And... back to the "Blake's 7" perspective. Reposting the story cynically in one section or the other of fanfiction.net according to which set of characters are being featured (as opposed to using the official 'crossover' section, which very few people bother to check for new entries) at least gives me a chance to gauge readership in the two separate fandoms. Unsurprisingly, it's considerably larger on the 'Phantom' side. (Unfortunately, I forgot to change the fandom back when initially posting chapter 2, so any alerts that went out to my 'followers' will have listed the story as a "Blake's 7" one and thus of no interest to them...)
'Considerably', of course, is a relative term. A grand total of thirty-four people actually went so far as to glance at chapter 2, but one of them was so excited as to 'follow' the story (which I hope means she'll recognise the update when I post this chapter into the other fandom) :-p)
Chapter 3: Down and Safe
Blake was asleep when the call came.
They’d all been on edge for far too long — in the case of Avon, himself and Jenna, more or less constantly since they’d first boarded the Liberator — and Avon for one was starting to look exhausted, all the squared angles of his face drawn sharper and more uncompromising than ever. No doubt he’d barely rested all this time for fear that the rest of them might somehow double-cross him or work out a way to put the ship to profit at his expense. No doubt, Blake considered wearily, Avon himself could have come up with two or three ways of doing just that. He wondered if all geniuses were paranoid, or if it was close proximity to computers that had soured Avon on humanity at large... or more personal reasons, perhaps.
Well, he wasn’t about to pry; he needed Avon’s cooperation, and it was hard enough to get that out of him anyway. Any attempt to restore the man to the human race would have to wait until later. Much later.
Meanwhile Avon’s considerable abilities might be needed at any moment without warning, and they had no means of knowing when. The only way to get the man off-guard enough to take some rest — sleep was probably too much to hope for — was for Blake to remove himself from the equation; he’d announced that they all needed to lie down for an hour or two before the planet came within range, watched Avon’s hackles, predictably, rise, and informed the flight deck generally that he was going down to his cabin.
He hadn’t actually expected to drop off. But he’d clearly been a lot more tired than he’d realised, because from what little he could remember, his eyes must have closed within minutes of lying down on his bunk.
The intercom sounded again, and he swung his feet to the deck with a sigh, feeling for his boots.
“Blake.” It was Jenna, sounding terse. “We’re in orbit— and you need to come up to the flight deck.”
“On my way.” The edge of urgency in her voice — or had he imagined it? — cleared the last of the fog from his brain; he straightened his clothing swiftly and made for the upper levels.
The sides of the ship’s passageways were not square. The angled walls glowed slightly, further proof — if any were needed — that the Liberator’s unknown builders had not worked to human conventions in such matters as geometry and lighting ducts: humanoid her crew had been, with waists and limbs and bodily requirements that matched near enough to those of her current occupants, but Earth-bred? No, he thought not.
Well, provided the designers didn’t come back to claim their property, he could afford to be generous where their sense of aesthetics was concerned; the Liberator was not only more advanced than anything Space Command could muster, she was beautiful. All she needed was a few more living, breathing bodies on board, and together they would be able to take on the universe.
The body that shot out of a side-passageway and almost collided with him came as a total surprise.
“Vila!” He caught hold of the smaller man’s arm to steady him as they lurched, let go as Vila recovered his footing, and automatically checked through his own pockets— it was a habit they’d all got into with a compulsive pickpocket on board.
“Well, I’ve got to keep my hand in, haven’t I? No knowing when you might want a key off some guard, or a record disc whisked out of view in broad daylight,” Vila had complained when Jenna, whose patience was short, had threatened to wring the little thief’s neck; but to do him justice, ‘missing’ items tended to resurface eventually, and more or less where they belonged.
A moment’s acquaintance with Vila’s breath, however, warned Blake that in this case it was the man’s other weakness that had been in play. He recoiled, coughing.
“Faugh— just set light to that, Vila, and you’ll have an alcohol torch fierce enough to demolish a full section of troopers.”
