What happened so far:
Roj Blake, a former revolutionary and rebel who was brainwashed by the Federation into forgetting his activist past, was taken by rebels to an anti-administration meeting in an effort to reawaken his memories and bring him back to the Cause. Federation troopers murdered everyone there and captured Blake. To both silence and get him out of the way, three children were implanted with false memories of being raped by him. With this as evidence the courts sentenced him and he was exiled to a penal colony. In the holding cells he met a skilled thief named Vila Restal and a captured smuggler, Jenna Stannis.
The prison ship London was an ancient rectangular craft. It seemed more like a brick than a spaceship, but still it moved through space with the simple ease of acceleration.
Blake sat with metal bars pinning his arms and craned his head back to watch the shining planet as it shrank from sight in the viewport behind him.
On the London's flight deck the command crew relaxed as the pressure of acceleration eased. The youngest, Artix, was a dark haired, brown-eyed man with a puppyish face under a thatch of brown hair. "Attitude stable, trajectory firm."
"Systems check." First officer Raiker was a tall angular man with rusty-brown hair and sharp hungry features. Steely gray eyes showed no compassion for the people in his grip.
Artix checked his readouts and typed in an instruction. Satisfied, he reported, "We have full function on all navigational systems."
"Confirmed," agreed Raiker.
Running down his cheklist the younger man added, "We have full function on all communications systems."
"Confirmed. Try oscillators."
Artix flicked a few switches then looked up at his computer screen. "Full function, course is set. We have a clear on Mars beacon."
"We have go confirmation on all systems, sir," Raiker informed the captain.
"Thank you Mr. Raiker. Activate hyperdrive, speed time-distort five."
"Time-distort five." Outside there was a flare of light from the ship's propulsion units. The deck and walls shuddered around them, then the London settled into time distort. "Five and running."
"Lock in full alter," Captain Leylan reminded them. He sighed deeply and gathered himself to his feet. "I thought maintenance was supposed to have fixed that high-D ship's vibration."
"That's what they said," responded Raiker with a note of distaste for the maintenance department in his voice.
"Yeah, that's what they always say. They don't bother. Nobody bothers anymore." The captain was hitting his late sixties. More and more the sense that he had outlived his time struck him. He was wary of having young crew to train because many of the young people he met left him with a bad taste in his mouth. He tried to convince himself that it was normal for youngsters to be brash and cruel to prisoners, but still there was the feeling that things were worse every year. He stretched, feeling his bones creak. "You'd better identify us to Space Security." he reminded Artix.
"Yes, sir." Artix punched in the communication codes and began the standard identification speech. "This is Civil-Administration ship London. We are in transit from Earth to Cygnus Alpha, transporting prisoners to the penal colony. We have Federation clearance for direct flight, authority number K701. Transmission ends." That done, he and Raiker both ran standard checks and when Artix was sure his station was clear, he pulled out of his pocket a small black box which he activated and held to his ear
Leylan came over, the skin around his eyes crinkling with a grin he did not let slip onto his face. "Still studying for your Commander's credentials, Artix?"
"Yes sir! I don't want to spend the rest of my life in old tubs like... I-I mean..." he stuttered into apologetic silence.
Leylan grinned openly at his embarrassment. "I know what you mean." Artix was a welcome amusement to him of late.
"I'm sorry sir."
Leylan patted the young man's shoulder and turned to leave. "I'll be in my quarters. Anything I should know?"
"Yes, there's a report of some meteorite activity about eighteen hours ahead ship-time. Space-net says it should've cleared our course well before we reach it," Artix reported.
Leylan nodded. "Well keep an eye on it anyway. Oh, Mr. Raiker! Give the prisoners the usual pep talk, and assign them their duties."
An unpleasant grin lit the man's face, "My pleasure!" He followed Leylan out into the corridor.
In afterthought the commander stopped before his quarters. "Oh, and use the highest level of suppressants in the prisoners' rations. I like 'em docile."
"Yes sir." Raiker started to hurry down the corridor.
"Ah, Mr. Raiker?" A faint chill crept into the captain's tone.
"Sir?" He wondered idly what he had done, if anything.
The captain's voice held a slight note of warning. "There's a female prisoner on our manifest."
"I've noticed that, sir."
Leylan scowled to himself. He could not very well tell Raiker not to molest the woman, if he was going to do that he should have done it the first time. "Yes, well - ah... be discreet."
Raiker relaxed, "Yessir."
A moment later Raiker walked into the room where the prisoners were seated. He noticed that one had already been put in confinement. Good, a troublemaker would relieve the tedium of this long journey. Enjoying himself immensely, he spoke with cool arrogance to the helpless people. "I'm Sub-Commander Raiker! And I think there are a few things you should know. The voyage to Cygnus Alpha will take approximately eight months, ship-time." As he spoke, he walked forward to get a look at the woman. He missed Blake watching him, measuring, judging. "During this period, you will obey every order and instruction that is given you. There's a punishment scale for infractions, which starts with long periods of confinement in your launch seat and ends with the Commander's right to order execution. If you have any complaints, I don't want to hear them. Understand this clearly; you have no rights, whatsoever. None. Questions?" No one responded, which was proper, so he turned to the guard standing at one door: "Open it up." Beyond was another room filled with bunks and tables. "This is the limit of your world from now on. It has mess facilities, sleeping bays, recreation area. Sort out amongst yourselves how you use it. There are other rules... but you'll find out what they are when you break them. That's all. Clear your harnesses, you're at liberty to move."
Plain relief showed on several faces as the prisoners started doing just that. Blake, however, was still locked up. Raiker went over to him. "What have we here, not a troublemaker I hope?" he mocked, coolly studying the well built older man.
Hazel brown eyes regarded him with more arrogance than any prisoner should be foolish enough to show, "I didn't hear an order."
Raiker's eyes narrowed. "You didn't hear an order, sir." When Blake just gazed at him he felt a twist of rage and bellowed, "SAY IT!!"
"I didn't hear an order... sir," the prisoner answered after a moment's too long wait.
Satisfied he had his way, Raiker leaned back. "That's better. What's your name?"
The first officer lit up. "So you're Blake! Well, made quite a name for yourself a few years back!" Raiker sat down, amused and still mocking his prisoner. "Quite the celebrity. Something of a come-down for a leader of men, isn't it? Molesting kids."
Blake's chill arrogant gaze did not waver. "The charges were false."
"Oh yes, of course. Well let me tell you something, Blake. As far as I'm concerned you're just another piece of cargo. Remember that and you might just survive the journey. Do you understand?" He leaned forward to stare cruel threats into Blake's eyes.
Those eyes remained cold and judging, the tone just a trifle slow with mockery. "I understand. Sir."
"Good. You're learning." Raiker gathered himself up and went to the end of the room. All the prisoners had cleared out and were in the other area. "Let 'im clear," Raiker ordered the guard who stood there. In a moment Blake was loose. He stood up and rubbed his sore arms for a long time.
