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Hunter

By Neil Faulkner
"O'Ryan?"

      No answer. Greasy fingers hammered out the code again, bashing the keys as if that could make the other end buzz louder. "Ooo'Ryyy-an! I know you're there, princess, and what you're doing. It stunts your growth, you know. Now, are you going to answer, or do I press the open channel and tell the whole ship your chest isn't flat but concave?"

      <That's you, isn't it, Greb? What do you want?>

      "I want you to prick up your ears and listen. Then you can bring that shapely behind of yours down to engineering."

      <Greb... piss off. This is my off shift. Nobody tells me what to do on my off shift. I don't hear anything wrong.>

      "Correction, my sweetheart, you don't hear nothing at all and that's the problem. We've got a little trouble with the TD drives. A little total pack-up trouble to be precise, and I seem to remember you telling me how you were the chief engineer on this crate. What's the matter? You want to pass up a chance to show us boys what a clever girl you are."

      <Greb, all I want is for you to go get ->

      "Cap's orders, princess."

      Silence. Then: <Okay. I'll be down. Five minutes.>

      

      

It was quiet on Liberator's flight deck. Dayna wandered in, looking for something to do. All she found was Tarrant checking the readouts, and none too carefully at that. He didn't need to, everything was doing what it should be doing. He also was simply looking for something to do.

      "You like having all this to yourself, don't you?" she teased, as he looked up from a blank detector panel.

      "I wish." He grinned. "Actually I'd rather not have any of it right now. It's supposed to be Avon's watch, but there's no sign of him."

      Dayna pulled a face. "We ought to go easy on him. He's got a lot to sort out with himself."

      "You mean Anna?" It was a rhetorical question. Of course she meant Anna. He shrugged. "I'd be more inclined to go easy on him, as you put it, if he'd only admit he was going through something. Pretending it didn't happen isn't doing any of us a lot of good."

      "Tarrant! That's unfair."

      "So's life." He checked the course bearings, and found them spot on. "Strange. Never thought I'd want to see Avon his normal cold, brooding self. As opposed to his current abnormal cold, brooding self. What we need is something that'll take his mind off it."

      Dayna smiled with him, but with more in the way of true sympathy. "What are the chances of that happening?"

      "At the moment, none." He checked the detector panels again. They hadn't exactly changed in the past minute. "There's absolutely nothing out there."

      

      

The commbox beeped loud on the bridge. Captain Droge was nearest.

      <Cap?> The voice at the other end was high-pitched, nearly squealing.

      "Ms O'Ryan? What's the situation with the drives?"

      <Er...I ain't got to the drives yet, sir. I've...er...I've...>

      Droge drummed his fingers on an instrument panel. "Ms O'Ryan," he said clearly, projecting the full measure of his annoyance down the commlines. Projected it with ease, he had had many years of practice. "Ms O'Ryan, this ship has a destination to go to. It is not going to get there until those TD drives are working again, which is an engineer's job, and you are an engineer. Is that too complicated for you?"

      <Er...you don't understand, sir. I've found someone... down here in storage, and...>

      "Congratulations, Ms O'Ryan. You should in fact have found two people, namely Grebbins and Storsky. Which is it? I can't believe you only know both of them with the lights off."

      <Well...er...I don't know...>

      Droge clenched a fist and flashed pugilistic glares at the commbox. Everyone else on the bridge did their best to look busy. Busy, but quiet with it. They didn't want to miss a word.

      "Ms O'Ryan, I don't care what you do with yourself in your off duty hours, but when I give you a job to do I expect you to get on with it. Now sober yourself up, find Grebbins and Storsky and -"

      O'Ryan's hysterical voice suddenly screamed out from the commbox and echoed round the whole bridge. <Shut up, you bastard and get somebody down here!> Droge promptly turned a dangerous shade of white, and the rest of the bridge crew fell deathly silent.

      Listening to the sound of someone being violently sick.

      

      

+No further information is available.+

      "Thank you, Zen." Tarrant turned away from the computer just as Avon and Vila hurried on to the flight deck.

      "We've changed course," Avon observed. "Rather abruptly, too."

      "Sorry to shake you awake," replied Tarrant. "I've picked up a distress call, on bearing two-ten by one-forty."

      "The way we just come," realised Vila, "or very nearly. I think."

      "And you thought you'd take the liberty of putting us on course for it?" Avon swept past Tarrant and stood before Zen. Tarrant cut in before he could utter a word.

      "It's from a free trader, the Colombia. Asking for urgent assistance but not really specifying what kind."

      "Free trader?" Avon mouthed the words quietly to himself. "That could mean anything. Pirates, bounty hunters, the Federation - anything."

      "Damn right," echoed Vila. "I don't like distress calls. They usually mean trouble."

      Tarrant ignored him. "On the other hand, it could mean a free trader needing help. And as far as we know, we could be the only ones around in a position to offer it." He climbed up to the pilot's seat and checked over the instrumentation. "From the position they're sending, they're still about two and a half hours away. We've got time to hold a vote if you want."

      It was Avon's turn to do the ignoring. "Have you signalled back to tell them we're coming?"

      "I'm not a complete fool, Avon."

      Avon's face flashed with a brief flicker of a smile. "No, you're not, are you?" He spun round. "All right, we investigate, but at the first sign of it being anything other than it claims to be, we pull out. Agreed?"

      "Goes without saying."

      "I only wish it did," moaned Vila.

      Avon compared the Liberator's current position with their destination. As Tarrant had said, there was a fair way to go.

      "Zen, increase speed to Standard by Eight."

      

      

Chu-Lao, the navigator, was doing her best to bring a bit of colour back to O'Ryan's face. It was proving to be an uphill job. The reports coming back from the stores section were more than enough to make Droge give the engineer the benefit of the doubt for once.

      "All right, Mr Maclain, keep looking, " he snapped into the commbox. "The head's got to be there somewhere."

      <Very well, sir,> came back the security chief's easy reply. <Do you want us to bring it up to the bridge when we find it or leave it outside your door?>

      Droge fought down the temptation to tell him to give it to catering and ordered all remains to be taken to the medical bay. "And let me know when you find out who it is," he finished. He glowered briefly at Life In General, his deadliest foe for many a long year, before turning his attention to the huddled, quivering, blanket-shrouded woman cradling a cup of well-laced coffee. "Now, Ms O'Ryan, feeling any better?"

      The chief engineer shook her head weakly and sunk it even further between her shoulders. Droge patted her gently on the head. Gently for Droge, anyway. "Don't worry, you'll snap out of it. Mr Warren?"

      The young communications officer jumped like a startled rabbit. "Sir?"

      "Any reply to our distress calls."

      "Nothing yet, sir."

      "Keep on sending. There has to be somebody out there."

      "This isn't a heavily used spacelane," Chu-Lao felt forced to point out. "There might be nobody out there at all right now."

      "There has to be somebody out there," repeated Droge. "Dammit, I've got near on three hundred passengers and half a million credits worth of cargo on this ship -"

      "Not to mention twenty one crew," added Chu-Lao. "Twenty now, of course. Possibly just nineteen."

      "Thank you, navigator. Those as well. And I'm not going to lose them because... because..."

      "Because one of your engineers has been bodily dismembered, another has disappeared, and none of our supralight drives are working. Given the circumstances, captain, I think you've got a very good excuse for losing them."

      Droge's face paled to the point of matching his hair. He mouthed a few choice words to himself. "Just get on with your job."

      "I'm a navigator. Can't do much navigating with a ship that won't go anywhere."

      <Sir.> Maclain's voice cut in, ever so slightly warbly. <Sir, we've got enough to confirm the... the remains as Grebbins. Still no sign of Storsky.>

      Droge loomed over the commbox like a giant bat. "I see. No sign at all, you say?"

      <None yet, sir. We're just about to investigate the drive chamber.>

      Droge nodded and looked over the instrument panels, as if they could give him some idea of just what was going on in his engineering section. Chu-Lao sidled up beside him.

      "You don't suppose," he wondered aloud, "that Storsky's responsible for this?"

      Chu-Lao didn't think that warranted much consideration. "Storsky can't tear open a packet of wafersnax, let alone a human being," she said. "Or Grebbins either, for that matter."

      <Sir. Maclain here. We're having to suit up to get in the drive chamber. It's been depressurised.>

      "Not from up here it hasn't," snapped back Droge.

      <Well maybe, sir, but I've got a red light on the door that says different. Artigrav is off too, so we're taking lifelines through the airlock.>

      "Very good, Mr Maclain." Droge had a sudden thought. "Any pressure suits missing from the locker?"

      <Yes, sir. One. It's not impossible Storsky's in there.>

      "Right. Well, take it easy in there. I don't want any shooting. No point in adding to whatever damage we've already got."

      <I'll try and bear that in mind, sir.>

      Silence fell on the bridge, all ears turned to the commbox. Maclain kept up a running commentary as he and his team prepared to enter the drive chamber. The airlock was depressurised, although the far door was sealed. Someone had been through without repressurising. They had to wait as the storage section rotated into line, then stopped the airlock ring to move on through.

      <No quick exits,> observed the security chief. Droge folded his arms. If an armed Storsky was waiting in there, Maclain and his team would be trapped until the storage section was back in line with the drive chamber.

      <I'm opening the door now. Floating through. No sign of any damage anywhere. Wait...>

      The commbox fell dead. On the bridge, nobody moved. O'Ryan's hands squeezed so tight on her cup it began to buckle. Droge broke the silence. "You still there, man?"

      <Still here, sir. We're getting something in our torch beams. Up ahead, past the kinetic field regulator. A sort of... well, it looks like a red mist. Might be rust particles, there's a lot of maintenance work needs doing here.>

      Droge half-turned to O'Ryan. She in her turn looked down at the floor. Not that either of them seriously thought it was rust Maclain was looking at.

      <Getting closer now. About ten metres. We need to go over the regulator coil. Signs of damage here, there's... Hold on...>

      O'Ryan stood up and walked unsteadily over. Chu-Lao stepped aside to let her through.

      <We've got two large rents in the coil casing. About two, two and a half metres long, perhaps fifteen centimetres wide. It's not like any kind of damage I've seen before. The metal's been... the best word I can find is shredded. Torn into strips. No sign of heat scoring, no pitting, no melting. Not any kind of weapon damage I could put a name to.>

      "All right, Mr Maclain. Leave it for now, concentrate on Storsky. Any ideas, Ms O'Ryan?"

      "I'd have to see it," she said. "But I can't think offhand of anything that could -"

      Droge waved her silent as Maclain's voice cut in again.

      <Going over the top of the coil now. That mist is pretty thick on the other side. We can't see through it. There's something...floating. Hold on...>

      He cut off again, leaving the four on the bridge hanging. When he came back a moment later he sounded very artificially matter of fact.

      <I think we've found Storsky, sir. Can't be absolutely sure at this stage, but we're pretty certain it's bits of him that keep bumping into us.>

      Chu-Lao raised an eyebrow and put a steadying arm around O'Ryan. Droge took in a deep breath through flared nostrils. Only Warren seemed diverted. He looked up, excited. "Getting a signal, sir," he said. "From..." His mouth dropped open. His cheeks turned red as he saw all eyes turning on him.

      "Come on, come on," barked Droge. "Who is it?"

      "Well, sir," he stammered. "They say... they say they're the Liberator."

      

      

"Smart thinking, Tarrant." Flask in one hand, glass in the other, Vila picked his way through to the teleport controls. "Tell them who we are, give them plenty of time to get ready for us. We still don't know who's really on that ship, but now they'll know who's on this one and what kind of price we've still got on our heads."

      "Orac says the Columbia's still registered as a legitimate trader," said Dayna, relieving him of his glassware. "It's contracted to a respectable freight agency and nothing to do with the Federation."

      "And there are three hundred passengers on board," added Cally. "Bounty hunters find that amount of company tends to cramp their style."

      Vila remained unconvinced. "Assuming they are passengers. You could end up with three hundred laser rifles aimed straight between your eyes."

      "Then I'll do my best to duck," said Tarrant, making sure his gun belt was securely strapped on. "Besides, they'll have had us on their visuals for a while now and would know who we are anyway."

      Avon strode in and snapped on a bracelet. "So if they've got anything planned for us they'll be ready and waiting. No point in delaying any longer. Let's get over there." He stepped into the teleport bay and Cally and Tarrant joined him. Dayna shot green eyes at them, twitching.

      "Are you sure you don't want me to come across with you?"

      "I want someone to stay behind as backup," said Avon.

      Dayna positively pouted. "Vila's not going."

      "I want someone to stay behind I can rely on."

      "Oh, so I'm reliable," she chanted. "Wonderful!"

      "Don't knock it," grinned Tarrant. "It's probably Avon's ultimate accolade."

      As Vila aligned the teleport coordinates and punched up the transmission codes, Dayna fixed Avon with a withering look. "One day," she said, "I'll get the chance to tell you you're reliable. Then you'll know how it feels."

      "Don't bother," he replied. "I already do." The air around him shimmered and then he, Tarrant and Cally were gone. Dayna couldn't be absolutely sure, but she couldn't help thinking she'd seen a hint of a smile on his face before he'd disappeared.

      "Sometimes," she said, "I wonder just how seriously to take him."

      "Try totally," offered Vila. "Believe me, it's safest."

      

      

One moment they were looking at Dayna and Vila at the teleport controls, the next they were in a narrow, underlit corridor with walls in dire need of a scrub. There was nobody else in sight.

      "So much for the reception committee," said Tarrant, uneasily, one hand resting on the butt of his gun.

      Avon studied the notices on the wall. "We ought to be somewhere between the passenger service section and the bridge. That's assuming Vila's put us in the right place."

      The door to their left bore a sign saying: 'No Unauthorised Personnel Beyond This Point'. Underneath it was a smaller sign, bright orange with black balloon lettering. Tarrant passed an eye over it. You don't HAVE to be mad to fly with this ship... He sighed. The door suddenly slid aside and a tall, white-haired man stood regarding them with a mixture of disbelief and polite welcome.

      "You must be the Liberator chaps," he said, stepping through and stiffly extending one arm. "Heard about your teleport, of course, but never really believed it. Until now, of course. I'm -" He stopped abruptly, staring past Avon and Cally at the tall, curly-haired man behind them. "Del Tarrant! What the devil are you doing with this crowd?"

      Tarrant shifted uneasily. "Well, well, well," he muttered. "Piledriver Droge. Thought you'd retired, Flight Major."

      "You know this man?" asked Avon, flatly.

      "Know him? He was the terror of FSA Central. Cadets would sooner face a firing squad than a dressing down from the Piledriver."

      "Then he's Federation."

      "Ex-Federation, actually," said Droge, standing like a drill instructor on a parade ground. "And yes, I do know who you are, and where you stand and who you work for and, no, I don't particularly care. This is a neutral ship and it stays neutral. Understood?"

      "Let's hope so." Avon's tone was icy, making it clear he was going to need something more in the way of proof. "Now what's your problem and what can we do to help?"

      

      

Dayna and Vila listened with glum faces to Tarrant's report.

      "Nine days to get a repair ship out here?" Vila couldn't believe it. Dayna could, but then she had taken the trouble to look at a few star charts.

      <Nine minimum,> Tarrant confirmed. <And it really does look like a repair ship job. This isn't routine wear and tear. The Colombia doesn't have the transmission range to contact a repair base, but Liberator does. I think you'd better make that your number one priority.>

      "I'll get onto it right away," she assured him. "Or get Vila to do it. No, on second thoughts, I'll do it myself."

      <The main problem is the passengers,> continued Tarrant. <They won't just be bored within a week, they'll be peckish with it. And that's on half rations.>

      Dayna had a sudden terrifying premonition. "Tarrant, you're not suggesting we take three hundred people on board. I know Liberator's a big ship but -"

      <Don't panic, Dayna, I'd already counted that one out myself. What I wanted was a check on our own food stores. How much can we spare?>

      "How about all of it?" suggested Vila. "In return for a decent meal for once. Anything better than Cordon Zen, which shouldn't be too difficult."

      "Oh, shut up, Vila," said Dayna, exasperated. Vila could easily irritate her at times. When he opened his mouth, for example. She shoved him away from the communicator. "I'm sure we could spare them something," she told Tarrant. "Are you sure the ship's drives can't be repaired on the spot?"

      <Pretty sure, yes. Avon's looking into it at the moment. He says things look 'interesting', which is probably a bad sign.>

      "You're the one who wanted him to have something to take his mind off things."

      <It looks like he's got it.> There was a pause, and when Tarrant spoke again he sounded distinctly quieter, as if anxious not to be overheard. <I also get the impression we're not being told everything. For one thing I can't believe a ship this size would only have one engineer. I'll keep you posted.>

      "Be careful," Dayna warned him. Unnecessarily, as they both knew by now.

      <Don't worry. I will. Tarrant out.>

      

      

Avon was doing his best to enhance the film Maclain transmitted from the drive chamber while Cally and O'Ryan studied it carefully. Droge paced up and down behind them, probably trying to think of a good order to give someone.

      "That's the hole in the hull?" asked O'Ryan, looking at a screen full of twisted metal. "Ho-leee!"

      <That's it,> confirmed Maclain. <We found it a couple of minutes after... after we found the other damage. I've not seen anything to compare with this anywhere.>

      "Okay, hold it there." She turned to Avon. "Can you improve on that?"

      Avon fiddled with the tone differentiation. "Any better?"

      "A bit." O'Ryan stared closely at the screen and traced over outlines with a screenprint stylus. "Macki boy, you're not the only one," she murmured. "It's like something's been punched out through from inside."

      Avon leaned over to look for himself. Metal plating was buckled outwards, leaving a jagged, slit-like hole into empty space.

      "That explains the depressurisation," said Cally. She was watching O'Ryan very carefully, noting every jittery shake of her hand. "And the loss of simulated gravity. The inner and outer hulls have got entangled. The ship can't go anywhere until that's been repaired."

      "That's minor grade hass," O'Ryan said, without taking her eyes off the screen. "It's the big component damage that'll take some fixing."

      "Stabbed," said Avon suddenly. When the others gave him querying glances he explained more fully. "You said it looked like it had been punched through," he told O'Ryan, "but that hole is too long and too narrow. Maclain, can you give us some precise dimensions on the aperture?"

      <Don't know about precise, but yes, it's about three and a half metres one way and maybe one, just under at its widest. I could probably squeeze through but I'd rip my suit.>

      "I'm not suggesting you try it." Avon sat back and rubbed his chin. "Is there anything on the ship that could do that to the outer hull?"

      Droge stopped pacing and towered up behind Avon. "We are talking here about herculanium-plated vanadium steel. Is there anything on any ship that can cut a hole like that?"

      "It's tempting to think there might be on yours," said Avon.

      "What cargo are you carrying?" Cally asked the captain. He seemed to her to be the kind of man who felt awkward when dealing with those he regarded as aliens. A confrontational approach with the likes of Droge could often yield results.

      "A...variety of things," said the captain, ill at ease. "Pharmaceuticals, seed stocks, textiles, mail freight. A ship like this carries near on anything it's asked to." He recovered his poise as he found safe ground. "We run on a very tight budget, you know. Our basic salaries aren't much to speak of, we depend on commissions from the agency. Or to be more precise, I do, since I'm the one who has to make the books balance. That means we carry anything. Anything within reason, that is."

      "Including, I presume," said Avon, scanning a screenful of data he had just punched up, "seven containers of 'machine parts'."

      Droge stood stock still and looked ready to throw a fit. "I can assure you," he said, very precisely, "that whatever is in those containers is not the kind of machinery that can tear holes in a starship's outer hull." He reached over Avon's shoulder and barked into the commbox. "Mr Maclain, if there's no further damage to report then make your way up to the bridge."

      <Very good, sir.> O'Ryan's screen went blank as the camera was switched off. She had everything taped for future reference if necessary. "Your other man's taking his time down in the stores, isn't he?" she said to Cally.

      Cally nodded. "I'd have expected him to call back by now."

      "And I did say at the time," Droge pointed out, "that he would find nothing useful down there. If we had the equipment or parts to repair the damage we'd never have sent out a call in the first place."

      "Tarrant's a great innovator," said Avon. "He might find something you'd overlook."

      O'Ryan got up, indignant. "Are you trying to tell me I can't do my job? 'Cos if you are then I'm telling you to go take a flyi -"

      "Easy, Ms O'Ryan," ordered Droge. The young engineer flushed and clammed up with an effort of will. Sweat dribbled down her face. She kicked her chair back and made for the door. It opened before she got to it, and Tarrant came in, propelling a young crewman in white overalls before him.

      "Just wait 'til you hear this, Avon," he said, flashing his teeth grimly.

      The crewman, evidently a steward or one of the caterers, looked nervously around and faced the captain. "There's...er...there's been another one, sir," he stammered.

      Droge's face turned into an impenetrable mask as Avon rose slowly and moved around to look him in the eye.

      "Another what, exactly?" he asked.

      

      

"Vila!" Dayna's eyes glared stern disapproval. "I told you to check out the state of our food stores, not bring half of them back with you."

      "I get nibbly when I've got nothing to do," he protested. "And this is nowhere near half. One thousand year's worth for one, that's what we've got. We could keep the Colombia sick as pigs for three years. And sick's what they would be, too. Look at it. Cheap grade slop, and that's the best of it."

      Dayna sighed. Vila was a natural bon viveur, quick to complain about anything. The food was perfectly palatable. But she had to admit it didn't quite belong on the Liberator. The labelling was all in Terran. One of those things, like the strongroom, and the ship's apparently inexhaustible wardrobe, that raised interesting questions about Liberator's past. Questions not even Avon seemed terribly inclined to delve into.

      "While you've been raiding the larder," she said, "I've been putting Orac to good use."

      "That'll be a first," said Vila, peeling the top off a can of stew and then remembering he should have pressed the heating stud first. Not that he seemed to mind, by the way he set to with a fork.

      Dayna ignored that remark. She spent most of her time with Vila doing her best to ignore him as much as possible, and she was getting rather good at it. "Orac's come up with some interesting conclusions, haven't you, Orac?"

      "My assessment of the Colombia's external damage is most revealing," agreed the computer. "No collision with any known particulate matter could be responsible, either at sublight speed or in time distort mode. Neither can any known energy weapon be responsible."

      "So we're stumped," said Vila. "We'd already worked that out for ourselves. You just make it sound cleverer."

      "If you would allow me to finish," whined Orac, "I was going to add that such external distortion could only be achieved by a heavy duty industrial robot, the kind that is generally used for starship construction."

