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The Haunting of Haderon

By Lillian Sheperd
Vila Restal was bored. He wished that Blake had left him out of the Haderon landing party and, indeed, was at a loss to understand why he had been included in the first place. It was not as if Blake needed any locks picked or safes cracked - there didn't appear to be anything on the planet worth locking up in the first place - or even any back-up fire power. The natives were friendly, not to say effusive. Vila had not had much contact with official effusiveness during his long and varied criminal career, and he had quickly decided that, if this was a representative sample, he would be quite happy if he never had any more.

      Coll Banard, elected leader of the Haderon colony, was a tall, gaunt man with a passion for making speeches, or rather, for making the same speech as often as possible. He had made it at least four times, by Vila's reckoning, since the party from Liberator had teleported down into the sun-drenched main square of this, the only settlement on Haderon. That had been over two hours ago and, during the infrequent interludes when Banard had not been making his speech the conversation had been embarrassingly technical.

      At least their stay here ought to be both short and peaceful, the colonists on Haderon being remorselessly democratic and anti-Federation. Not that the Federation's leaders would find that anything but laughable, for Haderon was hardly a threat to them - or even desirable property. Seventy standard years ago, prospectors from the independent planet of Pharion had discovered a deposit of a unique super-hard form of diamond on this lifeless, desert world, and a small company had been formed to mine it. Within ten years the mine had petered out and, for some reason that no-one had been able to explain to Vila, prospecting had stopped and never re-started. However, the miners and their families had been unwilling to return to Pharion, which had been in the middle of a squabble with one of its near neighbours that had looked as if it might turn into interstellar war, and they had used the remaining profit from the mine to start making Haderon habitable.

      They had prospected for water, and found it locked deep in the rocks far below the planet's surface, but seed, organics and technical equipment had all had to be imported, and a dome raised to equalise the temperature, keep in water vapour, and keep out the dangerously high ultra-violet. Only then could the colonists start manufacturing soil.

      Vila had seen the resulting gardens and plantations on his way here to the Civic Building, and had admitted to himself that the Haderon colonists had done a good job of turning everything a variegated green. Not that the settlement was large. The domes covered less than two thousand hectares, which included the buildings of the village, a town only by courtesy title. He had been surprised by the height and thickness of the wall that surrounded the domes, but had been told that it was necessary to stop the sands encroaching on the cultivated land, which might not support the population in luxury, but at least supported it.

      There had been talk of terraforming Haderon, Avon had said. The desert sand could be made into good soil and, while the temperature tended towards both daily and seasonal extremes at present, full vegetation cover would help stabilize it. The natural atmosphere was high in oxygen, there was carbon dioxide present, and sufficient water trapped below the surface. On the other hand, the colonists had no hope of raising the capital themselves and were unlikely to find backers for such a long-term project in the uneasy political situation prevailing in the human-occupied portion of the galaxy - at least, not at present. Pity. Meanwhile, the colonists could at least comfort themselves that their world was too poor to attract the attention of the Terran Federation.

      Blake would not have given it any attention, either, if it had not been for a complex chain of events that had started when Zen had detected a trio of cargo ships under attack, apparently by space pirates. Liberator's abrupt entry into the battle had sent the pirate ships scurrying, but they had not retreated in time to stop her neutron blasters destroying one of them and disabling another.

      It had been in the safe in the Captain's cabin of the crippled pirate ship that Vila himself had discovered records that had caused Blake to offer the cargo ships escort to their home world of Pharion, headquarters of a small group of allied but independent worlds known as the Elenian Conclave.

      The offer had been accepted with alacrity and, once on Pharion, Blake had been able to present proof to Lawgiver Watterson that the Terran Federation was financing pirate attacks designed to debilitate the Conclave economically, prior to a Federation take-over.

      Liberator had remained in orbit around Pharion while Blake, and sometimes Cally, Jenna, or - reluctantly - Avon, had been closeted with Watterson and his cabinet, advising on how best the Conclave could counter the Federation threat.

      Vila had enjoyed his time on Pharion, where they had all been treated as heroes, but their time there had been short. The Conclave was preparing its defences and it had been decided that, because of the speed of his ship and the expertise of his personnel, the greatest help Blake could give in the short time he had available was in setting up the outermost of an urgently required net of detector stations between Federation and Conclave space. Watterson had contacted anti-Federation governments in the general area, explaining the situation and asking for help in siting and maintaining those bases. Haderon had been the first of those worlds to offer itself as a base, and that offer had been eagerly accepted.

      Which was why Vila was sitting in Banard's office, bored to the teeth. He let his gaze roam over the cloth-covered walls, up and out of a narrow window through which sunlight was gushing. From space, Haderon had been a silver-gilt bauble, completely uniform in colour, but through the window Vila could see jagged-sided, flat-topped mountains of such harlequin hues that they almost dazzled him with their brightness against the pale sky. They looked inimical, and Vila turned away from them in relief to study the men and women seated with him on the low, padded stools that had also been the usual type of seating on Pharion.

      Banard was still talking. Letting the voice trickle into his ears but not into his mind, Vila scanned the familiar and unfamiliar faces.

      Banard, skin burnt dark and fair hair bleached to whiteness, made a striking figure at the head of the low table, becoming even more startling when he flashed his equally-white teeth in a smile, which he did frequently. His assistant, Salli Rosen, sat next to him; a small woman, brown of skin and hair, but with intelligent grey eyes, which, Vila, felt were not altogether approving as they rested on Banard.

      Blake was opposite her, listening politely to Banard, solid and straightforward-looking as always. He could have made a fortune as a con-man, Vila thought enviously, looking as if he did not know what deceit was, when behind those honest brown eyes lived a brain as devious as any Vila had ever encountered. Pity he really was honest.

      Jenna sat between Blake and Banard, her hair glowing a rich gold in contrast with the paleness of the colony leader's, and her remarkable beauty highlighted by Rosen's plainness. The third colonist, Joss Langar, was looking hungrily at her, and Vila felt that it was as well that the conversation was constrained by convention. He could have told Langar that huge bruisers with an abundance of muscle and a paucity of wit were not exactly Jenna's type and, if cornered, she could be brutal. Vila had been ripped by the sharp edge of her tongue often enough to know that Langar wouldn't appreciate the experience. He guessed that Jenna had noticed Langar's frustrated intentions and was determined to go on ignoring them.

      Avon had certainly noticed them. Vila had seen his eyes flick over Langar's face and the quick twitch of his lips as he repressed a smile. For the most part though, he watched Banard, and the expression on his keen face suggested that he was not impressed, though he said little. He had scant patience with repetitious fools, and Vila almost hoped that that patience would run out. At least, amid the resulting fireworks, he would stop being bored.

      In combination though, as Vila had to admit, Avon, Blake and Jenna made an impressive group, particularly when contrasted with the Haderon colonists. Blake might even have been thinking of that when he made up the landing party.

      Except that he included me, Vila thought wryly. He wondered how the others saw him: a slender man, slightly stooped, with thinning brown hair and a narrow, humorous face. Not particularly handsome, though not ugly, either, his was the proverbial face in the crowd. Well, that had been useful, back on Earth, and maybe it would be useful again, but right now it contrasted strongly with the impressive appearances and blazing personalities of his companions.

      "But why in the settlement?" Avon asked suddenly, attracting Vila's flagging attention. "Any investigation by the Federation would locate the detector-communicator almost at once. Your privacy laws won't bother their security forces. The Pharion detector-communicator unit is self-contained. All you have to do is to run a check on the power banks every few months. If it was placed in the mountains or the desert there is no chance that the Federation would ever find it."

      Banard looked embarrassed, shifting uneasily in his seat. He said, "It just isn't possible."

      "Why not?" Jenna questioned. "Avon's right about the Federation -"

      "Because we'd have to go out there and maintain the thing, that's why!" Langar snarled.

      "Five hours work. Three times a year." No-one could have mistaken the contempt in Avon's voice.

      "Three times a year is three times too many, with the desert-haunts lurking out there, waiting to kill you{\160}-"

      "Desert-haunts?" Avon stared at Langar as if he couldn't believe he had heard him correctly then, after a few moments, he flung back his head and roared with laughter. Vila winced. Avon could flay you with that laugh.

      Langar's face grew crimson. He leaned forward, half out of his seat. "Why you little -"

      "Langar!" Banard's sharp voice brought his associate to heel. Then he went on, in a placating tone, "Avon, you may think it's funny, but to my people it's a terror that has to be lived with. I don't know if the things we call the desert-haunts are supernatural or not; what I do know is that they kill."

      "I thought that there were no life-forms on this planet," said Blake, trying to ease the unsought tension.

      "You're right," said Rosen. "This is a dead world. It has always been a dead world."

      On this point, Avon disagreed. "I doubt that. An oxygen atmosphere doesn't form without life, not on this type of planet. From the lack of even viral life-forms, I would suggest that, sometime in the far past, this planet has been sterilized. The presence of dust-diamonds in the sands bears that out and adds to the likelihood that this world once sustained life, as does the fact that there is water in the rocks, even if there is none on the surface or in the atmosphere. However, there is certainly no life now."

      "Except here," Banard corrected, his eyes gleaming. "I thought we'd brought life to this world for the first time but, if you're right, Avon, then what we've done is to bring life back to where it belongs. You've seen our gardens, our fields and our hothouses. Bring water, bacteria and humus here and the desert will grow anything. Someday this whole world will be a garden paradise."

      "With or without the permission of these 'desert-haunts'?" Avon asked sardonically.

      Banard shook his head, and Vila's respect for him increased a little at the way he kept his temper. "You haven't walked out into the desert and heard the voices, Avon, so it's easy for you to mock us - but there isn't a man, woman or child on this planet who hasn't heard them, even here in the settlement."

      "Voices?"

      "Like a chorus from hell, Blake."

      "What do they say?" Vila asked, with a delicious shiver. He didn't really believe Banard, but it was a nicely scary story.

      "Nothing that makes sense. Just hostile sounds... words... terrifying..."

      "Voices can't harm you," said Jenna.

      "If it was just the voices, I might even agree with you, but they're only the beginning. The haunts kill, Even an aircar, in daylight, isn't safe. At night, alone, or on foot, nothing lives."

      "And just how many people have you lost... in the past year, for example?" Avon questioned.

      "In the past year? None. Our people know better than to leave the domes except when we extend cultivation. Then we work in large groups, by day, until a dome is extended or a new one raised. No-one is ever alone but, even then, we've had our losses."

      "Deserts are dangerous places," said Avon. "Particularly deserts with no water at all and with a climate as hostile as this planet's. You've never come to terms with your deserts, so immediately any of your people venture into them, they're vulnerable. Survival takes both knowledge and experience and it is plain that you deny yourselves both."

      "What about the voices? Explain those, if you can," Langar challenged.

      Avon shrugged. "The wind, the shifting sand, and a lot of imagination. Desert winds are notorious for sounding like voices and many dangerous places give a feeling of lurking evil. The way you appear to have built up this legend, I'd be a lot more surprised if there were any of your people that didn't hear voices."

      Langar looked as if he wanted to force Avon's words back down his throat and Vila wondered if he ought to warn him that, in a fight, Avon didn't play by any rules. Perhaps not. Langar was big enough to take care of himself. "Don't you think you'd hear them, little man?" the colonist hissed. "Why don't you go out there and find out for yourself what it's like to face the haunts. You'd soon sing a different song."

      Blake decided to interpose. With a smile, he said, "It's plain you don't know Avon, Langar. Anyway, he hasn't got time to take you up on your offer. He and Jenna are going to assemble the detcom unit, and if you're all quite sure you want to take the risk of having it here in your settlement then they'd better get to work. If you'll just show us your communications room, we'll start teleporting it down."

      Banard looked relieved. "Fine." He rose to his feet and the whole group rose with him. "I'll take you there. Meanwhile, the hospitality of Haderon is yours. We aren't exactly sophisticated, but I hope you'll find something to amuse you during your stay."

      "Thank you." Blake turned to his crew. "I don't think we'd better have more than three people planetside at any one time. I'm going back to the Liberator to supervise teleporting the equipment. Vila, do you want to stay?"

      "Might as well," Vila said quickly. It was one way of avoiding being asked to hump equipment around Liberator.

      "Well, if I want you back I'll call you on your communicator."

      "I'll show you around," Langar offered, his bad temper apparently dissipated. It was plainly the sort that flared up and died away equally quickly.

      "Thanks. Let's get out of here and let this lot get on with it."

      As the door opened for them, Langar said, "Being from Earth, I guess you'll find us a bit dull. What little action there is takes place at the Olive Tree Bar. Drinking, eating... a little music... dancing... cards, go, chess... that sort of thing."

      Vila's ears had pricked up at the word 'cards' but his face did not so much as twitch. "I could do with a drink. The rest of it sounds pretty good too, though I'm no chess master and it's over a year since I touched a pack of cards."

      Langar began to look eager. "You do play, though?"

      "Depends on the game."

      "Calamakory. Stud. Atananian whist. Some friends of mine have an Elo school going most days after the first work shift. We've just got time for a meal before they come in."

      "Elo's a good game, but do you want an outsider in the pool? Especially one who isn't sure he remembers all the rules?"

      Langar grinned. "Of course. Come on. I'll introduce you to the guys..."

      

      

      

Avon winced as he straightened and rubbed an aching shoulder muscle. He looked questioningly at Jenna, who was leaning against the side of a dilapidated sub-beam transceiver, and asked, "Finished?"

      Jenna pushed both hands up through her hair, then shook it back into place. "Yes. Yes, I'm through. Do we have anything more to do?"

      "Just the test runs; the installation's complete. We won't both be needed for the tests. I'll run them. You go back to the Liberator."

      Jenna gave him a look in which astonishment and suspicion were equally mingled. "Why?"

      "You're tired enough to start making mistakes. I'm not, and if I can clear the check list quickly we can speed up our departure from this somewhat unattractive planet."

      Jenna straightened at once. "What makes you think I'm tired?" she demanded.

      'The fact that it took you twenty minutes to install the CK relays when it should have taken you five."

      Jenna glared at him. She knew better than to think that he spoke out of concern for her. He was trying to annoy her, knowing how she hated any hint that she might be at a disadvantage to anyone, mentally, emotionally or physically. It was one of the ways in which they were alike. He had succeeded in annoying her, too, mainly by being right. If she let him see that, she knew, he would have won this round in their personal battle, so, with an effort; she transformed the glare into a smile of cloying sweetness, stifled her instinctive angry retort and, though it took all the willpower she had, said gently, "Why, thank you, Avon. I didn't realise that you worried about me. It's nice to know that you care." She began to think that she was overdoing it, and finished quickly, "I'll leave you to it, then. I wanted to talk to Blake, anyway." She backed hurriedly out of the room, not sure that she could keep a straight face for the time it would take to call Liberator for teleport.

      Avon tapped his fingers on the edge of the detector-communicator control panel. He had the feeling that he had come off rather the worse in this particular exchange. Well, at least Jenna had gone. She was a skilled technician and did not often get in his way, but he had always preferred to work alone.

      Now, he had better finish these tests. He and Jenna had checked each section as it was installed, but that was no guarantee that the detcom would function correctly as a unit.

      He knocked on the main switch with the side of his hand, and watched as the indicators began to register. Well, at least power was flowing to all parts of the system. Detectors on... and there was the large, clear contact that was Liberator in orbit above the planet. Good. He widened the scan.

      Nothing at one LY. He'd try two...

      

      

      

Gan found Vila in the middle of a garden, surrounded by trees, flowers, and an unhappy little group of colonists, who looked somewhat the worse for drink. Vila, on the other hand, looked both happy and sober, though there was a half-full glass containing a pale yellow liquid on the tray-arm of his seat. On the table in front of him was a large heap of Federation credits, Pharion dollars, Janatarian menels and a great deal of miscellaneous coinage that Gan did not recognise. Nor did he recognise the card game that Vila and the colonists were playing, though they appeared to be using the ninety-three card Triaton pack and the game involved half a dozen 'spare' hands placed upwards ln the centre of the table, besides those held concealed by the players. What Gan did recognise was the air of gloom that hung, like the scent of flowers, in the air around the colonists. Anyone who played cards for money with Vila developed it.

      Ducking under a tree branch, Gan stood behind Vila and watched the hand played out, becoming no wiser as to the rules. Surprisingly, Vila didn't win the pot, but he didn't lose anything, either.

      Gan had been sure that Vila could not have noticed him but, as the cards were being replaced in the shuffler, Vila said, "I think I'll give the next few hands a miss. I'd like to have a few words with my friend here."

      A couple of the players suddenly developed ugly expressions. "Getting out while you're still ahead, you mean?" questioned one of them, nastily.

      Vila laughed. "I'll leave my winnings at the bar for safe-keeping, if you like, until I get a chance to extract the rest of your cash."

