Trust is only Dangerous...By Philippa Watts
Page 1 of 4
He yawned so hard he saw spots before his eyes.
Only another thirty minutes to go on this watch. Then he could take great pleasure in kicking Tarrant out of bed and on to the flight deck before pouring himself a large drink and relaxing. Just have to stay awake until then. His eyelids felt heavy. Rest them for a moment...
It was the moving spot of light on the screen that caught his attention. Dammit, why hadn't he seen it earlier? And why hadn't Zen alerted him to it, anyway? He rubbed his eyes. Yes, the dot was still there.
+Small craft has just moved within sensor range.+
`Why didn't you tell me about it earlier?'
+Sensors indicate its weapons capability is limited and may be non-functioning. Course and speed are commensurate with travel within this system only.+
Local traffic, then. Nothing to worry about. Vila yawned again and felt his eyelids start to close.
`Liberator, this is Astral Cloud, do you copy? Astral Cloud calling Liberator. Respond, please.'
Oh, great. Vila sighed and opened the communication channel.
`Astral Cloud, this is Liberator, we copy your signal. Identify yourself.'
The disembodied voice laughed. It was male, and sounded young and cocky. `Obviously Tarrant's not around, or you'd have detected us long before now. Permission to dock?'
`Permission denied. I repeat, identify yourself!' Vila was feeling crabby and uncooperative. And if these people knew Tarrant, he felt even less inclined to be nice to them.
Until a husky female voice glided its way over the comm system and into Vila's brain.
`Tell Tarrant that Maya's come to call.'
`Who are they, Tarrant?' Avon stood staring at the image on Liberator's main viewer. It was a small, battered-looking cargo craft, obviously not designed for deep space travel.
`A blast from the past.' Tarrant's smile was broad and unchecked.
`Which is precisely what I shall do to them, if you don't stop being obtuse and explain what they're doing and how they know you're on this ship.'
`The second part's easy.' Tarrant was still smiling. `I spent some time in this system a year or two back. These guys are part of a small group of smugglers running an organised operation between a few planets in the system that are famously not speaking to each other. Very much small time, local stuff. I joined up with them for a while to fly a few missions, made some money, had some fun, but it ceased to be exciting after a couple of months, so I bailed out. Presumably word got back to them that I'd hooked up with you.' He turned to Avon. `You're quite famous you know. Or... at least, Blake was.'
Avon scowled, but didn't rise to the bait. `So what do they want?'
`How the hell should I know? Why don't you ask them?'
`Because I'm asking you. And who's this... Maya?'
Tarrant smiled in what can only be described as a knowing fashion. `Ah, you'll just have to meet her, won't you?' His tone then took on a businesslike quality. `Just give them permission to dock and let's see why they're here. They're no risk to us.'
`I'll give you that much.' Avon walked away from his position in front of the screen and paused on the steps towards the exit. `Do you trust them?'
`No. But then I don't trust you either.'
Avon smiled. `In that case, we'd better meet them, hadn't we? Tell them to hold position within range, and you and I will teleport over. Vila, tell Dayna to take over here and Cally can operate the teleport.'
`What about me?' Vila called out to the two disappearing figures.
`Go to bed!' Tarrant's voice came back from the corridor.
Vila smiled. At last, an order I don't mind carrying out.
As Avon and Tarrant shimmered into view, guns drawn, they were greeted by the chuckling figure of a man standing behind a chair in which an attractive young woman was seated. They were on what passed for the flight deck, although Tarrant knew that the rest of the ship was merely storage for whatever passed for `cargo' at the time. It was small and cramped, and with the addition of two passengers they might just have to take turns breathing.
`Welcome, friends,' the man said. `It's good to see you again Tarrant, although you don't look that pleased to see us. Put your guns away and sit down, please.'
`Dro, you surely can't be surprised at my lack of trust. I know you.' Tarrant holstered his gun and sat on the seat offered to him, and Avon followed suit.
The man laughed. `You haven't changed a bit.'
`You must be Avon,' the young woman purred. `We've heard so much about you. You and your friend Blake are quite legendary in these parts. I'm Maya, and this is Landronan.'
`Pleased to meet you, Avon,' Landronan said.
`Look, you've got us here, now just tell us what you want,' Avon said briskly.
`Good, I like that, straight to business,' Landronan said. `The fact of the matter is, I need a favour.'
