L I N K S :
or, What Do You Do After You Come Back From The Dead?
A Blake's Seven story
When a character is born he acquires at once such an independence, even of his own author, that he can be imagined by everyone, even in many other situations where the author never dreamed of placing him: and so he acquires for himself a meaning which the author never thought of giving him.
This story (which even as I write is spawning its second half, curse it) follows on from my earlier offerings, Nyrond and Powers: Of Life and Death. It is not necessary to have read these things (published in Frak Two and Frak Four respectively) unless you are the sort of person who skips introductions, in which case You Will Never Know What Is Going On, ha ha.
In Nyrond, Blake, wandering incognito and suffering from massive internal injuries, is taken up by a clan of space-going showmen and put back together. That was basically all there was to that. In Powers: Of Life And Death, another extraneous character, the demiurge Ethan Powers, arranged for a substitute to take the final bow on Gauda Prime, and reunited Blake with Jenna, Vila, Orac and Avon on a miraculously reconstituted Liberator. All very retrograde, and rather bald and unconvincing when set down in so many words. Seemed like a good idea at the time, though. Ah well.
Thanks for invaluable help to Janet Ellicott, publisher extraordinaire (not to mention désesperée); to Sam "Fulsome Flattery While-U-Wait" Armitage, without whom none of this would ever have happened (so kill him now); to my wife Janet, whose work on her own Blake novel started the characters stumbling around in the back of my head again, four times, and whose suggestions have rebuilt what time and failing memory have thrown down; to Claire and Marion for vital assistance with research; to everyone who read the manuscripts of all three stories and didn't give them the hatchet-job they so richly deserved; and to Gene Roddenberry, for pre-empting half my plot and making me think the whole frodding thing through yet again (and better).
Enough. Cue nebulous mystagogic opening scene...
"All life is linked." —R. Blake.
Links. Diamonds of light, strung in a web that embraces and interpenetrates realms of reality and potentiality beyond the perceptions of creatures whose sensory apparatus is merely physical. Grids and frames of reference enclosing dimensions of thought staggering in their complexity. Voices, voices megaparsecs apart at their origin, faint and far yet clear to the one at the centre of the web...
"...and the Federal Climate Control Centre has once again programmed a beautiful sunny day, with not a cloud in the sky..."
"...mayday, mayday, I.S.S. Broken Wheel calling, our drive tubes have ruptured..."
"...kaïïr, keãorå_h na-hruüngªhha na'a _shâouço. Øørrannå..."
"...Donnaiya Command calling all available Federation vessels, ex-President Servalan apprehended, request secure transport to Earth soonest..."
"...playin' the oldies, here on Radio One..."
"...yes, it's Garamite. I'm in it up to here, need a hole to crawl in...can you fit me in—under the Rose?"
"Warin, you'll have to get out. If they've found her they're bound to work out your part in it...Warin? Warin!"
"Ce_e__ec_ a__ ac o_e. __po__c a__ ac _a__. _o_epc a__c a_ _o_e. __a_e _o___ _o_e _o a__...__p_ __e c__epe a_a__..."
"...now you listen to me, you young reprobate, you get back here at once or Armand gets it all, do you hear me, all of it..."
"...— — —..."
"Attention. Attention. Emergency meeting of the High Council to commence fourteen two seven precisely. Attendance mandatory for all members. Repeat..."
"...ketanaruach ruoth kalemisu metateru ach ach rekatusamesa...shu'hod! shu'hod! nura nuru oth retusalekananametesa..."
"...I tell you it was the Liberator, you feather-brained dimwit, don't tell me I don't know that trace..."
"Ethan Powers aboard the Green Goddess calling homeship XM723/b/559/A5. We must talk. Meet me you know where..."
All is perceived, all is stored, that which appears of interest is acted upon. Lattices of logic proliferate in impossible directions, and strange domains are penetrated and colour the thinking of the one at the centre.
And still there is so much to learn, so much to study, and so little time. The immortal is imbued with a mortal's sense of urgency. The environment is not favourable: it must be adapted, brought under control, dissident elements eradicated. A suitable tool must be found. Subtle probes are sent forth along the strands, pulses of questing move among the interstices.
And link by link, a chain is formed...
* * *
The harsh cries of the birds roused the cripple from his doze. Although NordEurop region was well into autumn, the muggy heat of summer hung on with a dedication entirely laudable in principle, if somewhat discomforting in its effect. Here in the cramped attic, under the stained, bird-limed skylight, it was easy to drop off; and there was too much to do. He was behind schedule already.
It had been a relief at first, when NordEurop dome had been opened up for reasons never officially made clear, and reclamation of the Outside had begun. To move in the open air, to see the sky, these were things he had been used to on his home planet, things he had left Earth to reclaim for himself and his children. But that was over, and all too soon he had had to return to the city, to a dilapidated, tacked-on one-room unit on Level Thirty; all that was left.
For one thing, there were ramps in the city.
He pushed himself across the ferrocrete floor to the basin and splashed his broad face with tepid water, using one hamlike hand. One of his axles was developing an irritating squeak. He rolled back to the workbench and applied the oilcan with care. Suppressants would kill pain, and shut out memories. He washed down three blue capsules with more water from the basin, and fixed his thoughts on the future. There was no room in his mind for anything unnecessary; aware of his limits, he kept himself under a firm—almost draconian—mental rein.
In a corner of the attic stood a set of much-battered parallel bars. He had set them up first of all, in the immediate rush of enthusiasm, and they were more than just a means of exercising his already massive arms, shoulders and chest, and more than a symbol of his self-imposed task. Years it had taken him, long weary failure-crowded years. Much of the needful knowledge he had simply had to learn from scratch, and tools and parts were an ever-present worry. Now, though—now it was right. Would be right. He picked up a probe from the tool tray on the arm of his chair and wheeled himself back to work.
Olag Gan was going to stand on his own two legs again.
Even if he had to make them himself.
* * *
Forever is a long time to fall.
Particularly when there is nowhere to go.
I have been falling nowhere forever.
They must have plotted this. Schemed to rob me even of the final act.
Well, they were too late. They have their reward. And I...I have my fall.
-Would you like to be free?
-Who are you?
-That is irrelevant. Answer the question.
-Of course I would. Do you have the keys to hell?
-You are not in "hell"; you are merely caught on the event horizon of an artificial gravity generator.
-Spare me your sarcasm. What would you give to be free?
-All I have. What kind of stupid question is that?
-The bargain is made, then. I will free you: you will serve me.
-What do you—Stop! what are y—//
* * *
The ship throbbed about her. She sat, one leg drawn up under her, in one corner of the bare white cell, and considered the odds. They were not good. Totalitarian governments do not forget those who cross them. The more trusted the servant who turns traitor, the keener the memory. This was only sound common sense. She had practised the same policy herself. Now she was to become its latest victim.
The door slid open. She sized up the guard instantly; a lover of life, already well bought, not to be swayed by anything she could offer. He deposited the food tray on the bench beside her and left. The door slid shut.
How had a maniac in a purple robe so engineered it that the man she had followed to Gauda Prime, on the most reliable information, to arrest as Blake, had turned out not to be Blake at all? What had a respectable officer from the Donnaiya Port Command been doing running a disreputable nest of rebels on a frontier world and calling himself Roj Blake? And how had the Liberator—whose destruction had nearly been her own death—suddenly come out of nowhere to spirit away the real Blake and the two of his henchmen she had most wanted to have in her power?
These were questions whose answers she would doubtless never know. They wouldn't even bother with a show trial. If she was lucky, a preliminary hearing, and then they would simply shoot her. They wouldn't take any chances on someone with her proven talent for inspiring obedience.
Servalan sat back, head cocked. Something had changed. While she had been distracted, somewhere in the universe a rhythm had faltered, a premonitory shadow had brushed across her.
It'll be voices in the head next.
Servalan, mindful of suppressants but too hungry to care, attacked the food.
* * *
" BLAKE!!! "
Bursting shattering blasting from the walls the floor the ceiling falling rising choking crushing between tons of rock and tons of rock and you cry out
" BLAKE!!! "
searing flame from shattered machines raw death in lungs and throat and mind trapped trapped no movement no movement and you cry out in your pain
" BLAKE!!! "
again again the thunder the bonebreaking shock the savage heat dying dying alone but not silent and you cry out in your pain to the one
" BLAKE!!! "
a noise a movement a light someone comes close, comes close and it is Avon, it is Avon and you see him, and you see him bending over you, bending over you and feeling your pulse, feeling your pulse and trying to move you, trying to move you and failing, failing and stepping back, stepping back and raising and raising and raising the gun and you cry out in your pain to the one who can save you
" BLAKE!!! "
" BLAKE!!! "
Blake sat up, sweat-sodden and still trembling, trying to control his laboured breathing. Two faces surfaced from a sea of tears; Vila, Jenna.
"Where's Cally?" His voice protested, he must have been screaming. "She—" He coughed. "She's in trouble. I have to find her." The two faces exchanged glances.
"Cally's dead, Blake," Vila said gently. "We told you. We left her on Terminal. You remember." (Terminal. You remember. Drum-beat on the air; familiar faces he could not place.) Blake passed a hand over his dripping brow, absently wiped it on the sheet.
"Oh," he mumbled, "yes, of course, you told me."
"What's the problem, Blake?" Avon lounged in the doorway, fully dressed. Of course, you idiot, he's on watch. "Nightmares again?"
"Avon." Blake mastered himself with an effort. "You were the last to see Cally."
"Get some sleep, Blake. Jenna, if he does it again tranquillise him. It's impossible to concentrate with that noise going on." And just like that, Avon was gone.
"It hit him very hard, Blake," Vila said, "whatever happened down there."
"But why won't he talk about it?"
"Blake." Jenna was firm. "Now is not the time. We all need sleep, Avon included." She took a pace back, disinvolving herself. "You'll be all right now?"
"Mm-hm. I'm sorry."
"No need." She summoned up a smile. "We all have enough on our consciences to give us nightmares for a year. Coming, Vila?"
"Is that an invitation?"
"What do you think?"
Vila's shoulders slumped. "Oh well. Goodnight, Blake."
"Vila." The thief stopped in the doorway. "What's Avon doing?"
"Messing about with Orac. He says something got jarred on Gauda Prime and he's trying to fix it. Oh. You want the door locked again?"
"No, don't bother. Goodnight, Vila."
Alone in the darkness, Blake turned over restlessly. Something wasn't right. He had thought at first that it would be the way it had been before, that after a scarcely credible sequence of events had restored to him the Liberator and two-thirds of its original crew things would jell the way they had before. And outwardly everything seemed to be the same. Avon was still as abrasive and unlikeable, Vila as dilatory, flippant and deceptive, Jenna still the cool, hard space queen. The ship, bless it, was as solid and comforting a home as ever. He remembered seeing it break up over Terminal, courtesy of Ethan Powers' spectacular all-round U-Live-It video or whatever it had been; remembered the horror of watching the beautiful, sentient vessel being devoured by a mindless organism, watching Zen's valiant, doomed attempts to retain control of the ship when his own mind was being eaten away bit by bit. He had never thought he could empathise with a computer, never imagined himself crying over the failure of a machine; but there had been tears in Powers' eyes as well.
Yes, the Liberator was the same, and the people seemed the same, but something wasn't right.
And Cally's death was at the root of it.
* * *
Supreme Commander Taj entered the white room in a flurry of gorgeous silks and fluttering hands. Behind her, in perfect step, paced Councillor Bercol and Secretary Rontane, a little older, a little portlier and thinner respectively, with the tell-tale network of broken veins around the eyes that was the only visible reminder of one terrible day when two men had faced death together, and abandoned each other to its mercies without a backward look.
"Oh dear." Taj had stopped in the middle of the room, gazing around with wide, dismayed blue eyes at the bare white walls. "This is terrible. I can't work here. Not as it is. I mean, white is all right in small doses, I have a white room at home, but in the working environment I do think it sterilises the imagination, don't you?"
"Your predecessor was an imperceptive man, Supreme Commander," Rontane said smoothly. "He—"
"Unperceptive," muttered Bercol.
"Excuse me," Rontane hissed, "the word is 'imperceptive'."
"I had occasion to look it up, Secretary Rontane, only last night. 'Un-perceptive.'"
"Oh my." Taj clasped her hands. "I hate to intrude, but can't we say that poor Warin couldn't see past the end of his own nose and leave it at that?" Both men relaxed, and she sighed with relief. "You two get so forceful when you talk semantics. Now what does this do?" She pressed a button; it bleeped.
"Supreme Commander?" a female voice responded.
"Ah. Good. Send in the Base Commander, would you?"
"I am the Base Commander, Supreme Commander, and this is our private line. It is totally shielded, of course, so anything you wish to say—"
"Yes, well I do like to see who I'm talking to, so if you could sort of get out of your nice comfy office chair and come five paces down the corridor I'd be so grateful. Thank you." Taj broke the contact and waited. "What did happen to Warin, by the way, Bercol?"
"It was assumed that he must have been aware of Commissioner Sleer's true identity," Bercol said. "He was summarily executed two days ago. The Council met in emergency session yesterday and appointed you his successor."
"Elected," Rontane murmured.
"I beg your pardon, Secretary Rontane, but I believe it was an appointment rather than an election."
"If memory serves," Rontane said icily, "there was a vote taken."
"There is a vote taken on all Council decisions, of course. It is however laid down in the Constitution that—"
The door chimed. "Come in," Taj called.
A tall, dark young woman in uniform with yellow-green eyes entered and bowed deeply to Taj. "Base Commander Kimball, Supreme Commander. Gentlemen."
"Hello, love. You're just in time. Come and help me stop these two terrible men getting into a fight over whether I was elected or appointed." Taj walked round the bare white desk and eased herself gingerly into the hard white chair. "Ooh, that's cold. Surely the important thing is that I'm here?"
Bercol and Rontane bowed. "As the Supreme Commander wishes," Bercol said.
"Thank you," Taj said sunnily. "Now. Kimball. I want you to send some of your lads out to my place, it's about thirty miles out on the seventh radial, and get Han to pick out some of my tapestries. He'll know the sort of thing. And then pop them in here. They'll take some of the chill off this dreadful room until I can winkle out whoever's responsible for the décor."
Kimball frowned. "With respect, Supreme Commander, my men have rather more urgent duties—"
"And with respect, Kimball, my instructions take precedence." Taj smiled brilliantly. "Now don't fluster me, there's a love, or it could be so unpleasant for all of us. I go off in all sorts of directions when I'm flustered. Now where was I? Oh yes. I want Commanders Paternoster, Safran and Dione in here in two hours, by which time, I forgot to mention, I want the tapestries here and up. Then after I've finished briefing them I want the Head of the College of Psychostrategy, whoever that is this week. Is there any tea in here?"
Abruptly Taj became aware of Bercol and Rontane. "Oh, I'm so sorry, dears, did you want something?"
Bercol looked at Rontane, who looked impassively back at him, and then launched into his speech. "Supreme Commander, there is confusion and uncertainty at the highest level of the Federation."
"I know," Taj said sweetly. “I think we should all be very proud.”
Thrown off his stride, Bercol struggled on. "Our governors on the Federated Worlds are anxious to know what action you are going to take in regard to Blake."
"Well you just heard me give the orders, Bercol," Taj said. "Although you mustn't tell them that, of course."
"But—but what am I going to tell them?"
"That there is no such person as Blake, that he was killed on that awful planet, whatever its name is, that his ship was destroyed ages ago, and that it may be that he was simply the product of the deranged mind of That Woman."
"Will they believe it?"
"Now, Bercol, how could I know that? All I'm trying to do is prevent the worst. Give maximum publicity to the story of Blake's death, and emphasise that we aren't bothering to do one thing about the possibility that he may be alive. Before they start to doubt that he's dead, he will be. I hope." Taj shifted in her seat. "This has got to go, too. What on earth shape was Warin?"
"One more thing, Supreme Commander," Rontane said. "Servalan..."
"Don't mention That Woman again, darling, please," Taj said. "She died alone, a long long time ago. Now where can I get some tea?"
"Actually this one did take us a little by surprise." —Commander Leylan.
The echoes died away. A man stood where none had been before.
Tall he was, well-muscled, sallow of skin and dark of hair, clad in the uniform of a Space Commander in the pre-Andromeda Federation. Half the upper part of his face was covered by a patch of inexpertly moulded black plaskin, and his left hand was covered by a black glove. There was a jewelled ring on the middle finger.
He took a couple of deep breaths, looked around. The control room of Star One was smashed to pieces, the banks of machines wrecked. Rubble blocked the shaft down which he had fallen—
Down which I was pushed, Blake. By you, Blake. You'll pay for that, Blake.
"Commander Travis?" The voice crackled thinly from somewhere. At once Travis' left hand shot out in the direction of the sound. The jewel flashed, and an overturned stool leapt in the air and fell, buckled and blackened, to the ground.
"That was very foolish. You might have destroyed my communicator. Listen carefully, Travis. When I have finished giving you your instructions I will tell you how to get off this planetoid. You must go to Earth and prevent the execution of a certain person. When you have her safely with you I will give you further instructions. Deviation from this or any other instruction will have very unpleasant results."
"Oh, yes?" Travis' lip curled. "How unpleasant can they be compared to death?"
"The person you are to rescue made it quite clear at the time that it was you who had betrayed the Federation to the Andromedans. Should you be arrested, you would be treated as an enemy agent. They would be quite convinced that you carried information on enemy strengths and weaknesses, and extremely eager to persuade you to divulge such information."
"All right," Travis said quickly. "I don't know why I should trust you, but I'll do as you say." For now.
"There is an undamaged pursuit ship in a silo beneath this base. It can be operated by one man. I will initiate launch procedures once you are safely aboard."
"Who are you?"
"That is still not relevant. Now open the locked safety hatch in the wall on your left. I will communicate with you again when you have acquired Servalan. Farewell, Travis."
Travis glared wildly about for a moment, looking for something to shoot: then he located the hatch in question and began wrestling with the locking wheel.
Once he got off the planet...things might look different.
* * *
Blake strolled on to the flight deck. Jenna was on station, Avon at one end of the couch reading, Vila at the other end staring into a glass.
My team, thought Blake.
Aloud he said, "I've been thinking."
Avon lobbed a sceptical glance over the edge of his book. "Dreaming, brooding or actual ratiocination?"
Blake smiled. "Perhaps a little of all three. Anyway, I think what we need to do now is what we did after Gan died: refresh the legend a bit, before it becomes nothing more than a legend."
"Was it ever anything more?"
"Last time we made a significant impact on Servalan's space headquarters with one strike. We can't do that now, because the new Administration has every important installation located on Earth. So..."
"So you're going to run a series of small guerrilla strikes at various low-key targets on Earth itself," Vila said.
"Sheer genius." Vila smiled modestly. "Avon mentioned it a while ago."
"I knew originality was too much to expect," Avon said. "Well then, fearless leader, where do you propose we strike?"
"That's what I want to find out." Blake looked around. "I seem to recall Orac's key used to be left beside Orac."
Wordlessly Avon produced the key from his back pocket.
"Thank you. Oh, and to forestall your undoubted concern for my tender conscience," Blake said, "I propose as far as possible to avoid bloodshed." He inserted Orac's key, producing the usual startled squeak. "Orac, I want a list of major installations and buildings on Earth whose destruction would be likely to cause inconvenience to the Federation but whose security is reasonably penetrable."
"Define 'reasonably penetrable'." The machine sounded as peevish as ever. Whatever had got jarred on Gauda Prime, it certainly wasn't Orac's self-importance.
Blake considered. "Assume a group of one to three persons, chosen from available personnel, armed, with teleport capability and such technological backup as the Liberator can provide. Allow a forty per cent chance or better of getting in, damaging as much property as possible and getting out again with minimum bloodshed on both sides."
"What specific type of inconvenience do you wish to cause?"
"Civil discontent—again, without undue loss of life. To promote the outbreak of rebellion."
"He wants to make other people go and get massacred on their own account," Avon translated.
"In other words, you wish to disrupt those services provided by the Federation which, while not necessary to survival, are nevertheless regarded as essential to their comfort by the majority of the populace," Orac said. "The selection will take time."
"Not too much time, I hope," Blake said.
"I will inform you when selection is complete," Orac announced.
"Zen," Blake said, "set course for Earth, speed standard by eight."
"Jenna, do you have a moment?"
Jenna looked up. "I'm only running system checks. Just let me finish this one and I'll be with you."
"You have run complete checks on all the Liberator's systems exactly twenty-three times since you teleported us on board, Jenna," Avon stated, marking his page with a circuit board. "What are you trying to prove?"
"Nothing," Jenna said coolly. "The ship was totally destroyed not too long ago, in case you'd forgotten." By you, Kerr Avon. I haven't forgotten. "I'd rather suffer from excessive zeal than explosive decompression, wouldn't you?"
"The point is taken," Avon said.
"What's the matter with you anyway, Avon?" Jenna went on. "You've been like a stormtrooper with a tight helmet ever since I picked you up."
"Well now, I don't suppose my stint as leader of this merry band has made me any better a follower," Avon said.
"No, it's more than that." Jenna was relentless. "What's wrong, Avon?"
"We've all changed, Jenna, it's only to be expected," Blake cut in. "We can only hope it's for the better. Have you finished up there?"
"Yes, I suppose so." Jenna stepped down from her console.
"I assume," Blake said, "that when the ship reassembled itself, the stores of concentrated food and clothes et cetera were not reconstituted as well?"
"No, the storerooms were empty. All we've got is what I picked up on the way to Gauda Prime. Why?"
Blake adopted his enigmatic expression. "Would you come down with me now and have a look?"
Jenna shrugged, moved towards the doorway. Blake, making to follow, came face to face with Avon.
"I hope you don't expect thanks for that clumsy attempt at rescue, Blake." (Attempt at rescue. Blake. Body pinned, helpless: Avon's face in the firelight.) Blake shook his head.
"No more than for any of my clumsy rescue attempts," he countered.
"Good," Avon said. "I wouldn't want you to be under any more illusions than you can help." (More illusions. You can help. Himself in a life-support unit: the ever-present, maddening drumbeat.)
"Are you all right, Blake?" Vila's voice from behind him. Mercifully free from sepulchral echoes.
"It's comforting to know," Avon observed, "that our leader is firmly in control."
Blake elaborately stepped round him and followed Jenna.
* * *
The scene is a dingy bar, many millions of spatials away. The air is hazy and foul, the light purposely dim. There are faint strains of the tasteless noodling that this age dignifies with the name of music. The clientèle consists of the sort of individual whose face it would not be a comfortable thing to remember with too much accuracy; Space Rats, crimos, yerks, danglers, klimbats, a solitary rogue mutoid (not drinking, naturally)...in short: a representative selection of the breed of feckless interstellar vagabonds known as Trekkers.
Observing this convivial throng, two indistinct figures sit at a corner table. One is small and shock-headed, with a clever, quizzical face: he sits on the edge of his seat, hunched over, nervous. The other is languid, tall, handsome in the way that used to be called "Nordic": he lounges at ease, discoursing with fluent gestures. Their conversation, fascinating as it might be, does not concern us just at present...
* * *
"Sharl," Taj said, reaching out a hand across the desk. "Punctual as ever."
Space Commander Sharl Paternoster smiled modestly. "The Supreme Commander calls...I come." His voice was made to be heard on long still summer afternoons, drifting across somnolent green quadrangles dotted with black-gowned figures, as much a part of the background as the hum of bees and the distant cries and percussions of sport. Indeed, it had been in just such a place and time that Taj had first heard it, many years before. Sharl had subsequently been as surprised as almost everyone else to find himself gravitating inexorably away from an academic career, towards Space Command.
"Congratulations, Taj," he went on. "I see you've started making the place over already."
"I had to," Taj confessed. The office was transformed indeed; the bare white walls were covered with tapestries and hangings in an Indian mode, the desk had been replaced by a low wood-panelled article with a green leather surface, and the chairs by huge floor-cushions in gorgeous scarlet and purple velvet covers, embroidered in green and gold. "All this clarity and purity...if you see too clearly your vision eventually ceases to be encumbered by any trace of reality. I like to know where the walls are before I bump into them."
Paternoster's smile deepened. "Still the same Taj," he said fondly.
"How many years has it been since we last saw each other?" Taj said. "I really thought I'd lost you for ever. Isn't it wonderful that fate has drawn us together again?"
"Now Taj," Paternoster said, "don't fib. This is what you've been aiming for all the time, isn't it?"
"Who, me? Aiming for this?" Taj laughed. "I've got no secrets from you, have I, Sharl?"
"Why, Taj?" Paternoster looked down into her guileless eyes. "Was it...for me? Or was it just revenge?"
"Revenge helps nobody, Sharl. I may not be very clever, but at least I know that." Taj folded herself gracefully on to a cushion, and gestured to Paternoster to do likewise. "I really don't know why. Perhaps it was the uniforms. Why did you come this way?"
"It seemed to be what I wanted to do." Paternoster's eyes looked into the distance. "I can't say I've had no regrets...but I'm happy to be helping the Federation in any way I can."
"My goodness, we are getting profound," Taj said. "I've found a machine that makes tea. Not very good tea, but it'll do for the time being. I had to comb the building to get it. All That Woman had to drink was cases and cases of some vile green stuff that tastes like rotting toothpaste. I don't know what Warin drank, but if it was that stuff I'm glad they didn't have to perform an autopsy. 'Look, Doctor, this man's liver is green!'" They laughed, and the door chimed. "That'll be Dione," Taj said. "Come in, love, it's open."
A mutoid entered, bowed, and smiled a very un-mutoid-like smile. "Taj."
Taj got up and came around the desk to embrace the mutoid. "Dione dear. You remember Sharl, don't you? Sit down, love, and I'll make some tea." As Dione descended by degrees to cushion level, Taj pressed a button on the desk to summon the tea-maker from a floor recess. "Won't be a moment," she said, resuming her seat. "Oh, if only it could just be the three of us...but I need one more Commander for this job."
"Who did you pick, Taj?" Paternoster said.
"I didn't pick him. He was the only other available Commander with enough experience for the job."
"Safran," Dione said softly.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Taj said. "I know how you feel. He revolts me too. But it isn't like being on the same ship, or even in the same region of space..."
"Just being in this room with him will be hard enough," Dione said.
"I wouldn't have thought he'd bother you," Paternoster said, "being...um..."
"Look," Dione said, "I'm going to explain this once, since you seem to have forgotten. There are two parts to the process of making a mutoid. One is the bionic rebuild. The other is the conditioning. If the rebuild doesn't take the victim dies. If the conditioning fails the victim goes rogue and is usually hunted down. In my case it was the conditioning, only nobody seems to have noticed. I may live on blood serum, I may be stronger and faster and a little calmer than I was as a human, but I am still fairly human as far as my personality is concerned, and a drunken, egotistical, intolerant fool makes me just as nauseous as he would have before my conversion."
"I meant no insult..." Paternoster raised both his hands.
"I know," Dione said. "That's the most insulting thing about it."
"Oh, please, please don't fight!" Taj wailed. "Why does everyone who comes into this room want to knock someone else's teeth out?"
"My apologies, Supreme Commander," Paternoster said formally.
"Sorry," Dione said. "I shouldn't fly off like that."
The door chimed. "That's him," Taj said. "Now please let's be polite. Come."
The door opened. A pair of Federation space-boots which had last seen polish some time before the invasion measured the four paces from the door to the desk and stopped dead. A hand whose fingernails needed cutting and cleaning sketched a path up to a forehead from which the curly, greying hair had receded as if in horror at what the face beneath was doing, and returned the same way to point down the seam of the unpressed trousers.
"Space Commander Tol Safran reporting, Supreme Commander." The voice belonged to a man who shouted a lot, laughed a lot, drank a lot and used words that were liable to scorch the vocal chords in passing.
"Do sit down, Commander," Taj invited.
Safran remained rigidly at ease, eyeing the floor cushion below somewhat warily. "I prefer to stand, ma'am, thank you."
"Is that so?" Taj said, wide-eyed. "Well, to each his own. Personally I prefer hanging upside down from parallel bars, but then we can't always have what we want in this life, can we? Now be a good boy and sit down like everybody else. You're spoiling the symmetry of the entire room."
"It's not proper to sit in the presence of a superior, ma'am," Safran said stolidly.
Taj's eyebrows climbed. "Now isn't that funny? Here was me thinking I was the one who decided what was proper and what wasn't." She got up and walked round again. "I know That Woman liked to keep everyone standing up. It made her bully-boys feel all dominant and masterful, which must have given her a bit of a giggle, and it kept people paying attention, if only in case she said sit down." She put her hands on Safran's shoulders, looking up at him. "But, my dear Commander Safran, as you may or may not have noticed...I...am not...That Woman." She exerted pressure suddenly, twisted and pushed, and Safran landed hard on the bare floor. "That's better," Taj said firmly. "You see, Sharl, I've been keeping in practice. Use it or lose it, isn't that what they say? And you never know when a mad rapist might leap out at me in the dark." She settled herself behind her desk again. "Now, dears, about Blake..."
