- BLAKE: Right, I think I can get you all home now. Zen,
set a course for Destiny, speed standard by six.
[Mission To Destiny]
- ZEN: Confirmed.
- VILA: Take us round the easy way this time.
So we arrived on the Liberator like a bunch of refugees with only the clothes we stood up in - Pasco, Grovane and myself, Levett, the survivors of Ortega's crew; plus Dr Kendal and Sonnheim from the government charter party - all in various states of shock. And the precious neutrotope, of course. A moment later the old Ortega blew up and Blake calmly informed us that he had booby-trapped it.
I'll acquit him of intentionally killing Sara along with her pirate colleagues, because he meant her to be returned to stand trial. After all, it was Avon who let go of her wrist in time for her to tear off the teleport bracelet and give us the slip, and Avon didn't know what Blake had done - or had he guessed?
Being the only female member of the crew, and priding myself on untemperamental professionalism, I kept my back straight, as I always do, but I was fairly frazzled by that time and in no mood for conversation, so I announced that I was sleepy and asked for a bunk somewhere. The pilot, Jenna, found me a cabin and I collapsed onto the mattress, expecting a morbidly restless few hours as I tried to come to terms with conspiracy, murder and revenge. To my surprise, I soon crashed out and almost slept the clock round.
Finally I roused myself from some vaguely threatening dream and looked around, bleary-eyed. While I was asleep, Jenna had brought me a silk kaftan and left a note directing me to the autovalet; so I showered, donned the robe, which was very pretty, dropped my clothes into the cleaner, and padded down the corridor in search of refreshments.
The ship was on night cycle, hushed and dimmed. I found Gan watching alone on the flight deck, got directions from him and made my way to the galley, hungry by now.
This was some ship, I realised, as I took in the facilities and the sheer size of everything. I'd had no opportunity to view it externally, since the ship had never approached closer than extreme teleport range, but just by looking at the interior, I could tell that it wasn't like anything I'd ever come across before. My professional interest was aroused. Casually at first, then with increasingly minute attention, I scanned everything in the galley as I ate. I was thinking about removing an inspection panel when the door slid back with a hiss. It was Avon.
He raised an eyebrow in greeting as he headed for the dispensers, and I returned a similar one but said nothing, content to sit and mull over what I'd seen. This was a warship - even my short acquaintance with the corridors indicated that - far too many cabins for a freighter's crew, ultra-high speed, a working teleport, and that elaborate flight deck with all those control consoles - like a fleet flagship. But whose fleet? It would be interesting to see what I could find out in the next few days of the voyage without being too obvious about it. It might help to take my mind off recent disasters.
"You have no questions to ask?"
I was rather startled at his query, but showed little reaction - I'm good at that.
"I'm sure Pasco and Grovane will do the asking. They're bound to tell me all about it, whether I want to know or not."
"What are you interested in, then?"
"This." I indicated our surroundings. "If your captain permits, I want to look over the ship."
"I expect he will. Blake seldom refuses people." There was a faint mocking edge to his voice, and I speculated for a moment about their relationship. Captain and first officer? Not exactly - they were a small civilian crew in a large military vessel and Avon wasn't the sort to fit into the usual hierarchies. I broke off this train of thought and asked what time the day cycle started. In about four hours, I was told.
"I do have a question," I said, after a moment. "How many days to Destiny?"
"About six more. We've just spent twelve hours recharging our power cells next to a binary star system. If you recall, Blake discovered that the neutrotope was missing when they ran into a large meteor shower. Keeping the shield up badly depleted the power. That's what comes of hurrying - this time we shall take a more sensible course."
I was quite right about Pasco. While I was sleeping he'd got together with that soul of discretion, Vila, and heard the whole story of the Liberator, which he promptly relayed to me.
