Jenna Stannis was keeping watch outside the door to the space station’s central control area, pressing herself back against the wall of the grey corridor. They couldn’t have long before they were spotted by Federation guards, and the thought caused her to tighten her hold on her weapon.
Behind her, inside the control room, she could hear her two co-saboteurs exchanging a barbed conversation, and she rolled her eyes, as she caught snatches:
“It’s a delicate operation. Perhaps you would be happy to have the console blow up in our faces – one can never be sure how far your reckless idealism stretches – but I’d prefer not to risk it.”
“We don’t have much time.”
“Next time you want something done yesterday, I suggest you ask for less than the impossible.”
“I’m sorry,” Avon said, and Jenna could hear the smirk in his voice, “almost impossible, I should have said.”
Jenna darted back into the room. “It’s still clear out there – for the moment. You’ve done it?”
Harsh alarms sounded around them as the lighting dimmed to its emergency state. The console in the centre of the small room was now brightened by several red flashing lights, and there was an unconscious guard lying to one side of it.
Avon smiled. “As you see.”
“Cally,” said Blake, into his teleport bracelet. “We’re finished – now get us back.”
There was no reply. Jenna frowned . More to the point, they hadn’t been instantly transported back to the relative safety of the Liberator.
“Damn,” said Blake. “Something’s happened – the Liberator must be out of range.”
“Or permanently out of action,” suggested Avon, with his usual optimism.
Jenna tried hers to double check, but without much expectation. “Cally? Vila? Gan? Is anyone there?”
“I suppose,” said Avon to Blake, “one must admit it’s a novel way to commit suicide. Or perhaps not so novel since I had the misfortune to meet you.”
They were carrying out a mission to destroy a scientific research post based on board the Ketterin space station, in orbit around a barren and nameless planet. The experiments carried out here had been cruel and dangerous enough to draw Blake’s attention, and the three of them were here to blow the space station apart, and put an stop to it.
As it turned out, they’d succeeded so well, it looked as though they’d put paid to their own future prospects.
“Suicide?” said Jenna, heading back for the door. “Not if we can get to the docking bay. If we can steal another ship, we can get out of here the old-fashioned way. Come on!”
Blake nodded, and the three of them ran out of the room, and down the long, metallic, curving corridor.
There was chaos across the space station as its central systems disintegrated and the reactor that provided its power core went into meltdown. Guards were forcing the panicking scientists to try to mend the damage, while others were running for their lives, so the three of them passed almost unnoticed among the shrill alarms, ominous cracking noises, and occasional small electrical explosions from comms devices and control panels along the walls.
Someone yelled as they ran past – a black-clad guard – but Avon fired, and the soldier fell back against the wall, slumping to the floor with a cut-off cry and a thud.
They reached the docking area, but the hatches were sealed; the emergency shutters down.
“Avon?” said Blake. “Any ideas?”
Avon examined the electronic locking mechanism. “It’s one of those rare moments when one wishes Vila were here, but I may be able to make one or two adjustments that will suffice.”
“Well, get on with it, then.”
Avon gave him a dark look, while Jenna swung around, hearing someone else running towards them, their footsteps echoing on the metallic surface as they came. This time it was she who fired at the oncoming guard.
“Ship, I feel, was overstating the case,” said Avon, as the three crammed themselves into the borrowed vehicle’s not-so-spacious and shabby interior.
Jenna ignored him, looking around her for all the tell-tale signs as to make, model, engine, and speed capabilities, crawling past Blake to the main control panel, and taking the pilot’s seat. A clumsy, planet-hopping Herculia Mk II, she decided. It must be a private vehicle, belonging to one of the scientists – none of the guards would be seen dead in it. It certainly wasn’t Federation issue, and it was about as far from galaxy class as it could be, but it would be enough to get them out of here.
At any rate, the basic design was one shared by at least a dozen other ships, and Jenna had no qualms about activating the engines. “Hold on,” she called back to the other two.
“Hurry,” added Blake. “It’s going to blow any minute -.”
The ship shot forward, causing both of the men to be jolted back against the rear of the tiny interior, silencing Blake mid-sentence, but only fractionally before the space station exploded behind him, making his words redundant.
“I did tell you to hold on,” said Jenna, biting back a smirk, as she pressed forward, maneuovring to avoid the debris now floating around their less than elegant space ship. There was a drag to their flight, she noted, and turned her head to look at the dials in front her, and frowned again.