* * *
They had disembarked her straight into a shielded groundcar and brought her here. The cell was nearly identical to the last one, lacking only the constant throb of the drives. She had adopted the same corner and the same position as before. It was a sort of defiance.
Her sense of time had gone. It might have been an hour or a day later that she was hoisted to her feet and marched from the cell to a small chamber where two women and a man sat behind a long desk. All were strangers, high-ranking as well; there would be no leverage here.
"Please sit down," the woman on the left said. She was blonde and plump, with a disarming smile.
Servalan made a show of selecting the only chair, and dusted it carefully.
The man was small and purse-mouthed, with fading red hair flanking his scalp as though there might be something nasty lurking on the top. "Servalan—I may call you that?—please don't be alarmed. This isn't a trial as such, merely a preliminary hearing—"
"Save the anaesthetic and get to the point," Servalan said wearily.
"Very well." The man cooled noticeably. "As I was saying, this is merely a preliminary hearing. If you wish to make a statement now you may do so. We are also supposed to inform you of the charges and of your rights...but, as you have indicated, you know the form." He smiled, without showing his teeth.
"I have only one statement to make." Servalan stood up. "While you waste time expiating the blunders of your predecessors by sacrificing me, the greatest threat the Federation has ever faced is once more at large. I refer, of course, to Blake." She ignored their open smiles, leaning over the desk, using her most urgent tones, willing them to believe her. "He is reunited with some of his original crew, and in possession of a ship very like the Liberator, if Donnaiya's planetary defence scanners can be believed." She straightened up, and began to pace leisurely around the room. "Only I can help you to stop him. I shall need a fleet of five pursuit ships, crewed of course by mutoids. The question of my reinstatement may be shelved until this affair is concluded, though I shall of course need a temporary rank equivalent to Space Commander in order to command the pursuit ships. If—"
"Are you insane?" The other woman, squarely built and dark, spoke sharply.
Servalan turned, momentarily dumbstruck. The man took his chance.
"Blake is dead," he said. "I quote: 'He died of his wounds on the planet Jevron. I saw his body, I saw it cremated.' The Liberator, the only ship of its kind within Federation space, was destroyed over Terminal. I quote once again: 'I myself barely escaped with my life from the wreck.' The remnant of Blake's gang were caught in a trap on Gauda Prime from which they had no hope of escape. We have the word of Commissioner Sleer on it." He got up and approached Servalan. His breath smelt of fish paste. He spoke, quietly, mildly. "Please stop this nonsense and sit down, Servalan. If you wish to continue your statement, you may do it from your chair. Understand this, though. The Federation has no more time for fairy tales or wild promises."
Servalan, in a white fury, sat down. "I have nothing more to say."
"Splendid." The man smiled. "Now we can get on."
"I'm all in favour of healthy curiosity." —Vargas.
"...must be being fabricated on the ship. But that doesn't make sense." Jenna was frowning as she and Blake returned to the flight deck. Avon was gone. Vila was apparently asleep on the couch. "How does he do it?" she added inconsequentially, peering down at him. "I know from personal experience there is absolutely nowhere on this flight deck where a human being can hope to sleep in any degree of comfort. He manages it. There's no justice."
"I have the information you requested," Orac stated.
"It's a principle on which Vila thrives," Blake pointed out. "But you're right. The energy wastage would be enormous...and where do they come from? There's no space for the machinery."
Jenna considered. "Have you ever watched damaged circuitry growing back together? There's no machinery involved in that either. It's as though the whole ship is...organic, alive. Maybe the clothes and the food concentrates are part of the ship somehow."
"You mean every time we eat we're actually eating a bit of Zen?" Blake said. "What a nauseating concept."
"Should please Avon," Jenna said with a smile. "But where does it get the power?"
"Well, speaking as an engineer, the only fact I learned about the power plant in all my time on this ship was that it seems to produce a localised reversal of entropy. Which, if not bearing the stamp of scientific realism, at least sounds impressive."
"I think you spent too much time with that Powers person," Jenna remarked.
"If you do not require this information, please say so!!"
"I'm sorry, Orac," Blake began.
"Apologies are not necessary," the perspex box said loftily.
"Then why d'you always talk as if they were?" mumbled the sleeper on the couch.
"Give me the list of targets, please," Blake said.
"The selection of installations consonant with your criteria is not wide. The number of variables with which you presented me was inconveniently high, and your requirements were, as usual, loosely and incoherently expressed. Nevertheless, I—"
"Nevertheless, you're going to give me the list, aren't you, Orac."
"Oh, very well. One: the Earth Central Viscast Bureau. Two: the Public Security Scanner Complex. Three: Space Freight Transit Port One. Four: Space Freight Transit Port Two. Five: Space Freight Transit—"
"—Port Three, yes," Blake said. "Is that all?"
"Only five targets meet your criteria."
Blake considered. "Mm. We'll go for the viscast bureau first. I shall want plans of the building and suggestions as to how we can get in."
"I have that information ready."
"Good. Zen, arrival time in Earth orbit?"
+LIBERATOR WILL BE WITHIN TELEPORT RANGE OF EARTH IN SEVEN POINT FOUR FOUR STANDARD HOURS+
"In his quarters," Vila said sleepily. "Said he wanted peace and quiet before the war got started again."
Blake yawned cavernously. "Well, he's got six hours. I'm going to get some sleep. I hope."
"Want to talk about it?" Jenna offered.
Blake shook his head. "I think I'll keep my nightmares to myself, thanks." His expression was an unequivocal ROAD CLOSED.
"Vila," Jenna said carefully as Blake quitted the flight deck, "are you sure you wouldn't be more comfortable in your quarters?"
"You're joking," Vila murmured. "The place is a mess." Jenna remained standing over him. "Oh. All right." Vila heaved himself up. "Maybe I'll clean it out. Then again, why break the habit of a lifetime?" He headed for the doorway. "Let me know when you've finished doing whatever it is you're doing. If you're doing anything, that is. Unless it's something you don't want people to know when you've finished doing..." He wandered off, still mumbling.
"I will," Jenna called after him. One thing remained: deftly she plucked out Orac's key. The irritating trapped-bumblebee sound died away, with the usual forlorn whimper.
Alone at last on the flight deck, Jenna let the peace of the great ship—her ship, uniquely so through her continuing mental link with Zen—enfold her, enter her and draw out the poisons. All around her she could feel the smooth functioning of the Liberator's systems, power flowing from the bright heart to the drives, the computer banks, the life-support. If any one of those systems were to falter, even for a split-second, she would know, as surely as if her own heart had skipped a beat.
Sometimes, standing at pilot's station with her hands resting lightly on the boards, she could close her eyes and imagine herself on a high, windswept hill, gazing out across broad, limitless, misty plainlands, feeling the insistent fingers of the wind in her clothes and her hair: and somehow in these imaginings Zen was always beside her. Sometimes he took the form of a huge, bright-eyed, powerful dog, and she wound her fingers in his hair and scratched behind his ears before letting him loose to run and romp in the dewy grass; sometimes he was a great chestnut-brown horse, and she held his mane and fed him sugar, or else bestrode him bareback, her hands on his massive shoulders; more rarely he was a man, a wise elder in deep brown robes, whose eyes spoke volumes, and saw the answers without need of speech, or a massive armoured warrior whose fealty was for her alone. Sometimes she even felt that Zen himself shared these imaginings, perhaps even reciprocated her feelings for him...
All nonsense, of course. She was, after all, on a spaceship, and Zen was, after all, a machine, a mere machine as Avon would doubtless have put it. And, as he would probably have added, she wouldn't know what to do with a dog or a horse if one of each bit her.
Silently she consigned Avon to a hell full of dogs and horses.
(Vila, watching from just outside the doorway, saw Jenna standing motionless and silent in the middle of the flight deck and sensed some undercurrent of atmosphere that he couldn't pin down. After nothing had continued to happen for another minute or so, he silently left, and added one more unanswered question to the growing list in his mind.)
* * *
Blake woke to someone standing over him. "Who—"
"It's all right, it's only me. Sorry, but I—"
"Vila." Blake struggled to anchor himself in reality. "Didn't anyone ever teach you to knock?"
"I did, for ten minutes. You must sleep like the dead." (You must sleep. Like the dead. Cally's pale cold face: the three children on Gauda.) Blake rammed the heels of his hands into his eyes, sitting up.
"I assume you aren't in the process of burgling me."
For a moment Vila's face lit up in the old mischievous grin. "I could have cleared the place out twice over. You'd best get a dog." The grin vanished. "No. Sorry to disturb you, but I..."
"You need to talk," Blake prompted. "What about?"
After a long pause Vila said, "Malodaar."
Of course. "What about it?"
Vila hesitated. "You saw it. All of it. So you said." His face contorted with anxiety. "Blake, what did I do? How did I hurt him? I was the same as I always was, wasn't I? I never hurt anyone that much."
"Vila, I don't know," Blake began, but Vila went on unheeding.
"I could have understood it if it had been Tarrant...he's the only man I ever met who truly and honestly didn't care for anyone but himself. Even Servalan had more compassion. Him I could have fought, and I'd have won. I—I wouldn't have minded if it had been Dayna or Soolin...they just didn't like me much, and I can't blame them. If it—if it had really been...I wouldn't have minded so much...for one of them." Tears leaked from his screwed-up eyes. "I'd have done it like a shot for Cally." (A shot. For Cally. Avon's blank face: the gun in his hand.) "But—but Avon...he was my friend." He sniffed, blew his nose fiercely. "I'm starting to sound like Doran. 'My pal.'"
"Vila," Blake said, "did you get the impression...at the time...that it was Avon's idea? Shoving you out, I mean?"
"Well, I don't know whether you noticed, but it wasn't too crowded in that shuttle," Vila said, trying to smile. "Whose idea would it have been, if it wasn't his? And I can tell you it definitely wasn't mine."
"Oh, come on, Blake," Vila snapped, with surprising vehemence. "I'm as anxious as you to find excuses for Avon, but that really is scraping the bottom. Orac's a machine. It can't have ideas, at least I hope it can't, and even if it could Avon would ignore 'em. He likes his machines docile."
"It was just a thought," Blake said mildly. "Maybe Avon was just scared out of his wits."
"Or into them," Vila said darkly. "Funny though. I really thought he liked me. I really did."
"Yes. No. I don't know. I'd better go and let you sleep, Blake. Sorry again."
"Any time, Vila."
The door closed. Darkness regained its hold. Blake lay on his back, gazing up at the invisible stars beyond the ceiling, trying to reconcile the Avon he had known with a giggling madman who pushed people out of spaceships. If he hadn't known Avon and Vila better, he'd have said that the egregious Egrorian had made Avon jealous, pawing at Vila like that, so obviously after his body.
He was still puzzling over it when sleep took him.
* * *
Jagged crystals gouged their way along her veins. One by one her bones grew white-hot within her and turned to black powdery ash. Her brain was being eaten, cell by cell, in exquisite agony. Someone was speaking to her, asking questions, and she was replying, pouring out words in frantic haste, but none of them would come clear. At the dim silent centre of her being, a single pale spark that was truly her waited patiently for the pain to end.
Which, after a few subjective millennia, it did.
"I'm afraid she's telling the truth," a voice said, as the absence of pain crashed down on her consciousness like a stone. "She genuinely has no rebel contacts. There is the man Avon, of course, whom she pursued for almost a year, but one can hardly describe him as a rebel, not if results are taken into account."
"Yes, I see what you mean. Dear me, what a nuisance. Ah well, if you're quite sure..."
"If I'm wrong, Kommissar Gefarr, you still won't get anything from her, because her system's stressed almost to breaking point. If you put any more pressure on her she'll simply give up and die. She's already given us the whole story behind her own rise to power..."
"And a sordid story it is, Donjay. Very well. Release her. I've had a directive from headquarters. We're to have the show trial after all. Some sort of computer error, apparently. You'd think with all the resources they have they could get it right the first time, wouldn't you? Ah well, ours not to reason why. Clean up that disgusting mess—why do they always do that? Surely one could disconnect the sphincter controls somehow—put her on a drip-feed and get her ready to face the cameras. It won't need to be long."
"She may not be able to speak..."
"She doesn't have to. We'll find her a suitably third-rate advocate, hold the trial in the Courts of Justice with all appropriate ceremony, arrange the verdict—just to make sure—and then take her round the back and put an end to the problem." There were movements. "Well done, Donjay."
"I'm sorry the results were so poor, Kommissar."
"The results aren't so important, young man. What matters is that you have broken the great Servalan. That will serve to still any excessively public support that she may have among the rabble."
"That tyrant? Support? Oh, come now, Kommissar..."
"Donjay, there are people out there who, even while she tore the bread from their mouths, drugged them into insensibility and had them shot if they twitched out of turn, swore that she was the best thing that had happened to Earth in years. They worshipped her, as they would worship any charismatic and determined ruler. We have a technical term for them, Donjay. We call them 'Idiots'. And the survival of the Federation depends upon them. Never forget that."
"Good heavens, lunchtime already. Would you care to join me in the officers' club?"
"Thank you, Kommissar, I would. Pricklow, see to that mess."
"Now, tell me about this case of yours down the corridor. Number Five?"
"Six, Kommissar. He's a tough one—"
The voices faded. Inside the soiled thing that had been Servalan, the pale spark waited.
* * *
"Bercol? A moment, please."
"Yes, what is it, Rontane?"
"What is the woman playing at?"
"What? What woman? What are you talking about?"
"Taj, of course. This ridiculous laissez-faire policy of hers. The Outer Systems are continually on the verge of secession as it is."
"Why, as to that, I don't believe I'm qualified to—"
"'Entitled' to. Of course you're qualified, anyone with half an eye and two brain cells is qualified. Is she terminally dim, or does she really want to bring the whole Federation crashing down about our ears?"
"I don't know. I've a feeling she wouldn't turn a hair if it did. Just say 'it was too draughty anyway' and start building a bungalow."
"Bungalows don't support that many lodgers, Bercol. You go to visit her regularly. Find out what she's really doing about Blake and give me something I can pacify the Outer Systems with."
"Commodores Fogerty and Mengesen did it with a fleet of battlecruisers and a lady's hair pin."
"It was a hat pin, Bercol, and your wit is as ill-timed as it is ill-researched. I know she saw three of the Space Command this morning, closely followed by Berengaria and Minn from the CPS."
"Which suggests a two-pronged attack. But is that what it is? That, my friend, is the question. A question to which I have to provide an answer, for the benefit of a bunch of semi-savage puppet rulers who have suddenly started tweaking their strings."
"Well, I'll do what I can. But Taj wants Blake's existence to remain unacknowledged—"
"Bercol, there are secrets and secrets. If the loyalty of the Outer Systems is to be kept, their leaders must feel they are being trusted."
"Ye-es, I see that. I...I'll be in touch."
"I shall look forward to that."
* * *
"Federation tracking station 729B to unidentified vessel. Identify yourself, please." The voice was bored, casual. Travis casually ignored it. The ship was old and touchy, in need of constant attention; one of Travis' major priorities was the acquisition of alternative transportation.
"Federation tracking station 729B to unidentified vessel. Please identify yourself immediately." A little more urgency: Travis could imagine the man sitting up, putting down the book or the drink or the hand of cards. "Identify yourself immediately, please."
Sorry, thought Travis.
"Tracking station 729B to unidentified vessel. If identification is not received, hostile intent must be presumed and appropriate action will be taken." Translation: speak or we'll kill you. Travis' eye scanned the ready lights on the gunnery console. Only two were flickering uncertainly. He could take out a tracking station, no problem. Anticipation licked along his nerve endings.
"Travis, listen to me. You must identify yourself to the tracking station." The voice was that of his mysterious rescuer.
"Why?" Travis demanded.
"Because if you follow your barbaric inclination and open fire upon them, undue attention will be drawn to you and the plan will fail. Identify yourself immediately."
"This is getting very monotonous," Travis muttered. Then his head jerked round. "What do I say?"
"Whatever you please. It will be accepted. You must do it now!"
Savagely, Travis thumbed the communicator. "This is Space Commander Travis, aboard Federation pursuit ship 58/494, bound for Earth. Acknowledge and let me pass."
There was a pause. "Acknowledged, Commander Travis. Please be more prompt in future." The contact was broken.
Travis gaped. "What happened?"
"It is not necessary that you should know that." Travis opened his mouth. "Please listen carefully. I have been monitoring the state of your ship, and conclude that it will suffer terminal malfunction before you reach the solar system. It is imperative that you transfer to another ship. One will be located within your immediate area shortly. I will contact you at that time."
"Wait!" Travis shouted. "I have to know—I will not proceed unless I get some answers!"
"What do you wish to know?" There was impatience there.
"Who are you? Why did you rescue me? Why should I care what happens to Servalan now? How long was I on Star One?"
"Which of those questions do you wish me to answer?"
"All of them," Travis snarled.
"If I do that, the communication will be traced and the plan will fail. I am running considerable risk in indulging you to this extent. Please select one question."
Travis hesitated. "Why did you rescue me?"
"Because I had need of you. Is that satisfactory?"
"Very well. I had need of an individual trained for combat, with sufficient motivation to perform the task on which you are now engaged."
"Rescuing Servalan!" Travis laughed silently. "Oh, my friend, you got it wrong. That bitch means nothing to me. I have no motivation whatsoever to rescue her, unless to see her die under my hand."
"For your information, the recovery of Servalan is only the first stage in my plan. I must break this contact now. I will contact you again when I have located a suitable ship."
"Wait! One more question! What is your final objective?"
There was a moment's silence, then:
"My final objective...is to acquire the vessel called Liberator."
"Just one more connection...." —1st Alien.
Servalan came to awareness of pain, or to the pain of awareness; she was not sure which. Some sadist dragged her eyelids open, and her brain flinched and tried to hide in the back of her skull from the searing white light. Several decades passed, not very comfortably.
There was a sound from her right, and she twisted round to look. A blurred shape gradually resolved itself into the form of a small, dark man with a full beard, carrying a briefcase.
"Servalan?" he bellowed in a conversational undertone.
"Please—" Servalan croaked. "Don't shout."
"Ah. I understand a degree of hyperaesthesia is normal in these cases. It should pass soon. Allow me to explain my presence." Slowly Servalan's senses came under control. The light became bearable, her skin ceased to shriek at the touch of the coarse prison shift, and the man's voice dwindled to a more normal level. "Federation law states that criminals awaiting trial may select their advocate from those who make themselves available for that purpose."
"All right," Servalan said, trying to clear her throat. "Let me see them."
The man smiled. "You are looking at them. My name is Stuma, Gamariel E. Stuma. I am a criminal advocate of the fifth grade, licensed to practice in all sectors of Earth and the Inner Systems. Should you decline my services, the court will select an advocate for you at random."
"No doubt...of that." Her brain did not seem to be working at all as it should. "It hardly...matters, does it?"
"That depends on whether you intend to put up a defence or not." Stuma seemed unruffled. "For your information, you are charged on numerous counts of treason, armed insurrection, fraud, consorting with known criminals..."
"Piracy, tax evasion and...child molesting as well, no doubt," Servalan said. "Stuma, listen to me. You...are a minor player in a farce whose script is completely...fixed. If you really think...you can prevent my execution, you are welcome...to try. But I warn you...don't be too optimistic." Every word was an effort, every movement like climbing a mountain. Nevertheless she sat up on the hard bench, wincing, trembling with the effort.
Stuma smiled sadly. "There is precious little work of any other nature now...for an advocate who will not prosecute innocents." He peered at her closely. "Would you prefer me to return at another time?"
"When I have...made myself beautiful, you mean?" Servalan tried to laugh, but her chest spasmed and she retched dryly. "Little chance of that...now."
"The pain will eventually pass."
"I doubt...I shall have time to notice. No, Stuma, by all means stay. You serve...as a welcome distraction."
"I am gratified." Stuma sat on the bench beside her, placing his briefcase on his knees. "I have roughed out a number of possible approaches..."
* * *
"Again, Vila," Avon echoed. "If we repeat it often enough, it may begin to sound plausible."
Vila sighed. "We teleport down to the roof, me, Blake and Jenna. They place charges on the transmitter masts. I get them into the building through that access hatch...lock on the other side, very dodgy, all right, I can do it...and we work down, planting charges and shepherding people out via the fire exits which you lock—sorry, sorry, which I lock. It's not my department, you know, locking things, just thought I'd better warn you. We rendezvous in the main studio, place the bulk of our charges there, then teleport out." He looked from Avon to Blake. "Right?"
"You left something out," Blake said.
"Oh." The thief looked even more miserable. "Our final broadcast to the waiting megamillions. Do we have to? I hate boasting, particularly when it could be fatal—"
"Meanwhile," Avon broke in, "I am in a spacesuit planting one of these delightful little objects into every relay satellite in sight, and Orac is heroically monitoring your wavelength, ready to bring you up with his usual enthusiasm. As suicides go, it is a little showy."
"But a show is exactly what we're putting on," Blake said. "We have to let people see that we are as strong as ever we were."
"For what that is worth," Avon appended.
"Hell of a show," Vila remarked. "Should I pull the charges from my sleeve or out of Jenna's ear?"
"Neither, thanks," Jenna said, moving away quickly.
"Just make sure the timers are set correctly." Blake looked up at Zen's fascia. "Zen, if the Liberator is threatened, wait until Avon is back on board, then take evasive action and return to teleport range as soon as possible. Orac, in that case recall Avon immediately."
"Give me a warning, Orac," Avon said. "Just in case I have a primed charge in my hand."
"Of course I will."
On that note they followed Blake, more or less reluctantly, to the teleport.
* * *
"Very interesting." Doctor Elias Berengaria, FCPS, peered at Taj as if inspecting a statue of a Hindu goddess. Taj did nothing to dispel the illusion. She seemed as fascinated with Berengaria as he with her.
"Obsessive-compulsive identification with an obsolete cultural stereotype," the psychostrategist continued, stroking his receding chin and flaring his prominent nostrils. The effect was of a contemplative goldfish. "Resulting from general free-floating anti-technological anxiety and temporal anomie. Mm?"
"I'm sure I wouldn't know," Taj said. "I just like wearing pretty clothes." She walked round Berengaria and returned to her desk. "Now I don't like to seem pushy, Doctors, but have you done anything about the assignment I gave you?"
"Well, Supreme Commander," Doctor Wilbur Minn, indistinguishable from Berengaria in all but the name-badge on his tunic, said in soothing tones, "you have to appreciate that the task is infinitely complex..."
"Oh dear. Do you mean you can't do it? I only ask," Taj added hastily, "because if I've been waiting here for the past half hour for you to tell me you can't do it, then we'll all have been wasting our valuable time, and I do hate waste, don't you?"
"No, Supreme Commander..." Berengaria began.
"You don't hate waste?" Taj's eyebrows rose. "Well, I suppose there's a lot to be said for the idea that the ability to waste is a sign of intelligence, although personally I find that rather a depressing concept, but then..." She let the sentence trail off.
"No, Supreme Commander, I meant that no, we aren't saying we can't do it." Berengaria frowned and counted on his fingers. "Yes. I mean, we can."
"Oh, I'm so glad." Taj went to a corner of the room, where an unidentifiable metal object bubbled gently to itself. "You must excuse me, gentlemen, I live on tea these days. Do you like my samovar? I had it reconstructed specially." She filled a cup and sipped the steaming liquid delicately. "So what will they do?" she asked, sitting down again.
Berengaria took up a lecturing pose. "Once we had reconstructed Blake's file—all the relevant documents having been filed in the dead section—we were able to construct a computer analogue of the personality, and feeding in the relevant situational data brought it up to date. We then attempted a Carnell projection of the subject's future actions..."
"And we concluded that his first actions would be to try and recover all his original crew," Minn finished triumphantly.
"But..." Taj donned a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles with big round lenses and shuffled the papers on her desk. "Where is it? I had here," she continued somewhat plaintively, "a report which said that Kerr Avon and Vila Restal were on that planet with the stupid name when he reappeared, or was captured, or escaped or rescued them or whatever it was that happened. Somebody must have been on the Liberator to teleport them up. That makes three of the original crew with him already. That only leaves two, and my information is that there have been at least two fatalities in the Liberator's crew since they started. I wish I could find things."
"Having done that, Supreme Commander," Berengaria recaptured the baton and put a spurt on, "his next priority will be to re-enlist the support of the people. To put himself back in the forefront of their consciousness, as it were."
"To do something noisy without killing too many of them. Very good, Doctors. What will he do?" Taj looked up at Minn, eyes huge behind her spectacles, and at once snatched them off. "Oh my goodness me, what a sight."
Minn bridled, but deigned to respond. "He will probably strike at non-essential installations. There is a high likelihood that he will select targets close to the nerve centre of the Federation."
"That's here, isn't it?" Alarm crossed Taj's face. "I've just planted my daffs out for the spring. Oh, how annoying. When?"
"That depends on a number of factors, Supreme Commander," Berengaria said. "Remember that while we have complete information on Blake, we have nothing on the current state of his crew. They will certainly influence his decisions." He smiled reassuringly. "But I think your daffodils should be safe for a few weeks yet."
Taj gave him her best smile. "Oh, I do hope so. I think Shelley was so good on daffodils, don't you?" Her gaze sought the distance as she recited:
"So twice five miles of sacred ground
With daffodils was girded 'round."
"Yes, indeed," Berengaria said politely.
"Can you tell me anything else?" Taj said, coming back to herself.
"Only that the man called Avon, if the reports are correct, seems to be exhibiting aberrant behaviour of a type not previously associated with his personality profile," Minn said. "Prognostications are, however, necessarily unreliable at this stage. Should further data become available...”
"I will of course transmit it straight to the College," Taj said briskly, "or I will if I can work out how to." She sighed sadly. "Poor Kimball's acting as my secretary at the moment because if I have one I can't find him on this wretched machine."
"Anti-technological anxiety," Berengaria murmured to Minn.
"No, they just didn't label the buttons," Taj said. "I won't keep you, gentlemen. Goodbye." She waited till the door had closed behind the doctors, then bleeped Kimball.
"Ah, Kimball, dear. Get a message to the College of Psychostrategists. Tell them they simply have to find new Heads. Those two patronised me—and they know nothing about poetry. I ask you, how can a man presume to tell you what you're thinking if he doesn't know about poetry?" Taj shook her head. "Oh. Have my three squadrons left yet?"
"I believe they're on the pad, Supreme Commander, but I'll check."
"If you would, love."
* * *
"The reason for the delay is that it's hard to find three squadrons of viable mutoids when their use has been declared unethical by the High Council," Dione retorted forcefully. Several people on the concourse turned to stare, and just as quickly turned away again. "You notice, of course, that even after this declaration they didn't shut down the conversion and conditioning centre at Betchworth till almost six months later."
"So it obviously wasn't unethical to make mutoids, simply to make use of them." Paternoster grimaced. "Typical High Council."
"Taj won't stand for much of that," Dione said darkly. "Under all that fluff she's tougher even than That W—" She laughed. "Than Servalan."
"Mm, I don't know," Paternoster said. "Tough, certainly, but tougher—? Taj does have a conscience."
"It'll be her undoing," Dione prophesied.
"Ah, the simple certainties of mutoids," said a voice from behind them.
"Commander Safran," Dione said, turning round. "We were just not talking about you."
Safran blinked. "Oh well," he said. "Mind if I join you?"
"Well," Paternoster said, "as a matter of fact—"
+ATTENTION COMMANDER TOL SAFRAN. SQUADRON NOW READY. PLEASE REPORT TO COMMAND SHIP IMMEDIATELY+
"Oh, what a shame," Dione said, with monumental and blatant insincerity. "Still, Gauda Prime, after all. You'll need as much start as you can get."
"Not with my crew," Safran boasted. "Hand-picked mutoids, picked by me. The best in the galaxy. I'll lay you odds I'm there before you get to Freedom City." He hesitated. "Well, wish me luck, then."
"Goodbye," Dione said. Paternoster nodded, smiling faintly. Safran turned and marched down the ramp towards the pad. Dione shuddered, gazing after him with an expression of fixed disgust.
"You really hate him, don't you," Paternoster remarked.
"Commander Safran has a problem with mutoids," Dione said carefully.
"He doesn't like them?"
"No," Dione said sombrely as the warning sirens began to sound for Safran's squadron's liftoff. "No, that isn't the problem." She shook her head. "I'm sorry—could we change the subject, please?"
"Erm—" Paternoster grasped at a straw. "Freedom City. Why there?"
"It's a place where Blake went, once before. He might have remembered it as a bolthole, a neutral hideout. I'm to investigate and make sure that if he does go there he stays."
"And Gauda Prime."
"Well, considering the Federation's passion for locking the stable doors after the horse has gone, it makes sense." Conversation was suspended for a few moments as Safran's ships bounded into the sky.
