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DIATA 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

Peto and Shak stood before the screen of the great warship. A small circle of light was displayed in the centre of the otherwise black screen. As they watched, the circle of light grew larger until it showed as a globe of light about twelve inches in diameter. Behind the two men, Comp was operating the ship's computer.

“There is no doubt about it, Peto. It is the satellite that we are seeking. It is called 'Tregon' and is the only satellite of the sun 'Morton'. Morton was an explorer of the old World Space Exploration Council and the sun was named after him after he discovered it. Tregon was his friend who happened to be with him at the time.”

“Thanks Comp. The point is, what do we do, now that we are here?” Peto had been dreading this moment and his question was one that he hoped Comp could answer.

“It is a penal satellite and you have to liberate those that are serving their sentences on it. That is why we have come here,” replied Comp.

Comp's answer did not serve to lessen Peto's worry. Peto's concern was how to start the liberation of men who did not have any hope and probably would not trust them when they tried to release them.

“Use Normec,” said Shak. Peto nodded. They had brought Normec along with them at the suggestion of Careen. She had told them that all the planets of the Empire would respect any orders from a Councillor. Normec was in his quarters believing that he was in complete control of the warship. He was happy doing nothing but whatever pleased him while Comp ran the ship.

“An excellent idea, Shak,” said Comp, “I can call the authorities on the satellite and you can get Normec to order them to receive us. There should not be any problem there. Shall I do so, Peto?” Peto could not think of a better suggestion and agreed.

Comp contacted the Chief of guards on Tregon and the man's bearded face appeared on the screen of the communicator. Peto was repulsed at the ugliness of the man. His blackened teeth, half eaten away through chewing ghutna, a drug made from the bark of a tree found on one of the inhabited planets. His filthy uniform was unbuttoned, displaying a greasy, crumpled shirt that was undone to the waist.

“What do you want? No one is supposed to be near here until the next batch of rebels are due. I could have you blown out of space,” said the Chief.

“I certainly wouldn't try it, my friend. This is an Imperial warship and under the orders of Councillor Normec on behalf of the Governors. We are formally requesting permission to land on your delightful satellite,” said Peto, “Councillor Normec has need to speak to one of the prisoners that you have in your care.”

  The man stiffened and pulled his tunic together. His attitude visibly changed but his expression did not quite lose its surliness.

“A Councillor? You say a Councillor is here? We have never had a Councillor here before. Why would a Councillor come to a place like this?”

“If you give us permission to land, you will be able to ask him yourself,” replied Peto. For once he was grateful for the fear that the mention of a Councillor instilled in the people of the Empire. “I would advise you to clean yourself up before you do, though,” he added. The Chief scowled at him.

“It's all right for you fancy Space Navy types. We have to do the dirty work on God-forsaken places like this. We don't have anything to dress up for. We haven't even had our allocation of women for three years. That's two lots we haven't had!”

Peto felt sickened. He thought of Eelan and the women of Diata becoming the playthings of men like the Chief of Guards. He tried to hide his disgust.

“You can ask the Councillor about that too, when you switch on the beacons so that we can land,” he said.

“Wait! How do I know that there is a Councillor aboard? Let me see his Insignia. We'll do this the right way, according to regulations.” Peto doubted that the Chief ever bothered with regulations until now, but the man was not taking any chances by being lax on them with a Councillor looking on.

Shak, who had been listening, teleported to Normec's rooms and brought him to the control room. Peto, for the benefit of the Chief, bowed to Normec and made way for him to seat himself in front of the screen. On seeing Normec in his official garments, the Chief hastily tried to tidy himself up.

“I am not used to being dragged away from my meals. Are you going to let us land or do I have to order my men to reduce this piece of rock to dust. I understand that you doubt the words of the Captain and wish to see my Insignia. Here it is.” Normec held up the Insignia in front of the screen for the Chief to see it.

The Chief stammered an apology, explaining that he was only following the regulations to protect the interests of the Empire.

“I will see that the beacons are switched on immediately, Councillor.” Normec looked down his nose at the image on the screen. His cold, grey eyes scrutinised the Chief.

“I hope that when I get down there, you will not be as unkempt as you are now. If you enjoy spending your time in such filthy attire, I can arrange for you to join the ranks of those living on a subsistence benefit. Most of them are in a similar state.” Even on the screen, Peto saw the Chiefs face whiten. The Chief made to apologise again but thought better of it.

“I shall go at once to get the beacons put on with your permission, Councillor.”

Comp cut the connection, ending any further conversation.

Peto and Shak stood by while Comp manoeuvre the ship into orbit around the satellite. They watched him appear and disappear as he teleported from one bank of controls to another, doing the work of five men at the same time. Unlike the humans, who generally walked around the large warship, Comp preferred to make full use of his ability to teleport. He also preferred to take control manually rather than let the ship's computer do the work. His explanation to Peto was that he did not entirely trust what he called a rather primitive computer.

Once the warship was in orbit, preparations were made to take the smaller shuttle down to the penal colony. It was decided that it might arouse suspicion should they take the huge cargo shuttle.

Peto took Shak, Shim and Derk along with Normec and homed in on the beacons. They viewed the desolate, uninviting terrain of the satellite as they approached the landing site. On one side, the sun brilliantly lighted the stark jagged rocks. The other side was in complete darkness. There was no moon or atmosphere to lighten the night-side.

“This place makes the area of the metal clay on Diata look like a paradise,” said Shim. There was no comment from the others but their expressions showed that they agreed with him.

The shuttle landed on a launching strip that had been cut out of the surrounding rock. Close by was a large building that was just beginning to be lit by the rising sun. As they surveyed the scene, a huge hovertruck left the building and swiftly approached them. It swung around in front of the shuttle and stopped. A team of robots emerged from the truck and quickly attached a tow bar to the shuttle and just as quickly returned to the truck. The calm voice of one of the robots came to them from the communicator asking them to put the shuttle on hover. They did so and the truck towed them to the building.

Through the windows they saw that they were being manoeuvre alongside an airlock that attached itself to the shuttle and locked into place. They had arrived.

The Chief of the Guards was waiting when they emerged from the airlock. He had managed to clean himself up in order to be more presentable but the foul smell of his body indicated that he had not had time to bathe.

When the Chief saw Normec, he immediately bowed low and introduced himself as Chief Kayser and assured Normec of every assistance he could give. Normec waved him aside and demanded that they be taken to more comfortable surroundings.

“This way, Councillor,” said Kayser, “of course, you understand that we do not have the kind of comforts that you are worthy of here. This is a penal colony and is not equipped to accommodate a person of your standing.” He led them to his office that reflected the unclean way that he normally lived. If he had managed to tidy the office up before they had arrived, it certainly did not show.

Kayser offered Normec a seat and sat down behind his desk. Normec remained standing, looking at Kayser. Shak, reading Normec's mind, spoke.

“Councillor Normec is not used to being in front of a desk. He is used to being behind one.”

Kayser jumped to his feet, apologising to Normec and offering his seat for Normec's use.

Shak contacted Peto's mind.

“Got to keep up appearances,” he said, as Normec occupied Kayser's seat. Normec gazed at Kayser with his cold eyes. After several seconds, Kayser began to squirm in his seat. Normec was skilful in making people uncomfortable. Finally he spoke.

