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Fandom: Blake's 7
Title:VenDerDecken, Chapter 1 - Meetings.
Warnings: AU, some language, some dialect.
Rating: Australian PG, like the show.
Notes: This one was sparked by the question “What would have happened if it had been Avon rather than Blake who got 'lost' at the beginning of 'Aftermath'?” Well, from there, things just snowballed. Besides, I wanted to see how Avon would cope with a computer which really wasn't up to the standards of either Zen or Orac.
Final word count: 14,800.

I'd been heading about my own business on the outer galactic rim when there was a hail on the main frequencies for the Federation. I keep a scanner hooked to them – it lets me know what they're up to, and lets me keep out of sight. I'm a free trader, smuggler, call me what you will; whichever name you use, I'm not a favourite of the Federation trade and excise types. VanDerDecken isn't the fastest ship around, so I need to know where their pursuit ships are before they get there.

Anyway, I kept an ear open at the message, and heard a general hail for all ships in the area to make their way into a bit of open, uncharted space, out in the middle of nowhere. From what they were saying, there was a space battle of some kind happening with an invading fleet, and they were offering general amnesty for all participants, regardless of status. Given this was coming from the Federation, I didn't believe a word of it – they've never been more than indifferent honest.

So, I'd instructed Della (my ship's computer) to ignore it, and was just making myself a cup of coffee when there's another hail. This one was over a set of frequencies which are for shielded traffic, and the location of these frequencies and the codes you need to run them are a closely guarded secret. If you know them, it's forbidden to put the information on a computer or to write it down. It was also running on the Federation frequencies, as well as any other open channels available. Odd enough. The content, though; that was an eye opener.

“This is battle cruiser Liberator calling all in hail. Liberator to all in hail. Assistance required. We are under attack by hostile alien fleet. Assistance required. Coordinates follow.”

I made a quick check on the coordinates supplied. It appeared the Federation message wasn't a ruse – or if it was, it was a very well planned one, and the Federation had managed to penetrate to the heart of the Free Trading community without being detected. If such was the case, my days were numbered anyway. Better to go out in a blaze of glory, and at least destroy the evidence. I changed course.

“Della, get working on detecting that battle fleet, set scan to maximum, and prepare stealth mode.”

Stealth mode is what makes the VanDerDecken special. It's something I worked out myself. See, back before I escaped my final owner, I was trained as an electronics technician. I'd had to work on systems to disguise various installations, including some Federation ones, and I'd learned the basic principles of it early on. So, once I'd escaped, I tried to figure out a way of getting the same sort of shielding to work around a ship. Took quite a few tries before it was accurate, and I stumbled onto the secret by accident. It's a side effect of all the installations I've worked on being ground-based, but stealth mode only works if we're moving slowly – sub-light speed at most. But as soon as we slow down, we disappear from their scans, and stay missing from the scans. I've built something of a reputation on this – I may be slower getting the cargo to you, but I will get it there.

In this case, I decided to risk a higher speed – about time distort three. That's the most the old girl can handle at present. I was counting on getting this cargo delivered in order to be able to afford a bit of a break. Just long enough to be able to fix a few tricky bits in the drive units, and maybe give Della a bit of reprogramming. She was starting to get a bit unreliable. At least she ought to be able to hold a straight line long enough for me to be able to swallow some coffee.

She wasn't. I felt the course change as I poured out the coffee, spilling most of it onto the drainage unit for the dispenser.

“Della, what in the names of the nine hells of Zagravaar are you playing at?” I swore. Good coffee is expensive. Far too expensive to be wasting on the recycling units of VanDerDecken, which don't appreciate it anyway.

/Life rocket capsule detected within range. Prime directive mandates collection./

I don't know who it was programmed Della, but they'd managed to make her vocoder capable of expressing emotion. This time she sounded smug, which was a common enough situation when she wound up being the one who'd won the argument. Lately if she didn't win arguments, she sulked, which was part of the reason I wanted to stop for a bit and get her worked on. A sulky computer is not something you want to share time with during a long space voyage. Her last trick had involved the shower supplying cold water for a week before I agreed to whatever it was she wanted. I didn't want her to start thinking up tricks regarding the air supply.

“All right. But can you warn me before you do those sorts of things in future, Della?” I got to work mopping up the coffee. “Where were you planning to put it?”

/Retrieval process defaults to hold one./

“No you don't! That's where the cargo is. Put it in hold two.” This was the other thing about Della. She didn't consider things like whether I happened to have cargo in the hold she was going to open for pickup. If I hadn't checked where the defaults were, I'd've lost my entire cargo, and my entire livelihood. “Do you have a visual contact?” I asked.

/Visual on screen one./

I took a look at my soon-to-be-guest. The capsule was a strange design – more like a triangular prism than the traditional lozenge-shape. It didn't look to be of Federation manufacture, which was reassuring. Or maybe not. Given I was flying into the middle of a space battle, I could have used a high-ranking Federation officer to ensure I got the amnesty they were promising. Anything above Captain would be a good start. The alien nature of the capsule, however, wasn't promising. “Della, run scan. Determine the nature of the lifeform within the capsule. If the scan doesn't check out as humanoid, I don't want it aboard.”

/Prime directive mandates pickup./

“Your prime directive can go snuggle up to a Targian warg strangler if you think I'm going to let you bring a non-humanoid alien on board.”

/Scans indicate single humanoid lifeform within capsule./

“Thank you, Della.” I took another look at the scan results. “Continue with retrieval, place it in hold two, but seal hold two for vacuum. If we've picked up something from the wrong side, I don't want it to be getting out of there.”


While Della did all the business with collecting the pod, I considered my options. I wasn't too keen on picking up passengers, but it appeared I didn't have a choice in the matter. Of course, there were always salvage rights. Whoever or whatever was in that capsule, they had to have a ship somewhere out there, even if it was just floating around as wreckage. There were enough metal-poor worlds around which would pay well for an anonymous pile of scrap and not ask questions about where I got it from. At the speeds VanDerDecken travelled, I could probably perform a better salvage job than any other ship in the vicinity. The notion was a cheering one – perhaps I'd come out of this with some profit after all.

I pulled out the schematics for the magno-'tractor I'd been working on. It was a bit crude at the moment, but it was my best bet for getting a large enough cargo of scrap and salvage together to be able to afford a competent computer tech for Della. The boards were in one of the lockers; installing it would be a decent distraction from the mystery of who or what I'd picked up.

I was about three-quarters of the way through the process of installing it (and I'd gone six times through my vocabulary of expletives: in order to get it working, I'd need to disable power to something else; I was looking at losing either food or refresher facilities) when Della let me know there was movement from hold two.

Discarding my work, I switched the visuals to see what I'd collected.


Kerr Avon awoke in the life capsule, took a look around himself, and swore in several dialects. He was sure he could remember bringing Orac down to the capsule bays, but the computer wasn't in the capsule with him. He tried to remember back – yes, he'd brought Orac down in its carry case, then Vila and Cally had been gabbling at him, and there was... a blank. He couldn't remember getting into the capsule, so he must have been put in there by one of the other two. But why wouldn't they put Orac in with him?

He considered various types of treacherous motive, before reluctantly disposing of them. Vila knew of Orac's value, but didn't get along with the cantankerous computer. He'd often threatened to take to it with a laser probe after it had shocked him. So it was unlikely Vila would have taken Orac. Therefore Orac was either with Cally, who would attempt to retrieve all of Blake's crew out of a sense of loyalty; or Orac was on the Liberator. In either case, there was nothing he could do about it now.

He was better off trying to figure out where he was, and whether he was safe to exit the life capsule. He leaned forward to check the few readouts provided. Oxygen atmosphere. Temperature on the low side of Liberator normal, but otherwise reasonable. Gravity just a trifle under Earth normal. There was a sensation of movement, and a noise which was probably engines operating, so he'd been picked up by a ship. Either it was Federation, in which case he hoped they hadn't forgotten their amnesty, or it was alien. While Jenna had told Cally to put out a hail on a Free Trader frequency, he didn't hold out much hope of that having been answered.

Cautiously, he cracked the seal on the capsule door, sliding it aside.


