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Links Book Two part 2

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BOOK TWO part 2

 

And now it had come to this. The last betrayal but one.

"Is it him?" Tarrant said.

"It's him," Vila said.

"He's sold us, Avon," Tarrant said. "All of us. Even you."

Slowly the room was filling with shadows.

"Is it true?"

"Avon, it's me, Blake."

The shadows were spawning demons.

"Stand still!"

"Have you betrayed us?" The demons were massing. "Have you...betrayed me?"

"Tarrant doesn't understand!"

The demons bared their fangs.

"Neither do I!"

"I set all this up."

The demons crouched to spring.

"Yes!"

"Avon, I was waiting for you--"

The demons swarmed over him, grabbed the gun and fired, and Anna went down, and fired again, and Gan fell headlong, and again, and Cally died in agony, and then they were dying all around him and he was helpless in the demons' grip while Dayna fell and Vila fell and Tarrant fell and Soolin fell and the worlds went down in flame and thunder and blood until only he was left, alone on the plain of ashes (or was it a gravel pit somewhere near Rickmansworth?) beneath a lifeless sky strewn with dead stars.

He saw her afar off, pacing steadily towards him with catlike grace, her robe pure white at one step and deepest black at the next, and he knew that whichever colour it was when she reached him, even thus would he be judged.

She stopped, and surveyed him.

"She walks in beauty," he quoted, "like the night."

"Poetry," Servalan said with a smile. "A rare accomplishment in murderers."

"I had a literary childhood."

"You should have stayed with literature."

"So what happens now?"

"What did you expect?"

"Judgment. Punishment. An end to it all."

Servalan laughed. "That sort of thing went out with the human race," she said chidingly. "You don't get off as lightly as that, Avon."

And she took a step forward, and the whiteness of her robe grew in intensity until it dazzled his eyes and he toppled forward into the blinding, intolerable light...

* * *

"I warned Blake," Vila was saying sourly as he tramped through the trees, hands on head. "I told him, I said, if we go to Terminal there'll be trouble."

"Didn't listen, eh?" Quute nodded sympathetically. "Superior officers for you. Never do. Exactly the same trouble with mine. Flaw in the system, I suppose. Come on, now, pick up the pace, nearly there."

In fact they were within sight of the entrance to the base (which looked exactly the same to Vila as it had last time he had seen it, except that it was intact) when something big and black and hairy came barrelling out of the night with a banshee scream and knocked Quute flying.

Vila backed away, drawing his handgun. Quute and the link rolled over and over in a tangle of blood and fur and silver braid; there was an instant of deadlock and then Quute somehow got his legs up and jack-knifed. The link flew through the air and landed in a bush.

Vila shot it, turned and fled for his life.

Quute lay still a moment, winded, bleeding and bruised, but so far as he could tell not seriously hurt. There was no sound from the link, and this eventually persuaded him that it was dead. Which meant that there would be other links along in a moment to devour the carcass. The smell of link blood brought them from miles around.

He got up painfully and staggered towards the base. The General could damn well chase Blake himself if he was so minded.

* * *

Vila tried to get his bearings. He had to get back to Blake. Blake was his responsibility, if he let Blake down now--

A huge humped shape loomed up before him. Vila yelled and backed away.

"It's all right," Gan said, "it's only me."

Vila fainted.

When he came to, a few minutes later, Gan had unslung Blake from his shoulders and was building a fire.

"Ah, you're awake," he said. "Neat trick with the bracelet. We got a locator fix, secured Blake, and then I set off to follow you."

"What happened to Arlen?"

"Oh, the girl? She's tied up in the branches of a tree for safe keeping. That's what took me so long, finding a tree worth the name to put her in. Nasty piece of work, isn't she?"

"We didn't hit it off. Thanks for coming after me."

"How did you escape?" Gan got the fire going on the second try.

"A link attacked the guy with the gun."

"A what?"

"A link. They're sort of apes, only homicidal maniac apes. Servalan says they're what man will become in the future."

"Sounds like just the sort of thing that Servalan would say." Gan smiled across the fire. "I wouldn't believe it anyway."

"Why not?"

"'Cause if it were true, there wouldn't be any point in going on."

"Is there?" Vila said gloomily.

"Well, I don't know," Gan said, "but I'd feel pretty silly if I stopped."

* * *

"Kimball, is there any news of the Council?"

"Well, Rontane's definitely resigned as Secretary, three or four of the others have followed him, but Wathco is still trying to get some sort of interim Council together."

"I applaud his spirit in a doomed cause. I'm proud of Rontane, Kimball. Who would have thought one little nudge to his ego would make it grow so great?" Taj got up. "Have you seen the snow?"

"Two feet and still falling, Supreme Commander." Kimball frowned. "Won't it disrupt essential services?"

"If they can be disrupted by a few feet of snow, then they need improvement," Taj said with a grin. "Get your heaviest coat and come outside with me."

"What for, Supreme Commander?"

"I want to make a snowman."

* * *

Blake woke up with a headache and a vast sense of released pressure. At last he knew what he had to do. At last the puzzle was truly complete, every scrap of memory in place.

He sat up. Across the fire, Vila and Gan stared at him for a frozen moment.

"Are you all right, Blake?" Vila ventured.

"For the first time since this business started, Vila," Blake said, "yes."

Clarifications

I decide what I need to know.”--Cancer.

"Good morning. You have reached the Terran Administration Climate Control Centre. Unfortunately we are unable to take your call in person. The freak weather conditions currently sweeping the NordEurop region are connected with classified activities on the part of Space Command, and are likely to continue for some time. Normal weather will be resumed as soon as possible. Please do not call again. *beep*"

* * *

"What is the matter with these people?" Taj demanded. "You'd think they'd never seen snow before."

"NordEurop hasn't had snow since a month after Star One was destroyed, and before that for seventy years. How do you think they should react, Supreme Commander?"

"Mm. Set up a crisis room somewhere, Kimball. Have a few dozen soothing voices to cope with the panicking citizenry, and a bunch of experts to advise the services how to cope. Tell them we have manpower and hardware which we will place at their disposal if they need it. I suppose I shouldn't cripple the whole region just for a whim without making some reparation." Taj looked hard at Kimball. "Why aren't you panicking?"

"I'm from NordAmerik region, Supreme Commander, the northeastern tip. We have snow practically all year round." Kimball shrugged. "Somewhere has to have it, and we're used to it from way back."

Taj brightened. "Does it make you homesick?"

"Not really," Kimball admitted. "It was one of the reasons I left. Regular Outside patrols lose their charm if you can look down and see your ear on the ground."

"Oh. Well, get in touch with the folks back home and start picking brains. They'll know how to run things in this sort of climate if anyone does." Taj looked up at her. "I'm relying on you, Kimball."

"You can, Supreme Commander," Kimball said.

Taj turned her attention back to the object in the centre of her office. It was predominantly green, with a brown columnar base, and stood in a wooden tub of earth.

"I do hope this is right," she muttered. "Does it look right to you, Kimball?"

"As far as I can tell, Supreme Commander, it's just like the ones we had at home." Kimball paused in the doorway. "What's bothering you?"

"Well, all it's got is these green needle things."

"So?"

"So if it's a fur tree, where's the fur?"

* * *

"Message being relayed from Terminal garrison to Earth Headquarters, Commander."

"Well spotted, Lacie. Intercept it for me, would you?"

"Yes, Commander."

Paternoster waited.

"It reads 'Unidentified vessel in Terminal orbit now confirmed as Liberator. Blake present with at least two of group. Urgently request reinforcements.' It is signed General Kolbodon and tagged priority one, Commander."

"Add a rider to it, Lacie, to the effect that we are already on the way, and send it on. And convey the same sentiments to that tiresome General." Paternoster smiled beatifically. "I should be very glad to relieve him of the burden of worrying about Blake."

"Yes, Commander."

* * *

"I want to find Cally first," Blake insisted. "I know she's here now, and I know she's alive."

"You could at least tell us what it is you've remembered," Vila said.

"Not yet. Not till I'm sure it's all still here and working. It's been far longer than we intended, all manner of things could have gone wrong, and for this to work at all it all has to be absolutely right."

"Who's we?" Gan said.

"The Terminal Project," Blake said. "It was a team of scientists from the Central Educational Complex back on Earth, quite a few years ago. We..." He broke off with an embarrassed laugh. "I'm being rather grandiose saying we. I was a very junior technician engineer, not part of the main group of scientists at all. My sole significant contribution to the project was to jury-rig the food synthesiser when we ran out of spare parts."

"Go on, go on," Vila said.

"The Project was set up officially to study Terminal, which had been left alone for nearly four centuries so that the life it bore could have a chance to evolve. It was the brainchild of Mora Ballantine, who was descended from one of the original team who constructed Terminal, seeded it and moved it out of the solar system. I was included in the group as a favour to one of the scientists involved, whose protegé I was. We stayed for six years. When we returned to Earth my--my mentor was killed, along with Ballantine and the rest. I met Bran Foster, and we organised the Freedom Party. Then--betrayal, arrest, trial, conditioning, lapse of time, return of memory, arrest, trial, and you know the story from then on."

"But what did you do on Terminal?" Vila was quivering with frustrated curiosity.

"Oh," Blake said casually, a strange smile on his face, "we destroyed the power of the Federation. Completely."

"Blake--"

"Get some sleep, you two. I'll stand watch. Tomorrow we start looking for Cally."

And he would say no more.

* * *

Avon opened his eyes. The light was still blinding, and his limbs ached and throbbed with disuse. He seemed to be in the treatment unit of the Liberator, and Servalan was perched on an adjacent couch watching him. She was wearing a dark green tunic and trousers, and there was something about her head...

"If--" His voice was rusty too. He cleared his throat. "If this is a dream, then it's the most original so far. What have you done with your hair?"

"Nothing yet. I'm not familiar with the facilities on this ship. How do you feel, Avon?"

"I don't know. Where is Blake?"

"He's down on Terminal, with Vila and Gan."

Avon cursed and swung his legs off the couch. Servalan got up to help.

"Keep away from me!" Avon snarled. "If this is some scheme of yours, Servalan, I swear I'll--"

"Kill me?" Servalan sighed. "How predictable you are, Avon. No wonder Orac found you so easy to programme."

Avon blinked. "What?"

Servalan considered. "No. I think we'll leave that for later. I'm not sure I can explain it to you."

"Then try explaining," Avon said, "just what you are doing on this ship."

"Convalescing," Servalan said, "like you. Blake was kind enough to take me under his wing while I was suffering from--" She broke off. "Now I know I'll never be able to explain that to you. Avon, I am unarmed, I am alone and I look ridiculous--"

"No," Avon said quietly. "Never that."

"I am no possible threat to you or this ship. Otherwise Blake would never have left me alone with you, would he?"

"Well now, that is a pity," Avon said, getting up from the couch, "because I am a definite threat to you...Servalan."

He moved towards her. His hands found her neck and slowly tightened their grip. Servalan stood silently, her eyes on his, as he began to strangle her.

* * *

"It's a bit frightening," Irramani said, her breath making clouds in the air. "I mean, if you grew up in the dome, like me, any kind of weather's peculiar at first. But this..."

"It's natural, though," Taj said.

"I dunno. I think natural's what you're used to. This fresh air smells funny. The water's not been the same since they stopped recycling it and started pumping in this outside stuff. And as for the food..."

"It's a lot better for you. Not so many drugs, more protein and more taste." Taj stumped through the drifted snow, muffled up in a thick hooded coat and rubber boots, arms out to keep her balance. "The point is we were never meant to stay in the domes this long. They were just one part of a huge reclamation programme after the Atomic Wars. Out in the ocean there are enormous robot fish swimming back and forth filtering out impurities. Vast areas of land are covered with algae beds, doing the same to the air. It's all been going on since the radiation died down: it was started from inside the domes. But someone decided that people were easier to manage in their hutches, so the order to open up was never given."

"How long ago was that?"

"Oh, years and years and years. I'm no good with dates." Taj picked up some snow in her gloved hands and started rolling it. "That was the real crime, you know. That's what all this has been about. Nobody really knew what was wrong, but deep down you can't fool people. They knew something was being kept from them. The Administration had to keep a tighter lid on things. They needed more money, more resources. So they started pushing the inner worlds. The inner worlds pushed back. More money, more resources. Conquer the Outer Planets, push them harder and harder to subsidise the regime, and all the time keep the lid on, because by now if the lid came off no-one in the upper echelons would live to see it land."

On the last word Taj turned and hurled her snowball at a figure just coming into view round the curve of the dome wall. Her aim was true. The snowball landed full in the face; the figure staggered back, clutching at its eyes and groping for a gun, while a grey and white demon on four legs launched itself at Taj, barking furiously.

"It's all right, Rontane, it's only snow," Taj said through bursts of hilarity. Travis, unused to enemies who laughed, altered his avenging charge to a friendly greeting in mid-step, and allowed Taj to stroke his head and submit her hand for licking.

"Ah." Rontane cleared his vision and smiled edgily. "I understood it came in smaller units."

"Oh, most of the time it does," Taj said, straightening her face just in time. "So, what do you think of my weather?"

"Er, well, Travis seems to like it." Rontane smiled fondly at the puppy, who indeed seemed quite at home in the snow, bounding around Taj and the increasingly apprehensive Irramani with great zest. "I find it somewhat chilly, but quite exhilarating for all that. I take it you obtained this effect by tampering with Climate Control's computers?"

"It didn't take much tampering. This is the right season for snow. Most of Climate Control's efforts are directed towards keeping it off. I just got them to relax a little."

"And how much of this are we to expect?"

"About three months. That's as short a time as I could get and still have snow."

Rontane smiled again. "Well, Supreme Commander, I have to congratulate you. It was a brilliant move."

"I'm sorry?"

"Oh, there's no need to dissemble now. I have, after all, retired from public life, as it were. But I feel I have to voice my admiration. At one stroke you have made the entire dome and environs dependent upon Space Command for its continued function. The High Council, such as it is, is powerless now to oppose you. As I said, quite brilliant."

Travis leapt up on his hind legs and planted two cold wet forepaws on Rontane's chest.

