- Avon: Have you anything on Blake's whereabouts?
- Zen: His last voice transmission reported that he is safe and well and en route for the planet Epheron.
"Blake? Roj Blake? Is it really you?"
Avalon stared in shock at the gaunt figure emerging unsteadily from the flyer. The man was evidently so weak that the pilot had to support him as he advanced towards her, but worst of all was the swollen wound that disfigured the left side of his face, virtually closing the eye. Then he smiled at her and she knew him again.
"Avalon. You don't know how good it is to see you." He reached out and took her hand gratefully. "Now it's my turn to come to you for refuge."
She smiled back at him in relief and pleasure. "You're more than welcome. Come inside."
An hour later, when the medic had finished her ministrations, Avalon returned with two plates of food. Passing one to him, she sat down in the opposite seat.
"I won't plague you with questions," she said, spooning up rehydrated rations. "Tell me what you want, when you want. But what the hell did that to your face?"
He grinned ruefully. "Believe it or not, it was an animal."
Her eyebrows shot up. "A big one, evidently."
"Some kind of large feline trained for hunting. A bounty hunter called Yager had been after me for months and I finally decided to draw him into an ambush in thick scrubland."
"Were you going to kill him? That's not your usual style."
"The man was an indiscriminate killer. He'd murdered several of my friends and helpers and I felt I had to stop him. I didn't know he'd hired some local huntsman to track me. The creature came charging out of the bushes without any warning, knocked me down and pinned me while they caught up on foot. It's lucky I was wearing a thick padded jacket, but I've got some scars on my left arm where I fended it off."
"Ugh! No wonder the wound suppurated. How did you get away."
"Shot Yager when he came in to finish me off. He didn't realise that I had a small hand gun as well as the blaster I'd rammed into the cat's mouth. When I fired at the tracker, he called off his beast and ran. The blaster was ruined, that damned animal nearly chewed it in two."
He fell silent, vividly remembering the nightmare vision of snarling teeth and raking claws that still haunted his feverish nights, and the breathtaking speed of the attack that had prevented him from bringing his blaster to bear. All he'd been able to do was thrust its barrel crossways into the gaping mouth. Sometimes he woke himself up thrashing about in his efforts to throw it off.
Seeing his discomfort, Avalon broke into his reverie.
"What does the medic say?"
"She thinks it will respond to antibiotics eventually, and I must say, I'm very glad to have some decent painkillers at last." Blake changed the subject. "Mmm... As dehydrated rations go, these aren't bad."
"You're right. I've got a very good blockade runner now, supplies are much more regular."
Ten days or so of decent food, medical care and rest wrought a considerable change for the better in Blake. The feverish infection subsided, the swelling reduced, and painkillers secured the first real sleep he had managed in weeks. No longer concentrating all his efforts on endurance and survival, he was able to take an interest in his surroundings and new companions.
Avalon's new base had been chosen well - an abandoned copper mine in the mountains that combined excavated galleries with a number of natural caverns. The guerillas had devoted considerable ingenuity to making themselves comfortable, possibly because of the high percentage of women in their ranks, and the dormitory caverns were well drained and well lit. Aerials and satellite dishes concealed in the woodlands above, with a network of cables leading to the caves, provided excellent communication facilities, and a variety of sources, including a nearby waterfall, provided power. The wide rock-strewn eastern valley contained a cleverly camouflaged landing ground, big enough for a medium-sized space freighter, as well as several flyers. The uppermost cave opened out onto a steep rocky gorge on the western side of the mountain, whose tree-covered slopes echoed to the tumbling waters of a long series of cascades. All this was carefully guarded by a surprisingly sophisticated surveillance system, acquired from a supplier on Regis Two and smuggled in by Avalon's much cherished new blockade runner.
People came and went at the base. Squads were trained for special missions and dispatched to carry them out. A couple of refugees like himself arrived, to be forwarded to a safer place. Agents slipped in to report or be briefed for their next assignment. On one occasion a prisoner was brought in for trial, found guilty of atrocities, and removed for execution.
Avalon was conducting campaigns on several planets from these headquarters and her entire operation was now highly professional. She was evidently well-financed, if the specialised and expensive equipment was anything to judge by, although the force field that barred the base entrance behind the illusion of a rock fall had been stolen from Space Command supplies with the aid of a venal employee.
Blake was made comfortable in a corner of the men's dormitory cave, with an airbed and the privacy of a partition woven from strips of wood by the survival expert who taught recruits how to live off the land. He had been accepted into the ranks with friendship, and off-duty soldiers sought him out to advise and discuss, but above all, to tell stories about the Liberator.
They had their favourites, but the one that never failed to raise an appreciative laugh was the tale of Avon, Vila and Orac swindling Krantor's casino out of several million credits. When Blake had finally prised the truth out of Vila with the aid of a large glass of brandy, he wasn't sure whether to laugh or to be furious at their irresponsibility. Avon, as always, refused the slightest sign of shame, and Vila, in spite of his fright at the chessboard, was clearly very pleased with himself too. On the whole, the adventure had been a morale raiser, so Blake had been content to keep quiet.
