After attaching the last of her batch of time bombs, Cally stepped back. With satisfaction she saw that the explosive — about ﬁfteen centimetres in diameter and rather solid - was totally hidden from view by the protruding end of the large assembly unit. The bombs could be activated from Liberator, a tactic Blake's crew had insisted on after the mishap on Centero.
She looked over the spacecraft assembly hall, to the end where Jenna stood guard at the entrance. The huge hall, ﬁlled with equipment and parts, was deserted, the workers having a day off to celebrate Federation Foundation Day, the most important date of the calendar.
Silently Cally began to move over to the other side, where Blake was placing his bombs. Jenna brieﬂy looked her way and Cally gave her a thumbs-up sign.
The wide double doors formed their only way out. The whole complex being shielded against teleportation, they then had to make their way back to the gate in the perimeter fence. It had taken Vila less than a minute to open the locks and Avon only slightly longer to adapt the security cameras. On their way to the hall they'd managed to evade the few guards left on duty. Vila had gone with Avon to sabotage the factory's computers in the ofﬁce block, which was situated at the other side of the compound.
Air-conditioning kept the hall cool even when work had ceased - to keep the temperature constant for the sensitive pieces of electronics, Cally supposed. They were on Rozel, a small planet only recently colonised by the Federation. Its atmosphere was hot and humid, with a lot of volcanic activity in the mountainous regions. The Factory was on a large plain, where the chance of earthquakes and eruptions was minimal.
In contrast to elsewhere, the complex did not rely on slave labour. The highly skilled workforce was paid well and living in a comfortable village a few kilometres away. That was why Blake had chosen the place: the destruction of the hall would not only set back the production of spacecraft, but also serve to bring fear and unrest among the Federation's privileged classes.
Approaching Blake, Cally telepathed: //l'm ready.//
He gave her a quick glance over his shoulder, mouthing: "Just this one left." The acoustics of the hall made sound travel far, reason to keep speech to a minimum.
Nodding, she went to stand beside him, idly watching him pulling out a panel set in the wall...
With horror Cally saw the scanner eye in the cavity lightening up. She pushed Blake aside. The blast meant for his heart hit him in the shoulder. Turned around by the force of the impact, he let out a cry, then sank through his knees.
An alarm began to blare through the building.
"What's happened?" Jenna shouted from the doorway.
"Blake's hurt." With dismay Cally saw blood appear on the shoulder of Blake's brown combat suit. "We must get him out!"
"Too late!" Jenna let off a shot. "There're guards coming." She ﬁred again, then quickly pressed the button that shut the door. Running to Cally, Jenna asked: "How bad is he?"
"Passed out. The wound is not lethal, I think, but we need to get him back to Liberator."
"Well, we've got no chance of getting past that door," Jenna said. "We're safe for the moment, though. We can shoot down every guard that sticks his head through the door."
Cally nodded. "So they'll do the sensible thing and stay outside. They know we're trapped here."
Jenna reached for her teleport bracelet. "I'd better warn Avon."
"No!" Cally forced Jenna's arm down. "If our enemies pick up the signal they'll know there're more of us. Now they may think we're the only intruders and not go looking for others."
Seeing that she had convinced Jenna, Cally let go of her arm. "I'll warn Avon."
* * * * * *
In the ofﬁce Avon entered the last instruction into the computer, then leaned back in his chair.
"That's it. Nothing will stop this bug now."
Vila, reclining in a chair with his feet on a desk, looked bored. "Why not simply wipe the whole lot?"
Having ignored Vila's prattle during his work, Avon now deigned to reply. "Because in that case they'd immediately start reconstructing the data from the backups. This way it will take weeks before they become aware that somethings wrong, by which time all backups will be infected too."
"Yes." Avon put the computer on standby. "Let's just hope that Blake can curb his desire to blow up this place long enough for the bug to get into the network. With all the systems linked it will affect this whole sector."