      "Which makes sense," said Dayna. "Something's got to be able to cut herculanium or they'd never build ships out of it."

      "So tell Avon," suggested Vila, talking with his mouth full.

      "I'm just going to," she said, looking at him with disgust and wishing she hadn't. Looked at him, that was. The disgust she didn't regret in the slightest.

      

      

Data collation.

      "You say the first two crew members to be found dead - Grebbins and Storsky - were definitely still alive before the drives packed up." Avon leaned back heavily in the chair, cross-legged, watching the tip of a light pen as it swung in his fingers like a metronome. Droge's office was big enough to hold a conference of four, even if it was a tight squeeze. Everything was orderly enough at a glance, but quite untidy in detail, as if efforts to keeps things where they belonged had petered out somewhere along the line.

      "If they weren't still alive I couldn't have sent them down to see what was wrong," Droge pointed out. "I can put two and two together, you know. Whatever killed them was the same thing that cut its way out of the drive chamber."

      "We all know what Orac thinks it might have been," said Cally.

      Tarrant leant on the back of a chair and swayed with it. "And we all know Orac's got to be wrong. A ship construction bot? I've seen one of those mothers, they're big. With a capital B-I-G. Even if one could fit in the drive chamber it couldn't get through the airlock, which it would have had to do to kill Grebbins."

      "And later the other man," noted Cally.

      "Karpov," supplied Droge.

      Cally nodded. "Yes, Karpov. That was between the recycling plant and the paraneutronic generators."

      "More doors to go through," said Tarrant, "and corridors that narrow." He spread his hands, made walls of them. "Definitely not a bot."

      "The robots are big," agreed Avon, "but they are also multifunctional. Could the cutting equipment on its own be carried through the corridors?"

      Tarrant thought for a moment. "Possibly," he said, clearly unsure. "But not easily. It would weigh a tonne. Not the type of gear you would dice people up with, even if you wanted to."

      Droge leaned forward, hands clasped, brows hanging heavy. "You're suggesting someone on board? A stowaway?"

      "Or one of the crew," said Avon.

      Droge looked up with a start. "The crew? Why should any of them want to do something like this?"

      Avon smiled coldly. "Your crew, your problem."

      "It could also be one of the passengers," suggested Cally.

      Droge gave the idea minimal consideration. "No, impossible. The passenger section is sealed off from the rest of the ship. There's no way any of them could leave it without me knowing."

      The door suddenly hissed open and Chu-Lao took a step inside. She had her hands on her hips and was chewing a thick wad of gum. Droge half rose and then sat down again.

      "It's considered polite to knock, Ms Lao."

      "Sorry, Captain," she replied with a hint of a grin, "but I've got one of the passengers here. He insists on seeing you this minute."

      "You were just saying," murmured Tarrant to himself. A broad, slab-faced man squeezed through the narrow doorway. What remained of his hair was impeccably groomed. He wore the kind of perfectly fitting suit that would have set Tarrant back half a year's pay in his piloting days. He took Avon, Cally and Tarrant in with a sweeping glance and clearly decided they were unimportant. All his attention was on Droge.

      "My apologies for intruding on you like this, Captain," he said, in a voice that sounded as if it had never uttered an apology in its life, "but I've just been informed by one of your stewards that this ship won't be moving an inch for some days. Is this true?"

      Droge stood up and planted his hands on the desk. "I'm afraid it is, mister...?"

      "Lassiter." He rolled the name out as if having to produce it were an insult. "Konrad Lassiter, boarded at Westman's World. Now, I'm not one to cut around the core of the matter, I have to be on San Bernard within eight days for a connecting flight to Uila Segunda."

      Droge pulled a tight face, deepening the lines around his eyes. "I'm sure you'll find you're not the only passenger on board who has to be on San Bernard -"

      "I daresay," interrupted Lassiter. "But I'm afraid this is a little more crucial than aunty's birthday or some time-wasting corporate junket. I'm testifying as a key character witness in a murder trial on Uila Segunda and if I miss my connection I've no chance of being there on time."

      Tarrant felt it was time he butted in. "That makes all the difference, does it?"

      Lassiter turned his head slowly and narrowed his eyes in disgust. "Some people might not think so. Some people might not think it makes any difference at all. Personally I consider a young man's future and quite possibly his life to make rather a lot of difference." He strode up to Droge's desk and put his own hands down on the cluttered surface. "He's a former employee of mine, took advantage of the War to make his own future in the Outer Worlds. Screwed it up, of course, always knew he would, and ended up trying to shoot his way out of debt. No doubt about it, he's guilty, but I'll be damned if I see him frazzle for spineless incompetence. Now, I'm a registered Federation citizen with bona fide authorization to travel." He tapped his breast pocket. "I've got the release permit on me if you can't be bothered to check your flight roster. You have got to get me to San Bernard within the next eight days."

      Cally had been making rough calculations in her head. "Liberator could make it in less than five," she thought aloud.

      Tarrant flung his head up in despair. "Thank you, Cally," he said through clenched teeth.

      Lassiter stood up straight and regarded Droge's three companions more intently.

      "Liberator?" He chewed the name over. "Yes, I've heard of you people. You there must be Kerr Avon."

      Avon cocked his head slightly to one side. "I'm flattered."

      "Hardly the word for it," snapped Lassiter, interlocking fingers and flexing his palms together. "However, the first rule of politics has always been expediency. If I can get there on time or sooner, I'm prepared to overlook the how."

      "Very generous," muttered Tarrant.

      "Why couldn't you arrange to testify by viscast?" asked Cally. "The relay time delay wouldn't be all that much. They have special sub-beam channels for such purposes."

      Lassiter looked as if he was about to splutter with contempt, but he managed to bottle it down. "Do you seriously think that if I could do that, I would be travelling on a bucket like this? Uila Segundan law demands that I be there to give my testimony in person. And you can check that on your Orac computer."

      Avon stood up. "Thank you," he said, and pushed past Lassiter for the door. "We will."

      

      

"It is not an uncommon stipulation on non-Federation systems," droned Orac. "Uila Segunda is one such world: this Konrad Lassiter must indeed be present in person if his evidence is to carry any legal validity."

      Dayna checked the communicator channels were open. "Did you get that, Avon?"

      <Loud and clear. Not that I really doubted it anyway. I think Lassiter's exactly what he's claiming to be, but there's no harm in making sure. Are there any details on the case?>

      "None," replied Orac immediately. "General information on Uila Segunda is collated in the Federation's data banks. However, the planet is independent and not a part of the Federation's central datanet. It does not utilise tarriel cell technology, thereby rendering detailed local information inaccess -"

      <All right, Orac, I get the picture. Dayna, how's the food shipment transfer coming along?>

      "We're almost there," she replied. "There's five days worth already in hold three; they can link up now and start bringing it across. I'm going to put some more in - the service company say they can't get here within ten days, and two more, probably three, to repair the damage."

      Tarrant cut in. <It'll be three. They charge by the hour.>

      Vila tottered onto the flight deck, half hidden behind a stack of tins. He dumped them on a couch and flopped down beside them. Dayna glowered at him.

      "You're supposed to be supervising the hold operations."

      "The automatics are doing a fine job," he assured her. "I, meanwhile, have found a few rare and succulent treasures among our stock of incomestibles. And top of the list for sheer rarity and succulence is - these." He held up one of the small, flat tins in an open palm and bathed it in an adoring gaze. "Skopami beans. Grown men have killed for a forkful of these."

      "Really?" growled Dayna. "And what do you do for them?"

      <Dayna,> demanded Avon. <Are you still there?>

      "Oh, I'm still here," she replied. "I'm just about to be treated to the sight of Vila stuffing himself sick again."

      "Not stuffing," protested Vila, twirling the tin to catch the light. "These are to be savoured. Decades of selective breeding and genetic manipulation lie here in my undeserving hand. What once was humble haricot is now the second most sought after pleasure in the galaxy, after a night with Trudi Leitz."

      If Avon could hear any of what Vila was saying he didn't see fit to mention it. <See if Orac can get any information on Lassiter from the other end. He claims to be a Federation citizen, so he ought to be in the files somewhere.>

      "All right," she said. "Are you going to let him come aboard?"

      <Probably. He's got a strong enough case. If we can't find any holes in it I don't see why not.>

      "I do," said Vila, twirling a forefinger with a flourish and hooking it through the ringpull. "Federation citizen? One big good reason not to let him on board."

      "Vila!" snapped Dayna. "There's a man's life at stake."

      <That's not Avon being unfathomably charitable.> Tarrant had broken in again. <That's Avon grumpily giving in to his relatively humane colleagues, but as usual he's taking any credit that's due. Not that I don't agree with him on playing it cagey - we check Lassiter out as far as we can before we send him across.>

      "Don't worry," Dayna assured him. "I'll put Orac onto it right away."

      Vila let loose a groan of anguish. The ringpull tab had snapped off before he'd even started tugging in earnest. "Typical," he moaned. "Absolutely typical. Fortunately, however," he continued, fishing through the pockets of his latest tasteless piece of deckwear, "I had the foresight to pick up an emergency means of entry." He flashed his eyebrows in delight as he pulled out a tin opener.

      "What's happening over there now?" Dayna asked.

      <All the crew Droge can spare are searching the rear section,> said Avon. <They're looking for someone with a tonne of herculanium cutter over his shoulder, so they'll either have no trouble at all or come back disappointed. Cally's joined them. Tarrant and I are going to see the ship's doctor, he should have finished looking over the remains by now.>

      Vila set to with the opener in raw haste, glaring at had what had now become an implacable enemy to be conquered without mercy. He cut a crude hole some way in from the rim and lifted up the jagged metal. A fork appeared in his hand as if by magic.

      Dayna took no notice. "What do you want me to do this end?"

      <Keep Vila busy and stand by. Let us know if you get anything on Lassiter. We'll be in touch as and when necessary.>

      Dayna nodded to herself as the contact light winked out. She was about to pass on Avon's instructions to Orac when she was distracted by a frantic spluttering from Vila. He spat out a half-chewed mouthful without caring where it landed and clutched at his throat, white-faced and wheezing.

      "Vila! What is it?" she cried, hurrying over. She saw his face turn from white to an ominous shade of green.

      "All my life I've been waiting to..." he gurgled. Tears sprang to his eyes. "All my life and they turn out to be..." He made a deep oesophagal sound that made Dayna feel distinctly unwell herself, then leapt to his feet, swaying unsteadily. Another bilious burble vaulted up his throat before he was running faster than Dayna had ever imagined he could, off the flight deck and clattering down the corridors with a very definite goal in mind.

      Dayna stared after him, chewing her lip anxiously. Then she twitched in annoyance, mostly at herself for feeling worried about him. Whatever he was going through, he probably deserved it. She felt this all the more when she saw the open tin on the floor, an oily reddish juice spilling out through the lid. She could smell it from where she stood and it was not pleasant. It could hardly be left where it was, so she picked it up, gingerly, trying her best not to get any of the fluid on her fingers. She closed the lid as best she could with one finger and put the tin down next to the central console, then headed back to Orac.

      The whole episode was something she would have liked to put out of her mind immediately, but something about the tin wouldn't stop nagging.

      

      

Dr Patel turned out to be a very small man with a penchant for very fat cigars. "Del Tarrant... Kerr Avon," he muttered with delight as he shook them by the hand. "Remind me to ask for your autographs before you go. This way please."

      Patel's inner sanctum was a narrow, underlit room where reference charts battled with full frontal pin-ups for wall space. "I want to show you something very interesting," he said, scurrying along to the far end of the long bench that lined one wall. "Two things, very interesting, even. First of all I want you to look at Grebbins' humerus."

      Tarrant made a vaguely disturbed noise at the back of his throat. Patel laughed.

      "Oh no no no. Not the real thing. That is sitting in the freezer. I have a full graphic map for you here on bubble RAM." He stopped beside the computer console and blew a perfect smoke ring. The monitor presented a 3D representation of a severed arm in see-thru gridline contours. Patel swivelled his thumb over the cursor ball and spun the arm around in a complete circle.

      "Note the amputation point," he said. "Almost exactly midway between elbow and shoulder." He tapped Tarrant's arm as further elaboration. "Very clean. Very very clean. I'll give you a magnified real image." Three deft keystrokes and the screen changed. A stark monochrome view of what might have been the end of a woodpile, every lopped branch squeezed neatly up alongside its neighbours. Dr Patel beamed with admiration.

      "Its perfect, isn't it? Every Haversian canal distinct, no distortion. I almost feel inclined to count the canaliculi. You know what that is? That is a perfect transverse section of compact bone. You wouldn't find clearer osteons in a forensic pathology lab."

      "I'm sure it's very impressive," said Avon. "What does it mean?"

      Dr Patel arched his head back in pity of the terminally ignorant. "It means," he said, with exaggerated clarity, "that whatever separated poor Grebbins from his constituent limbs was very sharp. Exceedingly sharp, I might say. No distortion, see? Sharp enough to make a scalpel look like a blunt knife, and with enough force to go slicing right through solid bone in an instant."

      Avon pondered. "A herculanium cutter has to be sharp..." he began.

      "But not that sharp," finished Tarrant. "Crash one theory."

      "Did you seriously believe in it?"

      "Now the far end is something else entirely," said Patel. "Look at this contusion map. A lot of pressure, right from the fingertips to fifteen centimetres up from the carpal supination. Most pronounced dorsally, but still quite considerable on the ventral surfaces. Ulno-radial distortion, it's as if..." He actually had to pause for words. "As if someone had tried to bend his lower arm over the back of a chair after hitting it all over with a hammer."

      "And when that didn't work they simply cut it off," said Tarrant. "Well, maniacs do odd things by definition."

      "Strong maniac," observed Patel. "Very very strong. Let me show you some point-specific stress readings." His hand was diving keyboardwards when Avon interrupted.

      "I think we get the gist," he said.

      "We do?" queried Tarrant.

      Avon grimaced. "After a fashion, anyway. Is that all you've got to show us?"

      Patel took a violent suck on his cigar. "Oh no, there's more. There is this." He held up a specimen flask of near-colourless liquid. "A pool of this was found near Grebbins' body. I put it through the spectrometer. Very very interesting. Very high nitrogenous content, nearly 35%. Alkali metal salts, phosphate, free ammonia, trace monosaccharides... What does that suggest to you?"

      Tarrant pondered. "Somebody was taken short?" he suggested. "Couldn't wait until he got to the small room."

      "I don't think I could," said Dr Patel, "if I had a bladder full of hydrogen peroxide." He grinned at the two men and twirled the flask. "There's an awful lot of it in here. Very awful lot."

      Avon stalked around Tarrant and Patel in as wide a circuit as the room allowed. "Hydrogen peroxide," he repeated to himself. "It's a powerful oxidising agent and it's extremely toxic. It is not a normal constituent of human urine."

      Patel leaned forward conspiratorially. "You know, I'm not entirely sure this sample is human."

      

      

O'Ryan's nose inched through the door like a rat peeking out of a sewer. She sidled through, one finger squeezing dangerously hard on the trigger of her short-barrelled pump action. "Freight bay 7," she said. "Welcome to gloom city. What you reckon this is where our luck runs out?"

      "Runs out?" echoed Cally, stepping through behind. She closed the door. It grumbled shut and sealed with a reverberating thud.

      "Damn right," said O'Ryan. "You actually want to meet this mother-upper?" She slid alongside the nearest bulk container, scraping her back along its rusty wall. The gap between the containers was narrow, barely wide enough to walk through. They were stacked halfway up to the lighting spindle running along the ship's central axis. Beyond that the ceiling was barely visible, more containers hanging down from it. Not ceiling at all, just the opposite floor.

      Cally slid her handgun out of its holster. The place could certainly have been brighter. The hum of the power banks could be felt rather than heard, vibrating up from the floor. That was what was making her spine tingle, she told herself. She followed O'Ryan down the iron canyon. The comm signal on her bracelet chimed.

      "Cally. What is it?"

      <Avon. I've just had an interesting call from Dayna. She's come up with a new theory. We've been assuming that the hull damage in the engine section was something punching out from the inside. She reckons it might be something cutting in from outside the ship.>

      "Whatever gives her that idea?"

      <She says we have Vila's stomach to thank for it. I'm not sure I want to enquire further. We've also had a guided tour of the mortal remains from the ship's doctor. No solid conclusions yet, but you might be hunting an exomorph. I suggest you be extra careful. We're on our way down to join you. Call us if you have any trouble.>

      The commline went dead. O'Ryan rolled her eyes. "Exomorph? Is he trying to tell me I'm after an alien?"

      "At the moment," said Cally, very calmly, "the alien is after you."

      O'Ryan frantically waved a placatory hand. "All right, cool okay? When I say alien, I mean a genuine non-Homo, and I'm not talking about the only real man on this ship. Mainly because I don't think there is one." She took a few steps further forward and dropped her voice to a whisper. "Is it just me or is this place freaky?"

      Cally looked along and up, the only ways in which to look. It wasn't until she ran her tongue across her lips that she realised how dry they were. "I don't think it's just you."

      "Never did like this place," muttered O'Ryan, taking it one step at a time. She reached a gap in the lines of containers. A stack of pipes ran across the corridor, just above head height. One of them was dripping through a wrapped-round cloth. There was a strong smell of ketone.

      "Y'know Chu got groped by the last senior steward in here?" she told Cally. "Took her roughly from behind, said he thought she liked it that way. Chu said she thought he wanted both his arms in plaster. Was about that time I realised the doc had a soft one for Chu. He's too good to mis-pin two broken bones in one day." She stopped and peered down the gaps between the hulk walls. "There's a bad atmosphere in here. Really bad."

      Cally nodded. And froze. "I don't think it's just the atmosphere," she murmured, fighting down the adrenalin rush. She closed her eyes. Then promptly opened them. She wanted to be able to see. "I can... feel... "

      She span round and looked back the way they'd just come. Nothing.

      O'Ryan sniggered. "Hey, sister! I thought I was easily spooked." The realisation fell like a hammer. "Oh shit. You're an Auron!"

      "It's here," whispered Cally. "Close. Very close."

      O'Ryan breathed in deep through a dry mouth. "You've just got your imagination on overdrive. Walkway's blank both ways."

      "Very close. Ten metres at the most."

      "It's only you and me, baby. Can't we just talk girl stuff till we're through with this?"

      "Getting closer..." Cally looked back up to the sealed door. Still nothing. At least, not that way. Not ahead either. Somewhere...

      She lifted her head. O'Ryan followed likewise. And screamed a silent scream.

      She flipped the repeater up and let off two shots as something big dropped like a bat. The double boom echoed deafening in the narrow walkway, bouncing off container walls like the rivet hammer of hell. Cally brought her handgun round to take aim as she screamed across the psiband.

      //Avon Tarrant get down here!//

      Whatever it was, it looked huge. O'Ryan went down under it. The pump action skittered across the gridded floor. Cally pulled her arm up to a line of fire well above O'Ryan. She fired at point blank range.

      In return she got a deep-throated roar so loud it almost knocked her off her feet. Then she was staring into a pair of wide, slitted eyes, yellow, baleful, almost hypnotic. Before she knew what was happening an arm lashed up from nowhere and caught her on the side of the face.

      She was knocked back. Solid metal clanged on the back of her skull and she slid to the floor. Six feet and a million light years away O'Ryan was screaming, something way beyond simple pain and fear. Cally staggered up into a crouch. Her sidearm was gone, lost in the shadows. But the pump action was just within reach.

      She snatched it by the barrel end, got to her feet. O'Ryan's howls threatened to perforate her eardrums. With a lurch she swung the rifle through a high arc, down onto what she took to be the thing's head. It bounced back and jarred out of her hand. Then she was looking back into those eyes again. Animal lips parted. The distant overhead light gleamed on something like sheet metal. Teeth. Very sharp teeth. A black chasm yawned wide between upper and lower jaws and a mindless bestial growl reached out from the throat and pinned her feet to the floor.

      Then there was a whine of screaming metal behind her and a shaft of light stabbed down the walkway. The gridded floor rocked with heavy running feet. The creature snarled, breaking its spell. As Cally staggered back, it picked something up off the floor and turned round so fast she could hardly be sure it had moved. Then it was gone, leaping up the walls of the container stack, over the top and out of sight. She felt her legs give way from under her and she fell. Into something solidly human.

      "It's all right." Tarrant. "I've got you."

      She gulped, took a deep breath, and pushed herself away from him. Spread her arms to keep him back. "She's the one who needs help." O'Ryan was lying very still and ominously quiet. Avon was already beside her, tugging off his jacket.

      "Tarrant, get a stretcher party down here and tell Patel to stand by."

      "Is she bad?"

      Avon spat the answer back at him. "She's lost a leg." He balled up the jacket and pushed it tight against the stump. Tarrant gave a quick nod and dashed away. Cally came across and knelt beside Avon.

      "Is she still alive?"

      "There's a pulse. Check she's still breathing."

      He gritted his teeth as he applied more pressure.

      "Just about," Cally told him. "I don't give much for her chances."

      "Neither do I. The leg's cut clean through, just like Grebbins' arm. Look at those chest lacerations."

      Cally landed an experimental touch. What she felt was quite unnatural. "The ribs have been sliced right through. Probably cut through to the lung."

      "All right, do your best to seal it." He looked around the freight bay. There was no sign of anything moving. "Did you get a good look at the thing?"

      "Not really. Definitely exomorph, but that's about all." She pulled off her own coat and spread it over O'Ryan. "Something I am pretty sure of - she hit it at least once with high impact scattershell, and I put a full intensity beam down its back. It hardly seemed to feel either."

      Avon absorbed this with a curled lip. "That could make life interesting," he said eventually.

      A distant commotion grew rapidly louder. Running feet clattered down into the freight bay. Tarrant was back with the stretcher team.

      "Well," said Avon. "At least now we know what we're looking for." He inspected the wall of the nearest container and saw bright metalshine gougemarks cut into the rust and flaking paint.

      "Whatever it turns out to be."

      

      

"Alien monsters?" Vila's intestinal tract had staged a remarkable recovery, leaving his mind free to digest the unpalatable. "I don't believe it."

      "Only because you don't want to," sneered Dayna. She thumbed the teleport control and watched four outlines shimmer into view. Seeing the teleport at work had long since lost its novelty, but she was intrigued to see who the new arrivals might be.

      "Damn right," said Vila. "When you get to my age you realise there's a lot of things in the galaxy it's best not to believe in. And kill-crazy aliens is one of them."

