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Phantoms

By Jean Graham
Page 1 of 6

Explosions rocked the building; a series of five concussions spaced with even precision. Blake, guarding the door with his gun in hand, allowed himself a tight smile. His team had done its job well.

"That's the barracks doors going," he said to the man bent over the nearby computer console. Avon did not appear to hear him. "It will take those troops at least two hours to dig their way out, assuming the guards on duty leave their posts to go and help. Any that don't, the prisoners can take care of for themselves. How long before you can open the cell doors?"

Avon straightened, a steel probe turning circles in his slender hands. "When I am ready," he said noncommittally.

Blake glared at him. "Meaning what, exactly?"

Black eyes locked with his, and a voice rife with sarcasm replied, "Meaning that I am still not convinced that loosing a prison full of thieves and murderers is the best means of forming your new and glorious order."

While fire alarms began screaming in the distance and running feet pounded by outside, Blake moved closer to the computer banks, keeping his weapon trained on the door. He watched the other man continue working, with deft movements that betrayed nothing of the disapproval that had just been expressed.

"Scruples, Avon?" Blake queried gently. "I didn't think you professed to possess any."

There was an odd note in Avon's voice, one Blake had never heard before. "You are releasing hardened criminals from a maximum security prison, Blake, not organizing an Alpha society picnic. These people could be dangerous. Doesn't that disturb your much-touted ethics in any way at all?"

"No."

The answer was firm, spoken with decisive conviction. Blake placed deliberate emphasis on his next words. "No more than it did a year ago, on Cygnus Alpha."

He got the hoped-for reaction to that. It wasn't easy to get reactions out of Avon, but he had learned over the past several months that there were ways around the man's seemingly impervious barricades. Avon had stiffened at the reference to Cygnus Alpha, and Blake watched the dark eyes grow hooded, replacing anger with wary disdain. It meant -- could only mean -- that he had got through; a small but crucial victory in the ongoing verbal war Avon waged with them all.

Dividing his attention between the computer expert and the door, Blake crossed his arms and waited, satisfied. There were decidedly few of Avon's contumacious moods that he could not counter, and Cygnus Alpha and the debt it entailed served as a particularly effective wedge. It had worked before.

After several long minutes of silence, he squatted beside the computer housing to peer again at Avon's handiwork, and a frown creased his brow. A computer expert he may not be, but Blake's engineering skills were sufficient to know stalling when he saw it. And Avon was stalling.

"Open the doors."

His soft command met only a chilled gaze.

"Open the doors, Avon." He said it more firmly this time, but the change in tone had no noticeable effect. Several seconds ticked past before Avon responded at all.

"There are two million innocent civilians living on this planet," he said without looking up. "I don't suppose you've given any consideration to their fate at all?"

Blake's temper snapped. "And just when the hell did you become a guardian of innocence? Open the doors!"

Avon didn't so much as blink at the outburst. Neither did he move to obey the demand. "Answer the question," he said levelly.

Blake drew in a measured breath, biting back another angry reply. "I've seen to it that a spaceworthy ship will be accessible to the convicts, within a day's reach, and that they will be contacted by rebel forces from the Dorlan system as soon as they are clear of this one. Will that satisfy your newfound moral sensibilities?"

The computer expert glanced at him and then back at the circuit boards in front of him, studying them in considered silence. "Conditionally," he said at length, and the probe slid abruptly into an orifice in the panel.

Before Blake could inquire as to the conditions, the alarms were silenced and Avon had turned away, fingers playing swiftly over one of the computer system's many keyboards.

"The doors are open?" Blake asked when the clicking of the keys had stopped.

"Yes."

"Good. Now perhaps you can answer a question for me."

Heavy-lidded eyes regarded him with feigned disinterest.

Blake was undeterred. "Why all the sudden and, I might add, uncharacteristic concern?"

"Is there a better way to find out precisely what you're up to?"

"Yes. You might try asking."

That earned him a scowl, but Avon was, nonetheless, not rising to the bait. "You have," he said instead, "quite naturally made certain that the 'rabble' are aware just who has affected their rescue?"

"Naturally."

"Judicious of you."

"I thought so. What good is a legend if you can't exploit it now and then?"

Avon's answer was lost in the shock of another explosion, this one much closer than the others. The force of it nearly sent Blake sprawling, and he had to grab one of the consoles for support.

"What the--?" He straightened as new alarms went off, including the one in the computer centre. "That one wasn't ours."

