A Lamb to Guide the LionBy Jean Graham
Page 1 of 5
|The white shimmer of Liberator's teleport beam defined two diverse
shapes in the open field. Olag Gan turned, squinting in the failing sunlight,
and spotted their goal. The factory complex lay some 300 metres beyond
them, a clutter of small, squat buildings stretching out behind it. "There's
the settlement," Gan said.
Beside him, Avon completed a full turn, bolstered his weapon and brought the teleport bracelet up to his mouth.
"Down and safe," he reported. "And from the look of it, Blake, this complex is crawling with Federation personnel. That information of yours had better be accurate."
There was a deliberate pause before the bracelet responded,"That is what you're there to find out. And Avon--" Gan could have sworn he heard a wry smile in Blake's voice. "Belleron is a Federation planet, after all. Take it slowly, and watch yourselves."
Annoyed at Blake's penchant for stating the obvious, Avon managed to sound both bored and irritated at the same time. "I'm touched by your concern," he said. "We will call in on the hour. Out."
Gan glanced skyward, and ignoring Avon's scowl, said conversationally, "There's only another hour or so of daylight left."
"That may be to our advantage."
Not bothering to explain further, Avon started off toward the complex. Gan fell into step alongside him, wondering as he often did why Avon openly opposed Blake at every turn, yet continued to follow him. The argument between them over this mission had been long and bitter, Blake insisting that the Cepheus signal translator reportedly in use on Belleron could greatly aid the rebellion; Avon equally insistent that its value did not exceed the risk involved in stealing it. Yet in the end, it had been Avon who'd agreed to go. He was, after all, the only one able to identify the Cepheus by its components. And from his description of its probable size and bulk, only Gan would be able to lift it. Assuming, Gan mused in afterthought, that it was here at all. And assuming they could get inside. Perhaps they should have brought Vila down after all ...
No fences guarded the compound. Workers, most of them Gamma and Delta grades by their clothing, poured from the towers as Avon and Gan watched from behind a metal storage locker. The human throng flowed east toward the settlement, dissipating into the nondescript rows of dwellings that mingled haphazardly with smokestacks, chimneys and the scaffolded outlines of other factories.
"They're getting off shift," Gan whispered as the last of the workers disappeared down the path.
"Yes, I can see that." Avon warily searched the grounds for Federation guards, but nothing stirred; the multiple towers appeared to be deserted. Most of the workers had come from the towers -- probably manufacturing work silos. It was the building attached to them that interested Avon. Administrative offices. The most likely place to contain a computer complex -- or a decoder unit.
When he was certain that the last of the workers had likely gone, Avon headed toward the administration building with gun in hand and Gan at his heels.
Five corridors and three levels later, they had still not encountered anyone, and Avon had located the computer room. He eased the door open, glanced briefly inside, then ushered Gan quickly past him. When he had closed the door again, he activated the light switch and strode to the centre of the room, surveying the equipment lining the walls and positioned at intervals around the floor.
"What is it?" Gan had correctly read the dubious look on Avon's face.
"Museum pieces," the computer expert said acidly. "A collection of antiquated circuitry and--"
Abruptly, the door was thrust open. Gan shouted a warning, reaching for his gun, but Avon had already drawn and fired. A Federation guard, paragun half raised, crumpled into a heap at the door. Heading for the corridor, Avon walked over him, prepared to deal with any backup troops.
Cautiously, Gan approached the door. "Any more?" he whispered.
Avon came back inside, stepping once again over the dead man. "No."
"What about the translator unit? Is it here?"
Avon shot him an acid look, then motioned with his gun toward the prone guard. "Get him all the way inside and close the door."
"Just do it."
Complying with Avon's demand, Gan heard the comlink being reopened, and Blake's voice coming crisply over the voice pick-up.
"Yes, Avon," it said. "Have you got it?"
"It is not here, Blake. Your sources, as usual, were misinformed."
Unbaited, Blake's acerbic response was, "Perhaps. But you've hardly been there long enough to be certain, have you? I want all of the possibilities explored."
"We are standing in what passes for the computer centre." Avon's tone was that of a schoolmaster addressing a particularly slow-witted student. "It contains an accumulation of antique electronic circuitry and one irreparably damaged Federation stormtrooper. No Cepheus unit. Nothing that remotely resembles a translator unit at all."
"Then consider the possibility that they may not keep it in the most obvious place. Keep looking, Avon. We've got to be certain."
"That," Avon said measuredly, "will require time."
"Then take time. Take all day if you have to, but find that unit." After a moment's pause, he added in more reassuring tones, "I have undying faith in your abilities."
Exasperated, Avon slapped the communicator's cut-off switch. One day, Blake and his unsubtle psychological manipulations were going to push him too far. And then...
"The corridor's still clear," Gan said from the door. "We can check the rest of the rooms on this level." He carried his own gun ready, though he and Avon both knew it served only to intimidate. The limiter implant would prevent his firing it directly at anyone.
That thought gave Avon pause. "I trust," he said, "that this limiter of yours does not extend its function to inanimate objects. Computers, for example."
"No." Gan blinked at the seemingly out-of-place question. "Why?"
"Because if the Cepheus unit is here, if we can steal it, and if it is to be of any use to us, everything surrounding it will have to be destroyed. Like Centero. It will hardly do to advertise to the Federation that a translator unit has been stolen. In any case, that may amount to rather more destruction than I can manage in the allotted time with only one gun."
