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Something Good

By Victoria Martin
1.

All his life Blake had wanted to be an engineer, so it came as a terrible shock when his tutor called him into his office one day and told him he was frankly unsuited to his professional calling.

"I'm sorry, Roj," he said, not unsympathetically, "but you're clearly not cut out for engineering. Your work isn't bad but your personality's all wrong  - you have far too active a social life for a start, you wash regularly and you even use some kind of fancy spray on your hair. You never get so absorbed in your work that you forget to eat, in fact, you don't seem to get absorbed in your work at all, judging by your miserable attendance record - where's that report? Ah yes, here it is: "He's always late for everything (except for every meal)." It's not good for the reputation of the department. I'm afraid you're going to have to go."

"But where?" asked Bake, "What shall I do? I'm only trained in engineering."

"Don't worry, lad," said his tutor avuncularly. "We don't just kick our people out onto the streets in this sector, we leave that sort of thing to the Federation. We ran your personality profile through the careers office computer and apparently you're ideally suited to be a Human Resources Manager. The Dean has even come up with a job for you."

"What sort of job?"

"A good one, you'll like it. The captain of the Liberator needs a Human Resources Manager to work with his crew. There are seven of them and they're a bit of a mixed bunch." He leant forward in a confiding manner "Truth to tell, this Captain Avon's a bit of a maverick. He's tangled with the Federation before, and we suspect he's up to something behind the scenes right now. The last thing we need is a political embarrassment that'll give the Federation an excuse to take over this sector, but with his reputation we can't touch him - he was quite a hero in the Andromedan War, you know. So keep an eye on him will you, old chap? If you find out anything you think we ought to know, send me a message using this code." He pushed a square of film across the table. "Remember, the future independence of our sector may depend on you."

"Gosh," thought Blake as he left the office, "a captain with seven crew members, this is going to be quite a challenge. Still, I'm a confident sort of chap, I'm sure I'll cope."

2.

He felt rather less sure when his shuttle docked with the Liberator and he came on board. It was a fabulous ship, quite unlike anything he had seen before, and the luxuriousness of its interior contrasted sharply with the drably functional design familar to him from the engineering department. Room after room opened off from the central corridor and he wondered if he would ever learn to find his way around. At last he reached the flight deck, an ostentatiously vast affair, to be welcomed by the infamous Captain Avon. He was a striking-looking man, with a stiff military bearing, whose severe black outfit nonetheless bore distinctly unmilitary silver and white trimmings. Instead of greeting him, he bestowed on Blake an appraising stare and then said "Yes, well, I daresay we can kit you out with something from the wardrobe room. Now then - er, Blake, isn't it? Well, Blake, I've hired you because I need someone to keep an eye on my crew. I'm away on business quite a bit at the moment and someone has to keep discipline in my absence. The crew certainly can't be trusted to, as you'll find out soon enough. And speaking of the crew, I suppose it's time you met them."

To Blake's astonishment, the Captain dug a whistle out of his pocket and blew a  complex set of toots. Crew members came rushing from all over the ship and lined up on the flight deck with impressive precision - all except one, a dark young woman who wandered on well after the rest, deeply absorbed in pulling apart an unfamiliar-looking gun. Avon tooted his whistle again and she sprang to attention.

"This is Blake, he will be in charge of this ship while I'm away. You will inform him of your names."

He blew a series of different signals, and at each of them one of the crew stepped forward and presented themselves, then stepped smartly back into line.

"Jenna!"

"Gan!"

"Soolin!"

"Tarrant!"

"Cally!"

"Dayna!"

"Vila!"

Avon handed Blake another whistle and told him to learn the signals so he could summon the crew whenever he wanted. Then he stalked off, evidently anxious to spend as little time in his crew's company as possible. Blake watched his retreating back, then seized by an anti-authoritarian impulse grabbed the whistle and blew loudly. A frozen silence descended on the flight deck, broken only by a brief giggle from Vila, and then Avon turned round.

"Yes?" he said icily.

"I'm sorry Captain, I don't know your signal."