Jenna and Vila were talking with another young prisoner when Raiker walked into the room plainly looking for the smuggler. "Do you think this is a good time for me to tell them I suffer from flight sickness?" Vila was asking hopefully.
"I don't think they'll be very sympathetic," replied the younger man.
Jenna chimed in laughingly, "I expect they'll find a cure for it though. A permanent one, probably." Raiker walked up behind her.
Vila grinned, "They amputate your head!" He saw Raiker then and gave a cautioning nod to warn Jenna.
The Sub-Commander laid his hand with practiced gentleness on her shoulder. "Come with me."
"Here goes," she muttered to Vila, rolling her eyes and turning to follow Raiker.
The thief hissed back, "Shhhh!"
At the exit-door Raiker turned to speak with her. "What's your name?"
He gave her a quick once over. Lovely features, not like some of the women who had been sent to Cygnus Alpha. Very slender, lithe build. Yes he could really enjoy this one. He put on his best kind-hearted look and spoke very gently to her. "Unfortunately, Jenna, there are no special facilities for female prisoners. But if you should find things... difficult, I might be able to arrange something more comfortable."
She regarded him from under coyly lowered eyelashes, "That's very considerate of you."
Sensing an easy conquest he began to smile. "Why make it hard on yourself?"
"Why indeed?" She leaned forward and whispered in his ear then stepped back and smirked at him.
At first Raiker was too startled to do anything but glare, then he slapped her. In a rage he snarled, "You'll come 'round, I can be very persuasive!" and he left in a huff. One dark-haired prisoner watched him go with a chill, measuring look in his eye, but the look was gone before anyone might have noticed.
Jenna rejoined Vila and the other prisoner, Nova. "That one's going to enjoy giving us a hard time," she muttered.
Vila rolled his eyes. "And you've improved his mood no end! Why couldn't you have been nice to him?!" He wanted to tell her to try it, maybe it would keep her safe aboard ship because HE certainly did not have the strength to protect her from another prisoner who might take a fancy to her. Then again, he thought, she might break their heads if they tried anything.
She gave him a foul look. "He's NOT my type."
"You can't afford to be choosey now!"
"Why else would I be talking to you?"
Vila looked injured. "Thanks."
The dark-haired man came around them to sit at their table. He pretended to ignore them, his attention concentrated on a piece of paper he held. The attitude had the desired effect, Jenna noticed him and becoming curious, sat across from him. "What've you got there?"
"Nothing," he said flatly, in a none-of-your-business-unless-I-choose-to-make-it-so tone.
Blake suddenly joined them and with irrepressible curiosity asked Vila, "Do you know how those door panels work?"
The thief shrugged in apology, "No, not that type."
The dark-haired man replied without looking up. "It's simple enough. All authorized personnel have their palm-prints filed in the computer." He was curious about this Roj Blake and the only way he had ever found to have such a curiosity answered was to make its subject curious about him. Blake stared at him, surprised. Finally he elaborated: "The blue sensor plate reads the print. If it conforms, the computer opens the door."
Blake blinked and said, "Neat."
"Most computer based functions are."
Blake continued to stare wonderingly at him. The dark-haired man had to his list of unique features a bridgeless, rather generous nose, velvet dark eyes, and a measure of - not really arrogance so much as controlled indifference. For some reason Blake liked him right off.
Vila chuckled and made the introductions. "Blake, Kerr Avon. When it comes to computers he's the number two man in all the Federated worlds."
"Who's number one?" asked Nova, getting into the game.
"The guy who caught him! You've got nothing to be ashamed of!" he said to Avon. Then he turned back to them. "D'you know, he came close to stealing five million credits out of the Federation banking system."
Blake looked quickly at the other man, who seemed to be ignoring the current conversation. "What went wrong?" he asked, feeling Avon might have been offended.
"I relied on other people. Why all the questions, or is it merely a thirst for knowledge?" He sounded a bit annoyed, but did not move away, nor ignore Blake's question.
"Not exactly. Having defined the problem the first step towards a solution is the acquisition of data. You should know that." Blake's voice held a teasing note and Kerr Avon's eyes flashed briefly his way with a trace of amused surprise.
The computer technician rubbed his nose, looking slightly reproofed. Finally he stopped pretending to ignore them and turned to Blake. "Define the problem then."
Blake tried to sound casual. "How to avoid spending the rest of our lives on Cygnus Alpha."
Avon's velvet dark eyes betrayed interest but hid it when Vila snorted. The thief said, "That might not be a problem. I've heard a rumor that these prison ships don't actually go all the way, to Cygnus.... They wait until they're in deep space and then, quietly dump you out of an airlock."
"You're a fool," Kerr Avon stated flatly.
Jenna found herself defending Vila. "They are on a fixed price contract. They get paid the same whether we get there or not. And hyperdrive running is expensive."
"So they dump us and save themselves a trip!" Vila finished.
Blake turned to Avon. "Could it be altered?"
"What?" Bored though he tried to sound, a brief flicker of his eyes Blake's way showed curiosity.
Blake sat beside him, very interested in his answer. "The running log. Could the readings be faked?"
"Only by a top-line technician. Nobody on this ship could do it." He stood and started away from them, then paused at Blake's next statement, couched as it was in a tone of challenge.
Avon looked at him and smiled ever so slightly. "Naturally." Then he walked away.
Jenna leaned towards Blake. "Was it wise to put that idea into his head?"
Vila was alerted by her tone, "What idea?"
Blake ignored him. "Oh he's bright. He'd already thought of it."
"What?!" demanded Vila indignantly.
Jenna looked grim as she said, "He fixes the log, the crew dump us, pocket the profit, and set him free."
"That's immoral!!" Avon was listening to this exchange and looked faintly perplexed when Vila said that. His eyebrows went farther up as the thief said, "The cold-hearted, murdering... let's kill him now before he can do it!"
Blake ignored all that too and asked Jenna, "How much do you know about this type of ship?"
She shrugged and glanced around. "Not a lot. A converted deep space freighter, early make hyperdrive which needs re-stressing by the feel of things. The whole lot should have been scrapped ages ago."
"Could you pilot her?"
"I expect so. Why?"
"Well, once we've taken the ship we'll need a pilot."
The months passed. Life moved monotonously, the days and weeks blurring together. But change is as inevitable as death. The ship was knocked about by an energy wave. Artix was on watch with Commander Leylan who paced fretfully on the flight-deck. He grumbled to himself, "There shouldn't be anything there a'tall. It's empty space, nothing orbits through it," he stared up at the holo-screen indignantly, then continued to complain. "No marked space wrecks, no navigational hazards, nothing!"
