The world seemed all ice and snow. Glaciers stretched from the poles, mountains raised their peaks of black stone above the clouds and wind blew at terrifying speeds. Along one cliffside there was a path and a tall man in black furs walked it. He was trailed by a mutoid, a human who had been surgically altered so that its body was mostly bionic and required infusions of plasma, and whose mind was erased of all memory, set with a command to serve the Federation. When they came to a door cut in the cliffside she preceded him inside. Once out of the wind they turned to face each other, the man drawing back his hood and dropping the muffler from his chin. A cruel, knife-blade mouth and strong features, a heavy black patch over his left eye. When he spoke it was as though he heated the tunnel with a throaty fire.
"The temperature's dropping quickly."
This mutoid had pencil-thin eyebrows and long lips. She seemed brighter than most mutoids, brighter than Keira had been. "It will be dark soon. Then it will freeze." She watched him as she spoke, with her wide blue eyes and white skin.
"The Great Cold. I find this planet... unnerving. Come." What he did not like was a lack of visibility. This place made it difficult to see your enemy, he found himself searching the tunnel with his eye, and regretting with cold anger the loss of his left.
Travis snugged his hood up again and started down flights of stairs crudely cut into the stone under their feet. The mutoid slipped in front of him with her blaster drawn. As they made their way further down a railing appeared, fixed to the rough wall. Above the two a man in gray furs crept along an overhanging tunnel. The gray was interrupted with black and white hairs of the animal whose pelt it had once been. The man held himself back from sight and called to them as they reached a landing.
The low call was not quite a surprise. Travis looked around for its source. "Where are you?"
"Shh! Softer. The sound travels in the caves."
The space commander raised his head and caught sight of Terloc's face peering out of the shadows overhead. "You're late," he growled.
Terloc shied back. "They would have missed me had I come sooner."
"What have you got for me?" Travis demanded.
The other edged cautiously closer. "Avalon is moving to winter quarters, in the ice caves. I've drawn a map." He slipped it out of his furs and tossed the paper down to land at Travis' feet. The mutoid bent to retrieve it.
"But contact! Has Blake made contact with Avalon?"
"Yes. She's asked for transportation to a safer planet."
Travis caught his breath a moment. "And Blake's agreed?"
"His ship has already entered our star system. The rendezvous is expected within fifty hours." Terloc was caught in Travis' unflinching one-eyed gaze. He wanted to crawl away from the Federation man's contempt, but there was nowhere for him to go.
"Good. Go back and join Avalon. Now. You understand what you have to do." Satisfaction was plain in gaze and stance, and dismissal.
"I understand," Terloc confirmed. He crawled back away from the ledge and vanished soundlessly down the lesser tunnels.
Travis started to turn and found himself meeting the curious gaze of his mutoid guard. Few worked with them enough to know they were curious. He cast her a cruel smile. "It's working. Just as I predicted," he said and nodded her on. When she turned away he murmured, "This time I'll be ready for you, Blake."
The Liberator's viewscreen was filled with a white-blue planet. Like a brilliant jewel it hung in space. Blake considered the sight for a long moment. "Zen, can you get an estimated surface temperature from this range?"
The scene on their viewscreen changed as Zen's scan reached down, and they soon saw frozen lakes and falling snow across great black mountaintops. Sensors indicate a temperature of minus one hundred and twenty degrees, and still falling.
Vila eyed the screen, then got down from his station. "That's on the cool side. You'll need thermal suits." He disappeared down a corridor, presumably to retrieve the suits.
Blake glanced around, finding Gan standing nearby and Cally across the room at her station. He settled himself, hands on hips. "Cally, are you still getting Avalon's signal?"
She looked up from her station calmly. "It's changed position by about eight miles, but it's stationary now and switched to automatic."
"Well lock onto it and get a precise fix." As Cally did so, Blake moved over to the woman at the pilot's console. "Jenna, when Cally's got a fix let her take us into orbit. You're the only one who's ever seen Avalon, I need you down there with me. Go and get kitted up."
Beyond a brief puzzled glance at him as he spoke, Jenna kept her eyes on her screens, checking the instruments readings. You never assumed everything would work fine, there were times when things broke down. She nodded slightly though. "Right."
"Cally, we want an orbit just inside teleport range."
While Cally did her figuring, Avon came onto the flight deck, his hands clasped behind his back. He stopped in the doorway to watch them work.
Gan frowned from his position at wide-range scanners. "Blake, there are four - five interceptors orbiting the atmosphere now. They're all below the horizon at the moment."
"Track them," Blake responded.
Avon's cool voice startled them as he stepped down to the flight deck floor. "And don't imagine that they will maintain the same orbit." He swung a box out from behind his back and held it out to Blake's inquisitive gaze. "I've summarized the relevant data."
"And?" Blake asked, mildly annoyed.
"We've come at the worst time, of course. The northern hemisphere is just entering its winter cycle." Avon came closer to Blake, a hint of dark amusement in his eyes. "They call it the Long Cold. Something of an understatement. It lasts the equivalent of eight and one-half Earth years." He stopped in front of the rebel, silent challenge which Blake ignored calmly.
"Does it support any intelligent life?"
Dark eyes briefly skimmed over the other crew, "Does the Liberator?" Blake and Jenna exchanged exasperated looks and nods of agreement but held their tongues, not wanting to feed Avon's silent laughter. "There are humanoid creatures called subterrons, they live in caves. Quite what that says for their intelligence I really wouldn't know." He fell silent, idly tapping the box in his hands.
"Why is the Federation there?" Blake finally prompted him.
Avon held out the box and Blake took it. "Minerals. About thirty years ago it was discovered that deposits were seeping down into the ice, and forming gemstones of outstanding purity and hardness. They are called ice crystals. The Federation uses them in heavy-duty lasers. They are mined by the subterrons as a slave labor force."
Blake had tapped up the relevant data as Avon spoke and now he nodded to himself. "Ah. That is why Avalon's here."
Avon's eyes narrowed faintly with a trace of humor and cynicism. "Perhaps. But... the ice crystals are unique, and as such quite valuable."
Blake dismissed that remark with a shake of his head. "No. Avalon has started resistance movements on a dozen Federation planets."
The tech clasped his hands behind his back and shot Blake a feral small smile. "Another idealist. Poor, but honest. I shall look forward to our meeting with eager anticipation."
"Is your anticipation eager enough to come down there with me?"
Avon glanced speculatively at the planet surface visible on Liberator's viewscreen. "Not quite." He turned with slow grace back to the rebel. "I think I shall contain my enthusiasm, here in the warmth." Blake raised his brows to communicate a certain lack of surprise.
Travis' mutoid made her way down one of the small tunnels Terloc had been using. She silently glanced over a ledge to make sure of the position of the man standing below her on a landing. He had a rifle, and his face was covered by a clear plastic breathing apparatus. She waited until his back was turned, then hopped down with utter silence, caught him by his coat and yanked him to the floor. His gun spun away with the most noise of her entire attack, and the man only had time to utter a small croak of pain as she strangled him.
When this was done, the mutoid sat back with a pleased smile and removed a signal unit from her belt. She lengthened the antenna, then toggled a switch. Far above, outside the tunnels, a trio of female mutoids received the signal and came in, their laser rifles at ready. Four more mutoids stood under Travis' watchful gaze. In response to the signals they did a military about-face and started down the tunnel.
There were a group of people in the gray-lit cave. They were setting up camp near an underground river. So they were totally unprepared when the mutoids appeared at the cave mouth. Travis' slender blue-eyed favorite came to the fore. "Stay where you are."
The group to a man held their place. Travis stepped in now and stared contemptuously at the small gathering. Finally he took an aggressive step forward. "Which of you is Avalon?" One of the group came to the fore. Travis took a blaster in hand and removed the face-mask to meet a man's defiant angry gaze. The Space Commander sneered and shoved the blaster in the man's face. "I want Avalon... now!" The man he held flinched.
There was a stirring from the back of the group. A smaller person came forward. The man who had been standing in front of her grabbed her arm, but to no avail. She removed her mask and met Travis' cold gaze with one of her own. She had fine, soft features and immense brown eyes, and looked barely twenty. Travis threw the man away from him to fall amongst the supplies. The girl glanced down, then glared fiercely up at Travis.
