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Transition In Three Stages

By Frances Teagle
"Jenna received superficial injuries in a life capsule malfunction... She reports she is well and aboard a neutral cargo carrier in transit to the planet Morphenniel."
Zen   [Powerplay]

Stage One

Jenna sighed and stretched luxuriously, inexpressibly relieved to be free of the cumbersome fracture repair harness that had been clamped to her shoulder for the last five days. She smiled vividly at the medical orderly who had just helped her out of it.
        "Mm, Richie, that feels good," she said gratefully. "Oh for a fluid bath and a hair wash." She ran her hands through her hair, noting with a grimace how lank and greasy it felt. "I must look disgusting."
        "Not at all," said Richie comfortably. "I can see you're feeling better. It's a sure sign when a woman starts worrying about her appearance." He was a small, slight, sweet-faced man, who looked after his only female charge with gentle good humour. "I can sneak you into the officers' washroom when the coast is clear," he offered kindly. "They've got the best facilities. I'll give you a call when it's empty." He gathered up the harness and went on his way.
        Jenna settled back in her chair to think about what lay ahead. In less than twenty-four hours they would be making planet-fall at Morphenniel, and she must run the gauntlet of waiting officialdom. Although Morphenniel was officially neutral, its ties with the Federation were close, and if she was recognised, she would be extradited with dispatch, straight into Servalan's clutches. She must change her appearance as best she could. Luckily, her red leathers had been badly torn and Richie had supplied her with baggy dark blue overalls from the stores which were very different from her normal style. Now, if she could put her hair up somehow, she might pass inspection without trouble.
        Her next problem was to get away from the planet as soon as possible. If she sold her elaborate gold collar, presently hidden under her shirt, she could afford a passage to somewhere along the way to Keledon, a safer neutral planet where some of her relatives had settled. She had further reserves as well. Before abandoning the Liberator, she had raced into the strongroom and tipped a handful of medium sized precious stones into her boots, bumping into Vila bent on the same mission. She knew places where she could get a decent price for them and no questions asked.
        Then what? The conviction was growing on her that she would not attempt to rejoin the Liberator. Richie had supplied her with reports of a Federation in chaos after the retreating Andromedans had destroyed Star One. This might be an opportunity to return to her former associates, the freetraders, who would be profiting by Space Command's reduced forces. Business should be brisk as communities began to repair the damage, it always was after a war. It was a wrench to part with some of her comrades: Cally, even Vila, would be sorely missed. And now she was separated from Blake. Only a few short weeks ago, she could hardly contemplate such a thing, but now, distressed by the rapid growth of fanaticism in his personality, she was steeling herself to live without him.
        Her thoughts turned to Avon. She knew that Blake had left the Liberator without Orac, which almost certainly meant that Avon had it. Unless Blake managed to reboard first with Zen's help, the ship was likely to fall into Avon's hands. Certainly, Blake had proposed to bequeath the ship to Avon once he had been returned to Earth, and provided that Avon could persuade the rest of the crew to agree, but that pact must be null and void under the circumstances. It now looked like a straight race for control. Blake would search for his crew if he won, but Avon was less predictable. He would need a crew, of course, and he might decide he wanted her services as pilot and blockade runner again, but he wouldn't make more than a token search for Blake. Weighing things up, she was fairly certain that Avon, with Orac's help, would survive to win the race.
        If he came looking for her, would she join him? If she did, would she contend for the leadership? She would have to, probably. In her opinion, Avon's skills lay in logical analysis and opposition rather than leadership. It was unlikely that he had any agenda beyond survival and personal enrichment, but that wouldn't prevent him from bidding for control. Her decision was hardening fast. Returning to the ship to struggle for dominance with Avon, was as unthinkable as tamely following his lead.
        She pulled her teleport bracelet out from under her sleeve and looked at it for a moment, then she dropped it to the floor and deliberately ground it to pieces under her heel. Next morning, Richie tapped on her door just as she was attempting to tie her hair back. Her weakened shoulder was making it a difficult operation.
        "Here, I'll help you with that," he said, taking the comb from her.
        "Thanks," she said, with relief.
        "Why do you want it like this? It doesn't really suit your kind of face, with that square jawline."
        "Well..." Jenna hedged for a moment, then decided she could trust him, up to a point. "There could be somebody on Morphenniel that I don't want to meet again. If they have newscasters waiting for us, I'd rather not be noticed."
        "Uhuh. They'll focus on a pretty woman like you, all right." Richie gave a wide, comprehending smile. "You need to sneak off later, as one of the crew," he said. "I don't suppose you have any papers or money. What will you do?"
        "You're right, I haven't any papers. As for money..." Jenna fished inside her shirt and pulled out the gold collar. "You've seen this before. I shall have to sell it and see how far it will get me towards home."
        "Oh, that would be a pity," said Richie, touching it lightly. "Can't you just go to your embassy and ask for an assisted passage? Lots of people will be doing that."
        "Too risky, I think. I'm not a Federation citizen and Morphenniel is far too friendly with them for my liking."
        Richie chuckled. "You're a freetrader, aren't you? I thought you had that look about you."
        Jenna acknowledged this with a grin.
        "Now, I'll tell you what you do," said Richie confidentially. "You hide in my cabin. When the stretcher cases and walking wounded have been off-loaded and the coast is clear, I'll come back and get you out to one of the freighter crew lounges. I reckon we'll find somebody who's willing to help you on your way."


Several hours later, after a nerve-racking wait in the tiny unlit cabin, Jenna's nerves were stretched uncomfortably taut. She had heard the crew leave some time ago and the uneasy silence that settled on the ship as the air conditioning switched itself off, lent an eerie atmosphere to the place. How easy to imagine treachery in those circumstances. Her heart-rate climbed and the blood pumping in her ears became steadily louder. The small creaks of cooling air-ducts were magnified into a sinister cacophony. Finally the long awaited signal was scratched on the door. She unbolted it, thankfully. The corridor, too, was almost pitch dark but she could just make out Richie's shadow. He reached out and took her arm. Not a word was spoken as he conducted her through the ship to the aft cargo hatch. Parked beside it was a half-full baggage train.
        "Jump in among the crates," hissed Richie.
        Swiftly, she vaulted in and crouched among the cargo containers. There was a soft hum as the train moved ponderously off. Richie did not make the mistake of hurrying. Several times the train stopped as if to deliver, then moved off at another tangent. Eventually it slowed to a crawl alongside a shabby building on the far perimeter.
        "Jump out and go inside," said Richie in a normal voice. "There's a man waiting just behind the door. I'll park this train round the back, then come in and join you. Keep low so the security cameras don't see you."
        Bent almost double, Jenna scuttled through the door. The man was there - an officer, by his appearance. She straightened up and gave him a long, assessing look, which he returned with interest. As they were staring at each other, Richie came nonchalantly through the door.
        "Right, you two, let's get down to business." He led the way into a small office and locked the door. "Show the man your necklace."
        The man took it from her, fished out a small lens and inspected each plate and link carefully. Finally he nodded.
        "This will get you as far as our first stop, Novy Sakhalin," he said.
        Novy Sakhalin - better than nothing, but primitive.
        "Where do you go after that?" Jenna asked.
        "Hadramut."
        Much better. Plenty of freetraders used Hadramut. It would be a good place to trade some of her precious stones and contact her old associates. She pulled out the ruby and diamond ring she kept on a string round her neck, and offered it to him. Another inspection with the lens.
        "Yes, for that you get to Hadramut," he said, eventually.
        "Done," she said, decisively, and they slapped palms on the bargain.
        "My name is Garmon and I am the captain of that hulk over there," he indicated through the window. "You will be on the crew list as a steward, and you'll work your passage. OK?"
        She nodded.
        "No lifting heavy items," interposed Richie. "Give that shoulder plenty of time to heal properly."
        "I'll be careful," she promised. "How long's the voyage?"
        "About seventy-two days,'' said Garmon. "Come along then, the sooner you're aboard, the better."
        She turned to Richie, who was smiling at her rather wistfully.
        "Oh Richie," she said gratefully, reaching out with both arms. They embraced like relatives parting company.
        "Be sure to let me know you're safe," said Richie. And she knew that was a veiled warning to Garmon to keep his side of the bargain. As the captain led the way from the room, she slipped her hand into her boot top and retrieved one of her stones, an emerald, and pressed it into Richie's hand.
        "For you," she whispered. And then she was gone, trotting across the concrete in Garmon's wake.
        Richie looked down at the magnificent gem in his hand. How well it symbolised the woman who had flashed into his workaday life, he thought. He would never part with it. When he could afford it, he would have it cut and set in gold.


Hadramut was, as usual, uncomfortably hot. Even weather control could not do more than alleviate the burning sunshine. Dust devils swirled among the buildings and the sparse vegetation drooped dispiritedly. The first thing to do was to buy suitable loose clothing, topped off with the hooded shamiya mantle everyone wore to ward off sunstroke. Very useful as a disguise, too, which probably accounted for its popularity, Jenna thought with amusement. Hadramut must have one of the most populous criminal fraternities in the galaxy.
        Driving into Rabat inside a spaceport cab, Jenna had a pleasant feeling of returning to familiar territory. There were hardly any visible changes in the four years since she was last in town.
        "Drop me off at the Ardakhan Hotel," she said to the driver. She had no intention of staying there, but old habit died hard. One never got out of a taxi at one's true destination, certainly not in Rabat. Business first, then she would find a place to stay. When the cab was out of sight, she turned down a narrow alley which led to the goldsmiths' quarter. She sold five stones at two shops, taking pleasure in the old familiar routine of haggling and tea-drinking. Even more pleasurable was the spending of some of the proceeds in the boutiques. Finally, re-equipped and happy, she strolled towards the main square, carrying her purchases in a lightweight holdall, to look for a hotel. More than once she stopped to admire her reflection in a plate glass window, in her knee-length shamiya of dark blue wild silk, over an ankle-length gabba, lavishly embroidered with gold. She felt good.
        Now, should she find a hotel, or look up an old friend? She tossed a coin and it came down tails - an old friend it was, then. Ronan was probably the nearest. Pulling up her hood, she set off for his apartment.
        The building was very quiet when she reached it. Siesta time. Rabat's inhabitants were taking their afternoon nap. She was not surprised to find herself leaning on the bell-push for several minutes before she heard someone come to the door. It was indeed Ronan, and her arrival was evidently a big surprise.
        "Jenna!" he hissed. "What the hell are you doing here? Are you crazy?"
        Take aback, she blinked at his vehemence. "What do you mean? Why shouldn't I be here?"
        "Haven't you heard? There's a contract out for you."
        "What?!" Jenna was so staggered, she actually stepped back a pace. "Who? And why?"
        "Tarvin. Remember him? The old associate you betrayed."
        "Betrayed?" Indignation almost rendered Jenna speechless for a moment. "That double-dealing bastard tried to sell us to the Federation for thirteen million credits. How's that for betrayal?"
        "Well you can't expect his doting mother to see it that way. There's a million credits waiting for the man who brings her your pretty head."
        "Oh, Zinovia. I can believe that - vengeful old crone. Listening to reason was never a characteristic of hers." Jenna heaved a sigh. "Are there any takers, do you think?"
        He shrugged. "Bound to be. All Tarvin's brothers for a start. The surviving henchman that Blake released told the tale of how you pretended to join them again, then released the prisoners and killed Tarvin."
        "It wasn't me that pulled the trigger," said Jenna. "Not that it matters. I would have done it, if necessary. Damn. Ill-advised mercy was always one of Blake's worst failings."
        "Make no mistake, you can never come back here. Get out of this sector straight away and give it a wide berth from now on."
        Accepting the truth of this, she signalled goodbye with a flip of her hand and slipped out through the door, pulling her hood over her head as she went. This was truly serious. Rabat was swarming with Amagons, and only a fast exit could save her now. She knew better than to waste any time pleading with Zinovia. The old witch was ten times more bloodthirsty than any of her menfolk. Clutching her bag and keeping to the shadows, Jenna hastened back to the taxi rank.
        At least, she now had the money to travel home to Keledon in comfort, but her hopes of rejoining her old colleagues were shattered. Moreover, she still had no papers and dare not contact any of the local suppliers of forged documents. However, she didn't need papers for an internal flight. Mosdar on the other side of the planet should have what she needed, with the added advantage that Amagons generally avoided it. Most of Zinovia's brood had blood feuds in Mosdar where the Saukoshi held sway. What a mercy it was that she had gone looking for Ronan during the siesta. At any other time she must have been quickly recognised. What a mercy, too, that Ronan wasn't an Amagon.
        She found a cab. "The air terminal," she instructed, and sat back to consider her best course of action. The first thing she must do, on arrival, was to buy a wig, or failing that, get her hair cut, dyed and curled. Then she would be ready for the photographer. Maybe she would have to trade another gem. She would certainly have to choose a new name, but what? How about Andrea? She would call herself Andrea. Andrea Vilkonen. She had once lived with Aulius Vilkonen for nearly a year. Plenty of people in Mosdar would remember that legendary womaniser, but she herself hadn't been well-known in those days. She might pass herself off as a relative, and she could easily supply plenty of convincing detail about him to answer any questions. Nobody would be amazed at a Vilkonen freetrader joining in the galactic war and losing her ship in battle. Once she had acquired her papers, she could book a passage to Keledon, two sectors away from Hadramut, and breathe again.


