INTERFACE

by Sue Little and Larasati Widara

A Series 1 Blake's 7 story set between "The Web" and "Seek-Locate-Destroy"

Chapter 1

“Carcanet, Spherule, the Sixth.”

Kirin Traben’s fingers rapidly touched the small keyboard of the portable communicator. She quickly reread the brief, cryptic message and then added, “Priority message to Bartolomew. End.”

With a contented smile she pushed the “send” button. Her message would be coded automatically and sent to a destination unknown to her.

For a brief moment, Kirin wondered who, and where, this Bartolomew was, but then put her concerns aside. Smiling inwardly, she turned to the small mirror and began to make herself presentable.

Jenna had finished her make-up and rearranged her blonde curls. Fortunately, her cabin had a mirror.

Unlike Cally’s.

“Why should the Alien have one?” Jenna thought. She didn’t know why, but having the Auron aboard was unnerving to say the least. As she considered her feelings, Jenna allowed her left hand to run softly across the links of her necklace.

They had left her two things of value.

Most probably because in their opinion the jewellery she had was worthless. But to Jenna both items were beyond price.

She took another look at herself in the mirror. She wanted to go to the Flight Deck, the place she felt most at home in, but the prospect of who else might be there troubled her.

Blake was alone.

He was sitting on one of the forward couches of the Liberator’s Flight Deck, in the strange half-light afforded by the subdued illumination. Despite being the product of a mysterious, alien civilisation, Zen had settled the Liberator into an Earth- based twenty- four hour cycle and now it was night time. Everyone else was asleep, tired after their first encounter with beings completely unlike anything they could have possibly imagined.

It still troubled Blake though.

The deaths of Geela and Novara, at the hands of the Decimas.

He could still hear the primal screams and still see how the small creatures had repaid their tormentors. To what they had subjected Saymon, the being who was the external expression of the six minds of the Auronar, was not difficult to imagine. And it made Blake realise just what he would have to face out here in the Galaxy.

It was not a pleasant prospect.

But there was a more pressing need now. Blake had the most powerful ship at his disposal and yet he was finding it difficult to go anywhere.

If it wasn’t the Federation Pursuit ships trailing him, then it was someone else with means and methods totally beyond his understanding or comprehension.

He had no doubt that Avon was fully conversant with everything that had happened so far, and if he wasn’t, then he would be rectifying that shortcoming within the near future.

Blake drew in a deep breath. If only he could find a safe haven; a place to run, when the Federation decided to resume their pursuit. Somewhere which wouldn’t bring him into contact with the unknown.

He looked at Zen’s pulsating globe, “Zen. Flight status?”

+ Liberator is clear of the planet and in flight to an as yet to be defined destination. +

In other words, even Zen had no idea where they were going.

“Zen, take us into orbit above the nearest planet. Hold at 1000 spacials.”

+Confirmed. +

Blake felt a sudden rush of tiredness. He gazed at Zen, its lights pulsating with a gentle rhythm. Zen never slept. Sleeping could compromise the whole of the ship. Blake suddenly found himself envious of the faceless computer which governed their reality. And as he watched its lights, he felt himself drift into that strange, half way region between consciousness and sleep.

It was an indistinct sound, but it encroached into his subconscious enough to make him stir from his somewhat rambling dream.

Blake opened his eyes. He blinked and then his vision came into sharp focus.

Avon.

Sitting opposite him.

And smiling.

No, thought Blake, not a smile as such, but that contemptuous expression that was guaranteed to irk him. Blake wasn’t in the mood for rising to the challenge though.

“How long…?” Blake mumbled.

“Long enough.” Two words, that’s all it was, just two words, but laced with overtones of sarcasm.

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“Guilt does that.”

“Guilt?”  Blake asked, “And I suppose a little thing like guilt has never bothered you?”

“I have never had occasion to consider it. Why the question, Blake?”

“Your answer might be interesting…maybe you should consider it sometime…… Where are the others?”

“In their quarters. Maybe you should consider it too…some time.”

Blake resisted the urge to reply with some cutting remark, knowing it would be useless, “I’m going to freshen up. You don’t mind holding the fort…do you?”

Avon didn’t move as Blake got to his feet, “Is that a temporary position or were you thinking of something more permanent?”

The look they exchanged was one that chilled the air. Blake broke eye contact first and walked round behind Avon, who by now was smiling quite openly.

Blake stopped and leant on the back of the seat, “Would you like the responsibility?”

Avon considered that and waited for Blake to reach the stairs that led off to the corridor and beyond, “Maybe not now…but one day.”

“We’ll see, won’t we?” And with that parting shot, Blake ascended the stairs and made his way to the relative sanctuary of his cabin.

Jenna had watched the exchange from the other entrance to the Flight Deck, feeling it best to stay away from what was the beginning of a rather fractious alliance. Two incredibly intelligent men, each with their own agenda, and both determined to undermine the other….well, it would seem that that was Avon’s plan of attack; whether he would succeed against the sheer force of Blake’s personality and physical strength would remain to be seen.

She decided to remain where she was as Avon began to stalk the Flight Deck, commanding Zen to proceed with a thorough check of all systems. While the computer complied, Avon began his usual close study of all the instruments. Sometimes, as far as Jenna was concerned, he was somewhat overzealous in this pursuit of knowledge, as she had on one or two occasions found him surrounded by the innards of some of the instruments on Liberator, as he had delved deeper into what made this ship tick.

Jenna still had an uneasy feeling about this so called genius. He hadn’t been in the holding cell when she and Vila had first met Blake, but he had obviously been somewhere in the complex, and it was obvious that Vila knew of him or at least, about him. And after their little exchange as the ship hung above Cygnus Alpha, she felt that she had every reason not to trust him…at all.

Avon, still familiarizing himself with his command station, watched as the lights flicked on and off, marvelling at this ship, the Master Computer and the thought that if only he could……

He froze. There was that feeling again. He had only experienced it briefly once before…on the surface of Saurian Major when he had first met Cally. He could remember that peculiar gleam of her dark-brown eyes when she studied him, but it was the distinct feeling that she was inside his head that threw him that time. It had completely unsettled him. She had maintained that she couldn’t read minds, but Avon had begun to doubt that. The thought of that moment was enough to unsettle him, again, and he needed quite a few seconds to recover his composure.

He just hoped that she hadn’t noticed his second of discomfort.

“What are you doing?” Cally asked, as she came into his line of sight.

For a moment Avon hesitated before turning slightly to look at her. But then Jenna’s voice put paid to any embarrassment on his part.

“Yes, I was about to ask the same question.”

Avon had the distinct impression that the two women did not trust him; maybe they were right, but he certainly wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of knowing that.

“If you must know, I have asked Zen to run a complete and thorough check on all of Liberator’s systems. You never know what those Aliens could have damaged.”

“Yes,” Jenna countered pointedly, “You never know.”

Cally lowered her eyes. She couldn’t understand why the blonde-haired woman was being so hostile towards her. As far as Cally was concerned she posed no threat to the crew, but it was obvious that Jenna had decided that her intentions were questionable.

“Does Blake know about this systems’ check?” Jenna asked.

“Yes, he does,” replied Avon, seemingly watching the instruments on his panel, “In fact, our erstwhile Leader neglected to do so himself, so it was left to me.”

“I hope you don’t intend to make a habit of it,” Jenna informed him.

“Only if our somewhat forgetful Commander insists on disregarding the safety of this ship,” Avon responded, “But if you prefer, then please, be my guest.” As he spoke those last words, he turned to face Jenna and presented her with the most glacial look she had ever had occasion to witness…from anyone.

“As a matter of fact, I think I will. If that’s all right with you, of course?” Jenna answered, returning the look with one of equal frostiness.

Chapter 2

“Oh dear,” said Vila to no-one in particular.

“What’s wrong, Vila?”

He jumped. It was Gan, standing right behind him. How on Earth such a well-built man mountain could creep along so silently eluded Vila.

“Shh!” Vila whispered, “There’s a storm brewing and I don’t want to get caught up in it.”

“You’re exaggerating. There is a just a difference of opinion, that’s all.”

“That’s all? Jenna’s all but accused Avon of doing something underhanded…okay, he may be guilty, but you certainly don’t tell him to his face. That’s asking for trouble!”

Gan peered around the corner of the corridor. He could just see Avon, now sitting on one of the forward couches, arms folded and looking decidedly peeved.

“You sound as though you know him.”

“Look. He’s an Alpha Grade. That’s all you need to know. To make matters worse, he’s an Alpha Grade with a superiority complex….now that is nasty.”

Gan thought for a second. He remembered how Avon had spoken to him in the teleport section when attempting to put right the damage incurred while Cally had been under the influence of Saymon.

Avon had had wires all over the place, plugged into circuits, trying to speed up the process. What had he said? Gan tried to remember. Oh yes, he thought. When Avon was describing how the automatic repair system worked, ‘It’s very methodical. It starts at the beginning and works its way through. It’s slow. You should appreciate that problem.’ Avon had then pushed passed him. At the time he hadn’t realised anything was amiss; he was so used to being spoken to in that manner, that it never occurred to him that other people might take exception.

“He does have one redeeming feature though,” Vila mused.

“What’s that?” Gan asked, genuinely interested in what Vila was about to reveal.

“He has a brilliant mind….when it comes to depriving others of their accumulated wealth, he’s in a class of his own.”

~ * ~

Mr Lavaliere surveyed the scene from his imposing balcony. It seemed to stretch out in front of him; the undulating carpet of lush vegetation reaching down to the wave-kissed pale golden sand and then up to the rolling bank of grey-green hills, their summits hidden by swirling white clouds.

This was his.

All of it.

Every single blade of grass, stone; whatever was on this planet was his.

Even the planet itself.

Mr Lavaliere smiled to himself.

All this because of what he possessed.

The singular most beautiful and important item in this part of the Galaxy.

And it was his. To guard. To keep safe. Sometimes in full view, but usually well hidden from prying eyes.

Not least of all from those who did not belong to the ‘Outlaw Accord’.

The sweeping web of Outlaw bands who ‘owned’ this vast expanse of space far away from the growing expanse of the Terran Federation. It was the ‘Outlaw Accord’ who had had this marvellous item crafted, by their own research scientists. And it was Mr Lavaliere who had been chosen to keep it. An eccentric on his own planet, with its sprawling gardens, its magnificent mansion and his own priceless collections, jealously guarded. Because he knew that should anything happen to it, then his life would be at an end.

Soon, it would be time to reveal it. To once again put it on show; to receive their allegiance; to affirm the unity of the ‘Outlaw Accord’.

But first, arrangements had to be made.

The first invitations had already gone out. Soon those gardens and this house would be filled with his guests.

Soon they would come to see the Carcanet.

On Spherule.

On the Sixth.

Chapter 3

Kirin Treban slowly made her way along the brown-walled corridor towards the ship’s Flight Deck. It didn’t worry her that every single man was watching the flow of her dress, or the way her thigh suddenly became visible as she stepped over each bulkhead division.

No, she had no fear in that quarter.

No, she was out of bounds to these lower ranks and they knew it. One touch, and they would be sent to their deaths out of the nearest airlock.

They knew that.

And she revelled in it.

She had already seen that punishment meted out to one man. One man who had dared to question his Leader’s wisdom in bringing her aboard.

He had touched her.

Grabbed her arm and savagely denounced her as a spy.

But the Leader had stood his ground.

And that man had paid with his life. She had watched as he had begged for forgiveness, pleaded for his life. All to no avail, as the Leader, completely in the thrall of her had pressed the button. The button that had opened the outer door and sent the man, still screaming, to his death.

Kirin had no qualms about sending men to their deaths. On the contrary, she found it one of the more exhilarating parts of her dangerous role. She had lost count of the number of them that had become beguiled by her charms and then failed to see what she was in reality.

That man had been right to question his leader’s sanity.

For that reality gave Kirin a feeling of power.

And she basked in it; the sheer pleasure coursed through her very being.

Her entry onto the Flight Deck was noted by everyone there, including the woman who had once been at his side. She quickly turned away for fear of Kirin pointing out to him that she had looked at her disrespectfully.

But Kirin didn’t mind. She had the Leader under her spell and that was more important to her than the nervous glare of a scorned woman.

“My Lord,” Kirin purred offering her hand to the man who called himself the Leader, but whose name could instil fear in those who surrounded him. Golsher. He smiled a knowing smile and then took the proffered hand and held it.

“Kirin. Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“As promised, we are on course to Spherule. There you will see that which we Outlaws hold dear. And then….”

“My Lord,” Kirin sighed softly, “Then we can conclude our business…as promised.”

Golsher smiled in expectation, “Of that you can be sure.”

~ * ~

Blake found Vila and Gan still standing out in the corridor. Both had decided not to risk entering, for fear of the derisory comments that would be hurled at them.

“Why are you out here? Is there a problem?”

“Not as such,” replied Vila.

“Vila’s a bit worried about the atmosphere on the Flight Deck,” Gan offered.

“What atmosphere?” Blake asked.

“Avon,” Vila answered.

Blake’s shoulders dropped, “All I asked him to do was….”

“Well, someone’s upset him,” Gan pointed out, once more risking a glance round the corner. Only this time he found himself staring into a pair of very cold, dark eyes.

Avon was standing at the entrance to the Flight Deck, arms still folded, “Do you intend to stay out there or come in here and take up space? Not that I mind…the less the merrier.”

“You know,” Vila began, “I would say that he has got that wrong…except I know that he hasn’t.”

Blake shook his head, then marched past Gan and Vila, straight into the lion’s den.

“Zen. Systems status.”

+All systems are at optimum status. +

“Thank you, Zen.”

“Course please, Blake,” Jenna asked.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Blake confessed. Even the brief sojourn in his quarters hadn’t made anything clearer.

“Oh, marvellous,” Avon said pointedly.

“Well, of course, if you have any ideas then please feel free to share them with us,” Blake retorted. He stood stock still, daring Avon to come back with some cutting riposte.

It didn’t come.

Avon wouldn’t admit defeat, but just sat down and fixed his eyes on Blake. That unnerving stare that would most probably have sent other men scurrying for cover. It didn’t faze Blake at all. He didn’t blink as he said,

“Well, maybe Cally has a suggestion?”

Cally didn’t want to reply. She knew that Jenna was watching, just waiting to make another comment.

It was Avon who broke the impasse. Maybe it was because he had seen the hesitancy in her face. Whatever it was, Avon suddenly found himself saying,

“Why don’t we ask Zen? Seeing as this is supposed to be a democracy!”

“Zen?” replied Blake in disbelief, “What would he know?”

“Zen is a computer,” Avon said brusquely, turning his attention to the pulsating globe that dominated the Flight Deck, “Zen.”

In response, the Master Computer burst into life and a deep voice echoed round the Flight Deck,

+Such information is dependent on that which is already known. It is therefore suggested that all enquiries be directed to Jenna Stannis. +

Chapter 4

All eyes were fixed on Jenna.

She looked from one to the other, unable to answer their unspoken questions.

“Zen,” Blake began, “Why Jenna?”

“Yes,” said Avon accusingly, “I think we would all like to know that.”

“Jenna, we are not accusing you of anything…..”

“Yet……”

“……..Well, Zen?”

+The information can be provided by Jenna Stannis. +

“Jenna?”

She shook her head. It was obvious that she had no idea what Zen was inferring.

Blake turned his attention to the computer again, “Zen, specify.”

+Required data can be provided by Jenna Stannis. +

“This is getting us nowhere,” Blake murmured.

Gan was up at his station by now, “Well, I think we ought to be going nowhere fast. Long range scanners have detected three Federation Pursuits ships. It won’t be long before they pick us up.”

“Perhaps Jenna cannot remember because she doesn’t think it is important enough to remember,” Cally ventured.

Blake was confounded now; was everyone starting to talk in riddles?

Avon suddenly sat up, “Jenna, when we first boarded this ship, it was you whom Zen chose to make contact through. It was from your mind that the Liberator became the Liberator.”

“So?” Jenna asked.

“So, Zen accessed your mind, your memories.”

“I still don’t…” Jenna’s hand suddenly went to her necklace. “Unless he means…this.”

“A necklace?” Blake asked, “What on Earth can a necklace have to do with us finding a safe place to run.”

“It was given to me by….by a group of people who were grateful.”

“Grateful for what?”

“I ran some contraband through a blockade to one of their people. It helped to secure their standing.”

“What people?” Blake demanded.

“Outlaws.”

“Outlaws?” Blake repeated in disbelief.

Vila stepped forward, “You told me that you were a Free Trader. You didn’t mention Outlaws.”

“Outlaws, Free Traders, Smugglers,” Avon said out loud, “They are all the same, whatever their name.”

“We can discuss the finer points of that later,” Blake put in, “Right now, Jenna, it would appear that you know which route we can take…”

“And quickly…”Gan urged.

Later, with the pursuit ships far behind, the questions about Jenna’s dubious past were waiting to be answered.

She quickly undid the necklace and dropped it into Blake’s outstretched hand.

“……And you’re saying that this necklace can be used to access all the information about Free Corridors in Space through which these ‘Outlaws’ can pass safely and without hindrance?”

