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Ash Wednesday

By Firerose
Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack,
Their old wounds save with cold can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.
And terror's first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small-drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.

From 'Insensibility' by Wilfred Owen

One

No hope.

Twenty, maybe twenty five of the local inhabitants, their faces failing to register the certainty of their deaths. Or perhaps not yet understanding?

Unable to do anything to avert the unfolding events; unable to put down the viewscope. Brightly coloured robes and black uniforms; free-flowing hair and faceless helmets; quadripedal animals in colours of earth, stone and new wood, and shiny tri-wheeled vehicles. The kaleidoscope segments filling with red.

He watched as the bodies were dumped onto the vehicles. Bows and arrows were little use against Federation handguns and body armour.

No young women. Not this time, anyway. He would have to follow them. Limited by the primitive local transport methods he could not hope to keep up, but the noisy red buggies that chewed up the mud of this forest route should be trivial to track.

***

She had thought that the past few days had made her immune to embarrassment. But the humiliation of being on show in ripped and dirty clothing in front of this throng of men proved her wrong -- men pressing against the stage, men trying to clamber up to finger the merchandise. In the midst of the crowd her eye was caught by a black-cloaked man, hood shadowing his face. He seemed to be staring as intently at their faces as most of the men were at their bodies. She looked down quickly. Nothing mattered now. Nothing but to wait for death.

Eventually, there were only three women left. The Federation guards who had been directing the operation were clearly getting bored. What happened to the ones that no-one wanted, not even at the minimum price? It was unlikely to be pleasant but might at least be quick. Sudden nausea filled her. Believe, nothing matters now. Nothing. But she could not overcome the waves of dizziness by will alone.

The man she had noticed before walked deliberately up to the knot of guards by the side of the stage, and credits changed hands. Then one of the local guards was kneeling down and starting to undo the chains that linked to her ankles. 'It's your lucky day,' he sneered. 'Try to look grateful.'

She followed behind the man, stumbling as the circulation started to return to her legs, silencing her involuntary moan of pain. If will alone could not save her from feeling fear, she could at least maintain the outward dignity of her birth.

Still she had not seen her purchaser's face or heard his voice. As she was bundled into the back of a covered cart, she tripped over a pile of sacking and, unable to catch herself with her cuffed hands, fell heavily onto the floor and lay there winded and dazed.

Only minutes later, the cart stopped and she heard him opening up the back. So it's to be now. She tried to sit up and face him with dignity. 'Get up,' he said, not unkindly, and led her round to the front of the cart, helped her negotiate the steps up and onto the bench seat. Fixed her cuffed hands to the bench.

She took in little of the flat farmland with its occasional settlements on either side of the track, her mind dull with the effort of suppressing the tangle of bitter memories. Nothing matters now. Nothing.

'And what might be the name of my newest possession?' he said eventually, his harsh voice strange, apparently cultivated, yet bearing a hint of menace that went beyond his words. He did not sound much like a farmer, despite the hay cart.

'Tora,' she lied, in a passable imitation of the local peasant drawl. It was her maid's name. What right had this stranger to her true name? 'And yours?' she asked daringly, looking up at him for the first time. His face remained concealed under the hood.

'Call me Malar. How did you come to be taken by the Federation?'

'Why didn't you ask the guards that?'

She thought he was going to strike her, but when she looked up again she realised that he was laughing.

 

At least the girl was beginning to show a little spirit. She had stared blankly at her feet for several hours as they bumped along this poor excuse for a transport route. He had been beginning to think that Orac was in error. Or, more likely he had to admit, the one he sought had already been sold before he arrived. This girl did not much resemble Orac's 'image of Zenia. Tumbling pale hair, ash white rather than blonde, freed of the complex braiding which presumably signalled her high caste status. Lacking cosmetic assistance, skin sun-reddened and lightly freckled, not matt silvered-white. But the Federation rarely treated its prisoners with the greatest gentleness -- as he had cause to remember -- even when, like her, they were little older than a child. And the nose was the same, snub and slightly upturned, and those unnaturally blue eyes. Unfeeling eyes which would have been more at home in -- he searched his mind for the appropriate historical reference -- a china doll. That was the phrase.

Well, he had not purchased the girl for her looks. He could detect the sweaty smell of her fear but this was not the time for over-fastidiousness.

He knew the 'image he had seen had been taken before she had been betrothed to Raznan. And therefore before the invasion of the Federation forces. He estimated that the bruises on her arms owed more to the latter than the former, but you could never tell with these primitive cultures.

They began the long climb out of the river valley as the sun set, the track turning into a series of switchbacks picking a narrow way through the rocky landscape. The sparse wind-stunted vegetation made a pleasant change from the homogeneous cultivated fields that surrounded the town. He glanced across at Zenia again -- if he had been planning an escape, this would have been his choice of exit. The tumbled pillars of black rock -- volcanic? -- and the pockets of deep shade they cast might make adequate cover. Someone used to the terrain would probably be able to cover it very quickly. But her wrist restraints remained secured to the vehicle and her slumped posture suggested both physical and mental exhaustion.

Better she was in ignorance of his real name for now at least. 'Kerr Avon' was still sufficiently high on the Federation's wanted list that even this backward planet might have registered it. If there was anything on the planet worth purchasing with the bounty, which he rather doubted. But if Orac's data were correct there might be little point in trying to conceal his real identity from her.

'Not far now,' he said, in a tone intended to be encouraging. Not far now.

 

Interlude

An over-sized bed dominated the room, the wall behind it upholstered in crimson, a picture suggesting the possibility of activities other than sleep. A darkened vis-screen occupied perhaps a third of the opposing wall. The red-haired woman who'd just entered walked to the window, swept open the heavy velveteen curtains and regarded the scene revealed with a touch of amusement. She dumped her handbag on the table, rifled through it extracting a comb, a pack of cigarettes and finally, with a muted cry of triumph, a plastic card. Replacing the cigarettes, she fiddled with the console built into the bedside, keying in her authorisation code and altering the presets. Abruptly the sunny mountain scene dissolved, replaced by a forlorn orange-grey sky punctuated only by lights emanating from the ranks of tower blocks. Simultaneously, within the room, the air-conditioning coughed into life and a static whoosh suggested that the vis-screen would shortly follow suit. The light cycled in intensity every thirty seconds or so as the rotating sign, twenty storeys high, in front of the hotel cut and re-cut the spotlight beam, painting her shadow against the far wall. Fade in and out. In and out.

'They've fucking gone and given us a room above the flyer park again, just like they did in Galaxy City last year,' she announced, and went to mix a consolatory drink at the room's bar, an over-the-top concoction of silver-flecked black granite and fine-grained orange-yellow wood, both equally artificial. A shield-like motif, embossed with a gothic-style EE, on the neck of the plastic stirrer was repeated on the top-right corner of the vis-screen, where a tall bearded man apparently dressed to match the curtains was weeping in pore-revealing close-up, the sound on mute.

'Christ, I needed that,' she said to her companion, plonking herself with the two-thirds empty glass onto the bed and kicking off her shoes. 'Draw the curtains, would you? That flickering's beginning to get on my nerves. What d'you think the second E stands for, anyway?'

Beyond the curtains, the sign -- a running man in silhouette, chest cut with a cross -- continued to rotate all night.

***

The low-roofed hexagonal stone building that nestled into the hillside in the grey twilight was typical of any isolated hill farm in the region. Not that she had been inside that many before. Somehow, though, it exuded a subtle air of neglect, disuse, which blended uneasily with the air of smoothness assumed by the man who was now loosening her hands. Inside, the neglect was less subtle. Nothing obviously out of place, but the huge shadowy space that swallowed most of the floor area was bare and impersonal. Few signs of current habitation. No other inhabitants?

Her eager inspection was curtailed when Malar threw back his fur-lined hood. An outlander then? But the smooth-shaven pale face with its compelling brown eyes was unlike any trader she remembered selling trinkets at her father's court. He grasped her chin, forcing her to stand straight and hold her head up. 'Let me look at you then,' he said, minutely scrutinising her features by the light of a candle he was holding unpleasantly close to her face. She flinched away from the concentrated heat on her cheek. He jerked her back, muttering 'Hold still.' In return she sent the first tendrils into his mind, delicately probing before withdrawing abruptly, disoriented by the unexpected images she found and by his rapid awareness of her touch. Few not gifted could sense so acutely. But he made no mention of it, turning away with an odd air of satisfaction.

'Welcome, Tora.' Even with the heavy overlay of sarcasm it seemed a strange thing to say to a slave just purchased for two hundred credits. He stoked up the soot-blackened central stove, its great stone chimney rising straight up to meet the slopes of the roof where the massive beams criss-crossed far above their heads. Then lit the rest of the candles while she sat, frozen with confusion, following him with her eyes.

How could he know her face already? And her true name and house?

Putting aside those questions as inexplicable for the moment, she pondered why he too had lied about his name. Avon. It seemed to suit the arrogant stranger, with his pale subtle face. She had sensed a thinly concealed violence in his mind. Violence but also buried sorrow, fierce as her own grief. A life of fear and running, loss and death.

Avon stood before her with a dish of what the local peasants would no doubt have recognised as food. He had no doubt now that it was as strange to her as to him. Zenia woke with a start and waved the food away wordlessly. But she did not refuse the proffered water, and when she had drunk deeply she poured from the jug and half turned away to rinse her fingers and face. Strangely intimate to watch someone else washing. A woman.

He had not spoken to a woman for ... how long? Even the peasant women on Encatrin were hidden away from strangers' eyes. It was men who tilled the fields, tended the cattle. Even men who haggled over the paltry merchandise at the marketplace. And an offworlder would never get the chance to say a second word to a woman of Zenia's class.

His mind jumped unbidden to the falling bodies he no longer cared to name. He quickly forced the memories away. If he did not get off this planet soon, then he stood little chance of maintaining the luck that had led him to be the only human survivor of Scorpio. And, at least according to Orac, this girl might be his best remaining chance for escape.

Turning back to her, he surprised her picking delicately at the dish of stew. 'Perhaps you'd like to tell me now how you came to be taken by the Federation? In return for the food.'

A long pause followed, before she seemed to decide that saying anything would be less suspicious than silence. 'I was with my mistress.'

'And your mistress's name?'

With a flash of anger she could not hide, she hissed, 'Is not something I'd speak in front of you!' Then, recovering her composure, 'We were sheltering in the hills with all the village that had not ridden out on the raid against the Federation.'

'Go on.'

'We were betrayed. Surrounded. Scores of Federation soldiers flooding in. They killed all the men. Then herded the women across the plateau. Like animals. To the town.' He thought he could guess the reason for her abrupt descent into silence.

No doubt it was an approximation to the truth -- as far as it went. What she had not added was that not one of the raiding party ever came back.

If she was going to persist in the attempt to delude him into considering her simply a serving girl caught up in a war she did not understand this escapade might come to have its amusing side. Her clumsy attempts at the local patois must have convinced the Federation guards, otherwise she would presumably be as dead as the rest of her family. But they did not come close to fooling him. The cultural divisions embodied in shared language had always been an area of fascination. Even more tellingly, perhaps, she clearly had little idea how peasants ate.

He proved to be correct about the amusement value of the situation. Later, as he came out of the bathroom, she fell on her knees at his feet, clutching at the edge of his robe.

'Malar', she said, 'please make it quick.'

The thought that he might want to touch her in her odorous and ragged state seemed ludicrous. 'Understand now -- I'm not interested in that,' he said, pushing her roughly away. She did not turn quickly enough to hide her swift blush.

'What do you want from me?'

'You'll find out. For now, just do as you're told.'

After a while he took pity on her. 'I suppose you could start by having a wash.' He handed her a clean robe, a towel and some of the brown ointment that served as soap. Pushed her into the bathroom, shutting the door firmly behind her.

 

Safely hidden from the stranger's view, Zenia collapsed on the cold floor, sobbed out tears of mingled anger, shame and confusion. The murder of everyone she had cared about... the way the guards had pawed at her... this morning's humiliation -- these were the images that filled her mind at first. But the way Avon had shuddered with disgust as he pushed her away kept coming back to take their place. What did he want from her?

Eventually no more tears were left. She splashed cold water on her face. Refreshing. Let it cascade down her body, soaking the remnants of her clothes, pooling around her feet. Then stripped, covered as much of her body as she could reach with the harsh soap, scrubbed and scrubbed until her reddening skin forgot the feel of unwanted hands and her mind began to feel cleansed. Slipping on the soft robe continued the soothing process and before she emerged, she took considerable care in drying and braiding her hair in an approximation to the fashion that Tora herself would have worn. If Tora were still alive.

She was rewarded by another long appraising gaze from Avon. And this time it did not stop at her face.

Two

The physical exertion of this new existence was a welcome distraction from those recurrent images that filled her night-time hours and stole her sleep. Avon had set her to cooking and cleaning the farmstead, probably to give her a chance to live up to the 'maid-servant' background. Although he gave little outward sign of suspicion of her story, Zenia did not need to exercise any telepathic powers to realise he was playing with her, waiting for her to make a mistake. Another mistake.

However, since her humiliation that first evening, he had been patient and asked no awkward questions. There were even a few gestures that might have been an apology. First a handful of pins for her hair, then he came back the next evening with a long deep-brown shift dress, nicely cut in a heavy fabric and pinned with a simple white-metal brooch. More the dress of a wife than a servant.

Avon clearly did not lack credits, but he certainly did not earn them by selling produce from his farm. He was no more a farmer than she was a maid-servant, that she was sure. His soft dextrous hands had seen little physical labour, his pale face had avoided the sun. But his true background eluded her. She had lots of fragments but no pattern emerged when she tried to assemble them. Her tentative entries into his mind were met with an overwhelming interest in his supper or the state of his boots. Only one snatch of a greyed image. A kneeling man, face deep scarred, eyes glazed, clutching at Avon's forearms. But the image seemed to carry no emotions. She dared not probe more deeply.

Disturbingly, she had come no closer to understanding what he wanted from her. However he knew her name, this could be no chance purchase -- perhaps he intended to ransom her? Raznan might still be interested in her safety. She shivered. That would just be another kind of slavery.

The clatter of the ladle catching the side of the metal stove before hitting the floor awoke her abruptly from her musings. As she reached down, she noticed that the ladle's fall had unseated one of the wooden blocks of the floor. Glancing quickly around her, some instinct made her prise the loose block up.

From underneath she retrieved a rectangular object, just small enough to lie comfortably in one palm. She turned it over in her hands several times. Oily smooth, more transparent than any crystal, yet oddly warm to the touch. Sharp-edged like a metal implement, but much lighter than a piece of metal of the same size. Her nails made no impression on the hard surface.

'Plastic,' she said wonderingly, recognition coming eventually. She could not recall ever holding any quite like this before. A piece that weight would be very valuable, no doubt Avon's reason for concealing it. Yet, though it had an intrinsic beauty, it did not seem to be designed for personal ornament. What could its function be? If she could figure out a way to escape from the farm in one of Avon's occasional absences, it would serve to buy her food and shelter for several months. But the inner living-area door was solid and always bolted from the outside with two heavy bolts. All she had seen of Avon suggested him to be careful and methodical, so the outer farm door would presumably also be secured. High up in the roof space, far out of reach, the small triangular windows cast their shafts of light in which the dust motes played, mocking her.

Thoughts of escape at present were impractical, anyway. Avon was only just outside, probably drawing water or chopping wood, the thick stone walls carried little sound. Even if she could escape the farm, where could she go? She could only escape those memories in death. Sighing her regret, she replaced the object in its hiding place, kicked over the dust on the floor and got on with her preparations for supper.

