"Love is why I came here in the first place.
Love is now the reason I must go.
Love is all I ever hoped to find here.
Love is still the only dream I know."
[From "Seasons of the Heart" by John Denver]
+Attention: Damage to the navigation computers is beyond the present capacity of the auto-repair systems. The teleport malfunction is now total. Automatic shutdown has been implemented.+ Never wavering from its perennial monotone, Zen's calm voice was at odds with the ominous note of impending doom conveyed by his words.
Rushing into the section of the ship containing her bank of emergency life-support capsules, Vila began scurrying in all directions, furiously checking controls and equipment, silently praying to all the gods he'd ever heard of – and a few he found himself inventing on the spot – that this one remaining avenue of escape had not been damaged by the Andromedans' attack upon the Liberator. To his great relief, he discovered that several of the single occupancy ejection pods were still functional.
"Well, that's all right," he muttered-and then the force of a fresh explosion knocked him to the floor. Sparks were flying everywhere, and debris pelted him over the head and shoulders. As he managed to get himself back onto his feet, a wall of flames sprang up in front of his face.
Activating the nearest intercom panel, he made his report in a voice quaking with urgency. "Avon, the life capsules are operational. Let's get out while we still can! Avon! Avon!"
There was no answer, so Vila left the intercom and began preparing the capsules for launch.
Zen spoke again: +Damage control estimates breakdown is now beyond the capacity of the auto-repair systems in all areas. Serious malfunction in life support would indicate evacuation by life capsules to be a priority one requirement.+
At that moment Avon arrived, carrying Orac's box. "Where've you been?" Vila demanded with great agitation. "Where've you been?" he repeated to Cally, who entered an instant later, carrying Orac.
It was she who responded. "Blake didn't want to leave."
"Well, I do!"
"I'm surprised you're still here," Avon said drily.
"Where's Jenna?" the thief asked. "We haven't got to wait for her, have we?"
As Avon keyed Orac, Cally replied, "Jenna's gone with Blake..."
* * * * * * *
Reclining on a couch in the Medical Unit, Blake listened over the intercom to Zen's increasingly somber pronouncements. +Damage control estimates breakdown is now beyond the capacity of the auto-repair systems in all areas. Serious malfunction in life support would indicate evacuation by life capsules to be a priority one requirement.+
It will be all right, he told himself, glancing at the huge immobilization pad covering his left arm and shoulder. It could have been worse. Travis could have blasted my dominant arm. Hell, he could have blown my bloody head off. But this will heal in time, and I've access here to all the painkillers I could want, and I've more than enough food concentrates to last me until –
His litany of self-reassurance came to an abrupt halt as the Liberator's pilot galloped through the door, gulping for breath. "Jenna!" he exclaimed in astonishment, lifting himself up. "I thought everyone had gone!"
"The others have."
"Why didn't you go with them?"
The woman snorted. "If I thought that was a serious question, I'd be worried about you – or should I say more worried about you."
Zen's voice cut into her observation. +Damage control estimates total failure of life support system in 39 seconds.+
"Damn!" Blake cursed under his breath. "I was hoping life support wouldn't shut down completely."
"Ever the optimist," Jenna commented. Then they both listened without saying a word to the computer's countdown, knowing that when it reached zero, that voice would fall silent, joining the rest of the ship in a mechanical equivalent of suspended animation.
Even before the final syllable was uttered, the lights began to flicker and dim, and the familiar hum of the generators powered down to a whisper.
"Jenna, the door!" Blake suddenly screamed, as that whisper faded out entirely. In a flash of comprehension, the woman flung herself at it, managing at the last instant to wedge a box of medical supplies in the opening. Zen was attempting to seal off every section of the ship from every other section – a logical safeguard against complete loss of internal atmosphere in the wake of extensive hull damage and penetration.
In this case, however, what was best for the whole was most emphatically not best for the part!
Blake and Jenna looked at one another and heaved a joint sigh of relief. Then Blake shook his head in gentle censure. "Just because I'm too weak to have made it in a life capsule is no reason for you to have jeopardized your own chances of survival."
Jenna gave him an ironic look. "You mean you're not worth dying for?"
"That's not funny!" he exploded, remembering Gan's last words to him.
"It wasn't meant to be," the woman said. "Look, Blake, you told Cally you thought it was possible to survive through the auto-repair period."
"Possible – yes. But I don't know how probable – especially since there'll now be two of us breathing the air."
"Well, I did manage to keep the door open. The corridor should give us enough extra oxygen."
"Let's hope so. It could be a very near thing."
Jenna smiled. "Not as near as the time we boarded that alien spacecraft on our way to Saurian Major."
Blake burst out laughing. "It had better not be."
"Besides, as the pilot of this ship, I ought to have faith in her capabilities, oughtn't I?"
Now it was Blake's turn to snicker. "You didn't stay to demonstrate your confidence in the Liberator."
"No, I didn't." Suddenly serious, Jenna indicated, by pointing to her companion's shoulder, a large part of the reason she had stayed. "How's the pain?"
"Nothing I can't handle."
"You're beginning to sound like Avon."
A look of anguish burned in the rebel leader's eyes, and a soft moan escaped his lips. "Oh, God, I hope he makes it."
The look on Jenna's face was closer to disgust. "Typical," she spat.
"He wasn't that concerned about you, Blake."
The other chuckled knowingly. "Typical."
"You've never understood him, Jenna." He tossed her a teleport bracelet. "Here, put this on."
"What for? The teleport's not working."
"No, but it will be, and we're still in a war zone. I just want to make sure that we can leave in a hurry if we need to do."
As she fastened the bracelet around her wrist, she shuddered. "Temperature's dropping already." There was just the slightest tinge of apprehension in her voice.
"It's going to get a lot colder than this," Blake declared, wrapping a blanket around himself. "But the buildup of carbon dioxide is an even greater potential problem. Too bad we can't ask Orac to calculate the optimal balance between staying active to keep warm and remaining still to conserve oxygen."
