22

E

25 years after the events on Gauda Prime the federation is larger and more powerful than ever yet it faces an external threat; an alliance of hostile aliens against which it must find new technologies if it hopes to survive.

Also it will soon have a new problem….

The prisoner was brought into the office flanked by two burly guards, his hands were cuffed in front of him and he wore a painful neck brace due to an earlier offence. Like all the other prisoners he wore a drab, two-piece grey coverall with the federation logo on the left breast under it his own unique prison number.

Despite all this there was a defiant air about him, a fierce sense of self evident in eyes and posture, he showed no fear of the seated official he'd been brought the meet, a plump man with rippling jowls and deep set rather bored grey eyes who glanced up from writing a report the old fashioned way stylus on pad,

Functional and bleak the office bore no pictures nor did it in any way reflect the personality of the most powerful man on the penal asteroid of SUFFERANCE, home to over a thousand unwanted people whose only function to mine a precious mineral.

The seated man sat back to regard his most difficult inmate, "Taran Blake," he said languidly, "Son of a terrorist and a smuggler," great pleasure was gained from rubbing that in, "You don't seem to understand the two main laws of this institution namely don't break the rules or if you do don't get caught," a thin tongue licked full lips, "Don't you think the rules apply to you Blake, are you of the opinion that you're above such things? Well you're wrong, dead wrong and you're about to find out how wrong. I'm sick of your opinions and protests, your disobedience and insolence, your pathetic attempt to rally the other prisoners. They know that there is no hope and you're going to learn that lesson to."

Silent and still insolent Blake regarded the corpulent figure who represented everything he despised, power without conscience, authority but no compassion.

The governor glared back equally sure of his position to, "I've been in charge of this asteroid for a long time Blake I've seen men like you come and go, they all thought they could beat SUFFERANCE and they were wrong, there's no way out and no rebellion has ever succeeded. We have all the weapons you see all the advantages and we intend to keep them."

Fingers interlaced the governor allowed himself to relax slightly to savour this moment, he knew he was going to break Taran Blake no matter how clever or resourceful the former A-Grade thought he was.

"I'm sending you down the deepest mine shaft Blake, the bottomless pit we call Avon's Grave," he waited for the shock, the anger, the complaints but Blake didn't react at all to this death sentence as if he hadn't heard or didn't believe what had been said. Handsome lad in his own way, even chiselled features, bright blue eyes and a mop of jet black hair a real hit with the ladies or he had been once; not anymore not now.

"There is no appeal against this decision and it will take effect immediately, three strikes and you're out Blake your clumsy attempt to sabotage or computer system was ill-advised and a category 5 offence leaving me with no real choice. You will be taken to the mine shaft upon leaving here and will descend immediately, it's not likely you and I will meet again."

Now Blake did speak he responded not with anger or some outburst but in a calm, measured tone that got under the other man's skin even more. Blake had been a good orator once a rabble rouser even at college where he had finally come to the attention of the authorities as a 'resister' one of those rare people who somehow wasn't affected by the suppressants routinely placed in food and water.

A file had been opened by Fed Sec and Blake had been placed under surveillance so that evidence could be gathered, facts and details that could be used against him when the time was right when he was deemed a threat to the system.

"You will not keep me here much longer," said Blake, "This disgusting pit is finished and so are you Drobna."

Flinching at the use of his first name a serious breach of protocol, how had Blake learned it not even the guards were aware of it?

"How dare you," Drobna Feldar rose to his feet something that took a serous effort to his expansive girth and stiff knees, "This pit as you call it is your grave Blake your tomb stone the sooner you get used to that fact the better, SUFFERANCE is a custom made asteroid, a cube not a sphere it cost millions to design and is escape proof."

This was met with a smile from Blake who shook his head slowly as though listening to the ravings of a madman, "I don't think so Drobna," he said without any respect.

"Do not call me that you refer to me as sir or governor and nothing else."

"You're a fat, pompous, inhuman bully," Blake snapped earning himself a jab in the guts from one of the guards that cut off the invective.

Drobna smiled enjoying the brief look of pain on the young face, "If you think I'm bad Blake wait until you're down the shaft and mixing with the psychotics at the lowest level, the absolute scum of the federation the no hopers, the crimos, the barely human dregs of society."

Regaining his breath and straightening to his full height Blake fixed Drobna with a fierce look of disrespect, "Why aren't you there then?"

Drobna raised a hand to still a further blow, there was no need to beat this man up not where he was going, "You had such a promising future once Blake a good job, promotion, a pretty girl, popularity…reflect on that as you sink without trace into the darkness never to be seen again. Once down there you'll be nostalgic for the light and clean air up here, the decent food and entertainment vids, even the company of others like yourself."

"I'm not going down Drobna I'm going up, up and away from this filthy hole."

"Wishful thinking Blake escape is impossible, there is no way off SUFFERANCE not for you or me or any of us," this was said with a twinge of irony then a podgy hand waved in a take-him-away gesture of finality and the guards marched their man to the door but Blake had one last outburst one final point to score.

"You used to be a space commander, a hero, decorated by the president, what went wrong for you Drobna how did you foul it all up?"

Puffy features puce with rage the fat man came around his desk and walked right up to the prisoner who was as lean and muscled as he had once been. Blake's words had touched a nerve they had hurt because they were true, Drobna had commanded a fleet he had fought and won battles, he still had his medals and commendations somewhere.

"You're going to die a very slow and unpleasant death Blake inhaling toxic fumes that will eat you alive cell by cell, and do you know what I'm glad, I'm delighted; it's what you deserve. They should have executed you in public, vaporised you, renegade filth like you are a cancer to the federation questioning everything, arguing, debating you're unpatriotic a traitor, a spoiled, mewling little nobody."

Saliva dampening his cheeks Blake listened to this tirade without emotion he'd heard it all before at his trial.

Then he said calmly, "You obeyed orders without question Drobna and have ended up in the same place, what does that say about the mighty federation you still serve like a good little slave?"

Enraged the governor slapped Blake across the cheek he couldn't stop himself and regretted it almost at once the lack of control, the fury, where was his dignity his authority?

"Get him out," he barked, "At once."

In the corridor outside Blake and his escorts passed by a trolley on castors being wheeled by another prisoner, a pretty girl with ash blond girls who grabbed their attention at once. Slender and shapely even inside the drab prison uniform the girl wore the red armband of a trustee, an inmate who had earned certain privileges in this case working in administration delivering old fashioned manila files.

Lox Oland was 22 and like Blake had once been an A-grade the most intelligent level within the federation until her penchant for computer fraud had gotten the better of her, that and a desire for more money than her humble beginnings had provided.

She had expected a mild sentence for a first offence, an open prison perhaps or even a fine being sent to SUFFERANCE had been a terrible shock, a gross injustice that had enflamed within her a desire to strike back at such a cruel inhuman system.

