There was once a world, and that world was at war. Hatred and cruelty were abundant, weapons were made whose attacks could never be taken back. A woman lost her husband in the last war but it did not matter to her. She bore a daughter, the last child to be born healthy and whole of her kind. Then it was that she heard voices calling, wails and whispers in the dark, tears in the light and soft crying. She tried to silence them, tried to draw them away from the baby who became gradually silent and whose eyes filled with a knowing. So the mother took the voices into herself to keep them from her child, but there were too many of them, and they spilled over into the baby despite the mother's strongest efforts. They spilled over and time passed. The mother grew old and stopped growing old, drifting on the voices and what they called her to do. The daughter became a young woman with knowledge planted by insistent voices and she accepted what they said to her, while her mother rejected it. Thus they were no longer mother and daughter, but two women who shared a vast power sprung from desire of a race not to end this way, to pay back what they had done to themselves.
On that far planet there stood a statue of a man with his head stretched to the sky, arms spread wide holding a broken weapon. The brown stone it had been carved from was weather worn, and electrical storms struck constant lightning through the skies over these plains. The atmosphere above swirled with thin white clouds over deep oceans, and brown land. The golden sun reached its light out to brighten this colorless world.
In a flash of lightning a woman appeared near the statue, her arms spread out mimicking its stance. She was lit with blue power as she stood in a clinging dress that accented every curve, every bone except on her arms where the sleeves hung down in graceful abandon. Strong square-set cheekbones under faintly slanted eyes, small lips like flower petals and a well defined chin made her beautiful, like water or the lightning above. She stood there with her eyes closed, and spoke suddenly, voice echoing with the same power that pervaded her body.
"Giroc. Giroc I need you," she summoned. Refusal was adamant in the air. "You must come here to me. Now." She shifted slightly and the blue power-light became edged with green and red.
The woman Giroc was old, she walked with a staff and glared fiercely at the young woman even while hurrying across the blasted stone. "I'm coming have a little patience. We of all people should learn patience. I'm tired, I deserve some peace!"
Sinofar opened her eyes and stared down at Giroc with an expression of gentle steel. "No. We must earn our peace."
"I have so earned it!" protested Giroc.
"You still came when I summoned you."
Giroc gripped her staff tightly enough to hurt. "Well I had no choice, you used my power against me!"
"It is not your power-"
"I know, I know. It's the power of the race. But it's in me." She peered earnestly up, emphasizing her first word. "I never wanted to be the Keeper, you know that, Sinofar!" But the will of their race had taken the mother of the last-born child and changed her life forever.
"Nor I the Guardian." Her daughter lived but had never been the child Giroc named Sinofar again. Instead she seemed an age-old being full of silence and never-ending calm.
"You could set us both free! If I controlled the power that's what I'd do!" Giroc pleaded.
"You know that is not possible. You must dissipate the power by restoring the balance. then you and I can be at peace." She looked up at the stars. "But first... we must atone."
"We were Chosen."
"I didn't ASK to be chosen!"
Sinofar watched three metal-shining lights in the sky. "One doesn't ask to be chosen."
Giroc glanced up and noted the ships. "Are you sure about them, Sinofar?"
"Not yet. This may not be their killing ground."
Three huge golden Federation ships swung near the planet. The leading one had a conning tower fitted into its tailfin, nose and wingtips came to severe points. On its small flight deck Space Commander Travis paced impatiently back and forth. His two crew were a male and female mutoid. The male was a blank-faced being who never caught Travis' attention, but the woman had incredible features, and was more alive than her fellow. Travis stopped in his pacing to watch a ship idle across their viewscreen. "There!" he pointed for the mutoids. "Estimate approach speed."
"Time distort six," replied the woman.
Travis bared his teeth, eyes on the screen. "Minimum scan, their sensors mustn't register the beam."
The mutoid flicked a few switches and watched as the results came up. "Scan complete."
Travis drew in a sharp breath and his hands closed convulsively. "Blake. The upper patrols have pushed him into this part of the galaxy, I knew it. I knew it!" His lips curled in a feral, pleased smile. "This time I've got him," he said softly.
"Target vehicle maintaining course and speed."
The Space Commander was not distracted from the screen. "Set for orbital compensation. We'll use the planet to mask us from his scanners."
There was a brief moment before his orders were answered. "Orbital shift completed."
"Execute." He drew in a deep breath of sudden hope. After all this time, the long wait would be over, and he would either kill Blake or die himself. "Make it random pulse emission! I'm not going to lose him now."
The Liberator crew studied the planet on their viewscreen. It was lovely in the darkness of space and they had been on-ship a long time. Avon sat at the couch console and turned his head toward Blake. "I wonder what the surface conditions are like," he mused.
Blake could take a hint. "Jenna?"
With her remarkable skill for finding new things to wear in the wardrobe room, the pilot now had on a black silken tunic patterned with stars and it accented her slim waist rather well. She took her readings as usual, all business. "Rating G-2. Planet is earthlike right across the range. Earth-level gravity, breathable atmosphere." She frowned then, and looked at Blake with warning in her gaze. "There's a lot of static, too. Place is alive with electrical storms."
Blake pursed his lips and directed his voice toward the other end of the flight deck. "Cally, anything in the star charts or planet listings?"
"Nothing in the data banks a'tall," she answered him.
"Hmmm. What do you think?" he asked Jenna.
"Well it seems safe enough," she said. But she still eyed the screen.
Avon also studied the screen image. Without turning he threw over his shoulder, "What Jenna thinks is largely academic, Blake. We've been running on full power for far too long. Slipping those Federation patrols has used up all our energy reserves." He finally deigned to look at them.
Seeing Blake get set to argue the point Jenna quickly agreed with Avon. "Four of our power banks ARE exhausted, if we have to make a run for it now, we couldn't do better than standard by two. We couldn't hold that for long."
Blake felt distinctly outnumbered. "Recharge time?" he asked.
Avon called it up on the couch console. "Forty-eight hours." He turned a steady gaze on the rebel, plainly demanding that they stay out of trouble for those hours.
It could never be said Blake would not give in when reason was used on him. His voice sent glowing lights across Zen's fascia as he spoke to them all. "All right, we'll hide here for a while. The planet should give us SOME protection from the detectors. Zen! Take us into orbit - as close as possible to the planet's surface. As CLOSE as possible, Zen. The orbit can decay in forty-eight hours."
Confirmed, the computer answered him. Then with a humanlike note of calm dignity it added, The parameters were anticipated.
This set Blake to chuckling. "I get the distinct feeling I offended Zen's professional pride," he told Gan who grinned with him.
Avon lifted his head and gazed over at the rebel with faint annoyance. "It's just a machine, Blake."
"And he should know," Vila cut in, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Gan saw it coming and tried to head it off. "Well Avon is the expert," he replied, folding his arms.
"That's not what I meant."
Avon stood smoothly, his voice chilled the air around them. "No. He was calling me a machine. But since he undoubtedly defines himself as a human being...." He stepped over to Vila's station and met the thief's defiant gaze with a cold look. "I shall choose to accept that as more of a compliment than anything else."
Gan shifted so that he was between them. They had done well to keep from a real fight all these months, and he was reluctant to have to doctor their injuries if they finally DID provoke each other enough to get in one.
Leaving his station impatiently Blake headed around the couch. "Yes, well since we've got some time on our hands, we might as well take a look at this planet." He turned hopefully to the pilot. "Anybody feel like some exercise?"