The cameras in hold two were rather dodgy, just like everything else in the Dutchman. So I couldn't get a clear picture of my new passenger. Just dark hair, and what looked like what was known as a “spacer's tan” - very pale skin, as you get from spending months on end cooped up in a ship with heavy radiation shielding. While his clothing was rather dark, it didn't seem to have the same cut as a Federation uniform.

“Della, any chance of a zoom on the humanoid in hold two?” I asked. I didn't expect Della to be able to comply – she's never been her best when coping with more than three tasks at once. But somehow she dug out some extra capacity, and we got a closer look at him.

Yup, male human by the look of things. He didn't know where he was, I guessed, because he was moving carefully, trying not to set off any alarms. He had some sort of gun on his belt, which he was carrying now. Oh wonderful.

“Della, double seal hold two. I want to be able to dump atmo in it at any stage.”


I grabbed my own blaster and holster, and made my way down to the outer door of hold two. VanDerDecken's electrolocks tend to be a bit on the easy side. Throwing the main bolt on the outer doors should hold him for a bit. Just my bloody luck, I thought. All the folks out there, and I pick up a pirate.


Avon looked around himself. He appeared to have arrived in some sort of hold. A cargo hold, he decided, from the shape of it. It appeared to be able to open to atmosphere, which was the most logical explanation for how he'd been picked up. Cally's hail to the Free Traders had worked after all, it seemed.

Still, it always paid to be cautious. He drew his gun, comforted by the feel of it in his hand, and started to explore the space. He'd almost reached what he believed was the internal door when there was a loud 'clunk' from the other side of it.


I threw the bolts, sealing the doors. It had been a worthwhile bit of tinkering, installing those. Certainly they'd saved me from burglaries, attempted piracy, and the occasional Federation taxman in the past. Didn't matter what kind of gear they'd brought with 'em, most people tended to find themselves stymied by a double-bolted lockwheel. To get through those, the stranger would need at least an arc welder. Laser cannon might work, but I was capable of getting the Dutchman the hell out of Dodge (and the hell into stealth mode) before anyone could get them targeted.

Then I thumbed up the intercom I'd installed to hold two. Like I said, this setup has kept out a few unwelcome visitors, but I found having a way of negotiating was useful, too.

“Attention,” I said. “You are in the hold of the private cargo carrier VanDerDecken. Please state your name, and a reason why the current atmospheric conditions in that hold should continue.”


The voice came over an intercom. Avon looked about, trying to find the source of the transmission.

“My name is Kier Chevron. Who are you?”

“I'm the person who's opening that hold to vaccuum if you don't give me a reason why I shouldn't,” came the reply. Avon grinned. A sensible attitude, he thought, even if it was directed at him. Now all he had to do was figure out what they wanted, and whether he could bluff his way out of the situation.

“Thank you for saving my life,” he said, changing the subject.

“Cut the chatter, chum. Why should I keep it saved? What can you offer?”

Ah, that was where the speaker was located – the inner right top corner of the hold. So if he could get to the speaker, he'd be able to start tracing power lines, if not data. “What could I offer that would be of value?” he returned, playing for time.

“The location of your ship,” came the prompt reply.

Avon startled. What could this person want with the Liberator? Had he fallen into Federation hands after all? An unpleasant thought occurred: the aliens had looked human back on Star One. They'd sounded human as well. Maybe this was another alien.

“Why do you want that?” Playing for time still seemed the safest course.

A sigh from the other end of the intercom. “Look. Saving your hide has cost me a good forty-five minutes of time and a fifty seven spacial course deviation I'm still making up. That means fuel, which means money. Now, you lucked out – I'm heading in the direction of the nearest trading hub to this particular corner of the arse-end of nowhere. However, picking you up changes the trim of the ship, which means more fuel, which means more money. So to afford the extra fuel you'll cost, I need salvage. Salvage like your ship, whatever it was.”


“I don't know where my ship is. I suspect I was knocked unconscious after entering the capsule.”

He was playing for time. I knew it. I'd heard of this trick before – send out one bloke in a life rocket with a homing beacon running subsonic below the distress call, and track them when the nearest humanitarian picks them up. They act all distressed and silly, then while the nice crew of whatever is distracted helping out their new passenger, along comes the rest of the gang and attacks.

Problem was, that trick was best played along major shipping lines, and there was no conceivable way this place could be described as one of those. He'd be floating about for centuries if he tried it out here. Still, best to play safe. I switched off the intercom, and flipped the internal coms switch.

“Della, switch to stealth mode. Full scan of the surrounding area. I want to know if anything larger than a robodrone comes into range.”


That'd at least give me a couple of minutes grace – even if this bloke had a beacon which was broadcasting on every frequency from gamma right through straight radio, it'd take a while for his mates to find the Dutchman while she was in stealth mode. Helped that I'd spent a lot of time, effort and money on a rather unique little disguise job on the old girl, too. From the outside, she looked a lot like a bit of space junk. Of course, over the years, it was less and less of a disguise, and more and more of a reality. The Dutchman needed some time and money spent on a lot of things, and if I could only get a bit of decent salvage going, I'd be able to tackle the next repair on what was becoming a long list.

“Right,” I said to my erstwhile passenger. “Let's get a couple of things straight here. I can't afford deadweight, and at the moment, chum, that's all you are. So you think hard: what the hells can you offer me that equals the value of the oxygen you're sucking in?”


Avon grinned to himself. For all the threats, it appeared his captor wasn't as hard-hearted as they seemed. Had the situations been reversed, he would have had a person in a similar situation tumbling into space soon after the first exchange. He had an edge.

“I'm afraid I really don't know,” he said. He looked around the interior of the hold. As his eyes adjusted to the lighting levels, he'd noticed the shabbiness of the place. There appeared to be any number of repairs which needed to be performed. “I suppose I could offer to work my passage.”

“Doing what?” The response was swift.

“I know a little about spaceships.”


I pulled a face. He knew a little about spaceships. Yeah, right. And with the accent he was pulling, he sounded like a bloody Earther. Very few of them knew anything about spaceships, and the few who did were Feds. So chances were I'd inheirited either a useless lump of crap who'd bitch for days running about the way that the Dutchman was set up and falling to pieces around me, or a Fed plant. I didn't think I'd have any chance of getting someone who knew the business end of a laser probe from the part you weren't supposed to point at the remaining eye.

But what choice did I have? I knew I couldn't space this man. Not now I'd talked to him. If I was going to do it, it either had to have been before speaking with him, or it would happen if the momzer turned out to be a useless sack of crud after all. I unlocked the door.


Well, I was right on both counts. On the one hand, I got someone who bitched non-bloody-stop about the way the Dutchman was configured. On the other, he did know which end of a laser probe was which, and he'd managed to figure out a way of rigging the power system to be able to power the magno-'tractor and the refresher systems. He also wasn't a Fed plant.

I'd recognised him as soon as he stepped through the doors, of course. I keep an eye on the Feds wanted list – I need to know when my bounty is worth more than my cargo is, and on which worlds. If I don't have that kind of information, I'll wind up deader than an asteroid. So I recognised the number two man on the list, one Kerr Avon. But if he wanted to pretend he was Kier Chevron, that was fine by me. I didn't think the Feds would be hunting down their own man with quite the degree of vindictiveness involved.

I didn't take my eyes off him, except when he slept. He only did that for a small amount of time at a stretch, so I was still in my normal habit of running on coffee and stimtabs to keep things going. It was only while he was sleeping I could afford to leave Della in charge, and get a bit of shuteye myself. He'd surrendered his gun, or whatever it was, but I kept mine close, and I slept with one eye open. Kerr Avon might be wanted for all kinds of political muckety-muck. But Kier Chevron gave off good familiar vibes.

He was a criminal, born and bred. In it for the money.

It almost made me like him. Almost.


Another cloud of sparks flew up from the panel Avon was attempting to repair. He swore, backing away. In the five days he'd been on this mobile scrapheap which the owner glorified with the title of being a “ship”, he'd collected an impressive set of small burns, and a lot of shocks. Dina, the Captain and owner of the VanDerDecken, would just snap at him, cursing him as a cack-handed fool if he dropped components, and upbraiding him if he so much as looked sideways at her.

“Give me that,” she said this time, hand out for the breadboard he'd been working on for a couple of hours. He handed it over, wincing as she took it and slammed it into place, then thumped the access hatch into its original position. As she did so, he could hear her muttering about “bloody pussyfooting Earther groundhogs”, a refrain he'd begun to get used to. Turning from the hatch, she tested the circuit, and grunted at the result.