"Who betrayed us?" A young, high-pitched voice.
"Take her," Travis told his mutoids. They did.
His main companion came a few feet down to a long cylinder, propped up by stones and broadcasting a signal. She looked at it hopefully. "Shall I smash it?"
"No." The mutoid came back to him and looked up with a question in her eyes. "Give Blake his homing beacon. Make it easier for him. Finish it," he added, with a slow glance over the remaining rebels. He turned to go.
"No, wait! It's me, Terloc!" The traitor scrambled over to them and fell on his knees at Travis' feet. "I helped you! I gave you Avalon, I gave you Avalon!!" The mutoid kicked him down, snapping a rib. He groaned in pain but raised his head, knowing now it had been for nothing. "They're gonna kill us!" He groaned again when the blaster-fire hit him, and was not alive after to hear the panic about him. There was nowhere to go, and the rebels fell one after another, one man tumbling into the river to float there. It was all over quickly. The mutoid blinked, satisfied, and led her troop out of there.
The thermal suits were laced with heating units. Dark green with silver conducting strips, they were form fitting to be worn under the planetary outfits of Liberator. Blake was not finished getting his outfit on yet, but Jenna came onto the flight deck in her pink and red to join Cally at the pilot's console. Cally glanced briefly her way. "I'm holding," she told the other woman.
Jenna raised a brow. "Orbital drift compensation?"
Gan nodded from his station, "Activated."
"Confirm position and status," Jenna demanded of the flight computer.
All systems confirm instrument readings. Orbit is established. Status is firm.
Jenna grinned at Cally, who looked pleased in spite of great effort not to show it. "Very impressive! I think I might have taught you too well."
Zen's sonorous voice began again. Navigation computers register positional error. Point zero zero zero one zero one. Automatics are compensating.
Jenna's shoulders twitched as she held back a laugh, seeing Avon nearby seem amused too. "Thank you Zen, for that small compensation."
Blake chuckled. "Hmm. Are you ready, Jenna?" When she ignored the question he recognized that as a 'yes, get on with it', and turned to Avon. "Have you got the teleport coordinates?"
"All computed." Avon set his tools aside and stood up impatiently.
"All right. Let's go." He adjusted the heavy toolkit belt, fixed his gloves on and started for the teleport chamber.
Jenna cast a quick word back at Cally, "Keep the sensors on full alert, those pursuit ships are still around." Cally nodded.
"Don't worry, we're watching!" Gan said cheerfully.
The pilot smiled at them both and especially to Cally said, "Good luck."
"You too," the other young woman replied. She added a silent promise to the worried pilot that she would take care of the ship.
Vila sat at the teleport console, concentrating hard on the readings available. "Surface temperatures are down to minus one-eighty, better wrap up warmly," he told them.
Blake turned a dial on his shirt and suggested to Jenna, "Set your suit to seventy-five percent." She did. Both of them winced at the sudden increase of heat in their suits. They gathered up bracelets, settled their fur-lined hoods around their faces, and turned to find Avon sitting at the console with Vila. "All right, stay at the controls! If all goes well we'll be back in fifteen minutes."
"We'll be ready," Avon answered him with firm promise.
And if there was anything he had found could be trusted, it was a promise from Avon. Blake picked up some spare bracelets and a small medical kit. Backing into the teleport chamber, he glanced at Jenna's flushed face. "Right. Is your suit fully heated?"
"I'm about ready to burst into flames," she told him with impatience.
Blake nodded sheepishly. "Put us down," he called to the others. Avon's hands flashed over the controls and hit the send-switch.
They appeared in a large cave. The drip of water sounded in echoes around them. They turned and nearly stumbled over a dead body. The pair dropped down to check the body before moving further into the cave. Frost lined the fallen forms, dusted weapons and equipment. Blake and Jenna were unaware of a survivor who crept forward and picked up a weapon. The man started to get to his feet, but pain lanced through his body and he carefully backed to lean against a boulder. He waited, listening to the two strangers move, and then to their voices.
"Federation security must've found them," a man said grimly. It was a deep double-toned voice, soft-edged. "It looks like their handiwork."
The woman's answer was a single-toned smooth pitch. "None of them are armed."
"That's what I mean." There was grief in that voice. The watcher hugged closer to his boulder, not positive yet that these were not enemies.
"Weapons are still in the racks," commented the woman.
"They probably tried to surrender." Blake squatted by the signal device and stared off into distant nothing.
Jenna came close. "Let's get out of here, Blake."
His shoulders shuddered a moment. "No. We must learn if Avalon's one of them. I mean we must know for certain." He moved now to check the bodies but glanced hesitantly back at the signal. "This homing beacon's still transmitting. Once Federation security had found that, they wouldn't have any trouble getting into this place."
There was a sudden crashing sound behind them. Jenna called in warning, "Blake!" They had their weapons out, ready to fire. Cautious steps took them to the source of the noise, a man fallen, holding a laser rifle in one pain-bent hand.
Blake caught the rise of the man's chest. "He's still alive." The rebel holstered his gun and both bent to help the stranger sit up.
"Careful, he's been hit in the shoulder." As if on cue the man groaned and opened large, dark eyes under two brows that grew together. He stared wildly at them.
Blake was quick to react, soothing with tone and hand. "It's all right! It's all right, we're friends."
The stranger stared at them, haunted agony in his eyes. Drawing words out hurt him. "The others... what about the others?"
"I'm afraid they're dead."
Jenna shoved forward sternly. "What about Avalon, was she with you? Can you remember whether she was with you when you were attacked?"
He gazed back at her with terrible misery. "Terloc betrayed us. It was Terloc!"
Blake called him back firmly. "Where is Avalon?"
"Oh, she was with us - she... they took her out, before the firing started."
The bleak white hallway had a dozen other halls intersecting with it. A pair of armed, helmeted guards stood at attention at each intersection. They did not react to the delicate mutoid woman who moved with quick steps through the hall. She came to a door which slid open ahead of her, stepped between the two guards on the other side and crossed to where Travis sat, long legs crossed as he studied a readout.
She stood in front of him at stiff attention and reported, "The Supreme Commander's ship has landed. They've already disembarked."
He looked up at her and leaned back. "Good! I think we're about ready. Oh, I'll need a human to assist in the tests. Check with the Detention Block, see if they can give you someone."
"Any special characteristics?" she asked to be certain.
"No. An ordinary unskilled labor-grade will do. An expendable."
"If there isn't one in detention?"
He glared sharply at her, a warning that she asked too many questions. "Then detain one."
The mutoid taken care of, Travis moved to another section of the laboratory where a life-support machine held Avalon captive. She had been stripped of her clothing by the doctors, one of whom was studying her with careful intentness. Broad metal bands across her chest and hips immobilized her, and perhaps lessened any embarrassment she might have felt at the forced nudity. Smaller bands kept her from moving her arms or legs, as the girl had fought them for every effort they made to study her until they had done so. The end of the machine that covered her head strobed lights into her face, keeping her dazed. An old interrogation technique, but quite effective. Travis shifted his attention to the doctor.
The old man jumped slightly, not having noticed Travis approach. "None that I can see. A good, healthy specimen. No deformities or unusual features. A standard triple-omega should provide a perfect basis."
"Good. Can you complete quickly?"
"I think so. We have an experienced team standing by, everything's ready."
Travis shifted his gaze to Avalon for a long moment. "Good, good. Remember if you need any further equipment you have an absolute priority rating. Demand whatever you want on my authority."
"Thank you Commander."
Avalon struggled to see through the flashing lights, hearing Travis' familiar, hated voice. He leaned down a little to meet her eyes. "You should be flattered by all this special attention."
Immobilized as she was, the rebel could not clench her fists, but the anger she felt came clearly through in her voice. "Anyone who opposes the Federation KNOWS what to expect if they get captured! It's a risk we're ALL prepared to take!"
Travis' coughing laugh held clear contempt. "Obviously! But whatever the risk no one really ever expects to get caught, do they, hmmm?" He strolled around to the other side of the machine, forcing her to turn her head to see him. Her glare seemed to amuse the Space Commander. "Still, I wish I could find the same urge to sacrifice among my subordinates."