      Tarrant stepped out of the teleport bay and flashed a bashful smile at his guests. "Welcome aboard the Liberator," he said. "This is Dayna, the noise machine in the background is called Vila. Dayna, Vila, may I introduce Mr Konrad Lassiter and Liona Baret."

      "Pleased to meet you," said Vila, barely looking over. Something caught his eye and he gave the pair a fresh appraisal. Doubly so when he looked past Lassiter. "Very pleased to meet you," he repeated.

      "That's Mrs Liona Baret," added Tarrant. "And Liona junior." The face that peeked round from behind her mother's back was wide-eyed with unconcealed excitement. Mother and child had a lot in common.

      "I thought I'd had a few unique experiences before," said Baret, stepping out of the teleport bay, "but this has got to be the..." She shook her head in a ripple of perfectly-styled blonde curls.

      Tarrant took a step sideways and slapped Vila on the back. "Perhaps you could show our guests to their quarters?"

      "What? Oh right, yes. Walk this way, ladies and gentleman, please."

      "If I could walk that way," said Baret, "I wouldn't need showing to my quarters." Little Liona giggled. Lassiter deepened the furrows in his brow and didn't budge an inch until the others had left.

      "I don't suppose it's too much to ask," he demanded, facing Tarrant, "that we get under way immediately?"

      "We already are under way," said Dayna. "Our flight computer put us on course the moment you teleported aboard."

      Lassiter frowned, cocked his head on one side.

      "We're cruising at an equivalent Time Distort nine," Tarrant informed him, "and still within our regenerative margin."

      Lassiter bowed his head, clearly impressed. The belligerent scowl gave way to a faintly awed one. "I suppose I ought to show some measure of gratitude," he said, and stalked out of the teleport chamber. "I won't forget this."

      Tarrant waited until he was out of sight. "Neither will we in a hurry."

      Dayna folded her arms and sidled up beside him. "What's with the other two?" she asked, pointedly.

      Tarrant flashed her a grin. "Little favour for the Piledriver. She's a friend of his sister-in-law, or sister-in-law of his friend. Or something. The Old Peer Network strikes again. Avon grumbled about it but I think he was just going through the motions. Do you object?"

      "Not particularly," she said. "And Vila certainly doesn't."

      "Ah yes, Vila." He rubbed his hands together with undisguised relish. "Perhaps I ought to inform him that the delectable Mrs B is something of a veteran timewiper."

      "A veteran what?"

      "Doesn't like to think of what the years might do to her. Spends a lot of time under the knife. All privately paid for, of course. You wouldn't believe she wasn't a day under sixty four, would you?"

      Dayna thought about this. "You're right. I don't believe it."

      Tarrant clapped her on the shoulder. "Only because you don't want to." He took off his teleport bracelet and stowed it away in the rack. "As for the kid, I had her sized up in twenty seconds flat. Avon and Cally have probably got the cushy option. We've got a right little monster of our own for the next five days."

      "That's as may be. Do you really think it's wise, leaving them behind all this time?"

      Tarrant paused, briefly acknowledging an element of doubt.

      "It does sound," pressed Dayna, "as if that thing is going to prove difficult to kill."

      "Droge did us the honour of taking us into his confidence," said Tarrant. "He's not just carrying machine parts. No surprise, really, not many ships do. Some ports of call on his itinerary are, shall we say, politically unstable. There's a fair bit of stabilising equipment in those holds of his. He reckons they've got just the thing."

      

      

"This," said Maclain, "is the Arilman AR-45 heavy assault rifle." If he sounded like a boot camp drill instructor, that was only because he'd been one in his time. Though hardly a tall man, he filled out his shipboard overalls with the solidity of the professional soldier. "six point two millimetre, twenty seven rps. A bit on the heavy side, but if you balance it right it shouldn't give you any problems. It packs the punch of a standard VRF with the reliability of a UV laser. Integral recoil suppression, vacuum springfeed loading. It's also got a true-line-of-sight facility but I don't think anyone here's kitted for smartlinkage." He briefly raised an inquisitive eyebrow at Avon and Cally.

      Avon shook his head. "Do you have enough of those to equip everyone?"

      Maclain's eyes twinkled. "Oh, I should think so. How many of these are we carrying, Tral?"

      Tral Morris, deputy security officer, made a show of adding up in his head. "One thousand seven hundred and fifty, sir."

      "For the Judaic Separatist Militia on New Haifa. I'm sure they won't object to a bit of quality control on our part. We'll knock a bit off for any gratuitous use of these..." He picked up a bullet standing end-up on the desk. "Discarding sabot high penetration AP. And when I say high, I mean high. Carbo drilltip. You could shoot down a Minxcat gunship with these."

      Avon refused to be impressed. "We are not hunting Minxcat gunships."

      Maclain refused to be deflated. "If you need backup..." He put down the Arilman and hefted a chunky pistol in his right hand. "Katsunichi-Y proximity burst plaser. Togoshima Arc manufacture, that should speak for itself. I daresay Chu can tell us what katsunichi means."

      The navigator took her cigarette between finger and thumb and pulled it out of her mouth. "Power of the sun. And if you ask me it's wasted on this bo."

      "No one is asking you, Ms Lao." Droge ushered Maclain back and swept his authoritarian eye over the assembled crew. "If you have any further questions, I suggest you address them to Mr Maclain right now. Otherwise collect your weapons and get to your allocated search areas. Good luck, everyone." He wheeled around and walked out, heading for the flight deck.

      "What's up with him?" wondered Cally aloud. Maclain handed her a rifle. She checked over the magazine readout and made sure the safety was on.

      Chu-Lao overheard. "It's the hush-hush cargo. The old man used to groom pilots for busting this kind of run. His ain't the kind of pride that lies down easy."

      "That's right," added Maclain. "Don't try to lay him any lower. He's running a good outfit here, in his way."

      Avon found his belt too tight to accommodate the plaser. He half unsealed his borrowed jacket and lodged the weapon in there. "Even though he's taking the credit for all your organisational work?"

      "I'm used to that. I'm an ex-sergeant, fourteenth Legion. Missed you lot on Centero by three months."

      Avon fixed him with an involuntary baleful stare. Maclain winked back.

      "Before the War, mate. Come on, let's go kick up some carnage."

      Cally turned to Chu-Lao. "Are you ex-military too?"

      "Not me. I turned spacer to stay out of it. No way was I doing my compulsory. I stay lost in the big vacc." She hefted her Arilman and took a deep suck on her cigarette. "All set for flushing through life support? I'm glad I got you and your magic feelers."

      On the way down to the aft section they passed the sickbay. Dr Patel was standing in the doorway.

      "Not joining us, Doc?"

      "Oh no no. I've got important work to do. Very important. Don't know what it is yet but I'm sure I can find some."

      They hurried down the service tunnel past the passenger section. Behind a thin sheet of overhead metal three hundred people were starting to get restless.

      "I'd love to tell them what's really going on," said Chu-Lao. "Just to see their faces." She had a low opinion of part-time spacefarers.

      "I'd rather stick with a situation we can pretend we're handling," replied Maclain. "Shit - if this thing can cut through the hull it might turn up anywhere."

      "It can also figure out door controls," Avon reminded him. "That makes it intelligent. We can't afford to underestimate it."

      "Oh great." Chu-Lao studied the floor, just in case it looked like something was about to break through. "It's so intelligent it bites peoples' limbs off. Patel reckons Grebbins' arm was crushed down the thing's throat. What's that supposed to mean?"

      "It means," said Cally, "that there are questions we don't yet have answers to."

      Maclain forced a brisker pace. "We're not looking for answers. We're looking for a dead alien."

      "Only decent kind," said Chu-Lao. Pause. "Present company excepted, of course."

      They reached the end of the passenger section. The rest of the crew detailed to the search were waiting in a tight knot huddled up by the wall. Maclain moved forward to address them all.

      "Okay, folks, you all know where you're going. Remember, if you haven't got zero-gee experience you stay away from the spindle. If you're on the power house or life support you keep fire to an absolute minimum. That goes double if you're over the passenger section. Report in to the flight deck every five minutes - that's rigid. Any questions?"

      A woman in her mid-forties put her hand up. A white kitchen collar was just visible over the neckseal of her spacesuit. "What's with the exterior detail?"

      "The alien's metabolism contains a strong oxygen donor. We think it can function in vacc. Go through all the normal suit checks before you leave the airlock. Make sure your squirt bottle's firmly attached at all times. Don't fire the plaser unless you absolutely have to - the recoil can kick you out of lifeline reach. Any more?"

      Silence.

      "All right." Maclain swung his rifle up to vertical in his right hand and flicked the side with his thumb. "Safeties off. Let's get on with it."

      

      

"And then, of course," continued Vila, "there was the time we were captured by the Altas. 'Who are the Altas?' I hear you ask. That's a very good question, so I'll tell you." He stopped to regard his enthralled audience. "I'm not boring you, am I?"

      The elder Liona Baret smiled in her uniquely enchanting way. "Hardly. I spent all my working life in middle management."

      "Safe and boring," observed Vila. "I rather envy you, you know?"

      "It had its own little excitements," she said. "Can't ever recall being captured by the Altas, though." She stroked herself under the chin with one finger and looked up to the navigation console. "Were you ever captured by the Altas, Del?"

      Tarrant cracked a faintly embarrassed grin and glanced up from his readouts. "Before my time. Avon and Cally were around, though, and if they were here now I'm sure they'd be glad to correct any accidental errors in..." - his gaze drifted to little Liona, perched on a crash couch with her ankles freely swinging above the floor - "...Uncle Vila's account."

      +Information+ intoned Zen. +Inboard sensors report Lassiter leaving his cabin. He is moving towards the refectory+

      "Okay, Zen. Keep tabs on him." Tarrant left his position and marched down to the main floor. "On second thoughts, I think it's about time Vila did something useful."

      "What do you mean? I was just getting to a good bit."

      Tarrant amiably landed his hands on Vila's shoulders. "Ah, but you've got plenty of time to finish it later."

      "It was a very good bit. I rescued everybody. Why can't Dayna go?"

      "Dayna's having a rest. Some might say she's earned it. When did you last earn one, Vila?"

      "I'm not hungry."

      "Now there's a first. Little Liona might be, though." He turned to Baret. "If that's all right with you."

      "Oh, please do. Go on, love - Uncle Vila's going to get you something to eat."

      Liona stood up eagerly and grabbed Vila by the hand.

      "All right, I know when I'm beaten." Vila left under protest. But not too much protest, Tarrant noted. He was as taken with the girl as he was with her mother, but for different reasons. Or so Tarrant hoped.

      "You're not the subtlest man in the galaxy," said Baret, as Tarrant slumped down on the couch opposite.

      "Subtlety's wasted on Vila." He flipped open a locker and pulled out a bottle and two glasses. "This is his. He gets through rather a lot of it."

      Baret read the label and showed approval. "He has good taste."

      "Of course he does. He hangs around you, doesn't he?" The near-perpetual smile on her face widened even more as she took the glass he offered her. "That kid of yours knows how to behave herself," he said. "First impressions can deceive after all."

      "I've taken the trouble to teach her." She watched his hands carefully as he filled her glass. "When."

      "Aren't you..." Tarrant faltered, picking his words carefully. "I mean, isn't she a little young for..."

      "For a woman of my age? Yes, I suppose she is. In vitro, of course. I had her conceived nearly forty years ago. Went through a broody patch, you know? Kept her on ice until I took early retirement nine years ago. I was a definite career woman. Her father was an anonymous donor, the best genetic profile I could afford."

      "And Mr Baret...?"

      "Was just a career move. He soon left me, for a guidance systems programmer. I didn't stop him." She tilted her head on one side and looked at him through the distorting crystal of the glass. "I'm shocking you, aren't I?"

      He laughed. "Hardly. I'm an alpha grader myself, Earth born and bred. My own father was just a batch number too. Mother took the best two of the bunch and spaced them out over a couple of years. She had me implanted for a natural gestation. Fashionable, at the time."

      She nodded slowly, acknowledging shared confidences. "And Mr Tarrant?"

      "There wasn't one. She didn't allow any men in her life."

      "Lonely," murmured Baret.

      "She was never lonely," Tarrant corrected her. "Just indiscreet. She got involved with a lower grade woman and brought the morality police down on her head. My brother backed her appeal: things got rather hot for him and he had to leave Earth when it fell through. I was already in the FSA, and since I was there partly to spite her I wasn't going to jeopardise my prospects. I didn't go AWOL until I heard she'd died in a labour camp. It seemed like a coincidence, at the time."

      Baret whistled silently to herself. "You're carrying something heavy around, aren't you?"

      "It doesn't always bring out the best in me."

      He stood up and walked round the back of the couch, checked a few readouts on the way. "All I'm saying is," he said, only half-looking her way, "don't waste your time trying to proposition me. I've got nothing to make up to you."

      "That," she said slowly, "is sharper than I'd have given you credit for."

      He grinned. "I've learnt the hard way."

      "I'm sure you have." She put her glass down and stood up. "I ought to get some work done."

      "Thought you were retired."

      "I've still got bills to pay," she said. "These days I can freelance. Now that the War's swept away most of the Federation, there's a lot of new independents. They need all the professionals they can get. Business has never boomed so much before, if you know where to look for it. And manage to be on time, of course."

      "Which explains why Droge pressed to get you aboard," said Tarrant, realising.

      "Spot on. I'm a pushy girl when I scent profit."

      "Then don't let me stop you."

      "Don't worry, I won't." She paused at the exit. "You know, Del Tarrant, I think you should have stayed on the Columbia."

      "Someone has to fly the ship. I'm the pilot."

      "True," she acknowledged. "But a man like you could do with a good monster to hunt. Helps take your mind off things."

      "Most of the time I've got Avon. He fits the bill as well as anything."

      She threw her head back and laughed. "I'll catch you later," she said, and left.

      "If you do see any monsters," he called after her, "feel free to send them this way. Unless they're called Vila," he added. "Just let me know beforehand - I don't like unpleasant surprises."

      

      

Maclain had to turn half sideways to squeeze through between the paraneutronic generator banks.

      "Should've put a couple of the ladies on this one," he said.

      Avon barely grunted in reply. He was too busy looking at the state of the shield cladding on the generators. It seemed well past its renewal date. He checked his watch. "It's almost time to call in again."

      "Give it another minute." Maclain scanned the smooth black walls of the banks and swung his Arilman up each side. He had a torch taped to the end of the barrel. The wide-angle beam revealed nothing. "If this thing's as big as your telepathic friend says, it shouldn't have room to move in here."

      "Which makes it all the more likely we'll come across it," said Avon.

      "Probably, yeah." Maclain pulled his communicator out of his belt. "Bridge? Search party one, still no sign. Any news from the others?"

      <None so far, Mr Maclain.> Droge came across crisp and loud, disturbing over the near subliminal hum of the power banks. <Keep searching. Bridge out.>

      Maclain stowed the communicator away. "Yes, Sir," he muttered. He sidled on down the narrow aisle, Avon following. Maclain checked ahead, Avon behind, and they took turns in sweeping upwards.

      "Another minute," said Maclain, "and we'll have done the full three sixty. If we haven't found it by then..."

      "...it's not here," finished Avon. "Unless it's just keeping ahead of us. We might have to resweep, one of us going one way..."

      "...and meet in the middle, you mean?"

      "Or not at all." Avon stared stone-faced up the power bank walls as he gave them another sweep. "This is one rat I'd rather not corner alone." He found himself passing a sealed hatchway. "Of course, it might be through one of these."

      Maclain allowed himself a glance back. "In which case it's dead. That's strictly full suit territory."

      "Ought to be dead," corrected Avon. "It can survive in vacuum, it can survive point-blank slug and beam impact. Who knows what else it can live with?"

      They reached the door to the main access corridor, completing their circuit. Once out of the power house, Avon flicked the Arilman's safety back on. "What now?"

      Maclain pulled out his communicator again. "This is still the preliminary search. If we don't find it this time around, then we'll have to take it one section at a time. Do what you suggested just now, work from both ends at once. Trouble is, there's just so many places it can hole up and I don't have that many people to -"

      He was interrupted by gunfire. A prolonged burst, distorted by echo. It wasn't too far away.

      "That's in Maintenance!" He was running before he'd pin-pointed the source. Avon managed to keep pace with effort. Maclain was surprisingly fit for a man of his age.

      The gunfire stopped, and screaming replaced it. A woman. It sounded more like shock than pain. Maclain led Avon through the open door of the maintenance store and down past banks of badly labelled shelving. Round the corner of the first intersection they found a crewman blocking their way. He was standing rigid, his rifle pointed at the floor. His eyes were wide and his face was trembling. Seeing Maclain did nothing to reassure him.

      "Sir, I'm sorry," he stammered. "I'm really sorry. I really thought..."

      Maclain pushed him aside. A few metres up the aisle the screaming woman was kneeling over a body in blood-soaked overalls. A third man squatted opposite, trying to push her away. Maclain rushed over. Avon joined him.

      "It's Morris!"

      Avon pulled his own communicator out. "I'll call medbay."

      The woman launched into another fit of wailing. Maclain knelt down and slapped her across the face. "Shut up!" He slid a finger under his deputy's jaw and looked for a pulse. "What happened?" he demanded, glaring at the other man.

      "We saw movement." The answer was belligerent, defensive. Maclain glowered dangerously.

      "He's alive - just. Lucky it was AP. If we'd given you squash head we'd be scraping him off for weeks. What the hell were you doing here anyway? You weren't detailed to this section."

      No answer. Maclain opened his mouth to say some more, then decided the effort wasn't worth it.

      More footsteps rattled down the aisles. Cally and Chu-Lao appeared from the other end of the store.

      "What's happened?" asked Cally.

      Avon switched off his communicator. "It looks as if our uninvited guest has got a rival." He glanced at Maclain. "Patel's standing by. Nurse and paramedic are on their way down."

      Maclain nodded. "If he lasts that long."

      The belligerent man got to his feet and tried to back himself up against the shelving. "What we saw didn't look human," he protested. "I could have sworn it was it, y'know?"

      "Save it," snapped Maclain. "Sometimes I just wish I was back in the ranks. We had ways of dealing with the likes of you."

      Cally closed her eyes and concentrated. "If it was here," she said at length, "it's gone now."

      Avon watched as Chu-Lao did her best to comfort the woman on the floor. From what he could see, she was wasting her time.

      "I don't know what the odds against us were," he said, "but I think they just got higher."

      

      

"I'm not sure I like strangers roaming all over the ship." Dayna plucked a string on her lyre and winced. "How do you tune this thing? It's not a bit like the one I had at home."

      "Don't ask me." Tarrant rubbed his jaw and wondered if challenging Orac to a game of chess was really the bright idea it had seemed forty minutes ago. He could move his one remaining rook to protect his one remaining knight, but that would probably cost him his one remaining bishop. The single white pawn he had snatched on move four wasn't much in the way of consolation. Orac, it seemed, didn't play to win. It played to massacre.

      "Tarrant!" squawked Dayna. "I was talking to you."

      "You were?" He toyed with the rook and felt dagger eyes drilling into him. He put the piece down and leant back into the couch, hands locked behind his head. "We can't chaperon them everywhere," he said, "and they can't really do any harm. We scanned all their baggage for weapons, they don't have any control over Zen, and we'll soon know if they stray too far from the crew deck. Won't we, Zen?"

      +Inboard sensors are monitoring all movements of the three additional personnel as requested. Mrs Baret is in her assigned cabin. The child is with Vila in the recreation room. Lassiter is moving towards the flight deck.+

      Dayna rolled her eyes and sighed. "Just the one I really wanted to see."

      Tarrant was up and facing the entrance when Lassiter appeared. "Anything wrong?"

      Lassiter marched down onto the flight deck floor without breaking step. "That's what I came to ask you. There was a change in drive tone a few minutes ago." He stood with legs braced, arms folded, demanding an explanation.

      "We picked up some ships at the extreme edge of detector range," said Tarrant. "Possibly a Federation patrol. I plotted a slight detour, just to be on the safe side. They won't have picked us up."

      Lassiter rolled the words around carefully. "A detour."

      "It'll only add a few hours to our flight schedule. Eight, nine at the most. Don't worry - you'll make your connection on time."

      Lassiter stood stock still for a long moment, as if daring the others to say or do anything. "It's the first time," he finally said, "that I've found myself having to run from the Federation. At least I can honestly say it's not through personal choice."

      Dayna put down her lyre and got to her feet. "If they were Federation ships," she said, hands on her hips as she slowly walked towards him, "and they had detected us, you might never have got the chance to go anywhere ever again."

      "You were the one who insisted on coming aboard," said Tarrant. "I'm afraid that means you take everything that comes with it."

      Lassiter took a deep breath. "So it would seem. Well, there's one thing I do take, very seriously, and that's my responsibilities. At the moment they include a young man's life, so if we have to make... detours ...I will just have to suffer them, won't I?"

      "I'm afraid so." Tarrant flashed him a grin. Lassiter didn't find it amusing. He wasn't meant to.

      "I don't suppose," he said, "there's any chance of the patrol going to the Colombia?"

      "If there was," replied Tarrant, "this ship would be on its way back right now."

      Lassiter turned around. "Yes," he said, head low as he left, "yes, I suppose it would."

      Dayna's eyes gleamed white against the blackness of her face. "Come back, Avon, all is forgiven."

      Tarrant ignored her. He offered his one remaining bishop up for the slaughter. He was going to lose the game, no doubt, but he was damned if he wasn't going to make it last as long as he possibly could.

      "I wonder," he said, "what he really came up here for."

      

      

<Anything to report, Mr Maclain?> Droge's voice hammered out of the communicator, easily heard by all the weary cluster bunched around the security officer.

      "We've just finished an intensive sweep of Freight Three, sir. Still blank. About to start on Freight Four." He paused for a moment before asking, "How's Tral?"

      There was a respectful second's silence at the other end before Droge answered. <Doctor Patel informs me that Mr Morris' condition is deteriorating. It's probably best not to expect too much.>

      Maclain grimly nodded to himself. Chu-Lao grabbed him by the wrist and pulled the communicator over to her face. "What about Kat?"

      Patel was either on the bridge himself, or listening in from medbay. <Miss O'Ryan is the same as before, no better or worse. All I can do for the moment is keep an eye on her. I will let you know if her condition changes.>

      <Thank you, Doctor.> Droge broke in as soon as he found a chance. <Carry on, Mr Maclain. Contact me as soon as you find anything. Bridge out.>

      Chu-Lao dropped Maclain's hand and pulled out another cigarette. "Yes, sir. Of course, sir. Sir, it's chewing my head off, do I have your permission to open fire?"