“Only the areas controlled by the ‘Outlaw Accord’,” Jenna explained in response to Blake’s question, “It’s basically the regions of Space beyond the Federation’s rule.”

“Which is quite a lot I’d say,” Vila ventured.

“Not for much longer, if the Federation continue their expansion,” Avon said, “May I look at this necklace?”

Blake passed it over to him and watched as Avon studied the plain linked necklace, turning it over in his hands and squinting at it.

“Well?” Blake asked.

“This is unlike anything that I have ever seen. Basically, this is, I would say, an external storage device. But what it connects to is beyond me.”

“The Carcanet,” Jenna explained, “it’s a necklace of gemstones; each one is a memory crystal.”

Suddenly, Vila’s interest was aroused, “A necklace? Gemstones? Where?”

“It is kept on the planet Spherule.”

“Well, let’s go and get it!”

“It’s not that simple, Vila,” Jenna smiled.

“It never is….”

“Let us be the judge of that,” Blake said, “Well, Jenna, where is this Spherule and why isn’t it simple just to go and get it?”

Jenna sighed and took back the necklace from Avon’s hand, “Because Mr Lavaliere wouldn’t like it.”

“Mr Lavaliere?” Cally asked.

“A man you cross at your peril.”

~ * ~

Mr Lavaliere walked slowly through the tiers of seats which surrounded the raised stage. Everything was in order. Soon his ‘guests’ would arrive and he would have to endure all the coarseness that they would bring with them.

But it was worth it, for amongst those guests would be customers for the latest weapons that the ‘Outlaw Accord’ had developed and of course, there would be the well-to-do ladies, the ones who had enough money to rise above the yoke of the Federation’s bleakness and not share the dire unrelenting drabness.

For Mr Lavaliere such dreariness was an anathema; he loved beauty and he revelled in the fact that he could surround himself with everything that that entailed….and not just objects…but people. And they were not only here, but also in the expansive building which he referred to as his palace, as well as out in the surrounding gardens, in small units where his guests could stay and be waited on.

These people were here to serve his guests and to serve him. The most attractive ones were confined to his own quarters, and they were kept for his use and his use alone. Those that displeased him, or suddenly lost their allure, were disposed of with an ease that made sure these people did everything possible to keep him content.

Mr Lavaliere snapped his fingers and an acolyte rushed to his side.

“Sir?”

“You were late by seconds…”

“My apologies….sir.” She looked at him, afraid of what she might see in his face.

He returned the look. She was only a young girl. Brought here as payment for a debt unpaid. But she was pretty enough…until the next consignment arrived.

“Fresh flowers…I want fresh flowers throughout this room. See to it.”

“Sir?....”

“If you do not understand my request then find one who can assist you. But make sure the request is fulfilled…if you value your life.”

She curtsied and quickly left to find someone who could help her find these flowers, because she had no idea what such things were.

Mr Lavaliere watched her go. He laughed. Such fear, but it boosted his ego. Now, though, was not the time to think on such things. His guests were arriving soon and he would need to greet them, but first, he had to dress for the occasion.

Taking one last look around, he slowly walked towards the open doors and made his way to his palace.

~ * ~

For Kirin, the arrival at Spherule could not come fast enough. Golsher had, as agreed, kept his distance, but it was obvious that her presence was trying his patience. She had made a promise to him, but the thought that she would have to keep that promise once she had been allowed to see the much vaunted Carcanet was beginning to prey on her mind.

“My Lord,” she quietly murmured, feigning tiredness, “Perhaps I should retire to my quarters. If I am to grace your arm when you introduce me to Mr Lavaliere, then I will need to ensure that when he sees me with you, then he will at last realise that you are indeed a most impressive warrior and leader of men.”

“My dear Kirin, once he sees you then he will be filled envy and jealousy. And why, because I have you and he does not. For once, I will show him that I am a better man.”

“Indeed, my Lord, you will.”

She took his hand and placed it squarely over her heart. She could feel his pulse rate quicken. If there was one thing that Kirin enjoyed, it was toying with a man’s natural desires. But she knew that she had to be careful; Golsher could very easily find another who was not only beautiful to behold, but who would fulfil his desires…without prerequisites.

Kirin took her leave and slowly walked back to her cramped quarters. There she could shut out not just the rest of the ship, but also the other men who were waiting for their glorious Leader to cast her aside, as he had cast aside Ilva a month before. Kirin shuddered when she recalled what had happened to her predecessor, but she was determined that that fate would not be hers.

No, Golsher was but a stepping stone to greater things…to greater men; and Mr Lavaliere was her prize, because with him under her spell, there were no limits to what she could exhort from both him and the unknown, but equally powerful Bartolomew.

Chapter 5

“What exactly is this ‘Outlaw Accord’?” Blake asked.

Jenna took a sip of her drink. The others were sitting on the forward couches listening intently to her explanation.

“They are groups of Outlaws who have joined together to protect themselves from the might of the Federation. They literally rule the space beyond the reach of the Federation. They have weapon development facilities, technology research facilities. Not all in the same place, but scattered around various planets and Mr Lavaliere is their spokesman, so to speak. He has the Carcanet under his protection and there are set times when the Carcanet is brought out for show, usually when the ‘Outlaw Accord’ come together to pledge their loyalty.”

“And if they don’t come together to pledge their loyalty?” Avon asked.

“Well, it is kept under lock and key. Away from prying eyes…and Mr Lavaliere does not like people dropping in on him uninvited.”

“He’s just one man,” Blake began, “We need that necklace. It could make a difference to us.”

“Mr Lavaliere won’t see it that way.”

“This Mr Lavaliere,” Cally put in, “he must be a special person. Maybe we could offer him something by way of trade?”

Vila didn’t like the way the conversation was going, “You don’t mean what’s in Liberator’s cargo hold, do you?”

Cally smiled at him, a hint of mischievousness in her eyes.

Jenna shook her head, “There is nothing in the entire Galaxy that would make him part with it. Without it, he is a good as dead. The ‘Outlaw Accord’ have entrusted it to him, on pain of death.”

“All right then we take it by force,” Blake suggested.

“Yes, there is always that recourse and, if I may say so, it is not very original,” Avon conceded, “Apart from having the Federation after us, we would also have every single outlaw group determined to join the chase. What happened to your sense of subtlety?”

“All right then, what do you suggest?”

“Jenna, this Mr Lavaliere, there must be a perfectly legitimate reason for paying him a visit. One that wouldn’t arouse his suspicions.”

“Well, apart from being an illegal arms supplier there is something that he is well known for. Every well-dressed woman in the Federation’s highest echelons goes to him for one reason.”

“And why is that?” Gan asked.

Jenna sipped her drink again, “His is the most exclusive Fashion House in this part of the Galaxy.”

Cally and Jenna exchanged looks of amusement as the four men sitting with them all choked on their drinks.

~ * ~

In the cramped crew quarters aboard Golsher’s ship, a small group gathered round the displaced woman, Ilva. She had adorned Golsher’s arm on the many occasions that he had taken his ship and his men to Spherule. Ilva had delighted in being chosen as Golsher’s woman; had adored walking into the main hall with the Carcanet draped exquisitely around her neck and had enjoyed all the attention paid to her.

But then she had arrived.

One day, totally unannounced, while Golsher’s men were ‘resting’ after one of their raids on a Federation outpost, this woman, Kirin, had suddenly walked into the midst of the celebrations on the outer world spaceport and Golsher had decided to take her for himself. There had been no argument or refusal. In a few moments, Ilva had found herself supplanted by this woman, who seemed to exert a strange power over her former leader.

Ilva had now found herself without protection.

And that fear and pain had burned itself into her soul.

Ilva knew that it was unwise to plot on the ship. There were many who would delight in telling Golsher that his former mistress was planning to depose his new paramour.

She could wait, until they had reached Spherule. Then she would expose Kirin for what she really was.

Kirin studied the small communicator in her hand.

Still no reply from Bartolomew.

Hopefully, the message had somehow got through. But even if she didn’t receive a reply, it wouldn’t be a problem. She would continue to play out her role. She would obtain the Carcanet and then the ‘Outlaw Accord’ would have nowhere to run.

Bartolomew would be most pleased. And Kirin could expect an exceptional reward. Once again, the prospect of spending any further minutes in the company of these men seemed to be worthwhile. If only they knew how they would be repaid. How the women in their company endured the treatment meted out was beyond her comprehension. It sickened her, but out here, beyond the relative civilised expanse that was the Federation, equality didn’t exist. To survive, a lone female had to be strong and Kirin was; she had to be.

The communicator softly bleeped, drawing her attention.

She looked at the small screen as the words she had waited for scrolled across;

“Carcanet; Spherule; Sixth; Confirmed.”

Kirin smiled.

When the time came she would not be alone; these men who filled her with disgust and loathing would find that their way of life, their attitudes, would all come to an abrupt end and she would be there to witness their destruction.

Chapter 6

“It doesn’t worry you then?”

Blake looked up from his study of the forward scanner and met Avon’s questioning look.

“What doesn’t worry me?”

“The prospect of sending Jenna and Cally down to this planet Spherule to negotiate with this Lavaliere…”

“Mr Lavaliere to you; apparently he is most insistent upon that.”

“All right, Mr Lavaliere. But you haven’t answered my question.”

“Jenna says she can handle him…I’ve just spent an hour trying to persuade her otherwise. Would you like to try?”

“She won’t listen to me...”

“…I wonder why?”

Avon looked piqued, “None the less, the fact remains he is not known to you or, as a matter of fact, to me.”

“Perhaps we moved in the wrong circles.” Blake frowned, his eyes catching something of the long range forward scanners. “What do you make of that?”

Avon took over, “It looks like a small fleet of ships. Zen, maximum magnification.”

“I thought that as well. A fleet of ships, out here, orbiting this planet Spherule. Why?”

“Jenna said he was an illegal weapons dealer…”

“Amongst other things.”

Blake looked towards the Main Computer, “Zen, are you able to identify the ships orbiting the planer Spherule?”

Avon thought out loud, "Federation?”

“All the way out here? Besides, it looks like an assortment of ships to me. Well Zen?”

+The craft orbiting the planet Spherule are not Federation. +

“That’s good news…”

+They are identified as belonging to a group commonly called Outlaws. +

Blake was still staring at Avon as that piece of news sank in.

“Well, that’s that,” began Avon, “Zen, abort course…”

“Zen, disregard that last command.”

“Blake, have you taken leave of your senses? You can’t send Jenna and Cally down there.”

“Why not? Jenna’s known to this Mr Lavaliere as a Free Trader or smuggler. When she and Cally turn up in the middle of this gathering he won’t think it anything out of the ordinary.”

“But he’s not alone down there. Almost every single outlaw in the outer regions is with him.”

“So he’ll have his hands full....won’t he?”

Vila was suddenly standing in front of them, “Did you say outlaws?”

“Yes, a whole gathering,” Avon answered, “And we are letting Jenna and Cally teleport down right into their midst.”

“Oh dear,” Vila murmured, “That’s not good.”

“Why?” Blake demanded.

“Have you actually met any outlaws? I don’t mean your average Alpha Grade criminal mastermind; no offense Avon. Or someone like me, a misunderstood Delta Grade who just can’t help himself. These are hard core, violent, immoral, reprobates. They kill because they enjoy it and if they don’t like you……forget it.”

“You’ve actually met an outlaw then?” Blake asked.

“No, but I have met someone who tangled with them…he wasn’t a pretty sight.”

“Avon? I think you could be right.” Blake didn’t get a response. He turned to look at the man standing next to him, “Problem?”

“Average...”

“What?!”

“He called me average.”

~ * ~

Mr Lavaliere studied the enigmatic read out on his vis-screen. It was a space craft unlike anything he had ever seen and it was coming closer, towards Spherule. He knew every single Outlaw Craft….he had to, to stay one step ahead of those men who would kill him at a whim if they thought he had betrayed them.

Sometimes he wondered if it was worth it, the fear, but then he thought of everything he had because of that fear.

But that didn’t quell his concern of what or who was out there on that ship.

“When did that ship enter the system?” he asked the woman who was supposed to be monitoring the sensor array.

“I think about thirty minutes ago, my Lord.”

“Thirty minutes and you did not think it important enough to inform me?”

He swept his left hand over the large translucent screen which dominated one end of the room and the picture changed to another view, from another satellite.

The ship was slowing, but still no-one seemed interested in contacting him. He cast his eyes slowly over the hull; it was beautiful, so different from the battered hulks that were currently in orbit, each waiting to disgorge their crews. Mr Lavaliere sighed, with a ship that beautiful it was possible that whoever was aboard it was equally alluring.

He turned to the woman who had not seen fit to inform him of the new arrival. She had been beautiful, but now that was fading. A freshly-picked, dew-beaded rose, now wilting.

“You displease me, Rhian.”

“My Lord?” Her voice quivered. They all dreaded those words.

“You have failed me.”

“But I did not realise…”

“It is not for you to realise or consider. It is for you to tell me everything, then I can decide what is important and what isn’t. Your lack of action could upset the delicate proceedings. And that must not be allowed.”

“My Lord, please…” she pleaded.

Mr Lavaliere found it a perverse sort of pleasure when they pleaded like that, “Come here, Rhian. You know the punishment; the smallest transgression is all it takes.”

“No, my Lord. It will not happen again…”

“I know it won’t.” Mr Lavaliere’s right arm snaked out and his hand slowly curled round her neck. His jewel-bedecked fingers slowly closed and then a small cry left her. He unfurled his fingers and she slowly slumped to the floor, her eyes wide open watching as waved his other hand and another servant entered the circular room.

“Tell me, Ven, is the tide low?”

“It is receding, my Lord, as is the custom.”

“Good. Take her to the place of punishment. When the tide returns there will be ‘entertainment’ for my guests this evening.”

Ven bowed, and picked up the still form of Rhian. She couldn’t move, but she could breathe, she could see and she could feel. And that was the thing which Mr Lavaliere found most satisfying....she would still be able to feel the fear as her fate overwhelmed her.

~ * ~

Jenna knew what to expect down on Spherule. The few times that she had ventured there had been experiences that she wanted to forget.

But this time it was necessary, because this time it was vital, not just for her own sake, but also for Blake.

However, sitting in her cabin was not the way to prepare herself. She knew that Mr Lavaliere was the man to impress, because it was he who would protect her from the uncouth outlaws down there; not that she needed protecting. Jenna was fully capable of doing that herself. It’s just that it seemed to make Mr Lavaliere happy that he was providing such a service.

There came a soft knock at the door of her cabin.

“Yes?”

“May I see you please?” It was Cally.

Now what did she want?

Jenna had not been pleased when Blake had suggested that this Auron woman join them. And sure enough, almost immediately, she turned against the rest of the crew. Wrecking systems and even planting a bomb. Blake was lucky that time; Avon had managed to push him out of the way. Jenna had to admit that it hadn’t been Cally’s fault, but it still annoyed her that Blake had allowed her to stay on board.

Getting to her feet, Jenna walked to the door and opened it. She treated Cally to an ice-cold, “Well?”

“If Blake would like us to pay this Mr Lavaliere a visit, shouldn’t we have to go under a pretence? And if so, in what way?”

“I am to be the Free Trader who has brought you to Spherule to negotiate the purchase of weapons for your people. As a sign of good faith, you have come along yourself. With luck, he may even allow us to see the Carcanet.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

“Oh he will.” Jenna looked at Cally and then looked down at herself, “But not like this.”

“Why not?”

“Mr Lavaliere likes beautiful things, especially beautiful women. And I think we need to make sure that he can’t resist the two most elegant, beautiful women who are ever likely to grace his presence.”

Cally looked at her, a puzzled expression on her face, “I don’t understand.”

“I think it’s time we investigated that room down in the hold. Mr Lavaliere’s creations may be more stylish, but I’m sure we can find something just as glamorous….for both of us.”

Cally was still perplexed as Jenna took her arm and guided her towards the Liberator’s hold.

It had been quite a task, trying to steer Cally away from her idea of a fashion statement…combat fatigues. But between them, they had found two gowns that would certainly make it difficult for anyone not to notice.

Both were of a shimmering silk-satin material…Jenna couldn’t quite decide which, as the Liberator’s creators had been alien so most of what was available to them on this vast ship was totally foreign to her. But she did see that the material seemed to have a luminescent glow and seemed to change its hue as the light caught it.

Jenna sat on the edge of her bunk watching as Cally tried to move gracefully in the long gown that she had eventually selected.

It was a full length, sleeveless, strapless creation in an Olive green, almost Emerald colour. It had an embroidered bodice and was tightly gathered at the waist and ruched to one side. There was an almost indiscernible slit to enable to Cally to walk easily but even that would possibly hinder her if she and Jenna had to fight their way out; so beneath the somewhat alluring gown was a cat suit, revealed only when the long floor length skirt was removed.

Jenna had chosen a Magenta, almost Cerise coloured gown. Sleeveless and with a single jewel encrusted strap over her right shoulder, it was tightly gathered at the waist and hips, before flaring out down to floor with a myriad of small pleats. Jenna, too, had decided upon the cat suit. Maybe not so elegant, but when dealing with a man like Mr Lavaliere one could not take any chances.

