The ship was sectionalized. A bullet-shaped head, and the rest split into four round sections, connected by corridors. It was ship's-night and the lights were dimmed. Rafford, the pilot, sat at his console relaxing. A flashing red button caught his attention. The ship had finished its course program and it was time to plan the next step of their journey. Rafford shut the button off and gathered up his log, putting in a picture of the latest space-conditions to plot their course around. He was a fine looking young man in his mid-twenties, healthy and strong, short brown hair, fine brows, handsome rectangular features.
"Log entry one, forty-three. Flight-time zero-one-zero, elapsed nine-zero. We have reached course Delta-Red-Two. New heading locked in, all systems functioning. We're going to free-process." He stretched limberly and brought out a grease pen to write the course with. The door behind him opened, fresh air carrying in a sweet smell and for just a moment he felt very tired. He blinked awake. "Oh, come on in! Could do with some company. Felt sleepy all of a sudden. Just finished marking up this." He set his course projections aside and turned to see something flying down at him. Rafford cried out and threw up his hands to protect himself but too late. Before he fell across the console he caught a brief glimpse of his attacker.
Blood trickled down the young pilot's face onto the console. He could not prevent the hammer that came down and smashed the ship's controls, very deliberately. Flames leapt up for a few seconds. Satisfied, his attacker left the flight deck.
Jenna and Blake watched the viewscreen in puzzlement. Caught in the scan was a bright glow marking another space ship. "There it is, look. Circling every ten minutes," Jenna pointed.
"When'd you pick it up?"
"Just before I called you."
Blake leaned forward, frowning at the image. "Circling all the time?"
Jenna nodded, "Yes. Zen says it's a Mark Three Galaxy Class Cruiser."
"Galaxy Class? That's Outer Planets manufacture, isn't it?"
Dividing her attention between the screen and Blake, Jenna answered, "Right. But Mark Three went out of production at least fifty years ago."
"You getting any signals from her?"
"Nope. She just circles out there."
Blake considered that. "Problem in the guidance control systems."
Jenna took a breath and looked seriously at the rebel. "That ship's in trouble. That's the only thing that makes any sense."
After their last experience with a lone spaceship Blake was not so eager to rush right in. He looked hopeful though. "Do you think so?"
They both looked a moment longer at the screen, then Blake came around cheerfully to sit on the couch. "All right, we'd better take a look at her! Zen, abort course programs, take us in to two-hundred spacials and match vectors!"
Chewing idly on a finger, Blake added, "I want everything in the data banks concerning Galaxy Class Cruisers."
Complete data is extensive.
"Good. How long before we're in teleport range?"
He would swear Zen was amused. That would depend on speed as yet unspecified.
Jenna chuckled, so Blake asked her, "Standard by four?"
Zen promptly replied, Sixteen point one four zero nine zero one minutes.
The two humans both laughed and the pilot said, "Approximately speaking, of course."
After a moment's silence the computer spoke again. It is estimated that you will require one hundred and twenty-eight hours to assimilate all available data on Galaxy Class Cruisers.
Blake rolled his head back against the cushions in annoyance. "Mark THREE?" he asked pointedly.
The Liberator stopped some distance from the much smaller ship.
Avon leaned on his station and observed critically, "No sign of any external damage."
Beside him stood Blake, reading intently from a small terminal. "According to the data banks Galaxy Class Cruisers are fitted with communicators. See if you can raise a voice contact, will you, Cally?"
Cally headed past a very worried Vila up to her station. The thief turned to Gan. "I don't like this."
Jenna grinned from her station, "That's unusual."
"Mock if you like, but I can always sense danger!"
Gan chuckled. "Yes, even when there isn't any."
Avon interrupted them, intent on the circling ship. "Scan doesn't show any modifications. I think it's just what it seems to be."
"An obsolete civilian cruiser." Blake turned to the comm station. "Any luck, Cally?"
"No response on any channel," she replied.
Blake came to an abrupt decision. "All right, I'm going across. Will you come with me Avon?" The tech was momentarily startled, then nodded slightly. Blake looked around, "Cally?" When she nodded yes, he turned to the thief. "Vila?"
"You don't need me to come over!" protested the thief.
"No, I need you to work the teleport."
"Oh. Right!" Relieved, Vila hopped down from his station and headed off the flight deck, ignoring Jenna's smirk.
Blake paused on his way out. "Zen, take us in to one hundred spacials and hold."
Cally, Avon and Blake appeared on the other ship in what seemed to be the recreation room. Papers were scattered about, a chessgame had been started and then abandoned. Avon took a quick look and shrugged. "There you are, deserted." He stepped forward to investigate more.
Cally also moved away. All three touched objects curiously. Blake moved a chess-piece on the game board, then lifted his head. "If they did abandon, they certainly did it in a hurry."
Avon glanced around at him. "If the last of this mark was built a half a century ago, this ship could have been here a very long time."
Paper rustled as Cally lifted a group of readouts from their printer and disagreed with him. "No, these space condition reports are recent."
"And there's a - an odd smell, sort of... sickly sweet," Blake added.
Cally paused and drew a breath to test the air. "Yes, there is something."
"It could be the change of atmosphere. A different recycle system to that of the Liberator." Though he said it Avon did not think that was it. He paced the room, eyebrows drawn together in dark curiosity.
Blake shook his head. "No it's more than that, um... I can't place it. All right, shall we get on with it?" His two crew joined him quickly. He turned to Avon. "You go down towards the stern, Cally and I'll work up towards the flight deck."
"Right. I'll just contact Vila." Blake and Cally left the room and Avon raised his bracelet to signal. "Are you awake?"
"No," came grumpily back.
In privacy Avon allowed his amusement to reach his eyes and tug at his mouth. Even a little traced into his voice. "That's what I thought. It's very quiet here. If it should get noisy, I'll be in touch." He cut off.
Blake and Cally cautiously slipped along the corridor with their weapons out. They came to a door and Blake indicated that he wanted to go in it. Cally nodded and readied herself to fire. Blake shoved the door open and blinked in surprise. It was empty. Then the smell hit him, stronger in this small area. He murmured to Cally, "It's that same smell again." They moved on nervously to the next door. This time Blake just opened it. There were two people inside. A lanky man in green on the bed, and a golden-haired girl slumped against it, wearing a blue uniform which had a high, arching collar like the man's. Cally and Blake glanced at each other, then the Auron slipped forward to check the man. Blake yawned sleepily and holstered his gun. He knelt beside the girl, turning her slumped body to face him and seeing the slight rise and fall of her chest. "The girl's alive."
Cally lifted the man's wrist between careful fingers. "So is this one, the pulse is strong."
Blake felt himself drifting off and raised his head with effort. "No visible sign of injury."
Cally peeled back the man's eye. There was something familiar to the glassy unresponsive pupil. She let the eyelid go and asked thoughtfully, "Do you think they're drugged?"
"What?" He knew she had spoken, he just missed the words somehow.
