or, What Do You Do After You Come Back From The Dead?
A Blake's Seven story
As for the People, there has been no such outbreak of Memory as was prophesied. On the contrary, they have approached more and more, in
docility, meekness, mindlessness, and absence of purpose, to the magnificent Ideal which I cherish for them. I know not when it will
arrive; but the time is as certain to come as the morrow's sun is to dawn, when the last stage of Humanity will be reached--an inert mass of breathing, feeding, sleeping flesh, kept by the Holy College--the
Triumph of Science--free from Decay and Death.
from The Inner House by Walter Besant.
Well. Pause for reflection. This thing is really getting out of hand. And it was so much simpler before. There was this nice little monster story called Glyte!, in which I had managed to get both Gan and Cally back thanks to the Clonemasters, and rounded off with the usual B7 open ending. The only problem was that the story itself didn't quite work. Minor detail, I thought.
Then a friend provided some highly useful documentation (yes, Claire, this is partly your fault as well) and I immersed myself gladly, and rediscovered all those old questions...like how come almost nothing in "Redemption" looked anything like Liberator...and why they were called links in the first place...and why absolutely nothing in the third or fourth series ever came out right...and why was Avon apparently going loopy in the first place...and so on and so forth. The resulting monstrosity is the last B7 story I shall be writing, I think, unless the thing surfaces again, which at this point it is still possibly threatening to do. It has, after all, been occupying me for more than a decade, which is quite long enough, although to be fair the little serious political thinking I've done in my life [up to that point: Ed.] has been due to Blake's 7, and is embodied herein in Ballantine's spiel towards the end.
Anyway. If Book One didn't put you off, here's Book Two.
Blake: "Powers, is nothing sacred to you?"
Powers: (looking at him wide-eyed) "Oh yes. Very."
"You don't have to explain it to me, I only came along for the ride." --Astrid.
Links. Hairy, shambling, vicious beasts, wandering the surface of a dying world. Not what we once were, but what we will become. Mindless subhumans, they attack anything living and non-link with insensate fury, and they take a lot of killing.
They also take a lot of running from.
The General slid down the ladder, ducked into the alcove behind it, and spent some time straightening his uniform and composing himself, while the link battered vainly at the hatch. Then he strolled, only a little furtively, down the passage, turned right and opened the door to his room.
"Well, that was a pleasant nap," he said, closing it loudly. "Quute?"
"Sir?" The one-eyed Colonel emerged from the duty room. "I thought you were going topside for a stroll."
"Changed my mind, Quute," the General said offhandedly. "Bit chilly up there. Took a nap instead. Everything all right?"
"There was a bit of a stir among the links a while ago, sir, but otherwise everything seems calm."
"Links!" The General snorted. "Undisciplined ragamuffins. I think you overestimate them, Quute." He straightened his shoulders. "Your link doesn't stand a chance against your trained fighting man."
"Whatever you say, sir," Quute agreed. "If you'll excuse me..."
He returned to the duty room. The General wandered back to his room, brushing the mud off his shoulder.
"Links," he muttered. "Damn stupid name for a damn stupid animal."
* * *
"And don't forget," Blake said urgently, "pass it on. Spread it any way you can. In food, in water, in the air...and whenever a ship goes offworld, make sure some of this goes with it. It's the only chance we have to get a real rebellion started again. You've seen what it can do...now give it its chance to work."
"We'll do all that you've said," Sorvik assured him. "Now you must leave." She clasped his hand warmly. "You have given us hope again, Blake."
"It's little enough," Blake said. "But we'll be back, never fear." He lifted his bracelet and spoke into it. "Bring me up, Vila."
"I'm getting better, aren't I?" Vila said brightly as he materialised aboard the Liberator.
"That was very good, Vila," Blake said warmly. Indeed, Vila was getting better, in all respects; his colour was back, his figure had filled out again, and his drinking had tapered off to a—for Vila—considerable degree.
Blake paused at the door. "Well, are you going to sit there admiring your handiwork all day?"
Vila scrambled to his feet and followed Blake.
"That's the last, isn't it?" he said.
"The last dropping-off point, yes," Blake said. "From now on the antigen to Pylene-50 will be spreading throughout the Federation. The Pacification Programme is dead."
"And good riddance. I never liked the idea of it anyway. And something else I like about this job," Vila rattled on as they entered the flight deck. "We didn't get shot at. It's nice not being shot at. Just for a change, you understand..."
"I thought that aspect would please you," Blake said. "Jenna, take us out of orbit. Zen, plot a course for Terminal, speed standard by six."
"By six?" Jenna looked at him. "That's a bit fast, isn't it?"
"It's a long way," Blake said. "Zen?"
+COURSE IS LAID IN. ACCEPTANCE CONFIRMATION IS NOW REQUIRED+
"Shall we go?" Blake said.
And then, he thought, maybe this damnable itching in my head will go away.
* * *
Supreme Commander Taj of the Terran Federation balanced precariously on her desk, shifted the wastepaper basket on to her head and reached for the light fitting.
The door opened and Base Commander Kimball marched in.
"Supreme Commander--" Her eyes widened. "What are you doing?"
"Hanging mistletoe," Taj said in a strained voice. "Whoops--"
Kimball dashed forward just in time to catch Taj's considerable bulk as it tipped off the edge of the desk. "Oof," Taj said. "It's all right, you can put me down now. Would you do it for me?" She handed Kimball a sprig of plant material sprinkled with tiny, waxy white berries. "Just hook it over the light fitting, there's a love."
Kimball, slightly dazed, found herself climbing on to the low desk. "What does it do, Supreme Commander?"
"It grows on oak trees, or at least it used to, I had to culture this in my garden at home. I'm working on an oak tree, but it doesn't seem to be growing very fast. Of course I don't know how fast it should grow, I've never seen one growing before, but--"
"No--" Kimball managed to hook the sprig over the light fitting, righted herself with some difficulty and stepped down. "I meant what will it do in here."
"Well, it'll look nice, for one thing, and people can kiss each other under it." Kimball stepped smartly away from the area. "Only if they want to, I mean," Taj added hastily. "It's an ancient custom around this time of the year. I've got some holly as well, for the corners."
"Excuse me asking, Supreme Commander," Kimball said, " but what's all this in aid of?"
Taj, in the act of removing some more plant material from the basket, yelped and dropped it. "It bit me," she said, sucking her finger. "It's got sharp bits." She made a grab. "Got you, you beast. Sorry, Kimball, what did you say?"
Kimball patiently repeated her question.
"Oh," Taj said, "I'm getting ready for a Christmas party."
* * *
She was there. She was definitely there. She wasn't going away or turning into anybody else or dying or anything. Someday he would kill her. He needed to kill her, himself. But in the meantime...until the pain went away and surety returned...it was enough to know that she was there.
"Here as ever. You wish a progress report?"
The voices buzzed around the periphery of his awareness. If he started listening they would only confuse him.
"If you wouldn't mind."
"I'll give you a clue. I said the same thing half an hour ago."
"'No change,' right?"
"You're improving. Fear not, I shall advise you the moment one of them does anything remotely original."
"I'd be grateful. Let us know if you need anything."
"Five million credits, a fast ship and something interesting to watch."
"We're working on it. Blake out."
His eyes were hurting. He risked a small blink, and for a split second the universe wavered on the brink of chaos. Then his vision returned, blurred momentarily, then steadied.
All was well. She was still there.
Or at least, most of her was. The rest was somewhere else, somewhere dark, quiet and safe. Bad things had happened to her out there, and she had run away.
When she came out again, when she was all back together...then he could kill her. When he had conquered the pain. When he knew what was real and what was not.
In the meantime it was enough to look at her, and know that she was there. All his friends had betrayed him; only his enemy, only she, remained faithful to the last.
He would match that faith. And reward it, when the time came, as his own faith had been rewarded.
* * *
The Colonel turned wearily in the duty room doorway. "Section Leader?"
The Section Leader stood to attention as if she had been born that way. "Sir, I must respectfully inform you that you have neglected to initial the duty log, as per Regulations, to mark the point at which I relieved you."
The Colonel strode impatiently back. "Yes I did, Section Leader. There."
"If the Colonel will pardon me, I must point out that the initials are not precisely correctly placed, and are therefore open to misinterpretation."
"Damn it, girl," Quute exploded, "don't you ever give up?"
"I beg the Colonel's pardon?"
"Oh, to hell with it." Quute scrubbed out the initials, initialled the scrubbing-out, made the requisite marks on the next page to indicate a carrying-forward, initialled those, initialled the time of relief with geometrical precision, and initialled the initialling. "Satisfied?"
"Sir, I have no further comments to make."
"Good." Quute, thoroughly out of humour, stamped out of the room. Arlen watched him go, a small tight contemptuous smile on her pinched face.
"That girl has got to go," Quute snarled as he entered the officers' mess.
"Who, the Section Leader?" The General looked up from his volume of Ahern.
"No, sir, the third blonde from the left in the exotic dance troupe."
"Careful, Quute," the General said, in the tone that he used to let Quute see the iron hand beneath the velvet glove. Quute thought it sounded like a little boy threatening to hold his breath. "What's the problem?"
"She is the problem!" Quute forced himself to be calm. "She is working off her grudge against Federation justice on us. She is driving me mad with her insistence on absolute adherence to regulations."
"I can't say I'd noticed," the General said placidly. "In any case, rules are there for a reason, Quute. You can't have too much discipline, now can you?"
"Sir," Quute tried once more, "does it really matter, on this godforsaken artificial rock in the middle of nowhere, if the initials in the time-of-relief box are a few millimetres off place?"
The General put his book down. "Quute, did I ever tell you about the campaign on Squibb's World?" he said. "Now that was a classic case. Seems that one of the garrison commanders, in his quarterly report, left a digit off..."
Deep inside Colonel Quute, a tiny replica of himself grabbed a tiny replica of the General, ripped its head off, threw the body down and danced on it, and then grabbed a tiny replica of a large axe and went looking for a tiny replica of Arlen. In the macrocosmic world, the Colonel merely allowed his shoulders to droop a little.
He had never believed in Hell before this.
* * *
"How do they feel?"
"What do you mean, Vila?" Gan said patiently.
"I mean--well, how do they feel?"
"They feel like my legs, Vila." Gan shook one to prove it. "They don't come off. See?"
"So--they just grew new legs on to your body?"
"Well, not just that. They had to make extensive scans and tests of my cell structure, and then they had to remove the bionic linkages that Small put on the stumps, and then they grew the legs on to me, and then I had to learn how to walk and so on all over again." Gan shook his head. "That was the longest job."
Vila nodded. "Must have been." Then he frowned. "Funny, though. To hear Blake talk about it, you'd only think he'd been down there a couple of days."
"That's what he thinks. He says he only slept once the whole time. I think they just kept him under to stop him causing trouble."
"Possibly," Vila agreed. "What with Avon running off with the ship and everything. Knowing Blake, he'd have been half mad with worry. And if they'd told him..."
"He'd have been mad as a hornet."
"What's a hornet?"
"Big wasp," Gan said.
"Never mind," Gan said hastily. "I keep forgetting you're a dome-dweller."
"Oh," Vila said, "one of those things." He continued to frown into empty space. "Still doesn't explain why they did it."
"Oh, for gods' sake, Vila," Gan said explosively, "does it matter?"
"Not on its own, maybe," Vila said. "But there are an awful lot of puzzling things about the last few months, things that don't add up. If I could only see the whole picture...work out how the pieces go together..."
"Ah well, that's where we're different, you and I," Gan said as he heaved himself up. "Me, I'm just glad to be a piece in a puzzle again, and not a piece lost under a sofa somewhere. As long as I know where I fit, I'm not worried."
"Like why are we going to Terminal again?" Vila had not been listening. "Avon took us there once and it wrecked the ship and lost us Cally. What does Blake think he can do that Avon didn't?"
"Take the ship round the enzyme cloud this time, maybe?"
"Knowing Blake," Vila said darkly, "he'll probably take us through it twice."
* * *
"Bercol? Rontane? Do you think you could possibly spare me a moment, dears?"
The two men thus addressed turned as one and entered Taj's office. The walls were hung with Indian tapestries, the corners were occupied by plants in pots, the furniture was designed for squatting crosslegged rather than sitting, and now there were bits of plant hanging from the lights. In this exotic scene, Bercol's rumpled conservatism and Rontane's serpentine neatness seemed as out of place as the office itself in the larger setting of Space Command Headquarters.
"Now then, dears, do sit down and I'll get you some tea. It's three sugars, isn't it, Rontane? And Bercol, you prefer yours black. So do I. I must say I do think we all get on so much better now that I've converted you to tea." Taj bustled around, fetching cups and other impedimenta, while her guests craned their necks to follow her every move, just in case. They knew Taj, only too well.
"Supreme Commander," Rontane said.
Taj smiled sweetly at him. "Now I did warn you once before about flustering me, didn't I, love? Just let me get this sorted out and I'll deal with you in two shakes of a lamb's tail."
When all had been arranged to Taj's satisfaction, she settled down behind her desk and sighed contentedly. "Now then, dears, to business. I gather there's a secret meeting of the High Council in a few days' time."
Bercol coughed suddenly and violently, while Rontane merely winced and said, "I suppose that your source for this information is...privileged?"
"Oh yes," Taj said, "ever so. So what I'd like you to do for me is be my eyes and ears. There's some silly rule that stops me going, and I don't know where the meeting is to be held. Of course you do, because you're going to be there anyway. But rather than torture you for the information and then have to put a false beard on and talk in a funny voice, I thought if I let you keep the location a secret and just asked you to tell me what went on it would be so much easier for all of us. Don't you think so?"
"You are most kind, Supreme Commander," Rontane said ironically.
"Thank you, Rontane," Taj said. "Now I really must be getting on. Oh, and by the way," she added, "do either of you know what a 'superstar' might be?"
Bercol and Rontane sought vainly for words.
"Well, if you do find out, be sure and tell me," Taj said. "Now go on, shoo."
* * *
Arlen lay on the grass-covered hillside, her ears full of the hateful double drumbeat that seemed to be everywhere on Terminal except in the soundproofed base. She was link-watching.
About half a dozen of the hairy brutes had converged on the small hummock she was observing. There had been the usual chest-beating, fang-gnashing, and a truly horrendous cacophony of screams, grunts and howls. Then the links had stood in silence for a moment as if puzzled, then formed a ragged line and trooped down a small gully into an old culvert which Arlen assumed was part of the internal workings of the place.