“That's better,” she said. “There's another one of these on the other side of the console. Needs the same treatment.”

Avon glared at her. It had the same effect it always did: none whatsoever. She seemed impervious to his glares, his snarls, and the sneers which couldn't help escaping when he compared the VanDerDecken to his previous abode. Verbal barbs were met with an upraised eyebrow, and an invitation to tour the interior of hold two. Given hold two was the current storage space for a large amount of space junk and wreckage she'd been finding along the way, and that she economised on atmosphere within the hold, it was an instruction to shut up. She backed this up with a blaster which looked much more efficient and up-to-date than anything else on the ship, and an impressive fast draw.

He'd abandoned the idea of hijacking the VanDerDecken when he'd become acquainted with the sheer amount of work involved in keeping the little ship flying. Once upon a time, the ship had been a straightforward pursuit craft. However, that was two and a half centuries and twenty owners ago, and by the time Dina had picked up the derelict, there was very little left of the underlying ex-mil structure. Two holds had been added, the weaponry systems had been stripped back to nothing and replaced at least four times (as far as the ship's computer was aware). Indeed, the only original component on the whole ship appeared to be the computer. This, an ancient pre-Tariel model, appeared to have been augmented, updated, tinkered with and tweaked in ways which would certainly have invalidated any possible remaining warranty, were it not for the fact that Dalton Electronics Laboratories had collapsed fifty years ago from sheer corporate exhaustion. What was astonishing was not so much that it still appeared to be a capable machine, but that it ran at all.

He wasn't allowed anywhere near the programming, which he understood but resented none the less. The most Dina seemed capable of was straightforward vocal input queries. She hadn't asked him for a voice print, and she didn't appear to sleep any more than he did, so there was no chance of sneaking one into the system either. Again, he understood her caution, but he also resented it.

“How long until we reach our destination?” he asked, as he cautiously removed the breadboard from the far side of the panel.


I watched him wriggle into the small gap on the far side of the console. Nice arse, I had to admit. Would've been better if he hadn't kept talking out of it all the time.

“About another three days,” I told him, double-checking the readout on the navcomps. “Two and a half if we can get that panel fixed.”

“Fixing the panel will take at least half a day anyway,” he said. The tone was annoyed.

“Not much I can do about that,” I said, picking up the bit of circuitry I'd been fiddling with while he'd been playing with the last breadboard. He shot me another one of those glares which I think were supposed to make me remember my place. Problem is, I got any number of those in my slave years. I escaped, and I'm free. They don't work now. I just looked back at him, calm as could be. “You know where the spares are,” I told him.

He pulled the crate of spares over toward him, grimacing as he did so. At first, he'd turned his nose up at the spares supply I had. I think he expected me to have entire shelves dedicated to neatly sorted resistors, capacitors, and IC bundles. It was only after he'd gone through everything twice searching for a replacement breadboard for one particular repair that I enlightened him. Those breadboards are the spares – you have to find the bit you're after, and be careful with a soldering iron. The look I got when I told him that was nasty enough to scorch a hole through the hull, too. Then I had to explain that, for some reason, separate parts for the various systems in this ship are a bit hard to source. The Feds snap the best of the buggers up whenever they can, and I get to compete with every other bastard who's picked one up for the rest. Grabbing whole circuit boards and cannibalising from those is the only way I've found of being able to get a regular supply of the parts. None of those blasted Terra Nostra swine would bother getting their hands dirty with actual work, so if I grabbed the whole boards, I saved money and got the parts I needed. Plus I could earn a bit more on the side stripping the boards down, which was what I was doing at the moment.

Not that I said all of that to him. Just said parts were hard to come by. He'd turned up his nose at that, too. Still and all, he was a damn good tech, and once he'd adjusted to the realities of the situation, he'd found some clever ways to alter the ship's boards to compensate for the loss of some of the components I didn't have to hand. I was starting to wonder what things would be like if he managed to fix up all of the systems.

I was even getting tempted to let him loose on Della.


As Avon worked away at the panel, he considered his position. On the one hand, what he'd managed to pick up from overhearing what little Federation traffic there was in the aftermath of the destruction of Star One implied they hadn't found the Liberator. On the other, neither had he, yet. He'd originally been wearing a teleport bracelet with the communications channel left wide open, but he'd yet to hear anything from the ship, which might mean he'd been abandoned, or it might mean he was out of comm range. Liberator's communications system was the least robust of the many systems on the ship, being able to be blocked by such things as the ship not being in the expected space location for the comm tight beam. Avon had been intending to examine it in more detail since the incident where the System had taken control of the ship, but with one thing and another (mostly Blake's things, he reflected bitterly) he'd never found the time.

Either way, he had three days at most to make up his mind about what he would do next. The options were numerous, although many of them were distasteful for various reasons. On the one hand, he could sell himself to the nearest Federation commander, along with his knowledge of the Liberator's systems, teleportation facilities, and also as much as he'd been able to puzzle out of Orac's inner workings. This was tempting, as it would hopefully resolve his status as a fugitive, but he didn't want to chance it. Their mercies tended to be few and far between, and at best, he acknowledged, he would find himself confined to a Federation research program, watched closely for the rest of his life and expected to be grateful for retaining his life. The idea didn't appeal.

On the other hand, he could see whether he could contact the Liberator, and be retrieved. He knew himself to be too dangerous to leave loose, as far as Blake was concerned – he knew too much about the ship, and the teleport, and he'd also designed the deflector screen. Doing this would also put him in a position to retain his share of the bounty of the Liberator's treasure room; a very appealling thought given his current circumstances. He had a few gemstones from the haul secreted in various places on his person, but the value of those stones was only an infinitesimal fraction of the true wealth available. As he'd once told a Terra Nostra member, he was sentimental about money, and the amount of money in the strongroom was enough to ensure an attachment of no small proportions.

There was also the consideration of the Liberator's auto-repair systems, he thought, removing another small component from one of the scrap system boards which comprised the spares for the VanDerDecken. Manual labour had never been one of his favourite things.

Set against this was the question of what to do about Dina. She didn't appear to have recognised him as Kerr Avon, which was reassuring. However, he couldn't count on that state of affairs remaining constant until he reached even the nearest planetfall. Could he rely on her discretion? He didn't even know the name of the planet they were heading toward, far less whether or not it was a Federation-controlled world after the disruptions of the invasion attempt.


I had to decide what to do with my uninvited guest. On the one hand, I could drop him off in Deschya, the little free port I was heading to on NovyLen II. It was all I was obliged to do, both under the laws of space, and under the terms of our own agreement. He wasn't my responsibility after that. Planetfall at NovyLen II would terminate our agreement, and I was free and clear.

Problem was, Deschya wasn't a place I'd drop even a hardened bounty hunter without warning. It was a free port, with all the lawlessness that implied. I could sell my cargo there, and get a good price, because the little planet wasn't mineral rich. Had heaps of useful minerals for farming, and most of the people there were farmers. But there wasn't much of the metals needed for heavy infrastructure, and that meant the men who controlled the few mines and the few ports were the men who controlled the planet. Not all of them were particularly pleasant to deal with. Broch, the lord of the area around Deschya, was one of the few who could be trusted to keep his side of a bargain, and he and I had a long-standing arrangement: if I was carrying a cargo of metal, or metallic ores, my crew and I were safe, and landing fees were waived. Given the landing fees were exorbitant at best, I tended to only come to Deschya when I was laden down with enough metal to keep Broch happy for another couple of planetary years.

So, I could treat Kerr Avon as a passenger, in which case he wasn't protected the minute we hit ground, or I could name Kier Chevron as part of my crew on the manifest I'd be handing to the dockhands. As a passenger, he might survive long enough for his friends to find him, although I doubted it. NovyLen II was short on Fed credit, as well as metal. He'd be well worth the selling, and even a comparatively civilised lord like Broch would be making arrangements to sell that highly valuable head to the Feds – body optional.