Avon said nothing, but he was up, the probe exchanged for one of Liberator's hand guns.

Blake slapped at the communications control on his teleport bracelet. "Cally, Vila, where are you?"

No one answered him, but pounding footsteps and laser fire began to echo from the corridors beyond them.

"Your converts appear to have liberated the armory," Avon said drolly.

"Cally, Vila!" Blake ignored him, shouting instead at the unresponsive bracelet. He gave up for the moment and headed for the door. "Come on."

"Where?"

"To find them," Blake snarled. "Where do you think?"

He eased the door open and stepped into a smoke-filled prison corridor. The alarms clamored for attention, echoing off metal walls that only served to make the air more stale and humid. Gun in hand, Blake headed east, in the direction Vila and Cally should be coming from. Amber warning lights flashed at every hall junction, bathing them periodically in a sickly yellow glow. Twice they ducked out of sight scarcely in time to avoid a confrontation: the first charge had been two Federation guards quite obviously fleeing for their lives, the second a small mob of armed prisoners just as obviously intent on seeing the guards' intentions thwarted.

Blake and Avon had barely gained the corridor again when a new disturbance drove them back into the nearest doorway. Two shots sounded just beyond them. Someone shouted. Blake knew that voice.

"Vila!" Alarms and more gunfire nearly obliterated the name, but he heard Cally respond with enthusiasm, realizing only belatedly that she had done so non-verbally.

//We are here, Blake. But so are the guards.//

Avon was looking at him, apparently having heard the same message. They checked their weapons, nodded to each other once, then charged into the corridor.

Three uniformed troopers had pinned Cally and a quaking Vila behind the desk of a junction guard station. Unprepared for a rear assault, two of them were promptly felled by Blake and Avon's attack. Cally's shot finished the third when he spun to return Blake's fire.

Still another explosion from somewhere shook the walls as Blake made his way over the fallen guards to Cally's side. Vila came timidly out from behind the desk, holding his gun as though, any moment, it might sprout teeth and bite him.

"Thanks," he said with feeling.

Blake didn't acknowledge him just yet. He'd taken Cally by the shoulders as the alarms abruptly ceased, leaving them in sudden eerie silence. "Are you all right?"

She nodded. "We couldn't answer you while we were running. I tried to--"

"If you don't mind," Vila interrupted anxiously, "could we maybe talk over old times a bit later? I have this aversion to being shot at. You understand."

Blake understood only too well. They were finished here. Nothing left now but to go back to Liberator. He gave Vila a reassuring smile and raised the bracelet to call Jenna.

His thumb had just closed on the button when some small noise from behind distracted his attention. There was no other warning. White hot fire seared past his ear, missing him by scant inches. He whirled, dropping and firing at the same time, aware that Avon, beside him, had done the same. It was Blake's shot, however, that struck home, and a figure that had been crouching at the corner of the nearest junction crumpled, a Federation para-rifle clattering to the steel floor beside it.

All four Liberator crewmembers climbed slowly back to their feet.

"Yes Vila, I think it is time we went home." Blake made to call Jenna once again, but was brought up short, this time by Cally. She had moved to stand over their latest would-be assassin, a look of puzzled concern on her face.

"Blake..."

He lowered the bracelet, the merest trace of annoyance seeping into his voice. "What is it?"

"Look." She sounded... he couldn't quite put a word to it. Tremulous. Almost frightened. That wasn't like Cally.

Blake reached the Auron first, the others gathering around her in his wake. "What is it?" he asked. "What's wrong?"

She knelt, and for the first time Blake looked closely at the body of his attacker, sprawled on the dirty floor beside the rifle that had so nearly taken his life. Under an ill-fitting and grease-stained prison uniform, the figure now at Cally's side was thin, frail... and far too small to be that of an adult.

"He's only a child..." Blake stared, disbelieving.

"And one of the inmates," Vila added, equally incredulous. "Why would he want to shoot at you?"

"Ingratitude, most likely," Avon said without sympathy. "Can we get out of here now?"

No one answered him.

Cally's slender hand pushed back one of the boy's oversized sleeves and closed gently around a small wrist. "He's still alive."

Blake grappled with a decision, then extended a hand toward Avon. "Give me the spare teleport bracelet."

"You can't be serious."

"Give it to me."

The demand brooked no further argument, but Avon's compliance was all the same deliberately slow, and exuded disapproval. Blake ignored that. He snatched the bracelet and clamped it to the boy's wrist. "Now, Jenna," he said urgently into his own. "Bring us up now."

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