***

Avon found concealing his thoughts from Zenia easier than he had expected. It was really no different from Federation interrogations, one concentrated on any subject in which the interrogator was sure to lack interest. And Cally's quiet accepted presence in his mind had perhaps made him sensitive to less wanted intrusions. Till his folly had destroyed that friendship in the most final way possible on Terminal.

Lucky to have escaped on Terminal, lucky again on Gauda Prime. He had come to see his survival as luck, anyway. Well, at least most of the time. You had to look at it that way or the nightmares would never end. The nightmares that had made the long months seem even longer on that sluggish tradeship that had dumped him unceremoniously on Encatrin, in return for a substantial fraction of the credits that he had salvaged from his stash in the wreck of Scorpio. Encatrin, the closest supposedly neutral planet with no hint of a rebel tendency.

Even the nightmares had deserted him now. He aimed to prolong his survival. Life was all he had left.

The first sight of Federation troopers at the spaceport after the tradeship had departed should have told him that maybe his luck was finally exhausted.

And when Orac had said Encatrin had a primitive agricultural economy, he had not expected quite this level of, well, primitiveness. You could trust Orac to be factually accurate, but he had more than once suspected that the machine had an almost human desire to mislead. He just hoped that it did not extend to Orac's predictions involving Zenia. On a planet devoid of computers, Orac's utility was severely compromised. But Orac was all that remained to him. Orac and ....

Zenia. What did she make of him? A farmer probably seemed a poor choice of companion compared with Raznan, the richest and most powerful man on the planet. And a life of cooking and cleaning on a remote hill farm might seem a poor exchange for the pleasured idleness of wealth. Yet she showed no visible sign of unwillingness in any of the menial tasks he gave her, performing them carefully, intently. And without an unnecessary word.

He was under no illusions, it was his misjudgement on the first night that had seen to that. He cursed himself for his stupidity -- his former crewmates would have given him a harsher word. For someone who prided himself on his ability to conceal emotions, that flash of amused disdain would prove costly. Not that...

But Orac's profile indicated her age to be approximately 17.8 earth-standard years. And the paucity of reflective surfaces on Encatrin only occasionally allowed him to forget the grey hairs that had appeared around his parting.

How could he ever hope to gain her trust now? Or to put it another way, after what he had done, how could he expect anyone to trust him again?

***

The loud clatter of the cart on the stony track died away. Alone at last -- likely to be undisturbed for several hours at least -- it wasn't hard for Zenia to break into Avon's room, manipulating the simple lock mechanism using the long prongs of the roasting fork.

Standing on the threshold of a room as bare and comfortless as the one she slept in. No convenient window, nothing concealed within the straw of the mattress. No obvious clues either to the character of this intriguing man. Try the cupboard? She retreated into the kitchen area, suddenly apprehensive of an unexpected return of the farm's owner. Silence. Curious now, she investigated its contents. Dark clothes, similar to the ones Avon wore, unexceptional. But also a heavy studded coat which did not look to have been made on Encatrin. Foreign in design but somehow familiar. She fingered its thick black leather, stiffness lost through long service. The front appeared stained, one shoulder rather clumsily patched.

Pushing aside the garments, she uncovered a ladder upwards. Groping slowly towards the dim light, she emerged in an attic. Empty, apart from the dust, the windows still out of reach. She slumped on the floor, head in hands. What could she have hoped to find?

Except, there was something. The dust of the floor had been scuffed over by a booted foot. Surely Avon would not come here just to pace up and down? Eventually, her diligent searches revealed a loose panel. She pulled aside the sacking within -- so this was where Avon kept his store of credits. And a metal contraption too, whose similarity to the guns of the Federation guards convinced her must be some kind of weapon. Gingerly, she picked it up and laid it gently on the floor beside her. The associations it raised made her unwilling to handle it for longer than necessary, while her common sense told her it might be useful.

But it was the glittering box underneath that held her attention. In her father's court it might have been a room centrepiece, an expensive piece of art designed to show off the enlightened tastes and overflowing credits of the owner. But Avon's style did not seem to extend to ornaments. His clothes, while good quality, were plain and dark, and did not seek to draw attention to the wearer. He did not seem to favour the rich colours and heavy jewellery that important Encatrin men of a similar age, men like Raznan, wore at the courts. The house contained nothing but the strictly utilitarian. The box must have some function.

She ran her hands over it trying to tease out the mystery. The surface was perfectly smooth apart from a small rectangular area on the top. She could see no hinges, and the box did not seem to open -- unless manipulating the rectangular area could activate some internal spring mechanism? She remembered a cunning wood-fashioned jewellery box, once a prized possession, which had opened by such a design.

How could she have been so stupid! She rocked back on her heels, stumbled to her feet, clambered back down the ladder and retrieved the small plastic object from its hiding place. It fitted perfectly and the box seemed to come to life, with many tiny candles flickering on and off and a strange noise she could liken to nothing she had experienced. For a moment she feared that it too was a weapon and jumped back warily. But when nothing further seemed to happen she crept back towards it, fascinated.

'What are you?' she exclaimed out loud to herself in her puzzlement.

The regular circuit of the internal flickerings dissolved into haphazard dartings, and the whine intensified.

'I am Orac, the most sophisticated brain in the universe.' The peevish voice was that of a man well past middle age who had been awakened from pleasant dreams to a less-than-pleasant reality. She scanned every corner of the attic. Still empty. However unlikely it seemed, the sound must have originated in the box.

'A computer...?' she said hesitantly. The unused word tasted strange in her mouth.

'That may be the closest concept that your limited understanding is capable of encompassing.'

A sudden insight made her ask it, 'And who am I?'

'I do not exist to answer your trivial questions. There are so many more important things to do.'

'Or is that that you just don't know the answer? The most sophisticated brain in the universe, yet you can't answer a simple question.' Perhaps something this arrogant and insulting could be goaded into responding.

'Your voice print matches Zenia daughter of Erconel, of the house of Ercator and the planet Encatrin.'

'Do you have a picture?'

'No output device for holoimages is currently connected.'

'Who is Avon?'

'Be more specific. Multiple data entries exist with that name.'

'Kerr Avon, a human, currently living on the planet Encatrin. I assume he is your owner.'

'The concept of ownership is meaningless in this context. He is merely a temporary associate.'

'Any associate of Orac must surely be an important person.'

'It was not an association of my choosing. Would I choose to associate with a mere computer technician from Earth, hardly worth the name? Would I choose to associate with a convicted criminal?'

'That must be awful, tell me about it.' Try sympathy maybe?

'Kerr Avon was convicted by the Federation of fraud and sentenced to exile on Cygnus Alpha. He escaped to serve on the Liberator under Roj Blake and later...'

In her concentration, she had not heard the footsteps below, and now Avon's voice cut across from the attic entrance 'Orac, be silent. That's quite enough for now.' How long had he been standing there?

Avon covered the distance between them faster than she had seen him move before. Shouldering her away, he bent to remove the key and pocketed it. 'We seem to be unmasked, Zenia.' She thought his voice, usually so expressionless, held a hint of something like regret.

'Avon.' She aimed the weapon she had found at his head, stilling her trembling hands with an effort of will, and was taken aback when he just smiled.

'Really, Zenia, I thought you could do better than that,' he said lightly, making no attempt to evade her. 'Try it, if you like, but they don't function long without a power source.'

His meaning was clear enough, even though nothing in her experience fit his phrase 'power source'. She kept her eyes on him while she slowly swung the gun away to point into the corner of the attic before pulling the trigger. Nothing happened.

 

Avon admitted it, he had underestimated her. He had not expected her to find Orac, let alone work out how to get useful information from it. He should have taken the key with him, instructed Orac to respond to no-one but himself.

The confrontation had come sooner than he had wished, too soon. And now, even holding a useless weapon, she stood proud and upright, her servant demeanour discarded.

'Blake,' she said slowly, as if thinking aloud. 'Isn't he a revolutionary leader?'

'Blake's dead, killed by the Federation,' he rasped, trying to sound convincing. 'The Federation planted information that made Orac lead us all into a trap.' It was the closest he dared go. He was still getting over how close he had come to letting Orac tell her the real story.

'And you always believe Orac?'

'Orac has let me down on fewer occasions than any human I know. And I hope that this is not going to prove to be one of them.'

'So how does a rebel-fighter from Earth end up on a hill farm on Encatrin?'

Her derisory emphasis stung him into riposting, 'Very much the same way an Encatrin princess ends up in a slave auction.' The way her fingers tightened on the gun abruptly reminded him that there were several alternative ways of wielding it that could be equally lethal, but then he was relieved to see her smile.

'Perhaps you're saying the Encatrin princess should put down her weapon and start to talk to the rebel-fighter on equal terms?'

'Perhaps.'

'Perhaps you should start by telling me why you decided to pick me up.'

'Orac informed me you had several qualities that might be useful.'

'Which are?'

Instead of answering, he turned away, paced to the window, then threw in, 'You do realise that you were the direct cause of the Federation invasion.' As he had intended for the first time in their encounter she looked uncertain. 'Or had the coincidence of the announcement of your betrothal to Raznan and the Federation arrival escaped your notice?'

'That was hardly my doing.'

'It started me thinking, why would the Federation bother with this insignificant agricultural planet? Why would an alliance between Erconel and Raznan's people spark Federation interest?' He paused for a moment. 'Well, Raznan taking a pretty young girl for a wife seemed like an insufficient reason to invade.'

'Is there some point to this?'

'Orac's analysis indicated that while an alliance between the two most powerful houses would be critical for the course of local politics, that alone would not affect the Federation for several generations. Even the fact that the new young wife was a notable telepath...' He paused again savouring her reaction... 'Did not perturb the calculations significantly.'

He felt the eager fingers in his mind again. He had better trust her with the truth on this one. 'There was only one way that the situation might be interesting to the Federation, if Erconel territory had some resource that Raznan could potentially tap into. I asked Orac to analyse the planet's spectrum, and that was when it came up with the geomagnetic anomaly. I did not have the equipment or the time to make the necessary planetary scans but Orac's calculations showed that a single large deposit of very high energy material would be sufficient to explain the anomaly.'

'Is this relevant?'

'It should not require a technical education to comprehend that a material with such high energy that a single deposit can perturb the entire planet's electromagnetic spectrum would form the basis of a powerful weapon.'

'And you guessed the deposit would lie in my father's territory.'

'You're right, at first it was just a guess. I asked Orac to access Federation records. There was a delegation to Erconel's court about seven earth-years ago, that's nearly ten local years.'

'They offered Federation protection. An alliance of mutual benefit. My father refused.'

'You must have been just a child when they came.'

'And children on Earth don't listen at doors of meetings they are excluded from? Besides my father could hide little from me.'

'And the guess was confirmed when the Federation offensive started on the edge of Erconel territory.'

'So what do you want me to do?'

'I want you to accompany me to Raznan. Use your influence to persuade him to co-operate with me. It's the best chance we have to find the source of the anomaly before the Federation.' If they had not found it already. With detector equipment and a flyer, he could have pinpointed the source in forty-eight hours; the Federation had been on the planet over four weeks.

'I'm sure you can reach him yourself. Why should I help you?'

'I saved you from brutal treatment at the hands of your local peasantry.' It was so easy to make her blush.

'I was waiting to find my death.'

'But you're not waiting for it now, unless I'm very much mistaken.' She looked sharply at him, as if she'd hardly realised the reality herself. 'There's no shame in surviving, Zenia.' He only wished he could believe his words.

When she made no answer, he continued, 'As you so politely pointed out earlier, I am a freedom-fighter.' The phrase sounded better than terrorist. 'I have a Federation price on my head. Raznan would never listen to me alone, he'd be more likely to turn me in.'

'You think he would listen to me?' She paused, glanced at him briefly, then whispered, her eyes glued to her feet, 'And besides if I go to Raznan's court, I'll fall under his protection and be expected to marry him now I'm of age.'

'Isn't that what you want? As Raznan's wife you would be protected. As safe as anywhere on this planet. And he would give you an influence that you will not find on your own.'

'I could never marry him.' His unspoken question stood between them. 'When Raznan left after the betrothal ceremony, I told my father I would not marry him, that he would have to seek an alliance some other way.' She paused again. 'That was why I did not find my death with the rest of the house when they rode out... I was dishonoured, left to look after the servants, the old. I even failed in that trust. And Tora took my death before I took her name.'

'I know the pain when someone takes your death,' he said quietly, resting his hand gently on her arm, only somewhat against his will. A moment of an intense picture flashed into his mind. A woman dressed in the finery of Zenia's 'image, with a coarser face and darker hair, falling in slow motion as the Federation guns ripped through her chest. He felt intense pain, unsure whether it belonged to Zenia or this unknown woman. Tears coursed down Zenia's face, but she did not turn towards him. He gently pulled her round and put both his hands on her shoulders, holding her at arm's length. She shivered and did not look at his face.

Despising himself for the blatant manipulation of her emotions, he said, 'Zenia, will you help me? It's the best chance of avenging Tora's death, your family's death.' No visible reaction. 'The Federation won't just go away, even when they have taken what they want. Many more innocent people will die under their guns.'

She still made no signal but he sensed that he had won. 'You'll help me.'

Slowly she nodded. Clearly struggling to regain her poise, she pulled away from his grasp. 'Yes, I'll help you, Avon.'

A change of scene would be a good way to allow Zenia time to recover. Avon led the way back down into the kitchen area in silence. Busied himself setting water to boil in the heavy copper receptacle that was a permanent resident on the stove. The sharing of infusions of dried herbs appeared to be a universal currency of friendship.

Zenia accepted a glass and a seat opposite him, her gaze focused firmly on the drink. The unsweetened lemon-scented liquid was not much to his taste, but she was clearly beginning to relax again under its warming influence. 'Why should you help my people?'

'The Federation killed all my crew. Is that not reason enough?' His real motivation? As ever, a complex mixture. The goal of survival meant he had to leave this planet. Find a neutral bolt-hole -- preferably one with a computer-based economy where Orac could be of use. But Encatrin's only spaceport had been crawling with Federation troopers and Orac had found no records of commercial flights off-world. It appeared that Encatrin usually had an almost isolationist policy and the trickle of independent tradeships had entirely dried up after the Federation invasion. Whatever the nature of the high energy material, it had to be of use in manipulating the situation to allow him to escape. But first he needed access to Raznan's resources.

'Why Raznan?'

At first he was afraid that she had caught his thoughts, but he had felt no presence in his mind and the question was rational enough. 'His territory is adjacent to Erconel, therefore he is under immediate threat from the Federation forces. He has sufficient troops to cover an expedition into Federation-occupied territory, hopefully he will also have mining equipment, maps...'

'What do you mean, "maps"?'

'Plans, charts...' She still looked blank. 'Graphical representations of the surface of the planet?' Really, he had never encountered such a primitive culture. 'Look,' he said, pulling out his data-viewer and searching rapidly for something simple. 'This shows the arrangement of some of the Domes in the Earth sector that I come from.'

She studied the plan that he had brought up on the data-viewer screen as if it was just so many circles and lines. 'What use are such ...maps?'

'Say you're here, in residential sector 3A,' he jabbed the screen with the stylus, 'and you want to visit here,' another jab, 'in industrial sector 5H.' The screen focused on the area and the read-out rapidly threw up shuttle stops, transit times and the required security clearances for the journey he had once taken every day. Now it seemed to belong in someone else's lifetime.

But the demonstration had clearly meant nothing to Zenia. Foolish to expect her to understand. Clearing the screen, he snapped the device shut. Teaching primitives was not a skill he particularly cared to develop.

