.” It was Treece. He had finished looking at the scanners and was now facing Blake, “Except it’s not going back to our planet. I’ve checked the co-ordinates twice now. That freighter is heading towards Terran Federation Space.”
All those on the Bridge were now looking out the main window and at the freighter rapidly disappearing into the depths of space; all those except Kran. He was inwardly smiling to himself.
But then he found a pair of sceptical eyes scrutinising him.
He averted his eyes, hoping that she hadn’t suspected the truth.
Gan’s head was pounding.
It was almost as if someone had it held in a vice and then he remembered. Then defence system in the medical unit; the massive jolt from that had knocked him off his feet.
He blinked, trying to bring his surroundings into focus.
Wherever he was, it was dark. But as his eyes adjusted, so the dim lighting allowed him to see where he was; on a hard floor. One which seemed to be vibrating beneath him. He was about to haul himself up, but then discovered that his wrists were tightly bound together behind him. Rather crudely, with tape of some nature. Someone had obviously been in a hurry.
Despite his aching head, Gan could remember the expression on that young man’s face, just before everything had gone black. For a moment, he lay on the deck, gathering his thoughts and his strength. Somebody had a lot to answer for, and Gan had every intention of being there when those questions were asked. Very slowly, he hauled himself up into a sitting position and leant back against a wall; except it wasn’t a wall.
It was a container of some sorts; a container with a metal edge. Very slowly, Gan manoeuvred around and began rub the tape against the metal. Seconds later he broke free from the improvised bonds.
Massaging his wrists, he turned around to see what it was that had been his saviour.
It was a box.
Except this didn’t appear to be an ordinary box.
It had been placed, quite deliberately, on the floor, next to well stacked cargo bays which reached back as far as the eye could see. Gan studied the box for a second then began to realise that this had the appearance of something more sinister than a mere box.
It was a casket.
In the distance came the whine of engines, changing tone. He and the casket were on a ship, one that was gathering speed by the sounds of it.
Gan slowly rubbed the back of his hand over his mouth, wondering what could possibly be in this casket, resting on the deck, with no clues as to its contents, although he had his suspicions. This looked remarkably like the casket he’d seen being taken from the medical unit.
With some trepidation, he examined it.
There, beneath the full length glass lid was Avon; seemingly asleep. At least Gan hoped he was asleep.
Gan quickly looked around the cargo hold, half expecting one of those men to appear and put an end to his investigation. But he and Avon were quite alone.
He returned to examining into the casket and then found himself staring into a pair of dark, unseeing eyes.
Avon had no idea where he was.
But he was cold; very cold.
He was sure his eyes were open, but he couldn’t see.
He knew he was breathing, but it was difficult. His lungs seemed reluctant to take in any air.
And there was no sound.
He tried to speak.
But he knew that he wasn’t alone.
Somewhere in the periphery of his consciousness was a presence.
Just who, or what, that presence was only served to heighten the primordial emotion which was engulfing him.
“Zen. A ship has just left this location. I want it tracked. Status of the Liberator.”
+Trackers are locked on. Liberator’s systems are at 45% capability. Life support is nominal. Energy banks minimal level and climbing. +
Blake bit his lip, “We can’t follow that freighter.”
Trega studied the man in front of him, “And if you could follow it? What then?”
“I would have no option. I would have to board your freighter. At least if the Liberator was at full power I could teleport aboard.”
“But it is returning to Federation Space…..”
“…..and that is the problem.”
“Perhaps, the captain’s yacht would solve the problem,” Treece announced.
Blake stared at him, “The what?” He began to wonder just what other surprises these people had.
“Of course,” Trega continued, “make provision for immediate launch. As it was my ship which inconvenienced you, then it is only fair that I provide another form of transport. Treece, could you take Blake down to the ‘yacht’. Treece can pilot it…..”
“Excuse me sir,” Treece broke in, “but I think you’ll find that this gentleman has a most consummate pilot already. This way please.”
Blake was puzzled by that, until he caught the exchange of smiles between Jenna and the second officer.
“Well,” Jenna whispered, as she moved to join Blake, “It’s so nice to meet someone who actually appreciates my talent.”
Vila opened his eyes.
Staring down at him were two women, each with a warm, friendly smile.
“What hit me?” he asked.
“An energy bolt from this ship’s defence system.” It was Cally’s voice, but he couldn’t see her.
“We need to get back to the Liberator.” This time she came into view. “That’s if you’re up to it, of course.”
“Yes…of course.” He realised that he was lying on the floor being attended to by the two women, who were obviously very concerned for him. They helped him sit up.
“Why did it attack me?”
“It wasn’t directed at you. It was trying to stop us reaching Avon.”
“Why would it want to do that?”
“I told you.” It was Kran, sitting in a chair not far from Vila, “Because the system believed he had a contagion.”
“And I suppose those men were incapable of checking their concerns in the Medical Unit?” Cally retorted.
“Well, it would appear so. Obviously they did check and something made them believe that he was a threat to the wellbeing of this ship and these people. He had to be quarantined…”
Vila watched as Cally leant very close to the embattled second engineer.
“The only thing wrong with Avon was a slight injury incurred when the Liberator was hit….”
“They must have misread the diagnostics.”
“Yes,” Cally said, totally unconvinced, “And of course you weren’t there to put them right....were you?”
“I told you, I was called away.”
Cally studied him, closely. It was quite clear, to her anyway, that he was lying. But why? Her thoughts were interrupted by one of Trega’s people arriving on the bridge, holding in her hand a small box; a very familiar box.
“Where did you find it?”
“In the medical unit. It was on the floor. I’m afraid it has suffered some damage.”
Cally took it from her. It was, indeed, damaged; its outer casing bearing the marks of deliberate destruction.
“What is it?” Trega asked.
“On here, Avon had the answer to why that ship hurtled out of control and crashed into the Liberator. But of course, we will never know, shall we?”
Vila favoured the Auron with a quizzical expression.
“Vila and I must return to the Liberator and see if we can assist with repairs and help Blake locate your freighter….”
“Yes, Vila, we must. Thank you, Commander Trega, for your hospitality. We are most grateful.”
Vila rubbed his head, “Well, some of us are.”
“I will escort you back to the airlock…”
“Is it safe?” Vila queried.
“It is quite safe, now that the danger has been neutralised,” Trega assured him, “Follow me.”
“Don’t you worry,” Vila said getting to his feet and finding himself in the arms of the two women, “That’s exactly what I intend to do.”
It wasn’t exactly cold in the cargo hold, but there was a chill in the air. And the air was breathable, if not musty, and the deck was hard.
But it didn’t bother Gan.
He had experienced far worse.
As a labour grade he had been expected to work anywhere and do anything.
But that was in the past.
Now he was with friends.
Working with them to fight against the power that had deemed him as a labour grade; subservient to everyone else, to be ordered at will to do as they decided.
But now was different.
Now he was on the same level; at least he was with everyone else on the Liberator. Everyone else except him.
How are the mighty fallen, thought Gan.
He turned to look at the man in the casket beside him; hopefully just asleep. But what if he wasn’t asleep? What precisely was wrong? It was a worrying thought. Could it be something deeper? Unconscious, maybe? Or a coma?
Gan seriously thought about trying to awaken him, except that he knew that there was every possibility that there would be hell to pay if he did.
No, he, himself, would have to find a way out of this nightmare. That’s all he could do. No-one could do more; not even the man apparently asleep in that casket.
It would be up to him.
He would have to discover if they were indeed alone on this ship careering through space; its destination unknown.
He’d already checked the far corners of the hold, stacked with a veritable fortune of precious minerals and metals, so patiently collected by the Wani. There were doors, but beyond them was the darkness of space. Somewhere was the rest of the ship; its heart; its nerve centre. And that, surmised Gan, was up the ramp, just in front of him.
He took one last look at the Avon, his deathly pallor and shallow breathing now beginning to worry Gan. Whatever had occurred during that short amount of time had obviously been for a malicious reason. That reason was no doubt locked in Avon’s mind; and his attacker, no doubt, wanted it to stay there.
Gan got to his feet and went to the bottom of the ramp. It wasn’t steep and he was able to amble up it quite quickly. Perhaps the Wani used a trolley, or something similar, to move items from down in the cargo area up to the main part of the ship; so hopefully, the door up ahead of him wouldn’t be one requiring the talents of Vila.
Silently, the door slid open and beyond lay a dimly lit corridor. Taking a deep breath, Gan stepped out into the passage.
He stood for a moment; waiting to see if anyone, or anything, was aboard.
Nobody came to investigate.
The ship seemed empty.
Except for Gan.
Jenna settled herself in the pilot’s seat. Just below her sat Blake.
“You’re not nervous are you?” she asked.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” he replied, “Perhaps it would have been better if Treece……”
He was stopped from saying anything further by the sound of Trega’s voice coming over the intercom.
“Ready for launch?” he enquired.
“Oh…most certainly. Now let’s see what this ship can do.” Jenna’s hands firmly gripped the controls as the launch doors beneath the ship opened and the small craft was slowly lowered into space.
Blake was awestruck at the beauty of space all around him, with the Liberator hanging on his left and the crescent formation of the Gatherers’ ships arcing round to his right.
Jenna remembered Treece’s briefing and reached out to touch a button.
The ship moved smoothly forward and then within seconds was hurling away from the stationary fleet towards the runaway freighter.