Blake moved forward to reach the seat next to her. “She’s listing.”
“We’ve taken a hit in the explosion – or we damaged something with the rough take off,” said Jenna. “I don’t think I can get us very far. Looks as though we’re losing oxygen as well. Speed, if comes to it. We’re not going to do anything more than limp along at standard – if we’re lucky.”
He nodded. “Then get us down to the planet, and we’ll find cover while we wait for the Liberator to return.”
“Wonderful,” muttered Avon. “Is that the best you can manage?”
Blake turned his head to grin at him. “We’re alive, aren’t we?”
“For the moment. I don’t hold out much hope for surviving the rest of the day – not in the present company.”
Jenna and Blake exchanged a look, and she grimaced at him, while he gave her a brief smile. “You can do it, Jenna.”
“I know,” she retorted, with a lift of her chin. “I just wish I could be as sure about this heap of scrap metal.”
Behind them, Avon laughed.
All that could be said for their landing was that they were still in one piece at the end of it, more or less. The same couldn’t be said for the stolen ship.
They didn’t need telling that they had to get out quickly. There was smoke rising from several different sections, and a rattling, growling sound was coming from somewhere within its workings.
The three of them scrambled out as fast as they could; Avon first, being nearest to the hatch. He helped both of the others out, and then they raced away from it. Blake was limping, Jenna noted, even as Avon shouted, “Down!”
They flung themselves down on the dusty ground, and behind them the small ship erupted into a disproportionately large explosion; deafening them, even as dust, rubble, rock and metal rained down.
Eventually, Blake sat up cautiously, the other two following his lead, and they surveyed the twisted wreckage and the black smoke still belching out of it.
“I fear our arrival here was not as inconspicuous as we had hoped,” observed Avon, after a long silence.
Blake glanced at him. “No. True. We’d better see if we can find shelter – somewhere out of sight to wait for the Liberator.”
“That way,” suggested Jenna, standing first and looking across the dusty, rocky landscape. “There are some hills, or higher ground, at least – there should be some cover there.”
Blake got to his feet, offering Avon a hand, but the other disdained to notice, getting back up without assistance, and dusting down his dark grey tunic and trousers with a disapproving twist of his mouth.
“Are you all right?” asked Jenna, moving closer to Blake, and lowering her tone. “You’re hurt, aren’t you?”
Blake turned his head with a slight smile. “My leg. It’s nothing. A slight burn, I think.”
“Wonderful,” said Avon, who overheard anyway. “We need to run for our lives, and one of us is a lame duck.”
Blake started off, turning back only to say, “This lame duck can fly every bit as far and as fast as you, Avon. Try me.”
“I don’t have any choice, as usual,” said Avon. “However, I’m relieved to hear it.”
They didn’t get far. The hills were further away than they had appeared, and, as Avon had observed, they might as well have announced their presence in large, flashing letters across the sky once they had crashed the ship in such an open area.
Two small, tough vehicles loaded with Federation guards came heading towards them. Jenna fired at the wheels of the first buggy, as Avon shot the driver of the other, Blake aiming at the guards in the back of the first, two of whom fell out with loud yells.
They ran again, even though they had no chance of getting away.
Jenna had been a free trader – a smuggler, if you wanted honesty, which few people did – and she had been used to keeping out of sight, and fleeing for her life, but she seemed to have done more of it, and more literal running since she had joined Blake than she ever had before. It seemed more like business as usual than anything else, she thought distantly, the adrenaline pumping through her as she tore onwards, trying to dodge the enemy fire; Blake and Avon close by on either side.
Now, as she sped across the landscape of rocks and dust, she nearly tripped, glancing down, she caught sight of a sudden, unlooked for means of escape, and she turned, ready to catch at Blake, and then stopped in uncertainty – and reached for Avon.
Blake could see they were never going to outrun the vehicle, or even the well-trained guards pursuing them on foot, now the second buggy had been put out of action. He swung back round again, dodging an energy beam aimed at him, and fired again, another guard falling with a grunt.
When he turned, Avon and Jenna were suddenly nowhere in sight, and he was facing the troop of soldiers alone. He dropped his weapon and held up his hands in wry surrender. Again.
Jenna slid down into the narrow crevice behind the rocks, lines furrowing her forehead as she thought about the possible unpleasant consequences of her actions.
“If they find us here -.”