“You will provide me with a list of the names of the prisoners, their crimes and their sentences. I shall also require to see the living quarters of the prisoners that I shall choose,” said Normec. Kayser's face registered surprise.

“Of course, Councillor Normec. May I ask the reason for such a request? This is very unusual. I have not had any notice of your visit and I shall need a little time to make out a copy of the list. My immediate superiors have not warned me of this.”

Shim's thoughts came to his companions.

“In spite of his squirming, he is already suspicious. It may not be as easy as we had thought.” The others had come to the same conclusion.

“We may have to control him,” said Shak.

“Yes, but if we do, the whole Empire will know about the prisoners escape. We don't want to have to take Kayser with us as well,” replied Peto.

Normec told Kayser that the reason for the request was restricted to a privileged few at the moment and that he would know soon enough.

“I can tell you that it is a matter of great importance to the Governors themselves. Some of your inmates have particular skills that the Governors require to be put to use elsewhere. Now, I shall return to the comparatively luxury of the shuttle. Meanwhile you will show these men where the prisoners are kept.”

“Most of them will be working in the mines right now. The second shift will be sleeping, not that waking them up will matter,” said Kayser, his grin showing his unsightly black teeth.

Normec returned to the shuttle and after calling his second in command to take over, Kayser took Peto and the three others to a shuttle that was connected to another airlock.

The shuttle rose swiftly and passed over an outcrop of rock that was higher than those that they had yet seen. As they passed over the summit, they saw what appeared to be a small town. The buildings were in neat rows on a flat plain that they guessed was cut from the rock surface of the satellite. Around the 'town' and placed at regular intervals, were towers that rose from buildings of a different kind. Unlike the other buildings, these were linked to each other by what appeared to be covered passages.

The towers, which were about thirty feet tall, were also connected by similar passages about fifteen feet above the ground. At the top of each of the towers they could see mounted lasers and searchlights. A few space-suited guards could be seen on some of the towers.

The shuttle swept down and landed beside one of the buildings with the connecting passages. Two robots emerged and connected the airlock and went back into the building.

“Well, here we are,” said Kayser, “Let's go inside.” He led the way into the building, passing a guard who was sitting at the airlock, along a passage and through a door with a sign that said 'CONTROL'

Inside were two men wearing the uniforms of the guards. Like Kayser, they were slovenly dressed and unshaven. One of them was playing a game of some kind at a table. The other was at a desk that had the screen of a monitor. They jumped up when Kayser entered with Peto and his companions.

“Hi Matt,” said the one who was playing, “didn't know you were on your way down. Who are these?” Kayser scowled at them.

“These are S.N. men, Jack. They came with a Councillor who is waiting to inspect you and the other guards here, so you had better smarten up.” The other guard looked up from the screen.

“What's a Councillor doing here?”

“Never mind. Get a hovercar ready. I'm taking these S.N.'s over to see the workers. You'd better get a couple of men to come with us, just in case.”

When the extra guards arrived, Kayser led the way to a garage in which several hovercars were parked. Each one had twelve seats in it. They entered one and saw that it was obviously used to transport prisoners. Each seat had manacles fixed to the armrests. Two more were welded to the floor for each passenger. Derk stopped and stared at them with distaste. Kayser saw his expression and laughed.

“Don't worry. I don't think you will need to fasten your seat belts on this trip,” he said. The two guards with them saw the joke and laughed with Kayser.

The hovercar glided towards a large door that opened as they approached. Beyond the door was another that remained closed until the first had shut. It was another airlock.

When the second door had opened, the shuttle glided out into the now brilliantly lit 'town'. It was a town with empty streets. The buildings were windowless and made of metal. There was a single door to each of the buildings that was clearly an airlock. The roofs were flat, giving the appearance of rectangular metal boxes set in neat rows.

Kayser stopped the hovercar beside one of the buildings.

“Well. What do you want to see?” he asked.

“We want to see inside these buildings. We want to see the prisoners and see how secure they are,” answered Peto. Kayser grinned again.

“All right. Might as well see this one.” he glided the hovercar to the door of the nearest building and locked onto the airlock. From his pocket he took a rectangle of metal about three inches long and one and a half inches wide. Opening the door of the hovercar, he slid the piece of metal into a slot and a few seconds later the door of the building opened, revealing a room approximately nine feet square. Kayser motioned to the two guards who went into the airlock with their lasers at the ready. Kayser then beckoned Shim to enter, and then one by one they all entered. The outer door hissed shut.

“Stay behind the guards,” warned Kayser, “They can't get out of their cells, but you never know, one day one of them might.”

Kayser used the piece of metal again to open the inner door, which hissed open suddenly. The stale air mingled with the stench of sweat from bodies that had not been washed for months hit them, bringing nausea.

The guards sprang through the door and stood back to back looking down the passage that lay at right angles to the door. They nodded to Kayser who motioned the group to follow him.

The passage was nine feet wide. On the metal floor were two red parallel lines about two inches wide and spaced three feet apart. Kayser pointed to the lines.

“Stay inside the lines, and don't trip,” he warned, “the cells are protected by lasers. If you fall into them you are dead.”

They went down the passage. There were cells on either side. Each cell was eight feet square and contained a single bed with a thin mattress. A table and chair completed the furnishing. In a corner of the cell was a disposal unit for toiletry purposes.

A man occupied each cell fast asleep on the bed. Peto paused to look at one of the men and felt compassion for him. The man was almost bald. What hair he had was a dirty grey and matted. As the man slept, his body shook continuously. The prison uniform that he wore was old and tattered. More so than the others that Peto had seen.

“How long as he been here?” he asked Kayser. Kayser shrugged.

“I don't know. I've only been here seven years. If you really want to know, I'll have to look it up.” Peto shook his head and walked on.

When they reached the end of the passage, Peto had seen enough.

“What about the other buildings,” he asked Kayser.

“If you've seen one, you've seen them all. This is one of the second shifters. The first shifters are at work. Their cells are empty right now. Two thirds of our workers are first shifters.”

“You mean that there are only two shifts? Why can't there be three?”

“These guys aren't here on holiday! They have all got hard labour for life! They'll be glad to die! Making it easier for them will only prolong their suffering.” Kayser laughed at them. “Anyway, I don't make the rules. It's the Governors and Councillors that make the rules. You know that.”

Peto was appalled at Kayser's callousness. He changed the subject.

“How do you switch off the lasers to allow them to leave the cells?” he asked.

That, is something that I can't tell you. Security reasons, you know?” Kayser grinned and spread his hands to indicate his helplessness.

Shim, who had been carefully probing Kayser's mind, informed Peto that the switch was in the control room that they were in previously. Peto smiled at Kayser.

“Good. Well I think we have seen enough for the time being. Let's get back to Councillor Normec. He'll be getting impatient,” he said, brightly. Kayser slapped his forehead.

“Damn! I forgot to tell Jack to get a list for the Councillor!”

“You can send it to the warship. I'll explain to the Councillor,” said Peto, reassuring Kayser that it would not go against him.

“Oh. By the way, how many guards do you have here?”

“Three hundred. That's all we need to keep the workers under control. The lasers are very affective.” Peto nodded thoughtfully.

“Yes, I'm sure they are.”

Before returning, Peto asked to see the mine. Kayser took them in the hovercar.

