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We're the I.L.A. and We're Proud of It!

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We’re the I.L.A. and We’re Proud of It

By Teenygozer


It was fairly quiet on the deck of the Liberator—quiet, beyond the normal pings and clicks of the ship’s systems, and the murmured curses of Kerr Avon as he traced circuitry, trying to figure out why it would re-grow spontaneously if damaged. Blake sat at his station, staring off into the middle distance, Jenna studied potential escape trajectories on the navi-comp, and Vila slouched in his perpetual cringe on one of the couches in the well of the flight deck, drink in hand. In other words, they were all bored. Cally and Gan were taking advantage of their day off by scrupulously avoiding the flight deck.

When Orac’s irritated (and irritating) whine started up, signaling that he’d brought himself on-line, all heads turned in that direction.

*I have a message, missive, dispatch, communication, communiqué, embassage, letter for Roj Blake,* the little computer announced.

“What’s wrong with Orac?” Blake said. His eye was drawn by the sight of Vila nestling deeper into the couch cushions, as if trying to disappear into them. “VI-la?”

Vila started at his sharp tone. “Why is it always my fault?” he whined.

“Ah, yes,” came Avon’s voice from beneath a panel, “We ask ourselves that question constantly—why is it always Vila’s fault?”

Vila looked peeved for a moment, then threw up his hands. “It was supposed to be a surprise,” he said. “Gan and I are writing a rebel anthem.”

“A what?!” Avon popped out from under the panel to stare at him as if he was crazy.

“A rebel anthem… you know, like a jolly old song we could sing while we sit ‘round a table in a pub on a safe world and down our brew. And fifty years from now, at the rebel reunion, it’ll bring a tear of remembrance to our eyes.” He toasted them all with his drink as if he was already at the reunion.

“Frankly, the thought that I might actually be looking at your faces in fifty years is enough to bring a tear to my eye right now,” said Avon, “but that fails to explain what you did to Orac to cause its strange verbal patterns.”

“Well, Orac’s been a big help. He even came up with a tune for our anthem. It’s called ‘God Save the Queen’ and it was the national anthem of a pre-atomic country called ‘Great British.’ They used to say the sun never set on the British empire,” Vila observed knowledgably.

“Ironic, considering that I doubt any of us ever heard of Great British—though I must admit, pre-atomic history was never my strong suit,” Jenna said.

“…and the best thing is, before it was even a national anthem, it was, in fact, a drinking song for hundreds of years!” Vila enthused. “Don’t you think that makes it a natural?”

“Hmmm,” said Avon, “a rebel anthem based on the national anthem of a long-dead and forgotten country, previously the favorite tune of a gang of degenerate lushes… yes, quite apt.”

“Sour grapes ‘cause you can’t carry a tune,” Vila sniped, falling into their usual rhythm of back-and-forth insults.

Blake said, with exaggerated patience, “What did you do to Orac, Vila?”

“He’s helping with the lyrics… we programmed him with Roget’s Thesaurus.”

*Attention,* Orac interrupted, *You are wandering from the subject, digressing, deviating, going off on a tangent! I am currently in possession of a message, missive, dispatch—”

“ENOUGH,” yelled Blake, cutting off the little computer in mid-ramble. “Play the message!”

Orac patched the message through the speakers:

“Hi, I’m Ambrose Burnside; I’m with the I.L.A. and I’m proud of it!  We at the I.L.A. wanted to say how much we appreciate what you been doin’ out there, fightin’ for the inalienable rights of every free citizen.  We at the I.L.A. would like to hire you on as our interstellar spokesperson.  The I.L.A.’s public service announcements run in all the better magazines and weekend colour supplements, and I’m not talkin’ ‘bout a lousy 2-inch print ad, I’m talkin’ full-page, full colour photo, class all the way!

“So how ‘bout it, Mr. Blake?  You’d get some good exposure and we’d get to cash in on your rep, and the pay ain’t peanuts, neither.  Can we meet?  Contact me on subspace radio band….”

What followed was a string of numbers and letters that only a starship communications officer with a Masters degree in sub-space communications, or Orac, could follow.

“How about that…,” mused Jenna when the message ended.

“He seemed to think I should know what the I.L.A. is,” Blake said.

“The I.L.A. is the Interstellar Laserifle Association,” Jenna said, “I’ve shipped with some guys who were members. Gun nuts, the lot of them. Their idea of a great shoreleave consisted of going down to a planet and stalking and shooting non-sentients… at least one hopes they were shooting non-sentients.” She smiled to herself, remembering old times and past battles.

“Wow,” said Vila, lost in contemplation of someone whose idea of shoreleave did not include pub-crawling.

“I still don’t understand, Jenna,” Blake said, “I never shot a non-sentient in my life! Unless you count Travis.”

Jenna tapped her chin in thought. “I bet it’s the freedom-fighter angle. The I.L.A. is against any and all controls on laser weapons or any weapons. If they had their way, you could walk into the corner chemists and pick up a rifle with no questions asked. They say it’s everyone’s right to bear arms and defend their home and family.”

“Well, that sounds perfectly sensible to me,” Blake said.

“No,” interrupted Jenna, “you don’t get it, Blake. These guys are crazy. They block any and all attempts to intelligently regulate guns on free planets and they’ve got the money to do it, too. For instance, there’s a really nasty little item on the market, called a spatter-gun. It shoots tiny bits of red-hot laser shrapnel over a wide area… it’s totally mad, any fool can wave it in the general direction of whoever he wants to target, let loose a volley and take out his prey, plus any innocent bystanders and buildings that happen to be in the vicinity.” She’d grown more heated as she spoke, but stopped herself mid-rant and wound up just looked tired. “When Intragalactic Commerce tried to outlaw their manufacture and sale on the free planets, the I.L.A. spent a ton of credits and bought them off. They’re afraid that any gun regulation will start a trend, which would cut into their profits, so they don’t allow any at all. And all under the guise of freedom for the ‘Common Man.’”

There was obviously a story in Jenna’s rant, but asking questions about one another’s past was off the table on the Liberator, so Blake let it pass.

“Jenna,” he said gently, “we need all the allies we can get. And a large group equipped with guns and ammo, particularly a large group equipped with money, guns, and ammo, could be useful. And we might just garner a little support from the ‘Common Man’ while we’re about it, eh?”

“The ‘Common Man’?” said Avon. “This sounds like another of your typically doomed-to-failure schemes, Blake. More likely we’ll just attract the attention and support of assorted crazies, loonies, closet dictators, religionists, closet religionists, neo-religionists, crypto-religionists, anarchists, fascists, neo-fascists, paranoids, nihilists, crypto-nihilists, paranoid nihilists, nihilistic paranoids….”