"You may call me Avon." The Captain beat a retreat with as much dignity as he could still muster. Blake grinned to himself. The man was so far up his own backside he could probably see daylight through his mouth. This was going to be more fun than he'd expected. For the moment, though, he had other things to think about. He turned back to his human resources.

"At ease. All right people, how about if you tell me your names again? Somehow I don't think I'm going to be using this whistle much. You first."

"I'm Jenna, I'm a free-trader, and I don't need a Human Resources Manager."

"All right," said Blake. "We'll just be good friends. Next?"

 

The next person was a man. He was huge, even taller than Blake and, Blake was glad to see, quite a bit tubbier as well.

"I'm Gan and I'm a murderer."

"Oh. Er. Right. Next?"

"I'm Cally. I'm a guerilla fighter."

"I see. You must be a very useful team member - Soolin," said Blake. Further down the line the real Cally laughed and said "I'm Cally. That's Soolin. And I think you're nice." A voice in his head repeated the sentiment, but in terms so brazenly explicit that Blake blushed crimson. To cover his confusion he turned to the next crew member.

"I'm Tarrant, I'm a mercenary and I'm insufferable. Um, what does insufferable mean?"

"I think it means you don't like people telling you what to do."

"Oh." Tarrant seemed rather pleased with this explanation. "I like telling other people what to do, though."

"That's fine, just don't try it with me. Next?"

"I'm Dayna and I'm a weapons designer. It's my birthday next week and I'd like a ton of plastic explosive."

"I'm sure that'll be very useful. And you're Vila," he said, turning to the last crewmember, "and you're...? Oh." Vila was dangling something smugly between his fingers, something that looked suspiciously like Blake's wristchron. "You're a thief!"

Well, his tutor had certainly been right in calling the crew a mixed bunch. They also didn't seem to get on terribly well. When Blake asked to be taken on a tour of the Liberator they squabbled their way up and down the corridors, arguing about what he should see first and what he shouldn't be allowed to see at all. For all its luxury, Liberator seemed disappointingly normal once you got to know it, or at least the parts of it that weren't off-limits.  When Blake mentioned that he had been expecting something more technologically impressive, Tarrant said mysteriously that the ship had "refinements", and might have said more, had Jenna not driven one of her heels firmly into his foot. Blake refrained from asking for further details, thinking that he could come back to the flight deck when they were all in bed and do a little investigating on his own.

He didn't have long to wait. Everyone turned in after dinner, so he waited till he thought they must all be asleep and then set off on his voyage of exploration. In spite of this precaution,  he ran into Jenna, who for some inexplicable reason was soaking wet and shaking with cold.

"My god, Jenna, what happened?"

"Oh nothing, said Jenna with elaborate casualness, "I just took a little walk down-planet, that's all. The air was getting too stuffy in here."

Blake frowned. He hadn't heard the shuttle leave, and anyway, Jenna had had nowhere near enough time to get to the surface and back. Perhaps this was one of the "refinements" Tarrant had mentioned. Careful not to let his curiosity show, he said "We'd better get you out of those wet clothes. Why don't you pop along to my cabin when you've got changed and we can have a chat?"

"Oh yeah," said Jenna, "Going to offer me food and wine, are you?"

"Well, actually, I didn't bring any, but I daresay I can rustle up a cup of cocoa."

Jenna laughed. "No thanks, tempting though it sounds. I think I'll just have a shower and get off to bed. Um, you won't tell Avon about this, will you?"

"No, of course not," said Blake, wondering what on earth she had been up to that she couldn't tell her Captain. This was no way to run a ship, everyone keeping secrets from each other, everyone doing their own thing. They should all be pulling together, working for a common cause. He could see he had an uphill struggle ahead of him.

"Oh, thanks Blake, you're  hero!" Jenna gave him a quick, unexpected hug, which soaked the front of his tunic. "I guess it's not so bad having a Human Resources Manager after all!" She flitted off down the corridor in the direction of her cabin, and Blake resumed his journey to the flight deck. A large perspex box filled with coloured lights had caught his eye during the tour and he was keen to investigate further. Perhaps it was another of the mysterious "refinements" Tarrant had hinted at. A wedge-shaped piece of plastic was lying next to the box and looked as if it might  serve some function. Blake picked it up and then let out a yell as an agonising jolt ran up his arm. The box flashed its lights and said in sniffy tones "You're lucky. With the last  Human Resources Manager it was fatal."

