As the lift doors slid open Tarrant shot an arm between them and pushed sideways into the darkened cylinder, twisting to look for the command com. Finding it, he swung toward it, out of Vila's way as the smaller man skidded into the compartment after him. Grabbing for the security rail beside the door, he drove a hand across the override panel.
"Flight deck!—no G limit!"
"Are you crazy?!" Beside him, Vila went to his knees as the lift shot upwards.
"There's no time for it!"
He pulled himself against G‑force to face the forward doors, grimaced as the lift slammed to a halt, and pushed on as the next door slid open. He hung for a moment bracing it wide, squinting in the dim light.
A circular, low‑ceilinged chamber, indirectly lit. A round‑table flight deck, angled to the door. Crew stations spaced in an arc around a recessed oval holotank, pilot's seat raised above the centre of the arc, opposite the segmented forward screen. Two VIP observer seats higher, behind it. Two flying steps in and a third up, to swing himself into the seat.
"Flight computer online!"
"Damaris online," said a disembodied female voice.
Around the circle, screens and telltales lit, and the tank began to glow.
"Give me flight status and forward vision!"
"And some lights!" Vila exclaimed, stumbling behind him to the station at his left.
As lights came up Tarrant scanned the instrumentation. Standard civilian boards. Full power available, but nothing online above life support. Feverishly, he launched into power‑up and preflight checks. One main drive, two auxiliaries, and an orbital booster. Swiftly he checked communications, sensors, and weaponry, power building in the main drive. Antigrav units for ground manouevering. Not ready. Time for a fast correlation of range to life support capacity—barely. Time for more information.
"Damaris, Y‑three‑sixty scan!" The forward viewscreens lit. "Vila, if that's the communications board you've got, try to find ship's frequency!"
"This ship?!" Vila asked.
"No, you idiot, the cruiser! I want to know what they're making of all this!" Behind them the hangar floor was clearing fast, technicians running from the ship under repairs, flight crews toward those fit to lift, blast curtains rolling down into place over the open maintenance shops and across the windows overlooking the deck, under the steady howl of the decompression alarms.
The view slid back to the hangar doors in front of them, orange warning lights beginning to pulse in a band above the huge panels. Seconds, now, before those doors would begin to open. He focused on the readout in front of him, fingers flying through the correlation.
"This isn't communications, it's navs—" Vila scrambled for the next seat in line, as the lift opened again, delivering Soolin with Sethi on her heels. "How the hell do I find an internal frequency?!"
"Scan for transponder signal strength! There won't be anything any closer!" Range to life support ratios were adequate but not outstanding. Clearing them, he returned to the power and antigrav displays.
"Is there anything we can do?" Soolin pushed into the copilot's seat at his right, Orac in her arms, and bent to shove the computer under the edge of the console.
"Hang on," he said. The hangar doors swung slowly into view on the forward screen. "As soon as those doors start to open, we are going—" He hesitated. "Find the weapons board if you can, and start charging the guns. We may need them yet."
At the communications panel, Sethi was helping Vila find ship's frequency; abruptly, the flight deck speakers crackled with a mixture of alarms and blurred crosstalk. "Or maybe not, if we're lucky."
"Things sound confused enough!" Vila shouted above the racket, which dimmed suddenly as Sethi adjusted volume outputs. "I'd say they haven't a clue what's happening!"
"It'll do!" The doors were opening. Tarrant brought the ship smoothly off the deck, rotated it into the launch path and forward. Twenty meters, forty, eighty, into alignment. Waiting, one hand steady on the drive controls, the other driving slowly forward on power, the readouts building towards red‑line overload. Slowly the aperture widened, and with a breath, he drove forward on the controls as well, and the stars opened up around them.
"We're out!" Vila exclaimed. "We've made it!"
"Two‑twenty kilometers extending—as long as they take us for part of the evacuation, you could be right."
