Previous Chapter: http://www.livejournal.com/community/b7
It's all very sad, thought Vila, Dayna has finally gone over the edge. One day a bright, happy, sane person, and the next she's talking to an earring. She's not even talking sense, it's just gibberish. He watched her with a mixture of pity and bewilderment.
Finally she said, "That's all, come here and tell me what you heard." She put the earring on.
Vila leaned closer and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper, "Er.. Dayna, what does it say?"
She laughed, "It says, 'Vila is out of his tiny mind.' "
That upset him, "Well, I didn't want to bring it up, but I'm not the one having a conversation with a small piece of jewellery, or perhaps that's considered normal where you come from."
Soolin came in and sat beside Dayna, "That is very good, I heard 'One, four, Orac, Tarrant, Vila is staring at me, Zen, Mellanby, seven, three, nine.' "
Dayna grinned, "It works!" She smiled pityingly at Vila, "It's a one way communicator. It is very tiny, so it can be fitted in almost anything."
"Like an earring?"
"Like an earring."
A cunning smile gave Vila a distinctly shifty air, "What is the range on that?"
"I'm not sure, several kilometres."
Soolin put a hand to her gun, "I'd hate to think that you were thinking of using it for card games."
Vila looked mortally offended, a certain indication of guilt, "Perish the thought, lovely lady! That would be cheating."
Avon walked in as Dayna said, "This is the transmitter." She removed it from the earring. "And this, " she said, taking another earring from Soolin, "Contains the receiver."
"Very nice." said Avon, "How many sets have you made?"
"Two, but I can make more."
He nodded, "Do it, I'll need a set. In fact, you'd better make it two."
Dayna replied, "May I ask why?"
"Well yes, you can ask. I'll also need you to help me with teleport bracelets. I can tell you how to make them, but I need someone with the necessary skills. The thought of having to teach Vila does not appeal to me. For you, it will merely be a matter of following instructions. If you can make a gun, you should be able to manage a teleport bracelet, under supervision."
She answered him coldly, she disliked his attitude, "What a pity it doesn't work both ways, I would like some qualified assistance when I work on those guns, I suppose I will have to rely on Soolin."
"For now the guns can wait, do you see anybody to shoot at?"
Vila turned away, "Don't make us answer that, Avon."
Soolin asked, "Has Orac designed a teleport system yet?"
"No, it will take time. Without Orac it would have taken years, and that is an optimistic estimate."
She said, "It's nice to know that he has some uses."
Avon looked around at each of them, "Every one of us is useful in some way Soolin."
The following day Avon and Trilby were working in the cargo bay, following Orac's instructions. They had chosen a corner to use as a teleport area. Orac had reluctantly changed the original design to suit the parts available, although one vital component would have to be looked for elsewhere. If they found aquitar or dinamon crystals, or a substitute, Orac had estimated that they could have a working teleport within three weeks. Tarrant was looking for a suitable substance even now. Of course, some fine-tuning would be required before it would be as sophisticated as their previous teleports. Trilby's enthusiasm seemed limitless, and she asked frequent and intelligent questions. She also continued to pry.
"How did a clever man like you get sentenced to Cygnus Alpha?"
He answered in the same voice as he had used to answer her technical questions, "Five hundred million credits." She looked at him expectantly, and he realised that he would have to tell her more, "I was going to take it from the Federation banking system, but someone had other ideas, and I was stupid enough to trust her."
"Who was she?"
He looked at the work he was doing. When he spoke, he spoke quietly, "She was Bartolomew."
He heard Trilby gasp, and realised that she had heard of the Federation agent. She spoke, "You should be flattered, they sent the best after you."
"Of all the things I felt the day that I found out, I assure you, I did not feel flattered."
She was watching him, "Did you kill her?"
"Yes, I killed her, eventually. Bartolomew and Anna Grant, if there ever was an Anna Grant."
"So you were sentenced to Cygnus Alpha, and on the way there you met Blake?"
He was surprised that she did not ask more about Anna, it occurred to him that she was letting him off lightly. "That's right," he said, "Strange, isn't it? It could have gone either way, Blake or the money."
She grinned, "You'd have preferred the money?"