Her green eyes met those of Blake and a silent signal passed between them unnoticed by the coarse guards.

"Come on Blake," said the one who'd hit him, "It's downhill all the way for you from now on," the man snorted at his own wit, "She's the last pretty face you'll ever see."

Chin raised in defiance Lox glared at the speaker, "You enjoy your work too much," she said in a haughty accent.

"I'd enjoy you more," the man sneered reaching out to grab a slim wrist. At once Blake drove his elbow into the guard's solar plexus, payback for earlier along with a desire to protect Lox.

The other guard wrapped a beefy arm around Blake's neck, "Oh we've got a lively one here Maxus."

Rubbing his sore middle Maxus nodded, taking a short black club from his belt one of several weapons guards were permitted, "Perhaps he needs a bit of softening up, a taste of what's to come down the shaft."

But even as the club rose a sharp commanding voice from up the corridor stayed the blow, "That's enough," a new man appeared his uniform sleeker and smarter than the guards, his rank that of sergeant and his lean aquiline features tight with disgust, "I'll take the prisoner from here," said Karl Dench moving to unhook the wrist cuffs then inserting a slim silver took into the neck brace, "I don't think you two can be trusted to get him to the mine in one piece," Karl's gaze cut into the two guards.

"Their enthusiasm got the better of them," Blake agreed.

"You cheeky little," Maxus began but Karl stood in his way.

"Do you want to clean out the recycling bay for the next month Maxus," the question required no answer as this was one of the filthiest, least popular jobs imaginable.

Licking his thick lips Maxus shook his head then spied the girl Lox, compensation he decided.

"She was just about to show us the way to recreation, weren't you love," women on SUFFERANCE were few and mostly ugly old lags but Lox was different, refined and young.

"She has work to do," Karl snapped tossing a file onto the trolley, "I want that delivered to level 3 at once," he said giving Lox a meaningful look.

"Of course sir," the 'sir' was a bit forced but there was no disguising the relief in Lox's voice to be away from the two guards, who left disgruntled to take it out on some other unfortunate.

Blake was glad to see them go especially Maxus, "Thank you sergeant," he said with heavy irony; Karl was about the only member of staff here he had any time for a decent man who lacked the usual cruel streak so prevalent in penal workers.

Making sure they were alone Karl lowered his voice, "I'm sorry Blake I didn't think Drobna would send you to Avon's Grave, there's nothing we can do now."

But Blake wasn't a man to just give up, "On the contrary we bring our plan forward."

"But how can we?"

"Get me to computer central now."

Dench flinched, "We don't even know if the cancellation code will work it hasn't been tested."

"I think now's the time to find out don't you."

For months now Blake and a few others had been working on a way to paralyse the prison computer system, their only realistic way of escape, it hadn't been easy but aided by Karl they'd devised a special code that would bypass all the firewalls and bring down the asteroid's many defences.

Lox had discovered an escape shuttle on level 3, it was only medium range but fast and big enough to hold six people, if they could reach the nearest planet they could meet up with some friends of Blake men sympathetic to his cause and move on to an inner world with new identities.

But everything depended upon the cancellation code working, they'd only get one chance to use it as the system adapted quickly.

Karl's pass and presence got them into the computer room that controlled the defences, it was automated and surprisingly compact for such an important hub, a central circular installation with three flanking terminals. Blake was almost disappointed he'd expected something more challenging; everything here seemed cheap and dated like all the cash had been spent on building the cubed outer shell of SUFFERANCE.

"Over here," Karl went over to a panel on the central console, "I'll have to use my personal access key to get us in," his look was meaningful once he did that it would leave a trail straight back to him.

"So you're leaving with us," Blake was impatient to get on, "It's not like you're staying behind is it?"

"It'll make me a fugitive Blake; this is the end of my career."

"Listen Karl all honest men are fugitives under the federation," some of Blake's old oratory was coming back his political passion, he hadn't made a speech in months, "You're striking a blow for freedom everywhere, what we do here is just the start, by beating SUFFERANCE we're showing that the federation isn't invulnerable."

Karl smirked, "I can see why they think you're so dangerous, always the rebel eh Blake?"

Smiling back Blake nodded, "I'll watch the door," he looked back, "Get on with it."

Slowly Karl produced his key, his key to a new future but was that future as a free man or a dead man, could Blake possibly win one hot head against a pan galactic empire with a vast army of troops and space ships?

Seeing movement Blake ducked back inside grabbing a small stool to use as a weapon, but a blond head popped into view it was Lox.

Relieved as he was to see her Blake was also concerned, "I thought you were priming the escape shuttle," he said lowering the stool?

"It's primed," said the girl sitting on the stool, "I left Vega watching it," Vega was another escapee an older man and a good pilot, "Are we in yet?"

They both looked at Karl and as they did the whole room shook as a powerful vibration went through it dislodging Lox from her seat and into Blake's arms, something he might have enjoyed had not the next shockwave thrown them both onto the floor.

It wasn't just the room that was shaking it seemed to be the whole prison, a violent shudder caused plating to creak, wires to fuse and screens to go down. The lighting dimmed for a moment, some bulbs popped and distant sirens went off.

"What the blazes," Blake helped Lox up, "It feels like the orbital stabilizers are going offline," that should be impossible, another violent quake threw them across the room into a wall, they heard metal rend and glass break, fires broke out.

"My god," said Karl, "I think the prison's under attack," the next quake seemed to confirm it as the lighting turned emergency red and a battle klaxon sounded. The quakes were missile strikes and they were on target but who'd attack SUFFERANCE who had that kind of fire power?

"This is our chance," never one to miss an advantage Blake staggered over to the console, with base security distracted the escape had a real chance of success, "Are we in," he asked Karl as powder snowed down from the ceiling in ringlets.

"Yes but Blake we can't go now."

"Why not this is ideal, in the midst of an attack we won't be noticed."

Lox agreed, "I'm not staying here a second longer than I have to."

More cautious Karl gripped a support, "But who's attacking, doesn't it bother you?"

If it bothered Blake it didn't stop him typing in the cancellation code, whoever they were they hated the federation and that made them useful allies, Lox wasn't the only one who needed to get out of here.

ALPHA

Once the code was inputted various red lights flashed and then text began to appear BASE DEFENCES GOING OFFLINE and a bar of coloured neons began reducing in size.

Blake's excitement was palpable, this was it his big chance.

His joy was to be short lived as another violent tremor threw him onto his back and sparks burst from every terminal, a jagged crack appeared down an inner wall almost splitting it in half and for a moment the room listed to one side.

Then the pale, sweaty face of Drobna appeared on a main viewer; the governor clearly scared, "Blake what have you done," even his voice rang with terror, the old arrogance now a thing of the past, "Restore our defences Blake or we're all dead," moisture ran down the thick jowls, "Five alien battle cruisers are attacking us, we must be able to hold them off; at least restore the force walls."