That had been hours ago. Arlen was beginning to wonder if they would ever come out.
About half an hour later it occurred to her that the culvert might come out somewhere else. But by then it was raining quite hard, and Arlen trudged back to base feeling extremely ill-used.
The officers would suffer for this.
"Why are we on opposite sides?"--Vinni.
It was no good. However long he sat here and looked at the bottle, he knew he wasn't going to take that second drink. Or the third. Or any of them.
"Damn Blake, anyway," Vila muttered.
It had been so easy, when Avon had been going mad and everything had been going wrong and nothing anyone could do could save the situation. The bottle had been the obvious solution, the only escape. Now things were starting to go right again, the questions weren't too big to face any more.
Which meant, he supposed, that he had to face them.
It was about midnight, as they reckoned it on the Liberator. Blake was on watch. Everyone else was supposed to be asleep. Except he couldn't sleep. He looked longingly over at the bed. It would be so nice to crawl in, pull the covers up over him and let himself sink into...into...
He jumped up and slapped the door control. It opened, and Vila stamped out into the dim-lit corridor.
By the time he had visited two sub-control areas, five cargo holds and the life capsule bays, his anger had faded, leaving a weary resentment in its wake. Why did there have to be awkward questions? Why wouldn't they leave him alone?
"I'm supposed to be the dim one, remember?" he apostrophised the heavens.
Later, in his room, he woke thinking he had dreamed the answer to it all, and tried to write it down; but in the morning he found nothing on the pad except "What I don't know about Avon is what's wrong with him."
* * *
ALL COMMANDERS SECURITY XXXXX EX SUCOMTERRA RAVENDRA T 17205 MREF XX362 MESSAGE BEGINS++++++++++++++
STOP ALL THIS NONSENSE AT ONCE STOP FAILURE PYLENE-50 NO EXCUSE FOR LAYING ABOUT YOU WITH POPGUNS STOP REMIND YOU YOUR JOB PROTECTING PEOPLE STOP NO PEOPLE NO JOB STOP AND YOU NEED NOT EXPECT REFERENCE FROM ME STOP LOVE TAJ
"That should do it," Taj said with a smile. "I honestly wonder what I'm running sometimes." She pressed a button on her desk console.
"Oh good. Are my three little lambs ready yet?"
"They're here, Supreme Commander."
"And the mint sauce?"
"Send them in, love, if you would."
Taj folded her hands across her stomach and waited. After a few moments the door opened and Commanders Sharl Paternoster, Tol Safran and Dione trooped in. Taj greeted them with a broad smile.
"Well, dears, I must say it is nice to see you again. I was getting quite apprehensive. It was a tough assignment, after all."
Paternoster and Dione exchanged glances. Safran seemed immune to irony.
"I mean," Taj continued, "all the way to Terminal, or Gauda Prime, or Freedom City, without hitting anything, and then asking all those questions, and then all the way back...perhaps I should have found someone more highly qualified. I'm sure I could have laid hands on some four-year-old children."
"Supreme Commander--" Paternoster began.
"Sharl." Taj raised her eyebrows. "Yes?"
Safran overrode Paternoster. "We completed our specified assignments. There were unforeseen difficulties, but we overcame them. What's the problem?"
"The problem, dear," Taj said gently, "is that while you were being caught, yelling for reinforcements, ferrying generals hither and yon and getting all that negative information, Blake buzzed into Freedom City, buzzed out again and is still at large, possibly allied with That Woman and Travis (unlikely as it may sound) and causing all manner of havoc. But I believe Sharl was speaking." She turned back to Paternoster. "Sorry, dear. You were about to say?"
Paternoster hesitated. "No. I have no justification. If you will accept my apologies, Supreme Commander, and allow me to make whatever redress you deem necessary, I will try to restore your faith in me."
Taj stared. Then she abruptly looked away. "You've been very quiet, Dione."
"I've been very stupid, Supreme Commander," Dione said frankly. "All that I could say Commander Paternoster has already said."
Taj pulled a face. "I can never cope with people being honest and mature about things. You're forgiven, all of you. Even you, Safran."
Paternoster let out his breath. "Thank you, Supreme Commander."
"Thanks," Dione echoed.
Safran glowered uncertainly.
"Now, dears, do sit down and relax." Taj got up and busied herself about the samovar. "I'll be honest with you," she said over her shoulder. "I'm not exactly desolated to see the back of That Woman's awful Pacification Programme. It made my skin creep. However, order must be preserved and so on, so what I want you to do, my dears, is basically get out there and bring me Blake."
"In how many pieces?" Safran said.
"As many as it takes, dear." Taj went to fetch cups. "Now, you can have as many pursuit ships as you want, but I'm afraid we're all out of mutoids."
"Where was Blake last sighted?" Dione said.
"The co-ordinates are here somewhere. I'll sort them out in a moment." Taj came back to the desk and looked hard at them. "Now. Sure you can do it?"
There was a short silence.
"No, Supreme Commander," Paternoster said, "but we'll try."
Taj's face broke into a smile. "Thank you, Sharl. Now I believe you might be able to manage it."
* * *
Blake looked up as Carnell walked on to the flight deck.
"Nothing to report," the psychostrategist said, forestalling Blake's question with a gesture. "Gan is watching them. Superhuman as my powers of endurance are, even I need an occasional change. Is anything happening?"
"No, nothing out of the ordinary," Blake said. "As far as we know." He got up. "It's frightening how dependent we've been on Orac to keep us informed."
"What did it do, exactly?" Carnell said.
"It was capable of monitoring and controlling any computer or electronic system which contained a tarial cell, or in Zen's case something similar to a tarial cell. Apart from that, it embodied the personality of its creator, Ensor, to an infuriating degree, and it claimed to be able to predict the future."
"That's not as unlikely as you think. Did it have any range limitations?"
"Apparently not. It tended to use the nearest available system, but I know it was capable of contacting computers halfway across the galaxy. Why?"
"Simply that if you have access to data on that scale, and processing power of the sort needed to simulate a human personality, then there's nothing at all difficult about making quite detailed predictions--the more data, the higher the percentage of accuracy." Carnell paused. "I can see why you would miss it, though. I suppose there's no chance you could rebuild it?"
Blake stared. "Hardly. Even if Avon could do it, which he stated quite clearly he couldn't, we don't have the schematics. Besides, once was enough."
Carnell seemed lost in thought for a moment.
"What are you getting at?" Blake hazarded.
"I don't know." Carnell got up, dismissing the subject. "So, effectively, you don't know what's happening out there?"
"No. Zen can intercept transmissions if it knows the frequency, but we haven't been keeping up with the ciphers and such. Complacency. We had Orac."
"Or it had you. How long till we reach this Terminal?"
"Several days yet. Assuming nothing goes wrong." Blake got up in turn. "If you're willing to stay here, I think I need to stretch my legs a little."
Carnell made an easy gesture. "Take your time."
He watched Blake's retreating back, brow puckered in thought.
* * *
Avon lay on the treatment couch and watched Servalan.
He wasn't sure when it had ceased to be simply "him" and "her", when the names had resurfaced in the chaos of his mind like a spar to which a drowning soul could cling. It was a slender enough gain at that: the world still seemed a terrifying, random place, a-teem with dangers and uncertainties. But the pain was less. He could cope with the pain. He was Avon, Kerr Avon, and she was Servalan, his nemesis, his fate. She had been hurt, and not by him, and until she had recovered from that hurt there could be no further progress between them.
She shivered, twitched, cried out frequently, little animal cries. She had been broken, just as the Federation had tried to break him, and all the others. He had healed: they had healed: in time, she would heal. There was nothing he could do, either to help or to harm, until then.
Slowly, as the conclusion formed in his mind, he closed his eyes.
* * *
Mac Kaskel, Director of the Terran Climate Control Centre, looked up from the printout before him. He'd read it six times and it was still gobbledegook. "What is it, Ketli?"
"The Supreme Commander to see you, sir." If it was a joke, Ketli obviously didn't find it much funnier than Kaskel himself did. He sounded genuinely distressed: and there was someone behind him, a little round woman in some kind of gaudy drapery, bustling past him.
"Director Kaskel, you must be. Hello. I'm Taj. So sorry I forgot to acknowledge your kind invitation and fix a date promptly, but I much prefer these things to be spontaneous, don't you? That way I get to see what really goes on in a place like this, not a lot of mechanical dummies giving demonstrations of how to put a storm in a teacup and so on. Speaking of tea, do you have any? Not that I'm desperate just at the moment, but looking at things always makes me thirsty, and if you don't have the facilities I can have my samovar wheeled over while you're showing me around..."
Invitation? Had there been one? Oh lord, there might have been: protocol and all that, new incumbent, courtesy between branches of government, issued by an underling, received by an underling and intended to be quietly forgotten; but here was the wretched woman, ensconced in his guest chair and rattling away nineteen to the dozen about the sovereign properties of--tea, was it?--and if he didn't make some kind of effort soon he would be swept away on the tide of words.
"Supreme Commander--" he began.
"Oh, good, I was beginning to think you were asleep." Taj grinned wickedly and peered at him with huge, worried blue eyes. "You know, you do look fearfully peaky. Are you sleeping well? They do say that a bad conscience can ruin your sleep, and I suppose having to make it rain on people could give one guilt feelings, although of course conversely you do bring sunshine into a lot of lives, don't you?" She paused for breath, and Kaskel leapt into the conversational breach.
"Supreme Commander, I'm afraid we're in no state to receive an official visit at the moment. Nor are we likely to be." He took a deep breath and tried to marshal his thoughts. "The thing is--"
"Well, that's a terrible shame, because here I am, you see." Taj leaned forward and patted his arm. "Never mind, dear. Just show me what you can and I'll go away happy."
There was no help for it. Kaskel buzzed for Ketli and told him to mind the shop for a while, rose from his desk and escorted Taj to the door.
"Do you ever get any call for snow?" Taj said casually.
* * *
"Jenna. You startled me."
Jenna emerged from the shadows. "I was going to the flight deck. Who's on watch?"
"You trust him?"
Blake nodded, falling into step beside her.
Jenna appeared to come to a decision. "Blake, I've been talking to Gan."
"About what happened on the Cloneworld."
"The time differential," Blake said. "Look, Jenna, I--"
"No," Jenna said, "not just that." She looked down at her feet. "Gan told me --told me what you said you saw."
Blake groaned inwardly.
"Do you--do you still think you saw it, Blake?"
"What exactly has Gan told you?"
"He said..." Jenna took a deep breath. "He said you saw a creature, not humanoid, with a big bushy tail and one of our teleport bracelets. And he said you thought it communicated with you. By telepathy."
"Yes," Blake said, "I did see it. And it did...communicate."
"Well," Jenna said, "then I think we should divert to Spaceworld."
"Spaceworld?" Blake repeated. "Why?"
"Because this creature may be a clue to lead us to the builders of Liberator. I mean, I don't know about you, but I haven't given a teleport bracelet to any furry aliens, and neither have the others."
"But why go there first?"
"Because it's closer. I asked Zen. We can get there and back and only add four days to our journey time."
"No." The very thought of delay awoke an instant response in Blake. "After we've been to Terminal, maybe."
"What d'you mean, maybe?" Jenna was up in arms. "We're going haring off across the galaxy, into an area we know is potentially lethal to the ship, to satisfy a--a gut feeling, no, not even that strong, a hunch you have about Cally. I suggest we make a much shorter journey to follow up a solid clue to the origin of the ship, and you dig your heels in. This isn't fair, Blake."
"I wasn't aware I was noted for fairness." It sounded lame even to Blake, but he could not explain to Jenna the gnawing urgency that was driving him.
They had arrived at the flight deck once again. Carnell looked round.
"It doesn't make sense doing it this way round," Jenna insisted.
"Nevertheless, this is the way we're going to do it."
"What's the fight about?" Carnell wanted to know.
"There is no fight--" Blake began, but Jenna overrode him.
"I think we should make a four-day detour to investigate something that may be of real help to us. Blake wants to go ghost chasing instead."
"Ghost chasing!" Blake exploded.
+INFORMATION,+ Zen said. +A MUTUALLY ACCEPTABLE SOLUTION IS AVAILABLE.+
Carnell glanced up at the fascia sharply.
"What do you mean, Zen?" Jenna said.
+CONDITIONS ARE NOW SUITABLE FOR THE PROVISION OF AN INDEPENDENT FLIGHT MODULE. THE PROCESS WILL TAKE APPROXIMATELY ELEVEN HOURS, DURING WHICH TIME SHIP SYSTEMS WILL OPERATE AT LESS THAN FULL EFFICIENCY. CONFIRMATION IS REQUIRED TO INITIATE THE PROCESS+
"An independent flight module? Zen, what do you mean?"
+AN INDEPENDENT FLIGHT MODULE IS A MODULE CAPABLE OF INDEPENDENT FLIGHT+
"That makes it all clear," Blake muttered. "Zen, how can this be done?"
+THAT INFORMATION IS NOT AVAILABLE+
"What d'you mean, not available?"
+THAT INFORMATION IS--+
"Forget it, Zen," Blake said wearily.
"Well," Carnell said, "on the face of it, it would seem to mean that one of you can go one way and the other the other. An ideal solution, no?"
"What do you think, Blake?" Jenna said.
Blake forced himself to calm. "Eleven hours... Zen, sensors on maximum range. Full scan."
+SCANNING...NO VESSELS WITHIN SENSOR RANGE+
"We're well out of the populated sectors," Jenna put in. "If anyone was tracking us they would have approached before now."
Blake took a breath. "Yes. All right. Do it, Zen."
"I'm sorry," Jenna said. "It's just that I still find it hard to believe that Cally could be alive and not have tried to reach us."
"She may not have the choice," Blake said wearily. "Look, I'm not going to debate it all over again. It's--"
The lights went dim, flickered, then steadied at a lower level. The omnipresent hum of the control systems wavered.
"Operating at less than full efficiency, one presumes," Carnell remarked.
"But still operating, I hope," Blake said, crossing to one of the flight stations. "Mmm. Seems to be mostly auto-repair and computers tied up. Drive and weaponry are all right, sensors and life-support still operating. Zen?"
+ALL SYSTEMS ARE FUNCTIONING+
"Sounds all right. A little short, maybe."
Jenna probed her empathic awareness of Zen. All seemed well.
