Sue Little and Larasati Widara
It raced across the sky, carving a trail of bright light as it hurtled through the atmosphere.
He shielded his eyes from the setting sun, and watched the streak of light’s journey.
Its landing place would be a long way off, but he knew that he had to get to it before the others.
Because this time, he was determined to get to this prize.
This time, the Salvager would be handing him that reward.
And this time, he would be able to show the others that he was just as good as them. This would take the smile off their faces.
He would be someone at last.
“Vila, have you seen Blake?” Cally asked. She had just finished checking Liberator’s flight status and was puzzled by some of the information being brought to her notice.
Vila was sitting at his station, his eyes staring at the main screen, but hardly taking in anything that was being shown on it. He stretched his back, “Now you mention it, I haven’t seen him for hours.”
“…not since she put the Liberator on automatics shortly after her watch started.”
“Something wrong?” It was Avon; casually walking onto the Flight Deck.
“Not exactly wrong,” Cally said.
“Then I can see no reason to call them back here.”
“No, there isn’t any need,” Vila put in, “It’s nice and quiet.”
“And that serves one good purpose…it keeps you asleep. Now, why are you concerned as to the whereabouts of our great leader?”
“The reason,” Cally continued, “is that a communication channel has been used. Not once, but several times and each time during Blake’s watch.”
“And he didn’t tell us, you mean?” Avon stepped up to Cally’s station.
“Why should you be so worried, considering the peace and quiet means so much to you?” Vila pointed out.
But Avon didn’t hear it. He was studying the data pointed out to him by Cally. His eyes narrowed, “It would seem that our dauntless leader wishes to surprise us with some information.”
“I wonder what about…?” Cally frowned.
“Probably something detrimental to our well-being,” Avon murmured, his thoughts turning to just what Blake was planning this time. It never ceased to amaze him that Blake continually conceived a plan of action without ever consulting any of the others. He seemed to merely take it as a foregone conclusion.
In the following, stilted silence only a disillusioned sigh could be heard, coming from Vila’s station.
“Why don’t you ask him?” Cally proffered.
“I might just do that,” Avon replied.
“Now you’ve done it,” Vila said, as Avon marched off the Flight Deck, his determination to confront Blake very evident.
Avon found Blake in the teleport section; the latter didn’t seem too surprised by his arrival.
“Let me guess, you found out about the communications?”
“I presume you were going to tell us…”
“That’s most obliging of you. Well?”
Blake knew he had to reveal exactly what had transpired over the last few hours, if only to curtail Avon’s obvious displeasure.
“I’ve been in contact with a resistance group on the planet Aboola….” He waited for the usual show of knowledge that Avon delighted in reeling off on these occasions; but it wasn’t forthcoming. Not this time.
“A small, isolated planet. A pre-space age culture.”
“How did they contact you?”
“Strangely enough, one of their crew did. A mayday call from an out of control space craft.”
Avon studied him, “A space craft from a pre-space age culture.”
“Yes, I’m as intrigued as you are.”
“So where is this space craft now?”
“On its way to Aboola, with Jenna at the helm. We should be making planet fall in a few hours. Then we can find out about this contradiction in terms.”
“You will be when you find out exactly who has supplied the space craft in question. The Federation.”
“Now why would they do that?”
“Because Aboola is a long way out; almost on the perimeter of our spiral galaxy. It seems the Federation doesn’t want to stretch their manpower this far out so they have persuaded the people of Aboola to do their dirty work for them. But there is a problem, one the Federation was too blind to see or refused to acknowledge.”
“And what is that?”
“Their numeration system. It’s a bijective base 10 system….”
“I knew you would be interested,” Blake smiled back.
He consulted his direction finder.
Good; the beam had tagged it.
Now to follow the signal and claim his prize.
It would take a few time periods, but he would reach it; maybe by the coming of the sun. If he remembered correctly, the area it had come down in was a marshland. Hopefully, that had broken its fall; hopefully, it would be in one piece.
He drew the scarf around his face to keep out the chill and fired up the engine to his mechanized sled. It was going to be a long trek.
“So the inexperienced pilot was shocked by the sudden appearance of a mysterious ship?” Avon asked.
“He begged for assistance. Jenna had no choice.”
Avon didn’t seem convinced. He was now sitting down on the other seat in the teleport, “And she believed him?”
“Avon, if you had heard him; the sheer panic in his voice. You would have…….”
“Blake.” It was Cally. Still on the Flight Deck and still not too sure exactly what was going on.
“Zen reports that the target vehicle has now made planet fall. I understand that you require the co-ordinates.”
“Yes. Thank you Cally. Could you put them through to here?”
“Co-ordinates?” Avon asked.
“We are out on the spiral arm of our galaxy…and yet a spacecraft of some nature suddenly appeared from nowhere….”
“Where did it come from?”
“Quite honestly, I’m not particularly worried….”
Blake studied the impassive man before him, “Beyond Aboola, there is nothing…beyond that nothing is the outer rim of the galaxy and then beyond that….”
“And then, there is the closest galaxy to us…”
“The Andromeda Galaxy.”
“Precisely," Blake said, “I think that ship came from there.”
“If it did,” Avon conceded, “Then we could be on the edge of a new discovery…”
“Someone who knows about these things needs to go down and investigate…”
“Well, it seems that there is a burgeoning rebel group on Aboola. They have already asked to meet me. Once Jenna has landed I intend to do just that.”
“But why me?” Vila had asked for the umpteenth time as he and Avon had walked through the marsh.
“Because if anyone can open anything…it’s you.”
“I know I should be honoured…but I’m not. It’s cold and damp. Anyway, what exactly are we looking for?”
“A space craft of some nature.”
“And it’s here?”
“According to Zen, yes.” Avon stopped as the early morning mist suddenly cleared in front of him, “In fact; there.”
Lying at an odd angle, half submerged in the marshy ground, was a cylinder; smoke still emanating from it as evidence of its journey through the planet’s atmosphere.
Vila came to a halt and studied it.
“Well, there’s no way that’s manned. It’s too small.”
“It’s big enough for one man.” Avon pointed out.
“One man? In there? He’d be a bit cramped for space. No, it looks like a probe…or something.” Vila stopped short. He didn’t like to sound knowledgeable about such things. It was easier to pretend otherwise. That tended to keep him out of trouble.
“A probe?” Avon’s eyes narrowed, “A probe from where and for what reason? I think we need to take a closer look. To see if there is a clue about its origin.”
“Must we?” Vila asked, turning the control up on his suit, “its freezing.”
Avon smiled at him, “Not for much longer. Sunrise is due soon and that thing is still warm. Come on.”
Jenna had safely landed the wayward ship and was being feted like a heroine, her exploits being thoroughly admired and grateful thanks being bestowed upon her. She found it quite overpowering and was grateful when Blake finally materialised, much to the shock of those gathered on the plateau.
Once they had recovered from the unannounced arrival, the crew from the ship insisted on taking both Blake and Jenna to meet their leader.
The group quickly made their way down from the plateau and towards the settlement below.
It wasn’t a large settlement; it consisted of a main thoroughfare around which several single-story dwellings radiated out, and beyond them were the bio-domes which most probably provided these people with all the food they would need. If there was any heavy industry then it wasn’t to be seen here. Perhaps their factories, or production lines, were situated beyond the low hills that skirted the huddled township.
This was indeed a veritable oasis of peace and tranquillity.
They approached one of the larger houses and were greeted by the man who was evidently the leader, hurrying out of his modest single-story, flat-roofed house, his right hand extended in friendship. It was the other hand that worried Blake; it was resting on a powerful looking weapon hanging loosely at his side.
The leader noticed the concerned look. “Forgive me. We must all be prepared.”
“Prepared for what?” Blake asked.
“The invasion,” came the reply, “Please come in. It’s not one of the best mornings. It is still our cool season.”
Blake and Jenna were ushered into the house and into a main room. They were invited to be seated.
“My name is Hoth. I am the leader of these people.”
“My name is Blake. I believe it was you to whom I was speaking?”
Hoth sat down, “Indeed it was. We are most grateful, Blake, for your colleague coming to our aid…I’m still not exactly sure how she managed it, but I think it best not to ask.”
“You said something about a rebel movement?”
“We plan to disobey the Federation. We will no longer do their dirty work for them. If they wish to patrol this area, then they must do it themselves; not force us to fly their infernal machines about which we have no knowledge.”
“But that could be costly?”
“Indeed it will,” Hoth said, his eyes downcast, “They hold some of our elders as hostage, but the time has come to stand up to them.”
“That’s very brave…..but why the difficulty with their ship?”
“As I explained to you, our system of computing is totally different from theirs, but they would not believe it. They refused to acknowledge that someone else would have a different way…”
“That’s normally how they operate. I wish I could help.”
“Maybe you can, Blake. Maybe you could teach us this strange way.”
“That’s not my field, I’m afraid, although…”
Hoth seemed even more crestfallen, and cut Blake short before he could explain himself. “And I had hoped that you could have solved our other problem.”
“What other problem?”
“The Salvager brought us a device. He said that it could unlock the way to wealth beyond compare.”
“What device?” Blake asked.
“More to the point,” Jenna put in, “Who is this Salvager?”
The hull of the strange object had cooled enough for Avon to touch it. He ran his fingers over it.
“Hmm….no markings. They must have been destroyed when this came through the atmosphere.”
“Should you be touching it?” Vila whispered, “I mean radiation and all that.”
“You suddenly know a lot about…all that.”
“Only what I’ve heard…usually from you. You know, you’d make a great teacher.”
“Get your filthy hands off my prize catch.” It was the voice of a boy; very clear, but also very agitated.
“I think he’s talking to you,” Vila informed Avon. Neither of them had turned to face their accuser.
“And what makes you think it’s yours?” Avon responded.
“I tracked it; I tagged it…now get away from it before I blow your head off.”
“I think he means it,” Vila murmured.
Avon didn’t seem at all concerned about the threat…..until a shot rang out and hit the cylinder just above his hand.
The sound made Vila jump and he slipped into the boggy ground, “Oh great, now look what you’ve done! Just for once, can’t you do as you’re told?”
“Your friend is wise.”
It was another voice, this time female. This time both men turned to see to whom the voice belonged, but it was difficult to make out exactly who was who. The two figures were swathed in robes and their faces masked by scarves. They both had guns in their hands and both guns were pointing at Avon and a very soggy Vila, who was struggling to get back on his feet.
For a moment, the two men gazed at the two strangers…one of whom was ensconced on a four legged animal of some nature.
“My brother,” the rider said, her voice muffled by the scarf, “could have killed you, but he chose not to.”
“And for that, we are most grateful, aren’t we Avon?” Vila looked at Avon and realised he would have to help himself get back on his feet, especially as Avon’s own gun was now in his hands. “For goodness sake, Avon, they’re children. You can’t go and shoot a boy! Not in cold blood.”
“If he’s man enough to shoot at me, then he’s man enough to take the consequences.”
“You would be dead the moment you pulled that trigger,” the girl said, “….and that is a promise.”
“Maybe we should listen to her,” Vila said, “Please, we don’t mean any harm, we just wanted to check this…this thing out.”
The rider approached and bent down to take Vila’s hand to help him stand. All the while, Avon’s gun was aimed at the young boy.