Swapping looks with Lox and Karl, Blake regained his feet, "First you let us leave," he snapped back.

"I can't do that Blake, you know I can't," Drobna was almost pleading.

"Then this miserable rock will soon be a cloud of orbiting dust," Blake replied harshly.

"I'll rescind the order sending you down the mine shaft; it's the best I can do."

Taran Blake shook his head, "Well it's not the best I can do governor, I told you I was leaving and I am."

"The aliens will shoot you down Blake; do you think they'll make a distinction between prisoners and guards?"

This was such a good point that Blake paused to consider and sensing his doubt Karl jumped in, "Restore the defences Blake this is pointless, we can't escape anyway."

Lox had a different spin on events, "We can try," she said, "If we give up now they'll stick us all down that mine, you can't trust the federation."

"At least they're human," the ex sergeant retorted.

"Are they," Lox was in no mood to compromise, "This is our only chance to be free it won't come again," she went over to Blake, "Listen I think there's a way to raise the force shields but keep the internal defences off," without waiting for his consent she began typing in commands.

Taran gazed up at the ashen features of the governor, "How badly damaged is the asteroid," he asked?

"We've lost 60% power, life support is failing, our weapons aren't even touching the aliens."

Blake had an idea, "You could always surrender."

Drobna's hands were tied, surrender was never an option orders from earth were clear, any commander who did faced execution.

"These are aliens Blake, they despise us."

"No they despise the federation and with good reason, I'm not keen on it myself."

"The federation is humanity's only hope," Drobna mopped his face with a rag his hand clearly shaking.

"I will never accept that," Taran snorted as Lox looked up with a gleam of excitement in her eyes.

"Force walls back up," she hissed, "Time for us to leave I think."

The two of them headed for the door but the voice of Karl stopped them in their tracks, "No" his blaster was out and primed it was aimed at them both, "We can't abandon our own species this isn't right, we have to stay and fight the enemy."

Blake's reaction was to point at the huge federation logo on the wall, "That's the enemy," he raged, "That's who I'm going to spend my life fighting."

But the blaster didn't waver an inch, "You're under arrest Blake."

With a look of utter disbelief on her face Lox took a step towards the guard, "What are you doing, you're in this with us you hate this place to and him," she waved at Drobna's massive swollen features, "Do you seriously think he won't punish you to, that you won't end up down the mine with us?"

Hesitating and clearly divided Karl flicked his weapon between Lox and Blake, "No closer either of you I know what you're trying to do."

In the event it was another titanic tremor that decided the issue, this time it was the outer wall that fractured and with a deafening hiss the room began to depressurise, Karl was sucked backwards towards the jagged crack.

Blake and Lox grabbed fixtures and held on but air was bleeding away with every second, they had to get out because time was also bleeding away; if they were going to escape it had to be now.

As soon as Karl hit the crack a thick gooey foam appeared spewing into the split to bubble and swell, it was like a mix of glue and cement and was part of the auto-repair system. The viscous polymer was fast setting and smothered everything it touched with an unbreakable film; it began to cover Karl as well as the crack and his screams of terror filled the room.

"Help me," he tried to rip free but couldn't as the expanding slime pinned arms and legs rising up across his torso and neck as if trying to blot him out, the speed of it was incredible as it formed a giant bubble around the sergeant.

Dashing over Blake grabbed the blaster from Karl's fingers, there was only one thing he could think to do and stepping back he said, "Close your eyes," and he fired at the bubble scorching it black and covering it with a filigree of jagged lines, he fired again and the scorch deepened, reddened, smoked and bubbled.

Blake fired a third time and with a disgusting slurp the bubble burst causing Karl to detach from the wall and drop to his knees, instantly the gap left by him was filled with more slime.

Helping Karl up Blake supported him to the door but didn't give him his weapon back, when lost trust was difficult to regain.

"Come on we've got to reach that shuttle," he told Lox but she darted on ahead of the men looking out for guards.

Karl began to walk under his own steam, "Thank you Blake I won't forget this."

No thought Blake I won't either, the betrayal rankled but he didn't say anything as this wasn't the time or place, then Lox was waving them to hide miming the word 'security' and moments later a dozen black suited and helmeted guards appeared clearly looking for them, weapons primed to use, no doubt with orders to shoot on sight. Drobna hadn't wasted any time and it was clear what his promises were worth; he was so typical of federation officers Blake realised duty first and last people didn't really matter.

Then another violent wrench, a quake ten times more violent than anything so far and this time the asteroid did keel off true tossing the guards around like skittles, the escapees were also hurled onto the floor, plaster fell in great chunks, walls crazed over and smoke began to billow from the ventilators in thick dark streams.

One wall split open totally dividing like the jaws of some great shark and through the gap Blake saw gold, bright gold, it was a skin of polished metal almost like glass and unlike anything he'd ever seen before. As the wall split totally apart he saw that an object had crashed into the asteroid burying itself deep into the structure of the prison, a vast mysterious shape elongated and many sided.

His brain couldn't take it in at first, was it a missile; no too big and the wrong shape. It was definitely alien though, Fed ships were all sleek and black with red slashes and ugly rocket ports, evil fins along the spine this was smoother and more rounded, the extended nacelles curved and the whole effect softly elegant almost flimsy.

It didn't look like any battle cruiser he'd seen before and down the near side he saw movement a spiralling ripple as an aperture appeared, an airlock.

"Lox," he grabbed the girl's arm.

"God what is it?"

"An alien ship it has to be, it's ploughed right into us."

"I can see an opening but no aliens coming out it," said the girl shrinking back.

"An opening we could go through," Blake suggested.

"You're mad enter an alien ship there could be anything inside, it could be a trap."

"No Lox this place is the trap," Blake was on his feet, "That could be the way out," reaching the shuttle bay was now impossible, the corridor was bent out of shape and blocked by debris tons of it they'd never shift.

"But it's a wreck Blake," Karl objected, "It crashed so it has no power."

We don't know that thought Taran we don't know anything other than SUFFERANCE seemed to be finished, there was no point staying on the asteroid anyway.

"We have to try," he urged already climbing through the shattered wall, when his hand brushed against the golden skin of the alien ship there was a pulsing light as though the hull were reacting to him, he felt energy enter his flesh, warmth this was no mere lump of metal, it was like the ship was welcoming him in some way.

"This is not a wreck," he muttered, "Maybe we could fly it."

"Blake it's wedged into the prison like a cork in a bottle," Karl was being practical seeing the impossibility of the situation thinking like a federation pilot.

"I wonder," said Blake.

"How could we fly an alien ship; what about the aliens it belongs to," Lox protested then blaster fire made them all cringe down.