*…manic depressives, psychopaths, manic-depressive psychopaths, psychopathic manic-depressives…,* Orac said, getting into the spirit.

“…leftist libertarians, rightist libertarians, neo-libertarians, right wingers, far-right wingers, reactionaries, neo-reactionaries, religious reactionaries, paranoid reactionaries, crypto-reactionaries…,” continued Avon, leaning one elbow threateningly on the little computer.

“Wow! Do you really think we’ll get that many?” Blake said.

“In short,” said Avon, catching his second wind, “every fool who thinks he knows best and craves the firepower to back it up. Leave it alone, Blake, if you want to stay the lead fool who thinks he knows best and has the firepower to back it up.”

“Orac, contact Mr. Burnside at the subspace number given and get instructions on where we are to meet and at what time,” Blake threw over his shoulder as he left the flight deck.

*What does he think I am, a bloody appointments secretary?* snapped Orac, but he whirred and complied.

“Blake,” called Avon after him, “Blake, how do you know it won’t turn back on you? How do you know some trigger-happy psychopath won’t pump a couple or three shots into you when you least expect it?!”

Blake’s laughter floated back to him from the hall. “Nonsense, Avon. I’d never be that careless. Besides, I know you’ll be there to protect me!”

* * *

“I fail to understand,” Cally said two days later, “These people are repudiated to be slow of thought and heedless of the unnecessary pain they inflict upon innocent non-sentients… and you want them to join us?”

Cally, Avon, Blake, and Vila had been walking (and climbing and stumbling and cursing) along a hot and dusty mountain trail for almost an hour, heading for the rendezvous set up by Ambrose Burnside and Orac. The planet, officially known as Barrengarious III, was known as “Hotfoot” to the colonists who had landed there and tried, unsuccessfully, to cultivate crops some 50 years before. The entire planet was covered by blood-coloured sand dunes, scarlet cliffs, and forbidding, ruddy mountains—very impressive, if monotonous. The climate gave new meaning to the expression “red hot.”

“It’s quite simple, Cally,” snapped Avon, “Fearless Leader here has mind-wiped so often he can hold only one cliché in his mind at a time. The one he is operating on now is, ‘the more, the merrier.’”

“Surely you mean, ‘misery loves company,’” gasped Vila, tripping over a rock.

“‘Beggers can’t be choosers,’ actually,” Blake said. As the orator among them, his lung capacity was greater and he was fairing much better in the low-oxygen atmosphere. “Let’s rest a bit; we’re almost there, but I want to make a good impression.” He surveyed his gasping, sweating group. “And you all look like hell.”

“Why, oh, why did you drag me along, Blake? These guys are supposed to be our friends. I won’t be opening any locked doors,” said Vila, throwing himself down on the rock-hard soil.

“Politics, Vila… two-thirds of the I.L.A. membership consists, apparently, of Deltas.”

“Deltas? Then what the hell am I doing here?” cried Avon.

Blake grinned. “You’re here to make sure nobody pumps a couple or three shots into me when I least expect it.”

“Ain’t nobody gonna be pumping nobody full of nothin’,” a voice came from behind a ridge of boulders.

“Was that a triple negative or a quadruple?” murmured Avon as the group whipped out their guns en masse and peered over the ridge.

A tall, skinny man was bowed over a campfire, a tripod of interlocking branches with a coffeepot dangling down from the apex over the flames. He wore a plaid jacket in bright red tones, blue jeans, and thigh-high rubber wading boots. On his head was a cap splotched with varying shades of khaki and green, commonly referred to as “camouflage colours”, though on the red sands of Barrengarious, it made him stick out like a sore green thumb.

But his clothing was not the most fascinating thing about him, it was his face. Massive furry sideburns grew from the stranger’s cheeks like huge, blond tribbles. His bright blue eyes shone out from their nests of hair. “Hi, y’all. I’m Ambrose Burnside; I’m with the I.L.A. and I’m proud of it. I’m your guide while yer on Hotfoot, er, Barrengarious. You can call me A.B., all my friends do.”

They recognized his voice as the same one that had called them to the meeting.

Blake rose to the occasion. “I’m Roj Blake, this is Cally and Vila Restal…. and this is Avon; he likes guns, too,” Blake added mischievously.

“How do; how do, ma’am,” A.B. nodded and touched the bill of his cap respectfully to Vila and Cally in turn, “and how do, Mr. Avon… we’ll have you a member of the I.L.A. and proud of it in no time, if you’re that keen.”

“I doubt it,” muttered Avon, but A.B. had stepped forward to shake Blake’s hand and missed the comment. The handshake proved a problem as Blake still had his gun in hand, and a little ballet ensued as Blake tried to shake hands and holster his gun at the same time.

“An honor, sir!”

“No, no; my pleasure, really….”

“Could we possibly cut this short? It’s only about 120 degrees or so, but I’m sure you two can congratulate one another with even greater efficiency in a shadier spot.” Avon was definitely fairing the worst of the group in his black leather tunic.

“Yup, it’s a scorcher, ain’t it?” said their host, who did not seem discomfited by the heat despite his campfire and rubber boots. “If y’all’ll be kind enough to help me here…?” And with that, A.B. began disassembling his campfire.

“Why, that’s nothing but a battery-powered Bunsen burner,” cried Vila as A.B. neatly stacked the completely unburned “campfire” wood and strapped it in a neat bundle.

“This here is the traditional Hunting/Fishing Campsite, as it was done in the olden days. Y’see, the I.L.A. is an old and—hand me muh coffee-pot, willya?—and honorable brotherhood based upon an even older organization, the origins of which are shrouded in antiquity. We carry on the rites and rituals and wear the traditional costumes of the period.” A.B. straightened from his task and threw his arms out to show off his outfit.

“But surely, man, you must be dying of the heat by now!” cried Blake.

A.B. took a small control box from his jacket pocket and waggled it at them. “Naw,” he said, “I’m wearin’ my electric long johns and I’ve got ‘em set on ‘frosty.’”

After A.B. collected up his belongings—a hunting laserifle, the battery-powered Bunsen burner, a coffee-pot, a sleeping bag, and his bundle of “campfire” (“Ain’t a stick of wood growing natural on this here planet; I’ve got the finest collection of knotty pine in 25 parsecs!”)—he slung them over his shoulder and led the group down the road to a large door set in the side of a cliff, which opened at their approach.