It wound up taking us four days to reach NovyLen II, and by the time we got there, I was just as pleased to see the back of him as he was to see the back of me. It was Della's fault. She decided to crash in a major way about halfway through the repairs to the console, and took most of the systems with her. I couldn't bloody well fix most of it, and I didn't want to give away my ace in the hole by asking my erstwhile passenger to chip in. So I had to cobble together a few dozen bits and pieces of bypass circuitry, and get the whole ship limping along. Frustrating, to say the least. Doing it with himself sneering at my efforts (all the while trying not to, because it'd give the game away – it's about the only bit of enjoyment I got out of the whole fiasco) was just the icing on a very distasteful cake.


Avon peered at the blurry image visible through VanDerDecken's external scanner. The spaceport was small, but serviceable. According to Dina, it was a free port, which meant there shouldn't be the level of surveilance required by the Federation. According to what he'd been able to pull out of that wretched machine's databanks before it crashed, NovyLen II was a non-Federation world; or at least, it wasn't on the list of Federation planets in the sector. He might stand a chance, if he could just get access to enough of the planetary systems. A few hours work should be enough to forge himself an ID, and create the necessary background for it.

“Well, there it is,” Dina said. “NovyLen II, spaceport's called Deschya. Nearest Federation substation is three systems away, at Zenga Minor VI.”

Avon nodded. “Thank you.”

“I suppose I should warn you,” Dina said. “Deschya's not a very safe place. None of NovyLen is. Free port, free planet, which means the law is mainly survival of the strongest.” She paused for a moment. “My next port of call might be a bit more hospitable,” she said, “if you're willing to sign on as crew.”

“Thank you, but no,” Avon replied. “I should be able to make my way from here. I trust my debt is paid off?”

Dina looked him over, her gaze steady. “You're fifty centis in the red, but I'm willing to let that slide.” She offered a hand. “Thanks for the assistance, and best of luck in what you're chosing to do next.”

Avon looked at the hand she had extended, then took it. He was surprised by the gesture, since the past four days had involved much hasty repair of the ship's computer systems, during which he'd been hard pressed to maintain even a vague level of civility. Watching as someone else botched together a circuitry patch to deal with a job which proper programming could have repaired in less than half the time had been rather traumatic. He'd almost been tempted to break cover, save for the realisation that while Dina didn't appear to be mercenary, he was still rather valuable to the right people.

They shook hands, and Dina turned back to the inventory she was compiling of the stores in hold two. She'd provided him with directions to the hatchway, as well as with a rather tatty and well-worn tourist datapad. He turned, and left the VanDerDecken. With luck, he'd never see it again.


I didn't watch him leave. I had more important things to do. For a start, I needed to know how much metal and metallic ores I had in hold two, as well as the approximate value of the cargo in hold one on this rock. One of the messages that had come through while we were in transit was a rather snotty transmission from the previous owner of the cargo saying that he was dispensing with my services, as he'd discovered my poor record with the Feds. Damn fool of a man had to have known I wasn't one hundred percent legit in the first damn place, since I was willing to take his cargo of contraband from Marok III (high-rad waste) to a disposal site on NovyLen X. Of course, he waited until after I'd taken the stuff off his hands to do this, so I now had enough radwaste to fuel a small freighter (but unfortunately not this small freighter) in hold one, and no bloody chance of a buyer on NovyLen X. Bastard.

So I was going to have to check with Broch about the metal I'd salvaged, and also about whether they had the necessary tech to handle the radwaste. If they did, I was laughing – two cargoes gone at the same port, and only a minor decontam needed in hold one to fix things up. If they didn't, I was going to need to space the cargo; probably in NovyLen itself. I'd commed ahead to arrange a meeting with Broch, letting him know in advance that there was some very handy metal on my ship (the one thing I couldn't afford at the moment was dock fees). He'd agreed to meet with me.

I grabbed my blaster and strapped it on. Next came the two knives for my boots, another in a wrist sheath, and a third down the back of my neck. Spring-loaded club into the other sleeve from the knife, and then over the top of my shirt went the armour vest. I discarded the standard slip-ons I wore on the ship, and put on the custom-made boots and greaves I'd had done about six years ago. There's a sign in the spaceport here in Deschya, saying “Check Your Weapons”. Well, I always do. I check I have enough of them.

My final touch was the jacket I'd grabbed from a bloke I'd had to kill. It was real leather, rather beaten up and scruffy, but it had several advantages. The first was the weight of it, which kept me warm on a cold planet. The second was the pockets, which were the right size to hide my hands and a pair of knuckle-dusters that I kept there, without showing the slightest alteration in the line. The final and most important alteration was the defence system it had wired into a few different sections. I liked that jacket.

“Right,” I said to Della. “S-O-P, known hostiles. My voice doesn't ask, the hatch doesn't open.”

/Acknowledged,/ Della replied.

The hatch opened, and I stepped out into Deschya spaceport.


Avon's first impression of the spaceport was that it was crowded, noisy, and filthy. His second impression only confirmed this. There were people all around him, jostling him and crowding into his personal space. He looked around himself. He needed a place which was relatively quiet, where he could take stock of his situation, and make an inventory of his assets. He also needed some privacy to organise a new identity and a supply of credits.

He consulted the datapad. There was, if the pad was still accurate, a small transient facility nearby. It offered basic level cubicles (nothing more than a bunk and bedding) which could be hired by the hour. Avon frowned, knowing full well what this meant: the place was, in effect, a brothel. However, he needed at least an hour to sort things out and decide how he was going to get back to Liberator. It would have to do.


I strolled into one of the bars in Deschya, and was immediately recognised.

“Dina!” called a loud voice. “What the gorram hell you doin' on this rock?”

I looked over at the speaker. He was a big, burly man, carrying a gun which looked like the bastard child of a grenade launcher and a machine gun, and which was as nasty as her looks.

“Hey, Jayne! What the hey are you doing around this neck of the woods? Where's himself?”

Jayne came over and slapped palms with me. I'd met him years ago, back when I was working the far side of this sector, where it abutted another area of colonies. Startled the crap out of me to find 'em, too – I'd not thought the old stories about the lost colonies were anything more than spacer legend. Instead, I wound up running into Jayne, and his boss, one Mal Reynolds.

“Mal?” Jane asked. “Aw, he's off doin' somethin' about getting some kind of job. Something about salvage, he said.”

“Ah, shit,” I said. Mal Reynolds was the part-owner of a Firefly-class ship called Serenity which was about the only thing I knew of which would be better than the Dutchman at doing a salvage run. For starters, I didn't have the sort of pressure suiting which could cope with doing all the manouvering to get smaller bits on board, whereas Serenity did. His crew were also skilled at EVAs. Not to mention the bastard had a crew, while I was a solo operator. Sucks to be me, yeah.

“What's a nice girl like you usin' language like that for?” came a voice from behind me. It was Mal. Now, don't get me wrong, Mal's a nice enough guy, but I trusted him only slightly more than I trusted Avon – and that was only because he wouldn't swap Serenity for a Fed star cruiser if he had the choice of the best.

“Hey, Mal,” I said, turning around to shake his hand. “You still got that genius mechanic of yours? Or is she shacked up somewhere?”

Jayne rolled his eyes. “Kaylee's groundbound. Doc said she wasn't to go playin' around in engines with another on the way.”

“Another?” I raised an eyebrow. This was news to me. “She been breeding or something?”

“She an' the Doc went and got married,” Mal said. “Why you askin'?”

“Della's having problems. Again,” I said. “I need someone to look over Della, someone to look over the drive, and someone to damn well buy me a drink.”

“Well, Dina, I think I could just about do that last one,” Mal said. “What're you having?”


Avon's suspicion had been right. The hotel was a brothel, disguised in a cloak of respectability almost as thin as the clothes worn by the girls and boys of the house. His request for a private room did not, therefore, go down well.

“No can do,” said the raddled face (gender undeterminable) behind the admissions counter. “Nothing free.”

The glance which accompanied the statement explained with admirable clarity where the emphasis was to be placed in the sentence. Avon hid a sigh, and placed one of the gems down on the counter before the personage.

“I would appreciate privacy rather than company,” Avon said. “I'm willing to pay.”

The face looked at the gem, at Avon, then back at the gem again. A moment's silence, then a decision appeared to have been reached. A key was pushed across the counter.

“Two hours,” the person said. “And that's because I like the look of your face.”

Avon took the key, and made his way to the room. Unless the security systems in this pesthole of a place were far in excess of the general technology level, he would have his business completed within one hour at most. Plugging in his datapad, he set to work.