Hmm... thief, smuggler, murderer, embezzler, a couple of revolutionaries and a salvaged alien ship with half of Federation Space Command after them. On the whole I liked the smuggler best, after all, freetrading is an ancient and honourable profession. After Jenna, Gan the murderer, (and who hasn't wanted to murder a Federation guard?) a strangely gentle soul struggling with legions of new concepts, determined not to be a liability to his colleagues. Blake, I probably would have liked much better but for his demolition of the Ortega. I had a share in her and I could readily visualise the insurance company refusing to pay up and Destiny's government being as stingy with the compensation as it could. Bummer! as my previous partner would say. Cally - a bit starry-eyed for me. Interesting to meet an Auron, though. Vila - just as well we hadn't brought any possessions aboard. Ingratiating, that was the word for him - very fond of female company, too. But he could teach me the rudiments of safe-breaking and lock-picking and those illicit arts which had always intrigued me and could be very useful on occasion. Yes, I'd cultivate Vila.
That left Avon - cool, sardonic, watchful Avon. Mind your p's and q's when he's around, I told myself. Watch carefully and don't say anything unnecessary.
How well would such an ill-assorted crew function? Sitting quietly among my colleagues, I watched covertly but critically as the Liberator's crew went about their daily round. With only one experienced spacer, they had formed a surprisingly efficient group in their few months together. Much of this must be due to Blake's leadership, allied with Jenna's training sessions.
Discipline was hardly military fashion, and they didn't exactly follow Ortega's rule of no quarrelling on the flight deck, either. Avon and Vila had several spats right in front of us, generally broken up by a sharp word from Jenna. Still, I had to admire the quality of their vituperation.
Blake and Jenna were partners, probably in more ways than one, often showing an unselfconscious accord. Jenna and Cally seemed to maintain an easy friendship, rather like two temperamentally dissimilar sisters. It was closer than anything I'd ever achieved with female colleagues. Maybe common peril drew them together.
Gan and Vila, too, were friends. The relationship must have sprung up in prison, probably for mutual protection. The strong man would protect the thief from predators, and the worldly-wise thief would entertain and inform the strong man. Vila was much the cleverer of the two, and when induced to carry out his duties, performed them with slapdash ease, whereas Gan laboured diligently but slowly at his.
I seldom saw Avon and Blake together, as their duty rosters generally kept them apart, but I suspected that being Avon's commanding officer would be no easy matter. I couldn't detect any of the comradely feeling between them that bound the rest of the crew, or for that matter, between Avon and any of the crew. The barriers, apparently, were up.
I rather wondered how he viewed himself - as the systems expert perhaps - a consultant rather than a subordinate. I found myself watching him, trying to assess his role. Once he turned his head and stared straight into my eyes with that hint of mockery he used so effectively. I returned his look with composure, but inwardly I felt that frisson one gets when caught watching too intently by the object of one's scrutiny.
How did he relate to the women crew members? Cally's manner was coolly asexual, and Jenna's body language indicated a preference for Blake and a slightly combative attitude towards Avon himself. Did Avon covet her, perhaps? Had he once given her the sort of trouble that Sonnheim was giving me? Or was it his resistance to Blake's authority that cast her in the role of an adversary?
Then I pulled myself up short for indulging in the kind of speculation that I despised in others. The crew's private relationships were no business of mine. However, I was not entirely successful in this, and my eyes continued to stray in his direction from time to time.
As Avon had forecast, Blake raised no objections to my exploring the Liberator, in fact he seemed pleased at my interest.
"You should study our on-line documentation first," he advised me. "We've been compiling it from Zen's databanks into a form that we can easily comprehend. Avon has worked particularly hard on it."
"Wasn't it in a form you could understand before?" I queried.
"Not really. Zen's machine code isn't Federation Standard, and like you, we wanted to study our acquisition and understand it."
He directed me to the `reading room' which they had equipped with viewers and printers and I spent most of the day browsing its contents. For hours I revolved the pictures and plans on the screen in wonder. This was a truly beautiful craft. That night it glided through my dreams like a swan on a black lake. No wonder Space Command was bent on capturing it. Disposing of a few rebels and criminals was one thing, but getting your hands on a spacecraft like this would be incomparable good fortune.