It was two miles from the prison. Several shafts were in operation, with robots busying themselves around the entrances. Peto's group learned that the prisoners worked within the mine and were only allowed on the surface for meals that were served in three huge buildings close by. Access to these buildings was directly from the mine into the dining area apart from a single airlock in the front of the buildings. There were airlocks at the entrances of the mines so that the need for space suits was unnecessary. Kayser explained that it was cheaper to put airlocks in than to supply space suits that hindered the men as they worked.

“We lost a few hundred when one of the shafts caved in a year ago, but the mines are pretty well air-tight,” said Kayser, “maybe a leak or two through seepage. Nothing to worry about.”

They returned the way that they had come, stopping only to change from the hovercar to the shuttle and then to the shuttle in which Normec was waiting.

As soon as they arrived back on the warship, Peto called a meeting. He explained to them all what they had seen and had learned. What he wanted was some ideas how to free the prisoners.

“We have the fire power to destroy the prison but we do not have the room to take them all off the satellite. Not only that, I don't like the idea of using weapons that kill humans. I realise that there may come a time when we will be forced to, but until then we must try to do things without any killing.”

“We don't have enough men to over-come the guards by taking control of their minds, Peto. There are three hundred of them. Even if we control Kayser, the others are bound to realise that something is wrong if the prisoners are released. The situation is not quite the same as when Normec came to Diata,” said Shim. Shak agreed.

“Shim's right. The guards won't go along with it. There is too much hatred for the prisoners to believe that the Empire wants them to be freed. The guards enjoy seeing them suffer. They know that the prisoners will try to avenge themselves.”

“Why not just get Normec to order Kayser to release some of them into his custody? We could think of some excuse to get as many as we can take,” said Derk.

“We could try that. If it fails, then we will have to use some force,” said Shak.

Peto could think of no better idea and they agreed to make plans along those lines. He was just about to end the meeting when Comp appeared in their midst.

“A list has just been received from the Chief of Guards on Tregon. The list has over twenty thousand names on it,” he reported. Peto whistled with surprise.

“Twenty thousand? Let's go and have a look at it.” A flicker of light showed that Comp had already departed. The rest of them walked back to the communications room. By the time they got there Comp had the list on the screen of the computer.

“The list is in four sections according to the type of offences. They are Common Murder, Murder of Empire Appointed Officials, Serious Drug Dealing and finally Rebellion and Inciting to Rebel. This last one is the shortest list and contains one thousand eight hundred and forty five names. It is on the screen now,” said Comp.

They looked at the list of names, none the wiser for seeing it. To them they were names of unknown individuals that had committed crimes against the Empire and the authorities of the various planets from which they came. Peto made a decision.

“Select one of the names. Select one that has been here long enough to know about the prison and its workings but not so long that his mind has become dulled through being here. We will get Normec to demand an interview with the prisoner.”

Comp wasted no time in doing Peto's bidding.

“There are many that meet those qualifications, Peto, but there is one that I think may serve your purpose the most. His name is Martin Howard. He is forty earth years old. He was a computer programmer employed by the Empire. His crime was attempting to incite his colleagues to rebel against the Empire. He has served one year and seven months of his life sentence. His number is 232 oblique 836 oblique 5273. The first two sets of numbers refer to the row and building in which he is confined when not working in the mines. The last number is a combination of his cell number, fifty-two and the gang that he is attached to, seventy-three.”

“Why should this Martin Howard be your choice?” asked Peto.

“His occupation interests me and as he was employed by the Empire, he may know something that could be useful to you about the Empire. Also, his age would mean that he would probably still be quite active.” Peto smiled to himself. Comp would be interested in a computer programmer and he had chosen qualities that could well be useful to them.

Through Normec, they arranged for the prisoner Howard to be interviewed the following morning. Kayser insisted that Howard be interviewed on the satellite, complaining that it would be against regulations to allow the prisoner to leave. He also insisted that guards be present to ensure the safety of the Councillor. This was interpreted as a ploy to find out what the interview was about. Peto readily agreed, knowing that they would be able to control the minds of whoever was present.

Kayser called them next morning to tell them that the prisoner was ready for the interview. He had arranged for the interview to take place in a room behind his office.

When Peto's group arrived with Normec, they found that Kayser had the prisoner shackled to the floor by his ankles. His arms were handcuffed behind his back and he was seated on a metal chair.

Shak brought their attention to the metal plate that the chair was placed on. Two narrow tubes ran from the edge of the plate and disappeared under the desk that the chair faced. It was obviously electrified.

Shim lost no time putting Kayser and the guard that was with him under mental control. He told the guard to put his weapon down and to wait outside the room. Kayser was told to carry on his normal duties in his office.

Only then did they turn their attention to the prisoner who was looking at them defiantly. Peto addressed the man.

“Are you Martin Howard?” he asked. The prisoner said nothing and continued staring them with hatred in his eyes. Peto's mind linked with the other Diatans.

“His mind affirms that he is Howard. He is also determined not to talk.” Peto moved to the desk, intending to pull the seat round to face the man. His movement caused Howard's eyes to widen and his mind was suddenly fearful.

“Don't worry. Don't be afraid of us. We have no intention of hurting you. We know that you are determined not to say anything or to co-operate with us. Therefore we will just talk to you and hope that you will listen and understand. When you have heard what we have to say, you may feel free to answer us. And don't worry about the Councillor, here. He is here to help us.”

Peto went on to explain who they were and why they were here. He told the prisoner of the arrival of troops on Diata and that the Diatans had managed to get control of Normec and the warship, although he omitted to explain how they had managed it.

All the time Peto spoke, Howard's eyes never left him. His expression changed from defiance to wary suspicion. Peto concluded his explanation with a smile.

“So you see, we badly need your help and that of the prisoners here. We are going to over-throw the Empire either with your help or the help of another penal colony. Will you join us?”

Howard remained silent for a full two minutes, his eyes flitting from each one of them in turn, before speaking.

“What are you trying to do to me? The Governors sentenced me to die here. What worse punishment can you give me? If you want me to rebel again so that you can kill me, why bother to have an excuse? Just kill me! As for over-throwing the Empire, yes, I would gladly give my life to do that, and the Governors know it. Is that what you want me to say so that your guards can torture me further?”

Peto looked at the man and then at Shak, who responded by bending down directly in front of Howard.

“What can we do to prove to you that we are who we say we are and are truly on your side and want to free you?” he asked. Howard smiled mirthlessly.

“Kill Kayser and the guards here,” he said.

“We are not barbarians. We can't just kill people to prove something. Besides, from what we have heard of the Governors, they would kill a thousand guards just to get their way,” said Shim.

“Then release me and I will!” replied Howard, “You will never free us from this place without killing at least some of the guards.”

“Yes, we realise that we may have to kill eventually, but only when it becomes necessary,” said Peto. Howard smiled again and looked at his shackled ankles.

“All right. I will help you, but I warn you that I will do nothing to help the Governors or the Empire. You will have to kill me first. I can do nothing chained like this, though.” Shak's thought came to Peto.

“He doesn't trust us. Perhaps releasing him will help to prove our sincerity.”

“All right. Release him, but be ready for any tricks.” Shak looked at the chains that held Howard's feet to the floor and pointed to them. Howard's eyes followed the direction of the pointing finger and saw the chains tighten and snap. The links of his handcuffs snapped just as easily. Howard was visibly frightened at the demonstration.