Stepping out of the shuttle terminal into the gentle sunshine of the southern Keledonian spring, Jenna couldn't repress a chuckle of delight. If any place felt like home, it was this one, the refuge of her nearest kin after the catastrophic dispersal of sixteen years ago. Here, if anywhere, she would find a breathing space among friends. She felt no need for security precautions. The immigration official who passed her through the barrier had been more interested in her person than her papers, and she rewarded him with a saucy smile as she headed for the exit.
        She crossed over to the nearest information booth and activated a journey planner terminal. Her cousin Margit lived along the coast from Pontus, nearly four thousand kilometres away. How best to get there? Evening was coming on and the next airbus would deposit her at an inconveniently late hour. She chose instead to take the overnight land cruiser which would get her to the city centre by mid-morning. Also, the last stretch along the coastal track was famous for its stupendous scenery. Swiftly, she booked a first class cabin.


At this time of year, Pontus was bustling but not yet overwhelmed with holidaymakers. Jenna ambled along the boulevards until she found herself in the artists' quarter. Selecting a pavement cafe in a small square, she ordered coffee and pastries and consumed them in a leisurely fashion as she watched the painters at work; to be watched in her turn by many appreciative eyes. Eventually, she enquired for the network booth and retired to its privacy to find Margit's number. There it was, listed under the name of her cousin's third husband, Yanos. Jenna hit the key and the connection was made.
        A pleasant-looking woman of about Jenna's own age answered. "Oh, Margit?" she said, with a little smile. "She doesn't live here anymore. She and Yanos decided not to renew their marriage contract about two years ago. I'm Lizbah, Yanos's current wife."
        Jenna chuckled. "Moved on, has she? Any idea where?"
        "Ping is here," said Lizbah cheerfully. "He knows. I'll call him."
        Ping, otherwise Olivier Torbus, Margit's son by Yanos, must be in his early teens by now, Jenna reckoned. Soon she heard adolescent feet clattering on the stairs.
        "Cousin Jen, wow! Haven't we been hearing things about you!" An excited young face beamed at her.
        Jenna did not particularly wish to discuss family affairs over the network, so she said, "Why don't I treat you to dinner tonight? Then we can catch up on all the news. You choose the place - somewhere discreet, with private booths."
        "Oho! `The Burrow' on Engelstrasse." Ping turned his head. "How about that, Aunt Lizbah?"
        "Very good. Expensive though," said his stepmother's voice off-screen.
        "That's OK," returned Jenna. "After all, it's years since we met. Shall I pick you up in a cab, Ping?"
        "Certainly not. I will do the booking and I will meet you in the foyer around eight."
        Jenna smiled to herself. Ping was very conscious of his dignity. However, she would see that he was dropped off at the parental home no later than midnight. "Is The Burrow a formal dress sort of place?" she enquired.
        "Oh definitely." Lizbah's face reappeared on the screen. "By the way, have you contacted the Brands? They're in town."
        "No. Thanks for reminding me. I should get in touch."
        Jenna logged off, deep in thought. Mikhail Brand, one of her late father's business associates, and Margit's uncle, was a man of power and influence. She knew he generally wintered at his villa in the hills, but she had not expected to find him here at this time of year. She would not contact him today, however. First she would talk to Ping.


Knowing that a young man would be pleased to see her in her finest, she put on the gold-embroidered gabba from Hadramut and draped the silk shamiya loosely over it.
        "Oh wow!" he exclaimed softly, as she swept into the foyer that evening. He was pleased beyond words to note the eyes swivelling in their direction as she gave him her arm to be escorted to their table. Jenna forbore to say "How you've grown" to her young cousin, but his height gave her quite a shock. At fourteen, he must be as tall as his mother, who topped Jenna by at least fifteen centimetres. In another four years or so, he was going to be eye-catching. She smiled as she took her seat.
        "Now, tell me all the gossip," she said. "Where's your mother? Has she married again?"
        "Not this time," returned Ping with a grin. "She's succumbed to the call of the wild and gone off with Brig, freetrading. Like some other people we could name."
        "It seems to be in the blood," said Jenna, philosophically. Brig Stannis was Margit's elder brother. A silent, rather dour man, he was the senior freetrader in the family. Jenna herself had entered the profession through Brig's introduction, but not content with his modest circuit, had roamed further afield. "Well, where do you suppose they are now?"
        "Over Riberelta way, I understand. My great-uncle keeps in touch with them. I reckon they're working for him, anyway, for all he seems so respectable."
        "So he'd know when they were coming back?"
        Ping nodded. The wine waiter now joined them. Accurately assessing the situation, he handed the list to Jenna. Strictly speaking, the boy was under age, but his height would safeguard him from awkward questions. No hard liquor, however. She ordered a suitable wine and turned back to Ping.
        "What about your sister?" she enquired, searching her memory for the girl's name. "Delma?"
        "Second year at the Academy," said Ping, popping nuts into his mouth. "She wants to be an architect."
        "An architect? Very - er - laudable."
        "Don't waste any time on Delma," said Ping, between munches. "Gone all stuffy, just like her father. No fun at all. Thinks all the Stannises are mad, bad and dangerous to know."
        "Did it ever occur to you she might be right?" Jenna wondered whether Delma's disapproval simply masked devastation at the departure of her mother into unknown dangers. Margit never ceased to amaze her. Three husbands, two children, a good career in engineering research; and she had thrown everything over to go freetrading again. Granted it had been a necessity in the early days, with the Federation after them all, but now it looked more like reckless irresponsibility.
        "Your turn to tell me." Ping broke in upon her train of thought. "What's all this about Blake and the Liberator?"
        "If I tell you, you're going to have to keep your mouth shut. No babbling to your friends. At least, not until I'm far away from this planet."
        "Cross my heart and hope to die." Ping leaned forward with an eager smile.


The following day, Jenna rode up to the Villa Riesi in the unobtrusive robocar Mikhail Brand had sent to collect her. This was not an ultra-fashionable district and the villa had none of the grandiose features so characteristic of the `high society' glitterati who occupied the hillsides facing the sea. Indeed, it was indistinguishable from the other farmhouses nestling among the vineyards of this sheltered inland valley. Mikhail had no use for display.
        He came out to meet her; a commanding figure, with magnetic dark eyes under black brows which contrasted strongly with his grey hair and short beard. She supposed he must be approaching sixty by now. He was looking very fit.
        "Jenna," he said, bending down to kiss her cheek. "Welcome back." Then he held her at arms' length to survey her critically.
        "They're after you, eh?" He ruffled her brown-dyed short hair. "Did you have a difficult time getting here?"
        "Not especially," she answered, "but I've had a shock or two along the way." As they strolled into the house, she began to tell him of her journey. She kept it brief and factual, but included Zinovia's reward for her assassination or capture.
        "It's fortunate that Amagons keep mainly to their own sector," Mikhail commented. "They have so many enemies, they have to keep well away from these parts. With care, you should be able to avoid them. However, I think you should drop the Vilkonen alias. That name attracts too much attention. We'll get you a good set of papers - several, if you like - to enable you to move around safely."
        He shepherded her into the large old kitchen, sat her down at the table, and produced a jug of coffee. "Now," he said, "I want you to tell me all about Blake and the Liberator."
        "That will take all day," she warned, with a slight smile.
        "We have the whole day," he said. "My wife is visiting friends, and we are in a kitchen, surrounded by food and drink. Where better?"
        For the next six hours she related her story, beginning with her capture and trial.
        "We learned about that some time later," Mikhail told her. "Brig was preparing to go to Cygnus Alpha to rescue you, but then we heard about your escape."
        "How did you find out?" asked Jenna, interested.
        "I have several sources in Space Command," he answered. "For example, I know what the Federation price on your head is. Anyway, do continue."
        From time to time they ate fruit, drank wine, cooked a meal and brewed coffee. And all the while, Jenna spoke of her comrades, their experiences, Blake's ideals and her own feelings, then the final running battle with the alien fleet.
        When she fell silent at last, they sat quietly for some time. Jenna noticed that the wind was stirring the trees. A brief spring shower spattered against the window, then subsided. Finally Mikhail got up to refill the coffee pot.
        "It's evident to me that you love Blake, yet apparently you are abandoning him to go back to your former life. Do you think you can ever return to what you were?" His deep dark eyes fastened compellingly on hers. "Haven't you become something different yourself? A freedom-fighter, rather than a freetrader?"
        "I don't know," she replied wretchedly, "but I mean to try."
        "Why?" asked Mikhail directly.
        "Self-preservation, I think. I've had time to think about this on my travels. You see, Blake is so genuinely idealistic, and he seems so reasonable and practical, that you'd follow him to the end of the universe. We all did, Avon, as well, objecting and protesting. We were dragged along in his wake. I began to feel that my own personality was being swallowed up, but I went along with it because the cause itself was so... well, noble."
        "Isn't it still noble?" said Mikhail gently.
        Jenna paused a while to marshal her thoughts.
        "Circumstances have totally changed. Blake's major objective was the destruction of Central Control, and it is gone. The Andromedans destroyed more than half the Federation fleet. Servalan has usurped the presidency, but she'll have to watch her back constantly as the old guard try to get back into power.
        "It's chaos, but it's the greatest opportunity ever for the other planets to take back their freedom and independence. I think we've done our part, now it's up to the people themselves. Certainly the freetraders can help things along by running arms shipments, and I'm willing to join in. But I'm never going back to the Liberator. I have to be my own person again."
        After a moment she stood up. "Tell me about Margit and Brig," she said. "Will they be back soon?"
        "In a few days," he answered with a smile. "We'll have a family party. They can tell you their adventures, and you will have to tell the whole story all over again."
        There was a sound from the driveway. "The car's going," she said.
        "Ah, my wife must be ready to come home. She's sent for it." He got to his feet. "You haven't met Irena yet. We married soon after you left."
        Another man with a new wife, reflected Jenna. One got dizzy trying to keep up with them.


Soon the robocar returned with Irena. Jenna was not surprised to meet a very sophisticated lady, but this one wore an air of unusual serenity. Mikhail introduced Jenna by her real name and Irena welcomed her warmly.
        "Why not stay here until your cousins get back?" Irena pressed her, "After all your travels you could do with a holiday in the country. Take the car into town whenever you want."
        It was too tempting to resist, and Jenna acceded gladly, but sometimes over the next few days, she wondered if she had been entirely wise. Living in close proximity to Mikhail, she was dismayed to find that slight tug of attraction she always felt in his presence had ripened into full-blown desire. Determined not to abuse Irena's hospitality, she became guarded and stiff, losing all her normal spontaneity. Mikhail seemed not to notice her altered manners, but Irena was not deceived.
        "Forgive me, Jenna," she said, one evening when they were alone, "but you seem very uncomfortable. It's more than just anxiety, isn't it?"
        "I'm sorry, Irena." Jenna heaved a sigh. "I'm a rotten guest, aren't I?"
        Irena gave that all-knowing smile of hers. "Have you fallen for Mikhail?" Her voice was gently sympathetic.
        Jenna felt a mixture of shock and relief. "Oh Irena, you must be used to this," she said with a rueful smile. "Do all your friends drool over Mikhail?"
        "Yes indeed." Her hostess chuckled reminiscently. "Some of them virtually swoon at his feet. They can't help it. And neither can he. It's that certain something he's got. I should know. I'm his fifth wife. I broke a ten-year contract after only two years, and paid a whopping penalty fine to marry him."
        "I feel rather ashamed of myself," Jenna confessed. "It's only six months since I parted with Blake - the love of my life, as I thought - and here I am lusting after a married man more than twenty years my senior. I'm not accustomed to guilt. It's making me feel very edgy."
        Then Irena surprised her by saying, "You know, Jenna, all you really want now is the comfort of an intimate relationship after a series of losses. What more natural than that you should be drawn to a strong older man?''
        She gave Jenna the gentlest of smiles. "I know that soon you'll gather yourself together and be off on new adventures, like Margit. I doubt if you've given up the struggle against the Federation. It's your inheritance. I don't think you can avoid it, can you?"
        "Probably not," Jenna admitted. "When my father chose to defy the Federation, he doomed us all - himself, my mother, my brother and the rest of `the disappeared' - and also the survivors like me, who can never settle into ordinary life for long."
        She squared her shoulders. "No, Irena, I won't be dallying with your husband. I'll find another target for my emotions. But still, I feel a lot better for clearing the air between us. Thank you for being so understanding."
        Irena rose and went over to the cabinet and poured two drinks.
        "Champagne," she said, handing a glass to Jenna. "Now tell me all about this woman, Servalan."


