The smoke cleared momentarily and allowed him to see the last ship rise gracefully into the sky, taking with it his hopes and his future.
His wife was aboard; he had made sure of that. And she had their son. Now it was just a matter of moments before it left the gravity pull of this planet and escaped to an unknown destination.
He screened his eyes and watched as the ship turned gracefully and then soared away.
He swallowed. The acrid smoke burnt his throat.
Around him, the few remaining defenders tried to hide their disappointment. They had all decided to make a last stand; they had had no choice. The weapons that had been promised had arrived, but they were ineffective. They now waited for the final assault. It would come soon.
The guard commander had been most insistent about that. His final message to these brave defenders had warned them; but they had ignored him, continuing to fight hand to hand, face to face with the few remaining Federation soldiers.
They had defeated those men, but they knew another wave of faceless guards would soon descend upon them.
All he had to do was to get the last few rebels to the silo and the ship; the one remaining craft that would get them away from this hell hole.
He turned towards the man who had called his name.
“It’s useless. The door won’t open…”
“It must. All these men stayed because I promised them a way out…”
“It won’t budge.”
Sol stared at the slightly younger man, his face covered in dust and blood, “They will be here soon; they will not show any mercy. You have to get that door open.”
“I can’t…no-one can.”
Sol swallowed. They were all looking at him expectantly. They wanted answers…and he had none.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Blake said softly.
He had been listening to the playback of an intercepted message from a Federation Commander who obviously was not up to date regarding the transmitting of unscrambled messages. What had been announced had sent a shiver down Blake’s spine. The Commander was readying himself and his forces for a final ground assault to finish off the stranded rebels on the planet Vangard.
“So what should we do?” Jenna asked, “Attempt a rescue?”
“It may be the only way.”
Avon had stayed silent, but the thought of the Liberator suddenly being crammed to the gunwales by a heaving mass of the unwashed was nothing short of alarming.
“You do realise that such an attempt would prove futile?”
“Then what are we supposed to do, Avon?” Blake queried, “We can hardly leave those brave fighters to face the onslaught of a Federation Commander eager to raise his profile.”
“The logistics of such a mass evacuation would be a nightmare.”
“We can but try.”
“I admire your confidence….if nothing else.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Blake replied, “Jenna, set a course for Vangard. We should be able to reach it before that Federation Commander carries out his threat.”
“And then what?” Jenna asked.
“Maybe help. It’s the least we can do.”
“What went wrong?”
Sol stared at the man now standing immediately in front of him.
“How did……” he stammered.
“We don’t have the luxury of time to explain the mechanics of our being here,” Avon remarked, casting a cursory glance at the solid door they were all now facing.
Blake smiled, “He’s right…but we are here, now. And it won’t be long before the Federation arrive to finish off what they started. So I ask again, what went wrong?”
“We decided to rid ourselves of the small garrison billeted on this planet. We managed to obtain some weapons from a supposed reputable source…and they weren’t up to it. Look.”
Blake took the gun that was thrust into his hand and closely examined it. It seemed adequate, but there was something not quite right about it, “Cally. What do you make of this?”
The Auron woman had been silently surveying the immediate area, watched in silence by the few battle scarred men who were still on their feet. She took the weapon from Blake’s hand and studied it.
“It looks an acceptable weapon, but it is light. I would need to test it under combat conditions…” She raised the gun and squinted down the barrel. She squeezed the trigger and nothing happened. She tried again, this time a bolt of energy hit the wall opposite, but left no mark.
Avon stepped forward. “May I?” he asked. She handed the weapon over to him.
He quickly turned it over, examining it closely as he did so, “Nothing more than a stun gun, with low power energy bolts; if any. Mostly blanks…I’m surprised you achieved what you did.”
Sol shook his head, “We had to resort to hand to hand combat…very messy. At least our people got away. We knew they had to, but now we are stranded here, while the Federation are on their way to finish the job their brave soldiers were supposed to. But this door…”
Vila had been silently studying the keypad set in the wall to the side of stubborn door. He didn’t like to admit defeat, but so far all the various ways that he could think of to activate the opening sequence had failed.
“…and you’re sure that there isn’t any other way into this?..this…?”
“Silo,” Sol helpfully informed him, “And no, there isn’t.”
“We could teleport your men into it,” Blake suggested.
“That would take too long,” Avon murmured.
“All right, what do you suggest?”
“I teleport to the other side of this door and perhaps, between us, Vila and I could open it and let these people be on their way.”
“I will come with you,” Cally smiled, “It’s possible that not all of the Federation guards have been accounted for.”
It hadn’t taken Gan long to recalibrate the teleport and a few minutes later Avon and Cally materialised into the semi darkness of the silo. Before Avon could even draw a breath, Cally whirled round and fired into the shadows; the man was dead before he hit the ground.
As Cally checked her handiwork, Avon was contacting Blake.
“It would appear that Vila has not lost his touch after all and the obstruction has now been removed.”
“Yes, a very loyal Federation soldier. It is a great pity that his loyalty has not been repaid as he had hoped.”
Sol stood back as his heavily depleted forces made their way to the waiting ship. He was looking in awe at Cally, standing slightly apart from the others as they inspected her handiwork. She turned to him and smiled.
He returned the smile, shifting slightly as Blake walked over to join him.
“…Obviously obeying orders,” Blake began, “On no account let you or your men leave this planet.”
“Yes….” Sol replied.
“No matter what Vila did, he countermanded it. At least Vila can rest easily knowing that he still has that ‘magic’ as he calls it.”
“How did she know? It was dark in here; how did she know that soldier was there…and kill him.”
Blake smiled to himself, “Cally has gifts of her own. Now, Vila and Avon are getting the main doors open. Once you and your men are aboard, you can leave this place and meet up with your own people.”
“What will the Federation do with this planet? It’s our home…”
“Was your home. They will recolonize it and make sure that it stays loyal to the Federation. What will you do?”
“I want…I need to find that….arms supplier who sold us these dud weapons. He cost us a lot of good men. Even our pilot is badly injured. I just hope he can get this ship out of the Silo…”
“There’s no need to worry about that. I’m sure Jenna would be more than happy to assist…and then we can think about finding that arms supplier. Who was it?”
“Culver; of Culver Industries. Have you heard of him? He’s relatively new…”
“Oh yes,” Blake murmured, “We’ve heard of him.”
Fredrickson Culver leaned back in his chair, relishing the moment. Here he was, ensconced in a new private office, surrounded by his newly employed acolytes and now just awaiting the arrival of his specially selected friends to share with them his good fortune.
Well, not share.
He wanted to show them that he was not cowed after that small cataclysm that had destroyed his own private fiefdom.
They had laughed at his inability to stop Nature taking back what was hers.
Laughed at those hordes of miscreants who had invaded his private world and ransacked it; taking everything of value.
And he had had to stand by as everything he had built up had been stolen or, ultimately, destroyed as the planet had succumbed to the brutal volcanic convulsions.
He wondered if she had survived the unwanted attentions of those maniacs who had arrived from nowhere and then set about systematically looting his entire estate.
Or had she found herself caught up in the death throes and then the fiery end of that planet.
He had seen her, smiling at him, before all communication with the planet had ceased; smiling a knowing smile. One that used to rile him so much. It was her independent, fiery nature that had seduced him when they had been first introduced…and that her been her downfall.
It was a pity that such beauty should end that way; but then she had, after all, betrayed him…
“Sir, Mr Culver, sir.”
It was one of the aides which he had inherited from the previous owner of this delightful complex.
“Yes,” Culver replied abruptly.
“Several of your guests have announced that they will arrive shortly.”
Culver smiled. The young man was unaware that some of the ‘guests’ he spoke of were, in fact, much more than that. She had been such a guest, until she had defied him. And the other ‘guests’ in his retinue had seen how he responded to such acts of rebellion.
“Of course. Thank you. I am expecting more guests soon. See that everything is in order…”
Culver dismissed the young man.
He watched the aide leave and then slowly got to his feet. He strolled across to the large ‘window’ and gazed out onto a verdant landscape, dotted with trees, and then with a pass of his hand, it became a hot, sand filled desert.
There were numerous views he could select; all different. And he could make them how he wanted. For on the screen was the view of a large natural cavern, hewn from the rock over millions of years. Beneath the surface of this planet, there were many such caverns, all environmentally controlled by him from this control centre. He could dictate the climate from here, which made living beneath the planet’s surface so much more inviting.
The surface was pleasant enough but subject to the vagaries of the planet’s own weather systems and seasonal variations.
What Culver had in mind was something far more exciting than the previous owner’s vision. A destination of decadence and luxury for those privileged to be among the Federation’s elite.
Culver studied his reflection; his close cropped auburn hair setting off his vivid blue eyes. He allowed his manicured fingers to caress his elegantly trimmed beard.
This time, no-one would be able to take all this from him;
This time, he would be prepared.
“Caveat emptor,” Avon stated, matter-of-factly.
The others looked at him.
