PursuitsBy Frances Teagle
Ten days or so of decent food, medical care and rest wrought a considerable change for the better in Blake. The feverish infection subsided, the swelling reduced, and painkillers secured the first real sleep he had managed in weeks. No longer concentrating all his efforts on endurance and survival, he was able to take an interest in his surroundings and new companions.
Avalon's new base had been chosen well - an abandoned copper mine in the mountains that combined excavated galleries with a number of natural caverns. The guerillas had devoted considerable ingenuity to making themselves comfortable, possibly because of the high percentage of women in their ranks, and the dormitory caverns were well drained and well lit. Aerials and satellite dishes concealed in the woodlands above, with a network of cables leading to the caves, provided excellent communication facilities, and a variety of sources, including a nearby waterfall, provided power. The wide rock-strewn eastern valley contained a cleverly camouflaged landing ground, big enough for a medium-sized space freighter, as well as several flyers. The uppermost cave opened out onto a steep rocky gorge on the western side of the mountain, whose tree-covered slopes echoed to the tumbling waters of a long series of cascades. All this was carefully guarded by a surprisingly sophisticated surveillance system, acquired from a supplier on Regis Two and smuggled in by Avalon's much cherished new blockade runner.
People came and went at the base. Squads were trained for special missions and dispatched to carry them out. A couple of refugees like himself arrived, to be forwarded to a safer place. Agents slipped in to report or be briefed for their next assignment. On one occasion a prisoner was brought in for trial, found guilty of atrocities, and removed for execution.
Avalon was conducting campaigns on several planets from these headquarters and her entire operation was now highly professional. She was evidently well-financed, if the specialised and expensive equipment was anything to judge by, although the force field that barred the base entrance behind the illusion of a rock fall had been stolen from Space Command supplies with the aid of a venal employee.
Blake was made comfortable in a corner of the men's dormitory cave, with an airbed and the privacy of a partition woven from strips of wood by the survival expert who taught recruits how to live off the land. He had been accepted into the ranks with friendship, and off-duty soldiers sought him out to advise and discuss, but above all, to tell stories about the Liberator.
They had their favourites, but the one that never failed to raise an appreciative laugh was the tale of Avon, Vila and Orac swindling Krantor's casino out of several million credits. When Blake had finally prised the truth out of Vila with the aid of a large glass of brandy, he wasn't sure whether to laugh or to be furious at their irresponsibility. Avon, as always, refused the slightest sign of shame, and Vila, in spite of his fright at the chessboard, was clearly very pleased with himself too. On the whole, the adventure had been a morale raiser, so Blake had been content to keep quiet.
The younger guerillas earnestly debated the problems of personnel management when dealing with persons of criminal tendencies, most deciding to adopt Blake's solution, but a few holding out for severe disciplinary action. Avalon observed all this with amused satisfaction. Blake was a good master of debate; fair, skilled at posing complex questions, and drawing thoughtful responses from her troops. Some very deep issues were debated exhaustively, but without the usual acrimony, thanks to his adept chairmanship.
In spite of her promise not to plague him with questions, Avalon was curious to know where he had been since parting with his crew. He had given her a brief account of his movements, but he showed some reluctance to go into detail. Perhaps he felt a sense of failure.
Epheron, where he made planetfall, was run by a few wealthy families as their private fiefdom. An apparently warm welcome proved to be a cover for their true intention, which was to seize the Liberator. After a warning, Blake fled to the dissidents and helped them to organise an uprising, but he was unable to stay and see it through because the rulers had set a particularly ruthless bounty hunter close on his heels, endangering his colleagues. The Underground engineered his escape from the planet on a neutral ore-carrier, but the hunter picked up his trail again and chased him across three more systems before Blake was driven to setting up an ambush to kill him. The hunting cat came as an unpleasant surprise, and the infected wound had very nearly killed him. Feverish and starving, he made his way to a small settlement, where he ran across an associate of hers, who arranged his passage here.
After a while Avalon broached the subject she was really burning to know about.
"What about your teleport bracelet? Did they take it from you?"
"No. They knew nothing about the teleport. They thought it was only a communicator, and since they were trying to draw the Liberator into a trap, they let me keep it. I let them think I was going along with the plan, but there was always a chance that they would discover its main purpose, and I destroyed it so that it could never be used to gain access to the ship."
"Did you ever contact the ship?"
"Once, aboard the rescue ship, to let them know I was alive and heading for Epheron. But before the attack on Star One, I made an agreement with Avon that I would leave the Liberator to him once he had returned me to Earth. Things didn't work out the way we expected, but I won't be trying to contact the ship again. If I do return to Earth, I shall make my own way back."
"I thought that was your main objective, returning to Earth."
"I'm beginning to wonder how advisable it would be," he said slowly. "It would certainly be folly to rush back directly, they'll probably be expecting me. I'll have to approach it in stages and try to re-establish contact with the Resistance."
"What will you do for transport?"
"Try some of Jenna's freetrading contacts, I suppose. I know a few names."
Avalon gave an unusually broad smile and nodded.
"I expect my blockade runners know the same people," she said encouragingly. "I'm expecting them soon."
"There's a supply ship, the Ursa, coming in just before dawn," said Avalon, approaching Blake's corner some days later. "Food and arms. We'll eat well tomorrow."
"Ah, good." Blake sat up alertly. "I'll come down to the launch pad and help. I want to talk to the crew, hear what news they have." And maybe get a passage to somewhere nearer to Earth, he added to himself.
Avalon looked critically at his gaunt face. "I don't think you're fit to go lugging crates around. Anyway, they won't leave until sunset, and unloading won't take that long. You stay here and I'll bring them up to you so you can talk as much as you like." As if she had read his mind, she added, "Perhaps you'll want to arrange a passage out with them. I think they can look after you pretty well."
Somewhat startled, he said "Yes, well, maybe. It depends on what they have to say. I don't have any clear idea of my next move yet."
Avalon smiled. "We'll talk it over with them," she said.
He was awoken by the stir of his companions. Sleepily glancing up at the security monitor, he saw it was still in night-scan mode, first light must be some time away. Evidently the supply ship was on final approach.
His neighbour noticed him sitting up and shook his head. "Get some more sleep," he said. "There's plenty of us to do the unloading."
Thankfully, Blake rolled over again. As he was drifting off, he felt the deep vibration that announced the ship's arrival.
Some hours later, he made his way up to the rear cavern that Avalon favoured. All was quiet. Beyond the cave mouth, the vista of rocks and sunlit trees stirring in a light breeze invited him outside. Carefully, he descended the stony path to the little terrace below and sat down thankfully in the morning sunlight to review the questions he had for the newly arrived freetraders. One of his most urgent queries was 'have you heard anything of Jenna Stannis?' Waiting for the arrival of a vital supply ship here among Avalon's troops, the importance of blockade-running freetraders was brought home to him. By association, Jenna's face was constantly before him and he longed to know what had become of her. Could she have rejoined the Liberator? Would she and Avon...? No, don't torment yourself with imaginings like that, he told himself.
He was still absorbed in his thoughts when he heard a little shower of pebbles clattering down the path. He looked up. Jenna Stannis was slithering hazardously down the steep slope.
Too overcome to speak, he stood up and reached out for her, then staggered back a pace as her sturdy compact body cannoned into him with the velocity of her descent.
Laughing, they clung together for several minutes, babbling questions between kisses: What have you been doing with yourself? What happened to your eye? Who are you crewing with now? Where have you been?! Finally, Avalon judged it high time to come down and join them, and they pulled apart and beamed at her.
A little later, he met the other two members of Ursa's crew, Margit and Lucien.
"Well, we can't just leave this evening without hearing a full account of your doings, Blake," said Margit. "We shall have to stay at least another day, won't we, Lucien?"
She stood squarely in front of Blake, hands on hips, assessing him with frank enjoyment, as if daring him to show embarrassment.
He laughed. "Interrogate me for long enough and I'll tell you everything," he parried, returning her scrutiny with his own. Jenna's cousin was quite formidable - practically his own height, broad-shouldered and athletic. She was probably six or seven years older than Jenna, but in spite of short dark hair, the Stannis resemblance was plain.
Beside her, Lucien, the temporary crewman, was regarding Blake much more respectfully. A stocky fair-haired man, a bit younger than Blake, his wide blue eyes were fastened on him in obvious admiration.
Jenna had explained during her introductions that the usual third member of Ursa's crew, indeed, the ship's owner, was Margit's elder brother, Brig Stannis. He was presently recovering from wounds received in a raid on Federation premises.
"The Feds shot a chunk out of his leg, so he's been on a tissue regenerator, growing replacements," was how Margit put it. Blake could see that she specialised in plain speaking. For a moment he diverted himself by imagining what she would have to say to Avon.
True to his jesting word, Blake let Margit interrogate him about his recent activities, which she did with gusto. Jenna sat in the background and listened, mostly with her eyes closed. She had already given Blake a sketchy account of her own movements, including her return to Keledon to renew her contacts with her remaining family, Brig and Margit, and her meetings with their uncle and silent partner, Mikhail Brand, a wealthy and influential businessman whose trade routes stretched into the Federation itself.
When Margit had finished questioning Blake, she turned her attention to filling in what Jenna had omitted, describing Jenna's flight from the Amagons on Hadramut and their agent Dermod's attempt to deliver her head to Tarvin's vengeful mother for a bounty of one million credits.
The talk moved on to their combined anti-Federation operations with the Vilkonen clan. Lucien related with pride his sister Erryn's role in sabotaging the computer-controlled production lines of several of Space Command's shipbuilders and suppliers. Jenna held her breath in case Margit let rip with her own frank assessment of that difficult young lady, but she remained silent and preserved a straight face. Erryn was a member of the group of hackers who kept the freetraders supplied with Federation movements, decoded from Space Command's own signals and various security service databases. Ursa's crew had been making good use of her talents. Blake remembered Jenna mentioning the service in their Liberator days. Now, deprived of Orac, he was keenly interested and enquired how to contact it.
"It'll cost you some money," Margit warned, with a grin.
"I'll pay for it," said Jenna firmly. "At least, until Blake's got some financial backing," she added hastily, seeing her cousin about to object.
It was Lucien who put forward the next proposal: "Why don't you stay here, Jenna, while we go to Riksos to pick up the next cargo? We can collect you on the way back. That'll give you the opportunity to plan your next moves with Blake."
From the background, Jenna observed Margit's grin widen as she contemplated the other opportunities it offered.
She nodded thoughtfully. "Or would you prefer to come with us to Riksos, Blake?" she offered.
"I wouldn't recommend that," said Margit. "The place is riddled with Fed spies and informers. Jenna would have to skulk aboard ship to avoid being recognised, anyway. Ursa only picks up legitimate cargoes there."
"How much of your trade is legitimate?" Blake asked interestedly.
"A good seventy percent. There's a general shortage of cargo vessels since the invasion, we need the cover, and trade's trade, when all's said and done."
"Margit's right," said Lucien seriously. "Riksos is no place for you. Wait a month and we'll be back. Keledon would be much safer."
