Then There Were SevenBy Louise Watson-Carver
The teleport bays faded in around Blake and Jenna--and the team-mates who'd just snatched them off the Federation pursuit ship bound for Malthus Sigma. The low glow of the ceiling panels and the whisper of Liberator's systems welcomed them to safety, but even as Blake was opening his mouth give Avon and Cally a heartfelt "well done", he realised that someone's arms were still wrapped tightly around him. Someone--he glanced down--wearing the matte black of a Federation officer. Beside him, Jenna grabbed for a weapon she didn't have, the weapon she'd lost when the Federation soldiers closed in on her and Blake on the wide sands of Cygnus 2.
In his mind, he "heard" Cally's startled *Blake! If she hurts you, she dies* as she brought her weapon up to cover the intruder. Avon, weapon still in hand, spun towards Blake as Gan started forward, big hands clenched. Vila, looking from one to the other in alarm, took one sidling step backwards, then another, backing nimbly out of harm's way.
The person holding him must have moved, but it was fast as sleight of hand; even Blake didn't see it. But suddenly his captor was holding him with only one hand tightly gripping his shoulder while the other pressed a laser up under his jaw. "Don't," said a cool female voice from behind him. "Drop your weapons now... unless, of course, you think you're faster than I am."
Avon smiled suddenly, his brown eyes narrowing, and Blake winced. "Well now, shall we find out?" he drawled. Oh thank you Avon, Blake thought furiously. Thank you very much.
Jenna turned and quickly knocked Avon's weapon away so it no longer pointed at the Federation woman. "No, let's not," she said emphatically, the hard fury in her blue eyes directed equally at Avon and the intruder. "Don't be a fool, Avon."
"I wouldn't call it foolishness," Avon said sardonically. "More a spirit of inquiry...." He turned his surprisingly charming smile on the woman standing behind Blake. "And in that same spirit of inquiry, it might be useful to know what your intentions are at this point--Captain Merric."
Blake felt the woman flinch, felt the thunder of her heart against his back. Should I know that name? he wondered. Should I know this woman? He knew she was physically striking; tall--her head was nearly level with his, at 2 metres--and strong. Her grip on his shoulder hadn't eased at all. "My intentions are to blow your leader's head off and then burn you down where you stand if you don't drop your damn weapons," the Federation woman was saying, still cool... but Blake could feel the tension in her. "Now."
Blake heard Cally's soft curse a moment before her weapon clattered to the floor, and Gan stopped where he was and raised his big empty hands to shoulder level. Expressionlessly, Avon threw his weapon over with Cally's and Blake relaxed slightly. Avon. Like handling fissionables, aren't you, my friend, Blake thought. One wrong move, and boom. "Thank you," the woman said ironically. "Now, the rest of you; I want you all down here in front of me. That means you at the console, and you too, Ratty. Move it."
Jenna smiled reluctantly and Gan laughed as Vila indignantly responded, "Ratty? Look, I don't usually argue with people who've got guns, but I draw the line at name-calling. That's just not very friendly... and besides, I'm not anything like a rat."
"Yes; rats have their uses," Avon muttered.
As Vila reluctantly joined the rest of the crew in the center of the room, Cally said, in her usual terse fashion, "Blake. We are going to attract attention if we stay here much longer."
"She's right," Gan rumbled. "We're within a spatial of Malthus Sigma. They're going to start wondering what we're doing out here."
"We won't be here much longer," the woman Avon had addressed as Captain Merric answered with assurance. "Shortly we'll be en route to Earth, where a certain high-ranking government official is understandably anxious to see you. You may not care for that idea very much, but if any of you offer resistance, I'll shoot Blake first and then whoever's responsible."
"I don't feel well," said Vila piteously. "This isn't good for me, you know; I hate violence."
Jenna gave him a look of disgust. "Cowardice isn't normally fatal, Vila, but in your case, I might make an exception."
"Enough," Captain Merric said, sounding amused. "I'd rather you didn't start killing each other off just yet."
"And deprive you of the pleasure, captain?" Avon asked. He was staring at the Federation woman, eyes narrowed, and there was an odd, challenging look on his face. "Blake, look at her face, listen to her voice." Puzzled, Blake turned his head slightly towards his captor. The laser stayed with him, tight against his throat, but otherwise, she ignored him, her attention focused on the others.