“I’d hate to see what he’d bring on a really long trip, like overnight,” Vila whispered to Cally as A.B. dropped his belongings on the floor of the room behind the door with a clatter and gestured his guests in. It was refreshingly cool inside and everyone relaxed until A.B. pushed a button on the wall and hollered, “GERONIMO!” as the lift, for a lift is what it was, began its descent. They all wondered what “geronimo” meant, but were too polite to ask, except for Avon who really just didn’t care.

Upon reaching the bottom, the lift opened out into quite a nice little underground urban center, with groups of people, most clad in the same sort of clothing A.B. wore, milling about in the approved manner of small towns. There was a striking statue of a man made of polished red glass, twice life-size, in the middle of the main hall or square, and what Vila took to be coin-operated refreshment dispensers on every wall. The color here, as on the surface, was a deep crimson, as the city walls were partly natural cave and partly carved from the rock.

“It’s quite nice—if you like red,” Vila said. “Except… there’s something not quite right.”

“All of the passers-by are carrying weaponry,” Cally said.

“And that surprises you, why?” Avon said.

It was true; every man, woman, and child carried some sort of firearm. Even the tiniest child carried what Vila was praying was just a toy gun, but what he suspected was a tiny pistol.

“Why so many guns?” asked Blake.

“To protect our homes and families,” A.B. replied, as if by rote.

“Is there a lot of crime, then?” asked Vila.

“Nope, none at all.”

“Ah. Yes, well… I suppose it’s, uh, working, then” said Blake, somewhat at a loss for words for once.

“Blake, this colony consists of fewer than five hundred families. How much crime do you expect these people to get up to?” hissed Avon in his ear.

Vila, meanwhile, had sauntered casually over to one of the vending machines in hopes of increasing the crime rate by 100% by jimmying it open and scoring himself a snack, only to find that it did not dispense drinks or food. “Hey, c’mere,” he stage-whispered, “Look at this!”

The signs on the vending machine read ‘More Blast For Your Cash!”, “Try Our Family Pack!”, and “Buy a 6-Pack Today!”

“They appear to be disposable guns,” murmured Cally in wonderment.

“They’re okay, but if you’re not careful and pour too much power into ‘em in one go, they can melt in your hand,” A.B. said, coming up behind them. “I got us some transportation to the town call.”

Their transportation proved to be a small, old-fashioned yellow hovercraft, polished to a high gloss.

“We aren’t going far, but it’ll look more impressive if we drive up in Eastwood’s best taxicab.”

“Eastwood—is that the name of this city?” Called asked as they all piled into the hovercraft.

“Yup, it’s named after our founder and first leader, Clinton Eastwood. His son-in-law, Chauncy de la Turbot, is the head of the local chapter of the I.L.A. and the Big Boss now, but Clinton still sits in on all the meetings. He’s 92, but still a right old sumbitch when he gets at it!” A.B. was convulsed with laughter at the thought, which confused Cally as to whether “sumbitch” was a compliment or an insult.

The hovercraft whirred up and stopped in front of a large building that appeared to have been constructed on the side of the cave by cementing large chunks of red crystal together. It had a set of wood-toned laminate doors, with a sign in a curly-cued gothic script over them. They squinted, trying to make out what it said, as they disembarked; Ye Olde Town Hall, and under it in a more modern and legible script, Brought to you by our sponsor, HotPoint Lazer-gun Inc. and Affiliated Industries.

A.B. escorted them through the double doors and into the town hall.

It was an impressive room in its own way, part natural cave wall and part Formica knotty-pine paneling, faux wood rough-hewn plastic furniture and, above their heads, a big wagon wheel chandelier with candles on it. The ‘candles’ were topped by flame-shaped light bulbs that flickered pseudo-realistically. On the paneled wall hung a framed embroidery of a stag and a smoking gun with the motto “The Buck Stops Here” neatly box-stitched at the bottom.

“This is neat!” Vila said. “It’s like we’re on WestWorld!”

“Allow me to make the inter-ductions,” A.B. said. “This is Head Honcho Chauncy de la Turbot, chairman of HotPoint Lazer-gun Inc. and Mayor of Eastwood. He’s also the President of the I.L.A, but that’s on the down-low. Everyone here is an executive of the company and a town High Mucky-Muck, and also officers of the I.L.A., but that last’s not something we like to advertise.” He winked and put a finger across his lips in a shhhhhh! gesture.

For such a titled group, they were a tatty bunch. They all wore overalls, dirty bandanas around their throats, and rubber hipboots suitable for wading through the kind of mountain streams you find rainbow trout in—the sort of streams of which there were none on Barrengarious. Apparently they’d all been drinking while waiting for the rebels to arrive; the table was littered with dirty shot glasses and beer steins, and somebody had built a pyramid of beer cans in the corner.

A.B. gestured grandly to each board member in turn as he introduced them.

“This is Honcho Rose N. Thrall, boss of the waterworks project, Director of Merchandising, and the editor of the I.L.A. monthly bulletin. This is Honcho Bailey Barnum, boss of the mining operations, our VP of Customer Relations, and the Director of New Memberships for the I.L.A. And this last gentleman is Honcho Smythe-Ffloyd, VP of Weapons Design, Treasurer of the I.L.A., and boss of Explosions and Expansions for the town.”

“Cain’t grow the town without an explosion or two in the right place!” said Honcho Smythe-Ffloyd with a grin. Wide-eyed, Vila noticed he had only three fingers on his left hand.

“And it is my great honour to introduce the founder of Eastwood—Honcho Clinton Eastwood!” A.B. said, gesturing grandly at a less-than-spectacular figure at the far end of the table.

Clinton Eastwood was small, wizened, and looked every year of his long life. He grinned at the four rebels and at Cally in particular, small black eyes shining mischievously. He wiped his hand on his filthy overalls and held it out to Blake. “Yup, I’m Honcho Eastwood, but YOU can call me Clinty, sweetheart.”

Blake noted wryly that that last comment was aimed at Cally and shook the grubby paw, saying, “Honcho Eastwood, I’m so pleased to be here and to lend assistance to your cause. I’m very interested in your planet—how is it we’ve never heard of your colony before?”

“We do like our privacy, don’t we,” said Head Honcho de la Turbot, his board of directors nodding in confirmation. “Besides, this way we don’t get any of the competition sniffin’ around.”

“Not that we have a whole hell of a lot of competition,” put in Honcho Thrall, a no-nonsense-looking, tattooed brunette. Her biceps stretching the sleeves of her tee shirt, she looked more than capable of handling, personally, any competition stupid enough to show up. “We manufacture six tons of weapons and ammo a year and sell roughly half of it on the open market, making us the second largest venders of weapons in the galaxy, but the first largest manufacturers.”