Artix said softly, "Well there's something there now, and our course takes us right through it." The commander hmmmed. An eerie sound, building in pitch, reverberated through the hull. Both men grabbed their seats and belted themselves in. The ship shuddered violently as if it had been struck by something.
Raiker rushed in frantically. "What's happening?!"
Leylan mused that this flight's female prisoner was obviously too much for Raiker, he was edgy. "Full spectrum shock waves. We had one about ten minutes ago, but that was only a scale two. Artix, what was the reading on that one?"
The young man checked his instruments. "Seven."
"All right. Put all sections on standby, turbulence alert."
Obedient, Artix spoke into his microphone over ship's com. "All sections on standby, all sections on standby; turbulence alert, turbulence alert."
Leylan turned to Raiker. "Put up the deflector shields, there's some debris, too."
"Deflectors out. Where're the blasts coming from?!"
"Somewhere in that top right-hand sector." He waved towards the holo-screen.
Raiker gave him an appalled disbelieving look, "That's total void!"
"Not now it isn't. Show him!" Artix obeyed. A tracer showed up on screen, like some slow moving comet.
Raiker frowned. "I've never seen anything like that before. Can you increase magnification?" Another tracer appeared on the screen.
"We're at the limit now," said Artix.
It could not be said that Raiker had not earned his station. Coolly efficient, he asked, "What sort of range?"
"About five sub-specs on the high-D grid."
"Anything coming in on the communicators?"
"No. Static right across the range."
There were five tracers now, four converging on the fifth. Raiker murmured doubtfully, "I suppose it could be some sort of meteorite collision..?" There was a mighty flare across the screen and two tracers vanished. The three men stared in wide-eyed shock until Raiker exclaimed, "What the HELL was that?!"
"I think it's a damned great space battle. Two fleets, maybe more," Leylan answered him, not without some cool himself.
"We haven't got any heavy combat stuff in this section, have we?"
Leylan shrugged. "Well they're not Federation ships, and that's not our battle." He turned to Artix. "I want a new course, take us 'round it. With a three sub-sect margin from the outer limits of the action." They heard the eerie sound that proceeded a shockwave as the hull picked up its wavefront. The men hung on to their chairs when the ship began to shake violently. "Reading?"
"Scale nine!" called out Artix.
Raiker turned, alarmed. "Shift course now and we'll be taking those blasts broadside, they'll smash the guts out of us!!"
"Better that than run into the middle of a war," Leylan said boredly. It was rare for Raiker to be shaken out of his smug arrogance, the commander enjoyed it in spite of the danger they were in. "Manual control, Mr. Raiker." To Artix he said, "Put the ship on full emergency, all crew to operational stations!"
"Full emergency, full emergency. All crew to operational stations, all crew to operational stations!" the young man called into his microphone.
Blake hurriedly crawled through the narrow space between the inner and outer hulls. Cables and wires all around him led off to various parts of the ship. As the shockwave sound reverberated through the passage, he froze and hung for dear life on to one of the thicker cables. When the ship finally ceased shuddering, he knocked on a panel in front of him.
In the prisoners' quarters the knock was heard. Jenna nodded to Vila, who turned and whispered to another prisoner, a big man named Gan: "Keep an eye on me as well, will ya?" They went to distract the guard. "Hey Dainer, got a little trick to show you!" Vila called out cheerfully.
Dainer was very familiar with Vila. The thief relieved the tedium of their journey with his ameteur magic tricks and always had a new one to show. "Oh really?"
"Now watch very, very closely, all right?" Vila pulled a coin out of Dainer's ear. Seeing the guard was unimpressed he continued, "Right, now watch carefully!" as he prepared another trick. When the security camera swung away from the corner Jenna and the others were standing in, they blocked the panel from sight and opened it.
Blake scrambled out and went quickly to Jenna. "Got past both the microgrills this time. It'll work if only I can get HIM to do it."
"He's through there," she indicated the room where the launch seats were. Confronting a cobra in its lair, Blake? she thought as he hurried into the other area.
It was of course Kerr Avon that Blake was after. The dark-eyed technician sat near a viewport intently studying that piece of paper he had carried with him since the beginning. Blake nonchalantly sauntered over and sat in the chair next to him. Trying to sound casual he asked, "If you had access to the computer, could you open the doors?"
"Of course. Why?" asked Avon, not looking up.
Then Blake looked at him. He could not help the bright mischief in his eyes but he kept it from his tone. "Just wondered how good you really were."
This drew a faint smile to the other man's face. "Don't try and manipulate me, Blake." Yet there was a trace of amusement Avon permitted to show.
"Now why should I try and do that?" Blake put on his most innocent face. He had learned early on that this amused Avon and had used it to his advantage in a number of conversations with the tech, keeping the man's tolerance longer than anyone else by it.
"You need my help."
"ONLY if you can open the doors."
Then Avon looked at him, a flare of offended dignity in the velvet darkness of his eyes. "I can open every door. Blind all the scanners, knock out the security over-rides and control the computer. Control the computer, and you control the ship." He looked back at his paper as if to pretend he had said nothing.
Blake abandoned any pretense at casualness. "Then I do need your help," he began, letting urgency slip into his voice. "There's a service channel, runs the whole length of the ship. Every other compartment has an inspection hatch. The LAST one opens onto the computer section!"
"Give me one good reason why I should help you."
Not going to say yes without knowing you can get something you could hold out of it, eh? Blake laughed wryly. "You're a civilized man, Avon. On Cygnus Alpha that will NOT be a survival characteristic."
Avon smiled briefly. "An intelligent man can adapt."
"Or recognize an alternative."
The reply had more than a little note of `you're going to have to do better than that', "I already have one."
Blake cocked his head and scolded lightly, "A private deal with the ship's crew to fake the running log?" Avon rubbed his nose, looking uncomfortable. The rebel hid his grin at the tech's discomfort. "You've had four months to think about that. And it didn't take you that long to work out that they would have to kill you afterwards to keep you quiet!"
"Whereas you are offering me safety," his expression held quiet scorn but underneath it Blake could read a trace of despair.
He leaned closer. "I'm offering you the chance of freedom."
Avon sneered. "Generous. Considering MINE will be the most important job."
For just a moment the sensation of having the wall he was shoving against fall down startled Blake into silence. He stood hesitantly. "You'll do it then?"
He replied firmly, "Now."
Jenna stepped into the room then just to be sure Kerr Avon was not strangling Blake back here. Just then the shockwave sound came. Jenna and Blake leaped for chairs. The other prisoners grabbed for handholds everywhere they stood or sat.
"Damage report!" shouted Leylan.
Artix activated the com. "All sections report damage. All sections report damage."
From his board came answers. "Section Two, ah - port deflector shield buckled, sir!"
"Section Four, the outer hull has been punctured astern."
"Auto repair circuits?" Leylan asked Raiker.
"They're sealing it."