Five days later, Jenna was dozing in the afternoon sun, when a shadow fell across her face. Expecting it to be Mikhail or Irena, she opened an eye, then jerked upright. Margit and Brig stood over her.
        "Well, well," drawled Margit. "Our jailbird has come home to roost." She wore that wicked smile Jenna remembered so well.
        It was on the tip of Jenna's tongue to retort with a reference to her cousin's own stay in a Federation prison, but she recalled its traumatic circumstances just in time, and smiled back instead.
        "Sit down, and let me look at you both," she said fondly. "Brig, whatever persuaded you to take up with this hoyden again?"
        "Ah well, we all have our problems from time to time," he answered, with an expression of mock gloom, "and I was badly in need of an engineer at that point. Had to make do with whatever I could find."
        His sister gave him a playful shove and he fell into a chair with a grin. Jenna quickly suppressed another aching memory. Her young brother, Tod, had been among `the disappeared'.
        "Margit's the talker,'' said Brig. "She'll tell you all about it. Now, when will Mikhail be back?"
        "He's here." Jenna pointed vaguely. "Down in his den." The Den was a discreet communications centre, housed in a barn lower down the hillside. "Irena's off somewhere, playing bridge, or something," she added. "Come on you two. Give."
        It was pleasant to listen to somebody else's escapades for a change, and Jenna heartily enjoyed Margit's tales of industrial espionage, illicit acquisition of Federation-developed technology, hair-breadth escapes and blockade-running. Blake would have been pleased to know how much trouble the freetraders were giving to the authorities, she thought. She must try to let him know about it.
        "And are you rich?" she enquired sweetly, as her cousin concluded.
        Margit snorted with laughter, reached into her boot-top and fished out a little cloth bag. It clinked as it dropped onto the table. With a chuckle, Jenna produced her own little bag of gems and waved it at them.
        "And what about you, Brig? Are your boots stuffed with stones, or do you favour tools, like Avon and Vila?"
        "Left boot, gems; right boot, tools," came the answer. "So tell us about Avon and Vila and Blake. Let's hear how accurate the rumours are."
        Jenna obliged them with a selection of stories until Mikhail joined them and proposed that they adjourn to the kitchen for coffee.
        "Avon sounds a truly difficult character," Margit remarked, as they strolled towards the house. "If he's got custody of Orac, he's got control of the Liberator, provided it can successfully restore its life-support and he can get back on board. From what you tell me, that shouldn't be beyond him. Do you see Avon trying to pick up Blake again?"
        "No," said Jenna. "Not unless he decides he needs him. And I don't see that happening."
        "Will he look for you?"
        "Maybe. He's not the best pilot in the universe, but he's not bad. If he finds another pilot, he won't bother. Anyway," she added crisply, "I don't intend to serve under his command."


Ping turned up to the party the following night with Lizbah in tow. To Jenna's amusement, Margit greeted her successor with affection and retired with her to a window-seat for a good gossip.
        "Delma wouldn't come," said Ping cheerfully. "She says she is studying the civilised arts, and hasn't the slightest desire to mingle with a bunch of mercenaries and law-breakers." His voice mimicked his sister's fastidious tone.
        "I wonder if she realises that it's the mercenaries and law-breakers who stand between her and something very uncivilised?" said Jenna, wryly.
        "Hey, that's a really good riposte," returned the irrepressible Ping. "Mind if I use it?"
        Brig placed an avuncular hand on his shoulder. "Graceless boy," he said, indulgently. "You'll come to a bad end."
        "Yes, and I'll meet most of the family there." Ping waltzed off to raid the drinks tray.
        Brig and Jenna drifted over to Mikhail at the buffet. He turned to them with a smile.
        "Interesting news," he told them, in a low voice. "Servalan has been issuing a stream of diktats since consolidating her position as President after her return from the wars. One of them trebles the reward on Avon and Cally. What do you conclude from that?"
        "They must have seriously annoyed her." Jenna grinned at the thought. "It sounds as if they met face to face. Avon, of course, is a past master at annoying anybody, but I wonder what Cally did or said?"
        "Well, it's pretty evident they're back on the Liberator," Brig remarked. "And that puts them top of the `most wanted' list, apart from that Bayban character."
        "Nothing more on Blake?" Jenna couldn't help enquiring.
        "Nothing," replied Mikhail. "Which is probably good news."
        "Maybe he died of his wounds," said Jenna, suddenly despondent. "Maybe his pod malfunctioned like mine, and killed him."
        "I'm sure that's the impression he'd like to give," said Brig, putting a comforting arm round her shoulders. "We should do nothing to dispel that illusion."
        Jenna achieved a pale smile. "Well, with Blake fomenting new rebellions, myself freetrading again, and Avon and Cally making a nuisance of themselves with the Liberator, Madam President is in for a rough ride."
        She raised her glass. "I give you a toast," she said. "To Hell with the Federation and Space Command."


Stage Two

"Trade is good," said Jenna, checking the balance in the Ursa Major Holdings account. "The climate control stuff has really made us money. Well done, Brig."
        Brig acknowledged this with a nod. Planets struggling to recover from the devastation wrought by Andromedan destruction of Star One's weather control, were falling over themselves to acquire their own independent systems, most of them pirated from Federation sources by Brig's associates. At the moment, it was far more lucrative than the arms trade. It symbolised the end of a much resented government monopoly, and might be the sign of a recovering independent galaxy. Jenna was intensely grateful for this change of pace after the stress of the last two years on the Liberator.
        She and Brig were en route to Carthanos, the last planet on their round before returning to Regis Two for more supplies. Margit had been dropped off at nearby Parthia Minor, to arrange for a normal cargo pickup of the sort of goods that gave cover for their activities. They would spend a few days there when they returned to collect her. Parthia was much more fun than Carthanos.
        A proximity warning light began to flash on the pilot's console. Jenna checked her instruments.
        "Carthanos in sight," she said. "Signal traffic control."
        No covert landing here. Ursa was to dock openly at one of the minor ports. The Carthanoan government was paying for this contraband, albeit unofficially. According to established freetrade practice, the credits were already deposited in a neutral holding bank, to be transferred to the freetraders' bank as soon as delivery was completed.


Brig was on the wharf overseeing the unloading operations when the excise official beckoned him over to the office. His manner was somewhat furtive. Ten to one he was going to be offered some dodgy proposition, Brig reckoned. He was not to be disappointed.
        "I hear you're heading for Regis Two when you leave here," the man began.
        "That is so," Brig agreed.
        "I know somebody who's looking for a passage to Regis. He's willing to pay full fare."
        Brig smiled to himself, but kept a straight face. "Then tell him to use the normal passenger service," he advised. "He only needs one change."
        "He could, but he's in a hurry. If he has to go via Crossways, he'll lose more than a month."
        "I don't want any fugitives aboard my ship," said Brig coldly.
        "No, no. Nothing of the sort," the official hastened to assure him. "I know Dermod personally. He just wants to sort out a business deal in person. He isn't on any wanted list. You can check him out."
        "I'll do just that," replied Brig. "OK. Tell him how the credit transfer system works and send him here within the next hour." He turned and walked back to the task in hand.


The man who presented himself forty minutes later was not what they were expecting. Jenna watched the approaching figure on her scanner; a young man, probably in his early thirties, carrying a small holdall and walking with a spring in his heels. As he climbed the gangway, she focussed on his face. Mm... He was personable, she reflected, with a lift of her spirits. It might not be the handsomest face she had ever seen, but its open expressivity and eager smile made up for that. The return journey promised to be fun.
        He introduced himself as Dermod Kenly and he was perfectly willing to explain the urgency of his travel plans.
        "We, that is the family firm, have a business partner on Regis Two, but we suspect that she's cheating us somehow. It's very complicated, and the accounts we've examined look all right, but funny things are going on and we haven't been given a convincing explanation. So I want to slip into town on the quiet and investigate her. She's got agents at the spaceport who would be bound to spot me if I came in by passenger ship, so I asked my friend Eochain to have a word with you." He laughed infectiously. "This is the biggest adventure of my life. I'm really looking forward to it. Do say you'll take me."
        "I hope you're not doing something dangerous," said Jenna. "People can get violent if there's a lot of money at stake."
        "Well, you freetraders should know about avoiding trouble," he countered, cheekily. "You can advise me."
        "Advice, yes - nursemaiding, no," Jenna said, as severely as she could. "We'll take you there, but you're on your own thereafter." Turning to Brig, she said, "If we clear the stores out of the rear cabin, he can move in there. But first we check that his credits are in the bank."
        She was going to maintain a businesslike attitude in front of such an engaging stranger. Later on, she was also going to check if his name and description appeared on any wanted lists.


By the time they reached Parthia Minor, Jenna's doubts were laid to rest. Taking a leaf from Vila's book, she had lifted several of Dermod's fingerprints and relayed them to the central service most freetraders used. This databank, hacked from a hundred security services, contained records of police and criminals alike. They even had Servalan's. But they didn't have Dermod's.
        Here at Parthia they would spend a few carefree days, getting the exercise and entertainment so lacking on board ship. Margit had been enjoying the hospitality of friends at Kustanay, who recommended them to try the nearby mountain resort at Tengiz for the lively pleasures on offer at its beautiful lakeside. Throwing caution and old memories to the winds, Jenna flung herself headlong into an affaire with her young companion, recklessly enjoying her role as guide and lover.
        All too soon it was over and they were back on the ship, Jenna nursing an uncomfortable case of sunburn, but warmly happy, as she had not been for many months.
        Dermod's problem with the cheating agent was picked over and considered. Margit had a good insight into fraud, and her suggestions were carefully noted by Dermod.
        "I'd no idea you had such a crooked mind, Margit," said Jenna at the end of one particularly intensive session.
        "When you're running with wolves, it pays to know how they think," her cousin returned, with a grin. "Just as it pays to be fast on your feet."
        Margit was famous in the family for her escape from Federation custody by leaping out of a speeding prison vehicle and running like hell. Come to think of it, Margit reminded Jenna of a large, cheerful, alpha female grey wolf, devoted to her family and very dangerous when crossed.
        The voyage to Regis was one of the happiest Jenna had ever spent and she could not help a sigh when the planet hove in sight. At Orensa she must say goodbye and Dermod must go about his business, laden with advice and the addresses of various helpers who might find him a good investigator. She could do no more for him and she must turn her attention to her own affairs.
        In downtown Orensa was BG's Warehouse, the great Mecca of the freetraders. BG's dealt in every kind of armament, from miniature stun-guns to self-propelled field pieces, acquired from a thousand warring planets. It was even rumoured that Andromedan equipment had fallen into BG's hands. Bayban the Butcher was said to be one of the regular clients as well as many warlords and independent governments. BG's other speciality was surveillance equipment and before they parted, Jenna brought Dermod to the warehouse to pick up some useful miniature pieces that would enable him to keep a watch on his cheating partner.
        As they were about to leave, the departmental manager tapped Jenna on the shoulder.
        "You know that Avalon woman, don't you?" she said.
        "Yes, I've met her twice. Have you heard from her? Where is she now?"
        "I don't know her exact whereabouts," came the reply, "but she's placed a big order for weapons and we're looking for a carrier. Someone who can run a blockade. Interested?"
        "Possibly. I'll see what my partners think." Jenna considered the idea. She would be interested in helping Avalon again, especially as so many subjugated planets were taking back their independence with increasing success. It really looked as if the Federation's days were numbered.
        "We have an electronics cargo to deliver first," she stipulated. "If the job is very urgent, you'll have to find someone else."
        "I don't think so," said the manager. "Reliability is more important than speed and the order isn't yet completed. Let us know and I'll pass your name on to BG."
        Jenna nodded.
        "One of your revolutionary friends?" enquired Dermod as they strolled out into the street.
        "Yes. Another devoted enemy of Servalan. I always make a point of encouraging them."
        There was Margit, waiting with a hired robocar to take her back to the ship. She turned to Dermod to say her farewells.
        "You'll be coming back," he said eagerly. "We'll meet again quite soon."
        Well, why not?
        "Yes, Dermod, I won't be away long. If you're still in town we can meet again." Jenna wound her arms around his neck and craned up for a long kiss. Finally she pulled out of his embrace, waved, and got into the car.


This voyage was brief and straightforward, dropping off the electronic components and picking up frozen produce. In fact, all perfectly legal, even the company agent they brought back in the spare cabin. On the return journey they were notified that Avalon's consignment would be ready soon after they got back.
        "Not too soon, I hope," Jenna remarked, "I could do with a bit of planet leave."
        "Seconded," said Margit promptly.


Dermod was out of town when they arrived, but had left a number with one of the helpers. Jenna lost no time contacting him, and by the time Ursa's crew checked into their usual hotel, he was there. She greeted him circumspectly under the gaze of others, but she had booked a double suite and meant to entertain him lavishly.
        Over dinner, he related his progress so far.
        "I've been out at Odemira. Our friend has a villa there and she's living it up with the social set. I think I know how she's taking the money, but I wish I had more accountancy skills. I'll say this for her, she's very talented with the book-keeping."
        He laughed happily. He was not in the least indignant about the fraud, Jenna realised. He viewed it as a heaven-sent opportunity to travel and enjoy himself, and he was certainly in no hurry to sort things out. His family might have done better to send an older member who would keep his or her mind on the job.
        The next morning, he came bounding out of the shower, full of ideas.
        "Listen, by the time you get back from the Avalon delivery, I'll be finished here, I'm sure of it. Now, you said you intended to take a good long break - why not come to Burgos with me? It's on my way home, sort of."
        He dropped onto the bed beside her, voice dripping with cajolery.
        "I know I have to go back. I know I have to part with you, but I want to get you all to myself, on a planet which really knows about providing fun, and have the fling of a lifetime. How does that sound to you?"
        Jenna considered it as she lay back on the pillows, stretching every limb in turn with the concentrated voluptuousness of a cat. It sounded irresistible. She got up and reached for her robe, smiling as she did so.
        "Yes," she said, simply. She was relieved that he wasn't proposing undying devotion, or making any attempt to tie her down. The fling of a lifetime sounded great.
        Dermod gave a whoop of joy, lifted her off her feet and twirled her round.
        "Jenna, you are the most wonderful woman I've ever met. No messing around or pretending, just yes or no - particularly yes."
        When she regained her feet, she detached herself with a chuckle and headed for the shower.
        "After breakfast, we'll go out and see what this town has to offer," she said, over her shoulder.


