A red line flashed across the top of the computer screen, interrupting my useless contemplation of the meagre information that the Scitech computers would provide on the Yard Barriers. I touched the comspek button and addressed the central computer. "What is it?" I asked.
"Routine scanning of Main Galaxy communications traffic has located messages containing keywords `Blake', `Avon' and `Liberator'. This information is conveyed in accordance with your standing instructions."
"Decode and display."
As the words appeared on the screen I felt as if I had swallowed a litre of ice-water.
"How long ago was that last message transmitted?" I demanded.
"Four standard hours."
I told the computer exactly what I thought of that information.
"That instruction is physically impossible."
"Is the Scoop in operation?"
"Is it ready for operation?"
"Power build-up is almost complete. The Scoop will be ready for operation in approximately four hours."
"Compute Scoop co-ordinate equivalents of those given for teleport in the message numbered S643/UR1041/5 and pass them to Jake Harun at Scoop Control. Tell him to stand by for a major pickup."
"Co-ordinates computed and transmitted."
"Is the Director free?
There was short pause. Then, "The Director is free. She will accept your image-contact."
"No. This is too important. I must see her face to face. Now."
Again I sweated out the silence.
"The Director will see you in five minutes,"
As I jumped to my feet, the computer added, "Jake Harun wishes to speak with you-"
"Tell him... tell him he'll find out soon enough-" I dived out of the door before the computer could reply.
"We've tried to scoop Liberator before, Ricel," the Director said, lacing her pudgy fingers. "For some reason, its hull is resistant to the E-space projection field."
"I know that. I also know that we need Liberator technology. Correct? Ship design. Teleport. Force field. Computer. All of them would complement and help explain what we already have."
"Yes, yes. Come to the point."
"The point is that, while we can't scoop the ship, we may now have a chance to scoop its crew."
"Who may or may not be able to tell us anything we want to know."
"Kerr Avon certainly will."
The Director considered. "Kerr Avon..."
"And I need him. The key to the Yard Barriers may well be in the computers here at Scitech Central. They are still pretty much of a mystery to our scientists-"
"Can we pick up Avon?" she interrupted.
"Yes. Look at those messages, Director." I pointed towards the computer screen. "You know and I know that Roj Blake is dead, but that information came to us from a Federation atmospheric tight-beam signal which Liberator couldn't have picked up. This message purports to come from Blake. Someone is laying a trap."
"And Avon has fallen into it. I don't like the look of this last message, the one telling Vila Restal to take the Liberator away. Why, Van? Why did Avon fall into the trap?"
That was the question that I had been asking myself for the last fifteen minutes. "I'm no psychologist. On the other hand, the Federation has its psychostrategists - puppeteers, they call them - and I think that those messages have been tailored by one of them to lure Avon into the trap. The discovery `Blake' is supposed to have made must be part of it. If that message does come from the Federation we may never have another chance to pick up Avon. Of course, we may get some of the information we want through Federation inter-computer communications traffic but if Avon is killed we lose the opportunity to recruit a unique and brilliant mind: one that can tell us all we want to know about Liberator."
The Director's tight grey curls bounced absurdly as she shook her head. "Van, we can't scoop at all if there is any chance of giving away our existence and disrupting the situation in the Main Galaxy."
"Director, those co-ordinates do not correspond with any known Federation planet or installation. I don't know what's there but it can't be very big. We can go in with a wide scoop and minimal risk. Avon is important enough for us to take it. Also, do you want to risk the Federation gaining access to Liberator technology? They haven't abandoned their project to construct an intergalactic drive."
She was still hesitating. "We'll be leaving a lot of bodies behind."
"Accidents will happen. Let the Federation try and puzzle it out." Even as I spoke, I moved a hand towards my hidden gun. If she refused my request I would have to kill her. This would ruin my cover identity and all the plans that Silkay, Stali and I had so carefully constructed but my first loyalty must lie with Avon. Perhaps he could escape from the trap, perhaps he already had, perhaps he was already dead but, quite simply, I could not take the risk. His life and those of his companions meant far too much to me to let the chance to save them slip by.
The Director nodded, "Very well. Scoop at those co-ordinates and see what you bring in. And Van... for your own sake, what you bring in had better include Kerr Avon."