      "That's enough, Chu," said Maclain. "Did you get that, Avon?"

      <Loud and clear. We should be finished resweeping the power house in a few minutes. At this rate we should all meet up in Freight Bay Five.>

      "So if there's going to be a party, chances are it'll be there." Maclain pushed his way through and headed off down the main access tunnel. "Come along, folks. It's not over yet."

      

      

"What's in here?" Little Liona had fallen into the habit of saying this at every closed door, and showed no signs of getting tired of seeing what lay beyond.

      "Ah," said Vila, "that's Avon's room. I'm not allowed in there."

      "So you don't know what's in there, then," decided Liona, apparently delighted to come across something that Uncle Vila didn't know.

      "I'm not allowed in there," repeated Vila. "And neither are you. Nor anyone else, now I come to think of it." He pulled her along with a firm but gentle hand. "Let's look down here. I can show you Dayna's test room."

      That proved to be a mistake. There were half a dozen different weapons there in varying stages of development, and Liona insisted on handling them all. Vila took a deep breath each time and did his best to keep her fingers off anything that might conceivably be a trigger. There was a new target in the firing range, he noticed, and Liona found it intensely amusing. The face pinned to it bore more than a passing resemblance to Vila's own. When he finally dragged the girl away, he felt distinctly small. Dayna couldn't draw to save her life, but Cally could.

      "Where now?" begged Liona.

      "I think you've seen enough for the moment," he said, knowing full well that he had.

      "No I haven't," she insisted. "I've got to see everything."

      Vila was intensely grateful when the internal comm chimed at that moment. It was Tarrant.

      <I've just had a call from Mrs B,> he said. <It seems she's been given a piece of someone else's luggage.>

      Vila responded with all the sympathy he could muster. "So what?"

      <It's one of the pieces transferred from hold to hold...>

      "...on the same conveyer that we sent the food shipment through," finished Vila. "What are you accusing me of, Tarrant?"

      <Well, you were the one who carried them up to the cabins.>

      Vila put his mouth right up to the grille. "I was the one who was ordered under protest to carry them up to the cabins. All eleven pieces. My fingers are still burning. Why can't people travel light, that's what I want to know."

      <One of them isn't hers, and she's got one missing. I thought you might have left it behind in our hold.>

      "Not a chance. I don't make mistakes like that." He gave Liona an assertive nod, which made her giggle. "Who's is it, anyway?"

      <How the hell does she know?> Tarrant was beginning to sound mildly exasperated. Vila didn't let it bother him. Exasperating Tarrant from a safe distance was a rare luxury, and one not to be wasted. <Vila, she's a normal, well-adjusted individual with an inherent respect for other peoples' property.>

      "I'm not interested in her personal problems," began Vila. Tarrant didn't let him continue.

      <Besides, it's got one of her tags on it. Probably a mix-up at the spaceport ->

      "In which case there's no point in me going all the way down to the hold to look for something that isn't going to be there. Stands to reason."

      <Very probably, but do it anyway. It's a brown collapsible, standard courier size. Arthide finish handle.>

      Vila recognised it instantly. "Oh, that. I remember that. There were two of them. One for her, one for him."

      <What do you mean, 'one for him'? Are you saying Lassiter's got one too?>

      "That is exactly what I'm saying, Tarrant. I'll lay you any odds you like that Mr L's got Mrs B's and vice versa."

      <So why don't you go and check.> Vila wondered if this was meant to be phrased as a reasonable question. It certainly didn't sound like one, and since it came from Tarrant it probably wasn't.

      "Why can't you or Dayna do it?" he asked. "Tarrant? Tarrant?" He thumbed the call button a few times and got no answer.

      "I don't think Tarrant likes you," said Liona.

      Vila stalked off in a huff. "He's only jealous. What has he got? Pilot training at an elite academy, transgalactic reputation as a smuggler, surplus height... Nothing worth mentioning, really. And don't dawdle."

      "I think he's got very nice teeth."

      "Don't pay any attention to them. They're false. He takes them out every night and scrubs them with drive flusher."

      Liona promptly pounced on an irresistible challenge. One by one she listed what she considered Tarrant's virtues, and Vila did his best to systematically demolish them. Fortunately the cabin wasn't too far away.

      "I'm not sure you're supposed to know what 'dead horny' means," he told her. He pressed the buzzer. "I might just tell your mother you said that, you know."

      "No you won't," said Liona. "I won't let you."

      "That's what you think, is it? Oh, come on, woman, open the door." He gave the buzzer another, prolonged, buzz. Still no answer.

      "She must have slipped out," he decided. "And left it unlocked," he added, as if he had only just noticed. "Typical. Absolutely typical."

      "Why don't you just go in," suggested Liona. "I'll make sure you don't steal anything."

      "Steal? Me? Who says I steal anything?" He put on his best affronted performance, well-honed after years of practice. It worked as well on Liona as it had on a thousand police officers.

      "Everyone does," she said. "I saw it on the news."

      Vila patted her on the head as he pressed the 'open' button. "Never trust the media," he said, and stepped inside. He was brought to an abrupt halt by what he saw.

      The cabin was in a state of chaos. Bags and cases had been ripped open, their contents scattered across the floor. In their midst, grotesquely misshapen, were the mangled remains of Mrs Liona Baret.

      The rest of her was smeared up the walls.

      

      

"It's not on the ship." Avon unslung his Arilman and clunked it down beside the bridge door.

      Maclain agreed. "If it was still on board we'd have found it by now."

      Droge digested the idea without so much as a blink. "Outside?"

      "Search should be finishing any moment now," Maclain told him. "Bet you a credit to a cup of real coffee they won't find nothing."

      Warren looked up nervously from his console. "Then where the hell is it?" Droge twitched, and he lapsed back into silence.

      "If it can survive in a vacuum," Droge rumbled, "it could be anywhere."

      Avon's head snapped up. His eyes were hard. "I don't think so," he said. "I think it's somewhere very particular. And if my calculations are correct, we'll be well out of communications range by now."

      Cally looked up in alarm. "The Liberator?"

      "The obvious place, wouldn't you say."

      Maclain slowly nodded to himself. "Figures," he said.

      Droge silently mouthed an oath.

      "But the hull sensors would have detected it," protested Cally. "Even before Liberator left."

      "But they didn't." Avon half-raised one hand, as if asking permission to speak. "So it might have some way of passing undetected. Unless..." He froze. "Unless it used the conveyer, in which case..."

      "...it would be picked up by the inboard sensors," finished Cally. "Avon, there is no way that creature could have got aboard without us knowing."

      Avon dropped his arm and punched air with it. "So it would seem. But if we assume that it is aboard, what then?"

      "You're looking for a new job." Maclain wiped the grin off his face and coughed. "Sorry, bad joke."

      "I thought so," said Cally. She turned to Avon. "It won't kill them all straight away."

      "Not unless it changes tactics," he agreed. "So they'll find out soon enough, in which case they know that our sidearms are no use against it, so they'll turn the ship around to come straight back here. If they've got any sense, that is."

      Cally nodded. "At least two of them have."

      "They might already be on their way back here," said Avon. "Droge, can I ask you to maintain hailers and keep a constant listen out?"

      Droge didn't hesitate. "Mr Warren will see to it straight away. Won't you, Mr Warren? Anything else I can do for you?"

      "Not at the moment."

      "Very good, just let me know if there is. Mr Maclain, with all due respect to your usual thoroughness, it's not impossible that your search parties overlooked this creature and it is still on board."

      Maclain snapped to a semblance of attention. "I have a patrol rota in operation and a double guard on the passenger section."

      "Then I'll leave matters in your hands." Droge marched past and out the door. "I'll be in my cabin. Keep me informed."

      Maclain left after him. Cally waited until the door closed. "Something's troubling him."

      "Something's troubling me," said Avon. He paced to the middle of the bridge and passed his gaze over the instrument panels. Warren was sealed off in a world of his own, enhancer muffs tight over his ears. He paid Avon and Cally no attention.

      Avon's face suddenly fell black as he gouged his nails into his palm. Cally took a step closer. "What's wrong?"

      "I was the one who told Zen to keep track of Lassiter and the Barets," he said, staring blank at the wall. "Before that I told it that there would be extra people on board, but I didn't specify how many. Zen is simply following instructions. You could put a whole brigade on that ship, and they would be ignored." He rammed his balled fist into an open hand. "Stupid!"

      Cally reached out an arm, then withdrew it. "You can't expect to think of everything. Not after..." She stopped, cautious. Afraid to mention Anna's name.

      "Still stupid."

      "And it still might not be on the ship."

      Avon broke free of the hold that was fixing him. "Let's hope not. But I think it's a slender hope." He went to the door and punched the control panel. "Liberator will come back," he reasoned aloud. "They find out it's on board, they turn the ship around. We'll see it again, no doubt about that. The question is, will they be there to see us?"

      

      

<Tarrant! Tarrant!> Vila's voice rang around the flight deck. Dayna made a show of clapping her hands over her ears. Tarrant sighed heavily and leaned across the length of the couch, putting his head down close to the mouthpiece.

      "What now, Vila?" He made no attempt to hide his exasperation.

      <Get up here Tarrant and get up here fast.> Vila rattled the words out in one long breath without a pause. <We've got trouble. Big trouble. And I think it's ->

      Silence.

      Tarrant paused for a moment, then jumped to his feet. Vila was easily excitable, as he knew only too well, but there was a big difference between an excited Vila and an outright terrified one. No doubt about which he'd just heard screaming down the internal comm. Tarrant tried his best to sound calming.

      "All right, Vila, calm down. Now, first of all, where are you?" No reply. "Vila?" He thumbed the call button. Still nothing.

      Dayna craned forward, curious. Her interest grew to alarm as Tarrant made a direct line for the weapons rack.

      "What do you think you're doing, Tarrant?"

      "Taking no chances," he answered, pulling two guns out of their holders. "Zen, give me a location report on Vila."

      +Vila is currently moving towards the refectory+

      "Oh come on, Tarrant." Dayna was standing up now, hands on hips, watching with disbelief as he strapped on a gun belt. "You can't be taking him that seriously."

      He threw her a gun. She caught it by reflex.

      "He just scares too easily," she said.

      "You think?" said Tarrant. "He agitates too easily, I'll grant you that, but scares?" He shook his head sharply and headed for the exit. "Or hadn't you noticed?"

      Once he'd cleared the flight deck, he broke into a jog. Dayna hurried after him, strapping on her gun as she went. There was a comm panel at the first intersection. Tarrant bashed it with his fist.

      "Zen, where's Vila now?"

      +Vila is now in the refectory+

      Tarrant paused for a moment before choosing his route. He turned right and headed down the corridor at a steady lope, long stride eating up the floor. He held his sidearm at the ready, thumb poised over the fire button.

      He stopped dead when the lights went out.

      The darkness was total for a long second, before the emergency faded in and cast a sickly amber glow over everything. Dayna crept up beside him.

      "All right, Tarrant, I might just let you say you told me so."

      "And I might just hold you to that," he said, voice little more than a murmur. He edged forward, cautious, and stopped again. "You might even care to let me say it now."

      Dayna followed his line of sight and saw the open cabin door ahead. A bare arm stretched out into the corridor, fingers curling towards the ceiling. Tarrant moved swiftly forward, ready to fire at an instant's notice. He reached the doorway. Stopped dead when he looked inside.

      "Shit!"

      Dayna joined him and fought down the urge to retch. The arm was unattached to what was left of the body scattered across the cabin floor. In the dim underlighting, it was hard to be sure what was flesh and what was spilt clothing from the ripped and tattered baggage. That may or may not have been a mercy.

      Tarrant got down on one knee and prodded the severed arm with his handgun. "It's Mrs B.," he said quietly, as if trying to convince himself of the fact. He squeezed the grip of the gun as if trying to break it. "Why?"

      Dayna couldn't think of an answer, could only stand by, helpless. Something caught her eye. She knelt down beside Tarrant, and reached out to a stain on the floor. Too pale for blood, almost invisible under the amber. She touched it, barely brushed it with a fingertip. Sticky.

      "Tarrant, what do you make of this?"

      She only just caught his attention. He looked at her upheld finger, hardly registered the glisten of the stuff. Then recognition clicked. He grabbed her hand by the wrist, lifted it up to his face, sniffed cautiously. He mouthed an expletive. Then flung her hand away.

      "Vila!" he barked. "Come on. The refectory!"

      He was up and off again immediately, at a full run this time. Dayna scrambled to her feet and followed. It was all she could do to keep up.

      "So what was it?" she demanded, as he pounded through the next intersection. He shouted back an answer.

      "Fine," she said, none the wiser. "So what's 'shadow'?"

      

      

Cally put a hand on Chu-Lao's shoulder and gave it a comforting squeeze. Doctor Patel stared long and hard at the life-sign monitors beside O'Ryan's bed before reaching out to flick the switches one by one.

      "I'm sorry," he said, watching the lights wink out. "Very sorry."

      "Sure, Doc." Chu-Lao wriggled free of Cally's hand and stepped up to the head of the bed. O'Ryan's eyes were locked shut, her drawn face frozen in blank numbness. "Don't tell me, you did everything you could for her."

      Patel shrugged his shoulders and gave the monitors a gentle pat. "I did," he said simply.

      "Wasn't enough, though, was it?" She scrabbled in her overalls for a cigarette. Patel glanced up at the No Smoking sign on the wall, then hurriedly looked the other way. Behind Cally, Avon leaned heavily against the wall, arms folded. He seemed to be taking minimal interest in proceedings.

      The door hissed open. Maclain and two other crewmen walked in.

      "Still looks like you're right," he said to Avon. "Can't say I'm complaining myself, but it doesn't look too good your end."

      "Probably not." Avon barely registered his presence. "I daresay we'll find out just how bad in due course."

      "Yeah. Daresay." Maclain slung off his rifle and moved over to Cally. "What's the latest here, then?"

      Cally gestured to the still form under the medbay sheets. "O'Ryan's dead."

      Maclain stepped past her and stopped at the foot of the bed. "That's sad," he said, and clearly meant it. "She was one of the good guys. Crazy screwed-up nympho, but..." He turned away. "One of the good guys."

      "Her old man messed around with her when she was a kid." Chu-Lao pulled the sheet up over O'Ryan's head and tried to smooth it down at the sides. "She didn't want anyone to know that. Funny, ain't it? I mean, all the things that would help people understand us, and we work our butts off trying to keep them secret."

      Maclain turned his attention to a chart on the wall. The other two crewmen looked anywhere but at the bed.

      "Yeah," said Maclain. "It's funny."

      "You think so?" Chu-Lao finally broke. "Well, I think it's bleeding hilarious. I only mention it now 'cause Very Patel here's gone and screwed up again. Shit, I do my job, you do yours, but what the hell does he do? He's just so much free freight, that's all. Just -" She suddenly wheeled round on Cally. "And you get the hell out of my head, you bitch!"

      Cally took a step back, hand half-raised in defence. "I was only trying to help," she said.

      "Help?" Chu-Lao spat out the word as if she couldn't believe she'd heard it. "You're the one who needs help. All of you." She swung dagger eyes round the room before striding off to the door. The two crewmen just managed to get out of her way.

      "Shits, the lot of you," she screamed on her way out. The door hissed shut behind her. Maclain turned to Patel.

      "Sorry about that, Doc."

      Patel shook his head. "Not your fault," he said. "And she's got a point. Considering the resources the Agency gives me, I am as good as wasting my time here half the time." He waved a despairing hand over O'Ryan's body. "I am not equipped to deal with this. Sometimes I wonder if I'm equipped to deal with anything."

      "No-one's blaming you, Doc," said Maclain. "'Cept Chu, of course."

      Patel dismissed this instantly. "Oh, she'll come round. She's just taking it hard, that's all. Very hard, even. Chu and Kat were very close." A pop-stud on his coat had come loose at some point. He squeezed it shut. "If it's any consolation, I think Tral will pull through. If he can afford the spinal surgery, he might even get to walk again."

      "Some consolation, I s'pose." Maclain glanced over to the far end of the medbay, to where Tral Morris lay hidden beneath a spaghetti pile of tubes and wires. "Poor bugger."

      Patel took one last look around the room. "If you'll excuse me," he said, and left. Maclain watched him go.

      "So," he said, "what do we do now?"

      Avon remained firmly braced against the wall. "Waiting would appear to be our only option."

      Cally drifted over to a console by the near wall. It was still switched on, displaying a medical file root menu. O'Ryan's. She started calling pages up at random. If nothing else, it killed time.

      Maclain checked his watch. "Ought to turn in for a few hours," he said. He didn't sound that tired, but looked it. He hadn't had any rest for a long while now. "One last briefing with the Cap, if he's up. Then I'm out of it."

      Cally called over from the monitor. "Avon, come and look at this."

      Avon pulled away from the wall and padded over, taking his time. "What is it?"

      "It's a blood sample from O'Ryan," she said. "I'm not too familiar with this system, but..." She pointed at the screen. "That peak shouldn't be there."

      "Any idea what it might be?" Avon was only half interested, not really paying attention.

      "I can try and find out." She rolled her thumb over the cursor ball, trying out icons. By luck or judgement she found what she wanted almost straight away. "There."

      "Trimethylcarboxy..." began Avon. He stopped. Suddenly he was fully alert. "Well now."

      Cally nodded in agreement. She recognised it too. "Shadow."

      A cold smile crept across Avon's face. "Maclain, is there any chance of getting access to O'Ryan's quarters?"

      "Maybe." Behind him, Maclain sounded tetchy, impatient. "Why?"

      Avon gripped the rim of the console and gave it a shake. "Because I think you'll find," he said, "that your chief engineer was a dreamhead." He turned around, and abruptly froze.

      There were three crewmen in the medbay. Three pistols had just appeared out of nowhere.

      "But then again," he mused, as much to himself as anyone, "perhaps you already knew that."

      

      

Vila leapt back as sparks arced out of the locking panel. He sucked his finger where it burned.

      "There's one door it won't open in a hurry," he said, and winced. He wiped the sweat out of his eyes with his uninjured hand.

      In the feeble emergency lighting, little Liona was no more than a huddled shape perched on a refectory trolley. He could hear her better than he could see her, deep gasping breaths punctuating a thin and desperate keening sound. He stepped back, keeping one eye on the door, and put his arms round her. She felt terribly frail.

      "It's all right," he said softly, struggling for breath himself. He pressed her face to his shirt and stroked her hair, wiped a thumb across her cheek. Her skin was slick with tears. "It's all right," he said again, and wondered who he was fooling. "It can't get at us now." He kept a close watch on the door. "Whatever it is."

      Everything had happened so fast. Before he could stop her, Liona had run into the cabin, dropping down beside the remains of her mother. It was only reflex that had made him grab her back when the arm came swinging down. He thought of it as an arm, but only for want of a better word. Thicker than his thigh, smooth and sharply contoured, and a very unnatural colour. The claws protruding from short splayed fingers shone like polished steel.

      He'd pulled Liona out, and punched the door control. The door seemed to take an age to shut, and all the while a furious, writhing, roaring, shapeless mass on the other side was edging closer, the taloned arm reaching through the closing aperture. It wasn't until solid metal rammed the limb against the seal that he hit the internal comm. How many times did he have to shout Tarrant's name? Did Tarrant actually bother to answer? He wasn't sure. As soon as he saw that arm starting to push against the door motors, force it back open, he grabbed Liona and concentrated on putting distance between him and it.

      The refectory was a dead end. He just hoped it was far enough.

      He fought down the urge to throw up, and clutched the child tighter. She cried out and closed her hand on his. It felt cold and tacky. Something on her fingers, though he couldn't imagine what and right now he didn't really care. He gently pushed himself away and cradled her head.

      "I'm going to call Tarrant again. He'll get us out of this." He very much wanted to believe that. She didn't seem to hear him anyway.

      The comm panel was over by the door. He took it one step at a time, one hand stretched out for the on button like he was grabbing for a safety line. He didn't thumb it until his mouth was up to the grille.

      "Tarrant?" He spoke in a cracked whisper. There was no answer. He tried again, then noticed the power light was dead. Fritzing the door control must have cut the commline power as well as the lighting.

      "Typical," he muttered, and inched back. "Dig your own grave, Vila, no-one else'll take the trouble." He allowed himself a moment's relaxation.

      That was a mistake.

      The pounding on the door started so suddenly, he got a shock that stabbed him through the ribs. One booming hammer after another, each one louder, heavier. Flimsy plastic cups shook on the tabletops. Liona flung herself off the trolley and screamed. Vila ran back to her, did his best to shield her from the doorway.

      "Don't worry," he shouted, trying to make himself heard above the noise. "It can't get in. The door's sealed, it won't open. It can't get in."

      The hammering stopped. Silence fell. Liona tried to move back, as far away from the door as possible. Vila relaxed his grip and kept step with her, glancing behind to steer her past the fittings. An awful sense of stillness clawed at the back of his neck.

      Then a new sound started, a rough grating swiftly rising in pitch, turning into a hideous squeal of strained metal. Vila watched in horror as three vertical ridges started to form on the smooth surface of the door. Grey sheen began to whiten.

      When the talons broke through Liona screamed again and buried her face in Vila's shirt. He pulled her up against the far wall. A hollow growl filtered through the rent metal of the door. The claws began to drag down, solid steel parting as they went. A second set of razors punched through to the right, fought to catch up. Vila blinked as sweat dripped in his eyes, stinging. He looked around, desperate, looked for something - anything - that might be used as a weapon. Nothing.

      The talons withdrew, then stabbed in again, cutting the door to ribbons. Working faster now, shredding through the metal like it was cardboard. A frantic howl outside and the hammering started up again. A dark headshape pushed its way through the sliced wreckage, yellow eyes opened. A jaw dropped, sheetmetal teeth shone like mirrors. An arm appeared, lunged out in a clumsy arc, snatching at air. The rest of the thing was going to be through in seconds.

      Vila slammed Liona into the wall and flung himself forward. He grabbed the nearest trolley and rammed it up to the door with all the force he could manage. Cups and half empty containers toppled off. The creature's jaw gaped wide and closed on the handbar, snapping one end free. As the head flew up, the trolley cleared the floor and spun to one side, cartwheeled into the dispensers. Vila found himself rooted to the spot as the thing pulled the rest of its bulk through, slinking across the floor, tensed to pounce. When it made its leap, he closed his eyes.