The young man ran a quick check. "Vision panels have cut out, but I'm getting blind readings. And an echo from something, big and pretty far off. I can't identify it without a scan."
"Could it be a ship from the battle fleet?" Raiker suggested.
Artix thought about it but decided it was somewhat doubtful. "It's a long way off from the center of the action. Seems to be drifting." He turned to Leylan, "Well my guess is that it's something being pushed along by the shockwaves, running parallel to us."
"Well keep checking on it. And START working on those vision panels!" Leylan sat down quickly, hearing another shock wave coming.
"Here we go again," said Raiker, grabbing hold of his seat. This one was big and the ship shook violently.
Jenna stood up and cast a worried look toward Blake. "A couple more like that one and we won't HAVE a ship to take over."
"Call in Vila."
Waving out the door to Vila Jenna asked Blake, "And Gan and Nova?"
He nodded. "Are there any others?"
She rolled her eyes, "The rest are doped to the eyeballs."
Vila looked shaky when he stepped in. "Perhaps we should get on with it... d'you think, maybe..." he stared wide-eyed out the door.
Gan grinned beside him. "Maybe. Don't be nervous, Vila."
"Nervous? I'm not nervous... just poised for action, that's all."
Avon gave an exasperated snort, glaring towards Vila. "You've got an army of five, Blake. Five and HIM. Do you still think you can take over this ship?"
"If you do your bit," the rebel snapped back. A hissing sound filled the room and they turned to see a crack in the wall with foam oozing out of it. Jenna went over and scooped some of the stuff up.
"What's that?" asked Vila.
The smuggler frowned at the foam. "Sealing gel. If the outer hull gets punctured this stuff floods into the section and blocks it up. It... it goes solid in seconds. We must've been holed in that last turbulence." She turned a look full of warning on the men, because they could easily be caught in it if this kept up. Especially sneaking through that tunnel.
Vila turned to Gan, terrified. "Gan... what about -"
Blake interrupted him quickly. "No, this last wave's our best chance! The crew'll have their hands full just running the ship! Are you ready?" he asked Avon.
Velvet dark eyes flashed, then cooled. "Yes."
"Make it good, Vila."
The thief seemed about to panic but he calmed himself. He turned to his large friend. "Gan?" The two headed for the other section.
Blake turned to Avon. "We'll be ready in exactly fifteen minutes, will that give you enough time?" When Avon nodded Blake added, "Knock out those scanners and open the doors, we'll do the rest. Good luck." He grabbed Nova and the two left the room.
Avon and Jenna quickly followed. He paused and turned to her. "`Luck' has nothing to do with it."
Vila had gone over to Dainer. "You look as if you could do with a drink!"
"I'm always thirsty, Vila," the man answered with curiosity.
"Now I wanna show you a little trick here," and to Gan he said, "all right, Gan? You know this one. Now watch this." Dainer muttered about how the trick never worked the first time.
With him distracted and the scanner pointing away from them, they quickly got Avon into the service channel. Then they nonchalantly gathered around Vila to watch his tricks. Vila had produced a cup of liquid and offered it to the guard, who told him he would have to drink it first. Nova whispered to Blake, "How will we know when he's done it?"
"The light on the scanner. When that goes off we're on our way." Blake's eyes gleamed with anticipation of approaching victory.
Avon crawled through the channel quickly. When he got to the last panel, he very carefully pushed it open and peered around anxiously. Just as he started to get out, he saw someone there and pulled back in to hide. A young technician was doing some computer checks. Avon glanced at his chronometer and pursed his lips in frustration.
Dainer was replaced by another guard. Blake, Jenna and Vila stood together, fretting. "He should have made it by now," muttered the thief.
Jenna turned to Blake, "Do you think he's been caught?"
"Oh no, there would've been an alarm. I'd better get in after him." He started off towards the panel.
Vila blocked him. "You can't do that! If it all starts happening while you're in there, who's gonna get this lot moving?"
Jenna also sternly faced down the glowering rebel and supported Vila, "No, he's right."
Blake glared at the thief for a moment, then grinned, "All right you go, then."
Vila blanched. "Me?! Uh... I'd be glad to. It's just I've got this problem with confined spaces. There's a medical name for it!" he told Jenna as she smirked.
"Cowardice?" she asked.
Nova shoved his way between them. "I'll go." To Blake's stern frown he pleaded, "Oh let me do it! I haven't done anything yet!"
Vila said swiftly, "I'm quite prepared to go. It's just that I don't want to let anyone down because of my, eh... uh... complaint."
"I want to help," Nova said earnestly.
"What do you think?" Vila asked.
Blake did not look at all pleased. He gave in with ill grace. "All right. Let's get him in there."
Vila sauntered off to collect a bored Gan. "Let's try it with this one!" he pointed at the new guard.
In the computer room the young technician was still doing his checks. Avon waited impatiently behind the panel, holding it open a crack so he could see. When the other man came close enough, he threw himself out, bringing his whole weight down on him.
A shockwave sound built in pitch, indicating a really strong one. On the flight-deck they grabbed for anything solid. "Here it comes again!" shouted Leylan.
Nova was on his way through the service channel when the shockwave hit. The sound was especially loud there. As the ship shuddered from the wave, he heard a hissing, and three holes opened in the hull beside him. Frantically he covered them, but they had already registered on the damage-control computer. He turned to run but was too late. The section had closed off, and sealing gel was already foaming up around him. His screams were cut off by the rising foam.
Meanwhile Avon studied the computer, then snatched up some tools.
On the flight-deck Leylan was intent on the reports they were receiving. "Damage?" he asked a crewmember.
"Three hull punctures, sir. They're all sealed and solid."
"Okay. Carry on. What was the force?" he asked Artix.
"Down to nine again. It's reducing."
Leylan sighed with relief. "Ah, not before time. Where's that echo?"
The alert sound of the radar filled the bridge as Artix activated it. In a panic the young man cried, "It's practically on top of us! We're on a collision course!" Raiker and Leylan dived into their seats.
Raiker called out orders quickly, "Get those scans fixed, come on, move it!"
In the computer room, Avon had found a group of control circuits under the console. "Prison compartment scanners..." he muttered, reaching with a laser probe and shorting out some circuits.
In the prison compartment the scanner's light blinked out.
"Off!" Jenna hissed.
Blake was on his feet. "Here we go. Are you ready?" he asked the listless prisoners, who were just starting to look up in hope.
Jenna whispered urgently, "Come on Avon. He's spotted it, Gan!" she called as the guard turned a puzzled frown towards the scanner. Gan grabbed him and pinned him against the wall. The door however remained stubbornly shut.
Blake muttered, "Come on Avon, the door! Come on."
Avon searched for the door controls, not noticing that the man behind him was stirring. Just as he found them the young technician jumped him.