There was a pause, "Avon, I'm curious,"
"Yes, I had noticed." he said with a wry smile.
"How did you feel about Blake? Did you hate him or admire him?"
She looked puzzled, "Which?"
He reached for a tool beside her, "Both."
"You're not a very straightforward person, are you?"
He said nothing for a while, then met her gaze, "Would you like me so much if I were?"
"I haven't said that I like you now."
"Well you've never said that you don't."
She picked up a probe and said, "Are you asking whether I do?"
"No." He thought that that was probably the best answer, he did not wish to hear what she might say. She smiled to herself and nodded.
Tarrant entered the cargo bay without warning and his unexpected arrival surprised both of them, "We may have found a possible source of darite."
Avon put down the magnetic probe he was using, "May have found a possible source? That doesn't sound very hopeful."
Trilby said, "It's not that bad, at least he didn't say, 'I think we may have found a possible source of what might be darite.' Let's not get depressed yet."
Avon glanced darkly at her, "Oh thankyou Trilby, that is very comforting. Well Tarrant?"
Tarrant offered him an electronic notepad, "The information is old, but it appears that there is an old Federation mining planet. They were mining metals, but darite was often found. They sold it. The mine was automated, but there were a small team of technicians changed every five years."
Avon looked at the data, the darite found on the planet was pure enough for his purposes, "How old is the information?"
"Well, it's all from before the war. After the war, the planet was left outside the borders of the Federation, presumably the technicians are still there. There is no information about their return. It is close, we could be there in six hours. What do you think?"
Avon shrugged, "I thought you were in charge now, do what you like."
"Is darite good enough? It was fifth on Orac's list."
Trilby said, "Orac gave you a list of appropriate substances, anything on the list is fine. Avon's unlikely to say this, so I will, thankyou, you've done a wonderful job."
Avon turned back to the work and muttered, "Yes, thankyou Tarrant."
Tarrant said, "Don't mention it, do you need any help here?"
Avon gestured to Orac and Trilby, "I have all the help I need. You're a pilot, not a technician. Go and fly your ship."
Tarrant walked away. Trilby looked at Avon again, "You really don't like him, do you?"
"I have an aversion to heroes. I've had some nasty experiences with them in the past. You do like him, don't you?"
"Of course I do, but then, he isn't my rival. You could share control of the ship."
He laughed, "It must be nice to see everything so simply."
"I'm a simple person, Avon."
"Oh no, you're not."
The psychostrategist's sleep was interrupted by a message from Carnell. It was uncharacteristically short and to the point. Carnell simply said, "Start again, but this time, assume that they have Orac. Then tell Sleer both potential outcomes. From that, you can find out whether they have Orac. I think that that is an important question, don't you?"
Ardath agreed and closed the channel, he was getting very concerned about all this unasked for help from Carnell. There would be a price. Ardath knew he would not sleep any more that night, so he started to work. If they had Orac, the next logical step would be to build a teleport, as they had for Scorpio. He accessed the data on the Federation's failed projects. As far as he could tell, the teleport system would require aquitar, and all known sources of aquitar were under Federation control. He could simply tell Sleer to watch them more closely than usual. He began to prepare his report.
When Tarrant returned to the cargo bay, it was to inform Avon that they were in orbit around Kendon IV. Avon stood up, he had spent most of the last six hours working. He asked Tarrant, "Who is going to get the crystals?"
Tarrant smiled, "There's a problem. We can't land. Anything bigger than a transporter won't fit in the landing area, and the terrain everywhere else is a mess."
Trilby was concerned, "What are we going to do?"
Tarrant said, "We have contacted the technicians and asked for transport to the surface. Their shuttle should be here soon."
Avon was unimpressed, "Why didn't you discuss this with us? It seems a little foolish to me, if they even suspect who we are...."
"You told me to do what I like, well I have. I've considered the options and this seems to be the best one. I'll go, do you want to come?"
"Alright. Who else?"
"Vila has volunteered to stay here, he says that he has no wish to share a shuttle with you again. Trilby should stay in here to get on with the work and Dayna is busy."
"You, me and Soolin then?"
Trilby put a tool in Avon's hand, "Petroscope. Be careful, make sure three of you come back."
Tarrant patted her shoulder, "We'll be back soon. Try not to worry."