She smiled wryly and cast a quick glance toward the thief and tech. "I'll be happy to get clear of this lot for a while."
They paused beside the small group and Blake asked, "Gan?"
The big man judged that the other two were not quite ready to kill each other yet and he smiled as he answered Blake, "I could do with a change of air. I'll get kitted up."
As Gan left the flight deck Blake turned to a slightly embarrassed thief and tech. "Vila?"
With a wary glance at the scanners, Vila shook his head, thoughts on the electrical storms Jenna had reported. "Uh, I'll stay here thanks."
Blake was faintly surprised but covered it quickly. "Then you can work the teleport."
Avon tapped a laser-tool against the palm of his hand and bared his teeth at Vila. The thief returned it with his best indifferent look as the two brushed past each other, Vila for the teleport and Avon to watch the scanners, neither feeling quite safe from Federation ships.
Travis sat in his command chair. He rubbed his chin unconsciously, eyes intent on the viewscreen over his head. The lady mutoid spoke up. "Mediums show target has assumed a stationary orbit."
"Excellent." He let the hand slowly fall and settled down.
The mutoid finished her report. "Orbit confirmed at one thousand spatials from the planet's surface." Suddenly she stopped her constant activity and opened the front flap of her black uniform to reveal a tiny compartment with an empty vial. Travis watched curiously as she removed another vial full of bright green liquid from a compartment below her station and replaced the empty one.
Something about the sight angered him. "If you can't have the time for that-"
She interrupted smoothly as she closed her uniform. "Normally I wouldn't do it in the presence of an unmodified."
"Forget your coyness, I'm aware of your need for blood serum." A mutoid's body functions were no longer able to provide enough blood of their own, a small inconvenience to the relative speed and service earned from them.
She turned back to her scanners. "Most are. But few accept it for what it is; a functional convenience. Opponents of mutoid modification call us vampires." She looked over her shoulder to see his reaction.
He laughed a coughing laugh, it had become his way of showing amusement these days. "Rather appropriate, isn't it?"
Travis could not decide whether or not he saw a fleeting distress in her eyes. "It is immaterial." She turned back to her scanners. "I await your orders, Commander."
Travis eyed her for a long moment before returning his attention to the screen. "Attack formation. Fifteen hundred spatials trajectory. Pursuit ships Two and Three move to flank. Fire on my command." In space the other two ships swung around to his ship's sides.
Jenna had dredged out a red and pink planet suit and it fit her well. Blake was in his favorite greens and they fit their bracelets on, handing one to Gan as he came in, wearing his brown and copper-gold suit. Blake grinned over at the thief as he set teleport coordinates for them. "Vila, TRY and stay alert."
"Of course I will! How can you doubt me?"
"It isn't easy, but somehow I manage it," Blake retorted. He met Jenna's laughter-filled eyes, "Come on." The three backed into the teleport chamber and looked back at Vila. "Put us down."
They appeared on the dayside of the planet. Dull brown rocks stood all around them, up at angles and melted and fused together. The rocks sheltered them from a roaring wind, the constant sound of lightning flashing across the sky did not soothe their nerves. They stared about and finally Blake lifted his bracelet.
"We're down safely. It looks very barren. Nothing much else to report." He flinched at a lightning bolt that seemed perilously close.
Vila was already dozing off at the console as Blake continued firmly. "We'll check with you when we've had a look 'round. All right?!" he demanded at the thief's persistent silence.
"Yes, all right!" came the answer finally.
Jenna studied the rippled torn appearance of the smaller slabs of stone, tracing its sharper edges with her fingers. Blake knelt beside her and lifted up a smaller shining black rock that had caught his eye. He held it out to her. "What do you think?"
She frowned at the piece, taking it in her own hands. "The surface seems to have been melted. Almost like the attack of a fusion bomb."
Gan saw an opening in the rocks around them and stepped through it curiously. What he saw surprised him. "Blake! Jenna!" They came through the opening and like he had, stopped to stare at the statue and its pitted surface. They walked hesitantly closer.
"Well! At least we know the planet is inhabited," Blake finally said.
"WAS inhabited," Gan said firmly. "Look here." They joined him at another opening in the rocks. Ahead of them stretched a barren plain, thousands of statues just like this one. Perhaps millions. "As far as the eye can see."
"Gravemarks?" The numbers staggered Blake.
"So many!" Jenna exclaimed.
Gan sighed to himself and turned away from the longing in his heart. Every sign of death was a reminder of the woman he had lost. He looked around and straight at Giroc and Sinofar. Powered down now Giroc's ragged robes proved to be deep blue, and silver hair peeked out over her shoulders. Sinofar beside her had hair of copper-brown, her dress was white with pale yellow edging and she was painfully lovely.
"Blake..! We've got company!" At his voice they vanished and when his companions turned there was nothing to be seen. "They were here! Two women, watching us!" He ran to where they had stood, but there was no sign, no footprint. He checked through other gaps in the rock. "Nowhere they could've gone!" he protested.
Jenna frowned. "So where are they now?"
Gan stopped and reached tentatively to rub the metal chip in his skull. "Maybe my limiter has a malfunction."
Blake chuckled. "Maybe we've all been on the ship too long."
Jenna stepped away from them to the base of the statue. She stared up at its weatherworn face and the blunted things it held out in its hands. "Blake...."
The two men joined her. "What is it?" the rebel asked.
"This broken weapon, could it be a symbol of peace?"
That touched some old grief for lost friends. He smiled sadly. "Or defeat. This whole place is a memorial to the dead." Suddenly he chuckled and turned back to Gan. "Maybe they were ghosts you saw."
But Gan was staring up at the stars visible in the planet's thin atmosphere. "Those aren't ghosts!"
Three shining metal stars moving toward...
Blake hissed. "Pursuit ships, they've gotta be!"
"Where did they come from?" Jenna demanded angrily.
"They must have been waiting for us!" and now Gan was angry too.
Blake lifted his bracelet, furious with himself for being down here. "The Travis-strategy again! Vila! Pursuit ships closing on you! Vila! Pull us out and get us up fast." As there was no answer he shouted, "Move it!! They're right on top of you!"
The warning sank in if not the cries for help. Vila had fallen asleep with his shoes off and stocking feet up on the table. Now he scrambled awake, hitting the alarm and then the recall button for the teleport. As the others appeared he snatched up his shoes and ran for it before they could say anything, throwing "Sorry!" back over his shoulders.
They watched the four metal-shining stars. "Starships are closing for battle. The choice is made." Sinofar moved in echoes of power.
Cally dashed to her station. Avon came hurtling in from quarters to the couch-console and shut down the alarms. As the others came in he shouted at them, "What's going on?!"
Vila slid into his station. "Pursuit ships!"
"Zen, can we get past them?" Blake demanded of the computer.
All possible flight trajectories would require Liberator to cross enemy strike range.
"Avon what's our power reserve?"
The tech shot him an annoyed look and answered, "Banks Five, Six and Seven full power. Zero on the rest."
Blake turned to his pilot. "Maximum speed and range?"
"Standard by four, about eight million spatials."
The rebel hissed angrily. "We can't even outrun them this time."
"We've got the neutron blaster!" Vila reminded them all.
"But there isn't enough POWER!" Cally shot back at him.
Blake called on the computer again, "Zen, state battle-computer tactics."
Preemptive action was inhibited by manual overrides. Strategy options are now reduced to one. Battle computer suggests surrender.