 As the Auron woman paced the floor in front of her, Jenna couldn’t help but sigh and think to herself that this was going to take a few hours to perfect.

“You have to place one foot in front of the other, and straighten your back……” Jenna was saying as Cally’s heel caught the hem of the dress and she almost fell.

Jenna looked up to the cabin’s ceiling, with a distinct look of despair. This was hopeless.

But then, she suddenly saw Cally, in one smooth movement, slip a small weapon into the top of her boot.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” Jenna warned gravely, “If you want to come out of this alive you will have to forget all about your training on Auron. I know you don’t want to die alone and silent, but I have no intention, whatsoever, of joining you…. Now, let’s see what we can do with your hair.”

Cally studied her. She attempted to do something with her unruly hair, and failed. It was no good. Jenna reached inside the small cabinet in the sparsely furnished cabin and pulled out the mirror.

“Thank you,” murmured Cally.

“I take it you’ve never had occasion to ‘dress up’ so to speak?”

“No. It was never a requirement on Auron and on Saurian Major, well, we had other things on our minds.”

Jenna realised that Cally would be completely out of her depth on Spherule. She just hoped that Mr Lavaliere would be so besotted by the arrival of the two of them that he wouldn’t notice that they had ulterior motives.

“Do you think we will be able to obtain the Carcanet for Blake?” Cally was saying, “I think it would be a great help to him.”

Jenna raised an eyebrow, “Are you doing this just for him?”

“We require that necklace. All of us. This Mr Lavaliere, what is he like?”

“He’s not a likeable man. He loves women, but he treats them with utter callousness. And you do not displease him…that is his favourite accusation. I’ve never actually seen him when he metes out his punishment, but I have been told to keep him well out of reach.”

“I will remember that, Jenna.”

“He does like to wear rings and other hand decorations.”

“Maybe those rings are his weapons?”

“Well, I’ve no intention of finding out.”

Cally stood up straight. She smiled at her reflection in the mirror, “Do you think we will attract Mr Lavaliere’s attention?”

“Well, there’s one way to find out?”

“What do you mean?”

“Follow me.”

As they made their way from Jenna’s cabin, they met Gan. He stood back, an admiring grin on his face.

“Well, I’ll say one thing for the Liberator, it’s got some very pretty crew members.”

“I’m glad you approve,” Jenna smiled back.

“Of course, the real test is waiting for you on the Flight Deck.”

“Do you think they will notice?” Cally asked, knowing full well what or whom, Gan was referring to.

“Oh yes,” Gan replied, “They’ll notice. I guarantee it!”

Chapter 7

Blake was still intently studying the scanner, when he felt someone tapping his arm. He looked up to see Vila standing in front of him, but his gaze was firmly fixed towards the entrance to the Flight Deck.

“What is it, Vila?”

“You really ought to see this.”

Avon was still scrutinising the scanner as well, totally oblivious to what was attracting everyone else’s attention, “These ships are here for a reason,” he was saying.

“Yes…..”

Avon stopped what he was doing, as both Blake and Vila answered in a tone that indicated that their minds were elsewhere.

“Well?”

It was Jenna’s voice.

In response, Avon looked up and saw what had so distracted his erstwhile companions.

Standing at the top of the stairway were Jenna and Cally both resplendent in eye-catching attire. The two of them remained quite still enjoying the astonished expressions on the faces of the three men before them.

Behind them stood Gan, “I told you they would take notice,” he grinned.

Blake somehow managed to find his voice, “Jenna, you can’t go down to Spherule …like…”

“Like what?” Jenna replied.

“It’s not as simple as we thought. There appears to be whole fleet of Outlaw ships in orbit. Tell them, Avon.”

There was no response.

“Avon…”

The usually unflappable man who seemed more at home with machines appeared to be momentarily stunned. Blake looked to Vila for support, but he, too, seemed to be in the grip of some unseen force.

“Vila!” Blake said sharply.

“Hm…very nice.”

“Vila!”

“What? Oh yes. Bad idea. Outlaws…all over the place.”

“Avon!”

Avon suddenly awoke from his reverie and coughed in the hope of recovering his composure, “Yes…a foolhardy notion…”

Jenna didn’t seem at all put out. She marched over to her station and looked for herself, “It’s better than we thought. All these ships mean one thing. They are all here to affirm allegiance, which means the Carcanet will be on full display and not under lock and key!”

“…but then again,” Avon continued.

“Are you seriously expecting me to let Jenna and Cally go down to that planet in to the heart of the largest gathering of Outlaws this part of the Galaxy has ever seen?” Blake exclaimed in disbelief.

“You are addressing the wrong person,” Avon pointed out, “You need to take that up with Jenna…and Cally of course.”

“…but not this evening,” Jenna smiled back, “It’s night time down there, and judging by all the flyers and smaller ships making their way to the surface it’s the evening before the main event.”

“And what does that mean?” Vila asked.

“Mr Lavaliere likes to lay on entertainment for his guests. And neither Cally nor I intend to be part of that entertainment. We will go down tomorrow as potential customers. I’ve brought Cally to Spherule to discuss the purchase of weapons for her planet.”

“And he’ll buy that?” Blake said, still not convinced.

“Oh yes, especially when we show him what we have as payment.”

“Oh no….,” Vila murmured, thinking about the hold in the Liberator which contained all that money, jewellery and other valuables.

“And Gan and Vila will accompany us, as my servants,” Cally put in.

“Oh dear…”

“Vila,” Jenna began, “when you see exactly what Mr Lavaliere has in his collection, you’ll thank me. It’s one of the most extensive jewellery collections you’ll ever likely to see and he does so like to show it off to visitors.”

Gan nodded, “Well I’m in.”

Vila scratched his cheek, “I’ve always like extensive jewellery collections. Why not?”

“It appears to me, Blake” Avon smiled, “that you have been outvoted. Jenna, someone on Spherule has been taking some interest in Liberator. We’ve been scanned several times. Perhaps you should inform Mr Lavaliere that he will be having a few extra guests tomorrow. I don’t think he is the sort of man who appreciates people arriving unannounced.”

~ * ~

Mr Lavaliere studied his reflection in the full length ornate mirror.  He was taller than an average man, well over six feet and many people felt intimidated in his presence. However, his once slim physique was a thing of the past. The result of too many good meals. But as far as he was concerned, he was still handsome and women found him attractive. He certainly believed himself to be far above the likes of the Outlaw leaders.

He arranged his spotless white delicate lace cuffs and then stood back to admire himself. There was still something missing, a little something that would be the finishing touch. Beside him stood another of his trophies. She stood quite still, holding the velvet-lined tray as he selected the most eye catching brooch to set off his damask jacket. His hand hovered over the tray and then alighted upon the large aquamarine and diamond brooch which had been presented to him by a grateful client. He couldn’t remember her name. It was unimportant to him so it was not needed. He only ever recalled names that were essential to his continued existence.

He precisely pinned the brooch to his jacket and then closely studied his face. Time was not being kind to him. His once handsome face was now pitted and mottled with age; his hair once black and luxuriant was now thin and tinged with grey. He noted a small blemish on his cheek and quickly took the offered concealer from the woman standing by him.

And then, what ring to wear?

He had many and it was difficult to choose. He selected three and placed them on his left hand.

Now he was ready for the evening. Tomorrow, he would appear to everyone in his latest creation, but it was a sombre mood tonight.

He tore his eyes away from his reflection and his gaze fell upon her. She dare not look at him, but she had no option as his left hand cupped her chin and turned it upward.

“Please make sure Ven has arranged everything. My guests are about to arrive and I have promised them some sport. Are all the apartments readied?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“I expect the ladies…for want of a better word, may want to make use of the facilities. They will want to look their best for tomorrow. The gentlemen, will, I’m sure, want to be taken down to the water’s edge. See to it that there is plenty of refreshment for them.”

“At once, my Lord. May I be excused?”

“You may.”

She quickly left his presence and hurried away to make sure that everything was as Mr Lavaliere had requested. She did not wish to share the fate that awaited Rhian, down by the water’s edge, alone in the cold and the dark.

Mr Lavaliere brushed off the lapels of his jacket and began to walk towards the main control room where he could study the events of the evening and, more importantly, see if the Outlaws had brought fresh trophies.

The main control room was not brightly lit. Mr Lavaliere did not like harsh bright light, it didn’t suit him. As he entered the circular room, another of his servants curtsied.

“My Lord. The ship that intrigued you. There is someone aboard asking to speak to you.”

“To me?”

“She asked for you by name, sir.”

“Really? By name? Most interesting.”

Mr Lavaliere crossed over to the main communications console, “My name is Mr Lavaliere. I understand you wish to speak with me?”

“Indeed I do,” a familiar voice floated back.

Jenna Stannis.

Mr Lavaliere smiled, a cold cruel smile that sent shivers down the servant’s spine.

~ * ~

“My dear Jenna,” Mr Lavaliere’s lilting voice echoed around the Flight Deck of the Liberator, “How lovely to hear from you. I heard that a misfortune had befallen you, but obviously there has been some mistake.”

“It wouldn’t have been you who caused that misfortune, would it Mr Lavaliere? Because that would not please me.”

“Jenna, I am hurt that you should even suggest such a thing. But enough of the past. Why do you honour me with your delightful presence?”

“Actually, I have come on business….”

“Business?”

Jenna sighed, aware that everyone on the Flight Deck was listening with great interest, “The business of purchasing some items on behalf of a client of mine. One Princess Cally. I have told her so much about you…”

“Everything?”

“Not quite. Would you want me to?”

“No....let’s not ruin a beautiful relationship. As you can see I have a few other guests and this evening would not be the ideal moment for a lady such as yourself and your most welcome client.

“Tomorrow is a great event. The affirmation of the Outlaw Accord. I’m sure your friend would love to attend and see the Carcanet in all its beauty.”

“We would both be honoured.”

“Do you need landing co-ordinates?”

“I already have those. Good night, Mr Lavaliere.”

“ À bientôt, Jenna, ma chérie."

Jenna closed the communication link and looked up to meet the uneasy looks of the others, “And that, everyone, was Mr Lavaliere. I could tell you exactly what I think of him, but I’m too much of lady.”

“I think we can all guess what your thoughts are regarding that, Jenna,” Blake concluded.

“Question,” Avon said, “Your misfortune. How has he heard and more importantly, from whom?”

“Don’t worry. I intend to ask him that very question myself,” Jenna replied, “but meanwhile, I intend to get some sleep. I will need my wits about me when dealing with Mr Lavaliere…usually at arm’s length.”

“Arm’s length?” Gan asked.

“Mr Lavaliere may look a benign eccentric, but he is a very dangerous man. Anyone who displeases him, even in the slightest manner, does so at their risk. He is never unarmed, ever. My understanding is that the only safety is literally to stay out of his reach. He can kill you, literally, with his bare hands, especially the one adorned with rings.”

Blake looked at the main viewer and the planet of Spherule hanging in space like a gaudy bauble, “I’m really beginning to warm to this character.”

Chapter 8

Mr Lavaliere studied the vis-screen. That ship fascinated him. It looked unlike anything he had ever seen before. Could that really be the craft he had heard about?  The one that Roj Blake had boarded when he was on his way to Cygnus Alpha?

The reports had circulated via whispers and half-truths. Even though the Federation had tried to silence the voices, people had still heard how Blake, with two other prisoners, had escaped the prison ship ‘London’ aboard a strange alien craft found drifting in Space.

Mr Lavaliere smiled. If Jenna was indeed aboard then it was most likely that Roj Blake was there too. And not just Blake but the other prisoner…one Kerr Avon.

He pondered the possibilities. They could wait, until tomorrow. Right now he had guests to meet.

In the lavish meeting hall they were gathering. Outlaws from all over the outer Galaxy, coming together to affirm their allegiance to the Accord.

In a way, Mr Lavaliere despised them. He found them somewhat crude but they were necessary to keep him and his large estate. He was also the chosen one to guard the Carcanet; while he had that then he could distance himself from the vulgarities of these men. It was a small hindrance, but if it meant keeping this large sprawling, opulent estate, then he would endure it.

The meeting hall was a large high-ceilinged room, with shimmering drapes coming down from the central multifaceted light and reaching the columned walls. As the darkness descended outside, then the room seemed to glow.

Mr Lavaliere waited outside the large double doors and then signalled for the two servants to open them. He wanted to make an entrance; it swelled his ego every time.

A silence fell upon the crowd as the doors swung open and Mr Lavaliere slowly walked into the hall. He hated this part. The rank smell of unwashed bodies almost overpowered him.

“Gentlemen, tomorrow we will again swear allegiance and again the Carcanet will be paraded for all of you to see. Tonight, there is a special event for you to witness. If you would care to follow Ven down to the water’s edge? You will find refreshment there and I trust that you will find the entertainment to your liking.”

It surprised Mr Lavaliere to see that some of the women were going with their men. Hopefully, once the sport was over, these ladies would return to their allocated quarters and make themselves presentable.

As he watched, one of the Outlaws approached him, the one called Golsher who had on the previous occasion provided the woman who had worn the Carcanet. This time, though, there was someone very different on his arm; very different indeed.

“Mr Lavaliere, may I present to you Kirin. I would be honoured if you would consider her to wear the Carcanet tomorrow.”

Kirin held out her hand. He took it and then she curtsied. He bid her to rise and she did, very slowly, her eyes never straying from his.

“Golsher, you have excelled yourself this time,” Mr Lavaliere murmured, “Why don’t you join the rest of your men?”

“And Kirin?”

“One so beautiful should not be exposed to the cold air. Besides, I am sure Kirin does not wish to see such entertainment. Do you, ma chérie?”

Kirin’s full lips parted in a smile and her eyes seemed to bore into his soul, “If it so pleases my Lord.”

Mr Lavaliere waved Golsher away and waited for him to leave the hall. When they were alone, Mr Lavaliere fastened his gaze on Kirin. She was standing quite still, almost posing for him. He walked around her, admiring her stature, the curls of her titian-accented hair tumbling over her toned shoulders.

This woman was so unlike all the others. She was tall, voluptuous and beautiful. She had a serene look, high cheek bones and deeply disturbing grey-green eyes; eyes that Mr Lavaliere found difficult to escape from.

“Golsher chose well, Kirin. Perhaps we should discuss this further, in my private quarters.”

“Golsher may not like that, my Lord.”

“Maybe not, but you deserve much better.”

“Perhaps you could persuade him.”

“My dear Kirin, Golsher will not have any choice in the matter. Come, we need to prepare you for the great occasion tomorrow.”

“I am yours to command, my Lord.”

Even when she spoke, it made his heart race. No wonder Golsher had supplanted Ilva with this woman. But now, Kirin was no longer to be his and if Golsher didn’t accept that then so be it. Whatever Mr Lavaliere wanted, Mr Lavaliere always got and Golsher would learn that truth…even if it meant learning it the brutal way.

~ * ~

“You can’t sleep either,” Blake said, slowly making his way down the stairs to the forward couches of the Flight Deck. His words were directed at Avon, who was standing at his station, fingers idly tapping the control panel.

“Zen can find no record what so ever of our friendly host down on Spherule.”

“So?”

“So who is he?”

“A rather nasty piece of work if you ask me. I wonder what is going on down there.”

“Considering that Jenna made it quite clear that she didn’t want any part of it, I can imagine it’s something that neither you nor I want to know about.”

Blake sat down, absently investigating the fingers of his left hand, “Avon, we’ve seen things that would turn the stomachs of most civilised men. What can this Lavaliere conjure up that could possibly horrify us?”

“That is the problem,” Avon replied, looking up, “Mr Lavaliere and his friends are not civilised. You and I have had relatively privileged lives, protected from the harsh reality of those who have had the misfortune not to be born Alpha Grades.”

“But you heard the way he spoke?”

“I did indeed. I think Mr Lavaliere has delusions of grandeur. But you didn’t come here to discuss that gentleman and his rather dubious practices.”

“I’m worried,” Blake admitted.

“Worried?”

“About Jenna and Cally….”

“Jenna is a Free Trader and a smuggler; Cally is a Freedom Fighter, a warrior. Between them they have more experience of those kind of people than either of us.”

“You think so?”

Avon took a deep breath, “If I were in any trouble, I would want those two on my side.”

“Well, praise indeed. I take it you don’t want that comment to go any further than this Flight Deck,” Blake said slyly, looking up to meet Avon’s unfaltering gaze.

A slight smile crept over Avon’s usually impassive features, “Naturally.”

~ * ~

Kirin sipped her drink and found it to her liking. But she kept her mind alert. She sensed that she would need her wits around her with this gentleman.

Golsher was easy to understand. He had taken her as his consort on the understanding that once she had arrived at Spherule and had worn the coveted Carcanet, then she would abide by their agreement. It had filled her with revulsion, but sometimes, in her trade, as she had discovered, one had to undertake particularly nauseating ploys to achieve one’s goal.

Now that goal was standing opposite her, pouring a glass of what he considered fine wine, from the crystal decanter.

“I trust this is agreeable?”

