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Diversion

By Frances Teagle
Avon:   Have you anything on Blake's whereabouts?
  Zen:   His last voice transmission reported that he is safe and well and en route for the planet Epheron.
            [Powerplay]
"Roj Blake?" The man in the doorway paused tentatively.
      The figure by the window turned and surveyed his visitor, then he smiled and acknowledged his identity with a somewhat rueful gesture.
      "Welcome to Epheron. I am Emeryk, President of the local council. I hope our people have been looking after you." Emeryk advanced into the room, extending his hand in greeting. He was young for a president, with an undistinguished round face and an eager, rather naive expression.
      Blake shook the proffered hand, towering over the small politician.
      "So, I was recognised, then."
      "I'm afraid so. We sent a vessel to join the defence against the invaders, and the captain recognised you when you were picked up. He's a great admirer of yours."
      "I'm much obliged to him. He never mentioned it to me while I was aboard," said Blake.
      "Er, no." Emeryk gave a slight smile. "Since they had picked up some Federation citizens, he felt it wise to be discreet. We don't want to attract their displeasure, but you are among friends. Captain Vine tells me that you were quite badly injured when he picked you up. He thinks it was a single shot to the chest. Are you recovering well? Are you going to need further surgery?"
      "Apparently not. I'm doing well, there is very little pain now, and I'm extremely grateful for the excellent care I've received here. The medics tell me they are satisfied with my progress and will be happy to let me go as soon as I've built up a bit more strength."
      Blake gestured politely to his visitor to take the single chair. When Emeryk was seated, he sat himself on the edge of the bed. "Tell me about the planet. How long has it been settled?"
      "Well, you may have noticed it's a bit primitive here." Emeryk's voice was mildly deprecating. "Although there's a reasonable atmospheric pressure, we don't yet have a sufficient ozone layer to protect life from UV radiation, hence the glass domes. But we've been working on it for nearly eighty years now, and we're hopeful that another twenty or thirty years will see us living outside."
      "Hm... You need plenty of plant cover to maintain enough oxygen for a livable atmosphere without expensive artificial production," said Blake interestedly. "It looks pretty barren at present."
      "Oh yes, the native species are very primitive, of course, but every year we establish another bio-dome to raise crops and develop strains which will prosper here. The soil is quite fertile when treated."
      "What d'you do about water?" Blake asked, the engineer in him coming to the fore.
      "Bore holes have proved disappointing," Emeryk owned, "and chemical methods aren't ideal, so we're mining some icy asteroids from the edge of the system. We've managed to capture two small ones and park them in orbit."
      "Impressive," said Blake. "Expensive, though."
      "Well, our main business is minerals," Emeryk responded, "and there we are well endowed: high-grade iron ore, copper, zinc, tin, silver, platinum, molybdenum, titanium, and other useful metals. So we do a very nice trade in this sector. What's more - and this is in total confidence - we've recently come across some diamond deposits."
      "Yes, well, you don't want rumours of that to get around. You'd attract every rogue in the galaxy." Blake smiled inwardly at the thought of two particular rogues who would be highly interested. "If you're all living under domes, I take it that your population is quite small."
      Emeryk sighed. "Yes, only about half a million. One of our worst problems is a shortage of women, you know. They won't put up with the hardships of pioneering these days. Outsiders won't settle and the native-born just dream of getting away to places like Keledon and Parthia Minor." He shook his head sadly.
      Blake suppressed a laugh. "Perhaps that problem will disappear of its own accord when a normal atmosphere is established. And a reasonable degree of mechanisation should improve the settler's lot. Land and equipment grants might help too, when you're ready to expand in the open."
      "That's what my uncle says," Emeryk said with a slight grimace. "But it's hard for the younger men, they often get lonely and hit the bottle. We have trouble from time to time when they fight over girls." He gave himself a little shake. "I don't know why I'm boring you with our problems. In a day or two, when you've had a good rest, we'll show you round everywhere. I think you'll be interested."
      "It'll be a pleasure," said Blake heartily. "Particularly after the life I've been leading recently."
      "Good." Emeryk smiled cheerfully again. "Have you adapted to our long day yet? I know space crew who are used to Standard time find it very tiring."
      "Nearly. How does it compare with Standard?"
      "Almost twenty-seven hours, I'm told. We divide it into twenty-five hours, and have a three-hour break in the middle of the working day."


Emeryk kept his promise and took Blake on a guided tour two days later; an expedition to one of the mines, a hydroponics plant, a large bio-dome growing cereals, and the cargo bays of a very rudimentary spaceport, including the control tower. Not a woman in sight anywhere, Blake noticed.
      That evening they retired to Emeryk's private quarters adjoining the government building for dinner with a few members of the Council. Among them was Emeryk's uncle, the Minister for Economic Affairs. In contrast to his nephew's commonplace round features, Shandor was darkly impressive in a lean and aristocratic way. Quite an elegant and imposing figure, Blake thought, as they were introduced.
      Before long he found himself giving an account of his part in the galactic war, up to the point where Liberator's crew had taken to the escape pods.
      "What a pity such a magnificent ship was destroyed," said one of the guests. "Just think what we could do with a vessel like that."
      "Certainly not," Shandor retorted with a lift of his eyebrows. "The Federation Fleet would be down on us like a pack of wolves, wouldn't they, Blake?"
      "I'm afraid you're right," Blake said ruefully. "They'd never tolerate such a warship in the hands of the independents. They would strike at your planet with everything they had to obliterate your home bases." He carefully avoided saying anything about Liberator's self-repair capabilities.
      Shandor skillfully moved the conversation along to other topics, but later on, when he had manoeuvred Blake away from the rest of the company, he reverted to the theme.
      "Who could have built such a vessel?" he wondered. "Did you ever find out?"
      Blake thought it safe to impart a few details about the original proprietors' attempt to retake Liberator. "It's a great shame we were forced to destroy their fleet capability," he finished, "but in their way, they were an even greater threat to civilisation than the Federation."
      "Yes, I suppose you are right," said Shandor regretfully. "But how did you manage it?"
      Blake had no intention of mentioning Orac's existence which he devoutely hoped was still a secret, so he prevaricated. "Well, the ship's computer, Zen, could access The System itself, so once we managed to regain control of Zen, we could strike back. Fortunately, our computer officer, Avon, is an adept at these procedures." He paused rather painfully. "Maybe I should be saying he was an adept. I have no idea whether any of my crew survived. I was sent off first because I was injured, but I have no idea as to whether they managed to follow me."
      Shandor murmured sympathetically and let the subject drop.


Some days later, Blake approached Emeryk with the matter that was uppermost in his mind - moving on.
      "But where would you go, Blake?" Emeryk made no attempt to hide his dismay. "Everything's in total chaos. Andromedan squadrons are still roaming around and it's dangerous out there. Stay a bit longer until things are safer. Please."
      "I can't just leave the scene and retire here," said Blake, feeling rather awkward in the face of this opposition. "I need to contact some associates and find out what's become of my crew. I can hardly sleep for thinking about them."
      Emeryk nodded sympathetically. "Well, I have a suggestion. Why don't you spend some time listening for news at our communications centre? You could help our people make some sense of the reports that are flying about on all sides. Each bulletin seem to contradict another, maybe your experience will help to clarify things."
      "That sounds like a good idea," Blake acknowledged. "I need as much information as I can get."
      "Yes, and cargo flights will be resumed as soon as it's safe, which will give you the chance to travel unobtrusively," Emeryk added eagerly. "Did you know that more than half of this sector's merchant fleet was destroyed or damaged during the main battle? One thing, if you do contact anyone, will you be discreet? In fact, we should give you a false identity as cover. We don't want a Federation cruiser coming to get you, do we?"
      Blake sighed. "I feel as if I'm missing the biggest opportunity to bring down the Federation that I'll ever be given."
      "Maybe others are grasping that opportunity with both hands," offered Emeryk. Blake was not sure that it was an entirely comforting thought.


A keen thirst for news made Blake a constant visitor to the communications bureau where friendly juniors gave him bulletins as they arrived, and allowed him a console where he could scour the wavelengths on his own account, since the Liberator was evidently far beyond the range of his teleport bracelet's communicator. As the last of the invaders were being hunted down, he began to keep a tally of Federation losses. The Andromedans had split into squadrons and diffused all over the galaxy. Only a few sectors had not seen any action. One enemy squadron was known to have passed right across the galaxy, regrouping its remnants and skirting round the outer sectors, to flee across unimaginable distances to bear the news of defeat back home. Blake wondered what kind of reception they would get in that duty-bound society. Perhaps they would do better to fall on their swords.
      Watching his compilations mount, he realised that the Federation must be in dire straits. More than seventy-five percent of their fleet was destroyed and whole legions had vanished. "Their finest hour," he could imagine Avon saying, with that typical twist to his lips.
      Many planets were regaining their independence without striking a blow because their garrisons would never return from the wars. Some were struggling towards self-government, while others, adrift on a sea of uncertainty, were clamouring for the Federation to take the helm once more. Many of the weather-conditioned planets were experiencing devastation since the destruction of Star One's computer control. However, Servalan was firmly in the saddle now, and Space Command directives were beginning to refer to her as the 'Supreme Empress'. How the ex-president and his high council must have prayed that her personal brush with the Andromedan fleet should prove fatal. But, even as the last of the invaders were being destroyed or harried out of the galaxy, she was setting about her programme of disaster recovery with typical energy and decision, and her minions were leaping to do her bidding.
      More than ever Blake chafed at his enforced inactivity. His hosts were very kind and his health was more or less restored, but he must get back into the thick of things soon.
      "Thought you'd like to see this." One of the staff dropped a hard copy onto his desk. It was a presidential decree issued by Servalan to the fleet, doubling the reward for Avon, Cally and Vila, and offering ten million credits for the capture of the Liberator. Madam President must have been badly stung recently, he reflected, exhilarated by the thought. So, the ship was evidently in action again.
      Oh, but where was Jenna? His exultation ebbed away. Absorbed in his own predicament, he had given small thought to hers. Now a sharp longing swept over him to see her, to hear her voice and run his fingers through her hair. He remembered those discreet meetings and their lovemaking with an aching clarity. How could he bear never to see her again?


In their council chamber Emeryk and Shandor were also reading the communiqué.
      "It seems as if our guest was not entirely frank with us." Shandor observed coolly. But his face registered a suave pleasure. "Apparently the Liberator was not damaged beyond repair after all. No wonder we couldn't find any trace of her."
      Emeryk chuckled appreciatively. "Do you suppose they'll come looking for their lost leader? I wouldn't in their shoes. If I had a past like theirs, I'd be looting the galaxy."
      "They might be persuaded to come for him," said Shandor slowly, "if we can lure them here with promises of fat pickings. Blake can tell us how to contact them, I'm sure." He directed a sardonic smile at his nephew. "Then we can loot the galaxy."