      It was like being hit head on by a speeding truck. He crashed to the floor. Head splitting from the impact. An agony throb pulsed through his ears, muffling all sound. He heard Liona's scream of terror and a heavy thud that shook the floor. Realisation galvanized him into action.

      It was after the child.

      Somehow he got to his feet. Liona had managed to dive aside, but only to fall against a wallside fixing. She was down, shuffling back across the floor as the creature arched its neck to lunge. Vila grabbed at her, caught her under the arms, tried to pull her back. The vast amorphous head flew down, eyes closing, gape yawning. Vila screwed his own eyes shut and turned his head away, put all his strength into dragging Liona out of reach.

      She suddenly seemed to get unmanageably heavy. He pulled and pulled but she didn't seem to want to move. The room rumbled with the creature's growling, muffled and throaty.

      He found himself calling out Tarrant's name before something swiped him across the head and sent him flying.

      

      

Droge had dressed in a hurry and it showed. As soon as he'd put both feet through the briefing room door, Maclain punched the close button with the heel of his palm. If Droge was taken aback at the sight of Avon and Cally under armed guard, he didn't let it show.

      "Very well, Mr Maclain, what's all this about?"

      Maclain kept his gun arm held out straight. "They know, sir."

      Droge shifted on his feet, uncomfortable. "That's unfortunate," he murmured. Aloud he said, "What are Ms Lao and the Doctor doing here?"

      "Bumped into 'em on the way here from medbay. Couldn't exactly keep them in the dark."

      "I see." Droge pulled out a chair and sat down opposite Avon, elbows resting on the tabletop, fingers steepled to his forehead. "It seems you've become a problem."

      "Possibly." Avon's face was expressionless, but there was danger burning in his eyes. "You might also consider the possibility that we don't give a damn what goes on aboard this ship."

      Cally leaned forward, challenging Droge. "Your security officer seems very keen to keep O'Ryan's addiction a secret. So keen, that we can't help thinking that there might be more to hide."

      "One dreamhead of an engineer," continued Avon, "is little more than an embarrassment. It hardly justifies," - he waved a languid hand at the three guns aimed towards him - "all this."

      Droge swivelled his head round to give Maclain a fixed stare. Maclain nodded, self-reproachful.

      "Bad call on my part, sir. A bit tired. Edgy." It was an explanation, not an excuse. Droge took it as such. He turned back to Avon.

      "Very well," he said, and took a deep breath. "You've probably guessed by now as it is, but I'll come straight. We make a regular supply run from the Arafan Spiral to the Iuliana Cluster. Some of the crew take advantage of the..." He faltered. Avon nodded, understanding.

      "Not just O'Ryan, then?"

      Droge stared back in stony-faced acknowledgement.

      "No," said Chu-Lao, "she isn't...wasn't...the only one. There's others." She ran her hands through her hair and forced a cold smile. "Like me, for instance." Cally looked up sharply. Avon showed no surprise.

      "It ain't just me." Chu-Lao glanced at the door, out towards the ship beyond. "Half of catering's on it, some of the stewards... a few others."

      Maclain gave a short cough. "She...er...means me, sir." Droge sat up straighter, prickling. Maclain shifted to something resembling drill square attention. "Sorry, sir. Drifted too far into it, too far to stop."

      Avon turned his questioning eye on Patel. The doctor shook his head vigorously.

      "Oh no no no." He pulled out a cigar and lit it. "I've got my health to think about."

      Droge folded his arms on the table and sank low, threatening. "So now you know," he said, holding Avon's eye.

      "Only what I'd guessed, as you said yourself," said Avon, ominously calm. "And I still say we don't give a damn."

      "If even a whisper of this gets out to the wrong people," growled Droge, "everyone on this ship is finished. You know the law on carrying shadow. The Agency won't lift so much as a little finger on our behalf." He craned forward, brows knitting tighter. "I simply can't afford to let it happen."

      Avon tilted his head to one side and smiled mock pity. "Disgrace can be such a burden," he said.

      "It's not the disgrace I'm thinking about," snarled Maclain. "It's the twenty years min. Or the chop, if I don't tug the arbiter's heart."

      Avon twitched with weary annoyance. "There's no reason why you should have to. Exactly what do you think we stand to gain from shipping you to the authorities?"

      "We're hardly in a position to earn respectability," said Cally. "There isn't a government in the galaxy that wouldn't try to lay its hands on us."

      "And any reward we might collect is trivial," Avon continued. "We have a strongroom on the Liberator - it contains enough to buy this wreck a dozen times over. And if Tarrant finds that anything's happened to us when" - he took particular care to emphasise the word - "he returns, you'll find yourself a sitting duck before the most concentrated firepower outside of a Space Command dreadnought."

      "We've put ourselves out to help you," pressed Cally. "We were prepared to take you on trust - you could try extending the courtesy to us."

      "You owe us, Droge," said Avon. "And until now we hadn't even thought of collecting."

      Droge eased back, arms still folded tight, and clamped his jaw rigid. He fixed his gunbarrel gaze first on Avon, sitting defiant opposite, and then on Cally, patiently waiting, stroking her cheek with the back of a finger. He didn't take his time in reaching a decision.

      "Guns down, Mr Maclain."

      "Sir?"

      "You heard me. I'm giving the benefit." He glowered at Avon. "For the moment, that is."

      "Thank you." Avon sounded anything but gratified. He watched Maclain and his two subordinates stow their sidearms out of sight. "Now, since we're all here, there's a few details I want to check over. We might just get a few answers to some very awkward questions."

      

      

Returning to consciousness was not a pleasant experience. Vila's head throbbed like his brain was all set to burst through his skull. Vision was no more than a shifting blur. Something dark and shapeless moved in to blot out what little light there was, and he scrabbled back with a yell.

      "Vila?" Dayna's voice. She sounded shrill, choking something back. Vila tried to sit up and found it wasn't only his head that hurt. Amorphous shadows slowly took shape. He was still in the refectory, or what was left of it. Dayna was kneeling over him, right hand resting on her gun butt. Tarrant was staring out through the tattered remains of the door. His heart skipped with a sudden stab of recollection.

      "Liona!"

      Dayna took her hand off her sidearm and laid it on his shoulder, squeezed harder than she meant to. She breathed in deep. "Vila..."

      It wasn't hard to guess what she was working up to say. And he didn't have to turn his head far to see the small, shapeless lump on the floor, hidden under Tarrant's discarded jacket. He was thankful for the dim lighting.

      "The monster -" he began, trying to get back on his feet.

      Dayna pushed him back. "We managed to scare it off." She sounded angry, ashamed with herself for not having killed it.

      "Four direct hits and it didn't even slow down." Tarrant was holding a hand tight against his left cheek. Blood in the emergency lighting was black. There was a fair bit of it on his fingers.

      Vila squirmed out of Dayna's grip and stood up. He shook visibly, and not just with shock. "Pity you two couldn't move as fast," he said.

      Tarrant did his best to shrug. "My fault, I'm afraid. Got a little sidetracked on the way."

      Vila pointed to the heap on the floor. "You could try telling her that." He stood in the middle of the room, looking small and hunched, helpless. "Or perhaps you'd rather apologise to her mother."

      Tarrant stepped back out through the doorway. "I might even do that," he said. He checked the corridor. "All clear. If you feel up to walking we can get back to the flight deck, get Zen to take us back to the Colombia." He looked back in through the buckled strips of sliced metal. "I'd do that from here, but the internal comm seems to be out for some reason." If he had any derision left to spare, it couldn't have been much. He headed off down the corridor, back towards the flight deck.

      Vila bristled. "Now look - "

      He started to move forward. Dayna blocked him with her arm. "What do you think you're going to do, Vila? Crack him one across the jaw?"

      "I just might, after that. Who the hell does he think he - "

      "Vila!" She grabbed him by the sleeve. "He's just taking it out on you."

      "Well, you should know all about that, shouldn't you?" He shook her hand away and made for the door. "He's right, of course," he said, addressing the remains. "We've got to get back, get off this ship, get anywhere." He fingered the edge of a steel ribbon, and glanced back towards what was left of Liona. "Big monster, big appetite. It'll be us next."

      "At least we got here in time to save you."

      Vila looked back over his shoulder. "You really think? It was after her, you know. I just happened to be in the way. So you can't even flatter yourself with that."

      He left, and Dayna found herself alone with a child's body. She shivered. And she wondered if she was the only one who really cared what had happened.

      If she herself really cared at all.

      Vila was waiting at the next intersection, Tarrant beside him, glaring impatience. He swept all routes before carrying on, forcing a brisk pace, not breaking step for Baret's cabin.

      He was barking out orders before he set foot on the flight deck proper. "Zen, I want a new course, reciprocal bearing straight back to the -"

      He stopped. A sinister shadow edged into view, silhouetted against the winking grid lights of Zen's interface plate. It moved with menace, one thick arm outstretched. A thin sliver of light glanced off the barrel of one of Liberator's handguns.

      "I don't think so," said Lassiter.

      

      

"Grebbins, Storsky, and I would venture Karpov as well." Avon checked the names off on his fingers. "Am I right?"

      Chu-Lao nodded. "Yeah, they were all users. Not heavy, but regular."

      Avon acknowledged this briefly. He turned to the doctor. "Patel, would I be right in assuming that no... part, if you like, of any victim remains unaccounted for?"

      Patel answered without a moment's hesitation. "There is Miss O'Ryan's leg," he began.

      Maclain interrupted. "That has been found," he said.

      "Oh great." Chu-Lao tipped her chair back and pouted. "Wouldn't want to chuck her out incomplete now, would we?"

      "So whatever it's killing for," said Avon, "it's not for food."

      "But for something else." Droge sat up straight and pulled his chair closer to the table. "Yes, I can see what you're flying at." He stroked his jaw. "But is it possible?"

      Avon cracked a grim smile. "Given everything else it can do," he said.

      Droge nodded. "Point taken. Thirty six hours ago I wouldn't have believed such a creature existed in the first place."

      Patel flicked his cigar on the rim of an ashtray. "There is still a lot to be accounted for."

      Cally agreed. "Such as how it came to be addicted in the first place."

      "Well, we can't expect to know everything all at once." Avon said, resignedly. "We might never know the full story. As for the creature itself, there are any number of possibilities. I would favour an artificial augmentation myself, perhaps even a custom design from gene level."

      The notion took Droge by complete surprise. "That's totally illegal."

      "Oh yes," agreed Avon. "But then, aren't a lot of things? A theory for you, doctor - it get its supply from its victims' blood. Shadow is circulated in the bloodstream, I take it?"

      "Oh yes," agreed Patel, pouncing on the idea. "But...well, I haven't measured volumes, but every corpse has been one very bloody mess. No noticeable shortage, I mean."

      "I don't think there would be."

      Patel looked puzzled for only the most fleeting of moments. "Of course, it isn't taking much at any one time. Little and often, yes."

      Droge felt it was time he caught up. "Why on earth should it do that?"

      "The obvious answer," said Avon, "is that the taste of people disagrees with it."

      Patel nodded vigorously. "Like the dorsal glands of a mulrani slimecrawler," he said. "Very full of sugar, but would you put one in your coffee?"

      Cally's attention was on Chu-Lao. "What's wrong?" she asked.

      Chu-Lao shrugged. "Nothing," she said. "Just..." She opened a cigarette carton, pulled one out. "Well, I was the one who got Kat hooked in the first place. Yeah, go on, all of you, look at me any damn way you want. She was having trouble with the routine - most of us have to double up, she did general technical maintenance as well - so I said, look, try this, it'll help you keep on your feet. I mean it does, you know? Just so long as you keep it down to a low dosage."

      Maclain nodded to himself. "You can make a gramme last three weeks," he said. "Just float on through the day."

      Chu-Lao put the cigarette in her mouth, then pulled it out again. "You can, I can, anyone else can, but Kat... She couldn't handle it. Next thing I knew she was taking it for kicks. Well no, not the very next thing, she tried to keep it to herself, but you can tell easy enough. I thought about trying to talk her out of it - I mean, the way she was knocking it down, that stuff becomes terminal - but you don't, you know?"

      She took her head in her hands and stared down at the table top. "If that thing sniffs out shadow, she must have lit up like a close orbit beacon in rush hour."

      Droge grumbled at the back of his throat. "Should never have touched the filthy stuff in the first place."

      Chu-Lao didn't look up at first. "Oh, that is so easy for you to say. You and your born-in-the-cockpit plug-on-till-you-drop..." she floundered "...bull. Just when did you last drop? When did you last do a seventy two hour shift? Not knowing what you're doing half the time 'cos the Agency won't pay up to put a full crew on board? They're the law-breakers, man, they're the ones who just chuck out the regs and dump on us. We're the ones who stand to get busted." She was on her feet now. "What do they do for us? What do you do for us?"

      "Ms Lao," said Droge, stony calm, warning.

      "Don't you fu-"

      "MS LAO."

      Chu-Lao froze dead, splayed hand pressing heavy on the table top, first finger of the other aimed straight between Droge's eyes. Her shoulders rose and fell with each deep breath, valley walls for her head. Droge maintained an implacable stare back without effort. She fell back into her chair, scraped it back across the floor on momentum, and lit her cigarette.

      "You know, sometimes I think Kat had the right idea. If you're gonna get shafted non-stop you may as well enjoy it some of the time."

      When she breathed out a cloud of smoke it put a bitter tang in the air. She saw how everyone noticed.

      "It's medicinal, okay?"

      There was a lull. Avon seized it. "If we could turn back to the real matter in hand," he said, "I think we can safely assume that whatever motivates this creature, it has something to do with shadow." He made sure he had Droge's attention. "Yes?"

      Droge nodded. "I don't see any reason to dispute that."

      "Neither do I," said Avon. "So what is it doing aboard the Liberator?"

      

      

Tarrant's gunbelt clattered to the corridor floor. Dayna's followed it, flung down in a token of defiance. Lassiter spared the weapons no more than the briefest glance.

      "That's better," he said, his aim never wavering. With a flick of his own weapon he ordered them down to the flight deck proper, well beyond reach of the guns. "Now, what is this ship's maximum speed?"

      Tarrant ventured a step forward. He found himself staring straight down Lassiter's line of sight. "We're on the edge now," he said.

      Lassiter shook his head very slowly and firmly. "We're still within regenerative margin. You said so yourself." His eyes seemed even more sunken than ever, deep black pitiless caverns. "I want to know how fast we can get to San Bernard without draining all reserves."

      Dayna pushed forward, took up a stand beside Tarrant. "I think there's something you ought to know."

      "That there's a dangerous alien on board?" Dayna's face fell, and he noted it with obvious satisfaction. "I guessed as much when I found the remains of the Baret woman. The rest of you sounded distinctly occupied, so I thought I'd make the most of the opportunity." He carried himself with the full arrogance of an Alpha. "My earlier visit here told me where your armoury is - very careless of you to leave it unguarded. Now, for the last time, how soon can this ship get to San Bernard?"

      Tarrant carefully folded his arms. "For your connecting flight to Uila Segunda, I suppose?"

      Lassiter forced a twisted smile. "I ask the questions - I believe that's the done thing to say in these situations. And you answer them. Now."

      Tarrant stared down the barrel of Lassiter's sidearm. He saw a determination that could easily match his own. And since in Lassiter's place he could easily kill...

      "We should be able to cut our remaining flight time down by forty percent."

      Lassiter nodded slowly in satisfaction. "Now give the order."

      Tarrant didn't try to force it this time. "Zen, increase speed to Standard by ten."

      +Confirmed.+

      There was an audible shift in the background hum of the main drives. The acceleration rocked the flight deck. Lassiter was prepared for it.

      Vila crept cautiously out from behind Dayna to get a better look at Lassiter. "Would someone like to tell me just what the hell is going on? I thought we had enough problems as it was."

      Dayna agreed. "I wouldn't mind knowing that myself," she said. "In the absence of anything better to do."

      Tarrant waved a contemptuous hand in Lassiter's direction. "You wanted to know what shadow was. He's the man who can tell you."

      "Shadow?" Vila's eyebrows shot up even further in total bemusement. They sank back down as he realised. He gave Lassiter the best he could manage as a withering look. "You're a courier."

      "That's right. Looking forward to being a rather wealthy courier as well." Lassiter stepped carefully to one side, in reach of the crash couches. He put out his free hand and found a brown collapsible by touch. It looked heavily battered, as if it had been clawed open in a frenzy. Which it had.

      "So it was yours after all," said Tarrant. He thought quickly. "You saw the opportunity, made the switch, and hoped Baret wouldn't notice until you were both through customs. Then, of course, you could spot the mistake some clumsy starport baggage handler had made and claim it back - unless the hapless Mrs B happened to get caught with your merchandise."

      "That's pretty much it." Lassiter quietly nodded, not without satisfaction. "I considered it worth the risk. Twenty million credits worth, that's what I was carrying. Street value, that is. I wouldn't see more than a tenth of it."

      Vila let out a whistle of amazement. Tarrant couldn't believe he'd heard right. "Twenty million?"

      "Legacy of the War. Scarcity of resources. Less supply, but no drop in demand." Lassiter rolled the points off with relish. "I think I've recovered enough to make this a worthwhile run. Who knows, it might even be my last."

      "It probably will be," snapped Tarrant. "Just try and think things through, will you. There's a dangerous creature on this ship and we've got no meaningful defence against it. Even at our new speed we can't reach Uila Segunda in less than a day and a half, ship time." He risked coming closer. "Do you seriously think we'll last that long."

      "You just stay where you are."

      "Now look," said Vila, "can't we come to an understanding about this. Suppose we go back to Avon and Cally, get rid of the alien, then drop you off wherever you want? We're not bothered about a bit of shadow." He flashed meaningful looks at Dayna and Tarrant. "Are we?"

      "If it's what I think it is," said Dayna, dripping venom, "yes we are."

      "Face it, man," pressed Tarrant, desperate to seize whatever advantage he might have, "you're going to have to cut your losses and be thankful."

      "Oh, I don't think so," said Lassiter, suddenly coming to a decision. "I think I can more than make up for them. Because when I leave this ship, I don't just take this," - he patted the collapsible - "I take Orac as well."

      There was a moment's silence. Tarrant and Dayna didn't seem to know what to say. Vila did, however.

      "Then we've got to go back," he said. Lassiter swung his aim around.

      "Meaning what?"

      "Orac isn't our computer," said Vila, speaking fast at the sight of the gun barrel pointed at him. "He's Avon's. Wherever he goes, Orac goes. Orac's back on the Colombia."

      "I don't believe you." Lassiter sunk his head to look straight down his line of sight. Cold sweat broke out on Vila's face.

      "It's the truth, I swear it!"

      Lassiter's expression tightened to white-faced anger. Doubt flickered through his eyes. He relaxed his grip on the gunbutt, but only slightly.

      "Then I'll just have to make do with what I have."

      

      

"I thought it might be Baret." Avon slowly paced the width of the briefing room, and when he reached the far wall he leaned against it, arms folded. Cally remained sitting opposite Droge. Everyone else had been dismissed.

      "No," said Droge. The hard-bitten officer had gone into hiding. It was a tired and sagging man that sat in his place. "Liona is as straight as they come. Ambitious, of course, and very persistent - do you honestly think I'd willingly put her so close to a specimen like Lassiter? - but she's above anything... anything like that." He wiped his hand across the table top and noted how the surface gleamed brighter. The sight displeased him. "My God, whatever else happens I just hope she comes out of this alive. Her and the child."

      "If they don't," said Cally, "it won't be your fault. You weren't to know."

      "Whereas you knew very well," broke in Avon, "who Lassiter was and what he was carrying. Unless you really want to deny that."

      "No of course I don't." Droge wiped his dusty hand on his trouser leg. and leaned back heavily in his chair. "I knew damn well who he was. So did Ms Lao, that's why she let him through to see me. He's a regular on this run, been doing it for some years now, before I first came aboard. You could say he came with the ship, if you like."

      "Not particularly." Avon shrugged the excuse away. He considered it of little importance.

      "Don't the Agency know about him?" asked Cally.

      "The Agency," replied Droge, still facing Avon, "prefer not to know anything that might embarrass them. All they want to know is that the books are balancing the right way. Especially in these times. Unfortunately it's the Lassiters who make them balance."

      He stood up and scraped his hands up and down his thighs. Years of command had played havoc with his circulation. He couldn't sit down for too long.

      "Don't for one moment imagine that I actually wanted to carry him about his filthy business. He's everything I despise, not just for what he does, for the way he goes about it." Droge unbottled the full tide of a fury he'd been holding down for years. "A traitor to his grade. I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't hate him, not even the people he... no, especially the people he sells to. They depend on him, and he won't let them forget it." He tensed up, fighting to get a hold on himself. "Maclain loathes him. Never really thought about it until now. Never troubled to wonder why."

      "He could always meet with an accident," Avon suggested.

      "And so could I. One of my predecessors did. A very nasty accident, too." Droge marched across to the wall beside the door, hands clasped behind his back. He seemed to shrink with each step. On the wall was a holoplate of an LRPV-7 pursuit ship, cone-nosed and underlength, like a sawn-off bullet. Unshapely, but deadly. If he shifted his angle of sight, the fins would tilt and the stars slide as it banked into an attack run.

      "I did consider resigning," he said, studying each line of the attack craft. "Take my hush money - as if my silence were for sale - and find another post. But I left it too late. The War came, changed everything. For a while we were shipping refugees - you can't walk away at a time like that. And then afterwards, ship crew were no longer a precious commodity. The market was glutted, I wouldn't have stood a chance of finding a new captaincy. So I stayed."

      It was difficult to gauge just how much or how little sympathy Avon had to give. "You qualify for a Space Command pension, don't you?"

      "Oh yes: it's there, waiting, falling in value by the day. I have to retire officially to claim it, you see. Some do. I've seen what happens to them - they rot. Don't know what to do with themselves. They're on borrowed time before they even realise they've no life left to lead."

      Cally said, "It doesn't have to be that way." Said it softly.

      Droge's answer couldn't have been firmer. "It does for a certain breed. And I'm one of that breed. Plug on 'til I drop - Lao's right in that regard. Stay at the helm and go up with it. Or turn life into one long strategic withdrawal."

      He turned away from the holoplate, faced them both, and a new life had crept up across his face. "I was at Cana Capel, you know. Doubt if the young lady's heard of it but I'm sure you have, Avon. Had charge of a Mark II cruiser. Ugly lookers, but can they take the punishment. Found myself broadside-on against five Neshiki frigates. It could have been plucked straight from the history books, those old battles where they had to slug it out to the end, last ship hanging in place and all that. We had seven hours of slugging before we were through."

