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Roja Blake: Spacefall

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I stayed in confinement for the whole of our journey from Earth to Mars Colony. I can't tell how long the journey took – it felt like forever, but it's probably an hour or two. I began to understand how confinement is used as a punishment – if I tried to move, I got a shock from the confinement bars, and I couldn't help occasional twitches of my arms and legs. We weren't allowed to talk, so all I could do was sit and stare in front of me. I tried to lose myself in thought, but every time I relaxed even a little, the bars gave me a shock. This could be a very long journey.

Shortly after we left orbit around Mars Colony, the door at the end of the flight area opened, and a ship's officer came in. He was fairly tall, with blond curly hair, and lines on his face which spoke of dissatisfaction with everything (how do I know this?) and he looked at us in a way which implied he owned all of us.

“I'm Sub-Commander Raiker,” he told us. “I think there are certain things you should know. The voyage to Cygnus Alpha will take approximately eight months, ship time. During this period, you will obey every order and instruction that is given to you.” Really? I wonder how he knows we will? “There's a punishment scale for infractions, which starts with long periods of confinement in your launch seat and ends with the Commander's right to order execution.” Ah. That's how he knows. Or thinks he knows, anyway. “If you have any complaints, I don't want to hear them.” Federation attitudes are so predictable. I'm starting to feel at home already. “Understand this clearly: you have no rights whatsoever. None.” I racked my brain, trying to remember whether I had any rights back on Earth, but I can't think of any off hand. “Questions?”

He turned to the guard nearest the door panel. “Open it up,” he said. The door slid open, giving me a brief view of the room beyond us. Nobody else can see it, because they were all seated in their flight seats, which face in the opposite direction. Surely it must take away from his lecture to realise he's completely lost his audience? “This is the limit of your world from now on,” he tells us. I was assailed by a wave of claustrophobia. I could see the size of the room, and even though there's only forty of us, the two rooms are still a very small space to be confined in. Raiker continued on. “It has mess facilities, sleeping bays, recreation area. Sort out amongst yourselves how you use it.” He walked back to the front of the flight area. “There are other rules, but you'll find out what they are when you break them.” Oh, wonderful. Full and fair disclosure? I don't think so. “That's all. Clear your harnesses, you're at liberty to move.”

I watched while the other prisoners released their harnesses, stretched tired limbs, then made their way into the other room. Jenna was one of the last to leave. Eventually, I was left alone with Raiker and the guards. Raiker affected to have just noticed me.

“What have we here? Not a troublemaker, I hope?” His voice is sly, slimy. From the way he watched Jenna leave, and the way he was looking at me now, I realised he was looking forward to this voyage. It appears he regards the female prisoners as his own property. Something told me he was going to use his opportunity to try and proposition me.

“I didn't hear an order,” I said, trying not to look directly at him.

“I didn't hear an order, sir,” he said, correcting me. I still wasn't looking at him. “Say it!” he shouted.

“I didn't hear an order... sir,” I repeated, leaving as much of a pause as I dared before the word. I'd already learned to dislike this man. The two of us were going to have a very unpleasant relationship.

“That's better,” he told me. “What's your name?”

“Blake,” I said. He could find out my personal name from the manifest. I was damned if I was going to give it to him.

“So you're Blake?” He sounded vaguely surprised, and ... yes, he was looking me over from top to toe. Damn. I can see how this is going to go. He's going to try and proposition me, the only question is when. “Made quite a name for yourself a few years back. Quite the celebrity.”

You know, Raiker, flattery sounds a lot better if you're not visibly gloating over the person.

“Something of a comedown for a leader of men, isn't it? Molesting kids?”

Yes, he'd read the manifest. “Those charges were false.” I wonder how long I'll spend denying those charges. The rest of my life, most likely.

“Oh yes, of course,” he said, in a voice which clearly indicated that he didn't believe a word of it. “Well, let me tell you something, Blake. There are no separate facilities for female prisoners. If you co-operate, I can make things easier for you. If not, you can do things the hard way. Do you understand?”

“I understand... sir.” Oh, I understood completely. I was expected to co-operate in my own rape. There was just one small problem: I didn't want to, and I wasn't going to. Raiker could take a nice long walk out of the nearest airlock before he could expect me to submit to him.

“Good. You're learning,” he said, smiling very smugly. “Let her clear,” he told the guard. The restraints came away from around me, and I started to ease cramped muscles. Raiker walked toward me, leaning over me. “Now, why don't we start with a demonstration of how much you've learned.”

“There's just a small problem, Raiker,” I say.

“Oh?” The look on his face is something I'll remember for years, I think.

“Well, it all hinges on those charges, doesn't it?” I say. “If they're true, you're a good ten years too old for my tastes. If they're not, I don't belong here. Either way, if you lay one hand on me, I'll do my best to rip your external genitalia off and stuff them down your throat.” Yes, I think I'll remember that expression as well. “Stay away from me, Raiker, and I won't mention this to anyone.” I gestured toward the door, which the guard had closed behind the last of the prisoners. “I doubt they could understand what we're saying so long as we're conversational, but if I start screaming, everyone in that next room will hear it.”

Raiker gave me a look which could only be described as venomous. “I'll have you yet, Blake,” he threatened.

“Choose your time very carefully,” I threatened right back. “I'll be watching.”

He turned on his heel, and stomped out of the room. One of the guards gave me a wink – I got the impression Raiker isn't liked by them any more than he is by me. I ignored it, making my way out into the prisoner area. Some of the prisoners had already started claiming sleeping space, and others were seating themselves around the room. Raiker was talking softly to Jenna, presumably offering her the same “deal” he offered me. Jenna leaned forward and whispered something in his ear, and whatever it happened to be enraged him. He slapped her hard, before leaving the prisoner quarters.

“That one's going to delight in making things hard for us,” she said to Vila and I as she made her way back to the table nearest the flight area door.

“And you've improved his disposition no end,” Vila complained. “Why couldn't you be nice to him?”

“He isn't my type,” Jenna said, closing the matter. Vila looked as though he was going to continue trying to persuade her, so I decided to jump in.

“Do you know how those door panels work?” I asked him, pointing at the ones by the doors to the flight area, and the ones to the rest of the ship.

Vila shook his head. “No, not that type,” he told me.

“It's simple enough,” said another man, sitting opposite Jenna at the table. I turned my head to look at him. “All authorised personnel have their palm prints filed in the computer. The blue sensor plate reads the print. If it conforms, the computer opens the door.”

“Neat,” I said.

“Most computer-based functions are,” the stranger said. He returned to looking over the piece of paper he'd been looking at before. That gave me a chance to have a closer look at him. He had dark brown hair, almost black, dead straight, and cut very plainly. His clothes were in the colours of the technical grades, but very dark, which indicated he'd presumably been near the top of his profession before being put onto the ship. His face was dominated by a Roman nose, and strong cheekbones.