"It could be drugs."
"Possibly." Blake took the unconscious girl's face between his palms and slapped her cheek lightly. There was no response. His strength was fading anyway. He dropped his hands. "I don't know, possibly. They're certainly in a coma of some sort." Behind him Cally began to slump over the other man's body. Blake shook the blonde girl again and gave up in frustrated exhaustion. He rubbed his muzzy head. "Ah. No, it's no good we - we need the-" a sickly sweet smell in his nostrils, familiar from months on the London. The memory shocked Blake blinking awake. "Cally! That's it!" He spun to tell her and found her slumped unconscious. He grabbed her shoulders and pulled her up against his chest. "Cally! Wake up!"
There was an almost overwhelming sense of grief in the thought that seemed to scatter along his mind. *Alone....*
"Yes. Cally!" he called her.
She shook herself awake irritably. "What?"
"It's... sono-vapor, tranquilizing gas."
"Gas..." Cally rubbed her head fiercely to clear it.
Blake nodded wearily. "Yeah that's why we're so sleepy." He looked around the room with sudden suspicion, reached to shut off the atmosphere controls. "It must be bypassing the filters. I must find the filter system." He gathered himself up and started toward the door. Seeing Cally's perplexed expression, he waved back. "Th-that'll cut off the flow, it was coming through the ventilators. Filters. See what you can do for those two," he added as he left.
Cally shook herself again and bent to check on the girl.
Blake headed rapidly sternward. A door opened ahead of him and he flattened himself against the wall with his weapon out. It was Avon, stepping out of the room with his hands over his mouth and looking far paler than usual. Blake frowned then realized the tech had been holding his breath and was just now getting himself back together. "Avon! Have you found anything?"
It was satisfying to see the tech jump in surprise, but Avon recovered quickly and pointed into the room behind him at a man slumped in a chair. "Take a look. He's the fourth one I've found, all of them unconscious, it's... sono-vapor."
"Yes I know, we found a couple. It must be coming from the filters." With that, Blake started off down the corridors.
Between holding his breath and the amount of sono-vapor he had already inhaled, Avon could barely focus. He started to point vaguely behind him. "Yes. Well that should be..." he swung around after Blake, "that way."
Cally concluded there was nothing she could do for the two people. She stepped out into the corridors and looked left, toward two doors they had not gone in. The first door was locked. The second was jarred by her footsteps and swung slightly open. She had her weapon out and cautiously approached. She reached carefully for the door and yanked it open. A tall man fell out onto the corridor floor with a heavy thud. Cally winced and bent down to check for a pulse, but he was very dead, his skull caved in by a heavy blow. The blood was dry.
Avon warily opened the door and stepped in ahead of Blake. They stared around the room, heads almost clear once again. Avon crossed to a control panel and studied the switches. Blake saw the main airduct system and headed for that. "It's over here!" he called to the tech. Avon abandoned the switches and joined Blake.
"There it is." Avon reached in and carefully removed the pressurized canister and its hose. He sniffed critically. "Not a very expert job, just stuffed the tubing into the primary feed."
"It's effective, though," Blake pointed out.
Avon frowned at the little canister. "Hmm, look at the gauge. The cylinder is almost empty."
"Once it was empty, the filter system would have cycled the gas out of the atmosphere," the rebel realized.
"At which point everybody would just wake up. On the face of it a seemingly pointless exercise."
Blake recognized the signs. Avon was curious too. He shrugged and nodded toward the controls. "So we'll wake them up and ask them what it's all about. Increase the oxygen supply to speed recovery." Avon turned the control up, they nodded at each other and left.
Cally stepped warily onto the small flight deck. Her first sight was of the smashed controls, and a canister that lay across the console. She picked it up and sniffed, recognizing the sweet smell that faintly came from it. A faint noise outside alerted her, she slid around to look out the door. Avon sitting on his heels, studying the fallen body. Blake on the other side. Cally came to the door. "He's dead."
Blake jumped, then relaxed and shot her an annoyed glare. "Very."
Avon stood up and moved into the flight deck. Cally moved aside for him, commenting, "Someone was very thorough. All this damage has jammed the main controls on a circular flight pattern."
"Can it be repaired?" Blake asked.
Avon looked up from the mess. "That would depend on what their replacement stores are like."
"Look at this! It's blood!" Cally stood up with a box in her hand and handed it to Avon. "He tried to write something."
The erratic red-brown finger-written symbols were fairly easy to read. "Five four one... two four. Whatever that might mean."
Blake looked over Avon's shoulder at the box. "Could be anything; call sign, transmission frequency... navigation index, anything!"
"It IS important. He must have been dying when he wrote it!" Cally agreed.
All three jumped as shrill hysterical screaming broke outside the room. The golden-haired girl was there, pressing herself against the wall and shrieking for all she was worth.
They assembled the crew in the recreation room. The man in charge was a balding pale scientist type in a high-collared brown suit, gray eyes and a perpetual frown of concentration creasing his forehead. He rubbed his eyes and head, still feeling the effects of the gas and wearily trying to answer a prying Blake. "I'm sorry, I just don't know! I haven't any answers to your questions. All I remember was I went to my quarters, and fell asleep in a chair. At least that's where I was when I woke up a few minutes ago and found all this going on."
Blake paced the room, arms akimbo. He stopped behind the scientist, recognizing a familiar sentiment. "Yes, I know exactly how you feel, well... just relax and try to remember." He crossed the room and stopped in front of a seated woman. She was tall, about mid-thirties he estimated. The amusement in her eyes and indifferent interest with which she met his reminded him no little of Avon. He disliked that comparison, one of Avon was enough. "And where were the REST of you when all this was going on?"
"What gives YOU the right to ask?" snapped the tall young man Cally and Blake had found first.
Blake looked over his shoulder. "You need our help."
One of the two men sitting at the chess table snarled, "DO we?!"
"We do," Another young man said firmly.
The man at the chess table glared resentfully at Blake but answered him. "I was off duty. I share quarters with Pasco."
Pasco was the gentle looking fuzzy-haired man sitting at the table with his roommate. "We were both there, routine rest period," he supported.
Blake eyed the angry one. "And your name?"
He had short cropped curly hair, thick bushy eyebrows that grew together and a perpetually sullen expression in sharp, smallish eyes. "Sonheim. We must have slept through it all, as Doctor Kendall did." The scientist looked up as his name was mentioned.
"You?" Blake asked the other more friendly young man.
"I was in the communications center, trying to make repairs. I remember feeling very drowsy, and that's about all! And my name's Grovane." He had thinning hair, and his face looked a bit like a gerbil's, sweet and gentle.
Blake stared at him, "That's all?"
Behind him came the golden girl's voice, he turned to see her holding tight to the man in green's hand. "And Mandrian and I were together. The first thing I knew was when I came out into the corridor and saw Rafford." She had a pale, delicate beauty, immense blue eyes and something doll-like to her. She was still badly shaken but holding up well.