Jenna felt exhilarated as she felt the ship respond to her every touch, “Oh,” she murmured, “I really must get one of these.”
Blake was gripping the arms of his seat for all he was worth. He trusted Jenna’s skills without question, but it still didn’t quell the growing anxiety about exactly what they were going to do once they caught up with their quarry. And the way Jenna was flying this new toy, it wouldn’t be too long.
Vila’s fears had been allayed.
As he and Cally had been escorted back to the hatch, they had passed through several doors and the defence system had made no attempt to fire at them.
“You do realise, don’t you, that the Liberator isn’t totally up to speed?” he pointed out.
“Vila. We need to track both that freighter and Blake. We have to get aboard.”
Her silent glare was all that he received in reply.
Senna was sitting aboard his own personal cruiser patiently waiting for the news that the ‘hijacked’ cargo was soon to be in his company’s grasp.
“The last report came in a few hours ago, Madam Director. It was garbled, but our informant was under duress.”
“I see. Once you have that freighter and its extra goods, you may proceed at will, to ‘persuade’ the Gatherers that it is time for a new, bold venture. Not their old, ancient fleet. Times have changed.”
“When you say ‘persuade’…..”
“They cease their so called fishing forthwith and leave the immediate area for a more profitable concern, such as ours, to continue their work.”
“And if they refuse?”
“Senna, they can refuse as much as they like. You will show them the error of their ways.”
The communicator went dead. Senna still found it strange to do business in such a way, but his business partner had been quite adamant that the Federation would welcome a new supplier.
Now all he had to do was take delivery of the freighter and the two extra pieces of cargo and then track down the Gatherers. He had no worries that once that old, battered fleet saw his new, gleaming flotilla, they would realise that the game was up; that their time had come. And if they didn’t….well, he knew that there were men in his fleet who would relish the chance to persuade these ancient mariners otherwise.
Gan reached the last remaining door and reasoned that behind it was the Flight Deck of this ship. The question remained though; was there a crew on board? Or were Gan and Avon the only passengers? Either way, he would have to find out and either persuade the crew to turn around and take the ship back or…..
Gan thought for a moment. He knew he could fly the Liberator if so required; surely this ship would be easier? There was only one way to find out.
The two young men on the Flight Deck were bent over the instrument panels trying to figure out why they weren’t responding. When the Flight Deck doors opened, they spun round, absolutely petrified.
Gan stood quite still, his hands in a gesture of reconciliation.
“It’s all right. There is no need to be worried…..”
He noticed that they were both nervously eyeing their protective suits.
“There’s no need for them.”
“But you……you carry a contagion which must be…..,” one of the men babbled.
“Who told you that?”
“Our Second Engineer Kran. And your friend…our diagnostic system told us…..”
“I think you’ll find that your friend Kran has been lying. I have no idea why, but there is nothing wrong with me or the man in that casket.”
“No, he must remain in there. The contagion he has must be contained. He will be treated once we reach home. They have the resources.”
“And how long will that take?”
The second man, who up to now had remained quiet, suddenly found his voice, “We don’t know. Our instruments are frozen. We cannot override the course.”
“So what’s the problem? I presume this ship is on its way home?”
“No. That is the problem. We are not on that course; we do not know where we are heading…”
“I think you need to contact your fleet…..”
“We cannot. The communicators are not functioning.”
Gan looked at the strange instruments on the panel in front of him and his thoughts turned to the man unconscious in the casket in the cargo hold. Avon would certainly know what to do; but Kran had made sure that that would never happen.
“He’s thought of everything.”
“Who?” asked the two Wani.
“Your second engineer….. Kran.”
Both Cally and Vila shivered as they re-entered the Liberator. Slowly the hatch closed behind them.
“Vila, make sure no-one can get through that door.”
“Are you expecting them to?”
“Oh yes. I wouldn’t put anything past Kran. I get the impression that he is not all he claims to be. While you make sure that hatch remains shut, I’m going to ask Zen exactly what it was that Avon had discovered and make sure that we have a location fix on Blake.”
“While you’re at it,” Vila called after the Auron woman, “see if you can get Zen to turn the heating up. It’s freezing in here.”
“I’ll see what I can do…….”
“Promises, promises,” Vila groaned, double locking the hatch.
On the captain’s yacht, Blake was becoming increasingly concerned that despite Jenna’s best efforts, they didn’t seem to be gaining on the freighter. He’d even tried to contact it; to no avail. Either the communicator was non-operational, or both Avon and Gan were unable to access it.
Then suddenly, it crackled into life. Over the speaker came the distinct sound of Cally’s voice, very faint, but still a welcome sound.
“……..this is Liberator, come in Blake.”
“Zen has a fix on you, but not for much longer. You will soon be out of range…..”
“And that freighter?”
“Already…….Zen has calculated that based on its last position it is heading towards Federation Space. Have you managed to make contact?”
“No…I’m hoping it’s just a malfunction.”
“Hmm…there seems to be a lot of those…..”
“You suspect sabotage?”
“I think Avon did…….I am asking Zen to repeat the report…..”
Cally’s voice trailed off.
“We’re out of range,” Jenna confirmed to a questioning look from Blake.
“Why would anyone want to sabotage the Gatherers?”
“I have an idea we shall find out in a few hours’ time.”
“We need Avon,” Gan said, looking at the instrumentation in front of him.
“You mean, remove him from the transportable isolation cell?” asked the Wani who had decided to be the spokesman out of the pair.
“The transportable……Is that what it is?”
“Yes…and it is not just for our safety but also for his.”
“Who suggested you put him in it?”
“Kran. And we had no choice, the readings indicated as such. Kran was most adamant; he told us about the toxic particles that entered your ship when its hull was ruptured and Avon had become affected by them…….and he was wearing black. The sign of contagion….”
Gan inwardly sighed. Avon’s choice of colour had sealed his fate; Kran must have thought he’d hit the jackpot. “There is nothing wrong with him; believe me, but it seems that Kran had to convince you otherwise. I wonder how he did it and, more to the point, why?”
“I’m sure that Kran had only the safety of the ship and all on board it in mind. He has been most helpful ……”
“Yes…I’m sure he has. Do you know where this ship is heading?”
They didn’t reply.
Gan’s thoughts returned to the cargo hold and the rack upon rack of precious commodities; all the result of the Wani and their ancient fleet. If that cargo wasn’t bound for their home planet, then it would seem prudent to think its destination was tied up with Kran…..perhaps his associates.
“Kran wants you to believe that you are carrying a man with a dangerous contagion. Perhaps we should utilise that. Someone out here is waiting for this ship; it may be an idea to warn them that there is plague on board…..a very dangerous, highly contagious plague.”
“We could send out a warning,” the Wani spokesman agreed, “A continuous signal…..”
“But even that may not be enough to convince whoever is out here waiting. I…we need something that they can see for themselves; maybe even experience personally.”
The other Wani was thoughtful, “Once this ship has reached its destination, then we should be able to take control again.”
“We need to do something quickly,” Gan suggested. He had noticed the change in tone of the engines again; the ship was beginning to slow down. Obviously it had reached its destination. “We need to arrange a reception committee.”
Cally listened intently to Zen’s report.
Her suspicions about Kran had proved correct; no wonder he was intent on making sure that Avon didn’t get to pass his observations on to Commander Trega.
Vila had heard the report too; and it worried him, “This Kran doesn’t sound a very nice character…I wonder what’s in it for him?”
“Perhaps you should go and ask him.”
“Me? No, I’ve already found myself in the firing line, thank you very much. Do you think he knows?”
“That we have the information that Avon had deduced? Oh yes, he knows all right.”
“What do you think he’ll do next?”
“Whatever his original plan, it was completely thrown off course when we arrived unexpectedly. These people are no threat to him or the Federation, and yet he seems hell bent on sabotaging them and their way of life.”
“What do you think he has planned for Avon and Gan?” Vila whispered, not even wanting to consider what fate had in store for them.
“Anything is possible now, Vila. Everything depends on Blake and Jenna, and if they can catch up with that freighter. That will be the turning point…and this time, I’m going over to that ship prepared.”
“I don’t like the sound of that, Cally.”
He watched as she crossed the Flight Deck to the gun rack.
“And neither,” she said, strapping the belt about her waist, “will Kran.”
Jenna had brought the captain’s yacht to a halt.
There, at the very limit of the visual scanners, was a fleet of ships. But not a battle fleet; at least not all of the craft. The majority were similar in design to the Wani ships, but nowhere near as beautiful. These ships had one purpose; to collect the myriad of free floating dust and particles in the large scoop that hung beneath each hull. There was no glistening Graphene net, but an ugly solid metal contraption.
And the Wani freighter was now slowing down to join them.
“I dare not go any closer, Blake. We will be noticed and we have no way of fighting our way out.”
“What do you make of them, Jenna?” Blake asked quietly. He had never seen anything like these vessels and his plan to dock with the freighter and get aboard had now evaporated before his eyes.
“Well, whoever they are,” Jenna murmured, “they are about to take delivery of a large cargo courtesy of the Gatherers’ hard work. And they will also have some extra bonus goods, thanks to Kran.”
“They don’t look Federation. So who are they?”
“A private company, perhaps?”
“It’s feasible. But they seem to have a couple of small armed cruisers with them.” Blake was pensive for a minute, “You know, it could just be the Federation deciding to go into business for themselves and cut out the middle man so to speak.”