Vila noticed my scrutiny of the stranger, and decided introductions were in order. “Roja Blake, Kerr Avon. When it comes to computers, he's the number two man in all the Federated Worlds.”

“Who's number one?” asked a boy behind me.

“The guy who caught him,” Vila quipped. Avon was looking at him sourly. “You've got nothing to be ashamed of,” Vila said to him, taking the seat diagonally opposite him, and continuing to show off his knowledge to the rest of us. “D'you know, he came close to stealing five million credits out of the Federation Banking System?”

Impressive. The Federation Banking System was reputed to have the hardest security to crack in the Federation. Maybe he was as good with computers as Vila said. “What went wrong?” I asked him.

“I relied on other people,” he said, his voice sarcastic. “Why all the questions? Or is it merely a thirst for knowledge?”

“Not exactly,” I said. I'd been thinking a lot while I was in confinement – what else was I going to do, after all? - and I'd come to a few conclusions. “Having defined the problem, the first step towards a solution is the acquisition of data.” I looked over at Avon. “You should know that.”

“Define the problem,then.” He wasn't looking at me, or anyone, but he couldn't keep the edge of interest out of his voice.

“How to avoid spending the rest of our lives on Cygnus Alpha,” I said.

“That may not be a problem,” Vila said glumly. “I've heard a rumour that these prison ships don't actually go all the way to Cygnus. They wait until they're in deep space and then quietly dump you out of an airlock.”

Avon looked at Vila with an expression which should have shrivelled the thief where he sat. “You're a fool,” he said. The scorn in his voice could have been used to slice meat.

Surprising enough, Jenna was the one who jumped in to defend Vila. “They are on a fixed price contract,” she said. “They get paid the same whether we get there or not, and hyperdrive running is expensive.”

“So they dump us, and save themselves a trip,” Vila said, pushing his point.

What about the flight log? The thought came out of nowhere, or maybe out of those memories the Federation had buried. All ships had to file a running computer log of where they had been and when. “Could it be altered?” I asked Avon.

“What?”

“The running log,” I said, cursing myself for not having said so the first time. “Could the readings be faked?”

“Only by a top line technician. Nobody on this ship could do it,” he said, with a level of certainty which was almost frightening. He got up and started moving away from the table.

A couple of facts clicked together. The number two man with computers in the Federated Worlds – Avon was a top line technician. He could make the necessary changes. “Except you?” I asked, just to confirm my guess.

He smiled, and all of a sudden he looked both a lot more dangerous, and a lot more attractive. “Naturally,” he said, standing entirely too close to me. He was the same height as I, and I could look straight into his eyes. Then he moved away.

“Was it wise to put that idea into his head?” Jenna asked.

“What idea?” Vila didn't appear to have been keeping track of the conversation.

“Oh, he's bright,” I said to Jenna, taking the seat Avon had been using. “He'd already thought of it.”

“What?”

“He fixes the log,” Jenna explained, sounding just a little annoyed Vila couldn't keep up, “the crew dump us, pocket the profit, and set him free.”

I could see the moment Vila put the pieces together. “That's immoral,” he said, sounding shocked. I did my best to stop a smile from showing – the notion of a professional thief calling something immoral appealed to my sense of humour. “That cold-hearted, murdering... Let's kill him now before he can do it!”

I ignored Vila – he'd simmer down soon enough, and from what I'd seen of him during the day we'd been confined together on Earth, he wasn't aggressive enough to attack anyone, much less Avon. Avon gave me the strong impression anyone who tried to attack him would be carrying their teeth away in their pockets – the man was dangerous.

“How much do you know about this type of ship?” I asked Jenna, deciding to continue working on acquiring data.

“Not a lot,” she said. “Converted deep space freighter. Early mark hyperdrive, which needs restressing by the feel of things. Whole lot should've been scrapped ages ago.”

I hid a grin. If that was “not a lot”, I suspected “quite a lot” might well be a technical specification complete with modification history over the past fifty years. Time to find out the important detail. “Could you pilot it?”

“I expect so,” she said. “Why?”

“Well, once we've taken the ship,” I answered, “we'll need a pilot.”

 

The next week was spent with a large number of people in the prisoner section suffering from something absolutely awful. Jenna, who wasn't affected by it, explained it to me.

“It's the three day sweats,” she said. “Happens to everyone the first time they leave their home planet and go out into deep space. They'll all feel miserable for three days, and then they'll be right as rain.”

I was surprised not to have them myself, not being able to remember having ever gone off-planet, but I didn't let anyone see it. The other one who didn't have them, surprisingly enough, was Vila. It turned out he'd already been sent off-planet for detention when he was much younger, but he'd succeeded in escaping and getting back to Earth. “That's the other part of why I'm in this lot,” he said. “Illegal immigrant, y'see.”

The three of us nursed the others through the whole business, helping them to the heads to throw up, making sure they had enough water to drink (this got me into an argument with one of the guards, and my first audience with the Commander, who told the guard not to be such a fool and to issue the extra water ration to the ill) and keeping them clean.

In between caring for the others, I kept working at the problem of how to avoid spending the rest of my life on Cygnus Alpha. The problem appeared to break down into a number of stages. In order to avoid winding up on Cygnus Alpha, we had to get off the ship before then, preferably onto a habitable planet. In order for that to happen, we'd need to either bribe the crew, or take over the ship. Bribing the crew was unlikely to work – none of us had any Federation credits, and the only other option was to seduce the crew and hope they'd agree to the payment. I was reluctant to use that one, not just because of my personal unwillingness to compromise myself in such a fashion, but also because I didn't think it would work. So we had to take over the ship.

Having reduced the problem to the issue of taking over the ship, it seemed the most reasonable effort was to intimidate the crew into giving us control. However, there was a small problem with that one: it was hard to be intimidating when we were confined inside two rooms. So we had to get out of the prisoner quarters. The most logical way to do this was to force one of the guards to use their palmprint to open the door. The problems with this were threefold. Firstly, the guard was unlikely to co-operate. Secondly, the guard was likely to raise an alarm. Finally, the security camera above the door would catch every move of it, and the camera was monitored by the computers.

In order to escape successfully, we'd have to disable the cameras. Which meant we'd have to obtain control of the ship, thus returning things back to the earlier problem, much to my disgust.

It was Vila who discovered that the hatch to the service tunnel was loose. It cost myself and Jenna a full set of broken fingernails each, and a lot of long nights, in order to loosen things enough to make the hatch openable, but it was a wonderful break in the plans to take the ship. The tunnel meant we had a chance to get out of the prisoner quarters unseen. Well, we had a chance if we could avoid the guard and the camera. The camera was easy enough to avoid – there was a period of about three seconds in the cycle when the lens was looking in the opposite direction.

Distracting the guards was a more difficult task, until Nova (the youngest of the prisoners – he had only just reached the age of majority) pointed out Vila practicing fanning out cards and other card tricks in between sessions of the poker school he'd started. Careful questioning had let me know that Vila was actually fairly talented at magic tricks – all sleight of hand, after all, was useful to a practiced thief. The notion occurred to me that if Vila distracted the guard with magic tricks, we might be able to sneak someone into the tunnel.

