After The Smoke Of Battle ClearedBy Linda Death
"Thanks, Mac, I like to keep up to date with events on Gauda Prime. What is it this time? More Federation inspections?"
"No, they seem to have stopped. Sounds like some bounty hunter is going to make enough to retire. Seems an old Wanderer class planet hopper fell foul of the patrols and was shot down. Must have had a good pilot though. Word is, the crew survived the crash and were picked up by you-know-who."
"He won't make much on the crew of a planet hopper."
"If Fil is right, he will on this crew. Fil says he's heard it's Kerr Avon and his team. Apparently there was some kind of shoot out-Blake's people, Avon's crew and some others in Federation uniform. Blake was injured but came out on top; that's why he hasn't claimed the bounty yet. He's got them under lock and key but wants time to recover. Avon alone is worth a million, isn't he?"
"Change course. I want landing clearance for *The Honest Trade*r for Gauda Prime Central. And I want us there as soon as possible. There are times when a man needs saving from himself."
Fortunately *The Honest Trader* was carrying a cargo acceptable on Gauda Prime and so was permitted through the blockade to land and unload. Leaving their business agent Fil to supervise transfer of the cargo to the warehouse and arrange payments, Jan and Mac hired a flyer and went out into the forest. Jan knew exactly where she was going and took them to a small clearing. Mac was to wait there, guard the flyer and be ready for a quick getaway. He had the boring part; Jan had a couple of miles to walk through the trees, trying not to be noticed. She had dressed not to be detected. Instead of her usual elegant attire she wore dark grey overalls and soft boots, her hair was tucked inside the hood, and a thin veil covered her face. The fabric was woven to absorb radiation to prevent scanners detecting her or her own heat showing through to cameras, and the veil prevented recognition while not affecting her own vision.
It took her an hour to reach the base. She had been checking her route ready for the return; she didn't want mistakes if they had wounded to carry. If things hadn't been changed since she left, then she knew where the prisoners would be-an old storeroom with a heavy door, barred not locked. And her timing should be right to avoid the guards.
They had assessed their situation after waking in the cell. Their captors had removed their jackets and boots, and emptied their pockets, so they had no tools or concealed weapons to help them escape. Though as Vila pointed out, the cell had once been a storeroom and the door didn't have a lock to be picked. It was barred on the outside and could only be opened from within by brute force. And their brute was too injured from the crash and the fight to be any use. All they could do was wait for the guards who delivered food and water to become careless enough to be jumped. Once that happened they had their plan. Avon had pulled himself together now that he realised that as the one who got them into this it was his place to get them out, so he and Soolin would go in front to clear a route forward. Vila was to make sure that Tarrant kept with the others even if it meant carrying him, and Dayna was rearguard. Optimistically they assumed they could acquire weapons en route.
They were alerted by the sound of bolts being withdrawn, but stealthily as if the guard didn't want to attract attention, not the usual swift action to get them covered before they could attack. Hoping that this was their chance, they moved to be ready when the door opened.
"Avon, don't do anything silly."
It was a whisper, but it made Avon and Vila glance at each other to see if each had the same idea.
"Jenna! But he said you were dead!" Vila's bewilderment was obvious in his voice.
She slipped into the room. "It's a long story. I'll explain if we make it to the ship."
Avon was suspicious. "Whose side are you on?"
"My own, but I hope yours is the same. Come on. Is there anyone else we need to rescue? We can't afford to waste time "
"No, no one else." Soolin's comment was brisk, but Jan looked at Vila for confirmation. He nodded and said, "We lost Cally."
But this was not the time for details and Jan turned to Avon to ask him, "Is everybody fit enough to travel?"
Tarrant pulled himself upright and nodded, as Avon said, "Yes, we can move, but it would be useful if we could collect our things on the way out. Do you know where they are?"
"With luck, yes. Stay close, we don't want to be spotted."
They crept along the corridor until Jan gestured to a door. "Store room. Try there."
She was obviously familiar with the base because everything they had arrived with was there, jackets, boots, tools, guns and Orac's key. It was surprising how quickly even Tarrant could dress and fill his pockets now they were escaping.
With Jan to guide them they were out of the base and into the trees without being noticed. Tarrant found it difficult to keep up with the others as they trudged through the forest but with Vila's support he wasn't left behind. Eventually they reached the clearing where the flyer was parked.