“Wait a moment, did I hear that correctly?” Blake said with polite interest. “You sell only half off-world? A.B. says you have no crime and I know for a fact this planet hosts zero wildlife… so, what do you do with the rest of it, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“’Bout half of what’s left goes to our Green Stamp Redemption Centers across the galaxy… the rest is used for…,” and at this point, a messianic light came into Head Honcho de la Turbot’s eyes, which lifted ceiling-ward. “…the most Holy of Holies, the Rite of Rites,” he intoned, his words palpably capitalized, “Ye Olde Annual DUCK HUNT!”

At this, he mimed someone pulling a laserifle into firing position, peered one-eyed through an imaginary gun sight, and yelled, “ZAP!” in a rather good imitation of a laserifle firing.

Avon grinned suddenly and uncontrollably for a second as the deep significance of the action hit him, then quickly got his expression under control and turned towards Blake, resting one hand casually on his gun as he turned. He was rewarded by the sight of Blake standing open-mouthed and smiled to see the colour draining from Blake’s face.

“Whuh…? D, d, duck WHAT?” Blake stammered.

“Duck Hunt!” A.B. interrupted enthusiastically. “Once a year on Elmer Fudd’s birthday, we import thousands of ducks from Earth! You should see it! Mallards, Cayugas, Pintails, Baldpates, Aylesbury’s, Mandarins, and more! We set ‘em free, then blast the bejeesus out of ‘em. After a well-earned duck feast, we destroy all the holy rifles used in the Holy Hunt so that they may never be used for mundane, worldly purposes. After laser weapons, eiderdown quilts are our biggest export.”

It really was amazing how quickly a chalk white face could come up in such a beet-red colour, mused Avon, his hand still unobtrusively parked on his gun.

“You slaughter sweet, innocent, little ducks that never did anyone any harm FOR FUN!?” Blake screeched, gesturing with one arm, Cally clinging to the other arm in a futile attempt to calm him. Vila had already skulked to the door and looked ready to bolt.

“Well, no; not for fun exactly,” said the Head Honcho. “We do it for religious purposes… the fact that it is tremendously, amazingly fun is just icing on the cake!”

“GAAHH!” yelled Blake, trying to pull his arm out of Cally’s grasp, “You’re all a great, bloody lot of LOONIES! I’m getting out of this insane asylum—come along, Cally, Vila, Avon….”

We will never know what the members of the Eastwood town hall board would have done when it finally penetrated their thick skulls that Blake was blaspheming against their religion; for it was at that precise moment that Space Commander Travis threw open the double doors, knocking Vila into the pyramid of beer cans stacked in the corner. Vila yelped and fell awkwardly as the lightweight aluminum cans crashed and clattered down on top of him.

Travis took one, two, three steps up to the table to stand across from Blake, who stood frozen in shock. He raised his gun arm and smiled, aimed carefully, and….

“HEY! Hey there, now, your appointment ain’t ‘til three this afternoon!” protested A.B.

Though Kerr Avon had been prepared for general mayhem to break loose, he hadn’t been prepared for this. It is a credit to his to his survival instincts that, despite the fact that he had never before seen a western or even “The Wizard of Oz,” with one smooth move, he shot through the chain suspending the wagon wheel chandelier, sending it crashing down on Travis’ head. Unfortunately, it also came crashing down on the heads of the members of the Eastwood board, who would undoubtedly be holding a grudge about it later.

The last thing Blake remembered was the sight of eight crack Federation troopers in full battle armour charging through the doors and the sounds of Liberator hand-guns firing. Someone behind him let out a piercing, “YEEEEE-HAAAAA!”, and then it was as if somebody had dropped a chandelier on his head, for he remembered no more.

* * *

Blake snoozed lightly, enjoying the feel of something smooth and cool against his face. As consciousness slowly filtered in, he became aware of the fact that he’d been stuffed into the corner of a small, crowded, dim room, and that he’d been leaned against a porcelain commode. Something sharp pricked the back of his head and he winced and reached up to pull out a shard of glass from his curly hair.

He suddenly realized that the figure looming in his peripheral vision was Vila, who was crouched down beside him. “Sorry about that,” Vila said. “I thought I’d gotten all the glass bits out.” Blake’s awareness expanded to include the potent smell of whisky, so potent it was actually stinging his eyes.

“Vila! You’ve been drinking again! I’ve told you, never on a mission!”

“Have not! You’re the one who reeks, Blake,” Vila replied indignantly.

Blake mulled that over, his thoughts as slow as molasses. “Hmmm. I guess that explains my hangover, and the fact that I don’t remember anything.”

“So what else is new?” snapped Avon. “But as a matter of fact, you weren’t, in fact, drinking.”

“You got bonked on the head by a bottle of Old White Stag Blended Kentucky Bourbon Whisky,” Vila said, straightening from his crouch and giving Blake a better look at their surroundings. “Waste of good booze if you ask me.”

Blake looked around the small room they’d been imprisoned in. Windowless, the only light provided was from a dim Eterna-Glow in the ceiling. Aside from the toilet bowl and the sink, he saw stacked cartons and an old filing cabinet. It reminded him of the kind of rooms he used to frequent a great deal way back when he was a custodial engineer. Cally was perched on a stack of cartons, giving Avon room to search through another box. “Anything?” she asked.

“Useless,” he replied. “These boxes are filled with nothing but cheap liquor… and some very nice down-filled quilts.” Blake shuddered.

You may think this stuff is useless, but I think this is a very elegantly-shaped bottle,” Vila said, slipping a slim hip-flask of Old White Stag Blended Kentucky Bourbon Whisky into one pocket. It barely showed. “See? Elegant! I can appreciate good design.” Cally rolled her eyes but Avon ignored him completely.

“There must be something in this room that can help us get out of here,” Blake said, reaching over and rattling a drawer on the filing cabinet. “Vila, see if you can unlock this.”

“Already did,” said Vila, “It’s empty, except for a set of plans to demolish some guy’s house to make way for a bypass.”

Blake shrugged, then struggled to his feet using the commode to pull himself up. When he straightened, he found himself face-to-face with a vicious-looking spotted feline head with its fangs bared in a snarl, glass eyes under a furrowed brow, mounted on a plaque and hanging over the tank.

“Gah! What the hell’s that doing there?!”