“A hostile takeover you mean?”
Blake nodded, then turned to look at the scene before him. The freighter had hoved to, obviously awaiting a boarding party. Blake knew that he was in a helpless position; unable to board the freighter, unable to launch an attack and, more importantly, unable to rescue the two men he had come to regard as friends. He drew in a deep breath, “Oh yes....and hostile in more ways than one.”
Avon had lost all sense of time.
He knew that he was alone now; the reassuring other presence had gone.
And he felt even colder; yet he could feel beads of perspiration on his face. But that was all he could feel. His limbs were numb, devoid of any sensation. Whatever Kran had pumped into him was doing its job, maybe too well.
He tried to take in a deep breath, but it was so much effort. In one sense, he was annoyed that he couldn’t throw off this mantel of darkness in which he felt as though he was floating. Somehow he knew that soon he would be dragged back down into that morass of all enveloping blackness; this time for longer, no doubt, although he had no way of telling for just how long. His attempts to count out each second had been wiped out by each wave of unconsciousness that had overwhelmed him.
And he sensed that another wave was approaching.
The distance between each one was shorter now; and each one dragged him down deeper. Soon, he feared, there would be no more waves; soon, there would be a raging torrent. And then…..nothing.
“Sir. The message is quite clear…..that is a plague ship. We are not to approach.”
Senna waved away the other man’s apprehensions, “Nonsense. That is the work of our agent; to make sure that others try not to salvage this vessel. It’s a very good ploy. This way, no-one else will dare come near it. Now, bring your ship alongside. I am eager to see what riches Kran has bestowed upon us.”
Blake’s heart sank as he saw the small craft make its way to the freighter and come along side it.
“They’re going to board it….and there’s nothing I can do.”
“And they are completely ignoring the plague warning,” Jenna pointed out.
“Plague warning?” Blake asked.
“Someone on that freighter has set up a warning signal, but whoever is on that other ship is choosing to ignore it.”
“Unless they know that that signal is a fake, but either way, Jenna, it looks as though we’ve lost.” Blake sank into his flight seat, shoulders hunched. He was in a helpless, even hopeless, position. All he could do now was watch as the final act was performed; as Avon and Gan were delivered to whoever owned this fleet and, most probably, ultimately, to the Federation.
“Somehow I don’t think friend Kran will take kindly to you informing Commander Trega about Avon’s findings,” Vila expounded, sipping his drink, “In fact I’d go so far to say that he might just decide to include us in his little scheme….whatever that is.”
“I don’t think this scheme, as you put it, actually concerns us. We just happened to, shall we say, arrive at an inopportune moment.”
“That’s an understatement. Maybe you should contact Trega; tell him…..”
“On an open channel? That would be quite foolish.”
“Why don’t you use telepathy and tell him……”
“Because I don’t know him well enough. Vila, we need to check all of Liberator’s systems on the starboard bow.”
“Zen’s taking care of that…..besides, it’s cold.”
Cally threw an exasperated look at the small thief, “And it may get a lot colder if we aren’t ready to move off immediately should Kran’s scheme come to fruition. I’ll stay here in case Blake makes contact.”
Vila admitted defeat. He began to walk towards the Flight Deck exit, then turned to face her, “Cally, what if Blake doesn’t catch up with that freighter? What if he can’t reach Avon or Gan?”
“Please, Vila; the repairs?”
He looked at her. It was obvious from her expression that those thoughts had crossed her mind; even though she had tried to hide those fears.
“I’ll be on the starboard side if you need me.”
Despite the reticence of his colleagues, Senna had proceeded to dock with the freighter and was now waiting for the air lock to open. His confidence, though, was not shared by the two men with him.
His personal assistant had been most reluctant to join him, as had his bodyguard, but as both were being paid by him, they deemed it prudent to accompany him.
“You really shouldn’t believe everything you hear, Cole. This is no more a plague ship than I’m President of the Federation. You just wait. When you see exactly what Kran has been able to procure for us, you will agree that this has been a most successful venture.”
“But won’t these Gatherers come after that freighter and demand that we give them back their cargo?”
“Their ships are old. Kran has assured me that they are in no position to argue. Once we take delivery of this shipment, we will be able to persuade the Gatherers to leave this quadrant and allow us, a far more modern fleet, to trawl the bountiful space between the planetary systems.”
“They may not take kindly to that.”
“That’s just too bad. The Directors have been most vocal on the matter. Those Ancient Mariners must bow to the advent of modernisation or they shall cease to exist.”
“You mean…destroy them?”
Senna smiled as the door slid slowly open, “Of course. Besides, there isn’t enough room for two fleets…..is there?”
The door opened to reveal a dimly lit corridor. The emergency lights cast their eerie glow and only served to accentuate the strange silence.
Senna stepped back and motioned for his bodyguard to step forward. He hesitated slightly, then did as he was told.
He quickly looked around and then bade them come aboard.
“It seems deserted, sir,” the man almost whispered.
“There are at least two people aboard, possibly more. But you know what to do if any one tries to argue with us? Don’t you, Gibb?”
The bodyguard tried to nod confidently and held his gun up to enforce his understanding of the order.
“I think the bridge would be a good place to start,” Senna mused.
But the door to the bridge remained firmly shut.
“In that case, the hold. At least we can see what, and who, we have. This is going to be a most profitable occasion.”
The door to the hold proved to be more obliging and opened the moment Senna’s bodyguard depressed the control panel. The hold, too, was just as gloomy as the rest of the ship. But the lighting afforded by the wall lights did allow the trio to see what was actually in it.
Senna’s eyes alighted upon the racks; each loaded with ingots and containers whose contents were easily discerned through their transparent sides.
“There, gentlemen, it is as Kran said, a small fortune; ample for us to begin our new venture….”
Cole felt the need to interrupt his excitable employer, “That’s all very well sir, but what about when we have to supply the same items in the same quantities? Our customers will expect our service to be equal, if not better, then these…….”
“……Gatherers? Our fleet is modern, with all the latest refinements. If this is an example of what the Gatherers are able to do with their old dilapidated fleet; just think what we will be to accomplish.”
Somehow, though, Cole didn’t share Senna’s delight and enthusiasm. He found this entire place cold and foreboding and every second spent there was beginning to fray his nerves.
And then they found it.
On the floor by a rack laden with cargo; a box of some nature. A box big enough to contain a human.
For a moment, all three just stood and looked at it.
The base of the box was metal, that much they could see, and its sides were half metal, half glass with a deep rim of the same metal running around the top edge and on that, a glass lid.
They all approached it.
Inside was a man, his features illuminated by the irregular linking lights from a console just behind his head.
Cole swallowed, “Is he alive?”
Senna was silent, wondering just what Kran had decided to give him as an extra bonus. He stared down at the still face of the man imprisoned in the case; his pale features drawn; his breathing hardly noticeable.
“I don’t know,” Senna replied at long last, “Kran said he had had some trouble from a man who, he claims, was from a ship called the Liberator. Could this be that crew member?”
“The Liberator?” his bodyguard hissed, “If that’s true, then we could be in a lot of trouble…”
“Nonsense,” Senna smiled, “I’m sure the Federation will be more than happy to reward us for this little find.”
“It’s not the Federation that concerns me, sir; it’s this man’s colleagues. I’ve heard a lot about the Liberator and a man called Blake….”
“Hearsay; baseless rumours. Circulated to try and weaken the rule of the Federation. If this Liberator is so held in awe, then where is it? No, this Blake has seen what he is up against. He wouldn’t dare approach this fleet. It would be suicide.”
Cole was still staring down into the case and not liking the idea that was beginning to form in his mind, “Maybe this man is the source of that plague warning, sir. He does not look well.”
Senna smiled again, trying to reassure the increasingly nervous man standing by him, “Kran would have told me about a plague. There is nothing to be concerned about. And to prove it, I will remove this lid and open the case. And you will see that your fears have been totally unfounded.”
“Excuse me sir.” It was the bodyguard. While Senna had been trying to alleviate Cole’s obvious fears, he had been looking into the depths of the cargo hold, convinced that someone else was there, “Didn’t Kran also say that he had two of the Liberator’s crew?”
“Indeed he did,” Senna replied.
“So where is the other one?”
“We will find that out later. Right now, I want to see exactly who we have here.”
Gan had remained in the shadows, hardly daring to breath, for fear of the three men standing by the container realising that he was there. He was pressed against a bulkhead in a far corner; his hand hovering over a control panel just to his left. He watched as the man, who seemed to be in charge, reached down and began to try and open the lid.
Gan waited and then hit the control panel with the palm of his hand.
The sprinkler system burst into life, sending a shower of cold liquid cascading over the three men. Each gasped as the skin on the back of their hands suddenly began to redden. Each looked in horror as a burning sensation began to sear their nerves.
Senna’s bodyguard was the first to react.
“Sir, it’s time to leave. This is some kind of trap….we must leave…”
“But we could be infected,” Cole cried out.
“Don’t be so silly,” Senna replied, “Think man; we will lose all of this!”
“Sir,” the bodyguard insisted, “We can’t stay here; if our ship gets wind of something wrong, they may well leave us. We have to go.”
Cole put his hands to his face; it, too, was beginning to burn. “What is it?”
“It isn’t anything,” Senna insisted.