"They have no Cause," she tried to sneer back at him.
He smiled mockingly down. "Heh, true."
She wanted to shake her fists at him, but there was no way to do so. "Every year more people defy the Federation, thirty planets in this sector alone. And others will follow. MANY others!"
"Yes, well you'll tell us about those won't you. Their leaders, locations, their plans. I'm sure we'll be able to convince them that loyalty to the Federation is after all in their best interest." He smiled coldly into Avalon's helpless fury.
She did not give up, though. "I know enough about these machines to realize that I will tell you everything. You will murder hundreds of people, maybe thousands. But you won't end the opposition. You'll NEVER end it!"
Travis felt a vague respect for the young woman's determination. He laughed dryly at it though and turned away from her. "Perhaps not. However, we shall persevere." He regarded her over his shoulder, the readout under his arm. "You're right of course, you will tell us everything. But first we need you for a far more important venture. We've code-named it Project Avalon."
Travis' certainty was suddenly frightening. "I won't help you! You can't force ME to help you."
He spun to face her whole, voice like ice. "Don't be naive. I can force you to do anything. It isn't necessary, though, you're already helping me. Just by being here you've set in motion a chain of events which have been absolutely pre-determined."
"I don't understand."
"No?" He leaned on the machine, bringing his face down close to her head. "Did you think your capture at this particular point was natural chance?" She bared her teeth at him, causing him to smile faintly. "It was a carefully calculated strategy. You're worth a great deal to me! You're going to give me Blake, his crew, and his undamaged ship. The Federation wants the Liberator! You and I are going to give it to them."
They bandaged Chevner's wound while he was unconscious, and their faces were the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes again, groaning with pain.
Blake's voice was at its most soothing. "There, how does that feel?"
He managed a painful smile. "Not too bad, thanks."
Jenna leaned down to him. "Are you SURE that they took her to the Center?" she asked him gently.
This Blake travelled in some lovely company, Chevner noted. He decided he must be feeling better and tried to answer the woman. "They abandon the outer complex when the Long Cold sets in. Anyway the main interrogation units are in the Center."
Blake nodded. "Well that's where she'll be all right. Have you ever been inside the Center?"
"No. I helped build the outer complex, but the labor gangs were restricted in their movements. I don't exactly know my way around."
A deep sound reverberated through the walls, the sound of ice above shifting. All three looked nervously around. Jenna shook herself and asked Chevner, "Can you get us in there?"
"In the Center?" he asked, startled to see she meant it.
"No. Can't be done." The determination on the two strangers' faces reminded him of someone else, and a different kind of pain lanced his heart.
Blake leaned forward. "Listen. Avalon knows all the resistance movements in this star-sector. Places, names... everything."
Chevner stiffened at what he felt was a slur to Avalon. "She'd DIE before she told them anything."
The other man snapped back, "It's not a choice she'll be given! In a couple of days they'll know everything SHE knows! It'll be disaster for the resistance."
"And a lot of people will die," the woman added in a low, grim tone.
"So WE have to get her before that happens."
Chevner shifted himself under their determined gazes. "Well, you'll never make it through any of the normal entrances. They're computer-linked, and manned by mutoid guards."
Blake bit his lip and considered that. Eyes narrowed, he asked, "What about ventilation shafts?"
"No. They're closed off during the Long Cold. The atmosphere is recycled...." He trailed off, a thought occurring with sudden hope. "The regeneration plant... it's outside the Center, and linked by interior tunnels. You might just make it through there."
"All right, we'll give it a try."
Chevner noted that Blake was again chewing his lip, brows drawn together in familiar determination again. He leaned forward. "There's no guarantee it'll succeed. They're bound to have all sorts of security devices linked into it."
At that statement the other rebel suddenly smiled. "We have our own specialist in that area." He raised his wrist to his lips, and punched a red button on the thick bracelet he wore. "Blake, do you read?"
Chevner jumped slightly when a woman's voice came tinnishly out of the air around Blake's wrist. "Cally, we hear you."
Guessing Vila would be somewhere nearby, Blake wasted no time in explanation. "Vila, get on a thermal suit and come down here fast."
The male voice coming back had a perceptible whine to it. "Me?! Oh now wait a minute, it's cold out there, and I'm very susceptible to low temperatures! I've got a weak chest!"
Another male voice spoke with a trace of amusement. "The rest of you is not very impressive."
Blake rolled his eyes and snapped into the bracelet, "You're wasting time! Come down here and bring your bag of tricks."
On the Liberator's flight deck, Vila turned a woeful gaze to Avon, Cally and Gan. "I don't know why it always has to be me, I'm tired of being indispensable." He got up from his console and left for the clothes-room.
Blake called over the com unit again. "Gan? Any space activity?"
"Yes, a ship came in and docked about half an hour ago," the big man replied.
"Can you identify it?"
Gan shrugged automatically. "Well the detectors read it as a military command cruiser, and the trajectory suggests that it could of come from Space Headquarters."
Blake drew a breath when he heard that. He looked up at Jenna, worry in his eyes. "You know, it could be something to do with Avalon's capture. Maybe they're going to try and ship her out of here."
"We'd better get moving quickly," his pilot replied.
Avon came into the teleport chamber with swift strides that gave lie to his outward calm. He settled smoothly at the console just as Cally came through the door, and gave her a 'what took you so long?' gaze. She ignored it, handing him a readout and sitting beside him.
"Teleport coordinates based on the voice-fix," she told him in answer to his raised eyebrow.
Vila came in an instant later, already in a blue and silver thermal suit, with his jacket slung over one arm and toolkit hanging from the other. He gave a deep, mournful sigh as he gathered a teleport bracelet up and put it on.
Avon stared at him, gaze black as space. "Ready?" he finally asked.
"Just a minute, I want to set this to maximum." Vila turned the temperature control on his suit. He raised his head to the other two, then gasped suddenly in pain as the suit instantly came to top temperature.
"Turn it down, Vila!" Cally winced in sympathy.
Teeth clenched against the roasting sensation of his body, Vila bent to retrieve his coat which he had dropped. "Not a hope, I'd rather fry than freeze." He began to shuffle his way into the coat, deliberately taking his time of it. Cally yawned and tapped her fingers lightly against her cheek. Avon stared at the thief, a bemused frown on his face. Vila finally shoved his head through the hood of his jacket, missing Avon tip his head sideways in faint amazement. The thief gathered up his gloves and toolbox and backed into the teleport area. As he bent down to slip his gloves on, Avon suddenly moved, hands flashing over the controls to set the teleport coordinates, and then hit the send switch. Vila vanished before he even noticed what was happening.
Avon sat back against the couch and gave Cally a broad grin. With great effort the young woman confined herself to a tolerant smile back, shaking her head at him.
The next thing Vila knew, he was in a cave with a faint green light source casting eerie shadows around him. Before he could panic, Blake called out to him. "Vila!" In a moment his two familiar friends and a gaunt, hawk-eyed stranger joined him. Blake hooked a thumb at the man. "This is Chevner." He allowed them time to nod to each other before taking Chevner by the arm. "Come on. You lead, we'll follow."
Travis waited near a monitor. On the monitor were a group of doctors hard at work. Finally the older one who had been studying Avalon lowered his mask and turned to peer into the camera. "We've finished. We've everything we need."
"Good. Prepare to take her down to transfer, they're standing by."
On the other side of the room one mutoid woman leaned against the wall. She straightened up when Travis' favorite un-named mutoid entered the room, leading a rather plain-faced young man by his arm. He was dressed in a plain white hospital gown, on his head a shock of straight brown hair almost long enough to cover equally plain brown eyes. The mutoid led him to stand in front of Travis, and waited for his approval. Travis studied him for a long moment.
The mutoid could contain her curiosity no longer. "Will HE do?"
Travis took a step closer and caught the silent man's face in his palm. He turned it from side to side, released him abruptly and struck with sudden sharp speed to the man's stomach. The only response was a slight grunt and widening eyes.
The Space Commander stepped back, satisfied. "Oh, he seems healthy enough, he'll do."
