PROXIMITY

 

by Sue Little and Larasati Widara
A Series 1 Blake's 7 story, set between "Seek-Locate-Destroy" and "Duel"

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Supreme Commander Servalan was pensive.

The last few weeks had seriously undermined her authority. Questions were being asked about her ability to control the rebel factions; well one faction in particular and she was now, once again, in the awkward position of having to defend her choice of commanding officer delegated to seek out that faction and neutralize it.

She stared out of the large window that dominated her office. Outside was so calm; a black backdrop with its countless of billions of stars twinkling their amusement at her. Sometimes she wished that she could block out the whole of space. It reminded her too much of everything that she sought. But one day, it would be hers. Then the doubters would be silenced…forever.

The intercom buzzed.

She stretched out a languid finger and pressed the button, “Yes.”

“Supreme Commander,” a young man’s voice echoed back over the speaker, “A message from Space Commander Travis. He is well and will be with you in two Earth days.”

“I trust the operation went as well as could be expected?”

“He reports that the cyber surgeon you instructed to attend him has done his work to a most agreeable level.”

“Good. Tell Space Commander Travis that I look forward to meeting him in due course.”

“Yes, Supreme Commander.”

The line went dead.

Servalan returned to staring out at the space vista.                                      

Somewhere out there was that rebel faction.

Led by a man who had been supposedly rendered inoperative, but who was gradually building a following.

No matter how many times any followers were negated, more seem to take their place as this man’s exploits gathered momentum.

He had to be stopped.

At any cost.

Because while he and his somewhat shambolic crew continued to cause the Federation trouble, then Servalan’s plans to reach her goal as President would be perilous to say the least.

~

Blake halted as he passed the slightly opened door of one of the secondary control rooms on the Liberator.

He could hear Avon’s voice; evidently he was having a conversation with someone, but he couldn’t make out with whom.

Suddenly, the ship lurched to one side sending Blake off balance and into the unyielding bulkhead.

“Well, it’s not that,” Avon’s voice conceded.

Blake drew in a deep breath and composed himself. Somehow he knew that entering that room with Avon in situ was going to be a somewhat daunting prospect.

“Avon…” Blake stopped, he couldn’t see the other man anywhere.

The ship lurched again.

Blake caught hold of an instrument panel and steadied himself.

“Will someone please explain what is going on?”

Avon suddenly appeared from behind a control panel.

“Oh….it’s you…”

“Avon, just what do you think you’re doing?”

“Carrying out a request for our concerned pilot. She didn’t tell you?” Avon returned to the innards of the control panel.

“No…as a matter of fact, she didn’t.”

“Maybe she had her reasons…”

“Avon….”

There was an uneasy silence, then Avon deigned to extract himself from the panel.

“Jenna feels that something is not quite right with the ship…”

“…..Feels?!” Blake asked incredulously.

Avon studied him, then a wry smile crept across his face, “And that is why she asked me and not you.”

“Oh, so suddenly you start to believe in feelings? Well, that’s a first.”

“First and foremost, Jenna is the pilot of this ship, and a very good one. If she tells me that the ship doesn’t feel right and asks me to look into it, then that is what I shall do. Feelings don’t come into it. Jenna is more attuned to this ship than either you or me.

“Now if you don’t mind, we have a few more tests to perform…”

“Where is he?” It was Vila.

The somewhat dishevelled and shaken up man was standing in the doorway holding his hand to his head.

“Where’s who?” Avon asked.

“The idiot who is throwing this ship around and not telling anyone! I’ve just been hurled out of bed…”

“Ah…” said Avon quietly. He had totally forgotten that some of the other crew members weren’t actually aware of his and Jenna’s plans.

“I think,” Blake began, “that we all need to go to the Flight Deck and ask Jenna exactly what she thinks the problem is.”

Vila rubbed the back of his head, “…and right in the middle of a nice dream too.”

 

CHAPTER 2

 

“Look, it’s difficult to explain,” Jenna was saying.

“I’ll say it is,” Vila mumbled, sitting down on one of the forward couches. He noted that both Cally and Gan were at their stations, “Excuse me, am I the only one who didn’t get the message?”

“Not quite,” Blake said, “It would appear no-one seemed it necessary to tell me there was a problem.”

“Not a problem as such,” Jenna began to explain.

“No, not a problem,” Avon said, “More of a conundrum. Jenna feels that the ship is not right. We have put the Liberator through some very violent manoeuvres…”

“You can say that again…” Vila butted in, much to Avon’s obvious chagrin.

“…and everything is perfectly all right. There is nothing mechanically wrong with the ship.”

“But still you feel that something isn’t right?” Blake asked Jenna.

“Maybe I’m just tired,” she replied. “I don’t think I’ve set foot on solid ground for any length of time for almost a year now. I spent almost eight months aboard the ‘London’, with no fresh air, only half decent rations, recycled water.”

“That’s the same for all of us,” Blake countered.

“All of us, except Cally,” Avon interjected, “but even she wouldn’t claim that Saurian Major could be considered a recreational planet of any nature.”

Cally smiled to herself.

“And Cygnus Alpha certainly wasn’t either,” Gan put in.

“Are you seriously saying that you all need a holiday?” Blake asked, aghast.

“A break..” Cally said, “A change of scenery…at least somewhere to maybe relax for a moment.”

“Relax?! We are in a middle of a rebellion…..” Blake almost thundered.

“….and as every rebel leader knows, rebellions don’t allow for rest and recreation. Do they, Blake?” Avon’s question was directed straight at Blake; its tone confrontational.

Blake looked at the man standing opposite him. Avon stared straight back. It was like playing a game of Chess; with Avon the Grand Master and he, Blake, an  unwilling participant, totally unable to avoid the traps being constantly laid for him. He could almost hear Avon saying ‘Check’.

“All right,” Blake conceded, “If you think it will help. But it needs to be somewhere a long way from the Federation; somewhere that news of our activities hasn’t reached.”

“And somewhere where we can examine the Liberator in more thorough detail,” Avon suggested, “If that’s all right with you of course, Blake. I wouldn’t want to presume anything.”

“No…of course you wouldn’t. So, where can we go, in relative obscurity, to get this fresh air, fresh water and any other items we are lacking?”

“Qorite,” Jenna offered almost without hesitation.

“Qorite?” Blake repeated.

“Yes, Qorite,” Jenna replied, “It has Space Docks and it has a nice, quiet Space Port where we can get any supplies we need.”

“And how do you know about it?” Blake asked, mindful of Jenna’s previous life. The last thing he wanted was to take the Liberator out of the grasp of the Federation and straight into the welcoming embrace of Jenna’s former associates.

“You know,” Vila began, “I’m sure I’ve heard of it; purely in the line of professional interest of course.”

“You’ve heard of Qorite?”

“It’s a bit of a back water ….”

“Everyone has heard of Qorite,” Jenna continued.

“I hardly think that Vila qualifies as ‘everyone’,” Avon pointed out.

“Well, it’s hardly likely that you or Blake have ever heard of it,” Vila replied, ignoring Avon’s insult, “Both of you have led a very sheltered Alpha Grade life. I mean an out of the way planet like Qorite would hardly meet your very high standards.”

“So you’ve been there, Jenna?” Blake queried.

“Yes….maybe once...or twice.”

“Vila?”

“No, but it was the talk of the lower grades. Somewhere to head to once you could get off Earth.”

Blake looked at the others; no-one else seemed to offer an opinion, “All right, then Qorite it is and maybe they can tell us if there is something out of kilter with the Liberator. Jenna, maybe Zen can supply you with the co-ordinates…….”

“Already done.”

Blake was somewhat taken aback by that; but he had no reason to distrust Jenna…at least he hoped not.

~

Servalan greeted Space Commander Travis as he strode into her office, “Space Commander...”

He stood stock still.

“Travis, why so formal?”

“Supreme Commander……”

“Please, do not stand to attention. You must be tired after your journey? I presume it was not too uncomfortable.”

“It was bearable...”

“And your hand? I trust the Cyber Surgeon I assigned to you did his job well?”

“Well enough.” Even as he spoke, Travis unconsciously rubbed the black clad left hand; the one shattered by his old enemy, Blake. “Your surgeon assures me that it will operate exactly as before.”

“Assures you?”

“With his life.”

Servalan studied Travis, an experienced, battle hardened Federation Officer, who now found himself somewhat ridiculed by the activities of a convicted prisoner and his colleagues.

“Tell me, Travis, how did Blake manage to defy your plan? Did that young woman not tell you everything about his ship and its capabilities?” Servalan sat down and reclined elegantly in her chair.

Travis remained standing, “She had only just joined Blake…she was not able to tell us the full details of that ship…The Liberator they call it.”

“The Liberator? How quaint. I still find it difficult to believe that one man can assemble a group capable of defeating a professional fighting force. Are Blake’s people more proficient than yours?”

“Supreme Commander, that ship is an alien craft of the most extraordinary design. As for his people; petty thieves, smugglers, murderers……”

“..and one of the most erudite computer experts within the Federation.”

“But still a criminal though.”

“And that female…Cally?”

“A freedom fighter from Auron. That much she was willing to tell me.”

“A most strange mixture of companions.” Servalan gazed at Travis, finding him strangely compelling, “What are your plans now?”

“To find Blake and that ship of his. Knowledge of him is growing..”

“I know…”

“But I need to study that ship of his.”

“Right now, I have a general order out to locate the Liberator…not to attack, but locate it. Once that is done, you and I can indulge ourselves and see exactly what we are up against. But, until then, why don’t you pour both of us a drink and then sit down, Space Commander, you will need your wits about you.”

“Wits?”

“For when you both meet again.”

 

CHAPTER 3

 

“You know,” Gan was saying, “I’ve forgotten what it’s like to eat proper food. Not that I’m complaining about what we get from the Liberator’s dispensers…….”

“You’ve been in space too long,” Vila said.

“Maybe. But Jenna could have a point. It would be nice to have some proper food, some fresh air. This Qorite, what’s it like?”

“I’ve never been there, but from what I’ve heard it’s like Paradise…..”

“Paradise?” Gan asked incredulously.

“…compared to where we are now.”

“Don’t get your hopes up too much,” Jenna remarked, sitting at her station, “We have to get there first.”

Vila slumped down onto one of the forward couches, “Don’t tell me he’s still at it?”

“But at least he’s not throwing the ship around this time,” Gan smiled.

Avon was sitting crossed legged on the floor of the secondary control room, his hands forming a steeple in front of him. He was closely scrutinising the circuit board in front of him, watching closely as the deliberately damaged component seemingly magically repaired itself. Such was his concentration that he didn’t see Blake enter the room.

“Something?” Blake asked.

If Avon had been surprised by the sudden intrusion, he certainly didn’t show it. “Possibly.”

“All right,” Blake said, sitting down beside him.

“A theory...nothing more.”

“Would you like to run it by me?”

Avon took a deep breath. He knew that he could give as complicated a reason as he liked and Blake would understand…every word. Sometimes it annoyed him that Blake never found his explanations difficult to understand; that played havoc with his superiority complex. But on occasions it proved useful, at least there was someone with whom he could discuss the intricacies of a problem; and this was such an occasion.

“Jenna suspected that the problem was mechanical. I believe it is more essential than that.”

“In what way?”

“This ship is more than a constructed machine. It may be made from metal, but its systems are more natural. It’s almost organic.”

“Living?”

“In a way. I’ve just damaged this circuit board…and it literally grew back in front of my eyes. It’s the same thing that happens when you or I cut ourselves; our inbuilt ‘auto-repair’ kicks in, so to speak.”

“Liberator’s auto-repair system; so what is the problem?”

“When I scanned the repaired section it wasn’t quite right…something was missing. Now.... if you equate that with the rest of the ship and on a much larger scale……”

“It’s not repairing itself properly.”