Vila stretched lazily. "So for once a mission goes off without a hitch."
Avon rose, carefully checking that he left the console exactly as he'd found it. "I'll believe that when I'm back on Liberator." He'd not been happy about Blake leaving Gan alone on the ship, only a week after the operation to repair the limiter in his brain. But Blake had accepted Gan's assurances that he felt up to the task.
Vila lowered his feet to the ground. "Oh, come on, Avon! Relax!"
Avon stared suspiciously at him. This complacency wasn't in style, usually Vila stayed nervous throughout a mission. So what had caused...?
"You idiot!" He grabbed Vila by the collar of his combat suit, hauling him forcefully from his chair. "You've been drinking!"
"Just a bit of booze I found in a locker here. Quite good stuff."
"Fool! When they ﬁnd it missing they'll know someone's been here!"
"Don't worry, Avon. I've ﬁlled it up with water. Anyway, Blake will probably have blown this place sky high before -..."
The rest of his remark was blocked out by the alarm.
"Damn!" Avon let go of the collar.
Vila looked suddenly extremely sober. "What do we do?"
"Get out!" Avon was already running to the door. Drawing his gun, he savagely pushed the door button with his free hand. As soon as the door had slid aside far enough he burst through the gap, running for the cover of some large waste disposal vats. He didn't check whether Vila was following him, but wasn't surprised when he came to a halt at his side.
They'd been just in time. Black-clad security guards were running from their headquarters at the back of the ofﬁce block, heading for the assembly yard.
//Avon, Vila, we're trapped in the hall. Blake's hurt. We need help to get him out.//
Avon saw from Vila's paling face that he'd received the message too.
"If they're blocking the entrance we'll never get to him," Vila said.
"Even if we could get him out," Avon reasoned, "it's at least ﬁfty metres to the gate, with no cover. We'll never make it, dragging a wounded man along."
Vila nodded. "Certainly not with someone Blake's size. But while those guards keep their eyes on the hall, WE can get away!"
"It's the only logical option," Avon agreed.
"So let's go!"
"Wait!" Grabbing Vila's arm, Avon gestured at a dark moving dot beyond the fence. "They're sending reinforcements."
"That's quick," Vila observed.
Avon nodded. "Apparently not all Federation personnel has got the day off."
"Or they've been just picked out of the bar," Vila said. "In which case they'll be in a hell of a mood."
Avon studied the ﬂier, which was now near enough to be recognisable. "Small armoured troop carrier. Maximum load twelve persons, including the driver."
The craft, flying about a metre above the ground, rose to hop gracefully over the fence, descended again and made a smooth touchdown about twenty meters away from them. Doors opened and troopers, dressed in the standard Federation outﬁt, ﬁled out, the sunlight reﬂecting off their helmets. All but one marched towards the hall. The guard left with the vehicle stood watching them disappearing round the comer.
"Transport!" Vila whispered, staring almost mesmerised at the ﬂier.
Avon raised his gun and took careful aim at the guard's back. At this distance it was impossible to miss, even with his limited amount of training. A single blast brought the guard down. He fell with very little sound.
Avon pushed him forward. "Come on!"
They broke into a run. Halfway Avon tripped over a broken tile in the pavement. He managed to keep his balance but, landing hard on his other foot, he felt a ﬁerce pain shoot through his ankle.
Cursing, he ran on, reaching the ﬂier.
Vila, already inside, eyed him anxiously. "Can you handle this thing?"
Avon slid into the driver's seat, scanning the instruments. "When sufﬁciently motivated, yes."
Vila settled into the adjacent seat. "I take it you are sufﬁciently motivated?"
Avon found the door control switch. "You'd better strap yourself in tightly."
"If you're trying to reassure me," Vila said, "you're making a poor job of it."
