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Phantoms

By Jean Graham
Explosions rocked the building; a series of five concussions spaced with even precision. Blake, guarding the door with his gun in hand, allowed himself a tight smile. His team had done its job well.

"That's the barracks doors going," he said to the man bent over the nearby computer console. Avon did not appear to hear him. "It will take those troops at least two hours to dig their way out, assuming the guards on duty leave their posts to go and help. Any that don't, the prisoners can take care of for themselves. How long before you can open the cell doors?"

Avon straightened, a steel probe turning circles in his slender hands. "When I am ready," he said noncommittally.

Blake glared at him. "Meaning what, exactly?"

Black eyes locked with his, and a voice rife with sarcasm replied, "Meaning that I am still not convinced that loosing a prison full of thieves and murderers is the best means of forming your new and glorious order."

While fire alarms began screaming in the distance and running feet pounded by outside, Blake moved closer to the computer banks, keeping his weapon trained on the door. He watched the other man continue working, with deft movements that betrayed nothing of the disapproval that had just been expressed.

"Scruples, Avon?" Blake queried gently. "I didn't think you professed to possess any."

There was an odd note in Avon's voice, one Blake had never heard before. "You are releasing hardened criminals from a maximum security prison, Blake, not organizing an Alpha society picnic. These people could be dangerous. Doesn't that disturb your much-touted ethics in any way at all?"

"No."

The answer was firm, spoken with decisive conviction. Blake placed deliberate emphasis on his next words. "No more than it did a year ago, on Cygnus Alpha."

He got the hoped-for reaction to that. It wasn't easy to get reactions out of Avon, but he had learned over the past several months that there were ways around the man's seemingly impervious barricades. Avon had stiffened at the reference to Cygnus Alpha, and Blake watched the dark eyes grow hooded, replacing anger with wary disdain. It meant -- could only mean -- that he had got through; a small but crucial victory in the ongoing verbal war Avon waged with them all.

Dividing his attention between the computer expert and the door, Blake crossed his arms and waited, satisfied. There were decidedly few of Avon's contumacious moods that he could not counter, and Cygnus Alpha and the debt it entailed served as a particularly effective wedge. It had worked before.

After several long minutes of silence, he squatted beside the computer housing to peer again at Avon's handiwork, and a frown creased his brow. A computer expert he may not be, but Blake's engineering skills were sufficient to know stalling when he saw it. And Avon was stalling.

"Open the doors."

His soft command met only a chilled gaze.

"Open the doors, Avon." He said it more firmly this time, but the change in tone had no noticeable effect. Several seconds ticked past before Avon responded at all.

"There are two million innocent civilians living on this planet," he said without looking up. "I don't suppose you've given any consideration to their fate at all?"

Blake's temper snapped. "And just when the hell did you become a guardian of innocence? Open the doors!"

Avon didn't so much as blink at the outburst. Neither did he move to obey the demand. "Answer the question," he said levelly.

Blake drew in a measured breath, biting back another angry reply. "I've seen to it that a spaceworthy ship will be accessible to the convicts, within a day's reach, and that they will be contacted by rebel forces from the Dorlan system as soon as they are clear of this one. Will that satisfy your newfound moral sensibilities?"

The computer expert glanced at him and then back at the circuit boards in front of him, studying them in considered silence. "Conditionally," he said at length, and the probe slid abruptly into an orifice in the panel.

Before Blake could inquire as to the conditions, the alarms were silenced and Avon had turned away, fingers playing swiftly over one of the computer system's many keyboards.

"The doors are open?" Blake asked when the clicking of the keys had stopped.

"Yes."

"Good. Now perhaps you can answer a question for me."

Heavy-lidded eyes regarded him with feigned disinterest.

Blake was undeterred. "Why all the sudden and, I might add, uncharacteristic concern?"

"Is there a better way to find out precisely what you're up to?"

"Yes. You might try asking."

That earned him a scowl, but Avon was, nonetheless, not rising to the bait. "You have," he said instead, "quite naturally made certain that the 'rabble' are aware just who has affected their rescue?"

"Naturally."

"Judicious of you."

"I thought so. What good is a legend if you can't exploit it now and then?"

Avon's answer was lost in the shock of another explosion, this one much closer than the others. The force of it nearly sent Blake sprawling, and he had to grab one of the consoles for support.

"What the--?" He straightened as new alarms went off, including the one in the computer centre. "That one wasn't ours."

Avon said nothing, but he was up, the probe exchanged for one of Liberator's hand guns.

Blake slapped at the communications control on his teleport bracelet. "Cally, Vila, where are you?"

No one answered him, but pounding footsteps and laser fire began to echo from the corridors beyond them.

"Your converts appear to have liberated the armory," Avon said drolly.

"Cally, Vila!" Blake ignored him, shouting instead at the unresponsive bracelet. He gave up for the moment and headed for the door. "Come on."

"Where?"

"To find them," Blake snarled. "Where do you think?"

He eased the door open and stepped into a smoke-filled prison corridor. The alarms clamored for attention, echoing off metal walls that only served to make the air more stale and humid. Gun in hand, Blake headed east, in the direction Vila and Cally should be coming from. Amber warning lights flashed at every hall junction, bathing them periodically in a sickly yellow glow. Twice they ducked out of sight scarcely in time to avoid a confrontation: the first charge had been two Federation guards quite obviously fleeing for their lives, the second a small mob of armed prisoners just as obviously intent on seeing the guards' intentions thwarted.

Blake and Avon had barely gained the corridor again when a new disturbance drove them back into the nearest doorway. Two shots sounded just beyond them. Someone shouted. Blake knew that voice.

"Vila!" Alarms and more gunfire nearly obliterated the name, but he heard Cally respond with enthusiasm, realizing only belatedly that she had done so non-verbally.

//We are here, Blake. But so are the guards.//

Avon was looking at him, apparently having heard the same message. They checked their weapons, nodded to each other once, then charged into the corridor.

Three uniformed troopers had pinned Cally and a quaking Vila behind the desk of a junction guard station. Unprepared for a rear assault, two of them were promptly felled by Blake and Avon's attack. Cally's shot finished the third when he spun to return Blake's fire.

Still another explosion from somewhere shook the walls as Blake made his way over the fallen guards to Cally's side. Vila came timidly out from behind the desk, holding his gun as though, any moment, it might sprout teeth and bite him.

"Thanks," he said with feeling.

Blake didn't acknowledge him just yet. He'd taken Cally by the shoulders as the alarms abruptly ceased, leaving them in sudden eerie silence. "Are you all right?"

She nodded. "We couldn't answer you while we were running. I tried to--"

"If you don't mind," Vila interrupted anxiously, "could we maybe talk over old times a bit later? I have this aversion to being shot at. You understand."

Blake understood only too well. They were finished here. Nothing left now but to go back to Liberator. He gave Vila a reassuring smile and raised the bracelet to call Jenna.

His thumb had just closed on the button when some small noise from behind distracted his attention. There was no other warning. White hot fire seared past his ear, missing him by scant inches. He whirled, dropping and firing at the same time, aware that Avon, beside him, had done the same. It was Blake's shot, however, that struck home, and a figure that had been crouching at the corner of the nearest junction crumpled, a Federation para-rifle clattering to the steel floor beside it.

All four Liberator crewmembers climbed slowly back to their feet.

