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Then There Were Seven

By Louise Watson-Carver
Page 1 of 3

Even as the familiar white outlines of the teleport effect formed around the team, Blake heard running footsteps and a shout of "No!" Someone slammed into him from behind and arms went around him, holding him with desperate strength... and the world rippled, becoming suddenly depthless as Liberator brought them up.

The teleport bays faded in around Blake and Jenna--and the team-mates who'd just snatched them off the Federation pursuit ship bound for Malthus Sigma. The low glow of the ceiling panels and the whisper of Liberator's systems welcomed them to safety, but even as Blake was opening his mouth give Avon and Cally a heartfelt "well done", he realised that someone's arms were still wrapped tightly around him. Someone--he glanced down--wearing the matte black of a Federation officer. Beside him, Jenna grabbed for a weapon she didn't have, the weapon she'd lost when the Federation soldiers closed in on her and Blake on the wide sands of Cygnus 2.

In his mind, he "heard" Cally's startled *Blake! If she hurts you, she dies* as she brought her weapon up to cover the intruder. Avon, weapon still in hand, spun towards Blake as Gan started forward, big hands clenched. Vila, looking from one to the other in alarm, took one sidling step backwards, then another, backing nimbly out of harm's way.

The person holding him must have moved, but it was fast as sleight of hand; even Blake didn't see it. But suddenly his captor was holding him with only one hand tightly gripping his shoulder while the other pressed a laser up under his jaw. "Don't," said a cool female voice from behind him. "Drop your weapons now... unless, of course, you think you're faster than I am."

Avon smiled suddenly, his brown eyes narrowing, and Blake winced. "Well now, shall we find out?" he drawled. Oh thank you Avon, Blake thought furiously. Thank you very much.

Jenna turned and quickly knocked Avon's weapon away so it no longer pointed at the Federation woman. "No, let's not," she said emphatically, the hard fury in her blue eyes directed equally at Avon and the intruder. "Don't be a fool, Avon."

"I wouldn't call it foolishness," Avon said sardonically. "More a spirit of inquiry...." He turned his surprisingly charming smile on the woman standing behind Blake. "And in that same spirit of inquiry, it might be useful to know what your intentions are at this point--Captain Merric."

Blake felt the woman flinch, felt the thunder of her heart against his back. Should I know that name? he wondered. Should I know this woman? He knew she was physically striking; tall--her head was nearly level with his, at 2 metres--and strong. Her grip on his shoulder hadn't eased at all. "My intentions are to blow your leader's head off and then burn you down where you stand if you don't drop your damn weapons," the Federation woman was saying, still cool... but Blake could feel the tension in her. "Now."

Blake heard Cally's soft curse a moment before her weapon clattered to the floor, and Gan stopped where he was and raised his big empty hands to shoulder level. Expressionlessly, Avon threw his weapon over with Cally's and Blake relaxed slightly. Avon. Like handling fissionables, aren't you, my friend, Blake thought. One wrong move, and boom. "Thank you," the woman said ironically. "Now, the rest of you; I want you all down here in front of me. That means you at the console, and you too, Ratty. Move it."

Jenna smiled reluctantly and Gan laughed as Vila indignantly responded, "Ratty? Look, I don't usually argue with people who've got guns, but I draw the line at name-calling. That's just not very friendly... and besides, I'm not anything like a rat."

"Yes; rats have their uses," Avon muttered.

As Vila reluctantly joined the rest of the crew in the center of the room, Cally said, in her usual terse fashion, "Blake. We are going to attract attention if we stay here much longer."

"She's right," Gan rumbled. "We're within a spatial of Malthus Sigma. They're going to start wondering what we're doing out here."

"We won't be here much longer," the woman Avon had addressed as Captain Merric answered with assurance. "Shortly we'll be en route to Earth, where a certain high-ranking government official is understandably anxious to see you. You may not care for that idea very much, but if any of you offer resistance, I'll shoot Blake first and then whoever's responsible."

"I don't feel well," said Vila piteously. "This isn't good for me, you know; I hate violence."

Jenna gave him a look of disgust. "Cowardice isn't normally fatal, Vila, but in your case, I might make an exception."

"Enough," Captain Merric said, sounding amused. "I'd rather you didn't start killing each other off just yet."

"And deprive you of the pleasure, captain?" Avon asked. He was staring at the Federation woman, eyes narrowed, and there was an odd, challenging look on his face. "Blake, look at her face, listen to her voice." Puzzled, Blake turned his head slightly towards his captor. The laser stayed with him, tight against his throat, but otherwise, she ignored him, her attention focused on the others.

