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Pursuit

By Tom Beck
Page 3 of 6

"I don't understand," Blake fretted. "We've blasted six of their ships into rubble. Why are they still following? They can't outgun us. Any sensible Federation commander would save his squadron.... What was that you said, Avon? Run like hell? Where to? And how? We can't even manage Standard by four."

"Blake, Orac has just decoded the signals to the command ship," said Avon. "That is Pursuit Squadron Three. The commander is someone named Sloman. He is receiving orders from the Sector capital on Taliant. Apparently his superiors also think he should abandon pursuit and save himself. They've given him a direct order to return, but he is refusing.... Wait a second.... He has just broken off communication with Taliant.... He sounded implacable. Sector Command is frantically trying to raise him. Apparently his are the only ships on Sparloc we didn't destroy. Sector Command would rather not leave Sparloc completely undefended."

Blake stared at Avon. "A direct order to abandon and return and he switched off? He won't hold that command much longer."

Another plasma bolt rocked Liberator.

"Information," Zen stated. "Shields five and six are down. One, two and four are at minimum. Damage to the rest of the ship is considerable. Recommend a period of inactivity to allow repairs to proceed."

Two more plasma bolts landed. Liberator shuddered. Blake slipped. Only Avon's quick action in grabbing him saved him from hitting the floor.

"A rest period is now imperative," Zen said. "Damage will soon be irreparable."

"What was that about their not being able to outgun us, Blake?" said Avon. "They're certainly trying very hard."

"We just destroyed their sixth ship," Blake responded. "At this rate, they won't have anything left soon."

"Neither will we." Another plasma bolt hit.

Jenna and Cally joined them. "Blake," said Jenna, "if we head for Derona, we may just lose them between the planet and its moons."

"It's worth a try," Cally added. "We can't stay out in open space. That just gives them a free shot at us."

Blake nodded. "Do it."

With Jenna at the controls, Liberator approached Derona, an ugly greyish-white ball. Within minutes, an orbit had been taken up. There was no sign of pursuit ships.

"I think that's done it," Blake said. "Zen, any sign of them?"

"No," said the ship. "They may be on the far side of the second moon. Repairs are proceeding. Estimate that Liberator will need seventy-two hours to complete repairs and to recharge all energy banks."

"Orac," Blake asked, "are you picking up anything?"

"Routine intership transmissions," replied the supercomputer. "The two intact pursuit vessels are searching for us. They are both badly damaged, but are operational. They are still receiving orders to return to Sparloc, which Squadron Commander Sloman refuses to acknowledge."

Blake was bothered. "He's acting like he's on a suicide mission. Kill and be killed. Odd for a Federation officer. Even the most fanatic aren't usually that dedicated."

"Blake, I don't know for sure, but he sounded almost... well, almost personal," Avon said.

"It's as if he wants to get us, regardless of the cost. I can't make out why."

"Well, let's hope we don't have to find out," Blake said, chuckling a little.

Repairs were underway. Jenna and Blake were monitoring the orbit. Vila was assisting Avon. Cally and Gan were resting. There was still no sign of Pursuit Three.

"Maybe they did return to Sparloc," said Jenna.

"No, Sloman sounded too determined," Avon responded.

"Maybe they blew up. We hit them pretty hard," Blake offered.

"Orac would have detected something. No, they're out there. I don't like being hidden. They can't see us, but we can't see them. We should have finished them off."

"You may get a chance," Vila cried. "Look at the screen!" Suddenly the ship rocked and plunged.

"We've been hit!" Jenna yelled. "The orbit's decaying!" She struggled frantically with the controls, which bucked and squirmed in her hands like a living thing.

"Zen, where the hell did they come from?" Avon demanded. He had raised the force wall and was activating the neutron blasters.

"Analysis is that they came around the moon on a very tight orbital path. The gravitational pull may have damaged them."

"More than we already have, you mean," Blake muttered. "Jenna, are we stable again?"

"Just barely, Blake," the pilot said. "They're still on our tail, though." The screen lit up brightly.

"Not any more!" Vila said happily. "Looks like that's it for Pursuit Three!" There was nothing on the screen but space debris and the remnants of the explosions.

Plus many tiny flickering lights.

"Both ships were destroyed, but they launched some life capsules first," Avon reported.

"A few are drifting into space, but most are in planetary approach mode. They're putting out a general distress call. Orac, broadcast a jamming signal. We don't want any Federation rescue vessels surprising us before we can finish our repairs."

"Very well," replied the peevish supercomputer. "I cannot maintain the jamming for seventy-two hours, though. I suggest you stop the life capsules from broadcasting their distress signals."

"That means going down there," said Blake. "All right. Cally and Gan, get kitted up. The rest of you, give all priority to vital repairs on the ship. Nothing fancy, just get us ready to run. We'll be back as soon as we can." He followed Cally and Gan off the flight deck.

Avon watched his retreating back. "Don't hurry back on my account," he muttered.

