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By Marian Mendez
Page 1 of 10

Liberator was playing Hare and Hounds with Federation pursuit ships. It was not an unusual situation, but that made it no more pleasant.

"Plasma bolt launched and running true," Cally warned.

"Wait for it, Avon," Blake said, holding up his right hand as he watched the approaching ball of light. "Force wall, now!" He dropped his hand to join the other grasping the back of the flight deck couch. Despite the force wall, Liberator was taking a beating.

"For pity's sake, Blake, do something!" Vila cried, clinging to his console as the ship shuddered, "We're not gonna make it."
"I'm open to suggestions, Vila," Blake said. His eyes were fixed on the screen while his mind whirled, frantically devising and discarding schemes.

"At least let me fire back at them," the thief begged. "If we can make them back off..."

"No!" Avon answered for Blake, his voice sharpened by frustration. "I've told you, under no circumstances are you to fire. The weaponry crystals have cracked. Energy discharge through flawed crystals would probably blow us to kingdom come."

"We may have to chance it, Avon." Jenna said. The pilot tossed her head impatiently to shake away the long blonde hair that threatened to impair her vision, unable to spare a hand from the controls for even that brief instant. "I can't dodge much longer and we haven't the power to outrun them. I'd rather go up in a clean explosion of our own making than be caught by Travis."

"You may contemplate suicide on your own time, Jenna, but I am not going to join you," Avon replied fiercely.

"Neither am I," yelped Vila.

Blake agreed with Jenna that destroying Liberator and all aboard her was preferable to capture. He let Avon hear that determination in his voice when he asked, "Do you have a better idea, Avon?"

"Perhaps I do. Gan, Cally, are there any stellar abnormalities nearby, comets, asteroid fields, plasma clouds, anything we might use to foul their sensors? Come on, come on," he snapped.

"No, Avon, none of those things you requested," Cally replied.

"There is a black hole, though. If that's any help," Gan offered. The big man had felt helpless during this battle and was glad for the opportunity to contribute.

Avon's head came up and his eyes went distant momentarily. "Yes, Gan, that just might do." He spared a glance for Blake. "This may kill us, Blake, but there is a small chance..."

"What?" Blake was in no position to quibble. Liberator was being pounded to bits by the unrelenting enemy. There were so many pursuit ships that he thought they ought to be colliding with one another, but the attack was well coordinated. Travis was having one of his more brilliant days.

"A close orbit around the black hole, applying full power to break free as the gravitational forces reach the maximum we can withstand, should give us a temporary, but vast, increase of speed."

"And you accused me of being suicidal," Jenna said.

"At least if we fail, there won't be anything for the Federation to retrieve," Gan pointed out with his customary practicality. "It'd be quick, too."

"Well, now, I can't guarantee that. Time plays strange tricks in the vicinity of black holes. It's possible we could be sucked in and experience the unique sensation of being reduced to our component atoms over a subjective eternity." Avon grinned brightly.

"It doesn't sound like the kind of story I'd want to tell my grand-kids, Avon," Vila said.

"Don't worry, you won't be telling anyone about it," Avon assured him.

"We'll try it," Blake decided. "Gan, give Jenna the coordinates."

"Brace yourselves," Jenna said. "This is going to be a very rough ride."

Rough was an understatement. Jenna fought the wild gravitational whirlpool of the rotating black hole with all her experience, innate ability and empathy for her alter-ego, Liberator . They skirted the edge of the hole and tore free. A pursuit ship, bolder than the rest, was not so fortunate. Jenna had no time either to gloat over her enemy's fate or to rejoice over her success; she was preoccupied with bringing her ship's speed down to something manageable, while praying that no solid objects appeared in her path before she could do so.

"I think we made it," Jenna said. She released the control grips slowly, wincing as her cramped muscles unbent and blood rushed back into her white-knuckled hands.

"You sound surprised," Avon said.

"I am."

"So am I," Avon admitted.

Blake stared at the viewscreen. There were no pursuit ships that he could see. "Zen, are there any Federation ships nearby?"

Zen's lights flickered, the color a dimmer topaz than usual. His reply was perceptibly slower, also. +No ships matching any known Federation profile are within standard detector scan.+

"Perhaps we ought to try the extra-range scanners, Blake," Vila said. He had been flung to the deck during the escape and was nursing a sore arm as he dutifully resumed his place at the weaponry panel. Now was not the time for complaints.