Since his move from the infirmary to a guest room in the council buildings, Blake had occasionally glimpsed a woman who seemed to have supervisory duties around the compound. The morning after the interception of Servalan's edict he was surprised to find her outside his door.
      "We must talk," she murmured. "Follow a few metres behind me. If we meet anyone, we are not together."
      Somewhat baffled, he trailed her down several corridors and up a flight of stairs. Eventually she unlocked a door and entered. It was a housekeeper's store-room lined with cupboards and the usual robotic cleaning equipment. As soon as Blake was inside, she locked the door again. He looked at her curiously. She was quite young: petite, black-haired and almond-eyed. Her normally impassive expression was replaced by a determined urgency.
      "You must get away from here immediately," she began abruptly. "They're going to use you to trap the Liberator."
      "Who are 'they'?" he asked, knowing the answer instinctively.
      "Shandor and Emeryk. I heard them. It's what they've been after all along. They never believed the ship was destroyed. They've had ships searching for it, in case they could repair it and use it for piracy."
      Arms folded, Blake leaned against the door in frozen silence. Of course. He might have known that such easy friendship was false. They'd bided their time, keeping him entertained and occupied all these weeks, while they waited for their opportunity once the tides of war had receded. What would he have done if they had offered to salvage the Liberator? He might easily have gone along with it. Did they know about its auto-repair system? Probably not. He doubted if even Servalan knew of it, although she might have guessed something by now.
      "You're right," he said finally. "I must get away, but how?"
      "The big open-cast iron mines at Breyer have their own spaceport. They shift really large quantities, so that's where most ore carriers land. You've got no chance of getting away from the official spaceport here."
      "I know. I've been there." He looked down at her with a smile. "What's your name? Why are you helping me?"
      "I am Soong Ma. As you can see, I'm not a native of this place. I was bought from the slave-traders at Domo. I am a slave."
      Blake took her hand gently and held it while she told her story.
      "This planet is a hell for women. Two generations ago, the Council decided to stop them leaving the colony to work and settle on better planets. They denied them any education and passed laws to bar them from owning property, leaving Epheron or moving around internally on their own."
      "No education at all?"
      "Not academic, certainly. Only the old women and incomers like myself can read. Their education consists of the domestic sort; cooking, cleaning and raising children. Naturally, they do not vote.
      "Since women are in such demand, a man has to buy one from her father or a slaver, so only the rich can afford one." She gave a bitter laugh. "One, did I say? Oh no, if you are really wealthy you can afford several. My owner, Shandor, has twenty-one and Emeryk more than a dozen."
      Blake bowed his head in sympathy and disgust.
      "Every woman is expected to have five or six children," Soong Ma resumed. "I've only been here four years, but I have two. They're both boys, so they were taken away from me to be raised at one of the children's domes where the sons of the wealthy are educated. They will never know me." Her head bowed with sudden grief. "The girls, of course, stay with their mothers until they are bought by some man. They seldom have any further contact with their families, as a rule."
      She straightened her back and looked up defiantly. "I am a well-educated woman. On my own planet I held a responsible post." A note of suppressed passion crept into her voice. "I haven't knuckled under without a fight. There are things a slave can do when her masters don't suspect her of resistance. I've been secretly teaching some of the women to read, I picked locks and broke codes, and I stole communications equipment so that we could monitor what's going on. That's how I overheard them - Shandor and Emeryk - I bugged the Council Chamber."
      "Have you been planning your escape all this time?" Blake asked, admiringly.
      "Yes. I was sure an opportunity would come along if I was ready for it." After a pause, she became businesslike. "Now, you should travel to Breyer as a miner, or better still, a mining inspector. I will come with you as your daughter. It's quite easy," she added, catching his surprised look. "Women travel covered up in veils - usually black for married and green for unmarried - and I'm small enough to pass for a twelve-year-old. That's my price, to get away from here with you."
      "Would they let a girl near the spaceport?" Blake wondered.
      "No. Perhaps I'll cut my hair and become a boy, or try some other way. We'll find male helpers. There's a lot of discontent and opposition among the rank and file who want a normal open society. Anyone who could help them against the present ruling clique would be welcomed."
      "How do we contact them?"
      "I've written a few names here. I know you're helping at the ComBureau, so you'll have opportunities to make contact."
      "This will take time and organisation," said Blake. "I'll go along with Shandor and Emeryk if they propose that I should contact the Liberator and bring it here. However, I suspect that will prove difficult and unsuccessful."
      He smiled blandly, and her face lit with an answering smile which erased years of care from it.
      "How old are you?" he asked.
      "Twenty-six."
      "Well, it may take some weeks, but we'll get you back to your own home. Now, how shall we communicate?"
      "Leave a note under the clothes on the bottom shelf in your cabinet, and I shall use the same spot."
      Soong Ma unlocked the door and peered out, then signalled for him to leave. Quickly he slipped past her and made his way back to his room.


   "Good news, isn't it, Blake? All this furore must mean that the Liberator's back in action."
   "So it seems, Shandor. I shall be trying to make contact. Mind you, if they're not in this sector it'll be very difficult."
   "All our equipment will be at your disposal. How do you suppose they repaired the ship?"
   "It was the life support systems failure that forced us to abandon ship, but if anyone could repair it, Avon is the one. Cally would help him I'm sure, but I can't imagine Vila playing the hero, so Avon must have dragooned him into staying."
   "They took a terrible risk, though. They could have been blasted or boarded at any time."
   "Well, Avon affects to despise heroics, but he'll play boldly for high stakes."
   "Hm, that being so, perhaps he'll keep the ship instead of coming for you."
   "Quite probably. He'll only come if he thinks it worth his while."
   "You interest me, Blake. How would you describe Avon?"
   "Extremely competent, but rather too complex for any words of mine, I'm afraid."
   "Well, I rather look forward to meeting him."
Following Soong Ma's revelations, Blake took every opportunity to move around Epheron society surreptitiously, his previous experience as a resister coming in very useful. It only took a short while to confirm the truth of her disclosures, the only women on the streets were always veiled and always escorted by a man.
      His main problem was to appear unconscious of the fact that he was under virtual house arrest. Fortunately, some parts of the government compound were not under close electronic surveillance and a rear delivery gate was his usual exit, key by courtesy of Soong Ma. Also, since women did manage to visit one another occasionally if they could persuade their menfolk to arrange it, she established some contacts for him, one of whom smuggled in a set of miner's overalls and boots. With these, he was able to circulate unnoticed.
      He often posed as a disappointed man whose efforts to secure a wife had failed because her damnable father had sold the girl to a richer man. Among the younger men who frequented the bars, this seldom failed to attract sympathy. Many said they knew people who had left Epheron in disgust for more normal societies, or they had heard that you could acquire a woman off-planet and bring her back.
      This had its dangers, apparently. A cheerful lad related with relish the story of how one official had decoyed a Vilkonen woman to Epheron, who, on fully appreciating the society in which she found herself, had disembowelled him, shot her way out of the city, and made off with the President's personal cruiser. Her piratical clan chief, Aulius Vilkonen, had rubbed in the lesson still further by capturing two freighters and selling them and their contents to compensate his relative for her distressing experience.
      "No doubt he kept ninety percent for himself," said one wag, amid the laughter that greeted this tale.
      Blake was inclined to think that this story was apocryphal, but on the other hand, from some of Jenna's reminiscences about the Vilkonens, old freetrading associates of the Stannis family, it could easily be true.
      He was frequently advised to travel to the busy mining town of Breyer if he wanted to get off-planet easily, and soon he had the names of several likely helpers. Money was going to be a problem, though. Stealing private transport was out of the question, which left a choice between airbus and landcruiser.
      "Landcruiser is much safer," Soong Ma opined, when he reported his progress to her. "It's unrestricted, and women and children can use it without attracting any attention - so long as they have a man with them. Several of my friends have been on it. I believe it takes about twenty hours to reach Breyer."
      "Then we must have a long start before our absence is discovered," Blake reminded her. "We should get away by late morning."
      "I shall be ill and take to my bed," she said. "One of my friends will cover for me. What about you?"
      "I'll go to the ComBureau as usual, then depart for a special appointment. I've been taken on various guided tours, so I can pass this off as another. Since I've been so co-operative, they aren't keeping a close watch on me. With any luck, nobody'll miss us until the next day. But, what about money? All I have is a voucher disk for buying food and drink from the dispensers."
      Soong Ma smiled and produced a charge account disk on a metal chain.
      "Is that Shandor's?" he asked cautiously.
      "His deputy's. I stole this from his office nearly a year ago. When no money was taken, he thought it was lost and just applied for another. I intercepted it, read the code on a magnetic scanner and reset this one to match it. Then I passed the new one through to him. I've tested it at the autobank on the other side of the compound and it works. Also, I've got a sample of his signature, in case you need to sign anything manually."
      "Wonderful!" Blake examined the disk she handed to him. "D'you think it will be safe to buy the tickets with it, or will it be safer to use it for cash?"
      "Most people would use the disk for such a transaction . Anyway, the amount won't be noticed until we're long gone, and even then, he probably won't make the connection. I should buy the tickets a day or so in advance. Most people do, and if he notices and makes a fuss, I'll know about it - I've got his office bugged."
      Blake smiled warmly. "You've been working on this for a long time, haven't you?" he asked, admiringly.
      "Yes," she said emphatically. "I'm going to get away from here, no matter what I have to do. So take it, and don't make a mess of things."
      "I'll be careful," he promised.


He reconnoitred the landcruiser terminal the next day. Looking at the schedules, he noticed that Breyer was not the end of the line, the cruiser continued another nine hundred kilometres to Vidos. As soon as there was a crowd at the ticket machines, he joined the queue and bought undated passages to Vidos for an adult and a child. Now they would wait and see if the theft was noticed. Soong Ma assured him that the account's proprietor was a wealthy man and unlikely to spot such a small item.
      To distract Shandor and Emeryk during the days of waiting, Blake fabricated an account of making a brief contact with Zen. The Liberator was evading a Federation hunter squadron, eager no doubt to convey Servalan's gratitude for assistance rendered during the invasion. If the ship ventured into this sector, it would be gradually, by a circuitous route.
      "Don't ever tangle with that woman," he warned a delighted Emeryk. "I can absolutely guarantee she will double-cross you. The last thing you want is her people looking this way."
      "How deliciously intriguing," murmured Emeryk flippantly. "Whatever shall I do if I meet her?"
      "Well, the standard practice is to fall down and kiss her feet," Blake returned, with a decidedly dry smile.


Two days later, however, a different young woman was in the store-room when he tapped on the door. Dismayed, he was about to leave, when she pulled him inside and fastened the door.
      "Don't worry," she hissed, rather melodramatically. "Shandor suddenly went off his favourite and chose Soong as his woman of the week. I'm doing her duties until she's free again. She says to keep your nerve and wait."
      "Very well," he said. "I won't endanger you by making any further contact. Soong will let me know when she's available. Tell her not to worry."
      Back in his room, he felt he could understand her being anxious. She had trusted him with the cash disk, and if he chose to go now without her, there was nothing she could do.
      Six days later, she reappeared. There were smudges under her eyes and utter weariness was apparent in her movements.
      "We go tomorrow," she said, "and I'm going to sleep the whole journey."


At first light, as the dawning sun's rays penetrated the dusty glass of the domed city, Soong Ma slipped out of the delivery gate with a parcel under her arm and tagged on behind a few men and boys making their various ways to work or school. They paid no attention to her, as she had cut her hair short and was dressed like the rest of the boys.
      A few blocks away, she tapped on the door of an apartment and was admitted. Here, the sister of one of her co-concubines would hide her until Blake came to collect his 'daughter' in her all-enveloping green sukha. She had chosen a style belonging to the ultra-strict castes where the eye-slit was filled in with black gauze - this would not reveal the slanting eyes so characteristic of her people and so rare here. Whenever she tried it on, she groaned inwardly at its restricted vision. It wouldn't matter if it was noticed that she wore trousers underneath the sukha. Young girls often did, especially when travelling. Her hostess quickly spirited her into a back room, as the husband was not privy to the plot. Fortunately, he would be at work when Blake arrived.
      To her enormous relief, Blake was prompt. He was whisked into the washroom and given the very short haircut worn by miners, then left to change into the proper clothes. Soon they were away, Blake carrying a travelling bag with a miner's helmet strapped to it, and she with a child-sized holdall.
      Boarding the landcruiser was easy. They moved into the central family section where there were plenty of unreserved seats, and selected a corner where Soong Ma promptly curled up and tried to sleep. She was not successful, but as she lay inert, half-smothered by the sukha, she was somewhat amused to listen to Blake fending off several enquiries about herself from fathers of sons and younger men on their own account.
      "Is she spoken for? I have a lad of sixteen..."
      "I'm doing well in my career, good prospects, looking for a wife..."
      "She'd be very well treated..."
      Blake replied diplomatically that his daughter was only twelve. It was true that he'd had several offers for her, but he would wait another three years before deciding. Would they mind not waking her, as she wasn't too well just now.
      After the first stop at Costanza, the purser came round to check tickets. Seeing Soong Ma's recumbent form, he volunteered that there was an empty twin berth along the corridor, due to a cancellation. They could have it for a discount, if they liked. Doubtless the berth was paid for and this extra money would be going straight into his pocket, but Blake promptly agreed, paid over the cash and tenderly carried his ailing daughter along to the tiny cabin, followed by one of the interested fathers bringing their bags.
      "It's nice to see someone caring for his girl so well," said the father, as they settled her into her bunk.
      Blake sighed. "Ah yes," he said sadly, "her dear mother died a year ago and her sister is married. She's all I've got left."
      He's enjoying this! Soong Ma thought indignantly. But she had to laugh behind her veil. Happily, her would-be father-in-law suggested to Blake that they leave the poor lamb to sleep and repair to the bar. With a sigh of relief she bolted the door behind them, stripped off the confounded tent and opened the blinds slightly to watch the swift passage of the first new landscape she had seen in four years.