Fear flickered momentarily in Jenna's eyes, then she squelched it and climbed onto the couch beside his, following his example by covering herself with a blanket. "I just hope no refugees from the wrong side of the war decide to come aboard while our defenses are still down."
Blake yawned and rolled over, trying to find a comfortable position for his wounded arm. "Or from the right side of it either," he returned.
Jenna swallowed hard. The man definitely had a point.
* * * * * * *
"I hope you understand why Vila and I sent that message to Servalan, warning her about the invasion." Jenna paused momentarily in the midst of affixing Blake's immobilizer pad over the new dressing she had applied to his wound and looked into the rebel leader's eyes.
"Yes, of course," he assured her. "I'd have done the same myself if I'd been aboard at the time."
She smiled. "I thought so. I hoped so. It's just that you were so keen for such a very long time on obliterating Star One at all costs – "
"Not at all costs, Jenna. Humanity's freedom wouldn't mean very much if the price paid for that freedom were humanity's extinction. And that's obviously what the Andromedans had in mind. Once they revealed that to me – when they mistook me for Travis – you may be very sure my priorities changed." He sighed. "Not that it makes much difference anymore since the Andromedans have destroyed Star One anyway."
Jenna finished fastening the last clamp on the immobilizer pad and stepped back. "There. How's that feel?"
"Much better, thank you."
"Glad I stayed after all?"
"I'm glad of the company and grateful for your help," Blake answered carefully, "but I could still turn out to be the cause of your death, and I find that prospect extremely distressing."
It had been roughly four hours since the Liberator had entered into its self-imposed stasis, and as yet there was no indication of how much longer they might expect the ship to remain in that condition. There were, however, progressive signs of what the consequences would be if life support were not restored within roughly the next four hours. The temperature had fallen steadily; it was now sufficiently below the threshold of comfort to be a constant reminder of their predicament. And the air was beginning to feel thin enough to make them conscious of the effort that each breath required. More subtle – but just as ominous – was the creeping sense of drowsiness which inhaling that unrecycled air imposed upon them...
"I'm responsible for my own choices, Blake," Jenna told him sternly. "Besides, if I die, you die."
"So you won't be around to worry about it then."
"So don't worry about it now."
"All right, I won't."
She gave him a puzzled look. "Just like that?"
He shrugged. "I still believe the ship will come back to us in time."
Jenna's eyes searched the room, drinking in all the non-evidence available to support Blake's contention. "I admire your confidence," she said with barely suppressed sarcasm.
"Now you're beginning to sound like Avon," he replied.
* * * * * * *
The two person crew of the newly-arrived Federation pursuit ship stood in front of their vis-screen, observing the Liberator. "She's just floating there," said the man.
"Our sensors do indicate considerable structural damage," said the woman.
"Why haven't they responded to our attempts to communicate with them?"
"Maybe the crew's no longer aboard."
"Maybe the crew's no longer alive."
"Well, we do have to check it out. That's what we came for, after all. I'll get our gear."
"You sound reluctant."
"I'm always reluctant to be fired upon by a superior craft."
"Relax. I don't think they even register our presence."
"I hope you're right. I'd hate for my last words to be: 'Guess what? They were only pretending.'"
The man laughed as he adjusted the controls on the panel in front of him. "I'm taking us in alongside of her," he declared. "Assuming we're not blasted clear across the twelfth sector, we should be able to dock in 30 minutes."
* * * * * * *
"Jenna! Wake up!" Blake commanded sharply, shaking the woman.
"What is it?" came a voice thick with slumber from beneath her blanket.
"I want you to wake up," he repeated. "We can't let ourselves go to sleep now."
"But I want to – "
"Yes, I know. So do I, but that's because carbon dioxide is beginning to overwhelm our brains. Listen to me, Jenna!" He hauled her up harshly, letting her blanket fall to the floor.
She moaned from the pain of the cold, but, at the same time, was driven to a heightened alertness. "Oh, God, you're right," she whispered. "Oh, Blake, we're not going to make it."
"Yes, we will," he insisted forcefully. "Come close to me. If we share the blankets, the heat from our bodies will be enhanced."
"What heat? What bodies? I can hardly feel my body. And where I can – Oh, God, it hurts, Blake."
Tell me about it, he thought grimly, for the cold was making the pain in his shoulder almost unbearable. But then that was probably the reason he hadn't given in to the urge to sleep. With his one good arm, he managed to pull Jenna onto the couch beside him. "Here, have some of this," he coaxed, holding a packet of food concentrate to her lips, his numb fingers awkwardly struggling to get it open.
She licked at it aimlessly, managing to take in a couple of bites, but most of it crumpled to the floor. He abandoned the attempt and settled for huddling against her. As they lay beneath the blankets together, Jenna started to giggle. "I've always wanted to be in your arms. This wasn't quite what I had in mind, though."
"Sh, save your oxygen," Blake admonished.
But she persisted. "Did you know?"
"How I felt about you. You never seemed to notice, but I wondered if maybe you were pretending not to notice, so you wouldn't have to turn me down."
Because her back was to him, she could not see the exasperation on his face. "You do know how to ask a direct question."
"And you know how to give an evasive answer."
Blake sighed. "It can't be much longer now."
"Zen coming back on line."
"You're dreaming. We're going to pass out, Blake. We're going to pass out, and then we're going to die."
"No! I won't let that happen!"
"I don't see as there's a whole lot you can do about it."
"Jenna, even if we do pass out, we still have a chance. If we're unconscious, our oxygen consumption will be lower. And then when Zen does come back on line, he'll restore oxygen to this area first because he'll sense the presence of life here."
"Unless we're already dead by then." Her words were badly slurred, barely audible.
"I told you, I won't let that happen," Blake repeated. "I won't let you die." There was no response. "Are you listening to me? Jenna, do you hear me?" Still no response. Blake turned her over. Her face was devoid of color, her eyes closed, her lips blue. When he felt for her pulse, it was so feeble he could barely detect it.