"Where's Margit?" Jenna asked Brig, as they met in the hotel bar that evening.
        "Down town, fanning an old flame," was the economical reply.
        Jenna chuckled. "That explains the very expensive outfit she ordered at Dyor's this morning."
        "Don't expect to hear from her for two or three days," warned Brig, with a suggestion of a smile.
        But this time Brig had overestimated. The following morning, Jenna was paged to a communications booth. It was Margit.
        "I want you to meet me at BG's, as soon as possible. I have something interesting to show you."
        "Just me?" asked Jenna, rather disturbed by the intensity of her cousin's manner.
        "Just you."
        Jenna hastened down to BG's warehouse, leaving a message for Brig and Dermod to the effect that she was going shopping. Margit was waiting for her near the door.
        "This way," she said, piloting Jenna into a small office. She produced a visdisk and fed it into a catalogue viewer. "Jacey and I were going through his photos last night," she said, listing the directory, "and we found this." She hit the key and the photograph was displayed on the large screen.
        Jenna stared in surprise. Evidently this was some kind of freetrader's conclave. Seated in the foreground, were the capos and behind them stood assorted assistants and bodyguards. Her eye was immediately drawn to Tarvin, his smiling face turned to his neighbour in conversation. Then her attention roved upwards to the blond young man standing out so clearly against the cloaked Amagons behind Tarvin. Dermod. A younger Dermod, but utterly unmistakable, with that characteristic smile. The blood began to pound in her head, she buried her face in her hands.
        "It's not you he sees, is it?" said Margit's voice, quietly sympathetic. "It's Zinovia's million credits."
        Jenna looked up, eyes misted over with tears. She dashed them away with the back of her hand and leaned forward to scan the group again, seeking to deny its implications.
        "There," she said, pointing, "that's Hindrik Vilkonen on the left. Maybe Dermod was in his party, and it's just coincidence that he's standing among the Amagons. Or he might have come with one of the others. Do you know who they are?"
        "Yes. Jacey took the shot and he can identify all the bosses. He's certain that Dermod came with the Amagons and he remembers thinking how unusual it was for them to have an outsider with them. He doesn't think he was using the name Dermod then, but he can't remember what it was. We're circulating the picture to see if anyone comes up with a name."
        "I can't believe it," said Jenna miserably. "Surely it's not the same man. That picture must have been taken at least ten years ago."
        "Look closely at the right eye." Margit was sympathetic but unrelenting as she zoomed into the face with the controls. "See that mole just to the side? That's no coincidence. We could get a new photo of Dermod from the same angle, then put them both through an image enhancer and compare every little crease and freckle. I'm told that the ear shape is the most reliable indicator."
        Jenna winced. "What are we going to do in the mean time?" she asked. "Do you expect me to back to the hotel and snuggle up to the man who probably intends to kill me?"
        Margit regarded her compassionately. "I think a diplomatic illness is called for, don't you? It will also make it impossible for him to get you on your own." She saw Jenna's face change. "What is it?" she asked.
        "Dermod said he wanted to have me all to himself for a while." Tears pricked at Jenna's eyelids again. "Once the cargo was delivered, he wanted me to go off to Burgos with him - for a holiday, he said. I said yes."
        "That settles it, you're not going back to the hotel." Margit retrieved the disk and switched off the viewer. "Come on, we're going to Jacey's place. We'll work out something."
        As Jenna stumbled to her feet, Margit took a look at her cousin's woebegone face. "Well, Dermod would have no trouble in believing you're sick," she commented. "You look dreadful."


Ordinarily, Jenna would have enjoyed visiting Jacey's house. So many freetraders dreamed of settling on a suitable planet and investing their profits in a legitimate business. Jacey was one of the few who had done so with success, and his home reflected prosperity and a collector's eye. But now she subsided morosely into a chair with hardly a glance at her surroundings. Her eyes assessed Jacey as he poured drinks. He could hardly be called handsome, but in his lean, humorous face she could see what had retained Margit's affections for all these years.
        During the short walk, she had been formulating a plan. As soon as her host handed round the glasses and sat down, she began.
        "First, I have to satisfy myself that Dermod really is the man in the photograph. Margit says that comparison with a new shot taken from the same angle should settle that. Secondly, I need convincing that he belonged to the Amagon party. I want his real name and history. Last, I must be certain that he does intend to sell me to Zinovia.''
        Jacey nodded. "I've transmitted the picture to Vilkonen headquarters to see if anyone recognises him. They'll spread it around all the others, barring the Amagons, of course. I've labelled it `Most Urgent and Confidential' and hinted that we think he is a Federation spy. That should inspire them to do their best.''
        "Do you know any private investigators?" asked Margit. "We ought to get some film of Dermod now, while he has no suspicions. Then we can find a laboratory that will do the comparisons for us."
        "I know somebody who could fix it," Jacey replied. "All it takes is money."
        "We'll put that up," said Margit. "Another thing, let's take a closer look at his cheating business partner. I'll bet you anything that she's an old girl-friend and they're in this together.''
        That felt like a knife between the ribs. Margit was almost certainly right. Resolutely, Jenna smothered her pain.
        "When we've done that," she said in a hard voice, "we shall sit down and work out a trap. I will be the bait, of course."
        "We should contact Brig and put him on his guard," said Margit, when Jacey went to his console to contact his friend.
        Jenna considered this for a moment. "No," she said eventually. "When I don't turn up, Brig will call this place. It should be interesting to see if Dermod is the first to get anxious. I know it's a shame to let Brig worry, but he'll be all the more convincing with Dermod."
        "That begs the question, where are we going to put you?" countered Margit.
        Jenna grimaced. "People who are taken ill suddenly, usually wind up in some sort of clinic. Let's see what Jacey's Mr. Fixit can do about getting me a bed somewhere."
        "Hm, we'll need to buy off a doctor or two and some auxiliaries. Shouldn't be impossible. We should have you picked up by ambulance, unconscious - you just keeled over in the street. What's your disease?"
        "Stroke or brain tumour," said Jenna, after a moment's thought. "I'd be comatose - couldn't tell them anything."
        Margit gave a positively wolfish grin. "You do realise he'd have to act promptly. No reward for him if you die of natural causes. Ha! We've got the makings of a trap right now. Jacey and I can stake out your room and you can hide a blaster under the bedclothes. We may not need to mess about with photographs at all."
        Her cousin was evidently enjoying the prospect of the hunt, Jenna reflected rather bitterly. Aloud, she said quite sharply, "He's not to be killed. I mean to put some questions to him. And then I have an idea for disposing of him in a very interesting fashion."
        "Stun guns it is, then." Margit raised her eyebrows interrogatively. "What have you got in mind?"
        "You'll see."


It was early evening when a worried Brig called Jacey's house to enquire if Jenna was there. In the background, Margit could see Dermod hovering with an equally anxious look on his face.
        "Of course not," said Margit, with a fair degree of truth. "She didn't know this address - unless you told her."
        "No," Brig assured her. "She left to go shopping early this morning. Nothing since then."
        "Dermod." Margit raised her voice slightly. "Have you any notion what she intended?"
        Dermod looked appropriately wretched as he shook his head. "She just left a message with reception - gone shopping, won't be long - that sort of thing."
        Margit summoned Jacey, who promised to contact his friend at Missing Persons. After a decent interval, Jacey rang back to say that a woman answering Jenna's description had collapsed in the street and had been taken unconscious to hospital. Margit was already on her way there, and would call back as soon as she knew. Brig and Dermod were to stay put at the hotel.


Jenna lay rigidly on the bed in the dimly lit room. Beside her, monitors gurgled and bleeped in the time-honoured fashion of intensive care wards. However, she was not actually hooked up to any of them. A recording of some previous unfortunate had been fed into the machines, which relayed its distressing tidings. In her hand under the covers, was a small stun gun. Margit was concealed in the clothes closet with a larger gun, and Jacey was observing the corridor from a video monitor in the adjoining room. It was approaching three a.m. and the strain was telling on them all.
        She had just made up her mind that he would not come that night, and they would have to do this all over again, when she heard three sharp taps on the door to Jacey's room. The signal. She heard a faint hiss from the closet, as Margit registered the warning. A moment later, the door to the corridor opened gently. Peeping between her lashes, Jenna made out the figure of a man in surgical mask and gown. He was carrying a box, which he set down at the foot of the bed. Then he advanced to look at the monitor screen, leaning over her to read the staggering lines.
        "Poor Jenna," he said very softly, but there was a smile in his voice.
        He straightened up, pulled aside the gown, and reached for something inside. Jenna's eyes flew wide open as she yanked the stun gun clear of the bedclothes. In total disbelief, she saw what he had in his hand - a razor-sharp Amagon scimitar. He swept it up over her head as she fired wildly and threw herself aside. She heard it thud into the pillow and the sound galvanised her into diving off the bed, crashing between the machines as she did so. Other sounds reached her through the semi-darkness: the spat of another stun gun and the heavy fall of a body - whose body? Face down, she writhed frantically in a tangle of tubes, cables and bedding, clutching her weapon and trying to bring it round to point behind her.
        "Holy Hell," said Margit's voice above her. "Holy Hell."
        It was Jacey who bent down and disentangled her. As she got to her feet, she saw Margit look out into the corridor. Satisfied that nobody was coming to investigate the brief scuffle, she shut the door and switch on the light. They stared down at their unconscious visitor.
        Shaking like a leaf, Jenna picked up the box and examined it. It was insulated and empty, apart from a plastic bag containing ice-gel.
        "He really was going to present Zinovia with my head," she said, with a wobbly smile.
        Margit bent down and began to insert the captive into a straight-jacket. "I do hope that the disposal method you have in mind for him is chock-full of poetic justice," she remarked. "I want to see him grovel."
        Jacey was talking softly on his intercom to the doctor who had arranged the trap. "We have your patient," he murmured. "Is the ambulance ready?"
        "Affirmative," came the faint reply.


"A cryogenic capsule!" Margit's face was a picture as she stared down at the object before her. "What the devil is to be gained by freezing the bastard?"
        "I need a little time to arrange the scenario, to set the stage, so to speak." Seated at the console, Jenna was concentrating on the drawing she was producing with the design package. They were on the top floor of BG's warehouse, whither the unconscious Dermod was being brought in a field laser crate.
        "Timing," she continued, "is the very essence of my plan. There now, tell me what you think of that." She pointed to the screen.
        "The Liberator? My, she's beautiful." Margit spoke almost reverently, as she gazed at the picture Jenna had produced from memory. "What do you intend to do with that?"
        "Put it on my calling card," said Jenna, with a mysterious smile. She activated the printer.
        A tap on the door announced Brig and Jacey.
        "Here he is," announced Jacey, flourishing a hand towards the crate. "What are your commands."
        "Let's load him into the capsule and activate it."
        "You're going to freeze him?"
        "For a couple of months, while I arrange something. Meanwhile, we can load up and deliver the supplies to Avalon's people as scheduled."
        "I do so love these people who are utterly frank about their intentions," said Margit to the room at large, as she opened up the capsule. "Don't you?"
        Jenna smiled, but refused to be drawn. Later, when she was alone, she would contact her friend in Rabat. Ronan was just the person to arrange for the delivery of her calling cards. He would be both amused and reassured by her plans.


Avalon was looking a lot older, Jenna thought. Three more years of rough living had taken their toll. But her energy seemed undiminished, as she drove her band flat out unloading the crates in the driving rain that was giving such good cover to their activities. Foul weather was undoubtedly the revolutionary's friend, but Jenna found herself wishing that her transactions with them didn't always take place in such discomfort.
        "Well, that's it,'' she reported finally. "Come inside, Avalon. We'll register the transfer.''
        Avalon nodded and followed Jenna through the cargo hold to the bridge, leaving a trail of drips. At her console, Jenna activated the cargo manifest program and Avalon sat down to check it against her own. While she was engaged with that, Jenna went to the coffee dispenser in the galley and poured two cups.
        "It's correct,'' said Avalon, eventually. She entered the encrypted phrase that would authorise payment to be transferred from the holding bank into the freetraders' account. The screen reported `Transfer in progress, please wait for confirmation.'
        "It usually takes about fifteen minutes,'' Jenna handed her a cup.
        Margit and Brig were occupied with closing the hatches and securing the hold. Jenna could watch their activities on the security monitor. There would be a lot of clearing up to do, the floor was slippery with mud. She switched her attention back to Avalon. The question she didn't mean to ask came tumbling out.
        "Has your network had any news of the Liberator, or Blake?''
        Avalon smiled. "We do hear of the Liberator's exploits from time to time,'' she said. "Servalan was very certain she had them in the net some months ago, but they slipped out, somehow.''
        "Yes, I heard about that. Avon has taken on some more crew, by the sound of it - got himself another pilot.'' Jenna smiled slightly. "The freetraders will be happy for him to keep Space Command busy. Still, I don't like the speed with which the Feds are replacing their lost ships. Blake would be trying to sabotage their production lines if he was still commanding the Liberator.''
        "Hm - Blake,'' said Avalon, somewhat guardedly. "One of my network came across a man who claimed to have seen him a while back. He was on the run from some warlord on Epheron, apparently. Shall I give him a message for Blake?''
        Jenna hesitated, loath to get drawn into Blake's operations again, yet, longing to see him all the more since Dermod's treachery.
        "Tell him that if he leaves a message with BG's warehouse, it will reach me sooner or later.''
        They talked quietly about Avalon's campaigns and problems until the console bleep signalled the end of the transfer. Avalon stood up.
        "I shouldn't stay any longer. Every moment puts you at risk. Goodbye for now, and thank you.''
        Jenna followed her to the hatch, where they stopped and shook hands, then Avalon stepped out to meet her waiting followers. Jenna closed the hatch, wondering as she always did, whether they would ever meet again.