   "Kly Jermyn?"
   "Yes."
   "Is there somewhere private that we can speak?"
   "What about?"
   "Travel arrangements."
   "Who sent you?"
   "Stuyver."
   "What's the password?"
   "Cinnabar."
   "What's your name?"
   "Ushton."
   "Go in there and wait for me. I'll be about fifteen minutes."
This was always the nerve-racking bit, Blake reflected, sitting there and wondering whether this was the contact who would sell you to the security forces. Soong Ma was bearing up well. She had unhooked the gauze over her eyes in order to breathe more easily, and what he could see of her face was calm and alert. It looked as if she was holding something in her hand, and he suspected that she had a weapon or two under her cape. Although Blake had examined the room for listening devices without finding any, they sat in silence.
      It was a good forty minutes before Jermyn returned. He sat down on the rough bench, took off his helmet and detached the respirator gear from his shoulders. He was very similar to Blake in both features and build, although ceaseless hard labour had etched his once-handsome face with deep lines. His clothing also was almost identical to Blake's, apart from the mine dust, which coated him in grey powder.
      "Stuyver vouches for you," he said, "but he knows nothing about the woman, although he says he's not particularly surprised. What's your real name?"
      Blake considered for a moment. "Why do you ask?"
      "I don't usually, but you're different somehow."
      "Roj Blake."
      There was a tense silence as Jermyn recognised, absorbed and contemplated the name and its history. Eventually the hush was modified by a rustle as Soong Ma removed her sukha. His attention switched to her boyish figure and focussed sharply as he realised that she was not from this planet.
      "Soong Ma," she said composedly. "An ex-slave."
      Jermyn smiled faintly. "How strange. Of all the people I've prayed for to come here and deliver us, Roj Blake should appear at my door asking for my help."
      "Did you know I was on the planet?" asked Blake. "I've been a guest of your rulers at Government House for some weeks."
      "No, we haven't heard anything about it. So why have you come to me?"
      "They're plotting to decoy the Liberator here to capture it for their own piratical ends. Soong Ma warned me and we made our plans to escape."
      Jermyn gave Soong Ma an interested scrutiny. "And how did a woman get to know about it?"
      She smiled gently. "I listened."
      "You said something about wishing to be delivered, just now." Blake said curiously. "Is it the ill-treatment of women, or are there other factors?"
      "It's just about everything. The whole planet is a virtual slave-labour camp. The men break their backs in the mines or agri-domes, and the women, the few women we have left, are immured in the homes of those who can afford to buy them."
      Blake snorted. "I had six offers for Soong on the journey here."
      "That's typical."
      "Other independent mining economies manage to produce a fair standard of living and reasonable conditions. Why not here?"
      "The owners have got together in a cartel and they run everything purely for their profit. Wages are rotten and we're taxed to the hilt to pay for the atmosphere processors and the farming domes and hydroponics units. Some people think all our problems will be over when the air is fit for us to move outside and be independent of the mines, but those bastards will still find some way to bleed us dry if we don't manage to get rid of them."
      "What d'you want from me?"
      "Advice. How to organise ourselves, where to get outside help. I wouldn't ask you to lead an insurrection, but you know all kinds of things that would be useful to us."
      "That's probably true." Blake paused thoughtfully. "I would be willing to do what I can," he continued after a moment, "but my price is a passage home for my friend here, as fast as possible, and one for me later on."
      Jermyn's face lit up. "If you're prepared to do that, I'll make the lady's arrangements as fast as I can. Where does she wish to go?"
      Soong Ma answered for herself. "I come from Mindanu, but Gouro or Kithera would do as well."
      "We get traders from Kithera, certainly." Jermyn stood up. "Come home with me. I'll find you a safe lodging and we'll talk."


Soong Ma watched the gathering silently from her chair beside the heater. Since she was not cloaked in the sukha, few of the visitors gave her a second glance, simply accepting her as a boy. She was not introduced to anyone, but years of purposeful eavesdropping had made her skilled in making sense of conversations and she quickly sorted out who was who.
      This was the inner circle of Jermyn's dissident group, miners like himself. Theirs was an unremittingly rugged life spent in the reeking pressurised cabins of the huge noisy vehicles that clawed, dug and dumped the ore from the open hillsides, or servicing the conveyors, sorters and crushers which powdered everything with grey dust. From time to time they donned cumbersome UV protection and respirators to venture into the open to place explosive charges, inspect the rock face, and retrieve or repair the ageing and obsolescent equipment. Hard times were etched into every seamed face.
      At the moment their attention was concentrated on Blake as he gave them some of the Liberator's history. There would be sporadic bursts of questions about the Federation, which he answered carefully and patiently. Obviously his reputation had gone before him, now they were eager to discover the reality behind it.
      Privately, she felt some disappointment that Blake would not accompany her to freedom, but she ignored the temptation to offer to stay with him. She had done enough. Her best path was to return to her own people and pick up her life again. If they wanted her to carry messages off-world for them, she would be glad to do it, but actively taking any further part in a rebellion would be folly.
      "Soong Ma?"
      She was suddenly surprised to be addressed by Jermyn.
      "Please tell us your story." He beckoned her to come to the front.
      Somewhat shyly, she gave a straightforward account of her capture, enslavement and arrival in Shandor's seraglio. Her audience was riveted, especially when she described how she had stolen surveillance equipment and the credit disk.
      There was a buzz of excited conversation when she had finished. Obviously she had given them something to think about. She was returning to her seat when a huge miner rose up as she passed him and took her little hand in his enormous paw.
      "Lady," he said, in a bass rumble, "let one man of Epheron offer you his apologies for all your sufferings on this forsaken planet. We can never recompense you, but we all feel shame to think that such things are happening."
      Soong Ma was amazed to find her eyes filling with tears. All these years she had sternly refused to be sorry for herself or to show her innermost feelings, and suddenly all her defences were washed away with a few words. The tears coursed down her cheeks as she clung to his hand.
      "There, I've made you cry," he said penitently.
      She managed a drowned smile. "But it's absolutely wonderful to be able to cry at last."
      Somebody passed her a paper towel and she mopped her eyes as her new-found friend slipped a gentle arm around her heaving shoulders and guided her to a chair, sitting down beside her, still holding her hand tenderly.
      Watching them, Blake was suddenly and poignantly reminded of Gan and felt a pricking at his own eyelids in sympathy.

   "Well? Any news?"
   "Nothing. The ground could have opened up and swallowed him for all the clues he's left."
   "Could he have been kidnapped, Shandor?"
   "By whom?"
   "Dissidents, perhaps. They might reckon he could be very useful to them."
   "So he might, but none of our informers have come across any unusual activity among the known dissidents yet, so if he's with them, they're keeping him under wraps. Are you sure the ComBureau staff have told you everything?"
   "They've all been given the full treatment - drugs, mindprobes - the lot. Each one sticks to the same story - Blake never showed any signs of discontent or suspicion, and he never asked them any awkward questions about Epheron."
   "That's suspicious in itself. Why wouldn't a man like Blake ask questions? Was it because he already had the answers?"
   "So what are we going to do now? Go public?"
   "Certainly not. We might bring the Federation down on us. You know they've got spies here. We must persuade the security forces to try harder."
   "Why not invent some civil charge using his alias, Ushton? Kidnapping a woman, or something like that?"
   "Not a bad idea. If we don't find him soon, we might try it."


Less than two days later, Soong Ma was smuggled onto a Kithera-bound ore carrier inside a battered and rusty container. In her shoe was concealed a message on a visdisk, which she was to forward to a resistance leader called Avalon, via an address on Regis Two. Once she was safely away, it could be sent on by normal courier service. The intervening period had been spent in intensive briefing sessions and surreptitious conferences with representatives from many dissident groups. Blake had been particularly keen to find out if the would-be revolutionaries had gone so far as to gather candidates for an interim government until elections could be arranged. "It's no good overthrowing Emeryk's gang unless you have people and policies ready to replace them," he argued. "You can't just trust to luck."
      They were not disturbed by the authorities, no whisper of pursuit reached them, although Jermyn's people thought there were more security guards about than usual. As a precaution, it was decided to stage a diversion while she was being smuggled inside.
      She was well-provided with money. That problem had been neatly solved by one of the conspirators, who took the airbus to Epheron City, used the credit disk to empty its owner's account, and flew straight back to Breyer with a large sum of money in Standard Credits - more than enough to pay the freighter's crew for her passage. When the loss was noticed, nothing specific would point to Breyer.
      Before they packed her into the ore crate, Soong Ma turned to Blake and Jermyn.
      "If you do liberate this planet," she said, with some difficulty, "and if you go into those children's domes, you might find my sons. You'd recognise them easily, they look like me. Send me a message if you find them, and I'll come for them."
      "Gladly," said Blake.
      He and Jermyn lifted her into the container. Before she lay down on top of its rocky contents, she kissed both of them on their dusty cheeks, then she curled up on the matting they had provided to cushion her, and they closed the lid. Immediately, she felt her conveyance move as they pushed it onto the waiting loader. After a brief pause, a longer ride down the track, then a bump as it was decanted onto the freighter's deck.
      For another hour she listened to the loaders filling the hold, until finally, a loud clang announced that the cargo doors had been closed. There was a rumble as the engines started their warm-up, then a sharp tap on her crate. Picking up a rock, she tapped back twice. The lid was opened, and two men peered inside.
      "Out you come," said one, with a cheerful grin. "We don't pressurise the hold on the voyage, so you can't stay here."
      She jumped up and vaulted out unassisted.
      "We've got a nice comfy cabin ready for you," said the other, pointing to the exit.
      Soong Ma breathed a deep sigh of relief: she was on her way.


Emeryk was at the dinner table among his womenfolk when his uncle swept into the room. Bad news evidently, he reflected ruefully. Fury in every line of him. One could almost swear that the temperature of the room had fallen by twenty degrees.
      "One of my women is missing," Shandor announced, tight-lipped.
      "Don't tell me - the little slant-eyed girl from Mindanu?" guessed Emeryk. "The one that supervises the housekeeping?"
      "That's her."
      "When?"
      "I can't be sure. I was told she was ill, but getting better. Then the two who were nursing her announced that she had gone when they took her food in half an hour ago."
      Emeryk frowned anxiously as an unwelcome thought occurred to him. "Do you believe them?"
      "Not entirely." Shandor's face wore a mean scowl. "I've given them both a good lashing, but they stick to their story."
      "Well, it's pretty obvious who helped Blake." Recollecting his surroundings, Emeryk glanced round at his women. Keen interest registered on every face. "Excuse us, ladies," he said diplomatically. Rising from his seat, he piloted his uncle across to his study.
      As the door closed on them, one woman emptied her glass tumbler and stood up purposefully. Walking silently to the study door, she applied the open mouth of the glass to it and pressed her ear to its base. A moment later two of her companions joined her.

   "Now then, could she have gone at the same time as Blake?"
   "If those girls are lying, yes. And there's another thing - my deputy, Rober, is bleating about his bank making a mistake with his account. It's been emptied, but they swear he took the money himself, in Standard Bonds - more than eighty thousand credits. A man answering his description showed up at the central bank yesterday with the right documents, emptied the account and closed it."
   "Eighty thousand! If Blake took it, he's off the planet by now."
   "Not necessarily."
   "What are we going to do? If we publicise the hunt, the Federation will get wind of it. You know they've got agents here."
   "This calls for a specialist. One man to infiltrate the dissidents and track him down - and her."
   "Do you know such a man?"
   "Oh yes. Leave it to me."
"If you want me to take this contract, Minister, I must begin by interrogating those women by any means I see fit. Is that understood?" Yager's face filled the screen in front of Shandor. He didn't look like a relentless hunter. In repose, his face wore a thoughtful, quite friendly expression. Nobody would take him for a bounty hunter at first acquaintance. Indeed, he looked the epitome of trustworthiness, many dupes must have confided in him.
      "They're all yours," Shandor replied, with a vindictive snap. "Do what you like and dispose of them as you please when you've finished."
      "Good. I'll arrive in Epheron City this evening. Have them sent over to Security HQ."


Yager stared steadily at the three women strapped onto the frames before him - Lyra, Perri and Perri's sister Veda - naked bodies shivering in the cold dank air of the vault. 'The Pit', as it was known to the dissidents, reeked of fear and despair. They had been there ever since their arrest last night. He was in no hurry. Let them watch his gloating eyes rake them up and down, let their predicament sink in, slowly, slowly, until the cup of terror brimmed over and they babbled their every thought.
      After some moments he approached the nearest one and laid his hand on her foot, taking pleasure in the violent recoil from his touch. Smiling, he lightly walked his fingers up her twitching leg.
      "Now, are we going to be reasonable?" he asked.


The two men huddled over their lunchtime drinks in a dark corner of the Zodiac Bar, trying not look as conspicuous as they felt.
      "OK, what's all this about?" The speaker was dressed in the overalls of a hydroponics technician. "Why all the panic?"
      His companion, clad in the more tailored clothes of the administrative grades, glanced anxiously around to see if they were being marked.
      "It's my brother," he said, when he had assured himself that they were not under observation. "He's in a terrible state. Security have taken his woman away for questioning."
      "Does he know why?"
      "Uhuh. Somebody called Yager interrogated him too. One of Shandor's women ran away. Keevan's wife is the sister of another of Shandor's concubines who helped the first one to escape and covered up for her absence. But the information they really wanted was about a man named Roj Blake."
      "The Roj Blake?"
      "Yes. It looks as if Blake was at Government House as a guest or prisoner. He disappeared, and obviously they think that the runaway concubine, who's an off-worlder, helped him to do it. If they're not already away, they'll be trying to leave Epheron. Meanwhile, three women are being tortured in The Pit. Keevan says that Blake got them into this, and he can damn well get them out, or he's going to shout a few names out loud. Know what I mean?"
      The technician nodded gravely. "I'll pass this message along immediately. Go back to your brother and tell him to be ready to run at a moment's notice."