Avon's hissed through his teeth in helpless fury. "Logic says we're dead!"
"Logic has never explained what dead means," Blake replied. He rubbed his neck to soothe the nerves there and tried to think of a way out.
Sensors report plasma-bolt launched.
The rebel moved quickly. "Direct vision!"
Gan opened the viewscreen, "On!" and a bright white glow getting steadily larger as it approached them near blinded their eyes.
Jenna turned in sharp alarm, "Avon, put up the force wall!"
This firm order was so at odds with their situation that the pilot glared at Blake with mutinous fury. "Why?"
Blake had his eyes fixed on the approaching bolt. "There's too much of an energy drain."
"Blake..!" Vila urged.
"They're closing fast Blake." Avon spun in desperation. "Come on!!"
"I said WAIT!" Blake yelled back.
Jenna considered pulling out her gun. "Blake..!"
Avon hit the switch before the word was half-finished.
Second bolt launched, Zen announced. The first hit, nearly shaking the crew away from their stations. They clung to the seats.
"Deactivate!" Blake called. Avon did. The rebel turned Gan's way. "Track second bolt."
Blake turned back to the tech. "Power status?"
"Seventy percent, on bank Five." He drew a breath and held it.
Third bolt launched.
"Second bolt closing!" Gan called. They could see it on the screen.
Blake waited a moment more then ordered, "Activate!"
Again they staggered as the bolt impacted, and Gan warned from his station, "Third bolt closing!" It hit almost immediately, slamming them into their respective seats.
Avon obeyed and anticipated Blake's next question. "Bank Five has forty percent remaining."
"They'll move in closer now to strike again," Cally said tiredly.
Blake agreed. "Sensors on full alert."
Vila listened to his own frightened breathing and hated it. "Are we just gonna sit here and let them shoot at us?" he demanded.
"Yes! While they do they're using power faster than we are. It might even things up a bit, shorten the odds, anyway." He watched the viewscreen for ship movement.
Vila groaned. "The odds on what?!"
The rebel turned on him angrily and snapped, "Us being able to blast a way through them and run!"
Three plasma bolts launched and running. Blake shuddered.
"Bearing directly," Gan informed them.
Blake licked his lips and got a solid grip on his chair. "Right, hang on everyone, this is gonna be rough."
"I don't mind rough," Vila said hoarsely, "it's fatal I'm not too keen on."
Travis leaned forward in his command chair, eyes gleaming. "He's low on power! He'd have made a run for it otherwise!" He lifted his comm unit and spoke with cold determination. "Leader to pursuit Three, continue barrage! Leader to Two, hold your fire." He directed his voice at the command pilot, the female mutoid. "We'll make him keep that defense shield in operation, deplete his energy banks."
"If Pursuit Three keeps firing, it won't have enough reserve to put upits own defense shield." She looked up and met Travis' fierce glare.
He snarled, "Pursuit Three's expendable! So is Two! Let Blake destroy them both. Between them they can run his reserves down to zero. This ship will still have full-power. We can move in, and finish him." There was real pleasure in the knife-blade smile he wore.
The Liberator crew steadied themselves when the barrage was over, rubbing at aching backs and necks. "Deactivate," Blake said.
"Bank Five is finished, drawing on Six," Avon informed him coldly.
"Zen, power reserves?"
At the present level of discharge, reserves will be exhausted in two point three hours. Blake groaned against his seat.
Jenna spared him a glance, "Which is when they'll move in for the kill."
Gan was not above anger in this situation, "Yes. And we'll be helpless." Blake could hear the 'this is your fault' in the background of their words.
Plasma bolt launched.
Blake suddenly moved from his seat. "Avon, Cally," he summoned them. Over his shoulder he threw, "Jenna, take command. Gan, Vila, you help her." Jenna moved quickly to his station while he joined the tech and Auron. Blake brought out a remote and opened one of Zen's secondary viewscreens. He began marking on the remote's screen, and symbols appeared on the other one. "Now watch the screen," he told Avon and Cally. A square appeared first, then X's around it. "This is the Liberator, surrounded by one, two, three pursuit ships." Avon raised an eyebrow at him, waiting for the point. "They're trying siege tactics. Our only chance is to break and run before we're too weak, do you agree?"
Cally nodded. Avon watched the viewscreen alertly as Jenna said behind them, "Activating!" and put up the force wall.
Avon shifted his gaze to Blake. "We know we can't outrun them." In that moment the bolt hit and they staggered and held each other up.
"I wasn't going to try," Blake answered. Avon eyed him sharply.
"Deactivating!" Jenna called.
Blake lifted the remote and circled one of the X's. "Now this is the pursuit ship that's done all the firing. That'll be low on power now, so it won't be a problem."
"So we ignore it," Cally asked to be certain.
"Right." He double X'd another one. "This one hasn't fired at all yet, so this must be Travis. We're going straight for it. Not over, under OR 'round, but right through it." He looked over at Avon and saw the man go pale.
Plasma bolt launched.
"Bearing directly," Gan called.
"Ram it?" bitter anger underlay Avon's tone.
Blake was determined. "The Liberator should be able to go through the impact."
"I admire your confidence."
Cally glanced at Avon then back to Blake. "So you want to leave only one more to deal with." The idea seemed reasonable when put that way.
"That's right, a straight fight, one against one."
"I see." She left them then and went to her station.
Avon stepped close to Blake, eyes sharp with warning. "If any of our control systems are damaged by the impact we will be helpless!"
Blake drew himself up angrily. "We're not exactly in a commanding position now!"
"Activating!" they heard Jenna.
Blake shook himself and asked with small hope, "Have you got any better ideas?" The bolt hit, throwing Blake off-balance. Avon caught him as he nearly fell and braced him around the waist til the ship stopped shuddering. Blake held on to the supporting arm and found amusement in Avon's space-dark eyes.
"As a matter of fact, no I haven't," the tech finally answered.
The man could be infuriating! Blake looked fiercely at him, "Does that mean you agree?"
"Do I have a choice?" Avon cocked an eyebrow, laughter still there.
The reply was firm and determined. Avon knew it was meant. "Then I agree." He released Blake and with dignity firmly intact went to his station, leaving the confused rebel to gape after him.
Jenna's voice called him out of the momentary shock. "Deactivating!"
Blake took his station. "Vila, Gan, Jenna!" They came to his side. "We're going for a ram, take out the command ship."
"A ram?!" Gan exclaimed in horror.
"I can't see that there's any other hope for us," Blake replied.
Jenna turned her head and met Avon's eyes to question. His return gaze was frankly frightened, but he gave a slight nod. She turned to Blake, knowing now there was no choice or Avon would have taken it. "Neither can I, so let's get on with it." She moved back to her station and everyone else followed suit, Avon taking the couch console again.
"Jenna, you'll have to fly us on manual," Blake told her.
"Yes, we'll need to take the impacts on the lower hull."
Plasma bolt launched.
Gan glanced at the readings. "Bearing directly."
Blake eyed the screen. "Right. As soon as this one hits... we move. Stand by." He braced himself in his chair. "Activate!"
Avon put the force wall up an instant before the bolt hit. They were not quite ready for it and Jenna was thrown against her chair hard enough to make her cry out in brief pain. The tech cast a quick concerned glance back at her as he said, "Force wall deactivated."
"Now, Jenna!" Blake called. The pilot snatched her controls and sent the ship forward.
