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From the Very Beginning

By Marian Mendez
Page 1 of 2

"Drop it!" Gan shouted. He was talking to the London's officers, but for an instant Vila was confused. He came close to obeying the command himself, catching his error barely in time.

Vila lifted his weapon with a boldness he didn't feel. "Do it," he added. "We've got you outnumbered."

The officers reluctantly surrendered.

As mutinies go, Blake's revolt aboard the London was routine. Once Blake's cadre seized the armory, the remaining prisoners joined them in rounding up the opposition. Blake attempted to be civilized about it, but Raiker had been cruel and the prisoners repaid him with interest. After Blake ordered the crew confined Raiker was taken out and killed.

Jenna stumbled over the body in the corridor. She was bothered by the event, not out of any love for the dead sadist, but for practical reasons. The crew had disobeyed the first order given by Blake.

She warned him, "Blake, this gang of cut-throats will kill us too, on the slightest provocation. I vote we get off this flying junk-heap at the nearest port. Let them keep it and welcome to it."

"I need them, Jenna. I can't fight the Federation bare-handed on a frontier planet. I must have men, men who hate the Federation, to join me in my fight. You'll see," he smiled, attempting to jolly her out of her pessimism, "once the suppressants wear off, they'll get back to normal."

"That's what I'm afraid of," she muttered to the broad back as he returned to his planning. "Normal psychopaths." Jenna turned and almost bumped into Avon. "Well, speak of the devil..." She regretted the words the instant they escaped her mouth.

Avon whirled on his heel. "Yes. Well, I'll just leave you to your own company, shall I?"

"No, Avon, wait." She laid a hand on the computer expert's sleeve. "I'm sorry. Blake's being pig-headed and I took it out on you. Did you want to talk about something?"

Accepting the apology, Avon turned back to her. "The same thing, really. Blake wants to investigate the derelict ship personally. I tried to tell him that this charming group can't be trusted without him to watch over them. Naturally, he knows better."

"I'll convince him if I have to get Gan to sit on him," Jenna said grimly.

Avon surprised her with a smile that transformed his dour features. "That might do the trick."

"All right," Blake grumbled, bowing to the combined arguments of Jenna and Avon. "But if I don't go, who's to lead the boarding party?" He gestured around the living quarters. Many of the prisoners were still in a drugged stupor, barely noticing the conference in their midst. "One of them?"

Avon observed the other prisoners, then looked at Gan, Vila and Jenna. "As the only Alpha male besides yourself, it would appear that the position devolves onto me."

"Why does it have to be an Alpha male?" Jenna asked, bristling at his implied dismissal.

He twitched his lips, almost making a smile. "You, I exclude for the same reason as Blake. You are necessary to our survival. You are the only pilot we have. Unless you would care to recruit one of Commander Leyland's men?"

"Sorry I asked," Jenna said.

"Yes, all right then, Avon will lead the party." Blake rubbed the back of his neck. "I'd like you to have two men as back-up. We don't know that the ship is uninhabited."

"I'll take Gan and Vila, then." Avon looked sour. "They're not much, but the best available."

"Not me," Vila protested. "I've done my bit. You aren't going to drag me onto an alien ship to be eaten by hairy monsters."

"By what perversion of logic do you arrive at the conclusion that there are `hairy monsters' on that ship?" Avon asked.

"Because there would be if I was there for them to eat. So I'm not going to be there." Vila crossed his arms and shook his head.

"Vila..." Blake growled.

"Oh, who needs him, Blake. I doubt if whatever is on that ship has any pockets that need picking. I'll take Arco instead. He's reasonably alert. He's certain to be more useful than this coward." Avon sneered at the Delta thief.

Vila flinched at the assessment, but didn't change his mind.

Blake met the boarding party at the transfer tube. "Have you got everything?

"Yes." Avon clipped a gunbelt onto his survival suit and held up the accompanying weapon, sighting along the barrel before he holstered it. "Are you ready, Gan, Arco?"

His companions nodded. They were as nervous as he was and showed it more.

"Keep your communications open. If you need help, yell." Blake operated the lock controls.