"OK, Mac, back to the ship. If we can make it unnoticed, even better. Avon, I will explain what's going on but I'd prefer to be in orbit first. And will you put that gun away! It might go off and you never could aim very well. Remember when you shot the gun out of Travis's hand and said you were aiming for his head?"
That broke the tension somehow and Avon gave himself a mental shake and muttered something about some people never had trusted him with a gun. Then he said, "Divert half a mile east of here. I want to pick Orac up before we leave."
Mac said, "Is that OK with you, Jan?" and sent the flyer in that direction at her nod.
Dayna, Soolin and Tarrant, wondering who had rescued them, whispered together in the back of the flyer. Tarrant said, "Avon and Vila called her Jenna, but our driver calls her Jan. Blake told me that Jenna Stannis was dead. So who is she?"
Dayna tried to make him as comfortable as possible in the cramped space. "I don't know, but Vila has cheered up a bit since seeing her. And Avon seems willing to trust her for now."
Soolin was more puzzled than the other two. "Who is Jenna Stannis? I've never heard her mentioned before."
Jan had been half listening to them from the front seat, so she turned round to tell them, "I was Jenna. I go by the name of Jan Standish now and this is Mac. He runs my ship and is the only one aboard who knows who I was. I used to be the pilot of the *Liberator*, before the battle against the Andromedans. I never made it back, unlike Avon, Vila and Cally. I've gone back to trading."
With Avon directing Mac, it was left to Vila to introduce the others. "The lump there is Tarrant, our pilot. He boarded the *Liberator* after his own ship was destroyed in the battle. Avon decided he was worth keeping, at least until you got back."
"Love you too, Vila", Tarrant said, too tired to argue properly.
Vila continued, "Dayna came aboard with Avon and Orac. Servalan murdered her father and she doesn't have anywhere else to go. You have to be careful around her, she hides bombs in her teeth."
Dayna grimaced and said, "Yes, shame I didn't have time to set one in place before we were shot down or I could have blown the door out of that cell."
"And Soolin is a gunfighter, bodyguard, assassin. I don't know why she stayed with us, she could have moved on anytime. It's not as if we could pay her," Vila said.
"You know, I'm not sure why I stayed either," Soolin said.
Jan nodded in greeting before turning forward to watch as Avon directed Mac to set down. He was out of the flyer, picked something up from in the undergrowth and was back in his seat in moments. Jan said, "I see you've kept Orac, but why leave it out here, Avon?"
"It could have been a trap, Jenna. It was a trap. And I didn't want Orac falling into the wrong hands. So I left it here and took the key. I hoped it would stop anyone else using it."
Jan laughed and said to Mac, "He always was a suspicious bastard." She turned to Avon. "By the way, Avon, what's so special about your jacket-other than Orac's key in the pocket-that we had to retrieve it?"
"Come on, Jenna, you don't think all these studs are just for decoration, do you?" Avon turned the front of his jacket back so the others could see. "Each one has a washer behind it to prevent it pulling through the leather. A platinum washer, easily converted to hard currency on any industrial planet in need of catalysts. It never hurts to carry the basis of a little trade about one's person."
And on that smug note Mac set down the flyer next to *The Honest Trader* so they could board unnoticed. Mac returned the flyer to the hire company while Jan completed her business as quickly as she could without arousing suspicion and then took the ship into orbit.
So it was not until after Avon and the others had cleaned up and eaten on Jenna's ship and she felt safe enough to leave the flight deck that they finally had the chance to ask their questions.
"Was Blake lying to Tarrant when he said you were dead?" Avon said.
"Not exactly." Jenna settled herself comfortably in her chair. "It wasn't long after Star One that I caught up with Blake. He was keeping his head down while he recovered from his injuries. There were so many casualties, and no records, that no one recognised him. He was shaken by what he saw on the news broadcasts. He had nothing else to do stuck in hospital except watch the broadcasts. The millions of deaths from the lack of control systems on the marginal planets, it really shook him. I thought he might become less of a fanatic and realise that the rest of us had been right sometimes, but he didn't, he became worse. Now he had to win to justify those deaths as well as those of the Freedom Party and Gan. He just wasn't the man we knew in the early days."
"I had wondered how he reacted to the aftermath of Star One's destruction." Avon said quietly. "I expected him to take a while to get back into action, just as he did when Gan died. But when we heard nothing from either of you.... Cally was worried about you both. She made me promise not to give up the search until I found you. And now it seems we've wasted the past few years."
"What happened to Cally?"