"Who are you?"

"I'm Orac, since you ask. Do you have any other foolish questions?"

"Well, actually, yes - since you ask. Avon mentioned that he was going away - where's he off to?

 

"To visit Baroness Servalan, the Federation's Ambassador to this sector."

"And how long will he be gone for?"

"The last time he went to visit the Baroness he stayed for three months."

Three months, thought Blake, I could really turn this ship around in three months, teach that crew of his how to work together as a proper team. Perhaps my tutor was right, and engineering isn't my thing after all.

At that moment the Captain walked in and Blake jumped guiltily, but pulled himself together to say sufficiently "Oh, hello Avon, I was, er, just getting to know Orac here."

"Hm." Avon merely grunted in reply. "Is Jenna back yet?"

"Jenna? Back? Has she been away? I didn't hear the shuttle."

"Oh for heaven's sake, Blake, you've been on this ship for several hours. Do you mean to tell me you haven't found out about the teleport yet?  Jenna will have been down on Aldus Major canoodling with Rolf Travis, she always does when we're in orbit here."

"Oh, is that what she's up to? And you don't mind?"

"Why should I? I don't know what she sees in that one-armed bandit myself, but presumably he can get his leg over as well as the next man. He's harmless enough, just a messenger boy at the Federation Embassy."

Even if Avon didn't seem to mind, Blake couldn't really approve of this sort of behaviour. After all, the Federation were their enemies and it didn't seem right to allow "canoodling" with their employees, however harmless they might be. It was definitely time to take things in hand.

He had drawn up a list of activities that he felt would improve discipline, boost morale and increase their sense of team spirit. First on the list was a jolly good sing-song; luckily he'd brought his guitar along. The very next day he called all the crew together, eager to get cracking on his project. He plucked a few strings and then started to tune it, humming the scale to himself: "Do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti do".

"Bloody stupid song, if you ask me," said Vila. "No proper tune, and it doesn't mean anything."

"You have to put in words," said Blake, "I know a few good songs from when I was in the Space Scouts. How about this one? - "Oh, this is number one and my story's just begun, roll me over lay me down and do it again, roll me over in the clover, roll me over lay me down and do it again"."

There was a doubtful silence, finally broken by Cally, who said curiously "Do what again?"

Faced with the prospect of expanding Cally's vocabulary, which seemed exotic enough already, Blake chickened out and said hastily, "Oh, nothing, it's just a song, that's all. Look, it's got actions to it, shall I show you? We all stand in a line to sing it and then number one kicks number two out, and so on."

In the end it turned out to be tremendous fun. The crew really got into it - Blake felt  proudly that they had probably done more bonding since his arrival than in their entire time  together up to that point. Dayna and Gan in particular found it all hysterically funny and roared out their verses with an enthusiasm that more than compensated for their total lack of ability to carry a tune.

"This is great!" said Blake, wiping the sweat from his brow. "Hey, I tell you what, why don't we enter the All-Sector Ships" Crews Song Contest? It would be a fantastic team-building experience.'

"I don't know," said Jenna dubiously,  "I don't think Avon would like it much."

The others nodded  solemnly, and Blake felt a sudden flash of annoyance at Avon for managing to throw cold water on his splendid idea without even being present.

"I don't care what Avon says," he said stubbornly, "Let's do it anyway. If he's going to be off for months visiting this Baroness Servalan, he need never know. I'll send the entry form off tonight. Come on, let's give it another bash. Tarrant, you start off this time, and Soolin, perhaps you could try and harmonise with him a bit?"

They were halfway through the sixth verse, and Blake's fingers were beginning to ache from strumming,  when he suddenly realised the crew had fallen silent and were staring with a kind of horrified fascination at the doorway. He turned round. Avon was standing there, and in spite of the lack of expression on his face it was evident that he was furious. Next to him was an extraordinarily beautiful woman in a magnificent hat. Her dark eyes seemed to take up half her face and, unlike Avon's, they were laughing at the little scene before them.