The bodyguard, however, had other ideas. He had suddenly looked down into the casket and didn’t like what he had seen.
The man in the casket was looking up at him and the dark, almost black eyes, were, so it seemed, mocking him.
“Sir, I insist, we must get back to the airlock and…..”
“…and what?” Senna asked, trying to push his bodyguard away.
“……hope they don’t cast us off for fear of contamination.”
Avon had heard the dull sound of voices.
Voices that he hoped would get him out of this nightmare.
He had struggled against the tide of darkness; a tide that had wanted to hurl him into its depths and never release him.
But now his eyes were open; forced by his own innate inner determination to survive at all costs.
Was it Blake leaning over, looking in?
Was he, perhaps, revelling at the spectacle of his helplessness?
Then he was gone.
Avon’s heart sank and that second of desolation was enough for the black tide to reach up and pull him back down into the abyss; but not before the sound of rain reached him.
A sound so innocent; so innocuous.
Yet a sound that suggested that there was hope.
He tried to resist the tide; to reach out and grab that one ray of hope.
But the tide was too strong.
It encircled him in its cruel, cold embrace and dragged him back into oblivion.
From his place of concealment, Gan watched as the three men stumbled blindly to the ramp. Despite his best attempts to shield himself, the sprinkler system had showered him with its seemingly deadly toxin; but he knew it was harmless; the burning sensation was just a reaction to the chemicals in the water.
Gan smiled as the men pushed each other to get out of the hold and back to the airlock. He would follow them and then wait until they had entered the airlock.
Only then, would he contact the two Wani, barricaded on the bridge.
And at that moment he would he tell them to activate the course projection they had found on the navigation system, now thankfully restored to full function.
Only then would he, the two Wani and Avon be safe, as the ship set course for home.
For Casta; in the Mendeleyev System.
Blake had resigned himself to failure and he knew that the longer he and Jenna stayed out here, watching that failure unfold, the sooner someone in that Fleet would notice the small, unarmed cruiser.
He knew that he should run back to the safety of the Liberator, although even that ship would be unable to take on any armed and hostile carriers that might decide to follow him back to the Wani fishing fleet; not unless Zen and the auto repair systems had finished their work.
“Jenna, I just need to see what they do….”
“……Blake, something is happening to that Gatherers’ freighter.”
“Being taken under tow, I expect.”
“No,” Jenna said, scrutinising the instrument panel before her, “It’s powering up.”
“Avon’s done it….”
And then the freighter was gone.
It hadn’t vanished, but had sped away with incredible speed.
Blake sat back, “What just happened?”
“Maybe you should ask Commander Trega when you see him, but right now there is chaos on the communications system; something about plague.”
“Plague? But there isn’t…..”
“Someone’s convinced the pilot of that small cruiser that they have plague carriers on board, and quite frankly, when they see that ship gone and then find out there isn’t any plague, they could well come gunning for us.”
Blake was quiet for a moment. “Turn this ship round, Jenna. I don’t think we have any chance of catching that freighter. We need to have a word with Commander Trega and,” Blake said mischievously, “your friend, Treece.”
“Course already locked in,” Jenna replied, returning Blake’s smile with an equally mischievous look.
Senna hammered on the door of the airlock.
But there was no response.
The outer door had, thankfully, locked shut just before the other ship had suddenly hurtled away.
Cole was growing paler by the second. He knew it would only take one panic stricken man on this cruiser to reopen the door and send all three men out into space.
The bodyguard, though, was quietly smiling as he turned his hands over and inspected the red blotches on them. “Very neat.”
“I would hardly call being infected very neat,” Senna snapped back.
“They put something in that water. Just enough to irritate our skin and well….the rest is history.”
“So, we are not infected?” Senna asked.
“No, sir, we are not.”
Cole looked at Senna, the bodyguard and then fainted, much to the latter’s amusement.
“I’ll make them pay for this,” Senna hissed, “Those Gatherers have cost me a lot of money.”
“And how do you intend to find them?”
Senna smiled as the door slowly opened. He stepped over the fallen Cole and went to an intercom, “I know exactly where that fleet is….and this isn’t the end of it!”
The sudden acceleration had caught Gan off guard.
He had fallen heavily against a bulkhead and had remained pinned there until the ship had settled into its flight mode. Now he was making his way to the bridge to find out just what sort of power this ship had.
The bridge door slid open as Gan approached and he was greeted by one of the Wani.
“We were successful then?”
“Oh, yes, we were. But I seem to have been ‘infected’ as well.” He held out his hand to show the Wani the bright red weal on his skin.
“We can deal with that….”
“And I’m not sure, but I think they may have managed to remove the lid of that cell.”
“I will go and check and make sure that your friend, Avon, is comfortable. And then we will tend to your ‘infection’.”
“Thank you,” Gan said, watching as the Wani made his way back towards the hold, “By the way, that was a phenomenal get away I’ve never experienced a surge like that before. I hope it’s enough to prevent that fleet chasing us.”
“Oh yes. Even if they did, they would never catch us. As it is, they will be pursuing your friends.”
“How do you know?”
“A small ship arrived just after we did. We recognised it, but could not hail it as Kran’s sabotage of this ship had been most thorough. It made no attempt to come near us, but they witnessed our departure. And now, those who were expecting to claim this ship are in the process of hunting them down.”
“Will they catch them?”
“That all depends if your friends can return to our own fleet. Now, I must tend to that Transportable Isolation Cell. If it has been breached, then your friend Avon could be in serious trouble.”
Gan swallowed, “I’ll come with you.”
The Wani quickly fastened his protective suit, “I will let you know if you are required.”
Gan knew that the young man was right. Going back into that hold right now wouldn’t be suicide, but until the sprinkler system had been deactivated and the corrosive liquid cleared away, it would be rather painful.
He watched as the young man opened the hold door and stepped in.
If the lid had been breached, then it was possible that Avon had been subject to the full force of the ‘infection’. What that would do to an already weakened man didn’t bear thinking about.
Gan wanted to go and help, but the other Wani stopped him.
“Let me see to your ‘wounds’ and if we are needed then we will both go.”
“All right…..and then maybe you could tell me just what happened back there.”
“Liberator. This is Blake.”
“Hearing you loud and clear,” Cally responded, “Did you manage to catch up with that freighter?”
There was only silence. It was obvious that Blake was considering exactly how to answer her question.
“We did,” Blake replied eventually.
“….Cally, just what was Avon on the verge of revealing when he had his run in with those overzealous Wani?”
Cally hated that; how Blake neatly sidestepped a direct question and then asked one of his own. “The ship that crashed into us? It was no accident. Oh, it was, as far as we were concerned, but we were not part of the plan. It was sabotage.”
“All indications are that Second Engineer Kran had a hand in it. The cause of that crash could have only been engineered by someone with the knowledge of the ship and its workings. And it is highly unlikely that the First Engineer would have done this.”
“Maybe Palu began to suspect that the helpful stranger wasn’t being as helpful as he hoped.”
“Cally, Jenna and I are on our way back and we may be bringing a few uninvited guests….”
“What is Liberator’s status?”
Cally took a deep breath, “Just over seventy five per cent of all systems. Please Blake, did you find that freighter?”
“Yes, we did.”
“And did you….”
“No, we were unable to get to Avon and Gan, but then, neither did their reception committee.”
“Commander Trega has some explaining to do. Out.”
Vila had ambled onto the Flight Deck during the conversation, “What was that all about?”
“That is what I intend to discover.”
“Commander Trega. This is Blake. We are en route back to you and we have company.”
There was no response to his call. Blake turned to look at Jenna, whose eyes were scanning the instrument panel, in front of her.
“Do you think they heard us? Surely we are within hailing distance?”
“You will have to get Cally to contact him. That way it will give them a better chance to prepare themselves.”
“Whoever owns that fleet is not going to be very pleased with losing that freighter. If your investment had literally been snatched from your grasp, what would you do?”
Commander Trega listened as Cally explained Blake’s situation. But she decided not to reveal what she knew about Second Engineer Kran.
“….And what is your situation, Cally?” Trega asked.
“Liberator is still not 100 per cent operational,” her voice crackled back over the speaker.
“And how long before this enemy fleet arrives at this location?”
“Blake estimates that you have but a few hours. And he was unable to make contact with your freighter….”
Trega could hear the concern in the Auron woman’s voice, “You need not worry about the freighter; both it and those aboard are safe….”
“How can you be sure?”
“Cally; they are safe. Trust me.”
Trega broke contact. He walked to the panoramic window which dominated the bridge and gazed out at the ships, silently hanging in space. They seemed an incongruous sight, ancient craft following an ancient tradition, and beside them a beautiful, alien ship.
Trega took a deep breath, “Treece. It is time. Inform our people and tell them to take their places.”
“Yes, sir. And what of Blake?”
“He will be with us soon. Our next move is dependent on his situation. His ship is disabled because of us; we cannot leave him to the mercy of whatever is coming this way.”
“Excuse me, sir.”
It was Kran. He had been standing in the shadows of the bridge, obviously, thought Trega, to keep himself apprised of the unfolding situation.
“What exactly is coming this way?”
“You need only concern yourself with this ship and this fleet,” Trega replied.
“Sir, there is no way we can mount any defence against….”