More guards with guns a lot more and this time they'd been seen, the eyes behind the tinted visors narrow with determination then Blake saw Drobna the fat man had come in person and he to had a blaster.

"Stay where you are," he barked having regained a measure of his former bombast, working his way to the front of the guards he looked right at Blake and gave a cruel little smile, Blake knew that smile and what it represented.

Mind made up he dove through the gap towards the round alien airlock, faced with no choice his companions followed. Drobna barked one more command then fired but when his shot hit the golden hull it totally dissipated as though absorbed or neutralised in some way.

"Get them," the guards fired but their shots were also absorbed, sucked into the glassy golden hull and then the hull vibrated with a brighter shade of gold like a bulb whose wattage has been increased.

Pausing Blake looked back to see arcs of lightening jump from the ship, huge electrical fingers that touched the guards vaporising them one by one, causing each man to glow for a second then dissolve. He was astounded, what kind of defence system could react like that?

Drobna took cover cringing behind broken metal and masonry, a bully whose bluff had been called. With a triumphant smile Blake leapt into the airlock and the unknown taking the biggest risk of his life so far with no guarantee he'd be any better off.

It was a long golden cylinder symmetrical and egg-shaped, there seemed to be another airlock at the far end but this was closed.

"Come on," he urged his companions, "It seems to be safe."

Both gazed around in awe at the interior of the alien ship, Blake was just wondering how to close the outer airlock door when it spiralled shut in the same odd corkscrew fashion that it had opened.

"We're trapped," said Karl.

"No we're safe," Blake corrected.

Lox was still in awe, "This is amazing it's incredible, this material feels like glass yet its so touch."

"The air's breathable to have you noticed," Blake grinned, "Whoever these aliens are they breathe oxygen like us."

"Yes but we're at war with them Blake," Karl pointed out.

"No the federation is," To Taran it was an important distinction, "Let's see about the inner door," he joined Lox in examining this, circular and smooth it had joins or seams.

The girl cast an expert eye over both door and frame, "I can't see any controls or a door release," she said in obvious frustration.

"Yes its made of the same glass-like alloy as the rest of this thing," he agreed touching the skin of the door and feeling an odd tingling sensation in the meat and bones of his hand, open he thought let us in instantly the door corkscrewed apart rotating and splitting to expose a semi-circular bay beyond with a high vaulted ceiling that gave an odd but not unpleasant glow.

"This is unlike any space ship design I've ever seen," Karl admitted and he had seen plenty as a space trooper, fed war ships were entirely functional and somewhat cramped. This was huge and aesthetically pleasing even exotic as though the crew appreciated beauty.

"It's fantastic," Blake was enthralled and it could be ours for the taking he mused as there was no sign of any crew, no armed reception committee, no auto-defences not even a blaring alarm klaxon.

"I don't see any other doors," Lox observed and she was right, the chamber was cast solid.

"Let's get out Blake," Karl sounded close to panic.

"Into the arms of Drobna," this was one fate Taran would never contemplate, they come this far it would be insane to turn back now.

"Better him than alien monsters."

Lox objected to this term, "Why monsters look how beautiful this is."

"War reports talk of hideous creatures and atrocities; mass murder even the eating of bodies."

Blake had heard these reports to but he had also first-hand how the federation media lied and distorted.

An idea occurred to him and he thought the word bridge at once the chamber began to vibrate to move it was rotating on an axis slowly spinning clockwise. It reacts to my thoughts he realised, "don't panic but I think I can communicate with the ship telepathically."

Both gave him the same pitying look like he was out of his mind but Blake stuck to his guns, "I thought the word open and the door opened then I just thoughts the word bridge and this began to happen."

The slow spin stopped and Lox saw it first a doorway leaving to an even bigger chamber one complete with high-backed seats, flat screen terminals and wall mounted fixtures spheres not boxes as these beings obviously lacked the human fascination with right angles.

Blake led the others only the bridge, its oval forward viewer showing the guts of the prison plus Drobna surrounded by a fresh detachment of guards, the governor was speaking into his collar microphone and his voice echoed across the bridge,

"….crashed into the prison, it's clearly alien but not inert as its weapons are still online. Blake and two others prisoners entered a few minutes ago. I'm requesting an emergency space fleet with shock troops; we must recover this thing and eliminate the prisoners."

The reply when it came was cool, unemotional and female with an unmistakably superior air.

"Understood governor, the fleet has already been despatched; when it arrives you will have plenty of explaining to do such as how a dangerous renegade like Taran Blake escaped custody in the first place and got inside an alien craft when you and your men couldn't."

Turning away in disgust Blake rankled at the 'dangerous renegade' tag, he was free for now but for how much longer, shock troops would blast their way in here and kill anything that moved, time was running out.

"Lox can you make sense of any of these flat screens," he asked, "We must detach this ship from SUFFERANCE before the fleet arrives."

Touching several screens the girl shrugged, there was power, air and lighting but nothing seemed to work.

Karl wheeled on Blake angrily, "Are you mad we have to give ourselves up."

"So Drobna can execute us; use your head our deaths are the only things that will save him," Blake snarled then asked, "How long will it take the fleet to get here?"

"Not long," Lox flopped into a black seat.

"Two hours at most," Karl replied, "And this ship is well and truly stuck."

We need help thought Blake help from a crew member only there didn't seem to be any, then his boot crunched as he stood in something. It was like sand or gravel almost powderised and gold, a whitish gold.

As he looked he saw several other powdery piles on the floor, "What is this stuff debris," he asked seeing no structural damage, he touched the powder, "Curious its warm," he said seeing it turn to slime in his palm and drip through his fingers.

Lox sat back hands on the seat arm rests, "help," she said out loud to no one in particular and a section of wall divided, gliding open to reveal an alcove with subdued lighting within which were several large vertical glass tubes. All but one were empty, in the last was a curious violet liquid and floating upright in this was a body a woman's body.

Crunching more gravel underfoot Blake entered the alcove; she was beautiful he thought, humanoid with long black hair and high cheekbones, the tight fitting one piece garment hugged a superb figure.

If she was an alien then the aliens were far from monsters, this one was young early twenties at a guess unless they aged in a different way.

"A person," Lox sounded astonished, "A normal person."

"Human prisoner maybe," Karl offered.

"No," said Blake, "She's one of them part of the crew."

"How can you be sure," even Lox had her doubts.

"You asked for help and the ship responded."

"Oh come off it Blake aren't you getting carried away," Karl derided, "The ship responded indeed; it's just a machine it doesn't have a mind."

Ignoring this and approaching the liquid filled tube Taran gazed through its glass skin at the girl, beautiful he thought again and instantly the girl's eyes flashed open to gaze back at him bright, alive and intelligent.

He saw hazel and green one moment, blue and tangerine the next, the girl's eyes could change colour like a sunset it was arresting in the extreme.