The younger guerillas earnestly debated the problems of personnel management when dealing with persons of criminal tendencies, most deciding to adopt Blake's solution, but a few holding out for severe disciplinary action. Avalon observed all this with amused satisfaction. Blake was a good master of debate; fair, skilled at posing complex questions, and drawing thoughtful responses from her troops. Some very deep issues were debated exhaustively, but without the usual acrimony, thanks to his adept chairmanship.
In spite of her promise not to plague him with questions, Avalon was curious to know where he had been since parting with his crew. He had given her a brief account of his movements, but he showed some reluctance to go into detail. Perhaps he felt a sense of failure.
Epheron, where he made planetfall, was run by a few wealthy families as their private fiefdom. An apparently warm welcome proved to be a cover for their true intention, which was to seize the Liberator. After a warning, Blake fled to the dissidents and helped them to organise an uprising, but he was unable to stay and see it through because the rulers had set a particularly ruthless bounty hunter close on his heels, endangering his colleagues. The Underground engineered his escape from the planet on a neutral ore-carrier, but the hunter picked up his trail again and chased him across three more systems before Blake was driven to setting up an ambush to kill him. The hunting cat came as an unpleasant surprise, and the infected wound had very nearly killed him. Feverish and starving, he made his way to a small settlement, where he ran across an associate of hers, who arranged his passage here.
After a while Avalon broached the subject she was really burning to know about.
"What about your teleport bracelet? Did they take it from you?"
"No. They knew nothing about the teleport. They thought it was only a communicator, and since they were trying to draw the Liberator into a trap, they let me keep it. I let them think I was going along with the plan, but there was always a chance that they would discover its main purpose, and I destroyed it so that it could never be used to gain access to the ship."
"Did you ever contact the ship?"
"Once, aboard the rescue ship, to let them know I was alive and heading for Epheron. But before the attack on Star One, I made an agreement with Avon that I would leave the Liberator to him once he had returned me to Earth. Things didn't work out the way we expected, but I won't be trying to contact the ship again. If I do return to Earth, I shall make my own way back."
"I thought that was your main objective, returning to Earth."
"I'm beginning to wonder how advisable it would be," he said slowly. "It would certainly be folly to rush back directly, they'll probably be expecting me. I'll have to approach it in stages and try to re-establish contact with the Resistance."
"What will you do for transport?"
"Try some of Jenna's freetrading contacts, I suppose. I know a few names."
Avalon gave an unusually broad smile and nodded.
"I expect my blockade runners know the same people," she said encouragingly. "I'm expecting them soon."
"There's a supply ship, the Ursa, coming in just before dawn," said Avalon, approaching Blake's corner some days later. "Food and arms. We'll eat well tomorrow."
"Ah, good." Blake sat up alertly. "I'll come down to the launch pad and help. I want to talk to the crew, hear what news they have." And maybe get a passage to somewhere nearer to Earth, he added to himself.
Avalon looked critically at his gaunt face. "I don't think you're fit to go lugging crates around. Anyway, they won't leave until sunset, and unloading won't take that long. You stay here and I'll bring them up to you so you can talk as much as you like." As if she had read his mind, she added, "Perhaps you'll want to arrange a passage out with them. I think they can look after you pretty well."
Somewhat startled, he said "Yes, well, maybe. It depends on what they have to say. I don't have any clear idea of my next move yet."
Avalon smiled. "We'll talk it over with them," she said.
He was awoken by the stir of his companions. Sleepily glancing up at the security monitor, he saw it was still in night-scan mode, first light must be some time away. Evidently the supply ship was on final approach.
His neighbour noticed him sitting up and shook his head. "Get some more sleep," he said. "There's plenty of us to do the unloading."
Thankfully, Blake rolled over again. As he was drifting off, he felt the deep vibration that announced the ship's arrival.
Some hours later, he made his way up to the rear cavern that Avalon favoured. All was quiet. Beyond the cave mouth, the vista of rocks and sunlit trees stirring in a light breeze invited him outside. Carefully, he descended the stony path to the little terrace below and sat down thankfully in the morning sunlight to review the questions he had for the newly arrived freetraders. One of his most urgent queries was 'have you heard anything of Jenna Stannis?' Waiting for the arrival of a vital supply ship here among Avalon's troops, the importance of blockade-running freetraders was brought home to him. By association, Jenna's face was constantly before him and he longed to know what had become of her. Could she have rejoined the Liberator? Would she and Avon...? No, don't torment yourself with imaginings like that, he told himself.
He was still absorbed in his thoughts when he heard a little shower of pebbles clattering down the path. He looked up. Jenna Stannis was slithering hazardously down the steep slope.
Too overcome to speak, he stood up and reached out for her, then staggered back a pace as her sturdy compact body cannoned into him with the velocity of her descent.
Laughing, they clung together for several minutes, babbling questions between kisses: What have you been doing with yourself? What happened to your eye? Who are you crewing with now? Where have you been?! Finally, Avalon judged it high time to come down and join them, and they pulled apart and beamed at her.