Vila’s lips quirked. “Yeah, he must have been going at a pretty fast clip to have rammed his head through the wall that way,” he grinned.

“But what the hell is it?”

“Us, if we don’t get out of here,” snapped Avon, rummaging through another box of quilts. Seeing them, a fateful gleam sparked in Blake’s eyes. “I’ve got an idea….”

Cally brightened, Vila started to shake, and Avon clapped his hand over his eyes.

* * *

Travis awoke with a black, splitting headache. He found himself lying on his back on a coach, covered by a down quilt. This was unfortunate, as Travis was apparently allergic to feathers. Between sneezes, he blearily surveyed his surroundings, thanking the fates that one of the few virtues of being one-eyed was that even in his condition, he wasn’t seeing double. Then, with all the suddenness of a chandelier crashing down on his head, the memory of where he was and what he was doing there hit him.

“Blake,” he muttered darkly, then sneezed again. Scrambling to his feet, he pulled out his communicator and said, “BLAKE,” into it, louder this time. On this signal, his three crack Federation troopers, down from eight crack Federation troopers, came tumbling into the room.

“Yessir,” they all saluted and formed a line per the Official Federation Recruit/Cannon-fodder Regulation Guide.

Blake,” said Travis for the third time, “Where. Is. Blake?” It was less a question than a threat.

“Um, well, you were sorta conked out, sir; we weren’t sure what to do, so we kinda just, like, stashed those guys in a disused lavatory,” said the youngest and most fool-hardy of the troopers.

“Blake,” said Travis in a low, dangerous tone that grew in volume, “I want him now. I want him shot! I want him DEAD!” He followed this with a volley of sneezes, then turned, eye streaming, and felt his way to the door.

“God bless you, sir. Um, sir? Do you, like, want us to shoot him? I mean, like, in cold blood?” The young trooper’s dual cohorts edged away from him nervously.

Travis stopped in his tracks and in mid-sneeze. Slowly he turned, step by step, inch by inch, until he was eye-to-eyes with the quaking trooper.

“Nobody, but nobody gets to shoot Blake but me,” he hissed, then turned and stomped out. His three crack troopers followed, two supporting the one whose knees had, for some reason, turned to jelly.

Travis planned on doing something that would relieve his headache, and very soon.

* * *

The door to the disused lavatory was flung open with such violence that the “Beware of the Leopard” sign tacked to it quivered long after the door itself stopped moving. Travis stood in the doorway, also quivering, but with insane rage.

“BLAKE!” he roared… then stopped and looked around. Except for some boxes, a file cabinet, a commode, and a sink, the room was empty, save for some clumsily faked “bodies” under some down quilts.

“Damn it! *Achoo!*  They’ve escaped!” Travis shouted nasally at his troopers, who also peered into the room.

“No, sir; they’re just asleep.” “Yeah!” “Yessir, there they are, on the floor!”

“You idiots! Do you think I’m going to fall for that old trick? That’s why I’m the space commander and you three are the cannon-fodder! Follow me!”

As the clattering of jackboots faded into the distance, Vila peeked out from under a quilt. “Is he gone yet?” he whispered.

* * *

The four rebels pounded down endless, empty, red-walled corridors, looking for a way out, totally lost.

“Everything is such a saturated colour, you’d swear the place is red-lit, until you notice your hands and clothing are still normal colour,” Blake thought.

“This must be what it’s like being a blood corpuscle inside of a great, big artery,” mused Vila to himself.

“Constant exposure to this dreadful colour must be what drove them all mad, the poor things,” thought Cally sadly.

The tenor of Avon’s thoughts was entirely different. “…if only there were someone to threaten for information on a possible exit,” he thought, bringing up the rear. Suddenly he found himself bouncing off Blake’s back as the rebel leader skidded to a complete halt. He was about to lace into Blake when he saw the familiar chipper smile and fuzzy cheeks of Ambrose Burnside before them.

“Hey, y’all,” A.B. smiled, “I figgered you’d be around here someplace. Been looking for you almost an hour now.”

“I’ll just bet you have,” Avon said before Blake could get in a word. Visions of twisting the location of the nearest safe exit out of the affable fool danced in his head.

“A.B., would you please help us escape? We should really like to avoid Travis if at all possible,” Cally said sweetly, edging between A.B. and Avon, whose fingers were twitching spasmodically.

“Oh, yeah; I really want to apologize for that—the town hall is breaking in a new administrative assistant—wouldn’t you know, they gave the job to Kitty Gibbs, who is our Head Honcho’s sister-in-law’s daughter! I don’t like to gossip but, well, she’s a nice enough young’un, but she does always seem to get the phone messages and appointments calendar messed up. Why we couldn’t hire a professional, I don’t know….”

The fuzzy-faced guide might have gone on all day in this conversational tone had Blake not interrupted.

“Excuse me, A.B.; but is there an exit to the surface nearby? We want out, now!”

“But we haven’t even taken your picture for the ads yet!” wailed A.B. “And ya can’t leave without saying ‘bye to the members of the board! They wouldn’t hear of it!”

“Oh, I’m sure the members of the board would just love to say good-bye to us—as we stood in front of a Federation firing squad!” snarled Avon “And I don’t suppose they want to have a chat with me about dropping a chandelier on their pointed heads?”

“Oh, never you mind ‘bout that, Mr. Avon. I seen the board members themselves do more damage to the Swing Low, Sweet Chariot Tavern on a Saturday night. Myself, I thought it was a pretty slick move!” A.B. cackled at the thought.

Blake thought about it. He thought about the fact that there was no way they could get past the entire armed town without being seen. He thought about the fact that A.B. didn’t seem bright enough to be able to lie so well. He thought about the fact that he really wanted to be seen in all the better magazines and weekend colour supplements. He thought about getting his hands on the bastard who’d hit him on the head with a bottle of Old White Stage Blended Kentucky Bourbon Whisky.

“All right, A.B.; take us back.”

With Avon and Vila protesting, for once in total and loud agreement, they all followed A.B. back to the town, using the deserted corridors to avoid bumping into Travis again.

* * *

The members of the Eastwood town Hall were extremely enthusiastic about the Liberator crew’s return, but not at all in the way Avon had predicted it. In fact, they astonished him by pounding him on the back in a friendly manner, hollering, “Avon’s a good ol’ boy, ain’t he?” and offering him drinks. The fact that it was boilermakers consisting of a shot of Old White Stag Blended Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey followed by a stein of Blatz Beer, chugged down in one breath, did little to sooth his ruffled feathers.

When they’d all calmed down, Blake tried to get a few things straightened out. “You seem to be well-acquainted with Travis,” he began.