Blake turned to the other woman. She wasn't the least bit delicate. An air of professional competency and judgemental strength again annoyingly reminiscent of Avon. "And you?"
"I am called Levett." A calm voice as well.
"Did you see or hear anything?" he sternly asked her.
She seemed to find him amusing. "I was asleep, in my quarters."
Familiar annoyance to be held in check. Two of them would definitely be too many. "Would anybody else have seen you there?" This seemed to get a reaction other than amused indifference, a brief cold look.
Sonheim snarled bitterly, "Why should anybody else bother."
Pasco's quick interruption implied a long-standing battle. "All right, there's no need for that!"
"There are worse things than being alone, Sonheim. Being with you is one of them." Levett's eyes on Sonheim shone with a familiar light of, I got you hah! and Sonheim was obviously very tempted to tackle her.
Mandrian interrupted the others, "We're getting away from the point."
"You're almost out of my sympathy!" Blake informed them. He paced across the room. "Now, sometime in the last twelve hours your pilot was murdered. Now since you're the only people here on board then I can see-"
"No we're not. Dortmunn isn't here," Mandrian informed him.
The rebel turned on him, exasperated. "Who is Dortmunn?"
"Well where is he?!" This is like bloody pulling teeth, he thought.
Doctor Kendall was aware of Blake's impatience. He stood up quickly. "I want him found, Mandrian. Search the whole ship. He's got to be here somewhere." Blake glared at Mandrian over Kendall's head.
Mandrian ignored him, summoning the two most efficient crew members he had. "Sonheim, Levett." They followed him out.
Blake turned to Kendall. "Whilst your people look for him, I'll go and see how my people are getting on. They're in the flight deck assessing the damage, will you come with me?"
"Right." They went out into the corridors.
Avon, with Cally at his side, was removing shattered parts from the pilot's console. He looked at the piece he held and shook his head. "Well there's nothing I can do with that it'll have to be replaced."
Blake entered with Kendall on his heels. "What's the situation?"
The tech raised his head coolly. "Well we can fit some of it back together but there are a lot of components that'll have to be replaced."
Doctor Kendall worried, "Can it be made operational?"
Dark eyes measured him, then went back to the console. "The interesting thing is, as far as I can see, that all this damage was done but for one purpose. To prevent the orbiting flight pattern that you are now in... from being altered." The dark eyes lit on Kendall again.
"I don't understand any of this! First the trouble with the communicators, and now sabotage!"
Cally jumped on the words. "What happened to the communicators?"
He dithered, not knowing who to look at, the young girl who demanded answers, the dark-eyed man whose gaze seemed to accuse him of dire things, or Blake, impatient and curious. "Just after we started back on the return trip, there was a burn-out in the main circuits. Grovane--communications officer--thought the damage couldn't be accidental. Apparently all the safety circuits were still intact, they'd been bypassed somehow." A sudden quick movement on Avon's part, to remove another part from the console, distracted Kendall. He shook himself. "It's still not working."
Blake paced the small flight deck. "This man Dortmunn they're looking for... could he have any reason to sabotage you?"
"None that I could think of, he's a fine man and a first class engineer!" The comm unit whined a high summons. "Kendall," he answered.
"Mandrian. We're in Section 9, Doctor. You'd better come down, there's something you should see."
Kendall glanced a question at Blake, who gestured widely. "Lead the way."
Blake's crew watched them leave, then Avon turned to Cally. "This is a pity." He held out his hand to her, and resting in its cupped palm was the part he had just removed. A crystal, once smooth, now laced throughout with tiny shatter-lines.
"What is it?" Cally asked, drawing back warily.
"The Ison crystal. Even if we should get the ship operational, it will be blind. With this fractured there isn't a chance of outside vision." He studied it, curiosity roused to greater lengths.
Mandrian and the golden girl, Sara, waited anxiously. They were quite relieved when Blake and Kendall rounded the corner. Doctor Kendall shot over to them. "What have you found?"
Sara pointed up at a control panel behind them. Six glowing squares; yellow-red-yellow, black-blue-black. "Life rocket two has been launched," she said wistfully.
Blake raised a brow. "That explains where Dortmunn got to."
"He's taken a tremendous chance," Mandrian pointed out, "those life rockets have a limited range, it certainly couldn't carry him to the nearest habitable planet."
"But why? Why would he do that?" Kendall begged of them.
Blake thought about it. "Well if he killed Rafford he's got nothing to lose. A ship this size, you can't hide forever." He glanced around as if to be sure of that.
"It still doesn't explain why. Not just the murder, the malicious damage th-" Already pale, Kendall went ashen. "It's not possible." Without explaining himself he sprinted down the corridor, Blake on his heels heard Kendall say, "I'd better check just to be sure." Mandrian turned away. Sara stared after them.
Kendall hurried into his quarters, past the plush chairs to a safe across the room. He keyed in a code and the safe opened up. Inside was a small silver box. He drew it out and punched in the code for its lock, opening it immediately. Sitting inside black velvet padding was a glowing green tube. Kendall sighed in relief and looked up at Blake. "For a moment I thought Dortmunn might have taken it. If he had everything that has happened would have made sense. But it's here. It had to be of course. It's impossible to open the safe without a molecular key and combination, and I'm the only one on the ship who has those."
Kendall started to pace, puzzled. Blake looked down at the rod curiously. "Well what is it?"
"It's an energy refractor. A neutrotope."
That hardly helped Blake. "What does it do?"
The Doctor laughed dryly. "I'll explain." He led Blake to a round star chart on the wall, pointed down on the lower portion. "I and my crew come from Destiny, way out here on the edge of the galaxy."
"Yes I've heard of that. It was colonized, what, about a hundred years ago?"
Blake remembered more details, "But you're still not members of the Federation."
"They've approached us, threatened, but we've resisted so far." Blake nodded and sat in a chair, inviting further explanation. Kendall also sat. "Ours is an agricultural colony. We've a small fleet of mercantile ships to trade with our nearest neighbors. Our people live well but simply. Least they did."
Blake steepled his fingers. "What happened?"
"Towards the end of the last growing season, just as the main crop was coming in to maturity, reports came in that the plants were dying. Wilting, and dying. It spread across both our continents with incredible speed. We estimated that in under a year there would be no living vegetation left on the planet."
"Did you isolate the cause?"
"It was a fungal disease. Identifying it was one thing, but destroying it...." He shook his head. "It was resistant to everything. In under three months half the planet was buried in a covering of slimy white fungus. The stench was vile, and it was still spreading."
Blake gathered himself up and went over to the box. "And you think this uh... neutrotope will provide the answer." He lifted it out to study.
Kendall looked at his hands sadly. "My experiments showed that radiation from our sun was deficient in certain specific wavelengths. The neutrotope will provide the necessary frequencies to kill the fungus."
"You'll mount this in a satellite to be activated by your sun?" Blake asked, turning it over in his hands. "That's right." Kendall looked around and saw Blake handling the neutrotope.
