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"Blake" novelization

By Ewen Campion-Clarke
The only person in the wrecked base was Avon, dressed in his usual black leather ensemble. It seemed to fit the mood better than his surface suit. He stood in the darkened remnants of the communications room, placing the last in a sequence of charges to the main support strut. Orac sat on the inert console, switched off. Avon had managed to replace some of the wrecked circuitry, so Orac was running normally once again, but there was still damage to his personality protocols. Still, that could be dealt with later.

Avon activated the final charge, rose and crossed to Orac, slapping the Perspex key into the slot on Orac's top face. There was a crackle and then a low whirring noise as the computer activated. 'Orac?' Avon called.

'Well? What is it?' demanded the computer, waspish as ever. Maybe even more so. But it functioned enough for his purposes, and so he did not waste time inquiring about the computer's current state.

'As soon as we're aboard Scorpio,' he ordered, 'program Gauda Prime's co-ordinates into the Slave computer. Do not use verbal commands. I don't want an argument with the rest of the crew about our destination. Not yet anyway.'

'As you wish,' replied Orac. 'I shall use direct sensory link. Is there anything else?'

Avon considered what he would have liked Orac to answer and settled on one question.

'Are you sure that Blake is still on Gauda Prime?'

'I am,' replied the computer primly. 'That is Blake's present location. There has only been one occasion in the last two years when he has left the planet. That was some eight months ago. Apparently, he was investigating the possibility...'

Typically, Orac was giving more information than was requested. 'That's enough information Orac,' growled Avon menacingly, and took hold of the computer, lifting it off the console. Almost out of habit he moved towards the place where the teleport terminal had been, then remembered. Balancing Orac with one hand, he raised his teleport bracelet to his mouth and spoke. 'Dayna, teleport. Now!'

Dayna's voice crackled over the tiny speaker. 'Stand by.'

Suddenly, Avon dissolved into a shimmering green field of static, a bleached-out silhouette that hovered where he had been before breaking up and dissipating altogether. The base was now deserted, and sank into darkness. But this pause was only temporary. The storm was imminent.

#

At that second, the spinning curtain of light retreated into the ceiling of Scorpio's flight deck. The lights returned to their former brightness, leaving Avon and Orac standing in the transmission area. Avon crossed to a podium and placed Orac on it, tying it into place with velcro-straps. There might be a chance to complete his repairs to Orac while in flight, and to do that the computer had to be held in place. 'Slave?' he called over his shoulder.

'Yes, illustrious Master?' whirred the master computer.

'Have all the charges been primed?'

'All the charges have been set and primed with consummate skill master, for which you have my heartiest congratulations. The total destruction of the Xenon Base complex is assured. All that is awaited is your command.'

'Thank you, Slave,' said Avon and passed his crew to sit down beside Dayna and Vila, while Soolin had elected to sit beside Tarrant. The pilot was checking the controls as though there was nothing else in the universe. Perhaps there wasn't, any more. Avon dismissed the matter and looked up at Slave. 'When Scorpio is clear of Xenon's orbit, activate charge sequence,' he ordered.

'Yes, Master,' replied Slave. 'It is always an honor to serve.'

Avon sighed, suddenly feeling very, very old. 'Tarrant,' he said, 'get us out of here.'

Tarrant didn't respond, merely flipped the final controls before him. The low whining of the engines began and grew louder and louder. 'All main drives and boosters running,' he announced coldly.

Looking around, Avon saw they were all weary. The hasty retreat had pushed their endurance to the limits. But there was no choice now. Leaving was the only option, unless they wanted to die. And the future was going to be anything but a relief from their troubles. Time to set new limits.

Avon watched as they obeyed him, no questions, no protests. He repressed a sigh. Being the leader of a rebel group was not how he had envisioned the course of his life. He pushed that thought aside. Time and again, he had reviewed the choices he had made, and, with little exception, he would have done the same.

Taking their flight stations, they went through the process of liftoff with practiced ease. The understanding that this would be the last time hung in the air, unspoken. The craft shook as it left the launch pad, heading for the well concealed crack in the rock face. Xenon base had been expertly camouflaged, a haven for the five rebels. Now they would be out in the open, with no place to run, or hide.

It was time for a change.

#

The massive platform lift, thankfully undamaged from Zukan's sabotage, lifted the freighter up towards the surface. As it steadied by the hangar opening, Scorpio was rising upwards off the platform. It slipped through and out into the canyon, the engines increased their effort and slowly, the ship rose up into the atmosphere.

#

Behind them, the base sat and waited.

It was centuries old, created by the indigenous races of Xenon before a devastating war had reverted them to savagery. It had been painstakingly adapted by an immortal madman for over two hundred years. It had existed through some of the most turbulent times in the galaxy's history.

And now, bit by bit, piece by piece, it was being destroyed.

The outer complex that encircled the landing silo was systematically destroyed by a chain of blinding explosions and deafening roars. The massive platform lift was wrecked, overbalancing as it struggled to retract back into the rock as per normal. It struck the ruins of the base, and a new chain of explosions obliterated them all.

The prolonged storm of explosive chaos finally died away, a funeral pyre to a millennium of history and death. Rubble flowed down, burying the wreckage even as it was destroyed again. The final symptom of this planned catastrophe was as smoke and debris billowed from the cliff-side entry portal, before even that caved in.

Lights flickered and danced in the atmosphere for a while, before fading altogether.

By that time, Scorpio was a very long way away.

#

Slave's mechanical voice spoke from across the room. 'All explosive devices have functioned correctly, Master. The base complex has been totally destroyed.' It somehow managed to sound apologetic.

'Thank you, Slave,' Avon replied, without emotion.

'I never liked that place anyway,' Vila muttered.

Soolin gave him the sidelong look that she was so good at. 'Especially not once the wine ran out,' she added pointedly.

Ignoring the by-play, Dayna looked at Avon, 'You know, I still don't think Zukan told the Federation.'

'About the wine?' Vila sounded confused.

Dayna rolled her eyes. 'About the location of the base.'

Avon opened his mouth to answer, but Tarrant cut him off. 'Why not? Wouldn't you expect someone who'd betray his own daughter to betray everything else?' He didn't try to conceal his bitterness.

Ignoring Tarrant, Avon turned to Dayna, 'And if he didn't, one of the others will, sooner or later.'

'Sooner, definitely,' Soolin agreed, ending that part of the discussion. 'Your anti-Federation alliance wasn't worth spit without Zukan.' Her tone practically accused him of being responsible for Zukan's actions.

Avon knew it wouldn't take too long for the conversation to turn to this. 'A slight exaggeration,' was all he said.

Soolin's eyes met his, challenging. 'You think so?'

A slight, humorless smile crossed his face. 'Nobody is indispensable,' he said softly.

'You needed a figurehead,' Soolin reminded him. 'He was it. Or am I wrong?'

Soolin was bright, probably the smartest one here, save Avon himself. He had to admire her for having understood his underlying reasons for contacting Zukan. 'You are right,' he gave her a favorable look. 'But then figureheads aren't too difficult to come by. Any idiot can be one,' he added.

A smirk crossed Dayna's face. 'Heh,' she half laughed, 'On your feet, Vila. This could be your big moment.'

'Any idiot within reason, that is,' Avon clarified, cutting off Vila's attempt at a witty response.

Not in the mood for humor or subtlety, Tarrant asked what they all wanted to know. 'You going to tell us what we've got planned, Avon?'

'We know what we've got planned.' Vila's voice had an edge of fear in it. 'Running away is what we've got planned.'

Dayna rolled her eyes again 'A strategic withdrawal is what we've got planned,' she corrected him.

'There's a difference?' he asked without humor. He knew they were in real trouble, and never liked to sugar coat danger, especially when he felt personally threatened.

Tarrant wanted an answer from Avon, but couldn't resist making the comment, 'Oh, yes. A strategic withdrawal is running away, but with dignity.'

Vila waved his hands at the panel in from of Tarrant. 'So lay in a course and let's get the dignified hell out of here!'

Tarrant asked the other question on his mind. 'That isn't the plan anymore, though, is it Avon?'

While the conversation had been going on, Avon had stood, silently, thinking. They had spent the better part of the last year and a half keeping low, venturing out only when necessary. It was the discovery of Pylene-50 and its terrifying effects that made Avon realize that the Federation had a weapon which threatened to eliminate all resistance on every world. Soon, far too soon, no place would be safe. He had seen first hand how the drug made passive zombies out of the most zealous of resistors. He had vowed that that would not be his fate.

But the isolation on Xenon base had cost them. They had no real allies, no one to back them. He had conceived of the plan to put Zukan together with the other free world leaders. It was tenuous at best. And their had always been the danger that, once they knew the formula for the vaccine, he would be of little use to them.

Now, with the alliance in ruins, the loss of the base and the Federation knowing they were on the run, they needed allies, quickly. The fact was, they had only one good option open to them. And from what Orac had told him, even that option was risky. He looked at them all. It was time.

'I think we can do better.'

'Does that mean safer?' Vila asked hopefully.

How long had it been since any of them had really been safe? Avon wondered. 'In the end,' he told Vila plainly, 'winning is the only safety.'

Vila's face fell. 'It doesn't mean safer,' he muttered. 'I didn't think it would.'

Tired of Avon's evasiveness, Tarrant looked at him hard. 'So what does it mean?'

'It means I think we can find ourselves another figurehead, someone we can use to unify and expand the Rebel Alliance,' he said.

'Just like that,' Soolin said drolly. She wasn't totally surprised at this course of action - whatever course the conference had taken Avon had planned to abandon Xenon base.

Avon smiled. He appreciated Soolin's attitude, so like his own. 'More or less. He is strongly identified with rebels, you see, and very popular with rabbles.' His tone went from conviction to irony. 'They will follow him, and he will fight to the last drop of their blood.' That is what he hoped, at least. 'Idealism is a wonderful thing,' he mocked. 'All you really need is someone rational to put it to proper use.'

Dayna crossed her arms at this last statement. Avon was insufferable, sometimes. 'Someone like you?' It was a statement, not a question. Avon just kept smiling.

Having finally gotten the answer to his question, Tarrant sighed. 'So where do we find this... useable idealist?'

Looking over at the box on the stand, he told them, 'According to Orac, he is on a frontier planet called Gauda Prime.'

Soolin flinched, which was very unlike her. 'Gauda Prime?'

Her reaction had not gone unnoticed. 'You know it?' Tarrant asked.

Recovering her composure, she nodded. 'Yes, I know it. It's a bad place to be.' She looked at Avon. 'No self-respecting idealist would be found dead there.'

Raising his eyebrows, Avon took a different meaning to her words. 'I imagine that is what he is trying to avoid: being found dead anywhere.'

'Look, are you going to stop playing games and tell us who it is, Avon?' Tarrant snapped, his patience at the limit.

In one of his rare moments, Vila understood clearly what Avon had been leading them up to. With a bit of awe in his voice, Vila answered for Avon. 'It's Blake, isn't it? You think you've found Blake.'

Everyone faced Avon in stunned silence. Avon turned away from them, and smiled. #

He had always found it amazing that a simple chemical reaction could swallow up a man's mind for hours on end. A small fire could draw attention quicker and with more subtlety than the Federation's 'political rehabilitation' techniques. The thought was an unpleasant one, and, ironically enough, prompted him to tear his mind from the dancing, flickering flames that made up his campfire.

Light was fading between the mighty trees as the sun set. The crackle and spark of the fire was the only noise he could hear over the strong, howling breeze. The eerie moan seemed almost supernatural - a permanent background to the marshy forest plantations. Then, another noise penetrated the damp air.

His head snapped up, looking across the clearing. Beyond the long reeds of grass, there were just more tree trunks and the misty horizon. No sign of any movement at all. The noise could have simply been natural, one of the native animals foraging for food in the undergrowth - like the animal on his homemade spit, for instance...

The thought drew him back to his meal. Reaching out, he picked up the roasting animal and adjusted the angle to cook better. He inhaled deeply, enjoying the natural smells of the cooking fat. Odd to think that, to his peers, he must have sunk pretty low to manually create food, let alone master the art and enjoy it.

Of course, none of his peers would have survived this long on the planet he now lived on.

That noise again.

Checking his meal one last time, the burly man eased himself upright and moved towards the tree trunk directly behind him. He leant against and turned his head of unruly curls to face the western side of the clearing where most of the diminishing sunlight originated. He spoke loudly and clearly over the moan of the wind.

'Whoever you are, I'll share the food,' he offered, 'so long as you stop skulking about out there.'

He heard the noise - twigs breaking under careless footsteps, he now knew - and smirked slightly. 'You're not exactly stealthy, are you?' he chuckled. 'I've heard quieter troop transporters.'

Then, an emotionless female voice was carried over the wind, surprisingly close to him. 'You're looking in the wrong direction,' it told him.

'I know,' he agreed, watching the sunset. 'But at least you're out in the open now, aren't you?' he concluded with a knowing smile, turning his head to watch as the owner of the calm voice bounded out of the shadows and into the clearing towards him.

She was in her early twenties with close-cropped dark hair and sullen features. While not really ugly, it was as though she had sneered one day and never really recovered from it. She wore a brown and cream tunic and grubby combat boots, her appearance having suffered from living rough for at least a week.

However, his attention was understandably drawn to the Federation side-arm gripped in her hands.

'If this is a trap,' she was saying, 'you won't live to see it sprung!'

His focus remained on her weapon. 'Where did you get that gun?' he asked, ignoring her threat.

'I won it in a lottery,' snarled the woman sarcastically. Her features softened slightly in curiosity. 'What do you care?'

'I don't,' he replied quietly. 'So long as it wasn't issued to you.'

The woman was staring him right in the face, refusing to let her guard down. 'It's Federation,' she agreed.

'That's what I mean.'

They both understood what he meant. While the woods were populated with criminals of all-sorts, many more were bounty hunters - some pretending to be criminals themselves in order to get better catches. His concern meant that he was wary of such people, and, thus, was as much a fugitive as the woman. She frowned, as though insulted by the suggestion. 'Do I look like one of theirs?' she demanded.

He sighed, hauling himself upright and moving himself over to the campfire. 'I can't really tell anymore,' he murmured, as much to himself as the woman. He crouched down beside the spit and examined the roasted animal, before glancing back up at the woman, who had continued to aim her side-arm at him all the time.

'You hungry?' he asked idly.

'Yes,' the woman replied quietly, as though ashamed.

'So am I,' the man announced and, with a flick of his wrist, was suddenly holding a small but very sharp knife. The woman tensed and gripped her gun tighter, knowing that with his reflexes, the man could had incapacitated her easily. Instead, he held out the knife, his cruel, scarred face expressionless - almost demonic, lit by the flickering glow of the campfire. Then, he suddenly relented and, removing the spit, began to carve away the outer flesh.

As night drew in, the odd duo began their meal.

#

Everyone faced Avon in stunned silence. Dayna was the first one to find her voice. 'But Servalan told us he was dead!'

'And you believed her?' Avon replied, turned away from her.

'Well, she had no reason to lie,' Dayna pointed.

But she did have reason, Avon thought. She had wanted to hurt him, to destroy what little he had left on Terminal. But he didn't tell that to Dayna, she wouldn't have understood. 'She doesn't need one,' he said out loud. 'It comes quite naturally to her, like breathing.'

'The last time you went after Blake,' Tarrant lashed out in the same sarcastic tone Avon had used, 'it was a trap. We were lucky to get out.'

'Cally didn't get out,' Vila reminded them, a hint of sadness in his voice.

'And Blake wasn't even there,' Dayna continued, her chin raised.

'Never had been,' Vila concluded flatly.

Avon rounded on them all. 'Do you take me for a fool?'

Cutting off the argument, Soolin interjected, 'Only a fool would go to Gauda Prime without a very good reason.'

With his right hand, their leader slipped the control key into place. 'Orac,' he rapped out, 'what proof do we have that Blake is on Gauda Prime?'

'That is where his trail ends,' replied the computer, authoritatively.

The little machine had everyone's attention. 'What trail?' Tarrant demanded. 'Explain!'

'The chain of cause and effect amounts to a trail, if you can follow it,' Orac answered enigmatically.

Vila frowned. 'I can't even follow you,' he complained.

Orac ignored Vila, just like everyone else. 'Everything has an effect on everything else around it. It is not easy to trace one line through the pattern of infinity, but in this case, I have. Blake is on Gauda Prime!'

Tarrant narrowed his eyes. 'How long have you known?' he asked.

Avon smiled. 'Long enough.'

Dayna's eyes grew wide at the implication. 'Before Zukan?'

He looked her in the eye. 'Oh, yes. And the answer to your next question is 'yes'. I would have left Blake where he was and said nothing - if things had gone according to plan.' And he would have. If things had gone as planned, Blake would have come to him. That was always part of the original alliance, to draw Blake out. The vaccine against Pylene-50 would have assured it.

'Oh, I must try and work that into the conversation when we meet him,' Tarrant said with mock casualness.

'If we meet him,' Vila grunted, skeptical as ever.

Soolin gave him a look. 'Still not convinced?' she asked.

'You tell me what a line through the pattern of infinity is,' the little thief retorted, 'and I'll tell you whether I'm convinced or not.'

#

The cold, damp woodlands were not the most comfortable of environments, and the warmth from the fire and the delicious - if unhygienic - meal had relaxed the two fugitives as much as could be expected. As a matter of policy, they gave little details of each other's identities or crimes, forcing them to resort to discussions of the weather and such mundane niceties in order to have a conversation.

However, partially in return for his help, the woman had explained she was, in fact, Ex-Federation - a former trooper who had fled the service due to 'a difference of opinion' and had fled to Gauda Prime in the vain hope of going to ground long enough to get past the rimworld frontier. Instead, she had found the place swarming with bounty hunters and she was certain that she was being followed by a couple of men from the ugly steel shack of a tavern on the other side of the plantation.

The man - who, she had discovered, had a similar story but had been lucky enough to cover his tracks before the purges had begun - chewed on some gristle thoughtfully, considering her story. 'You sure they were bounty hunters?'