'Another computer? Like Orac?'

'In a way.' Despite his irritation, he chuckled at the thought. 'Orac wouldn't thank you for the comparison. The data-viewer has a few inbuilt calculating abilities, but it's really just a reading device. A general-purpose book, if you like.' Though she remained silent he guessed 'book' meant as little to her as 'map' or 'data-viewer'. He inserted a different data-cube into the viewer, flipped open the screen again and brought up a picture of a real book. 'A historical curiosity.'

'I've never seen anything like that, either,' she admitted.

'How does your society store data, then? ... I mean, how do you keep records?'

'What need is there for records? Every man knows what it is needful for him to know.'

Her arrogant tone angered him. 'Repression takes many forms but the denial of information is one of the most basic.' He was getting to sound like Blake. Trying to turn what he had said into a joke, he added in a lighter tone, 'But you're not meant to include the ruling classes.'

She had retreated back to staring intently at the dregs in her glass. Somehow with Zenia he was always making mistakes. Under her cool gaze it was easy to forget that she had barely reached adulthood, could not be expected to question the mores of her particular society. However strange.

'Forget it,' he said gently. It was the closest he could make himself come to an apology.

He stood to begin the evening round of lighting the candles. For once, the desire for occupation consumed his habitual annoyance at a lighting system which lacked any capability for the automatic maintenance of an adequate ambient illumination level.

 

That evening, Avon left both doors slightly open when he went out to draw water. Zenia stood on the threshold, savouring the cool breeze on her face and arms. Freedom. The fresh air was gradually cleansing her eyes from the stinging smoke. Avon must be used to warmer temperatures than prevailed during nights in the Encatrin hill country -- he always made sure the stove was burning brightly.

No other habitations were visible, at least not in this half-light. A good place for Avon to hide.

Freedom, yes, but everything had changed now. The familiar landscape threatening. She was still in her father's territory, she had undoubtedly explored these hills on foot or on horseback as a child, Tora by her side.

Now the terrain looked bleak. A clump of three scrubby trees close to the house. Shadow deep enough to hide any number of Federation soldiers. She shuddered involuntarily.

What use for maps when there was nowhere to run?

She walked slowly round the building, fear making her take care to be silent, even though reason told her it was irrational. A darker shape in the gloom. Avon. She settled back into the deep shadow by the wall to watch him, for once unobserved by those penetrating expressionless eyes.

The mind concealed behind those eyes was far more complex than any she had encountered before. Multiple tiny interlocking cogs spiralling down and down to infinity. His motivations strayed far from the simple revenge that he had owned to earlier, but so many of the concepts she had uncovered held no meaning to her. Could she trust him? Alone, so alone now. Tora dead. What choice did she have but to trust? And trust aside, cold rationality suggested that marriage with Raznan could be her safest remaining option.

Though Avon's body appeared muscular, his breathing -- faintly audible even at this distance -- as he drew water from the well suggested he was rather unused to the physical demands of life here on Encatrin. His pale skin reflected the starlight. Pale, she guessed, not through fashion or cosmetics but simple lack of sun. She could not imagine what it would be like to live in a sunless Dome.

 

Startled by soft footsteps where he had thought there was no-one, Avon wheeled round, suddenly feeling naked without a weapon. To face Zenia, stepping quietly out of the shadows by the wall.

'Orac said you were born on Earth.'

'Indeed.' Relief made his tone sound harsher than he had meant.

'What is Earth like? My people must have come from there, but we don't even have legends.'

'Earth? It resembles any other terraform world, of course.' He reminded himself that dialogue, however meaningless, had a high probability of assisting to build up the relationship of trust that he required. 'I hardly know. Lack of resources precluded recreational travel, and I never set foot on the surface. At least not while I lived there.'

'You spoke of Domes.'

'Yes, tens of millions of people inhabiting a few square kilometres. As cramped as living on ship. Status measured in cubic centimetres of private living space. Recycled water, recycled air, processed food, artificial light.'

'Yet you miss it.'

'It had certain advantages, at least for Alphas. An excellent education. The Northern Hemisphere Domes tried to keep traditional Earth culture alive. Art galleries, libraries, museums, even concert halls.' Of course, the reasons were unimportant. Home was never so inviting as when you knew you would never see it again. 'Always people to converse with -- when you wanted to.' He glared at her. 'And an absolute privacy code.'

'I'm sorry, I really don't mean to pry. It's just your words...'

'Don't mean very much on their own. You need more context.' He tried to rationalise away his anger at her intrusion into his mind. Telepathy was as natural to her as speech. It must also seem to be her only advantage. He tried to view himself through her eyes, but empathy did not come naturally to him. 'Telepathy is rare on your planet?'

'Very rare.'

'Once, I had a...' he paused, trying to select the most appropriate word, '...friend... who was a telepath. She said living among non-telepaths was almost intolerably lonely.'

'I have only ever known one other.' She did not seem inclined to elaborate, staring down into the unbroken surface of the water. So close. 'For you, home is a place you fear you will never revisit. For me, home sometimes felt like a prison. I've never left Erconel territory.'

'A highly comfortable prison.'

'Perhaps.' She straightened, smoothing her dress over her hips. Walked away. He followed her only with his eyes.

Her reflective mood seemed to have dissipated by the next morning. 'You will be instantly recognisable as an outlander at Raznan's court. How long would it take you to grow a beard?'

The idea appalled him, but he had to admit its logic. 'A week perhaps.'

'We'll need to find some more suitable clothes, as well, but I think we might be able to pass you off as one of the elders at my father's court.' She seemed to enjoy teasing him.

'Orac, how far is it to Raznan's court?'

'The habitation of the Encatrin Raznan is situated 102.7 kilometres distant from here via the planet's transportation network. However, logic suggests that this network will be heavily-'

'Thank you,' he interrupted. 'When I wish for your advice I will ask for it.'

'Orac's right. We shouldn't travel by road. I know a good route across country, it would be safer. Substantially shorter also, I think.'

'Your assumption is correct. The linear distance is 79.4 kilometres, that is approximately 106 furlongs in the local units.'

'We could cover that in two days,' she said. 'There's a sheltered place around half way to set camp.'

His pride refused to allow him to protest at the impossibility of travelling eighty kilometres on foot. Let alone in two days. 'How do you know the way, Zenia?'

'Call it pacing my cage? Besides, recently I had a motive to be interested in Raznan's territory. I wanted to see what my future home was like.'

'Unaided human vision would not permit the observation of Raznan's habitation from the distance you imply under the ambient atmospheric conditions that predominate on the planet Encatrin.'

'I think Orac's saying that it's always cloudy on your planet, Zenia.'

'Yes, but don't you ever dream, Orac?' she said.

'My intellect is free from such human weaknesses.'

'Dreams have always seemed to be one of our strengths,' Zenia responded.

Abruptly removing Orac's key, he snapped, 'This is hardly the occasion to argue metaphysics with a computer.'

'I may never get another opportunity. Are you always so rude to him?'

'It is just a computer: one cannot be rude to a computer,' he replied. Trust a primitive woman to anthropomorphise anything she could not understand. 'We are wasting time.'

Three

Forty kilometres was too far to walk over pathless ground carrying a plexiglass box which appeared to increase in weight as the hours passed.

The first few hundred metres of descent from the farm had proved the hardest. As Avon had guessed, Zenia was agile over the hill terrain, and she had led them steeply downhill, sure-footed among the bare rocks rendered frictionless by a thin coating of precipitation. At lower altitudes, the dense forest canopy effectively suppressed the undergrowth, making for relatively comfortable passage, and the thick layer of needles underfoot damped all sound of their passing. The smooth trunks and regular radial branches of the coniferous giants seemed to form a living equivalent to the elaborate network of metal pillars and struts of the Dome's huge central meeting area, and their dank drippings were not so dissimilar from its humid recycled atmosphere. But nothing had prepared him for the cobwebs of grey moss, disfiguring every tree, their exuberant growth unchecked in this unnaturally sparse ecosystem.

The long day's unaccustomed exercise had left him physically exhausted. The stubble that he hoped would pass as a full-grown beard by tomorrow evening itched unpleasantly. Worst of all, his head still buzzed with the ridiculous court nonsense that Zenia had kept trying to teach him while they walked. Even on Earth he had rarely chosen to follow societal conventions, and the rules of Encatrin polite speech patterns seemed to approach the complexity of reprogramming Orac. You could always trust the most primitive of planetary systems to have the most complex of etiquettes.

Yet somehow here, sitting companionably close in this strange solemn place, he could feel almost content.

Sitting on the stone platform staring into the dying fire. Fallen slabs of black rock, tumbled haphazardly. Coffin-shaped. Continuous quiet trickle of water over the cleft rock face into the gully. Occasional glimpses of Zenia's face, lent an unfamiliar warmth by the flickering yellow light. His fingers idly tracing round a whorl in the fine-grained stone beside him. Cold satin smooth.

Almost content.

Suddenly driven to break their shared silence, he asked, 'What is Raznan like?'

'As a person? I hardly know. I've only met him three times. He's considered liberal, a reformer.' She pronounced the two words in exactly the same tone as she had said 'rebel-fighter'.

'What made you decide that you could not marry him? The most powerful and wealthy man on Encatrin, not yet old.' Good-looking, even, from the 'images he'd seen.

'I could never feel for him as a wife should.' Her voice sounded calm, rehearsed.

'It was a political match, surely you did not expect love.' He remembered her offer of that first night -- she was clearly prepared to go through with sex with a man she despised for ends she considered important.

'No, not love. Respect.'

An image played fleetingly in his mind. A handsome bearded laughing man, past youth but not yet into middle age, thick curling dark hair, worn long in the local fashion, richly dressed in a gaudy fabric even abundant folds of which could not quite hide the beginnings of a paunch, heavy gold bracelets on his arms... rings on the fingers of the hand he held out with his glass ... hitting out when the servant spilled a few drops of the wine ... the pale bloodied face of the youth.

'It was no accident of a man who'd taken too much wine,' she continued. 'I made Tora ask the pageboy. He told her that his Lord often behaved violently to him and the other servants.'

'Did Raznan see your reaction?' That could make matters difficult.

'No, I was veiled at the feast. Raznan only saw my face briefly immediately after the betrothal ceremony.' She looked into his face, then her gaze slid away. 'Before ... the only men who would have seen my face would be relatives.'

'I'm privileged, then,' he said, to fill an awkward pause. Privileged to look but not to touch. The nameless ghosts of his past hiding just out of sight in the shadows, away from the warmth of the fire.

She seemed to sense his unease and turned back towards him. He tried to mask his face to hide the pain he could never share. She gently touched his hand, the unexpected contact sending shivers up his arm. 'What are you hiding from?'

In answer, he took her quickly into his arms, and for a long moment buried his head against her shoulder. Let her warmth make the ghosts retreat. Dark on light, he thought irrelevantly. He always found it so hard to lose himself in mere sensation. Concentrate, remember, the fine hair as it fell across his face. The feel of skin, as fine-grained as the rock. And a lot more inviting. He briefly allowed himself to imagine the way her lips would feel against his, then abruptly let her go, avoiding the gaze of those wide eyes. Eyes that saw far too deeply.

'Best get some sleep,' he said, wrapping himself in one of the blankets. 'We have a long walk tomorrow.'

 

Avon woke first, a combination of cold and backache from the damp stony bed easing him gradually into partial consciousness. Instantly, the sensation of complete vulnerability, prostrate and unguarded, propelled him into full alertness, but the deep gully appeared empty and he struggled to contain his alarm. Despite the apparent lack of threat, something unusual kept tugging at his senses. He could not pin it down. Rationalise. The sombre overhanging rock faces were claustrophobic but effectively restricted ambush to two angles only, while the dense surface afforestation would hide even the gully from Federation flyers. And what did it matter that the walls were so smooth and moist as to be unclimbable? Unarmed they would stand no chance of escape. He stumbled to his feet, massaging his injured shoulder, which felt even stiffer than it usually did soon after waking.

Zenia was still sleeping, her ashen hair spilling from under the blanket to cover her face and contrast with the black rocks. With a strange pang he noticed that she was chewing on one knuckle, lost in some dream. That had always been one of Blake's mannerisms. He turned away to kick over last night's fire, making rather more noise than necessary. An attempt to let her wake naturally -- he guessed she, no less than himself, would feel uncomfortable to wake under another's eyes. Well, she would soon have to get used to it, he told himself.

And so would he. He did not choose to analyse the chill he felt at the prospect of her waking beside Raznan.

'How far now?' He aimed his voice at the rustling behind him, concentrated on filling their water containers at the curtain of dripping water. The smooth rock was not vegetated and he had probably acquired immunity to Encatrin microorganisms by now.

'I'd guess we could make it before nightfall, if we don't stop as many times as yesterday,' she said.

He bit back sarcasm about her oversleeping, knowing too well that he had set yesterday's slow pace. Judging by the extent of his residual muscular discomfort, progress today would be unlikely to be quicker.

'How far does this gully take us?' A sense of unease nagged at him again. On a less primitive planet he would have guessed that the sheer walls had been quarried. The gully had run approximately straight ever since they had joined it yesterday afternoon. Except for rock falls, the base was always flat and even, if slippery and in places running with water. Wide enough for the two of them to walk abreast. It was almost like a sunken causeway.

'Almost to the edge of the hill country,' she replied.

'Rather convenient, don't you think?'

'Convenient?'

'For a natural fault to run straight over such a long distance.'

'It's just like that.' Her blank confusion sounded genuine and he did not sense any trap. 'I suppose it is rather strange,' she continued slowly, as if seeing it for the first time. 'Nearly everyone avoids the place, some even claim it's haunted.'

'Is there any rationale for such a superstition?'

'Some people have claimed to hear voices here, even see visions.'

'And do you believe them?'

'When I was a child, I often used to explore these channels with Tora. We never heard anything unusual. Except ...' her voice trailed off.

'Except?'

'It's nothing. It was probably just imagination.'

'Go on.'

'Well, sometimes I used to fancy that I could hear a kind of humming noise,' she said. 'Very faint.'

That was what had struck him earlier, an electrical humming noise, almost subliminally faint. So accustomed to screening out the constant engine noise on ship, he had completely missed it. Could it be some sort of echo? A resonance from their footsteps, perhaps? Nothing seemed to quite fit.

Changing the subject, Zenia added, 'We should try to hurry, I don't know any more places where we could safely shelter overnight.'

'Well, let's eat and get going then.' He shook his head, still puzzled, but it was probably best to think about the source of the noise while they travelled. If there was something strange about the gully, then the sooner they were out of it the better. Raznan's territory was likely to prove safer from Federation patrols.

 

The plain stretched as far as the eye could see, field after field of blue-flowering astinel plants. The rich agricultural land marked the edge of Raznan's territory. They encountered few people, only the occasional solitary farm-worker, taciturn and incurious. Walking hour after hour over the featureless country through the sultry midday heat, the sweet astinel smell overpowering, brought back memories of stumbling over that other plain. No food, no water. Curses and indiscriminate blows from the guards whenever any of the chained women fell. Smell of sweat and vomit. Splashes of blood on her dress. Tora's blood. Or someone else's. She could not remember. Reaching the town. They had said all her family had been killed, and she had believed. But somehow belief was different from seeing those hanging bodies in the pitiless afternoon glare, the flies and the stench of decay. Stronger than the scent of the astinel. No words left.