Catapulted into action by sheer force of will, Blake removed the blankets from around his own body and wrapped Jenna in them tightly. "Dammit, I'm not going to lose you!" he swore. "I can't lose another – another..." His thoughts trailed off into a an oxygen-starved fog, leaving non-verbal images of Gan lying crushed beneath the rubble back on Earth, and of the massacred bodies of Bran Foster and his resistance group, and of the massacred bodies of that other group he'd led...
"Warmth," he mumbled semi-coherently. "Warmth and air. All right, she has warmth. Now, air." His first impulse was to place his mouth over hers and empty the contents of his lungs into her body. But he was taking in barely enough oxygen to keep himself from losing consciousness. Irrationally his mind flashed back to his first meeting with her in that holding cell on Earth, and to their time together on the London, and to their first encounter with the Liberator when the London's captain, fearful of losing more of his own men, had sent three prisoners across the transfer tube to...
"Spacesuits!" Blake exclaimed suddenly. The garb they had worn that day – he and Jenna and Avon – hadn't really been spacesuits, but they'd come equipped with a lightweight breathing apparatus. But they'd never actually had to use that apparatus, so the oxygen was still in those tanks, and the suits with the tanks had been stored in a supply closet. "In the corridor! In this corridor!"
Too weak to walk, Blake dropped to his hands and knees and crawled. Pushing his way through the opening created by the box Jenna had wedged in the door proved to be a monumental undertaking because the bulky pad on his arm kept getting in the way... A century later he was finally on the other side, straining to remember such a simple fact as the location of the supply closet. "This way," he told himself, pointing first left and then right. Hopefully, right was right...
At the end of his 20 kilometer journey down 20 meters of corridor, he found what he was looking for.
* * * * * * *
The Federation pursuit ship docked beside the port entry of the Liberator. The man and woman who had been its crew made their way to the eerily dark and deserted flight deck. Hand-held sensors told them that the air on the flight deck was breathable – while built-in sensors convinced them that it was cold enough to freeze a proverbial plasma bolt.
The pair looked at one another. "See how easy it was to come aboard," said the man.
"Everything's all shut down," said the woman, shivering. "Even life support."
"Then it's a safe bet the intercom isn't working."
"Yes, and this place is huge. How in creation are we supposed to find out if anyone's still aboard?"
* * * * * * *
All three breathing suits were, indeed, in the supply closet. But Blake couldn't fit one over his immobilizer pad, and he didn't have time to try to figure out how to detach the tank. And he didn't have the strength to carry more than one, so he just grabbed the first one he could reach and began the agonizing trek back to the Medical Unit, pushing the suit in front of him as he crawled...
By the time he reached Jenna, his shoulder was on fire. His head was swimming, and he nearly blacked out as he staggered to his feet for the seconds it took to scoop her up off the couch and lower her to the floor. Not yet, he thought stubbornly. Can't pass out yet. Have to help Jenna. Have to...
But he couldn't remember how to do what he was here to do, couldn't remember where the arms and legs went, couldn't remember how to make the oxygen tank deliver its life-saving contents to the life ebbing out of the body at his feet...
He was still struggling to remember when the world went black.
* * * * * * *
On the flight deck, one of the newly arrived visitors suddenly pointed to a rack of bracelets. "Look! Aren't those the communication devices we were told about?"
"The ones they use with the teleport – I think you're right!" Her companion eagerly picked one up, fumbled with the buttons and spoke into it. "Attention, please. Is anyone aboard? If you can hear me, reply over your teleport bracelet."
Silence. "Are you sure you're doing it right?" the woman asked.
"I think so. Let me try again. Attention, please. We are on the flight deck. If you can hear me, please make your presence and location known."
Once more, silence. "They must have abandoned ship," said the woman. "Unless – "
"Unless someone was too badly injured to evacuate and is too badly injured to respond to us now."
"And if anyone is in that condition, they're probably in the Medical Unit." The man's voice rose with excitement and hope. "Do you have that rough diagram of the ship we were given?"
His companion was already spreading it out. "Here," she announced, pointing to the area in question.
"All right, let's go." Map in hand and tools in hand, they began cutting their way through computer-locked doors.
A short time later they stood in the Medical Unit, staring down at the two unconscious bodies on the floor. "That's Blake, all right," the man declared, studying a photograph in his hand. "And this one must be Stannis."
The woman knelt to examine them. "They're still breathing," she reported. "But just barely."
"I'm barely breathing myself," the man commented, inhaling from one of the portable respirators they'd brought with them prior to knowing what they would find.
His companion did likewise, then placed her respirator over Blake's face. "It looks like one of them tried to get into a suit," she observed.
"Or tried to get the other into one."
"Yes, maybe." As Blake showed signs of responding, sputtering and instinctively pushing away the barrier covering his face, she shifted her ministrations to Jenna. But the pilot was too far gone to begin taking breaths on her own. The woman trying to assist her looked up and said gravely, "I suggest we get them back to our ship as quickly as possible."
Her partner reached for Blake's arm. "Come on, let's go now," he coaxed gently. Blake pushed him away. "I said we have to go now," he repeated more forcefully.
Blake shook his head. "No – can't – have to wait for my crew."
"What you have to do is leave this ship now!"
"Can't," the rebel leader babbled again. "My crew – "
"There's your crew!" thundered the other in exasperation. "There's the only one of your crew still aboard." He was pointing at Jenna, who was being dragged into the corridor with considerable difficulty. "Look at her, dammit! She's dying!"
Somehow the words penetrated Blake's confusion. "Jenna?" he whimpered.
His rescuer seized him by the front of his shirt and yanked hard. "We've got a ship in dock," he said, shouting in an attempt to get past the oxygen deprivation in Blake's brain. "With proper air and proper temperature. There are parts of your ship that have adequate air, but the whole vessel's as frozen as a chunk off an ice planet. Your only chance – her only chance – is to come with us."
Blake's eyes followed the woman who was hauling Jenna down the corridor, then his feet started to follow her, stumbling as he simultaneously turned his head back to the man still standing in the Medical Unit. The man caught him and steadied him and offered him the respirator.