The woman snorted at the question, fingering the limb bones of the animal they had eaten. 'Well, it's not my irresistible charm that keeps them coming,' she joked weakly, the gallows humor being the closest thing to cheer she had experienced for weeks.

'How long have they been tracking you?' the scarred man asked idly.

The woman's expression darkened. 'Long enough,' she said cautiously. 'You ask a lot of questions,' she observed.

The man shrugged through his filthy, sleeveless leather coat. 'Try answering one occasionally,' he suggested through a mouthful of food, 'maybe I'll stop.'

His companion shook her head slightly. 'I've got a better idea,' she muttered, rising to her feet. As she did so, she pulled the small but deadly energy pistol from her dusty boot. 'Thanks for the food,' she said coolly, and nudged her other weapon, which lay beside the campfire. 'You can keep the Federation gun as payment,' she continued.

The man didn't seem surprised or even interested at her action. 'There's no charge,' he grunted.

The woman's eyes narrowed. 'Arlen pays her debts!' she snapped, as though reciting a credo. Immediately, her face coloured - she had unintentionally revealed who she was. However, on the positive note, the couple were unlikely to meet each other again.

The man looked up at her. His left eyelid drooped, ruining any expression he might try to make. When he spoke, his voice was similarly devoid of emotion. 'I'll keep the gun,' he said bluntly.

Arlen nodded and slowly backed away from the campfire, her pistol aimed the relaxed fugitive. She soon reached the edge of the clearing, and the man had made no move, as though he had turned to stone.

And it was probably his inaction that saved her life.

Her senses, straining to detect the slightest act of treachery, instantly detected the creaking of branches from above her.

She whirled around, gun raised as something - or rather, someone - dropped from the canopy overhead to land on their feet in front of her. Arlen caught a glimpse of a tanned, grubby youth in white furs, clutching a wicked knife. He grinned a deranged smile and lunged at her.

Narrowing her eyes, Arlen pulled the trigger. The barrel exploded in a vomit of sparks and the roar of the gunshot rolled and echoed in the clearing as the insane-looking hunter dropped onto the bracken, quite dead.

However, two shapes were already racing through misty marsh towards her. She recognized the silhouettes as the figures who had followed her from the tavern - a grey-haired, gangly man in monochrome clothing and a short, squat character with piggy little eyes and a razor-cut head. Both carried long plasma rifles and weren't afraid to use them.

Arlen raised her gun and pulled the trigger. Struck in the chest, the first bounty hunter convulsed and fell, firing his rifle into the treetops as he crashed into the undergrowth, as dead as his fellow.

However, the impact disturbed the foggy air and, for a moment, the third bounty hunter was lost from sight. The pudgy killer had fallen to one knee and was training his rifle through the misty breeze at the murderer of his companions.

Grinning happily, the bounty hunter fired.

Arlen's knee vanished in a soggy red explosion, and she let out a strangled howl as the pain overloaded her mind for a split-second and, flickering in and out of consciousness, she spun and crashed into the damp soil. Gasping in agony, she realized she had dropped her pistol - it was five centimetres from her outstretched hand.

Just...

...out...

...of...

...reach...

She grimaced and reached out, her fingers just brushing the handgrip.

Already she could hear the unhurried, relaxed footsteps approaching her as the third, triumphant bounty hunter moved in to gloat on his prize. Craning her head with difficulty, she turned her gaze to see the bloated form of her pursuer as he aimed his rifle at her prone form, giggling all the while.

Instinctively, Arlen screwed her eyes shut.

The gunshot that followed was the loudest thing Arlen had ever heard...

...followed by a dull thud of a body hitting the ground beside her. Shaken, she cracked open her eyes to see that the bounty hunter was sprawled in front of her, a telltale wisp of smoke rising from his chest. A shadow fell over both their supine forms and Arlen looked up to see the scarred man holding her former side-arm.

The barrel was smoking.

Arlen felt a wave of relief flow over her as the man stared expressionlessly down at the human being he had just slaughtered. He probably needed to snap out of his daze before he too joined the ranks of the dead. 'Give me my gun,' Arlen hissed, 'and get down, quick.'

The man turned to look down at her, one eyebrow arched slightly.

Arlen cursed, annoyed at his lack of concern. 'I think there were four of them tracking me!'

'There were,' the man agreed. 'And then there was one.'

Arlen realized the side-arm was now aimed at her head.

'You scum!' she snarled, shocked and disgusted. The man had been a traitor all along - acting as a fugitive to lull her into a false sense of security until the other three caught her unawares. Worse, when it seemed the prize could be split between the two hunters, he had ruthlessly murdered his fellow.

'Don't bother calling me names, girl,' grunted the man, though he didn't seem bothered by her opinion. 'Not after the killing you've done.' He turned and surveyed the three corpses thoughtfully.

Taking her chance, Arlen reached out and all but grabbed her pistol when the man's boot landed beside the barrel. Arlen glared at the cold, impassive face and looked down at her gun. The boot casually knocked the gun and the pistol somersaulted across the clearing into the gathering gloom.

'There's a premium for bringing you back alive, but I'll kill you if I have to,' explained the man conversationally. 'The price for you dead isn't bad, but I'm not a greedy man.'

The man's gaze turned to the bounty hunter he'd just shot and he frowned slightly, as though considering his options.

Arlen stared at the gun which might end her life at any moment, and shivered.

#

'You really do believe it's Blake, don't you?' asked Vila, unwilling to retreat from Avon's fierce gaze but equally unwilling to get too close. 'This Dev Varon character?'

'Yes, I do,' Avon replied.

'He's not likely to be a tame figurehead you know,' said Vila simply. 'Not Blake. And what if Soolin is right about Gauda Prime? What if he's gone bad?'

Avon simply stared at the little thief. 'Blake was never tame,' he conceded. 'But he can be manipulated - just like anyone else.' But that thought made Avon pause. The Federation had controlled Blake's mind before. If he had been captured, conditioned, and released? Released to what purpose? Servalan wanted Avon, himself, of that he had no doubt. Would she risk setting a conditioned Blake on the loose to capture him? No matter. They were going to Gauda Prime and he would locate Blake. Contemplation of what he would find was futile.

'What's he been doing then?' asked Vila.

'If I understand your poorly articulated inquiry correctly,' replied Orac, 'then the answer is that Blake is working as what is colloquially termed a bounty hunter.'

Vila shook his head, confused. 'I can't see Blake doing anything like that.'

'My interpretation of the data leaves little room for error,' retorted the computer haughtily.

'Hunting people for money?' said Vila incredulously. 'Not him!'

Tarrant, who had been watching the exchange, turned to glance at their leader. 'Avon?' he called.

Avon shrugged. 'Why ask me?'

'Because you and Vila know him,' explained Dayna coldly. 'We don't. Could he be a bounty hunter, do you think?' she asked, arching her eyebrow. For all she had heard about the enigmatic Blake, she actually knew very little about him. After the mess up on Xenon, she was in no hurry to put herself in danger once again.

Avon smiled. 'Does it matter?'

'Well, it might,' replied Tarrant sarcastically. 'There's still a price on our heads from the old days!'

'Not on GP, there isn't,' grunted Soolin with what might have been sadness.

'GP?' echoed Vila, confused.

'I imagine that is what the locals call Gauda Prime,' Avon explained, his gaze resting on the blonde gunfighter. 'Your home planet.'

Soolin glared at him. She had not gone out of her way to explain her background, but she shouldn't have been surprised that Avon had studied her life via Orac the moment she had 'joined' their crew. 'I grew up there, yes,' she admitted, choosing her words with care. 'But for a home you need a family - and mine were murdered when the Federation declared Gauda Prime an Open Planet.'

Avon nodded. 'A general suspension of the penal code.'

'That's right,' Soolin agreed, not surprised at Avon's knowledge.

Dayna frowned, trying to keep up with them. 'You mean there's no law at all?'

'It's the fast way to get resources exploited,' Soolin shrugged. 'In this case mineral resources.'

Dayna shook her head, confused. 'I don't understand.'

'Neither do I,' said Vila, irritated. 'How does junking the law speed up mining?'

Soolin perched on the flight console, clearly having to put her thoughts in order. 'GP was an agricultural world,' she explained quietly. 'The settlers were sent there to grow crops, raise timber. They were farmers, my family among them. They were given title to the land.'

'And then somebody discovered there was more profit under the ground than there was on top of it,' Avon said, taking over the story to Soolin's silent relief. 'Only the farmers were in the way, and the law was on their side. Hence the Open Planet designation.'

'What, get rid of the law you get rid of the problem?' Tarrant pondered, turning to Avon. 'You seem to know a lot about it,' he said suspiciously.

'Orac is an excellent research tool,' replied the computer tech. 'Do you imagine I would take us in blind?'

'You've done it before.'

Dayna put a sisterly arm around Soolin's shoulders, ignoring the others. 'What happened to your family?' she asked.

Soolin licked her lips. 'When the mining corporations moved in, the farmers moved out. Those that didn't were murdered,' she said simply.

Vila nodded sadly. 'And it wasn't even a crime.'

Soolin's gaze rested on the little thief. 'Oh yes, it was a crime all right,' she said in a tight voice. 'It just wasn't illegal.'

'That's what I meant,' said Vila gently, genuinely meaning no offence.

'I hope so,' said Soolin, her voice dangerously quiet.

The last thing they needed was a morose Soolin shooting down Vila, so Tarrant hastily interrupted their conversation. 'Planet must have been a draw for every crook and killer in the quadrant,' he observed.

'A lot of people made a lot of money,' Avon agreed.

Soolin smiled bitterly. 'Some even lived to enjoy it.'

Avon nodded. 'I imagine they are the ones who now want the planet returned to normal legal status.'

The gunslinger's eyes widened in surprise. 'You're not serious!' she accused.

Avon turned to the podium opposite him. 'Orac?' he asked, lightly.

'A formal application was laid before the High Council on Earth within the last thirty days,' Orac reported. 'I could get you the exact date -'

In the corner, Slave suddenly whirred into life. 'Uh, I don't wish to interrupt, Master,' it began humbly.

'Then kindly don't,' snapped Orac.

'I wasn't talking to you,' sniffed Slave.

'You,' Orac said, voice seeming to tremble with rage, 'were attempting to override a superior system. Be silent!'

Avon was aware the others were looking at him. Orac, despite his aggravating personality program, was fitted to be user-friendly that meant his ego could suffer being interrupted. It was a testimony to the rushed repair job that Orac's behavior protocols had been ruined. The computer continued, as though nothing had happened: '- the exact date, if you wish. But the importance of the application lies not in its exact date, but in its general requirements.'

'Which are?' prompted Tarrant.

'That the citizens of Gauda Prime put their house in order,' Orac explained. 'Law must be established before the benefits of law can be restored.'

Avon looked into the distance, as though lost in thought. 'It is the day of the bounty hunter. Thieves, killers, mercenaries, psychopaths... are as unwelcome now as the farmers once were.'

His train of thought was interrupted as a loud warbling alarm filled the air. In moments, everyone was at their position as a cover slid over a porthole in the portside wall. 'Slave, what's wrong?' shouted Tarrant as he buckled himself into his chair, Soolin following suit beside him.

'Well, nothing is actually wrong, sir,' said Slave awkwardly. 'Yet.'

'Explain the alarm, Slave,' Avon ordered.

Immediately the klaxon fell silent. 'I had to get your attention, Master, and I was forbidden to speak unless spoken to,' Slave explained sadly.

'All right,' the computer tech sighed, 'you're spoken to. What is it?'

'I beg to advise you, Master, that we're approaching the planet Gauda Prime.'

There was general sigh of relief and Dayna chuckled at Slave's eagerness not to offend.

But when the flight computer spoke again, there was a note of panic in its voice.

'And Scorpio is under attack.'

Before anyone could even begin to reply to this, there was a hollow, crackling noise followed by a massive jolt that shuddered the whole flight deck. At that moment, the rear sensor array exploded in flames and smoke, causing all the lights to flicker and pulsate as the crew were slammed back in their chairs.

Even as the roar filled his ears, Vila glared daggers at Orac's boxlike shape.

#

Arlen gritted her teeth as she was forced to transfer her weight to her injured leg. The bounty hunter had applied a brutal tourniquet that, although stopping her dying from blood loss, had done nothing to diminish the shooting agony from the shattered knee. She had picked up a tall branch to use as a staff and had been herded away from the campfire into the depths of the wood.

Arlen swayed for a moment, turning to face her captor, who was covering her with the Federation side-arm. 'How much further to your flyer?' she groaned, knowing it must have been far away for him to have landed in the last day without her hearing it.

The bounty hunter didn't react to her question, and merely waved the gun at her.

Sighing heavily, Arlen struggled on for a few more paces before she stopped again. 'I can't walk any further,' she protested weakly, sagging from the effort of talking.

'Yes, you can,' was the blunt reply.

'Why don't you just kill me?' Arlen demanded.

'I told you,' replied the man with a shrug. 'You're worth more alive.'

Arlen hung her head and turned to continue. Behind her, she sensed the man take a step forward.

And Arlen sprung.

Swinging around, she threw all her weight onto her improvised cane, intending to knock down her captor and regain control of her weapon and, thus, her life. And it would have worked - if only the bounty hunter hadn't simply sidestepped her attack.

Her momentum dragged her onto the ground, triggering a new and interesting pattern of agony through her injuries, ultimately forcing a scream past her gritted teeth. Above her, the bounty hunter stepped over her, gun aimed at her head once more. If he was angry at her attack, he didn't show it. 'Get up, girl,' he ordered.

Arlen grimaced with pain and managed to roll over. 'Arlen,' she croaked, voice cracking with strain. 'My name is Arlen,' she repeated, glaring up at her tormentor through wet eyes.

The bounty hunter nodded slightly. 'That's the name they're paying for.'

A dangerous gleam had entered Arlen's moistened eyes. 'That's right,' she said with hysterical triumph. 'I made them pay for it. So use it, scum!' she snarled. But the pain was too much for her. Weakly, she gripped her soiled bandages, blood welling between her fingers. With a sob of fear and despair, she sank onto the ground.

The man stared down at her dispassionately.

'Blake,' he said after a pause. 'My name is Roj Blake.'

Perhaps it was pity or self-recrimination that drew this admission from him, an attempt to return himself to humanity, to show Arlen that he too was alive and cared. Perhaps his resolve against her plight had finally failed him.

Actually, it was neither.

#

When Gauda Prime had begun its clean-up program to return it to a state of law and order, a mercenary fleet had hired itself out to one of the major corporations that stood to benefit from the change. Twenty green-and-orange saucer-shaped gun ships piloted by ruthless mercenaries now patrolled the orbit of Gauda Prime, looking for something - anything - to attack and destroy.

Apart from a few Federation courier ships and some crafty smugglers, no space craft had managed to leave or enter the atmosphere and survived to tell the tale. Countless criminals either fleeing Gauda Prime or heading there in misplaced hopes of safety had been blasted to pieces in dogfights that broke the monotony for the pilots.

So when what seemed to be a humble freighter appeared, travelling at incredible speeds, the gun ships had gleefully leapt into action. The first salvos had damaged the engines of the craft, slowing its speed to the point it was barely faster than its attackers.

Now, the planet hopper was drunkenly lurching back and forth as it attempted to find some section of space around the planet that was safe. A futile search as the other gun ships raced to the area, desperate not to miss the fun of annihilating a moving object full of living beings.

The four gun ships already trailing Scorpio fired once again. Two shots vanished into the blackness, but the remainder struck the hull. The reinforced surface blackened under the onslaught and the shock waves threw the ship from side to side. Its engines struggled to keep it on course, triggering more chaos inside the stricken vessel.

#

Scorpio jerked from side to side like a badly-handled marionette as the hostile craft strafed the hull. Several times the ship spun around its central axis, proving indubitably to its crew that the artificial gravity was a wreck. The lights flickered and pulsated as the power systems shorted out and then re-routed as auto-repair cut in.

'Who the hell are they?' Vila yelped.

Dayna rolled her eyes. 'Who the hell cares?' she retorted.

Vila was determined to come up with a reason for the unprovoked attack. 'They could be making a mistake?' he suggested, forced to shout over the whirring of the strained engines.

'It doesn't seem to affect their aim,' Soolin pointed out, gripping her console as the flight deck was shaken by the impact of yet another blast.

It didn't make any difference to Tarrant as he grimly clung to the controls. They were already beginning to fall. He hadn't crash-landed a ship in years. He was sorely out of practice - but then, of course, a good pilot shouldn't need that practice, should they? Either way, it certainly would be a less-than-gentle landing.

If they lasted that long.

#

Scorpio was struggling to remain on a course as it lurched around the outer reaches of the planet, losing ground to the rapid approach of the gun ships. One by one, the four attackers fired at the intruder, careful to cause the minimum amount of damage to the already-battered engines.

The fleet were going to stretch out this game for as long as they could.

Already, the other gun ships were hurtling through space from the opposite direction to trap Scorpio, so the ships already behind it stayed their attack for a few moments.

When the reprieve ended, Scorpio would be an expanding cloud of radioactive debris.

#

The sudden pause in the chaos left the ship trembling and shaking. Circuitry in the walls and framework were shorting out, bits of hardware being blown loose all around the chamber and being tossed around. Avon punched at the controls before him and the screen lit up with the damage report. 'Burnout on drive two,' Avon announced, raising his voice over the occasional explosion. 'Overall power loss is thirty-two percent.'

Three's on it's way out too, thought Tarrant grimly, scanning the read-outs. 'Alignment on three and four is drifting,' he shouted. Behind him, another of the rear-sensors overloaded and exploded in acrid blue smoke.

'This won't hold it for long,' replied Avon. Even if the cease-fire continued, Scorpio was far too damaged to use the Stardrive to escape the Darlon system. That left only one viable alternative, although he was loathe to suggest it.

'Have we shaken any of them off?' Tarrant asked.

Beside him, Soolin glanced at the flickering, rolling surveillance monitor. 'Not exactly,' she said carefully.

'Not remotely,' Vila clarified, fear in his voice as he stared at his own read-outs. 'There's four more coming on zero two three!' he wailed, pointing at the lozenges reappearing on the grid-patterned star chart.