It was at times like this that Avon’s desire for a more intellectual group of individuals began to get the better of him.
“It is an obscure, ancient language,” he sighed, “Its origins are…”
“Buyer beware,” Blake ventured, absently.
“Well, why didn’t you say so,” Vila complained.
“…unknown; but not unknown to some of us, it seems,” Avon continued.
“No…no…I’m not sure where I have heard it,” Blake said, “But I know what it means.”
“The trouble is, Sol did not and now he finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to explain to his people, or what is left of them, exactly what sort of weapons he spent their hard earned credits on.”
“That’s not fair, Avon,” Cally countered, “He is not a professional. He took the wrong advice and went to this man; a man who said he would honour his predecessor’s promise of weapons.”
“And there-in lies the fault; trust in another man’s honour.”
“I think it’s time to talk to this Mr Culver,” Blake mused, “I wonder if he knows that he is supplying his customers with useless weapons….”
“Or even, “Avon smiled ruefully, “If he cares.”
Jenna wasn’t party to the ongoing discussion as to whether or not Blake should get involved in what was, essentially, a consumer matter. She was aboard Sol’s ship; the last one to leave that broken planet, now being regained by the Federation.
Sol had readily agreed to Blake’s suggestion that Jenna fly the ship to a rendezvous with the rest of his people, even though his actual pilot insisted that he was quite well enough.
It was evident, though, that for all his bravado, the pilot was not well at all and he was now on the ship being attended to; his wounds serious, but not life threatening.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” Sol began.
Jenna smiled. She was secretly enjoying the feel of this somewhat antiquated craft, “If only we could have been of more help.”
“Will Blake really go and confront this man, Culver?”
“Oh yes. Once he sets his mind on something, then he usually carries it through, despite some very vocal opposition.”
Jenna laughed slightly, “Sometimes.”
That was true, but she knew that Blake would have someone far more argumentative to deal with. And she was grateful not to be anywhere near the Liberator as a result.
“And what exactly do you expect Culver to do?” Avon asked, watching as Blake prepared to teleport down to the planet below, “It is far too late for a refund.”
“I don’t expect him to do anything…but he does need to be told that the weapons he is supplying are not…”
“…fit for purpose? I suspect he already knows. Blake, Culver is a very rich, Alpha Grade Federation Citizen. What better way to ingratiate yourself to the Federation, than to supply its enemies with useless weapons. Those enemies are hardly likely to come and complain.”
“Except in this case, someone is doing it for them. I doubt if he even considered that possibility.”
“Perhaps not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he is now considering other possibilities.”
“The Liberator has been scanned by someone on the planet below. He will recognise this ship from the last time we came into contact with him. He knows who is aboard and he will be considering a great many possibilities, all of which, no doubt, will involve you….”
Avon smiled, “I don’t think so. I shall leave any consumer complaints to you and stay aboard the Liberator. I’m sure you will be able to cope with whatever he has in mind.”
“I’ve seen that ship before,” Culver murmured, leaning over the shoulder of his chief of security and closely scrutinising the image on the screen, “At least one like it.”
“There is only one, sir, as far as we are aware. That is the Liberator.”
“The Liberator? Isn’t that something to do with Blake?”
The security chief wondered just how much his new boss knew of the galaxy outside his own rarefied Federation controlled existence, “Yes, sir. Now why would Blake be here? He’s hardly in need of weapons…not with that ship’s reputation.”
“The other question is…what was he doing orbiting my last place of residence? The one that unfortunately was reclaimed by Nature. What could interest him in me?”
“That I can’t answer, sir. But you may be able to ask him yourself; two men have just materialised in the main hall. And one of them wants to speak to you, personally.”
“Me? But Blake and I have never met.”
“There’s always a first time, sir. I shall put all security personal on standby…”
“…of course, but nothing too obvious. I don’t want my other guests being alarmed.”
Blake watched as the tall, slim man nervously approached. He was escorted by two armed men, both of whom were looking at Blake’s side arm, still holstered, but obviously ready to hand, if need be.
“Mr Culver, I presume?”
“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage…”
“My name is Roj Blake…”
“Freedom fighter,” Blake corrected him.
“Of course. I hope this won’t take too long, but I am expecting guests soon.”
“This won’t take long at all.”
“I see. If it’s weapons that you are after, well, I’m sorry, you are too late. I’m afraid that was in my predecessor’s line of work…”
“Your predecessor? What was his line of work?”
“Weapons development. Can’t abide them myself. I prefer the, shall we say, relaxing way of life…..” Culver slowly raised his right hand and a young lady slowly made her way through the small crowd of armed men who had gathered just a few feet behind the welcoming committee.
“So I see,” Blake replied, casting a knowing look to Gan who was standing resolutely beside him.
“Maybe we could talk about this somewhere else?” Culver suggested, “This room is needed for a small party that I am holding later today.”
“A party?” Gan ventured.
“Yes, to celebrate my new home, my new venture. You see my previous abode was totally obliterated by some unexpected force of nature…”
“I know. I was there,” Blake informed him.
“As you said,” Gan said, “We can talk about this somewhere else. We wouldn’t want to disappoint your guests, would we?”
Culver stared at the tall, well-built man, whose tone seemed somewhat confrontational.
“Now, Blake, what do you want with me?”
Culver was seated in a sumptuous armchair, behind a similar sumptuous desk, the young woman still holding his right hand.
“I’m actually here on behalf of a certain Hagen Sol...”
“Sol...That name seems familiar.”
“It should be,” Gan said, “You sold him a cache of guns…like this.” As he said that, he roughly put the defunct weapon on the desk.
“They don’t work. They are useless,” Blake informed him.
Culver eyed the weapon and then looked up. “I see. Well, much as it pains me, you will have to take that up with my predecessor.”
“It was you who supplied them,” Blake pointed out.
“And only because Sol insisted. He was very forthright about the whole thing…”
“How many other people have you supplied these weapons to?” Blake demanded.
“Anyone who cared to come all this way and demand what, they said, was rightfully theirs. As I said, you will have to take that up with my predecessor…but, unfortunately, he didn’t leave a forwarding address.”
“Did you actually check any of these weapons?”
Culver shrugged, “Why should I? They are not my responsibility. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about these… these vile things. Sorry.”
Blake leaned on the desk, “Sol is coming here and he will not appreciate your feeble excuses. Your defective weapons have cost him and his people a great deal.”
“As I said; not my problem.”
“Oh, it will be,” Gan murmured.
“Gentlemen…are you threatening me?”
“That depends if you should be,” Blake replied, “Sol will want answers.”
“My dear Blake, Sol came here demanding weapons; I supplied him with those weapons left by the previous owner of this place. How was I to know they were not up to spec? As I explained, I don’t know anything about such things… I have other interests.”
“…and besides, your friend Sol did not actually have the correct payment. But, for a small consideration I gave him the weapons that I had, although I did warn him that I could not guarantee them.”
“A small consideration?” Gan asked.
“You’re looking at her. A niece, cousin. I’m not actually too sure. But beautiful, don’t you think? Well I am in need of more company. Which reminds me. Just why did your ship suddenly arrive at my last abode?”
“I made a promise to a dying woman.”
“A promise? But why my planet? I had nothing there that could have been of any interest to anyone.”
“You didn’t. But someone else did.”
Culver narrowed his eyes, “Are you talking about those vandals who arrived from out of nowhere and set about destroying my home? What could they possibly have had that could have drawn you there. They were…”
“…what remained of the Outlaw Accord.”
“Should I be concerned about that?”
“Once you should have been, but the Federation have succeeded in smashing their capabilities.”
“Well, I for one, am most pleased with that outcome. As it is, I seem to have landed on my feet, so to speak. I now have a new home, a new delightful companion to replace the one who was, unfortunately, caught up in that terrible cataclysm. But you still haven’t explained why you were there. What could have drawn you to those vandals?”
Blake was aware that Gan, standing beside him, was beginning to get irritated with every passing minute of being in the company of this individual, especially as the young woman still holding Culver’s hand seemed not too eager to ask for assistance.
“And what about you?” Blake asked her, “your….”
“Uncle,” she murmured, “Hagen Sol is my Uncle.”
“And she will be returned to her Uncle when he returns here with the balance of my fee,” Culver stated.
“That’s hardly likely, considering he has lost everything,” Gan said.
“I’m sure he will think of something. He is, so I am told, a most resourceful man. But where are my manners? I am expecting guests to help me celebrate my new start in life. Perhaps I could give you a guided tour of the facilities; what they were and what I intend to do with them….at least until your friend Sol gets here.”
“Are you sure?” Cally asked.
“All the scans would indicate so.”
The Auron woman watched as Avon again checked the read outs sent to his station.
“And these ‘caverns’ are naturally formed and then have been transformed into test chambers. How many?”
“The whole surface of this particular part of the planet is honeycombed with various sized caverns. At least twenty so far, all of different dimensions; all with a variety of systems to duplicate any environment.”