Of course, then the problem became persuading Vila to distract the guard. He was nervous about it, but then, Vila was nervous about everything. “If I'm seen being friendly to the guards, the others will rip me apart,” he said. “They'll think I'm ratting on them.”

“Why would they think that?” Jenna asked.

“Why wouldn't they?” Vila said. “That Arco doesn't trust anyone, neither does Avon, and the rest of them take their lead from those two.”

“Gan doesn't,” Nova said. “He's a friend of yours, isn't he?”

Vila looked even more nervous than before. “Yeah. But what if he doesn't agree?”

“I'll ask him,” I said. I liked Gan. He was the largest of the prisoners, and I'd noticed that although he made some fairly gruesome threats in the early days, he hadn't ever been asked to follow through on them. I suppose none of the others wanted to find out whether he could rip their arm off and beat them unconscious with the soggy end. “It can't hurt to ask, after all.”

Gan agreed to act as Vila's bodyguard during the impromptu magic shows, and we had our first trial at slipping someone into the tunnel. I was the one who volunteered to go – we'd already found that if Jenna disappeared off the scanners, it was likely to result in a call to the guard (that came about after Jenna had an allergic reaction to something in the food synthesiser, and spent a lot of time in the heads puking her guts out for a couple of days – after the first such session, there'd been a call to the guards, and I'd been raised out of my rest period to check the heads for her). My own disappearances didn't provoke anywhere near the same reaction – Jenna was far and away the more attractive of the two of us, and the guards preferred to watch her more curvaceous form rather than my bony one.

We checked whether my absence would be noticed by the simple test of me getting into the tunnel for a few cycles of the camera, then getting out. It appeared I was inconspicuous among all the men, provided there was a bit of a crowd down the end near the hatch. That was easy enough to arrange, so I started making regular journeys through the hatchway, and exploring the area available to us. The tunnel seemed quite short, ending in a metal bulkhead, which didn't seem to move. There were a couple of hatches, which opened into what looked to be crew cabins, and that was all. Disappointing.

Jenna kept up my hopes. “From what you're saying, it's a maintenance tunnel, and those hatches are inspection spots. It might not finish at that bulkhead at all.”

“Well, in that case I'll need a light of some kind,” I said. “It's pitch black in there, and I can't see a thing.”

It took another couple of days for Vila to steal us a small torch from one of the guards, and another week for him to get out of confinement as a result. They hadn't caught him stealing the torch (that would have annoyed him no end), but the guards had got into the habit of confining Vila whenever things went missing just as a precaution, while they searched the prisoner quarters. They didn't find the torch, though – we'd put it into the service channel already. Once Vila was out of confinement, we went back to work, and I was able to explore the channel more thoroughly. It turned out Jenna was right – the channel didn't stop at the bulkhead – it continued on beyond it. I could see wires leading through a small loop at the bottom of the bulkhead. A bit of careful experimentation proved that the bulkhead slid upward, but the mechanism was very stiff.

We got around that by using some oil from the food synthesiser to grease the runners. It took a while, and the next section of the tunnel turned out to lead to another bulkhead, which was just as awkward to move as the last one. Then there were two metal grilles, placed side by side (ventilation hatches to the corridor – one long stretch which took at least three minutes to crawl along, during which you were easy to observe. So we had to block off the inside of those, as well). In the end, it took us about four months to get as far as the computer room.

I remember there was a lot of noise as I made my way back down the channel to the prisoner quarters, and tapped on the inside of the hatch. The tapping was the signal for Vila to go and distract the guard with one of his tricks while Jenna monitored the scanner to see when it would reach the end of its run. This was the hardest part of the whole exercise for me – it was when my anxieties had free run, and I was besieged by notions that they'd forgotten me, they'd been marched off somewhere, nobody would come for me, and I'd die alone and forgotten inside the inspection tunnel. Seeing the light around the edge of the hatch was always a relief.

“I got past both metal grilles this time,” I told Jenna once I was out. “It'll work, if I can only get him to do it.”

She knew who and what I meant. “He's through there,” she said quietly, nodding in the direction of the flight seats.

I wasn't surprised. The flight seats, because they were associated with confinement and punishment, weren't a very popular place to sit. As a result, those prisoners who wanted a bit of privacy tended to move there. The unspoken rule was as long as you didn't disturb anyone else, and as long as the guards didn't ask after you, you could stay there as long as you liked. Avon tended to spend most of his days in there. I went in, and sat down in the seat opposite his.

“If you had access to the computer, could you open the doors?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said. “Why?”

“Oh, just wondering how good you really were,” I answered, keeping my tone light.

“Don't try and manipulate me, Blake,” Avon said.

“Now why should I try to do that?” I asked, trying to sound as though it had been the furthest thing from my mind.

“You need my help.” He sounded certain. The problem was, he was right. It annoyed me.

“Only if you can open the doors,” I answered. There was a touch more steel in my voice than I'd expected, and it must have caught him on the raw, since he answered at greater length than I was expecting.

“I could open every door, blind all the scanners, knock out the security overrides and control the computer,” he said. “Control the computer, and you control the ship.”

That last was one of my own comments he was quoting back at me. I needed his help and he knew it, the smug bastard. “Then I do need your help,” I agreed. “There's a service channel, runs the whole length of the ship. Every other compartment has an inspection hatch. The last one opens out onto the computer section.”

I could see from the way his eyes lit up that he was interested, but he returned to what he had been reading. “Give me one good reason why I should help you,” he said.

Because if you don't I'll bloody well thump you. “You're a civilised man, Avon,” I said, trying to keep the annoyance I was feeling out of my voice. “On Cygnus Alpha, that's hardly likely to be a survival characteristic.”

“An intelligent man can adapt.”

“Or recognise an alternative” See how you like that one, you smarmy git.

“I already have one,” he said, not looking up.

That made me laugh, which did make him look up. “A private deal with the ship's crew to fake the running log? You've had four months to think about that, and it didn't take you that long to work out that they'd have to kill you afterwards to keep you quiet.” If that was his best alternative, he needed to help us just as much as I needed him to do it.

“Whereas you are offering me safety?” he shot back.

“I'm offering you the chance of freedom,” I said.

“Generous, considering mine will be the most important job,” he said. Ah, so he had been thinking about the situation. It sounded as though he'd agreed to do it.

“You'll do it then?” I asked, just to make certain.

“When?” he replied.

“Now,” I said. Now, before he had time to reconsider, or come up with arguments, or back out. Now, before the guards had time to realise Vila's magic tricks tended to coincide with one of the prisoners being a little less visible than usual, and start getting suspicious. Now, before I had time to start to worry about more things than I was worrying about already.