The floater platform took me high into a receiving area huge enough to accommodate the biggest spaceship, or even an asteroid. In fact, it had accommodated both. Now it was empty except for the AG generators suspended by their own power at the angles of the chamber, which would hold whatever we scooped intact and well away from the walls.
The floater drifted downwards towards the balcony that housed Scoop Control. Behind it, the E-space generator screens rose upwards for fully thirty metres, glowing faintly with a blue-silver light that deepened even as I watched. The incredible power needed to penetrate E-space was already building.
The balcony was swarming with people, both human and wi'h, though they weren't all needed to operate the Scoop. That ancient, alien-built equipment could be controlled by a single person, functioning as it had been designed to function. Even after five hundred years of research it had proved impossible to duplicate the Scoop, though the basic principles were clear.
The back-up teams, though, were far from superfluous. Any living entity re-created by the Scoop needed attention within minutes, if it was not to die from transfer shock.
Jake Harun stood waiting for me as the floater came to rest. Short, stocky, with red curls and snapping blue eyes, he looked twice his size by sheer power of personality as he placed his fists on his hips and regarded me with his chin and lower lip jutting forward. "Okay, Van, this had better be good. The Scoop isn't your private toy..."
"No, it's yours," I told him, grinning in response. I liked Jake.
"I'm just the Chief Technician here, that's all. I'm just the one who's supposed to co-ordinate this mess without even knowing what I'm supposed to be coordinating, that's all. I'm just-"
"Jake, please, we don't have time. This may be our last chance."
"Our last chance for what?" Jake howled. I think it was sheer willpower that kept him from dancing up and down on the spot.
"To get our hands on Liberator technology. Specifically, on Kerr Avon. When will we be ready to scoop?"
When Jake had stopped opening and closing his mouth, he found an answer. "Two... two and a half standard hours."
It was a reply that dismayed me. "Too long. Liberator's crew are in a Federation trap. It may already be too late."
"You can't shorten Scoop recharge time simply by wishing," Jake retorted. "Of course, if you could narrow the co-ordinates..."
"No. We have only one chance and that's slim enough as it is. We have to cover as wide an area as possible."
"Then we may pick up a very large chunk of something. No idea what, I suppose?"
"None. It could be a ship, an asteroid or a satellite. There isn't supposed to be anything there at all... and by the time you're ready, there may not be."
"Two hours," Jake said, implacably. "I can't change the way Builders' technology works, even for you, Van."
Cally made her way through the dimness of the cruiser's main corridor, stumbling over an area of metal floor that had buckled upwards in the crash. Edging into the chaos of the engine room, she spoke to the two dark shadows crouching over the glow of a hand lamp. "There is nothing you can do until dawn when we can start recharging the solar batteries. I think you had better come outside. I have prepared a meal from the ship's concentrates."
The taller and thinner of the two shadows turned towards her, though he could see even less of her than she could of him. "We should be rationing those. This thing may never be spaceworthy again."
"In which case, Tarrant, we must start living off the land as soon as possible," Cally retorted. "Dayna and I will hunt in the morning. Now we must eat and sleep."
"Got it all worked out, haven't you, Cally?" Tarrant muttered loudly.
She ignored him. "Avon?"
"Yes. Perhaps you are right." Avon straightened, swaying slightly. Cally watched him anxiously as she moved aside to let him pass but he seemed steady enough as he made his way towards the yellow glint of fire beyond the open hatch.
Tarrant hadn't moved.
Cally decided to try just one more time. "You can't see anything in here until we fix the power, Tarrant. What are you trying to prove? That you are more stubborn than Avon or more stupid?
There was a pause, then Tarrant snapped: "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Whatever you want it to mean," said Cally, and was gone, back out into the twilight.
Tarrant scowled as he followed her. Damn it, he didn't have to prove anything. Avon had led them into this trap and had lost Liberator in the process. Surely there could no longer be doubt in anyone's mind as to who was the right person to lead them? Avon would just have to accept that.
He came out into a noisy Terminal evening. The afterglow of the sunset was beginning to fade into the darkening sky. Cold air with a hint of rain in it slapped him fully awake.