Captain Merric's long, night-black hair was pulled back from her face in a tight braid. Her eyes were dark, her skin dusky against her Federation black; a small gold stud in one ear was the only point of contrast. She looked lithe and lean as a panther, though it might just have been the effect of the tight leatheride uniform. Blake stared at her face, frowning. Her features were fine without being delicate, and faintly, hauntingly familiar. If there was more, he couldn't see it. "I'm looking," he said.
"You don't remember, do you," Avon said skeptically. "Look again. She was only all over the vidcasts a few years back... the Supreme Commander's niece, the Federation's golden child. This is Captain Taymar Merric, Blake."
"Oh, I remember her," Vila said brightly. "Youngest officer ever to make captain... not that her being Servalan's niece had anything to do with it, you understand " He broke off abruptly and started edging behind Jenna as the captain turned her dark eyes on him
"Thank you for that vote of confidence--Vila, was it?" Taymar said sarcastically. "But kindly remember, I don't need to justify myself to you, or anybody else on this ship. We'll go to the flight deck now. Blake, get your people moving before I shoot someone out of exasperation."
Blake glanced at Taymar from the corner of his eye, seeing nothing but black; black hair, black uniform and the laser in her black-gloved hand, alive with threat. "Look, captain," Blake said evenly, "we'll do as you say. But we need everyone here to handle Liberator; she's a very sophisticated ship. You can't afford to shoot any of us, so there's no point in making threats. We should be talking instead about helping each other...." *Blake!* came Cally's angry protest in his head. He ignored it, just as he was ignoring the other angry or betrayed looks from his crew. "Perhaps we can come to an agreement?"
"No. We're going to Earth. I don't make deals with criminals." Blake felt Taymar's hair brush his cheek as she turned her head to survey the Liberator's crew. "If there's any trouble, I... I don't have to shoot to kill. You can still fly this ship if you're... maimed."
Blake felt fury surge through him, distracting him from everything else, even the odd hesitancy in Captain Merric's words. He said, softly, "It's a long way to Earth. Can you keep us under control that long?" His brown eyes swept over the five members of his crew, meeting their gazes in turn, willing them to understand. Something's wrong here, Blake thought. This young hero--Servalan's niece--was willing to chance teleporting without a bracelet to keep us from getting away, but she's not taking us on to Malthus Sigma. I don't understand it, but I like our chances better if we can talk instead of fighting. Not for the first time, Blake wished Cally could receive thoughts as well as sending them.
"Look around you," Blake told Taymar. "Those are the eyes that'll be watching your every move from now on. They'll be on you every minute of the journey, waiting for you to make a mistake... and sooner or later, you will. One mistake. And then--you're ours." Blake stared straight ahead, not looking at the others but assessing them in his mind as if they were strangers. Jenna was competent and ruthless, practical; Gan, massively powerful, steadfast, strangely kind; Cally, proud and fierce, explosive in action; Vila, shrewd and anxious, with the hands of a thieving wizard; Avon, a cold, arrogant genius... and not nearly as enigmatic as he thought he was. My friends, some of you; my crew, all of you. This ragtag band of outlaws, this last, best hope... help me get us through this. "But it doesn't have to be like that."
Taymar hesitated for a moment before answering. "Very convincing," she said, "but I'm confident I can stay awake long enough to reach Earth. We'll go to the flight deck now. Move it." As she shoved Blake forward, the laser pressed up under his chin pinched a tiny piece of skin against his jawbone. He flinched at the sudden tiny pain.
Taymar froze. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Blake assured her. "You poked me."
"Sorry," Taymar murmured, as she pushed him towards the others. Blake started forward again, struggling to hide a smile. Maim somebody, Captain Merric? Maybe you would, but I've got a feeling it would go against your grain. Of course, you do still have a gun against my throat. "Don't stand around; I said move it," Taymar snapped, suddenly very much the black- clad Federation officer once again. As the others turned with varying degrees of reluctance and headed into the long corridor that ran the length of Liberator's spine, Blake tried to make sense of Taymar's actions. You've got guts and you're sharp, he thought, but you didn't have this planned. You've been improvising ever since you saw us teleporting out. You're not certain you can keep control of Liberator, but you're desperate enough to try. What's the alternative? What kind of trouble are you in, Madam Federation Officer?
"Close it up," Taymar snapped. "No-one is to get too far ahead." Blake heard the tightness in her voice and understood it. You didn't want to have to move us, did you? It's a lot harder to keep control of a moving group. But you thought you had to get us away from the teleport bays. "You, Stannis, I said close it up!"
