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Interminable Nightmare

By Marian Mendez
Page 2 of 13

"I do not know, Vila." Cally stared blankly into space. "I did wonder why Blake never contacted us. And at the end he was ... increasingly disillusioned and bitter." She shook her head. "No. No, I do not wish to believe it. There must be an explanation. Orac does not always have all the facts, as he has told us many times."

"It might be some sort of cover," Dayna said.

Tarrant shook his head. "A cover that involves turning people in to the Federation? I don't like the sound of it. That's a dirty business, not one I'd expected Saint Blake to go in for." After a pause, he went on, "If it wasn't for Avon, I'd say to give Gauda Prime a wide berth."

"But it's Blake," Vila protested. "He wouldn't turn us in."

"Wouldn't he?" Tarrant asked, sharply. "Think of it. He'd get Liberator and Orac back, along with a very hefty chunk of change. Even if he's still a rebel, it would be awfully easy to let the ends justify the means."

"What does that mean?" Vila wailed, snatching another drink from the tray.

Dayna explained, "It means, even if Blake is a rebel, we can't trust him, because our bounties would pay for a lot of rebellion. Maybe enough to salve a sore conscience."

"We must be very careful," Cally said. Her jaw tightened with determination. "Blake always tended toward fanaticism. If he has lost sight of loyalty in his quest for victory, then we may have to protect ourselves."

"I never thought I'd hear you talking that way about Blake." Vila looked more mournful than ever. "Why can't we all be friends and live in peace?"

"That is my fervent hope,Vila. That one day we will all live in peace." Cally patted his knee. "But until then, we must be practical. Once I would have trusted Blake with my life. I still would, but it is not only my life at stake."

"Whatever happened to 'he who trusts can never be betrayed, only mistaken'?"

"For Avon's sake, we dare not be mistaken," Cally replied. She rose abruptly. "Excuse me. It has been a long day. I think I should like to retire early. If someone would take my watch..."

Noticing the brightness of unshed tears in the Auron's eyes, Tarrant was quick to agree. "Yes, go on, Cally. I'll stand your watch. I was intending to stay anyway."

Cally nodded her thanks and left, disappearing swiftly down the corridor leading to their quarters.

After a lengthy pause, Dayna said, "Poor Cally. She loves both of them, doesn't she?"

"Nobody could love Avon," Vila replied. "But you can get kind of used to him. After a couple years. And Blake- well, he was her hero, wasn't he? I hope he still is."

Several days later, nearing Gauda Prime, Tarrant was alone on watch. He rather enjoyed the opportunity to commune with the ship, his ship. At least it would be his until they got Avon back. He didn't really begrudge Avon his 'ownership', though. Not once he discovered what a conscientious and skilled repair-technician the other man was. He'd known more than a few dedicated dockyard engineers. Despite their low-rank and grubby coveralls, they felt the same way about the ships they repaired. Only difference between them and Avon was that they lacked the arrogance to say it to the captain's face.

That was all right, Tarrant was a big enough man to cater to Avon's insecurities. And Avon did come up with some lovely schemes on occasion. And then, he was under no illusions as to who the other three followed. Privately, he considered himself and Avon partners.

+Information.+ Zen announced. +Liberator is under attack.+

"What!" The viewscreen was fuzzed with an assortment of small, swift ships that rose from the planet like hornets swarming from a disturbed nest. As Liberator shook to a near-miss, the resemblance sharpened.

"Get up here, on the double!" Tarrant shouted, calling the crew. He swore under his breath as he maneuvered the Liberator in a way her designers never envisioned, spinning the great ship on her axis to face the enemy. "Zen, Battle Computers on line!"

+Confirmed.+

"What?" was Vila's inevitable comment as he lurched onto the flight deck. He assessed the situation at a glance and dove for the weapons' console.

"Cally, get the Force Wall! Dayna, find out who these lunatics are!"

"They're not answering," Dayna announced. Her hands flew over the controls as she tried to identify the ships. "They're not Federation. They must belong to Gauda Prime."

"Well, we're sending them back in pieces. Vila!"

"I hear you, I hear you!"

There were a great many of the smaller ships. It seemed that every time Vila destroyed one, two formed from the debris. Despite her greater firepower and superior shielding, Liberator was taking a pounding.

"We can't take much more of this," Dayna announced, clinging to her post as the entire ship lurched and shimmied.

"We'll have to break orbit," Tarrant agreed. "These are short-range ships, they can't follow us far."

"I'm going down," Cally said, running from her position to Orac's stand. She snapped the key into place and ordered, "Orac, feed the coordinates for Arlen's last transmission into the teleport." Then she said, "Dayna, you will have to operate the Force Wall."