"Excuse me, Supreme Commander. Madam." Rontane bowed to Taj and to Irramani, took a brightly coloured ball out of his pocket, showed it to Travis and then threw it as hard as he could. Travis bounded joyously after it, and Rontane followed more slowly.

There was a short silence.

"Let's go in, Irramani," Taj said in a small voice. "I think I feel sick."

* * *

"Well, go on, Avon," Servalan said crossly.

"Why?" Avon snapped. "What purpose of yours will it serve?"

Servalan reached up and knocked his hands away. "You really are the most exasperating man, Avon."

"Because I won't perform on command?"

"Because you won't do anything!" She caught her breath. "Maybe you can't. Is that it, Avon? Is the great leader powerless before a solitary unarmed woman? So powerless that he cannot even decide whether to kill or not?"

Avon stepped away, frowning. "I--feel no particular urge...to kill you," he said. "Which is strange, because I have innumerable reasons..."

Servalan put her hand on his shoulder.

"We have both been deeply traumatised, Avon," she said. "It's taken us weeks, possibly months, to heal ourselves. This, after all--" a gesture at the hair "--didn't grow overnight. Is it so strange if, now, we look at each other and see...just another lonely and frightened human being?"

"Yes," Avon said harshly. "Yes, Supreme Commander, Madam President, Commissioner, yes it is strange, because you have waded in blood to your hips to reach your goal of power, and I have lied and murdered and stolen for no reason that I can understand, and no-one could remain human under those circumstances. It is not just strange, it is simply beyond belief."

"No," Servalan whispered. "It isn't strange to be human. What's strange is to imagine you could be anything else."

She moved closer, turning him to face her, resting her arms on his shoulders in the old familiar gesture.

"Servalan..." he said uncertainly.

"The past can't be wiped away, Avon," Servalan said. "But we can stop looking at it...if we really want to."

A long shudder went through him, and his lips were curiously gentle, almost tentative, on hers.

* * *

"Good afternoon. You have reached the offices of the High Council of the Terran Federation. Unfortunately the business of the Council has been suspended pending a full emergency session. If your call is urgent, you may leave your name, number and a brief message after the tone. *beep*"

* * *

"Rise and shine, Vila," Gan said. "It's morning."

"Wurrgh," Vila said. "Are we on Terminal, or have I got a hangover?"

"Guess. Blake's up and raring to go, so don't keep him waiting."

Vila sat up. It was indeed morning, cold and grey. The fire was still crackling merrily, and Gan was roasting three small creatures over it.

"Breakfast," he said. "If these are what I think they are, they cook up very nicely. Some of the stuff you've been carrying around will go well with them."

"Don't we get to go back to the Liberator yet?" Vila was feeling acutely spaceship-sick, as opposed to feeling sick of spaceships. "It's safer up there. At least, it is if we all go up."

"I want to get started," Blake called, emerging from the undergrowth. "Time is wasting, and the ship isn't going anywhere until and unless Avon wakes up. You can ditch your surplus cargo here, Vila. I think it'll be fairly safe as long as you hide it properly."

"How are we going to find Cally anyway?" Vila inquired. "Assuming she wasn't killed in that Federation base, which is a bit of a large assumption to start with. You may be forgetting, I was right next to it when it blew up."

"There's far more construction on this world than the Federation are responsible for," Blake said. "There's an extensive network of underground tunnels. Unfortunately they're rather well hidden, and I haven't the foggiest idea where any of the entrances were...but if we can find one, I think Cally will be somewhere in that network. I'd be prepared to bet that the network linked up with the old Federation base in at least one place."

"So how do we find these entrances?" Gan said, turning the meat on its makeshift spit.

"Simple," Blake said. "First, we catch a link."

Abreactions

So much for trust.”--Gambit.

"There, there, Supreme Commander," Kimball said soothingly.

"I didn't want this," Taj sobbed. "I didn't."

"I know, Supreme Commander." Kimball offered a handkerchief. Taj blew her nose noisily.

"I'm not like That Woman, Kimball, am I?" she said damply.

"Absolutely not, Supreme Commander."

"I didn't pick the fight, they did. I only wanted to keep my job, not to--to--"

"I know, Supreme Commander," Kimball said again.

"Here you are, love." Irramani handed Taj a cup. "You shouldn't let him upset you."

"But he wasn't trying to upset me, he was trying to flatter me. Only I don't want that sort of flattery, Irramani. I don't want to be that sort of person." Taj looked at the tea. "You've put sugar in this tea." she said accusingly. "I can smell it."

"I think you need it," Irramani said.

Something of Taj's normal manner appeared through the tears. "Yes, well, thank you for the thought, dear, but when I want my fluffy teddy and my blue blanket, then maybe I'll want sweet tea. At the moment what I need is bolstering, and for that I need it strong and unadulterated." The brave smile wilted a bit. "I don't mean to be nasty, Irramani, I'm not getting at you, you know that. It's just--"

"I understand, love." Irramani took the cup away and returned a moment later with another.

Taj took a sip and smiled again. "That's more like it. Now then. Time for a strategy conference, dears, so rally round the flag and prepare to be sneaky. What should I do now?"

"Nothing you can do till the snow goes away," Irramani said. "Just keep things going. At least while you're in charge of the dome you're safe from the High Council."

"Yes, but what then?"

"Just hand it all back," Kimball said. "It's the last thing they'll expect you to do. Giving up your big advantage. That should hold them for a while, anyway."

"A while," Taj echoed, staring into the middle distance. "And then back to the war. Is this all there is, Kimball? Endless plotting and planning and watching my back, just to keep doing my job?"

Kimball shrugged. "You know what the Strategic Maxims say, Supreme Commander..."

Taj nodded. "'No-one ever ended a war by not fighting.'"

"And 'The best way to stop a war is to win it,' Supreme Commander." Kimball looked into Taj's eyes. "You may be forced to take it all."

Taj shivered, and took refuge in her teacup.

* * *

"So, Quute," the General said. "The Section Leader captures two members of Blake's group. You take one of them and promptly let him go--"

"Sir," Quute protested.

The General overrode him. "You let him go. Meanwhile the Section Leader is overpowered by the other one who is unconscious at the time." He snorted. "I have never in all my years in the service--"

"Sir, it's quite obvious to me what happened."

"And to me, Quute, and to me."

"Another of Blake's gang teleported down after I had left and overpowered the girl. We were inadequately briefed for this, sir, I had no idea they still had a working teleport system."

"You should have no idea anyway, Quute. Teleport is a classified subject. I don't fault you on that. But what about yours? A weedy little thief, for goodness' sake. You could have tucked him under your arm."

"I was attacked by a link, sir."

"Don't bother me with feeble excuses, man. Get out there and find the Section Leader. Then the pair of you can try to find those rebels. They're still around here somewhere, you mark my words."

"We need more men, sir--" Quute began.

"I know that!!" the General yelled. "Don't remind me! I asked for men, if you recall. I asked for a full company. You know what they told me?"

"Yes, sir," Quute muttered.

"The world isn't rated important enough for a full garrison. Classified Top Secret and only a class D world, I ask you!" The General fumed silently for a moment. "Had the nerve to tell me that if the world had been more than a D they'd--"

"Never have trusted you with it, sir, yes."

"Well," the General said. "Well, we'll get men now, you mark my words. Now Blake is here, oh yes. If we catch him we'll be made, you and me, Quute."

"And the Section Leader, sir," Quute reminded him.

"Eh? Oh yes, yes, of course, find her something not too demanding, I'm sure." The General seemed to come to himself. "Well, get out there, Quute, we haven't got him yet, you know."

Quute turned and remounted the ladder.

* * *

"I don't like this," Vila said.

"You could go back to the ship, you know," Blake said.

Vila stared at him. "Me? Miss out on the big revelation? Not a chance. Besides, if you remember, the population of the ship at the moment consists of Avon, Servalan and Carnell, and I trust them about as far as I could throw this planet. I'm sticking to you like glue."

"What a revolting thought," Blake said.

"There's one," Gan said, pointing.

A link had shuffled into view at the top of the shallow ravine they were watching. It seemed wary, looking from side to side, occasionally thumping its chest and emitting blood-chilling screams of challenge.

"Sounds friendly," Gan remarked. It was his first experience of a link. It looked to him much like any large hairy anthropoid.

"We've got to follow that?" Vila said.

"Ssh," Blake said urgently: the link had cocked its head and was listening intently. For a full minute they lay frozen behind the rocks that bordered the ravine. At last the link appeared satisfied that it was alone: it set off down the slope, towards the pile of tumbled stone that blocked the far end.

"Where does it think it's going?" Gan mouthed silently.

Blake pointed to the pile of rubble. "Come on," he said.

"What, now?" Vila looked queasily down at the link.

"It won't attack us now." Blake stood up and started down the slope. "If I'm right, that is."

"If he's right, that is," Vila repeated to Gan with ironic emphasis.

"Well, he obviously is," said Gan reasonably, "so let's not be left behind."

The link paid no attention to Blake whatsoever. It reached the blockage, stood for a moment, then went to the side of the ravine and pressed a section of the rock face. To the astonishment of Vila and Gan the whole mass of rubble hinged slowly upwards on hydraulic rams. The link calmly marched down the flight of steps thus revealed, into a brightly lit corridor.

"Come on, you two," Blake said, pursuing it.

Wordlessly, Gan and Vila followed.

* * *

Servalan stretched luxuriously.

"I don't know why we didn't do that a long time ago," she said. "It would have made things so much simpler."

"I'm sorry," Avon said wretchedly.

"I'm teasing you, Avon," Servalan said gently. "After all, given the state we're both in...and the fact that there isn't a lock on this door...and the fact that anything would have been an anticlimax after all this time chasing each other round the galaxy...I wasn't expecting fireworks the first time." She sighed extravagantly. "We'll just have to practice, that's all."

Avon stared.

"You don't get off that lightly, Avon." Servalan smiled wickedly. "But now we must get dressed. I haven't introduced you to Carnell yet."

Avon was instantly wary. "Who is Carnell?"

"He used to work for me. He made a rather bad mistake, and rather than face my displeasure, he took...early retirement. Vila found him on Freedom City and brought him up. Apparently they know each other quite well. Relax, Avon, and don't stand there holding your underpants like that. You look idiotic."

Avon dressed quickly and silently. Servalan took rather more time. They went up to the flight deck together.

"Ah, Avon," Carnell said, getting up from the couch. "I trust you're feeling better. It's a little unnerving, being alone on a ship one can't fly."

Avon sized him up. "You're not what I would have expected of a friend of Vila's," he said.

"Sober, you mean. Ah, but 'friend' is not quite the right word. I'm not sure what is. I spent some time a few years ago trying to make his head work the same way as everybody else's, so that the Federation could take it to pieces. Needless to say, I failed."

"Carnell," Avon said slowly. "The psychostrategist."

"My fame precedes me." Carnell bowed.

"I would have said infamy," Avon countered. "Where is Blake?"

"He's down on Terminal, Avon," Servalan put in. "I told you."

"So you did." Avon moved away from them. "Zen. Status report."

+ALL SYSTEMS ARE FUNCTIONING NORMALLY. STATUS IS FIRM+

"Where are the others?"

+ROJ BLAKE, OLAG GAN AND VILA RESTAL ARE ON THE SURFACE OF THE PLANETOID CALLED TERMINAL. JENNA STANNIS HAS DEPARTED THE LIBERATOR IN AN INDEPENDENT FLIGHT MODULE: SHE WILL BE RETURNING SHORTLY+

"Trusting soul, isn't he?" Carnell observed.

"All right," Avon said, swinging round to face them. "Now I can be sure that you are telling me at least part of the truth: what has been happening since Gan destroyed Orac?"

Carnell took a breath, then turned to Servalan.

"I've already told you," he said. "Fair's fair. You tell him."

* * *

"Why isn't it noticing us?" Vila hissed as the link plodded on ahead.

"Oh, it's noticing us all right," Blake said. "We just aren't relevant."

"What's it doing down here?"

The link paused by a door, which opened to admit it.

"Routine maintenance," Blake answered. "At the moment it has the intelligence of a fairly bright ape, and a set of instructions which it follows by rote at regular intervals to keep its part of the machinery going."

"And the machinery?" Gan prompted.

"All in good time," Blake said.

"Did the links build--" Vila gestured around "--all this, then?"

"Good lord, no. That was us. Now come on, we're perfectly safe from it as long as it's down here."

They passed the doorway. Vila glanced in to see the link checking gauges and making routine adjustments to what looked like a largish computer. There was something disturbing as well as incongruous about the sight. He hurried on to catch up with Blake and Gan.

"I'm trying to remember the layout," Blake said when they reached the first intersection. "Residential quarters used to be that way."

"You really think Cally's going to be down here?" Vila said.

"Well, if she's alive, and if she hasn't hitched a lift in the intervening time, then yes, I think down here is the only place she can be."

"But Avon said--"

"That he was sure she was dead, yes. He probably was." Blake's face held an all too familiar expression as he added, "Only I'm sure she's not, you see."

Vila and Gan exchanged glances.

"So who got her out of the Federation base, Blake?" Vila was disinclined to drop the subject. "Trained links?"

"Or giant squirrels?" Gan put in.

"I don't know," Blake said wearily. "Either. Both. You can always go back."

"You keep saying that," Vila said. "Doesn't make any difference. What would Avon say if we lost you again?"

"Good riddance?" Blake suggested with a smile.

They passed down a side corridor and into an area where the lights were dimmer, and some completely dark. Dust mantled the floor, and in the dust a set of footprints could be clearly seen leading away from them.

Gan bent down to study the prints. "Human," he said shortly. "Cally?"

"I hope so." Blake let his breath out in a long sigh. There is a big difference between being irrationally sure of something and finding it even tentatively confirmed. "Let's find out."

They began to follow the prints.

* * *

URGENT

PATERNOSTER CMDR S 17703 EX KIMBALL CMDR C 16937 PP SUCOMTERRA RAVENDRA T 17205 MREF XX407 MESSAGE BEGINS++++++++++++++

HOLD POSITION TO RENDEZVOUS WITH T16 TROOP CARRIER MILTON KEYNES FSID 9872/KJSR1365/34 BOUND FOR TERMINAL GARRISON STOP THEN PROCEED TO TERMINAL MAXIMUM SPEED STOP APPREHEND BLAKE AND GROUP AND BRING BACK ALIVE STOP

++++++++++++++MESSAGE ENDS

XX407/kivaarterrassmxupr1/vGC909

"Troops, eh?" Paternoster mused. "So that boorish General will get his way after all. Give him some men who are stout-hearted men and see what he brings back. Tillie, revised flight time to Terminal at the maximum speed of a T16."