Then her mouth curled into a smile of pure seduction and Blake heard a glugging, sloshing sound as the liquid in the tube began to bubble, it was draining away he realised the tube was voiding itself.

Once empty the tube rose to free the girl who stood there still gazing at him just him and not his companions, it was like they didn't exist or weren't important. Finding the scrutiny uncomfortable Blake watched the big eyes change colour again darker this time mint green and hazel.

He drew I breath to speak, at once a finger touched his lips stopping him.

Veena the word echoed across his brain what did it mean was it a warning, a greeting, a curse or some code then a second word followed Blake.

Oh of course Veena was her name and she knew his as well Yes he said mentally wondering if Lox and Karl could hear this?

Just you said the mind of Veena for now.

Help us fly this ship Blake said and Veena surprised him again by answering this verbally so that everyone could hear.

"Yes I can fly Starfree," her voice was melodic and bore the trace of laughter

"Starfree," Lox repeated, "Is that the name of your ship?"

Stepping cat-like around Blake the alien girl let her fingers caress his arm from shoulder to hand then taking his hand in hers she led him back onto the bridge saying, "You can learn to fly it to," she said.

Karl was sceptical, "It would takes weeks even months to figure out these systems."

"Unless," said Blake intuitively, "There's a quicker way to learn."

Veena's smile was full of respect, "Tutorial," she said.

"Which is," Lox asked but going over to a low five sided terminal Veena touched this and the top illuminated a wild riot of colours, within the colours were equations, symbols and star charts.

"Place your right hand on the screen," she said, "Tutorial is an instant learning process, data and skills are downloaded instantly into your brain."

"We're not like you," said Karl, "This Tutorial might harm us."

But Blake was resigned, what choice did they have if they wanted to escape, nothing here had harmed them so far and Veena didn't appear hostile quite the reverse she was looking at him like a long lost lover as though they'd known each other for years?

He placed his hand on the screen of colours and at once with no delay e knew how to fly Starfree, what each terminal was for, "My god it works," he said, "You just ask a question and the answer appears in your memory."

Lox tried it next she had a question in her mind, "Of course," she gasped as data appeared on a view-screen, a planet orbiting a twin sun the third of seven, "Your home world," she told Veena, "Saresh," she pronounced and the third planet expanded to fill the screen showing four continents and three vast oceans, it was smaller than earth and less populous but also less spoiled, less polluted.

Saresh was half a galaxy away and a key world in the alien alliance of over fifteen civilizations.

"I can fly this ship now but we're stuck, embedded in tons of rock and metal," Blake told Veena.

"Think the word Demat," he was told.

Demat he repeated in his mind and understood, going at once to a triangular terminal with a green top, "dematerialisation," he said in awe, "We can dematerialise the entire ship and rematerialise it somewhere else."

"Fantastic," Lox beamed.

"But that's scientifically impossible," ever the voice of doubt Karl refused to touch Tutorial or go near it.

"Not for these people," said Blake, "It takes a lot of power which is why it isn't often used, but it's the only way off this asteroid."

"To where," Karl demanded, "Where would we reappear?"

Blake eyed the girl, "Think of a place, a destination, where do you want to go."

"Earth," said Lox then reconsidered, they couldn't go there it was the hub of the federation and they were all wanted prisoners.

"Outer gal," said Karl, "One of the non aligned worlds."

"Why run away," said Blake with the seed of an idea in his mind with Starfree they could go anywhere in a second.

"What choice do we have," said Lox, "We're fugitives."

"Fed security will have orders to shoot on sight," Karl agreed, but Blake was determined.

"They have to find us first," he said, "Not earth and not outer gal, we have to have a purpose, a mission, we can't waste our freedom or this amazing ship."

"Her ship," Karl pointed out, "It belongs to her people Blake not to us."

Acknowledging this Taran locked eyes with the girl his gaze a question because Karl was right this time.

Veena smiled our ship she responded meaning all four of them and Blake smiled back in acceptance.

"Why here," Lox couldn't hide her surprise or disappointment it wasn't what she'd expected?

"Blake are you mad," Karl squinted at the main viewer on which a burnt orange sphere of a planet ringed by defence satellites like big silver spiders could be seen, "We can't stay here?"

But Veena the beautiful gold skinned alien was sat languidly smirking at Blake, "I know why," she spoke verbally in her sing-song voice with its appealing lilt.

"Yes I'm sure you do you've read my mind," Taran agreed as a text box appeared in alien script at first then converting to English giving the size, atmosphere, land masses and population of the planet, an outer colony world once wild and untamed but now a major federation hub and seat of industry.

"Gauda Prime," Karl read, "Its one big military camp a mix of barracks, prison and science lab, they design deep space probes here."

Lox shuddered, "Didn't it used to be a crime planet, bounty hunters and renegades."

Blake nodded, "25 years ago but that lot are all gone now."

Karl said, "That still doesn't explain why we're here."

Uncoiling herself Veena touched a control and a face appeared on another screen, a middle-aged man with thick curly hair, a scar bisecting one of his eyes but you could see he'd once been a handsome man. Lox caught her breath the guy looked a bit like Taran only older and heavy, plus there was that disfigurement a fight injury perhaps.

Taran sighed, "My father Roj Blake died here when I was six months old he was murdered, killed in a trap set by the federation but the man who killed him was one of his friends, a former crew mate."

Touching Blake on the arm with sympathy Lox sighed, "I'm sorry that's terrible but why is that relevant to us now, it was a quarter of a century ago."

Veena changed the picture on screen to show another man with straight dark hair, a thin, more angular face with a sharper nose and cunning eyes.

"This is the man who killed Roj Blake, Kerr Avon," she explained.

"And," Karl still didn't get it, "He'll be elderly now if he's still alive."

"Oh he is," Blake jumped in quickly, "They kept him alive as a kind of trophy, an example to hold up to other would be rebels."

"And you think he's on Gauda Prime," said Lox?

"I know he is," Blake's face was set and hard.

"How do you know, how can you be so sure?"

On a third screen a moving image appeared a video feed, it showed an older, fatter, grey haired Avon sat in a chair with a helmeted guard behind him and Avon was speaking to camera.

"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about killing Blake, I can see it clearly in my mind even now, the look in his eyes, the shock, the blood as I fired, the racing throb of my heart. I knew even as I was doing it that I was being stupid but I couldn't stop myself, it was like I was possessed by this overriding force. I've never lost control like that before or since," the image froze as Blake paused the video glaring hatefully at Avon his eyes on fire.

Kerr Avon the murderer of his father still alive, living a life of restricted luxury on GP guarded around the clock, never allowed to leave but permitted to make a video diary, snippets of which were broadcast across the federated worlds even now.

Avon - a face from the past a memory, a one-time enemy of the federation; the only survivor of the Scorpio rebels, a relic from the Servalan era – yet still alive unlike everyone else from that era.

