Actions

Work Header

Tirren Phale Chapter 7 - Mission to Destiny: Part Two [Home Mission].

Work Text:

It took a few minutes for the crew of the Ortega to realise what the charge on the entry hatch had done, and Grovane was the first to voice it.

“You destroyed our ship!” he cried.

“We had to,” Tirren said. She flipped the information Zen had gathered from its scans of the other ship onto the main screen. “The ship that was docking with you was a Federation medium cruiser. It carried enough ammunition to destroy your ship, as well as a squad of crack Federation troopers. That was the buyer Sara was expecting. If we hadn't rigged the hatch, the ship would have been confiscated by them anyway. If you'd stayed aboard, you would have been killed. There was no other way.”

“We will expect compensation,” Levett said, looking at Dr Kendall. “That ship was our livelihood.”

“We can supply compensation,” Avon said. Tirren looked at him in surprise. She would never have expected Avon to offer such a thing, given his attitude even to spending some of the Liberator's vast hoard in legitimate trade. The rest of Liberator's crew were just as surprised, it seemed. Vila was looking at him as though he'd grown another head, and Jenna seemed shocked to hear it.

“Given it was our actions which led to the destruction of the Ortega,” he said, looking across at Blake, “it seems only fair that we compensate the owners.” The Liberator's crew relaxed. Avon hadn't gone mad, he'd just scored another shot in his ongoing argument with Blake. A good shot, Tirren thought, one which Blake would find hard to deny.

As expected, Blake gave Avon a glare, before turning to the crew of the Ortega. “What would it cost you to purchase a similar ship in your area of the galaxy?” he asked.

The three of them looked at one another. “We don't know,” said Levett. “We had the Ortega. We didn't need to look.”

“We can give you access to our databanks,” Cally said.

“We'll also need to get accommodation sorted out,” Gan said. “Let's do that part now, shall we?”

Dr Kendall nodded. “That sounds agreeable. I believe we all need some rest after the shocks of the day.”

“We've put Sara in Level three, cabin six,” Tirren told Gan. “Vila's jiggered the lock, so you'll need his assistance to give her food.”

“What about water?” asked Sonheim.

“She can get that from the refresher unit,” Tirren said. She motioned to Gan. “The woman in that cabin has killed three men,” she told him. “Don't listen to what she tells you. We need you here on Liberator, and we need you alive. Do you understand me?”

Gan said, “If I have any problems, I'll call someone else.”

“Good man,” Tirren said. “Blake, I'm on next watch, is that correct?”

Blake checked the watch schedule. “You are.”

“Good,” she said. “In that case, I'm going to get some rest. I'd strongly advise the rest of you to do the same – we've all been awake for more than twelve hours each, and some of us were woken during our sleep periods.”

Blake nodded. “Vila, you're supposed to be on watch now, so you stay here. The rest of you, off to quarters. Tirren's right – we all need rest.” He turned to Doctor Kendall. “If there's anything your crew need, Gan will show you how to use the comm units.”

Kendall agreed, motioning to his crew to follow Gan. Tirren waited until the large man and his followers were out of earshot, then said, “I think we need to make sure if anyone visits Sara, including us, it's with an escort. I don't trust her.”

Avon looked up. “Neither do I,” he said.

Blake looked at the pair of them in annoyance. “All right, I'll make sure it's understood by the crew of the Ortega. The rest of you, if you need to do anything for Sara, you do it in pairs. Tirren, Avon, you've just elected yourselves for escort duty. Tirren, you do the night shifts, Avon the day.”

Tirren sighed. Well, she'd walked into that one. “I'd also suggest a debriefing of that young woman,” she said. “She may know more about the Federation's plans for Destiny than she's letting on.”

“Good suggestion,” Avon agreed.

“It'll need drugs,” Tirren continued. She held up a hand, cutting off the protests of Cally and Blake. “No. We need the truth, and we don't have the time for extensive interrogation. I'll run a screen on her and find out which of the common interrogation drugs she's most susceptible to, as well as which ones she has any allergies to, so it'll be quick and thorough. But we need any information that woman has stored in her head, and we can't afford the time to interrogate her any other way.”

“At least ask Kendall,” Blake said. “She's still in his charge, officially, so we'll need his consent for the interrogation.”

“All right. But the screen can be done ahead of time,” Tirren said. “Either way, I'd rather have her interrogated sooner than later. If she does know, it'll be useful for our journey. Now, if you'll all excuse me, I need my rest.”

She turned and left the flight deck, heading for her quarters. About halfway there, she heard footsteps behind her. She paused, waiting for whoever it was to catch her up. As she'd suspected, it was Avon.

“Were you serious about that interrogation?” he asked.

Tirren nodded. “I was. Blake and Kendall may think Sara's just a silly girl, but I think there's a lot which isn't showing under that fluffy surface. I want to find out why she did it, and whether there's a fleet of pursuit ships waiting for us behind some planetoid out there.”

Avon frowned. “Yes, she seemed to believe she'd survive the arrival of whoever was coming to claim the neutrotope. That argues either a lot of naivete, or an expectation of that Federation cruiser.”

“I'd also say her willingness to kill three men, one of them apparently her partner, is a good indication that there's more to her than meets the eye,” Tirren said. “I'm willing to accept Cally's theory that the murder of Rafford was a misfortune and an attempt to cover up what she'd done, given the circumstances, but the murders of Dortmunn and Mandrian argue there's something more there. It's a pity we didn't have time to retrieve the bodies when we were evacuating you.”

“Quite,” Avon said dryly. It appeared the thought of having to share the ship with three corpses in the morgue wasn't to his taste. “Are the drugs really necessary?” he asked.

“Well, we can try interrogating her without drugs first, and see what story she tells. But I think the drugs will be needed to get the truth from her. If I were in her position, I'd want people to believe it was just a matter of greed, rather than possibly a political intrigue. The first might just get her imprisoned. The second would get her killed.”

“I see your point. So who is to carry out the interrogation? You?”

“I have enough skill with drugs to do the drug-based side of it. I've also spent my time in the hands of the Federation's interrogators, with and without drugs.” Tirren winced at the memories the statement raised. “I can certainly remember the questions,” she concluded bitterly.

Avon nodded, his face sombre. “As can I,” he said. “So it's agreed – the two of us act as interrogators?”

Tirren nodded. Of the rest of Liberator's crew, there was only Jenna she'd trust to complete an interrogation of a murderer and suspected spy without flinching, or drawing back. She suspected Gan would start protesting the first time he saw Sara; Vila wouldn't have the stomach for some of the questions, while Blake and Cally weren't comfortable with the whole idea at all. When it came right down to it, she wasn't too keen on the notion herself, but it was necessary in order to protect not only herself, but the crews of both the Liberator and the Ortega.

~

Tirren got less than four hours sleep before she was due to start her watch, which meant she needed another stim in order to maintain her alertness. Out of curiousity, she got Zen to scan in the direction of the meteor swarm they were now skirting, to see whether there had been any changes caused by the release of the Web organism into the centre of it. Zen reported back the Web organism appeared to be causing the formation of a solid clump in the middle of the swarm, and there were minor deviations appearing in the flight paths of the meteors within the vicinity of the clumping.

“It is estimated that in a period of no less than two hundred and fifty Earth years, the mass will reach critical point for solar body formation,” Zen concluded.

Tirren gave a grin. “I'll tell the crew of the Ortega to tell their children to look out for it,” she said. “Maybe they can call it Ortega, after the ship.”

“That would be good,” came a voice from behind her. She looked around to see Grovane standing in the upper doorway. “Do you mind if I join you?” he asked. “I couldn't sleep.”

She smiled. “No. Please, come in.”

“This is an amazing ship,” he said. “I've never seen one like it before.”

“Neither had any of us,” Tirren said. “Tell Jenna what you think of Liberator, if you want to get on her good side. She's the pilot, and from what Blake and Avon say, she's linked in with Zen somehow.”

“How's that possible?” Grovane asked.

“I have no idea,” Tirren said. “My speciality is biochemistry, not neuro-cybernetic interfaces.”

“You're a biochemist?”

“Yes.” Tirren gave a wry smile. “I'm also a convicted Federation criminal. Attempted murder,” she said. “But don't worry, I don't plan on killing anyone who doesn't try to kill me first.”

Grovane gave her a shy smile. “I can't believe you'd kill anyone,” he said. Then his face grew serious. “Then again, I couldn't believe Sara would kill anyone, so what do I know?” He heaved a sigh. “I couldn't believe it when Avon worked it all out, you know? I kept hoping he was wrong. Then she pulled a gun on us, threatened to kill us. I couldn't believe it. Little Sara. She seemed so harmless.”

Tirren looked across at him. “She fooled everyone,” she reminded him. “Not just you. The one she fooled worst was Mandrian.”

“I know.” Grovane sighed again. “I still can't believe it. There she was, sobbing into old Kendall, like her heart was broken, and all the time she'd killed him.”

“The two aren't mutually exclusive,” Tirren said. “There are many people who kill their loved ones, and mourn sincerely that they are dead. She probably misses Mandrian, and regrets having to kill him. But it didn't stop her.”

Grovane nodded. “It's just... I feel like I should have noticed earlier, you know?”

Tirren smiled. She stepped away from the console, and escorted him down to the couches. “Zen, let me know if there's anything which needs to be dealt with, please.” She sat Grovane down, and dialled up some kaf on the flight deck synthesisers.

“You say please and thank you to your computers too?” Grovane said, attempting to change the subject. “I thought I was the only one who did that.”

“Oh, I always have,” Tirren said, handing him one of the cups of kaf. “With Zen, it's even easier, because he feels like a person – but don't tell Avon I said that. Avon keeps telling people that Zen is only a computer, and that we shouldn't anthropomorphise it. Me, I figure that something with the kind of processing power that most computers have these days is going to be able to hold some kind of personality, so being polite to it won't hurt.”