“Against what, Kran? Besides, it is not us I am worried about. The Liberator is fully capable of taking care of itself, but under the circumstances, due in no small part to ourselves, it may require assistance. Once Blake is back aboard, we can discuss our next course of action. Now,” Trega said quite slowly, turning to face Kran whose usual calm demeanour was deserting him, “I think you should go to your post and make sure that all systems are ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“Kran, I have given you an order. I do not have to justify it.”
Trega watched as a very confused Kran made his excuses and left the bridge, then turned to Treece, “Tell our people it will soon be time to haul in our nets.”
Gan hadn’t slept so well in months.
The Wani had, true to their word, looked after him and checked on Avon, still enclosed in his isolation cell.
Now, Gan was awake, lying on a bunk, listening to the change of engine tone and he realised that whatever journey the freighter had embarked upon was almost at an end. The skin irritation was now a distant memory too. Whatever they had applied to his face and arms was working well, although, their idea of a change of clothes left a little to be desired.
His own, wet ones, were hung up down in the cargo hold and the green overalls provided from one of the lockers weren’t exactly to his size, but they were comfortable.
They had checked on Avon, too.
Despite Gan’s pleas, it had been decided to keep Avon in the ‘cell’ and wait until the freighter had arrived at its destination.
Wherever that was.
‘No’, the Wani had insisted,’ It would be wise to leave him in that controlled environment until they reached their home planet where there would be facilities and expertise to free him from Kran’s hastily contrived deception.’
Gan had reluctantly agreed.
And now the ship appeared to be landing.
He felt a slight judder as the ship came to rest; where?
In answer, the cabin door slid open.
The self-appointed spokesman came in, “We have arrived. In a few moments your friend will be taken to our medical facility. Would you like to accompany him?”
“Where exactly are we?” Gan asked.
“We are home.”
“And where is home?”
The Wani studied Gan for a moment, “Where we make it.”
Despite this being the first time for Jenna, she carefully brought the captain’s yacht back to its docking station without a hitch.
As the bay doors closed beneath the small craft, she felt just a little dejected that she wouldn’t be able to take this ‘yacht’ with her.
“Well, it was nice while it lasted,” she murmured.
“Yes, so I gathered,” Blake replied, getting to his feet, “Come on, we have to get to Trega and warn him.”
“Blake, those armed cruisers will annihilate this so called fishing fleet….”
“….and the Liberator won’t be in any condition to fight back.”
“Jenna, we can’t just leave these people.”
“We may have to make a run for it.”
Jenna stopped Blake as he made for the small airlock, “Run for it? These ships aren’t capable of that.”
“Well, neither was that freighter, and look what happened to that. I don’t think Commander Trega has been completely honest with us.”
“You mean, he’s lied?”
Blake shook his head, “More like been economical with the truth. Would you divulge all your secrets to complete strangers?”
As he spoke the door slid open and there, as if to greet him, was Second Engineer Kran.
The two men studied each other. Kran smiled at Blake and then at Jenna. She shivered; it was the same kind of smile Raiker had used on the London.
Blake didn’t blink; this was one man you ignored at your peril.
Kran took a deep breath, “Welcome back.”
Avon suddenly felt free of the all-enveloping darkness, which had held him, for so long, in its cold embrace.
A warm sense of being began to overwhelm him as the distant light began to beckon him.
Was this death?
No…not yet; not like this.
He took in a deep breath. It felt good.
From somewhere he could hear a soft voice; no, two soft voices. Somewhere out there, just to his left.
He slowly opened his eyes, dreading what he would see. A white room again and two people hovering over an instrument panel; but at least they weren’t wearing protective suits. They turned to look at him; two women.
He didn’t return the smile. He was looking at his left arm, encased in some device or other. Was this the beginning of his torture?
Someone coughed, just to his right.
Very slowly, Avon turned his head to see who it was.
It wasn’t Blake.
It was another man.
Was he a Federation interrogator? Was he now preparing to ask questions? He certainly didn’t look Federation. Maybe this was a rouse, to catch him unawares, before the pain started, again.
The man smiled; a warm smile, tinged with genuine concern.
Avon tried to speak, but he couldn’t. His throat felt so dry.
The man smiled, again, “Welcome back.”
Cally leant over the teleport console.
“And you’re sure that those are the co-ordinates that were used to put Blake over to that ship the first time?”
“Yes,” replied Vila, “I think.”
“Vila, we need to be sure; I need to be sure.”
“Are you really going over there armed? I mean, they might not take kindly to you suddenly….”
Cally picked up two more teleport bracelets and went to the teleport area, “Put me over, Vila. And you had better be ready to bring us back; quickly.”
Blake instinctively put himself between Kran and Jenna, even though the former didn’t seem to be armed.
“We need to get to the bridge,” Blake began.
“No we don’t,” Kran replied.
“There is a fleet coming this way, with some pretty impressively armed cruisers. They will blast this fleet to pieces.”
“Not if these so called Gatherers leave peacefully.”
“Oh, there won’t be a choice; not after losing that freighter, anyway.”
Kran bit his lip.
“Yes, that’s right,” Blake continued, “Your little plan didn’t quite come off. That freighter with all its cargo, including the two bonus additions, just suddenly left. Whoever you’re working for won’t be best pleased.”
“Oh, I don’t know. That ship of yours will be just as valuable; as will you and the rest of your crew…it’s just a shame that this old, ancient fleet will be surplus to requirements. But that’s business.”
“What sort of business, Kran?” Commander Trega was standing at the head of the corridor.
“The slow, outmoded way you do business, sir.” It was a comment laced with sarcasm.
“It’s not a business, Kran, it’s our way of life. It has been for a….long time”
“Yes, well time has just run out, sir. There are new, modern ways to collect the precious metals and minerals floating out here in space; but not enough for two fleets. Now, why don’t we all make our way to the bridge and watch the arrival of a new, modern age.”
Blake didn’t move.
The voice in his head had told him not to; Cally’s voice.
Had Jenna ‘heard’ it, too?
Kran lifted a small box that he was holding in his hand, “The security system has been reactivated, please don’t make me use it.”
Commander Trega quite casually folded his arms, “Kran, it’s over.”
“For you it is,” Kran replied, his eyes still on Blake, “For all of you.”
“I don’t think so,” Trega stated, suddenly stepping aside.
The shot was devastating.
Kran crumpled to the floor, his finger still on the ‘trigger’ of his box.
Blake knelt down to see if the shot had done its job. It had.
“That was a little too close for comfort, Cally.”
The Auron woman stepped from behind Trega, “I had to be sure of my aim.”
“And I, for one,” Jenna said, “am very grateful.”
On the deck was a small device. It had been hidden in Kran’s pocket and was now in full view, having fallen out as Kran’s lifeless body had hit the deck.
Blake picked it up, “It’s a transmitter of some kind. No doubt guiding your rivals out here.”
“That was most interesting,” Trega admitted, facing Cally, “And very effective.”
Blake smiled. Obviously Trega had ‘experienced’ Cally’s talent for himself.
“Trega, we need to get to the bridge and see exactly what we are up against.”
What they were up against was now taking attack formation; the fleet from whose clutches the freighter had escaped.
Blake took a teleport bracelet from Cally and placed it around his wrist. His thoughts, though, were elsewhere, as he stared out of the large panoramic window and weighed up his options. “The Liberator is still not fully operational, Trega. I can fight or I can flee; I can’t do both.”
Trega nodded, his gaze fixed on the ships lining up opposite his fleet, “I understand.”
“Commander, a man calling himself Senna is hailing us,” Treece murmured, “He says that he is the Chief Executive Officer.”
“Is he? Put him on the main speaker.”
“You are requested to leave this area with immediate effect,” a voice crackled back.
“On what grounds?” Trega asked very calmly.
“On the grounds that your fleet is trespassing. You have one Earth minute to agree to our demands….”
“Or what? This is free space and the Wani Fleet is quite within its right….”
“You have no rights. Those were suspended when you gave safe haven to the Rebel Blake and his ship, the Liberator. As recompense you will hand both him and that ship over.”
“That is not possible.”
The speaker went silent.
“Somehow,” Blake began, “I don’t think that was the answer he wanted. I’m sorry, Trega, but I…”
“There is no reason to be sorry. My people have met many such individuals over the years. Now, you must leave.”
“But if I leave, then you will face that force alone.”
Blake’s bracelet chimed urgently as Vila’s voice came through, “Blake, Zen says those ships out there are preparing to fire. You’ve got to come back, before the Deflectors go up. Blake….”
Trega smiled, “Treece, put me through to their Chief Executive Officer.”
There was a pause as Trega took a deep breath.
“My name is Commander Trega. Your threats of retribution are meaningless. I respectively request that you stand down with immediate effect or face the consequences. It is your decision.”
Blake was staring at the man beside him, whose calm exterior was mirrored by the other officers on the bridge.
“Your threats do not concern us,” Senna’s voice came back, “You are outnumbered, out gunned and outmoded. You have 30 seconds to comply or face the consequences.”
Trega turned to Blake, “They never listen. Treece, power up the nets.”
Blake, Jenna and Cally watched in awe as each of the ‘trawlers’ began to close up their trailing ‘arms’, positioning the nets beneath their main body in an almost perfect circle.
Trega smiled, “We thought it wise not to tell our new, inquisitive crew member everything. Treece, activate.”
From each net came a series of pulsating circles which quickly engulfed the other fleet.