Taran said, "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about you Kerr Avon and what you did your treachery.

"So that's it," said Lox with a sigh, "Revenge, is that why we're here you've come to get Avon?"

"We'd never get near him," Karl dismissed, "He's in a bunker 2 miles down surrounded by reinforced walls, force fields and fed troops, dozens of sensors, cameras and traps there's no way in or out."

But Lox wasn't interested in any of that, "I thought you had more about you Blake than simple revenge."

"Not just revenge," Taran softened his features, "GP is a major lynch pin in the federation's control of this sector, if we destroy or damage it their influence here will be set back by years."

"So we're the rebels now," Karl scoffed, "Taking over from your dad and his chums?"

"Why not," Blake threw back, "What do you want to do run and hide, for how long and where would we go, how long would it be before they tracked us down even in this ship?"

"Months maybe years," Lox offered, "We can go anywhere even alien space."

But it was clear Blake no interest in alien space or running away, "I didn't break out of one prison just so I could hide in another," he said with feeling, "In a craft like this we can make a difference we can fight back, for the first time in 25 years we can really hurt the federation."

"Your father tried that Blake," Karl cut in, "In the end it did no good it never does, the federation is too big, too rich."

"It's also at war with an enemy it can't beat," Taran circled the bridge of Starfree warming to his theme, "Things are different now the earth administration is scared, its resources depleted, it's never been more vulnerable than it is now. A number of planets have declared independence; more join them every day; the federation is fracturing its too big, too unwieldy."

"So what are we going to do deliver a knockout blow," Karl shook his head at the seeming madness of this, "You're dreaming Blake, you've become lost in your father's vision one that got him and his crew killed."

It was Veena who spoke up next her voice calm and measured, unaffected by the passions and tension of the 3 humans perhaps because she had less at stake.

"Quantum bomb," she indicated a small panel to the left of the bridge and opening this Blake pulled out a shelf, nestled within its own tray was many sided glistening object like a huge crystal, each facet gleaming with a slightly different colour or tint, it was beautiful like a rare treasure and at its heart was a strobing silver light.

Blake approached the mysterious object warily, "a bomb," he questioned, "How powerful is it?"

"Powerful enough," Veena replied with confidence.

"We can't blow up the entire planet," Lox was appalled and Blake shared her horror.

"GP is home to millions of people, not all of them fed soldiers we can't just kill them all."

Serene to the point of boredom Veena explained, "A quantum bomb doesn't kill living tissue it wipes out software, with one blast it will render every computer, sensor and weapons system inert, nobody will die but GP will cease to be effective."

Karl was impressed, "a bomb that only kills technology – fantastic."

"But how do we it get down on the surface, come to that," said Lox, "How do we get there ourselves down without being detected; this ship is after all pretty large?"

Veena activated another screen on which some kind of room appeared containing four raised plinths upon which were transparent tubes each big enough to hold an adult.

"Recently," she said, "The federation has designed a prototype teleport system based on the one used by your father's old ship the Liberator; it isn't perfected yet but it can transfer inert matter into orbit and back again."

"What about living matter like us for example," Lox protested?

"It doesn't work does it," Karl judged, "They tried it and men died, their atoms scattered across space."

"So we can't use it then," Lox concluded.

"Or can we," Blake was studying the alien girl closely; she had brought this subject up for a good reason.

Smiling to herself Veena moved to a terminal she hadn't used before beside it was a raised semi-circular platform upon which were four icons about the size of a man standing in a shoulder width posture.

"It is possible," she said, "For the main computer of this ship to penetrate and adjust the operating system of the federation teleporter, to alter and upgrade it so it can move biological matter."

"You mean," said Blake, "Whilst it won't work for them it will work for us, we can use it to beam down into the heart of the fed complex?"

"Hang on Blake that complex will be bristling with security and guards, how do we deal with them," Lox still wasn't happy.

"Dozens of guards and just four of us," Karl added, "It's still suicidal even with teleport."

"Plus this man Avon is in an even more secure area," Lox looked at Blake appealingly and he understood her objections, on balance it did seem reckless even impossible.

"That's why I'm going alone," he said flatly, "I can't expect any of you to share the risk," he eyed the quantum bomb, "This is a personal crusade, something I have to do."

Karl stood back aghast, "You're willing to die to avenge your father, Blake you're not thinking rationally; you'd be throwing your life away."

For once Lox was in agreement with Karl, "It doesn't make any sense, why die in a suicide mission that has no hope of success?"

"We're free now Blake," Karl parted his hands as if to encompass the whole of space, "We can go anywhere and do anything, who cares about Kerr Avon; let him die in his gilded cage."

"No," Blake almost snarled the word as he looked at the aged greying man in screen a man he had hated all his life, a man who had denied him a father, "It can't be that simple not for him."

Swapping a look of dismay the two humans appealed to Veena, Lox speaking first, "Don't do this, Blake can't go down there."

Karl agreed, "Even with that bomb he'll still be seen, he can't past every fed security guard."

Pausing as if to consider these arguments Veena remained impassive even stoic like she didn't care one way or the other, "I could beam Blake right inside Avon's prison right past all the guards."

Even Taran was rendered speechless dipping his eyes for a moment his fists clenched tightly.

Lox spoke, "And out again could you reverse the beam?"

Veena's silence was ominous and Karl drew his own conclusion, "Obviously not, Blake would have to somehow make his way to the teleport room so it's still a suicide mission."

The ache in his bones was persistent now as was the shortness of breath as age took its toll. Despite access to a gym, a decent diet and regular medical check ups time was catching up on Kerr Avon, and even a brain as brilliant as his couldn't do anything about it.

25 years was an eternity to an enquiring, active, plotting mind and not a day of it had gone by when he hadn't thought of the final shootout, the death of the Scorpio crew one by one, all preceded by his killing of Blake? He could still see Blake's face and hear his voice, not to mention his own strangled cry,

"Did you betray them did you betray me?"

He could still smell the blood that sprayed onto him from each shot; it haunted his dreams awake and asleep.

As he rose from the swivel seat with a groan he found Mica watching him, her ice blue eyes cool and appraising.

"You look tired Avon your speech was below par today."

He'd been making a video log for over two decades, what more was there to say, how much longer would he have to sing for his supper?

"Of course I'm tired Mica, the drab sameness of my environment is hardly conducive to witty repartee."

"We have to keep you safe," said the young woman with closely cropped hair boyish and spiky, her lean body had a good figure that wasn't fully shown off by the two piece fawn uniform of the science division.

"From whom," Avon groaned, "Mythical terrorists, you wiped all them out a long time ago."

"Insurgents are everywhere Avon, disaffected fools who can't see how well off they are under the federation; they see you as a propagandist, a liar, an apologist for the administration."

