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The Quibell Abduction

By Lillian Sheperd
The xeno-gardens spilled their exotic scents into the warm breeze blowing from the dark, rippling lake. The leaves, branches, stalks, plumes, fronds, tendrils and flowers, imported from a score of worlds, rustled together in whispers even softer than the lapping of the water on the shore. The breeze had, no doubt, been bribed from Weather Control, Security Captain Drew Patel thought cynically, as had the clear sky, so brilliant with stars. Even so, that bribe would have been insignificant compared to the cost of the coloured glo-globes, drifting in their programmed patterns about the garden, and a fraction of the price of the double shell of Len Boler's beach house, shining softly with pink light, perched on the cliff above him.

      Drew pulled impatiently at the collar of his dress uniform. He decided that he hated these parties of Boler's. Boler was one of the most powerful businessmen on Ararat, and Ararat was rich, the biggest manufacturing world in this Sector and a trading centre for half the known worlds. Drew suspected that Boler himself was no longer sure how many companies he owned, but all of them were profitable. One of the reasons why they remained profitable was Boler's monotonously regular party giving. These were business affairs, with his managers as regular guests and his customers, potential customers, and anyone else who might do him any good as floating ones. Drew was none of these, but protocol - and political expediency - required that Boler invite the head of Federation Security Forces on Ararat, who was Drew's boss, who was Katrin Shaw, who was a woman and therefore, because of Ararat's vestigial customs, needed an escort, and whose escort normally turned out to be Drew. As Drew himself came from a society whose restrictions on women were considered barbarous by the rest of the Federation, he rather approved of this minimal display of feminine decency. It was one of the few good things about Ararat. At home on Indus now...

      He sighed. Katrin said that these parties were a good way of discovering what was going on behind the scenes on Ararat, but he thought that she just liked gossiping, getting out of uniform and eating Boler's superb food. Which he had to admit was the best that he had ever tasted. And that was another thing. Katrin could get out of uniform; why couldn't he? Regulations stated that they both had to wear uniform but for her to have done so would have been an insult to Araratian sensibilities and so she had an excuse to bend the rules. As usual, she did not bend the rules for her subordinates.

      Drew sighed again. Maybe he should have tried for the Space Service after all. That branch of the Federation armed forces at least saw action. All he and Katrin did lately was act as glorified customs police...

      His attention was suddenly caught by a figure outlined in light on a terrace above; a woman, dressed in firesilk. Not many women could afford that incredible fabric, shimmering with the metamorphic colours of flame, and even fewer could both afford it and be flattered by it. This woman was. The long dress hugged tightly to her slim, flawless figure, but flowed out behind her, as if constantly caught in a high wind. Her hair was a million bronze and copper strands woven into a dazzling net, like a living reflection of the firesilk. She had a fragile beauty that glowed outward across the whole garden. Vulnerable. Warm yet distant. Almost without realising what he was doing, Drew began to make his way towards her.

      A small group of men and women had joined her on the terrace and now a baton drum took up a soft, accelerating beat, the signal for the gern-dancers to take up their positions on the floodlit lawn below. Gerns were carnivores native to the eastern flood plains. Long, sinuous and russet-furred, they rippled along on their pseudo-limbs, twisting in and out of the legs of the naked men and women as they undulated across the sea-moss, winding their snaking bodies about their human partners in strangely erotic movements. The people of Ararat considered gern-dancing one of the highest art-forms; Drew thought it was obscene. He hoped that the woman in firesilk thought that it was obscene, too, but she was smiling a little as she watched, her arm through that of her male companion.

      Drew's eyes flickered appraisingly over him. Brown skin and hair, both of the same light fawn colour, except that the hair was beginning to turn grey. Just over medium height. Medium build. Nondescript, Drew told himself. He must have money, though, or the woman in firesilk would not be with him. Then Drew had the happy idea that she might be a young female relative of his, which made him feel better.

      "Pretty, Captain, but just a little expensive for you," purred a voice in his ear. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's personal assistant."

