From space the planet Centero looked much like Jupiter except with no great storm. Dusty orange-red land was visible through streaming white wisps of clouds, the atmosphere was oxygen rich and the sky where visible was shining blue. The Federation's base on Centero had pipes and silos stretching toward the sky in a sort of ordered chaos. As the day drew toward evening, the outer compound was shut down and secured. A security officer warned through the announcement speakers, "Attention, this is planet Centero Communications Base Control. Routine robot surveillance is now in operation." That was all he needed to say, the base personnel knew what it meant and made their way inside as the robot started its patrol.
The robot had an excellent motion detector system installed. The machine rolled along on its tank wheels, pausing now and then as programmed to scan. Thus it was well past the area where Blake first appeared before it detected him.
As the teleport released him Blake drew a deep breath. There was no time to take in his surroundings however, the sound of the approaching robot sent him hustling for cover as fast as he could run. He peered at it from behind a large storage tank and as the robot turned toward him, ran farther into the small maze of pipes and tanks. He stumbled and knocked a long cable loose and it swung violently. The robot focused on the cable's movement and opening its chest cavity, shot a stream of flame at the offender. Following its programming the machine pulled the cable down and took it away. Blake waited until he was sure it was gone, then came out of hiding and raised his bracelet to his lips.
"I'm down and safe, I'm somewhere inside the main complex. Is Vila ready?"
Liberator's crew were all in the teleport room. Jenna answered him, "Hold on, just checking." She looked up at Vila and raised her brows. "ARE you ready?"
Vila, dressed in a hooded two-tone planet suit of red and purple, held onto his red tool box anxiously. "Tell him I just worked out a completely new strategy, it's called running away."
"He's ready," Jenna answered Blake. She grinned as Vila gave her a mortally wounded look.
"Put him down," came the answer.
Vila dilly-dallied putting the lid on his tool box. Gan, in his tan and brown suit, became impatient. "Come on, Vila!" he urged the thief.
Vila backed up into the teleport bay and looked miserably at Jenna, whose lack of sympathetic response was no more than he expected. "Ready?" she asked him. He sucked his lips in and nodded. Jenna signaled Blake. "I'm putting him down... now." She hit the send-switch and Vila wavered out to appear where Blake had on Centero.
He took in his surrounding with a quick glance and made for the nearest cover until Blake called from behind him, "Vila! Over here!"
The thief made an immediate about face and joined Blake in his hiding place. Peering over the taller man's shoulder, Vila whispered, "Where are we?"
"Shh! No noise." Blake settled down so that their heads close together. He explained in a whisper, "There's a security robot patrolling the area." Vila winced. "As far as I can tell we're in the outer compound. The top-security section should be back that way. Now stay close to me and keep your head down." 'That way' was behind them.
"Why don't I stay here and keep watch?" Vila asked hopefully.
This got him glared at by an annoyed Blake. "Come on." They ran stealthily along one of the buildings until they were in sight of a mesh gate. Blake flattened himself against the wall and pointed at the gate. "There it is. That must be the way in. Can you open those gates or are we going to have to climb them?"
Vila leaned around Blake to look at the deceptively simple gate, with its TOP SECURITY sign posted on one side. He forgot his fear as his mind focused on the locking system he could see. "You won't get over it. They'll have every detector device you can imagine, and a few more besides. I'll have to get a closer look at the locking system."
The thief's sudden change of character gave Blake a momentary shock, but he recovered quickly. "All right, I'll keep watch."
Vila crossed to the next building and paused to check its door. When it proved locked he cast a helpless shrug back at Blake who nodded toward the gate. The thief sighed. He set his kit beside the locking mechanism and brought out a long, thin probe. Opening the mechanism's cover Vila touched the interior with his probe, setting off a brief flash of light and sparks. When it was over he gave Blake a forlorn look, holding up the tool now melted in half. The rebel leader was startled by the flash and returned Vila's look with an angry one of his own, silently urging the thief to continue. Vila dug into his kit again and concentrated in earnest on the lock.
Relieved Vila was finally doing his job, Blake almost missed the low rumbling sound heralding the approach of a security robot. When he heard it he quickly flattened himself against the ground and peered in Vila's direction. The other man appeared not to have heard. Blake called to him in a carrying whisper, "Vila, take cover!" The thief did not respond. "Vila!" Blake repeated. The robot was getting close. With a sickening feeling in his gut, Blake closed his eyes and hugged the ground, hoping the thing would not roll over him.
The robot's scanning systems detected no movement and so it left. When it was gone, Blake lifted his head and turned to look at the gate. Vila was nowhere to be seen. Confused, Blake scrambled to his feet and ran over to the gate. "Vila!"
"Has it gone?" Vila asked from right behind him.
Blake nearly jumped out of his skin. He glared over his shoulder at the thief who leaned out of the building behind him. "How did you get in there?"
"There isn't a lock I can't open, if I'm scared enough."
Blake tried to read Vila's eyes, but there was only the usual frank nervousness in them. He finally turned hack to the gate "You .scared enough for that one?"
"What do YOU think?" Vila had been taking Avon-lessons in dry sarcasm it seemed. Blake sighed to himself as they went to look. Vila brought two long thin tools out of his kit this time and started on the lock.
Blake asked, "How does it work?"
As he fiddled and touched controls Vila lectured. "Anybody authorized to go through the gate has a physio-psycho pattern registered in the central computer - hold this," he handed one tool to Blake. "When he wants to go through, this scans him, and feeds the reading back to the computer. All you've got to do is intercept the feedback from the computer." He snatched the tool back and adjusted a control. Then he sat back and looked up at Blake. "Now you stand in front, and I'll press the scan button." Blake obeyed him. The thief moved his fingers to hover over one red and one green button and with a quick flick pressed the red. It lit up. "Retrieval system... no record," Vila murmured as Blake was scanned. Blake wondered how Vila was monitoring the computer but he doubted the thief would tell him. "Refusal signal... NOW!" He cut a connection with one of his tools and the green button lit up and buzzed. The gate swung open.
Blake was impressed in spite of himself. "Nice going!"
"Any very talented person coulda' done it," came the smug smiling reply. Vila leaned nonchalantly against the locking mechanism.
"Come on," the rebel demanded, heading in. Vila snatched up his tool box and paused long enough to close the lock's cover. The gate swung shut behind them.
A Federation squad trooped along. Blake and Vila waited until they had passed before racing across the way behind them. Weaving through the tangle of pipes and tanks the pair at last spotted Blake's goal, a large armored door guarded by two men in full uniform. Blake held up a shushing finger to Vila, then explained his plan in a whisper. The thief nodded and they split up.
The two guards were bored. Any diversion might have pleased them, but the man who suddenly walked around the corner was definitely not what they had in mind. He was an average looking fellow, with thin brown hair and cheery features, dressed in an unusual hooded jacket of red and purple and carrying a red box of some sort by its handle. "Hello there! How are you?" he asked them. Both guards approached him hesitantly, wondering if perhaps he was some sort of eccentric scientist come from inside the base to harass them. "Excuse me wandering about your premises, but I wonder if you can help me. I'm an escaped prisoner." The startled guards looked at each other and then at him. What WAS going on? "I was a thief but recently I've become interested in sabotage. In a small way you understand, nothing too ambitious, I hate vulgarity, don't you?" The guards looked at each other again. "Anyway, I've come to blow something up. What do you think would be most suitable?"
Before either man could think of anything to say or do, Roj Blake downed one with a solid blow to the neck. The other spun to look at him and Vila brought his toolkit down over the man's shoulders. His head cracked against the cement floor, finishing the job. Blake lost no time, he raced inside the building leaving Vila behind. The startled thief shouted, "Blake! Don't leave me!" If he thought it wise, he would have followed the rebel in right away, but he had to do something with the guards. Well I hope you didn't want me to kill them, he thought to Blake. Because I won't, I don't do that. He dragged them around the corner and sat them up to lean against each other. With luck they would stay unconscious for a long time.
Once inside Vila looked frantically for Blake, but could not find him. As he headed down on corridor a voice called from behind, "Aye!"