`What's in it for us? I'm afraid we're not in the business of helping out others merely for the fun of it.'
`Oh, there's something in it for you other than fun, Avon. How about a large remuneration, and the chance to cause a little havoc that may just be at the Federation's expense?'
`I may just be interested,' Tarrant said.
`In case you'd forgotten, Tarrant, you're not a one-man band any more,' Avon shot at him. `Tell me more, Landronan.'
`Call me Dro, all my friends do.' He tried to meet Avon's gaze, failed, and carried on. `The Federation have recently made several abortive attempts to retake the Santer system because of its mineral wealth. I think they've given up for now.'
`Given up?' Tarrant's face was quizzical. `Doesn't sound like the Federation.'
`Part of the reason is that the place is so disorganised, the planets are not only not talking to each other, but are also prone to civil war. It's hard to be an invading force when the people you're trying to take over are so interested in fighting each other you can't find a single collaborator amongst them. They would need massive planet-wide troop deployments on every world to keep the people down. A logistical nightmare.'
`It's what made smuggling such an easy business, I remember.' Tarrant grinned at some memory.
Maya smiled. `It was fun, wasn't it? Anyway, Santer II, the most volatile in the system, is just embarking on its annual cat-fight. Which means it's time to go in and steal the Nijo Memorial Stone.'
`Explain,' Avon said.
`The stone was erected when the planet was colonised as a memorial to the leader of the first group of settlers,' Landronan said. `These days the East and West hemispheres are forever trying to settle diplomatic incidents, which degrade into violence with great regularity. They're reasonably underdeveloped worlds, no sophisticated weapons or anything.'
`Where does the stealing of this memorial stone come into it?' Tarrant asked.
`While they're engaged in their fisticuffs, we sneak in, steal the stone, and hold it to ransome on one of the other worlds in the system. It's so precious to them that they'll always pay whatever we ask to get it back.'
`I still don't see what's in it for us,' Avon said sharply.
`We have to move quickly while the in-fighting's at its peak. Each time the stone is returned to them, they build better and better defences around it. We're also not sure where they're keeping it now... And besides, I've been offered another, equally lucrative job and can't do both. I was thinking Maya could go with you as a guide on Santer II while I nip off and do this other job. Should only take a day or two.'
`Presumably the more chaos that's created round here, the less chance they have of being taken by the Federation,' Tarrant mused. `What's the payment?'
`Like the man said,' Maya gazed straight at Tarrant. `Whatever you ask. The worlds may be underdeveloped, but they're mineral-rich and very, very wealthy. To the point where sentimental value is more important than actual credits.'
Tarrant spoke into his bracelet. `You getting all this, Cally?'
`Sounds interesting, I think we should go for for it.'
Tarrant turned to his crewmate. `What do you say, Avon?'
Avon's expression took on a slightly resigned look. `Why not,' he said,
and turned to Landronan. `Will they pay us in cash?'
Maya accompanied Tarrant and Avon back to the Liberator, and after awakening a rather disgruntled Vila, a plan was formulated.
`Tarrant, Cally and I will go down to Santer II with Maya and meet her contact there. Dayna will operate the teleport and keep a sharp eye out for any Federation visitors. And Vila...' Avon paused and turned to his crewmate. `... Vila will stay awake and ready to go in the event we need to open anything.'
`You mean I don't have to go down to that hell-hole of a planet, but I also can't go back to bed?' Vila whined.
`Right.' The protest was dismissed with a word.
Cally remained practical. `Anything else we need to know before we go?'
Maya frowned. `There won't be any Federation troops, but last thing I heard was that their intelligence operation was well-organised and very covert. So don't talk to anyone. There's also the risk of getting caught-up in whatever local battles are going on, so be wary of that, too. The first place we'll try is the main spaceport. It's something of a den of iniquity, even by the rock-bottom standards of this system, and now the in-fighting has escalated there probably won't be much in the way of law and order.'
`Which is to our advantage, presumably,' Tarrant put in.
`As far as stealing the stone goes, yes, plus everybody carries a gun, so we won't stand out on that count, either. It makes actually tracking it down difficult though. I can't understand why they didn't think to move it years ago. But my contact is reliable, and as good a place to start as any.'
Tarrant leapt up, full of enthusiasm. `Let's go get rich, then.'
`Tarzian warg strangler,' Vila muttered under his breath.
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