      This seemed to reassure the colonists. One of them yawned and admitted, "It's about time we all went to bed, anyway. You'd better join us, Vila, if you want to be awake this evening. We had thought of holding a special celebration for you people."

      "With a forty-four hour day, I suppose it's best to sleep at the hottest time," said Gan, who was interested.

      "Right. We have work-shifts from eight to fifteen, then from twenty-nine to thirty-seven hours. It's different during the winter, of course. Then we have to use all the daylight we can get."

      While Langar was making his explanation to Gan, Vila had gathered up his loot and sauntered over to the bar. The card school began to break up, and Gan sat down to wait for Vila. The Olive Tree Bar was unlike any he had ever seen before, but he found it pleasant, even if the cool greenery seemed an odd setting for the card players and it was odd to smell the heavy scents of honeysuckle and rasarium in the air, rather than those of alcohol, betenine and other narcotics. Within a few moments Vila came back, his step jaunty and his grin stretching from ear to ear. "Suckers," he told Gan. Then, "Just be around this evening. The sight of you'll make some of 'em think twice about trying to snatch back their losses."

      Gan had never seen Vila display such self-confidence, and it occurred to him that this bar, despite the flowers, was much more Vila's natural environment than the Liberator or most of the planets they had visited. Suddenly, in a situation he understood in a place that posed no threat to him, he was completely assured.

      "What if they find out you're cheating?" Gan asked, amused.

      "Cheating? With this lot, I don't need to cheat. It's as easy as picking a pin lock." He took up his drink, gulped it down, and pulled a face. "Awful stuff. It'll rot my insides. What're you doing down here anyway, Gan? I didn't think that Blake was going to allow more than three people off the ship at any one time."

      "He isn't. Jenna's back on board. Avon's finishing up by himself. Blake and Cally say that they don't want to explore, so I teleported down. Interesting, is it?"

      "A nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live here."

      "I doubt that the locals'll let you, after you get through with them."

      Vila chuckled, "If there were any dancing girls they'd be through to your right, but there aren't. In the evening, we've been threatened by amateur turns. Avoidable, I think. Don't let them palm off any mutal on you; it's a local brew that takes a lifetime to get used to, and even then it isn't worth it."

      "I won't. Aren't you staying, Vila?"

      "I've been sitting here for six hours, on and off, and sitting down for too long can be bad for you, you know. Maybe I'll go and have a word with Avon."

      "Torment him, you mean?"

      "Patience is good for the soul," Vila said gleefully. "At least, it's good for Avon's."

      

      

      

Avon ran the sequence again, frowning slightly. There was a small but definite fluctuation on the communicator beam, of the sort that might be caused by someone using a transceiver on an incompatible modulated frequency close at hand. Which was odd, because they had been told that all off-world communications were channelled through the transceivers in this room, and he and Jenna had checked their frequencies at the start, while they were working out the optimum setting for the detcom. Yet there was no mistake. The interference was still there.

      Although he had not the slightest authority to do so, Avon left the detcom to look after itself and began a complete check on the colony's transceivers. Within a short time he had traced the interference to a booster-relay unit within the main transceiver bank, set at a frequency not shown on the main board. Its purpose appeared to be to pick up a local transmission from a tight-beam portable transceiver and boost it into space on a frequency much too close to the one that he and Jenna had chosen. That could be corrected, but Avon was more interested in why the colonists should feel the need for secret transmissions. The booster-relay was a patch job, but the work appeared to have been done by whoever did the regular maintenance work on the transceiver, so presumably it had been authorised. It had also been rigged to resist a tap. Most curious. Now, why should Banard order that? Avon didn't trust Banard, on general principles.

      Now he did not hesitate for an instant. In thirty seconds he was past the defensive rig and he put the transmission on the output speaker. The result was disappointing, but roused even more suspicions, for the transmission was coded. From the undulating noise within the humming bleeps of the code, Avon deduced the use of an old programmable coder, but he could not see why an agricultural subsistence colony should possess one: they were used mainly by commercial companies. Perhaps this one had been left over from the diamond mining operations but, if so, why was it in use again?

      Determined to find out, Avon took a directional fix on the portable transceiver, which was very close, apparently within the Civic Building itself. Being Avon, he jumped to the immediate assumption that it was in Banard's office and his mouth stretched in a smile that held no humour at all.

      Banard. He had disliked the man from the instant he had met him. Well, should he call Blake? No. Blake would say that he didn't have enough evidence and he apparently trusted Banard - probably more than he trusted Avon himself, whom he knew rather better - and would simply ask for an explanation, accepting whatever Banard chose to tell him. Avon found himself wincing a little at the thought, and was surprised at his own reaction. What did he care if Blake didn't trust him? He'd never asked him to do so. Though it would have made things easier if Blake did. Now he would have to investigate further and obtain proof before speaking to him. The smile twisted into wryness. He was caught in a trap of his own making and he would have to make his own way to safety.

      

      

      

Outside Banard's office, Avon hesitated. He had meant to walk straight in and find out what was going on, but would that prove anything at all? It might even put him in the wrong in Blake's eyes and, unfortunately, it was Blake who was dealing with the colonists and therefore Blake he was going to have to convince. Another way, then, but what? He thought back to the meeting in Banard's office. He expected no electronic sophistication in this backwater and the room had been ill-equipped by his own standards, but it had contained a very old-fashioned robot-secretary unit. No doubt the machine was tied in to the colony's rather primitive computer and, if he was lucky, there would be others like it here in the Civic Building.

      He glanced quickly about him. All quiet. Of course, most of the colonists would be asleep at this hour.

      He stepped cautiously along the corridor and knocked at the door next to Banard's. After waiting a couple of seconds - but no longer - for a reply, he opened the door and advanced into the room beyond.

      If there had been anyone inside, he had been ready with an apology for losing his way, but the room was empty and it contained a robosec that was twin to the one in Banard's office.

      Problem solved.

      Avon grinned to himself, locked the door, then went to the robosec, removed the casing, and set to work.

      As he had hoped, the machine was tied in to the colony computer, and within two minutes he had found the robosec's communication lines, overridden the security codes and given himself full control of the main computer and all its terminals from the tiny board in front of him. After that, it was ludicrously simple to activate the intercom microphone on the robosec in Banard's office and route the signal to the speaker on the one he was using. Every word spoken in Banard's office from that moment might as well have been spoken directly to Avon, and what was being spoken was very interesting indeed.

      "...have to come from Tanith. They can't get here for at least another fifty hours." Banard's voice was unmistakable.

      Avon felt a surge of satisfaction. He had been right to be suspicious of Banard, for Tanith was a major Federation base, headquarters of the 8th Fleet.

      "But they should have started out as soon as we contacted them and told them Blake was on his way and Tanith is only a hundred hours travelling time." It was a voice Avon didn't know.

      "They can't come here directly, Merk'm. Blake would be suspicious if he detected any ship coming out of Federation space. They've got to look as if they're coming from the Conclave."

      "He'll recognise Federation warships, anyway."

      "No. They're Goliath class ships and they're adapted from Solco's Giant class cargo ships, which the Conclave uses. Blake won't have any suspicions, not until it's too late."

      "If he's still here when they arrive..." Merk'm sounded sceptical. "How do the Federation suggest we stop him leaving?"

      "They don't. They just tell us to keep him here, and occupied, until they arrive."

      "Oh, that's wonderful. Just wonderful. We know we can keep him here until nightfall by arranging a special celebration in his honour this evening, but we've no way of holding him any longer without arousing his suspicions and, remember, he has a ship in orbit that could wipe us out in an instant."

      "You know the stakes we're playing for," Banard reminded him.

      Avon switched off. His face was dark with anger and his mouth compressed into a thin, dangerous line. He had heard more than enough. They had been set up and it had very nearly worked. Yet he could not help feeling smug. If this didn't teach Blake the stupidity of trusting people then nothing would, and he was looking forward to telling him so.

      He had just started to replace the casing on the robosec when the locked door suddenly opened and Avon found himself looking into Salli Rosen's grey eyes. They were suspicious grey eyes, and there was an even more suspicious blaster in her hand. "What are you doing in my office?" she demanded.

      Avon considered trying to call Blake, but rejected the idea at once, along with that of making a break for the door. Rosen looked as if she was ready to use the blaster.

      So Avon answered her question in his suavest manner. "Waiting for you. Do you usually greet your visitors with a gun?"

      "When I find my own door locked against me - yes."

      Avon's expression did not change, but mentally he was cursing. "Was it locked? I teleported directly into here from Liberator, so I'm afraid I wouldn't know. Perhaps you locked it yourself, before you left."

      "Perhaps." The gun did not waver. "What are you doing to the robosec?"

      "It was obviously badly adjusted. I thought -" Avon broke off as Rosen circled him warily, reached out, and touched the speaker control.

      Banard's voice said: "...settled, then. I'll call the Federation ships and tell them we'll fake sabotage in the detcom unit in the hope of keeping Blake here until they arrive."

      "I think that we had better go and see Banard, Avon," said Rosen, her gun still pointing at his chest. "I'm sure he'll be glad to answer any further questions you might have about what he is doing. Now move."

      

      

      

That was the trouble with Avon, Vila decided, he was never where he was supposed to be. It had taken him long enough to find the communications room in the first place, and now here he was, and now here the room was, empty. Didn't look as if Avon had finished, either, for several tools lay on top of the consoles. Avon would never have left them there if he had no further use for them, for he was almost fanatically neat, particularly where his work was concerned.

      It was all very annoying, as Vila had taken great pains to approach silently. He had never yet managed to startle Avon, but there was always a first time for everything, and now Vila felt cheated. Pulling a ferocious face, he went to the shutters, finding that they opened onto the balcony that was an inevitable feature both of Pharion and Haderon architecture. He stepped outside, hoping that he might be able to spot Avon in the square below.

      He found, however, that he had lost his sense of direction during his perambulations around the building, and that he was looking, not into the expected paved square, but into a narrow garden court. This did not surprise him half as much as the fact that most of the court was occupied by a decrepit-looking aircar, the presence of which was doing the carefully tended plants no good at all. It was the first vehicle that Vila had seen on Haderon, and he was not impressed by it, nor was he particularly enamoured of the appearance of the colonist who stood beside it. He reminded Vila, both in size and in expression, of certain 'personal bodyguards' he had known back on Earth.

      A door opened on the far side of the court, and Vila took an involuntary step backwards as two men came into view, dragging a third between them. If it hadn't been for the identity of their captive, Vila would have retreated, considering it none of his business, but the man they held was very much his business.

      Avon! Vila's hands closed tightly on the edge of the open shutters. What were they doing to Avon? And why? That was Banard who had just followed them out into the court. He was supposed to be friendly. The colonists were all supposed to be friendly. They didn't look very friendly now. Avon might not have a very lovable personality, but Vila could not imagine what he could have done to deserve that kind of treatment - at least, not in the short time he had been on Haderon. What was going on?

      The little group halted beside the aircar, not far below Vila's balcony.

      "What now?" one of the colonists asked Banard. "We can't let Blake find out about him."

      "Blake won't. Take him a couple of kilometres into the desert and dump him."

      At this suggestion, the rest of the colonists present looked distinctly unhappy. One of them muttered something too low for Vila to hear, but the tone was one of protest.

      "You'll have to take the risk," Banard snapped. "If he stays here, or if we dump him somewhere nearby, then there's a chance that Blake might find his body and leave before the Federation gets here. This way, we get rid of Avon and make sure of keeping our side of the bargain. You should be safe enough. It's a short, daylight trip in the aircar."

      Vila fingered his teleport bracelet, torn between his need to move back out of earshot to contact the Liberator and his fear that, while he was doing so, Avon might be loaded into the aircar and never seen again.

      "What story are you going to feed Blake, Banard?"

      "That Avon took up a challenge Langar made, and went out into the desert to prove that the haunts didn't exist. Instead, he will end up as proof that they do."

      "I knew you were stupid when I discovered you were dealing with the Federation," said Avon, with that note of acidity in his voice that Vila knew so well, "but if you think that Blake will swallow that story, then your minds must be completely atrophied."

      "Shaddap!" The huge colonist standing beside the aircar struck a vicious, backhanded blow to the side of Avon's head. Vila flinched in sympathy.

      "It doesn't matter what he says, Pedron." Banard was laughing, and the callousness in the laughter made Vila wish frantically for a weapon. "What matters is what Blake will say when the haunts deliver what's left of Avon's body outside the walls. They usually leave the face intact, remember. I'm looking forward to seeing yours, Avon, twisted in the agony and madness of those that die that way. It will also be interesting to observe Blake's reaction. He will hardly be able to deny the existence of the desert-haunts then."

      "Blake is no superstitious fool," Avon retorted. "He won't be any more impressed than I am by such foolish-" He broke off sharply as Pedron's massive backhander rocked him again.

      "I told you to 'Shaddap!'" the giant colonist snarled. Not content with one blow, he slammed his fist straight into Avon's mouth, and this time Avon could not hold back a cry of pain.

      And Vila Restal, without making a conscious decision, leaped up onto the edge of the balcony balustrade, measured the distance to where Pedron stood, half a storey below him, and launched himself into space. As he fell, he had just enough time to reflect that he must have completely lost his mind, then his feet crashed home between Pedron's shoulder blades, ramming him to the earth, with Vila collapsing on top of him.

      In the instant of astonishment that followed, Avon exploded into action. Flinging his head back viciously, he felt it strike flesh, and something harder, and there was a howl of pain, while the grip on his right arm slackened. Twisting loose, Avon whirled left and drove his knee into his second captor's groin. As he doubled up, Avon chopped at the side of his neck, and he kept on doubling up until he was stopped by a rosebush. Still turning, Avon kicked the kneecap of the first man, who was trying to stem the flow of blood from his smashed nose but who, until Avon's kick landed, was still on his feet. He staggered backwards, only to be brought up short by the rim of the stone fountain, where he toppled slowly backwards into the water.

      Vila, meanwhile, had bounced up from Pedron and hurled himself desperately at Banard, clasped hands forming a ram in front of him. The double fist drove deep into the colony leader's stomach and Banard grunted, and went down, Vila crashing on top of him. Remembering Jenna's advice - "Fight dirty, Vila. You won't win any other way..." - he drove his fingers up at Banard's face, reaching for the eyes. Before he could do any damage, a hand the size of a space-dock grapple snatched him from behind and hauled him away. The next instant he was loosed again as Pedron's feet vanished out from beneath him under Avon's assault.

      Vila twisted away, aiming a kick at the side of Pedron's head, and only just missing Avon, who was struggling with him on the ground.

      "Vila... get... his gun..." Avon gasped, still trying to hold down a man twice his own weight.

      Vila looked around wildly, not sure who had been carrying a weapon.

      "Restal, don't move! Avon, let Pedron go!"

      Vila froze. Avon looked towards the voice but made no move to release his victim.

      Langar stood above them, on the balcony which Vila had vacated, and there was a gun in his hand. It was pointed straight at Vila. "I won't hesitate to kill him," he warned.

      "Not again..." Avon muttered, letting Pedron go. He thought of making a try for Banard's gun, but he knew that he could not kill Langar in time to save Vila, and probably not in time to save himself.

      Snarling, Pedron scrambled to his feet. "Get up, you!" He reached out to attempt to collar Avon, who moved quickly to avoid him and get to his feet by himself.

      Banard was also erect, but nursing his stomach and breathing heavily. He looked up at Langar. "Thanks, Joss. I owe you one."

      "Well, you told me to keep an eye on Restal."

      Banard looked evilly at Vila. "I'll do more than watch him... think you can deal with the desert-haunts, runt?"

      "He dealt with you easily enough."

      To Vila's relief, at Avon's words Banard stopped his advance and turned his attention on him instead. "If it wasn't for the pleasure I get thinking about what the haunts'll do to you, Avon, you'd never leave here alive," he hissed. "Jenkson, go and get a couple of lengths of pythonbind. I don't want any more trouble from these two. And Merk'm, remember to take those bracelets they wear, otherwise they'll just teleport back to that damn ship of theirs. Meanwhile," he added, smiling nastily at Avon, "after the haunts have mutilated your bodies, no-one'll notice a few extra bruises - and I owe you both something..."

      

      

      

Avon picked himself off the side of a sand dune and stood watching the aircar limp into invisibility. There was a long silence.

      "Big, isn't it?" said Vila, in a very small voice, not rising from his sitting position. He was rubbing his arms where the pythonbind thongs had bitten into them. He must have struggled hard against those unbreakable bonds, Avon thought, to tighten them so much.

      Big. Avon considered several sarcastic replies, but suppressed them. He understood exactly what Vila meant. The very immensity of sand and sky was shocking. Above, the heavens were a vast bowl of the very palest blue, unsullied by any hint of cloud. On this world, mist and cloud never formed. Towering dunes, a mixture of silver sand, and gold, humped away to an unguessable horizon. That was all. Even the familiar infinity of space seemed small by comparison. There, it was possible to imagine reaching out to pluck the tiny stars from some close-falling black backdrop. Here, the comfort of such a delusion was impossible, as you were confronted by your smallness and vulnerability.