Recognizing the rebel's voice, Vila turned around clutching his chest in mock fear. "Oh! You gave me such a shock!" Blake ignored the comment and waved to the thief to come with him, keeping an eye out behind them.
Avon had his blue and gray planet-suit on. He casually handed Gan a group of brown and gold bombs, explaining as he did so, "All you've got to do with these is find a metal surface and they'll stick fast."
"Right." Gan packed the bombs into a blue carry-bag.
Cally handed him a last bomb. She turned impatiently to Jenna. "They're taking too long."
"That's the trouble with heroics, they seldom run to schedule," Avon commented
The pilot rolled her eyes and answered Cally. "They'll find it. There's not going to be a sign up saying 'This way to the Cipher Machine'."
Gan was still packing. "They may need help!" he pointed out.
Cally nodded quickly, "I think so too!"
Avon sat beside Jenna at the console. He said firmly, "They would have called."
"Avon's right," Jenna agreed.
"I usually am."
Jenna ignored him and held Cally's eyes sternly. "Blake says wait so we wait." Later she intended to reassure Cally that they did not hold the incident with the Lost against the alien girl. Ever since then Cally was convinced she needed to prove herself.
A door opening ahead of them sent the two Liberator men into hiding around a corner. A tall young man in a technician's white uniform came out pushing a tray loaded with instruments. Blake watched him go back in, then the pair edged over to the door and peered in its window. There were a small number of techs and one guard inside. The two looked at each other and nodded. This was probably it. Blake spun and threw his weight against the door, slamming it open. The next instant he had his weapon pointed at the people inside and he snarled quickly, "Stand still!" Looking over his shoulder he saw Vila had not bothered to draw his weapon, and with a quick nod at the guard said, "Vila get his gun!"
Vila obeyed and held the blaster gingerly on the techs. He said, "All right, all of you, over there! Against the wall! Quickly!" The frightened group backed up with their hands above their heads.
Blake closed the door and spoke into his bracelet. "Jenna we've found it. Stand by, Phase One is now complete. Get an absolute locator fix on my signal. As soon as you're set, put them down."
"Right," Jenna answered. She looked up at the other three gathered anxiously near the table. Even Avon was ready and willing to go this time.
Still he flashed a look of arrogant doubt at her. "It had better be right, a fraction out and you could put us down in the middle of the security barracks! "
"Don't tempt me," she threw back at him. A quick toggle of the com switch and she asked, "Blake, can you give me a voice check?" She eyed the coordinate screen. One bright glow on the right side of the screen marked where Blake and Vila were originally set down, another smaller one opposite it marked where they were presently.
"Reading out. One, two, three, four, one, two-"
As Blake sounded off, Jenna switched the locator beacon to their signal. "Right, that's it. Locked on." She looked up at the crew. "Ready?" All three rapidly went to stand in the teleport bay and looked anxiously at her. "Good luck," she told them. "I'm putting them down... now."
The technicians gaped and gasped when three new people appeared out of thin air. Wisely, they held back their questions.
Avon moved quickly to Blake's side, and they both looked down into open circuitry. "Is this what you're looking for?" Blake asked hopefully.
Blake nodded and turned to Gan. "All the equipment here?"
"Yes!" came a cheerful reply as the big man began unpacking it.
The rebel lifted his bracelet. "Down and safe. Well done, Jenna!"
On the Liberator Jenna sat back and did not bother to respond though she appreciated the complement. She settled down to occupy herself with some minor repairs while she waited.
Blake turned to the thief. "Vila, back down to the entrance, get the door covered. Cally, Gan, get the prisoners out of here, find somewhere to hold them. Cally, you stay with them. Gan, when you've started setting charges, come back in here! "
The two began hurrying the techs out. "Right!" Gan called back.
Avon's stern tones cut the air. "Blake!" The rebel hurried over to see what was up. "This is it," Avon indicated the circuitry he had found.
"You sure?" asked Blake, leaning in to look.
"It's been updated since the last one I saw but it's still the same basic instrument."
"You're absolutely positive?"
"Yes." For once Avon was too involved in what he was doing to glare in offense at Blake.
"Good. Disconnect it." Blake winced and bit back an apology when Avon's shoulders stiffened in offense at the order, but the tech was too busy to give him a tongue-lashing just at the moment, to Blake's relief. I must remember never to tell him to do something he's already doing, the rebel told himself sheepishly.
Cally lead the prisoners into a storage room, ordering them sternly, "Move on, move on! Stand facing those racks." When they were slow to obey, Gan shoved them bodily forward. They were a uniform group of tall slender young men, except possibly the guard who had his helmet on, all about the same height and all in dread fear for their lives.
"Can you handle it, Cally?" When she nodded, Gan left.
The young woman stepped close to her prisoners, feeling her nerves jangle with tension. "Now then... don't move."
Gan set two bombs on the walls then went back to where Blake was. As he hurried in the door the rebel nearly fired on him. The two men looked palely at each other. Avon, after a quick jerk around to see what was happening, buried himself in the circuitry again. Gan grinned, "I've set the charges down the corridor."
"All right, put a couple in here."
"Two? One'd be sufficient." It was a small room really.
Blake closed the door and turned to Gan. "I want total destruction so nothing can be recognized. If they sort through the debris and find the Cipher machine is missing, all they'll do is change their codes an' we'll have wasted our time."
Prell had been in charge of the technical team for only a few days before this attack came. He considered himself a capable man and was very much a Federation loyalist. He had no intention of losing his job because of a bunch of crazy rebels. The hair on his neck stirred every time the girl - Cally was her name, yes - came near. He studied the shelf in front of him. There were canisters small enough to lift and throw, everything else was too large to grab without being noticed and shot first, and he would have to wait until this Cally was distracted if he wanted a chance to use the canisters anyway. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Cally looking out the door and carefully he reached toward the nearest canister. As the rebel girl turned around Prell casually drew his hand back. The movement caught Cally's eye and she crossed the room to glare up at him.
Blake pointed at the wall next to Avon. "Way over there," he told Gan. The bigger man nodded and placed a bomb there.
"Gan..." Avon summoned him when he was done and handed him some parts to pack away.
Two black-garbed guards woke to find themselves leaning against each other, propped up by a wall. Shaking their heads, they climbed to their feet and then remembered what had happened. They were about to run when they heard a security robot passing by and wisely held still because they were not where they should be, and the robot might attack them. When it was gone, the fastest raced for the alarm.
Vila was looking out the door and saw him. The thief sprang after him, adrenaline granting him feet faster than the guard's who slammed a hand on the alert signal the instant before Vila caught him and knocked him out. The thief spun and raced back into the building.
The whooping sirens were loud enough to penetrate to the room where Blake and the others were. "That's done it. Gan, watch the door." Gan took his post and Blake joined Avon. The tech was trying to bodily rip out the main Cipher component and much to his irritation, failing. Blake looked worriedly over the other man's shoulder. "How're you doing?"
Avon sounded faintly breathless and very irritated. "Well the main wire holders are released but I still can't get it free."
Blake immediately reached to help. "Here."
Avon cleared some space and explained, "It's secured by something I can't quite fathom. Gan!" he called over his shoulder.
The big man looked over their heads at the part Blake was failing to move and calmly patted the rebel aside. "You both stand back." They had no objections.
"Avon, keep an eye on the door!" Blake watched Gan struggle with the part for a moment, then checked the timer on the bombs. They were getting close. "Come on, Gan, hurry it up! Hurry up!" he urged softly.
The alarms had Cally on her toes. She hated the grating sound of them and then Vila rushed in the door shouting, "Cally!"
She snapped angrily at him, "What?!"
The thief cast her a look of quick apology and spoke rapidly, "I've just been spotted, the alarms are ringing... I thought you ought to know!" He flashed out the door twice faster than he had come.
Exasperated, Cally turned back to her prisoners in time to see one tech had lowered an arm. She advanced on him, her voice low with threat as he quickly put his hand back over his head. "I thought I told you not to move."
Much as had happened with Cally, Vila came hurtling through the door to where the others were and slid to a stop with Avon's weapon trained on him. Seeing the gun up, the thief quickly pulled out his and aimed it out the door. Avon glared at him, angrily lowering his weapon. "What're YOU doing here?"