“Thank you,” Vila smiled, one eye firmly on the four legged creature.
“You’re welcome, especially as your friend does not consider it necessary to assist you.”
“He’s like that. What exactly is that you’re on?”
“It doesn’t matter, Vila,” Avon snapped.
“Look, I’ve never seen one of these….”
“You can always ask Blake later…he is bound to know. You say this is your brother’s prize catch?”
“It is,” the boy replied proudly, “and I shall hand it over to the Salvager.”
“He will pay good money…”
“Very laudable….but how do you intend to get this rather large and heavy object out of this marsh and to this Salvager. You don’t strike me as particularly strong.”
“Josef,” the girl said, “please demonstrate for this sceptical man.”
The young boy holstered his gun and reached inside his robes for two flat metal pieces with handles attached. He briskly walked up to Avon and put one of the handles on the device, “It’s an antigrav, in case you are interested.”
“An antigrav? How do…..”
“The Salvager has given us all these to help us bring the fallen objects for him. This one object will wipe the smiles off all their faces….”
Avon looked at the girl, waiting for an answer from his unspoken question.
“The other boys,” she replied, “They have had much success, but Josef was never lucky. They always beat him to it.”
“I know how he feels,” Vila put in, “Come on Avon, help him get this thing out.”
The girl threw a rope towards her brother, who caught it and fastened it to the other antigrav. Together with the quadruped, Vila and Josef, the cylinder was pulled out onto firmer ground.
Avon chose to watch.
Josef was finding it difficult to control his anger at the apparent disinterest in the struggle by the man with the gun. After he had allowed the projectile to come to a rest on the ground, he pulled off his scarf and whirled to face the stranger.
“Perhaps you consider such work beneath you, but it is considered bad manners….”
His sister stopped him, “Josef. Remember the words of our parents. You must be respectful to your elders.”
Vila managed to stifle a laugh, but still decided to rile Avon, “She’s definitely talking about you then.”
Avon dismissed the comment, and instead holstered his gun and began to investigate the cylinder. Just as he had thought, there was nothing to indicate its origin.
“What do you make of it, Vila?”
“Well, there seems to be a hatch of some nature; but it could be welded up.”
“Can you open it?”
The young girl had by now dismounted her quadruped, and was gazing at the object with, as far as Avon could perceive, a look of recognition in her eyes.
“You have seen one of these before?”
“Possibly,” she replied.
She turned to face him. Her features still shrouded with the scarf. “I’m not obliged to tell you anything. Suffice to say, my brother and I are grateful for your friend’s assistance. Now, if you don’t mind, we need to get this back to our town. The Salvager is expected soon and this time, my brother will receive the credit due to him.”
Vila was still examining the cylinder, tracing the outline of an apparent sealed opening, “Excuse me asking, but who exactly is this Salvager?”
The room was bathed in a soft light and on the low table in its centre was a metallic cylinder; its casing charred and battered. Blake approached it with some trepidation.
As he got closer, he could see that a section had been removed to reveal a series of small screens and numerous buttons. And the device was emitting a soft, almost imperceptible hum.
“Where did it come from?”
“The Salvager found it free floating,” Hoth explained, “There were signs of a wrecked ship, but only this remained intact.”
“What is it?”
“The Salvager believes it is a device that could ultimately lead to great wealth. He said that if we could find the key to the message it contains…then he would share those riches with us. We are not a wealthy community; far from it. Our ancestors were ‘persuaded’ to come here many years ago. A case of out of sight, out of mind.”
“Did you pose a threat to the Federation?”
“Our ancestors’ way of thinking posed a threat. Unfortunately, the present administration has forgotten why we are here and insist that we use their ships to patrol this area, even though we have great difficulty with the way their systems work.”
“So what are they worried about?”
“There has been an increase in activity; more so-called debris lands here and the Salvager is finding more objects out beyond our own system. This being a case in point.”
Blake slowly walked around the strange device, trying to fathom out its purpose.
“You said something about an ‘invasion’?”
Hoth nodded, “Yes. The Federation sent a representative. They said there was a possibility that the increasing amount of space debris could indicate a prelude to an invasion.”
“From whom?” Blake asked, puzzled, “Your planet is the last bastion of civilisation…as far as I’m aware.”
“They suggested the threat came from beyond our galaxy…”
“And yet, they will not commit themselves to having a permanent presence out here.”
“Can you blame them? We are a long way from Earth, Blake. To come out here would stretch their resources to the limit. So they decided to persuade us to do their dirty work for them.”
“And they took some of your people as insurance?”
“Yes,” Hoth murmured.
“You are aware that there is every possibility that your people are no longer alive?”
“I don’t even want to think about it…..”
Blake decided to change tack. It was obvious that the thought of Hoth’s people paying the ultimate price was a painful one.
“So this Salvager brought this device to you?”
“One of our people is very bright. She is working on it…”
“You would have to ask her. All her research is no doubt contained in that computer over there. I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“Hmm….I think I have just the person who can help.” Blake depressed the comms on his bracelet, “Avon….”
“So, you want me to come and give my opinion on this device that these people have?”
“Yes....if you don’t mind, of course.”
Avon did mind; he minded a lot. Vila was working on the casing of this piece of space flotsam and now Blake wanted him, Avon, to go and look at another piece of debris. Just how much junk did this planet have?
“And what about this object?”
“I’m sure Vila can manage.”
“I doubt that.”
Vila directed a hurt look at Avon.
“I will need to clean up. This marshland isn’t exactly my idea of paradise.”
This time Vila stopped what he was doing. He was covered in the thick, green mud and Avon was standing there, almost pristine.
“Just don’t take too long about it…..” Blake’s voice trailed off.
“It appears I have another appointment,” Avon said, “Another device of some nature. You don’t mind, do you Vila?”
“As a matter of fact…..”
The girl stepped forward, “As a matter of fact, I mind. That device is mine!”
Avon totally ignored her protestations, and, much to her consternation, suddenly shimmered from view.
For a moment, the girl was speechless. She stood rooted to the spot, unable to comprehend what had just happened. Then realisation dawned on her, “No stranger is going to take that from me…” So saying, she remounted her quadruped and rode off.
“Oh dear,” Vila murmured.
Josef seemed totally devastated. “How am I to get this back to our settlement? My sister was going to protect me from the other gangs.”
“Yes. I have yet to prove myself. This would do it, but without her….”
“I think I may have the solution.”
Brin Veldran lay spread-eagled on his unmade, unkempt bunk wondering what on Earth he was doing on his ship with his new ‘companions’. He had decided to seek solace in the bottle of strong drink, but had found that it hadn’t had the effect it usually did; knocking him out for a good few hours to pass the tedium of a long space flight. This time, it had barely had any effect. Which was just as well. He didn’t trust these two companions, forced upon him by his new customer. But business was business, although, he still wasn’t sure what business the stranger was in.
In fact, he still didn’t understand how the man had come to hear about this device; the one which would unlock untold wealth; at least, that’s what he had told all those around him in that drinking den who cared to listen. Maybe it was true; that there were spies everywhere.
Because now he had company. A strange sort of company. Two on this ship and the other four on the second ship. He still wasn’t too sure who, or rather, what they were. And to be quite honest, he didn’t really want to know.
Still, once he had that device; once he had the information he required, then he would hand it over to these companions, for a small consideration of course, and carry on his salvaging business.
But why did all the really good salvage have to be out here? The back of beyond?
Only a few more hours and then these rather creepy beings would be out of his life. He just hoped that the Abooleans had managed to find someone to unravel the mystery of that box. They seemed convinced when he had shown it to them. He just prayed that that conviction would prove to be justified.
“Where exactly did it originate?”
Hoth stared back at the man who had suddenly appeared in the room and was now standing alongside Blake.
“Does it matter?” Hoth asked, still slightly bewildered.
Blake decided to intercede before Avon eroded any good will that had been brokered between himself and Hoth. “The point is, can you fathom out what this thing is and why this so called Salvager is so keen to have its innards dissected by one of Hoth’s people.”
Avon turned to Blake with a smile; the one that usually preceded a self-satisfying derisory repost, “Well now, that depends on what progress, if any, has been made so far. And whether that progress has, perhaps, had a detrimental effect.”
“Nimeah is very skilled. She has an aptitude for such things,” Hoth explained.
“Having an aptitude does not necessarily mean having an expertise. I will need some time to check her work…..you don’t mind, do you? I work better without interference.”
“I think,” Blake began, “that it would be better to leave Avon alone.”
“Speaking of alone,” Avon said, already studying the device in front of him, “Cally reports that two ships have been detected heading this way. I really think Jenna should return to the Liberator, just in case we have company.”
“I’ll do that,” Blake replied, guiding an annoyed Hoth out of the room. Once outside, he closed the door, “I really should apologise. He prefers machines to people.”
“That could be a stumbling block under some circumstances.”
“He doesn’t think so. Where is this Nimeah? I’d like to meet her.”
“She must be helping her brother. But I really wish she were here when the Salvager returns.”
“And I would really like to meet this Salvager.”
“You’ll have your chance. But I’d better warn you. He’s a bit of a maverick. He tends to walk all over peoples’ sensibilities.”
Blake cast a backward look to the door, behind which Avon was no doubt beavering away, “Oh, I’m quite used to that.”
“And you want me to help this boy get this object back to his township?”
Olag Gan favoured the small man in front of him with a distinct look of disbelief. A few minutes ago, he had been sitting on the Flight Deck of the Liberator, watching the tell-tale signs of two ships slowly making their way towards this planet. When Vila’s request had come through, it sounded as though he was in dire need. Instead, Gan found himself looking at a rather large lump of metal.
“Can’t his father help him?”
“Only a sister….”
“So where is she?”
The small boy stepped forward, irritated by what he could only see as timewasting, “She left soon after your friend did. She does not trust him….”
“Marvellous, isn’t it?” Vila said, “Avon was only here a few seconds…..”
“That long?” Gan queried, “All right, but it’s quite some way isn’t it? It will take some time to walk…”
“I have a sled. We attach it to that…but I will need help against the other scavengers. They will try and take this from me and claim it as their own.”
Gan folded his arms, “Scavengers?”
“Yes,” Vila replied, “the sort of people you and I have had to put up with all our lives. You know, bullies? Think they’re better than you…”
“Well, we can’t have that. All right, I’ll help. Vila and I will escort you back home…and then,” Gan said, looking the small thief up and down, “Vila can get himself cleaned up. How did you manage….?”
“Don’t ask…just, don’t ask.”
Blake listened to Jenna’s report with some degree of concern.
She had teleported back to the Liberator immediately and had confirmed that there were, indeed, two ships approaching Aboola.
Blake turned round to face Hoth, “It appears that this Salvager of yours has two ships.”
“Two?” replied Hoth, “Maybe he intends to take that device with him this time. He may have a customer….”
“He certainly doesn’t waste his time. He obviously expects Nimeah to have completed her work…”
“And if she hasn’t?”
“Let us hope that Avon can help. It will be a good few hours before those ships get here, so that should give him time. But it may be prudent to make sure this Salvager doesn’t actually see the Liberator. That would be just too tempting a prize.”
“Will you leave before he gets here?”
“Oh no, I want to meet this maverick and find out just what he thinks that device is.”