“Exactly. Which brings me to the next issue. Liberator was involved in a massive space battle. It was so badly damaged that its crew abandoned, obviously expecting to get back aboard when the ship was repaired….but they never did. In theory, once repaired Liberator should have tried to find its crew or at least find its way back to whoever built it. It didn’t. According to Captain Leylan, this ship was running parallel to the London…..”

“So?.....”

“The question is…did we find the Liberator, or did it find us?”

“Us?”

“Not us in general but one of us in particular.”

“Are you saying………” Blake absently looked in the direction of the Flight Deck.

“I doubt if Jenna is even aware. I’d like to think that Zen sought out and found a receptive individual.”

“What has that to do with this problem with the auto pair system?”

“I have scanned the before and after of the experiment and there is a difference with both. There seems to be a lack of an alloy in the area affected by the damage and if that is the problem here, then the damaged hull of the Liberator could be in a similar condition. We need to obtain a supply of that alloy. Once introduced back into the system, then I think you’ll find that the ship will ‘feel’ right again.”

“And where can we get this alloy?”

“A planet called Paladin….which just happens to be en route to Qorite.”

“That’s a co-incidence.”

“Indeed…..”

Blake studied Avon’s face. He was obviously still concerned about something, “But…?”

“Qorite does indeed have Space Docks, and they are fully capable of handling a ship like Liberator to check over its hull. But Qorite is also a well-known gathering point for Smugglers and Free Traders.”

“Meaning?”

Avon paused. He wasn’t happy about what he was about to ask, but he knew it had to be said, “Do you trust Jenna?”

“Well of course I do.”

“On your own admission, the first you knew of her was in that holding cell.”

“And?”

“Could Jenna be hoping to ingratiate herself with her former associates by taking you to Qorite, or has Zen maybe planted the idea in her mind?”

“Jenna wouldn’t hand me over like that.”

“Really?” Avon got to his feet, “I would.”

Blake looked up and stared at Avon, who merely smiled back before walking out of the control room leaving the other man to ponder the somewhat devastating consequences of going to this far flung, out of the way Space Port.

 

CHAPTER 4

 

Ginn Lharrson glared at the navigational computer and swore at it.

It didn’t help in the slightest, but it made Lharrson feel a lot better. Here he was, hiding in close orbit above the single moon of the one planet which orbited this binary star system, hoping that his ‘friends’ had given up the chase and gone away.

It wasn’t his fault that he hadn’t had the exact amount to repay; how was he to know that interest had been piling up over the months. Now he was in a quandary, no money and nowhere to run. That wasn’t exactly true either. He could run but he had no idea where to run to…his navigation computer had developed a temporary fault and he had no way of fixing it. The only place available was back there, a few days journey, on Qorite, but they would be waiting for him and this time he wouldn’t get away with his life.

He thumped the console again.

Then his eyes were drawn to his sensor array.

A ship, entering the system and heading his way.

It was unlike any ship he’d ever seen.

He sat down on his chair, his feet resting on the unhelpful console. As he watched, the ship came into close orbit and then stopped. Lharrson leant forward in his seat, his long fingers lazily stroking his somewhat dishevelled beard.

What could this ship want with this planet? It had been abandoned long ago; deemed too expensive to mine, yet this ship seemed interested.

Lharrson sat back and watched. If there was something down there worth having then maybe he could redeem himself and be on his way.

~

“But we all agreed that we should go to Qorite.”

“I know,” Blake said, trying to placate a very upset Vila, “But Avon insists that we need to go to Paladin and get this elusive element.”

“It makes sense,” Jenna put in, “You and he go to Paladin, while we take Liberator to Qorite to get these essential supplies and have Liberator’s hull checked over, then we come back in a few days and pick you both up. It will be killing two birds with one stone.”

“I know who I would like to kill,” Vila mumbled, “While all of you are enjoying the sun and fresh air I’m stuck on some planet looking for an element that Avon insists the Liberator needs.”

“According to Zen,” Cally assured, “The planet, Paladin, has a very Earth-like temperate environment, for most of the year, with plenty of sun and fresh air.”

“And what about the rest of the year?”

+That information is not available, + Zen replied.

“Oh, very comforting.”

Blake put a steadying arm round Vila’s slumped shoulders, “What we do know is that it is an abandoned mining station. It’s quite deserted…..”

“Why?” Vila demanded.

“Mined out, I expect.”

“But you’re not sure, are you? How long will we be dumped here?”

Jenna smiled, “Two days, possibly three. Gan’s making sure that you and Avon have enough supplies of food and water. So don’t worry.”

“Me, worry? A deserted planet, limited supplies……..what exactly are we looking for anyway?”

“According to Zen,” It was Avon, striding onto the Flight Deck and hefting the supplies’ box onto the forward couch, “we are looking for a Marine Bivalve Mollusc, something akin to an Earth species called a Geoduck. Its shell contains an element called Rhenium…..”

“A clam,” Blake declared.

Avon looked at him, “As a matter of fact, yes. I wasn’t aware that you had questioned Zen.”

“I didn’t……Natural History,” Blake smiled back.

There was a pointed pause. For a man whose memory was supposed to have been erased, Blake seemed to be able to remember quite a few facts; facts which even eluded Avon at times. And that tended to aggravate Avon somewhat…and he didn’t know why. Avon fixed Blake with a suitably piqued expression, “Naturally.”

“Are you saying,” Vila began, “that I’m about to go fishing?”

“In a manner of speaking…..” Avon said.

“……..oh marvellous.”

~

Space Commander Travis stared out of the window in Servalan’s sparsely furnished office and wondered where that escaped prisoner was; a supposedly discredited rebel leader now roaming the Galaxy in a superior space ship making a mockery of the Federation and all it stood for.

He had read all the records pertaining to those who had joined Blake in his quest, and found it somewhat disconcerting that they covered such a diverse range of individuals, none of whom in normal life would have caused any problems. But together, they were giving the impression of being a formidable force.

The attack on Centero had sent reverberations around Space Command and even some of the upper echelons in the Federation’s hierarchy were now speaking openly about Blake and his crew. To make matters worse, the rescue of that Auron woman from within the confines of a supposedly impenetrable Federation base had caused some embarrassment, not least for Travis himself. Especially as Blake had been able to smash his cybernetic hand. The hand ached, just as Travis ached deep inside. He wanted to meet Blake on a level playing field, but until then he needed to study him, his crew and his ship. That way he would have the upper hand and finally rid himself and the Federation of this burgeoning nuisance that was Blake.

He turned as the door softly hissed open. Not a deep, metallic harsh sound normally associated with a Federation Space Station, but a subtle, more feminine sound; and then she was there. Supreme Commander Servalan, resplendent in a long, white dress, clinging to her obviously feminine charms, but it didn’t stir Travis at all.

“Supreme Commander,” he murmured, returning his gaze to the black velvet vista.

“Travis. I have news. News that you may find to your liking.”

“Only if it concerns Blake.”

“Oh, it does.”

She slowly walked up to him and placed an elegant finger on his leather clad upper arm. He didn’t look at her.

“Well?”

“A ship answering the description of the Liberator has been reported in the area of a space occupied by a Space Port called Qorite. Do you know it?”

“Should I?”

“I have a ship waiting. You and I could visit this Space Port, purely as representatives of the Federation, and see for ourselves this ship of Blake’s. Would you be amenable to that?”

“Supreme Commander, I relish it. When do we leave?”

“Immediately. Just you and I, with a crew of Mutoids. Together, we can see for ourselves exactly what Blake has…then we utilize that knowledge to rid ourselves of him.”

“I look forward to it.”

 

CHAPTER 5

 

“You wanted fresh air. Well, now you have it.”

Avon was looking at a not very impressed Vila.

They had teleported down to Paladin’s surface, near to the abandoned mining complex. It was hot and the air was arid; the ground dusty.

“I thought Zen said this was a planet with a temperate climate,” Vila declared, slowly looking round him at the brown earth, devoid of any green growth.

“It’s possible his information wasn’t as complete as we had thought,” Avon replied, equally puzzled by the scene before him.

“YOU had thought…don’t drag me into this. I was all ready to go to Qorite; a nice lush paradise, cool breezes….soft sounds of babbling water….”

“You wouldn’t have liked it. A few hours and you would have been bored.”

“I was prepared to take that risk,” Vila said, crouching as something caught his eye.

“Yes, but I wasn’t. When you get bored, you….” Avon stopped in mid-sentence as Vila picked up a small, misshapen lump of rock and turned it slowly in his fingers. He quickly crouched down and joined the thief, “What is it?”

“I’m not an expert you understand….”

“…..But…”

“This rock is full of gold. And over there…..more of it.”

“Iron pyrites…surely.”

“I’m telling you, this is gold…nuggets of it. Why would anyone abandon a planet filled with this stuff?”

Avon stood and looked around him. A short walk away was the complex, just as dusty and, hopefully, just as deserted, “Maybe we’ll find out in there…at least it will be cooler.”

Even as they walked towards the building, blanched by endless days of sunlight, Vila couldn’t help but stop and pick up even more detritus. “Emeralds,” he murmured.

“Why would anyone leave a veritable treasure trove of a planet?” Avon wondered. Not expecting an answer, but wishing there was one.

They came to a halt by the main entrance.

“Do you suppose there’s anyone at home?” Vila asked.

“According to Zen, there isn’t a living soul down here, apart from those clams and other as yet unidentified marine life,” Avon replied, “But it wouldn’t do any harm to knock and then, if needs be, you can use your undoubted skill to get in. But make it quick, it’s getting hotter, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Even as he spoke, Avon glanced up at the sky, not blue as on Earth, but a strange orange, as if the upper stratosphere was reflecting the light from the suns through a pollutant of some nature.

“Suns,” he murmured.

“What,” Vila asked, caught unawares by the comment.

“Two suns. This system has a Binary system and it could be that those two suns are at their closest…which could explain the heat.”

The door slowly opened, a strange screeching noise emitting from it indicating that any lubrication had long gone. They ducked in, Avon’s gun ready just in case there was anyone still at home. The building was empty.

As they walked around, Vila couldn’t resist flicking a switch….and the air-conditioning kicked in. “Well, that’s something I suppose. I wonder if there’s any food dispensers around…or even a drink.”

Avon laughed to himself, “Your priorities never cease to amaze me.”

“If I’m going to be stuck down here with you for company then I want some home comforts. I wonder what else is here……”

~

Lharrson watched in amazement as the beautiful space craft slowly moved off on another heading, its gracefulness making him pine for something more elegant than the ship he possessed. But his wistfulness soon evaporated when his surface scanner suddenly picked up two humanoid life forms where once none had been. That piqued his interest.

“Hm…someone is down there. What have they discovered that I don’t know about?” He watched as the strange craft sped effortlessly away to a new destination. He hadn’t seen a small ship leave the mother ship, so how had these life forms got down there?

“Strange, very strange.” Lharrson sat back in his command seat. If there was something down there worth having then he certainly wanted to find out what…especially if it would placate his business partners.

~

“You do realise, of course, that Vila will not be happy about missing this trip to what he assumes is Paradise,” Cally pointed out.

“I’ll make it up to him,” Blake replied, absently watching the receding planet of Paladin. He had noticed the twin stars and wondered just what the surface of Paladin was like. Even though Zen had assured them that it was not hostile to human life, Blake still felt a little uneasy about entrusting the lives of two of his somewhat reluctant crew to the tender mercies of an enigmatic entity.

“Oh, he’ll make sure of that,” Gan said, “Tell me, Jenna, what’s this Qorite like?”

“I expect it’s changed since I was there.”

“Business or pleasure?” Blake put in pointedly.

“Both, actually. Why do you ask?”

“Jenna, some of your old friends could be there. And they may be interested in your new found friends.”

“Blake as far as they will be concerned, I will be on a new ship, with new friends and we are getting supplies for the long space journey ahead of us. They might know about you…”

“……..and they may see it as a business opportunity.”

“Then we had better make sure that that business opportunity does not present itself. You stay on board while Gan, Cally and I take advantage of the Labyrinth.”