      "Leaving yours the only ship hanging, I presume." Avon had heard of the battle, had had little choice. The Terran Federation's finest hours were on every school syllabus.

      Droge snorted. "Almost anywhere else in the battle zone, yes, but not where I was fighting. Against five frigates? If anyone knows how to fight in space, it's the Neshiki. Seven hours and twelve minutes - that's a span of time I'll never forget - seven hours and twelve minutes after the first shot, I broadcast my unconditional surrender. You know, it was not unusual in ancient times - very ancient times - for the defeated captain to be invited aboard his victor's ship for dinner. I, on the other hand, was ferried across under armed guard for interrogation. Within Convention limits, of course, but very thorough nonetheless. Then it was some months in a none too salubrious cell, until some treaty or other let me go. Curious, don't you think, how we never remember the peacemakers?"

      Cally sat back and reappraised Droge in a new light. "You lost," she said simply.

      Droge almost laughed. "That's right. I lost. But with dignity, against an enemy I could admire. Without shame." He gave the holoplate a brief glance, and sighed. "Or self pity."

      He drew himself up to his full height, taller than Cally or Avon had ever seen him before. "The Neshiki might be aliens," he said, and turned a deliberate eye on Cally as he said so, "but they're the kind of enemy I can respect." He unclasped his hands and refolded them across his chest.

      "I cannot," he said, "respect a Lassiter."

      

      

"I thought it might be Baret." Avon slowly paced the width of the briefing room, and when he reached the far wall he leaned against it, arms folded. Cally remained sitting opposite Droge. Everyone else had been dismissed.

      "No," said Droge. The hard-bitten officer had gone into hiding. It was a tired and sagging man that sat in his place. "Liona is as straight as they come. Ambitious, of course, and very persistent - do you honestly think I'd willingly put her so close to a specimen like Lassiter? - but she's above anything... anything like that." He wiped his hand across the table top and noted how the surface gleamed brighter. The sight displeased him. "My God, whatever else happens I just hope she comes out of this alive. Her and the child."

      "If they don't," said Cally, "it won't be your fault. You weren't to know."

      "Whereas you knew very well," broke in Avon, "who Lassiter was and what he was carrying. Unless you really want to deny that."

      "No of course I don't." Droge wiped his dusty hand on his trouser leg. and leaned back heavily in his chair. "I knew damn well who he was. So did Ms Lao, that's why she let him through to see me. He's a regular on this run, been doing it for some years now, before I first came aboard. You could say he came with the ship, if you like."

      "Not particularly." Avon shrugged the excuse away. He considered it of little importance.

      "Don't the Agency know about him?" asked Cally.

      "The Agency," replied Droge, still facing Avon, "prefer not to know anything that might embarrass them. All they want to know is that the books are balancing the right way. Especially in these times. Unfortunately it's the Lassiters who make them balance."

      He stood up and scraped his hands up and down his thighs. Years of command had played havoc with his circulation. He couldn't sit down for too long.

      "Don't for one moment imagine that I actually wanted to carry him about his filthy business. He's everything I despise, not just for what he does, for the way he goes about it." Droge unbottled the full tide of a fury he'd been holding down for years. "A traitor to his grade. I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't hate him, not even the people he... no, especially the people he sells to. They depend on him, and he won't let them forget it." He tensed up, fighting to get a hold on himself. "Maclain loathes him. Never really thought about it until now. Never troubled to wonder why."

      "He could always meet with an accident," Avon suggested.

      "And so could I. One of my predecessors did. A very nasty accident, too." Droge marched across to the wall beside the door, hands clasped behind his back. He seemed to shrink with each step. On the wall was a holoplate of an LRPV-7 pursuit ship, cone-nosed and underlength, like a sawn-off bullet. Unshapely, but deadly. If he shifted his angle of sight, the fins would tilt and the stars slide as it banked into an attack run.

      "I did consider resigning," he said, studying each line of the attack craft. "Take my hush money - as if my silence were for sale - and find another post. But I left it too late. The War came, changed everything. For a while we were shipping refugees - you can't walk away at a time like that. And then afterwards, ship crew were no longer a precious commodity. The market was glutted, I wouldn't have stood a chance of finding a new captaincy. So I stayed."

      It was difficult to gauge just how much or how little sympathy Avon had to give. "You qualify for a Space Command pension, don't you?"

      "Oh yes: it's there, waiting, falling in value by the day. I have to retire officially to claim it, you see. Some do. I've seen what happens to them - they rot. Don't know what to do with themselves. They're on borrowed time before they even realise they've no life left to lead."

      Cally said, "It doesn't have to be that way." Said it softly.

      Droge's answer couldn't have been firmer. "It does for a certain breed. And I'm one of that breed. Plug on 'til I drop - Lao's right in that regard. Stay at the helm and go up with it. Or turn life into one long strategic withdrawal."

      He turned away from the holoplate, faced them both, and a new life had crept up across his face. "I was at Cana Capel, you know. Doubt if the young lady's heard of it but I'm sure you have, Avon. Had charge of a Mark II cruiser. Ugly lookers, but can they take the punishment. Found myself broadside-on against five Neshiki frigates. It could have been plucked straight from the history books, those old battles where they had to slug it out to the end, last ship hanging in place and all that. We had seven hours of slugging before we were through."

      "Leaving yours the only ship hanging, I presume." Avon had heard of the battle, had had little choice. The Terran Federation's finest hours were on every school syllabus.

      Droge snorted. "Almost anywhere else in the battle zone, yes, but not where I was fighting. Against five frigates? If anyone knows how to fight in space, it's the Neshiki. Seven hours and twelve minutes - that's a span of time I'll never forget - seven hours and twelve minutes after the first shot, I broadcast my unconditional surrender. You know, it was not unusual in ancient times - very ancient times - for the defeated captain to be invited aboard his victor's ship for dinner. I, on the other hand, was ferried across under armed guard for interrogation. Within Convention limits, of course, but very thorough nonetheless. Then it was some months in a none too salubrious cell, until some treaty or other let me go. Curious, don't you think, how we never remember the peacemakers?"

      Cally sat back and reappraised Droge in a new light. "You lost," she said simply.

      Droge almost laughed. "That's right. I lost. But with dignity, against an enemy I could admire. Without shame." He gave the holoplate a brief glance, and sighed. "Or self pity."

      He drew himself up to his full height, taller than Cally or Avon had ever seen him before. "The Neshiki might be aliens," he said, and turned a deliberate eye on Cally as he said so, "but they're the kind of enemy I can respect." He unclasped his hands and refolded them across his chest.

      "I cannot," he said, "respect a Lassiter."

      

      

Lassiter pulled the pocket dispenser out of his jacket by touch, thumbed off the cap, tapped a pill into his palm and swallowed it, all without dropping his sight for so much as an instant. Tarrant stood propped against the wall, ankles crossed, one hand prodding the scratches on his cheek. They had more or less stopped bleeding.

      "I hope you've got a good supply of those," he said. "One hour down, at least thirty five to go."

      Lassiter shook the popper. It barely rattled, nearly full. "I think I've got enough."

      "You couldn't spare us a few, could you?" said Vila, doleful. "It could help to break the monotony. I mean, there's plenty of things I believe in taking my time over, but just standing here waiting isn't one of them."

      Lassiter glowered. Vila fell silent.

      Dayna shifted, uncomfortable. "You're going to kill us all anyway, if we get there without being eaten alive."

      "Not impossible," growled Lassiter. "I could hand you in for the bounty, claim a share of the ship, but that could lead to some awkward questions, couldn't it? I think I'll make do with what I've got and make sure there aren't any witnesses."

      Dayna twitched her head. A touch of fear, but her jaw was firmly set. Challenging. "So why not get it over with now?"

      "The flight computer might need further instructions. Oh, I know it only takes one of you to give the order, but that one might need persuading. For the moment I'll keep you all alive."

      +Information.+ Light panels flashed across Zen's interface plate. +Long range sensors detect unidentified craft at extreme range. Preliminary scan suggests they may be Federation pursuit ships.+

      Lassiter scowled. "How close will they come?"

      Zen said nothing. Tarrant lifted his head.

      "Proximal approach distance, Zen?"

      +One point two million spacials.+

      "If that's a Federation patrol," said Tarrant, "they'll come within their own detector range. And if they're not, they might still pick us up and there's no guarantee they'll be friendly." He looked long and hard at Lassiter. "We'll have to go round."

      "That will take time."

      "Yes. It will. Of course, we could fight our way through. If you want us to take position on the controls..." He flipped a hand towards the empty crew positions. Lassiter shook his head, very firmly.

      "There's the detector shield," said Vila suddenly.

      Dayna rounded on him. "Vila!"

      Lassiter kept his aim on Tarrant, but a large slice of his attention went to Vila. "Keep talking."

      "It uses up a lot of power," said Vila. He was nervous, picking his words with caution. He didn't like guns. "But it could get us past those ships undetected."

      Lassiter chewed the notion over. "Tell the computer to switch it on," he ordered.

      "You can't," said Vila. "It's one of Avon's gadgets. Not that that stops it working, mind, but it's not part of the original ship, it needs to be switched on by hand."

      "Really?" Lassiter made no effort to conceal his scepticism.

      "Zen," said Tarrant, "activate the detector shield."

      +The detector shield is not linked to the Liberator's central control system. Activation must be manual.+

      Lassiter appeared to accept this. "Very well."

      Tarrant stepped forward, uncertain. Lassiter waved him back.

      "Not you. Him."

      Vila looked as if he'd been accused of an unspeakable crime. "Me?"

      Lassiter nodded. Vila edged away from the wall and crept forward, not taking his eyes off the gun following every step. Lassiter moved back as he approached. Vila circuited the peripheral control systems, reached the detector shield control. Then passed it by, moving on.

      To Orac.

      As he slid the activator key forward in its slot he muttered to himself, the kind of ceaseless patter he could spew out with ease when under stress. "You know," he said, "it's a real pity Orac's not on board right now. He can switch this thing on by command."

      Orac whined in undulating rhythm, but was otherwise silent.

      "Versatile machine," grunted Lassiter.

      "Too versatile," agreed Vila. "He can do anything you want, sometimes even when you want him to. Good at answering questions - can tell you all you need to know and more. Drive you up the wall, across the ceiling and down the other side." He paused for breath and swallowed. "He can even patch into Zen, turn this ship round and send it straight back to the Colombia."

      It wasn't until the drive hum dropped abruptly in pitch that Lassiter realised. His gun arm stiffened. Vila was already diving to the floor. The beam flashed over his head and took out the mainscreen holoprojector.

      Tarrant was the first to start running. He almost made it halfway. Lassiter drew a quick bead and clipped him on the shoulder. Tarrant pitched headfirst to the floor, gasping. Dayna was right behind. There was no time for a shot. She swung out a kick. Lassiter leaned back and blocked with his gun hand. For a man of his bulk he moved fast. She barely held her balance. When she brought a chop sweeping down towards his neck, he deflected with his forearm, then swung his fist back to slam his full weight across her jaw. She reeled. Lassiter brought his sidearm back to bear. She only just had time to dive over the crash couches. Air sparked and sizzled. A bank of scan monitors sparked and went dead.

      Vila was lying face down on the floor, hands over his head. Tarrant rolled over onto his back, clutching his shoulder, blood soaking his shirt. He hissed through clenched teeth. Lassiter took fresh aim as Dayna lunged up the steps to the corridor, to the discarded weapons lying there. One was blown to fragments almost as she touched it. She snatched up the other and rolled aside. Another blast singed the hair on top of her head. Then she was up in a crouch and firing back.

      Lassiter ran, shooting on the move. She ducked on instinct. Another brief volley and he was gone, out through the starboard exit. Dayna peeked over the rim of the communications console and saw nothing but the last molten dustspecks spiralling through the air. One by one they winked out, leaving a scorched smell in the air.

      She ventured out, keeping her eye on the exit. No response. There was a groan from the floor below. Tarrant was trying to sit up. She side-stepped over.

      Vila looked up, nervous but not overly rattled. He always recovered quickly. "Has he gone?"

      Dayna all but spat in his face. "You stupid idiot!"

      Vila looked offended. "What do you mean, stupid? I've got us heading back the right way, haven't I?" The walls shook with the distant muted roar of the lateral thrusters. Liberator was turning.

      "You nearly got Tarrant killed."

      Tarrant found the will to speak. "It's all right. I don't think it's that bad." He opened his eyes and saw the uncertainty written across her face. "Okay, so it is that bad."

      "We've got to get you to the medical unit."

      He shook his head, but not easily. "Too dangerous. There should be a healing cast in the medkit: that'll have to do for now."

      Dayna nodded. She told Vila to see to it. Not that she could see why he needed prompting. While he searched, she kept an eye on both exits. There was no sign of Lassiter.

      Tarrant was trying to stand and failing. His left hand was soaked with blood. He couldn't put any pressure on his right arm.

      Dayna knelt down behind him and put her arms round his waist. He was heavy, limp in her grasp, but she managed to haul him to the nearest couch. Vila appeared beside her with the healing cast. She prised Tarrant's hand from his shoulder. Vila craned for a better look and turned white.

      "I think you've got a broken bone there."

      "Thank you, Vila. That's just what I wanted to know." It hurt Tarrant to speak, but he spoke anyway. "Not that I hadn't guessed. Are we on our way back yet?"

      Dayna listened. The drives were humming, picking up speed. "Yes."

      Tarrant thought hard while Dayna strapped on the cast. "Increase our speed to maximum. The sooner we get back the better."

      "We can't maintain that for ever," she said.

      "We can try. Shut down the long range detectors."

      Dayna looked to the smouldering systems panels on the far wall. "I think that's already been done for us."

      "In that case deactivate the autorepair. It burns up too much juice." There were tears of pain pricking in Tarrant's eyes. He blinked them away. "And put the force wall down to minimal ambient, dust deflection only."

      Vila weighed all this up with obvious doubt. "That's a bit drastic, isn't it?"

      Tarrant forced a grim smile. "Drastic situation. It certainly feels like it from where I'm sitting, anyway."

      Dayna gave both exits another sweep, then turned to carry out Tarrant's orders. Tarrant had a question he needed answering.

      "Orac, how long before we reach the Colombia, ship time?"

      The computer buzzed with indignation. "I am not a mere calculating machine," it began.

      "You'll be a sack of spare parts if you don't give me a straight answer." Tarrant was in no mood to argue. He meant every word.

      "Four hours and fifty two minutes." Any meekness on Orac's part was undoubtedly feigned. "In anticipation of your next question, energy reserves will be depleted to less than twenty percent of maximum at current speed."

      "So at least we know we can make it," said Dayna. She turned back to her self-appointed role as sentry. "Zen, where is Lassiter now?"

      +Lassiter is currently in hold three.+

      Dayna looked puzzled. Tarrant had an answer.

      "Probably looking for a way off ship." The brown collapsible was by his side. He put a hand on it. "If he finds the life capsules, I think we can bet he'll be back for this first."

      Dayna agreed. She had one more question to ask. "Zen, there's also an alien life form on board. Where's that?"

      +Inboard sensors report it to be in the refectory.+

      Vila pulled a face. "Scene of the crime," he muttered to himself.

      "Be nice if it could stay there for five hours," said Tarrant. "We should be so lucky."

      Dayna listened in cold silence. She turned down the force wall with a sharp sliding finger, then strode across the flight deck to a point where she could keep an eye on both ways in. Tarrant and Vila watched her sweep between them. One helpless, one hopeless.

      A child was dead, wasn't even being allowed the dignity of lying unmolested.

      She decided she hated both of them.

      

      

Kat O'Ryan was clearly drunk out of her skull. She wore tigerstripe tights, a flared wirehem skirt cut to minimum decent length, an oversized bright red halter top with sideslits down to the waist. She'd never had any dress sense. But she was laughing. She was having a good time.

      Chu-Lao closed the pocket-size holograph album and stuffed it down the side of the already full hold-all on the bed. The party clothes were in there somewhere, wrapped round a pair of mendeli glasses Kat had picked up on shore leave somewhere. Not that she ever drank mendeli. She just liked the shape of the glasses.

      Just about everything was packed. The fold-down dresser top was bare except for a nail lacquer bottle. It was half empty and it didn't hold nail lacquer. Chu-Lao remembered the first time she'd shown Kat how to use it. Wipe the brush on the rim, hold it to drag thinways down a cigarette. Don't start too near the filter. Stop well before the end for an autolite. Two of those a day were quite enough.

      Kat would paint the whole outside and take half a dozen on the trot.

      She sensed rather than heard someone halt in the open doorway. She glanced at the mirror over the ultrasonic handfresher. It was Cally.

      "Thought you were crashed out."

      "I only needed a couple of hours," Cally replied. "Droge has been looking at some starcharts. There's a blind sun not far off the scheduled route, called Katerina. He thought it would be an appropriate place."

      Chu-Lao cracked a thin smile. "Actually she was a Katlin. But I don't think she'd mind."

      Cally walked into the cabin, hands rammed in her jacket pockets for want of anywhere else to put them. She tilted her head towards the hold-all. "Who does all this go to?"

      Chu-Lao shrugged. "Dunno yet. Doubt if she's got a next-of-kin listed. The Cap might have a declaration somewhere. Otherwise it's up for grabs. Can't think of anyone who'd want it, though."

      "Someone who'd rather not forget her?"

      Chu-Lao snuck a sly glance out of the corner of her eye and smiled. "Maybe," she said, and bent down to touchseal the bag. "I loved her, you know," she said. "Don't go getting any funnies - I'm strictly mono in the busy lane, yeah? But..."

      "I know," said Cally.

      "You got any sisters?"

      A look of pain crept over Cally's face. She wiped it off before it took hold. Her eyes almost twinkled. "Just a few," she said.

      Chu-Lao nodded to herself. "Reckon you do, then," she said. "Look, I had a go at you back there and..."

      "It's all right," said Cally. She flashed a tentative shape of colour, forgiveness hues. Chu-Lao didn't try to resist.

      "That head stuff of yours do any good?"

      "It can," said Cally, "if you let it."

      "I might take you up on that." She hefted the bag, tested its weight, then put it down again. She picked up the lacquer bottle and stowed it away in her pocket. "Can't leave it lying around," she said. "You know, I find myself wishing that thing was still on board. I mean, shit, I turned spacer to stay out of the firing line but right now I wanna take it on, one to one, shoot my way up to the front of the queue if I have to." She laughed. "Crazy, yeah? But..."

      Cally nodded, understanding. "I know someone," she said, "someone who recently lost... somebody who meant a lot to him. He won't admit it, but it's affecting him. He's making mistakes that... no, he's made mistakes before. But until now, he's never let them bother him, not like this." She paused, wondering just how much to say. "It's hard for me to be sure, but I can't help thinking he doesn't know whether he wants to live or die."

      "Are you talking about who I think you're talking about?"

      "Very probably," she admitted.

      Chu-Lao let out a silent whistle. "Don't wanna end up like him." She gave her head a wild shake, like she was trying to throw something out. She caught a glimpse of the doorway and froze, jaw dropping. "Oh shit. Talk about perfect timing."

      Avon's face was totally blank. He pointed to the comm panel over the bed. "I presume you had your reasons for disconnecting it," he said to Chu-Lao. He stretched out a hand towards Cally. It held a teleport bracelet. "You left this by your bunk."

      "Has anything happened?" she asked, clipping the bracelet back on.

      "You might care to come up to the bridge," he said. "We've just received a signal - Liberator's on its way back."

      

      

"It's marvellous, isn't it?" Vila had never been reluctant to whinge, and he wasn't going to stop now. He strained his ears to see if he could hear any change and had to admit he couldn't. It was like sitting in a tin hut while someone outside threw an endless stream of rocks against the sheet metal. Not surprising, really. Meteor storms sounded just like that.

      Tarrant sat hunched over the flight controls, cursing as he tried to operate them one-handed. Field drag was pulling the ship back more than he would have liked. Meanwhile Dayna tried the long range communicator again, keeping watch both ways as she did so.

      "Liberator to Colombia. This is Liberator calling Colombia. Respond please." Static hissed on the reception band.

      "We can't be out of range," she said.

      "They won't be out of ours," said Tarrant, "but we could still be out of theirs." He watched the force wall rating peak with a heavier than usual impact. "Turn it off - we need the power for other things."

      Vila struggled to make sense of the sensor readings. Like trying to follow one flake in a snowstorm, he decided. "What's all these things doing here anyway?" he wanted to know. "We didn't hit them on the way out."

      Tarrant snapped out the obvious answer. "We had to deviate for that patrol." It wasn't just the trouble he had steering that put him on edge. Not knowing what the storm was doing to the power reserves left him wondering if he shouldn't have risked going round the storm. More journey time, but at least they'd have made the destination. Ploughing in was going to cut things fine.

      Too late to worry about it now.

      "Any sign of an end to it?"

      Vila peered harder at the sensor readouts. "Not exactly," he said.

      "What's that supposed to mean?" Reminded him of the time he'd been assigned a rookie crew on a combat run. He hadn't been wounded then but he'd still given heads a verbal chewing off.

      "It means not at all." Vila mustered too much sarcasm for a Space Fleet neo. "Worse, if anything. Intensity twelve."

      Tarrant spat out a curse. "Let's hope that means we're hitting the centre." He checked on the force wall. If they weren't, they might have to come out the other end unshielded. If at all.

      And all the while, Dayna was utterly silent.

      

      

Cally didn't stop drumming her fingernails on the control panel until Avon put a beaker of steaming coffee in front of her. She muttered her thanks absently, all her attention on Warren. He was drooping from lack of sleep, straw-coloured hair stuck up at all angles. When he pulled himself up to some level of activity, Cally and Avon watched tensely, anticipating.

      "Sorry," he said, glancing back over his shoulder. "False alarm." He soon sagged back to his former weary pose.

      "I'm not sure what's worse," said Cally. "The waiting or the coffee."

      "At least we know Dayna's still alive." Avon checked his watch. "Or was, fifteen minutes ago." She heard him sigh, heard the rustle of cloth on metal as he leant back against the wall. Warren wasn't the only one who was tired.

      "What you were saying to Lao," he began, and fell silent. She said nothing, but held her cup in mid-sip to show she was listening.

      "It might be true," he finished.

      Cally took care not to move, not to shift her head so much as a fraction.

      "Nobody likes being betrayed," she said.

      "No." Rather hurriedly, he added, "You once said there was a saying amongst your people..."

      "Nobody likes being mistaken either."