Captain Merric's long, night-black hair was pulled back from her face in a tight braid. Her eyes were dark, her skin dusky against her Federation black; a small gold stud in one ear was the only point of contrast. She looked lithe and lean as a panther, though it might just have been the effect of the tight leatheride uniform. Blake stared at her face, frowning. Her features were fine without being delicate, and faintly, hauntingly familiar. If there was more, he couldn't see it. "I'm looking," he said.

"You don't remember, do you," Avon said skeptically. "Look again. She was only all over the vidcasts a few years back... the Supreme Commander's niece, the Federation's golden child. This is Captain Taymar Merric, Blake."

"Oh, I remember her," Vila said brightly. "Youngest officer ever to make captain... not that her being Servalan's niece had anything to do with it, you understand " He broke off abruptly and started edging behind Jenna as the captain turned her dark eyes on him

"Thank you for that vote of confidence--Vila, was it?" Taymar said sarcastically. "But kindly remember, I don't need to justify myself to you, or anybody else on this ship. We'll go to the flight deck now. Blake, get your people moving before I shoot someone out of exasperation."

Blake glanced at Taymar from the corner of his eye, seeing nothing but black; black hair, black uniform and the laser in her black-gloved hand, alive with threat. "Look, captain," Blake said evenly, "we'll do as you say. But we need everyone here to handle Liberator; she's a very sophisticated ship. You can't afford to shoot any of us, so there's no point in making threats. We should be talking instead about helping each other...." *Blake!* came Cally's angry protest in his head. He ignored it, just as he was ignoring the other angry or betrayed looks from his crew. "Perhaps we can come to an agreement?"

"No. We're going to Earth. I don't make deals with criminals." Blake felt Taymar's hair brush his cheek as she turned her head to survey the Liberator's crew. "If there's any trouble, I... I don't have to shoot to kill. You can still fly this ship if you're... maimed."

Blake felt fury surge through him, distracting him from everything else, even the odd hesitancy in Captain Merric's words. He said, softly, "It's a long way to Earth. Can you keep us under control that long?" His brown eyes swept over the five members of his crew, meeting their gazes in turn, willing them to understand. Something's wrong here, Blake thought. This young hero--Servalan's niece--was willing to chance teleporting without a bracelet to keep us from getting away, but she's not taking us on to Malthus Sigma. I don't understand it, but I like our chances better if we can talk instead of fighting. Not for the first time, Blake wished Cally could receive thoughts as well as sending them.

"Look around you," Blake told Taymar. "Those are the eyes that'll be watching your every move from now on. They'll be on you every minute of the journey, waiting for you to make a mistake... and sooner or later, you will. One mistake. And then--you're ours." Blake stared straight ahead, not looking at the others but assessing them in his mind as if they were strangers. Jenna was competent and ruthless, practical; Gan, massively powerful, steadfast, strangely kind; Cally, proud and fierce, explosive in action; Vila, shrewd and anxious, with the hands of a thieving wizard; Avon, a cold, arrogant genius... and not nearly as enigmatic as he thought he was. My friends, some of you; my crew, all of you. This ragtag band of outlaws, this last, best hope... help me get us through this. "But it doesn't have to be like that."

Taymar hesitated for a moment before answering. "Very convincing," she said, "but I'm confident I can stay awake long enough to reach Earth. We'll go to the flight deck now. Move it." As she shoved Blake forward, the laser pressed up under his chin pinched a tiny piece of skin against his jawbone. He flinched at the sudden tiny pain.

Taymar froze. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Blake assured her. "You poked me."

"Sorry," Taymar murmured, as she pushed him towards the others. Blake started forward again, struggling to hide a smile. Maim somebody, Captain Merric? Maybe you would, but I've got a feeling it would go against your grain. Of course, you do still have a gun against my throat. "Don't stand around; I said move it," Taymar snapped, suddenly very much the black- clad Federation officer once again. As the others turned with varying degrees of reluctance and headed into the long corridor that ran the length of Liberator's spine, Blake tried to make sense of Taymar's actions. You've got guts and you're sharp, he thought, but you didn't have this planned. You've been improvising ever since you saw us teleporting out. You're not certain you can keep control of Liberator, but you're desperate enough to try. What's the alternative? What kind of trouble are you in, Madam Federation Officer?

"Close it up," Taymar snapped. "No-one is to get too far ahead." Blake heard the tightness in her voice and understood it. You didn't want to have to move us, did you? It's a lot harder to keep control of a moving group. But you thought you had to get us away from the teleport bays. "You, Stannis, I said close it up!"

The group paused as Jenna stopped, only a few metres away from a cross-corridor. She turned and came slowly back towards the others, big-cat graceful despite the anger evident in every movement. "All of you put a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you and keep it there," Taymar instructed. "Now get going."

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Louise Watson-Carver

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