Servalan swept through the halls. She was bundled in furs, the tails of six white animals hung down from her collar. All the guards stiffened to further attention as she passed them, two tall male mutoids close behind her. She entered the laboratory with graceful speed to where Travis stood, also at attention, with a professional stillness and confidence that caught the eye. She stopped and waited.
"Supreme Commander, it's good to see you. A safe journey I trust."
Her eyes never left his face as she shrugged slightly. "Nothing is safe anymore. You've heard of course that there have been two attempts on my life."
Travis enunciated every word perfectly. "I have. I was very concerned."
"I consider Blake to be responsible." She shrugged off her furs with a slight gesture, revealing a ankle-length silver-white gown that clung to her shapely form, but Travis did not notice. One of her mutoids gathered the furs in his arms and waited. "Oh not personally, of course. But stories of his exploits are still circulating, they excite people. The fact that he is still free gives them hope, and that is dangerous, Travis. Hope is very dangerous." She gazed firmly at him.
Travis was stung, understanding the slur. "The loss of it can be fatal. And the source of it all is about to be wiped out." He smiled like brief ice.
Servalan took a breath. She moved closer to him, raising her chin to meet the tall man's dark gaze. "I think you should know that there's been considerable criticism of your handling of the Blake affair."
"What?" Travis' one word held deadly murder in it.
The Supreme Commander was smooth and sweet. "Well so far, your operation has been VERY costly, and there have been no--worthwhile--results."
Travis' lip coiled. He straightened it immediately. "That's not entirely just. There have been two occasions when I could have destroyed Blake. It was only the Administration's insistence that the Liberator be captured UNdamaged--that stopped me." He glared fiercely at her.
She was singularly unimpressed. "I have made that point in your defense. But I can't go on making excuses." She stepped away from him lithely, he turned his head slightly after her. "I've been under considerable pressure to replace you."
"Oh?" Travis' hands coiled into fists, but he kept it out of his tone, unwilling to play the game with this woman.
She turned gracefully back to him. "Oh so far I have resisted that pressure." She moved in close to him, stroked his chest with a graceful hand. Despite himself he glanced down on it with narrowed eye. "But now... I need your reassurance that my confidence has not been... misplaced." She dropped her hand and met his smoldering gaze.
"I think Project Avalon will silence the critics."
She nodded. "It does seem an excellent plan. It should have every chance of success."
Travis folded his arms behind his back and nodded. "I'm glad you approve."
She shook her head and smiled briefly at him. "Oh, Travis you know better than that. In my position one never approves anything--until it is an undisputed success."
"Yes," Travis growled, open disgust with political games.
"However you have my full support. Unofficially of course," she added to his disbelieving glower. She smiled wickedly at him.
Forced to be satisfied with that Travis said, "Of course."
At that her smile became even more wicked before vanishing as if it never were. "Officially you have my presence, and my attention." She turned away to the observation screen, which showed Avalon still immobilized in the interrogation machine. Servalan sniffed critically. "So this is the famous Avalon, is it? I'd expected something more impressive." Her eyes darted with cool mockery to Travis.
Annoyance came through despite tight control. "All the checks have been made, they're ready to take her down to transfer."
"Well don't let me delay you."
"Take her down!" Travis snapped into the com unit. They watched moment more as the doctors rolled the machine away.
Servalan turned her back and gestured Travis to follow her. "Travis, I think the labs have come up with what you wanted. It's totally new, and very costly." One of her mutoids held out a small box. Servalan opened it for Travis. The Space Commander reached with his false arm and gently took out its contents; an approximately two-inch radius ball, shimmering golden-red, colors seeming to move about as he held it.
Travis radiated smug pleasure. "This is the only element that was missing!"
"When will you test it?" Servalan's brows were drawn together.
"Now. Everything's prepared."
She smiled dangerously. "Excellent. I'm curious to see it work myself." They went back to the viewscreen. It showed a nearby cell, where Travis' mutoid led the plain young man in and sat him down. The mutoid then immobilized him with a neck brace and left the cell, sealing it.
Travis took the ball and carefully set it in a slot which then slid into the wall. It rolled forward into the cell to be positioned under a simple hammer affair. Travis rejoined Servalan. His mutoid was there also, waiting with signs of interest. "Check door seals," he told her.
The mutoid activated the seals, there was a hiss of air. "Door solid, seals are firm."
"We're ready," Travis told Servalan.
"Proceed." She stood close to the viewscreen, anxious to see the ball do its work.
Travis took a breath. "Activate." The hammer dropped on the ball, smashing its thin shell instantly. In complete silence, for just an instant it seemed like nothing would happen. Then the young man immobilized within the cell began to look fuzzy. Soft, gray hairs sprouted from his skin and became thick, quickly obliterating his features. The audience stared in utter fascination, Travis unconsciously clenched his fist. The computer began a countdown.
+Counting+ The word appeared on its monitor and flashed there. +Elapse time 19+ In a moment the word was replaced. +Neutralizing+
"Twenty-two seconds." A trace of awe in Travis' tone brought both Servalan and the mutoid to stare at the gleam in his eye. "Fascinating. How long before it neutralizes?"
+Neutralized+ The number 23 scrolled down the monitor.
Servalan settled back, pleased. "It'll be clear now." They left the viewscreen to peer in the window of the cell. Dead fungus slipped off the former prisoner's skull in patches. The Supreme Commander met Travis' gaze. "Satisfied?"
A security robot was making its rounds out on the mountainside. Finished with them, it trundled back into the tunnels.
Chevner led the Liberator group around the robot's patrol line to a door far inside the caves. Blake called in the thief. "Vila." He hurried over, Jenna on his heels still carrying the toolkit. Under Blake's watchful eyes, both knelt by the door and Vila brought out tools that, as far as Blake could tell, he used to 'diagnose' the lock he was working on.
Chevner came up beside Blake. "You said it won't be long," he muttered nervously.
Blake stiffened, annoyed. "He knows his job!"
The two men crouched low and listened to strange sounds echoing through the tunnels. In a moment Jenna came to join them, having nothing to do now that Vila was at work. Her ears were better than their's and she called alert at a far-off hum. "Security robot." Together the group flattened themselves against the wall, hardly daring to breathe as the robot trundled into the tunnel.
Gan and Cally kept an eye on the readings at their stations. Avon was content to let them take care of the ship's position. He sat at the couch going over some figures with a precision few could hope to emulate.
One of Liberator's holo-screens opened to show a scanner grid, and five arrow shapes beginning to cross it. Zen spoke. Sensors report spacecraft approaching.
Avon glanced up boredly. "Identify."
Analysis indicates they are Mark Four Federation Interceptors.
"Compute course, speed and range," Cally requested.
Interceptors are bearing directly on this position. Speed, Standard by two. The scanner magnified the approaching ships. Range, two million spatials.
Gan and Cally exchanged nervous glances, and the young woman hesitated before asking, "Have they seen us?"
Hull sensors register scanning beams.
Avon was on his feet as if he had never been sitting. "So they know we're here." He came around the couch to where Gan was at station and took a quick reading. There was sharp annoyance in the piercing eyes when he read the results. "We'll be within their attack range in minutes!"
"We must tell Blake." Cally moved to the communication console and signaled the rebels down on the planet.
The robot could find no movement, and so it backed out of the tunnel. The group unpeeled themselves from the cave walls. Blake cautiously peered out the tunnel. His heart was just beginning to slow down, and once again he could feel cold on his cheeks and nose. "All right, Vila," he whispered back. The thief gathered up his tools again and got back to work. Just then they heard the humming of the robot. "It's coming back!" Vila dove under a sheet of metal near him, the rest of the group once again tried to grow into the wall. The robot stopped just outside the tunnel. As a group the rebels felt their hearts nearly stop when Blake's bracelet began beeping. He muffled the sound quickly.
Cally tried two more times before giving up and turning to find herself facing Avon's blazing gaze. "He's not answering."
Gan looked up from the console he monitored. "They're coming in VERY fast. What do we do now?"
"Run for it. We daren't risk a fight now." Avon was coldly firm.
The idea alarmed Cally. "But that'll leave them trapped down there if they need to got up quickly!"