"We must rescue them, and quickly," was Blake's immediate response to the news.
      There was a growl of assent from the packed audience in the sorting sheds. This was what they expected of him.
      "We can get the authorities themselves to help us," he continued. "We shall need a fast flyer to cover the twelve thousand kilometres to Epheron City. If they don't have their own, Security must have the means to commandeer one in an emergency. I propose to seize one of their local command posts and dress our own men as guards who will be escorting an important prisoner to the city - myself."
      "There'll be two patrolmen along here in less than an hour," volunteered a young man, glowing with enthusiasm. "If we could capture them and take their uniforms, we could simply march you through the door at gunpoint."
      "They don't have a strato-flyer here, just two small helis," said Jermyn consideringly. "We can commandeer a machine from the company. That's what they usually do."
      "Weapons?" asked Blake.
      "We've got a few blasters, and they'll have more at the Security post. Bozener, you've been a guest in there - draw us a plan of the premises."
      "How many men in there?"
      "Seven or eight per shift, usually. Five shifts per day."
      "Surveillance?"
      "A couple of cameras," said Bozener, looking up from his drawing. "One in the corner of Reception, here, and another in the corridor of the cell block, there on the floor above. There may be more I don't know about."
      "Hm..." Blake watched closely as Bozener drew. "When we've captured the first two patrolmen, we might lure some more outside by calling for assistance with an arrest. That way, they'll expect a prisoner or two to be brought back to the post, and won't be suspicious." He looked up. "Jermyn, round up as many of your best men as possible. Also, have you any contacts in Epheron City who might know about the layout of the Security HQ?"
      "Maybe. I'll get on to it straight away."
      "Those women will be in a bad way, Blake," said Bozener sombrely. "We'd better have a medic with us." His thin face was drawn with remembered pain.
      "Saltor, perhaps." Jermyn suggested.
      "Yes, get him if you can," Blake said, wincing slightly at the thought of what they might find. "What about a pilot?" he asked, turning away with an effort from such unpleasant ideas.
      "The Company pilot would expect to do it," answered Jermyn. "They wouldn't question orders from Security."
      "Good. Let's go and catch ourselves a couple of guards."


The unsuspecting guards were a pushover. Three rebel commandos were assigned to each man to disarm and immobilise him. Now they were glowering mutely at Blake as he held one of their communicators in front of them.
      "I take it, you are hoping to survive this night?" he enquired suavely, rather as Avon might have said it.
      One continued to glare defiantly, but the other nodded.
      "Good. Then you will follow instructions to the letter. The penalty for mistakes is death." Blake gave them both a friendly smile. "When I remove your gag, you will speak into the communicator, asking your post commander to send two more guards to help you to arrest several dissidents who are holding an illegal assembly here. By the way, we know the names of all the post personnel, so don't get clever."
      Another nod. Blake reached over and peeled off the tape over the man's mouth. Raising the communicator to the prisoner's face, he pressed the button.
      "Viner calling Base." The prisoner's voice was low, as if he feared to be overheard.
      "Go ahead Viner."
      "We're at the sorting sheds. There's some sort of political meeting going on. Send us a couple more men to cover the exits, and we'll arrest the lot."
      "Can do. Where will they meet you?"
      "By the outer door. Tell them to be very quiet."
      "Right. Kafra and Reiss are on their way. Over and out."
      Blake lowered the communicator and nodded approvingly. "Very good, gentlemen. Now, off with those uniforms."
      A few minutes later, the waiting rebels heard the soft sounds of a stealthy approach.
      "Reiss? Kafra?" hissed Blake. "Over here."
      "Coming."
      There was a faint scuffle as the newcomers were dealt with. Two more uniforms were acquired.
      "Excellent," said Blake, surveying the scene before him. Four helmeted guards and five 'prisoners', hands apparently secured behind them - he would be the sixth - were ready to return to the security post. "Let's go."
      The co-operative prisoner had notified his controllers of their imminent arrival with prisoners. As they moved off, the 'guards' pulled down their visors, rendering themselves quite unrecognisable.
      The post commander met them with a wide grin.
      "Well done, Viner. And what have we here? I do believe you've got that Ushton character that Headquarters have been getting so agitated about."
      Blake glowered appropriately as the grinning face was thrust into his own.
      "Kudos for Breyer, eh? Bring them up to the cells."
      The inner door slid back. The whole building lay open to them.


The ride to Epheron City was fast and bumpy, but as they rose to the outer edge of the atmosphere, Blake was glad to see that their south-westerly course would take them into the night that would be such a valuable shield to their activities. At Breyer, dawn was imminent, but at their destination, night had only just begun.
      The forward cabin was crowded with eight guard imposters and their six prisoners. Two more rebels and the medic sat in the rear compartment where the directors' women would normally travel. Jermyn sat watchfully in the co-pilot's seat. The company pilot had shown only mild surprise at being commandeered by the security forces, and had accepted their warnings to keep silent about this expedition as a matter of course. Evidently this kind of thing had happened before.
      They had loaded up with gas grenades and every man carried a respirator. The plan was to flood the entire building with sono vapour, so it was important to locate the air conditioning plant quickly. Their information about the building they were heading for was minimal - its layout, the number of personnel, and its communication system were virtual unknowns. They would have to be efficient and quick-thinking to pull this off. Not for the first time, Blake wished he had the services of that doughty mercenary, Del Grant.
      Now the descent had begun. Another hour would see their arrival, not at the spaceport he had visited during the first week of his stay, but the busy airbus terminal. A military personnel transporter would be waiting for them, booked in the name of the Vidos security post in order to divert attention from Breyer, but after that it would be all improvisation.


Security HQ had its own separate minidome, accessed by a glass tunnel from the city complex. However, the pressurised outdoor transporters could enter through an airlock into the hangar where the service's flyers and helis were kept, without going into the city. It would be a difficult place to shoot your way out of if things went wrong, Blake reflected as they drove in. It was a pity that the commandeered flyer had been directed to the airport instead of landing here. It made a fast evacuation that much more hazardous.
      There was a clang as the inner door opened, revealing a sizable hangar and a small squad of guards waiting to escort them in.
      "Right, you two, get down under the seats," Blake said softly to the men who were to release the gas into the air system. "Remember, wait for the signal."
      The two obediently sank out of sight. When the others had gone, they were to overpower and truss the driver, switch on the jamming device that would neutralise surveillance and then make their way to the air conditioning plant.
      As Blake stepped into the bright light, the officer in charge came over for a close look.
      "Oh yes, this is Ushton all right." He grinned.
      In the background, Blake heard Jermyn telling the gatekeeper that they would be leaving as soon as formalities were completed, please be ready to open the airlock.
      "Leaving so soon? You've had a long journey, don't you want any refreshments first?" asked the officer politely.
      "Sorry, no," said Jermyn. "Our orders are to go back without delay as the post is dangerously undermanned."
      "OK. Let's get on with it."
      They were led down a corridor to a holding area with a reception counter and benches around the walls. The prisoners were told to sit, while the guards remained on their feet. A dozen pairs of eyes searched the room, memorising its contents.
      "The Commander's coming," said the man behind the counter. "He'll sign for them and you can be on your way."
      Jermyn nodded. The scanner consoles, he noted with satisfaction, had started to blip.
      After a few moments, the Commander arrived at the double. He spared few words on social graces.
      "Six prisoners, it says here, including the off-worlder, Ushton - wanted for abducting a woman." His eyes searched out Blake. "That's a serious offence in these parts."
      He was signing the delivery document when Blake jabbed a handgun into his ribs.
      "Torturing innocent citizens is a serious offence all over the galaxy," Blake remarked, extracting the Commander's own sidearm from its holster. "And it's that, we've come to see you about. Rumour has it that you have three ladies in your care."
      All round the room, men were being disarmed and handcuffed. The Commander shot him a defensive look.
      "That's not my doing," he muttered. "Shandor sent that man here to do the interrogations. When he had what he wanted, he left."
      "Well, you can tell us all about that as you take us to them. Let's hope for your sake that we find them alive."
      With foreboding, Blake saw the Commander wince. Several of the other prisoners were also looking apprehensive.
      "Bring them all along," he ordered, motioning the Commander to lead the way.
      The women were in a slimy cell on the deepest level. Still naked, two were huddled together in a corner, the third was laid out on her back, arms carefully folded on her breast - dead. Blake recognised her immediately: the girl who had warned him that Soong Ma could not meet him. The only reaction of the living women to the entry of several men, was to clutch each other more tightly. Swiftly, Blake pulled off his jacket.
      "This is the rescue party," he said. "We've come to take you away."
      Kneeling beside the nearest girl, he gently prised her away from her companion and put her arms into the sleeves. Another jacket was produced for the other girl, and two of his 'fellow prisoners' helped her into it.
      "Nothing we can do for this one," said the medic, kneeling beside the corpse.
      Blake nodded. He lifted his girl carefully in preparation for carrying her out, but she suddenly came to life and wrenched free.
      "No!" she cried out. "Not without her. You bring her along too!"
      She was right. The dead must come too.
      "Somebody find a trolley or improvise a stretcher," he ordered.
      "Tell me your name," he said, supporting her but not offering to carry her again.
      "Perri. I'm Perri." A fierce light was blazing in her eyes. She nodded towards her companion, now also on her feet. "That's my sister, Veda. This is Lyra - this was Lyra."
      Jermyn popped his head round the cell door.
      "Blake, there's a large room at the end of the corridor - it's the torture chamber. I'm collecting all the prisoners in there."
      "Let me see them," Perri insisted, surging unsteadily towards him "There are men we have to identify. The ones who killed Lyra."
      A grim identity parade was held in 'The Pits'. Eight cringing guards were picked out, and Blake made no protest as Jermyn's men executed them on the spot. One of Jermyn's followers had produced a micro-camera and was filming the proceedings.
      "He is not here." Veda spoke for the first time, in a low, hoarse voice. "Yager has gone."
      "And so must we," said Blake decisively.
      He directed his followers to strip two of the remaining prisoners of their uniforms and persuaded the sisters to put them on. The medic had made a chilling discovery in one corner - a stack of body bags. Lyra was inserted into one and two men carried her away.
      On their retreat to the transporter, the cells were checked for other unfortunates, but none were found.
      "Legend has it, nobody leaves here alive," commented Bozener.
      If the gatekeeper found it strange that more people left than had arrived, he made no difficulties. The airlock was opened promptly, and they passed through, to breathe more freely on the outside. The sono vapour was beginning to seep through the ventilators as they left. The inmates would sleep until the morning shift came to relieve them.
      Veda's husband, Keevan, was waiting at the airport, carrybag slung from his shoulder, as if he were a normal passenger. He was drawn into the procession as it passed.
      This time, the rear compartment of the flyer was the more crowded, only the original eight uniformed men sat in front. They would depend on the pilot for the next two hours, so they must not risk making him suspicious. Blake hoped that the vehicle's trim was adjusted automatically and such a change in the loading wouldn't be felt at the controls.

