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Extra Time by Andrew Williams

EXTRA TIME

by
Andrew Williams


"This game will reveal the entrance," Gambit had said.

Avon studied the panel before him. He knew the Orbiter they were all standing in was powered by starlight amplified many hundredfold by feldon crystals set into solar panel-like arrays outside the ship. To complete the puzzle set by Belkov, he had to make sure he picked the right stars, and in the correct sequence. He had no control over the ship, other than to ensure it drew enough power to continue on its course.

His eyes remained locked on the incomplete puzzle as he took it all into his keen brain. The wrong choice would leave them stranded with insufficient power to latch on to the next star in the progression. A series of right choices would presumably result in the Orbiter having enough power to continue on the course pre-programmed by Belkov, and to power open the hatch leading to his hidden store of feldon crystals. Feldon crystals would free the Scorpio from the need for selsium ore as a power source, and potentially enhance the top speeds of their stardrive.

His mouth set in a hard grim line as he realised the answer. "I calculate that the next star in the sequence is Cygnus XL. That's a black hole."

"That is correct," confirmed Gambit.

Avon wasn't expecting the answer to be any different, but it didn't give him any satisfaction to be proved correct. "Not exactly the entrance we were looking for," he grimaced, activating the communicator on his teleport bracelet. "Dayna, we're ready for teleport."

Vila's mind was still on the promised loot, and he hadn't fully comprehended the implications of Avon's statement. "What about the crystals?" he asked.

"There aren't any damned crystals," replied Avon. "There never were any damned crystals. They're like everything else on this ship: a game. That's why the last one has to be impassable. We have got to get out of here!"

*

The blue ship scorched off Mecron II at maximum acceleration, skilfully and remotely piloted by the Gambit computer down on the surface of the planet. Fortunately for its sole passenger, the only Federation ships in the system were grounded on Mecron II. The Federation forces had assessed Belkov as the sort of man who presented little threat; the kind who could be easily intimidated by a squad of troopers banging on his door. There had seemed little point in leaving a ship standing by in orbit, but now Alpha Three would have a massive head start while they got their drive systems back online. An alert Section Leader tried to seize computer control of the fleeing ship, but found it impossible to crack the secure datalink between Alpha Three and Gambit.

Heads would roll.

*

The feeling of being crushed lingered slightly as Alpha Three completed the climb-out from Mecron II's gravitic envelope, slipping effortlessly into space. The fusion torus deep in the belly of the ship woke with a roar, and the starlift turbines that had pulled it up through the atmosphere closed down. A green status light winked on in front of Belkov, indicating the distort shunt was now activated.

Time to leave. Belkov leaned forward and switched on his communicator. The passenger was now ready to become the pilot.

"Can you hear me, Gambit?"

"Yes, Belkov," replied the computer back at his base.

Belkov asked Gambit to hand over control of his ship.

"Beginning self-destruct sequence," replied Gambit.

"I need automatic control first," Belkov reminded it, with a tinge of panic. There was no reply. "Gambit!"

The computer’s eventual reply shocked him. "I am not able to give it to you."

"I'll be killed if you don't," Belkov said, scrambling for the override. Without control of the ship, anything could happen. He could drift into the path of Orbiter. He could get caught by the Federation. He could even fall back into the clutches of Mecron II’s gravity well, if he got too close.

Gambit’s reply was churlish... and chilling. "Not willing to give it to you."

"Gambit!" pleaded Belkov. Sweat broke out on his brow, and his red face reddened further. The local override was not responding. He could only cut the datalink from source - his office back on Mecron II. And once Gambit had self-destructed, there would be no source to override from. The local controls would be permanently locked out, and Belkov would be doomed to a short life; waiting to run out of air, to crash into something or to be shot down by a Federation ship.

Sweating, he commanded the systems to shift to the backup mainframe. The response was negative. Gambit had locked him out at all levels. With a sense of futility, he tried unsuccessfully to crash the system down to its third tier, the basic autonomous systems.

"Self-destruct sequence in progress," announced Gambit.

Belkov didn't know what to say. "I'm sorry," he muttered weakly, slumping back in his flight recliner. There was nothing else he could do. Alpha Three had no life capsules. Of course, by law it was meant to, but Belkov had stripped them out on the basis that he only ever went to Orbiter, which had its own impact life capsules. Besides, it gave him room for an extra games console. Belkov had never used it, since he could always link to Gambit - a much more challenging opponent - but it had a built-in Fibonacci calculator, and that had appealed to him for a time before it palled, like all his other toys.

