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Factions

By Alicia Ann Fox
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The flight deck was still as a tomb is still, filled with the death that had appeared on the viewscreen. No-one moved at first, they had been stunned as if by a heavy blow. At last Tarrant's fumbling fingers of themselves manually cut off the gory image of Blake's execution, replacing it with a black void sprinkled with delicate multicolored lights.

Vila said weakly, "I feel sick." The sight of spurting blood had caused his face to become like white chalk.

"That was Blake, wasn't it?" Dayna asked. "You're sure?"

"Oh yes," Cally said in a choked voice. "It had to be. Did you see the teleport bracelet?"

Avon had been standing before the screen; he now turned and wandered to the flight deck couch and sat, rather too suddenly to be as casual as he wished to appear. "Didn't do him any good, did it?" he said harshly, accusingly.

Cally ignored this unnecessary assault. "I didn't feel anything," she said quietly and painfully to the room in general. "I thought that I might have done."

Vila blanched, if it were possible, even further. "You mean when Gan--"

Cally seemed to shake herself out of some inner vision. Turning to Vila she said quietly, "No. No, there was nothing." Except from Blake himself.

"What are we going to do now?" Tarrant asked, when he could speak. The effect of the transmission on his recently met crewmates had shaken him; he hadn't realized exactly the mythical power Blake had held over them. Tarrant had already seen Cally's dedication and indomitable will, Avon's arrogant self-sufficiency. Both of them, bereft in the flash of projectile fire of their former leader, had crumbled.

Zen had overridden the combat scenario which Liberator's crew had been involved with and filled the viewscreen with a transmission directed to them from the anti-Federation government on Plautus. At first there was no visual, only a voice speaking out of a logo of green and gold stripes.

"Witness the death of a murderer! A man who shames the rebellion! A false leader who assaulted mere children, and destroyed our protection against the Andromedan invaders!

Tarrant forced the vision that had followed from his memory. He didn't want to remember that he, like Avon and the others, had been hoping to find Blake alive so that the crew of the Liberator once again could accomplish the impossible. His tentative aspirations had been yanked from beneath his feet, and there was no one to depend upon but himself, a ridiculously young master pilot. "What are we going to do now?" he asked.

Cally lifted her head, encompassing the flight deck with her eyes. "Blake must have companions for his death," she stated.

From his seat Avon said in a persuasive eerie purr, "But Cally, the rebellion killed him. Whom exactly are you planning to kill in return?"

"It can't do any good! He's dead, can't we just forget all this?!" Vila looked toward the exit as if to leave, but was obviously afraid to run away.

Cally, to Vila's greater distress, ignored him. She advanced towards Avon with a measured tread, staring at him as if she had never seen him before. "Individuals killed Blake," she said in an uncharacteristically harsh tone, "and it was not his time to die. Therefore he was murdered. I will kill his murderers, if you must know, Avon."

Avon opened his mouth to reply, then closed it. For once in his life, he had nothing to say.

"You really did hate him, didn't you?"

There was a frozen pause before Avon, enraged, surged from the couch, but once on his feet he stood foolishly.

"I'm sorry," Cally said to Vila, almost inaudibly. "That was uncalled for, wasn't it?"

"I should say so," Avon replied in a brittle voice, desperately reasserting himself after his loss of control. Firmly he clasped his hands behind his back. "Perhaps we should discuss this from a different angle."

"Perhaps we shouldn't discuss this at all," Vila said. "Perhaps we shouldn't be trying to kill each other because--because Blake--"

Dayna interjected quickly, "None of you are making much sense. You've had a shock, so have Tarrant and I, maybe we should talk about this later."

"I could use a drink," Vila said, as if to himself.

"No, Vila--" Cally began.

Accusingly he looked at her. "Why not?" He wandered down to the viewscreen area and ventured to poke Avon in the arm. "C'mon, I need a social drink, then. I've got some good stuff, Avon."

"You would."

"Cally?"

"Vila--"

"Oh, get off it, Cally!" More quietly he said, "It will do you good."

She said nothing. Vila exited quickly, ostensibly to fetch his "good stuff", but as soon as he was out of hearing range of the flight deck he sank to the floor and put his head in his hands. "Oh my God," he said in a muffled voice. He had the despairing feeling that Cally and Avon were refusing to believe what they had seen, but Vila had felt the impact like a blow to the gut. He and Blake had had their differences, to be sure, but that hadn't meant he hadn't liked the man personally.

