Vila stood in front of the star map on the screen above him and folded his arms, studying the display quizzically.
"So what exactly is on Galba Proxima, then?"
Blake seemed intent on making adjustments to his flight panel and didn't bother to look up to answer. "It's a communications centre for the Federation. I thought I told you that."
Vila pulled a face. "Another one? Wasn't Centero enough for you?"
Jenna looked up from her controls and shot him a look. "The Federation have communications centres everywhere, Vila. Blowing up one only effects that sector."
Gan stepped down from his control position and moved across to join the blonde girl, studying what she was doing. The big man looked and talked slow sometimes but he was a fast learner, and had rapidly picked up a lot of the Liberator's basic flight functions simply by watching the others. He nodded in agreement with what she'd said. "And the Federation controls a lot of sectors!"
"You're telling me," the diminutive thief muttered. "But do we have to blow them all up?"
"If necessary," murmured Blake, rubbing his face with his hands wearily. Suddenly he felt very tired.
"I was afraid you'd say that," Vila complained.
Gan moved across to join him, grinned and slapped him across the back. "Then why ask?"
"I'm naturally inquisitive," he replied, wincing at the force of the friendly blow.
"That's not always a healthy way to be," warned Jenna.
"You're telling me..." Vila winced at the memory of another blow, one he'd suffered long before he'd become a member of this crew. His pained expression turned into a sly leer at why he'd earned that blow. "Did I ever tell you about the time I sneaked into the girls' section of the first - no, I tell a lie, second correction facility they sent me to?"
Gan chuckled. "Vila..."
Jenna glowered at him. "What did they say they arrested you for? I thought you were a thief, not a deviant!"
The thief beamed. "You name it, I've been arrested for it!"
"The one thing they certainly cannot arrest you for, and that is for your intelligence."
They all turned to face the new arrival on the flight deck. By now they were used to Avon's almost perpetual sour mood and cynical asides, but this time the man had outdone himself in looking grim. He stalked into the room and glared at his companions, saving a particularly withering look for Blake, who still stood with his face in his hands at his flight station.
"Then, low intelligence seems to be contagious at the moment. Even I appear to have succumbed. I certainly should have known better than to allow myself to be led into an alien laboratory and then stand by idly by and watch its contents splashed across the walls."
"What's eating you?" Vila frowned. It wasn't like Avon to put himself down. His own ego would kill him if he tried.
Avon swung round to face him, and Vila was struck by how pale the man looked.
"Eating me is possibly the right description..." Avon slowly raised his hands up and they all gasped.
They were covered in a glistening, scaly red rash.
"What is it?" hissed Jenna, horrified.
"Is it contagious?" squawked Vila, hiding behind Gan.
Avon swung round accusingly to face Blake. "Something released in that lab your friends the Decimas smashed up, Blake..."
Jenna couldn't believe it. "But that was days ago. It can't be that."
Avon turned on her. "Oh but it is! I've run tests on myself in the medical centre, and all the evidence points back towards that laboratory. A slow developing alien virus, probably something Saymon was cooking up to carry out his genocide of the Decimas." He turned to face Blake again. "Congratulations, you've probably achieved something I'd vowed you'd never do. And that's kill me!" he hissed.
"You're over-reacting," snapped Jenna.
Blake finally looked up, removing his hands from his face in the process. "No, he's possibly right," he said slowly.
"I usually am," he breathed, but his face altered slightly when he took the other man's appearance in.
The rash was on Blake's face as well.
"I might have killed both of us," he said deliberately.
The Liberator had magnificent facilities; or rather, they looked magnificent. The trouble was, its new crew was still finding their way round the ship and hadn't yet figured everything out. Including its infirmary.
Cally was doing her best to understand it, but her medical knowledge was restricted to wounds and injuries received in the field, during combat situations. The gleaming alien technology the Liberator's medical bay contained was largely beyond her comprehension, even with the assistance of Zen, the ship's computer, to describe what she was looking at.
But try telling her shipmates that.