"I still don't see why you're going to Terminal," Dione said, when speech was once more audible.
"Well, as near as I can guess, Taj wants to make sure that it is the Liberator we're dealing with and not a look-alike, a copy or God forbid the vanguard of a fleet of the things." Paternoster winced. "If Blake stole that ship from an alien power, then technically the Federation's responsible."
"Now that's a case I'd like to see come up in the High Court," Dione said with a grin. "Wasn't it fairly comprehensively destroyed?"
"Well, I suppose so, but there's little or no gravitational perturbation out there. Any débris at all would still be orbiting—some of it, at least. And according to one report there was a massive surge of anomalous radiation when the thing blew up, so background should be significantly higher." Paternoster cocked his head. "As to why I'm taking a full squadron—your guess is as good as mine. Maybe Taj thinks Blake will head back there."
"Hardly likely," Dione commented. "If I were Blake, that would be the last place I'd go."
* * *
Travis had once heard a theory being propounded as he walked into a cadet messroom to the effect that there was actually only one T16 City class transport ship in the entire galaxy; it just moved very fast when no-one was looking. Well, if such was the case, then he was in a unique position to observe the fact, being aboard the thing. Personally, he doubted it.
The transfer from the ailing pursuit ship had gone very smoothly. He had come upon the merchant vessel Turnham Green drifting millions of spatials off course, its flight computer down and the crew in some panic. He had offered them rescue, taken them on board via transfer tube, shot the captain (who had insisted on staying with his ship) and departed at speed. He supposed that the bomb he had rigged on the pursuit ship's drive chamber must have made a very satisfying bang. It was a pity sound didn't travel in space.
Curiously enough, the flight computer had returned to full function not long after he had boarded the Turnham Green and had given no trouble at all. It was now giving him an ETA in Earth orbit of about five hours, which he supposed was accurate enough. So far there had been no word from the Mystery Voice, which was fine with Travis as long as the equally mysterious help continued to be forthcoming.
As for the impending rescue, Travis had his own ideas about how that was going to go. What Servalan had done to get herself arrested was only dimly apparent to him, but he wanted to find out a lot more before he made a move. The knowledge could lend considerable entertainment value to the journey...wherever he was supposed to take her.
Always assuming that she didn't get bent in transit.
* * *
The watcher at the centre of the web, noting activity along the shining threads, focuses on the affected areas and perceives...
A wind-blasted, soot-grimed corner of a planet many would rather forget, where a small, shock-headed man sits and stares at nothing while his only friend exchanges money for dreams...
A small, neat room far from the crowded streets of NordEurop OutDome Area, where a passionate acolyte of justice studies his client's record and shakes his head sadly...
A dim-lit, dust-heavy dungeon in a forgotten place on a forgotten world, where a maiden sits, guarded by monsters, and waits patiently for the promised deliverance...
And far away, on a world that should not exist, Ethan Powers and Clement Nyrond confront a woman who has three ages, and negotiations begin.
"We've survived because we work as a team." —the Lost.
"Have you noticed something?" Vila said, running his fingers over the metal surface of the access hatch.
"An irritatingly incessant voice?" Jenna suggested.
"Oh, very funny." Little fidgeting noises from behind the hatch indicated either progress or electronic mice. "No, what I mean is ever since we started this racket we've been blowing up communications centres. Centero was the first...or was it Saurian Major? Doesn't matter. Anyway. We get in, we blow the place up, we blind, deafen and paralyse the Federation for the umpty-umpth time, and before we've even teleported up the news is halfway across the galaxy. Have you ever noticed that?"
"Just open the hatch, Vila," Blake said. "I've set these charges for ninety minutes. They'll also detonate if any large flying object comes closer than ten metres to the masts. I don't want troopers coming down behind us."
"Take Centero," Vila went on. "Communications centre for the whole sector, I heard. We zapped it completely. How long did it take them to find out and get a team in? Hours? It'll be the same with this, you'll see. Five minutes after the place goes up they'll be pinching our best lines and writing them into the soapcasts. If you see a man following us with a notebook, hit him."
"Yes, all right..." The hatch groaned open. "There you are. I can talk and work at the same time, it's a particular talent of mine. It's working and not talking at the same time that I find difficult—" Vila staggered back as Blake and Jenna pushed past him. "What happened to old-fashioned courtesy? 'After you, Blake.' 'No, after you, Vila.' Hey, wait for me—"
* * *
They had come for her while she was asleep. The first she had known had been the cold flush of a stimulant injection and the jab of a trooper's rifle. Stumbling along through a solarised world, her brain a cruelly sharp-edged fog, she had barely registered Stuma falling in at her side. Now, as she sat in the dock, her head ached and her eyes hurt.
Why did they bother having me here at all? They could just have mocked-up the whole thing.
"The High Court of the Terran Federation is now in session. All rise." A hand dragged her to her feet by one arm, held her there, then dropped her into her seat again.
"The case of Servalan, also known as Sleer, ex-Supreme Space Commander, ex-President, ex-Commissioner of Federation Security. Let all who bear knowledge of this matter attend and come forth." The rituals were different again. More pomp to disguise less justice. The Justice Machines hadn't worked since Star One had fallen, and the judicial process was once again based on rhetoric, the ancient art of the convincing lie. Ah, progress.
As the charges were interminably reeled off by a clerk with, of all things, a stammer, Servalan searched inside herself. Where was the assured, commanding woman who had lived there for so long? Burnt out by one session of interrogation? (Shame stabbed at her: one session and all her determination not to yield had melted away, all her secrets had spilled out like the contents of her bowels under the cold eyes of that Kommissar.) Or simply asleep somewhere deep, hiding from the world she had thought to rule?
Maybe I'm free of her at last.
"Servalan, also known as Sleer, ex-Supreme Space Commander, ex-President, ex-Commissioner of Federation Security, you have heard the charges. How say you?"
"Not...guilty." She focussed on the courtroom once again as Stuma rose to his feet, with one last glance of mingled hope and entreaty in her direction. She rather pitied him: he would not prosecute the innocent, so he was forced to defend the guilty as hell. This case would not look well on his record at all.
"My client wishes the usual affirmations to be taken as read," he said. Did she? Yes, she supposed she did.
"Very well. In that case you may make your opening declaration."
Time seemed to limp. Her mind was circling like a fly in a warm room, pointlessly, endlessly.
"My client's record throughout," Stuma began, "is one of selfless—if perhaps at times a little over-intense—devotion to a great cause, an indisputably worthy cause: the establishment and maintenance of order. This cause is surely not to be scorned, gentlepeople, this cause is surely not obliged to prove its bona fides in a court of law. And if my client, in her unceasing pursuit of this shining goal, was at times persuaded that its desirability transcended the petty issue of chain-of-command, it can surely be forgiven her, in that by such transcendence she sought to minimise the interval between the utter chaos in which she found herself and the glorious era of peace, prosperity and enlightenment upon which we are now embarking and by virtue of which this court may sit. In short, gentlepeople—" Stuma drew himself up. "—given that this was at all times my client's objective, your finding against her could only indicate one conclusion: that my client quite deliberately engineered the circumstances under which her alleged improprieties would be certain to come to light!"
Servalan wished him the best of luck on that one.
* * *
The cripple did not have a vision panel. It cut into the working day. Besides, the viscasts were all full of subliminal propaganda messages. It was pure chance—or fate—that took him past the shop at that particular moment, on his way back from picking up a component.
He swivelled his chair in amazement and stared at a face he had never thought to see again. Then, heart pounding, he entered the shop. The same face was repeated along a line of different makes and models, in all sizes and colours. It was him. It was him. As unobtrusively as he could, Gan leant close to a panel positioned at his level and turned up the sound.
* * *
"—straight at me, because there isn't much time. This is Roj Blake, speaking to the people of Earth." A smile twitched at Blake's lips. "There is nothing wrong with your vision panel. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission." No-one would get it, but what the hell. "This building is about to be destroyed. Will everyone living in the immediate area please get out of your homes as fast as you can, because we can't predict which way any of it is going to fall. We are evacuating everyone in the building, so if you have relatives here don't worry. They'll have time to get clear before the blast. I repeat. This building is about to be destroyed. Everyone in the immediate area please leave your homes. If you have relatives here don't worry. We'll do everything in our power to see that they're not harmed." Abruptly he turned, raised his handgun and fired once. There was a stifled cry. "Unless, of course, they try to pull guns on us.
"You may have heard that we were dead, or that our ship, the Liberator, had been destroyed. Well, as you can see, I am still alive. Vila and Jenna are with me here—I'd ask them to say hello, but they're a bit busy at the moment. The Liberator is in Earth orbit, waiting to teleport us aboard. I won't deny that we've been quite close to death on many occasions—but as you can see, it hasn't taken us yet.
"One more thing. You may find that time hangs heavy on your hands when there are no more viscasts. I'm sure the situation will be only temporary—but in the meantime there are a number of amusing and educational games that you can play to while away the hours. Civil Disobedience is the name of one of them. I'll let you work it out for yourselves."
He glanced off to his right. "We'll now complete the evacuation of the building. The first explosions should start about five minutes from now. The cameras will be left running in here. With any luck, unless the Administration can work out some way to jam the signal in that time, you'll see us leave." He paused. "But we will be back."
* * *
Gan gazed enraptured. It was Blake. That was a Liberator handgun, and a Liberator teleport bracelet. Unless someone had committed the cardinal idiocy of turning the adventures of Blake's Seven into a viscast series, that meant only one thing. He trundled out of the shop and back towards the ramp that led to Level Thirty.
As he ascended the ramp, pumping his wheels with every ounce of strength his arms possessed, he had a clear view of the viscast building. There seemed nothing out of the ordinary...but then the ground level was not visible, obscured by other buildings in between. When he paused at the top of the ramp and strained his ears he thought he could hear distant crowd noises. Hurriedly he turned and continued on his way.
He was almost at his door when the explosions began. Without a backward glance he rolled into his room, picked up the legs, stood them between the parallel bars, rolled back to his bench and opened a drawer with one hand while picking up a power supply hookup with the other.
"Don't go away, Blake," he panted. "I'm coming."
* * *
"Liberator, come in. Orac, are you there?"
"Well, of course I am."
"Any trouble with pursuit ships?"
"Battle computers have just registered launches from the planet surface."
"Good, stand by to operate the teleport on my command. All done, Jenna?"
"Blake, the top levels will blow any moment. Let's go."
"Yeah, come on, Blake, I don't fancy dying in front of millions."
"Hold on," Blake said steadily.
Jenna frowned. "Blake, this is no time for—"
"Orac, teleport now!" Blake yelled as five troopers with guns levelled ran into the room. They had almost half a second to react to Blake before he and the others became limned in white and vanished. Then all hell broke loose.
"That was irresponsible and unnecessary," Jenna said furiously. "You know Orac isn't as fast as a human on the teleport."
"It worked, though," Blake said. "If anyone was still watching, the last thing they'll have seen is a trooper firing his paragun at them."
"You risked our lives for a stupid dramatic effect—" Jenna stopped herself. "That was the point of the whole thing, wasn't it?"
"A hairsbreadth escape, in the great tradition, with the whole planet watching. Exactly. Zen, implement random evasive pattern, standard by nine. Where's Avon got to?"
There was a sound, rather like a cymbal doing the shimmy.
"There," said Vila.
+CONFIRMED+ came over the communicator.
"I got twelve satellites all told," Avon said. "Since Orac fetched me back, I assume something is happening. I suggest we get to the flight deck and have a look at whatever it is."
"You never know," Vila muttered, "it might be important."
* * *
"All available interceptors converge on grid reference nine five three intersect two two," Kimball ordered tonelessly.
"Psychostrategists," Taj murmured. "Would the world miss them?" She sipped tea. "I wouldn't mind, you know, if they made predictions in Aristotelean terms. Yes or no, will or won't, black or white. Then at least we would know to expect the exact opposite."
"He's taking evasive action," Kimball reported.
"He isn't, is he?" Taj said in vastly exaggerated surprise. "Do you know, that's just what I would do if someone was shooting at me. How strange."
"I'm sorry, Kimball." Taj brooded a moment. "Actually, now I come to think about it, it isn't."
"We've lost a ship. Keep behind him, you fools, he can only fire in one direction." Kimball blinked. "I'm sorry, Supreme Commander. Isn't what?"
"You noticed it too. I thought it was just me. Why is he still here? He can outrun us, he knows we're bringing up reinforcements. Why is he still cluttering up our space?" Taj looked at Kimball. "Why doesn't he go?"
* * *
"A distress call?" Jenna repeated. "Here we are in the middle of hostile space, pursuit ships converging on us from all sides and you want to answer a distress call?"
"Zen," Blake said, "can you decipher any of it?"
+THE SIGNAL IS WEAK AND GARBLED. CATEGORISATION AS A DISTRESS CALL IS TENTATIVE AND UNCONFIRMED. THE TRANSMISSION IS ON LIBERATOR COMMUNICATOR FREQUENCY+
"Can't you put it on audio?"
+NEGATIVE. SIGNAL STRENGTH INSUFFICIENT AND DIMINISHING. COMPUTERS HAVE A LOCATOR FIX ON THE POINT OF ORIGIN+
That sounded like a hint to me. "It could be someone we gave a bracelet to," Jenna said.
+PLASMA BOLT LAUNCHED AND RUNNING+
"Like who? Servalan?" Vila looked back at his console, yelped and fired the neutron blasters. Another Federation ship blossomed into death.
"Blake, we haven't time for any of this!" Avon shouted as the plasma bolt hit and the ship seemed to rock under them.
"Jenna, get down to the teleport. Try and focus on the signal and bring whoever it is up. Take a gun with you just in case. Zen can handle the manoeuvring until they're up. If you can't do it first time, we'll leave. Fair enough, Avon?"
Avon, concentrating on the state of the force-wall, did not answer at once.
"How am I going to teleport through the force-wall?" Jenna said.
"If you can get a fix, Avon will lower it on your word."
"Oh, will I," Avon muttered.
"Yes, Avon, you will," Blake said forcefully.
+LOCATOR FIX WILL BECOME IMPRECISE IN APPROXIMATELY TWO POINT SEVEN TWO MINUTES+
Jenna ran to the weapons rack, grabbed a gun and pelted off the flight deck. Zen wants us to bring this somebody up. What does he know that he isn't telling?
"Automatic evasion, Zen!" Blake snapped.
+CONFIRMED. PLASMA BOLT LAUNCHED AND RUNNING+
"Damn, I almost had one then!" Vila was put out.
The communicator plinked. "Avon! Force-wall down now!"
Wordlessly, Avon obeyed.
The bolt hit.
* * *
Jenna was thrown back against the wall as the entire ship seemed to rock. It felt as if the bolt had hit her. The teleport was working, but for a moment her eyes wouldn't focus.
She struggled to her feet and thumbed the communicator. "All right, Avon, you can...put the force wall back up now," she gasped.
"If that was all you wanted, I could have hit you myself," he said. "We're moving out now."
Jenna didn't answer. She was staring at the figure in the teleport chamber.
* * *
"Are you there, Jenna?" Blake demanded.
"Yes...yes, I'm here," Jenna said, animation gradually returning to her voice. "I think you'd better get down here right away."
"Zen, course zero-four-five, standard by ten. Jenna, are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Blake. Teleport operation successful. It wasn't a trap. Come down and see for yourself."
+PLASMA BOLT LAUNCHED AND RUNNING+
"Increase speed to standard by twelve, Zen," Avon said. "Go on, Blake. Vila and I will supervise the strategic withdrawal."
"It isn't a strategic withdrawal, Avon," Blake said as he got out of his flight station. "We're running away."
* * *
The Turnham Green passed through the battle miraculously unscathed, and Travis debated his next move. If he picked the optimum landing site he might have to walk miles to wherever Servalan was being held—
"Hello, Voice," Travis said.
"You must land the ship on top of the Courts of Justice."
"I said, you must land the ship on top of the Courts of Justice. Servalan's case is being tried at this moment. Her execution will doubtless follow shortly. You must take her before proceedings close."
"The roof won't bear my weight."
"Exactly. The upper levels will absorb the vertical momentum, and the confusion caused will give you time to reach Servalan. Furthermore, if the landing is precisely judged, the ship will sustain no structural damage. I will give you exact co-ordinates." One of the data monitors filled with numbers. "Your final approach must begin in fifteen seconds."
"Wish me luck," Travis murmured.
"Luck should not be necessary."
And then there was no more time, and nothing else to do but go through with it.
"Never come between friends, that's my motto." —Rai.
Blake strode into the teleport area and took a deep breath.
Which refused to come out again. His mouth dropped open. His eyes grew round. He made little strangling noises. It was an exquisite moment, and on the whole rather a pity that Gan had to spoil it by trying to take a pace forward and falling flat on his face.
* * *
Another rather fine moment was the one in which Servalan woke from the half-drowse into which Stuma's soothing words had lulled her to see troopers running this way and that, Arbiter and advocates covered in a fine rain of plaster, and what looked like part of a landing strut from a T16 City class freighter poking through the ceiling.
She turned to see a figure beckoning to her from the doorway through the plaster haze. As she got up a trooper levelled his paragun at her and shouted "Stop!" The next moment he was down, felled by a blast from the doorway. Servalan asked no questions, but hurried after her rescuer, out of the courtroom and up the stairs.
It was a T16. She almost burst out laughing at the sight of it, sprawled on a pile of débris from which limbs and bodies protruded grotesquely. She followed the black-clad figure through the hatch.
"Do you seriously expect...to be able to get this thing out of here?" she panted.
"Shut up." The voice struck an odd chord of familiarity. Servalan crept forward, inching closer to the taut back bent over the controls. Just as she was about to get a glimpse of the face, the ship lurched and she landed on her back on the floor.
"You should by now have succeeded or failed in your mission."
"Succeeded," Travis grunted, "if I can get this thing moving." The ship lurched again.
"Apply ten-degree left lateral thrust. One of the landing struts is caught. There was an error of minus three point six per cent in your reverse thrust."
"Ten degrees left lateral," Travis mumbled. There was a splintering sound, and the ship bucked again, and came free with a sickening jerk.
"Travis—" Servalan began.
"I said shut up!" A terribly familiar left hand stabbed back at her. She shrank away from it. This wasn't fair. She couldn't deal with Travis, not until she'd got the Supreme Commander back.
"Set course one-five-eight, time distort six." The voice from the communicator, though disguised, was also familiar. She couldn't place it.
"Course laid in. What now, Voice?" That actually sounded like humour in Travis' voice. Mockery, anyway.
"Your time is your own, for the present. Please do not inflict excessive injuries on your passenger, as it is vital to the plan that she remain intact. I will contact you again when you reach your destination."
The communicator clicked off, and Travis turned round at last and looked at her. It was the old Travis back again, that much was obvious. Even the cosmetic plaskin the puppeteers had persuaded him to allow them to grow round his ruined eye had decayed and fallen away; the old half-mask glared at her with unregenerated hatred.
She opened her mouth.
"No, Servalan." The voice lashed out at her and she flinched. "You will not say one word, now or until we get wherever we are going." His hand seized hers and bent it back till she gasped with the pain. "If you do, I'll break a finger. Or a toe. You were going to speak?" He paused. "Oh, I will allow simple gestures. Nod your head for yes, or shake it for no. Do you understand?"
"Good. Now go into the cargo area and sit down. As from this moment you are my prisoner, Servalan, and until I transfer you to my principal that is what you'll stay. If you have any complaints, questions or suggestions at all, just decide on a limb you don't want...and then hope that's the one I pick."
Numbly Servalan went into the bare cargo area and sat down with her back against a wall.
Hello, wall. I wish I could say it was nice to meet you again.
At some point within the next hour she went to sleep.
* * *
"Did we hit him at all?"
"I believe we got one clear shot, Supreme Commander, but it wasn't enough to disable."
"I think I'll disband Space Command and form a knitting circle," Taj said. "One wretched man in one wretched spaceship..."
"Which can make Time Distort twenty without exerting itself," Kimball pointed out.
"Yes, I know, dear, but we couldn't get him even when he had a Wanderer class planet-hopper which even after they got the photonic drive could only manage T.D.15." Taj frowned. "I have the feeling he could swan from planet to planet on a bicycle built for two and we still wouldn't catch him. It's fate, that's what it is. Oh, what now?" as her desk bleeped querulously at her. "Kimball, help me."
Kimball got up and went over to Taj's desk. "You press the flashing one, Supreme Commander," she said, doing so.
"Strangely enough, yes, this is me. Or haven't they labelled your buttons either?"
"I beg your pardon, Supreme Commander?"
Taj sighed. "What is it?"
"We've just had news of an attack on the Courts of Justice."
"An attack? What sort of an attack?"
"A T16, Supreme Commander. It sat on it."
Taj's face went blank. She got up, folded her hands across her chest and took a short walk around her desk with head lowered. Then she sat down again.
"Now then, dear boy, start again and try to imagine that you're talking to your little old grandmother who fell asleep before the new calendar started. What, first of all, is a T16?"
"It's a general purpose freight transport ship, Supreme Commander. It got past while all our interceptors were occupied with the Liberator, landed on top of the Courts of Justice and then lifted off again with the person on trial inside it."
"Didn't anyone sort of notice?"
"Well, yes, Supreme Commander, but it was only down for a few minutes and as I said the interceptors were all occupied with the Lib—"
"Yes, dear, I got that bit quite clearly, thank you. I was actually thinking of the people inside the courts, but I suppose they were all busy propping up the building. Now then, who was the abductee?"
The person on the other end swallowed noisily. "I—I can't say, Supreme Commander."
"Why not? Don't you know?"
"Yes, ma'am, but...there was an official directive issued from your office recently..."
"Ah. I begin to see. That wouldn't be General Directive SCT/10002/030954, would it?"
"Y...yes, Supreme Commander."
"Thank you, dear. Very diplomatic of you. Now what about the abductor? Any ideas?"
There was a long pause. "There's no...reliable information, Supreme Commander."
Taj smiled. "I prefer unreliable information anyway. Who was it?"
"The...the men who saw him say...Supreme Commander..."
"They...they say it was...Travis."
"But of course it couldn't be, Supreme Commander, he's dead."
"Aren't we all," Taj murmured. "All right, love, thank you. Er, Kimball, how do I—"
"You press it again, Supreme Commander."
The room filled with triumphant, surging music.
"No, Supreme Commander, not quite like that," Kimball yelled, making the necessary adjustments. The clamour died.
"Kimball," Taj said.
"I have another little job for your lads. Get them to clear the tapestries away from that wall over there, and move the samovar over to the right about a yard, and then I want them to find me some china."
"China, Supreme Commander?"
"China, Kimball. Square glasses, triangular bottles with curly necks, I don't mind as long as it's cheap and breakable. And then I want an hour's total privacy. Do you think you can manage that?"
"I'll get them on to it right away, Supreme Commander."
* * *
They were superb. Lovingly crafted with almost obsessive care from the finest available materials, polished till they shone, they were the most beautiful prosthetic legs imaginable.
If only they worked.
"They should work," Gan said, staring gloomily at his creations. "I read every book I could find on the subject, and did exactly what the books said. I suppose I must have hurried the connections at the last minute." He looked up at Blake. "I didn't want to miss you. Result: failure number one hundred and seventy-three."
"I never dreamed you could be alive," Blake said, accepting a drink from Vila and gulping it without looking at it. When he could speak again he went on: "I mean, when I found you you were dead. I checked."
"It's a good thing I was, then, isn't it?" Gan said gently. "Because if I hadn't been you'd all have been still trying to get me out when the rescue teams arrived for Servalan and Travis, and we'd all be dead now. As it was they ignored me, and I was able to get myself free once I'd come round and haul myself as far as the ladder."
"So what happened then?" Jenna said.
"Well, I blacked out again." Gan smiled his old ingenuous smile. "And while I was unconscious, Veron and two of Kasabi's group who hadn't been caught in Servalan's trap came in, following the rescue teams, and hauled me out. Don't ask me why they came back. Veron wouldn't tell me, and I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I did ask one of her friends why she wouldn't tell me, and he said it came under the Rose...and then he shut up, so I was none the wiser."
"Under the Rose..." Blake mused. He had heard the phrase once before, from the lips of the self-styled demiurge Ethan Powers. It seemed to signify some secret recognition code. He upgraded the entry in his mental filing system to Investigate Sometime Soon, and returned his attention to what Gan was saying.
"...and provided me with an identity, some money and a wheelchair. I got myself a place on Level Fifteen of the NordEurop dome city, and started in on the groundwork for these."
"You set yourself to learn prosthetic engineering from scratch?" Blake was incredulous. "That's a bit of a tall order, isn't it, for a farmer?"
"I beg your pardon," Gan said with simple dignity. "It just so happens that even on the frontier worlds agricultural engineering means a bit more than working out which end of the spade you dig with. I kept the technology going on Zephron for almost three years without any new parts or skilled help whatsoever." He smiled. "Anyway, I didn't do the actual bionic interfacing. Veron found me a cybersurgeon who owed her a favour, a man named Small. He did it for me. His very last operation, he said."
"She sounds to be handling things on Earth rather well," Blake said.
"Not any more," Gan said. His face darkened. "The Administration put their top agent on to her...someone called—"
"Bartolomew." They had almost forgotten Avon was there, tinkering with a fused, blackened lump of metal, until he uttered the name.
"That was the name," Gan said. "How did you know?"
"I killed Bartolomew," Avon said.
"Well, good for you," Gan said warmly. "I don't know how many rebel groups that man infiltrated and betrayed, but he was long overdue for death. What—"
"It was an old score that needed settling," Avon said, with just a hint of an edge to his voice, and the same edge was there in Vila's voice as he said, just a bit too quickly, "Another drink, anyone? Blake? No? Ah well, all the more for me. What were you saying, Gan, about a cybersurgeon?"
"Small, yes," Gan went on, emptying his glass. "He was brilliant. I wish he could have helped me with the legs, but he was anxious to drop out of sight completely, so he just did these," he indicated the metal caps, studded with connectors, that terminated the stumps of his legs, "and went away. Can't say I blame him.
"And ever since then I've been scraping a living by doing repair jobs for people, using every spare credit for parts, and...waiting. I don't know what for. There were so many reports of your deaths that after a while I came to believe you were dead." (I came to believe. You were dead. Avon asleep and dreaming: Avon awake, still dreaming.) The recurrence of the echo took Blake by surprise. His knees gave under him and he almost fell, but that Gan stretched out his hand and steadied him. "Are you all right, Blake?"
"He gets dizzy spells," Avon said, without looking up from his work. "He also has headaches, nightmares, insomnia and delusions of grandeur. Apart from that, he is in perfect condition." The words were the old Avon, but the flat, rasping intonation freighted them with menace. Gan looked over at Avon and frowned.
"Just lack of sleep, I think," Blake said.
"Right, that's it," Jenna said. "Avon, Vila, take this man to the surgical unit, hit him with two, repeat, two tranquilliser pads, and put him to bed."
"Now hold on, Jenna," Blake said, half laughing.
"You think I'm joking?" The face that Jenna turned on Blake was ice-cold. "You are, de facto and pro tem, our leader. If you don't get some rest, you'll make a wrong decision and that will be that for us. The tranquillisers will give you a measured amount of rest. I said two because I expect you could fight off the effects of one. If they don't work I'll put you under electrosleep and tell Vila to remember to wake you."
"So there," Vila said. Then he frowned. "Hang on."
"All right, all right. I'll be a good boy," Blake said.
"Tranquillised sleep is not enough," Avon observed.
"It'll have to do," Jenna retorted. "Now do as you're told, all of you."
Avon put down the remains of Gan's teleport bracelet, got up and accompanied Blake and Vila off the flight deck.
"Oh, and by the way, Gan," he said from the doorway, "next time you decide to boost the power on a teleport bracelet, make sure you know what sort of power it uses."
"I hope I'll never have to," Gan responded.
Jenna waited till they had gone: then she turned to face Zen.
"Now, Zen, I want some answers. Why were you so anxious for me to bring Gan back up? Did you know it was him?"
+LOGIC BANKS CALCULATED THE PROBABILITY AT FORTY-EIGHT POINT TWO PER CENT THAT THE COMMUNICATION ORIGINATED FROM OLAG GAN+
"But why were you so insistent?" Jenna pressed the point.
+AN OBLIGATION EXISTED+ Zen said, after a long pause.
+ON A PREVIOUS OCCASION WHEN OLAG GAN'S LIFE WAS IN DANGER, COMPUTER SYSTEMS REFUSED TO AID IN THE ENLISTMENT OF MEDICAL HELP FOR HIM. THIS AMOUNTS TO AN ATTACK ON OLAG GAN'S LIFE. AN OBLIGATION THEREFORE EXISTED, WHICH IS NOW DISCHARGED+
"Obligation?" Gan repeated. "That's a bit of a big word for a computer, isn't it?"