“Test chambers; for testing weapons under any conditions. Orac has confirmed that these caverns have been modified in different ways, but it all boils down to one thing. A weapons testing facility…”
“Now being used by this man Culver for his own purposes.”
“Why not? His last place of residence was prone to the vagaries of climate and the attentions of undesirables. Now he can live beneath the surface of this planet; his entourage located in any chamber they wish with the environment that they require to their liking…and safe from any passing vagabonds. It’s ideal, really.”
“But what about the weapons that he gave Sol?”
“Most probably those left by his predecessor. But it begs the question exactly what did happen to that predecessor?”
“Hopefully, Blake will find out.”
“Hmm…that’s what is worrying me. This man, Culver, is not as innocuous as he appears.”
Any further conversation was halted as Vila sauntered onto the Flight Deck. Both Cally and Avon stared at him.
“Vila, you should be by the Teleport,” Cally began.
“No need…not at least for a while. Blake is going to inspect this Culver’s new facilities. Anyway, Orac has everything in hand… besides, I’m getting lonely…”
“And Blake told you that, did he?” Avon asked.
“Look, if you’re so concerned, you go and sit in that teleport section. He could be ages….”
Avon thought for a moment. Blake’s almost blind belief in the good of people usually ended up badly.
“When is Jenna due back?” he asked no-one in particular.
“That depends when she and Sol make the rendezvous,” Cally replied, “Why?”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, it is getting rather crowded around this planet. It’s possible that the Federation could decide to join in. We need to get this ship out of here…”
Vila cast a worried look at Cally. Was Avon about to deliver his coup de grace?
And Avon knew what Vila was thinking.
“Don’t worry; I have no intention of leaving Blake stranded…”
“I should hope not,” Vila said.
“…not yet, anyway. We need to move the Liberator out of orbit to a position where we can manoeuvre more easily.”
“Are you expecting trouble? I mean, this Culver is only going to show Blake around his facilities…isn’t he?” Vila asked, watching as Cally and Avon went to their flight positions and prepared to move Liberator away from the increasingly crowded region high above the planet’s surface.
“That is what he has said…” Cally replied.
“…but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we believe him,” Avon smiled.
Jenna was surprised.
A scout ship had rendezvoused with them far earlier than planned. Sol had explained it was because he needed to get back to Culver and see the man face to face.
Not that he didn’t appreciate Blake’s efforts, he was most grateful. But as the leader of the remaining colonists who were now en-route to their new location, another Earth Colony sympathetic to their cause, then it was up to him to confront the man who had effectively signed their death warrants.
“I’m sure Blake can manage. You need to get your people to safety,” Jenna said, “Besides, this ship needs a pilot…”
“And one will meet it, soon, but I…we need to get back. How long do you think it will take in this scout ship?” Sol enquired as he strapped himself in.
“It’s far quicker than that other ship, why, what’s the hurry?”
Sol was quiet for a minute. “Culver owes me,” he said eventually.
“Yes, something very precious. Something I should not have given away. And the sooner we get back, then the sooner my conscience will be clear.”
“As you can see, no two chambers are alike. Different sizes for different uses,” Culver explained, as he operated the door of yet another chamber.
“And you plan to grow food in these chambers, rather than the purpose originally considered by your predecessor?” Blake queried.
“Oh yes,” Culver smiled, “There is a growing demand for the more exotic produce.”
“Demanded by whom?” Gan asked, although he had a pretty good idea.
“By those with in the Federation who appreciate the finer things. Those in the upper echelons. Very fastidious they have become.”
“While the lower grades make do with basics food stuff…if any, and certainly not enough. Why are we wasting our time here, Blake? This man doesn’t care about anyone but himself and his high ranking ‘friends’.”
“Oh, but I do care…” Culver said as the door slowly opened.
There was a sudden flash of brilliant blue light.
For a moment Blake tried to focus, but then pitched forward into Culver’s arms.
“…I care enough to make sure that people like you don’t interfere and ruin it all for the rest of us.”
“INFORMATION,” Zen intoned, “Surface sensors indicate that readings from the surface of the planet below, have changed.”
“Changed? In what way?” Cally asked.
“The Bio readings as recorded by the Teleport bracelets are no longer available.”
“They’ve taken the bracelets off…” Cally ventured.
“Or someone else has removed them…” Avon murmured.
“They’re dead,” Vila said, “Blake and Gan are dead….aren’t they?”
Avon was already walking towards the gun locker, “I hope for your sake they are not…”
“I’m coming with you,” Cally announced, “It looks like you are going to be even lonelier, Vila.”
“How many more times do I have to say sorry?” Vila implored.
“There aren’t enough hours in the day,” Avon retorted.
They had all returned to the Teleport section and Avon was now in the process of finding out from Orac exactly what was happening down on the surface.
+ I wish to point out that I am not child minder. +
“I asked you to keep an eye on things, Orac,” Vila pointed out.
+Since I do not possess such an appendage…+
“Orac, exactly where were Blake and Gan when their bracelets were removed?” Avon asked, trying to keep his patience.
+They were in the process of being shown one of Culver’s chambers. +
“Can you pinpoint exactly where?”
+Unfortunately, no. I can only supply an approximation of the location due to the heavy interference from the complex that houses those chambers and living areas. +
“Someone will have to do a manual search?” Cally said, fastening her gun round her waist.
“Is that wise?” Vila asked, “I mean what if you get caught?”
+I have scanned the computers for information and it would appear that not all the chambers have as yet been turned over to habitation. Some still have the ability to be used for the purpose for which they were constructed.”
“Let me hazard a guess,” Avon said, “Weapon testing.”
“What, he’s going to use Blake and Gan as target practice?” Vila declared.
“We don’t know that,” Cally replied.
Avon fastened the jack into the rear of his gun, “Mr Culver has a great deal of guests coming to his new home. What better way to impress them than by having Blake and Gan as the Main Attraction?”
Blake’s head was pounding.
He tried to sit up, but his limbs wouldn’t obey. Then a strong hand came to his rescue.
Once sitting up, Blake opened his eyes. There was no bright light, just an expanse of what looked like sand stretching out in front of him.
He blinked, “Where are we?”
“A desert,” Gan informed him.
“How did we get out here?”
“We’re not outside. There isn’t a sun and what light there is, is artificial.”
“One of those chambers?”
“I think so...and a big one. While you were unconscious, I climbed that hill over there. Nothing but sand; all around us. I can’t see the chamber walls at all.”
“We must be a long way in...how did…”
“I found some tracks over there. They must have transported us in some sort of vehicle. I tried to follow them…but then decided I didn’t know which way they went. Besides, it’s getting warmer.”
“How long have we been here?”
“Impossible to tell.”
“Our friend Mr Culver took the bracelets.”
Blake got to his feet and surveyed the area. Gan was right; it was a desert. Stretching out for goodness knew how far in every direction.
“What did he use on us?” Gan asked sitting on the ground and running some of the sand through his fingers.
“Some sort of neural disrupter. He’s got an extensive armoury at his disposal.”
“And what about us? What do you think he has in mind?”
“That depends on what he has planned. Maybe we should find out…”
“Maybe a little walk, just to stretch our legs.”
“He may not like that.”
“No, I don’t suppose he will.”
Culver watched the scene with interest.
It was just one scene on a back of screens. The others all had various groups of people milling around and being directed towards the main hall.
“Watch Blake carefully. I don’t want him attempting any escape..”
“How will he do that?” one of his security men asked.
“That ship of his may have moved out, but it’s possible that one or more of his crew are here right now. Watch him carefully…”
“Sir, he’s beginning to move…”
Culver smiled, “Maybe we should make things just a little too uncomfortable for our guest. I want him to stay in one place. Perhaps we should raise the temperature by a degree or two. That should quell his appetite for adventure!”
“It’s definitely getting warmer,” Gan said, wiping his brow.
“Perhaps it would be wise to just sit here and wait,” Blake decided, “We don’t have any supplies…and I have a feeling Culver literally holds our fate in his hands.”
From the gantry high up above the extensive hall, Avon watched the gathering crowd. He had checked the caverns on the lower levels to the ‘West’ and ‘North’ of this central complex, and despite bumping into a few revellers the worse for drink, he hadn’t come across anywhere that suggested that Blake and Gan were being held deep inside.
He had passed quite a few people who were obviously from the upper echelons of the Federation; the type that Avon had mixed with in the past. The people who benefitted most from the strict social hierarchy that defined who you were and what grade you were destined to be.
Avon had always considered an Alpha grade to be beneficial; it was that grade that profited from the Federation and its dictates…as long as you kept your nose clean and didn’t try to go beyond your means.
That had been his downfall…wanting more; wanting his own planet, to be his own man and answer to no-one.
Just like Culver in fact.
And somewhere down in that melee of bodies was the man himself. No doubt gloating that he had succeeded where the Federation, with all its power, had failed.
The fact that everything seemed so normal down there suggested that no-one had been alerted to Cally wandering the lower levels, like-wise looking for anything that suggested the ‘prison’ that held Blake and Gan.