He didn't want to weep, didn't want to be ridiculed for his base grief. He hadn't witnessed the extinguishing of the rebellion's great light in the darkness, he'd seen the death of Roj Blake, who'd come back to a desolate prison planet for the sake of a herd of common criminals.

Among those common criminals had been Vila Restal.

After an interminable time he got to his feet and trudged wearily to his cabin, trying not to think of what was probably happening on the flight deck. He listlessly extracted a bottle of brandy from its hiding place and poured himself two fingers worth, which he recklessly swallowed all at once without his usual ritual of inhaling and tasting in tiny sips.

The liquor steadied him, warming his cold insides. He stood and rubbed his eyes. "Damn crazy rebels," he snarled. "Bloody murderers."

Avon didn't see Vila's return, but he closed his hand around the glass that the thief put into it. He lifted it slightly, as if in a toast, before he drank it down in one swallow. Feeling as if he had been dropped from a great height, he leaned back in to the couch abruptly. "Cally's right," he found himself saying. "We have to go after those bastards. We can't let this stand." He waited for someone to demur. No one did; perhaps Vila hadn't heard.

Dejectedly, Vila mumbled at last, "I don't like it. But they murdered him, for no good reason."

Tarrant said, "If we're criminals, we should act like criminals, and strike back," and immediately stared back down into his glass, swirling the liquid.

"It leaves a bad taste," Dayna commented, not referring to the brandy, which she wasn't drinking, "but we don't have any choice. We can't let this go. We wouldn't let the Federation get away with this. It would be hypocritical to let the rebellion get away with killing one of us."

Avon wore a sour expression but he didn't rebut her statement. "Zen," he commanded, "give me the origin of the transmission we have just seen."

"The City of Light on the planet Plautus."

"I'll set a course," Tarrant said, his voice seeming very loud.

"And when we arrive?" Cally asked, addressing Avon alone.

For a moment he looked blank. "We find out how they managed to get hold of Blake in the first place. Then we look for who gave the order."

Reluctantly Cally took the glass that Vila had been holding out to her and drank it quickly. She coughed, and her expression settled into something a little less like implacable death. "I'll do it," she said. "Don't try to argue with me."

"Cally, not alone!" Dayna protested. "We're all in this together, aren't we? I'll go with you."

"Only one of us need be responsible for this death, or these deaths," she replied steadily. "And there will be less danger if I go alone."

Vila was unable to speak; though he saw the necessity for revenge, he thought the whole idea was the height of lunacy. He didn't want to do it himself...but he didn't want Cally to do it either...a meteorite crashing in to the City of Light would have served the purpose nicely.

"There's no argument," Avon said from his outsider's stance near the viewscreen, "but you're not going alone. That would be incredible stupidity."

In an even yet confrontational tone Cally answered, "Not stupidity. Caution."

Flatly he replied, "I'm going with you."

A precipitous silence fell. "All right," Cally yielded.

#

The City of Light was less impressive than its name suggested, less ethereal and bright, less tall. Roseate brick was the major building material, a legacy of the faraway time when colonists were encouraged to use local materials rather than pre-fabricated domes with built in systems for the distribution of mind-dulling suppressant gases. The architecture was rectangular; the streets broad, regularly patterned, and lined with indigenous shrubbery. Harsh white light spilled from lights set into building walls onto the sidewalks, casting delineated shadows. The air smelled of industry.

Avon leaned against a rather dirty wall, in the dark. Cally stood partially in shadow and fastened her coat over the gun at her hip. "Let's go, " she said.

Wordlessly Avon followed her down the street, alternately squinting and trying to recover his vision from the bright lights. They were an effective deterrent to innocent pedestrians as well as to thieves, it seemed. If these two particular pedestrians could by any stretch of the imagination be called innocent.

The brisk walk was calming his nerves, Avon decided. Adrenaline made him hyperaware of his surroundings; every breath of wind shivered along his skin. Consciously he mediated his breathing as they neared the monstrous squatting administrative building, built of the same pink brick with the addition of a columned faŤade of pitted white stone.

Cally slowed, and Avon slowed his steps behind her. There were only scattered passersby to observe them, even if they had not been obscured by shadow. "Which door?" he asked quietly.