Tarrant half rose to activate the navs station at his left. "Computer, give me visual projection of track since launch, showing all other vehicles in a cone of sixty degrees, vector zed270!" The lights dimmed again when the holotank lit, and he sat down, studying the emerging image. Near the front of the tank, the cruiser glowed in red miniature. The courier was a bronze teardrop, speeding away. Sparks of yellow were shooting lifepods, shedding fast from the mid‑decks. Dozens of them, now. Blue and green, the undamaged gunship and three or four of the pursuit ships tumbling away. "Just a few more minutes..."
He dropped back in his seat; looked up, feeling a gentle shudder from the ship's portside stern.
"What was that?" Vila twisted round, gripping the arms of his chair. "Are they firing at us?!"
"No!" He ran a hand fast across the boards, checking systems. "No one's firing at anyone, we're still part of an evacuation—" Trust Vila to lose sight of that. No change in drive or power levels. He glanced at the hologram, saw the smaller, bronze teardrop falling behind them from the port side, towards the receding cruiser. "It's a drop pod!" He drew a breath. "I think we just lost a passenger."
"You mean Servalan?" Soolin stared at him, horrified. "But the hold—Dayna and Avon!" Urgently, she wrenched around and began to push herself up.
"Stay put!" he shouted. "If they weren't clear, it won't help! Check pressurization on that level, it'll tell us if they're still alive—"
"It's pressurized!" she exclaimed. "The hold is pressurized!"
"Then they're all right, don't worry about it!" He ignored her, concentrating on the holotank. "Computer, map local space, maximum limits—"He studied the cloud of stars that sprang into life around the projected ships. The cruiser dimmed to a small red bubble, the courier smaller, lifepods vanishing, as the scale of the projection shrank. "Federated and unFederated worlds, anything." There was nothing near them. A few small lights, flashing against the projected stars. All Federation. None close enough to provide help or reinforcements. Only there, at the extreme left of the screen, a cloud of glowing gas. "Orac! Can you tell where we are? Identify that object at left."
"According to the flight computer, we are at the edge of Sector Four, on a course which will carry us into Sector Five in nine hours, fourteen minutes at present speed. The object to which you refer is the spinward edge of the emission nebula Wei 42, a cloud of high temperature gas, predominately hydrogen, which accounts for its red colouration—"
"All right! That's enough." Tarrant turned to Soolin, still poised on the edge of her seat, her expression worried. "Take control, will you, while I work out a course to take us toward it, lose us against it." The lift doors hissed again, her gaze went past him, and they both turned to see Avon and Dayna emerge.
"What happened?" Soolin asked.
"What do you think happened?! Servalan got away!" Dayna glared at Avon. "We lost her!"
"Which is to say, she lied about the hold not being pressurized, and escaped in a drop pod." Avon crossed to the nearest of the observer seats and dropped heavily into it, breathing hard. "We appear to carry a number of them. Within the hour, she will no doubt be back aboard the cruiser, organizing our pursuit."
"I told you to just let me shoot her!" Dayna caught his shoulder, her expression fierce. "Avon, every time you let her go, it could be our last chance—and I am telling you now that next time, if we ever get that lucky again, I am not waiting!"
"I have no interest in debating it!" He broke free and leaned forward over the arm of his seat, his gaze shifting to Tarrant as the younger man rose."We have our lives, for now, and a ship—and right now, I am a great deal more interested in any ideas you may have, which may help us keep both."
"Start with losing ourselves against the radiation from that nebula." Tarrant turned back to the navigation seat. "Sethi, unless navigation is your strength, I can better use you elsewhere."
"Not a problem. My strength is, in fact, communications." Sethi turned to Vila. "Since that happens to be where you are sitting, let us extend this idea."
"Extend this idea?" Vila stared at him. "You call that communicating?" The other raised an eyebrow, and he sighed. "Oh, all right, I can tell when I'm not wanted." He pulled himself to his feet and circled the holotank to survey the last two vacant stations. "That leaves weaponry here on my left, and—something I'm not sure about."