“According to Zen, one of those ships is registered to one Brin Veldran; an entrepreneur, adventurer, general dealer…” Jenna read off what seemed a very long, rambling list of activities, none of which convinced her that the man on his way to this unimpressive outpost actually had a career of any importance.
“He seems quite harmless,” Blake put in.
“I’d say, he had an eye for the main chance. And those sort of people are anything but harmless. What worries me is the other ship. Zen is unable to find out anything about it.”
“Get Zen to keep digging. Meanwhile, I’m staying down here, but make sure you or Cally are on standby in the teleport section…..just in case this Brin Veldran is anything but harmless.”
“Right.” Jenna closed the comms link. Why did Blake insist on going straight into the lion’s den? One of these days…..But she decided not to dwell upon it. Now, she had to concentrate on the two ships coming this way. The Liberator’s detectors had picked them up long ago, but just when would the detectors on those ships realise that there was an interloper in orbit? She would have to time her next manoeuvre to perfection; even if it meant leaving Blake and the others to the tender mercies of the approaching Jack-of-all-Trades.
It was Hoth who drew Blake’s attention to the approaching sound; a sound completely alien.
“It’s Nimeah,” Hoth explained, “On her horse.”
“Her what?” Blake wasn’t too sure exactly what a horse was. Certainly he had read about such a thing many years ago, but the memory had been erased; now there was just a faint inkling; a strange recollection, just beyond his reach.
Hoth was already striding towards the front door of his domicile, when it was thrown open and a figure, swathed in dark red flowing robes, swept in.
Both he and Blake were pushed aside as the stranger barrelled through the corridor towards the door at the end.
“Oh, dear,” Hoth murmured, rushing after the obviously angered individual.
Blake followed him.
Avon didn’t even look up as the door crashed open.
“Get away from there!”
It was the same voice. The young woman on that quadruped.
“Nimeah,” Hoth began, trying to catch his breath, “Let me explain….”
Nimeah threw off her head scarf and fixed her blazing green eyes on Avon, “Not content with trying to take my brother’s rightful prize, you come here to usurp my work…”
“Nimeah,” Hoth said, “It’s not like that……”
“And very good work it is too,” Avon smiled, this time looking up, “I am most impressed. Considering you are using the Bijective Base 10 system, you have managed a great deal.”
“You’ve met?” Hoth asked.
“Only briefly,” Avon replied.
“But not brief enough,” Nimeah snapped back.
Blake decided it was time to intercede, “I’m sorry if you have taken offence, but Avon is here to help you…”
“….I don’t need any help. Least of all from the likes of him. Now get out of here!”
“Nimeah!” Hoth said, “You’re manners. Have you forgotten?”
“This is my project. It was given to me…..”
“And your progress has been remarkable. Some of you conclusions have been most sound.” Avon was holding out a small device, “Perhaps you would be good enough to explain your findings?”
“You understand the language of computers?”
“Naturally. Doesn’t everybody?”
It was a question directed at Blake, but before he could reply, Avon continued, “If it would help, I can explain the Binary system used by us. It would be of great benefit to you.”
Nimeah stood quite still, eyeing this stranger with suspicion. Perhaps he wasn’t so off hand as she had first thought. She turned to Hoth, “It would help a great deal. If I were able to study their system, then maybe I could integrate it into ours. But only if you say so.”
“Nimeah, we need to find out what this device is. If this man can assist you, then so be it.”
“All right. But you understand that this is my project?”
Avon allowed a very faint smile to cross his features. This was a young girl with a very grown up attitude. She reminded him of how he had once been; although he knew that there were some who would say that he still had that superior air, “Perfectly.”
“I’m starving,” Vila declared. He was sitting on the back of the sled, leaning against the board that made up the rear of the front seat.
“We will be there soon,” Josef said, finding his new ‘friends’ great company; not least because all those other scavengers had given him and his sled, complete with cargo, a wide berth. Sitting beside him was the main reason the others had kept away; a giant of a man who was obviously finding this new mode of transport a genuine thrill.
“And then what?” asked Vila.
“The Salvager holds a celebration for all of those who have brought him items to trade.”
“What sort of celebration?”
“He lays on food and drink…”
“Drink…now that sounds like my kind of celebration.”
Gan couldn’t help but laugh, “Always thinking of your stomach. If those scavengers are like Josef I doubt if there will be any drink that you’ll appreciate.”
“Oh.” Vila was crestfallen.
“Besides,” Gan pointed out, “you may well need to get back to the Liberator. This midday sun isn’t exactly helping that mud on your suit, you know.”
“You think so?”
“I know so.”
Josef tried to stifle a laugh; and failed.
Blake was leaning against a metal stanchion watching the steady stream of young people taking their haul to the outer limits of the small township.
“Just how much junk have these people collected?”
“It’s not as much as there used to be,” Hoth replied, “It’s almost as if…..”
“….someone’s decided not to waste any more time finding out about this region of space. You know, it’s possible that you may have inadvertently answered their question.”
“What? That device? You think it was sent here deliberately?”
“Someone was testing the water…..and they’ve now received their answer. You say this Salvager found it free floating?”
“That’s right. It won’t be long now, he will be here soon. He’ll land just outside our town and set up camp. Come night fall, there will be a celebration; music and the like, as he looks at what all the scavengers have brought to show him.”
“Does he know that your people are preparing a rebel movement?”
“I think you should keep quiet, for the moment. We wouldn’t want anyone rushing off to alert the authorities that Aboola was about to defy the Federation. As it is, I think it was right for Jenna to take Liberator off station. The last thing we want is for our friendly Salvager to spot our ship and let the Federation know about it. That could be just a little awkward.”
Jenna was not best pleased.
Going off station and leaving the others to fend for themselves had caused untold problems. Yet, still Blake persisted in doing just that.
And it didn’t help that Cally was getting restless.
“You need to stay by the teleport,” Jenna insisted.
“But I am more help down there if they encounter any problems.”
“You know that and I know that….”
“Once those ships have landed, we’ll take up fixed orbit again. Hopefully, by then, one of them will have decided they’ve had enough and you can go and see what is so exciting about this planet. I’m surprised we haven’t had Vila complaining. From the scan readings, there is absolutely nothing down there.”
Avon was studying the array of information dancing before him on the holographic screen. His brow was furrowed; he wasn’t too sure what the information being streamed across the screen was, but he was beginning to formulate an idea.
It appeared that Nimeah had been converting the foreign symbols into numeric characters…and the result was fascinating.
There in front of him was something that looked very familiar; a common set of instruction codes for a machine to make its programs run.
With the bijective base-10 system used by the Abooleans in mind, he started to convert the digits into the binary system.
Nimeah watched in silent fascination, following every step with great interest and with a growing suspicion of exactly what this device could be; a coded key of some kind.
But a key for what?
Avon completed the conversion and stood back, trying to make sense of what was now on the screen before him..
Suddenly, Nimeah, for so long mesmerised by what she was seeing on the screen, stepped forward and touched the keyboard. The digits rearranged and formed clusters of four.
And then it changed.
The sound emanating from the device changed its tonal quality to a low rumble.
“What did you do?” Avon asked, turning to face Nimeah, who was standing back from the table, her features a mask of concern.
“Nothing. I only logically rearranged the…..”
“….something has triggered it.”
But Avon didn’t reply.
He had already managed to release one of the small screens from the housing and was now peering closely inside. He put his hand inside.
“Should you be doing that?” Nimeah asked.
“Probably not…but something has happened inside this thing and I need to know what.”
He withdrew his hand. The teleport bracelet was proving cumbersome. There was only one thing for it…
“That’s better,” he murmured placing the bracelet on a nearby table, “Now let’s see what exactly is going on.”
The dust had hardly settled around the two ships before the crowd of excitable scavengers surged forward.
A hatched opened and a ladder came down from the innards of one of the ships.
There was a deathly silence and then a figure climbed down and as the stranger turned to face the waiting crowd there was a tumultuous uproar as he began to throw small items into the assembled throng.
“Trinkets,” Hoth murmured, “That’s how he has them eating out of his hand.”
“You don’t like him, I take it?” Blake said quietly. Both he and Hoth had followed the excitable youngsters to the outskirts of the township, and were now leaning against the wall of the last house in the rudimentary street.
“A necessary evil,” Hoth continued, “Our young people should be learning the ways of their elders, but this way, they do earn a small amount of credits and that keeps our economy ticking over...”
“….and when this space debris dries up?”
“Then they will have to knuckle down to work, just as Nimeah has. He will be setting up his compound soon. Then the celebration will start. No doubt he will then deign to come over to see how much progress Nimeah has made. Come Blake, we will wait in the quiet of my house.”
Blake nodded and both men made their way back along the semi-paved street towards the small building Hoth called home.
And the man known as the Salvager for a moment ceased his triumphant celebrations and looked up.
The round spectacles perched on the bridge of his nose were directed at the dark stranger walking away from him.
The Salvager smiled.
This was going to be a bountiful visit.
Josef smiled at Vila. He and his new found friends were sitting on the sled watching the mounting excitement from the far entrance of the township, “Now we wait while the Salvager sets up his compound. Then we take our finds in and we are rewarded. And he who has the greatest prize is feted.”
“Feted?” queried Gan.
“Yes, he gets the award; a singular honour.”
“A medal?” Vila asked.
“And with it, respect. I’ve never won it. Because the older Scavengers have always found ways to deny me.”
“Well, not this time,” Gan said, “Vila, somehow I don’t think this celebration is exactly what you have in mind. Why don’t you get back to the Liberator? I’m sure I can take it from here.”
“Well…maybe you’re right,” Vila replied, “I could do with getting out of this suit…”
“And getting something to eat?” Gan suggested.
“….but you call me if this celebration starts to get exciting!”
Gan shook his head, “These are children, Vila, the sort of celebration you’re thinking of is a long way off for them.”
“Oh, all right then. Good luck, Josef.”
“What happened to you?” Cally asked as Vila materialised in the teleport area.
“That thing we went after was half buried in mud….we...I had to pull it out. If you don’t mind, I really need to get out of this….”
“Didn’t Avon help you?”
“Did it look as though he did? Cally, it was a marsh down there, yet he was spotless…always is…I really wish I knew how he did it.”
“What’s happening down there now?”
“A big party, that’s what.”
“I’ll tell you about it later…..I haven’t had breakfast yet!”
The compound had been erected in a very short time; a circular, metallic tall fence, with a double gate at the front and another double gate at the back. Beyond that gate was the Salvager’s ship. But it was the other smaller ship that intrigued Gan.
No-one had come out of it and no-one had made any attempt to go near it.
It was now getting on towards the middle of the day, and Gan was wondering if this celebration would ever get started. But then, the double gates swung open to reveal a huge fire alight in the centre; tables awash with food and drink and sitting on a raised wooden dais, almost in front of those gates, was the Salvager.
He didn’t appear out of the ordinary, but his attire seemed to indicate a man of simple means and not one tending to be showy. He wore a long coat over what were once striking clothes; an opened necked shirt and rough weaved trousers, tucked into a pair of scuffed boots. A brightly coloured cravat was tucked into his collar, and atop his bedraggled shoulder length hair, and neatly trimmed goatee beard, was a wide brimmed hat which shaded his eyes from the glare of the sun.
He raised his right hand and the crowd of young boys cheered and surged forward.
