The scorching sun seemed to leech the moisture from her skin as Jenna followed Blake at a discreet distance, trying to keep the dust clouds raised by her boots to a minimum. Blake’s meet with his fellow saboteurs was in an old abandoned warehouse at the edge of the city.
She kept to the shadows as much as possible while Blake looked to the left and right, wary of any Federation patrols or traps. He had a wide-brimmed hat pulled over his face and tried to move in a shuffling, limping gait.
Jenna had a bad feeling about this meeting.
The people she had talked to on the planet seemed to welcome the Federation’s efforts to help them get back on their feet and become productive. Many of them actually saw the Federation as heroes and saviours. The vid-news services were still broadcasting exciting space battles between Federation ships and the alien invaders. There were numerous in-depth interviews with brave soldiers who had held the line and families of the many brave ones who had died to save humanity.
There were even long line-ups of people ready to join the Federation military. The Federation made sure to remind everyone that the Andromeda galaxy was still full of aliens who wanted to wipe them out. Destroying the invasion fleet wasn’t the end of it. The way they depicted it on the news services, Andromeda seemed right next door.
Of course, this had made Blake angry and he was even more determined to act. He could see his dreams crumbling with every broadcast. Blowing up the storage facilities wasn’t enough for him. Jenna knew he was planning much more. There had been mentions of the Federation recruiting centres and the vid-broadcasting buildings and blowing them up.
Blake slipped down a dark alley between two buildings and entered a side entrance. Jenna followed carefully, her eyes sharp for signs of danger. She reached inside her jacket. Her pistol slid smoothly out of her concealed holster. Blake said these were rebels that were going to help him blow up the food storage facilities but she didn’t know them.
She pushed the door open a crack and peered into the gloomy darkness inside. Blake was nowhere in sight, nor anyone else for that matter. Like a thief, Jenna snuck in on soft feet, her pistol held ready in front of her. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She was in a long corridor with closed doors at evenly spaced intervals.
Which way did Blake go? It couldn’t have been far if she lost sight of him that quickly. Jenna tried the closest doors, opening them a sliver, just enough to establish that they were empty of people before moving to the next one.
There was a muffled shout, “Don’t move, Blake!”
Jenna started at the demand, her hand pausing before she pushed open the next door. It was just as she had feared. Blake was in trouble and these were no rebels. She put her ear to the door’s cold surface and listened.
Muffled voices came from inside. Blake’s loud, angry voice was clear. “Do you want to be Federation slaves? They’re taking advantage of you! They know you don’t have any choice!”
There was another loud, strident voice. “The only one I see who doesn’t want to give people choice is you, Blake. You want to force us to fight the Federation by blowing up innocent people who only want to survive and are trying to do what they think is right. You believe yours is the only way and you’re going to shove it down everyone’s throats even if you have to kill some of us to do it. That's fine for you, Blake. You don't have family and friends that you can watch die right in front of your eyes. I thought you were a hero once...and I still do. I admired your courage and your convictions and I respect your intentions. We used to cheer whenever we heard of your exploits. But now that we're face-to-face with them, when our children, our family and friends will have to pay the price, we can't do it. We arranged all this just to see what your plans were. What you're proposing to do is kill many innocent people in order to force them to do what you want. We can't live with that, even if you can. We can’t let you kill our families and friends.”
“Sacrifices have to be made if you want to be free. I want you all to be free! I want you to be able to make your own choices! I don’t want you to be slaves of the Federation!” Blake’s passionate voice bellowed.
“We’re not slaves if we work with them willingly. Just because we don’t hate them and want to destroy them like you do, doesn’t make us slaves. We will not fight your battles, Blake. Perhaps one day we may chose to, when the Federation is to us what they are to you. But that would be by our choice, not yours. Not anyone else's.”
“You're pathetic! I should leave you to rot! You want to live like slaves? Live or die at the whim of the Federation, then fine! You're not taking me down with you! I'm getting out! I'm better off without you!”
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Blake. If you want to settle down here, peacefully, we are more than willing to welcome you and your identity would be safe with us. However, if you try to cause trouble with the Federation, then you are not welcome here and we will stop you. We can’t let you harm our families. You are free to go, but we will keep your weapon and we will be watching you.”
