The guards had become lazier as the weeks progressed and he had not posed a threat. Argus and Jenna seemed to trust him with more freedom. Followers followed the examples of their leaders and as a result his guards had lagged further behind when following him and did not always pay attention. Besides, they did not see where he could escape to within the confines of the ship. Such limited imagination. This was an error he was going to exploit in order to escape. He had also lifted a sonic disruptor.
The plan had been to distract Tess by asking her to retrieve a tool just as they were exiting the ship's workshop. Before the guards had a chance to follow him out, he would disrupt the door sensors so that they would close automatically and not reopen until the automatic reset completed. That would give him just enough time to disable the door panel control.
Down the corridor, just like with the prison ship London, was a maintenance access hatch. The maintenance channel ran the entire length of the ship and opened up just outside the shuttle bay doors. Once there, he would have no problems commandeering the scout shuttle and knocking out any computer overrides required to open the shuttle launch doors.
It had to occur just as they entered orbit, else he would not be able to contact ORAC using the limited range of the transmitter and tell it to position the Deep Space Vehicle to pick him up.
But nothing could happen without the activator key and it was missing.
"Avon, we need you on the flight deck." It was Jenna calling over the ship's intercom system.
When Avon arrived, Jenna asked,"Where were you? Tess is already set to break into the orbital surveillance system." They were to build in a disruptor program which when activated would knock out the entire surveillance computer system. It was a fallback weapon, in case they needed it. Again it had been Avon's idea, communicated through Tess.
Avon went to join Tess who was already hooked into the ship's system.
"Did you lose this?" Vila asked him as he passed by. The thief held up the activator key. "You must have dropped it," he added, "I'll hang onto it until you're done, shall I?"
"Of course," Avon replied, without a hint of reaction. He didn't have much choice.
He understood, Vila, the thief had ‘lifted' the activator key. It must have been under Argus's orders. There were two possibilities, one was that Argus was making sure he had no possibility of access to ORAC and had asked for the key to be retrieved earlier, the other possibility was that they had guessed his escape plan.
The most likely possibility was the first one.
Avon's mind went into overdrive as he applied himself to finding a solution to this new state of events. He still held the vital information, no one knew ORAC's location.
He needed ORAC in order to call the DSV to extract him. There was also one additional piece of information they did not have, the sole remaining teleport bracelet from the original Liberator, the one Vila had teleported down with on Terminal, he had stored it inside the ORAC unit. It was a contingency for when ORAC would find another Deep Space Vehicle.
He had to get the transmitter back, they would be highly suspicious if he asked to send another communication using the public message box. Without a way to communicate with ORAC, he was stuck. He would have to risk leading them to ORAC. Having gotten this far, they would kill him if he did not but at least they would not be able to use it. They did not know the true purpose of the device he had built and even if they did, they did not have ORAC's command code.
With a shock, he realized something. At some point, he had started believing that this group was what they seemed, a band of rebels and not some Federation trick by the psychostrategist. No one as smart as Sester would have allowed him such a dangerous tool as the bio-interface unit.
Then there was the breakdown incident with Vila, when he accused Avon of trying to kill him in the autoshuttle. Neither one of them had ever discussed that incident with anyone but what had convinced Avon was ORAC's last cryptic communiqué that the group had been infiltrated. An enemy does not infiltrate itself.
He still did not trust them, he needed to get away and think and he had no interest in joining another band of idealists out to get themselves killed in order to save the rabble. He wanted to be alone with ORAC and the Deep Space Vehicle. Free and safe, not coerced or manipulated. With the nightmare of the past year he had had enough.
So things had not changed, he needed to escape and he needed ORAC for that.
The Gauda Prime port authority seemed to accept their Federation status. Their fast shuttle had been allowed to enter into the lower flight traffic zone. They landed close to the underground silo. Captain Sovan and his former pirate group stayed onboard The Carver to monitor planetary movements.
Avon, Argus, Jenna, Vila, Tess and Prake's group landed on the planet and were making their way through the dense jungle. 624 group had been left to guard the shuttle.
"Are you getting the same uneasy feeling I'm getting?" Vila asked them as they followed Avon to where he had hidden ORAC. Things had been too easy, just like on Singoa, when they landed into a Federation trap. Things had been quiet then too, before everything fell apart.