"So," Blake cut in on her reverie, "you'll get your wish. Will you object if I take the Liberator on to Terminal?"
"As long as you keep in touch." Jenna kept her voice light. "And don't drive through any strange clouds."
"If talking got it done, you'd be a real killer."--Kostos.
From the transcript [unedited] of the meeting of the High Council of the Terran Federation held on the day in question, reference number 597032/hctf/UT:
The Secretary called the meeting to order at 10:54 TNT. Apologies were received from Councillors Tervil, Joliot and Orr. The Secretary once again requested information on the whereabouts of Councillor Zigo, without success. The Secretary then called the meeting to order again.
The Secretary. Ladies and Gentlemen, there is no need for this excessive apprehension. I have no doubt that Supreme Commander Taj has the best interests of the Federation at heart. That being the case, it seems hardly likely that she would visit death on its rulers. Especially in such blatant form.
Cllr. Fisher. The Secretary displays a refreshing naïveté. It is not so long since Space Command took blatant enough steps against this Council. The Secretary may well recall--
The Secretary. My recall is perfect, thank you.
Cllr. Shirinin. The woman is--
Cllr. Wathco. Calmly, Shirinin, calmly.
Cllr. Shirinin. The Supreme Commander is--her conduct has always been--eccentric. If my memory serves, those of the Council who advocated her election--
Cllr. Bercol. Appointment.
Cllr. Shirinin. (continuing)--used that very word. 'Harmless eccentric' was, I believe, the full phrase.
Cllr. Fisher. Harmless!
The Secretary. Cllr. Fisher, Cllr. Shirinin, Councillors. It may have escaped your notice that some time ago I called this meeting to order. Since then we seem to have drifted, all unknowing, into the first order of business, leaving procedure behind on the jetty. Might we send a boat back for it?
The Councillors concurred. Minutes of the previous meeting taken as read.
The Secretary. (continuing) In that case, I call upon Cllr. Wathco to assume the chair for this meeting, and beg his leave to introduce the first order of business, which was mooted by Cllr. Govan, I believe.
Cllr. Wathco. Granted, but I should first of all like to place on the record the reason for the somewhat disorganised conduct of this meeting hitherto, which is that in front of each Councillor's seat has been placed, presumably by agents of the Supreme Commander, a large box wrapped in silver foil and bound with a brightly coloured ribbon. We have no idea as to the contents of these boxes, nor as to their purpose, unless that purpose simply be to induce alarm and despondency, in which case they have palpably succeeded. Proceed, Cllr. Govan.
Cllr. Govan. Mr. Chairman, Councillors: As you know, I opposed the Supreme Commander's appointment--
The Secretary. Election.
Cllr. Govan. (continuing)--because I felt, as I still feel, that originality, creativity and intelligence such as the current incumbent displays are the very qualities which have bedevilled this Administration since time immemorial. ('Hear, hear.') Government is a job, like any other job, and demands nothing more than diligence, patience and the ability either to take orders without question, or to issue them without hesitancy. We made the same mistake with Servalan, and it cost us a bloody insurrection. I myself was privileged to serve on that High Council, and I well remember Servalan's assumption of the Presidency, the ruthlessness with which she hunted down those Councillors who were unable to find refuge, the indecent haste with which she gathered to herself all the perquisites and attendant benefits of absolute power. ('Shame.') This is the woman whose forces, even as they died in their thousands on Gedden, hailed her as their Supreme Empress! ('Shame, shame!') Independent thinking is most praiseworthy in academics, scientists and philosophers, whose task it is to push back frontiers and break down barriers--within their chosen fields. But--and this must be emphasised--no other field of human endeavour makes this demand. Government least of all--for it is precisely the concern of government to restrict and confine, to divide and contain, and to maintain that most abused of blessings, the status quo. (Cheers.)
Thus, for government, one requires docile, well-trained minds, minds that are content to follow the beaten track in its eternal circle. Administrators. Politicians. Nonentities. Like myself, and like each one of you here today. And that is why I opposed--let us, for the benefit of Councillor Bercol and Secretary Rontane, call it the accession (laughter)--of Servalan, and that of Taj, and why, Mr. Chairman, Councillors, I now propose that definite action be decided upon with regard to the latter. This latest enormity only goes to reinforce my point. Christmas presents indeed!
Cllr. Shirinin. (to Cllr. Wathco) What is Christmas anyway?
The Secretary. The Councillor will please address the chair.
Cllr. Shirinin. I was. I mean-- My apologies, Mr. Chairman.
The Chairman. Apology noted. I have done some researches, and I shall be happy to enlighten the Councillor after the meeting.
The Secretary. Cllr. Govan, the floor remains with you.
Cllr. Govan. What? Oh. I, er, therefore move that the meeting consider immediately what action is to be taken regarding the Supreme Commander, and that that action be initiated with all possible despatch.
The Secretary. Does the motion have an opponent? If not--
The Chairman. The chair recognises Cllr. Kerovian.
Cllr. Kerovian. Mr. Chairman, Councillors: Space Command has always enjoyed a special status in the Administration. True, it has not always been content with that status. As in ancient times the balance of power often lay with the army, so today it lies with Space Command, who have the defence of the Federation as only part of their brief. Consider, Councillors, the Andromedan invasion. It was in that very day that Servalan usurped the power of the President and the then High Council--yet her first thought was to defend the Federation, defend us from a ruthless alien horde--
Cllr. Fisher. Loosed on us by her cast-off tool, Travis--
The Secretary. I trust Councillor Fisher will not require a further admonition. Cllr. Kerovian, the floor is with you.
Cllr. Kerovian. And defend us she did. Brilliantly, valiantly, and, indeed, personally. True, the losses were staggering; but how much more grievous might they have been had our defence been conducted by one of Cllr. Govan's plodding bureaucrats! Councillors, it is my considered opinion, and one I feel you will all share, that these qualities of thought that Govan so decries are vital in the head of our defence. They are, I grant you, dangerous qualities, just as the guns our troopers wield are dangerous. All the more reason to refrain from any action which might antagonise their possessor, and impel her to more overtly inimical actions against us than this. I therefore oppose Cllr. Govan's motion.
Cllr. Fisher. (indistinguishable)
The Chairman. The Chair recognises Cllr. Fisher.
Cllr. Fisher. Councillors! Er, and Mr. Chairman. Are we then to cower in fear while this woman makes game of us? Are we to wield a power we cannot control, and merely hope that it will not some day be wielding us? Are we to rule in name only? This is no Servalan, this obese, superficial dabbler in ancient cultures and banned religions. She will yield to pressure, and her ambition--if indeed she has any ambition other than to steep herself ever deeper in the trappings of dead civilisations--will be curbed by fear. I say: Apply that pressure! Inspire that fear! Show this Taj that the Federation has one ruling body, and one only, and if she chooses to set herself against us she may expect no mercy!
Cllr. Kerovian. Is the Councillor then proposing that we issue a formal declaration of war on Space Command? [Laughter].
Cllr. Fisher. Cllr. Kerovian is pleased to joke.
Cllr. Kerovian. Not at all. I merely hoped to bring home to Cllr.Fisher the ludicrous extremity of his own position. To set up between ourselves and Space Command the sort of adversarial situation he advocates is to invite disaster for all of us. We are supposed to be on the same side.
The Chairman. The Chair recognises Cllr. Lovat.
Cllr. Lovat. Mr. Chairman, Councillors, just for the record...the Supreme Commander may not be as soft a touch as Cllr. Fisher seems to believe. I trained with her, briefly, at the CEC. She is qualified in five forms of unarmed combat, and at her graduation she had fully mastered the techniques of pain control used by our soldiers in the Five Legions, before the Galactic War. [Sensation].
Cllr. Govan. You mean those techniques are still taught?!
Cllr. Lovat. In the CEC, yes.
Cllr. Fisher. Then why are our troops not using them in the field?
Cllr. Lovat. Because the war cost us the Five Legions and all our best men, Councillor, and because in order to get the numbers up we had to drop our standards. The course is available in the CEC as an elective. To my knowledge, Taj Ravendra is the only student to opt for it in the years since the war. She is now listed as the course tutor. And that is not the only bit of arcane knowledge she has put to most effective use.
Cllr. Fisher. But--
The Secretary. May we please have order? Or shall we simply dissolve the meeting here and now? [Pause.] It seems that whatever her abilities in other fields, the Supreme Commander is entirely conversant with the fine art of disrupting, even in absentia, the smooth and ordered progress of this Council. [Pause.] The floor was with Cllr. Lovat.
Cllr. Lovat. Thank you, I have made my point. Except perhaps to add that if Cllr. Fisher wants to test the relation between weakness and obesity, I can accommodate him with any weapon he cares to name, or none, at his convenience.
The Chairman. Really, Councillor, this is hardly the time or place for personal challenges. Do Cllr. Fisher or Cllr. Kerovian have anything relevant to add? [Pause.] Then I propose that the motion be now put.
The Secretary. The motion is: that the meeting consider immediately what action is to be taken regarding the Supreme Commander, and that that action be initiated with all possible despatch. Proposed by Cllr. Govan, seconded Cllr. Fisher, opposed Cllr. Kerovian. All in favour raise their right hand.
Ayes: Govan, Fisher, Shirinin, Ibn-Isak, Mostel, The Secretary.
Noes: Kerovian, Lovat, Cho-Huan, Bercol, Vastnesse.
The Secretary. The motion is carried by six votes to five. Proposals?
Cllr. Shirinin. It's ticking.
Cllr. Fisher. What?
Cllr. Shirinin. This box. It's ticking.
The meeting broke up in disorder.
* * *
"You fat-headed--! Why did you vote against me?"
Bercol searched for words. "I--I felt the Supreme Commander would want a balanced--erm--" He glared at Rontane. "It made no difference."
"Oh, you believe in giving value for blackmail, don't you?" Rontane sneered. "The point, my obtuse colleague, is not what she wants, but what we want. Only the High Council has the power to crush Taj, or had. Why do you think she performed that idiotic Christmas present trick? If we want to draw a free breath in this galaxy again Taj has to be destroyed." He looked Bercol up and down. "I assume that is what we want?"
"Well, if you want me to be honest, I can't remember when I last drew a free breath, as you so picturesquely put it," Bercol retorted. "I've been under your thumb so long it makes little difference to me whose thumb you're under."
"Then let me clarify the issues for you," Rontane snapped. "If I rise, you rise, not quite as far. If I fall, you fall, a good deal further. While Taj lives I cannot rise and I may at any moment fall. Get it?"
"Got it," Bercol said gloomily.
"Good." Rontane spared the Council Chamber a contemptuous glance. "If I could have counted on your support that idiot Shirinin would never have been able to create this panic. Now we shall have to wait until it subsides." He paced restlessly. "Servalan was easier to deal with."
"At least she fought fair."
"I assume you are speaking relatively." Rontane smiled coldly. "I admit, the subtlety of this one escaped me till far too late. Now--"
Six troopers pounded round the corner, each carrying two buckets, followed by a Section Leader with one bucket. They halted in front of Bercol and Rontane and marked time while the Section Leader came forward and saluted, also marking time. "Bomb disposal squad, sir, summoned by the High Council," he panted.
"Yes, all right, Section Leader, false alarm," Rontane said. "Stand down."
"Sir." The troopers about-faced and pounded off again, without breaking stride. Bercol gaped.
"But if--if one of those parcels explodes--"
"Bercol, do you honestly imagine that Taj would explode a bomb in a High Council meeting? If anything is going to explode in there I can promise you the only damage will be to someone's dignity. Personally, I think she is too subtle for that: it's probably a mechanical chrono or something." Rontane looked up and down the corridor. "Our first priority now is to get the meeting reconvened so that we can put our proposals for action to the worthy Councillors."
"I trust that this time you will back me up?"
Bercol nodded mutely.
"Good. Then you may have some of the credit when Taj is dead. Come along."
* * *
From the transcript [unedited] of the meeting of the High Council of the Terran Federation held on the day in question, reference number 597033/hctf/UT:
The Secretary. It is agreed, then, in principle, that the action to be taken in the matter of the Supreme Commander must, at all costs, entail her removal from office at very least. It is also agreed that for best effect the job must be done gradually and in such a way as to remove any suspicion of direct antagonism on our part.
A two-pronged approach has been suggested. First, Cllr. Ibn-Isak has proposed that we remove the Base Commander at Space Headquarters, who is known to be working closely with Taj, and substitute a psychostrategist who will work undercover in this guise to render Taj unfit for command. Second, Cllr. Lovat has proposed a scheme whereby, after a suitable pretextual occurrence to be arranged, all Taj's actions as Supreme Commander become subject to clearance by High Council. All departments will be advised to ignore any requests or commands she may issue until and unless we have countersigned them.
Cllr. Lovat. Well, it was hardly my idea--
The Secretary. The inspiration was yours, Councillor, I merely filled in the tiresome detail. Councillors, Mr. Chairman: I think I speak for all of us when I say that this action is of the highest urgency and must be put into effect immediately, and I so move. [Pause] A-hem.
Cllr. Bercol. Er, seconded.
The Secretary. All those in favour raise their right hands.
Ayes: The Secretary, Bercol, Fisher, Ibn-Isak, Govan, Lovat.
Noes: Cho-Huan, Hagen, Kerovian, Mostel, Shirinin, Vastnesse.
The Chairman employed his casting vote. The motion was carried. The Secretary proposed that due to the lateness of the hour all other business be tabled pending the next meeting, which motion was carried nem. con. The meeting was adjourned.
* * *
"Well?" Rontane demanded, when Bercol came to his door a little later.
"I think Shirinin suspected that you were pushing, and dug her heels in on principle," Bercol reported. "Mostel wanted to hold out for a simple assassination. He thinks Taj will see this coming and find some way round it."
"Does he indeed?" Rontane said. "Well, we shall see."
Bercol found himself looking at a closed door.
He spent the next hour or so wandering around the empty walkways, thinking hard. Then he turned his steps towards Space Headquarters.
"I have a report to make to the Supreme Commander," he said.
* * *
Rontane, alone in his spartan apartment, eyed the beribboned box warily. He had been the only one to take his present out of the Council Chamber. Cautiously, ever alert for traps, he untied the ribbon and removed the wrapping. There were, he noticed, numerous small round holes in the box thus revealed, and a faint sound had become audible, a sort of rapid, wet susurration.
He removed the lid.