"Yes Vila, I think it is time we went home." Blake made to call Jenna once again, but was brought up short, this time by Cally. She had moved to stand over their latest would-be assassin, a look of puzzled concern on her face.

"Blake..."

He lowered the bracelet, the merest trace of annoyance seeping into his voice. "What is it?"

"Look." She sounded... he couldn't quite put a word to it. Tremulous. Almost frightened. That wasn't like Cally.

Blake reached the Auron first, the others gathering around her in his wake. "What is it?" he asked. "What's wrong?"

She knelt, and for the first time Blake looked closely at the body of his attacker, sprawled on the dirty floor beside the rifle that had so nearly taken his life. Under an ill-fitting and grease-stained prison uniform, the figure now at Cally's side was thin, frail... and far too small to be that of an adult.

"He's only a child..." Blake stared, disbelieving.

"And one of the inmates," Vila added, equally incredulous. "Why would he want to shoot at you?"

"Ingratitude, most likely," Avon said without sympathy. "Can we get out of here now?"

No one answered him.

Cally's slender hand pushed back one of the boy's oversized sleeves and closed gently around a small wrist. "He's still alive."

Blake grappled with a decision, then extended a hand toward Avon. "Give me the spare teleport bracelet."

"You can't be serious."

"Give it to me."

The demand brooked no further argument, but Avon's compliance was all the same deliberately slow, and exuded disapproval. Blake ignored that. He snatched the bracelet and clamped it to the boy's wrist. "Now, Jenna," he said urgently into his own. "Bring us up now."

*     *     *

Liberator's diagnostic computer hummed over the medical cot, its lights flashing in seemingly random series. Blake had watched Cally expertly clean and dress the boy's wound -- the shot had taken him high in the shoulder when he had leaned around the corner to fire. Now the Auron was cutting away the rest of the filthy prison garment, looking for any further signs of injury. Other than the fact that the boy was thin to the point of emaciation, there did not appear to be any.

"How is he?" Blake could no longer contain the question.

"The wound is not serious," Cally replied without turning from her task. "But according to the computer, his condition is dangeriously unstable. There's something else... Maybe Orac can sort it out when Avon gets here with him."

Blake came closer, peering down at the pale face nearly lost in the white of the oversized pillow. Their patient wasn't more than twelve Terran years old. Blake could not imagine an offense severe enough to warrant convicting a boy that age to an offworld prison. Then again, age had seldom mattered to the Federation's political machine when it came to 'relocating' rivals and dissidents -- and their families.

Cally's voice brought him abruptly back to the present. She had bathed, redressed and covered the boy with a clean sheet and stood looking at Blake now with troubled concern.

"I'm sorry..." He rubbed his eyes, aware that she must have spoken and was waiting for him to answer. "What did you say?"

"Do you know him?" she asked patiently.

Blake shook his head. "That's what bothers me. I've never seen him before. And I certainly have no idea why he'd want to kill me."

Cally considered that. "He was very deliberate about it."

"Yes, he was."

"Federation programming, perhaps?"

"On a planet they'd have no reason to think I'd ever come near? Why would they bother? This place doesn't even have a name. It's a number somewhere in a security computer file. A place they send people who might embarrass them. Among others..."

A sudden movement from the cot startled both of them. Their patient was struggling to sit up, and resisted Cally's efforts to dissuade him. Her soothing reassurances had begun to calm him, until Blake stepped into the boy's line of vision.

The effect was both immediate and unexpected. The boy came up off the bed, pushing Cally aside with surprising strength, and bolted away from them. He'd shouted something on the order of "Get away from me," but Blake had no time to respond to it. He tried to intercept the youngster, and found himself deftly outmaneuvered. His quarry dodged him and ran -- albeit in the wrong direction. The door he darted through led only to the glass-enclosed isolation unit, and the automatic sensors, registering a presence, immediately sealed the opening and locked him in. Realizing his mistake too late, the boy spun on the door and pounded futilely at it. In a moment, the effort spent, he'd collapsed onto the floor, and though the chamber was soundproofed, Blake could see the small shoulders shuddering with fearful sobs. He moved to release the lock, and was startled when Cally's hand stopped him.

"Don't," she said. "He may just be better off in there."

"What?" Blake found her apparent callousness unnerving. "You can't mean that. He's terrified."

"Yes," she said quickly. "Of you, apparently. I think perhaps we had better find out why, don't you?"

Moving around him, she tripped the lock and eased the chamber door open a fraction. Then, soundlessly, she had disappeared inside. Blake stepped to the window in time to see her kneel beside the boy, who had scrambled to a far corner at the motion of the opening door. Cally reached out with open fingers, a universal gesture of peaceful intentions, and took one of the too-thin hands in hers. Though her lips never moved, Blake knew she had spoken; he could see it in the look of puzzled wonder that came into the boy's eyes.

He watched, not entirely happy with these procedures, yet unwilling to say so. If Cally could somehow unravel this in her own fashion, the same ends would be served. At least he would have answers to his questions.

He saw tortured eyes drink in whatever mental reassurance Cally had delivered. The youngster began to speak then, and Blake wished fervently for some way to hear him. The conversation lasted for several minutes. Then the boy's eyes strayed to the man outside the glass.

Cally recoiled suddenly, breaking the hand-contact and drawing away. Her eyes had gone dark, full of horror and revulsion. Something was very wrong...

Blake was at the door and about to go inside when the emerging Auron met him, pale and trembling. She'd barely cleared the door, which locked itself behind her, when she stumbled and nearly fell. Blake reached instinctively out to steady her, but to his bewilderment she struck his hands away. There were tears glistening on her cheeks.

"Please," she murmured. "Don't..."

She tried to move away, but her legs seemed unwilling to carry her. Blake took gently hold of her, gratified that this time she permitted the touch, and eased her into a chair. What had possessed her to react to him that way?

"Cally..." He couldn't hide the concern--or the hurt--in his voice. "Cally, what is it?"

"I'm sorry," she said weakly. "I didn't mean--"

"It's all right," he said a little too impatiently. "Just tell me what happened."

He watched some of that same horror filter back into her eyes as haltingly, she said, "On Auron, such things would be unthinkable." A shudder turned the next words into a near-sob. "With children it is..."

"Cally..." Blake grasped her by the shoulders, applying a light but noticeable pressure. "Cally, please. Tell me why this child should be terrified of me? I don't know him."

"No," she said finally, and Blake saw her eyes soften then, becoming more the compassionate Cally he knew. "No, you do not. But he knows you." She got to her feet and went back to the glass, one hand pressed silently against the cold, unyielding surface. "His name is Payter," she said quietly. "Payter Fen."

Blake felt the color drain from his face. That name was indelibly etched in his memories of a courtroom, where it had been pronounced along with two others by a sallow-faced judge. Three children, none of whom he had ever met. But three names he would forever remember. The Federation had seen to that.

Leesal Renor. Carl Deca.

Payter Fen.

Blake stood, a supplicating gaze meeting Cally's strangely hard eyes. "I didn't..." he said weakly.

She shook her head, as though the gesture might somehow reassure him. "It is a memory implant," she said. "But to Payter Fen it is quite real. And there's more, Blake. More that is real, and..." She faltered, fighting more tears, he realized with horror. "...terrible."

He had the impression that 'terrible' wasn't what she'd intended to say. Blake turned to stare again at the fetally curled figure behind the glass. "Why here?" he asked quietly. "How did he get here?"