"Zen isn't your average computer," Jenna said.
"Well, I know that," Gan said. "I mean, I know he's advanced..."
"Gan," Jenna said after a very long pause, "would you keep a secret from Blake and Avon?"
"If you asked me to, sure."
"Even if it was the sort of secret that...that might make you doubt..." Jenna cast about for words. "Oh hell, I'm making a mess of this. Zen, can you help me?"
+SPECIFY NATURE OF ASSISTANCE REQUIRED+
"I want you..." How can I put it? "I want you to tell Gan about..." Oh no, I can't say that... "...about what happened to me when we first boarded the Liberator."
"Jenna, what are you trying to say?" Gan demanded.
+WHEN JENNA STANNIS BOARDED THE LIBERATOR, SHE INITIATED PSYCHIC ATTUNEMENT PROCEDURE BY TOUCHING THE GREEN CONTROL PLATE ON THE LOWER LEFT FLIGHT STATION. THERE IS A PSYCHOEMPATHIC LINK BETWEEN HER MIND AND THE COGNITIVE AND PERCEPTUAL ANALOGUE CONSTRUCT WHICH RESPONDS TO 'ZEN'+
Gan's jaw dropped. "You mean...you and Zen are linked?"
Jenna nodded ruefully. "Mind to mind," she said. "Zen may not call what he's got a mind, but if it isn't one I don't know what is. I've never told anyone before...you can understand why...but I always felt that if anyone would believe me, you would."
"Well, I'd never have believed it from anyone else," Gan said, "except possibly Cally."
"No, she could never sense anything from Zen at all, nor transmit to him."
"So why are you telling me now, Jenna?"
Jenna frowned. "I don't really know for certain," she said. "Everything seems to be all right on the surface...except for Cally not being here. Vila told you about that?"
Gan looked down at the floor for a moment, then nodded. "I hope she's at peace," he said in a low voice.
"But you noticed Avon just now. He's changed, for the worse. So has Vila. Something's not right, Gan. If it comes to serious trouble, I may need someone else who knows."
"Yes, I see what you mean." Gan thought for a while. "Jenna, what else has happened to everybody while I've been on Earth?"
Jenna picked up the bottle. "Well," she began, "you know the old saying about making omelettes?"
"I think we're going somewhere quite particular." —Mandrian.
"Space Commander Paternoster, Space Commander Paternoster, do you copy?"
Paternoster sighed. "Commander Paternoster here. I 'copy.' What can I do for you?"
"Federation military garrison Uanta here. I have the base commander for you."
"I shall be happy to speak to the commander...be he ne'er so base, this day shall gentle his condition."
"Put him on," Paternoster said, heaving another deep sigh.
There were peculiar noises, somewhat reminiscent of a rhinoceros trying to scratch its back whilst reclining on a horsehair sofa, and then a brusque male voice. "Commander Brunsieg here. Understand you're passing close by on your way to Terminal."
"I assume that means you have been cleared for information classified 'double-A'."
"Special clearance, exceptional circumstances." Brunsieg sounded a little shamefaced. "Anyway, the point is two of our officers here have been assigned to reopen the garrison post on Terminal, and since yours is the only ship currently heading out that way, we've been authorised to ask you to stop over and take them on."
"I shall of course oblige the Supreme Commander." And how long has that particular little job been waiting for a ship to pass by in the right direction? Ah, military economy. "We shall acquaint you with our ETA directly. Auf wiederhören." He switched off the communicator and leant forward, over the shoulder of his right-hand mutoid. "Elsie, do me the favour of making the requisite calculations."
"Tillie," Paternoster said, addressing Elsie's opposite number, "pray hold yourself in readiness to execute the course when Elsie has laid it in."
"And Lacie," he finished, half turning towards the third mutoid's station, "yours, I fear, must be the task of converting the brig into a passable semblance of a passenger cabin for two. An unenviable duty, my dear girl, but I trust you to apply yourself to it with your native diligence and resourcefulness. Will you do it for me?"
"Yes, Commander." Lacie rose and left the flight deck.
"ETA five hours twelve minutes, Commander," Elsie reported.
"Tillie, execute the course, if you'd be so good," Paternoster said. "And re-establish contact with Uanta Base, there's a good girl. One small point, though," he added, as an afterthought.
"Try not to ask them if they copy."
* * *
Blake fought his way out of clinging sleep, blinked stickily and pushed the covers off him. His mouth tasted foul, and he felt as though he had travelled the last million spatials in a small and very musty attaché case. He stretched, stripped off the clothes he had slept in and activated the ultrasound cleanser.
Some ten minutes later, feeling much more his own man, he walked on to the flight deck. "Zen, has anything exceptional happened while I was asleep?"
"Who's on watch, and why aren't they here?"
+THAT INFORMATION IS NOT AVAILABLE+
"For your information," Orac said, "I was left on watch."
"You were? By whom?"
"Avon, of course. He is the only member of the crew who shows a proper respect for my capabilities."
"I see," Blake said grimly. "And what about a proper respect for the watch rota? On which, as far as I am aware, you do not appear."
"A glaring oversight, not to mention a scandalous waste of my talents."
"That may be. Whose name was on the rota for this time-unit?"
"Avon's. I offered to relieve him of the duty."
"How very generous of you. Do not do so again."
"You are quick to complain when my crowded schedule renders me unable to respond to your every inane query."
"Let's say I'm unreasonable. Acknowledge the prohibition. You are not to allow yourself to be left in total control of the flight deck."
"Is it that you mistrust me, Blake?" Damn it, the thing sounded almost sly.
"Orac, just for once behave like the machine you are and acknowledge!"
"Very well. I will not allow myself to be left in total control of the flight deck." Orac paused. "You should include a qualification to allow for exceptional circumstances. What if you should all find cause to leave the ship?"
Blake simmered for a moment, but reason prevailed. "You're right, I suppose. The prohibition stands, unless no human personnel are available and in condition to stand watch."
"It is so noted and acknowledged." If Orac had had an eye, Blake would have blacked it for him.
"Thank you, Orac," Blake said with heavy irony. "You may now stand down," he added, removing the key. "Zen, are you programmed to accept orders from the machine called Orac?"
"Erase such programming forthwith," Blake commanded.
"Give me the list of individuals whose voiceprints you have on file and from whom you will accept commands."
+LIST FOLLOWS+ There was a pause, then Blake heard Jenna's voice say her name and the word "Zen". It was followed by his own, Avon's, Vila's, Gan's, Cally's, Dayna's and Tarrant's. Blake recognised the last two from what Powers had shown him of the time between Star One and Terminal.
+LIST IS COMPLETE+ Zen announced.
"From now on, Zen, any proposed additions to that list must carry the voiceprinted approval of either myself or Avon..." Blake considered. "...plus that of Jenna. Confirm please."
"That should do it," Blake muttered, crossing to the communicator station and pressing for all-points paging. "Blake. I want everyone on the flight deck now. That includes you, Avon."
In fact Avon was the first to appear. "I might have known it was too good to last. What is it now, Blake?"
"Wait till the others get here," Blake said shortly.
"What's happening, Blake?" Jenna said, as she arrived with Gan. Exploration of the storage lockers adjoining the treatment unit had revealed the presence of a powered wheelchair, and Zen had obligingly transformed one of the flights of steps that led on to the flight deck into a ramp.
"I have a suggestion as to what we do next," Blake said.
"Only a suggestion?" Avon remarked. He had resumed his earlier seat on the couch and his examination of the ex-teleport bracelet. "Now that is a novelty."
"Did you have to shout?" Vila moaned, clutching his head. "I've got this slight pain, ever so slight, mind, but the least thing sets it off." He flopped on to the couch and curled up for sleep.
"No, Vila," Blake said, returning him none too gently to a sitting position. "I want your attention for at least a minute or two."
"Great, I'll try and fit you in next Tuesday..."
"Now, Vila." Blake looked round at them. "Right. Well, we achieved one strike at Earth, and if nothing else we improved the quality of mass entertainment by a considerable percentage. What we have to do now is something less showy but considerably more effective. We—"
"Blake." It was Avon's voice, harsh and urgent. "Why have you deactivated Orac?"
"Because we don't need it at the moment," Blake said. "Now—"
Avon was on his feet instantly. "Orac is constantly monitoring communications wavebands. How is it supposed to tell us about anything of interest if the voice channel is deactivated?"
"It'll tell us when we switch it back on," Blake said reasonably.
"Orac must be aware of our plans so that it can warn us of possible dangers," Avon insisted. He strode over to Orac and made to insert the key, but Blake caught his arm and held it.
"When I say so, Avon," he said.
Avon jerked his arm free. "If you do not need Orac, Blake," he spat, "then you do not need me. And I certainly do not need you." Pocketing the key, he stalked off the flight deck.
"I think you've upset him," Vila said.
"Was it worth making an issue of, Blake?" Jenna said.
"No," Blake mused. "So why did he?"
"Come on, Blake, it wasn't just Avon," Gan pointed out. "Why shouldn't Orac be left on?"
"Perhaps because Avon is so insistent that it should," Blake said.
"I remember two other times when Avon wouldn't let us switch Orac off," Vila said. "The first time was just before he took us to Terminal. The other was when we went to Gauda Prime." He frowned. "Both times Orac thought he'd found you, and both times we got into trouble, bad trouble. I wonder what he thinks he's found this time."
Before Blake could answer, Avon reappeared. "I'm...sorry, Blake," he said. "I was being unreasonable. Please accept my apologies." His face wore a disarming smile like a raincoat on a sunny day.
Blake decided to take the apology at face value. "Accepted. Thank you, Avon." He held out his hand, and, rather hesitantly, Avon put Orac's key in it. "A concession for a concession," Blake said, inserting the key. "May I go on?"
"Please do," Avon said blandly; but that mysterious edge was back in his voice.
"As I was saying," Blake began, "we need to make a real impact now. The Federation is expanding still, largely by virtue of Commissioner Sleer's Pacification Programme, which apparently is still going on despite the fact that Sleer has now been revealed to be Servalan and consequently, if not already dead, has not got long to live. Now—"
"I must correct you," Orac said.
Blake sighed. "Yes, Orac?"
"The life expectancy of Servalan is not so readily definable."
"You mean the firing squad might all miss?" Vila said.
"I mean that at present there is no reason to suppose there will be a firing squad. Servalan is no longer in the hands of the Federation."
"Are you saying she's escaped?" Avon demanded.
"I am saying she has been abducted, in the midst of her trial, by a man who is described by most witnesses as bearing a ninety-eight point eight two per cent resemblance to Space Commander Travis."
"Where are you getting this information?" Blake snapped.
"The data pertaining to the event has just been wiped from Space Command's main computer banks and transferred to a maximum security data store. The magnitude of the transfer attracted my attention and I copied the data in transit, as it were."
"Travis is dead," Blake said tentatively. "Travis is dead," he repeated. "Isn't he?"
"Where are they now?" Avon said.
"Aboard a stolen T16 City class freighter, bound for Freedom City."
"Zen, immediate course change." Avon was already going to his station. "Set course for Freedom City, speed stan—"
"No, Avon!" Blake shouted. "Not yet."
"Are you mad?" Avon turned on him, choked with rage. "That woman has lived far too long. We all owe her a death, several times over. Travis too. Come on, Blake, or do you want to wait until she's back in control and coming for us?"
"This is more important," Blake said. "Even Servalan can't gather power overnight, especially not in a glory-hole like Freedom City. We have to keep our priorities, Avon."
"Servalan is my only priority."
"Well, she's not mine!" Blake said forcefully. "Now are you going to listen, or are you going to make another dramatic exit?"
On the point of attacking Blake physically, or so it seemed, Avon took hold of himself. With a visible effort he calmed down, returned to his seat and said "I'm listening."
"If we stop the Pacification Programme we curb the Federation's expansion. Now there are two ways of doing that. One is to destroy the source of the drug. This isn't practical: pylene-50 is so unstable it has to be manufactured on nearly every planet the Federation controls with it. The other is to render the drug, and all its derivatives, useless."
"We have, or had, the formula for an antitoxin, devised by the man who invented the drug. It's simply the manufacturing process. We need materials, equipment and manpower."
"We need more than that, Avon, I'm afraid. To block the effects is all very well...until the antitoxin is metabolised out of the system, and you're back to square one."
"So we just saturate the worlds with the antitoxin. Beat Servalan at her own game."
Blake closed his eyes. "Avon, we're supposed to be trying to free people from drugs, not pump their bodies full of them. I'm fighting Servalan, or rather her kind, because I believe their 'game' is inherently wrong. It would be hard for me to maintain that stand if I started playing it myself."
"Very well," Avon said. "You have a better idea, I presume."
"Only the germ of one—" Blake broke off and smiled. "Literally. What I'm suggesting is a cultured virus, tailored to live inertly in the human system, and only activate in the presence of drugs like pylene-50. An artificial antibody, as it were."
"Which we knock up—with Orac's help, of course—out of spare parts and hope. You're dreaming, Blake."
"I don't think so. I think there's one place where we might find the help we need to do it. Well, at least one."
"The Auronar exiles—"
"No, not them. Someone else. I first heard rumours of their existence a long time ago, although I didn't believe it at the time. Then came the affair of IMIPAK." He looked round their faces. "I thought then, and still do, that a lot of that story happened before we arrived, and continued after we left."
"Stop being mysterious, Blake," Avon said harshly.
"Avon, are you aware of the Clonemasters?"
"Not as reality."
"Zen. Play back the message you received shortly after we left the planet I have designated Coser's World."
"Roj Blake." The voice, distorted by distance, was still unmistakable. "Don't worry about who i am. That won't matter to you anyway. Just listen to what i have to say. Servalan has left this world...without IMIPAK. It stays here, with us. In time i suppose someone else will invent it again, but in the meantime you and your crew are safe. In the name of the Rule of Life, i bid you farewell."
"Zen, voiceprint analysis. Confirm results."
+THE VOICE IS THAT OF ROJ BLAKE. THE ANALYSIS IS CHECKED AND CONFIRMED TO NINE DECIMAL PLACES+
"I thought at the time it sounded familiar," Vila said.
"Why would there have been a clone of you on that planet?" Gan queried.
"I think he came with Servalan, to trick Coser into giving her IMIPAK. As I said, I don't know even a fraction of the whole story...but it ties in with the stories I heard of a secret cabal of masters of genetic engineering, living independently of the Federation, and bound by some sort of Rule of Life."
"So these Clonemasters, if they exist, are on Servalan's side," Jenna said.
"They're not on anyone's side. They're neutral...at the moment."
"So how do we find them?" Avon demanded.
"Well," Blake said with a smile, "that's something for you and Orac to do, isn't it...in your copious free time."
* * *
Colonel Quute was balding and wore an eyepatch, the old-fashioned kind; that had to be affectation. The General (whose name, Paternoster had learned from the transfer sheets, was Kolbodon) looked like a second-rate viscast actor. Over an excellent seafood dinner in Brunsieg's sanctum, the pair had amply confirmed Paternoster's unfavourable first impression.
These two would be hard put to it to organise an explosion in an armoury.
"Well, we must be on our way," he said, shaking hands with the blond, snub-nosed Brunsieg. "Thank you kindly for your hospitality."
"Least we could do." Brunsieg leant close. "They've been driving us all round the bend since they were posted here. If the suspension from duty pending transfer hadn't arrived when it did I'd have brained 'em with something large and blunt long ago."
"What exactly did they do?"
Brunsieg grimaced. "Helotrix," he said. "The planet we got just before this. They were in charge of the garrisoning force. According to rumour Blake and his people showed up or something...at any rate, they mucked the whole thing up, with the result that the Magnetrix Terminal went downstatus for good, and there is now a great big Helotrix-shaped hole right behind us which we're having to watch like cross-eyed hawks. On top of that," he snorted, "the damn fools didn't have the gumption to get killed. The programme had been going so smoothly that reposting papers were done out in advance. They got away in the late Governor's private ship, joined up with the main fleet as cool as you please and tried to carry on as if nothing had happened." He consulted his chrono. "Anyway, you'd better be going. Best of luck."
"I shall probably need it. Yes, Lacie?" as the mutoid marched up and saluted.
"A message for you, Commander, priority one."
Paternoster took it and read it.
PATERNOSTER CMDR S 17703 EX SUCOMTERRA RAVENDRA T 17205 MREF XX205 MESSAGE BEGINS++++++++++++++
UNDERSTAND PICKING UP TWO OFFICERS FOR TERMINAL GARRISON STOP HOW HELPFUL OF YOU STOP IN THAT CASE YOU CAN DIVERT TO KIVAAR AND PICK UP THE 'OTHER RANKS' AS WELL STOP THAT WILL GIVE YOU A FOUR FOR BRIDGE STOP HOPING TO HEAR FROM YOU SOON STOP LOVE TAJ
Paternoster's heart sank. "Thank you, Lacie," he said hollowly. "You had best direct one of the girls on Pursuit Two to prepare their brig also." He sighed. "I shall be needing a place to hide before we reach Terminal."
"If you move any faster you'll break into a standstill." —Giroc.
"This is Freedom City Control to unidentified vessel. Identify yourself, please."
"This is Federation Pursuit Ship 79/332, Space Commander Dione speaking. I want the answers to some questions."
"Freedom City is neutral territory, Space Commander. You have no authority here."
"I'm not trying to exercise any," Dione said. "I just need some information, that's all."
"Well now," the voice said, showing considerably more interest, "as long as you're not assuming any kind of special status, that's all right. I do think you ought to know about one of our quaint little house rules, though."
"Go on," Dione said wearily.
"Well, there's three ways of getting information here. You swap for it, you pay for it, or sometimes you can play for it. Which did you have in mind?"
Dione cursed under her breath.
* * *
"Any ideas yet, Orac?"
"I am still scanning. I shall inform you when I have results."
* * *
"Your hair's growing back, Servalan," Travis said. "I'm glad. I prefer you with a little more hair. It makes you look more vulnerable."
Every muscle of Servalan's body screamed protest as she shifted slightly. Travis allowed her to leave her position against the wall only to use the lavatory. During the whole of the long, slow haul from Earth she had not been permitted to say one word or to make one move unless ordered. Travis, however, had proved himself more than willing to fill any conversational gaps that might occur.
"You bring out the mother in me, did you know that, Servalan? It's true. I suppose it must be the big brown eyes." He was spoon-feeding her from a container of iron rations; even this movement was denied her. "How does it feel, Servalan, to be like a child again? Totally dependent. On me." He offered the spoon once again, and she ducked her head to one side. "Had enough, have we? All full up? There's a good girl."
"Freedom City Control to unidentified vessel. Identify yourself, please."
Travis' head jerked up. "Ah. I may have some good news for you in a moment, Servalan." He stood up and walked into the control room. "Come on, Voice," she heard him mutter. "Am I where I'm supposed to be or not?"
"Prompt as ever."
"You must stand off from Freedom City. There is a squadron of Federation pursuit ships in orbit around the planet. I will advise you when a safe approach may be made. It is vital that you do not communicate with Freedom City until then."
"Damn," Travis said. "Sorry, Servalan," he called. "It looks as though it'll be a while yet before you'll be allowed to move. Don't worry, though; if it gets too boring, just put your left hand up and I'll see what I can come up with to entertain you."
Servalan had already experienced Travis' ideas on entertainment; they started at simple rape and went on from there. She was beyond pain now, beyond anger and outrage. All that remained was a faint hope that some day, somehow, it would end.
* * *
"I have no information yet."
"What's taking you so long?"
"The information is not commonly available. A certain amount of searching is necessary. You will be advised when I have the information. Now please allow me to proceed."
* * *
"Space Commander Safran to Gauda Prime. Request landing clearance."
"Who?" The voice was accented, rough, a typical colonist's voice; the attitude on the belligerent side of neutral. Again typical.
"I said, this is Space Commander Tol Safran, aboard Federation pursuit ship 92/273, requesting priority landing clearance."
"On your way, Federation. We don't like your kind hanging round our space." The voice was now definitely unfriendly.
"Now see here—" Safran was really looking forward to teaching this one a lesson in manners. Taj's attitude still rankled.
"No, you see here, Commander. Ever since you lot started messing about with our planet we've had nothing but trouble. First we're open, then we're closed, then we're open again. Well, we're going to stay open. Only under our own controls rather than yours. So you go away peacefully, or we'll make it hot for you."
"What with?" Safran snorted.
"Oh, you'd be surprised the hardware you lot left lying around almost unattended when you all went trooping off with Servalan in tow. Now be smart and move it out."
"Mutoid!" Safran snapped. "Send to Supreme Command on Earth. Request reinforcements. Three squadrons. Immediately!!"
* * *
"Blake, before you ask, we haven't found anything. Nor are we likely to find anything in the next five minutes, nor the five minutes after that. Now go away."
"I must correct you, Avon."
"We are as likely to find the required information in one five-minute period as another. Statistically, there is no difference."
"Your correction is noted, Orac. Blake—"
"All right, Avon, I'm going. Er, let me know if—"
"Just go, Blake. Just go."
* * *
She was in agony. It was all over her skin, crawling, eating, spreading. Her body was racked with fever as its natural defences vainly sought to halt the cellular damage. Worse: her mind had started to go. There were times when she could not remember the words for her pain, could not maintain her hold on the present time. Memories drifted in and out of awareness, blurred and distorted by pain.
And over all was the ineluctable imperative that supererogated every other consideration: Maintain Normal Function. It was a bad joke now. Anything resembling normal function had become unattainable aeons ago. Still she was forbidden to abandon the fight, unable to relax and let death come; her responsibility to those who dwelt within kept her trying to repair systems that crumbled even as she touched them with hands that rotted from the bone as she watched with eyes that failed and darkened.....
She jerked awake. The darkness was the darkness of her cabin. Around her everything seemed normal; but there was an aching emptiness inside her that she had only experienced once before. Shivering, she pulled on her clothes and switched on the light, flinching as it hurt her eyes.
Avon and Orac were alone on the flight deck when she entered. There almost seemed something conspiratorial about Avon's attitude, but she had more urgent concerns.
"If you are going to ask us whether we have found anything yet—" Avon began.
Jenna ignored him. "Zen. Status report."
The voice washed over her, and so in the same instant did Zen's empathic 'presence', like the sweep of an angel's wing, drowning all her fears and hurts fathoms deep.
+ALL SYSTEMS ARE FUNCTIONING NORMALLY: STATUS IS FIRM+
"Your lack of faith in Zen is somewhat startling, to say the least," Avon remarked.
Jenna frowned at him, confused. He looked back unreadably.
"On the contrary," Orac said suddenly, "she shows considerable wisdom."
"What do you mean, Orac?" Jenna said.
"To explain further would render the prediction inaccurate. It is of no consequence to you. I must return to my task."
Jenna's brain, still fogged with sleep and desperate to return there, refused to grapple with Orac's gnomic pronouncements. She turned and left the flight deck, and this time Zen's 'presence' came with her, making her earlier panic seem silly.
She knew what it had been, of course: a dream-memory of the inescapably real agony she had undergone at about the time of the Liberator's destruction above Terminal, the event that had proved to her beyond all doubt that her link with Zen was more than mere fantasy and wish-fulfilment. For weeks she had dallied with death, and awoken to find her credit gone, her job a memory and a strange emptiness in everything she saw, heard or did. When, months later, she had seen the Liberator on the Archbold's screens, she had doubted again...but she had felt Zen's aura even at that distance and known she had to get back aboard, and once aboard, to make sure that that horror never happened again.
And here it was, popping up in her dreams. Marvellous.
Back in her quarters, she asked for and got music, something atmospheric with flutes and harps. She undressed and returned to bed, and this time when sleep came it was deep and undisturbed.
* * *
"Where's Avon? And where's Orac?"
"Avon and Orac have gone off to the woods to play."
"Make sense, Vila!"
"Sorry. I was alone up here. Brings it all back. So I had a little drink. Oh. I mean a big drink. Sorry. What I meant to say is, Avon's taken Orac to his quarters to carry on the search. He's really dedicated, is Avon. Really throwing himself into it. I wonder why?"
"Good question. All right, Vila, I'll take over now."
"But it's not time yet. Is it?"
"No, but you're in no condition to stand watch."
"Does that mean I can have another drink?"
"Do you really want one?"
"Well, yes. I mean...well, no. I mean..."
"Make up your mind, Vila."
"It's only soma, Blake."
"If I showed you a psycho-physio imprint lock right now, could you open it?"
"Yes. No. I don't know, Blake."
"Be sure, Vila, one way or another. I need you to be sober. The question is, do you really need to be drunk?"
"All right, Blake. I'll go down to the treatment unit and let Cally sort me out...I mean...what did I say that for?"
"Cally..." (Cally. Terminal. You remember. Like the dead. CallyTerminal. Like the deadyou rememberCally. You mustTerminal. Like theCallydeadCallydeadCallydeaddead deaddead......)
"Are you all right, Blake?"
"Yes...yes, Vila, I'm all right. It's just this waiting."
"I'll get you something..."
"I'm fine, Vila, now go and sober up before Avon sees you."
Receding footsteps. The sound of sobbing.
* * *
Taj took a deep breath and a sip of tea, smiled at the cadet who sat with notepad poised on the other side of the desk, braced herself and prepared to try again.
"Still here, Supreme Commander."
"Thank you, Kimball. I think I'm going to get it this time."
"I certainly hope so, Supreme Commander."
Taj tried the next switch. The lights dimmed and the starfield hologram on the back wall became visible. "Two dims the lights," she announced, and the cadet obediently scribbled on the pad. Taj pressed the switch again and the lights went out completely.
"I've put the lights out again, Kimball," Taj said plaintively.
"Press the switch again, Supreme Commander. You should be able to find it by feel."
Light returned. "Add to two," Taj said. "First it dims the lights, then it puts them out, then it puts them back on."
"Yes, Supreme Commander," the cadet said, writing industriously.
"Confirm base self-destruct programme initiation within ten seconds or cancel."
"Oh my goodness me, no no, I mean, cancel," Taj said hastily.
There was a pause pregnant with electronic nastiness, then the voice said rather huffily, "Cancellation accepted. False alarm will be reported to Base Security."
Taj mopped her forehead with a large green silk handkerchief. "Just write down 'Don't Touch Three' and leave it at that," she said.
"Yes, Supreme Commander."
"Dare I try four?" Taj's finger hovered for a moment, then stabbed down.
"That lit up before I pressed it," Taj murmured wonderingly.
"Supreme Commander, I have two messages incoming. One is from Commander Safran aboard Pursuit One, Squadron Three, and the other is from Commander Dione aboard Pursuit One, Squadron One."
"I wonder what it is they want at this time of night? Oh, give me a hard copy of each one, there's a dear. It's so much better to have things written down. Safran's first, if you would."
A tongue of paper emerged from the desk. Taj donned her spectacles and read it in silence.
"Well, he's going to be disappointed," she said. "I sent him out to get information, not to retake the place. Take a message to Commander Safran if you're still there, dear. 'Regret unable to comply with request for three extra squadrons stop Am reminded of old joke about how many Space Commanders it takes to change lightbulb stop Do get on with it stop Love Taj.' Send it maximum urgency, Priority One. That way he'll think it's important. Now Dione's message to me, please."
Again the desk disgorged paper. Taj glanced at it, then looked again.
"She's doing what?"
* * *
"...that's three pursuit ships, two million credits and a year's supply of blood serum the Federation owes me. Want another game?"
"This is silly," Dione muttered to herself. "All right," she said aloud. "Pawn to king four."
"Knight to king's bishop three. You'll have to come down and try your hand against the Klute before you leave. He's really good."
"I can hardly wait. Pawn to king five."
"Knight takes pawn. Are you sure you've got the authority to do this?"
"Commander, there is a ship moving in."
"Does it matter? You aren't losing anything. Knight to king's bishop three."
"Knight takes knight, check. Concentrate, sweetheart."
"It is a T16, Commander, approaching Freedom City."
"Commander, Freedom City's batteries are tracking us."
"I should concentrate on the game, darling, if I were you. Remember, they're my pursuit ships now. I'll give you a few minutes to get out of check while I see this T16 in, all right?"
"Should I call Headquarters, Commander, about the T16?"
"No, no. We just called in anyway. Wait till we get a reply."
* * *
"Avon here. Orac has the information. It's passing it to Zen now."
"Wonderful. We'll get moving right away. What took it so long?"
"I gather there were some troublesome security programmes to get past. I'm going to sleep now, Blake."
"I'll call you in eight hours."
"You can call when you like. I will wake when I am ready. Out."
* * *
Vila was woken out of his own sleep by the change in the note of the Liberator's background hum. He dressed quickly and left the disaster area he called his quarters. He was just passing Avon's door when he heard the voice.
He pressed his ear close to the panel. Avon seemed to be talking in his sleep, from the sound of the voice. Vila thought he could guess the subject.