Avon took the steering column and engaged the drive. The ﬂier shot upwards. Avon moved the column forwards, bringing the craft almost into a nosedive. He pulled up just before hitting the ground, but had to steer quickly to the left to prevent colliding with the ofﬁce building. Realising the column reacted at the merest touch, Avon adjusted his movements, steering the ﬂier into a low, slow, tight circle between the office building and the wall. He wanted to make sure he could manoeuvre the craft before taking off.
The ﬂier now responding smoothly, Avon felt his conﬁdence grow. He risked a quick glance sideways. Vila sat rigid, clasping the armrests of his seat, his eyes ﬁrmly closed.
"I've got it worked out now," Avon said.
Vila opened his eyes. "I think you scared me on purpose." Frowning, he added: "Well, let's get out of here, before they come back for their ﬂier. Once we're past that fence we can contact Liberator and tell Gan to bring us up."
It was the logical action. The ONLY reasonable thing to do, Avon thought. Blake and the women were lost. The guards could starve them, smoke them out, pump poison gas into the hall, or use any of half a dozen other methods to kill them.
Which meant that Liberator was his for the taking. Vila wouldn't stop him. They could dump Gan on some rebel base, Avon wasn't prepared to share the ship with a hulk who could turn into a mindless killer at the slightest malfunction of his limiter. Zen could ﬂy the ship — as long as they stayed out of the Federation's way they had no need of a pilot. He certainly wasn't going to risk Liberator in any foolish and futile battle to bring power to the rabble. The galaxy was full of riches, and with Vila at his side to open all locks, those riches were now within his reach. At last, he would be able to gather the wealth that would bring him security.
* * * * * *
Jenna had joined Cally. Keeping one eye on the door, she helped her to cut away Blake's clothes around the wound. "He looks bad."
"Once we have him back on Liberator he'll be all right."
"The trouble is getting him back." Becoming aware of her hand reaching for the bracelet button, she checked the movement. "Do you think Avon heard you?"
"I have no means to know, Jenna." Removing the cloth, Cally shook her head at the bloody mass of Blake's shoulder. "Maybe he and Vila ran into trouble too."
Jenna felt less charitable. "Or they've simply bolted."
Cally shook her head. "I don't believe that."
"More fool you!" Jenna had always trouble reconciling Cally's insistence to expect the best of people with her ﬁerce combative nature.
"Anyway, for the moment it's up to us," Cally said. "A surprise attack. We open the door, shoot everyone we see and make a dash for the gate."
"Dragging Blake along?"
"We can't leave him."
"Not if we ﬁnd something to carry him on - a board or trolley." Cally rose. "Help me search." Turning to her right, she began a systematic perusal of the various parts of equipment in the hall.
A bit reluctantly, Jenna followed her example in the other direction, not entirely sure of the wisdom of Cally's plan. She was prepared to go a long way for Blake, but committing suicide went too far...
A whining sound, mingled with screams, cut off her thoughts. Jenna turned round to see the doors crash inwards. An armoured ﬂier, the blue of its reinforced windows eerily sparkling, shot into the hall, braking swiftly and gliding upwards to avoid the assembly banks.
Jenna automatically raised her gun.
//Jenna, don't shoot!// Cally was running back towards the place where they'd left Blake, waving her arms. //lt's them.//
Jenna began to run. The ﬂyer came to a halt, hovering as low as it could without hitting the banks. When Jenna reached it, the side door opened.
"Get him in!" Avon's voice sounded harsh. "Help them, Vila!"
"Yes, yes, no need to push!" Holding on to the handles in the doorway, Vila gingerly lowered himself the half metre to the ﬂoor. "Nearly gave me a heart attack, mowing down those guards and speeding up to those doors. I thought my last hour had come!"
"Displaying your usual lack of judgement."
"When I saw those doors looming—"
"What with? You had your eyes tightly shut."
The bickering barely registering, Jenna helped to lift Blake into the ﬂier. The streamlined craft held two seats in the front, for the driver and the commander. Behind those were two benches along the sides. A rear door covered the whole of the back, enabling quick alighting.