      Avon said, "Come on, Vila. We've a long way to go."

      Vila was incredulous. "Go..?" he repeated, staring wide-eyed at Avon.

      "Yes, if you want to live. We've got to get back to the settlement as quickly as we can. It's not going to be easy."

      "It's going to be impossible. Look, Avon, hadn't we better stay here? When Blake tries to find us-"

      "Even if he bothers to look, he won't succeed, not with Banard 'helping' him. Zen's scanners might locate us, if someone remembers to use them, but this is a big planet to search from space, hectare by hectare. Anyhow, in that case, it won't matter whether we're on the move or not. It is also quite possible that Banard will be able to persuade Blake that we are dead."

      "Not Blake."

      Avon looked scornful. "How can we be sure of that? Can you see into Blake's mind? He may want to believe that we're dead."

      "No," Vila said stubbornly. "Don't judge Blake by your own standards, Avon. They're-"

      "Practical. There's still another possibility. Blake and the others could be prisoners already. We can't count on their help, so our only real hope is to rescue ourselves, and the only way to do that is to reach the settlement before we die of thirst."

      "Banard's at the settlement," Vila pointed out. "What use is it going back? In the unlikely event of us ever getting that far, that is?"

      Avon was surprisingly patient. "Unless you know how to live without water, the settlement is the only place we can survive on Haderon. There is no other water on the planet. Therefore we must go there."

      "It's too far! We'll never make it!"

      "We certainly won't if you don't stop moaning and start moving. I suppose it's too much to expect you to show some common sense after your performance back at the settlement. You don't have the physique for an apeman act, though, on the other hand, your mental level is about right-"

      "Next time you can rescue yourself!" Vila was furious.

      "It appears that I have to. Why the hell didn't you call Blake back there, instead of trying to play the hero?"

      "I could hardly call him from the balcony without being heard and if I'd've left it I'd've run straight into Langar," Vila retorted.

      "You knew Langar was following you?" Surprise had got the better of the anger in Avon's voice.

      "No, I didn't. I'm just saying it wouldn't have made any difference, so there's no need to get mad at me."

      "Vila, I am not 'mad' at you," said Avon, the tightness of his control belying the words even as he spoke. "By now I've seen enough of your ineptitude to be almost indifferent to it. Now, come on." He looked sternly at Vila who, uncomfortable under the contemptuous gaze, actually got to his feet.

      "All right. We start walking. If you'll be so kind as to indicate the right direction..." Vila looked pointedly about him at the featureless desert.

      Avon did not seem concerned. He checked his watch, then squinted at the sun. "We're nearly due west of the settlement..." He caught Vila's stare. "We've been travelling with the sun on our right, and at this time of day it's almost due north. We go in that direction, Vila, until we can see the mountains, and as soon as we do, we take our line from the twin buttes at the head of the colony canyon."

      He hadn't convinced Vila. "The settlement's probably hundreds of kilometres away. I heard Banard order-"

      "Langar and Pedron appear to be more scared of the desert than they are of Banard. That aircar can't even make fifty kph, and we travelled for somewhat less than two hours. At a guess, I'd say that we are less than eighty kilometres from the colony. You'll see the mountains soon. If, that is, you can bring yourself to start walking."

      "It's still too far, Avon."

      "I might have realised that you'd be scared to try, or are you worried about those flat and tender feet of yours?"

      "I can't help my feet!" Vila yelped.

      "Naturally," said Avon. "No-one would knowingly design themselves in your image." He slid down the long, gently sloping face of the dune and, reluctantly, Vila followed him.

      "What do you mean, they're more scared of the desert than they are of Banard?"

      Avon paused for a moment, looking back at Vila. He hesitated a little, then said, "If I had to rely on that aircar, I'd be scared. I was almost glad to be thrown out of it before it fell to pieces."

      "You didn't by any chance mean that they were scared of the desert-haunts, did you?" Vila asked shrewdly.

      "If so, then they really are superstitious fools, and they've made a big mistake. It's going to be very interesting to see their faces when we arrive back at the settlement - alive."

      Making sure that Vila was following, Avon set an even pace. He was trying to project confidence, but was, in fact, engaged in a frantic calculation of their chance of survival. Less than eighty kilometres, if he was lucky. An easy walk. On flat ground, in Earth gravity, thirty hours at the very outside, with plenty of time to rest. Here, they had to reckon with the soft sands underfoot and the rolling dunes. At least there was no sign of the one-hundred-and-fifty-metre-high monsters that the deep desert could boast. The dunes here varied between two and ten metres in height, and were classic, crescent-shaped barchans. Still, if it was like this all the way to the mountains, their pace would be slowed, and pace was vital. The time a man could live without food and water might be anything from thirty-six to two hundred and thirty hours, the variables being heat, humidity, exertion, and the stamina of the man involved. Heat. It was very hot now and it would get hotter in the middle of the long afternoon. Right now, it was just after noon, and the sun was relentless. It would be over sixteen hours before it set. When night did fall, the temperature would dive with it. That would minimise water loss through sweat, if they could survive the cold. It would be then that the lack of food would begin to gnaw at their strength. Humidity. That was his main worry. There simply wasn't any. With every breath they took of the arid air, they lost water from the surfaces of their lungs. Even if they survived, it might be with serious scarring of their lung tissue. Then there was the effect of Haderon's higher gravity, and they were already tired. Shiptime, it was late evening, but they were going to have to make as great a distance as they could now, rest during the worst heat of the afternoon, and travel on by night, hoping that they did not collapse before they reached the settlement. Unconsciously, he quickened his pace.

      Vila. Avon kept glancing sideways at the other man, trying to assess the strength and stamina in the light frame. Why did it have to be Vila? Gan's massive strength and phlegm, Cally's wiry toughness and survival skills, Blake's implacable determination and inventive intelligence, Jenna's coolness, resourcefulness and courage - any of those would be more reassuring to have at his side than anything Vila could provide.

      His analysis of the situation did not reassure Avon. Grimly, he began to plot their optimum course for survival, but he found himself distracted. Though he could not detect any air movement, the wind must be rising. He could hear the eerie whistle of shifting sand. Vila, he noticed, kept glancing uneasily about him, as if he was seeing something out of the corners of his eyes, then finding it wasn't there at all. Imagining desert-haunts? Well, that wouldn't surprise him. Nothing Vila did could do that.

      

      

      

Gan yawned widely and rolled his feet off the couch. Looking at his watch, he began to feel rather sheepish as he realised he had been asleep in the Olive Tree Bar for over seven hours, and he had never meant to go to sleep at all.

      The garden was now completely deserted, as he remembered it had been even before he had gone to sleep. No doubt all the colonists would also be waking up about now and getting ready for the afternoon work shift.

      No. He had been wrong. The bar was not completely deserted. A tiny, fair-haired woman came walking over the flags between the scarlet Vyronian Devil's-tongues, and great clouds of a bushy blue flower that Gan did not recognise. She was carrying a round tray and, when she stopped in front of Gan, she smiled like an angel. "Good waking, I trust."

      Gan rose to his feet at once, smiling down at her with admiration in his eyes. She was pretty without being beautiful but with huge violet eyes and a lively expression. Altogether Gan's type, as it happened. He had noticed her in the bar before he had gone to sleep, but had been unable to get away from some over-friendly colonists in order to strike up an acquaintance.

      "I thought you might be hungry, so I brought you a wake-meal," she explained, setting the tray on a low table.

      "I am. Thank you very much... it was kind of you." He sat down again and bit into one of the thick brown cakes, finding it crisp and savoury, almost meaty in flavour, but with a tangy, creamy centre. "These are good."

      "I'm glad you like them, and I've got a message for you from your friend who won all the money."

      "Vila."

      "Yes. He says he'll be with your other friend - Avon? - for the rest of the day."

      "Poor Avon," Gan muttered then, seeing her puzzled expression, he explained, "Vila teases him."

      "But you don't... Will you think me rude if I ask you your name?"

      "Gan. Olag Gan."

      "And you travel with Blake. What's it like being part of a legend, Olag Gan?"

      "Hectic," Gan answered, grinning, "and dangerous, sometimes."

      "It must be very exciting. I'd like to hear about it."

      "I'm not good at stories but - please, do sit down... and I don't know your name...?"

      "Nann," she answered, sitting down quite close to him and looking pleased. Gan did not need to be told that that was what she had been aiming for all along. Well he certainly wasn't going to raise any objections.

      "I'll make a deal with you, Olag," Nann offered. "Suppose you tell me all about your hair-raising escapades with Blake and I'll show you around our settlement. The gardens and plantations really are quite beautiful," she added as an inducement.

      "Hardly more beautiful than what I can see around me," Gan said, and though he could have been referring to the gardens he guessed that Nann would not mistake his real meaning. "I'd like that, Nann." It looked like being a very pleasant afternoon.

      

      

      

Blake was being bumped around in a very badly maintained transit shaft. He would have to lodge a complaint with the dome Transport Maintenance Executive.

      No. It was really someone shaking his shoulder. He must have fallen asleep. Silly thing to do in a transit shaft, he thought fuzzily, opening his eyes.

      A woman was bending over him. She was tall and blonde and very beautiful... and Blake knew then that he was no longer on Earth: that was another world, another time, another life.

      "Jenna?" he asked muzzily, wondering what she was doing in his cabin.

      "I couldn't wake you on the intercom..." He saw now that she was looking worried. "Blake, Gan called in about an hour ago. He'd been trying to raise Vila on his bracelet communicator and wasn't getting any reply. Then he tried Avon and couldn't raise him either, so he called the ship just to make sure that they hadn't teleported back. I told him they hadn't, and tried to call them myself. I couldn't get them either."

      Blake was now fully awake. "Why didn't you call me?" he demanded.

      "Well, I knew you were tired and I didn't want to alarm you unnecessarily, but now Gan's spent the last hour at the settlement searching and asking questions, he's discovered that Avon and Vila were taken out into the desert, at their own request, and they haven't been seen since."

      "What?!"

      Jenna flinched at his tone. "That was twelve hours ago. Gan insisted that I wake you-"

      "You should have woken me earlier." Apprehension made Blake's voice harsh. "Go and get Cally."

      Jenna grinned impudently at him. "You want me to bring her here?"

      "Teleport area," Blake growled at her. "Now get out of here and let me get some clothes on."

      "Might be more interesting to stay - or are you shy?" Jenna asked cheekily.

      "Out!"

      

      

      

"Can you get a location fix on their teleport bracelets?" Blake asked, as he leaned over Cally's shoulder at the teleport controls.

      "There is nothing. I have a location on Gan, but nothing at all from Avon and Vila."

      "Try and bring them up."

      "That will not work, Blake." Cally's warm brown eyes met his in sympathy, "but I will try." Her slender fingers moved over the controls, and forces swirled above the raised platform.

      "Nothing." Cally's voice was tense.

      "What are you going to do?" Jenna asked Blake.

      Blake strode across the room to pick up a teleport bracelet. "Teleport me down to join Gan, Cally." He looked at Jenna. "I'm going to see Banard - and he'd better have some answers ready for me."

      

      

      

"Vila," the voice said persistently. "Vila, wake up. It's time we moved on."

      Vila wriggled deeper into the warm sand, trying to find a more comfortable position.

      "Vila, wake up." He was shaken roughly and, knowing he was beaten, he sighed and opened his eyes.

      "It can't be time to go yet, Avon."

      "You've had seven hours sleep," Avon told him sharply. "We've got to keep moving. I want to travel as far as possible tonight."

      Vila stretched, then groaned. He itched where the sand had got into his clothing and his face and hands did not just itch, but hurt. He complained to Avon, who was not sympathetic.

      "Sunburn. It'll get worse," he said succinctly.

      "And my throat's dry and my feet hurt and I'm hungry!" Vila went on, making no move to vacate his comfortable hollow in the shadow of a dune. "Avon, I'm exhausted. I'd been awake for... er... nineteen hours before you let us stop. Seven hours sleep doesn't begin to let me catch up."

      The reply was savage. "I always knew you were a coward, but I didn't think you'd rather die than live with sunburn and sore feet."

      Vila assumed an expression of tried patience. "Stop exaggerating. All I want to do is rest for a little longer. We won't be able to walk far if we're still tired "

      "I know your definition of 'a little longer'," Avon retorted. "We can't afford to wait. We can't live without water, and the only water on this world is at the settlement."

      "I wish you wouldn't keep harping on that. Besides, Blake will find us before then; you know he will." Vila lay back in the sand and closed his eyes.

      "Then you can stay here by yourself and wait for him. I won't waste any more time arguing. I can make better time without you."

      Opening one eye, Vila saw Avon turn and stride away across the sand-sea towards the battlements of mountains now visible on the horizon. Vila closed the eye again. Avon couldn't bluff him! If nothing else, he wouldn't be able to resist continuing the argument.

      After a few moments, however, he found himself listening intently. Of course, he wasn't going to open his eyes and let Avon know he had actually worried about being left behind, but he should be able to hear the other man's breathing and whatever slight movements he made, in the silence of the desert.

      Only it was not silent. Now that Vila was concentrating he could hear someone... something... moaning or singing, an undulating sound that made him shiver in the blazing heat. There were words in that sound... emotions... and a threat.

      Desert-haunts.

      Vila's eyes snapped open and he sat up hurriedly, scattering sand. He was alone. There were no signs of any 'haunts' - and no sign of Avon.

      "Avon?" he said softly, then loudly, "Avon!" His voice echoed, joining the mocking, invisible chorus, and was lost. "What's he playing at? He wouldn't-?" But Vila was no longer sure of what Avon would do. He scrambled up, shaking the sand out of his clothes, and yelled, "Avon!"

      The disembodied voices were his only answer.

      Beginning to panic, Vila whirled about, searching the skyline. Which way had Avon gone? Towards the mountains? But they lay in an arc over a third of the horizon. Avon must have disappeared behind a dune - but which one? They all rose enigmatically about him.

      It was just as the panic began to turn into terror that Vila saw the tracks. They were already filling with sand, but they led around the edge of one of the big dunes. Vila didn't wait for them to disappear. Cursing, he plunged along them, breaking into a shambling run and almost tripping over his feet in the soft sand.

      He came upon Avon within a surprisingly short time. The other man was walking steadily eastward, and he continued on, despite Vila's shouts for him to wait. When Vila finally arrived beside him, panting, angry, and very shaken, Avon did not acknowledge his presence by so much as a glance.

      "Was... was that... supposed... to be funny?" Vila gasped.

      Avon shrugged. "When I say something, I mean it."

      "And what would Blake have said if you'd arrived back without me?"

      "Much the same as he would if I arrived with you, I expect. And I intend to arrive. Whether or not you are with me when I do is entirely up to you."

      "I'll be around to see you drop," Vila muttered, stalking into the lead. Behind him, Avon smiled.

      

      

      

Blake was having to use every atom of his will to keep control of the rage flaring within him as he faced Banard in the latter's office. "An explanation, Banard. That's all I'm asking. A reasonable explanation as to why two of my crew are missing in the desert and why you've done nothing to find them and did not even tell me that they were gone."

      Banard's lean face was set in a rigid melancholy expression, but as that appeared to be its normal state, Blake could not tell if his words had had any effect. The colonist said, "Blake, I did warn them-"

      "An explanation, Banard," said Blake. He moved forward menacingly, and was totally unaware that he had done so, or of the dangerous fire in his eyes.

      "It's not my fault, Blake," Banard protested hurriedly, more than a little alarmed by the threat in Blake's voice. "As I said, I warned them, but Avon was determined to prove that we were fools and that the haunts didn't exist. When he'd finished installing the detcom, he and Restal asked to be taken a couple of kilometres out into the desert. I warned him that the haunts were just as deadly near to the domes as anywhere else, but he laughed in my face. Langar took them out in the aircar-"

      "And left them?"

      "Of course. Langar knows better than to give the haunts a chance. He says that Restal wasn't too happy, but that Avon said that they could teleport back to your ship at any time. As soon, in fact, as he'd proved that we were a bunch of 'superstitious idiots' as I believe he put it."

      It did sound rather like Avon. Blake began to feel an unhappy conviction that Banard was telling them nothing less than the simple truth. "They haven't teleported back," he said, "and we can't contact them. What do you suppose happened to them?"

      "Desert-haunts."

      "You're expecting me to believe that?"

      Banard looked ugly. "Are you doubting my word, Blake?"

      "I'm doubting your common sense. There are no life-forms on this planet - and no supernatural creatures anywhere. No haunts, ghosts, demons or fairies dancing in a ring."

      "You'll see," Banard replied darkly. "The haunts may take a few days about it, but they always deliver the bodies of their victims to us here. You won't like what you see, Blake."

      At this point, Gan interrupted. "None of this is helping Avon and Vila. They're obviously lost in the desert. We've got to get out there and rescue them."