Lucid enough now to recognize it for what it was, he accepted it and inhaled deeply. Then, lucid enough to appreciate the total picture, he nodded his assent and allowed himself to be assisted the rest of the way.
Moments after the smaller craft uncoupled itself from the Liberator and took off in a direction known only to its crew, Zen's long quiescent lights feebly began to blink. Moments after that, the computer's voice spoke out in the emptiness and silence of the vacant ship:
+Information: Auto-repair systems are now at minimal capacity. Request instructions as to desired sequence of further repairs...+ Then: +In the absence of instructions, priorities will be assigned as follows: (1) Long-range communications for reception of anticipated instructions from crew. (2) Life support system for anticipated habitation by crew. (3) Detection and weapons systems for defense against possible hostile attack. (4) Navigation and teleport capabilities for anticipated recovery of crew.+
As Zen ceased speaking, multiple little signs of mechanical life began busily humming in all areas of the ship. In a matter of hours, Liberator would once again approximate the power and splendor that had made her the rebellion's most potent weapon against the Federation.
* * * * * * *
Blake opened his eyes to the sight of two vaguely familiar figures standing over the wholly unfamiliar bed in which he found himself. From the sound and feel of things, he was on a spaceship. The male figure smiled down at him. "Welcome back, Blake. Feel up to answering a few questions?"
Casting a furtive glance around the room, the rebel leader struggled to conceal the sudden wave of visceral panic which his surroundings provoked in him. "I'll tell you nothing," he declared (though his throbbing arm was doing its best to undermine his confidence in that brave assertion).
The man at the foot of the bed only laughed. "Relax. We're not Federation."
"No? And I suppose this isn't a Federation ship."
"Mark 10 pursuit ship, to be precise," replied the female figure. "I promise you, we came by it quite unconventionally."
"She means it wasn't issued to us," clarified the other. "Oh, do forgive my lapse in manners. I'm Nol Deva. This is my associate, Tara Klyn."
Blake remained skeptical. "If you're not with the Federation, who are you with?"
"A band of rebels from one of the frontier worlds," Deva answered, "originally organized by a woman named Avalon."
"Who told us you once single-handedly penetrated a heavily fortified Federation interrogation center and threatened to crush a vial of deadly plague virus if Supreme Commander Servalan didn't release her," added Klyn.
Blake chuckled. "Single-handedly is a bit of an exaggeration, but I suppose it seemed so to her at the time."
"You believe us then," Deva said hopefully.
"Well, I doubt that Servalan's been spreading that particular story, so – " He broke off suddenly, renewed alarm in his eyes. "Where's Jenna?"
"In my quarters," Klyn replied. "Still asleep. She was a bit worse off than you..."
"Surprising, considering that," cut in Deva, with a nod towards Blake's shoulder.
"I thought it best to let her rest for as long as she needs to do," Klyn continued. "Don't be concerned. Her vital signs are strong now. All she really required was some fresh oxygen to breathe and a stint in a thermal suit."
"Ah, yes, a thermal suit," Blake mused. "We have them on the Liberator, you know. But I couldn't have gotten into one anyway with my arm like this, and by the time I realized Jenna was staying, too, there was no way to reach them. The ship's master computer had sealed us in."
"Where are the rest of your crew?" Deva asked. "And why the devil didn't the two of you abandon ship with them?"
"As you said – considering this." Blake indicated his wound. Then he frowned. "How did you know where to find us on the ship? And how did you come to be in that vicinity anyway?"
"We tried the teleport bracelets," Deva said. "When nobody answered, we figured either no one was aboard or whoever was was too badly injured to respond."
"It was a guess that anyone injured would be in the Medical Unit," Klyn explained. "But we had no trouble finding the Medical Unit because we had a map. Of course we had to cut through a few locked doors – "
"Wait a minute! You had a map?"
"A rough diagram, anyway," Deva clarified. "Avalon gave it to us. She drew it from memory."
"All right, but that still doesn't explain what you were doing there in the first place."
"All in good time, Blake," Deva promised. "Now, about the rest of your crew – "
Blake sighed. "I don't know. I wish I did. All I know is that they launched life capsules. Presumably if they survive, they'll contact the ship and make their way back, just as I – " All at once, he leapt to his feet. "Just a minute. Where are we? How long has it been since you picked us up?"
"Take it easy, Blake," Klyn urged. "Don't exert yourself."
"No, you don't understand." The rebel leader's voice was filled with agitation. "We could be getting out of range, and I have to communicate with my ship."
"No one's communicating with that crippled hunk," Deva scoffed.
To his astonishment, Blake grabbed him with his one usable hand and pushed him up against the wall. "That was then! This is now! Liberator will have repaired herself by now – or at least be well on her way to doing so."
"Repaired herself?" Klyn repeated. "Whatever are you talking about? Blake, I fear you're not as well as we thought – "
"I'm fine, dammit! I just need to speak to my ship! Now are we still close enough for me to do that, or do I have to make you turn this craft around?"
Deva and Klyn exchanged looks of wonder, for they were armed, and Blake was not. "You're as feisty as they say you are," Deva declared. "Tell me something. Were you really going to defy a Federation interrogator with a wound like that just begging for mistreatment?"
"Yes, if that's who you'd turned out to be."
Another exchange of glances. "He's our man, all right," Klyn said confidently.
"I would love to ask what you mean by that," Blake seethed impatiently, "but right now all I'm interested in is contacting my ship!"
Deva nodded. "All right, Blake. Just try to calm down. Assuming your ship is capable of communicating with you, you'll have no problem reaching her. Liberator's been drifting out there since before we picked you up, and we've been maintaining a discreet orbit around her.
"Yes, of course we have. Klyn and I need you, Blake, but we're not so stupid as to imagine we can force you to stay with us against your will, and we've no intentions of trying to trick you either. We'll remain in close proximity to your ship until you reach a decision."