The group paused as Jenna stopped, only a few metres away from a cross-corridor. She turned and came slowly back towards the others, big-cat graceful despite the anger evident in every movement. "All of you put a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you and keep it there," Taymar instructed. "Now get going."
They moved quietly on through the familiar corridors, well-lit by glowing tubes or indirectly by inset panels. Jenna led, with Gan behind her; Vila had to stretch up to keep his hand on Gan's broad back. Cally followed Vila, at his insistence. "I don't want Avon right behind me any more than I want the lady with the gun," he'd explained. "You're a nice girl, Cally, I can trust you." Impatiently, Cally had agreed; of course it is unsettling to have Avon behind you, she thought. That is the appeal. Avon was behind her now, and directly in front of Blake.
"You can't win," Blake said to the woman behind him, keeping his voice soft. "It's only a matter of time. But perhaps we can help each other; you can start by telling me why we aren't going to Malthus Sigma." For a long moment, Taymar didn't answer, but her grip tightened on Blake's shoulder.
"All right," she said finally. "You ought to be glad we're not going to Malthus Sigma; from what I've heard, there's not much chance of you getting a trial there, fair or otherwise. So when I saw you teleporting out, I realised it was a chance for both of us; a chance for a fair trial for you and your crew, and a chance for me to help the woman I admire and respect most."
"Wait a minute," Blake said, stopping abruptly. His hand almost slipped from Avon's shoulder before Avon checked himself. *I have spoken to the others, Blake. We are ready to act on your signal* came Cally's sharp thought as the line came to a halt. Blake folded his arms and hoped the others would wait just a little longer. "Do you mean Servalan? You're doing this to help her?" he asked incredulously.
"Why is that so strange?" Taymar asked, honestly puzzled. "The Federation owes her a great deal, and too many people have conveniently lost sight of that. My aunt helped make the Federation what it is! As Supreme Commander, she's the one struggling to keep the Federation working in accordance with its original high ideals, and it's cost her support in the core worlds... worlds where "tradition" equates with "corruption". Her position's jeopardised; she needs the support the capture of the Liberator will bring her."
Avon turned towards them, letting his hand trail down off Cally's shoulder. "So Servalan's having problems with her not-so-loyal supporters, and you were planning to ride to her rescue and present her with all of us and the Liberator too. How charming." Avon paused to give Taymar and Blake both a cynical half-smile before he went on. "Of course, single-handedly capturing the Liberator and her crew might still not be enough to make the other officers take you seriously... captain." There was no mercy in his smile as he added, "Well now, perhaps you should have your aunt buy you a political position instead."
Taymar whitened. "I was commissioned an officer on my own merits, Avon. Nobody... nobody did me any favours. But I'm trying to do you and your friends and the whole damn Federation a favour, making sure you get back to Earth for a fair trial. So don't ride me!" She leaned around Blake and glanced up the corridor. "How far now?"
"Almost there." He reached up slowly and touched her hand, where it gripped his shoulder. "You wanted to do something heroic, didn't you?" he said gently. "You wanted to redeem the Federation by handing us over for justice, not just for torture and death. You see, I've heard about Malthus Sigma too."
"That's why the Federation needs Servalan, to fulfill its promises and redeem its failures," Taymar said softly. Then she called up the corridor to Jenna, "Move it--and don't stop again." Blake smiled again as she pushed him roughly forward, very much aware of the faint tremor in her hands. Yes, you know how to handle defiance he thought. It's sympathy that you're having trouble with.
As they stepped out onto Liberator's flight deck, Blake had the satisfaction of hearing Taymar gasp. Liberator, with her incredible alien design and capabilities far beyond those of any other modern ship, usually struck people that way the first time. Of course, we're already taking it for granted, Blake thought ruefully. It's home now.
"Stop here," Taymar said softly and Blake felt her shifting behind him, turning to gaze at the banks of mysterious controls, the high-backed chairs standing sentinel at the work stations that sloped sharply up towards the arched ceiling. "It's fantastic," she whispered.
"Yes," Blake agreed. "Still eager to turn it over to your aunt? We do have a vacancy...."