Blake looked at Jenna. "Well?"
"Agreed. But if Avalon is contemplating any guerilla action, you had better not join in," said Jenna firmly. "You're not fit."
Avalon nodded. "We'll keep him out of trouble for the time being. But I have the feeling that he'll go looking for it before long."
Blake laughed. "Coming from you two, that's comic."
"That eyelid is a dreadful mess, Blake," said Jenna, as she put down the dressing she had just removed. "Somebody really botched it." She peered closely at his newly exposed left eye, anxious to assure herself that it was not damaged. It was bloodshot, but otherwise looked normal enough. She extended her index finger and moved it across his line of vision. To her relief, he followed it easily.
"Yes," he said, reaching up to take hold of her hand, "my vision is all right. I can see the lid out of the corner of my eye, but no doubt I'll soon become accustomed it." He gave her that special look that still made her feel weak at the knees.
"Yes, but in our - `profession', shall I call it? - it's as well to have good peripheral vision, if not eyes in the back of your head," she answered. "I should get you to a plastic surgeon."
Blake laughed. "That might be difficult. I don't think I can just walk into a clinic and get it done on request, do you? And I certainly don't want to go to one of the butchers who usually cater for fugitives like me."
"Well, I could always abduct one of the good ones for you," Jenna said, with a chuckle. But she wasn't entirely joking, as Blake well knew. He carried the hand he was holding to his lips.
"What are you two laughing about?" demanded Margit, coming in with a couple of bags slung from her shoulders.
"Jenna wants to kidnap a plastic surgeon for me."
"Good idea. I'll get Erryn to research likely candidates." Margit put down the bags. "Here are your things, Jenna. We're off now."
Blake stood up. "We'll come and see you off."
Margit caught Jenna's eye and returned a naughty smile. Jenna was well aware that Blake was very much to Margit's taste and she felt a certain relief at her imminent departure. She wasn't sure what she would do if her adventurous cousin tried to seduce him. While she thought that Blake was too much the gentleman to give way to temptation in her presence, and she hoped that Margit felt too much regard for her feelings to put her mischievous impulse into practice, she was uncomfortably aware that her much-married cousin had a considerable track record in such matters.
Lucien was waiting for them beside the ship, and Avalon's crew stood by to remove the camouflage nets. Jenna was slightly amused to note the way his hero-worshipping eyes fastened on Blake. The night before, he had sat at Blake's feet, raptly following every word in a way that would have given Avon a severe pain. She could just hear that mocking voice - Another idealist, poor but honest. There were times when she missed Avon.
Blake shook hands with both departing freetraders.
"I can't tell you how much it means to me to have met you, Blake," said Lucien earnestly. "If there's any way I can help, say the word."
As she followed him aboard, Margit flipped a casual hand in farewell. "So long Jenna. Enjoy." She entered the cargo hold and closed the hatch.
The nets were lowered and everyone retreated under cover for the ship's blast off. There was a deep thunder and she rose into the cloudy sunset and was soon lost to view.
Turning away from the launch site, Blake and Jenna linked arms and strolled down the valley towards the stony little river.
"We should be making some plans," said Blake rather cautiously.
Now was the time, it must not be put off any longer. Jenna took a deep breath.
"I've got something rather painful to say, Blake."
He stopped and turned his head to look straight at her face.
"I'm not exactly rejoining you, I'm going to continue freetrading." That sounded treacherously selfish in her own ears. She ducked her head and went on. "I'll be your supplier and blockade runner, but these revolutionary operations are not for me. I have to follow my own path."
To her surprise, Blake laughed.
"Don't look so tragic, Jenna. It's all right. A good blockade runner is exactly what I need, particularly someone who can act so well on her own initiative." He tilted her face towards him with a gentle hand under her chin and smiled into her eyes. "We can have lots of happy reunions."
"That will be nice," murmured Jenna, her spirits lifting in spite of herself.
"And when we've overthrown our enemies," he went on, in a mock-soulful voice, "we can mount the imperial throne hand in hand, and raise squads of little freetraders and political criminals."
Jenna threw back her head and shouted with laughter.
Blake was in an optimistic mood when they arrived, enveloping Jenna in a fond hug and beaming amiably at Margit. He too, was elated at the news of Servalan's overthrow, and viewed the prospect of confusion in the Federation as a golden opportunity.
"The more they fight each other, the better for us," he said buoyantly. Then he looked past Jenna. "Ah, you must be Brig."
Brig nodded, giving a faint smile of greeting, which was about as far as his undemonstrative nature took him.
"Well, you walked in here without a sign of a limp, so I take it that the regeneration was a success," said Blake, always interested in such technology. "It's good to meet you at last, and I particularly want to thank you for being such a great support to Jenna."
Brig acknowledged this with another slight nod.
"Now, come inside," Blake continued, ushering them into his control room. "I want you to meet Deva."
A man sitting at the console rose to his feet as they entered and gave them a friendly nod. "So you're the notorious Stannis family," he said with a smile. "Honoured to meet you at last."
"Oh?" said Jenna, clasping his extended hand. "Have you been reading our press reports?"
Blake laughed. "That's his business. Deva's cover is running a bounty hunter operation. He keeps files on all the `most wanted' criminals. He knows exactly what you're worth."
Margit snorted. "Laid hands on Bayban yet?" she enquired maliciously.
"Funny you should say that," returned Deva imperturbably. "Rumour has it, he's dead - polished off by your late colleagues on the Liberator. I doubt if they'll be claiming the reward, though.
Jenna chuckled. "No need to fret. I'm sure Avon and Vila appropriated his loot in compensation."
Blake's smile was a little pensive. "Ah, the Liberator," he said. "We could do with that now."
"Well, what are you doing here, Deva?" Jenna asked. "Assessing your targets personally?"
"Officially, I am scouting for a new operational base," Deva replied. "We've cleaned out the Seventh Sector, more or less, so it's time to move on."
"Not to this region, I hope," said Margit tartly.
"Fortunately it's the Fifth Sector that's in turmoil at present. The Federation is particularly keen to clamp down on lawless elements so close to home. I and my hunters have been promised extremely good terms and co-operation to tidy up a list of planets they want to secure for safe settlement."
"I get it," said Jenna disgustedly. "All those `open' planets are now mined out and they want to bring in their chosen colonists who will be duly grateful for Federation protection. An easy way of adding to the empire and blocking up some holes in their security."
Blake nodded. "Yes, well this time, the rebels are going to be in there from the start. Deva and I are going to use the operation as cover for our own. We can give you false identities and official status as our agents and suppliers."
Margit spluttered. "You're not serious?!"
"I am indeed. We'll worm our way into the Federation's underbelly and eat its heart out."
"Ugh! Just like a hook-worm."
"Still, I like it," said Jenna thoughtfully. "It has lots of possibilities."
"I sometimes feel uneasy about your expeditions with the Vilkonens," Blake said. They were alone together in the privacy of the ship, Margit and Brig having tactfully taken themselves off to visit Avalon.
"Oh? What is it that worries you?" Jenna inquired lazily. Lying comfortably beside him with her head nuzzling his shoulder, she was in no mood to talk about the Vilkonens.
"Basically, that they're such an ill-disciplined lot. I'd no idea you were getting involved in a full-scale raid on a Federation base when you went, and nor had you."
She propped herself up on one elbow and leaned over him smiling tolerantly. It was tempting to get annoyed when Blake got into one of his protective moods, but today she was too happy to care.
"Rather like old times aboard the Liberator," she said teasingly.
That drew a laugh, but he added warningly, "They seem hell-bent on provoking Space Command to a punitive expedition against Keravala, and they don't have the Liberator to run away in. I just don't you to be there when it happens."
"Well, Space Command is a shadow of its former self," she said, to reassure him. "It'll be a long time before they can mount an operation like that. After all, it's tantamount to declaring war on a neutral planet. And if it's any comfort to you, Ursa stayed out in eclipse orbit behind one of the moons, so we didn't take any crazy risks." She bent down and kissed his lips.
Blake knew better than to pursue the subject. He had taught himself not to be jealous of her past, particularly of the long-ago relationship with Aulius Vilkonen, the previous head of that tempestuous clan. Murdered some five years ago by the enraged husband of his current lady-love, Aulius's flamboyant life had passed into popular legend. Like Bayban's, his exploits were endlessly repeated and magnified, perhaps with more admiration than his psychopathic young rival's. The clan was now headed by his younger brother, Hindrik, a coldly calculating man with a reputation for steely daring, with whom Jenna had run several successful joint operations.
He looked up into her eyes. Only an idiot would harp on the past when the woman's warm body was pressing against him. He reached up and wrapped his arms around her.
A considerable time later, she said, "While we're on the subject of each other's colleagues, how did you meet Deva?"
"Deva's been one of Avalon's most useful intelligence gatherers," he replied. "When he decided he had to move on, he contacted her to arrange a meeting to discuss new possibilities. He's been very valuable. She trusts him completely."
"Good," said Jenna dryly.
"Sceptic." He ruffled her hair playfully. "It'll work out very well. You'll see."
"This is your office, Commissioner." The Adjutant opened the door for his superior's inspection.
The Commissioner swept past him and surveyed the room frostily. She slid a gloved finger across the desk top and held its grimy tip under his nose.
"Get the cleaners in here immediately. And while you're at it, replace the flooring and get rid of those disgusting curtains."
He reddened uncomfortably. The bite in her voice indicated a woman of powerful personality, which surprised him. His researches into Commissioner Sleer's previously undistinguished career had not led him to expect anything of the sort, merely a time-server who owed her post to her family connections. The photographs in her files must be pretty ancient, too, for this was an older woman and the likeness was now only vague. Perhaps she's been on one of those self-assertiveness training courses, he thought sourly. We're probably in for a rough ride while she practises her technique.
"At once, ma'am," he said aloud. "Shall I show you to your private suite?"
As she followed him into the private lift, she asked, "What's on the agenda for the next few days?"
"Several items, ma'am. The first is the usual civic reception for a new Commissioner..."
"Cancel it. We're here to work, not socialise."
"Yes ma'am. Next there are also some criminal appeal cases awaiting your judgement."
"Very well, have the documents sent up by tomorrow. I shall want the usual legal advisors to be available as well."
The lift doors parted silently and he ushered her into the vestibule of the Commissioner's suite. With relief, he noticed it was spic and span.
Sleer opened a door and turned back with raised eyebrows.
"Private secretary's office," said the Adjutant, opening another door. "This is your main reception room." He held his breath as she entered and looked around critically.
"It will do," she said eventually, peeling off her gloves. "Pour me a drink."
Left alone, Ex-President Servalan surveyed her reduced fiefdom somewhat bleakly. Oh well, at least she was alive and settled into her new identity without too much difficulty. This might be a position from which she could build a new powerbase to take back what was rightfully hers. To get here, she had manoeuvred a transfer for the real Sleer, a distant relative who bore a certain resemblance to herself, to this planet where she was not known personally. In the wake of the High Council's restoration, personnel were being transferred, dismissed or arrested all over the Federation. Those who knew of Sleer's relationship to the `dead' president, would probably interpret this move as a kind of exile, little dreaming that Sleer's body was now floating among the stars in a shuttle that had proved to be somewhat less than airtight. Her staff had been unfortunate enough to join her on her last voyage.