Grovane grinned. “Yes, that's how I wind up thinking, too. They work better if I'm nice to them.”

“Exactly.” Tirren took a sip of her kaf. “You know, Sara's plan was probably in the making long before she even left Destiny in the first place. She'd planned this out very carefully, and the first thing she needed to do was to fool all of you into believing she was harmless.”

“But why? Why would she do something like that?” Grovane sounded frustrated.

“Greed?” Tirren shrugged. “It's the most obvious motive, although how she thought she was going to get away with it is completely beyond me. After all, the most obvious thing for the person she was selling the neutrotope to to do when they'd caught up with the Ortega was to kill everyone on board, including her.”

“So you think she might have had a different motive?” Grovane seemed puzzled. “But what?”

“That, I don't know,” Tirren said. She decided not to mention the possibility that Sara might be a Federation agent just yet. Better to get some information to back it up first.

“Well, either way, I'm out of a job,” Grovane said. “The Ortega was my first ship. It'd been a joint thing between Rafford, Pasco, Dortmunn and Levett. They took me on when their last comms officer quit to marry a couple of supercargoes.”

“So that's why Mandrian and Sonheim fitted on so neatly, then?”

“Yes. The government offered to pay out the shares for the two who had left, and I was able to borrow enough money to buy my own share in the ship. And now it's gone.” The young man looked glum, as well he might.

“Well, Blake has promised to supply the three of you with enough money to be able to purchase a new ship,” Tirren said. “You won't be out of work for long.”

“Yes, but I should have been able to fix the comms systems when Sara sabotaged them,” he said. “She'd bypassed all the safeties, and that takes some doing. I should have been suspicious.”

“Of whom?” Tirren asked.

“Of... I don't know.” Grovane slumped forward, head in hands. “I should have worked it out.”

“Why you, particularly?”

“I was the newest. I should have been more alert.”

“You were the newest. You didn't know what might happen. How much time elapsed between the sabotage of the comms systems, and the Sonovapour in the air systems?”

“I don't know. Maybe an hour or so.” Grovane was still looking frustrated with himself. Tirren patted him on the back.

“So in the space of an hour, you think you should have been able to figure out something that took Avon the better part of two days and three deaths to work out. You think you should have been able to free yourself of all preconceptions in under an hour, and work out exactly what was happening and why.” She grabbed the young man's chin and made him look up. “Has anyone ever told you that you expect far too much of yourself, Grovane?”

He stared at her for a moment, startled. Then he blushed. Tirren let go of his jaw. “Stop beating yourself up because you weren't perfect,” she continued. “There are enough people on this ship who do that already. I don't need another bruised ego to treat.”

The young man looked at her in shock. Then he gave another shy smile. “I suppose you think I'm being very silly,” he said in embarrassment.

“No,” said Tirren, getting up from the couch and walking around to her console. “I think you're over-reacting, but it's perfectly understandable. I suspect the rest of the people from the Ortega will be saying much the same thing over the next few days, to various different people. You can help me by reminding all of the rest of them that Sara's act was designed to fool everyone, and that they aren't responsible for her actions. In fact, that's your job for now.”

“Thanks,” Grovane said. “I'm sorry to have bothered you.”

“Oh, don't worry about it,” Tirren said, smiling. “Do you think you'll be able to sleep now?”

He nodded at her. “Thanks again. Do you mind if I tell other people to talk to you about this if they won't listen to me?”

“No,” said Tirren. “Just ask them to wait until I've finished my sleep period is all I ask. Now, off you go.”

She shooed the young man off the flight deck, back to his quarters.

“Zen, please make psych programs available to the crew of the Ortega,” she instructed. “I have a feeling they'll need them.”

“Confirmed,” Zen replied.

~

When Tirren next awoke, it was to find a message from Blake asking her to show her analysis of the Destiny fungus to Doctor Kendall, and another from Jenna to all crew advising Sonheim and Levett were not to be allowed within any area at the same time, as the man was quite irresponsible in his pursuit of the woman. Tirren sighed. She'd need to speak to someone to get the background on that particular feud, and it seemed Doctor Kendall was probably going to be the most readily available subject. Another thirteen days of this to put up with, she thought.

After dressing and plaiting back her hair, as well as finding herself a cup of kaf and a meal (Vila had been cooking again – vegetable protein patties with mixed vegetables), she sought out Doctor Kendall.

“You wanted to see the results of the preliminary analysis?” she asked him.

“Yes, please,” the Doctor replied. “According to Blake, you found some way of proving it was a Federation ploy.”

Tirren smiled. “Yes,” she said. “It has to do with the bio-markers each Federation bio-lab uses to mark their work, as well as the ones that specific external sources use. I'll show you on the printout.”

She led Doctor Kendall to the biology lab. “Computer, please bring up preliminary analysis of Destiny fungus on screen three.” She pointed the Doctor to the screen, a conference facility set up to provide visibility for multiple viewers. “I was suspicious from the first about the fact that the fungus was resistant to all known treatments. That argues bio-engineering, as does the fact that it's only able to be affected by certain wavelengths of energy which your sun doesn't produce. I suspected it would be a specifically engineered version of a natively occurring fungus, and that argued either the Federation had been involved early on, or they had some external assistance.” She pointed to a specific area of a gene. “This particular gene sequence is a marker sequence,” she said. “It marks the fungus as being a product of the Clone Masters.”

“The who?” Kendall sounded surprised.

“You've never heard of them? They're an open secret in the Federation,” Tirren said, surprised herself. “The Clone Masters started as a group of genetic engineers – the best in the business. Shortly after the Federation began to consolidate their holdings on other planets, they were asked to provide clone armies for the Federation to use. They refused, left Earth, and set up business on a planet of their own. The Federation tried to attack, but the clone masters retaliated by cloning an army of their own, and beat the Federation back. Eventually a treaty was worked out. The Clone Masters don't make any new organisms – they only copy what is already in existence. Any clone made by them costs a very large sum. If it ever becomes necessary, the Federation may request a clone army, for purposes of defence only, and the Clone Masters will provide. In return, the Federation provides protection for their planet.”

“Yes, but how did they come to have an example of this particular fungus?” Kendall asked.

“That's the other function they provide, and the one which makes them more than Federation patsies. They've set themselves up to provide a storage facility for all known lifeforms, in genetic matrices. Any exploration ship which takes samples of lifeforms forwards these on to the Clone Masters.” Tirren looked up at Kendall. “The Clone Masters believe all life is linked, and that by studying the genetic matrices of all forms of life, they may be able to figure out the origins of life itself.”

“So the Federation asked them for a sample of the fungus from Destiny?” Kendall asked. “Then, when they got it, they manipulated it themselves.”

“Yes, and no,” Tirren said. “There's evidence of a couple of external laboratories which were used – some of the gene codings to create the necessary resistances are owned by private companies or particular planets. The people of Destiny should be flattered,” she said. “This fungus would have cost well in excess of three million credits to engineer for just a single sample.”

“Do you know which laboratories?” Kendall asked.

“Some of them, yes,” Tirren said. “There are other markers on the genome which I'm fairly sure are markers for specific laboratories, but I don't know which ones.” She flipped the display to look at another area of genetic material. “This one is a company laboratory in the Centauri region, and this one,” she flipped to another area, “is a Federation military laboratory on Earth.” She looked up at Kendall. “I could even tell you the name of the genetech who did it, if you like – I helped him craft the marker.”

“How do you know all of this?” Kendall asked. “I mean, I know you're a biochemist, but this is way outside your area.”

“It has to do with Federation training, and Federation caste markers,” Tirren told him. “As part of my training, I was expected to provide a certain amount of work in Federation programs. It's part of their effort at keeping their Alpha grades under control.”

Kendall looked at her, as if trying to judge the seriousness of her words. “You're a Federation Alpha-grade biochemist? I thought you told Grovane you were a criminal.”

“The two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, Doctor, as I told him,” Tirren said, her irritation showing. “I completed my doctorate through the Universityplex of the Terran Protectorates, and I was a research biochemist in the Industan dome when I was arrested. The charge I was arrested on was attempted murder, and in a way they were right. But the reason I was arrested had less to do with morality and more to do with politics. Don't underestimate the Federation, Doctor Kendall. Or if you feel you must, speak to Blake first.”

Kendall looked at her again, but closer this time. “I thought your name sounded familiar,” he said. “You're Doctor Tirren Phale, aren't you?”

“My doctorate was stripped when I was arrested,” Tirren said, a certain bleakness in her tone. “But yes, I am Tirren Phale.”

Kendall seemed overjoyed. “Your work had spread even as far as Destiny,” he told her. “It's an honour to work with you.”

Tirren smiled. “Well, let us return to this analysis,” she said. “I have a number of further tests lined up for this particular fungus, as you can see from the report. I suspect there might be some further tweaking possible to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence should the neutrotope malfunction in any way.”

~

Three hours into the additional tests, Jenna came in to request Tirren's escort. “It's time to feed the prisoner,” she said.

Kendall looked up from the microscope he was peering over, startled. “Oh yes. Sara. How is she?”

“I don't know,” Jenna replied. “I've not met her.” She turned to Tirren. “Vila's standing by at the door.”

“It's day shift,” Tirren said, still hunched over her own microscope. “Why isn't Avon doing it?”

“Avon's on his sleep period at the moment. Blake forgot about it when he scheduled the pair of you.”

Tirren unbent herself, stretching out muscles which were starting to set into position. “Oh, all right. Just give me a moment.”

She went to the main computer terminal, and keyed in a set of codes. “There,” she said to Doctor Kendall. “The computers will recognise you now. Feel free to use the lab as much as you like.”