"Pursuit Three reports total shutdown. They're incapable of further action."
Travis snapped into his hand comm, "Pursuit Two commence firing."
His mutoid pilot lifted her head. "Target ship is underway. It's turning."
Another feral grin shot across Travis' face. "He's running! There's nowhere to run, Blake!!" To his pilot he commanded, "Compute course, speed and lock on."
She tapped in the commands quickly. "Time distort three and rising. Course-" She broke off in sudden startlement. "Zero, zero, zero! They're coming straight at us!"
The grin was gone with no trace. "Stand by plasma bolts."
"Holding course," she reported as she set up the plasma bolts. "Computers propose evasive action."
"NO! Hold your position!"
The Liberator came barreling toward them and Travis bared his teeth in a snarl, ready to take them out no matter what it cost.
The crew was calm in these last moments. "Zen, count down to impact."
Twenty-six... the computer began.
"When Travis realizes we're going for a ram, he'll fire a full salvo," Blake told the others.
Gan gripped the edges of his console. "Will the force wall hold at this range?"
"We're about to find out!"
"Salvo fired!" Gan called out as it registered. Then in shock, "FOUR of them!!"
Blake took a deep breath to calm his nerves. "Stand by the force wall."
The readings flipping across Jenna's console stunned her. "We're losing power, we're slowing!"
She fed in the commands with increasing alarm. "Not responding! I think we're stopping!"
Travis gazed at the ship looming in their viewport and realized with the beginnings of fear what was happening. "They're holding course! They're going to ram us! Evasive trajectory, full thrust!"
His pilot obeyed instantly, then looked up with surprise. "Controls are not registering. All systems are locked."
Travis leaped to his feet. "Operate boosters!"
"It's too late Space Commander."
A sound penetrated their hull, like the murmuring of millions of voices it overwhelmed the ships in a green glow slowing them, slowing.... Travis backed reflexively away from the viewport, Blake's ship dwarfed his by a considerable measure.
"Activate the force wall."
Ten... nine... eight... seven... six....
Avon hit the switch and stared in dread at the viewscreen. "Force wall activated."
Zen hit five as exactly what was happening around them registered to the crews. Blake looked around in wonder and confusion. The ship came to a stop with bare feet separating it from the Federation pursuit ship. The sound grew louder and Travis staggered, covering his ears in pain. On the Liberator Blake and his crew cringed from the sound as a red-green glow took hold of the rebel and he faded away.
Sinofar stood below the worn statue, her body shimmering golden-red. Blake appeared nearby, unconscious on his feet. Travis appeared a few feet from him, dropping his hands in relief and then frozen into stasis. Sinofar released her power to look at them. Giroc took a look at Travis and smiled faintly. Then she stepped close to Sinofar who stood with her eyes closed. The old woman closed her eyes and felt for the band Sinofar broadcast on, opened her mind into it.
"Listen.... Listen to me all of you. We are Giroc, the Keeper. We are Sinofar, the Guardian. Your ship is safe, held in a stasis field. It cannot break free." On the Liberator Avon raised a brow and frowned. The mutoids on Travis' ship also heard. "Only life-support systems will function normally. The rest will remain under our control until we have completed our part. You yourselves have been released so that you may watch, listen and understand."
Blake and Travis were still held in stasis. But Travis' empty gaze stared straight ahead at the rebel.
Giroc's ancient features lightened with a delighted grin. "We are ready, the combatants can be released."
Sinofar opened her eyes and looked at the two men. The first thing Travis was aware of was Blake, barely five feet away. "Blake..!" He raised his hand to fire, but nothing happened.
"No." Sinofar's firm word was followed by a mental slam on the extended hand. Travis hissed as it was forced down.
Giroc stood on Sinofar's left, laughing wickedly. "The weapon built into that hand will not work here, primitive!"
The younger woman stepped forward. "Nor will brute force. Until I allow it."
"His impulse to kill is primitive!" Giroc leaned on her staff to look at Travis, the aching amusement making it difficult to stop chortling.
"As ours was not?" Sinofar asked her.
The strangeness of the situation was enough to replace Travis' anger with curiosity for a time. He stood at rest, hands clasped in front of him and watched both women warily. "Who are you?"
"I am Sinofar, the Guardian. This is Giroc, the Keeper."
The man's gaze back was pure ice and deadly intent. "I am Space Commander Travis, an officer and representative of the Earth Federation. As an agent of my government I demand an explanation!"
Giroc had to cling to her staff she was laughing so hard. "Not only is he primitive he's pompous as well! And you, do you also make demands?" she asked of Blake.
The rebel was very confused. "I'm not a Federation officer but... I would like some answers." He glanced at the fuming Travis.
With an enraged snarl Travis pointed at Blake. "This man is an enemy of the state, and a fugitive. He is my prisoner!" He made as if to grab Blake and cried out in pain as his arms were invisibly slammed down.
Giroc nearly doubled over laughing. "Primitive, pompous and stupid!"
"Giroc!" Sinofar glared.
"All right, all right! It is just the very-such violence in him is exciting!" She looked warmly at Travis. "Oh, how these things start out!"
"I know," Sinofar agreed sadly.
The space commander bared his teeth. "You will lift this force field!"
"There are things you must understand, first."
Travis' fury set Giroc to laughing again as he threatened, "You do realize that any hostile act against ME will be regarded as a hostile act against the Federation?! Have you any idea of the risk you're running?"
Blake could not resist teasing his enemy. "They don't seem very impressed, Travis. Why don't you try stamping your foot?"
Travis glared at Blake until he stopped laughing. "Oh that's very amusing Blake, for a dead man."
Under that deadly gaze it was impossible to be amused. Blake drew in a quiet breath and turned to the stranger women. "Do you intend to keep us prisoners?"
"Only for the moment," Giroc answered.
Blake considered that, measuring Sinofar now. "You were responsible for what happened to my ship."
She smiled gently at him. "It will be restored when this matter has been settled," and to Travis, "as will yours. No harm will come to your crews, or your ships."
Giroc made her way over to Travis, admiring his looks and fierceness. "You have seen what we can do. We are capable of protecting our planet. Your threats of reprisal are meaningless!" He dropped his arms and glowered at her over his left shoulder where she stood just behind him.
Sinofar spoke quietly to them. "Our powers grew out of a thousand years of war. Out of hate, and fear. And the will to survive."
On the Liberator's viewscreen Giroc's face was visible, mottled with red and blue light. "We built destruction. Weapons that your people have not yet dreamed of. Every passing year brought new and more powerful ways to kill. And through the centuries the war raged across our planet."
"With each generation there were fewer of us. The dead vastly outnumbered the living. And still there was no victory for either side," Sinofar continued.
Blake drew a breath, his face grave. "How did it end?"
"How?" Giroc asked from Travis' side. She stepped away from him and the space commander listened with interest. "Another development of another weapon. We demanded their surrender, they refused. The weapon was used. Those that we called our enemy were annihilated."
"You won. That's all that matters," Travis said sternly.
Sinofar shook her head. "It wasn't a victory! It was only the end of the war." She turned to Blake while Giroc and Travis studied each others' eyes. "We were left with a planet made barren by radiation. Our children were monsters, or died. Or were never born. This... we won."
Blake frowned. "How many of you are there now?"
"None." Giroc spoke the word without looking his way. "We are a dead race."
"We tell you this so that you will understand our reasons for intervening in your dispute."
Giroc moved to look up at Travis. "Tell us, what is your dispute?"