The others were sitting about a small fire, except for Dayna, who was standing looking outwards towards the scrub-covered slopes, plainly on guard.
Tarrant inclined his head towards her and asked, "Expecting visitors?" as he took the small bowl and spoon that Cally offered him.
Dayna did not look round. "The creatures Servalan spoke of may attack."
"Our future descendants," said Cally, with a tiny shudder.
"Not yours," said Vila. "It must be a comfort, not to be human."
"It all hardly seems worthwhile, somehow, if the human race is going to end up like the things Cally and I saw," Tarrant commented.
Avon, who had been staring blankly into the fire, roused himself at this. "Unlikely."
"Servalan said that they were what mankind will become," Tarrant pointed out.
"Servalan is... wasn't a scientist. Her ignorance of the forces of evolution is obviously as profound as yours. Those creatures are what mankind might become if all of the human race was isolated on Terminal. In any other environment... who knows?" Despite the opportunity to lecture, Avon sounded disinterested. He lapsed into silence again, the meal in his hands untouched.
Vila and Cally looked at each other, then at Avon, then back at each other.
"I'm going to get some sleep," Vila announced loudly. "Coming, anyone?" He stared hard at Avon, willing him to get up, but Avon's chin just dropped even further towards his chest.
It was Tarrant who reacted to Vila's words. "Wait a minute, Vila," he said sharply. "We've still got to arrange the watches."
"We will be safe inside the ship if we lock the hatches," said Cally.
"I still want a watch set."
"Then watch." Cally glanced across at Avon but, though his eyes were still open, he did not seem to have heard.
Tarrant glared at Cally. "Very well. I'll take first watch. You can follow me, then Avon, then Vila and finally Dayna."
"But-" Cally began, ready to argue, when Vila got in first:
"I saw something." He jumped to his feet, staring out into the darkness in a pantomime of surprise and fear. "They must be sneaking up on us."
"What?" Tarrant, also on his feet, shook Vila's arm. "Where? What did you see?"
"Eyes. Over there. Look! There they are again."
"I can't see anything."
"There!" Vila made a dramatic gesture with his free arm, pointing into the darkness.
Tarrant freed Vila and snatched up a brand from the fire. "We'll take a look. Come on, Vila."
Surprisingly, Vila did not protest. As he copied Tarrant's action in taking a piece of burning wood from the fire, he looked at Cally, winked, and jerked his head at Avon.
Cally looked startled, then smiled and nodded.
When all she could see of Vila and Tarrant was the red flicker of their improvised torches, Cally crossed to kneel beside Avon. She said, gently, "Come on, into the ship, before you go to sleep right here."
He raised his head very slowly and blinked at her. "Does... it... matter?"
"You will feel better in the morning. Come on, Avon. You don't want me to have to ask Tarrant to carry you, do you?"
Avon gave her a dark look. He tried to get to his feet, but had to catch hold of her shoulder to stop himself from falling. When she put her arm around his waist, he did not protest, just leaned heavily against her.
Dayna appeared out of the dark. Her black skin, lined in red by the firelight, made her seem like a warrior from the far past, but her expression was concerned. "Avon?"
"He is all right. All that has happened is that his body is finally reacting to the demands he has made on it during the last few days."
"Do you need help?"
"No, thank you. I can manage. You'd better wait here for Vila and Tarrant."
In the dim glow of the emergency permalights, Cally supported Avon into the ship. She steered him into the nearest cabin and settled him onto the bunk, helping him take off his jacket and boots. It was as she was covering him with a thermoblanket that he opened his eyes and looked up at her, his pupils huge and unfocused.
"Cally?" he whispered
"Yes. I am here."
"He's dead, Cally. Blake's dead."
"Yes, Avon, I know."
"He's dead... and I'm free of him. Free forever."
"Yes, you are free. Go to sleep."
"We... we've... done... perfectly well with... without him."
"Shhhh. Go to sleep, now."
"Perfectly well," Avon insisted.
"Yes. Of course we have."
"Then why... why...?"
"Why does it hurt?" Cally sat on the edge of the bunk and gently stroked Avon's cheek with the backs of her fingers. "If they cut off a hand or a leg you would expect it to hurt, wouldn't you, Avon? We were all part of each other: you and I and Blake and Vila and Jenna and Gan. We've lost another part of ourselves today, perhaps the most important part."