There was a booming noise, and the ship rocked. I was glad of the flight seat I was in – it was the only thing that stopped me from getting thrown to the deck like the people in the recreation area. There was another boom shortly afterward, then a third. Once they'd stopped, I looked around, to see Jenna had also grabbed one of the seats.

“A couple more like that and we won't have a ship to take over,” she said. I nodded. Another reason why now was the best moment – if only to distract us from the possibility of dying long before we even saw Cygnus Alpha.

“Call in Vila,” I told her.

“And Gan and Nova?” she asked. I nodded.

“Are there any others?”

“The rest are doped to the eyeballs,” she said. Ah well, I hadn't been expecting a positive response anyhow. She gestured to Vila, Gan and Nova, who came in to join the discussion. Vila was looking almost as jumpy as I felt.

“Perhaps we should get on with it, d'you think, er, maybe?” he said. He sounded as jumpy as I felt, too.

“Maybe?” Gan asked. “Don't be nervous, Vila.”

“Nervous?” said Vila, nervously. “I'm not nervous. Just... poised for action, that's all.”

There was a sour crack of laughter from where Avon was sitting. “You've got an army of five, Blake. Five and him. Do you still think you can take over the ship?”

I looked at him with something close to loathing. Vila, from his own account, had gone through much the same process I had, and I had a strong suspicion that my anxiety and Vila's nervousness had a similar origin, namely the memory removal treatments the Federation had tried on each of us. The only reason they weren't scorning me for my nerves was I'd learned to cover them up, out of pure self defence. I'd seen what had happened to Vila, the sort of “hazing” the guards and the other prisoners put him through, making him jump simply because it was so easy. It took a lot of work to make my response to Avon calm, rather than the whiplash sarcasm I wanted to use.

“If you do your bit,” I told him.

There was a strange noise from a corner of the room, and Vila (predictably) startled. “What's that?” he cried, pointing at a strange white foam-like substance coming through a small crack in the wall.

Jenna went over and inspected it. “Sealing gel,” she said. “If the outer hull gets punctured, this floods into the section and blocks it up. It goes solid in seconds. We must have been holed in that last turbulence.”

Vila turned white. While he could sometimes be wilfully obtuse on some subjects, he did have a very good grasp of what Jenna meant by her previous comment. “Gan, what about waiting?” he said, appealing to his friend.

“No!” I said, before Gan could speak. I really didn't want to delay in this. If we delayed, I'd find reason after reason after reason for why this wasn't the right time... and I was scared I'd keep finding those reasons for the next four months. “These blast waves are our best chance. The crew will have their hands full just running the ship.” I turned to Avon. “Are you ready?”

“Yes,” he said.

I turned back to Vila. “Make it good, Vila,” I told him. Vila looked at me as though he could read my mind, see why I was rushing ahead, but he didn't comment, just gathered up Gan and left.

“We'll be ready in exactly fifteen minutes,” I told Avon, noting the chronometer on his wrist. “Will that give you enough time?” He nodded. “Knock out those scanners and open the doors. We'll do the rest. Good luck.”

As I walked into the rec area, and joined the group milling about near the hatchway area, I heard him say to Jenna, “Luck has nothing to do with it.” He waited with myself and Nova while Vila started his magic routine on the guard, and the scanner moved to the blind spot in its scan, and we slipped him into the hatch. Now all we had to do was wait for him to do his bit.

“How will we know when he's made it?” Nova asked.

“The light on the scanner,” I told him. “When that goes off, we're on our way.”

We waited, and waited. That fifteen minutes was the longest quarter hour in my life. Throughout it I was assailed by doubts: not just my own, but those of the others.

“He should have made it by now,” Vila muttered at about the ten minute mark.

“Do you think he's been caught?” Jenna asked. Since that was something I'd worried about only seconds before, I had an answer for her.

“No, there would have been an alarm,” I said. But what if he'd got lost, or couldn't find the right hatch? “I'd better get in after him,” I said. Any action would be better than standing around doing nothing.

“You can't do that,” said Vila. “If it all starts happening while you're in there, who's going to get this lot moving?”

“He's right,” Jenna said.

Drat. “All right, you go then,” I said to Vila.

He hesitated. “Me?” he asked. “I'd be glad to,” he said, “it's just... I've got this problem with confined spaces. There's a medical name for it -”

“Cowardice?” Jenna suggested. I could have throttled her. I had been about to try and talk Vila into the whole business, jolly him along, convince him despite what the Federation had done to his mind, he wasn't going to have any problems with just ducking down the tunnel toward the computer room. A straight line journey. Now he'd dig his heels in so far they'd leave grooves in the deck if I so much as mentioned it.

“I'll go,” said Nova. I looked at him, startled. “Well, let me do it. I haven't done anything yet.”

I had to admit he had a point. We'd all been tending to shield the lad. He could participate as part of the crowd, but we didn't let him take any of the risks. And it wasn't as though this was going to be a tricky journey.

“I'm quite prepared to go,” Vila said, although the reluctance was clear in every line of his body. “I just don't want to let anyone down because of my, uh, complaint.”

“I want to help,” Nova said, looking at me with a plea in his eyes.

“What do you think?” Vila said, pressing the attack mercilessly.

“All right,” I agreed. “Let's get him in there.”

We smuggled Nova into the tunnel, and went back to waiting. About three minutes after we put him in, there was another explosion. Then nothing for about another seven minutes. Jenna was the one who spotted the scanner going off.

“Here we go,” I told her and Vila. “Ready?”

Nothing happened. The door didn't open.

“Come on Avon,” Jenna muttered. Then the worst happened. The guard noticed the scanner. “He's spotted it. Gan!”

We all jumped to our feet as the big man disabled the guard before he could put through a call about the broken scanner. The door remained stubbornly shut. We didn't know whether Avon had succeeded or not – the scanner outage could be a routine problem.

“Come on, Avon,” I muttered to myself. “The door, come on.”

We waited another two minutes. Then I got tired of waiting. We had the moment, best seize it while we still had the chance. “Bring the guard,” I said, remembering the conversation four months ago. Gan walked the guard over. The guard didn't look too impressed, but Gan was easily a head taller than he, and a lot stronger. I'd already taken the gun the guard had been carrying (I was surprised how easy it was to wield – had I learned this before my memory was wiped?) and now I put it to his back. “Open the door,” I told him. “Put his hand on the door.”

Gan raised the guard's arm, but his hand was still clenched in a fist. Gan walked around in front of the guard. “Look,” he said, in his calm, easygoing way. “We only need the hand. If you want to stay attached to it, do as you're told.” I had to admit, the almost-threat sounded all the more chilling because Gan didn't raise his voice at all, didn't sound angry. In fact, he sounded almost regretful, as though he'd be sorry to hurt the guard. Obviously the guard thought so as well, for he opened out his hand, and put it on the door panel.