A small, pointed face lifted questioningly and opened sleepy dark eyes. As Rontane stepped back in dismay the grey and white puppy yawned cavernously and put two huge front paws over the side of the box.
Rontane groaned wordlessly.
Soli e Duetti
"Is that the bonding ceremony?"--The Creature.
Jenna woke from a dream of stifling. The air was heavy and redolent of some musky perfume; the light was still dim. Her mind seemed fuzzy, her thoughts tended to wander off about their own affairs. She got up and wambled towards the door, only to find it had apparently moved. If I didn't know better I'd think I was drunk, she thought, feeling her way along the wall. Do I know better? Why do I feel so strange?
The flight deck, when she eventually found it, was empty, Zen's fascia dark: and yet there was a subdued radiance in the atmosphere. Jenna floated down the steps and approached the inactive russet hemisphere.
"What's happening, Zen?" The words came out slurred and uncertain. There was no response. Jenna took a deep breath of the musk-laden air and tried to concentrate, tried to focus on her link with Zen, but it was difficult to sort out which was who. She was inside Zen, after all. Or was Zen inside her? It was all very confusing.
She pivoted on one foot, headed for her flight station, found it and steadied herself on it. A blur of green resolved itself into a certain control plate. It looked...there was no other word...appetising.
Jenna raised one hand, hesitated for a moment, and pressed it down firmly on the plate.
* * *
He had been playing with his friends, Rebels and Troopers. He always had to be a trooper, because no-one else really wanted to, and it unbalanced the game if there were too many rebels. He didn't mind one way or the other, just as long as he got to play.
They had chased each other round and round the sunlit garden, yelling and laughing and making paragun noises, and eventually he and his single colleague had cornered the rebel leader against the garden wall. It was a stand-off in the traditional style.
"Very well," Jyle had said. "Kill me, then, if you must. You can't kill the will of the people."
It had been a straightforward invitation, and it was the first time in his experience that the troopers had won. Usually it was the other way round, and he tried to escape ad got beaten up. So he had jabbed Jyle in the ribs with his paragun stick and made the noise, and then had been hurt and surprised when Jyle had failed to fall over.
"That's not fair. You're supposed to let me go if I surrender," Jyle had said. "That's honour."
"Why should I be stupid just because you are?" he had said, genuinely puzzled.
After they'd beaten him up, slightly more enthusiastically than usual, he'd gone to his mother, not for comfort, but for information.
"Honour," his mother had said, "is laying down your life for your friends, or for your cause. It is enduring unutterable tortures and not flinching. It is staring proudly in the face of doom." There was a lot more in the same vein. His mother tended to go on about things.
"Oh," he'd said. "Then it is the same as stupidity."
And then she'd been cross. And he still didn't understand why.
* * *
"Kimball, dear, can you spare me a moment?"
"Certainly, Supreme Commander."
Kimball arrived a few minutes later to find Taj bent over her desk, tongue stuck out in concentration, performing some complex and painstaking operation with rectangles of card, a pot of paste and hundreds of tiny pieces of coloured paper.
"Don't breathe too hard," she said in a strained voice. "Sorry, Kimball, I'll be with you in two shakes of a lamb's tail. Just...got to...get...this... one...finished." She held up the result of her labours. It depicted a red and brown ovoid with a black button eye and a green beak. "What does that look like to you?"
Kimball had been doing some research of her own. "A robin, Supreme Commander?" she guessed.
Taj beamed. "You are clever, Kimball. It's going to be so difficult without you."
"Without me?" Kimball stared in blank dismay. "Supreme Commander, what have I done?"
"Nothing, dear. I need you to take charge of a little field operation for me, that's all."
"But--but Supreme Commander, I haven't had any field experience since I graduated--"
Taj's face softened. "Kimball, my dear, come here and sit down." Kimball sank on to a cushion, her face a picture of shock. Taj took her hand and squeezed it. "Now listen, you silly goose. I'm not angry with you, and I'm not throwing you to the wolves. In fact I think I'm saving you from them. Listen, dear, I'll need you back by Christmas, but in the meantime there's a little job I want done, and I'd like you to do it." She bent closer, conspiratorially. "In fact I think I need you, Kimball. Those wolves are waiting outside, and the fire's getting low. Will you do this for me?"
Kimball relaxed thankfully. Taj still trusted her. "Of course I will, Supreme Commander," she said.
"I knew I could rely on you, dear," Taj said. "I'll have your orders for you in the morning." She held up a piece of paper. "In the meantime, you might just send this to Rontane via the coded channel."
Kimball scanned it. "I don't understand, Supreme Commander," she said, "but I guess you know what you're doing."
"Do I?" Taj smiled. "That's a relief."
* * *
FEDERATN SECHICNCL 11X1X EX SUCOMTERRA RAVENDRA T17205 MREF XX378 MESSAGE BEGINS++++++++++++++
WHAT A TURN UP STOP COULD HAVE KNOCKED ME DOWN WITH A PLASMA BOLT STOP IMAGINE KIMBALL PINCHING SPOONS STOP REALLY IN SOUP NOW STOP NEED ADVICE FROM MY ELDERS AND WETTERS STOP PLEASE SUGGEST NEW HQ BASE COMMANDER AS SOON AS POSS STOP PLACE MYSELF ENTIRELY IN YOUR HANDS STOP LOVE TAJ
"What is she doing now?" Rontane wondered aloud. At his feet the puppy happily tucked into something the Food people had told him was good for dogs.
Bercol, sitting across the desk, craned unobtrusively to watch it with a mixture of fascination and apprehension. Gradually he became aware that Rontane was expecting an answer. "Erm, well," he said, "perhaps Kimball did commit some sort of indiscretion. I mean, it does happen--"
"Bercol, can you really be that stupid?" Rontane, struck by a thought, peered at him. "Or is it--?
Bercol struggled to look as though he could be that stupid and a lot more besides. He must have succeeded, for after a heart-stopping moment Rontane relaxed. "I must stop overestimating people. No, Bercol, this is some stratagem of Taj's. Maybe she wants to divert our attention from her own activities by sending her lackey out on some wild goose chase." He smiled. "If that is her hope, she is doomed to disappointment. We may as well take the gift she has offered us and go ahead with the plan. Notify Councillor Ibn-Isak and the College of Psychostrategists." He paused. "Well, move, Bercol."
"Oh. Sorry. Of course." Bercol got up and left. Rontane turned his attention to the work on his desk. His right hand continued absently stroking the puppy.
* * *
They were looking for her again, but they would never find her. They always looked down, always looked for her on the ground or under their feet, but she was safely hidden where they would never think of looking, where she could do what she liked and no-one could catch her: beyond the scope of their little minds, in the endless reaches of emptiness, the great beyond, the big sky.
She had peopled that infinity with the creations of her imagination, and ruled over them wisely and justly and above all beautifully. True, she had had to be firm, sometimes even harsh, with those who rebelled against her rule; but in all fairness, they had no right to make it harder for her. They were only spoiling it for the others, really.
Now she was an exile, far from her palace and her court, forced to hide among the quintillions of people scattered across the starfield. Forced to hide from her enemies. Forced to hide...
Why couldn't they see the truth?
* * *
"Commander, we have reached the specified co-ordinates."
"Excellent, Lacie." Paternoster rose from his command seat and moved forward. "What world is that yonder?"
"There is no information, Commander," Lacie said impassively. "The surface is highly radioactive. No life forms registering, though the readings are confused by the background radiation."
"Hmm. Strange place for Blake to visit. Ah well, never mind. Record the relevant data, dear girl, and send it to our liege lady. Can you find any sort of trail, such as might be left by the Liberator's drive?"
"Scanning...There is a trail, Commander."
"Splendid. Pass the information to Tillie, my dear. Tillie, plot a course and lay it in, and Elsie, be so good as to execute the same."
"Let us seek it with thimbles and seek it with care, let us hunt it with forks and hope. Lacie, communicate our intentions to Commanders Safran and Dione."
* * *
"Nice place you have here," Irramani said, relaxing into one of Taj's deep floor cushions. "Who does the cleaning?"
"I do it myself," Taj said, "in odd moments. It keeps me busy. Some more tea?"
"Not just yet, thanks." Irramani sighed luxuriously. "You know, I've met a lot of Alphas--well, seen a lot of Alphas. But you're the strangest of the lot."
"I try to be. But why in particular?"
"The way you talk to me. Alphas just don't talk to Deltas."
"Yes, well, I've always felt there was something slightly ridiculous about that. Like families not speaking to each other because someone wore the wrong hat at a wedding. Besides, Irramani," Taj placed her hand on her heart and sighed, "you're so necessary to me."
"I'm necessary to everyone, me. Everyone who doesn't want to drown in their own garbage." Irramani laughed and raised her cup.
"Do you know anyone in the College of Psychostrategists?"
Irramani shook her head. "Wouldn't let any of my boys go in there. They can read your mind, you know."
"Well," Taj said, "not quite. In fact they've rather gone downhill since they decided it was a science and not an art. Oh well. How about the Climate Control Centre?"
"Umm. Yes. My cousin Tanna works in the canteen."
"Good." Taj blinked. "How many cousins have you got?"
"How many do you need?" Irramani said with an evil grin.
* * *
Immensity, lightness and perfect symmetry...the mind of a dreaming god, fascinated by the games of other smaller life-forms and willingly bound in servitude to them...ultimate freedom on wings of insubstantial power...
To be completely known, it's like...innocence...
Slowly Jenna returned to consciousness. Somehow she had expected pain, but instead all she felt was a sense of overwhelming peace, the same sensation she had felt the first time she had linked with Zen. She opened her eyes. She was still standing on the flight deck, her hand on the green control plate; but the lights had resumed their wonted brightness, the air was cool and fresh, and Zen's fascia showed activity.
"Zen," she said wonderingly, "what happened?"
"I think we'd all like to know that," said a voice behind her.
She whirled. Blake, Gan and Carnell were standing in the doorway.
"You've been standing there," Blake said, "since before we all woke up, which was twenty minutes ago. We've tried calling you, prodding you, we've even tried picking you up and carrying you. Well, Gan has. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Jenna said. "Thanks for your concern, but there was no need."
+INFORMATION,+ Zen said. +THE INDEPENDENT FLIGHT MODULE IS NOW AVAILABLE+
"Put it on the main screen, Zen," Jenna said.
The screen showed a view of the Liberator, floating in space. Beside it floated something that looked like a smaller version of the central hull. The drive sphere at the stern was red.
"Where did it come from?" Gan said.
"Look at the Liberator," Blake said. "One of the nacelles is gone. Zen, will the missing nacelle be replaced?"
+THE NACELLE WILL BE REPLACED WHEN CONDITIONS ARE APPROPRIATE+
"When enough reserves of power are built up, presumably," Jenna said.
"Does that mean we've lost weapons capability, Zen?"
+SURPLUS ENERGY WILL BE REDISTRIBUTED BETWEEN THE TWO REMAINING NEUTRON BLASTER UNITS+
"We hardly ever fire all three at once," Gan pointed out.
"Well," Jenna said brightly, "I'll be on my way, then."
"Wait a moment--" Blake began, but Jenna cut him off.
"No, Blake, every moment we travel is taking me farther away from Spaceworld. Zen. How can I board the flight module?"
+VIA TRANSFER TUBE FROM THE MAIN BOARDING LOCK+
Jenna almost ran from the flight deck.
* * *
"I don't know about you," Carnell observed, "but I got the feeling that Jenna was being just the tiniest bit evasive."
"I got that feeling too," Blake said.
Gan said nothing.
"When we first came on board," Blake went on, "Jenna touched that same control plate and something peculiar happened. There was a sort of a mental link between her and Zen."
"That's not possible," Carnell said flatly. "You can't have a mental link between a computer and a human mind. They're different kinds of things. It would be like having an electrical connection between a carrot and a slight head cold."
"You sound like Avon. Well, anyway, whatever it was, it enabled Zen to learn our language and our names." Blake regarded the smaller vessel on the screen. "There's a lot more to this ship than we've begun to imagine."
"And a lot more to Jenna," Carnell said. Blake looked at him. "I think," he added.
Jenna stepped out into the swaying white tunnel of the transfer tube. I hate these things, she thought, pulling herself along towards the smaller airlock at the other end. As she approached it opened, and she stepped in on to flat floor with a rush of relief. The lock turned in the familiar way, and she stepped out into a pocket version of the Liberator's flight deck. There was one control station; she noticed that it was equipped with a proper chair instead of the somewhat uncomfortable seating arrangements on the larger ship. Just forward of it was a three-seater couch.
+RUNE,+ said a voice, like Zen's and yet unlike. +WELCOME, JENNA STANNIS+
"Rune," Jenna repeated. "Is that your name?"
+FREEBIRD IS FULLY FUNCTIONAL AND READY FOR DEPARTURE+
Evasion seems to run in the family, Jenna thought. "Don't I need to link minds with you first?" she said aloud.
+EMPATHIC BONDING HAS ALREADY TAKEN PLACE+
Within Jenna's mind, a presence made itself felt. It had been there since she awoke on the flight deck, part of herself and of Zen. Quicker and sharper than Zen, yet imbued with the same calm potency, and somehow closer to her. Liberator could never be her ship, any more than it could be Blake's or Avon's. This ship...FreeBird...was different. She felt she had had a hand in it somehow.
Like a hand on a control plate, maybe...
Jenna went to the control station and sat down, noting the inclusion of all the little adjustments she had longed to make to the positions of the controls. "Liberator," she said. "This is FreeBird. Stand by to disengage transfer tube."
"Disengaging," came Blake's voice. A tremor ran through the ship. "Good luck, Jenna." His voice had that guarded tone that meant We-shall-have-words-when-you-come-back-young-lady.
"Same to you," Jenna returned. "And take care of Liberator. Rune, set course for Spaceworld, speed standard by eight."
* * *
On Liberator's main screen, the smaller ship turned and moved purposefully away from the larger.
"Have I missed something?" said Vila from the doorway.
"Jenna's left us. Temporarily, I hope," Blake said. "Zen, increase speed to standard by eight."
"Left us? In what?"
"As far as I could see, it was a baby Liberator," Gan said. "Do you think it'll grow into a big one?"
"When conditions are appropriate," Blake quoted, in a fair imitation of Zen's orotund tones.
"I'm serious, Blake. Machines don't grow and reproduce."