She picked up the gun she'd brought with her, and followed Jenna out of the laboratory.

“Is that safe?” Jenna asked. “We have no idea about these people.”

“I've given him access to the laboratory computers, not to Zen,” Tirren said. “They're only linked to the systems in the main labs, and anything which is going to be broadcast outside there needs my code as authorisation. I have a feeling this ship was designed for exploration work. There are protocols built into the laboratory systems which point to a possible team of up to twenty different disciplines, led by a lead science officer. The science officer would be able to determine the information which went to the flight crew. I put myself in the position of science officer.”

“So you're temporarily his boss?”

“Yes. Anything he does via the laboratory computer systems, I can see. I suspect Avon has a few back doors into all the various computer systems, so there's another avenue of oversight.”

“Right. Well, I suppose we can trust Avon to be suspicious enough for all of us.”

“Probably. I'll need to stop off at the med unit. In order to be able to interrogate Sara, I'll need to do some preliminary blood work. Best to get a sample as soon as possible,” Tirren said.

“Right,” Jenna replied. “Well, you do that, while I go to the galley and get her rations. I'll meet you at the teleport area.”

“Done.”

They met up, Jenna carrying a tray of survival rations, and Tirren strapping a small med-kit to her belt. Each of them bore a gun. They made their way down to cabin six on level three.

“There you are,” Vila said, sounding annoyed. “I've been waiting here for ages.”

“It's only been about half an hour,” Jenna said.

“Felt like forever,” Vila said. “So, d'you want to go in then?” He fiddled with the lock for a few seconds. “Right, done. Can you keep the visit under an hour? Only Avon's expecting me to have moved a whole heap of equipment, and I don't want him biting my head off when he wakes up and finds it not done.”

“We'll see what we can do,” Jenna replied, opening the door.

Sara was sitting on the bed, looking depressed.

“Food,” Jenna said. “It's survival rations. No need to heat, just open and eat. There's enough for you there for two days.”

“I don't want it,” Sara said.

“You don't want a lot of things,” Tirren observed. “You probably won't want the blood test I'm going to give you now either. But you're going to get it anyway.”

“No!” Sara said, anger colouring her tone. “You've no right!”

“You're on our ship now,” Jenna said. “We have all the rights we need. You have as many rights as we give you, and the only one I feel inclined to give at the moment is the right to throw yourself out of an airlock.”

“You can't make me cooperate.”

“She can't, true; but I can,” Tirren said, smiling in a sinister fashion. “All I'd have to do is put something in your next batch of rations to make you more cooperative. I'm a biochemist: I have access to any number of compounds which make the task of getting you into a cooperative mood all the more easy.”

“You can't do that!”

“Can't I?” Tirren looked at the woman in mild surprise. “Now where does it say that?”

“It's in the Federation charter,” Sara said. “You're not allowed to drug me without consent.”

“You don't know much about the Federation if you believe that,” Jenna said.

“What would you know, smuggler?” Sara spat at the pilot. Tirren noted her easy identification of Jenna's former profession as a factor. “You're criminals, the lot of you. Don't think I didn't see the reports.”

Tirren removed a syringe from the medical kit. “Yes, we are criminals. I was sentenced to exile on Cygnus Alpha for attempted murder.” She turned to face the woman. “I'm wanted by the Federation now for multiple murder, assault on a Federation officer, kidnapping, subversion, destruction of property, grand theft, larceny, fraud, drug smuggling, and conspiracy to overthrow a legitimate planetary government by force. Oh, and stealing the walking sticks from little old ladies in the street. Do you think I give a damn about what the Federation thinks is right or wrong?”

Sara quailed before the biochemist. “But I'm scared of needles,” she wailed.

Jenna rolled her eyes. “I don't believe it,” she muttered.

“Look away,” Tirren said bluntly. “I will take a blood sample from you, Sara. Even if I have to knock you out in order to do so.” She produced an injector from the pouch. “Concentrated sonoline. It's the stuff they use to create sonovapour – and you should be familiar with the effect of sonovapour. If I inject even a little of this into you, you'll be out for days.”

Sara looked at the vial, then up at Tirren's face. What she saw there made up her mind for her. She held out her arm. “All right. Get your sample.”

Five minutes later, the two women were out of the room. Vila was standing by the door, and re-jiggered the lock.

“Stealing old ladies walking sticks?” he queried as he worked. “Really don't see the sense in that meself. Much better to go for the walking frames. At least those can be used to grow veges.”

Tirren grinned. “It got a bit boring on DTII. I had to do something to liven up the days.”

~

By the end of the day, Tirren had completed the bloodwork on Sara. “Interesting,” she said, looking over the results with Avon. “She's resistant to most of the conventional sedatives, as well as to the more common perception heightening drugs. It's incredibly rare. Usually, I'd say it smacks of someone who has a background in undercover work.”

“So she's a Federation spy?” Avon asked

“She might be a spy. She might be a spy for the Federation. She might just be one of the rare people who is naturally resistant to these drugs – it crops up every so often. I haven't the skill to analyse the combination of her genetic material, active enzyme and prion patterns, and physiology to find out. I think we're probably better off getting samples from her parents – blood and saliva – and keeping this handy for the authorities on Destiny.”

“I doubt they'd be willing to accept our evidence,” Avon said, sounding sour. “After all, we are convicted criminals.”

“I know,” Tirren said. “Hanging around with Blake hasn't made our reputations any better. Have you seen your latest string of charges?”

“I stopped listening shortly after they got through the ones for the revolt on the London,” he said. “Most of them are either greatly exaggerated, or entirely false.”

“Ah, the Federation,” Tirren said. “What they cannot control, they destroy.” She sighed. “I wonder whether Blake will ever succeed at what he wants?”

“Destroying the Federation? Given his force includes the six of us and Vila, I should say his chances are minimal. Any sane analysis would say the same.”

Tirren nodded. “Well, back to this bloodwork. Given the results, we're back to the old style interrogation drugs. There's only one problem with those.”

“They don't work,” Avon said.

“Precisely,” Tirren agreed. “Most of them work on the principle that if you relax the person's conscious control over what they are doing and saying, they'll find it easier to tell the truth than to tell a lie. The few that aren't about reducing conscious control are about inducing psychotic states, and with those ones, the hope is the subject will be so terrified by the experience they'll say anything to prevent it happening again. The problem with both of these is, what the subject says may not have any objective correlation with reality.”

“So if we do an interrogation on Sara with those drugs, she'll still be able to lie.” Avon looked annoyed.

Tirren nodded. “I think the most depressing thing about all of this is Blake is going to look smug for a week,” she said. She turned to the medical computer, and stowed the information. “We'll hand it on to the authorities, anyway. Then they can make their decision.”

~

Blake did indeed look smug when told of the results of the bloodworm on Sara. “See, I told you so,” he said.

“Actually, you did not,” Avon countered. “What you said is we would have to ask Doctor Kendall before conducting any interrogation. You also protested an interrogation was not necessary. It is still necessary, it is just not possible.”

“Yes, all right Avon,” Blake said, “Point taken. Now, I've called everyone together to lay some ground rules for the passengers. It's a new situation, so we need to hammer something out. I'd like to start by ruling out any use of computers for them.”

“But we said we'd let them look at our databanks,” Gan said. “They have to be able to figure out how much compensation they'd be due for.”

“We can work that out ourselves,” Blake answered.

“If we do not let them access the computers,” Cally asked, “what will they do all day?”

“Look, my main aim is to stop information about the Liberator from leaking out,” Blake said. “If they access the computers, they could get access to plans and schematics. We all know there's a ready market for such things.”

“Surely it could be fixed by limiting their access to system records?” Tirren asked.

“What do you mean?” Blake asked.

“Blake, have you not bothered to look at this ship?” she replied. “It appears to have been designed for an exploration mission. There is space enough for a crew of over sixty people, and from what I've seen of the laboratory facilities, at least twenty of those were supposed to be scientists of one sort or another. The laboratory computers are set up to act as a multidisciplinary workgroup. I've already created an account for Kendall.”

“What! You weren't supposed to do that!” Blake said. “He could see anything.”

“No, he couldn't,” Tirren replied. “He has a subordinate account, and I have the principal account on the laboratory computer systems. They're all set up as an isolated system, and only the principal account is able to forward information to another system. He'll find out if he tries to check his lab work from one of the terminals in the recreation area.”

“Tirren is correct, Blake,” Avon said. “I wish I could meet whoever programmed Zen. I would also like to meet whoever designed the systems for this ship. The laboratory systems are completely self-contained, as are those for the navigation and weaponry systems. Zen controls most of the rest, but the access is largely one-way. If we set up suitable accounts for the Ortega crew, they should be able to conduct most recreational programs, without being able to access any schematics for the Liberator. It's basic security, Blake, something they worked out in the Old Calendar days.”

“All right, if it's simple, Avon, you do it,” Blake said, sounding annoyed. “Now, we've already had problems between Sonheim and Levett. I want you all to keep a lookout for those two, and make sure they aren't allowed in the same room without some kind of company.”

“I'll get onto that,” Gan offered.

“Vila, we need you to figure out a way of voice-keying that lock on the cabin we have Sara in,” Blake said. “Make it open for either Tirren or Avon, since they're on guard duty, but nobody else.”

“You don't want much, do you,” Vila observed. “I'll see what I can do.”

“Jenna, is there any way of speeding up our journey? Fourteen days is far too long.”

“I agree,” Jenna replied. “Unfortunately, any speed higher than standard by six means we're going to have to draw on our power reserves, and they're still low after going through that meteor swarm. Even following the course we have at the moment, we're running into the occasional outlier from the swarm, which means we need to have the force wall enabled most of the time. That's a power drain too.”

“Well, see what you can do,” Blake said. “Does anyone else have anything they want to add?”