"Probably the Federation wished to protect their... 'investment'... in the implant," Cally theorized. "To be certain it would never be questioned--or broken through. So they 'put him away' where no one was supposed to find him."

Blake felt suddenly ill. "What about the others? Renor and Deca?"

"I don't know. Probably the same... but to other prison planets, I imagine. It wouldn't do to let them be together."

The chime of the intercom cut across her speech. Blake moved woodenly to answer it, and Jenna's crisp tones came over the speaker, a stark contrast to the bleak mood in the room. "Sorry to interrupt, but I need a heading. Or are we just going to hang about here? The Federation might just have got a message out."

"They didn't," he told her. "Orac saw to that. Hold us here a little while yet, Jenna. I'll be up to give Zen a new course shortly."

"Right." Jenna sounded disappointed, but she signed off without saying anything more.

As Blake turned from the intercom, the med unit door whispered open to admit Avon, carrying Orac. He cast a questioning glance at the empty cot, then noted Cally at the isolation window and carried Orac to the ledge beside her.

"Is your patient suffering from an infectious disease?" he asked her matter-of-factly.

Cally glanced nervously at Blake. "I don't think so. He ran in there on his own." At Avon's questioning look, she added slowly, "His name is Payter Fen. He's one of the children Blake was convicted of..."

She let the sentence trail away, leaving Blake to wonder if she might not harbor some doubt as to his innocence. Surely Cally couldn't believe a thing like that of him. Not Cally...

Avon had assimilated her news without comment, and was now attaching diagnostic electrodes from the wall to Orac's casing. He slid the activator key into place last of all, bringing the box-shaped computer to life with a strident whine.

Blake ghosted to his side, feeling acutely uncomfortable for absolutely no reason that he could fathom. "Can Orac make a diagnosis without direct contact?"

Avon nodded. "As long as he is in there, yes."

Blake glanced at the small figure hunched in one corner of the isolation cell. "Then there's something else I want to know."

Avon merely stood there, waiting for him to go on. Blake had the inane urge to grab the man and shake him. For all Avon seemed to care, Payter Fen might have been nothing more than another piece of Liberator's vast machinery, neither living nor breathing -- merely there.

"I want to know," Blake said in a tightly-controlled voice, "if there is any way to safely obliterate a Federation memory implant."

"That wouldn't be wise," Cally said suddenly, surprising him. "It is far too late for--"

"I have to try!" Blake all but shouted the words at her, and Cally seemed to shrink from him, visibly frightened. The action was unlike her, and only served to augment his discomfort.

"Very well." She sounded hurt. "I will let Orac tell you then." And abruptly, she was gone, the med unit door snicking primly shut behind her.

Avon had ignored the entire exchange. "Orac," he said, "did you get all that?"

The pettish voice snapped back at him. *Did I get all of what? You must be more specific if I am to--*

"Shut up," Avon interrupted, as curt as Orac himself. "You will run complete diagnostic analysis on subject in isolation ward B. You will further determine the feasibility of memory implant negation to be performed on same subject. Is that clear?"

*Perfectly. Now if you will kindly allow me to proceed with--*

"Get on with it then." Avon thumped the computer's casing, a gesture of both impatience and comtempt, and turned back to Blake. "We should have an answer soon," he said.

Blake scarcely heard him. He was watching Payter Fen try to melt into the sterile corner of the glassed room, hugging the wall as though it alone offered him any form of security.

"I should be in there. I should at least try to talk to him, make him understand."

Avon's ice-hard voice softened ever-so-slightly. "I should think that would be even less wise," he said.

Blake put a hand to the glass, clenched it into a fist until the knuckles had gone white, then dropped it to his side. "What kind of animals would do this to a child?"

Avon's look said the answer to that should be obvious, but he did not voice the admonition. He gazed through the glass instead, and for the first time, Blake thought he saw compassion in the stormy eyes, a hint of something other than the calculated unconcern that usually disguised Avon's soul.

"There are many," Avon said to the glass, "who never had a childhood at all."

Blake paced away, one hand running ragged patterns through his hair. He'd been about to ask what Avon's remark meant when the med unit door slid open again. Expecting Cally, he wheeled to confront a nervous Vila instead.

"I..." The intensity of Blake's glare disconcerted the thief and he seemed to lose his resolve. "I saw... I mean I talked to Cally... in the corridor," he said lamely, and waited, as though that had explained what he'd come for.

Avon provided the necessary prompt. "And?"

Vila started, then visibly tamed his nerves and handed Blake a medical phial filled with bright red liquid. "She said you ought to give him that," he said in a small voice. He walked resolutely to the observation window, and Blake didn't fail to notice that he paled at the sight of their young patient. "It's... to help him sleep," he went on shakily. "Stops the nightmares. He'll have a lot of those..."

As though he'd somehow heard Vila's words, Payter Fen lifted his head from his knees and gazed out at the thief with empty, lifeless eyes. Blake was dismayed to see Vila recoil and turn away, only to turn back again as though he were fighting some mysterious battle with himself.

Blake caught the smaller man's arm. "What else did Cally tell you?" he demanded. He had a vague memory of Cally saying something before she had gone. Something about there being more.

Vila's mouth opened, but no sound emerged. He glanced at Avon, pillar still and silent in front of a flashing Orac, then wriggled uncomfortably free of Blake's grasp as though he were preparing to escape again out the door.

"Not very much," he answered warily. "She didn't have to tell me. Not most of it."

Blake was puzzled. "Not most of what?"

"Would..." Vila stammered, paused, then gathering his courage around him like a cloak, let the rest out in a rush of words. "Would you let me try to talk to him? Please?"

"You?" Blake regretted the response immediately. Vila looked hurt, then promptly more determined.

"I can help," he said confidently. "Let me try, at least."

"I don't see what--"

"Let him try." Avon's calm tones interrupted Blake, who gave the computer tech a mystified look. He found Avon and Vila exchanging a look of their own, some unspoken knowledge passing tacitly between them. Vila nodded, and moved to open the isolation chamber door.

"Vila--" Blake started after him, only to find himself caught up short when Avon gripped his arm.

"Leave it, Blake. He may have a better chance of getting somewhere than we do."

Avon's clasp loosened at once, but left Blake no less bewildered. His voice carried an angry edge. "What makes you think that Vila...?"

He stopped, distracted by the sight of the subject in question lifting Payter from the floor, putting him gently down again on the diagnostic bed inside the unit. Orac's power hum changed perceptibly with the motion. Humming as well, the nearby medical computer began emitting a hard-copy tape.

For several moments, Avon watched Blake watching Vila, who had brought Payter water from the chamber's dispenser and now sat beside the boy, talking to him. Payter answered him slowly, distrustfully, never glancing at the observers outside the glass.

"Some time, Blake," Avon said evenly, "you should examine the criminal records of the people you've chosen for crew."

Blake's brow knit. "Meaning what? I know enough about Vila to be certain he was never convicted of... anything like that. So how would he know--?"

"First penal colony conviction at fourteen? How do you think?"

The sick feeling in the pit of Blake's stomach turned suddenly shard-brittle. He'd read the file, Vila's file, and yet he'd never thought of what must have lain between those lines of sterile print. First penal colony conviction at fourteen. Vila had been little more than a child himself. And that colony, like Cygnus Alpha, would have comprised primarily adult men...