Somehow, amongst the chaos, Gan managed to help Josef haul the large cylinder into the compound. And they waited.
By the time the Salvager called them forward, the noise was deafening. Josef proudly stepped forward.
“And what have we here?” The Salvager asked Josef. But he was looking over the top of his round, rimless glasses perched on the bridge if his nose, at Gan.
“My friend. He helped me bring this back from the marshland.”
“That was nice of him.” He stepped down from his chair and walked around the object, “Very nice of him indeed. Well, I think we have our winner.”
Josef’s face lit up as the Salvager reached inside his long coat and withdrew a large piece of metal. It gleamed in the sunlight.
“And now, you may take all of your finds to my ship….and the celebrations can begin!”
Gan was smiling down at Josef, totally unaware that the Salvager was likewise smiling at him.
“I’ll help you,” Gan said.
“And then I can show this to Nimeah. She will be so proud…”
“But not,” the Salvager said kindly, “before you join in the celebrations…after all, they are in your honour!”
“It’s getting dark,” Blake observed, “I presume the party will finish soon.”
“No,” Hoth said, “This is a most important night for those scavengers. They have waited months. We shouldn’t deny them some fun.”
“I presume all that debris gets taken aboard his ship?”
“So what is that other ship for?”
“I don’t know...I’ve never seen it before. Anyway, you’ll be able to ask him yourself soon. I expect that he will want to see how Nimeah has progressed.”
Almost on cue, the door to Hoth’s abode swung open. There, framed in the doorway, was the Salvager. He favoured Blake with impertinent stare.
“You have company, Hoth? Do I know you, sir?”
“I hope that you are not a rival, because I wouldn’t like that...at all.”
“No, I’m not a rival…”
Hoth decided to intervene, “He is a friend, in from the Outlands. His name is…..Kaleb.”
“Kaleb.” As he said the name, he sounded out each syllable, “As long as you don’t have any plans to set up as a competitor and take my business away from me.”
“And what,” Blake asked, “exactly is your business?”
“That would be telling. But needless to say, I don’t take kindly to being quizzed by a possible interloper.”
For a moment the two men studied each other. Blake reasoned that this Salvager was, perhaps, almost the same age as him. He certainly had the confidence, but it was difficult to make out what exactly he was thinking. The round, rimless glasses were tinted, making it impossible to see any reactions.
“No,” Blake began, “I’m merely a visitor.”
The Salvager grinned, “You just can’t be too sure nowadays. Now, Hoth. You know why I am here?”
“I think you will be pleased. Nimeah has made great progress, especially since……”
“Let me be the judge of that. Show me the way.”
Hoth moved in the direction of the corridor and Blake began to follow, only to find his way blocked by the slightly taller Salvager.
“This does not concern you.” His voice was quite level.
“I think you will find it does,” Blake said slowly, “my colleague is assisting Nimeah. So I’m afraid it very much does concern me.”
“I find it difficult to believe that someone from the Outlands has the ability to understand the mechanics of such a device. He must be someone extraordinary.”
“He thinks he is. Shall we go?”
The Salvager stepped aside and allowed Blake to pass, and allowed himself a very small smile.
Avon’s study of the read outs was interrupted by the door opening. He turned, expecting to see Blake standing there.
He was there; but he was not alone.
Beside him, was another man; a man who appeared rather outlandish, in Avon’s opinion.
“And who might you be?” the Salvager asked.
Nimeah’s face lit up. She had made such progress that she wanted to tell him all about it, but Blake forestalled her.
“This is my colleague,” Blake answered.
“Really. Does he have a name?” the Salvager inquired as he slowly sauntered over to object of his enquiries.
“His name is……”
“Can he not tell me himself?”
Blake exchanged a very worried look with Avon, who didn’t seem at all perturbed by the man now standing directly in front of him.
“Chevron,” Avon replied flatly.
“Kaleb tells me that you are assisting my lovely Nimeah in her work. I find that quite difficult to believe. After all this is very complex work.”
“Not really. Not if you know what you are doing.”
“And you know about what you are doing, do you? You know about computers and the like?”
“Doesn’t every one?”
“Some of us have a working knowledge, but this is highly complex. Tell me, Nimeah, what has he told you?”
Nimeah, for her part was a little bewildered. The man, who had been helping her literally break into this device and begin to decode it, had lied about his name to the Salvager. Why?
“He has told me about the Binary notary system that is used on Earth,” she replied truthfully.
“Has he now? And how does someone from the Outlands of this planet have any rudimentary knowledge of such a complex subject? Or am I being cynical? So, Nimeah, how do you think he knows about this? He doesn’t strike me as a particularly intelligent individual.”
“Appearances can be deceptive,” Avon said.
The Salvager’s attention was still on Nimeah, but his next words were aimed at Avon, “I don’t believe I was talking to you, so keep out of it. Now, Nimeah, how has your work progressed?”
“As you can see, we….I have extracted a series of numbers, in banks of four. I believe we have almost extracted all of whatever code is in this machine…and then the tonal quality changed….”
“Do you know why?”
“I presume Nimeah’s brother has returned with his ‘prize catch’?” Avon asked, noting, with some satisfaction, the annoyed look on the Salvager’s face.
For his part, the Salvager drew in a sharp breath. He turned away from Nimeah and drew himself up to his full height. This stranger was beginning to agitate him now, “And how can you, a mere Outlander, know about that?”
“I was there when he claimed it.”
“And now you are here. If I may say so, you certainly do get around.”
“Annoying, isn’t it?”
“As you seem far knowledgeable than you appear to be, perhaps you could enlighten us as to what this device is?”
“What do you think it is?”
Blake was watching this battle of wits from the other side of the room, finding it just a little amusing that someone else was on the receiving end of Avon’s verbal sparring. But he also knew that Avon could take this further, into unknown territory, with someone who he knew little about. And that could be dangerous.
“Hoth tells me that you believe that this device can reveal the location of untold wealth,” Blake said, hoping to defuse a highly charged confrontation, “And to someone like you, I presume that would be a very attractive proposition.”
“Someone like me? What exactly is that supposed to mean?” The Salvager asked, still not taking his eyes off the very irritating man in front of him.
“Hoth told me all about you. If that device is what you think it is, then you stand to become very wealthy. At least that is something both you and….Chevron, have in common.”
“Maybe, but this is not for me. I have a client who has expressed an interest. In fact, his representatives are on their way here now. I’m sure your friend, Chevron, will enjoy trying to intimidate them.”
Gan’s head had started to feel very heavy and he was finding it very difficult to stay awake. Josef had slipped away as the carousing had quietened down. Something about seeing to his sister’s animal, he had explained.
For now, Gan was wondering when these young people would all be going home especially as they all seemed to be asleep. Gan yawned. It wasn’t exactly comfortable sitting against the fence, but it just seemed such an effort to move.
Then he saw movement. Coming through the back gate were several figures; about six, he thought. And as they neared him, he realised just who those figures were.
He dragged his arm up and pressed the comms on the bracelet.
Cally sat up with a start.
The hours of idleness had dulled her normally quick reactions.
Within a second she was operating the Teleport controls, but only Gan materialised in the chamber.
She tried the others again.
Neither Blake nor Avon reappeared.
“Where did they come from?” Vila asked.
“I don’t know Vila,” Jenna replied, her eyes fixed on the image on the Flight Deck screen, “All I do know is that Blake and Avon are still down there and Cally can’t get them back. Go and see if you can get anything out of Gan. Perhaps he knows.”
“He’s been drugged,” Cally explained as she and Vila hauled the semi-conscious man over to the steps leading into the teleport section.
“Drugged. By who?”
“That nice friendly Salvager I expect…”
“But Gan was drinking what those young people were drinking…why would the Salvager do that?”
“It’s easier to handle docile hostages. Whatever he used was enough to knock those children out. It just took a little longer to get to Gan.”
“Is that what Gan said…..all those scavengers, knocked out? But why?”
“I don’t know, but it has something to do with that device, I expect. That Salvager has something to bargain with should the Abooleans decide not to hand it over.”
“But what about Blake and Avon?”
“Something is blocking the bracelets. I’ll keep trying....you see if you can find something to wake Gan.”
Blake froze at the sight of four Mutoids suddenly taking up position in the small room. Hoth didn’t know what to think. He had never seen creatures like these and it unsettled him.
“I see that your client is the Federation,” Blake murmured.
“In a way, yes,” the Salvager replied, “We both intend to share whatever bounty this device leads us to. And now that the lovely Nimeah has managed to decode….”
“I haven’t finished…”
“Don’t fret, Nimeah, you will be able to do that, once my client takes possession of it and then realises he will require help to finish the work….”
“You’re going to hand this young girl over to this client of yours?” Blake asked, horrified.
“Eventually, yes. Once he realises that she is necessary.”
“And what does Nimeah think about that?”
“Nimeah knows that it is the best for her people.”
“In what way?”
The Salvager smiled coldly, “Two more of these divine creatures are ‘looking’ after those brave scavengers. No harm will come to them, unless, of course I am not allowed to leave this building with this device.”
“You can’t do that!” Hoth cried out, moving forward to confront him. Blake put an arm out and stopped the Aboolean leader from going any further.
“Yes he can,” Blake said softly.
“But they are children!”
“Then you had better make sure that no-one intervenes. It will only require one word from me……”
Two of the Mutoids moved forward and closed the casing. They placed two anti-gravs on the cylinder and lifted it easily off the table.
Avon was furious. Here was a device that he hadn’t been able to fully explore, let alone understand, and one that promised so much. Yet it was about to be taken away from him and he wasn’t in any mood to just stand by.
“Are you going to let him walk out of here?”
“Yes.” It was the Salvager who replied, “He is.”
“We don’t have any choice,” Blake explained.
“Listen to your friend….Chevron. And don’t do anything stupid, because it’s quite possible that it will be the very last thing that you do.”
“This device has a potential that Nimeah and I have only just begun to unravel and you’re going to let some common thief walk out of here and hand it over to the Federation?”
Before Avon had finished, he found himself staring down the barrel of the Salvager’s gun. “A thief, perhaps,” he hissed, “but not common. And you need to be taught some manners…Chevron.”
Avon stood quite still. He could see that Blake was reaching for his own gun.
“And you can tell your friend…Kaleb,” the Salvager continued, “that if he doesn’t put that weapon of his down, I shall blow your head off before he even gets off a shot. Is that clear?”
Blake conceded the threat and replaced his gun. How had this man known?
“Now, my four friends and I, with the lovely Nimeah, are leaving this nest of would-be heroes. And no-one is going to stop us…no-one.”
As the strange group went to leave, Hoth stepped forward, “Not Nimeah, please.”
“Especially Nimeah,” the Salvager replied, “Unless you have something else to say, step out of the way.”
Hoth looked from Blake to Avon, but both seemed unable to move.
Blake, for his part, was reliving that moment on the London when Raiker had begun to systematically shoot the prisoners. Avon, too, was reliving that moment, remembering how the chance to be free and wealthy, had been snatched away by Blake’s inability to stand his ground. Only this time, it was he, Avon, who was on the receiving end of the threat.
Somehow, though, that didn’t matter.
What did matter was that the enigmatic device, a source of untold knowledge, was being taken from him.