Servalan sipped her drink thoughtfully. The new commissioner was going to be a hard-working recluse. Socialising was too dangerous, and the fewer people who got a good look at her, the better. In any case, there was plenty to do and she had never been afraid of hard work.
Servalan watched calmly and critically as the doctor put Shellen through a series of demonstration tests, occasionally interpolating her own questions. All this time her rising excitement had to be carefully masked from her companions, as she watched him complete his tasks neatly, efficiently, and above all, obediently.
"Could the Major be retrained for another career that doesn't require much initiative?" she enquired, in a voice of gentle concern. "I think it would be much better for him and his family if he had an occupation. He is quite a young man still, and it would be a tragedy if his useful life was over, or he had to be institutionalised."
"Indeed it would, Commissioner," the doctor responded, in the tone of voice he used for anxious relatives. "But I can assure you that retraining should present no problems, so long as he isn't expected to take on any real responsibilities."
Servalan smiled at him with simulated relief. "Ah, we will see to it that he is resettled as happily as possible. The Service looks after its own."
She turned to the chemist. "Professor, have you any further comments?"
"We must make a thorough investigation into the mechanism by which the drug acts - testing it on animals, you know - but Forbus destroyed all his stocks, so we must prevail on him to manufacture some more. Only then can we look for an antidote."
"Ah yes, it would be wonderful if we could restore the Major to himself. You may depend upon me to persuade the prisoner to co-operate. I'm sure that I can appeal to his better nature. And of course, we must ensure that such a terrible thing never happens again.
"Well, thank you, gentlemen. Your help has been invaluable. I take a keen interest in this affair and I look forward to seeing you both again."
She rose and offered each of them her hand in turn.
"Rather a charming lady, I thought," remarked the professor to his colleague, as they left. "A trifle over-conscientious perhaps, but no doubt she is keen to prove herself."
He would have been considerably less charmed to witness the change in her manner as their footsteps receded down the corridor and she allowed her triumphant pleasure to bubble forth in a strident laugh. Turning to the passively waiting Shellen, she said coldly, "Get down on the floor. Face down, hands clasped behind your neck."
He obeyed instantly.
Jenna liked the base that Deva and Blake had constructed for themselves on Daugava in the Fifth Sector. Federation backing and protection made it possible to equip the place with good hardware and furnishings. Comfort, as well as security, was the order of the day.
She was sat in the private quarters with Blake and Deva, deep in discussion, when Brig appeared. He never showed any great excitement, but something about his demeanor caught their attention.
"What is it?" asked Blake curiously.
"A message from Hindrik Vilkonen. He wants us to meet him immediately."
Jenna frowned anxiously. Hindrik wasn't given to impromptu summons, he liked to conduct carefully planned meetings on his own ground at Keravala, which was far from here.
"Where?" she queried.
"He's here, in the asteroid belt. He wants us to join him at BZ 436 as fast as we can lift off."
Jenna started up. "Let's go," she said abruptly. "Hindrik doesn't call people out without reason."
"You are sure it's Hindrik?" Blake asked, as he got up.
"He gave the right codes," Brig assured him.
Jenna was already out of the room. Blake exchanged mystified looks with Deva as they followed in her wake. There was no mistaking her concern.
The moment she laid eyes on Hindrik, Jenna knew her fears were justified. Pale eyes glittering in a blanched face, nostrils pinched and mouth set in a tight line, a volcanic rage was simmering through that normally cold exterior. He wasted no time on preliminaries as he met them by the transfer tube.
"The Federation has taken Keravala," he said.
There was a stunned silence.
"How?" said Blake eventually. "We've heard no rumours of military action."
"There wasn't any. They used chemical weapons."
"Were many killed?" asked Jenna painfully.
"Almost none. It wasn't poison but some sort of behaviour control drug that turns people into virtual zombies. They slipped in, disguised as loaders and caterers, and zapped a few people at a time. `Converted' people will obey orders instantly, without question, like mutoids, so they used them to gain entrance everywhere. My entire headquarters and all its personnel have been taken over completely. If I'd been there, I should have gone the same way."
"Well, who warned you to keep away?" asked Blake.
"A junior security man spotted something strange and got away through an escape tunnel. Before he went, he rigged the scanners to broadcast on a tight beam to my personal receiver and we were able to work out what happened. Apparently, the stuff is administered with a medical laser."
"Total obedience?" said Jenna, with dawning horror. "They'll tell them anything - plans, codes, the sabotage programme - all the Feds need to know is the right questions to ask."
Hindrik nodded grimly, and Jenna remembered that he had a young family. She couldn't bring herself to ask after them.
"We have to find out what the substance is." Deva spoke for the first time. "It may be reversible, or the effect may wear off naturally in time. Meanwhile, we must warn everyone to lie low and be extra vigilant."
"All our codes will have to be reworked," said Blake. He gave a short humourless laugh. "Now I know how Space Command felt when we broke theirs."
"It looks as if the Federation is bent on mopping up the freetraders," said Jenna heavily. "If I were in their shoes, I'd be setting my sights on the Amagons on Hadramut and Gabradar and I'd be sending an undercover task force to take over BG's warehouse on Regis Two."
Deva went pale. "They must be warned immediately." The thought of their main arms supplier falling into Federation hands was enough to blanch the cheek of any resistance fighter.
"I've already warned BG," said Hindrik. "Of course, if I warn the Amagons, your arch-enemy Zinovia, will get to hear of it, Jenna. How do you feel about that?"
She paused for thought. "It's tempting to leave her in ignorance, but this is too important for old feuds to be brought up now. Besides, she did call off the contract on all of us. I think I'll send a personal warning to her clan, just to demonstrate my good faith. You can back me up, Hindrik."
"That would be wise," said Blake approvingly. When he had learnt about the bounty Tarvin's mother had set on the heads of Liberator's crew, he was more than grateful that Jenna had dealt with the matter so effectively. Even so, he would prefer to avoid contact with the Amagons in future.
Servalan sat brooding behind her desk. She was in a black mood today, rank resentment of her overthrow seethed in her mind. To be an obscure Commissioner was a bitter pill to swallow after her days of glory as President, and keeping up a facade of selfless devotion to duty was a heavy strain on her self-control. She derived some consolation from thoughts of revenge, particularly on that weasel Joban. Right now, she hated him more than Blake or Avon.
Avon... Almost a year had passed since the destruction of the Liberator and not a whisper of its erstwhile crew had reached anyone's ears. The booby-traps on Terminal must have destroyed them. She sighed regretfully for the great might-have-beens she had pursued so ardently - Liberator, Orac and Avon - they could have made her invincible. She would have returned to Sardos and duplicated a fleet, and the entire galaxy would have been hers.
A tap on the door broke into her gloomy reverie. Another prisoner to be interrogated. She flicked the `Enter' switch.
"And who is this?" she enquired wearily, as an elderly man was brought in.
"Karsh Vilkonen, Commissioner."
"Ah, one of the inner circle." The Ex-President's depression began to lift at the prospect before her. The old freetrader wore the usual dreamy expression of the pylene victim, but with a certain insouciance. He should have a lot to tell her.
"Please be seated," she said to him, indicating a chair. "You may leave us, Section Leader." She had questions to ask which she didn't want him to overhear. As the door shut behind the guard, she poured two drinks and handed one to the prisoner. He accepted it complacently and beamed at her.
"Well, Captain Vilkonen, I've always wanted to meet you. What an interesting life you must have led." She reached under her desk and activated her recorder.
For several hours the Commissioner interrogated her prisoner patiently, with lavish flattery. Convinced of her admiration, he grew coquettish, and more than once she had to remove his straying fingers. Really! All these Vilkonens were generously oversexed. Even the glacial Hindrik had a string of mistresses, and as for the late Aulius, his women were legion.
"Ah yes," reminisced Karsh, when she reminded him. "Jenna Stannis was one of Aulius's girls. One of my favourites, so pretty, and clever too. We Vilkonens can't be doing with stupid women. I thought that Jenna's notion of sabotaging the Federation's shipbuilding programme was really brilliant."
Servalan pricked up her ears. "Do tell me all about it," she purred, in an outrageous travesty of a femme fatale.
Karsh was only too happy to oblige, and as she listened to the old man describing how computer controlled production lines had been tinkered with to slow down the replacement warship programme so dear to her heart, her smile strained to conceal her growing rage.
She set herself to elicit accomplices' names from him, but unfortunately, Hindrik believed in compartmentalising his contacts so that only he knew who else was involved. When she enquired delicately after Jenna's whereabouts, the old rogue said airily, "Oh, Hindrik can tell you."
Servalan ground her teeth. The fools had let the main prize slip through their fingers. Instead of ascertaining his presence, they had assumed he was at his family residence and gone straight in, only to find him absent. Hindrik's wife had calmly told them he was away visiting a mistress, and supplied them with the names of the ones she knew, casually remarking that there could be twenty more she didn't know about. The Commissioner's staff were all for using the four young children as hostages for his return, but she was quite sure that Hindrik wouldn't surrender for the sake of fifty children and all his mistresses, let alone four and a wife.
When she felt she had extracted all she could from Karsh, she summoned the escort to remove him. She would edit the record, filter her own voice through a synthesizer and then circulate it with instructions to the security forces to question every Vilkonen about Hindrik's contacts and known haunts. She would also advise Space Command to put another hefty bounty on Hindrik and redouble the reward on Jenna Stannis, dead or alive this time. Owing to Blake's training, no doubt, that woman was proving herself to be a menace. If she was brought in alive, it would be amusing to have her adapted as a mutoid for her own personal service.
Servalan's lips curved in a cruel smile.
"Where are you going to go, Hindrik?" asked Jenna. They were alone on the flight deck of Hindrik's ship.
"I have an emergency supply base near Tekiro where we can regroup, those of us who got away, that is. I'll send out the rally code."
"How many of your people know about it?"
"The captains and a few others."
"Several of whom are in Federation hands," commented Jenna wryly. "What if the Feds send a shipload of `converts' under the pretence of being fellow-escapees, in order to trap you?"
Hindrik produced a chilly smile. "I'm sure they will," he said. "We need some specimens to study."
Jenna suppressed a shudder. These were his own kin the man was talking about.
"You'll need the services of some good medics and research chemists," she said, recovering her aplomb and turning to practicalities. "It may be possible to restore them. And the chances are that the Feds will send some of their own people along with the drug and their equipment. Capture them and we'll know what we're dealing with."
Hindrik paused for a moment, as if weighing her up.
"Jenna, you're a very shrewd person with lots of anti-Federation experience. I'd like you to join me."
Astonished, Jenna asked, "Just for this operation?"
"I'd like to have you permanently on my staff, but I suppose there's Blake to think about."