The space commander was losing what little patience he had managed to hold. "I have told you! This man is an enemy of the Federation, tried and convicted. I must bring him back to justice, or kill him."
"You?" Giroc asked Blake.
When in doubt resort to the truth, Blake always thought. "I am an enemy of the Federation. But IT is corrupt and oppressive. I will destroy it." He glanced at Travis and amended, "If I can."
Sinofar raised her brows and walked over to Travis. "Irreconcilable viewpoints. Your differences can only be resolved by the destruction of the other's belief. The classic pattern for war."
Travis glowered at her. "I was about to resolve them when YOU interfered."
She glanced back at Blake. "How many are there in your crews?"
He hesitated but replied honestly. "Umm, six of us."
"And in your ships, Travis?"
Avon's eyes narrowed. He felt Vila edge closer for some scant protection, and Gan behind them both watched the screen alertly.
"Fifteen people could die because of your beliefs."
They could see Blake's face on the screen, recognizable despite its being colored in reds and blacks.
"My crew are with me by their own choice," he said firmly.
"Really," Avon murmured.
Travis' image was blue and red. "Mine have sworn allegiance to the Federation!"
And Giroc, all blues, reds and golds. "I'm sure they're all splendidly loyal and dedicated. I'm sure that you will both find supporters for your courts, and each of you could be backed by a massive army eventually."
"Would numbers change the nature of the dispute?" Sinofar asked.
"Probably not," Blake answered her softly.
She turned away from him to Travis. "What do you say?"
He was confused by the approach and stood at parade-rest. "Numbers? Immaterial." The fierce gaze rested determinedly on Blake.
"We understand that men will kill for their beliefs."
Giroc stepped forward again. "Since each of you wishes to destroy the other, we are going to give you the chance."
Travis looked at her, then at Blake speculatively. "A duel? Is that what you're suggesting?"
"A fight to the death."
"But this way there will be a limit to the deaths. And we will ensure that the loser's ship has an opportunity to get away," Sinofar told them. She gazed at Travis. "Don't you find that rational?"
"No. When I've killed Blake I'll simply hunt down the others."
Sinofar's gaze smoldered just enough to be seen. "There will be no destruction within our influence! But we cannot control your actions beyond this planet."
The reasoning left a bad taste in Blake's mouth. They just didn't seem to understand what they were dealing with. A one-on-one duel would never solve his differences with the Federation, and Travis was simply a killer and would learn nothing by winning, nothing by losing. "I don't think I want to kill for your entertainment."
Giroc grinned at him. "You'll have no choice!"
He knew better even as he shot a hopeful glance at Travis. "We could agree not to fight."
Travis' coughing laugh mocked him. "Could we?"
"If you trusted one another," Giroc pointed out, leaning on her staff.
Sinofar joined the conversation again. "There is another matter. The lesson you must learn about death."
"I think we both know enough about that already," Blake said gravely.
"You both know how to kill, but here you must take a life. There will be no machines to make the act unreal, here you must touch the life you take."
Travis kept his eyes impatiently on Blake. "Shall we get on with it?!"
Giroc laughed at that. "How anxious he is to reach the forest! Once there, you can only return when it is over."
"Weapons?" the space commander snapped.
"Tools for survival," Sinofar answered him. There was a rainbow shimmer of light around the men's right hands and each found himself holding a sheathed machete.
Blake gaped at his, then asked, "How long have we got?"
"There is no limit except your physical endurance."
Travis smiled faintly. "So this is your lesson. Pathetic!"
This set Giroc to chuckling again. Travis was echoing her thoughts over the years and he amused her no end. "Half the lesson, the death of an enemy. The other half is the death of a friend."
On the Liberator Avon stiffened noticeably and Vila shied closer to the tech whispering, "What does she mean?"
Blake stiffened and said with low fury, "I've seen friends die."
"Travis?" Sinofar asked.
"Nothing concerns me but my duty." He held his machete ready and fixed Blake with a determined murderous gaze. "I don't give a damn about their lessons. I shall enjoy taking your life, Blake."
The rebel took a breath, "You talk a good fight, Travis."
"But now the talking is done. Learn." Sinofar closed her eyes and raised her head. On the spaceships, Jenna and the mutoid pilot vanished in a pink and gold glow.
Blake appeared in a forest. He reached out to touch the bush nearby. It felt real to him. How, he wondered. How are they able to do this? There were tall trees of varying ages all around him, the forest floor was littered with dead brown leaves. Erratic half-buried memories compared it to other forests he had been in when he was young, before Travis first entered his life. The same, and different. He moved warily along, checking the moss growing up the trees remembering vague things. Moss grows on the north side of trees, was it? But who could say on an alien planet. These people set him against Travis to duel it out like some fable, he had to agree with the Federation man that this was stupid. He had learned his lessons in death a long time ago, and Travis simply would not care. Blake passed through Giroc's watching image without a clue to her presence. She turned after him and threw a bolt of power into his eyes. It was a sudden bright flash that blinded him.
Blake stumbled, disoriented. Giroc grinned and brought Travis into the location in suddenness. The air was cold and he saw his breath, and then he saw Blake. Once glance told him the rebel was not aware of his presence, and he moved silently close, slipping his machete from its sheath. Blake was shaking his head, trying to clear his vision. Travis threw the sheath over Blake's head about ten feet away and the rebel whirled toward the sound of its landing.
He spun, still unable to see, and Travis sank a quick punch into the rebel's gut and then a right to his jaw, sending him falling back. Travis laughed cruelly. "Come on, Blake. You don't want to die on your back." Blake scrambled to his feet and flung himself at the mocking voice, a foolish move considering he was blind. Travis stepped aside and struck the rebel across his back, flipping him over to land hard. The space commander caught Blake's hair and lifted the man's head, laying the machete at his throat. "Goodbye, Blake." A stasis field closed over the two men.
"Giroc!" came Sinofar's voice. And she sounded furious. The older woman slipped back to where they stood by the statue.
The tall angry space commander with his regal bearing, determined dark eye and totally one-track mind was Sinofar's father reborn. A person of utter fire, complete passion and certainty dedicated to the fight. Such a man could vitalize a universe, he certainly brought back to Giroc what it was like to have a warrior present rather than weak civilians. But Sinofar was not weak. Even the voices could not erase the strength she had inherited from her father whom she had never known.
Giroc felt ashamed before the other woman's condemning gaze. "I just wanted to see how vicious he was, I wouldn't have let him kill him yet."
"You misused the power."
"Separate them, wipe it from their minds! Nothing's lost!"
Sinofar's lips tightened into a thin line and she stared down at the old woman. "How long must I suffer you, Giroc?!"
Giroc grinned at the question but did not answer. "Restart the contest, Sinofar! These two show promise!"
It was hopeless to argue with Giroc. Sinofar closed her eyes again and moved Travis to a different section of the forest, erasing their memories as she did so.
Blake straightened up. What was he doing bent in such a ridiculous position, he wondered. His machete lay a few feet away. He picked it up and moved on through the forest, thinking dire thoughts about contests and Travis.
Cally, Vila, Avon and Gan all watched this on the viewscreen, sitting at the flight deck couch. They listened to his feet brush through the leaves, witnessed him hide suddenly behind some bushes. Avon allowed puzzlement to trace his voice though he kept his face blank. "I don't understand it, how can we be seeing this?"
The Auron knew. She could still hear the murmuring voices that backed one solid broadcast. "We see and hear through the mind of the being called Sinofar."