"Flight engineer," said Soolin, sliding into Tarrant's place.
Avon pulled himself up. "You've seen this type of ship before?"
"A few times, when I was working as a bodyguard. An executive transport with modifications."
"Such as?" He stepped down beside her and pulled Orac from under the console, dragging it clumsily up to the co‑pilot's seat.
"Weaponry and drive." She glanced at the computer. "You'll have to have Orac run a scan, but I wouldn't call more than two of our exterior guns standard, and right now we're running at just under time‑distort was the emergency maximum on the last ship I saw that was anything like this."
"And we can step down to that, now," Tarrant put in. "Or better, time‑distort eight. We passed beyond the most effective sensor range for a cruiser a few seconds ago."
"Does that mean we're clear?" Dayna asked, coming to look over his shoulder.
"Not yet." He shook his head. "We're beyond sensor range as a ship, but until we move into alignment between the cruiser and that nebula, they could still pick us up on long‑range scan as a moving point of light."
"Radiation from our force wall?" He nodded, and she frowned. "We can count on Servalan to look for it."
"Once she gets the chance." He glanced at Sethi, intent on the transmissions tracker, a monitoring headset pressed to his ear. "Section Leader, are you picking up anything that could tell us what's happening?"
"Plenty of confusion, a variety of distress and homing signals. No responses from anywhere yet." Sethi looked up. "Nothing to indicate pods being picked up, or anyone returning. From the speed the signal's moving, they've cut the drives, but they haven't come about yet."
"They wouldn't necessarily," said Avon. "If we're off their screens, their most likely strategy will be to abandon the life capsules and continue on to the nearest Federated planet. They can request support from there."
"I don't see Servalan settling for that," Dayna said grimly.
"It depends on how long it takes her to get back to them, and beyond that, on just how confused things are." Tarrant rocked back in his seat. "Sethi, was that cruiser running at full strength?"
"No. Its normal complement would be seven hundred crew, and there were only five hundred or so aboard."
"Then we're probably clear." He returned to the plot calculations. "You need about four hundred to run a Mark V medium cruiser. If the evacuation involved more than a couple of hundred, they won't have any choice but to retrieve life pods. That'll slow them down by ten to twelve hours at least. Even if we assume Servalan does get back to them in time to order a scan for point radiation, by the time they're able to act on it, we'll have disappeared against the nebula."
"Which opens the question of what we do next," Soolin said.
"Find out what we're working with," said Avon. He lifted Orac from the co‑pilot's seat and circled to set the computer on the console beside the flight engineer's position. "We need to know our limitations." He glanced back across the holotank. "We will also need to know immediately, Sethi, if you pick up anything to suggest that Servalan has been restored to her command. If it happens before we complete the manoeuvres Tarrant has planned, we may have to bargain on this not being a clean escape."
"I understand." Putting on his headset, Sethi flipped a series of switches and adjusted outputs again. "There's nothing, so far."
"Good. " For a moment Avon leaned on the console, then sank into the seat. "Tarrant, how long do we need?"
"At least another half hour. Longer if I try to discuss it now." He punched in confirmation of the preliminary course plot, and checked the map of vectors against power. "I'm still planning those manouevres."
"Then I'll leave you to it." Avon pushed back and considered the monitor in front of him without enthusiasm. "How much more can you tell us, Soolin, from your experience?"
"Not a lot." She hesitated, focused on the helm. "Configurations varied, but we're talking small ships here. The ones I saw had an average range of a thousand lights or six months, best speed standard by seven or eight, maximum passenger load of twenty or so, core crew of ten or eleven. Pilot‑captain, first officer, co‑pilot navigator, flight engineer and aide, primary and relief communications and weaponry officers, medical officer and aide. The rest of it would be reserved either for the owner and guests, or for VIP customers and their attendants."