"What d'you think?! " the thief snapped back.
Blake shouted at both of them, "Block the door!" Vila slammed it shut just as a guard arrived and looked in the window. "Get down, both of you!" Blake's shout received instant obedience from two men whose prime goal in life was survival. They dove for the floor as Blake fired, the blast going through the window and the guard. The three men quickly shoved some machinery up against the door. Blake left the other two and joined Gan. "How're you doing?"
As he hauled, Gan replied hoarsely, "I've broken two connections, just two to go!"
Blake checked his chronometer. "Got one minute left." He quickly raised his bracelet. "Stand by Jenna, we may have to get out of here very fast."
Prell had his eyes firmly fixed on the nearest canister. If his chance did not come soon, he would be exhausted merely from waiting.
The sudden pounding of feet outside the door gave him his chance. "Come on GET HER!" he yelled as he spun around, hurling the canister at Cally. It hit hard enough to stagger her, but Prell knew better than to rely on the others to catch the girl. He shot across the room and grabbed her before she could recover, and before she had a chance to struggle free the Federation guard backhanded her across the cheek, stunning her. Prell let her fall and quickly issued orders. "Right, you watch her!" he told the guard. "You three come with me!" The four technicians raced out into the halls.
The guard bent and picked up Cally's handgun, puzzled by its design. After a moment he set it aside and removed his stifling helmet, revealing that he was a rather normal looking man in his mid-thirties who liked to have a well-groomed fuzzy mustache. He leaned back against the shelves to wait, knowing it would not be long, that tech moved fast!
Sure enough, Prell's voice came over the base speakers. "Attention please. This is base control. red alert! All security personnel to report to Number One Command post immediately."
Well he knew that did not mean him. Still, he looked wistfully out the door, hoping Prell would not forget to send someone for the girl. Distracted, he did not notice her get to her feet. Slight though she was, Cally slammed into the guard hard enough to stagger him. Caught totally by surprise he had no chance to strike back as she knocked him into the shelves, planted her knee in his gut and then shoved him across the room. His head slammed into the wall, then he fell.
Cally drew a deep breath and lifted her arm to signal the Liberator but to her dismay, her bracelet was gone. She was wearing it when she tackled the guard, it must have fallen! And the bombs were about to explode. She began frantically digging through the fallen supplies, under the limp guard, searching for her bracelet.
Gan tore back a last piece of metal and wrenched out the Cipher machine's main component. "Got it!" he shouted.
"Right. Everything into the bags!" Blake spoke into his bracelet as his three companions started packing. "Jenna, stand by to bring us up in... about... twenty seconds."
Cally shoved aside some of the larger boxes that had fallen during her tussle with the guard.
"Now!" Blake called into his bracelet. They vanished.
Not a second too soon. The bombs went off, their explosions tearing through pipes and tanks and casting flames up the sides of the buildings. In one storage room a shelf tipped at an angle nearly hid Cally's fallen body, small debris and blackened burnt objects scattered around, her hand just inches from the teleport bracelet.
Jenna helped Avon unpack parts of the Cipher machine from their carrybags. The gleam of anger in his eye alerted her as she spoke, "So you got it," wondering who the tech was angry at, if not Blake.
Gan answered her. "It was close, though."
"Too close! Another few seconds we'd have all been blown up!" Avon snarled. He snatched up the carry-bags and shoved them into Vila's arms, knocking the thief back a few steps.
"It wasn't my fault!" Vila protested. He had no intention of telling anyone that a guard he had not killed was who set off the alarms.
"Well whose fault was it? I thought you were supposed to guard the corridor!" Avon glared daggers at the thief.
"You were supposed to disconnect that thing, not allow Gan to tear into it with his teeth!"
Avon bared his teeth in a way that boded ill for Vila. Jenna quickly intervened, wondering if this was the way mothers felt coming between their children. "All right, all right, now calm down." She watched Avon's shoulders relax, then asked him, "Are you sure this is it?" She held up the two-foot long main component of the Cipher machine. It looked simple, a small keyboard along one of the six sides, sensors and programming squares along the others. "It doesn't look like much."
Meanwhile, Blake rushed out of the teleport room and onto the flight deck. "Zen, retaliation status report."
Detectors confirm massive launch of long-range interceptor rockets. They have locked on to Liberator's course, and are in pursuit.
"How long before we outrun them?"
Battle computers estimate seven hours to out-range interceptor tracking systems.
Blake nodded to himself. "Maintain optimum evasive strategy." He left the flight deck and headed back to the teleport as Zen answered him.
Battle computers confirm optimum evasive strategy committed.
Avon was in the midst of a lecture when Blake came in, the others gathered around and hanging on every word. Blake was sure Avon loved it. Jenna was on his right, Vila leaned cross-armed on his left, and Gan sat across the table from them. "...So that all communication between Federation units is sent by hyperspace sub-beam. That originates here, and here." Avon showed them with a probe. "All messages are converted into zeta-three particles and then scrambled. They in their turn become an unbreakable code."
Blake decided Avon did not need more attention. He interrupted smugly, "Unbreakable unless you have one of those," looking over Avon's shoulder at the machine.
Avon stood up, and the other crew followed suit. "As soon as I get this linked into our communications set-up, we should be able to read every message that the Federation puts out."
Jenna flashed a grin at him, then asked Blake, "Any sign of interceptors?"
If possible the rebel looked even more pleased with himself. He removed his gunbelt as he answered her. "We've picked up a whole flock of 'em. But we should outrun them in seven hours."
"It's almost too easy, isn't it?" Jenna asked wryly.
"A lot can happen in seven hours so I suggest we get back to business. Avon, I want you to make a start with that. Cally can help you." He stopped in mid-step and looked around. "Where is Cally?"
Fleeting looks of confusion passed over his crew's faces, including Avon's. Blake asked carefully, "Anybody see where she went? Has anybody seen her since she came back on board?" At the continued blank looks from the others, a cold and dawning suspicion clawed at Blake's gut.
Finally Gan said, "I haven't seen her."
"Neither have I!" Vila added.
"Then she's still down there." Blake started for the flight deck. "We've gotta get back!"
It was Jenna who recovered first. "We can't, the interceptors-"
"We can't just leave her there!" shouted the rebel.
Avon's voice was firm and stern, it stopped Blake in his tracks and brought his full attention to the tech. "Blake, listen. If she didn't come back up, then she must have been in the building when the charges blew. She's dead." The rebel looked away from him, silent denial plain in stance and wide, angry eyes.
Vila poked his head around Blake's left shoulder urgently. "And anyway the place'll be crawling with security forces by now, they'll be on full alert!"
Avon knew full well the meaning of Blake's taught lips and supported Vila's argument intensely. "We'd never even get through their interceptors! " Blake's continued silence and stubbornly stiff expression made the tech grab his arm. "Listen!" Blake jerked away from him, from all of them and turned his back, holding his right hand against his lips in silent protest. Avon's hand closed on his arm firmly as the tech forced facts through Blake's determination in a furious whisper. "If you turn this ship 'round, you will kill ALL of us!"
Federation Space Command: a huge wheel-shaped station turning slowly in space, docking cradles on the outside and the main offices in the hub.
Supreme Commander Servalan: a woman of extraordinary beauty. Her hair was black and kept short, perfectly trimmed over ears and collar, its apparent silkiness tempted many men to touch it. Her skin was perfect, the fresh pale cream color, full lips and brilliant large eyes that looked straight into your soul had done a great deal to help a woman with an utterly ruthless mind win a post that commanded an entire spacefleet for an empire she reflected perfectly in personality and appearance.
She wore a long white tunic that hung to her ankles over a dove-gray suit, only apparent because of the sleeves to her wrists. The suit's high silver collar accented her oval face as she looked over her shoulder at Secretary Rontane.