All of which am thought the old man with a weary sigh, it's all a far cry from the glory days of Saurian Major.

"When was the last time you experimented upon an insurgent Mica," he asked, "Or even met one?"

The smile was calculating, "Nostalgic Avon, pining for old times and old glories?"

"I live in the present moment; the past wasn't all that glorious."

But the girl shook her head unimpressed, "I know you miss it, we scan your dreams remember the implant monitors almost every thought, you despise us now as much as you always did which I understand it's natural but I find it odd you miss Blake after all you didn't exactly admire him."

Avon's relationship with Blake had been fractious to put it mildly; they tolerated each other, two men with a different agenda even if they did have a common enemy.

"Blake believed mankind would only be free when the federation was destroyed," he said sourly, "But mankind has never been free, perhaps freedom itself is largely an illusion."

"Unless you're rich," Mica cut in, "That was always your motivation wasn't it to make a lot of money and buy your immunity," she'd read the psyche evaluation reports compiled over 25 years, almost everything about this man was in them.

"I was misguided to," he admitted, "I failed to see how far and how fast the federation would spread like a cancer, in the end nowhere was safe and no one not even the rich."

Going over to a drinks dispenser he keyed in his order and waited, watching him arms folded Mica recalled the old photos people now long dead Gan, Vila, Tarrant, Dayna, Soolin and of course Roj Blake faces from the past, memories and Avon a living memory the only one left.

"You play your part well Avon that of the old, embittered former rebel but I'm convinced; men like you never give in not totally."

Not rising to that at first Avon tasted the insipid drink, whatever his chose was the same.

"I can do nothing here not monitored every hour of the day and night," he met her gaze, "Unless you believe I can beat the implant and all the scanners."

Not sure what to believe Mica decided to order another check, Avon was a master with computers and he'd followed all recent advances, he had to be thinking of some plan, looking for a weakness a flaw in the prison system.

A buzz in her ear pod drew her away, she found Vestin waiting for her outside the broadcast room, a lanky, fleshless man in the dark blue of security and only one grade down from her.

"Something tripped the fence in area 5 a few minutes ago; it was large and unknown with no transponder code. It wasn't there for long and may be able to mask itself."

A frisson of excitement passed through Mica at the thought of action or some threat, anything to break the monotony.

"Alien," she enquired?

"My first thought but they normally come in a pack this was a single trace."

"No signal now," she asked?

Vestin shook his head, "It just ceased in a way that isn't natural, we're running the new anti-cloaking software but I thought I'd come and tell you."

"Prep interceptors," she decided, "I want a full sub orbital sweep, we can't take any chances."

"You think the aliens would try an attack here with all our defences," Vestin was cynical by nature and overconfident?

"Yes I do, they're getting bolder and GP is an obvious target if they want a bridgehead in this part of the galaxy."

He looked back, "They couldn't be after…well him could they, some sort of rescue attempt?"

On the surface it seemed unlikely Avon was old news and of no interest to the aliens even if they knew who he was and his part in the Star One repulsion.

"Freshen the guards, new faces and new issue pulse guns," Mica took no chances, "I don't intend to be caught napping like those fools on SUFFERANCE."

"Oh yes I've just heard about that," Vestin summoned a wintery smile, "Blake's son who would have thought it, does Avon know?"

No and he wouldn't, it was being kept out of the news feed to quell any propaganda value, the last thing fed needed was the masses getting a new hero to worship and look up to.

Avon noticed the change of the guards at once as the tired jaded troops began to fall out, (how did they stay awake guarding one man) and new sharper steps approached. In the gap Avon took the slim data wafer from his left sleeve, smoothed its gold length and inserted one end into a slot marked 'no access', he smiled he'd had access for several weeks now as he laid his plans.

It had been a mistake to let him use a workshop, study new software developments and keep up with the news for he knew the federation was in crisis, that it was bleeding resources and men in a war it couldn't possibly win, that already outer worlds were breaking away.

Fed had grown too far too fast and it had stirred a hornet's nest, the alien alliance was huge and scientifically more advanced so it was only a matter of time before the earth administration had to sue for peace or face extinction.

Avon's time had come and he was ready to move, as his virus infected the prison system he went to another terminal, 24 hours ago he'd hacked into the external sensors and now they told him interceptors had been launched, a code blue alert meant something in orbit a hostile.

Avon scanned for it but the craft was too well cloaked so he inputted one of his own programs named ironically ORAC and a trace appeared faint but it was there not a fed ship not anything he'd seen before. Could the aliens be attacking GP, if they were then it was even more imperative that he got out of here and soon.

One more thing to do, the tool from the workshop was slim but sharp he had designed it himself. The extra dose of painkillers he'd taken earlier should he enough if they weren't…too bad, he clenched his teeth, mentally took his brain somewhere serene and began to dig into his own flesh. Escape was unrealistic with the implant still inside of him so it had to come out.

Mica found Tufnell waiting for her a worried look on the kid's face, rarely leaving command central he'd acquired the usual pallid, washed out complexion that artificial light gave you.

"The system is going down," these five words made Mica's stomach clench and on screen she saw text decaying, diagrams dissolving and red lights winking, "I think it's a virus and a good one."

"Guards," Mica was already running back to the prison hub; Avon – it had to be, damn the man what was he playing at escape was impossible? Maybe he wanted to die; he'd lost the will to live and wanted to take GP down with him well it wasn't happening not on her watch.

Wrapping his bloody arm in a thick absorbent cloth stolen from sickbay Avon popped more pain killers, it hurt but he'd get over it, his iron discipline would see him through age had not robbed him of everything.

"Don't move," the guard caught him by surprise but was too close too sure of himself, Avon's karate chop caught him just right in the pit of the throat and as the man dropped with a croak the prisoner had a gun. It was slimmer and lighter than he was used to more streamlined and exotic but a gun was a gun and Avon had wielded plenty in his time.

Providence seemed to be on his side, not that cool logical brain believed in such things success was down to planning and timing, you prepared you laid the ground. He found his old instincts returned faster than he would have believed, at once a rush of adrenaline hit him the old excitement; he hadn't felt it in too long the thrill of the chase.

Around him screens died and terminals made sickly electronic burbles of pain, a smile cracked the lean face this was going to work, these fools here weren't as smart as they thought and Mica had underestimated him; oh she was clever but he was Kerr Avon and he'd outsmarting fed before she was born.

A door purred open and this time the tread was softer, "you took your time," said Avon still figuring out the gun settings.

"Only 25 years," said a voice he didn't know and wheeling around he faced a stranger and yet not a stranger, the kid was young but familiar something about the hair, the eyes, that self-assured posture. Not federation not in those leathers and combats, Avon blinked his heart racing instantly he fell back through time.

But no it was impossible; logic denied what his eyes told him.

"Blake," just a croak but it spilled from his lips.