It took me a couple of rounds of drinks before I was able to break away from Mal and Jayne. I'd discovered they weren't doing salvage, which was something of a mercy, and they gave me a tip on a possible buyer for the radwaste. In return, I warned them of known Fed hideaways. I couldn't say for sure, but I suspected that if Serenity was over here in Federation territory, it meant the Alliance were on the lookout for Mal's pilot again. River Tam was a bloody genius pilot (and a bloody genius everything else) despite being completely and utterly cracked, and a telepath to boot. The Alliance had tried to turn her into some kind of super-assassin, and she was still deadly even now. They appeared to be just as capable of taking “hell no” for an answer as the Feds, since they tended to try and come after River every two to three years; I had a suspicion that they'd be in contact with the Feds, too. It was weird – both sides tended to act as if the other didn't exist officially, but unofficially, they swapped information back and forth. That was how I'd met Mal and his crew in the first place – they'd broken me out of an Alliance holding cell where they were waiting for the Feds to show up and collect me. Closest I've ever come to being recaptured since I started up in the business.

My next step was to head up to Broch's office. It was almost time for him and me to start talking turkey about this cargo of metal. Broch was the only person in Deschya who bought metal – the outer walls of his compounds still had a couple of skulls from the last entrepreneurs who thought they'd go into commodity trading bleaching in the sun – so he was the only person who'd buy the contents of hold two from me.

Broch is a small, skinny man who looks like a dried up accountant. His genius lies in employing great big men who can wield great big guns, and who don't get all embarrassed when the screaming starts. That and having an hereditary right to three of the main mines in this sector of the continent. The other mineowners didn't like him, but that didn't bother Broch. He'd foiled at least six different assassination attempts, as well as a forty-person attack on his compound, and he was reputed to have killed at least ninety men himself. Six of those were at a corporate dinner. I trusted Broch to keep his side of a bargain, but I didn't trust him enough to eat or drink near him.

I was greeted by the usual flunky – a boy this time; usually Broch had a lot of pretty girls around him.

“I have an appointment,” I said. “Name's Dina.”

The lad scanned down the list of names on a sheet of foil. The foil was a bit of swank, Broch showing off to impress the lower orders. Plastex would have done just as well; it probably would have been more legible, for a start.

“That one,” I said, pointing out my name on the list. “Cargo of salvage he might be interested in.”

“Oh. Yes.” The lad sounded nervous. New, I suppose. I waited while he put through a call on the intercom. The office was much as I'd seen it previously – some ostentatious touches, like the metal desks, and the metal filing cabinets (Broch kept all his data on computer; the cabinets were antiques he'd picked up somewhere) – but mostly restrained and reasonable. There was a blip from the comm system.

“Mr Broch will see you now,” the boy said, smiling up at me.

I made my way in to see the master of Deschya.


The systems were harder to crack into than Avon had anticipated. It wasn't that they were more sophisticated; rather the reverse. They were primitive enough that they relied more on password entry than on biometric data. It made all his hard work hacking into the biometric data files of the planet a waste of time. Swearing under his breath, he started coding up a quick and dirty password cracking worm.

He was three quarters of the way through when the guards broke down the door. All of a sudden, the comment by the desk-holder about liking his face was understandable. His face, in situations like this, was definitely his fortune – or as in this case, someone else's.


“Dina,” Broch said as I came in, “how good to see you. I understand you have something for me?”

“I think you'll be interested,” I told him. “Scrap, most of it, but I figure you're not going to ask silly questions about where the scrap came from.”

“I'm not a fool, Dina. I'm capable of listening in to Federation transmissions.” Broch's smile hadn't even wavered. “There's a battle going on out there. The casts have been full of it, and every single captain who's made groundfall here in the last three months has been talking about it.”

“So what happened?” I asked. I was curious – I'd not bothered to ask my reluctant passenger when I had him on board, since that would have given the game away. “Della decided to have a breakdown, so I've been out of touch the last few days.”

Broch leaned back in his chair. “You've heard of Blake and his crew, I take it?”

I nodded. “Who hasn't?”

“Just checking. One never knows with spacehounds like yourself. Story coming off the Federation links is that Blake and his bunch were heading out on the edge of the rim. They found an alien fleet coming in to invade.” He took a sip from the metal cup of water resting on the top of his desk. “Now this is where it gets odd. Given Blake's history, you'd think they'd just welcome the aliens in. But from what we can pick up over here, it seems like they sent a message to Federation Central Control or something, and got the whole Federation fleet out there – and they stayed to hold off the aliens.”

“Hang on – I thought Blake hated the Feds.”

“He did. He must have changed his mind when he was faced with an invasion fleet.”

“So where is he now?” I asked, thinking I might look for Avon around the place, see if I could sell him the information.

“Nobody knows.” Broch leaned forward over his desk. “There's lots of rumours, of course, but nothing concrete. The bounty on their heads trebled overnight. It's getting harder to get information from the Federation links lately. Transmissions are patchy and far between. There was one other story coming out of the Federation links before they went down, though.”

“What's this one?” I asked.

“A new President. The former Supreme Commander – so there's been some kind of coup. Her name's Servalan.” Broch grinned. “More power to her. The Federation has been on the brink of something similar for at least the last ten years. It might account for the comms silence from them, although it doesn't feel right for a military blackout on communications. The last things we heard from some of the Federation worlds were reports of disasters.”

“Sounds like the Feds have had a pretty solid shakeup,” I said. “So what are you planning to do about it?”

“That's for me to know, and you to guess, Dina. You don't think I'll be telling my plans to a scruffy scavenger like you?”

I smiled politely. “Of course not. Now, how much are you willing to offer me for the cargo?”

Broch smiled like a predator scenting his prey, and we commenced dickering. It took me about three quarters of an hour to get Broch to offer a realistic price. I'd done this sort of dickering with him before, and I knew that while he could offer anything, he wasn't likely to pay up unless it was a realistic offer. So I'd declined his offers of half the planet and his annual revenue for three years, and we'd moved on to the serious stuff. I wound up with a combination of things: an introduction to the potential buyer for the radwaste; a team of techs to work on the Dutchman's drive core; a cargo of agrigoods for the next hop; a complete refill on all the tanks and supply systems; and, most importantly, a team of technicians to look over Della and get at least a couple of her quirks fixed up. I'd also been offered the usual handfull of local currency, but I declined it as I always did. Currency exchange was ridiculous over interstellar distances, and I'd long since decided that taking the majority of my fees in kind worked out a lot better for me.

I was wandering about with Broch's majordomo, an elegant woman who was referred to as Swimbo. It was a bit of a nickname, coming from a combination of her effective rank as Broch's second in charge, and her imperious manner: it stood for “She Who Must Be Obeyed”. Her real name was something like Agnes. She and I had a reasonably calm relationship: she didn't trust me, I didn't trust her all that much either, and neither of us could stand each other for longer than absolutely necessary. As a result of this, we arranged the transfers of goods and services at speed. Broch had requested the buyer of the radwaste to present themselves at his office, which meant I could expect to see them fairly soon. Then I'd be back to the Dutchman, and wait on the techs.

The buyer turned out to be a stocky, solid woman name of Teani, who worked the repair shops for the bigger freighters. She said she could use the radwaste for refuels on some of the larger ships around, so we dickered for a bit, and she offered to supply me with the core refuel for the Dutchman, and take the price out of Broch's hide later, along with a small fortune in gems which she happened to have on her.

“Where'd the gems come from?” I asked her. NovyLen II is a small planet, and I knew for a fact it didn't produce much by way of gemstones. Again, it's all about minerals, and this place had all the wrong ones to produce anything of real value.

“Got 'em off some straggler me boys picked up,” she said. I looked at Swimbo, who nodded.

“Teani's boys are doing security for the spaceport these days,” Swimbo told me. “Mops up all the odds and sods who come in off the ships, and if they can't pay their way, she puts 'em into the refuelling crews. Stops a lot of the bad behaviour that used to happen.”

“Yeah,” Teani agreed. “Saves some of the captains a few worries – they know where to pick up their crew at the end of the day.” She gave a coarse laugh. “Better watch yerself, luv, y' might wind up there one day yerself if you ain't careful.”