A weasel with a sly voice who believed he had power. And he did, but only for now. She intended to rectify that eventually. Like her he was a small person with an oval face, but his complexion was sallow and he had a permanently pinched look about his lips and thin nose. His nasal tones irritated her ears as he continued to explain his and Councilor Bercol's presence in her office. "...Which is why the President has asked me to come here personally, to express his own very grave concern over this matter." He crossed his arms and waited for her to respond but she only watched him. He continued, feeling uneasy. "Controllers from some of the outer planets whose loyalty to the Federation is... uh, delicately balanced... have been openly critical of the... Administration's Defense System." He leaned against her table on splayed fingertips. Servalan's patient silence was bad for his nerves. "There are even one or two radical voices that speak of withdrawal from the Federation!" Rontane added. He sat down and resolved to keep his words to a minimum as well.
Servalan stirred suddenly and moved to pace around the table with extreme grace and suppleness that caught their eyes despite a firm resolve not to look.
Councilor Bercol spoke up. "My department has done all in its power to suppress information about Blake and his actions. There is a total blackout on all reports concerning him, but - uh - still the stories get out. They spread by word of mouth, by whispers, by rumor. Each time the story is told it is elaborated upon. Any damage to the Federation is attributed to Blake; the smallest incident is exaggerated out of all proportions, until it becomes a major event." He caught his breath, staring up at Servalan where she had come to a stop on the other side of the table, and now watched him. "Blake is becoming a legend. His name is a rallying call for malcontents of all persuasions, he must be stopped." The feeling he could not get rid of, that she was biding her time until it was convenient to kill him, intensified for an instant.
Servalan sat down delicately. She spoke with deceptive sweetness and ever so faint mockery. "Gentlemen, I share the President's grave concern. And I am aware of the danger should Blake become a legend. But let us keep this matter in its correct perspective. It is true that Blake has command of a superb space vehicle, but... he is just a man backed by a handful of criminals, and that is all. He is not invulnerable, nor is he superhuman. He has been extremely lucky to evade capture... so far."
Rontane shifted uneasily in his seat. Years of practice at bluffing came to his aid. "With respect, Supreme Commander, we are aware of the facts. They are simply... that with all the resources that the Federation can call upon this one vulnerable, LUCKY man is still FREE to cause havoc."
Servalan looked at him for a long moment. "You have some criticism of my handling of this matter, Secretary... Rontane?"
He felt a threat but knew it was not solid yet. Still he squirmed in his seat as he answered, "Not at all. I hope merely to convey the... concern shown by the President when he briefed me for this visit."
Bercol shrugged forward in his seat. "It would be very helpful to all of us if we knew - if you could indicate what action you will NOW be taking against Blake."
For a moment that frighteningly unreadable gaze rested on Bercol. "Very well, Councilor Bercol. You may tell the President that I am appointing a Space Commander to take absolute control of this matter. He will be exclusively concerned to seek, locate... and destroy Blake."
Unpinned from Servalan's gaze, Bercol crowed, "Oh excellent! Excellent!"
Rontane cut his partner off with a question to Servalan. "May we know the officer's name?"
"Yes you may. Space Commander Travis."
Both men sat in stunned silence staring at her. Rontane took great care in shaping his next words. "I understood that Travis had been suspended from duty pending an inquiry into the massacre of the civilians on the planet Auros."
Servalan gazed steadily back at him. "And I have satisfied myself that Travis acted correctly in this matter. The civilian deaths on Auros were unavoidable."
Bercol leaned nervously forward. "Uh-um... there are other incidents on his record - um - unfortunate incidents-"
"He has caused the Administration some political embarrassment in the past," Rontane broke in, his voice laden with disapproval. "Uh, in dealing with even minor insurrections he has been, uh... over-zealous?" He regretted his words at the devilish gleam in Servalan's eyes.
"Oh don't be afraid of the word, Secretary. Ruthless. Committed. He does his duty as he sees it, and he sees it clearly. He has no time for the dirty gray areas of your politics."
Both men chuckled weakly, knowing she meant it. Rontane sat back and tried to turn the tables with an oblique warning. "I'm sure you're right, and of course the appointment is made on your judgment, and - uh, your responsibility."
He hit a nerve but not the one he was trying for as Servalan said icily, "Responsibility is something I have never evaded... Secretary."
"Aaah. May I then tell the President that you are confident the Blake problem will be solved? Soon."
"You may tell him to prepare a statement announcing that Blake has been eliminated."
This was what they had been waiting for. The chubby councilor stood and bowed slightly. "Thank you for your reassurances, Supreme Commander."
Rontane followed suit. "Goodbye."
Servalan's smile had deadly intent apparent behind it. "A safe journey back to Earth." The two men walked out rather rapidly. The moment they were gone, Servalan hit her com and spoke into it with cold anger. "Where is Space Commander Travis? He was due here one hour ago."
The man who was her secretary answered nervously. "His ship is locked into the station's flight grid. He will dock at precisely Eighteen Twenty-three."
"Good." She released the com and stood up now, pacing idly around her chair, spinning it with a hand along the side. She stopped and picked up a remote control device, activating the computer viewscreen with its cameras pointed out onto space. Beautiful though the stars were she cared little for the sight just now. In a low murmur she said, "Your time's running out, Blake. Your time and your luck."
On the flight deck of the Liberator most of the crew were helping Avon with the Cipher machine. Vila had of course managed to get out of it and was nowhere to be seen. Avon handed a wire to Jenna, who handed it to Gan, who hooked it up to Avon's console.
Avon was back in his favorite black and gray suit, and Blake was in his dark green heavy shirt with silvery shoulder cuffs and matching pants. Blake was also walking down from Cally's station and looking so miserable that he caught Jenna's sympathetic eye.
She came over to join him as the rebel was stretching his neck, rolling his head back to ease the stiffness there. The pilot set a hand on Blake's shoulder. "There's nothing you could have done. It wasn't your fault."
He met her eyes with his misery. "Then whose fault was it? I should've checked."
"Cally wasn't a child."
"Wasn't she?" he asked sadly.
Jenna considered beating him over the head but decided against it. "She knew the risks, she accepted them. She even welcomed them."
"She was ashamed to go back to her own people because she had survived when the rest of the Freedom fighters were massacred."
"Well that wasn't her fault."
Blake allowed a haunted smile to cross his face. "Shame like hers is an emotion, Jenna, it isn't rational-"
"Exactly!" she cut him off sternly. "And so is guilt like yours, that's not rational either."
"It's ironic, isn't it? She was the only one of us who wasn't a convicted criminal."
Jenna ground her teeth in annoyance and resisted the impulse to kick him. "She convicted herself! You can't live like that. You've gotta make peace with yourself, Blake, if you want to survive."
Her words struck a chord of anger in him and he turned away to join Avon on the couch. "How're you coming with that?"
As Blake sat tiredly next to him the tech tried to appear absorbed in his work. When Cally helped Avon there was a sort of quiet companionship between them, he missed her. Thus he was not up to sounding irritated with Blake. "The primaries are hooked into the main instrumentation, I just have to link up to the read out."
Attention. The two men looked over their shoulders at Zen. Liberator is now out of range of the interceptor scanning systems. Detectors indicate the rockets have begun to self destruct.
Blake nodded to himself. "Have the navigation computers put in a course for the planet listing K-14."
Jenna sat down beside him as Zen replied, Course laid in.
The pilot turned quizzically toward Blake. "That's a Federation repair and supply base, isn't it?"
Avon answered, "Yes, for their deep space cruisers."
"Are we going to attack it?" Jenna asked Blake.
"One for Cally!" came Blake's determined response. He met her eyes with a sort of apology and weary strength. "Because I want to survive."
Servalan answered the chime of her com unit. "Yes?"
"Space Commander Travis' ship has just docked."
"Have him report to me immediately. No, have him wait outside until I send for him." Having delivered that order, she leaned back in her chair. She had never personally met Travis but there would be no doubt who was in command here. Political games, she almost sighed to herself. Someone tentatively knocked on her door. Surprised, she called, "Come in."
She smiled in delighted recognition. Rai the Handsome, she called him. A tall slender young man with silky brown hair and fine soft perfectly proportioned features that still held some childishness in them and were a delight to see. He stopped formally before her desk. "Central Intelligence transmitted the records you asked for, ma'am, I have the microtapes." He held them out to her.
Servalan let stray into her answer a deliberate seductive tone. "Thank you, Rai. Leave them there."