      Drew did not recognise the reference, but he did understand the implication. He risked a glance at the man beside him. Golsten's narrow, handsome face was, as always, impassive. Drew reminded himself that Golsten was one of the most malicious gossips that he had ever met and that he saw anyone, man or woman, who was better looking than himself as a potential rival. He was also unavoidably reminded that Golsten was, invariably, accurate.

      "Who is she?" he asked.

      "Lenore Wing. She's the P.A. of the man wearing dark brown. He's Ras Quibell. From Mjolnir."

      "Mjolnir? Any connection with Terraformers Incorporated?"

      "Probably. Boler's Strophel Company has just completed an order for him. Our Len, of course, hopes for more. This is the first time that Terraformers have bought equipment outside the inner systems and they're a large market."

      "And Lenore Wing is Quibell's personal assistant?"

      "Very personal." Golsten allowed himself a snigger. "And more decorative than talented, I'd say. Then again, it's possible that she does have talent... in other ways."

      Drew somehow stopped himself from telling Golsten to shut his mouth. It would not have been becoming for a Federation officer and, anyway, would only have encouraged Golsten. Instead, he excused himself and worked his way upward through the spectators to stand behind Lenore - as he already thought of her - and Quibell.

      By the time he reached them, the dancers were taking their bows. Quibell and Lenore were talking to Boler himself and a small group of Strophel managers and engineers. The subject of their conversation seemed to be a small, wooden figurine, which was being passed from hand to hand.

      "Odd," Boler was saying. "The wood is local - aubra - but I've never seen anything like this before. Some very strange influences there."

      Quibell retrieved the carving and slipped it into a side pocket.

      A dark woman who Drew did not know said, "Well, I wouldn't like to own it."

      Quibell looked at Lenore and they smiled as if sharing a private joke. "It has a certain... personal significance," Quibell said. He had a good voice, firm and educated.

      Lenore gave a tiny, entrancing chuckle.

      Drew felt a stab of jealousy. He knew that he was falling in love with Lenore Wing. Katrin would laugh and say that he fell in love with every pretty woman he met - but Lenore was different; he was certain of that.

      Soft dance music filled the terrace. Intricate patterns began to form. Boler bowed to Lenore and offered her his arm, but she smiled and shook her head. "I dance poorly, I am afraid."

      "That can't be possible, surely," Boler smiled back.

      Drew didn't think that it could be possible, either, but Quibell said, "It is. Lenore has no sense of rhythm; perfection is always slightly flawed."

      "Thank you, Ras." Drew could not tell if Lenore was being ironic or not. He decided that she was not, but he liked the dancing mischief in her dark-honey eyes. Her beauty was even more remarkable now he could see her closely. She had flawless creamy-gold skin and her features were exotically unusual, while holding a gentle expression.

      "But you must go ahead and dance, Ras," Lenore went on. "I will watch. It is very beautiful."

      Quibell raised an eyebrow at her, then offered his arm to Boler's wife, Jessa, who looked smug as she accompanied him onto the dance-floor to join the intertwined circles. The rest of the group followed them, leaving Lenore alone, sipping her drink.

      Drew moved quickly to stand beside her, content to watch her watch the dancers. After a moment she appeared to become aware of him, and turned. Her eyes widened a little, as if she was startled. He gave her his best disarming smile, the one that he had discovered quickly overcame the first impression a Federation Security uniform always caused. "Hello. I hope you won't mind me introducing myself. I'm Drew Patel." On Indus, a man who spoke so to a woman would have been quietly castrated by her family, and there was still a small tremor in his stomach as he spoke, though he knew the rest of the Federation thought his fellow colonists slightly insane. He decided that he did too and, to confirm his own resolve, he added, "I think that you're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."

      "Flattery is said to be sweet," Lenore replied gravely, "yet I do not find it so."

      She had found Quibell's flattery sweet enough, Drew thought in annoyance. He put the thought aside and set himself to be charming. "Not flattery," he corrected her. "Honest opinion."