"Hmmm." Blake held it up to look at it in the light, and the shorter man reached up and took it back casually to put away. The rebel gave him an apologetic glance. "We've calculated the orbital pattern required to maintain the balance, and save our planet."
"Yes. This has cost us... well, let's say it's bankrupted our economy and mortgaged our future."
"Why so much?" the startled rebel asked.
"The yield from the ore containing the element is minute. This neutrotope and the few others that exist... are the most valuable objects in our galaxy."
Blake drew a startled breath. "Yes, well I can see why you're so concerned that Dortmunn might have taken it."
Kendall closed the case around the neutrotope. "Yes, it's enough to tempt anyone. Hmm, there are men who would betray their companions for a lot less."
A cool velvet purr came from the door, startling both men. "What a very cynical thought, Doctor."
One of Blake's, Kendall realized, trying to calm his beating heart. The black eyes held a faint twinkle of laughter that was less than reassuring. "But realistic, I'm afraid," Kendall replied.
The eyes rested on him an instant, then turned to Blake. "Cally and I have finished checking the damage. I can give you a fairly accurate assessment of the situation now. We can fit things together, and we can make repairs." He stopped.
Blake raised a brow, prompting, "And?"
Avon flashed a lightning-bright smile. "There is however, a problem."
They gathered the crew again in the recreation room. Avon spoke to them. "When we've finished, you should have a ship that will navigate and get you back to Destiny. The problem is that without this-" he held out the crystal, "-you will have to travel at sub-light speed. I estimate that the journey will take you approximately five months to complete."
The crew began protesting immediately, Sonheim sharpest of all. "But that'll be too late! We'll miss the planting season!"
"It'll set us back a full year!" agreed Grovane.
Kendall stepped into the center of the room, silencing them. "When I heard the news I was just as concerned as you are. A delay that long would be disastrous. But there is an alternative."
Blake stood with his arms folded and calmly spoke. "Liberator can make the journey in four days. What I've suggested is that Avon and Cally stay here and help you with your repairs. I take the neutrotope to Destiny, and then come back and collect them."
"No!" Mandrian crossed the room and confronted Blake. "We can't do that. We can't just hand over the neutrotope to some passing stranger!"
Sonheim ignored Pasco's soothing hand on his shoulder. "I agree! We were entrusted with this mission, we can't just forget our responsibility!"
Mandrian nodded harshly. "There are plenty of ready markets for the neutrotope. If it was stolen and sold, a man could be wealthy beyond... beyond imagining. That thing is a temptation even for those of us with our home, families, and lives at stake. You have nothing at stake, nothing to lose."
Avon answered him, voice like crystal-ice. "It is frequently easier to be honest when you have nothing to lose."
"The responsibility for the neutrotope belongs to all of you," Blake added firmly. Mandrian sat wearily as the rebel turned to them all. "There is a risk that if you entrust it to me, I may fly off never to be seen again. You have to weigh that chance against the effects a year's delay would have on the possibility of your planet's recovery. We've made the offer, the choice is up to you."
Levett turned her head to regard Avon and Cally, rather doubting the word "we" was quite appropriate.
Cally spoke in support of Blake. "Remember that Avon and I will be staying. We will regard ourselves as hostages against Blake's return."
Avon's head snapped around and he glared furiously at her. "Oh thank you, Cally, what a clever idea."
Cally rolled her eyes and sent to him a feeling of strong faith. *Blake will return!*
His voice went coldly quiet, pitched not to be heard by the Ortega's crew. "You can bet your life on it. In fact you just bet both our lives on it!"
Blake listened to Avon's half of the exchange and hid a smile.
Kendall called his crew's attention to him. "Well personally I have no hesitation about accepting the offer! Delivery of the neutrotope is vital! And anyway, after what's happened here, it may well be safer with Blake!" He turned and looked at the rebel. "However, we'll vote on it. Those in favor." He looked at his crew, raising his right hand. Sara looked at Mandrian hesitantly. Across the room, Levett raised her hand. Pasco did, to Sonheim's disgust, who folded his arms in refusal. Grovane raised his hand, and Mandrian followed Sonheim's lead. Sara raised her hand, flinching under her lover's furious glare. Kendall dropped his hand. "That's about... four to three, in favor. We accept gratefully," he told Blake.
"Right. I'd like to get started right away."
"Of course. Sara, would you get the neutrotope, please?" The girl rose and left. Mandrian shot everyone a disgusted glare and left by another door. Kendall turned to Blake. "Sorry."
"It's all right. A natural reaction." He turned to his own crew. "Well I'll get back for you as soon as I can." The two started taking off their bracelets to give him. He asked Cally, "You're quite sure about volunteering to stay?"
She glanced briefly at Avon. "We must help these people!"
The dark eyes flashed indignantly at her. "Must we? Personally I don't care if their whole planet turns into a mushroom! I shall stay because I don't like an unsolved mystery."
Blake raised a brow. "You don't think Dortmunn and his life-raft are the answer?"
Avon gave him a long look of annoyance. "There's something else that has to happen before it all begins to come together."
Sara came in with the silver box and handed it to Blake, who politely said, "Thank you." He turned back to his crew. "Better give me your guns." Cally obliged, and Avon more slowly did too. Blake stepped away to call for teleport.
Kendall said desperately, "Don't fail us."
"I won't." He lifted his bracelet. "Vila, bring me up."
The Ortega's crew gaped in surprise as Blake vanished. Cally whispered to Avon, "My people have a saying: a man who trusts can never be betrayed, only mistaken."
Avon had turned his head slightly to hear her. Now he replied softly, "Life expectancy must be fairly short among your people."
"Three two point one zero," Jenna called out the figures on her screen.
"Check," Gan answered her from what was normally her station.
"Three two one zero zero-"
Vila's voice was loud enough to carry from the teleport chamber into the flight deck, and he sounded very worried. "Where are Cally and Avon?!"
Blake's answer was impatient and annoyed. "It's a long story!"
"But what's in the box?!" Vila was practically stepping on Blake's heels when the two came onto the flight deck.
"That's an even longer story!"
"I like stories!"
Blake dodged to the computer. "Zen, get a locater fix on the other ship! I wanna be able to pinpoint its position at all times!"
"Set a course for Destiny speed standard by six." He went to the couch, nearly stumbling over Vila on the way.
"Well where is that?" the thief demanded.
Confirmed, Zen answered Blake's second order.
Gan and Jenna were picking up Vila's near-anger. Gan leaned forward to peer at the box from the flight console. "What have you got there?"
"Why are we leaving them behind, what's going on?" Jenna asked.
"WHERE is Destiny?" Vila demanded, leaning against the couch.
Blake threw up his hands in frustration. "According to Avon it's a story that doesn't have an end yet!"
"All right then, we'll start with the beginning!" the thief snapped.
On the Ortega's flight deck, Avon had recruited Grovane and Levett to help with the repairs. "Probe," he said to Levett. She handed it to him and watched him work with interest.