He set the files where she indicated and straightened up with extreme dignity. "l'm told that Travis has docked," he began.
"So I understand."
He hesitated, then crossed his arms behind his back. "May I speak, Supreme
"Yes of course!" Servalan stood up smoothly and moved around the table to her couch. "But why so formal, Rai? What could be so important that we can't discuss it in a more... relaxed way? Oh Rai, come here!" Rai turned stiffly and joined her on the couch. She measured him and noted the frown of his brows and wounded tugging down of his lips. Seductively stroking his arm, she cajoled, "Rai! I thought we were old friends!"
"I value our friendship a great deal," he replied nervously.
"Yes...." She shifted back, identifying his emotions as frightened disapproval. Whatever it was, this foolish man had no right to disapprove. "Well?" Servalan demanded.
Rai chose his words very carefully. "The senior echelon officers all know that Travis is coming."
"But I've made no secret of it."
"Is it wise?" Suddenly he was very nervous. He knew better than many that with Servalan, silence meant she was sizing you up as a potential enemy. He hurried on. "They know that he has been stripped of his rank and authority! That he has no status now and that he stands a good chance of being dismissed from service!"
The Supreme Commander's eyes lightened somewhat, she stroked Rai's hair with familiar fingers. "Rai, Space Commander Travis is the subject of a military inquiry. He was ordered to suppress and attack on Auros."
"The man is a butcher! He continued the attack after the total surrender! The death toll was horrifying!"
Servalan moved away from him abruptly, back to her table and he followed to stand again on the opposite side. They glared at each other and Rai knew with sickening surety that she might turn on him for what he was saying.
His words had the effect of angering her into revealing her true opinion on the matter. "Travis is an advocate of total war. He carries out his orders with meticulous thoroughness. An enemy does not cease to be an enemy simply because it has surrendered!"
"That's the philosophy of an assassin not a Federation officer!" He was terrified that Servalan would turn Travis loose. There was a feeling in him that what he believed of her all this time had been false. A tender lover who did not care that Travis symbolized all that was wrong with the Federation? He drew himself up proudly as he could. "I must tell you that there are those among your officers who will not serve with Travis, or take orders from him!"
Her response came low and dangerous, denying any feeling for him at all. "And you may tell them... who ever they are... that Space Commander Travis' rank and authority have been fully restored by my order. I have also appointed him senior executive officer of this station. Is that clear?"
"Yes Supreme Commander." He felt something die that might never have existed except in his mind.
"Let them know too, that any lack of cooperation - any hesitation in responding to an order - will be treated as mutiny. Let them know I have said this. Dismissed." Rai saluted her stiff-leggedly and left her office. Servalan sat heavily in her chair, for a moment she felt his loss keenly. She would not be judged by anyone, ever.
The com unit signaled and she answered it. "Yes?"
Her secretary's eternally nervous tones responded. "It's Commander Travis. I tried to get him to wait, but he just pushed past me! He's on his way up. I tried to stop him-"
"Very well! " she cut him off and shifted quickly to look as casual as possible. Her door opened and Travis came in.
Space Commander Travis: a startlingly tall and arrogant man. A patch covered his left eye and much of the left side of his face, his left arm was prosthetic and had a ring topped by a bright yellow gemstone on one finger. Strong, harsh features, eyes dark as space with no concept of humility. A man in his early forties, broad shouldered and deadly grace in swift strides that ate the distance between door and desk in an instant.
Servalan greeted him with sweet casualness. "Space Commander. It is good to see you."
"Your aide said I was to wait. He was obviously mistaken. He doesn't realize the urgency of the matter." Travis let contempt for the other man slice through his words. Servalan looked at him and realized here was someone she did not have to waste pleasantries on. Give him an order and he would carry it out completely. The only thing she would have to beware of was giving him orders without knowing what the end result would be. She slid a folded piece of paper forward. He took it up in his false arm and read the words printed thereon. The brilliant eye flicked from paper to her. "These are your orders?"
No nod, no salute. Just a simple steady gaze and firm response. "Depend on it."
Avon, with Jenna on his right and Blake beside her, finished reconstructing the Cipher machine. "It's working!" he announced smugly.
"Well done," Jenna told him.
It working was not enough for the tech. "Now let's see how well. Jenna, see if you can isolate the Federation signal beam."
Jenna's hands slid quickly to the communication station's remote controls. High-pitched whines and hums came through Liberator's speakers as she focused the receptors onto a particular wavelength and then sat back. "That's it!"
Avon snatched up the wires. "Now, feed that into the Cipher control...." The soft buzzing sound of Federation communications immediately became bonking and beeping of computer signals. Avon sat back. "And there it is!"
Blake looked up at the computer symbols scrolling across the holoscreen. "Look at it." He had paid for this with Cally's life, and he doubted it was worth it.
Avon caught Blake's eyes with a dark gaze. "Under the circumstances it would have been a great pity if it hadn't worked." The tech turned away. "Gan, basic unscrambler!" Gan handed Avon a headset. Avon and Jenna put their heads together to listen through the earphones to the spoken translation of what was passing through the Cipher machine.
"What are you getting?" Blake finally had to ask.
Neither of them took their attention away but Avon answered, "Just routine movement orders, statistical information. I'll rig a selective data-link into their battle computers, it'll be useful background information."
As Gan settled onto the couch with them, Jenna took the headset and gave it to Blake. She added, "We should monitor what we're getting, we'll need a rotor of some sort."
"Okay, good idea," agreed Blake. The voices he was listening to set up a surprising realization, and he chuckled. "We should know more about the Federation than the President!" He handed the headset back to Jenna, and she passed it on to Avon who sat with his fingertips lightly against his lips, watching Blake suspiciously. As Avon took the headset the rebel asked him, "I presume there's a recall record?"
"It's all going onto microtapes."
"You've done a good job Avon, thank you."
Once again Avon's eyes flickered over to meet his, faintly surprised by the praise. The tech said wryly, "At least I'll know what the Federation is planning." Gan found that amusing but he hid the smile when Avon suddenly frowned and concentrated on the headset. "Just a minute..."
Blake leaned over quickly. "Something?"
"Message beamed into Centero."
Jenna exchanged startled looks with Gan. "But we've just destroyed their communications base!"
"They're using emergency frequencies," Avon explained.
"What's the message?" Blake urged the tech.
Avon concentrated hard. "Some flight clearance. Priority space-way for a... ship going in from Space Headquarters! The Supreme Commander requests... that all personnel give maximum cooperation... to the incoming officer."
Jenna touched his shoulder. "Does it give his name?"
"Space Commander Travis."
"Travis! " The name left Blake's lips in an explosive hiss, bringing the other three's eyes to rest on him in startled query. The rebel's face was ashen and he looked sick.
"Do you know him?" Jenna asked.
Blake replied slowly, his voice trembling. "I thought he was dead. I was sure I'd killed him."
A group of technicians were wearily gathering up the twisted metal and burnt circuitry to remove it from the room when Travis came in and nearly had an apoplexy. "STOP!" The startled young men obeyed him as he turned and advanced on Prell. "What are these men doing here?"
Prell held bravely still. "Well I didn't think it would matter if we made a start on clearing up the worst of the damage-"
"My orders were that nothing was to be touched in this room... nothing." Travis spun and bellowed at the others, "GET OUT!" He shoved one young man who was slow to leave, then turned back to Prell, shrugging on calm like a cloak. "Go through the sequence of events."
"From the beginning, sir?"
Prell's self-possession in the face of Travis was remarkable. He began, "Well, two armed men came through the door - from the description you've given me one of them was certainly Blake-" he broke off as Travis paced around him.
"Well, we were made to stand against the wall, then a minute later three more of them... they just appeared!"
Travis' reaction was not the contemptuous disbelief Prell expected. He just paused in mid stride and looked over his shoulder. "Appeared?"
"Well, materialized, sir. My men and I were taken out by a man, and a girl. It was the girl who kept us prisoner in the equipment store. When we overpowered her, the demolition charges... went off, sir, well we were lucky to get out alive."
The Space Commander stayed thoughtfully quiet for a moment, then began pacing among the debris, looking at it curiously. "How long were Blake and his men in here?"