   They soon got everything we knew out of us, which wasn't much. Soong didn't give us any particulars about where she was going or who was helping her, and we didn't ask. We weren't heroines. You don't hold out long against the likes of Yager.
   How that man enjoys his work! He had his fun with us for another hour before he decided to go after Blake. I got myself together sufficiently to shriek some curses at him. I said he might kill us, but every woman on the planet would take any opportunity she could to bring down men like him. But he just gave a cold sneer and said that death was a luxury that wouldn't be coming our way for a long time.
   When he left, he sent those guards in. "They're all yours," he said. "Have fun." Lyra died at about the third rape. She went blue and started to gasp, then she was gone. So Yager was wrong there. Anyway, that took the edge off their fun, so they untied us and flung us into the cell. Perhaps they weren't supposed to kill us yet.
   When you catch Yager, bring him to us. Veda and I can think of some very entertaining ways of interrogating him.
   I don't really blame Soong for getting us into this. I'm glad she made it, really. We none of us dreamed they would react so violently. Lyra and I thought that Shandor would be satisfied with flogging us - he's done it before. Maybe one day we'll be able to return the compliment.
   I wasn't quite accurate when I said we'd told them everything - just everything they asked for. Nothing was said about Soong's bugs all over the place. Chances are, they're still broadcasting on a microwave frequency, 914 or 9.14, you'll find it if you look.
   Yes, I saw your man filming in The Pit. Broadcast it. Everywhere. Name names. Start a revolution. Bring those bastards down!
Bozener reappeared at the Breyer Security Post in the early afternoon, just as Blake was surfacing from a few hours' sleep.
      "Did Perri and the others get off safely?" Blake asked, yawning and stretching.
      "Yes, they're on their way."
      "I rather wondered if you would go with them. You also have terrible memories to escape from."
      Bozener shook his head desicively. "You've been tortured, Blake. You know as well as I do that you never escape the memory unless they wipe your mind. The best you can do is convert it into fuel for the fight." He removed his helmet and sat down tiredly, accepting gratefully the coffee carton which Blake passed him.
      "I think that girl, Perri, has come to the same conclusion," he went on. "I could see her spine stiffening by the minute. I'm sure she would have stayed with us if her sister hadn't refused to go without her. In fact it was the husband who was mad to get away. Perri comes across very well on the video, by the way, and so does Jermyn. There'll be some shockwaves when that goes on the air."
      The video was even now being given its final touches in the cutting room of the local media station. Bozener had recorded an introduction, referring to Blake as 'Ushton' and relating some of Soong Ma's history and how she had arranged their escape, implying that Ushton had also left the planet. Perri had given a short but graphic account of Shandor's household and his domestic habits, including his penchant for selling off concubines when they reached thirty and buying some fresh young stock. Then, over footage of the raid on Security HQ, including a still of Yager, culled from HQ's own surveillance records, she related their experiences in The Pit, and the death of Lyra, with a chilly precision which was more telling than tears. Finally, Jermyn, his face blurred like Bozener's, spoke of the rescue operation and the resistance movement, ending with a direct and unequivocal call for an uprising to overthrow the ruling clique and set up a free democracy for all citizens. The concluding shot was of Lyra's corpse in the body bag as it was zipped up.


The manager of the station was being very co-operative. "Place a gun at my head," he said cheerfully, when they hustled him into his laboratory, "and I'll do anything for you."
      A rebel smilingly obliged, after securing his weapon's safety catch.
      "Yes, I know how to patch this into every broadcasting system on the planet, so that it overrides their own signals," the technician said, after viewing the material. "It's made easier because there are only a few government stations putting out government news bulletins, no independents."
      Jermyn looked at the wall-clocks. "The Capital should be waking up to the morning news programmes in a couple of hours. Can you set it up so they can't pinpoint the source?"
      "I can juggle communications satellites to make it very difficult for them, although they might guess. I'll set it on continuous loop and send it everywhere. I can relay it to the whole galaxy if you like. I've always wanted to do something like this."
      "Do it," said Jermyn.


"Something's happening," said the man monitoring Soong Ma's bugs.
      "Put it on the public system," ordered Blake.

   "...raid on Security Headquarters? You're not serious!"
   "I most certainly am. They went in dressed in security uniforms, took the prisoners, killed half the staff, and filled the whole dome with gas when they left."
   "Who?"
   "Blake, of course. He seems to have collected a squad of rebels and stolen a strato-flyer. We haven't identified its origins yet. The airport surveillance wasn't looking that way, so we don't have a picture of it - careless idiots. All we see is a party of men in uniform coming and going through the concourse."
   "What are we going to do, Shandor?"
   "Contact Yager for a start. I want to know what he found out. He's supposed to report in every day."
   "He must find Blake! If that man engineers a revolution, we could be finished. Maybe we should be making contingency plans for a getaway - transfer more funds off-world, perhaps."
   "You're a real poltroon, Emeryk. We're going to recapture Blake and give him the full treatment. He'll be only too glad to help us when I've finished with him."
Blake frowned anxiously at this. "We'd better send a warning to the contacts who helped me in Epheron City. Obviously Yager will try to track them down."
      "They need to track him down and kill him. Why not circulate a still from the HQ video. There's a good recognisable shot of him."


"Well, the broadcast's going out. What now?" queried Jermyn, as Blake appeared at his doorway.
      "We have to keep things moving. If we give them time to think they'll work out who raided HQ before long and then they'll take the initiative. We must take Epheron City. Are there any maps in this place?"
      "Bound to be."
      They found a collection of map disks in a cabinet and set up a wall projector. Blake scanned the route maps carefully.
      "We need to be within easy striking distance of the capital, not twelve thousand kilometres away, but we don't want to attract attention until we're ready, either. I think we should move up to Costanza, here." He pointed to a settlement some sixty kilometres from Epheron City. "It's only about fifteen kilometres from the Harvar military base and less than sixty from Epheron. From here we should join up with other groups from Epheron itself and mount an attack on the base. Take that and the capital will fall."
      Jermyn whistled in astonishment. "You don't mess about, do you, Blake? How do we get in, and just how do we get eight hundred people down there? There's only one strato-cruiser."
      "Costanza is an industrial complex with large land-rail sidings. We load our people into an ore train. I know they're not pressurised, but we can improvise something, and the security forces will hardly be expecting such a move."
      "We could, I suppose. The journey will take a good eighteen hours, though."
      "Then the sooner we get them moving, the better." Blake sat back and considered. "Will your portable cabins fit onto rail bogies, do you suppose?"
      "Yes, of course. That's how they were brought here." Jermyn's eyes were alight with comprehension. "Say fifty men per cabin, all their equipment goes in the ore containers - laser drills, explosives, food, water, oxygen bottles - we could get several of the smaller vehicles on board as well - people could travel inside them. We must hurry, the next train starts loading up in an hour or two."
      Blake frowned in thought. "This means we have to take over the whole mine complex here and arrest all the bosses. Get a squad men into the rest of those uniforms from the security post, make up a comprehensive list of targets, and get weaving."
      Jermyn grinned. "Bozener can see to that. He's been longing to do it ever since he got out of jail." He fished out his communicator and ordered his second-in-command to be fetched over straight away. "Shouldn't we be sending an advance party down?"
      "Yes, we'll want someone to go to Epheron City and contact the dissidents there, as well as some others to Costanza to spy out the land and take over the rail sidings in preparation for the arrival of the train. They can travel by airbus and the express landcruiser. We could send quite a number that way, which reduces the crowding on the ore train." Blake smiled disarmingly, "I thought we could employ a simple trick to increase their numbers without arousing suspicion. Send a squad of your smaller men dressed as women. You could get plenty of sidearms under those sukhas."
      Jermyn laughed outright.
      "And make sure they don't make any stupid mistakes like wearing miner's boots or showing grimy hands and hairy wrists, huh?" Blake added. "As to getting into the base, we might pull the "we've captured Ushton" routine once more, if we're careful, but I think we should try and capture Grodin, the security chief. He'll be our passport."
      "Emeryk or Shandor would be even better," Jermyn commented grimly.
      "Too well guarded, I imagine. Well come on, let's get busy."


It was the practice of Shandor's senior wife, Zeta, and some of the bolder concubines to watch the public video news on the machine in his private study after he had left for Government House. Since he preferred to keep his women 'uncontaminated' by the outside world, their own video didn't receive external broadcasts, but merely relayed the anodyne recordings he had approved as suitable for their consumption. It naturally never occurred to him that they might pick a lock during his absence and use his private machine. That one of them might steal secret surveillance equipment, conceal bugs all over the adjacent Government House and teach other women to monitor them, never entered his wildest dreams.
      That afternoon they watched the relay from Breyer and learned the fate of their missing friends. Then they returned to their own quarters and held a council of war. The mood was grim.


Shandor and Emeryk were also viewing. A frightened aide had alerted them to the repeated broadcasts going out planet-wide, and they watched with fascinated horror.
      "Where's it coming from?" hissed Shandor, pacing the room in agitation. "Why haven't those fools jammed it? It's a conspiracy."
      "We should have sent Blake on his way or killed him." Emeryk muttered. "It's all your fault - capturing the Liberator indeed! You might as well have introduced a plague virus to the planet."
      The fear in his face irritated his uncle intensely. He privately wondered if his own face was betraying similar feelings. "Stop snivelling. We have to act."

   "Kill Shandor? Yes, Zeta, we'd all like to kill Shandor, and now we know what's likely to happen to us if we do."
   "No, think about it. You heard that last surveillance tape. Emeryk is close to panic. You heard him just now. What do you suppose he'll do without Shandor to prop him up? He's probably transferring his cash off-world this minute. Shandor must disappear. We shall be all anxious concern, and the rebels will get the blame."
   "And how is Shandor going to disappear? They're bound to search for the body."
   "I have an idea about that. But first, it's important to get the surveillance monitors out of here, a thorough search would reveal them. We'll put them back where Soong stole them from. She gave her pass key to me."
   "Have you thought what happens to us, even if we don't get charged with murder?"
   "I suppose Shandor's eldest son inherits responsibility for us. He'll sell most of us off and maybe keep some of the teenagers. We'd all get sold in a few years anyway. Look, if we do this now, we could bring down the whole system. Come on, what d'you say?"
   "It's probably suicide, but I suppose I'm with you. Show me how you mean to dispose of the body."
The loaders had done their job well, Blake reflected, as he watched the long train slide away from the ore terminal - one hundred and eighteen high-sided units straddling the broad monorail on a smooth cushion of compressed air. Soon they would be travelling almost as fast as a passenger express. Aside from the portable cabins, all manner of pressurised containers and ground vehicles had been pressed into service to carry men and equipment, including prospectors' rough-terrain sample drilling rigs and two giant mobile diggers riding proudly on their own bogies, being much too large to conceal in ore trucks like most of the others. He had some idea of using their brute strength as battering rams if necessary. Seven hundred men were travelling aboard this motley collection of transporters in reasonable comfort. Blake thought the whole thing looked rather strange but Jermyn assured him that neither the appearance of the train nor its destination would arouse any comment. A proper schedule had been worked out and all the stations along the way had been duly notified according to normal practice. Nobody had shown the slightest interest so far.
      The small crowd of helpers was dispersing. As he turned away, Bozener appeared at the gates and beckoned to him.
      "We've got contact with Stuyver. Come quick."
      Stuyver's screen image greeted him with a dry smile. "So you're the famous Roj Blake. Well, what can I do for you?"
      Blake grimaced slightly. "The first thing you can do is never mention that name again, unless you want the Federation Space Command taking an interest in your affairs."
      "Point taken," said Stuyver, unabashed. "Don't worry though, I'm alone here."
      Blake allowed his stern expression to relax. "What's happening in the capital? Have the broadcasts had any effect?"
      "Quite a bit. Gangs of young fellows have been stoning the security building and there have been some acts of sabotage. Nothing very useful." There was a note of contempt in Stuyver's voice.
      "On the contrary," said Blake positively, "it would help us considerably if these attacks were stepped up enough to keep the guards busy, and maybe cause them to send for reinforcements from Harvar. Has Jermyn put you in the picture?"
      "Yes. I think you're running a terrible risk, though."
      "Well, if your people can draw their attention with a series of hit and run actions you can lessen that risk. How many armed men can you muster?"
      Stuyver shrugged. "About five hundred in the city itself. We could pull in several thousand from other settlements, given time. Are you intending an all-out assault on the capital?"
      "I'm hoping it won't come to that. If we can seize Harvar, the government might fall without much of a fight. It's their only significant military base and they don't have much of an army because they've never really needed one before. If you seriously want to topple Emeryk and his cronies and build a new society, now's the time to do it. What do you say?"
      "If you put it like that, I must say yes, I suppose. I can easily organise our younger men to give the guards the run-around and I can pass the word to the out-of-towners to mobilise, but what do we do with them when they arrive?"
      Blake considered for a moment. "Tell them to be ready, but to stay where they are until we give them a signal. Have you got political leaders ready to step into office as a provisional government?"
      "Certainly." Stuyver's tone was cool, not quite offended.
      "Good. I'm flying down to Costanza soon with our leaders. Jermyn advises landing at the cargo terminal soon after dark. Can you bring them there to meet us? We have several hours to plan things before the train arrives, hopefully well before dawn."
      "If they will come, yes. Anything more?"
      "Yes. I'd like you to kidnap Security Minister Grodin for me." Blake smiled winningly at Stuyver's astonished face.


The first missiles were thrown at Government House in the early afternoon. They did little damage to the fabric but their effect on the inmates was shattering. Council members and clerks gathered in the corridors in fraught groups, or stormed to the guard house demanding instant retribution on the miscreants. The officer of the watch tried to pacify them by pointing out that the security shutters had been lowered and that it was his duty to ensure that nobody got inside, rather than to go haring after stone-throwing boys. If they would just stay calm the matter would be sorted out soon.
      Now that they were safe but confined to the building, most of them decided to worry about their homes and families instead. Work was suspended until Shandor appeared in a fury and drove them back to their offices. Soon after the shutters had been closed, the mob appeared to lose interest and selected another part of the city to plague with their attentions. By the end of the afternoon it was deemed safe for the shutters to come off and the staff to depart for the night.