Cally was studying the box with bloody writing on it. "Two four... does this mean anything to you?" she asked the two Ortega crew. "Five four one two four?"
They both looked bewildered. Grovane shook his head. "No, I don't think so."
Levett frowned slightly, bored with the interruption of her work. "Should it? Is it important?"
"Yes it is important."
To her annoyance they both went back to work. Avon lifted his head briefly to Grovane. "Monitor response."
Cally set the box down and drew a breath through her nostrils. "The air is stale in here," she commented.
Levett did not look up. "The ventilator's closed."
While Cally checked the ventilator, Avon asked Grovane, "Well?"
"Hmm, then there's nothing I can do. It'll have to be replaced." He turned to Levett. "I shall need laser-transfer linkage, have you got any?"
"I think so, in the storage hold. I'll go and check."
Cally stepped in front of her. "No, stay here, I'll get it." Levett shrugged and went back to helping Avon at the console.
As Cally stepped out the door, the other woman said without looking up, "You'll need the torch." Cally looked back, annoyed, but they all were focused on their tasks. Tired of being cooped up with them anyway, she headed out.
On her way down the corridor she heard a sharp tapping sound from inside Mandrian and Sara's room. She peered around the door. Mandrian sat on the edge of the bed, holding a small red and silver box. He had been tapping on it and now, with a strange expression of disquiet, put it away in a small leather carry-bag and hid it under the mattress. Cally hid as Mandrian left the room. As soon as he was gone, she went in and got the bag. Finding the box, she slipped it into a hidden pocket, then returned the bag to its place and went back out on her errand.
Sonheim and Pasco were in the Recreation room, working together on some tiny repairs. Pasco had a jeweler's magnifier on one eye, and read off the classification numbers on the tiny parts to his roommate. "Fourteen."
"Where is the storage hold?" Cally interrupted them to ask.
Sonheim snarled, "What do you want down there?"
Tired of this, and of being ignored on the flight deck, she came close. "We need some laser-transfer linkage."
"I don't know that we have any," he replied, somewhat nicer.
"Well that is what I'm going to find out." She turned her back to him and asked Pasco, "Can you tell me, please?"
Pasco took off his magnifier and stood up, smiling warmly at her. "Don't mind him, eh-hmm, he lacks affection." He lead her to the door and pointed. "Blue corridor! Go down past the filtration plant, and it's the next door on the left."
She nodded and said warmly, "Thank you."
Pasco went to do his work beside Sonheim who, after Cally left, rose and started for the door. "Be back in a moment." Pasco watched him go and shook his head. Don't you have enough trouble with Levett, friend?
Sharply raised voices carried down the hall. Cally slowed her walk and listened, puzzled by the severe tones. Sara's voice fierce and angry, then Mandrian said, "I am not stupid!"
"Yes you are!"
"I am not." Cally flattened herself against the wall and listened. "Now I want to know what it is." The silence after those words was deafening. Cally had just stepped away from the wall when the door in front of her flew open and Sara nearly ran her down. Cally stared after the golden-haired girl, perplexed. Then she crept over to look in the room. Mandrian leaned on a table, his face in his hands, a picture of misery. This was all beyond her, Cally decided. She moved on down the corridor.
She found the storage hold but the lights were out. That explained why she needed a torch. Turning on the one she had brought, Cally let its light play along the walls and shelves. She spied a cabinet along the right-hand wall. It looked like a likely place. Opening the doors she started to peer inside when something brushed her hair. She threw herself backwards.
There was a soft thump as the body stuffed atop the locker fell. Cally took a step back and spun about when hands touched her shoulders.
Sonheim forgot her when he saw the body. He knelt beside it and checked for a pulse. There was none. He looked over his shoulder at Cally. "It's Dortmunn."
The crew gathered in the rest area. Doctor Kendall paced rapidly back and forth, his shoulders hunched, dismay written on his features. "Someone among us is determined that this mission should fail, and frankly I can't even guess at a motive!"
Avon's velvet voice spun the doctor around. "Try greed. It's usually reliable." He stepped into the center, his hands clasped behind his back. "When you set out on your return journey, you were carrying something extremely valuable." He settled his gaze on Mandrian. "As he said earlier. If the neutrotope could be sold, it would make a man wealthy beyond imagining." The dark eyes lit with humor and he smiled faintly in threat. "Well, it obviously wasn't beyond the imagination of someone here."
Mandrian flushed and defended himself. "I just meant that we were taking an enormous risk by entrusting it to a stranger. It never crossed my mind that any of us-"
"But it DID cross your mind, didn't it? A temptation, you said. Even for those of us with our lives at stake." Avon turned away from Mandrian. "The value of the neutrotope is all the motive you need to look for. Now I don't pretend to know the whole plan, but parts of it seem fairly clear. The damage to the communication center, that isolated the ship." He angled his head toward Grovane. "You couldn't receive any messages, nor could you put out a distress call. I'm not sure when Dortmunn was killed, but Cally thinks that the death of the pilot, Rafford, was an accident."
Sonheim looked up, startled. "What d'you mean?"
"An accident?" Sara echoed.
Cally spoke up softly. "A misfortune."
Avon's dark eyes sparkled at her with his brand of humor. "It certainly was for him."
The telepath stepped forward patiently. "I think that it was not part of the plan. Whoever put the sono-vapor into the ventilation system intended to put the whole crew to sleep, while the controls were sabotaged. Rafford was supposed to be sleeping too."
Avon stepped to her side, reinforcing her. "But the ventilator ducts on the flight deck were closed, consequently Rafford was unaffected by the gas."
Cally continued, "The murderer was using an oxygen mask to stay awake, reaching the flight deck and finding Rafford conscious must have been a shock."
"And that shock... killed Rafford," Avon finished, eyes grave.
Cally nodded agreement.
Pasco shook his head in confusion. "The ventilators shouldn't have been closed! It's against flight operating procedures!"
Avon fixed his dark gaze on Pasco, silencing the man. "The next shock was when we arrived. Now that really was a misfortune. Pure bad luck."
"Rafford should have known better," Pasco muttered.
"Shut up, Pasco!" Sara hissed at him.
Mandrian folded his arms across his chest and turned to Avon. "Go on."
Dark eyes focused on him with dangerous suspicion. "Even the most meticulous of plans could not have anticipated our arrival."
"Meticulous?" Levett mused.
Avon cast her a brief smile before continuing. "The murderer had to cover up, and quickly. Dortmunn was killed." He fell silent for a moment, then spoke again. "I think the plan was to put his body into the life rocket and launch it into space. That way it would appear obvious that Dortmunn was guilty."
Sara leaned forward, "So why didn't it happen?"
He looked over his shoulder at her. "I think it was too difficult. Dragging the body across the spaceship to the launch area without being seen... that proved to be impossible, so the murderer settled for the next best thing. He launched an empty life-rocket. And that... worked. We all believed that Dortmunn had escaped."