"Not the machines we know, Gan. Our technology is only just starting to master auto-repair, and only in the simplest forms. But who's to say what a higher technology can achieve? If auto-repair, why not auto-reproduction?"
"Maybe," Gan said. "I don't know. A machine that heals, grows, reproduces and learns...is it still a machine?"
"What else could it be?" Blake said. "Carnell, who's watching Avon?"
"Well," Carnell counted on his fingers, "if you're here, and I'm here, and Gan's here, and Vila's here--"
"You know what I mean. Who's supposed to be watching Avon?"
"I'll go," Gan said.
"Does anyone want to tell me what's going on?" Vila pleaded.
"No, Vila, we're relying on you to work it out for yourself," Carnell said.
Blake took pity. "Zen has created what he calls an independent flight module, and Jenna has gone off in it to try and find something out."
"Oh," Vila said. "Right."
Like whether I still have all my marbles, Blake thought.
* * *
There were two exits from FreeBird's flight deck. One led past the airlock to the living quarters: three cabins, slightly smaller than Liberator's but quite comfortable. The other led to a bijou teleport unit, from which other passages presumably led to cargo holds and such like.
"All very well," Jenna mused, "but how can I use teleport on my own?"
+TELEPORT BRACELETS ARE EQUIPPED WITH REMOTE HOMING DEVICE+ Rune's voice came from a wall speaker.
Jenna picked up one of the bracelets. They were chunkier than the Liberator's, and there was an extra control button. "That's an idea we could have used on the Liberator," she said.
+THE DEVICE IS NOT EMPLOYED IN LARGER VESSELS TO MAXIMISE SECURITY+
"Good point. I'd better be careful who I let on board. Rune, how long to Spaceworld?"
+FREEBIRD WILL BE IN TELEPORT RANGE IN FIFTY-SIX HOURS+
"Plenty of time," Jenna said to herself. "All the time in the world."
And she was getting out of practice...
* * *
"What? Yes? Hello?"
"The new Base Commander wishes to present his credentials."
"Splendid. I'll have them lightly boiled with a garnish of parsley."
"Send him in, dear," Taj sighed.
The man who entered was tall and spare, with a sallow, gaunt face and wary eyes. "Supreme Commander," he said, saluting smartly. "Odo van Desh. I'm the new Base Commander."
"How nice," Taj said vaguely. "Well, I expect you have a lot to do."
"Oh, yes." van Desh perched on the edge of the desk, looking down at Taj. "I've been briefed by the High Council to initiate a comprehensive programme of reorganisation and upgrading. I've got plenty of ideas."
"Oh, good," Taj said.
"For a start," he went on, "I'm rotating all Delta grade operatives out of this building as of today."
Taj blinked. "Why?"
"Slackness," van Desh said briskly. "This place is in a terrible state, and it's thanks to the complacency of the workers who are supposed to keep it clean. Corrective maintenance, rebuilding and redecoration, that's what we need." He looked round. "You'll be moved to temporary quarters for the duration, of course. I'll see that it's done with as little disturbance as possible."
"I see," Taj said faintly.
"We'll soon have this Base back on its feet." van Desh stood up. "I'll notify you when the programme's ready to begin. Supreme Commander."
He saluted and left. Taj let her breath out in a long sigh, and rested her chin on her hands.
"Such men are dangerous," she murmured. "Especially when they're psychostrategists."
* * *
"Commander Safran is on the line."
"Ah. I rather fancied he might call. Connect me with him; let us reason together."
"Listen, this is a waste of time and energy. We're just running around in circles."
"My deepest sympathies, Commander, but regrettably there is no other way. But have you not noticed the pattern?"
"Excuse me one moment. Lacie, can you connect us both with Commander Dione? I believe the phrase I am seeking is something like 'conference mode.'"
"Pray do not growl like that, Commander Safran. Have patience."
"I was wondering whether you, like Commander Safran, had failed to notice the pattern behind the worlds we have visited."
"Burn it, Paternoster, what pattern?"
"They're all planets where the Pacification Programme has failed recently."
"Exactly. Is light beginning to dawn, Commander?"
"You mean Blake's behind the failure of pylene-50?"
"It seems like a viable working hypothesis, does it not?"
"Well in that case, can't we just go to the last planet to report failure and try to pick up the trail from there?"
"Safran, that's...that's absolutely blindingly obvious, why haven't we seen it?"
"Not my place to say, Commander Dione."
"Yes, well, no need to be smug about it."
"Lacie, contact the nearest Federation or neutral tracking station and find out the last planet to report Pacification problems. We must proceed thither with all speed."
"Safran, if this works, we are in your debt."
"Just doing my job, Commander Paternoster, just doing my job."
* * *
"Is he there?"
"He's out at the moment. Whom shall I say called?"
"This is Councillor Bercol. What do you mean, out?"
"Apparently the animal requires regular exercise to maintain its physical condition. The Secretary prefers to undertake this task himself."
"He's exercising for it, you mean?"
"No, Councillor, he is supervising its exercise. The recommended method of exercising a dog is--"
"Yes, yes, never mind, I'd sooner not know. Tell him, when he deigns to return, that we are in trouble."
"Yes, Councillor. Can I give some idea as to the nature of the trouble?"
"No. Just give him the message."
"Very well, Councillor."
* * *
He had left Anna in the secret place and gone out to get the exit visas. This part of the Dome was strange to him, and the people who passed him by all seemed to have a furtive look in their eyes. The shadows pressed close around him. Half-heard whispers teased at his hearing: ...stayed close and let you run... anyone you so much as looked at...
He came to the agreed place, looked left and right, hesitated and knocked at the door. It opened. A figure sat at a desk, head bowed, the light behind it obscuring its features. He stepped forward.
"Valjon sent me," he said, in the arranged code. "I've come for the visas."
The figure raised its head. It was Anna.
"Sorry, sir, we're closed for lunch," she said.
Stark terror drove him back, out of the door, into a street suddenly open to the sky and slippery with rain. He ran blindly, cannoning into passers-by, dodging and weaving to avoid the shots that for some reason never came, turning a corner to see up ahead a familiar back.
"Tynus!" he called weakly as he approached. Tynus would help, Tynus would shelter him. Tynus was his friend...
Tynus turned round. Framed in the high collar, Anna's face looked back at him.
"Small galaxy, isn't it?" she smiled mockingly.
Avon ducked past her and ran onward, rounding a corner, diving into an alley. Back pressed against a wall, he breathed deeply, great long shuddering breaths. When the mist had cleared from his eyes he raised the bracelet about his wrist and spoke into it.
"Cally, bring me up."
The familiar teleport shimmer took hold of him, and he found himself back on the Liberator.
"Thank you, Cally," he panted, staggering forward. "That was--"
Behind the teleport console, Anna smiled.
"Seen a ghost, Avon?"
His lungs ached, his legs gave and protested under him, but still he ran. The life capsules, they were his only chance. Explosions rocked the ship as he pelted on.
+STRUCTURAL DAMAGE BEYOND THE CAPACITY OF AUTO-REPAIR UNITS+ Anna's voice boomed from every speaker. He fumbled at the controls of the life capsule, fretted while the hatch dragged open, started to get in and remembered the box with Orac in it. He reached out for it.
"Room for one more inside?" said Orac, in Anna's voice.
He threw himself backward, into the capsule, and pressed the launch button. The capsule shot into empty space. Here, at least, he was alone...
The lid of the packing case opened. "Come along now, game over," said his mother's voice. "Time for bed." He was lifted out by a pair of strong arms and cradled against a warm breast. Gratefully he closed his eyes and buried his face in the warm softness of his mother's body, hands reaching up to stroke her hair, her short-cropped black hair...
He opened his eyes wide.
"You see," Servalan said, "you can't run from her...without running to me."
* * *
Blake walked into the treatment unit. "Any change?"
"None whatsoever," Carnell said, indicating the two supine bodies. "I've cleaned them up a bit, that's all."
"I hate this job," Vila complained.
"It's good for your soul, Vila," Carnell assured him.
Vila mouthed an inaudible imprecation and continued combing Servalan's hair. It had grown quite rapidly during the time she had spent with Travis.
"Isn't there anything you can do?" Blake demanded.
Carnell spoke with great restraint. "Blake, I am a psychostrategist, not a doctor. My job--my talent--is predicting what people will do on the basis of their past actions. Complete inactivity is not a sufficient basis for prediction. Once Avon starts doing things it'll be a lot easier."
"What kind of things?"
"Oh, you know. Trying to commit suicide, trying to commit murder, standing on his head on the couch and announcing that he's a waste disposal unit. Anything like that."
"Wonderful," Vila commented.
"Don't misunderstand," Carnell said soberly. "Those are among the best options. If he suddenly sits up, smiles at you and claims to be perfectly all right--well, you'd better get those restraints back on him as quick as you can."
"Why?" Vila said. "What will you be doing?"
Carnell smiled. "I assume this ship does have life capsules?"
"Yes," Blake said.
"Then I'll be in the one that just left," Carnell said.
* * *
"What's all this about?" Rontane snapped.
Bercol sat down deliberately. The puppy trotted up and attempted to thrust its nose into his crotch. He pushed it away. "I heard from Fisher," he said. "He was greatly disturbed."
"A gang of--well, he called them bandits--broke into his main pharmaceutical plant and completely destroyed it."
"Destroyed it?" Rontane repeated. "Why?"
"He doesn't know," Bercol said. "They didn't take anything, they just broke in, overpowered the guards and moved them out, then placed explosives and left. It was a very professional operation, from what he tells me."
"Well, Bercol, I'm very sorry to hear of Councillor Fisher's misfortune, but I fail to see what it has to do with me."
"Don't you see the significance of this?"
"I see a frightened man," Rontane said, "who is looking for conspiracies. These things happen. There will be someone to take Fisher's place on the Council. You worry too much, Bercol." Rontane bent and stroked the dog's head. "He worries too much, doesn't he, Travis?"
“While there's life, there's threat.”--Leitz.
"...this is Federation freighter Ulan Bator, repeat Ulan Bator, bound from Calipheron to Earth, calling tracking station 338S. Ulan Bator to tracking station 338S, do you copy?..."
"...this is tracking station 338S to Ulan Bator. We copy. We have you on positive scan, grid reference plus 9.887854, plus 2.286679, minus 3.081185. Correct your course as followssszzzz________..."
"Tracking station 338S, we've lost your signal. Please repeat. Please repeat. Tracking station 338S..."
"Ulan Bator, come to rest and stand by to be boarded. My weapons are trained on you and I am fully prepared to use them."
"Ulan Bator here. Who are you? Identify yourself."
"I don't think there's any need for that at this stage. What cargo are you carrying?"
"You've scanned us, you must know. Power crystals."
"I was giving you a chance to be creative. Never mind. I'll send someone over. Oh, and don't try anything. I can put a pinhole in a porthole or blow your drive to kingdom come before you can move. Is that clear?"
"As a bell, damn you. Listen, you won't get away with this..."
"Then you've got nothing to worry about, have you? Stand by."
* * *
+INFORMATION: LIBERATOR IS NOW IN STATIONARY ORBIT ONE THOUSAND SPATIALS ABOVE THE SURFACE OF THE PLANETOID KNOWN AS TERMINAL+
"Not before time, either," Gan commented. "Put it on the main screen, Zen."
Blake stared at the ovoid image. No memory stirred. If he had been here before, he couldn't have seen it from space. Unless that memory was just buried a little deeper than those other tantalising scraps that refused to leave him alone, that whispered of a Terminal Project and a woman called Mora Ballantine...
"Now we're here, what are we going to do?" Gan said.
"Vila and I are going down."
"Oh, no, not me," Vila groaned. "I've been down there once and that was enough. Look, we've managed to get here without losing the ship this time, let's not tempt fate any further."
"I didn't know you believed in fate, Vila," Gan said.
"I don't. I just like to play safe."
"I need you down there, Vila," Blake said. "You're the only conscious survivor of the last visit. If there's anything I need to know, you have to tell me."
"I can sum it all up in two words," Vila said. "Don't go."
"Sorry, that option's not available. Gan, will you come and operate the teleport for us?"
"Why are you so keen on going down there, anyway?" Vila persisted. "I mean, I know you think Cally may be alive down there--"
"I know Cally is alive down there," Blake cut in with unintended savagery that made Vila wince. "Sorry, Vila. I can't explain it, I can't justify it. I just...know."
"Well, all right, I'm not arguing," Vila said. "Even so, you could have sent Gan and me, or just Gan. Why go yourself?"
Blake walked round the couch to stare at Terminal.
"Perhaps because part of me's been down there for longer than I can remember," he said softly.
* * *
"Paternoster," Safran acknowledged gruffly, knowing what the other was going to say and savouring it in anticipation.
"You were right." Music to his ears, music. "The trail is here."
"I know. Any ideas on where it's heading?"
"Lacie has run a projection based on available data. The destination would appear to be Terminal."
"Let's go, then. We've lost enough time."
* * *
"These are your new quarters," van Desh said.
Taj looked around her. The room was barely large enough for two people to stand either side of the antiquated desk. The walls were painted stark white, very badly, and none of the angles looked quite right. There was a prevailing smell of fresh paint and stale wine.
"Very nice," she said through her teeth.
"Of course it's only temporary, till we get the main building sorted. I'll be two rooms down. You can reach me on the intercom."
Taj looked. There was something horribly familiar about the machine on the desk. It bore a strong resemblance to the one she had started with, the one that never worked right.
"Thank you," she said.
"Anything I can get you?"
"I think you've done quite enough," Taj said, with something of her old firmness. "Off you go now and count something."
van Desh saluted and left. Taj counted to ten very slowly.
"Can I live with this?" she asked herself.
"No," she replied after due consideration, "I can not."
From the carpet bag she had brought from her home she extracted a small cylindrical object, quartered in black and white, with a timer on one face.
"I knew it would come in useful some day," she said to herself a moment later, as she left the room.
* * *
FEDERATN SECHICNCL 11X1X EX SUCOMTERRA RAVENDRA T 17205 MREF XX394 MESSAGE BEGINS++++++++++++++
EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY HIGH COUNCIL INTERFERENCE NO LONGER TOLERATED IN SPACE COMMAND AFFAIRS STOP NEW BASE COMMANDER SUGGESTED BY YOU OBVIOUSLY AGENT OF RESISTANCE STOP ALL HIS ORDERS THEREFORE RESCINDED STOP NOT THAT I DOUBT YOUR PROBITY STOP ONLY YOUR INTELLIGENCE IN QUESTION STOP LOVE TAJ
van Desh shook his head. "I don't know. I showed her into the room, I left, a moment later she was seen leaving the building, and then the place went up."