Zenia started involuntarily at the sight of horses in the distance. 'Don't worry, they're far more likely to be Raznan's scouts,' Avon said. He seemed to have become adept at reading her body language. She was glad he had not voiced the alternative. She pulled the makeshift veil out of her pack and grimaced. Attaching it securely without the proper pins would be tricky.

'Here, let me.' She surrendered the square of cloth and flinched as his fingers fumbled and prodded among her braids. Smell of sun-warmed leather mingled with sharp masculine sweat. 'Keep still! I've not had much practice as a lady's maid.' His breath caught on her neck. It had not felt like this when Tora fixed her veil. 'There.' Remembering the intensity of his thoughts last night, she was suddenly glad of the folds of cloth between them.

She fixed her mind on the comforting image of Tora, not as she had last seen her, face down in a heap of bodies, but expertly flicking her formal veil into precisely the correct arrangement. Planting a rapid kiss on her cloth-covered forehead before the betrothal ceremony. The voice in her mind exhorting her to stand straight, not let her family down.

Veiled again, it was easy to tune her voice to a combination of haughty displeasure at being questioned by inferiors, mingled with relief -- not wholly feigned -- at being safe in the protection of Raznan's people. The group's leader evinced little surprise either at her name or at her desire for immediate passage to Raznan. Apparently the scouts had been tasked with searching for survivors of Erconel's court. The remainder of the distance to Raznan's court was covered rapidly, and she could only hope that Avon's discomfort at being expected to ride was not immediately apparent to Raznan's people.

Zenia had never visited this court before, as different from her father's gloomy fortress, solid as the cliff-face it seemed to grow from, as the surrounding blue-tinted agricultural land was from the barren hill terrain in which she had been born. Smooth white-faced walls, a mosaic of ornate roofs fashioned of pale reflective metals, curved in concave fancies. A single tower thrusting into the clouds. Trees hanging long tresses of flowers, purple, yellow, white; within the great city walls they must be sheltered from the storms of the plain.

Inside, long stone passageways, lit only by pierced slits of windows, quiet and cool after the heat outside. Raznan's servants scurried ahead of her, their plain grey livery suggesting that the house must be in mourning. A good portent for their welcome? Rounding a corner, the passageway opened without warning into a lighter space, she guessed some kind of ante-room, rugs covering the floor and two windows reaching almost to the ground. No time to admire the outlook onto a courtyard garden, one of the servants was already announcing her, 'The Lady Zenia, daughter of Erconel, Lord of the house of Ercator begs audience...' Conquering her instinct to hesitate at the threshold, she pushed forward after the servant, at the back of her mind registering the solid support that was Avon a few steps behind her. A small group of nobles clustered around a table in various attitudes of surprise, then a tall one breaking away from the centre and bounding towards her. 'Zenia! My Lady Zenia!' He was on his knees clasping both the hands that she had extended automatically.

'My Lord Raznan.' She inclined her head formally, and Raznan slowly rose to his feet, retaining his grip on her hands. His face seemed paler than she remembered, and there were dark shadows under his eyes like bruises.

'It really is you. Zenia, my lady. Come sit down, you must be tired, hungry...' He gestured at one of the servants. 'Gods, I thought you were dead. They sent that everyone was dead.'

Allowing herself to be led forwards, she released one of her hands and waved roughly in the direction of Avon, 'May I present Malar of the house of Ercator. A valued advisor to my father. He saved my life.'

She could just see Avon behind her preparing for the deep formal bow as she had taught him, when Raznan loosed her and sprang forward to crush the slighter man in a bear hug. 'Malar, my friend, I owe you more than I can repay. Consider my court your home, myself and my house your servants.'

'You do me great honour, Lord Raznan,' Avon said quietly. His formal response was acceptable but she sensed a sudden discomfort in him that she was at a loss to understand.

Perhaps Raznan also sensed that discomfort. 'I must apologise for my hastiness,' he said. 'It is so good to see you, to know that you at least are safe. But you must wish to rest, change your clothes after your long journey. My scouts reported that they found you on foot?' He sounded almost incredulous.

'Yes, we walked from Ercator,' she replied.

'Gods, that must be well over a hundred furlongs -- you must both be exceptionally weary!' Raznan had the comfortable air of a man who had never needed to walk further than his banqueting hall. 'My people will look after all your needs. When you are refreshed, we can talk at our leisure.' More servants were summoned and soon they were ushered towards the guest quarters.

 

Avon was shown into a glass-roofed courtyard, the air cool and rather dry. Bowed to Raznan, who was seated flanked by two of his nobles. Raznan gestured him to a low stone seat by a pool, but made no attempt to introduce the others. A servant knelt in front of him, offering a tray of drinks. He recognised the pallid youth that Zenia had shown him last night by the fire. No signs of bruising obvious now on his delicate features, and the easy fluidity of the man's movements seemed to suggest a lack of fear in Raznan's presence.

It might have been easy to relax, sipping a sweetened cordial with the gentle trickling of water over pebbles close to his ear, aching muscles eased by an extended soak in a hot bath. Easy but unwise: Raznan's friendly smiles and almost boyish enthusiasm were undoubtedly complemented by a keen observational sense and a political brain. A total lack of guile was unlikely to be a survival characteristic for a leader even in a pre-technological culture.

'Do you like my garden? I find it peaceful here.'

'It is beautiful, Lord Raznan.' The range of plants cultivated in the gravel-covered beds did not appear to be native to Encatrin, flowering cushions of alpines mingled with miniature conifers, silvers and blues predominating, set off by occasional clusters of dark rock, tastefully arranged. 'The plants are imported?'

'It is my fancy, Malar. Some men collect jewels, precious metals. I collect plants, I find them more rewarding.'

The return of Raznan's pageboy saved him from the need to find a response. Water ices, delicate in their perfumed sweetness. Ice might imply some form of refrigeration, especially as the ambient daytime temperature appeared to be high, supporting Orac's assessment of the technological superiorities of Raznan's court. 'Most refreshing.'

Those familiar brown eyes remained quietly assessing, reminding him uncomfortably of the sparseness of his new beard, despite its liberal drenching with scented oils.

'I don't recall having the pleasure of meeting you at Lord Erconel's court?'

'I was often away, travelling on Lord Erconel's business.'

'In what capacity did you serve at the court?'

'I am a scientist...' the lack of comprehension on the other's face warned him to add, '...a technician, if you like.'

'In that case I must introduce you to Semmell, he's the chief of my technical people, and his assistant ... his name escapes me...' One of the nobles leaned in to Raznan and whispered something inaudible into his ear.

'That would indeed be interesting,' he interrupted.

'I'm sure that you will have many matters to discuss... But I didn't think Erconel encouraged that sort of thing,' Raznan continued, half to himself, 'he could be rather ... old fashioned, I suppose, in some ways.' His face contracted and he fell silent. Then, in a different tone, 'If I might ask, how did you and the Lady Zenia come to escape? The reports I received suggested that the whole Ercator court had been butchered.'

'We were lucky.' He began to recount the story that he had agreed with Zenia earlier. As he spoke, the strangeness of the actual events struck him again. He had seen the aftermath of enough massacres to know that taking prisoners among primitives was not standard Federation tactics. Auctioning them appeared even more unusual. And to display the corpses publicly resembled the style of tribal warfare. An image of Dayna's adoptive sister, hanging body swaying, blonde head lolling to one side. Unpleasant, certainly, and an effective deterrent against resistance, but it did not fit into the usual Federation repression strategy. On reflection, little that had happened here on Encatrin seemed to match the pattern that he had observed repeated on a dozen worlds.

Zenia's appearance interrupted his recital. Even the unnatural stiffness of her stance could not hide the youthful grace of her body in the flowing garment. Suitably bridal. He dropped his eyes. Better not to give Raznan, or his two nobles, any signals to misinterpret.

Rising to greet her, Raznan pushed aside her veil, saying, 'Zenia, my dearest lady, surely you need not be so formal here, you can see we are among friends.' Fussing around her, pouring a drink, he missed Zenia's look. Ice overlaid with a thin veneer of politeness, or was it just fear that made her smile like that?

 

In so many ways, Raznan reminded him of Blake. Once, he had recognised Anna's face in every slight fair-haired woman encountered on the streets of a score of planets. Knowing her to be dead never damped the leap in his heart, nor the renewed ache of loss when Anna's features dissolved into those of a stranger. Now, despite all his efforts, he could not forget holding Blake's bleeding body as he took his last breaths, staring down into those brown eyes as the person behind them faded. Yet it did not stop him seeing Blake's features in the face of tall burly strangers who happened to have a shock of curly dark brown hair.

But this went beyond mere physical resemblance.

Impulsive, giving Raznan surrounded himself with friends regardless of their rank and commanded their loyalty by the force of his larger-than-life personality. This man who usually chose to hide his intelligence under a haze of bonhomie.

Amusing to watch proud, hard Zenia struggling to understand her betrothed. This man who offered marriage not for a cold alliance of mutual advantage, but simply because he had fallen in love with a pretty girl little more than half his age.

It had been obscenely easy to convince Raznan to trust Malar, the fictional man who had saved the life of his betrothed. Almost as trivial to convince him to lend the trusted friend an armed guard and appropriate equipment for an expedition into Federation-held territory whose purpose was less than adequately defined. What was it Cally had said? A man who trusts can never be betrayed, only mistaken.

Four

Little chance of exiting the city unobserved this afternoon. For some reason the twin-towered main gatehouse, normally quiet and anonymous, was humming with officious activity. The white outfits of the court servants with their gold trim -- presumably donned in some ceremonial quirk in preparation for what the local inhabitants were calling Raznan's bride-taking -- looked more impressive when not splashed to the knees with mud.

Avon's observations since his arrival in the city, what, six days ago now, suggested that the weather on the plain tended to the extreme, at least in this part of the planet's cycle -- all sultry heat or dense ground-hugging fog or, as now, heavy precipitation, initially kicking up the dust, then rapidly transforming the elegant courtyard into a clay-pit and stripping the white-barked trees that lined it of their flowers. In the solid intensity of the light, the trees shone.

He turned back, unwilling to push through the growing crowd, whatever the source of the commotion. Much better to conduct his observations on the planet's meteorological systems from the warmth of a good fire.

'Malar, good to see you!'

That solved that little puzzle. However light the tone, he knew an imperial summons when he heard one and reluctantly retraced his steps, rehearsing Malar's most pleasant expression.

Raznan was sitting astride an over-sized black quadriped, a sea of lackeys lapping around his knees. At this close range, the sodden animal smelled as pungently as Scorpio's glycolene ballast system, sweaty and acidic. Shaking his equally wet hair out of his eyes, Raznan threw back his head and laughed in response to some comment from his page. The youth had already dismounted and was attempting to capture the head of Raznan's mount, which appeared to have been startled by the crowds.

For a moment, watching the tall and proudly masculine figure, framed by the massive arch of the great gate, he could almost understand what Raznan's followers saw in him. The moment passed.

'Here, Teimon, give me a hand.' Raznan dismounted with a heavy thud, apparently oblivious to the muddy landing, smilingly mussed the youth's hair. 'You'd better go and get yourself dry, my boy,' he said, then turned back to the third rider. The slight form dwarfed by the thick cloak abruptly metamorphosed into Zenia, her face glowing from the exercise and her smile for once reaching her eyes. Unlike his own. He turned away as Raznan reached up for her, the crisp white trees suddenly grey.

'Can I tempt you to come in with us? Once the weather settles like this, it rarely relents for several sunfalls.' The friendly words were accompanied by a damp arm clamped across his shoulders, one of Raznan's trademarks. 'The household'll be expecting us, so there should be an ample feast.'

'Griddle cakes with honey, I hope,' enthused the occupant of Raznan's other arm, 'My favourite!'

'Undoubtedly, they should know of my Lady's sweet tooth by now! Cinnamon pastries too, I shouldn't wonder. Sometimes I think you must be bribing my cook!'

They hurried across the open courtyard to reach the market quarter's tangle of lanes, their progress impeded by Raznan's ridiculous insistence on retaining his grip on the other two.

The streets were so narrow and the stalls so closely packed together that the shelters provided against the weather by the stall-holders and shopkeepers melded together with the balconies overhead to give an almost dry passage, while the heavy camber of the cobbles underfoot ensured that the rainwater rapidly disappeared into the open drains that ran along either side. The rain intensified the battery of odours: melon and citrus fruit, ginger, cardamon and tarragon, and others he did not recognise, all mingled with the overwhelming scent of the animal inhabitants of the city -- only some of them non-human -- and the all-pervading perfume of the astinel.

'No ale for us though, Malar, I'm afraid!' Even Raznan's overly hearty voice was barely audible over the clattering of rain onto the metal-clad roofs and the chatter of innumerable peasants, jostling their way home out of the rain. 'Though I must say,' dropping his arm only to poke him in the ribs, 'you do look as if you could do with a glass of something stronger to put the smile back on your face! Mud got in your boots, has it, eh?'

Avon forced a chuckle, unable to trust his voice.

'But seriously now,' Raznan continued, 'I need to keep a clear head, I've got to preside at the Sestereve judgement this evening. I'll need to keep all my wits about me -- such as they are, of course! You'd be very welcome to come along and listen if you like.'

'I hope the weather didn't interrupt an important journey?' Best to change the subject, before his ignorance of any Sestereve customs was exposed.

'Oh no, I'd just begged him to let me go out for a ride!' exclaimed Zenia. 'It's usually so hot and dusty in the city, and so dull with nothing to do except endless fittings for yet another formal robe or a third pair of riding boots.'

Avon wondered how much of her girlish chatter was simulated and how much real relief at finding herself in this peaceful haven where the most troublesome matter to consider was boot fittings. Even he could occasionally forget the reality of the Federation occupation of Ercator territory, the consequent urgency of his need to escape from the planet. Under other circumstances it might have been pleasant to stay here.

'You need to learn patience, my Lady,' Raznan said, in a voice of pure indulgence. 'Our pledging is an event for the city more than for us. It's only natural that all the Artisan Houses should wish to outdo each other in the richness and craftsmanship of their gifts to their new lady.' He grinned broadly. 'And of course they all hope that you'll become their greatest patron.'

'I'm sure the ceremony will be an excuse for much drunken revelry,' said Zenia tartly.

'I hope there will be! I've promised to pay for the ale from the city taverns,' Raznan replied. 'If people can't celebrate the marriage of their Lord with a drink and a song, what can they celebrate?'

Yes, Blake had always known how to manipulate the masses -- holidays and feasting to distract them from a war they could not hope to win.

'Yes, but three days of feasting? Surely one would be plenty.'

Perhaps deliberately misinterpreting Zenia's lack of enthusiasm, Raznan added, 'Oh I'm sorry, my love. It must be so hard for you when everyone's rejoicing...'

Zenia half turned away, looking as sickened as he felt at this stream of endearments, and continued to Avon, 'Eventually, as he wouldn't let me so much as venture out of the city walls for a walk alone-'

'You know it wouldn't be safe, my dearest.'

'-I persuaded him to forego all his duties, just for once, to take me exploring.'

'It is good to get away from the city occasionally, and even one as old and solemn as I...' Raznan smiled fondly down at his betrothed... 'can tire of matters of state.'

They made erratic progress, zig-zagging from stall to colourful stall as Raznan cheerfully hailed the stall-holders by name, and insisted on his two companions sampling everything from strawberries to some fermented apple juice concoction. The market was certainly an interesting way to purchase food, but ordering via an info-terminal linked into the Dome's central commodities system was definitely more time efficient.

In the dim light of the lanes, the olfactory barrage was almost welcome as an orientation mechanism, announcing their eventual emergence from the fruit and vegetable market into the stalls of the fabric sellers, then on into the leather-workers' quarter.