Again Avon settled a dark gaze on Mandrian, who shifted uneasily and said, "But whoever did it must have known the body would be discovered sooner or later."
"Of course! He was playing for time. The plan had gone to pieces, the best the killer could hope for was to delay a full inquiry for as long as possible." Avon frowned over that. "As a matter of fact I think... that was a waste of effort. I know... we all know... that one of you is the murderer. But proving which one--unless of course, as seems quite likely, someone other than the murderer already knows..." he could not decide how to finish that sentence, so he smiled wickedly, "already knows."
Sonheim and Levett both watched him, impressed. He backed up to join Cally as Doctor Kendall came into the center again and began speaking. "Naturally the whole matter will be put in the hands of the authorities when we reach Destiny. Despite what you say, Avon, the murderer will be found. In the meantime, you will all resume your normal duties. And anything you see or hear that seems unusual, report to me at once. Thank you." The crew gathered themselves and began to leave the room.
Avon stepped closer to Kendall. "We'll get back to the repairs now. A couple of hours, you should be able to set off for home."
Grovane stood anxiously near them, catching Kendall's attention before he could answer Avon. "Something you wanted, Grovane?"
"Yes. It just occurred to me." He turned worriedly to Avon. "You said one of us was the murderer."
"That's right," Avon answered, waiting.
"There is another possibility."
Avon stiffened, feeling he was going to be accused. Tone deadly, he said, "Yes."
"There could be somebody else on the ship, somebody we don't know about. A stowaway!"
In the quiet of the flight deck, Vila fell asleep. A gentle nudging stirred him awake. Gan held out a cup of liquid to him. The thief sleepily took it and drank. Gan stepped down to hand Jenna a cup where she sat beside Blake on the couch.
Detectors indicate a meteorite storm directly in Liberator's flight path, Zen alerted them.
Blake accepted the cup from Jenna. "Scale and intensity?"
Scale nine, intensity twenty-seven.
"Twenty-seven!" exclaimed Vila, suddenly wide awake.
Gan sat down and sipped his own drink. He raised a brow, "Eight's about the strongest we've had so far."
Jenna snorted, "My teeth are still rattling from that."
"An intensity of twenty-seven is a lot of VERY fast rocks!" Vila said in alarm. He looked down at them, wary of what Blake might decide.
Blake lifted a thoughtful hand to his lips. "Scale nine puts the storm over a vast area, too. How much would it add to our flight time if we went around it?"
Estimated flight-time of eighty-four hours would increase to three hundred thirty-six hours.
"Four times as long!" Jenna shook herself, annoyed.
Blake drew a deep breath. "Would the force wall hold if we went straight through the storm?" he sounded only idly curious.
It is within the maximum design tolerance. However, there would be no safety margin.
Blake gathered himself to his feet. "Is there enough reserve power to maintain the wall?"
The crew watched him, sipping their drinks and well aware of what was likely to happen. Insufficient data for accurate projection.
"In other words, he doesn't know," Jenna said.
Vila raised his hand to catch their attention. "Let's go around." Blake's stern glare was answer enough.
Cally left the hold, bringing linkages and torch under her arms. As she turned the corner she ran into Sara and Sonheim. "Are the others still searching?" she asked them.
Sonheim looked very tired, no longer angry with them for coming aboard. "Yes. Nothing so far. Do you want any help on the flight deck?" Sara gave him a startled look.
"No we've almost finished," Cally replied and continued up the corridor. She paused after a few steps. "Sonheim, there was something I wanted to ask you." She turned and looked back at them.
He nodded to Sara, "Go ahead, I'll catch you up." The girl entered a door marked Hatch 1 and Sonheim joined Cally, some of his old stiffness showing. "What is it?"
Cally got straight to the point. "Finding Dortmunn's body put it out of my mind. Why did you follow me to the storage hold?"
"Why do you think?" To his surprise, Cally looked quite bewildered. "You're an attractive girl! You asked where the hold was, I snapped at you. I came after you to... apologize?" And he was jealous of how Levett was working with the man Avon. And Cally had lovely eyes.
"To apologize," she said blankly.
A faint leer crept into his expression. "Of course. What other reason could I have?"
"Perhaps you were afraid I would find Dortmunn."
The words put any thought but indignation out of his mind instantly. "That's ridiculous! I didn't know his body was there, I told you! I followed you to apologize!"
Cally studied him, then relented. "I believe you."
"It's true!" he snapped.
She lifted her head and he caught a faint spark of laughter in her eyes. "Of course." With that she spun on her heel and continued for the flight deck, leaving a very confused man behind.
Avon was at work alone, all the crew devoted to their search. Cally walked in casually. "The transfer unit you asked for."
"About time," he said without any bite. Noticing her somewhat peculiar expression he asked, "Any news from the search parties?"
He nodded. "No, there won't be. It was an unlikely idea, keeping out of sight for the amount of time this ship has been in flight." Cally closed the door so they would not be interrupted. Avon sat at the console. "Not really possible."
She came to his side. "I agree. So who do you think it is?"
"Mandrian," he answered as he worked.
"Why?" she probed.
"Instinct. I discount Doctor Kendall."
Cally sat beside him, cocking her head. "I thought you mistrusted instinct?"
He stopped in the middle of his work, brow furled. "I do. So I am probably wrong."
"Well it could be him." Avon looked at her, waiting further explanation. "I told you I heard him quarreling with Sara, didn't I?" His amusement was faint in the air. He knew no way to explain about a lovers' quarrel to Cally. As he stood to check some readings she added restlessly, "Sonheim makes me uneasy too."
The angry one. "He would be next on my list."
She sighed. "But the answer is here. If only we could see it."
Mandrian slipped along the corridors, keeping a wary eye out for his fellow crew. He found his way to the filtration plant and stepped in. Closing the door behind him, he turned and met what he saw there with no surprise. "I knew you'd be here."
Jenna stood at her console, Blake beside her. They watched meteors flying toward them, heard the sound of them impact against the force wall. "How far are we now?" Blake asked.
Vila eyed his screen nervously. "Halfway. But I can't be sure! The detectors are swamped!"
"The force-wall's eating into our power reserves," Gan warned them from the couch-console.
Jenna was nervous as well, as another indicator changed position on her screen. "The field drag is up too, I'm having to use a lot of power to maintain our speed and heading."
Cally slipped the little silver box out of her pocket and turned it over in her hands. "Avon?"
"I saw Mandrian with this. Then he put it in the bottom os Sara's flight-bag."
Avon looked up from his work. Unable to identify the little box right off he turned back again, but asked, "What is it?"
"Well that's what I want you to tell me." The lights suddenly dimmed and a warning buzzer sounded. They both hurried to the console, Avon catching hold of Cally's arm, ready to pull her back if something blew. Cally pointed, "Look!"
He leaned over the indicators with some surprise. "Filtration malfunction. We'd better get down there." They opened the door and stepped out just as Levett came hurrying up the corridor.