      She smiled slightly, not contradicting him.

      "I know who you are," he went on. "You're Lenore Wing and you come from Mjolnir."

      "Correct, Captain."

      "I've heard that's a very cold planet. Do you like Ararat?"

      "It was once very beautiful."

      Drew looked hard at her, again suspecting irony, and again seeing none. "The people here think that they have improved its beauty."

      "Perhaps." She turned to look out to the black sky and the black water where the stars shining in one and reflected in the other made it impossible to see where one ended and the other began.

      Drew moved closer to her. "You're not enjoying the party?"

      "Oh, but I am." She smiled brilliantly at him. "Len is a very kind man."

      "Kind?" Drew was startled. "He has a reputation for being totally ruthless - cut-throat, in fact."

      "And Federation Security does not?" Lenore asked, with such sharpness that Drew was taken aback. Then she went on, more gently, "You are a soldier. You must do what is necessary. It is the same in the business world, Captain."

      Drew realised that he had committed a faux pas. Ras Quibell was part of the business world and probably every bit as ruthless as Len Boler. Lenore would naturally defend him.

      The best thing to do seemed to be to drop the subject of Boler and Quibell and talk about something else. Talking about himself had always been Drew's favourite occupation and his easiest subject, and he fell back on it now. "I'm hardly a soldier; more of a policeman." He immediately detected her scepticism. Damn it, the F.S.F. did have an unpleasant reputation. "This is a civilised world, Lenore. Its citizens are peaceful and loyal. No rebels. No malcontents. The Federation doesn't need a military presence."

      "It appears to be a contented world," Lenore agreed cautiously. "Tell me, then, if you are not a soldier, what work you do here. You say you are a policeman, yet I am sure that I have seen members of a local police force."

      "Yes. Local. We don't bother with local crime, except that of a political nature, of course. Our province is crime that involves offplanet citizens, anything with a... wider... view. And anything that involves the Federation, of course."

      "Of course. It seems I have been misinformed." Her face was serious but Drew had the uncomfortable feeling that she was laughing. "I thought that Federation Security was present here to remind us all how insignificant we are compared to Federation power."

      Drew was suddenly uneasy. Federation officers had standing orders to attend such gatherings as this in full uniform. Had Lenore hit on the reason? He had not suspected such shrewdness in someone so fragile... but before he could follow the thought to its conclusion, Lenore was saying, "So you are really a detective, Captain?"

      "Yes. Sort of."

      "You must tell me all about the mysteries you solve. What case are you working on now?"

      Drew hesitated. He wanted to look as clever and important as possible in Lenore's eyes, and the best way to do that was to tell her about his special theory, but Katrin had put a classified tab on that. Besides, he didn't want to alarm Lenore. He regretfully abandoned the idea and decided to amuse her instead. "Would you believe the theft of a number of exotic animals?"

      "Animals?"

      "Yes. A small shipment bound for the Canaan zoo vanished from the spaceport. The location made it my business. It's not the first time it's happened, either. All I can think of is that someone is collecting a private menagerie!"

      "Or simply does not like to see animals imprisoned."

      "Well, hardly. Not all of the beasts were taken. Why would an 'All-Life-Is-One' crank only free some of them? Besides, we can't find a trace of any of them. Where have they gone?"

      "I do not know."

      "I mean, what do tassals, reastigs, a whalu-"

      "Lenore." It was Quibell's voice, from just behind them. As they turned, they saw him coming quickly towards them. Drew noticed, with surprise, how lightly he moved. It belied his greying hair. That surely must be premature, for he looked younger when seen at close quarters and there was an air about him that was quite impressive. Drew tried to place it. Power, perhaps?

      That did not seem quite right...

      "I see that you're well protected," Quibell was saying to Lenore.

      "Ras, this is Captain Patel. Captain, my boss, Ras Quibell."

      Quibell nodded curtly. Drew, rather embarrassed, nodded in return.

      "Captain Patel has been telling me about his work," Lenore went on.