“Well, you told us to relax.” Vila offered a grin of placatory innocence — he didn’t look drunk; his tolerance was evidently considerable — and Blake sighed and waved him on up to the flight deck. He was beginning to sympathise with Vargas on Cygnus Alpha. Ruling a colony of prisoners and misfits was almost enough to drive anybody mad.
“Relax all you like— but do try to breathe in some other direction.” He tempered the words with a half-smile of his own — it was hard to stay angry with Vila for long — and met Jenna’s eyes as the two of them came down the steps to join the others.
“Take a look at this,” she said shortly, indicating the large screen that dominated the forward part of the deck. It was filled with a close-up view of what Blake managed, after a moment’s mental rearrangement, to identify as a Federation shipyard seen from above. The various blocky buildings were overtopped by even the smallest of the interstellar craft dotted around the landing pads; and dwarfing all the rest, a vast and inelegant shape lay canted over for repairs at one edge of the compound.
“What in the name of Earth and the Inner Sectors is that?” Vila said, an instant before the same sentiment could escape Blake.
“According to the local newscasts, the schoolship Borda,” Avon said drily, looking back from the padded bank of seating at the front of the flight deck where he’d evidently sunk down to carry out the rest of his watch in comfort; Blake awarded himself a mental note of satisfaction. “She carries a complement of over four hundred cadets from the Federation Space Academy, every one of whom is currently roaming around the city at a loose end, doubtless on the lookout for rebels and escaped convicts — are you still sure you want to run your head into the noose?”
“At least she doesn’t look as if she’s likely to be taking off any time soon,” Gan observed with his usual calm sense. The big man had been leaning against the bulkhead next to Zen; now he pushed himself upright and directed a questioning look at Blake, who shrugged.
“I don’t think we need to worry too much about a cadet ship. We outgun and outfly her by a ratio of around six to one, four-fifths of her crew have barely got their first stubble—”
“And the other fifth are female.” Jenna’s cool eyes surveyed the others. “So, do I take it you’re still going down?”
“Do I take it you’re not?” Blake parried, confident of the answer — with no other qualified pilot, they both knew he wasn’t about to leave the Liberator circling an occupied planet without Jenna on board — and got a rather scornful look in response.
She thrust back a thick wave of hair from her face, laying a possessive hand on the helm. “While you’re down there chasing Ghosts, it seems to me that the rest of us would be more usefully employed learning to work this ship before the next emergency comes up— don’t you agree?”
“Take her round the inner system, you mean?” Blake frowned, but couldn’t fault the idea; they needed some down-time to establish the function of a few more of these controls, and Jenna, with her experience of direct interface with Zen, was the one to do it. “Avon, do we have any idea if the teleport will work over that sort of distance?”
“I don’t even know if the bracelet communicators will work.” Avon, who had been looking at the screen in front of them, turned again. “Personally, I very much doubt it.”
“So do I,” Blake admitted reluctantly, contemplating the possibility of being temporarily marooned on a hostile planet. It couldn’t possibly be worse than Cygnus Alpha... and at least there wouldn’t be religious fanatics trying to hijack the Liberator.
“We’ll just have to arrange when you’re to come back for me, that’s all. I’ll need quite a long time down there anyhow; I’ve got to find the locals, convince them who we are and what we can do, and then see what sort of help they can give—”
“Two of us should go.” It was Gan, his gaze as steady as ever. “I’ve got less technical knowledge than any of you— I’d be more use on Newparis, watching Blake’s back. I’ll go down with him.”
“Gan’s right,” Jenna said at once. “None of us should go down alone. How long do you think you’ll need?”
Blake ran a hand over his face and up through coarse-springing hair, letting out a deep breath. “Let’s see... Newparis has a twenty-two hour day, Federation standard hours, and it must be early afternoon down there. Say until dark. We can always teleport down again the next day if need be, and there’s probably a curfew in the Dome.”