“And another thing,” the Salvager began, as he drew level with Blake, “You need to keep your friend….Chevron, on a tight, short leash. Because one of these days, he won’t take any notice of you at all. Take my word for it.”
Hoth again attempted to push forward and this time managed to sidestep Blake’s restraining arm.
“Please, not Nimeah. She is only a child.”
“Get out of my way, old man,” the Salvager said evenly.
There was no warning; just a flash from the third Mutoids gun and Hoth sank to the floor at Blake’s feet.
With barely a backward glance, the Salvager walked out, dragging Nimeah with him.
“That’s it, is it?” Avon asked, standing above Blake.
“We have a man down, Avon. And going out of here would be suicide. Not just for us, but for those…”
“YOU have a man down, not me. And as for the others….”
“You don’t mean that?”
“Oh yes, I most certainly do. That device could have been my way out.”
“..Your way out…?”
“A way to get free from you and you allowed your sentimentality to get in the way again. But not this time…”
“Avon, listen to…..”
But he was gone.
Hoth groaned, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s me who should be sorry. We need to get that wound looked at…”
“He can wait.”
Avon had reached the street but now found his progress hindered by the throng of bystanders all standing rooted to the spot; all watching in silent fear as the strange procession made its way to the fenced off encampment.
These people had never seen a Mutoid, let alone four, but they knew that their children were all in the compound being watched over by more of these creatures.
And it worried them.
For Avon, that fear was tantamount to an invisible wall.
There was no way he could push his way past and reached both the Salvager and that device. He knew, instinctively, that none of these people would allow him that one thing.
He bit his lip.
Going back inside wasn’t an option. Facing Blake and an injured man was something that he did not relish. He looked at his wrist.
The bracelet was gone.
Then he remembered. He had taken it off and it was in that room; with Blake.
Angry with himself and Blake, he decided to get away. Away from this crowd of fearful Abooleans and away from Blake. He needed time to think; about what he was going to do next and possibly about his future.
Jenna spotted the ship as soon as it rose into the upper atmosphere. Zen wasn’t exactly helpful. It didn’t seem to know who or what was aboard the craft.
For a moment she considered her options.
“It’s a Federation ship, Vila.”
Vila was at his station, trying to make sense of the readings.
“We could destroy it now…”
“…all well and good, but we don’t know who is aboard it.”
“Blake could be aboard. Look Jenna, I know that Avon wouldn’t hesitate. But you’re not Avon….”
“What do I do, Vila? In another few minutes it’s going to be out of range. Has Cally been able to make contact?”
Vila shook his head, “I know that it’s a Federation ship and that it came in with the Salvager, but that’s all I know. You can’t risk it, Jenna. You’ll just have to let it go.”
Jenna watched as the ship gracefully turned and then accelerated away from the planet.
“I just hope that we made the right call,” Jenna sighed.
“I’m sure we did…at least, I hope we did.”
“Do you think he means what he says?” Hoth asked as Blake fastened a sling about his arm, “Will he hand Nimeah over to that client of his?”
“Not if I can help it. She’s a bright young lady. You’ll need her if you ever need to fight the Federation.”
“Will they come? I mean, we have nothing here. Our ancestors were cast out because of their unconventional ideas and we have built our planet from nothing.”
Blake was thoughtful, “I don’t know, Hoth. It’s possible that because you are so far out here, they may decide never to venture this far. It could stretch their resources.”
“If we keep flying that ship of theirs; and sending reports back to Earth. Will that keep them placated?”
“Possibly, but the Salvager may let them know that you have enemies of the Federation here; that you welcomed us.”
“They will punish us, won’t they?”
But Blake didn’t answer. He was walking towards the exit, knowing that he had to try and reason with a man whose whole life was based upon the pursuit of profit.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Once the Salvager had entered his compound, then the rather sleepy scavengers had been allowed to be released. Grateful parents had taken their children and hurriedly scuttled away into the night, leaving behind the closed doors of the compound and an eerie silence.
From his hiding place behind the patient quadruped, Josef had watched the events of the evening. He stroked the animal’s nose, soothing it with soft words, and then watched as the tall stranger left Hoth’s house and made his way to the compound.
He didn’t know who this man was. He had seen him, momentarily, when he had arrived, with Gan, but he did not know his name. Silently, he watched as the gates swung open and the man entered. And then the gates closed again.
Josef ran to the gates, trying to force them open. Then he stopped as the soft, lilting voice of his sister reached his ears; singing an old song, the one his mother had sang to him almost a lifetime ago. She knew that he was out here. And he knew that she was all right, for the moment at least. Quickly, he turned on his heels and ran back to Hoth’s abode.
Hoth was laying on a long seat, obviously in a stupor of some nature. Josef didn’t want to disturb him, so he ran to the room in which Nimeah had been working. The room was empty.
But there, on the far table was a bracelet; just like the one the man called Avon had worn. Josef held it, not too sure what to do next.
Then he remembered that he had seen the man, Avon, storming off to one of the residences at the end of the street. He had appeared angry. Maybe he was annoyed because he didn’t have this bracelet and that he couldn’t contact his friends in the ship in the sky; the one that Gan and Vila had told him about.
Josef looked at the bracelet, his thoughts turning to his sister, now held captive in that compound by the swaggering Salvager. He thought of Hoff, incapacitated. There was only one person who could help him.
Josef took a deep breath and set off to find that one man.
Blake waited for the gates to close behind him.
He knew that he was walking into a veritable lion’s den, but that hadn’t deterred him. Now he was standing at the base of a dais and staring up at the Salvager, who was seated, haphazardly, on a makeshift throne…at least its ornate carving seemed to indicate that.
The Salvager was gnawing on the remains of a small animal; Blake wasn’t too sure what, and he watched as the man idly threw the remains of his meal over his shoulder.
“I knew you would come, Blake.”
“You left me no choice. So you know who I am?”
“I have done since I first set eyes on you. You were with Hoth, watching me from over the street.”
“You must have very good eyesight to see me from here.”
“Not really. These help….immensely.” The Salvager lightly tapped his round, rimless glasses, “Through these I can access everything I want to know, including the fact that I really got under the skin of your friend….Avon.”
“You do realise that that was a very dangerous thing to do, don’t you?”
“Oh, but it was so much fun. Now before we go any further,” he stepped down from his throne and approached Blake in a decidedly arrogant manner, “A little bird tells me that the device on your wrist is rather important to you.”
“Decoration, that’s all….”
“I don’t think so.” He slowly lifted Blake’s wrist and removed the bracelet, “Besides, I have my own ‘decoration’ that I would like you to try. It’s not so pretty, but it is exceptionally effective.” As he spoke, the Salvager placed a large, silver, metallic band around Blake’s wrist and snapped it shut.
“And what does that do?”
“Try to escape…and you’ll see. Nimeah has already experienced its power. She began to sing…and I was not pleased.”
“Do I take it that she and I are your prisoners?”
“Guests…I prefer the word guests.”
“So, Brin Veldran has now turned to bounty hunting. That wasn’t in your list of occupations.”
“Brin Veldran is a man of many parts. Whenever he sees an opportunity, then he takes it, with both hands. With you and your crew, I shall have a very rewarding trip; one that will set me up for life. And with my share of the treasure that Nimeah will finally reveal the location of…..then life, for me, will be a most pleasurable existence. You, on the other hand, can only expect a punishment of the most agonising kind. I think the Federation have learnt their mistake…no prison planet for you…or your friends. You know, I may even stay and watch.” He tapped his glasses again, “Yes, I think that would be most interesting.”
“Tell me, this client of yours. How did he know about that device?”
“He heard about it by way of the grapevine, so to speak. I’m afraid, he is rather shy and would rather I did not reveal his identity.”
“Didn’t you ever wonder how he knew about it? He must have contacts…everywhere.”
“He is well connected.”
“To the Federation?”
“Blake, you ask far too many questions. Now why don’t you sit down over there, with Nimeah, and we shall wait for your friends to launch a rescue….”
“And then you hand us over to the Federation and Nimeah to this client of yours…”
“Once he realises that the work is not quite finished, then I shall hand Nimeah over, for a small fee, of course. If he is satisfied, then I shall keep her. I’ve often considered selecting a companion for my travels; it will make the long journeys more bearable.”
“She’s only a young girl, Veldran. She has a family here; a brother who relies on her.”
“Then he is going to have to grow up, quickly, isn’t he? It won’t be long now. My client will soon be studying the device I have procured for him, with his one good eye.” Veldran laughed to himself, recalling the meeting he had had with the client. It was the eye patch that had fascinated him.
Blake fingered the silver band, now encircling his wrist, “And I presume that you found his prosthetic hand equally compelling? That’s the one with an inbuilt laseron, by the way. You should count yourself lucky that he found you equally interesting.”
Avon’s perusal of the small insect busying itself in the dusty ground was halted by the appearance of a pair of boots just to the left of his line of sight.
He didn’t look up, because he knew who it was.
“Can you help me, mister?”
It was Josef.
The small insect scurried away into the shadows, leaving Avon and Josef in the sallow circle of light afforded by the single bulb set in the roof of the overhang which sheltered the steps upon which Avon had found refuge.
“That depends on exactly what help you require.”
“I want you to issue a challenge to the Salvager.”
“A challenge?” Avon said in disbelief, “Now why would I do that?”
“He will accept you.”
“Accept me?” This time Avon looked up and found himself looking into a pair of bright, expectant eyes, “Why don’t you throw down the challenge?”
“I am a boy. You are a man. He will ridicule me…but you; you he will accept.”
“Why ask me? There must be others.”
Josef was silent and then sat down on the step beside Avon, “He has my sister...”
“…and he has your friend. I do not know his name, but he had the same bracelet as you.”
“I found yours and brought it to you.” Josef held out his hand and in it was the bracelet. Avon took it and quickly fastened it about his wrist.
“Will you help me?”
It was a simple enough question, but one which was difficult to answer.
“I’m not one for challenges,” Avon eventually admitted.
“But you have a gun…and you have killed before…”
“What I have done before is nothing to do with you…”
“Have you killed a man?”
Avon took a deep breath. His past was locked away; well away. Prying questions were the last thing he wanted, “Does it matter?”
“The Salvager has killed many. He has told us. He tells us stories of those who have challenged him and of how he has defeated them.”
“In detail, no doubt. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”
“But your friend…”
“..that is a moot point.”
“At least make the challenge for me.”
“If he is as good as he claims, then you don’t stand a chance.”
“Then help me…please.”
There was a stilted silence as both stared at each other. Two diverse individuals brought together by one singular moment. They made a strange tableaux seated on the darkened steps, both illuminated by one antiquated light.
“As I said, I’m sorry, but no.”
Josef bit his lip, “But he has your…colleague and the Salvager took that device from you. You were angry; I could tell….”
“Yes. The way that you walked away from my people; the way that you…..” Josef’s profound observations were abruptly halted by a hostile glare directed straight at him, “I’m sorry…..”
Avon took a deep breath. Here was a young boy telling him what he already knew; and that bothered him. Instinct told him to leave this place; return to the Liberator and get on with his life. Do what he wanted to do.
Except the others would get in his way.
They wouldn’t leave Blake in the hands of a cold calculating killer. They would descend upon that compound and do everything in their power to free him, even if it meant facing certain death. But at least that would leave the way free for Avon. It was an enticing proposition, so why was he even considering the alternatives; the Avon of old would have had no qualms.