'Why, here's Neelar the Saddlemaker's workshop,' announced Raznan, gazing down into one of the dark openings, undistinguished to Avon's eye from any of the other passages. 'I must just go and pass the time of day with him, his arthritis has prevented him visiting me at court for many months.' He let go of Zenia's arm. 'Will you accompany me, my Lady?' he asked, kissing her hand with a mock flourish.

Zenia shook her head in silence, not quite succeeding in masking an expression of distaste, and wrapped her cloak more tightly round herself.

'Well, you should be dry enough in here, and Malar will look after you, I'm sure. And I'll be as quick as I can, I promise.'

'A true man of the people,' Avon murmured at the broad back rapidly disappearing down the worn flight of steps. He drew closer to his companion, taking her arm -- her nervousness could be well-founded, their richly coloured court outfits were conspicuous here, and even in a city environment, it appeared that women must largely remain indoors.

'In my father's court it would not have been considered proper.' After a long pause she added, 'Nor would the Lord preside over the judging of a common thief. It is beneath him.'

'The "Sestereve judgement"? Will you attend?'

Another emphatic shake of the head, leaving him to guess that this too would be considered improper. Perhaps women were barred from participating in matters of state? Such gender-based prohibitions were typical of primitive cultures.

'You see, only a couple of minutes!' echoed up the steps, closely followed by an out-of-breath Raznan. 'They were disappointed not to meet you, Zenia, but I explained you didn't want to surprise them preparing their pledging token. I told them you're a fine horsewoman... oh, no need to blush, my dear, it's no more than the truth! I remember, Malar, old Neelar made my stepmother the most beautiful ornamental saddle and bridle I've ever seen when she was pledged, the workmanship was exquisite and the leather felt like silk. I've never yet seen its match...'

'I fear we are keeping your Lady from her griddle cakes.' Did the man never shut up?

'Yes, we should get in out of the rain, before Zenia catches a chill, isn't that right, my dear heart?'

***

Avon admitted it, he had underestimated her. He had not expected her to find Orac, let alone work out how to get useful information from it. He should have taken the key with him, instructed Orac to respond to no-one but himself.

The confrontation had come sooner than he had wished, too soon. And now, even holding a useless weapon, she stood proud and upright, her servant demeanour discarded.

'Blake,' she said slowly, as if thinking aloud. 'Isn't he a revolutionary leader?'

'Blake's dead, killed by the Federation,' he rasped, trying to sound convincing. 'The Federation planted information that made Orac lead us all into a trap.' It was the closest he dared go. He was still getting over how close he had come to letting Orac tell her the real story.

'And you always believe Orac?'

'Orac has let me down on fewer occasions than any human I know. And I hope that this is not going to prove to be one of them.'

'So how does a rebel-fighter from Earth end up on a hill farm on Encatrin?'

Her derisory emphasis stung him into riposting, 'Very much the same way an Encatrin princess ends up in a slave auction.' The way her fingers tightened on the gun abruptly reminded him that there were several alternative ways of wielding it that could be equally lethal, but then he was relieved to see her smile.

'Perhaps you're saying the Encatrin princess should put down her weapon and start to talk to the rebel-fighter on equal terms?'

'Perhaps.'

'Perhaps you should start by telling me why you decided to pick me up.'

'Orac informed me you had several qualities that might be useful.'

'Which are?'

Instead of answering, he turned away, paced to the window, then threw in, 'You do realise that you were the direct cause of the Federation invasion.' As he had intended for the first time in their encounter she looked uncertain. 'Or had the coincidence of the announcement of your betrothal to Raznan and the Federation arrival escaped your notice?'

'That was hardly my doing.'

'It started me thinking, why would the Federation bother with this insignificant agricultural planet? Why would an alliance between Erconel and Raznan's people spark Federation interest?' He paused for a moment. 'Well, Raznan taking a pretty young girl for a wife seemed like an insufficient reason to invade.'

'Is there some point to this?'

'Orac's analysis indicated that while an alliance between the two most powerful houses would be critical for the course of local politics, that alone would not affect the Federation for several generations. Even the fact that the new young wife was a notable telepath...' He paused again savouring her reaction... 'Did not perturb the calculations significantly.'

He felt the eager fingers in his mind again. He had better trust her with the truth on this one. 'There was only one way that the situation might be interesting to the Federation, if Erconel territory had some resource that Raznan could potentially tap into. I asked Orac to analyse the planet's spectrum, and that was when it came up with the geomagnetic anomaly. I did not have the equipment or the time to make the necessary planetary scans but Orac's calculations showed that a single large deposit of very high energy material would be sufficient to explain the anomaly.'

'Is this relevant?'

'It should not require a technical education to comprehend that a material with such high energy that a single deposit can perturb the entire planet's electromagnetic spectrum would form the basis of a powerful weapon.'

'And you guessed the deposit would lie in my father's territory.'

'You're right, at first it was just a guess. I asked Orac to access Federation records. There was a delegation to Erconel's court about seven earth-years ago, that's nearly ten local years.'

'They offered Federation protection. An alliance of mutual benefit. My father refused.'

'You must have been just a child when they came.'

'And children on Earth don't listen at doors of meetings they are excluded from? Besides my father could hide little from me.'

'And the guess was confirmed when the Federation offensive started on the edge of Erconel territory.'

'So what do you want me to do?'

'I want you to accompany me to Raznan. Use your influence to persuade him to co-operate with me. It's the best chance we have to find the source of the anomaly before the Federation.' If they had not found it already. With detector equipment and a flyer, he could have pinpointed the source in forty-eight hours; the Federation had been on the planet over four weeks.

'I'm sure you can reach him yourself. Why should I help you?'

'I saved you from brutal treatment at the hands of your local peasantry.' It was so easy to make her blush.

'I was waiting to find my death.'

'But you're not waiting for it now, unless I'm very much mistaken.' She looked sharply at him, as if she'd hardly realised the reality herself. 'There's no shame in surviving, Zenia.' He only wished he could believe his words.

When she made no answer, he continued, 'As you so politely pointed out earlier, I am a freedom-fighter.' The phrase sounded better than terrorist. 'I have a Federation price on my head. Raznan would never listen to me alone, he'd be more likely to turn me in.'

'You think he would listen to me?' She paused, glanced at him briefly, then whispered, her eyes glued to her feet, 'And besides if I go to Raznan's court, I'll fall under his protection and be expected to marry him now I'm of age.'

'Isn't that what you want? As Raznan's wife you would be protected. As safe as anywhere on this planet. And he would give you an influence that you will not find on your own.'

'I could never marry him.' His unspoken question stood between them. 'When Raznan left after the betrothal ceremony, I told my father I would not marry him, that he would have to seek an alliance some other way.' She paused again. 'That was why I did not find my death with the rest of the house when they rode out... I was dishonoured, left to look after the servants, the old. I even failed in that trust. And Tora took my death before I took her name.'

'I know the pain when someone takes your death,' he said quietly, resting his hand gently on her arm, only somewhat against his will. A moment of an intense picture flashed into his mind. A woman dressed in the finery of Zenia's 'image, with a coarser face and darker hair, falling in slow motion as the Federation guns ripped through her chest. He felt intense pain, unsure whether it belonged to Zenia or this unknown woman. Tears coursed down Zenia's face, but she did not turn towards him. He gently pulled her round and put both his hands on her shoulders, holding her at arm's length. She shivered and did not look at his face.

Despising himself for the blatant manipulation of her emotions, he said, 'Zenia, will you help me? It's the best chance of avenging Tora's death, your family's death.' No visible reaction. 'The Federation won't just go away, even when they have taken what they want. Many more innocent people will die under their guns.'

She still made no signal but he sensed that he had won. 'You'll help me.'

Slowly she nodded. Clearly struggling to regain her poise, she pulled away from his grasp. 'Yes, I'll help you, Avon.'

A change of scene would be a good way to allow Zenia time to recover. Avon led the way back down into the kitchen area in silence. Busied himself setting water to boil in the heavy copper receptacle that was a permanent resident on the stove. The sharing of infusions of dried herbs appeared to be a universal currency of friendship.

Zenia accepted a glass and a seat opposite him, her gaze focused firmly on the drink. The unsweetened lemon-scented liquid was not much to his taste, but she was clearly beginning to relax again under its warming influence. 'Why should you help my people?'

'The Federation killed all my crew. Is that not reason enough?' His real motivation? As ever, a complex mixture. The goal of survival meant he had to leave this planet. Find a neutral bolt-hole -- preferably one with a computer-based economy where Orac could be of use. But Encatrin's only spaceport had been crawling with Federation troopers and Orac had found no records of commercial flights off-world. It appeared that Encatrin usually had an almost isolationist policy and the trickle of independent tradeships had entirely dried up after the Federation invasion. Whatever the nature of the high energy material, it had to be of use in manipulating the situation to allow him to escape. But first he needed access to Raznan's resources.

'Why Raznan?'

At first he was afraid that she had caught his thoughts, but he had felt no presence in his mind and the question was rational enough. 'His territory is adjacent to Erconel, therefore he is under immediate threat from the Federation forces. He has sufficient troops to cover an expedition into Federation-occupied territory, hopefully he will also have mining equipment, maps...'

'What do you mean, "maps"?'

'Plans, charts...' She still looked blank. 'Graphical representations of the surface of the planet?' Really, he had never encountered such a primitive culture. 'Look,' he said, pulling out his data-viewer and searching rapidly for something simple. 'This shows the arrangement of some of the Domes in the Earth sector that I come from.'

She studied the plan that he had brought up on the data-viewer screen as if it was just so many circles and lines. 'What use are such ...maps?'

'Say you're here, in residential sector 3A,' he jabbed the screen with the stylus, 'and you want to visit here,' another jab, 'in industrial sector 5H.' The screen focused on the area and the read-out rapidly threw up shuttle stops, transit times and the required security clearances for the journey he had once taken every day. Now it seemed to belong in someone else's lifetime.

But the demonstration had clearly meant nothing to Zenia. Foolish to expect her to understand. Clearing the screen, he snapped the device shut. Teaching primitives was not a skill he particularly cared to develop.

'Another computer? Like Orac?'

'In a way.' Despite his irritation, he chuckled at the thought. 'Orac wouldn't thank you for the comparison. The data-viewer has a few inbuilt calculating abilities, but it's really just a reading device. A general-purpose book, if you like.' Though she remained silent he guessed 'book' meant as little to her as 'map' or 'data-viewer'. He inserted a different data-cube into the viewer, flipped open the screen again and brought up a picture of a real book. 'A historical curiosity.'

'I've never seen anything like that, either,' she admitted.

'How does your society store data, then? ... I mean, how do you keep records?'

'What need is there for records? Every man knows what it is needful for him to know.'

Her arrogant tone angered him. 'Repression takes many forms but the denial of information is one of the most basic.' He was getting to sound like Blake. Trying to turn what he had said into a joke, he added in a lighter tone, 'But you're not meant to include the ruling classes.'

She had retreated back to staring intently at the dregs in her glass. Somehow with Zenia he was always making mistakes. Under her cool gaze it was easy to forget that she had barely reached adulthood, could not be expected to question the mores of her particular society. However strange.

'Forget it,' he said gently. It was the closest he could make himself come to an apology.

He stood to begin the evening round of lighting the candles. For once, the desire for occupation consumed his habitual annoyance at a lighting system which lacked any capability for the automatic maintenance of an adequate ambient illumination level.

 

'Avon.'

He started. Alone in his sleeping quarters after a long day working with Semmell and a couple of his technicians, it took a moment to recognise Zenia's voice in his head.

'I'm so scared.' Avon did not need to ask the source of her fear. He knew instinctively that she would rather be standing surrounded by twenty Federation troopers armed only with a bow and arrow than ... It was to be tomorrow she had said.

'You've got to help me.' But he couldn't help her. Too late now.

'Please.' But how? Then he felt the rest of her thought. Too shy to put it into words even when the words were unspoken. Oh.

'Please.'

He shuddered. No.

'You needn't put it into words, just remember, imagine, dream...' Still he felt the instinctive rejection but he tried to be calm, analytical. All she was asking was that he should show her what sex was like. If he had thought it possible he would gladly have shown her in person, that night lying together under the Encatrin stars. So why was this so impossible? So much more intimate? It was not so very difficult compared with what he was effectively asking her to go through, after all. He steeled his mind to say yes, and felt the wordless warmth of her response lapping over his consciousness. Then she withdrew so that her presence was hardly noticeable, a gentle brushing at the edge of his thoughts.

He remembered all the people he had loved, and all the people he'd had sex with. Neither list was exactly long, but the intersection was ...

Anna. He made himself remember the first time he had seen her, that delicate graceful creature draped over some man's arm. Chesku, he had later learned. Her husband. And from that first moment at the dinner he had understood what other people had meant by love. His breath caught, and the past vanished.

'I can't go on,' he breathed. But he could. He had to.

Again he looked into those grey eyes, ran his hand through the soft silky hair at the nape of her neck, teasing her gently the way she liked. Bent to kiss where he touched, then as her breathing deepened moved his mouth over hers. Gentleness to hunger then back. Warmth of her still-damp skin through the thin silk robe. Watched her smiling up at him then nestling her face in his chest, pulling open his jacket and undoing his shirt to bury her head near his heart. The rush as her tongue caressed him there. Stroking the length of her body through the robe then easing it off her shoulders. Lifting her head again to kiss slowly while the robe slipped to her feet and she shivered exquisitely with the sensation of the cool air on her heated body. Ran his nails slowly down her spine then framed her fragile waist with his two hands. Standing still for a short moment, loving her body just with his eyes, then picked her up off her feet -- how light she always felt -- propelled her to his bed. Pinned her down. The need to be masterful even in his tenderest moments. Covered her delicate naked body with his clumsy leather-clad one. Holding her shoulders down while his mouth played ungently with her breasts, the smooth slopes of her belly and the fuzz of brown fur beneath. Stepping back away from the bed to look at her again, never quite believing his luck that such a beautiful woman could love him.

The vision faltered. Distracted, he felt the questioning presence in his mind again. Grimly he pulled his thoughts back. Never quite believing his luck that such a beautiful woman could love him. That time it had been different, yes he remembered now. He reached into his pocket and pulled out of its velvet nest the heavy gold necklace he had brought -- the first of the riches he meant to pour at her feet. Laid it over her breasts, the mound of her belly, trickled its coldness into the hot furry darkness between her legs, then draped it round her neck smelling of her wetness. The strength of her reaction a surprise. For once pulling him down onto her sharply, fingers undoing him deftly freeing him then taking him into her, hands cradling his buttocks pressing urging him deeper deeper harder faster till he closed his eyes and let the sensations take him where he wanted so much to go.

When he opened his eyes the body was Anna's but the hair was longer and pale as ash spread out over a black stone pillow.

Still, maybe that was to be expected in the circumstances.

Avon jerked his mind back to the present, the silent sleeping quarters where the bed was cold and empty. Both of the women in his mind had withdrawn.

Now whenever he thought of Anna he remembered not her death in his arms in the cellar -- that sometimes too -- but the way so often she had been passive in his arms. A defence against the reality of her betrayal? Disgust at the soft white body under its black leather carapace? Now he wondered why he had never noticed at the time. Inexperience? More like wilful blindness.

How much apart from what he had shown her had Zenia seen? He wondered if it had simply been a test, Zenia playing games with him. He lay back on the bed, his body taut with shame and anger. Could he trust Zenia to guard his secrets? It looked like he would have to. Could he face her in the morning with those secrets between them? Or to put it another way, could he face the morning, with her another man's bride?