Jenna in particular wasn't happy, but then Jenna hadn't been happy since Blake had teleported her on board from Saurian Major anyway. Cally could guess her reasons for disliking her, but didn't dare raise them. After being possessed by the Lost and forced to sabotage the ship, she didn't blame any of the others for distrusting her. But it went a little deeper with Jenna.
They'd taken Blake and Avon to the medical unit where they were both now resting, and with Zen's help and Avon's earlier research, had been able to identify the disease, and better still, work out a cure.
Except there was one problem. A very big problem.
Which was why Avon was so worried.
And Jenna too.
"What do you mean, we can't cure them here?" Jenna demanded to know. They were both standing in the corridor outside the infirmary. Jenna's face was set, hostile, and was matched by her tone of voice. Cally tried to be conciliatory.
"I mean, we cannot cure them here with what we have. The equipment has identified the cause of the virus, and has worked out a cure, but..."
"We do not have the necessary supplies to create a vaccine."
Jenna folded her arms. "Why not?" she demanded, almost accusingly.
Cally shrugged, baffled as much by the girl's hostile attitude as anything else. "I do not know. Perhaps the people who owned this ship did not feel the need for such supplies. Nor the use of them."
Jenna frowned. "Then we'd better come up with some, hadn't we?"
She pushed past Cally and started back towards the flight deck.
The blonde girl paused and turned round reluctantly, her expression bordering on the contemptuous.
"Why do you not trust me?"
Jenna blinked for a moment, then replied quietly: "I have my reasons."
"Is it because I am an alien?"
Jenna sighed heavily. "I've worked with aliens before. I'm no speciest, Cally."
"Why, then? Because of what happened before?" Cally stepped closer. "The Lost took possession of your mind too..." she reminded gently.
"It's not that either," she said coldly. "Just drop it, will you?"
Cally reached out and took her arm. "Jenna, if it's because of Blake..."
Cally hesitated. "I'm not your rival, Jenna."
"I don't know what you mean," she said stiffly.
"I can... sense, certain feelings in you... towards Blake..."
Jenna slapped her hand away angrily. "You can stop doing that for a start!" she hissed. "Just stay out of my head!" She stormed past, pushing the other woman roughly aside.
Cally grimaced. She thought she understood now...
"According to Zen, those are the closest inhabited planets in this sector..."
Jenna studied the star map Gan had called up carefully. "I know this sector," she said slowly. "We used to make runs through it sometimes. It's a bit of a backwater, no major colonies."
"That's not going to be much use then," said Vila.
"No, it's exactly what we need... very little Federation activity here. Speaking of which, what's the status of those pursuit ships?"
Gan shook his head. "Long gone. I don't think they'll be back on our trail today."
"Good. In that case, I think we'll go there..." She pointed up to one of the planets on the display.
"What's there?" asked Vila.
"That's Alden. A small mining colony. Well, ex-mining, really. The ore stream all but ran out a century ago."
Cally appeared on the flight deck and came across to join them. "There are still people there?"
Jenna didn't bother to turn round. "There were when I was last there a year or so ago."
"You've been there before?"
"We used to use it as a stop-over sometimes on our trading runs."
"Trading!" chortled Vila. Jenna shot him a black look.
"It's a quiet place... used now by a lot of deep-space merchants and freighter crews as a stop-over before going out deep."
"But will it have what we need?" asked Cally.
"It has a trading post that should meet our requirements... Zen, lay in a course, standard by six."
The computer hummed briefly. "Confirmed."
"Good." Jenna turned around. "We'll be there in fifteen minutes. Gan, get kited up and meet me in the teleport bay."
"Right," he nodded, and moved off.
Cally stepped forward. "Let me go with you."
Jenna glared at her coldly. "No. I want someone I can trust. You can operate the teleport. Vila, keep an eye on things up here. If you have any serious trouble, Blake and Avon should be able to assist from the infirmary. They're not too far gone - yet."
With a final dark glance at Cally, she set off after Gan, Cally watching her go with a heavy expression. Vila noticed her sombre face and put on a friendly smile.
"Don't worry about it. She's just on edge, that's all."