Avon was already almost out the door, "Shall we go?"
Tarrant looked at Trilby, shrugged and followed.
The shuttle was uncomfortable, but adequate. The pilot, a man called Ash, guided it into the landing area without difficulty. When they disembarked they were met by a man and a woman, both middle-aged. The man stepped forward and addressed Tarrant, "I am Technician Sellow, this is Alia. The others send their apologies, our duties have been much harder since the war with the Andromedans, they are very busy."
Tarrant shook the man's hand and introduced Avon and Soolin, "We understand, it says alot for your dedication that you continue the work."
Alia laughed, "Dedication! We have nowhere else to go, so we continue working the machinery in the hope that we can sell this metal, or persuade the Federation to take this planet back."
She led them into a small, dimly lit room. Avon looked at the grubby chairs and cluttered tables with disgust. He declined an invitation to sit down, and was not surprised when the others did likewise.
Soolin stepped forward, "Perhaps we can help, we can take you on our ship, there are only five of you, aren't there?"
Alia nodded. Sellow looked at them hopefully, "We only need transport to a civilised world, we could pay with good metal. We mine and process Irium and Lead."
Soolin smiled, "We have no use for either, but we will accept darite."
Sellow grinned, "As much as you want. Alia, show Avon where it is stored, let him help himself. I will find the others."
Alia smiled at Avon, "Come with me please." He followed her, he had already decided to take as much as he could get onto the shuttle. He glanced back at Tarrant and Soolin, Soolin seemed worried and she was not the nervous type. He looked around as they walked, the whole building seemed to be in a very poor state. It must have been badly maintained long before the recent war. He was disappointed, if the place had been remotely habitable he would have considered it as a base. He disliked Sellow and Alia, especially now that he had seen Soolin's reaction to them. Soolin was often right about people. He did not like the idea of taking them onto the Freedom. Their offer worried him too, darite was far from worthless, yet they were offering him as much as he wanted. Nothing about this place was as he would expect.
He decided to ask Alia some questions. "Have you seen any Federation people since the war?" he asked.
"No, we had a communication telling us to be patient, but nothing since."
"Nothing? What about supplies?"
She stopped walking to answer, "We have received nothing. We are running out, that is why we are so anxious to leave."
"And the shuttle will not take you out of the system."
"No, even if it could, there's very little fuel left."
He nodded, "So what plans did you have? You did not know that we would come. What were you going to do?"
She started walking again, "We hoped that somebody would come, it didn't matter who. If nobody came, we would have tried to contact the Federation, I doubt if they would leave us to die."
It was lucky that she could not see his reaction to that remark, the woman was either stupid, or very loyal, it was all the same thing in the end. He resisted the temptation to tell her the truth about the Federation, he did not want to declare himself an enemy yet. He remained silent for the rest of the walk.
When Avon and Alia returned, each weighed down with a heavy box of crystals, Tarrant and Soolin were organising the other technicians. The youngest was in his early twenties. He was introduced as Tepler. The other two were Ash and Blair, Avon made a mental note not to turn his back on any of them. They all boarded the shuttle. Avon sat at the back, and was relieved when he saw that none of them appeared to be armed. He tried to convince himself that he was being irrational, perhaps he was judging them by their dishevelled appearances. He gave up, he knew that they were hiding something. They acted like criminals, and in his experience, there was only one reason for that. Tepler kept glancing at him, he disliked Tepler most of all. He was glad that Tarrant would be flying them back.
Similar thoughts were running through Soolin's mind. She had not liked Sellow's smile when Tarrant had introduced them. She was convinced that they knew who they were dealing with. These people were not rich, and the reward for Soolin and her friends was generous to say the least. She thought it would be safer to keep them in sight for now, on the ship they could be watched. In a couple of hours they could place the technicians on a backwater planet. Then she could relax. She wondered whether to tell Tarrant of her suspicions, but decided against it, they might hear her. She was next to Tarrant, but it was a small shuttle. She turned to look at Avon, he was staring at Tepler, who was staring back. After about a minute, Tepler lowered his eyes. Avon continued to watch him. She smiled, I'm getting as paranoid as him, she thought. She looked out as they left the planet behind, she was glad to be away, there was a feeling of decay about the place. She was startled when Tarrant hit the display panel in front of him. She asked sweetly, "A small technical problem?"