Well, at least he could avoid that.

Wrapping himself in a cloak, he went to track down Semmell. They would leave at first light in the morning. Even if it meant that they both worked through the night.

Five

His first action on returning was to shave. Wash off the Encatrin mud. Then to change into his plainest darkest black. Buckle on his gun-belt, holster the solid comfort of a side-arm. He collapsed onto the bed scattering cushions like the spent shells from an automatic projectile rifle. All pretence was over. Tonight he would be Kerr Avon again.

How could he have been so blind?

It had started straightforwardly enough. Semmell was a fount of trivial facts, which seemed to be what passed for science on Encatrin. Avon learned more than seemed necessary about the properties of the astinel plant, source of the majority of Raznan's wealth. Dye agent, perfume base, cattle food, fibre, cooking oil; apparently even the roots were consumed for their supposed aphrodisiac properties. He rather suspected that Semmell did not often find an audience for his monologues. At least they functioned to distract his thoughts.

Late on the second day, deep in the Erconel hill country, their route finally diverged from the track and the vehicle was abandoned. Thankfully, Semmell's attention was distracted by his difficulties in keeping his footing carrying a heavy pack over the uneven rocky ground. Nonetheless, he continued to insist on treating the journey as an amateur geological survey, and his assistant's pack became heavier and heavier while the field strength readings increased steadily as they progressed -- infuriatingly slowly -- towards grid reference GKS-37-27-14.

In the last respect, if in no other, Orac's predictions had been verified.

'Orac, cross-check the source of the Federation information you retrieved about the planet Encatrin.'

'I fail to see any point to this activity. As you are well aware, the data came from the Federation database on the planet.'

'Just do it, Orac!'

Fourth day. Ten kilometres from the grid reference. Progress even slower at these relatively high altitudes. The terrain steep and exposed, scree and boulder slopes lacking even the scrubby vegetation of the lower altitudes. Semmell complaining of headaches, a persistent buzzing in his ears. But then he had been complaining of blisters to anyone who would listen -- predominantly his assistant -- for several days. The criss-cross straps and ornamental buckles of the court footwear which Semmell affected were clearly designed for indoor locomotion only.

Within a couple of hours, however, it had become obvious that the effect -- whatever its nature -- was not limited to Semmell. Even the two guards, who shared the taciturn and phlegmatic disposition of their species galaxywide, were showing distinct signs of fear. On questioning, Semmell's assistant, Jeznen, admitted to experiencing auditory hallucinations, observing dark shapes at the periphery of his vision. His own auditory and visual capacity were unimpaired. Surely the effect must be related to the altitude? Perhaps space travel and multiple planetfalls had reduced his sensitivity to a low partial pressure of atmospheric oxygen?

Even as he constructed the facile explanation, Avon was uncomfortably reminded of Zenia's words about the gullies. And of the over-vehemence of Semmell's arguments against taking the obvious direct route along the gully that he had followed earlier with Zenia.

Zenia. Poor proud Zenia. How could he ever tell her? Could he ever tell her? Much easier perhaps just to quietly disappear. Some truths too painful.

'Orac, have you completed that data check?'

'Yes, Avon. The data originated in a Federation PlanetNet computer code-named Fantasia.'

'Then why didn't you update me immediately?'

'I have encountered conflicting data sources and am attempting to resolve several resultant inconsistencies. My analysis will take some time.'

'Ignore the inconsistencies. Just summarise the information you have found from the novel data sources. Quickly, Orac!'

Eventually, it had become obvious that an hysterical Semmell could proceed no further. Avon had been forced to leave him with one of the guards with instructions to backtrack, losing height, until Semmell recovered. Pressing on, with Jeznen and the other guard, gradient finally easing, a boulder-strewn summit plateau, wind-scoured and bleak. Pockets of snow forming sharp inverted shadows to the dreary grey-black rocks. He stopped in the lee of a large boulder, a hollow just large enough to huddle out of the wind's blast. The positional readout indicated that they were within a kilometre of Orac's grid reference; field strength off the scale. No evidence that the channels converged at this point. The unusually high cloud base meant that he had unimpeded vision for tens of kilometres in every direction. But no sign of anything unusual. Indeed, no sign of anything.

Think! If the high energy material was a natural mineral deposit, Orac's calculations had suggested that it would need to be sizeable to account for the geomagnetic anomaly. But he had noticed no variation in the rock type, which appeared to be homogeneous across the whole of the hill terrain. Geology was not his speciality -- would it be unusual to have such a deposit at the top of a mountain? He didn't know. He had also speculated on an alternative hypothesis, the crash of a space ship -- possibly alien -- carrying a cargo of energy-charged crystals. The basis of a weaponry system perhaps. However, even if more obvious signs had become hidden, he would have expected the rock to show some signs of impact: heat deformation, stress fractures. Nothing.

Now what? Orac could have analysed the possibilities, but Orac was over a hundred kilometres away, unreachable. He supposed that he would have to recalibrate the electromagnetic detector so that they could take detailed measurements cross-sectioning the entire area, then attempt to drill out a few cores to start a formal geological survey. Tedious. But in the absence of specialised seismic detection equipment, that seemed to be the only remaining course. It was beginning to feel like an exercise in futility.

Cold seeping through his trousers, sapping his concentration. Glowering headache. It seemed that the altitude was beginning to extend its malignant effects even to him. He could almost imagine he was hearing that electrical humming sound. He fumbled under his cloak into his jacket, extracted a small metallic flask and took a swig of the alcohol-based contents. No doubt some fermented product of the astinel plant. Rough, but not wholly unpleasant, and its warming effect was welcome. Belatedly, he turned to offer the flask to the others, then suddenly realised that neither of his companions was actually visible.

Adrenaline negating the chill, he leaped to his feet, drew his side-arm. Only partially recharged. Two perhaps three shots. If this was some kind of Federation trap he might have to make each one of them count. Progressed downhill as rapidly as the terrain allowed. Found the two men huddled together a hundred metres away. Both prostrate, hands still covering their ears. He knelt by Jeznen. Unconscious. No physical sign of injury? Just a long-healed scar at the back of his neck. Quickly scanned around, wind-whipped snow stinging his eyes. No-one else in sight.

But there was something. He stared upwards, rubbing his eyes, wondering if he had imagined the effect. No, the snow flurries ... there ... looked somehow unnatural. Almost as if they were being deflected from some kind of interface? He walked slowly back up the slope, side-arm poised. Yes. There. A repeating pattern of boulders and sky. Invisible to all but careful inspection. Some type of force wall.

'The data summary that you requested is now available.'

'Yes, Orac?'

'The secondary data sources indicate that there is a residential area located 54.2 kilometres south-east of the current position which exhibits a level of technology consistent with the standard for a Federation Outer Worlds colony. The area appears to have a small, predominantly transient population and extensive recreational facilities.'

'By the phrase "extensive recreational facilities" I take it that you're referring to bars, hotels, casinos, restaurants and the like?' Orac had a coy habit of using circumlocutions when mentioning what it plainly considered to be human frailties.

'Do you wish me to provide a list of the available commercial establishments?'

'No, Orac, that will not be necessary.' Ironic really. Exactly the type of planet that he had sought. Too late now.

'There is also an active commercial spaceport with a number of berthed ships, mainly in the pleasure-cruiser class.'

An escape route.

'I have only found records of civilian ships,' Orac continued. 'You might find it interesting that there appears to be no indication of the presence of any Federation battle cruisers or troopships. I am still examining why none of this information is present on the PlanetNet computer.'

'I think I may just be able to guess -- but don't let me spoil your fun.'

Fantasia indeed. How could he have been so blind? So many signs missed. And even Orac had let him down.

Force walls had been Vila's speciality. But one could not spend four long years living in close proximity with the expert safe-breaker without acquiring a few of his more useful tricks. Armed with a laser probe set to minimum power, the invisible barrier crumbled in less than an hour. A colossal transmitter station, grey metal towering above the rocky summit. A one-finger salute on a planetary scale. Three deep channels hewn in the rock converging on the concrete monolith of the base, bearing thick cables that bound the planet more securely than the chains of a torture chamber.

Avon thought he knew why Semmell and the other Encatrins had been affected by proximity to the transmitter while he had not. Whispered tales circulating onboard the London. Some things worse than execution.

And Zenia? That afternoon in the sticky heat of the plain, his fingers in her braided hair, eyes devouring her long white neck, the sickly perfume of the astinel, her shivering under his touch. He was almost sure that there had been nothing.

Of more immediate importance, a metallic object of suitable thickness would probably block the transmissions, which might save him the effort of carrying the two unconscious men a few hundred metres down from the summit and away from the transmitter.

 

So Avon had returned. He had been away, what, seven days? Somehow it felt like much longer. Zenia hesitated at the barely open door to his quarters. Even from here she could feel the anger and pain mingled with self-pity radiating from the dark shape on the bed. Black emotions so palpable they seemed to blot out the light.

'Well, Orac, I'm tired of playing games,' he said. 'I suggest that we pool resources and see if we both come to the same conclusions.' His voice sounded infinitely weary.

'Add the following pieces of data to your analysis,' Avon's voice continued. 'One. At grid reference GKS-37-27-14 there is a transmission tower, presumably Federation in manufacture, approximately 200 metres tall, estimated base elevation between 2750 and 3000 metres. Two. Encatrin natives appear to have had a simple receiver device implanted. Three. There are...'

The cold voice continued inexorably, shattering her world like a thin slab of toffee hit with a hammer. She did not understand, did not want to understand. Did not want to listen, could not stop listening.

'Certainly transmissions from that elevation could conceivably cover the entirety of this hemisphere's landmass. Particularly if appropriately boosted as you suggest.' Orac's voice now. 'Integrating the additional data with my analysis of the conflicts between the data encoded by PlanetNet versus other Federation computers, the most plausible scenario is that the native occupants of the planet Encatrin are participants in a virtual reality experience controlled by the PlanetNet system via the implanted receivers. It would seem most likely that their participation is involuntary.'

Avon said something she could not catch.

'I speculate that the humans involved are likely to be transported prisoners, subjected to an extensive memory-restructuring process maintained by ongoing conditioning in the transmissions. I cannot currently resolve these data with the evidence that Federation forces have recently invaded Erconel territory, but my analysis is continuing-'

'Oh, I think I can, Orac. I think I can... A recreational planet...' He laughed abruptly and the sound was chilling. 'A recreational planet where the prime entertainment seems to be murder.'

She could bear it no longer. Ran blindly, uncaring. Heavy footsteps behind her. Must hide. Squeezed behind a pillar. Pressed the cold stone against her face until she felt numb. No tears would come. It could not be true. Could never be true.

Interlude

Encatrin Experiences presents...

Four super levels of experience, specially designed to suit the needs of all our clients.

Option A Relax in the comfort and privacy of your hotel room and let our surveillance devices transport you into a different world. Nothing is off-limits to our extensive network, just point and click, sit back and prepare to be amazed...

Option B Take the tour! Our luxury passenger flyers depart regularly into the native reservation. Our friendly and informative hostess guides will travel with you on each departure to ensure that your trip is extra-special. This 4 hour educational trip, inclusive of 3 course lunch, coffee and light refreshments, is included in your vacation package, while a fully stocked cocktail bar is available for your pleasure. Departures every 2 hours from 10:00 hours to 16:00 hours from Encatrin City terminus 1A. Advance reservations are advisable; private parties can be catered for.

Option C Experience total cultural immersion! You can play a part in shaping Encatrin's history! Experience at first hand the bustle of a medieval fortress* or the peace and tranquillity of an oriental palace. We have numerous exciting options, including court servants, city artisans, shopkeepers and soldiers of the guard. Full costume and appropriate training provided. Sessions can be reserved in 2 hour blocks for up to 12 hours.

*The medieval fortress experience is currently undergoing renovation; we apologise for any inconvenience to our clients.

Option D* The ultimate -- customised experiences. We can make your wildest fantasies come true! Slave markets, hunting expeditions... Any scenario catered for. Extensive selection of specialist equipment available. Come and talk to our highly trained staff to discuss the full range of experiences available to the discerning single client or small group.

*You must be over 21 for this option.

She abruptly turned away from the info-screen. 'Does that mean what I think it means?'

'Of course it does, darlin'. It's famous. What d'you think we came here for, the "educational tours"?'

'But that's...'

'They're all convicted category-nine offenders. Murderers, child abusers, shadow dealers.... No better than animals, really -- or worse some of 'em.' He flicked the info-terminal to show the credit options. 'Don't you want to try it?'

'Isn't it illegal?'

'Of course it's illegal. Isn't that half the fun? Look ... don't come over all fucking righteous on me now... You enjoyed the holo-room last year, didn't you?'

***

Probably best that he had lost her, Avon thought. What could he possibly say to someone whose entire world had just disappeared into a Federation-inspired fiction? A reprogrammable sham.

Murder as entertainment. Rich probably otherwise respectable Federation citizens who got their kicks out of playing at killing. Why did he feel such a deep instinctive revulsion?

How many people had he killed? He had long since not so much lost count as abandoned the tally as meaningless. Could he deny that he had ever felt enjoyment? Not just the forgetting that under the spheroid helmet and the black coveralls there was a human being. A man, with eyes which might be blue or brown, ears that listened to music not just orders, probably with a lover expecting him home on leave. No, such desensitisation was understandable, even essential for survival.

Not even just that adrenaline-induced buzz of a successful mission. Target accomplished. Federation installation destroyed. Seventeen Federation casualties.

No, a more specific feeling. That orgasmic explosion of power and skill when the gun connected with its target, when the body crumpled and fell.

He shuddered. Best not to think about it. That time past.

Concentrate on something that he could perhaps change. What would be the effect of disabling the transmissions?

Should he intervene? Perhaps he owed it to Zenia to give her the truth.

'Orac, can you reprogram the PlanetNet computer?'

'Of course. You should understand my capabilities better than that by now, Avon.'

'Well, I would not have expected you to have been influenced by electronic conditioning from a virtual reality computer! Link the PlanetNet transmission information directly into the Federation receiving stations. Then interrupt the transmissions... No...'

The effect of a sudden removal of the conditioning could be lethal. 'Step down the transmission strength by 20% every planetary day. And give me all the information that you can unearth about this planet. And I mean all the information this time, Orac. You can start by generating a list of all the prisoners transported here, their names, crimes, planets of origin; anything relevant.'

 

Zenia. Sitting in Raznan's alpine garden, alone by the pool. Tired, even paler than usual. Avon guessed that neither of them had got much sleep the previous night. Her hair was even more elaborately styled than normal, braids interlaced with fine ribbons and tiny diamond-spangled flowers, her dress a formal crimson. The profusion of her jewellery looked as if she had raided some treasure chest of Raznan's with little regard for anything save apparent costliness.

Well, grief struck different people in different ways.

'I did not intend you to hear the truth like that,' he said very quietly.

'But it isn't the truth!' she said, without looking up. 'Cannot be the truth.' Or rather, she could not allow it to be the truth.

'I would understand if you could not believe me. Or even Orac. But there are so many aspects of Encatrin society which appear unnatural, illogical even.' She must accept the reality. Could not just sit there pretending that if she wore enough diamonds in her hair then the problem would disappear.

'How many women are there on Encatrin, Zenia? And how many children?' She did not answer. But then he did not expect her to.

'If Encatrin is simply an Outer Worlds colony of Earth,' he continued, 'then why is the level of technology so primitive? The Outer Worlds were only settled around 250 earth-years ago. There is no evidence for a planet-wide war or a large-scale natural disaster. Why, in particular, the absence of records, of maps, of computers -- of history even?'