"Is it conceivable," Rontane said, "that she could have done it herself?"
"No," van Desh said with certitude. "There's nothing in any of our computer projections to indicate a capacity for that sort of violence."
"Well, whatever it was, there's nothing we can do about it now," Rontane said. "You'll have to submit to Space Command disciplinary action, of course."
"Otherwise the cover would be blown, wouldn't it?"
van Desh paled. "Now wait a minute--"
The door opened and two troopers entered. "Commander van Desh," said one.
van Desh was led out, protesting violently.
Rontane pressed a button, and an inner door opened. Travis bounded out and leapt into his lap.
"Did the nasty man complain when you barked at him, boy?" Rontane inquired.
Travis licked his face.
* * *
"I didn't enjoy doing that at all," Taj confided to Irramani. "It was going to be my last-ditch desperate throw. But I was expecting subtlety, for pity's sake. The man just threw everything at me at once. I had to hit back, and I had to do it in a way he wouldn't expect."
Irramani nodded sympathetically. "Sorry I wasn't any help. It was bad enough being rotated off like that. I didn't know what to do. So," she went on, reaching for the biscuits, "what are you going to do now?"
"Oh, I'll make sure van Desh gets off lightly. I can't have him implicating everyone at this stage. As it is I've had to cut Space Command loose from the High Council, and I was hoping to..." Taj shook her head. "Ah, well."
"That's the way it goes sometimes," Irramani said wisely. "Come on, come on, what comes next?"
"Erm." Taj put on her glasses. "'Eight maids a-milking.'"
"Did we do seven?"
"Oh, no, it's all right, I could guess seven. I mean once you know what a swan is it's fairly obvious. Is this another bird reference?"
"I don't think so. Maid used to mean female servant. Milk is what you give babies. Servants feeding babies?"
Taj made a face. "File that one with the collie birds and the parsnip."
* * *
"Scanners show a divergence in the trail ahead."
"Divergence?" Paternoster laughed indulgently. "Come, come, child, you prattle. There is only one ship of Liberator's type; how can it go in two directions at once?"
"Nevertheless, Commander," Lacie said firmly, "scanners show a definite divergence."
Paternoster got up and bent over the mutoid's shoulder. "You appear to be correct, my dear. I apologise. The main trail continues toward Terminal, while a fainter path branches off that way. What can there be of interest in that direction, I wonder?"
"Contact Commander Safran and Commander Dione, if you would be so kind, my dear. We must confer."
* * *
"Bercol." Impatience crossed Rontane's thin face. "Can this not wait?"
"Why, where were you going?" Bercol eyed Rontane's sturdy boots and quilted jacket with misgiving, even as he backed away from Travis' enthusiastic attention to his private parts.
"It's time for Travis' run. Why don't you come with me?"
"Outside?" Misgiving matured into genuine fear.
"Yes, why not?"
"You've changed, Rontane," Bercol said accusingly. "I don't like it."
Rontane smiled grimly. "You have never liked me, Bercol, nor do I expect you to. As for your claim that I have 'changed', I find no validity in it whatsoever. Now are you coming or not?"
"Not. I can tell you here and now. You remember Councillor Fisher's small misfortune?"
"Yes, yes, yes. Very sad. What about it? It's all right, Travis," Rontane soothed the importunate Travis, "we'll be going soon."
Bercol waited till he had Rontane's full attention.
"Only that the same small misfortune has just befallen Shirinin's refinery, Mostel's processing plant and Wathco's development centre."
"Four separate continents, exactly the same pattern. Complete destruction of the installation, without bloodshed, effectively crippling the owner's financial interests and disqualifying him or her from the High Council."
"That is significant, Bercol. I...regret my earlier shortness. It would seem there is more to these attacks than I had surmised."
"We must get their successors sworn in as soon as possible."
"That...may not be possible."
"Fisher and the rest have been very efficient in wiping out their competitors. There are very few individuals left who meet the qualifying criteria. We may..."
"If this goes on...we may not have a quorate Council."
* * *
This was his element, this was what he did best. The guts of the computer spread before him, as clear and familiar and beautiful as...as... well, there was no point thinking about that now. All that...was over. Isolate the scanners, dum de dum, open the doors, tra-la-la, disable the security overrides, no problem. Do his part for the great escape, and then let things take their course.
"Avon." It was Raiker's voice. "Switch on your vision panel, scanner 34. There's something you should see."
He obeyed, foreboding gnawing at his heart. Somehow he knew what he was going to see. This was where Blake had got it so miserably wrong. He had the chance to make good that blunder. No threat, no atrocity could move him. The rest of them could go to hell as far as he was concerned...
He hardly heard Raiker's words, as the screen cleared to show the lines of prisoners facing the guards' guns.
Every single one bore his own face.
* * *
"Are you really bothered?" Vila struggled down the steps into the teleport chamber, almost unrecognisable in full thermals and survival gear.
Blake burst out laughing. "What's all that for?"
"Last time I did this I had to leave in a hurry and I ended up staying altogether too long. This time I'm going prepared."
"Is that all you under there?" Gan said.
"Yes!" Vila winced under Blake's gaze. "Well, mostly."
"Don't tell me, let me guess." Blake sized Vila up. "Food, obviously, spare clothes, thermals, survival suit..." He walked round the thief, arms folded. "As much soma as you could cram in, plus a fair-sized helping of goodies from the strongroom. Am I right?"
Vila managed a quick smile. "Mostly. Oh, come on, Blake, can you blame me?"
"No," Blake said, still grinning, "but you're going to have to ditch most of it. I need you mobile, Vila."
"Compromise," Vila said desperately. "I'll find a safe place and ditch it when we're down. Zen can always make more."
"All right, all right. Anything for a quiet life." Blake clipped on a bracelet. Vila lumbered over and tried to get one round the sleeve of his survival suit. After a moment Blake grabbed his arm, rolled up the sleeve and fastened on the bracelet. "Come on, Vila."
"All right, all right."
"Ready or not," Gan said, "here you go."
The teleport shimmer took hold of them. The Liberator faded out around them. A cold wind touched their skin, an eerie double drumbeat grew on the air, and they found themselves standing on a barren hillside.
Blake raised his bracelet. "Down and safe," he said. "All right, Vila, find somewhere to d--"
Vila stared at him. "What's wrong, Blake?"
Blake pressed his hands over his ears. The drumbeat was growing in volume, drowning all sounds, all sense. Ancient walls were crumbling and falling, secrets crowding forward into the light, and there was only time for one coherent thought before blackness took him in its arms and brought him to the ground:
This is where I should have been all along--
Then there was nothing.
“Let us settle this neurotic little worry.”--Atlan.
"I didn't know you could do standard by fourteen, Rune," Jenna said, leaning back luxuriously in her seat.
+SMALLER SIZE IMPLIES GREATER MANOEUVRABILITY,+ Rune said, managing to sound immensely pleased with itself.
"A full hold, a fast ship, and no worries..." Jenna straightened up. "I could just keep going, couldn't I?"
Rune remained silent.
"I don't owe Blake a thing," Jenna went on. "I've given him back his ship. Freedom fighting was never my game anyway, and with you I could really make a name for myself as a pirate. I'm free now. I could just let the whole thing drop."
Rune said nothing.
"No, I couldn't, you're right," Jenna sighed. "Hell. All right, Rune, put us back on course for Spaceworld."
* * *
"What is it, Vila?" It was Carnell's voice.
"It's Blake. He just keeled over, and we're right out in the open here."
"Collapsed, folded up, lost consciousness, passed out, fell down and went boom, help!"
"Don't panic, Vila." Carnell was exerting every atom of power in his voice. Vila felt his anxieties, against all reason, somehow draining away. "All you have to do is say the word, and either Gan or myself can be with you instantly."
"Can't you just bring us back up?"
"I don't think it would be advisable to move Blake just now," Carnell said. "Of course, I could bring you up and leave him there alone and unconscious..."
"Er, no," Vila said miserably. "Don't do that. All right, I'll stay with him."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. I suppose so."
"Keep in touch. Carnell out."
"Thanks a lot," Vila muttered, returning to the prone figure of Blake. The light was growing dim, and the wind rustling through the scrubby trees colder still, but under his layers of clothing Vila was uncomfortably hot, and the fears Carnell had so effectively stilled were sneaking back.
Blake stirred and moaned. Vila knelt down beside him.
"You can wake up any time you like, you know," he said encouragingly.
* * *
"Rontane! What a nice surprise, do come in, dear."
Rontane entered Taj's office. The mistletoe and holly were even more profuse than before, and chains of coloured foil and paper linked the corners of the room and festooned the few remaining visible patches of wall.
"Supreme Commander." Rontane bowed precisely. "Is...all this...in honour of this ancient festival of yours?"
"The Christmas decorations?" Taj looked round with great satisfaction. "Yes, aren't they lovely? There's so little documentation from the period, I do hope I've got it right."
"I do hope," Rontane said lightly, "you don't plan to take this too far, Supreme Commander. You are aware that all religions are banned under the Administration..."
"Oh, is this religious?" Taj's eyes were wide. "Well, you know far more than I do, Rontane. All my sources told me was that it was the birthday of an ancient folk hero. Do enlighten me."
"I know nothing beyond that bare fact, Supreme Commander," Rontane said carefully.
"Oh, well. I wish I could find someone who did. I would hate to do something religious without knowing it." Taj paused. "Was there something, dear?"
"Yes," Rontane said. "Supreme Commander, a number of members of the High Council have had their business interests seriously damaged by the activities of a gang of, well, bandits."
"Dear me, how shocking. This calls for a cup of tea." Taj got up and began preparations. "How can I help you?"
"The gang strikes on separate continents on consecutive days. That argues considerable organisation, and space flight capability. We need Space Command's help in tracking them down."
"Of course. You are clever, Rontane, I'd never have thought of that. Where have they struck so far?"
"Here's a list. Thank you, Supreme Commander."
"Oh, don't mention it. We may be separate branches of government, but we can still help each other, can't we?"
"About Commander van Desh--"
"Oh, he was just a tool of someone else. Possibly the same force that's behind these bandits of yours. I've ordered him stripped of his rank and dishonourably discharged. But you'll never guess what, Rontane."
"What, Supreme Commander?"
"He used to be in the College of Psychostrategists! It came out under interrogation. Well, actually, it came out before interrogation started. I've ordered a complete investigation. There could be any number of resisters lurking in the wainscoting." Taj handed Rontane a cup. "We must be vigilant," she whispered darkly. "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"
Rontane swallowed scalding tea, and choked noisily.
"Well, I'm sure I don't," Taj said dismissively. "By the way, how's the pup?"
"Travis? Oh, er, very well, Supreme Commander. Very energetic."
Taj smiled. "I thought so. Your colour's improved no end. Of course, strictly speaking I shouldn't have handed out presents till the actual day, but I couldn't wait, and I'm glad I didn't. He certainly seems to have done you a power of good."
Rontane smiled uncertainly.
* * *
It was another of his mother's endless series of fantasies, only he was in it this time. He was the Wise Counsellor; names weren't important, there was the Valiant Knight, the Cunning Fool, the Smiling Giant, all the old stereotypes, and him stuck in the worst cliché of all. It was his function to argue with the Knight's hare-brained schemes, to lay out all the reasons why they wouldn't work, and then, when they didn't work, to arrive at the last minute and save everyone's lives because that was what friends were for, or something.
They had been creeping through the corridors of the Demon Queen's castle, in quest of her heart, which was rumoured to be in a secret room deep in the bowels of the fortress. They had passed through many dangers and slain many monsters, the usual routine stuff, and they had come to the secret room and of course it had been empty, and now they were fleeing for their lives, as usual.
Ahead of them the portcullis began to descend. The Knight and the Fool leapt for freedom, the Warrior Queen followed, and then a bolt of magic fire from the Black Wizard brought the castle crashing down about them, pinning the Giant beneath tons of masonry.
But it wasn't the Giant who lay there, it was himself, and he knew with freezing certainty that no-one would come to rescue him, no-one would give him a second thought, no-one would nearly get themselves killed grieving over him...
Slowly his viewpoint changed, from him-watching to him-under-the-rubble, and he was shocked to discover within himself a sense of great relief, overcoming all but the worst of the pain.
Without me it can't go on, he thought. Without me the others won't die.
Consciousness faded gently.
* * *
Carnell came on to the flight deck.
"Gan, would you go down and man the teleport," he said. "I'm expecting a panic from Vila at some unspecified moment. If he wants help, contact me here."
"Sure." The big man got up and walked towards the exit. Halfway there he stopped and looked down. "Funny thing," he said. "Every so often I have this urge to...to dance."
"Entirely natural," Carnell assured him. "I wouldn't try it in here, though, if I were you."
"No. No, of course not."
Alone, Carnell looked up at Zen's fascia. The lights chased each other in one of the indecipherable, seemingly random patterns they chose to follow.
"Well, Zen," he said. "Time for a little chat, I think."
Zen said nothing.
"You're going to tell me," Carnell said, "about Orac."
* * *
"I'm trying to contact Councillor Ibn-Isak."
"The Councillor is away at the moment. Please leave a message."
"This is Secretary Rontane. Where is the Councillor?"
"Please wait... Hello, Rontane? This is Martinus. Haven't you heard about the disaster?"
"What disaster is that?"
"Ibn-Isak's mining complexes on the inner worlds."
"He's out there seeing what can be salvaged. Not much, from what I gather. This is going to lose him his Council seat, am I right?"
"We're calling an extraordinary session in two days. That's what I was calling about. If he can come..."
"You could always redraft the constitution. Change the requirements."
"That is one of the options we shall be considering. Please pass the message on to Councillor Ibn-Isak...and add my deepest sympathies."
"I shall, Rontane. Martinus out."
Rontane looked at Bercol. "Fisher, Shirinin, Mostel, Wathco, and now Ibn-Isak. That makes it fairly conclusive."
Bercol nodded. "Care to bet that Kerovian somehow gets overlooked?"
"I never bet, Bercol. Taj is devious enough to attack her own supporters as well. But the order in which it was done implies that she is responsible and that she knows not only what was done at the last meeting, but who voted for it." Rontane's face was grim. "This leaves us only one option."