“I've asked Zen to give the crew of the Ortega access to the psych systems,” Tirren said. “If anyone needs that sort of help, refer them to the psych programs in the medical bay. Oh, and Cally, see if you can get Vila to design a lock for the medication cabinet. I'd rather only the two of us were able to access medication.”

“I shall,” Cally agreed. “It is a good idea.”

“What's happening with what's-her-name... Sara?” Gan asked.

“She's to stay in the cabin she's been locked in,” Blake said. “Anyone who wants to visit her can, but they have to be under escort. Tirren, Avon, that's your department. Sort it out amongst yourselves. According to Jenna, she has enough food for two days, and access to water in the refresher unit. She stays where she is. We don't know whether she's a spy, or whether she's just someone who got overwhelmed by greed.”

~

Tirren had just started the relaxation exercises Cally had been showing her (in a vague hope of being able to get some sleep) when the klaxon went off.

“Battle stations,” came Gan's call over the communicators. “Pursuit ships approaching at standard by three.”

Tirren was on her feet and running for the flight deck almost reflexively. The run from the viewing gallery where she'd been trying to relax took her past the guest quarters, and she was waylaid by Levett. The blonde woman didn't try to stop her, just ran alongside.

“Is there anything we can do?” Levett asked.

“Get to your cabins and stay there,” Tirren said.

Levett nodded, and let Tirren run on. As Tirren rounded the corner, she heard the other woman calling all the Ortega crew to their cabins. Tirren tried to remember whether Doctor Kendall was in the lab or not. He probably was. She grinned: he was in for a shock. The automatic protocols she and Avon had worked out for the lab and medical sections during any battle situation were triggered by the key phrase “battle stations”. Zen was programmed to automatically override anything happening, and lock down the labs. Part of the lock down was flooding the labs with halogen gas to avoid any spot fires. Kendall had a thirty second warning before the systems cut in.

She reached the flight deck and her console moments ahead of Blake, who was the last of the crew in. Jenna was already calling instructions, and Vila was getting range and target measures for the neutron blasters. Tirren ducked behind her console, and started calling out navigational corrections and scan details to Jenna and Vila.

“Plasma bolt launched,” came the call from Gan. “Bearing zero, zero, nine.”

Tirren ran the calculations on the scanners. It would miss them, but only just.

“Engaging force wall.” Avon was in his customary place before the main control bank.

“Brace for impact,” Cally said. Tirren could hear the echo over the comm systems in the corridors.

Then there was the ringing noise, and the jolt of the near-miss. Tirren felt herself pushed backward as the bolt passed nine degrees before them.

“Neutron blasters ranged and ready, flare shields engaged,” Vila said. “Firing first salvo.” The metallic hiss of the neutron blasters echoed through the flight deck.

“Power reserves running low,” Avon said, sounding concerned. “Energy banks almost depleted.”

“Damn,” Jenna swore. “We haven't had enough time to charge since we went through the meteor swarm. What's the status?”

“Second plasma bolt, launched and running.”

“Power banks one through four are fully depleted,” came Zen's measured tones. “Drawing on power banks five and six for neutron blasters, force wall and motive power.”

“What's the bearing on that plasma bolt?” Blake demanded.

“Zero zero three,” Cally replied. “They're getting their range.”

“There isn't enough power in those two banks for us to keep picking off those ships one by one,” Avon warned.

Tirren's hands flew over her console. On the edge of the scan, she had spotted something which might just cut the amount of time spent in this particular battle right down. “Vila, fire at these coordinates,” she said, sending them across.

“That's not either of the ships,” Vila said.

“Just do it,” Blake said from behind her. He was looking over her shoulder at the scan display. She'd spotted a large outlier from the meteor swarm, which was going on a course close to the pursuit ships. “Jenna, when Vila's fired, get ready to run.”

“Zen, switch display from scan console to main screen,” Tirren said.

“Firing now,” Vila said. Once more there was the noise of the neutron blasters firing. This time, instead of the silent destruction of a single pursuit ship, the display registered the change of course of the asteroid. There was a brief pause, then the two ships veered off in opposing directions.

“That's done it!” Blake said. “Jenna, get us out of here.”

“Zen, standard by eight, previous course.” Jenna visibly relaxed. “Nice shooting, Vila.”

The thief grinned, then nodded in Tirren's direction. “I just did the firing. Tirren aimed.” He turned to look at her. “How'd you know?” he asked.

“Brownian motion simulations, no doubt,” Avon said, in his usual flat tones.

“No, playing billiards with my father,” Tirren answered. “But the principle is the same.” She leaned back from the console, rotating her shoulders to stretch out the tensed muscles there. There was an almost audible 'click' from her neck as she tilted it first one way, then the other. “Now, if you'll all excuse me, I'll return to my rest session.”

~

Over the next few days, it became clear the Federation weren't going to give up without a fight. There were regular battles with pursuit ships, and the underpowered Liberator was sometimes struggling to escape them. Tempers wore thin, and arguments became even more of a commonplace than usual. Gan was getting headaches (whether from the tension or the limiter was not only hard to tell, but immaterial, Tirren considered), Vila was constantly gloomy, Avon was even more snappy and sarcastic, Blake and Jenna were both showing signs of poor temper, and even Cally's seemingly boundless patience was starting to wear thin. Tirren was well aware her own disposition was less than sunny, and was taking steps to avoid contact with others as much as possible.

Through all of this, the former crew of the Ortega struggled to deal with the cards fate had dealt them. Grovane, Pasco and Levett spent a lot of time holed up in the space which the designers of the ship had set aside for data management, perusing compendiums of starships. Sonheim avoided the Liberator crew, after having one blistering exchange with Avon (Tirren had been observing from the sidelines, since the argument had occurred on the flight deck) in which he had come out a decided second best. He was also avoiding the crew of the Ortega, and according to the diffident Grovane, part of the problem was he felt as though nobody trusted him. It appeared being suspected of the murder of Mandrian had been a low blow. Doctor Kendall spent as much time as possible in the laboratories, and Tirren presumed he was working on ways to defeat what she was now calling the Destiny fungus.

By the sixth day of their journey, Tirren had extracted information from Grovane regarding the shared duties of the crew of the Ortega. The communications expert still appeared on the flight deck in the middle of the night; sometimes as a result of nightmares, sometimes as a result of curiosity. Vila had speculated the young man was trying to court Tirren, since he showed up on her shift so often. Tirren, who had listened to enough of Grovane's discussions of his wife and children back home on Destiny to know this to be unlikely, held her peace, and instead asked him questions about daily life on the Ortega. From this, she gleaned the knowledge that Levett was the backup astrogator for the crew (the pilot, Rafford, had been the primary one).

Armed with this information, Tirren cornered the woman one day in the recreation area and asked her about their planned route back to Destiny.

“Had you been planning to go through the meteor field?” she asked.

“No,” Levett said. “We didn't even hear about it until we were picked up by you.”

“But didn't you encounter it on your outward journey?” Tirren asked.

“Our outward journey,” Levett answered, “was a four hop trading mission. Or at least, it was set up to look like one. We had small samples of local technology and unique bioflora to trade with some nearby worlds, before we set off to the planet where the neutrotope was sourced. We didn't come near this sector of space on the first journey.”

Tirren frowned. “Would you be willing to talk with Jenna about this?” she asked. She wasn't sure how the two women got along, and didn't want to inject another argument into the already overheated atmosphere on board Liberator.

Levett looked somewhat surprised, but nodded. “If she wishes to talk to me,” she said.

Tirren nodded. “I'll see about arranging a meeting.” The comm unit in the recreation area chimed, and Avon's decisive tones issued the cry to battle stations. “Federation pursuit ships permitting, of course.”

“I'll follow you to the flight deck,” Levett offered.

Tirren flicked a glance at the woman, then nodded. “That's probably the best way of arranging things,” she said. “It's this way.”

~

The battle was short, but decisive, and the Liberator managed to escape pursuit.

“These battles are happening far too often,” Avon commented.

“Yes, they're very well timed,” Jenna said. “It seems as though the minute we start charging banks one through four, there's another attack, and we're back down to nothing on them.”

“It's almost as though the Federation know where we're going,” Blake said, chewing on the knuckle of his left forefinger. “These attacks are too well timed to be coincidental.”

“That's what I was thinking,” said Tirren. She gestured in the direction of Levett. “According to Levett, the Ortega was on the homeward leg of what looked to be a standard trading run when Sara's sabotage occurred.”

Jenna looked at the woman from the Ortega, and nodded. “Can you show us where the course was set to run?” she asked.

“I wasn't the chief astrogator, but if you have a chart available, I should be able to plot it,” Levett said.

“Good.” Jenna gestured to Levett to follow her. “Come with me, and we'll compare notes.” The two of them left the flight deck, heading for Jenna's quarters, where she stored the astrogational charts.

“That doesn't help with the Federation attacks,” Vila said, sounding glum.

Avon directed a scornful look in the thief's direction. “By plotting a course outside the direct route to Destiny, we should be able to avoid the majority of Federation interceptors,” he said.

“Right, well, back to our routines, everyone,” Blake said, trying to head off another bout of sniping. Under more tranquil circumstances, Vila was able to hold his own against Avon, but the stresses of the last few days made their exchanges much less a form of joking, and far more vitriolic.

“I'll stay here,” Tirren said.

“Are you sure?” Vila asked, as he eased himself out from behind his console. “It's Avon's shift.”

Tirren stifled a sigh. “I'm sure. Doctor Kendall is starting to get very vocal about the shutdowns of the laboratories each time we get involved in a battle. I'd rather not listen to another of his complaints.”

“Well, work on one of the auxiliary consoles,” Avon said. “Your console is the best placed for system status reports, and I'll need to view those.”

Tirren nodded her agreement. “Zen, patch through science labs result data to auxiliary console three, please.”