“Wha...? How did you do that?” he demanded, his eyes wide with fear.

“We have certain powers that will help us. That is one of them. Will you help us now?” Howard stood up, rubbing his wrists and looking closely at the links on the cuffs.

  “What can I do when you have powers like that? Yes, if you are genuine, then I'll help. Just tell me how.” Peto and the others smiled.

“First you will need to clean up and have a good meal. You can have that on the warship. Then we will discuss how to free the other prisoners here.”

There was no problem in making Kayser believe that the Governors had ordered him to release Howard into their care. He was only too pleased to co-operate.

They returned to the ship and Howard was given a room of his own. After he had showered and eaten he lay down on the bed. To him the standard ship's bed was a luxury after what he had been used to in prison and before long he was sleeping soundly.

 

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

When Howard had slept a full twelve hours, he was awoken by one of the women that had volunteered to come with come along to man the galleys and cook for the men. He had not seen a woman since he was taken to Tregon. He could not take his eyes off her as she laid out a meal for him on the table and left.

He was given sufficient time to consume the meal and then Derk came to take him control room. He was startled to see Comp appear and vanish then appear somewhere else in the control room. It was explained to him that Comp could teleport and that it enabled him to operate the various controls without assistance. He was impressed by the efficiency the Diatans were running the great ship with a skeleton crew.

When he had seen enough Peto and Shak explained what they required of him. They told him that they hoped to over-throw the Governors with the help of those that had been imprisoned for objecting to the inhumane way in which the Governors were treating their subjects. He could help by telling them the best way of getting the prisoners free without too much bloodshed. If they were successful in doing that, then he could possibly be useful when they tackled the Governors on Earth.

“We understand that you worked for the Empire,” said Peto. Howard smiled grimly.

“Yes. I worked for them all right. I used to program their computers. That's how I found out what the Governors were doing to innocent people. We used to think that the people who were exploited and murdered were the victims of anarchists that wanted to destroy all that was good. That was what we were led to believe. You see, employees of the empire were kept away from the rest of the world. We enjoyed a good life as long as we were kept in ignorance of what was really going on. I found out that it was the Governors that were behind the misery. I began a campaign to expose them. It lasted as long as a whole week before I was sent here.”

Howard told them that there was no way that they could attempt to free those that were in the cells. He said that they would be too exhausted after a shift in the mines.

“All we want to do is sleep and try to recover. Mortality rate is high. Suicides are common. They just let themselves fall against the lasers that keep them in their cells.” Howard pondered for a while, and then a thought came to him.

“The canteen buildings! Just after the first meal. Not before. They get little enough and will need food inside them if they are to fight.”

Howard told them that the guards were most lax at meal times, as the prisoners would be too busy eating their meagre rations to give them some strength to finish their shift. The prisoners would be strongest after the first meal and before the shift started.

The only problem, if they over-came the guards, would be getting out of the building. There were only ten hovertrucks in use that were used to haul trains of airtight hover-trailers to transport the prisoners to the mines. Each train carried five hundred men. Two trustees who were rewarded with lighter duties and extra rations manned each hovertruck. One of the trustees was armed with a laser; a necessity as the other secured the doors of the trailers. It was a coveted duty but brought hatred for the ones that accepted the work.

Howard explained that there weren't any space suits for them to survive outside the buildings or trains.

“They will be stuck there and the other guards will just go in and recapture them.”

Peto looked at Comp, who had been listening to Howard.

“What do you think, Comp?”

“It will certainly need some careful planning, Peto. I think your special powers will be extremely useful when you go down there. I suggest you take time to make a plan.”

“That's what we are trying to do,” retorted Peto.

Eventually a rudimentary plan was agreed upon. It necessitated sending Howard back to the prison. He was to do his best to inform those whom he could trust, that there was to be an attempt to free them. They were to be ready to act as soon as the attempt was made. It was decided to allow Howard time to spread the word and arrangements were made to make the attempt two days hence.

Understandably, Howard was extremely reluctant to return. He feared for his own safety after enjoying a brief spell of freedom. He said that the guards would certainly make him pay for it. It was only after his mind was conditioned to accept that it was a necessity that he willingly returned.

When Howard was handed over, Kayser was told that there would be a need to question him again. It was a precaution, in case anything should 'accidentally' happen to Howard. Under Shim's control, Normec made it clear to Kayser that he would be held responsible should anything untoward happen to Howard in the meantime.

 

In spite of the warning, Howard was taken by the guards and questioned. When Howard told them that Councillor Normec had expressly told him to say nothing of the interview, he was threatened with a session in the disciplinary room.

The disciplinary room was nothing less than a torture chamber used for particularly unruly prisoners. It was standard practice for the guards to give every prisoner a session of disciplinary treatment so that they knew what to expect.

The threat was an empty one, the guard’s fear of Normec and Kayser being greater than their desire to know what the interview was about.

Howard was beaten and returned to his cell, bruised but otherwise unharmed.

The following morning, he joined the work force as usual and was taken to the canteen building in the train. Meals would only be served when the full work force arrived. He sat down at the table assigned to his cellblock to await the arrival of the other trainloads of prisoners. This and the next mealtime would be the only opportunity to talk to the other prisoners. The only ones that he could trust to any extent, were the ones in his own cell block, the ones at his table.

He looked at the man seated next to him. He was in his late fifties. Howard had learned that the man had been on Tregon for nine years. That was a long time to survive. Many of the prisoners had learned to sleep on their feet, and the man beside him was asleep. As he slept, his body shook a sure sign that he was beginning to break down. Howard thought that the man would probably be dead in two weeks, a month at the most.

He looked up and down the table, trying to decide whom to tell about the escape plan. He knew that he was wasting time. Glancing around, he made sure that the guards were in their usual places. Two in each corner of the huge room. He could speak quite loudly and not be heard by them. He moved slowly to the head of the table, keeping an eye on the guards.

  “Listen, all of you,” he said. The men nearest to him opened their eyes; startled at being disturbed before it was time to eat. Howard rapped the table.

“All of you, listen to me!” Several others opened their eyes and looked at him.

'We are getting out of here tomorrow! I've been arranging an escape plan with some friends. Be ready to take the guards tomorrow morning. Do you understand? Tomorrow morning, be ready. We must take the guards' weapons tomorrow morning! We are going to escape from this hell!”

One of the prisoners, a man that Howard knew as Ted, looked at him with a sneer.

“You're dreaming Mart. No-one can get out of here. Shut up and save your energy.” He closed his eyes again. Howard thumped the table again.

“We can! Where do you think I've been for the last twenty-four hours? There are friends waiting to free us. Friends who have a Councillor on their side. They are going to help us break out of here tomorrow morning, here in this building. Be ready when it starts. All of you!” Howard tried to keep their attention. He knew that if he were in their position, he would find it hard to believe that it was possible to break out.

“You will know when it has started. Just be ready tomorrow. Anything is better than being worked to death!” He pointed to the shaking man beside him. The man still had his eyes closed, trying to get sufficient rest to survive another day.

“Look at Albert! How long will he live? How long before you get the shakes and die? That's all you've got to look forward to! Isn't better to die trying to get out of here?”