Avon's glare was whip-sharp, his voice ice cold. "If we stay here, there might not be anything to get up to. Our only hope is to make a fast orbit, lose those interceptors and then come back into station!" Cally caught her breath audibly, and Gan looked distressed. Avon glared at both of them. "Well, have you got any better ideas?!" He allowed them a moment to suggest anything. "All right, then let's get the hell out of here," he ordered firmly and moved to a flight station. Cally closed her eyes for a moment, knowing he was right, he was always right. Then she moved for her station as Avon commanded, "Cally, take her on manual."
The robot left, this time going another way. Blake sighed as they came away from the wall again. "Okay, Vila." Remembering the signal he lifted his bracelet. "Avon!" There was silence and he felt suddenly frightened again. "Cally!!" Afraid to consider the unthinkable, he began to check the bracelet for damage.
Jenna noted his actions. "Problem?"
"There's no response," he whispered nervously.
Jenna lifted her own bracelet in sudden alarm. "Avon, Cally!" There was little chance both bracelets had been damaged or were malfunctioning. She offered, "Jammed."
"No." Blake tried again to find any damage, though he knew there was none. Finally he gave up the idea and gazed cautiously down the tunnel. "Let's hope they're back on station by the time we need them. Come on, Vila!" he urged the thief. With a shifting movement, the door began to open. Blake's relief was strong. He moved to Chevner's side and allowed himself to look smug about the door.
Chevner caught the reproof for doubting Blake's crewman, but ignored it. "Okay let's go," he whispered.
Chevner slipped through the door first, then Blake and Jenna. Vila delayed to gather up his kit, only hurrying when Blake called back in an urgent whisper, "Vila, move it!" The thief hurried, closing the door behind them.
A com unit beeped, breaking an almost contented silence in the laboratory. The delicate-seeming mutoid answered it. "Yes?" She listened to the voice. "Understood." Releasing the com, she crossed the room to where Travis and Servalan sat in chairs beside each other, Travis intent on some crew reports, and Servalan shutting everything out behind video-glasses. The mutoid stood patiently directly in front of Travis, until he looked up finally and waved at her. "Well?"
"Space security report. Our interceptors have detected an alien ship."
Servalan slipped the glasses off to listen. Travis frowned at his mutoid sternly. "Has it been identified?"
"Available data suggests it could be the Liberator." She waited, patient again despite the Space Commander's scowl.
Travis finally snapped at her, "Suggests? Suggests?! Of course it's the Liberator! What action's been taken?"
"Our ships are in pursuit." Again she waited patiently.
Servalan turned a steady gaze on Travis. "Shouldn't you call them off?"
Travis glanced her way, cool again. "Not really. I know they can't match the Liberator's speed, but it'll look suspicious if they took no action."
"True," Servalan agreed after a moment.
"Hmmm." Travis stood and began to pace, long legs taking him from one side of the room to another with deadly grace. "If I read my man correctly you can expect him to penetrate the center within the next twelve hours." He stopped pacing as he realized that so far, nothing had gone wrong with this plan. Confidently he settled back into the chair.
Chevner led the group down empty corridors. He paused beside one door and brought hands that had gripped a rifle too long to his face, to breath on them and sooth the cramping. Blake came to his side. "Try this one, or move on further?"
The local rebel was not hiding the fear being here gave him. He shuddered but answered, "Well I think we should be... well inside the maze by now. Let's give it a go."
Blake eyed Chevner, wondering how much of this the man could take before he broke and ran, or if he would take it all and not run. But there would be time to wonder later, he determined. "Vila, you're in business."
The thief popped up beside them, making both men jump. Despite Blake's fierce glare Vila gave him a wide-eyed look. "That has tri-bar fastenings on the other side. You need a lot of explosives... or a genius to open that."
Vila's wide-eyed expression invariably meant something close to I'm-pulling-your leg. Blake asked seriously, "Can you do it?"
The rebel bit back a long sigh. "All right, we'll applaud you later. For now, just get on with it."
A doctor swaddled in green left the young woman wearing a short white tunic in a cell. He sealed the door behind him, cell-unit F2, and started back toward the laboratory. Before he got fifty feet down the corridor though, Travis and Servalan rounded the corner, the two male mutoids on their heels. "Ah. Are you finished with her?" Travis demanded.
"Yes, we just put her in her cell."
Travis moved on quickly, but the Supreme Commander paused to ask, "Was everything satisfactory?"
A young man spoke into the speaker system, giving them pause as they listened. "Interrogation Team One, report to Duty Control. Repeat: Interrogation Team One, report to Duty Control."
Travis reached the monitor computer in long, hurried strides. A coded punchcard activated the cell map, and then focused on F2, to show an image of Avalon. The computer announced, +F2, Avalon.+ Servalan and Travis nodded automatically, and the Space Commander removed the coded punchcard.
Glancing around he took note of a nearby security guard. With aggressive speed he caught the man's sidearm and studied it. Long experience with such weapons as he weighed it in his hand detected a subtle change in weight. Travis let himself feel amused. "You've drawn your new weapon from the armory, I see."
"Sir," the guard answered.
"Good." He handed the weapon back as Servalan swept past him and followed her, throwing back over his shoulder, "Stay alert."
And the young man calling over speakers: "...Units report to Area Control."
Despite nearly paralyzing fear, Chevner led the way into empty corridors, peering around corners to be certain of what lay ahead. "It's clear," he reported to Blake.
"Do you recognize the are?" the rebel asked hopefully.
Chevner's voice was low and soft, forcing them to lean close to hear him. "No. It must be one of the sublevels, but I don't know which one."
Blake took a deep breath and steeled himself. "All right, let's find out." Now he took the lead from Chevner. The small group gave only cursory attention to orders being blared through speakers over their heads. Both Liberator men took the points, instincts they would never admit to having placing the stranger whose abilities they did not know and their valued pilot in the middle. They were just crossing an intersection when Blake spotted a guard at the other end of the hall. The rebel dove backwards automatically. He realized the guard's back was turned, with that knowledge a plan formed and he stepped back into the intersection, to stand with chin high and fists firmly planted on his hips. Vila leaned in and whispered an inquiry, to which Blake hissed back, "Getting us a guided tour!" He grabbed the thief's collar and yanked him across the intersection out of sight. The guard turned around just then. Blake took the initiative, snapping coldly, "You there, what are you doing in this section?"
The guard for his part, stared in bewilderment at the oddly dressed man. It had to be someone in authority, from the lack of fear or humility. Cautiously, he answered. "I was just posted here by the Security Commander."
The stranger's expression was somewhere between a sneer and deadly challenge. "My orders were that no one should enter this area. What is your Security Commander's name?!"
The guard came close, holding his weapon at an angle, uncertain quite what to make of this tall man. "Sub-Major Garvin. May I have your name and authority, sir?"
Before he had a chance to move, a hand snatched his gun away and pointed it at him. A strange, bright-eyed man crouched a few feet away. "His name is Blake, and THIS is his authority."
Blake took control. "You have a woman prisoner here called Avalon, where is she being kept?"
The guard hesitated until Vila prodded him. "All prisoners are being held in the main detention block," he nodded behind him.
Blake turned a quick commanding gaze on Chevner, who ran down to check the next intersection. It was clear.
"Right. Take us there, now."
At the guard's continued slowness Vila again prodded sharply. "He said now." Jenna added a jab of her blaster to Vila's, and the guard hurriedly led them toward the prison area.
Back on the Liberator Zen finally announced: Sensors indicate that Liberator is no longer being scanned.
The same could not be said for the pursuing ships. All five were still on the ship's scanners. Cally steadied herself. "I'll make a fast turn so they do not pick us up again. Then we must return to position."
"How long will that take?" Gan asked.
Minimum possible transit time is thirty-seven point zero one minutes, replied Zen.
"That's a long time to hole on if you're in trouble!"
Avon looked over at the other two coldly. "Then let's get on with it. Speculation and fast turns aren't going to make it any shorter." He glared at Cally when he caught her smiling, silently willing her not to notice his own worry and impatience.