"She doesn't like me, let alone trust me."
Vila shrugged. "She never liked me to begin with. And anyway, trust is a hard thing to come by these days, especially in our position."
Cally frowned. "In our position, it is more important that we trust and like each other. We will not survive if we do not."
"Huh, tell that to Avon," Vila muttered.
"Avon knows that too. He has a measure of like and trust in us all."
"He's got a funny way of showing it!" Vila's grin broadened, and he slipped an arm round her shoulders. "For what it's worth, I liked and trusted you from the moment I saw you!"
Cally looked at him dubiously. "Thank you," she said neutrally and carefully removed his arm. "I'd better get down to the teleport bay."
She left the room. Vila shook his head. "Women!" He turned to face the computer display. "At least you like and trust me, eh Zen? Zen?"
There was no response.
"Computers!" he muttered disgustedly.
Alden was nothing much to look at. Bleak was the best way to describe it; a thin sleaty drizzle leaked from the dark grey sky above, turning the thin layer of grit covering the surface into a sticky slush. Tall outcrops and hills of dark granite studded the landscape, with scattered outcrops of wizened scrubby vegetation here and there. The air was cold and thick with the oily, burnt smell of over-worked and under-maintained machinery. Some of the mining equipment still operated, and Jenna and Gan could feel a distant thud-thud-thud of something beating at the ground beneath their feet.
Jenna shivered, feeling the chill even beneath her heated overcoat. She'd forgot how horrible the planet was. "What a place... Cygnus Alpha couldn't have been any worse than this!"
Gan raised an eyebrow. Jenna had been lucky enough to avoid a trip to the surface of the notorious penal colony. He hadn't been there long, but the place still gave him nightmares. "It was, believe me."
Just beyond the settlement itself was the landing field, where a variety of shuttle craft and planet hoppers sat soaking up the rain. They were mainly battered and scarred old hulks, obsolete by decades, but just looking at them gave Jenna a pang of nostalgia for her old smuggling days.
The settlement was little better than the rest of the planet. Low concrete blockhouses, uniformly ugly, weathered and pitted by the elements. Not many people were in evidence in its streets, and those that were were wrapped heavily against the elements, indistinguishable as individuals beneath their heavy hooded cloaks. Jenna doubted they'd get any trouble here, but all the same, it paid to be careful. There was likely to be a small police presence, and it wasn't inconceivable that word of the Liberator had filtered through even this far out. Better to get what they needed and get out fast before they attracted attention.
She tapped Gan's arm and pointed towards a building at the far end of the street. "That's the trading post... we should be able to get what we need there." She started down the street, and Gan followed.
"Right." Gan fiddled with the weapon in his belt. "Did you say the Federation didn't have much of a presence here?"
"Not last time I was here, no." She noticed his fidgeting and smiled. "Don't worry, I don't think you'll have to use that." She was aware that the limiter implanted in Gan's skull made combat difficult for him, but he seemed capable of reacting well enough in self-defence. As Jenna wasn't looking to pick a fight, that suited her perfectly.
"I hope not! With my limiter, well... perhaps you should have come down with Cally."
She shot him a look. "No... I'd prefer to rely on you. I know you won't let me down."
"Neither would she. You know, Cally's all right really." Gan had spotted the animosity between the two women as well - most of it on Jenna's part.
"Maybe," Jenna muttered. "Let's just drop it for now, shall we?"
Jenna quickened her pace towards the trading post, Gan trailing in her wake, shaking his head slightly.
The trading post was the largest building in the colony, with levels underground as well, mainly for storage. The ground floor was like a large open market, with stalls and booths. It was surprisingly crowded, with a lot of people who clearly weren't inhabitants of the settlement, either traders or long-haul riggers along to stretch their legs and stock up on a few tawdry 'luxury' items to help while away the boredom of hyperspace.
Gan touched Jenna's arm and nodded warningly to a couple of men strolling languidly through the stalls. They were dressed in the standard black coveralls of Federation security troopers, but their heads were bare and their weapons were slung loosely over their shoulders. Both men were heavily bearded and looked shabby and unkempt, their uniforms grimy and badly ordered. Hardly the cream of the security forces. Jenna shook her head.