"I wanted to find him..." Avon whispered. "Tell him..." His voice faded away. His eyes, still fixed on Cally's face, closed slowly.
Cally was still sitting looking down at Avon's face when, a few minutes later, Vila's head poked into the room.
"Cally?" he asked softly.
She started rather guiltily then, recovering, smiled. "It's all right. I think it would take an earthquake to wake him."
Vila came into the room and stood beside Cally, who had risen to her feet.
"Did you find anything out there?" she asked.
"No. Isn't that odd?" Vila was grinning.
"Very. Thank you, Vila."
Vila shuffled his feet and avoided meeting her eyes. "Didn't do anything. Er... look, Cally, wake me when it's Avon's watch, will you. I wouldn't trust him to watch a stripper in this state."
"Stripper? No, never mind, Vila. I will stand half of Avon's watch. I did not intend to wake him, anyway. He will be ill, if he pushes himself any harder. As it is, he came close to collapse from lack of sleep and shock."
"Not to mention being manhandled by Servalan's minions. Well, at least we're rid of her. If it wasn't for the news about Blake, it might almost be worth - oh, damn." Abruptly, Vila spun round and fled the cabin.
Cally looked down at Avon, thinking: I will also weep for Blake tonight. I wish that you could, Avon, for I think that you miss him most. She sighed.
You might have left us hope, Servalan. Well, we are revenged, at least. We are revenged.
Servalan lay in the bracken and stared down at the red glow that marked the dying fire. The President of the Terran Federation, Ruler of the High Council, Lord of the Inner and Outer Worlds, High Admiral of the Galactic Fleet, Lord General of the Six Armies and the Defender of the Earth was somewhat uncomfortable. She detested the musty smell of bracken and the dampness soaking into her clothes, making her even colder than she already was, but she knew that her present position was a necessary one. That fact did not improve her temper. Someone was going to have to pay.
She squinted along the paragun at the figure she could see dimly, sitting in the hatch of the wrecked cruiser, silhouetted against the feeble light from within.
Tarrant, she thought. I can kill him now. A difficult shot, but not impossible.
It was a strong temptation, but she resisted it. Tarrant was a pilot. She would need a pilot.
The cruiser. She had thought it wrecked beyond repair, had flung it to Avon because of the amusement it gave her to think of him trying to piece it back together, but now it was her only hope. She should never have sabotaged the equipment at the Terminal base. Then, her only thought had been to make sure that Avon could not use it. She had not imagined that she might need it herself. It was pity she had been unable to return in time to disarm the demolition devices. She had miscalculated... it was to be hoped that she had also miscalculated the ability of Blake's people to repair the ship. Certainly, she could not repair it herself.
Blake. Servalan smiled to herself. Dead, he had served her well. She remembered Avon's expression as she had told him how he had been fooled. That had been satisfying at the time but, again, it had been a mistake, though one that she could not have foreseen. Now she would have to deal with him, this man whom she had duped, humiliated and hurt. He would certainly not forgive her.
The others too: the child Dayna, who had sworn vengeance for the killing - correction, execution - of her father. This time it was unlikely that Avon would restrain her. Cally. Cally had been Blake's loyal follower. She might also be ready to kill. Vila. She could dismiss Vila. He was a fool and a coward, though there was that nagging doubt: how had they arranged for Liberator to disintegrate under her? No, that could not have been Vila... Tarrant. Ahhh... Tarrant, she understood. She had bent so many like him to her will. And it was Tarrant who would lead the group now that Avon had shown himself fallible. It was Tarrant she must convince, must work through to dominate the others. That would not be too difficult.
She picked herself up, fastidiously brushed away the dead leaves clinging to her skirt, and began the circle that would allow her to reach the ship from the far side of the valley. The airlock would open to her handprint. She would kill Dayna - the child was a psychopathic murderer, unnecessary for repairing the ship - then surprise Tarrant to make her offer. By the time the others awoke, she would be in control.
As she slid down the muddy slope, the prickly undergrowth caught at her dress. She tore it free with a snarl, only to hit her head on a low branch.