Meanwhile, Blake got tired of waiting. "Bring the guard," he told Gan. He turned a cool threatening look on the man, "Open the door." The guard clenched his fist and refused. "Put his HAND on the door." Despite the ensuing struggle, they were unable to get his hand open.
Gan suddenly faced the guard and smiled gently. "Look, we only need the hand. If you want to stay attached to it... do as you're told." White-faced, the man allowed Gan to place his palm against the door panel.
In the computer room Avon smashed the technician into a wall, knocking him out again. Diving for the door controls, he deactivated them.
The sudden opening of the doors did not go unnoticed on the flight-deck. Artix looked up from the door controls and frowned. "All checks complete, the fault must be in the computer."
"Get down there Mr. Raiker."
The prisoners stepped cautiously into the ship's main corridors. Blake spun on them. "Spread out and find the armory. Jenna!"
"Let's find the computer room."
Raiker and Artix were also going to the computer room. They peered in growing fear at the doors they passed. "All the doors are open!" exclaimed Raiker.
Artix nodded, wide-eyed. "Perhaps that last shockwave did more damage than we thought. It's like the whole system's been disrupted!"
A flicker of realization crossed the other man's face, "Let's find out," he muttered, hefting his blaster. Although he had a suspicion the prisoners might be loose, his mouth dropped when they turned the corner and walked straight into Blake and Jenna. He raised his weapon quickly.
"Blake watch out!" Jenna grabbed the rebel's arm and hauled him around a corner while the rebel tried to fire on Raiker.
Attracted by the firing Avon appeared at the computer room door. "Blake!" he called, gesturing for them to get in there.
Blake looked quickly out toward the corner Artix and Raiker had dived around. He shouted, "Now!" and he and Jenna dashed across the corridor to join Avon. "Close the door! Come on quickly!"
When they knew it was safe, the two crewmen came out and tested the door. With a hiss of utter fury Raiker yelled at Artix, "Get up to the flight-deck. Tell the old man what's happened!" In a few steps the sub-commander hit an emergency alarm and klaxons blared throughout the ship.
In the computer room Avon turned to Blake. "Now what?"
"Cripple the ship," Jenna answered quickly.
Blake nodded. "We've got all the bargaining power we need. Use it!"
Avon knelt to work on the computer circuits. "S'cuse me." he said to Jenna whose knee was in his way.
On the flight deck Leylan shut down the alarms. A moment later Artix rushed in through the door, and the captain turned to him. "What the hell's going on?"
"The prisoners have escaped, sir, and they've got 'hold of the computer."
"What?! C'mon." They raced out the door.
Vila, Gan and six other prisoners wandered together through the corridors trying to get their bearings. Vila muttered sullenly, "`Find the armory', he says. I don't even like guns." Gan smiled slightly and moved to the front. Two guards came around the corner but before they recovered from their surprise, Gan had caught their arms and pinned them both.
"Grab the guns!" he told his friends. Two more guards rounded the corner and Gan said quickly, "Stay right there! Or we'll kill them. Drop your guns!!" Vila dropped the one he was holding and the guards reacted quickly, shooting the other prisoner who had a gun.
"Move, and you're dead," said one.
Gan released the guards he held and standing with his hands up, whispered reprovingly; "Vila!"
"I got confused," the thief apologized.
The guards wisely kept their distance and gave orders. "Hands on your heads. Now move. Single file."
Leylan and Artix joined Raiker at the computer room door. "They're still in there?" the captain asked.
Leylan activated a wall communicator. When Blake answered his hail he identified himself. "This is Commander Leylan. If you come out immediately and surrender yourselves, you will be treated leniently. If not my men will blast their way in and you will suffer the consequences." He cursed silently, he'd never been good at bluffing.
"Those are your terms?" came the icy reply.
Holding the microphone, Blake straightened up, feeling victory at last in his hands. "These are mine. You will hand over your weapons to my men. Whilst we hold the computer the ship is helpless. It will remain that way until you agree. You will then fly the ship to the nearest habitable planet, where the prisoners will disembark. Any attempt by your men to break into this room, and we'll destroy the computer. Totally. That's all." He started to replace the microphone when Leylan's voice came urgently over it.
"Now Blake, Blake listen to me... very carefully. There is something large travelling very near us, and we've been running blind. We MAY be on a collision course. You're putting everybody's life at risk!"
"Better make up your mind quickly then," Blake told him.
As Leylan turned with an exasperated sigh a prisoner who had just come into the area collapsed, shot dead. The captain stared at the body for a long moment. Then he waved the man who had shot him over. "Dainer," he said mildly, "He wasn't armed!"
Dainer nodded, "We were lucky. They couldn't find the armory. We got most of them back to their quarters, we're just mopping up now."
His commander looked at him steadily and said slowly, "So I see, Dainer."
Perplexed by Leylan's tone, the young man pointed out, "Some of our men have been injured, sir."
"And the prisoners?" Leylan asked, still staring.
"We've killed six."
The anger in his tone only confused Dainer, who indicated the dead prisoner. "Seven. In the course of quelling a riot and protecting the ship, sir."
Seeing it was no use, Leylan shook his head. "Very well. Carry on, Dainer."
"Thank you, sir."
Raiker was slightly amused by this conversation. As Leylan rubbed the bridge of his nose, the sub-commander said slyly, "I can get them out of there, sir."
"How?" asked Leylan, folding his arms.
"I want a free hand to take whatever action I think necessary. Do I have your permission sir?"
Leylan looked at him and frowned, but he weighed the alternatives of letting Raiker go with Blake holding the computer. At last he said, "All right."
"C'mon!" Raiker called the guards.
Leylan stayed where he was, rubbing his eyes. Where did you come from? he wondered about Dainer and Raiker. What's going so wrong with our world that it's produced people like you? And he flinched, remembering that he had never stopped the man from molesting women prisoners.
In the computer room Avon tied the hands of the unconscious computer tech. Jenna was fretting. She turned to Blake, "What d'you think they'll do?"
"Their time's running out." His eyes were shining, lips curved at the edges in a victorious smile.
She tried to push a little reality on him. "So's ours."
"WE have less to lose."
Avon looked up at him and said coldly, "You may have but I value my life!"
Jenna shook her head. "Assuming they DO land us somewhere, what then?"
Blake shrugged. "Find a way of getting back to Earth."
Jenna stared at him, startled. "To Earth!?"
His eyes blazed with furious determination. "Yes. That's where the heart of the Federation is. I intend to see that heart torn out!"
Avon's eyes lit intently on the rebel's face for a long moment. He finally said with contempt, "I thought you were probably insane."
Blake turned blazing eyes on the other man. "That's possible!! They butchered my family, my friends! They murdered my past and gave me tranquilized dreams!!" He stood almost nose-to-nose with Avon, who looked quite unimpressed.
"At least you're still alive," Jenna pointed out. Isn't that all that matters? she wondered.