"Five, ten minutes. Not more."
Travis turned to face Prell with a flash of surprise. "Five or ten minutes? They could have set demolition charges in thirty seconds. What were they doing in that extra time?"
"Must've had trouble getting them to work, sir."
"Then why did they take you and your men out of here?"
"I suppose they thought it would be safer with us out of the way."
Travis dismissed that completely. "No. No. There's something missing. I'm missing something." Prell watched the man warily. Travis turned to the tech again. "Do you still have the original construction plans for this room?"
"They'll be on record, sir."
"And detailed diagrams of all the circuits?"
"Good." Travis headed in long strides for the door, throwing back over his shoulder, "I'm sending in a forensic team. I want a full catalogue of every item in this room."
"Everything must be accounted for."
"But sir!" Travis swung around and looked at Prell. Nervously the young tech said, "Well, that could take months, sir, if it's possible at all."
For an instant Travis' gaze became deadly. "Prell, if I were you I'd make it possible. I want that catalogue in twenty hours." With that he left the room.
"Sir," Prell acknowledged despairingly. His personal com unit beeped and he held it to his ear, then his throat when he answered, "Yes?" Travis chose that moment to look in and saw a flash of intense interest cross the tech's face. "Right."
"What is it?"
Well this saved him the trouble of looking for the Space Commander. "They found something, under the rubble! I think you'd better come along!" Prell dashed out of the room. Travis, bemused by the sudden commanding tone in the tech's voice, followed him. Another young technician was patting down the dead body of Cally's guard when Prell slid in with Travis fast on his heels. "Where is it?"
The young man stood and pointed across the room. "It's over there sir."
As Prell made his way past a fallen shelf, Travis glared at the other tech just as a principle. Prell's startled exclamation spun him around. "It's the girl who was holding us prisoner, sir!"
Travis craned his head to look. "She dead?"
Prell's fellow tech held out Cally's weapon to Travis. "We found this sir."
"Hmm?" The Space Commander took the thing and looked it over.
"Sir?" Prell called him.
Travis spun on the other tech, "You, get a medical squad. MOVE!"
"Yessir!" Seeing the strange weapon swing to point at him, the young man fled fast as his feet could take him.
Prell climbed out from behind the shelf. "Her pulse is all right, sir. She's lucky."
A low chuckle broke from Travis. "No, we are. Her luck ran out when she didn't die. The medics are to give her emergency treatment, and put her into a life-support capsule. I take off for the space station in one hour."
"Right sir." Prell hurried to issue Travis' orders, leaving the Space Commander gazing toward Cally.
Travis had settled himself temporarily in Servalan's plush office. It was the space station's "night" and lights throughout were low to promote a more relaxed atmosphere for its personnel. Travis was wide awake however, and using a remote device to flip through images on Servalan's viewscreen. Images of a man under torture and struggling to escape his tormentors. Travis ignored a quiet footstep behind him until Servalan spoke gently.
"Shouldn't you rest now?"
He swung the chair he was in around and looked up at her, ignoring the question. "Is this all the information we have on Blake?"
"I checked with intelligence personally, it's all there." The Supreme Commander slid gracefully into one of the guest seats as she spoke.
Travis took a breath, "Have you approved my requisitions for personnel and equipment?"
"The ships you want... the Starburst class... I'm not sure I can get them."
"WHAT?! " Travis leaned forward and glared at her.
She was unimpressed. "There've only been three of them built so far, and they've already been assigned to the Galactic Eighth Fleet."
"Well get them reassigned, to you!" He had complete faith she could do it but added reasoning to his argument. "Look, from what we already know about Blake's ship it's... vastly superior to anything we've got. If I'm to stand even a reasonable chance of taking him I need those three high-range pursuit ships!"
Servalan looked at him quietly, then nodded. "You'll have them."
Travis' anger lifted away. Relieved of it he set the remote down and asked, "What about my crew?"
"Already assigned. Why mutoids, particularly?"
The corners of his lips turned up in a ghostly smile. "Why mutoids? I've always thought that individuals with a high bionic rebuild were more reliable, less likely to let emotion interfere with judgment or duty. I'd give a mutoid priority over a man every time." He raised his false arm and tapped the ring on it. "Or perhaps it's this that gives me a fellow - feeling."
"Does it still trouble you?"
The black eye flicked to her face and back to his hand. "Well, not in the way you mean. The surgical mechanics did a perfect refit. I had the weaponry division make a few... adaptations. They built in a laseron destroyer." He fingered the gemstone with a faintly pleased look. "More powerful than any side arm. No, the hand is fine. Better than the original. It only troubles me because it's a constant reminder that the man who caused it... is still alive."
"Blake. That's why I chose you."
Again Travis' gaze rested on her. "Oh?"
"I've read all the reports, of course. But none of them said what happened. None of them explained about your face."
Any trace of animation vanished from his features. "What about my face?"
"It was patched up by a field medic."
Travis relaxed and looked somewhat proud. "The man saved my life."
"But why did you never let the surgeons finish the job?"
Her question struck Travis as ridiculous, and he laughed for a brief instant. "What are you suggesting, cosmetic surgery?" With cold contempt he finished, "I'm a FIELD officer, not one of your decorative staff men! "
Unknowingly he struck a raw nerve, his statement reminding her of Rai. She responded stiffly, "You are certainly not decorative."
The black eye blinked. "You find it repulsive."
She considered her answer. "I find it... unpleasing."
"But memorable. You wouldn't mistake me for anyone else."
"Mmmm. Neither will Blake. Even after all this time he'll know me... and remember what happened at our first meeting."
Servalan leaned forward in her chair. "Tell me."
Travis saw no reason not to. He had made out reports, but never had he actually spoken the story. His gaze darkened as he spoke, seeing again incidents many years gone. "Oh it was quite early on. Blake had only been involved with the dissidents for a short while, but he already had a following. He organized some attacks against some of our rehabilitation centers, released some of the prisoners who were having indoctrination treatment. I was assigned to deal with the matter. We got information that Blake was planning another raid. We knew the location of the meeting point. I made my plans well in advance...."
Vila had somehow found three clear glasses banded with white for himself, Jenna and Gan to drink from. The five crew gathered on the flight deck couch. Vila sat on Blake's right listening intently; Avon next to the thief watched Blake's every expression; Jenna sat on Blake's left occasionally sipping her drink and listening; Gan next to her did the same.
Blake's knuckles were white as he twined both sets of fingers together. He swallowed and continued his story. "The group had arranged to meet in a sub-basement. There were about... thirty of us. I was very particular about security. I had our people watch the entrances and exits for a full twenty-four hours before we were supposed to meet. No Federation forces came anywhere near the place! I was ABSOLUTELY sure that we were safe. That night we were assembled, and about to begin... and Travis and his men suddenly appeared from nowhere."
Avon raised an eyebrow. "Didn't you post any guards?"
"'Course I did. Travis was already there! He'd been hiding in that basement for more than two days! Oh, we made no attempt to resist arrest, there was no point, we had no chance! I said to Travis: 'We will offer no resistance', and he just stared at me. And then he ordered his men to open fire." Blake closed his eyes and shuddered. He continued hollowly. "Everybody was diving for cover that wasn't there. I - I ran. I - I found myself grappling with a guard, I managed to get the gun away from him and then I was hit in the leg. But as I went down I saw Travis. And I fired:" He opened his eyes, now ablaze with voided fury. "I SAW him fall! I was SURE I'd killed him!!"
Jenna's voice calmed him. "What happened then?"
He groaned at the memory. "Oh, they... did a memory-erase on me, set up a show trial, had me confess, made me explain that I'd been misled - that my political ideas were mistaken... enough people believed me the - whole resistance movement collapsed. After that the Federation kept me around as a... A reformed character, a-" here his lips curled back in an angry sneer. "-a - a sort of ideal model citizen exhibit. And of course I didn't know that at the time. No it's only... since almost exactly the same thing has happened again, that the... memory erase has begun to fail and I can remember."
Avon's voice caught him by surprise with its stern note. "Do you remember enough to recognize Travis?"
"The man who killed twenty of my friends..?" The wound implied in Blake's heart by his soft, haunted laughter and bitter smile had a depth that unnerved the others. "Oh yes, I'll recognize him."