"Thank you," Blake said quietly.
"I'm going to ask a favor of you in return. I'm going to ask that when you contact the Liberator, you keep your whereabouts a secret."
"I haven't time to explain that now, not if you're in the hurry you say you are. Trust me. I will explain later."
"Very well, I'll trust you – for the moment."
"This way, please," Klyn directed.
The three of them walked to the flight deck where Blake noted the absence of additional personnel. So what Deva had said about their ship being locked in stationary orbit must be true. He pushed the appropriate button on the instrument panel. "This is Blake calling Liberator. Do you read me, Liberator?"
+Confirmed+ came the welcome reply.
"Good to hear your voice, Zen," the rebel leader said, flashing Deva and Klyn an I-told-you-so look. "Status report, please."
+Auto-repair is underway in designated sequence. Communications and life support have been restored. Anticipate detection and weaponry systems will be operational within the hour. Navigation and teleport capabilities to be addressed as soon as defenses are fully functional.+
"Excellent," Blake responded. "What about the rest of the crew? Have you heard from any of them?"
+You are the first to communicate directly – +
+However, routine message interception indicates Jenna is on a hospital ship. Her injuries are superficial.+
"What!" Deva gestured for Blake to interrupt his transmission. "Stand by, Zen."
"While you were both still resting," the man related, "I took the liberty of planting that message for, shall we say, general consumption?"
"You certainly did!"
"It was necessary, Blake. Jenna stayed with you on that ship, so I've drawn the not unreasonable inference that she'll be staying with you from now on. What I did was for her protection – as what I've asked you to do is for yours."
"You had better make good on your promise to explain," Blake said in a menacing tone. "As you've just heard, life support has been restored over there. Jenna and I can return at any time, and we'll need a damn good reason not to do." Instinctively he raised his wrist to his lips – and discovered that his bracelet was gone. "So much for no force or trickery," he observed.
"It was to keep you from acting recklessly," Klyn insisted. "Nothing more."
With a dubious look, Blake reactivated the communications panel. "Zen, listen carefully," he said. "I am uninjured and require no immediate assistance. My instructions are as follows: if Cally, Vila or Avon contacts you, you are to give their pickup priority over mine. Is that understood?"
"I'll be in touch again. Blake out." His transmission ended, the rebel leader turned to Deva and Klyn. "I think it's time you two start talking."
"Don't anybody move!" commanded a voice from the entrance to the flight deck. The Liberator's pilot was standing there, aiming a gun at the man beside Blake. "One false step and I'll blow your head off," she said.
"Jenna!" the rebel leader exclaimed.
"Get their weapons, Blake."
"Jenna, you don't understand – "
"I understand that this is a Federation pursuit ship, that I woke up a few minutes ago without my teleport bracelet and that I'm holding a Federation gun which I found on my way up here."
"The weapons came with the vessel – " Klyn attempted to protest.
"Jenna, these people saved our lives," Blake said forcefully. "They got us off the ship when we were literally down to our last few breaths. They put you in a thermal suit. They've remained close by the Liberator."
"I'll bet they have!" the woman retorted. "Liberator's worth even more to the Federation than the combined prices on both our heads."
"We're not bounty hunters," Deva insisted.
"And we're not Federation officers," Klyn added.
"They're telling the truth, Jenna," Blake declared.
"You always did have a dangerously low index of suspicion for betrayal," the pilot replied. "This is one of those rare moments when I find myself wishing Avon were here. Have you tried to contact the ship?"
"As a matter of fact, I just got finished speaking to Zen."
"Has life support been restored?"
"Then we can continue this debate on our own turf." She turned to Deva and Klyn. "Hand your weapons to Blake." The pair obeyed. "Now get our bracelets."
They looked at one another; then they looked at Blake. "No," Deva said quietly, taking Klyn's hand. He was trembling, but he stood his ground.
And he continued to stand his ground even when Jenna pointed her weapon at his groin and primed it for firing. "I guess you need convincing," she said. "You may not be capable of getting our bracelets after this, but I daresay your friend will do so – "
"All right, Jenna, that's enough," Blake commanded, stepping in front of her intended victim. She looked exasperated, but did not resist when he plucked the gun from her grip and disengaged the firing mechanism.
Then he turned to Deva. "Very well," he said, "you've convinced me of your sincerity. Now I want to hear exactly why keeping me from going back to the Liberator is worth the gamble you just took."
* * * * * * *
"You asked how we happened to be in the vicinity of the Liberator when she was damaged by the attack of the aliens," Deva recounted. "The answer is, we didn't 'happen' to be. We arrived afterwards. We came here specifically looking for you."
The four of them were now seated in a circle on the flight deck in a state of uneasy truce, the lack of ease emanating primarily from Jenna. At Blake's insistence, all personal weapons had been collected and placed sufficiently out of reach so as to be inaccessible to anyone's sudden outburst of temper.
"We had the Mark 10, you see," Klyn contributed. "There were a couple of other rebel craft approximately the same distance from Liberator, but ours was the fastest, so we were the logical choice."
"But how did you know where Liberator was in the first place?"
"Liberator told Space Command Headquarters," Deva said simply.
"My message to Servalan?" gasped Jenna.
"We have an agent at Space Command Headquarters?" gasped Blake.
The two telling the story traded a quick look of thinly-veiled pleasure at his automatic use of the word "we." "Not exactly," Deva answered. "But Space Command Headquarters is in constant communication with the High Council – especially now."
"We don't have an agent on the High Council!" Blake blurted disbelievingly.
"Almost as good," answered Klyn. "We have an agent married to a member of the Council."
Jenna frowned. "Why 'especially now'?"
Deva smiled. "Because shortly before the war with the Andromedans broke out, there was a political changing of the guard at the highest levels of the Federation. The President was deposed, and Supreme Commander Servalan was installed in his place."
"Servalan's the new president?" Blake exclaimed.
"And that Councilor I mentioned is one of her closest advisors," Klyn said.
"And that Councilor's wife has been working secretly for the resistance for years," Deva added.