Blake watched in morbid fascination as each ship seemed to flicker; their lights going out and then silently begin to ‘fall’ as their power systems literally died.
“What was that?” Blake asked quietly, mindful that these benign people could very easily do the same to his ship, the Liberator, if they so desired.
“An electrical pulse; nothing more. But it could be, if we wanted to inflict permanent damage. As it is, we have merely switched off most of their systems…it will give us time to escape. Treece, retract the nets.”
“Now what?” Cally queried, looking in wonder as the nets began to close up and into the belly of each ship.
One by one, the ships sped off at incredible speed.
“It’s rather difficult,” Trega began, “to carry out a hostile takeover, when there isn’t anything to take over. Your master computer is now in receipt of the co-ordinates of our home planet. We will be waiting for you, Blake, as will your two colleagues.”
“We will take his body with us and he will be accorded a burial as per his beliefs.”
“And this?” Blake asked, holding the small transmitting device in his hand.
“We shall leave it here, in space, so that Kran’s paymasters can find at least something.”
Another ship sped off.
“You know, Blake,” Trega said slowly, “there are some things that you could, perhaps, teach us?”
“Such as?” Blake asked.
“This method of travel; the teleport. And Cally’s remarkable gift of telepathy. Both have their merits. And now you must leave us. Once all our trawlers have departed, then so must you.”
“We will meet you at Casta,” Blake said.
“Indeed,” Trega replied, knowing that Jenna and Treece were exchanging farewell smiles, “I…we look forward to it.”
Avon had savoured every last drop of the cool liquid offered to him by the amiable stranger, although he had every reason to suspect that this was a mere prelude to horrors yet to unfold.
His arm was still encased in the device, that much he could tell, and the lights blinking on and off in a steady rhythm seemed to have a calming influence.
“How do you feel?”
Avon didn’t answer.
“Yes, he said that you would be reticent in those matters.”
Avon still didn’t answer.
“Your colleague, Gan, is outside. He is most concerned for your well-being. Should I ask him to come in?”
“No.” It was quite firm and most forthright, “and as for ‘welcome back’, that depends on exactly where ‘back’ is.”
The man smiled, “You are in one of our medical facilities on the planet Casta; the present home of the Wani. You have been through, what I can only imagine as, pure hell.”
“It wasn’t pleasant.”
“We are trying to find out exactly what it was that the young man, Kran, administered into your system. Whatever it was must have been a spur of the moment thing; something to feign a deadly contagion and persuade the two young Wani with him to put you into one of our Transportable Isolation Cells.”
“Is that what it was?”
“The drug is almost out of your system now. That device on your arm is cleansing your blood. Another few seconds and you will be free of it.”
“Why would he need to feign a contagion in the first place?”
“You were wearing black; to our people that is a sign that one is in need of immediate medical assistance.”
“Black……” It suddenly occurred to Avon that he wasn’t wearing black now. He looked down and could see that he was now dressed in a loose, azure blue two piece outfit made from an incredibly soft material; its origins unknown to him. It was very similar in design to the ones worn by the attendant medical personnel.
The doctor, for want of a better word, thought it wise to explain, “When we took you out of that ‘cell’, as you can imagine there was great concern that you were, in fact, carrying a deadly plague; despite Gan’s words to the contrary. It was decided, for ease of matters, to alleviate that concern. If we have intruded or caused embarrassment, then please accept our apologies. Our knowledge of those from Earth is, shall we say, limited. We have only dealt with the Federation….”
Avon visibly paled.
“…on a business level. There is no reason to be alarmed. You and your friend are perfectly safe here. By the way, it was your friend, Gan, who suggested the colour that your wear now. It denotes that you wish to be left alone.”
Avon still didn’t seem convinced by the man or his overtures of bonhomie. Even when the two attendant ‘nurses’ removed the device from his arm and offered to help him sit up, he was distinctly hesitant.
“The other injury, to your side, appears to be healing. Was that also caused by Kran?”
“In a roundabout way, yes.”
“You need to rest and recuperate…”
“I had plenty of time to rest in that…cell.”
“Indeed. It will be some time before your friends arrive and I must begin to prepare.”
“We are leaving. Not just this planet which has been our home for several of your years, but this sector of space. It has been, shall we say, fully exploited and now our fleets need to find new ‘fishing’ grounds.”
“New ‘fishing’ grounds?”
“New resources to be harvested. Our scouts have been successful.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because I sense that you have many questions.”
That was true, thought Avon.
“Your friend, Gan, seems more than happy to accept our hospitality. Perhaps you would benefit as well?”
Avon looked down at the brightly coloured outfit, so thoughtfully suggested by Gan.
“Azure blue,” he murmured, almost in disbelief.
“Anyone of our people who sees you will know not to trouble you,” the doctor informed him.
“Then I’d much rather they didn’t see me.”
“I think I have the solution. And while you rest, and recuperate, you could spend some time with this,” he handed Avon a slim, rectangular screen, “This will give you access to all of our archives…..”
“But I’m not familiar with your written language.”
“You don’t have to be. This device will translate automatically.”
“That’s a very neat time saver,” Avon admitted, looking at the screen and watching the words upon it suddenly turn to English.
“I think it rather ironic,” the doctor replied, “considering that time is really of no consequence to my people.”
The panic aboard the ships that made up Senna’s fleet was enough to make even the hardened business man quake with fear.
As every main system cut out, even the emergency back-ups seem to fail. But gradually, whatever had caused the power outage seemed to wear off and the ships regained control.
For Senna, though, that was only the beginning of his problems. As the main view screen shuddered into life again, his eyes took in a scene that filled him with foreboding.
There was no fleet.
And there was no Liberator.
His captain drew his attention to a faint signal, coming from somewhere out in the void.
A small shuttle was sent to locate its source.
As Senna waited for the source of the signal to be brought to him, he began to ponder how he would, or even could, explain this to his shareholders and more importantly, to his directors. Each of them had put in a substantial amount to finance this fleet; to rid the Federation of some outside, ‘foreign’ concern.
Soon, the source of the signal was handed to Senna.
He turned it over in his hand. This was the device that had been given to Kran; the young man employed to ingratiate himself with the trusting Wani and engineer, literally, their downfall.
But what had become of him?
A sweep of the area had revealed nothing.
And each of the captains of the modern ships designed to take over the mantle of the usurped Gathers were reporting the same results.
There was nothing.
No precious metals.
No residue of any nature.
Space was empty.
And attempts to locate the Gatherers and the Liberator had proved fruitless.
Senna’s dream of untold wealth had crumbled. His investors would be livid that their promised returns would come to nought; and his Board of Directors who had joined him in this venture to gather the wealth so coveted by the ancient Wani would want explanations.
And explanations were something that Senna could not provide.
Here he was at the head of a modern fleet; his crews ready to trawl the unlimited wealth that floated freely among the planetary systems; ready to show the way forward.
And he had nothing.
Whatever Kran’s fate had been, at least he had escaped the ensuing fury.
Senna was, however, about to face that fury.
And it wasn’t something he relished.
Gan was totally engrossed by the swirling white clouds traversing the brilliant blue sky to actually notice Blake approaching.
For Blake’s part, he wasn’t too sure what he would find.
He had been directed towards the small wood by a very helpful Wani and as he walked along the bank of a small river, he found himself back on Earth and that night; the night he had found out who he really was; the night he had witnessed the brutality of the Federation…again.
But this time it was different, it was daylight and the light from Casta’s sun was fighting its way through the foliage of the trees, giving the lush, green grass a dappled effect.
He touched an overhead branch and allowed his hand to momentarily examine the coarse bark. It only served to remind him of what he had lost, but he could see now, why the ships of the Wani seemed to have an organic feel and look. They obviously relished the sense of nature too.
He continued along the path until he came to a clearing and saw Gan, stretched out on his back, arms behind his head, gazing skywards.
“You made it then?” Blake asked.
“Yes…..thanks to those two young Wani,” Gan replied dreamily, “You know, it’s true….”
“You really can see shapes in the clouds….”
Gan pointed a finger skyward, “They told me that if I looked long enough, I would see shapes….and eventually, you do. It really is amazing. You should try it, Blake.”
“Maybe I will, later. Avon isn’t with you, I see.”
“No. He made it quite clear that he preferred to be on his own. But the doctor may be able to tell you where he is.” Gan got to his feet and dusted himself off, “Come with me.”
Judging by Blake’s puzzled expression, Gan realised he had some explaining to do, especially as he was attired in the same style of clothing as the Wani.
“What happened…?” Blake asked.
“A plan that went better than any of us could have imagined.”
“It must have been some plan!”
“It was,” Gan smiled.
As they walked along the path, Gan related to Blake the events of the last several hours until they reached a dull white building nestled in the trees.
Coming out to greet them was a man who Gan explained was the medic who had been instrumental in freeing Avon from both the ‘cell’ and the drug so hastily administered by Kran.
“And you are Blake.”
“I don’t believe we have been introduced.”
“Avon was most precise in his description.”
“Really,” Blake said, wondering just how Avon had described him, “Gan informs me that Avon doesn’t want to see anyone.”
“He didn’t, but I think he has had time to recover.”
“Recover? From what?”
“Let me show you.”
Blake walked around the innocuous looking box now resting on the floor in one of the rooms off the long corridor. The lid was off and he could see the inside, luxuriously upholstered, with a built in life support. Yet it still made Blake shudder.