"The emergency exit on this side, the west side." Action followed words, and she stepped up to it. Casually Avon touched the grip of his gun as he imitated her. Using a welding tool, she burned through the mechanism that allowed the door to open only from the inside and at the same time ruined its rudimentary alarm system. Plautus obviously feared minor crime but not terrorist attack, not even from the Federation. Of course, Avon mused, the Federation has little need of such subtlety.

Gently Cally pushed on the door.

Both Orac and Vila occupied the teleport room, the former humming pleasedly to itself and the latter crossing his arms over his stomach to fight the ill worry that resided there. It's a bit late to be changing your mind now, Vila. It could be worse. It could be you down there sneaking about with a gun.

"Any word yet, Orac?" he asked.

"What type of word are you referring to?" the computer asked peevishly.

"Have Cally and Avon been captured, or have they been spotted by the bad gu--I mean any of the people on Plautus? Or are they all right so far?" Vila glared at Orac, more annoyed with it than usual. He didn't have time for ego just now.

"No. There has been no communication of any kind. Now if you will kindly leave me, I will return to a fascinating discussion between the Plautusian Defense Chief and a Federation bounty hunter."

"Eh?" Vila stared at the computer's blinking lights for a moment. Usually Orac didn't volunteer information on what it was doing, unless the information had some bearing on a question it had recently been asked. "Orac, is the defense chief trying to sell out Cally and Avon? But you said they hadn't been spotted!"

"That is true. I did not give you false information. The Defense Chief has contacted the Federation to sell to them Blake, whom he claims is still alive, despite the fact that it has been broadcast that he is dead."

Lousy bastards, Vila thought savagely. They can't even let him rest in peace! Vila stood up, his nervous stomach forgotten, then just as suddenly sat down again. Wait. They'd have no chance of fooling the Federation, not for very long, anyway. Unless--

"Orac," Vila said slowly, his voice at variance with the racing of his heart, "do you have any more information about Blake? See what you can find out, assuming that Blake isn't dead."

"Oh, very well," the computer said.

"You needn't be so snotty, can't you do millions of things at once?" Orac did not reply, but the lights inside the casing flickered rapidly.

On the flight deck, Tarrant drummed his fingers on the flight console. I don't like this. It's too quiet down there...something's up.... Aloud he asked, "Dayna, are the weapons powered up?"

"Of course," she replied, glancing up at him in surprise. "I wouldn't be that stupid, even though I don't think there will be any attack."

"Neither did I, when we got here," the pilot said. Lightly he thumped the heel of his hand against the edge of the flight controls. "Now I have a twitchy feeling right between my shoulder blades, as if six pursuit ships were about to come out from behind one of those moons."

"I don't feel anything," Dayna said practically. "We're all nervous, Tarrant, this is dangerous, but we mustn't let it get to us."

"Sometimes instinct can be the most powerful weapon we have," Tarrant answered, quoting one of his favorite professors at Space Academy. "Just stay on your guard."

Dayna threw him a speculative look and slowly nodded. She turned to the small screen at the weapons station and began to study it attentively.

On the planet's surface, Cally and Avon wound their way through the corridors of the large administration building, disarming sensors as they went. The defense chief of all Plautus had an office on the fourth and top floor, and so far as they knew he was there tonight, as he regularly worked late hours. Cally moved like a machine, careful and methodical as she checked each doorway and corridor turning, and guarded Avon's back as he eliminated the hall sensors without allowing their dysfunction to register on the central monitor.

All doubt in their minds as to their justification for their actions had been eliminated. They focused only on the task at hand, inexorably climbing up into the building's innards.

Vila's hands were shaking violently as he yanked a gun from the storage area in the teleport room. He tried to take a deep breath, to calm himself, but ended up gasping in short puffs of air instead. He sat down before attempting, several times, to fasten the gun's belt.

"I am not the operator of the teleport!" Orac was loudly complaining. Vila banged it with his fist.

"Shut up, you stupid fishtank!"

Instantly he felt much better and was able to buckle the gunbelt. He patted the tool kit under his clothing and stepped into the teleport chamber. "Orac, put me down in the prison complex." If those guard schedules are right...and if this isn't a cover-up for something else...and if...oh, shut up, Vila, and get moving. This smells like the biggest triple-cross there ever was. If my instinct is any good, Blake is still alive!