Avon sent a running commentary back to the London. Vila listened from his hiding place in the shadows not far from where Blake and Jenna stood. They were suited and armed, ready for a quick rescue if necessary.

"We've got the lock open, Blake. Simple enough. Why, Vila could have done it." Avon's snide remark carried clearly to Vila.

Vila crept further back into the niche.

"It appears to be an airlock...It's turning, Blake!"

"Avon! Is there a problem?" Blake shouted into the intercom link.

"No, no, it's all right. Some sort of lift, I believe. We're on what must be the flight deck. It's remarkable, Blake, highly advanced...what's that?" Avon sounded distracted.

"Avon?" Blake was worried when the technician didn't immediately reply. "Avon, answer me."

"What, didn't you hear him, Blake? He needs me, I must go to him..."

Screams erupted from the speaker, then silence. Blake lunged for the lock controls, only to find Jenna blocking him.

"Wait, Blake," she said.

"No," Blake pushed her aside. "I'm going in."

"I meant, wait for me." Jenna drew her weapon.

"I'm coming, too." Vila's voice wavered. He stepped out of the shadows and displayed the gun he'd kept as protection from his fellow convicts.

"Feeling guilty, Vila?" Jenna asked.

"Don't start on me." Vila took his place behind Blake as the lock opened. "Isn't it enough that I'm going to be eaten?"

They found the flight deck without difficulty. Gan and Arco were there, lying motionless on the deck. Avon was on his feet. He turned toward them, wild-eyed, and screamed incoherently as he attacked Blake.

Blake knocked him out, catching his body as it sagged. He deposited Avon on an upholstered U- shaped couch, then looked at the rest of the room with mingled suspicion and awe.

"What happened to them?" Jenna asked. She held her gun at the ready and pivoted, seeking an enemy.

"Something killed Gan and Arco, that's what happened to them." Vila knelt beside the bodies to confirm his diagnosis. "And it drove poor Avon mad as a hatter."

"Yes, but there's no one here." Jenna paused. "No, that's strange, I hear someone." As if pulled on a string, Jenna walked toward the front of the room.

A globe formed, floating with no visible means of support, flickering eerily.

"Yes," Jenna said, "I hear you. I'm coming."

Vila scrambled to his feet, staring at the globe. "Mum, is that you?" He followed Jenna, entranced.

"No." Blake heard voices and saw images, too, but they did not convince him. "You're dead," he said. "Those tapes are forgeries. No." He saw Jenna and Vila nearing the globe. "No, get back." He shoved the two of them clear and then fired at the globe, destroying it and its influence.

Jenna shook her head. "What was that?"

Blake replied, "I don't know."

Vila was still shaken. "I was me old mum, it was. And she was in trouble. I had to help her."

Jenna said, "That's similar to what I saw. Why didn't it affect you, Blake?"

"It did. But it seems I can recognize dreams."

Despite Vila's and Jenna's advice, Blake took the convicts from the London aboard the new ship, which Jenna had christened Liberator, before he dashed her hopes that the vessel would be a refuge from the London's dangerous cargo.

"Yes, Blake," Jenna said wearily, "Liberator is capable of supporting all of us. It isn't a question of air and supplies."

"I know, Jenna. You feel that the men aren't to be trusted." Blake gazed at her in his let-me-handle-it-I-know-best, fashion, which always set her teeth on edge. "The Federation never gave them a chance. Underneath it all, they're good men. You'll see."

"You just want an army to pursue your private vendetta, Blake. Give it up. Look what it's already cost Nova and Gan and Arco and Avon."

As usual, Blake only heard what he wanted to hear. "Yes." He frowned. "We'll have to do something about Avon. We can't keep him sedated and tied down in the medical unit forever."

"I didn't care much for your solution, Blake," Vila piped up, from the seat behind Jenna's. He stayed close to her, partly to atone for his guilt by protecting her from the increasingly rough advances of the crew, and partly because she was the only one he trusted to watch his back. Without suppressants, the ex-prisoners were returning to their normal personalities, which Jenna had pegged from the start. Blake turned a blind eye to the mayhem, labeling it horseplay, the natural release of pent up frustration. Vila called the beatings and knifings attempted murder. He locked Avon into the medical unit when he and Jenna weren't there to guard him, knowing that the crimos would enjoy torturing a helpless man. Blake wouldn't stop them, judging by the way he'd attempted to `take care' of Avon, right after they acquired LIberator.