I was first out (I was carrying the gun, after all) and I made my way cautiously down the corridor. We'd just got past the two crew cabins I'd been able to spot from the inspection channel when all the doors around us suddenly opened. Avon must have finally got his act together. One of the doors was to another corridor. I pointed it out to Gan, and told the rest of the prisoners who had followed us out, “Spread out and find the armoury.”

Jenna and I already had our mission. We had to find the computer room, so we could present terms to the captain. We crept down the corridors, following what I thought was the path of the inspection tunnel. We'd just about reached where I thought it might be when Jenna spotted something behind us and yelled “Blake, watch out” just as a shot hit the bulkhead above me. We ducked behind a corner, and I peeked out to squeeze off a shot and get a look at who was shooting at us. Raiker. Of course.

We were standing at a junction, just opposite a door which I thought might lead to the computer room. My guess was confirmed when after the second shot, Avon moved into view, and called to me. I looked at Jenna, and she nodded, then we moved. I provided her with covering fire, while she ran for the doorway. Then I ducked into the room as Raiker tried to get another shot off.

“Close the door,” I yelled to Avon as I tumbled inside. “Come on, quickly.”

He saw what was going on, and did something with a probe. The door shut. There was a muffled noise from outside, as though someone were attempting to use their palmprint to open the door, but the door didn't open. Avon grinned. I didn't blame him. After four months as underdogs, it was fun to be the ones in charge for once.

Then the alarm started.

“Now what?” Avon asked.

“Cripple the ship,” Jenna said, as though it should have been obvious.

“We've got all the bargaining power we need,” I said, in full agreement with her. “Use it.” Avon nodded again, and gesturing Jenna out of the way, did something else with the probe to another section of the computer. The alarm died. I took up a station close to the door, listening out for anything to give us an indication of what was going on outside. The next thing we heard, though, was the chime of the communicator.

I picked up. “This is Commander Leylan,” came the voice through the communicator, distorted by the circuit, as always. “If you come out immediately and surrender yourselves, you'll be treated leniently. If not my men will blast their way in and you'll suffer the consequences.”

“Those are your terms?” I asked, once he'd finished speaking.

“Yes,” he said.

“These are mine,” I said. I decided to try imitating Gan's style with the guard – polite, even friendly, but implacable. “You will hand over all your weapons to my men. Whilst we hold the computer, the ship is helpless. It will remain that way until you agree. You will then fly this ship to the nearest habitable planet, where the prisoners will disembark. Any attempt by your men to break into this room, and we'll destroy the computer. Totally. That's all.”

“Blake! Blake, listen to me very carefully,” Leylan said. “There is something large, travelling very near us, and we've been running blind. We may be on a collision course. You're putting everybody's life at risk.”

Oh good, another bargaining chip on our side of the table. “Better make up your mind quickly, then,” I answered, and cut off communication.

“Do you think he's telling the truth?” Jenna asked. I shook my head.

“Bargaining tactic,” I said. Inside, I hoped I was right, that the voice in my head saying you're going to get everyone killed was wrong. I tried to shut up the constant round of “what if” that my mind was bringing up – what if they refuse? What if there really is something outside and we hit it? What if they call our bluff? What if they don't?

“What do you think they'll do?”

“Their time is running out,” I said.

“So's ours,” Jenna shot back.

I restrained myself from saying I know. “We have less to lose,” I said instead.

“You may have,” Avon commented, from where he was tying up the comptech he'd had to subdue in order to take control of the computer, “but I value my life.” I wondered whether he thought I didn't?

“Assuming they do land us somewhere, what then?”

Wishing Jenna would stop asking all these questions of me, I answered with the first thing that came to mind. “Find a way of getting back to Earth.”

“Earth?” she said, sounding amazed I'd even consider such a thing.

“Yes,” I said. “That's where the heart of the Federation is. I intend to see that heart torn out.” I hadn't really intended to say as much. I'd planned on stopping after yes. But once I said it, I felt a lot better, as though getting my ultimate aim off my chest had physically unlocked some kind of tension.

“I thought you were probably insane,” Avon said.

I looked at him, feeling something close to absolute loathing. “That's possible,” I said, admitting the truth to myself. I had all these memories I couldn't remember; a whole personality I was rediscovering in dreams and nightmares; snatches of a life which came back at the strangest times. Even now, I had little flickers of memory playing at the back of my mind, snatches of this and that called up by the sound of our shoes on the floor, the smell of the clothing we wore, the feel of the gun in my hands. Maybe Avon was right, and I was insane.

“They butchered my family, my friends,” I said, trying to hold onto the facts I was aware of. Images of Foster, of Ravella's broken body drifted through my mind. A recent memory returns, shocking in its intensity – Tel Varon saying to me 'you had a considerable following'. “They murdered my past and gave me tranquillised dreams.”

I felt Jenna's hand on my shoulder. I'd not mentioned this in the prisoner quarters, never allowed anyone close enough to see how close I was to shattering. There was sympathy in the touch, and in the words that followed. “At least you're still alive,” she told me.

But was I? Was I really alive while I couldn't remember who I was? Could I ever really be alive without finding that out? I shook my head. “No,” I said. “Not until free people can think and speak. Not until power is back with honest people.” It's a long way of saying “never”, but I'd rather not let Jenna down. She's the closest I have to a friend here, and I don't want to lose that.

“Have you ever met an honest person?” Avon asks, and I hear a hint of curiosity under the sarcasm.

“Perhaps,” Jenna says.

“Listen to me,” Avon says, looking at the pair of us with an intensity which astounded me. “Wealth is the only reality, and the only way to obtain wealth is to take it away from somebody else.” His words hit me like a slap. Can anyone really live like that? “Wake up, Blake! You may not be tranquillised any longer, but you're still dreaming.”

“Maybe some dreams are worth having,” Jenna said.

Avon looked at her as though she'd suggested he strip naked, paint himself blue, and run across the ship pretending to be a sensor plate. “You don't really believe that,” he said, sounding incredulous. I found myself wondering whether she did, too.

Maybe Jenna found herself wondering the same thing, because there was a bit of a pause before she answered, “No. But I'd like to.”

Things were getting too fraught. I decided to change the subject. “Yes, well, you asked me what I was going to do, and I've told you. What you do is up to yourselves.”

“Right,” said Avon. “A new identity. A job in the Federation Banking System. Three months with their computers. I could lift one hundred million credits, and nobody would know where they went. Then let anyone try and touch me.”

So, given the chance for freedom, he'd try his previous heist, and try to get it right this time around. Jenna would probably go back to smuggling. Both of them would probably get caught again – I knew that much. But how many people would be hurt by them? How many people's lives would be damaged? If I was going to have to be an outlaw, at least I had a good reason for wanting to be on the run. “And what about the rest?” I asked myself, then cursed myself for speaking it aloud.

Fortunately Avon thought I was addressing him. “They have the same chance I have,” he said, shrugging.