He had indeed been blind -- all the clues in place. Partly it was that he had spent so little time on real planets, natural societies. Fosforon, XK-72, Delta-3, even the matter transmission project on Earth: in a way, he too had been conditioned.

Too slow. Getting old, tired. Too dependent on Orac. Orac was, after all, only a computer.

'I am sorry.' Avon paused for many minutes, studying the fractal branching pattern of a creeping grey alpine plant in silence. 'Sometimes it is best simply to face the truth.' However impossible that might seem.

'In this case there seems to be no truth to face,' she said. 'You tell me that my whole life -- everything I am, everything and everyone I know, everything I have made -- is a fiction. A striving after the wind.'

Five minutes in that dingy cellar on Earth. Five minutes to realise that most of what he had considered important in his life had been a fiction. He had thought then that the fire in his heart had finally turned to ashes.

As it turned out, that moment had come later.

'Orac has interfered with the Federation transmitter,' he said. Simple facts might be easiest. 'People should begin to slowly recover their memories.' Unless they had been wiped clean like mutoids... But then they were effectively dead, anyway.

'Or at least fragments.' Although Blake's pre-conditioning personality had been restored, he had always claimed that he could access only a fraction of his memories. The door to his past only ever partly open. But then the job that the Federation had done on Blake's memory was more extensive than usual. A special case.

Somehow Blake was always a special case.

'Truth, of a kind, I suppose,' he added.

'You mean I will remember the criminal that I once was.'

'I don't believe so. Actually, I think that you were probably born here on Encatrin.' The transported prisoners would probably have been sterilised as well as conditioned, but there might be a significant failure rate.

'Truth, you said. There's no sense in your inventing any more fiction in a misguided attempt at comfort.'

'Semmell, Jeznen and the others who travelled with me, they all had a similar implant scar at the base of the skull. I don't believe that you have a scar there...'

'Don't touch me!'

'Well, as I recall anyway -- suggesting that you have not been implanted. At least not in the same way. And Orac has a hypothesis relating exposure to high levels of electromagnetic radiation during pregnancy with your telepathic abilities.'

'If not a criminal, then a descendant of criminals.' But her voice sounded a little less desolate.

'That is no crime.' But he knew that she felt a shame that nothing he could say would alleviate. After all, what was he in her eyes but a criminal?

She scooped up a handful of small pebbles from one of the gravel beds. Sorted them carefully into heaps, white and grey. Began casting them one by one into the pool, the bright plunks punctuating the silence. Plunk. Plunk.

'A striving after the wind,' Avon repeated slowly. Plunk. 'That was what you said, wasn't it? "Behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun." Now where did you find that?'

'The same place as you, I expect. Orac found it for me.'

'Orac?'

'Actually, while you were away, Orac has been attempting to teach me to read.' Embarrassment beginning to replace that dreadful blankness.

'The writings of a philosopher-cum-monarch who has been dead for several thousands of years hardly seem the most promising of reading primers. But then I imagine Orac is hardly the easiest of elementary teachers.'

'And I am hardly the most tractable of pupils.' She abruptly brushed the rest of the pebbles into the pool. 'But at least Orac is trying to help.' She walked away, the rigidity of her body warning him not to attempt to follow.

***

Habit alone made Avon flick through the list of prisoners that Orac had generated, lack of sleep dragging at his eyelids. Habit ingrained during the months of late-night reading of Orac's strategy read-outs, propping himself upright in an unpadded chair in the dismal hole that doubled as his sleeping quarters and office on Xenon base. The Liberator lost, he had felt overshadowed by a sense of imminent threat: the underground base, with its dark and claustrophobic corridors, a trap. Nowhere to run to anymore.

Then his eye was caught, an entry near the top of the second viewer screen. 'Blake, Ven. Identity number, Prisoner 2316. Planet of birth, Earth. Age at date of transportation, 29 earth-standard years. Grade, Alpha. Crime [no data].'

It was a common enough family name.

The 'no data' tag against the crime probably meant it had been deleted. Few enough Alphas were transported. Unlikely just to be common theft, a bar brawl, unredeemable debts. Could mean someone trying to cover something up? Dissident activity, perhaps? Or maybe simply a link with a known dissident?

Could this unknown man be a relative of Blake? 'His' Blake?

Blake had rarely spoken about his family. In fact, none of the Liberator crew had exactly been forthcoming about their backgrounds. All he knew was that Blake had a younger brother and sister. And that Blake thought that his family were all dead -- but appearances were frequently deceptive.

The recorded date of transportation was nearly six earth-years ago. That would fit. Blake's family would have been silenced at around the time of his show-trial.

Was this why Raznan seemed so eerily familiar? His resemblance to Blake on so many levels was too close to be coincidental, surely. The two ages tallied. And the man had surely once been an Earth Alpha. That much was obvious from his cultivated accent alone, from the easy arrogance of his stance, the way that he was clearly at ease with leadership.

'Orac, retrieve all available information on Prisoner 2316, Blake, Ven. Find out what his crime was. There must be some way of tracing back to the original data.' Nauseous, giddy, heart racing. Breathing quickened. Overdosing on adrenaline. 'And give this the highest priority, supersede all other requests.'

Ven Blake. A man with Blake's name as well as Blake's face could be a figurehead for the entire anti-Federation movement. That name could unite the warring factions of the Outer World resistance movements; in time, could put real pressure on Federation Central Administration.

And perhaps this time it would all go right. Perhaps.

Six

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

From 'Little Gidding' by TS Eliot

Avon poured two tall glasses from the flask resting on the fire-heated stone, and stirred in several measures of sweetener. He found the hot beverage relaxing, a pleasant mixture of fruit, spice and alcohol. Telar, the locals called the drink, and its consumption appeared to be traditional before retiring. He sat swirling the dark liquid around in the glass and relishing the fragrant vapour. A sweet counterpoint to the bitterness of his reflections.

'It is supposed to lead to tranquil dreams,' Zenia said. She had kicked off her sandals and was curled among the many-coloured cushions on one of the couches. The quarters were over-decorated for his taste, but it was clear that Raznan intended his guests to be comfortable. Having sampled several of the tiny spiced biscuits that the servants had left on the tray with the telar glasses, she was absently licking crumbs from her fingers. Just occasionally, when she was relaxed, as now, she looked and acted like a child.

'Perhaps fortunately I find that the attainment of tranquillity requires a little more than the consumption of heated alcohol,' he said.

Having finished the crumbs, she started to unwind the braids in her hair, extracting a series of previously invisible pins and arranging them neatly on an ornamental table at her elbow. He rather wished that she would perform her toilette elsewhere. He was not in any mood for idle feminine chit-chat.

'You lack peace of mind, then?' she asked, concentration apparently focused on the pins. Too casual. He suddenly realised that all of her fidgeting, that self-consciously childish look, must be intended to conceal her motivation for visiting his quarters.

'Evidently.' She would not extract information from him like that.

'Where will you go when you leave Encatrin, Avon?'

'Another planet,' he said. 'It doesn't really matter any more.' Nothing matters anymore. Nothing and nobody.

'I should really inform you,' he continued, 'that if you came to interrogate me, then you are wasting your time. Indeed, I should probably ask you to leave -- if you were not in lieu of the host here.'

'You can talk to me, Avon, you can talk to Orac, you can even talk to that wall over there. But if you don't, then you are dead, Avon! Even if your body manages to carry on walking and talking for another year or two.'

She gesticulated in the direction of the plexiglass box whining peacefully to itself on the dressing table. 'Orac, tell Avon what you explained to me.'

'It is apparent, Avon, that your current dysfunctional mental state is severely impairing your capacity for reasoning and judgement. I have estimated that over the next earth-standard year, you have a 35.7% probability of suicide and a 42.1% probability of being killed by another agency.' For once, the computer sounded subdued, almost regretful. 'Following the course of action suggested by Zenia, the first probability reduces to 2.3%, the second to 13.2%.'

The two of them had obviously been conspiring behind his back.

'And other courses of action, Orac?' he queried.

'After extensive research, I found no alternative course of action that would reduce your probability of death over one year to below 60%.'

'So this was why you were so determined to lead me to Zenia?' Things were slowly clarifying. Too slowly.

'Prolonged exposure to the atmospheric conditions on this planet would be injurious to my circuitry.'

'I think he means yes,' laughed Zenia.

'Of the humans on Encatrin with records entered onto the Federation database, the human called Zenia was the most suitable in terms of gender, personality and physical appearance. The telepathic abilities were an additional consideration in her favour. I have now tutored her in the relevant aspects of elementary human psychology-'

'It set me up!' he interrupted.

'He set us both up,' she said. 'Now are you going to talk to me?'

'Do you always believe what you are told by a computer?'

'You picked me up because Orac told you to.' She walked across the room towards him. Then, for the first time looking directly at his face, 'You told me that it was best to face the truth, Avon.'

'Well, the hardest advice to take is always one's own.'

22.2%. Not very encouraging. Did he really want to survive?

'Since Orac has put us into this ridiculous situation, I will make a deal with you,' he said. 'My terms are that I will attempt to answer your questions, if you agree to answer one question in return. Do you accept these terms?'

'Of course.'

'Then I will take the first question. Does your telepathy operate by line of sight or proximity?'

Zenia was pacing the room while he sat on the edge of the bed. 'With people I do not know well, line of sight view of the subject's face is essential. But-'

Avon calculated her closest approach and grabbed her arm, tipping her off balance so that she had no option but to sit beside him. Gripping both her elbows he pulled her back towards him, forcing her head close to his chest. Good. From that position she could neither move easily nor see his face. So amusing dealing with someone who lacked knowledge of combat techniques.

'So, what does our friend Orac intend us to discuss?'

'You can let go of me,' she said proudly. 'If this is your price for talking, I won't move.'

He loosed her arms. 'Relax.'

The body against him unfroze very slightly, and her head settled back against his shirt. Hypersensitive skin felt every blonde hair through the silk fabric; logic suggested that the sensation was likely to be illusory.

'Orac told me that there were three people whose deaths were particularly significant,' she said.

'And they are?'

'To quote Orac, a human, Anna Grant, an Auron, Cally, and a human, Roj Blake.'

'The first we have...' His voice trailed off; he could not put into words the experience that they had shared.

'Cally, then.'

'I am sure that Orac has already told you all facts of any significance about Cally.'

'You said to me once that Tora loved me but that I did not love Tora. I guessed perhaps...'

'Then you guessed incorrectly.' No, not Cally...

'Then why do you feel such guilt around her death?'

'So it all comes down to guilt, does it?' he said. 'Orac's psychology lessons must have been truly elementary. Cally died. It was a Federation-planted bomb. That is all. Guilt is ... unnecessary.'

'And yet you feel it,' she said.

'Not guilt.' But he would never forget the battered scorched ... object ... that was his last image of Cally. That final tearing cry in his head.

A sense of fairness made him add, 'Responsibility, perhaps. If it had not been for my stupidity we would all have been safely on the Liberator, millions of spacials away from Terminal.'

'Stupidity?'

'I led us all into an obvious Federation trap seeking news of Blake.'

Somehow every route led back to...

'Blake...'

'Well now. I suppose I can hardly deny all involvement with him after my little ... performance ... with Raznan the other day.'

Not Ven Blake, but ... Dru Verril. Those alternate waves of heat and nausea... The room closed in around him, the whole world condensing into a cone of light between him and the other man, the air seeming to solidify so he couldn't breathe and he thought he might actually be about to faint.

Dru Verril, a Grade 2 Administrator on an agricultural research station on some undistinguished planet in Sector 9. Dru Verril, a botanist, whose thesis specialised in a certain Dithenica astinelis species.

Looking down at the long unbroken line of her neck and shoulder. Unblemished white. The beginning of the smooth curve of skin that was her breast, just visible. Innocent. Somehow the sight freed his mind to think of Blake again. Not those red-tinged images. But...

'We worked on the same project on Earth once. Matter transmission. Never met. Well, to be precise, nearly met.'

He suddenly wished desperately that they had met in that Earth-bound setting. Safe. No Federation pursuit ships, no handguns, no bombs. And safely bound by Earth conventions as to the limits of friendship.

'I used to enjoy Pre-Atomic music. 18th Century PA mainly. I played an instrument of that period, a harpsichord.' This time it did not surprise him when Zenia looked blank. 'A stringed instrument with the notes operated by keys. The Northern Dome had an authentic harpsichord. A copy of an original, of course, but the sound was not computer generated, it actually operated mechanically. I amused myself by playing among a group of colleagues from the project. We performed one piece by Jayess Bach, the fifth Brandenburg concerto. Written approximately a thousand years ago. Blake said once that he went to that particular concert. For an engineer, he had surprisingly urbane tastes.'

'Did he enjoy it?' For an uneducated primitive female, Zenia was surprisingly good at asking penetrating questions.

'He said that he enjoyed historical music in general, but disliked the peculiar sound of the harpsichord. Tinkly, he called it.'

He could still see the little moue of distaste on Blake's face as he pronounced the word. Such an expressive face. When he smiled it seemed to light up his whole body. Sometimes he had just wanted to make Blake smile. Give him a friendship whose value could perhaps make some recompense for all those missing faces, unremembered friends.

And he had thought that friendship was what Blake had sought from him too.

'Did you love him?' That naive question that he had dreaded.

'It was never like that. For a while we were friends ... Close friends, I suppose. All personal relationships in that environment tended towards a high intensity -- a sort of claustrophobic intimacy -- simply because we were always on ship together, in stressful situations.' Close friends or deadly enemies. Sometimes he was not sure that he could differentiate.

'For a while...?'

'And then even that ended... We argued, that's all. Blake was an idealist, always making reckless decisions that endangered all our lives. It was inevitable.'

But he could not forget... That time in the medical unit, late ship evening, Cally efficiently bandaging his arm, giving him a shot of pain-reliever, then leaving him alone with Blake. Blake gripping his hand. Then that realisation slowly dawning as Blake had gently run his fingertips upwards, taking in the delicate skin on the inside of his forearm, then leaned over him as if to ...

'But, Avon ... I thought when you came down to Exbar after me, after all that you'd said about it being an unacceptable risk...'

'Well you were mistaken! That should not be a novel sensation for you, Blake. You do seem to have something of a talent for it.'

Later he had come to regret the icy tone of his outburst. Even, just occasionally, to wonder whether it might have been... Well, that was certainly not worth considering now.

'And then Blake disappeared,' he continued. 'The Liberator was badly damaged in a space battle and we had to abandon her. He simply never returned. Probably some fault in his communicator.'

But again and again his venomous words played in his mind, 'I want it over and done with. I want to be free of him.'

'Orac told me that you had instructed him to search for Blake,' she said.

'Oh yes,' he said sarcastically, 'we searched for two years. Rumours, sightings, but no Blake.' Even to his ears it sounded rather obsessive for someone he had cared about so little.

'And then Orac found him,' she said very quietly.

'Oh yes ... and then Orac found him.'

Again he heard the insistent wail of the siren, saw the tall stranger with the scarred face walking inexorably towards him. Wouldn't stop. Gun shaking in his hands. I thought he had betrayed us. I thought he had betrayed me. The blood spreading out over his chest.

None of the words would come out.

'Avon, you don't need to say anything.' The gentle reassurance was in his mind.

'You knew?' He jerked her round to face him, look into those deep blue eyes.

'I glimpsed, guessed, soon after we first met. But when you talked about Blake to Raznan... yes, then I understood.'