Howard's mention of Albert made them think. They all knew that they too, would end up with the shakes. It was something that they put out of their minds. No one mentioned it, even when it was obvious that the shakes had started to take over one of them. It was like a death sentence and one knew that once the shakes had started, the victim's days were numbered.

Several one the men looked at their hands. That was where the shakes began. The hands would begin to tremble slightly. Once it began, the victim would clasp his hands together or sit on them, hopelessly trying to still the trembling. Then the feet would be affected. It would rapidly spread up the arms and legs, an uncontrollable tremble, until the whole body was continuously shaking, becoming more violent as the days passed. It would eventually become so bad that the victim would be unable to put food into his mouth to eat.

There was no hospital or sick bay on the satellite. The prisoners were expected to work until they died of exhaustion, regardless of age or health.

Howard, seeing that he had made them think, renewed his appeal.

“Don't forget, tomorrow, first meal is when it starts. Be ready to disarm the guards. Keep thinking about it. My friends are coming.”

 

Peto and Shim, wearing space suits, took the smaller shuttle and left the warship. Shak and three other Diatans prepared the cargo shuttle in readiness to pick up as many of the prisoners that they could, once the break out had been accomplished.

Comp had insisted on remaining on board the warship, explaining that he would be of greater use there should anything go wrong. Peto objected but Comp said he had his own plan of action to help if the need arose.

Comp's value was brought home to them when he advised that they change the frequency of the communicators of the shuttles. They had not thought of the possibility of their conversations being picked up by the guards. Whilst on the satellite they would communicate with each other telepathically, so there would be no need to alter the wrist communicators.

Peto approached the mines from the farthest side, away from the prison 'town', and landed the shuttle just out of sight of the huge building that they planned to attack.

He and Shim left the shuttle and made their way over the jagged rocks towards the building. The sun was just beginning to rise behind them and they picked their way through contrasts of dense darkness and brilliant light. It was necessary for them to keep their headlamps on as the jagged rocks could rip their suits as they stumbled about in the patches of darkness.

They knew that there would not be any prisoners there until the first train arrived. They wanted to be early in order to get a good look at the site of the mine before making any move to attack.

“It's not going to be easy, Peto,” thought Shim, “There's only one airlock in the building.” Peto had already noticed. Howard had said that there was little chance of many getting out. He had emphasised that he would be on the third train and begged them not to start before he had arrived.

Peto and Shim edged cautiously closer. They were well aware that there would not be any guards there that early but there may be some of the robots active that may raise the alarm.

They settled down to await the arrival of the first train which was due within thirty minutes. While they waited they conversed telepathically.

“I'm worried, Peto. Comp said there would be casualties among us. They could be us,” said Shim. Peto had not given any thought to the possibility that he might be the first casualty.

“Comp didn't say who the casualties would be. Neither did he say when. If he knows, then he prefers to keep it to himself,” answered Peto.

“That is probably to protect us. If we knew that we were going to die at a certain time, we wouldn't be much use, I suppose,” said Shim. He was not afraid of dying. They all would readily give their lives to ensure the freedom of The Family.

“He probably doesn't know. He didn't seem to learn much when he was in the future.” Peto felt sure that Comp would have given him a warning or a hint.

Their conversation ended as a train emerged through a gap between two huge rocks that arched high over the train and almost met at the top.

The train approached rapidly along a narrow road towards the building that was the canteen. They watched as it pulled up by the airlock. The driver skilfully lined up the airlock of the train to the one in the building and the connection was made automatically.

It took eight minutes for the prisoners to disembark. Another two minutes to disconnect the airlocks and the train to move off. The train swept around in a wide 'U' turn and went back the way it had come.

Howard had said that each train made two journeys. That meant it would take two hours at least for all the prisoners to disembark. They waited for the second train to arrive. It came through the gap in the rocks five minutes later. Three more minutes and it was connected to the airlock. Satisfied that there was approximately sixteen minutes between each trainload, they waited for the train that would be carrying Howard.

The third train came through the gap slightly earlier than expected. Peto took a deep breath.

““Let's go,” he said. In a flicker of light, they teleported.

The two trustees were suddenly startled to find two space-suited men with them in the driver's cabin. The trustee with the laser did not know what to do. He couldn't recognise the men in the space suits and thought that they were guards. Shim had control of his mind before he could speak and relieved him of his laser.

Peto had the driver under control. Both trustees were now firmly convinced that Peto and Shim were guards and had been with them since they left the cellblocks. None of the passengers had seen anything. They were all travelling with their eyes shut. Shim walked down through the train of trailers looking for Howard. He found him in the fourth trailer. He was the only one with his eyes open. He was looking anxiously out of the window, his eyes wide searching the bleak terrain outside.

Shim touched him on the shoulder.

“Martin! It's me, Shim. Hurry, we'll be at the mines in a minute.” Howard, seeing the laser, cowered in his seat. He thought that Shim was a guard trying to trick him. Shim brought his face closer so that Howard could see him through the visor. When Howard recognised him, he let out a shout.

“See! My friends! My friends are here!” His shout awoke the other prisoners in the trailer. They saw Shim standing beside Howard.

“Show them! Show them that you are my friend. Break my chains, please,” he begged. Shim quickly removed his helmet and showed his face. The shackles holding Howard were broken and he stood up. Shim handed the laser to him.

“Don't use this unless you really have to, understand?” Shim warned. Howard took the laser and brandished it in front of the other prisoners.

“There, you see? I told you my friends were coming. We are getting out of here at last! Will you join us?” cried Howard excitedly. The prisoners were now wide-awake and staring unbelievingly at Howard and Shim. Ted was the first to recover from his surprise.

'Free me! I'm with you!” he said. This started a chorus of assents from the remaining prisoners. Shim held his hands up to quieten them.

“We have room to take two thousand with us. That is all we can take at this time. I'm afraid that they must all be able-bodied men as they must be able to fight if necessary. The others will be freed to take over this satellite until we return for them.” There were cries from them all claiming to be fit to fight. Shim shook his head. He could see that most of the passengers on the train were too sick or weak to be any use for fighting. He raised his hands again and addressed them.

“You must all leave the train in the usual way and the guards in the canteen must be disarmed. We can't allow the guards to become suspicious. Relax and just follow our instructions. There's not much time.”

The train arrived at the building and the driver drew alongside the airlock. Once the connection was made, the trustee that had been armed pulled a switch that automatically released the locks on the prisoner’s shackles. He then opened the airlock and the prisoners filed out. There was only room for fifty prisoners in the airlock at one time, before the inner lock was opened for them to file out into the building.

Inside, the two guards at the airlock were surprised to see an unusually lively bunch of prisoners enter. This aroused their suspicions and they entered the airlock to await the next fifty. When the airlock opened again, the guards immediately saw Howard with a laser. They raised their own weapons but before they could fire, Shim had them under control. The two guards lowered their lasers and stood by placidly. Shim relieved them of their weapons and they returned inside with the next fifty prisoners, taking up their usual position.

The disembarking of the remainder of the prisoners was completed without further incident. Howard remained on the train with Peto and Shim. The two trustees, now completely under the impression that all was normal, disconnected the airlocks and the train moved on.

The following train was already close to the mines when they had made the 'U' turn. It was decided to continue the collection of prisoners as usual to avoid arousing the suspicions of the other guards. Peto knew that they would only get one chance to free the prisoners without bloodshed.