Shandor felt more weary and dispirited than he could ever remember as he returned to his home that evening. Nerves were cracking all over the administration. Successful attacks on so many security posts had shaken everyone's confidence. Fearing desertions, he had posted guards at the spaceport with instructions to prevent certain private vessels from leaving, but he had an unpleasant suspicion that several would have slipped away by morning. However, there was a reassuring normality about his household when he entered. His senior wife, Zeta, met him as usual to relieve him of his cape, and a pleasing smell of cookery wafted from the dining area.
      Zeta was frowning slightly with concern. "I've never seen you look so tired. Come and rest, and I'll get your favourite aperitif. Dinner is ready when you want it." She shepherded him into the small lounge and settled him in his armchair. As he relaxed into its cosy depths, she went to the bar and picked up a glass.
      "Make it a double," he said, "and pour yourself one."
      "Thank you, lord," she replied, bringing it across to him.
      He smiled at her. Zeta, at least, always knew her place and accepted it with serenity. He knew that it was thanks to her that his household generally ran so smoothly, and as a reward he intended to keep her indefinitely. A really good senior wife should never be sold off prematurely. No more off-worlders would be recruited into his family, he decided. Soong Ma, for all her submissive ways, had been a mistake, and giving her the housekeeper's job because she could read and keep accounts, had been an even bigger one. In future that role would be given to a man.
      "Another drink?" Zeta enquired.
      "Why not? It's been a difficult day."
      By the time he moved to the dining table to join five or six of his other concubines, dressed in their finest, he was feeling considerably elevated. It was a excellent meal that evening, his women exerted themselves to charm him and he responded pleasantly. How good it was to have such a well-disposed bevy of wives, he reflected, and how fortunate that they didn't know what had happened to their dissident sisters.


At his office in the Security Headquarters, Minister Grodin was winding up his long day's work with a fair degree of satisfaction. All was quiet again. His men had acquitted themselves well and the mobs had dispersed. Since his private apartments were part of the domed complex, he could go home, secure in the knowledge that he could be back at his desk in a trice if necessary. He called Reception and told them he was leaving.
      Two young troopers were standing guard at the door to his quarters. He returned their smart salutes with an inward smile at the zeal of his guard commander. As he went to pass them, one said, "There is a message, sir," and offered him an envelope. The message inside had the merit of simplicity. If you hope to survive the next two minutes, it said, follow our instructions exactly.
      Damn! What a stupid way to be caught. He stared at the writing, trying to think of some way out. Nothing presented itself. "What are your instructions? he asked, finally.
      "Follow me and say nothing."

   "Got him!"
   "Grodin?"
   "None other. We're on our way to Costanza in the Minister's personal transporter."
   "Congratulations. Come directly to the commercial terminal. We've taken it over and Jermyn has set up in the Director's office."
   "Comfortable, is it?"
   "Well, these fellows don't stint themselves."
Jermyn propped his elbows on the table in front of him and surveyed his prisoner. "Minister Grodin, you are a deeply unpopular man. In fact, I wouldn't give a fig for your chances if we handed you over to the people's justice. Security chiefs are always the first to be strung up in any revolution, aren't they?"
      "This is a revolution, then?"
      "Oh definitely. Our provisional government is ready to take over immediately. All that is required is to take steps to neutralise the military."
      Grodin gave a sharp bark of laughter. "You want me to help you do that? Go to Hell!"
      Jermyn smiled slightly. "Ah, you might think you have nothing to gain by co-operating with us, but we could arrange for your safe passage off this planet with such of your wives and children as wish to accompany you. We've no wish to start our new government with acts of barbarism."
      "What specific act of treachery is required of me?" Grodin enquired contemptuously.
      "You are going to give the Harvar Base Commander some specific orders."
      "May I remind you that the President can countermand any orders of mine."
      "Emeryk won't know about these until it is far too late. They merely concern a supply train for the base."
      Grodin pulled a sour face. "A Trojan Horse."
      "One hundred and eighteen Trojan Horses, in fact. Look at it this way, you could be saving a lot of lives, mostly those of your own men. If the coup is bloodless we will be generous and allow those who wish to leave Epheron a safe passage. If it isn't..." Jermyn shrugged eloquently. "Now, are you a man of principle or just another mindless thug who has used his position to oppress and torture those weaker than himself?"
      The Minister sat deep in thought for several minutes. That fool Shandor! Trying to make use of a revolutionary like Blake instead of selling him to the Federation or simply disposing of him on the spot. Now look where he's got us. He should be sitting here instead of me.
      "Very well," he said eventually. "I'll do it, if you can guarantee my safe departure with my family - those who want to come," he added with a wry smile. And the first thing I'll do is notify the Federation of Blake's whereabouts. That should finance my future nicely.
      "Thank you," said Jermyn gravely. "We shall keep our side of the bargain. Now, first you will notify your staff that you are en route to the Harvar military base. They should observe strict secrecy as to your whereabouts, and if they need to contact you in the next few hours, give them this frequency number."


"Well done," said Blake a few minutes later when Jermyn joined him in the room where he and the other leaders had viewed the recorded session. "Stuyver was right about him being likely to see reason."
      Stuyver nodded with satisfaction. "He had this reputation for being a beast, but a reasonable beast. However, we must take great care that he doesn't try to doublecross us."
      "That goes double for Commander Kastner at the Base," put in one of the others. "He's a notoriously tricky bastard. We'd better clap him in irons the minute we lay hands on him."
      Blake smiled. "Agreed. We don't leave anything to chance. Now, we'd better get busy, the train will be here in two hours and we have to work out how we can get so many trucks into the Base sidings. They weren't built for more than fifty."
      "With Grodin behind us we can commandeer other locomotives and split it into three sections," Jermyn suggested. "We just have to make sure that most of the fighting men are in the first section."
      "Then Grodin must notify Kastner that our own men will do most of the unloading. We don't want a large reception committee."

   "Kastner here. What is it, Minister?"
   "I've got a job for you. I'm bringing in a convoy of men and equipment. Things are getting very tense in the city and I want to be ready if there's an attempted coup."
   "I see. Are you really expecting one?"
   "I'm informed that something's brewing. Anyway, I've collected about a thousand troops from other regions and I'm sending them to you. You are to observe the utmost secrecy so that the dissidents don't get wind of their arrival. If the trouble dies down of its own accord they can quietly disperse to their own bases."
   "Surely their arrival will be noticed. That many transport aircraft landing here is bound to be spotted."
   "Which is why they are coming by land rail. I've put them and their equipment aboard a supply train which will arrive at your sidings in about one hour's time."
   "One hour?! This is very short notice, Minister."
   "That's how secrets are kept. I want them all inside the base before daybreak. Since they can do their own unloading, you don't need to get many of your own men out of bed. Another thing, most of them are not in uniform, this is an undercover operation. Just make sure that nobody knows who doesn't need to know. Now, jump to it!"
Blake became aware that he was holding his breath for far too long as he watched the entry lock to the Harvar sidings loom up ahead. Now was the moment that his plans could all go horribly wrong. With the locomotive detached to permit the wagons to be rolled down into the airlock, they were well-nigh defenceless if Kastner's suspicions had been aroused in any way.
      "What happens now?" he asked Jermyn, who sat beside him in the crowded cabin of the Breyer police wagon mounted on the front truck.
      "Each wagon is linked to the conveyor and pulled through to the sidings. When they're unloaded, they pass round the loop and back out on the other track to be hitched up to the locomotive again. It's a good system provided the crews know their jobs." He smiled grimly. "Fortunately most employees of the Breyer Mining Company are thoroughly familiar with it."
      "How long will it take to empty the train?"
      "About four hours, I should think," Jermyn replied. "We'll leave the cabins where they are, so only the vehicles and equipment will be unloaded."
      Blake nodded, reassured that everyone knew their respective roles. There was a series of jolts and clangs, then they were moving again, down a slight gradient, then fetching up with a bump in front of the inner gate. After a few minutes' pause while several other trucks joined them, the outer gate closed with a dull boom and the correct atmosphere was pumped in. Finally the inner gate opened ponderously and the first ten wagons slid through to their berth. As someone unbolted the cabin door and slid it sideways, the men around Blake took audible deep breaths.
      He was among the first few who climbed out. They were all in the uniforms acquired at Breyer, carrying the standard-issue blasters. There were only about twenty men waiting on the platform, and one of these was plainly the commanding officer. Blake climbed down the outer side, strode confidently over to Kastner and saluted. "Feislin," he announced, "Minister Grodin's junior attache. This is Captain Rennis." He indicated Jermyn at his side.
      Kastner nodded curtly at Jermyn and turned his attention back to Blake. "Your face is familiar."
      This was not unexpected; the security forces were bound to have seen his face on 'wanted' circulars. "We've never been formally introduced," he answered calmly, "but I've seen you at various functions."
      Kastner accepted this without comment. "Well Feislin, what's going on?"
      "I have some dispatches here for you," he touched the small satchel slung over his shoulder, "and I can fill you in on the background. Shall we go somewhere where we can talk in private? Rennis can see to the unloading."
      The Commandant cast an eye over the men pouring out of the trucks, then acquiesced. "This way."
      He led Blake out of the yards to a small runabout and drove his visitor across the dimly-lit base to one of the smaller domes. A bleary-eyed aide met them in the lobby. "Coffee!" snapped the Commandant, sweeping past him to his office door. "Sit down and tell me what's really been happening," he ordered Blake as they entered. Knowing he had to stall him until the aide had been and gone, Blake improvised a detailed report on the happenings of the last few days, most of which was true.
      "Yes, but why the secrecy?" asked Kastner, testily. "Why not go into the city in force and restore order in the usual way?"
      "The President won't hear of it." Blake replied with a slight smile. "Between you and me, that's because Uncle Shandor says no."
      "Bloody politicians," was Kastner's disgusted comment. "So Grodin's going behind their backs, huh?"
      "Let's say he's using his initiative."
      To Blake's profound relief, the coffee appeared before the Commandant got round to demanding the ficititious dispatches. When the aide had left, he stood up and reached into the satchel. "Well, I should give you your dispatches," he said, slipping his hand round the small stun gun inside. His unsuspecting host collapsed quietly across his desk as Blake pressed the trigger. Producing a medical spray-gun from the satchel, he pumped a hefty dose of sedative into the recumbent form. Kastner would be out of the game for the next day or so.
      He stepped out into the lobby and asked the aide to contact Captain Rennis at the sidings with a request to come to the Commandant's office, then went back inside to search for a plan of the base. He found a rolled printed map and after moving Kastner onto the floor, he spread it out on the desktop and weighted its corners down with various metal objects. This really was an antiquated planet, he reflected as he bent over it.
      Jermyn arrived with Bozener and four others.
      "More coffee?" the aide asked brightly, as he ushered them in.
      Blake was reassured that he couldn't see his commander's body lying behind the desk. "Good idea," he said. "Bring six more cups." It was good coffee.
      "OK," he said to the others when the door closed, "we'll deal with him when he comes back, drink the coffee, then you five can go right through this dome and round up everyone else. Have you secured the sidings?"
      Jermyn smiled slightly. "No problem. There were only twenty three men there."
      "Good. I've got a plan of the base here, let's work out what goes where."
      They gathered round the map on the desk.


As he arrived for work at his usual time, Emeryk was met at the Council Chamber door by a flustered security officer.
      "Mr President, have you seen Minister Shandor? Did he contact you or come to your apartments late last night?"
      "No, he didn't." Emeryk felt a prickle of alarm. "What's all this about?"
      "Madam Zeta has just been asking about him. It seems that he got an urgent message after he'd retired for the night, so he got up and went out again. We've tried everywhere, but we can't trace him."
      "Well, if he went out, the cameras will have recorded it." Emeryk ventured.
      The man hesitated. "That's the worrying part," he said. "The cameras went on the blink just after midnight. There's no record."
      "What!? Sabotage! Where was your man? He should have noticed, surely."
      "They just found him, unconscious. We've sent for a doctor. There's another thing, Mr President. The Minister's office is somewhat disturbed - a chair has been knocked over."
      Emeryk's mind was reeling with dismay. "They've kidnapped him - the dissidents. That runaway must have given Blake the keys. He's behind this. We'll never see Shandor again." He grabbed the officer's arm urgently. "What shall we do?" he begged.
      "Call out every man to search the city, and close all entrances and exits," the man said promptly. "Would you be so kind as to go and see Madam Zeta?" he added. "She must be very worried."
      Emeryk nodded and turned to go. Other government staff were arriving as he descended the stairs, but his enquires after his uncle only elicited worried denials. Shandor had vanished.