“Confirmed,” Zen answered.

“Thank you, Zen,” Tirren said.

A quick scan of the volume of data gave the strong impression Doctor Kendall was enjoying the Liberator's laboratory facilities immensely. She'd offered to assist him in his work on the Destiny fungus, but he'd declined, saying he was sure she had more important things to do. As it happened, the battles Liberator had been involved in were so frequent she'd not had time to look to her own experimental work. In the absence of a chance to oversee her own projects, she'd decided to have a look at what Kendall was doing.

There were copious notes about the genome of the fungus, and records of experiments performed. As it was just rough laboratory notes, rather than a polished paper, she had to work hard to make sense of them. However, what she read surprised her. Rather than testing for ways to make the fungus more vulnerable to the neutrotope's refracted light frequencies, Kendall appeared to be working on ways to remove the vulnerability altogether.

“That can't be right,” she muttered to herself, and began re-checking what she'd read. It took a further two readings to confirm her suspicion. The final, convincing item was a comparison she'd done on the original genome of the fungus, and the genome of the version Kendall had been working on in the laboratory. The realisation hit her like a blow.

It had all been a blind from the start.

Tirren's first impulse when faced with the proof of Kendall's treachery was to take the information straight to Blake and Avon, get them to see what had happened. Further thought, however, made her reconsider the whole notion. For a start, she had no idea whether the crew of the Ortega were aware of the Doctor's status; and if so, how many? About the only persons she could write out of the story were Rafford, Dortmunn, and Mandrian, she realised. She also realised this didn't advance things very far.

But what to do instead? If she told Blake, his lack of subtlety would result in Kendall being put into a holding cell, leaving the rest of the crew of the Ortega free to do whatever they wanted to. She considered letting Avon know, but after some further consideration, discarded the notion. While Avon was subtle, he was also both paranoid and somewhat transparent when he considered his safety to be at risk. There was too much of a risk he would over-react to the situation. Cally and Jenna would each insist on the information being made known to Blake, as would Gan, and Vila would panic and give the game away in no time flat.

She looked around the flight deck. Avon was working on one of the consoles, the occasional curse letting Tirren know whatever he was doing, he wouldn't appreciate being interrupted.

“Zen, instruct science computers to pass all data from auxilliary console three to my cabin. I'll finish this review there.”

~

Once she was in the solitude of her cabin, Tirren started to puzzle out what she could of the situation. It was clear Kendall was working to a Federation agenda. What wasn't clear was whether or not Sara had been aware of this. Kendall hadn't been to see the woman, as far as Tirren knew. Indeed, as far as she was aware, none of the former crew of the Ortega had done so. At least, none of them had done so on her shift – maybe one or two of them might have on Avon's.

Out of curiousity, she patched through a comm call to Vila. They still needed to get him there to open the locks, as the battles had delayed the fitting of a voice lock to Sara's cabin. If nobody else knew, Vila would.

“Yes?” Vila sounded sleepy.

“It's Tirren,” she said.

“What's the emergency?” Vila asked.

“No emergency,” Tirren said, “Look -”

“If there's no emergency, why'd you wake me up?” Vila sounded very aggrieved.

“I want to know whether any of the crew of the Ortega have visited Sara.”

There was a sigh from the other end of the comm channel. “No,” Vila said. “Can I go back to sleep now?”

“Yes, Vila. Thank you.” Tirren cut the connection. Then a thought occurred to her. “Vila,” she said, opening the connection again.

“What now?”

“Let me into Sara's cabin. I need to speak with her.”

~

Vila grumbled all the way through the process of unlocking the door to Sara's cabin. He grumbled even more when Tirren asked him to remain outside while she spoke with Sara.

“Just do it, Vila,” Tirren said. “I need to ask her a few questions.”

“What makes you think she's going to answer them?” Vila said. “And why'd you have to wake me to get them asked now?”

“You'll find out in due course,” Tirren told him.

“Oh wonderful. Just what I need to hear.” Vila sighed. “Be quick about it, would you?”

“I'll be as quick as I can,” Tirren said.

The cracking of the seal of the door, however, posed a whole new set of questions.

~

“Sara is dead,” Tirren said to Blake for the fifth time. “I don't know when, or how, and I can't tell until I've had time to perform an autopsy. Which, if you'll just let me get into the secure med unit, I will do. But asking me to answer the questions before the autopsy has been performed is pointless.”

“At least let Doctor Kendall assist you,” Blake said. “He's very upset, and he wants to find out as well.”

“Doctor Kendall is primarily a botanogeneticist, Blake. He has little or no training in human biology. This is my field, and as the medical officer of this ship, it is my role.”

“Tirren, you don't understand,” Blake said.

“Oh, but I do, Blake,” Tirren replied. “I understand that once more, you are attempting to instruct me on how I should perform my duties, while not bothering to deal with your own.”

“That's not what I'm doing,” Blake said.

“Yes it is,” Tirren said. “And the longer you keep me standing about here talking, the longer it is going to take for me to find the answers to your questions.” She pulled on a pair of latex gloves, and pulled up the surgical mask she'd tied on earlier. “Cally, open the inner doors to the secure med unit, please.”

“Inner doors open now,” came Cally's voice through the comm unit.

Tirren gestured Blake toward the outer doors of the scrub area. “Please leave now, Blake. Otherwise you'll contaminate the scene, and any findings I make will be meaningless.”

Scowling, Blake headed out of the scrub area.

“Seal scrub lockers,” Tirren instructed.

“Scrub lockers sealed. Outer door to secure med unit unlocked.”

Capped, gowned, masked and gloved for surgery, Tirren made her way into the secure med unit

~

Some four hours later, Tirren emerged. “I'd forgotten more about autopsies than I'd thought,” she said to Gan, who was standing by with a cup of kaf for her.

“Did you discover what killed her?” Gan asked.

“Only in so far as I've eliminated any mechanical cause,” Tirren said. “There's biochem scans to be run, which means more work for me, I'm afraid.”

“Well, Blake wants to know as soon as you've found what killed her,” Gan said.

“He would,” Tirren said. “He'll know shortly after I do. Until then, he can possess his soul in patience. I understand it's considered a virtue on many worlds.” She stripped off the gloves, throwing them into the disposal unit, soon to be followed by the gown, cap, mask and bootees she'd been wearing.

Gan grinned as she left the scrub locker area of the surgical unit. It was always interesting when Tirren and Blake went head to head. What was the phrase Vila had used? Oh yes – the meeting of an irresistible force, and an immovable object.

~

Tirren stopped only long enough to grab herself a sandwich from the galley area, before heading down to the lab she'd appropriated as her own. She'd been telling the truth to Gan when she said she had ruled out mechanical means of death. Sara hadn't been shot, stabbed, strangled or bludgeoned to death. Indeed, the only mark on her body was the faded bruise on her jaw from Avon's capture of her on the Ortega. Even the marks from Tirren's blood sampling had healed. It was the eighth day of the voyage, so Sara had been due to receive another food package in any case, which meant the death had to have happened some time in the last two days.

“Computer,” she said as soon as she reached the lab, “section head lock on all autopsy and pathology findings. Analyse all biosamples sent from secure medical facility. Full toxin screen, full biochemical readout, and full diagnostic readout of all data to be locked to my voice print only.”

“Confirmed,” the computer replied.

Tirren settled down to eat her sandwich while the biolab computer systems ran through the tests. While she waited, she tried to think her way through the tangled situation regarding the crew of the Ortega. The information from Levett that the ship had been on a four hop trading voyage changed a lot of things. For a start, it meant the current permutation of personalities and partnerships was unlikely to have been the one which had pertained when the voyage started. She needed more information – information that could only come from the crew members of the Ortega.

According to Grovane, Levett and Pasco were the only two left of the original company. While Levett was friendly, within limits, Tirren decided she would do better speaking with Pasco to obtain what she needed. The small man seemed more likely to be aware of the patterns and flows of interpersonal relationships.

“Computer, secondary item; note file, input by my voice print only, locked to my voice print,” Tirren said.

“Confirmed. File name XJ365AQ.”

“Computer, tertiary item; Should access to file XJ365AQ be attempted by anyone save myself, or should file XJ365AQ not be accessed by myself for a period of greater than thirty-six hours, undertake the following action. File XJ365AQ is to be unlocked, and forwarded to Liberator crew members Roj Blake and Kerr Avon in their private cabins. File XJ365AQ is not to be opened by either of these persons unless they are unaccompanied by any other person. Confirm with paraphrase of all instructions regarding file XJ365AQ to date.”

“File XJ365AQ locked to voice pattern of Tirren Phale, input only by this voice pattern. Should anyone other than Tirren Phale attempt to open the file, or should Tirren Phale not open the file for a period of greater than thirty-six consecutive hours, file XJ365AQ will be forwarded to the private cabins of Roj Blake and Kerr Avon, with instructions that it only be opened in private.”

“Good. Forward to main computer system, ident Zen.”

“Forward confirmed.”

“Good. File input, file name XJ365AQ. This is a record of my suspicions regarding events following the Liberator's discovery of the ship Ortega circling in open space...”

~

It took Tirren twenty minutes to record things in full. During this time, the preliminary results had come through from the toxin screen, which confirmed her initial theory. Sara had been murdered. Poisoned, to be more accurate. It wasn't something which would have been a result of the Liberator's ration packs – she would have seen signs of it in her colleagues.

However, it always paid to be certain. Jenna was one of the three people who had been on Liberator the longest, and she was the one with the smallest body mass. If poisoning was a possibility, it would show up in Jenna first. A hair sample should do the trick.

She went to the comm. “Vila,” she said, over general hail. “Vila, I need you to do something for me. Please make your way to my lab as soon as possible.”

She had just turned to walk back to her terminal when the room went black.