"We can't afford the energy drain, Vila." Blake surveyed the flight deck. His crew were all on their feet and alert, bruised and ruffled, but relatively uninjured. They were in better condition than the ship which had been run close to her limits. "We're going to have to hole up until Liberator has recharged."

"Near a nice pleasure planet?" Vila asked.

"Sorry, Vila, we need an obscure, isolated area far from Federation traffic." Blake said.

"That's not what I need," Vila muttered. "I need a pleasure planet- some fun, some new faces, that's what I need."

"Sorry, Vila," Gan said. "Maybe next time."

"Yeah, that's what they all say."

Jenna looked up from her console, a worried crease forming between her brows. "You want an obscure, isolated area, you got it, Blake. I don't know where we are."

"What?" Blake strode to her console and glanced at the monitors. "We couldn't have gone that far, could we?"

"The star patterns just don't make sense. I've identified several distinctive stars by their spectra, but the spatial relationships are all wrong. It doesn't match any star chart." She swatted the control panel in annoyance. "Zen, where are we?" she asked.

The computer was even slower to respond this time. +It is not possible to determine Liberator's present location. Data conflict- computer banks one through four are working on the problem.+

"We'll ask Orac," Avon said. He retrieved the small computer from the flight deck couch. Luckily, during the turbulence, Orac had made a soft landing and was undamaged. He snapped the activator key on. "Orac, identify Liberator's present location."

*Really, there is no reason why I should perform a function more suited to the lesser abilities of the ship's own computer. That is, after all, its purpose.*

"You'll do it because I'm telling you to do it, Orac. I've had a hard day. Don't make me take it out on you," Avon said.

*Very well. Although I resent this misuse of my time...* Orac's operating hum increased in volume and his lights flashed busily for several seconds.

Avon's patience ran out. "Well?"

Orac did not bother to point out that `Well' was not a question. It simply said, *This is intriguing- a previously unknown phenomenon. It requires study. Do not bother me with any more of your petty requests, I am far too busy.*

Neither threats nor promises would evoke another word from the machine. Avon shut off the activator key and scowled blackly down at Orac.

"Piece of junk," Vila said. He sneered at the plastic box of computer components. "Useless, uncooperative, lazy, self-centered pain in the backside. Should'a spaced it a long time ago."

"By the same argument, Vila, you would no longer be with us." Avon's remark was mild, considering his current temper.

+Attention+ Zen brought Avon out of his brood with the interruption. +Liberator is being scanned.+

"By who, or what, Zen?" Blake asked. "Put the source of the scan on the main viewscreen, if you can."


"I don't care for the look of that," Vila said as the viewscreen image cleared.

The approaching ship was considerably smaller than Liberator, but the bristling gun ports would have done justice to a much larger vessel. The ship maneuvered like a predator assessing a potential victim. That illusion was enhanced by the stylized stooping hawk painted on the belly of the ship.

"Whatever it is, it looks like trouble," Jenna commented. "We can't fight and we don't know where to run."

"Perhaps we can negotiate," Blake said. "Seems unlikely to be a Federation ship. They might be friendly to us, or at least neutral."

"That ship, friendly?" Vila's raised eyebrows were eloquently skeptical.

"That does not appear to be the welcome wagon, Blake," Avon said.

"It is heavily armed," Cally added. "Virtually all weaponry and engines. That is a warship, Blake."

"Well, we aren't at war with them," Gan said.

"A nice point, if you can get them to agree," Avon responded.

"We must try. As Jenna says, we can't fight and we can't run blindly. Zen, set up a communication link with that ship," Blake said.

"Diplomacy- the last resort of the helpless," Avon said. He placed Orac beside his position, so that he could reach the force wall controls while continuing his attempts to get the computer to aid them.

Zen's delayed response had Blake pacing and gnawing on a knuckle. The hawk-ship continued its approach, slower now, as if sensing that its prey was too weak to run. Finally the computer said, +Audio-visual contact is available.+

"Main screen, Zen," Blake ordered.

The first thing Blake noticed was that the men on the other ship's flight deck were all wearing unfamiliar military uniforms. The next thing he noted, an instant later, was that they weren't quite men. They were humanoid, but the pointed ears, upswept eyebrows and slightly greenish complexion had never belonged to any of the races of humanity.

"Aliens!" Vila cried. "And mean-looking ones, at that," he added in a low mutter.

"You did ask for new faces," Jenna reminded him, dryly.

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