"It doesn't matter, Blake's in trouble!" Gan put in worriedly.
Avon's brow furrowed slightly at that. "It could be just an illusion."
Cally sampled the mental air around them before she answered, "No, it is happening. It is the truth beyond question."
Jenna came hurrying through the trees passing narrowly by Blake. The startled man scrambled to his feet calling, "Jenna!" She whirled into a fighter's stance, then relaxed with an exasperated sigh. "How did YOU get here?" he asked as she joined him.
Keeping a wary eye out around them she answered him in a low tone, "I don't know. Seems your weird ladies picked on me to demonstrate the death of a friend."
"You heard all that?"
She nodded. "They beamed it in to the ship, on the ship's main screen. Everything else is in some sort of stasis beam." She was very angry about that, her ship held like a fish out in space. "What're we going to do?"
"Have you seen any sign of Travis?" he asked her closely.
She scanned the area quickly, no in her stance. "Have you?"
He hesitated, but did not know why. "No. We'd better make ourselves some weapons."
They started off into the woods keeping a sharp eye out at every stray sound. In a short while they had gathered some stout branches off of trees and Blake sat down to use the machete to hack their ends into sharp spear-points. Jenna gathered a few more likely branches as he did that.
Blake eyed his work with doubt. "Finding Travis shouldn't be too difficult. If he runs true to form, he'll set a trap and then try an' draw us into it." He struggled with the machete to begin sharpening another branch.
"Who do you suppose he's got with him?"
"Oh I don't know, his pilot maybe." A thought occured to him and he had to stop cutting. "It must present our hosts a funny little problem. How do you demonstrate the death of a friend to a man that hasn't got any?"
Travis scanned his surroundings alertly. Behind him he heard the mutoid pilot approach. "Anything?" he asked stiffly.
"You searched thoroughly?"
She was steady and calm, there being nothing else for her to be. "Your opponent is not yet within this vicinity."
"Good. Then I have a little plan we can put into operation. Come." He swung the machete loosely as he spun, mind already on the work ahead.
Blake finished the second spear to his satisfaction. He sheathed his machete and joined Jenna, giving the spear to her. "Not exactly a neutron blaster, but it's better than nothing."
She took it quickly and they moved on through the forest. "Not much better, though."
The Liberator crew watched curiously as Travis pried into some bushes with his machete. He dropped to one knee, stabbed the weapon into the ground and dragged some vines out from under the bushes. He began pulling at them, testing their strength.
"He seems to be working to a plan," Gan commented from Jenna's station.
Vila watched mournfully. "I wish we were."
Avon came hurrying in from the ship's corridors and nearly ran Cally down on his way to the pilot's console. "Well? Did any of the controls respond?" he asked Gan impatiently.
"Nothing on here."
"Nothing on mine," Vila replied. His anxious eyes watched the screen.
"And nothing on these," Cally told him from the front left station.
Without quite meaning to, Avon looked at each of them to be sure they were still there. He felt offended by the lack of response to his efforts in Liberator's engine room. "That's it then, I've done everything I can. Every machine except life-support is frozen."
"Even Zen," Cally said softly.
Avon glared at her. "Zen is a machine."
"Unless he just doesn't wanna get involved," Vila put in.
The tech shot a brief glare his way. "What's Travis doing?"
Cally studied the image they were receiving. "As Blake said, he's probably preparing a trap. It could be a mistake, THAT sort of war is always fought better on the move."
Night fell. The forest came alive with shrill shrieks, roars and howls echoing in the air. Blake and Jenna raced through the trees with their spears firmly in hand. A huge golden moon shed its light down on them all. Friends and enemies alike, it knew no difference.
The Space Commander and his mutoid pilot twined sharpened sticks and non-sharpened long branches together. They both froze and looked up alertly as a roaring howl broke the air somewhere nearby. "The night hunters are at work."
Travis glanced at the woman, surprised that she would comment. "Come on, let's take shelter." He gathered up a spear and stepped over their construct. "Bring my knife." She obediently gathered it up.
Blake and Jenna were settled up a particularly large tree. The cacophony of sounds around them kept on. Blake muttered, "Let's hope that those things can't climb trees."
"Or fly." Jenna studied the sky visible above. "I don't know the star-charts enough to be sure, but I'd say we're still on the same planet."
The rebel glanced up too, but those stars which could tell Jenna a little, told him nothing. "Hmm. They must've teleported us to a different part of it."
Jenna hesitated for a long moment, uncertain of how she would shape this question. "Do you believe what they told us?" she asked. "About themselves, I mean?"
"With that much power, why bother to lie?" he answered sadly.
She snorted. "That's one way to become a hunted man. Trust the powerful." She looked away, painful memories dragged up by the subject.
"True," Blake said. He also looked away. Through a knot in his throat the rebel asked, "What's your excuse?"
"Oh, I wasn't clever enough. We none of us were. The Federation's beaten us all, at least once."
"At least," Blake agreed roughly.
"Even if we get out of this it still won't be any better."
Vila sat on the couch beside Gan. Jenna's words touched brief anger in him and he said grimly, "She's right you know. Why should it be any different? We'll have the Federation after us 'til the day we die."
"Who says?" Startled, Vila turned to meet Gan's steady gaze. The big man continued, "We've been lucky up 'til now, we'll be lucky again."
Vila's lips thinned and he nodded his head toward the screen. "You hope. Have you thought what might happen if those two don't get back? I mean, could you operate this ship properly?"
"Let's just listen," Gan told him.
"Well could you?!" the thief demanded. Gan cast him an annoyed look.
Blake was laughing. "-With a pudgy stick for a weapon! Oh the Federation hasn't got a chance!" They were both laughing now, the mental image he had conjured up of the two of them facing off Federation battle-ships with simple wooden spears breaking the grim mood. Blake took a deep breath. "Well are you gonna go to sleep first or shall I?"
Still chuckling Jenna replied, "You can."
He zipped up his coat and leaned back against a larger branch, trying to wriggle his shoulders into a more comfortable position. "All right, wake me when you're tired." Both of them jumped, reflexively gripping their spears, as a loud roar sounded somewhere below. Blake eased himself back again and Jenna settled herself to watch.
Travis and his pilot were also up a tree among fuzzy branches. The space commander played with his false hand, idly hoping he could get it to work again. His pilot's fine, pale features caught his eye and he studied her speculatively. Finally he asked, "Tell me something, do you remember who you were?"
Only long exposure to her cued him to the faint signs of unease; a stiffening of the shoulders, faint widening of her eyes. "I don't understand the question, Commander."
He had seen her react though and was pleased with himself. "Yes you do. In your previous life before you were modified. Do you know who you were?"
"Of course not."
He studied her again but saw nothing to give lie to her words. "Aren't you curious about it?"
"I find that hard to believe."
She looked straight at him, trying to understand what he wanted. Not obeying a superior was a punishable offense. His doubt required an answer, so she tried. "Memory is an encumbrance. All trace of it is removed and with it all trace of identity."
He considered her blue eyes. Once they had reflected every emotion, but now there was little to reflect. He had known her once, a long time ago. "And it doesn't concern you?"
"Why should it? That identity doesn't exist, even in the central computers."
"Yes it does. I know who you were." He was very pleased with himself when she blinked in faint surprise. "Your name was Kiera. Key-era," he said slowly.