      "Interesting," said Quibell, showing no sign of interest. His dark eyes surveyed Drew's slim, handsome figure with no sign of being overly impressed. Not for the first time, Drew wished for another twenty centimetres of height and fifteen kilos of muscle. "Well, remember we have to go back to the hotel soon, Lenore, if we're going to get an adequate night's sleep. I'll make our excuses to Boler and meet you at the aircar in fifteen minutes."

      As Quibell strode away, Drew asked, "Do you really have to go so soon?"

      "Ras is right. This is to be our last night on Ararat and-"

      "Oh, no!" It was quite involuntary.

      "We travel with our cargo and we leave at twenty two hundred tomorrow."

      "But that means I won't see you again!"

      "Did you expect to, Captain?" Again, he could not dismiss the impression that, despite her serious face and naive air, she was laughing at him.

      "I hoped to. Let me at least walk you to your aircar."

      "Why, thank you. It is pleasant to talk to you." She took his offered arm.

      As they strolled through the gardens beside the lake, Drew formed and discarded half a dozen schemes of varying illegality to keep her on Ararat. The difficulty was that all the feasible ones needed Katrin's co-operation and she was unlikely to be amenable to furthering his love-life. He bent his head towards Lenore, savouring the perfume that lingered about her bright hair. He wondered if she would let him kiss her good-bye. Probably an attempt to do so would spoil any chance he had with her but it was the only opportunity he was likely to get.

      They stopped on a tiny promontory to admire the view and Drew moved his arm to hold her warm body closer. She made no objection beyond an initial tightening of her muscles.

      "Are you sure that you want to go back to Mjolnir?" he whispered.

      "I have to go."

      "Where Quibell goes, you go, huh?"

      "That is correct."

      As Drew muttered "You can carry loyalty too far," and turned to kiss her, she twisted deftly out of his embrace.

      "We will be late," was all that she said, but he knew that it was a rebuke. He was silent as she led the way back to the main pathway.

      As they rejoined it, they saw Quibell ahead of them, in company with Boler himself and - to Drew's horror - Katrin Shaw. Lenore began to walk faster, plainly trying to catch them up. Then suddenly she stopped, staring out into the lake.

      "I thought I saw..."

      The starlight was glinting not only on the ripples but on the glossy back of a creature rising out of the black water. That back was a dome about two metres across and above it rose a curving tail or proboscis. Drew stared at it, memory teasing at him.

      Then, "Close your eyes!" he yelled, grabbing Lenore and putting her head down against his chest and flinging up his left arm to cover his eyes.

      A bulbous organ at the end of the creature's tail blazed like a captive sun. The night shone brighter than the brightest day. Even through his closed eyelids, Drew was blinded by it. Several voices shouted in fear and protest.

      Then the light was gone. Drew opened his eyes, but the blackness of the night and the after-images floating on his retina made it impossible to see. He blinked rapidly, trying to dispel them.

      "What was it?" Lenore's voice was surprisingly calm. Drew had expected her to panic.

      "I think... a whaluma. One of the stolen animals I told you about. From Atlantis... but how did it get here, now?"

      His vision was clearing. Blurred figures moved before him. He was sure that some of those figures were not human... long, narrow, sinuous... gerns. Then he saw what was happening now with shattering clarity. One of the gerns was on the ground, wrapped around a struggling woman. Two men were lifting a third between them into the back seat of an open-topped aircar. Another gern looped in after them.

      Lenore gasped and broke away from him, racing in panic-stricken blindness towards the aircar. One of the men standing at the vehicle turned - he was naked, and Drew realised that he must be one of the gern-dancers - and raised a gun. Drew hurled himself after Lenore. An energy bolt seared towards them. Somehow it missed Lenore and shattered a small tree, which burst into green flame. Then Drew reached her and threw her to the ground, pinning her flat. In her panic, she struggled frantically, and Drew found it difficult to hold her down. She was stronger than she looked. Raising his head, he saw that the man with the gun was climbing into the aircar. There was an unknown man in the driver's seat. The captive in the rear, held by the coils of a gern, was Ras Quibell. His head lolled sideways, as if he was unconscious, or dead. Another of the gern-dancers sat beside him.