“Your own people could take this Salvager on…I’m just one man…”
“My people are not fighters.”
“According to Blake, there is a rebel movement brewing…”
“There is…but now is not the time. This is personal. He has my sister and he has your friend. The Salvager is expecting your people to attack him and he will be ready for them; but this way, you throw down a challenge and he will have to accept, or else his reputation will suffer.”
“That won’t be the only thing to suffer. I’m not what you think I am.”
Josef returned to staring at the ground and the insect which was, again, scurrying amongst the dust.
“All I ask is that you challenge him. Please help me.”
“Yes Avon, help him.”
Avon looked up and this time came face to face with Cally.
“How long have you been standing there?” Avon asked.
“And you think it a good idea for me to challenge that man to a duel…surely, that’s more in your line?”
Josef, though, was quite adamant, “It must be you. You have to pander to his vanity.”
“Vanity?” Avon queried.
“I mean no disrespect,” Josef said, lowering his gaze as Cally closely studied him, “but the Salvager will only countenance a challenge from an equal.”
“Then he obviously doesn’t know Cally,” Avon mused.
“I would be more than happy to expand his knowledge,” the Auron woman remarked.
“I’m sure you would. It would seem that I have no option...”
“You’ll do it?” Josef asked, his face beaming.
“It goes against my better judgement.” He turned his attention to Cally, “I presume that ship with the device which got me into this mess has long gone?”
“Jenna could not risk destroying it…..because she wasn’t sure if you or Blake were aboard.”
“She should have destroyed it. There were only Mutoids on board.”
“Perhaps so, but she didn’t want to risk it.”
“Whereas, you both want me to risk my life against that so-called Salvager?”
“Would you rather we attempted to storm that compound? Now that would be suicide...”
“…and you know all about that.”
Cally was hurt by that remark, “On this occasion, it would be prudent to play it safe.”
“Safe? For whom?”
Cally smiled as she caught sight of Josef, now leaning against Avon, and fast asleep, “First we need to get into the warm and get some rest. I found the man called Hoth in his house. He is injured and I need to tend to him. We can stay there. And while we wait, we can find out more about this Salvager.”
“And then deliver my challenge. This is going to be a long night.”
“Well, you wouldn’t want to go into something like this unprepared.”
“Why not? I’ve done it before.”
Blake was warming his hands by the glowing fire, but the cold was still creeping into his bones. Huddled up by the base of the dais was Nimeah, clearly shivering.
“If you don’t mind my saying…your hospitality towards your guests leaves a lot to be desired.”
The Salvager fixed him with those unseen eyes; they were still hidden behind the lenses which reflected the dancing flames. “You are so right. Where are my manners?”
He stepped down from his throne and wandered over to a pile of discarded cushions, left there by the scavengers. He scooped up a thermal blanket and returned to the dais.
“I’m surprised you haven’t removed my weapon,” Blake said.
“I don’t need to. You would be dead before you even had chance to clear that holster of yours.”
“You really do have an unshakable belief in your abilities, don’t you?”
“We all have weaknesses….”
“I’m sure you do. But I don’t. When your people come to get you, they will discover that for themselves.”
“What makes you think they will come…..”
“They will. It’s human nature. You’ll see.” The Salvager went to the shivering Nimeah and gently placed the blanket around her shoulders.
“The problem is, not all of my crew are human.”
The Salvager tapped his glasses again, “I know everything about you, your ship and those poor unfortunates who have become caught up in your own private war with the Federation. Now why don’t you get some rest, because once you are aboard my ship this will be the last comfort you will have. That little device around your wrist will see to that.”
“You seem to have a great deal of confidence in this…..”
“A demonstration can easily be arranged, if that’s what you want.”
“No, that’s not necessary. How long do you intend to wait?”
“It won’t be long…but I’m ready for them, whatever their plans.”
“What exactly do you have planned?” Hoth asked.
Avon was absently rubbing his hands and watching as Cally gently tucked a cover around the sleeping form of Josef, “This young man has asked a favour of me.”
“What kind of favour?”
“He wants me to challenge the Salvager.”
“Are you mad?”
“Well now….there are those who believe that to be the case.”
“That man has killed many such challengers.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“His tally is well known.”
“By whom? Not by me. And you only have his word on that matter. Now, Hoth, I need you to go over to that compound and issue my challenge. I think just after sunrise would suffice.”
“If you insist.”
“Oh, I do.”
Avon watched as Hoth slowly made his way over to the compound, evidently still in some discomfort from the shot fired by the mutoid.
“He shouldn’t really be doing that,” Cally whispered.
“There are a lot of things none of us should be doing,” Avon replied softly, “but it doesn’t appear to be stopping us.”
“And what exactly do you intend to do?” she asked, leaving the sleeping Josef and coming over to the door.
“What he asked me to do…challenge the Salvager.”
“You are going to face that man?”
“But he will kill you.”
“Then we had better come up with a plan that avoids that outcome,” Avon smiled, “hadn’t we?”
The Salvager stood over the seated Blake. He seemed agitated, as if he had received some news that had shaken his resolve.
“Is there a problem?” Blake asked.
A few minutes earlier he had watched as Veldran had gone to the gates of the compound to answer a knock. There had followed a muffled conversation. And now the disconcerted Salvager was standing over his two ‘guests’.
“Your friend, …Chevron, has challenged me. Now, why would he do that?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Please, Blake, do not jest with me. What does he hope to achieve?”
“I can’t help you. Chev…..Avon’s objectives are known only to him. What’s wrong? Don’t the records you have access to tell you what you want to know?”
The Salvager contemplated the barred gates again, “It would appear that Avon is the one who does not have access to the requisite records….otherwise, he would not have challenged me in this manner.”
“And what manner would that be?”
“A contest; a duel…quickest man with the gun wins. The sort of fight I relish. But he….”
“…is an unknown quantity, isn’t he? I wish I could help you.”
“But you know him, Blake. If anyone could tell me about him, his abilities…then you can.”
“I’m afraid he is as much as a closed book to me as he is to you. It looks as though your idea of a controlled battle in here, against an onslaught by my crew, has evaporated.”
The Salvager returned to scrutinising the man seated on the ground before him, “Oh, it will be controlled. You need not worry about that. I think it’s time you got some sleep, Blake.”
“I’m not tired….”
“Oh, but you are. You just don’t realise it, yet.”
Blake frowned. Then he felt the silver device on his wrist slowly tighten. It wasn’t painful, but the sudden rush of blackness that accompanied it sent Blake reeling into a deep abyss of oblivion.
“But you don’t know anything about this man,” Jenna said.
“I know,” Avon replied, his voice strangely calm.
On the Liberator’s Flight Deck, both Jenna and the now awake Gan exchanged looks.
“You’re taking a big risk,” Jenna continued, “Wouldn’t you rather come back to the Liberator?”
“That would seem the logical thing to do, but I am not doing this just for our noble leader. There is someone else to whom I gave my word.”
“Who?” Gan asked.
“To Josef. The Salvager has his sister in that compound as well.”
“Why her? Does he see her as a threat?” Jenna queried.
“Not as such, but her knowledge about that device on which we were working would be of great use. Which brings us to that item Josef found. I presume the Salvager now has that.”
“He does,” Gan confirmed, “I helped Josef put it aboard his ship.”
“Tell me, Gan, did that object change in anyway? The device which Nimeah was working upon suddenly changed the sound that it was emitting.”
“You think that the two are connected?”
“I think very connected.”
“If it was activated then I didn’t notice, those young people were very vocal.”
“I can imagine.”
“Do you think the arrival of that object was the reason why Cally couldn’t get you or Blake out of there?” Jenna asked.
There was a short pause as Avon considered that, “……one of the reasons. There is something else I need you to try and find out; I gained the impression that this Salvager knew exactly who Blake and I were and he certainly knew that Blake had pulled a gun on him. Is there any record of this Veldran having difficulty with his vision? He is wearing what appear to be optical aids.”
“Two lenses attached to a metal frame of sorts.”
“They’re more than vision enhancers.” It was Vila, joining in from the Teleport Section, “I’ve seen something like them before…some of my… friends… used these aids. Apart from allowing you to see in the dark, you can access information about whom you’re dealing with, what sort of lock…..and, the really good ones, enabled you to see check others bio readings; blood pressure, respiration…things like that. He most probably saw Blake’s readings go off the scale and figured out what he was doing. Why would Blake get so agitated?”
“…..I suspect, these vision enhancers have other uses besides,” Avon replied, neatly sidestepping the question raised by Vila. He certainly didn’t want anyone else to know that the reason for Blake’s agitation was the implied threat made to himself. This Salvager must have thoroughly enjoyed riling both men.
“What uses?” Gan asked.
“The Salvager was under some impression that we would launch an attack. If we had gained access to his compound, then I can imagine that we would have come under considerable fire…”
“From one man?” Gan mused.
“From one man with the ability to control everything around him. Getting him out of his ‘comfort zone’, so to speak, will lengthen the odds.”
“What odds?” Jenna asked.
“Of me surviving.”
“There was no need for that,” Nimeah whispered, gently placing a pillow under the sleeping Blake’s head.
“Oh, but there was. He is a very dangerous man. I need some rest myself and it will be easier for me if he remains like that...”
“And what of me?”
“Somehow, I think your concern for his well-being will override all else. I could offer you the comfort of my cabin….but I think you would be hostile to that suggestion. You stay here and watch over your sleeping guardian angel,” the Salvager mocked, “tomorrow will be his last day of freedom; not just his, but also that of his foolhardy friend, Avon.”
“You really intend to go through with this?” Cally asked.
“Do I have a choice?”
“If what Vila suspects is true, then Veldran will know the exact moment that you attempt to outgun him.”
“Then I will have to make sure he doesn’t know the exact moment.”
“And how do you intend to do that?”
“An insurance policy; one that he won’t know about; one that he won’t see.”
Cally studied Avon.
They were standing in the open doorway, looking out at the darkened, silent township. But they knew that there were fearful people watching and waiting behind the closed doors and windows of this place; all waiting for the stranger to walk out and take on the Salvager who had boasted of his numerous conquests.
“An insurance policy? I don’t understand.”
“An insurance policy he won’t suspect….you.”
“Because out of all of us…you’re the only one that I know who has actually killed anyone.”
“But that was different,” Cally argued, indignantly, “That was a battle. Lives depended on it…”
Avon looked at her, the soft light from the room catching her features, “And isn’t this a battle…and doesn’t my life depend on it?”
The Aboolian sun began its long struggle to break free of the horizon and Avon stood at the doorway of Hoth’s abode wondering if what he was about to do was not only right, but sensible. Either way, it was too late to do anything about it.
Hoth stared out of the main window.
He wanted to say something, anything, but the words would not come. And he knew that it would be pointless fetching his own gun. Avon had made that quite clear, not just to him, but to the other Aboolians; this was a straight fight between him and the man who claimed to be the best gun hand in this part of the galaxy.
“This is ridiculous,” Gan blurted out.
He was striding up and down the Flight Deck getting more and more agitated by the second.
“Not to Avon it isn’t,” Jenna replied, her eyes studying the read outs on her station display.