"From time of rendezvous, Commander," Tillie said, "six days fifteen hours."

"As opposed to two days and eighteen hours," Paternoster said. "I am not normally given to profanity, but circumstances alter cases. Excuse me."

He left the bridge. From behind the closed door came an indistinguishable exclamation. The mutoids stolidly carried on working. After a moment Paternoster reappeared.

"I needed that," he said. "Lacie, inform Commander Dione, and then, Elsie and Tillie, you may bring us to a stop."

* * *

The line of footprints led down several side passages and back out again. "She must have come this way first of all," Vila suggested. "Exploring."

"Which means she was on her own," Blake said. "So how did she get out?"

"What is it makes you so sure she's alive, Blake?"

"I...don't...know." The words were wrung from Blake. "I just know she is. The same way I know I am."

"Blake!" Gan had gone on ahead. He was standing in a doorway from which the omnipresent dust had been swept clear. Blake and Vila joined him.

"Someone's been living here," Gan said. "Look, the food synthesiser's operational and the bed's been made up."

"That's Cally," Vila said. "Look. Hospital corners."

"Are there any prints leading the other way?" Blake went to the door and looked. "Yes. Several sets. Coming and going. She's here." He savoured the thought. "She's here."

//Blake?//

A figure appeared at the end of the passage. Blake stared hungrily as she came closer. She wore a simple grey tunic and skirt. Her hair was bound up in a bun at the nape of her neck. She advanced warily, almost reluctantly.

//What colour was I wearing...when you first saw me?//

"Well, it was difficult to tell in that orange light," Blake said, "but it looked to me like a rather violent red." He took a step forward. "Cally..."

"It is you," Cally said wonderingly. "I couldn't be sure...it has been such a long time..." Her voice broke. "Why didn't you come back?"

"Do you mean why didn't I come back to the ship, or why didn't Avon come back to Terminal?"

"Both," Cally said, almost laughing, almost crying. "I suppose Avon thought I was dead."

"We all did," Vila said. "Right up until five minutes ago. How did you get out, Cally?"

"I was rescued," Cally said.

"Trained links?" Gan said.

"Or giant squirrels?" Vila said.

Cally stared. "No," she said, "it was a man in a purple dressing gown called Powers."

"Which is a pretty silly name for a dressing gown," Vila said before he could stop himself.

 

Convergences

It was my planning that got us here.”--Don Keller.

"When the base blew up," Cally said, "I was trapped. A pillar fell across my legs. Avon came down and tried to get me out..." She dropped her gaze. "Then he had to leave."

Blake said nothing.

"Powers freed me and brought me to this place. He told me that if I waited you would come. He said it would be you. I thought he was mad, but Avon and the others had already left the planet, and I had no other immediate plans, so..." She shrugged. "I waited."

"What have you been doing all this time?"

"Watching links, mostly. They do routine maintenance, but they miss the anomalous failures. The computing power in this place is incredible, Blake. Oh, and I have also tried to make life difficult for the Federation garrison in small ways. Blocking their ventilation shafts and other diversions."

"I can imagine." Blake got up. "Well, let's get started. There's a lot to do."

"Those were Tarrant's words," Cally said. "Is he with you?"

"Dayna and Tarrant died on Gauda Prime," Vila said uncomfortably. "Blake tried to save them, but..."

"They were children." Sadness filled Cally's eyes and voice. "They moved through this war as though it were a game, and they thought they would live forever. I hoped they would be spared." She looked at Blake. "So, you and Jenna and Gan are alive, and Dayna and Tarrant are dead. We are as we were. Have we achieved anything since we began?"

"Maybe not," Blake said, "but we can achieve something now that will make it all worthwhile. Come on. There's something I want you to see."

* * *

There was silence for a long time after Servalan finished speaking.

At last Avon said, "I'm waiting."

"What for?"

"The offer."

Carnell sighed heavily.

"What offer?" Servalan demanded.

"Well, excuse me for trying to second-guess you, Servalan, but I was expecting something along the lines of 'You don't need Blake and the others, Avon, fly away with me in the Liberator and we can live happily ever after.' Do you really expect me to fall for the same trick twice?" Avon's voice had turned harsh. With one fluid motion he was out of the couch and lunging for the gun racks before Servalan or Carnell could do more than blink. "I don't know what your scheme is, Servalan," he snapped, whirling round to cover them, "but it won't work. I'm not as naïve as all that. Blake on Terminal with some mysterious device that will finally solve all his problems, leaving you and your tame puppeteer alone on the ship? No, Servalan, it's too close to the last time. I don't need Orac to recognise a pack of lies."

Carnell got up. Avon jerked the gun at him. "There's one way to solve this, Avon," he said calmly. "You can have voice contact with Blake, Vila or Gan, or all three. If you believe in them, then you must believe us."

"Your President has shown me that nothing can be believed," Avon snarled; but he allowed Carnell to activate the communicator console.

"Blake. Can you hear me?"

"Carnell, isn't it?" Blake's voice was fuzzed but recognisable.

"We have a situation up here," Carnell said calmly. "A question of belief."

"Oh dear. Avon's up, I take it."

"Up and armed. He finds our testimony less than reliable."

"Our?"

"I forgot to mention that Servalan's up as well," Carnell said, with a comic grimace for Avon's benefit. "Can you suggest some way to resolve the situation?"

There was a silence. "I think so," Blake said. "You go to the teleport. Avon brings Gan up, and Gan puts you three down." He chuckled. "It's a bit like..."

"Cannibals and missionaries, yes," Carnell finished. "A neat solution, though. That way the ship is in the hands of someone you can trust, and we unknown quantities are all down there with you. At your mercy."

"If you like," Blake returned evenly. "Avon, are you agreeable?"

"I've never found him so," Servalan whispered behind her hand to Carnell.

"Give me a reason why I can't kill these two and take the ship," Avon said.

"Vila would be very very upset," Blake said.

"Damn right I would!" Vila's voice quivered with outrage. "You've done me out of that ship once, Avon, you're not going to do it again. Send me up with Gan, Blake, if he's planning something like that I want to be on board."

"Then you'd miss the big revelation, wouldn't you?"

"I don't care. I've never been as safe as I was on the Liberator. Not to mention the best booze in the galaxy. I won't let him throw me off again."

Carnell cleared his throat. "When you've quite finished arguing..."

"Vila," Avon murmured. "All right, Blake, if that is who you are," he said aloud. "I will do as you suggest."

"Good. Get ready to bring Gan up. Out."

Avon gestured with the gun.

"Avon, do you really need that--" Servalan started to say.

"Move!!" Avon shouted.

Without a word, Carnell and Servalan put their hands on their heads and allowed Avon to shepherd them off the flight deck.

* * *

"We should have done this three weeks ago, Supreme Commander," Kimball fretted.

"I think your sources are distinctly questionable, Kimball," Taj said. "Anything that talks about a singer called Engelbert Humperdink must be at least partly fiction. Anyway, technology's come a long way since those days. If we can fly to the stars, I'm sure we can speed up a simple process like this."

"I hope so, Supreme Commander," Kimball said. "All this stuff made a big hole in the base's budget. I'd hate to waste it."

"Trust me, Kimball," Taj said firmly. "Now, what comes next?"

"Uh..." Kimball consulted the yellowed paper before her. "Got it. Beat up the eggs in a different bowl, and then add the rum, barley wine and stout."

"Stout what?" Taj said, pausing in mid-beat.

"It's a sort of beer."

"I'm no wiser."

"This is it, Supreme Commander, at least this is as close as the Food people can get."

Taj studied the liquid with distaste. "Oo-er," she said. "The world's almost only black drink. What's that scum on the top? Never mind, don't tell me. This goes on the eggs?"

"When you've beaten them, Supreme Commander. And these two as well."

"Right," Taj said faintly, wielding the whisk once again.

Lined up against the wall, a squad of troopers stood motionless. Each was armed with a wooden spoon. They had been selected for physical strength and stamina, and told nothing beyond the bare fact that they would be taking part in a secret mission of vital importance.

As Taj had put it at the briefing, "We live in stirring times, and this is your chance."

* * *

Avon, Servalan and Carnell materialised in the dusty corridor where, a moment previously, Gan had been standing.

"Avon," Blake said, stepping forward. "It's good to see you."

Avon made no move. His eyes were narrowed painfully. "Can I...be sure?" he said, so quietly it was almost a breath.

Blake gripped his hand. "Be sure, Avon," he said. "This time it's me."

"And...not a trap?"

"No trap. No dream. No impostor. Me, Avon. Blake."

Avon looked down. "You're going to break my hand," he said.

"Sorry." Blake released him.

"Vila." Avon caught sight of the thief, edging away behind Blake.

"Hi," Vila said uncomfortably. "Er, sorry about what I said."

"Don't be. It convinced me that you existed."

"Congratulations, Vila," Carnell put in. "Once again you succeeded where a mere psychostrategist failed."

"I had to be sure," Avon said. His voice was still oddly gentle, his manner tentative. "These past months, since Gauda Prime...have seemed like another dream. They tell me that Orac was programming me...I still don't know why. You were all dead..."

"Ah," Blake said. "In that case, I'm afraid we have another shock for you."

On cue, Cally stepped out of concealment.

//Avon, do not be alarmed. What you see is real. I am as alive as you.//

Avon's composure melted away. He took a step towards her. "I believe you," he said. "No Federation computer could simulate the sensation of telepathy." He took another step. "Except...I killed you."

"No, Avon," Cally said. "You didn't. You tried to save me from pain, and I thank you for that. But you could not kill me in cold blood...and I thank you for that too."

"It can't be that simple."

"Why should it not be, Avon?" Cally smiled. "Who makes the rules?"

A long frozen moment passed between them, and melted.

"I'm glad you're alive, Cally," Avon said at last.

"And so are we all, I'm sure," Carnell said. "Now will someone kindly tell us why we are all down here?

"Yes, Blake," Avon said, swinging round. "What is this discovery that is going to make us rich and invincible?" He winced, remembering.

"I never said that," Blake said. "What it will do is end the power of the Federation once and for all. I'll have to give you some background first, though, so let's find somewhere comfortable."

"At last," Vila remarked.

* * *

"Gan, can you hear all this?"

"Clear as crystal."

"Good. No reason why you should be left out. Right. Here goes.

"Most of you will know about the CEC, so this first bit is for Cally's benefit. Four or five hundred years ago, in the days of the old United Planets, when government was still seen as a force for good, a consortium of idealistic dreamers established a centre for general education. Everyone was welcome, and everything was taught, not just technical and engineering subjects as was the practice nearly everywhere else. Arts, cultural studies, philosophy, the lot. Now, fortunately these dreamers had some very shrewd friends, and between them they had what was then quite a lot of money. They invested it wisely, and made the Central Educational Complex financially independent in perpetuity. They also laid down guidelines for its administration, to make sure it not only survived but retained its independence no matter what changes took place in the outside world. And on the whole, it's worked. There've been times when disaster was close. The place has always been a hotbed of freethinking, after all. But it's known when to bend with the wind, and when to stand firm.

"About ten years ago I was studying there, under Garth Formain, who was quite simply the foremost authority on theoretical engineering in the Federated Worlds. He took rather a shine to me." Blake permitted himself a small smirk. "When he was co-opted for a top secret project, he wanted me as his assistant, and on his recommendation I went along."

"The Terminal Project," Vila prompted.

"Yes. We were to spend a number of years here, studying the developments that had taken place since it had been moved, and report any findings that were of interest to the Administration. Or so they told me before we left Earth.

"Once I got to Terminal, though, all was revealed. The team included all the top scientists in the CEC, and they were all dissidents, every one. And the Project was no simple exploratory mission. Terminal was to be a time-bomb whose bloodless explosion would signal the end of the Federation's rule and the beginning of a new age.

"We worked here for about six years, and at the end of it we went back to Earth. And as we were getting off the ship some madman threw a bomb. I don't know what he did it for. It hardly mattered, then or now.

"It killed all the project leaders, except for Formain, who was left paralysed and aphasic, and died a month later. Most of us technicians were still in the ship; we escaped almost uninjured. But that mad bomber effectively wiped out the Terminal Project. Because, you see, they'd taken a very elementary security precaution with all of us on the way back."

"They'd blocked your memories," Carnell guessed.

"Yes," Blake said. "With our consent, of course. That way we couldn't reveal anything under interrogation. And they did it properly, too, otherwise they would have found out about this later, when they pulled me in."

"It doesn't matter how well it's done," Carnell said, "it's always stupid. Memory is the material that personality is built from. Alter memory and you alter personality." He laughed suddenly. "No wonder your behaviour was so damned difficult to predict. Nobody knew you'd already had memories blocked."

"Well, I expect they were aware of that danger, but it seemed the lesser evil. Anyway, I went on to form the Freedom Party with Bran Foster, and of course got caught, at which point the official history begins. The Terminal memories didn't start to resurface until after Gauda Prime, when we were back on board the Liberator. I was thinking about Cally, and--"

"So what is the Terminal Project?" Avon said.

"I'll show you," Blake said. "I think I've just about worked myself up to it now. First we have to find a link."

"Why do I have this feeling of déjà vu?" Vila muttered.

A few moments later they were back in the occupied part of the base.

"There should be one along in a minute," Blake said eventually.

"I doubt it," Vila said darkly. "You know how it is with links, you don't see any for hours and then three come along all together--"

"Ssh."

A link marched stolidly along the passage, heading towards the exit to the outside world.

"Watch," Blake said, and stepped out into its path. In his hand he held a metal rod about two feet long, which he had taken from a wall cupboard in the residential area.

"What's that for?" Vila whispered.

"Well," Carnell said, "it's like the old mule-trainer said: first you have to get their attention..."