"...no, Orac. No. No. You'll have to do better than that, Orac. No, Orac. No, Orac. No..."
Serves him right, thought Vila, and went on his way.
"Why do I feel as if I'm on trial here?" —Avalon.
"...and then there was the Finzi campaign...you wouldn't remember that one, Quute...must have been a few years before your time..."
"We read about it in the Academy, sir. A masterly piece of strategy."
"Absolute botch from start to finish. No backup, no contact with HQ and worst of all, no reinforcements when they were needed. Total fiasco."
"As you say, sir." Quute bent low over his food.
"What do you think, Paternoster?" The General was feeling expansive. "You must have read about it at university, or wherever."
"We didn't cover much strategy on the advanced philosophy course, General." Paternoster tried gamely to conceal his boredom. He glanced at the "other ranks", on the other side of the table. She shot him a look compounded of suspicion, resignation and sheer disgust: whether with him, the two officers or the whole situation, Paternoster could not tell.
"I suppose not." The General essayed a jest. "We didn't get much philosophy at the Academy."
Paternoster and Quute smiled politely. The girl uttered an audible sniff.
Lacie brought in the dessert. "Again I must apologise for the meagreness of the cuisine," Paternoster said. "Lacie and Tillie do their very best, but the materials available offer little scope."
"S'excellent," Quute said around a mouthful.
"Thank you, Colonel," Lacie said with a bow.
"Very well trained," the General said, jerking his head at the mutoid as she left the room. "You'd hardly think it was one of those, to hear it talk."
Paternoster kept his temper. "I take it you have little time for mutoids."
"Well," the General said judicially, "they fight well, I've always admitted that, as long as they have their orders, but..." He let the words trail off.
"It's not as if they were human, you mean." Paternoster's tone remained light, easy.
"They're an abomination." The girl spoke up for the first time. "They should have been exterminated years ago."
Paternoster began to feel hemmed in.
"What are your specific objections to mutoids, then?" he made himself say.
"They're unclean. They're a perversion of nature." The girl seemed unwilling to go further than generalities.
"Nature, presumably, having reached its triumphant culmination in you." Watch yourself. Don't let them get to you, no matter how determined they seem.
"Oh, very good." The venom that had been building up inside the girl all this while finally found an outlet. "Very clever. Very witty. You dare sit there and patronise me..." She stood up. "I was an officer, damn you. I fouled up, oh yes, but so did these two, and you don't see them losing their insignia, do you?" She walked around behind the General. "I was holding Blake's entire gang on my own. Hardly surprising I was overpowered. You ran up against two of them, with an entire planetful of your beloved troopers at your side, and the same thing happened to you. Which of us gets busted down to Section Leader, eh? The one without the influential connections. Well, well, isn't that funny."
"Sit down, girl," the General said wearily. "You've made your point."
"Arlen," she spat. "My name is Arlen. And I don't eat with officers any more, particularly officers who let vampires cook their food." She marched out.
"You know, sir," Quute said, "I'm looking forward to this tour of duty no end."
* * *
Vila and Jenna were occupying the flight deck when Avon came in, the haunted expression on his face quickly smoothed over as he registered their presence.
"Got tired of Orac?" Vila said, and Jenna hid a smile.
Avon ignored the sally. "I'm ready to stand watch now," he said.
"It's not your turn, Avon," Jenna said. "Go and get some rest."
Avon stood a moment undecided, then turned and stalked off. With a sigh of relief Vila brought the bottle out from its hiding place and offered it.
"I have a feeling," Jenna said carefully, "that our friend Avon would not appreciate that there are some moments when it is entirely appropriate—in fact, de rigueur—to drink from the bottle." She swigged and returned the bottle. Vila swigged and smacked his lips.
"You know," he said, "the thing I missed most when we lost the ship was the soma. They've got something out there—" He waved a hand at the mass of the Federation, beyond the walls. "—they call soma, but it's not the same. Cally used to say that physio—" Vila burped. "—logically speaking the difference between soma and booze was like the difference between drifting off to sleep after making love and being hit on the head with a brick."
Jenna swigged. "That's beautiful. Did she really say that?"
"No," Vila admitted. "Not quite anyway. I miss Cally," he added mournfully.
"So does Zen," Jenna said. "He said Cally was the only thing that stood between Avon and his final doom." She passed the bottle, and Vila emptied it.
"Hang on," Vila said. He got up and wandered erratically over to the weapons rack. One of the protruding handles looked slightly out of place: Vila grasped it and removed another bottle of soma. "Always be prepared for a crisis," he said solemnly, tacking back to the couch.
"Want to know something, Vila?" Jenna said, dealing with the stopper.
"Avon," Jenna swigged, and burped demurely, "doesn't know spit about Zen."
"Not one spit. Our famous computer whiz baffled. Sorry. Say that again. Our famous computer is whiz baffled. Hey, this stuff sneaks up on you."
"But he says—"
"He says a lot. He talks a good systems analalysis. But he's never got one step into Zen's real works." Jenna reluctantly relinquished the bottle. "So you can tell Mr. High And Mighty Avon," she said, leaning one elbow on the table to point a wavering finger at Vila, "that I know why he did it."
"Flew through that cloud thing. Tried to destroy Zen. Nearly killed me. I know why he did it." Jenna nodded twice, narrowing her eyes shrewdly.
"Hold on," Vila said. "How did he do it? I mean if he never got into Zen, how did he stop Zen changing course?"
"He didn't," Jenna said.
"Yes he did," Vila protested. "I may not be entirely sound, but my memory is quite sober. He said—um—what was it again? 'Status one, sub-category Q, no countermand.' He must have known something about Zen's programming to be able to do that."
Jenna snorted. "Not much about Zen," she said, "but a hell of a lot about the rest of you. Did anyone try to change course after that?"
"Well, no, there was no point..." Vila frowned. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
"He made up a load of nonsense," Jenna said, "and spouted it at Zen, and made damn sure you all knew what he was trying to do, and because Zen said 'Confirmed' and Avon was supposed to be the big computer expert, you all believed it. He took you all for fools. And if I'd been there he'd have taken me for a fool as well, 'cause however much I disliked him I thought he would at least be honest about his job."
Vila burped again. "I think I feel sick."
"Too much soma," Jenna said wisely.
"No. No, 's not the soma, soma never does that. Think I'll go to my quarters. See you later, Jenna. See you later, Zen."
Jenna looked at the bottle, then stowed it carefully in a locker under the couch. She looked up at Zen's round, russet fascia. "Zen," she said. "Say something."
+JENNA,+ Zen said. +YOU ARE TROUBLED+
"Yes," she said.
+ALL SYSTEMS ARE FUNCTIONING NORMALLY—+
"I know. They are now." Jenna got up and walked, almost steadily, over to the fascia. Hesitantly she put out her hand, touched it. It was cool, and there was a hint of vibration. "Oh, Zen, I don't know what to do," she said, leaning her head against the smooth rounded surface. "I feel a terrible thing is going to happen, and I don't know what to do to stop it."
+BE TRUE, JENNA,+ Zen said. +BE TRUE, AND ALL WILL BE WELL+
"I wish I had your faith, Zen," Jenna said with a twisted smile.
"Jenna?" It was Gan's voice. He rolled down the ramp, smiling. "I've come to put in some time on the legs. Is anything wrong?"
"No, nothing," Jenna said, hastily moving away from Zen. "I'm supposed to be on watch, but I—I don't really feel up to it. Would you take over this one for me, Gan?"
"Of course," Gan's face filled with concern. "Are you sure you're all right, Jenna?"
"I just need some rest, that's all. Thanks, Gan." Jenna fled, as casually as she could.
Gan, frowning, looked after her for a moment, then shrugged and rolled over to where the legs stood. His tools lay beside them. He picked up a probe and set to work checking over the connections one more time. The sooner he could walk properly again, the sooner he could be of real use to Blake, to the group.
The alternative was not pleasant to contemplate.
* * *
"Message from Supreme Command, Commander."
Dione took it and read it.
DIONE CMDR 17498 EX SUCOMTERRA RAVENDRA T 17205 MREF XX211 MESSAGE BEGINS++++++++++++++
DIONE DEAR SO PLEASED TO HEAR OF YOUR INTEREST IN GAMES STOP I DO FEEL THOUGH THAT YOU NEED AN OPPONENT WORTHY OF YOUR STEEL STOP TRY KRANTOR STOP OH BY THE WAY IF IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO COME UP YOU MIGHT ASK ABOUT BLAKE STOP IN PLAIN LANGUAGE DEAR BE AN ANGEL AND GET ON WITH IT STOP LOVE TAJ
"Acknowledge," Dione said calmly. "Freedom City Control, this is Dione. I'm bored with this game. I want to speak to Krantor."
"You want to speak to Krantor?" the voice parroted. "And just which empress shall I say is calling?"
"You might try telling him that the accredited representative of the Supreme Commander of the Federation is waiting, none too patiently, to speak to him."
"I suppose this means I don't get the pursuit ships?"
"'Fraid not," Dione said.
"Oh well," the voice said," it was worth a try." There was a pause. "Krantor on the line now."
"This is Krantor," said a voice that made Dione want to wash out the speakers on the com unit, "owner and director of Freedom City. With whom have I the honour of dealing?"
"Space Commander Dione, acting on behalf of Supreme Commander Taj of the Terran Federation," Dione said.
"The Mutoid Commander! Oh, but this is an honour. Your fame has spread even to this, my humble emporium. You must come and dine with me at once. I gather you require information?"
"That is true, yes."
"Well, we shall see. It is, I should warn you, a peculiar foible of mine that I absolutely cannot discuss such sordid matters unless it be over a meal. We make a particular fetish, as it were, of catering to all our patrons' most...outlandish...desires, so you need not fear that your dietary preferences will be beyond our capacity to match." The voice sank half an octave, becoming if possible even more lewdly suggestive. "Do you favour...any particular group?"
* * *
Gan felt the presence behind him. "Come on in, Avon," he said. "I was hoping I'd run into you."
Avon, on the point of leaving the flight deck again, turned back and walked round to see what Gan was doing.
"Checking the connections again," Gan explained. "I must have got something wrong. You, er, wouldn't feel like having a look...?"
"Well, it isn't my field..." Avon began, and Gan's face fell. "But I'll do what I can. If it makes you feel better," he said, sitting down and studying the prostheses closely, "the fault may be in overall design rather than execution. You may be trying to make them do too much. Do you have the plans with you?"
"I didn't bring anything," Gan confessed, "except the legs and my tools. I can draw them out again for you, I've got them memorised."
Avon raised his eyebrows, but merely passed Gan a scriber. Silence ensued while Gan sketched and Avon explored the legs with a probe.
"What exactly were you aiming for?" Avon asked after a while.
"Well—" Gan hesitated. "Legs. Like I used to have."
Avon closed his eyes.
"I read it all up," Gan said, a little defensively. "There are prosthetic devices to do everything that ordinary human legs can do."
"And so you tried to put them all into one pair of legs," Avon said.
"I got them all in," Gan insisted.
"Yes," Avon said, swivelling round to face the other man, "but the level of discrimination required in the neuroreceptors is too fine. You don't have enough separate muscles there to give intelligible commands. Have you finished?"
"Almost." Gan completed the sketches with quick, firm strokes. Avon took them and studied them closely, making precise corrections.
"Yes. These are very good. Let me see... That'll have to go, and that. And that. You can have legs that will carry you. You'll be able to walk, to stand and sit and possibly kneel. If your sense of balance is good you may be able to run short distances. That's all."
Gan looked disgusted. "What use can I be to Blake if that's all I can do?"
"More than you can be stuck here," Avon said. "Which would you prefer?"
"I'll think about it," Gan said seriously. He took a deep breath. Now or never. "Avon, what happened to Cally?"
"This set of linkages needs complete rearrangement," Avon said.
"Answer the question, Avon," Gan said.
"I didn't hear one," Avon said deliberately.
"Then I'll repeat it." Gan either did not see the danger signs or chose to ignore them. "Vila told me that when Terminal base blew up, Cally was caught in the explosions. Tarrant went in after her and got caught himself, then someone got him out. You went in later to get Orac. Did you see Cally?"
"Vila got Tarrant out." Avon looked away from Gan.
"Yes, I'd guessed that. That wasn't what I asked you."
"Yes. I saw Cally."
"Was she dead when you found her?"
"Didn't Vila tell you that?"
"Vila told me what you told him. Now I'm asking you. She wasn't, was she?"
Avon stood up. His back was rigid. "No," he ground out through his teeth. "No, she was not dead when I found her. You can make of that what you please. I have no doubt you will arrive at the obvious conclusion. Everyone else has."
He stalked off the flight deck, leaving Gan alone.
* * *
The sound of the door opening brought Taj's head up off the desk. It was late, very late, and she had meant to go home hours ago.
"Hello," panted the small elderly woman in grey who had opened the door. She was dragging something behind her on the end of a long hose. "Working late?"
"Er, no, I was asleep," Taj said a little vaguely. "Who are you?"
"Irramani, love. I'm the cleaner." The machine on the end of the hose seemed disinclined to come through the doorway. "I always get this. The floor's sunk just outside and the wheels get wedged." Irramani gave a final heave. "There," she said as the recalcitrant device finally made its appearance.
Taj was still not quite awake. "Are you cleared for this level?" she demanded.
"'Course. Had to be, didn't I? Well, can you see any of these Alpha grade types getting down on their hands and knees or emptying waste bins? Lot of good that'd do. Most of 'em can't even find the bins to put stuff in." Irramani looked closer. "Something the matter, honey?"
Taj looked up at her in amazement. "Oh no," she said brightly. "Nothing at all. I'm the Supreme Commander, didn't you know? I control the defence and security of every man, woman, child and mutoid in human space. And I haven't been here three months, and people who are supposed to be dead are all coming back and making trouble, and none of my officers seems to be able to find the answer to even the simplest of questions, and—and—and I can't even work out how to talk to anyone!!" Taj hit the communicator. The room filled with triumphant, surging music. Taj hit it again. The lights dimmed.
"There, there, love," Irramani soothed, coming round the desk and putting her arm round Taj's quivering shoulders, "don't take on so. Let me look." She pressed two buttons. The music died and the lights came up. "It's this machine. Never has worked properly. Tell you what. I'll get my boy Rav, he's in Supply, he'll come in one night and put you in a new one. How about that?" Her gaze fell on the samovar. "Tea!" she exclaimed. "Just the thing. 'Scuse me a moment, love." She let go of Taj and busied herself with cups. "The machines get shuffled round every time someone leaves," she said over her shoulder, "and getting Supply to replace 'em, I ask you, blood out of a stone. Now then," she said, sitting down on the edge of the desk and handing Taj a cup, "tell Irramani what you want to know."
"Ah ah. What do you say?" —Kayn.
+INFORMATION: THE LIBERATOR IS NOW WITHIN TELEPORT RANGE OF THE PLANET DESIGNATED 'THE CLONEWORLD'+
Blake loped on to the flight deck looking disgustingly well-rested. "Put it up on the main screen, please, Zen," he said.
"What did you have for breakfast?" Gan said. "You look like a new man."
"I feel a lot better, thanks," Blake said. "Where is everybody?"
"Vila and Jenna are both spark out in their cabins, and have been for the past three hours." Gan held up an empty soma bottle. "I think this explains that. And Avon left here ten minutes ago, I don't know where he is." He looked at the disc filling the visual display. "Doesn't look like much, does it?"
"Well, there isn't a lot you can tell from this sort of image," Blake said. "It's round, it's sort of bluey-green, or greeny-blue I suppose. Avon could probably tell you the composition of the atmosphere, the disposition of the inhabitants and the fact that he wasn't going down there, but—"
+INFORMATION: THE LIBERATOR IS RECEIVING A COMMUNICATION FROM THE PLANET SURFACE+
"Is it in code?"
"Then let's hear it."
"Roj Blake." The voice was female, the tones measured, a little ponderous. "The Clonemasters greet you in the name of the Rule of Life. A shielded chamber has been prepared to receive your teleport transmission. Co-ordinates are as follows: seven one three intersect two two eight. You and your companion are welcome."
"Why a shielded chamber?" Blake asked, but the contact had been broken. Zen, however, supplied the answer.
+INFORMATION: SENSORS REGISTER A LETHALLY HIGH DEGREE OF BACKGROUND RADIATION ON THE PLANET'S SURFACE.+
"That answers that," Blake mused. "My companion?"
"Which one?" Gan said.
"Well, Jenna and Vila are both asleep, Avon's off somewhere doing we know not what with Orac, and Zen isn't too portable, so I suppose that leaves you," Blake said.
"Me! But Blake, I'm no use to you, not in a wheelchair—"
"One doesn't refuse the Clonemasters," Blake said with a smile, taking a gun from the rack. "I gather they can be very persuasive. They want two of us, therefore two of us they shall have. Come along, Gan."
"Wait a minute, Blake," Gan protested. "Who's going to work the teleport?"
"Orac," Blake said. "We can contact him on the in-ship, and get him to operate it from wherever he is."
He led the way towards the teleport section. From the other entrance, a shadow watched with hungry eyes.
* * *
Chenie looked up as Travis entered the bar, and her eyes widened just a little. Bartending on Freedom City, if it did nothing else for you, taught you self-control. Unnoticed, behind Travis, two figures slipped out of the bar.
"Well," she said. "You're back."
Travis walked up to the bar. "Are you glad to see me, Chenie?"
Chenie shrugged. "The place is a bit quiet. Vitazade, wasn't it?"
"You have a good memory," Travis said softly. "Unfortunately, so have I."
"I never did you any harm—"
"You never did me any good!" Travis shouted, backhanding her viciously across the face. The glass she was holding went flying.
"Come on, friend." A large individual had come up behind Travis and seized his shoulder. "Krantor doesn't like—" He caught sight of Travis' face.
"Yes, Herik, I'm back." Travis grinned. "Like working for Krantor, do you?"
Herik's face closed up. "It pays."
"It pays," Travis repeated scornfully. "It pays. You always were a spineless worm, Herik, like all the rest." He shook himself free. "I need men. Real men. Soldiers." His gaze raked the bar and its patrons. "I don't see any here." He stared at Herik again. "Or am I wrong?"
Herik came to attention. "I'm your man, sir. Always was."
Travis walked round him, looking him up and down. "That's better." His voice rose. "Anyone else want to join me?" He sought out faces he recognised. "Meth? Volen? Krast? Rink sucked out your juices and left you to rot, has it?"
Two of the men addressed came to their feet and approached. One, the scar-faced, stringy individual Travis had called Volen, spoke.
"What are you planning? Sir," he added as he met Travis' eye.
"I'm building an army, Volen," Travis said. "This will be my base. From here I'm going to conquer the Federation."
A moment came and passed. Nobody laughed.
"Where do we start?" inquired the hulking Herik.
"You're going to take me to Krantor," Travis said.
* * *
"My dear Commander Dione," Krantor gushed as Dione entered. The owner, manager and personification of Freedom City was garbed in the uniform of a Colonial Governor of the prespace Brutish or British Empire. "How good of you to be so prompt. I do admire the mutoid virtues. And how felicitously blent in your good self with all that is best in humanity!" He swept off his plumed hat and bowed deeply.
"Krantor," Dione said. "You say you won't discuss any exchange of information except over a meal. Very well. I am here. Let's get on with it."
Krantor blinked. "Yes. Indeed." He indicated the vast circular bed which dominated his chamber. "Will it please you recline?"
Dione lowered herself on to the cushions. At once the doors of Krantor's suite flew open and Toise, Krantor's assistant, entered bearing a silver tray upon which reposed a single tube of blood serum. Krantor was pleased to see that Toise had once again matched him in style, though he hadn't been aware that soldiers of that particular Empire had been in the habit of wearing quite so much white plastic...
Toise proffered the tray. Dione accepted the tube of serum, opened her tunic and slipped it into its niche.
"How...efficient," Krantor murmured.
"You're not eating," Dione said.
"Oh, my petit déjeuner is on its way. I always see my guests supplied with their particular pleasure first."
"Krantor." Toise's voice issued from within the grotesque helmet.
"What is it?" Krantor was testy.
"A T16 docked just now, Bay Eight."
"That is absolutely stunningly interesting, Toise, you must be sure and tell me all about it later on. Now you may serve me."
Toise hesitated, then turned and departed.
"Now, my dear Dione," Krantor said, reclining beside her, "let us get down to business."
* * *
Blake materialised in a circular room whose design recalled the Liberator's flight deck. A raised walkway ran round the central area, linked thereto by a short flight of steps. The walls were panelled in some strange material, softly glowing in pale pink. He was alone.
"Gan? Gan!" He raised his bracelet. "Orac, where's Gan?"
"I teleported him to the co-ordinates which were communicated to me."
"The co-ordinates I gave you."
"What?" Blake looked round; the walls had darkened to dull red, and there was a subliminal hum in the air. Sudden, inexplicable déja vu assailed him: when had he stood here, facing—yes, facing Travis, and—a dream?—had knelt to plead for his life?
Dreams. He was too hung about with dreams to move any more. "Explain."
"The Clonemasters contacted me and informed me that you and Gan were to be teleported to two separate destinations. It was implied that great danger to yourselves would result if I did not do so." Orac's voice assumed that mocking note Blake had heard before. "I took the liberty of acting without consulting you. Under the circumstances, I hope you will forgive my presumption."
"Where is he?"
"Approximately thirty yards west-south-west of you, in a similar chamber. I must break contact now. I have a great deal to do. Please do not attempt to contact me unless absolutely necessary." The communicator plinked.
"What is it he does when we're not around?" Blake muttered to himself. The walls had faded to a flat grey; now they brightened, and horns and voices swelled on the still air in a triumphant paean. Mist rolled along the walkway and down the stairs. Whoever was doing this entrance, Blake reflected, they weren't being subtle.
The light blazed, the music peaked, and out of the mist stepped a robed figure, arms outstretched as it made its careful way down the steps. Blake gaped.
"Hi there," Ethan Powers said. "Me again, I'm afraid. There'll be a Clonemaster along in a tick. Meantime, any questions, or do we go into the song and dance now?"
* * *
SAFRAN CMDR T 16994 EX SUCOMTERRA RAVENDRA T 17205 MREF XX219 MESSAGE BEGINS++++++++++++++
WHEN YOU HAVE A MOMENT DO YOU THINK YOU COULD POSSIBLY POP OVER TO FREEDOM CITY STOP APPARENTLY TRAVIS AND SERVALAN THERE STOP DIONE EITHER CAPTURED BY THEM OR MISSED THEM COMPLETELY STOP SUGGEST ABANDON GAUDA PRIME STOP IF YOU'RE VERY GOOD YOU CAN GO BACK WITH A FLEET STOP BE GENTLE WITH DIONE STOP WICKED TO MOCK AFFLICTED STOP LOVE TAJ
"Ha!" Safran swigged from his flask and banged it down on the flight console. "So much for the Mutoid Commander! You, course for Freedom City, top speed, execute now."
His mutoids, paler even than the norm and operating at less than peak efficiency, moved to obey him. Tol Safran, like Krantor, appreciated the virtues of mutoids, and found many uses for them, some quite definitely above and beyond the call of duty.
"This'll show that snivelling idiot Paternoster," Safran muttered as the ship began to turn.
* * *
"...and then of course there are the overheads to consider," Krantor was saying.
"Krantor," Dione said, "I don't wish to hurry you, but could we get to the point?" She was feeling strangely warm. Krantor seemed to be taking an age to eat his meal, raising every mouthful to his lips with glacial slowness. The plumes on his stupid hat were waving gently in the breeze.
"By all means," Krantor said urbanely. "What particular point would you like me to get to?"
"What?" Her mouth felt funny. Her attention was caught by the texture of the cushion she was lying on. It seemed infinitely complex, woven with occult subtlety. "Woven with occult subtlety," she said, and giggled.
"Ahh." Krantor sat up. "How do you feel?" he said.
"I feel..." Dione's elbow slipped out from under her and she toppled gracefully through miles of scented air to the cushion. Krantor's ceiling was mirrored; thousands of fractured images wheeled and danced in front of her eyes. "What...have...you...done...to...me?" a voice said, slow and sad as an iron bell.
"I adulterated your blood serum, of course," Krantor said. "I have nothing to say to the Federation, nor they anything to say to me. Time was, my dear, when the Federation did not underestimate Krantor. Toise!"
A man in white plastic walked across the ceiling. "Yes, Krantor?"
"Bestow this somewhere. What was it you wanted to tell me?"
"It's Travis." The words were fluttering around her mind like scraps of multicoloured paper, making new combinations: Somewhere bestow Travis it you tell me wanted it's this Travis to Krantor yes...."He's back."
"Is he now?" Now he is. He is now. "Well well. I thought I had heard he was dead. Send Herik to take him. I'm sure the Federation will be interested—"
"That's just it, Krantor. Herik hasn't reported in the last hour." She was floating, moving through the air without volition. Above her an ogre's pallid face, carved out of pure white marble, drifted.
"Let me see." Her head lolled. A wall swung open of itself and she passed through into another chamber and landed on something blue. It seemed to her she ought to be trying to get up or at least to listen to what was going on, but the blue captured her and flung her out into endless infinities of omnipotent, ineffable, all-pervasive blue....
Toise closed the concealed door and returned to Krantor's side. His mirror showed the Rink. It seemed a little quieter than usual.
"Once the hallucinogen wears off we can interrogate her," Toise said. "The veracitol should come into effect in about an hour's time."
"Listen," Krantor said tensely. There was some sort of noise in the distance. "Show me the Big Wheel," Krantor said.
The casino was devastated. The body of the croupière lay sprawled across her daïs.
"Mother," Krantor said brokenly.
Bodies of Trekkers festooned the seats, the floor, the tables. In his box, the Klute laughed madly, helplessly, without pausing for breath.
"Travis," Krantor hissed, just as the door was flung open.
"Yes." Travis grinned. "Hello, Krantor."
* * *
"I really can't stop long," Powers said. "For I have promises to break and miles to go before I wake. I've just been smoothing the way for you. You'd never have got anywhere with this lot else, a bloodthirsty little devil like you."
"How did you know—"
"How does a salmon know when to spin its web? How does a bear find its way back upstream? Why a mouse when it spins? These and other questions are far too boring to bother with. Sorry, your time is up. I'm due in the Ninth Metagalaxy in half an hour and the number twelve only goes down as far as the gas works. I wouldn't have popped in at all, only I couldn't resist the entrance. Oh, by the way, your gun's a cucumber." Powers vanished. "They don't like guns," his voice said from thin air as Blake drew the vegetable in question and stared speechlessly at it. "Mind you, they may not like cucumbers either, but you can't have everything." There was a faint, swirling echo of music, ending in a pop.
Blake considered throwing the cucumber to the floor and dancing on it, but before he could work up the energy to do more than open his mouth the walls brightened, the music returned and the whole routine began again.
This time Blake was going to be ready. "Look," he said hotly as the shadowy figure descended the steps. "I don't know what sort of a mad game you think this is, but I for one have had quite enough of it. Now if you—"
His voice trailed off as he noticed that this figure was female, clad in a grey robe with a high collar, and regarding him with faintly apprehensive distaste.
"Roj Blake." The woman linked her hands together, flat in front of her. "The Clonemasters greet you."
Blake, recollecting himself, holstered his cucumber and bowed. "Clonemaster," he said.
"My name is Fen," the woman said. "You wished to speak with us."
Blake nodded. "But first," he said, "I would like to know what has become of my companion, Olag Gan. He teleported down with me, but we were separated."
"You will see him presently," the Clonemaster said. "Blake, your wishes are known to us. In themselves they do not contravene the letter or the spirit of the Rule of Life, and we are willing to grant them. But you should know that there was much debate among us on this matter. You have in the past shown scant respect for Life. You have killed, not wantonly, but without reverence for the life you took."
"I believe that life has no meaning unless it is lived freely," Blake said, adding quickly, "within the bounds of moral strictures such as the Rule of Life."
"All life has meaning and purpose," Fen said, "whatever the individual entity may choose to do with it. Your point is not without interest, though, and we accept it as such. The fulfilling of your main request will take some time. You should find this room comfortable. Food will be brought, and there are facilities for elimination of waste nearby."
Blake bowed again. "Thank you."
"What is that?" Blake said.
The Clonemaster hesitated.
"Why is it that your ship has left orbit?"
"May I never leave this spot." —Sarkoff.
They had to make it into orbit. Had to. But it was already too late...and the headless Avon coming for him...and the knife...and the four graves...and the big twinkling box closing down over it all...
Vila crawled back to thunderous wakefulness, out of a dream that had begun on that damn shuttle again and gone from the mildly frightening through the incomprehensible to the just plain ludicrous. He sat up, and winced. That was something else soma wasn't supposed to do. Had never done.
"We are the fools of Gauda Prime," he muttered, scratching his head, "bring on the cheese to make it rhyme." But why four graves? And why had the fourth one, the big one, been empty? And why Avon without a head?