He continued to survey the crowd, knowing that sooner or later he would have to break radio silence and contact Vila and find out the state of play.
“Well, just look who’s here.”
He’d forgotten just how much he had enjoyed hearing her voice; its lilting tones laced with such sweet sarcasm.
Marie…or Laurel Bacalla as she had once been known.
“And what brings you to this part of the Galaxy?” she purred.
“I might just ask you the same question.”
“I have some unfinished business here.”
“Your former benefactor? Mr Culver, by any chance?”
Marie Page smiled at him.
He returned it. “Then we have common ground.”
“Oh, don’t tell me that he has ruffled your normally cold, unmoving feathers?”
Avon looked at her, quizzically.
“Never mind. The allusion is no doubt lost on you. So, what has Mr Culver done this time? Reproved you?”
“He doesn’t even know that I’m here.”
“So that’s why you are scuttling around up here in the rafters.”
“And does he know about you?”
“He will do.”
Avon didn’t like the sound of that, “And just what is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that I intend to kill him.”
“I can understand your desire for that. However, do not begrudge me if I fail to offer you my shoulder upon which to steady your aim.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Avon. However, I want…need to see his face when he realises just who it is who does kill him.”
“That’s tantamount to suicide.”
“And that,” came another familiar voice behind him, “Is exactly what I said.”
Avon didn’t need to turn around.
“So, you have company.”
“And Culver doesn’t know about him, either,” Marie whispered, raising a small set of viewers to her eyes and surveying the throng below her.
Avon stared at her, “The agreement was…”
“The agreement wasn’t actually ratified with me.”
Blaine, the man once known as Vin Tragon stepped into Avon’s line of sight, “You know, for someone who is supposed to have an incredible IQ, you make some very basic mistakes. I could have been anyone….”
“And if you had been, you would have been dead.” It was Cally, standing just inside the shadows, a shaft of light reflecting off the barrel of her gun.
Blaine holstered his gun. “Touché”, he murmured.
“Come now, Avon,” Maria Page continued, totally unfazed by Cally’s arrival, and mindful that Avon was not best pleased with not just her being there, but also the man who for a moment thought that he was in fact Avon. “He’s very intelligent; did you seriously think he wouldn’t be able to find his way around a computer database and find out just who his guardian angels were? Oh look, there he is. At the centre of attention; as always.”
All four leaned over the parapet and followed the direction of Marie’s elegantly pointed finger.
“My late, unlamented benefactor.”
“Do you really intend to go through with this?” Avon asked, taking the offered set of viewers.
“Oh yes. That man has lived far too long and more people are suffering.”
“Our quiet Sanctuary has seen a rise in those requiring help,” Blaine explained, “And Culver’s name had been mentioned several times. Usually in relation to ineffective guns…”
“That is why Blake and Gan came here,” Cally explained.
“Blake and Gan are down there?” Marie Page asked.
“No,” Avon replied, adjusting the viewer’s focus, “Your Mr Culver took them on a sight-seeing tour of his new facility and now they are imprisoned in one of the caverns…”
“And I believe I know which one,” Cally informed them.
Avon suddenly stiffened, “How the hell did she get here?”
Cally took the viewers from Avon’s hand as he depressed the comms on his bracelet.
“…thank goodness. You said radio silence…but Jenna’s just arrived.”
Jenna’s usual cool demeanour was beginning to leave her.
Sol had literally begged her to come with him to see Culver and when Jenna had contacted the Liberator, she was just a little concerned that only Vila had answered her.
There had been no cutting comment from Avon and even Blake had not interrupted Vila’s response.
Did that mean that both men, and maybe even Gan and Cally, were down on the planet. If so, why and, more importantly, where?
She followed Sol along the main concourse, aware that several pairs of eyes were upon on her. Judging by these people’s apparel and the large, filled to the brim glasses, there was a party going on.
Eventually, they reached the bottom of an elegant, marble stairway that rose gently to a set of beautifully carved doors. As Sol set out to ascend the steps, his way was barred by two armed men.
“I must see Culver.”
They didn’t move: obviously awaiting instruction through their headsets. Then just as suddenly, they raised their guns and one of them jerked his head in the direction of the doors.
With some trepidation, Jenna followed Sol up the flight of stairs and in through the doors.
A man was sitting in a lavish leather chair, a young woman in attendance. Behind him was a bank of screens, each one, no doubt, part of an elaborate surveillance system.
“Well,” the man began, “What do we have here?”
“I bring you the balance of my payment,” Sol said defiantly, “I bring you Jenna Stannis.”
“She is one of Blake’s crew,” Sol said, suddenly clutching Jenna’s arm and pointing his gun at her temple, “She will bring you more than enough to cover the outstanding balance. Now give me my niece.”
The man smiled, “Why, of course.” With a flick of his wrist, he sent the young woman on her way.
As she passed Jenna and took hold of Sol’s hand, she said “Thank you.”
Jenna was still puzzled, completely at a loss as to what was actually occurring.
Sol holstered his gun, averting his eyes from Jenna’s questioning look. “I’m sorry, but I had no other choice.”
But he wouldn’t listen. With the young woman, he walked back out through the doors, which slowly closed behind him.
“You really don’t know, do you?” the man sitting behind the desk said, “My name is Culver and you are the balance of an overdue account.”
“Vila, get Jenna out of there now!” Avon was urging.
“…I can’t,” Vila’s voice echoed back, “There’s too much interference.”
“This is just going from bad to worse, isn’t it?” Maria Page remarked.
“Marie,” Blaine said, “This is no time to be judgemental.” He turned to Avon, “This development has changed the game plan a little, hasn’t it?”
“Just a little, yes.” Avon replied flatly.
“I’m afraid that Culver’s Modus Operadum does not bode well for Jenna,” Blaine continued.
“You’ve studied his file as well?”
“I’ve studied his work,” Blaine replied, “Intimately.”
The two men exchanged a look which went unseen by both Marie and Cally, although the two women were likewise exchanging a knowing smile.
Cally broke the silence. “The man called Sol is leaving…with a young woman.”
All four once more leaned over the parapet.
“An exchange of prisoners?” Marie suggested.
“I need to know what’s going on down there,” Avon said, punching the comms button on his bracelet again, “It’s time Orac earned its keep.”
“An outstanding account?” Jenna asked.
“So you are one of Blake’s people?” Culver said, “And if I may say so…extremely beautiful.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“No, I didn’t.”
Jenna watched as Culver’s face lit up with a smile, the sort of smile that she knew from experience, normally meant trouble. He slowly got to his feet and came round to her side of the desk. Jenna tried not to shiver; but it was difficult.
“You know, I didn’t really expect a rescue party to consist of such a delightful woman.”
She ignored his closeness, “A rescue party?”
“Somehow I envisaged a full frontal attack; guns blazing etc. Not that that would do any good. Not with my security. Since that last unfortunate incident when those undesirables descended on my last home, I am now prepared. But to arrive with Sol: very clever.”
“Sol insisted that I come with him as he needed to return those guns…”
“I know, useless. Blake told me. He came here to berate me…”
“Where is Blake?” Jenna said softly, realising that being indignant was not the right approach; not with this man anyway.
“Oh, he’s safe. He and his colleague, Gan, are experiencing one of the delights of this planet. So far, they have been comfortable, but soon I have plans…”
“Oh yes. This is my grand opening. The good citizens of the Federation will come here in droves. It will be the destination to die for. The man who owned this establishment had a side-line, you know. Supplying weapons to the Federations enemies. I have stopped that now, for which the Federation is most grateful. And now I have Blake to hand over…and possibly you.
“But, before that, I want to provide some amusement for my guests. Nothing too formal, you understand. But just an example of what this facility was.”
“And what was it?”
“A weapon’s testing facility….and the weapons are still here, just waiting for me to have fun.”
“How do I know that you’re telling the truth about Blake and Gan?”
Culver ran a single finger down her left arm and then pointed to two bracelets lying haphazardly on the desk, “Those. I didn’t want him to ruin the celebrations by suddenly disappearing. But perhaps you can tell me…just why was Blake at my last abode? What did I have that attracted him there?”
“He made a promise to a dying woman.”
“Yes, he told me that. But what sort of promise?”
“An item of great importance was taken from her, by those undesirables, as you called them.”
“I shudder every time I think of those creatures…”
“They were the Outlaw Accord or at least the last vestiges. And they stole the most venerated object; the one thing that kept those warring parties together as one force. The Carcanet.”
Culver’s face lit up, “I’ve heard of that. A necklace of such beauty, such rarity…that harridan. She was wearing it! Just before my security camera’s failed; I saw it, around her neck. Tell me, did Blake succeed? Did he retrieve that item?”
“Where is it now?”
“In one of the strong rooms on the Liberator, but it’s not….”
“Get it for me.”
“You fetch that Carcanet for me, and you can have Blake and his friend Gan. It is worth far more than you and them together.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“Because the man who did retrieve it will be most unwilling to let it go.”