"I don't think they'll be a problem. But it won't hurt to stay alert."
Jenna began to move from stall to stall, checking the wares on display for what she needed. She'd memorised the list Zen had produced, mainly a few basic chemical compounds that shouldn't be too difficult to pick up anywhere.
She froze suddenly. "Gan..." she breathed.
"What is it?"
She turned away suddenly. "That man over there..." she hissed. "In the red tunic."
Gan glanced nonchalantly over her shoulder at a tall, well-built man in his early thirties who was chatting with someone a few stalls down from where they were. He had close-cropped dark hair and sly, cunning features, the sort you took an instant dislike too.
"Who is he?" he whispered.
"Tye Solmer... he was the security prefect here the last time I paid a visit." She noticed a silver Federation badge pinned to the front of his tunic. "Looks like he still is..."
"Is that bad news?"
"Possibly... he's a slimy sort, would sell his own grandmother out if he thought he'd make a good profit. The smugglers used to pay him off sometimes to look the other way, but even then you couldn't trust him."
"Does he know you?"
Jenna looked uncomfortable. "We had an... agreement, once. I just hope he's forgotten!"
"He's coming over," Gan hissed. Sure enough, the man finished talking and started making his way along the aisle.
"Quick..." Jenna turned to walk away but her passage was impeded by another traveller who stepped into her path, just long enough for the man to catch sight of her. He frowned, and raised a hand.
"Hey!" he called. Jenna froze, Gan stopping beside her. She turned slowly around as he approached.
"Don't I know you?" he asked.
"I don't think so... excuse me."
Jenna moved to go past but the man stepped into her path. "I'm sure I do... I never forget a face," he grinned. "Especially a face like yours!"
"I get mistaken for a lot of people..." she began, desperately thinking what to say. She cursed her ill-fortune. This was the last thing she expected.
He snapped his fingers. "Jenna Stannis!" he declared loudly. "Of course! You were, er, trading out in this sector a year or so back, weren't you?"
"About then, yes."
"Of course... I remember you now." A slow smile spread across his face. "Remember me? Tye Solmer." He held out a hand for her take. She preferred to fold her arms, but forced a smile onto her face.
"Solmer, yes... I remember. The security prefect still?"
Solmer shrugged. "Yeah, afraid so... can't seem to get the right transfer anywhere!" he laughed. "What are you up to?"
Jenna sensed more than just a friendly enquiry behind his words. "Oh, just drifting through... got business in the next sector. Just picking up a few things for the journey."
"Staying long? I mean, if you've time, I'd love to catch up on old times, eh?" he grinned hopefully.
"Sorry, but, things to do, places to visit... you know?"
Solmer nodded knowingly. "Yeah, I know... you liked to keep, er, busy, as I recall! Well, if you do change your mind, my office is on the other side of town. Pay me a visit before you go!"
"If I've time, sure..."
Solmer suddenly raised his wrist to look at his watch. "Talking of time... I must go. See you around, I hope!"
"Yeah... see you."
The prefect hurried away. Jenna frowned.
"That wasn't too bad," remarked Gan.
Jenna shook her head. "No, that was too easy. Come on, the sooner we get what we need and get out, the better - I wouldn't trust Solmer as far as I could throw him."
They eventually found a stall near the back of the building that sold the compounds they needed, and Jenna made sure they bought plenty, just in case the disease was infectious. Gan stowed the package inside his coat and raised his bracelet to communicate with the ship, but Jenna stopped him.
"Not in here... we'll attract too much attention. Let's get outside."
Gan nodded, and they hurried towards the exit and out into the cold again. They moved round to the side of the building, out of sight from the rest of the street, and ducked behind the rubbish heaped outside it.
Jenna was about to raise her bracelet to call for teleport when a loud voice rang out:
They looked up sharply. Solmer stood in the street just outside the building, backed by three armed guards. He stepped forward, raising a weapon of his own. "So much as breath wrong, and I'll blow you apart! Stand up straight, both of you! Hands in the air!"