"More like lots of large ones, this shuttle is older than I am!"
She gasped, "Surely not!"
"Soolin, have I ever told you how much I love your company?"
She thought for a while, "I don't think so."
"Did it ever occur to you to wonder why?"
Her display panel was the next thing to go wrong, so she hit it. Tarrant watched as it corrected itself, "Well done, with that kind of technical aptitude, you could be a pilot."
Avon's voice came from behind, "Well that makes it all worthwhile, doesn't it, Soolin? Although I suppose that it is a step up from gunfighter, just about."
Soolin glanced back, "You should be careful Avon, Tarrant cannot pilot you to death."
"Oh, I'd dispute that." said Avon.
Alia asked, "Do you always argue?"
Soolin regarded her seriously, "Only with my friends."
Tarrant nodded, "Her enemies are a bit beyond the arguing stage, in fact, most of them find breathing a problem."
Soolin smiled, Tarrant was aware of the situation.
Dayna greeted the technicians with courtesy, but not much warmth. She led them into a recreation lounge and asked them to let her know if they wanted anything. They smiled and thanked her, but the smiles stopped before they reached the eyes. Suppressing a shudder, Dayna left them there, then she collected a gun from the armoury and went to her quarters.
Trilby was watching Avon again, parts of the work were beyond her. She asked, "What are they like then?"
Avon did not turn, "Who?"
"The technicians. Are they friendly?"
He reached out, "Give me the extractors. Yes, they are friendly, in a way."
She passed him the extractors and said, "In what way?"
"You've seen Vila smile at a bottle of wine, haven't you?"
She grinned, "Yes."
"That is the way they smiled at us. I do not trust people who smile like that. I also do not trust people who offer me whatever I want, in whatever quantities I need."
"You don't trust people."
She saw him frown, "That's true. You should probably make up your own mind. I suppose it is possible that I am wrong."
Her answer was so softly spoken that he could not be sure whether she was serious or not, "Unlikely though." she whispered.
After a while she asked, "What were your family like, Avon? Tell me about your father."
"There's nothing to tell, I never knew him, he was killed."
"It doesn't really matter, does it? Death is death." He turned away, making it very clear that he did not wish to continue the conversation.
"What about your mother?"
"Her name was Rowena. She's dead too."
"Were you close?"
"Genetically, very. Check the connections I've just done, I need to know if they're right."
Trilby grinned, "You know very well they're right. As a diversion it's not one of your best. Alright, you don't want to talk about your mother, siblings?"
"I had a brother, of sorts, he's dead."
"I thought he might be. You have to stop doing that."
Avon was silent for a few seconds, then he asked, "What?"
"Using death as an excuse to edit people out of your life. One day somebody is going to survive, and then you won't be able to dismiss them with, 'She's dead'."
"Well it's never happened yet. The people in my life die with a worrying frequency."
"That's very sad. Have you got anyone at all?"
"Yes," he answered, "Me. It's not really so bad. The only death that can affect me now is my own, and I doubt if I'll have much time for thinking about it when the time comes."
"I suppose that's one way of looking at it." said Trilby.
He left the work for a moment, "There are worse things than being alone, Trilby."
Trilby went to the lounge during her next break. She smiled at the technicians as she poured herself a drink. She sat between Alia and Blair. Ash grinned at her across the table, "Who are you?"
Trilby ignored him and turned to Tepler, "I've been told that you are technicians, it must be interesting work."
Ash said, "I apologise for him, we're all sick of working on that useless machinery. It's good to be getting away from it. I'm sure there are more interesting things going on here. What does your friend need the darite for?"
Trilby feigned boredom, "Who knows? At least it keeps him busy."
Ash persisted, "Tell me about your ship." She laughed and mentally crossed her fingers, hoping that the beautiful ship would forgive her lies, "It's just a ship, they're all the same to me. I'll be glad to get back onto a good, solid planet."
Alia asked, "What is your position on this ship?"
Trilby did not hesitate, "I'm only a passenger. They only let me on the ship because I'm Tarrant's sister." Tepler was staring at her and the close scrutiny made her uneasy. He did not believe her, that much was obvious. She decided on the direct approach, "Why are you looking at me like that?"