      Blake threw him a grateful look. "You're right. Banard, we need your help. Search parties... if we set out now we've a good chance of finding them before dark."

      "No." Banard rose to his full, imposing height. "We have one aircar, Blake. If I can persuade Langar to agree, he'll drive you out to where he left Avon and Restal, but, even if my people were foolish enough to want to go into the desert to search for them, I would not allow it. If I'd had the authority, I would have stopped your friends, but I will not lose more people to the desert-haunts. Please remember that you are guests on Haderon-"

      "Guests!" Blake could feel himself shaking with the urge to batter obedience into Banard. "Your hospitality is most gracious. One could almost call it overwhelming." He took a deep breath, trying to steady himself. "Come on, Gan. Let's find Langar. Vila and Avon need our help too much for us to spend time arguing against irrational beliefs."

      "I'll come with you," Banard offered.

      Blake felt like flinging the words back in his face but, instead, he nodded, and led the way out. Seconds later, he was running.

      

      

      

The sun was almost buried in the sand behind Avon and Vila. Their shadows fell long and full in front of them, the black, wavy forms looking, Vila thought, like ghosts, the physical form of the whispers around them. Desert-haunts. Didn't Avon even hear them? Certainly, he had scoffed when Vila had raised the subject an hour or so earlier. Then, Vila had come close to believing that the voices really were a product of his imagination. Now, he shivered, and knew that it was not only the deepening chill that caused him to do so. The wind was moaning through the strangely shaped rocks that rose up from the undulating stony plain, but there were other voices, and they held hate.

      The sand dunes had ended abruptly over an hour ago and, despite the roughness of the ground, they were making better time now. They steered clear of the patches of soft sand that lay in tempting silver pools in the hollows. Already, a rock had rolled under Vila's foot and he had stumbled into one, to sink up to his hips in quicksand. It had taken twenty minutes and all their combined strength to haul him out again. The effect of that, in temperatures still over thirty-five degrees, had been to leave them sweat-soaked and exhausted, but Avon, already worried by the time they had lost, had allowed no breathing space and had hustled Vila on, forcing the pace as the long dusk began.

      Since then, Avon had maintained an irritable silence, which Vila had been reluctant to break. Now, he ventured a question. "Are we going to stop for the night? Because we won't be able to take our direction from the sun, then, or from the mountains."

      "No, but we'll watch the stars rise and find a directional indicator there," Avon replied, taking the questions in order. "They'll move, of course, but we can use them as a general guide."

      "I'm thirsty - and hungry."

      "We'll be thirstier and hungrier."

      "And my feet hurt. I'm sure I've got a blister."

      "If you used them a little more - hold it!" Avon grabbed Vila's arm and hauled him to a stop.

      "What the hell do you think - oh." Vila stepped hurriedly backwards.

      The slight hill they had been cresting wasn't a hill at all but the top of a cliff and, instead of the gentle downward incline that Vila had been expecting, a rock wall dropped jaggedly for forty metres. They had almost walked out into empty space.

      "Oh," Vila repeated nervously, "Come away from the edge, Avon."

      "I'm not on the edge." He was standing about one metre away from the drop.

      "Oh, it looks like you are to me."

      "Scared, Vila? Another phobia?"

      "I see no reason to love heights. If you fall down 'em, they hurt. And if you're going to suggest climbing down that then I flatly refuse."

      Avon pretended to consider the idea, drawing out the time to tease Vila, then he said, "No. It looks possible, but I think it may be both quicker and safer to try and walk around it to the south. I estimate that we're too far north, anyway. Odd, this cliff doesn't show on the maps I saw back at the settlement, and those were made by the original Pharion survey team. Let's hope-"

      Suddenly, the golden rock under them heaved like a huge beast rising to its feet. A mound sprouted like a mushroom between Avon and Vila, throwing them apart. Vila fell flat on the rocking ground, digging his feet and fingers into the rock through the soft, covering layer of sliding sand. Avon, realising his danger, catapulted himself away from the edge of the cliff, but the rock reared up before him, tilting and twisting. A wind came rushing from the west to shove him backwards and out into void.

      Vila, his head down, heard Avon cry out, but at that moment was too occupied with hugging the desert to him to think what it might mean, as the land juddered and heaved, seemingly trying to break Vila's grip and buck him to oblivion.

      Finally, however, the planet stopped quivering.

      Without moving, Vila said, "I never expected to be space-sick planetside. You have some very bright ideas, Avon." There was no answer. Vila raised his head.

      "Avon?" For the second time that day, Vila opened his eyes to discover that Avon was gone, but this time he knew that he had not been deserted voluntarily. "Avon?" he whispered. "Please... no... it can't be that..."

      Slowly, he raised himself on his hands and knees and crawled to the very brim of the cliff. Lying full length, he peered downwards. The height was appalling. Dizzy, Vila closed his eyes, clutching blindly at the rock. Fighting his fear, he forced his eyes to open again, squinting through the twilight to scan the rocks and sand far below.

      With his stomach already heaving from the anticipation of seeing Avon's body smashed amid the rocks, Vila almost panicked when he could not locate him immediately. Avon couldn't have vanished - so where was he?

      A flash of blue caught Vila's eye. He twisted his head - and saw Avon.

      A little way to the right, a great buttress jutted out from the face of the cliff. Cracked, splintered and carved by the wind, its flattened top was only about eight metres below where Vila lay, and Avon was on the very brink of that top, half wedged into a crevasse, held from falling further by a couple of precarious-looking rocks. He was very still and, even from this distance, in the fading light, Vila could see blood on the yellow rocks.

      Vila gulped and drew back, wishing frantically for Blake. Avon. Avon needed help, and there just wasn't anyone except himself to give it, but... but... that cliff. It just wasn't possible.

      Avon had said that the cliff looked possible.

      "Damn you, Avon," Vila said aloud, "I think you do it on purpose." The light was fading very quickly now, so if he was going to do anything to help Avon he would have to do it at once. Besides, if he lay here and thought about it any longer, he would never move at all.

      Below him, Avon stirred, and the rocks that held him in position swayed with him. He was alive, but if those rocks gave way...

      From somewhere, Vila found the impetus to move. Slipping his feet over the edge, he reached downwards, scrabbling for a toehold on the eroded surface. He found a crack and shoved his foot into it, tested it, then reluctantly put his weight on it, beginning a slow descent, cursing Avon, Haderon, Banard, Blake, and anything and everyone else he could think of as he went.

      He did not look down. He had been told that he must never do that and he certainly didn't want to. The drop loomed large enough in his imagination without facing the reality. It took great physical effort to find each new hand or foot hold, and it needed an even greater mental effort to shift his weight onto it. Already, his fingers were sore and bleeding, abraded by the rough rock, and he was so tired. He felt as if his muscles were going to tear under the strain of holding his own weight against the wall.

      No. Don't think about it. Reach sideways, instead, to that vertical crack in which it might be possible to wedge himself...

      Look up. How far had he come? He could hardly see the top of the cliff now that the sun had disappeared. He seemed to have been climbing for hours, to have descended further than the full height of the cliff.

      End of crack. Feet in the bottom. That knob of rock would make a good handhold. Kneel. Foot down. Slide it sideways. Yes. Test it under his weight. Okay. Now the other foot...

      If he'd've wanted to climb things he would've been a cat-burglar. Why on Earth - or rather, on Haderon - was he doing this? Avon wouldn't have done it for him. He'd've just walked on, as he'd done earlier. How had he got into this mess in the first place...?

      Vila yelped as the seemingly solid rock broke away from beneath his foot. His fingers tightened convulsively over the lip of the crevasse foot to which he was clinging, as his foot sought frantically for purchase.

      Even when he found it, Vila did not move for a long time. He lay spreadeagled against the cold rock, eyes closed, breathing hard, totally unable to move. It was only when the cold began to seep into his fingers, numbing them dangerously, and the voices of the desert-haunts swept into his ears to almost deafen him, that Vila found the will to continue.

      Why, oh why hadn't he called Blake back at the settlement when he had first realised that Avon was in trouble, instead of attempting a rescue by himself? He wasn't a hero. He didn't want to be a hero and, damn it, he didn't even like Avon.

      Why had that foothold given beneath him? He had tested it and it had been solid under his weight. Was there any point in testing them at all? Yet he continued to do so.

      That little ledge looked to be just what he needed, running along and dipping slightly in the way he wanted to go. Perhaps there would be footholds to go with it.

      Vila couldn't see more than a metre. He began to be frightened that he would miss Avon.

      What would he do when he reached him, anyway?

      He couldn't find a foothold for his right toe, however hard he searched. He ran it up, down and sideways, trying to find a little roughness in the rock that would hold him.

      Suddenly, the ledge that supported him disintegrated beneath his hands. With a screech of terror, Vila toppled backwards, tumbling away from the cliff face. Instants later, as his head and shoulders struck something soft, Vila yelled again. His feet, legs and hips crashed into hard rock. There was a sharp cracking sound and the clatter of a falling rock bouncing against the cliff face. Even as Vila realised that he must have fallen on top of Avon, he felt the other man's body begin to slide away from under him.

      Oh no you don't, Vila thought, rolling over to throw his arms around Avon. Not after all I've been through! For a moment, he thought that they were both going to slip over the edge, but then the extra weight told and they stopped moving.

      A single glance told Vila far more than he wanted to know. They were just centimetres from a precipice, a drop that would surely kill them both. Somehow, Vila had managed to hold Avon back from the brink and now, somehow, he would have to pull him onto a flatter and safer part of the tiny plateau. Vila moved cautiously, locking his arms around Avon's chest and dragging him backwards, centimetre by centimetre, testing each foothold several times before he pushed against it.

      They had moved no more than a metre before Avon moaned and began to struggle.

      "Avon, don't... you'll kill us both..." Vila pleaded, trying to hold onto him.

      Suddenly, Avon went very still. "Vila?" he asked weakly.

      "Yes." Vila let him go hurriedly and bent over him. In the twilight, the expression on Avon's face was all but invisible.

      "What...? Oh yes, I remember. The earthquake... I fell... tried to reach... a... ledge..."

      "You made it," Vila told him. "We're about a quarter of the way down the cliff. You could have picked a more comfortable place."

      Avon started to sit up, putting a hand to his head.

      "Oh, don't, Avon..." Vila reached out a hand to stop him. "There's an awful lot of blood."

      Avon ignored the protest, breaking Vila's grip easily, and probing at his head with his fingers. "Scalp wounds always bleed a lot. It's not serious, Vila. I'm fine." He moved each of his limbs in turn, then repeated, "I'm fine." Then, "What are you doing here?"

      The tone made Vila glad that Avon could see little of his face except a pale, starlit blur. He answered, "Trying to stop you from falling the rest of the way down."

      "You climbed down the cliff? What happened to your fear of heights?"

      "I realised I had a greater fear of getting lost - and you're the one that knows the way."

      There was a pause as Avon considered this, then, deciding not to argue, he said, "Let's move out."

      "Don't be ridiculous! It's night, Avon, remember? I don't fancy that cliff even when I can see. What do you think I am? A Tamborian cavecrawler?"

      Avon wiped the blood from his face with his arm. His voice sounded shaky. "Why didn't I see that? You're right, Vila, but... I don't think you understand what this means. The temperature's still dropping. It'll go below freezing point. I'd hoped to keep us moving, to keep us awake and warm, and to rest before dawn only if we were forced to do so, and then in the shelter of the dunes."

      "We'll have to manage," said Vila, with more confidence than he felt. "I'm no expert, but this whole rock face is cracked and splintered, so we should be able to find crevices running back into the cliff. If we can find one that'll just take both of us, and get in it together, then pile as much sand and rock as we can around the entrance, then perhaps we can-"

      "Conserve enough body heat to survive. Of course. I must be more shaken than I thought. That's standard survival procedure. You're right, Vila. It's our only chance. Let's see what we can find."

      

      

      Jenna heard footsteps and looked around just in time to see Blake come onto the Flight Deck, Gan and Cally at his heels. Jenna had never seen him look so angry.

      "Didn't you find any trace of them at all?" she asked.

      "No." It was plainly the only reply that she was going to get. Indeed, to judge by the expression on Blake's face, she was lucky to get a reply at all.

      Gan shook his head at her warningly. Blake, he knew, was very close to exploding with frustrated rage. For all Gan's natural calm, there had been moments when he himself had come close to exploding when faced with Langar's attitude during their search.

      They had landed at the place where Langar had dropped Vila and Avon, with the domes of the settlement still in sight, but the colonist had refused to stay there for more than a few minutes and, though he had - with Blake and Gan glaring threateningly at him - agreed to circle outwards on the start of a search pattern, the instant the sun had fallen close to the western horizon, he had sent the aircar haring back towards the settlement, ignoring Blake's furious protests. There had been no sign at all of Avon and Vila, and no more help forthcoming from the colonists.

      "Zen!" Blake barked. "Scan the surface of Haderon for human life-forms, specifically, for Avon and Vila. Start at the edges of the colony settlement and work outwards from there." He looked reassuringly at the others. "They can't have gone far. Zen should have them located in no more than-"

      +Information,+ said Zen's flat voice. "It is impossible for scanners to locate specific life-forms on the surface of Haderon."

      "What do you mean, impossible?"

      +Impossible. Definition: not possible. Incapable of accomplishment.+

      "Cancel," Blake thundered. "Specify why you cannot locate Avon and Vila."

      +Scanners register a multiplicity of life-forms on the surface of Haderon. These are constantly changing in type and numbers and cannot be differentiated into specifics. Identification of other life-forms is impossible in these conditions.+

      "That's impossible. There are no life-forms on Haderon except the humans at the settlement."

      +Information in memory banks is in agreement with this statement. Scanner readings are in contradiction. Logic banks suggest there is a malfunction in the scanning system. Attempts to locate this malfunction have so far proved unsuccessful.+

      "Could something from outside the ship be affecting the scanners?" Blake asked, brother.

      +This is a possibility. However, no such influence has been detected.+

      "Check every possibility."

      +Program has been initiated.+

      Blake slammed his fist against the side of the communications station. "Damn it! It's as if the whole planet was working against us! Not to mention our own computers."

      "What are their chances?" Gan asked quietly from behind him.

      "Zen: temperature reading just outside the settlement, please."

      +Air temperature is two degrees Celsius and falling. Average night-time air temperature at this season is minus one to minus four degrees.+

      "Survivable," said Cally, "and Avon is there. He knows how to cope with such a situation."

      Blake's answer was soft. "If he's alive... if either of them is alive. What has happened to them, Cally? Why can't we contact them?"

      Cally said, "It is going to be a long night."

      "One point," said Jenna; "are you certain that they haven't made it back to the settlement, Blake?"

      He looked at her gratefully. "No, I'm not. A long night, Cally? Not as long as it's going to be for Banard and his colonists. We're going to search every square metre of the settlement - and we're going to do it now."

      

      

      Vila stood before the altar in the temple of the penal colony on Cygnus Alpha. The robed figure of the high priest, Vargas, towered to the very roof and the light of flames flickered along the upraised blade. The knife fell.

      Vila fled from it, and from the evil laughter that chased him. He should have been clear of the temple in seconds and into the swirling mists that hung over that sad and desolate planet, but instead he found himself running between gargantuan stone pillars that reached into darkness. Torches spluttered and flamed between the pillars, the air acrid with their stench, and all about was the manic laughter, louder than the thump of Vila's feet on the stone pavement, louder than the pounding of his heart. From above, a choir chanted a satanic hymn. The air grew cold, and full of sulphur.

      Terror ran beside Vila, flicking at his heels with a whip of fear, spurring him onwards. He had been fleeing for hours now, and still the catacombs stretched endlessly before him.

      Slow, heavy footfalls followed him, getting louder and louder, nearer and nearer, however quickly he ran.

      The torch flames were snuffed out in a moment. Blackness fell like a dropped cloak. Vila tripped and fell forwards, rolling.

      Red eyes, slit-pupiled and evil, rushed in at him from all sides. Red mouths opened, the fangs red too, and glowing, as they plunged towards him.

      Vila screamed-

      It was dark. There were no eyes, no mouths. Vila gasped for breath, trembling in the aftermath of fear, but knowing he was safe.

      A dream, that was all. Just a bad dream.

      He was still cold, though, and the chanting choir of evil was still there, the sound surging powerfully about him.

      Desert-haunts.

      Shivering, Vila crawled even closer to Avon, feeling reassured by his solidity. He wished he were awake. Even his cutting voice would have been preferable to the supernatural ones. He also wished, not for the first time, that he was on the other side of the narrow cave into which they were both wedged. He had suggested that, but Avon had cut him short.

      "That side will be colder and, while I'm not the self-sacrificing sort, the simple fact is that I can stand the cold better than you would be able to. It's a matter of heat loss. You're smaller than I am and your ratio of surface area to body weight is greater. Now get into that crack and stop arguing!"