“Labyrinth?” Gan asked

“Yes, it’s what the inhabitants call the main city on the surface. A series of interconnecting domes, under which they can grow everything they need all year round and still have enough left to trade with passing tired and listless crews of dubious character.”

“Flight time?” Blake asked, still not entirely sure that Jenna wasn’t taking him to make the acquaintance of her former associates.

“About 12 hours, then we have to find a suitably disreputable proprietor who won’t ask too many questions about us or the Liberator…..”

“About 36 hours all told. I hope this Qorite is as out of the way as you say, because if we get delayed…”

“Why should we get delayed?” Jenna queried, “Are you expecting trouble?”

“No…..but it doesn’t hurt to be cautious.”

~

Vila was investigating the contents of an equipment locker, when he came across a suit of some nature.

“What’s this?”

Avon’s investigation of the inoperative communication console was halted as he looked up to see Vila standing in front of him holding up an all in one suit, complete with attachments for air hoses.

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

“There’s a helmet in there too.”

“Really.”

“Is there something you’re not telling me?”

Avon favoured him with a quizzical expression……..

“It’s a diving suit…”

The owner of the voice couldn’t believe the speed with which the taller man spun round, his gun levelled in his direction. He raised his hands in mock surrender, “Pardon me, I didn’t mean to startle you. My name is Lharrson. I came down in my ship a few minutes ago. To be honest, I was curious about how you two got here and why. I’ve always thought this was a deserted planet and it had been mined out. But obviously I was wrong…well, there must be something here, after all you’re here…….or maybe I’ve got it wrong. Have you been marooned here? If that’s the case, I can get you off…at least I could if my computer was behaving itself. I don’t suppose either of you two know anything about computers…do you?”

Avon didn’t move.

Lharrson looked from the gun, still aimed directly at him, to the man holding it quite steadily and then to the other smaller man. This second man seemed to be waiting for his friend to speak; it was obvious who was in charge.

“Are you alone?” Avon asked in a somewhat cautious tone.

“Yes…would you mind not pointing that…..?” Lharrson stopped mid- sentence as the gun was this time raised and aimed at his head. “Okay,” he said very slowly, “Obviously, you do mind.”

“Yes, I mind very much. How did you get here?”

“As I said, my ship…”

“Yes….your ship. Computer problems you said.”

“Look, if you’re here to do some prospecting, that’s fine by me. I just need some help and then I’m on my way. Although, judging by the amount of precious stones just waiting to be picked up, I’m sure there’s enough to go round. I could do with a few such commodities…have a few friends who want repaying. You know how it is?....”

Avon glanced at Vila who could only shrug. He had no idea what to make of this stranger, who certainly didn’t appear to pose any threat.

“All right,” Avon said tersely, “I will take a look at this computer of yours. My friend here is about to go and find the items we are here for. I believe that large body of water out there might be the best place to start.”

“What?” Vila said, taken a little by surprise, “Oh yes. That…lake.” He put down the suit and made for the door, pushing past Lharrson, “Fishing.”

Lharrson watched Vila trudge out into the open and make for the large lake a short walk away.

“Fishing?” Lharrson queried.

“In a way,” Avon smiled, holstering his gun, much to the relief of the unexpected visitor. “Now this ship of yours...the sooner I can get your problem rectified, the sooner you can leave.”

“But, I was thinking of doing some prospecting myself.”

“By all means. Just stay out of my way.”

Lharrson nodded and began to follow Avon out of the building towards the ship, “Um..I didn’t get your name.”

Avon stopped and faced him, a fleeting smile directed at the young man, “I didn’t give it.”

 

CHAPTER 6

 

Supreme Commander Servalan took the proffered drink from the mutoid and then reclined, once more, in the comfortable seat just behind the flight crew of her own personal cruiser. It wasn’t a large, ostentatious craft, but it was befitting someone of her position. She pulled her faux fur coat around her with her free hand, then took a sip from the glass.

“It shouldn’t be long now. A ship answering the description of the Leb……”

“Liberator,” Travis corrected.

“…has been reported in the vicinity of a space port called Qorite. It will take a few hours to reach it, even at full speed.”

“I can wait.”

“Yes, I’m sure you can.”

“I presume, Supreme Commander, that you have considered how you intend to explain our visit?”

“A purely unofficial trip. To ensure that should our President decide to visit such a place, then his safety would not be compromised.”

“And why would he want to come to this insignificant space port?”

“To visit the renown Labyrinth. Why else?”

“I have heard of this place. Is it important strategically?”

“Not in the slightest; not yet anyway” Servalan replied, “but it is important economically to the citizens of that planet, other inhabitants of this star system and of course to those who have cause to visit it in the course of their travels.” That explanation was an outright lie, but she had no desire to furnish the man before her with more information than was desired.

“So why is Blake interested?”

“Well, you may well have the opportunity to ask him personally.”

A cold smile crept across Travis’ face, “Oh, I will.”

~

Jenna stood on the threshhold of the airlock, waiting for the docking tube to secure and the atmosphere to equalize. Blake was standing beside her.

“Are you sure about this man?”

“As sure as I am about you. Look, I’ve dealt with him before.”

“When?”

“When another of my flyers sustained damage during an argument with certain people.”

“Jenna, The Liberator can hardly be described as a flyer, not by any stretch of the imagination. So how do you intend to explain our predicament?”

Jenna smiled sweetly, “I’m conducting a test flight for a very wealthy man who, naturally, wishes to remain anonymous, but for whom money is no object. He will be more than pleased to pay handsomely once a thorough check is made of this ship’s hull…and he values discretion at all costs.”

“And he’ll believe that?”

“Why not,” Jenna replied as the door to the interconnecting tube swished open, “He has before……..”

Curt Rensor was nervously pacing the corridor by the airlock, wondering if it really was Jenna Stannis about to enter his life again.

Which was somewhat worrying.

The last he had heard, she had been arrested for smuggling, put on trial, found guilty and then sent to Cygnus Alpha… The rumours were that she had never arrived.

From various people, he had heard Jenna had escaped and was now with Roj Blake; running from the Federation and aboard a fantastic ship.

He looked out the nearby port-hole; could that really be that ship?

He’s never seen anything like it before. Suddenly, he had a nasty feeling deep inside.

Then the air lock door slowly opened and she stepped through; Jenna Stannis.

“Well…..I never thought I’d see you again Jenna.”

“You know what they say…..”

Rensor nodded towards the port hole and the ship beyond, “Is that really a private cruiser?”

“Of course it is. Why do you ask?”

“Jenna, I wasn’t born yesterday. When you contacted me and said you had a ship you wanted me to check out, I mean…look at it. That is not a private cruiser, it’s…”

“The Liberator,” Jenna said helpfully, “But as far as you are concerned, it is a private cruiser which I have brought here for you to check over the hull.”

“Jenna……I’m risking a great deal. I’ve heard all sorts of things…..”

“And where was I supposed to take it? The only space dock big enough is back towards Earth.”

“What about the yard that built it…they must have….”

“Curt, does that look like anything a Terran yard would design let alone build? Look,” Jenna said, stepping forward and playfully straightening his tunic, “All we want is for your drones to check over the outer hull.”

“Who are we?” Rensor asked, wishing he hadn’t the moment the question left his lips.

Jenna smiled at him again, “I think the less you know the better. Suffice to say, we are prepared to make it worth your while.”

“You do realise that if the Federation get wind of this, then I’m finished?”

“Curt, I will make sure that my friend rewards you more than adequately.  We won’t be here long. My other friends are obtaining supplies from the Labyrinth and I’m going to join them. Just get your drones to check the hull and we will be out of your way…..”

Rensor went pale, “They are down there, already? How?”

“I don’t think you need to know that. He said you might be worried, so here as a sign of our gratitude is a small advanced payment.” Jenna took his right hand and placed a small pouch in it.

Rensor could feel the weight and knew that there was something more than money in it, “He?”

Jenna pressed her forefinger against his mouth, and said softly, “I don’t think you want to know.”

~

Avon stood back from Lharrson’s inboard computer, satisfied that he had corrected the fault. All the while, the other man had kept up a constant conversation, trying to pry out of Avon exactly why he and Vila were here, on this planet which was rapidly heating up. Despite the unending dialogue, Avon had remained tight lipped about himself, about Vila and, most importantly, who had put them down here on this planet in the first place.

“Have you fixed it?” Lharrson asked.

“Oh yes.”

“I don’t know how to thank you…”

“Just stay out of our way. We have a job to do.”

“What about all those precious stones, gold….”

“Help yourself.”

 Lharrson rubbed his chin, “Look, this ship is small, but I can get you two off of here if your people don’t get back in time.”

“Back in time?”

“In case you hadn’t noticed it’s getting hotter. By tomorrow it could be even worse.”

Avon had noticed. It seemed strange that Zen hadn’t mentioned that little problem, but then all Zen had to go one was the information in his Databanks.

“Paladin’s proximity to the suns,” Lharrson continued, “This planet’s orbit is the reason the mining complex is abandoned. The miners had to leave it on a regular basis to avoid the heat and radiation. It just wasn’t cost effective. And then there are the almost daily sand storms during this so called Proximity period…..No, the profits to be gained didn’t compensate for all the trouble and costs. Obviously, it wasn’t the precious stones or gold the miners were looking for…….”

“Or they were,” Avon said, thoughtfully, “But those strong winds hadn’t scoured the surface enough. They abandoned Paladin before it revealed its secrets. Their loss is your gain.”

“It most certainly is and I intend to embrace it with both hands!” Lharrson said, rubbing his hands together with apparent glee. “The offer still stands.”

“Offer?”

“If your people get delayed.”

Avon studied the young man and realised that he was correct in his assumption. They would need a lift off if the Liberator couldn’t get back, “All right. Tomorrow then.”

“Tomorrow.”

Vila was waiting back in the building, standing by an air-conditioning outlet.

“Well?” Avon asked.

“I found a whole bed of those shells or clams. But they are some way down….we’re going to need that diving suit.”

Avon smiled at him.

“Oh, no.”

“Just think, you are doing this for your great leader.”

“And what about you?”

“Someone has to operate the breathing apparatus…”

“What!”

“Look, why don’t you have something to eat and then get some sleep?”

“Sleep? In this heat? What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to keep an eye on our over talkative friend, what else?”

 

CHAPTER 7

 

For a small space port, this place seemed to attract a lot of passing trade. Or so it seemed to Blake. He was watching the main view screen taking note of the various ships coming into one of the many space docks orbiting Qorite or going straight down to the space port; it was obvious that Liberator was attracting quite a bit of attention, which made Blake a little nervous. The one good thing was that they were far enough out not to have a flotilla of Federation Pursuit ships suddenly arriving.

However, just as Blake watched, a small cruiser hoved into view. He asked Zen to check on it. It didn’t appear to be an official Federation Craft. But it did seem to take a more than passing interest in Liberator, before continuing down to the space port.

The hairs on the back of Blake’s neck stood up. He had a distinct feeling that he and the others had outstayed their welcome. He reached for the communicator, “Jenna.”

“Yes?” Her voice drifted back.

“I think it’s time we left. Someone up here has just taken a good long look at the Liberator.”

“We have everything we need…….I’ll get the others. I think it’s time you introduced yourself to Mr Curt Rensor and please make sure you give him his due reward. He may well need it.”

~

Governor Hedron nervously opened the door to his office, a little perplexed as to why the Supreme Commander of the Terran Federation was paying him a visit. He had received no warning and was very worried that this was perhaps the beginning of an invasion by the back door.

“Supreme Commander Servalan…what an unexpected pleasure. Please, welcome to Qorite. May I take your coat?” His attempt at good manners was rebuffed by the attendant Mutoids who were determined to keep a respectable distance between their mistress, Servalan, and this tiresome Governor of Qorite.