Seeing them, she slowed to a quick walk. "Doctor Kendall wants you."
"Filter plant?" Avon asked her.
"There's been another killing." The two Liberator crew cast startled glances at each other, then followed Levett back.
Everyone was there. Pasco and Grovane held Sonheim against the wall, Sara cried in heart-rending sobs into Doctor Kendall's chest, and Mandrian... was sprawled on the floor, a small pool of blood forming around his torso. Sparks cracked the air around one of the power conduits. Avon knelt and checked Mandrian's body. He sighed to himself and stood again. He turned and looked at Sonheim, who closed his eyes against the dark empty gaze. "Tell me what happened."
Grovane answered him. "I was coming past and I heard a noise. So I looked inside. Mandrian was just as you see him. Sonheim was standing over him, with this dagger in his hand."
Sonheim twisted in their grasp, the same shock and horror his companions felt reflected in him. "I didn't kill him. I didn't kill him, I didn't kill him!" Sara pressed closer to the doctor, tears streaming down her face. Sonheim met Avon's steady gaze and screamed at him, "I didn't kill him!!"
Gan watched the never ending stream of meteors from the couch console. "Power reserves are almost gone," he announced.
Zen came on line. In one point zero three minutes, it will no longer be possible to operate force wall and main drive simultaneously. Please decide which to close down.
Jenna said quickly, "Without the main drive we'll never get out of here!"
"Without the force wall, we'll be smashed to pieces!" protested Vila.
Blake glanced at him. "Have the locators detected the outer edge of the storm, yet?"
"No." Vila stared down at the screen and exclaimed with sudden relief, "Yes!!" The next moment though, dismay flashed across his face. "No. Maybe," he finally said and looked mournfully at Blake.
"Which is it, Vila?" the rebel demanded.
Vila cast another distressed look at his screen, then back to Blake. "It's maybe."
Directive is now required, Zen informed them.
Blake hesitated for a second before turning determinedly to his pilot. "Jenna, stand by to feed all power to the main drive when the force wall is down."
"Ready," she answered, gripping her controls hard.
"Gan, deactivate the force wall."
"Deactivating," Gan replied. The hum of the force wall shut off, and suddenly loud clangs came through the ship but they were all thrown back as Jenna threw the ship into a full power drive. The box with the neutrotope slid to the floor past Gan's fingers.
Kendall clutched his pounding head, "Why? For what reason?"
Cally tried to answer him. "Perhaps Sonheim is still trying to cover up. Mandrian knew about him and threatened to expose him. Or perhaps he went into the filter plant while Sonheim was sabotaging the equipment."
He considered that, his eyes on the pale, wan Sara, sitting on his couch. Poor child. "Then why damage the filter? What possible reason could he have for delaying the flight still further?"
The door swung open and Avon walked in, hands behind his back, Pasco and Grovane on his heels. "The damage was minor, I've got Levett working on it." He looked down at Sara, who blinked back at him.
Pasco worked past a tight throat to speak. "We've... locked him in the storage hold. He seems quiet enough."
"Has he said anything more?" Cally asked.
Grovane shook his head. "Well, nothing new. He claims he went in and found Mandrian dead. Picked up the knife, that's where I came in. He still says he didn't kill him," he finished wistfully."
"I believe him."
They all stared at Avon, who looked casually back at him as if he had only said, "The wall is white."
Finally Grovane protested, "But I saw him with a dagger in his hand!"
"But you didn't see him use it."
A flush swept the man's face. "Well I didn't see Mandrian die either, but I know he's dead."
Avon met his wounded gaze with superior calm. "I've just spent the last ten minutes in the filter plant looking for something that should be there but isn't. The cable that was damaged carries a high-energy charge. In order to cut it you would need a laser knife or an insulated saw. Neither of which were there."
"Then... somebody else was the saboteur!" Grovane gasped.
"Yes." Avon turned away to the others. "Mandrian came in, discovered whoever it was, and had to be silenced. The murderer then went out, taking the saw with him. Sonheim's story is true. He just happened to be the one who discovered the body."
Sara's question was low. "Then who DID kill Mandrian?"
"The same person who killed Rafford and Dortmunn. And I know who that is now." All eyes snapped to his unreadable face.
Grovane bit out, "You know?!"
"Yes. I should have seen it right from the start, but my mind had conditioned itself to see the wrong thing." He brought out from behind his back a sheet of glass with dark red-brown markings across its surface and set it in front of Doctor Kendall. "As Cally has been saying all along."
"You found the meaning!" Cally exclaimed in delight.
Kendall picked up the glass as they gathered around his desk. Avon flashed a warm look at Cally. "Yes. Just before he died, Rafford managed to scrawl this out."
"Five four one two four?" Kendall read doubtfully.
"What's it mean?" Pasco urged them.
Avon grinned briefly. "Absolutely nothing." He turned away and paced to the door, where he faced them again. "As a number it has no significance at all. But when I was in the photolab just now I noticed one of the instruments. Liquid crystals show a number, and then the confirmation circuits translate those numbers into the written word. Right from the start we thought that THOSE were numbers, they are not. They are letters." He stood smugly and returned their astonished looks.
"Letters?" a bewildered Cally asked him.
He came back to the table. "Rafford was dying. It's difficult to be neat under those circumstances." He snatched a piece of paper and pen up. "Let's start with the one, and the two." They peered over his shoulder as he drew them. "And the first letter...." The five, more curved beside a four. He slid the sheet to Kendall, with the word SARA written crookedly across it. As one the crew turned to shout but confronted a laser.
"So now you know. It doesn't matter, you'd have known soon enough anyway." She looked somewhat mad, a loose smile on her lips, the bright eyes gone foggy. The gun did not shake though.
"Sara! WHY?" Kendall demanded.
"I wanted the neutrotope. Or at least the money it would give me. It's that simple." Her gaze did not meet his, but rather slid across it.
Avon asked, "Was Mandrian in it with you?"
For an instant she seemed to wobble. "No. But... he found out. I asked him to share it with me but he wouldn't. He wanted me to come to you and admit the whole thing. If I didn't, he was going to do it himself. So.... But none of that's important now. I only need a little more time." She backed out the doorway.
Avon took a step forward. "You're not going anywhere, Sara. You just don't get off a spaceship and run."
She smiled madly at him. "I'll kill the first one who puts his head outside this door!" She disappeared around the corner and Avon heard rapid footsteps fade away.
He leaned out the door then back in. "Well she's one of YOUR crew, you'd better get after her," he said to Doctor Kendall.
Grovane and Pasco threw themselves out the door and up the hall. They caught sight of Sara as she slammed the flight deck door closed. Pasco tried the door. "Locked!" he snapped angrily.
Kendall stayed with the two Liberator crew. "It's clear enough WHY she acted as she did, but why go on with it! Once Blake left with the neutrotope there was no need for more killing!"