The chatter of the diagnostic computer dragged Blake's attention from the scene behind the window. The tape had continued to feed out, at Orac's instruction, and Avon was perusing the results, a frown darkening his features.

Blake didn't wait for him to finish reading. "Can the implant conditioning be reversed?"

Gaze carefully neutral once again, Avon tore off the diagnostic tape and handed it to him. "There would seem to be little point," he said.

Annoyed, Blake snatched the paper and scanned it. The final line of Orac's readout was a blunt PROGNOSIS TERMINAL. Above that, several diagnostic scans confirmed the reason. Blake read it aloud.

"Total immune system failure resulting from chronic deficiencies in cellular..."

"A viral disorder," Avon clarified, mistaking Blake's incredulity for ignorance. "Transmitted in one of two ways. Intravenously... and sexually. It reached plague proportions on Earth once, before the new calendar."

"I've read of it." Blake dropped the readout tape on the ledge beside Vila's forgotten bottle of red serum. The pair inside the chamber were still now, Payter's face turned away from the thief, sullen and tight-lipped. Blake drew in a tortured breath. "I've read of it," he repeated. "But it was eradicated."

"On Earth, yes." Avon spread his hands. "Out here..."

"Orac--" Blake spun on the computer. "According to the history tapes I've read, there is a serum capable of curing this disease. Why is your prognosis terminal?"

As ever, Orac affected offense at the accusative tone of the question. *The curative substance, actifron E, has already been administered by Cally as part of universal decontamination and inoculation procedures,* he huffed. *The virus has in fact been neutralized. Results are nevertheless negative. I suggest the advanced stages of the disease in conjunction with subject's inferior size and strength have combined to--*

Blake yanked out the key, silencing Orac's voice and power whine both at once. "No end to the tyranny," he seethed, and tossed the key down beside the curled computer tape. "How many more innocents have they slaughtered just to silence me?"

Avon's eyes narrowed. "Misplaced guilt will do little to alleviate that," he said quietly.

The anomaly of Avon trying to assuage his conscience was almost lost on Blake, who had gone back to watching the bleak tableau of Vila and the now-sleeping Payter Fen. The silence stretched, until Liberator's alarm claxon shattered the quiet with a piercing wail. It was audible even inside the soundproofed isolation ward: Payter had stirred on the bed and Vila was on his feet, opening the chamber door. Blake hesitated on his own way out only long enough to say, "Stay with him, Vila. We'll take care of it." Then he followed Avon at a run toward the flight deck.

They arrived to find Jenna, grim-faced, tracking four points of light on the Liberator's viewscreen.

"Pursuit ships?" Panting, Blake slid into his flight position. Avon nearby, had done the same.

Jenna nodded. "They came up from the far side of the planet." She cut the alarm and tripped several more controls on the console in sequence. "Bearing zero-nine-zero, attack formation."

"Far side of the planet," Avon muttered, throwing switches on his own console. "Obviously this place isn't altogether useless to the Federation after all."

Blake ignored him. "Zen, time to attack range?"

+Two minutes, 34 seconds,+ the computer announced.

Breathing an oath, Blake ordered, "Break orbit. Course nine-four-seven, bearing 360, standard by ten." Jenna gave him a sharp look as Zen obeyed the instructions. Power surged through the deck beneath Blake's feet. Stars spun on the viewscreen, tilted, levelled off again. For the first time, he noticed that Cally had entered and silently taken up her own flight position.

"They're right behind us," Jenna said curtly. "And that course will take us right back where we started. What are you playing at, Blake?"

"Flotilla dropping back," Avon said before Blake could respond. "Still on pursuit vector, following our heading, but out of strike range. We're losing them." He stepped away from his console, eyeing Blake suspiciously. "Why are we going back then?"

Blake left his own station to approach Cally's, not answering Avon's question. "How large a supply of Actifron E does Liberator carry?" he asked the Auron.

Her soft eyes appraised him for a moment before she said, "Zen can manufacture a nearly inexaustible supply."

"A thousand litres should be sufficient. Zen, can you confirm the efficacy of an airborne serum?"

+Affirmative,+ was all the computer had to say.

Blake nodded. "All right. We'll make one pass, Jenna, and instruct Zen to release the serum into the atmosphere."

"Over the prison complex," Avon added, fathoming Blake's intent at last.

"Yes."

"Nothing if not altruistic. Those pursuit ships will be on top of us the minute we come back into range."

"I don't think so."

Jenna scowled at both of them. "And why not?"

"Our coming back is likely the last thing they'll expect. Anyway, we won't be staying around long enough to engage them."

"Going back at all is an unnecessary risk," Avon grated. "There is no valid reason--"

"I consider preventing the spread of a potential plague a more than valid reason." Blake glared at Avon briefly, then stepped deliberately around him on the way to the portion of Liberator's flight deck that housed her main computer. "Zen, how much time is required for production of one thousand litres of substance actifron E?"

Yellow rectangles flashed rapidly across Zen's mottled brown fascia. +As a component of standard decontamination compound mordrine, this amount is already in ship's stores.+

"And we can release the compound into the planetary atmosphere?"

+Liberator is so equipped.+

"Prepare to release then, one thousand litres over co-ordinates zero-three-four-seven. Stand by."

+Confirmed.+

"We're entering orbit," Jenna said.

Avon had made his way back to his station, and now watched the indicators warily. "No sign of pursuit craft." Almost to himself then, he added a muted, "Yet."

"Nothing on the communications frequencies either," Cally supplied.

Blake turned to Jenna. "How long before we're over the prison complex?"

"Two minutes."

"Take us in low. One pass, and out again as soon as we've released the decontaminant."

"Right."

No one said anything for several moments while Jenna busied herself with the orbit and Zen's deep, resonant hum filled the flight deck. In the intervening quiet, Blake became aware of footsteps in the approach corridor, and looked up to see Vila in the hexagonal entryway, a de-activated Orac in his arms. The thief met Blake's unspoken question with calm denial as he placed the computer on its customary table.

"He's asleep," the thief said. "There wasn't anything else this plastic pain-in-the-arse could do, so..."

"Coming into position now." Jenna's voice cut across Vila's speech. Blake looked at Vila and nodded understanding, relieved when the thief responded with a small smile and turned to take up his own flight chair.

"Zen," Blake said. "Release the decontamination compound."

The huge computer hummed melodically, lights oscillating more rapidly than usual.

+Releasing,+ it intoned.

Jenna's voice intersected Zen's. "Four pursuit ships on approach vector nine."

Avon grimaced. "So much for 'the last thing they'll expect,'" he murmured.

+Decontamination procedure completed,+ Zen said dispassionately. +Enemy pursuit craft now on intercept course.+

"We know," Jenna breathed.

Blake had activated the viewscreen in time to see four ships in tight formation converging on Liberator.

"Put up the flare shield, Vila. Clear the neutron blasters." Blake moved to the piloting station. "Plot us a course out, Jenna. Standard by seven."

"They're breaking formation." Cally's voice drew his attention back to the screen, where the pursuit ships had indeed broken their pattern and were now spreading out to surround Liberator on four 'sides.' With the planet behind her, she was now effectively bracketted.