For Servalan, herself, it was a rather tedious exercise, trying to convince the local dignitaries that neither she nor the power that she represented had any desire upon their planet…which was a lie of course.

Qorite and its relaxed attitude to the numerous free traders who frequented its facilities was, to say the least, somewhat too close to the borders of the Federation and such knowledge of its existence was dangerous. Unhappy rebels, forced out of their home planets could easily regroup and start a fight back. As far as Servalan was concerned, that was not to be allowed to continue and it was time to put an end to Qorite’s attraction as a bolt hole for the malcontents.

“You must be wondering why I and Space Commander Travis are here, Hedron?” Servalan said, handing her coat to the Mutoid before taking up the offer, by a very nervous Governor, of a comfortable chair “Well, there is no need to be worried, we are merely confirming that you will be able to facilitate a forthcoming unofficial visit by members of the High Council. They have heard so much about your Labyrinth and are most intrigued to see it. And then of course, there is the President…”

“Madam, I can assure you of every co-operation.”

“Then you wouldn’t mind if Space Commander Travis conducted his own…..study.”

All this time, Travis had stood unmoving, looking out at the vast open space which surrounded the Labyrinth. The concourse, below, seemed to be busy, but not unduly crowded. People were coming and going from their ships to the covered stalls, the permanent shops and the soaring domes.

“Travis.”

He didn’t react.

Servalan lowered her voice; it was softer, for she knew that Travis was focussing on something far more important than a local dignitary, “Travis.”

“Yes?”

“Would you care to see the facilities and, of course, the Labyrinth for yourself?”

“Indeed I would, Supreme Commander, indeed I would.”

~

Night had descended on Paladin; it was cooler, but still very warm and very dry. Even the breeze failed to lessen the uncomfortable heat.

For Avon though, the brief respite from the burning suns, was not enough for him to rest. He had pulled up a chair and was staring out of the door towards Lharrson’s ship. He couldn’t see the young man, but he could hear him, moving around the surface. Sometimes it had gone quiet, but Avon reasoned Lharrson had decided to investigate one of the mines. Whatever he was doing, he was being very thorough.

The only other noise was the rhythmic sound of Vila’s breathing; he was in a deep sleep, occasionally punctuated by a soft snore. Avon smiled. He envied the thief; able to fall asleep almost anywhere. He, himself, had forgotten what it was like to sleep so deeply. That pleasure was long gone. Sometimes he wished he could just curl up and shut the world, the Universe, out.

Avon took a deep breath. He would let Vila sleep. Tomorrow they were to have an early start and, hopefully, get one or maybe two shells. It wouldn’t require much of the alloy, just enough to kick start the Liberator’s auto-repair system, but right now, it was better that they both rested, because tomorrow could prove to be a very trying experience.

~

Jenna sighed. Her simple moment of relaxation was over. She was on one of the loungers on a terrace outside of one of the Domes that made up the Labyrinth. Here she could soak up the sun, breathe the fresh air and generally watch the other inhabitants and visitors go by.

She got to her feet. Now she had to contact the others. Gan and Cally were inside the Labyrinth, both completely spell bound. They had left her to get the supplies they needed and now she had several containers at her feet. Apart from the vitamins and other supplements, Jenna had even managed to convince them to choose some of the fresh produce on offer. Gan had been transfixed by some of the fruit….even questioning the advisability of eating it.

Sighing, Jenna pressed the button on her teleport bracelet, “Gan, respond please.”

There was static and then Gan’s voice came through, “What is it Jenna?”

“It’s time to leave. Blake thinks too much notice is being taken of Liberator. I’m where you left me, I’ll contact Cally.”

~

Cally was wandering around a thickly wooded part of the Labyrinth. She stopped to look up and above the branches she could see the criss-crossed girders of the huge glass dome under which the inhabitants of Qorite lived in relative comfort all year round; if they wanted to. If they chose to live outside as nature intended, then that was their right.

She marvelled at the trees, their green leaves full of life. Everywhere, there was abundant insect life, all busy scurrying about the verdant vegetation. Cally, sighed, it really was a Paradise, just as Vila had said. And it was peaceful. Here there were no other thoughts or feelings; just hers. Her eye caught a beautiful blue azure butterfly and she stretched out her hand to touch it…

The black glove closed around her wrist and she was pulled roughly to her feet.

Travis.

“Well, look who we have here,” he snarled. He roughly wrenched the teleport bracelet from her wrist, “You won’t be needing this; not now. You and I have unfinished business.”

~

Curt Rensor was totally absorbed in the screen in front of him. The readouts were coming in fast and furious now. Each drone was reporting its findings, and every new fact made Rensor sit up in wonder.

His office door slid open.

“I’ll be with you in a moment…”

“Take your time. There’s no great rush. Not yet…anyway.”

It was a gruff voice, not threatening, but one that seemed to demand and expect immediate notice.

Rensor slowly looked up, expecting to see a Federation official, or worse, standing there. He swallowed, it appeared to be neither.

“Can I help you?.....Sir?”

“You already have,” Blake said reassuringly, realising that his sudden unannounced appearance had perhaps unsettled the man in front of him, “Do you have the information Jenna asked for?”

“You’re…you’re...”

“It’s better you don’t know. Have you the report she requested on the hull of my……….ship?”

Rensor nodded, “It’s almost ready, just a few more minutes.”

“I may not have just a few more minutes. I think we have overstayed our welcome and besides, I have two of my crew waiting for me on Paladin. And one of those will most certainly be glad to see me…”

“Did you say Paladin?”

“Yes…” Blake replied, “Is that a problem?”

“It will be. Only a few hardy independents go there…and then they are in and out as quickly as possible….”

“But there’s a mining base down there. We checked.”

“With whom? That base was abandoned almost a year ago. The orbit of Paladin has been deteriorating at an alarming rate. No-one realised it until it was too late. No-one can live on the surface once it gets too close to those suns…”

“But what about the base; someone must have a tried it.”

“One or another Mining Corporation put it there. You’ve got to get your men out of there.”

As he finished, so the machine in front of Rensor offered up its conclusions. He quickly transferred the information to a small hand held device, “It’s all there….sir.”

Blake smiled, “There’s no need for ‘sir’. Your recommendations may be helpful though.”

“Really?……” Rensor felt completely flustered.

“Really.”

“Would I be correct in assuming that your…cruiser has been in a battle? There is serious damage to some parts of the hull, but it looks as though something or someone has attempted to repair that damage. However, there are serious weaknesses still apparent.”

“One of my colleagues assumed that and he is rectifying that shortcoming right now. He concluded that the Liberator was deficient in an important alloy. With it Liberator can return to some sense of normality.”

“You sound as though that ship is….”

“Alive? I wonder sometimes.”

“Excuse me asking…sir…., but why don’t you take it back to its builders?”

“Because I don’t know who built it.”

“Haven’t they come looking for it? I mean to say, that ship isn’t something you would want to leave around for someone else to pick up.”

“That’s true. But my colleague seems to think that it isn’t necessarily a matter of us finding it, but possibly it found us.”

“You’re very lucky..sir.” Rensor managed a smile, at last.

“Thank you. Jenna said you might find this useful.” Blake handed over a case. Rensor tentatively opened it. Inside was a variety of currency, precious stones and bullion.

“Why all this?”

“Because Liberator has attracted some unwanted attention and I think you may need to leave very quickly and get a long way from here.”

“Who?”

“My informant, Zen, seems to think that a Federation representative, has arrived here, incognito of course, but none the less, he, or she, is here. I’m leaving now…and I suggest you do the same.”

“If you really think so.”

“I really do. Just as I have to leave.” Blake stopped. There was a voice in his head, very faint, but there,

‘He’s here, Travis is here.’

“Cally?” Blake put his hand to his head. Travis. Travis was here. He had to get back to Liberator. “That suggestion of mine? I think you had better act on it… now!”

“Sir…I mean….look, she’s very beautiful, please take care of her.”

“The ship or Jenna?”

Rensor blushed ever so slightly, “Both.”

By the time Blake had got back to the teleport, the intercom was urgently chiming to get his attention. It was Jenna.

“Blake, we can’t find Cally.”

“Travis has her.”

“What?”

Blake tried the teleport controls, “And I don’t think she’s wearing her bracelet.”

“Gan’s gone to try and find her. Can you teleport us?”

Blake tried, and only Jenna appeared, surrounded by an assortment of parcels.

“Try again,” Jenna demanded.

“It’s no good. Those domes must be blocking the signal.” Blake strode over to the teleport, picking up two bracelets as he did so, “I’m going down to get both of them. Get Zen to disengage Liberator and then plot a direct course back to Paladin. Your friend, Rensor, informs me Paladin isn’t such a nice, temperate climate after all.”

Gan was standing out on the concourse totally perplexed. He visibly sighed with relief as Blake materialised.

“Cally’s in trouble,” Blake explained as he walked towards the entrance to the Domes, “To make matters worse, these bracelets aren’t working inside here.”

“What sort of trouble?”

“Travis. He’s down here somewhere and he has Cally. Have you any idea which way she went?”

“Could be anywhere. This is a big place, Blake.”

“I know, and time could be running out…”

“For whom?”

“……for Avon and Vila. We’ve got to find her fast. Take one of these bracelets and…..just hope that we’re not too late.”

~

Trying to rouse Vila from a deep sleep had almost driven Avon to distraction and then the thief had demanded breakfast. Avon had relented, urging him to hurry up as the twin suns were rapidly climbing the horizon.

To make matters worse, Vila was most vocal about the fact that he had been chosen to wear the diving suit….and hadn’t actually been consulted on the matter.

“Why me?”

“Because someone needs to operate this somewhat antiquated breathing system. And somehow I don’t think that you are qualified.”

“How do you know?”

“Trust me, I know.”

The two men were now making their way down to the lake, which seemed to be just a little smaller than it was the previous day when Vila had wandered round it trying to find the elusive clams.

“I don’t understand this,” Vila said, “I’m sure it was bigger yesterday and I could see the shells just below the surface.”

“It must be the heat. It’s evaporated the water and I expect the clams and other marine life have buried themselves deeper in the water and the mud.”

“Mud?”

“To keep cool I would imagine. Now where are these clams?”

Vila stopped at the edge of a gentle slope and pointed down, “That’s where I saw them.”

Avon studied the area immediately below him. There was a rough-hewn shelf covered in rapidly drying weed. Just below that, were the murky depths of a rather foul smelling expanse of water.

Vila could almost hear Avon’s thought processes, “You’re joking, down there?”

“It makes sense. They wouldn’t have gone far.”

“Well, if you’re so sure, you go down there.”

“All right.”

Avon made his way down. Sure enough, just below the surface of the water, he could see a shell, almost totally hidden in the dark, turgid mud. He turned and motioned for Vila to pass down the breathing equipment and the container with their supplies and into which the shells were going to be placed.

Vila did so and then joined him, finding the suit cumbersome.

“I’m not happy about this at all.”

“You surprise me. It looks as though the creatures have dug themselves down, deep into the mud.”

“Marvellous…”

“You shouldn’t have to go down too far. I’ll make sure this air pump keeps your suit and helmet supplied and you do the rest.”

Vila sat on the edge of the fetid pool and looked balefully at the water and then at the helmet, “I get to be stuck here, with you, a clam that doesn’t want to be found and a planet that’s rapidly turning into a giant cinder. The others? Having a lovely relaxing time in paradise. Where’s the justice?”

 

CHAPTER 8

 

Cally tried to wrench her wrist from Travis’ grasp, but he held it quite firmly.

“I thought it was you,” he said menacingly. He held the bracelet in his other hand, turning it for effect, “Will he come for you again I wonder? Of course he will. He wouldn’t let a thing of beauty be taken away from him. And you are beautiful, very beautiful. Has he ever told you that?”

Cally pursed her lips together, desperately reaching out her thoughts; to warn him. To warn Blake that Travis was waiting.