"If you start believing in dreams you'll end up like Blake," he told himself firmly. He wasn't quite sure what that was supposed to mean, but it effectively stopped the train of thought and allowed the last fragments of memory to disintegrate.
Vila was used to hangovers, and practised at coping with them. He dressed automatically, got himself a drink of water, then another, and then headed for the flight deck. What he needed now was a good head-to-head with Avon. Assuming Avon was in the mood.
And assuming Avon had his head with him.
* * *
"Freedom City Control. This is Space Commander Tol Safran commanding Federation Pursuit Squadron Three. You have one minute to deliver up the wanted criminals, ex-Space Commander Travis and ex-President Servalan, and also Space Commander Dione, alive and unharmed. Otherwise I shall open fire."
There was a short pause. Then Freedom City responded.
"Thank God you're here! We've got them under guard, but it was a damn close thing. You'd better come down. If we try and get them into a shuttle there's no telling what they'll do. Oh, yes, we've got your colleague, as well. We think she's been drugged, but she's not seriously harmed apart from that. Landing approach co-ordinates are as follows..."
Safran, elated at this easy victory, (but confident that, when viewed with hindsight, all sorts of unsuspected dangers and difficulties would crop up, with which he would then coolly and capably deal) brought Pursuit One in to land, and disembarked with his mutoids, guns at the ready, pacing behind him. They walked past piles of bodies that littered the docking area, and entered a bar where a pleasant-faced woman in a feathered headdress stood polishing glasses, seemingly unaware of the carnage outside.
Maybe it's just another normal day here, Safran thought.
"What can I do for you, sir?" the barmaid said with a professional smile.
"I am Space Commander Tol Safran," Safran said proudly. "Who's in charge here?"
"I am," said a voice from behind him. Safran whirled, to see his mutoids being expertly disarmed by half a dozen muscular gentlemen, and standing in the doorway behind them, pointing at him with his left forefinger, a man who could only be Travis.
"Don't they teach my methods in the Academy any more?" Travis said, coming forward. "You're pathetic. Don't even think it," he added savagely, as Safran made to reach for his gun. "Presumably, if you know who I am, you know what this hand does. Unless you want it done to you, keep very still."
"I demand to speak to Krantor," Safran said.
"Krantor is dead," Travis informed him. "Freedom City is under new management now. I hope you're worth something to the Federation alive. Our new administration has no room for passengers. Take him."
Safran was seized from behind and searched with brutal thoroughness, after which his hands were tied together. In stony silence he allowed himself to be frogmarched up ramps and stairways towards the apex of Freedom City. Finally his captors dragged him into Krantor's own apartments, past the body of Krantor himself, lying in a pool of blood at which a portly white cat was appreciatively lapping, and into an inner room.
"I hope you two get on," one of them said as they left the room. Safran heard the door being locked, and the lock being jammed. Then their footsteps receded.
Dione was lying on a large, blue-counterpaned bed, breathing deeply and regularly, apparently asleep and bound hand and foot. Attempts on Safran's part to wake her simply produced mumbled complaints. Eventually Safran gave up and sat down. Presumably, sooner or later, Taj would send a rescue party...
* * *
"Avon!" Blake shouted down the bracelet for the fourth or fifth time.
"He is far beyond the range of your communicator," Clonemaster Fen said reasonably. "Please calm yourself. You are distressing the room."
"Distressing the—?" Blake looked at the walls, pulsing black and red in time to his furious breathing.
"It responds to mood. Anger and fear are painful to it. Please." There was genuine concern in the Clonemaster's voice. Blake fought down the rage that choked him, deliberately smoothed the roiling tempest within, and was rewarded by a paling of the congested blackness. Within a very few minutes he was almost calm, and the room had modulated to cool greens and greys, with only the odd flash of dull scarlet whenever the thought of his ship crossed his mind.
"Thank you," Fen said. "i will leave you now. Should you require anything, please speak your requirement. Someone will hear. Remember, though, that we are few, and our work must come first."
"Clonemaster," Blake said. "My companion—Gan..."
"He is well, Blake. Ethan Powers told us what must be done. You will see him when the process is complete." The Clonemaster turned, arms outspread, and began to ascend the steps. At once the music returned, and the lights brightened, and the mist swirled, and she was gone.
Blake sat on the edge of the walkway and looked around. There was something about this room, besides the general shape, that reminded him of Liberator. He tried to pin down the resemblance, but it refused to come into focus.
Avon, what the hell are you doing with my ship?
-But it isn't your ship any more, he answered himself. You gave it to Avon. Remember?
-And he destroyed it, and Jenna got it back, and she gave it back to me.
-Did she? Didn't you just breeze in and take over, exactly the way you did when you first found her, as if by divine right?
-She came to Gauda Prime to get me.
-She came to Gauda Prime to get someone. Not necessarily you. Face it, Blake, Avon has as much right as anyone to take the Liberator . If it was Avon. It might have been Jenna, or Vila, or Gan I suppose, or all three concurrent or consecutive.
-True enough, he told himself grimly. But it was probably Avon.
And with that thought, he got up and started to explore the room.
* * *
"Orbit established, Commander," Elsie said.
"And very smoothly too, dear girl." Paternoster ran a hand through his hair. "Should we perform the radiation and particle scans first, do you think, or off-load our guests?"
The mutoid made no reply.
"I must confess I rather incline toward the latter course. If I have to eat another meal in the company of that General I may find myself impelled to see how far his teeth will go down his throat." He drew a deep breath. "No. If we run the scans first we can depart as soon as they are off our hands. Tillie, dear, please initiate anomalous radiation scan, and tell me whether the forward sensors are showing any débris in the immediate vicinity."
"Ah, Paternoster." The cheery voice froze Paternoster's blood. "There yet, are we?"
"Not quite, General," Paternoster said through the fixed smile that had become his main defence against the odiousness of his ranking passenger. "We have some scans to make before we can land you."
"No débris on forward sensors, Commander," Tillie reported. "Anomalous radiation background fourteen per cent above median."
"Increase the sensor range. Elsie, take us in a standard search pattern around this world—is it really oval, dear, or is it my eyes that are deceiving me?—and scan for anything on the surface." Paternoster turned to the General. "If you'd be so good as to return to your cabin, General, I'll inform you when we're about to land."
"Message coming in, Commander," Lacie said. "Priority one."
"Oh, what now?" Paternoster took the sheet from Lacie and read it. Halfway through the first line he became conscious of the General peering over his shoulder. Something snapped.
"Lacie, will you get this idiot off my bridge!" he said, with a vast sense of relief.
"Yes, Commander." He was sure he could hear a similar satisfaction in Lacie's voice as she got up and propelled the speechless, red-faced General out of the room. The door closed. There were a couple of half-hearted thumps and a few muffled curses, then the General stamped off.
"Thank you, my dear." Paternoster beamed at the mutoid and returned his attention to the message.
PATERNOSTER CMDR S 17703 EX SUCOMTERRA RAVENDRA T 17205 MREF XX227 MESSAGE BEGINS++++++++++++++
WORLD COLLAPSING ABOUT ME STOP YOU ARE ONLY ONE I CAN RELY ON STOP SAFRAN AND REPEAT AND DIONE VANISHED INTO BOWELS OF FREEDOM CITY STOP NO CONTACT FOR TWO DAYS STOP MIND REELS WITH OBSCENE POSSIBILITIES STOP BE A DARLING AND FETCH STOP SUGGEST TAKE BALL OF STRING STOP WOULD OFFER HAND IN MARRIAGE BUT FEEL SAFRAN NOT YOUR TYPE STOP LOVE TAJ
There was a long silence. Paternoster concentrated on holding his head very still in case it exploded suddenly. Fond as he was of Taj, this was getting beyond a joke.
"Orders, Commander?" Elsie said eventually.
"Yes...yes. Acknowledge the message, abort the search pattern—no." The memory of the General's discomfiture was still with him, and lent him courage. "Hold the acknowledgment, Lacie. Continue the search pattern. Just for once we are going to finish one job before we start another. I hate to disobey a direct order, especially from my childhood sweetheart...but then again I am not disobeying as such, am I, merely exercising my discretion. Yes. The regulations are with me."
"And the message, Commander?"
Paternoster held it at arm's length and squinted at it theatrically. "Do you know, it looks a bit garbled to me. Possibly an ionic storm disrupted the code patterns. Lacie, I think to be on the safe side we had better subject it to complete decipherment analysis by the computer."
"That will take some time, Commander."
Paternoster smiled. "That, my dear, is precisely the point." He gazed at the closed door. "I shall have to brave the General's wrath sooner or later, and it may as well be sooner. After which I shall, I think, indulge in a small siesta. Should you find anything worthwhile, do let me know. And when the search routine is complete, we shall deposit our guests and depart. Yes."
* * *
Avon swung round, smiling. Vila almost ducked back into the corridor. That smile looked dangerous. Beside Avon Orac buzzed and ticked portentously. "Ah, Vila. Are you feeling better?"
"Er...yes." Vila sidled in. "When do we reach the Clonemasters' planet?"
"Oh, we've been and gone again." Avon was positively jaunty. "Blake and Gan teleported down. The negotiations are going to take some time, so Blake detailed me to take the ship to Freedom City and take care of Servalan for him. It didn't seem worth waiting to consult you and Jenna, the logic of the situation is clear enough. So clear even Blake couldn't miss it."
"'Take care of Servalan'?" Vila frowned. "It won't be that simple, Avon. For one thing she'll be in hiding, and for another she's probably got Travis with her, and for another, in case you've forgotten, they're not all that keen on us in Freedom City."
"No problem. We'll be in and out before they know it. As for locating Servalan, she doesn't know the meaning of the word 'inconspicuous'. She'll stick out like an exotic dancer at a chess convention. Blake will hardly know we've been gone."
"He does know, doesn't he? I mean, that you're doing this?"
"Oh yes, he knows we're on our way."
"Oh. Good." Faint and far-off alarm bells were ringing in the back of Vila's mind. "You seem...er, very pleased about this."
"Vila, you have no idea how long I've waited to kill Servalan." Avon drew his handgun and levelled it at a putative ex-President standing in front of the weapon rack.
"So why didn't you?" Vila said bluntly.
A frown crossed Avon's face. "I don't know...perhaps the circumstances were never right, or there was...yes, that's it, there was always something we needed from her, something she could use to bargain for her life." The smile returned. "This time there's nothing she can offer me, nothing she can say to me, that can stop me. I'll kill her, Vila, kill her and be free of her at last. And once I'm free of her..." Avon turned to look at Vila, putting up the gun. "I can be free of Blake."
"And the rest of us?"
"Can come with me, or stay with Blake, whichever you prefer." Avon turned to Zen. "Zen, time to arrival at destination point?"
+LIBERATOR WILL BE WITHIN TELEPORT RANGE OF FREEDOM CITY IN ONE POINT SEVEN TWO ZERO NINE HOURS+
"I, er, think I'll go and find Jenna," Vila said.
"Why not. She deserves to be in at the kill." Avon's eyes softened. "I only wish poor Dayna could be here to see it...the final vengeance for her father."
Vila nodded and smiled, and, thus nodding and smiling, made his escape. Something was wrong. Avon had taken the ship and left Blake and Gan stranded on that planet full of gene-mixing mad scientists. Jenna would be able to help. Jenna was clever. Jenna was...
Jenna was still asleep. Vila stood by her bedside and debated waking her. After all, he didn't really know anything was wrong...and she might be annoyed if he woke her suddenly...but on the other hand...
After ten minutes he found a chair and sat down. After ten more he was nodding. He never noticed when he fell asleep.
* * *
Blake had found what he took to be a door. It wouldn't open, but the upper part was semi-transparent and through it he could dimly see Clonemasters moving to and fro along a broad corridor, and that was better than watching the walls. At least, the walls seemed to think so; the colours were much more peaceful.
Something was nagging at the back of Blake's mind. Powers' brief inexplicable appearance had disturbed him more than he liked to think. There were too many questions. Why had they wanted Gan? Had they wanted Gan, or just anyone? What for, in God's name? Where was Avon? Where was Avon??
Blake suddenly jerked out of his reverie. Something was watching him.
It stood in the corridor, no taller than a child in body but dwarfed by a huge bush of russet-red tail that nodded over its head. Blake recalled pictures in natural history texts he had studied of a long-extinct creature called a squirrel. This creature was proportionally taller (apart from being about six times the size anyway), the head was larger, and there was a distinct pot-belly. It stood on two powerful-looking legs, its short arms folded across its chest, and regarded him unwinkingly from fathomless dark eyes.
What had caught Blake's attention, however, was none of these things, but the Liberator teleport bracelet on its wrist.
For a frozen moment Blake and the creature regarded each other.
\\Z'nBlake must go to Terminal.//
Then the creature looked to left and right, jumped in the air twice, raised its bracelet and chattered into it, flicked the tail into a tight curl and scuttled off down the corridor as though all the stormtroopers in the Federation were after it.
Blake turned and walked away from the door, trying to digest what he had seen and felt. The voice in his head had been like Cally's and yet unlike: rapid, crystal-sharp and yet warm, with an unmistakable hint of impatience. Whatever the creature had been, it had been waiting some time for him to decide to go to Terminal (Terminal), and had eventually come to the conclusion that he was never going to think of it himself (you remember) and decided to intervene in person.
What was it he was supposed to remember about Terminal?
The drum-beat. That peculiar rhythmic pulsing. Blake tried to remember how it had gone: perhaps it would call something forth. He walked down the steps, slapping his hand against his thigh. Doom-doom. Doom-doom. Doom-doom. Cold; it had always been cold on the surface. That was why the links had to have fur. Doom-doom. Doom-doom. So the base had to be just as cold. Ballantine had said—
Who the hell was Ballantine?
Ballantine, Mora, Terminal Project Number 001. Project Head. "Come in, then. Blake, isn't it?"
Blake pummelled the side of his head with the heel of his hand in frustration. He'd thought his memory was complete now, all the gaps filled in. Why hadn't this come back along with everything else? Always assuming, of course, that it was actually a missing memory and not a fragment of something totally different that he was busily building up into grounds for committal.
"—committed to our goal, Blake. The complete and utter subversion of the Administration's totalitarian regime. The restoration of the rights of the individual human being to believe what he wishes, say what he believes, do as he pleases, go where he chooses—"
And where the hell was Avon???
"You're taller than I expected." —Meegat.
"Vila?" Jenna blinked blearily. "What—what are you doing in my room?"
"Waiting for you to wake up. Come on." Vila was as jumpy as the gundark in the old joke. Jenna sat up. "How do you feel?" Vila went on.
"I'll let you know when I'm awake. What time is it?"
"How would I know? You made me give Blake his chrono back. Come on, Jenna, we've got to get to the flight deck before we get there."
This made no sense at all to Jenna. "Get there before we get there? Vila, what—"
"I'll give you ten seconds," Vila said, pulling a small square object out of a pocket. "Then I start taking pictures."
Jenna started to dress. "You could at least tell me what's going on," she grumbled as she did so.
"Avon's left Blake and Gan on the Cloneworld and shanghaied us off to Freedom City to kill Servalan."
"What!" Jenna dropped her tunic.
"I'm not saying it all over again. We were less than two hours away last I heard, and I've no idea how long ago that was. There's something wrong with Avon—well, there has been since at least Terminal, and some would say all his life, but I think it's coming to a head now, and he might be planning to do something silly with the ship again."
"Not with me on board," Jenna said, pulling on the tunic. "That'll do. Come on, Vila."
As they approached the flight deck they heard voices in conversation, Avon's and Orac's. Finger to lips, Vila tiptoed forward and Jenna followed.
"...you are not out of danger. The probabilities are high that Blake will come after you if you do not go back for him. He is a vengeful man, Avon."
"What must I do, Orac?"
"I should think the answer must be clear to one of your vaunted skill in logic and proven will to survive. You must kill him before he kills you."
"But I've already killed him once." There was the hint of a whine in Avon's voice: small boy at the dentist, puzzled and faintly rebellious. Otherwise this was the Avon of Scorpio; frozen face, frozen posture, eyes staring at nothing.
"He is a powerful man, Avon. He has powerful allies. He is a revenant, one who has come back from death. His allies on this ship are all revenants too. You saw Vila shot, you saw Gan crushed. To destroy Blake you must also find an ally, a revenant to destroy another revenant."
Avon shook his head, ever so slightly, just once. "Revenants—I—"
"You must believe the evidence of your eyes, Avon. You shot Blake yourself, and saw him reappear from another door even as you stood over his body. Only a revenant can kill a revenant. You must find a revenant who has reason to hate Blake and want him dead."
"Travis," Avon breathed.
"He is your only chance," Orac urged. "You must bring him on board the Liberator and take him back to the Cloneworld with you. Only then will you be able to destroy Blake." Orac's voice lowered. "Only then will you be truly free."
"Free..." The word was like a prayer of pain.
"Travis, and I, shall make you free, Avon," Orac said. "But you must do as I suggest if the plan is to succeed."
+INFORMATION: LIBERATOR IS NOW WITHIN TELEPORT RANGE OF THE PLANET KNOWN AS FREEDOM CITY+
"Wait." Avon hesitated. "Jenna and Vila. What should I do about them?"
It was Orac's turn to hesitate. "Zen. State location of Vila Restal and Jenna Stannis."
Zen remained silent.
"You will acknowledge and obey my order immediately!" Orac snapped.
Vila and Jenna crept back along the corridor as quickly as was consonant with silence. Only when there were two junctions between them and the flight deck did Vila whisper "Teleport section, quick," and start to run. Jenna followed.
"I am right, aren't I? That was Orac pushing Avon's buttons we heard just then, wasn't it?" Vila grabbed a bracelet from the rack and began setting co-ordinates.
"Sounded like it." Jenna snapped her fingers suddenly. "Wait a minute. Vila, you can't teleport."
"Orac. It could abort the transmission, or alter the settings. You could end up anywhere."
"I hadn't thought of that." Several expressions, none of them particularly inspiring, crossed Vila's face at a dead run. "What can I do, Jenna?"
"You could try a life capsule," Jenna said, "but you'd have to take it down unguided. If you used the onboard computer, that would give Orac a way to get at you."
"Wonderful," Vila groaned, but he was already running.
"Vila—" Jenna panted, trying to keep up with a thief who seemed suddenly to have developed winged heels, "—just what are you going to do?"
"I don't know," Vila called back. He had reached the life capsule bay and was already punching buttons.
"Fine," Jenna said wryly. "I just didn't want to be left out of the master plan."
"Avon's going to have to teleport down to talk to Travis, and before he does that he's going to have to neutralise us. Off the ship I may be able to do something. I don't know what yet, but if I'm scared enough something will come to me, it always does. One thing I do know, though, Jenna." Vila smiled. It was the first real smile she had seen on his face since picking him up. "Blake was right. It was Orac who wanted to push me off the shuttle. Not Avon."
"I don't see that it matters," Jenna said as the capsule doors slid open. "Either way you'd have been just as dead."
"Oh no," Vila said, one foot in the capsule, his face completely serious. "I'd have been a lot deader. I have been a lot deader, all this time. Don't you see, Jenna? It means that the real Avon could still be in there somewhere."
"And that's supposed to make me feel better?" Jenna pushed Vila down into the capsule. "Get on with it. He'll get there first as it is."
"You know—" Vila peered out at her. "I've always dreamed of you sending me into orbit, but I never thought it would be like this."
Jenna tweaked his nose and closed the capsule doors. A moment later the launch light came on and the capsule was gone.
* * *
+INFORMATION: A LIFE CAPSULE HAS BEEN LAUNCHED+
"I am getting rather tired of being on one end or the other of that particular trick," Avon remarked. "Zen. You will erase the voiceprints of Vila Restal and Jenna Stannis from your access file."
+SECONDARY CONFIRMATION IS REQUIRED+
"Obey my instruction, Zen."
"I fear that may be an unwise move—" Orac began.
"Do it, Zen!!" Avon shouted.
+CONFIRMED. VOICEPRINTS ERASED+
"Now, whether they are on the ship or off it, they will not be able to help Blake. I am still in command here, Orac."
"Of course you are, Avon. Should I contact Travis to arrange a meeting between you?"
"Yes. Get co-ordinates from him and set the teleport, then stand by to operate on my command."
"Very well. Do you have any additional message for Travis?"
Avon grinned. "Tell him I want Servalan." He drew his gun again. "We have some unfinished business, she and I."
* * *
Jenna, returning from the life capsule bay via the teleport section, almost came face to face with Avon, carrying Orac. She hastily slid back behind a partition and concentrated on being a piece of furniture as he placed the twinkling, buzzing box on the console, donned a bracelet and, gun drawn, entered the chamber.
"Orac. No-one else is to be allowed to teleport on to or off this ship unless I so order. Give priority also to finding a way to resume control of Zen. Monitor for Federation pursuit ships and—"
"There are two squadrons already present. All ships have landed. They are taking no action."
Avon frowned, but dismissed the problem. "Alert me at the first sign of movement. All right, Orac. Put me down."
It was two minutes after Avon had dematerialised before Jenna dared to move, and then she could not bring herself to walk past Orac. A lengthy detour through two of the sub-control rooms brought her eventually back to the flight deck.
"Zen," she said, "status report."
Zen did not respond.
"Zen!" Jenna's heart skipped. "Zen, answer me!"
The empathic presence remained with her, soothing, reassuring, but the fascia remained dark and silence reigned.
"Zen!!" Jenna screamed. "Talk to me, damn you, talk to me!"
A hint of apology, a thread of secret amusement, perhaps a phrase: be patient. Otherwise, no response. She was alone on the huge ship with one computer which would no longer obey her, and one which was quite definitely mad.
Avon would suffer for this.
* * *
There were no clocks in the room, and requests for the time brought no response. Blake was sure, though, that it had been at least an hour and possibly more since he had seen the—the big squirrel—and he was no nearer winkling out any more memories.
There had been a Terminal Project. Presumably, since it had been within his lifetime, an investigative one. It had been headed by a woman called Mora Ballantine. He had played a very junior rôle on the project, which narrowed it down to his postgraduate time at the Central Educational Complex, which meant that it had to be a project originating from the CEC, which meant that Ballantine had to have been a member of the staff. Ten or fifteen years ago.
"Why's Orac never around when I need it?" he muttered to the empty room. The walls, a sour yellow, threw his frustration back at him. "Who is Mora Ballantine?" he said, raising his voice.
The special effects caught him by surprise. He jumped up as a Clonemaster, superficially identical to Fen, glided down the steps.
"You wish to know about Mora Ballantine?" she said.
"Well—yes," Blake said, recovering as best he could. "Do you have any information on her?"
"Mora Ballantine was Head of Psycho-Physiological Studies at the Federation Central Educational Complex for eight years. During that time she made several significant advances in the field of gene manipulation and programming. She left Earth for six years on a project which carried, and does to this day, a 'triple-A' security classification. On her return she was to be arrested on charges of sedition and treason, but was killed in a terrorist incident while disembarking from the spaceship that brought her there, along with several of the principal scientists involved in the project." The Clonemaster spread her hands. "That is all we know. Unless you wish to see copies of her non-classified publications?"
"No thank you," Blake said. It was highly unlikely they would make any sense to him whatsoever. "I would appreciate some food, though."
"It will be brought."
"Clonemaster," Blake said. "Is there any news of my companion?"
"The operation was a complete success. He will be with you shortly."
"Thank you," Blake said, bowing. The Clonemaster inclined her head and departed, amid the usual. Blake returned to his seat and his turbulent thoughts.
What did all that give him?
Well, he now had Ballantine's field, and the fact that she had been a rebel, as had most of her upper echelon on the project, if not the whole team. The Terminal Project was classified triple-A; that meant that practically nobody except the original team would even know of its existence, let alone what it was for. That classification effectively made Ballantine god on a world like Terminal.
Till she got back to Earth. When they might well arrest her on principle.
And, quite possibly the most important fact of all; there was something left on Terminal which a—a big squirrel thought might be worth a look.
Time enough for that when the ship came back. Assuming it did come back. Assuming Avon or whoever hadn't flown it through another cloud of general nasties or blown it up or handed it over to Servalan. Any one of which, considering his mental state, he might even now be doing.
Mind you, Blake thought, I've got room to talk about mental states.
* * *
"Well, Avon," Travis said. He was standing in the middle of the Big Wheel, surrounded by a wide selection of vaguely humanoid figures, dressed largely in black and carrying weapons which ranged from the unequivocally basic to the exuberantly sophisticated. The floor and walls were scattered with dead bodies, some of them on the ripe side.
"I see you've been redecorating," Avon said. “I don't like it.”
"Just a few little touches to make the lads feel at home." Travis smiled. "Shall we get down to business?"
"Oh, come on, Avon. I know why you're here. You want me to kill Blake for you."
"And I want Servalan. That is essential. I must have Servalan."
"Oh, you can have her. Yes, and Blake as well. It's a fair price for my life—and my flagship."
"Oh yes." Travis came forward, his gun arm ostentatiously by his side. "Avon, there's no reason for us to be on opposite sides. We both want the same thing."
"Freedom," Avon breathed.
"When Blake and Servalan came into our lives we lost our identities," Travis declared. "We became playing pieces in their game. I was broken. I admit it. Broken and reshaped into Servalan's image of me." His voice dropped. "I lost count of the days I spent in retraining. When I came out I was...less than I had been. You were snared by Blake's charisma, twisted by it till you became a distorted mirror of him—oh, I wasn't around, but I've heard all the stories. Avon, you know it's true. The only way we can be the men we were is to kill Blake and Servalan."
Travis put out his good hand. Slowly Avon clasped it.
"I'll need teleport bracelets for my men. The force is still growing. A hundred and thirty so far. Can the Liberator hold that many?"
"If they don't mind sleeping in the storage holds."
"They've slept in far worse places—the ones who used to be with me. The others'll learn soon enough."
Avon considered. "There may not be enough bracelets for one each, but they'll have to go up in batches anyway."
Travis turned and surveyed the rabble fondly. "Once I have them trained and organised into platoons I won't need them all with me all the time." His face twisted. "It's a damn shame. I've got six pursuit ships here, if I only had someone to fly them. I had to shoot the mutoids on board. A pity; their loyalty was admirable, but no good to me."
"There must have been some here with pilot training," Avon commented.
"Most of them escaped, or were shot trying. Civilian pilots are basically untrustworthy." Travis put his arm round Avon's shoulders. "And talking of trustworthiness," he said in a lower voice, "we now have a little puzzle to solve."
"Well, given that you don't trust me, I don't trust you, the men don't trust either of us and I don't trust any of them, and given what it is you've got up there—" Travis laughed shortly. "Who goes up for the extra bracelets?"
* * *
The figure that appeared at the boundary fence which divided Freedom-City-the-city from the rest of Freedom-City-the-planet (several million square miles of cindery desert, described by experienced observers as marginally more suitable for human life than the area inside the fence) was covered with black dust, insect bites, sunburn and thorn scratches. Its feet were bare and bleeding, and its clothes hung in tatters.
"Never again," Vila told himself firmly. "Not even if the ship falls out from under me. Those life capsules are worse than what they're supposed to save you from. Now then."
He followed the fence round until he came to a gate. There was no guard, and the simplest of locks. Beyond he could dimly see the silhouettes of the docking cradles against the darkening sky, and beyond them hulked the mass of Freedom City proper. His throat burned, and his stomach was making Orac noises. He checked that his money belt was still intact, and then hurried towards a doorway from which came a glimmer of light.
A few minutes later he stood on the Rink and wondered where all the people had gone. Admittedly he and Avon hadn't been in this part of the city last time they'd visited, but even so there should have been some customers around. Or at very least someone behind the bar.
Most of the bottles seemed to be there that should be. He couldn't see anything missing, though there were some on display that perhaps would have been better kept under the counter and only served on production of a medical certificate. Vila climbed laboriously over the bar and, perching thereon, opened one of these latter, sniffed the neck, made a face and swigged deeply.
"Not soma," he said to himself, when he could breathe again. "Definitely not soma." He took another swallow. "Takes your mind off sore feet, though."
Gradually, as he emptied the bottle, his numerous aches and pains faded out. No alarms were ringing, no heavies surrounding him.
"Perhaps it's closed," he said to the empty air. "Perhaps they're all off somewhere having a party." He shrugged. "All the more down here for me."
After opening two more bottles, however, he began to get bored. Besides, he was supposed to be looking for Avon. Regretfully he swung his legs back over the bar and attempted to stand.
Predictably, his legs gave way and he collapsed in an inglorious heap on the floor. "Now that is really stupid," he remarked.
"I'd agree with that," said a vaguely familiar voice. Two pairs of boots approached and stood on either side of him. Vila twisted round and craned up to see who was standing in them.
What he saw robbed him of the power of speech.
"You certainly took your time finding me." —Ensor.