"Message from Jacey,'' reported Margit, some days later. "He's identified our frozen friend. Darius Kavan, associate of one of Tarvin's captains. Also, he's not been seen for several months. Nobody seems to know where he is.''
        Jenna heard this with bitter satisfaction.
        "I suppose it's nearly time we had a few words with Darius,'' she replied coldly.


"Well," said Brig, "he looks OK and all the instruments are showing the right signs." He bent down and pressed the large green re-activate key on Dermod's capsule. Orange lights began to flicker on its display board. "ETA about three hours from now."
        Jenna gave the capsule a dark unsmiling look.
        "Now, Margit, I have a part for you to play." She produced a small drip bottle. "This is the stuff eye specialists drip in your eyes when they examine you. It blurs your vision for about two hours. Dermod is going to get an eyefull and you are going to impersonate somebody Dermod knows, somebody he will talk to."
        "Not Zinovia?"
        "No. I don't think either of us could imitate that cackling crone very convincingly. But Zinovia's daughter, Firuza, would be within your range. I think my voice is too high, but yours is about the right pitch."
        "Yes, but how can I imitate a voice I've never heard?" objected Margit, reasonably enough. "You haven't got any recordings, have you?"
        "Firuza has a very characteristic way of dragging out certain words. She sort of coos at you." Jenna adopted an affected crooning tone, "My deeear Darius, how aaaare you? It's me, Firooooza. See? She thinks it's sexy. Firuza runs errands for her mother, so he wouldn't be too surprised to find her holding his hand when he wakes up."
        "We can but try," said Margit.
        "You'll have to sit down because you're a good bit taller than Firuza, but if you drape my shamiya over your head, you should look reasonably like an Amagon woman. Now, I'll brief you on what to say."


Dermod opened his eyes, groaned, and screwed them shut again. Never in all his life had he felt so completely awful.
        "Turn the light down," he muttered thickly. "My head is killing me."
        Somebody obliged, and he opened his eyes again. No good, just a swimming blur.
        "Here, doooo drink this," a voice cooed in his ear. A cup was put to his lips and he gulped its contents avidly. "Theeeere Darius, isn't that better?"
        "Fru... Fruzh...?"
        "Yeeees, it's Firooooza, here to look after you. Mother was soooo worried. You should know better than to drink anything brewed in Rabat. I'm amazed you still know who you are."
        That explained his befuddled mind. There was something important he must remember.
        "Jenna... Did I...?"
        "Oh, you did indeed. It was priceless - bringing her head in a box and opening it on the dinner table. Mother was beside herself with glee. Don't worry about the reward either, the million credits are safely in your account. Mother keeps her word."
        He levered himself into a sitting position and peered at the figure beside him, but she remained indistinct.
        "My eyes - can't focus,"
        "The doctor says it'll wear off soon. No permanent damage. You lie back and tell me how you managed to get that little bitch. We're all dying to know."


The next time Dermod opened his eyes, he was relieved to feel fairly normal, but his recollections were very cloudy. With a start, he realised he was on a spacecraft, and with growing disquiet he recognised his cabin aboard Ursa. Surely he had escaped to Rabat? He had spoken to Firuza - something about drinking Rabat hooch and getting sick?
        The door opened, and Brig Stannis stood before him, smiling slightly.
        "Well, you seem better. I was quite worried about you." He offered Dermod a hand to pull him upright. "Come to the galley and have something to eat. That'll do you a power of good."
        In silent confusion, Dermod allowed himself to be helped along the corridor to the galley. Jenna and Margit were sat at table, watching a video as they ate. He slid onto the bench opposite, wondering if he was dreaming. Brig put a plate in front of him and he started to eat. The hot food and drink quickly revived him and he looked up at the screen to see what was absorbing their attention.
        To his horror, he recognised himself lying on the bed, talking to an Amagon woman, Firuza. He was telling her how he had searched for Jenna Stannis, wormed his way into her affections and set out to kill her in her hospital bed. Finally, after the story-teller had drifted off to sleep without completing his rambling narrative, the woman stood up, doffed the shamiya, and revealed Margit's triumphant face.
        Dumbstruck, he bowed his head in his hands, waiting for the sword to fall. Nothing was said, his companions finished their meal at a leisurely pace, brewed some fresh coffee, and drank it. Finally, he looked up at Jenna, sitting opposite him.
        "Now, pay attention," she said dropping a shiny card in front of him. On it was a picture of a spacecraft he knew to be the Liberator, and printed underneath, the legend "Compliments of Jenna Stannis". He stared at it, mesmerised.
        "You have been in cryogenic storage for several weeks," Jenna continued quietly, unaggressively. "During that time, copies of this card have been delivered to Zinovia and all her family, by my agents.
        "What is the significance of that? you may well ask.'' Jenna turned to the shelf behind her and produced two small electronic devices which she laid on the table.
        "This is IMIPAK. It is highly unlikely that you have ever heard of it, but mention it to Federation President Servalan, and you will see her grow quite pale.
        "Now IMIPAK stands for something like Induced Molecular Instability Projector And Key. It was stolen from a Federation weapons research institute by Coser, the man who invented it, and in spite of Space Command's best efforts, passed into our hands. This one is the key. This other piece, that looks rather like a medical laser, is the projector. And when I point it at you and press the button - so - a little beam of red light hits your chest. There, quite painless. You'd never notice it if you didn't see the spot of light, would you? Zinovia and her people never noticed a thing when my agents zapped them all, one by one."
        Her voice remained quiet, almost friendly, but cold shivers began to run down Dermod's spine.
        "This little red light has placed a sort of biological detonator in your system. Nothing will happen unless it is triggered." She smiled meditatively and picked up the key. He could not help wincing. Brig and Margit, he noticed, were staring at it, fascinated.
        "Now Coser claimed that this key, this trigger mechanism, has a range of over a million kilometres. That may have been optimistic, but it certainly can manage several thousand kilometres. Well, what happens when the key is activated, eh? I didn't see it demonstrated, myself, but Avon told me that the men dissolved into rather disgusting puddles. That's the Molecular Instability bit. Madam President herself has been marked, which is why she's so afraid of it. We can keep her away from certain places just by informing her that IMIPAK is in the vicinity.
        "Did you fear for your life, Dermod? In fact, I'm going to let you go. You're going to get a message back to Zinovia. Explain to her about IMIPAK. Naturally, she will be very reluctant to believe such a wild story, but if she gets her spies to trace Coser back to his research base, she will probably be convinced. She knows somebody got into her fortress by stealth, because they left my calling card.''
        "What's the deal," Dermod croaked.
        "It's so simple. If she withdraws the contract on myself and the Liberator crew, and widely publicises that she was misinformed and has forgiven me, IMIPAK will remain unused. Otherwise, my agents have been marking every Amagon they can find, and IMIPAK will start on its travels."
        "What if I tell you to do your worst?" said Dermod sullenly.
        "Oh, but you're not going to. You know that another messenger and a demonstration can easily be arranged."
        He capitulated. "I'll do it, but there's no guarantee that Zinovia will believe me."
        "To do the old hag justice, she's no coward," Jenna acknowledged. "But I don't think she's eager for her whole family and all their retainers to die with her. She has a dynastic outlook."


"So that's why you wanted me to muck up the focus on a medical laser," said Brig, after Dermod had been safely locked up again. "Is there a real IMIPAK? Can it do what Coser claimed?"
        "Avon said he saw it demonstrated on Coser and one of Servalan's own men. He believed it. Especially since he and Blake and Gan were marked." Jenna smiled faintly. "It isn't often you see Avon looking that nervous."
        Margit snorted with laughter. "You realise that Zinovia will almost certainly murder Dermod for bringing her such unlucky tidings?"
        "Well, he will doubtless have the sense to convey the news electronically from a safe distance. He'll have to go into hiding, though. Her next contract will certainly be on him."
        Brig leaned back in his chair with a suggestion of an appreciative smile. "I like it," he said. "Using your brains instead of just exterminating Dermod."
        "To paraphrase Blake, Dermod doesn't matter enough to kill." Jenna responded. "Perhaps I learnt more from Blake than I realised."


Keeping her watch alone on the night shift, Jenna's thoughts were rather sober. Zinovia might be persuaded to call off the hounds and Dermod had certainly been given the fright of his life, but some hard lessons remained to be learnt.
        First and foremost, she could not afford any more casual amours. There was always the possibility that Zinovia might publicly renounce the contract whilst privately sending other assassins after her, with instructions to make death look natural or accidental this time. At the age of thirty-seven, she supposed she had a solitary life to look forward to, unless she rejoined Blake.
        Once she had closed this sorry chapter of her life, she would turn her attention to the idea that had arisen from her conversation with Avalon - trying to hamper the Federation's fleet rebuilding programme. She had to acknowledge that Mikhail was right, she couldn't go back to being just a freetrader again. The last few voyages had shown that it was no longer enough, and her contact with Avalon had reawakened ambitions and desires that she had tried to put behind her.
        She would need spies and informants, and they wouldn't work for nothing, so her trading activities must continue, but she ought not to imperil Brig and Margit through association with herself. She should be working to acquire her own ship and crew. She would put this to Mikhail Brand. His advice was always valuable. But somehow she must build up a network of helpers. If only she had Orac!


Stage Three

"No," said Margit firmly, "there's no way you are going to get rid of us so easily." She was lounging in a chair in Mikhail's communications den, arms folded across her chest, one foot up on the desk, in a classic attitude of insubordination.
        "You don't understand," Jenna persisted. "This is far beyond freetrading."
        "I understand perfectly," Margit returned sharply. "You are proposing to plunge back into the resistance movement. I always knew you would and I'm coming with you."
        "You have no reason to put yourself at risk like this."
        "No reason!" Margit's foot came back to earth with a stamp as she shot bolt upright. "Three months in a Federation prison, with the extra entertainment of their interrogation vaults thrown in, is enough to inspire anyone with undying motivation." She stood up and towered over her cousin.
        Jenna was abruptly reminded of the she-wolf.
        "What about Brig?" she asked. "You wouldn't leave him, surely?"
        "Ah yes, I can just see him biding meekly at home when all the women have gone charging off to the wars," Margit gave a sardonic smile. "Still, you can ask him yourself. Here they come."
        Mikhail and Brig were strolling down the overgrown path from the house. Jenna got up and dialled two strong black coffees from the dispenser. They were going to need them.
        Mikhail detected the charged atmosphere immediately. His eyebrows rose steeply.
        Margit responded to the unspoken question. "Jenna has something to tell you." She made a sweeping gesture toward the chairs. "Pray be seated.''
        "I told you," commented Brig, accepting a coffee from Jenna.
        "You did indeed," replied Mikhail, taking a chair. "They're hell-bent on mischief." He turned his attention to Jenna. "It's time we heard the details."
        It was useless trying to keep anything from the family, Jenna acknowledged wryly. She had better word this crisply - no waffling.
        "I intend to sabotage the Federation's shipbuilding programme any way I can," she said bluntly.
        Any surprise Brig and Mikhail felt was well concealed.
        "A tall order," Mikhail remarked. "What have you in mind?"
        "The best method I can think of is through their automatic manufacturing systems. That's where they are particularly vulnerable; from the mixture of the alloys for the hull, to the calibration of the instruments, they're all computer controlled. A tiny error in the parameters can cause chaos."
        "First we need access to the computers," Brig pointed out. "We don't have Orac so we have to do it the hard way."
        Jenna noted the `we' with a surge of gratitude.
        "Well, initially I was thinking of suborning employees," she admitted. "It might not be as difficult as it sounds. The Feds are supposed to manufacture their own hardware, but in practice, more than half of the components are farmed out to places like Scholerus.
        "Now, I was just trying to impress upon Margit that I don't intend to drag my family into danger. I think you could be very helpful with intelligence gathering and making contacts, if you choose, but I'm not aiming to take a lot of stupid risks. Avon was quite right on that score, Blake was always too ready hazard people's lives, and dead rebels are useless rebels.''
        "You can't avoid risk," Margit interposed. "Making the contacts and running the gauntlet of Federation security is enormously risky. And don't give me that stuff about doing it alone. You need colleagues."
        "Interrupting ship production would benefit the freetraders as well as the rebels," said Mikhail thoughtfully. "Blockade running is relatively easy at present, thanks to the Andromedans, and they won't be looking forward to full restoration of Space Command's patrol capability with any pleasure. I believe we could get several groups like the Vilkonens to help with bribes and information. I would be prepared to approach them in secret."
        Heads nodded agreement.
        "You're going to need some state-of-the-art AI equipment in the absence of Orac," Brig volunteered. "BG might help us there. If we can convince him that it's good for business, he might even cut the price."
        "Most of all, you're going to need the services of a first-class hacker," said Margit. "Have you considered trying to find Avon and Orac?"
        "I have, but that could take forever," Jenna replied. "We might leave messages in various places, but he's quite capable of ignoring them and he's the devil to work with. I'm damned if I'll take orders from him and he probably feels the same about me."
        She met Mikhail's faint smile with a defiant look.
        "I'm going ahead with this right away. From now on, I'm searching for people, information and equipment."
        "I think I can put you in touch with a couple of useful freetraders," said Mikhail casually. "A man called Lucien and his sister, Erryn. I hear she's an accomplished hacker - works for the illicit security database."
        "Well, that's a start."
        Jenna was assailed by a sudden feeling of nervousness, akin to stage-fright. Something new had begun.