"This is Baroness Servalan," said Avon in repressive tones. "She has come here for a private discussion with me. Baroness, this is my crew, and our new Human Resources Manager, Blake. I apologise for the flight deck being in such disarray, it's doubtless part of some scheme for developing employees" potential."

"Oh, Avon darling, you should learn to relax a little," said the Baroness with a delightful laugh, and slid an immaculately manicured hand around his waist. "Why didn't you tell me you had such a charming crew? I always think singing is such fun. What's your name, dear? Vila? Come and sit next to me on the couch, Vila. What lovely brown eyes you have, just like your captain's."

"There has been no singing on this ship since - since I found out about Anna," said Avon, reluctant to give up his bad mood. "I see no reason to change that policy now."

"Sweetheart, what you need is a little cheering up," said Servalan, looking up at him through foot-long lashes.  "I'll tell you what, why don't you all come to my party next week at the Federation Embassy? It'll be such fun." The crew burst into delighted chatter and cries of "Oh please, Avon, can we go?" until the Baroness swept off the couch, took Avon by the arm and said "I suppose business must come before pleasure. Let's go to your cabin, where we can be quite private."

3.

"Who's Anna?" said Blake to Orac.

"You don't want to know. When cold, arrogant bastards turn out to be hiding a secret tragedy, it's best not to get involved. Believe me, nothing good will come of it."

4.

Luckily the Embassy ball did not coincide with the Song Contest. In spite of Avon's evident lack of consent, Blake had sent the entry form off and the programme arrived the night of the party. The contest was the next day and he hoped that too much gallivanting the night before wouldn't be bad for their voices. In the event, though,  they didn't have much chance to gallivant. Servalan might have invited Blake and the crew to her party along with their Captain, but they certainly weren't guests of honour. In fact, they found themselves spending most of the evening in the grounds alongside the other NCOs and flunkeys, whilst Avon mingled with prominent Sector officials and Federation high-ups. The ball was designed to celebrate the peaceful friendship and mutual cooperation that existed between the Federation and Sector Six, a message reinforced by the slogans displayed on enormous vidscreens around the walls. Blake noticed Avon eyeing them distastefully and felt a little stab of guilt that he hadn't yet sent any reports on the Captain's political activities back to his tutor. Presumably the close relationship between Avon and the Federation Ambassador was exactly the sort of thing he was supposed to be monitoring.

For all that he had access to the impressive array of food and drink heaped up on tables around the edges of the ballroom, the rigid expression on Avon's face suggested he wasn't enjoying himself much, but the others were still jealous. They thought the dancing would have been fun. To cheer them up, Blake dug out the Song Contest programme and showed them their names in print. "I've brought along my guitar," he added, "I thought we might do a little private performance for the Baroness's guests, but somehow I don't think we'll be called on after all." At that moment the band struck up a new tune, something much faster and more energetic than before.

"What's that?" asked Tarrant, "I don't recognise it".

"Oh, that's a shoestamper," said Blake, "It's a traditional Sector Six folk dance. Look, I'll show you. First you slap your thighs three times - one, two, three - that's it - now clap once - then I strike your left cheek with my right hand and you do the same - good, now we turn round - link elbows - and now you roll over my - OOF!" Tarrant was heavier than he looked and the two of them went sprawling on the floor with Blake underneath.

"Never mind," he gasped, when he had got his breath back, and was adding consolingly "I daresay you need Lederhosen to do it properly," when a mildly sarcastic voice interrupted him. "May I have this dance?"

It was Avon, still immaculate in evening dress, his eyes twinkling with suppressed laughter. Typical, Blake thought, he can never resist a chance to show he can do everything better than everyone else. "Well, if you insist," he said.