      That took no account of the way Vila felt about confined spaces and about having his escape route blocked but, on the other hand, as he admitted wryly to himself, even if he could get out of the crevice there was nowhere he could run. They were halfway up a cliff in the middle of the night. There was no escape from the blackness, or the cold, or the deadly, singing voices, any more than from the hunger in his belly or the soreness in his mouth and throat. He would have sold his soul for a drink of water, but that was not what the voices of the haunts were offering. All they promised was death in torment.

      Avon was muttering to himself, trying to twist and toss, an impossibility in the close confines of their tiny cave. He hit his shoulder on the roof and woke up with a yelp.

      "Nightmare?" Vila asked, in acute sympathy.

      "Yes." Avon didn't seem inclined to amplify but, after a while, he added, "I didn't mean to wake you."

      "Who can sleep with all that caterwauling going on? Avon, do you think the haunts kill their victims outright, or do they just drive them crazy?"

      For a moment, Avon was silent, as if considering the question; then he said, acidly, "If you can hear voices in the wind then the Federation psychiatrists were probably right. You're unbalanced."

      Out in the bright desert day it had sounded convincing but, then, Vila had not been pressed close against Avon, had not been able to feel the faint tremble that ran through his body as he spoke.

      He's scared too, Vila thought, feeling very surprised and oddly protective. "You hear them too, don't you, Avon?"

      "It's just the wind," Avon said, but Vila had now identified the stubborn words as a brave attempt to reassure them both. It was about time he made his own contribution.

      "Anyway," Vila said loudly, "what really scares me is the idea of another quake. We couldn't get out of here in time to stop the rock closing in on us." He rolled onto his back and touched the invisible roof with his fingertips. "Feels like it's about to squash us flat, anyway, without benefit of an earthquake."

      "Unlikely," Avon answered in a much more confident tone. "The rock is hard and this planet is tectonically fairly stable."

      "You could have fooled me! What happened to us, then, an hallucination?"

      "A freak tremor...," but again Avon sounded unsure.

      In their present strange and fragile intimacy, Vila ventured to voice his most irrational yet persistent belief. "It was as if the planet threw you over the cliff and tried to throw me after you. And I'll tell you something else, when I was climbing down that cliff two completely secure hand and foot holds gave way without any warning..."

      "You obviously missed your vocation. With your imagination, you should be writing video thrillers, not stealing," Avon muttered, but he was remembering the strange behaviour of the rocks which had flung him out into space and the wind which had pushed him outwards, and hearing those damnable voices laughing with glee.

      "Go to sleep, Vila," he ordered. "I thought you wanted to rest for a 'little longer'. Well, you've got ten extra hours to do it in."

      Vila closed his eyes obediently both on the darkness and the voices, but he could not close his ears, and he could not sleep until the dove-grey dawn crept into the crevice, and he was sure that Avon would not sleep either.

      

      

      Blake sat alone on the flight deck, watching the chronometer mark off the seconds until dawn. He had never really expected to find Avon and Vila at the settlement - the search had only been an excuse to keep moving and to take a petty revenge on Banard for his refusal to help - yet he had been bitterly disappointed when he had not done so. He remembered the loneliness of the desert: the dryness of the air, the weird wind-carved rocks, the hissing of the wind as it snaked the sand along. What a terrible place to be lost in...

      It was his fault. He was responsible - had appointed himself their leader, as Avon was always telling him. Lord, how glad he would be to have Avon back here to challenge him, to have Vila making silly jokes, and commenting on their situation with gloomy humour, to hear the pair of them arguing ferociously. He had not realised how much they had become part of his life.

      Perhaps he should rest, though it was only thirteen hours since he had slept. There was nothing he could do until light and then he would need all his strength and energy. Yet he knew it was impossible for him to sleep... If only the dawn would come...

      

      

      It was not an easy climb down the buttress wall in the new and gentle light, but Avon led the way with confidence, and Vila was glad to be on the move again, and to let the other man take responsibility for the decisions.

      Finally, they stood together at the foot of the cliff and looked eastward to the sun rising over the mountains.

      "What now?" Vila asked. His voice was hoarse and Avon knew from the raw stickiness in his own throat how much it had cost him to speak.

      "Keep moving. We're over halfway there, Vila." He refrained from mentioning just how much weaker they were now and how much more slowly they would travel. Even the climb down the cliff had tired him and he guessed that Vila was in worse condition.

      Vila might have been thinking exactly the same thoughts, for he said, "I don't think we're going to make it, Avon."

      "I am. You can, if you have the guts. Besides, I want Banard." Avon looked toward the unseen settlement. The disc of the sun was touching the far-off columns of the peaks, reddening the gold, turning the silver-gilt dunes to rose and striking the tiny diamonds into sparkling rainbow pinpoints.

      "What can you see?" Vila asked.

      "Nothing that you can't. Give beauty its due, Vila. That sunrise is worth a second glance." He did not add, "And we probably won't live to see another," but the thought was in his mind.

      "Mad. Quite mad," Vila murmured, but he felt cheered by Avon's self-confidence, as Avon had intended. However, neither of them mentioned Blake.

      

      

      Blake saw the sunrise too, from the front passenger seat of the Haderon colony's only aircar, which he and Gan had not so much borrowed as appropriated just as soon as it was light enough to see. Unlike Avon, neither of them gave dawn a second glance; they were too busy scanning the desert below them. Blake was sure that they would find Avon and Vila, if they continued their search pattern, but he was much less certain that he could find them alive. Death was the most probable explanation for their continuing silence.

      He pushed his gloomy thoughts aside as he noticed Gan making his third adjustment of the aircar controls in as many minutes. "What's the matter?"

      "Power loss-" Gan broke off as the aircar's nose dipped alarmingly and he had to boost the power on the anti-grav. "It's been getting worse since we left the settlement. I didn't want to mention it unless I had to, but if this power loss continues we won't be able to stay aloft much longer."

      Blake tasted bitterness, but made the necessary decision. "Turn back for the settlement, Gan. We have to find out what's wrong before-"

      "Vila and Avon-" Gan began in a mutinous tone.

      "We won't be any help to them if we crash this thing. Let's hope the fault can be located and fixed - quickly."

      Gan still looked rebellious, but he swung the aircar's nose about and sent her staggering back towards the mountains

      After a while, Blake began to wonder if they were even going to make it to the domes but, in fact, Gan nursed her into a limping landing at the settlement with the power boosted to full, just as the anti-grav generator died.

      

      

      

The day was lengthening towards mid-morning and already the sun was a furnace. The hellish music of the haunts had quieted with the light, but now it had begun to creep back, howling with laughter at their plight.

      Vila had said nothing since they had started walking, over six hours ago, but, during that time, his pace had become slower and slower. He was limping, too, and where his skin was exposed to the sun it was red and blistering. Avon was tempted to help him, despite his own pain and growing exhaustion, but he knew that he did not have the strength to spare. Besides, it would give Vila an excuse to start thinking of giving in, as he certainly would if allowed to rest. Avon suspected that if they stopped moving they would never start again. Their pain didn't matter: only distance mattered. The mountains had come closer only slowly, but they were closer, and Avon was beginning to think it possible that they might reach the settlement after all, when Vila fell to his knees and did not try to rise. Instead, he slipped sideways and curled up in a ball in the hot sand.

      Avon returned to him, knelt beside him, and took hold of his shoulder and shook it. "Vila!"

      "Go 'way..." Vila whispered through cracked and bleeding lips.

      "Vila!" Avon grabbed a handful of tunic, hauled Vila into a sitting position, and started slapping him. He did not stop until Vila opened his eyes. "Get up, Vila," he ordered. "Walk!"

      "Please... go 'way... Just... need... rest... Catch... up with... you later..." Vila mumbled, not meeting Avon's eyes.

      "You're not going to give up on me now. Walk, damn you!" Somehow, Avon dragged Vila to his feet and held him upright until he could balance.

      "When... we... get out of this..." Vila hissed, "I'm.. goin'... to kill you."

      "Don't make me laugh. You don't even have the guts to walk." Avon let him go. "Do you?"

      "Hate... you..."

      "I never... knew a time when you felt any other way. You die... when I let you. Now walk!"

      Vila took one swaying step, then another, and Avon fell in beside him, so he could let Vila set a pace within his own strength and so that he would not have to waste energy returning for him when he fell again.

      

      

      Jenna withdrew her head from the depths of the aircar's innards, pushed her hair back out of her eyes, and announced, "I don't think this thing's been maintained since the planet was colonised. It's a wonder it flew at all."

      Blake said, "We can fix it."

      "Which is more than those fools Langar and Tylen could have done, if we'd let them continue. They're the worst mechanics I've met since Tarvin and I tried to get the 'Golden Lotus' repaired on Saral."

      "I've never heard of Saral."

      "No more you should have. It's at the back of beyond and is just post-atomic. Hamfisted fools. Blake, it's going to be hours before we can get this machine in the air and we've already wasted far too much time letting those bird-brains try and repair it-"

      "I know. I should have realised that they didn't know what they were doing from the state it was in in the first place, but when they offered..."

      "Blaming yourself won't help Avon and Vila," Jenna pointed out. "At the moment, neither will this aircar. Is there any other way?"

      "Not without help from the colonists." If Blake sounded bitter it was because that was how he felt. "If they'd go into the desert on foot we could use the teleport and sheer weight of numbers but they're too scared of their own imaginations. Our only real hope of finding Vila and Avon is to search from the air." Blake spoke wearily. He had run over the arguments too often in his mind to want to repeat them.

      "If they're still alive. It's been a long time, Blake."

      "Not as long as it seems to us. Thirty-six hours since they left the settlement. People have survived for much longer without food and water."

      Jenna bit her tongue to stop the words "In those conditions?" from being spoken. It wouldn't help, and Blake looked so tired and worried already. There would be no point wasting her breath in trying to get him to rest, either. Better get the aircar repaired, then Gan and Cally could take over the search.

      

      

      When Vila fell for what seemed like the fiftieth time, Avon was so tired that he did not notice the collapse until he tripped over him and hit the sand on hands and knees.

      "Get up, Vila," he urged, in what had almost become a ritual chant, but this time it did not work. No amount of orders, face slapping, shaking and, finally, desperate pleading could rouse Vila.

      Avon slumped down wearily beside the still figure of his companion and stared towards the mountains that now seemed so temptingly close. How near were they? Maybe five kilometres to the foothills, and the settlement. Possible. It had seemed so possible. Well, he might still make it and might even do so in time to bring help for Vila, if only he could find some way of marking this spot.

      He looked about him and, as he stared back the way they had come, a surge of impossible hope rose in him. Clouds. A great dark mass of cloud was piled on the far horizon.

      Only it wasn't cloud, his reason told him. There hadn't been a cloud on this planet in millions of years. There was only one explanation, loath as he was to accept it; what he could see was the outlying belt of a great sandstorm.

      "Can I beat it to the settlement?" he asked himself. Or even to the foothills, which will break its main force and give me more time? Maybe, but not with Vila. I couldn't even lift him, let alone carry him. Nothing can live in the sandstorms this planet produces. Four hundred kph winds. Vila... he's dying anyway. If I stay with him, we both die. I have a chance for myself, if I move quickly, though.

      That decided, he staggered to his feet and started to walk in the direction of the mountains. Was it imagination, or could he see sunlight glinting on the domes? Don't look back, he told himself, keep looking at the peaks. Safety lies there. I've done all I can for Vila. He's already dead. Forget him. Life on board Liberator will be simpler without him.

      Avon ploughed determinedly on, fighting the agony in his throat and lungs, and against the other pain that he refused to acknowledge. He tried to hurry, but each step he took needed an even greater effort than the last and the more he tried to banish Vila from his mind, the more he appeared there.

      Memories. Laughter, shared dangers, the hidden appreciation of a wit that saw its own absurdities...

      Vila. The voices that had bedevilled them every step of the way seemed to call that name mockingly in his ears. He tried to silence them with ice cold reason.

      This is not betrayal. What use would it serve for me to die with him? He told me to leave him and he was right.

      Avon could see no flaw in the logic, but there remained an irrational thread of unease. Angry with himself, he put down his head and trudged onwards.

      Finally, he did turn and look back towards the storm. It was much closer, blotting out half the sky. It would be a close run thing: whether he could reach the foothills before the storm overtook him. Perhaps he wouldn't be able to survive even then, and he would die, as he had expected to die from the moment Rosen had come though the door of her office. In that case, he need not have left Vila...

      Avon broke off that thought. It was stupid. He wasn't that sort of sentimental, spineless fool. Blake wouldn't have left Vila. Neither would Gan, or Cally... Which only went to prove what a crowd of heroic, reckless idiots he'd managed to get involved with... Well, there was a time when you had to cut your losses, though Blake never seemed to realise it... and it was strange how often he was proved right...

      Furious with himself for the line his thoughts were taking, Avon broke into a run down the steep, concave face of the dune, but his co-ordination had gone and his feet slipped away from under him, sending him rolling wildly to the bottom.

      He was not hurt but, spent as he was, the shock sent him reeling, for a moment, into whirling blackness. As it began to recede, his dazed mind jumped back to the other time he had fallen - to the cliff. He opened his eyes, expecting, as before, to see Vila's anxious face looking down at him. But there was only empty sky - and then the knowledge of why Vila wasn't there hit home. Unwillingly, he allowed himself to imagine Vila waking in the middle of the sandstorm and finding himself alone, as he found himself alone now, and as he might well have found himself alone, trapped in the icy night on the edge of a precipice, if Vila hadn't overcome his fears and climbed down to him. With bitterness in the new self-knowledge, Avon realised that if he had let himself think of these things before, he would not have had the strength of will to leave Vila at all.

      Obligations.

      Fool, Avon called himself, and other, harsher names, but he picked himself up and fought his way back up the face of the dune, into the strengthening wind; and he was not sure if he was a fool because he was going back to Vila - or because he had ever left him.

      

      

      Vila was almost buried by the time Avon found him. Scooping the slight figure out of the sand, Avon checked for a pulse, wondering if he had panicked himself into returning for a dead man, but the weak beat was there. Vila lived.

      The wind was rising more quickly than Avon had expected. Sand grains stung his face, the tiny diamonds among them cutting into his sore flesh. No doubt the storm would strip them to skeletons. Desert-haunts? With sandstorms like this one commonplace, it was not surprising that no-one came back alive from the desert and the wind might well sweep their bodies to the colony walls, just as Banard had predicted.

      Desert-haunts. The voices were very loud now. Well, so they should be if they were just an effect of the wind.

      I'm going to die here, Avon thought. We're going to die. One more fact to be faced. I'm sorry, Vila. What was the use in driving you to the limits of your strength? I tried to save us, but we're going to die here just as inevitably as if we had sat in the desert where Langar dumped us and waited for death.

      Turning his back to the wind, he lifted Vila up, shielding him with his body. Sentimental stupidity, of course. He couldn't save Vila that way, but if he'd been crazy enough to come back here then he might as well be irrational about this too. It made no difference to his own chance of survival and it was what he wanted to do. Avon smiled wryly to himself. He'd always maintained that people who didn't have the courage of their own convictions met the fate they deserved. He had hardly expected to be the one to prove its truth.

      It was growing cold. He could still see the mountains to the east but, elsewhere, darkness shadowed the land. Driven sand rasped, file-like, at his clothes and hair. The scalp wound had opened again and he had to wipe blood from his face. More moisture lost - but it didn't matter now. It was obvious that he would never have reached the settlement, but that didn't matter either. When death is certain, nothing matters. Avon simply held Vila and waited for the hell that would soon overwhelm them.

      

      

      Blake felt a hand on his shoulder and lifted his head to see Gan standing beside him. The big man looked tired and just as depressed as Blake felt. He said, "Jenna and I just teleported back. The sandstorm's hit the settlement. Banard says it'll last for hours - maybe days."

      "And no sign of Vila and Avon?" Blake knew the answer; the words were just a ritual. With Gan's reply, he might be able, finally, to accept that all hope was gone.

      "No," Gan said, at last.

      Blake closed his eyes and shook his head, hating the new certainty but not fighting against it. Gan's hands were still on his shoulders, massaging them gently, trying to ease the tension that he could feel in Blake's muscles.

      Gan said, "They've probably been dead for hours, but now, at least, we know. Nothing could survive that storm... Damnation, Blake, why did Avon take such a stupid risk? And why did he have to risk Vila's life too?"

      "Avon is - wasn't responsible for Vila," Blake said firmly. "If Vila went with him, it-"

      "Why did it have to be Vila?" Hearing the anguish in Gan's voice, Blake twisted free of his hands and turned to face him. Gan's expression was quiet, but his eyes were tortured and Blake was reminded how close he and Vila had been.

      He kept his voice gentle. "There is no reason in death. Blaming Avon won't help, Gan, and it isn't fair. None of us know what happened down there on Haderon."