"You're just remembering what happened the last time Vila," Jenna suggested,"and besides, you always get a bad feeling."
"Yes and look what happened that time."
Avon signaled them to stop, he was getting his bearings, trying to remember. He did not remember this much quiet.
They were standing beside an old fort made of large granite-like blocks. The walls were at least one standard unit in thickness, it had seen better times. Ancient wars had caused holes of various sizes in the walls. Avon seemed to be pacing his steps carefully, suddenly he bent down. There was a hand-sized hole near the base of the wall.
"Give me the laser cutter."
"Where is ORAC?" Argus asked. He knew that the longer they stayed in one area, the more risk they took of being discovered.
"Behind this wall," Avon told him.
Argus looked at the wall, it did not seem possible, other than a small hole near the base, there did not appear to be a place to conceal anything and definitely not something as large as ORAC.
"What trick is this?" Argus asked suspiciously.
"Are you saying it's behind this wall? How did you get it inside?" Jenna asked.
Avon looked at Vila, "Molecular reduction."
"Oh he means a stabilized atomic implosion," Vila said as he remembered where he heard the same words before.
They all stared at him in astonishment.
"I know things." Vila looked offended and guilty. He did not want them to find out that he and Avon had tricked ORAC into reducing it's size so that they could sneak it down to Freedom City in order to break the casino there. They had not seen fit to tell Blake, Jenna and Cally, who had been on a mission to find out the location of Star One.
Avon explained, "ORAC can reduce it's size for a limited period of time without impairing it's function. By reducing it's size small enough, it can fit into any aperture. There is a cavity behind this hole which is large enough for a full-size ORAC."
"Clever. No wonder the Federation was never able to find it and why no one accidently stumbled on it," Argus was impressed despite himself.
Avon suggested, "Let's get on with it."
Argus handed the laser cutter to Avon. Soon a large rectangular shape was cut into the wall and sectioned, they removed each piece carefully. Behind the wall lay the object everyone was looking for, ORAC. Argus took it out and lay it on the ground.
"Try the key," Argus told Vila.
Vila removed the activator from his tool bag and fit it into the key slot.
"ORAC," Jenna addressed the computer unit.
They all looked at it expectantly, waiting for a response which did not come.
Vila gave the computer a whack on the side, "Come on ORAC, say something. I always knew you would be more useful as a drinks dispenser."
Still nothing. Avon began examining the interior of the computer. "I need to get ORAC back to the workshop. Some of the components may have suffered damage over the past year."
"It could have been rats," Vila volunteered.
"Don't be a fool," Avon said. If it had been vermin, they would have left much more of a mess, that was clearly not the case.
"Rats would be an improvement," remarked Vila.
"Alright. Let's head back to the shuttle," Argus told them. He removed the activator key and handed it to Vila. One of Prake's men picked up ORAC.
Little did they know that Vila had been right when he said that things were too quiet. While Argus's group had been retrieving ORAC, the Federation trap had sprung. Elite assault troops had stealthily moved in around the shuttle and taken out 624 group. The troops were now masquerading as the rebels.
As they approached the shuttle, Argus signaled the shuttle guards. One of them waved back indicating the all clear.
Argus reacted instantly, dropping to the ground, "Everyone down!" He began firing. It had been a Federation military signal response. The rebels did not use the same response signals.
Everyone began firing their weapons. Men fell, both rebels and Federation. The rebels were surrounded, pulse rifle flares and laser tracers filled the air.
Argus's wristcomm buzzed.
Captain Sovan's voice crackled through static, "Argus."
Argus answered, "We're a little busy at the moment Sovan, we've just run into an ambush."
"We have our own problems up here, two Federation pursuit ships just appeared. We're under attack."
"Get the ship out of there," Argus told him. There was no response, only static. "Sovan?"
A two-pronged attack, someone was expecting us. We need to get back to the ship, thought Argus.
One of Avon's guards was shot and his rifle flew out of his hands; he was dead before he hit the ground. Avon picked up the rifle and began firing.
There was an explosion far above them, all heads turned upwards to watch it. Trails of debris were visible.