Jenna had asked Avon and Vila, but it was Tarrant who answered her. "This idiot," he waved towards Avon, "picked up a message. Supposedly from Blake. Of course it wasn't, but he flew us straight through a cloud of fluid particles that ate away at the *Liberator* faster than the auto repairs could fix. Just so he could make the rendezvous. That's how we lost the *Liberator*."
"Avon, is this true?" Jenna hadn't heard this before. She didn't know Tarrant and couldn't tell how far to believe him.
Avon nodded, "Yes, it's true. We reached the rendezvous and I went down. I told the others not to follow me, but they took no notice. It was a trap. Servalan caught me and induced false experiences that made me believe Blake was there. We were stranded there. If it hadn't been for Vila's quick thinking we'd have lost Orac as well."
Jenna looked surprised at Vila getting compliments, but he just shrugged and said, "Yeah, we were going through a bad patch then. Servalan had just murdered the Aurons with a plague, Avon...well Avon can tell you about that later, and Tarrant's brother had just been killed while we were on Teal. None of us was thinking straight."
"And Cally?" she asked.
This time it was Dayna who answered her. "Servalan had left us a derelict space ship. I went with Avon to check it out, to see if we could repair it. The others were checking the base. One of the locals accidentally triggered a booby trap bomb meant for us. The shockwaves set off the bomb at the base. Vila pulled Tarrant out, but Cally never made it."
It was a few moments before any of them could go on. Soolin was surprised at how much it affected them, talking of Cally's death. No wonder she'd never heard much about her in all their time on Xenon.
Jenna said, "I'm sorry. I never heard what had happened. Word of the *Liberator* just stopped, and there was no mention of Cally."
She shifted in her chair, "Anyway, Blake decided to work under a new name and build up a new group. He uses the name Blake but leads people to believe it's not his real name, that he's trading on another man's reputation. He wanted to stockpile arms and supplies, to have an army almost. That's why he became a bounty hunter-the bounties paid for his supplies. He became so focused on his plans that I began to think he was seeing me more for my bounty than for my piloting. I reached the point when I felt I had to escape from him before he turned me in."
"But you were his friend!" Vila interrupted her. "Blake never abandoned his friends. He took us back to rescue Cally. He wouldn't turn you in. Would he?"
"I thought so. So I faked my death."
"I knew that if he thought I was dead he wouldn't come looking for me."
"Why didn't he get word to us when he started up again, Jenna? The contents of the treasure room would have bought him tonnes of supplies." Avon said, angrily. This didn't sound like the man they'd spent so long looking for.
She said, "He didn't want to face you two and Cally because he didn't think he could explain himself to you. Cally had asked him how he could justify all those deaths. You'd said he would be wading up to his armpits in blood. After Star One was destroyed, he had no way to answer you."
"And when did he ever justify his actions to us before?" Avon burst out angrily.
Vila hoped Avon would calm down. He'd thought Avon was wrong to shoot a defenceless Blake, but now it seemed as if the situation wasn't that simple.
"Not often." Jenna admitted. "I don't know if he would have sold you if you could have made contact before you arrived. But I do think that once he had you all in his power on his base this way, he would have. A few million credits buys a lot of arms and people to use them."
"So he had set it all up. It was what it sounded like to Tarrant." Vila said, "I thought that finding Blake would make a difference. That things would get better."
Jenna said, "My trader contacts let me know when you came in-nice flying, by the way, Tarrant."
Tarrant preened himself at this; praise from a pilot with Jenna's reputation was worth having.
"I decided I couldn't leave you to be sold on." Jenna said, "I don't know what you're going to do now, but you'd better know Blake isn't dead. Like most bounty hunters he habitually wears armour. He's lost you, so he's lost your bounty. He may feel as if he's been robbed and want his money back, so make your plans accordingly. It's up to you what you decide to do next."
There was a long pause while they took in everything Jenna had told them. Then Avon said, "It's finished. I know what happened to Blake and Jenna. Even Cally couldn't expect us to continue now. I can use Orac to lose our files in the system and set up new identities for us all, you included, Jenna."
"Thanks, Avon. It'll save the constant worry of working under false papers."
"You know," Avon mused, "there's still a lot of planets trying to get local climate control systems running to replace Star One. They'd probably pay well for someone who can set up their networks. And they won't be shooting at me either."
As they all began to relax, Vila suddenly said, "Do you have any booze on this ship, Jenna? I think we should drink a toast to a quieter future."
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