"Why? What was Blake's solution?" Jenna was pleased that Blake had even thought about Avon. Sometimes it seemed that he couldn't see anything but his rebellion. Concern for Avon seemed a good sign. At least, it meant his obsession wasn't total.

"He wanted to leave him on the London. Let the Federation take the problem off his hands." Vila looked at Blake sullenly.

"It would have been best," Blake said. "We haven't the facilities he needs."

"I can't believe you would have done that, Blake. You know they don't give a damn what happens to us. The best they would have done was dump him on Cygnus Alpha. More likely, they would have put him out the airlock the instant we left."

"All right, you decide what to do with him, then. I'll abide by your decision." Blake smiled; making magnanimous gestures pleased him. "You and Vila have been taking care of him, so it's your right." He strode off the flight deck, satisfied with his generosity.

"I used to think that Blake was an idealist, and really cared about people," Jenna remarked to Vila once Blake was safely out of earshot.

"He is, and he does," Vila said. "In the abstract. Show him a real, live human being and all he can think is how to use him for the `Cause'." Vila sidled closer to Jenna and lowered his voice to a conspirator's whisper. "I'm jumping ship at the first half-way decent planet and I'm taking Avon with me. Poor bugger can't be any worse off. Do you mind?"

"Not if don't mind me coming with you." Jenna stared down the corridor Blake had taken. "I don't intend to be `useful'."

"We'll have to be sneaky, you know, Jenna," Vila cautioned. "Blake won't care about Avon and me, but you're the only pilot he's got."

"Not any more. I've been training one of Blake's pet crimos how to fly Liberator. Jack should do well enough, he's certainly got fast enough reflexes when it comes to getting in a pinch." She rubbed her backside. "I put up with it because I didn't want to strand Blake without a pilot. This way, I can tell myself, I gave him a chance."

"He won't accept Jack in your place, Jenna. You can fly rings around that baboon."

"I hadn't intended giving Blake a choice. Now, Vila, where had you in mind to take Avon?"

"Freedom City seems an odd choice for a mentally ill person, Vila. Or do you think Avon just needs a night out on the town?" Blake joked, trying to defuse Vila's grim mood.

"Freedom City isn't the only place on the planet, Blake." Vila strapped on a Liberator handgun. "They're neutral. The Federation won't bother Avon there. They have facilities where Avon can be properly cared for, I'm sure." He turned his back on the big rebel and began fussing over Avon. The computer expert had been given a lighter dose of tranquilizers than usual to enable him to walk under his own power to the teleport room and it left him trembling and fearful. Vila soothed him, combed his dark hair neatly and zipped up the thick jacket he'd put on Avon. The man's hands always felt cold to Vila, no matter how warmly he was dressed. Vila hated the cold himself and sympathized with Avon, who wasn't even able to complain about it.

"I'll go with you, Vila." Jenna appeared in the entrance to the teleport room. "You'll need help with him."

"I can send one of the others, Jenna. You needn't go," Blake said, reluctant to allow the pilot off the ship.

"You must be joking." Jenna clipped on a teleport bracelet, then went to help Vila with Avon. "I wouldn't trust one of those scummy crimos to walk my dog. Or are you saying that I'm a prisoner on your ship, and I can't leave it for an instant?"

"No, of course not, Jenna." Blake bit his lower lip. "But you know how I depend on you." He let his voice drop into its most seductive rumble on the last word.

Jenna's heart leaped for a instant, then she hardened herself. //Bastard. Put on a good show and think you can win me over. I will not be used. Especially not by a man who only gives a damn about me when he needs some fancy piloting.// She smiled in return and softened her voice. "I know, Blake. I just want some time to myself. Vila and I need to know that Avon will be in good hands. We have to do this personally. You do understand?"

"Yes, of course." Blake beamed. "We do owe him, after all."

Vila kept his mouth shut as he and Jenna gently guided Avon into position. The last the thief saw of the Liberator was Blake's worried face.


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