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By Neil Faulkner
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The crew of the freighter were taken completely by surprise. For days they had been plodding sedately through empty space at a humble Time Distort 4, with nothing more to worry about than the occasional minor course correction. Then, with no warning whatsoever, their escort ship had been blown to smithereens by a single shot from a powerful particle beam weapon. Their attacker appeared, as if from nowhere, gliding up alongside with effortless ease, matching speed and course with remarkable precision. It was a breath-taking spectacle, that ship, cold elegance in every line and very, very large. Definitely not a run-of-the-mill pirate.

      The first wave of panic on the bridge had barely subsided before this unprecedented onslaught took on a new and more chilling dimension. A blinding white glare filled the doorway to the cargo access channel. When it winked out, three people were standing there who had definitely not been on the ship a few seconds before. And they were all armed and seemed to know exactly what they were doing.

      Without taking his eyes, or gun, off the gaping-mouthed captain and his colleagues, one of the new arrivals raised his left wrist to his mouth and spoke into the wide, device-studded bracelet he wore. He was a foreboding sight, dressed austerely in black: cold and unflinching yet with a hint of wild triumph in his eyes.

      "Across and safe," he snapped. "Tell Tarrant to initiate docking procedure." Without shifting his sinister gaze a fraction he barked out orders to his two companions. "Cally - engage the freight handling system for transfer to the Liberator. Dayna, keep an eye on those." He indicated the hapless freighter crew. The curvaceous black girl flashed him a wicked smile and struck a provocative pose, one hand resting on her hip, the other waggling a gun towards a corner of the command deck. The crew shuffled over there without a whimper.

      The other woman, a slender, almost willowy figure with a keen-featured face framed in cascading brown curls, strutted up to the now vacant controls. Her long, graceful fingers moved over the panels with professional ease, and she rapidly found what she was looking for.

      "Freight capsule nine, Avon," she informed the man in black. "Just as Orac said. I've activated the transfer tube. Tarrant's dead centre for docking."

      She had barely finished speaking when the whole ship shuddered and a rolling boom echoed down its bulkhead walls. Avon ignored it. "Can the automatics handle the roll off?"

      Cally nodded, cool concentration etched across her brow. "I'm engaging them now," she said. Far back down the ship's angular hull a deep rumbling began. The sound prompted a glimmer of protest from the cornered crew.

      "You won't get away with this," snarled the captain, making no attempt to hide his contempt.

      "Oh, but we already are," smiled Avon coldly.

      "In case you hadn't noticed," added Dayna, flashing her pearly white teeth in a feral grin. The captain persisted.

      "We aren't carrying anything of value," he said, trying hard not to make it sound like a plea.

      "Aren't you?" responded Avon, his eyes boring deep into the captain's troubled face. "Perhaps you underestimate the value of your cargo."

      The captain gave up. His fears for his own life, and those of his colleagues, were plain. These were clearly ruthless people. Better not to antagonise them.

      The rumbling sounds in the freighter's bowels ground to a halt. "Transfer completed," announced Cally.

      Avon brought the bracelet back up. "We're all done here, Vila. Bring us across."

      The crew watched, helpless, as the white glare erupted a second time, and they found themselves alone once more.


They gathered in one of Liberator's enormous holding bays to survey their prize. A dozen or more giant sealed containers stood in a neat line down one wall, gleaming dully in the subdued bay lighting.

      "A good, clean operation," observed Tarrant. He had impressed himself with his precision manual handling of the colossal ship, and was feeling somewhat put out by the lack of admiration he was getting. But, given the circumstances, this was possibly understandable.

      "Things might have gone wrong," Cally said quietly. She had been the only one who had voiced misgivings about this venture. Avon stepped past her and tapped out a release code on the entry panel of the nearest container.

      "The rewards outweigh the risks," he said, and pulled the heavy door aside.

      "So you say," murmured Cally. Only Vila heard her.

      "They do," he assured her, watching the thick white clouds tumble out of the container. The air turned cold, and they all shivered.

      Avon reached in and, with some difficulty, pulled out what looked like a small, flat box, coated in frost. He handled it gingerly, as if afraid it might stick to his fingers, and subjected it to careful scrutiny.

      "We'll start with this one," he stated in a tone that would brook no argument. He got none. A strange expression passed across his face, something the others, not even Vila, had seen before. It spoke of lost things found, of longings satisfied, an intensity long suppressed now finally released.

      "It's been a long time," he said to himself, or no-one, "since I last had a decent vindaloo."

      The others, even Cally, murmured agreement, and silently followed him in file to the kitchens.



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