Argus yelled into his wristcomm, "Sovan! Respond."
The rebels knew what the explosion likely meant, they had not only fallen into an ambush but now they were trapped on the planet with no means of escape.
"Tess!" Jenna cried out. There was a large growing red patch in the middle of the young woman's chest, she had just been hit in the crossfire.
Argus and Avon rushed over, firing as they moved. Jenna was checking her pulse.
"She needs immediate medical attention," she told them.
Tess was losing blood quickly and there was nothing they could do, not where they were.
Someone yelled out, "Hold your fire!" For some reason, everyone complied. The voice sounded familiar to Avon.
"Avon," the voice called out again. It was Sester. "You're an intelligent man, Avon. You're surrounded, there are no options. Your ship has been destroyed and there is nowhere to go."
The simulation was at an end and the Federation had won.
Avon looked down at Tess. She was pale, the blood stain had spread over most of her chest.
"No," he said quietly. There was a determination in his voice. "Pick her up and get ORAC," he commanded the rebels. His face was expressionless, but his voice and his eyes held the same dangerous, unyielding look which he had once used on Tarrant.
Suddenly he stood up and rushed the Federation troops, taking out three before anyone had a chance to react. Argus ran after him, and then the rest of the group, two of them carrying Tess, as they blazed their way to the shuttle. Avon rushed into the scout ship and began making preparations.
Argus provided cover fire for the others from the shuttle entrance.
"Get everyone onboard," Avon told him.
Vila, carrying ORAC and Jenna rushed in. Following fast on their heels, two of the rebels brought in Tess and strapped her into an empty seat. Heavy pulse rifle fire hit the ship's hull.
"Prake, get your men inside," Argus told the other rebel leader.
"Argus, go! We'll provide cover fire! You have to protect the assets! Find a way off the planet. Go!"
The rebel group resolutely ranged themselves to protect the shuttle.
Argus looked at the other rebel leader and nodded in salute. He punched the door panel. The shuttle door closed.
"Avon, whatever you're going to do, do it now!"
"It's up to you," Avon looked at Jenna, who had seated herself in the pilot's chair. Avon pulled a series of levers, in response the engines roared into life. "Just get us into orbit. Everyone else, strap yourselves in."
Jenna exclaimed, "Avon, we don't have the cruiser anymore. Going into orbit would be suicide. The best course would be to fly as far and as fast as we can, lose any Federation flyers and hide until we can find a way off-planet."
"Just get us into orbit," he told her again.
He punched two buttons simultaneously. The sublight engines and the specially adapted thrust engines immediately provided power. He had made adjustments to balance the engines so that the tremendous force generated would not tear the ship apart. The scout shuttle shot up into the sky and within seconds it was no longer in view of the ground.
As they approached orbital height, Avon told Vila, "Give me the activator key."
Vila looked to Argus.
Avon said urgently, "Tess needs medical attention, give me the key!"
Argus nodded, he knew Avon was up to something but he knew that it was probably their only chance for survival. Avon took the activator, turned on the transmitter and spoke into it.
"ORAC, command code gamma two delta three six four."
"Yes Avon," the computer responded.
The others looked in shock at ORAC.
"How close is the DSV?"
"It is currently behind the Gauda Prime moon."
As the Federation pursuit ships were in the process of fighting and finally destroying the rebel cruiser, ORAC had directed the DSV to leave the asteroid cluster it had been hiding in. At standard by twelve, it had just arrived in a hidden position behind the moon, which the pursuit ships had just vacated. In the confusion of the battle, no one had noticed it's approach.
"Direct it here immediately and relay my commands to the ship. Put up the forcewall, put battle and navigation computers online, evasive action only. Do not return fire. Calculate active escape trajectories."
"What's going on?" Argus asked suspiciously. He knew now that Avon had been tricking them all along.
Avon ignored his question, "Lock the inner hatches. Positive pressure."
"Equalize hold pressure."
"Battle computers? Forcewall? Equalize hold pressure?" Vila repeated, confused, "That sounds like…"
"It is a Deep Space Vehicle built by the Altans, just like the Liberator."
"The Liberator?" Jenna asked, one part incredulous and one part a growing but disbelieving hope. She had many questions but now was not the time.