"Very well, then, two options if you insist. I think we should take up Mostel's original idea."
"You aren't suggesting...assassination?" Bercol paled.
"How else can we save what's left of our power base?" Rontane sighed. "I know. I don't like it any more than you. But we have no choice, do we?" He stared Bercol down. "Do we?"
* * *
Servalan's eyes snapped open. She was lying on a couch. She tried to move her arms and discovered that they were strapped down, not immobile but restricted. Her legs were also loosely bound. Considered effort could free her, but random struggling would simply tighten the bonds.
She cast her mind back, trying to piece together how she had come here, what had happened. Memories returned and presented themselves, neatly sorted: she reviewed them with a mounting sense of disorientation. Her life seemed to have slipped out of her control at some time in the past. With a small shock she saw that ever since the aftermath of the invasion she had been following Avon down the path of obsession and madness, pursuing him and his companions to the exclusion of all else and with, at times, the flimsiest of excuses.
I could have regained power at any time, she thought. When did it cease to be important to me? How could I fail to notice?
The more recent memories, the memories of her capture, interrogation, trial and...afterwards...were still too painful to look at. She shut them resolutely away, and looked around. There was a general medical look to things, but beyond that nothing seemed familiar. Except the body on the adjacent couch.
The word slipped out like a prayer. For a moment the old hunger gripped her; she put forth her will and it faded. He was a man, a man she found attractive, certainly, but no longer the earth and the sky and the end of all desire. Besides, he seemed to be in an even worse state than she had been, even though he wasn't restrained.
If he was here and alive, as he seemed to be, then this must logically be Blake's ship.
In which case, now that she noticed, it looked very like what she had seen of the Liberator on her few brief visits. The walls...the door...the technology. Very like.
Could there have been two? More than two, maybe?
With two such ships she could...
She could get herself shot at. And chained to walls. And trapped on hostile planets and threatened with ancient tortures and chased halfway across the galaxy and allied to creatures she would be loth to find on the sole of her shoe and shot at some more for good measure and taunted by uppity girls with gun fetishes and patronised by failed Space Captains and woken up screaming by nightmares peopled with all the countless men and women and children she had murdered and...
And it wasn't really worth it.
The thought startled her. It had never occurred to her before. Power was the only way to be free, that was why she had striven for it in the first place. Only she hadn't been free, had never been free. She was freer right now, strapped to a couch, than she had been as President and Supreme Commander of the Terran Federation, et cetera, et cetera.
She twisted herself out of the restraints and stood up. At once a tuft of hair flopped over her face. It was nearly six inches long, long enough to be a nuisance. It would have to go, as soon as possible. For the moment, a spring clip from an instrument tray served to keep it out of her eyes.
A cursory examination told her that Avon was out cold, withdrawn deep into himself. She crept to the door, listened, heard nothing, opened it.
The ship was definitely sister to the Liberator. The corridor was empty. She stepped out.
The flight deck should be... that way.
It turned out to be the other way. As she approached she heard two voices, the Zen computer's and another, vaguely familiar. She sidled closer, steadying herself against the wall.
"I'm right, aren't I?"
+THAT INFORMATION IS NOT AVAILABLE+
"Oh, come on, my friend, you've already given it to me. So, then, there would be nothing to prevent--"
As she reached the top of the steps, the wayward lock of hair got loose again and flopped forward. She took her hand away from the wall to flick it out of her eyes and stumbled forward on to a step that wasn't there, to land in an undignified heap on the flight deck floor.
"Well, well, well," said the voice.
Servalan pushed aside the rebellious hair and looked up.
* * *
"Colonel, there is a vessel in stationary orbit."
"Grid reference 319.96 by 743.82. It's a large vessel, sir."
"Let me see." Quute studied the readouts. "You're right, it is big. I'd better tell the General."
"I beg the Colonel's pardon, sir, but this incident must be entered in the log before any action is taken."
"Oh, good grief. All right." With painful care Quute entered the date and time in the log, noted down the grid reference and details of the sighting, initialled the correct box and waited for Arlen to add her initials.
"What kind of vessel is that big?" Quute wondered.
"I have no idea, sir." Arlen unbent fractionally. "I don't think it's a Federation vessel."
"Hmm." Quute considered. "I'll tell the General. You get a message to the nearest Space Command garrison. Tell them we have an unknown vessel threatening us and ask for support. Also ask them to relay the message to Earth."
* * *
+INFORMATION: FREEBIRD IS NOW IN STATIONARY ORBIT ONE THOUSAND SPATIALS FROM THE SATELLITE KNOWN AS SPACEWORLD+
"Thanks, Rune. Put it on the main screen, would you."
Jenna studied the satellite. It was holed in several places, and there were no lights showing.
"Not promising," she said. With some consternation she realised that she had very little idea of where to go from here. "Rune, do we have survival suits?"
+FREEBIRD IS FULLY EQUIPPED WITH SURVIVAL EQUIPMENT+
"Great. I'll suit up, put down on the satellite and have a look round."
A few moments later she materialised in the ruined satellite. Bodies of slaves and troopers lay here and there, showing the effect of several years' exposure to space. Again Jenna was struck by the discrepancy between the prevailing look of the place and the few fragments of Liberator-style technology to be seen. Most of the place looked more like a Federation base than anything as alien as Liberator.
+INFORMATION+ Rune said through her bracelet. +SCANNERS DETECT A NUMBER OF VESSELS APPROACHING+
Jenna swore. "On my way back."
She pressed the homing button on the bracelet, and found herself back in FreeBird's teleport chamber. Pulling off the survival suit she made her way to the flight deck. "All right, Rune, put them on screen."
The screen changed.
Jenna stared, open-mouthed.
“I have waited for the time that light takes to cross a thousand galaxies.”--Justin.
"Servalan," Carnell said with a broad smile. "How nice to see you up."
Servalan, prone on the floor, cocked an eyebrow.
"In a manner of speaking," Carnell added. "Allow me."
He helped her to her feet.
"Aren't you surprised to see me?" he continued. "I seem to recall the last time we spoke--albeit at one remove--I was fleeing for my life."
"Carnell, you're about the only person I've met recently who wasn't supposed to be dead. Why should I be surprised to see you?"
"Good point," Carnell conceded.
"To find myself here...now that is surprising," Servalan went on. "The last time I saw the Liberator it was in the process of breaking up."
"Apparently its auto-repair systems are even more sophisticated than its crew realised. It put itself back together and went looking for them."
"And are you now allied with Blake?" Servalan had kept moving, round the curve of the flight deck.
"For the moment, let us say our interests run together. The Federation has no love for me--no more than it has for you--and it seems to me that Blake's ship is the safest place to be under those circumstances. What are your feelings on the subject, Commissioner?" Carnell swivelled to keep her in view.
"Commissioner?" Servalan said blankly. "Oh, no. You must be confusing me with Commissioner Sleer. A most unpleasant woman. I believe she was abducted and murdered by the notorious criminal Travis." Servalan sighed. "Some would say it was no more than she deserved." She turned away for a moment.
"I see," Carnell said. "Then you feel no kinship with that person whatsoever?" His eyes narrowed. "You do not identify with anything she has said or done, or...experienced?"
"Not in the least." Servalan swung round. The gun in her hand was aimed squarely between Carnell's eyes. She smiled. "I can, however, fully appreciate that there might be some momentary confusion in the minds of...certain people."
"Especially if they were to see you like that," Carnell agreed.
"True." Servalan lowered the gun and replaced it in the rack. "How, then, can I avoid such confusion, Carnell?"
"Some person of good character might be found, to vouch for you."
"Someone like yourself?"
Carnell lowered his gaze deprecatingly. "Alas, my status here is ambivalent, to say the least. Were I to ally myself with you, we might both find ourselves abandoned...or simply killed out of hand, if Blake happened to be looking the other way at the time."
"Who else is on the ship?" Before Carnell could answer, Servalan checked him. "No. Wait. First, what has been happening? Where are we? Tell me all you know."
Carnell took a deep breath, rejected the opening that sprang to mind ("The aardvark is an insectivorous mammal...") and launched into his tale.
* * *
He woke, and knew at once that something was wrong. He felt strange...no, that was wrong, it was simply that he was not feeling at all. Nor hearing, nor seeing. There was a momentary flash of panic, which he quickly suppressed; information was reaching him, by some unfathomed means. He knew that he was on Terminal, in the Federation's underground base, and that he was severely wounded and in a life support machine. Knowing that, he knew the rest, and the panic returned in full flood.
The fact of Blake's presence was communicated to him.
--WELL. YOU CERTAINLY TOOK YOUR TIME FINDING ME, he said without voice.
"There didn't seem to be any hurry," Blake replied.
--LISTEN TO ME, BLAKE, he said urgently. YOU'RE BEING TRICKED. YOU'VE BEEN DRUGGED AND PUT INTO SOME KIND OF MACHINE. WHAT YOU'RE HEARING IS A RECONSTRUCTION OF MY PERSONALITY IN A FEDERATION COMPUTER BANK. IT'S A TRAP. TAKE THE LIBERATOR OUT OF HERE WHILE YOU STILL CAN.
"Careful, Avon," Blake said dryly. "Your sentiment is showing."
--DAMN YOU, BLAKE, DON'T YOU EVER LISTEN? I'M TRYING TO SAVE YOUR MISERABLE LIVES.
"I know," Blake said. "And I'm trying to save yours. Orac, hurry it up, we haven't got much time."
"I am fully aware of the need for haste," Orac snapped. "The explosives will detonate in approximately four minutes. Transfer will be complete in less than one."
--BLAKE, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
"We worked out that it was a trap on our own, thanks," Blake said. "So, we surrendered the Liberator. Unfortunately she wasn't exactly in prime condition at the time."
--THE ENZYME CLOUD.
"Exactly. However, Orac tells us there's a Wanderer class planet-hopper on its way here, so we're going to see if we can commandeer that. And in the meantime, since the real Avon is apparently dead, we're taking up the next best option."
"Transfer is complete," Orac announced. "The Avon personality is now resident in my onboard data bank."
"Think of it," said Vila's voice gleefully. "An Avon we can switch on and off."
He tried to rage, but he no longer had the equipment for it.
--BLAKE, YOU CAN'T DO THIS TO ME. LISTEN*
Blake cut him off. "Sorry, Avon, we need you too badly. I'm afraid you've been drafted for the cause. As soon as we have a ship Orac will copy you across to the flight computer. We'll keep a backup, of course." His voice had a smile in it. Damn him. Damn them all. Couldn't they even have the grace to leave him alone now he was dead?
--I'LL CRASH THE SHIP, he said desperately.
"Oh, I think not. Any reconstruction of your personality is bound to include your legendary sense of self-preservation. And if you do try it, we'll simply take you offline until you say sorry. Ah, here comes the ship. Excuse me, Avon. I'll be back."
Avon's curses fell on dead circuits. He was trapped.
* * *
From the transcript [unedited] of the extraordinary meeting of the High Council of the Terran Federation, held on the day in question, reference number 597033x/hctf/UT:
The Secretary called the meeting to order at 09:23 TNT. Apologies were received from Councillors Ibn-Isak and Tervil. This being his third absence unaccounted for, Councillor Zigo was ruled disqualified from Council. The minutes of the previous meeting were taken as read, and Cllr. Wathco was asked to resume the Chair.
The Secretary. The purpose of this meeting is to ascertain what action is to be taken regarding the depletion in Council membership over the past week. In this connection I must place on the record that Cllrs. Mostel and Wathco are present here by the grace of the Council, to render this meeting quorate pro tem.
The Chairman. Fear not, Mr. Secretary, no-one here will cry quorum.
Cllr. Joliot. Point of information, Mr. Chairman. Is it true that the depredations to our esteemed colleagues' businesses are to be laid at the door of Space Command?
The Chairman. The Secretary tells me that it is very nearly conclusively proved. This is connected with the second order of business: I would ask you to restrain your questions till then. Now, Mr. Secretary, please introduce the first order of business.
The Secretary. Mr. Chairman, Councillors: the membership qualifications for the High Council are among the most venerable traditions of this august assembly. It has long been taken as absolute fact that the measure of a man in this society may be gauged from his material worth and status in the community. Thus those best qualified to rule may be sought among those who have built up and maintained their personal and business fortunes by the exercise of their wits and acumen in the arena of commerce. Our predecessors have seen fit to set standards which every aspirant must meet to be considered for membership. Those standards have lasted the test of time.
And yet, Councillors, no system is infallible. Times change, and cunning enemies arise, and we must adapt to meet the challenge or watch everything we have built come down about us. Our enemy has studied us and knows our weak points, knows not only by what virtue we sit here but also how few are those who stand to succeed us. We must protect ourselves, and this Council, at all costs. To this end I wish to propose a course that was scheduled for discussion at the next Constitutional Meeting in four months' time. Councillors, I propose that Council membership be vested in the current incumbents as at the date of the previous meeting, and in their heirs or assigns in perpetuity: in short, that membership be made hereditary.
The Chairman. I call for a second.
Cllr. Bercol. Seconded.
The Chairman. I can scarcely believe that any member, in the current climate, will wish to oppose this motion... The Chair recognises Cllr. Vastnesse.
Cllr. Vastnesse. Mr. Chairman, Councillors. [Pause.] Can I truly believe what I have just heard? Are we living in the Dark Ages? Have we learned nothing from these painful centuries of struggle and bloodshed? I would oppose the Secretary's motion if my very life depended upon its success--
Cllr. Fisher. It may, Councillor, it may. [Laughter.]
The Secretary. Order, please. Continue, Councillor.
Cllr. Vastnesse. Thank you. One of the cornerstones of our society is freedom of opportunity within the structure of the social grade system. Any Delta grade worker may aspire to a position of trust and authority over his mates. Any Gamma grade artisan may seek preferment and reward for exceptional skill. Any Beta grade technician may submit research work for consideration, with the possibility of patronage as a result, and any Alpha may aspire to a seat on the High Council. And, of course, any citizen may appeal against his classification, although this is quite rightly discouraged. Why, Councillors, should the lower grades enjoy a freedom which the Alphas are denied? What incentive is there for our brightest and best if we deny them the ultimate goal, the final recognition?
Cllr. Kerovian. [sotto] We could give them a gold star and a toffee...
The Secretary. Cllr. Kerovian, please. To quote a very wise person, I may disagree with this man, but I will defend to the death his right to put his case. Continue, Councillor.