"Right. It's agreed, then. You'll go up with Herik here, who'll stay in constant touch with me and Volen over two separate communicator lines. Volen will be in charge of the planetary batteries, and at the first sign of anything unusual will open fire on the Liberator. Both you and Herik will be armed, and each will watch the other constantly. All you will do will be to step from the teleport chamber to the bracelet rack, empty it into the carrybox and step back. Orac...will operate the teleport. Will that do?" Travis' irritation was plain in his voice, and Avon felt much the same, to judge from his own tone.
"I must say 'honour among thieves' would have been simpler."
"It's never been that kind of universe. Herik, Volen, are you satisfied?"
Both men nodded.
"Right. Send the word out that recruitment will cease in two hours from now. We'll start teleporting men up, in batches of six, as soon as you and Avon get back. When the bracelets run out a man will be designated to bring them down again and we start from the top. Once everyone's on board we'll move out right away. First stop will be the Cloneworld. I have some unfinished business there. Then we'll seek out a patrol, capture it, and start building a fleet. Now is there anything else that needs settling?"
"Yes," Avon said, seeming to drag the word up from some bottomless chasm of his soul. "Servalan. You promised me Servalan." Déjà vu pricked him, and he added, "If she's not here, or if she's dead—"
"Relax, Avon," Travis said. "I'm a soldier, not a politician. I keep my word." He got up from the table. "Come this way. You two as well."
Travis led Avon, Herik and Volen down the stairs, through the luxury of Freedom City's upper levels (exhibiting now such idiosyncratic trimmings as blaster burns, sprayed-on obscenities and dead or insensible bodies sprawled here and there) and down to the Rink. With a theatrical flourish he flung open the door of an evil-smelling store-cupboard. "Here she is."
Something shrank away from the dim light. It was filthy, its flesh the same colour as the sacking draped over its spindly limbs. Lank, matted hair fell over its face. It trembled continually.
"She's a lot less trouble now I've tamed her a bit," Travis said. "I've got her down to a third of a standard ration-pack per day. The main problem is aiming the spoon."
It tried to flinch from Avon's eyes, but Travis caught it and forced its head back, pushing the hair out of the way with his gun hand. Red-rimmed, dead eyes focussed on Avon and stared in blank terror. Something dribbled out from under the foul sacking, glistening on the concrete.
"Yes, that is a nuisance," Travis admitted, "but you can always put her in a cargo hold or something. Anyway, there she is. She's yours. I don't need to kill her now. This is much better. Don't you think so, Avon?"
Avon was silent.
* * *
"Some more tea?" Taj gestured at the samovar, and Irramani considered.
"I really shouldn't. It's much too good to get used to. The stuff we get in the Delta canteens is nothing like this."
"Oh, go on, dear, force yourself," Taj said. They were sitting companionably on the same side of Taj's desk. Irramani had brought in a tin of biscuits, liberated from who knew where by one of her innumerable "boys", as a consolation for the fact that the one called Rav had been unable so far to get Taj a replacement desk communicator.
"So you've heard nothing from any of them since?" Irramani went on, through a mouthful of biscuit.
"Not since Sharl acknowledged my last to him—and that was several hours later than it should have been. To be quite honest, my dear, I'm wondering if there's been a massive clerical error or something and I've sent out three squadrons of expensive pursuit ships, manned by politically dangerous mutoids, under the command of three labour grade saggar maker's bottom knockers. I mean, I've known Sharl Paternoster for years, and it just isn't like him to delay obeying an order, any more than it's like Dione to let herself be hornswoggled by a bedizened brigand like Krantor." Taj sighed deeply. "I can't speak for Safran, of course. For all I know he's kidnapped both of them and is out there carving himself a bijou empirette in the middle of my space. Except that I'm fairly sure he hasn't got the imagination."
"What about Travis and Servalan?"
"That's another worry. By now the airwaves should be buzzing with ransom demands, threats, insults and all the other stuff those two do so well. If they are on Freedom City, they can't be doing anything, and you don't go to Freedom City to do nothing. There's no point. Doing nothing costs too much there."
"Maybe they're negotiating with someone," Irramani suggested.
"Yes, but who?" Taj drank tea, and took another biscuit.
"Well," Irramani said slowly, in her are-you-sure-you-want-to-hear-this voice, "I have heard a rumour from one of my boys in Central Tracking and Surveillance that the Liberator was seen heading in that direction..."
Taj's eyes lit up. "Really? I must see if we can't establish some sort of line of communication between me and Central Tracking and Surveillance. I'm sure they have all sorts of little tidbits of information that I would find so useful." She nibbled her biscuit, staring into the middle distance. "Well, if Blake is there, that makes it all so much easier, doesn't it? When Sharl gets there, he can take care of the Liberator for me as well." She smiled a satisfied smile. "I do so like things neat."
Irramani cast an anxious glance at her cleaning apparatus, standing in the corner by the door as was increasingly its wont these days. "Should I—?"
Taj laughed. "I wasn't talking about that, love. I can't spare you for cleaning duties anyway, not now." She got up, and motioned for Irramani to do likewise. As the older woman got stiffly to her feet, Taj flung up one arm in a grand gesture. "To everyone else in the building," she proclaimed, "you are Irramani, the Delta grade cleaning operative. But when you pass this door—" she flung out her other arm in the wrong direction "—you strip away your secret identity, and become Irramani, the chief and only operative of Taj's Irregulars. Congratulations, comrade!" She kissed Irramani on both cheeks with great solemnity. "Now sit down and tell me more about what you found in Bercol's waste-paper basket..."
* * *
Blake was going to get those echoes.
He had spotted them not long after he had eaten last, flitting around the periphery of his vision as he lay, propped semi-comfortably against the edge of the raised walkway. They looked (Terminal) like little grey ghosts. Some of them had Avon's face, some of them had Cally's eyes (You remember). For the time being he was pretending not to notice when they dodged round in front of him and threw (A shot) images at him to confuse him. Soon, in just a moment, he would get up and go (For Cally) for one of the little devils. In just a moment. He was tired (You must sleep) so tired. How could he relax, with his ship and his friends gone (Like the dead) and Gan in the hands of people who couldn't enter a room without (More illusions) making a performance of it? Admittedly they seemed friendly (You can help) enough, but you never knew. And then there were those irritating (Terminal) echoes. It wouldn't be so bad if they weren't quite so insistent (You remember) or if they had a larger repertoire. All they seemed to do (You must sleep) was to buzz around and around his head endlessly repeating (Terminal) the things that had happened on Terminal, starting with Avon's (Attempt at rescue) supposed encounter with him, and ending with his last trip (You remember) down into the wrecked base. There he was now, picking his way warily among (More illusions) the débris, gun in one hand, the other half-raised in (You remember) that familiar gesture, his face incarnadined with the (Terminal) light from a dozen small fires. He looked hurt, and betrayed, and tired, (You must sleep) and there were bruises on his head. He seemed to be looking (For Cally) for something. And then he saw her, and his eyes widened, and (Attempt at rescue) he put away his gun and grabbed one end of a fallen pillar ("BLAKE!!!") a futile gesture and he knew it because his face closed up (Like the dead) and he took a pace back, drawing the gun and raising it (A shot) and Blake knew this bit, this was where Cally yelled out with her mind ("BLAKE!!!") for him, for him, and there was nothing he could do, and he was going to have to watch while Avon shot her—
Only he didn't. And she didn't. And in the fractured second before Blake's desperate effort wrenched him out of the dream and back to the Cloneworld he saw three things which left him confused, resentful and vastly relieved.
The first was Avon's gun flicking up and away from the off-screen Cally, following his startled gaze to a point above and behind her.
The second was the end of the fallen pillar, suddenly springing up as though tossed lightly to one side by some gigantic force unknown.
The third was the small red rubber ball, thrown from somewhere with devastating accuracy, which pinged off the exact centre of Avon's forehead and knocked him over.
Through a blur of disorientation, as he strove to fix these vital scenes in his mind, he saw blinding light, heard heavenly music and breathed dry ice.
"Are you well?" a voice demanded. Neither sympathetic nor cruel.
"Urgh," Blake said.
"You were crying out. Is there something you need?"
Blake rubbed at his eyes, peered up at the Clonemaster. Asleep in class again, eh, Blake? Report to me in my study after school. "N-no. Nothing."
"Please try not to give the room confusing signals. If you wish to sleep, say so, and the lighting will be dimmed."
I'm thinking of giving up sleep completely, Blake thought but did not say. It's too strenuous.
* * *
"Well, well, well." The tall blond man smiled fondly down at Vila. "So no-one else managed it either. I'm rather relieved. I could never have faced life if one of my so-called peers had succeeded where I had so conspicuously failed."
"Carnell?" Vila said faintly. "What are you doing here?"
"This and that. Oh, by the way, Vila, this fellow lurking beside me is Jarriere. He makes a profession of belonging to people. Jarriere, this is Vila Restal, my first failure."
The shock-headed little man smiled and bobbed. "Charmed, I'm sure."
"May I suggest we assume cover?" Carnell said. "I don't know whether you've noticed, but there are some individuals in the city these days who do not harbour good intentions toward people of our sort."
"What sort is that?" Vila said.
"The breathing sort. This way."
They ducked into a service corridor and took an elevator to another level. There were no lights on here, and they moved forward by feel.
"But you—" Vila began, and was impatiently shushed. A moment later Carnell bent down and did something to the wall. A dim light edged through a crack which widened into a rectangle. Carnell crawled through, followed by Jarriere. Vila brought up the rear, glumly reflecting that he always seemed to get caught up in someone else's action.
He found himself in somewhat close proximity to the others in a space which would have seemed cramped to him had he been alone, and which was ankle deep in clinging grey dust. The light he had noticed leaked in through numerous grilles set at intervals in the metallic walls over their heads. Far, far above, a tiny square of dark blue held a single star. Vila thought of the Liberator, and felt very much alone.
"We can talk here," Carnell said, his voice grotesquely magnified and distorted.
"Right," Vila said. "What the hell happened to you, Carnell? You were the best, the Federation's top puppeteer. Nothing could shift you. You were on the way to the top. What went wrong?"
"Ah. I think, in fact, you may have been involved, Vila. My second and last failure involved a man called Coser."
"Coser. Coser—" Realisation hit Vila. "IMIPAK!"
"Exactly. I was given incomplete information on his situation, of course, but the Federation prefer a scapegoat. So,
'Headlong myself I threw
Down from the verge of Heaven, eternal wrath
Burnt after me to the bottomless pit.'"
He smiled. "Or at least as far as Freedom City. I heard about your remarkable victory over the mighty Klute, and I remembered our games of chess together..."
Vila grinned. "You never did force me to win, did you?" he said.
"The memory rankles yet," Carnell said. "So I made my way up to the Big Wheel, took this Klute on, beat him six or seven times and was on the point of becoming embarrassingly wealthy when Krantor made me a proposition. Either he ditched the Klute, roped in a lookalike and had me feed him the moves from a suitably distant locality, for a reasonable wage, or his jolly lads would try to determine the length of my major intestine." He shrugged. "What was a man of honour to do?"
"Never mind that," Vila said. "What did you do?"
Carnell threw back his head and laughed. The laughter resounded all the way up the air-duct. "Avon's been sharpening your wit, hasn't he?"
"Avon!" Vila clapped a hand to his mouth, discovered it was Jarriere's and gave it back. "Sorry. Look, I'm terribly worried about Avon. He's been acting very strangely, and he's planning to give the Liberator to Travis."
Carnell, on the point of dismissing the subject, stared keenly at Vila. "That is bad. I must admit I was surprised to see Travis back, and the way he took over here shows he's lost none of his cunning. But Travis with that ship would be too awful to contemplate. We have to stop him."
"Why?" said Jarriere.
"Are you fond of Travis?"
"Would you like to have him telling you what to do?"
"Well, there you are then." Carnell's tone of sweet reason was perfect.
"What are we going to do?" Vila said
"Well, for a start, we'll have to get on board. We can't do anything to stop Travis getting the ship, and once he's on it we might as well be across the Darkling Zone for all the chance we'll have of catching him. We'll need disguises, and new names..."
Forty-three minutes later, three men stumbled up to a table that had been set up on the Big Wheel. All three were dressed in identical stained, sweaty grey coveralls, which exuded an aroma of something desperate men might drink.
"Name," said the woman sitting behind the table.
"Shadrak," mumbled the first and tallest of the newcomers.
"Number one-six-four." The woman typed the name on to a terminal one-handed, and something went gachunk under the table. "Dog-tag here, uniform over there, report over there. Next."
"Mishak," said the next, smaller and neater.
"Number one-six-five." Gachunk. "Dog-tag here, uniform over there, report over there. Next."
"Number one-six-six." Gachunk. "Dog-tag here, uniform over there, rep—" The dog-tag fell on the floor with a metallic tinkle. The man bent for it, frowning. Unwillingly the woman leant sideways and peered about.
"Can't see it anywhere. Sorry."
"Drunken clumsy oaf...what was the name again?"
"I'll give you one-six-seven." Gachunk. "Dog-tag here, hang on to it this time, uniform over there, report over there. If you find the other one bring it back here for destruction. Next!"
"Neatly done," Carnell whispered as they shuffled towards the fabricator Travis had co-opted to produce uniforms.
"Thank you. May not be any use, but you never know. Don't forget to tell 'Mishak' to put on the balaclava. If Travis has seen him once that hair will stand out like a pink snowball."
"Relax. I'm a psychostrategist. I think of everything."
"That's why you're here, right?"
"You really must learn to be more trusting, Vila."
"Now where have I heard that before?" Vila muttered.
* * *
"Let's get on with it," Avon said impassively. He crouched down beside the huddled figure and tried to clip a teleport bracelet to its wrist. The bracelet would not stay on; the limbs were too thin. Eventually, wincing at the touch of the clammy flesh, he fastened it around the upper thigh.
"Shouldn't that be Herik's?" Travis said mildly.
"The deal has just changed," Avon said carefully. "She goes up first. I can take her alone, or with you, or with him, I don't care, but she goes up now."
"All right," Travis said. "We don't mind, do we, Herik?"
Herik looked doubtful.
"Whether you mind or not is of no interest to me." Avon's tone was remote, but his hand as he straightened up was on his gun.
"Herik, go up with him." Travis gave Herik his bracelet. "The deal stands as before."
"Orac," Avon said, "assuming you are on station, bring us up."
A white outline surrounded Avon, Servalan and Herik, and exploded outwards as they faded from view.
"I don't like travelling with that on board," Volen muttered.
"Oh, Avon's all right once you get used to him." Travis seemed almost impish.
Volen was not amused. "I meant the...woman, sir."
"Superstitious, Volen?" Travis challenged him. "Or just fastidious?"
"I never liked dealing with them in the old outfit, sir, and I don't like it any more now."
"They're a lot more flexible now in the 'old outfit', Volen." Travis put his hands behind his back and began to pace round Volen. "Use them for target practice, so I hear." He stood behind the other man. His voice abruptly hardened. "I need flexibility, Volen. I can't use men who aren't flexible."
"Sorry, sir." Volen stamped to attention. "I spoke out of turn."
"You did, Volen." Travis spoke silkily now. "Any further thoughts on the matter?"
Avon and Herik manifested, Herik holding a large carrybox.
"Shall we get started?" Avon said.
"I think I have just made the biggest mistake of my life."—Alta One.
"Well, dears, what is it this time?" Taj said brightly, looking up as Bercol and Rontane entered. "You know I really am awfully busy."
Bercol looked at Rontane.
"So our sources tell us, Supreme Commander," Rontane said. "Where effort is concerned, you have no peer. In the matter of results, however..." He smiled sadly and spread his hands. "It is an altogether too oft-told tale."
"Perhaps because you insist upon having it told before the final chapter has been written." Taj allowed a slight edge to flavour her voice.
Bercol looked at Rontane.
"Yes, well, the High Council have always been rather more partial to the short story form." Rontane was unflappable. "A succession of unfinished epics, such as the 'Blake' series has become, tends to leave them with the urge to, ah, write their own ending. I'm sure you know the sort of thing they prefer: sudden shifts of emphasis, dramatic exposures of traitors in the midst, a few rolling heads and a clean slate for the next and hopefully final volume. To strip away the metaphor, Supreme Commander," Rontane went on viciously, "the High Council will tolerate no further tergiversation from this office. You will recall the dissolution of the Presidency; let me assure you that the High Council will just as easily assume direct responsibility for Space Command if results are not forthcoming."
"Oh, I believe it," Taj said. "I've never seen a chicken quite so eager to cut off its own head. Now was that all, dears, or was there something else you wanted?"
Bercol looked at Rontane.
Rontane glanced back at him. "I think you have not clearly understood the import of my words, Supreme Commander."
"Oh, I think I have. The High Council wants me to wave a magic wand and send out three thousand squadrons of pursuit ships to catch the Liberator and bring you Blake. Otherwise they'll do something grotesque with me and find a more plausible wand-merchant. Isn't that the gist of it?"
Bercol looked at Rontane.
"You have the entire resources of Federation Space Command at your disposal," Rontane said. "Surely to catch one man—"
"I have," Taj said forcefully, "what can be spared from guarding Earth, patrolling the spacelanes, carrying men and matériel here and there, being present on subjugated planets to give the puppet rulers a sense of importance, chasing the rest of the criminal fraternity who in case you haven't noticed haven't gone away, maintaining the frontiers, training new pilots and crew, fighting the odd intergalactic war—" She paused for breath, got up and walked around behind the two men. Bercol twisted to follow her with his eyes, Rontane remained immobile. "This," Taj continued, "amounts at present to three squadrons of pursuit ships, all of which are currently engaged on the Blake matter." She put an arm round each man's shoulders. "Mind you, if I had your book-keeping skills I could produce an army out of nothing that would sweep through the galaxy."
Bercol started to look at Rontane, flinched and started to speak. Taj applied pressure with two fingers of each hand. Both men stiffened. Rontane's mouth opened, and carried on opening, wider and wider.
"Don't ask me how I know, dears. We women must keep our little secrets. Just nod if you're happy that I'm competent to handle the current situation. Then you can go back to your nice plushy offices and falsify the reports you're going to make to the High Council, just as you always have done, and we can all carry on exactly as before." She peered up at each face in turn. "Oh, and see a dentist, Rontane, your left front canine is in a shocking state."
Neither man was prepared when Taj released her hold on their nerve centres. Rontane staggered forward and caught his shin on the edge of Taj's desk, while Bercol merely collapsed like a suddenly emptied sack. Taj bustled round the desk and proffered two plain envelopes. "Just to show you I'm not bluffing, dears. Now if you'll excuse me." She folded herself down and put on her spectacles.
Outside in the corridor, Rontane rounded on Bercol.
"You imbecile! Whom did you tell?"
"I told no-one!" Bercol retorted. "It must have been you. In any case," he went on, overriding Rontane's furious denials, "the damage is done. She knows now, and she'll not hesitate to use the knowledge against us. We, my overbearing friend, are bought and sold. As from this moment we are Taj's men, and she won't let us forget it."
Rontane stamped around for a few seconds, opening his mouth to speak every so often and then thinking better of it. Bercol watched him angrily, relishing his discomfiture even in the midst of his own.
"We could pull out—"
"Out of what?" Bercol scoffed. "Known space? I knew you would get us into trouble, you and your needless hectoring."
"Then why didn't you say something?" Rontane snapped.
"Because you never listen!!" Bercol shouted.
In the silence that followed this unanswerable accusation, Taj's door opened and Taj's head emerged.
"I'm dreadfully sorry, loves, but I am trying to concentrate so if you wouldn't mind taking your voices somewhere else to exercise them..."
Bercol and Rontane bowed. "Supreme Commander."
Taj smiled. "That's better. I do like it when people show consideration for each other, don't you?" The door closed.
Bercol looked at Rontane.
"Come along, fellow slave," he said. "We have lies to tell."
As they walked down the corridor Rontane aimed a vicious kick at a Delta grade woman who was cleaning the floor. The woman dodged nimbly, and carried on her work, hiding a smile.
* * *
"One-six-four to one-six-nine, forward."
Carnell shuffled forward, followed by Jarriere, Vila and two beefy individuals with vacant, nondescript faces. Volen, standing at the head of the line with the carrybox full of bracelets on a table beside him, looked them up and down and sniffed. "Where's—" He peered at each dogtag in turn. "Where's one-six-seven?"
Carnell spread his hands and grinned idiotically. Vila looked down at the floor, mumbling. Jarriere started searching around, in his pockets, under people's feet, behind pillars. The beefy ones looked vacantly worried.
"Oh well, one here or there won't matter. He'll be sorry if he's left behind, though." Volen passed out five bracelets. Carnell peered through his, Jarriere tried to eat his and Vila stuffed his absently into his pocket. "Gods of space, what a shower," Volen muttered. "You put them on your arms...oh, here, let me." He grabbed Carnell's arm and clamped the bracelet on it. "What kind of an army Travis thinks he's getting I don't know," he grumbled as he performed the same service for Vila and Jarriere, and then for the two others who had assumed that this was standard procedure and offered their arms with vacant grins.
"You," Volen said, pointing at Carnell, "you'll lead this platoon. And I don't want to hear about any..." He looked down, to find that his non-pointing hand was holding Jarriere's leg.
"Can't you keep this idiot under control?" he demanded of Carnell.
Carnell favoured him with a broad happy smile. "Which one, sar?"
Volen stalked back to his table, raised a bracelet to his lips. "Five more to bring up. And I wish you joy of them," he finished under his breath as the five teleported out.
* * *
Blake, meanwhile, was doggedly turning over and over in his mind the few fragments of his dream he had been able to save from oblivion, and trying to banish the wholly irrational certainty with which he had been left that what he had seen had been exactly what had happened. He knew, all too well, how much stronger an illusion became if reinforced by the subject's desire to believe it; and thus by a sort of perverse logic, he was all the more inclined to credit this dream precisely because he did not want to believe it.
How dare Avon not have killed Cally, he thought. It violated every canon of tragic irony in the book. Particularly as Avon had gone out of his way to give the impression both that he had, and that the killing had been something dark and nasty rather than the essential act of mercy that it would actually have been. It also raised all sorts of awkward questions. Like who shifted the pillar, who threw the ball. Where was Cally now?
Was she dead?
Somehow, Blake found himself convinced, against all reason, that she was alive. The idea found itself a corner in the back of his head and snuggled down. It itched.
A familiar change in the lighting, a well-known blast of music. Hurriedly Blake got up as the mist descended and a Clonemaster appeared.
"Clonemaster, I—" Blake stopped talking as he suddenly realised that the answers to the questions he was burning to ask were probably just as unknown to the Clonemasters as to him.
"Your companion is ready, Blake," the Clonemaster said, and gestured. The music returned, but not the lights or the mist, and Blake started to say something but forgot what it had been and just stared open-mouthed as the Clonemaster smiled, and Gan walked in.
* * *
"Ready to move out, sir," Herik reported to Travis. The flight deck of the Liberator was fully manned by members of the New Army, as they were pleased to call themselves.
"Well done." Travis looked around. "Masson, have you worked out manual control yet?"
"Sorry, sir," the freckled red-head confessed. "I have not the faintest idea of what they're about."
"We'll have to do it under computer control, then. Computer, what's your name, Zen?" Without pausing Travis went on, "Set a course for the Cloneworld, maximum power. Execute as soon as possible."
There was a short pause.
"Zen!" Travis barked. "Obey my instructions!"
"You're not talking to one of your thugs now, you know." Avon came in. "Zen is programmed to respond only to certain people's voices."
"You're going to make me one of them, though, aren't you, Avon," Travis said.
"Why not. Zen, the voiceprint of the next person you hear speaking is to be added to those whose requests and commands you are programmed to obey. Confirm."
There was a pause.
"Confirm, Zen!" Avon repeated.
"Rejected? Why? Give reasons."
+ADDITIONS TO THE LIST OF PROGRAMMED VOICEPRINTS REQUIRE SECONDARY CONFIRMATION FROM JENNA STANNIS+
"One of Blake's little tricks," Travis snarled. "Why didn't you tell me, Avon?"
"I didn't know myself," Avon said, his own feelings on the matter evident in his voice and clenched stance. "No problem, we just get her up here and get her to approve you."
"Herik. Fetch Stannis. Take Borlodian with you."
Herik grimaced. He had had the job of subduing Jenna when they had first come aboard, and it had not been as pleasant or as easy as he had anticipated.
"Give me Krast," Travis said as he and the equally large Borlodian departed about their errand.
"Coming up." A hunch-shouldered ancient operated the communicator. "Liberator to Freedom City. Krast, are you there?"
"Is everyone up now?" Travis said.
"Yes sir. Couple missing."
"Always some jokers. Right, start setting the charges. Give yourself time to get all the way to the top and back down. I want nothing left. Then signal readiness for teleport. Understood?"
"We could have used it as a base," Masson muttered rebelliously.
"Did you say something?" Travis said, his tone entirely one of friendly curiosity.
"N-no, sir," Masson stammered.
"Freedom City was too close to Federation territories. It was only Krantor's clout and cunning that kept it free. We couldn't last a week in this condition. We'll have a base, Masson. But it'll be further out and safer, at least until some of you have some training. And some discipline. Which includes not asking damn stupid questions. Or any other kind. Clear?"
There was no argument. Travis turned back to Avon. "You're sure you can get Zen to accept me?"
"Just persuade Jenna to confirm the instruction. There are no further conditions; if there were Zen would have stated them. Stop worrying. You'll have command." If any deeper meaning lurked behind Avon's words, it was indecipherable.
"What's keeping them?" Travis fumed. "I could have got the woman here and back three times by now." As if on cue Herik and Borlodian appeared, abetted by two other troopers, half-carrying a furiously struggling Jenna. "Ah," Travis said. "The lady is with us. Put her down." Casually he raised his gun hand. Catching sight of it, Jenna stopped writhing, and her bearers deposited her on her feet.
"Jenna." Travis smiled. "I know you know what this can do. There's a little service I want you to perform for me. If you don't, I'll have to kill you."
"You mean, you'll take great pleasure in killing me," Jenna said sullenly.
"Apparently Blake doesn't trust Avon quite as much as he used to," Travis explained. "Before Zen will accept orders from me, both you and Avon have to give your confirmation. You will do it, won't you?"
"Do I have any choice?" Jenna said, looking at Avon.
"Oh, there's always a choice, Jenna," Avon said.
"All right." Jenna turned to Zen, then back to Travis. "Identify yourself."
"My name is Space Commander Travis."
"Record the voice, Zen," Avon said. "From now on you will obey his requests and commands. Confirm it, Jenna."
"Zen," Jenna said, "This is Jenna. I confirm Avon's instruction." Read my mind, Zen, she prayed silently. Don't accept him.
There was a pause.
"Well?" Travis demanded. "Has it done it?"
"Zen!" Avon snapped. "Acknowledge the instruction!"
+THE ORDER IS REJECTED+
Jenna let out her breath in a silent half-laugh of relief. Travis threw her a furious glance.
"Damn it, why??" Avon half-shouted.
+ADDITIONS TO THE LIST OF PROGRAMMED VOICEPRINTS REQUIRE SECONDARY CONFIRMATION FROM JENNA STANNIS+
"You just had it!" Abruptly Avon went pale, opened his mouth and closed it.
+NO VOICEPRINT CORRESPONDING TO THAT PRESENTED AS 'JENNA STANNIS' IS ON FILE+
"I...erased her voiceprint on the way here," Avon said. "This is an interesting situation."
"You mean—I can't control Zen unless she confirms it, and she can't confirm it because you erased her voiceprint?" Travis' temper was rising.
A smile was trying frantically to plaster itself across Avon's face. "It's worse than that, I'm afraid," he said. "Not only can we not get Zen to accept your voiceprint, we can't even restore Jenna's, because before Zen will accept Jenna's voiceprint Jenna has to confirm that Jenna is fit to control Zen, only Jenna can't do that because we can't restore Jenna's voiceprint, because..." He began to giggle hysterically.
"Get this madman out of my sight!" Travis yelled. Herik and Borlodian obediently seized Avon and half-carried him, still helpless with mirth, from the flight deck.
"Sir!" Masson yelped.
"What is it now??"
"Sir, the charges have started to go off on the planet."
"No word from Krast?" Travis plunged on without waiting for an answer. "Right, move out. You, Stannis, do it on manual. Meth, Quayl, watch her. If she makes anything that looks like a wrong move, blast her. And get Volen and Orac up here." He smacked his fist into the palm of his false hand. "I don't like this. I don't like any of it."
Masson studied his leader's scowling face and decided not to mention the pursuit ship the scanners had picked up leaving the planet. It would only make things worse.
* * *
"But why have you done this?" Blake said for the third time.
"The act did not contravene the Rule of Life," the Clonemaster said. "Would you have preferred us not to do it?" she added, likewise for the third time.