#

"Barely habitable," Zen had said about Derona. Within seconds of teleporting, Blake understood what the computer meant. Derona was bleak and mean. It looked gray from orbit; it looked even grayer from the surface. Rocks and scrabble and no vegetation within sight. No wonder the Federation had never bothered settling it. You couldn't even use it as a prison planet--you'd never get guards to stay here!

They had come down on top of a hill overlooking a broad, ugly valley. They could see for miles. A low cover of putty-colored clouds imparted a dull, sad dimness to the chilly atmosphere. Blake looked around. Cally was already burying a cache of extra teleport bracelets in case any of them should lose one. Gan had contacted the ship; his lack of imagination meant the awful planet hadn't arrested his thoughts as it had Blake's.

He shook his head, cleared his thoughts. "All right," he said. "Don't waste any time. Find them and... stop them. Remember, they're trained Federation troopers. Killers. Don't take any chances. We'll meet back here in four hours. If you're not back, Zen will scan this area every hour after that. We're limiting the use of teleport to save power. So there will only be one pickup every hour. We're not sticking around seventy-two hours, though. Zen is to do the minimum amount of repairs that will let us go somewhere else to finish. As soon as that's done, the ship is leaving, with or without any of us, after four hours." Gan and Cally nodded, then headed off in separate directions, each guided by Orac.

There was a beacon a few hundred feet to the south. Blake headed there unsteadily. He felt tired. They should have had a chance to rest after the attack, savor it, recover. Instead, here they were, thrown from that frightening pursuit into a seek-and-destroy mission on a truly horrible planet. Blake didn't like killing with his bare hands unless he knew his victim, had a personal dislike. Or in self-defense, of course. At least when you blew up a ship from a distance of a thousand spacials, you didn't have to see your victims.

Fruitless thought, he chided himself. Part of being a rebel was accepting the dirty parts of the job. Part of being an adult was doing what you had to when you had to, regardless of what you really thought of it. Nevertheless, the cheery glow of that morning's successful attack was gone, irretrievably.

The wind was rising. lt was very cold on that barren steppe. blake shuddered, as much from loneliness as from the wind. He might have been the only living thing on the entire planet for all that he could see any other sign of life. Cally and Gan had completely vanished from sight.

Blake pushed on. It was taking him a long time to traverse a few hundred feet, he thought. A very difficult, broken, awful few hundred feet. Derona must be seismically very active, his engineer's mind reflected. A lot of earthquakes, volcanoes. He started up a small rise. If Orac was right, the beacon he was tracing should be just on the other side.

He reached the top, panting from exertion. Orac's directional signal was very strong. He looked around--there! Blake sprinted toward a ravine. A cracked-open escape shell lay sprawled on the bank. With gun drawn, Blake approached cautiously. He peered into the shell, then relaxed. It was occupied by a corpse, a badly burned one. Probably ejected just as his ship exploded, killed instantly. The beacon was broadcasting automatically. Blake stood back, aimed, and fired. The shell erupted with a satisfying roar. One down.

In the aftermath, Blake was drained. His heart was pounding and he was drenched with sweat. Gods, I'm jumpy, he though. And this was an easy one! Get a hold of yourself. He took a few deep breaths. "All right, Orac, where to next?" he asked.

"There is another beacon signalling from a point approximately two kilometers further along in the same direction you have been traveling," replied the supercomputer. "It is a very strong signal. It may be coming from the command escape unit. Proceed until further notice."

Two kilometers, Blake thought. On this kind of terrain, that would take an hour or longer to cross! He thought of teleporting, but decided against it. Too big a drain on Liberator's power. With a grimace, Blake trudged on, further and further away from the pickup point.

Suddenly, his bracelet beeped. "Blake here," he responded.

"Cally. I've dealt with two capsules, Gan with four. That's all that Orac can find. The others probably malfunctioned. We're heading back to the ship. Are you all right?"

"Yes, I'm fine, Cally. I've found one and destroyed it, and there's another one a couple of kilometers north of there. Should be back soon. See you back on board. Blake out."

Hiking songs were far from uppermost in Blake's mind during the march. He was trying to make maximum speed, but the ground was so fractured that he kept wearing himself out and having to rest. He had to climb a high tor of shredded rock and slipped twice, cutting himself badly. A river of frigid water was too deep to be forded, too wide to be jumped. He had to swim across; on the far side, the wind cut through his wet clothes like a laser lance.

Blake stopped at the edge of a bluff, scanning the plain in front of him. "What now, Orac?" he demanded. "I don't see a bloody thing anywhere."

"The capsule is still broadcasting, Blake, on a command channel. If it is Subcommander Sloman, I suggest you capture him. Interrogating a Federation officer would provide much intelligence on their weapons and tactics."

Despite his misery, Blake almost laughed at Orac's effrontery. Here he was on a hellish planet, cold, wet, and exhausted, about to face an enemy, and Orac was telling him to bring it back alive! "Orac, just tell me where he is. I'll deal with him any way I can."

There was a brief silence. Blake thought Orac might be a little miffed. "Very well. The signal is coming from about two hundred meters further north of you."


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