"I wouldn't want to abandon him again, but I'm certainly interested," she admitted. "Yes. I'll talk it over with Brig and Margit. I'm pretty sure they'll be willing to go along with this project, and Blake will see the need for it. He won't raise any objections, I'm sure."
Hindrik relaxed somewhat and gave a surprisingly warm smile.
"Thank you, Jenna."
As they rejoined the others, Jenna thought over their conversation. She couldn't help being pleased that the august Hindrik wanted her to join him. She recalled with a certain amusement his dismissive attitude of twelve years ago, when she had merely been one of his elder brother's women. Things were different now - she had a galactic reputation and a bigger price on her head than Hindrik, and the mighty Vilkonens had been visited with wholesale disaster. Did he envisage her as one of his women? After all, he'd just lost his wife and virtually all his mistresses. Was that what that unusually winning smile portended? A year ago, she might have been quite ready to try him out, but now... who knew? She smiled to herself.
As she expected, Brig and Margit agreed to the proposal without hesitation. The alliance with the Vilkonens was precious and every effort must be made to preserve it. Blake was inclined to grimace over the prospect of yet another expedition with the clan, but contented himself with extracting a promise from Hindrik not to place his blockade-runners in jeopardy.
He watched them go with an anxious heart. Jenna had pointed out that Ursa must be off soon to collect their next cargo and this would be just a brief diversion, but he couldn't shake off the feeling that she could be gone for much longer this time.
"Well, General, what is your assessment of the Keravala operation?" Servalan was in a brisk and businesslike mode for this interview with the garrison's commanding officer.
"Apart from the unfortunate fact of their leader being away from base, it was a successful exercise. Your pacification method worked extremely well, and there's certainly a great deal of satisfaction in converting those freetrading vermin into obedient Federation citizens."
The General gave his response in measured tones. He was rather young for his rank, and Servalan wondered if his somewhat pompous manner was an attempt to appear older and more experienced than he was. A goodlooking man, but a thoroughgoing prig, she decided. Just as well perhaps. As Supreme Commander or President, she might have made overtures to him, and woe betide him if he repulsed them, but Commissioner Sleer couldn't afford to indulge such fancies. However, when she had regained her presidency...
"Is the Vilkonen base running normally again?" she queried.
"Yes. I've left Captain Vidnan in charge, with all the usual personnel at their posts. So far, we've decoyed and captured one more freighter to add to the three that were already in dock when we arrived."
"Good, but presumably Hindrik will be warning the rest. Very well, we'll run the deception for another three months, then close it down."
"Are you planning the next operation?" asked the General. "Is the drug being manufactured in quantity?"
"Yes, General, I have plans. Lubus next, I think. It's not far away and we can take them by surprise. Have you got some good intelligence officers?"
"Have them collect information on the Luban government and their headquarters. Take out the leaders successfully and the rest will be easy. As to the drug, it doesn't keep for long, so once we've got a foothold, I'll bring the chemist and his laboratory to Lubus to manufacture it on the spot."
"Certainly, Commissioner. There'll be no mistakes this time."
"I have every confidence in you, General."
Servalan nodded her dismissal. She was careful not to smile at him. She knew that her staff and the military leadership regarded her as an enigma, which pleased her. She was ruthlessly suppressing her naturally flamboyant nature to present a carefully constructed persona of sober deportment and dedication to duty.
Left alone, she relaxed and poured herself a drink. Her prospects were improving. This first success, qualified though it might be by the escape of Hindrik Vilkonen, had enhanced her reputation considerably. Scenting advance-ment, the military were eager to follow her.
She must take care to keep the supply of pylene 50 in her own hands, and the fact that it couldn't be mass-produced and stored indefinitely, actually made it easier to do this. She would, of course, see to it that Forbus's production methods were secretly recorded so that others could duplicate them, but in the mean time, that little wretch would have to dance to her piping.
The long road back to supreme power lay open before her.
Hindrik's base was a mined-out asteroid inside independent territory, which had been abandoned about a hundred and sixty years ago. It was the quality of the accommodation and warehousing that had prompted his father to buy it legitimately, albeit under the cover of an anonymous holding company, and install robotic maintenance and a more up-to-date power source.
"It looks like a tourist hotel," was Margit's assessment. "Three stars, I think."
"Mm, more like two." Jenna was peering into the bedrooms.
"Three. It's got decent artificial gravity. I'll have this one." Margit dumped her bags on the bed and went to the shower to test it. "Well, the plumbing works."
There was accommodation for over a hundred, but only Hindrik and his crew were present besides themselves. All the other Vilkonen vessels had been ordered to keep away and carry on their normal business. It was now apparent that less than a quarter of their fleet had fallen into Federation hands. Their goal of seizing the rest as they returned to base, by presenting a normal front, had been frustrated by the security guard's action. The invaders had not even noticed the scanner transmissions, so their activities were still being monitored and analysed.
"It's them all right," said Margit, watching the blip on her scanner. "The ones that weren't warned not to come." She turned to Jenna. "How do you propose to sort out who's a convert and who's Federation?"
"Zap the lot of them with sono vapour immediately on arrival, strip search them and hand them over to the medics for tests," she answered.
"Hm. It has the merit of simplicity. Then we search the ship from top to bottom."
"How much d'you bet the Feds have some men concealed in the hold, just for that sort of contingency?" said Brig.
"No takers," returned Jenna with a chuckle. "The infra-red scanners will detect their body heat and we'll introduce some sono into the air circulation."
"And who's going to be the lucky person who goes aboard to check that none of them had a respirator?" queried Margit somewhat caustically.
"One of Hindrik's robot cleaners, equipped with a micro camera."
An hour later, Hindrik stormed into the room like an arctic blast. The newcomers had made visual contact with him to establish their bona fides.
"They've used Karsh and my son Axel," he announced between clenched teeth. "I will have blood for this! Oceans of blood!"
Axel was about fifteen, Jenna recalled, darker and stockier than his father, with a warm temperament which reminded her of Aulius, his uncle.
"You've spoken to them, then?" she asked. "How did they seem?"
"Normal enough at first glance, but not their usual selves. They gave me a story about escaping and hiding until the coast was clear." He gave a bitter laugh. "They even tried to tell me that the rest of my family was safe."
"Well, this confirms what we suspected. The Federation has no idea that you know what method they used to take Keravala," said Jenna, in a consolatory voice. "We can turn that to our advantage."
"Nothing here," said Brig into the camera. "You can cut off the sono vapour now."
He and Hindrik's security officer, Simron, had just finished searching the five unconscious crew members of the new arrival. He eased the body of the man he had just checked back down into the deep armchair in the reception room where they had been surreptitiously anaesthetised.
"OK," said Jenna, reaching for the cutoff switch. "Switching to fresh air now." She turned to Hindrik, beside her. "Well, it looks as if the stuff is still on the ship."
Brig and Simron entered, pulling off their respirators.
"I know the other three," said Simron. "Bronsten, Ulyano and Djugashvi. Just who you'd expect to travel with Karsh."
"Phase Two, then," Hindrik reached for his sidearm and buckled it on. "Send in the infra-red scanner." He led the way through the warehouse to the docking cradles and walked over to the hull of the docked spacecraft and drew his weapon.
Margit operated her hand controls and the robot cleaner rolled to the cargo hatch. "Open her up."
Hindrik slid a magnetic card key into the external emergency control box, hit two buttons as it opened up, and stood aside as the hatch moved in and slid upwards.
Margit sent the robot up the ramp and into the ship. A few metres inside, she halted it and panned the miniature camera slowly round. The hold was fairly empty, but a few large crates stood against the far bulkhead. The robot sidled up to them and scanned at close range. Nothing.
"I'll try the after hold next," More crates. "See the two big ones at the end? Those look like air-holes to me." The camera closed in. "Oho. Just look at that. Two of them."
The shapes of two humans, seated comfortably in their hiding places, were revealed in false colour images on the screen. "Nice cold, healthy noses," commented Margit with a grin, pointing to the dark spot on each face.
"Well, that makes it easy," said Simron. "Close the hatches and the robot can simply spray the gas straight into those airholes. No need to bother with the recycling plant."
Hindrik reached over and closed the main hatch. Carefully and delicately, Margit manoeuvred the robot across to the first crate and manipulated the nozzle of the gas cylinder's hose into one of the air holes. After a moment the image on the screen was seen to slump down. "One down, one to go."
Clearly the second man had been alerted by some sound and he was moving, reaching out to a door control. Quickly, Margit shifted the robot over and repeated the exercise. One side of the crate swung open, but its occupant was too late. As the gas took him, he slithered out onto the deck.
"Got him," said Margit. "In you go."
Donning their respirators, Hindrik, Brig and Simron went in swiftly. A moment later, they reappeared, dragging two handcuffed prisoners behind them.
"Very good," remarked Hindrik with evident satisfaction. "Now check the rest of the ship."
It took another half hour before the ship was pronounced clear, then the gas had to be filtered out. Finally, they spent several hours going over the vessel with a fine-tooth comb. It was evident from the seven used bunks that the two pacifiers had only slipped into their crates at the last minute, so the rest of the crew must have known something about them.
"It's simple stuff," said the medic Hindrik had brought with him. "These are the medical lasers, and this is the drug, all neatly prepared in the right doses. Load that cartridge in here, point the laser and press the button."
With a cold smile, Hindrik picked up the loaded instrument and stalked over to the fettered prisoners. They cowered visibly as he paused in front of them, brandishing the laser.
"No, don't do that," the nearest one begged, breathlessly. "We'll talk."
"Oh, we know you'll talk," returned their captor sweetly. "This is in the nature of a clinical experiment. One positive and one negative, if you follow me. Now, who shall I choose? Shall we toss for it?"
Jenna was quite surprised to see him emerge after a few minutes.
"We've plenty of time to question them properly. Right now, I want to see Karsh."
She laid a gentle hand on his arm. "Let me do the first questioning, Hindrik," she offered quietly. "Karsh will trust me, and it might spare you some distress."
For a moment he looked rather put out, then his face cleared.
"A great idea. You always could twist him round your little finger."
She made her way up to the observation deck where she found the old man in one of the bays, staring dreamily out at space. Her heart ached to see the change in him. The old headlong drive, so similar to Aulius's, was gone. She had to be the decisive one now. She took a deep breath.
"Karsh, you old rogue, come over here and give me a big kiss."
With a huge smile, he ambled over and enveloped her in an enthusiastic bear-hug. "Jenna, my lovely," he said between kisses, "so good to see you back." He tightened the squeeze.
"Ouff!" Jenna finally managed to disengage and take in a gulp of air. "You're in good condition."
With an arm round his back, she propelled him over to the drinks dispenser. "Where've you been, and what have you been up to?"
The dispenser, she noticed, served only hard liquor - how typical of the Vilkonens! Remembering that her companion's favourite tipple was slivo, she dialled him one, followed by a brandy for herself.
"Tell me all about yourself," she commanded, flashing him her most dazzling smile.