A holo-screen irised out in Medical and Travis' face appeared on it. "What is her condition?" he asked coldly.
Cally lay in an open life-support capsule. It regulated her breathing and held the girl motionless. A medic bent down to remove her blindfold and brilliant eyes flicked open immediately. The medic straightened up. "There's some superficial bruising, a slight respiratory problem. Other than that she's virtually unharmed. There's really no need for her to remain in the life-support capsule."
"No, she'll stay where she is for the moment. It'll make her more responsive to interrogation later."
The medic cautioned, "She's not yet well enough to... submit to intensive questioning. She must have r-"
Travis cut him off in a dangerous tone. "Thank you very much indeed, doctor, you're relieved of your responsibility for the prisoner. She's now the property... the concern of the Interrogation division." The medics left quickly. Travis turned his full attention on Cally. "We'll want to know about Blake; his ship, his crew, his plans."
Responding was hard, but Cally was fighting mad. "Your words are meaningless to me. Who is Blake?"
Travis simply smiled. "I think you'll remember, quite soon. Oh there may be a little pain, a little discomfort... but you WILL remember."
"I will tell you nothing." Cally tried to move, to look at the viewscreen, but she could not.
Travis' mocking voice reached her ears. "I'll come back later. By that time you may have answered my questions. You may begin." This last sentence was to the interrogators. Travis watched them mixing their drugs, then turned off his view screen. Above Cally's head the lights began to flash in irregular patterns designed to make her disoriented. As the interrogators injected their drugs into her and the first pain began, Cally held her breath against an impulse to scream.
Centero Base was still a hive of activity. Prell coordinated the forensics team, who quickly became accustomed to him. One young man came over carrying a piece of twisted, burned circuit board. "What do you make of this, sir?"
"Where did you find it?" Prell asked him.
"It was embedded in the wall."
Prell took the piece and looked it over. He frowned. "Strange. It looks like part of the inner workings, and yet the surface scoring would suggest that it was exposed at the time of explosion."
"Check it's code number," Prell ordered, handing the piece back and giving the other man a magnifying headband to see with.
It only took a moment. "Fourteen Twenty-nine."
Prell scanned his list. "Fourteen Twenty-nine. Relay boost," he read. Then he frowned as he read further. "Prime linkage to component... Fourteen Thirty. What did we salvage of that classification code?"
Prell knew the answer even as it was given. "Nothing."
"Nothing?" He had to be sure, what with Space Commander Travis around.
"Not a fragment."
His back turned to the other man, Prell smiled and snapped his fingers. "Of course. It was obvious, obvious!"
"What is it?" asked the curious forensics man.
Prell reached for a recorder and held the little machine pressed against his jaw. "Priority message to Space Commander Travis. Deliver by Category One courier. Message begins:"
Travis and Servalan listened to Prell's recorded report at the space station. "Thorough check of salvaged material reveals no trace of parts used in manufacture of component Fourteen Thirty. It is virtually certain therefore, that the instrument was removed before the explosion. Component-"
The Space Commander snatched the recording up, a gleam in his eye. "Blake got the Cipher machine."
"He's able to read everything we transmit! Forward planning movements, security, everything!"
"That's right," Travis agreed. He felt an opportunity here and groped for it.
Servalan sprang from the couch to her desk. "I must advise Central Security. We have to introduce a new code system immediately! "
Travis jerked around, feeling his opportunity teeter away. "No, no! If the code system is changed Blake will know we're on to him!"
"That's not important! What matters is that our security is wide open!" She reached for the com, only to find Travis' mechanical hand in the way.
He spoke quickly. "Listen to me. We know that Blake is reading us. If we transmit a message in a normal routine way, he'll intercept it, hmm? Now what if that message was something he wanted to hear? Something that we know would bring him to a particular place hmm?"
His smug smile was infectious. Servalan sat in her chair. "A place where we would be waiting for him..."
Jenna was sleepily monitoring the messages coming through the Cipher machine. Suddenly she was wide awake and listening intently. A quick hand activated the comm. "Blake can you get down here fast?" She wrote the message down.
Blake hurried onto the flight deck, followed in short order by a very curious Avon and Vila. "What is it?" the rebel asked.
"This just came through on the Cipher."
Pacing near Zen's screen, Blake urged, "Read it."
"Space Headquarters: priority: injured female prisoner taken after attack on communications base planet Centero." Blake had spun to face her the moment she said "female." Jenna looked up at him, a gleam of dangerous victory in her eyes. "To be held for treatment and interrogation."
Blake gaped for a second more, then exploded hoarsely, "She's alive!"
"I knew she wasn't dead!" crowed Vila.
Avon spoke through a tight throat. "No you didn't."
"No I didn't." Not to be suppressed by facts, Vila spun. "I'm gonna tell Gan!" He raced off the flight deck.
Avon ignored him and turned to Blake, seeing his own white shock and strangled relief reflected in the other man's face. "Treatment and interrogation... that doesn't sound too promising," he cautioned.
The rebel's brown eyes shone. "She's ALIVE, that's all that matters." He turned to the computer. "Zen! Immediate course change, direct route to Centero, speed standard by six!"
"I want a repeat readout of everything in the data banks concerning Centero! The whole lot again!"
The computer's response actually sounded aggrieved. Confirmed.
"I want it now!" Blake yelled. Zen did not respond this time. Blake spun again and headed for the couch, Avon on his heels.
The tech was finding it hard to speak through a lump in his throat. Rational, Blake be rational in this! "Blake, what are you planning? What EXACTLY have you got in mind?!"
Blake twiddled his fingers on the couch console, gazing at the first of Zen's data. "I'm not sure yet...."
Jenna pitched in. "We could make a really fast strike, they wouldn't be expecting anything."
"Oh I admire your confidence!" Avon snapped.
"Well surprise is the only thing we've got on our side," the pilot reasoned back.
Avon watched Blake sharply as the rebel answered them, "Yes, well however we do it one way or another we are gonna get Cally OUT of there!" He tossed a printout aside and raced off the flight deck. Avon gritted his teeth and resisted an impulse to follow. He liked Cally and would be glad to have her back but he had no intention of dying over it.
Liberator reversed course in mid-flight. Zen announced patiently, The banks have collated the required information. Liberator is turning onto new course heading, now.
Clouds passed over the base. If gods lived up there, they could look down and wonder at the mortal complex with men in black uniforms stationed at every vantage point. The base fairly bristled with guards. Troops crossed the walkways, checked every corridor. A small squad hurried through the halls, dragging Cally's unconscious body behind them.
Travis sat in the base commander's office, studying a blueprint of the building. Stiff footsteps crossed from the door and stopped in front of him.
"Base Commander Escon reporting, sir!"
Travis lifted his head. "Yes, Base Commander?"
"I've escorted the prisoner to the Interrogation room and my men have been briefed to keep out of sight until you give the signal."
"Good. Blake is to get right inside the building before anybody makes a move. He glared fiercely at the pasty-faced man.
After a moment Travis leaned back. "Sit down, Base Commander."
"Thank you, sir." Escon obeyed, giving Travis a better view of his features. Pale eyes, long, thin lips, a light-muscled build. Travis decided the man could never match him, or any good Space Commander.
"How are your units deployed?"
"We have the whole area circled. Squads on every roof, disrupters at wide-firing spread around every wall. Once they're inside there's no way they're going to get out again."
Travis was impressed in spite of himself. "Good. Space-watch report?"
"An unidentified ship entered our upper atmosphere about an hour before you arrived."
"Blake's?" Travis asked, leaning forward.
"We assume so."
Calm in the face of this questioning, which Prell had warned him was the Space Commander's style, Escon answered, "Because it came in close and then raced back out again. And our guess is that it was doing a fast ground survey."
Travis shifted back again. That did not seem quite right, but it was logical. "Seems reasonable. Where is it now?"
"In fixed orbit, about a quarter of a million out."
"Quarter of a million? They won't be able to use their teleport at that range, they'll have to come in closer. And they can't do that without our knowing it." He stood and paced, juggling with a feeling of faint unease as he followed the data to its logical conclusion. "Which leaves just one chance then. Exactly WHERE they'll teleport down. The odds are against them being able to zero in on the Interrogation room."