Dayna came, automatically checking the controls as she took over from Cally. "But you can't go by yourself. Let me come with you."

"No. We need you here!" Tarrant shouted. He knew it was useless to argue with Cally on this point and hadn't even tried, but Dayna was another matter.

"Tarrant's right." Cally gathered a gun and power pack belt from the rack near Zen's wildly blinking fascia and strapped them on swiftly. She picked up Orac. "Orac will teleport me the next time you drop the Force Wall. Come back when you can. I'll try to call in every two hours. If you don't hear from me for three consecutive check-ins, then leave without attempting to follow me." She left the deck on the run.

"That sounds a lot like what Avon said on Terminal," Vila remarked.

"Shut up!" Dayna shouted, feeling a icy shiver run up her spine at the coincidence.

Cally had her gun out, sweeping the area, before she fully recovered from the hasty teleport. It took her a few seconds to realize she was surrounded by nothing more threatening than immense conifer trees in what looked like virgin forest. She straightened, and relaxed slightly. She lifted her teleport bracelet to report, "Down and safe. Good luck, Tarrant."

"Good luck, Cally. Keep your head down. This isn't a friendly planet."

"Yes. Go now, while you can." Cally shut off her bracelet's signal. After a long briefing by Orac, she knew enough about Gauda Prime to keep her transmissions short. It was not an unpleasant world, in itself. But many of its residents were hunters who tracked human prey.

Orac had also given her a place to start and an image of Arlen taken from Space Command's security dossier. That would be enough. It had to be. She consulted her compass, previously adjusted for Gauda Prime's magnetic field, and set out, striding with determination. She never gave up and she was a lot harder to kill than she looked. Let Gauda's predators beware.

Arlen was even easier to find than Cally had hoped. Orac had suggested the Federation agent was based in a small community which was roughly equidistant between her last four transmissions. The 'town' was an eclectic collection of prefabricated buildings, ramshackle sheds and an occasional sturdy structure made of local wood and stone, undoubtedly left by the previous owners- the ones who'd been slain for their lands.

One of the largest of these original buildings had been turned into what passed for a recreation center, with rooms upstairs to let by the quarter hour, and a well-stocked bar on the ground floor. It seemed the best place to start. Cally entered, coughed at the drug-laden smoke that eddied and swirled within, and steeled herself against the filth, both physical and spiritual, that she encountered. The coldness in her eyes kept pawing brutes away while she scanned the raucous crowd gathered at the bar. There was some sort of confrontation. Cally made her way to the center of the confusion to find Arlen shouting obscenities at a drunken Federation officer. The woman was playing the role of rebel awaiting recruitment with conviction, but she gave herself away when she saw Cally watching her.

No one else would have noticed more than a slight widening of Arlen's eyes, but the surge of hatred that accompanied it was impossible for a telepath to miss. Cally's hand dropped to the hilt of her hand-gun, hidden beneath the drape of her tunic. If Arlen denounced her now, there would be a free-for-all.

The officer lifted his Federation-issue laser-rifle. Arlen snarled and produced a small weapon of her own. She shot first, snatching the man's rifle as he fell. A man knelt beside the body. "He's dead!"

Arlen backed up, waving the rifle indiscriminately around the room. "Stay back! First one sets foot outside is as dead as this Federation garbage." She continued backing until she reached the door. She paused, staring at Cally, then abruptly whirled and was gone.

No one seemed inclined to follow, but neither were they particularly frightened, returning to their drinks and other diversions. The man who'd pronounced the Federation officer dead hoisted the limp body over his shoulder and headed for the back door. Presumably, the others expected him to rob the corpse, then dump it in the alley for collection with the rest of the rubbish, but Cally doubted it. It was much more likely that Arlen and two Federation cronies had just staged a bit of street theater. Realistic, albeit a bit crude. Cally waited a moment longer, then slipped out after Arlen.

She caught up in an alley. "Don't," Cally said, holding her gun in a steady hand. "You'll never make it. "

Arlen straightened, letting the laser-rifle dangle. "What do you want?"

"I want to talk to you. Without the gun, either of them." She motioned with her chin, keeping the Liberator gun leveled on Arlen's mid-section.

Arlen loosened her grip, and the rifle slid to the ground. With exaggerated delicacy, she picked her hold-out gun from its hiding place and let it follow the rifle.

"Back away from them." Cally followed Arlen back, deeper into the alley, where noisome muck caught at their heels.

Arlen stumbled.Cally instinctively moved closer and Arlen whirled upon her, fighting for possession of Cally's gun.


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