At first he came up with the story his captors had dinned into him: a night attack, a daring escape, pursuit, evasion and re-established contact. But with considerable skill she regressed him to their last meeting, then inched him forward again until a different tale emerged: capture, transportation, interrogation and his captors' orders.
Unexpectedly, he chuckled. "She was a handsome wench, that Commissioner. It was fun being interviewed by her."
So the Feds, too, had pressed the right buttons.
"A commissioner, eh? What was her name? What did she look like? "
"Oho, black-haired and dark-eyed, wears black. Commissioner Sleer - a woman of the world." Karsh's hands were wandering freely, but Jenna didn't slap them away. She was prepared to go a lot further than this to get the information she wanted.
"How interesting. What did you talk about?"
When they were through, she slipped an arm through his and led him toward the door.
"Come and have something to eat," she said. "The others will be in the diner."
Axel was there, when they arrived. It was even more pitiful to see the vacancy on his young face than his great-uncle's. The old smuggler had managed to retain much more of his personality. Hindrik's heart must be sore indeed, Jenna reflected.
All the company was subdued, and it was a relief when dinner was over and the medic led Axel and Karsh away to their rooms. Over coffee and liqueurs, Jenna reported her conversation to Hindrik.
"Commissioner Sleer, eh? It's a new name to me," said Hindrik thoughtfully. "I'll get the intelligence service to check up on her." He grimaced. "She sounds just like Servalan. You get rid of one, and another pops up."
After that they spent some time mapping out the questions they would be asking at the next session. The others had drifted away, probably to their beds, by the time they finished their discussion. Finally, Jenna collected her notes from the litter of paper on the table and stood up.
"Down time," she said.
Hindrik nodded and got to his feet as well. "You can leave those here," he remarked casually, "they'll be OK." He crossed to the lift and pressed the button. Jenna put her bundle down and followed him into the lift-car.
The long corridor was empty as they came out, and Jenna was about to start for her room at the far right, when Hindrik detained her by gently taking both her hands and swinging her round to face him. She stared into his face, her pulse accelerating rapidly. Nothing was said, but his mute question was quite unmistakable. She had anticipated it when he first asked her to join the operation, but its timing took her by surprise, her mind had been on other things. Rapidly, she considered her response. She wasn't married to Blake, she had gone to some lengths to preserve her cherished freedom, even to the extent of bedding Avon a few times. She wasn't really betraying him...
It was no use, her blood was up and clamouring for satisfaction. Without realising it, she had taken a step forward. Like a dancing partner, Hindrik backed up a pace, she took another - another - another.
About three hours later, she sat up. "Time for some real down-time," she said softly, looking down at her recumbent partner. She slid out of bed and reached to gather up her clothes. Hindrik stretched languidly and got up also.
"Here," he said, taking a short robe from his closet and helping her into it. Short on Hindrik, that was. On her, it came well below the knee. It was pleasant to take leave like this, in quiet friendship. At the door, he took her hand and kissed it in the age-old courtly gesture of lovers. In return, she reached up and brushed his hair back, then she slipped out into the silent corridor.
There was no need to tiptoe, her bare feet made no sound on the carpeted floor. Yawning, she strolled towards her room, mulling over the passage of arms that had just taken place. She had no regrets, Hindrik knew plenty about pleasing a woman.
She hadn't yet reached the lift-shaft, when a door ahead of her opened silently, and a figure sidled out. Margit! Her cousin, half dressed, her brown mop even more dishevelled than usual, coming out of Karsh Vilkonen's room. Jenna felt her jaw drop. As their eyes met, Margit grinned and with a jerk of her head, signalled for her to follow. Beside the lift was a small galley, with the usual drinks dispenser, fridge and hotplate. Once inside, with the door shut, they turned to face each other.
"You've just laid old Karsh? Margit!!"
"Why not? The old goat hasn't had a frolic for quite some time, and neither have I."
No use ever expecting Margit to show repentance. Her own daughter loudly proclaimed her a complete sociopath.
"Anyway," Margit continued, "you could call it a spot of scientific investigation - into the effects of thingummy on the libido."
"I take it from that smirk, there aren't any," said Jenna tartly.
"Nothing negative. You just give him his orders and watch him go." Margit aimed a salacious grin at her cousin. "I take it, Hindrik is in good health?" she enquired solicitously.
Jenna struggled for composure for a few seconds, then collapsed in giggles as the farcical nature of the encounter struck her.
"No complaints," she stuttered breathlessly.
The next morning it was back to more serious business. Everyone was to be present at the interrogation of the pacifiers, including Karsh, Axel and their companions. Jenna and Margit set the scene, arranging the chairs in a semicircle focussed on the captives' hard bench, "for maximum intimidation," they explained to their colleagues. Brig had topped up the drinks dispenser and laid out some food on a table at the rear, and a jug of water and two tumblers were placed symbolically beside the prisoners' bench.
The inquisitors and the victims were gathered and the prisoners were brought in. Plainly there was no fight left in the unconverted one, and if there had been, the sight of the medical laser on Hindrik's lap would have subdued it fast enough. His converted colleague shambled in his rear, relaxed and incurious. Hindrik addressed him first.
"Sit down, trooper. Your friend here is going to tell us about this operation of yours. You are to listen carefully, and every time he lies or leaves something out, you will tell us."
Next, he turned to the other prisoner, who visibly quailed.
"Now, Section Leader," he said silkily. "Your turn."
Unable to meet the ring of eyes concentrated on him, the prisoner lowered his own and stared at his feet throughout the rest of the proceedings.
The allies Hindrik had mentioned included several Amagons.
"If you don't care to meet them," he said slyly, "you can watch the proceedings on closed circuit."
"Yes, let's not tempt fate," she said, as demurely as one could with a man wrapped round oneself. "Brig and Lucien can sit in. It'll be good experience for Lucien. Are you planning another strike at the Federation?"
"Mm... I've got some ideas, but right now my mind is running on other things."
"Your mind, did you say?"
Jenna was glad she had opted for secrecy when she watched the delegates arrive. The leading Amagon was Druza, a cousin of Tarvin. He strode in with the customary swagger and a retinue of seven, armed to the teeth. Fortunately, it was the rule to check in all weapons at such conclaves, so the blasters and handguns were placed in a bin by the door.
For all their posturing, the delegates were in a prudent frame of mind, and while they sympathised with Hindrik and admired his punitive expedition, they were none too willing to draw the wrath of the Federation down on their own heads by imitating him. The Vilkonens argued that any of them could be vulnerable to a similar pylene strike, and only by close co-operation could they protect themselves. The visitors were ready to contribute to the costs of scientific research into the drug and a possible cure, but not to embark upon any military adventure.
After a rather frustrating couple of hours they began to split into small groups and patronise the drinks dispensers. It was probably now that deals would be struck, Jenna felt, as she watched Hindrik sitting on the edge of a table, deep in conversation with the Amagon leader. Druza was nodding thoughtfully, clearly interested in whatever he was offering.
Ye Gods! What was that bodyguard doing? That was a knife he had pulled out of his sleeve. Frantically she threw the intercom switch, but even as she screamed her warning, the knife was plunged into Hindrik's unprotected back. Wildly, Jenna leapt for the door and sprinted toward the conference room, grabbing her blaster as she went.
It was all over in the few seconds she took to cover the distance. The assassin stood calmly in the grip of Lucien and another guard, Hindrik had slumped across the table, and a horrified Druza was bending helplessly over him, evidently wavering about whether to pull the knife out.
Brig moved swiftly to intercept her as she rushed over, but she repulsed him furiously.
"Go for a medic," she hissed fiercely, pushing past him.
Druza had now pulled Hindrik upright and was supporting him.
"Leave the knife alone," she commanded, as his hand moved to the hilt. He obeyed, his face more dazed than she'd ever seen an Amagon's.
Lifting Hindrik's lolling head, she searched desperately for signs of life. As she gently slapped his cheeks there was a slight movement of his lips and his eyes flickered open, trying to focus.
"Hindrik, it's Jenna. Hang on," she implored in a choked voice. "The medic's coming."
There was a slight glimmer of comprehension in those pale grey eyes, then the lids drooped again. She felt for the carotid artery with her left hand. It was still pulsing faintly. She realised that she should get him into a better position.
"Help me put him on his side," she said to the bystanders.
Druza and one of his men moved Hindrik into the standard recovery position on the table top. Somebody tried to staunch the wound with a large wad of paper towelling, but it was useless, the pulse faded under her fingers. As she bent close to his face she heard a faint harsh expulsion of breath - the death rattle.
Hands pulled her away. The spaceport medic and her assistant had arrived. Numbly, Jenna yielded up the body to their fruitless efforts, and leant back dizzily against the person who had lifted her; she knew without looking that it was Brig. Before long they gave up and Hindrik was wheeled away - gone for ever.
Slowly her head began to clear and the cold shivers abated. She took a deep breath and gently freed herself from Brig's support. As she took a step forward, she heard Druza's voice behind her, raised in bewilderment.
"I don't understand, I've known the man for years. Why should he do that?"
"Just look at him." Lucien's voice, calm and reasonable. "Cool as you please. I think he's been pylened."
She swung round and walked up to the prisoner to stare into those blank eyes. "I agree," she said after a moment. "Which is a good thing. It won't be difficult to interrogate him."
"It's the Federation," someone said at the back. "They had him assassinated."
"Let's put an end to all this milling around," said Brig. "I suggest we break off for now and meet again this afternoon to hold a proper inquiry into all this."
Druza nodded. "Agreed."
The Vilkonen captain also nodded.
While the room was being cleared, Druza approached Jenna rather hesitantly, all trace of his usual bravado gone.
"I'm sorry we met again under these circumstances," he began awkwardly. "And I wish Tarvin hadn't tried to sell you to the Feds. Not all of us support Zinovia, either. Freetraders should stick together."
She couldn't summon a smile, but she held out her hand and he gave it a quick squeeze.
Interrogation proved simple enough. The assassin had been waylaid in the streets of Rabat, converted with pylene and given his instructions.
In spite of her grief, Jenna knew it was important to preserve a businesslike calm before the assembly, but she felt a certain satisfaction in watching it dawn on the Amagons that they were up against a truly insidious danger.
The Vilkonens decided to give Hindrik the honour of what they termed `a viking funeral', which was more than they had accorded Aulius. On the other hand, being assassinated by a Federation agent bestowed far more of a cachet than being blasted in flagrante delicto by an outraged husband.
Clan members and associates from far and wide were converging on Regis Two, including, of course, the contenders for the vacant leadership. Jenna knew she must stay for the ceremony, which by all accounts was barbaric and not a little gruesome, but she urged Brig and Lucien to leave her behind and hurry back to Blake with their cargo. She was perfectly capable of bringing the scoutship along single-handed, she assured them - it had an excellent auto-navigational system. Half reluctantly, half eagerly, they departed, and she was left to her own bitter reflections.