Avon sat with his hands folded, thinking. "I don't understand that myself. What worries me is that she's still so confident. She hasn't a hope of escaping, yet she's still holding out." He got up to pace.
"And how did she hope to dispose of the neutrotope when we reached Destiny?" Doctor Kendall wondered.
Avon shrugged. "She probably made contact with a prospective buyer when you were collecting it, it wouldn't be too difficult." Cally suddenly shot to her feet, catching Avon's attention. "What is it?"
She took a few nervous steps. "I know what she's planning, why she sabotaged the ship."
Avon moved close impatiently. "Well don't keep us in suspense."
Cally slipped the tiny box out of her pocket and let Avon take it. "Ever since the controls were damaged we have been in the same space- position," she pointed out.
He looked at her with sudden admiration. "A homing beam transmitter and it's operating."
"Anyone tuned into its frequency can locate us exactly. That's why she's not worried. Another ship is coming to get her and it's on its way now." Both were determined to get out of this, they agreed in a locked gaze.
Doctor Kendall reached for the box. "Destroy it!"
Avon closed his hand protectively over it. "Too late. They will have had a fix on us for some time now."
"And when they get here and find the neutrotope not on board..!"
"It wouldn't matter if it was. They would have to destroy the evidence, and that I'm afraid..." Avon met the doctor's distressed look coolly, "includes us."
They were through the meteor storm. Jenna shut down the emergency systems as she passed the stations. Vila wrapped his arms around his chest, shivering and very pale. "I don't think I feel very well," he said plaintively. Jenna shot him a wordless glare.
"I hope nothing's been broken!" Gan said as he held the neutrotope box.
"So do I." Blake opened it. The two stared into the empty box in brief surprise before Blake finally exclaimed, "It's still on the Ortega! We've gotta get back to them!" He spun around and ran shock into Jenna's dismayed look.
Vila groaned. "Now I KNOW I don't feel very well."
On the flight deck of the Ortega Sara brought the neutrotope out of hiding. She sobbed in relief and curled into the pilot's chair, flinching as memories crowded her mind. She held the neutrotope and willed its green glow to erase the faces of Mandrian, Rafford and Dortmunn from her eyes. Erase them and anything that had made them matter to her. All that mattered was the money, all that mattered. Their faces faded to be replaced by a green emptiness. Relieved, she set it aside and raised her gun. Just in case they came through the door. Just in case.
Avon had been pacing the length of the office for some time now. Cally was fed up with it. "If we could get back on the flight deck, how long would it take to finish repairs?"
"No time at a'tall. It's virtually all done," he answered.
"In flight we'd stand some sort of chance!" She was not a passive resistor. That was why she had left Auron. "Like this we're a sitting target!"
Kendall found he did not like doing nothing either. "We would have to burn through the flight deck door. And if we did, she's armed, remember. She could still hold us off."
Avon stopped mid-step. "Then we have to get her to come out."
Cally snorted. "Well she's hardly likely to do that."
A very self-satisfied smile lit Avon's eyes. "Oh yes she is."
The Liberator had made its second run through the asteroids and approached the Ortega. "Visual," Blake demanded.
Confirmed, Zen answered and opened the viewscreen. A high-pitched beeping echoed over the ship's speakers.
"There. There she is." Vila pointed to the circling ship.
"How long before we're in teleport range?" Blake asked sharply.
Twenty-three point sixteen minutes.
They almost did not notice when the beeping doubled, but Gan did. "We're getting another reading!"
Blake looked around, startled. "What?"
"Look!" A second blip showed on the scanner-screen.
"Another ship," Jenna muttered.
The rebel was not surprised. "Must be coming to collect the neutrotope. Zen, can we get there first?"
Liberator will be in teleport range three minutes before the unidentified ship makes contact with the Ortega.
The sound of blaster-fire jerked Sara out of her trance. She looked back to see if they were trying to blast through the door. Familiar voices shouted and screamed through the corridors. More blaster-fire drowned them out and after a while there was silence. Sara stepped cautiously to the door and opened it. Grovane and Pasco lay like rag dolls on the floor. She stepped around the bodies and into a strong arm that caught her waist. Her mind flipped into green nowhere and she reacted, not caring who she struck, an elbow back into a man's stomach, hearing his breath wheeze she broke free and went for his throat.
Avon met for an instant eyes that were empty and crazed. He drew back his right arm quickly and slammed his fist into her jaw. Her body twisted around from the force of his blow and fell into Pasco's hold. Avon moved breathlessly away and said to the other two men, "You'd better get her out of here, I really rather enjoyed that!" They dragged her away. Avon moved onto the flight deck. He was not at all surprised to find the neutrotope there, and nodded to himself.
Teleport range will be achieved in one minute.
Blake checked his chronometer, "Come on, Vila." They left.
Jenna and Gan watched the two ships from their seats on the couch. The pilot commented, "They're getting very close."
They held Sara in the recreation room. She slumped in a chair, head buried in her arms. Blake's appearance startled all of them but Avon. "Blake!" he summoned immediately. The rebel carried a load of bracelets over to his technician.
"How did you get back so soon?" Cally asked.
Blake set the bracelets down. "Get ready to leave. There's a ship coming up on you fast, you've got about three minutes."
Kendall looked up from the green-lit tube he held. "We've got the neutrotope now, nothing else matters."
"I'll get the others," Cally said as she hurried out.
Blake made for the other door. "I'll be back in a minute."
"He's cutting it too fine!" Gan worried.
"Come on Blake. Get out of there."
Between them Avon and Sonheim managed to hold Sara almost still. She would not stand up and fought violently as Avon tried to put a bracelet on her wrist. "No! No, I won't! I won't go!!"
Kendall answered Avon's expression. "She must be taken back for trial!"
"Great," muttered the computer tech.
Blake rushed back in. "Everything set?"
"Yes, ready," Cally replied.
"Bring us across, Vila." As Blake spoke those words, Avon released the crazed girl, who with speed born of desperate madness ripped the bracelet off her wrist and threw it far away from her. They disappeared around her.
Blake's crew assembled at their station, their guests settled on the flight deck couch. All watched the viewscreen scanner, showing two blips rapidly coming together. Blake stepped down to Kendall's side. "They've locked on," he commented. The glows overlapped. Light flared across the screen.
"What was that!?" Kendall exclaimed.
The rebel leader was quite pleased with himself. "I rigged a charge on the entry hatch." He turned to Zen, hiding a smile. "All right, I think we can get you all home now. Zen, set a course for Destiny. Speed standard by six."
Confirmed, came the reply.
Vila spoke up woefully from his station. "Take us around the easy way this time."
Doctor Kendall, eminent scientist devoted to the welfare of his people)
Sara, sold out and went crazy.
Mandrian, Sara's lover, she killed him.
Sonheim, likes women, flirted with Cally
Levett, technician, Sonheim has a thing for her.
Grovane, communications tech.
Pasco, Sonheim's roommate, all around nice guy.
Rafford, the dead pilot
Dortmunn, the dead flight engineer.