“We should go down there, fully armed.”
“We don’t know what we are up against.”
“He’s a Free Trader, just like you…”
“Free Trader or not, I have never heard of him.”
Vila had by now sauntered onto the Flight Deck; being alone in the teleport section waiting for news, any news, was fraying his nerves.
“What are you doing here?” Jenna asked sharply.
“I couldn’t stand another second down there not knowing.”
“Well, we are none the wiser here. I dare not risk contacting them. The sound of the bracelet might just be enough to alert the Salvager to what is going on.”
“You say that you never heard of this man, Jenna,” Gan said, “So where has he been hiding?”
“He obviously kept himself busy well away from the usual space ways and he has had access to technology that never presented itself to me. And that is the problem. He’s an unknown quantity and that is a dangerous thing.”
“I only hope Avon knows what he’s doing,” Vila said, slumping down onto a forward couch, “because this is not like him, at all.”
“He’s doing this for a reason,” Gan pointed out.
“What? For Blake?” Vila asked, “No, there’s something else at stake that we don’t know about. Mark my words.”
Blake opened his eyes and found himself staring up at Nimeah. She was gently smoothing his hair from his face.
“He literally put you to sleep.” she replied.
“These devices he has put around our wrists. They are biometric. Through these he can control us. He said he got them from a slaver…so much better than chains.”
“And you should be grateful,” the Salvager said, “that I didn’t put you to sleep, permanently.” He was standing above Blake, relishing every moment of this situation and obviously looking forward, in anticipation, to the end game about to be played out. “Because,” he continued in a voice laced with dark menace, “I can do that…believe me. Now it’s time. Get on your feet, both of you. I don’t want either of you to miss this, especially you Blake. That friend of yours, Avon, is going to find out exactly what I am capable of. And it will be a lesson he’ll never forget.”
Blake stood up and a wave of nausea swept over him, but Nimeah steadied him.
“I’ll think you’ll find that Avon is saying the exact same thing as you….but about him.”
“We’ll see,” the Salvager smiled, gently pushing them both towards the closed gates, “May the best man win….me.”
Avon had taken up position opposite Hoth’s dwelling. He knew that Hoth, himself, was nervously watching, and he also knew that every single house on either side of this nondescript street had witnesses all waiting with trepidation to see what the outcome would be.
The Salvager’s reputation was known to all of them. He had graphically related to them every encounter that he had had. And he had enjoyed telling them the gory details. Avon just hoped that he wouldn’t be a footnote in one of those stories.
It was a faint voice, but a reassuring one, heard only by him.
Cally. On one of the flat roofed buildings overlooking the ‘arena’.
Avon imperceptibly nodded. There was no way he could openly acknowledge her; that would give the game away.
The sound of an animal whinnying came from behind him. Avon allowed himself a glance in that direction. It was only Nimeah’s quadruped, almost directly in line of fire. It was too late to move it to safety. Avon just hoped that his opponent was a good shot, then realised that hope would mean that he would be the target.
Very slowly, and with no sense of urgency, Avon began to check his weapon. He had to look relaxed; not just look relaxed, but actually be relaxed. That way he had a better chance of surviving, because if what he suspected was true, then the Salvager would be taking a very close interest in him.
“Josef”, Hoth called out softly, “Perhaps you should come and watch, after all he is doing this for your sis…..”
But Josef was gone.
The settee where he had been sleeping was empty.
Hoth was mortified. A young boy was out there somewhere; a young boy whose concern for his sister would override all else. Hoth made to move towards the door, but it was too late. The gates of the compound swung open and the Salvager was standing there; his two prisoners in front of him.
He was smiling.
It wasn’t a warm smile, but one that chilled you to the bone.
“Well, it seems that your friend, Avon, is as much of a fool as yourself,” the Salvager remarked.
“Then it seems we have something in common after all,” Blake murmured. He was watching Avon as he studiously checked the connections to his hand gun. There was no haste, just a casualness that worried Blake a little.
The Salvager pushed his two 'guests’ forward.
“It is time, Chevron, or Avon, or whatever name you wish to go by. I trust they will engrave the correct one on your headstone.”
“Oh, they will,” Avon replied, still checking the alien plug that supplied the energy charge to the hand gun,
“but I see that you have an unfair advantage. That is not very sportsmanlike…having two prisoners to hide behind.”
“And we wouldn’t want people to say that I didn’t give you a sporting chance…would we?”
Without taking his eyes off of Avon, the Salvager indicated for Blake and Nimeah to move out of range, “And remember, any attempt to interfere, and you are dead as well Blake. It only takes the blink of an eye.”
Avon finally placed the gun in its holster and turned to face his opponent. The strangely attired man was standing perfectly still, his long coat drawn away to reveal a weapon that could discharge death in a second.
And a second was all that it would need.
Cally had remained hidden behind a water tank, her gun ready. She was waiting for the Salvager to fix his attention on his rival; she could not afford to allow him to locate her with those vision enhancers of his.
The exchange of words had ceased, and Cally peered round the tank and aimed her gun, only to come face to face with a weapon which had suddenly emerged from an innocent looking fixture on the roof. It was swivelling and being directed at Avon…as were the numerous other weapons suddenly emerging from their hiding place.
She froze. She had to warn him.
Avon suddenly felt uneasy.
And then he heard it; Cally’s urgent voice echoing in his head, “Avon, it’s a trap.”
For a brief second he tensed.
But he knew that that one brief second could be fatal. He hoped that it wasn’t enough to register with the Salvager.
That hope vanished, as almost in slow motion, the Salvager reached for his gun and was aiming it.
All semblance of calm went off the scale as Avon reciprocated.
It was a single shot.
From out of nowhere.
Brin Veldran stared down at his gun, then at Avon and then at the red stain slowly spreading across his chest.
But it wasn’t over yet.
As the beaten Salvager fell back, his last act was to unleash Armageddon.
The weapons he had placed on the roofs of the Aboolian houses began to spit out their deadly charges, sending Avon reeling away for cover that didn’t exist. As the ground seemingly exploded around him, he found himself pressed against a wall watching the scene in fascinated horror.
Blake threw himself over a petrified Nimeah as the ground around them erupted in a hail of small arms fire.
And then it was over.
The weapons were stilled by Cally’s gun. She had shot at one of the weapons on the roof and then taken aim at the source of the weapons’ power.
The Salvager’s vision enhancers.
Lying on the ground by his dead body.
Where they had fallen as he had succumbed to his injuries.
There was an eerie stillness; a calm after a storm.
Blake was the first to move. He got to his feet and slowly walked towards the fallen ‘champion’, who lay spread-eagled on the ground, his unseeing pale grey eyes staring up at a new dawn that he would never witness.
“Good shot, Avon,” Blake said. He was standing by the Salvager’s body; not in triumph, but with a distinct air of relief.
Avon was slowly making his way to the gruesome spectacle, trying to restore his usual cold, unperturbed exterior. He stood opposite Blake and stared down at his opponent, inwardly relieved that this man was no more. “I wish I could take the honour,” Avon replied, replacing his gun and dusting himself off, “but it wasn’t me.”
Blake looked up at Cally, still on the roof, making sure that all of the Salvager’s bag of tricks had ceased to work.
She shook her head.
Both Blake and Avon exchanged looks. Blake seemed puzzled by the revelation, but Avon appeared unfazed. And then Nimeah pointed.
Standing at the far end of the street was Josef, his gun in his hand and shaking.
Avon slowly turned and walked towards the young boy. When he reached him, he put out his hand.
“Give me the gun, Josef.”
“I killed him,” Josef whispered hoarsely.
“Give me your gun,” Avon repeated.
“Did you feel like this?”
“Josef…give me your gun.”
“Well…did you feel like this?”
“Perhaps….,” he said quietly.
By now Nimeah had joined them and as Josef finally relinquished his weapon, he fell into his sister’s arms and began to cry.
Blake took the gun from Avon’s grasp and shook his head, “It’s not right.”
“Is anything we do, right?” Avon asked.
“He’s only a boy, Avon.”
Blake held the silver wrist device in his hand and slowly turned it allowing the light from the table lamp to catch it. It seemed so innocuous, yet it held an unseen threat, one that could so easily have been carried out by the dying Salvager. A mere blink of an eye and Blake would have died, but, instead, the Salvager decided to unleash his one final demonstration of complete control and power on the citizens of this small township.
Even as Blake pondered what his fate could have been, he knew that Hoth was busy informing all the other settlements that the Salvager may well have planted his deadly devices in their towns as well.
Not being content with killing everyone here, he could have done the same anywhere.
It was a sobering thought.
“What do we do now, Blake?” Hoth asked, sitting down opposite.
“In what way?”
“Hope that the Salvager’s companions weren’t conditioned to spy on you and see who else visited you.
“Hope, that the Salvager’s client doesn’t come running to see what else you have.
“And hope that the Federation doesn’t think you’re important enough to annex.”
“Do you think we should continue doing their dirty work for them; patrol this area and send reports back?”
“Oh yes. Any break in that would certainly attract their attention. And now you have another ship; one you can use for your own benefit. Set up trading agreements with other planets, even take over the Salvager’s role...if you want to.”
“Do you think we will ever get our people back?”
“Possibly, but in my experience, no. I wouldn’t like to get your hopes up…too much.”
“They were some of our most brightest minds too…”
“You still have some of the brightest minds here.”
Hoth smiled, “ Nimeah. I think she will be able to teach our young people a great deal, now that she understands your way of calculation.”
“That was down to Avon.”
“He’s a very good teacher.”
Blake returned Hoth’s smile,” Don’t tell him that…I’ll never hear the last of it!”
In the hold of the Salvager’s ship, Avon quietly watched as Vila carefully began to prise open the hatch on the container that Josef had so proudly brought back to the compound.
It had been placed at the back of the hold and had been almost hidden from view, but Avon’s determination had proved insurmountable and now he was just waiting for the container to reveal its treasure; one which would allow Avon to finally rid himself of Blake.
“For all you know, there might not be any treasure….it may just be one of those devices that you were working on,” Vila pointed out.
“Just get on with it.”
“So…if it is one of those devices, you still think that it will lead you to riches beyond compare?”
“That’s what the Salvager thought.”
“Yes, well…he thought a lot of things and great deal of use it was. He ends up dead on a dusty street, shot by a young boy….”
“You must be really proud of yourself…still it could have been worse.”
“In what way?”
“It could have been you lying face down…..”
“He wasn’t face down.”
“Look…I’m just saying.”
“A little less saying…..”
Vila stopped what he was doing and frowned.
“What’s the matter?”
“Something’s not right.”
Avon studied the hatch for himself, “In what way?”
“When I first saw this in the marsh, there was scoring all over the surface and this hatch had been welded shut by the sheer heat of re-entry...”
“So what’s different?”
“This has been welded all right, but not by re-entry. Someone’s beaten us to it.”
“You don’t know that.”
Vila’s portable cutter finished its task and he stepped back.
“Well?” Avon asked.
“You can open it.”
“Don’t you trust your work?”
“Oh, I trust my work…I just don’t trust whoever did this re-welding. There could be a booby trap….or something.”
“All right, I’ll do it…”
“I’ve never thought of you as a hero….but it’s funny how people change…isn’t it?”