As if he were answering her thought Blake said, "No! Not until free men can think and speak! Not until power-" he paused to glare at Avon, "-is back with the honest man."
"Have you ever met an `honest man'?" Avon asked him, his voice for once oddly free of contempt or threat.
"Perhaps," responded Jenna, looking at Blake thoughtfully.
Blake had given up glaring at Avon, and stared morosely at the floor. It's contagious, thought Avon and with a frustrated snarl the computer expert braced his hands atop the computer terminal and glared into Blake's downturned face. "Listen to me. Wealth is the only reality. And the only way to obtain wealth is to take it away from somebody else! Wake up, Blake. You may not be tranquilized anymore but you're still dreaming."
Blake didn't look up. Jenna found herself defending him, "Maybe some dreams are worth having."
Avon was plainly astonished to hear that from her. "You don't REALLY believe that?" he asked.
Jenna found a thousand answers to that question, but she only let out one. "No. But I'd like to."
Blake raised his head at last. "Yes. Well you asked me what I was gonna do and I've told you. What you do is up to yourselves."
Avon brightened. "Right. A new identity. A job in the Federation banking system. Three months with their computers and I could lift a hundred million credits! And nobody would know where they went! Then let anybody try and touch me!"
"And the rest?" asked Blake, gazing steadily at him.
The tech's face became unreadable. "Have the same chance as I have."
"You don't really believe that!" Blake snapped. Avon glared, affronted at having his own words thrown back at him. The comm buzzer went off, and Blake activated it.
Raiker's voice came on as arrogantly mocking as ever. "Blake? Blake, switch on your vision panel, Scanner 34. There's something I want you to see." Blake nodded to Avon. The three found themselves staring into the prison section. Surrounded by guards, their fellow prisoners stood with their hands on their heads, waiting. "You have a clear view of our little assembly, Blake?"
"We see you."
"Then lock on the scanner and keep watching."
Avon did so with a puzzled frown. Raiker raised his gun, and with cold-blooded precision shot a prisoner.
"I'm going to kill one of your friends... every thirty seconds starting now. I'll stop when you give yourselves up, or I run out of prisoners."
Blake lunged for the communicator with a desperate cry. "Raiker listen to me! Raiker, damn you those men are unarmed!!"
"The talking's over, Blake."
In a panic Blake cried, "Lemme talk to Leylan!" On the screen, they saw Raiker turn off his speaker. "Raiker! Raiker!!" The man turned back to his prisoners, glanced at his chronometer and coolly shot another one. Blake turned a shell-shocked gaze on Avon, his voice was wintery-bleak. "Open the door."
Avon gazed flatly at him. "You're throwing away our only chance." This is on your head, he seemed to say.
"Open the door!"
And Avon did.
Commander Leylan came in immediately with guards. "Hands on your heads. Stay where you are."
Blake spoke to him desperately, his eyes still on the viewscreen. "Raiker's switched off! Tell him we're coming out, and QUICKLY!!"
Leylan nodded to Artix, who dashed off. The guards untied the young computer tech. Blake had not taken his eyes off the screen and Commander Leylan looked at it too. He frowned at the sight that greeted him. Two prisoners lay dead in the camera view. They saw Artix enter the prison compartment, they saw him speak to Raiker. Then Raiker turned and shot another prisoner. Leylan looked away, sickened. He drew a breath and told Blake, "Move it."
As they left the room, Blake said to him, "Commander, your first officer is guilty of murder. I DEMAND that this incident is fully reported in your log."
"Now don't tell me how to run my ship Blake. Everything that happens here is logged and filed with the Flight Authority. And they'll take whatever action they deem necessary." Blake's gaze seemed to say, Do you really think they'll take any action at all? Leylan had difficulty meeting it.
A victorious Raiker arrived with Artix and some guards. He strode up to Blake, smirking. "You could've won, Blake. All you needed was guts!"
"I'll settle for yours," Blake snarled. He lunged for Raiker. The guards grabbed him and Raiker was quick to take advantage of it and punch the rebel in the gut.
"Take 'em back. Put them in close confinement." The guards started to do this, then Raiker added, "Not the girl! She and I have some unfinished business. Or did you think I'd forgotten?" he sneered at her. His victory was cut by Leylan's cold, furious voice.
"Mr. Raiker! Have you gone completely mad? Put her with the others." Obediently the guards took her away too. "Mr. Artix, get a technical squad in there. I want that computer fully functional in ten minutes."
He turned back to Raiker, who was eyeing him and allowing too much contempt to show through. "Mr. Raiker. This time you went too far. There'll be an official inquiry."
The beady eyes narrowed, lips twitched mockingly. "Naturally sir. And I'm sure you'll confirm that I was acting with your full authority. There were other officers present who heard you give me permission to do whatever was necessary."
Leylan simply looked at him. "Everything that was said and done by everybody, including me, will be in my report." He walked away knowing with some pride that the sub-commander's eyes followed him with more than a shade of fear.
Avon was confined across the aisle from Jenna and Blake facing away from them. They had been sitting in silence for some time. Finally Jenna asked Blake, "How do you feel?" because he was gazing up at the ceiling and looked pale and drawn and she was uncertain of his sanity.
"Sick," he said bleakly, hopelessly.
A sarcastic snort came from in front of them and was followed by a small even more sarcastic speech. "So you should. What a fiasco! You could take over the ship, you said, if I did my bit. Well I did my bit and what happened? Your troops bumble around looking for someone to surrender to and when they've succeeded, YOU follow suit."
Jenna ignored Avon. "What do you think they'll do to us?"
Blake answered her softly, "Something unfriendly."
She looked away from him. "For a while, I really thought we'd made it."
He winced at the despairing note in her voice. "It was my fault."
"We know," came from Avon.
The cold uncompromising man distracted Blake from his guilt and he found to his surprise amusement still in him. "I'll try and do better next time."
Kerr Avon if he could would probably have flayed him with a glare. "We had one chance. You wasted it. There won't be a next time."
Jenna raised her chin and said loudly, "In which case you can die content."
They never saw the almost-smile that crossed Avon's face like a wince. "Content?"
"Knowing that you were RIGHT."
Avon didn't respond, but out of sight, he allowed bitterness to show in his eyes.
On the flight deck, Leylan and Raiker were completing their checks. "We have power back, sir," the sub-commander informed his captain.
"About time," Leylan grumbled.
Artix arrived from the computer room, looking pleased with himself. "We have normal functions on all systems."
"Have we got scan yet?"
Checking his instruments, the young man shook his head, "Not yet."
"Get me a blind reading on that echo." The bleep of the scanner filled the room.
Artix frowned. "It's very close."
Raiker was staring in astonishment at his instruments. "These readings have got to be wrong!" he said, shaking his head.
"We've got the scan back!" Artix crowed suddenly.
Leylan leaned forward. "Right. Get me a picture."