~

It was thirty minutes into Tirren's watch, and Gan was worried. For a start, she was supposed to be taking over from him, and she hadn't shown. Normally she was on the flight deck fifteen minutes before her watch started. That on its own had been enough to worry him. But he'd just finished talking with Vila (who'd objected to being woken, as usual) and it turned out Vila had gone to the lab, and Tirren hadn't been there. That was hours ago.

Gan came to a decision. “Blake,” he called. “Blake, Tirren hasn't shown up for her watch.”

“Have you checked her sleeping area?” Blake asked. “Or the lab?”

“Not yet. Could you take over from me on watch?”

There was a brief silence from the other end of the comlink. “I'll check,” Blake said. “You stay where you are.”

“All right.”

It was two minutes later when Blake called back from Tirren's cabin. “She's not here. I'll check the lab.”

Another ten minutes passed before the comm bleeped again. “Gan, she's not here either. Get everyone assembled in the flight deck.”

“All right”.

It took twenty minutes to wake everyone and assemble them in the flight deck.

“What do you mean she's gone missing?” Vila demanded. “That's not like Tirren.”

“No, it isn't,” Cally agreed. “She is usually very prompt about turning up for her watch.”

“Unlike some of us,” Avon commented, looking at Vila. “I checked the medlab on the way past, and she's not there, either.”

“Zen, is Tirren still on the ship?” Jenna asked.

“Tirren Phale has not left the Liberator.”

“Well, that rules out one lot of possibilities,” Avon said. “Zen, can you tell where Tirren Phale is located on the Liberator?”

“This information is not available.”

“Great,” Vila said. “We know she's on the ship, but we don't know where she is on the ship.”

“We'll have to search,” Blake said. “Jenna, do you mind staying here on watch?” Jenna shook her head. “Right, when was the last time anyone saw Tirren, or heard from her?”

“She called for Vila about four hours ago, asked him to go to the lab,” Gan said.

“Vila?” Blake asked.

“Well, I went there, and she wasn't in the lab. So I left.”

“You left?” Avon's tone was scathing.

“Look, it was my rest period, all right? I got there, she wasn't in the lab, nothing out of place, I thought she might've gone, y'know, answering the call of nature or something.” Vila shrugged. “Figured if it was important, she'd call me back. She didn't call, I didn't think much of it.”

“You didn't think,” Avon replied.

“That's enough,” Jenna said. “She made the call, and then vanished from her lab. She must've been working on something. Maybe that has a clue for us.”

“Good point, Jenna. Avon, you interrogate Zen. We need to find out what Tirren was working on, and when she stopped. That might help us to figure out what's happened. Cally, you take Gan and search the outer levels. Vila, you come with me. Everyone keeps in contact, and calls in on a regular basis – every fifteen minutes.”

~

The first things Tirren was aware of when she awoke were the ache in her head, and the cramp in her limbs. The next thing she became aware of was the bindings around her wrists and ankles.

“So you're awake,” a voice said. It took her a couple of moments to identify it as being Sonheim's. “Pity.”

“Why is it a pity?” Tirren asked. “Would it have been easier to hand me over to your masters if I were unconscious?”

“Yes.”

Tirren peered around the space she'd been thrown into. It was larger than the cabin spaces, but not as large as the outer holds. The sub control rooms she'd visited on a regular basis as part of the standard maintenance routines, and she recognised all of them, so it wasn't one of those. It might be one of the inner holds – she knew she hadn't seen all of those. She tested the strength of the bonds around her wrists.

“Don't bother,” Sonheim said. “You're wanted dead or alive. Kendall says alive, but I'm willing to settle for dead.”

Tirren turned her head. Sonheim was watching her from near the door, holding a handgun from the main armoury. The sight surprised her – she hadn't thought Zen would allow people who weren't part of Liberator's crew to obtain a gun.

“So why am I here?” she asked.

“Why not?” Sonheim replied. “It's no use asking me. I'm just the flunky. Doctor Kendall told me to neutralise you; you're neutralised.”

“How long have I been out?”

“About ten hours. The sonoline Kendall had on him was pretty strong.”

Tirren nodded. “I see. May I have something to drink?”

“No.” Sonheim looked at her, something like scorn on his face. “You don't think I'm going to fall for something that stupid, do you? You just wait there.”

So Tirren waited, becoming more and more aware of the ache around her wrists. “These ties are too tight,” she said. “I'm losing circulation in my fingers.”

“So?” Sonheim sniffed. “You'll lose circulation in more than that if you don't shut up.” The look on his face was bleak.

Ten minutes later Doctor Kendall came in.

“They're searching the ship for her,” he said. “You'll have to move her.”

“Where to?” Sonheim asked.

“They've already searched through the upper levels. Use one of the spare cabins there. Just be careful.”

“How much is the Federation offering you?” Tirren asked. Kendall looked down at her, a cold, acquisitive light in his eyes.

“For you?” he asked. “Five hundred thousand credits. The same for each of your colleagues. A fair price.”

“No, I mean for betraying your home planet,” Tirren said. “I've seen what you were doing to the fungus, Doctor Kendall, and I know Sara was poisoned. I think Sara was trying to sell the neutrotope for the money it would bring, but you? You're selling your planet to the Federation, and your people into slavery. I'd like to know why.”

Kendall smiled. “Why not?” He turned to Sonheim. “Give her another dose of the sonoline to keep her quiet, if you need to.”

“Unlimited research budget?” Tirren guessed. Kendall flinched. “Ah, I thought as much.” She smiled at him. “I've seen better scientists than yourself get blinded by the promise of Federation patronage. It never comes through, for some reason. Some of them find their research is not politically correct. Others find they can't get materials. A few were arrested for having sympathies for the Freedom party. The Federation never gives anyone a blank cheque, Doctor Kendall. Particularly not minor botanogeneticists from frontier worlds.”

“You need to stop talking now,” Sonheim said, holding a cloth in front of her face. The room went black again.

~

Avon swore. Zen's encryption systems were particularly strong, and he'd not chanced attempting to break any of them prior to the current emergency. So far he'd been sweating over them for twelve hours, and still nothing. While Zen had stated it was able to see the contents of all file systems on the ship, and that Tirren had a number of files locked to her own voice print, it wouldn't allow him access to those files without her authorisation.

To do her credit, Jenna had attempted to use her special bond with Zen to try and gain access to the files, although she'd been unsuccessful, and Blake had tried reasoning with the ship's master computer as well. None of which had succeeded, leaving Avon to work to crack some of the hardest encryption he'd run across in his life. While the Federation banking system had been a difficult job, the difficulties hadn't been related to getting into the computer. Instead, they had been more concerned with the exit side of the equation – there was no use, he'd observed, in stealing several million credits if there was a clear record of the transaction, or if there was an immediate outcry.

Zen's encryption was difficult not only because it was controlled by the computer on a dynamic basis, but also because the algorithms and assumptions which were used to provide the encryption were non-human. In most Federation computer systems, there were certain patterns which could be used to make the task of breaking into the system easier – patterns which were based on certain commonalities between humans, and between programmers. Whoever had programmed Zen wasn't human. Of that Avon was becoming more certain by the second.

The comm chimed. Cally (who'd taken over from Jenna on watch) picked it up. “Cally.”

“Blake here. Still no luck. How's Avon going with those files?”

Avon stalked over to the comm unit. “It's taking too long, Blake. The encryption is too strong. By the time I break into these files, Tirren may well be dead.”

“Is there anything else you can do?” Blake asked.

“I'd like to try a variation on the setup we tried when Cally was held prisoner on Centero – use Tirren's bioscan to find her. It would require some reworking of the scanners and the teleport locator systems, but I think I'd be able to complete that task sooner than I'll be able to break Zen's encryption.”

There was a brief silence from the other end of the comm connection. “Try it,” Blake said. “Vila and I will be back there soon.”

Avon picked up his tools and headed toward the teleport unit. He’d have to stop off at his cabin, he realised, to pick up another item or two, as the kit he had to hand wasn’t completely appropriate for the task. Cursing, he made the diversion and collected the tools he’d need. He was just about to leave when he noticed that the incoming message light on the terminal was flashing.

~

It took another hour for both Blake and Avon to listen through Tirren’s hidden file, and a further ten minutes for Avon to convince Blake that Zen wouldn’t have allowed the file to be broken into in the first place. “If I’d known of the conditions on the lock, however, we could have saved twelve hours of fruitless effort,” Avon said.

“But it changes everything,” Blake said.

“Not really,” Avon replied. “Tirren is still missing, and we still don’t know where they’ve hidden her. All this does is narrow our list of suspects.”

“But why Tirren?” Blake asked.

“She knew too much. She had access to Kendall’s lab work reports, and she was the one who performed the autopsy on Sara. When Kendall wasn’t allowed in, he set this plan in place.”

“Why not just kill her?”

“Hard to say. It could be squeamishness – I noticed the man didn’t seem happy about viewing the corpses on the Ortega.”

“Or it could just be simple greed,” came another voice from behind them. They turned to see Levett standing in the doorway. “I want to help,” she said. “I’ve been a spacer long enough to know the Federation doesn’t mean any of us any good. I’m also well aware of the bounties placed on your heads.”

“How do we know we can trust you?” Blake asked.

“You don’t,” Levett responded. “You don’t know me, and for all you know, I could be hand-in-glove with Kendall.” She looked at the two of them for a long moment. “I think the one you’ll need to question is Sonheim. He was always Kendall’s man, long before the government put him on this ship. He’s greedy, as well.”

“So where is he?” Blake asked.

“He hasn’t been in either his quarters or Pasco’s for a full day-cycle,” Levett said. “He has a gun, too.”

“Where did he get that from?” Avon asked.