The bland statement was enough to startle me out of my contemplation of how hopeless things were. I looked at him in amazement. He was seriously comparing his own chances – an Alpha, educated and cultured, and skilled in computers and in the social mores of Federation life – with those of everyone else in the prisoner quarters. A group of Gamma, Delta and Epsilon grade thieves, bullies, and murderers, who would stand out anywhere due to not having either the skill or inclination to fit in. “You don't really believe that,” I said to him.

We were interrupted by the comms unit chiming. I picked up, and nearly threw the silly thing across the room when Raiker's voice came out of it. “Blake,” he said, “switch on your vision panel. Scanner thirty-four. There's something I want you to see.” I looked across at Avon, who switched on the panel. The screen showed a view of the prisoner quarters. Raiker was standing on the guard platform, gun in hand. In front of him were a group of prisoners, hands on heads – the same ones I'd sent off in search of the armoury. They must have been recaptured. “You have a clear view of our little assembly, Blake?” he asked.

“We see you,” I said.

“Then lock off the scanner, and keep watching,” Raiker said.

Then he shot one of the prisoners. Mitchell – one of the Epsilon grades, who'd beaten his wife to death 'by accident' he said. I know I gasped in shock, and I'm pretty sure Jenna did too.

“I'm going to kill one of your friends every thirty seconds, starting now,” Raiker said, his voice calm. “I'll stop when you give yourselves up, or when I run out of prisoners.”

“Raiker, listen to me,” I yelled. “Raiker, damn you those men are unarmed!”

“The talking's over, Blake.” Raiker's voice was still eerily calm. Killing another person hadn't upset him at all.

“Let me talk to Leylan,” I pleaded. But instead, Raiker cut off the communication. “Raiker,” I shouted, as though sheer volume would get through to him, “Raiker!”

He shot another prisoner. Dobell – recidivist breaking and entering – fell to the floor. I turned to Avon, frantic to stop the carnage. No more deaths on my hands. No more.

“Open the door,” I said.

“You're throwing away our only chance,” Avon protested.

I couldn't believe it. How could he be so cold? Our only chance? What about the other prisoners? Did they deserve to die so he could live? “Open the door,” I yelled.

Avon looked at me as though I were definitely insane, but he complied. Leylan was the second man into the computer room, after one of the guards.

“Hands on your heads,” he ordered. “Stand where you are.”

I was still watching the vision panel, which showed Raiker looking down at his watch. “Raiker's switched off,” I told Leylan. “Tell him we're coming out, and quickly.” I had to stop any further lives being lost. I couldn't live at night with the screams of the dead as it was. Any more voices added to the barrage would surely drive me over the edge. Leylan must have heard the urgency in my voice, for he sent one of the junior officers rushing off down the corridor toward the prisoner areas. My gaze stayed transfixed, as I saw the junior officer come in just as Raiker was raising the gun to shoot again. The message was conveyed, and Raiker turned to leave.

Then he turned back, and shot a third man. A third. A man I didn't even recognise with his face contorted by pain. But that was enough. Now I was angry. Coldly, furiously angry.

“Move it,” Leylan said, ushering us out.

“Commander,” I said, not looking at him as we were ushered out into the corridor, “your First Officer is guilty of murder. I demand that this incident is fully reported in your log.”

“Now don't tell me how to run my ship, Blake,” Leylan replied. I could hear the anger in the man's voice, although how much of it was at me for making the demand, and how much of it was at Raiker for making my demand necessary I didn't know and didn't care. “Everything that happens here is logged and filed with the flight authority, and they'll take whatever action they deem necessary.”

I was going to reiterate my demand for an assurance that Raiker would be punished when he sauntered back. He looked at me almost with scorn, and said, “You could have won, Blake. All you needed was guts.”

He was laughing at me. I couldn't see for the red mist in front of my eyes, and I lunged toward him, yelling, “I'll settle for yours,” hands clawed out ready to try and kill him. He'd put more deaths on my shoulders, and all I could think of was avenging at least one of them. The last things I remember were hands on my shoulders pulling me back, and then a sudden pain in my stomach, before I passed out.

 

When I came to, I was restrained in my flight seat, and I could hear Vila prattling on to someone (me?) about what had happened to the rest of the prisoners. “It was going fine, until Gan said 'drop your guns', and I dropped mine,” he was saying. “I've never liked guns. I got confused.” There was a pause. “'m sorry, Blake. Didn't mean for you three to get caught.”

I tried opening my eyes, once he'd left, and groaned as the light stabbed in at my headache. “How do you feel?” came Jenna's voice from my right.

“Sick,” I said. It was nothing but the truth – the blow to my stomach had left me feeling nauseous, and the failure of my plan left me feeling disgusted with myself.

“So you should,” came Avon's voice from the seat in front of us. “What a fiasco.” All right, he was less than impressed. “You could take over the ship, you said, if I did my bit. Well, I did my bit, and what happened? Your troops bumble around looking for someone to surrender to, and when they've succeeded, you follow suit.”

“What do you think they'll do to us?” Jenna asked, sounding nervous.

“Something unfriendly,” I said, feeling at least a couple of thousand years old. I couldn't believe a person could do something so deliberate and cold-blooded as shoot unarmed men to draw us out. What was sickening wasn't so much that it had worked, but that he'd even thought of it in the first place. Raiker had said to me early on he just thought of us as cargo, and this proved it. How could he dehumanise other people so far?

Raiker wasn't the only one to do this, either. A lot of the prisoners appeared convinced there was nobody in the universe who qualified as human save themselves; just look at Avon, for example. The guards were the same. One of the few exceptions I'd seen was Commander Leylan, and he gave the strong impression he wasn't going to be giving up the milkruns like this one at this point in his career. He was probably told he didn't have enough guts, either.

“For a while, I really thought we'd made it,” Jenna said. Her voice sounded bitter.

“It was my fault,” I said. My fault for not being a good Federation citizen, it appeared – able to discard the lives of other people as though they didn't matter. My fault for wanting to have the option of choosing my own path. My fault for having been arrested in the first place. They tell me Nova hasn't made it back – nobody's sure whether he was killed by the guards, or whether something else happened. Vila said the guards killed seven of the prisoners, and there were another three who were killed by Raiker, so that's eleven of our number missing. I know I'll see their faces in my dreams tonight. I'm dreading it already.

“We know,” Avon says. The words catch me on the raw, and I snap back without thinking.

“I'll try and do better next time.”

“We had one chance,” Avon says, matter of fact. “You wasted it. There won't be a next time.”

I know, I think. I blew it. I wasted our one chance of freedom – but I still can't see how I could have lived with myself had I not done so. I have enough deaths on my conscience – I don't know that I could live with any more. I deserve their contempt, not their sympathy.

I don't deserve Jenna defending me, but she does. “In which case,” she tells Avon, “you can die content.”

“Content?” Avon says.

“Knowing you were right,” Jenna says. It shuts him up for a while, at least. I'm not sure I appreciate it. At least with Avon snapping at me, taunting me, I can lose myself in attempting to defend myself. I don't have any chance to avoid full liability for my actions now – and the parade of faces and voices starts making their way through my mind.