When the gathering was complete, Hindrik's body was cremated on a monstrous pile of resin-soaked wood. To add to the eerie atmosphere, the ritual took place at midnight, by the light of blazing torches. The corpse of the assassin was laid crosswise at his feet in full view of the cameras of several news agencies. The Amagons had executed him at Druza's command, to demonstrate their good faith. Before the fire was set, the company circled round the pyre, throwing in gifts as tribute and vowing revenge, some extravagantly, others silently, like Jenna.
Watching the roaring flames from the shadows in the rear, she felt very much alone. She could not pretend that she had loved Hindrik very deeply, but his murder struck a bitter blow at her heart. The optimism of last year, when the Federation had seemed to be on its knees, was replaced by a dour pessimism. How many more colleagues would fall to assassins? How many more planets would be poisoned by Sleer and her pacifiers? Porthia Major was now incommunicado and everyone feared the worst. The Liberator had not been heard of for more than a year and rumours of its destruction were flying about. Other faces seemed to flicker among the flames - Vila, Cally, Avon - were they also lost for ever? And Blake could easily be next. One traitor slipping through the screening process was all it took. How much worse it would be if she was watching his funeral. The malign vision made her shiver, she would have to redouble her warnings, he must listen to her. The strength of her reaction brought home to her how deep her feelings for him really were. No more playing the dilettante freetrader, from now on, she was committed to his resistance movement.
She started, as a hand was laid lightly on her shoulder. Turning her head, she saw that it was Aasa Vilkonen, Hindrik's eldest cousin. She looked into Jenna's reddened eyes with sympathy.
"Thank you for staying," she said quietly. "I'd like a talk with you in the morning."
Jenna nodded, but she felt a stab of annoyance. Was Aasa gathering supporters for her own bid for control, or was she lobbying on behalf of another? What did it matter who succeeded? It wasn't even an official leadership. Then she pulled herself together. Of course it mattered. She was hoping for their support in future operations, she must show an interest in their affairs.
Later on, Druza sought her out.
"I'm charged with delivering a message from Zinovia," he announced, with a droll look. "She thanks you for your warning about pylene 50 and she is taking every precaution against infiltrators. She also sends her condolences on the death of Hindrik."
Jenna thanked him gravely. Privately, she reckoned that Zinovia was hoping that she was heartbroken over her loss. Well, if she imagined that evened the score over Tarvin's death, so much the better. Doubtless, the reference to infiltrators was a dig at Jenna's success in persuading Zinovia to call off the assassins by leading her to believe that her agents had crept into the Amagon stronghold and marked everyone with IMIPAK. Only Ursa's crew knew that for the bluff it was.
Somewhat to Jenna's surprise, Aasa was assigned the inheritance of Hindrik's ships and weapons with no opposition, which conferred on her virtually all Hindrik's powers and influence. Just as well she had listened to Aasa's ideas tactfully, she thought. She would probably be working with her in the future.
The succession settled, Jenna made her excuses and left unobtrusively in the scoutship that Hindrik had given her. It was a delightful little vessel, swift and responsive, with excellent communications equipment, and it was a pleasure to sit down and go through all its systems documentation without interruption or distraction. Since her voyage would last for several weeks, she had plenty of time to make a thorough job of it.
Her first important discovery was the intact encryption system. A little eavesdropping on Federation traffic revealed that no significant changes had been made since its capture. That was careless. Soon she had made contact with Erryn, who guided her through its complexities for a thorough analysis and duplication. Erryn and her fellow hackers provided an illegal intelligence service for freetraders, rebels and independents, that the Federation would dearly love to close down. Much valued by their clientele, they were highly paid specialists with anarchic personalities.
The next discovery gave Jenna a thrill of pleasure - the scoutship was provided with a detection shield. Not only could she penetrate Federation territory at minimum risk of detection, but the mechanism could be examined and reproduced.
Deciding that a thorough investigation of the detector shield was of first priority, Jenna wasted no time in contacting Aasa and sharing her discovery with her. Then, notifying Blake and Ursa's crew of her change of plan, she aborted her course and diverted to meet Aasa at Gabradar. While a team of engineers was being assembled, she and the Vilkonens tested the capabilities of the shield in a series of mock chases. It was, they concluded, very good and they should put a major effort into reproducing it for themselves. The engineers arrived quite quickly and removed the equipment for study, promising to re-install it at the earliest opportunity.
Since she was at their headquarters, she joined in several Vilkonen conferences. Aasa, like Hindrik, was determined to infuse some caution and discipline into her headstrong followers and spent a good deal of time and effort in attempting to improve their security systems. Since Hindrik's death, they were somewhat more inclined to listen to her. Jenna now found herself accepted as a senior associate, to be consulted and co-operated with.
"After all," said Haakon Vilkonen jovially, "a woman who's been the lover of both Aulius and Hindrik must like the clan considerably."
Jenna was suddenly assailed by the ludicrous memory of Margit and herself tiptoeing around the corridors in the small hours, and couldn't suppress a fiery blush, which drew chuckles from all around.
Most nights, their respective planets' differing time scales permitting, she comforted her loneliness with long conversations with Blake, keeping him abreast of their progress and hearing about his. Since Blake was now a subscriber to the freetraders' intelligence service, they could use its scrambler system for private communication with complete security. Jenna liked best to lie in her scoutship bunk with her headset on, imagining him beside her, particularly when their talk grew more personal. Neither of them were prone to babbling sweet nothings, but they had evolved their own private vocabulary of intimacy in Liberator days, and now they developed it further. Under this regime, the careworn look she had acquired after the assassination gradually left her and she began to bloom again.
There was also a lot of work to be done on communications. She continued to contact Erryn every day, and under her guidance acquired some extra computer hardware to add to the scoutship's systems, as well as the software to run it. An intelligent listening program helped her to weed out the nuggets of information from the background chatter of the galaxy, and probability systems helped her to make sense of them.
It was through this occupation that she received some official confirmation of the rumoured destruction of the Liberator. Kerr Avon, it was reported, was making a nuisance of himself in a Wanderer Class planet hopper which had been equipped with some kind of ultra-fast real time drive. His known associates, beside Vila Restal and the Auron, Cally, were Dayna Mellanby, daughter of the noted rebel weaponry designer Hal Mellanby, and Del Tarrant, Federation deserter and mercenary. It was probable but unconfirmed, that the Auron was dead.
Cally dead? Yes, Jenna supposed wearily, it was all too likely. Like Blake and Gan she lacked the self-preservation instinct. Jenna placed herself in the other group with Avon and Vila - the survivors - unwilling to admit idealism to their world, yet feeling the drag of their companions' ideals like tractor beams, almost impossible to escape from. Here she was, still following Blake's path in spite of her efforts to break away. Evidently Avon was in the same bind, probably justifying it to himself as the only way he could escape Federation clutches. Avon always needed more justification than she did before doing anything remotely altruistic, and he didn't have either the refuge of old friends and family or the capacity for lighthearted relaxation that she did. His stress levels must be very high at present and she wondered what sort of crew would put up with him.
She shook herself out of this melancholy mood. Soon Ursa would be back to collect her for the next voyage, and after that, the scoutship would be re-equipped and ready for use.
"Well, is it genuine?" Brig wanted to know.
"Might be. All the people who knew about our contact with Docholli are probably dead. Freedom City was obliterated by the Andromedans, Servalan and Travis are dead, which only leaves the crew of Servalan's ship, if they managed to survive the war."
"Ten to one he wants our help," said Brig.
"No takers. If we're going to contact him, we might as well do it now."
Lucien was detailed to open communications and after two days he reported success. A cipher program and instructions were downloaded for future contact.
Docholli's message was brief. He had taken refuge on Lubus and was now in hiding with a group of Luban exiles. He and a biochemist colleague had discovered a cure for pylene 50 poisoning - full reversal and restoration of the personality, no less. A chance contact with a Vilkonen agent had named Jenna as being particularly involved in the search for an antidote. His present position on Remus in Vandor territory was becoming uncertain, as Vandor was getting very friendly with the Federation and talking about extraditing fugitives. Could she help?
After a moment's thought, Jenna tapped out her reply. Convince me that you are the real Docholli.
We only met for a few minutes and I don't remember everything that was said, but you're the lovely lady who wanted to shoot Travis. What a pity Blake stopped you. Still, I hear that Travis is dead and I hope it's true.
Perfectly true. OK, I'll consult my crew and come back to you.
"Too good to miss, isn't it?" commented Brig. "We shouldn't waste any time.
"Maybe it's too good to be true," Jenna worried. "We can't be sure it's not a trap. Somebody could have re-captured Docholli, and Vandor's quite capable of doing the Federation's dirty work for them - remember those funny rumours last year about a rigged contest with Teal? Servalan was said to be involved in that."
"It could be a private attempt for the sake of the reward," said Lucien. "Perhaps somebody who knows about Docholli is trying to set us up."
"They could spring a trap in space or on the planet," Brig reckoned. "If we go prepared with plenty of surveillance, we should be ready for trouble. I'll get some decoy drogues from BG in case we're involved in a chase. I say we go for it."
"Yes, I'm for it." His eyes were shining fervently. "If we pull this off, the Federation's pylene campaign will be stopped in its tracks."
Jenna smiled wryly at his enthusiasm. "Then we'll just have to hope it's genuine," she said.
When Jenna arrived at the Daugava base, it was in turmoil and Blake was nowhere to be found.
"What's all this?" she asked Klyn, Deva's communications officer.
"We're moving on. Just leaving a few people here to run things." Klyn was looking harassed, as she often did. She was a rather prim sort of person to be working in such raffish company, but she was obviously devoted to Deva and practically worshipped Blake, which evidently motivated her to put up with the inconveniences of such a life.
"That was quick," Jenna commented. "Where next?"
"Ugh - I don't envy you, it's got a poisonous reputation. Has Blake already gone? He didn't say he would be away."
"No. He'll be back tomorrow morning."
"OK, let's find Deva. I need to know if he wants me to unload here."
"Blake, you're getting bulky," said Jenna, prodding his midriff with a finger. They were aboard the scoutship, having their customary `happy reunion' in the comfort of her cabin.
He laughed as he got to his feet. "It's my bounty hunting persona, Jenna. It makes me look like a hard man. The villains we're dealing with expect their leadership to be even more villainous than themselves. As for the scar, it's worth a squad of bullies for intimidating recalcitrants. I shan't be going to the plastic surgeons in the near future."
She rose and stretched. "Well, you certainly do look thoroughly villainous. And to think what a wide-eyed innocent you looked when I first met you." She chuckled reminiscently, then squeaked breathlessly as he demonstrated his bear-hug technique.
"I was never a wide-eyed innocent," he said firmly.
"You looked it, though. Vila used to say you were a fluffy-cheeked amateur," she countered provocatively.
"Only at theft. Revolution is my profession." And he twirled her playfully round to emphasize his point.
Somewhat later, they moved into the cramped galley to make themselves a meal and to discuss their recent activities. Now she gave him an outline of the planned ambush and change of identity.
"What would you have done about the Docholli message, Blake?"
"Same as you, I expect. Gone for it cautiously, suspecting a trap."
"It's a pity our own detection shield production isn't set up yet. I'd be a lot happier if we all had its protection."