“I'll take 'em,” I told Teani, pointing at the jewels. “Where's your lockup? I might be interested in doing some recruiting.”


Avon looked around the cell he'd been shoved into with a certain amount of world-weary disdain. It was a standard pattern for a cell – rectangular, one bunk, one bucket for facilities, one door, one window, one lock which was well within his capabilities. It would be easy enough for him to get out, but what could he do then? The only place to run was back to the VanDerDecken, and he had no idea what his reception would be should he return.

They'd brought him in, booked him with loitering, and taken the datapad, at which point they'd added a few more charges to the list. The men had the look of private troopers, rather than any civic guard, and the manner in which he'd been taken implied this was a regular sweep of the area instead of a targetted raid. Not that this made him any the less captured.

The only minor mercy he appeared to have on his side was he hadn't yet been recognised.


The address of Teani's lockup wasn't far from where the Dutchman was docked. I had my suspicions as to who she might have picked up; Deschya port appeared to be even less of a place to drop the unwary than it had been before. While I waited on the cargo movers to come and clean out the holds of the VanDerDecken, I grabbed out the datapad I'd picked up from a vacker about three systems over as part-payment for transit the hell out of a messy situation. It was something I tended to keep concealed, since it had a few bits of software which were highly illegal just about everywhere – backdoors into various different monitoring systems, taps into information databases all over the place, and enough tools to be able to break down the majority of the systems in civilised space, if I just knew how to use 'em. My skill with software was limited to the extent that I was able to use them to make a few “listening” taps on a couple of known circuits.

Of course, I'd been smart enough to drop a small bug in Broch's office (I did it every time I was in there; information is valuable enough to be a trade good all on its own, and I trusted Broch only if I could see where both of his hands were) and I'd also stuck one into the recog-chip I'd handed Teani. I tend not to trust the kinds of buyers I can find out on the fringes of respectability like this. I was well aware of the bounty on my head, and I'd a couple of buyers in the past who'd tried to make a bit on the side by selling me to the Feds. Broch hadn't tried it before; that didn't mean he wouldn't.

I linked the listeners into the private comms circuit in my cabin (hey, being captain has some privileges – and ownership of the one cabin in the ship is one of them), and pulled the stored data from the bugs onto the pad. I scanned what had happened since I'd stopped talking to each of my tags. Broch had ordered the techs to come and start working on the drive of the Dutchman, and Teani was setting things in place to get the radwaste picked up from the holding bay, the hold decontam done, and the refuel going.

There was a buzz from the external comm. “VanDerDecken. Captain speaking,” I responded.

“Deschya Port Services. We're here to pick up the cargo for Broch,” came the voice over the speaker.

“ID?” I asked. I didn't think they'd be lying, but Broch was just as likely to decide if I lost the cargo, he wasn't going to pay – even though he'd recover the cargo soon enough, as well as a bit of extra decoration for his compound. The ID scanner at the hold entrance was one of the innovations of a previous owner of the Dutchman, but I kept it well maintained.

The ID of the port service people checked out, and I opened the external locks on hold two. I'd done my best with the scrap, spending as much time as possible getting as much of it as I could into the standard cargo carrier pods. However, there was still a lot of it scattered about, mainly the bigger bits which needed specialist tools to be manouvered – tools I didn't have handy. I'd warned Broch, though, and he'd sent the tools over. I'd been down and locked the inner doors on both holds – humans are curious creatures, as I knew from personal experience, and I didn't want to have the port service staff rifling through my gear or commenting on the abysmal state of repair of the Dutchman.


When the woman had come in and looked at him, Avon had thought he was going to be released.

“Wass yer name?” she asked. Her accent was almost impossible for him to understand.

“I beg your pardon?” Avon said.

“Yer name,” she repeated.

“Oh. Keir Chevron,” he answered. It seemed sensible enough to retain a single alias. He gave one of his more appealling smiles, trying to charm his way out of the cell. “Might I know why I am confined?”

The woman's only answer to his question was a laugh. “'E'll do,” she said to one of her flunkies. “Don't 'urt th' merchandise.” She stomped off. The flunky opened the gate of his cell.

“Merchandise?” Avon asked, suddenly uneasy.

“You're for the open market,” the flunky said. “Nice lookin', nice speakin'. Teani's gonna auction you off.” The flunky gave him a slightly apologetic look. “Highest bidder gets you, for whatever they wanna do.”

“Whatever?” Avon didn't like the way the conversation was going.

“Looker like you, there's gonna be some of the mine bosses in there to get a boy for 'emselves, or for their wives. Pray it's themselves – if yer bought as a handbag, y' get cut.” The flunky pointed to the corridor. “C'mon, let's get you sorted.”


I stifled a yawn. I'd been running low on sleep for at least a week, and I couldn't get any until I'd lifted from NovyLen II. I don't sleep when I'm in a hostile port, and when you're on the hop from Federation forces, you're always in a hostile port. You never know who's going to try to sell your head to the authorities. I wandered over to the dispenser to get yet another cup of coffee.

There was a blip from the datapad in my cabin. I'd set things up so it was listening to the taps, with a few flag words to alert me to anything suspicious. Looks like one of the flags had been hit.

I took my coffee and myself into the cabin, and had a look at the alert warning. Two flags – one for the two parties communicating with each other. The other was for the word 'Federation' showing up anywhere in the communication. I flipped the pickup to give me the straight dope.

“... I thought you'd be interested, Broch,” came Teani's voice.

“I am interested,” Broch said. “Are you certain he's the one wanted by the Federation?”

“Positive,” Teani replied. “'E's Blake's alright. Comptech one – what was 'is name? - Avon.” There was a distorted chuckle. “Free million credits on 'is 'ead. 'E's yours for one mill.”

“You overstep yourself, Teani.” Broch's voice had an edge to it. “Half a million would be sufficient.”

“One mill, or I sell 'im to the Feds meself,” Teani countered. “Free million Fed cred will get me a stake in them mines of yours, an' I got most of th' boys in town workin' for me now.”

I started thinking fast. Teani's comment about being careful not to wind up in her lockup suddenly took on a whole new level of significance.

“Three quarters, and you can use his services when I have finished with them,” Broch countered.

“I c'n get more 'n that for 'im on th' open market,” Teani replied. “'E'd go fer at least a mil an' a narf. Or I c'd put 'im up fer auction.”

Okay, so Teani was in the slave trade as much as anything else. I was starting to dislike the woman with a certain amount of emphasis. If there was one thing that really got on my wick, it was slave traders.

“Eighty-five thousand,” Broch said.

“One mil,” Teani countered. “Or frow in that bitch wiv the ship. She's on the Fed lists 'erself. She'll fetch a pretty penny.”

The silence from Broch's end of the line didn't sound reassuring. Looked like my amnesty on Deschya was nearing its end. Time to cut my losses and run. I headed out to the flight deck, and checked the external scans and the drive monitors. At least the refuel had been done, which was a small mercy. I still had the radwaste, which meant I had to drop the bloody stuff somewhere, but that was a minor problem.

A view of the scans showed the cargo Broch was giving me was waiting to be loaded into hold two. None of the techs had shown (and I had a strong suspicion they'd be taking their time). I cursed to myself. The drive repairs could wait, but I really needed to get Della fixed up, which meant I needed a comptech.

When the idea occurred to me, it was almost blinding in its simplicity. I knew where there was a comptech, and Broch hadn't let me know my amnesty was over. I grinned, and got onto the Port Services people. They had me patched through to Broch's office in no time flat.

“Broch,” came his voice through the relays.

“Dina here,” I said. “I'm missing a crewman I hired on at the last hop. Can't get through to him on the comm. I'm wondering whether he might have been picked up by Teani's crew.”

There was a sigh from the other end. “I shall contact Teani and let her know you will be visiting,” Broch said.

“Can you get her to waive whatever fees she charges?” I asked.

There was a silence from the other end of the line.

“After all, he is my crew, which means he's covered under the amnesty,” I said, reminding Broch of his bargain.

“If you haven't warned your crewman, I don't see why I should have to cover the cost. I'll take it out of the price of the repairs.” Broch sounded grumpy.

I chose my next few words with care. If I just agreed to Broch's terms, it would look suspicious. “Come off it, Broch. That's a permanent amnesty we're talking about here, not a bloody three day pass. Even if it was a bloody three day pass, I've only been in town about twelve hours standard. No deduction.”