      Another silence, then he said, "You can learn from mistakes."

      "Did Auron?".

      "Probably not." A harder tone there. Hard and bitter.

      "Aphorisms," she said, "make good epitaphs."

      "Well now, that's not something I'd expect to hear from the others." She didn't need to look to picture the cold smile he was aiming at her. She'd seen it often enough before. She put the cup down.

      "Once I'd have been surprised to hear it from myself. But that was a long time ago." She stared into empty space, remembering. "I once knew a mercenary who said that a woman was like a planet. No matter how much you loved her, you could never know her completely. She could always surprise you, for better or worse. 'A woman is a big world', that was his aphorism."

      "And his epitaph as well?"

      "He never had a grave. He stepped on a fusion mine. You can't really bury soot." She took another sip of her coffee. "And I was the one leading the patrol."

      She heard him murmur, "Saurian Major." She nodded

      "You've probably noticed," she said, "that I don't talk about it much." A pause. "Sooner or later, everyone realises they've been someone they'd rather not have been. And sometimes the only way to cope is to try and be someone else. I'm a big world, Avon. There are parts of me I hope no-one ever gets to see again."

      Avon said, "I'm not a born explorer."

      "That's the problem," she said. "You are."

      

      

She could hear Tarrant firing questions at Orac and getting little in the way of answers.

      "All I want to know is, do we have enough power to make it to the Colombia?"

      She could hear Vila, asking the pointless as usual.

      "Just how long am I supposed to stare at these screens, Tarrant? We're out of the meteors, aren't we? Why can't Zen do it?"

      She could hear Orac, evasive as he'd ever been.

      "It depends on what demands are placed on Liberator's energy reserves. Under current systems status, you are advised to reduce speed drastically."

      Tarrant. "Not very helpful, Orac. Just how drastically do you mean?"

      "Not at all, I hope." Vila. "We've got two dangerous maniacs on board, and I'm not sure which one I'd sooner face first."

      She could finally hear herself, as far away as any of the others.

      "And one of them has killed a child."

      At least Tarrant looked up. Only for a second, before turning back to Orac, but at least he acknowledged her. Just her presence, though. Not so much as a nod to her anger.

      She hadn't felt like this since Sarran. The helplessness, the stifling, throttling uselessness of being too late. She could still see, without trying, without even wanting to try, the father she'd known and loved for twenty years. Still feel him fresh and warm in her arms. What had she said then?

      I'm not going anywhere until Servalan is dead.

      But Servalan was still alive, and every beat of her heart a pointing finger. And Lauren was dead, just as unavenged.

      She could hear them, Tarrant, Vila, Orac.

      "So what you're saying is, we either cut speed now or pare everything else down to the bone?"

      "If we don't, Tarrant, we'll be pared down to more than the bone. You saw what it did what to Baret."

      "That is correct. Current speed cannot be maintained indefinitely under the present level of energy consumption."

      But she wasn't listening. Above it all she heard a rage that wouldn't - couldn't - be silenced.

      A child was dead, brought down like a blind man. She remembered Lauren as a child, the games they'd played, laughter shared, the sheer exhilarating joy of being young.

      "If you ask me, it's speed that matters. Every minute counts, and I don't want to run out of fingers."

      "Just shut up, Vila, and let me think."

      Once, when sunlight had caught the crests of waves and her bare feet trod warm sand, death had been a game that others lost. The shedding of blood, a vindication of skill, a flush of pride. All one and the same. But beyond that safe cocoon of innocence was a cold and merciless space. A universe of Servalans, Shrinkers, Baybans, Kleggs. Her father had tried to tell her, many times, but like any child she refused to understand. He had to die before she found he'd been right. So the queen of the undersea castle swapped her crown for a jester's sigh. And like a jester, she gambolled on command.

      She still killed, but because she had to. To stay alive. To prove she had what it took to survive in this maelstrom of grown-up madness.

      Or to prove that she still knew how to care. How to feel.

      "All right, Zen." She could hear Tarrant, shouting over his pain as if mere volume could dispel it. "I want all detectors offline, everything except the close range passives. Disengage the force wall completely. Switch off all inboard sensors beyond a twenty metre perimeter of the flight deck."

      "No, wait." It was her voice, her lips that moved, but it was like listening to someone else, another's decision.

      She stepped down from her position, stood before Zen with her hands on her hips and a burning heat behind her eyes. "Where are Lassiter and the creature now?"

      +Lassiter is stationary in the recycling plant. The alien is leaving the medical section towards the hold access corridor.+

      She mapped it out in her head, pictured distances and directions. Her mind made itself up. She could reach her test room without going near either of them. She unbuckled her gunbelt.

      "Vila, take over."

      Tarrant struggled to get up, face white with the pain of moving. "Just what the hell do you think you're doing, Dayna?"

      She didn't listen on her way out. Couldn't afford to.

      "Dayna!" It must have hurt him, to shout that loud. "You get back here this instant, do you hear me?"

      She didn't. There was more, losing volume with every step she took.

      And behind it all, another voice, thin and faint and distorted by speaker crackle.

      <Colombia calling Liberator...>

      

      

"We estimate you'll be in teleport range in forty five minutes." In Droge's absence, Avon had taken the captain's chair. When Droge arrived, he let it pass without comment.

      <That's reassuring.> Tarrant was clearly having trouble finding the will to speak. Cally guessed he was playing down the severity of his wound. <I estimate our batteries run flat in fifty. Fifty five at the outside. If you were planning to go anywhere in a rush I suggest you arrange to cancel.>

      Avon was more concerned with the situation in hand. "You've had no trouble from Lassiter since he blasted his way out?"

      <None at all. I don't think he's cut his losses entirely, though. Just laying low until we rendezvous.>

      "Not impossible. What about the creature?"

      <The same. Not a squeak for more than four hours. I'm beginning to wish it would show up, might take my mind off Vila's nerves.>

      "I can imagine." Avon allowed himself a flicker of a smile. "All right, Tarrant, hold on just a moment." He turned to Droge. "If Lassiter is laying low, then it's probable he's expecting back-up this end."

      Droge mused to himself. "That rather puts us on the spot," he said. "Doesn't it, Mr Maclain?"

      Maclain looked openly uneasy. "Just a bit, sir."

      "Then we have to decide where our loyalties lie." There was no doubt that he'd already made up his own mind. "You're a user, Maclain, not a dealer. If I can see the difference then I'm sure you can."

      Maclain turned his head, not quite putting Droge out of his sight. "It's a bit too much like biting the hand that feeds."

      "We're all fed by hands we'd like to bite. Lassiter deserves to be chewed off at the elbow."

      Maclain didn't argue with that. But he had other objections. "Certain people wouldn't like it if he had an accident."

      Droge's eyes were on the scanner screen, waiting for a blip to appear on the outer rim. "Screw them, Mr Maclain. Isn't that what Ms Lao would say?"

      Chu-Lao looked up. "Damn right," she said. "That mother is so much slime. I'm all for wasting him."

      Droge coughed deliberately. "I was actually thinking of taking him alive."

      "Leaving you with what?" Avon drummed his fingers on the communicator console. Tarrant was holding the line open, draining power. "A live problem, instead of a dead solution. What are you planning to do - teach him the error of his ways?"

      Maclain nodded. "We can't exactly hand him over, sir. Too many questions."

      Droge absorbed this, and reached a quick decision. "Very well. I can't say I'll be sad to see the back of him."

      Maclain turned to Avon. "You might need a hand in flushing him out."

      Avon shook his head. "There's only the one of him."

      "Only the one?" Maclain gave Avon a knowing grin. "He's an ex-Searer."

      Avon's eyes hardened. He knew what that meant. "The Special Reconnaissance Regiment."

      "That's right. He's seen action on Helotrix, Ceradon, Saurian Major, counter-insurgency on Earth. Got himself drummed out about five years ago, bad attack of the combat crazies. But he hasn't completely lost his touch - by now he'll have staked out the territory, sorted out his options. If it comes to a fight, he'll put one up."

      "It might not come to that," said Avon. "If we handle it right he might just hand himself over. Let him think he's back amongst friends."

      A sudden knocking sound barked out from the communicator grille. Avon pulled the mouthpiece up. "What is it, Tarrant?"

      <Wasn't me. I thought it was your end.>

      Avon looked puzzled for a moment. Cally beat him to the answer. "He's got a teleport bracelet. He's listening in."

      "And he knows just what to expect." Avon mouthed the words into empty space. "Perhaps I did underestimate him." His mouth twisted bitterly, painfully. For a moment he looked as though he really didn't know what to do.

      Droge stepped in with no such hesitations. "I don't know about you, Tarrant," he said, flexing the mouthpiece his way, "but this seems to me like a Code 14 situation."

      <Couldn't agree more, major.> Tarrant's reply seemed to match Droge's easy calm. <Standard recalibration?>

      "Standard B-flight, I think." The airwaves fell silent as Droge reached over the console, hardly pausing as he retuned the transmission frequency. He allowed himself a second to check. "Still with me, Tarrant?"

      <Still with you, major. Strike one eavesdropper.>

      "He might yet drop back in on us," said Droge. He swung the mouthpiece back to Avon. "Better make it quick, just in case."

      Avon nodded, glowered inwards for a second as he came to a decision. "All right, Maclain - if you're offering, I'm accepting."

      Maclain turned to Droge. The captain nodded. "Whoever you need, Mr Maclain."

      "Driscoll and Ferris," he said immediately. "And Siwani - she did a tour with the sixth Legion."

      Avon turned back to the communicator console. "Right, Tarrant, I want you to evacuate the flight deck and get to the teleport. Take Orac with you but leave Lassiter's shipment where it is. Defending the teleport bay is your number one priority. As soon as you're in range, send Dayna across with four spare bracelets."

      "Hey!" Chu-Lao unfolded her arms and stuck her hands on her hips. "You make that five."

      

      Vila hefted Orac off the bench and looked nervously at the exit.

      "You should have told him, you know."

      Tarrant tested the swing of his gun arm. Not too bad so long as he didn't overdo it. "Don't you think I gave him enough bad news? He'll find out about Dayna soon enough. I'll tell him how hard you tried to stop her."

      Vila almost dropped Orac right where he stood. "Now look, Tarrant, there are things in life you simply don't do, and arguing with Dayna when she's in that kind of mood is one of them. Did you see her face? She wants blood, and I don't think she cares whose it is."

      "Not even her own," muttered Tarrant. He picked his way towards the exit, checking the corridor ahead carefully before stepping through.

      "She could at least have told us what she's up to."

      

      

The fusion bolt rifle was a rough prototype, heavy and unbalanced. Dayna clipped in a fresh power bottle and opened the feed chamber. She switched on the motion sensor under the barrel sleeve. Empty gridlines flashed orange on the screen. She rolled an empty bottle across the workbench and aimed. Gyros hummed as the barrel panned of its own accord. The targeting readout indicated a precise lock-on. Deadly accurate, at least in theory. On the opposite bench the grenade launcher sat propped against an ammunition case. She stood it end up, cradling it in her left arm alongside the rifle. A reel of insulating tape was just in reach. Six times round both barrels before she tested the play. Too much. Another band round the stock end, and she decided it would do. She had her own grenades in production, post-penetration dissemblers, gyro-stabilised. One went straight into the launcher chamber. No magazine for it yet, so the others went into her belt. At least she'd find out if the in-flight arming worked.

      She was sweating by the time she'd finished. She worked hard, fast, no danger of giving herself time to think. Just like being back on Sarran again.

      Not quite. The adrenalin was still there, same as it ever was, but the thrill of the hunt was gone. No father to disobey this time. No lofty principles to mock.

      God but she'd been a bitch to him.

      His own paradox. Developing new and better ways to kill, but never killing for himself. Waiting for a worthwhile target, then letting it shoot him in the back when it came. All those years of love and labour, gone for nothing.

      She grabbed an IR visor and pulled it on with one hand. Her hands flared red at the end of her sleeves. Sweat the colour of blood. The strap bit into her shoulder as she slung on the rifle/launcher combination. She was ready now.

      Ready to justify.

      

      

"Twenty five minutes now," said Cally.

      Avon nodded once, then played a finger shadow across the vision screen. "We arrive in the teleport chamber here. Note the reference points: flight deck, medical unit, refectory, laboratory."

      Driscoll, the stores officer, ran a hand through his uncut blond hair as he studied the deck plans transmitted by Orac. "Looks a right bloody maze from here."

      Maclain snapped his fingers and jabbed at him. "You've got less than half an hour to map it out in your head. Don't waste it."

      Avon pointed to a corridor near the bottom of the screen. "The escape pods are in this section. He might make for them. Personally I doubt it, there's nowhere for him to go if he takes one, but if he's desperate enough he might just try."

      Siwani flipped a dreadlock out of her eyes. "'Scusing me, but...er... what about this alien? Don't we go for that?"

      "That's our number two target," said Maclain. "Once we get over there, I want you, Chu and Driscoll to go with Cally. Ferris and I, we go with him." He indicated Avon. "Two teams, pin down Lassiter first. If you meet the alien, disengage. Once we've got Lassiter out the way, we all take the alien together."

      Avon agreed. "We won't know where either of them are until the inboard sensors are patched back in. That won't be until we're aboard. Internal comm is out, so use the headsets Maclain's given you. Don't try to communicate by teleport bracelet, Lassiter can eavesdrop."

      Droge stepped in front of the screen to address his away team. "I don't want any heroics, not from any of you." His gaze settled for an instant on Chu-Lao. "You all know what you've got to do over there. Just make sure you get the job done."

      Ferris, short dark and stocky, tugged at his beard as he muttered to himself. "Dirty job."

      "For sure," said Siwani. "But someone's gotta do it."

      

      

Her visor was misting up, and the emergency lights were cold and dull. Dayna found she could see better by normal light. There was an earpiece line running from the motion sensor. It beeped a steady and regular double pulse-blip. It was picking up nothing.

      Another intersection. Another slide up one wall to check the right-hand branch. Another broad step across to check the left. It was clear both ways, just as clean ahead.

      Shoulder strap biting deep now. The clunky angles of the weapon combination scraping on wrist, tangling fingers. A tightgrip tension in the knuckles. She pulled the visor back down. Nothing she couldn't see without it. The headstrap was giving one hell of an itch.

      And behind it all, the fear was rising.

      So maybe she'd made a mistake. Maybe she'd swallowed too many tales of rightful revenge against all odds. She'd come this far, maybe that was just to tell her it was time to cut her losses, turn back, swallow suicide pride and do the safe and sensible thing. She wondered. Then took the right hand corridor, headed down towards the inner holds. There was no going back, not now.

      She'd sooner die.

      

      

"She's what?" Avon thumped his fist down on the teleport console and loomed over Tarrant, accusing. Maclain and his team stepped out from the teleport bay, took stock of their new surroundings.

      "Right before you called in," said Tarrant. "How was I supposed to stop her, slug her with my left?"

      Avon allowed himself a silent snarl, then brought himself back under control. "It needn't change anything," he said, daring anyone to suggest otherwise. No-one did. "Orac, where is Lassiter now?"

      "I am unable to say precisely," droned Orac.

      "What do you mean? The inboard sensors are back online, you can read them through Zen. We need to know exactly where he is."

      Orac whirred on, unperturbed. "The inboard detector relays in the vicinity of corridors 9 and 9a have been deactivated since Lassiter left the recycling plant. All the evidence points to deliberate sabotage. I would suggest that -"

      Tarrant winced in frustration. "You don't need to suggest anything, Orac. We can work it out for ourselves." He looked up at Avon. "Ex-Searer all right."

      Avon tugged his Arilman further up his shoulder and rammed the plaser tight inside his jacket. "Why does he bother?" He swivelled round to face Maclain. "All he can buy is time, and he'll run out of it sooner or later."

      "Searers don't give up," said Cally. "We came across them on Saurian Major. We soon learned to treat them with respect."

      Maclain peered down his nose at her. "Is that what you call hammering cartridge cases into kneecaps?" He looked away before she could retort. "Avon, we're wasting time. If we send one team past medical towards the stores..."

      "...And the other through accommodation," finished Avon. "Yes, that should give us a chance to intercept him. Cally, you lead the second team."

      "Wait." Cally pushed through past Driscoll and Chu-Lao. "Orac, where is Dayna now?"

      "She is leaving inner hold three in the direction of inner hold two."

      "And where is the creature?"

      Orac's reply was immediate. "Inner hold two."

      Cally pulled the strap of her Arilman firmly onto her shoulder. "I'm getting down there. Vila will have to lead the other team."

      "What? Me?"

      Avon made a grab for her but he was too late. She went through the starboard exit at a run. Chu-Lao went chasing after her.

      "Hoy! Wait for me!"

      Avon's face blackened. "Just what the hell is wrong with -"

      Maclain cut him off. "Let's just get the hell on with it, shall we?"

      

      

Inner hold two. There were bits of Liberator she hadn't even known existed. If this was anything like the other holds, it was going to be empty. Then again, it might not be. Dayna cradled her makeshift armoury in her elbow and punched the door control. The double steel panels parted with a rumble of long disuse. Things were very dark on the other side.

      Hold two was like number four, set at a lower level to the others. She was standing on the brink of a black shaft. An unrailed loading platform and a zig-zagging flight of iron-grille stairs were the only ways down. Either way made just as much noise. She hit the platform button and it started to sink, motors kicking in with a crunch that echoed right down to the bottom.

      The descent might have gone on for ever.

      

      

Maclain and Ferris hit the intersection simultaneously, each covering the other.

      "All clear."

      Avon backed up to draw level, covering the rear. "We go straight on," he said, and took up position in the opposite corridor.

      Maclain tapped his headset as he moved forward. "Siwani! Talk to me, what's happening your end?"

      <We been seeing nothing but nothing all way. And man, who is this leader man you given us? He is useless.>

      Avon tuned himself in. "Just make sure he points you in the right direction. You ought to be parallel with us, look out for a large locked doorway on your right."

      <Rubbing shoulders with it, man.>

      No point in telling her it was the strongroom. "Carry on to the next junction, then bear left. If you see movement, check before you open fire. It could be us."

      <I'm all eyes, man. All eyes.>

      She signed off. Ferris took aim down the length of the corridor. Maclain headed on, ready to fire if he had to.

      Then a sound echoed down, bouncing off the walls. Someone had just opened up with an energy weapon.

      

      

Cally stopped to catch her breath and wipe the sweat off her hands. Chu-Lao caught up with her.

      "How far now?"

      Cally breathed in deeply and swallowed. "I'm not thinking," she said. She raised her left hand to her head, pressed her fingers to the temple. Not a necessary gesture, but it helped her to think clearly, concentrate.

      //Dayna!// She flashed the word out with urgent warning shapes. //Dayna, listen. The creature is in inner hold two. Get out of there. I'm on my way down.// Old habits died hard, she was straining her mind for confirmation. There wouldn't be any coming. One last plea. //Get out of there, Dayna.//

      "You okay there?" Chu-Lao put a steadying hand on her shoulder. She nodded.

      "I just hope she heard," she said. "And if she did, I just hope she listens."

      She checked her bearings. Not far to go. She hoisted the Arilman back up on her shoulder and hurried on towards the hold access corridor.

      

      

//Get out of there.// The words echoed through her head. So it was here. A cold thrill ran down her back, freezing her sweat-sodden shirt to her skin. It was here, so close. So very close.

      So why couldn't she see it?

      She risked using the visor. The emergency lights, the transfer cables, the outer hold access controls all showed up pale. The power terminal was near blinding. But nothing else. She pushed the visor back up.

      There were a lot of dark corners.

      She spun a slow circuit, pointing everywhere. The motion sensor kept to its standard two-beat rhythm. She side-stepped out into the centre of the floor. Safer there.

      Tune into the instinct. Surely she hadn't lost that. There'd been times on Sarran when she'd worked on pure intuition. That had been half the joy of it, the sheer sense of knowing where to move, when to drop, when there was a foe behind her.

      Behind her...

      She was standing in a splash of light bisecting the floor. Her shadow reached from her feet to the far wall, long and thin and impossibly stretched.

      She didn't move, but her shadow suddenly expanded.

      

      

<Driscoll, man, he's been shot up really bad.> Siwani sounded cool, collected. There were feeble cries audible in the background. <I'm not sure he's gonna live.>

      Maclain swore under his breath. "Then you're dead, mate." To the mouthpiece he said, "All right, which way did he go?"

      <How'd I know, man? He came outa nowhere, shooting shit all over. Scattered us, man, scattered us. Leader man, he's gone. Just I and the dying here. And his rifle's gone too.>

      "Okay, find Restal, get Driscoll to medical." He turned to Avon. "Not quite according to plan."

      Avon swung his Arilman erect in one sharp motion. The sixty-round magazine was in solid, but he palmheeled it anyway. "Since when is it ever?" The words were all but spat out. He tried to force a way past to the junction. Maclain pushed him back.

      "Easy, mate. We play it double cagey from now on." Avon stood back and simmered as Maclain turned to Ferris. "All clear to the left?"

      "Clean as she'll ever be."

      Maclain slithered up the wall to check the right-hand corridor. He tilted out, cautious.

      The single burst of automatic fire nearly ripped his arm off at the shoulder.

      

      

Cally flung herself against the door control and elbowed it to on. The door took an age to open. She ran in. Only a grab from Chu-Lao stopped her going over the edge.

      "We gotta take the stairs."

      Cally caught her balance back and reached out for the handrail. Down below the blackness flashed white and hot with a muffled thump of capacitor discharge. A smell of burning flew up the shaft. Chu-Lao crinkled her nose by reflex.

      "I think she's found it."

      

      

It was huge. And it was fast. Not just for its size, it was fast full stop. The motion sensor was screaming in her ear, a single shrill tone, making her head ring. Over that the roars of the alien were deafening, disorienting. And she still couldn't see it, not clearly. Directly ahead was a whirling mass of teeth and claws, polished like blades, dancing light. The rest was so much shifting shadow, head and body bulk and lashing tail.

      She threw herself to the left, tried to shoulder-roll back up to a firing crouch. The guns were too heavy, tripped her up. Steelgleam talons whipped out. She fired blind, the recoil ramming her elbow into the floor.

      She must have scored a hit. The blades fell short. The animal roars hit a higher pitch, louder. Roars of pain. She had time to sit up.

      Slick fingers swam in search of a trigger. They found one. Thick and straight, the grenade launcher. She pulled it. The kick knocked her backwards again. A thin stream of fire cut through the air, on and on...

      Too far. The impact was on the far wall. For one fleeting instant she saw a silhouette outline, a head lunging back, flat and angular.