+Plasma bolts launched and running,+ Zen informed them tonelessly. +Bearing directly.+

"Evasion course!" Blake's words were lost in the double impact of the plasma bolts. He was thrown to the deck, hitting the pilot console housing as he went down hard enough to make lights swim in the periphery of his vision. He struggled back to his feet in time to hear Avon's unflappable tones report a 30% energy drain on shields two and six.

"Zen!" Blake snapped. "Increase speed to standard by ten. Bearing zero-four-one."

"Straight through them?" Jenna was incredulous.

"Straight through them," Blake echoed.

Avon crossed his arms, voice smirking. "You tried that once before."

"Yes, well, let's just see who backs down first, shall we?"

One of the pursuit craft on the screen moved inexorably into Liberator's path, endeavoring to close the jaws of the trap. When the maneuver failed to slow its prey, the ship opened fire, yellow death splaying outward from its gun turrets. Liberator shuddered, taking the blast full across the bow, but kept running. The other three pursuit ships turned to close belatedly, realizing Blake's intent. Too late, they opened fire, only to watch the shots miss their rapidly moving target, and the fourth member of their flotilla execute a panicked spin starboard to avoid imminent collision with the huge alien craft.

"The better part of valor," Blake quoted solemnly as the crew of the Liberator let out a collectively held breath.

+Enemy vessels turning to pursuit course,+ Zen stated.

"Go to standard by twelve," Blake told it. "When they're safely out of range, drop our speed to standard by five. Course will be determined."

+Confirmed.+

"Determined?" Avon followed him to the lounge area, where Blake proceeded to insert Orac's key. "What does that mean?"

Orac's sniping tone was Avon's only answer. *What is it now?*

"Orac," Blake said, "I want you to search Federation penal records and determine the whereabouts of two individuals. Carl Deca and Leesal Renor."

*My abilities are better served--*

"I'll expect a report within the hour." Blake pulled the key again before Orac could protest further, then turned to face a grim Avon.

"More misdirected guilt," the computer expert commented acidly.

"Possibly." Blake was aware of Vila coming to hover near the silenced Orac. They exchanged glances, and to Blake the thief's eyes suddenly spoke volumes, though Vila had said nothing aloud.

Voicing what he took as Vila's tacit admonition, Blake told Avon, "I'm going to find them. Both of them. And we will find a way to break that memory implant."

Ever derisive, Avon's head tilted to one side as Blake went past him and back to the flight stations.

"Another crusade."

Cally regarded Avon coolly. "One it seems even you might find it in yourself to believe in," she said.

"That is unlikely. I am not in the habit of committing suicide for the sake of someone else's conscience."

Surprisingly, it was Vila who said what Blake supposed they all were thinking. The thief, who had spoken very little since returning to the flight deck, glared at the computer tech over a silent Orac and said unceremoniously, "You know Avon, for a supposed-to-be-brilliant Alpha grade genius and all -- sometimes you really are an idiot."

Vila moved around Orac, sidestepped an open-mouthed Avon, and silently disappeared down the hexagonal corridor leading off the flight deck.

Blake indulged a faint smile, born of both pride and sadness. He'd underestimated Vila, it seemed. Very probably they all had. He watched Avon cast a dark glance down the exit corridor, then move desultorily to take up his flight position under the unconvincing pretence that he had certainly not just been verbally outclassed by a cowering, Delta-grade thief. Blake, suppressing his own urge to laugh, found Cally's eyes instead, and was pleased to see that for the first time in many hours, they were smiling.

Orac's report, when it came, was not the best Blake might have hoped for. Carl Deca, the computer had announced bluntly, had died a year ago of injuries sustained in an unspecified accident on the Federation penal mining colony Gestur. Leesal Renor's last known whereabouts had been the agricultural planet Sarepta, in the outer worlds Abdon System -- a less-than-friendly sector notorious for its black market activity, smugglers, pirates, and Federation prisons.

It had taken Liberator only two days to make the journey, but Blake hadn't failed to notice that Jenna had been uncharacteristically nervous all the way. He'd had no chance to question her until they were in orbit over Sarepta, and the two of them were alone in the teleport room.

"You want to tell me what's been bothering you?" he asked matter-of-factly over the now-familiar procedure of attaching the handgun's power pack and clipping the assembled device to his belt. A teleport bracelet was next -- and last -- in the list of accoutrements, but he paused over the rack to study the frown Jenna was projecting from behind the control console. "Well?" he prompted gently.

She shook her head, as though the simple motion could dispel her thoughts. "Nothing," she said.

Blake plucked a bracelet from the nearest slot but did not put it on just yet. He turned back to the console instead, placed the bracelet on its polished surface, and leaned forward, supporting himself on the edge with both arms spread wide. "Free-traders are usually somewhat more adept at lying -- or so I've been told."

She shot him an annoyed glance, but looked quickly away again. When it was apparent that nothing else was forthcoming, Blake hazarded a guess. "Some of your old friends in the neighborhood, are they?"

She fiddled with an inconsequential control on the panel, the annoyed look turning fiery and canny both at once. "No," she said, and the toggle beneath her fingers snapped decisively. She looked straight at him then, in a way only Jenna could manage. It was a look that went through you. "Not old friends," she said. "Old... rivals. And let's just say they'd likely welcome the chance to even a few old scores."

He clamped the bracelet over the cuff of his jacket, and offered her a grim smile. "Then I guess we'll just have to avoid advertising the fact that you're aboard."

This time her look was chiding, the voice chilled brass. "Even pirates watch viscasts, Blake."

"Yes, well..." He really didn't have an answer for that. "We'll simply be careful then. Tell Zen to run periodic scans of the area and--"

"I've already done that."

He blinked, taken aback for a moment, then nodded. "Right." She was on edge. When he got back, perhaps he ought to take a closer look at Jenna's Federation file. He stepped into the alcove and had been about to request that she activate the teleport when Vila came bustling through the entry corridor and down the steps. He wore surface clothes, and the bright red packing case that housed his lock-picking tools bumped comfortably along at his knee as he made straight for the bracelet rack and then the alcove.

"Not going without me, are you?" He made a show of putting down the case to clip the bracelet on and adjust the hastily-donned weapon and other odd tools on his belt, then turned to face Jenna as he picked the toolcase up again. "There, that's all right then. Shall we go?"

Blake looked hard at him, an expression that was mirrored by Jenna from behind the console. He hadn't asked the thief to come with him. He hadn't asked anyone.

"Vila, are you feeling quite well?"

"Nothing a little soma wouldn't put right. We'll just have a nip when we get back, shall we? You mind if we get on with it? Hanging about with a lot of pirates and smugglers in the neighborhood isn't exactly my idea of fun." He cast Jenna an apologetic glance. "Sorry."

Blake met the amused twinkle in Jenna's eyes with a grin of his own. "All right Jenna, put us down."

Liberator dissolved into white, replaced a moment later by a grassy slope beneath grey skies. A warm wind teased Blake's hair, and carried the dusky scent of something he couldn't quite identify. He moved to the hill's crest, and the patchwork pattern of terraformed fields came immediately into view below them, surrounding a small community of plasticrete buildings. Whatever grain they grew here had been newly harvested--it sat in neatly-tied bundles all over the fields, ready for threshing, and was no doubt the source of the aroma he'd been puzzled by.

"Lovely," Vila said in a tone Blake suspected was intentionally sarcastic. Having lived most of his own life under the domes, he could understand the thief's lack of enthusiasm for rural settings, particularly when the setting in question was a Federation-controlled penal colony.