Jenna was nodding. “All right. We’ll give you twenty minutes or so to see if everything’s going all right, then we’ll duck behind the inner planets and try if we can get her going on manual for a bit. We’ll make another pass round the planet and pick you up at local sunset. And if you do get into trouble—”
“We’ll do our best to lie low until then,” Blake finished for her, returning her grin. “Vila? Avon?”
“Ah, I think I’d rather stay up here,” Vila said quickly, sidling towards Jenna, who gave him a contemptuous look.
Avon echoed it. “Are you asking for my opinion or my good wishes, Blake?”
“I can guess the one and I’m not counting on the other.” Blake raised an eyebrow. “Surprise me.”
Their eyes met, and Avon’s face crooked suddenly into rare, genuine humour that stripped ten years and a maze of bitterness from the harsh lines around his mouth. “I’ll take care to be the one on the teleport when you come up, this time. Just in case we get any more mad monks returning in your place.”
“There’s no-one I’d trust more,” Blake returned with calm meaning— he had no doubt at all of Avon’s ability to take clear-headed ruthless action if necessary. Nor did he believe for one minute that placing his own life so openly within Avon’s hands could bring anything other than good results... for both of them.
“Maybe you trust too easily, then.” But there had been a flicker, for a moment, behind the habitual mask. “Remember that, on Newparis— and you can take it as opinion and good wishes both, if you like.”
“Oh, I will,” Blake said equably, answering the words and not the reflexive acid of Avon’s tone, and had the reward of seeing the other for the moment caught at a loss. He looked round again at the one man among them who made no claim to talent or temperament. It was easy — very easy — to take Gan’s quiet ways for granted.
“Surface kit, Gan— I’ll see you at the teleport in five minutes.” A breath. “And... thank you.”
Manipulation, Avon’s expression said.
Gan’s said, You’re welcome.
Roj Blake was humming a tune as he went down the passageway to get his own surface kit.
“Down and safe,” Blake reported, briefly depressing the communicator button on his teleport bracelet. His voice through the breather was blurred but recognisable.
Gan, hurriedly closing his waterproof parka — it was cold on the planet’s surface — and tucking his own bracelet out of sight up his sleeve in case of inquisitive locals, inhaled experimentally through his own breather set. Avon had cannibalised them from the headpieces of the Liberator’s environmental suits, and they were never going to pass for native tech; but then as neither Gan nor Blake, both dark and heavyset, was likely to pass as a plausible Newpie denizen it was scarcely an issue.
The teleport co-ordinates had been calculated to set them down somewhere on the outer fringes of the dockyard, and the plan was to pose as newly-arrived offworlders, which should provide an excuse for making suitable enquiries. Blake had hoped that they would be able to teleport directly inside the city without needing breather masks at all; but Avon, who had been responsible for trying to set up the landing position, had flatly refused to be held responsible for the consequences of attempting an accurate teleport fix without considerably more practice or time for calculation, and Gan had been privately somewhat relieved. He hadn’t been at all certain what to expect from the process of being teleported — his one previous trip had been the emergency retrieve from Cygnus Alpha, when he’d scarcely had time to think about what was happening — and the last thing he wanted to find himself worrying about was whether the Liberator’s teleport was capable of transmitting human bodies into a space already being occupied by some other solid object, let alone the mental picture of what would happen to the human in question if it did...
In any case, given the conditions on this world, they would need to carry breathers anyway as a precaution. It had seemed like a good idea to establish right at the start that they worked.
So he and Blake had been set down out in the open, between the hulking shells of two ancient planet-hoppers awaiting scrapping or repair. The Liberator’s surface detectors at maximum resolution had indicated no sign of life in the immediate area; Gan had taken a deep breath, closed his eyes instinctively, and braced himself for the unknown. In fact, he’d been aware of no alteration whatsoever.