Dayna adjusted her scanner. 'And two more on the reciprocal bearing,' she reported grimly.

Soolin made a quick calculation. 'They'll have us in strike range in twenty-five seconds.'

Tarrant re-set the automatics. Scorpio was teetering on the brink. 'We're running out of options!' he shouted, and activated the main screen in the vain hope being able to see what was happening directly outside might provide some inspiration for them.

The screen behind the teleport section dilated to show the bruise-coloured fourth planet, like a piece of over-ripe fruit surrounded by gun ships like flies round a rotting corpse. Already, the foggy atmosphere was filling the screen. Another series of explosions ripped through the flight deck as another system gave up the ghost under the attack.

Tarrant was right. There was no other option. 'Power dive the atmosphere!' shouted Avon. 'Fake it! Make it look as though we're out of control!'

Tarrant's voice was thick with tension. 'I may not have to fake that!'

The first salvo sliced through the side of the ship, throwing all of them back against their seats. The lights flickered alarmingly and, for a split second, the gyroscopic servos cut out altogether. Suddenly very aware of being trapped in a decaying metal coffin high above a planet, Avon screamed, 'Do it!'

Tarrant's hands danced over the controls and the background whine grew deeper and louder. 'All right, everybody,' he called out, setting several controls to maximum, 'stand by for a rather sudden visit to Gauda Prime!'

#

The engines of the doomed freighter engaged as the gun ships closed in for the kill. The ship was now plummeting down towards Gauda Prime - obviously the systems had degraded to the point their last, desperate bid for freedom had sent them hurtling the wrong way.

After a few moments' communication, the gun ships decided not to simply concentrate their fire and annihilate the intruder. After all, it was merely days before the return to law was approved and they'd be retired from Gauda Prime. This could, then, be the last ship they shot down and so best it struck the surface to become a memorial for their work.

Scorpio plunged into the misty folds of the atmosphere and was soon lost from sight.

#

There was a barely-restrained tremor rippling through the surfaces of the flight deck as it tilted forwards at an angle of sixty degrees. Every few seconds was punctuated by a sparking explosion from various points around the deck. Soolin was concentrating on her displays, trying to determine what was happening outside. 'They're not following us down,' she announced finally, a note of relief in her voice.

Dayna's read-outs told a similar story. 'They're breaking away, all of them!' she shouted.

Vila was giddy with relief - or maybe it was just the turbulence? 'They're falling for it!'

'So are we,' groaned Tarrant, not looking up from his console.

Avon's eyes were locked on the blue mists of Gauda Prime's atmosphere on the forward screen. 'It was a calculated risk,' he admitted grimly.

Dayna looked at him sideways. 'What's wrong?' she demanded.

'There isn't enough power to get us back out,' Avon explained calmly.

'Or enough control to land!' Tarrant completed, adjusting the settings before him once more.

Suddenly Vila felt very cold. 'You mean we really are going to crash?!' he exclaimed.

Soolin rolled her eyes. 'No wonder they were convinced!'

'There must be something we can do!' screamed the little thief.

'I'll accept suggestions!' Avon replied over another detonation.

Vila looked round, desperately for something - anything! - to help them. He found it. 'How does 'Abandon ship!' grab you?' he asked, a note of hope entering his voice.

Tarrant snorted, busy at the controls. 'Well, it's a neat trick if you can do it,' he conceded.

'We can use the teleport!' Vila shouted.

Avon looked at Vila, then at the transmission area before him. 'He's right,' he said finally.

'What?' retorted Dayna, skeptically. 'At this speed?'

More chance than they'd have if Scorpio hit the ground at the same speed, the computer tech thought to himself as the scanner image flickered red and finally cut out - atmospheric friction had finished off the damaged external sensors. 'Do you want to wait around until we hit something soft? Come on, you're wasting time!'

Vila was already unbuckling himself from his chair. Dayna and Soolin followed suit and the three of them, women and children first, staggered over the jolting deck towards the teleport area. 'Another calculated risk?' snapped Soolin bitterly as Scorpio lurched wildly around them once more.

Dayna grabbed Vila's shoulder to keep steady. 'Try and get your sums right this time!' she wailed.

Avon rose and adjusted the teleportation controls. The moment the controls were set, he looked up at the huddled trio struggling to stay upright in front of him. 'Are you ready?' he asked, partially out of habit, partially because there was a real chance this would be the last time they saw each other alive.

'No, but do it anyway!' screamed Vila, fear getting the better of him.

Avon nodded and pressed down the activation handle. 'Good luck!' he shouted back at them.

The lights aboard the disintegrating vessel failed for a moment as the teleport field snapped on and engulfed the three figures before him. With reassuring smoothness, the three silhouettes glowed red and dissolved into nothingness.

#

Towards the middle of the afternoon, the low moaning winds of Gauda Prime were being joined by a painful, drawn-out howl of overworked engines as a ship slammed into the atmosphere at too high a velocity. The breezes through the forests were steadily getting stronger as a massive amount of displaced air rushed through the mighty pine trees.

Abruptly, a shimmering pattern of energy solidified on the grassy ground.

Soolin, Dayna and Vila swayed uneasily as they returned to horizontal ground. Although their surroundings had changed, the groaning of Scorpio's engines was still present, twice as loud and getting even louder. Dayna instinctively clamped her hands over her ears and looked for the source of the noise.

Already a gigantic shadow was moving across the woodlands towards them. Dayna appreciated just for the first time how large and impressive Scorpio was, and then decided she'd learnt enough and followed Vila as he raced off into the cold, damp woods. Soolin followed after her.

Above them, the planet hopper drew closer and closer, louder and louder.

#

Tarrant twisted in his chair, trying to operate two sets of controls simultaneously. The ship was still in space-travel mode and had to be re-calibrated for the planet's atmosphere. The systems had not adjusted themselves and Tarrant was no longer sure if they could be changed. Around them, there was the building grinding roar as the hull glowed red with friction, a hull riddled with breaches and holes.

Avon had managed to reach Orac's podium and was tearing off the straps that bound the computer in place. 'Orac,' he gasped, 'Orac, on my order I want you to operate the teleport!'

'Very well,' replied Orac calmly. 'But the previous coordinates can only be matched approximately.'

Surprised that the computer was not more anxious over its fate, Avon lifted Orac from the podium and was waiting for the right moment to make his way to the transmission area. With their death dive and power resources low, the longer they waited to abandon ship, the less likely their survival became. 'Come on, Tarrant,' he called over his shoulder.

Tarrant shook his head, struggling to keep the ship steady to project the teleport beam. 'I can't,' he grunted.

Avon's eyes widened. 'What?!'

He turned and made his way up the steep deck towards Tarrant's console. 'If I leave the controls for a second, she'll flip over and break up,' the pilot reported briskly. As it to prove his point, the lights flickered and dimmed even further.

Slowly and carefully, Avon lowered Orac onto the floor in front of the flight console. The computer's weight held it where it was - for the moment. Meanwhile, Avon ducked around behind Tarrant and studied the controls. It was clear Tarrant was correct: the ship was so badly damaged, it would come apart at its current speed without help.

Of course, thought Avon, who said that help had to be from Tarrant? 'Slave, take over the flight controls,' Avon ordered, preparing to collect Orac again.

'I am most humbly sorry, Master,' reported Slave, scanning the remnants of the frying automatics, 'but I can find... no flight controls.'

Tarrant nodded grimly, squinting to read the displays and ignore the building roar outside Scorpio. 'It dropped below his tolerance a couple of minutes ago,' he grunted. 'It's only a computer, Avon! It takes talent to fly a dead ship,' the pilot sighed, and finally tore his attention from the controls to look at his leader. 'Look, there's nothing you can do,' he snapped angrily. 'You're not a good enough pilot!'

Avon's eyes were wide, as though he was in a trance. 'I can see that,' he muttered softly.

He seemed to have frozen up at the thought of being unable to help his comrade, and Tarrant scowled. The computer tech hadn't lifted a finger to save Zeeona because she wasn't 'useful' and he didn't care to live with the man any more. 'So get the hell out of here, will you?' the pilot roared. 'There's no point in both of us dying.'

Avon turned to look at him and, for a moment, it seemed he might have bodily picked up Tarrant and carried him away.

The moment passed and the turbulence around the disintegrating flight deck got worse. Avon ducked around the console and wrenched Orac from the tilting floor. He overbalanced and it took all his skills to keep him from collapsing as well as avoiding large pieces of debris. As Avon struck against Slave's section and rebounded into the teleport bay, he shouted, 'Are you ready, Orac?'

'Of course I am!' snapped the computer.

'Then do it!' roared Avon, struggling to stay upright.

On the control console in front of him, the main activator ignited and then, as if by an invisible hand, was slowly pushed down against the desk. The thick curtain of refracted light descended to engulf Avon and Orac, who grew pale, shimmered - and then snapped back into focus.

'Goodbye, Tarrant,' said Avon quietly as the teleport whined and struggled to complete the process.

Tarrant looked up from the controls once more and saw the others finally dissolve and vanish. The front of the flight deck was plunged into darkness and there was the smell of melting plastic. The teleportation system was gone for good. Tarrant was now trapped aboard Scorpio as it hurtled towards the ground below.

#

Avon let out a shuddering sigh as the fragmenting teleport field deposited him alive and well on the planet's surface. But his relief at being in one piece was tempered as the strong gale through the clearing he had appeared in reached a hurricane force. Avon glanced upright and saw the bronze shape of Scorpio directly overhead.

Instinctively, Avon lowered Orac onto the ground and covered it with his body. The screaming of the planet hopper's engines was shaking the very ground beneath them as loose vegetation was flung at him from all sides.

All Avon could think about was that it would be a pity to be flattened by a crashing space craft mere moments after miraculously escaping from it.

#

The darkened flight deck was bucking wildly as Scorpio neared the planet's surface. 'Slave,' Tarrant shouted over the noise, 'Any crash systems still functioning? Put them online.'

'Yes, sir,' replied the computer dutifully. 'Am I to understand that you are going to try and ground the ship, sir?' Slave asked, sounding worried at the thought.

'I'm going to turn it first,' grunted Tarrant, adjusting the steering columns with all his strength.

The grinding howl outside became an intolerable shriek that shook Tarrant's bones to jelly and the flight deck flapped like a sheet in a tornado. Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the flight deck began to level out. Thankfully, Tarrant cancelled the program and the shriek bled away to hear the hollow scraping noises as the tree tops caught in the blackened edges of the hull.

It wasn't the end.

Not just yet.

#

Struggling to think over the deafening howl and move against the gale force winds, Vila dived into a soil-lined gully and painfully inched forwards into what he prayed was sufficient shelter. Once there, he clamped his hands over his ears and waiting for it to end, one way from another.

A good distance behind him were Soolin and Dayna, struggling to keep onwards and frantically trying to seek better and more secure cover. Vila's animal instincts and total panic had served him better than the others. At one point, Dayna had dropped her clip-gun and valuable seconds passed as she tried to reclaim it.

Above them, the devastated hulk of Scorpio skidded across the treetops.

#

'The ground is very close, sir,' Slave announced unhelpfully.

'I know that!' the pilot shouted back, fighting to keep the ship right-side-up.

And then there was no more time for talk.

#

Scorpio bounced roughly through the forest, and momentarily became airborne again. The dense layout of trees managed to tangle themselves into every hull fracture, vent and grille, dragging the freighter down and cushioning it simultaneously. Its forward momentum thrust the ship forwards, and it finally struck the ground, and an unnatural grinding noise filled the world as Scorpio carved a massive furrow into the ground, ploughing a trench kilometres long in the forest vegetation.

#

Inside the stricken vessel, Tarrant was thrown roughly against his console, wrenching his knee and bruising his face. The flight deck was flooded with an eerie red glow and it seemed that every single piece of electrical equipment started to short-out. A massive vibration shook Scorpio from end to end, and Tarrant sensed the airlocks come apart at the seams, vanishing in blinding flashes and smoke.

Suddenly, the entire console came free from the floor and spun drunkenly into the centre of the room. Tarrant gripped his chair, white with terror as a supporting girder came free and lurched drunkenly towards the toppled flight chairs where Avon, Dayna and Vila had been sitting only minutes before.

Spotting the ceiling strut starting to cave in overhead, Tarrant dived across the room and struck the deck heavily. He felt as though his stomach had continued its moment and left him behind. Massive chunks of the ceiling and walls came crashing down around him and the glow became a solid, angry red.

Slave observed all of this, unable to do a thing.

#

Scorpio skidded slowly to a halt, massive explosions blossoming in its wake as it scraped away large amounts of dirt and vegetation, before listing drunkenly to starboard. The massive roar of its engines and scraping of soil faded to be replaced by a near-organic creaking groan, steadily getting louder and louder, masking the sounds of burning vegetation, but it was not of forest fire proportions and would soon be out.

#

Tarrant lay on his stomach, arms and legs spread-eagled over the square section of deck as it started to shift and buckle under his weight. Flames and sparks seemed to be engulfing the entire infrastructure around him as the plate started to dip under his legs and rise above his hands. The slope grew steeper and steeper, through ten degrees, sixty, seventy...

Then, he finally lost his grip and fell.

He tried to scream, but everything went black before the noise passed his lips.

#

The inhuman groan was finally silenced as the shattered wreck slumped against innumerable trees. But vegetable fiber can only resist so much. The blasted hulk slipped out of sight with a distant crunching rumble.

Then, nothing.

#

The silence rang in Avon's ears for a long time. Slowly, he got to his feet, idly dusting some of the leaves and twigs that had adhered to his clothes. He then slowly turned and moved in a circle around Orac - to every side was an identical vista of tall pine trees and grey mist. The only noise the moan of the wind.

His mind pondered Tarrant's fate. It was customary for a captain to remain with a dying ship, after all. The man's self-destructive lifestyle meant the path he traveled would have ended this way sooner or later. Perhaps, in some realm of existence, he was being reunited with Zeeona.

Or maybe not.

Time to concentrate on the living.

Avon reached down and picked up his computer. 'All right, Orac,' he said after a pause. 'Where is the nearest settlement and how do I get to it?'

#

Tarrant opened his eyes. He wasn't quite sure what he was expecting to see as memory returned, but this didn't seem to be the afterlife. He was surrounded by blackened rubble and other unidentifiable wreckage in near total darkness. Thin, grey shafts of light picked out shattered bulkheads and mounds of earth. Blood was dried and crusting on his face, he found it difficult to breath and he couldn't move.

Adrenaline leant the pilot lucidity and, flexing his muscles, he realized it was not paralysis - merely a heavy beam that had fallen across him and managed to save him from most of the other wreckage. Gritting his teeth, Tarrant managed to push the beam away and scrabble clear, agitating a hundred real and imagined injuries. He managed to find a ruined shape that might have once been a flight console and struggled to sit up against it.

Looking directly up, Tarrant realized the hull above him was riddled with fractures, and through them a dusky sky, devoid of clouds. Even as the thought struck him, he realized just how cold it was getting. He shifted, trying to gather himself up for warmth, but the pilot knew he should check for any obvious internal injuries before the shock of the past few hours caught up with him.

No sooner had the thought occurred to him then consciousness abandoned him once more.

#

Avon leant against the stiff bark of the tree trunk, clip-gun ready in his grasp. He looked down at the whirring glass cube on the ground beside and grunted, 'Orac, do you have a record of the official Gauda Prime distress frequency?'

'I can obtain that information,' replied Orac primly.

'Can you simulate the signal?'

'Of course, but I fail to see why should that be necessary.'

Avon scanned the surroundings woods for the upteenth time. 'I want to attract a search party,' he explained.

'I must remind you, in the present political environment, such a party would be likely to be heavily armed.'

'I'm not interested, Orac,' snapped Avon. The search party would require transport and logically would leave it to search and the computer tech was confident he could commandeer said transport without too much difficulty. 'I want you to tap into the nearest Gauda Prime tracking centre computer and notify me when any transport approaches the region that we are in.'

'Very well,' Orac sighed. 'I shall be able to triangulate positions with the Slave computer's sensors.'

Avon frowned. 'Slave is still operational?'

'Running on emergency power at a mere 37 per cent capacity and falling rapidly. Its usefulness is unlikely to have diminished,' replied the computer smugly, remembering the insults it had hurled at Slave not long ago.

'And Tarrant?' asked Avon softly.

'Slave cannot determine the extend of his injuries.'

Avon felt what might have been relief. 'He is alive, then?'

'Alive but unconscious,' confirmed Orac.

'Can we make it to the crash-site on foot before night falls?' asked Avon.

'No,' replied Orac.

Avon huddled back into the tree, feeling a sudden chill as the sun passed into late afternoon shadows.

#

A stream of very small - but very rare and, as such, very valuable - stones collected into the open palm of Roj Blake as he sat in the computer-lined walls of an office. The office belonged to a nervous, ascetic-looking man with unruly locks of long red hair, dressed in a neat white uniform. While Blake's attention was focussed on the jewels in his hand, the man was concentrating on a holographic screen behind Blake. Displayed on the image were the suspicious but defiant features of a woman called Veta Arlen.

The administrator lazily turned his gaze to the chuckling bounty hunter. 'Checks are finished,' he reported simply. 'She is who you say she is,' he elaborated, looking back at the face on the screen.

Blake smiled and looked up from the bounty he had received. 'I wouldn't have brought her in if I hadn't made sure,' he pointed out. The cold statement of fact was tempered by his obvious pleasure.

'Yes,' sniffed his superior, turning to study the controls on his desk. 'You're good at this, aren't you?' he asked rhetorically, his disgust at Blake's profession obvious to all.

Blake smiled. 'I'm still alive,' he replied with a slight shrug.

The red-haired man narrowed his eyes. 'According to her,' he snapped, indicating Arlen's image, 'three of your erstwhile colleagues no longer share that happy condition!'

'Happy condition?' echoed Blake disbelievingly, returning his reward into the small cloth pouch tied with string.

His comrade would not be swayed off-topic. 'She says you killed one of them,' he snapped.

Blake stared at him. 'So?' he asked simply.