They laid Blake onto the left bench. He just ﬁtted, although not comfortably. Jenna and Cally sat down on the opposite bench. No time to put on their safety harnesses. As Vila dropped into the front seat the doors closed and the ﬂier moved forward.
From the flying lessons she'd given him, Jenna knew that Avon had the makings of a good pilot. Still, she felt a tinge of apprehension when the craft went into a steep turn, just missing the walls. When they ﬂew through the doorway she could see half a dozen troopers lying motionless on the ground in pools of blood. Mowed down, Vila had said - Avon must have ﬂown straight into them. Others were still running away, dragging some wounded with them. A few shots were ﬁred when the ﬂier sped past, but the energy bolts glided off the exterior without doing any damage.
Avon steered the ﬂier upwards and over the fence, increasing speed.
Jenna brought her bracelet up to her mouth. "Liberator, stand by to teleport. Liberator, come in. Gan, reply!"
"Oh no," Vila wailed.
"Your communicator could be damaged," Cally said. "I'll try."
She called Liberator on her own bracelet, then on Blake's. Vila joined in. They got no reaction.
"Let's try yours, Avon" Vila suggested.
"What's the point?"
"Liberator must have gone off station," Cally said.
"Obviously," Avon snarled.
Jenna felt in need of venting her frustration. "You don't seem surprised, Avon."
"Why should I be? We've never yet had one of Blake's schemes go smoothly!"
"Zen must have detected Federation ships approaching," Jenna said. "You can hardly blame Blake for that."
"HE brought us into this bloody mess!"
Jenna decided picking a quarrel with Avon wasn't worth her trouble after all.
They were now ﬂying over a desolate landscape of ﬂatlands covered with orange coloured grass. Blue streams were meandering towards a large lake in the distance.
"It's no use recriminating," Cally said. "We'll have to wait until Liberator's back."
"But not here," Vila stated. "Those chaps will be very angry about us ruining their day off."
"We're heading for the mountains," Avon said. "There we should have no trouble ﬁnding a suitable cave to hide in. Those rocks are riddled with hot geysers. In those circumstances they'll have to come up with a very good heat detector to ﬁnd us."
"Sounds too good to be true," Vila muttered.
Jenna turned her head to look through the front window. At the horizon she could just make out some vague blurs indicating the mountain range. "You've got it all worked out."
"I got Zen to provide all the information on Rozel from the databanks. I had a feeling that it might come in useful." After a pause, Avon added grufﬂy: "How's Blake?"
Jenna left the answer to Cally.
"He needs medical treatment."
"There's a ﬁrst aid box behind that red panel on the left," Avon said. "Standard equipment. Get it out,Vila."
Grumbling about being treated like a slave, Vila found the box and handed it to Cally.
"What happened?" Avon asked.
"A booby trap," Cally said. "Blake was searching for a place to put the last bomb. He found a panel in the wall. When he opened it, a shot went off."
Jenna was prevented reacting to Avon's sneer by Cally asking for her help. Trying not to look at the ugly wound, she held Blake while Cally set to work with disinfectant and bandages. Although her smuggling career had brought her into some tight situations, Jenna had never taken the trouble to learn much about ﬁrst aid. She was now grateful to leave things to Cally, who seemed to know what she was doing.
"We'll wait with giving him a painkiller until he comes to," Cally said, fastening the end of the bandage. "There are only two, so we can't afford to waste them."
Vila let out a wail of dismay. "They are coming after us."
Jenna looked at the rear window but could see no movement in the bright yellow sky. Turning, she saw Vila looking at a dark blue screen in front of him, on which a tiny green dot was visible.
Avon leaned over to study the codes appearing at the bottom of the screen. "A Hornet class chaser," he identiﬁed. "One of the Federation's most successful models. Heavily armed and twice our speed."
Jenna frowned. It had struck her before that Avon seemed to have a much wider knowledge than could be expected of a computer technician. "How do you know all that?"