Jenna stared at Culver who was now almost salivating at the mouth with the prospect of getting his hands on the famed Carcanet, “He’s a difficult man to convince.”
“I’m sure your charm will convince him.”
“You don’t know Avon…”
“In two hours the sport begins,” Culver clicked his fingers and one of the screens behind the desk burst into life. On it, in what looked to be searing heat, were Blake and Gan, lying flat out on the ‘sand’.
“In two hours, your friend Blake and his mountain of a colleague will be just a little uncomfortable…and then the fun will start.”
“She’s coming out of that room….” Blaine said.
“Vila, get Jenna out of there…now!”
“Vila!” Jenna said as she materialized in the teleport section.
“Vila, Culver has got…”
“We know. Avon’s down there with Cally trying to find them and Orac isn’t being much help…”
+As I have already explained, the interference from the establishment is preventing the ship's scanners from operating at optimum ability…+
“I know where they are. Culver delighted it showing me.”
“Culver? You’ve spoken to him?”
“Oh yes. And I need to speak to Avon...I promised Culver that I would convince Avon to hand over the Carcanet…”
“Convince Avon? There aren’t enough hours in the day…”
“I’ve got two.”
“Two hours? Why did you agree to that?” Avon asked.
“I didn’t agree. It was out of my hands,” Jenna explained.
She had teleported to the gantry to speak to Avon face to face.
And she was already regretting it.
Avon was furious, but tried not to show it. Now they were all looking at him, waiting for him to come to a decision. Blake wouldn’t have hesitated…but he wasn’t Blake.
“Even if you do hand that necklace over, he won’t let Blake go,” Marie pointed out, “Handing Blake over to the Federation would be a great achievement. That necklace would be just one more bauble to add to his collection. And besides, you cannot risk it falling into anyone’s hands. Avon may have rendered it useless, but the Federation have many experts who will swear on their lives…”
“We have no other choice,” Blaine murmured, “If this necklace is as powerful as Marie says...”
“It is, “Avon said quietly.
“Then you can’t let it go. There are people out there who have the know-how to restore the necklace’s fail safes. Am I correct, Avon?”
“Then we carry on. You must find Blake and Gan and get them out of that cavern before Culver declares open season. It looks as though Marie and I will be a distraction when the time comes.”
“This could get dangerous,” Avon warned.
“I’ve courted danger all my life, Avon,” Marie smiled, “He has to be stopped. And I intend to stop him once and for all. You do what you have to and leave Culver to me.”
She was looking over the parapet, staring at the man who had caused her so much pain. Avon stood beside her.
“Orac can only do so much with the security cameras. It’s looping the system now, but once we get into that chamber I have no idea what will happen. Culver doesn’t know that you are still alive. It will be the element of surprise that will be on our side.”
Marie turned to face him, “And you know how much I like surprises.”
Avon was serious as he looked into the eyes of this woman who had suffered so much at the hands of the man who believed that he was on the verge of making a name for himself.
She tapped his chest with the index finger of her gloved right hand, “I always am.”
The service lift was small, but it would serve its purpose; to deliver Marie Page and Blaine to the level where the great event organised by Culver was about to begin, and to carry on down to the lower levels and the test chambers; one of which held Blake and Gan.
The doors opened and Marie Page stepped out, followed by Blaine. Almost immediately she turned on her heels and stopped the doors closing.
“You know, we really must stop meeting like this.”
Avon studied her, “Like what?”
“Facing a life and death situation. Perhaps when this is over we can resolve the matter. But, for the moment, this seems to be our fate. Get Gan and Blake out of that monster’s grasp for me.”
“I know. You are a man of your word.”
She pressed her forefinger against his mouth.
The doors closed on the bemused expressions of both Jenna and Cally, and the service lift continued on its way to the lower levels.
Blaine was strangely silent, something that didn’t go unnoticed by Marie.
“You don’t approve, do you?”
“You really shouldn’t do that.”
“Tease him like that.”
Marie smiled, “He enjoys it, in his own way. Kerr Avon was, and still is deep inside, a decent man; brutalised by everything that life has thrown at him. Just like you. Whereas, the man I am about to face has never had a shred of decency within him. But I have no fear of him, not any longer and besides, I have you to stand with me.”
“You trust me that much?”
“Experience has taught me who I can and cannot trust.”
“That must have been some experience,” Blaine said watching as she placed the hood of her cloak over her face. He adjusted it for her, to hide the scars carved into her face by the brute she was about to confront; a brute who had no idea what fate was about to befall him.
Marie Page smiled, “I’ll tell you all about it one day.”
“That should be an experience in itself.”
The service lift had almost reached its destination; its three occupants watching the floor indicator closely.
“How do we know that Orac has blocked the visual feed from this camera?” Jenna whispered.
“We don’t,” Avon replied, “But the fact that no alarm had gone off would imply that he has been successful…so far.”
The lift shuddered to a halt and the doors slid open.
Cally exited first, her senses alert to any approaching security personnel. There were none. She motioned for the others to come out.
“The number on that screen of Culver’s tallies with this level,” Jenna said quietly.
“And this is the place where I found two guards standing outside a cavern entrance,” Cally said softly, “They did not see me, but I’m sure they were there for a reason.”
“To stop any of Culver’s inebriated guests getting too inquisitive, I would imagine,” Avon suggested.
“I think it’s time we joined the party,” Jenna said, slipping her arm through Avon’s.
Avon was slightly aghast.
“Well,” Jenna murmured, “we can at least look the part.”
The two guards didn’t move as the trio came round the corner, obviously filled to the brim with the cheap booze being laid on by the guards’ new employer. They had been standing by this door for some time, getting more and more uneasy with every passing second.
Mr Culver had warned them to stay alert. They could well find themselves the last barrier should Blake’s crew launch a rescue. But so far, they had not heard any alarms. If those rebels were going to attack, they seemed to taking an awful long time about it.
One of the guards ventured a glance as the man with two beautiful women on his arms approached. Obviously, some sort of humorous conversation had taken place as the two women seemed to be enjoying a private joke.
The other guard looked up, thinking it strange that these three should be so far off the beaten track considering Culver was in the midst of his festivities…
And then the lights went out.
By the time the lights came on again, albeit at half power, the two guards were laying senseless on the hard floor.
“We need to get these two men out of sight,” Cally hissed.
The doors to the cavern opened up, “Your wish is my command,” Avon said.
Once inside, Avon closed the door again. He activated the lights.
In the middle of the illuminated chamber was a large, tracked vehicle and judging by the dirt on the floor, it had recently been used.
“Have you ever seen one of these?” Avon asked.
“There’s a first time for everything,” Jenna shrugged, making her way towards the small ramp that led up to the belly of the vehicle. Cally followed close behind, mesmerised by the whole thing.
Avon checked that the two men were not going to cause any bother; they were out cold.
Vila’s voice crackled back, “I can hardly read you. Where are you?”
“We appear to be in the antechamber of the main cavern…”
“It looks as though we may have to use the local transport to find him. Make sure Orac keeps us off Culver’s security systems. The longer we can stay incognito, the better.”
“…can hardly hear you…”
Avon silently cursed; this was going to be more difficult than he had thought. For the teleport to work properly they would have to make it out into this antechamber and even then it was going to be touch and go.
“I don’t know how long it will take to locate Blake, but when we do, be ready to bring us back immediately you get a firm fix, Vila.”
“….be waiting. You can rely…”
Oh if I only I could, Avon thought to himself.
Cally’s voice drifted into his mind, “Jenna wonders if you could bring yourself to open the main doors. She’s about to start this vehicle up.”
Taking one last look at the unconscious guards, Avon made his way across the floor towards the control panel near to the large pair of hangar doors.
“It’s stifling,” Gan whispered. The beads of perspiration were running down into his eyes, stinging them.
“Just try not to move….” Blake offered as a suggestion.
Not that that helped.
There was no sun; just the artificial light glaring down from far up above. No doubt the source of heat was coming from there too. There was no cooling breeze or a shady overhang.
And each passing second saw a minute increase in heat.
Blake knew that his body couldn’t take much more. There was a limit to just how much a human could take…and Blake could sense that limit fast approaching.
The security officer looked over the man’s shoulder.
“Are you sure?”
“There’s been several incidents of communication coming from somewhere in this base to…out there, somewhere.”
“Can’t you pinpoint it?”
“I’m trying to get a lock on it, but the system seems to have a mind of its own. For instance the hangar doors on level 10 have just opened.”
“Level 10? I think Mr Culver needs to know about this. See what you can do.”
Culver, though, had other things on his mind.
His mingling with his noteworthy guests had been brought to a halt by the arrival of someone once very dear to him.
As the festivities continued around him, Culver found himself gazing into a pair of eyes he had long thought dead.
“Laurel. It pleases me that you survived. I had thought you dead, blown to a million pieces when that planet finally gave up its fight for life.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed you.”
“The last I saw of you, you were preparing a meal…for him?”