Seething, the prissy man stabbed at a control and the view screen - indeed, its link with Arlen who had listened to every word - shut down. A far wearier expression fell over the administrator as he seemed to relax. 'Was it necessary?' he protested, regret in his voice.

Blake rose to his feet. 'Yes, Deva,' he replied, equally weary, 'it was necessary.' He took the Federation side-arm Arlen had given him from his belt and set it on the console before his 'superior'. Blake had, until five months ago, always carried his Liberator side-arm and power pack, but it had been wrecked in a knife attack that had also chipped one of his ribs in the process.

Deva shook his head. 'One bounty hunter killing another?' he said, troubled at the thought of it.

Blake paced around the office, stretching his legs. 'It's a competitive profession,' he reminded Deva.

Deva scowled as Blake walked behind him. 'That isn't funny,' he growled.

Blake nodded thoughtfully. 'Neither was Tando,' he agreed.

Deva arched an eyebrow, his manner relaxing even further at the information. 'Tando?' he echoed, surprised. Blake nodded and the administrator all but smiled in relief. 'Oh,' he said, understandingly. ' Oh, it was Tando you killed.'

Blake glanced down at the red-haired administrator, as though surprised by the sudden about-face. 'Does it make a difference?' he asked lightly, though he wasn't particularly interested.

Deva smiled slightly. 'He's worse than the people he hunted,' he reminded Blake.

'He didn't have a price on him, though, did he?' the bounty hunter pointed out.

The administrator shrugged. 'It was only a matter of time.'

'Isn't everything?' asked Blake, a note of what could have been bitterness in his voice.

Raym Tando was a thick-set, bullet-headed crimo who Blake had encountered not long after he first arrived on Gauda Prime. The psychopath had been more than willing to aide them as he respected Blake by their mutual friend, Olag Gan. That had been a moot point: Blake had been shocked to learn his former companion, rather than a wronged citizen of the Federation was, to cut a long story short, known affectionately as 'the Cat Strangler' by his friends. The Gan Blake had known appeared to be nothing more than a facade aided by the limiter implant in his brain - a fact which had made the rebel leader far less trusting than before. Tando had saved Blake's life on several occasions and, although he had been instrumental in setting up Blake as the bounty hunter Dev Varon, both Blake and Deva had agreed the grinning psychotic was too unstable to be used in their operations.

'Who's next on the list?' asked Blake, interrupting Deva's thoughts. The administrator collected a handful of Perspex squares, on which were imprinted the details of the Federation criminals in order of priority and price. 'Thank you,' said Blake, turning to study the information - all thoughts of Tando banished from his mind.

Deva turned and the internal communicator began to chime. He punched the respond button. 'Deva.'

'It's Klyn,' responded a female voice at the other end.

#

Jo Klyn stood in the main tracking gallery of the silo, while the more technical-minded members of the operation moved back and forth around her, all the instruments primed to monitor every movement made on the planet Gauda Prime - one of the more paranoid, if sensible, decisions their leaders had made in setting up the base.

'Yes, Klyn?' replied Deva over the communicator on her circular control desk.

'We've been tracking a ship that tried to run the blockade,' she explained.

'Did it get through?'

Klyn glanced at the relayed confrontation on her data read-outs. 'There was a full squadron of gun ships on its tail when it hit the atmosphere,' she reported, trying to stay tactful. They all had painful memories of friends lost in similar circumstances and she didn't want to upset Blake, who would surely be listening.

Deva seemed to guess her intention. 'It didn't, then?' he surmised.

'Bits of it, maybe,' Klyn conceded.

'What was it? Do you know?'

Klyn scanned the reports they had picked up from surveillance before the battle had knocked the intruder out of the sky. 'A planet hopper from the scope reading,' she read out. 'Might have been Wanderer class. We estimate it must have crashed somewhere in Plantation Five. Do you want a search patrol sent out?' she asked.

#

Deva considered his options. They had salvaged quite a bit of useful technology from wrecks in the past - when the gun ships had let any remains strike the earth - but such an operation would be time consuming, and he wanted everyone to stay indoors and under his control, at least until he decided it was safe enough for their normal operations to continue. 'No,' he said finally. 'Just log it.'

'Right,' said Klyn, breaking the intercom link.

'Chalk up another one to law and order,' Blake muttered, brooding over the lists in his hand.

'Smuggler, do you think?' asked Deva, trying to remain as unemotional as the bounty hunter beside him.

'Something like that,' Blake grunted. 'Do you know it's getting so you can't make a dishonest living on this planet anymore?' he complained in mock-indignation.

Deva smiled, reassured by his comrade's humor. 'That is the object of the exercise,' he reminded him.

Blake nodded, his mind elsewhere. 'I wonder if those gun ships challenged him before they opened fire?' he murmured, remembering who else had been lost to those trigger-happy murderers.

'I doubt it,' said Deva grimly.

Blake seemed to snap out of his trance and remembered where he was. 'These two,' he said finally, handing two of the Perspex boards to Deva and placed the others on the desk. Deva rose, taking the records over to his main computer and began to punch the relevant codes into the data bank. The two identities were being entered into the computer frame, withdrawing known information and announcing they were now officially being hunted down.

'Plantation Five, did she say?' asked Blake idly, collecting Arlen's weapon.

'Yes,' replied Deva as he finished up at the computer.

Blake nodded to himself. 'I might just take a swing out in that direction, see if there's anything left.'

The administrator rounded on the bounty hunter. 'You'll be wasting time!' he said reprovingly.

The scarred rebel didn't react. 'I'll bear that in mind,' he promised dryly, putting the gun back in his belt.

Deva opened his mouth to reprimand the errant figure when the computer chimed and a small patterned card emerged from a reader slot on the main computer - to be fitted into a flyer's on-board mainframe. Deva collected it, checked its contents with a practiced eye, and handed it to Blake. 'Last known locations and probable movements for both subjects,' he announced, 'and official authorization to hunt them.'

Blake took the card. 'Thank you.'

No sooner had he pocketed the data-card when the computer bleeped once more and a laminated identification plaque emerged from the slot. Deva frowned and examined it. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. 'You've been given a temporary appointment as a "law enforcement officer",' he explained, amused.

Blake chuckled again, taking the new card. 'That central computer doesn't care who it makes respectable, does it?'

Deva smiled. 'It's an inferior model, I'm afraid,' he said solemnly.

Blake nodded and turned to leave. 'I'll be in touch if I find that ship,' he promised.

'Time really is getting short, you know,' Deva threw at his retreating back. 'The representative from the Federation High Council could come at any moment. We can't afford mistakes.'

Blake paused on the doorway and looked back at Deva. The scar on the left side of his face was like an acid tear mark. 'I wasn't intending to make any,' he said, his voice and face devoid of all expression.

He knew what Deva was referring to - the last mistake he had made. Eight months ago, the flashy celebrity bounty hunter Lafayette had approached Gauda Prime; a few years ago they had fooled him into thinking he had killed Blake on the planet Jevron, and tricked the Federation into thinking the corpse cremated had been genuine. But Lafayette had discovered the presence of Jenna Stannis on GP and had gleefully moved in and betrayed her. As it became apparent that Lafayette himself was now a wanted man, Blake and Tando had teamed up with a mutilated bounty hunter called Kane in order to execute the traitor. Together - with Tando's complete lack of subtlety causing more than its fair-share of problems - they had exacted revenge on Lafayette and his gang. However, Blake had foolishly let slip his identity and the partnership had ended with Kane slashing Blake across the face, cutting right down the bone. Only Tando's mindless hatred and quick-shooting had saved the rebel's life.

Now Blake was the only one who had been there that night and was alive to tell the tale.

And he was determined for it to stay that way.

#

Deva watched Blake stride out of his office, a troubled frown on his face.

He reached out and activated his intercom. 'The bounty hunter is on his way up,' he explained, knowing Blake didn't like his name being used if it were possible. 'Make sure his flyer is fueled and ready to leave, will you?'

'Right, I'll check it,' came the reply.

Deva reactivated the view screen. Arlen's features reformed on the main screen above his computer. Once a lieutenant in the FSA, Arlen had deserted after shooting two of her fellow troopers while massacring a neutral village on Uanta earlier in the year - her scruples finally getting the better of her blind obedience to the Federation. But Blake had shown him the Federation side-arm she still carried - she had claimed she'd looted it from a trooper she'd killed, but that was no guarantee where her loyalties lay.

'Arlen,' said Deva, and watched her tense. Trapped in her cell, she had no idea when she was being monitored or not. 'Have you anything to say before I decide what to do with you?' he asked lightly.

'I have information,' said Arlen coldly.

'What information?' asked Deva lightly, pleased that Blake's instincts had been proved right once more. As with most of their subjects, Arlen was trying to worm her way out of trouble and, if that failed, bring what they thought as the ultimate traitor down with them. She'd decry him as someone who once meant something but now was worse than the criminals he hunted - take him, not me, because he's probably worth more. But just what she had felt about Blake and his ideals before was what would mark her out as a rebel or just another crimo.

'For my life,' continued the prisoner, unwavering.

'What information?' Deva repeated firmly.

Arlen took a deep breath. 'It's about the man who brought me here,' she explained.

Deva scratched his cheek with a Perspex square. 'What about him?' he asked innocently, waiting to see if she passed the test that they had all, at one time or another, had had to face.

#

Blake strode down the corridors of the base, wondering just how long his luck could last. He was tired, tired of running, of being betrayed, of losing his friends. He was beginning to feel he was living and fighting out of sheer habit and he needed rest. The rebel shook his head. He couldn't afford to entertain thoughts like that.

His base was doing very well - so impressive it was being given full, official recognition, as Blake's promotion had shown. Of course, Deva's work in making it appear there was widespread unofficial support probably had something to do with it. To the outside world, they were special operatives of the Social Services Ministry, sent out here to supervise as the 'Primies' got their house in order. Blake, as a bounty hunter, went after a very select quarry: anyone who had sought refuge on GP because their crime against the Federation had been of a dissident nature. After Blake brought them in, alive, Deva performed further computerized chicanery to have the person listed as dead - while the bounty hunter collected a still-substantial reward. Apart from anything else, there was the added irony that the Federation was helping to finance the resistance. And now that Deva had located information that Avon was still alive, his battered spirit had begun to soar even more.

As Blake moved into the main tracking gallery, a series of shrill noises began to fill the air and the movement of the technicians became more frenzied. He noticed that Klyn was adjusting controls on her console, identifying the source of the alarm. Unlike others he had known, the petite Jo Klyn was no wild-eyed revolutionary - a former secretary in Space Command Headquarters, she had failed to swallow the party line and gotten curious about the truth. Letting her conscience get the better of her had lead to her place by his side.

'Problem?' asked Blake as he passed her console.

'Someone's operating a distress beacon,' Klyn explained. 'It's on the official frequency.'

Blake shrugged. 'Nothing in it for me, then,' he said with mock regret. Noticing her puzzled look, the rebel explained, 'Outlaws tend not to use distress beacons.'

#

A brilliant orange splash spread across the horizon, marking the end of day. Avon squinted into the light for a moment. Odd, wasn't it? All the bolt-holes he'd considered, yet he'd never given much thought to how it could be, getting stranded somewhere against his will, with no contingency planning to fall back on? Perhaps that was how it had been with Blake, after Star One: he could have simply found himself stuck somewhere, with no resources. Was that what Jevron had been, some backwater hellhole that Blake couldn't escape? Avon had never looked at it that way before; not that it mattered of course, at this late date.

'I assume,' Orac was saying, 'you have given some thought to how you will explain your presence here? Not to mention my impersonation of an official distress beacon?'

'Just keep sending, Orac. I don't particularly want to spend the night out here.'

'You may have to,' the computer retorted unhelpfully. 'There is very little daylight left, and search parties are unlikely to operate in this terrain at night.'

Avon got to his feet and glanced around the dwindling grey light. 'Stick to the distress beacon, Orac,' he ordered coldly. 'When I want your impersonation of a pain, I'll let you know.'

He picked up the computer and looked around. After a few moments, he hurried off into the woods in the direction where Orac had insisted the others teleported down. From there, he'd have a chance to find and track down Vila, Dayna and Soolin. As Orac had just mentioned, it was tailing through dusk and he would have to find the others quickly - when darkness came, the area would be crawling with roving teams of bounty hunters and salvage teams. It was unlikely that they would all be dedicated to Blake's cause of freedom.

#

The darkness grew thick beneath the trees, rapidly becoming pitch black. Vila paused by the trunk of a large tree, staring at the darkening canopy of leaves up ahead. Somewhere here, Blake was plotting and scheming to bring down the Federation. But this lawless, lethal planet was hardly the place to find a once idealistic, moral man like Blake - but time, after all, changed people.

It wasn't easy going in the darkness, the little thief had a nasty suspicion those were rain clouds on the horizon. The others obviously shared his concern, and they decided to head for the nearest shelter: what seemed to be an old farmhouse that didn't look like much with a small creek to the left. The three of them paused by the run-down shack. The wood was ancient, moudly and rotten - not to mentioned enveloped in cobwebs. Dayna fingered the damp wall and wrinkled her nose. 'This place is disgusting.'

'What did you expect?' Soolin grunted. 'This isn't a pleasure planet. I couldn't believe it when Avon said he was coming here. When I said I was leaving the next place we got to, I didn't think it would be GP. The last place in the universe I'd choose to be in.'

Vila grimaced and threw his weight at the muddy boards that blocked the entrance to the shack.

'I hope the others made it,' said Dayna.

Vila rubbed his shoulder, then wiped off the debris that had collected there. 'I dare say they did once Avon knew we had,' he said and charged the doorway again.

'What d'you mean?' asked Dayna.

Soolin weighed her clip-gun in her hand, wondering if the noise and waste of ammunition was worth getting immediate shelter. 'You don't think it was chivalry that made him let us go first, do you?' she asked Dayna. 'He wasn't certain it would work.'

Vila scowled - and then cried out slightly in alarm as the door finally gave under his weight and he was suddenly running into darkness filled with swirling mould and dust. As his eyes adapted to the gloom, he saw the interior of the shack was even worse than the outside: furniture had rotted away, leaving only an old wood-burner and some rubbish. On the rickety walls hung two mining helmets, the metal casing surviving the damp air far better than there surroundings. Vila scowled and spat out a mouthful of dusty air.

'Oh, charming,' he snapped. 'Really charming!'

'Oh, stop moaning, Vila,' Dayna grunted as she gingerly entered their new lodgings.

'It's better than spending a night in the open,' Soolin pointed out, following them inside the hut.

'Are you serious?' demanded the thief. 'The state the roof's in, it's the same as spending a night in the open!'

'Well, if you'd prefer the trees, feel free to go. Don't let us stop you,' Dayna snarled.

Vila folded his arms, petulantly. 'I'd prefer a city,' he retorted. 'But I'd accept a town... In fact, I'd settle for some indication that we weren't the only people left alive in this miserable tree sanctuary!'

Dayna was trying to clear some accumulated rubbish from a low shelf that ran along one side of the hut, forming a kind of bench. She looked up and glared at Vila. 'Look, why don't you go and collect some firewood, hm?' she suggested.

Vila looked at her blankly. 'Because it's dark out there,' he explained bluntly.

Soolin looked up at him, rolling her eyes. 'Surely you're not afraid of the dark!' she groaned.

Vila had heard the nasty sounds of wildlife in the undergrowth, and he refused to move. 'Only when it's un-illuminated,' he retorted, then looked up, startled. 'What's that?' he gasped.

'All right, Vila!' hissed Dayna through gritted teeth. 'You've made your point!'

'No,' whispered the thief urgently. 'Listen!'

The fear in his voice was real and both Dayna and Soolin tensed. A low mechanical purring could just be made out. The hum grew louder and louder, heightening in pitch through the damp air. 'What is it?' Dayna asked, speaking at a normal volume just to be heard over the engine noise.

Soolin had a look of horrified recognition on her face. 'Flyer, coming fast,' she muttered.

Vila brightened. 'Flyer?' he repeated hopefully. 'As in transport?'

Soolin nodded as the noise grew louder. 'As in transport,' she confirmed.

Vila grinned and headed for the doorway, 'Well, let's get out there and attract their attention!' he shouted.

'No!' shouted Dayna as she grabbed him, as did Soolin. She knew anything that intimidated Soolin couldn't be worth the risk, and her fellow gunfighter helped her in hauling the little thief from the entrance.

'Wait a minute, Vila!' hissed Soolin.

Vila glared at her. 'What do you mean, 'wait'?' he snapped. 'That's the sound of civilization!'

Soolin's grip was firm. 'Not necessarily!' she snapped.

Vila struggled to leave the hut. 'It's got to be better than this!' he shouted.

'I wouldn't bet my life on it!' screamed the blonde killer, as Dayna shouted his name.

The engine noise was right on top of them, reaching a deafening howl.

#

'Avon,' announced Orac suddenly. 'A flyer has entered the area.'

The computer tech glared down at the device in his arms. 'Tap into the flyer's flight and sensor computers,' he ordered. 'Where has it come from? What's it doing?'

'Data suggests the flyer has been launched from an underground silo some distance away. It now appears to be searching the area.'

Avon quickened his pace.

'The inboard sensors aboard the flyer have picked up heat from three bodies, closely grouped.' Avon nodded. Dayna, Vila and Soolin - they had to be. 'The flyer is moving to investigate,' Orac reported after another pause.

'How far?' Avon demanded.

'Approximately three miles north-north-west of your current position,' the computer explained.

Avon scowled. It was too far away from him to do anything about it. He might manage to get Orac to force the flyer's navigational computer to crash it, but that would endanger the others and ruin their prospective transport. He paused by a thin, skeletal tree. 'Come on, Orac - what's happening?'

'The flyer is now hovering over the location,' snapped Orac in return. 'It is now moving away.'

'Why?'

'Presumably to continue its search pattern in a different location!' sighed the computer.

Avon rubbed his brow. The last few days had been so hectic, he found his head starting to ache - he should have deduced the answer already. He needed some rest. But later. 'All right, Orac, work out the coordinates of these three and lead me to it - and keep tracking that flyer.'