Zeta had assembled the entire household in the large drawing room. As Emeryk entered he was greeted with tearful faces and besieged with questions. He was considerably relieved when Zeta finally took him aside into an anteroom. "We've searched high and low, and so have the guards," she said in a low voice. "What can have happened to him?" She clasped her hands tightly.
      Preoccupied with his own fears, Emeryk didn't bother to hedge. "We're afraid that rebels decoyed him away and kidnapped him," he said bluntly. "We can't trace the origin of that message."
      She buried her face in her hands. "What's going on, Lord Emeryk?" she asked, her voice muffled by her hands. "We heard shouting and glass breaking yesterday, and now you mention rebels. We're all very frightened. Is it an uprising?"
      Emeryk made an awkward attempt to pull himself together. "Some miners have been rioting, that's all. No doubt they want to use him as a bargaining counter. We'll find him." But his confident tone had a hollow ring to it and he took himself off after a few more vaguely comforting words.
      Crossing the courtyard back to the offices, he could hear renewed sounds of civil disorder on the other side of the high wall. He listened for a moment - they were coming closer. He found that he was trembling violently. The dissident's were everywhere. This audacious rescue right in the capital itself, and the broadcast proved how strong and well-organised they had become. They'd taken Shandor to avenge Lyra, and now they were coming for him! There wasn't a moment to lose; rushing into the Council block, he made straight for the guard-house.
      "I need two bodyguards to escort me to Security Headquarters," he told the NCO in charge.
      "Yessir!" The man hesitated. "May I make a suggestion?"
      "What is it?"
      "Change into a uniform yourself, for safety's sake. Better take a weapon, too. Things are getting dangerous out there."
      "Good idea."
      Ten minutes later three security guards slipped out of the rear entrance, once of them carrying a small case. They made their way swiftly to the police vehicle compound and drove out of the domed city.
      And that was the last that was ever seen of Emeryk on Epheron.


Disarming and locking up a whole garrison took time, stealth and organisation. After noticing the arrival of so many men and their equipment, the base officers were not too surprised to be ordered to a special briefing at the Commandant's dome, and entered unsuspiciously. Few of them had bothered to bring sidearms with them and all surrendered without a struggle.
      The modular construction of the base made it relatively easy to deal with the other ranks, dome by dome. However, the last two, alerted by all the unusual activity, put up a tough resistance under the leadership of their NCOs.
      Blake and Jermyn moved swiftly to isolate them by jamming their communication channels and cutting off all the surveillance cameras and computer terminals.
      "Well, how do we get them out of there?" Stuyver wanted to know. "Each dome has an independent air supply under its own control, said to be tamper-proof."
      Blake returned an unconcerned smile. "I think the arrival of giant diggers at their rear might persuade them out. If not, we'll dig out their foundations, and since we'll be right on top of them, they won't be able to depress their laser cannons enough to bring them to bear."
      "Better improvise some shielding for the drivers," warned Jermyn, anxious as always for his men's welfare. "They could open fire with small blasters from the gun-turrets."
      Half an hour later the huge antiquated machines clanked ponderously round the base perimeter, keeping close to the walls in order to give the besieged men no notice of their coming. A few blaster shots were fired when they appeared under the defenders' noses, but as soon as the first scoops were taken at their foundations, the surrender was swift.
      The miners were jubilant. "We soon dug those rats out," they crowed as they collected weapons, respirators and uniforms. Cheerfully, they set about reloading the train in readiness for the short journey to the capital.
      Meanwhile Blake called the dissident leadership together. "We should be ready to move again in about three hours," he told them. "Stuyver's men are ready to start the serious rioting when we give the signal and Grodin will notify his deputy that he's sending troops in to restore order."
      "How many men can we take with us?" One man queried.
      "About five hundred. The rest are needed to guard the prisoners," he responded. "As far as we can tell, there are only about three hundred and fifty security troops in the city at present, so they should welcome us with open arms. Naturally, our orders are to throw a protective cordon around Government House and take all Council Members into protective custody. Other detachments will take over the security dome and the air and land-rail terminuses." He looked around at his audience. "And then, gentlemen, it's up to you."


The midday meal at Shandor's house was a strained affair; those who did not know the reason for his disappearance speculated anxiously, while those who did were preoccupied with keeping their secret. As they were finishing a visitor arrived - Delma, Emeryk's second-ranking concubine, who was a cousin to Zeta. Although their quarters were on opposites sides of the Government compound, it was not difficult to move between the two by covered walkways that ran the length of the back wall, meeting at the rear lobby of the Council Chamber. Shandor and Emeryk usually accessed their offices this way, and the more senior concubines were permitted to visit each other via these discreet passages. All the women were avid collectors of news and it was a favourite diversion of theirs to compare notes, particularly if someone has been allowed out to visit a relative. A day seldom passed without someone dropping in for a gossip.
      Delma was swiftly drawn aside into a parlour by the conspirators. Her news was fascinating - Emeryk had left the compound and disappeared. He had not arrived at his stated destination, Security Headquarters, and there was no sign of the two men who had been detailed to accompany him. The guard commander had come to the house to ask where he might have gone, and instructed the senior wife to notify him immediately if he returned.
      "We know about Shandor's disappearance," she told them. "One of our girls overheard the guard commander talking to security headquarters about him. I don't know how you feel about this, Zeta, but they reckon he's dead and that Emeryk has bolted off-planet because he can't cope without him. They're expecting a rebel attack any moment now, and everybody knows that Shandor was the power behind the throne."
      Zeta had got up and paced about the room during this communication. "Delma," she said finally, "Delma, can we trust you? I mean really trust you?"
      "I wouldn't be here if you couldn't." Delma looked her straight in the eye. "I think we must find out what's going on. If there's some sort of coup, we want to survive it."
      "Then we have something to show you." Zeta turned to one of her confederates. "Fetch the Lyra disk."
      Delma watched in silence, then heaved a shaky sigh as the disk reached its end and ejected from the reader. "It's appalling," she muttered, groping for a tissue to mop her streaming eyes. "I knew things were bad, but I never dreamt that kind of thing still happened. What are we going to do?"
      Zeta took a deep breath. "Strike for our freedom. And that means a change of government. We must let the rebels know that the Presidency is vacant, quickly, before they install somebody else and get organised again."
      "How? If they catch us we could all end up like Lyra."
      "We don't know what communication frequencies to contact them on, but I have a name and address that Soong Ma gave me. One of us should slip out and make contact. As I'm the only one they'll let out, I shall go myself."
      "And how are you going to get outside?"
      "I'll get one of the guards to escort me to my mother's house, saying she's ill again. Then we'll send a boy with a message."
      "Will you come back here afterwards?"
      "Certainly. We mustn't attract attention. Up till Soong's disappearance the security forces never paid any attention to the doings of women, but that's probably altered now."
      "Shall I come too? She is my aunt."
      "No. I want you to go back home. Watch and listen and gather all the information you can. Warn us if there's any danger."
      Delma nodded and stood up. "Good luck."
      As Zeta let her back into the corridor she turned and asked in a low voice, "What really did happen to Shandor?"
      "When we find out the whole story, I'll let you know," she answered uncommunicatively.
      Soon after Delma had gone, Zeta pulled on her sukha and slipped down to the guard house and asked the officer of the watch for an escort to her mother's house.
      "Well, I don't know," he temporised. "Things aren't too good out there, and who's going to sign a pass for you?"
      "Lord Shandor signed one for me last night," she replied, presenting him with a slip of paper. "I was intending to go first thing this morning. I don't think there's anything I can do here, so I'd better go now. I believe the address is on the pass, so you know where I'll be." Her calm voice belied her thudding heart. The pass had been forged by Reza, the best penwoman among them. Soong Ma had insisted that they learn to use the computer in Shandor's private office and become proficient at forging his signature and Emeryk's. We've had to become criminals, she thought sadly, watching him as he opened the piece of paper and checked.
      "Yes, very well, this seems to be in order. But I warn you, if there's trouble, you may not be able to get there at all, or you might not be able to get back here when you want to. I can only spare one man and he'll have to come straight back here, so you'll have to wait until I can send someone to collect you."
      "I understand, but it's not far, and I feel obliged to go to her if she's so ill. She has a heart condition, you know."
      He nodded. He knew that Zeta was mistress of Shandor's household and it did not occur to him to investigate her statement. He summoned one of his senior men, a gruff veteran, heavily armed. "Take Madam Zeta to this address then come back here pronto."
      Then she was through the postern gate and on her way.

   "Blake! It's all over. They've caved in!"
   "The Government?"
   "A message has just come through. Shandor disappeared last night and President Emeryk's done a bunk!"
   "Who sent the message? Has it been checked out?"
   "No less a person than Shandor's chief wife, Madam Zeta. Stuyver's people vouch for it."
   "Come on, Jermyn. Bring out Grodin and get everybody mobilised. No need to wait any longer. If we go now, we'll be there in less than two hours!"
Blake stood back with the other ranks as Jermyn and Stuyver marched into the front lobby of the Council Chamber and dispatched the sentry to fetch the senior officer. From now on he was content to watch their progress from rebels to revolutionary government from the sidelines, available if they needed any help, but preferring them to handle their own affairs.
      His role had been rather like Del Grant's on Albian, getting the local leaders to the threshold of power and then retiring gracefully. Like Grant he would accept the generous cash payment for his services that Jermyn had offered him, then head for Regis where some of Jenna Stannis's many freetrading contacts were to be found. And if he never managed to rejoin the Liberator, he reflected with some amusement, he could always follow Grant's mercenary path for a while. It would be an effective way to gather a new band to continue his campaign against the Federation.
      He felt very good. Hope was surging through him as possible futures began to open up. His brain became so occupied with plans and speculation that he scarcely noticed the rebel leaders relieving the captain of his command, only snapping out of his reverie when the whole party moved forward into the Council Chamber itself.
      For several minutes the newcomers wandered round the room taking in its elaborate luxury and unfamiliar technical appointments. Most of them were miners and food production workers whose spartan lives had never come into contact with such things; they fingered gorgeous imported fabrics and caressed the polished wooden surfaces with awe.
      "It worries me," said a quiet voice in his ear. He turned to find Bozener beside him. "We're so ignorant and uneducated, how are we going to govern a whole planet?"
      A very good question, Blake thought, and it was good to see that somebody was giving it some thought.
      "I suppose you must recruit the educated young to your cause," he ventured. "They will be more idealistic than their elders. Then you can start a major educational programme for everybody - particularly the women," he added, mindful of Soong Ma's disclosures. "In fact, I was told that women over sixty are literate. They could be a great help to you."
      Bozener's habitually drawn face softened into a musing expression. "That's true - my own mother for one." He smiled gently. "You've always got some pointer to a solution, haven't you, Blake? How we'll miss you when you've gone."
      Blake chuckled. "Shall I nominate you for the post of Minister of Education? You'll have funds to set up schools and colleges and bring in extra teachers from other planets. I hear the economy is fit and well, so when you've turfed out the parasites and confiscated their estates, you can afford it."
      "I have dreamed of such a project," Bozener said softly, almost to himself. "That would indeed repay us for some of our sufferings."
      There was a stir among the crowd of revolutionaries as a group of men were brought in - government officials and clerks by their tailored clothing. They were lined up at the front and told to sit. Jermyn and Stuyver climbed onto the podium and a bell rang sharply to bring everyone to order. Taking polite turns, the two leaders identified themselves formally and announced the dissolution of the current government and its replacement by an interim revolutionary council until free democratic elections could be held.
      They were cheered to the roof by their companions. The erstwhile governors sat in silent shock.


Not long after, Blake made his way through remembered corridors and presented himself at the door to Shandor's apartments. A feminine voice answered his ring, "Who is it, please?"
      He took off his helmet and stood before the eye of the security camera. "Roj Blake wishes to speak to Madam Zeta."
      The heavy door immediately sprang open and he was pulled inside. Closing the door and bidding him wait in a small reception room, the young girl on duty rushed away to fetch her superior.
      "You're here so soon," Zeta exclaimed, entering with hand outstretched in welcome. "Have you come secretly? Is that why you're wearing that uniform? There are extra troops everywhere. Grodin called in reinforcements and the city is full of them, we saw it on the news bulletins. What are you going to do?"
      Blake took her hands to calm this agitated flow of questions. "We are those troops," he said simply. "We've occupied the government compound and the security dome and we're rounding up all the officials in readiness to broadcast a change of government. You are free."
      Zeta seemed stunned. "So soon, so soon," she repeated. "How?"
      "It's a long story," he began.
      She pulled herself together, "And I'm a dreadful hostess. Come upstairs and let me get you some refreshments. Then you can tell us all what has happened."
      Blake smiled to himself as he was towed along in her wake. He'd had little experience of domesticated women that he could remember, Cally and Jenna were not inclined to fuss over their male colleagues.