The link tried to get past Blake, first left, then right. Blake dodged right, dodged left, planted his feet firmly and feinted with the rod. The link seemed to register his presence, if only as an obstacle: it backed away, a low rumble rising in its throat.

Blake held up his hands.

"Attention. Roj Blake, Terminal Project number four nine two," he said clearly. "The code word is Sagittarius. Sagittarius."

The link froze. The growl died in its throat. It stood motionless. Blake did likewise, his hands raised, watching the link intently.

"What does it do now?" Avon said. "Jump through a hoop?"

"Quiet!" Blake snapped.

The link began to tremble. Slowly, emitting little whimpers of pain, it straightened up. Muscles creaked as it gained its full height. The contours of its face shifted. A small, incredulous, triumphant smile came on to Blake's face as he watched.

"What is it doing?" Servalan breathed.

"Evolving," Carnell replied in a strained voice. For once his imperturbable façade seemed to be cracking.

The link's jaw quivered. It took a breath.

"Nnnnuhh."

"Come on," Blake said encouragingly.

"Nnndehh."

"Evolving?" Vila echoed.

"Nndehh-ssehh."

"That's it." Blake was as tense as the link.

"This is amazing," Carnell breathed.

"Dehh-sehhnn."

"Dessen?"

"Deh-ssen." The link smacked its lips. "Dessen. Dessen. Harad...Dessen." It brought its hands up and looked at them. "Harad Dessen."

"Harad Dessen?" Blake repeated.

The link nodded. "Harad Dessen Terminal Project two five four." It looked up from its hands. "My god, it worked. Blake, is that you?"

Reverses

Do you want the applause now or will it wait?”--Keiller.

Quute hummed to himself as he prepared for bed. He had extricated Arlen from the branches of a tree and brought her, too choked with rage even to swear, back to the base. It had been almost satisfying. Another source of satisfaction was the extra duty time he had logged rescuing her. He could sleep late tomorrow morning with perfect impunity. Regulations, after all, were regulations.

The General opened the door and marched in without knocking.

"What d'you think you're doing, Quute?"

"Off duty, sir," Quute said.

"Off duty?" the General parroted. "Off duty? May I remind you, Quute, that there are dangerous rebels on the planet. Now stop all this foolishness and get dressed, there's a good chap."

Quute took a deep breath. "No, sir."

The General stared blankly.

Quute adopted the posture and tone that Arlen had used on him so often. "If the General will consult regulation 1477, subsection two paragraph b--"

"Quute," the General said softly, "let me put it this way. Get dressed and get out there or I'll have you shot."

Quute stood for a long moment, adding things up in his mind.

"Yes, sir," he said at last.

"Yes, sir," the General mimicked. "So I should think. Regulations indeed."

He stalked out. Quute reached for his trousers.

* * *

"There's some pain in my back," the link said, "and my hands and my jaw ache. But my mind...it was never so clear before." It looked at Blake. "It's been a long time, hasn't it?"

"Far too long," Blake said.

"Blake, what is all this supposed to mean?" Avon said.

"Harad Dessen," Blake said, "was one of the technicians who came here with the Terminal Project. He returned to Earth with us and was killed along with Ballantine and the rest."

"So how is he here?" Vila said. "And why doesn't he get a haircut?"

"Look here," the link said, bending its head forward. The glint of metal showed among the coarse hair. "Every link has an implant which is connected to the master computer. The brain prints of all Project members are on file. When the implant picks up the code word, the computer transmits a brain print to every active implant. Result: I am a link, but I am also Harad Dessen, as he was when he left Terminal for Earth. The implants also provide instant communication via the computer." It cocked its head as if listening. "They're all waking up...Ransom, Lack, Norton...Sellick and Martel are carrying on the argument they were having before the prints were taken..."

"Formain?" Blake prompted.

"I'm not getting him. He may be outside, of course, or between incarnations at the moment. Ah, Ballantine's awake. Now we should get some action. Come with me."

Dessen set off, its gait somewhere between the human and the link. Blake looked round at Avon, Cally, Servalan, Carnell and Vila, and set off after it.

"I'm not getting it," Vila said.

"Neither am I," Avon agreed. "So far, all we have is a rather dubious scheme to ensure personal immortality for a clique of dissident academics."

"It's rather more than that," Carnell put in. "If they can communicate with each other via those implants, then they are effectively telepathic among themselves."

"Yes, but what's the point?" Vila said.

A link came down the corridor and beckoned to them. "Blake's wondering where you are," it called.

"Well, let's not keep him waiting," Servalan said. "With any luck, we might get to the reason for all this before we all die of old age."

* * *

They found Blake surrounded by busy links in a large hall whose walls were lined with computer consoles. It looked strangely familiar.

"I thought you'd got lost," he said. "This is Mora Ballantine." He indicated one of the links, who looked up and nodded. "And this is Star Null."

Avon glanced around. "Star One, duplicated and expanded. This is beginning to make sense."

"You can see it, can't you, Avon?" Blake said. "A bloodless takeover. Whoever controls the computers controls the Federation."

"And how many hostages will you let them shoot before you give up this time?"

"That's the beauty of it," Blake enthused. "This will be a completely subversive takeover. No-one will know who's responsible."

"Are you serious, Blake?" Servalan said. "Are you going to hand the Federated Worlds over to these...these apes?"

"Oh, but we're not apes, Servalan," said the link Blake had indicated as Ballantine. "We are neither man nor woman, we are neither brute nor human. But we remember when we were. I particularly remember trying to teach a bored and disruptive young woman the rudiments of psychobiology." She walked forward. "I remember the insulting way she had of gazing up at the ceiling while I was talking to her. Her subsequent career was no surprise to me whatsoever."

"At least I still have my own face," Servalan said coolly.

"We're missing the point," Avon broke in roughly. "What justification can you have for imposing this outlandish system on your beloved people, Blake?"

"It's got to be better than the current system," Blake retorted.

"And just what makes you think that?"

"Look. Government by humans is corrupt. By nature. Humans can't think impartially, they take sides, it's a matter of instinct. Government by machine is too rigid, again by nature. Machines can't exercise judgment. This system combines the best of both worlds."

"Or the worst," Servalan said. "Suppose they combine the partiality of humans and the rigidity of machines?"

"There's no earthly reason why they should!" Blake forced himself to calm. "The links," he said, "can not only pool their reason, they can pool their emotional reactions as well, and combine the two in proper proportion. Individuals can be wrong--"

"But mobs cannot. I see." Avon's tone was scathing.

"When they have access to all the facts, no." Blake's own temper was rising despite his efforts.

"And how do you propose to make sure that facts are what they get?" Servalan demanded. "There's no such thing as a fact, Blake. You should know that best of all."

"Well, let me put it this way to you," Blake said carefully. "This base has all the capabilities of Star One. Onboard memory enough to hold every important datum in the Federation. Processing power sufficient to run the Federation. Plus the accumulated experience and wisdom of hundreds of people from all grades, all professions. Now if you tell me that that can't recognise a fact when it sees one, then I suppose I have to believe you, but it makes rather a nonsense of the science of computing, doesn't it?"

"And if the links should happen to decide that they want this power for themselves?" Servalan said.

"Or simply that they don't want to be prisoners and slaves any more?" Avon added.

"Aren't you overlooking something?"

Dessen left the console where he had been working and walked up to Avon, who recoiled slightly.

"It isn't Blake's responsibility," he said. "Blake was nothing in the Project, a junior engineer. He came along because his sympathies were with us, and because Formain wanted an assistant, that was all. The responsibility belongs with--well, who?"

"The original group of scientists," Avon said, "which you are not."

"Aren't we?" Ballantine said. "We have all their memories, their personalities and their aspirations. If we aren't those people, then I'd like to know who is."

"You," Servalan said icily, "are a furry anthropoid ape with delusions of humanity. The people who perpetrated this crime--"

"You misunderstand, Servalan. You always did leap to conclusions. I didn't ask who we were." Ballantine came to stand beside Dessen. "I know who I am. I'm Mora Ballantine. My personality profile checks out to seventeen decimal places against the one on my Federation records. There's a small discrepancy there, but that's only natural; it's an old profile. No, we know who we are, and we know that we did this to ourselves."

"What about the original links?" Cally said.

"There were no original links. We took DNA from humans and apes and spliced them together. We used gene surgery to refine the design. Then we cloned the first generation. All of us are clones from the original genetic material."

"So that story about the links being our future--"

"We put that in the report as a disincentive." Ballantine grinned. "We were looking for something which would simply negate any interest in Terminal whatsoever. We felt no-one would want to revisit a future like this."

"It didn't fool me," Vila declared stoutly.

"Well, that's not surprising," Avon said, "considering where you heard it."

* * *

What was left of the High Council of the Terran Federation sat round a table in Councillor Bercol's living room.

"No word from Rontane?" Wathco cupped his hands around his mug, seeking warmth. The room was chilly even with the heating on full blast.

Bercol shook his head. "He's severed all connections. I still see him, you know, socially, but whenever I mention Council he changes the subject. I've never known a man alter so completely."

"Taj must be stopped." Shirinin took a gulp of her drink. "What is this?"

"It's, er, tea." Bercol twitched a smile. "Very warming, I find."

"If we try to stop Taj," Kerovian said, "we will suffer for it, and so will everyone else. She has shown her power with this freak weather business. We dare not give her cause to do worse."

"You always favoured a policy of appeasement," Shirinin snapped.

"And if I had been heard," Kerovian returned smoothly, "doubtless we would not be in the mess we are in now."

"Ladies," Wathco said, "enough. Those in favour of pursuing Bercol's suggestion made at the last meeting?"

"This meeting is not competent to make such a decision," Kerovian said.

"I am merely canvassing opinions, Councillor," Wathco assured her.

Bercol raised his hand reluctantly. After a moment Shirinin and Hagen followed suit.

"Those against?"

Kerovian, Cho-Huan and Vastnesse raised their hands.

"Abstentions?"

Lovat and Tervil raised their hands.

"The vote is tied," Wathco announced. "As de facto Chairman, I exercise my casting vote in favour of the motion. However, as I told Councillor Kerovian, I am merely canvassing opinions."

He paused.

"I have already engaged an assassin."

Bercol choked on his tea.

"How dare you take unilateral action--" Kerovian leapt to her feet.

"I dare," Wathco said, and all at once his bulk seemed to fill the room. "I dare where none of you dare. I dare to save us from this peril while you bicker and talk of appeasement. I have used my own funds, and as far as my employee is concerned it is strictly a personal vendetta. When it is done, I expect the Presidency as my reward from you. Is it agreed?"

"The Presidency was dissolved," Bercol protested.

"Then revive it," Wathco suggested. "I warn you, my man is waiting now for a message from me. If he does not receive it, he will assume that the contract is void. May I call him?"

"No!" Kerovian burst out. "This is total insanity! Councillors, if you agree to this--"

"If you agree to this," Wathco's voice drowned all opposition, "then our chief enemy will be painlessly and tracelessly removed. We can reform the High Council, appoint a new Supreme Commander and all will be as before. If you do not agree to this, we may as well slit our own throats and let the mob take all that we have worked to gain. I wait for your answer." He lowered his voice. "The decision rests with you."

He smiled at their shocked, frightened faces.

* * *

Taj mounted the podium and peered out over the ranks of assembled troopers.

"I expect you're wondering why I've called you all here," she said.

There was a pause.

"Or possibly not," Taj went on. "Possibly you're all so wonderfully well disciplined that I could tell you to walk into a lake of radioactive waste and watch your helmets go under, one by one. What a horrible thought. Anyway, I hope I can rely on your discipline now, because I have a mission for you which will tax you to the absolute limit. I don't expect you to understand it, and I know you aren't going to like it, but I'm relying on that marvellous military spirit that says 'Orders are orders' and just buckles down and gets on with it. I mean, after all, it's that spirit that's got us out of pickle after pickle in the past, isn't it, and--" Taj laughed self-consciously. "Oh, golly, I always get tongue-tied when I think about it. Well, anyway, your orders are in the envelopes on the arms of the officers' chairs, so--off you go, and jolly good luck to all of you."

A grizzled officer got to his feet. "Supreme Commander?"

Taj turned back in the act of quitting the podium. "Yes?"

"Well," the man said, a little embarrassed, "I'm not much for speeches, Supreme Commander, but...I know I speak for all the men here when I say that we're flattered by your confidence in us, and..." he blushed to the roots of his hair, "...we'll do our damnedest to make you proud of us."

"Thank you," Taj said. A moment later, seemingly overcome by emotion, she hurried from the podium and left the room.

The officers scanned the orders, passed out sheets of paper to their troopers and collected the pole-mounted lanterns stacked in one corner of the room. The troopers pored over the sheets in growing mystification.

"Here, Renko," said one, "what's a parsnip in a pear tree?"

* * *

The links worked silently, at least as far as the human watchers could tell, but somehow their separate tasks dovetailed perfectly. A link would pull out a circuit board, look at it, shake its head ruefully and turn to take the spare parts which another link had unpacked and brought over, along with the tool that a third link had handed to it on the way. There was something eerie about it, as if someone had dressed a squad of tech robots in ape costumes.

One by one the banks of machinery were checked, connected, and brought to operational readiness under the watchful eyes of Ballantine. Every now and again a link would wander in from the outside, its coat matted and covered with grass, look at the activity, move in and seamlessly take its place among the workers.

Avon watched with icy detachment, Carnell with keen interest. Vila and Cally were talking in low voices. Blake, watching the smooth mesh of the links, felt acutely left out. These had been his first companions. Now they had no need of him. Somewhere in there was Formain, the man he most respected; somewhere, presumably, there was a link with his own memories. He had started this process going: now he was superfluous.

Servalan watched Blake. There was something in her eyes that might have been sadness.

Finally, every console signalled READY. The links ceased work and gathered in the centre of the room.

"I will speak to you aloud," Ballantine said, "so that our guests can hear as well. Such a moment as this should not come and go entirely unmarked. In this moment, we end, at least for a while, the tyranny of man over man. We bring to a quiet close one of the darkest ages in human history. And we take on one of the gravest responsibilities ever borne by sentient beings. This task should not be undertaken without some contemplation. I leave you to your thoughts."

She turned away and approached Blake.

"How does it feel to be an unsung hero?"