Folk dances are more complex than the casual observer might think. At some time in his life Avon must have had dancing lessons, for he never missed a beat, his feet stamping furiously in time to the rhythm, while his white-gloved hands flashed back and forth, clapping against each other, slapping against Blake's and occasionally reaching across for a feather light tap on Blake's cheek, a tap that sometimes seemed to linger just a shade longer than the music warranted.  Blake found he was breathing heavily - he must be less fit than he thought - and then the music ended and he was standing up close to Avon, his hand still pressed against his cheek.

"Shall we take a walk?" said Avon smoothly, "The grounds are particularly beautiful in the moonlight." And so they were, especially down by the lake, where the glow from the sky was reflected softly from the water. When Blake felt Avon's lips brush against his, he thought no-one could possibly to be happier. "What have I done to deserve you?" he murmered.  "Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good."

Avon reached up to flick his nose with affectionate condescension. "Life doesn't work like that," he said, "Now shut up and kiss me."

5.

Up on the balcony, Travis turned to Servalan. "So that's the way the wind's blowing," he said. "Looks to me like you've been wasting your time."

"The fool!" growled the Baroness. "I would have made him ruler of half the galaxy. But since he won't come freely, I see no reason to delay the takeover. Get the President of this benighted little sector into my office and I'll deliver the ultimatum."

6.

Somewhat ruffled, Blake and Avon returned to the rest of the crew.

"Your cheeks are red," said Cally snidely, and Blake stuck mental fingers into his mental ears in a vain effort to block out the less than subtle telepathic comment that followed. "Are they?" he said, "It must be all that dancing. It is rather warm out here." To cover his embarrassment, he pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his brow vigorously. Something else came out of his pocket along with the handkerchief and dropped to the floor.

"What's this?" asked Avon, gallantly stooping to retrieve the piece of paper. "Oh."

It was the programme for the All-Sector Ships" Crews Song Contest. Avon skimmed it briefly, then with menacing precision smoothed the paper with his gloved fingers, folded it neatly, and tucked it into Blake's breast pocket.

"You appear to have misunderstood my reaction to that little exhibition of yours the other day, Blake," he said between clenched teeth. "My - crew - do - not - sing - in - public. Have I made myself clear?"

"And what exactly has this got to do with you?" said Blake with rising anger, "Nobody's asking you to sing. If the rest of them want to, that's their affair"

"I was under the impression that I hired you to impose discipline on my crew, not foment revolution!"

Filled with righteous, insubordinate anger, Blake seized the front of Avon's tailcoat and pulled his face up to his own, but before he could say anything, the various loudspeakers and vidscreens around the Embassy suddenly crackled into life.

"Ladies and gentlemen, citizens of Sector Six," rang out Baroness Servalan's voice, "Let me be the first to welcome you to the Federation!"

In mid-waltz, the musicians stopped playing, the dancers froze and a crashing silence descended on the ballroom. Outside on the terrace, the crew of the Liberator exchanged uncomprehending glances, and Blake loosed his hold on Avon, who strode towards the french windows to get a view of the vidscreens. Vast close-ups of Servalan loomed from every wall.

"In the last half hour, the President of Sector Six has signed a treaty incorporating this sector into the Federation, and I am pleased to inform you that I have been appointed Commissioner."

The vidscreens shut down as the lights faded, and into a spotlight stepped the real Servalan, smiling and bowing to the assembled crowd who, after a moment's confusion began to cheer loudly and applaud their new Commissioner.

"But this is terrible!" said Blake. "The Federation are evil oppressors, life under their rule will be no better than slavery! How can we have knuckled under to them like this, without even fighting back?  We wouldn't give in without a struggle!"

"Oh, you'd be surprised," said Avon drily. Turning away from the entrance, he raised his teleport bracelet and began "Orac -", but got no further than that, for out of the shadows stepped Travis, his arm outstretched and finger pointing straight at Avon.

"You're not going anywhere," he said, and as if to prove it, a laser bolt seared past Avon's head and demolished a potted olive tree on the terrace behind him. "I wouldn't try anything just because I haven't got a gun," he added.

 "Rolf!" said Jenna, "How could you betray us like this? How could you betray me?"