Servalan sat down heavily in the mud, snarling a word that would have brought a reprimand if uttered by one of her troopers. As she wiped the trickle of blood from her eyes, she wondered if she should not, after all, wait for light...
...but there was light. A hazy blue glow was building towards brightness in the west. She tried to remember what lay in that direction. The shaft by which Avon had entered the Terminal base was to the north-west... Wait. The glow was forming close to the position where he had first landed on the planet.
That was not half so important as the fact that it was growing; the brightness was increasing, the area it covered widening even as she watched.
It was blue and silver and in it swirled another colour, deeper than both, that Servalan could not name, that she seemed to see not with her eyes but deep within her mind. The night noises were stilled, but the very air was humming with power, sending eddies of dizziness into whirlpools behind her eyes.
Memory stirred. As she had stood outside Blake's cell, ready to take him prisoner, there had been the faintest touch of such a sensation - and when she had entered the cell, Blake had been dead.
Dead... and something of this feeling had lingered in the room...
Servalan clawed her way to her feet and scrambled back up the slope, away from the strange, glowing hemisphere that lit every rock, every tree about her with azure light. She was panting as she ran, panic lending her speed.
At the top of the slope she glanced back.
The glowing area had stabilised. The blue-silver mist had formed an opaque barrier perhaps thirty metres behind her. It was no longer moving, though its radiance was reflected in the sky from horizon to horizon.
Servalan gasped, unable to look away, her mind retreating from the impact of the unbelievable depth and colour in the pulsing misty fire that domed over an area ten kilometres in diameter, submerging the wrecked cruiser as it had submerged the Terminal base. The brightness blinded her, yet she could still see every molecule with a super-vivid clarity.
No human mind could stand that sight. Servalan, her sanity ripping into shreds about her, screamed and fell to the ground, wrapping her arms above her head, her face buried in the cold embrace of the wet earth.
The universe burst, shredded, compacted, vanished.
Then there was nothing but silence. Servalan lay still.
After a while, an owl hooted. Some creature barked, and another of the same species answered.
Finally, Servalan found the courage to raise her head. Around her was nothing but night, no light except the scatter of distant stars. Not even the glow of the fire outside the wrecked ship penetrated the gloom. She decided to go no further that night. Nothing would persuade her to go down into that valley again until she could see what it held. She would formulate a new plan in the morning. It was plain that Terminal held threats none of them had suspected. If she could convince Tarrant that she knew more about those threats than he did, he might well be glad to make an alliance with her.
It was with that thought drifting in her mind that she succumbed to exhaustion and fell asleep on the wet grass.
Even the normal space-time end of an E-space tube is a sanity-destroying experience. The human mind cannot accept a place where mass and space do not exist and entropy flows sideways. Men have been destroyed trying to encompass that strangeness. It is said that only the truly sane can emerge unscathed, but sometimes I think it is those with a touch of madness who face it best.
Perhaps those beings we call the Builders, who created the Scoop and the world on which it stands, among other things, could look into the tube as it functioned. The wi'h can... but then they were designed to do so. It was they who were operating the instruments as the signals came back instantaneously from the Milky Way Galaxy. In a single milli-nanosecond, more power than that generated by a star would be employed to recreate the matter scanned on the other side of the E-space interface and replace the energy the Scoop had torn from the original within it.
Once that process was in operation nothing could halt it. It was computer controlled, but the operators had to confirm that the receiving chamber was a total vacuum, that the scooped object would be held firmly in position by the AG beams and that any hostile force or weapons it contained were nullified. Those nullifiers could absorb and muffle a positron explosion.
The Scoop would normally be used to bring through a spaceship. If the co-ordinates were precise enough it could retrieve a single man, as the wi'h had retrieved me. This time, I expected a starship or a space station, and a large lump of pure vacuum.
What I got was a piece of planet.
It came close to filling the vast chamber and, as the blue-silver field flare died away, we saw that it was, from our viewpoint, floating on its side, the planet surface facing towards us so we looked out onto green moorland and bushy treetops. We had taken a hunk of atmosphere too, so the great sphere we had cut from the next galaxy seemed hemispherical.