"I think we have that beaten too, sir," Escon cut in.
"My research people have rigged up the entire complex with an MSD."
Travis sat down, ablaze with curiosity. "What?"
"A Molecular Shift Detector, sir. Apparently there's an enormous kinetic potential set up by teleport communications. A rough analogy would be the... the static build-up during an electrical storm." Those were the words Prell had used in explaining it to Escon.
Travis glared at him. "Yes, well I'm always grateful for a rough analogy. What does it do?" He hated beating around the bush.
"It tells us exactly where and when they land."
"Perfect!" Now THAT was something he could use.
"He still may not come."
Travis' eye gleamed. "Oh he'll come. He wouldn't abandon the girl, not Blake. Right, it starts now. Get under cover."
"Sir!" Escon stood and saluted in one movement, then left.
Travis gave himself a minute to rest. One minute was quite enough. He headied for the Interrogation room. The welcome sight of Blake's crewmember immobilized by metal bands in an interrogation chair brought a smile to his face. He leaned over her and mocked lightly. "I hope you're not too uncomfortable. Won't be long now."
She looked up at him with spirit. "You're wasting your time. Blake will not risk his ship and his crew just for me." She had thought about it, when Travis mocked her by explaining his plan. What he expected was not a logical course of action. Nor was it a safe one for Blake. No, they should not come back for her, therefore they would not. She was sure of it. But Travis smiled and rocked that faith in logic.
"I've studied that man 'til I know him better than I know myself. He has one reliable flaw, loyalty. He'll come back for you, I'd stake my life on it." The com unit nearby beeped and Travis went to answer it, leaning on the table where Cally's gun sat. "Yes?"
"No movement yet from Blake's ship. Still holding fixed orbit."
"Let me know the minute it starts in."
Travis spun Cally's chair to face him. He brought his face close, letting her see the impending victory in his eye. In a strange way he actually meant the words he said next. After all, the girl was only suffering for her association with Blake. "I'm sorry about this, but I don't want you doing anything foolish, like shouting out for help." He moved away to a control board on the wall. "Now this won't hurt!" But it did. For a flashing moment that brought the start of a cry from her it hurt, then she was completely immobilized, lips slightly open over the cry.
Travis leaned close to see that it really worked. Satisfied, he left the room and went to check on the guards. Stepping outside the building he ignored the pair who were stationed regularly at the door and scanned the rooftops. Not a movement was visible. Well between Escon and Prell, this base had two very efficient men working at it. He nodded to himself and went back in and straight for the Interrogation room. Stepping in, closing the door behind him, he reached for the chair and spun it around. For a moment of frozen shock, he could not breath. The chair was empty.
Then he was caught. A strong arm circled his neck and another arm came around his chest, pointing a gun like the girl's at his chin. It took him another moment to remember to breath as a hated voice hissed in his ear, "A trick I learned from you, Travis. I got here first! Take his gun Cally."
Travis did not struggle as Cally swept the small weapon out of his false hand. That's right, he thought. Take the obvious threat, imagine you've disarmed me.
Blake checked the door as Cally confronted Travis. The girl had a wild fire in her eyes and a rather vicious smile on her lips. "Know this," she told him, "your interrogators caused me much suffering. I should like a reason to kill you, one small movement would be enough."
Blake's voice behind him held more of Travis' attention than Cally could. The desire to kill the rebel was beginning to drown out Travis' normal survival reflexes. "I've got her, Jenna. Bring the ship to teleport range."
"On our way!" came a woman's excited response.
Cally distracted the Space Commander. "Now Travis, your turn. YOU get in the chair." Travis obeyed her casually. He had not lost yet.
Blake turned and mocked him. "Don't feel too badly, Travis! After all it was an ambush technique YOU devised."
Travis rested his real arm on the false one and smiled at his enemy. "You're not out of this yet."
The com chimed and a voice called over it, "Blake's ship is moving, coming in very fast!"
"We'll be leaving in about three minutes," Blake told Travis as Cally clamped the Space Commander in. "I should use the time to think of an excuse for your failure."
"You'd better kill me, Blake. Until one of us is dead, there'll never be a time when I won't be right behind you."
For a moment Blake's mocking gaze became sad. "If not you, then somebody else." - hatred, even hidden beneath a lost memory, flashed strongly again. "Killing you will change nothing. You don't matter enough to kill, Travis...."
Blake turned away and opened the door a crack to peer out it. Unknowingly he put himself directly in Travis' line of fire. The Space Commander moved his thumb slightly, getting ready to hit the firing switch. Cally noticed the subtle movement and his deadly concentration was enough to warn her, even in the absence of a noticeable weapon. "Blake get down!"
Blake dove for the floor just as Travis fired. The door crashed out and Travis snarled in aborted kill-lust as Blake spun up and around, and brought his own gun smashing down on Travis' false hand. There was an explosion of sparks. The Space Commander cried out in the sudden sharp pain from a quarter that only remembered feeling.
"Get the door, Cally, they'll be coming!" Blake called into his bracelet, "How long, Jenna?"
"Make it faster!"
Federation weapons fired toward Cally, she ducked back out of danger and turned to Blake. "They're coming!"
Blake yanked her away from the door. "Get down!" They slammed it shut again and it took the brunt of several laserblasts. Cally and Blake stumbled back against the other wall.
"Take them!" Travis shouted from the chair.
Jenna's voice came over the two rebels' bracelets. "In teleport range now."
The guard paused at the door. To get the rebels they would have to fire through Travis. They did not know what to do and killing Travis, despite his shout of, "It doesn't matter about me!" was not their primary choice of action.
Jenna spoke again. "We're bringing you up."
A wash of warm white light surrounded the two, and in an instant they were gone even as Travis shouted, "I order you to take them!! Don't stand there you idiots! !" The guards moved to free him and he wailed at them, "Launch the interceptors! " knowing it was already too late.
Cally and Blake wavered into sight on the Liberator. Vila was the first to greet them, standing with Avon against the teleport console. "Welcome back! We thought you'd decided to stay! "
Blake dropped an arm around Cally's shoulders, too relieved to really respond to Vila's teasing. "Bit close that time, Jenna." The pilot grinned at them from the controls.
Vila nodded. "Anyway, we're glad you're safe, aren't we?" When Avon said nothing, just continued to stare at the other two, Vila glared at him and prompted, "AREN'T we?"
Avon's eyes were firmly on Cally. "Yes I'm glad you're all right," he said flatly.
Blake let go of Cally and headed for the table, taking off his gunbelt. "Those interceptors'll be lifting off any minute now, let's get on with it." Jenna, Vila and Avon quickly headed for the flight deck. Blake hit the com. "Gan, get the ship moving. Full interceptor evasion."
"Check," came the cheerful answer. On the flight deck Gan quickly gave orders. ''Zen, battle-computers to interceptor evasion. Then take us out. Speed... standard by six." The thief, technician and pilot arrived and took their respective stations, though Jenna left Gan in the pilot's chair.
Your instructions are confirmed. Speed is now standard by six.
Blake set his gunbelt on the table and started for the flight deck. Cally stopped him. "Blake... thank you."
He stared at her closely and realized that she had expected to die there, in Federation hands. He gravely met her eyes. "Too many of my friends are already dead, Cally. I can't afford to lose another one." He caught a slight smile on her face. She cradled something in her hands. Blake looked down and saw a tiny black weapon. "Travis' gun. I'll take that." Cally gave it to him, seeing the bitter line of his forehead and recognizing it for remembered grief. Together the two rebels went to the flight deck.
Travis sat as a frightened tech completed the repairs to his arm. A shock sent brief pain up his shoulder, and with a frustrated snarl he shoved the man away. Techs all around saw familiar danger and made up quick excuses for themselves to leave the room. With them gone, Travis cradled his false hand and looked up at the ceiling, imagining that to be the way Blake's ship had gone, not caring whether or not it was. Low and angry he said, "Run, Blake. Run. As far and as fast as you like, I'll find you. You can't hide from me. I am your death, Blake."