“Normally,” the doctor began, “the patient is placed fully conscious in here and is completely aware of what is happening, but in Avon’s case, he was subjected to a powerful sedative, hastily administered by an inexperienced hand….”
“…indeed. The effect can at best be described as being similar to an old primordial fear; that of being buried alive.”
Gan shivered, “If only I’d known.”
“Don’t blame yourself, Gan.” Blake said, “There was nothing you could have done. Where exactly is Avon?”
“I can take you to him,” the doctor said, “But as Gan may have informed you, your friend was most adamant. He did not wish to see anyone.”
“Oh, I think you’ll find that he will want to see me, especially as I’m about to inform him that we are leaving soon,” Blake smiled, “There is no way that he would let me leave and take the Liberator. That is something very close to his heart.”
It was a cool breeze, just enough to take the edge off the heat.
Avon stared out at the vast expanse of golden brown earth, slashed through by a deep, meandering canyon. The steep sides swooped down to a boulder filled basin through which a shallow river gently made its way to a distant destination.
Avon stared down at the sheer cliff face immediately in front of him. Layer upon layer of untold history, kept for all time as a permanent record of all that this planet had gone through, or so it seemed. He smiled inwardly and gently tapped the device in his hand; it had proved most enlightening.
Then a new sound reached him, the soft crunch of rock beneath a solid boot, coming towards him. He didn’t need to turn round to see who it was.
“You are a difficult man to find, Avon.”
Avon didn’t turn to face him, “But not difficult enough for you, so it seems.”
Blake drew alongside him and stared out at the scene laid before them, “It’s beautiful.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Do you think Earth was ever like this?”
Blake made to move forward to see more of the deep canyon.
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” Avon warned, “The geology here is somewhat temperamental.”
“It’s not the geology I’m worried about,” Blake replied, favouring Avon with a knowing smile.
Avon chose to ignore that pointed remark; it was just another ploy by Blake to find a chink in Avon’s personal ‘armour’.
“Has it ever crossed your mind that there appears to be an inordinate number of Earth-like planets?”
“Not until now,” Blake replied, getting the distinct feeling that he was about to get a lecture on the subject.
“This device had proved most illuminating,” Avon said, holding the small screen up.
“In what way?”
“It is an interface and has allowed me to access to all the archives of these people.”
“Don’t tell me the ability to understand the written language of the Wani is another of your hidden talents?”
Avon this time deigned to look at him, “No, it is not, but their superior technology allows me that ability.”
“Yes, I’ve discovered quite a bit about their superior technology,” Blake admitted.
“It would appear,” Avon continued unfazed, “that these so called ‘Gatherers’ were once known by another name; a name that is faintly recalled in the nomenclature by which they refer to themselves.”
“The Wani,” Blake said, knowing full well that Avon would be slightly annoyed that his lecture had been rudely interrupted.
Avon was staring at him, with the look of a teacher whose lesson had been abruptly halted.
“These people,” Avon began, determined to enlighten Blake, “were once called ‘The Wanderers’. But that title has been lost to this generation of Wani, it was so long ago…”
“Hundreds of years I suppose.”
“Try thousands of years.”
“Thousands!” Blake repeated.
“Indeed. The ancestors of the present Wani roamed the galaxy for the exact reasons that they do now; looking for rare metals, precious minerals and the like.”
“Thousands,” Blake whispered.
“And they chanced upon a small, blue planet, the third of many others, orbiting a yellow sun….”
“So it would seem. But then they found that this third planet had an indigenous population. One that had only just discovered agriculture. Unfortunately, the Wani were seen by some of the inhabitants and left, so as not to interfere with the evolution of this planet.
“But, what they had seen of that planet, made them want to create something as beautiful. And so, at their next planet fall, that’s what they did...”
“Exactly, just as this planet is.”
“So those planets that the Federation keep colonising are the result of the Wani and their incessant wanderings.”
“Most of them; others that we have found were once visited by the Wani, but their native populations have evolved and developed….”
“And completely destroyed themselves….”
“Yes, an example being that of Sinofar.”
“But surely, there would have been records of the Wani visiting Earth?”
“Oh, I expect there were, but I can imagine that with the advent of the Federation all those records would have been lost or destroyed; even a physical memory would have been forgotten by that time”
Blake was thoughtful, “So the ancestors of these people came to Earth over a thousand years ago...”
“Possibly tens of thousands.”
“And you have the records in your hand….”
“…unfortunately, this is just an access point. Once the Wani leave then this is useless; just another ancient artefact with no visible purpose.”
“Any idea where their wanderings will take them this time?”
“Somehow, I don’t think we will be party to that information; but it will be a long way from here and a long way from the Federation.”
“That won’t please the Federation. As it is, whoever planned that reception committee from which you and Gan escaped, will be quite livid.”
“A reception committee?”
“Of course, you don’t know about that. We stumbled across a hostile takeover; well for you it was certainly hostile. Someone in the Federation decided to dispense with the middle man and take over the ‘Gatherers’ role. But there was one thing they couldn’t have foreseen, the fact that the Gatherers ‘catch’ so to speak, is completely depleted. There are no precious metals or minerals; the cupboard is bare. And the Wani are about to leave for pastures new. Oh eventually they will reopen business with the Federation….but not too soon.”
“Why do you suspect the Federation?”
“That fleet was well armed and well fitted out; no private company could have done it. At least that is what they wanted everyone to think.”
“And who in the Federation would have risked that?”
“It could have been anyone in the upper echelons who wanted to, shall we say, milk the system. Corruption is a way of life for them; anything to make money out of the very system that supports them…..Now, the good doctor is under the illusion that you may want to stay here.”
“And allow you to take the Liberator? You are very much mistaken.”
“I told him that.”
Avon was thoughtful for a moment, returning to look out at the panorama before him, “I presume Kran has been taken care of?”
“Cally,” Blake replied, likewise taking in the view.
Avon nodded, an ironic smile dancing across his features.
“By the way,” Blake began, “you owe Gan a thank you. If it hadn’t been for him and his quick actions you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation. He took a big risk getting to you.”
“And you, no doubt, would have done the same thing, in his position.”
Blake was silent for a moment, as if mulling over the consequences should that predicament have arisen.
It was a long silence; its intended meaning not lost on Avon.
Both men stood quite still, staring out into the distance. Although both would refute any notion of friendship, that very concept would have been an anathema to them, they did, perhaps, share a grudging respect. Both knew, however, that should the other ever face danger, then that tacit understanding would override all else.
“Which brings me to you,” Blake began.
“Me,” Avon said, quite flatly.
“The doctor told me what Kran had done and how…..”
“That was most kind of him...what ever happened to patient confidentiality?”
“Avon, what you went through….”
“…Is my business and mine alone.”
“All right.” Blake’s tone was one of conciliation. He knew that Avon was a very private man, not prone to discussing his feelings …with anyone. “The others would like to spend a few hours here…in fact Commander Trega insisted. But I suppose you’ve had all the rest you need.”
“But at least you placated the Wani.”
Avon looked at him, puzzled.
“Their ancient code of colour. It has its merits; at least we would know when not to bother you. Ready?”
Blake handed over a teleport bracelet to a still bemused Avon who was, again, looking at his new mode of attire.
“It does have its merits…but it is totally impractical.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Blake said, reaching for the comms on his bracelet, “It makes you more human. Two to come up, Jenna.”
Senna had sought the sanctuary of his quarters.
Questions were being asked.
And he had no answers….for any of them.
When he had first mooted this proposition to take control of gathering all the free circulating residues from dying stars, super novae and star rebirths, it had seemed so simple. No more having to rely on the outmoded, legendary ‘Gatherers’; but creating a new, slick fleet of ships capable of finding every last particle and then selling it, at a price of course, direct to the Federation.
He had found the Federation most amenable to his idea; they had become tired of being reliant on such an old concept, despite the fact that this concept was always able to supply every one of their needs on a regular basis.
But Senna had seen a chance, and he had managed to persuade many others to join him; including the woman who was his greatest benefactor. She had offered him a sizable investment with the proviso that she remain anonymous, her identity unknown, and now he was about to speak to her, once again through a voice only channel.
Senna swallowed. This was the moment he had been dreading.
How would she take the news that her investment, which had promised so much, was now nothing but a complete failure?
Second Officer Treece was waiting patiently in the courtyard; a high stone walled enclosure surrounding a mature garden filled with trees and flowers of every variety and at its centre a large pool of water with a cascading fountain.
He looked up as the sound of footfalls reached his ears.
It was Jenna, accompanied by Cally. Both were smiling; obviously finding this planet, his home, to their liking.
“You were able to locate us then?” Treece asked.
“Your directions were very precise,” Jenna replied, “Although I would be interested in to know about your drive system.”
“A trade secret I’m afraid, just as I cannot tell you exactly where we are relocating to.”
“So, you are leaving then?” Cally asked.
“We have no other option. As Blake has said, whoever was behind this takeover will not be pleased. They may want recompense. Needless to say, we will be far away, out of their reach soon.”
“This structure, it is not like the others. It seems more permanent.”
“It is. When we leave, this and others like it, will be all that is left to show that a civilisation was here, until it is reclaimed by nature. That is how it has been for so long now; our ships are our homes….cities even.”
“When will you leave?”