“Of course he hasn’t. But why should he? His cause is more important than the fate of some insignificant alien.” As he spoke, Travis traced the curve of her face with the bracelet, “Yes, so beautiful…”

Cally brought her knee up with devastating effect. Travis doubled up, releasing his grip and allowing her to follow up with an elbow to the face. For a moment, she stood over him, but she knew that to try and press home her advantage would be unwise; Travis was not only a very strong man, but he was formidable opponent. It wasn’t something that Cally wanted to do, but she knew, instinctively, that she had to run and not look back. Gloating over a fallen foe, especially one as dangerous as Travis, would only invite death.

She turned on her heels and began to run.

Travis was on his knees; the pain in his groin temporarily stunning him. He had had worse, from men far stronger than this female. But she angered him. He raised his left hand and fired at the fleeing shape as she made for the heavily wooded region of the dome.

Missed.

Travis grunted. Getting to his feet, he set off after Cally, vowing that this time, it would be him who carried out the interrogation and it would not be pleasant.

Blake whirled at the sound of the oh-so familiar gunshot. He wasn’t armed. Jenna had said that the people of Qorite frowned about such things. They would be doing more than just frowning at this moment, thought Blake, as he ran off towards the sound.

~

Vila had somehow fought off all his fears and entered the water to find the elusive clam. He hadn’t been too pleased about the close confines of the helmet, but Avon had assured him that everything would be all right. “You’ll see,” he had said, making sure the helmet was firmly fixed and water tight.

“”Oh yes, you’ll see all right,” Vila had replied, his actual response going unheard by the other man.

It hadn’t been the nicest of experiences, but at least the water was cool. Vila had stuck his hand into various layers of thick, clammy mud until he had found a large shell. It had taken a struggle, but eventually, he had dislodged it and made his way back to the water’s edge. He had given it to Avon who then set about extracting the living creature from its shell.

That was something Vila didn’t actually want to see. He was squeamish at the best of times. Sitting on the rock shelf, his feet immersed in the cooling water, he had removed the helmet. The air down here in this small lagoon wasn’t particularly pleasant, in fact it was somewhat nauseating, but it was cool, something for which Vila was grateful.

“I hope one is enough” Vila remarked, not daring to turn round and see what the other man was doing, “I don’t really want to go back in there again. I had the strangest feeling I was being watched you know?”

“You most probably were,” Avon murmured back, not entirely too happy about removing a living entity from its home. But needs must. “I don’t think Zen was able to scan the entire area for life signs …there could be anything down there.”

“Now you tell me.”

“I didn’t want to worry you unduly.”

“You know Avon, you’re all heart.”

“So I’ve been told.” As Avon spoke, he threw the remains of the creature into the water, a look of disgust on his face.

“Not the nicest thing you’ve ever done,” Vila remarked looking at him, “but I suppose it was painless…..Avon, something…..

As he spoke, Vila suddenly found himself being dragged into the water by something wrapped round his ankle.

For a brief second, Avon was stunned, but it was only a very brief second. He flung himself down and grabbed the terrified man’s hands.

They slipped out of his grasp.

Vila was going under the water, the look of abject fear burning into Avon’s skull. He made a grab for Vila’s flailing right hand and closed his hand around the wrist. It was difficult to get a firm grip; the wet suit didn’t offer the most tactile surface. Somehow, Vila’s right hand tightly grabbed Avon’s wrist, holding on as if his life depended on it…which it did.

Avon looked around for something to grip; anything, so that he could exert what strength he had against whatever was pulling Vila down. He found a rocky outcrop and took hold of it with his left hand and began to pull. Vila wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination a heavy weight, but whatever was down there was pulling for all it was worth.

Avon could feel the muscles in his arm complaining, “Vila, you need to try and pull yourself out, I can’t hold you for much longer.”

But Vila wasn’t listening, his eyes were on something or someone immediately behind Avon. It was then that Avon felt it; a slow, heavy weight being pressed down on his left hand. He turned round.

It was Lharrson.

His booted foot pressed down on Avon’s hand.

“I’d love to help, “he said mockingly, “but I really do have to go. I’ve got creditors waiting for me and I’ve got enough on my ship to pay them off and start anew. So I’m sorry, but that offer of a lift is out of the question now…don’t have any room you see. Still, your friends should be back soon. But they’re cutting it fine. This little dust bowl of a planet is about to get much hotter…that’s why it’s been abandoned. Nothing can live on the surface, not in a few hours at least. That’s when it is closest to the suns. I’d like to say it’s been nice knowing you…but it hasn’t!”

He raised his boot to smash it down on Avon’s unprotected hand; only to see it snatched away just before his boot connected, but not before the rugged sole grazed the bracelet encircling Avon’s wrist.….and Avon not only lost hold of the rock, but Vila too.

Lharrson threw his head back laughing and waved as he left Avon prostrate on the rocky shelf frantically trying to find Vila who had been swallowed up by the fetid, churning water. Whatever was down there was big.

Avon’s mind raced.

Those creatures seemed to thrive in the water, yet the air immediately above it was foul smelling and not at all conducive to human life. It was a long shot, but it seemed to be the only thing to do.

He threw the discarded helmet into the morass of bubbling water and entwined bodies; then hit the control panel of the oxygen supply.

A sudden stream of pure oxygen was pumped into the depths.

Seconds later, Vila reappeared, coughing up water and in a state of absolute panic. Avon pulled him out of the water and away from the edge; away from the creature, or creatures, lurking in the depths which were no doubt backing away from the intrusive gas.

For a few seconds, they looked at each other. Vila was shaking uncontrollably, slumped on the ground, his face white.

“Vila…”

“Get away from me.”

“Vila…”

“You heard him. Our way off…gone.”

“Listen to me Vila...”

Vila got his feet, “I’m never listening to you..again….ever!” So saying, he stormed off into the direction of the base, leaving Avon ruefully holding his aching arm.

Avon caught up with him just outside the base.

Vila didn’t even acknowledge him, but was staring at the scene that awaited them in the room.

It was wrecked.

Everything smashed.

The air-conditioning unit, the food and drink dispenser and the communication console; and on the floor, Vila’s teleport bracelet, put aside to save getting it wet and now, in pieces.

Vila looked at Avon who was staring at his own wrist; his bracelet still seemed intact, except for the crack across the communicator.

“He must have caught it with that boot of his,” Avon murmured, the severity of the situation slowly coming into focus.

Vila slowly removed the diving suit and threw it in a corner. His own, outer clothes were still intact, draped over one of the chairs, but even that didn’t lift his mood, “Oh great; no food, no water, possibly no way of contacting Blake, no way off and it’s going to get hotter.” He began to get dressed, “You know why he’s done this don’t you?”

“But you’ll going to tell me, aren’t you?”

“Yes I am. You did this. Couldn’t be nice and friendly could you? No, had to be rude and off-hand..and this is where it lands us.”

If Avon was perturbed, he was determined not to show it. He put down the container with its valuable shell safely enclosed and sat down on one of the seats.

“Well, do something.”

“I don’t have to,” Avon smiled back, absently rubbing his arm.

“What have you done, Avon?”

“Nothing.”

“Don’t give me that. What the hell have you done?”

“Made sure that our friend returns. He’ll have no choice. I’ve made sure of that.”

Vila frowned. There was something very disquieting about Avon’s tone and knowing smile.

~

Blake had followed the sounds of the shots and had reached the entrance to one of the larger domes. Somewhere in this man-made forest was his most hated enemy and one of his relatively new friends.

Travis was obviously firing at someone.

Blake hoped that it meant that Cally had avoided being caught, but at what cost? There were several holes in the dome, disturbing the carefully controlled environment and by the look of things, the Qorite’s who sustained that environment were not happy. Several of them had run past Blake into the dome, totally unarmed and oblivious as to who they were about to confront.

Blake’s finger hovered over the teleport bracelet’s comm link. If Cally was still wearing it, then it was possible that if he tried to contact her then he would give away her location. All he could do was wait; to see if she would contact him.

And then there was Gan. Where was he?

Blake knew he had no choice.

He would have to wait.

~

They had watched the scene. The black clad man they recognised, but the woman was unknown to them. They exchanged silent looks and decided that they could not stand by; this woman needed their help and if that help would strike a blow for freedom against the might of the all-powerful Federation, then that was a good reason.

~

Cally knew that she could not outrun the determined Space Commander and she also knew that her impromptu attack had no doubt inflamed his anger. As she had run through the trees, she had hoped to find a weapon, but a branch would prove to be totally ineffectual against the weapon Travis possessed.

Voices.

Some way down.

She listened.

It wasn’t Blake, but whoever it was, they seemed to be most interested in whoever it was destroying their handiwork. She turned as the sound of a snapping piece of fallen tree pierced the silence.

Hide.

She had to hide.

She frantically looked around, only to see two people, partially hidden by the undergrowth, beckoning to her. There was no time to question their motives. Quickly, she made her way towards them.

“Down here,” one urged; a woman, older than Cally. The other was a man.

“Who are you?” Cally whispered.

“More to the point,” the woman replied, “Who are you and why is he so interested in you?”

“You know him?”

“He is Space Commander Travis,” the man explained, “And, oh yes, we know him. He had his troops massacre a meeting of innocent men, women and children. How do you forget a man like that? So why is he interested in you?”

“My name is Cally,” she began, mindful that it wouldn’t be wise to tell these strangers everything, “I am a freedom fighter from Auron and….. I sympathise with Blake’s people.…”

The woman seemed startled, “Blake…Roj Blake?”

“Yes.”

The two strangers looked at each other.

“It is because of him that we are here,” the man began softly, “Word of his Freedom Party and his determination to bring down the Federation reached our planet. We started to fight back, but were betrayed. Those of us, who could, escaped and managed to get here, to Qorite. We are joined daily by others who intend to fight back.”

“Is Blake here?” the woman asked expectedly, “On Qorite?”

“I don’t know for sure,” Cally replied, “If he is, then I…we must warn him that Travis is here too.”

“If Blake is here,” the woman began, “then that could bring the Federation. Maybe that is why Travis is here; an advance party.”

“If it does, then we will be ready," the man said, “More join us every day. These people of Qorite are good people. If and when the Federation do decided to cede this planet, then they will find themselves with a fight on their hands.”

All three fell silent as the sound of footfalls and voices became more evident.

Cally took a deep breath.

Safe in her makeshift sanctuary, with the two would-be freedom fighters, she waited.

 

CHAPTER 9

 

The firing had stopped.

Blake ventured forward from his vantage point, just inside the air curtain which separated one dome from the connecting walkways. He could see a very brave official representative walking up to Travis who had suddenly found his progress halted by a small group of men.

“Sir. You must desist,” the official said.

Travis eyed him with disdain, “I am Space Commander Travis of the Terran Federation and I am in pursuit of an enemy of the state. You will stand aside……”

“I’m sorry, sir, but the planet of Qorite is not under the jurisdiction of the Terran Federation. By your actions, you have caused serious damage to our domes and a formal complaint is being lodged with your High Council.”

“Complain as much as you like. I have a fugitive to apprehend and you will step aside.”

“No sir,” the man replied, obviously totally unaware of Travis or the danger he posed, “I will not step aside.”

Travis raised his gloved left hand and pointed it directly at the brave man’s head, “You will. The Federation will hear of your subordination. You and your government are harbouring a wanted criminal and his crew…”

“A criminal only to you and your Federation,” the man pointed out.

“Get out of my way,” Travis said slowly, the threat quite obvious in his voice.

“No sir,” the official repeated, his voice firm and unwavering, “I will not.”

~

Avon slowly put down the tool and rested his hands on the shattered console. Lharrson had done a good job. The communications system was beyond repair. There was no way of letting Blake know about the situation that they were now in.

“Well?” Vila asked, “Can you repair it?”

“No,” Avon replied. He didn’t want to look up and let Vila see the disappointment on his face .

“You can fix anything!”