Gan nodded, still digesting the flood of words. "Guess I'll just have to help you then." His friendly smile evoked another scowl from Avon, who strode to the door with his weapon aimed upward.
He paused at the open door, leaning momentarily against the frame. "Blake is grasping at straws," he said quietly. "This is not of a sufficient level of technological development to conceal a unit as sophisticated as Cepheus, let alone construct one. Someone would appear to be manipulating Blake for a change."
Gan tried and failed to make sense of that. "Now you've lost me," he said.
Avon's expression could have melted a polar cap. "I have yet," he said tonelessly, "to be so fortunate."
They'd started into the corridor when the rumble of something mechanical made both turn back into the room. An energy bolt seared its way past Avon to burn a hole in the nearby wall.
"The next one goes through your head." The man with the plasma rifle wore Federation captain's insignia. He levelled the weapon at them as two more black uniformed men came through the newly-opened automatic door. It had been well concealed, Avon noted, behind a movable bank of storage bins.
The captain's rifle motioned as he spoke, an extension of his arm. "Both of you, take off the guns. Slowly."
Wordlessly, Avon and Gan complied. Power packs followed hand weapons to the scuffed and dirty floor.
For a long moment, the captain and Avon studied one another, the latter concluding that this was a typical cog in the Federation's war machine. The lined face, cruel eyes, stern mouth... and the laser scar that cut an ugly path across one cheek to his left ear. He wore them all like hard-earned medals, as much a part of his regalia as the uniform, and the gun.
"Who are you? What did you want in here?" The captain's eyes darted to the body, propped where Gan had left it in the corner. He motioned one of his men toward it.
With an easy grin, Avon answered the question facetiously. "Nothing really. It merely looked like a delightful place for a holiday."
His sarcasm had no visible effect. The captain's expression darkened further when his trooper rose from his inspection of the body with a curt shake of his head.
"All right, move. Outside, both of you."
In the momentary confusion of moving into the corridor, Avon allowed his right hand to creep surreptitiously to his teleport bracelet. Gan had noticed the movement. Unfortunately, so had their captor. He caught Avon's arm, wrenched it backward and shoved him hard against the wall, pinning him there. Gan found himself in a similar position, the hands of one of the troopers expertly searching him for other weapons. The teleport bracelets were removed, and having searched Avon thoroughly, the captain yanked him roughly back around to shake the device under his nose.
"What is this?" he demanded. "A weapon? Is that why you were reaching for it?"
Eyes smoldering, Avon's only answer was a tight-lipped smirk that clearly said, 'figure it out for yourself.' Hard blue eyes glared back at him, eyes that enjoyed manipulating, wresting control from others. It was for that, more than anything, that Avon hated him.
When his question went unanswered, the captain brought the rifle's barrel up and pressed it firmly to Avon's throat. The only response it evoked was something only Gan saw. The loathing in those dark eyes deepened.
Cheated of a fearful response, the captain shoved them both back into the corridor. "Walk," he ordered.
They all fell into step together. Captors and captives marched down three flights of steel-corrugated stairs through several more corridors and ultimately into an earthen-floored room with metal walls and no windows. An ancient filament bulb glowed naked overhead, the only break in a monotonous steel ceiling.
When the heavy double doors had thudded shut and the rattle of securing chains died away, Gan turned to find Avon already sitting against the far wall, arm wrapped tightly over one knee, gaze fixed intently on nothing at all. Gan started to speak, then quietly thought better of it. He knew a sulk when he saw one. And genius or not, Avon was exceptionally good at them. Shrugging, he turned his attention to something more useful. He began testing his weight against the strength of the door.
It might have been an hour later that he finally wearied of the effort and came to sit beside his statue-like companion.
"Another three hours and I might just have it open," he said halfheartedly. "Maybe if we both tried..."
"Another three hours," Avon said to the indeterminate space in front of him, "and it will hardly make a difference. There will be nowhere for us to go."
Confused, Gan squinted at him in the dim light. "Nowhere to go? We can look for the others -- they're probably looking for us already. Or we can find that Federation captain and take back the teleport bracelets."
"The bracelets are useless if there is no Liberator to teleport to."
Gan, only just beginning to understand Avon's implication, shook his head. "They wouldn't go without us, Avon. They wouldn't."
"Don't count on it."
"Blake told you to take all day, don't forget. He said to take all the time we needed."
Avon's stare remained fixed, glassy. "And when we do not call in he will assume we are either dead or taken and he'll take the Liberator out of orbit. That is what any competent ship's commander would do. It is what I would do."
Gan was silent for a long moment. Then, with quiet resolution, he said, "You don't know Blake very well then."
For the first time, Avon looked at him, the near-black eyes filled with indifference and worry and contempt all at the same time. They had each known Blake for precisely the same length of time -- all told, not very long at all. Their escape from the London and Cygnus Alpha had been over six standard months ago. Yet Avon harbored the distinct impression that somehow in that brief time, everyone aboard Liberator -- even Gan -- had come to understand Blake far better than he.
"He won't leave us," Gan repeated with rather more assurance than he felt.
"Right now I'd bet he's getting ready to come down here and search this complex. Personally."
In a dull voice, Avon said, "That would be foolhardy. But probably no less typical of an idealistic fool like Blake."
Gan smiled thinly. "Make up your mind, Avon. Do you want to be right, or do you want to be rescued?"
* * *
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