      It was Katrin Shaw who was struggling with the other gern, her legs kicking. Light glinted on the handgun she was trying to bring to bear, but the gern had a loop about her body, fastening her arm to her side. Her struggles were becoming more and more feeble as the noose tightened. Then there was a flash of light and a small explosion. The gern went limp.

      Instantly, the aircar leapt upward and shot away across the lake.

      Drew climbed to his feet and helped Lenore to hers. She was dusty and shaking, her eyes wild and bright and her face pale.

      "Are you all right?" he asked.

      "They took Ras," she said, and there was a small shake in her voice.

      "I'm sorry."

      "Captain Patel!"

      Drew started at the angry voice.

      Katrin had freed herself from the dead gern and was on her feet, the tiny gun she carried on these formal occasions still in her hand. Her small, rather plain face was flushed and her blue eyes angry, her dark hair tousled. "Get this place sealed off!" she shouted as she ran towards the official aircar in which she and Drew had arrived. "And check the registration of that... that gern. I'm going after them!"

      The door of the aircar slid shut as she started the engine, then she rocketed off in pursuit.

      Boler staggered towards Drew, rubbing his eyes. "Patel? Is that you? I can't see... What happened?"

      "Someone grabbed Quibell."

      "Grabbed?" Boler queried, stupidly.

      "Snatched. Kidnapped. Look after Lenore," Drew ordered. "I've got to get to a compoint." He started to run but, at the turning, he glanced back. Lenore was standing on the spot where Quibell had been abducted. Her hands were clenched into fists at her sides as she stared out at the darkness into which he had been taken. It was Drew's last view of her for some time. Certainly, he was already well out of sight when she bent down and picked up something lying on the sea-moss. She stood looking at it for some time, until Boler stumbled over to her and put his arm about her, partly for her comfort, but mainly for his own.

      

      

It was nearly an hour before Drew was able to think about returning to Lenore and Boler. Katrin, he soon discovered, had the airwaves buzzing and Security personnel racing to join her. The civilian police had been notified and had gate-crashed the party to help Drew, who had set them to interviewing the guests.

      Drew himself questioned the remaining gern-dancers...

      No, dear boy. they were not a 'troop'. Vulgar word. Gern-dancers were individual artistes...

      Well, yes, they did perform together, but only as a favour to Len Boler... such a good patron, if inclined to ask for spectacle rather than the subtle artistry that-

      Actually, they had never seen the missing dancers before. They must have been from the provinces. Brilliantly trained gerns, but the dancers themselves lacked expression. Technically good, but technique was nothing without artistic genius. Gern-dancing expressed the soul-

      No. They hadn't spoken to them. A gern-dancer needed quiet before a performance to focus the inner spirit-

      Drew snarled at them in his best tough-Federation-officer manner, but that only offended them. He gained nothing but their resentment and withdrew, smouldering.

      Next, he dragged the agent who arranged all Boler's entertainments out of his bed to answer the viscom. Ten minutes of arguing at cross-purposes produced the information that the agent had booked only six gern-dancers, though eight had performed. And no, he did not know who the extra two might be. As gerns were dangerous animals they had to be marked and registered. Why didn't the Captain try that angle?

      The Captain already had, but the body of the dead gern was unmarked. He arranged for the police to run a check on registered gern owners but knew that it would be useless. He was already sure that this was another of what Katrin referred to as his 'pet kidnappings'. It had taken place under his nose, too, and all he had done was to knock Lenore flat. No doubt that action had saved her life, but he had the feeling that she would not love him for it.

      He went to find her.

      She was with Boler in the beach house, in a comfortable lounge where a real - and unnecessary - fire flickered in a stone grate. Lenore sat very upright in her chair, looking vulnerable and rather pathetic, a fur-lined firesilk cloak wrapped about her shoulders and a small glass of brandy held tightly in both hands.