Blake poked his head around a corner to count the small group of guards ahead of him. This group stood guard at the entrance to the prison cells. He slipped back to the others and handed their own guard's rifle to Chevner, who disarmed it. They gave it then to the guard. Chevner settled at the turn of the corridor and waited as Blake adjusted the hood of his suit and confronted the black clad guard. "Now you remember to do exactly as I told you. And remember there are two guns right behind you. All right?" The guard turned his head toward a rather bloodthirsty-looking Vila and Jenna, and nodded. "Let's go." Blake and Vila put their hands on their head and the guard followed them out into the hall. Jenna moved quietly into place, Vila's toolkit in one hand, her weapon ready in the other.
The guards raised their guns to threaten, and one stepped forward. "Halt!"
Their own moved closer. "I have two prisoners to be confined in Detention-unit Four."
There was a moment of puzzled confusion, before the guard in charge responded. "This area is under maximum security, and totally off limits."
Their guard broke, shoving Blake and Vila at the other guard and diving for cover, shouting: "Down it's Blake!"
In the ensuing struggle it was impossible to know which man called Chevner's name. Jenna and the local rebel dashed out of cover, the pilot taking a shot that brought down one guard who was fleeing down the corridor. The other one made it out of sight though. Blake caught one man from behind and deftly snapped his neck. At that moment alarms began blaring through the complex.
Blake turned to Vila, only to find the thief slumped, his face mottled red as he tried to turn down his suit's heat. Blake shouted over the alarms, "Get it open, Vila!"
In the absence of an immediate threat, the group could take a breather. Vila took his toolkit from where Jenna had dumped it and set to work on the door, as the others kept watch around him. Blake activated the computer and flipped through images of prisoners until the speakers announced, +F2, Avalon.+ As one the group sighed in relief.
"I hope she's all right," Chevner said softly.
Jenna came sliding to a halt, leaning on the other rebel's arm and panting. "I lost him!" she managed between breaths. "He must've got down the transit shaft!"
"All right, cover this end." Blake dug one of the extra bracelets out of his pocket. "Chevner, put this on, get down and cover the other corridor." The other rebel obeyed without a question. "Come on, Vila!" Almost at the same moment, the thief stood back. The doors swung open on cue, and the three rebels rushed in. "F2, there! Open that." As Vila got to work again Blake tried his bracelet. "Liberator, come in Liberator. Stand by to teleport!" The alarming silence remained. "Liberator, do you read me?!" If he was a praying man, he would have prayed then. From outside came the sounds of firing. Troopers were after them, and their weapons left holes in the walls as they missed Jenna and Chevner.
The door began to open, and Blake impatiently shoved past Vila to speak to the startled woman inside. "Avalon! I'm Blake! We had hoped to get you out sooner, we've had a bit of trouble." He helped her out of the room as she stared around herself, stunned by the turn of events.
Vila took one look at the girl and began trying to peel his way out of his jacket. "She'll freeze to death, dressed like that!" he exclaimed.
Blake shoved his gunbelt into the startled thief's hands. "Take this, and this."
"All right." Vila gave him room and Blake was quickly out of his jacket and shoving it into Avalon's arms.
"Put this on!"
They flinched at the sight which greeted them in the hall. The walls around had holes punched in, and there was a growing pile of bodies at both ends of the hall, while the one ahead was still clear. Chevner glanced back over his shoulder as he fired another shot. "Go!" he yelled.
Blake and Avalon dove across the firing line. "All right, Vila fall back!" the rebel called the thief. Vila crossed to joint them, body low to the floor. "Jenna!" She dove across the line and shoved Chevner away from his position. He raced down the corridor the way they had come in. Blake nodded after him, speaking to Avalon. "All right go!" She sprang down the hall, following Chevner.
Vila was fast on the local rebel's heels. The other man yelled back at him, "Come on!" Avalon caught up with them, running for all she was worth.
A stray shot caught Blake in the shoulder and he fell. Jenna screamed a cry of fury and started firing at any movement but the tall rebel was scrambling to his feet. "I'm all right! Go on!" She wasted no time in surprise and raced away.
Chevner made it into the outer complex, Vila and Avalon fast on his heels. A guard caught up with them and fired catching the girl in the leg. She staggered, but Chevner grabbed her and hauled her through the door. Before the guard could fire again, he was hit from the other side by the swift running pilot. Jenna dove through the door, Blake right behind her. There was no time to seal the door. They went full tilt for the entrance to the outer tunnels as guards poured out behind them, firing wildly.
The rebels made it through into the tunnels. Blake was lifting his bracelet to signal the Liberator when a far-off humming sound caught his ear. "Chevner! The security robot!" The rebels drew tight around Avalon and prepared to fire as Blake shouted into his bracelet, "Avon, Cally, bring us up!"
Liberator has resumed original position and status, Zen announced.
Avon took a breath, casting a look to Gan. "You'd better switch on the communication channel."
The voice shouting on the com channel sent Avon shooting for the teleport chamber, Gan fast on his heels. "Liberator! We need teleport now! Come in, Liberator! Liberator, do you read me?! We need teleport NOW!!" The group huddled back against the wall but it was too late, the robot came toward them. "If you hear me, bring us up! Avon, Cally!"
Avon slid into the teleport room and dove for the recall switch.
On the planet below, a group of terrified rebels vanished just as the robot fired a stream of flames their way. The tunnel filled with smoke.
Avon settled onto the couch, looking faintly amused as the relieved group holstered their weapons. "Welcome back," he said calmly.
Blake snapped out orders. "Vila, Jenna, get the ship moving! Gan, take care of Avalon! Get her down in a cabin!" Gan noticed the girl's pronounced limp and he scooped her up in his arms, then followed the others out. Blake turned to Chevner. "If the Federation finds out where we are they'll send out everything they've got after us!"
Avon's cool words snapped the rebel around. "What went wrong?"
"I was about to ask YOU that!!" Blake snarled, slamming his hands down on the console. Avon stiffened and glared back.
"We've got a firm location reading, and an accurate track," a trooper reported over a video screen.
The advantage a trooper had with the helmets they wore, Servalan complained to herself, was one could never tell what they were thinking. Not that this helped on occasion with Space Commander Travis. One knew he hated Blake and was determined to destroy the man at almost any cost, but other than that... well other than that, who knew what the tall, cold man thought?
"Have the pursuit ships been launched?" he asked the trooper.
"Good. Keep me informed." As the screen blanked out, Servalan moved away. Travis continued to gaze at it though. Was it going to be that easy? He shuddered and tried to believe it would be. He murmured to himself, "Couple of hours... it should be all over." Servalan caught the low comment and looked over her shoulder at him, strangely uneasy.
The Liberator, being a large ship, had many chambers. The crew had designated one that was close to the outside of the ship's hull to be a lounge, because it had comfortable lie-down chairs, and viewports onto space. Cally was there in deep conversation with Avalon. Chevner sat with them, shooting puzzled glances at Avalon from time to time. The young rebel leader had been given a red suit in place of the short white tunic, and looked quite comfortable on one of the chairs. Jenna came into the lounge, still in her surface clothes. "How are you feeling?"
Avalon sat up quickly. "I'm fine, I'm perfectly all right, but my tunic... it is very important my tunic-" she broke off and gestured helplessly.
Jenna nodded to reassure the other woman. "It's all right, relax. I'll go and get it for you."
The worried girl lay back on the chair as Jenna left. Cally set a hand on her arm. "You just rest for a while," she told her. "Perhaps we could talk later. I've admired your work with the resistance for a long time." Avalon smiled warmly and shifted around so that she could better converse with Cally. She caught out of the corner of her eye Chevner frowning, his fingers twined together.
Blake was also still in his surface clothing. He was intent on the blaster they had lifted off their captured trooper. He held it in firing position, but it afforded no answer and so he slumped down onto the couch.
Jenna's voice almost set him on his feet again, coming unexpectedly from right behind him. "Avalon seems to have recovered-"
She cut herself off when Blake rolled his head back and gave her a furrowed-brow mournful gaze. "Jenna, there's something wrong." He gathered himself to his feet with the blaster in his hands. "There's something about our escape that bothers me."
"Well like what for instance?"
He set an empty cup on the table, deep in thought. "Like the fact that we DID escape. Federation troops are very efficient; they're highly trained. Now they totally outnumbered us and yet we still managed to escape."
Jenna shrugged. "Well we were lucky!"