For the moment....

Tarrant said to Dayna, "I've figured out what feels wrong about this place. It's the orbital traffic--there isn't enough of it."

"What do you mean? Maybe they don't have as much business as some of the other planets you've visited."

"They haven't sent any flights to either of the moons, and I know there are colonies on both. That's one thing."

Dayna interrupted suddenly, "Zen, could you display normal traffic patterns for Plautus on the screen, please?"

"Confirmed."

Cally lifted her gun and poised herself next to the door of the emergency staircase leading to the administration building's fourth floor. She gestured to Avon with her chin and he darted around the corner to join her there. Cautiously she reached for the doorplate but jerked her hand back when her teleport bracelet made a loud chiming sound. Avon cursed under his breath, opened the door himself and pulled her into the lift with him. Inside, he tripped the control so that the car could not move.

"Cally here, what is it?"

Tarrant's voice said urgently, "You've got to get the hell out of there, there's some kind of trap. Ninety-five percent of their normal shipping and passenger traffic has been held on the ground until further notice. Dayna's keeping an eye on the scanners for enemy ships."

"Understood," Cally said, cut the circuit, and removed her bracelet. Avon, who had been preparing to query Tarrant further before teleporting back to the ship, stared at her.

"What are you doing?" he hissed.

"What does it look like? I'm going on. You'd better get out of here."

"Don't be an idiot, Cally," Avon whispered peevishly. "This has the look of a particularly elaborate trap, set just for us."

"That doesn't make Blake any less dead."

"Damn it, Cally--" His bracelet chimed. "Yes."

"What's going on?" Dayna asked. "Vila isn't answering at the teleport."

Gritting his teeth, Avon switched channels without answering her. "Vila. This is Avon. Come in."

No reply.

"Answer me, damn it!"

"Do you require teleport?"

"Orac," Avon said, so angry that the word seemed a curse. "Where is Vila?"

"I have teleported him to the surface of Plautus, to the prison complex."

Cally held her bracelet to her mouth. "When, Orac?"

"When, what?"

"When did you teleport Vila to the prison complex?"

"Eleven minutes and forty-three seconds have elapsed."

Abruptly Cally slid her bracelet over her wrist. "Teleport both of us there, Orac."

Avon opened his mouth but whatever he might have said was lost in a distorting shimmer as, with the speed of a computer, Orac obeyed Cally's command.

The two materialized with a white flash and from force of habit went back-to-back and covered the dark narrow room with sweeping guns. The room was, however, deserted, and filled with endless hardcopies of the Space Command Manual of Arms and other equally appealing reading material. After a moment Avon whirled on Cally and said, "Are you mad?"

"I think I have an idea why Vila would have done this," Cally said intently, ignoring his question. "Think, Avon. Vila does not put himself into danger for trivial reasons--and there may be an ambush laid for Liberator--"

"He knows something we don't," Avon said. He spoke rapidly into his teleport bracelet while Cally guarded the storage room's only door. "Orac."

"Yes, Avon. What is it now?"

"Why did Vila come here?"

"I provided him with information that the Defense Chief of Plautus was parlaying with a Federation bounty hunter. The Defense Chief claimed to have Blake, alive."

Avon choked. Wait--possibly the execution could have been faked. Somehow. "Thank you, Orac."

"Two birds with one stone," Cally said. "Or rather, two bounties, substantial ones."

"Or Liberator for the use of Plautus," Avon commented. "They could use some heavy defense against the Federation, since they've alienated themselves from most of the rebel groups. Not that the money would be unwelcome to them."

"Let's go," Cally said. "Let's see if we can find him."

Avon lifted his teleport bracelet again, switched the channel, and said, "Tarrant. Hold orbit but keep an eye out, and be ready to run like hell." Without waiting for an answer he cut the channel and jogged after Cally.

Dayna said, impressed, "You were right, Tarrant. You have good hunter's instincts."

"More like the instinct of the hunted," he replied.

Vila felt eyes upon every part of his body, though he knew he could not have been seen yet. Good thing I'm so familiar with prisons. There weren't as many guards as there should have been, in Vila's opinion, but Plautus was apparently unable to afford such luxuries, especially since most of the cells in the building were empty. Let me guess. Usually they execute prisoners so they don't have to feed them.