"Including bodyguards." From the way his tone changed, he had seen something that interested him, "Tarrant, do you still need the holotank projection?"
"No." Tarrant opened the feed from helm to navigation for the completed course plot. "The keypad to your right should let you override."
"Just a minute." Beside him, Sethi raised a hand. "Captain Tarrant, is there any way we can highlight the track of the drop pod?"
"I have a transmission on command sub‑beam. It's beginning to break up, but it's her—" Sethi adjusted pickups, his face intent. "The drop pod has a sub‑beam communicator. She's hailing the cruiser."
"Is there any way we can block the signal?" Avon leaned forward, one hand going to grip the edge of Orac's case. "Orac! Can you do anything with it?"
"No!" the computer snapped. "Not at this range! In any case, my priority is to maintain as much influence as possible over the cruiser's tracking systems as possible, for the very few minutes remaining, that I will be able to do so at all."
"Then the best we can do is listen." Avon glared across the holotank. "Boost it to our main channel!"
Focused on the signal, Sethi didn't look up. "It's breaking up too fast." he said. "She's repeating. Telling them to halt the evacuation, it's a trick, disruption of ship's systems is an illusion, respond, respond—she's got a response, now. Captain Orvall. She's telling him...chaos program, get it stopped." He shook his head. "The signal's gone, now."
"And now they know that we are." Avon pulled himself to his feet, grim‑faced, and started around the holotank towards the com station. "All right! Sethi, open a channel to the cruiser. I want to send them a message."
"A what?" Tarrant lifted his head in surprise, caught the edge of the console and stared at him. "The hell you do! Sethi, don't do it!" He threw out a hand toward the other, no risking so much as a glance to see whether he was obeyed, as Avon turned, eyes cold in the face of this unexpected resistance.
"Avon, we may be down to minutes now, before Servalan orders a scan for us—before they start thinking in terms of any of the ways they could still pick us up. The last thing we need is you giving them a direction to look!"
"It could be well worth the risk!"
"To whom?" Soolin snapped.
"Nobody!" Vila exclaimed. "You think anyone's going to listen to you?!"
"Assuming there's anyone there to listen!" Dayna added.
For a moment, it seemed the chorus of dissent would stop him. The anger in his face faded to surprise, and then to icy calculation, an all too familiar and much more dangerous possession lighting his eyes.
"We can use a satellite relay." He looked back towards Orac. "Orac! How many communications satellites are within range, to which you could direct a message for pickup by the cruiser? Or by any Federation planets in this sector, for that matter?"
"There are twenty‑one which could be accessed within the time required before our next programmed course change."
"In approximately four minutes."
"And in, say, three minutes from now?"
"Eighteen should still be in range."
"Fine. Add them to the tank display. Highlight the pod as well." A scattering of yellow lights appeared at the edges of the projection, and Avon gave Sethi a hard, speculative look. "Now, with the equipment we have, using Orac to boost the signal, would there be any chance of your putting it over the cruiser's internal PA system, as well as directing it in on the command channel?"
"No," Sethi said abstractedly. "That isn't a sub‑beam frequency. We couldn't reach it now, in anything like real time. We'll be out of range on all the subspace frequencies in a few more minutes. I'm checking hyperspace channels now, to see if I can pick up anything on the emergency network."
"That'll do. If we have to, we could still reach them that way."
"Reach them with what? Reach who with what?" Tarrant snapped. "Avon, are you thinking about this at all?"
"It doesn't sound like it!" Dayna moved to face him across Orac's case. "Avon, we've all but got away! It isn't worth risking ourselves for, not now!"
"No kidding," Vila muttered, at her elbow.
"I am thinking about this, more clearly than you could imagine..." Avon straightened and faced them coldly. "I think it can only help us, for every loyal servant of the Federation aboard that cruiser to know, before 'Commissioner Sleer' is picked up, just who she really is, and that in light of her now being a condemned traitor to the Federation, if they do not relieve her of command at once, they must be treated as rogue by any loyal authority." He paused. "A fact to be shared with as many loyal authorities as possible."