"How does it compare with Avon's version?" he asked.
"Very similar performance, which says a lot for Avon's ability, working alone as he did. It's quite a complex thing to manufacture and some components are expensive, but Aasa Vilkonen has bought out a company which can do the job in secret. Another few months and it'll be in production."
"Aasa will want to make a good profit from it. When it gets known, the demand will be terrific."
Jenna gave a short laugh. "Huh. I should claim a percentage for discovering it - can't have her thinking I've gone soft. You seem to have expanded your numbers considerably, Blake. The base seemed very crowded when I arrived."
"Yes, it's going well. I think you should be introduced to some of the senior ranks and become part of the organisation - take your place in the chain of command, as it were."
She gave him a quizzical look. "Are you trying to keep me here?"
"Perhaps. You're very important to me. Life seems much saner when you're around."
He paused for several moments.
"In my opinion we've come to a point of departure. From now on, supplies and personnel have to be brought in under cover of legitimate operations like this one. Every rebel group should be fronted by a commercial company of some sort - who knows, they might even make money for the cause. As far as possible, I want to see an end to obvious guerilla activity. We should be trying to get our people into all levels of government."
"You're talking like a psychostrategist," Jenna commented. "I wish we had one or two in the ranks."
"So do I. They think long-term. I hope that Avalon will come round to this way of thinking before long. In my opinion, she's living on borrowed time."
"If the ambush works, we might persuade her to stage a similar disaster for herself," said Jenna. "That might really lull the Feds into false security."
"Perhaps. Incidentally, your efforts in acquiring good artificial intelligence have been immensely helpful, and your colleague, What's-her-name..."
"Erryn," supplied Jenna.
"She's a real find. We must continue to develop this area for operational control and identifying useful information from the noise of Federation communications. Of course, what we really need is another Orac."
"Have you ever thought of searching for the original, or decoying it back into your service?"
"Well, yes," he admitted. "I've put out feelers which might have some effect."
"Hmm... Orac probably comes complete with Avon. What would you do with him?"
"Persuade him," Blake said, with the utmost deliberation.
Lying wakeful beside his sleeping lover, Blake's mind was running on the problem of Avon. None of Liberator's crew had been exactly biddable: Gan's opinions on subjects like the Terra Nostra were often as powerful as his physique, Vila at his most apparently docile was invariably plotting mischief, Jenna had few qualms about defying orders she disagreed with, and Cally was immovable once she dug her heels in over a point of principle; but they were all simplicity itself compared with Avon.
What if he did find him again? Could he persuade him to co-operate, to allow access to Orac? He had once prided himself on his ability to handle his disparate crew, but now he wondered if that was more by luck than by judgement. Once again he found himself speculating on that indefinable bond between himself and Avon. He had often tried to quantify it, and although it always eluded him, it was nonetheless real and powerful. Maybe it had something to do with the attraction of opposites. Yet Avon himself was a mass of contradictions - verbally opposing Blake's altruism with all the cold logic at his command, while stepping forward to shield him from actual danger or rushing to extricate him from whatever pit he had fallen into. Blake could never make out what Avon really felt for him. His own feelings for Avon were confused enough, but upon one thing he was completely clear - he wanted him back.
Jenna stirred slightly beside him and he smiled tenderly to himself. The complexity of his relationship with Avon contrasted vividly with the straightforwardness of his feelings for his feisty pilot. He could recall other women from his past, when he had been young, carefree and popular, but no deep abiding love like this. Or was there such a one from his lost years? There he could envy Avon his undamaged memory of his own past, even the pain of his mysterious lost Anna.
Let the past go, he told himself. You have a future. Find Avon and include him in that future.
Aasa was amenable, although her price for the hire of a freighter made Jenna wince. The sooner they had a replacement for Ursa, the better.
"I like your cousin," commented Aasa, during their initial consultation, "Very courteous. He's got some good ideas for the future, too."
So, Brig's been charming Aasa, eh? Jenna recalled with amusement a brief confrontation with Servalan at Dunkassa, where her taciturn cousin had diverted attention from her own precarious hiding-place with a rather surprising display of gallantry. Well, all to the good, she reflected. At least one of the crew should be on very good terms with the Vilkonen leader and it could hardly be herself.
"I'm glad you like him," she answered. "I rely heavily on Brig, and it's his ship we're proposing to destroy, so we must find a really good replacement."
"It's just a thought," said Aasa, "but how about one of those Princess Class passenger cruisers? Recession and the galactic war nearly wiped out the cruise business, so there are droves of them laid up in various places. That type is designed to convert easily to freight carrying and quite a few have been used to replace wartime merchant losses, but you could still pick one up very reasonably. They're reputed to have a very good turn of speed."
"Good idea, I'll get Margit on to it. Has Brig mentioned his sister? She's normally with us, but she was detained at home with family problems for this voyage. I miss her, she's always good company - you'd like her. Lucien is filling in for her. By the way, what do you think of Lucien?"
Aasa smiled gently. "A bit of a romantic. I find myself playing up to his high-flown notions of resistance leader, which is a strain, because, as you know, I'm basically a businesswoman."
Jenna chuckled sympathetically.
"I made some enquiries about installing remote control on your ship," Aasa continued. "BG's Warehouse can get you the equipment and recommend someone to install it. They think it's for me, of course. I haven't discussed your plan with anybody except your crew."
"What do you think of it?"
"Very necessary. Someone in Space Command has sworn to get you and is prepared to hunt you through independent territory. That is something we want to discourage. It could be us next. You saw what they did to Hindrik."
"Maybe that's what they're hoping for," said Jenna. "That our associates will turn us in to be rid of a nuisance."
"Probably. I was thinking of using an Amagon agent to do the actual business of betrayal. That should look convincing as the Feds are bound to know about Tarvin's family trying to avenge his death."
"In that case, I think we should set up the ambush in the Hadramut region. It would appear quite natural for an Amagon to get wind of it and betray us."
Aasa nodded. "What are you going to do now?"
"Head for Regis Two to collect the hardware and have some trials. Then I want to have consultations with the others about setting up our new company. I want a fairly radical change of organisation and tactics, in line with Blake's new policies."
"All this is going to take time," Aasa remarked. "Can Blake manage without you for several months?"
"I reckon so. Deva's opened the new base at Gauda Prime and they can order supplies officially. In fact, it would look odd if they didn't. Also, we've been stockpiling certain essentials. Blake can get by without me for quite a long time."
Collecting the remote control equipment and the robotics experts who were to install it went smoothly enough. BG's reputation for efficiency and confidentiality was well deserved, although it usually came with a steep price tag, especially where unusual services were required.
The robotics experts were a man and wife team who talked a specialised jargon so obscure that it might have been an alien tongue. Their working method was fast and efficient and trials were held in an unfrequented area of the local asteroid belt. Aasa Vilkonen sent her cousin Haakon with the captured Federation pursuit ship that Hindrik's men had taken more than a year ago, to play the role of hunter, while Ursa's crew practised shadowing with the scoutship and remote control until each of them had mastered the techniques.
The experts did numerous adjustments and made several suggestions. Jenna found them an interesting couple and had several valuable consultations with them, particularly on the topic of new developments. She began to feel that tingle of excitement which always accompanied the opening up of new vistas.
The Vilkonens were clearly impressed by the rapid manoeuverability achieved with Ursa.
"I certainly wouldn't guess that she was under remote control," Haakon told Jenna, as they gathered in his comfortable wardroom after the trials. "And my communications officer hasn't detected your control signals with the ship's equipment. My main comment is that when you appear on the screen for your surrender message, I can recognise the background - those scoutships are fairly distinctive."
"Good point. We want them to see me and Brig in the right setting." Jenna turned to the robotics couple. "How about it?"
"Colour separation overlay," Manda, the wife, answered. "The viscast companies do this all the time. Rig up a green reflection screen behind you and project a picture of the correct background onto it. Lucien should be safely offside at the robot controls."
"Order the equipment." said Jenna.
The talk turned to methods of producing an explosion of sufficient strength to destroy any ship in the immediate vicinity without damaging the scoutship as well.
"Are we going to need a thermo-nuclear device?" Jenna wondered.
"Not if you're going to heave to and offer a surrender," said Haakon. "Some Gemitan for the primary detonator and a hold full of cheap chemical explosive, packed round with metal pieces for a shrapnel effect, should do. Sufficiently large pieces of metal will damage the hull of a cruiser beyond the capacity of its repair system to cope."
Jenna frowned slightly. "If they analyse the traces after the bang, they shouldn't find anything they don't expect a blockade-runner to carry. They have to believe it's accidental or suicide. Any scent of a trap and we've done all this for nothing."
"The main drive can produce quite a bang if we override the safety system," Lucien contributed.
"Yes, but not enough by itself," said Brig. "The older generation could go up like a supernova, but this system is designed not to."
"Throw in the lot," said Haakon. "Engines first, then the cargo. If they've actually fired on you, they might even believe it was the result of a hit."
"I'd try to avoid any hits, because they could detonate the explosives when the Feds are too far away to suffer any damage themselves." Jenna remarked. "I want Ursa to take an escort of Feds with her."
Haakon smiled understandingly. "A voyage to Valhalla?"
"If you like," said Jenna. "One for Hindrik, perhaps."
"Heave to, Ursa. We have you surrounded."
This was it - mouth dry, and hands clammy with suspense, Jenna switched to visual and her screen lit up to reveal the Federation officer addressing her. Now he could see her, too.
"I protest! We are law-abiding citizens of Regis, a neutral system, and you are far outside Federation territory. This is an outrage." She infused a mixture of terror and indignation into her voice which was not entirely assumed.
The man on the screen was not impressed by such arguments. A handsome man in a hawkish way, his face wore an expression of mockery.
"You are Jenna Stannis, a Federation citizen by birth, a Space Fleet deserter, and a convicted smuggler. Your association with Roj Blake and his criminal gang is notorious, and since the galactic war, your activities have caused the Federation a great deal of trouble. Now heave to, or take the consequences."
"I fought the Andromedans too," muttered Jenna, but she gave the signal to Lucien to initiate Ursa's reverse thrust from his robot controls. The man's smile grew even more patronising as the ship began to slow to a halt.
"Can't we come to some agreement?" she temporised. "I'd like to make my peace with the Federation. If they were willing to drop some charges, there's a lot I could tell them."
Visible alongside her, Brig gave a fierce scowl, but said nothing.
"I'm sure there is, and I don't doubt they'll get it all out of you," the officer answered silkily, "Do your plea-bargaining with the Justice Department. All you have to do now is follow my instructions."
"Very well. What are they?"
"Two of my pursuit ships will come alongside and hook you on a tractor beam. A transfer tube will be rigged for the arresting officers to come aboard, and you will be taken onto one of the ships. Any tricks and we'll destroy you."
Jenna let her head droop dispiritedly. "You know we're not armed," she said.
"I also know that you've probably got a hold full of weaponry, so you two sit where I can see you until the officers come aboard."