“You should consider your position, Dina. I don't offer a permanent amnesty to every spacehound who brings me a load of metal.”

“I don't have to bring the metal here, Broch, and you know it. I do it because I like you. Would you rather I went to Samenow instead?” Samenow was Broch's biggest rival; the main reason I didn't trade with him was that I didn't trust him as far as I could spit a dead rat, but Broch didn't need to know that. Besides, the way things were turning out, I wasn't going to be trading with either of them. I could afford to threaten him.

“All right,” Broch said. “No charge. I'll be in touch with Teani.”

“Thanks,” I said, cutting the connection. Time to move. I grabbed a spare blaster I kept hidden in the flight deck (for those little emergencies), and stowed it in a pocket of the jacket. Then I nudged Della awake.

“Della, code green,” I told her.

/Acknowledged. Code green defences activated./


Avon found himself being scrubbed to within an inch of his life, and while the circumstances were less than ideal, the experience of cleanliness once more was worth the price. The burns on his hands were treated, and the bruises he'd picked up from the rather irregular flight of the VanDerDecken were soothed away. If he'd been Vila, he might have relaxed under the whole regime. However, as he wasn't, he didn't. Instead, he tried to watch for an opportunity to escape.

One wasn't provided. They did provide everything else, however. Food, drink, clothing...

“No, no, that's entirely ridiculous,” said the stylist. She discarded a number of rather elegant shirts. “Not you at all,” she said. “This is much more you.”

'This' turned out to be a pair of thigh-high boots, chap-style trousers, a sheer black body-stocking, and a loose tunic-style top. Rather like one of his favourite outfits from Liberator, he thought. No underwear, however, and his had been removed when he was sent to the bathhouse.

“Well, put it on,” the stylist said. She watched while he shed the robe he'd been wearing, and started to don the clothes. “Hmm... yes, that's good. But it needs a little something.” She watched a while longer, then perked up remarkably when Avon looked straight at her. “Ah, I know.” She input a quick request to her datapad.

Avon had just finished putting on the boots when another woman put her head around the door.

“Did you want me, Shimere?” she asked the stylist.

“Ah, Magra. Just who I was looking for. He needs some eyeliner and mascara.”


I'm not a fool. I knew if I could place a tag on other people, they could place a tag on me. That's why Della's defence codes are slightly different to the standard. Code green means the inner hold doors are electrified, and once the cargo had been put into the hold, she'd be starting the internal systems and getting them ready for an immediate exit. Her guns were being warmed up too, so I could blast my way out if necessary, and stealth mode was being prepped.

My part in the whole business was heading down to Teani's lockup. I was expecting her to try and take me – it seemed her style – so I was on full combat readiness myself. One of the things I'd learned in years of slavery, as well as almost as many years as a spacehound was how to fight nasty. The blaster was ready, and I had the defence systems in the jacket on the hop too.

Teani's lockup was a rather scrappy place on the outside, but I didn't let myself be fooled by this. I was on alert the whole time. I showed up at the front counter, to be faced by a bloke who looked as though he were carved out of granite.

“I'm looking for a crewman,” I said.

“Y' come to the right place,” the man said, giving me a smile which showed the aftermath of years of poor nutrition and not a few bar fights. At least his remaining teeth interlocked with each other. “We got all sorts here. Take yer pick.”

I gave him a smile of my own. “I don't think you understand. My name's Dina. I have an amnesty for myself and any of my crew from Broch. Your people picked up my crewman. I want him back.”


Avon was no stranger to makeup, although he didn't wear it all the time. For one thing, it was irritating when it got in his eyes, and for a second, he wasn't fond of the taste of lipstick. However, the makeup artist hadn't given him a choice in the matter. She was very skillful, he had to admit. His eyes looked darker and more shadowed, his skin looked paler, his nose (never his favourite feature) looked somehow less prominent, and he didn't look as though he was wearing any makeup at all. She'd also buffed and polished his nails.

It would have been wonderful, had it not been for the problem of the intention of all these attentions. No matter how pleasant the whole experience, he was still destined for the slaver's block, and from the looks of things, he'd be sold off as a pleasure slave.

The thought wasn't a comforting one. What was even less comforting was that he had no idea whatsoever of how he was going to get out of this situation, and where he would run to if he did. He hadn't felt this helpless since he'd heard about Anna's death. Being captured by the Federation had been almost empowering by comparison, for there he could at least pretend to himself that he was resisting their tortures, even when he was so far gone he couldn't even scream. Here, he had nowhere to go, no way to get there, and no place to hide from the knowledge.


I'd been escorted down to the general holding cells. A quick scan showed only the standard range of boozed-up bozos in need of a couple of good kicks. No sign of Avon.

“Any others?” I asked my escort.

“Not in the general cells,” he said. “Got a few in the special pool. But they're not for hire.”

“I don't think you understood me, chum,” I told him. “Like I said, I have an amnesty from Broch himself, and it covers myself, my ship, and anyone who happens to be on my crew. I'm thinking you picked up a crewman of mine – bloke by the name of Chevron – and I want him back.” Under cover of the pocket of my jacket, I slipped on the knuckleduster.

The man looked at me, suddenly wary. “I'll have to speak to the boss,” he said.

“You do that,” I answered. “But take me down to the special pool first.”

“Them's the ones as have been here three days or longer,” the man said. “You been here that long?”

“Nope,” I said. “But you'll take me anyway, or I'll be having words to Broch about this.” I looked the man in the eyes. “You don't want me to be having words with Broch, now do you?”

He shook his head, and led me on. I had my own suspicions about this. I'd noticed that as I went further into Teani's warren of buildings, I was heading further underground, which implied the woman had far more money than she was letting Broch know about. I was also being led further in with relatively few protests. I was getting closer to whatever inner sanctum she had set up, and in all likelihood closer to Avon, but I was also getting further from the entrance, and it was very probable I'd have to fight my way out.

When we reached the special pool, I got a number of confirmations, none of them welcome. I got confirmation that Teani was playing the slave market; confirmation she had access to the Fed most wanted list (I could recognise at least one of the “special” types from the list – a minor league gangster who'd tried to sell me once; couldn't think of a nicer person for him to happen to); and confirmation she was going to make it hard for me to get out. This last would be why she had six blokes fall in around me as escort through the pool. I didn't let it bother me. I had one priority: retrieving that computer tech.

Mind you, I damn near didn't recognise him when I finally saw him. Tarted up like a very expensive rent boy, he was. Pity he didn't look young enough. Outfit was nice, but really, the makeup was a bit much. If they were trying to disguise the man, though, they'd need the services of a good surgeon – it was the nose as gave him away.

“That's the one,” I said, pointing to him. “Keir Chevron.”


Dina's arrival had been unexpected to say the least. When she'd stopped in front of his cell and mentioned his assumed alias, Avon had blinked. Hearing her request his release was another surprise.

“Come on,” she said to the nearest handler. “I told you, I have an amnesty with Broch.”

“Gotta check with the boss,” the handler muttered.

Dina gave him a look which Avon wouldn't have been ashamed to own, and replied, “Well, let me bloody well speak with him, at least. He's my bloody crew, you great nong!”

“He didn't say so,” the handler replied.

“Oh for sod's sake,” Dina swore, waving her hands in the air. “Do I have to do everything my bloody self?” She turned to face Avon. “Chevron, you great nit, why didn't you bloody well tell them yourself? I told you what this place was like!”

Avon was taken aback by the comment, but realised that here lay his best chance of escape. “I have to admit, Captain, I wasn't expecting to be picked up by the hurry-up squad one hour into my shore leave,” he said, glaring at the handlers.

“Got yourself drunk again, didn't you? I'm gonna have to stop paying you your wages when we first land. Bloody cargo doesn't sell itself.” Between her harangues, Dina was looking at him in a way which said 'play along'.

“I wasn't drinking,” he answered. “I was in a hotel, minding my own business, when these men came and removed me from the room.”

“Yeah, you right. Pull the other one, it's got bells on,” Dina said. “Well, if you're gonna be picked up by the rozzers soon's you hit town, you may's well stay in the bloody ship.” She gave him a wink. “At least that way, I'll know where the hells you are when I need to leave.”