'Very well,' Orac sighed.

'And maintain a watch for additional flyers,' Avon added hastily. Yes, he thought, he was exhausted. The brief respite on Scorpio had not let him re-gather the strength he lost so systematically over the last week or so. He reestablished his grip on Orac and hoped his faculties would not fail him just yet.

They hurried on into the woods.

#

Vila's resolve cracked and he broke free of his companions and dived for cover by the cold metal shape in the centre of the hut. The moment the others realized that he was hiding and not giving them away, they too raced for the protection of the shadows as the roaring of the engine above them continued.

A white search-light spun drunkenly at the entrance, a searing contrast with the gloom within.

For what might have been a second or an age, the incandescent glow boiled the outside of their feeble shelter, then retreated. The engine howl changed pitch and faded away into silence as the flyer cruised steadily away over the treetops. Around them, the darkness deepened, and beyond the shack were the sounds of the forest. A bird squawking out amongst the trees, insects droning, small animals grunting in the shrubs.

So much for the joyous homecoming, Soolin thought weakly as her heat stopped racing. Not that she'd conjured any great expectations about returning to GP. One of the few hopes she had clung to was that she would never have to set foot on this forsaken world again, so long as she lived.

Vila was tentatively rising to his feet. 'They might have been friendly,' he pointed out petulantly.

Dayna stepped out of the gloom. 'They might have come to apologize for shooting down Scorpio,' she retorted coldly, 'but it doesn't seem likely, does it.'

Vila sighed and shook his head. 'All right,' he admitted. 'So who do you think they were, Soolin?' he asked.

Soolin whirled around. For once, her cool-as-porcelain seemed to have failed her and she seemed to be shaking with emotion - rage or fear, it was hard to tell in the gloom. 'I've no idea, Vila,' she hissed at him. 'But one thing I do know: if you want to, survive on this planet you have to assume that everyone is out to get you!'

Vila was taken aback by her fretfulness. 'I always assume that wherever I go!' he said, defensively.

'The difference is,' snarled Soolin, 'on Gauda Prime you'll be right.' #

Orac's navigation was unsurprisingly helpful and soon Avon was striding down a dirt track that wound its way through the mighty pine trees towards what were presumably the remnants of his crew. Avon glanced down at the computer hanging by his side, the other hand holding his gun at the ready. 'Avon,' called the computer, 'the flyer has just reached Scorpio's wreckage.'

'You're sure?' asked Avon as he continued down the path.

'Of course I am!' snapped Orac waspishly. 'The fact is confirmed both by the flyer's on-board computers and the Slave computer itself! The flyer has landed. There is one human aboard and is now moving around the wreckage.'

'Tarrant?'

'The human has examined Tarrant and appears to be searching for other survivors.'

Avon paused for thought. 'Still no word on Tarrant's actual physical condition?'

'No, Avon,' the computer replied impatiently.

'I can't risk voice contact,' muttered Avon, thinking through the options available. He came to a decision. 'Orac, have Slave to ignore both the human and the presence of the parked flyer. But inform Tarrant of any other flyers.' He turned and hurried down the slope. If Tarrant was still alive, he'd probably be picked up by this do-gooder and taken to the silo for medical treatment. Avon could then follow, once he had collected the others.

#

Around twenty miles southeast of Port Dunbar - an actual seaport, though its docks had been abandoned since the mining companies had taken over - was the clearing where Scorpio nestled, half on its side, where it had plowed into a grassy hillock after skidding along the forest floor. Scorched ground and uprooted trees marked the path. The once-proud planet hopper was now a discouraging sight of torn and twisted metal, wires exposed and dangling, some still hissing and sparking, the hulk dark and silent. The full moon was diffused by the mist rolling on off the sea, casting everything with a surreal light and leaving the tang of salt sharp in the air.

Although the heap of mangled metal seemed devoid of life, the site was far from deserted.

#

Somewhere, somewhen, a voice was whispering. It might have been conspiratorial, or confidential, but Tarrant somehow knew that the voice was exhausted - to the point of passing out. He was on the knife's edge of consciousness himself, and was no longer sure if he had been dreaming or was continuing to do so even now.

'Sir?' whispered the voice, so close yet so far away. 'Are you still not awake, sir? I would be most grateful if you could try to stir yourself and listen to my report,' it went on. 'My emergency power cells are virtually exhausted, I'm afraid.'

Tarrant shifted his head, trying to crane his neck so he could hear better, but the effort proved too much and he sank back into the darkness of oblivion.

#

Across the shattered remnants of Scorpio, the Slave computer had managed to survive the impact in mostly one piece and now sat surrounded by the wreckage of the flight deck it had once gyrated in for nearly a century. Now its oscillations were slow, drawn out with effort and synthesized pain. The light it cast from various LEDs, LCDs, and the moonlight that washed down its alcove - which was open to the sky - just managed to illuminate the huddled form of its pilot, a man who had stuck with it at the cost of his own life.

Slave was embarrassingly grateful, but, then, it was programmed to be. However, in the dying remains of its memory banks, the idea of their brief comradeship seemed to give it a new, synthesized emotion. Fierce, bitter pride at the way they had tried to keep each other alive. Slave whirred and tried to re-focus its diminishing run-time on rousing Tarrant.

'There is a flying vehicle approaching, sir,' Slave reported, a noticeable slur in its voice integrator. 'I'm sorry,' the computer gasped painfully, 'but I will have to close down now. Crash damage... and power loss make it impossible for me to continue... May I express... the humble hope... that the same... is... not true... for you...'

Slave's sensors used up the dwindling energy reserve to focus on the one being it had right to call a friend.

'...Tarrant,' it croaked sadly, and then went offline.

#

The flight computer stopped moving, falling silent and dark. The only noise was the ethereal howl of the wind whistling through the ruined hull of the old ship. Then, a new noise was introduced - a slow, mechanical whirring, getting louder and louder, closer and closer. Suddenly, a powerful white glow lit the ruins and Tarrant awoke to find himself caught in a blinding spotlight. Grimacing with pain, he threw up a hand to cover his eyes.

The whirring got even louder, and then there was a hissing, crackling noise. A fine rain of scarlet light cascaded through one of the numerous breaches in the hull and strike the ruined flooring beneath. There was a brilliant flash, a deafening roar and shards of metal flew everywhere.

The force of the explosion left Tarrant sprawled across the ground. Nerves on fire, he managed to throw out his arms and haul himself forwards across first battered decking, then loose soil. He reached what should have been the teleport bay but what now a thick hillock, covered in small shrubs and shrouded in darkness. Groaning, he clawed his way into the dark recess as another salvo struck the flight console he'd been lying against seconds before.

The shockwave pressed him hard against the mound, as did the next.

'Lie still,' commanded a firm, deep voice.

Tarrant wondered if he was dreaming, and tried to turn his head to see who was talking. Then, remembering the advice, he turned it back. Agony lanced through his voice as he gasped, 'Who... Who's that?'

'Let them think you're dead,' the voice continued, apparently missing his question. 'Plasma ammunition is scarce. You're lucky that you weren't hit. They won't want to waste any more.'

'Who are they?' groaned Tarrant, trying to be heard over the noise of their attackers.

'Gun runners,' replied the voice simply.

Tarrant boggled. Somehow, his dazed brain couldn't wrap itself around this new fact. 'Gun runners?' he whispered, confused. 'Why would gun runners be shooting at me?'

This time, the owner of the voice seemed to hear him. 'They're not. They're shooting at me.'

Tarrant heard movement and turned to see a bulky shape detaching itself from the mixture of girders and small trees that lined one part of the wreckage. His unkempt appearance - not to mention the plasma rifle he carried - was less than reassuring. He leapt into the open and pointed his blaster up at hull breach where the glow was strongest.

Tarrant heard one shot, then another, then another.

The whirring of the engines changed in pitch, getting higher and higher in frequency. The white glow retreated from the wrecked ship as the squealing engine noise seemed to veer away from them. Suddenly, there was a muffled crash and a dull roar. A thick orange glow illuminated the ruins for a moment, then silence and darkness returned.

His rescuer and looked down at Tarrant, gun in his hand, and Tarrant saw that the curly-haired man had a nasty scar that ran across his left eye, almost closing it.

#

The cold winds of Gauda Prime were growing stronger as night went on, and Avon was glad his black leather ensemble was able to retain his body heat - even though, on this planet, it was a disadvantage. Still, he wasn't far off from where his fellow criminals had sought refuge. He listened to the natural sounds of the forest; insects buzzing, small nocturnal animals shuffling in the undergrowth and treetops, the occasional squeal and hiss of a territorial fight in the distance. The moon was now glowing-visibly above the trees, standing sentinel over the insane world of Gauda Prime.

A loud crack of a sudden explosion roared into the night sky, and, startled, Avon turned to see a plume of flame and smoke shoot above the trees and collapse in on itself again. Orac suddenly came to life once more. 'Another flyer has entered this area and is searching.'

'Why?'

'The flyer's sensors detect a massive heat source from the same location as before - our destination.'

'What kind of heat source?' demanded Avon, scowling.

'Data suggests that it is some sort of fire,' offered Orac.

The fools, thought Avon with annoyance. 'What's the flyer doing now?' he asked.

'The flyer is settling down over one mile south-south west from the heat source.'

Avon nodded and hastened his pace. He was under a mile from the others and might just get there in time - but he would have to abandon Orac if he was to take on some bounty hunters.

And, even then, there was no guarantee he could save them.

#

'I'll watch the fire,' Vila had volunteered. Soolin and Dayna had stared at him in surprise, so he'd explained that he wasn't sleepy.

'If you say so,' Dayna had retorted and now she and Soolin were stretched out on the low, mattress-free beds, asleep through sheer exhaustion. Vila had wrapped himself in a blanket and sat before the dull red stove. However, the warmth of the stove, mingling with the icy cold air around him had dulled Vila's senses until his clip-gun lay, un-regarded in his lap as his eyelids fluttered closed.

A sharp, snapping noise of someone stepping on bracken.

Vila's eyes opened gently, and he rose to his feet, holding his gun at the ready once more. Keeping the blanket tight around him, he hurried over to the heavy drape they'd hung across the open doorway. It billowed in the frosty breeze. The little thief crept up to the curtain and tugged it aside as much as he dared.

Beyond the hut was the dirt track winding into darkness. The light from the single moon was too weak to illuminate much else, and the cold air was beginning to chill Vila's face. Replacing the curtain, he huddled himself over to the stove - and soon realized the stove was beginning to cool down.

It needed more fuel, so, putting down his gun, Vila picked up some firewood Dayna had collected, broke it in two and emptied the splinters through a small hatch at the top of the stove. There was a loud crackle and a sudden burst of heat that Vila used to warm his hands. He looked up and was about to grab his clip-gun once more when he realized he was no longer alone.

Standing before him was a gaunt, armed figure apparently trying to attract his attention.

Vila opened his mouth to sp--

#

Kiv and Dosarn slipped silently into the ruined shack, holding their plasma rifles at the ready. The heat source they had detected from the flyer was clearly the metal shape glowing orange in the centre of the room. Standing over it, trying to warm his hands was a small man with thinning sandy-hair dressed in grey, a blanket wrapped around him. His gun lay, abandoned on the heater. Grinning, Kiv darted around the fugitive and attracted the man's attention.

As the man looked up, Dosarn swung his rifle like a club, striking the man on the back of his neck. The man was unconscious before the force of the blow knocked him to the ground. Running a hand through his spiky white hair, Dosarn turned to regard the sleeping forms of two very attractive women. That opened up interesting possibilities, but the bounty hunters were nothing if not practical - raising their rifles, they crept forward to club the women unconscious and then they could determine what to do next.

'I wouldn't do that, if I were you,' advised a voice as cold as deep space.

Before Kiv could react, a volley of shots filled the air and he sank to the ground, a look of bewilderment mixed with annoyance on his face. His night had suddenly become so interesting, only for him to...

Dorsan whirled around as Kiv's body struck the floor, raised his rifle and fired at the shadowy figure standing by the door. The blast howled in the damp air, but the shadow seemed unharmed. It stepped forward towards the light and Dorsan caught a glimpse of a slender figure in leather and silver studs, holding a silver handgun.

Then the figure was suddenly gunning him down. Charges tore through Dorsan and he sank to join his fallen companion. He didn't even manage to scream before the dirt and dust swallowed him up.

#

Avon stepped into the pool of warmth being given off by the heater as the cries of shock from Dayna and Soolin, mingling with the final gasps of their would-be attackers, faded into silence. The women were now up, wide awake and clutching their guns. The sudden arrival of Avon and two of his victims seemed too much for Dayna as she stared at him, wide-eyed and afraid. 'What happened?' she wailed. 'Avon?'

Avon nodded, confirming they were both unharmed, and letting himself enjoy the warmth from the heater. 'The fire was stupid,' he said at length. 'Putting Vila on guard was suicidal.' He turned to look at Soolin, who was now calming down. 'What's the matter? Is staying alive too complicated for you?'

'It's beginning to look that way,' Soolin admitted shakily. 'How did you get here?'

'I teleported and I walked, just like you did,' the computer tech explained simply, and left.

Soolin scanned the room, and felt a stab of fear as her eyes rested on a slumped form by the fire. Dayna hurried over to the shape, and rolled it over to show Vila, pain on his face, eyes closed. 'Is he dead?' asked Soolin carefully.

Dayna was straightening out the little thief and he moaned. Dayna smiled, relieved. 'No more than usual,' she said lightly. 'He'll recover.' She turned and glanced at the two burly figures Avon had shot. 'What about them?'

'They're dead, all right,' said Soolin, dismissively. Her mind was filled with that time, so long ago, when criminals had crept on her family as they slept and wiped them all out. She had almost let the same thing happen to her. Maybe she was finding staying alive too hard... She needed rest, a respite. The constant chase had to end sometime.

Didn't it?

#

Avon bent by the thick undergrowth where he had hidden Orac, moments before he had sprinted to the hut. Luckily, the bounty hunters were prepared to capture rather than shoot on sight - otherwise, at the very least, Vila would be dead. As he hauled the crystal computer from the vegetation, Avon considered his plans once again.

There was a pale wash in the distance as the sun began to rise. The first thing to do was find the nearest modicum of civilization and then, from there, locate Tarrant and Blake. And then, maybe, Avon could relax, get some rest. Even as he held Orac in his arms, he felt like sagging with fatigue.

But there were the others to think about. They had to keep going, and thus, so did he.

Straightening up, to the outside world as composed as ever, Avon returned to the hut.

#

Vila groaned as the world lurched forward ninety degrees without his express permission. The queasiness in his stomach fought with the blinding agony behind his eyes and he moaned 'What hit me?' to the foggy red-black blur that seemed to be hovering beside him dispassionately.

'Don't worry, Vila,' Dayna's voice told him. 'They went for your least vulnerable spot.'

Vila tried to turn his head and open his eyes simultaneously and a jolt of lightning pain all but left him unconscious. 'Oh, my head,' he sobbed, clutching his ears and grimacing.

'Exactly,' said Dayna sadistically. 'So who are they?' she asked, turning to someone else.

'Bounty hunters,' a familiar voice replied, but it hurt Vila too much to think and identify it. 'I did warn you there were a lot of them about.'

'You didn't say the woods were full of them,' Dayna replied dryly.

'Do you know how they found us?' Soolin asked.

'They have heat tracers in their flyer,' said the other with a hint of a smile in their voice. 'At night the equipment is sensitive enough to pick up normal body heat within a radius of two miles. You can imagine what they made of that.'

Another voice muttered waspishly, 'Their inboard computer almost rejected the data as too gross to be correct.'

'Did you find out what they were doing in this area, Orac?' snapped Soolin.

Orac! Yes, Vila thought, it was Orac. But there was a flaw somewhere? What was Orac doing there with them? It hadn't before. And the owner of the other voice must be - Orac interrupted his rambling thoughts. 'They came to investigate my distress signals, naturally.' It was amazing, the level of irritation Orac could convey when it felt it was being asked unreasonable questions.

'Naturally,' agreed Dayna, her voice dripping with sarcasm. 'You wouldn't have set us up, by any chance, would you -Avon?'

Avon! Vila's head finally seemed to clear and he gingerly picked himself up off the floor of the shack. Standing in the doorway, bathed in grey moonlight and the red glow from the stove, the computer tech seemed otherwordly, an inhuman wraith holding Orac out in front of him.

Soolin was walking towards him, her voice as cold and dangerous as broken glass. 'Now, that is an unattractive idea,' she murmured casually. 'I really could be quite annoyed if I thought we'd been the bait in a trap you'd laid for them, Avon,' she hissed, a hand on her gun.

Vila replayed the conversation in his head and, this time, it made a kind of sense. 'Where's Tarrant?' he asked quietly, noticing the pilot's absence and troubled at the thought he had not left Scorpio with them.

Avon was ignoring him, focussing on Soolin - quite wisely, as she seemed quite prepared to shoot him down there and then. 'I had no idea it was you,' he said, no hint of shame in his voice. 'And it shouldn't have been,' he added in a harsher tone, striding into the hut. 'As a matter of interest, you've been walking in the wrong direction if you want to get out of this forest.'

Vila, still clutching the back of his neck, followed Avon. 'I asked where Tarrant was,' he said firmly.

Avon continued to play dumb. 'Still, that's no longer a problem.' He kicked at one of the disheveled corpses that lay on the floor, and the dead body absorbed the impact. He turned and smiled at his crew. 'We just inherited a flyer.'

Vila took a step forward, refusing to brook any more argument. 'Avon,' he said gravely, 'if you're here, and Orac's here, how did Tarrant get off the ship?' he demanded. He remembered only too-well what had happened over Malodaar when Avon had considered his life priority over the thief's - but surely he wouldn't have let Tarrant fall with Scorpio to their deaths, would he?