Jenna and Brig sat in silence for the next few minutes, the picture of dejection. On their earpieces they could hear the chatter between the Federation ships and they could watch the instrument panel feeding data from Ursa's sensors. Below the console table, out of sight of the main com-unit, several monitors were relaying signals from Ursa's external cameras.
"Tractor beams locked on, sir," reported a voice. "Reeling her in now."
Ah yes, there was a pursuit ship on the port monitor, rapidly growing larger as it approached. Jenna glanced at the next monitor and saw that a second vessel was approaching head on, cutting off any escape route, as its commander thought. When a hatch opened in the side of the first vessel and the nose of the transfer tube made its appearance, she judged it time to spring the trap.
Raising her eyes to the com-unit screen, she spoke.
"Who am I addressing? Which squadron is this?"
"I am Squadron Commander Rotha of the Twelfth. Why?"
Jenna let her voice harden as if with resolve.
"Well, Commander, an Auron colleague of mine used to say she would have companions for her death, and I find that idea rather attractive at this point."
She watched his expression dissolve into alarm as he reached for his communicator.
"Too late, Commander."
Praying that everything would function as planned, she pressed the trigger device. There was a fierce violet flash from the lights Brig had set up, just before her com-unit sender cut out. Now she could watch the Commander unseen by him. Looking down at Ursa's camera monitors, she saw their pictures flare out.
"Look at this!" called Brig, pointing to the scoutship's main screen.
A huge explosion engulfed all three vessels, and large chunks of flying debris registered on the detectors.
"Bull's eye!" yelled Lucien, kicking over the projection screen as he jumped up.
Hands shaking with relief, Jenna activated the main drive for a pre-programmed fast exit. They were at a nominally safe distance, but she wasn't inclined to take any chances.
Commander Rotha's panic-stricken face still filled the communications screen as he yelled orders to his remaining ships to take immediate evasive action. She would enjoy playing back that tape later on, but for now she was concentrating on her getaway. The little spacecraft hurtled into the darkness.
Vilkonen headquarters were ecstatic. The scoutship recording revealed that not only had the two ships alongside Ursa been destroyed, but a third vessel had been so badly holed that its crew had to be evacuated. Neutral vessels had witnessed the conflict and reported the damaged ship being towed away. The news spread rapidly, Ursa was represented far and wide as an innocent merchant freighter and indignation rose to the boil. The local government promptly sent the Federation ambassador home with a strongly worded protest about violation of neutrality, and other independents in the area began to talk about strengthening defensive alliances.
Eventually, the Federation grudgingly paid half the reward money to the informant, one of Druza's men, self-righteously pointing out that the severity of their own losses would cost them far more. The informant replied coldly that his information had proved to be perfectly correct and he was not responsible for Space Command's ineptitude. There the matter rested, but Erryn, hacking into a Space Command database a few days later, discovered that Brig and Jenna Stannis had been listed as dead, and Ursa as destroyed.
"A very satisfying exercise," said Haakon, as he came to bid them farewell. "I have an idea that I can adapt your remote control technique for a project that I have in mind."
Brig obligingly asked him what it was.
"The rescue of all the Keravala prisoners."
Haakon flashed them that old reckless Vilkonen grin and Jenna's heart turned over. It was as if Aulius himself stood before her again, and she was overcome with an idiotic breathlessness.
Pull yourself together, she told herself severely.
"What does Aasa think about it?" Brig was saying.
"Ah well, I haven't put it to her yet," Haakon replied. "I shall need a water-tight plan before getting any approval from her. And don't worry, Jenna," he added, watching the play of expression across her face, "I won't be involving any of you. I'm sure I can recruit plenty of our own people - perhaps an Amagon or two."
"Certainly," said Jenna, thoroughly relieved. "Provided you can offer them some loot."
Another incorrigible, she thought, as Haakon waltzed lightheartedly away. Still, the more trouble he causes Space Command, the better.
"Here's a copy of the Space Command communiqué about Jenna Stannis, Commissioner," said the duty officer, entering Servalan's office.
"Good." She held out her hand to receive it. "You may go."
With eager anticipation she dropped the visdisk into its slot and pored over the contents. Besides a transcript of the squadron commander's report and his court martial preliminary hearings, scanner data and the final short interview with Stannis herself were included. Concentrating hard, she reran it several times.
Eventually she leant back, convinced. It all fitted, even down to the analysis of explosive residues. As the commander had said, the ship had a hold full of weaponry and the Stannises had rigged a self-destruct mechanism as the last resort. Many other freetraders were reputed to have done likewise.
So - Jenna Stannis was gone, and with her all prospect of interrogation, personal vengeance, or a hostage to bring Blake into her clutches. No doubt the woman had a good idea of what lay in store for her if she was ever captured, and made very sure she wouldn't be. Servalan felt no sympathy for the Twelfth Squadron, but she acknowledged that their orders to take the freetraders alive if possible had exposed them to just such a kamikazi attack. The commander's advocate was making vigorous use of that fact in the hearings. Well, there was no profit in wasting time on might-have-beens - write them off and turn to more pressing matters.
"Is Keiller here yet?" she said into the intercom.
"Show him into the interview room."
There were to be no more meetings at Keledon. Ursa's destruction had received wide publicity, so the Stannises must never reappear to give the lie to reports of their deaths. Margit, as sole surviving proprietor of Ursa Major Holdings, claimed the company assets, and prepared to wind up the company and depart the planet. In fact, most of the cash had already been transferred through a series of untraceable moves to the new company that she and Mikhail Brand had set up in readiness. This ploy was meant to avoid awkward investigations and taxation, and Margit explained to the officials that the money had been withdrawn to pay for the cargo aboard the ship when it was destroyed. Whether they really believed her, she wasn't sure, but they let it go at that.
Axel and Karsh and the other pylene victims would remain at their training centre for some months yet, then Mikhail would return them to Aasa's guardianship at Gabradar.
Leaving Keledon was a wrench. Some eighteen years of her life had been spent on this pleasant world. Two ex-husbands and their two children resided here, and she was still deeply attached to them all. Her daughter's reaction to reports of her relatives' deaths was muted, but her son's grief was so extreme, that after a few days she relented and let him into the secret, exacting a solemn promise from him not to be too theatrical in his outward professions of sorrow, but to exhibit a becoming stoicism. Carrying off such a deception, she added tartly, would be valuable experience for his future career, whatever it turned out to be.
Ping laughed, then suddenly transformed himself into an adult.
"When I've got myself properly educated and trained," he said quietly, "I hope to be very useful to you."
Margit felt an unaccustomed lump in her throat.
"So you shall," she said, wrapping her arms around him for a farewell hug.
The new company began trading from another planet with the leased freighter that Aasa had supplied, but Brig and Jenna did not go with her. At their first board meeting, Mikhail proposed that Lucien, now a partner, should captain it with a crew of four, drawn from the ranks of Blake's growing band of adherents. The Stannises' well-known faces should not be seen around the usual ports any more, he insisted, and they regretfully agreed.
All the equipment that had been stripped out of Ursa was fitted into the new ship. Lucien joked that it now contained so much surveillance ware that it should be called Argus after the legendary possessor of a thousand eyes. Thus the freighter got its name.
Margit was now doing the rounds of dealers, looking for a permanent replacement for Ursa, giving each proposed bargain a thorough inspection and haggling over the price. She hoped to come up with a decent vessel in the near future.
"Well, what are we going to do, Jenna?" enquired Brig, as they watched Argus's departure.
She didn't reply for some moments, looking somewhat undecided. Finally, she said rather hesitantly, "Brig, now's your chance to drop out of all this, to take your share and set up on some remote planet like Margit's old flame Jacey - to settle down with a woman, maybe."
"A woman?" Brig shook his head gently. "No. My one and only was swept away in the wreckage eighteen years ago, like your parents and Tod. I've never wanted another."
A hard lump came into Jenna's throat as it always did when she recalled her lost family. Her brother Tod had only been about Ping's age when the Federation decided to destroy the Stannises, root and branch, and confiscate their business assets. The Vilkonens and other independents had suffered too, but to a lesser extent.
"I'm sorry, Brig," she murmured shakily. "I never knew about her, and Margit never said anything."
"How could you? You never met her, and in spite of her chatter, Margit knows how to keep her mouth shut."
He paused, and she knew he was conjuring up the image of his one and only.
"Her name was Mel," he added presently.
To carry them over this melancholy moment, they drifted over to the drinks dispenser and dialled for coffee.
"Now Jenna, what are we going to do?" he repeated, briskly.
"Go and join Blake on Gauda Prime for a while. His organisation is growing rapidly and we can make ourselves useful there until Margit comes up with the new freighter. I've got ideas about future campaigns, and I want to continue the search for a pylene antidote."
"Good. We'll go, then."
The following day, as they were loading for the voyage to Gauda Prime, Mikhail boarded the scoutship at a run. He had just received a message from Erryn - Contact me on the scrambler, immediately - followed by the phrase which would specify the code of the day.
Eagerly, they clustered round the communications console.
"Your pal Avalon has done it! She's overthrown the pro-Federation government on Balin. Those that aren't dead have skedaddled, and the security forces have thrown in with her." Erryn's face was alight with mischief. She adored chaos and tumult - from a safe distance.
"Well, well," said Jenna, with a chuckle. "President Avalon, eh? I like the sound of that."
"Nope, she's putting forward a local dissident leader as candidate and planning to hold free elections as soon as possible. She means to be security chief, probably because that's where the real power lies. By the way, she says don't use the name Avalon any more, from now on it's Zena Hofer. Do you suppose that's her real name?"
"What do you think their chances are?" Jenna asked Mikhail, when Erryn had logged off.
"Not bad. With Balin gone, the only other Federation ally in that region is Sanga which has quite a weak government."
"Avalon has an organisation there, too," she said thoughtfully. "I ran some supplies in to them last year. One more push, and maybe Sanga will topple."
"Then the trick will be to fend off the reconquest," said Brig with a wry grimace.
As she left the ship arm-in-arm with Mikhail, Jenna couldn't help smiling to herself rather ruefully.
"It's nearly three years since you forecast that I would become a freedom fighter, rather than a freetrader," she reminded him.
"It was quite obvious even then,"
"Well, I tried to go back, but I ended up embroiling other freetraders in my schemes instead. What happened to the Vilkonens has to be due in part to my activities. I have to live with that."
He checked and turned to face her. "They know how much is owing to your campaign and how much to their own activities. Everyone knew that a Federation strike was on the cards, even if nobody could foresee the form it would take. If they held any grudge against you, you'd soon hear about it."
"True. But I must be more careful in future. Allies are like gold dust, they must be treasured. No more reckless escapades, and no more publicity."
"Many would say that flying off to join Blake was a reckless escapade," he said, with a quizzical smile.
"I can't help it," she replied, suddenly cheerful again. "The call of the rebellion is just too strong. In spite of myself, I'm committed to it - and to Blake."
Standing on tiptoe, she craned up and gave him a hug and a hearty kiss.
He reciprocated with a laugh.
"We're all mad, you know."
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