      "Is there any news?" she asked eagerly, as Drew entered.

      "I'm sorry... but no."

      "Damn it, man. You and Commander Shaw were right on the spot," Boler exploded. "Is this the way that you protect Federation citizens?"

      "We're doing all we can, sir. Commander Shaw is out there right now, looking for the kidnappers. Meanwhile, I need your full co-operation." He sat down opposite Lenore, wanting to take her hands but resisting the temptation because it didn't feel right with Boler watching them. "Lenore... can you think of anyone who would want to kidnap Quibell?"

      She shook her head.

      "It's obvious, man," Boler snapped. "Quibell's one of Terraformers' top executives and a major shareholder, and I need hardly remind you that Terraformers are one of the richest commercial concerns in the Federation. They'll pay a fortune to get him back."

      "Perhaps, but Mjolnir is a long way from Ararat, and there are equally tempting local targets. Yourself, for example," Drew retorted.

      "That sounds very logical, Captain, but why else would anyone kidnap Ras?" Lenore asked.

      "Does he have any personal enemies?"

      Lenore hesitated. "Of course he has personal enemies," she said, finally. "All men have enemies. But kidnapping..." She shook her head.

      "She's right. The business world has its own methods of revenge and they don't include abduction." Boler frowned. "Perhaps they aren't after money. Information, maybe? What about that special order of yours, Lenore? Some of that represents new technology."

      "But Ras isn't a scientist! He can't give them... give them..." Lenore covered her face with her hands.

      Boler touched her shoulder. "Then we will have to wait for their demands."

      Lenore raised her head and smiled tentatively up at him, but Boler was watching Drew. "You don't seem very interested in this, Captain."

      "I assure you, I am interested."

      There was a flurry in the doorway and Katrin strode in. Lenore jumped to her feet, dislodging Boler's hand. "Have you found Ras?"

      Katrin's blue eyes met Lenore's brown ones. "No." She turned on Drew. "Damn it, there was no way I could have lost them. I had the aircar on my detectors. I was closing on it. I know it went into the Ottan Cavern. I couldn't have been mistaken - but when I followed it in, it had vanished."

      "Perhaps it left the cavern by another route," Lenore suggested.

      "Couldn't have," Katrin snapped. "Ottan's just a hole in the cliff. Goes back two hundred and fifty metres and stops dead."

      "There could be another passage somewhere. A hidden crack in the rock."

      "Sorry, Lenore," Drew said quietly. "No way."

      Boler said, "They're right. There have been complete surveys. and probably much more detailed ones by the local children since Ararat was colonised two hundred and ninety four years ago. I explored it myself when I was about ten, on an AG raft. Must have examined every square millimetre." He eyed Katrin coldly. "You must have been mistaken about that aircar, Commander."

      "I know. I know. This begins to look more and more like one of your 'special case' abductions, Drew."

      Drew waggled his eyebrows at her, trying to signal to her not to pursue the subject, but Boler pounced on Katrin's words.

      "Special case?"

      Ignoring Drew, Katrin said, "I'm trusting your discretion, Len - though we may not be able to hold the news back for long now. There has been a series of apparently motiveless abductions on this planet going back... oh... a hundred and forty years that we've traced so far. Not enormous numbers, and up to five years between them, but both numbers and frequency have been increasing recently. We only found out how long all this had been going on when Captain Patel started checking back in the files for clues on the recent kidnappings. He began to get curious, and the more he checked, the more kept turning up."

      "You say they're motiveless?" Boler questioned.

      "As far as we can tell."

      "Surely the victims must have had some idea-"

      "Not one of the victims has ever been found. Alive or dead."

      This was what Drew had wanted to keep secret from Lenore.

      "No," she whispered. "It's not true... not Ras..." She dropped her face down to her hands again.