“He said he got it from your armoury,” Levett replied. “I suspect he might have picked it up from one of your crew. Sonheim isn’t a very convincing liar.”

“I’ll check the armoury,” Blake said. He strode toward the door, planning to get to the flight deck, but there was a minor hitch in his plans. The door was locked.

Avon glared at Levett. “I suppose you knew nothing of this?” he snarled.

She faced the angry tech, unflinching. “I didn’t, no,” she said. “But it does make sense if you consider a wider plan than just handing over Destiny to the Federation.”

“Of course!” Blake said. “He’s going to want to claim the bounties on us, and see if he can sell Liberator to the Federation.”

“That’s all very well,” Avon said, “but knowing his motivations doesn’t get us out of this room.”

Blake grinned. “You’d be surprised,” he said, pushing up his left sleeve to reveal a teleport bracelet. “It was easier than finding the communicators on the wall all over the ship,” he said. He pressed the comms button. “Vila?”

“Yes, what?” came Vila’s voice over the communicator.

“Where are you, Vila?”

“I’m trying to get some rest, like you should be,” Vila said. He sounded very grumpy.

“Never mind that,” Blake said. “Get Gan and come unlock the door of my room. Someone’s locked us in.”

~

“They’re locked in,” Sonheim said, laconic as ever.

“Good. That’s two more out of the way,” Kendall said.

“Levett’s there too.”

“All the better. We can say she was subverted.”

Tirren had drifted back into wakefulness several minutes before. This time, however, rather than give any indication of her condition, she’d feigned sleep. She had no idea how well it was working, although her captors’ lack of attention was something of a hint. She also had no idea of how long she’d been out, but it seemed wisest to assume it was at least another ten hours. The others had started searching for her the last time she’d been awake, although it seemed strange that they hadn't found her by now. She'd have to get out of the situation herself.

While she feigned rest, she did a quick mental audit of her situation. She was still bound, although she was now wearing handcuffs rather than the rope bonds she'd been restrained by before. All to the good; she'd taught herself to escape from them as a result of various prison experiences, first on Earth, then on Cygnus Alpha. There was still rope around her ankles, but if she could get her hands free, she'd be able to remove it. All she'd need would be time.

“She's taking a long time to wake up,” Sonheim said.

“She's probably been short of sleep,” Kendall replied. “You gave her too much of a dose last time.”

“I don't trust her,” Sonheim said.

“You don't trust anyone. I'll keep an eye on her. You get the rest of Blake's crew locked up.” Kendall sounded impatient.

“What about the others?” Sonheim asked.

“There's only Pasco and Grovane left. Intimidate them, or throw them out an airlock. I don't particularly care which.”

The lack of emotion in Kendall's voice was chilling, Tirren thought. She added it into her calculations as a factor. Her situation wasn't reassuring. She was handcuffed, and her captors were both larger than she was. They weren't concerned whether she lived or died, while she had definite views on the matter. She had to assume they had a supply of sonoline, and would use it to keep her quiet. She didn't know where she was on the Liberator, although from what she remembered from her previous period of wakefulness, it was probably one of the cabins. The only things which remained in her favour were that she knew how to get out of the handcuffs without needing the key, and her captors hadn't realised she was awake.

~

It took five minutes for Vila to free Blake, Avon and Levett from the cabin, and most of that, as Vila said, was taken up by finding Gan and getting to the cabin door. By that time, the three of them had worked out a rough plan.

“Right,” Blake said, rushing through the door, “Vila, Gan, you take Levett to the flight deck. If you see either Doctor Kendall or Sonheim, stay out of sight and call us immediately.”

“What?” said Vila. “Why?”

“Kendall's a traitor,” Avon said. “He's planning to sell us all to the Federation, as well as his home planet.”

“What about the other two from the Ortega?” Gan asked.

“I don't think Grovane would be involved,” Levett said. “I doubt he would have been part of anything which would hurt Tirren. He seems to have become quite fond of her.”

“And Pasco?” Blake asked. “He and Sonheim appeared to be involved with each other.”

“I don't think so,” Levett said. “Pasco tends to be fairly eclectic in his tastes. Sonheim was just another notch on his belt. There was a bet on between Pasco and Rafford as to who'd seduce him first.”

“All very charming,” Avon said, “but can he be trusted not to tell Sonheim anything?”

“I can't say.” Levett looked worried.

“Let's worry about it if the issue arises,” Blake said. “We still need to find Kendall and Sonheim, not to mention Tirren.”

“I hope she's all right,” Gan said.

“If she isn't,” Blake said, “the punishment for betraying Destiny to the Federation will be the least of their worries.”

~

Tirren kept her eyes shut, and her ears open, trying to get a better idea of where she was. The low hum of Liberator's engines was a constant, as was the gentle hiss of the airflow units. Neither of those would help, since they were the same throughout the ship. She was lying on a carpeted floor, which implied she was either in one of the cabins, or in one of the recreation areas. Given the recreation areas were all interlinked, she doubted it was one of those. So assume a cabin. It would have to be an isolated one, so the comings and goings of Sonheim and Kendall wouldn't be noticed, which ruled out the central accommodation areas in the main hull, since those were the cabins in use by the crews of both the Liberator and the Ortega. She suspected it would be a cabin on an outer level, although she couldn't be sure. Possibly it was one of the scattered cabins in the outer hull – the ones she'd heard Vila describing as “cubbyholes”. She'd not seen any of them, but she'd heard they were tiny by the standards of the main area – four bunks, two of which were fixed, basic refresher facilities (a handbasin and commode) and a set of four storage lockers. None of the crew used them, since there were at least a dozen cabins which were larger than the average Epsilon-level family residence back on Earth.

She decided to risk a peek at her surroundings. It would be risky, but she needed to know where she was, and she wouldn't obtain the information any other way. Slowly, she opened one eye, just a fraction. Through the flickering of her lashes, she could make out the colour of the carpet; a dull blue. Closing her eyes again, she mused on this information. The cabins in the main hull were carpeted in a dark green hue, while from what she'd seen in passing of the cabins in the hull pod where the biochemistry laboratory was situated, they'd been carpeted in a bilious yellow. That ruled out one possible area, and gave credence to her theory that she was in one of the outer level cabins.

The brief peek had let her know something else. She'd been stowed under a bunk (another point in favour of this being an outer level cabin) and her captor couldn't observe her directly. Her hands were cuffed behind her, but her back was toward the wall. If she moved slowly enough, she might be able to change position without attracting any attention. The thought crossed her mind that the worst which could happen was being returned to Federation captivity alive, which decided her.

Thanking the impulse which had made her join Cally in limbering exercises, she started to arch herself backwards.

~

Cally and Jenna had both been briefed on the situation.

“Cally, is there any chance you could find her telepathically?” Blake asked. “We have to assume they're aware that she knows, and they're not going to risk her telling anyone about their plans.”

“I cannot hear her mind, Blake. I have told you: I am only able to hear the thoughts of another telepath.”

“Damn.”

“It was a slim chance anyway, Blake,” Avon said from where he was performing a hasty recalibration on the scanners. “I still think they must be hiding her in one of the cabins.”

“But we searched all of them,” Blake said. “Twice.”

“We were not searching all the levels at the same time,” Cally said. “There were two groups, and three sections. It would be risky, but all they would need to do is to note where the search was happening, and move between the sections when we were regrouping.”

“Would they take a risk like that?” Jenna asked.

“I would say so,” Cally said. “They were willing to risk abducting Tirren in the time between her calling Vila and Vila's arrival at her lab. That would also have been risky.”

“This still does not tell us where they are hiding now,” Avon said.

“How are those scanner alterations going?” Blake asked.

“Slowly,” Avon said. “I said I would be able to complete this sooner than crack Zen's encryption, Blake. I did not say it would be either easy or rapid. It will take me at least an hour.”

“An hour? Tirren could be dead by then!”

Avon met Blake's gaze, staring down the taller man's angry glare. “In which case, at least we will know where to search for her corpse,” he said, an angry smile on his face, “which is more than we know at present.” He returned his gaze to the circuits he was working on. “Why not try another search, and use three groups this time?”

~

The process of moving her hands from where they were cuffed behind her was a slow one. She couldn't rush the whole process, for a variety of reasons, the most crucial being the importance of not letting her captors know what she was up to. Another rather pressing one was the stiffness of various muscle groups – the movements involved some rather intense stretching, and she'd been bound for the majority of the past twenty-four hours, by her calculations. Moving at all was painful, and attempting a rather elaborate gymnastic manouvre with minimal warm up was one of the less comfortable things she'd done in the past few months.

Sinking her mind into the state of self-hypnosis Cally had shown her as an accompaniment for the stretching exercises she'd learned so long ago, Tirren worked to let go of her fears, her worries, and the quiet, niggling panic that she'd been abandoned by the crew of the Liberator. Slow movement was the key, and the key to slow movement was to let the body decide how much and how far.

Relax into the stretch, slowly moving the body into the posture of the Bow. Hold the stretch, breathing softly, and slip the bonds of the handcuffs over the tips of her feet. Now, roll slowly into the posture of the arch – there's just enough room under the bunk, she notes – and, resting her weight on her shoulders, slowly lower the hips. The stretch in her arms, her shoulders, her abdomen is intense, as is the compaction of the muscles in her back. Slow is the key. Slow and gentle. She has infinite time to accomplish this. It hurts, but nowhere near as much as it hurt to receive the beating at the hands of Vargas' thuggish acolytes. Nowhere near as much as the pain of finding herself alone and undefended, an Alpha grade female on a Federation prison ship. She lived through those pains. She will live through this one.

As her hips lowered, and her hands moved up the length of her legs, bringing the cuffs within reach, Tirren started to draw breath and strength together for the next stage. Kendall was still alone in the room, and while she'd been sleeping for most of the time, he would have been on high alert. There were two possibilities for the state he would be in by now: either he would be weary, worn out by the demands made by his body in order to remain alert; or he would be on edge, twitchy, and in all likelihood using some form of stimulant to maintain his alertness. Best to assume the latter, she thought. She would need to be swift.