The trustee driver took the train to the town and drove to one of the cellblocks and picked up his last batch of passengers. On Peto's instructions Howard handed his laser back to the trustee and was told not to mention the plan to the second batch of prisoners.

“We will tell them all when they have eaten back at the canteen,” he explained.

 On the way back to the mine they passed the other trains returning for their second loads. Peto and Shim searched the minds of the drivers to see if the escape plan had been discovered. All appeared to be well.

Returning to the canteen, the prisoners joined the others. Peto, Shim and Howard went in with them. Shim quickly held the guards immobile while Howard took their weapons and wrist communicators. Four prisoners were assigned to guard them. Word had already been passed around of the breakout and many of the prisoners were waiting in anticipation.

One huge giant of a man, seeing that the guards were helpless without their weapons, was staring intently at one of them. No one took any notice as the man edged towards the guard. When he was standing next to him, he suddenly grabbed the guard by the throat with one massive hand and pounded his fist into his ribs and face time and again. Blood spurted from the guards pulped mouth and cut face before Shim could render the giant helpless by controlling his mind.

“Why did he do that? We don't want any trouble. No complications!” cried Shim.

Howard was staring wide-eyed at the huge man.

“It's Carlos,” he said, “that guard has been picking on Carlos for months. He has been taking him in to the disciplinary room just for the fun of seeing the big man sweat with pain. Ted told me that he heard the guard tell another that he would make the big man scream one day.”

Peto felt sick. The guard was dead and would never hear anyone scream again.

The great hall was in an uproar. The prisoners were all shouting at once. Several men rushed at the remaining guards and Peto knew that they would be dead in seconds. Small fights were breaking out among the crowd of prisoners. Peto and Shim looked helplessly at each other. Peto tried to speak to Shim but couldn't hear himself speak. He reached for Shim's mind.

“We'll have to get out of here, Shim. We could never control this mess.”

“We did it all wrong, didn't we?” answered Shim, “We are going have to leave these poor devils here, at the mercy of the guards.”

Behind them, the airlock opened. Another load of prisoners had arrived. Peto and Shim watched as the new arrivals merged with the rioting prisoners and got caught up in the fighting that was getting too close to them for their liking.

It was then that Peto noticed that Ted had grabbed two powerful looking men and was shouting at them and pointing towards the airlock. The two men looked over and the three fought their way through the crowd towards Peto.

When they got to where Peto and Shim were standing, they swung around and stood in front of them and faced the crowd. A second later a man saw Howard carrying a laser. He yelled something to another man and they both grinned and came towards them.

Shim, not liking their expressions looked into their minds, then spoke to Peto's.

“They want Howard's laser. If they get the weapons there will be many dead before long.” As he spoke the two men reached as far as Ted and the two men he had with him. Ted swung his fist and caught one of them square on the jaw, knocking him out cold. The other soon rendered the other unconscious in a similar way two. Peto realised that Ted and the two big men had taken it upon themselves to protect Shim and himself. Little did they know that he and Shim could have swept the whole crowd into a corner of the room by using their telekinetic powers.

“Get on the train and get out of here!” shouted Ted, “you tried your best. Maybe another time! Take Mart. He believes in you!” Peto was moved by Ted's willingness to sacrifice himself for them and Howard. Ted and the two men with him owed them nothing. Shim broke in on his thoughts.

“They are breaking the place up. If they go too far they will rupture the walls and they will all die.” Peto looked around. The fighting was spreading closer to them. Ted and the two men could not possibly hold them off for long. There were too many for Shim and he to control. Peto had an idea.

“Shim. The tables! Get the tables and build a barricade around us.” Shim responded instantly. The tables rose one by one and sailed through the air to pile up around the airlock. The few that saw them do so would be too busy to wonder how the tables flew. With the exception of Ted, Howard and the two men. They were astounded by what had happened.

“The four of you, come with us,” shouted Peto. He turned and led the way into the airlock. When they were all in, they closed the inner door. The last train was still outside. Howard explained that they always left the last train connected to the airlock in readiness for the end of the shift.

Getting into the driver's seat Peto said that they would have to try to free the second shift prisoners. They still needed the help of the prisoners to defeat the Empire. The second shifters would be asleep and not so ready to riot.

“That's impossible! We'll never get them out of the cells!” said Howard, “the cells are protected by lasers.”

“They won't be for long,” replied Peto, Shim will get them turned off.”

He drove the train to the town, hoping that he was driving inconspicuously. The guards would not be aware of the commotion at the canteen yet.

He began to pull up at one of the cellblocks. Ted grabbed his arm.

“Not that one! We don't want them! You don't want to free them!” he exclaimed.

“Why not? We want to free all of you here,” said Peto. Ted shook his head.

“They are the real criminals.” He pointed at the wall of the cellblock.

“See the number is in red. They are the murderers and psychopaths. They are kept separate from the rest of us. They work a different mine. It's the yellow numbers you want. The objectors to the Empire and the Governors.” Howard confirmed that it would not be wise to free those in the red numbered cells.

“The blues are the drug traffickers. I don't think you want them, either,” he said.

Peto swung the train away from the cellblock.

“Where are the yellow cells, then,” he asked, praying that the guards had not noticed the change of direction. He looked up at the towers. The guards did seem to have noticed.

Ted guided him to the next row. “Any of these are OK,” he said.

They stopped at the first block and the airlock was connected. Shim, unseen by the prisoners, teleported to the control room that Kayser had taken them on their first visit.

He took control of the two guards there and they threw the switch to cut the lasers. He next relieved them of the special key to unlock the airlocks and teleported back to the train. The two guards continued as though nothing had happened.

Entering through the airlocks, Peto and Shim passed down the passage, taking note of the prisoners that were asleep. Ted and Howard followed them.

“We want to be selective in our choice of help,” Peto told them. “We want able-bodied men. Half of these are too sick or weak to be of any use to us.”

“You pick who you want,” said Howard, “we'll wake them up. The others won't even know we've been here.”

They chose three hundred of the prisoners. Ted and Howard waking them up and explaining to them what was happening. Fifteen of them declined to go with them. Most of the fifteen were young and comparatively newcomers to the prison. They were afraid of the consequences should the escape fail. The remainder hardened by years of suffering and knowing that there was nothing but death to look forward to, readily agreed to join them.

They moved on to the next block and achieved a similar result. They had a total of seven hundred prisoners crammed into the train. Peto knew that he could not take any more. He swung the train around and headed back towards the mines.

There were no walls or fences around the town of cellblocks. The total lack of atmosphere made such security measures unnecessary. Peto drove straight towards the edge of the town where the boundary towers encircled it.

They had almost reached the boundary when one of the guards must have realised that there should not be any trains moving as late as it was. The searchlights came on. Peto saw one of the guards on the tower bringing the mounted lasers to bear on the train. Another guard was facing the screen of a communicator, obviously raising the alarm.

Peto rammed the control lever of the train forward as far as it would go, trying to coax more speed out of it. It was already moving at its maximum speed.

“Shim! Call the shuttle! We'll never get out of range of those lasers in time!”

Shim called Shak on his wrist communicator.

“We are in trouble, Shak! We have been spotted! We need help, fast!”