It wasn’t until Blake had touched his arm and he’d looked round instinctively that he’d discovered that the world around him had changed. The ground was as firm under his boots as the floor had been, up in the teleport area, and he’d had no sensation of his footing dropping away beneath him; it was just... not the same place.
Blake had been grinning, and he’d returned a rather shamefaced grin of his own. It was then that the cold had started to bite.
Gan looked up at the sky above them, shivering despite his parka. He was still not used to planetary surfaces; the prisoners had been landed after dark on Cygnus Alpha, and he’d had no chance to stand outside and watch the sunlight streaming down out of a Domeless bowl of open atmosphere overhead, without so much as a forcefield between him and outer space.
He’d seen vids of life beyond Earth, of course— the agricultural worlds, the leisure planets, even the surface mines and factory plant on systems like Zeka or Esdor Colony. He’d just... never expected to find himself standing on one.
On Newparis — at least at the moment — the sky was a sort of greenish colour, and the local sun seemed little more than a brighter patch in shifting layers of haze up above. To eyes used to the confines of a Domed city or the close quarters of a starship, the distant landscape looked incredibly featureless and empty; the shipyards stood in what appeared to be the middle of a vast flat plain of rock and sand extending out in all directions to the horizon. He could see only a few dried-looking, scrubby patches of growth around the base of the perimeter fence nearby, with what might have been more plants of some kind on the ledges of the outcrops of rock further beyond. A single line of pylons with little wind-drifts of coloured sand at the foot of each strode out past the familiar shape of a big city perhaps half a mile distant; he could not guess at their function, but they formed the only landmark beyond the huddled cluster of human habitation.
Gan shivered again, and not just from the cold.
Blake said something — his ears adjusting to the distortion of the other man’s mask, Gan translated it belatedly as “Let’s get inside” — and gestured to a set of low buildings further round the perimeter, which they’d decided from above must be some kind of subsidiary exit. Gan nodded and fell into step, ducking into the shadow of a huge rusting landing-strut on the nearest of the hulks. A little spurt of wind rattled loose metal, high above.
In the end, however, they had no trouble at all. Taking off his mask — at least for the moment — with a sigh of relief, Gan had stood unobtrusively waiting for Blake to finish negotiating with the aging sergeant behind the desk whose job it was to pass them through. A combination of Alpha-grade arrogance and browbeating soon had the man washing his hands of all responsibility for the offworlders’ supposedly ‘missing’ authorisation for re-entry, the responsibility of some other department, and producing a fresh set of temporary pass discs which would take them through every checkpoint into the main zones of the city. A few strategically deployed credits produced a list of recommendations besides: where to eat, where to arrange a cash transfer, where to meet up with local ships’ crew. Blake listened, slipped in the occasional drop of flattery to oil the works, and finally caught Gan’s eye and jerked his head towards the exit lock in the corridor beyond.
There was a Federation trooper stationed just inside the airlock, and for a moment Gan felt his stomach drop away within him. But the man gave them no more than a routine bored glance before waving them through, and the subsequent tap on the shoulder that nearly stopped his heart was only Blake, gesturing for him to replace his mask before the door seal opened.
There were inner airlock doors — he’d seen them as he passed — but apparently they were not currently in use. At any rate, a warm billow of air followed him out onto the outer perimeter before the door closed behind them; and then they were walking towards the Dome, to all appearances legitimate spacefarers in search of a little rest and recreation.
It was not very far, although a couple of times vehicles sped past them, kicking a spray of grit in their wake. About halfway to the city, Blake’s communicator chimed: Jenna, checking in as arranged before leaving orbit. They exchanged a few brief words.
“Enjoy yourselves,” Blake finished wryly. “Blake out.”
There was a few moments’ silence, save for the crunching of sand as they walked.
“Well, “ Gan said, “we’re on our own.”
The breather was covering the lower part of Blake’s face, and it was hard to be sure of his expression... but the eyes had definitely crinkled into amusement. And the murmured rejoinder under his breath, as the two of them turned back to the road, sounded to Gan for all the world like Make the most of it.