~

Blake looked over the group of searchers. Avon and Jenna remained on the flight deck – Avon because he was still working on those scanners, Jenna because she was needed to monitor the flight systems. That left him with Cally, Vila and Gan. Levett, Grovane and Pasco had all volunteered to join in, and while he'd felt wary of including the Ortega's crew, he had to admit he didn't have the resources for a full search any other way.

“Right, here's your instructions,” he said. “Cally, you take Grovane and search the laboratory pod. Check the secure labs as well as the general ones – they may have hidden her in one of those. Vila, Gan, Pasco, you're searching the cargo pod. Check both the inner and outer holds, as well as all the cabins. Levett, you and I are going to be searching the computing section. There's a lot of cabins there, so we'll have to move fast and be thorough. Any questions?”

“I've got one,” came a voice from the doorway. Blake turned, to see Sonheim standing and holding a gun on them. “Why don't you all just sit down and shut up?”

“I have a better one,” came another, wholly unexpected, voice, from behind where Sonheim was standing. Sonheim started to turn, but crumpled from a blow. “Why don't you follow your own damn advice?” Tirren asked.

“Tirren!” Blake said. “Where's Kendall?”

The biochemist leaned down and picked up Sonheim's gun, pointing it at the traitor. “Kendall is having a lie-down in one of the cabins in the computing section,” she said. “He should be out for a while. I gave him the sonoline he intended for me. I take it you were given my locked file?”

Blake nodded. “Where have you been?” Blake asked. “We've been searching all over for you.”

“I don't know,” she said. “I was knocked out for most of the time – they were keeping me under with sonoline.”

“So how'd you get out?” Vila asked.

“They had me tied and handcuffed,” Tirren said. She raised her left hand, which was badly bruised. The thief noted the cuff still around her right hand wrist. “I can't pick locks, but there are other ways to get out of handcuffs,” she said.

“Let me take that,” said Cally, taking the gun from the battered biochemist.

Tirren handed the gun over with gratitude. “Kendall is in the cabin four down from the parts storage locker nearest computer sub-control nine,” she said. “We'll probably need to do a stocktake run before we drop everyone off on Destiny. I wouldn't put it past either of them to have pinched parts from the locker. Blake, I'd better get back to the lab, and check over the neutrotope. I doubt Kendall could have managed to alter the frequencies it puts out, but I'd better make certain. It would be terrible if we returned with their expensive solution, only to find it didn't work.” Tirren looked over at Grovane, Pasco and Levett. “Thank you for helping to search for me,” she said.

“Think nothing of it,” said Grovane. He smiled.

“Gan, Cally, take Sonheim and lock him in his cabin. Retrieve Kendall from wherever he is, and do the same,” Blake said, taking charge once more. “Vila, check both cabins before they're used as cells. I want anything suspicious, and anything which could possibly be used to pick or break the locks removed before they go in there. Be creative.”

“We'd better tell Avon that Tirren's been found,” Gan said. “He's been working on those scanners for a long time now.” From the appalled looks on the faces of both Blake and Vila, it appeared neither of them had considered this.

“Tell Avon what?” Tirren asked.

“Tirren,” Blake said, looking at her with amusement on his face, “would you mind going to the flight deck and explaining to Avon that he doesn't have to finish recalibrating the scanners to look for you?”

She laughed. “None of you want to risk it?” she asked. “I'll go.”

~

Avon was swearing once more. While the Liberator had a sophisticated exterior scanner array, the internal scanners for were basic motion sensors and infra-red cameras, which relied heavily on interfacing with the Zen computer to provide meaningful output. From what he could tell, the motion sensors and infra-red devices picked up movement, dumped all the input to a database, and Zen was able to interrogate the database to provide information on whether a particular pattern of motion had been spotted. All very sophisticated, but useless when it came to telling whether or not a member of Liberator's crew was unconscious somewhere in the ship. What was worse, in order to alter the existing program, he'd need to spend at least another couple of hours analysing the data which was stored in the sensor reading database, and in all likelihood, redesign the whole boiling from scratch. That, of course, would require reprogramming the auto-repair system, since he'd found (much to his disgust) that if the auto-repair wasn't altered, it would just come right along behind him and return things to their previous configuration.

Jenna listened to him swearing with a certain amount of interest. So far there wasn't anything new, but the tech was showing a lot of skill in extemporising, and his imagery was interesting, if anatomically improbable. She was just starting to consider whether a cup of coffee would be a good idea – sitting and staring (literally) into space wasn't good for her levels of alertness - when a movement up by the stairwell caught her eye. Turning her head, she spotted Tirren at the mouth of the corridor. The biochemist looked a bit scuffed, and there was an impressive collection of bruises on one of her hands, but her eyes were twinkling with mischief. Tirren put her finger to her lips in a gesture for silence, glancing over toward Avon. Jenna grinned, and winked.

Moving quietly, Tirren made her way over to the scanner console, where Avon was busy muttering to himself as he worked on the hard-wired relays which would need to be redone in order to disable auto-repair for the scanners. She noticed the probe he generally used for circuit testing was sitting on the floor, having presumably fallen while his attention was elsewhere, and picked the tool up.

“Right,” muttered Avon, “need to isolate auto-repair.” His left hand patted at the console, searching for something.

“Is this what you're looking for?” Tirren asked, popping the probe into his field of view.

Avon twitched at the sound of her voice, and looked straight at her. She was standing in front of the console, looking back up toward the rear of the flight deck, and grinning. Avon grinned back.

“Did our glorious leader find you,” Avon asked, “or did you just get tired of waiting around to be rescued?”

Tirren chuckled. “Kendall got careless, Sonheim got surprised, and I got lucky. Oh, and Blake says you don't need to recalibrate the scanners to find me any more.”

“How very kind of him,” Avon said, the sarcasm biting into each word. “I must go and show my appreciation in person.”

Tirren looked at him rather intently for a moment. “No, what you must do is go and get some sleep. Take a tranq pad from the medical unit to counteract the stimtabs you've taken, and get some rest!” She turned to face Jenna. “If Blake wants to argue, he can argue the decision with me. He knows where I'll be. But this one,” she said, grabbing Avon by the arm and escorting him toward the corridor, “is going to get some long-overdue sleep.” She exited the flight deck, hustling Avon off in the direction of his sleeping quarters.

Jenna chuckled to herself. If she knew Tirren, Avon would be sleeping the sleep of the heavily sedated within minutes. It was good to have the other woman back on deck, and apparently none the worse for the ordeal she'd undergone.

~

“All right, what was all that about?” Avon asked, once the pair had got safely out of Jenna's earshot.

“Let's just say I want an honest account of what has been happening while I've been unavailable, and that Vila was busy,” Tirren said. “Have there been any attacks by pursuit ships?”

“No,” Avon said, then paused. “Oddly enough, no, there haven't.”

“Good,” Tirren said, and pushed something small into his hand. “Then I'll need you to pull that to bits, and figure out whether it was calling them. Get some sleep first, but get it analysed as soon as you can.”

Avon looked down. The item she'd handed him looked oddly familiar, although it took him a second or two to place it. “This is the refractor array from the neutrotope.”

“Exactly,” Tirren said. “Where else better to put a homing transmitter or beacon to let the Federation know exactly where it was at all times? The Federation probably supplied Sara, but they got to Kendall first. He's been their plant since well before they left Destiny, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to find he was the one who bioengineered a lot of the resistances into the fungus in the first place. He knew about our bounties, and he was going to see whether he could get a bonus from the Federation for turning us in, as well as handing over Destiny.”

“That's a number of rather serious accusations. You'd need a lot of proof to be able to make them stick,” Avon said.

Tirren looked at him. “I know. And that's why I got this,” she said, pulling a small vial of blood from her pocket. “Kendall's. Sara was resistant to just about every interrogation drug, but I doubt her boss will be. Blake can stomp his feet and shout at me afterwards, but we are interrogating Kendall before anything else happens.”

Avon nodded. “Sonheim?”

“I'll take a sample later. Vila will let us into their rooms, if he knows what's good for him.”

Another nod. “Agreed.” Avon looked down at the biochemist, a tinge of curiousity in his expression. “Are you planning to keep the handcuffs?” he asked.

Tirren looked back at him. “Maybe.”

~

In the end, their arrival at Destiny was anticlimactic. Sonheim and Kendall had proved to be less resistant to the interrogation drugs, and spilled the whole plan without too much unfriendly persuasion. The neutrotope would do what was advertised, Tirren announced, after getting both Avon and Blake to check the physics of the thing, while she checked the biochemistry of the reactions in the labs. Kendall's work to alter the virus, she said, would make quite an interesting little scientific paper, once she'd tidied the whole thing up, and getting it released through a few unorthodox, but influential, channels within the science community might do a lot to slow down the Federation's attempts to suborn scientists.

Grovane, Pasco and Levett were given sufficient funds from the treasure room to provide them with a ship which would be somewhat better than the Ortega. In addition, the three of them received an official apology from the government of Destiny, as well as compensation for the loss of their crew mates and ship. Tirren and Gan got to meet Grovane's family – his wife and his two young sons – all of whom were thankful to see him back again.

Doctor Kendall and Sonheim were tried by the highest court of Destiny, and thanks largely to the evidence Tirren had managed to assemble, were found to have betrayed their planet to the Federation. The planetary council of Destiny formally thanked Blake (and the crew of the Liberator) for their work to ensure that Destiny's future remained viable outside Federation control, and then just as formally ordered that the Liberator leave and never come back.

The handcuffs were taken by Vila. From Avon's room.