Ash laughed, an unpleasant sound, "Our Tepler's in love, aren't you Teppy?"
Tepler smiled wearily at Trilby, then glared at Ash with intense hatred. The sudden change was frightening. Everything Tepler did was somehow wrong.
He's mad, she thought, he's completely mad, and the others are far from normal. She left the table, "I have to go." She offered no explanation, any she gave would sound like an excuse.
As Trilby walked down the corridor, she became aware that one of them was following her. She knew without turning round that it was Tepler. Tepler was undoubtedly stronger than her, and if she tried to use her gun, he would be able to stop her. She would not be able to draw it before he reached her. She headed automatically for the cargo bay. Avon would be there, and she was confident that he could deal with Tepler. She tried not to increase her speed, and resisted an irrational urge to put a hand to her gun. There was no point in getting nervous now, it was possible that he was perfectly innocent. Something told her that he was not. She had a talent for understanding the motives of others. She was relieved when she finally entered the cargo bay, but her relief was shortlived. Avon was not there! He must have left the cargo bay while she had been away. There were two possible exits, the door she had come through and the airlock. She turned and tried to step past Tepler. He stared at her, "Put down your gun."
She removed the gun from her belt and moved her hand over the trigger. As she raised the gun, he hit her arm. The gun fell to the floor. He smiled cruelly and showed her a knife, "You were very stupid. I would hate to have to kill you."
Trilby remained outwardly calm, "Well, if that's true, I think I've come up with a solution that will suit both of us. Don't kill me."
He picked up the gun and aimed it at her forehead. "I will now ask you some simple questions, you will answer. If you do not answer..."
"You will kill me."
He pushed her further back into the cargo bay, "No, not yet. First I will break your fingers, which will hurt. If you continue to give me trouble, I will cut your face. You have a pretty face, it would be a waste. After that, " he paused, "I don't know, but I am an imaginative man."
"Not very original. What do you want?" asked Trilby, trying to sound unafraid.
He nodded, "That's better. I want this ship, and I want your friends. Sellow says that you are all wanted by the Federation. They will reward us for you. I expect we will be allowed to keep the ship, there's nothing on it to interest them. Last we heard, you had the Liberator, what happened?"
She shook her head, "That was long before my time, I don't know."
He grinned, "Tell me how I can take over the ship."
"I told you, I know nothing about the ship."
"Alright, what about your brother and his friends, who is in charge? Is Blake still in command?"
"Blake is dead. That is all I know."
He waved the gun in her face, "Who is in charge? Who do they listen to?"
She stepped back, "I don't know!" She looked at Orac, it was not activated, Avon had taken the key with him. She smiled, Tepler would get no answers from Orac.
Tepler saw the smile, "You do know!" He followed her gaze, but ignored Orac, he was looking at the tools. He moved towards them with a sadistic grin, "A laser welder!" he said. He walked towards it.
Trilby hurled her full weight at him, hitting him on the side. He lost his balance and fell, hitting his head on Orac's sharp corner. The knife and gun fell from his hands. He stood up and grabbed her as she made a run for the door. He hit her hard across the left cheek. She stumbled. Her head started to throb, and her vision blurred. She saw his knife on the floor. She snatched it and pushed the blade deep into his thigh. He screamed and flailed at her, knocking her to the floor. The knife was no longer in the wound, but she could not see where it had gone. Her field of vision was becoming more and more limited. Tepler picked up the gun and pointed it at her. Before her could fire, a voice behind him interrupted, "Tepler."
He turned, and met Tarrant's fist. Trilby watched the fight that ensued, but she was confused, and she felt sick. There was somebody behind Tarrant, just a shape in the doorway. The sounds of the fight seemed remote and muffled, and her eyes would not focus properly. She was dimly aware of a voice saying her name, a voice she should have known. Somebody helped her to sit up, and she rested against his shoulder. She thought that she could see a gun at the end of his arm. It seemed to be moving from side to side, or perhaps she was concussed. She closed her eyes, and the distance between her and the events in the cargo bay increased. The voice faded with the words, "Trilby, can you hear me?" She could hear a heartbeat, probably her own. Then there was silence.