“Oh, yeah; Travis is a good ol’ boy. He stopped by to pick up the Federation’s latest shipment of Model #2016-E-29-11229 Lite-N-Leaded Laserifles,” Honcho Barnum, VP of Customer Relations said. “Unfortunately, our new admin-assist got the dates mixed up… again.”

The board members all sneaked looks at the Head Honcho, who looked embarrassed.

“You sell to the Federation?!” Blake gasped.

“Sure. They’re our biggest customer. In fact, they’re our only customer,” Honcho Thrall said, sporting a fresh black eye from her run-in with the chandelier.

“You sell to the Federation exclusively?” Cally said, “But it is they whom we fight against!”

“Well now, ma’am, HotPoint Lazer-gun, Inc. wouldn’t want to take sides or anything… that sort of thing might cut into sales,” A.B. said apologetically.

The rest of the Bard nodded in agreement.

“Besides, what we’re working for is to put our guns into the hands of as many of those good, solid, salt-of-the-earth Common Folk out there as possible,” said Head Honcho De la Turbot, “…and sure-as-shooting, nobody puts as many guns into as many Common Folks’ hands as the Federation.”

“When it comes to ‘guns-in-hand’, I suppose they can’t get commoner than Travis,” muttered Avon.

“You needn’t worry about him for the moment, Mr. Avon,” the Head Honcho assured him, “‘bout now, he should be on level 22, searching storage compartments. We won’t see him for a bit.”

“It’s not so much that I’m worrying about him… it’s more that I’d like very much to shoot him,” Avon said in deceptively mild tones.

“Oh, we can’t let you do that, Mr. Avon! I’m sorry, but that’s not good customer service. Of course, by the same token, we can’t let him kill you! Y’see, Mr. Blake, we’d like to sell to you rebels, too,” Honcho Barnum said. He obviously had a bead on what was what in the Customer Relations game.

“I wouldn’t want to compromise you,” said Blake virtuously. “Federation reprisals are harsh and swift.”

To the Liberator crew’s surprise, De la Turbot and his fellow members of the Board started to chuckle.

“I can see you gentlemen don’t appreciate the finer points of Hotfoot, er, I mean Barrengarious III. You may have noted that everything around here is red.” He gestured to the walls and ceiling. “The reason why not a stick of wood or anything will grow here is that the planet is made up almost entirely of a certain red crystal that is the basis of and focus in every laser weapon we make—ruby!”

“Rubies!” gasped Vila, looking at the gritty red walls with more respect than before.

“Yup,” A.B. confirmed. “So we just polished up a few dozen mountains real pretty and clear and put a mega-light generator on a pulley system behind each one.”

“Are you saying that the entire planet is a laser weapon?” Cally said, aghast.

“Makes Darth Vader’s Death Star look like a piss-ant pea-shooter,” the Head Honcho said smugly. “We can zap to an oily smudge anybody who ankles in here where they ain’t wanted.”

“You mean you could have blown us to our component atoms any old time you felt like it once we entered the system? I think I need a chair,” Vila said weakly. He grabbed a nearby shot glass full of Old White Stag Blended Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey and downed it, oblivious to Blake’s disapproving stare.

“Unfortunately, now Travis knows yer here!” A.B. said. “Which presents a problem. We’re the Fed’s main supply-line of laserweapons, so they’ll ignore any little rumors they might hear about our dealin’ with the rebs as might get back to ‘em, but they won’t be able to ignore this! How are we gonna get you all back to your ship without Travis wanting to know how come we didn’t blast your buns off? We may not be a-scared of Fed battlecruisers, but we surely don’t want to lose our best customers!”

“Our economy will be in ruins! We won’t be able to import food, or ducks, or water, and we’ll all die!” hollered the Head Honcho, who firmly believed that if you can keep your head while all those around you are losing theirs, you obviously don’t understand what’s going on.

“Well,” said Blake dubiously, “We’re very fast. I suppose you could, I don’t know, take potshots at us and miss?”

When it looked as if the Board was going to agree with Blake’s cunning plan, Avon knew he’d better step in, otherwise they were going to be entrusting the Liberator’s molecular cohesion to a bunch of red-necked lunatics. “I have an idea,” he snapped, “and it’s a damned sight better than one of Blake’s loopy ideas.”

Oh, really?” Blake countered loftily. “Let’s hope it works out as well as my last idea....” He was obviously referring to their impersonation of pillows that had sprung them from the disused lavatory.

“Presumably you have some sort of primary targeting computer? And you undoubtedly have some sort of back-up computer in case it goes down?” Avon quizzed the locals.

“Yup.” “A course we do!” “Sure 'nuff!”

“How long does it take the secondary back-up to cut in after a primary targeting computer break-down?”

“Huh? Um, all of two, mebbe three seconds.”

“Ah, but does Travis have any idea how long it’s supposed to take?”

“Shouldn’t think so. Whut business is it a’ his?”

Avon smiled. “What business, indeed? When we leave, we will simply disable the primary targeting computer long enough for the Liberator to fly by, teleport us out of this little haven of joy, and beat it the hell out of this star system. Only then do you allow the secondaries to come online. Travis will curse you, but ultimately blame us. Blake, I suggest we get this business over and done with as quickly as possible.”

The Board liked Avon’s plan so much, they all decided to drink to it.

“Well, A.B.?” said Blake, “it seems we’re all in agreement. Let’s get the ball rolling!”

“Oh, yessir, if you please,” beamed A.B. “And Mr. Blake? I know yer upset we deal to the Feds, but I’m still yer biggest fan. Is that okay?”

“Somehow, that makes it all worthwhile,” said Blake with a completely straight face.

* * *

It took about an hour to take what everyone agreed was a passable picture of Blake as he posed with a laseriffle leaning casually and heroically against one shoulder. It took another hour for everyone to agree on the text to accompany the picture. Then it took yet another hour for Blake to haggle with the board over his fee—twenty boxes of their top laserifles plus 80 boxes of ammunition to be picked up by Avalon, and a set price for any new orders made in the next fiscal year. It might have taken longer but for the fact that all the Honchos were supremely well-oiled by this point and in no condition to dicker.

“You’ll like Avalon,” Cally assured them, “She caters her own meetings. I’ll tell her to bring her signature dish of honeyed fettuccine in grape leaves, it’s delicious.”

“You know, I think she’ll like it here, too. Every time I see that girl, she’s holed up in a cavern or a tunnel—seems to have an affinity for them,” mused Blake.