"I had no idea."
"Very few do. Blake, this is the opportunity we've been waiting for for as long as there's been a resistance movement." Deva's face shone with excitement. "This Intergalactic War and the destruction of Star One, terrible as they've been in terms of loss of life, have played right into our hands."
"You see, we've been monitoring all the routine Federation transmissions." Klyn addressed her words specifically to Jenna, having noticed a gradual softening in the other woman's demeanor and seeking to capitalize on it. "You wouldn't believe the beating the Federation has taken."
"The Andromedans aren't winning, are they?" erupted Blake in alarm.
"Oh, no – in fact, they've been virtually wiped out."
"But in fighting off the invasion, Space Command has lost over 80% of its fleet." Deva chuckled. "And it's difficult to sustain a military dictatorship when you've lost most of the military."
"I'm beginning to see what you mean." There was a glow in Blake's cheeks, betokening an exuberance he hadn't felt for a very long time.
"At some point during the next several months," Deva said, " – certainly before the end of the year – we expect to mount a rebellion on Earth, an actual coup which will remove Servalan from power and replace her with a People's Council."
"And when that rebellion succeeds," Klyn continued, "we'll need someone to coordinate a planned series of parallel uprisings on the colonized worlds-a leader whose name inspires confidence and sacrifice. You, Blake."
Blake's expression was a curious mixture of attraction and reluctance. He exhaled explosively.
"If you say yes," Deva concluded, "We'll have you transmit another message to Zen, totally misleading anyone who receives it as to your whereabouts. And you, too, Jenna, of course, if you want to be a part of this. We've already planted the seeds of such a message, stating that you're on a hospital ship."
"How very thoughtful of you," the pilot murmured. Her tone was even harder to decipher than Blake's face.
During the last few sentences of the conversation, Klyn had wandered over to the instrument panel. Now she frowned at something she saw there and activated the vis-screen. "Oh, my God," she shouted. "It's moving out! Liberator's moving out!"
The others jumped up and joined her at the vis-screen. "That's no random drift, Blake," Jenna declared. "She's taken a heading somewhere."
"Yes, but where?" Blake's voice rang with agitation.
"And why?" Jenna added.
The rebel leader opened a communications channel. "Liberator, this is – " He broke off in sudden caution. "Liberator, respond please," he amended more circumspectly. "Zen, do you read me?" No reply. "Come on, come on," he muttered impatiently. Still no reply. "Damn!" he cursed, abandoning the attempt. "Why won't Zen respond?"
"Would you like us to follow her, Blake?" Deva asked.
"Yes-on a parallel heading. Do nothing which the detectors might interpret as an approach to an intercept course. Weaponry systems should be back on line by now. Let's not forget whose craft Zen will think this is."
A round of smiles made it clear that all earlier suspicion had been dissipated. "Let me set the course," Jenna offered, and Deva, who'd been about to do it, stepped out of her way.
Klyn meanwhile had punched up a set of navigation charts. She peered over Jenna's shoulder at the instrument panel, entered a few calculations and then made an announcement: "Assuming the ship is taking a direct course to its destination and assuming that destination is the closest habitable body on that course, Liberator is headed for the planet Sarran. Estimated time of arrival at current speed: approximately 8 hours."
Chewing on a finger, Blake studied the data. "Of course!" he exclaimed suddenly. "Jenna, Deva, Klyn – Liberator's been drifting since her systems shut down after the battle. But during the battle, we were in that very area. We were a stone's throw away from Sarran, metaphorically speaking."
"You mean a life capsule's throw away," Jenna corrected.
"Exactly," said the rebel leader. "Liberator's on her way to pick up one of the crew."
Unable to raise Zen, Blake spent much of the following six hours monitoring random space traffic transmissions and growing increasingly convinced by what he heard that Deva's assessment of the Federation's weakness was correct, and that his optimism concerning the prospects for an anti-Federation victory was warranted...
Jenna continued to use Klyn's cabin during the time Klyn was on the flight deck, and Blake, pacing nervously outside that cabin, now found the door sliding open to admit him.
"Come in, why don't you, before you wear out the corridor," Jenna invited.
He rubbed her shoulder affectionately as he squeezed in past her. "How are you feeling?"
"Good as new. How's your arm?"
"Tolerable, considering that I don't, for the moment, have access to the Liberator's Medical Unit."
"For the moment? Or from now on?" He offered no reply. "Are you going to stay with Deva and Klyn?" she asked more pointedly.
Blake settled into a chair. "I'm certainly considering it. How about you?"
"Oh, I'll end up going where you go, more likely than not."
He could tell that she was trying hard to make it sound casual. "I just wish I knew that the others were safe," he said. "If I could know that Avon was back on board Liberator, I could walk away with some measure of peace."
"Avon," mocked Jenna wearily. "Why is it always Avon? Why is he so special to you? I mean, you're not special to him. I'll bet he hasn't given you a thought since he left in that life capsule."
"He may have more pressing matters on his mind. Like survival?"
"Was survival more pressing to you when you tried to get me into that suit?" Jenna countered. "Klyn told me," she added in response to his puzzled expression. "Told me they found the suit lying there between us. I know I didn't crawl down the corridor to the supply closet and drag it back." Blake nodded. "Avon would never do anything like that," she persisted. "Avon'd cut your throat – anyone's throat – to get the suit on himself."
Blake flashed her one of his infuriatingly superior smiles. "You're certain of that, are you?"
"He'd tell you so himself."
"That's not quite the same thing, though, is it, Jenna?"
"I'll tell you this. If Avon did survive, he isn't holed up anywhere brooding about us. And I'd wager my last credit he isn't making any effort to locate us either." She sprang to her feet. "Guess I'd better go see if our new friends would like me to take another turn at the controls." Then she paused and said in an awkward voice, "Blake, back on the Liberator, when it was getting so cold and hard to breathe, just before I passed out – well, I realize I said some foolish things..."
The rebel leader's face was a study in innocence. "I don't remember any."