"My ﬁrst job was on a project revising the systems of all Federation military craft, from those tiny chasers to star-ﬂeet cruisers. There isn't a piece of electronics on any Federation ship that I won't be able to identify."
"Does this craft has any armament?" Cally asked, handing the ﬁrst aid box back to Vila.
"No," Avon said ﬂatly.
"But, Avon..." Vila sounded on the brink of panic. "Are you saying that we can't shoot him and we can't outrun him?"
"You've grasped it, Vila! He'll be on us long before we reach the mountains."
Jenna activated her communicator again. "Liberator, we need teleport now!"
Although she had not really expected a reaction, the disappointment still hurt.
* * * * * *
Vila closed his eyes, needing to block out reality. For a moment he managed to dream up a vision of a recreation centre. Soft colours, comfortable couches, naked girls dancing...
"Vila!" Avon's sharp voice made the picture dissolve. "Open that panel in front of you, the one for the rear sensors."
Unwilling, Vila opened his eyes. "Why?"
"Our defences. Or do you want to wait to be shot down?"
"You said this thing hasn't got any armament."
"So we'll have to build some. Now ﬁnd the governors and isolate them. That shouldn't be above your skills."
"Oh, great! Why didn't I stay on Cygnus Alpha?..." But while moaning, he followed Avon's instructions, which were concise and clear. Although he wasn't interested in anything not to do with locks, Vila did have a talent for electronics.
"Cally," he heard Avon say between commands. "Strap Blake in. This could get rough."
Vila worked on in silence, Avon's commands leaving him no time for complaining. He wasn't sure what exactly he was working on, nor that the ﬁnished product would work.
"Hurry up, Vila," Avon said, voice tense. "It'll have us in ﬁring range within minutes."
"Yes, yes." Fumbling in his haste, Vila made the last connection. "Ready."
Vila pressed the button. Nothing seemed to happen. "I knew it wouldn't work!"
On the screen the dot's colour changed to red, growing rapidly in size.
"Plasma bolt launched," Avon said. "Hold on!"
The ﬂier was engulfed by a blinding ﬂash. It rocked violently, making Vila's teeth rattle. He was pulled upwards, downwards and sideways while Avon fought with the ﬂier's controls. Suddenly equilibrium was restored.
It took Vila some moments to realise that the craft was still in one piece and airborne. On the screen not a single dot was visible.
"Where's that chaser?" he asked.
"It blew up when that bolt bounced back," Avon said.
"A force ﬁeld," Vila exclaimed, belatedly recognising the concept. "That's what you made me build."
Behind him Jenna said. "Of course! When that chaser shot at us, the bolt was reﬂected straight back at him."
"Destroyed by his own weapon," Cally mused. "A ﬁtting solution."
"Yes." Avon said.
Vila looked at him with a vague uneasiness. Avon usually liked to rub it in when he'd done something clever. Now he just seemed deadly tired.
"They'll bring reinforcements," Jenna predicted.
"Not before we've reached the mountains," Avon said.
A sobering thought occurred to Vila. "How can we be sure they won't be waiting for us there?"
"Because they haven't got a base out there," Avon said. "The only spot of colonisation is the Factory with the adjacent village and spaceport. Once we've reached the mountains we'll be safe — for the moment."
"Will Blake be able to hold on?" Jenna asked.
"Yes," Cally said. "But the sooner we get him back to Liberator the better. We must try to contact her every half hour."
Avon looked over his shoulder. "Do you want to take over, Jenna?"
"No. I've never ﬂown one of these and you seem to be doing ﬁne."
Vila snorted. "You don't know what you've missed! He nearly crashed the thing almost before he got it started." Releasing his safety harness, he sank deeper down into his seat. "And I deﬁnitely don't want to know it when he starts negotiating mountain passes at this speed."
Determinedly, he closed his eyes to sink into the blissful oblivion of sleep.