Heavy security areas were what Vila was looking for. //No, no, idiot, you stay away from those!// Fear gave him quickness, and a desperate hope drove him onward. The next wing of the building had a guard on the door. Vila crept up on her slowly.

Cally covered the hallway with her gun while Avon argued with Orac in a whisper, trying to get information that the computer didn't have and was unable to access because it did not exist. Finally Avon closed the channel and, taking firm hold of his ineffective rage, said to his companion, "We'll find a guard and see what we can bludgeon out of him."

"Do we risk trying to contact Vila?" Cally whispered. "He could be in a tricky situation, and the chime could give him away."

Avon nodded in agreement. "We'll have to do this on our own."

Vila shot the guard from cover, his gun on the lowest setting he could manage. Wonder if Avon would have shot her. He's weird about things like that sometimes. Me, I'm an equal opportunity terrorist. Clutching his gun with feverish tightness, he ran. The corridor beyond the fallen guard was empty. Vila traversed it at a trot, panting with nervousness. He paused at the corridor's turning and peeked around. Jackpot!

A row of doors could be seen, each with its own guard. Vila counted. Four. His eyes scanned the ceiling rapidly and found one security camera for each door. Damn. Which one controls the others? His trained eyes watched their movement patterns and picked out the third. He drew a deep careful breath to steady his hands, tried to ignore the presence of the menacing men in tan coveralls, and shot it out. The cameras exploded, one, two, three, four. The guards whirled into action, looking for their assailant. From his covered position, Vila managed to shoot two before they found him.

"There!" Avon shouted, pointing to a door. He and Cally burst through, firing.

"What happened to those?" Cally asked.

From the opposite end of the hallway came Vila, his eyes wide. His voice shook as he said, "Took you long enough to get here and rescue me."

"Where is he?" Avon barked.

"So you've figured it out, have you? Haven't had a chance to check," Vila said numbly, but he was beginning to recover. "There are four cells, and all of them were guarded."

"Cally?"

She stood, as if listening. "I don't know, Avon. You know I can't really--"

"Just try!" Vila demanded.

Cally stood, a faraway look on her face, while Vila fidgeted. Avon paced to the doorway he and Cally had entered through and kept watch, only to abandon his surveillance when Cally pointed a hesitant finger at the third door. "Try that one, Vila."

He was already working to open it.

Cally gasped. "A teleport bracelet!"

"I brought an extra," Vila said absently, his fingers quick and sure. Though he did not realize it, he broke his own speed record for this particular type of mechanism, and the door slid upwards in twelve seconds. For once heedless of danger, Vila dove under the door before it was halfway open.

There was no-one there, or at least Vila thought so at first. Then he saw the figure lying on the bench in the far corner. Squinting in the bright light, Vila hurried urgently to Blake's side.

"You're not dead are you?" he asked fearfully, shaking him by the shoulder. "Blake?"

"Not dead," Cally affirmed, standing in the doorway, momentarily distracted from guarding the corridor by Vila's words and Avon's rough push by her. "He could be drugged."

"I think he is," Vila whispered. "Look at his eyes--"

"Don't bother," Avon growled. "Give me a hand, we have to get the hell out of here."

"Orac, teleport," Cally ordered, and the white light took them.

#

The viewscreen showed icily glittering stars, flowing in rippling patterns over, under, and around Liberator's herculaneum hull. Blake sat with his arms crossed over his burly chest, staring at them with sad remembrance. Distantly he heard the click of buttons as Dayna manipulated the long-range scanners, and her low-voiced remarks to Vila.

"I contacted the cell on Earth," Cally said.

"And they said they'd spread the news of my survival."

"You've risen from the dead more than once now, Blake," she reminded him.

"I haven't seen that it's done the cause any good."

"It has! You must believe that."

Blake finally turned to her. He smiled wearily, his eyes tired. "I'll leave the believing up to you, shall I?"

"A wise choice," Avon said over Blake's shoulder.

Blake glanced up at him mildly. "Thank you."

"Tarrant would like to know if he should set a course," Cally said.

Avon said nothing. He gestured to Blake with an open hand.

Blake drew a deep breath, and straightened slightly in his seat. He looked once at Avon, for a longer moment at Cally, then focused on the viewscreen again. "I suppose," he said, "we should get started on a base first, if we're going to do this right. Saurian Major, Standard by Four."

the end


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