The pair exchanged a wary glance. They knew the teleport was quick, but at this range, the guards' wouldn't miss. All the Liberator would get would be a couple of corpses. Jenna nodded slightly to Gan and raised her arms; he followed suit.
Solmer nodded to one of the guards. "Get their weapons... search 'em both!"
The guard relieved them of their handguns and patted them down. He found the package of chemicals in Gan's coat and tossed them to Solmer, who weighed them in his hand.
Jenna shifted uneasily. "Not the sort you're thinking... they're harmless chemical compounds, we need them for some sick crew-mates."
Solmer smiled evilly. "Would that be Roj Blake, or one of your other terrorist friends?"
Jenna shook her head. "I don't know what you mean."
Solmer stepped in closer. "Yes you do..." He pulled a glossy sheet from inside his tunic. "Got this communiqué last week... from the office of the Supreme Commander herself." He paused. "Do you know, I think this is the first top priority signal this planet has ever received." He shook his head. "Anyway, it gives the details of about half a dozen criminals who affected a rather daring escape from a Federation penal colony, and who are now causing the Federation considerable irritation through some rather pointless acts of random sabotage. Very surprising!" He grinned. "But what surprises me the most, is that your name is on that list - Jenna Stannis, political agitator! Well, well..." he chuckled.
Jenna glared at him. "And I suppose you're aiming to collect the reward on our heads."
He nodded smugly. "Correct. Quite a reward it is too! Might even get me off this miserable rock..."
Jenna shot a look at Gan, then licked her lips and stepped forward. The guard opposite raised his weapon, but Solmer motioned him back, eyeing Jenna arrogantly.
"Why don't we... come to an arrangement?" she asked softly.
"Arrangement?" Solmer replied innocently. "Why Jenna, are you trying to bribe me?"
"We, er, had an arrangement in the past..." she murmured coyly.
"Oh yes..." the prefect purred. "I remember that well..."
"I thought you might," Jenna smiled. "I recall you found that arrangement... satisfactory."
He smiled. "I did..." His smile faded a little. "Though I got the impression you found it less so."
"When it comes to survival, Solmer, like and dislike doesn't enter into a choice like that." She shot another look at Gan. "I'll do whatever it takes to live - and be free." She smiled ruefully. "Besides, I'm surprised that worries you... a man in your position."
"You'd be surprised what worries me, my dear," he stated, and then shook his head. "No, I don't think that arrangement will suffice this time. This is worth a lot, lot more."
"Then how about we make another deal?" she said abruptly.
"You're hardly in a position to bargain, Jenna!" he laughed. "I hold all the cards..." He looked her up and down lasciviously. "And I can make whatever arrangements with you I see fit..."
"I can make things a lot easier for you..." She stepped closer still. Solmer regarded her warily, but didn't back away. His mistake. She was almost within striking range. Gan was close to the other guard too, and if they could keep the pair of them between them and the other guards long enough to get their weapons, they had a chance... a slim chance.
"I can get you on the ship. You and your men. Capture it intact. Now, wouldn't that be worth something?"
"Betray your friends?" scoffed Solmer. "Come on..."
"Friends?" laughed Jenna. "Like you say, they're just a bunch of terrorists. I'm just along for the ride, Solmer. Politics never interested me, and I have to say," and she looked across at Gan, "I don't much like the company he keeps..."
Gan stepped forward warningly. "Jenna!" he snapped. The guard responded by poking him none-too gently in the ribs with his gun. Gan backed up slightly, but he was now closer still to the guard.
"And what do you want in return for this betrayal, Jenna?"
"What else?" she shrugged. "You let me go."
"Just like that?" he smiled.
Jenna grinned. "How about it?"
"Hmmm..." Solmer tapped his chin. "I don't know..." He looked at the package of chemicals in his hand. "Presuming some of your, er, associates, are ill, then they'll be needing this quite badly soon... and therefore, will be quite prepared to make a deal. According to my terms, of course."