When their view-screen opened up they stared in wonder at a huge, blue white ship moving slowly towards them. She was strangely shaped; the main power source looking like a huge round ball on the end, her front coming to an elegant point. Three nacelles jutted away from each other out of the center of the ship, with pointed ends like the main body had. Weaponry, they guessed.
"I don't believe it!" murmured Raiker reverently.
Leylan leaned toward him. "Take us in as close as you can, Mr. Raiker."
Artix clambered his way to get a better view of the ship. "Where did it come from?"
Leylan stood up and searched for markings. There were no particular identifying marks in his sight though. "I've never seen a ship like that before in my life. She seems to be drifting. Mr. Raiker, maintain this distance."
"Try and make contact, Mr. Artix. Sound and vision."
At his station Artix activated the ship-to-ship. "This is Civil-Administration ship London, out of Earth, bound for Cygnus Alpha. Please identify yourself." Static came through, nothing else.
The London floated in space close to the strang ship, looking like a kitten beside an elephant.
Raiker gazed hungrily at the ship. "I reckon she was involved in that space-battle we picked up. She got caught in a big blast and the crew were either killed or got off in the life rockets," he told Leylan.
"It's possible. No visible sign of damage, though."
"No sign of life, either."
"Hmmm. Well if she's been completely abandoned...." an idea began to form in Leylan's head and was sprung out by Raiker.
"We could put on a boarding party. You know how much that ship would be worth in prize money if we could get it to a Federation planet? Millions of credits. Millions!" Raiker was practically salivating.
"Leave a skeleton crew on her. We could do that." Leylan rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"It's GOT to be worth a try!" Raiker urged.
At that, the commander snapped his fingers. "Yes it has!" He spoke into the ship's comm. "Ah, Section Four, stand by to run out a transfer tube. Garton and Teague?"
"Get out with your survival units, I'll be with you in a minute." He turned to Raiker. "Right. Take us in as close as you can and keep us there."
Leylan arrived at Section Four and gave the two men who were being sent out a once-over. They wore white uniforms with helmets, oxygen canisters and had rifles in their hands. He nodded. "Good."
A technician finished programming the transfer tube controls and turned to Leylan. "Transfer tube ready sir."
"All right. Begin extension."
Outside the ship the tube looked fragile as it extended slowly between the two space-ships. Soon it closed over the big ship's airlock.
"Locked on, sir. Air pressure stabilized." The tech opened the inner airlock door and Teague and Garton started out.
Leylan stopped them and gave them a warning. "Now, keep your communicators open at all times. I want a full report of conditions inside that ship. If there is anyone alive over there, we're going to make peaceful contact. Weapons are only to be used as defense. Understood?"
"Sir," they acknowledged the order.
"All right, in you go." The two sealed their helmets and entered the airlock which closed behind them. Leylan said, "All right, open the door." Then he activated the receiving speaker. Teague's voice came over it.
"We're starting along the transfer tube now, sir." Leylan fretted in the silence before the man spoke again. "We're against the hull. It is a hatch entrance. I'm about to operate the remote lock activator. No response Circuit One... no response Circuit Two... no response Circuit Three... no, wait! It's opening! Powerful light source in somewhere. We're going in now!"
Nervous, the commander turned to the young tech. "Krell, get kitted up, and stand by to give backup as it's needed."
"Yessir." The excited young man dashed away.
Teague's voice continued to come over. "We're in... some sort of a - cylinder. Type of airlock, I think. It's turning!" The silence stretched. "It's fantastic, sir. I - I don't believe it!"
"What is it, what's happening?"
"Well we've come out into what must be some sort of a flight-deck I think, but it's like nothing I've ever seen before.
"Well describe it later. Now - now, give me life-support read-out."
Teague obeyed and a moment later informed his captain, "Air pressure normal, minimal radiation... breathable oxygen atmosphere."
"Good, good. Now is there anybody on board?"
"Not that we've seen so far but..." Teague choked in mid-sentence then said "I'm sorry! What was that?!" in a panicked tone.
"I didn't speak!" Leylan said quickly. A cold chill ran over his shoulders.
"Somebody did! Somebody did--" Sudden static overwhelmed the line, but they heard screams through it.
Leylan called out desperately, "Teague, report! Garton! Where the hell's that backup man?!"
"Ready, sir!" Krell answered as he hurried in.
"Right. Get across there as fast as you can!" The inner hatch closed behind Krell. "Right, open the door," Leylan told the guard who had taken the young man's station. Krell was off. Leylan signalled the flight deck. "Raiker, let Artix take the ship. Get down here."
Krell's voice came over the com unit. "I'm in the airlock, and it's turning." After a moment he added, "I'm inside. The design is strange to me. All the flight-control positions are empty!"
Raiker arrived and listened to Leylan's response. "All right. All right now - now don't move. Now just look around, and tell me what you see."
Krell's response sounded dazed. "What? Uh, I heard something!"
"What is it?"
"It's... whispering. Shhhh!" and he spoke as if to someone else. "Yes. Yes I hear you. Davor, what're you..? What're they doing to you?! No! No! Noooo!!" again static overwhelmed the communicator.
Leylan shouted, "Krell, Krell answer me! Krell! Now listen to me Krell! If I have no signal from you within three minutes... I'm withdrawing the transfer tube. Three minutes!"
Raiker grabbed the captain's arm. "Wait!! We can't give up that easily! That ship's worth a fortune!"
"Looks like I've already lost three men. I'm not risking any more of my crew." Leylan glared at his subordinate.
"Then use prisoners! They've got nothing to lose. Use Blake, and the other two. Let them take the risks. Why not?"
Because the thought makes me sick, Leylan almost replied. But those were his men out there and Raiker was right about the prisoners. "We might save the other three."
"Right. At least we'll have tried."
Leylan's lip curled at hearing that from Raiker but he consented anyway. "Right, get 'em equipped and bring 'em down here."
On the flight deck Artix paused in his work, taking readings. Disturbed by what he'd picked up, he signaled Leylan.
"Leylan," the captain answered.
"I don't know if this is significant, sir, but I'm picking up a specific-focus energy field close by. I presume it's the other ship?"
"Is it constant?"
He checked the reading to be sure, "Well that's the odd thing. There've been two violent discharges right off the scale. But after each the source dropped back to constant."
"Thank you Mr. Artix." Raiker arrived with the prisoners. He had given them oxygen units but nothing else. Leylan found it hard to meet Blake's angry eyes. "I hope Mr. Raiker's made it clear to you, that you can refuse to do this."
Blake's reply was cold with rage, "Oh yes. He's also made it clear that summary execution is one of our options. We chose the other."
"Well if you're successful, I promise that I'll get your sentences quashed."
The dark haired man turned a cool look to him, "And if we're not?"
Raiker pointed his rifle at the man. "Then you'll have no more problems anyway."