"Well, after all, Jenna, I was pretty far gone myself from the mounting ratio of carbon dioxide to oxygen. You shouldn't be surprised if my recollection of some of it is hazy."
"I see." Initially skeptical, she surrendered to the release from embarrassment which choosing to believe him afforded her. "Well, I guess it's all right then – my unremembered foolishness."
After she'd gone, his innocent expression became one of poignant regret. "No, Jenna, it wasn't foolish," he whispered. "It was very, very flattering. It just can't happen, that's all. In a different time or a different world, who knows? But we're stuck with the time and the world we've been given. What we 'want' is irrelevant. I don't 'want' to leave the Liberator." An involuntary sigh of anticipatory grief escaped him. "Irrelevant!" he repeated, pounding his fist against the wall.
* * * * * * *
"It was a teleport pickup, I tell you," Blake said. "It couldn't have been anything else. Jenna?"
Deva shrugged. "It's your ship," he conceded.
They were watching the planet Sarran on the vis-screen-and had just seen Liberator go through a very precise set of maneuvers.
"And now she's leaving orbit," Klyn declared.
"So one of the crew is back on board," said Jenna.
"Yes, but which one?" Blake countered.
"Maybe it's more than one," Deva suggested. "Couldn't they all be together?"
Blake shook his head. "Most unlikely. The three of them left the ship in three separate life capsules which could have landed anywhere."
"The four of them," Jenna corrected.
"The four of them," she repeated, smiling.
All at once Blake slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand. "Orac!" he exclaimed. "Why didn't I think of that? Jenna, you're brilliant."
"Don't you see? Orac's a way we might be able to find out what's happening even if we can't communicate with Zen. If the capsule it was in came down on Sarran, we should be close enough now for it to intercept a random transmission from us. I can be sufficiently vague not to draw anyone else's attention, yet Orac will recognize my signal." He made a beeline for the pursuit ship's computer.
"Assuming Orac's activated and happens to be listening," Jenna said.
"A little optimism, please?" the rebel leader requested.
"Careful, Blake," Deva cautioned. "You want to protect all your options at this point."
"Right," he acknowledged. He was already pressing buttons. "Don't worry. What I'm sending now won't be audible, and I'm instructing Orac not to respond if anyone's around." He licked his lips nervously as he waited. Then, staring meaningfully at Deva, "This could take some time, you know."
"Right," the other man agreed, placing a hand on Klyn's shoulder. "Why don't you and I take a break for awhile?" The woman responded with an uneasy look.
"It's all right, I'll handle the ship," Jenna promised. "Tactfully put," she muttered to Blake, as the other pair departed.
Then Orac's voice came crackling through. *What do you want, Blake?*
"Are you alone, Orac?"
*Yes, since you insisted I not answer you otherwise.*
"Good. And where exactly are you at the moment?"
*At the moment I am precisely 1.4 meters off the floor and 3.6 meters from the entrance to the nearest inspection hatch.*
"You're on the Liberator!"
*Yes, of course.*
Blake took a deep breath. "With whom did you arrive on board?"
*With Avon, naturally.*
And let it out in one massive gush of relief. "Orac, listen carefully. I need to know what's happening on the ship. Is anyone else back – Cally or Vila – " he hesitated – "or Jenna?"
*Only Avon – and the woman from Sarran – *
"Woman from Sarran? What woman from Sarran?" Blake put in.
*And the Federation squad that was already on the ship when we returned,* Orac concluded.
"Now we know why Zen wouldn't talk to us," said Jenna.
"A Federation squad is in control of my ship?" the rebel leader bellowed.
*Pay attention, Blake* Orac scolded. *I said a Federation squad was on board the Liberator. I did not say they were in control. They cannot be in control because Zen will not respond to their commands.*
"Unless they make Avon tell Zen to do," Jenna muttered. Blake shot her a look of pure poison. "Well, are we going over?" she asked. No response. "Blake, shall I call for our teleport bracelets? Blake!"
The rebel leader said nothing. There was an anguish in his eyes that Jenna had never before seen there. But when she reached for the intercom to summon Deva and Klyn, his hand leaped up and seized hers with such force that she cried out in pain. He scarcely seemed to notice. "Blake, what's wrong with you?" she demanded. "Liberator has been boarded by enemy troops. Avon is probably their prisoner – "
The anguish deepened. "Is Avon their prisoner, Orac?" he whispered hoarsely.
*Affirmative.* Blake groaned and covered his face.
"We have got to go across and help," Jenna said fiercely.
The rebel leader slowly shook his head. "Not yet. Not yet and maybe not at all." He turned back to the computer. "Orac, I want you to do a calculation for me. I want you to tell me what is the probability that Avon and this woman from Sarran will be able to regain control of the Liberator without outside assistance."
"I don't believe this!" Jenna exclaimed angrily. "Since when do you rely on that bloody machine to – ?"
Then Orac replied. *The probability is 14.2% that Avon and the woman from Sarran will be able to regain control of the Liberator without assistance.*
"Well, that settles it," Jenna declared. "I'm going over there, with or without you – "
*However,* continued the computer, *The actual probability is 86.3% that Avon will regain control.*
Jenna stopped in her tracks, bewildered.
"Explain, Orac," Blake instructed. "Explain that contradiction."
*It is not a contradiction. You asked what is the probability that Avon and the woman from Sarran will regain control of the Liberator without assistance, and I told you. The likelihood is, however, that they will have assistance.*
"Right-from me," Jenna snarled.
*They will have assistance because one of the individuals with the Federation squad is not really with the Federation. I took the liberty of investigating the background of all the intruders, and the one calling himself Captain Tarrant is, in fact, an enemy of the Federation. It is highly likely that he will align himself with Avon and the woman in the matter of the battle for control of the Liberator, and, therefore, the probability is 86.3% that Avon will regain control.*
"Thank you, Orac," Blake said quietly. "Can you give me any additional information concerning the other members of my crew?"