“It is excellent,” she replied, her eyes fixed on his thin, gaunt face, “But you did promise to show me the necklace; the Carcanet.”

“Indeed I did.” Mr Lavaliere placed his cut glass goblet on the dais which dominated the centre of the room. He depressed a button and the top of the dais slowly opened. Like a flower emerging to face the first rays on the sun, a velvet cushion slowly rose from the dais and on it was a necklace; the necklace; the famed Carcanet.

So, thought Kirin, it did exist. It wasn’t the fabricated rantings of a captured outlaw screaming as the torturer applied his final agony.

“It is as they say,” she murmured, her eyes taking in the breath-taking beauty that was now before her. There were seven significant gemstones, one much larger than the others, set in Platinum. Each blue-green stone was surrounded by Diamonds. And then there were the smaller stones, all stunningly set with in a brilliant array of glittering jewels. From those hung tiny teardrops of the exquisite blue-green gems.

Kirin leant forward, her eyes dancing over the dazzling display; marvelling at the seeming simplicity of the Aquamarine stones, but then catching a glint of something else; deep within the facets of the stones; a myriad of silver coloured veins. Were these the secret of the Carcanet? Were these minute rivulets the source of the necklace’s fame?

“It is so beautiful. May I….” She put her hand out to touch it. But Mr Lavaliere stopped her. A smile on his thin lips. He had seen, once again, the power the necklace could exert over its admirer. He touched her hand softly.

“Tomorrow. I will place it about you neck and they will see its beauty as well as yours.”

“I look forward to it, my Lord.”

Mr Lavaliere took her hand in his and held it tightly, “As do I.”

The sound of raised voices broke the moment.

It was Golsher.

Obviously the entertainment had concluded and a somewhat inebriated Golsher was angry, very angry.

“Kirin, I think it wise that Golsher does not find you here. He could, shall we say, misunderstand the situation. My servant will escort you to your room. I will deal with this problem.”

Kirin bowed her head and followed the servant from the room, to the sanctuary of Mr Lavaliere’s guest quarters.

He waited for a few seconds, savouring the moment. But then Golsher’s disgust at being told that he could go no further by Mr Lavaliere’s body guards grew more vocal by the second. It was time to break the news to this barbarous man that the woman he coveted was no longer his for the taking.

Mr Lavaliere walked slowly towards the exit, beyond which lay his outer sanctum.

Golsher was there. Drunk. Angry.

“Golsher, to what do I owe this pleasure?”

The Outlaw Leader angrily swung round to face the tall, bejewelled man.

“Where is she?”

“Where is whom?” Mr Lavaliere innocently replied.

“The woman, Kirin. I have been informed that she is with you.”

“And what if she is?”

“She is mine,” Golsher stated angrily, “And you will give her back to me!”

Chapter 9

Golsher stood his ground.

“She is mine,” he said slowly with a hint of menace in his tone.

“I am afraid that Kirin would disagree on that with you…but, if that is a problem, then I’m sure we can come to some amicable arrangement. We are both men of the world, Golsher. I’m sure I have something of value that will satisfy you.”

“You have…now give her back to me.”

“I was considering something of more value to you than….”

“Don’t try and fool me with your fancy words. You will give her back to me or…”

“Or what?” Mr Lavaliere challenged. He was much taller than Golsher, but that didn’t bother the Outlaw at all.

Golsher looked up at his rival, “I will kill you.”

“I think not.” Even before the last word had left his lips, Mr Lavaliere’s left hand had snapped closed around Golsher’s neck. It was quick and painless.

Golsher could feel his whole body suddenly freeze. He was powerless, gripped in Mr Lavaliere’s claw-like hand. He could still feel the ring pressed against his skin, its deadly contents spewing into his system.

“Ven,” Mr Lavaliere began, “Would you be so kind as to fetch me two large ingots of Gold.”

“Yes my Lord. As they are?”

“No. Put them in a container, one that our good friend here will be able to carry easily. We don’t want your other friends to see the gifts that I have bestowed upon you…do we Golsher?”

Ven bowed and left Mr Lavaliere with Golsher, “You have brought me many things of value, Golsher. And I have had to contend with you and your men, but this time, you have gone too far. No-one will care about you, and when they try to find you, then Ven and my other bodyguards will vouch for me when I say I paid you well for Kirin and that you set off to walk to your ship.

“Unfortunately, you must have taken a wrong turning, in the dark, and having imbibed so much of my wine…well, you could have walked anywhere.”

Ven returned with a leather bag, heavily laden with two ingots of gold.

Golsher could not resist as his hands were bound together with the leather straps of the bag. He tried to speak, but nothing came.

“Well done, Ven. You may now take our guest for a quiet walk. I think the high cliff, above the sea. That is a very nice vantage point. Don’t worry about the gold, Golsher, I will retrieve it, in time, and you won’t be able to say anything at all to anyone. Goodbye, it has been a pleasure doing business with you.”

Ven hefted the limp body of Golsher over one shoulder and left the outer sanctuary. As he left, Mr Lavaliere smiled, as again, he saw the fear in his victim’s eyes and knew that the screams could only be heard by Golsher, himself.

Kirin turned the small communicator over in her hand. She now had proof that the Carcanet did exist. It had been worth it after all. Tomorrow she would wear the famed necklace, but right now, she had to send a message to her contact. Bartolomew.

And then, it would be a waiting game and not a very pleasant one. She was no doubt rid of the unrefined Golsher and his totally uncivilised group of outlaws, all that remained was Mr Lavaliere. She would have to employ some other method of keeping him away…at least long enough for her paymaster to come and reap his rewards.

She quickly typed in the short message, one that confirmed that she was about to possess the celebrated necklace. Once that had gone on its way to Earth, then Bartolomew would know her location and soon Mr Lavaliere would be receiving visitors who would finally bring his reign of terror to an end.

~ * ~

“Is it almost time?” Blake asked.

Avon didn’t look up in response to his question; he was studying his control panel. “Very strange.”

“What is?”

“Zen has picked up a communication signal from that complex down there.”

“So?”

“It seems to be directed towards the Federation region of Space.”

“Any idea what it was about?”

“No. It seems to have been in code. That is a problem we will have to address in the near future.”

“Do you want to come and set the locator fix…?”

“Already done.”

Avon hadn’t looked up once during their brief exchange. Blake wondered if it was because he, too, was worried about sending Jenna and Cally down into a virtual lion’s den. That was one thing he was beginning to discover about Avon; he never showed any concern about anything, or anyone. Either he was a heartless, unfeeling individual or he was extremely well-disciplined when it came to keeping his emotions hidden. Blake hoped it was the latter; somehow that made him feel more comfortable.

“Perhaps they should have weapons….”

“Lavaliere won’t like that.”

“All right, I’ll stay by the teleport in case there is any trouble.”

“Blake.” This time Avon honoured him by addressing him directly, “It is not a case of if there is any trouble. You know there will be trouble. Sending Jenna and Cally fully armed will only exacerbate matters.”

“I want that whole area kept under scan and make sure the long range scanners are on line.”

“That,” Avon began, “goes without saying. I think you will be required in the teleport now. I get the impression that Mister Lavaliere does not like to be kept waiting.”

Jenna and Cally were waiting. Full of anticipation.

Gan was waiting. Eagerly looking forward to this foray into the unknown.

Vila was nervous, agitated. But that was Vila, always anxious even if he had no reason to be.

As Blake walked into the teleport section, he found himself being somewhat distracted by the two women both turning to meet him. He just hoped that Mr Lavaliere would be similarly stunned. At least that would give this mission a chance to succeed.

“I doubt if your friend will hand over that Carcanet, but at least if you could get near it just long enough to use your necklace then we can maybe get just a fraction of the information that thing contains.

“But, at the slightest hint of trouble I’m pulling you out, all of you. Avon’s got that area under constant scan.”

“Is Avon expecting trouble?” Jenna asked.

Blake found himself looking at Jenna and, for the first time, not seeing a fellow ex-prisoner from the Convict Transporter ‘London’, but an incredibly beautiful woman. And standing right next to her was the most striking freedom fighter. For a moment he was too stunned to reply. It was Gan who spared him any further embarrassment.

“Avon is always expecting trouble.”

“And he’s not far wrong,” Vila mumbled, “There are Outlaws down there, hundreds of them. And we are going to ask them nicely if we can have that Carcanet of theirs.”

“Borrow, surely,” Cally corrected.

“And besides,” said Gan, putting one of his arms round Vila’s stooped shoulders, “Just think of all that wine, women…”

“And jewellery,” Blake added.

“All right. All right,” Vila conceded, “Get on with it before I change my mind…again!”

Chapter 10

Mr Lavaliere was waiting in his outer sanctum when one of his servants approached him with the news that four strangers were waiting for him in his reception room.

“Who?” he demanded to know.

“She has said her name is Jenna and that she wishes an audience with you. I told her it was not possible.”

Mr Lavaliere smiled at the young girl, “I have been expecting Jenna and her party. Show them in.”

As he waited, he studied himself in the full length mirror to make sure he was properly dressed to receive his anticipated guests. He didn’t have long to wait.

The young girl opened the door and bade Jenna enter.

Mr Lavaliere slowly turned away from the mirror to greet his most welcome guest and her party. He recognised Jenna, from the few times before, but those had been purely for business. On this occasion? Well, he wasn’t too sure. But she certainly wasn’t attired as she had been on those previous instances.

This time she was wearing a beautiful long gown. Nowhere near as elegant as his own creations, but enough to warrant an appreciative perusal. But it was the other woman with Jenna who caught Mr Lavaliere’s attention. She, too, was tastefully dressed. She was tall, almost willow-like, and she carried herself with a certain grace. Mr Lavaliere found himself captivated with her charm.

“Jenna, you didn’t tell me that your client was so enchanting.”

“Mr Lavaliere, permit me to introduce Princess Cally.”

“Princess Cally. Welcome to my humble abode. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“We were hoping,” interrupted Jenna, “to conduct some business with you, Mr Lavaliere.”

“Indeed.”

Jenna watched as he slowly crossed the floor and came towards them. But he suddenly halted as Gan placed himself directly in his path.

“Forgive Gan, he is merely doing as he has been told,” Jenna informed him as Gan folded his arms and looked Mr Lavaliere squarely in the eye.

“My dear Jenna, I was merely being polite. You know me? I do so love to greet my guests, especially those who wish to conduct a transaction. My security must be lax. I did not see your ship land.”

“Suffice to say, we are here.”

“Quite.”

Jenna returned his smile. At least he wasn’t asking about the Liberator, yet, or more importantly, who else was in her company these days. “I have told Princess Cally so much about you.”

“Not too much, I hope.”

“Mr Lavaliere, Cally wishes to purchase weapons for her people. I informed her that you were able to provide such things.”

“And did you tell Cally about my other enterprise?” This time Mr Lavaliere waved Gan aside so that he could study the Auron woman more closely, “A Princess of your beauty deserves the finest haute couture that is available. And Jenna has brought you to me.”

Gan exchanged a glance with Vila. Both were amazed that this supposed highly dangerous man was in one instant discussing the purchase of weapons and then the next moment offering the services of his fashion house. Vila felt uneasy. There was something about this man that perturbed him.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I have also told Cally about the Carcanet. How beautiful it is and she is most eager to see it. If that is possible, of course?”

“It will be my pleasure and you have chosen a chosen a most auspicious day. Today, the Outlaw Accord will again affirm their allegiance and as a sign of that commitment, the Carcanet is put on show.”

“Really?” It was Vila, suddenly finding his voice.

Mr Lavaliere favoured him with a wilting stare and Vila suddenly wished he hadn’t found his voice after all, “Yes, really. But this is not the place. My other guests are waiting in the main hall. Jenna, Cally, you will have a place of honour. Please follow my servant. She will make sure you are comfortable.”

“I’m sure she will, Mr Lavaliere,” Jenna concurred, allowing him to take her hand.

He held it briefly, “Perhaps afterwards, a private audience? Ma Chérie.”

“Perhaps.”

She allowed her hand to trail out of his and she followed the others as the servant led them to the main hall. Cally cast a sidelong glance at her and suddenly Jenna could ‘hear’ a voice in her head; Cally’s voice.

“I do not trust him.”

Jenna smiled back, “Neither do I.”

Kirin was waiting for him in the control room. She had watched the exchange on the screen and was now intrigued by the new arrivals. They obviously weren’t Outlaws; the women’s demeanour was evidence of that. The two men puzzled her. They didn’t seem at all like the men she had had the misfortune to keep the company of over the last few weeks and the women didn’t appear to be subservient to them.

As Mr Lavaliere entered the room, she resumed her disposition of a compliant participant in the upcoming occasion.

“And now, Kirin, the time has come for you to take centre stage.”

“Indeed, my Lord. Who are those people?”

“Ah, you were watching. The blonde woman is Jenna Stannis. She and I have had cause do business a few times before. But the others are unknown to me. However, there are some things that I do know. Jenna escaped from a prison ship with two other Federation prisoners and they did so by boarding a deserted Spacecraft found drifting in the vicinity of the ‘London’. It is my belief that she came in that very same ship. And I know that one of her fellow escapees was Roj Blake. I would have recognised him. Which means he is still aboard. The question is, which one of those two men is Kerr Avon.”

“Roj Blake?” Kirin asked innocently.

“Yes, a thorn in the Federation’s side, but not for much longer.”

As he spoke, Mr Lavaliere activated the dais and the Carcanet once more rose from its place of safety. He gently lifted it from its velvet cushion and held it in his hands, “I suspect that they want this.”

“Why would they require that?”

“To escape the Federation. But let us not waste any further time.”

He slowly fastened the Carcanet about her slender neck, his hands gently caressing her shoulders. She managed to quell the shiver of disgust as he touched her; her thoughts racing. Today was indeed going to be auspicious, for Kirin knew that someone else would be interested in Blake, his crew and his ship. And they would pay handsomely. 

“Come, your audience awaits. They grow impatient, as do I.”

Chapter 11

As Jenna and Cally took their places in a special area set aside for Mr Lavaliere’s guests, they were suddenly aware that they were the centre of attention. Gan found it just a little intimidating that everyone in the gathered crowd was focussing their unwanted attentions on the two women. Vila, for his part, was suddenly finding this visit very interesting; several of the ladies, for want of a better word, were wearing generous amounts of jewellery and the glint from the overhead chandelier only served to make Vila’s innate desire to become better acquainted with those sparkling gems more irresistible by the second.

Gan was watching Vila, but also keeping an eye on the gathered crowd of outlaws.

He leant forward, “You two are certainly attracting a great deal of attention.”

“And that’s why Mr Lavaliere has seated us here, in his VIP enclosure,” Jenna replied, “They can look, but they most certainly cannot touch. By the way, Vila, that goes for you, too.”

“Eh?” Vila said, suddenly dragged back to reality. He had been quietly estimating the value of all the jewellery that was on show.

“On no account, are you allowed to go near any of these ladies. Neither Mr Lavaliere nor these gentlemen here will appreciate it. Do I make myself clear?”

“As crystal,” Vila replied, helping himself to a glass of wine from the proffered tray. The young lady carrying it smiled at him and he returned the smile, only to have Gan dig him in the ribs, “Just being polite.”

“Hm!” Gan said, not convinced at all by Vila’s innocence.

“Why do we need this?” Cally asked, eyeing the glass she was now holding.

“For a toast,” Jenna explained, “When the moment comes and the Carcanet is displayed, we will be expected to raise our glasses and join in the toast.”

A hush descended as the far doors opened and Mr Lavaliere made his way into the crowd. He stood quite still and waited for the gathered Outlaws to stand aside and make room for the next moment.

He was wearing a suitably outlandish creation, which seemed to shimmer as he moved.

“Gentlemen, pray be silent. Today is the Sixth Occasion on which we have met to affirm our allegiance to the Outlaw Accord. To that end, I give you the Carcanet.” As he spoke those words he slowly turned and raised his arm in the direction of the main entrance. The hush turned to absolute quiet as Kirin slowly came into view. Her tall, lithe frame, covered by a glistening gold gown, was bedecked by the exquisite Carcanet, radiating a dazzling circle of light.

Both Jenna and Cally were dumbstruck. Compared to all of the other women in this room, she was vision of beauty.

Gan found himself staring.

Vila was stunned.

“Gentlemen,” Mr Lavaliere began, “I give you the Carcanet and Kirin.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Vila announced, before the rest of his comments were drowned out by a defending roar of approval.

~ * ~

Blake sat in the teleport section. His fingers hovering over the controls.

Just in case things got ugly down on Spherule and he had to bring them out, quickly.

He depressed the intercom on the control panel.

“Avon.”

“Yes,” the familiar tone came back over the speaker.

“Anything?”

“There has been no change in the situation since you enquired five minutes ago.”

“If only we knew…..”

“Well we don’t. And trying to imagine events about which we cannot possibly know is, quite frankly, a complete waste of time.”

How could he be so calm? Blake’s imagination was working overtime and Jenna’s description of her previous encounters with this Mr Lavaliere was not helping his nerves at all, “You will let me know, at once, won’t you if anything changes?”

“Oh, I will.”