      "We know Avon."

      "And we knew Vila. He had a certain propensity for getting into trouble." It was said with compassion, but Gan still flinched away.

      "We know Avon got him into this! You would defend-" Gan pulled himself up short. "Sorry, Blake, but when I think about Vila..."

      "You stop feeling reasonable."

      "Reason! Avon was always talking about reason and look where it got him... and Vila. Damn him, why did he have to take Vila...?" Gan faded out under the influence of Blake's clear stare. He looked bewildered, then, after a while, he turned and walked away without another word.

      Blake watched him go, too numb with his own grief to feel much except a mild regret at his inability to comfort Gan, but he did not even have any comfort left for himself.

      It was some ten minutes later that Jenna joined him on the flight deck. She asked, "Gan told you?"

      "Yes."

      Jenna closed in and stood looking down at him. "What do you want us to do next?"

      "Do?" Blake stared at her with surprised eyes. "What is there to do except wait?"

      "Wait for what? Blake, they're dead." Jenna knelt on the floor in front of him, her hands on his knees. "There's nothing more we can do. It's no use torturing yourself with grief and guilt. It's over. Better to leave this place - and Avon and Vila - behind us."

      "No! No. Before I leave, I have to know what happened." His voice was still quiet but no-one could have mistaken the resolution in it.

      Jenna did not, and it angered her. "It doesn't matter. Blake, sometimes you're a fool. You'll destroy yourself like this - how long is it since you slept? - and it isn't worth it. You can't bring them back."

      Her eyes were pleading with him, but he refused to submit to them. Instead, he said, "I can find out how they died."

      "That's not important."

      "It is to me."

      Jenna was becoming angry. "Do you think that Avon would have sat here grieving for either of us like this?"

      Blake smiled fleetingly. "Perhaps not," he admitted.

      "Then what makes him worth your grief?"

      Blake looked at her for a long moment. "One of us didn't understand Avon, Jenna. I think it's you."

      "He tried to persuade me to leave you on Cygnus Alpha - did you know that?"

      "I suspected it - but that was a long time ago, Jenna. Since then... well, I owed him my life, and so did you."

      "If he saved us, then it was for his own reasons, and you can take bets they were selfish. As for Vila, you know as well as I do that he was more often a liability than an asset."

      "Of course. For example, when he got us into the Federation Mining Complex to rescue Avalon - he was a liability then, wasn't he? And when he broke into the base on Centero so that we could steal the cipher machine? It would have been just as easy without him, wouldn't it? The Amagon slave collars were no problem, were they, so that it doesn't matter that it was Vila who removed them... but I forgot, you could have managed Tarvin all by yourself, couldn't you?"

      "Don't take that tone with me, Blake," Jenna snapped. "I agree that Vila was a skilled locksmith and cracksman but he couldn't keep his mind on a job for ten minutes at a stretch. Every time we were in danger his mind would wander and then we would be in trouble. Vila was a coward. Amusing, likeable, yes but, rationally, we're probably better off without him. Don't think me callous, Blake. I was fond of Vila. There's little I wouldn't have done to save him, while there was still a chance, but I can't help him now - and neither can you. Bury your dead. It's the only way to survive."

      Blake spoke with difficulty. "Jenna... would you please... leave me alone for a while..."

      "What?" She stared up at him, eyes wide, genuinely shocked.

      "Just go, Jenna. Please."

      "I was only trying-"

      "I know. I appreciate the fact that you're worried about me. I admire your good sense, and I agree that you're probably right... but this isn't the time, Jenna. We're only hurting each other."

      Jenna rose to her feet with anger on her face. "Vila wouldn't have killed himself with grief for you, either. He wasn't capable of feeling that deeply - and if Avon could see you now he'd be laughing!" Whirling on her heel, she marched off the flight deck and Blake heard her say to someone, as she went, "I wouldn't bother. He'll die before he sees reason."

      After a few moments, Cally's gentle voice said, from close at hand, "What did Jenna mean by saying that if Avon could see you now, he would be laughing?"

      Still angry at Jenna, at himself, at Fate, and even at Cally for daring to break in on his misery, Blake snapped at her, "I quote: 'Do you think Avon would have sat here grieving for either of us like this?' Unquote."

      "No," said Cally, answering the question. "He would carry the hurt inside himself, as he always did, not letting anyone see the pain that he felt."

      Slowly, Blake rose to his feet and faced her. "Thank you, Cally. I was beginning to wonder if I was the only person on this ship who cared that both Avon and Vila were dead. Gan blames Avon for Vila's death. Jenna thinks we're better off without both of them."

      "Both care. Vila and Gan were friends. At this time, Gan can only see that once again he has lost the person closest to him, but he is a good and gentle man and a fair one. He cared for Avon and he will remember. Jenna buries her grief in anger, thinking it irrational and dangerous. She is a very practical person and she feels that her concern should be for the living, for you. She fears to lose you, and I think you know as well as I do what that loss would mean to her."

      Blake found himself surprised by her insight. "And you, Cally?"

      "It was Avon who said that it is not necessary to become irrational in order to prove that you care..."

      "He did?" Blake smiled sadly, "I wish I'd known that... before."

      "And it is not just unnecessary, but unwise, I think. Before I weep for my friends, I must be sure that there is no revenge I can take, no other way I can honour them in death. Then I will mourn them as befits my comradeship, friendship, and loyalty."

      Blake put his arms round Cally and hugged her close. "Thank you, Cally. You've put my own feelings into words in a way I couldn't." He was too tired for there to be anything sexual in the embrace. Cally simply felt comforting against him.

      She said, "I thought I had learned how to live with the death of comrades, after Saurian Major, but I think this pain is even greater."

      Blake looked down at the beautiful alien face, remembering. Vila and Cally had been friends from the first. He had welcomed the stranger when others had been suspicious and hostile; and Cally had perhaps come nearer than anyone to breaking down the prickly barricades that Avon had erected about himself. Once his initial suspicions had gone, Avon had rarely been anything but gentle with her, and she had only infrequently felt the sarcastic edge of his tongue. It was unusual behaviour for him, and Blake had sometimes wondered if, one day, there might be something more than friendship between them. Wishful thinking... but they were both so very much alone.

      "I know," he said, "I've lost friends before too, Cally, to the Federation, and to others, but not like this. Something is very wrong."

      Cally looked puzzled. "Wrong? Avon and Vila are dead. What more can be wrong?"

      "I don't know... but what happened to them, Cally, and why? I have to know."

      "Well, we must start with what Banard told us. We know that Avon went out into the desert to try and prove that-"

      Blake interrupted her. "No. We do not know that. Cally, Avon believed in the desert-haunts no more than I do."

      "He would have enjoyed proving the colonists liars."

      "He'd been working hard, and he must have been tired. Do you think that he'd go on a desert hike just to prove a bunch of colonists were superstitious fools? I can't buy that. There has to be another, stronger, reason. If there's one thing Avon wasn't, it was stupid, so why didn't he check with us first? He never took unnecessary risks with his own life."

      Cally was doubtful. "He might have thought that you would have forbidden him to go."

      "Defying me would have added a little more enjoyment to the expedition."

      "He had a teleport bracelet. So did Vila. No doubt they thought they could call for help at any time."

      "Perhaps... but that's another thing. Why did he take Vila with him?"

      "Who else would he have taken?"

      "No-one at all, if I know Avon. Besides, Vila wouldn't have gone. He objected to exercise, and he'd been enjoying himself far too much relieving those colonists of their money to miss the chance of doing it again."

      "He might," Cally contradicted him, "for Avon. They were fond of each other under the bickering, Blake, even if they did not realise it themselves."

      "I liked to think that too. Perhaps we were deceiving ourselves about that, but I know that I'm not deceiving myself about this. If only I could work out what happened."

      "Does it matter why they went?" Cally asked. "They went. They are dead. What I want to know is what happened out in the desert: to find out what killed them."

      "Oh, that too, Cally." He slowly released her. "I have to know. I owe them that much, yet I don't even know where to begin."

      "When you are tired, solutions to problems remain elusive, Blake." She laid her hand gently on his cheek. "Sleep now. Perhaps, when you wake, it will be clearer. There is no urgency about a solution now."

      "Perhaps you're right, Cally." Blake reached up, captured her hand, and clasped it in both his own. "I'm not sure I can sleep, but I'll try... and thank you."

      "You are my friend too," said Cally.

      

      

      The storm was about them. Whirlwinds surrounded them, reaching out with cruel hands to scratch and claw, and the voices of the haunts sang to them in triumphant hate.

      But Avon was almost indifferent to them, as each second brought further pain. He was almost wishing for death now. The wind slashed into him as if it wielded blades of ice. His eyes were tightly closed against the swirling sand but, if he had opened them, he would have been able to see nothing in the darkness. The storm was trying to snatch them from the ground and hurl them at the mountains but, so far, it was not strong enough to achieve that aim.

      It soon would be. Avon could hardly breathe the air that held more sand than oxygen and he knew that he would not continue for long. A violent coughing fit exhausted him and he clung to Vila as the wind tried to seize him and spirit him away, not knowing if he was alive or dead, and not sure which he wished him to be. Avon told himself that it was the sand that was forcing its way under his eyelids that was causing his eyes to stream - and perhaps it was.

      Sand piled up at his back, seeping into his clothes and his bleeding scratches, bringing irritation and more pain. His lungs were on fire, his only contact with reality, along with the weight of Vila's body against him and, as even those began to fade, the song of the haunts became clearer, no longer a mad cacophony of malevolence but softer, gentler, almost like a lullaby. Avon was drifting towards death... and the sound of the voices was almost pleasurable. He began to listen closely to the song. Of course, he must be going mad, but he was beginning to make sense of the words.

      It was no longer a lullaby. The voices of the haunts were urgent, demanding. "Wake!" they commanded him - and yet it was not that simple. Other meanings crowded in: live, return to consciousness, feel, think, survive, communicate, WAKE!

      It suddenly occurred to Avon that he was now much warmer and that it did not hurt so much to breathe, though it was agony even to think about swallowing. The wind and sand were no longer grating at his skin. Curiosity getting the better of his weakness, he raised his head and opened his eyes.

      The sky above was not a sky but a dark roof of flying, gyrating sand. It ballooned over him like a survival dome, hemming him in on all sides, a solid curtain of moving power, fierce and deadly; yet in a circle about Vila and himself, all was still. It was as if there was a protective, invisible wall between them and the storm. Even the sound of the wind was gone. Then there was the light. With the sand between him and the sun, Avon should be able to see nothing but now, the sands about him glowed with a silver light.

      He could still hear the voices of the desert-haunts, though. No, not exactly 'hear'. Why hadn't he recognised it sooner? To have travelled so long with a telepath and not to recognise telepathic contact: stupidity. It was a different type of contact, though. When Cally spoke telepathically he received the words clearly and they carried no more emotion than her voice. Here, the emotions were stronger, almost overwhelming, and the words weak, unclear, different, alien. Avon opened his mind to the haunts, letting the voices flow into him, accepting them, seeking understanding.

      "Sorrow/apology/grief," sang the voices. Avon still could not distinguish individual words but, amid the multiplicity of emotions and concepts, the meaning was clear. "Are/am I/we too-late/too-early? Move/live/leave/go/depart. Water/growth/death/warmth. Waiting/prepared/ready. Trust/understanding/loyalty/awareness exists/creates/is. Move/come/travel/ onwards/go."

      Avon hesitated. He guessed he was listening in on the thoughts of a mind or minds so strange that even this weird form of telepathy could never bring full understanding. Then he thought, what have we got to lose...?

      He got to his knees, gripped Vila under the arms and pulled. Even that slight effort made his head swim and there was only qualified approval in the voices of the haunts. Avon changed direction slightly, and this time the voices carried no trace of doubt.

      "Good/right/approval/pleasure," they chanted. "Forwards/move/continue/come."

      Still on his knees Avon shuffled backwards, dragging Vila with him. Strangely while the sand under him was firm, it seemed to be soft and slippery around Vila and, as he drew him along, it seemed, almost, that it moved, helping to slide Vila towards him. Vila did not seem to have any weight at all; Avon did not seem to have much himself. In his condition, he should not have been able to move Vila more than a couple of metres, but they had already gone much further than that. The ridiculous idea that something invisible and intangible was reaching out to help him somehow no longer seemed so ridiculous in this peculiar situation. No doubt the same something had flattened the sand dunes that Avon remembered, for, wherever he moved, the sand was perfectly flat.

      The desert-haunts continued to sing their approval, praising him, and encouraging him to continue, guiding him on through stillness, while the storm raged on. The protective bubble of tranquillity moved with him and, in its light and silence, he could pretend that the storm did not exist.

      Something was glowing within the murk. Guessing that it was his destination, Avon dragged Vila towards it. The voices of the haunts almost beat him to the ground in their joy.

      As Avon drew nearer and the storm retreated from it, he saw that the light came from a rock, the height of a tall man and intricately carved by erosion, that stood up singly from the smooth sand, looking somehow reassuring, despite its bizarre form. Avon pulled Vila to its base and collapsed on the soft sand beside him.

      The voices approved. It was done. "Safety/home/life/protection," they sang, and then were gone. They had been with Avon for so long that the silence was startling. Yet it wasn't silence. There was another, totally unexpected, sound, a bubbling, splashing sound, like falling water.

      Avon forced himself back to his knees, staring at the rock. About a metre and a half above the base there was a thin, horizontal slit in the rock face and from that slit, water gushed forth, to splash down into a round hollow at the rock foot, where it vanished away.

      It couldn't be real. There was no free water on the planet. He was hallucinating. It couldn't be real.

      With a sob, Avon flung himself forward and thrust his head under the cascade. Only with the wetness burning down his throat and streaming over his face did he believe and then only because the pain of it on his raw and bleeding skin could not have been imagination; it was almost unendurable.

      Regaining control of himself, Avon drew back. Slowly, he told himself. Don't drink too much yet. Slowly. Then... Vila!

      With new strength flowing through him from the knowledge that they were going to live, Avon went back to Vila and dragged him to the fountain. He sat with his back against the warm rock and, supporting Vila against his chest, he scooped water into his mouth, massaging his throat to make him swallow. Vila choked, spluttered and gasped, but the water went down.

      Avon took another drink himself, firmly quashing the temptation to gulp it down until he was bloated, then began, gently, to clean the sand and blood from Vila's face, washing out the scratches until they bled again.

      It was while he was trying to get Vila to drink some more water that the other man's eyelids began to flicker. Avon slipped out from behind him and propped him against the rock. When he raised some more water, Vila gulped it out of his cupped hands, clutching at them frantically.

      "Slowly, Vila..." Avon said. It still hurt to talk, but the very worst of the agony was over.

      Vila's eyes opened. They were bloodshot, and when he smiled, the effect was ghastly, yet Avon still felt cheered that he had made the effort. He smiled back, knowing that he probably looked worse than Vila did, but not caring.

      "Are... we... dead...?" Vila asked.

      "No. Not yet. Not this time."

      "I... see... that... this time... you're still with... me."

      "Yes." Avon knew that he couldn't explain. Perhaps he never would.

      "Water... so... you were wrong... as usual. There is water here..."

      "Yes. Or the desert-haunts created it. They saved us, Vila."

      "Don't... understand..." Vila muttered, seemingly aware of his surroundings for the first time. "Avon... what's happening?... Strange... light... Is it night?"

      "No. It's still not midday. We're in the middle of a sandstorm, but... it's all right, Vila. Rest easy. Go to sleep."

      "Not sure... I want to be saved... by ghosts... or whatever they are."

      "You aren't being consulted," Avon retorted. 'We're going to live, Vila, whether you want to or not."

      "Bully." Vila's eyes closed and his chin fell forward onto his chest, but he spoke again and his voice was stronger; "Avon, I've decided. I'm not going to kill you after all."

      "Why not?" There was laughter lurking in the question.

      "I don't think I hate you enough..." Vila's murmur faded away.

      Avon eased him down onto the sand and stretched out beside him. Then the voices of the desert-haunts came back into his mind and sang him into sleep.

      

      

      Blake came striding onto the flight deck with purpose enveloping him like a cloud and with an expression on his face as grim as either Gan or Jenna had ever seen.

      He did not greet either of his friends. "Zen! Since we arrived, has there been any unusual activity within detector range, or on any local communication channel?"

      "What's all this about, Blake?" Jenna questioned.

      "Logic, Jenna. I do not believe that Avon took Vila looking for 'desert-haunts'. Therefore there has to be another reason for their disappearance. Therefore Banard is lying. I ask myself: why? Why should he lie? The answer that I keep coming up with is that he was responsible for their disappearance and, if that is so-"

      +The information you requested is available,+ Zen interposed.

      "Go on."

      +Coded messages have been exchanged between a transmitter at the Haderon colony and what is presumably a spaceship travelling on a curved path outside sensor range. Trajectory of the transmission suggests the spaceship is moving from Federation to Conclave space.+

      "Can you break the code?"