"Not much in the way of locks to open I'm afraid." Blake nodded toward the crude prefab dwellings. "But then, that isn't really why you volunteered to come along, is it? Or do I read my Vilas wrongly?"

The thief shrugged, an expansive gesture that made the equipment he'd draped over himself rattle noisily. "Never know when you might need a different sort of lock opened, do you? We going to stand here all day, or go about our business? That soma's getting warm already."

Blake laughed, and together they descended the slope. He sobered as they neared the settlement, reflecting that somewhere in that jumbled collection of dirty buildings, was Leesal Renor. Another child programmed to believe that he...

"Blake..." Vila's voice interrupted his thought and halted his steps.

"What is it?"

Vila squinted at the buildings, then at the fields beyond. "There's no one here."

"Don't be ridiculous." Blake peered hard at the buildings as well, aware for the first time that it was eerily quiet, and there were no signs of movement anywhere. Yet they had to be here. On a penal planet there was nowhere to go, and this was the only community.

"I don't like it," Vila said warily. "I think we should get out of here."

Blake hesitated, torn. Where were the people? Assuming they would not all be inside the dwellings at midday, the only other possibility was the hangar and launch facility built beyond the settlement; arrival and departure base for the Federation's supply ships.

"Look," Vila said, and pointed suddenly. "There. There's someone in a doorway."

There was a figure, a thin woman in homespun grey clothes, framed by one of the narrow doors. She stood and regarded them blankly, registering neither welcome nor suspicion, and that in itself made Blake acutely uncomfortable. Something was definitely not right here...

He drew his weapon with care, and cautiously preceded Vila the rest of the way down the incline. The woman continued to stare at their approach, but even when they had stopped in front of her, she did not speak.

Certain now that she was not armed, Blake lowered the gun for diplomacy's sake, though he realized belatedly that his question was anything but tactful. "What's wrong with you?" he asked.

In answer, she turned and fled back into the small building. Blake and Vila made to follow, but the sound of movement behind them made both turn back -- to face a newly-appeared trio of armed mutoids, and an even more imposing figure in black.

"Travis..." Vila breathed, and Blake, his gun still in hand, heard more of the mutoid forces materializing out of the buildings. There were six of them that he could see, and probably two more on the pursuit ship, undoubtedly concealed in the hangar along with the rest of the colony members..

"Drop the gun, Blake."

Vila scurried to comply, despite not having been directly addressed. Blake was slower to relinquish the weapon, but when one of the mutoids retrieved Vila's from the ground, he offered no resistance to the confiscation of his own, nor the teleport bracelets. They had been neatly trapped, and he had only one question for the captor.

"How?"

The man with one eye studied him for a long moment. Just when it seemed he wasn't going to answer, the soft voice said, "You're very predictable, Blake. Did you know that? Your liberated prison inmates were all recaptured yesterday -- all but one. The one you took off planet. His name correlates with two others in your file, one of whom is dead, and the other..."

Blake glared at him, consternation warring with chagrin at the simplicity of the explanation. It had never occurred to him that exploiting Liberator's legend as they had might also serve to betray them; but in this case it had done so with ironic efficiency.

Travis' false hand came up to point directly at Vila, who flinched and nearly stumbled into Blake. The hand jerked left abruptly. "Over there. Stand away from him."

Confused, Vila looked from Blake to Travis and back again before hesitantly complying with the order. "What... what are you going to do?" he stammered.

His question was ignored. The lethal hand had come back to cover Blake.

"I've waited a long time to kill you. I wouldn't want the moment to go by too quickly."

Blake heard Vila shout "No!" a split second before Travis' weapon erupted, and white fire burned a path through his left arm and ribcage. The impact tumbled him backward through the doorway of the house he and Vila had been about to enter. The last thing he remembered seeing was the grey-clad woman, standing huddled in a corner of the earthen-floored room, looking down at him. Only now there was unsheathed hatred in her eyes.

"Please," Vila's voice, tear-choked and sobbing, broke through the haze of pain that had marked Blake's return to consciousness. "Please don't. I can't, I tell you I can't! Oh please... Get him away from me!"

"I'll send it away." Travis' deliberate denial of gender told Blake that he must be referring to one of the mutoids. "All you have to do is say the words, Restal. Call the ship and get the others down here. That's all."

Vila didn't respond, but in a moment Blake heard something make a sharp, metallic scraping noise, and the thief whimpered in reaction. "No..."

With no small effort, Blake forced his eyelids open, blinking fiercely in the harsh light from the overhead panels. He was still face up on the floor where he had fallen. The woman still stood in the corner, just as before, and against the righthand wall... He had to turn his head to see clearly and the effort triggered an urge to cough. Suppressing it nearly plunged him back into the darkness, but he had to stay awake, had to know what they were doing to Vila...

"Don't," the thief was pleading weakly, and Blake could see now that he was pinned against the wall by two of the mutoids while a third hovered nearby with the plasma needle from its forearm extended -- poised over Vila's bared wrist. Travis waited resolutely in front of him with one of the teleport bracelets in hand.

"Get them down here," he ordered calmly. "Now."

Vila tried to shrink from both Travis and the approaching needle, but the effort was clearly hopeless. If mutoids could be said to experience any sort of pleasure, then this one was enjoying the act of terrifying its intended victim. Or perhaps, Blake thought grimly, that half-smile it wore was merely anticipation at the rare chance to feed, first hand, on human blood.

"They won't believe me," Vila was sobbing. "Avon will know, he'll know."

"Then you'll have to make it sound convincing, won't you?" Travis thrust the bracelet at him savagely. "Call them!"

Vila flinched at the gesture, but then deliberately turned his head aside, away from both Travis and the waiting needle. Blake could see that his eyes were tightly shut, and that despite the mutoids' iron grip, he was trembling. Travis had taken the thief's refusal at face value; he yanked the teleport bracelet back and paced away, never once looking down at the section of floor where Blake lay.

"All right," he said impatiently. "We'll see how cooperative you are with a few pints less of blood in you, shall we?" Then curtly, to the mutoid, he said, "Go ahead."

It was odd, Blake thought, that Vila's only reaction to the needle's insertion was a muffled gasp. There followed several moments of nothing at all but the faint, hideous click of the mutoid's pumping mechanism. And then, softly, came the sound of Vila's ragged breathing building rapidly into panic.

"Don't... please make it stop! Make it stop!"

Blake fought to find his own voice and failed; his chest felt as though something huge and incredibly heavy were resting upon it, and he couldn't move his left arm at all. Yet surely Travis knew that he wasn't dead. The former space commander's aim had been very deliberate. No doubt this was what he had meant by not letting the 'moment' pass too quickly.

"You'll call the ship then," Travis said to Vila.

The thief's eyes flew open, wide with terror. "Yes, all right! Just make it stop, please!"

Instead of a smile, Travis' mouth twisted into a contemptuous sneer. He ordered the mutoid away with an abrupt gesture, ignoring Vila's whimper at the less-than-gentle removal of the plasma feeder. Again, Blake watched as the teleport bracelet was held out to the thief.

"Tell them that Blake..." Travis paused at the name but did not look toward its owner. "Tell them Blake has ordered them to come down."