Jenna heard footsteps approaching and moved back from the door, covering it with her pistol. Blake came out, his face flushed with anger. He immediately put his hands up to protect himself when he saw her gun but relaxed when he saw her face. “Jenna.”
Jenna kept her pistol raised and looked behind him to make sure no one was following. She said in an urgent whisper and pulled on his arm, “We’d better get out of here, Blake.” As they rushed away, she turned back frequently to make sure they weren't being followed.
“You heard?” He rubbed the back of his neck as he reluctantly followed her.
“I heard. I had a bad feeling about this so I followed you. I don’t think it’s safe for us here anymore, Blake, no matter what they promised. Too many people know who you are.”
Blake’s eyes were troubled. “I thought that it would make a difference when we destroyed Star One. People would throw off the Federation once they had the chance. But this…”
Jenna’s heart went out to him. He looked lost and hurt. His whole life’s work seemed to be in ruins. There was desolation in his eyes, like someone who had looked into the abyss and found nothing but bleak emptiness.
Don't you see, Cally? If we stop now then all we have done is senseless killing and destruction. Without purpose, without reason. We have to win. It's the only way I can be sure that I was right. Blake's impassioned, almost desperate words rang in her head.
Blake said in a sinking whisper, "They don't understand. It was senseless after all..."
Jenna wanted to put her arms around him and give him the comfort that he often gave to others. "It wasn't senseless, Blake. You did it for a purpose. You couldn't have known that it would be like this here. And this is only one planet. We should find places where it did work."
Blake said, "Will we find any, Jenna? Avon warned me. He told me we should use Star One. He said that destroying everything won't work. People needed direction and order. He always told me that but I never listened. I always had to be the one who was right. I was determined to prove him wrong." Blake gave a depressed sigh. "But he was right." His voice rose in frustration, "Avon was always right. He must hate me for wasting two years of his life...for nothing. It was all pointless, without purpose, without reason. Just random acts of killing and destruction. He said it was insane from the beginning. He said we could never win. He must be laughing now."
"He wasn't right, Blake. You said it, Star One is too much power for anyone. You couldn't risk it using it. And at least you tried to do something. That's better than these people with their empty cheers."
Blake was angry and depressed, "I should have known on Cygnus Alpha."
"What about Cygnus Alpha?" Jenna asked cautiously. She had never admitted to Blake how close she and Avon had come to abandoning him on the planet.
Jenna could see that Blake was trying to draw up memories from his fractured past and it was not giving him good feelings. "The prisoners rejected me, Jenna. Only a handful were willing to come with me. The rest...would rather stay and be slaves of Vargas. I should have known then. People don't want to be saved."
Jenna sighed. She hadn't known what happened on Cygnus Alpha. She'd always assumed that Vila and Gan were the only ones who had survived the escape."People do want freedom, Blake ...but when it comes to choosing freedom over living, living usually wins out."
Blake's voice rose heatedly, "Living without freedom. You might as well be dead! Jenna, we have to make them see it! If they won't do it for themselves, we have to do it for them."
Jenna was worried. Blake was emotionally erratic, his moods quickly shifting from depression to anger and now the fever of the crusader again.
Blake was a man who needed a purpose, a reason to live. He couldn’t see people ‘enslaved’ and not do something about it. Being rejected was a big blow to him. It always made him angry that other people didn’t see what he could clearly see.
Even if she didn't agree with some of his methods, Jenna didn’t want him like this.
She could see from these people’s perspectives but she also loved Blake for his passion and his desire to help them. Jenna still believed that the Federation had to pay for what it did to its own people. She still believed in Blake’s dream. But not at any cost. Not after Star One and seeing what it's destruction had done to so many innocent lives. How could she? Maybe she could help Blake see it too. She had to try. They could not afford to lose someone like him. Someone who still cared enough to sacrifice himself to save others. He just needed to be guided.
Jenna knew that it would be a difficult task. Blake never listened to anyone except himself and he had lived far too long with the idea that the ends justified any means. Could she change him or would he end up changing her again? She had to try.
Jenna awoke from her dreams with a sinking feeling. She had been wondering why her subconscious had been dredging up these memories. Now she knew.