But, as Avon's hard stare became a shark-like smile, a chill ran through Vila. #

Smoke rising from the dark skeleton of Scorpio mingled with the early morning mist that wreathed the forest. The only sounds were the chirps and whistles of birds, a few creaks and groans as the wreckage settled. Tarrant was slumped against a mossy log, breathing in shallowly, smelling the loam-scented breeze as it wafted through the ruins of his ship. It was one of the things he had come to enjoy on Xenon - the minor pleasures of being on a planet for more than a few days at a time. Through the dim light, he could see his rescuer picking his way through the wreckage towards him, having just inspected the remains of their attackers.

The man's unshaven face and wiry hair made him look like the kind of lowlife Tarrant would have expected to see on a planet like Gauda Prime. But there was something undeniably unique about him, and Tarrant felt that this man was simultaneously assessing him and looking right through him. His remaining dark eye had a steady gleam in it that was not actually hostile but nonetheless suggested a menacing zeal. It was not dishonest, but nor did it seem entirely likeable or trustworthy.

Though he was concussed, Tarrant was pretty sure he was looking at Roj Blake.

He had seen the man on various tapes and records, at the time of his trial and then when he was deported to Cygnus Alpha. Though scarred and grizzled, he was still recognizable and, Tarrant thought to himself, actually was supposed to be on this planet. Tarrant smiled slightly. He had found Blake without even trying - assuming, of course, he was right. The pilot's head throbbed and his injuries were starting to go numb, and maybe he was just mistaken. Either way, he'd have to play it cagily - if Blake thought him (for want of a better term) an innocent bystander in all this, he might react differently to a fellow rebel.

Tarrant realized his savior was kneeling before him to help out. 'Are you all right?' he asked.

Tarrant shook his head. 'I may have internal injuries,' he croaked.

The scarred man delved into his pocket and produced a hip-flask. Cracking it open, he gently placed it in Tarrant's right hand. 'We've got a fine medical center at my base,' he said smoothly. 'They'll take proper care of you.'

Tarrant managed to swig the contents, but it was harsh and bubbly. He inhaled some of the noxious stuff and coughed violently, leaving a sickening taste in his mouth and throat. After a few moments of wheezing, he was able to breathe in and out normally. He turned and saw the newcomer - maybe-Blake - had picked something out of the dirt. It glimmered in the moonlight and Tarrant realized the scarred man had found the pilot's teleport bracelet, which was nothing but a fancy bangle now the teleport system had been smashed to pieces.

'You feeling better?' asked the man, examining the bracelet.

'A little,' Tarrant croaked, re-sealing the flask.

The man slipped the bracelet over his right wrist, trying it on. Tarrant noticed that the figure's tanned skin left a pale strip of flesh around his wrist, as though he had worn a similar bracelet for quite a while. Blake? Maybe, but his clothing and weaponry was like that of a bounty hunter. Which, of course, Orac had insisted he was, but maybe it was just a ploy to fool the authorities, like something Avon might have thought up.

A renegade feeling of caution struck the wounded captain, and he knew that the rebellion needed funds - the bounty of some famous criminals could pay for a lot of arms and equipment. Blake might be on the side of freedom, but would he necessarily be on the side of Avon and his comrades?

The man who might have been Blake spoke, breaking Tarrant's chain of thought. 'Whose ship is this?' he asked.

'Why?' sighed Tarrant warily. 'You thinking of making an offer for it?'

The man glanced around the shattered superstructure, as though seriously considering it. He shook his head and looked at the bracelet on his wrist. He took it off and tossed it into the gloom, rising to his feet. 'Want to tell me your name, then?' he asked reasonably.

Tarrant narrowed his eyes, trying to focus on 'Blake' as he moved out of the light. 'Not particularly.'

'Hmm. I did just save your life,' the bounty hunter pointed out.

Tarrant managed to lift his arm and point an accusatory finger at 'Blake'. 'You just saved your life,' he pointed out, belching slightly as the mixture he had been given reacted with his digestive system. 'It was you they wanted, if you remember,' he continued in a thinner, weaker voice.

The bounty hunter smiled, making the long, vivid scar stretch and glow. 'Actually,' he said, delving into his pocket, 'it was these they wanted.' His hand returned with a pouch that he promptly tossed towards Tarrant.

In a laudable display of his faculties, Tarrant just managed to catch the pouch with both hands. He turned the bag over in his hand and drew the string. It allowed the bag's content to empty itself into his hand - precious gemstones, worth a fortune on frontier planets like this.

'They had some quaint idea I was going to pay for consignment of arms in advance,' the scarred man said with an ironic smirk. 'I had some quaint idea they were trying to cheat me.'

'Yes, well,' said Tarrant, struggling to return the jewels to the pouch, 'it's difficult to tell who you can trust these days.' Never a truer word spoken, he thought blearily, and glared up at his rescuer. If it was Blake, he seemed to be casually implying his status as a bounty hunter with no concern. Was it a clever disguise, or just a genuine hunter? If so, why admit it to a possible catch? After all, Tarrant's very-visible failure to pass the blockade showed he was an illegal entrant on Gauda Prime, a criminal or smuggler at least.

Keeping his gaze on the scarred man, Tarrant waved his arm towards the plasma rifle beside him, which had so successfully wiped out the gun runners shortly before. 'But as tests go, isn't that and this,' - he shook the bag of currency - 'a bit obvious?'

He lobbed the pouch back at 'Blake' who caught it with no obvious effort and returned it to his pocket. He seemed vaguely smug at Tarrant's barely-adequate detective powers. 'Maybe.' He turned at glanced at the weak yellow light starting to illuminate the shattered planet hopper. 'It's getting light,' he observed, turning to face Tarrant.

'Shall we go?'

Tarrant knew if he didn't get medical treatment soon, he'd be dead. The man - Blake or not - offered life and, if the pilot kept his wits about him, he would be able to escape Gauda Prime with it as well. Though, to be honest, Tarrant wasn't sure what he would do then. Everything seemed to be at a crossroads and, without Zeeona, he wasn't sure if he wanted to go on.

Nevertheless, he took his rescuer's hand and was hauled painfully to his feet.

#

The sun shone brightly down on the planet Gauda Prime as the new day dawned. This day was to be a very momentous day, but there were no portents of any kind in the bright, cheery air of birdsong and sunlight.

At that moment, a number of things were happening:

Tarrant and his mysterious rescuer were clambering into the latter's flyer and preparing to take off for the underground silo. Not far away, the rest of Scorpio's crew were making their way down the hill towards their own new transport.

And, in orbit, high above the morning countryside, the blockade of gun ships had registered the arrival of a small fleet of space transports. One of them, a large troop carrier, disengaged from the rest of the fleet and was entering the atmosphere as its fellows primed themselves to deal with the blockade as and when they challenged the newcomers. But, unlike the last unfortunate to reach Gauda Prime, these ships had a very obvious defense to the gun ships, not least in their considerable weaponry and advanced sensors.

It was summarized by the symbol of the Terran Federation that was stamped across their hulls.

History was about to be made.

#

Vila massaged his aching shoulder, glaring suspiciously at Avon as they headed down the track. Soolin and Dayna seemed to have no difficulty keeping up with their leader's fast pace, although they could have been deliberately giving Vila a wide berth for his failure, though he couldn't understand why they seemed to prefer Avon's company to his. They had all agreed to lighting a fire, hadn't they? Besides, what were the odds that bounty hunters would have been searching for survivors from Scorpio so far from the crash site? Infinitesimal. The bounty hunters turned up because of Avon, yet still he seemed more popular than the little thief!

Vila felt his stomach tighten with an indefinable anxiety. A storm was coming, he thought. They had lost everything bar themselves and Orac, which now hung from Avon's hand as he moved through the forest.

Vila sensed soon they wouldn't even have that.

The group moved out of the shade of the tall trees and the weak sunshine saturated the path. Vila winced at the glare. The endless walk, his strange forebodings and now the horribly bright light caused him to snap, 'Why did they land it so far away?' mainly to himself.

To his surprise, Soolin turned and answered. 'Presumably they thought the noise would alert someone.'

'In your case,' added Avon with a snarl, not even bothering to look at him, 'they could have put it down on the roof without any trouble.'

Vila scowled. Avon's growing irascibility was just another sign of his madness. Suddenly, Orac's synthesized voice broke the uncomfortable silence. 'Avon.' The computer tech swung the computer and held it at chest height, as though to hear it better. 'The other flyer has just lifted off,' it continued.

Dayna considered the odd report. 'The other flyer?' she repeated. 'What other flyer, Avon?'

Avon spared her a glance. 'Our guide,' he said simply. 'Come on, we don't want to lose him.'

#

The other flyer was hurtling above the treetops into the sky. Inside the cabin, the bounty hunter was driving while Tarrant sagged in the passenger seat. Wincing at the horrible pain in his chest, the pilot tried to keep his voice nonchalant as he asked, 'So, how far is this base of yours?'

The scarred man didn't take his eyes from the windscreen, one arm lazily draped out the open side window, the other on the flight control. 'We'll be there soon enough,' he replied in his deep voice.

'We'd be there a lot sooner if your computer stuck to direct line of flight,' Tarrant continued casually, trying not to study the pilot. 'Is the constant change of direction for my benefit?'

'No,' said the bounty hunter flatly.

#

The frantic pace Avon had suddenly chosen paid off. They entered a clearing where the flyer lay - a small cabin with swing-doors set against a massive set of air turbines that could lift the craft and its occupants in most terran-normal atmospheres. The left hatch was left open and, wasting no time, the crew embarked. Avon seemed to know how to fly the thing, so he took the controls and Dayna sat next to him and Orac between them. Soolin sat behind Avon, leaving Vila to sit in the cold draft before the hatch hummed closed. Avon was operating controls on the dashboard when Orac piped up again. 'The other flyer appears to be maneuvering to conceal its true course,' it reported.

Vila shivered as his body temperature returned to normal. Typical, he thought. More bad luck. 'Because of us?' he asked Orac, leaning forward.

'Not unless the pilot is clairvoyant,' muttered Avon as he continued to set the flyer for take-off.

'Well, why, then?' demanded Dayna, irritated by cryptic answers left and right.

'From the programming of the inboard computer,' explained Orac with a touch of weariness in its voice, 'it is standard procedure.'

'Just keep monitoring,' snapped Avon, preferring silence. So saying, he gripped the steering control and the engines started. There was a rumble as white smoke wafted about them and the flyer began to tilt backwards at an angle of forty-five degrees. Finally, the smoke and noise died away, leaving a level whirring as the flyer began to move across the sky after its objective.

#

For no other reason than trying to keep from passing out, Tarrant struggled to focus on the computer, that seemed to direct the driver's movements. All he was doing was making the ride smoother. 'A random program?' he asked suddenly, pleased at his deduction.

'It's an old smuggler's trick,' agreed the bounty hunter, eyes on the windscreen.

'Did you learn it from an old smuggler?' asked Tarrant lightly. Conversation stopped the dizziness from getting out of control, and there was always a chance the bounty hunter could give a clue as to his real identity.

'No, from a young one, actually,' explained the bounty hunter. 'Her name was Jenna.'

Jenna Stannis. Tarrant knew the name and his suspicions of his savior grew evermore concrete. He tried to keep his face expressionless as the pilot glanced at him for the first time, as though judging his reaction. 'What happened to her?' he asked eventually.

The reply was devoid of emotion. 'She tried to run the blockade once too often. Happens to all of them eventually.'

Tarrant felt a horrible feeling that Blake's - if that's who he was - cover may not be a cover after all. The idea that he might betray his fellows for the cause seemed all too plausible; was it too much to suggest he had abandoned the cause as well? 'You made the capture?' he asked for clarification.

'Nobody made the capture,' said the bounty hinter, sounding annoyed. 'She hit the self-destruct. And when it blew,' he added with a passion that could either have been pride or fury, 'she took half a squadron of gun ships with her!' He had turned to face Tarrant during that tirade and, calmer, he concentrated on flying.

When he next spoke again, it was as though Jenna and her tragic fate had been banished from his memory. 'Brace yourself,' he told Tarrant in his smooth voice and gripped the steering column as the flyer began to grow steeper and steeper as it angled towards the ground.

#

Vila's feeling of dread was practically overpowering. Avon's increasingly-cold manner killed off all sense of comfort in the small cabin, so for the distraction, Vila peered out the window to his right. As he realized just how far above the forests he was, and how thin the partition between him and a lethal plunge to the ground was, he decided that conversation might prove more fruitful.

'How does it feel to be home?' he asked Soolin with a cheerfulness he didn't feel.

'I wouldn't know,' was the blunt reply.

Vila left the conversation there. Ever since she had heard the name 'Gauda Prime' she'd been totally on edge. For once.

Thankfully, the silence was suddenly broken by Orac's clipped voice. 'The target flyer has entered an underground silo,' it reported dutifully.

Avon was concentrating on flying the craft. 'Can you pinpoint it?' he asked. 'Exactly?'

'I can do better than that,' retorted Orac, as though to itself.

Dayna grinned. Orac's vanity cheered her after their recent trials - which seemed designed to drain all hope of success from their lives. 'Can't you always?' she joked.

'My capacities are frequently underutilized, it's true,' Orac agreed philosophically.

'Just tell us what you're offering, Orac,' snapped Avon.

'When we reach the appropriate co-ordinates,' replied Orac patronizingly, 'I can simulate the necessary signals to open the silo and allow this flyer to enter.'

Dayna shrugged. 'Sounds good,' she said. The fact an obstacle had been removed cheered her even more.

'No it isn't,' grumbled Vila from the back seat. 'Sooner or later we're going to drop into one of these holes in the ground and never come out.'

'Sooner or later,' replied Avon quietly, 'everyone does that, Vila.' Dayna smiled at the joke, but the black humor dispelled any hope she'd garnered. She was beginning to feel that apprehension Vila had been complaining about since Malodaar - that everything seemed about to end. But she denied these feelings. She was alive, and planned to remain so for quite a long time.

Avon turned the steering column and the flyer tilted to the left, descending back towards the forest. 'You may have a point though,' he announced, to no-one in particular. Soolin, Dayna and Vila exchanged looks. Their leader's behavior was getting worse. But before any one of them had the courage to ask Avon what he was doing, the flyer was angling in for a landing. Without even waiting for the smoke to subside, Avon opened the hatch beside him and jumped out.

Coughing and cold, Vila scowled as he lifted up Orac and handed it over to the man in black. Avon nodded his thanks and then moved off. By the time the fog had dispersed, the clearing was empty. Avon had vanished.

#

With smooth, practiced movements, the bounty hunter had landed his flyer and in moments they had left the dank metal landing bay and were in a humming, chirping gallery of scanner screens and tracking systems. Tarrant tried to focus as the bounty hunter spotted something and spoke. 'You still on watch?'

A small, neat woman was brooding over a scanner screen. On it was a mass of isobars over which two or three white shapes were moving. 'I decided to stay on,' she explained, her attention wandering back to the screen. 'There's too much activity up there somehow,' she muttered.

'Like what?' asked Tarrant's rescuer.

'I don't know,' the woman shrugged. 'It's not something I can pin down precisely. One or two transports have crossed without clearance, some flyers that weren't planned for the area, that sort of thing.' She looked up with sudden inspiration. 'Could be the Federation's observer has finally arrived, of course,' she suggested.

The bounty hunter nodded. 'Yes, that's probably it,' he said. He didn't sound convinced.

Tarrant followed the burly figure as he crossed the gallery and entered a side corridor. 'Gauda Prime seems to give law and order a certain... priority,' Tarrant said, finally. It wasn't much of an opening gambit, but he hoped to draw out some more information. The man could well not be Blake. He could well not be a bounty hunter even.

'You could say that,' the scarred man said, looking at him and giving nothing away.

Tarrant gestured behind them . 'Is that the main control center?' he asked, abandoning the subtle approach.

The bounty hunter was already walking ahead. 'Deva can tell you more about that than I can,' was all he said.

#

Not far away from the flyer, Avon found a convenient clump of trees in a small gully filled with leafy vegetation. Wasting no time, Avon based the buzzing cube on the gully floor and began to gather deadwood and grass. 'Orac,' he called as he worked.

'What is it now?' snapped Orac waspishly, as though busy trying to work out what its owner was doing.

'Monitor our situation,' he replied, draping four of five branches over the opening in Orac's casing and then adding loose vegetation over the sticks like some tiny mantrap. 'Open the silo when I tell you. Monitor any approaches to the base and let me know.'

'Of course,' replied Orac, its voice muffled from the camouflage, 'I presume you have some idea of how you will recover me before leaving this planet?'

'If the people in there are friendly there will be no problem,' Avon said, straightening him. 'If they're not...' Avon shrugged. 'Well, I don't think we'll be leaving anyway.'

And then he turned and strode out of the clearing.

#

The scarred bounty hunter had lead Tarrant down a corridor and turned right into what looked like the base's main computer room. It had been customized into an office, presumably by the man who was now muttering to himself as he adjusted one particular part of the computer systems. He looked up as they entered, and Tarrant saw a face framed by overlong red hair and bright blue eyes. This must be Deva.

'Well, now, bounty hunter,' said Deva in a cheerful, cultured voice, 'that was a short trip even by your standards.'

'Short,' agreed the bounty hunter.

Suddenly, he was holding a Scorpio clipgun in his hand. Instinctively, Tarrant felt for his holster and found it empty. His concentration was poorer than he'd imagined, but the man had been so fast. The same burly figure was now backing away from him, standing protectively in front of Deva.

'But profitable,' he finished smugly. 'Even by my standards.'

Tarrant grinned weakly and raised his aching arms. 'Was it something I said?' he croaked.

'Who is he?' asked Deva quietly, not taking his eyes off their new prisoner.

The bounty hunter was doing likewise. 'His name is Tarrant,' he announced, and smiled slightly. 'Your flight computer mentioned it whilst you were unconscious,' he explained for the pilot's benefit.

'Tarrant,' muttered Deva, tasting the word. He turned and moved to his control desk.

The man who seemed to Blake held out a hand, and brought his superior to a pause. 'No, I wouldn't run it through the computer just yet, Deva,' he said casually. 'You see, this one has a very high Federation price on his head.'

Deva looked Tarrant up and down. 'Are you sure?' he asked, uncertainty in his voice.