When the time came for A.B. to escort Blake’s group back to the city square, it was with honest, if a bit sodden, regret that the Board of Directors bid them good-bye. In fact, halfway through their farewells, Honcho Eastwood came up with the brilliant suggestion that they all accompany Blake to the elevator and serenade him as they went along to show him how much they appreciated what he was doing for them. And so, Blake and his posse, let by A.B. and trailed by a ragged barbershop quintet, made their way back to the lift that would take them first to the targeting computer level for a bit of helpful, but not too difficult to fix, sabotage, and from there to the surface.

They threaded their way through the crowded town square, the drunken Honchos proving an asset here as they cut a swath through the crowd, which got out of their way as they reeled along, singing at the top of their lungs.

“…don’t let him argue with a truck, the truck is sure to wiiiiin!” they sang in a sort of harmony.

“Ah, mmm, yes,” nodded Blake, making artificially polite noises.

Avon muttered something unintelligible and stalked onto the lift directly, without looking back.

“He’s nobody’s moggy, no-o-o-ow!” The song seemed to be over, so Cally joined Blake in applauding their faux appreciation.

“Don’t encourage them!” snapped Avon from the elevator, “I’ve seen this happen with Vila a million times!”

Just as Avon feared, Head Honcho De la Turbot hollered, “ONE MORE TIME!” and they were off again. “Somebody’s moggy, by the side of the road....”

Vila, stung by Avon’s all-too-accurate comment, ignored them all in favor of the statue that dominated the square. Now that he knew the thing was entirely made out of cut and polished ruby instead of glass, he could appreciate its artistry better.

It was of a man of a generally scruffy appearance, cowboy hat pulled down low over his heavy-lidded, squinting eyes, a cigarillo clenched in his square jaw, wearing a poncho. Vila couldn’t quite read the words engraved on the base, as they were written in the Old Earth alphabet from centuries before—he thought it said something about having a nice day, or ‘go ahead, make someone’s day’ or something like that....

“That’s cheerful,” thought Vila, “What a nice sentiment.”

From his vantage point, Vila was the first to sight a depressed-looking Travis and his three crack Federation troopers emerging dejectedly from a tunnel across the square. When they looked up to see where the god-awful singing was coming from, they caught sight of Blake, perked up, and began to stealthily make their way through the crowd towards him.

“Travis! Travis is here!” Vila hissed, then he ducked behind the statue out of sight.

Cally reacted swiftly, grabbing a gun out of Honcho Barnum’s shoulder holster and ducking into the elevator. “Vila! Come on! Blake; you too!”

Blake scanned the crowd. “Where, Vila, where is Travis?” His hand went to his belt—it was only then that he remembered Travis’ men had taken his gun.

“Ha! I’ve got you now, Blake!” cried Travis, gun arm extended in the ‘kill’ position. “You and your crew throw down your weapons!” He was backed up by three crack Federation laserifles, which had incidentally been purchased on the very planet they were all standing on at the moment.

“How can I throw down what I haven’t got?” Blake said, his hands reaching for the ceiling.

There was a brief tussle in the elevator as Avon fought Cally for the lone lasergun they had as she tried to comply with Travis’ order. A warning shot from the interior of the lift that detonated in the ceiling told everyone that Avon had, for the moment, possession of the weapon. Unfortunately, he could only fire a warning shot as Blake stood in the line of fire.

“Blake, order your man to drop his gun!” yelled Travis.

Order Avon?!” cried Blake, as if the concept was new to him. “I can’t ‘order’ Avon! We have an equal, adult, mature relationship—besides, every time I give him an order, he does the opposite just to spite me!”

“Uh,” said A.B., covering the cowering Eastwood town Board with his outstretched arms, “Uh... Travis, we caught ‘em for you! Yeah, that’s right. We captured ‘em!”

Travis ignored the quivering dignitaries. “I’ll kill Blake!” he yelled to Avon, not very imaginatively.

“Best enjoy it; it’ll be the last thing you do on this plain of existence!” Avon yelled back.

Crowds of screaming people, none of whom thought to use the guns they carried, ran for the tunnel exits, jamming them.

“Hands up, Travis! All of you, throw down your guns, NOW!” quavered Vila. In the confusion, he had deftly picked the lock on a vending machine that sold disposable spatter-guns and now held one in each hand. Only six meters from Travis and his troopers, there would be no way he could miss, not with a spatter-gun, not even shaking the way he was.

Without waiting for a cue from Travis, his three crack federation troopers, to a man, dropped their laserifles and raised their hands skyward. The reputation of the spatter-gun had preceded itself. Apparently, Vila’s reputation had not.

Travis’ face blanched as his troopers’ weapons clattered around his feet. “This in not happening to me, this is NOT happening to me,” he intoned as if it were a mantra, “I’ll wake up soon. This is not happening....”

Blake smiled and did a neat side-step, giving Avon a clear shot at Travis.

“That’s check and mate, Travis,” Avon grinned, stepping out of the lift and aiming his gun directly at the Federation insignia on Travis’ chest.

At that precise moment, the chunk of cave ceiling Avon had weakened with his warning shot loosened and came crashing down on him, knocking the lasergun out of his hand and throwing him into Blake, who also went crashing down. The noise of the screaming crowd, the falling of the rocks, and Travis’ unhumourous and inhuman laughter; all of it became just too much for Vila and his nerve broke. He threw his two spatter-guns at Travis’ head and ran for the elevator, not even stopping to see if they connected with their target. Avon and Blake didn’t stop to look either; they half-crawled and half-ran the short distance to the lift and threw themselves in.

“Level 5! Level 5!” Blake screamed at Cally, who pushed the button dutifully.

“You did it, didn’t you,” she scolded Avon. “You killed Travis in cold blood. You’re just as bad as he is!” Unable to see anything from the safety of the elevator, she had missed the whole thing.

Avon, gasping for breath from his position on the floor only spared her a strangled laugh, then reached over and grabbed the quaking thief by the shirt-front. “You idiot!” he hissed between clenched teeth, shaking Vila until his head rattled, “You Delta dork, you brachiocephalic twit! You had a gun on him—no, you had TWO guns on him and you didn’t take the shot! Why, why, why didn’t you shoot him?!”

“Shoot him?” gasped Vila, pushing Avon away, “Shoot him? I was thanking the gods he didn’t call my bluff! I tried to steal some ammo for the guns, but the bullet machine was empty!” Head in hands, he moaned miserably.

Avon stared, stupefied. “Vila,” he whispered, “if you had half a brain in your head, you’d be dangerous.”