Shak did not waste time asking questions. He summoned several of the Diatans to assess the firepower of this warship and to understand how to operate the weapons. As I am the only one who controls the ship, I felt it necessary to know everything about it. It is just as well that I did, isn't it? The weapons are extremely accurate, as you may have noticed.” Peto had no time to ask any more questions. The train needed all his concentration as it limped on to the shuttle and implied urgency. Every one of them teleported instantly to the shuttle. He then projected his thoughts to Comp to inform him of the trouble that Peto and Shim were in. Comp had already heard the message from Shim and replied that he would be ready to help if the need arose.

Shak took the cargo shuttle down to the satellite, not bothering to hide his approach. He already had the position of the mines fed into the computer, so the huge ship proceeded directly towards them.

Peto was forced to keep to the road that led out of the town. The surrounding rocks preventing him from doing otherwise. The road ran close to the tower that held the alerted guards.

The guard with the laser opened fire. He was too hasty, not taking time to aim. The beam of the laser hit a rock fifty feet or so away and the rock exploded silently. There was no sound, but the blast was felt by those in the train.

Peto began evasive action, driving from side to side in an effort to spoil the guards aim. Jagged rocks disintegrated on either side of the train, showering it with splintered fragments. The passengers were being thrown from side to side as Peto continued to swerve.

The train passed beneath the tower and for a moment they were shielded from the laser. Peto thought that it would take a minute or two for the guards to get the laser turned around to continue firing. He took a chance and stopped swerving and tried to put as much distance between them as he could before the guards could re-site the laser and get their bearings.

Peto managed to travel several hundred feet before a beam hit one side of the hovertruck. The truck shuddered and one side dipped scraping the rock surface of the road. It did not stop the train, but their speed dropped considerably and Peto was unable to continue his evasive action.

“Put your helmet on, Shim. We are bound to be hit now.” He did not say it aloud as he did not want the prisoners to realise that he and Shim had the protection of the space suits. It was possible that there would be a fight to get possession of them.

At that moment there was a shout from the rear of the train followed by a cheer that could be heard throughout its length.

Howard came forcing his way to Peto and Shim.

“The tower has just been destroyed! Someone destroyed it!” he yelled, excitedly.

Peto turned to look back through the transparent roof of the hovertruck. Sure enough the top of the tower was a tangle of twisted metal. Even as he watched, another tower that had begun to fire at them, exploded and pieces of the metal tower flew in all directions. Immediately after, a third suffered the same fate.

Bewildered, Shim and Peto looked at one another, wondering who had come to their aid so quickly.

“The cargo shuttle is on its way, Peto. It will be there soon. In the meantime, I think it would be a good idea if you continued to make good your escape.”

Comp's calm, soothing voice was unmistakable as it issued from Peto's wrist communicator. “I will keep you covered as you do so,” he concluded.

“Comp! Did you do that?” It was not exactly a question that Peto asked. He knew that it must have been Comp, although he had never expected it.

“Yes Peto. I took the liberty towards the mine.

Shim was still looking back at the towers, when he saw beams of light moving from the building around the prison.

“The guards are chasing us in vehicles, Peto. There's at least six of them!” he said.

“I'm going as fast as I can,” replied Peto. The train seemed to be moving with agonising slowness although it was travelling about fifty miles an hour. The hovertruck was difficult to steer and kept wandering and striking the rocks that lined the side of the road. Suddenly, Ted gave a shout.

“Look!” He pointed ahead. Over the horizon came a blaze of light heading straight towards them. It was the huge cargo shuttle with its entire brilliant landing lights blazing.

Shak's mind came flooding into Peto's.

“Dad! The surface is too rough to land here! Further on, about half a mile, there's a spot that will do. Can you make it?”

“We'll have to, Shak,” replied Peto. Shim joined in.

“We are being chased, Shak. The guards are following us in hovercars. Get the shuttle out of range of their lasers,” he warned.

He looked back at the pursuing vehicles. Every few seconds the guards were firing a test shot to see if they were in range. He noted that they were getting very close and was concerned that the shuttle would be hit. He remembered Comp's words, “You will suffer casualties.” Shim judged that the guards would be within range in another twenty seconds.

Ten seconds later, without warning, the leading hovercar disintegrated in a brief ball of flame. Another two seconds and the next one exploded. The remainder slowed and stopped.

“What happened?” asked Shak. He had seen the two explosions.

“That must have been Comp again. He destroyed one of the towers, too,” Shim replied. “He must be keeping an eye on us.”

“He what?” said Shak with surprise.

“That's right. We must have a word with him later.”

The shuttle turned and went ahead to the spot that Shak had mentioned where he could land the shuttle. Peto followed as fast as the damaged hovertrain would go. The guards had turned their vehicles around and were heading back to the prison. They would be reporting and getting their instructions from Kayser.

By the time the train had got to the rendezvous point, Shak had landed the shuttle and was waiting anxiously for them. He had allowed room for the train to pull alongside the shuttle's airlock. The lights of the shuttle illuminating the area so that Peto had no trouble lining up the airlocks. The escapees transferred into the shuttle quickly, most of them still bewildered by what was happening to them.

Once they were all inside the cargo shuttle lifted and Shak switched off the lights. Peto and Shim joined Shak and Derk in the control room.

“We must go back to the mines,” said Peto, “There are prisoners there that were rioting and we had to leave them. We may be able to save some of them.” Shak shook his head sadly.

“We passed over the site of the mines as we came for you. There were many mutilated bodies lying around. We will pass over there again so that you can see for yourself. It's not a pretty sight.”

Even as he spoke, the huge building that was the canteen came into view. Shak switched on the landing lights of the shuttle and the area was bathed in light. Peto and Shim looked out on the scene with horror.

Scattered over several hundred feet were hundreds of bodies mutilated beyond description. Many had the appearance of having been blown inside out. Peto's gaze moved to the building.

At one point on the side of the building there was a splash of red. He realised that it was blood. There was a fracture in the wall that seemed to have been filled with something.

The shuttle moved closer and at first the hole looked as if it had been plugged with blood-soaked prison uniforms, then they saw that there were bodies in the uniforms.

The prisoners had holed the wall of the building and they had been sucked out with the escaping air. As the first few hundred bodies entered the airless vacuum, pockets of air and gasses in them expanded and had burst out of their bodies, turning them inside out. Other bodies had been sucked up and had packed around the hole, sealing it.

“The fools! They could have been freed and now they are dead! Why?” Peto shook his head at the horror of it, “If we hadn't have come here they would still be alive.”

“A living death, is more like it!” Howard had come into the room. “Don't feel any regrets. They are better off dead than working in the mines. Believe me!”

Shak reminded them that they were still not out of danger and that they were wasting time. They had to get back to the warship before Kayser could organise his men. Peto saw the wisdom in this and told him to return to the ship.

Shak fed the course into the computer and the shuttle sped on its way back towards the warship.

 

Aboard the warship, Comp scanned the large screens that displayed views of the satellite's surface. Ignoring the speck that was the returning cargo shuttle, he kept his attention on the satellite. A tiny pinpoint of light appeared on the dark surface and immediately there was a warning bleep from the console in front of him. Comp reacted before the bleep had ceased to sound, his metal fingers stabbed at several buttons. Like lightning, a beam shot from one of the warship's laser cannons and a split second later there was a brief flare of light where the speck of light had appeared. Almost immediately, another speck of light from a different location appeared. Again the beep sounded and again Comp’s fingers flew over the array of buttons on the console. There was another brief flare of light on the satellite's surface. Comp continued to survey the screens but there was no repetition of the specks of light.