"And you'd expect them to believe it?" Tarrant stared at him, appalled. "Coming from you? Would you, under the circumstances?"
Avon's gaze narrowed to him."Perhaps not! But under the circumstances, I would find it too extraordinary a suggestion to be dismissed without investigation, and investigation takes time. Anything that stands to inspire confusion, under the circumstances, I think is worth doing."
"And you might be right, if the whole idea weren't insane!" Tarrant pointed into the tank. "Once you transmit anything from this ship, Avon, anyone listening will be able to triangulate between any two of those stations and place us within a hundred spacials in minutes!"
"By the time they manage it, we will be long gone. By the time they can act on it, we will be untraceable."
"You don't know that!"
"Make that course correction, Tarrant, and it will not be an issue." Avon drew back, his expression lightening. "Assuming a compressed thirty‑second transmission, it will take more than half a minute for even a perceptive monitor to realize that tracing our signal might be useful, and then at least two such monitors will have to make contact, even to consider the necessary calculations."
"And if you cannot do better than that, I submit there is no reasonable objection."
"Except that they'll still know where to start looking!" he snapped. "It's a risk we don't need!"
"I agree," said Soolin.
"That's for damned sure!" Vila jerked a thumb in Tarrant's direction, as Avon's gaze swung to him. "I'm with him on this one! As are we all, I think," he added, glancing up at Dayna.
"And as a question of risk, this may be academic," Sethi said abruptly. Pulling off his headset, he came out of his seat. "We have another problem. There's just been a transmission on the emergency channel from the cruiser to all escape pods, ordering them to trigger their impact transmitters and apply whatever braking force they can—"
"Getting ready for a tractor sweep of the area," Tarrant said. "That isn't a problem for us."
"—and we have been transmitting our own tracking signal on that channel, since launch." The dark face was sober. "Our transponder signal."
"The galactic positioning network!"
Sethi nodded. "Yes."
"We've got to get it stopped!" Tarrant spun to check the secondary helm readout. Only a glowing telltale and a frequency. The standard display. "That means finding it."
"Where's it controlled from?" Dayna asked. She went to scan the engineering board, backed up as Avon moved to reclaim his seat, and turned to the weaponry station beside it. "I don't see anything here, that looks likely."
"It won't be on the console." He bent to look for access panels on the supporting column. "It isn't something you control, it's automatic."
"A mandatory element in Federation spaceship design," Avon put in. He punched at the keyboard in front of him. "If you're within their sphere of influence, they want to know where you are." He stopped. "I can't trace it from here. All right! Orac, scan for the transponder location, and highlight it on ship's plans. Then shut it down."
"Not feasible!" For a fraction of a second, Orac hesitated. "The unit is located on this level, in the secured compartment immediately to your right if you proceed through the lock between the flight deck and the rest of the main deck—"
"That's good enough!" Tarrant said sharply. A glance at Sethi, and the man pulled his sidearm and ran for the door. He hesitated, watching the image shift in the tank. A portion of the inner wall of the compartment begin to flash red."Vila, that toolkit of yours, if you don't mind—"
"And just why is it not feasible?!" Avon stared at the computer. "Orac! Since when has it been a problem for you to suppress any kind of electronic transmission?!"
"The transponder circuitry is too primitive to be controlled short of burning it out! This would damage elements of the ship's navigation system located adjacent to it in the compartment. It would be highly preferable for you to disable this equipment mechanically, which it should be possible to do without destroying its ability to receive signals from the network. This would allow you to determine the position of other vessels without communicating our own—"
"We know!" Tarrant stretched to catch the toolkit, as Vila pulled it, fumbling, from the front of his overall and rose to throw it to him. An energy bolt cracked in the corridor beyond the lock, and he turned and ran. "Just do whatever you can to throw off their tracking, until we can get it stopped!"