Avon ignored that remark. He was finding it strange just how prepared he was to risk his life. He just hoped it was a passing phase.
He took the small probe offered to him by Vila and pushed it gingerly under the lip of the hatch and gently levered it open. Very carefully, he opened the hatch and lifted it.
Even in the pale light afforded by the torch resting on a nearby pile of assorted space debris it was quite obvious to both men that the whole exercise had been pointless.
The cylinder was empty.
Where the contents should have been, was a yawning void.
“Well,” Vila murmured, “It looks as though someone beat you to it”.
Space Commander Travis slowly walked around the two devices now resting on the deck of the hold of his ship. They looked strangely at ease in this cold, metallic environment; they only differed in that there was a small, soft glow of pulsating lights from both objects and the endless scrolling of some unknown script on the small screens.
“And you did not encounter any trouble?” he asked, his one good eye focussed on the two devices.
“No, Space Commander. As the man who called himself the Salvager had said, ‘the good citizens knew what was good for them’, they complied.”
“The Salvager,” Travis sneered, “A common trader elevated by his own unshakable vanity. I was only aware of one device. So where did this one come from?”
“It was brought to him. And he put it with the rest of his salvage into the hold of his ship, but not before detailing exactly what he thought it was. He informed us that you would be most pleased with this addition.”
“Does he know that you have taken it?”
The Mutoid stared at Travis, “We were instructed to return with the first device and he declared that he had found another; one that you would find very interesting. We were obeying orders; collect and bring to you that device and any other item that the Salvager deemed of use.”
“So he doesn’t know.”
“He was not present at the time, Space Commander.”
Travis could see that the supposedly unemotional creature before him was visibly in turmoil. Had it, and the others, made a serious mistake? “And was this all? Did the Salvager have anything else?”
“Yes, Space Commander. This.”
Travis was handed a small box. He held it in his hand, “And?”
“He says that this contains the key to what the first device could be. The information that you require is here.”
“You have done well,” he said eventually, “Return to your base for reassignment.”
“Yes, Space Commander.”
“And do not discuss this matter with anyone, do you understand? Because you know the penalty, don’t you? And that will be the punishment of your entire unit. You may go.”
He watched as the Mutoid left the hold and began to make its way to its ship. It would return, with its colleagues, to its base and then be reprogrammed and all memory of its task would be removed.
At least, that was the theory. But Space Commander Travis knew that he and his actions were being closely scrutinised. There was every chance that these Mutoids would be intercepted and questioned.
Travis sighed. He had possession of something that could ultimately be of great use to him, should circumstances dictate. A map that could lead him to great wealth; but that was only one man’s opinion. And that man was a very greedy individual, who only saw things in simplistic terms.
But the Salvager had based his theory on only one device, and now Travis had two; both of which appeared to be in tune with each other. He squinted at the information on the small screens of the two devices and then at the hand held object. He would need to find someone who could ‘assist’ him in the research to finally uncover the secret of these devices and possibly, their origins.
It was a great pity that the Salvager had not been more forthcoming when asked as to where he had exactly found the original device, or with whom he had entrusted the task of deciphering its meaning. But it could wait until their paths crossed again and this time, Travis would not be so accommodating.
However, there was something far more pressing awaiting Travis’ attention; far more pressing.
Once his ship had left the designated meeting point and resumed its course, Space Commander Travis began to consider his options.
It was an option that concerned those Mutoids who had gone with that so-called Salvager. As he had already considered, they could possibly reveal their mission while undergoing reassignment. Although Travis knew that their minds were wiped and then given new orders, it was possible that someone could ask one question too many. It seemed a shame, but it was too risky. He was already realising that his position within the Federation was becoming more and more tenuous as it was. Even Supreme Commander Servalan seemed to be using him for her own ends and he was getting little reward from her.
This venture would, hopefully, allow him a way out, an insurance policy. One that he could keep back until the time came. If it was a vast, undiscovered treasure, then so be it. He could use that for his own ends.
But now there was another task at hand.
He looked at the chronometer on the display panel ahead of him.
It would be soon.
Soon, he would not have to worry about those Mutoids.
As he silently counted off the seconds, he smiled.
And out in the cold depths of space, a small ship manned by obedient Mutoids suddenly exploded.
Vila had joined Blake, who was now standing in the middle of the compound with Nimeah and Josef.
The latter was still in a state of shock, despite Gan returning briefly to talk to him. Even Blake had failed to lift the despondency now settled on the young boy.
“Umm….I don’t think you had better go in there,” Vila suggested, pointing to the ramp leading into the Salvager’s ship.
“Why not? Didn’t Avon get what he wanted?” Blake asked.
“In a word…no. It looks as though someone got to it first...”
“Wouldn’t put anything past them. Maybe their orders were ‘anything of interest’.”
“So Travis has got two of these devices,” Blake said.
“Travis? How do you know?”
“Our friend the Salvager mentioned it in passing.”
“I am sorry,” Nimeah whispered, “I have given him the basis of so much…”
“With Travis, that might not be a problem.”
“But you don’t understand……”
“It’s if he can get someone to help him decipher all the information in those machines,” Vila pointed out, “….now that could be a problem.”
“Yes,” Blake agreed, watching as Josef slowly walked towards the ramp, “but we will have to cross that bridge when we get to it.”
“Don’t you think we should stop Josef…I mean to say, the mood Avon’s in…”
“No, leave him, Vila. You need to get back to the Liberator. I’ll join you as soon as Jenna has finished going over the finer points of flying the Salvager’s ship with Hoth’s men.”
Josef found Avon in the hold; still staring into the empty container.
“You didn’t do it for me, my sister or your friend, did you? You did it for yourself?”
“Is that you think?”
“It’s what they think, out there.”
Avon smiled to himself, “And you think that’s true?”
“What if I did do it all for myself? What if I had in fact decided that I wanted this,” he pointed to the empty container.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Then you should.”
“Why do you want your friends to believe it? Are you trying to prove something?”
“No….I’m not. And you ask too many questions.”
Josef looked at the deck, “Tell me, will what I feel go away?”
“I killed a man. I had no choice.”
“There never is.”
“How do you live with it?”
Avon knew that Josef was asking searching questions again; ones he didn’t want to answer, “You just do.”
“I meant, how do YOU live with it?”
Avon took a deep breath, “When you get older, you will only regret the things you did not do. Believe me.”
“Did you know I was there? Right behind you?”
Avon didn’t reply. He merely closed the open hatch and locked it firmly in to place.
“Well?” Josef insisted.
“What if I did?” Avon eventually asked.
“If I hadn’t had been, he would have killed you. Even with Cally….”
“You knew about that, I take it?”
“Oh, you are very fast, mister, but not as fast as the Salvager.”
“He had an unfair advantage.”
“I know, I overheard you talking to your friends about the Biometric Vision Enhancers….is that the correct term?”
Avon nodded, beginning to walk towards the ramp, knowing that Blake was waiting for him out there, no doubt waiting to tell him that the whole heroic episode had been a waste of time. He knew he had to face the fact sometime, he just wondered when Blake would pick his moment to pour scorn in his direction.
“But I’m faster,” Josef continued, “As my sister warned you, ‘you would be dead before you had a chance to pull the trigger’.”
Avon turned to face him, “I remembered her saying that, and I knew that you wouldn’t stand by and watch.”
“Because when you love someone, as much as you do, you will do anything for them. But I wouldn’t draw attention to your abilities; sometimes it is better to keep quiet about them. Not only better…but safer. Now, would you bring that torch with you? It’s been a long day….and I have a feeling that it is about to get longer.”
“Is everything all right, Avon?” Blake asked.
“Shouldn’t it be?”
That blank, impassive demeanour was back in place again. If Avon was disappointed, then he certainly had no intention of showing it.
Blake turned to Hoth, “We may be back….”
“…..but don’t count on it,” Avon interjected.
“…..if any one does come asking questions, tell them it was a private argument between us and the Salvager.”
“Will the Federation come back, Blake?” Hoth asked.
“If I have anything to do with it, they will have other things on their plate. Just keep sending those reports, that should keep them happy.”
“Thank you, Blake.”
“You’re welcome. Ready, Avon? The others are waiting for us on the Liberator.”
“I’m sure they are.”
Josef handed the torch over to Avon, realising that the man he had just moments before been opening his heart to, had once again resumed his cold, stoical persona.
“Thank you,” Josef whispered, quickly scurrying over to his sister, once more sitting astride her quadruped.
“Yes, thank you,” enjoined Nimeah, “for everything.”
“Liberator, two to come up.”
“If I have anything to do with it?” Avon repeated.
“Do you have a problem with that?” Blake asked, replacing his bracelet in the rack.
Vila, for his part, didn’t like the way this conversation was heading and decided that the best to place to be was on the Flight Deck, “I’ll……yes, well, I think they need me. I had better be going…..”
“You do that,” Avon said flatly.
Blake waited for Vila to leave and then turned to face Avon.
“All right, what is it?”
“Avon, if you have something to say….”
“Why should I say anything? You will only do what you what you feel is best, even if it isn’t.”
“Let me guess…..it’s the fact that I let the Salvager take that device, and everything that it promised, away…..”
“He was pointing a gun at your head, in case you didn’t notice.”
“It was difficult to miss it.”
“And then you found that the other device had also been taken…I presume something similar was in that cylinder?”
“The dimensions would seem to have indicated that.”
“Aren’t you interested in who the Salvager’s client was?”
“Should I be?”
“It was Travis.”
“What would he want with a device of that nature?”
“What nature, Avon? Even Nimeah wasn’t able to get to the bottom of that. What would a dedicated Federation Space Commander want with something which could lead him to wealth beyond compare? I can understand why you would want it.”
Avon frowned slightly. Did Blake really think he was that shallow?
“Maybe he is considering his future; something to fall back on should the situation become too unbearable.”
“You two have a lot in common, then. Avon, you took a big risk challenging that man.”
“I’m so pleased that you appreciated it.”
“I’d like to think that you took that risk for me…”
Avon stared at him blankly.
“…..all right, for Nimeah then. She is a very intelligent young lady.”
“It made a pleasant change to be in intelligent company. But I think even Nimeah began to have doubts about the Salvager’s claim that the device was a treasure map…an electronic one at that.”
“So what was it?”
“A calling card; an invitation? Someone is trying to make contact, perhaps? But it doesn’t matter really, not now.”
“It could matter…in the future.”
“If I should survive that long. One of these days, Blake, your reckless heroics will get us all killed.”
“Maybe, but with you around, that day will be a long way off. As it is, the Abooleans got something out of all this. You’ve introduced them to the concept of Zero. That must mean something to you?”
Avon thought about that as he replaced his own bracelet in the rack. He was still very angry that the he had not been given the chance to unravel the mystery of both devices; whether they were merely someone’s perverse idea of a treasure map, or something more. Perhaps an invitation to make contact; but with who? Either way, Avon’s chance to solve the meaning of those enigmatic devices, so tantalisingly placed before him, had been snatched away. And he wasn’t in any mood to listen to Blake’s conciliatory words.
“Well?” Blake prompted.
Avon turned to face him, determined to keep his disappointment hidden, “Mean something? Together with those two devices, what meaning I had is lost. As far as I am concerned…as for your future requests, Blake…..Zero will mean nothing to me; nothing at all.”