"What are we going to do, Blake?" Zeta wondered as they sat alone together in her parlour afterwards. "What are we good for, uneducated as we are? Most of us are only fit to work in the hydroponics plants or the nursery domes." Her face was grave as she contemplated the enormity of the changes.
      Blake smiled encouragingly. "Get out there straight away and demand your rights: full citizenship, education, the return of your children, compensation for the years of slavery."
      "Our children - how are we going to recognise the sons who were taken from us as babies?"
      "DNA profiling where there is any doubt, but I expect they kept careful records somewhere. Get together with the revolutionaries to investigate the children's domes." He smiled encouragingly at her. "Soon it will be safe to go out on the streets again. I know at least one rebel who will help you and you can contact all your sisters. Organise them, burn those sukhas, take your freedom in both hands."
      "How strange it will be to set foot outside without a sukha or an escort. Many of us will feel frightened."
      "You will get used to it, but it takes courage, I agree. But I have confidence in you, Zeta, and you have work to do." Blake's face was solemn as he took her hand. "I must leave Epheron very soon, to avoid bringing the Federation down upon you, so I leave the task to you. Soong Ma told me what a gift you had for running the household without quarrels and strife - she admired you for it. Now the whole planet needs those gifts."
      Zeta sighed, smiling slightly. "I see how you've become such a danger, Blake. You can persuade people so well."


When he came to leave, Zeta escorted him ceremoniously to the door of the vestibule, bade him farewell and withdrew. The same young girl was on duty at the door, her eyes brimming with excitement as he thanked her and stepped outside into the dusk of early evening.
      Once the door shut behind him, he swung the helmet that dangled from his left hand, upwards, preparatory to putting it on, but the movement was never completed. Sensing a movement, or just a waft of air, from the shadows of the covered way, he looked up as a dark figure launched itself at him with a gleam of steel in the right hand. He was just in time to twist away and deflect the blow slightly with the helmet. The knife tore into his left sleeve and caught in the tough fabric as the assassin tried to withdraw it and strike again. Using his own superior weight, Blake barged the man against the wall, but his assailant tore away with a nimble lunge and freed the knife, slashing Blake's arm as he did so.
      He caught a glimpse of a shaven head and a pale face tensely snarling at him as they closed again. Grappling desperately with his opponent, he was aware of a commotion in his rear; the door crashing back and the portress rushing out screaming for help with all the power of healthy young lungs. His opponent was incredibly fast and agile. It was like trying to hold on to a dozen monkeys. Another slash connected, this time along his ribs. Stung, Blake seized the assassin's right wrist with both hands and applied all his strength to twisting and crushing it, ignoring a shower of vicious kicks. At this point another body thudded into them, toppling them to the ground; the girl had thrown herself into the fray, grasping the intruder's other arm and shrieking "he's got another knife in his left hand!" This crucial reinforcement tilted the balance, the assassin dropped the first knife and seemed to surrender.
      Still holding the wrist tightly, Blake took a deep breath and got to his knees. His helper sensibly pulled away from him to keep the prisoner's arms at full stretch, since he had not dropped the small blade in his left hand. Flying footsteps and a clamour of voices were rising in the background; among them he recognised Zeta's.
      "Now, drop that knife and turn over on your face," he ordered grimly.
      "Very well," the man hissed through painfully clenched teeth. He drew his knees up as if to sit up, then uncoiled violently like a striking snake, tearing his left hand out of the girl's grip and slashing the knife towards Blake's face. Utterly astonished, Blake threw himself backwards and lost his grip. The man bounded away to the council building entrance, colliding violently with a rebel trooper who was first on the scene, then he disappeared inside, leaving the newcomer on his knees, clutching at his stomach.
      Recovering himself, Blake got up. The girl was also rising, clutching at her left hand, which was dripping blood from a slashed palm. "Who'd have thought he was that strong," she said shakily. "No, no," she added hastily, as Zeta came running up, reaching out for her injured hand, "see to Blake, he's bleeding from a chest wound."
      Blake shook his head and stumbled over to the man slumped in the doorway. He'd taken the knife straight in the guts and must be in a bad way. As he bent over him, he was joined by Bozener. "This man needs a hospital fast," he told him. Bozener nodded and wasted no time in running off.
      Someone else came pushing through the gathering throng. "There's a dead man back here," he shouted above the increasing hubbub. "His throat's been cut!"


When the medics had finally finished with Blake, Jermyn appeared at his bedside, looking very grave. "Well, how are you?" he enquired, as he seated himself.
      Blake levered himself up against the pillows with a grunt. "Comfortable enough. It's just a couple of slashes. They've sewn them up most efficiently. What about your man - Gratton, isn't it? Is he all right?"
      "Touch and go, I'm told. If he survives the night, he should make it."
      "Who was the dead man, do you know?"
      "Osmek - one of Stuyver's people."
      "A pity." Blake heaved a sigh, and promptly wished he hadn't as the wound above his waistband twinged sharply.
      Jermyn nodded sombrely. "Obviously this was an assassination attempt aimed at you. The girl, Catalin, says she saw him lunging at you on the surveillance monitor. He must have seen you go into Shandor's apartment and lain in wait for you to come out."
      "Catalin," said Blake, guiltily distracted. "Is that her name? She saved my life, and I never even asked how she was."
      "She's fine," said Jermyn impatiently. "Very pleased with herself, in fact. You can talk to her later. The important thing is that the camera recorded the attack and we think we've identified him."
      "Oh?" Blake sat up sharply, swinging his feet off the bed. Another twinge from his chest wound.
      "Yager, the man who tortured Perri and the others to find out where you were. He features on the Security HQ video recording, and we're pretty sure it's the same man, in spite of shaving his hair off."
      "And he got clean away?"
      "Yes." Jermyn gave him a long, considering look. Eventually he said, "He'll try again. He's a fanatic who's accepted a contract and means to carry it out even though his employers have been overthrown."
      "Perhaps he thinks he can reverse their fortunes," Blake speculated. "There's no future for him under the new government."
      "Maybe, but he's a fool if he does," Jermyn replied. "The point is that he is a very dangerous man who trained with a ninja sect on Cosmos, and they never give up on a contract. I'm going to send you off-planet straightaway."
      "Immediately?" Blake was visibly taken aback.
      "Yes. You'll return to Breyer by strato-flyer tonight, and leave on one of the ore transporters tomorrow." Jermyn's grim face relaxed somewhat. "In any case, your task here is more or less done and we are more grateful to you than we can express. We ought not to detain you in a dangerous situation any longer, but should help you to rejoin your own people. That includes the reward we promised you."
      He stood up. "Now I must say goodbye. Bozener will go with you to Breyer and see you off - he particularly asked to have that honour. On a personal level, I am greatly indebted to you, and if ever you and the Liberator should come to this sector again, you are assured of a warm welcome."
      He sketched a farewell salute and walked rapidly out, leaving Blake too amazed to say more than goodbye.
      It was hard not to feel piqued. He'd known he must leave soon, but the speed of this dismissal left him breathless. Did Del Grant's clients also pack him off with dispatch as soon as the job was done? Mercenaries were probably something of an embarrassment to their clients once they had achieved some measure of respectability, and would not be encouraged to linger. He smiled wryly to himself - was this to be his future?


Some moments later, Zeta put her head round the door.
      "Come in," he said, glad to see her again.
      "I've got Catalin with me."
      Blake climbed to his feet and held his hand out to the girl, who stood behind her. Catalin took it rather shyly. Her other hand was immobilised in thick bandages. Blake took it carefully by the wrist and looked at it. "Does it hurt a lot?"
      "No. They've numbed it with an injection. They say I'm lucky, none of the tendons have been cut, so it will heal up good as new."
      "I haven't thanked you yet for saving my life," he said gently. "You were very brave and very fast. Without you, he would have had me with that second knife. I never saw it."
      She was misty-eyed with delighted pride. "I'm just so happy I was there. Isn't life exciting these days? You never know what's going to happen next."
      Blake chuckled. "True. I foresee a great future for you, full of interest and excitement. I shall think of you often when I am far away."
      "Must you go so soon?" Zeta asked.
      "Yes. This is your revolution, I'm just a catalyst. Besides, when I've left Epheron, the assassin will have to give up on me, or leave too. If I stay, more good men and women could be injured or killed in his attempts to fulfill his contract."
      "It was Shandor who employed him," she said, looking him steadily in the eye. "But I believe he has paid the price of his evil folly."
      Blake understood what she was telling him. He nodded. "In the end, you always have to pay the price, don't you?"
      Zeta nodded, sombrely. Catalin looked from one to the other with dawning comprehension. She opened her mouth as if to speak, then resolutely closed it again.
      Zeta turned motherly again. "Get some rest if you can. I must get this young lady home to her bed, as well." She put her arm round Catalin to guide her out of the room.
      "Goodbye, Blake," said Catalin wistfully. "I wish I could come with you."

   "Well, Zeta, have you found out what happened to Shandor?"
   "So far as I know, no trace of him has been discovered. I have been told, however, that your husband made off with a stack of negotiable bonds and the presidential cruiser before the revolutionary guards were able to confiscate it."
   "My ex-husband. I'm filing an annulment with the People's Court straight away, and putting in a claim for a share of his estate and the return of my son. What about you?"
   "Ah well, Delma, I believe I'm a widow."
   "What... what do you think happened to Shandor? The revolutionary leaders say they didn't give orders for his kidnapping and they don't know anything about him."
   "I feel quite sure he's dead."
   "Yes, but what could have happened to the corpse? There's been a search."
   "I imagine that it was disposed of."
   "Yes, but how?"
   "A kitchen disintegrator possibly, like the one Soong persuaded our lord and master to buy."
   "But... eughhh! A body would have to be cut into small pieces first. And anyone doing that would get their clothes covered in blood... and other things."
   "Certainly. If they wore any clothes."
   "D'you suppose that a scientist could tell from the powder residue in a disintegrator what it was originally?"
   "Quite likely, so our hypothetical murderer would have to clean out the apparatus very carefully when it had cooled down, and then dispose of the powder without arousing suspicion, wouldn't you think?"
   "Oh... certainly..."
   "Well you brought up this gruesome topic. Now let's get back to reality. We've found some of the children's records, which is why I came over. Have you met Bozener?"
   "Er... one of the miners, isn't he?"
   "He and I are forming an official commission to visit all the nursery domes and oversee the identification of all the boys and their return to their mothers. You can help us."
Blake was to remember the return to Breyer in the company of Bozener, for a long time. Reasonably fresh from their first good night's sleep for several days, they talked away the hours of the flight and the wait for the ore transporter, engrossed in their dialogue. Bozener was always the most compatible of his rebel hosts; a gentle, compassionate man whose conversation revealed a stubborn desire for a truly equitable society, tempered by a realistic appreciation of his comrades' strengths and weaknesses, and the difficulties that lay before them.
      Blake would have been hard put to give a detailed report of their talk, but the overall impression was of a wide range of subject and a depth of empathy such as he had only experienced, perhaps, with Cally. What would life have been like on the Liberator if Bozener had been with him instead of Avon? Blake was tempted to wonder, suppressing a guilty twinge at the disloyalty of the thought.
      He was able to retrieve his bag which still contained the precious teleport bracelet, then they had leisure for a substantial meal at the mine canteen. A skeleton staff of older workers had been detailed to stay behind to keep up a facade of normality, and a group of them converged on Blake's table, hungry for news. Their mood was quiet and sober as he related the happenings at Costanza and Epheron City, many of them found it difficult to believe the changes a mere three days had made.
      "We took a look at the company books when we arrested the accountants," one man told him. "The profits they make are amazing!" He shook his head with a bewildered sigh. "We never knew the half of it. Imagine what we could do with even one hundredth of the money."
      "Then imagine it now," said Blake with deliberate emphasis. "Think about how you can use it for the best. Get help and advice from off-worlders if you can't trust the previous office staff. And make sure you keep control yourselves. Watch out for the opportunists and the fanatics and don't let a small clique take over your revolution. When that happens, it's disastrous."
      Thoughtful nods greeted this.
      "We're so ignorant," said another, echoing Bozener's earlier anxiety.
      "Hire teachers and learn." Blake smiled warmly at them. "Education is never over till the day we die."
      A familiar figure was approaching the table, Chon, the giant miner who had comforted Soong Ma. "All is ready," he rumbled. "You can go aboard now."
      Bozener rose to his feet with a chuckle. "The good news is we don't have to hide you in a container this time. You can walk on board."
      Half reluctantly, Blake stood up and shook hands all round. Most of the group elected to accompany them to the dock gates, where they stood and waved farewell.
      Finally, at the bottom of the loading ramp, Bozener halted and offered his hand. Blake took it in a strong clasp, then enveloped him in a bear-hug embrace.
      "Good Luck," he said. Then he turned and went aboard. The main hatch clanged to behind him.



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