      She scrabbled for the other trigger.

      Then the darkness flooded back. The roaring deepened, rushed in for the kill.

      She couldn't find it. No time to find it.

      The jaws almost on her, opening, opening so wide. She flung up the rifle/launcher to deflect them. They snapped shut. Bit clean through both barrels. The line to the motion sensor flew out of her ear.

      The head swung up, out of reach. She tried to stand. Something underfoot, maybe a power cable. Enough to trip her up. She crashed down on her left side and screamed. Dizzying. What little she could see was so much muzzy blur. Flashing blur, descending. That impossibly large head was coming down again.

      She twisted onto her back, one hand on the stub of the rifle barrel, the other on the launcher stock. As the jaws dropped open she thrust out, swung the gun remains vertical. The mouth snapped closed, and jammed halfway. She'd managed to wedge it that far.

      Still not far enough. As the creature reared back and yanked her off her feet, she saw the steelplate jaws flush with her lower arm. And watched as her own dark blood welled out in a torrent.

      

      

Vila felt strong fingers grab hold of his collar. A deep rich voice boomed into his ear. "You is needed, man."

      He got up from the crouch he'd taken up in the frame of the strongroom door. Siwani flashed contempt from both dark eyes. It was nothing he hadn't seen a thousand times before.

      "Is it safe?"

      Before she could answer there was a rattle of fire. Not far away. Vila was back under cover in an instant. Siwani froze, poised.

      "That's not for us, man. That's for some other."

      Vila risked a peep round the doorframe. The shooting had stopped. Then came another burst, further off. A return volley close at hand. Then a shout, from some away. Calling Avon's name.

      Siwani clamped a grip on his arm. "That's Ferris, man," she said, pulling him into the open. "He's somewhere up ahead." She started to march that way, dragging Vila with her.

      Round a half turn there was a T-junction. Cartridge cases littered the floor. Siwani let Vila go and began to edge forward. The sound of running feet clattered up from the left. She swung her rifle round.

      Avon didn't seem to notice either of them as he pounded past. He held his Arilman tight. Vila had only a fleeting glimpse of his face before he was gone.

      It was the look of an angry man, caged by frustration, cornered by fate. The look of a man who'd had enough. A man who didn't care if he lived or died.

      And somehow, that hurt.

      

      

Cally reached the foot of the stairs to see Dayna lifted up like a rag doll. Her arms were up to the elbows in the thing's mouth.

      Chu-Lao was less than a second behind. She stopped dead in her tracks, paralysed by what she saw.

      "Oh my God." It was almost a whimper. "Oh my sweet, sweet..."

      Dayna swung from side to side as the creature tried to shake her off. Cally began to lift her rifle, then checked herself. Too risky. She checked the layout of the hold. There was room to manoeuvre round.

      She started to skirt the wall. Chu-Lao moved the other way, one step at a time, her rifle levelled at the hip.

      Cally rocked as her foot landed on a stray cable. The sudden movement caught the creature's attention. It bellowed, swung its neck round towards her. Cally stepped back. With one sharp jerk of its head, it flung its prey free. Dayna arced through the air and slammed into Cally.

      She was sent sprawling, the Arilman knocked out of her hands. It skittered along the floor and stopped well out of reach.

      Chu-Lao saw her chance. She was broadside on to the creature, no chance of hitting Dayna now. She pulled the trigger. Nothing. Again. Still nothing.

      She'd forgotten to take the safety off.

      As she frantically groped for it, a lash of the creature's tail smacked into her head. She lost her balance, reeled across the floor.

      Face first into the power terminal. Sparks flared up as she went down. When she hit the floor, she lay very still.

      

      

Things could only fall so far apart.

      Avon pounded on down the corridor. Three-way junction. He caught a glimpse of Lassiter's back disappearing down the right. Turning a corner. He loosed off a burst from the hip and chewed out a hole in the wall. Futile gesture.

      The only kind he had left.

      Flooring echoed under boot impact, a rapid beat, a death tattoo. Any other man would have been bellowing, screaming the raw fury of the chase.

      But he wasn't any other man. That was the last thing he wanted to be.

      It had started to slip away with the War. That sad promise to Blake. Why the hell had he made it?

      Why not?

      He reached the corner. And dropped. Hot steel whistled overhead, the far end of the passage flared with the stutter of Lassiter's rifle. He fired back. No time to aim, just let rip and hope. Smoke stung his eyes. When he blinked them dry, the way ahead was empty.

      Still there, the preservation instinct. But that's all it was now, an instinct. He pulled another short burst as he clambered back up, and another as he started running again. Sixty rounds in the box when full, no telling how many left. Not that he cared too much.

      After the War, the chaos. The overwhelming pointlessness of it all. One long catalogue of fiascos. Losing the Liberator to Servalan, he should never have let that happen. And when he finally had found a purpose, he'd been robbed of it.

      The next intersection. He turned on one heel, swept the full one-eighty left to right. A shadow in the corner of his eye. When he opened up it moved, moved fast. Missed, again. But at least he knew which way to go.

      The big mistake that had brought him to this. Relying on other people. He'd known a long time ago, further back than he wanted to remember, that that was what would bring him down. All the years, all those dedicated years of trying, just to become the strong link in a weak chain. And he wasn't even that anymore.

      A door ahead, open. He ran on towards it.

      Was that why he was doing this now? Because he'd tried so hard and ultimately failed?

      Through the door. A room, one of the sub-controls. He'd saved Blake's life here once, Cally's bomb. No other exits. A dead end.

      No, he was here now because he'd loved a woman, and she'd betrayed him, and it left him gutted as much as any other pathetic fool.

      Lassiter stepped out from beside the doorway and sprayed a full burst into his legs.

      

      

Cally lifted her face off the floor and tried to shake some clarity into it. There was a pounding in her ears, a bloodroar.

      Or a beastroar.

      She couldn't have been out for more than a second. The alien was there, threshing in the centre of the hold, deep snarls gurgling out of its throat. Long tail lashing from side to side, making the air whistle.

      She struggled back to her feet and saw Dayna where she lay on the floor, saw her twitch, saw her head loll sideways, her lips mouth something quiet and inaudible.

      She was still alive.

      The dropped Arilman was somewhere in the shadows. Cally saw yellow eyes narrow to murderous slits, shining yellow rising in the darkness. Then stooping, rushing down on Dayna, down for the kill.

      No time to think. She leapt forward, waving her arms, screaming...

      "No!"

      - and across the psiband -

      //Don't kill her please no don't kill her no don't//

      The yawning jaws stopped inches from Dayna's head and the huge head swung slowly up to stare Cally directly in the eye.

      

      

Vila knew what it felt like to be in the way - he'd been there often enough. But it still gave him the twitches. Siwani groaned and grunted as she dragged Driscoll's body through the door of the medical unit.

      "This is time wasted, man. No way is this mother gonna make it."

      That didn't stop her making the effort.

      Noises outside. Vila's hand flew to his gunbutt. He was still pulling the weapon out of its holster when Ferris staggered into view, holding Maclain up by the waist.

      "This medical?" He had a face full of anger. Anger and fear. Maclain hung limp, unconscious, his left arm a long bloody mess. Vila nodded dumbly.

      Ferris dragged Maclain in and headed for the nearest surgical couch. Someone else appeared in the doorway. Tarrant.

      "What the hell's going on here?" He took a long stride in, then stopped, clutched at the healing cast on his shoulder, face white with pain.

      Ferris hissed through clenched teeth. "Been a total screw up, that's what." He dropped Maclain on the couch and sagged over him, sucking air, exhausted. "What do I do with this gear?"

      Tarrant was too busy counting heads to answer. "Where's Avon?"

      Siwani didn't look up. "Gone berserker, man."

      Tarrant looked uncomprehending. "Gone what? Look, I heard a lot of shooting and..."

      Vila glanced up and strained his ears. Nothing to be heard from outside. "Oh dear," he mouthed to himself.

      He stumbled round Siwani and bypassed Tarrant. "You're more use here than I am," he said on his way out.

      He scuttled off down the corridor before he could feel the eyes boring into his back.

      

      

There was no pain, just a numbness. And an emptiness, as if his lungs had been torn out by the root. He was floundering, helpless and stupid on his back, struggling to breathe.

      He couldn't feel his legs.

      "I just think you ought to know," rumbled Lassiter, "that I'm going to enjoy this." He appeared overhead, looming like a mountain. He pointed the Arilman dead between Avon's eyes. "I'm going to enjoy it very much indeed."

      Avon felt his chest rise and fall. Felt his heart racing, pounding so hard it hurt. He could still feel pain after all. Somehow he managed to speak.

      "I wouldn't have... wouldn't have thought you were... the gloating kind." He twisted his lips in an animal snarl. Nearest he could manage to a smile.

      "Thought wrong, then, didn't you?" Lassiter leaned forward, pressed the mouth of the barrel against Avon's cheek. "And do you know why, Avon? Do you have so much as the faintest idea?"

      The cold metal touch against his skin. Nothing before had ever felt so chilling. Colder than any sweat of fear.

      "Surprise... me."

      Lassiter levered with the rifle, maximising torque to force Avon to look at him straight on.

      "Something to do with a sudden shortfall in supply a few years ago," he said. "A shortfall that almost put me out of business before I'd even started. Word gets around on the grapevine, it wasn't long before I knew who to blame."

      The pain was starting to creep in, spreading up in a searing fire. He remembered Zondar. Hot desert. A different kind of heat, bearable.

      "That was Blake's decision!"

      Was it his imagination, or did he really sound hysterical?

      "Probably." Lassiter turned his wrist, drilled the barrel into Avon's face. "But Blake's not here, is he? And you are."

      Avon took in a deep breath. He could feel again. No matter how much it hurt, he could feel. He slammed his right arm over to try and knock the gun away. Lassiter smartly stepped aside. Avon rolled over onto his chest and gasped with shock. It hurt so much.

      "And since you're here," continued Lassiter, "I may as well make the most of the opportunity. It might be the last meaningful thing I do, if that's any consolation. But I'm going to do it anyway." He took a step backwards, surveyed his prey. "What will be the last meaningful thing you do, Avon?"

      Agony throbbing in his legs, mounting by the second. And a new pain, in his ribs. Avon closed his eyes, not sure what kind of tears were pricking in his eyes.

      A pain in his ribs.

      "I'd expect..." Hurt so much to even whisper. "...Expect better... from a... professional killer."

      There was something digging into his ribs.

      "I'm not a professional, Avon, not any more." Lassiter raised the Arilman up to his shoulder and took slow, deliberate aim at Avon's head.

      "Just a killer."

      

      

//Hush now easy calm be calm//

      Could it smell her fear, sense her desperation? She broadcast words, shapes, colours, any and everything soothing she could find.

      In a gaping mouth in easy reach of her arm, platemetal teeth shone lustrous in the emergency lighting. And one by one, they slid away, out of sight, leaving a terrible blackness and a wheezing of foul breath.

      //I won't can't don't want to hurt you please be calm be calm//

      In her mind she felt a stirring, colour/shape sensations. Bewilderment, confusion. And behind it all...

      Why?

      //I know it hurts not knowing but please be calm be please be//

      She shivered, and not with cold.

      The massive head eased forward, tilted. Yellow eyes the size of her hand widened.

      Where/what am I/pain this urge to

      //You're not alone now not any more I can help you let me help you//

      Her mouth was dry, parched. The thought she couldn't -

      It was so near...

      - couldn't suppress, however hard she tried -

      ...so big...

      - no matter how she fought -

      ...and so dangerous.

      - how she struggled to fight it down.

      //I am so afraid// And in her mind, an overwhelming flood, a spreading void of blackness, unreasoning...

      YES!

      One long growl, so low, so completely mindless. With a scraping sound, the teeth returned, descended from their hidden depths. The eyes shrunk to narrow slits. Cally felt a scream rise in her throat, a scream that couldn't force its way out. She couldn't move. The enormous head arched back. She couldn't move. Descending now, coming for her. It was coming for her and she couldn't move.

      Something loud and staccato erupted off to one side. Carbo drilltip bullets sang and the creature's head blew apart .

      Chu-Lao slumped to her knees and threw up.

      

      

Avon felt his fingers trying to gouge into the hard metal floor, to brace himself for the final moment. How had he pictured himself, at a moment like this? Facing it squarely in the eye? His eyes were closed, closed tight.

      Standing lone and proud?

      Proud and lonely men didn't have their legs shot to tatters.

      

      <p>

      

      

      <p>

      When the shot came, it wasn't the one he'd been expecting. An energy blast. Sparking air flashed through his eyelids. He heard the bolt impact behind him, felt the floor shudder. He opened his eyes.

      Lassiter had spun round, was drawing a bead on someone in the corridor outside. Someone diving out of sight.

      Vila!

      He tensed at the sight, and a stab of pain lanced across his chest. Something hard and bulky scraped across it.

      Lassiter let off a quick burst, then took his left hand off the Arilman, reached for the door control.

      Hard and bulky. He knew what it was now. Forgotten he still had it. He tried to roll, lie on his side.

      As the door slid shut, Vila peered round the corner. Lassiter fired again.

      Too much effort, impossible to move.

      One brief stutter, then silence. Lassiter pulled the trigger a few times, and got only hollow clacks. The door slammed shut.

      No, not impossible. It couldn't be. He couldn't allow it to be.

      Lassiter flung the rifle away. He was still wearing his Liberator sidearm. He coiled his fingers round the butt and pulled it out of the holster. Weighed it in his hand. When he turned round to face Avon, he was wearing a cold smile of sadistic satisfaction.

      Until he found himself looking down the barrel of a Katsunichi plaser.

      It was more luck than judgement, but Avon's first shot took Lassiter square in the chest and blew a hole wide enough to fly the Colombia through. The recoil kicked the gun out of Avon's fingers. He sagged down face first on the floor. Thick belching fumes were filling the air, choking, suffocating. It wasn't until they started to thin that he realised the door was open again, that Vila was bending over him.

      "What was that?"

      Avon found he could smile again, so he did. "Power of the sun," he said. The smile vanished, and a cold flame kindled in his eyes. "And I'll be damned if that's the last meaningful thing I do."

      

      

It was strangely calm in the hold. Cally worked briskly but steadily, looping the unclipped rifle strap round and round Dayna's upper arm. She made sure it was tight enough to stop the bleeding.

      She was splattered all over in some kind of gunk, off-white and slimy. It smelt bad and made her skin tingle. Alien brains, she guessed. She hoped it washed off easily.

      Chu-Lao staggered over. She had a deep cut high up on her head, blood matting her hair. A trail of vomit leaked from her mouth. Cally watched her stand alongside and stare numb at the remains of the creature.

      "One for Kat?" she suggested.

      Chu-Lao shrugged and then shivered. "Yeah," she said. Then, "No. One for me. All I want to do is sleep easy at nights." She ran a hand up the side of her face. "That's the idea, anyway."

      Cally stood up, reached out, put an arm on the other woman's shoulder. Chu-Lao looked at her hand, at the bloodsmears glistening.

      "Shit. I must look terrible." She started to laugh, a high-pitched racking laugh that swiftly turned to sobbing. She didn't protest when Cally wrapped her in her arms.

      It was a good minute before Chu-Lao felt ready to say anything, and before she could motors hummed up above, the access door opened at the top of the stairs. Two pairs of feet clattered down, one at an easy stride, the other nervous and scurrying. Cally let go.

      "Hey girl." Siwani marched over and gave Chu-Lao a rough but friendly shake. "Is all all right now."

      Cally beckoned Vila over and pointed at Dayna. "She needs to get to medical."

      Vila studied Dayna, noted the barely perceptible breathing, the blood-soaked sleeve of her tunic. "I'm not sure there's room for her. It's getting rather crowded in there."

      Siwani clamped a hand on the back of his neck and frogmarched him over. "Listen, man, we make room. Or you'll be doing time in there yourself." She slid her hands under Dayna's arms and nodded at the girl's feet.

      "Lassiter..?" began Cally.

      Vila gingerly pulled grenades out of Dayna's belt. "There's less of him left than there is of that." He jerked his head towards the creature. "And not much more of Avon." Somehow, he sensed her concern. "Oh, don't worry, he'll live. One way or another."

      Chu-Lao turned to leave, affected some of her old jauntiness. She was brought to a stop by a flash through her mind.

      //Thank you//

      She looked back over her shoulder. "You're all right, you know?" Then she was off again, swinging herself onto the freight platform. "Wish they was all like you."

      Siwani paused to get a proper grip on Dayna. Vila took the opportunity to get as good a look as he could of the smooth, still bulk filling the centre of the hold.

      "Now that," he said, "is what I call an alien."

      

      

+Information. Forward detectors report approaching vessel course zero zero zero.+

      Tarrant checked the scanner readouts. "It's the repair ship for the Colombia. Well ahead of schedule, too. Times must be harder than I thought."

      "You should have called a hospital ship while you were at it." Vila topped up his glass yet again. To steady his nerves, or so he claimed. Since nobody had voiced any major objections, he'd been steadying his nerves for a good eighteen hours. Quite how he'd managed to stay reasonably sober was his own secret.

      Cally leaned back on the couch, draped her arm along the back. "Patel's sure they'll all pull through. Even Driscoll, though he's very lucky to be alive."

      Dayna gave her arm a tentative flex and winced. "He's not the only one," she said.

      "That's right, he isn't." Avon looked up from his work and pointed a fine beam ionic wielder meaningfully. "Which rather brings your reliability into question, don't you think?"

      Dayna simmered and chewed her lip. "Not to mention yours."

      Avon made a point of returning to whatever he was doing with Lassiter's briefcase. Just because he had two useless legs for the moment didn't mean he had to be inactive. "The next time Tarrant gives you an order, you obey it. To the letter."

      Dayna carefully folded her arms and pouted. "Of course," she said, "that next order might be to shoot you in the back."

      Tarrant stepped down from the detector console with hardly a trace of stiffness. "Oh, it might very well be," he agreed. "But that's just a risk you'll have to take." He stood behind her, planted his hands on her shoulders. "I don't suppose you've found out anything more about the alien?"

      Avon didn't look up. "Orac?"

      "Despite exhaustive research on my part," whirred Orac, "I have been unable to find any known species with the capabilities of the specimen in question. There are some non-Terran lifeforms that correlate to a minor degree, but hardly significantly."

      "What Orac means," said Cally, "is that we'll probably never know."

      "Or care," added Vila. "Not unless we meet another one. Or a whole planetful of them." He lowered his glass and stared wide-eyed into space. "Now there's a nasty thought."

      Dayna shivered. "One was enough for me. That's the last time I want to meet a killer like that."

      "I'm not sure it was," ventured Cally. "A killer, I mean. All it really wanted was the drug, so it was forced to kill them to get it. Or if they disturbed it, as Baret probably did, and later you, Vila."

      "It left that caseful there alone all the time it was on the flight deck," said Vila.

      Cally agreed. "Perhaps it had had enough for the time being," she suggested, then shrugged. "All we can do is make educated guesses. Ultimately, it had its own motivations."

      "Who cares anyway?" said Dayna, trying not to scratch her injured arm. The wound was deep but clean, and would heal quickly if given the chance. "We killed it, didn't we?"

      "Yes," said Cally. "We did."

      Tarrant was watching Avon hard at work on Lassiter's torn brown collapsible. "Perhaps when you've finished with that, Avon, you'll care to tell us what it is."

      "It's finished." Avon put down the welder and closed the case, snapped the locks shut. "And if you really want to know, it's one and a half million credits worth of shadow, though I'm prepared to let them knock us down to one."

      A dark fire smouldered in the back of Tarrant's eyes. "You mean we're taking Lassiter's place?"

      "Why not?" shrugged Avon. "Someone inevitably will, so it may as well be us." He smiled, as much to himself as at anyone else.

      Tarrant wasn't mollified. "Avon, that stuff kills people. Wrecks lives. Screws brains up. Maclain might still have two good arms if he wasn't dreaming his way through life. It makes monsters, of all kinds."

      "It can have unfortunate side-effects," agreed Avon, still smiling. "This consignment is particularly dangerous, thanks to this." He picked up a roll of material, thin and silky. The kind of cloth that cases might be lined with.

      "Synsatine?" guessed Tarrant, bewildered.

      "It certainly looks like it," said Avon, "but if that's all it was then I can't see the Judaics on New Haifa wanting it too badly." He put the roll down. "It's marketed under the name of Samphadex. The manufacturers claim it can pass all the standard tests for explosives, not to mention a lot of the less standard ones. Hopefully, Lassiter's contacts won't know about it until it blows up in their faces. There's a one-hour microfuse set to arm as soon as the case is opened - we assume they'll want to check the merchandise when we hand it over - so by the time it blows, we'll be long gone."

      Vila took a long sip from his glass. "We'd better be," he said. He eyed the case nervously. "You are sure it's safe, aren't you?"

      Avon picked up the case in both hands and threw it. Tarrant only just caught it by reflex.

      "Droge," said Avon, "can tell his... contacts, that we turned up while he was stranded and took the consignment off him by force. There's no reason why he shouldn't be believed - it's known widely enough that Blake's no longer on this ship and whatever it is we're doing, it's certainly no crusade." He leaned over and picked up the two crutches propped against the far end of the couch. "What's the matter? Don't you want to help the Piledriver out of a tight spot?"

      Tarrant looked first at the case nestled in his arms, then at Avon, then back at the case. "Doesn't Cally object to this?"

      Avon levered himself up onto his feet. "I don't see why. It was her idea."

      Tarrant and Dayna turned their heads in unison and focussed unbelieving eyes on Cally. She sat quite still, with her chin propped up on a curled hand.

      "Your idea?" said Dayna, openly incredulous.

      Tarrant gave his head the slightest hint of a shake. "Wouldn't have thought booby traps were your style."

      "I spent four years on Saurian Major," she said. There was a pronounced defensive edge to her voice. "I didn't really have any choice." She flashed a cold look at Avon, and got a grim look of minor triumph in return. Vila noticed, and wondered just what Avon felt he had to pay her back for.

      "It seems to me," said Avon, swinging himself forward, "that we're all hooked on something. Drugs, power, money, sex, pride..." - he paused - "...love. But one way or another, we've all got our fix."

      Vila wondered if he needed a refill, and then wondered why he was wondering. "Oh yeah?" he said. "What's yours, then?"

      Avon moved with surprising speed. It would be at least a week before he could walk unaided. "What it's always been," he said. "Staying alive."

      He left the flight deck without another word.

      

      THE END


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