“Not this time. I don’t have the tools…”

“It was you who got us into this mess. When is your other little plan about to come to fruition? In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s been hours and it’s getting hotter…”

“…….so you keep telling me.”

Vila took another swig out of the water bottle that Gan had provided, just in case the facilities hadn’t been available.

“Stop drinking that,” Avon warned.

“Or what?”

“It’s all we have left.”

“And you couldn’t fix the dispenser either…could you?”

Avon didn’t reply. Vila’s analysis of the situation was spot on; they were in desperate trouble.

“Your much vaunted genius isn’t going to save the day this time…by the way, you do realise that you saved my life back there, don’t you?”

Avon had realised it and was still trying to understand why. This irrational behaviour was getting out of hand; what with pushing Blake aside when that bomb was about to explode.

“I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t,” Avon murmured.

“It’s getting to be a habit, isn’t it?” Vila said pointedly, leaning on the console and smiling at the man opposite.

Avon looked up for the first time, “And it’s one I intend to break at the earliest opportunity.”

~

Supreme Commander Servalan smiled at the Governor of Qorite. He was listening, incredulously, to the report from one of his men about a stand- off taking place in one of the domes. She was reclining in a deep upholstered chair, in the Governor’s office, gazing down at the serene scene before her. The large panoramic window resembled that of her own office deep in space, but here, there was no endless expanse of stars, but a sweeping vista of a busy space port and the huge domes which drew most of the visitors to this otherwise back of beyond planet.

“Trouble, Hedron?” she asked.

“Your Space Commander Travis,” Hedron sighed, switching off the intercom.

“Is he causing a problem?”

“Supreme Commander. It is a little more than a problem. This is a full blown diplomatic incident.”

“Really? I think you will find that he is merely carrying out his duties.”

“Duties?” echoed Hedron, in disbelief.

“It would appear that you have a wanted criminal and his crew in your midst and he is in the process of apprehending them. Now, if he causes some trouble, I’m sure he has very good reasons.”

“Supreme Commander, may I remind you that this planet is outside of Federation control and as such, most of our visitors are, in your eyes, criminals. Your man has damaged one of the domes and it caused serious problems with its environment. I’m afraid I will have to ask both of you to leave.”

Servalan fixed him with a steady gaze, a smile playing over her lips. If only this man knew. Soon, his little planet, the hub for all those who disdained the Federation, would find itself within the embrace of the very organisation it so much defied. But it wouldn’t do to let him know that. No, this visit was purely an unofficial one, and such a diplomatic incident was unfortunate.

“My dear, Hedron,” Servalan purred, “Please accept my sincere apologies. Have Space Commander Travis escorted back to my ship. I will see to it that he is severely reprimanded.”

She rose from the chair like a cobra and almost immediately her attendant Mutoids were at her side, draping her long, totally out of place wrap around her shoulders.

Ever the gentleman, despite having the one person who he wouldn’t trust with his life in the same room, Hedron got to his feet and went to the door to open it for his visitor. As she glided past him, he asked her the one question that had been playing of his mind ever since she had arrived unannounced, “Madame, why did you really come to Qorite?”

“Officially, to inspect your much lauded space port as a desirable and safe destination for the President of the Federation, who has heard so much and would like to see for himself your renowned facilities.”

“Unofficially?”

“To satisfy my own curiosity with regards to the company you keep.” Servalan smiled at him. That much was true. She had indeed come to Qorite to see the ship and, possibly, the man who was causing so many ripples of discontent; The Liberator and Blake.

The first objective had been fruitful. She had seen the ship with her own eyes as she, and her retinue, had come into land. And it had been a beautiful sight. There and then she had made it her mission to possess that ship and if, in the process, Blake and his mismatched crew decided to prevent her from achieving that goal, then so be it. Their demise would be of little consequence.

Servalan held out her hand to Hedron, “Governor.”

Hedron took her hand and slightly bowed his head, “Supreme Commander Servalan. I trust your return journey to Federation headquarters will go smoothly.”

“Thank you.” With that, she slowly walked out of the office, and hopefully, thought Hedron, out of his life.

~

It was a stalemate.

Travis was refusing to give way to the petty official who was standing between him and his pursuit of the Auron woman.

And the official, petty or otherwise, was refusing to get out of his way. Even the gloved hand with its hidden powerful weapon was not going to cower this man. He stood quite still, unblinking, looking into the one good eye of the man who called himself Space Commander Travis.

Travis was appalled, “You are obstructing a Federation Officer in the pursuit of his duty!”

“Yes, sir, so I am. But I remind you, neither you nor your Federation have any authority here on Qorite.”

Travis took a deep breath, “Stand aside.”

The answer was the same, “No!”

Travis fingered the hidden trigger on his gloved hand, now only a matter of inches from the other man’s head.

“Which part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

Travis knew that this man was not alone and that his friends were no doubt behind him, but it didn’t worry him one iota. He turned to see who had spoken the mocking words. Standing before him, towering above the rest of the Qorites, was a huge mountain of a man.

“You dare to speak to me in that manner?” Travis queried, trying to remember where he had seen this man’s face before, “I will have you arrested…”

“I don’t think so,” Gan said mockingly, as his right hand grasped Travis’ gun hand and gently lowered it. Travis tried to resist, but this man was powerful, very powerful.

“You’re one of Blake’s crew, aren’t you?”

“Maybe. But I think you may have left your manners back at Space Command Headquarters. These men have asked you, politely, to stop firing this weapon of yours and leave Qorite. Now, we can do it two ways, the civilised way or...well, I don’t think you would like the other way.”

“Are you threatening me? Because that could be construed as a threat to the Federation….”

The official stepped in, worried that this could blow up out of all proportion, “Gentlemen. Please. This can be settled peacefully. Space Commander Travis, please allow us to escort you to your ship…now!”

Travis relaxed his arm. He knew it was useless to continue. “Very well, but I think you should give some consideration as to whom you allow to visit your miserable little planet. Tell Blake that I will find him…eventually. I will not rest until he is dead.”

~

Cally had watched the stand-off, marvelling at how brave the official had been, considering that he had no idea what Travis was capable of. Cally knew and she remembered those moments spent in the company of Travis and his interrogators. They were moments that still made her shiver.

And then there was Gan; strong and resolute. Standing up to the man who represented the very worst of the Federation.

Yet still no Blake.

“I will wait for Travis to leave and then go down and join my friend,” Cally murmured.

The woman smiled at Cally. She seemed to sense that there was more to this Auron woman that she was prepared to let on, “I have a feeling about you and Blake. You fight alongside him don’t you?”

Cally remained unmoved; preferring to keep quiet about the matter.

The woman continued, “Blake has surrounded himself with some very brave people. When you see him, tell him that while he is out there, fighting the Federation, then we will have hope. And the word will spread.”

Blake had watched the exchange.

He had decided that under the circumstances it was best to stay out of sight. The mood Travis was in could have caused a great deal of bloodshed. He watched as Travis was escorted out of the dome and then waited for Gan.

“That was a brave thing to do, Gan,” Blake murmured coming out from his hiding place, “but you could have got yourself killed.”

“Well, someone had to stop him. It was a chance I had to take. Have you seen Cally?”

Blake shook his head, “She could be anywhere…”

“I’m here.”

They both turned round to see Cally coming towards them, covered in soil and with several leaves in her hair.

“Cally…what…?”

“This is the least of my problems; I’ve spent the last half hour fending off all manner of wild life and I have met some very interesting people. They told me they are part of a resistance group related to yours, Blake. They have returned to the depths of the Labyrinth. They believe that Travis is part of an advanced party and they have much to prepare.”

“I can understand their concern. If I were in their situation I would be doing the same.” He took a deep breath, trying to imagine those other people and what was going through their heads now. If their worst fears were to be realised, then they would need what precious time left to them to prepare. Unfortunately, for them, Blake’s hoped for quiet, unnoticed visit had been anything but. It was possible that by coming to this out of the way, back water of a planet, he and his crew had only exacerbated the perilous position the people here were already facing. But right now, his own people needed him.

“I take it you’ve had enough of Paradise?” Blake asked.

Gan watched as a group of men passed by, carrying various tools and supplies. He looked ruefully in the direction of the dome and remembered the damaged roof. “Actually,” he remarked, “I think Paradise has had enough of us.”

All three had left the impressive domes by another route, so as to make sure that there was no chance of meeting the highly volatile Space Commander. Yet even as they walked, they were observed; by the two people who had assisted Cally.

“So that is Blake?” the man whispered.

“At least we know that the rumours of Blake’s escape and activities are true,” the woman murmured, “It will make our fight more worthwhile, knowing that they are out there.”

“Indeed it will. Come.”

The trio now stood on the terrace where Jenna had spent her few minutes of relaxation.

Blake gave Cally her replacement bracelet and was about to contact Jenna, when he saw her.

Supreme Commander Servalan, with her two Mutoids in attendance. She looked an incongruous sight, standing quite still, her long white gown covered by an equally long wrap.

For a moment, they exchanged looks.

“Jenna,” Blake said slowly, never taking his eyes from Servalan’s serenely beautiful face, framed by her dark, severely short hair, “Take us up.”

 

CHAPTER 10

 

Blake watched Qorite recede into the depths of space as Liberator surged away to its rendezvous with Avon and Vila on Paladin.

“I don’t think we will be welcomed back there,” he sighed, “I presume your friend, Rensor, decided to look for a more lucrative way of making a living?”

Jenna smiled at him, “Oh yes, Curt will be all right. But just before I disengaged Liberator from his now vacant Space Dock he did ask that you didn’t come looking for him in the distant future.”

“I can understand that.”

“……Although, he didn’t include me in that recommendation.”

Blake raised an eyebrow. There were some things about Jenna’s past life that he thought it best not to know about. He cleared his throat, “Yes, well…..The sooner we get to Paladin, the sooner we can get the Liberator back up to scratch. And no doubt Servalan has informed her fleet where we are so we need to get to Paladin at the earliest possible moment….before things get too hot around here.”

~

“How much hotter is it going to get?” implored Vila.

Sitting on the floor opposite him was Avon, leaning against a wall as if nothing untoward was going on, “Much hotter,” he replied flatly.

“There’s no more water…”

“I did tell you that…”

“How can you sit there so calmly?…We’re going to burn up…”

“Possibly.”

“Maybe that friend of yours won’t come back after all. Then what will you do? Blake doesn’t know about us….”

“Our friend will come back. He’s greedy, but not that greedy. He’ll come back…”

“Oh yes, he’ll come back and kill you.”

Avon didn’t reply, but a knowing smile crept up to his eyes.

Vila didn’t like the look on his companion’s face. It worried Vila. He hadn’t known Avon that long; he knew a little about him and what he did know didn’t mark him out as a cold blooded killer. Yet there was something; something eating away inside, perhaps, which would one day manifest itself. It sent cold shivers down Vila’s spine.

“I’ll tell you one thing though…those clams of yours had the right idea, burrowing into that nice cool……” Vila stopped dead.

Avon didn’t like how this line of reasoning was going, “Don’t be so stupid. I’ve already had to drag you out once….”

“Well, it’s either burn up in here…or I’ll take my chances in what’s left of that lake..at least there may be water there.” Vila got to his feet, “When your friend does get back, at least I won’t be here to see it.”

“It?”

“The welcoming committee……”

~

Ginn Lharrson’s anger was swiftly turning in to outright horror; no matter what he did to the navigation computer, it was the same error message,

“Maximum load exceeded.”

And the system’s twin suns were rapidly filling his view screen.

No matter what command he put into it, whether to engage escape velocity or to input the co-ordinates to reach Qorite at a slightly slower speed, it was the same, “Maximum load exceeded.”

Lharrson knew exactly what the load tolerance for this ship was, and the amount of ‘cargo’ in his hold, on the flight deck and numerous other areas of the ship certainly did not constitute a maximum load.