Blake was beginning to wish that he had gone down with them after all. But then again, that would have played straight into Avon’s hands…..now why did he even think of that? Would his somewhat reluctant travelling companion really have jumped at the chance and taken the Liberator and run? All right, Avon had made it quite clear that he didn’t agree with Blake’s aims and aspirations, but there was something, Blake couldn’t quite fathom what, which made him feel that despite all his rhetoric, Avon wasn’t such a cold calculating man that he tried to make out to be.

“Thank you, Avon,” Blake said, closing the link. He knew that that little morsel of politeness would rankle Avon no end.

~ * ~

Gan was hovering around Jenna and Cally as the festivities began to gather pace. Just as Jenna had said, their location within the specially reserved area was proving a bonus, but there were still some Outlaws outside the protective barrier who were definitely taking too much of an interest in the two women.

Mr Lavaliere had brought Kirin to join his guests. He was showing her off like some trophy, which annoyed Cally, to say the least. She could not understand how this woman was allowing herself to be treated like this.

“Now, my dear Kirin,” Mr Lavaliere purred, “Allow me to introduce you to my dear friend Jenna and her client, Princess Cally. They are here on business. How fortunate that they should have chosen this very moment.”

“Yes, my Lord,” Kirin replied, her grey-green eyes glaring at Jenna.

Jenna, for her part, was keeping decidedly gracious despite being towered over by this veritable amazon of a woman, “I am very pleased to meet you, as is Cally.”

Cally was staring quite intently at Kirin; here was a tall, powerful and very beautiful woman and something didn’t seem right, but she remembered her manners, “Yes, I am very pleased too.”

“Jenna used to, how shall we put it, transport cargo for me, until a little unpleasantness with the Federation,” Mr Lavaliere continued.

“A misunderstanding,” Jenna corrected, taking a sip from her glass.

“Of course. And no doubt now that you have acquired another ship you will be continuing in your former role as a Free Trader?”

“Exactly.”

“And now, what about you Cally?”

The question caught the Auron unawares. She was still studying Kirin and Kirin was returning the stare.

Jenna saw the hesitation and quickly stepped in, “Cally’s people require weapons for the fight against the Federation.”

“Really. And how did you meet my lovely Jenna?”

Cally turned away from Kirin’s steadfast gaze and smiled sweetly at Mr Lavaliere, “I would rather not say; it could compromise my entire mission.”

“Very diplomatic, if I may say so,” Mr Lavaliere said, returning the smile, “But you fascinate me, Cally. Perhaps we could discuss your needs in private?”

Gan was standing directly behind Cally and loudly cleared his throat, allowing her to explain, “However, I don’t think Gan would like that.”

“Really, you allow your servant to dictate to you?”

“Not dictate as such, but he is concerned for my safety.”

“But not, so it would seem, in the same manner as your other servant.”

Jenna quickly turned round, as did Cally. Vila had vanished.

Gan found him.

Investigating the extensive wine list.

“Vila, what do you think you’re doing?”

“I’ll say one thing for this Lavaliere, his wine cellar is terrible. All this money and not a decent drop to be had.”

“But these Outlaws seem to like it,” Gan pointed out as he steered Vila back to the special enclosure.

“Yes, well, I don’t think they’ve ever had the same opportunities as me. I’ve acquired a connoisseur’s taste for a good wine, purely in my professional capacity you understand.”

“Come on, we can’t leave Jenna and Cally alone with that man.”

“And what about that Kirin?”

“What about her?”

“Oh come on Gan. You’ve seen her. She’s in a completely different class to some of these ladies. The way she stands, the way she looks. She doesn’t belong here.”

“Well, Mr Lavaliere seems to like her.”

“And I can see why. In fact, every male here likes her. And who can blame them? In fact,” Vila said, coming to a halt and taking in the view, “even Avon would notice her!”

Kirin was now seated on what could only be described as an ornate throne. From her slightly raised position she could survey the crowd as the celebration began to gather pace. The drink was flowing and the refreshments were being readily consumed.

It took a good five minutes for Gan and Vila to return to the special area. Vila could see that Jenna and Cally were still fielding Mr Lavaliere’s advances. He urged Gan on ahead to provide some protection.

Vila, though, was looking at Kirin. She had suddenly stopped looking out over the crowd and seemed intent on something in her lap. Very slowly, he circled round her, smiling apologies at the Outlaws as he bumped into them. Then he saw it. A small device in her hand; a communicator of some nature and she was deftly typing a message of some nature. Vila drew closer, his curiosity getting the better of him.

Suddenly, he realised that Kirin was looking at him.

The commotion silenced the crowd.

All heads were turned to the special area.

And there was Kirin.

On her feet.

Pointing.

At Vila, flat on his back, on the floor. The right arm blow from Kirin had lifted him off his feet.

“He touched me!”

“What?!” Vila shrieked.

“He touched me, my Lord.”

“No I didn’t!”

“He tried to take the Carcanet, my Lord. And touched me.”

“I did nothing of the sort. Why are you….?”

Mr Lavaliere was standing over Vila, who was now breaking out in a cold sweat as he could see the ring fingers being flexed.

“No one may touch the Carcanet or the woman who wears it! You have violated the oath and displeased me.”

“She..she…”

“Quiet. Ven, escort my guests from here, immediately. Gentlemen,” Mr Lavaliere smiled, “It would seem that you will, after all, have entertainment this evening.”

Vila was pulled roughly to his feet by two of Mr Lavaliere’s men, “She’s lying. I didn’t touch her.” But his words fell on deaf ears. As he was dragged away, he looked up to see Kirin smile; a cold triumphant smile. 

Chapter 12

Mr Lavaliere watched as Vila was escorted from the meeting hall. He met Jenna and Cally’s defiant look as they, too, were led away and he could see that Gan was not best pleased with being so roughly handled either.

His eyes suddenly fell upon a round, circular object on the floor and Mr Lavaliere bent to retrieve it. He held it in his hand, turning it; it resembled a bracelet, the like of which he had never seen before.

“My Lord,” Kirin said, “that man was wearing that on his wrist when he dared to betray you.”

He curled his fingers around it. A communication device of some sort? He had noticed that the others were wearing the same thing. It didn’t matter though. Mr Lavaliere had already thought ahead on that possibility. The watching eyes of his security scanners had been told; the slightest problem and the security shield was to be activated. There would be no chance of his guests contacting whoever was up in the ship now. It would be interesting to see if Blake would risk coming down himself. He would have to. His crew were now prisoners.

“Allons, ma Chérie,” Mr Lavaliere smiled, taking Kirin’s hand, “I think we need to talk with our guests.”

“But the festivities?”

“They can continue. You have displayed the Carcanet and now my side of the celebrations have been completed. Let these Outlaws enjoy themselves. I have information to retrieve and I would like you along to help me extract it.”

~ * ~

Avon sat bolt upright.

All the signals from the planet below had ceased.

“Zen. What just happened?”

+A shield has been activated in the immediate area of the designated zone. All contact has been lost. +

“Blake…”

“Yes…”

“Bring them back, now!”

Seconds passed like an eternity.

“I can’t…something is blocking….Avon, did you hear me?”

Avon had indeed heard and he was now collecting a gun and making his way to the teleport section.

~ * ~

Jenna and Cally found themselves in a rather palatial room. One which was obviously kept for Mr Lavaliere’s special guests. There was only one problem, the doors were locked and the glass especially reinforced. Jenna looked out of the plate glass door to the beckoning gardens and freedom, but no amount of pushing with all her weight made any difference.

Cally was inspecting the main door; that, too, seemed destined to stay stubbornly closed.

“Any luck with the door?” Jenna asked.

“No,” replied Cally, “Why has he put us here? It doesn’t appear to be a cell of any nature.”

Jenna sat herself down on one of the luxurious couches, “I think this is a gilded cage.”

“A gilded cage?”

“Oh yes. Whatever his plans for us are, he wants to keep us in the lap of luxury.”

“Why did Vila do that? Why risk everything?” Cally asked, sitting down opposite.

“I don’t think Vila did anything. But I have an idea that Kirin realised that Vila had seen something that he wasn’t supposed to.”

“What could he have seen that would have made her react so?”

“We may never know. I’m sorry I got you into this,” Jenna said, with a hint of despair.

“These plans that he has, I take it they do not bode well for us.” Cally stopped dead, her hand reaching for her temple, “He’s coming.”

“Who is?” Jenna asked, rising.

“He is.”

On cue, Mr Lavaliere entered the apartment, Kirin still in his company.

“My dear Jenna, you have displeased me.”

“I’m sorry.”

He held up the bracelet, “What is this?”

“An ornament, nothing more.”

He motioned for Kirin to remove the ones being worn by the two women.

She roughly took Jenna’s bracelet. “Thank you, Jenna Stannis,” she said quietly, so as not afford Mr Lavaliere the opportunity to hear her callous tone, “I wonder what Blake will do now.” Kirin’s smile was without warmth and quite vicious. It made Jenna shudder. Then Kirin turned her attention to Cally, “And this one, my Lord?”

“Yes, Kirin, but be gentle. You interest me Cally. Perhaps I may keep you for myself. Add you to my collection. As for you, Jenna, I have already had a great many offers for you.”

“I should be flattered,” Jenna replied defiantly.

Mr Lavaliere took the bracelets from Kirin, “Mere ornaments, you say? Then you will not be needing them. Tell me, that ship of yours, Jenna..”

“What about it?”

“The information that I have is that you escaped from the prison ship ‘London’ with Blake and one other prisoner, called Avon. I would recognise Blake and he was not among your party. So which one of those men with you is Avon?”

Jenna didn’t answer.

“Very well, I shall ask them.”

“But you know who they are. We told you,” Cally began.

“Indeed you did, but you could be lying to protect them.”

“Now why would we do that?” Jenna asked.

“Because wanted men don’t tend to use their real names. By the way, I also have plans for those two…. servants, as you insist on calling them. They are to be the entertainment this very evening. Come Kirin, let us leave our two beautiful guests. Let them consider their fate.”

The door closed behind them, as Master and Mistress made their way to their next appointment with Vila and Gan.

Cally tried the lock again, but it was sealed. She turned to face Jenna, “He seems most interested in Avon…I wonder what he has planned for him?”

“I wonder,” Jenna murmured, “what she has in mind for all of us. There is something not quite right about that woman, not right at all.”

~ * ~

“Where are you going?” Blake asked as Avon urgently walked up to the teleport bracelet rack, selected one and put it on.

“There’s a localised field down there. Something has gone wrong. Now shift the locator a few…..”

“No.”

“We don’t have time to discuss the merits…”

“They are my crew and I am responsible for them.”

“Very laudable, I’m sure.”

“Avon…”

Avon spun round to face him, “Listen to me, Blake. Those men down there are Outlaws. They don’t care one bit about you or your Cause. All they will see is an opportunity to hand you over to the Federation for the bounty on your head. You go down there and they will rip you to pieces. It won’t worry them if you’re dead or alive, in one piece or otherwise.”

“But…”

“Besides, do you think it wise to leave me alone, up here, on this ship?”

“It had occurred to me.”

“We need a pilot, Blake, and Jenna is the best there is…”

“But you could fly it. When Jenna and I were on that capsule…”

“Blake, there is a great difference between slowly manoeuvring a ship to take on board a capsule and actually flying it at full speed..and even then I had Gan and Vila’s assistance.”

Blake bit his lower lip. He knew that Avon was right, but there was one thing that still bothered him, “You may need to kill to get them out.”

“I know,” Avon said, absently plugging the Liberator's gun into its power pack. That was one thing that had been weighing on his mind since he had decided to take matters into his own hands.

“Could you do it? I mean, could you kill someone?”

Avon didn’t answer.

“It’s just that Jenna told me that she had asked you the same question, once before, and you had replied you didn’t know.”

Avon took a deep breath and shook his head before looking up to see Blake staring at him, waiting for the reply.

“And I still don’t. Even if I could, Blake, I would hardly be likely to tell the one person who can fly this ship and me away from you and your idealist views, that I am capable of killing someone, would I?”

“True…”

“Now, have we finished discussing my morals?”

“There’s something more, though, isn’t there? You’re not going down there out of the kindness of your heart. Come on, Avon.”

“All right. There is one thing. I would like to see this Carcanet for myself. It is a gap in my knowledge. And besides, if this device is all that Jenna says it is, then I may find it very useful indeed.”

As Avon said those last words, he fixed Blake with a distinct cold smile.

“In what way?” Blake asked, not liking where this conversation was going.

“Should the occasion ever present itself.”

“What occasion?”

“When my chance comes and the Liberator will go where I want it to go.”

“But first,” Blake said quite calmly, “You will have to acquire this useful device. Do you really think Mr Lavaliere is going to let you anywhere near it?”

“Oh, yes. I most certainly do.” It was said in a tone that chilled Blake to the core.

“And if he won’t?”

“Mister Lavaliere is a man who likes to show off. He will want to show it off, just to spite me. To show that he has something that I cannot have.”

“You said yourself that we can’t take it or we’ll have the entire Outlaw Accord on our tails.”

“That’s a chance I’m prepared to take.”

“You’ve certainly changed your tune.”

“Yes, I have, haven’t I?”

Blake studied Avon and realised that he wasn’t going to be swayed from his course of action.

“How do we know that I’ve reset the co-ordinates properly? You could end up anywhere.”

“I’ll let you know.”

‘I bet you will’, Blake to himself as he operated the teleport controls and Avon shimmered out of existence.

Chapter 13

Avon was still finding it a strange sensation when teleporting. One moment he was on the Liberator and then seconds later… he was somewhere else. It just seemed so perplexing, not knowing exactly what you were going to find when you eventually did materialise.

He found that this time he was on a beach; the wet sand beneath his feet was testament to that. Quickly turning, his gun poised, he found himself looking at a metal walkway, stretching out from the beach out into the sea.

“Avon?”

It was Blake.

“Down and safe……if you can call catching the low tide safe,” Avon responded.

“I think we need to work on these location fixes.”

“Indeed.  However it looks as though I shall have a pleasant enough walk to the main residence, once I can find my way off this beach. There’s something I need to check out. There’s a metal walkway leading out into the sea. It looks as though it gets covered when the tide comes in.”

“Don’t take too long, Avon. We don’t want Mr Lavaliere to know you’re coming.”

“I expect he already does.”

Avon walked up towards the beach and then along to the metal walkway. There seemed to be an upright at its end…and there was something attached to the upright. He didn’t need to walk too far along the walkway to see it was the remains of a body…a humanoid body.

“Blake, I seem to have found what happens to those who displease our Mister Lavaliere. Obviously there is something in the water, an acid or even the creatures that live in it. Either way, I don’t intend to test out the theory.”

“Be careful Avon, you could be the next victim.”

Avon smiled, “He’ll have to catch me first.”

~ * ~

Vila was almost climbing the wall when the cell door opened and Mr Lavaliere entered, once again accompanied by Kirin. This time he also had Ven with him, just in case Gan should decide to interfere.

“Vila. Come here.”

Vila shook his head, “I told you, she’s lying! I didn’t touch her!”

“Ven, bring Vila here. I think we need to talk in private. Oh yes, while you’re there, take that bracelet off of Gan. You don’t mind do you, Gan?”

“What are you going to do with Vila?” Gan demanded.

“A private talk. One that doesn’t concern you. However should Vila not answer my questions, then I shall, of course, turn to you.”

“Well, I won’t tell you anything.”

“Brave words, from a dead man.”

Outside the cell, Vila was near to collapse as Mr Lavaliere stood in front of him, “Tell me, Vila, what exactly is this?”

In his hand was a teleport bracelet. Vila swallowed, “A bracelet.”

“For what purpose?”

“It’s a teleport bracelet.”

“A teleport bracelet? How does it work?”

“You’ll have to ask Avon!”

Mr Lavaliere approached the small man who was now visibly shaking.

“And which one of you is Avon?”

Vila swallowed.

“Please make this easy on yourself. Which one is Avon?”

“None of us..he’s still on the Liberator.”

Mr Lavaliere halted. “The Liberator?”

“That’s what we call our ship….up there, in orbit.”

“And Blake?”

“Him too…….Please, don’t hurt me. I’ll tell you everything; whatever you want to know…just please don’t hurt me. Please.”

Mr Lavaliere began to move forward again, his hand raised, ready to grab the terrified Vila by the neck.

“My Lord.” It was Ven. In his hand a small portable device and on it a picture being transmitted from the main security centre.

Mr Lavaliere took the device and showed it to Vila.

“Is this Avon?”

On the screen was a figure confidently walking towards the main entrance of Mr Lavaliere’s mansion. Vila nodded.

“I have everything I need, Ven. Return Vila to the cell at least until this evening…”

“This evening?” Vila asked as Ven took him by the arm and marched him back towards his prison.

“You and your friend, Gan, are to be the main attraction this evening. This time, my guests will have two victims to place wagers on.”

“Wagers?”

“Indeed. Whether you drown or whether the creatures of the sea devour you first. Either way, it will be double the excitement.”

Vila paled and felt his legs go from under him.

Ven literally threw Vila into the cell.