"Goodbye, Belkov."

Belkov reflected momentarily on his sudden reversal of fortune. He had been a winner when he lifted off Mecron II. He had got away with the Federation's money, and was now escaping from Sleer, from Gerren, and from the Scorpio crew. However, now his oldest opponent, Gambit, had forced him into checkmate.

The thing that set chess apart from any of Belkov's other favourite games was the element of sacrifice. Now it was time to make that sacrifice. It was time to resign from the game.

"Oh, Gambit, this is no way to end our game,” he said to the computer. “Lock my controls into Cygnus XL, and Orbiter's. Please?" Better to destroy all the evidence and go quickly, than to chance longer and more haphazard ways to die.

Gambit's reply was mere affirmation; icy cold and distant. "Panels locked in."

Cygnus XL brooded malignantly in the corner of his viewscreen, like a spider in a web. Suddenly, it curved into the middle of the screen as Gambit locked in the new course heading. Orbiter, already on course for the black hole, shot into view too.

There would be no Federation ships chasing him now. He was clearly a dead man. It was just a matter of time. Belkov let out an insane cackle as the connection with Gambit was cut.

Alpha Three continued to accelerate, far beyond the capacities of its puny engines. Ahead, blackness devoured the sky. Alarms rang wildly as the onboard systems registered the ever-increasing pressure on the ship and their proximity to a major hazard. As fast as Belkov could kill the alarms, new alarms started up. After only a short while he could no longer keep up and feared he would die with his ears full of shrieking alarms. A little while longer and he could no longer move his arms anyway.

Gravity squeezed every inch, every millimetre, every infinitesimal bit of Belkov in its ferocious, unrelenting grip. He was strained and stretched by the unbelievable strength of the black hole. Belkov almost couldn't open his eyes, almost couldn't breathe.

Then, above the hideous din of the computerised warnings, he became aware of the long, drawn-out creak of tortured metal coming from somewhere behind him in the ship. On his viewscreen he could see Orbiter ahead of him beginning to flow urgently down the gaping maw of the black hole.

Suddenly, a plasma bolt lanced into view as the Scorpio fired at Orbiter. Belkov watched the shot speed towards Orbiter but, just before impact, his screens blanked out and all the monitors flatlined.

This is it, Belkov thought, head pounding, as ribbons of light span past his tightly-closed eyes. The unremitting gravity sledgehammered his body, trying to compress it into nothing; the force was unbelievable. The pressure was on his head, his neck, everywhere. Every last iota of his body was in agony. I shall surely die, thought Belkov as he blacked out.

*

When Belkov came to, he felt like he was floating.
Then he realised he wasn’t dead!
Then he realised he was able to breathe!

He looked down at himself. He wasn't floating; shipboard gravity was back to normal and the reduction in force gave him an incredible sense of lightness. With a shout of joy, Belkov realised the game had gone into extra time. Even the displays had decided to come back on, though many of the systems seemed dead.

Obviously, he had somehow skimmed past the black hole. Gambit must have made a slight error in its calculations. At such vast distances, even a fractional error would be magnified by incredible amounts.

But where was he? There were still no stars to be seen and everything was black. The pannable detector mounted on the hull had survived somehow. It span around and around, searching for some celestial object to lock on to; something it could compare to its star charts. But there was nothing within the unremitting inky void to match; nothing at all.

Surely he hadn't come through the black hole? The detector must be damaged - but if so, why wasn't it listed on the damage report still scrolling up his screens?

Belkov checked the readings. Strange, the engines had cut out... and there was a breathable atmosphere around the ship... and gravity, as well.

Always ready for a gamble, Belkov left his control room and scrambled out the airlock onto the black surface, a gun in his nervous pudgy hands. Everything was black, though a glimmer of light reflected off Alpha Three. Suddenly, a pale flash became visible, then began growing bigger. It was – approaching!

Belkov shifted on his feet, as if taking a more ready stance. He fumbled for the handscan clipped to his belt, but the pale flash was already upon him. The paleness resolved itself into a man, or at least a humanoid, with an enormous forehead. It approached Belkov.

"Pardon me, but do you know anything about dynamic flux mathematics?" inquired the Thaarn.


What were the Liberator crew doing before falling into the black hole?
Playing a game!


***


All original fan fiction hosted on Horizon is copyright to the individual authors. No attempt is being made to supersede any copyright held by the estate of Terry Nation, the BBC, B7 Media, Big Finish or any other licensees or holders of copyright on Blake's 7 material.

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