Just for a moment, Travis hesitated and Avon took a meaningful step towards him, but already Servalan was gliding through the french windows, accompanied by an unecessarily large number of troopers. There was no trace of her former enchanting smile as she said "Now that this sector has been voluntarily incorporated into the Federation, I must insist that Captain Avon return with me to earth tonight. We shall need his expertise in the restructuring of Central Control."

Avon frowned. "Tonight?" he said slowly. "I'm afraid that won't be possible. You see, tomorrow we're singing in the Sector Six Song Contest."

"That's right!" Blake dug out the programme. "Look, that's us."

Travis snatched the paper, glared at it and then passed it on to Servalan. "I don't see your name here, Captain" she said suspiciously.

Avon smiled, a brilliant, icy smile. "It says "The Crew of the Liberator" he said, "and I am the head of the Liberator's crew, am I not?"

For a long moment, Servalan hesitated, then she produced a smile that was equally brilliant, equally icy. "Well then, you shall sing," she said, "you will all sing. But only because I want you to. It will demonstrate that nothing in this sector has changed. But you must allow Space Commander Travis to escort you there in person. We wouldn't want anything to happen to you on the way, would we? And you can all give Travis your teleport bracelets, just in case anyone has any clever ideas. I'm sure we can find room for you all in the Embassy tonight, it has some very special accommodation."

7.

Travis sat in the front seat next to the pilot, jangling the teleport bracelets in a casually malicious fashion. As they were all under restraint, nobody could do anything about it, though Jenna looked as if she was wishing Travis would lean his head far enough back for her to bite his ear off. Blake hoped Travis would take the bracelets into the stadium with him, and spent most of the journey dreaming up implausible strategies for wrestling them off him, but when they got out of the flyer, Travis left the bracelets in the glove compartment.

The Aldus Stadium was a vast outdoor arena, carved into a cliff face, with a raised platform at one end. It was all rather impressive, if distinctly primitive-looking. Blake supposed that all that granite must enhance the acoustics, like a sort of gigantic bathroom.  In spite of the ostensibly peaceful nature of Sector Six's incorporation into the Federation, he couldn't help noticing that there were an awful lot of black-clad troopers stationed at the various exits, including the ends of the tunnels that led off from the stage. A couple of the troopers came over and saluted Travis.

"This is Captain Avon," said Travis, "You'll be escorting him to earth tonight, when he's finished his choir boy act - yes, what is it Vila?"

Vila, who had been tugging at Travis's sleeve, looked sheepish. "We've forgotten Blake's guitar," he said, "it's still in the flyer. We can't sing without a musical accompaniment, can we?"

"Oh for heaven's sake, Vila, go and get it, but be quick about it." He turned back to his army chums and was soon immersed in chit-chat about the takeover and the low standards of Aldus nightlife. Vila raced off and returned sooner than Blake would have thought possible, looking puffed but pleased with himself.  Travis gave him a glare, just for the sake of it, and then shepherded them off to their dressing room. From all the other rooms resounded the noise of choirs practising. "Gosh," said Dayna, "the halls are alive with the sound of music!  I've never heard so much noise in my life!"

"They all sound much better than us," said Soolin nervously.

"Never mind," said Blake soothingly, "the great thing is to do our best. It doesn't matter who wins or loses, it's the taking part."

"That's not quite my attitude to winning," said Avon. "However."

Blake suggested that they all have a good practice,  but somehow nobody was in the mood, so he sat in the corner and brooded over the Federation conquest of Sector Six. For some reason he was distinctly annoyed with Avon for not doing anything about it, though quite what he should have done he was unable to explain, even to himself. Travis sat with them the entire time, glowering suspiciously out of his good eye and making sneering remarks about Sector Six cowardice. "I hope they're better singers than they are fighters. Do you know they didn't fire a single shot when we took over?" It made Blake both furiously angry and desperately sad - why had there been no resistance? Perhaps what was needed was a leader, someone to inspire the ordinary people to take up arms in their own defence. Suddenly a voice interrupted his reverie, not an audible voice but Cally's telepathic one, and for once it wasn't conveying salacious propositions. Vila has managed to recover the teleport bracelets, she sent excitedly, he told the flyer's pilot they were part of  our costumes! And I've got a plan! When we sing our song, instead of each of us just going out of the spotlight, we should go right into the wings. If Vila leaves first, he can hand us the bracelets as we exit, and we should each teleport up immediately, that way at least some of us will make it to the Liberator even if we don't all manage it. Cough if you've got the message. There was an outbreak of coughing and Travis eyed them nastily. "Sounds like you're all getting colds. Maybe you won't be able to sing," he said hopefully.