Avon extended his arms over his head as he stretched work-stiff muscles. He was not alone though the engineers had already gone for the day. The shift duty sergeant was running some additional diagnostics that Avon had requested.
Avon stifled a yawn and took a long, satisfied look at his network tracking and analysis work. His uplink device had not been discovered and it was working perfectly. It enabled him to track the enemy's activity along the networks and identify other people of interest. He was building a comprehensive diagram of this hive of aliens. Soon they would have the entire network and they would be able to move against them, preferably before the aliens did something else damaging.
The Athol surveillance teams were being deployed more effectively with his new information. He checked that the program was still in automatic mode before retiring for the night.
A familiar soft humming sound drew his attention to the flight deck entrance. He watched with amused fascination as SPOT rolled smoothly down the steps on its autoform-tracks. Lesser machines would have found stairs a challenge. One of these days, when he had time, he was going to take a closer look at this technology. It did not seem to be mechanical in nature and he didn't have time to look at it when he was fixing the little cleaner.
SPOT glided towards him. There was something that looked suspiciously frilly on its head. Avon's eyes narrowed. "SPOT, what is that on your head?"
SPOT said brightly, "It's a hat! Do you like it, Master?"
"No, I do not like it."
SPOT expelled a swish of air, which sounded like an unhappy little sigh.
Avon could guess who had decided to give SPOT this unnecessary adornment. It had to be SPOT's owner. "Was Corinne responsible for the hat?"
He was willing to accept some level of irrational behaviour. Corinne was SPOT's owner after all and she was a young woman who seemed entranced by meaningless frivolities. She was the perfect partner for Vila.
The little cleaner reported, "No."
Avon lifted a surprised brow. "No?"
"Who is responsible then?" Avon's mind automatically sorted through the gamut of people on the ship.
SPOT reported cheerfully, "Sentha, Alara, Karita, Thela, Rakel…"
Avon said brusquely, "That's enough. I get the picture." His lips thinned in displeasure. The robotic cleaner had become a mascot. After all the time he spent upgrading it into a highly advanced machine, this was intolerable.
The little machine asked with trepidation, "Are you unhappy, Master?"
Avon said, "Why would that matter to a machine?"
The little cleaner said with decisiveness, "It's important."
"I see. You've been programmed to meet the needs of those you serve."
"Avon." Cally's voice lightly touched his ears as a bubble of amusement was projected his way.
Avon turned to see her come down the steps. "Cally."
Cally was taking the night cycle shift today. The duty sergeant acknowledged the handover of responsibilities and left them alone.
Cally said, "SPOT wants you to be happy."
"It's a machine, Cally. It doesn’t 'want' anything. It has been programmed to mimic specific humanoid behaviours in order to fulfil its function of serving its owners."
Cally sighed. "Sometimes I think you could do with a bit of programming yourself."
"I have considered it. It would make the learning process more efficient and take considerably less time."
Cally said, "Avon, I was kidding."
Avon stared at her a moment and then the corners of his mouth tugged in a mischievous grin.
Cally returned his bare smile with an affectionate one and placed her hand flat on his chest. "You're teasing me."
"I thought it might make you…happy."
The heat of his body penetrated through his dark blue shirt and warmed her palm. "You make me happy."
"It would be an interesting avenue to explore," said Avon.
Cally asked teasingly, "Which one? Making me happy or programming yourself?"
"I multi-task quite well."
"I'm sure you do." She leaned her head towards him, their lips parted in anticipation.
SPOT whistled with excitement and its ears whirled with pleasure.
Cally and Avon looked at the little cleaner with surprised embarrassment. It felt as if they had been caught doing something that was very private.
Avon remarked with ill humour, "It's a machine."
Cally's eyes looked questioningly at him.
"Why do I…" It was so incomprehensible that Avon could not put words to what he wanted to express.
Cally could sense what he was feeling. "Why do you feel embarrassed? Could it be because you don't see SPOT as a machine anymore?"
Avon automatically corrected her, "Cleaning appliance."
"I've noticed that you haven't called him that in a long time."
SPOT happily beeped its agreement.
Avon glared briefly at it. "I call it by its acronym."