Avon realised she was offering him a way out, and a way out which didn't appear to involve being sold as a slave. He lowered his eyes, then looked up again, hoping she'd understand his agreement.


It was hard to get the message across with the six heavies behind me. I had to hint at things and hope Avon understood. Mind you, the Fed's mentions of his intelligence weren't wrong. He could take a hint when it was flung at him. He was also capable of being subtle, as well – I'd caught the flicker of his eyes, a sort of micro-nod, but I doubted the thugs had. His next words were a good indication he intended to play along with my story.

“It was just the once, Captain. I assure you it shan't happen again.” His tone was pure old-school Alpha arrogance. Reminded me of my last owner but two.

“Just the once my arse,” I answered. “Or do you mean 'just the once' at this particular port?” I turned back to the escort team. “Get him out of there, damnit. I'll make sure he stays in the ship for the rest of the time we're in port.”

“No ya won't,” came the answer from the other end of the corridor. I had to admit, I'd been half-expecting Teani not to show. Nice to know she was legit about running the bouncer side of the business as well. “Y're not goin' anywheres. Nor's 'e.”

I looked over at her. She was carrying a small blaster openly, and the half-dozen goons around her were also armed. She wasn't going to be letting me out without a fight. Good thing I was ready for one.

The corridor we were in stood between two rows of cells, six to a side. Avon had been shoved in the second from my end on the right, and all the others were inhabited. This was good news for me, and bad news for Teani, since any unintentional deaths would come off her balance sheet, not mine. Given my balance sheet started with a thirteen-person deficit, any alterations to that were all to the good.

Teani gestured at the goons around me. “Get 'er,” she said.


Two men closed in around Dina, reaching for her shoulders. She gave a sort of shrug, and hunched further into the large leather jacket she was wearing. There was a brief, confused instant of action, then the two men were on the floor groaning and twitching, Dina was aiming a punch at a third, and one of the men at the far end of the corridor had fallen to a blaster bolt.

Avon watched as the punch connected, then grabbed at the gun that a kick had sent skittering inside his cell. A standard blaster, minimal kick, charge was on the low side, he thought, as he gave the weapon a quick look-over. He moved toward the cell doors, preparing to pick off the men attacking Dina.

“Aim for the ones at the other end,” she yelled as a cable of some kind tangled around another of her assailants. Avon nodded, noticing out of the corner of his eye the man was convulsing. He took aim, and got one of the bodyguards of the woman who'd examined him earlier.

A blaster bolt came back the other way, aimed at Dina, who was still in motion. It missed, hitting the man she'd been threatening with a knife. Another came straight for Avon, who ducked behind the shelter of the cell wall. There was a curse from the far end of the corridor, and the sound of a heavy thump.

“Not th' fuckin' merchandise, y' fuckwit,” the boss yelled. Avon ducked out from behind the wall and squeezed another shot off. It missed the bodyguards, going into the cell to the side. There was a scream from whoever had been in there. Avon didn't allow himself to be distracted by it. Just another body, he thought.

Dina, meanwhile, had dealt with the other two men who were trying to capture her. Or at least, one of them was on the ground, groaning, and the other was out cold. Now she had her blaster in her hand, and was aiming at someone or something at the other end of the corridor. There was the sound of a blaster bolt, then a sudden clunk from the cell door.


“Got it!” I said. It had been a tricky shot, and ordinarily I wouldn't bother, but in this particular case, it was worth the risk. I'd just taken out the door controls on all the doors in this section. So there were now about a dozen potentials on my side of the argument, if any of them fancied joining the rush for freedom. Of course, I only really needed one of them – the rest could take their chances.

There was a tug on my arm, and I almost fell into the cell Avon had been stowed in. As I did, a blaster bolt whizzed through the space I'd been in. Hmmm... nice reflexes. Very useful.

“How many left?” he asked me, ducking out just long enough to fire a single shot.

“Two dead up that end, six wounded down this. Door's that way,” I said, pointing at the way I came in. “Up four levels, and about six checkpoints. We're going to have to fight our way out.'

He nodded. “Right. Count three, we're out, and I'll cover your back while you get the door open.”

I gave a grin. “You've done this before,” I said.

The smile he gave was both sardonic and genuine, and it really changed his face. “If you say so,” he replied.

“One... two...”


The escape from the lockup was something Avon would remember for a long time. It had been a frantic scramble all the way, with shooting battles at every checkpoint and fist fights in between. He'd gained a new respect for Dina's ability to survive in a fight, as well as some new tips for dirty fighting. The punch which had felled the bodyguard was explained by the brass knuckles she was wearing, while the body armour she had on under the jacket seemed to absorb a lot of the punishment they were handing out. He still hadn't figured out how the first pair had been downed. All they'd done was touch her shoulders.

She was a good shot with a blaster, too. She shot to wound, rather than to kill, and left a trail of men groaning on the ground, clutching at shattered joints. Avon's main task was covering the rear, and he shot to kill, aiming to prevent any pursuit.


Took a while for us to get out of there, but by the time we'd kicked the front door down, there was a trail of escapees after us. Broch would probably have my head if I showed up in Deschya again after this little riot. Good thing I wasn't planning on it.

“Go to the Dutchman,” I yelled to Avon, “but don't touch her.”

He nodded, and ran. I'll say this much for the man – when he's in the right mood, he can put on a fair turn of speed. I stopped behind for a bit, looking for a good target to keep things bouncing out here, and prevent the port services from trying to take a shot at us as we left. I spotted the ideal one, and grinned, dialling the power on the blaster up to maximum.

Teani's fuel store went up with quite a loud explosion. As people scattered in every direction to try and avoid the whole business, I made a beeline for my ship. As I'd expected, the chaos covered my escape beautifully.

“Home run!” I yelled to Della as I came into shouting distance of the Dutchman, praying she'd be able to carry out the command. I wasn't sure whether her restricted resources at the moment would let her comply.

It appeared my luck was in. The hatch opened, and I rushed inside. I heard footsteps behind me, and guessed Avon had followed me. If he hadn't, that was his problem at this point, since I couldn't do anything about it until I'd cancelled the code Green. The metres to the flight deck seemed endless, as they always did when I used this manouvre.

Ah, there was the arch, and I was through, and yelling to Della. “Bug out,” I said, and threw myself into the pilot's seat. There was a roar from the engines, a feeling of gravity pushing me down all the harder, and I was watching the scans with all the concentration I could muster while I ran through the unlocking procedure for the pilot's yoke. I still spotted Avon throwing himself into the copilot's chair, and bringing up the scanners there while I was in the middle of things.

“All systems appear to be functioning adequately,” he said, speaking fast. “Core power at sixty percent, main engine taking all power from the core.”

“Hold on tight, Avon,” I told him. “It's going to be a bumpy ride.” I flicked the last of the switches I needed to gain full manual, and started pointing the Dutchman in the direction of the hells out of here. I had my ship, and the computer tech I'd been looking for all this time.

Hell, maybe things were starting to look up at long last.


Kerr Avon, the Liberator, the Federation, Orac, Vila, Cally, and the general environs of the Blake's 7 universe were all created by Terry Nation.
Jayne, Mal Reynolds, Kaylee, River Tam, Dr Simon Tam, Serenity and the Alliance were all created by Josh Wheedon.

In each case, I'm using these without permission.

Shimere appears in cameo by her own consent. Thanks, Shimere, for so much absolutely gorgeous fic about Avon.

Everything else, I made up myself, out of the proceeds of several decades of reading science fiction and fantasy, as well as watching a lot of television. If you recognise anything as belonging to a particular show, or a particular book, let me know so I can give proper acknowledgment to it.


Thanks to all the people who voted for this story in the Finish-a-thon voting in 2006. My apologies to all those who voted for the first choice. Due to circumstances beyond my control (namely the location of my copy of the Lord of the Rings still being undetermined) I was unable to work on that story. I offer this one as an alternative.

As I said at the beginning of this, I wanted to see how Avon coped with a computer which wasn't as advanced as either Zen or Orac. However, it seems that in the throes of writing it, Avon and Della didn't get much of a chance to get to know one another. Oh damn... I'll have to keep writing.

This is, in effect, an alpha draft. Mine are the only eyes which have been over it. Feel free to suggest beta corrections for redrafting, and I'll see what I can do.

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