      +In anticipation of this question, the translation banks are already working on decipherment. De-coding will take approximately nine hours. The code was produced by a commercial coder, probably model DKT120. Programming type suggests an origin within the Federation security forces.+

      Slowly, Blake turned to face Jenna and Gan, a triumph that was full of sorrow on his face.

      "But Haderon supports the fight against the Federation," Jenna stated, not very convincingly.

      "Does it? Look, Jenna, when you left, Avon was running routine tests on the detcom, right? Suppose he picked up that transmission, realised it was coded, and tried to discover why. Suppose that he did discover why, and suppose that reason was something, say treachery, that meant that Banard had to silence him - quickly."

      "What about Vila?" Gan asked.

      "You said yourself that he went to find Avon. There are any number of situations where he might have been caught along with him."

      "You're asking us to accept a long chain of guesses and suppositions, Blake," Jenna protested, but she had risen from her seat and come to join him.

      "I'm asking you to believe that Avon behaved like Avon - a little arrogantly, perhaps, but not stupidly - and, remember, those messages are not suppositions. They're real."

      "There could be any number of explanations."

      "Granted. But not for Avon and Vila disappearing and for both of them apparently 'losing' their teleport bracelets. Not combined with the coded messages. And their disappearance has kept us here, searching, for long after we were due to leave. Zen! Are there any spacecraft within sensor range?"

      +There are seventy-two spacecraft within range of our detectors.+

      "Any heading this way?"

      +Three ships are on course for this system from Elenian Conclave space.+

      "What type of ships?"

      +Sensors indicate Giant class cargo ships - +

      "Cargo ships from Pharion," Jenna said, with the air of one proved right.

      + - another possibility is that they are Goliath class Federation warships.+

      At Zen's words, Blake returned Jenna's challenging stare with interest. To the computer, he said, "Check the directional fix on the coded messages against the possible positions of those ships at the time the messages were transmitted. Could they have been the second pole of the beam?"

      Zen said, +The probability that one of the approaching ships was at the pole of the coded beam is over eighty-three per cent.+

      There was a long, strained silence.

      "A curved path," said Gan. "That's what Zen said. From Federation space. Goliath class warships disguised as cargo ships. Treachery, you said, Blake. Murder. That's what I say it was. Murder. Avon and Vila were killed in cold blood, just to keep them quiet."

      No-one had heard Blake's voice so soft and deadly, as he said, "I think so, and they were just the first on the list. Jenna, stay on the flight deck and ready the neutron blasters for firing. I want them lined up on the settlement. Zen, how long before the Goliath class ships reach the system?"

      +At present speed, transit time is seven hours and forty-five minutes.+

      "Track them and report any change in speed or course."

      +Confirmed.+

      

      

      Though the sun beat down unremittingly from a colourless sky, Vila sat comfortably in the shade. Once the storm had cleared and the temperature had begun to rise, the rock had promptly developed a small cave in its side. It had been an incredible operation to watch: a whirling cylinder of particles detaching itself like a tame tornado from the rock and gyrating off into the desert to settle into the sand plain where there had once been dunes, leaving a shadowed cave with walls as smooth as ice. Psychokinesis, Avon had called it, but Vila guessed that he was simply labelling something he understood about as well as Vila did, which was to say, not at all.

      Now that the air was transparent again, the mountains looked very close. Their tumbled-block shapes took up a sizeable portion of sky, and Vila could see a hint of gleaming blue between the two buttes that guarded the entrance to the settlement canyon: the domes. They were too far away for Vila's comfort, though. Five kilometres, maybe, and soon he would have to try and walk them.

      It was not as if he was still exhausted. He felt slightly weak, but rested. The terrible dryness of his mouth and throat was gone, though they were both still sore, and he did not even feel hungry any longer. He had told Avon that, in an attempt to reassure him, and Avon had looked troubled. Not half as troubled as he had looked though, when, finally overriding Vila's protests, he had made him remove his shoes, and had examined his feet.

      Vila, who was, after all, attached to them, had known what he would find. The diamond-studded sand had worked its way inside the shoes, then deep into skin and flesh. Where Vila's feet weren't covered in huge blisters, they were raw and bleeding. Even Avon's gentle touch had been painful and when he had made Vila immerse them in the cold water of the spring it had not merely been painful, but agonising.

      When he had stopped yelling, Vila had cursed Avon with great imagination, but now he had to admit that it had helped, though he still dreaded trying to walk.

      Avon. Vila looked anxiously at his companion, who was bending beside the spring to take a final drink. It was always difficult to tell how ill or tired Avon was, but Vila believed that the only way Avon could have guessed about the state of his feet was from experiencing something similar himself. An enquiry had brought a snapped, "I'm all right," and then silence. His head wound had opened again, too, but Vila hadn't dared to ask him about it. He was bound to be rebuffed and that would shatter this newly kindled feeling of unity that lay between them. Vila did not want to risk that, so all he could do was to watch Avon with worry in his eyes.

      "When do we start?" he asked.

      "In a few minutes. Firstly, I have some questions I want answered."

      "I don't have any answers - to anything."

      "I wasn't thinking of asking you." Avon sat cross-legged, facing out into the desert, with his most impassive expression on his face. The voices that had guided him to safety and reassured him were now no more than the smallest whisper in the back of his mind. He could not even be sure that they were still there. Never mind. They had earned the right to be acknowledged.

      "I'm not sure that you can understand me," he said loudly, hoping that he did not look as foolish as he felt, "but Vila and I need your help."

      As he listened for a reply, it seemed to Avon that the whole landscape shimmered, rustling about him like wind through dead leaves; then the soft choir of voices spoke to him again.

      "Acknowledgement/gratitude. You/both-units are-not-of/will-not-be-of/have-never-been-of destroyers/killers/invaders."

      Again there was an almost incomprehensible multiplexity of ideas and emotions carried in what appeared to the haunts to be a single word, though his mind translated each one into a string of them. But were they single words, Avon wondered. Did the desert-haunts have a language at all? Was his mind translating alien thoughts into language because this was a familiar form it could approximately comprehend?

      "Destroyers...killers...invaders," Avon said softly, remembering the feelings of hatred and fear that were carried in the concepts. "Do you mean the colonists?"

      "Destroyers/killers/invaders{\160}bring/find/create water/vegetation/death destroying/killing/murdering/usurping I/we/nation/family/land/planet/intelligence."

      Avon frowned as he concentrated on making sense of this. He hoped that the haunts were trying as hard as he was. Vila too. It definitely needed more than one mind on the job. All he could do was fasten on something he thought he did understand and try to confirm it. "Water is death to you?"

      "Confusion/paradox. Water/vegetation/death is/was/will-be water/vegetation/death. No-meaning no-understanding."

      "To us, water is essential to life," said Avon.

      "Confusion/paradox." Yet, somehow, Avon felt that there was an element of understanding too.

      "You provided water for us," he pointed out.

      "Sensing/knowing/feeling need/want. Providing/ creating/saving/serving."

      "Yet earlier you had tried to kill us. Why did you change your minds and save us?"

      "You/both-units water/protein/alien. Destroyers/killers/invaders water/protein/alien. I/we believed/deduced/knew/understood sameness/identicality/ likeness/oneness."

      "Huh?" said Vila.

      "They thought we were colonists. They don't appear to like them."

      "Oh."

      The haunts spoke again. "Sensing/knowing/feeling hate/fear in/from you/both-units for/towards us/desert/me/family/nation/land. Sensing/knowing/feeling hate/anger for/towards destroyers/killers/invaders. Paradox/ confusion. Reaching/speaking/emoting to/at/with you/both-units. Rejection/fear/disbelief returned/projected/felt. I/we wish/hoped/wanted/needed save/destroy/study. Confusion/paradox. Myself/ourselves/majority/ strongest thought/felt/decided/triumphed remove/terrify/obliterate/test-to-destruction. Proceeded/continued. You/both-units hate/fear growing/increasing wilder/stronger/greater. Then/later/now sensing/feeling loyalty/love/understanding/protectiveness in you/both-units. Love/loyalty/understanding/protectiveness in I/we. Not-in/not-of destroyers/killers/invaders. Uncertainty/confusion/paradox."

      "They're giving me a headache," Vila complained.

      "Listen/understand," the haunts urged.

      "It's trying to listen/understand that's giving me the headache."

      "Hesitation/uncertainty. Waiting/watching/sensing feeling you/both-units. Knowledge/sensing/feeling death/destruction close/soon/coming. You/both-units wanting/deciding/resolving death/destruction/ending not life/aliveness/survival. Sensing/feeling/knowing/sharing sorrow/loyalty/anger. You/both-units/I/we/desert/one. I/we/destruction/storm already/then killing/ destroying/hurting you/both-units/I/we. Sorrow/regret. Your thought(s)/mind(s)/emotions open/receptive/extending. Communication/understanding. I/we bring/ order/create water/warmth/survival. Understanding/communication possible/easier/necessary."

      Avon and Vila glanced uneasily at each other. As the haunts had spoken of each emotion their hearers had been gripped by it, and the experience had left them both shaken. So had their understanding of what the aliens had said. It is somewhat chastening to be told that your enemies decided to save you because they felt a sense of kinship with the love and loyalty you felt for someone you have always claimed to dislike, particularly when that person is listening. Silently, mutually, Avon and Vila consigned the matter to oblivion.

      Avon said, "You communicate with us. Didn't you try and communicate with the colonists? To explain that by bringing water here they were killing you?"

      "You/both-units compatible/like/one-with I/we/nation/land/family/planet/intelligence. Destroyers/killers/invaders minds/emotions/thoughts not-like/ incompatible/painful..." The fury in the thought made Vila sway and even Avon shivered, despite the heat. "Understanding/communication not-desirable/ disruptive/painful/not-possible."

      "I can understand the way you feel about that," Avon said dryly. "I wouldn't want to be in Banard's mind, myself, and I don't think you'd appreciate his plans for terraforming this planet. You'd better continue your terrorist tactics. Maybe you can drive them away from your world. If not, you've got them so scared that they'll stay right where they are. Perhaps... I can find some way to repay you... when we reach the settlement, but our problem right now is in reaching it."

      "You/both-units want/wish/need/request to-return/ to-reach vegetation/death/water/place?"

      "Yes, but we'll be leaving Haderon soon."

      "You hope," Vila interjected.

      The voices sang: "Sorrow/unhappiness."

      "Even if we are alike in mind, our bodies are different. We have to go; but we will remain your friends," Avon explained.

      "Agreement/confirmation. Return/come/leave with our/my blessing/agreement/permission. Follow/join me/us/desert-part." As the haunts spoke, a little dust-devil, no more than a decimetre high, rose from the sand and danced before them.

      "Our cue." Avon got to his feet. "Come on, Vila."

      Vila groaned. "Avon, me/this-unit aches/is-sore in skin/muscles/throat/feet/belly - in fact, all of me is an ache."

      Relief ran through Avon. If Vila was complaining then he was all right. "If you don't get up and start walking I'll tell the desert-haunts that they're mistaken and that you're actually a unit of the destroyers/killers/ invaders," he threatened.

      "Sadist," said Vila, but he took Avon's offered hand and allowed himself to be hauled to his feet.

      

      

      Banard hit the floor with a thump and a yell. One moment he had been dreaming peacefully about bright gardens and carefully tended crops, the next he was sprawled on the stone floor, rudely awakened, with light blinding him though he knew the shutters were closed - and a weight on his chest pinning him to the cold floor.

      He made a series of outraged noises, which died away as his eyes became accustomed to the brightness. The weight on his chest was Blake's foot, and above it was Blake, staring down at him with barely controlled fury. There was a weapon in his hand, canted downwards so that Banard was looking right up a transparent barrel that seemed more of a size suited to a Federation cruiser than a hand gun.

      A slender, russet-haired woman Banard had never seen before stood by the door, one hand on the light sensor, a weapon in the other. As he looked at her, a silent voice spoke warningly into his mind. //It would take little to make me kill you.//

      "What... what is this?" Banard spluttered, trying to muster indignation. "Wha-?"

      "I know all of it, Banard," said Blake. "I know that you betrayed the Conclave and betrayed us. I know about the coded messages you sent to the Federation ships... ah, yes, I know all about them, too. I know that Kerr Avon and Vila Restal discovered your treachery, and that you killed them. I know your plans, Banard. What I don't know are the names of your accomplices, though most of the colonists must have been involved in covering up your activities. Now I want the details. Who? Why? How? If I don't get the answers, everyone on this world is going to pay for the deaths of my friends and for your treachery."

      "Melodrama!" Banard spat, as nastily as he could from his helpless position. "You've no proof of anything."

      "I don't need proof. You'll talk, and there are others who have to learn a lesson or face destruction."

      "Don't make any threats you can't carry out, Blake."

      Keeping Banard pinned firmly, Blake holstered his gun and spoke into his teleport bracelet, "Jenna, this is Blake. Confirm that the neutron blasters are aimed at the settlement and are ready to fire."

      <Confirmed. Awaiting your orders to commence firing,> said the voice of Jenna Stannis.

      "Good. Concentrate your fire on the outer domes and the cultivated area. Then sweep inwards towards the township and keep on firing until I order you to stop. Understood?"

      <Understood. Standing by.>

      Blake closed the communicator channel and looked contemptuously down at Banard. "Do you still believe I'm making threats I can't carry out?"

      "You won't kill innocent people. Where would that leave the image of that legendary hero, Roj Blake?"

      "I don't feel very heroic at the moment, Banard," Blake replied grimly, "but I don't intend to kill anyone - yet. I want you to order everyone outside the settlement and into the desert at the canyon's mouth."

      "You can't do it!" Banard howled. "The haunts - They'll-"

      "You can't expect me to believe that story, Banard! Not now. Do it, Banard. I want every man, woman and child in this colony, all five hundred and twenty-four of them, out of the domes and onto the plain in one hour, or every square metre of cultivated land on this world will be blasted to radioactive slag. Even if the 'desert-haunts' were more than a product of your imagination, designed to keep us here until the Federation arrived, you'd be better off pleading with them than with me. You'll do it, Banard, and you'll be convincing. Otherwise all the work you and your ancestors put in on this world will be wasted."

      Again, the silent female voice spoke coldly into Banard's mind. //Look into my eyes, Banard. Look into Blake's. Then tell us that we are bluffing.//

      There was death in her words and, when Banard looked, in her eyes. Trembling he looked up at Blake and gave a shaky nod.

      

      

      There was a sullenness in the faces of the people who stood on the flat sand. Half a kilometre behind them rose the faintly-blue domes, one of which was shattered with a twist of smoke rising above it. It had taken that much, a warning shot from Liberator's neutron blasters, to bring this crowd out here onto the plain, though Banard, already convinced of Blake's sincerity, had become almost hysterical as he had pleaded with them to go outside and listen to what Blake had to say.

      Cally fingered her teleport bracelet. Not just sullenness in the crowd, she thought, but fear too, even terror. If the mob erupted in panic, she and Blake would have to leave at once. Gan was standing by for her signal but, even so, Cally was beginning to wonder if Blake's course was the right one. It would be easier to judge if she had known what, exactly, he was planning.

      He faced the huddled group of colonists with supreme confidence, weapon holstered, his thumbs hooked into his wide leather belt. Banard, a metre in front of him, was far less impressive as he shifted from foot to foot, looking continually from one side to the other, as if he expected an attack from the desert at any moment. Cally stood a little to their left, her weapon pointed at Banard.

      They stood in a natural gateway in the high-piled mountains, great buttes to either side, the wide desert behind, sand dunes cresting away. The sun beat on that gateway like a hammer on an anvil.

      Blake's voice echoed in the stillness, rebounding off the canyon walls. "You stand here under threat, to listen and to learn. I do not know which of you were involved in the treachery that attempted to sell us to the Federation, which failed. I do not know which of you were involved in the murder of my friends, which succeeded. I do know that most of you had to be involved in covering up the treachery and those murders.

      "Banard is your elected leader. He must face you, as well as me. Here, in the desert, you will all stand until he admits to his guilt, answers all my questions, and explains exactly how he killed my friends. Until he does all of these things to my satisfaction, none of you will leave. Cally and I are wearing protective clothing and we have friends who can take our places. There is no way in which any of you will be allowed to return to the settlement until I am satisfied. If you try, I will destroy your crops and gardens and I cannot guarantee the safety of your wells and township."

      "Damn you, Blake!" a voice yelled from the crowd. "The desert-haunts'll eat us alive. They'll eat you alive too!"

      "Face your own demons," Blake said coldly, but he was interested in the fact that the colonists - or some of them, at least - actually seemed to believe in the haunts. He and Cally had far less time than he had suggested. They had to be off this planet before the Federation arrived, or at least on board Liberator and ready for battle. Perhaps he could use the haunts as a lever. "If they attack, Cally and I will teleport out of here and leave you to confront them - alone."