"Sanitizing Patroller Omnidirectional Type," replied Avon in a purely factual tone.
SPOT beeped a long query.
Cally said, "Oh, Avon."
There was a bright gleam in Avon's eyes and a light tinge in his deadpan voice as he asked, "Would you like to see me multi-tasking? After your shift, of course. And out of the watchful eyes of convenient acronyms."
Vila decided to start on his mission to get to know the Athol soldiers. It was hard to find one free, since most of them were on the planet doing clandestine surveillance, but they had to eat and sleep sometime. The easiest places to find them were in his least favourite place, the gym, or his second most favourite place, the eating area. He decided on the eating area.
He approached a group of four soldiers with a mountain full of food. Lt. Dain and four others he was determined to find out the names of.
With a friendly smile he said, “Lt. Dain.”
Dain paused in the middle of piercing a large bite-sized cut of meat with his fork. “Sir?”
Dain looked at him with uncertainty. “Sir?”
“My name’s Vila.”
“Yes, sir,” Dain agreed.
“I mean, you can call me Vila. You don’t have to call me sir.”
With military correctness, Dain said, “That wouldn’t be appropriate, sir. Not while on duty.”
Vila eyed the tempting food on the table and pointed out, “You’re not on duty, Lieutenant. What’s your name by the way? When you’re not on duty?”
“You want to know my name?” Dain asked as if it was a strange idea.
Vila was beginning to wonder if all military people were a bit slow when dealing with real life.
“You have a first name, don’t you?
“Of course, sir.”
Dain regarded him curiously, making Vila feel as if the man was sizing him up for a mission.
The burly, open-faced young lieutenant tested out the name tentatively, as someone who wasn’t good at foreign languages, “Of course…Vila.”
“That’s it!” Vila said encouragingly.
Dain said, “Lucellavar.”
“Eh?” Vila asked eloquently.
The other soldiers at the table suppressed snorts of laughter.
Dain glared at them defiantly with the full authority of someone not to be crossed. The soldiers all suddenly had a need to put something in their mouths and apply themselves to the busy task of chewing.
Dain said to Vila, “That’s my first name, sir…Vila.”
“But people always call me Dain.”
Vila pondered this, “I’ll just call you Dain then.”
“That would be much appreciated, sir…Vila.” Dain asked, “Would…you like to join us?”
“I’d love to.” Vila pulled up a chair and they made room for him.
Dain made the introductions, “This is Lapley. He’s an explosives expert.” Lapley was a thin man with an equally thin moustache who reminded Vila of an old ‘uncle’ who had taught him some of the finer aspects of pick pocketing. He was one of the long-suffering sergeants. Lapley nodded. "Vila...sir."
“Next to him is Bari. He’s our comm tech.” The tech was a stiffly formal man with a half-moon scar over his left eye that gave him the appearance of having double eyebrows on one side. Bari nodded to Vila. “Sir.”
Dain continued, “Across from him is Dyre. He likes breaking things.”
Dyre, a cheerful man with dark brown hair that had started to grey, chuckled and stuck out a friendly hand to Vila, “That means I’m an engineer.”
Vila shook the man’s hand, trying not to wince at the strong grip.
“And last but not least is, Baxter. I have no idea what he does, maybe one day he’ll decide and tell the rest of us,” Dain said dryly.
Baxter, a short ruddy-faced man with freckles, was the youngest one of the group. He grinned, “If I weren’t so good at everything, I might be able to decide.”
Dain remarked, “He’s also modest to a fault. One of many.”
Baxter’s grin widened, “You know you love me, sir.”
If Bari’s voice were any drier, he’d sound like Avon, “He's also without shame and any medication at the moment.”
Vila said, “It’s good to finally know all of your names.” They seemed more like very muscular people now rather than just nameless soldiers. “Maybe we can do something together.”
Dain said, “Is this because of Innes, s...Vila?”
Vila regarded at him hesitantly, “To be honest…yes. I should’ve asked all of you before this. I mean, we’ve worked together for months now. We’re not strangers. We should get to know each other.”
Dain nodded, “That’s appreciated, Vila. We should get to know you as well.”
Vila asked him slyly, “Do any of you know how to play poker?”