Jenna was not at all sure she liked Erryn. The woman's brashness grated her nerves and her irresponsibility and downright arrogance made her a most uncomfortable colleague. Beside Erryn, Margit was a paragon of sobriety.
        "Well Jenna, baby, as I see it, you've got four main areas to really screw up: the hull, the propulsion, life support and instrumentation." There was considerable relish in Erryn's voice as she enumerated the possibilities.
        "So far as the hull goes, you can have a go at weakening the alloy mixture, which ought to cause failure during takeoff and landing, and you can interfere with the proportions of the ports and fuselage components so that they don't fit properly. Now the second option is the easiest, but it would be detected immediately upon assembly, so it's only a short-term delaying tactic because they're bound to find the cause PDQ. But the first one has more subtlety, because if we can muck up their quality control system as well, it will only be detected when it fails, and even then, they might not find the true cause for some time. I like that one, it's kind of elegant. What do you want? Total catastrophe and ship destroyed, or the sort of cracks which would put the thing in dock for a rebuild?"
        Jenna winced inwardly at the thought of heavy destruction and loss of life, but kept a coldly controlled expression.
        "A ship in dock could tie up plenty of people and resources without causing as much suspicion as a series of major disasters," she said. "I'd go for that."
        Erryn shrugged, probably disappointed at the less dramatic option.
        "Your choice. Main propulsion units: much the same principle applies to them, plus the possibility of inducing explosions under certain conditions. You could also play havoc with the the production of spare parts, even the auto-repair systems have to have supplies of spares in their lockers.
        "According to your lanky cousin, ship propulsion is in a constant state of development, but it's all done at one Category A security site at Caufris. And even that wouldn't matter, but their design computers aren't networked. You don't hack into them remotely, you pay them a visit. To do that, you overcome their internal security systems, or you get an insider to do the job for you. The lady reckons that's where you could do the most damage. She's probably daft enough to contemplate going in there herself. I'm not."
        "I really must introduce you to Avon, one of these days," said Jenna, in her dryest tone.
        "Huh? Well, next we have life-support. That covers a very wide range of services, from air recycling to heating food. It's low security stuff, so you might find it an easy target to start with. Dozens of separate manufacturers supply bits for that. I reckon I could hack into any of them easy as pie. I already know who most of them are because I've been into Space Fleet's accounting machines." Erryn gave an explosive snigger. "One of their senior officer's got a tremendous scam going, shall I shop him?"
        Jenna laughed outright, "Hell no, we blackmail him, of course."
        "OK," Erryn resumed, still giggling. "Now we come to instrumentation: false readings, phantom detections, navigation errors and the like. Similar to life-support, lots of suppliers, some of them quite low security. I'll output a list for you, then you can take your pick."
        "You've left out the onboard computers," said Jenna.
        "Well yes, they've got anti-virus programs and interference detectors down to a fine art these days, you'd have to foul them up before you could muck up anything else."
        "Don't most of our targets have similar software?" asked Jenna uneasily.
        "Oh, the military stuff is streets ahead. They expect trouble, our proposed victims don't."
        "I hope you're right." Jenna pondered briefly, then spoke decisively. "Pick a couple of manufacturers and get their production and assembly specifications. Margit and Brig will assess them for suitable corruption and we can give it a trial run."
        "My pleasure. `Suitable corruption' eh? There's a phrase with a ring to it. It'll look good underneath my logo, translated into Latin or something equally archaic."


"How about the curly red wig?" said Margit, consideringly. "You won't look furtive in that." She tossed the limp bundle of hair across to Jenna.
        "The theory being that I won't be recognised if I look sufficiently flamboyant, I suppose." Jenna slid it on and looked critically at her reflection. "Hell, I look like cheap tart, and that's the next worst thing to being recognised."
        "Back to the brown then. It certainly goes with that dreary getup."
        "Best to look a little drab where we're going," replied Jenna.
        She and Brig were about to venture into the main concourse at the Dunkassa spaceport, right in the heart of Federation territory. Their aim was to contact Chief Accountant Larosh, and to make him an offer he couldn't refuse. Ursa was docked at a cargo wharf, unloading an innocuous cargo under the supervision of Margit, who was none too pleased at being picked to stay behind.
        Brig put his head round the door.
        "Ready?" he asked. In the dark greys of what passed for fashion in Dunkassa, he looked even more saturnine than usual. Jenna picked up her bag and followed him.


The ride down to Dunkassa City in the passenger shuttle was pleasant enough, and nobody showed any interest in them when they disembarked at the terminal. As she looked around, Jenna recalled her previous visit of about ten years ago. The Earth-type domed city seemed just the same, merely ten years shabbier. The Federation didn't waste much effort on anything but essential maintenance in places like this, and the result was dreary, ill-lit and none too clean.
        "According to instructions, Soka's Bar is about five minutes' walk down that street." Brig pointed to the main thoroughfare.
        At least there would be some shop windows to look at on the way, Jenna reflected.
        She was agreeably surprised to find that Soka's Bar was clean and comfortable. There was a mixture of tables and booths, and it was about half full with space-crew and business types; here and there a lady of the night plied her ancient profession - evidently this was the place to do business. They ordered drinks at the bar and looked around for seats. At the far end was a partitioned snug, waggishly labelled "Soakers", just the sort of place for eavesdroppers, but along the wall were solidly built booths, each with its own dummy window. These mostly housed parties of hagglers deep in gesticulating negotiations, but two were empty. As she sipped her drink, Jenna stared into the mirror behind the bar to locate the security cameras. Yes, the standard type, tracking round on their automatic program, watching for brawlers rather than plotters. The second empty booth was furthest from their field of view. Jenna walked over to it and sat down in the corner with her back to the camera, Brig followed and took his place opposite to her.
        Although they were early, they did not have to wait long. Evidently Larosh also believed in arriving in plenty of time. He brought his drink over to the booth and sat down beside Jenna, facing Brig. He was not in uniform, but presented quite an imposing figure in the expensive style of a senior Federation official. They exchanged cautious greetings.
        "My name is Kendo," Brig began, "and this is my associate, Astra." He gestured towards Jenna. "I shan't waste any time on polite chatter, but get straight to business. We are aware of your interesting private dealings with the J-files, and we think you are just the man for our little project."
        "Blackmail," said Larosh glumly. "How much do you want? A percentage?"
        "On the contrary, we applaud your enterprise. Furthermore, we haven't the slightest wish to take anything from you. We merely want you to help us to gain entry to the very competitive markets that supply Space Command's ships and weaponry. You don't need us to tell you how lucrative those defence contracts can be."
        Larosh's face cleared somewhat. "True. There's billions to be made if you can get into it. So it's industrial espionage you have in mind?" He looked searchingly at each of them in turn. "Am I dealing with agents, or the principals?"
        "One of each," replied Brig affably, without specifying which was which. He produced a data disk. "This contains a list of the companies we are interested in undercutting, or possibly acquiring. You will also find our encryption program on the disk, and certain instructions about contacting us. We know that you are a very skillful operator in this field, and we have every confidence that you can do the job."
        "Very well." Larosh held out his hand for the coin-sized disk. "If that's all you want..."
        "Nothing more," Brig assured him. "And Space Command will never notice. After all, they want reliability and value for money, and they're not too concerned about where it comes from."
        Larosh smiled cynically. "They already deal with rogues like the Scholerians, why should another set trouble them?"
        Jenna felt it was time to intervene with a warning.
        "Do not imagine that it will ever be safe to attempt to charge us for your services," she said, her soft voice loaded with the sort of menace Avon deployed so effectively. "You are buying immunity from prosecution."
        The man gave her a startled look, and she held his eyes for several moments with a steady, unreadable gaze.
        "Yes, yes," he said, flustered, when she finally released him. "I understand that. I'm not a fool."
        "Well, I think our meeting has been most productive," Brig resumed in smoothly friendly tones. "We look forward to hearing from you on the dates specified in your instructions." He rose and offered his hand. Larosh took his cue, shook the hand and sketched a bow to Jenna, and departed.
        Jenna looked around unobtrusively as they finished their drinks, but she could see no signs of interest from the staff or customers of the busy bar, and the security cameras were still revolving on their normal circuit.
        "He's getting into a cab," said Brig, who was looking through the glass doors. "As soon as he's out of sight, we can leave."


The spaceport cargo bays were nearly deserted when Jenna and Brig made their way back down the moving pedestrian way from the passenger decks. Although in Jenna's opinion, Dunkassa's shops had little to offer, they were carrying some bags because it would look odd if they returned empty handed. The general lack of activity was emphasised by the low level of the lighting in the empty docking cradles, and the cold smelly blast from the heavy duty air conditioners gave the place a forlorn atmosphere.
        There was Ursa at the far end, and halfway along, a pool of light indicated some bustle beside a newly docked spacecraft. A little way ahead, some luggage sleds were parked. As she was tired and longed to collapse on her bunk at the earliest opportunity, Jenna started toward them thankfully, meaning to pile the bags on the back of the nearest one and ride up to the ship.
        As she drew up to the sled and slung her bags onto its platform, something made her glance up. Leading the knot of people leaving the other ship, was a woman clad in a sweeping fur-trimmed wrap. With a shiver, Jenna realised that she had seen that wrap before, and it was coming her way.
        "Servalan!" she hissed frantically to Brig. There was a small gap between the sled platform and the bulkhead behind. She dived into it and lay face down, praying that her drab clothing would camouflage her in the dim lighting.
        Brig casually placed his bags on the sled and sat down on the platform edge. Calmly, he pulled off one boot and slid his hand into it as if searching for a piece of grit, then turned it upside-down and shook it. The party was nearly upon him now and he pulled the boot back on with deliberate slowness and looked up, straight into the President's face. She was indeed a fine-looking woman, he mused, although not as tall as he had expected her to be. Her eyes met his and kindled with interest. As she checked her stride beside him, he rose to his feet, inclining his head politely, but making no effort to hide his admiring gaze. Well-pleased by the appreciation she felt was her due, Servalan smiled sweetly.
        "Are you from that ship back there?" she enquired, merely wishing to hear his voice.
        "The same," returned Brig, with a smiling gallantry which would have astonished his female relatives. "And how I wish it was a passenger cruiser fit to receive such a lady as yourself."
        Servalan chuckled happily and offered him her gloved hand. He bent over it and touched it to his lips with apparent reverence, then followed her with his eyes as she withdrew it and passed by on her way to the exit. As she turned to go through the doors, she looked towards him still standing there, and gave a royal wave of the hand he had kissed.
        He started the sled motor and slid onto the box seat.
        "You can come out now," he said.


"We did not come here to assassinate the Federation President," Brig insisted coolly. "We will stick to our plan and return to Keledon."
        Jenna subsided with an ill grace. She knew he was right, but the thought of missing such an opportunity nearly drove her mad with frustration.
        "She only had three people with her, and only one of them was a security guard," she said, through clenched teeth.
        "I know," said Brig, with a tinge of sympathy. "But such knee-jerk responses have no place in this campaign. Servalan would merely be replaced by another. Not even she is indispensible."
        "What's she been up to, do you suppose?" wondered Margit. "Sneaking in the tradesman's entrance isn't the usual presidential style."
        "If we had Orac, we could interrogate her ship's navigation computer." Jenna sighed regretfully. Now that she was effectively charting her own course, she could see many uses for Orac. Hackers like Erryn were no substitute.
        "Pre-flight checks. Now." Brig's voice cut sharply across her reverie. She turned to her console.


Erryn was in high spirits when Jenna and Margit walked through the door of her office.
        "I've done it, baby. I've done it."
        "Done what?"
        "Taken over their whole system at Clean Air Products. It accepts me as the manager."
        "What about the individual passwords?" asked Margit.
        "There's a dodge so old, they've never heard of it," crowed Erryn. "You frig the login program so that when one of them inserts an ID card, their name, number and password are transmitted straight into your files."
        "OK, you've got access and you corrupt the production-line programs. How do you prevent them from spotting the new file date?"
        "Easy. You edit the directory records back to the old date and trigger an automatic reboot. D'you think I don't know my business?"
        "I reckon I'll find out if you don't." Margit directed a friendly wolf-grin at Erryn, who showed her teeth playfully in return.
        Margit got on much better with the anarchic Erryn than she herself did, Jenna reflected. They seemed to share a relish for chaos. Well, that could be put to good use.
        "What have you got for us, then?" she enquired.
        "The component drawings and specifications, and the production-line parameters and instructions. They're on these disks and you're going to have your work cut out to study them."
        It was time to show appreciation, Jenna decided.
        "Good work, Erryn," she said, smilingly. "Do you want to take three or four days holiday while we work on this?"
        "Can do. What about that bonus you promised me?"
        "It's all yours."
        "Good. Direct me to the nearest haunt of vice."
        Margit laughed. "Raker's Casino is as crooked as they come. Go and learn the tricks of their trade."