      The muttering from the crowd grew in volume. As if it encouraged him, Banard spun to face Blake. "You deserved to be sold to the Federation, Blake! You can't accuse us of treachery when you're a traitor to the Federation yourself... to Earth... to your own people... and now you've killed the hope of my people. The Federation was willing to make Haderon a garden, a paradise. The desert would have flowered. This could have been the most beautiful world in all the galaxy - and all the Federation wanted in exchange was a small group of terrorists..."

      "And the betrayal of the Elenian Conclave, a group of worlds that had helped and protected you," Blake retorted, "and two lives, Banard. What did you do to my friends?"

      Banard shot another quick glance behind him at the people he represented. They were now ominously quiet, waiting for what he was going to say next. "We... didn't kill them," he told Blake. "We... left them... far out in the desert... for the haunts to take."

      //Or the storm,// Cally's telepathic voice said to Blake. //Surer than the ravings of this fool.//

      "Murder," Blake said grimly. "So, you admit it. Who was in it with you, Banard?"

      The noise from the colonists was swelling again. A woman's voice rose above it. "Leave him to us, Blake. We'll punish him for what he did!"

      "Yeah, let's have him, Blake," a man shouted. "You know what he did now! Send him here. You won't be disappointed."

      The crowd clamoured in angry agreement.

      Blake spoke softly, for Banard alone. "Why don't you go and join them? Nothing would please me more than to see them tear you to pieces."

      The words that Banard used to Blake then were the vilest that Cally had ever heard, but Blake seemed unmoved by them.

      "Then who were your accomplices? Answer me, Banard, or start walking." Blake took a step forward, his expression implacable.

      Banard threw a single, desperate glance at the rabble behind him and saw no more mercy there than he saw in Blake. "Blake, listen, you can't let them kill me! They're all as guilty as I am!" He whirled to face the yelling mob. "Yes you are! We all agreed it was worth the risk. For Ovorra's sake, Blake, don't destroy us... our dream. We only wanted a future for ourselves, our children. Let us go for their sake, Blake." He looked pleadingly from Blake to the crowd and back to Blake again. There was panic in his voice. "We're... we're a democratic society, remember, the sort that you say you want to save. You could have saved us... just by staying here for the Federation to capture. It was my idea, but... we... we voted... It was unanimous..."

      Blake smiled. Cally thought of the native Auronar predator called a l'inta, a creature whose massive jaws were frozen in a perpetual grin, even when they closed on the neck of its prey. He said, "So now you know what it feels like, to be betrayed. You all know what it feels like, to stand without food and water, beneath this planet's sun. You quiver with terror, even within sight of your own settlement. I ought to leave you all out here, destroy your colony now, and leave you to die the way Vila and Avon died..."

      A roar rose from the crowd. Cally moved her weapon in answer: a threat.

      "Murder by committee is no less murder than slitting a throat with your own hand," Blake told them, his voice ringing over the shouts of his enemies and the unnoticed rising wind. "I do not wish to judge you, but who else is there to pass sentence?"

      A voice spoke behind him: harsh, cold, clear, but infinitely, gloriously familiar. "The charge is not murder, but the invasion of a planet and the attempted genocide of its native people."

      Blake spun to face the desert. Behind him, the angry shouts of the mob had changed to shrieks of terror.

      He came close to not recognising Avon. The skin on his face, burned and blackened by the sun and mottled by the deeper red of dried blood where the sandstorm had scoured it, was stretched taut over his skull, and his dark hair was lightened by sand, matted down in more dried blood. Even his voice had changed, harshened and cracked by thirst and exhaustion. He might have clawed his way out of a grave, but he stood straight and firm, his head flung defiantly back, a tall figure braced against a howling wind that whipped at his hair and tattered clothes and piled a huge, menacing sandcloud at his back. There were shapes concealed in that cloud, everchanging, terrible and suggestive, rising upwards to block out the sun and bringing a cold, dark, pre-night to the desert. Yet, where Blake stood, not a breeze moved.

      Even the mob was silent now, waiting, held in a moment that stretched into eternity.

      Into the quiet, there came voices. Blake could hear them now, thousands of voices, an ominous chorus of hate and anger. It was then that Blake believed in the desert-haunts, but his thoughts were entirely with Avon... and yet something held him still and silent and when Cally, with a little cry of pity, started forwards towards Avon, Blake caught her arms and stopped her.

      Avon did not seem to see either of them. He spoke slowly, his voice deep, prophetic, almost inhuman. "The ones you call the desert-haunts have brought me from death to speak their words. There will be none to follow. The deserts are theirs. Haderon is theirs. Venture from your hiding place beside the water and your deaths will follow. You will suffer unimaginable torment. Your gardens and dwellings will be buried in the sand. This, they swear. Now, invaders, flee from their vengeance."

      He raised his hand.

      It was as if any invisible dam had burst asunder. The vast, swirling torrent of sand thundered forwards on the winds, rolling and tumbling, devil-forms half-visible within the maelstrom.

      There were screams from behind Blake as the colonists broke and ran. Blake put himself between Cally and the storm and held her, trying to protect her from the boiling terror steamrollering towards them. There was no time to call Liberator...

      "Avon," Cally gasped. "Blake, he-"

      "We can't reach him!" he shouted back, as the storm wave broke over them and drowned them in chaos.

      

      

      For Vila, hidden among the fallen rocks at the base of the right hand butte, the situation had suddenly developed aspects of nightmare. Was Avon playing out a bluff or had the haunts taken over his mind? Before he had time to decide, Avon had signalled, and the vast cliff of windbourne sand avalanched down upon him. Vila's last doubt vanished. He was doomed.

      Then the voices laughed in his mind and he found the air about him was still. He looked up. Wind made visible rushed by on either side and over him, engulfing the place where Avon had stood, the place where Blake and Cally had stood, the place where the colonists had stood.

      The laughter faded. Within a minute, the storm had passed Vila by. Then Avon's straight figure emerged, untouched. Seconds later, Blake and Cally were visible too, standing holding on to each other, their faces white and incredulous. The storm of the haunts had spared them too. There were no others, The colonists had vanished and all that could be seen where the settlement ought to have been was a seething tornado of sand, as high and solid as the surrounding buttes.

      Blake and Cally, as one, glanced back towards the settlement then, still in unison, they let go of one another and ran towards Avon. Vila saw them reach him, saw Cally's arms go round him, saw Blake reach to start exploring his injuries - and he grinned painfully as he imagined what Avon would say in response to all the fuss.

      Avon was saying something, though Vila could not distinguish his quiet words, and suddenly Blake broke away from Cally and came running towards Vila. The last thing Vila remembered was the sound of Blake's feet thudding and slipping on the rocks, as he realised it was all over, that he was safe and could let darkness overtake him.

      

      

      Vila woke slowly. Apart from a few slight aches and a little soreness, he felt perfectly well, though very sleepy. Through his drowsiness, he could hear voices and, slowly, he began to make out what they were saying.

      "So all that prophetic stuff was sheer opportunism?" That was Blake.

      "Naturally." And that was Avon.

      "Well, I don't mind you knowing that you scared me. Cally too, though I doubt if she'll admit it," Blake went on. "You do the 'Voice of Doom' business with great panache."

      "I had the Haderonians to help me. They picked up the idea of the sandstorm and the images in it from my mind - I don't believe they think visually at all..."

      Opening his eyes, Vila moved his head to look towards the voices. As he had suspected, he was in bed in the surgical unit on board Liberator. Avon was in a bed to his right, sitting up and looking surprisingly healthy. The medical machines on this ship could work miracles, as Vila was aware, but the change in Avon was remarkable. His skin was deeply tanned - a result of the treatment for sunburn, as Vila later discovered - and the only trace of the wire-brush scratches on his face were the lighter marks where skin and flesh had been regenerated. These would, no doubt, disappear when his skin regained its normal colour. The scalp wound had also vanished and he looked alert but relaxed.

      Blake was sitting on the edge of Avon's bed, looking at him with satisfaction plain to read on his face. Neither man had noticed that Vila was watching them, and he did not call attention to the fact; the present conversation was much too interesting to break up.

      "Hmm. What about the desert-haunts - pardon me, the Haderonians? What were they really like?" Blake questioned.

      "I don't know. Vila and I never saw them. They are high class psis, though: empaths, telepaths, psychokinesists, xenopaths and a lot of other things we don't have names for, I suspect. They aren't a protein-based life-form and water kills them, which is one of the reasons they fear and hate the colonists, who also seem to be a disruptive psychic influence. Now you know all that I do. Anything else is a guess. They could live in the mountains, the sand or the rocks; they could even be the sand or the rocks. They might not even be native to this planet. It is possible that, millions of years ago, they or their ancestors took an Earth-type world and transformed it to suit their needs, but that is so long ago that it is of purely academic interest whether they evolved on Haderon or not. Certainly, they've been here longer than man has existed on Earth and are probably much more advanced in some respects, though they would never have had a need for a technological civilization, or for weapons, until the colonists came. Certainly, they are not naturally hostile and, if the colonists don't encroach on any more of the desert, they'll probably leave them alone; just sing them a few serenades to make sure they don't forget who controls Haderon."

      "Which is what you intended." Blake was smiling. "You've made sure that the Haderonians will keep their own planet, but I must admit to being more interested in your motives. Was this a moral judgement, Avon? From you?"

      "No. The colonists tried to kill me; the Haderonians saved my life. If you have to call it anything, call it gratitude."

      Blake shook his head very slightly. "All right. If you want me to. Anyway, whatever your reasons, you've succeeded more fully than you could have hoped. With Banard dead-"

      "He's dead? But you told me the colonists survived the sandstorm."

      "Most of them did. There were six dead; Banard, Rosen, Langar, and three men we didn't meet; Pedron, Merk'm and Jenks - Avon? You knew them?"

      Avon knew that his expression had revealed too much to try and deny that. "Perhaps the Haderonians could read more of my mind than I thought... What were you saying about me succeeding?"

      "Well, with their leaders gone and the haunts at their gates, the colonists have lost heart and are abandoning Haderon. They've begged me to send a message to Watterson on Pharion, pleading with him to send a ship to bring them out. They'd be yelling to him directly if we hadn't wrecked their transmitters. I'm sure we can arrange with Watterson for Pharion to take them."

      "I hope they have interesting prisons on Pharion," Avon said, rather maliciously.

      "Like Cygnus Alpha, you mean?" Blake let the implication sink in before continuing. "Anyway, a Pharion prison will seem pleasant after the Federation gets through with them. They have three ships on their way here and they are never gentle with people who double-cross them."

      "I can't believe," said Avon, after a pause, "that you aren't going to attempt to save them in your usual quixotic manner."

      "Well... there are children down there and it would be fun to destroy three Federation warships, wouldn't it?" Blake smiled engagingly at Avon, as if he actually expected an affirmative answer.

      "I knew it, Blake, I've only just survived one nearly fatal situation. At least let me catch my breath before you plunge me into another." The old vitriolic note was back in Avon's voice.

      Blake, as usual, was unmoved by it. "There's nothing fatal about it. We've... er... stolen Banard's coder. With it, we sent a message to the Federation ships saying that you and Vila were dead, the rest of us captives, and Liberator in colonist hands. Now we're playing dead. However cautious and suspicious they are, they'll still have lowered their guard a little, and they'll certainly come within range of our neutron blasters."

      "And if they suspect a trap and fire first, then we're dead," Avon retorted.

      "They won't destroy Liberator. Their standing orders are to capture the ship undamaged, if at all possible. Anyway, their weapons can't penetrate the force wall."

      "You're too sure of that," Avon replied pessimistically. "If there's a weakness in the wall, or if you don't raise it quickly enough, a lucky shot could destroy us."

      "An acceptable risk," Blake stated, beginning to get annoyed, though it showed only in the fact that his smile had vanished.

      "As far as I am concerned there is no such thing as an 'acceptable' risk," Avon snapped, sounding much more like his normal self. "I don't think I want to risk my life for a group of people who tried to murder me."

      "Have I told you yet how glad I am to have you back, Avon?" Blake asked, with such obvious sincerity that Avon was completely taken aback. Vila had to hold back a chuckle at his astonished expression. Then Blake went on, "Well, it was so quiet without you and Vila. That was pleasant, at first, but after a while it became boring and then I realised that without you to tell me how wrong I was, I had no way of knowing when I was right."

      Avon glared at him, fully aware that he had been insulted, yet not able to pin down anything in Blake's words to which he could take reasonable exception. All he finally managed was, "And I thought the Haderonians didn't make sense. Now I compare them to you, their words and actions suddenly take on crystal clarity."

      "Hmm. Which reminds me: you haven't explained why, exactly, the haunts decided that you and Vila were not colonists and therefore not to be killed. Why did they save you? They'd tried to murder you earlier, hadn't they?"

      Avon paused, then said, "They're very strong empaths, psionically sensing emotions, and Vila and I hated the colonists just as much as they did..." Avon appeared almost unnerved by the hard and sceptical look that Blake was directing in his direction. "And... er..."

      "And one look into my mind and they knew I was kind, trustworthy and totally harmless," Vila interrupted, before Avon could be forced into admitting something that neither of them wanted acknowledged. "They can't have looked too closely into Avon's mind, though. Not that I blame them for that. Who'd want to?"

      "You're suggesting that they actually found your mind," Avon enquired. "How? After all, you never think."

      Blake laughed. "You two must have been a riot down there. No wonder Banard wanted to get rid of you, and I bet you puzzled the Haderonians. They must have had trouble distinguishing your dislike of the colonists from your dislike of each other. Vila, I'm glad you're awake. You must tell me the whole story. All I've had so far is a very sketchy account from Avon. Start at the beginning. How did you get mixed up in Avon's capture in the first place...?"

      At that moment, the intercom chimed, and Jenna's voice said, "Blake, the Federation ships are now fifteen minutes away."

      Blake rose from Avon's bed to answer her. "Be right there, Jenna." He looked at Vila. "How do you feel? No internal pains?"

      "I'm hungry," said Vila.

      "You always are," said Avon. "We're going to have to put you on a diet, or perhaps I could get Zen to work out a special exercise programme-"

      "Diet! Exercise! I'm a walking skeleton already!"

      Blake was laughing. "All right, you two. At least stop quarrelling until I've gone. How you didn't manage to arrange an irrevocable parting down there I'll never know. You can't be all that hungry, Vila. Intravenous feed has brought your blood sugar level back to normal." At the sight of Vila's dismayed expression, Blake relented. "I'll send you both some food down here after we've dealt with the Federation ships. Meanwhile, try and rest..." He looked commandingly at Avon. "Both of you." Chuckling to himself, he made his way out.

      As soon as he was quite sure that Blake had gone, Avon got out of bed, wincing a little as the newly healed and tender skin on his feet hit the floor.

      "Where do you think you're going?" Vila questioned.

      "Flight deck. After I've found some clothes, that is."

      "Blake won't like it. "

      "You can't really believe that I care in the slightest about what Blake likes or doesn't like," said Avon, striding towards the door.

      "No. Of course not." Vila gathered his courage. "Any more than I could believe that you'd go to so much trouble to save me, back there in the desert, even when it meant lowering your own chances of survival, even losing them. You had me fooled for a while, Avon, but not any longer. No-one goes to such lengths to help an enemy."

      Avon stopped dead, turned, and stared impassively at Vila, who felt the same deep satisfaction he had felt before only when a locked door opened slowly in front of him. This time, he had got it right. He could see the trap he had just closed around Avon as if it was made of steel, and he was sure there was no way out.

      "Agreed," Avon said. "Just as I could never believe that you'd bare-handedly attack four armed men to try and rescue me."

      Vila had honestly forgotten that that had ever happened. He stared at Avon in consternation. It was one thing forcing Avon to admit that his hostility was a pose, but it was quite another to find himself caught in the same snare. "You didn't tell Blake about that?" he asked anxiously.

      "No, nor about a certain climb down a sheer cliff when you could hardly see your own hands. I didn't want to embarrass you by letting you offer Blake the same brilliant explanations for your actions that you offered me."

      "You didn't? How kind." Vila was grinning. "In fact, you didn't tell him any of it?"

      "No. Do you intend to do so?"

      "No," Vila agreed hurriedly.

      "That's because you don't believe it any more than I do. In fact, no-one would believe-"

      "-any of it," they finished, in chorus.

      Avon paused in the doorway, flashed Vila a smile that was like sunlight, and was gone.

      Vila sighed happily and relaxed. Personally, he wasn't moving from here until they turfed him out, though he would have liked to have been present to witness the furore that would be caused by Avon's appearance on the flight deck. He made a bet with himself: Blake would have Avon back in the surgical unit within half an hour.

      Tired, but completely contented, Vila closed his eyes.

      I don't know about you, Avon, he thought, but I believe all of it.

      "I believe it," he said loudly, and then went happily back to sleep.

      

      

      


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