"Blake's son," said Taran as two guns and two men faced each other across the gulf of time.

Avon blinked in astonishment, "Blake had a son," he couldn't believe it?

"With Jenna Stannis my mother, they died when I was still an infant and this couple adopted me people who didn't much care for the federation either, I was brought up on a non-aligned world when such things still existed," Blake noted the unconscious guard and blank screens.

"What's going on Avon," he asked, "Are you escaping?"

Mind reeling Avon forced his synapses back on track, "There isn't much time."

"No for you time just ran out," Taran thumbed the power setting on his stock.

"You're here to kill me," it wasn't a question and Avon even produced a thin smile, "How predictable the son avenges his father."

"You killed my father Avon murdered him in cold blood."

"Cold," the word was examined, "Not that day I wasn't myself."

"Are you claiming it was a mistake an accident," Taran roared?

Avon wasn't sure any more and this was hardly the time or place for such a debate, "Listen boy it won't take fed long to work out what I've done so either kill me or help me," and pocketing his gun Avon went over to a box on the wall, "This will open the right doors, I've spent a year reconfiguring it in secret a circuit a day," it had been tediously slow but essential unless he wanted diagnostic to work out what he was doing, "I have a ship and allies."

Blake was cynical, "Who'd help Kerr Avon now anyway my plan is better, we can teleport out."

Just hearing the word 'teleport' brought back a shock of memories, Avon had worked on Project Aquitar an early doomed attempt at matter transference.

"The ship in orbit, its alien isn't it," he connected the dots?

"Starfree is mine now," said Taran proudly.

Avon had to smile another pretentious name but he was impressed nevertheless a cloaked ship with teleport sounded very appealing.

"I can't see a bracelet, in the old days," he cut himself off things had obviously moved forward, "So let's go."

"Not here we have to reach a teleport bay two levels up, we're piggy-backing on fed technology."

"We," said the old man, "I thought you came here to kill me?"

Yes thought Taran I did it's all I've thought about for years so why am I not doing it, why help this man this murderer was it nostalgia; he killed my dad shot him down like a dog.

"You deserve to die," Blake snarled.

"Perhaps but I don't think so," having met many killers Avon could read the eyes and in this kid's eyes he didn't see the cold fury of an assassin.

Then approaching boots made them both tense up, time had run out and Avon heard Mica's voice giving orders.

"This way," he darted left through an opening having memorised the prison blueprints, there was little else to do in the long evenings and GP only had 3 hours of daylight in summer, not that Avon had seen daylight for 25 years.

Blake was impressed by how fast the old guy could move even with a slight limp, Avon had kept in shape and seemed to know his way around. They reached some stairs and he navigated these with no obvious difficulties, breathing a bit ragged but he didn't slow down.

They had just reached the second set of stairs when a fed guard appeared; not slowing down Avon body checked him, kicked the gun aside and landed a pretty decent punch.

The second guard caught him off balance shoving him into a wall before swinging his blaster in an arc.

Blake checked it mid flow and poleaxed the man.

"Thank you," Avon grunted more embarrassed than hurt, "There was a time," but he didn't get to finish.

A scrum of five guards flanking a woman appeared, too many to fight especially with their weapons primed.

"It's over Avon," the woman declared, "We're purging your little virus and this is as far as you go."

"Hello Mica I hoped I'd get a chance to kill you before I left," said Avon with some of his old bravura.

Mica ignored it, "Taran Blake I believe, we'll be ferrying you back to SUFFERANCE after interrogation have asked a few questions about your new ship."

Two guns against five Blake knew it was hopeless, "I don't think so," he said just before shooting through a high pressure pipe bisecting the left wall, at once steam jetted out in a scorching gush blinding the fed guards.

"Go," he told Avon but the woman Mica was fast and skilled, heading Avon off she pressed a gun into his neck, her short blond hair damp and uniform steam blasted.

"There's no escape for you I'm afraid, remember your implant," she touched a control on her left wrist but nothing happened, no pain, no paralysis, Avon just smiled before taking something from a pocket, a small dark coin.

"Oh you mean this I removed it some time ago," he smirked but the words failed to wipe the cruel glint from Mica's eye.

"What about the beta implant did you get that to," she pressed another button and Avon dropped twisting and grimacing, his eyes ablaze with pain.

"Turn it off," Blake's gun was aimed right at the woman, "No second warning," he added.

"Look behind you Blake," not falling for this Taran kept his gaze on the target, he might be young but he wasn't stupid.

Then he heard the shuffle of boots and a loud click, "Drop it Blake," the trooper was smiling having emerged from a side door away from the steam.

Reluctantly Taran dropped his gun arm with a sense that his hard earned freedom had just come to an abrupt end.

"Such a brave attempt," Mica mocked enjoying the moment, "Now I have a full set Avon and Blake's son, two generations for the price of one."

"I'm not implanted," Taran summoned what defiance he had left which wasn't much.

"You soon will be I'd have done it right away; to be effective pacification must be total."

Typical federation politics Taran thought bitterly then Veena literally materialised through a solid wall emerging like a ghost, her startling appearance froze everyone then she sent the trooper flying with a high kick that impressed Blake no end.

Mica fired but somehow missed her bolt bending around the alien in a way that should have been impossible; Blake slammed his own blaster into the woman's neck knocking her senseless.

"Help me with Avon," he grunted the man was a dead weight.

"Leave me Blake, just get out of here," it took all of Avon's strength to get the words out, "I'll slow you down."

"He's right," Veena agreed.

"We can't just leave him behind," Taran argued.

"I thought you came here to kill him."

Yes thought Blake I did and I still could so why aren't I?

More approaching boots and clicking guns told him time had run out, so did they help Avon or not?

The issue was decided when with a violent spasm Avon fell on his back and stopped breathing his flesh like putty.

"No heart beat," Veena said, "He's dead."

Not sure why Taran felt a current of dismay, the man he'd come to kill was dead and he was sad; how could he grieve for his father's murderer?

"Teleport room," Veena snapped, "Come on Blake," a searing red bolt of blaster fire barely missed Taran snapping him out of his daze. Veena ran and he followed.

24 hours later, medi room alpha; top security.

The heart monitor was slow but steady, respiration shallow but firm, brain activity returning to normal levels.

Rubbing her bruised neck Mica felt the sting to her pride more acutely. Blake and the golden girl had escaped and that would mean a reprimand on her previously unblemished record. Worse interceptors had failed to destroy the alien ship, of ten launched only three had returned with tales of amazing aerial gymnastics and weapons of startling force.

An adjudicator was on the way which meant an enquiry; she was unlikely to come out of it well and might have lost her job where it not for the patient in the bio-bed; losing him would have been a total disaster.

"Still alive," said the federation doctor, "He must have the constitution of an ox," he studied the aquiline face cunning even in repose, "He might even last another 25 years at this rate."