Blaine smiled back at Culver, “No, not for me. I’m sorry I missed that.”
“Did this man rescue you?”
“No. I cannot take the credit for another man’s actions, but suffice to say, I am grateful to him myself, as it is because of him that I am here with this beautiful lady.”
“Well, whoever your saviour was, he has done me a great favour. We get to finish our lesson.”
“There is nothing left for you to teach me, Culver,” Marie smiled back sweetly.
“This saviour of yours. One of those vandals was he? Well, if he was, then I’m surprise to see you here at all. They are a menace to society; taking what they want, who they want…”
“No. But he is a very much misunderstood man.
“Very poetical, Laurel, I’m sure. Do I know this man?”
“…and you wouldn’t want to,” Blaine interjected.
“This man sounds interesting. But right now I have other things that require my attention. But I forgot, just why did you come here Laurel?”
“To kill you, of course.”
Culver laughed. But everyone in the vicinity had heard her threat, and their nervousness did not go unnoticed.
Very slowly, the mood of the party goers changed; the buoyant atmosphere stilled. But Culver had little time to reflect upon those changes.
His chief security officer was at his side. There was a problem that required his immediate attention.
“Very well,” Culver said, “But bring these two. I want them to see how I deal with a problem.”
The conversation was muted, but it was obvious that something or someone was about to derail Culver’s plans.
“Stop them!” Culver hissed.
“We may have to send some of our men…” a beleaguered security officer was saying.
“This is a weapon’s facility…use it. I want that vehicle stopped and, or, Blake and his friend destroyed.”
“It’s not as easy as that, sir, the weapons that you’re referring to were taken off line…”
“Then get them back on line! Meanwhile, why don’t we make it difficult for Blake’s people to find him? I think it’s time for a change.” As he spoke, Culver drew Marie’s attention to the large screen behind his desk. Suddenly, the view of the main hall vanished to be replaced by Blake and Gan surrounded by an endless sea of sand and clearly in distress.
“The environmental controls are so precise in these deep caverns. You no longer have to rely on the vagaries of the weather patterns or changing seasons, at a touch of a button, you can go from a hot, arid desert to a frozen, windswept ice cap. Like this.”
Gan noticed it first.
“It’s getting cooler.”
“I don’t know it’s that good or bad,” Blake confessed.
He sat up, grateful for the sudden cool breeze that had sprung up. It was a welcome relief, but then the light began to fade and a small white flake settled on the back of his hand.
“Snow?” Gan asked.
Blake nodded. He had to hand it to Culver; from one extreme to another. All in the space of a few hours.
“Why is he doing this?” Gan wondered.
“Perhaps to keep his guests amused?”
“…Or to stop someone finding us?”
“Well, if that’s the case, I hope they find us before it’s too late.”
“Avon, the outside temperature gauge…” Jenna said, motioning to a digital read out on the control panel, “It’s getting colder.”
He sat down beside her, “And darker. Are you sure this thing is heading in the right direction?”
“It was the last destination in the computer. If it isn’t, then we’ll have to go and search each and every location…”
“Culver knows we are here,” Cally said. She was seated in front of a bank of impressive controls. “We’ve just been scanned.”
“He has an entire weapons facility at his fingertips, he could launch anything at us,” Avon warned.
“Not if Orac can help it. I’m putting on every running light this vehicle has, plus the searchlights, “Jenna announced, “Avon, I need you to scan for body heat.” She turned to look at him, “Culver has now conjured up a blizzard. A heat signature may be the only way we will spot them…”
“If they should live so long.”
“I don’t want to alarm you, Culver, but your guests seem to be leaving,” Blaine remarked. He was perched on the edge of his host’s ornate desk, casually inspecting his nails.
“It’s their loss,” Culver replied, “They will miss the greatest political coup ever; the destruction of Blake and most of his crew. I will be feted by the Federation.”
“Brave words from a man who has no idea who he is up against.”
Culver took his eyes from the screen and turned to face Blaine, “Just who are you?”
“Me? A lost soul who found sanctuary with this lady. But I know who you are. In fact I know everything about you…and it doesn’t make pleasant reading.”
“Really? And do you know about this… lady?” As he spoke, Culver walked slowly around the desk towards Marie, “I gave you everything Laurel and yet you betrayed me. I haven’t forgotten my promise, and once this little charade is over, well…we have unfinished business.”
He was behind her now, his left hand reaching up for her long hair and slowly pulling it away to reveal the deep scars that he had inflicted the last time.
“That was only the beginning….”
Marie Page didn’t flinch. She was used to this inhuman monster and it wouldn’t be long now before the time came to finally put an end to his lurid life.
She knew that angered him. He was used to his ‘victims’ shivering with fear, but she would not give him that satisfaction.
“It would seem that Blake and Gan have other ideas,” she said, her eyes taking in the scene on the screen.
The two men had struggled to their feet in the snowstorm that was engulfing them and in the distance Marie could see lights; lights that would hopefully guide these two men out of their nightmare.
Culver was angry.
This was not the scenario he had planned at all.
“Sir!” It was his security officer, “We have regained control, at least partially. Something is interfering with our computers and the signal seems to becoming from one of those ships in orbit.”
“The Liberator no doubt. See if you can jam those signals and get ready to fire a small surprise at that ship…”
“She is some way off sir.”
“Lock on to it anyway. Whoever is on that ship will have their hands full; while we have fun with Blake, his friend and those who have ruined my party. I think two missiles will be enough. Set co-ordinates and fire on my say-so.
“And when I have finished with them,” Culver continued, coldly, “Then I can begin with you, my dear, sweet Laurel, while your new, lost soul watches.”
“If that is the case,” Marie Page replied steadily, her gaze on Blaine, “May I at least be allowed to look my best?”
“Of course, I wouldn’t want Mr Blaine here to think I was totally uncaring and not mindful of your needs.”
Culver watched as she reached into the small bag at her waist and produced a long, slender tube. She opened it.
A bright red lipstick was revealed.
“I approve,” Culver said, “Take your time, there’s no rush.”
“What do you mean I’m needed on the flight deck?” Vila demanded.
+You are required to protect the ship, + Orac informed him.
+As you undoubtedly heard, Zen has noted that two missiles are currently approaching, and you will be required to….+
“I thought you were handling all the systems down there,”
+Indeed I am, but they have discovered my subterfuge. I can, at the moment, delay any plans they may have with regards to Blake and his dilemma, but unfortunately, I cannot be….+
“In two places at once. Orac, they will need immediate teleport the moment they breech the interference...”
+I am aware of that. But time is of the essence….+
“…it always is,” Vila retorted, running from the teleport section to the Flight deck.
“Are you sure this is where they are?” Avon asked, peering at the various screen in front of him.
“Unless they tried to make their own way out,” Jenna murmured, “Culver must be really enjoying this. First a blazing desert and now a raging blizzard.”
“With all these lights on, they must be able to see us, surely?” Cally said out loud.
“Unless these two extremes have incapacitated them…” Jenna suggested, hoping that the two men had somehow survived this ordeal but were unable to make their presence known, “Someone will have to go out and look for them.”
Both Jenna and Cally looked at Avon. He knew that she was right. Jenna was needed to pilot this vehicle and get ready to fight their way out when the time came; Cally was needed to activate all the weapons this machine seemed to have to do that fighting.
“All right, but Cally maybe you could let them know that we are here. And keep those searchlights scanning the area. At least they provide some light to see by.”
Gan was trying desperately to keep Blake on his feet.
“I’m sure there were some lights. It’s difficult to tell with this snow and the wind.”
“Maybe he’s decided to come out himself…”
Blake tried to look up but the wind and the snow stung his eyes. But he knew that he couldn’t give Culver the satisfaction of seeing him on his knees. If Culver was going to kill him…..
“It’s Cally,” Gan cried out, “I can hear her…”
“No,” Blake replied, “It’s the wind.”
Then he heard it; a soft voice in his head, ‘Blake, we are here….’
Gan stiffened, “There’s someone out there. I can see their silhouette. Come on Blake, we have to get out of this…”
“I can’t move,” Blake whispered, as he fell again to the deep snow.
Gan bent to pull him up….and then another pair of strong hands was helping him to his feet.
“It’s more a question of why? Suffice to say, I drew the short straw.”
Culver was furious.
“What do you mean those missiles were intercepted?”
“Sir, we can’t risk another salvo. They almost took out a Federation Governor’s cruiser and he is livid,” his security officer explained.
Blaine laughed, “Sorry.”
Culver’s eyes glazed over with anger. This interloper was annoying him beyond measure and he was still sitting on the desk, still inspecting his nails.
“I’ll wipe that smile off your face.” He turned to his security officer, “Destroy that vehicle and Blake.”
“Targets acquired and confirmed.”
Culver cast a glance at his ‘Laurel’, delicately applying the blood red lipstick to her delicate lips. She seemed totally unconcerned about the fate that was about to befall the men on the screen.