"Yes we were!" He came around the couch to her side, and set the blaster in firing position, aiming it at the cup. "One of those guards got a clear shot at me! The impact knocked me over, that's all."
The pilot remembered her fear and fury in that moment when Blake fell. "That should've ripped your shoulder off."
"Yes. And Avalon was hit in the leg." Abruptly he fired the weapon. The sudden noise startled Gan and Avon, who had not been paying attention to them as they worked at a station. The cup tumbled over, bent over a dent in its side now. Blake lowered the weapon, studied the cup and turned to Jenna, pleased with himself. "A nasty kick, that's all." The rebel leader turned to call his technician, who was already halfway across the room, eyes focused on the blaster. "Avon! What do YOU make of this?"
Avon caught the blaster neatly when Blake tossed it to him. In swift efficient motions he turned the weapon, checking its power pack and markings. Experimenting, he set the weapon in firing position. Then he lost interest, the mystery solved. "It's not standard issue. Low energy blot discharge. This could bruise or stun, but it couldn't cause any serious injury."
"A dud gun doesn't make sense!" Gan exclaimed.
Blake nodded. "Exactly. I think they WANTED us to escape."
He found himself confronted with Avon, whose raised brows invited explanation. "That's an interesting idea, but I don't see the logic."
"Neither do I," Blake admitted wearily.
Avon shifted the blaster and considered it. He turned the same gaze on Blake, tempered with his usual wry humor. "The Federation chases you all over the galaxy with the highly understandable desire to destroy you, then when they've got you pinned down they let you go." His words sent his own gaze inward to consider for a long moment, before deciding he needed another voice to clarify. He turned to Jenna. "Why?"
Finding herself under intent scrutiny by all three men, Jenna stepped to her station. "They could have got one of us, but there were still three of you left on the Liberator," she told them.
Blake's head whipped up. "The Liberator! That's it." He turned to Avon. "They must want the Liberator. The only way they could do that is to put somebody here on board! The whole thing has been set up and we have fallen for it beautifully!!" His voice was raising steadily in alarm.
The others exchanged worried looks, but it was Gan who used his most soothing tones to calm Blake. "Not Avalon. I mean, we are sure that woman IS Avalon, aren't we?"
Jenna was quick to support that. "Well, yes. I've only met her once, but... yes, that's her."
"Then it must be Chevner," Avon spoke with deceptive mildness, but he radiated cold fury.
"Chevner? How do you think he'll do it?" Gan asked the tech.
Blake was headed for the corridors. He threw back over his shoulder, "I don't know. Gan, you stay here. You two come with me." Avon shoved the gun into Gan's hands as he left.
Blake opened the huge door to the lounge first. He froze in the doorway. Cally lay on the floor like a rag thrown there, a trickle of blood down her cheek. Blake started to turn to the others when Avon shoved past him and knelt at the girl's side. For one frightening instant he was still, then he looked back at them. "She's alive!"
Relieved, Blake told Jenna, "Warn the others: start searching, he's gotta be found." He met Avon's dark gaze for a moment, sensing he was being blamed. "You stay here and look after her!" he ordered, ducking out the door and closing it behind him.
Avon dismissed Blake from his mind the instant the man was gone. He gently brushed the blood off Cally's cheek and rested his hand there in a tender gesture he would never let his fellow crew see.
Blake and Vila nearly ran each other down in the corridor. The rebel leader caught his breath first. "Did Jenna tell you?!"
"Yes, but there's no sign of him in any of the cabins."
"All right, let's try the hold." Blake grabbed Vila's arm and dragged the thief with him.
To Gan's surprise, Avalon walked onto the flight deck. He had been sitting taking a drink at the couch, where he had a view if he chose of all the entrances. He got to his feet and came to her side. "Avalon! Come and sit down. Here, let me help you." She looked briefely startled herself, but let him take her arm and lead her to the couch. "Are you feeling better now?" Gan asked.
"I'm fine, thank you."
"Ah, there." He sat across from her.
"Where is Blake?"
"Oh he's gone to look for Chevner." Gan remembered suddenly where the man had been. "Wait a minute, wasn't... wasn't Chevner with you?"
"Yes! But--he attacked Cally! And then he dragged me out. I thought he was going to use me as a hostage, but he just--went off somewhere!"
Gan jumped to his feet at the mention of Cally, then calmed himself, biting his lip in thought. "So Blake was right. Well they'll find him, don't you worry. Is there anything you want?"
The young rebel was watching him with a wide-eyed innocent look, but at the question she started to shake her head, then remembered, "Oh, yes. My tunic, there is something I need."
"Oh, well I... I'll go and find it for you." He wondered what she could possibly need from a prison tunic.
Jenna opened the door to the medical bay and stepped in. Cally was there, slumped in a chair. Jenna would never admit to Blake that despite words she had said to him about Cally not being a child, she often felt motherly toward the alien girl. She crouched beside Cally and tenderly brushed the girl's hair away from where the wound had been. Avon had put salve on it and it was mostly healed already. At the gentle touch Cally stirred and opened her eyes. Briefly they lit with relief to see Jenna, then they looked beyond the pilot and went wide in fright. Jenna spun around and gave a startled scream. Chevner stood wavering behind her, blood streaming down his face. He swayed and then crumpled onto his back. Jenna sprang to his side. Blood and bits of bone matted his hair together. Only Gan had the strength to deliver a blow that would do this, and he would never hurt someone like that. The pilot lay a hand on Chevner's chest and felt his breathing shudder. He reached for her hand, trying to speak, she leaned close to hear him.
"Jenna had your tunic in here, she must've left it around somewhere...." The teleport room was empty but for Gan and Avalon. Gan spotted the tunic on the console seat. "Ah, yes! Here it is." He grinned engagingly and handed it to her.
Curious, he watched as she brought a silver cylinder out of the tunic's pocket and opened it. She took out a strange shimmering red-gold ball and studied it critically.
"Gan! That's not Avalon!" Jenna's voice was quickly followed by Jenna herself sliding into the room. Avalon turned toward her, dropping the ball. It landed safely on the tunic.
Gan moved quickly to grab the girl's shoulders. She caught his wrists with bone-bruising force and pushed him back, to his knees. Jenna leaped on the other woman's back, grabbing her neck and trying to wrench her away from Gan, but it was like trying to move stone. The woman kicked back, was unable to dislodge Jenna, and released Gan. She grabbed Jenna's arm and threw her over her shoulder onto Gan, who caught and steadied her before diving at Avalon again. He caught her around the shoulders but she caught his arms in that punishing grip. This time however, they could hear the hum of gears over Gan's harsh breathing. Avalon struck backward again, into Gan's stomach, staggering him. Jenna had gotten her wind back and with a cry of rage, attacked. Avalon started to flip the infuriated woman away when her arms were torn from the pilot. Cally had told Avon who attacked her, and he had retrieved Blake. The two men gripped Avalon by her arms and struggled to hold the woman. She kicked at Jenna and Gan caught her feet. They all fell down in a pile, almost drowning out the noise of straining machinery.
Blake shouted from the pile, "Get something to tie her up with!" Jenna flashed out of the room.
On the flight deck underneath Zen's visual reference point there was a sensor plate. You stuck the thing you wanted analyzed on it, and closed the bubble-like cover. The plate glowed blue-green as it analyzed the ball. Preliminary analysis suggests the phial contains a virus artificially mutated from the Delta Seven Zero Six classification, subset Two Zero Five, originally known incorrectly as the Phobon plague. This mutation appears to have a short life-cycle, and be self-eliminating.
Gan, Vila and Blake were gathered in a semi-circle around the sensor plate. Cally and Avon sat on the couch with Avalon frozen between them. It was a robot. Avon had deactivated the thing and now had the side of its head open, tinkering with the circuitry and observing the pumps inside that had allowed the thing to act so human.
Gan spoke over his shoulder to them. "If she'd managed to crush that, we'd have been wiped out! And the Liberator TOtally unharmed!"
Avon acknowledged Gan with a glance and a nod. He set aside a hunk of circuitry with fake skin and hair still hanging off it. "It very nearly worked, too. They've made a perfect replica, this is the best robotic engineering I've ever seen."