Gan stood at the door as Vila cowered in a corner, “You must be very proud of yourself, picking on someone who can’t fight back. Would you like to try it with me?”

Mr Lavaliere stood very still and smiled at the big man, “Thank you for the offer, but no, I have everything that I need. I hope, though, that you will be as brave tonight, because I think your death will be both prolonged and painful.”

~ * ~

Avon had arrived at the entrance to the pretentious main building which he hoped was Mr Lavaliere’s very own lair. He had noticed all the surveillance devices but had chosen to walk in full view of whoever was watching

He studied the door, then reached forward and depressed the button to request admission. As he waited, Avon looked down at the ground, trying to decide what tactic to use to gain entry.

A few moments later, one of the doors creaked open and a soft feminine voice inquired, “May I help you?”

In reply, she received a dazzling smile, “My name is Che Vron. Mister Lavaliere is expecting me but I have been unfortunately delayed. May I?”

The young woman was so taken aback by the polite request to be admitted, that she didn’t question Avon being there or even attempt to ask Mr Lavaliere if, indeed, he was expecting a Mr Che Vron.

She showed the stranger into the reception hall. He certainly wasn’t an outlaw, his whole manner and attitude was a clear indication of that. He reminded her of the men who accompanied the fine ladies from the Federation whenever Mr Lavaliere hosted one of his Fashion extravaganzas.

She found him to be polite and not in the slightest bit rude, even when she told him that she would have to find her Master and confirm that a guest was indeed expected and that she, the young woman, had not been deficient in her duties.

No sooner had she curtsied and left Avon, than he turned to the door behind which was Mr Lavaliere’s sanctuary. A simple touch pad; Avon allowed himself a very small moment of triumph and then the door slid open.

Before stepping in, Avon quickly scanned the room and then saw yet another entrance beyond. No sign of Jenna or Cally. Maybe they were in there.

Another touch pad.

Another moment of self-satisfied triumph.

Avon entered and found himself facing yet another young woman. She was standing by a large screen and was looking at him absolutely mortified.

“My Lord will not be pleased. You have entered his private quarters without permission.”

“So I have.” Avon walked towards her and could see the fear in her eyes. She was as scared as the other young woman. He placed his gun in its holder and gave her his most charming look, “But I think you will find that Mister Lavaliere is expecting me and I believe he would like to meet me in private. You may leave us…”

“But my Lord….”

“I can assure you that Mister Lavaliere will confirm that we have an appointment. We are to discuss some very serious matters and I do not think he would want you to be present.”

She considered that explanation. She was still somewhat unsure. She remembered that Rhian had been found wanting and it scared her that the same fate would be waiting. But this man seemed to be genuine. He was not some Outlaw, he had an air of authority about him that made that perfectly clear.

She curtsied and hurried away.

Avon began to feel that he could get used to all this deference being paid to him. But he knew that would never happen, not while he was in Blake’s company.

He stood in front of the screen absently looking to see if there was any clue as to where the others were.

It wouldn’t be a long wait.

Avon knew that his progress had been followed ever since he walked up to the beach.

Soon Mr Lavaliere would arrive.

It was just a matter of minutes.

And then suddenly, she was there.

Kirin.

Standing perfectly still.

Her grey-green eyes staring unflinchingly at him.

And beside her…

Mr Lavaliere…exactly as Jenna had described him.

Tall, slightly overweight and as repugnant a man as he had ever seen. Yet, beside him stood a woman who could easily turn a thousand men’s heads. A towering beauty whose feminine charms were somewhat difficult to ignore.

“My dear Kirin,” Mr Lavaliere began, “Allow me to introduce to you a most welcome visitor….. Kerr Avon.”

Chapter 14

Cally was suddenly aware.

Aware of what, she wasn’t too sure. But her heightened senses told her that someone she knew was near.

Jenna had noticed the change of expression and Cally’s eyes focussing into the far distance, “What is it?”

“I’m not sure. It’s very faint…”

“What is?”

“I think Avon is here…”

“Are you sure?”

“But he is some way from us.”

“Why didn’t Blake come down here? Why send Avon?”

“You will need to ask him that……but it is Avon.”

Jenna decided against asking any further questions. If Avon found out that Cally was seemingly tuned to him, that could cause some embarrassment. She turned her attention to the main door again; if only they could get through it, then they could find Vila and Gan. But then what? Mr Lavaliere had the teleport bracelets and he would hardly be conducive to allowing his two new possessions and evening entertainment to leave. If Avon were here, then it was possible that he was going to find them and get them out of this mess.

There came a noise from the other side of the locked door. Jenna froze and looked at Cally. The Auron woman was as surprised as she was.

“Avon?” Jenna asked Cally quietly.

Cally shook her head, somewhat puzzled as she couldn’t sense who it was trying the handle. She shrugged and then produced the small weapon she had secreted in her boot.

For a moment Jenna was shocked. “I told you not to bring that. We are lucky that Mr Lavaliere didn’t know you enough to order a thorough search.”

There was no time for Cally to react as the door swung open.

One of Mr Lavaliere’s men was standing there, awkwardly carrying two jugs and having some trouble operating the locking system.

Jenna and Cally were about to launch an impromptu attack when they saw a woman appear right behind the man and smash the tray she was carrying over the totally unprepared man’s head.

“My name is Ilva,” she said, stepping over the prone body of the now unconscious guard, “I need your help.”

“You need our help?” Jenna asked, taken aback.

“Your man, Vila, was unjustly accused by that woman, Kirin. Because of her, I was not the chosen one. It is I who should have worn the Carcanet; it is I who should have sat there and taken the allegiance. But she took that away from me, just as she took Golsher. I need you to help me persuade Mr Lavaliere that she is not who she appears to be.”

Cally studied the woman, “This Kirin is not an outlaw?”

“You saw her? Then look at me, look at the other women. Men are bewitched by her. Please, help me reach Mr Lavaliere. He needs to know that while she was on our ship Kirin sent a message. We don’t know who to, but Golsher refused to listen. He said I was woman scorned.”

“That woman knows who we are,” Jenna murmured, “Which makes me think that you are right, Ilva. We need to get Vila and Gan, although I suspect that Vila has told Mr Lavaliere everything. But not like this.”

Ilva watched in stunned amazement as both women deftly detached the skirts from their dresses to reveal matching cat suits. They were now more suitably attired for taking on anyone who tried to get in their way.

Jenna quickly searched the fallen guard and found a small gun, “Right Ilva, just take us to where Vila and Gan are. Then leave the rest to Cally and me.”

~ * ~

Blake was sitting in the teleport section, too worried to leave just in case someone, anyone, called in asking for immediate teleport. He asked Zen again if there was any change in the security field.

There was none.

Any change on the long range scanners?

None.

Blake put his head in his hands, suddenly seeing his whole plan to strike back at the mighty Federation evaporating before his very eyes.

~ * ~

Avon stood quite still, not in the slightest concerned that Mr Lavaliere had addressed him by his actual name.

“Che Vron was an excellent choice of name,” Mr Lavaliere informed him.

“I am so pleased that you approved.”

“Che Vron, a renowned mineralogist, who has come to Spherule to see the equally renowned Carcanet.”

“The latter part of that statement is correct.”

“But where are my manners? Please allow me to introduce you to my latest acquisition, Kirin. Is she not beautiful?”

Avon shifted his gaze from the rather unedifying form of Mr Lavaliere to that of the statuesque woman standing beside him; no, not standing, posing. Her attributes shown to their best advantage and the expression on her face leaving nothing to the imagination.

“Charmed, I’m sure. But I came here to see the Carcanet. It is a gap in my knowledge which I find displeasing.”

Kirin took that comment as a slight against her. She was used to men becoming intoxicated by her presence, such was the skill she had acquired over the years, but this one just seemed to regard her with complete indifference. There had been a fleeting moment, at first, but that had evaporated. Kirin had met her match and she had forgotten just how much she had enjoyed such a challenge.

“But then, my dear Avon, you too possess such beauty on your ship, the Liberator,” Mr Lavaliere continued, seemingly unaware that a battle of wills was being conducted under his very nose.

“Somehow, I do not think either Jenna or Cally would appreciate your choice of the word possess.”

“Of course, forgive me. I forget that such primitive concepts are alien to men such as yourself and Blake. Do not feign surprise, Avon, of course I know about your ship, about Blake and, due in no small part to Vila, these teleport bracelets.”

“And I can imagine you took great delight in getting that information out of him. I know a great deal about you, as well, due in no small part to Jenna.”

Mr Lavaliere laughed, not a warm laugh, but one which sent a chill down Avon’s spine. He watched as the elegant, refined man placed the bracelets on the dais.

“Yes, dear Jenna. Do you know that I have had very many offers for her from these Outlaws? They would find her a great boost to their standing if they ‘possessed’ her.”

“I can’t see Jenna agreeing to that.”

“She will, eventually. And then there is Cally. She fascinates me. A totally exquisite woman…don’t you agree, Avon?”

Avon chose not to comment.

“You have nothing to say? Well, I intend to keep her for myself. Another beautiful addition to my collection. But, you came here to see the Carcanet, not discuss the merits of owning beautiful women.”

Mr Lavaliere slowly led Kirin towards Avon, ostensibly so that he would observe the necklace at close hand. Avon for his part was intrigued by the glittering gems and that annoyed Kirin even more. She was now standing directly in front of Avon, and still nothing.

Even as Mr Lavaliere unfastened the Carcanet, Kirin’s eyes were fully focussed on Avon. She could not understand why he was not reacting like Golsher, or even Mr Lavaliere.

Avon took the proffered necklace from his host and this time favoured Kirin with a warm smile, “Thank you. May I say that this Carcanet is a beautiful object, but it does not compare to you.”

It was then that she saw what was in Avon’s dark eyes; there was no warmth, just a deep, cold void. Something had happened to this man, something that not even Kirin, with all her alluring charms, could possibly alleviate.

Mr Lavaliere turned his attention to Kirin once again, “Avon and I have many things to discuss, Kirin. You may go to my quarters and I will join you once we have concluded our business.”

“My Lord, I am yours to command.” She bowed her head as Mr Lavaliere kissed the back of her hand.

Just for a moment both men watched as she took her leave of them and slowly walked away.

Whatever the enthralling attraction afforded by Kirin’s presence, there were more pressing matters to which to attend.

“Such beauty,” sighed Mr Lavaliere wistfully, “I trust you won’t prolong our meeting. I do so hate to keep a lady waiting.”

“I can understand why,” Avon replied, fixing Mr Lavaliere with a condescending stare, “But in your case, I think the lady in question would welcome the delay.”

Mr Lavaliere’s face clouded over with anger, much to Avon’s obvious amusement.

 

Chapter 15

Unseen by either man, Kirin had quietly taken one of the teleport bracelets. Now was her chance to ingratiate herself completely with those who had sent her out on this mission. Not just to gain the famed Carcanet, but the capture of the escaped Federation prisoner Blake and his newly acquired ship, which she now knew to be called the Liberator.

Kirin knew that even in the last few months, news of Blake had spread and it was causing the Federation untold damage. No matter how hard they had tried to suppress the news, it had still got out.

The incident on Saurian Major had provoked all sorts of theories, but the one which resonated the most was that it was Roj Blake; he and his ship with at least two other crew members had caused the Federation untold disruption in that part of Space. And now, he was here, orbiting in that strange unknown ship, above Spherule and, hopefully, alone.

For Kirin it was an opportunity too good to miss. Bartolomew would have his Carcanet, but the Federation would have Blake.

Taking the bracelet, she walked out into Mr Lavaliere’s private gardens, knowing that she could walk here unchallenged by any of his menials. All she had to do now was find the limit of the security field and then put her plan into action.

Ilva had stood back in admiration as Cally had led the way to the not so desirable prison cells into which Mr Lavaliere had put Vila and Gan.

Most of the guards had at first questioned their presence there, but both Jenna and Cally had put them out of their misery when no explanation had been forthcoming.

Now the three women were outside the cell. But on this occasion, none of them possessed a key and a quick search of the last fallen guard revealed that he, neither, had the key.

Jenna hammered on the door, “Vila. Gan. Are you all right?”

“Well I am,” came back Gan’s voice, “But Vila is just a little frightened.”

“Vila,” Cally said, joining in, “We need you to open the door.”

“Oh no,” Vila replied, “You’re not tricking me like that. He’s out there, somewhere.”

“Vila,” Gan implored.

“No,” Vila said, cowering in the far corner, “I can’t.”

~ * ~

Blake’s nerves were now on a knife’s edge.

No response from Jenna or Cally.

No response from Vila or Gan.

And now, Avon.

He tried the communicator channel again.

Nothing.

Just static.

Then he heard it.

Very faint.

It was Jenna; requesting immediate teleport.

Blake didn’t hesitate.

He operated the teleport.

But it wasn’t Jenna standing there with a small weapon trained on him.

 

It was a stranger; a very beautiful stranger.

He was totally dumbstruck and any thoughts of operating the teleport to return her from whence she came, evaporated as she stepped forward.

“My name is Kirin. And you must be Blake.”

“Yes, I’m Blake.”

“I’m so sorry for the subterfuge.”

“Where are my crew?”

“I’m afraid that Mr Lavaliere has plans for them. So really, it’s just you and me.”

“And who, exactly, are you?”

~ * ~

Mr Lavaliere was not best pleased with Avon, at all. He certainly wasn’t used to be spoken to in such a manner, and he was inwardly very angry.

“Tell me, why did Blake send you down to see me?”

“Oh, Blake wanted to come in person, but I persuaded him otherwise.”

“That was most considerate of you.”

“I thought so,” Avon replied, watching Mr Lavaliere’s every move, mindful of Jenna’s warnings about keeping him at arm’s length.

“It was very prudent of you. Especially as the reward on his head is very tempting. In fact, I don’t think I would have been able to stop these Outlaws from each getting their share.”

“I told him that.”

“Of course there is a reward for you, not as great, but still quite appealing.”

“Really,” Avon said, just a little dismayed with the revelation that he wasn’t of such great value.

“I don’t think you came here merely out of the kindness of your heart or even for a change of scenery. I suspect that there are other reasons. Perhaps a connoisseur’s desire to see everything for which Spherule is famed?”

“Perhaps.”

“Would I be correct in thinking that you have other interests other than those shared by your friend, Blake?”

“Lavaliere, I’m not one for riddles….”

“Mister Lavaliere,” he corrected.

Avon didn’t reply. It was obvious that Mr Lavaliere put great stress on the status that he believed should be accorded him. And Avon’s total lack of regard for that status stuck in his craw.

“You displease me, Avon. I have worked hard to be addressed as such, at least do me the courtesy…”

“I have seen what happens to those who displease you.”

“Ah, you came in by the foreshore. Yes, it does seem barbaric but it seems to entertain my guests. In fact, your two erstwhile colleagues, Vila and Gan, are to be the entertainment for this evening.”

“That is not what Blake has in mind.”

“No? I don’t suppose he has. But what did you have in mind?”

“Other than wanting to see this Carcanet personally, I did come here, principally, to find Blake’s crew and return them to the ship.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Oh you can; and you will.”

“I’m afraid your threats are meaningless, Avon. While I possess that beautiful necklace that you have in your hands, then the Outlaw Accord are sworn to protect me. It only needs one signal, and those outlaws who are still sober will come to my aid. Besides, apart from the entertainment on offer this evening, there are many who wish to bid on the lovely Jenna.”

Avon shook his head, “I don’t think so…”

“And then there is the beautiful, exquisite Cally. You know, you upset Kirin earlier. She is used to being admired…yet you seemed totally unmoved.”

“I am sorry.”

“…..but when I spoke of Cally, there was a flicker, very brief, but the mention of her name seemed to affect you…..”

“You are mistaken,” Avon said. As far as he was concerned, Cally was someone not to be trusted. He did have an inner fear that she could, perhaps, read his mind, although she had insisted that was not true. But there was still something that troubled him; she may not be able to reach into his thoughts, but there was a distinct possibility that her abilities enabled her to be aware of his inner feelings. That worried him.

Mr Lavaliere studied the impassive man before him, “Am I?”

~ * ~

Blake was finding his unexpected visitor strangely compelling. She had insisted on being shown the Flight Deck of the Liberator and the small gun in her hand was proving to be most persuasive. But as they walked along the corridors towards the heart of the Liberator, Blake was calculating if he would be able to overpower the woman walking just a step behind him.

He had always considered himself a perfect gentleman, a credit to his Alpha status, but the prospect of possibly raising a hand against a member of the female of the species was beginning to play on his mind. Yet it wasn’t as if this Kirin was a typical example of the kind of women who Blake had had occasion to mix with while under the auspices of the Federation. She was well over six feet tall; taller than Blake himself by a few inches and she was powerfully built. Her physique well-toned, yet distinctly feminine.

It was a difficult decision to make, but Blake decided he would have to risk it…

Seconds later, he regretted his decision.

It had all happened in a blur.

He was now flat on his back in the corridor with Kirin standing over him, the point of her stiletto heel at his throat.