Blake smiled. "There's nothing heroic about this. I never cared much for the hero rôle anyway."

"What exactly happens now?" Avon said.

"Well," Ballantine said, turning to him, "all the computers are up and primed. All of us are ready. All we have to do now is intercept and override the communication channels to and from Star One, and it's done." She looked back. "What's wrong?"

Blake had gone white. His jaw had dropped. Feebly he groped behind him for a packing case and sat down on it.

"What's the matter?" Ballantine came closer.

"I think Blake has something to tell you," Avon said.

Deprecations

Everyone's a critic.”--Egrorian.

"You," Ballantine breathed. "You moron. You senseless barbarian. You total imbecile." Her voice rose to a shout. "What in heaven's name possessed you to do such a thing?"

Blake said nothing.

"I knew you were going to cause trouble the moment I saw you. I let you join the group on Formain's insistence, but I knew it was a mistake." Ballantine's gaze raked him from top to toe. "I recognised your type. Blow it up, smash it down, tear it apart. Well, I hope you're satisfied now. Did it never occur to you to wonder what you were doing? Didn't you have the slightest qualm, the remotest trace of doubt?"

"If you only knew," Avon murmured.

"Hang on a minute," Vila said. "It wasn't Blake who blew up Star One anyway."

"He planned to. He led Travis there. He drove Travis to the point where he was willing to sell out his own species just to get even. He did everything he could to destroy it short of actually pushing the button. Without his valiant efforts on all these fronts, Star One would still be there." Ballantine turned back to Blake. "Didn't you learn anything at the CEC?"

"Well, apparently you wiped most of it," Carnell said. "It does strike me as rather optimistic to expect someone to remember the fine details of a plan which you have previously emptied out of his head."

"The plan is nothing," Ballantine snapped. "I'm not talking about the plan. I'm talking about the millions of people whose lives depended on Star One, whose innocent lives this idiot wrecked for nothing but a grand heroic gesture."

"No," Cally protested. "That was not his reason."

"Well, in that case, I'd dearly like to know what his reason was. I remember he took history as an elective under Tor Vallance, who was admittedly a Federation apologist of the worst sort but who at least had a grip on his subject. Right down through the history of humankind there have been rebellions and insurrections, battles and bombs and bloodshed, and none of it ever made more than a momentary difference where the basic human rights were concerned."

"Perhaps there are no basic human rights," Servalan said. "In any case, 'Ballantine', whatever his reasons, Blake was acting for the greatest good as he saw it. If I can see that, then surely you can."

"No, I can't see it," Ballantine said impatiently. "If that's his idea of 'the greatest good' then he ought to be damn well locked up. Call me old-fashioned, but to my mind 'the greatest good' has to be inseparable from 'the least harm', which is obviously a concept Blake doesn't understand. As long as it makes a big bang and makes people tremble in their boots when they mention his name, he's happy. I can see him now, wading through corpses to the Presidential Palace, butchering everyone inside and then getting his big feet under the same damn desk. That's your big wet dream, isn't it, Blake? That's what makes your mouth water. The tables turned, the perfect revolution, a complete circle back to the status quo. Hail President Blake, who will bring us perfect freedom and justice...the day after tomorrow."

"Now wait...one...minute."

Ballantine paused in mid-breath. Every head turned to look at Avon. Even Blake, who had stood silent with lowered eyes under the torrent of abuse, looked up.

"I would be the last person to excuse Blake any of his faults," Avon said, his measured tones dropping into the silence as he moved into the centre of the room. "I grant he is vain, self-centred, shallow and very very stupid. He prefers to adapt the facts to fit his current preferences. He acts without thinking, and broods when he should be acting. His concern for his comrades is passionate...when he remembers. As an engineer he is barely adequate. As a rebel he is pathetically inept.

"But--" The word cracked like a whip. "--when one sees a talking animal, one marvels not that it talks well, but that it talks at all. Humans are social animals, conditioned to conform with the society they live in. When that conditioning is reinforced by drugs and brainwashing to make escape not only impossible but unthinkable, it is even more remarkable when someone breaks away. Blake has broken away not once but twice. He clearly has the strength of will to rebel, and the charisma to attract others to his cause, and he has them in abundance. I am not aware of any reason why he should be judged guilty...simply because those are his only virtues."

He smiled. "One does not expect the Valiant Knight to be wise as well."

"I couldn't have done it better myself," Carnell murmured as he passed.

* * *

"Commander, there is a vessel in orbit around Terminal."

"Large and well-armed, I trust?" Paternoster said genially.

"Yes, Commander."

"The Liberator, in fact?"

"The profile does not quite match, Commander. I have visual contact."

"Let us gaze upon it... Hmm. One of the nacelles is missing. Still, I think we may assume it is the same ship."

"As you say, Commander."

"Will its detectors have picked us up, do you think?"

"Uncertain, Commander, but probable."

"Signal Dione. We shall hold position and await developments."

* * *

"Blake? Gan."

"What is it?"

"No need to bite my head off. Detectors have picked up two squadrons of pursuit ships escorting a larger ship. Heading this way. No, wait. They're holding off at about three million spatials."

"Damn. Sorry I snapped at you, Gan. Hold on there. I'll call back in ten minutes."

"Is something wrong?"

"Don't ask. Just don't ask. Out."

* * *

"Singing. At my time of life. With a lamp on a pole. I ask you."

"Mortifying, that's what it is."

"Good for morale, though, you got to admit that. I mean, if we can go round singing, there can't be that much fighting to be done."

"Never was, was there?"

"Well, no, bar that bit of bother when Ser--when That Woman was President, it's been dead quiet. Thing is, people didn't know it. Then all this snow stuff, it's got 'em worried. So the Supreme Commander, she says get the lads out for a bit of a singsong round the dome, cheer people up a bit. Dead clever, I call it."

"Cheered up that bunch of Deltas on the tenth radial. You should have let me teach 'em a lesson."

"There, now, that's exactly the wrong approach. You'd have been happier in the old days. Times change, laddie, and you got to change with 'em. Word from the top's clear enough; our job's looking after people now, telling 'em the right time, seeing 'em safe home at night. Nothing wrong with that, is there?"

"We-e-ell, no, but some of the lads are a bit cheesed off like. You know the sort. Target practice on the stairwell types. See their point in some ways. I mean, it's supposed to be us running things. Trooper says frog, civilian damn well jumps or else, you know?"

"Well, old son, you'd better keep those lads of yours in line or it'll be the worse for them. Don't let 'em go thinking the Commander's a pushover, 'cause she isn't, see? Underneath that fluff she's harder than S--harder than That Woman, take it from me. Anyway, my boys are crazy about her. Young Quinto says he's never done a mission before where you get to lick the bowl out after."

"Here, this looks like the next stop."

"Right. Get the lantern going and muster the lads. And this time try and get 'em to start and finish together. Don't suppose we can ask for much else."

* * *

URGENT

PATERNOSTER CMDR S 17703 EX SUCOMTERRA RAVENDRA T 17205 MREF XX434 MESSAGE BEGINS++++++++++++++

PROBLEMS PROBLEMS PROBLEMS STOP DEEPLY SYMPATHISE STOP BETTER NOT ENGAGE LIBERATOR JUST AT PRESENT STOP PROBABLY BEST PLAN COME IN BLINDSIDE AND MAKE OUT YOU NEVER SAW IT STOP IF IT ATTACKS TRY STANDARD MANOEUVRE 4 STOP LOVE TAJ

++++++++++++++MESSAGE ENDS

XX434/kivaarterrassmxupr1/vGC909

* * *

"Gan? Get ready to bring Vila and Cally up. Then take the ship out of here, maximum speed."

"What about you and Avon?"

"We're safe down here. Presumably the pursuit ships will take off after you. Lead them away, outrun them, then curve back when you've lost them."

"I get it. They'll think you're all on board."

"I hope so. Now get down to the teleport."

Blake lowered the bracelet. "Ready?"

Vila and Cally nodded. "Sorry about the big plan," Vila said.

"I haven't given up hope yet," Blake assured him. "Get going."

Vila raised his bracelet. "Gan?"

Blake turned away as the teleport field enfolded them.

"All right," Ballantine said. "I was wrong to lose my temper. What's done is done, after all." She seemed smaller, deflated somehow. "Sorry."

"No need to be sorry. You were right." Blake attempted to find something encouraging to say. "Look, we still have all this. Surely we can work out some other way of using it."

"Maybe," Ballantine said dully. "Will you excuse me? I need to go outside for a while."

"Will you be all right?"

Ballantine laughed grimly. "I'm a link, remember? If you need me, any of the others can fetch me."

"Right." Blake watched Ballantine go.

Carnell had been listening. "What was that about?"

"When a link goes outside, stage one programming takes over--that's the normal link state. It discourages predators. Also it gets rid of stresses and maintains the mental balance. Ballantine used to say it would improve the dynamics of human society no end if people could do it."

"It's a valid theory, if somewhat unattractive," Carnell said. "What are you going to do now?"

"I don't know," Blake confessed. "I keep going over it in my mind, trying to work out how I could have done it differently. Trying to think of some solution."

"Define the problem," Carnell said.

"This whole plan hinged on our being able to intercept communications to Star One and override the signal from it. Unfortunately, since I destroyed Star One no-one is trying to communicate with it any more, so there's nothing we can intercept or override. What we have is a room full of highly expensive scrap."

"Not true," Avon said. "What you have is a room full of useful and valuable machinery missing one vital part. Do I really have to tell you what that part is?"

It was Servalan who said, quite suddenly, "Orac."

"Of course," Blake said. "Orac could read every computer in the Federation, collate the information and transmit the responses. Orac could have been Star One all on its own."

"What a pity," Avon said pointedly, "that Orac is in pieces."

"Better Orac than you," Blake said steadily. "In any case, Orac had its own motives. It would never have co-operated with Ballantine."

"We shall certainly never know now," Avon said.

Carnell, a faint smile playing about his lips, said nothing.

* * *

"Zen, take us away from the pursuit ships, standard by two," Gan said.

+CONFIRMED+

"Make that by five," Vila said.

"No, by two," Gan said firmly. "We don't want them to give up too soon."

"They can't give up too soon for me." Vila settled on to the couch with a satisfied air.

Cally was staring around her. "We saw the Liberator break up," she said wonderingly. "We saw it explode."

"True," Vila said. "And when we had gone it put itself back together and set off to find us. There's loyalty for you. Good old Zen."

"Miraculous loyalty," Cally agreed with a trace of disbelief in her voice.

"Zen," Gan said, "where are the pursuit ships?"

+THERE ARE NO PURSUIT SHIPS WITHIN DETECTOR RANGE+

"What?"

"What happened to the ships you saw at Terminal?" Vila demanded.

+PURSUIT SHIPS AND TROOP CARRIER HAVE LANDED ON THE PLANETOID CALLED TERMINAL+

"You mean they didn't even come after us?" Vila was outraged. "You just can't rely on people any more."

"Zen, take us back," Gan ordered.

+CONFIRMED+

"I don't know if that's a good idea, you know, Blake gave us very clear orders--"

"Be quiet, Vila," Cally said.

"Doesn't take you long to get back into the swing of things, does it?"

"Take us into orbit, same co-ordinates as before, Zen," Gan said. "Think, Vila. A troop carrier means they're planning a full-scale search for Blake. What's he going to do if they find him and we're not in teleport range?"

"What are we going to do if they come after us?" Vila mumbled.

"Easy," Cally said, and there was an all too familiar light in her eyes. "We fight."

Vila groaned.

* * *

Paternoster and Dione watched the troops marching down the ramp of the T16.

"What do you suppose that booming is?" Dione said idly.

"Internal machinery," Paternoster guessed. "This is an artificial planet, after all."

The General emerged from the base, his uniform impeccable. The commander of the troops turned and saluted.

"Splendid, splendid. Welcome to Terminal." The General walked up and down the line of black-uniformed figures. "You'll find plenty of room down below. Take an hour to get settled in and then remuster out here to begin the job."

"Sir." The commander turned round and began translating the orders into monosyllabic barks and yawps for the benefit of his men. The General strolled over to Paternoster and Dione.

"Hello again," he said curtly. "What brings you back here?"

"Our orders have to do with Blake," Paternoster said. "We intercepted your message and were ordered to provide escort for the Milton Keynes."

"Oh." The General absorbed this. "Well, I think you can leave the matter in our hands now. Seeing as Blake is on the ground, it falls to the ground forces to apprehend him, eh?"

"You are very kind, General, but I think we shall stay a while longer. Blake's ship is still in orbit above our heads, after all." Paternoster smiled. "How is the good Colonel Quute?"

"The good Colonel Quute's damn well gone AWOL, that's how he is. Sent him out this morning to start the search. Hasn't come back. Didn't call in. If you should happen to see the good Colonel Quute, you can tell him from me he's on a charge." The General's mouth twitched in annoyance. "And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to see these men settled in. I suggest you sleep on board your ships, if you plan to stay overnight, and mount a guard. I'd invite you in, but..." He indicated the line of men moving slowly towards the base entrance.

"We quite understand," Paternoster said.

* * *

Carnell watched the activity around him. The links were as seamlessly busy as ever, but somehow the meaning had gone out of the work. It was mere busyness, time-passing. Blake sat, blatantly brooding. Avon was studying the machines. Servalan had fallen into an uneasy doze, from which she would wake now and again with a jerk and an indrawn sob of breath. She had woken up before all the scars were healed. Some of them never would.

Carnell considered the knowledge he bore. It had not been easily won. To give it up for no return irritated the consultant in him. After all, what use would there be for psychostrategists in the brave new world? And then again, on the other hand...

He came to a decision, and got up.

"Attention, please," he said. The pitch of his voice penetrated everyone's concentration, and woke Servalan. Heads turned towards him.

"I can make your plan work," Carnell said.

Visitations

Do we fight?”--Zukan.

Pennell opened the door, walked into Taj's room, dropped a bundle of papers into her IN tray, extended a chit for her signature, saluted, turned and walked out again. Easy.

The next time he walked in, he would kill her.

He had watched Taj's habits assiduously for several days. It irked him to have so little time in which to fulfil the contract. Still, he had beaten the price up on that basis, so he couldn't in all conscience complain.