That Vila did not believe such an obvious ploy would work on Avon was evident, even through his terror. All the same, when his left arm was released, he reached for the bracelet as though ready to comply with Travis' demand. Before he could touch it, the device was promptly snatched away.

"No," Travis said suddenly. "Better still..." Handing the bracelet to the mutoid who had just released Vila's arm, he pulled the other from his belt and clamped it to his own right wrist, holding that out to Vila. "Tell them to bring both of you up." The artificial hand and its intrinsic weapon came to rest against Vila's temple. "And make it sound convincing."

The thief nodded, squeezing his eyes shut once again as Travis pressed the communications stud. He didn't quite succeed in banishing the tremor from his voice when he said, "Liberator.. Avon, are you there? We need to come up."

For several protracted seconds, no one answered. Then Avon's familiar laconic tone queried, "What's the matter? Already lost your taste for planet-storming?"

"Don't make jokes," Vila admonished lamely. "Just bring us up, will you? It's..." He paused for a barely discernible moment before the next words spilled out in a rush. "...a trap. Don't do it Avon! Travis is --"

The hand with the bracelet drew back and struck him hard across the face. Blake saw Vila go down, released by the remaining mutoid. Then Travis' body blocked his view -- though he could still see the man's left hand taking decisive aim...

"No..." From somewhere, Blake summoned the strength to push up on his good arm, possessed with the mad notion that he could somehow cross the impossible five meters between them and knock Travis aside. Anything to stop him firing point blank at Vila. Now that Avon had been warned, they only needed time...

"Stand very still, Travis."

The voice, a woman's voice, confused Blake for a moment. He propped himself against the wall, trying hard to ignore the agony in his side, finding it miracle enough that he could move at all -- though a glance was enough to tell him, despite being unable to feel it, that the worst of the damage had been done to his arm. His left arm. Typical of Travis, to choose his revenge with such calculated irony.

"And where did you get that?"

Travis' soft voice drew Blake back to the present. He had forgotten completely about the woman, the one who had drawn them into the house, the one who had watched him from the corner with that unfathomed look of contempt in her eyes. She was holding a gun, produced from somewhere in the sparsely-furnished room, and she did not look to be intimidated by the fact that all three mutoids were pointing para-handguns back at her. Vila, mirroring Blake's position against the opposite wall, watched them with wide, anxious eyes that cast periodic glances aside, probably in search of cover -- he was also in her line of fire.

The gun, however, was aimed directly at Travis. "Where is unimportant," she said in answer to the question. "We have a great many things here. Husbands. Wives. Children. A community. Oh, your Federation called it a prison once, even sent its bloody supply ships once a year with a few troops to give us one look-over and send home a report. But they don't come any more. Not for years, not until you. I don't think they had the stomach for any more run-ins with our 'free-trading' friends up there." She gestured vaguely skyward, and her pale lips curled into a near-smile. "Perhaps we'll give you to them. They'd enjoy that."

Travis didn't react to the threat beyond his customary affected boredom. "Kill me," he said slowly, nodding toward the mutoids, "and they kill you. Not a terribly equable trade, all told."

"Perhaps you'd like this one better."

That was Jenna's voice. Travis and all three modifieds spun toward the door, and in almost the same instant, simultaneous shots exploded. Vila scrambled for the nearest stick of furniture, a flimsy chair that offered no real hope of protection. Blake tried to force himself to his feet, to do something, anything but sit there in an ineffecutal heap. But his legs weren't cooperating.

More shots seared the room; one of the mutoids was down, and something was moving rapidly through the confusion of gunfire being laid down by the others. Travis, he realized, after the dark blur had already passed. He would be heading for the rear of the house and a pre-arranged escape route. Blake tried again to get up, and had managed to struggle upright using the wall as support, when the firing abruptly ceased. He looked back to see the last of the mutoids topple onto the remains of its companions, felled by the thin woman's gun. She rose from behind the overturned wooden table, the gun still ready, as two familiar figures edged inside from either side of the door. Jenna and Avon.

"You took your time getting here!" Vila had abandoned his chair and rediscovered his courage.

"Travis," Blake said to them urgently. "He went out the back way..."

"Never mind about him." Jenna was beside him then, suddenly all care and concern. "We have to get you back to the ship."

"He isn't going anywhere." It was the woman who had spoken, and incredibly, she had her gun aimed at Jenna now.

There was a rustle of activity as several more people entered through the narrow door. Blake saw only a swift procession of homespun tunics -- and one stout figure in bright blue -- moving rapidly into the room -- then Avon stiffened, and the weapon he still held was promptly removed from his grasp by a burly man -- the one in blue -- with a grey beard and no hair.

Vila cast a supplicating look heavenward and thrust his hands up in the air.

"Are you all right, Altis?" the big man asked of the woman who had just relieved Jenna of her gun.

"No worse for wear," she answered glumly, her gaze still fixed on Blake. Why did she keep looking at him that way?

Avon was glaring at him, too. "Your friends, as usual, Blake, have a peculiar way of expressing gratitude."

Blake had been about to ask what the hell this was about when Jenna turned away from him to face the man in blue, and the bearded face broke into a leering grin.

"I'll be damned. If it isn't Stannis."

"Hello, Golan."

Vila looked suddenly hopeful. "One of your old friends, is he Jenna?"

She shook her head. "Not exactly."

The woman, Altis, glowered at both of them. "Save it," she snapped, and her gun strayed purposely from Jenna to Blake. "You can talk over old times after I've killed this one."

Vila's hands fell. "Killed? Oh now wait a minute..."

Blake's efforts to unravel this were failing utterly. Had these people somehow mistaken him for Federation? Surely they would have heard of Liberator, even out here.

"I don't think you understand," he said. "My name is--"

"I know what it is. Your one-eyed friend told us that. But I've wanted to kill you for a long time, Blake. I'm only glad that Travis failed to cheat me of the opportunity."

Golan took a few steps and came to Blake's side, holstering his weapon and leaving the others who had entered with him to cover Liberator's crew. Blake realized fleetingly that Jenna and Avon must have released the colonists from the hangar before coming here. Which meant that Travis would have free access to the waiting pursuit ship...

"Not so fast, Altis," Golan scolded. "Even we free traders give a man a chance to hear why he's got to die." He directed his next words to Blake directly. "You see, Altis here is... was... Leesal Renor's guardian."

Blake stared at him, open-mouthed. "Was?" he echoed. "You mean he's--?"

"Dead?" Golan laughed, a coarse, grating sound in the otherwise silent room. "Oh no. I'm his guardian now. He's serving apprenticeship of sorts aboard my ship. She's the Halcyon. And we're what you might call 'protectors' of this little planet... among others."

"Then I can help him," Blake persisted. "It's what I came here to do, if you'll just let me--"

"Tell me you care!" Altis stepped in to shove the gun under Blake's chin. "You disgust me..."

"Will you listen to me?!" Under the circumstances, fits of temper were unlikely to do him any good, but Blake was in no mood to be rational just at the moment. There was too much at stake. "What Leesal remembers -- thinks he remembers -- is a Federation memory implant. A lie. Liberator's medical facility can reverse the effects of the operation. All you have to do is give me a chance to--"

Altis' gun pressed itself to his neck, cutting off his words, and he felt rather than saw her finger tighten on the trigger. Jenna took a furtive step, but it was Golan who reached out to strike the gun away, incurring a vicious glare from its owner.