She gestured with her head towards a dark opening to the side of her, even further out of view, and they slipped inside it.
“And Blake?” asked Avon, in her ear.
Jenna closed her eyes. “He’ll be fine.” She repeated the phrase to herself silently. It was Blake. He would be fine. That was partly why she’d made the choice she had in that brief instant of hesitation. Blake would survive, while Avon would probably drive any party of Federation guards to murder him within a few minutes if he behaved with his usual charm. There was also the chance he might have sold them out – although Jenna was coming to believe that was a lot less probable than Avon wanted them to think – and she would need his skills for a rescue mission.
The two of them waited until they’d heard the guards running about, and then the roar of the remaining vehicle, as it shot off over the rough terrain.
“So,” said Avon, turning his head to her, as they were both standing there, pressed against the rock wall, “don’t think me ungrateful, but what made you choose me?”
Jenna smiled to herself. “Nothing to get excited over; don’t worry, Avon. We couldn’t all hide here. One of us had to distract the guards – and if we’re to get him back, I’ll need your technical skills.”
“How very pragmatic of you,” murmured Avon.
“You ought to approve.”
He smiled. “Oh, believe me, I do. Now, shall we retrieve him before he betrays us?”
“Not willingly, I grant you.” Avon pulled himself out of their cramped hiding place. “Now, what are we going to do about the fact that they’ll be back with reinforcements any moment now – if they haven’t left someone watching as it is?”
Jenna turned back. “Give me a lift to get up, thanks.” Then she smiled at him. “I thought we’d see if that other vehicle could be fixed, drive after the others, find a way to get inside the command complex, get Blake back, and return to the Liberator.”
“I might have known.”
“And have you got a better idea?”
“Much as it galls me to admit it, no.”
Blake found himself locked in a cell, and sat down with a short laugh. How many times was it now? he wondered. Maybe he should have stuck to a respectable life when he had the chance. A respectable life, of course, that was nothing but illusion and lies wrapped around him by his enemies. That was a worse prison than any; one where you couldn’t be free even inside your own mind, and your enemies could steal your hopes and dreams in the most literal sense imaginable.
Besides, he was also wondering how long it would take Jenna and Avon to extract him from this particular cell.
He had very little doubt that they would. He only feared that they might die trying. That was the other thing the Federation had a tendency to do: butchering any friends, family or colleagues he had seemed to have become a popular pastime with them these days.
Jenna lifted her head over the edge of the rock crevice, and saw the back of a guard waiting, only yards away. She smiled to herself with little humour, and then raised her weapon, and fired. The man stumbled back, and fell, never knowing what had hit him, as the two rebels climbed out of their narrow hiding place.
Avon stopped, as Jenna marched on. She had to turn back to see what had caught his gaze. He grimaced at her, and held up Blake’s teleport bracelet between thumb and forefinger.
“Hang onto it,” was all she said. “We’ll need it.”
“Let us hope so.”
Jenna set her face. “We will.”
They ran back over to the abandoned vehicle, Jenna examining the controls. “I think there’s a code needed to start the thing – we’ll need to by-pass it. You’re the genius; you should be able to do it.”
“I think you have me confused with Vila,” said Avon, examining the burst tyre. “I don’t amuse myself by indulging in petty thievery. This plan has too many drawbacks for my liking.”
Jenna jumped back down, fingering her way around the inside of the vehicle, until she pulled out what looked like an oversized, black plaster. “Here. And, given how many credits you tried to steal from the Federation Banking System, I’d say it’s a bit rich to claim you’re not a thief, Avon.”
“That was different,” said Avon, watching her jump down, and then run a hand along the side of the vehicle, until she pulled out a small canister. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“What’s not to understand about greed?” she retorted, as she moved round to the damaged tyre.
“True. However, I don’t believe a ‘free trader’ has any right to take the moral high ground.”
“I’m not,” said Jenna, fixing the black rubber plaster to the wheel and watching it attach itself. “Why should I? I’m trying to steal this, so get in the driver’s seat and help before we’re both killed.” She pulled out the canister, extending a tube from the top, which she inserted into a valve on the tyre, watching it reinflate.
Avon raised his eyebrows, but her suggestion was the most logical one currently available, so he set to work on confusing the machine’s half-brained computer into letting them take control. It was, he thought, with a sigh, almost insultingly easy.