Cllr. Vastnesse. [continuing] The transmission of power through heredity has been discredited as a system time and time again throughout human history. Should we, Councillors, put the preservation of our own lives and wealth before the fundamental principles upon which our society is founded? It is my answer to this question, a resounding No that springs from the deepest wells of my spirit, that compels me to oppose the Secretary's motion.
The Chairman. The Chair recognises Cllr. Fisher.
Cllr. Fisher. Mr. Chairman, Councillors. Enlightened self-interest is the only true basis for sound government. Let us not muddy the waters with altruism and other such fallacies. I call for a vote, and I call for a vote in favour of Secretary Rontane's motion.
The Secretary. The motion is: that membership be vested, with immediate effect, in the current incumbents and in their heirs or assigns in perpetuity. Proposed by the Secretary, seconded Cllr. Bercol, opposed Cllr. Vastnesse. All those in favour raise their right hands.
Ayes: Bercol, Fisher, Joliot, Mostel, Orr, Shirinin, The Secretary.
Noes: Cho-Huan, Kerovian, Lovat, Vastnesse.
Abstentions: Govan, Hagen.
The Secretary. The motion is carried by seven votes to four. We now move on to the second order of business, which was mooted by Cllr. Bercol.
Cllr. Bercol. Mr. Chairman, Councillors. The villains who have perpetrated these atrocities against us are clearly exceedingly well-organised and possessed of sophisticated technology. It is also clear that they have space-flight capability. If these facts are taken together with the identities of the principal victims, then it becomes obvious that the criminals are working covertly for Space Command. We must accept that we are in a situation analogous to that which obtained just prior to Servalan's assumption of the Presidency, and we cannot but conclude therefrom that Taj's objective is the same: absolute rulership. We must act to prevent this. I therefore propose action on two fronts: first, an attempt to predict the next striking point of these bandits and catch them in the act, and second, a decisive thrust against the Supreme Commander herself, along the lines suggested by Cllr. Mostel.
The Secretary. I second the motion. Explain, please, Councillor.
Cllr. Bercol. Er--yes. To take the first point--er--first. All the victims of these attacks have been Councillors who voted in favour of action against Taj at the last meeting. The only one who has not been attacked so far is Cllr. Govan. I therefore propose, subject to the Councillor's permission, that a squad of Ground Security troopers be mobilised and concealed in Cllr. Govan's primary plant, with a view to apprehending the culprits before they can do any damage.
The Chairman. Cllr. Govan, have you any objection?
Cllr. Govan. I have no objection, Mr. Chairman, but I see one problem and one point of variance between the facts and the Councillor's statement.
The Chairman. The floor is yours.
Cllr. Govan. The problem is simply this. My primary plant no longer exists. It was attacked while I was on my way here. [Sensation.]
The Chairman. Cllr. Govan, I think I speak for all of us when I offer you our deepest condolences--
Cllr. Govan. Please do not bother. I have already communicated with Supreme Commander Taj and stated my intention to resign from the High Council as of this meeting. This game, ladies and gentlemen, is too hot for an old man. I can only hope that she will see fit to leave me in peace now. Oh, and the point of variance. There are two Councillors who voted for action against Taj--indeed, who have been prime instigators in the vendetta against her--and whose estates have remained miraculously untouched. I will leave it to the rest of you to try and guess which two. [Sensation.] Now if the Chairman will excuse me, I beg leave to quit this meeting. I am very tired.
Cllr. Govan quitted the meeting.
The Secretary. Order, please. Order.
Cllr. Shirinin. What deal have you made with Taj, Rontane?
Cllr. Kerovian. Is Taj even involved?
The Secretary. Order. Order. Order--
Cllr. Bercol. Quiet!!
The Secretary. [sotto] Thank you, Bercol. [Aloud] Councillors, Mr. Chairman. Cllr. Govan is, as he himself stated, an old man, and very tired, and on those grounds I will excuse what I should otherwise be forced to regard as vile and baseless innuendoes against myself and Cllr. Bercol. The remarks of Cllrs. Shirinin and Kerovian are harder to forgive, springing as they do from craven cowardice on the one hand and pure malice upon the other. But I am a tolerant man, and I will let even this pass. I will, however, state, both for myself and for Cllr. Bercol, that we have made no deal with the Supreme Commander, that our loyalties are entirely to this High Council, and that any pursuit of this vicious slander will compel us to tender our resignations at once and let the rest of you flounder in your own mess until Taj picks you up and puts you in her pocket. I trust this is clear, and in that trust ask Cllr. Bercol to move on to his second proposal.
Cllr. Bercol. Er, yes. Er--the second proposal was--er--that we make a decisive move against the Supreme Commander, on the lines once suggested privately by Cllr. Mostel. Er--to wit, that a suitable individual be hired to--er--to--
The Secretary. To terminate the Supreme Commander's life, I believe was the phrase, Councillor. [Sensation.] I have already seconded this motion. Does it have an opponent?
The Chairman. The Chair recognises Cllr. Kerovian.
Cllr. Kerovian. This is an insane notion, Mr. Chairman, Councillors, and one to which I feel sure my esteemed friend Cllr. Mostel would only have alluded in jest, if at all. This Council dare not break the law, and under the law murder is still a crime, and carries the maximum penalty. I demand that this monstrous proposal be dismissed out of hand.
Cllr. Bercol. Now who's trying to protect Taj, Councillor?
The Secretary. Bercol, shut up!!
Cllr. Kerovian. Not I, Councillor, unless she has something of import to tell us. Perhaps that she never sent a gang of thugs to eliminate all Bercol and Rontane's competitors and assure them of ascendancy on the High Council--
The Secretary. Enough!! I will endure no more of this. This meeting is dissolved sine die. Find yourselves a new Secretary if you can. You will not have Rontane to kick around any more!
The Secretary then quitted the meeting, followed by Cllr. Bercol. The meeting broke up in disorder, and was not resumed.
* * *
"...so Rontane's sulking in his tent, Kerovian and company are claiming a moral victory and the overall effect is complete and utter chaos," Taj said. "I love it. Three weeks to Christmas and already people are giving me presents."
"Is Councillor Kerovian actually on your side?" Kimball asked.
"Not really. Mostly she's not on Rontane's side, which puts her on my side some of the time. Also she's never approved of thuggery in high places, which lines her up with me against the whole Federation."
"Isn't what I've just done thuggery, Supreme Commander?" Kimball said.
"Yes, but I've never denied the occasional necessity of doing something one doesn't approve of. Besides, we made sure no-one actually got hurt. Those people are still quite rich enough to live in luxury for the rest of their lives. You did wonderfully, Kimball dear, and I'm very pleased with you."
Kimball glowed. "Thank you, Supreme Commander."
"And the best of all is to have you back." Taj walked round her desk and lowered herself to the floor. "Take a message, dear, if you would. To Tanna, at the Climate Control Centre. 'Auntie 'Mani says: I'm dreaming of a white one.' Sign it Taj and send it via the private channel."
"Is it code, Supreme Commander?"
"Not yet," Taj said, "but it's going to be."
“Because I'm a human being.”--Muller.
Vila peered into the night. It looked back at him, inscrutably. Blake was still out cold at his feet. Mysterious rustlings and weird animal cries drifted on the breeze, along with the incessant drumbeat.
"If there's one thing I hate, it's being bored and scared at the same time," Vila grumbled.
"Oh, I think we can do something about that," said a voice behind him. It was a hard, thin, sneering voice, and unpleasantly familiar.
Vila leapt up, spun round, tripped over Blake and sat down hard.
It was that girl from Gauda Prime, the one who'd been holding them at gunpoint, the one...he'd knocked down.
Vila smiled ingratiatingly.
"Hello again," he said.
* * *
Gan dozed at the teleport console. He was a light sleeper at the best of times; he could catnap anywhere, any time, and the slightest disturbance would wake him.
So when a twig snapped under someone's foot, he was alert instantly, if a trifle confused. Twigs were somewhat scarce on the Liberator.
"I certainly didn't expect to see you again," said Vila's voice from the teleport console.
"Especially here," Vila went on. "I mean, the last time I saw you was on Gauda Prime, remember? Funny thing, you were pointing a gun at me then too. Well, not just me, all of us."
"Shut up and keep still," said another voice nastily.
"I can't help it, guns make me nervous, especially Federation guns, it's something about the look of them. Shouldn't your friends be here by now? I mean, you called them ages ago. How far do they have to come? I mean, we could drag Blake part of the way--"
"I said shut up."
"Sorry." There was a pause. Gan strained his ears to catch every sound. Vila was in trouble, but he wasn't panicking. He had opened the voice channel on his bracelet. Which meant that any sound Gan made would be relayed to Vila and would almost certainly alert whomever was holding him. All he could do was listen.
Well, almost all.
Carefully, timing his actions to the random noises of Terminal's night, Gan patched the signal through to the flight deck.
* * *
"Carnell, do you realise what you're saying?" Servalan demanded.
Carnell cut her off with a raised hand and a warning glance at the communicator console. Servalan nodded in immediate comprehension, and Carnell stepped closer to listen to the tiny voices emanating therefrom.
"How many of you are there on Terminal, anyway?" Vila's voice said chattily. "I mean, how many squadrons? Not that I'm trying to pump you for information, of course, fat lot of good it'd do me, only talking makes it easier, wouldn't you say? I mean, here we are, you with a gun, me with Blake, sitting here all alone, we might as well make friendly conversation--"
There was a shot. Vila yelped.
"That was just a warning." Servalan blinked, and beckoned Carnell aside. "When I say shut up, I mean shut up. I haven't forgotten what you did to me."
"I only hit you," Vila protested.
"You wrecked my career! I was an officer, and I got knocked down by a stupid, yellow-bellied thief, and now I'm stuck on this godforsaken pesthole and it's your fault."
"Oh, come on--"
There was another shot.
"What is it?" Carnell whispered.
"I know that voice," Servalan said, in the same tone. "It's Arlen. She--" They edged further away. "She was Sleer's agent in Bla--in what I thought was Blake's group on G.P. Not very likeable."
"The next one will not miss," Arlen snapped. "So keep still and keep quiet."
The ensuing silence was broken by a rustling sound. Under its cover Carnell said, "I'd better get down to the teleport in case Gan needs help. Will you go back to the treatment unit and watch Avon?"
Carnell held her with his eyes. "It really is good to have you back with us, Servalan," he said.
"It's good to be back, Carnell," Servalan answered, in the same tone.
They kissed lightly, and went their separate ways.
* * *
Gan met Carnell in the corridor.
"The channel is two-way," Gan said in a low voice. "You didn't make any noise on the flight deck, did you?"
Carnell sighed. "I'm not a complete fool. How sensitive are the pickups?"
"We don't know. Not this sensitive, I hope." They moved further back.
"So, Vila's got himself caught again, and is letting us know about it." Carnell smiled. "He obviously isn't too overawed by his captor."
"I think someone else is coming," Gan said. "We'll have to wait and see what happens. Then you'd better put me down somewhere nearby."
Carnell spread his hands. "I don't know how."
"It's easy enough. I can do it. Vila can do it. Shouldn't be too hard for a genius like you. Here, I'll show you. Just be quiet."
He led Carnell to the teleport console.
"Ah, Section Leader, what have we here?" said a new voice.
* * *
Arlen saluted. "Roj Blake, sir, and a member of his group."
"Splendid." Quute studied the shivering Vila. "You're, ah--you're quite sure it is Blake this time, Section Leader?"
"Sir." Arlen's voice dripped venom. "That is Blake. This is Vila Restal."
"Ah. Well, Vila, what are we going to do with you?"
"Sir, I think we should take them back to base and interrogate them."
"Yes, all right, Section Leader, appreciate your input, thank you." Quute walked over to Blake and nudged him with his boot. "Come on, Blake, if that's who you are. What's wrong with him?" This over his shoulder to Arlen.
"I don't know, sir," Arlen said pointedly. "He was this way when I found him."
"Well, we'd better get him back to base. Come along, Vila."
"Sir," Arlen said.
"What is it now, Section Leader?" Quute's voice had an edge of irritation.
"Colonel, he's unconscious."
"I can see that, Section Leader."
"And he's twice my weight."
The Colonel smiled condescendingly. "Well, you've had officer training. Use your initiative. Rig up a travois or a sled or something." The Colonel turned away and set off, herding Vila before him. "Heave ho, Section Leader," Quute called cheerily.
Arlen looked helplessly from his departing back to the inert body of Blake.
"Heave ho, Section Leader," she mimicked. "Damn officers."
"Need a hand?" Gan said into her ear.
* * *
"You've got to call a meeting," Bercol insisted.
"I will not."
"I will thank you not to call me Rontane in that tone of voice, Bercol."
"Sorry, I'm sure," Bercol said with an injured air.
"Through crisis after crisis I have held that collection of incompetents and scoundrels together, and they accuse me..." Words failed Rontane, and he contented himself with a snort.
"Has it occurred to you," Bercol said timidly, "that you're playing right into Taj's hands?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, if you refuse to reconvene the Council, she can seize power on the grounds that there is no active government."
"True, I suppose," Rontane said. "Why should I care?"
"Why should you care?" Bercol repeated. "Rontane, listen to yourself. All the years I have known you, power has been the be-all and end-all of your life. Now you're letting it slip into the hands of an enemy because someone insulted you. Tell me again that you haven't changed."
For the first time Rontane appeared uncertain. "I...there are other things in life besides power," he said, frowning. "I've always known that. Perhaps I've just grown tired of taking insults from fools. Perhaps I've found some self-respect at last. In any event, Taj is not my enemy. If she is anyone's enemy, she is the enemy of the High Council. Why should I share that enmity, when the Council have no respect for me? Tell me that, Bercol."
"Because without the High Council," Bercol said, "you are just another Alpha grade citizen. As I am. So if you're not going back," he stood up, "that's your decision. But I must. Sorry, Rontane." He turned to go, then turned back. "You ought to know that--that I was the one who betrayed your plans to Taj," he said. "That's how I got her to leave our estates alone. I didn't know it would turn out like this. I--" He gestured vaguely. "I wanted to help."
Rontane watched Bercol cross the room and open the door. At one point he seemed about to speak, but thought better of it. The door closed quietly.
"It's just you and me now, boy," he whispered.
Travis thumped his tail.
Outside, the first flakes of snow were falling.
* * *