He pressed her head hard against his shoulder. Was this what tears were like? He hardly knew. Minutes, hours, days later, he found that he was clutching her like the doll he had first thought she resembled.

'Surrounded. Staring down death in a dozen black gunbarrels.' He hardly recognised the voice as his own. Was he even speaking aloud? 'Someone fired behind me. Tarrant I think. I killed one, two maybe. Then I was hit. Came round face down on a cold body. Blake. My chest soaked in blood. But it was not mine. It was Blake's.'

He let her go abruptly. White marks on her arms where his nails had dug in. Slowly reddening. There would be bruises in the morning.

 

Zenia stood up somewhat shakily, avoiding Avon's gaze. Washed in blood. Poured another two glasses of telar, stirred them over-carefully. The blood of the lamb. Turned again to where he lay slumped against the cushions on the bed. Settled herself cross-legged by him on the floor.

'What you said about Tora. I think you were mistaken. I think now that I did love her. We were so close in so many ways. I just did not realise that "love" was the right word. And why else did her betraying my trust matter so much to me?'

There was a long long silence while he digested those other words. The words that she had not spoken. She sensed the knotted darkness in the heart of him uncoil ever so slightly.

'Don't you feel that you owe it to him to make peace with your memories? To try to achieve something with what's left of your life?'

'What could I possibly do that would ever be enough?' Voice so quiet it was almost inaudible.

'To satisfy your conscience? Perhaps nothing can be enough, as you put it. But the alternative seems to be to wallow in self-pity, a kind of living death. Maybe just making a start is the best you will ever be able to do.'

'A life for a life.' She guessed that the hard sarcastic edge he gave to the words was his way of covering deep emotions. One of his ways.

'If that's how you want to phrase it. After all you seemed to be interested in rejoining the resistance movement, when you thought that...'

'When I thought that I could expiate my sins by finding a new Blake, you mean.'

Interlude

The woman sat back on the crumpled silver sheets, hitching her skirt over her knees with an embarrassed glance at the vis-screen. She reached for the cigarettes on top of the console, then abruptly threw them against the wall.

'Well, I doubt he'll be coming back for them,' she muttered.

Without warning the vis-screen flickered, then went dark. Fiddling with the console buttons failed to restore the picture. 'Christ, can this place do nothing right?' she asked of no-one in particular.

'EE regrets the interruption to the Experiences channel,' scrolled the message on the screen. 'We apologise for any inconvenience caused by this temporary failure, and suggest you select another channel for your viewing enjoy-' Off.

She walked to the window, stood gazing outwards into the night. On the back streets fifty metres below her, people were running, while the monolithic sign gently slowed in its rotations, shuddered to a stop around 45 degrees, then winked out of existence as the spotlight too was smashed.

***

Raznan's private quarters were rather plain and cramped by comparison with the guest accommodations, the small white-walled room dominated by an extensive expanse of wooden table, its surface slightly scratched. The room seemed empty of personality, and Avon wondered whether Raznan had cleared it out recently. A symbolic gesture, perhaps?

They settled into armchairs, the winged sides partially hiding their faces, both choosing to face the deeply recessed triptych window with its views out onto the courtyard garden. The chairs, their mud-coloured leather secured with a row of round-headed tacks, indeed the whole room, seemed out of character with the rest of the court. Whoever designed the palace probably knew little history and cared even less for authenticity -- well, that had been plain enough from the plasteen blocks behind the thin stone cladding.

'Well, Avon, it's good to see you.'

He couldn't return the sentiment, and something of the emotions whirling round in his head -- anger, despair, but also overwhelming embarrassment -- must have shown on his face, as Raznan added quietly, 'I'm sorry, it must be difficult...' Then when there was no response, infuriatingly gently, 'Am I really so like your friend?'

'You have some striking physical similarities with my former colleague,' Avon said coldly, without shifting his gaze from the window frame. Then felt compelled to look. Raznan had discarded the crimson robes and bangles of the Encatrin noble, and seemed to be aiming for a more unobtrusive style of dress, in a sober green. He had also trimmed his hair to a length more attuned to current Federation fashions. The changes should have made him look more like Blake, but somehow they only emphasised the differences. The subtleties of shape and weight and balance that made the difference between known and unknown, between friend and stranger.

'There are a few shared personality traits. It is certainly not impossible that you could have been a younger brother.' Turning back to the window, he added almost inaudibly, 'But no, you're not really so very alike.' He understood now the degree to which he had simply been clutching at straws.

'I hope that's been disabled,' he added abruptly, gesturing at the small surveillance device mounted above the window.

'Of course. Rather obvious when you pointed them out, indeed hard to imagine how one could have missed them before, really...' His own lack of observation was even harder to excuse.

'What happened to the other man?' Raznan continued, seeming unwilling to let the subject drop. 'You said his name was Ven-'

'According to Orac he was one of the Ercator nobles. And is presumably as dead as the rest of them.' And as dead as his namesake. Unrelated namesake -- another piece of information that Orac had teased out, too late.

Blake was ... dead. Like Anna, like Cally, like Vila, like the others. Dead.

'I'm sorry,' said Raznan, and his words seemed somehow to encompass more than just Ven Blake. Just how much had Zenia told him? He had never sought anyone's understanding.

'Is your memory of your past life improving now?' he enquired with a studied blandness.

'I feel like I've spent the past few years swathed in layer upon layer of fuzzy grey moss, and I'm just waking up. I can almost feel the ... holes ... where memories used to be, and occasionally a fact floats up to fill one of the holes. There are a few things I'm certain of -- my name for one. But it's all very random, the memories that are reappearing are not necessarily the most useful ones, or even the most recent ones, and if I try to focus on something it usually just makes it worse.' He was fiddling with a loose tack on the arm of his chair, turning it round and round. 'It's really rather hard to explain to someone who hasn't experienced it.'

'I knew someone once -- well, it was Blake, actually -- who'd been extensively memory conditioned on Earth. He recovered substantially over a relatively short period of time after a traumatic event, but he said some memories never returned.'

'Sometimes I wonder if I'm deliberately suppressing some sections of my memory. It's ironic really, I think my "life" here on Encatrin might have been rather more worthwhile in many ways than my old life.'

'What was it like on Cinerel?'

'The old hands said it rained only once in every fifteen planetary years. Well I was there for five, and it never rained at all. Everyone at the station was studying drought adaptation, and apart from us the planet was deserted. Used to drive me mad, nothing to do except ponder promotion prospects and watch the dust storms on the plains.'

'It seems a long way from there to here.'

'Shorthand for what was I sentenced for?' He smiled. 'Fraud, essentially. Passed over for one promotion too many, I got greedy. Cinerel was a convenient free-trader stop-over planet for half the sector, and as the station administrator it was easy to ...um... legitimise cargoes.'

'I thought everyone here was category nine?'

'The usual story. One day someone offered me double the usual bribe, and I was naive.' The metal tack jerked free in his hand, and Raznan stared down at it for a moment. 'Well, perhaps I didn't care any more would be more accurate.'

'Shadow.'

'Strange really, a drug-smuggler trying to form a government composed of murderers, thieves and racketeers. Still one has to make of it what one can, I suppose.'

'There could be worse starting materials.' Avon smiled, remembering.

'Sometimes I wish I could actually be Raznan.'

'You are -- in so far as he exists.'

'In those long nights back on Cinerel, I used to dream of being wealthy, powerful.' He was gripping the arms of the chair. 'At least enough to get away from the damned base. And then...'

'Your dreams came true.'

'I think perhaps Raznan is the person the old Dru Verril would have liked to have been,' he said slowly.

'But what about the new Dru Verril?'

'Perhaps he can learn enough from his old mistakes to live up to his new reputation.' Raznan rose, leaned against the broad ledge of the window-seat, his large hands splayed out. 'Some days, though, I consider following the example of some of the others...'

'I can see that getting blind drunk -- or stoned -- in Encatrin City might have its advantages.'

'And there are more permanent ways of forgetting... The one thing I've never considered is going home.'

'Where is home?'

'Exactly. Certainly not Cinerel base, and I don't really remember much about Earth.'

'Another memory you've suppressed?'

'Yes, that possibility does worry me. Perhaps I have a wife, back on Earth. Children even.'

'Orac could probably find out for you. If you want to know, that is.'

'I'm not sure I want to know. If they ever existed, either they're dead or they think I've been dead for years. I'm not even sure how long I've been here. And...' He paused for a long time, staring out of the window. 'It's strange, you know, waking up to find yourself married.'

'Zenia is mature for her age, I'm sure she would understand if-'

'She might understand...' he retorted, turning back to face him, 'but the only thing that isn't a sham about that girl's life is that her parents have just been murdered and the bastards who did it probably thought they were doing society a favour. I don't think I could ever forgive myself.'

'Guilt makes for easy decision-making.'

'Oh, it's not just guilt. She's rather intelligent, and very pretty, I suppose, as even you must have noticed by now. But -- well, she is very young, and we hardly know each other. And... well, I'm afraid rioting seems the most likely outcome once the shock has worn off, and perceived authority figures are likely to be the first targets. It's unlikely to be safe to remain here in the court for much longer. Zenia might stand more of a chance without me. And, God knows, if she knew what I really am, she might prefer to be alone.'

'I think that rioting might be less likely than you imagine. People will probably cling to the stabilising influence of the court structure as long as they can -- habit is a powerful motivator of action. That will at least give you a transition period to work out an equitable system of government.'

'Even if that's true, as soon as the Federation administration fully realise that their prisoners are out of control, we're likely to find ourselves in the middle of a real war.'

'Well, I have a few plans that might help there...'

Epilogue

In the warm golden early morning light the court gardens appeared even more idyllic. Avon had to remind himself that most Encatrin mornings were dismal and grey to stifle a sudden uncertainty as to his precise reasons for leaving.

He was sure that Zenia, also an early riser, would be walking here somewhere.

'Well, Zenia,' he said, looking down to avoid the intensity of her gaze.

'So you're leaving,' she said. 'Actually you've stayed longer than I thought you would.'

'Yes,' he said simply. There did not seem to be much point in hiding the truth. After all, he had come looking for her to say goodbye. 'Well, I've done everything I can now to help Raznan and his nobles -- or whatever he chooses to call them these days.'

'Yes, he's expecting me to attend some kind of an emergency summit meeting between the Encatrin High Council and the Epsilon Neutral Planets Alliance -- he said you'd set everything up.'

In the end, persuading the bureaucrats of the adjacent non-aligned planets that it would be to their advantage to bend their starfleet exercises to encompass Encatrin had been as simple as providing them with a detailed projection on Federation expansion plans for the sector. Orac had been unusually co-operative over the past weeks, for some reason. And a message direct to Arbiter General Tor Visser's private channel, copied to Under-Secretary Orendi, suggesting that GNN might be interested in the multiple ways in which the activities of EE Holdings (GRC) (majority shareholder Erik Visser) contravened Section 7.3.1b of the Criminal Justice Code had swiftly resulted in formal pardons for some two thousand prisoners appearing on the Terran Justice Department's public viscasts. The revocation, with immediate effect, of EE Holdings (GRC)'s license to transport, hold or execute convicted prisoners of the Terran Federation Justice Department had not, however, appeared on the public viscasts.

Better perhaps for the Encatrin High Council members to believe that their new alliance partners were assisting them out of pure altruism, and that the Federation Justice Department was merely inefficient at patrolling operations on the Outer Worlds. They would no doubt learn cynicism soon enough.

'Orac has located a suitable ship berthed at the spaceport,' was all he said aloud. 'It has provided me with all the requisite ownership papers to convince the port authorities. It shouldn't be too difficult to appropriate the ship. I am planning to rename it Phoenix.' Probably not an allusion Zenia would understand. 'It seems fitting, somehow.'

Conversation: the art of providing information while concealing emotion.

'Where will you go?'

'Orac did a little research for me. It uncovered the fact that Hunda, who organised a highly successful rebellion on Helotrix, is now co-ordinating anti-Federation resistance movements on quite a few planets in Sector 4.' And Hunda possessed one cardinal virtue: he had never met Blake.

'And you think that Hunda's people will work with you?'

'We helped them with the formula for an antitoxin that they needed, and I think that Hunda will remember.'

He remembered that Tarrant had summed up Helotrix in one word, 'soggy', with Dayna's irrepressible giggle backing up his assessment. A muddy base on Helotrix might be rather a comedown after the glamour of the Liberator. And Hunda was unlikely to share Blake's charisma.

But perhaps that was the point.

On an impulse he added, 'Zenia, do you want to come with me? There's nothing for you here on Encatrin now. I could take you to the Auronar colony on Kaarn. They are the remnants of the telepathic race to which Cally belonged. I am sure that they would welcome you. And they are highly technologically advanced -- you would learn a lot from them.'

Not a very good offer, perhaps, but it was the best that he could manage. Yes, he thought that Zenia would like Franton.

'You must understand that I can't leave Encatrin, Avon. I admit that at first I was, well ... appalled, disgusted, even ... by the thought of living on a prison planet, surrounded by criminals.'

'But?'

'Whatever else they might have been, these are my people now. They are all I have left. That has to be the most important thing.'

'And Raznan?'

'Actually, I think I could get to rather like Raznan -- Verril, I suppose -- as a botanist. He's not as ineffective as you probably think.' She smiled up at him. A slow smile that he could not fully decode. 'If nothing else, staying here on Encatrin gives me illusion of usefulness.'

'Raznan said that you were helping at the hospital.'

'Well, I'm just helping Rel -- one of the visitors who's decided to stay -- to clear up. The group who smashed the reconstruction equipment weren't very careful. And she's teaching me a few basic medical skills.'

'If that's your decision, Orac suggested that I should give you this,' he said, reaching into an inner pocket in his jacket and pulling out his data-viewer in its soft leather pouch. 'Orac was anxious that you should continue your studies.' It had also occurred to him that such a gift would mean that Orac would be able to maintain communications with her.

'You do know how to drive it, don't you? Either with the stylus or the keyboard. The data-cubes are all here, you just insert them ... there.' The viewer had been a birthday gift from Blake, a discreet silver monogrammed KA with a date gracing the pouch. Typical of Blake, really. Generous, even making a sketchy gesture towards consulting the tastes of the recipient, yet almost entirely lacking in utility on a ship with both Zen and Orac.

'Avon, you can't give me that!'

'Well, with Orac I scarcely need it,' he said. 'And I believe that Orac has added a few minor bits and pieces of its own which might be of use. I suggest that you show the High Council members the contents of that area on the primary data-cube.' He was not quite sure exactly what information Orac had put there, but it included a planetary mineral scan that the little machine had been rather pleased with. And the formula for the Pylene-50 antitoxin, although the manufacturing technology on Encatrin would have to be developed significantly before that would be useful.

'In that case, all I can say is thank you.' Then totally surprised him by reaching up and dropping a rapid kiss on his cheek. Even on tiptoe she had to stretch. 'I shall miss Orac,' she said.

I shall miss you, he did not say.

'But I have nothing to give you! Except maybe...' Zenia plucked a rose from an abundantly flowering climber. A perfect white rose, just out of bud. As she gave it to him their hands briefly touched. He was left pondering whether, in a society lacking any verbal culture, gifts could possibly be considered to be invested with symbolism.

'May it remind you of the beauty of Raznan's gardens in the early morning light,' she said. 'Of a glass of telar shared with a friend by the flickering firelight. And of a man you loved who did not like the sound of the harpsichord.'

He could not leave his ghosts behind on Encatrin. Probably he could never leave them behind. But at least now they had faces, names. No longer hiding in the shadows.

He had never been any good at farewells.


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