"There," Avon pointed to a growing shape on the screen. It was a familiar welcome shape.
Right behind it were also other recognizable and less friendly shapes, two Federation pursuit ships. Jenna moved the scout shuttle towards the DSV, directly in front of the hold doors and as close to the forcewall as possible.
The pursuit ships fired, plasma tracers raced towards the Deep Space Vehicle.
"Get ready Jenna. ORAC, once the plasma bolts hit open the main locks and drop the forcewall."
"Of course. That was evident." The attitude didn't take long to show itself.
"Pleasant as always ORAC"
"I fail to see the relevance of that statement."
"You never do. Just follow the instructions."
"Very well," the computer replied begrudgingly.
The plasma bolts hit the forcewall. They could feel the ripple effect of the blasts against the forcewall.
"Now," said Avon calmly.
The forcewall disintegrated, the hold doors began to open.
Jenna moved the shuttle forward, once it cleared the forcewall perimeter, Avon instructed,"ORAC, raise the forcewall." It was none too soon, another two plasma bolts had been fired and were making their way towards them. They hit just as the shuttle approached the rim of the hold entrance. Jenna pulled up quickly, stopping their approach before they hit the suddenly shifted edge.
"My life just flashed before my eyes," Vila declared, he had been holding his breath.
"How dull for you," Avon remarked.
Jenna moved the shuttle forward again; they docked safely this time.
"ORAC, close main locks. Transfer to inner hold number one."
As the shuttle came to a stop inside inner hold number one, Argus told Avon and Jenna, "Get the ship out of here. We'll take care of Tess"
The ship rocked with the force of two more plasma bolts. Jenna and Avon rushed to the flight deck with ORAC. Vila and Argus remained behind to transfer Tess to the medical bay.
Once on the flight deck, Avon placed ORAC down on a padded bench in the command conference area.
"ORAC, instruct the ship computer to record our voice prints."
"It's about time. Perhaps I can get back to my own projects now. You have monopolized my time far too long."
"The Zen computer is already waiting your instructions."
"This one is called Zen too?"
"Zen, meaning the organizer, the coordinator, the arranger, the..."
"Of course. That's enough ORAC. Zen, this is Kerr Avon," Avon paused for Jenna.
"And Jenna Stannis."
"Register our voice prints, from now on you will obey our requests and commands. You will no longer respond to anyone who is not registered. Zen, indicate confirmation."
"Confirmed," a familiar tired-sounding voice responded.
Avon went to the systems console to check on energy reserves, "Energy banks one and two depleted. Drawing on bank three. All other banks at full charge. Zen, have the battle and navigation computers plotted the optimal escape route away from all Federation attack ships?"
"Initiate evasion course. Speed, standard by ten."
As the ship sped away from their pursuers, Argus and Vila were trying to save Tess. They had put her on the bio-bed in the surgery unit and were attempting to stop the bleeding. It was no good, even the advanced medical equipment could not save her. If Dr. Alberay had been there, his chances would also have been slim. The injuries had been too severe and had been left untreated too long. She would have stood a chance if she had been treated immediately.
"Argus," Tess called his name. They could barely hear her voice.
Argus bent down. "Don't blame Avon," she told him, "it wasn't his fault."
He became angry, "If he hadn't tricked us." Tess why do you still insist on protecting him? He's killed you.
"He didn't trust us, he couldn't trust anyone after what they did to him and you didn't trust him. Gauda Prime was always a trap. You have to see that. The Federation knew we had to go there, we didn't have a choice. None of us did."
Argus shook his head. His mind understood but his heart wanted to hold Avon responsible. It would be along time before he would be able to resolve the two.
"Yes, Tess?" Vila was distraught.
"Do you have my satchel?"
Her equipment bag with the bio-interface and computer hand-unit had been dropped on a table near the bio-bed.
"It's right here" he took if off the table and handed it to her.
"No. Give it to Avon," she told him.
He clutched the bag and nodded.
"You have Avon, ORAC, and the best ship in the known worlds. Don't disappoint me big brother," she looked at Argus, "I just wish I could see it." With that she died.
Argus was frozen. Someone would pay and he knew who that someone should be.