What was going on behind her mutoid identity, he wondered? Nothing like being stranded with one to make you curious. "Kiera," she repeated after him.
"Yes. You were very beautiful, very much admired. Shall I go on?"
She looked away from his cruel smile, face bland. "As you wish."
"This doesn't interest you at all, does it?!" He was surprised and angry with himself for being so. He knew about mutoids, after all.
"How could it?" she asked back.
He stared at her for another long moment, then released the subject, closing his eyes. "Keep watch."
Another over-loud roaring woke Jenna. She blinked her eyes, berating herself for falling asleep and then caught sight of a small bat-like creature at rest on Blake's hand. It had opened up a cut and was lapping blood from it. "Blake!" The rebel blinked sleepily awake. Seeing the thing on his hand he flicked it away and gingerly examined the tiny cut. "You all right?" Jenna asked him.
"It's just a small cut, that's all."
"I'm sorry, I went to sleep."
The little wound tingled, Blake rubbed at it and mustered up a smile for his pilot. "No it's all right, it was my fault. We should have both stayed awake."
The forest fell into a temporary silence. They listened nervously.
Vila's eyes drifted shut. He woke when his face slid off the palm it was braced against and blinked around at Cally and Gan, and at Avon who looked very bored. The tech caught Vila looking his way and gathered himself up to move purposefully toward a corridor.
"Have you thought of another plan?" Vila asked hopefully.
Avon tapped a laser-probe on his palm and shot a half-hearted glare at the thief. "Yes, I'm going to get some sleep."
"How can you sleep with all this happening?!" Vila exclaimed.
Avon's brows shot up. "With all what happening? Blake is sitting up in a tree, Travis is sitting up in another tree. Unless they're planning to throw nuts at one another I don't see much of a fight developing before it gets light."
Gan and Cally both looked up at the tech. Gan shook his head wryly. "You're never involved, are you Avon. Have you ever cared for anyone?"
"Except yourself?" Vila snapped angrily.
The strangest expression shot across Avon's features, gone swiftly. "I have never understood why it should be necessary to become irrational in order to prove that you care. Or indeed why it should be necessary to prove it... at all." He turned his back on them and left.
Vila was left with a feeling of having started in on a difficult puzzle, only to have it disappear before he had a chance to work it. "Was that an insult, or did I miss something?"
"You missed something," Cally told him. For an instant she had felt Avon's mind like a depthless crystal, leaving trails of lonely grief.
Golden sunlight filtered through tree branches. The air was alive with birdsong, or something much like birds. Blake tossed a vine down their tree and used it to climb to the ground. Jenna handed the spears down and followed suit. The rebel reached automatically to help her last step down and flinched as his hand was jarred. Jenna caught the hand and took a look at it. "Nasty bite. It looks inflamed," she commented. Indeed it was, the skin at the cut's edge white, and red around that, puffy to his wrist.
Blake flicked his arm sharply in some small hope that it would stop the faint pain. "Yes it's making my arm a bit sore, it's nothing I can't cope with." The pair looked around themselves cautiously, then started on through the forest.
Travis set the mutoid to building a net of wood and twining spikes into it. He settled beside her as she worked, and held out a small dry carcass, a tiny bat-like creature. "What were these things doing at the foot of the tree, Hmm?" he asked with cold anger.
"They came in the night. I trapped them."
He snorted contemptuously. "You did more than that!"
The mutoid twined the spearpoints all the faster, uneasy in his condemning presence. "My serum supply is running low. There was little blood in the trapping."
"There's a lot of blood in me."
"There still is, Commander. You are a Federation officer, as I am."
He studied the unconscious speed of her movements. "Yes. Just as long as you remember that."
She looked up then with slight curiosity. "Do you now believe we mutoids are vampires?"
Travis snorted at the question. "I believe you're useful. Get on with it." He gathered himself up and walked away.
The mutoid watched him go and warned, "My function will be impaired if I don't get further serum, soon."
"Maybe that can be arranged," he threw back over his shoulder. The mutoid was puzzled, but turned back to her work.
Blake and Jenna moved through a stand of small trees under the watchful gaze of their fellow crew. Vila eyed the spiked trap Travis was making and shuddered. "Is that what I think it is?" he asked nervously.
Avon glanced up at the screen. "I don't imagine that it is a recreational aide."
"I cannot see Blake throwing himself on it, though, can you?" the thief asked him, leaning back on the couch.
"I can't ever see Blake finding the right place."
Gan rolled his eyes. A full night's sleep had not improved Avon's temper any, not that anyone had expected it to. "And how is he supposed to find it? I mean he hasn't gotten anything to go on, has he?" he glanced at Cally for support.
She shook her head, eyes on the screen. "I have been watching Blake. He is quartering the area, that is the correct search pattern."
Avon's eyes shone with a faint humor, "IF it is the correct area."
Around midday the mutoid stood with a spear at ready, watching her surroundings. Travis came up behind her and spoke gruffly. "Any sign?"
His eyes lit on her face, searching for a sign of emotion but as she did not look at him it was difficult to know if she felt his contempt. "I've lit a fire. It'll draw Blake to us. Since I was given you, he must've been given a companion as well." She glanced at him, not certain of the reasoning. "Whoever it is, I want you to find them. Bring them back here. Dead or alive, it doesn't matter, just bring them."
"And Blake?" she asked, wondering what he would say.
"No! Don't touch Blake, he belongs to me." The mutoid bowed her head obediently, then sagged slightly where she stood. Travis snapped impatiently, "Well go on, what's the matter with you?"
She drew herself up to meet his eyes. "The blood of those creatures, it was not suitable."
Travis sneered mockingly. "When you find Blake's companion, there'll be plenty of blood." The mutoid dipped her head and left him then.
Blake and Jenna paused against a large tree, breathing hard. The rebel's shoulders drooped wearily. "We can't even be sure they're in this area."
"We have to assume they are," Jenna answered him.
He leaned back and looked up into the half-bare branches above him. Must be fall, he though idly. An idea struck him. "Oh well maybe I can see something from up there." He set his spear aside and clambered up the tree's pitted knobbed trunk. Jenna moved to watch.
A twig snapped somewhere behind her. She looked up at Blake, but he had not heard, so the pilot went to check it herself. Twenty feet away she had found nothing, but was surrounded by bushes. She started back and the mutoid rose out of the brush with emotionless calm. A quick strike with both arms cut Jenna's cry of warning off and knocked the woman out.
Blake scanned the treetops and his eyes caught an anomaly in the distance. "Jenna..!" he called down. "Jenna! There's some smoke over there!" He pointed. Silence answered him and the bewildered rebel leaned down, puzzled. "Jenna?!" Blake clambered down the tree, growing more alarmed in the continued absence of his pilot. "Jenna. Jenna!" He snatched up his spear and began trekking toward the rising smoke, knowing with ear that was the most likely place to find Jenna.
Jenna came to as the mutoid finished tying her to a wide tree. Her hands and feet were immobilized, and in a moment the mutoid gagged her as well. Jenna pulled at her bonds and glared lasers at her captor, who paused as if to consider.
The mutoid turned her right wrist over and activated a hidden switch. A draw-needle slipped out between the folds of her uniform. Jenna froze in horror. She cursed a thousand times to herself for getting caught and being made into dinner. The mutoid forced Jenna's head back and prepared to insert her needle in the other woman's neck-veins when Travis appeared and called her coldly.