His thoughts returned to the stranger on Paladin; the one who had been most reticent about his name and why he was there. What had that man done? Lharrson rubbed a worried hand over his face, there had to be a way out of this? And it wouldn’t involve getting rid of his cargo or even going back to Paladin, where no doubt that man would be waiting.

His detectors lit up. Another ship, entering the system. Maybe they could help him before he ended up being drawn into one of the suns.

~

Cally noticed it.

“Blake, there’s a ship out there, near one of the suns.”

“What’s he doing so close?” Gan asked.

“Zen,” Blake said, “Put it on the main screen.”

+Confirmed. +

They all stood still as the screen activated and the scene unfolded in front of them. There were the two suns, ominously close together, a ship seemingly trapped in the gravitational pull and then Paladin….

“That’s not right,” Jenna murmured looking at her instruments, “Paladin shouldn’t be anywhere near that close.”

“Cally,” Blake ordered, “Get down to the teleport; it looks as though we may have to get Avon and Vila off right now. Gan, see if you can raise them.”

The seconds ticked by. “According to my readings, there’s too much interference caused by the proximity to those suns.”

“Cally?”

Cally’s concerned voice came over the speaker, “Unable to make contact. Either they are not wearing their bracelets or that interference is blocking their signals. Even if we tried….”

“What about that ship? If we manoeuvred close enough, could you teleport me over to it?”

“Whoever is aboard may not take kindly to having you appropriate their ship.”

Gan was listening via his headphones to a very faint message coming in, “It’s a distress call, from that ship. His name is Lharrson and some son of a ……..body has sabotaged his flight computer. Can we help?”

Jenna looked up, “Lharrson, Ginn Lharrson?”

Blake sighed; another one of Jenna’s dubious past acquaintances, and one who was complaining most vehemently about a saboteur. Blake had a pretty good idea who Lharrson was referring to in not so polite terms, “What’s Avon done now?”

“This is the Battle Cruiser Liberator. What is the nature of your emergency?”

Lharrson leapt forward, and then stopped. He hesitated just for a moment as he seemed to recall the voice asking him the question. “Jenna? Jenna Stannis?”

“Yes, Lharrson. What mess have you got yourself into this time?”

“Did you say Liberator?”

“Yes.”

Lharrson looked at the view screen as his sensors swung round. There was that ship again. The one he had watched a few days before, “That’s your ship?”

“Not in so many words, no. You said there was something wrong with your flight computer?”

“Those two men down on Paladin; are they something to do with you?”

“Yes, they’re our friends….”

“Friends? Jenna, it’s because of one of your friends that I’m in this trouble. He’s done something to my flight computer. It says I’ve exceeded the maximum load and……”

“Then I suggest you jettison your load.”

“All of it?”

“If you want to get out of this alive, yes, all of it.”

Lharrson was silent for a moment, pensive, thinking about his options, “But I’ve got people out to get me! I need this cargo to pay them off. I can’t……”

“Lharrson.” It was a man’s voice this time, “You can and you will.”

“And who the hell are you?”

“My name is Blake. I’m afraid one of my friends is most probably responsible for your predicament. You must jettison your cargo and then take me back to Paladin.”

“Friends? You, if I may say so, have a very strange idea of what a friend is.”

“Yes, I sometimes think that as well.”

Reluctantly, Lharrson jettisoned his cargo, watching forlornly as everything he had struggled to get aboard vanished out of his cargo hold. He had even put the cargo so very carefully stacked on his flight deck into the air-lock, just in case.

No sooner had he done so, then his flight computer sprang back to life with the co-ordinates for Paladin; the exact same co-ordinates from which he had lifted off a few hours ago and had gleefully left his un-co-operative friend stranded and with a parting gift.

He was ruefully watching his entire life disappearing into the void when there was a strange sound and suddenly a figure materialised in front of him. “Who…?”

“I’m Blake. I don’t have time to explain anything at the moment.”

“…….Blake….”

“And we are running out of time.  We need to get back to Paladin, now.”

“Are you out of your mind? That..that..he’s waiting there for me. He’ll kill me.”

“Why should he do that?”

Lharrson looked at Blake’s teleport bracelet, “I didn’t know what it was…I broke it, well one any way. But they should still have one….”

“There’s too much interference. I can’t risk using the teleport to get down to the planet.”

“I’m dead, aren’t I?”

“That remains to be seen. Hopefully, I’ll be able to persuade him otherwise.”

“And if you don’t?”

“You didn’t do anything too rash while you were there, did you?”

Lharrson didn’t answer, preferring not to think about what he had done to the base or, for that matter, how he had treated the stranger who had ‘fixed’ his computer problem.

“I’ll make it up to you,” Blake said, realising that Lharrson had most probably upset, in some way, one of the most dangerous men that he, Blake had ever met. “But we have to get Avon and Vila off Paladin. They may not appreciate me giving away what they consider to be their property, but under the circumstances…..”

“Avon and Vila? Which one re- programmed my computer?”

“Avon…”

“HE is a friend of yours?”

“He doesn’t like to think so. But he is useful to me and there is an old saying; ‘Keep you friends close, but keep your enemies closer.”

Lharrson paled, wondering just what he had got himself into.

 

CHAPTER 11

 

Despite his misgivings, Avon had followed Vila down to the lake…or what remained of it. The air was now dry, and dust was swirling in the breeze; a breeze that offered no respite from the smouldering heat. He hadn’t wanted to come, but something told him that if he lost Vila then Blake would have something else to use against him whenever they had one of their ‘discussions’.

Avon had found Vila sitting in a dank, muddy passage along way down the almost dry slope which had once been beneath the receding waters. Everything had gone, even the marine creatures. There was obviously an underground cavern or similar into which those creatures retreated when the planet approached its suns at such close quarters.

“So you decided to join me then?” Vila said, trying not to show any amusement as Avon almost lost his footing.

“It is better that we stay together.”

“Of course it is. Wouldn’t want Blake thinking that you had cut me loose, would we?”

“Vila..”

“Anyway, I found some water down here. In a very small rock pool. There was a stray clam in it, but I made sure it got back to its friends all right……I put it down there, in that sink hole. They’ve got the right idea..underground.” Vila proffered a water bottle, “I even saved some for you.”

“Vila, I don’t……”

“Go on, drink it. I know it’s not what you’re used to, but under the circumstances……”

Avon took the bottle and looked at its contents; no doubt teeming with all sorts of bacteria, “Maybe later…”

“How much later?” Vila asked.

Avon didn’t reply. He looked out of the passage preferring not to let Vila see the distinct look of concern.

~

Lharrson looked at his instruments, “We’re approaching the exact landing co-ordinates.”

“I think you only had to do that and then you wouldn’t have needed to jettison your cargo,” Blake informed him.

“Now you tell me.”

“Sometimes, with Avon, it is best to err on the side of caution.”

“This Avon, he sounds like a very dangerous person to know.”

“Oh, he is,” Blake conceded, “He is a very dangerous man. The problem is, I don’t think even Avon knows just how dangerous he is. But at least he is on my side. With his knowledge of computers and other systems he would be a formidable enemy.”

“If he is so good, why did the Federation let him go?”

“Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m sure if they offered him enough……”

Lharrson was watching as the planet’s surface and the landing co-ordinates approached. The atmosphere was now filled with dust, swirling around, obscuring the view.

“Has it occurred to you that Avon doesn’t know you’re here on this ship?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re still going out first?”

“Lharrson, I have no idea what Avon will do if he sees you coming down the ramp…”

“…..shoot me where I stand, I expect. He doesn’t strike me as a very forgiving person.”

“All I can hope is that being stranded here on this planet under these circumstances haven’t dulled his reflexes. With luck, he will see that it’s me…..”

“What if he shoots anyway?”

Blake was considering that question too. It was obvious that Avon knew how to handle a gun, but had he ever had reason to use one? Maybe he was about to get his answer.

~

It was Vila who heard it. Despite the dust storm that was now howling outside the tunnel, there was the faint sound of engines; coming closer.

“Are you sure?” Avon asked.

“In my business, it pays to be able to hear if someone or something is coming.”

The sound became more distinct. This time Avon recognised it.

“So…he’s coming back. Vila, bring the case, I’m going to greet our very talkative friend…..”

“What in this storm?”

“..and I shall be very interested in hearing his excuses…..”

Vila watched as a mud covered Avon got to his feet and marched off towards the landing site. Considering how long Avon had been without food or, more importantly, water, Vila was surprised to see just how fast he was moving.

And that worried Vila, a lot.

~

“It’s a sand storm out there!” Lharrson said, “You’ll never find them in this!”

“I may not need to.” Blake unbuckled himself and went to the air lock which led to the main hatch, “Wish me luck.”

Lharrson smiled nervously. He operated the landing ramp and then passed control over to Blake.

The young man was anxious. Considering what he had done; how he had treated the two strangers; it occurred to him that even if Blake did survive being reunited with a man who he openly said was dangerous, then it was possible that that man would just push him aside and come gunning for the person responsible for this mess; him; Lharrson.

Lharrson sank back into his pilot’s seat, growing more scared by the second.

~

Blake pressed the button on the inside of the air lock. The outside door slowly opened and almost immediately he was engulfed in a swirling torrent of dust. Slowly he made his way down the ramp. He could hardly see his hand in front of him and the sand laden air was now stinging his eyes. If Avon and Vila were still alive here on this hell hole, he hoped they had managed to find shelter and if they had, would he be able to find it and subsequently, them?

The question was…which way?

He could try calling their names, but somehow, he knew that that would be a lost cause. The wind and the sand would swallow up his voice.

Avon was leaning against a large boulder. It afforded some protection from the hot, sandy air now threatening to consume him. He waited and listened. The ship had landed and its engines had stopped. Now there was just the wind……and then, an almost inaudible sound. Maybe it was the wind playing tricks, but it was there again; the slow, almost imperceptible measured step of someone coming towards him. He swallowed, but it didn’t help to ease his parched throat.

That someone was closer. Possibly armed; possibly angry. Not the best combination to face.

He would have to be quick....even decisive. There wouldn’t be a second chance.

Blake’s pulse was racing. If Avon were nearby then there was every chance that he wouldn’t be in the mood for explanations from anyone, let alone from Blake.

Lharrson had told him exactly what had occurred on Paladin. From the wanton destruction of the facilities in the building, to the encounter with Avon down in the lake. As far as Lharrson was concerned, that behaviour was quite normal. Everyone in his circle went out of their way to cause as much destruction as possible to the others. It was seen as part and parcel of getting ahead. Unfortunately, Lharrson wasn’t to know that the person he was dealing with didn’t play by the rules.

And now, Blake was about to find out exactly what rules Avon did play by.

And then he was there, in front of him, his gun pointed directly at Blake’s head.

Avon.

Blake looked him in the eye; neither of them blinked.

The dust danced around the two men. Then, for a second, the air was still; allowing each to contemplate their next move. It was almost the same as that moment on Liberator’s flight deck; when Blake had found himself staring down the barrel of Avon’s gun just after they had first boarded the alien ship.

This time, Blake didn’t move; made no attempt to cast aside the implied threat. This time it was possible that Avon would carry it through.

“Well, now,” Avon began, “You certainly took your time.” With that, he raised the gun’s barrel out of the line of fire, “Vila’s back there, somewhere. I have another appointment.”

Blake took hold of the other man’s arm, “Leave him, Avon.”

“After what he did?” Avon’s voice was low and threatening.

“Yes, he told me. But you didn’t exactly distinguish yourself, did you? We can discuss the rights and wrongs later. You get aboard, put right whatever you did wrong and I’ll get Vila.”

“No need,” Vila said emerging from the dust, “Here’s your clam shell, safe and sound….I could murder a nice cold drink.” With that, he strode past the two men and up the ramp.

Blake looked at the mud caked Vila as the swirling dust swallowed him up, and then realised that Avon wasn’t exactly pristine either. “What?......”

“Don’t ask.”

Lharrson nervously watched as Avon’s hands swept over the flight computer. The young man dared not make eye contact with him, absolutely petrified that one false move would end with a fatal result.