They had been scheduled to perform last, so the wait seemed endless until they could put Cally's plan into action, but at last they stumbled into the auditorium. The stadium was in darkness, apart from a single large spotlight in the centre of the vast stage. They lined up in a row, all ready to give Roll Me Over In The Clover their very best shot, when Blake surprised everyone by stepping forward to the front of the spotlight, still clutching his guitar.

"My fellow citizens of Sector Six," he said, "This is the last chance the crew of the Liberator will have to sing together for a very long time; but before they do,  I would like to sing you a love song - a love song to this Sector." He picked up the guitar, plucked the first few notes and began, a little shakily at first, but then more and more confidently, to sing the Sector Anthem.

"Sector Six, Sector Six, ev'ry morning I greet thee..."

Line by line, verse by verse the familiar words rang out and he felt the tears well up in his eyes and his throat begin to constrict until at last the notes wouldn't come any more. There was a terrible, expectant silence as he fought to get the sound out, but his throat ached so badly nothing would come. Losing interest, the audience began to rustle and whisper, and Blake bowed his head in defeat. He had failed, failed to get his message across, failed to show the people of Aldus that the spirit of resistance lived on. Failed at the one thing that really mattered. And then suddenly, wonderfully, Avon's voice behind him took up the tune.

"May thy strong arm keep us safe from harm, safe from harm forever..."

For about a line he continued on his own, in a surprisingly pleasant tenor, and then gradually the rest of the crew joined in and Blake, recovering his voice, stepped forward and signalled to the audience, who responded with such enthusiasm that the stadium seemed barely able to contain the swell of voices, building up in crescendo to the final line: "Bless my homeworld foooreeeeever!" Through the music he heard Avon mutter in his ear "Sentiment is a weakness," and in the front row, Baroness Servalan's face was like thunder, but Blake didn't care. At last he had found his vocation.

"Um," said the compère, "er, that was a slightly impromptu contribution by the crew of the Liberator, who will now sing," - he glanced down at his listings - "Roll Me Over In The Clover."

Hearts beating, the crew lined up in order, Vila at the front of the row, Avon at the back. Cally's plan worked like a dream. One by one they were kicked off the stage and vanished into the wings. Blake and Avon lingered longest, trying to show a convincing reluctance to step out of the limelight, but at last they too came crashing off stage, and much to Vila's relief Orac whisked all three of them away well before the troopers noticed anything amiss.

"And now," announced the compère, "I shall read the results in reverse order."

In the front row, the former Federation Ambassador, now Commissioner for Sector Six, stood up. "Oh, I don't think we need bother with all that," she said, her voice like silk shot with steel thread. "Just tell us who won." Her beautiful eyes were gazing thoughtfully not at the compère but at  the tunnel in the wings.

"Oh, er, all right," said the compère. "The winner of the All Sector Ships" Crews Song Contest is - bloody hell, this has to have been a political decision - the crew of the Liberator."

The stadium broke into thunderous applause, the music played and the spotlight swung round to show the victors entering from the wings, with predictable results. Rallying with true professionalism, the compère repeated the announcement, the music played once more and the spotlight swung round again, just in time to illuminate Travis, who came running onto the stage shouting "They've gone!"

8.

Up on the Liberator, the crew hit the flight deck running. "Zen, get us out of here," shouted Jenna, "Standard by ten!" As the mighty engines leapt into life under  his feet, Blake realised he had forgotten something.

"Oh no," he cried, "I left my guitar on Aldus."

"Well," said Avon, giving his hand a consoling squeeze, "at least something good has come out of it all."


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