Pennell was a very conscientious assassin.

Taj habitually spent her morning ploughing through the mountains of paperwork that are the burden of chief executives in all times and places. The papers usually arrived in the hands of messengers now, since Taj had complained that reading facsimiles made her eyes hurt and Kimball's office was only just down the corridor, for goodness sake. It had been childishly simple to get himself added to the roster of messengers. His appearance was nondescript, indistinguishable from any other Space Command functionary. He had always been able to blend into he background.

There were two paper drops every day. That had been the first. The next would be the last, for both of them.

Pennell returned to Kimball's office and took up his position, standing at ease just inside the door, waiting for the next bundle of papers.

* * *

Quute lay cradled in the branches of a tree and tried to sleep.

He had begun to regret his impulsive action almost as soon as he had got out of sight of the base, but pride and obstinacy had kept him going until he was so thoroughly lost that he could not have gone back even had he wished. He knew only too well that his attitude was mostly childish, but something inside him had been abused too many times, and would not allow itself to be abused again.

He twisted and turned, cursed and rolled over. Half an hour ago his whole body had been crying out for sleep. Now it was completely beyond his reach. Granted, a tree was not the ideal place for peaceful slumber; but then again, back in his younger days he had cheerfully snored through night after night in accommodations compared to which this tree merited at least two stars. He was not going to let it beat him...

Finally he was driven down from the tree by an urge as mundane as it was inevitable. He unzipped his breeches and did the necessary up against another tree, a tree he had considered and discarded as a potential eyrie earlier on. Finished, he zipped himself up again and turned round.

From out of the darkness, a screaming link charged at him.

* * *

Carnell waited for the hubbub. It didn't happen. It took him a moment to realise that the links were probably doing it silently. A silent hubbub. Not very rewarding.

Finally Avon said, "Should I fetch you a copy of the script?"

Carnell sighed. "Your problem," he said, "is that while your machines are quite capable of doing their job, they lack the communication channels to connect them to the Federation systems. Orac could have done it for you, but you no longer have Orac. Have I grasped the essence of the problem?"

"Yes," Dessen said. "What can we do about it?"

"Oh no," Carnell said. "I'm afraid you're going to have to let me do this in my own way." He smiled. "Call it a consideration in lieu of my usual fee."

He stepped to the centre of the room. The links clustered round him.

"When Servalan was trying to acquire Orac for her own use, she commissioned an extensive psychological study of its inventor, Ensor. I was in charge of that study, and I remember it quite well. A forceful and vivid personality, egotistical and humble by turns, fiercely independent. He also had a horror," Carnell paused significantly, "of waste.

"Consider Orac, now. A jumble of components in a plasglas box. Holes for carrying handles. No protection against dust, water or heat. Ensor obviously never considered the possibility that such protection might be needed. That is a salient point. If Ensor did not consider something would be needed, he left it out."

"He also left out backup circuits," Avon said. "Is it possible that this thrift upon which you dwell is simply the result of a shortage of parts?"

"My dear Avon," Carnell said, "I promise to keep my fingers out of your computers. I hope you will grant me the same courtesy. I am not going into all the details because I am a charitable and humane man, but the conclusions I am presenting are nonetheless well supported by other evidence. Take my word for it; Ensor abhorred waste, and never added anything to an invention that he considered superfluous.

"Now. What precisely is Orac? It combined two experimental goals, more of Ensor's economy. It embodied--at least at the moment of its creation--his personality, copied across with amazing accuracy despite Ensor's complete ignorance of psychology. If we could have found the machine by which he achieved that, then I think Orac would have seemed very small beer by comparison. There are also fascinating insights to be gained from the mutation that the personality underwent after Ensor's death. I am planning a small monograph on the subject which I expect you all to buy.

"But we are concerned with the other goal here. Orac was designed as a machine which could access, read and control any computer or other device which functioned by means of a tarial cell. Think about that. It could use any computer memory, any logic processor, regardless of range, regardless of security programmes, anywhere in the Federated Worlds. What, above all, would it not need?"

There was a silence.

"I don't see what you're getting at," one of the links said at last.

"And you are?"

"Elton Muller. Junior computer technician."

"Well, Elton Muller, I'll put it to you again. Orac can make use of any computer's memory and any computer's processing power, anywhere, at any time. What does Orac not need?"

Muller's eyes widened. "Well, theoretically...it wouldn't need any memory or processing power of its own," he said.

Blake snapped his fingers. "Someone get Ballantine," he commanded. "Get everyone back here. Now!"

"Exactly," Carnell said. "It would have onboard storage for key variables, and the personality data...but all the information it gathered, and all the information it had to start with, it would simply store in the nearest available computer, and transfer elsewhere when it was moved." His eyes turned towards Avon. "I'm counting down, Avon," he said. "The nearest available computer--"

"Vila! Cally! Bring me up now!" Avon snapped into his bracelet.

* * *

The invitation had arrived on Rontane's doorstep that morning. He had read it several times, searching for hidden meaning, dredging for subtle ironies, and had finally come to the conclusion that it was exactly what it seemed, no more, no less. The world certainly seemed a lot simpler since he had left politics; now that no-one had anything to gain by cultivating his acquaintance, he was continually being pleasantly surprised by how many people still did. He smiled at himself, and read it through once again.

taj ravendra

requests the puzzlement of the company of

..............

Rontane

.................................

at a Christmas party to take place

in two weeks

at Space Command Headquarters

Dress optional (but some would be nice)

r.s.v.p.

Yes. It was no more than it seemed; a nice gesture to an ex-enemy who had retired gracefully from the field. The "puzzlement" part was just Taj's unique personality, giving the gesture its own individual twist. Probably, Rontane thought, he had been guilty of misinterpretation all down the line, paranoid as a result of the stresses of the job. He had even toyed with the idea that there might have been some hidden significance to the gift of the puppy; a patently absurd idea.

True, if it had not been for Travis and his undemanding devotion, he might never have perceived that there was more to life than the endless, perilous battle on the ladder of status; but that was simply a matter of getting things in the right perspective.

He determined to make a detour to Taj's office, when he took Travis out for his run, and take his reply to her personally. It was the least he could do.

* * *

A pink-faced young cadet came into Kimball's office, bearing a pile of red and white cloth topped with what looked like a very small flattened sheep. Kimball got up with a huge sigh, dumped a stack of papers in her PASS TO SUPREME COMMANDER tray, took the bundle of cloth and vanished into the tiny washroom, muttering indistinctly. Pennell saluted at the closing door, scooped up the papers, loosened his pistol in its holster, and left the office, humming to himself.

* * *

"Rontane," Taj said. "We must stop meeting like this. Hello, Travis, how are you today? I must say you look well. Yes, all right, you can get down now. Is he treating you properly?"

"Supreme Commander," Rontane began, as Travis settled down at his feet in a tight coil.

"Oh, Rontane, now you've given up show business you could at least call me Taj. What can I do for you?"

"Well...Taj," Rontane said with an effort, as Taj got up to produce the inevitable tea, "thank you for your invitation, which I received yesterday. It was very kind of you, but I fear it would probably not be politic for me to attend."

"Oh, come off it, Rontane," Taj protested. "You're out of politics now. Just a private citizen. I want you at my party."

"It would be seen as a provocative move," Rontane protested.

"I'm quaking in my sandals," Taj said. "Honestly, Rontane, if you think I care a button about--" Before she could say anything else, though, the door opened and a trooper entered with a bundle of papers. Taj grimaced. "Sorry. Don't go away, Rontane, I haven't finished. Thank you, dear, just put them in here."

Pennell hesitated, seeing that Taj was not alone, but only for a moment. His deadline was on him; he could take two as easy as one if necessary. He approached the desk, conscious of the pistol at his side, conscious of Taj's eyes upon him, conscious all at once of a soft furry article completely unexpectedly under his feet and moving--

Travis erupted in a frenzy of barking and jumping about. Pennell, completely rattled, dropped the papers and groped frantically for his gun, even while trying to regain a balance that slipped inexorably ever further from his grasp. His dancing feet found a floor cushion where they had expected to find solid ground, his unoccupied hand groped for the wall and found only an Oriental tapestry that gave under pressure, and with a sense of tragic inevitability, he crashed to the floor. The gun fired wildly, and a paper chain came undone and fluttered free, smouldering slightly.

There was a short hiatus. Taj pinched off the charred end of the paper chain and pressed a button on her desk. Travis stood over the stunned Pennell, emitting a low, vibrant growl and showing off his highly comprehensive set of teeth. Rontane leaned over, marvelling slightly at his own daring, and effortlessly removed the gun from the would-be assassin's hand.

"Is there something," Taj said carefully, "you feel you ought to be telling us?"

* * *

URGENT

FEDERATN TEMPSECHICNCL 11X1X EX KIMBALL CMDR C 16937 PP SUCOMTERRA RAVENDRA T 17205 MREF XX451 MESSAGE BEGINS++++++++++++++

EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY ALL MEMBERS HIGH COUNCIL UNDER ARREST STOP CHARGE CONSPIRACY TO MURDER STOP ASSASSIN CONFESSED STOP HIGH COUNCIL DISSOLVED PENDING FULL INVESTIGATION STOP

++++++++++++++MESSAGE ENDS

xx451/hcspacomhqintmxupr1/vGC001

* * *

The link stopped in mid-charge. Quute watched in perplexity as it looked around, shook its head, seemed to listen to something, and walked away with a ludicrously abstracted air.

Quute let his breath out shudderingly, and giggled a little. Twice now, he thought crazily, next time I'm on my own.

Abruptly, driven by an impulse compounded of curiosity, investigative zeal and his Federation training, he got up and began to stalk the link.

* * *

"Blake here. What have you found, Avon?"

"Carnell was right. Zen has everything Orac gathered, including its own design plans and parameters. Apparently Orac placed fairly strong security on it, but Carnell seems somehow to have penetrated it. I'm scanning the data now." Avon paused. "There are also schematics here for Muller's circuit influencer."

"Get us those as well. They only need the schematics. We've got Muller, after all." Blake took a deep breath. "You know what this means, Avon?"

"Yes," Avon said neutrally. "The fight's over." There was a plink. "There's a transmission coming in," Avon added. "It's Jenna."

"Oh, good. She's just in time. What does she say?"

"She says..." There was a long pause. Then Avon spoke again, in a different tone. "I think you'd better get up here, Blake."

"Why, what is it?"

"I think Jenna's brought some friends with her."

* * *

"Sir!"

"What, what, what is it?" The General burst into the surveillance room in response to Arlen's yelp.

"Ships. sir. Coming at us at--impossible speeds, sir. Hundreds of them. Look."

The screens were alive with blips. The computers chattered frenetically, trying to cope with a stream of data beyond their operational parameters. Arlen watched them wide-eyed, her hands clenched white on the console.

"The machines must be on the blink," the General said desperately.

"It's the Andromedans," Arlen breathed. "They've come back to finish the job." Her face was a mask of terror

There was a sound of thunder outside. Arlen whimpered and put her hands over her head. The General ran to the ladder, swarmed up it and stared out at the patch of ground where two squadrons of pursuit ships had stood, surrounding the T16 which now occupied the field in lonely state.

"Cowards," he groaned bitterly, even as he descended the ladder again and triggered the bolts that would seal the base tight.

* * *

Safran's message had arrived some three minutes ago. Lacie had had some difficulty convincing Paternoster of its import, and then of its truth.

Now, as his ship and Dione's leapt into the sky and matched velocities with Safran's, primitive terror gripped his guts and froze his blood.

"They've been chasing me all the way from sector nine." Safran's voice crossed the space between his ship, Paternoster's and Dione's as they sped away from Terminal.

"Who are they?" Dione demanded.

"Dunno. Didn't stop to swap names and addresses. Some of them scan like the Liberator, some of them smaller and some a hell of a lot bigger. A bit out of my league."

"Tillie, can we go any faster?" Paternoster inquired with an attempt at nonchalance.

"We are at maximum speed now, Commander."

"Lacie, are they pursuing?"

"Apparently not, Commander."

"Ah. Well, in that case, maximum speed will do for the moment." Paternoster wiped the sweat from his brow. The Andromedan invasion had affected the cloistered calm of the CEC hardly at all, but if it had been anything like this Paternoster was far from surprised the Federation had collapsed. He was on the verge of collapse himself.

Far behind them, the fleet of Liberators, FreeBirds and all sizes between and beyond hung in orbit above Terminal, and a message resounded over every communication system on the planet, and in the heads of human and link alike.

\\We want to speak to Z'nBlake.//

Elucidations

Reality is a dangerous concept.”--Teleb.

They called themselves the Selendesh, when they spoke, which was not often. They preferred to use telepathy, although reaching human minds was not easy, and getting complex conceptualisations across almost impossible. Three of them teleported down to Terminal to talk to Ballantine, while half a dozen boarded the Liberator with Jenna and poked their noses into everywhere and everything, until Avon gave up and teleported down to watch the work on Star Null, and Vila and Cally went off somewhere private. Jenna herself seemed quite at ease with them, and indeed had picked up a fair command of the language.

"Rune helped, of course," she said. Gan was manning the teleport for Avon's return, and she and Blake were alone on the flight deck, except for the visitors. "They had to teach me the language before they could tell me their story, and they had to tell me their story before they could ask me mine. They don't seem to have secrets, not the way we do. They hide things, there's a Hider in every nest, but hiding something so that no-one can find it is totally alien to them."

"And what is their story?" Blake said when she paused for breath.

At once three Selendesh, tails waving, gathered round Jenna and Blake, pulled them to the couch, sat them down and began to tell it, in a medley of telepathy, pidgin English and translations via Jenna and, occasionally, Zen.

They told of two worlds; one quite Earthlike, and the other a mad, maverick planet, whizzing in a narrow, almost cometary ellipse around their shared star, dancing in uneasy equilibrium with a satellite nearly as big as itself, causing wild climatic disruptions whenever it passed close by the other on its way into the sun's troposphere or out into the freezing blackness. Its own climate was a succession of extremes: in summer, stone flowed like water, and in winter, air congealed into stone.