“We’re done,” said Jenna eventually, and leapt into the driver’s seat. “I have to warn you, Avon – it’s been a while since I’ve been near one of these things, and it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
They followed the tracks of the other vehicle across the landscape. Jenna had been understating the facts when she’d warned him it would be bumpy. Avon gritted his teeth, and merely kept a watch out for any sign of more guards or vehicles as they jolted over the uneven ground and swerved wildly to avoid inconvenient boulders.
As soon as they came in view of a grey dome, still a toy building on the horizon, they stopped the vehicle.
“It’s over,” said Jenna, with a short grin at her passenger. “We survived.”
Avon got out. “One thing: if we need to make our getaway in that, I think I may prefer death.”
“Yes,” said Jenna. “I’m not keen on another ride in this, either. If we fail, we’ll make it back here, blow it up, and go down in flames. How does that sound?”
“Not particularly appealing. It seems we had better succeed.”
Jenna nodded, and jumped out of the buggy after him, and they headed towards the complex, keeping close to any cover they could find, however limited.
Blake tired of the cell, and of the waiting, soon enough. He got up, and moved nearer to the door, listening intently for any sound of an approaching guard. After all, someone would want to interrogate their prisoner soon – especially given that they knew saboteurs had destroyed the vital research station that should have been circling above them, not drifting in pieces out into space.
It took patience, but he heard the steady, echoing steps coming closer along the corridor, and smiled. Avon and Jenna would do what they could, of course, but there was nothing wrong with helping himself if the opportunity arose.
The guard flung open the door, and then, wondering where his prisoner was, unwisely stepped inside.
Avon and Jenna reached the perimeter of the dome on foot, and they both halted there, taking close note of everything they could see.
“All right,” said Jenna, while he continued to scan the area intently. “You see if you can find a way in round the back.”
“And what are you going to do?”
Jenna gave him a look. “Does it matter?”
Avon smiled. “I suppose not. If it’s not too much to ask, do try to stay out of trouble.”
“It’s a bit late for that,” said Jenna, mostly to herself, as he left her.
Jenna waited to be sure that Avon was on his way over to the other side of the dome, and then she crouched down, rolling up her burgundy trouser leg and then, after a brief glance about, she scraped across the foreleg with her nails, giving only a brief grimace, and again, until she had drawn enough blood to satisfy her. It wasn’t all that convincing, she thought, but at least there would be a wound of sorts if anyone cared to look. Besides, the only other option would be shooting herself in the foot and she felt that was a step too far, and a little too ironic, anyway.
Then she moved forwards, directly towards the main gate, lurching at the end, and staggered onto the ground in front of the guards on duty there.
“Hey,” said one, and they both reached for their guns.
Jenna gasped out. “Don’t – no,” she said, raising her face, so they could get a clear view of the good looks she’d traded on more than once in the past. Though it was something she hated to resort to, she would never ignore any weapon in her armoury. However, anyone fool enough to be swayed by such things, she despised even more. “I was a scientist – on the Ketterin Station – I managed to escape, but my pilot – I think he’s dead.”
“You’re lucky,” said the first guard, crouching down. “No one else got out – well, maybe one. You okay?”
“My leg,” she moaned, and fainted artistically, her blonde curls spilling over the sandy-coloured ground.
Avon made his approach to the back entrance, finding two guards busily engaged in gossiping, evidently not expecting anything to happen on this lifeless planet. A foolish mistake, he decided as he raised his weapon, and one which they were going to regret.
After that, it would be yet another battle of wits with whoever had programmed the door lock. He hoped it would be sophisticated enough for him, and not the sort of thing that needed Vila’s more basic skills. If, of course, he amended, not wishing to compliment the thief even in his own head, one was prepared to dignify them by calling them skills.
Carried inside, Jenna waited for her moment, and when it came, she recovered miraculously and instantaneously, kneeing one guard, and hitting the medic with a blow to the throat that sent him reeling, as she hastily retrieved her weapon from the soldier. As soon as she got hold of it, she raised it, shooting the guard, as he attempted to get up. The medic took one look at her face, and ran.
She moved cautiously out into the corridor, inching along against the wall, her weapon tightly clenched in her hand, until she stopped as someone grabbed hold of her, her heart thudding wildly. She closed her eyes.
It was over.
“Jenna,” said Blake, and she realised he was the one who had her by the shoulder, and she had to bite back a relieved grin. He released her slowly. “You weren’t looking for me, were you?”