"Of course," said Jenna dryly.
He stepped forward and stroked Jenna's cheek gently with one gloved hand. "Which means, I don't need to make a deal with you."
"I was afraid you'd reach that conclusion," she murmured, and suddenly stepped forward and swung her knee up into his groin, reaching up to grasp his shoulders and pull him towards her as she did so. The knee struck home powerfully and Solmer folded with an explosive gasp across her, sending them both staggering back, but in doing so, he shielded her from the two troopers behind him.
The other guard swung round instinctively, and Gan jumped forward and grappled with him, swinging him round as a shield as well. With a yell the big man ran forward, lifting the trooper off the ground like a doll, and flung him into his two comrades, who were gaping uncertainly at the scene that was unfolding. All three collapsed to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.
Jenna pitched Solmer, practically paralysed with the agony of Jenna's blow aside, but their feet tangled and she fell to the floor. Gan rushed to her aid, stooping to help her up, just as one of the guards on the floor freed his weapon arm and fired a wild shot. The blast nicked Gan's shoulder, sending him tumbling backwards, and the guard struggled to his feet to get a better shot. Jenna saw what was happening, snatched Solmer's weapon up and fired. The guard flew backwards, smoke pouring from the front of his uniform. He was dead before he struck the ground. Jenna swung the weapon round to cover the other two struggling to get to their feet, who froze. She struggled to her feet, keeping the weapon trained on them. "Throw your weapons away!" she shouted. Meekly, they complied, tossing them down the street, and remained on their knees. Jenna risked a quick look behind her at her friend.
"Gan, are you all right?"
The big man rose shakily to his feet, clutching his wounded arm. "Just a nick," he growled. "I'll survive."
"Get the drugs, and then get Cally to teleport us up."
"Right." Gan snatched up the package and painfully raised his arm up to speak. "Cally, get us up!"
Solmer lay slumped on the floor, breathing in sharp ragged gasps. The pain was excruciating, but the prospect of Jenna escaping galvanised his resolve. First he had to get his gun back...
With a wild cry Solmer suddenly hurtled upwards, grappling for Jenna's gun. His fingers clutched at her wrists and they both tumbled backwards, struggling wildly.
Somehow dislodged by either the force of the blow or Solmer's groping fingers, Jenna's teleport bracelet snapped loose and clattered to the ground - a split second before Gan shimmered, and faded into thin air.
"No!" screamed Jenna. With a supreme effort she jammed a foot into her attackers' midriff and fell backwards, using the impetus to kick Solmer over her head to crash heavily into a pile of crates behind them, Jenna rolled over and started to crawl towards where the bracelet lay.
Too late. The other two guards jumped to their feet and started to run towards her. The bracelet was in between them and her, and the gap was too large. They'd have her before she had time to raise it to her lips. And Solmer had been able to tear the gun free from her grasp. Flight was the only option now.
She leapt up, turned and sprinted in the other direction. Behind her, Solmer was cursing and lashing about in the middle of the wreckage he was lying in. The guards came over to help but he furiously waved them back.
"Get her!" he screamed. "Get her!"
Cally hastily operated the teleport control again but still Jenna didn't materialise. "Where is she?" she hissed.
Gan slumped into a seat opposite the teleport controls and winced as he jogged his wounded arm. "I thought she was right behind me. She must have lost her bracelet in the fight." He started to struggle to his feet again. "I'll go back..."
"No," Cally jumped up instead. "Put me down there. You're in no shape for it."
"You're sure?" Gan gasped.
"Do it!" she cried.
Gan groped across for the operating control.
Jenna sprinted between the buildings, boots slipping and sliding perilously in the damp dirt. Just beyond in the distance below a steep rise was a low tangled scrub of gnarled trees and bushes - good cover. If she could get to that and hide, it would give the others on the Liberator time to come down and find her.
An energy bolt slammed into the wall behind her, and she ducked and ran on, dodging behind a corner. Voices yelled. If the others had a chance to, that was. There was a lot of open ground between there and the scrub, and the guards were closing in fast. If she hadn't lost that gun in the fight, she might have been able to hold them off.