Against all the odds, it was this hell-world which had first engendered not only life but intelligence. Vast, slow and adaptable, they moved like mountains across the ravaged landscape, communicating in ponderous symbolisms whenever they touched, fissioning in leisurely fashion. They learned to change their forms to mimic whatever substance was most favoured by the current climate, solid or liquid, crystalline or fibrous; to become conductive a second before the lightning struck, to melt into water at the merest touch of fire and to solidify again in the shadow of the wave that quenched it, all without more than a momentary interruption of the chain of thought. They possessed no names, for each individual's voice was as distinctive as a signature. For lack of matter to talk about (the weather as a subject provided no common ground, since it was so variable, and they so vast, that a furious storm could be taking place on the left flank of one and go totally unnoticed by its fellow on the right) they invented philosophy, and debated the purpose of existence and the possibility of other intelligences. Certain of them, when circumstances permitted, formed parts of themselves into telescopes and other instruments and scanned the skies, and gradually built up a picture of the universe. Some of the more adventurous began to consider the possibility of venturing into space; perhaps impelled by the urge to explore the unknown worlds beyond the sky, perhaps simply in search of a more restful environment.

It was at this point that the universe, quite suddenly, came to them.

The Earthlike world was temperate and hospitable, but subject to infrequent and irregular tidal catastrophes on those rare occasions when the maverick raced past it, twirling its satellite like a bull-roarer, on the way to periastron and back again.

Life there flourished along the more popular C-H-O axis, and culminated for various reasons in a range of creatures which any Terran biologist would have recognised as warm-blooded, sexually reproductive, viviparous and, in short, mammalian. However, periodic flooding as a result of the maverick's passage eventually whittled away all but the arboreal and aquatic forms, and drove the former toward ever higher trees and the latter toward ever deeper water.

In due time a colony of squirrel-like creatures occupying a stand of particularly tall trees adjacent to a range of rocky hills found themselves commuting between one and the other, using tools, counting their nuts and sharing them out, using language to tell each other where they were, and, as a sort of consequence of all this, somewhat unexpectedly possessed not only of intelligence, but also, in one of those free offers that nature provides so much less frequently than, say, the manufacturers of breakfast cereals, telepathy.

Their society grew apace. They reclaimed the lowlands, building nests on legs, which in time of flood would simply float upright on the surface until the waters receded, and then plonk themselves down on the ground again. They began to wonder why it was that their world became so provokingly and unpredictably wet, and whether there was any way of stopping it.

The maverick world's intelligences sensed the weak, almost random pulses of their minds on an outward pass, broadcast a message of greeting and nearly frightened the Selendesh into a decline. The squirrels were resilient, though, and by the time the worlds met again, the shock had been absorbed and a tentative dialogue began. Under the tutelage of the intelligences, the Selendesh modified their artificial trees and took them to the fringes of their atmosphere, and then into orbit. The lessons they learned from these manoeuvres were, in turn, valuable to the intelligences. The two parts of the equation were ready; it needed but one push to join them together.

"And then the maverick planet's orbit started to decay," Jenna said, "and it was clear it was going to fall into the sun and take the Selendesh world with it. So the intelligences and the Selendesh made a deal, and the intelligences formed themselves into ships, picked up the Selendesh from orbit, and left."

"And the Liberator--"

"Yes," Jenna said with a grin. "That's why Avon could never get to grips with Zen, why Carnell could get information out of him when Avon couldn't. He isn't a computer at all, he's a mind."

"But that doesn't explain Spaceworld," Blake pointed out.

"A human ship encountered a group of Selendesh ships," Jenna said. "They treated them as humans treat everything. They killed the Selendesh, took the ships and used them to conquer the neighbouring worlds." She laughed bitterly. "They didn't know, Blake. They just wanted to be friendly. You saw what the System made of Spaceworld. Humans enslaved, bits of Selendesh ships torn out and stuck anywhere they could be used, and Zen and at least one other of his kind made into battleships, forced to fight in our pointless never-ending human wars. What is it about us, Blake? Are we diseased somehow?" She looked round at the bright-eyed Selendesh. "How can they forgive us for what we did to them?"

"It's the same mistake on both sides," Blake said. "If you go around expecting everyone to be just like you, you're asking for trouble. Unfortunately it seems to be the only way." He sighed. "As for their forgiveness, I don't understand it any more than you...but I wish I did."

"Anyway," Jenna took a deep breath and pushed her hair back, "after that they started watching humans very closely, as a possible threat. It was then that they met up with Powers, whom they seemed to have known of somehow before they left their home system. Possibly the intelligences deduced his existence from first principles. They asked him how humans could be made safe to talk to, and he said he was working on that himself and did they want to help?

"First, he told them to decoy a System ship away from its home territory, damage it until the crew were so scared they used the life capsules to escape, and then pick them off in space. It was hard, Blake, attacking one of their own, but they did it because Powers told them to. Then they left it to drift empty, till we came along. They saw us safely on board the ship, and then they waited.

"You know more about the rest than I do. Apparently it had to be the way it was, with all the fighting and the double-crosses and the last-minute escapes. Powers couldn't touch that part of it; he couldn't get to you, for instance, till you'd left the ship. He engineered your pickup by the Nyronds, and the substitute Blake on Gauda Prime...and then something happened which meant he couldn't interfere any more. What he told the Selendesh was that he'd run out of shillings for the meter, whatever that means, and that they had to get you to Terminal to make the plan work."

"And now it has," Powers said, manifesting quite suddenly on the screen. "The Star Null computers are now connected into the Federation data-net and consequently running it. As a matter of possible interest, all your various criminal records have been wiped cleaner than Zen's subconscious, including those completely unfounded child molestation charges, ho ho. Not my idea, Ballantine's. The links are currently vetting what's going on and applying mild correctives, like all the small arms factories in the Federated Worlds are now merrily turning out dud paraguns. The whole thing just makes you go all squishy inside, although in my case that may have been the lobster biriani."

"You used us," Blake said.

"Oh, don't be trite. Anyway, you used me too. Our aims coincided. Yours, mine, the Selendesh. I'm only sorry it took so much time and bad writing."

"Powers." Avon stood in the archway. "You owe us one truthful answer."

"I owe you nothing. I gave at the office. You can have one, though."

"A truthful answer?"

"Cross my heart and hope to be convincingly disproved."

"What are you?"

Powers' expression became completely serious. "I? I am...I am the smile on the face of the universe. I am the tune it whistles as it walks to work. I am the spring in its step, and the flip of its newspaper unfolding on the train. And I am the slam of the door when it comes home in a temper, and the size of the drink it pours itself, and the sigh it breathes when it snuggles into bed. I am what the universe does when it's taking an interest, rather than just going through the motions. I own no allegiance, I am allowed no commitment. I merely meddle. Ding. That's it. Good day."

His face disappeared from the screen, to be replaced by a monochrome image of a man's hands making a clay pot and the word INTERLUDE.

Blake turned and regarded Avon. "How long have you been there?" he said.

"I teleported up as soon as Star Null was operating. I think Ballantine wants a word, Blake."

"Right." Blake got up. "Excuse me, Jenna."

Jenna nodded.

"Still not happy, Avon?" Blake said on the way to the teleport.

"Do I have to be?"

"What was it about the old Federation that you found so attractive?"

"Nothing particularly. I just don't see any value in trying to change the system. Even if things do change, nobody really benefits."

"Whereas stealing from the system is better?"

"At least that way one person benefits. Self-interest is the only real motivation humans possess, Blake, the rest are just polite fictions."

"You don't still believe that, do you?"

"It takes a certain amount of effort these days," Avon admitted. "I must be getting old. Gan, would you mind putting us down again?"

"Not at all." Gan seemed quite happy to be manning the teleport under the solemn gaze of a very young Selendesh, which was sitting on the console. Blake would have sworn he'd caught a glimpse of the big man tickling the squirrel's belly.

"I know this system isn't perfect," Blake said, as Star Null took shape about them. Links were now manning most of the consoles. Servalan and Carnell were sitting in two unmanned positions, drinking something hot; seeing Blake and Avon, they got up and approached.

"That's reassuring," Avon said.

"But perfection isn't possible, Avon, don't you see? No, why should you, it took me long enough to realise and it's so damned simple. It isn't possible to devise a system for governing human beings precisely because they are human beings--irrational, capricious, and above all enamoured with building systems and tearing them down again. Humanity's greatest pleasures are creating and destroying, imprisoning and liberating, climbing and plummeting, and the game isn't worth the candle unless lives hang in the balance... And yet deep inside each of us there's a part that simply wants to live in peace, and to be allowed to do what we like."

"There was peace," Avon said, "under the Federation."

"But no freedom," Blake said.

"The only true freedom is total anarchy," Carnell put in.

"And then there is no peace," Servalan countered. "Congratulations, Blake. You've discovered what we have known all along. Peace and freedom are mutually exclusive, you must choose one or the other--"

"No," Blake cut her off quietly, "that's precisely what you can't do. That's the machine option, two-valued logic. You have to compromise between the two."

"I'm afraid you're wrong as well, Blake," Ballantine said. The link had come in behind them. "It's not compromise that's needed, but dynamic polarity. Like a pendulum. If you stop it at one end, or in the middle, what you've got is a stopped clock. It has to move. Rigid rules are an excuse for not thinking, an excuse we don't need and can't use any more. We can run a system now that's refined enough to take account of all the anomalies embedded in the human psyche. There's no excuse not to."

"So what happens now?" Blake said.

"Terminal will move again. We've programmed a random course into the computers, one that will run and then erase itself. The Selendesh will go with us, and anyone who tries to scan us will find his computers misbehaving. When we reach our final location, the Selendesh will see that we're not disturbed. There'll always be two ships, of Liberator class at least, protecting the planet from anyone who can get past our screens."

"Who would want to?" Avon said. "Who will be discontented, in Ballantine's dynamically polarised utopia?"

"Avon, you haven't been listening," Blake said.

"Sorry, force of habit," Avon murmured.

"That's exactly the point I've been trying to make. Whatever system we come up with, whatever system operates in the future, there will always be people like Vila wriggling through the cracks, people like you drilling loopholes, people like Jenna making for the outside and then nibbling at the edges, people like Gan finding it cramped and bringing down the ceiling, people like Cally planting bombs...and people like me standing up and claiming they have a better idea. Malcontents, dissidents, idealists, zealots...people who just don't fit. No system ever fits everyone, and that's why no system is ever permanent, including this one. Although…" A smile crossed Blake's face. "If anyone wants to break this one, they're going to have to find the unfindable, destroy the indestructible, and corrupt the incorruptible."

"Put that way," Carnell observed, "the challenge is hard to resist."

"What happens when the links die?" Servalan said.

"Their implants are constantly updating the brain print on the computer. At the moment of death, a clone is activated, and when it's ready, the computer injects the updated brain print. It's not immortality. The spark of consciousness will be different every time. But it's continuity of a sort."

"It's time you left," Ballantine said. "Powers warned us about this. He said you'd be hanging around, trying to think of excuses not to go, spouting huge indigestible lumps of social commentary and getting in the way. We've got a galaxy to run here, and we're ready to move Terminal. We've cleared your names with the Federation, including yours, Servalan. You were never in trouble, Carnell, so I don't know what you were running from."

Carnell looked at Servalan. She raised a quizzical eyebrow. "You said the right thing at the right time," she explained.

Blake had spotted a figure lurking in the shadows behind Ballantine, watching with one wide eye the outré scene before him. He lifted his bracelet. "Gan? Tell Jenna to be ready to take the Liberator out of orbit...assuming the Selendesh will let us keep it. Tell her to plot a course for Earth. Then send someone down with a spare bracelet. We're taking a passenger."

He turned to the shadowy figure. "Are you a Federation officer?"

Quute nodded dumbly.

"Good. I thought so," Blake said. "My name is Roj Blake, and these people are my companions Kerr Avon, ex-President Servalan and Psychostrategist Carnell." He raised his hands. "We surrender."

* * *

Slowly, unwillingly, the hatch of the Federation base ground open. A trooper's head appeared, scanned the surroundings briefly, then ducked back out of sight. After a pause, the General and Arlen emerged, followed by the troop commander and the first of his men.

"Right," the General said, when the troops had been mustered. "Spread out, and start quartering the area. You're looking for Blake, or any of his men, or Colonel Quute, or anything that looks alien. Whatever you find, bring it back alive if you can, but bring it back. Is that clear? Any questions? Right then. Off you go."

The commander translated. The troop split into groups of five, and the groups picked a direction and began to move out.

"I still think, sir, that that was Blake's ship that left orbit," Arlen said with polite insistence.

"Yes, Section Leader, I'm well aware what you think." The General was in no mood to tolerate shilly-shallying. "Nearly all those ships left orbit at once. There are two left. Now doesn't it seem more likely that one of them is Blake's?"

Arlen's response to this was fated to remain unvoiced; for at that moment the ground trembled beneath them, and a thunderous rumble filled the air and drowned out all sense. The ground shook again. Trees began to topple, a wind sprang up and grew in speed and ferocity, and the general's feet slipped from under him.

"What's happening?" Arlen screamed, helping him up.

"The bastard's mined the planet!" the General bellowed.

From all sides the troops were returning, stumbling over the quaking ground, converging on the T16 which stood, abandoned by its escort, on the grass. The general grabbed Arlen and joined the mob. Somehow, kicking, punching and cursing at the top of his voice, he got inside and dragged her after him. Someone found the controls. The last few stragglers were pulled inside. The hatch closed, and the T16 began to lift into the air.

Something inside the Federation base erupted with a roar and a belch of smoke and flame. The T16, climbing desperately against the wind, gained the upper atmosphere, became a dot in the sky, entered a racing cloud and vanished from view.

"I told you he'd left orbit," Arlen muttered sullenly.

"Oh, shut up, girl," the General snapped.

Behind them, Terminal moved sedately off on its final journey.

Epilogue: The Party

An intelligent...individual...can adapt.”--E. Powers.

Links. Small strips of paper, brightly coloured, glued into interlocking loops and strung in pleasing curves along the walls where they met the ceiling. Blake pondered their purpose as he followed Colonel Quute along the corridor. They seemed a trifle...frivolous...for Space Command.