Blake felt Taymar stiffen. In front of Avon, Cally's head turned sharply and Blake saw excited speculation on the Auron woman's long thin face. *Blake, I think she's a sensitive. I feel her indecision now, but the feeling is unfamiliar... she is not of the Auronaur. She is not one of my people.*
"Sit down, all of you. Over on those couches," Taymar ordered, not answering Blake's offer. Blake watched the others move warily forward, Gan imperturbable, Cally tensed for action. Vila glanced anxiously back at the 'lady with the gun' before settling into one of the two couches below the staggered duty stations. He was careful to snuggle in close to Jenna, who ignored him, her eyes fixed on Taymar with anger and contempt. "You said nobody did you any favours, captain, but you're still alive, aren't you?" Jenna said suddenly. "How's your mother? How's the First Minister?"
Taymar's eyes narrowed in pain, and her jaw tightened. She shoved Blake towards the couches, saying, "Sit down," in a strained voice. He walked over with all the confidence he could manage, acutely aware of the weapon at his back. Vila, suddenly just as eager to get away from Jenna as he had earlier been to get close to her, was quick to offer Blake his place.
"I'm just going to go round the other side where the conversation's, er, a bit safer," Vila explained, brushing off Blake's puzzled thanks.
As Blake sat down between Avon and Jenna, Taymar said tightly, "Sandahl Merric's dead, as you well know, Stannis. She was executed after her coup attempt failed. She was a traitor."
"And you owe your life to your aunt. How heartwarming,"Avon said sardonically.
"Sandahl was a traitor," Taymar repeated, her voice still tightly controlled. "My aunt made it possible for me to rebuild my life after she was executed. I owe her everything--but she did not buy me my commission. She--we both believe in promotion by merit."
"Yes, it's easy to be a reformer when you're already at the top," Avon said cynically. "But what have you accomplished? You're the Federation's wonder child, but I wonder; how do you sleep?"
"Better than you, I suspect," Taymar snapped. "My conscience is clear."
"I'm sure it is," said Vila, craning over the back of the seat he was sharing with Cally and Gan. "I can tell you're a nice girl when you're not on the job. And Avon, Jenna, it's not a good idea to upset the lady with the gun when she is on the job, if you get my drift."
"When I want your opinion, Vila, I'll give it to you," Avon said. "In the meantime, sit down and shut up." Muttering about "some people" and "no gratititude", Vila turned and dropped back down into his seat.
Jenna barely glanced at Vila's antics. "I'm sure your conscience is clear," she said to Taymar scornfully . "Just like any loyal little mutoid's. Don't you realise--do you know who ordered Blake and I sent to Malthus Sigma? It was your aunt. It was Servalan."
Taymar shook her head, but her laser, trained on Blake's chest, never wavered. "You're mistaken," she said firmly. "The Supreme Commander wouldn't allow that kind of abuse of justice. There's no way she'd have authorised something like that."
She really doesn't know. Blake turned to face Taymar directly, trying not to feel sympathy for the young captain. He wasn't entirely successful, and it must have shown, because Avon leaned over and murmured in his ear, "Just remember that she has the gun." Blake touched the other man's shoulder in acknowledgment, then turned back to Taymar.
"Captain? So you found out about the Malthus Sigma facility, but the Supreme Commander never has--or she'd have had it dismantled. True?" Blake asked. Taymar frowned a little, but nodded. "So which is it, captain; is your aunt ignorant or does she have use for a private hell?"
"I'll have to tell her--" Taymar began, when a resonant voice cut her off.
INFORMATION. THREE FEDERATION PURSUIT SHIPS ARE CLOSING ON LIBERATOR'S POSITION, SPEED STANDARD BY TWO. SHIPS WILL BE IN FIRING RANGE IN 8 MINUTES.
"What the hell--Zen, where did those ships come from?" Blake rose to a half-crouch on the seat, staring at the oval panel of translucent mottled brown inset on the far wall. Coloured bars marched through the cloudy depths as the voice answered:
FEDERATION PURSUIT SHIPS ENTERED SYSTEM AS ESCORT FOR A SMALL PERSONAL VESSEL OF THE SPACEFARER CLASS. THIS VESSEL HAS NOW LANDED AT THE MALTHUS SIGMA PENAL FACILITY.
Avon was also looking at the panel, his face tight with suspicion. "Zen, identify the vessel."