He smiled and then slowly turned his attention to the job in hand, casually wiping away the insect that landed on his neck. It stung a little, but he was used to that…
…except that in this refined atmosphere, there weren’t any insects, or creatures, of any nature.
“Fi….” The word caught in his throat. He pitched forward, clutching his neck, trying to clear the blockage that was stopping his mouth.
He reached out, grabbing for the support of his security officer.
And then he saw her.
His sweet ‘Laurel’, a smile of satisfaction on her face and the lipstick in her soft, delicate gloved hand.
Jenna had the vehicle moving before Avon had even closed the hatch. She took it in a wide circle and headed back to the entrance of the cavern and a possible reception committee.
Cally was staring at the screen in front of her.
“We are being scanned,” she said, “Someone is trying to lock onto us...”
“Vila?” Blake asked, grateful for the thermal blanket Avon had managed to find in one of the storage lockers.
Avon handed both men their teleport bracelets, given to Jenna by Culver as proof that he did indeed have Blake and Gan.
Gan was rubbing his hands together trying to restore his circulation, “Heatstroke and then frost bite…all in a couple of hours.”
“Once back on the Liberator, we can make sure there is no permanent damage. But first we have to get out of this cavern. Until then, we are at the mercy of Mr Culver,” Avon pointed out, “He will not appreciate his main attraction leaving so soon. Hopefully, our distraction will take care of that.”
“You’ve lost me, “Blake confessed.
“Laurel is here.”
“Laurel?” Gan repeated, “Not on her own? Surely?”
“She is in good company…”
“But why is she here?” Blake asked.
“To kill Culver. And you once said, Gan, that revenge was a dish best served cold…well, I believe that gentleman is about to discover just how cold.”
The security officer lowered Culver to the floor; he was still breathing, but unable to speak or move.
“What have you done?”
“Something that should have been done a long time ago,” Marie stated quite matter-of-factly. She casually walked towards the fallen man, lying helpless on the floor. She knew he could see her and hear her; for the moment anyway. She knelt down by his side and placed the gold coloured tube, with its blood red lipstick still intact, on his chest.
“Everyone has a time of reckoning, my dear Frederickson, and yours was overdue.” She removed her right glove and kissed her forefinger before lightly touching Culver’s increasingly cold lips, “Good bye and thank you…for most of it, anyway.”
The security officer stared at her, “But why?”
“I think,” Blaine began, “that the lady has just done you a big favour. Admittedly, you are now unemployed, but look at it as a chance for a fresh start.”
The man slowly stood up, the anger apparent on his face. With one swift movement he reached for the intercom, “Fire!”
“What is it?” Avon asked.
Cally’s eyes were on a radarscope of some nature, “Missiles; coming this way...”
Her finger stabbed one of the numerous buttons on the console in front of her and from somewhere above came the distinct sound of an explosion.
“No doubt he will have more of the same in mind,” Cally said, “But I doubt if he is even aware of this craft’s capabilities.”
The security officer was dead before he had even finished, but that didn’t stop the missiles.
“He really shouldn’t have done that,” Blaine said, the small gun in his hand still smoking. Staring back at him were several pairs of anxious eyes.
Culver’s second-hand security team seemed just a little confused. With their immediate superior gone and their paymaster lying immobile on the floor, none of them seemed too sure of what to do next. One darted his hand forward, but Blaine’s cold eyes bore into him.
Too late, another salvo of missiles was launched.
The man stared at Blaine, wondering if the same fate awaited him as that of the security officer.
“As I told your former benefactor, you have no idea who you are up against, so why don’t you realise that what you are doing is a pointless exercise in loyalty. And that loyalty will count for nothing once the Federation gets here. And it will get here. I expect the Governor has already demanded action and you will need to provide answers as to why the Federation was not informed about the Liberator or Blake being here.”
“But we were only obeying orders,” the man who had fired the missiles replied, still nervously eyeing Blaine’s gun.
“That will not be the answer the Federation will accept. They will ask questions, of all of you, and believe me, I know from experience just how thorough they are when it comes to asking questions. If any of you have sense, you will leave right now,” he said slowly, “because I think things are about to get rather ugly”
Marie stared up at the screen, watching as two small lights raced towards their target, “If that vehicle is hit…”
“I wouldn’t worry,” Blaine said, “The best pilot in the Galaxy is steering that machine and she has the best combat expert I’ve ever seen and a pretty good computer expert with her. But right now, WE need to leave.”
“Of course we do, but before then,” Marie perched herself on the console in front of the still slightly nervous man, “Would you be so kind as to put a stop to that blizzard, bring up the lights and open those hangar doors. I think you’ll find it would make things so much simpler…for everybody.”
“No buts. You do all that for me, and my friend, Mr Blaine here, may just allow you leave unhindered. It’s your choice.”
The man swallowed, and then did as he was asked.
Marie smiled at him, “There, that wasn’t too difficult, was it?”
“I just hope we can make it to those hangar doors,” Jenna said.
She had the vehicle at full throttle.
It was still a driving blizzard outside, but this vehicle seemed to cut through it easily enough.
Another salvo of missiles came overhead and were, again, expertly destroyed by the defence system that Cally had mastered.
Avon came and sat down in the co-pilot’s seat, “How much further?”
“Minutes. We need to try and contact the Liberator, because I don’t think we will be stopping if Culver’s men decide to blockade us.”
“What about the hangar doors?”
“Well, I’m sure you’re not too keen to go outside again are you, to open them?”
“WE go through them?”
“We go through them….”
“Can this vehicle withstand the impact?”
“Well, there’s only one way to find out.”
The troop of men who had been designated to block Blake’s escape was preparing to open fire on the vehicle that they knew was thundering at full speed towards them. But their confidence began to waver as the dimmed lighting began to brighten and the whirling snowstorm died down. Behind them, the hangar doors slowly began to open. Whatever was happening was out of their hands.
Suddenly, the armoured vehicle came into view, churning up the ground and showing no signs of slowing.
The men looked nervously at each other. Despite calls to the main security office, no one was answering their requests for orders. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, they all began to retreat through the doors and, hopefully, to the relative safety of the hall beyond.
“The doors are opening,” Jenna breathed in a sigh of relief.
“Maybe so, but we may still have to fight our way out,” Avon replied, watching as the small armed force scurried out of the vehicle’s way, “and neither Blake nor Gan are up to a battle.”
“You speak for yourself.” It was Blake joining them at the front, and peering through the small wind screen. “Cally, any luck with contacting the Liberator?”
She shook her head.
“In here it’s shielded,” Avon explained.
“And out there?”
“There is a possibility that the teleport will operate. Hopefully, Vila will have had the sense to put it on a wide area random pick up. Once we get through those doors there will be a limited time for the teleport to activate before we and this vehicle crash through the outer wall.”
“Perhaps,” Blake said softly, “It may be a good thing to brace ourselves.”
“Indeed. Either way we are dead; either by those gun-toting men or the imminent collision of this vehicle.”
“Then let’s hope Vila is being sensible, for a change.”
Alone in his deserted control centre, Fredickson Culver could only dream of what could have been. The flickering images, out of the corner of his eye, revealed that his empire was slowly crumbling.
Everyone had gone.
No-one had stopped to see if he was still alive. They had assumed, wrongly, that he had died at the hands of the beautiful, sweet assassin.
She had known.
Had known that the drug now mercilessly coursing through his veins was slow acting. That, although to all intents he looked dead, he was in fact fully aware of his surroundings; for the moment at least.
Each breath was now a struggle as his lungs fought against the slow paralysis. Soon even his heart would cease its embattle beat.
Lying on the floor, abandoned and alone,
Frederickson Culver felt the single tear well up in his eye, knowing that
death’s embrace was about to enfold him.
The six women facing Blaine looked doubtful, even scared. They seemed unsure about him, but were openly hostile towards Marie.
One of them stepped forward, trying to intimidate Marie, but she stood her ground.
“So, the prodigal returns. We were so sure that you had died when that planet blew itself to smithereens.”
“I’m so sorry to disappoint you…,” Marie purred.
“Mr Culver will be so pleased to see you,” another said.
All six were an eclectic mix; blonde, brunette, raven haired. One was even clean shaven. If there was one thing that Blaine suddenly found himself admiring about the late unlamented Mr Culver, it was his taste in the female of the species. They were all glorious examples and it took a few seconds for him to recompose himself to calmly address them.
“I’m sorry, ladies, but Mr Culver is no longer in any position to greet anyone. I’m afraid this party is over, for good.”
“He’s dead?” the first one asked. She was horrified. Any future that they had all been expecting was suddenly gone.
“Of course,” Marie replied triumphantly, “Just as I promised.”
“What about us? We have nothing, no-one…”
“I’m sure the Federation will be more than pleased to assist you in that matter.”
Blaine suspected that what he was about to suggest went against his better judgement; except since the Federation had played games with his mind and his memory, he was no longer too sure what was his better judgement.
“You will have to come with us. I can’t promise you anything, but it will be a chance to escape Mr Culver and everything he ever stood for. Just bring any essentials; our ship isn’t exactly equipped for so many passengers.”