Another blast smacked the ground beside her and she got up and ran as fast as she could, zig-zagging to avoid the shots that dogged her flight.
Solmer watched her running, his face contorted into a mask of rage. The pain in his groin had dulled to a throbbing ache, but it wasn't so much the pain that angered him - it was the humiliation. He was going to show her what pain and humiliation really meant when he got hold of her, oh yes...
He started to run after her.
Jenna hurtled down the incline, arms outstretched to keep her balance as she scrambled precariously down through the grimy slush. One false step would send her tumbling down end over end, to the bottom, with the likely result of being a broken limb. Then she really would be finished.
She managed to keep her footing up until nearly the base of the bank, then her ankle turned on a loose rock and she went sprawling, rolling the rest of the way to the bottom. She staggered to her feet, spitting out a mouthful of dirt, dazed, ankle throbbing. She put her weight on it and nearly sank back to the floor again, grimacing with pain. It wasn't broken, but it felt twisted, and this situation it was the next worst thing.
But she wasn't going to give up. Picking herself up she started to hobble furiously towards the vegetation.
A voice shrieked loud, but she didn't hear it with her ears; she heard it in her head.
JENNA, GET DOWN!
Jenna flung herself flat, the energy bolt aimed at her back narrowly missing to strike the bush in front of her with a horrible cracking sound. Rolling over, she saw a figure silhouetted at the top of the rise, weapon raised. Solmer! But even from here she could see the surprise etched across his face at the swiftness of her actions.
Then there was high, buzzing report of another weapon, and Solmer was flung forward, bouncing bonelessly down the bank to land in a twisted heap at the bottom, smoke pouring from the wound in his back. The look of surprise was still on his face even after he was dead.
Jenna staggered forward towards him, and looked up to hear - properly hear this time - a familiar voice cry her name.
"Jenna!" Cally waved and began to scramble down the slope towards her, weapon in hand.
Jenna half raised a hand in recognition - then froze. She dropped to her knees and scrabbled for Solmer's gun, half-hidden beneath his corpse. She tugged it free and levelled it up the slope - towards Cally.
Cally saw the direction the weapon was pointing in, smile fading from her face to be replaced by a look of horror. What was she... she wouldn't! She tried to scramble backwards but the loose surface made it impossible and she tumbled ever closer to the levelled weapon, the muzzle getting wider and wider the closer she came...
Jenna squeezed the trigger. Cally flinched at the blast - which went past her to strike a different target. With a choking scream, the trooper that had appeared at the top of the rise, weapon trained at Cally's back, pitched forward and tumbled down the slope, dead.
Cally scrambled to halt beside the dishevelled blonde girl, breathing hard.
"Thank you," she said.
"Thank you," gasped Jenna, half-smiling. "Can we go home now?"
Cally grinned and passed her a teleport bracelet. "Why not? Gan, bring us back."
"The vaccine is working well... both Blake and Avon should be back to normal in a few hours," declared Cally happily to the flight deck.
"Hooray," said Vila cynically. "Then I suppose we can go back to blowing things up!"
Gan winked at Jenna, who was back at the pilots' controls, setting the course for Galba Proxima again. She'd cleaned herself up and changed and applied one of the Liberator's miracle devices to her damaged ankle. Now she was good as new again. "Cause for celebration, don't you think?" he asked lightly.
Vila perked up at that. "Celebration?"
Jenna smiled. "Why not? I could certainly do with a drink!"
"Coming right up!" Vila practically ran from the flight deck.
"He can move fast when he wants to," said Cally.
"Mmmm... usually only when his life is in danger, or there's a drink to be had!"
They laughed, Gan's laughter turning to a wince as he felt his shoulder. Cally came over to him, concerned.
"Is it still troubling you?"
Gan had patched himself up too, but he was still feeling it a little. "A bit... it's nothing serious. A bit of rest is all I need."
"Well, you've got a few hours... why not make the most of them?" said Jenna.
"You're okay?" he asked.
Jenna exchanged a glance with Cally. "Perfectly. We'll manage, won't we Cally?"
