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By Frances Teagle
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BLAKE: Good shot, Avon.
AVON: I was aiming for his head. [Orac]


"You'd be singing a different tune if that bastard Avon hadn't shown up when he did," said Travis bitterly. He didn't raise his eyes to his commander, but morosely contemplated the ruin of his artificial hand. "What's more, if you hadn't prevented me from killing Blake immediately, Avon would have been too late."
          Servalan rolled her eyes upwards in exasperation. "Then Blake would not be alive to prevent Avon from killing us."
          Knowing better than to argue further, Travis lapsed into a brooding silence.
          The Supreme Commander transferred her glower to the backs of her two mutoid pilots. She need not fear their wagging tongues. At the end of this clandestine voyage they would be blanked, of course, just as they would have been if her plan to acquire Orac had succeeded. Travis, however, was another matter. He must be contained somehow.
          Meanwhile Blake had Orac. Of all the people in the universe, it had to be Blake! How? What could possibly have led him to Ensor? And did he know what he had? Did he appreciate its possibilities? If not, he would surely find out soon enough, provided that Avon was half as brilliant as he was supposed to be.
          Avon - her expression moderated to a slight frown - perhaps it was time to find out more about Avon.
          He'd been rather impressive on Aristo, appearing in the nick of time like that. Handsome, too, in an off-beat kind of way - more so than his prison photographs suggested. She called up the scene again and focussed her memory on him. Dark hair, unwavering dark eyes under level brows, contrasting strongly with a pale face that carried a mysterious hint of femininity about it, especially those sculpted lips. She smiled appreciatively; a connoisseur of male beauty herself, she was often in a position to indulge her fancies. A nicely proportioned figure, too, she recalled, set off well in black and silver, in contrast to the workaday uniformity of the other three.
          He'd handled the brief burst of action well, much more competently than might be expected of a man from his background. The sheltered alpha denizens of the city domes didn't normally take kindly to the outdoor life, but he had shown no discomfort on that windswept beach; whereas the thief, Restal, was clearly longing to be back in the safety of the spacecraft again. Blake must have been training his crew in guerilla tactics and Avon was doubtless a quick learner; but all the same, they were an odd combination, the embezzler and the revolutionary. What kept them together? Why hadn't Avon simply shifted his base of operations to independent territory and attacked the banking system again? Maybe the man and his motivation would repay study.
          She reviewed the few words that had been exchanged during the confrontation. Blake had said that Ensor, like his son, was dead. Ensor's son - that must be it. The Liberator must have been close enough to Cephlon to detect the explosion of the ship, and the younger Ensor must have evacuated in an escape pod and been picked up by Blake. Or was it Marryat, perhaps? If he had learnt some details from Ensor... What if he was still alive?
          And what was it that the thief had said about bringing the decontaminants? Ah, of course - if Ensor's pod had landed on Cephlon, some of the crew would have gone down to retrieve him - one of Blake's humanitarian gestures. All Space Command knew enough to keep away from Cephlon's contaminated surface; a few hours there would be enough to cause fatal radiation sickness if it went untreated. No wonder Avon and Restal were protecting their comrades so assiduously, their lives probably depended upon it.
          Meanwhile, she'd better send somebody to Cephlon to look for escape pods and discover their occupants' fate. The thought of Marryat surviving to tell his story was an unwelcome one. Perhaps she had better cancel the `deserter' posting, and make sure his family were not sold into slavery until she knew what had happened to him.

          "Ah Rai, I have a job for you." The Supreme Commander smiled sweetly at her reinstated adjutant as he entered her office.
          He drew himself up sharply to attention. "Yes ma'am."
          His eyes were still wary, but she had no doubt that she could restore his former admiration now that Travis was gone. Indeed, the atmosphere at Headquarters had relaxed considerably since his departure.
          "I need all the information you can find on Avon, Stannis and the rest of the Liberator's crew. Full prison records, plus recordings of their interrogation sessions and lists of their known associates - anything."
          A tinge of enthusiasm lit his face. "At once, ma'am."
          Back in his office, Rai applied himself to his task with efficiency. Travis's records revealed only Blake's data and the interrogation of the Auron woman captured on Centero, with which Servalan was already familiar. Information on the others had to be retrieved from the Terran Justice Department. It would be instructive to scan them himself, he felt. He was sometimes painfully aware of his own inexperience in matters criminal - this might be a chance to acquire a little of the worldly wisdom he longed for.
          "Can I be of assistance, Supreme Commander?" he enquired as he delivered the first batch to her desk.
          She considered a moment, then flashed him her old encouraging smile. "Yes, of course. I'm trying to get familiar with their thought processes and motivation, and also their backgrounds and contacts, plus any other useful facts that might help us to lay them by the heels. You take Stannis and Gan, and I'll do the others."