As soon as the shuttle had locked on to the warship and everyone was on board, Peto sent a mental order to Comp.

“Get us out of here, Comp. Quick!” Comp did not need to be told twice. The warship went into timewarp. Ninety-six seconds later the warship came out of timewarp leaving Tregon light-years behind them. Comp informed Peto that it would take some time for them to be traced if the Empire had been told of their exploits.

“Can they trace us?” Peto had not thought of that possibility.

“Oh yes. This warship has the means to trace other ships in space. It is a complicated procedure so I won't try to explain how it is done. I am aware that you dislike my explanations.” Peto flushed with guilt. Comp could now read his mind and he had probably hurt Comp's feelings.

“No, you haven't hurt my feelings. I understand that I must have bored you many times during your schooling days. I was at a disadvantage then.”

The conversation ended as Comp turned his attention to the controls of the ship. Peto watched him for a while. Comp disappeared and reappeared at the various banks of controls, sometimes only remaining in one place for a second or two. He seemed to be playing with the buttons and switches but Peto knew that everything Comp did was for a purpose. Peto left the control room confused.

 

The escaped prisoners were fed and allowed to rest for a day before Peto called them to a meeting in the assembly room of the warship. They would have to be informed of what they were expected to do.

“We had hoped to rescue at least two thousand of you but unfortunately many of your prisoner friends lost control of themselves and died as a result. If they had only followed instructions and not allowed their personal hate get the better of them; they would be here with you.

“You have been chosen because you are objectors to the way the Empire is exploiting the people that it rules over. Because you despise the cruelty of the Governors and their officials.

“All of you have been screened and we know that you had been sent to the penal satellite because of your objections. The hard line criminals have been left on Tregon. We had no wish to release them, as their punishment was most likely a just one.

 “I will explain our mission to you and anyone that does not wish to join us in accomplishing that mission will be allowed to leave us and will be taken wherever they want to go. There will be no opportunity to change your mind once you have decided.”

Peto explained to them their plans to overthrow the Governors and take control of the Empire. He told them of his plans to recruit other prisoners from other penal colonies as the needs arose. All those that would be recruited would be objectors like themselves.

He explained that there were bound to be casualties and many would probably die in the effort to defeat the Empire. He concluded by asking them to think carefully before making any decision and that there would be another meeting the next day.

There were two hundred Diatans on board the warship and Peto had them mix with the prisoners to see how they responded to his speech. They were to look into the minds of the prisoners to ensure that there were none that would be a risk to them.

The meeting on the following day proved to be a lively one. The escapees had unanimously voted to join the Diatans in the mission to defeat the Governors. Howard had spoken at length to them, reminding them that they had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

“We were already dead on Tregon! If we lose, they can only kill us or send us back! On the other hand, if we win, then we are free to live again!” he told them, “and if we don't join these people who rescued us, where can we go and be safe? We have no means to get food or papers to get work. We will have to turn to crime in order to survive. We are bound to be found sooner or later!”

Every one of them saw the logic in what he said. They had all experienced the living hell of the penal colony, waiting for the shakes to come so that they would know that their days were numbered and they could die.

Ted jumped to his feet and added his voice in support.

“We have something to fight for! Before, we were just individuals voicing our complaints about the Governors! Now for the first time, we can organise! We can hit back with enough punch to hurt! Maybe we can stir some of those billions of others who think like us, to act and join us. We can be the first anti-bodies that multiply and gain strength to finally wipe out the disease that has sickened and is destroying all decent people everywhere on all the planets!”

Peto looked at Ted with interest. He now saw him in a new light. On Tregon, he had seen Ted as a big muscular man with a matted beard and long matted hair. He did not strike him as particularly inspiring. Now, hearing Ted's fervent little speech, his opinion of him changed. Peto had the feeling that Ted would prove to be invaluable in the near future. He remembered that it was Ted who had organised a group of the prisoners to protect Shim and himself from the rioters.

The sound of seven hundred men voicing their agreement filled the assembly hall. There were still one or two that were uncertain. Peto could understand that they wanted to know how they were going to begin their assault on such a powerful organisation as the Empire. He felt the need to put their minds at rest. He addressed the men.

“Some of you may be wondering how we are going to achieve our aims. Let me assure you that we will not go into this without careful planning. Every one of you will be playing an important part. Co-operation is essential and instructions have to be followed to the letter. The Governors will send forces against us who are trained to obey orders regardless of their own opinions. We must be the same. Any break down in a plan will result in its failure. We cannot afford that.

“There is one other thing that I would like to tell you. We will succeed! I can't tell you how I know but believe me, we will succeed. I promise you that.”

His words encouraged the men who responded with cheers of approval.

The next two days were spent fitting the prisoners with uniforms taken from the warship's stores and what they had taken from the troops that were still on Diata. The clean clothes and the opportunity to wash and shave boosted the morale of the freed prisoners. Their expressions of hopelessness were replaced with those of purposefulness and there was a spring of confidence in their stride as they walked.

The first indication that the Governors were looking for them came when Comp reported that two space vessels had emerged out of timewarp in the sector of space that Comp had chosen to hide in. They turned out to be navy vessels and were considerably armed.

“They have not yet found where we are precisely, although they obviously know we are in this sector of space. The vessels are of the Empire's destroyer class and are much smaller than this warship,” explained Comp to Peto.

“Are we in any danger?” asked Peto.

“There is no immediate danger. They will have to pinpoint our position before they can attack us. Would you like me to take evasive action or would you prefer me to destroy them? I would like to point out that evasive action would not lose them completely. They will be able to follow us now that they know we are in the vicinity.”

Peto considered the information that Comp had given him. He had never been in the kind of situations that he now had to face.  He hated the thought of destroying the people on board the Empire's ships. At the same time he had a responsibility towards the men on the warship.

“Comp. Do whatever you think is best. This is your ship. You decide what action to take.” Peto realised that he was just passing the responsibility on to Comp but he knew that Comp was better suited to making such decisions.

In the control room, Comp watched the instruments and screens that would inform him of any action taken by the two space vessels. He already knew that their scanners were searching for the warship and that it would only be a matter of time before they found it. He was pleased that Peto had given him authority to act on his own initiative. It would save time that and probably avert disaster.

Comp's instruments showed that the ships had moved closer and were now only one eighth of a parsec or just under half a light-year away. They were still too far away for any weapons to be of any danger. Comp had the advantage of knowing where the ships were. He only needed to go into timewarp and arrive at their position and destroy them with the weapons at his disposal.

The two ships disappeared suddenly as they went into timewarp and Comp waited for them to reappear. His instruments told him that they had not got a fix on his position although they were getting close.

They appeared again ninety-six seconds later. One of them was only seven thousand miles away while the other appeared two hundred thousand miles behind the warship. Comp's fingers were a blur as he acted. He fired two laser cannons at each of the ships and immediately went into timewarp to reappear in time to see ship furthest away erupt in a ball of flame. The closest ship had already been destroyed and the brief ball of flame extinguished by the airless vacuum. Comp observed the resultant debris hurtling through space in an ever-widening circle. Satisfied, Comp entered timewarp again to hide in endless space.