Jenna had retreated to her station. She was still shaken from the battle, still coming off an adrenalin high. "I never had a moment's doubt that she was Avalon."
Getting to her feet, Cally agreed. "I talked with her, about her work. Not details, but her reasons and beliefs. I still find it hard to believe."
Avon swung his attention back to the robot. He spoke though, voice like ice. "Brilliant programming. They transferred complete key areas of Avalon's personality. It's really quite impressive."
"The only person it didn't completely fool was Chevner," Blake added.
Jenna sat down. "Ah, but he'd known the real Avalon for quite some time. He must've been suspicious of this one."
"That's why it killed him," Avon snapped.
"He shouldn't have tried to tackle it alone," Vila said sadly.
Avon turned slightly toward the thief. "He probably didn't. Just being suspicious would've been enough. A machine of this type would have recognized that easily. More easily than we would."
"Can you make it safe?" Blake demanded.
He had the satisfaction of seeing Avon momentarily surprised. Now the technician faced the rebel, measuring him coolly. "I can deprogram it, scramble the brain."
"Can you REprogram it?"
The dark eyes flicked with mild annoyance before Avon turned back to the robot. "No. A few minor functions perhaps. Not much else."
As a group, Blake's crew were eyeing him with the same suspicion. His next words did nothing to make them feel better. "That's enough. Jenna, take us back into the precise orbit we were in. Cally, I want an exact locater fix on that laboratory. We still have to get Avalon out of there."
Like rulers they strode the corridors. Without quite realizing it, Servalan and Travis had fallen into matching steps, each stride oozing arrogance and some contempt for the people around them. Mutoids followed doggishly on their heels. Servalan was enjoying Travis' presence, he was quite a change from the desk-sitters she was normally surrounded by. "I think I'll stay on during Avalon's interrogation. I have a feeling she's going to tell us a great deal."
"There's no doubt of that."
His rather curt response caused her to consider him, wondering if defeating Blake would take his furious strength away. "When will you begin it?" she asked after a while.
He paused in the middle of a long stride. Drawing a deep breath, he answered, "I want to finish with the Liberator first, as soon as it's confirmed they've put a boarding party on her, we'll get started." At that moment Travis' personal com unit beeped. He answered it. "Travis?" As he listened to the voice in his ear, his face went from mild curiosity to shock, then furious confusion. "WHAT?! Are you sure of that?..... keep checking, I'm coming up." He turned a face full of bewilderment to Servalan. "I don't understand. Space Track-Control say the Liberator's moved back into orbit."
"It must be another ship!" she protested.
Travis felt like his footing had slid out from under him. He had the sense of his plan going drastically wrong. "No, no, no. They seem very certain." Emergency klaxons began to ring through the corridors. Travis and Servalan were still very startled when the young mutoid woman came to them from the laboratory.
"Blake is here, sir. In the main laboratory."
Travis gaped at her, then snapped his mouth shut. "Blake?!"
"He's demanding to see you."
Servalan's mouth dropped. "He is demanding?!"
"I report only what I have been told, Commander." Despite her words, the mutoid was wide-eyed with fear. She focused on Travis frantically. "He also says you're to bring Avalon with you!"
Travis went still suddenly. Servalan eyed him warily, sensing his muscles tight to a snapping point. He spoke with soft danger. "How many of them are there?"
"Just Blake, sir."
"Right." He turned to a still-bewildered Servalan. "I'll deal with this. Bring the prisoner!" He shoved his way through the mutoid guards behind him and raced in long strides toward the main laboratory. Servalan hurried after him, while the mutoids went to retrieve Avalon. Travis hit the door at top speed and came to an abrupt halt. The doctors and guards around all stood with their hands folded on their heads. Blake was in the center of the room, with the robot.
Blake's lips curled back from his teeth into a parody of a smile. He spoke almost fondly. "Ah, Travis! It didn't work. It was very clever, but it didn't work."
The two mortal enemies glared across the room at each other, their expressions mirrored: hate; cruel mockery; deadly challenge and intense desire to take that challenge.
"How did you stop it?" Travis bit out.
"Does it matter? All I want to do is finish what I started. I'm gonna take Avalon out of here."
"I don't think so." Travis raised his false arm to fire.
Blake shifted in feral warning. "THAT... would not be very clever." He held up his hand to reveal a tiny glowing ball in his fingers.
A hand descended on Travis' arm, forcing it down. Servalan had joined them at last and in no uncertain terms her gaze commanded him not to fire. "He wouldn't do it," growled Travis.
"What have I got to lose?"
The Space Commander glared murder at the rebel. "It's not a pleasant death, Blake."
Blake's smile was a death's head grimace. "So I gather. But it would have its compensations. I'd share it with you." His eyes flicked to Servalan, and true laughter shone through in a gloat. "AND the Supreme Commander! Are you quite sure I wouldn't do it?"
Servalan grabbed Travis' hand and shoved it down as he tried to fire again. Without taking her eyes off Blake she ordered, "Bring the prisoner in." A mutoid obeyed, leading the exhausted woman by her arm. Travis grabbed Avalon as she passed between his body and Servalan's. Wrenching her aside by her wrists so that she winced from this new pain, he glared murder at Blake. Blake toyed with the ball in his hand.
"Let her go," Servalan ordered. Travis glared down at her. "I SAID... LET... her...go."
The Space Commander glared at his superior for a moment longer. His gaze snapped back to Blake. Finally he shoved Avalon forward. Blake nodded politely to her where she stood very bewildered at the sight of the robot. Travis' deathly low snarl carried across the room. "You still have to get her out of here, Blake. Are you sure your teleport's fast enough to stop me killing you both?"
Blake took the teleport bracelet off the robot's wrist and handed it to Avalon. "Put this bracelet on your wrist." She obeyed, bemused by this turn of events, and watched with interest as Blake turned back to Travis. "I'm afraid we've had to reprogram your machine slightly. It's nowhere near as sophisticated as it was, but it will perform a few basic functions." He shifted his attention to the robot. "Raise you arm." It complied slowly with its left arm, the hum of gears all too audible. "Enough. Open your thumb and forefinger." When it had obliged, he took the ball and held it just in the cup of those fingers. "Close the thumb and forefinger. Enough!" he ordered as the fingers closed on the ball. Blake carefully let it go. He looked at Travis with a devilish gleam in his eye. "The robot will crush the phial in response to one of three triggers. A particular word, a specific sound, or a certain movement." His eyes flicked over the helpless guards and he smiled a deadly smile. "You had ALL better be very, very careful what you say and do." Beside Blake, Avalon clapped her hands over her mouth to hold back her laughter. He grinned briefly and spoke into his bracelet. "Bring us up." They vanished in a shimmer of light.
Travis was not a stupid man. He knew the likely three triggers. The word "Fire"; the sound, a blaster being fired; the movement, a blaster being drawn. But there was also a strange feeling of urgency in him. Blake could be a killer, when he knew who his enemy was. Travis took a step toward the robot. Servalan reached to stop him in fright, but he gestured firmly at her to wait. He focused his being on that shimmering ball and crept across the room toward the robot. When he was just a few feet away, the robot's fingers opened.
Travis dove for it, catching it in his false hand. Adrenaline racing through his system and the shock of bringing his full weight onto his right shoulder left him gasping, lying there with the ball held loosely in a shaking mechanical hand.
Servalan let none of her racing heartbeat, her relief in Travis' catch or her earlier attraction to him show in that moment. Like any politician she covered her tracks instantly. "Project Avalon has failed totally. There will be a full inquiry. Until that time you are relieved of your command." She started out of the laboratory.
Travis closed his eyes, shuddering violently. He would never forgive this defeat, particularly as it made him vulnerable in someone else's game of power. Yet he couldn't truly blame the Supreme Commander, she surely had her reasons. There was only one person responsible, and he made himself a promise, speaking it in a low whisper to set it in his mind beyond anyone's skill to dislodge. "If it takes all my life, I will destroy you, Blake. I will destroy you.... I will destroy you."
Almost far away he heard Servalan snap out the order to her guards: "Launch the pursuit ships." Her dry tone made it clear she knew it was a waste of time. Cover your tracks, I only want HIM! Travis thought.