“I thought there'd be some trace of memory,” Ravella's voice says in my mind. Maybe if there had been, I could have avoided her being killed. Maybe if I'd been able to remember what happened before, I would have been able to warn them they were walking into a trap.

“They did a good job on you,” Bran Foster's voice tells me. Oh, I'm sure they did. They made it impossible for me to remember who I was, who I am – at least consciously. Bits and pieces of what I remember keep coming back to me, but they never make sense.

“You had a considerable following,” Tel Varon's voice reminds me. Maybe I did. Maybe I didn't. Maybe everything I've been told by everyone else on Earth was a lie. Maybe my family are still alive out there somewhere – but if they are, then Foster was lying. If they aren't, then the Federation was lying, and I've wasted at least four years being a drugged, pacified dupe. I have to believe the Federation is lying, although it gets harder and harder not to think of this as a dream, as a tranquillised nightmare someone is making me live through. Now wouldn't that be a laugh – if all of this was just one more bit of a therapy designed to break me further.

I'm getting nowhere, I realise. Doubting reality isn't going to help matters. Instead, I try to raise my arms. The shock which runs through me is painful, painful enough that if I were trapped in a nightmare, it would jolt me loose. I hope. As it is, I wind up in agony, but nothing changes. This is reality. It has to be reality.

 

I spend at least another twenty or thirty minutes trying to determine whether or not what I'm living is real, and coming to the realisation there is literally no way of telling, unless I actually start hallucinating things. My constantly looping thoughts are interrupted by the entrance of Raiker, who looks furious.

“Commander Leylan needs you to check the ship near us,” he says.

“Really?” I reply. “Why us?”

“You're expendable,” Raiker says. “We need you to put on survival units, and travel through the transfer tube to the ship and find out what has happened to our crewmen.”

“And if we refuse?” Avon asks.

“You'll be put out of the ship anyway – without survival units.” Raiker sounds vindictively smug when he says this. I get the feeling he'd prefer it if we disagreed.

“Your logic overwhelms me,” I say, my voice dry. “May we consider your offer?”

“Make it fast, Blake,” Raiker says. “You have thirty seconds.”

I look over at Jenna. “Well?”

She shrugs slightly, wincing as the restraints kick in. “It's better than staying here,” she says, looking over toward Raiker and scowling.

“Avon?” I ask.

I catch a glimpse of his profile as he looks across at Raiker. He has no more reason than the rest of us to like the First Officer – Raiker had him put in restraints more than once for what Raiker termed “backchat”, and what I would have termed “lacerating sarcasm”. Certainly there's no friendliness in the glance Avon gives the man. “I'll take my chances with the survival unit,” he says.

I look back at Raiker. “We accept,” I say.

Raiker looks subtly disappointed, but he orders that we be released from our restraints. We're taken from the prisoner quarters, issued with a survival unit each (a tank of oxygen, and a low-wattage particle shield) then marched down to where the transfer tube is located. Leylan cheers up a bit when we enter.

“I hope Mister Raiker has made it clear to you that you can refuse to do this,” he says.

I glance in Raiker's direction. The man is looking smugly superior, as though daring me to turn him in to his boss. “Oh yes,” I say. Raiker relaxes slightly. “He's also made it clear that summary execution is one of our options. We chose the other.” My tone makes it clear that we weren't offered a third choice. Leylan looks vaguely annoyed.

“Well, if you're successful,” he says, “I promise that I'll get your sentences quashed.”

“And if we're not?” Avon asks.

“Then you'll have no more problems anyway,” Raiker says. The way he says it makes it perfectly clear we're expected to die in the attempt; I suspect he's planning on “shot trying to escape” as an epitaph for each of us.

“What is it that we have to do?” Jenna asks, all business, looking directly at Leylan.

“Find out what's happened to my three men, and see if it's safe to send a boarding party across,” Leylan says.

I try to look at the matter dispassionately, to reason through it rather than heeding the sudden surge of triumph which rushes through me: a second chance. A second chance to escape, to be free. I force my voice to remain calm as I say, “All right.”

“I've had worse offers,” Jenna says from beside me, looking daggers at Raiker as she does.

“Good,” Leylan says. I doubt he's realised what he's done.

“Do we get weapons?” I ask, pushing a little.

“I'll toss them in the airlock,” Raiker says, looking at me narrowly, “once you're inside.”

“Very wise,” I tell him. The temptation to turn and use the gun on him is very great, but I remind myself the aim is to get across to the other ship, and find out what happened to the men over there. There's three of us, three of them – a fair fight, and we have far more to gain by taking the ship than any trooper on the London does. I step forward, toward the door. “All right, open the hatch,” I say, making my acceptance clear.

Leylan echoes my request, making it an order. The hatch opens, revealing a guard clad in a survival costume, who launches himself at Raiker. The man is literally foaming at the mouth, and I find myself wanting to applaud his choice of victim, save for the consideration that Raiker is the one standing directly opposite the hatch doorway. “Get him out of here,” Leylan commands, as Raiker breaks the man's attempt to choke him.

“What do you suppose did that to him?” Jenna asked, sounding shocked.

“That's what we're supposed to find out,” Avon said. “Execution may have some appeal after all.”

“Let's go,” I told them. There's a maximum of two crew over on that ship, which means it's ours. Jenna is bound to agree to pilot the ship for me, and Avon can make his own damn choices once we have it.

The airlock closes on the shipboard side, then opens at the hatch. We step out into the eerie weightlessness of the transfer tube. It takes a few seconds to work out how we're supposed to propel ourselves down the tube toward the other ship – the initial crews had magboots, and shuffled themselves along the metallic walkway of the tube. I wind up taking my cue from Jenna, who pulls herself along the ribs of the tube, hand over hand. The metal of the ribs is cold, and I soon start using the hem of my tunic as a bit of protection for them. I suppose it took us about five minutes to cover the length of the tube.

There was a dead crewman lying just inside the airlock of the other ship. There were no marks on him to show what killed him. I handed his gun to Avon, who took it with more confidence than I'd expected, given what I knew of him. Somewhere along the line, he'd learned basic gun handling skills, the same as I had. Maybe I could ask him where, and get a clue about my own history.

The ship was strange to us, with hexagonal corridors, and a strange, softer light than what we were used to on the London. There's a bright light source at the end of one corridor, and we head toward it. It leads to what looks to be a sort of galley area, with another corridor leading off toward somewhere darkened. There should be another crewman somewhere. I look across at Jenna and Avon, gesturing toward the darkened corridor. They both nod, and we move on.

This corridor is a short one, and it opens out into a space which is positively huge, in terms of space flight. It's large, it's open, and there are five seats arranged on three levels, with a semi-circular couch area before them. The right wall of the room is occupied by what must be the largest viewscreen I've seen in my life, while there's another hexagonal corridor leading off from the upper left corner. The ceiling is at least three metres high at the front of the room, heading back to a six metre wall at the back. (To give you an idea of what a shock this was, the corridors on the London are barely two metres high – Gan walked down them stooped over, to avoid banging his head.)