'Oh, give the man credit for knowing his trade,' Tarrant snapped, 'dirty though it is.'

'He also has several associates with Federation prices,' the bounty hunter continued. His one eye seemed to gleam with avarice. 'And one of them is particularly valuable.'

'And all of them are particularly dead,' Tarrant retorted, feeling a shooting pain in his chest.

'In which case,' the bounty hunter retorted, 'that other flyer was merely a coincidence. A coincidence, however, that might just have analyzed a random flight program?' he suggested lightly.

Deva sat at his desk, obviously quite secure with Blake holding the gun. 'And the significance of that is...?'

'A very useful device,' replied the scarred man, 'called Orac.'

Tarrant grimaced. He didn't really care any more. His wonderful life with Zeeona had been taken from him, and now so had his life of freedom. Typical - you try to die in a crash-landing and end up the only one captured. Maybe even the only one alive, knowing his luck. And the only man who could have saved them had sold out.

'Why don't you sit down, Tarrant?' suggested the man who had to be Blake.

Tarrant did as he was bidden, wincing as, by taking the weight off his feet he applied it to his other exhausted limbs and injured torso. The taste of blood in his mouth was making him nauseous, and he felt horribly ill. He doubted it was all done to his extensive injuries.

'If it is Avon,' Blake was saying with relish, 'we shouldn't have much longer to wait.'

Tarrant painfully turned to address Blake's 'superior'. Maybe the man was ignorant of his star performer's real identity? Tarrant doubted he would be able buy a lighter sentence with his information - but at least he could bring down the twisted traitor who was now covering him with his own gun. 'Doesn't it occur to you to wonder where he's got all this information from?' he demanded feebly.

Deva smiled and gave Tarrant a knowing look. 'Give the man credit for knowing his trade,' he repeated cheerfully.

Tarrant grimaced. 'Oh, surely you're not that naive!' he cried.

He could hear Blake's demented chuckling. 'You're wasting your breath, Tarrant,' the traitor announced.

Tarrant closed his eyes. Was there anybody from Avon's past who wasn't a fraud?

#

There were various observation rooms scattered throughout the control center, demonstrating the suspicious and distrustful character behind its construction. In one such room, a single person paused by a storage cupboard before crossing to the console.

The figure sitting the chair before the console watched as, on the display screen, Blake stood in a small room with Deva and Tarrant. Then, they flicked through the surveillance sequence until a helmeted face of a Federation troop leader filled the screen.

It had been a fluke to discover Blake and his operation on Gauda Prime. Someone compiling statistics noticed that a certain bounty hunter of Gauda Prime consistently captured individuals whose crimes had been of a political nature - and that the bounty hunter somehow never managed to bring in this quarry alive? Brought to the attention of certain people, that had piqued sufficient curiosity to warrant investigation - to identify that bounty hunter Dev Varon was really Roj Blake, despite his apparent demise on Jevron. Ironic, really, as otherwise it would have warranted Varon for a special commendation for exceptional service and had already authorized the man be given status as a Federation marshal; zealotry deserved reward, and the fewer troublemakers loose in the galaxy, the better.

A Special Group-Leader had been sent into the field with a standard-model watch which could send basic pulses. A coded 'I'm still all right' pulse had been sent by the Special Group-Leader on the hour every hour, which was changed to an 'I've been picked up' one when Blake had captured them, after the third time the Special Group-Leader had been in the hands of bounty-hunters. This time however, the infiltrator had struck gold.

'They're all there?' asked the troop leader. 'And the Orac computer?'

'Yes,' replied the soft voice of the traitor.

A pause. 'Very well. We shall proceed immediately.'

#

The pause was broken as the intercom on Deva's desk chimed. He leant forward and pressed the receive button. 'Yes?' he called into the speaker.

A filtered voice Tarrant recognized as Klyn's chirped, 'There's a flyer just put down in the silo. It had all the right signals, but it isn't one of ours.'

Deva glanced at Blake, who had not moved. 'Let them through,' Blake ordered.

'Let them through,' repeated Deva, in a far less intimidating tone, then broke the contact. He looked up with renewed uncertainty at Blake, as though the bounty hunter was the one with the upper hand. He probably was, thought Tarrant bitterly. 'Is that wise?' asked Deva, frowning.

'We don't want them damaged, do we?' asked Blake with a childish petulance. His voice hardened. 'Get me one security guard,' he ordered. 'I'll deal with it.'

Deva instantly did as he was bidden. 'Send a security guard to my office, will you?' he asked the intercom.

Swiveling painfully, Tarrant looked up with disgust at the grizzled, one-eyed former-rebel. His contempt managed to by-pass the pain in his voice. 'What on earth happened to you?' he gasped.

Blake began to laugh, almost insanely. When mixed with his expressionless face, the image was disquieting. 'Oh, most of it wasn't on Earth, Tarrant,' he laughed bitterly. 'Not what happened to me!'

His laughter died slightly as a short girl with sullen features and a black-trimmed uniform entered from the back of the room, wielding a gun. Blake turned to face her, and opened his mouth to speak.

Tarrant lashed out. Flinging his leg with enough force that it seemed to wrench itself from its socket, the injured pilot struck Blake's arm, knocking the clipgun from his grasp. Blake whirled around to face him, but Tarrant was ready. Swinging his leg back, he leapt from the chair, shoulder-charging the padded bulk of the bounty hunter.

Taken completely by surprise, Blake was flung against the far wall, striking the newcomer and pinning her down for a split second. In that moment, Tarrant leapt for the entrance the girl had used, flinging out his other arm to knock down Deva, who was moving to stop him. The red-haired man spun, reeling against the wall as Tarrant escaped.

#

Arlen lunged at the doorway, aiming her blaster at Tarrant's fleeing back. Blake went from supporting her to spoiling her aim. 'Do you want him killed?' she shouted, struggling to aim the barrel at the fugitive.

'No, of course not!' snapped Blake. Tarrant was gone, and he released his newest ally. 'When he knows as much about this as you do now,' he continued calmly, turning away from the doorway, 'he'll join us - like you did.'

'He passed the test, then?' asked Arlen, relaxing.

Blake leant on the desk and chuckled. 'I'm satisfied.'

He had been playing a complicated game with the man he had found in Scorpio's wreckage - a far more dangerous game than he had played with Arlen, even though it was just another variation of his scheme; an apparently friendly figure betrays you, how do you react? Unlike Arlen, he had not revealed his name to see how Tarrant would react. He had, instead shot down some other curious (and genuine) bounty hunters to prevent them from killing or capturing this potential new recruit. He had lied and told Tarrant they were gun-runners, so if Tarrant suspect Blake's identity, he would conclude that the rebel was trading with them to prepare a revolutionary force. It had also implied they were on the same side rather than his usual facade as a bounty hunter. He had gained Tarrant's trust to a measure, and had proved without a doubt Tarrant's loyalties to Avon. The injured pilot was risking life and limb to warn his leader that they were heading into a trap. Normally, he wouldn't have let things progress this far, but he'd had several unfortunate experiences with someone called 'Tarrant'. Besides, what more obvious way to infiltrate Blake's rebellion than to crash a Wanderer-Class planet hopper on GP and have the sole survivor claim to be a member of Avon's crew that Blake himself had never met?

Deva was picking himself up, massaging his aching arm. There was steel in his voice and anger in his eyes. 'These stupid games you insist on playing, Blake, will get someone killed eventually!' he shouted furiously as he staggered over to his leader.

Blake was unrepentant. 'I have to test each one myself,' he said emotionlessly.

'No, you don't have to!' shouted the red-haired man. 'I set up systems for that! I broke the security codes on their central computer! I got us access to official channels, information... everything we could possibly need! You don't need to be involved at all,' he growled at the grubby rebel.

Blake nodded his head slightly, remembering the trying times he'd had to live through since abandoning the Liberator. After managing to collect Jenna from Morphennial via the information she'd relayed via Zen, they had moved on and located Avalon- who had all but thrown them out, saying Blake's bounty was too tempting even for her own men to safely shelter him. By that time, Blake had accepted there were no quick solutions; the Federation had be toppled one planet at a time. Avalon had given him Gauda Prime, the farthest, least-important world where people had reason to hate the Federation. Jenna had doggedly stuck by Blake as they made their way to GP at the close of 225. Numerous scavengers and criminals had tried to break into his ship - one of them was captured and Blake had introduced himself to Mikal-Jon Deva.

Deva had explained he was a computer expert, native to the planet, but sent away to university. While he was gone, the Open Planet designation had been applied - his family massacred. No one in authority cared and Deva had realized then that the Federation, not the criminals, were the ones responsible for the destruction of his home. He had said that, if he destroy the Administration then he could 'die happy' and he had joined the loosely-termed local resistance. One of them had been Tando, and so Blake had dubbed himself Dev Varon, a bounty hunter who quickly began sorting the rebels from the genuine criminals.

Soon, they had a base - and due to GP's paranoia, no one questioned the intense security precautions of D.B.J. Industries, concerned with 'utilization of global resources'; a crooked operation with enviable sneakiness and loyal employees that paid its bribes and never crossed anyone. Although numerous volunteers came up, Blake refused to let the others take over his risky workload, believing he had more experience with the terrain and the business. However, as security tightened around the planet, an orbital blockade was set up.

Despite all the bribes and all the safety-precautions, Jenna had still died.

He remembered being in Plantation Seven, waiting for her to land when he had heard the plasma bolts being fired in orbit. The ship was crippled and boarded - and, as he had told Tarrant so simply, she had wiped them all out via the self-destruct. For what it was worth, the sacrifice had kept their presence on GP a secret. Deva had discovered that Jenna had been set up by Lafayette, a flashy bounty hunter who had been deemed an embarrassment. Blake had tried to strike a deal with the hunter after Lafayette, and the rest was history.

'All right,' he said at length, speaking quickly to forestall Deva's rants, 'I find it difficult to trust. It's a failing, I admit.'

Deva didn't let him finish. 'And any one of our people could select the people you've collected!' he ranted, waving at Blake's stinking leather jerkin. 'You don't need to do the bounty hunter routine, either!'

Blake cocked his head ever-so-slightly. 'Indulge me,' he whispered.

'Do I have a choice?' Deva glowered at him.

'Oh, there's always a choice, Deva,' retorted Blake in a singsong voice.

Deva let out a controlled sigh of frustration. 'Not for me, there isn't,' he snapped. 'I said I'd follow you, and I will, until the Federation's finally destroyed.' He closed his eyes remembering that day in what seemed to be another life altogether. He turned his gaze to Blake. 'But if you're killed, where does that leave us?'

The fake bounty hunter leapt to his feet, grabbing Deva's shoulder in comradeship. 'With a base!' he crowed. 'The beginnings of an army!'

Deva sadly shook his head. 'All of it useless if you're not there to lead it,' he insisted.

Blake sighed and pulled his side-arm from his waist band and dropped it onto the desk. 'You worry too much, Deva.'

Deva rolled his eyes. 'Somebody has to,' he muttered.

Arlen, who had watched the two rebels for some time, finally spoke up: 'It might be an idea for somebody to start worrying about the one we just lost,' she reminded them.

Blake turned to stare at her, unblinkingly. 'Why?' he asked blandly. 'He isn't armed.'

Arlen snorted. 'I didn't notice that slowing him up,' she replied.

Blake nodded. 'That's true.' He joined Arlen by the doorway, and glanced down at the specks of blood and oil Tarrant had left in his wake. Then, he turned to face the fair-haired man standing by the console. 'Relax, Deva,' he said in a soothing, yet reproving voice. 'Nobody's indispensable.'

Deva watched Blake and Arlen leave his office and sighed. Things weren't working out on Gauda Prime, and their only hope was to relocate to the planet Goma, a swampy, quicksand-smothered planetoid in the next star system. The vain possibility of the Scorpio crew finally turning up had run its course.

Deva knew things were about to change - and he had a nasty feeling they would be for the worst.

#

Avon shut down the engines and opened the hatch on his side. Vila waited patiently for Soolin to leave so he could escape the cabin as well. Despite the fact Avon had appeared to thrown Orac away, they seemed to have been allowed to enter the landing silo without fuss - probably thanks to the computer, since Avon had inexplicably snapped 'Now!' into his teleport bracelet.

As Vila stepped out into the dark, metallic landing bay, the dread he felt got worse. Avon had hidden Orac - but from them as well as any enemies. He didn't even trust his fellow criminals any more. Frowning, the thief left the warm confines of the flyer and joined the others outside.

Avon stayed by the door, speaking into his bracelet. 'Orac, can you hear me?' he asked.

'Yes, Avon,' came the reply.

'Anything to report?'

'There is some increased activity around the edge of the base. Cause has not yet been determined. I may need to contact you at any moment. In the door compartment of the flyer is an ear piece communicator.'

'Keep monitoring, Orac,' ordered Avon, then turned his attention on the door that hung above his head. Reaching up, he opened the compartment and found, without surprise, a tiny device clearly set to be placed in the ear. With but a slight hesitation as to its cleanliness, Avon began to fit it into his right ear.

Vila's attention away was drawn as a guard entered the bay via the bright doorway leading into the rest of the base. It was a medium-sized man, wearing a short-sleeved black uniform and carrying and old-fashioned triple-barreled laser rifle. The guard, Nammo, covered the group as he entered, attention zeroing in instantly on the shifty man in a grey and the man in black who was not facing him. 'You there. What are you doing?' demanded Nammo.

Avon turned to face him, not missing a beat. 'We are representatives of the Federation. We are here to evaluate the progress of this planet's return to the rule of law.' Next to him, Dayna began to slowly move aside as Avon became the centre of Nammo's attention. Soolin followed suit.

'Until your identity is confirmed you will remain here,' said Nammo bluntly.

Avon looked disappointed. 'I'm afraid we are on a tight schedule. Soolin!'

Soolin was now beside the guard. Effortlessly, she drew her clip gun and had it aimed at Nammo before he could turn to see what she was doing. She fired and the gunshot boomed and echoed in the metallic hanger. Nammo was flung to the ground, the laser rifle clattering to the floor.

Dayna nodded, impressed by the other woman's quick reflexes. 'Good shot,' she said.

'Vila, get me his gun,' ordered Avon, and finished inserting the ear piece. Vila crossed over to the dead guard and scooped up the rifle. He turned to see Avon open his black leather jacket and slip his clip gun into an inside pocket.

'What are you doing?' demanded Vila, sick of Avon's mysterious attitude.

Avon glared at him. 'Taking out some insurance,' he replied, and held out a hand. Vila passed him the rifle, and felt the dread rise within him. The storm was about to break, he was sure of it.

#

Tarrant raced down the narrow, computer-lined passage and raced into a main junction. He stumbled down some steps and collapsed against a cool metal wall. He was perspiring and hot, sharp pains were lancing through his chest. He felt curiously light-headed and an overwhelming desire for rest pressed him down.

Tarrant shook his head to clear it. Adrenaline was all that was keeping him going. He knew if he collapsed, he'd be dead from his wounds in minutes. Somehow, that didn't matter - but he had to get to the landing silo, tell Avon and the others (if that's who it was) about Blake's treachery. If he didn't, it felt like failure.

Failure...

The word echoed and re-echoed in his mind and Tarrant realized his eyes were closing. Grimacing against the raw pain in his body, the pilot hauled himself upwards and onwards. The corridor ahead opened up onto the main tracking gallery he had just passed through. He tried to work out how the geography allowed this, but it just made him dizzy. The point was that the landing silo was on the other side of the gallery.

Swallowing painfully, Tarrant stumbled onto the walkway and down onto the floor. The technician working at the console looked up and saw him. Hoping she wasn't in on the conspiracy, Tarrant limped forwards towards the nearest exit, but he could feel her turn and approach.

'Hey, you!' she snapped. 'Wait a minute!'

She bobbed in front of him.

A mistake.

His hand snaked out, clamping around her neck. All his rage and fury seemed to flow effortlessly into his grip and the woman began to choke and gasp, deprived of oxygen. In seconds, she had become a dead weight in his hand, so he reluctantly let go. She fell to the floor, gasping and spluttering. Tarrant turned to leave.

Suddenly, a massive weight slammed into him, two scrawny arms wrapping around his throat and wrenching his neck back. Tarrant cursed his failing faculties - the woman was not the only technician in the gallery. Another one had spotted him and was now trying to break his neck.

The technician seemed superhuman, and Tarrant could feel his own strength fading - dots were appearing in front of his eyes, and everything seemed to be going red. A low, wailing noise filled his head as the tech delivered a heavy blow to his side, aggravating his broken bones.

Pain tore through him and Tarrant collapsed. Consciousness flickered in front of his eyes as his assailant moved around in front of him, meaty hand reaching for his throat...

#

Guns drawn, Soolin headed towards the internal door, that lead to a smooth grey corridor, lit better than the silo hangar. Avon followed, then Dayna, then Vila. Just as the thief began to relax, the alarm went off.

It was just what Vila didn't need at the moment. The alarm was loud and low, a depressing moan that brought with it flashes of blood-red light that made the base around them as unfriendly and inhospitable as the cold grey forests outside. Things couldn't get much worse, he decided.

Avon and Soolin turned the corner and found themselves facing a tracking gallery, with what seemed to be entrances on every side, making it hard to defend. But defending it someone was - a man dressed in an identical version of Nammo's uniform, except it was white to designate his technician status. A similarly dressed woman lay sprawled on the floor, coughing and spluttering.

Soolin's gun was at the ready and, when she saw who the tech was fighting, she fired. The moustached man was slammed against the far wall and slid to the floor, dead. His victim coughed, gasped, and collapsed, showing off his bruised and chemical-stained face.

Tarrant.

As one, the group moved across the gallery around the battered pilot. Vila was about to ask how Tarrant had escaped Scorpio to end up in the exact same place as they were, when he realized how badly the pilot looked. He was bleeding from various small wounds and was on the point of passing out.

Dayna held him upright, concern on her face. She had steeled herself to the death of friends long ago, but to find Tarrant alive and then on the point of death tore at her emotions. She wished she could have the cold detachment of Soolin or Avon, but she could sense their mixture of relief and concern.