“What makes you think that?” she returned, with a smile, but then they both turned, with no time for her to say anything more, or make unnecessary explanations about what she’d done, as a guard captain strode towards them. She caught at Blake’s arm in an instinctive act of warning, but it was already too late.
The newcomer looked at them both, his own gun at the ready – there was no way either of them could get to their weapons before he shot them.
They exchanged a glance: a wordless, rueful apology, and faced their enemy, and the death that had to come sooner or later. Jenna wished it hadn’t been this soon.
“So,” said the Federation man, facing them. “What do we have here?”
Neither of them spoke.
“Must I kill one of you to make the other talk?” he threatened. “My instinct tells me you’re to blame for today’s massacre. Give me one reason why I shouldn’t shoot both of you now.”
Blake raised his head, and there was an elusive smile on his face. “Without finding out who we are first? What if we’re worth more to the Federation alive than dead?”
“I doubt it,” he snapped, and tightened his hold on the gun, adjusting his aim – and then a shot was fired from the side, and he slowly toppled over.
Avon emerged from behind him, holding his energy weapon. “Sometimes I wonder what you would do without me. Die, it appears, is the answer.”
“You took your time,” said Blake, but he smiled in brief acknowledgement of the rescue. “Thanks.”
Avon shrugged, and handed over the teleport device to Blake. “You dropped this.”
“Careless of me,” Blake muttered. “Now, how about we get out of here before anyone else takes a dislike to us?”
Jenna pushed open a nearby door to a store room. “Let’s. In here, then.”
“Playing hide and seek in the dark with Federation guards has never been my favourite occupation,” said Avon, half an hour later. “We should have left the complex, as I suggested.”
Blake tried the Liberator again. “Hello? Cally?”
“If that idiot has wrecked the ship, that won’t do us any good.”
“Vila isn’t there alone, Avon.”
Avon folded his arms. “If you want me to give you my opinion of the abilities of the remainder of the crew, I’d be happy to oblige -.”
Jenna closed her eyes. For this moment, she wasn’t afraid. Like twine, twisted together from separate strands, they were stronger together. It was true of the three of them, and it was true of the whole crew; it was one of the unspoken reasons they stayed together. That, and for Blake.
Even if it was hard to believe it at times, she amended, the continuing exchange breaking into her thoughts. She straightened herself, and moved to intervene before this disintegrated into a dangerous argument in a glorified Federation cupboard. That would be an ignominious end to any rebel’s career.
“Wait,” she said, cutting into Avon’s insults. “Shh, both of you. I think I’m getting something…”
The Liberator was returning to its original location now that its crew had lost the pursuit ships that had suddenly put a spoke in their plan.
“Well, they did it all right,” said Vila, surveying the screen after the remaining crew members had asked Zen for visuals. “The space station’s nothing but spare parts. Do you think they found a way out – or is that all that’s left of them?” He sucked in his breath, and shook his head. “What a nasty way to go. Mind, I suppose there is a bright side.”
Cally was already heading towards the teleport area. “Oh? And what is that, Vila?”
“At least it wasn’t me.”
Gan grinned, as he stayed behind them, watching the flight deck. “That’s the bright side?”
“Oy, I heard that,” Vila called back, and then raced to join Cally at the teleport controls. “Are they there? Hurry up, Cally!”
Cally looked up, and adjusted the switches. “We shall find out.”
“Blake?” said Vila, leaning over. “Avon? If anyone can survive an explosion like that, it’d have to be you – it’s always the ones you can’t stand who turn up again…”
There was a brief silence, and then a familiar voice could be heard, no less superiority in its tone for whatever its owner had been through in the past few hours: “Vila. I have to say, this once, it’s a pleasant surprise to hear your voice.”
“Avon?” said Vila, raising his eyebrows. He looked back at Cally. “Whatever they’ve been through, it must have been bad. Avon’s trying to be nice.” He adjusted his tone to that used to address children, the stupid and the elderly. “Are you feeling all right, Avon? Hit your head on a rock, have you? Don’t worry – we’ll have the medical kit on standby.”
Cally sighed, and shook her head as she operated the controls.
“Cally?” said Jenna, speaking now. “We’re alive and still standing – just. Now, get us out of here!”
“At once,” Cally responded, flicking the switches over, and pressing the button that would bring the rest of the crew – the most vital part of it – back on board the Liberator.