"Not so fast, woman," he rumbled, and Blake noted with relief that he had taken the weapon from her, turning it over in his own large hands.

"He's lying!" Altis spat the words at Blake like a curse.

"No," Jenna's calmer tones intervened. "You can come aboard and hear Or-- the computer's analysis for yourself. We can prove that what he's said is true."

Her last sentence was intersected by a shudder running through both the building and the ground beneath them, and by the familiar sound of powering launch turbos.

Avon sent Blake a look that translated roughly to this is all your fault, you know, but what he said was, "That will be Travis, I expect."

Golan swore in a tongue new to Blake, and headed for the door with a broad gesture to his companions. "Outside. Bring them."

They were in time to see the ship clear the launchpad and speed away to vanish in a graceful arc over the horizon. The scene had, however, been at best indistinct to Blake; the act of being 'brought' outside had awakened entire new vistas of pain in his formerly-numb left arm. When the colonists escorting him had released his arms, he felt himself swaying for a moment until Jenna, and incredibly, Avon, had moved in on either side to support him.

"He may well be heading back to level this settlement," Blake heard himself saying through clenched teeth.

"Let us get to Liberator," Jenna added hastily. "We can stop him."

Golan shook his head. "I've got only your word for that."

"Then come with us, but stop wasting time!" Avon thrust an extra teleport bracelet at the man, and without further preamble lifted his own and struck the comm-stud decisively. "Cally, bring us up. And hurry!"

"No!" Altis started to move forward and was restrained by one of her fellow colonists. She wasn't convinced, that much was apparent. But Golan was wavering.

Blake felt a bracelet clamp over his sleeve from Jenna's side, and had a transitory image of Golan hurriedly mimicking the gesture before Sarepta's grey landscape of fields and bundled grain dissolved into nothing and became the comforting familiarity of the teleport bay. He did not even remember the trip to the flight deck, except that he had brushed off both Cally and the medikit with a brusque, "Later."

"Pursuit ship bearing zero-two-zero, course four-four-nine-zero," Avon read from the console as he slid into position. With a meaningful glance at Golan, he added, "Straight back for the compound. ETA two minutes twenty seconds."

"Not if we can help it," Blake breathed. "Jenna--"

"I know." She was manipulating several controls at once. "Zen, I need matching course and speed now."

+Confirmed.+

"Raise the force wall, Zen." Vila chimed in a little nervously. "And clear the neutron blasters while you're at it, could you?"

+Force wall activated. Neutron weaponry cleared for firing.+

"Matching course and speed on vector zero-two-zero," Cally reported.

Blake turned, pressing a hand to the back of his neck. "Give us visual, Zen."

Liberator's forward bulkhead irised into the brilliant green image of Sarepta's globe -- and the less esthetic lines of a starburst class Federation pursuit craft heading full tilt for the planet. Blake grimaced. The single advantage a pursuit ship might have over Liberator was its ability to enter a planetary atmosphere at a high rate of acceleration.

"Blake," Avon was voicing his thought almost on top of it. "If he enters atmosphere--"

"Twelve seconds," Jenna interjected.

Blake hovered at the weaponry station. "Fire, Vila. Force him away from the planet."

The thief made two rapid adjustments, then pressed a control. Immediately, Travis' ship lurched, and the tail section erupted in flame.

"Direct hit astern," Jenna confirmed. "He's veering off... coming about to one-seven-four and--"

"Turning to fight," Avon finished.

"That's not all," Cally said from the back console. "I'm reading four more pursuit craft on rapid approach from the night side, standard by six on intercept course."

Blake wasn't surprised. "We should have known Travis would have an escort."

"Oh fine," Vila put in. "Let's just leave them to it then, shall we, and get the hell out of here?"

"Sarepta isn't out of danger yet, Vila."

"So what do we care?" The thief looked accusingly at Golan. "They tried to kill us, didn't they?"

+Plasma bolt launched and running,+ Zen's toneless voice announced. +Bearing directly.+

Liberator pitched starboard, throwing Blake into Vila's console. By the time he'd righted himself, Zen was reporting a second attack.

"Return fire, Vila!"

"I'm trying, I'm trying!" The thief had scarcely regained his chair and found the firing controls when suddenly the craft bearing toward them on the screen veered off and disappeared from view. Vila's shot sliced through vacuum to dissipate against Sarepta's stratosphere.

"What the...?" Jenna's query chorused his own. "Blake, they're running."

"From what?" Avon demanded. "They had us cold."

"From that," Cally nodded at the screen. "Whatever 'that' is."

Blake stepped closer to the image of Sarepta and peered curiously at the twelve points of light emerging from behind her. They shot away on the same course the Federation ships had taken, not pausing to investigate Liberator at all.

"Identification, Zen," Blake ordered.

Golan's deep-throated laugh accompanied the alien computer's, +Unknown.+

"Halcyon," he said. "And eleven... compatriots. We got word to them when I was trapped here by your Space Commander Travis."

Jenna smirked. "They'll never catch him."

"They don't intend to try." Golan grinned, tugging at his beard. "But as I said, Sarepta falls under our 'protectorship.' Sheer numbers do a lot for that, wouldn't you say?"

Jenna raised an eyebrow, but forebore to comment. Blake, sinking gratefully into the chair Vila had recently vacated, submitted to Cally's application of the healer from the medikit, though he waved aside her insistence that they would have to complete the treatment in the med unit.

"Blake, you need more than--"

"All right," he interrupted her. "In good time, Cally." When she started to go, he reached out to catch her sleeve, drawing her back. "Cally..."

She knew what he wanted to ask before he said the words. And he could already see the answer in her eyes. Somewhere during the time he had spent on Sarepta, Payter Fen had lost the battle to prove Orac's prognosis wrong.

Cally put a hand over his. "I am sorry, Blake. We did all that was possible to--"

"Yes, I'm sure you did."

Blake was not even aware of Golan's approach until the man spoke. "One of your crew?" he asked gently.

Blake glanced up at him, momentarily disconcerted and not certain how to explain. "No..." he said finally, then decided to realign the topic on a more constructive note. Golan didn't need to know about Payter. What mattered now was finding means to help the living. "Golan, I can see that Leesal Renor's implant is eradicated. Liberator has the means. It doesn't even require much time -- a few hours to erase several years of misery."

"And a few of your own as well, eh?" Golan met Blake's gaze evenly. "I believe you," he said after a time. "And I'll talk to the boy. Altis...she'll be harder to convince, but she'll come round in time. She's a good woman. Knows a bit about protectiveness herself, does Altis."

"So I gathered." Blake grimaced with the effort of getting up, and moved to join Cally at the exit corridor, turning back to offer Golan a final reassurance. "You won't be sorry," he said. "And... thank you."

The free trader nodded, then promptly shifted his attention to Jenna, who had come up beside him. As Blake started down the corridor with Cally, he heard Golan mutter something about a stolen cargo and a hijacked ship.

Jenna's voice returned his mock offense in kind. "You're not the type to hold that against a girl, are you? Everyone else forgot it years ago."

"Three million credits worth???" Blake could imagine Avon and Vila's eyes lighting up at that. "We never caught you and neither did the Feds--not that time. So you know where it's hidden." Golan's gruff voice began to fade as he and Cally turned a juncture. "Stannis, old 'friend...' You and I have some unfinished business to discuss..."


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Jean Graham

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