"Jenna received superficial injuries in a life capsule malfunction. She reports she is well and aboard a neutral cargo carrier in transit to the planet Morphenniel." ™ Zen (Powerplay)
Jenna sighed and stretched luxuriously, inexpressibly relieved to be free of the cumbersome fracture repair harness that had been clamped to her shoulder for the last five days. She smiled vividly at the medical orderly who had just helped her out of it.
"Mm, Richie, that feels good," she said gratefully. "Oh for a fluid bath and a hair wash." She ran her hands through her hair, noting with a grimace how lank and greasy it felt. "I must look disgusting."
"Not at all," said Richie comfortably. "I can see you're feeling better. It's a sure sign when a woman starts worrying about her appearance." He was a small, slight, sweet-faced man, who looked after his only female charge with gentle good humour. "I can sneak you into the officers' washroom when the coast is clear," he offered kindly. "They've got the best facilities. I'll give you a call when it's empty." He gathered up the harness and went on his way.
Jenna settled back in her chair to think about what lay ahead. In less than twenty-four hours they would be making planet-fall at Morphenniel, and she must run the gauntlet of waiting officialdom. Although Morphenniel was officially neutral, its ties with the Federation were close, and if she was recognised, she would be extradited with dispatch, straight into Servalan's clutches. She must change her appearance as best she could. Luckily, her red leathers had been badly torn and Richie had supplied her with baggy dark blue overalls from the stores which were very different from her normal style. Now, if she could put her hair up somehow, she might pass inspection without trouble.
Her next problem was to get away from the planet as soon as possible. If she sold her elaborate gold collar, presently hidden under her shirt, she could afford a passage to somewhere along the way to Keledon, a safer neutral planet where some of her relatives had settled. She had further reserves as well. Before abandoning the Liberator, she had raced into the strongroom and tipped a handful of medium sized precious stones into her boots, bumping into Vila bent on the same mission. She knew places where she could get a decent price for them and no questions asked.
Then what? The conviction was growing on her that she would not attempt to rejoin the Liberator. Richie had supplied her with reports of a Federation in chaos after the retreating Andromedans had destroyed Star One. This might be an opportunity to return to her former associates, the freetraders, who would be profiting by Space Command's reduced forces. Business should be brisk as communities began to repair the damage, it always was after a war. It was a wrench to part with some of her comrades: Cally, even Vila, would be sorely missed. And now she was separated from Blake. Only a few short weeks ago, she could hardly contemplate such a thing, but now, distressed by the rapid growth of fanaticism in his personality, she was steeling herself to live without him.
Her thoughts turned to Avon. She knew that Blake had left the Liberator without Orac, which almost certainly meant that Avon had it. Unless Blake managed to reboard first with Zen's help, the ship was likely to fall into Avon's hands. Certainly, Blake had proposed to bequeath the ship to Avon once he had been returned to Earth, and provided that Avon could persuade the rest of the crew to agree, but that pact must be null and void under the circumstances. It now looked like a straight race for control. Blake would search for his crew if he won, but Avon was less predictable. He would need a crew, of course, and he might decide he wanted her services as pilot and blockade runner again, but he wouldn't make more than a token search for Blake. Weighing things up, she was fairly certain that Avon, with Orac's help, would survive to win the race.
If he came looking for her, would she join him? If she did, would she contend for the leadership? She would have to, probably. In her opinion, Avon's skills lay in logical analysis and opposition rather than leadership. It was unlikely that he had any agenda beyond survival and personal enrichment, but that wouldn't prevent him from bidding for control. Her decision was hardening fast. Returning to the ship to struggle for dominance with Avon, was as unthinkable as tamely following his lead.
She pulled her teleport bracelet out from under her sleeve and looked at it for a moment, then she dropped it to the floor and deliberately ground it to pieces under her heel.
Next morning, Richie tapped on her door just as she was attempting to tie her hair back. Her weakened shoulder was making it a difficult operation.
"Here, I'll help you with that," he said, taking the comb from her.
"Thanks," she said, with relief.
"Why do you want it like this? It doesn't really suit your kind of face, with that square jawline."
"Well..." Jenna hedged for a moment, then decided she could trust him, up to a point. "There could be somebody on Morphenniel that I don't want to meet again. If they have newscasters waiting for us, I'd rather not be noticed."