There was a pause, then the computer said, *Zen has received a distress call from Vila. Liberator is now on course for the planet Chenga to recover him.* Blake motioned to Jenna, who silently punched up the appropriate navigation chart and indicated the planet's location. *Estimated time of arrival at Chenga is 4 hours and 36 minutes.*
"All right, Orac. You've been very helpful. One last thing. I don't want you telling anyone about this conversation. I specifically instruct you not to reveal the fact that I've been in contact with you – not to Avon, not to Vila or Cally when they return – not to anyone. Not now and not ever."
Jenna raised a startled eyebrow, but the disapproval in her eyes began to fade as she glimpsed the harrowing pain and loneliness in Blake's.
His transmission ended, he turned to her. "Alter course to follow the Liberator to Chenga," he directed softly. "For now, at any rate. Then let Deva and Klyn know what you've done and why. I'm going below."
"I have to be by myself, Jenna. I need time to think."
* * * * * * *
He was in the small sleeping cabin where he'd first regained consciousness, but in his mind, he was back on the flight deck of the Liberator, before the disaster that had forced the crew to evacuate-before they'd even arrived at Star One...
The sound of his own voice rang in his ears: "I meant what I said on Goth, Avon. We are not going to use Star One to rule the Federation. We are going to destroy it."
And Avon's voice: "I never doubted that. I never doubted your fanaticism... As far as I am concerned, you can destroy whatever you wish. You can stir up a thousand revolutions. You can wade through blood up to your armpits. Oh, and you can lead the rabble to victory, whatever that might mean. Just so long as there is an end to it. When Star One is gone, it is finished, Blake. And I want it finished. I want it over and done with. I want to be free."
Then Cally's voice: "But you are free now, Avon."
And Avon's chilling reply: "I want to be free of him!" Those piercing eyes staring into his own, making him fully aware for the first time of just how deep the wound-ravaged bond between them ran.
"Avon," he'd answered, "I never realized – you really do hate me, don't you?"
With a shudder, Blake yanked himself back to the present. No, Avon, he mused silently, I know you don't hate me. It wasn't hate prompted you to knock me out of the way of that bomb Cally planted on the ship. Or keep silent when Geela and Novara tortured you. Or come back from XK-72 to warn us that the Federation was on the way. Or risk your life when that electrified coil attacked me. Or come after me on Horizon. Or come after me on Exbar, then urge me to abandon you and save myself when you were wounded. And it wasn't hate that kept you at Star One when you could have teleported to safety. And it certainly wasn't hate that made you promise to stand and fight the Andromedans when I couldn't...
No, it was something far worse than hate: it was loyalty. A loyalty you never wanted to feel and never stopped resenting me for making you feel. But as God is my witness, I didn't set out to make you care. The most I'll plead guilty to is not being as surprised by it as you were...
I don't think I'll ever understand, Avon, why what was so simple and straightforward for me became so complicated and twisted for you. But that's all over now. Orac gives you an 86% chance of reclaiming the Liberator, and that's far better odds than we've usually faced, you and I. So for once it's all coming together – what you crave and what the rebellion needs. For once they both point in the same direction. You'd find the irony in that amusing, I think...
A bittersweet laugh broke from Blake's lips. "I'm walking out of your life, Avon," he whispered. "I'm giving you what you've wanted so badly: your freedom from me and my bloody crusade. Use it well, my reluctant warrior. And know that I wish nothing but the best for you, who only ever gave me the best of yourself – in spite of yourself."
* * * * * * *
With an air of great solemnity, Deva laid the two bracelets down on the table in front of Blake and Jenna. "You realize this is it," he said quietly. "When we take the next heading, we move out of teleport range. We leave Liberator behind to complete her journey to Chenga and embark upon the last leg of our own journey home."
For a brief instant the rebel leader fingered the bracelet wistfully. Then his features hardened. "No use in postponing the inevitable, is there? I can't risk contacting Orac again anyway. Even if – when –Avon's got the ship back under his control. Not if the stories we're about to feed Zen are to be convincing."
"Be very sure, Blake," Klyn advised. "Once you commit to this course, there's no turning back."
The man nodded and looked questioningly at Jenna. In reply, she picked up the second bracelet and handed it to him. Without further hesitation, he crushed them both.
"Take us out of here, Klyn," Deva directed.
A short while later, the rebel leader sent his final transmission to Zen: "Liberator, this is Blake. I am safe and well and on route for the planet Epheron."
A short while after that, from another location, the pilot sent hers: "Liberator, this is Jenna. Although I sustained superficial injuries in a life capsule malfunction, I have now fully recovered. I am currently aboard a neutral cargo carrier in transit to the planet Morphaniel. Be advised that my situation requires no priority treatment."
In actuality, the Mark 10 pursuit ship on which they were traveling was nowhere near either Epheron or Morphaniel. It was speeding towards Deva and Klyn's home planet several sectors away in the opposite direction.
* * * * * * *
Blake stood on the flight deck and gazed pensively at the stars as Deva's ship moved into orbit around Gauda Prime. They had been two additional days in getting here; he could only hope that Vila's recovery had proceeded without mishap, that Cally had been recovered as well and that Avon and his new allies – the woman from Sarran and the mysterious "Captain Tarrant" – had succeeded in regaining control of the Liberator.
Blake was sure he had made the right decision, and he was grateful that Jenna had decided to stay with him. Still he had to admit that he was going to miss commanding the most powerful spacecraft in the known galaxy, and he had to admit that he was going to miss the companionship of those others who had been her crew: miss the soothing strength of Cally's pure heart and tranquil mind, miss the entertainment provided by Vila's unpretentious wit and (often unintended) humor.
But the single sharpest pang of regret which wracked his soul had nothing to do with Cally or Vila. It had nothing to do with the loss of the Liberator either.
"And some say love is holding on, and some say letting go;
And some say love is everything, and some say they don't know...
If I should live forever and all my dreams come true,
My memories of love will be of you."
[From "Perhaps Love" by John Denver & Placido Domingo]