REGISTRATION OF VESSEL IS TERRAN AUTHORITY 127-LX-
"Don't give us the registration, just identify the damn thing!" Avon snapped. Unflustered, unhurried, the resonant voice replied:
LIBRARY COMPUTERS IDENTIFY VESSEL AS FSV WHITE TIGER, PERSONAL VESSEL OF--
"Federation Supreme Commander Servalan, yes, Zen, we know." Avon turned to glare at Blake, his face set and his brown eyes bright with anger. "Enough talk, Blake. We have to get out of here!"
"At ease, Avon." Taymar Merric leveled her laser at Avon, unimpressed by his rage. Smiling tightly, she said, "The pursuit ships aren't going to be a problem. They're not going to fire on us, not with White Tiger in port. And if she's here... then perhaps we won't have to go all the way to Earth after all."
"Blake, they must have signaled Servalan as soon as we were brought us in--" Jenna began.
"Sooner," Taymar interrupted. "You obviously don't understand just how important your capture is to my aunt. She's trying to uphold the law while you lawless few try to tear it down. She needs to see you held accountable. She probably got underway the moment she heard you'd finally been captured... and her trip won't be a wasted one." Taymar's tone was proud, fiercely satisfied. "And now she'll be able to take possession of Liberator completely intact."
In the long silence that followed, the strident beeping of the communications station was insistent. Blake lifted his head and met Taymar's eyes. Without turning his head, he said, "Gan, get to communications. Find out who it is and what they want."
"Right." The big man got up at once and headed for his station. He didn't even glance at Captain Merric in passing. She said nothing, just nodded once, her eyes still locked with Blake's.
"Liberator calling, Liberator calling." Gan's voice was steady as he returned the hail. "We hear you. Go ahead."
The voice was clear, realistic, without the tinny inflection even the most advanced Federation communicators tended to impart. "Attention, Liberator. This is Captain Jerge Petrik commanding Federation assault wing Delta. Hold your position and wait for rendez-vous. If you attempt to manoeuvre, you will be fired upon."
"I don't think so," Taymar said to Blake. "He's bluffing."
"And what if he isn't?" Vila demanded. "He's got three ships and we've only got one... why would he need to bluff?"
"Be quiet, Vila," Cally ordered, frowning. "You're not helping."
"Thank you, Cally," Blake said briskly. Then, to Gan, "Tell them about our guest, and see what they say."
Gan nodded. "Right." He touched a control and leaned forward. "Attention Captain Petrik, we have a Federation officer aboard. If you fire on us--" Gan glanced down at Blake for confirmation. Blake nodded. "--we'll kill her."
Blake looked back at Taymar and smiled. "Sorry about that," he said casually. "Just a little misdirection."
"Is it now," said Avon quietly.
"Attention Liberator. It seems extremely unlikely that you have any of our officers aboard your vessel. It's a lot more likely that you're simply bluffing. Well, Liberator, I'm calling your bluff--this exchange is terminated."
"Gan, get them back," Blake shouted. "Now! We can't face that kind of firepower, so don't give them an excuse to use it." Like the paw of a bear catching minnows, Gan's big hand flashed out to the controls with surprsing deftness.
"Got 'em," Gan announced. "Captain Petrik, her name's Merric, Taymar Merric. Captain. Servalan's her aunt."
"Wait." The faint hum of a live relay cut off momentarily, then resumed. "Attention Liberator. I have been in contact with Supreme Commander Servalan, and she instructs me to tell you that her niece, Captain Taymar Merric, was killed in action against dissidents on Eridau 3." The man's voice was as uninflected and expressionless as the voice of Zen. "The officer you have is an imposter. The Supreme Commander suggests that you neutralize her immediately and promises that your co-operation will be considered a mitigating factor in determining the severity of your sentences."
There was a sudden airless silence. Wordlessly, the crew of the Liberator turned to look at Captain Merric. Beneath the warm olive of her skin she'd gone very pale, but her weapon never wavered. "Servalan...?" she asked softly, staring at Blake but speaking almost to herself. "I'm not my mother. Why are you doing this?" Avon started to smile.
Blake felt the weight of Cally's thoughts in his mind, sorrowful and serious. *Blake, I know she is not an imposter. I know... the pain and grief are making her thoughts much clearer. She is Servalan's niece, and she believes in her just as she believes in... duty, and honour. Taymar would never betray her aunt... but her aunt has betrayed her. Servalan wants her dead*
And us blamed for it, thought Blake. I hope you're watching closely, Avon, you'll enjoy this. He rose and walked slowly towards Captain Merric, holding out his hand for her laser. "I don't think that's an option anymore," he said.
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