“That was very stupid of you. I can easily kill you in a variety of ways, none of which would be pleasant for you. I only have to put a little weight on this foot…and you’re dead. Now get to your feet and take me to the Flight Deck. Next time, you won’t be so lucky.”

Blake looked at the delicate shoe and allowed his eyes to travel up to the owner of that shoe. ‘She is beautiful,’ he thought, ‘but she is also decidedly deadly,’ “All right, we’ll go to the Flight Deck.”

“Now, was that so difficult?”

It was a short, uneventful walk and when they reached their destination, Blake sat on one of the forward couches as Kirin slowly examined each flight position. As she did so, she tapped a message into the small device in her hand.

“I presume that was you sending those messages from down there earlier,” Blake said.

“Correct.”

“We are along way out…..”

“This utilizes state of the art communications…don’t worry your little head about it. Are you able to fly this ship without a crew?”

“No.”

Kirin sighed, “Let me guess, that Stannis woman is your pilot?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.”

“I should have known. I was hoping that you and I could have taken this ship of yours to the nearest Federation base.”

“Sorry, no.”

She looked at Blake. He was staring at the floor, annoyed with himself. “Don’t be angry with yourself. I think your main concern should be Avon…when I last saw him, he was holding the Carcanet in his hands. And he seemed most delighted. You know he could keep that, hand you and your crew over to the Federation…..and live an extremely comfortable life.”

“Mr Lavaliere owns the Carcanet.”

“I have a feeling that Avon’s interest in it is such that Mr Lavaliere will have a great difficulty in retaining ownership of it. And then, of course, Avon will have everything that once belonged to him…”

“Avon isn’t like that.”

Kirin stepped down from the flight position and came round behind Blake, “Isn’t he? Are you sure?”

~ * ~

“Vila. This is Cally. You must open the door.”

“How do I know I can trust you?”

“Vila?” Cally replied, somewhat shocked.

Gan tried to reason with him, “Look. I know he scared you almost to death, but with Cally and Jenna we’ve got a better chance of getting out of here in one piece.”

“In case you’ve forgotten, he took our bracelets. What are you going to do? Ask him nicely to hand them back?” Vila answered.

This time, Jenna tried to persuade him, “Vila, we need you. Cally and I can’t just walk away and leave you and Gan to face whatever that man has planned. Besides,” Jenna began, looking at Cally, “Avon is here, somewhere.”

“Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place?”

~ * ~

“I’m sure,” Blake said flatly. He wasn’t sure at all, but he didn’t want Kirin to see that doubt. He was worried, though, about the fact that she was now right behind him.

“And you trust him?”

“Yes….now do you…”

He stopped what he was about to say, as her hand slowly caressed his shoulder and then the back of his neck. He swallowed.

“You know, there are men who would kill to be in your place right now?” Kirin whispered softly.

“I can think of one who wouldn’t,” Blake replied, hoping he sounded a lot more self-confident than he actually felt.

“Oh yes. Avon. I think you’ll find that you and he are in the minority,” she purred.

“I want my crew back.”

“Do they really mean that much to you?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact they do.”

Suddenly, the small device in Kirin’s hand sounded. She looked at it, her hand absently trailing through Blake’s hair. Whatever the message was, it was short.

Kirin leant down, so close that Blake could feel her breath on his cheek, “Today is your lucky day. It seems that someone else shares my view regarding your colleagues. I have to return to Spherule, now. And you will teleport me.”

“Why?”

“You said yourself, you need your crew. I don’t; they will merely get in the way. You teleport me back and I will make sure they return to you. I have a great deal of influence over Mr Lavaliere.”

“How do I know I can trust you?”

“You don’t. Just as you don’t know if you can trust Avon.” She gently caressed his face with her long, delicate, manicured fingers, “Shall we go?”

~ * ~

Avon was still looking at Mr Lavaliere.

“Yes, Cally,” Mr Lavaliere continued, “A most beautiful, intriguing woman. I sense something about her. She is most fascinating.”

“Cally’s home planet is Auron….”

“….oh! A telepath. The delights just increase. No wonder you are so, shall we say, fascinated by her.”

“What fascinates me is not the issue here.”

“Of course not. But even the mention of her seems to agitate you. Avon, we are men of the world..”

“Speak for yourself…”

“Very well, let us speak of it no more. Do you find the Carcanet equally fascinating? The Outlaw Accord have their own research facility. When these precious stones were found and we discovered what we could do with the crystals…well, it was decided that not one Outlaw could be allowed to have all that power to themselves. So it was entrusted to me. I accepted the position to be its guardian.”

“That was very gracious of you.”

“I thought so. It gave me all this. A planet, my own palace so to speak…”

“Your own playground. Where you can do what you like, how you like, when you like. Sometimes too much power….”

“Avon, there is no such thing as too much power.” As he spoke, Mr Lavaliere’s eyes were watching the scanner screen. Suddenly, he saw several figures making their way towards his mansion. He knew that normally his guards would be able to stop such intruders, but in this case, it might not be so simple. For leading the group were Jenna and Cally.

“You may notice,” Mr Lavaliere continued as calmly as before, “That each crystal is cut precisely; each facet reflects the light so incandescently. It’s mesmerising…isn’t it?”

So saying, Mr Lavaliere turned towards Avon who was indeed mesmerised by the Carcanet, now nestling in his hands, each perfect crystal perfectly set. A dazzling tribute to not just the research scientists but to the jeweller who had conceived and created this masterpiece.

“So mesmerising,” Mr Lavaliere, murmured, “That a man can quite forget exactly where he is.”

It was like a bolt from the blue.

Avon was jolted out of his contemplation of the necklace by Mr Lavaliere’s hand closing around his neck.

“Stupid of me,” Avon rasped.

“Your words. Not mine,” Mr Lavaliere hissed and looked up to meet the horrified looks of his uninvited guests, “It only takes a single movement; a single involuntary spasm…and he dies.”

Chapter 16

Gan was about to go forward, but Jenna’s hand clamped down on his arm. Vila had taken refuge behind Cally and was tentatively peering over her shoulder. He swallowed hard.

This was not good.

Not good at all.

He looked sideways, searching for Ilva, the outlaw woman who had been instrumental in freeing them. She was cowering out of sight, just in case Mr Lavaliere saw fit to exact revenge against her by way of Avon.

Avon was facing them, the necklace still in his hands. Almost directly behind him stood the tall, imposing figure of Mr Lavaliere, his left hand clasped around Avon’s neck; his elongated, ring-bedecked fingers, lightly touching the other man’s skin.

Under the circumstances, Avon seemed quite controlled, but Mr Lavaliere knew that not to be the case. Beneath the palm of his hand, he could feel the pulse of his victim quickening.

“Now, what have we here? A rescue party? How quaint.” Mr Lavaliere’s tone was one of utter contempt, “I won’t ask how you escaped. We wouldn’t want to incriminate any of my servants, would we?”

“Let him go,” Jenna said quietly and evenly. She was petrified that if any one of them made a move then it would be over for Avon. She knew that one, or more, of those rings now pressing slightly against his neck contained a fast-acting poison.

“I don’t think so. Now, if you don’t mind, you can all leave, the exact way you arrived.”

“Not without Avon,” Cally put in.

Mr Lavaliere smiled a quite nauseating smile, “Especially without Avon. Your bracelets are there, on the dais. Take them and go. But he stays with me…as does the Carcanet which he so coveted. There is much he can tell us…and our research facility will so enjoy getting the information from him; the teleport for instance.”

“I won’t ……” Avon began quietly.

“Shh…please, you don’t want to make me nervous, Avon.”

Jenna cast her eyes over the dais; there was a bracelet missing, “We’ve only three bracelets, Mr Lavaliere.”

“Three?” That puzzled him. He had most certainly placed four bracelets there. Could Kirin have taken one? If so, why? She most probably had her reasons. But there would be time for explanations, later. He continued, “Then I suggest you get back to your ship and get another…and quickly. But, before that, Vila!”

“Yes!” Vila stood still, wondering what this murderous individual had planned next.

“Vila. Would you be so kind to come over here and take the Carcanet from Avon? I think he has finished admiring it now. And do it quickly.”

Vila didn’t seem so sure that this was the right thing to do. But considering who was ordering him to do it…he thought it best to comply.

Mr Lavaliere watched as Vila approached, enjoying the small man’s obvious discomfort, “Why don’t you take Avon’s bracelet for yourself? He won’t be needing it. Not anymore.”

Vila unclasped the bracelet from Avon’s wrist and put it on his own. As he took the glittering necklace, he glanced up and saw a very worried look in Avon’s eyes. It would only take one false move, a wrong word or a completely misread gesture and it frightened Vila no end. If he was feeling like that, what was going through Avon’s mind? To all intents and purposes, this man was calm and stoical, not given to any outward displays of inner emotion. But just for a second, as they exchange that glance, Vila saw something very raw…and then it was gone. Even now, in these circumstances, Avon wasn’t going to give anyone the opportunity to see just what was going on deep inside.

Vila took the necklace in his hands and waited for Mr Lavaliere’s next command.

“Put it in its rightful place, Vila. On that velvet cushion if you don’t mind.”

Vila backed away, slowly.

And then the Carcanet fell from his hands.

It crashed to the floor.

Avon felt his heart miss a beat.

The others looked on in absolute horror.

“Sorry,” Vila said, grovelling for the necklace on the floor. He quickly picked it up and put it on the cushion, giving Mr Lavaliere a rather sheepish look, “Nerves.”

“And now you will leave. I’m so sorry it had to end like this Jenna. But I’m sure my waiting buyers will understand. As for you, Cally, I will mourn your loss.”

Jenna’s hand was still on Gan’s arm. She could feel the anger in him, but there was nothing this mountain of a man could do. No-one could. They were all powerless, faced by a deceptively dangerous man, who held the life of one of their own, literally in his hands.

They slowly backed out, Jenna having to take Cally reluctantly with her.

“This isn’t right,” the Auron insisted.

“Maybe not, but Avon won’t thank you if we don’t do as we are told. We have got to get out of here, now!” Jenna pointed out.

“Just give me one second with that man,” Gan growled.

“Please, we have to leave, quickly. There is every possibility that Mr Lavaliere has told the Federation about us. I wouldn’t put it past him.”

The four of them retraced their steps to the outside world, passing the stirring bodies of the guards they had temporarily incapacitated. Every few seconds, Jenna tried to contact the Liberator. Nothing. Was Blake still up there? Or had he decided it was safer to leave?

Suddenly, Cally stopped. “I have to go back.”

“Why?” Jenna asked.

“We’ve only just got out of there!” Vila informed her in no uncertain terms.

Cally looked in the direction of Mr Lavaliere’s mansion. The feeling she had was growing more intense. “I’m going back.”

“In that case, I’m coming with you,” Gan said.

“Jenna. I must do this. I lost my friends on Saurian Major; I don’t want to lose any more. You must get back to the Liberator, now….”

Vila’s terrified expression said it all.

“….and take Vila with you. Please, let me do this. If you think anything of me…..you will.”

For a moment Jenna and Cally seemed locked in an unspoken conversation.

Vila was moving away, frantically calling for teleport. When he received the response he so desperately needed, he shouted for Jenna; but she was watching in silence as Gan and Cally began their walk back to Mr Lavaliere and Avon.

~ * ~

Blake’s first words were, “Where’re Avon…Cally…Gan?”

Jenna stepped out of the teleport, “Cally and Gan have gone back.”

“What?”

“Mr Lavaliere has Avon and he will kill him….”

Blake was on his feet, reaching for a teleport bracelet.

Jenna handed him her gun, “You’ll need this and another bracelet. It looks as though Kirin has taken one….” She stopped. There was a faint smell of perfume in the air, one that she recognised, “She was here, wasn’t she?”

“Jenna, get to the Flight Deck. Vila, you stay here by the teleport, we may need a very fast pick up.”

Vila tried to say something.

But Blake was trying to ignore the accusing look being aimed at him by Jenna. “Go!”

Vila did as he was told and tried to catch Jenna, but she was already making her way to the Flight Deck. And she was not best pleased.

“But, Jenna…I….” Vila fell silent. He slumped into the seat behind the teleport console, “Why doesn’t anyone ever listen to me?”

Chapter 17

For Avon, it felt as if time was standing still.

He had watched them go, willing himself not to give Mr Lavaliere the dubious pleasure of letting them see him become overcome with growing unease. But he knew that Mr Lavaliere was acutely aware of what Avon was going through.

“I have had stronger men than you beg for mercy, Avon. For all your brave words, for the brave show you put on for your friends, there is that little spark of doubt. I wonder if they know exactly what is concealed behind the masquerade that is Kerr Avon.”

Kirin had watched the final moments of the Liberator’s crew retreat from Mr Lavaliere’s inner sanctum, and now she felt perfectly safe to re-enter.

Soon, the Federation would be here and soon Bartolomew would have his prize…the Carcanet. Now she just had to make sure that it was with her when the troops arrived.

She composed herself and then stepped out, to be confronted by Mr Lavaliere holding Avon in his grasp.

“My Lord. Is all well? I was concerned for your safety.”

“All is well, my dear Kirin. As you can see, it is not safety with which we should be concerned. What do you think we should do with him?” Mr Lavaliere asked, slightly increasing the pressure on Avon’s neck.

Kirin smiled, “That, my Lord, is your prerogative.”

“My Lord.” It was Ilva, suddenly finding courage to come out of her hiding place and confront the woman who had totally destroyed her life, “My Lord, hear me. This woman, Kirin, she is not what she seems. See, she wears the mark of Blake.”

“Kirin?”

“It is but a trinket,” Kirin replied.

“My Lord, is it not strange that they arrived here so soon after she came here with Golsher? Even while with him, her treason was evident. Communications were discovered to have come from her, but Golsher would not listen. He was bewitched by her, just as you have been, my Lord. She has betrayed you.”

Kirin glared at Ilva. If Mr Lavaliere listened to her, then all would be lost.

“Is this true, Kirin?” Mr Lavaliere asked.

For Avon, being caught in the midst of this uncertainty was rapidly putting what remained of his nerves on edge. It only needed Mr Lavaliere’s so far benign attitude to change to one of anger and that could cause serious problems. Avon could feel the tension growing in his captor’s hands…and then it was there; that feeling; the same one he had experienced on the Liberator and on Saurian Major.

Cally was somewhere. If Mr Lavaliere so much as suspected that the Auron woman was making her way back or, even deign to look at his security scanner, then there was no knowing what this man would do.

Why?

Why was she risking not just his life, but her own?

~ * ~

Blake found himself hurrying towards the mansion, its doors still opened. He passed several guards, all of whom were in the process of coming to. He was mindful that if any of the Outlaws even suspected that he was now among them, they would take their chance to grab themselves some glory. He felt the comforting weight of the gun in his hand; if necessary, he would have to fight his way out.

Moments later he found himself in the inner sanctum and there were Gan and Cally, watching as an unexpected scenario was played out before them.

It was Cally who turned to face him, her fingers to her lips.

Whatever was taking place was not to be interrupted.

Kirin was facing an angry Ilva; and Ilva was in no mood to listen to any more lies.

“This woman took everything from me,” Ilva was saying, “and now she will take everything from you, my Lord. She is one of Blake’s crew.”

“My Lord, do not listen to her. She is gripped by jealousy. I am not one of Blake’s people…”

Mr Lavaliere was listening though and Ilva decided to press home her argument.

“Ask her about the small device she carries. That is how she is able to maintain contact with them.”

“If this is so,” Kirin began, “Then why would I have attacked that man, Vila? He is one of Blake’s men, is he not?”

“Because you knew that he wanted the Carcanet for himself. You had to be rid of him.”

“My Lord, this woman is clearly demented….”

“Ask her where she went after she left you, my Lord….” Ilva said, about to play her trump card, even if it was a downright lie, “It was she who freed the ones called Jenna and Cally. I saw her.”

Mr Lavaliere was now getting angry, “Is this true, Kirin?”

“My Lord, these are the words of a woman scorned. It is because Golsher decided to take me and throw her aside. She is consumed by hatred for me and for you.”

Ilva saw the look of contempt in Kirin’s grey-green eyes. To this woman, Ilva was nothing, a mere bagatelle to be used and then thrown away as and when her usefulness had ceased. The resentment deep in Ilva’s heart began to burn. And it hurt. The hatred began to sear her very being and Ilva knew that the time had come.

It was a swift movement; even Kirin was unable to respond as she was fully preoccupied with watching Mr Lavaliere.

The small, sharp bladed knife flew from Ilva’s hand and found its mark in Kirin’s heart.

For a moment, it was if time had slowed its unrelenting march.

Kirin slumped to the marbled floor, her last breath leaving her body silently.

Mr Lavaliere’s hold on Avon ceased. With the threat to his life suddenly alleviated, Avon sought the support of the nearby wall, his heart racing and an awful feeling of nausea in the pit of his stomach. He willed himself to stay on his feet. The last thing he wanted was for the others, especially Blake, to see him temporarily shaken and decidedly unsettled.

Blake quickly moved towards Mr Lavaliere, who was now on his knees, trying to cradle the lifeless form of Kirin. Both men looked at each other.