'I'm glad you made it,' said Avon flatly.

'So am I,' hissed Tarrant in a pained voice. 'Avon,' he groaned over the noise of the alarm, 'I think he's here.'

They didn't need to ask who he meant. Avon was about to say something, but it was lost to history as a breathless female voice gasped, 'Security personnel to main tracking gallery.' Avon whirled around to see the female tech bent over the circular control console, stabbing at the intercom. 'Security personnel to main tracking...'

Avon aimed at her back and fired the laser rifle. A black mark appeared in Klyn's pristine tunic, and, with a sound of surprised discomfort, she collapsed to the ground as dead as every other inhabitant of the silo they had encountered. But, even as Avon released the trigger, a figure appeared.

Avon took aim at the newcomer.

Roj Blake.

But not Blake. He was tanned and scarred, almost disfigured by the ugly scar on his face. He was dressed perfectly as a bounty hunter and his expressionless features registered no surprise or remorse as he saw the crew and the slaughtered technicians. While he was unarmed, he was followed by a young woman with sullen features in a guard's uniform and carrying a plasma blaster. Her pose made Avon and Vila remember how Jenna and Cally used to back up their beloved leader. But they were dead now, and this new woman had replaced them.

For a moment, Blake and Avon exchanged a look, then Blake entered the gallery and moved towards them.

Tarrant struggled to stay upright. The pain in his chest was agonizing. 'Is it him?' he gasped.

'It's him,' said Vila quietly, eyes locked on Blake. The years since they had parted company had driven Avon to the point of psychosis - what had happened to Blake?

Avon kept Blake covered, similar thoughts striking him. His comrades, the tracking gallery, the doom-laden alarm, all seemed to have become unreal. There was just him and this Blake, whatever had happened to him. Then, with an intrusion that almost made him jump, he heard Orac's voice blare into his ear.

'Avon,' buzzed Orac's voice. 'Federation troopers are entering the base. I am monitoring a homing beacon from your location. You have been betrayed.'

Avon felt a horrible fear rise in his chest. No... Not that... No...

'He sold us, Avon,' warned Tarrant, undisguised loathing in his foggy gaze. 'All of us. Even you.'

Avon lowered the gun and approached Blake. The idea was horrible. But the truth was horrible. Anna betrayed him. Servalan had, time and time again. Could Blake have? Why shouldn't he? Avon struggled to keep calm. He couldn't lose control again...

'Is this true?' he demanded, voice shaking with emotion.

Blake's calm veneer began to crack. 'Avon,' he said with a kind of pleading reasonableness. 'It's me. Blake.'

Avon felt a cold shiver go up his spine. Could this disfigured spectre be his one-time leader, equal... friend? Blake was getting closer. Animal instincts fought inside the computer technician and he automatically raised the laser rifle. 'Stand still!' he hissed, horrified.

Blake stopped still. No one interfered. Even Vila, his mind insisting that there was only one way to go from this moment on, could not bring himself to move. Destiny continued to unfold.

'Have you betrayed us?' croaked Avon, eyes wide with fear and loathing. 'Have you betrayed me?'

'Tarrant doesn't understand!' Blake shouted, shaking his head.

Avon moaned like soul in torment. 'Neither do I, Blake!'

'I set all this up!' shouted the bounty hunter.

'Yes,' said Avon softly, all reason lost. He was broken - what was left now?

Blake frowned as he saw his friend seem to fold in disappointment. He couldn't let him think that. Throwing all caution to the wind, Blake strode towards Avon, an arm reaching out. 'Avon,' he began, 'I was waiting for you -'

He never finished.

Any control Avon had, shattered. An enemy approached, and an enemy must die. He whipped up the laser rifle and with surprise equaling that of Blake's, fired.

The heavy padding of Blake's torso was ripped open as the shot echoed loudly in the tracking gallery, silencing the klaxon wail for a split-second. Blake's eyes widened, but the pain was so much it seemed to bypass his brain. He rocked on his heels. He had to explain. He couldn't leave it unsaid...

Avon, his face horrified at what he had done, fired again.

The wound in Blake's stomach grew wider, encompassing his chest.

Blake fought against the rushing darkness and struggled on towards Avon. The groaning alarm seemed to be coming from a distance and the tracking gallery was sliding away. Avon remained, through a fog of red. This was wrong. It shouldn't happen like this. There had to be another way...

Avon gripped the rifle tight as the seemingly-indestructible Blake lurched towards him. Mortal terror gripped his heart. He didn't want this, this second chance - if that what it was. He felt every one of his years and a crushing wave of despair washed over him. He just wanted it over.

He fired again.

More blood spread over Blake's chest.

Blake seemed to be sliding away, the base he had helped construct disappearing into the dark fog that seemed to be filling his brain. Why was Avon doing this? Why? The first sparks of annoyance, then anger, then fury rose in Blake's mind as his comrade raised the barrel of the laser rifle into his face.

Why was it all going wrong?

Blake felt his ravaged body begin to collapse. His iron control was broken. With flailing arms, he somehow managed to grab onto the cold black leather coat Avon was wearing. With all his remaining strength, he lifted his heavy head to stare into the face of his murderer.

'Avon...' Blake managed to gasp, but there was blood in his mouth. He couldn't breathe. His knees were buckling. Everything was going wrong. Why? Why? Blake struggled to keep his grip on Avon, but his body wouldn't obey. It was so cold...

Blake was dimly aware of hitting the ground and, somewhere, a new alarm began to chime. The base was under frontal attack, he remembered. He hoped Deva could cope with it. After all, everyone else had failed him, one way or another. Betrayed... Why did Avon do that? Why? Why?!

Then the blackness came, and the answer was lost to Roj Blake forever.

#

Avon stared at Blake's body, lying sprawled on the pristine white floor. The blood mingled with the red glow of the general alarm. Gunfire was pulsing in the distance. Avon felt revulsion and horror creep up his spine, and the laser rifle hung at his side, useless.

He was not alone in his shock. The girl Blake had taken with him was as shocked as Vila. Behind him, Dayna and Soolin between them supported Tarrant. His wounds were severe. Soon, he would be as dead as Blake. But he felt too tired to go on. He had done his bit, alerted the others to the traitor. They could deal with life now.

Soolin glanced at the dead bounty hunter. How ironic. The one person who could possibly have rescued them from the mess Avon had dumped them in was a traitor. How typical of her life. She would have laughed, but that kind of humor had died in her many, many years ago.

Dayna's gaze was on the girl who was armed. She wasted no time on tragedy - the death of her family had steeled her against harsh reality. She wasn't dead yet and she planned to remain that way. If the base had been a trap, they would just leave it in a flyer, wait until they could escape. It was that simple.

Vila stared at Avon, shivering with emotion. Could Blake have betrayed them? Vila couldn't believe it. He wouldn't. But either way, Blake was dead and Avon had come to end of his tether. What could happen now, he wondered idly to himself, as footsteps filled the air.

Deva ran in, the cool attitude he'd had when Tarrant had last seen him gone to the wind. 'Blake!' he was shouting, as he entered the gallery. 'They've found us! The base is under...' He skidded to a halt as he saw the body lying at Avon's feet. In a voice calm with shock, he asked, 'Arlen, what happened?'

Arlen didn't take her eyes off Avon. She seemed to be on the point of hysteria herself. 'He happened!' she snarled, indicating Avon with her blaster sidearm.

Vila spared the others a glance. They all understood it.

Blake was no traitor. It was a false identity, as Avon had assumed from the start. But he had been so convincing... Tarrant felt sick. What had he done? What had he unleashed? This was all his fault...

The pause was broken as, with a casualness only professional killers possess, Arlen swung her blaster until it was aimed at Deva. His eyes barely had time to widen before she fired. Skewered in the shoulder, Blake's 'superior' gasped out in shock and pain as he was thrown back into the wall. He slumped to the floor, dead.

Arlen turned to cover the survivors in the room. Avon had taken no notice, all his attention focussed on the rapidly-stiffening body before him. 'Be so kind as to drop your guns,' she ordered in a clipped voice. The emotional turmoil she had shown second ago was gone. 'All of you.'

Vila swallowed. I had to ask, he thought.

He un-holstered his clipgun and tossed it to the floor of the gallery. It clattered and was joined by Dayna's gun, then Soolin's. Arlen moved forward slightly, her gun focussed on the group before her. What seemed to be a note of satisfaction crept into her voice when she spoke again. 'You and this nest of rebels are now prisoners of the Federation. Your friend Blake said he couldn't tell anymore who was Federation and who wasn't. He was right. He couldn't.'

Tarrant managed a smile, but it didn't reach his eyes. 'You're a Federation agent?' he asked casually, masking the hurt he felt. He'd done it again. Rushed in too soon. And now this was the price.

'I'm a Federation officer,' corrected Arlen with a touch of zeal in her voice.

Vila smiled and, keeping his hands where Arlen could see them, he ducked across the room. Survival was the key. Surreptitiously blocking her view of Dayna, he approached the officer. 'Oh, now, look,' he said reasonably, but Arlen's eyes were locked on the others. She didn't even seem to be aware of him.

'I've never been against the Federation,' he continued, moving closer. 'I mean, I've only ever been along for the ride. I'm not even armed. You can't kill me!' he cried, desperation filling his voice. 'I'm completely harmless and armless.'

That did it. Arlen's eyes flickered to Vila, unable to block out his pleading voice any more.

It was just what Dayna needed. She ducked down onto her haunches and, in a split second, scooped up the nearest clip-gun, took aim at Arlen, and -

Arlen fired her blaster. The tip seemed to explode and the noise rolled around the gallery.

An inferno flared in Dayna's chest. She was dimly aware of impacting in the legs of Soolin and Tarrant as she was flung back. The clipgun dropped from her convulsing hand as she tried to bring her arms to cover the wound in her chest. But darkness descended too rapidly for her to suffer much pain.

Dayna realized with lurching, sickly terror, that the darkness was absolute.

#

Vila spun on his heel as Arlen fired. He saw Dayna fall back into Tarrant's arms, her eyes rolled up into her head, mouth wide open, limbs twisted in agony. He glanced back at Arlen, revulsion filling him. Why was this going wrong, he wondered to himself. It worked every other time. But this time there was nowhere to go. No rescue. No hope.

He looked up and saw Dayna being lowered to the floor by Tarrant. Her eyes were closed and, though her limbs were still twisted, she seemed to have relaxed slightly. Soolin was helping Tarrant up.

No. There is always hope. He had relied on Avon and Blake to save him for so long. Well, no more. Remembering a move Gan once taught him years ago, he slammed his right arm down on Arlen's blaster, which still covered Tarrant and Soolin. He then brought his fist up, straight into Arlen's sullen face.

She dropped to the floor without a sound. In the background, over the alarms, explosions began to join the sounds of gunfire. Vila scooped up Arlen's fallen weapon and looked over her. 'Sorry,' he muttered, as an afterthought and he rose to his feet.

Reflected in the dead screen before him was a black-garbed Federation storm trooper, standing in the doorway behind him. Vila's eyes widened and his mouth was dry as, in the reflection, the trooper raised his rifle, aimed at Vila's back, and fired.

The hollow crack of the weapon was terrifyingly loud and Vila somehow managed to kick his legs together. He overbalanced, toppled and began to fall to the floor.

But, before he could, the shot lanced through his left shoulder, with a crisp scent of roasted flesh that was almost as nauseating as the white hot pain itself. Vila tried to take a deep breath, but found that he couldn't, and settled for collapsing onto the floor as the noise of the gunshot echoed away.

He'd heard that when someone died, their life passed before their eyes, but all he could see was the glareless ceiling panel pulse red, then white. Red, white, red, white at the centre of a fuzzy darkness. Probably just as well, he thought. It was hard enough to concentrate as it was. Black shapes moved through the fuzziness as gunfire continued.

Was that brightness the memory of the first sight after birth? Or -

#

Soolin held the clipgun in her hand, for once completely content. The cool barriers she had erected around her since she was eight stopped the emergency getting at her. She had to think straight if she was to get out of this in one piece. Dayna and Blake were dead, and Avon was just standing where he was, staring blankly down at the corpse of his former leader. Useless.

Vila scooped up the gun from the spy just as the first of the invading troops arrived. Soolin raised her gun, but before she could shoot, the trooper had aimed at Vila's back and fired. The thief fell to the ground, arms wind-milling, gun falling from his grasp. Then he hit the floor and lay very, very still.

Soolin aimed at the trooper and fired. The trooper's body language didn't have time to move from smug satisfaction to morbid horror before the bolt slammed into his chest and he dropped to the floor, dead. She moved forward around the still-dazed Avon as Tarrant ran past her and up onto the walkway.

Then, over the blaring alarms and wailing klaxons, Soolin heard another noise.

A gunshot.

Something slammed into her back, knocking her legs away from beneath her. Soolin gripped the clipgun tightly and tried to use the momentum to turn and kill her assailant. But her body just turned and fell, fell, down and down. Soolin wanted to scream, but she had no breath in her lungs.

Her penultimate thought was that the tickle in her lungs, the urge to cough, would do even more damage.

Then there was nothing but agony and bitter cold.

Then there was noth---

#

Tarrant winced as agony shot through him. Nevertheless he managed to scoop up the gun Dayna had dropped. She was dead now. That was his fault. All his own stupid fault. Doubled in pain, he managed to move past her still body towards Avon, who stood like a statue beside the man he'd killed.

A gunshot boomed through the air and Tarrant craned his neck and saw Vila fall onto his back by the unconscious body of Arlen. Standing in the doorway, smoke wafting from the spent cartridge, was an armed Federation trooper, the insignia showing he was a member of the Iron Guard.

The President's personal troops.

Tarrant swore and, still crouching, scurried across the chamber as Soolin shot the trooper. She didn't know that she was coming face-to-face with the very best the Federation had to offer. They were taking no chances, this time. Every rebel encountered would be shot on sight.

Tarrant almost wished he had died in Scorpio's wreckage. It would end the cold anticipation. The tracking gallery had at least five separate entrances, it was indefensible. But Tarrant wouldn't let go, not that easily. A voice inside him cried that he wanted to live, no matter how vain a hope it was.

As he scrambled onto the walkway by the dead trooper, he saw another one enter via the rear entrance, behind Soolin. The trooper raised his long rifle and fired. Impaled by the blast, Soolin spun and crashed limply to the floor. Tarrant grimaced and broke cover, moving across the walkway into the side corridor. Easing himself upright, Tarrant gripped the gun in his hand and leapt out of the alcove.

The trooper was taken by surprise. Tarrant fired quickly and the soldier collapsed, sprawling onto the walkway like his fallen comrade. Tarrant took a deep breath. What now? He was in no state to keep on like this. Against the Iron Guard, Blake's rebels were probably all dead already.

The Federation had won. They'd beaten them at last.

Tarrant raged against that terrible injustice and, in doing so, found his momentary doubts seared away by flames of righteous fury. And why were the Federation about to win? Why were they on Gauda Prime? Why was Blake dead? Why was Zeeona, Vila, Dayna and everyone else gone?

Tarrant ran along the walkway, checking at the same time his gun had one last charge left in it.

'Avon!' screamed Tarrant in fury.

The noise and light of the gunshot settled and left only the moan of the alarms. Tarrant's momentum carried him forwards down the steps, but it was too late. Blood flowed from his body into his strained ragged clothing. The hot pain that felled him subsided into a cold, distant throb. His unresponsive muscles could not support him and the heavy weight that fell on his chest pushed him gently to the ground.

His eyes slid closed and for a moment he thought he saw Zeeona suspended in the blackness.

Then he prayed that, some day, somebody would make the man that had killed him pay for what he done.

As consciousness slipped away at last, Del Tarrant laid a bitter and heartfelt curse upon Kerr Avon.

#

Much, much later, one Commissioner Sleer sits before a screen display in her cruiser. The screen shows an edited version of security tapes gleaned from the ruins of the rebel silo following the massive battle fought there. The various recordings have been mixed together to form a narrative from the arrival of Blake with Tarrant until a stray shot destroyed the working camera in the tracking gallery. For the seventh time in the row, she winds back the vis-play to the moment that Avon had come face to face with Blake for the first time since the Intergalactic War. But the horrible misunderstanding between the two meant that the feared, formidable alliance against the Federation would never be formed - at least by those she now watched on the screen.

And she watches, yet again, flicking between the recorded images.

She sees the psychotic Avon's finger tightening on the trigger, sees in his eyes the wonder whether or not Blake had turned against him. But it is clear that Avon can think of only one answer.

First one shot, then another - and another. Blake staggers firwardm, trying to tell Avon he was wrong - but the words will not come. Avon has made a fatal mistake and killed his last, true ally. Only when the bleeding body of Roj Blake lies at his feet does the truth seep through the tortured mind of the black-suited killer. It is too late. Already Arlen is declaring herself a Federation agent and taking the others prisoner, killing Deva as he enters.

Dayna moves to snatch a gun, but Arlen is too fast and Dayna is dead.

Vila makes as if to join Arlen, but knocks her out and snatches her gun... only to be gunned down from behind as Federation guards attack.

Soolin and Tarrant make a break for freedom, Soolin seeming to cover Tarrant's escape. Is she really sacrificing herself for his survival? Either way, there is a volley of shots and she sinks to the ground.

Tarrant returns for Avon, but nothing can penetrate Avon's stunned brain and so Tarrant pays the price for his loyalty to Avon. Federation charges tear through his body. He sinks to join his fallen companions.

As she watches, guards pour through into the scene of carnage, their guns pointing at the Federation's most wanted man - Kerr Avon. He stands alone, surrounded by death. Surely he cannot contemplate taking on such odds? As if a veil has been lifted from his eyes, Avon slowly takes in the pointing guns and black uniformed men surrounding him. To surrender and live - or fight and die? That is the question only Avon can answer. Slowly and deliberately, he raises his gun...

She switches it off.

She knows what happens next. She doesn't need to see it.

The image splinters into tiny cubes which shrink to leave the screen empty. For a moment the roar of gunfire continues through the speakers.

And then, that too is silenced.


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Ewen Campion-Clarke

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