“It's beautiful,” Jenna breathes from next to me. I find myself agreeing with her. She heads straight for the central seat, which is possibly the pilot's position, given the controls. Avon comes in to look over her shoulder, and seems just as spellbound as she is by the ship.

“Look at that instrumentation,” he said, pointing things out.

“A ship like this could go anywhere,” Jenna says, still sounding awestruck. I grin at her, and she gets my meaning. I'm distracted by a movement from Avon – he readies his gun very rapidly. I follow him over to the far side of the room, just below the short flight of steps leading to the second corridor. The third crewmember is lying there.

“This one is dead also,” he says. He opens his mouth to speak, but a humming noise has started. A loud humming, one that makes me feel it's going to shake the bones of my head apart.

“What is it,” Jenna cries, panicking.

“I don't know,” I say. I suspect this is what the other crew encountered – and it was powerful enough to kill two of them, and send the third mad. The humming continues, a strange frequency which makes it very hard for me to think straight. I feel almost as though something is rummaging through my brain, trying to find something. Then I see my brother, with a gun held to his head, hear him saying “Help me, Roja.” He looks just like he did in the tapes.

“No,” I say to myself. “You're dead.” I have to remember that. “Those tapes were forgeries. You're dead.” I can't save him. I can't save him at all, because there's nothing left to save.

It switches images, tries to lure me with a vision of my sister in obvious pain, but I ignore it. Avon and Jenna are both moving toward a glowing thing near the viewscreen. All of a sudden things click together in my mind, and I shout to the pair of them, “No, no, get back!”

I rush forward, and push Jenna back into the couches, then try to divert Avon. He's harder to shift – he knows how to use his weight, and he's determined. “I must go to him,” he says. He shoves me away, and in the end I tackle him and throw him back on the floor. By this point, Jenna has got almost all the way to the whatever-it-is, and she's reaching out toward it. In desperation – I can't lose my pilot, I just can't – I shoot at it. There's a loud crackle, and the thing disappears. Jenna turns back to face me, looking frightened. I don't blame her – it was frightening thing.

“What was it?” she says, sounding panicked.

“I don't know,” I say.

“I saw my mother,” she says, as though to herself. “It was so real. Then something terrible. But it was my mother.”

“I saw my brother,” Avon said, sounding both frightened and angry. “It used him like bait. I had to go closer.”

Filing away the rather startling information that Avon has or had a sibling, I pick up the thread of the conversation. “And if you had, it would have killed you,” I say, theorising. “No, that thing took an image out of your minds – a memory – and then projected it back at you as though it were real.”

“But why didn't it affect you?” Jenna asked.

“It did,” I said. “But somehow I knew it wasn't real.” I looked across at Avon, recalling his comment from earlier in the day. “It seems I can recognise a dream when I see it.”

Avon opened his mouth, no doubt to give a sarcastic reply, but was cut off by the chime of the communicator. “Blake, are you alright?” Leylan's voice echoed in the room.

I pushed the button on my communicator. “Yes, we're all right, but we're still checking,” I say, stalling for time.

“Stay in contact, Blake,” Leylan says, before signing off. I start thinking fast. We must be reaching the time limit where the previous boarding parties stopped communicating – which meant we didn't have much time to spare. We had to try and take this ship now, before either Leylan or Raiker got suspicious of the delay.

“Blake!” Avon said, from over at the lower of the two consoles near the hatchway corridor. “This would account for what happened to the crew.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Life rocket launch control,” he said. “It's been operated.”

“But why?” Jenna asked.

“Maybe that thing drove them out,” I say, trying to get off the subject of what might have happened to the previous occupants of the ship.

“I imagined it was some kind of defence mechanism,” Avon said, absorbed in his study of the console. I noticed Jenna wandering over toward where he was standing, and moved to the pilot position.

“Could this ship operate under her own power?” I asked her.

“I don't see why not,” she said.

“But could you pilot her?” I asked, cutting straight to my main point.

Jenna didn't answer immediately. Instead, she inspected the controls on the pilot's position. “Eventually,” she answered, “I might just be able to make her start and stop.”

“You've got two minutes,” I told her. “Help her, Avon.”

Avon looked up from what he was doing. “What are you going to do?”

“Check the outer hatch, in case someone tries to join us,” I said. I could see the enlightenment dawning, as he realised what I'd been planning from the start. He gave a brisk nod, and I could hear him moving to assist Jenna as I dashed down the corridor toward the hatch.

I decided to deal with the body of the dead crewman first, tugging it toward the outer lock. Just as I reached the doorway, I chanced to look up. Just as I'd suspected, Raiker was making his way down the transfer tube. He was kitted out in a full survival unit, complete with magboots, and he was making better time than we had. I decided that dumping bodies could wait, and started to try and push the outer hatch door shut. The thing weighed a couple of tons, easily (this is no exaggeration – from the looks of things, this ship was built to stay pressurised under extreme conditions). Moving it unaided would be a job for a crew of sixteen at least, and probably more if I thought there was any chance of getting them to fit into the tiny space available.

As I pushed at the door, I heard the sound of a ricochet. Raiker had spotted me. I ducked the shots, and tried to dodge out of the way, but I was too slow – the low grav in the hatchway hindered my movements. Raiker's second shot caught me in the shoulder. I fell to the floor, cursing. It was my gun arm as well, so I was unable to shoot back. The pain hit me, and I couldn't do anything. About the only mercy was that his gun had been set to stun, rather than to kill.

Then, from somewhere in the middle of the pain, I heard the sound of a servomotor. The hatch was closing. Then a change of pressure, a feeling of movement. They'd done it! They'd worked out how to get the ship to move! I wanted to cheer. I could hear the sound of the transfer tube being ripped adrift both from the London, and from our ship. Our ship! I gave a delighted laugh. We had a ship!

After a couple of minutes, the worst of the stun passed, and I was able to get up. I made my way back to the flight deck, trying to massage some feeling into the deadened nerves. Avon looked up as I entered. “What happened?” he asked.

“Slight disagreement with Raiker,” I said. “And then the hatch closed.”

“We're on our way,” Jenna said, confirming what I'd thought.

“What course have you set?” I asked her.

“Name it,” she said. “We're free, we've got a ship. We can go anywhere we like.”

The thought is wonderful, but I have promises to myself that I want to keep. Besides, we need to get an idea of how this behemoth of a ship works in order to be effective. “Follow the London to Cygnus Alpha,” I said. “Then we can free the rest of the prisoners.” I noticed Avon looking at me as though I've gone completely mad. “With a ship like this and a full crew,” I pointed out, “then we can start fighting back.” It's a good thought. Maybe it will be good enough to silence the screams in my sleep. I can only hope so.