  "Jenna Stannis, it is rare for a woman to be sent to a penal colony such as Cygnus Alpha, but you have shown yourself to be a persistent and hardened miscreant, beyond repentance and rehabilitation. You are a self-confessed deserter from Space Fleet, you and other members of your family have wilfully flouted the excise laws of the Federation on numerous occasions, and you have associated with notorious outlaws and enemies of your native Terran Federation. The court, therefore, has no option but to sentence you to penal servitude on the said colony of Cygnus Alpha for the rest of your life."
          Rai couldn't help a sigh as he watched the prisoner turn away with a defiant toss of her blonde head and follow the guards out of the court. He knew he had no business to feel sympathy for her plight, but the story that had unravelled from the record disks seemed a tragic one, if only for the waste of a talented and beautiful woman. He felt a secret guilty satisfaction that she had escaped the brutal fate of life in a prison colony peopled almost exclusively by the dregs of the underworld. For all her bravado at the trial, she must have shuddered inwardly at the prospect.
          What had caused her to desert from the fleet and take up such a dangerous way of life? The reference to `other members of her family' intrigued him. If he used his temporary authority, he should be able to extract more details from Federation records. After all, he rationalised, the Supreme Commander wants to know about her thought processes and motivation.

As the visdisk containing the unedifying biography of Vila Restal reached its end and ejected from the reader, the Supreme Commander got up and helped herself to a drink while she considered its contents. The thief was undoubtedly intelligent and talented and she could see how useful Blake might find those talents, provided he could keep him under reasonable control, which he seemed to have achieved. Restal's motivation for staying with Blake would most likely be simple fear of recapture and return to Cygnus Alpha, if not worse. Well, it shouldn't be difficult to persuade an essentially cowardly petty thief to betray his leader - the offer of a pardon and a cash reward should do it nicely.
          Rai's report on Olag Gan lay before her on the desk. It, on the other hand, was not very promising. This subject had led a blameless life as a worker in one of the many hydroponic plants until the day the security services had decided to conduct a sweep through his residential block, searching for drug dealers and their wares. Two imbecile guards had decided to have their fun with Gan's woman, fatally injuring her in the course of overcoming a desperate resistance. Her massively powerful mate had burst into the room, breaking the neck of one guard and throwing his companion down the stairwell, then rampaging through the building seeking to destroy the rest of the squad, until finally subdued by a stun-gun.
          The courts had chosen to be sympathetic, waiving the virtually mandatory death sentence for killing a guard, in favour of exile and a brain-implanted limiter. They had even had the gall to demand disciplinary measures against the rest of the squad, which had enraged the military authorities. No, there was little prospect of tempting Gan to treachery; Blake's undoubted leadership qualities would have easily won his loyalty.
          Well, that disposed of the other ranks. Rai was working through the voluminous material on Stannis and her associates, now it was the turn of Kerr Avon.

Rai was feeling physically sick. The further he delved into the history of the Stannis family, the more appalling it became. What appeared to be the story of a bright but criminally-minded young woman who had deserted from Space Fleet to join her freetrader relatives soon after graduating from the academy, darkened with every step he took into a tale of unparalleled treachery and tyranny.
          Doubtless the Federation had its own reasons for seizing the assets of the larger private trading and transport companies, but to arrest the owners, all their families and most of their employees and wantonly torture them into `confessing' to anti-Federation activities was as vile as anything Travis had ever done. Children shot in front of their parents, wives tortured in front of their husbands, and for what? It was unlikely that Federation citizens had benefitted by one iota from this foul act.
          Some zealous clerk in Records had sent him everything, even the `most secret' recordings of these horrific scenes. If Jenna Stannis were ever to see them she would surely go mad. As it was, he himself shuddered as he watched. The only bright spots were the escape of one of the Stannis women, who threw herself from a moving prison vehicle and disappeared into the Delta tenements, and Jenna's successful desertion from the fleet just ahead of the order to return her to Earth for questioning.
          He no longer doubted Blake's innocence of those charges of pederasty. He knew that they were merely the most disgusting crimes encompassed by the imagination of whoever had engineered them with the aim of discrediting Blake in the eyes of the public.
          For the first time he wondered about Travis; whether that grim figure had once been an honest upright soldier before he was brutalised by the ever-worsening demands of an infamous government. If he hadn't been betrayed by his superiors, would he now be a man of honour and integrity like Fleet Warden Samor; stern perhaps, but just and respected by all? And where did his own chief fit in this pattern? Was she merely carrying out her duties honestly and conscientiously, or was she as corrupt as the rest of them?
          He closed his burning eyes and groaned. If this was worldly wisdom, he would rather be naive and ignorant. Would he ever sleep again?

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Frances Teagle

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