Over the next five days, Margit and Brig spent long hours analysing the data and planning their `modifications'. Erryn bounced back with her winnings after only three days, having been banned from the gaming tables of every establishment in town. She happily occupied herself with making an instruction tape on gamblers' sleight of hand, and gave Jenna and Mikhail a showing. It was very entertaining, Jenna had to admit. Vila would absolutely love it. She couldn't help a sigh at that thought. Where was Vila? Where were Cally and Avon? Where, above all, was Blake?
        Finally Margit surfaced with the saboteurs' conclusions.
        "Do you want to hear the details?" she asked Jenna, flourishing a data disk.
        "Not really. You're the engineers. Did you have any problems?"
        "This is simple stuff and we can insert glitches at several points. If we vary the errors it may prevent them spotting the trouble, but once they're aware of the problem they can track it down quite easily." Margit spun the disk like a coin then tossed it at Erryn. "Here you are kid. Get to it."
        Erryn snatched at it, missed, and scrambled after the rolling disk muttering darkly.
        "It'll be months before there's any noticeable effect," Jenna said briskly. "In the meantime we have some cargoes lined up. Erryn can be hacking into some of the other companies while we're away, ready for you to analyse when we get back."
        "Hell. When are we going to get some time off?" demanded Margit. "I'm cross-eyed from staring at the screen."
        Jenna chuckled. "Work hard, play hard," she said.
        "Seriously though," Margit resumed, "we'll be needing some expert advice when we get round to the more complex stuff, particularly the propulsion units - if we ever manage to gain access to them."
        "I suppose we should start looking for them now," said Jenna consideringly. "Another database for Erryn to manage."


"The Vilkonens have invited us to a conclave," announced Mikhail that evening. "If we can persuade them of the feasibility of the sabotage campaign they may contribute."
        "On their own territory, I suppose?" queried Jenna. The Vilkonens usually liked to have sole control over such meetings.
        "Yes, at Keravala. Perhaps we can prepare a demonstration for them. Take Erryn along, maybe."
        "How good is their security?" asked Brig cautiously. "Jenna, you know them best, how far can we rely on them? If I were in Federation security, they're the people I'd be trying to infiltrate."
        "Mm, I take your point," said Jenna pensively. "The Vilkonen's are notoriously slapdash and over-confident."
        "Which is why so many of them are dead," put in Margit. This was all too true. Although the great Aulius had actually fallen prey to a furious husband rather than the forces of law and order, it was universally acknowledged that he had been fatally careless, like so many of his kin. Nevertheless, the clan was numerous and still highly influential in several sectors.
        "Hindrik is the Capo these days," said Mikhail. "I think we can impress upon him the need for caution."
        "On that score I think you should remain in the background, Mikhail." Jenna put as much force as she could into her argument. "It would be disastrous if the Federation became aware of your part in all this. Most of your business holdings are in their territory."
        To her relief, Mikhail gave no sign of chagrin, merely nodding agreement.


Although superficially similar to his brother Aulius, Hindrick Vilkonen was in many ways his antithesis; icily fair where his brother had been leonine gold, self-contained where the other was all volatile spontaneity, yet cold-bloodedly daring where Aulius was fierily reckless. Insofar as anyone could be said to control the Vilkonens, Hindrick was their acknowledged leader, and if he and his captains decided to back her proposals, Jenna was assured of powerful support for her operations from their large network of spies and agents. Most of all, the clan was vastly wealthy.
        Facing such a powerful assembly of senior freetraders, Jenna aimed solely at their self-interest. Successful sabotage of Space Command's rebuilding programme must greatly benefit them. She described some of Erryn's work with the softer targets so far, and produced a copy of a memo from one of the spacecraft builders complaining of ill-fitting interior doors.
        "We deliberately made that one obvious as a demonstration," she commented. "You can get your own hackers to verify it."
        Old Karsh Vilkonen broke into a whooping laugh. "I always knew you were a clever girl, Jenna. I like it."
        "I take it that various other ploys will not show up so easily?" Hindrick enquired smoothly. "Although it would be a pity if some were so subtle that their effects were never noticed."
        "Very true," Jenna acknowledged frankly. "I have the family engineers working on it, but we need specialist consultants in some areas, particularly the more recent drive units."
        Brig spoke up for the first time. "Rumour has it that you have captured one of the new pursuit ships with only minor damage."
        Self-congratulatory smiles among some of the audience confirmed this.
        "That being so," he continued, "a thorough examination of all systems would pay dividends."
        "Supposing we do this," said Hindrick consideringly, "who are the bold souls who would venture into Caufris Base?"
        Jenna took a deep breath. "We are. Provided that you can give us the backup we need."
        Hindrick gave that special little smile which rather put her in mind of Avon. "We will discuss this over refreshments," he said. "Then we will take a vote."
        He rose and led the way to the adjoining room.


"You are kidding, wolf-lady, you have got to be." Erryn was struggling between amusement and horror. "Let me say this once again. People like me do not commit suicide by walking into the Federation's most deeply cherished research establishments. We do not have ideals. We do not have better natures. We laugh at attempts to blackmail us. We know that money is of no use to the dead. We are not going."
        Margit grinned at her. "That's my girl," she said mockingly. "Gave you a fright, didn't I? In fact, we don't plan to take a non-combatant inside. But we want you nearby for consultation. Jenna will substitute for one of the employees, use her ID, and reconnoitre the system. Then she'll come out and tell you what she's found and you can tell her what to do next on her second entry. OK? Brig will stay with you as bodyguard, so you'll be safe."
        "Safe? Huh!"


"There is an interesting report today, Madam President.'' The adjutant laid a data disk before Servalan. "There's been a freetrader conclave at Keravala, and among the `delegates' were Jenna Stannis and a man we think is Brig Stannis."
        Servalan sat up sharply and reached for the disk. "What was the purpose of the meeting?"
        "We're not sure, but they're usually called to settle disputes or to elect new leaders."
        "Keravala, eh? Well, we know the Liberator isn't in that vicinity and we haven't heard any rumours of Blake in that quarter either. So - our pretty smuggler has gone back to her old trade and her old associates. Have we got anything on this Brig Stannis?"
        "Yes ma'am. His record is on the disk, plus several other Stannises including his sister Margit. She escaped from custody on Earth about seventeen years ago and joined her brother for a while as a freetrader, then she seems to have dropped out. We don't have any recent information on her."
        The President slid the disk into the reader.
        "I should like to meet Jenna Stannis again," she said with an anticipatory smile. "Double the reward for her - alive, this time. You never know, she might lead us to Blake."
        Carefully, she read the disk's contents. She already knew something of the Stannis family history. In her opinion, officialdom had handled the powerful merchant families very badly during that period. She would not have been so heavy-handed herself. Sequestrating their companies and driving the Stannises into embittered exile had been an act of sheer folly which had benefitted only a few venal officials. The government administrators had quickly ruined trade with their ignorance, and the surviving Stannis clan members had turned to freetrading in perpetual enmity. Several other families, including the Vilkonens, had gone the same way, and she was by no means inclined to despise or underestimate them. In Jenna's position she might have pursued a similar career, although she would probably have sought an accommodation with the Federation by now, perhaps by betraying her associates. Evidently Jenna had had the sense to detach from Blake and reinstate herself with the Vilkonens, who were purely smugglers and posed no great threat politically. Could she be persuaded to work for the Federation?


"Elli Forsta, you are to be interviewed by the Special Service Investigator."
        The woman at the door stared in some consternation at the two armed mutoids who confronted her.
        "What, now? Why?"
        "He did not say, but I suggest you obey immediately," said the smaller of the two, coldly. "You are to let us in and show us your security passes and your notes."
        There was nothing for it but to comply. Unhappily, the woman turned back into her room to pick up the required items. Mutoids always made her shudder, particularly the females. They followed her in and she heard one of them using a communicator to tell her controller that they had secured the apartment.
        "I'm on my way,'' came the terse reply.
        Stomach churning with fear, she rooted in her desk for her data disks. Behind her back, Jenna and Margit exchanged relieved grins.


"Well, that wasn't difficult," said Margit. "Congratulations, you make a very nice little mutoid. You're giving Erryn the shivers."
        Jenna looked down pityingly at the unconscious woman on the bed. "Are you sure she won't remember any of this?" she asked the medic.
        "Perfectly. She may think she had a bad dream, but she'll never recall anything clearly."
        The Vilkonens had supplied this wizened little man for the enterprise, partly because he was an expert with chemically-induced interrogations and also because he had served on this base several years before. It was he who had brought them past the first barriers into the residential zone. Jenna gathered that he had a very dubious past and that some heavy torque was being applied to the arm that was up his back, figuratively speaking.
        The man caught her critical eye and flushed slightly. "Don't worry, she'll come to no harm," he said. "I'll inject her with a virus that'll give her a mild fever. Nobody will be blaming her for anything."
        "Good.'' Jenna had dressed herself in Forsta's clothes and was tying her hair back in imitation of the captive's ponytail. "How do I look?"
        "You'll pass," said Margit critically. "Keep your head down a bit when you pass the security cameras. Her chin's more pointed than yours."
        "Let's go then."


Entrance to the factory building was perfectly easy with Forsta's magnetic card and password. The conspirators had waited a month until the unlucky Forsta, chosen for her general resemblance to Jenna, had moved to the night shift, when only two other people would be in the building. While Margit the mutoid prowled outside, Jenna would make her way to the control centre on the top floor and video the whole installation with a camouflaged miniature camera. Using a special microwave channel, Erryn would direct her step by step through the sabotage plan. It would take several hours, but Erryn reckoned that the whole operation could be done in one visit. During the weeks in waiting, she had put Jenna through an intensive hacker's course on the sort of machine they expected to find within. Jenna hoped devoutly that no surprises lay in wait for her and that the series of time-bomb programs Erryn had prepared would feed in easily without a great deal of tinkering.
        "You're late," said the outgoing operator, as Jenna entered the control room. He was already pulling on his jacket.
        "Sorry," muttered Jenna, keeping her head down and clutching the sono spray hidden in the handkerchief in her fist.
        "What's the matter with you?"
        "Feel rotten," she croaked, raising the handkerchief to her mouth. "Virus, probably."
        "Oh. Call the medics if you get really bad. Goodnight."
        A very good thing the night operators preferred to keep the overhead lighting low, so as not to shine on the screens, Jenna reflected. The security cameras would be operating on infra-red, which made accurate identification of faces almost impossible. She look around the vast dim room to find the cameras. Pools of light from table lamps illuminated desk surfaces here and there and she was able to locate three of them. She moved over to the chair the operator had just vacated. With relief, she heard the door slam softly and the sound of his retreating footsteps.
        Stowing the sono spray in her pocket, Jenna rummaged under her shirt and pulled up the communications earpiece and throat mike that she would use to speak to Erryn. Then she unpacked the microphone detector from her borrowed shoulder bag and switched it on. Under cover of removing her thick jacket and hanging it up, she turned round with it and scanned the room. It located two microphones. She sat down at the console and listened carefully to the background noises of the room for several minutes while she looked at the screen before her. Surreptitiously, she slipped a miniature recorder onto the desk and activated it. Once she had recorded a decent loop, she would muffle the microphones and play the loop into one of them with the volume turned up to compensate for the muff. This would mask the sound of her conversation with Erryn. All the security staff would see was a rather remote visual of someone working at a console, occasionally getting up to check other instruments.
        Step by step she worked through her precautions, moving past the microphones on her way to the drinks dispenser and neutralising them as her body shielded them from the video cameras. Finally she sat down and pulled out the jewelled medallion which housed the miniature spy camera.
        "OK," said Erryn's voice in her ear. "It's a good picture. Initiate the first stage."


Sheltering beneath the security service watchtower, Margit pointed her directional sound detector upwards and adjusted her earpiece. She was aware of various night-scanners, but amusingly enough, they did not cover this area. There was little conversation among the watchers above, and she was considering moving off, when an officer walked along the path and climbed the stairway. She would give him a few minutes before she left.


"Ah, Major, I'm glad you called in," said the duty officer to the man who entered the room.
        "What is it?"
        "We seem to have an extra mutoid on the premises. There should be six, and I counted seven. Did you order an extra one?"
        "No. Did you see where it came from?"
        The officer shook his head. "I spotted it soon after the shift change at midnight. A male, I think. Pretty tall, anyway."
        "Disgusting creatures," said his superior, with a grimace. "Well, they don't have any initiative of their own, so somebody gave the orders. I wonder who."
        "The person who's particularly fond of employing them is the President."
        "Ah. In that case it might be politic to pretend we haven't seen anything. But all the same, if you come across anything suspicious, report it to me."
        "We could quietly check the mutoid barracks and see if they're all accounted for. If there's one missing..."
        "What if there isn't? That could point to Servalan sending in her own."
        "Or maybe an imposter."
        "You make my blood run cold. Check it out."


The sharp buzz of the intercom startled Jenna after such a long interval of quiet. She leaned across and flicked the switch.
        "Forsta,'' she said.
        "Just checking. Everything OK?''
        The duty security officer, evidently. Was this a scheduled check, or had something attracted their attention.
        "Yes.''
        "Seen anybody about?''
        Damnation! What had they spotted?
        "Nobody's been here,'' she said, keeping well back from the microphone.
        "Good. You sound faint.''
        "So do you.''
        "Uhuh. See you, Forsta. Out.''
        Tensely, Jenna returned to her task. She was only half way through the shift and to abandon it and run at this point would invite a major investigation. It was going to be a long night.