“What sort of man sends a beautiful woman to do his dirty work?” Mr Lavaliere asked.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to ask whoever sent her…because contrary to this lady’s words, Kirin is nothing to do with me. Gan, perhaps you should make sure that this gentleman’s hands don’t cause any more trouble. He’s wearing far too many rings.”

“Gladly,” Gan replied, bending to remove the numerous adornments from Mr Lavaliere’s fingers, “I don’t think you’ll be needing these any longer.”

Blake looked over to see Cally trying to help Avon to his feet, but he seemed more intent on to pushing her away. And then he turned to Ilva; standing erect and triumphant.

“She took everything from me,” the Outlaw woman began, “She took Golsher from me. She took the Carcanet from me; I was to wear it this time and she denied me that one moment. I don’t count for much, but what I had, she snatched from me.”

Blake studied the Outlaw woman. It bothered him that out here in the regions beyond the Federation’s influence, such women as she were trying to survive in an environment totally alien to him. He turned his attention to Mr Lavaliere, now divested of his rings. Hopefully, now, this monster would be rendered impotent; unable to instil fear by the mere threat of his touch.

Avon had brushed off Cally’s well-meaning aid. He didn’t want anyone to see him like this, but no matter how much he tried to project an image of well-being, he knew that she was aware that he was fighting off a distinct feeling of dizziness. She silently handed him a teleport bracelet. There was no thank you, just a brief nod and then he was busy checking the large scanner screen, hoping that she wouldn’t ask the one question he was dreading.  If she did ask if he was all right, there was every chance that Blake would want to see his response. 

Cally, for her part, decided not to pursue Avon further with regards to his health. She cast him a sidelong glance and then turned her attention to the screen. She silently watched as his hand seemed to glide effortlessly over it, calling up different images. As those images changed, he could see that there was more trouble brewing.

He snapped the teleport bracelet round his wrist, “Blake, we have a problem or two ourselves. Those Outlaws have suddenly realised that something is wrong and these scanners of Lavaliere’s indicate that there are Federation ships on their way here.”

“It would seem, Mr Lavaliere,” Blake said, standing over the fallen tyrant, “That you were wrong on both counts about this woman, Kirin. She’s not mine and she isn’t an Outlaw. Maybe you should have listened to Ilva…because she knew Kirin wasn’t who she claimed to be.”

As he spoke, he realised that Ilva was standing in front of one of Mr Lavaliere’s ornate mirrors. Around her neck was the Carcanet. It almost seemed to glow; as if it was now finally in its proper place.

“Blake!” Vila’s voice suddenly sounded over the bracelet. Avon had obviously managed to deactivate the security screen.

“Yes….”

~ * ~

All four stared at Vila.

Blake found his voice first, “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

“What….you sounded as though you were in trouble. I’ve been calling you for the last five minutes…where’s the necklace?”

“How far off were those ships, Avon?”

“Not far enough. We’ve got to get out of here now.”

“But…” Vila tried to intercede.

It was no good. They were all on their way to the Flight Deck, with Vila in hot pursuit.

“You had that necklace with in your grasp….” Avon was saying.

“Lay in a course, please Jenna. We may have to fight our way out. This time it won’t just be the Federation, but those Outlaws…”

“We came here for the Carcanet and you let that woman take it...”

“Unfortunately, Vila had other ideas…” Blake pointed out.

“You could have taken that necklace…”

“But I didn’t, Avon. I had other concerns at the time and Ilva took what she rightly thought was hers. You could always go back and get it, but somehow I think even you would have difficulty in persuading her to hand it over. We will have to think of something else…won’t we?”

Jenna stood very still, her hand on her hip, looking decidedly out of place on the Flight Deck attired as she was in her skin tight cat suit. She was listening intently to the very restrained difference of opinion taking place before her.

“Either way,” she said, “I need co-ordinates, and I need them now.”

“Excuse me,” Vila said, raising his voice, “but I believe I may be able to help.”

Every one of them turned to face him as he raised his hand and slowly opened his fingers to reveal what was nestling his palm.

“I believe you wanted one of those memory crystals?”

Chapter 18

Blake was aghast as he saw the single, glistening crystal in Vila’s outstretched hand.

“Why didn’t you say something?” Blake asked, taking it and handing it to the equally stunned Avon.

“I tried to, but no-one would listen.”

“Avon..”

“Jenna, your necklace, now,” Avon demanded. It wasn’t exactly a request, more of an order. It was Blake who responded first, quickly going to Jenna’s side and removing her own, plain simple but highly important necklace.

There wasn’t time for pleasantries and he tossed it to Avon, who neatly caught it in one hand.

“How long?” Blake queried.

“Long enough,” came the almost inaudible reply, “I will need the instruments in my cabin.” So saying, he left the Flight Deck.

Now it was up to Blake, to hold off the Federation’s approaching ships while Avon worked out exactly how that one crystal worked.

“Cally, check long range scanners; Gan, any communications from those Outlaws or the Federation? Vila, I want you to be ready to fire the Neutron Blasters.”

“You can’t shoot that lady Ilva…it’s because of her we got out,” Vila pleaded.

“I have no intention of doing that, Vila. It’s just possible that other members of the Outlaw Accord might not see it that way.”

Jenna eyed Blake, “Oh, if she has that necklace, they will take notice of her. Whoever commands the Carcanet, commands the Outlaw Accord.”

~ * ~

Ilva had watched in amazement as Blake had vanished. One moment he was looking at her and her reflection and then he had gone, as had the others.

She stood for a moment, looking at herself admiringly. This was her rightful place and the woman who had almost robbed her of that was now lying dead at her feet. Beside her body, was Mr Lavaliere, now divested of the trinkets that brought fear to all those who knew him.

Ilva tore her eyes from her reflection as the room began to fill with concerned Outlaws, most of who were still under the effects of the wine they had been imbibing.

They all stared at her and then at Mr Lavaliere.

“The Carcanet is now in my care,” Ilva said, filled with a new confidence, “But, we must leave this place not just because of this woman’s treachery, but because of this man. He, too, was instrumental in bringing the Federation here. We cannot fight them en masse, not here. We will continue our stand against them, but not now.”

Mr Lavaliere looked at her, stunned by her accusation, “No…that’s not true……”

There was a general murmuring form the gathered men. Ilva felt protected; she was now the keeper of the Carcanet and now it was time to seek complete revenge. She looked down at the quivering figure of Mr Lavaliere, no longer the master in his own house, let alone planet.

“Ven,” she called softly.

“Yes, my Lady?”

Ilva liked the sound of that. Mr Lavaliere didn’t. He suddenly found himself in a very precarious position and for the first time in his life, it frightened him.

“Ven, is the tide low?”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“You have displeased me, Mister Lavaliere, and you know what happens to those who cause displeasure?”

“No,” Mr Lavaliere cried, “Please, not that!”

“You wanted entertainment this evening, then so you shall. Bring him, Ven. He will have prime position..and this time, Mister Lavaliere,” she said bending low, “no-one will hear you scream…only you.”

~ * ~

“Zen, clear the Neutron Blasters for firing!” Vila almost shouted. On the screen were the ominous markers of the Federation Pursuit ships, no doubt being trailed by a battle cruiser or two.

+Flare shield activated; Neutron Blasters ready for firing, + Zen intoned, its voice unhurried or even unconcerned by the mounting panic now beginning to stir on the Flight Deck.

“Avon, how much longer?” Blake demanded.

A familiar voice sounded from the communicator, “Not much longer.”

“Avon, I don’t want to stay here for longer than is necessary…”

“Then I suggest a course out of here and away from the Federation...I’ll be there as soon as I can…”

~ * ~

Aboard what was once Golsher’s ship, Ilva sat in her quarters, the very ones that Kirin had taken from her.

She studied herself in the small mirror, her hands trailing across the Carcanet. While she was its keeper, no one would touch her; her words would be obeyed.

For how much longer though? The Federation was expanding. Sooner or later, the Outlaw Accord would find itself cornered by a mighty power. It was time to find another base; another planet from which to launch their own brand of defiance against the Federation.

Ilva sighed. For the moment, the Accord was hers.

The Carcanet was hers.

And no-one from the Outlaw Accord could take it from her.

~ * ~

The first Federation Pursuit ship to arrive did not wait for the others. A plasma bolt was running towards the still in orbit Outlaw Accord ships, some of whom were still waiting for their crew to come back from the surface of Spherule.

“We’ve got to get out of here, Blake!” Vila said, his fear beginning to creep in again.

“Blake, we just can’t leave those Outlaws like this,” Jenna put in, “They are like sitting ducks.”

“Well then, let’s give them a helping hand,” Blake replied, “And maybe give the Federation a taste of what the Liberator can do. I think it’s about time they found out just what they are up against. Vila, once we are under way, target that Pursuit ship. And make sure it counts. We can’t do much until Avon has finished getting the co-ordinates from that crystal.”

~ * ~

The captain of the lone Federation Pursuit ship was studying the screen before him. In orbit above the designated target was a fleet of mismatched ships, all in a state of disrepair, and seemingly ineffectual. He had ordered the firing of the plasma bolt as a warning to those on those ships and he wasn’t concerned if any were hit in the process.

And then his eye fell upon the one ship that was moving.

Moving gracefully, slowly coming to bear.

Its three nacelles bristling with weapons.

The captain had never seen such a vessel and it was ominously moving closer to him and his own craft. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the plasma bolt hit home; his mutoid crew confirmed the hit. And still that beautiful ship kept coming, faster now and closer.

Then the screen was filled by a searing, white hot light, the last thing the Federation Pursuit captain would ever see.

~ * ~

Gan’s steady voice silenced the euphoria on the Liberator’s Flight Deck.

“Three more Federation ships. Coming into range within two minutes.”

“How are those Outlaw ships doing, Vila?”

“It looks as though they are all making ready to leave orbit…and I think we should be doing the same!”

“The problem is, Vila,” Blake murmured, “They have the Carcanet and a myriad of routes to choose from. We’ve got one and unless Avon can figure out how we get those co-ordinates from that crystal then we are back exactly where we were in the first place.”

“And whose fault was that?”

A very pale and drawn Avon had returned to the Flight Deck. He handed Jenna the single set of co-ordinates. She quickly read them.

“Zen, course 12.56 32.14. Standard by 6.”

+Course accepted and confirmed. +

“It wasn’t any one’s fault, Avon,” Blake responded.

“We came here, at your instigation, to get that Carcanet. Well, you could have taken it…”

“Jenna, what about those Federation ships?”

“We may have to literally go through them.”

“Vila, range the Neutron Blasters. As soon as Liberator comes to bear, fire everything we have. I don’t want anyone to see where we are going.” Blake was standing beside Jenna, his gaze now fixed on Avon, “I had other things on my mind, Avon.”

“Really?”

The Liberator surged forward and as it did, Vila let loose three Neutron blasts. They didn’t wait to see if any of the Federation Ships had sustained damage, escaping was now the prime objective.

Epilogue

The danger had passed.

Liberator was in a free part of space, heading somewhere, anywhere, out of sight of the Federation and, hopefully, any marauding Outlaw ship that may have decided to follow.

Vila sat back in his seat and allowed his gaze to wonder over to Jenna. Blake was still standing by her, his eyes still fixed on Avon.

Vila swallowed. He turned to look at Cally. She seemed to be observing both men, as if waiting for a war of words to start.

Vila cleared his throat, “Um…about other things on your mind. I know it’s rude to stare. But is there any chance Jenna and Cally could...I mean, I know it was only for show, to fool Mr Lavaliere…but seeing you two standing there is playing havoc with my blood pressure.”

Later, much later, Cally looked at herself in the mirror. She had been a warrior for so long that she had forgotten what it was like to be admired.

Vila had noticed, but then he would.

Gan had obviously found them attractive too, but had merely smiled at them.

Avon may have noticed, but he was so engrossed in that one small crystal, that any reaction was cancelled out. Besides, once the Liberator had passed through the safe corridor of Space, Avon had quietly excused himself and gone to his cabin. Obviously, the ordeal at the hands, literally, of Mr Lavaliere, had taken its toll. He hadn’t said anything, but the stress was there, but well-hidden from everyone else. Cally decided not to tell Avon that she was aware of his inner feelings. It wouldn’t do to annoy the one person with whom she seemed to have an affinity, even if he didn’t know it.

For the moment, it was enough for Cally to know others had seen her in a different light; not as a warrior, but as an attractive woman and she found that concept strangely compelling. But that moment had passed…she was back on the Liberator, she was a warrior and she was a rebel, standing alongside Blake.

Jenna, too, was finding it a little strange. One moment, being seen as an attractive keepsake, open to the highest bidder, and now, back on the Liberator, as a pilot. The best pilot that Blake was ever likely to see, but just a pilot.

She wondered what he had made of Kirin. Now she surely would have captured his attention, but even he wasn’t speaking of her. His interest was his Cause, everything else was blanked out.

And what of Cally? Jenna still felt apprehensive about this strange alien woman, but she felt that somehow, she could trust her. In a tight spot, Cally wouldn’t hesitate. After all, she had decided to return to Mr Lavaliere’s lair. Was it because one of the crew was in danger? Or was it because the member of the crew was Avon?

That was a strange thing to even contemplate. Blake had openly considered Avon to be more like a machine; someone who was contemptuous of all he, Blake, wanted to achieve; someone who shunned any close attachments, but yet it seemed as though Cally had seen through all that bluff.

Jenna shook her head. Perhaps she was merely imagining things. She allowed her hand to wander to her necklace, once more secure about her neck.

There came a soft knock at her cabin door. It was Cally, returning the mirror. Jenna took it; maybe, now, they would have a new understanding of each other at least, whether that applied to the other crew members would have to wait and see.

Blake was alone.

He had decided to stay on the Flight Deck, allowing the others to get some rest and respite. He was waiting though, waiting for the storm that was Avon to appear any minute and once again challenge his apparent inability to secure the one item they had gone to Spherule to obtain.

The Carcanet, still in the possession of the Outlaw Accord. Hopefully, they would keep it that way.

Still, Vila had managed to obtain one, single crystal from the famed necklace and for now, that would have to be enough.

 Liberator could stay here, in orbit, out of reach of the Federation and the Outlaw Accord, while everyone recovered from their own personal nightmares.

For Blake, though, he knew that his own personal nightmare could begin at any moment.

With Avon.

Berating him, again, for not taking possession of the Carcanet.

He had already made his position on that quite clear on that just after they had accelerated away from the oncoming Federation battle fleet. Quite a few hours had passed since then, would his mood have mellowed?

“Do you mind if I join you?” It was Avon, his voice strangely acquiescent.

Blake watched him sit down opposite, his face still drained. Those few moments in the grip of Mr Lavaliere were obviously still playing on his mind.

“One single crystal, Avon.”

“One is enough.”

“All that, for one crystal…”

“Neither of us acquitted ourselves well on this occasion, but we both did have other things on our minds.”

“I could have taken it…”

“You had other concerns.”

“Concerns…..?”

“I understand you had a visitor while I was away?” Avon said, changing the subject, “A very beautiful, dangerous lady.”

“Dangerous being the operative word.”

“From that, I take it you didn’t take kindly to her demands.”

“No, I didn’t. I tried to persuade her otherwise and….put it this way, you didn’t want to upset her. She could be most persuasive herself.”

Any further discussion about the beautiful Kirin was halted by Vila, entering the Flight Deck, in the middle of a debate with Gan.

“…Look, all I’m saying is that the Outlaw Accord wasn’t all bad. All right, there was some doubt about their taste in good wine and women…but, all in all, they seemed like decent people.”

“Are you seriously telling me,” Gan said, “that you thought Mr Lavaliere was a decent sort? He was going to auction off Jenna to the highest bidder and keep Cally for himself.”

“All right, apart from Mr Lavaliere and his somewhat dubious practices.”

“And I can tell you right now,” Jenna began, from the other entrance to the Flight Deck, “Mr Lavaliere would have had a fight on his hands. No-one auctions me to anyone. And I’m sure Cally would have waged all-out war.”

Both women were standing at the top of the stairs, this time attired in their usual clothes, and noticing again that their presence hadn’t even merited an admiring glance. Just once, thought Jenna, it would be nice for Blake to see her as more than just a pilot, but while his Cause completely preoccupied him, she would just have to wait.

Cally though, didn’t mind this apparent disregard. She had been used to it for so long it had become second nature. But she did sense an affinity with Avon. Why? She had no idea, and she even doubted if Avon was actually aware that the thoughts and feelings he had long considered well-hidden were sometimes apparent to her.

 She would keep that to herself, though, for the time being.

“So, Vila, you are thinking of maybe joining the Outlaw Accord at some time?” Jenna asked, sitting down beside Blake.

“Why not? I’m a thief…they’re thieves of the highest order.”

“Could it be something to do with all that plunder they are supposed to have?” Gan asked.

“Plunder?” Vila asked innocently.

“Yes, money,” Avon put in.

“Jewellery,” Blake added.

“Untold riches,” Jenna smiled.

“Well, yes, they have all that…” Vila replied.

“…but not for long,” Cally pointed out.

“What do you mean?”

“Not with you around, they wouldn’t.”

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