Marie began to walk towards the lift which would whisk her, Blaine and whichever of the women decided to accept the offer, to their waiting ship in the landing bay above them and he added quickly,
“Don’t take too long, but I’m offering you freedom. Please feel at liberty to accept.”
The tracked vehicle had come to a rest against the far wall of the entry hall. One of the men, who had watched it surge through the open doors, took it upon himself to approach and investigate.
No-one had made any attempt to exit the vehicle and the tension in that vestibule was high. Fingers were on triggers, just waiting for Mr Culver’s guests to attempt an escape. But as the minutes passed, nothing happened.
The nervous security guard activated the door and allowed the ramp to come down.
He carefully ventured up the ramp towards the cockpit.
It was empty; as was the entire vehicle.
Surely they couldn’t have vanished into thin air?
“Well?” one of the other men shouted up from the bottom of the ramp.
“There’s no-one here. They’ve all gone….”
“I think it’s time we all did the same thing. Come on, we’ve got to get off this planet. Because when the Federation get here, they will want answers and none of us want to be around for that; believe me.”
Vila whirled round as the others ran onto the Flight Deck.
“Where’s Blake? What about Gan?” he demanded to know.
“It’s all right, Vila. We’re here.” It was Gan, with Blake, slowly making their way to join the others.
“You look awful,” Vila admitted.
“So would you, after Culver’s demonstration of his new environmental systems,” Blake smiled back, sitting himself down on the forward couch, grateful for the comforts afforded by the Liberator.
“Do you have anywhere in mind, Blake…” Jenna asked, pleased to be back at the controls of a machine that she knew and understood so well.
“Just somewhere the Federation won’t find us...for the moment anyway.”
“I have no idea what happened,” Vila continued, “But I’ve had to fend off missiles coming from that planet and then everyone started leaving orbit…”
“..Like rats leaving a sinking ship,” Blake remarked.
“Never mind, I’ll explain later.”
“Course set,” Jenna announced, “And Vila, you did a good job.”
“It looks as though you did too. What happened down there?”
“We had help,” Avon explained, placing Orac on the table in front of Blake, “From a lady who had her own agenda on this planet and with the former Mr Culver. Next time, Blake, you may think more carefully about involving yourself with other people’s consumer problems.”
“I think Hagen Sol’s problems are only just beginning,” Jenna said, “He has not only let his people down, but his niece will not be very pleased either. I know I wouldn’t be, especially as Sol had some idea about using me as the final payment.”
“What?” Blake asked.
“It doesn’t matter now,” Cally interjected, “Both you and Gan may need treatment for the extreme climate changes you experienced.”
“However, “Jenna continued mischievously, “I did persuade Culver that there was something of far more value than me…didn’t I Avon?”
“That depends on what you consider to be of value,” Avon replied, making his way to his station. Any further discussion was halted, though, as Zen informed them that someone was contacting the Liberator and requesting an immediate response.
“Put it on the main screen,” Avon instructed.
The screen shimmered momentarily and suddenly revealed Marie Page and Blaine.
“So, Gan, you made it out, as did you Blake?” she said softly.
“I understand, you may have had a hand in that,” Blake replied, noting that her smile was directed at the man sitting beside him.
“I just wish we could thank you in person,” Gan smiled back.
“Perhaps, eventually. But it would be prudent for the Liberator to stay far away from my Sanctuary for some time. I’m sure the Federation will somehow find ways of extracting the information they want from whoever is still down there and the records of course. They will know that you were here as well as Mr Blaine. It won’t take them long to realise that we were working in unison. And that would give them an excuse to hunt him, and me, down.”
“It is a great shame that you were not able to destroy those records,” Avon put in.
The image switched to Blaine and Vila’s jaw dropped open. Sitting behind the man on the screen, was a veritable collection of some of the most beautiful women Vila had ever seen.
“I did manage to start a programme running that should delete most of whatever went on down there,” Blaine said, “but you know as well as me, Avon, that the Federation are capable of many things. They will find someone to restore whatever records were there.”
“I see that you have acquired some extra company.”
“Not the most logical solution to the problem in hand, I must admit, but it seemed the decent thing to do at the time. Hopefully I can do for them what you did for me; give them each a new identity; a fresh start. I’m sure you would have done the same thing if you had been in the same situation.”
Avon didn’t answer.
“Anyway,” Marie continued, “at least, Avon, you didn’t have to give up that item that you hold so dear to your heart. I’m sure Blake will thank you for your actions and your concern for his safety. As it is, our paths must diverge now. We may meet again, hopefully under different circumstances.
“Goodbye, Gan and adieu to you, Avon.”
She blew a theatrical kiss towards the screen…and then she was gone.
“What was that all about?” Blake asked.
“I promised Culver the Carcanet in return for my freedom and yours and Gan,” Jenna replied, “and he seemed very eager to accept it.”
“Of course he would,” Avon retorted, “That necklace is perhaps the most valuable item in this part of the Galaxy. Anyone would want it…”
“All I had to do was convince Avon to hand it over…”
“Anyone with any knowledge of its power would want to possess it.”
“But you didn’t hand it over. I presume you couldn’t convince Avon,” Blake asked.
“No, she did not.”
Blake studied his frost bitten fingers, “So rather than hand the Carcanet over, you risked your life, and that of Jenna and Cally, to rescue me?”
“I cannot think of any other reason,” Avon replied, still averting his gaze.
“No…I don’t suppose you can.”
“The Carcanet is much safer on this ship. Now, if you don’t mind, trying to fight my way through a raging blizzard didn’t exactly agree with me. I’m going to my cabin.”
“You know,” Jenna smiled as Avon walked past her, “that didn’t sound a very final farewell from Miss Page; she seems to like you.”
He didn’t reply.
“It’s not fair,” Vila announced, after Avon had left the Flight Deck.
“What, that Miss Page seems to like Avon?” Gan asked.
“No, not that. Blaine, or Tragon, or whoever he is. He’s stuck on that ship with all of those beautiful women. It’s not fair.”
“So you said,” Cally murmured, turning her attention to Blake and Gan, “I think both of you need to go to the medical section, just to make sure you haven’t suffered any permanent damage.”
Blake agreed, but Vila still seemed aggrieved.
“Well, it isn’t fair. He’s got all those lovely ladies for company…and I get stuck with Orac. Where’s the justice?”
“Well, who is he?” Servalan asked, looking with some degree of disgust at the body lying at her feet,
“I’m not sure. But that information will no doubt be contained in these computers somewhere. It’s just a matter of time.” Space Commander Travis cast his one good eye over the control panel and the numerous screens above it, then turned to face Servalan, who was still gazing down at the corpse in front of her.
“Take this out,” she ordered an attentive Trooper, “and hand it over to one of our surgical teams; no doubt they can find out who or what he was.”
“Why would Blake come here? What could have possibly drawn him to this place?”
“The Governor, whose ship was nearly destroyed by a missile launched from here towards the Liberator, informed us that this was, by all accounts, a new facility for the production of food. It is obviously possible,” Servalan said, her eyes now fixed on the screens as well, “the chambers and caverns located all over the part of the planet have the ability to grow crops on a year round basis.”
“And what of the weapons?”
“A former use. The new owner was changing it to a more peaceful use.”
“Could that cadaver be him?”
“Does it matter?”
“No….” a picture flicked up on one of the screens,” Well look. It is your pet project. Now why would he be here?”
They both stared at the image. Staring back at them was the man whom Servalan had engineered as a doppelganger; a ruse to make Blake think that one of his most trusted crewmembers was in fact a fake.
But somehow, Blake had seen through the subterfuge and it was obvious that the Avon was still a trusted associate and this man, far from being dead as the records had shown, was in fact alive and possibly in league with the rebel.
Then the picture vanished…as all the screens died and became silent.
“What happened?” Servalan asked.
“Very clever,” Travis smiled, “All the records of the last few days have been wiped. It appears that someone has introduced a programme to delete everything that has ever happened on this place…but I’m sure that you have people who will be able to reinstate those records.”
“It’s a shame about your little pet project, though. He would have been ideal, especially as he possibly was behind whatever went on here. But, it would appear that he has turned rogue.”
“If he has, then I’m sure that he will make certain that his location will never be found…whereas Blake...”
“Oh yes, Blake,” Travis murmured.
Servalan smiled to herself; even after all the attempts by the various experts to tame Travis’ excesses, the name of Blake still incited a morbid need.
And that need was important to Servalan.
“When everyone has finished here and we decide what to do with this most fascinating planet, then we have work to do.”
“Oh yes,” Servalan purred, her forefinger tracing an intricate pattern on his black clad chest, “It involves Blake, but I need someone upon who I can rely.”
He stood to attention, “Supreme Commander. It would be an honour.”
“I know. Time is running out for Blake. Soon he and his crew will face a reckoning and it will sooner than he thinks.”
* * *
© 2016 LaraSue-Lectori Salutem