"Uhuh. They'll focus on a pretty woman like you, all right." Richie gave a wide, comprehending smile. "You need to sneak off later, as one of the crew," he said. "I don't suppose you have any papers or money. What will you do?"
"You're right, I haven't any papers. As for money..." Jenna fished inside her shirt and pulled out the gold collar. "You've seen this before. I shall have to sell it and see how far it will get me towards home."
"Oh, that would be a pity," said Richie, touching it lightly. "Can't you just go to your embassy and ask for an assisted passage? Lots of people will be doing that."
"Too risky, I think. I'm not a Federation citizen and Morphenniel is far too friendly with them for my liking."
Richie chuckled. "You're a freetrader, aren't you? I thought you had that look about you."
Jenna acknowledged this with a grin.
"Now, I'll tell you what you do," said Richie confidentially. "You hide in my cabin. When the stretcher cases and walking wounded have been off-loaded and the coast is clear, I'll come back and get you out to one of the freighter crew lounges. I reckon we'll find somebody who's willing to help you on your way."
Several hours later, after a nerve-racking wait in the tiny unlit cabin, Jenna's nerves were stretched uncomfortably taut. She had heard the crew leave some time ago and the uneasy silence that settled on the ship as the air conditioning switched itself off, lent an eerie atmosphere to the place. How easy to imagine treachery in those circumstances. Her heart-rate climbed and the blood pumping in her ears became steadily louder. The small creaks of cooling air-ducts were magnified into a sinister cacaphony. Finally the long awaited signal was scratched on the door. She unbolted it, thankfully. The corridor, too, was almost pitch dark but she could just make out Richie's shadow. He reached out and took her arm. Not a word was spoken as he conducted her through the ship to the aft cargo hatch. Parked beside it was a half-full baggage train.
"Jump in among the crates," hissed Richie.
Swiftly, she vaulted in and crouched among the cargo containers. There was a soft hum as the train moved ponderously off. Richie did not make the mistake of hurrying. Several times the train stopped as if to deliver, then moved off at another tangent. Eventually it slowed to a crawl alongside a shabby building on the far perimeter.
"Jump out and go inside," said Richie in a normal voice. "There's a man waiting just behind the door. I'll park this train round the back, then come in and join you. Keep low so the security cameras don't see you."
Bent almost double, Jenna scuttled through the door. The man was there ™ an officer, by his appearance. She straightened up and gave him a long, assessing look, which he returned with interest. As they were staring at each other, Richie came nonchalantly through the door.
"Right, you two, let's get down to business." He led the way into a small office and locked the door. "Show the man your necklace."
The man took it from her, fished out a small lens and inspected each plate and link carefully. Finally he nodded.
"This will get you as far as our first stop, Novy Sakhalin," he said.
Novy Sakhalin ™ better than nothing, but primitive.
"Where do you go after that?" Jenna asked.
Much better. Plenty of freetraders used Hadramut. It would be a good place to trade some of her precious stones and contact her old associates. She pulled out the ruby and diamond ring she kept on a string round her neck, and offered it to him. Another inspection with the lens.
"Yes, for that you get to Hadramut," he said, eventually.
"Done," she said, decisively, and they slapped palms on the bargain.
"My name is Garmon and I am the captain of that hulk over there," he indicated through the window. "You will be on the crew list as a steward, and you'll work your passage. OK?"
"No lifting heavy items," interposed Richie. "Give that shoulder plenty of time to heal properly."
"I'll be careful," she promised. "How long's the voyage?"
"About seventy-two days," said Garmon. "Come along then, the sooner you're aboard, the better."
She turned to Richie, who was smiling at her rather wistfully.
"Oh Richie," she said gratefully, reaching out with both arms. They embraced like relatives parting company.
"Be sure to let me know you're safe," said Richie. And she knew that was a veiled warning to Garmon to keep his side of the bargain. As the captain led the way from the room, she slipped her hand into her boot top and retrieved one of her stones, an emerald, and pressed it into Richie's hand.
"For you," she whispered. And then she was gone, trotting across the concrete in Garmon's wake.
Richie looked down at the magnificent gem in his hand. How well it symbolised the woman who had flashed into his workaday life, he thought. He would never part with it. When he could afford it, he would have it cut and set in gold.
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