“We need to get off, Avon. If any of that dust gets…….” Blake stopped as Avon stepped back.

“It’s all yours,” Avon said to Lharrson.

Lharrson didn’t reply. He was grateful to still be in one piece.

“All right, Lharrson,” Blake murmured, watching as Avon sank into one of the rear seats on the somewhat cramped flight deck. He looked tired. Vila did too. They were both covered in mud; their faces showing signs of sunburn.

The ship lifted off and rapidly left the surface of Paladin to its fate. It wouldn’t be long before the small craft docked with the much larger Liberator, but for now it was time for reflection.

“How could Zen have got that so wrong?” mused Vila, grateful for a cup of cool water.

“I can only assume that the source of Zen’s information was, shall we say, a little deficient in accuracy,” Blake replied.

“Still,” Vila smiled, “A nice trip to Qorite will make up for it. It only seems fair after all I’ve been through.”

“That won’t be possible, I’m afraid Vila. The Federation decided to pay a visit at the same time and…….let’s just say neither Travis nor us, will be welcomed.”

Vila felt suddenly dejected.

“What about me?” Lharrson asked, “My creditors are back on Qorite. No matter where I go, they’ll find me. You said that you would make it up to me, Blake.”

“And I will. If you must return to Qorite, be quick about it and then get as far away as possible.”

“Oh, I will. Don’t you worry. I’ll be glad to see the back of that place.”

“But not,” Avon said, still seated and grateful for the drink just handed to him by Vila, “as pleased as they will be to see the back of you.”

 

CHAPTER 12

 

Jenna turned away from the airlock door, a wistful look on her face. Ginn Lharrson had been a welcome distraction from the usual few faces on the Liberator, even if Vila’s most vocal dissent as Blake handed over the promised ‘reward’ had caused a few raised eyebrows. Lharrson had promised to pay off his debtors at the earliest opportunity, something Avon had dismissed out of hand as a most unlikely event.

“Why do you stay with these people?” Lharrson had asked her quietly, before he stepped through the airlock and back onto his own ship.

“I have my reasons.”

“Good ones, I hope. Because frankly, I think you are mixing with the wrong individuals.”

“And with whom do you think I should mix?”

“Well, not Avon, that’s for sure.”

“He’s not all bad…”

“You tell me his good points and I’ll believe you. When you decide that you’ve had enough, let me know…..”

Jenna smiled at him, “Thank you for the offer. I’ll bear it in mind. Now I really think you should go, before your new found friend Avon harangues you…again.”

And then he was gone.

“Everything all right, Jenna?” It was Blake.

“He wanted to know why I stayed with you.”

“And?”

“As I told him, I have my reasons. Now, I have work to do. Avon wants to run some tests…”

Blake blocked her way. There was something he wanted to ask her and he wasn’t too sure how she would take it, “Jenna, just out of curiosity, how many more of your ‘old’ friends are there?”

“Blake, there are some things a lady just doesn’t discuss…and that’s one of them.”

She smiled a warm, knowing smile and left him to ponder that remark.

~

Gan was sitting on one of the forward couches on the flight deck, closely studying the assortment of produce on the centre table. As Jenna came and sat next to him he asked, “Are you sure this…….stuff is actually edible?”

“Positive.”

“I don’t know…..” He selected one of the round, rind covered objects and held it up, “I’ve never seen anything like this at all.”

Jenna realised that Gan’s life had most probably never included such things as fresh fruit. “It’s perfectly safe, Gan.”

“I think I’ll see what Vila says.”

“Where is Vila?” Jenna asked, “Don’t tell me he’s still getting cleaned up?”

“Something about sand and mud getting everywhere.”

Blake joined them, just as the lights suddenly dimmed, “I see Avon didn’t waste any time.”

Both Jenna and Gan favoured him with blank looks.

“He’s introducing that element back into Liberator’s auto repair system,” Blake explained, “We could be in for a few unexpected power outages.”

“Oh dear,” Jenna sighed, “Did anyone tell Vila?”

Travis was pensive.

He sat silently at the rear of Servalan’s private cruiser, contemplating the events on Qorite. He was not pleased at all about how he had been treated; not just by the inhabitants of Qorite, but, more importantly by one of Blake’s crew. The man, Olag Gan, was listed as Delta Grade murderer, and yet he was allowed to walk about Qorite unchallenged.

It angered Travis.

“I was ridiculed,” he said, “I was treated with utter contempt…”

“Travis, they did not know who you were,” Servalan explained, trying to sooth the somewhat strained atmosphere, “But they will, in time.”

“And that will not come soon enough. And you say you saw Blake?”

“As clearly as I see you.”

“Did he say anything?”

“No. Why, does it concern you?”

“I’m sure he was there, in that infernal Dome, watching. What sort of man would hide while one of his friends was in danger? Why didn’t he come out and face me?”

“Travis,” Servalan said softly, “The time was not right and neither was it the place. Qorite is outside Federation Territory; Blake would have found himself among friends. And you would have found yourself in even greater danger. You will face him, on neutral ground and then you will see that he is not an invincible hero, his exploits blown up out of all proportion by those who see him as their saviour. He is just a man…and you will prevail.”

“I value your confidence in me, Supreme Commander.”

“And I know that it will be rewarded. Speak no more of it. We have what we came for.”

“And what about Qorite? Knowingly harbouring a known fugitive.”

“Qorite and its inhabitants will one day rue the day that they never accepted the offer to come with in the embrace of the Federation…I will make sure of that.”

~

Avon was ensconced inside one of the numerous crawl spaces that interconnected all over the inner hull of the Liberator. Directly above him was a hatch and sitting by the open hatch in one of the corridors was Cally. By her side was a pouch of tools and much to Avon’s consternation every time he put his hand out to request a tool, the tool was in his hand before he even asked for it. She had denied reading his thoughts, but Avon was seriously doubting that.

As he waited for the auto-repair system to cut in, he tried to shut out his thoughts, his feelings. He had managed to do so before, but this was different. He wasn’t dealing with a human, he was dealing with an Alien…and a telepathic one at that.

He idly cast a look at the device so kindly supplied by Rensor. The area immediately in front of him was noted as a particular weak point, in fact, the device listed many weak points all over Liberator’s hull. Hopefully, though, by re-introducing the Rhenium, any more damage would be repaired to a more satisfactory standard.

Avon sat back and marvelled as the auto-repair did precisely that. If only he could break down the mechanics of the process…there would be numerous parties most interested in obtaining the knowledge….

“Mind if I join you?”

Avon sighed. The bane in his life, the one person who would stand in the way of his wealth seeking enterprise, was lowering himself down into the crawl space. Blake.

“Don’t you trust me?” Avon asked pointedly.

“I just thought you might need some help…”

“Help?”

“Obviously not. The others asked me to see how you are getting on…”

“Getting on?”

“Yes,” Blake replied, realising that he had possibly injured Avon’s professional pride……which ever profession that happened to be.

“That one shell was more than enough….”

“…For which Vila will be eternally grateful.”

Avon paused. One of Blake’s less attractive traits was to interrupt him in mid explanation.

“…..I have managed to reintroduce the Rhenium into the system; it’s up to the Liberator now. But according to these read outs, there are some serious weak points. Oh, they will eventually be repaired. It depends if that area gets hit by any space debris. This ship repairs itself continually without having to consult us.”

“Do you mind if I have a look…?”

“Checking up on me?”

Blake didn’t reply. Rising to one of Avon’s challenges would be pointless; that much he had come to learn in the short time he’d known the man.

Avon waited for a response, then allowed himself a wry smile when he knew there was none coming. “There’s nothing more I can do here. I’ll leave you to it, if you don’t mind, that is.”

“Be my guest.”

Blake waited for Avon to extricate himself from the cramped crawl way and then allowed himself an equally wry smile. There were times when the verbal sparring could get heated but this time Avon seemed quite amiable….if that were at all possible.

Cally watched as a tired Avon hauled himself out of the crawl space. He deliberately avoided any eye contact and began to dust himself off.

“You need rest.”

“Do I.”

“Both you and Vila have suffered severe sunburn….”

“The Liberator’s medical facilities have seen to that..”

“You were lucky. Any longer……”

Avon looked at her, “I am fully aware of the consequences should we have outstayed our welcome. Now, if you don’t mind…”

“May I keep this?” Cally asked, suddenly changing the subject. In her hand she was holding the remains of the Clam shell. Inside were traces of the beautiful inner lining that had provided the much needed Rhenium, “It’s very exquisite.”

“If it means that much to you…”

“Don’t mind him,” interrupted Blake, pulling himself up out through the hatch, “I don’t think Avon has the time or inclination to consider such mundane, everyday considerations of whether something is exquisite or not. As long as it’s useful…that is the important thing. Help me put the hatch back, will you Cally?”

Avon watched in silence, slightly annoyed that Blake should call into question what he would, or would not, consider exquisite. He decided against berating him..that would only lead to some prying comment designed to make Avon reveal a little more about his inner feelings and Avon revelled in keeping those inner thoughts and feelings to himself.

“Did everything meet to your satisfaction?” asked Avon.

“Of course it did,” Blake replied, “I never thought it wouldn’t.”

“Good. Maybe Cally would like this as well? It has served its purpose.” With that Avon casually tossed Rensor’s small device to Cally. She caught it.

“Why, thank you Avon.”

“Yes, thank you Avon.” Vila’s sarcastic voice echoed down the corridor. “Have you quite finished?”

“Finished?”

“Yes; hot, cold, lights on, off...”

“I don’t understand…..”

“Some of us would like to get cleaned up and refreshed without interruptions.”

Blake suppressed a laugh, “Yes, Vila, he’s quite finished. For the moment, anyway.”

“What was this Paradise like?” Vila asked, once they had all seated themselves, “That place; the Labyrinth?”

“It was like something I’ve only ever read about,” Blake replied, “Something like Earth used to be. Wide open spaces, trees…..”

“Trees?”

“And these things grow on them,” offered Gan, picking up the Orange again.

“I’m not eating that. You don’t know where it’s been,” Vila said, rebuffing the offer to hold it. “I hope you managed to get some proper supplements. The sort I can just drink down. Far more trustworthy.”

Jenna smiled, “We got those too, don’t worry. But that fruit in the hold won’t stay edible for long.”

“Well, at least I found something useful during my little trip,” Vila remarked, reaching inside his pocket. He put the Emerald encrusted rock on the table. “Now that’s far more valuable and useful than some old fruit. Emeralds don’t go off. I can’t believe anyone would leave a virtual treasure trove like that planet.”

“It won’t be there for much longer,” Blake said, “According to Zen’s calculations, Paladin has, maybe, one more orbit and then the atmosphere will be burnt off."

“But what about those poor creatures down there?” Vila implored.

“That’s not what you called them earlier,” Cally reminded him, “You were most unkind about them.”

“Yes, but that was before I realised that they had the right idea. They may have had low intelligence, but they knew that the best place was to be buried in that mud.”

“So, you’re saying that those Clams and that mud saved yours and Avon’s life,” Blake put forward.

“Absolutely,” Vila replied, downing a handful of supplements and following it with a large drink, “I may not be an Alpha Grade, but I know a good idea when I see one.”

“But you were covered in it, Vila, not just the mud, but that weed as well,” Gan put in.

“It saved my life and if it hadn’t been for me, Avon would have fried down there.”

Blake looked at Avon and recalled the state he was in when he first saw him on Paladin. Now he was his usual, well-dressed self, calmly listening as Vila extolled the virtues of the foul smelling mud.

“And how,” Blake began, directing his comments to Avon, sitting opposite him, “did you manage to tolerate all that degrading mud and weed?”

“It protected Vila and I from the heat of the suns,” Avon replied and then glanced at Vila, “Without that lower grade material I would not have survived.”

 

 

*********

© 2012 LaraSue-Lectori Salutem

 

(new illustrations will be published in 2013)