When the lift reached Level 5, the doors opened automatically. Avon hauled himself to his feet. “Blake, you and Cally hold the lift doors until we get back.”

“We?” Vila said weakly, “But, but, but I haven’t recovered from my horrible experience yet.”

Avon smiled, then reached down and grabbed the thief’s shirt-front again, this time to haul him to his feet and drag him out of the elevator.

“This shouldn’t take long,” he said over his shoulder, going through a door helpfully marked “Targeting Computer Central”.

Cally and Blake looked at one another. Avon had... ‘smiled’, if that was the word for it; nothing good ever came of that. A sense of foreboding filled the lift.

The mood was broken as the elevator doors started to close and the two rebels had to jump to hold them open. Moments later, a thin, high, annoying buzzer went off and the doors strained against their hands.

“They’re onto us!” murmured Cally tensely.

“No, that’s just the normal lift automatics going off,” Blake assured her. “It’s just nagging us to let go of the doors... ah, here come Avon and Vila!”

It was easy to tell that Avon and Vila were on their way back because you could hear them arguing with one another. Or rather, Vila was yelling at Avon, who seemed rather pleased with himself.

“That wasn’t funny, Avon. It’s not fair! That was my souvenir, my only one!”

“Oh, shut up,” remarked Avon mildly, “I saw you steal another from that git at the town hall. You slipped it into your boot, you lying fool.”

“Oh, yeah… I forgot!” Vila said, patting the bulge in his boot in confirmation.

“Stealing in his sleep, I suppose,” Avon commented genially to Blake. Blake eyed him warily.

“That didn’t take long.”

“No. It didn’t,” agreed Avon, pressing the top button on the lift.

Emerging from the lift was a little like coming out of a movie theater—it surprised them that it had gotten dark outside while they were underground. They stepped out onto the cooling sand. Behind them, the doors closed... then opened and closed again. Puffs of white smoke seeped through the crack and beneath their feet, they could feel rather than hear distant detonations.

Blake and Cally stared at Avon accusingly but Vila simply crossed his arms and shook his head sadly. “Yeah, that’ll scare the hell outa the cockroaches in the walls,” was his only comment.

Avon calmly spoke into his teleport bracelet, ignoring them. “Liberator? Landing party to Liberator.”

“I hear you, Avon.” Jenna’s voice was music to their ears.

“Jenna, as soon as you are in range, four to teleport—but make it snappy. There should be a Federation ship making contact any minute now.”

“Will do! Avon, is there some volcanic activity going on down there? I’m getting some strange readings on the scanners.”

Blake cut in. “Don’t worry about it, Jenna; just come get us quickly. Blake out.” He dropped his arm and went back to staring at Avon. “I was waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he said.

Avon was spared from answering because in the next moment, they found themselves in the teleport bay on Liberator, which subsequently rocked beneath their feet.

“Get up here, all of you!” came Jenna’s voice over the loudspeaker, “That Federation ship of Avon’s is coming up out of the atmosphere now!"

They all ran for the bridge.

With the element of surprise and the bridge understaffed, the Federation ship might actually have had a chance, but as soon as the crew assumed battle stations, it quickly became obvious there was no way it could win. It turned tail, an electrical fire dancing over its starboard tanks, shedding thermoplates. It rounded the curve of the planet, hiding behind its bulk.

“Zen, take us out of here, Standard by 23-Skidoo!” said Blake, then he turned on Avon.

“For god’s sake, Avon! You were just supposed to remove a widget or two, not blow the entire complex!”

“If you were going to be so particular about it, you might have done it yourself,” Avon said smugly. “Anyway, I thought you wanted it to look authentic. Besides, I don’t know what you’re getting so upset about, they betrayed you in the end—you heard A.B., he told Travis they had captured you!”

“I’m sure there’s a good explanation,” Blake said doggedly.

Cally nodded in agreement. “Yes, Avon; it seemed to me they were just playing for time and would have helped us to escape later.”

“How about it, Orac?” Blake asked the persnickety computer, “You’ve studied their computer records by now. Was A.B. a Federation traitor?”

The little computer whined to itself in thought. *A.B.? Negative. The intelligence quotient indicates he hasn’t the brain power for such duplicity. Though the sanity quotient indicates he’s certainly crazy enough.*

“But what exactly did you do, Avon?” asked Cally patiently. Putting up with humans in general and Avon in specific for so long had made her one very patient alien.

“First, I sent a program through to the backup computers, making it impossible for them to cut in for a solid ten minutes—‘take potshots at us and miss,’” Avon mimicked Blake badly, “Blake, what were you thinking?!—no, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.”

“Then he got the bloody targeting computer drunk with my whiskey, that’s what he did” interrupted Vila, “What a waste!”

“I simply relieved sticky-fingers here of his ill-gotten gains—that liquor he stole in the storeroom—and poured it over the face of the main computer. It melted through the plastic and started a small chain reaction.” Avon smiled, sending a chill of fear through Blake. “I got my own back on those red-neck yucks! ‘Good ol’ boy’, indeed. They’ll be pulling smoking components out of the walls for months!”

“Well—they seemed a fairly easy-going lot,” said Blake, “Perhaps they’ll think it was an accident. Just the same, I’m glad Avalon’s picking up the rifles instead of us. Mustn’t take chances, eh?”

Jenna turned to Gan. “I guess we’re never going to get the straight story on all this.”

Gan smiled, happy to finally get a line. “I’m not sure I want to hear the straight story.”

“Well, I’m certainly disappointed, but it’s not a total loss, I suppose. We got some very nice weapons and at a very good price,” said the optimistic rebel leader, “...and I still get to be in the magazines, too. Best of all, we saved a planet from economic ruin, in the best heroic tradition; eh, Avon?”

“Yes. All we had to do was help the Federation maintain one of its major supply lines for guns and ammunition. The more people I meet, the more I like Orac.”

Vila threw himself down on the couch and pulled his backup flask of Old White Stag Blended Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey out of his boot. “A job well-done,” he toasted himself and took a swig.

With a look of horror, Blake’s hand went to the back of his head. “Good god! I completely forgot to find out who it was that hit me on the back of the head with that bottle of what-do-you-call-it whiskey! It totally slipped my mind!” A strange, undefinable look replace the look of horror. “Is my hair... melting?!”

Blake rushed off the flightdeck, presumably to the shower facility in his cabin.

“Should we tell him who hit him?” asked Vila from his slouch on the couch.

“Perhaps we’d better not,” replied Cally. “Besides, what sort of revenge could he take on a 92-year-old man?”

The End