“Soon, but you and your friends are most welcome to stay here for as long as you like.”
“Thank you,” Cally said, sensing that Treece wanted to speak to Jenna. She made her excuses and continued on her way to explore the surrounding gardens.
“You would be more than welcome to join us, Jenna,” he said as soon as Cally was out of earshot.
“It’s very tempting, but I can’t leave Blake. He needs me. He needs all of us, but he won’t admit it.”
“He is a man with a mission. That must be very exciting at times?”
“Exciting and dangerous. At any other time I would have accepted your offer, but I can’t let him down, it would be as if I were betraying him.”
“I wonder if he realises the depth of your affection.”
Jenna visibly blushed, “I sometimes wonder that myself.”
“Perhaps I could help in that matter. Would he feel betrayed if I asked you to stay a little longer so that I can personally show you around…?”
“A guided tour?”
“If you like, and then maybe you could tell me a little more about you, your colleagues….purely so I will know how to deal with any other people from Earth I may encounter, you understand.”
Jenna smiled, “As long as you can tell me about your people. I’m intrigued by this code of yours. After all, it was that code that got Avon into a lot of trouble.”
“Perhaps I could remedy that, and maybe assist you?” Treece said, returning her smile.
“This could take some time.”
An elegant finger stabbed at the communications console, cutting off the babbling Senna in mid flow. His excuses and his apologies failed to impress her. Even his claim that all was not lost if only he could have more finance failed to calm her growing anger.
It was just as well that she had decided that anonymity was the best course. Her money had been lost and her hope of syphoning off more Federation funds via this enterprise has gone up in smoke.
And all because of Blake.
Did he have any idea that his untimely arrival in the midst of an unfortunate accident concerning the ‘Gatherers’ would cause her so much anguish?
He wouldn’t know; he mustn’t ever know.
She opened up the file on her computer screen and pressed delete.
Within moments all connection to her and the failure of Senna’s fleet had been eradicated.
She leant back in her sumptuous chair, studying her reflection on the computer monitor screen. There would be other chances; other schemes. In fact, she had already been made aware of something that seemed most promising. She smiled.
Supreme Commander Servalan knew from experience not to dwell on failure.
Avon’s quiet perusal of the hand held device so kindly given to him by the Wani doctor was disrupted by Vila walking onto the Flight Deck of the Liberator and slumping down, heavily, onto the opposite couch.
“Back already?” Avon asked, not looking up.
“They’ve all gone. Flown away…just like that,” Vila moaned.
“I know…” Avon said quietly.
“Do you know that every single ‘building’ down there was a ship?”
“I had considered that possibility.”
“….and they’ve left. The whole planet is empty; well apart from the wildlife down there….”
“….and let me guess. You were expecting something far more interesting than the remaining wildlife?”
“Well….yes,” Vila admitted. He studied the man opposite him, now attired in his usual choice of dark colours. Somehow, it seemed more reassuring to Vila, to see this reticent, distant man dressed in his more sombre clothes instead of a very unsettling bright, garish garb.
“You became bored.” It was a statement rather than a question. Avon was fully aware of how Vila liked to spend his recreation; and watching assorted wildlife was not it.
“You know me, Avon? Never one to just sit around. Is that….thing still working?”
“No, not any more. The connection was broken once the last ship went out of range. It’s just a useless piece of junk.”
“Couldn’t you download all the information to Zen? That would have kept you occupied for ages.”
Avon shook his head, “Encrypted. I presume the others are making the most of this unexpected break?”
Vila nodded and reached forward to take the device from Avon’s hand, “Shame really, still, I bet if you put your mind to it you could turn this is to something useful. Look at it as a challenge.”
“Look at what as a challenge?” It was Blake, followed by the others. All of whom appeared to be relaxed and refreshed after their all too brief sojourn.
“This little device they gave him.”
Jenna and Cally were exchanging a conspiratorial look that worried Avon.
“Those ‘Gatherers’ are so generous,” Cally smiled.
“Especially Second Officer Treece,” Jenna continued, “I told him so much about you, Avon.”
“And apparently, he insisted,” Gan enjoined.
“Insisted on what?” Avon asked, looking from one to other.
“He didn’t want you to be left out,” Blake informed him, obviously enjoying Avon’s predicament.
Vila had folded his arms by now and was grinning quite broadly.
“I really do not have time for all this, especially as Blake is, no doubt, already planning his next move.”
“Maybe all of you spent far too long down there and it’s gone to your head.”
Jenna leant on the back of the couch and slowly opened her hand. In it was an arm band, just like the ones given to her and the others when they had first boarded the ‘Gatherers’’ Mother ship, except this one was azure blue.
“Second Officer Treece suggested that you could wear it when you wanted to be left alone…”
“…did he?” Avon said, eyeing the arm band with distaste.
“…although we did tell him that could mean that you would wear it permanently,” Cally smiled.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Vila put in.
“It would certainly make life easier for us,” Gan added.
“Really? Well now, seeing as you are all so pleased with yourselves, perhaps I should accept this….if only to prevent any of you interrupting me, as you all so often do.”
Blake was secretly enjoying this moment, “Why don’t you try it out for size?”
“Yes, “Avon replied, standing and taking the arm band from Jenna’s outstretched hand, “Why don’t I do that? Perhaps these Wani may have the right idea. I will let you know.”
With that he began to make his way to the Flight Deck exit and his cabin only to stop as Blake spoke.
“You will give us your comments, won’t you Avon?”
“You need not worry about that. You will be the first to know.”
“Yes,” Blake murmured as Avon left, “I expect I will be.” He turned to Jenna, “I’m going to check on the repairs. It may take a while, so when you’re ready maybe you would like to take Liberator out?”
“Any particular course?”
“One that doesn’t mean getting involved in any other hostile takeovers,” Blake replied, “At least, for the moment.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” Vila moaned.
“Well, you could have stayed on Casta,” Cally pointed out.
“Somehow, I don’t think Vila would have found the company exhilarating enough,” Gan stated.
“But we can come back here, can’t we? I mean, fighting the Federation is all well and good….”
“He does have a point, Blake,” Jenna began, “Besides, a change of scenery, once in a while, would do us all good. I found it most diverting.”
Blake cleared his throat, trying to ignore the playful smile being directed at him, “As I said, when you’re ready Jenna, take Liberator out.”
He hadn’t noticed.
Treece had made her a gift of a beautiful lilac coloured top, and he hadn’t noticed. Perhaps Blake had forgotten about the colour code so carefully explained to him by Commander Trega. Either that or he was deliberately ignoring the meaning of that particular colour.
“I will,” Jenna said, somewhat downhearted.
Blake seemed genuinely puzzled by her tone, but none the less, turned on his heel and left to check on repairs that he knew were to Zen’s exacting standards.
“Well,” Jenna said quietly, “Maybe this isn’t my colour after all. Maybe Orange would be more in keeping.”
“Why?” Gan asked.
“Because according to Treece that is the colour for someone who considers themselves unlucky; obviously this colour didn’t send the right message.”
“That colour?” Gan murmured, realisation dawning upon him as it occurred to him that he, too, was outfitted in the very same colour. The well-meaning Wani had provided him with another outfit to replace the ill-fitting overalls, which were given to him while his own clothes were being cleaned. “That explains a lot,” he said, finally understanding why he had been the centre of attraction for a while, “I think I’ll just go to my cabin……”
Vila smiled as both Jenna and Gan made their excuses and returned to their respective quarters. It was a self-satisfied smile that made Cally just a little suspicious.
“You seemed very pleased with yourself.”
“Do I?” Vila replied, his apparent attempt at innocence not fooling Cally one iota.
“Yes, you do.”
“While I was down there, I asked a few questions. You know, this colour code of the Wani is very, very useful….”
“Saves a lot of trouble. You know exactly where you stand.”
Cally didn’t seemed convinced at all.
“In fact, they were most helpful. They gave me a whole spectrum of those bands; one for every occasion.” As he spoke he withdrew a handful of bands, one each of every colour, “For instance, I could put on this lilac one…”
Cally’s look persuaded him that that wouldn’t be a good idea.
“….okay, maybe not that one. But ……”
“Vila, once Blake is satisfied that the auto-repairs have completed their task, then he will want to move out. So why don’t you take the opportunity to spend a few quiet hours in your cabin?”
“I’ll take first watch.”
She watched him leave, then asked Zen to lower the lights to a soft, gentle glow. She allowed her eyes to wander over the Liberator’s Flight Deck, so unlike the Wani Mother Ship, yet she still felt at home here; on a ship of disparate individuals all drawn together by one man.
Her eyes came to rest on the view screen. Framed upon it was the planet once inhabited by the ancient race known as the Gatherers, now abandoned to its fate.
Space seemed emptier now.
Gone were the celestial trawlers, their glistening nets furled and waiting to be cast in new and plentiful grounds. Another thing of beauty had been banished by the tyranny and greed that was the Federation.
Its avarice knew no bounds; it took what it wanted and would not be swayed against such actions.
Cally sighed and then reached for the discarded device. Through it, Avon had been privy to the history of the Gatherers; a history that would again disappear into the mists of time; to be forgotten.
Cally wondered if that was the fate that awaited her, the Liberator, its crew and Blake.
A footnote in history; obliterated by the might of an all-encompassing juggernaut.
© 2013 LaraSue-Lectori Salutem