Tarrant turned as his opponent lunged at him. He feinted to the left and then hit Tepler in the face. Tepler staggered, but managed to throw himself at Tarrant. Both men fell. Tepler was on top, and he gripped Tarrant's throat. As he raised himself to increase the pressure he presented a clear target. Avon, crouching in the corner with his left arm around Trilby, saw his chance. He moved the right hand, which held the gun. He took his time, when he was sure of his aim he fired. Tepler died. Tarrant rose, slowly and painfully, to his feet, "Thankyou. You didn't exactly hurry though, did you?"
"You and Tepler were too close. I didn't know who I was going to hit."
Tarrant walked towards Trilby, "So who were you aiming for, Avon?" he asked with a smile. He knelt beside the girl, "How is she?"
Avon touched her face as lightly as he would handle a delicate piece of circuitry, "It's hard to tell. Our friend Tepler was far from gentle."
Tarrant turned his attention to Avon, had he really heard a mixture of anger and concern in Avon's voice? It was unusual, and fairly disconcerting, but not altogether unwelcome. Avon's attention was on Trilby.
His voice was back to normal when he spoke again, "You'd better get her to the sickbay, hadn't you?"
Tarrant lifted her as gently as he could, he was feeling a bit battered himself. He would have liked to believe that Avon's concern for Trilby had made him forget that Tarrant had been hurt too, but Tarrant was not that stupid. Avon had a total disregard for Tarrant's health.
When he was alone, Avon inserted Orac's key, "Orac, what damage has been done to the teleport machinery?"
Orac answered quickly in an injured tone, "There is no damage to the teleport. I am also undamaged."
Avon smiled, "Well, that makes two of us."
He collected the tools that Tepler had scattered in his first fall and put them in a neat row. When the work area was tidy, he went to join the others on the flightdeck. They would have to decide about the other four technicians.
Trilby was reclining on a recovery couch in the sickbay. Most of the bruises were already fading. Avon walked briskly in, "I thought you might like to know what is happening with the teleport." He handed her an electronic notepad, then asked, "How do you feel?" His voice was casual, his expression indifferent.
"Better, but a little bruised. Tepler?"
She sighed, "What happened? I was a little foggy at the time."
He sat down next to her, "Yes. Tarrant wanted to see how the work was progressing. We found Tepler standing over you with a gun. Tarrant, with unusual insight, deduced that Tepler intended to harm you. He decided to take him on, that's quite typical of Tarrant. I stayed out of the way until Tepler was dead."
She said, "Someone was talking to me, was that you?"
"Probably. If there is a choice between a psychopath with a gun and an injured girl, I am generally to be found tending the wounded. That reminds me, Tepler had a nasty thigh-wound, well done."
She was pleased, "I have never used a knife before." She did not add "or any weapon."
Avon smiled, "Perhaps I can give you lessons in that too. On second thoughts, ask Dayna, she is far better with the ancient weapons."
She smiled, then winced. Avon noticed the momentary look of pain and moved forward, then sat still, "He hit you hard."
"Did he Avon? It's lucky I have you to tell me that. I could never have worked it out alone. What is happening about Tepler's friends?"
"Tarrant and Dayna are putting them back onto their shuttle."
"You're just letting them go? Is that wise?"
"No," he said, "We should have killed them. Democracy is a wonderful thing!"
She looked at him closely, glad that her vision was normal again, "You were out-voted?"
"Yes. We would have asked you, but we thought that you had been through enough." She nodded, and he continued, "Fortunately, they only have enough fuel to take them back to their own planet."
She was worried, "What about communications? All they have to do is get a message to the Federation."
Avon stared at her as realisation dawned, "And they would be mad not to have done so already! Sellow had ample opportunity. The Federation must already be on its way. I must warn Tarrant. You rest, I need you back in the cargo bay as soon as possible."
Trilby pointed to an intercom, "Can't you warn Tarrant on that?"
He said, "No, I want to be sure that he is not with our guests when I tell him."
She nodded knowingly, "And you want to see his face, or are you just looking for an excuse to get away from me?"
He opened the door, "I think Tepler may have hit you too hard." he said. She pondered the possible meanings of that for some time.