Cally smiled gently. "I think so."
"All right then... wake me when we get to Galba Proxima."
Gan left, leaving the two women alone. Neither spoke for a moment, then Jenna broke the silence.
"Thanks for coming back for me on Alden."
Cally shrugged. "You'd have done the same for me."
Jenna looked at her guiltily. "Do you think so? Listen, back on Centero, I..."
Cally shook her head. "I know why you did not come back for me on Centero immediately. It would have been suicide to have attempted to rescue me then." She smiled. "But you came back eventually. That is what matters."
Jenna fell silent for a moment, then: "I'm, er, also sorry I exploded at you before... you know, about..." she trailed off.
"I know. I'm sorry too. I didn't mean to imply I'd been reading your mind. I can't, by the way. I'm telepathic, but I'm not a mind reader." She paused. "I know how uncomfortable people can be around my race - and others like us. Your reaction is not new to me," she explained simply.
Jenna's face fell. "Cally, I'm sorry... it's just... oh, I don't know..." She flung her hands up helplessly.
"Fear of the unknown?" suggested Cally, and shook her head sadly. "There are times when I am afraid too, Jenna. You're not alone."
"More like fear of what you might discover about me..." Jenna said quietly.
Cally came over to Jenna and rested a hand lightly on her shoulder. "I wouldn't read your mind even if I could. Your thoughts are your own, just as mine are. And what you want to keep hidden, is up to you as well. I won't pry. Trust me on that."
Jenna looked at Cally, and saw she meant it. "Thanks," she murmured.
Cally nodded gently. "Friends?"
Jenna nodded too. "Friends."
Cally smiled, and started to move away, when Jenna began, hesitantly:
"You said... you said you had a feeling... about us... I mean, Blake, and I..."
Cally shook her head. "It was just a feeling. I'm not empathic, either, Jenna." A faint smile touched her lips. "But I do know body language. And yours was speaking volumes!"
Jenna grinned, blushing slightly. "I always did talk too much!"
"It's nothing to be, well, ashamed of..."
Jenna shook her head. "Oh, I'm not... it's just..." She smiled almost regretfully. "I just think that Blake is only interested in one thing at the moment..."
Cally smiled sadly. "Perhaps..." She squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. "But give it time... things change."
Jenna studied her control panel. "Maybe..." she replied quietly. "I'm just afraid that he'll go too far. He's a good man, but he's..."
"Flawed? We all are, Jenna. Some more than others."
"Like Avon?" Jenna suggested.
"Like Avon?" A slow smile spread across Cally's face as she considered the question. "Do you think that's possible?"
Jenna considered, humour returning to her face. "I don't know... do you think he even wants to be liked?"
"Avon?" Cally raised her eyebrows. "I'm sure deep down..."
"Deep, deep down..." intoned Jenna.
They burst out laughing. In the middle of which, Vila returned to the room, bearing a tray of drinks. He blinked at the women.
"What's so funny?"
They subsided and looked at him for a moment. Cally shot a look at Jenna and smirked. The blonde girl laughed again.
"I'm glad he didn't hear you think that!"
Vila looked from one woman to the other suspiciously. "What are you two up to?"
Jenna came down and picked up a glass, then pressed a finger to her lips. "Secrets, Vila."
"Secrets? I don't like the sound of that."
Cally joined her and picked up a glass as well. She smirked again, and Jenna brayed with laughter. Vila frowned.
"I get the horrible feeling I'm the punchline for this joke of yours..." He set down the tray and snatched one of the glasses up. "I don't have to stay here and be insulted." He moved towards the exit then stopped and swung round. "I'll go down to the infirmary and get insulted by Avon." He walked for a couple of steps then stopped and turned round again. "At least he has a little style!" He got as far as the door and then fired a parting shot. "And he says it to my face!" Then he stomped from the room. "Women..." he muttered, for the second time that day.
Jenna grinned, and raised her glass. "Cheers," she said.
"Cheers," replied Cally, and they chinked their glasses together, animosity forgotten.