The woman sneered at Raiker but asked, "What is it that we have to do?"
Leylan sighed and put all his concern, and strong promises into his answer. "Find out what's happened to my men, and see if it's safe to send a boarding party across."
"All right," said Blake.
"I've had worse offers," Jenna did not look at Raiker but everyone knew his was one of those offers.
"Good," Leylan gave them his relief in that one word.
"Do we get weapons?" Blake asked.
Raiker pushed forward, "I'll toss them into the airlock, once you're inside."
Blake glared at him, his voice like ice. "Very wise." The other man drew back a little. "All right. Open the hatch."
Commander Leylan nodded to the guard. "Open the hatch."
The moment the hatch opened a man came rushing out. Drooling, screaming and crying he jumped at Raiker, who merely knocked him down and let the guards pin him. It was the young technician, Krell. "Get him out of here!" Raiker ordered.
Jenna gaped at the man being dragged off. "What on Earth did that to him?!"
Kerr Avon met her eyes and shook his head toward the airlock, "That's what WE'RE supposed to find out. Execution may have some appeal after all."
Blake listened to this exchange indifferently. Then he turned to enter the airlock. "Let's go." The other two glanced at each other to see if either would balk first and followed him. Raiker handed in rifles and the lock closed behind them.
"Right, open it up," Leylan said of the outer door.
The trio made their way across the transfer tube. The other ship's airlock stood open and a dead body was sprawled half-in half-out of it. They entered the ship cautiously and stepped through a corridor onto the flight deck, at which they stared in delight.
It was huge. There were six flight-control stations, each with a computer console of its own. The room was dark, powered down, but there was a faint feeling in the air, almost expectant. They separated to investigate the technology around them.
"Beautiful!" whispered Jenna.
Avon pointed from one of the control stations to another, "Look at that instrumentation!"
Jenna gazed possessively around. "A ship like this could go anywhere!"
The computer tech stumbled upon another body. "This one is dead also." The three looked up, hearing a high-pitched hum that filled the air.
A glowing green ball appeared across the deck from them and hovered in the air pulsating eerily in the darkness. Its surface had a texture, as if it were made of a mass of fibers.
Jenna turned to Blake, "What is it?"
"I don't know."
The sound grew in pitch, and got into their heads. It brought terrifying images with it. Jenna saw a woman in a white hospital gown, screaming. She was surrounded by Federation guards who were dragging her away. Similar scenes played in Avon's and Blake's heads. Avon saw a tall blonde man who spoke to him. Blake cried out to his images, "You're dead! Those tapes are forgeries!! You're dead!" The others walked towards the mass in a trance. He called out frantically to them, "No, no! Get back!" When this got no reaction he ran and grabbed at Avon, who shoved him out of his way.
"I must go to him!" Avon said hoarsely. Desperate, Blake grabbed the dazed tech and threw him tumbling over the flight deck couch. He turned to see Jenna reaching for the mass and in despair brought his rifle to bear and fired at it. The thing disappeared with a flash, and Jenna screamed.
Sagging against a console, she met his frightened, concerned eyes. "What was it?!"
"I don't know," he repeated as he had replied earlier.
Avon staggered to his feet behind them as Jenna tried to explain what had happened to her. "I saw my mother. It was so REAL! Then something terrible, a nightmare. But it WAS my mother!"
"I saw my brother," Avon added. They stared at him in surprise, but he was too shaken to notice. "It used him like bait. I had to go closer."
Blake was trembling where he stood. He raised his head and moved his hands nervously as he spoke. "And if you had, it would've killed you. No, that... thing, took an image out of your minds - a-a memory, and then, projected it back at you as though it WERE real."
Jenna frowned. "Why didn't it effect you?"
"It did! But somehow I knew it... wasn't real. Ha!" he turned to Avon. "It seems I CAN recognize dreams." That statement earned him a withering look which he ignored. The London signalled them and he switched his communicator on.
Leylan's voice came over, "Blake, are you all right?"
"Yes, we're all right. But we're still checking."
"Stay in contact, Blake," Leylan warned, then cut the com.
On the London Raiker told one of the other men urgently, "Get me a survival unit."
"What're you gonna do?" asked Leylan suspiciously.
"They're still alive. I'm going to make sure they don't get any ideas about STAYING over there."
"Raiker!" snapped Leylan.
"Yes, sir!" was the determined response.
Leylan glared, but he realized he could not stop Raiker from doing this. The Administration might chastise the man for murder, but it surely would get him for letting prisoners take a space ship. He was rapidly coming to hate the other man and almost to wish Blake would get away.
Avon investigated one of the flight-consoles. He found one thing of interest and summoned the rebel. "Blake!" The other man quickly joined him. "This would account for what happened to the crew."
"What is it?"
"Life rocket launch control, it's been operated."
Jenna came over. "But why?"
Blake considered the puzzle. "Maybe that thing drove them out."
Avon turned his head coolly, "I imagined it was some kind of defense mechanism."
Blake went to the pilot's control-chair, then turned to Jenna. "Could this ship operate under her own power?"
"I don't see why not."
"Could you pilot her?"
She frowned and looked over his shoulder at the controls. "Eventually I might just be able to get her to start and stop."
"You've got two minutes, no more." He headed off towards the airlock, pausing beside the tech. "Help her, Avon."
"What're you going to do?"
"Check the outer hatch in case someone decides to try and join us."
Raiker was suited up to cross. He turned sternly to the man behind him, "I want a boarding crew kitted out and ready to follow me over." The guard nodded, and Raiker started across, the hatch closing behind him. Blake arrived at the other ship's airlock and seeing him coming, began trying desperately to close it. Raiker fired on him, and Blake went down clutching his shoulder. The other man raised his gun to shoot again.
On the flight deck Jenna asked Avon, "Shall we risk it?"
"Why not?" he shrugged. The smuggler started hitting switches.
Blake looked up in startled relief as the airlock door started to swinging shut. Raiker staggered at a run back towards the London but the tube ripped loose and he was sucked into space. Blake got to his feet and went back to the flight deck, nursing his wounded shoulder.
Avon glanced up as he came in. "What happened?"
Mimicking the other man's cool front, Blake shrugged. "Slight disagreement with Raiker. And then the hatch closed."
"We're on our way!" Jenna told him as he came to stand beside her.
"What course have you set?"
"Name it! We're free! We've got a ship, and we can go ANYWHERE we like." She was ecstatic, reveling in her newfound freedom.
"Follow the London to Cygnus Alpha." To the startled look she gave him he said, "Then we can free the rest of the prisoners." She smiled slightly and set the course. Blake went down a level to where Avon was studying a flight-console. He leaned behind the dark haired man and spoke softly just to him. "With a ship like this and a full crew, then we can start fighting back." Avon's eyes widened somewhat. He didn't know quite how to respond, so he concentrated harder on the controls in front of him.