"Life forms?" I heard Jake ask.
"You can see the plant life. Lots of animal life, mostly small and unidentified. Humanoids... about fifty to sixty of them... concentrated on co-ordinates 542/314/820. Could be human."
"Send the teams in, Jake," I ordered urgently. "No. Wait." I had seen a gleam of metal as I scanned the planetary surface through the magnifying viewers. Now I brought it closer. "There's a spaceship at co-ordinates 542/303/820."
"Got it," Jake grunted. "That can't be Liberator."
It wasn't. It had been a Federation cruiser. Now it was scrap metal.
"Send the recovery teams to the ship first," I decided.
"They're away," Jake reported.
Those teams had been waiting outside the chamber since before materialisation began. Now their aircars sped towards the planet's surface. They had to act swiftly. The shock of what was, after all, a sort of death - and, from personal experience I knew it to be a painful death - was so great that ninety-five percent of human transferees died if not put on life support within fifteen minutes of transfer.
I headed back to the floater and was not surprised to find Jake beside me as I jumped onto the platform. "Co-ordinates 542/303/820," he said.
The floater rose up and began a long, swinging sweep towards the planet, slowly twisting through ninety degrees so that we came in with the planetary segment under our feet.
As the floater settled to the ground in the valley bottom we saw that the recovery teams had arrived before us. One of their aircars was parked beside the wrecked cruiser.
There was a fire burning in front of the spaceship's open hatch. That, at least, indicated that the Scoop was functioning perfectly. I could only hope that it had transferred life energy as efficiently as it had transferred that of combustion.
Two wi'h medical technicians were at the hatchway, placing a limp body in a life-support pod. I started forwards but Jake grabbed my arm. "What the hell's that?"
`That' was a humanoid creature sprawling out from the bushes. It had a simian face and thick black fur. A human medic was peering down at it. He stirred it with his foot, then looked at us. "This place is crawling with these things. Bio'd love 'em. You want 'em saved?"
"The humans first!" I said sharply.
The medic shrugged. "They're in the ship."
"Take as many of the aliens as you have space for to Bio," Jake ordered, as I resumed my rush towards to wrecked cruiser. At last able to look down into the pod, I realised with disappointment that I had never met the man it contained. He was human; lean, tall, dark haired, young... but he was not one of the people I wanted to see. I hoped that the anxiety I was feeling was not showing on my face, though if it was there was a good chance it would be interpreted as worry over what the Director would do to me if I failed.
I dived into the hatch, almost hitting another life-support pod coming out. The identity of the man inside was both a relief and a shock. Vila. He was unconscious and, for the first time, it occurred to me how lucky I was that shock knocked out all transferees for many hours. It would not have been wise to have anyone recognise me in front of Jake - or anyone else, for that matter.
There were three more pods exiting after Vila's. I stood aside so I could peer down into them as they passed.
Cally. I had forgotten that she was beautiful. What I remembered most were her understanding, her support, and the gentleness of her voice.
Then another woman, one I did not know. Black, good looking, very young. Too young, really, to be in such company.
Then Avon. He was even paler than the others and I was suddenly afraid for him. Scoop transfer repaired physical injury in a way no-one understood, but the psychic shock could be terrible.
"That one doesn't seem to have taken to transfer too well," the supervising human medic commented to me as the pod bearing Avon disappeared through the hatch. "Lucky for him that you spotted this ship. He should be all right now."
"He'd better be," I replied. "Unless I'm very much mistaken, he's the man we arranged all this to catch."
"Well, you caught him," said Jake, arriving at that moment. "The next question is: what are we goin' to do with this 'ere hunk of planet?"
"Nothing until we find out what it is," I replied. "There might be anything here."
There certainly was something. In a corner of one of the cabins I found a carrying box that contained a glowing cube. Before Jake could catch up with me, I removed the activation key. Orac would recognise me as readily as Avon, Cally or Vila. I locked the case and left it where it lay. I would requisition it later.
The discovery of Orac was the final proof that my gamble had worked. If there had been a trap, the prey had now been removed from the snare. That thought gave me a lot of satisfaction, for I had a good idea as to who the trapper might be.
Continued in 'The Machiavelli Factor'
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