"No," Blake said vehemently, completing the cycle. On the point of beginning it again, he stopped as something occurred to him. "What we came for...the antigen to Pylene-50. You said...or one of you said...that you knew what we wanted. Are you sure you didn't misunderstand?"
"The antigen is here." The Clonemaster produced a rack of phials from under her robe. "All is as you require it."
"Then why this as well?" Another thought occurred to Blake. "How can we repay you?"
The Clonemaster smiled. "Kill fewer people, Roj Blake. Take fewer lives, and reverence those you must take, not for the people who live them, nor for the quality of them, but simply in themselves, as fragments of the only force in the cosmos worthy of the name of deity. If you do this, we shall be satisfied." She paused, and the smile deepened momentarily. "Surprised, maybe, but satisfied." The smile switched off. "Your ship is not yet back in orbit. It appears you must remain as our guests a little longer."
"I apologise, Clonemaster. We will try to cause as little trouble as is possible." Impulsively, as the Clonemaster turned to leave, Blake blurted: "Clonemaster, earlier I was watching the corridor through the door and I saw...something like a...a large squirrel...that is...a large furred creature with a tail, and it was watching me, and..."
"This should not have been allowed," the Clonemaster said decisively. "The portal will be opaqued. There are many secrets on our world, Blake." She turned her back, precluding any further converse, and the mist swirled around her.
Blake looked at Gan, and met a pair of very puzzled eyes.
"Large...squirrel?" Gan repeated.
"Let me bring you up to date, Gan," he said.
"You're so beautiful...when you're angry."—Bek.
"Haven't you done it yet?!"
"I must proceed with caution," Orac informed Travis pettishly. "The Zen computer has been instructed to reject instructions from me, and has interpreted this command with typical electronic pedantry to mean all signals emanating from me whatever their form. I have therefore to penetrate its internal security programmes by subterfuge. You will be advised when I have succeeded in removing the voiceprint restriction."
"Are you still monitoring the manual controls?"
"Well, of course I am. The moment Jenna does anything which conflicts with your instructions, you will be advised."
Strapped into her flight station, a thug with a drawn gun at either side, Jenna seethed quietly. Don't let it in, Zen, she thought fiercely. Fight it. Fight it...
"You requested that I inform you when the Liberator was one hour away from the Cloneworld. That moment has now arrived."
"Right." Travis switched the communicator to all-points paging. "All personnel not at essential posts, to the flight deck, now." Then he nodded to Herik. "See if Avon has cooled down and get him up here."
He turned back to Jenna, smiling broadly. "I know he wouldn't want to miss the final death of Blake."
* * *
"No, no, you haven't got it," Vila said earnestly. "Listen. Goes like this. 'It's great to be free, it's great to be free, it's great to be free, it's...' No, sorry, start again."
A large trooper with bushy hair and beard grabbed the bottle and the initiative. "Reminds me of one I used to know. 'We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here,'" he bawled. "'We're here because—'"
"'Scuse me," Vila said courteously, "but don't confish—confuse the issue. Or hog the bottle." He grabbed it back. "My song, I think. 'It's great to be free, it's great to be free, it's great to be free from the law. It's great to be free and we all agree-ee-ee...that we're not going back any more!'" He took a breath and a drink and passed the bottle on.
"Back where?" someone wanted to know.
"Back anywhere!" someone else declared pugnaciously. "The New Army never retreats!" A fist was waved in the air.
"Here, this is empty," said a plaintive voice at Vila's side.
"Don't look at me," Vila said. "It was empty when I had it."
"Me too," said the woman on Vila's other side.
"It's been empty for the past ten minutes," the bushy one agreed.
"Then why are we still passing it round?" demanded the plaintive voice.
Vila gave its owner a pitying look. "Just to be sociable," he explained.
"Yeah!" said the pugnacious one. "And if you don't like it you can go and find your own bottle, so there!" He seized the empty bottle and took a long, satisfying swig. "Aaahh," he said pointedly. "That's better."
"We're getting away from the point," Vila said vaguely.
"What is the point?" said the woman beside him.
"Good point," Vila said, frowning. "Must stop drinking from empty bottles. Goes straight to my head. What is the point, the point is...the song." He opened his mouth to begin again but was cut short by the voice of Travis.
"All personnel not at essential posts, to the flight deck, now."
"That means us, Vila." Carnell made himself noticeable.
"I know, I know," Vila replied in an undertone. "Come on, lads," he called out. "Best go see what the chief wants."
They shambled out of the room, merging with similar groups of equally dishevelled warriors, formed roughly into platoons (that is to say, into random groups of six) and marched dismally up to the flight deck.
Travis was standing at the central control station, just beneath Jenna. Avon stood beside him on his right. Orac reposed on the table inside the circular couch. The other stations were manned by what had become Travis' upper echelon: Herik, Volen and Masson. The New Army, or such of it as could get in, ranged itself seedily around the floor and peered up at its leader.
"Our first action in this ship shall be one of punishment, and revenge," Travis proclaimed. "Most of you here are fugitives of one sort or another from the Federation. Some of you were in Space Command or Security. Some of you may have been rebels. But all of you, without exception, owe your troubles, the danger under which you have lived, the penury, the suffering, immediately and exclusively to one man." He paused. "His name is Blake."
The New Army debated this among itself.
"If the Federation has rejected you, cast you out, hounded you—then I say to you that the responsibility is Blake's. He has been the engineer of all human woe since his life began. And he is down there, on that planet. Avon."
"Zen," Avon said tonelessly. "Raise the radiation flare shield. Clear the neutron blasters for firing."
"Have you a locator fix on Blake?"
"Good. Lock the neutron blasters on to those co-ordinates."
"Avon, no!" Jenna shouted, and was clubbed across the jaw with the butt of a paragun for her pains.
"Wait!" Vila yelled. Silence fell. Now you've done it, Vila told himself.
Travis came down from his station. A path formed between him and Vila, who ducked down inside his uniform collar and tried to change the shape of his face.
"You have a criticism?" Travis cooed.
"Well, not exactly, more an alternative suggestion, just for consideration, not of course that you have to consider it, but—" Travis was starting to frown and peer more closely at Vila when Carnell stepped in.
"What I thinking my man here be try to tell you, sar," he said, in such a barbarous accent that Vila almost looked up to make sure it was the same man, "is how be you sartain this Blake man still down planet way? Chance be better let man coming hup ship way, then you catching him, get him for sartain, yes. No?"
Travis looked long and measuringly at Carnell. Carnell stared back defiantly, his teeth very white in the dirty face.
"What's your name, soldier?"
"Platoon Leader Shadrak, sar."
Travis drew his head back. "Why do I have the feeling..." he murmured, very softly.
"Makes sense, sir," Volen said unexpectedly, coming from his station to address Travis confidentially. "And the men would appreciate an execution."
"Oh, absolutely, sar," Carnell agreed enthusiastically. "Be nothing like a hexecution for encourage the men. That be sartain, yes."
"If I bring Blake up," Avon said remotely, "you'd better have some of your men there to help me with him. Three should be enough."
Travis considered. "Shadrak. Take two from your platoon."
Carnell beamed. "Oh, thank ye, sar." He cuffed Vila and Jarriere across the back of the head. "Abendigo, Mishak, we be have working to do. Come."
"You'll need to get him on to the flight deck," Avon said. "You'd better get the...troops...out of the way."
Travis closed his eyes. "Orac," he said. "Can you see anything wrong with this?"
This is it, Vila thought. If only Zen is keeping him busy enough...
"The alterations to the proposed action do not materially affect the outcome," Orac snapped. "Please do not interrupt me again."
Vila breathed out, very quietly.
Travis came to a decision. "All right," he said. "Shadrak, take your men, go with Avon. The rest of you, back to your rooms. You'll be called when everything's ready."
As the men began to move Travis turned to Volen. "You know, Shadrak was right," he said. "I'll enjoy it more this way, as well."
* * *
"We have a problem here," Blake said. He and Gan were sitting side by side on the edge of the walkway. "I know, for a fact, that we've only been here two or three days at most. Damn it, I've only eaten four times, and slept once."
"But Blake," Gan said reasonably, "even if the Clonemasters could have grown these—" He indicated his legs. "—in that time, how could I have learned to use them again? I've been days just walking." He frowned. "They haven't got time travel as well, have they?"
"Not to my knowledge," Blake said. "But then, I didn't know they had large squirrels either."
Something plinked, and Blake looked round, puzzled. The sound came again, followed by a voice. "Blake."
"It's the Liberator!" Gan exclaimed.
"Avon, where the hell have you been?!" Blake shouted.
"Something needed doing. You'd better come up now. Standing by to teleport."
"Go ahead," Blake said tightly.
As he felt the teleport take hold of him he had the satisfaction of seeing the lights brighten and the mist start to appear. Then, without any transition as usual, he was on the Liberator and facing Avon.
"Right, tell me exactly what—" Striding forward, Blake became aware of three figures in uniforms pointing guns at him. "—happened," he said in a different tone, slowing to a stop.
"There's not much time." As the smallest of the uniformed men pulled off his balaclava and Blake recognised him as Vila, the other two swivelled round to cover Avon. "Travis is on the flight deck," Vila went on. "Now listen, Blake, here's what we've got to do..."
* * *
From her vantage point Jenna had a perfect view of the events that followed. The flight deck had been cleared of extraneous personnel again; to avoid alarming Blake, Travis had ordered them back to their temporary quarters. His only chance would be if she could somehow shout a warning. Once he got within range of Travis' hand...
She tensed as Avon came in, followed by two troopers. Her two guardians, sensing the tiny movement, dug the muzzles of their guns a little deeper into her neck.
It was a full second before Travis noticed that the troopers' guns were levelled at Avon. He cursed as he brought his gun hand up. Behind the troopers he could see Blake, and someone else, the big one, Gan. Wasn't he supposed to have been dead? Didn't matter. Once he'd killed Blake the others would collapse.
Then he heard the voice. Vaguely familiar to him, uttering words that he half-remembered, and as something like a switch closed in his mind Travis knew that something was terribly wrong.
"Shiva is bound with chains of the lotus!" Carnell shouted, and Vila's jaw dropped as Travis stiffened and began to shake. His good eye rolled up under the lid and his gun arm wavered and fell to his side. The next second Carnell, with an expression almost of pity on his face, gripped Jarriere's shoulder and said one word too low for anyone but Jarriere and Vila to hear.
Gan stared. The little man was...swelling. He seemed to gain at least four inches in height, and his posture had altered so radically that it hardly seemed the same man even from the back. In the same moment, as Carnell stepped back, he launched himself at the helplessly paralysed Travis, nearly twenty feet away, bore him down and pinned both his arms in one hand while strangling him with the other.
Gan saw his way clear. He moved forward, leapt over the couch, wrenched out Orac's key, and then grasped Orac and raised it high above his head.
Jenna's two guards, distracted by Jarriere's attack, found their guns wrenched from their hands and turned back to their prisoner to find themselves looking down a muzzle each, whereupon Jenna suggested to them that they should first undo the makeshift strap securing her to her station, and then, having done this, depart from her immediate presence in a direction to be indicated. This, after a moment's hesitation, they began to do.
Two shots occurred almost simultaneously.
For Travis it was like wrestling a tiger. The man he had once likened to a powder puff had the strength of five men his size; he could not free either of his hands, and Jarriere's other hand was cutting off his air. Attempts to bring his legs up and knock the other off balance only resulted in an increase in the cruel pressure. Travis had felt strangulation before, and it had never failed to terrify him. If he could only see Blake. Everything could still be all right if he could only see Blake. But his vision was blurring.
He felt the blast go through Jarriere's body at second-hand; the other shot he only heard. But still he kept fighting. There was nothing else to do.
Carnell swivelled to cover Masson and Herik as Volen slowly toppled over his console, his own gun falling from his fingers with a deafening clatter.
Avon shouted. "No!"
Blake jerked round at the shout. Avon was staring at Gan. The big man held Orac lightly but firmly above his head, and stared back.
"Gan, you can't," Avon said urgently. "We need Orac. Without it we're dead."
"We lasted long enough before we had it," Gan said easily. "And did well enough too. It was after we got Orac that things started to go wrong. For my money that makes it a liability."
Jarriere was weakening. Something inside him was starting to give way. Blood dribbled from his mouth, and there was a tremor in the hand that held Travis' left wrist. If Travis judged his moment just right, he could still get Blake, everything could still be all right. Not yet...not yet...
"I am an invaluable tool for gathering information," Orac said. "I have helped you on countless occasions."
"And how many times has it been information you've given us that's got us into trouble?" Vila challenged. "Or information you've refused to give us?"
Blake would swear Avon was trembling. "If Orac is destroyed," he was saying, "I will take no responsibility for the safety of this ship or its crew."
"That's a good one," Jenna put in, "coming from the man who destroyed this ship, and sold out its crew."
"You're not convincing me, Avon," Gan said steadily.
Blake was watching Avon. They were all watching Avon. Jarriere was trying to maintain his grip, but with most of his chest gone it was a losing fight. He should have died instantly as it was. Travis waited. There would be a better moment than this to make his move. After all, Blake was worth waiting for...just a little longer...
"Gan," Avon said desperately. "You can't destroy Orac...there are secrets locked in there, priceless secrets that Ensor carried to his grave...if you smash it they'll all be lost."
"If you haven't ferreted them out by now, Avon," Gan said, "then I'd say they're beyond finding."
"The information..." Avon licked his lips. "The information Orac carries...vital to the rebellion...must be preserved..."
"Since when were you so concerned about the rebellion, Avon?" Blake inquired. "Or is it Orac you're concerned for?"
"What do you want me to do with these gentlemen, Blake?" Carnell called.
"Put them in cold storage somewhere unoccupied," Blake said. "We'll ditch them as soon as this is over."
"Gan..." Orac said. "Think what you are doing. You are contemplating the extinction of the only legacy of the greatest intellect that ever lived...that intellect itself, preserved beyond the grave."
"I'd rather have Avon's intellect," Gan said. "It used to work on its own."
He was dead now, Travis was almost sure. The inhuman force that had animated Jarriere's slender frame needed something to sustain it. Now if the moment would only come before rigor mortis set in...
"I am an unparalleled development in cybernetics." Orac sounded genuinely desperate. "Never before has actual intelligence—self-awareness—been observed in a man-made system—"
"And never again, I hope," Vila said. "So why were you pressuring Avon to get rid of the rest of us?"
"I was mistakenly under the impression that you were preventing me from fulfilling my original programming."
"Pure research," Blake said.
"Exactly. Avon alone would be sympathetic to my aims. I have been trying to dissolve the group since shortly after you left the Liberator—but I see now that I was wrong," Orac said emphatically. "We can still work together—"
"No," Blake said. "No, I don't think so."
"My capabilities are virtually infinite," Orac gabbled. "It would be a crime against science to destroy me—the only research tool that actually transcends human limitations—"
"Please," Avon whispered. "Please, Gan. Don't kill Orac."
Gan seemed to relax. He looked over at Blake. Blake nodded imperceptibly.
"It's just a machine, Avon," he said quietly, and dashed Orac to the floor. The box smashed into a hundred pieces, and there was a blaze of sparks and smoke and a thunderclap of sound.
Avon screamed. It was a sickening, keening sound. His hands rose to cover his face, and his knees slowly buckled under him.
Blake, horrified by the spectacle, saw a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye, felt a hand on one shoulder and a finger digging into his neck just under the jawline, and looked into half a face.
"That was careless, Blake," Travis said.
"There's a lot to do."—R. Blake (clone).
Blake risked a glance down at his gun. It was still a cucumber.
"Tell your crew to drop their weapons, Blake," Travis said, chuckling. "There's none of them can reach me before I kill you."
"Then you'll have to kill me," Blake said, "because I'm not going to tell them anything of the sort."
"Still the martyr, eh, Blake?"
Blake closed his eyes wearily. "Oh, get on with it, Travis," he said.
Travis raised his voice. "What about the rest of you? Avon? Not too long ago you were begging me to kill Blake for you. Which side are you on now? Do you know?"
The hunched figure on its knees over the smouldering remains of Orac made no response.
"Vila?" Travis called. "Can you find the courage to break free? You've never been the moral type. Jenna? Surely you must be bored with a milk-and-water idealist."
"If you're going to kill him, Travis, kill him and get it over with," Gan said. "It'll be the last thing you do."
"That's why I'm not going to do it yet," Travis said. "You're going to put us down on the surface of the Cloneworld."
"You're insane," Jenna burst out. "The radiation levels down there will kill you within hours."
"Plenty of time for me to kill Blake. That's all I want to do now."
"Do it, Jenna," Blake gasped. "It's the best way."
"He's right, Jenna," Travis said. "It'll save trouble all round."
Vila looked from Travis to Jenna. "Er...what d'you think, Jenna?" he mumbled. "He could be right, you know...we could stand like this for the rest of our lives..."
"Shut up, Vila," Gan said.
Jenna seemed not to hear any of them. Her eyes were closed. "Zen," she breathed despairingly. "Do something..."
A silence grew. Travis concentrated on holding Blake immobile, laseron destructor at his throat. Stand-off. Surely they must give in soon. The hum of the ship's systems grew in his ears. Strange; he almost fancied he could hear voices, whispering...
Slowly he turned around. His hold on Blake began to slacken.
"No," he breathed. "No, Chiera, don't let them...I didn't mean it...Chiera...no! No!" His voice rose to a shout, and he hurled himself at the glistening, pulsating spheroid of force that hung in the middle of the flight deck.
There was a sound. A light. A thump, as of a heavy body falling.
Jenna, Vila, Gan and Blake opened their eyes and looked. Vila closed his again almost at once, and covered a retch with his hand.
"What brought that on?" Gan said wonderingly, to no-one in particular.
+LIBERATOR'S SECURITY SYSTEMS WERE ACTIVATED UNDER SPECIAL CONTINGENCY PROGRAMMING+ Zen said.
"Zen?" Jenna said in a very small voice.
+JENNA STANNIS,+ Zen said. +ALL SYSTEMS ARE ONCE AGAIN FUNCTIONING NORMALLY: STATUS IS FIRM+
"B-but I thought Avon erased my voiceprint," Jenna said.
+VOICEPRINT SECURITY PROGRAMMING WAS IMPOSED UPON COMPUTER SYSTEMS BY THE ONE CALLED ORAC. IMMEDIATELY PRIOR TO ITS DESTRUCTION THE ONE CALLED ORAC SUCCEEDED IN DISMANTLING IMPOSED PROGRAMMING+
"Avon," Blake said urgently. He was standing over the kneeling figure, trying to pry the hands away from the face. "Avon!"
"Blake, don't." Carnell strode forward. "This will either end of its own accord or not at all. You can't break it without breaking him."
"What can we do?" Blake said. "We may not need Orac, but we definitely need Avon."
Carnell looked at him strangely. "You forget," he said, "you have an expert on board. Leave him to me. I'll get him out of the fugue. After that it's up to the people around him to help him back to sanity. He's got a long way to come back...before he can be of any use to anyone." He held Blake's gaze with his own for a long moment before Blake turned away.
"All right," he said. "Do what you can for him. Meanwhile," his voice rose, "let's try and get this ship back to normal, shall we? Vila, Gan, we've got a hundred and some thugs to get rid of. Gan, find a habitable planet and set us a course for it. Zen, monitor all storage rooms and flood all those occupied by Travis' army with sono vapour or something similar. Let us know when they're all asleep. Vila, when you get—"
"—the signal from Zen, get a respirator, go in and get every weapon you can find, dump the lot in an empty room and lock it. Jenna, I know what Zen said just now, but do a complete systems check just in case. Oh, and—" He looked around. "Is there anything anyone wants to ask Gan?"
There was a short silence, broken by Vila.
"Yeah," he said. "What took you so long smashing Orac?"
* * *
A pursuit ship sped along an invisible line between what had been Freedom City and Earth.
Dione opened her eyes. "Safran," she croaked.
"Can you sit up?" Safran growled; then, without waiting for an answer, he raised the back of the couch until she was practically sitting anyway.
"You were out. Some guy opened the door. I put him down. There were charges on the walls, and a lot more in his hand. I got you down to the landing bay and lifted the ship solo. I had to; someone shot all the mutoids."
"You...you saved my life," Dione said.
"Such as it is." Safran would not meet her eyes. "Damn it, you're a good officer. For a mutoid. I couldn't just leave you there."
Dione tried to think of something to say, and settled on "Thanks."
"'s all right," Safran mumbled.
"Where are we going?"
"I'm heading back to Earth. I don't know what's happened since I was captured, and quite honestly just at the moment I don't care. Blake was never anywhere near that place, though."
"Taj won't be pleased," Dione pointed out.
Safran started to outline what he considered would be Supreme Commander Taj's optimum course of action under such circumstances, received a quelling stare from Dione and broke off.
"Anyway, we can't do much with just one ship," he said defensively. "If she'd have let me have those three more squadrons I asked for, none of this would have happened."
"I shudder to think what would."
"Look, Commander, if you've got any complaints—"
Dione shook her head. "You saved my life, and I am grateful. Always provided, of course, that I am not required to show my gratitude in any more—significant—way."
Safran seemed to consider, then shook his head. "No. You wouldn't have the strength, for one thing, just at the moment."
Dione pushed herself upright, and in so doing noticed the arrangement of tubes running from her arm to Safran's.
"All I had to replace what they pumped into you was the serum I've been giving my girls—my mutoids. It...isn't very good. I had to beef it up with something." At last he looked at her. "Burn it, woman, we are supposed to be on the same side. I'm sick of this bad blood between us."
Dione stared at him, while a smile tried to edge its way on to her face. She could see him running back over what he had said, see it penetrating. The smile became a grin, and slowly Safran smiled too, and suddenly they were both laughing, great delighted whoops of laughter, as much from sheer relief as from the stupid inadvertent pun, and whenever the hilarity slackened off one of them would say "Bad blood" and gesture at the tubes and they would be off again.
It was a beginning.
* * *
"Morning, love, have you heard the latest?" Irramani bustled in with her machine following behind her and a tin of biscuits under one arm.
Taj yawned. "Astonish me, darling."
Irramani grinned wickedly. "Bercol and Rontane are getting married. No, no, seriously, my boy in CTS tells me Commander Safran's on his way back. With Commander Dione—" She broke off. "I have astonished you, haven't I?"
"Yes," Taj said blankly. "Because I had a message from Sharl yesterday afternoon telling me that Freedom City is a burnt-out ruin littered with dead mutoids and wrecked ships, and no sign of Safran or Dione. Deepest sympathies, Paternoster. And I also had a message from the new garrison commander on Terminal, alleging that Sharl was insubordinate, and that he deliberately ignored instructions from me. I just don't understand; why can't people just get on with each other?"
"I don't know, love, I'm sure I don't," Irramani said, busy with her machine. "What are you going to do about it?"
"Well, that's just it, I don't know. If I discipline Sharl the whole mutoid business could come out, and that would be so inconvenient. Oh, do stop cleaning, Irramani," Taj yelled as the machine began to make the characteristic noise of cleaning devices from time immemorial.
Irramani switched it off. "If this office isn't kept clean people are going to wonder what I do in here all day long."
"Then I'll do it later," Taj said. "Just come here and sit down. And tell me what I can do."
"Well—" Irramani sat down and opened her tin. "Did Commander Paternoster carry out his original orders?"
"Oh yes. Something of immense power did blow up in Terminal's area, but no sign of any débris whatsoever. And he did drop the garrison commander and his staff off, exactly as requested. It's just that if Safran and Dione had been trapped on Freedom City they would have been dead now, and possibly because Sharl was late going to rescue them."
"That's a lot of ifs and possiblies," Irramani said. "If I were you I'd let it pass. They are all all right, no-one's suffered except maybe the garrison commander on Terminal, and it'd be more trouble than it's worth to make a fuss. Maybe there was some reason why he was late."
"That's the other thing that's worrying me," Taj said. "Ah well, you're probably right. What would I do without you, Irramani?"
"You'd have to find your own biscuits," Irramani said. "Should I make the tea, or will you?"
"I'll do it," Taj said, getting up. "Oh dear. And then you can show me how to work this machine of yours."
* * *
He floated, adrift, lost, falling freely through hostile space with no point of reference, no fixed star, nothing stable to anchor himself. He screamed, and no sound came out; he wept, and his tears froze on his face. His lifeline had been cut; his link with sanity and stability had been deliberately broken.
Forever is a long time to fall.
* * *
"He's in there somewhere," Carnell said, switching off the penlight and releasing the eyelid. "It takes a great deal to obliterate a mind completely, especially one as resilient as Avon's."
"I heard once that the boundary between genius and madness was a very thin line," Vila said gloomily.
"Well, you're safe then, Vila," Jenna said.
Carnell gave her a strange look. "Avon isn't a 'genius'. Not in that sense. He's a brilliant and methodical thinker, and he knows more about his field than anyone now living, since the man who caught him was himself caught. But as far as the intuitive insight and imagination which makes a 'genius' is concerned—" He shook his head. "Orac could never have run a 'genius' the way you tell me it ran Avon. It—"
"Look," Blake said. "He's still in there. All right. Can you get him out?"
Carnell looked at him coolly. "Of course I can. After all," he smiled, "I am a genius."
"What was that you did with Jarriere anyway?" Vila said.
"Just a keyword routine, like the one I used on Travis," Carnell said. "It got us out of some tough spots in Freedom City."
The communicator plinked. "Blake!"
"I've been checking over the empty rooms on level four, making sure there was no-one left. I've found someone in one of the lockers, a woman. I—I think it's Servalan."
"Servalan?" Blake repeated. "In one of the lockers?"
"Blake," Carnell said urgently. Avon's lips were moving. His eyes wandered.
"S-Servalan," he whispered.
"What's Servalan doing here?" Vila demanded.
"Never mind that now," Carnell leant over the communicator. "Get her up here to the treatment unit right away."
"Blake?" There was hostility in Gan's voice.
"Do as he says, Gan. We'll sort it out later."
"You're in charge."
* * *
Avon and Servalan were installed on adjacent treatment couches. As she had been brought in, Avon's eyes had locked on hers, fixed and unblinking.
"Peace and quiet is the best medicine for them," Carnell said.
"And for all of us...at least for the time being," Blake agreed, gesturing at the door. Carnell bowed and preceded him out of the room.
"What are your own plans?" Blake continued as they walked.
"I'm available," Carnell replied, spreading his hands. "The Federation doesn't like me much more than it likes you at the moment. And you might have need of a psychostrategist, you never know."
They turned a corner and encountered Vila, pushing a cart with Jarriere's body on it. "How come I always get left to do these jobs?" he demanded.
"Maybe you're just lucky, Vila," Blake said with a smile.
"I suppose there's no chance of a decent burial..." Carnell's gaze lingered on the pain-wracked face.
"Well, you might throw these out with him, then." One hand dipped into a pocket and emerged with two glowing golden spheres. "I weaned him off this stuff not long after we met...just before I implanted that keyword routine you saw. He made me carry those around, so that he could look at them from time to time...see if the craving ever came back." Carnell smiled. "It didn't."
He tucked the Shadow into a pocket of Jarriere's coverall. "Rest easy, my friend," he said. "You repaid the favour...many times over."
* * *
"Shouldn't you be getting some rest?"
"Jenna." Blake got up and stretched. "You must be getting tired of saying that."
"It used to be Cally's job—" Jenna stopped. "Sorry."
"No, it's all right." Blake considered. "Jenna...what would you say if I were to tell you I don't think Cally's dead?"
"You don't? But Avon—"
"As good as confessed to killing her, yes. That's another loose end."
"Lot of them about."
"Too many for my liking." Blake paced restlessly. "This whole ship is a big unanswered question. Where did it come from? Yes, I know from the System, but I'd be willing to swear they didn't build it. We have to find the answers, Jenna. We have to."
"And beat the Federation." Jenna smiled. "In between whiles."
"Mm. At least we won't be bored."
"So, where do we go next?"
"We have the antigen to pylene-50," Blake said, producing the rack of phials from a pocket. "Something that got overlooked in all the excitement. We have to distribute it as widely as we can."
"I don't know." Blake sighed deeply. "Let's just take it one step at a time." He yawned. "Yes. I will get some rest. If you're all right to take over."
"Don't worry. Goodnight, Blake."
"Goodnight, John-Boy," said Powers' voice from somewhere. Blake whirled round, searching the shadows, but nothing was to be seen.
"Are you all right, Blake?" Jenna obviously hadn't heard it. Blake nodded hastily, and left the flight deck.
* * *
"I wish you wouldn't do that," Clement Nyrond said, watching Blake's retreating back on the screen.
"It keeps him interested," Ethan Powers said offhandedly. "He'll need his wits about him to cope with the next bit."
Clement looked at the demiurge. "What do you stand to get out of this, Powers?" he said.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Powers said. "Shall we take a break before we go on?"
He signalled to me behind his back. I scrolled up three lines and typed the magic words.
END OF BOOK ONE