"No! Not yet! Get to your position. Now!" he shouted the last word as the mutoid hesitated. She slipped the needle back into its normal position and gathered herself and the machete. Both of them vanished into the brush. Jenna set to work loosening the vines holding her.
Blake came in sight of the campfire. Travis heard the rebel coming from his hiding place behind a tree, and grinned cruelly in anticipation. "Blake!" he called. "Blake, can you hear me?"
The rebel caught sight of Jenna where she was, opposite side of the campfire from him. He held himself against a tree and tried to locate Travis and the mutoid. The space commander's mocking voice came again.
"I know you're there, Blake; I know you're close by! Hear me, Blake... I have your friend! Your friend will die, Blake, unless you give yourself up."
Blake considered his options and found them lacking. He licked his dry lips and dashed out from behind the tree to race toward Jenna. He skidded through dead leaves to her side, tossed his spear away and began using the machete to carefully cut away the vines on her arms and feet. All the while she shouted at him through her gag, until he finally realized she was saying, "Blake look up! There!" And he looked to see the criss-crossed wooden frame with its sharpened spike about thirty feet over their heads.
"NOW!" Travis bellowed.
The mutoid, weakened by lack of fresh serum, hacked at the vines. The delay gave Blake enough time to cut Jenna free from the tree-trunk and hurl them both aside, the spikes driving a few inches into the ground where they had been. He slammed his machete down and left Jenna to finish freeing herself, which she started to do right away.
Travis came out from hiding and charged at Blake. Neither man was accustomed to the use of a spear and while able to block each other well enough, they could not quite strike. Swiftly disgusted with the lack of effect the two men began simply to swing wildly at each other. Travis got a solid blow in along Blake's shoulders. They snarled at each other and Blake tried a straight stab which the space commander slammed down.
The mutoid came after Jenna just as the pilot freed her hands. Jenna kicked out knocking the weakened woman away.
Blake tried another straight stab at Travis, who expertly avoided it and knocked the rebel back again.
The mutoid lunged desperately at Jenna. The pilot dived aside and there was a sickening crunch as the mutoid's helmeted head connected with the tree trunk. The adapted woman staggered to her feet clutching her head, then her knees buckled and she collapsed.
Travis got a solid blow in to Blake's chest. The rebel fell but twisted and grabbed for Travis' feet, yanking them out from under him. The space commander lost what was left of his school and rained blows with his spear at Blake, who being calmer was able to deflect them and managed to knock Travis over and down. Blake brought up his spear to stab down into the space commander's chest.
"You've got him!" crowed Vila on the Liberator.
"Go on!" Gan urged.
And even Cally was caught up in it. *Kill him!*
On their screen Blake's bruised face twisted, his rapid breathing slowed. Avon gazed calmly at the screen, smiled faintly and shook his head, knowing Blake's choice possibly before the rebel did. Blake relaxed before their eyes, his expression becoming one of tired exasperation. He threw his spear far aside.
Sinofar closed her eyes, and brought the rebel and his pilot to her, beneath the statue. The two startled people looked at each other. Giroc leaned on her staff. She turned from staring out at the grave markers, wondering which one was her husband's. "You fought well, Blake."
He rubbed at the swollen bite and glared angrily at her. "I'm glad you enjoyed it."
She leaned over and watched him coolly. "Why didn't you kill him?"
Blake laughed faintly. "Too weak! Or maybe I didn't entirely trust your motives." He moved away from Giroc to meet Sinofar's gaze. "Besides, as long as he's alive he'll be the one chasing me. And I KNOW I can beat him."
Giroc laughed at that. "At least you're not stupid."
Sinofar and Blake gazed at each other, the former with faint amazement in her eyes. The rebel gave her his most appealing brown-eyed look. "I need time enough to get my ship away and recharge the energy banks."
She nodded back at him, still amazed. "They have been recharged. I will see that your ship gets away."
"Oh another reason why I didn't kill Travis," he started softly, "I would've enjoyed it."
"Perhaps there was nothing for you to learn." Sinofar smiled warmly at Blake's confused eyes."
Liberator pulled away from the Federation ship and began its turn into deep space. Blake watched the receding image on the viewscreen. "Jenna, what speed?" he asked over his shoulder.
"Standard by six," she decided.
Confirmed. Zen increased speed and the Liberator shot away.
Gan caught up to Blake and held the rebel still as he set a medical unit on the wounded hand. It hummed as it administered medicine. The big man grinned at Blake mischievously. "What was she like?"
"Sinofar." He remembered his brief glimpse of her the day before.
Blake burst out laughing at that. "Of course, you never saw her!" Gan removed the med-unit. The swelling was gone and Blake no longer itched. He said gratefully, "Thank you." He considered the question with arms akimbo, then his eyes sparkled with real delight. "She was--um.... She was very beautiful, wasn't she Jenna?"
The pilot shot him an glare from her console. "Yes. Very."
Vila caught the conversation and joined in with a wounded expression. "All we saw was the ugly one. How is it you get all the fun?"
"Oh I don't know, some of us are born lucky and some..." he trailed off as his words called up images of Travis. And he began to laugh.
Travis glared at Sinofar, to Giroc's delight. "Where is Blake?!"
"He won the right to go. It was agreed," she said gently.
"It changes NOTHING!!" Travis snarled.
Giroc wandered around to the space commander's backside and looked up at him with amusement. "And what about your friend?"
The mutoid lay against a stone block, empty eyes gazing out.
"A mutoid... is little better than a machine. In any case she's dead."
Sinofar saw through his ice. There was something, a sort of coiled pain overridden by a firm commitment to duty and raging hatred of Blake. "Travis," she rebuked him gently. "Your companion is not dead. I will heal her."
"She is of no further value to me. I have a fugitive to hunt. Return me to my ship."
Giroc's eyes sparkled with admiration as she leaned on her staff. "It's good to see a man like Travis again after so long."
Sinofar was silent for a moment, puzzled by Giroc's change of attitude; from contempt to admiration. "You remind her of our people," she said.
The old woman laughed. "He is just like our people. And like them, he learns nothing."
"That's why we're prisoners. You keep us prisoner, Giroc." Sinofar turned her dark gaze on the space commander. "Never return to this planet, Travis." She closed her eyes and her body rimmed in red, gold and green. Travis and his pilot appeared on their ship, and Sinofar disappeared from sight on the nameless planet below. Giroc walked away from the statue to think about the past and the present.
Travis reached past the mutoid and snatched up her empty vial of serum. He studied it briefly, the sharpness of his movements serving to alarm her as they were meant to. "Hunh. The condemned ate a hearty meal." He caught her chin and jerked her around to look at him, voice a low snarl. "Your failure cost me Blake."
He released her abruptly and she looked as far away from him as she could. Failure was frightening. "I warned you that my function would be impaired, Commander."
"Well perhaps the court martial will take that into account. But I doubt it." Almost without volition he let a finger trace the edge of her cheekbone before settling back into his command chair. Cruelly he leaned forward. "Tell me, what happens to a mutoid that's dismissed of service?"
"We exist only to serve," she answered.
"Oh? Then you'll probably cease to exist."
She flinched at the controls. Kiera, the word passed through her mind in this moment of alarm, and she was able to get back to work. "Ready, Commander."
"Follow Blake's course."
She obeyed him, pointing out as was her duty, "We can't match his speed."
"We don't have to, just match his course." He leaned forward to watch as she fed instructions to the ship's computers. He added with soft fury, "You see he made one fatal error. He should've killed me."