Four hours later, Jenna emerged from the building into the cold clean air of the pre-dawn and looked around for Margit. No sign of her. Well, she couldn't stand around here to be noticed by all and sundry. Pulling up her collar, she trudged along the path to the gate, praying her cousin would be able to join her. Sure enough, as she slotted her card key into the reader, a figure slipped out of the shadows and followed her through.
        "Anything wrong?" she muttered as they retraced their steps.
        "They spotted an extra mutoid," Margit said softly from several paces behind her. "Luckily, I overheard them discussing it, so I went to earth. They think Servalan sent me."
        "Let's get out of here PDQ."
        "Well don't run. How did your part go?"
        "Fine. Erryn knew the system all right. All the little time-bombs are ticking."



        "There they go, Major. The extra mutoid has slipped out after the night operator."
        "Track them."


"Right," said Margit, as they approached a crossing. "We part company here. Brig and Erryn are waiting for you in Forsta's rooms. I'll carry on to the mutoid barracks, then double round and meet you at the rendezvous when it's safe." She swung away onto the wider path and was soon lost from view.
        Jenna continued down the walkway until she came to Forsta's door. Pulling the key out of her bag, she unlocked it, slipped inside and shut it before reaching for the light switch.
        "We're in the bedroom," Brig called softly.
        Jenna removed her borrowed jacket and went through. Forsta lay on the bed, twitching restlessly in her sleep. Brig and Erryn were seated at the lace-covered dressing table, playing cards in the dim light.
        "Where's the medic?" asked Jenna.
        "He nipped off to rejoin his comrades as soon as we got our patient back into bed," Erryn answered. "Can we do likewise?"
        "Yes. Just as soon as I've changed back into the mutoid gear." Jenna was stripping off her outer clothing as she spoke. Forsta, she noticed, was already in her nightgown. Looking at her pale sweaty face, Jenna felt a stab of anxious compunction. That virus infection had better be as harmless as the medic said.
        "OK, I'm ready,'' she said. "Where's my blaster?" Brig handed it to her. "Thanks. Douse the lights and let's go."
        Outside, a faint radiance announced the imminence of dawn, but did not as yet illuminate anything. Brig and Erryn went first, with Jenna following some twenty metres behind. It was about half a kilometre to the first rendezvous where Margit would rejoin them, then a similar distance to the second, where the Vilkonen agents should be waiting with the transport. They walked briskly in silence. The air was still and cold, and there had been a heavy dewfall. When the sun rose, so would the mist.
        After about seven minutes, Margit emerged from the shadows and fell into step with her. Not a word was said as they trailed the two figures ahead of them. Then suddenly the silence was shattered.
        "Halt! Throw down your weapons!"
        A beam of light shot out and transfixed Brig and Erryn. Erryn, unarmed, raised her hands high above her head, but Brig swung rapidly aside and fired at the light. There was an exclamation and a clatter. The light fell to the ground but did not go out. Two shots spat out and Brig went down, clutching his leg and rolling into a ball. Erryn also dropped to the ground.
        Margit sprinted forward, shouting "Hold your fire!" with Jenna scampering at her heels. Two helmeted Federation guards turned their weapons on the new arrivals.
        "Which of you is the section leader?" Margit mimicked the cold indifference of a mutoid.
        "I am."
        "The President will not be pleased with your interference. These people were under surveillance. They will not lead us to their confederates now."
        "The President?" The section leader's voice switched from arrogant certainty to consternation. "Nobody told us anything about undercover operations tonight."
        "It was not required for you to have this information. You will leave this area, and you will not further compromise security by speaking of this matter to anyone." There was a world of menace in her quiet voice. "Go."
        As they went, Jenna was relieved to see Erryn sit up, apparently unharmed, but visibly shivering.
        Once the guards were out of sight, Jenna produced a pencil torch and knelt beside Brig. The sight that met her eyes was appalling. The leg was seriously damaged. Bone fragments were visible among the blood that was running freely from the large wound, and a smell of seared flesh and melted fabric from the blaster burn assailed her senses.
        "Erryn, give me your shirt," she said urgently.
        With a whimper, Erryn struggled out of two layers of clothing and handed the shirt over. Jenna tore it into several strips and bound up the leg as tightly as she could, while Margit held the torch. When she was done, Margit handed the torch to Erryn, who was droning a monologue about lunatics who dragged innocent bystanders into other people's wars, and bent over her brother.
        "I'm going to pull you up," she said. "Stand on your good leg."
        With help from Jenna, this was swiftly accomplished. Brig bore it with no more than a hiss of breath expelled between clenched teeth. Then his sister hoisted him up piggy-back and set off.
        "Jenna, run ahead to the others and tell them what's happened," she instructed. "Erryn, shut up and keep with me."
        Loping as silently as a hunting cat, Jenna hurried forward, praying that the waiting Vilkonens were not far ahead.


Once their allies had got them into the flyer, a council of war was held. As the medic rendered what aid he could to Brig, Jenna was content to sit back while Margit took command.
        "There's no chance of Brig getting the full medical help he needs around here," Margit stated bluntly. "We take him straight back to the ship and put him into the cryogenic capsule."
        "Oh no you don't," said Brig. "I'll survive without cold storage, thank you very much." The pain blockers were having their effect and he was regaining his alertness.
        "That's not the point," Margit insisted. "That leg is a real mess. You need the very best treatment, including tissue regeneration, if you are to recover properly. But regeneration doesn't take if there is a delay of more than a day or so, unless the patient is put into a capsule. You're not losing that leg if I can help it, so you're going into cold storage while we get you to the best specialists we can. And that is final."
        "She's right," chipped in the medic.
        Brig looked up into his sister's resolute face. He knew that her fierceness covered her distress, and after all, perhaps it was mostly male pride that made him resist. What about her female pride? Or Jenna's? They could manage the voyage home perfectly well without his aid, and their prompt action had certainly saved him from an unpleasantly protracted death. He owed them a graceful surrender.
        "I'd like a slug of that special brandy before I go in," he said.
        The medic frowned. "Not advisable," he said. But Margit smiled and nodded.
        "Pour a triple for me," Erryn muttered. Her face was a greenish colour and her eyes were reddened. Her first experience of action had been a severe jolt. "I'll tell you this, wolf-lady. You don't ever get me to venture out of the office again."
        Now I know how Blake felt after things had gone wrong, thought Jenna, slumping down in her seat in exhaustion. I just hope the Vilkonen's diversion will cover our exit from this system.
        She wondered if the two guards would accept Margit's story of an undercover operation by the President's personal security corps, and keep quiet about it. Or would the Federation security forces search the institute's filestore and find traces of interference. If they did, what would they do to the wretched Forsta?


Winter had come to the Villa Riesi. Not a very severe winter, some leafless trees, some brownish vegetation, setting off the dark evergreens that sheltered the building from the worst of the thin cold wind that blew along the valley. Around mid-morning when the sun was well up, the place would look cheerful enough, but now, at first light, it matched Jenna's mournful mood as she paced the terrace outside her room.
        A leader must accept that operations often had their casualties, in spite of all precautions, and she had chosen to lead in the full knowledge that these things happened. She reminded herself that Brig and Margit had refused to be put off by her warnings, but to no avail. The sight of Brig's agonised face as Margit laboured to carry him to safety on her back haunted Jenna persistently, driving sleep away.
        She heard a door open. At the far end of the terrace, Mikhail stepped out. He was fully dressed and carried two coffee cartons. Well, she was not going to weep on anyone's shoulder. Lifting her head proudly, she moved to meet him with a smile.
        Perched on the balustrade, they talked about the progress of their plans as they watched the sun heave over the shoulder of the eastern hills. Then they wandered into the kitchen for more coffee.
        "Brig is doing well, Jenna," Mikhail reassured her gently, knowing what was troubling her the most. "He'll be back in action in a few weeks. Our chief problem will be to prevent him coming back prematurely. You dealt with that very well."
        "Margit dealt with it very well. Without her, total disaster."
        Mikhail smiled a wry acknowledgement. "Do you imagine she hasn't been wringing her hands over allowing herself to be spotted by the guards? It isn't often you see Margit on a guilt trip. She's also flagellating herself over hauling Erryn along against her will."
        Jenna had to laugh at that. On the return journey Erryn had been as vociferous in her complaints as ever Vila was wont to be, until an exasperated Margit threatened to dose her with tranquillisers if she didn't shut up. Erryn subsided, muttering that she was through with crazy revolutionaries, and would have nothing more to do with them. Jenna spent much of her time trying to keep the peace between the two of them, in the hopes that Erryn would reconsider. The offer of a substantial bonus was promptly accepted, and Erryn had taken herself off Burgos for a much-needed holiday. Maybe when she had spent it all, she would return. On the other hand, if she repeated her successful blitz on the casinos, she could be away a long time.
        "What are you going to do now?" queried Mikhail.
        "Go back to straightforward trading for the time-being. There's nothing more we can do for the present with the sabotage programme, and we always need money and contacts. Margit and I can manage for the time being. I thought we'd ask Erryn's brother, Lucien, to fill in for Brig, if he's willing, but he may be mad at us for taking such a risk with his sister."
        "I don't think so," said Mikhail thoughtfully. "I'll talk to him, if you like."
        Jenna nodded. Now that her decision was voiced, she felt more positive.
        "Let's see if BG has anything for us," she said.


President Servalan surveyed the uneasy delegation before her with cold disdain.
        "Gentlemen," she said in that soft tone that she well knew could frighten the guilty more than a roar of rage, "I'm waiting to hear your explanation. Why is the all-important fleet rebuilding programme falling so far behind schedule?" She raised her eyebrows and smiled at them. They looked like rabbits confronting a snake, she thought.
        Eventually one of the leaders began to stutter his excuses.
        "It isn't anything you can put your finger on, Madam President, rather a combination of factors: poor quality components - scarcity of raw materials - difficulties in recruiting personnel... Times are difficult..." He trailed off miserably.
        One of his underlings showed more spirit.
        "We did very well with the first post-war boom," he said reasonably, "but now we are facing competition from the independents. They're bidding up the prices on the scarcer raw materials to build up their own fleets. We're losing trained personnel to them, and we've lost a lot of people to the break-away states. Some of our best researchers have just vanished - Dr Plaxton, for example. In all honesty, we can't promise any real improvement in the near future. It's beyond our control."
        The trouble was, he was right, Servalan reflected, as she waved them away. It was a vicious circle. Ships were needed to transport the troops that would subdue the rebels, but rebels and independents were daily gaining more power to hamper the rebuilding programme. She foresaw that it would be a long, hard campaign, but the Federation would recover its pre-eminence. It must.


The last part of Ursa's next consignment was for Avalon. She was still on the same planet, but she had moved to the eastern continent where the terrain was more favourable to guerilla operations. Her army had considerably increased and they had constructed a very well-camouflaged landing ground for their supply ships among some deserted mine workings. No need on this occasion to slip in under cover of foul weather and leave in the shortest time possible. Camouflage nets were swiftly erected over Ursa and the unloading was conducted at a civilised pace while a sophisticated surveillance system scanned for intruders.
        Avalon was in obvious good spirits and brimming with optimism. Her pro-Federation opponents were wavering and she was certain they would be swept away soon, just as so many other client governments had collapsed.
        "Come and see our headquarters," she said to Jenna. "We've got a really good setup here." She pointed to a small open vehicle at the back of the main cavern.
        "Of course," said Jenna politely. Catching Margit's eye, she pantomimed her intentions. Margit signalled back an OK and returned to her task.
        The car hummed along the mine gallery for several hundred metres, then slowed down.
        "Is that a rock fall?" asked Jenna, as the spotlight picked out the apparent end of the tunnel.
        Avalon chuckled. "Not exactly," she said, and pointed a remote control key at it. The rocks wavered and disappeared.
        "A force field!" Jenna laughed with delight. "Where did you get that? BG's?"
        "No. It was stolen from a Federation base."
        The force field snapped back as the vehicle passed by.
        "I see what you meant about having a good setup," remarked Jenna. "Pity they're almost impossible to come by. We could do a great trade in them."
        "Ah Jenna, always an eye to business." The car pulled up and they got out. "Through here," said Avalon. "There's someone who would like to meet you."
        They passed through a doorway into another cavern, also open-ended, giving a view into a narrow wooded gorge. As she came to the cave mouth, Jenna looked down onto a rough terrace. A man was sitting on a rock in a patch of sunlight.
        It was Blake.
        Silently staring down at him, sitting there all unaware of her presence, she was dismayed to find that her first reaction was anger with Avalon for engineering this meeting without warning her. She felt a strong urge to turn and run.
        What could she say to him? `Sorry Blake, I decided to abandon you'?

I'm not the same woman you knew, Blake, and I'm no longer willing to follow blindly where you lead. I decide what I do and how I fight the Federation. But... but if you want me to be your blockade runner and arms supplier, perhaps we could work together that way.
        That was what she had to say, somehow. Maybe that was all he wanted of her, anyway. Perhaps he had changed as much as she had.
        The man below her turned his head slightly and she saw that his left eye was covered with a dressing. She was immediately pierced to the heart - had he lost the eye? How? Where? Her feet were moving of their own volition, she was walking down the narrow track, now she was running, skidding in a shower of little pebbles. Their faint rattle caught his attention and he looked up.
        He did not call her name, just held out his arms to receive her.



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Frances Teagle

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