Behind him his companions coped with the situation in their separate ways. Avon and Cally, each within their shell of reserve, managed an air of quiet menace that Blake rather admired. Vila was a walking cacophony of coughs, sneezes, mumbled apologies when he trod on someone's toe, and other extraneous noises; and yet the little thief uttered not a word. Jenna marched, head high, every inch the pirate queen, and Servalan's invariable self-mocking poise complemented her perfectly. Carnell was a demigod fallen among savages: Gan a savage fallen among decadents.

It must be nice to have an image, Blake thought wistfully, returning his attention to the corridor ahead. There seemed to be an awful lot of it.

The journey back, with FreeBird following Liberator like a chick following a hen, had been uneventful. Quute had spoken to Space Command (in, at his urgent request, confidence) a day out of Terminal, which had given Blake a chance to explain the "surrender" to the others. They had not been pleased, and his stated reason ("I couldn't resist the chance to say it") had singularly failed to mollify them.

"Look, we're completely safe," he had said. "The computers have wiped us off the wanted list."

"Yeah?" Vila had said. "Whose word have you got for that? An ape you went to school with? Anyway, I like being on the wanted list. I know where I am on the wanted list. It's the caught and awaiting trial list I don't like."

"Seriously, Blake," Jenna had begun.

"I was serious!"

"How sure are you that wiping us off the computers is enough? All it takes is one jumpy trooper who doesn't know and we're dead."

"Or someone with a grudge," Gan added. "I wish you'd talked to us first, Blake."

"When has he ever?" Avon had chosen the worst possible moment to say.

"If it is another trap," Cally had promised Blake, "I will grant you a quick death before they kill me. I did not wait for you all that time on Terminal to go meekly to the torturers."

"It's inspiring," Servalan had commented, "the unquestioning loyalty you command from your followers, Blake."

"I never asked for unquestioning loyalty," Blake had said.

"Well now, that's fortunate." Avon again.

A pair of double doors loomed up ahead. Quute saluted the masked troopers on either side. They saluted in return and opened the doors wide.

Inside was light, music, laughter, a babble of conversation.

"Merry Christmas, Blake," Taj said. "Come in."

* * *

"You're taller than I expected," Taj said. "Do try some of this punch. I'm told it's illegal on seventeen planets."

Bemused, Blake accepted a glass. He was having trouble adjusting to it all. Could this small, plump woman in a vivid green sari really be the Supreme Commander of the Federation? What on earth was she doing holding a Christmas party at all, let alone apparently inviting him?

Sudden silence behind him made him turn. A space had miraculously formed in the crowded room, an ellipse whose two foci were Taj and Servalan. The eyes of the guests around the edges held a spark of terror.

"Well, Ravendra," Servalan said. "It's been a long time."

"Oh, it certainly has," Taj answered. "Funnily enough, though, you know, when I look at you it suddenly doesn't seem nearly long enough."

"And now here you are," Servalan went on. "Not only Supreme Commander, so I hear, but..."

"It wasn't my doing," Taj said quickly. "Well, not intentionally. Please don't run away with the idea that there was anything about your career I found worthy of emulation. Where did you hear about my day job, anyway?"

"Rontane's standing by the door," Servalan explained. "We exchanged a word. Shall we stop beating about the bush, Ravendra?"

"If you like."

Servalan stood very straight. "I'm sorry," she said clearly. "I shouldn't have done it. It was wrong of me. I know that now. I ask you to forgive me."

Taj blinked.

After a long moment she said, "Do you mean it?"

"I do," Servalan said. “Truly.”

Taj's lower lip quivered. "Do you have any idea," she said in a small voice, "how much effort it's cost me staying angry at you all these years?"

She held out her arms, and Servalan came forward into them.

"Of course I forgive you," Taj said over Servalan's shoulder. "It's a day for forgiving people. Apparently we've forgiven Blake and his lot already, and I've forgiven the High Council for trying to kill me, and Rontane's forgiven Bercol--haven't you, Rontane?--so the least I can do is join in. Um. You're breaking my neck."

Servalan straightened up. Taj took her hands. "You must call me Taj now, dear, none of this Ravendra stuff. And have a drink. I think we've got some rotting toothpaste over here..." With a determined look on her face, she towed Servalan into the crowd. Slowly the party resumed its previous good humour. Blake sipped the punch and looked around, listening to the conversations.

"...and forming a new High Council within the next few weeks, as soon as we can work out some sort of election mechanism, of course we're not short of models, it's just a question of taking bits from here and there, but from what we can tell the computers will flag any possibility of corruption before it even happens, they're doing some wonderful things these days..."

"...old space rat, so my cousin says, came stumbling into the Rebel's Return in a state of collapse demanding drink, when they got him cooled down he said his computers had gone haywire on a routine milk run and when he looked out of his window he saw this egg-shaped planet trundle past at something like Time Distort two, so--this is the funny bit--my cousin said..."

"...don't know what's happened at all, but no-one's complaining, I mean it's the first time anything's worked properly since Star One got blown to bits, so of course as far as we're concerned it's absolutely marvellous and we're not saying a word against it, and the word is Taj feels exactly the same about the whole thing, because of course it makes her job so much easier, doesn't it..."

"...remember that last tour, they were absolutely great, I loved the bit with the spotlight, yes we're certainly going again, wouldn't miss it for worlds, I think they'll be playing Earth this time so we won't have to trek all that way, now that the ordinances are being relaxed..."

"...with a lamp on a pole, outside my window, if you please, so I said what the hell are you doing, and they said carol singing, so I told Carol to shut up or else, and then they took out half my wall, and you know, after that the singing didn't seem half so bad, of course I made them promise to come back in the morning and fix it, and wonder of wonders they did..."

"...flexible, Baldrick, not sexual, yes, I know the grade system is going to be more flexible now, but quite frankly you have about as much chance of being reclassified upwards as a reconstituted prawn vol-au-vent has of being elected to the High Council. Downwards, now you might be in luck there, but looking at some of these people I'd say you'd probably get trampled in the rush..."

"...now everything's back to normal and people have got used to it they quite enjoy it, or so the surveys indicate, so Taj says she'll be considering the possibility of phasing out climate control on Earth altogether, which on the face of it means we're all out of a job, but apparently not because there used to be a sort of science of predicting the weather, yes I know it sounds crazy but it's all there in the histories, and Taj says we can all do that instead and that way people won't be able to blame us when it all goes wrong..."

"...good riddance, that's what I say, never liked them anyway, stuck-up bunch of know-it-alls, always going round in their poncy cloaks pretending they knew what you were thinking, well how should I know whether they do or not, but you take it from me, no, shut up and listen, if they don't know then they're a bunch of crooks, and if they do then it stands to reason they're not natural, probably all space aliens anyway..."

Blake smiled to himself. It had evidently all been happening while they had been in transit. This new Federation would be interesting to watch.

He stood aside as three disconsolate-looking figures in uniform, two men and a mutoid, trooped through the crowd in the general direction of Taj, and his foot came down on someone else's.

"Sorry," the someone said.

"No, no, it was my fault," Blake said, turning to confront a gentle-faced, dark-complexioned man with long black hair and pointed beard, dressed in a spotless white robe.

"You look a bit out of place here," Blake ventured.

"I've been away. I just had to turn up for the occasion." The man looked shamefaced. "Actually I'm a gatecrasher. I came with him." He jerked his thumb at--immediately recognisable, even from the back--Ethan Powers, standing holding forth to a group of young ladies.

Blake started towards him, but just at that moment Taj appeared from a pair of double doors at the other end of the hall.

"FOOD!!" she bellowed with surprising volume, and flung the door wide to reveal another hall of the same size or bigger, with loaded tables along the walls, smaller round ones dotted about and piles of nesting chairs. There was a mass surge toward this vision of bounty, and Blake had to follow it to keep up.

The food was multifarious and excellent. Blake found a table and a chair and concentrated on the inner man. Occasionally he glimpsed one of the group across the room, but invariably before he could catch their eye someone moved in between them. In all honesty, he admitted to himself, he was still unsure about the whole thing. Spread out like this, it would be harder for any would-be assassin to pick them out. And they still had their bracelets, after all.

And it was rather refreshing to be away from them for a moment...

Jenna found Taj deep in conversation with Servalan.

"Excuse me, Madam President," she said.

Taj failed to react. Servalan nudged her gently. "That's you, dear."

"Oh!" Taj stifled a nervous giggle. "Sorry. I'm not quite used to it yet."

"May I have a word?"

"Of course, dear," Taj said. "Jenna, isn't it?"

"Yes," Jenna said. "I have been appointed representative to the Terran Federation for the Nests of the Selendesh. They are a nonhumanoid sapient race who wish to establish diplomatic links with Earth."

"That's nice, dear," Taj said with deceptive vagueness. "Drop by my office about ten-thirty on Thursday morning and we'll work out the details. Will they be visiting?"

"Only after the Federation have recognised them formally as sapient," Jenna said. "You know how it is."

"Only too well." Taj looked pleased. "It'll be a change actually talking to an alien species instead of blasting them into tiny pieces."

"Excuse me," Vila said, appearing at Jenna's elbow. "You got any fruit juice?" His arm was round Cally's waist. She smiled approvingly at him.

Avon appeared at Blake's table and sat down. He looked acutely uncomfortable.

"I never understood the necessity for parties," he said.

"There is no necessity," Blake said. "That's the point. Like becoming emotional to prove you care. Sometimes you have to do things whether they're necessary or not."

"That doesn't make sense," Avon said, "but don't try to explain it. Where did you find that pink stuff?"

When all but a few stragglers had ceased to visit the buffet, Taj stood up, clapped her hands and announced "the pudding." This turned out to be several dozen purplish-brown spheroids. Each was carried in with great ceremony by a black-clad trooper and placed in the centre of one of the round tables. The trooper then calmly drew his paragun and shot it, whereupon it burned with a weak blue flame for a moment or two and went out, and finally cut it into slices with his belt knife.

Avon sat rooted to the spot by this festive pageantry, but Blake snared a slice and bit into it. "Not bad," he said with his mouth full. "Try it."

Avon reached for a slice tentatively, but was distracted as a deafening laugh shook the room and silenced every voice.

Into the centre of the room tramped a large figure dressed from head to foot in red. A long white beard flowed down the ample chest, and a bulging sack balanced on one shoulder. Snow dripped off its robe and boots and melted into the carpet as it unshipped the sack and dumped it on the floor.

"Ho, ho, ho," it boomed. "Merry Christmas."

"Who's that?" Vila said.

"Well, he's got lots of names in the literature," Taj said. "Father Christmas. Saint Nikita. Miss Pringle, I believe, although that one's disputed. He's supposed to give out presents to all the good boys and girls, but we had to modify the myth a little, otherwise there'd be no point him coming here."

Father Christmas wiped his forehead. "Can I take the beard off now, Supreme Commander?" he asked plaintively.

"Yes, all right, Kimball," Taj said. "It does look a bit stuffy in there."

Off came the beard and the hood, revealing a pink-faced young woman with dark hair and yellow-green eyes. "That's better," Kimball said, delving into the sack. "Is Councillor Bercol here?"

"I'm afraid he was called away," someone said. "He, er, had to see a man about a dog."

"The price of forgiveness, Rontane?" Taj called, and there was laughter.

"Antique rituals," Avon said. "Christmas. Elected Councils. I hope you know what you've done, Blake."

"No," Blake said. "But it'll be fun finding out. Eat your pudding."

Avon bit down, grimaced and extracted something from his mouth. It was a small silver boot. He tossed it on the table in front of Blake, his eyes speaking volumes.

Jenna joined them. She looked vaguely uncomfortable.

"I don't know when you'll be leaving here," she said abruptly, "but I don't think I'll be coming with you."

"Oh?" A pang of sadness startled Blake; to have lost her for so long, and to lose her again... "Why's that, Jenna?"

"I've agreed to see the President in three days' time," Jenna explained, "to arrange for the Selendesh to be recognised as sapient and civilised. After that I'm going back to them, in FreeBird. We've only scratched the surface of what these ships can do. There's so much they can teach me." She looked from one to the other. "What are your plans?"

"I haven't made any yet," Blake admitted.

"I had plans," Avon said. "All this time I've had plans. Unfortunately, there is not much future for an expert in computer fraud when every computer in the Federation has its own hairy watchdog." He looked at Blake. "I'm not giving up my place on the Liberator, though."

"Oh, neither am I," Jenna said. "I couldn't if I wanted to."

"Ah yes," Avon said, "your famous 'link' with Zen."

Jenna gave him a look. "I'll be back, don't worry. I think Vila and Cally want to stay with the ship as well."

Avon considered this. "Maybe I can find a niche on Earth after all."

Blake laughed. "I'll bet you when that ship leaves orbit you're on it," he said, "with Vila."

Avon looked him in the eye. "No bet," he said. And smiled.

Blake turned away. Across the room, Powers was heading for the door, accompanied by the dark bearded man. They smiled and nodded; Powers wiggled his fingers, and the bearded man gave Blake a thumbs-up.

Kimball had paused in her dispensing of presents. Gan was handing her a drink. Their fingertips brushed, almost by accident.

"I think you'd like Zephron," he was saying.

It was the parting of the ways. The fight was over, and the members of the group would choose their own paths from here. Maybe the links would break, stretched beyond endurance by time and distance and new lives. Maybe.

Blake didn't think so.

He turned, and sudden cold wetness cascaded over his arm and hand.

"Oh, no," Taj said, eyes wide and dismayed. "Oh, I'm sorry, dear, I didn't see you. Oh, what a klutz." She bit her lip. "I don't even know if it'll wash out."

Blake held out his dripping hand. "Have you got a towel?" he said.

"There's no need to waste good punch," Taj said practically. She took the hand, conveyed it to her mouth and began to lick it. Blake, too stunned to resist, noted that the sensation was not unpleasant, far from it; quite the reverse in fact.

Avon turned away in elaborate disgust and found himself face to face with Servalan. Before he could speak she placed a finger against his lips, took his hand and began to lead him away.

Vila and Cally watched from a discreet distance, before more personal considerations distracted them.

Carnell took out a notebook and began to record his observations.

And Taj went on licking Blake's hand. Her bright blue eyes were fixed on his; the look in them was one he would get to know all too well in years to come.

At this point, however, it ceases to be a BLAKE'S 7 story, so this is

The End