      For the first time Katrin seemed to realise that her words were having an effect on Lenore. "I'm sorry," she said with rough sympathy. "Perhaps I'm wrong. My men are still searching. So are the local police. They'll find him."

      Lenore raised her head. She was still dry-eyed, and Drew wished that she would break down at last. Tears would help to release her grief and, besides, would give him a chance to take her into his arms and comfort her.

      "How come we've not heard of these kidnappings before?" Boler demanded.

      Katrin shrugged. "The time scale. The fact that most of the victims weren't local, or important. Also, well, it would hardly have done Ararat's reputation any good to create a lot of fuss about people vanishing without trace. Not good for business. The police, your government, and the Federation were all aware of that. The incidents were... conveniently... forgotten."

      "This one won't be," Boler promised.

      "I expect not. It may be our best chance to catch them, too. What about the gern-dancers, Drew?"

      "No leads there."

      Lenore fastened her cloak. "I think I would like to go back to my hotel. With your permission, Commander."

      "Of course. Just stay available and let us know the instant anyone tries to contact you."

      "I'll drive her back to Canaan," Drew said quickly.

      Katrin's mouth hardened. Drew met the challenge in her eyes, knowing that she was weighing the possibility that he might discover something useful against her annoyance at having to further his sex-life. "Very well," she snapped. "Wing, don't talk about this to anyone."

      "I will not, Commander."

      "What about the shipment?" Boler asked.

      "This is hardly the time to bother her wit-"

      "Payment has been transferred to your account," Lenore stated. "Whether I leave with it or not, the shipment must go out on the Aquarius. Load as arranged."

      With an apologetic shrug for Katrin and a glare for Boler, Drew ushered Lenore out towards the aircar.

      

      

As they journeyed up into the mountains, and the towers of the city of Canaan shimmered with light on the horizon, Drew put the aircar on auto and took a long look at his passenger. She was sitting tense and silent, all her feelings held tightly inside her.

      "If you want to cry, I'm told I have a very comforting shoulder," he said tightly.

      She did not reply, but after a minute or so she turned and smiled at him. "Drew, why should they want Ras?"

      "I don't know."

      "Well, what does he have in common with the others who were taken?"

      "Nothing, I'd say," Drew told her, trying to be comforting.

      "There must be something. What did the other victims have in common?"

      "Er... nothing," Drew admitted. "Hell, some of them weren't even human. There were two Auronar, a man and a woman... about twenty years back, before we had all this trouble with Auron. And before that there was a Montalid - not even humanoid."

      "Were all the victims from off-world?"

      "Hell.. no. Tell you one thing, though. The locals who vanished were all quite young. Adolescent. That's not true of the off-worlders. Ali Ranit vanished here about fifty years ago and he was in his sixties. That was one case that was investigated thoroughly at the time by Federation Security, though I can't find out why there was so much fuss. He doesn't seem to have been that important..." He noticed, with a start, that they were on the outskirts of the city. "Where are you staying?"

      "The penthouse of the Imperial Hotel."

      Drew blinked. He had known that there was money involved here but this proof of how much shook him a little. A week at the Imperial would have cost him half a year's pay, and the penthouse was the most expensive suite. And money not only talked, it shouted. There was no way they were going to be able to keep the Quibell abduction quiet.

      

      

Drew landed the aircar on the private terrace at the top of the Imperial tower and helped Lenore out, accompanying her to the door of her suite. After all, there was no harm in hoping.

      Lenore, however, put her back to the door and faced him. "Thank you, Captain. You have been most kind."

      Drew knew it for a dismissal, but tried one last ploy. "Are you sure that you'll be all right... alone?"

      "Yes, thank you. I am very tired. You will let me know immediately if there is any word of Ras?"

      "Immediately," he promised.

      "Thank you." She smiled her bewitching smile and vanished through the doorway. Drew stood staring at the carved metal for a while, pitying her loneliness. She was so lovely and so helpless. Perhaps, in time, she would turn to him. The thought was satisfying and he felt quite hopeful as he made his way back to the aircar.

      

      With the door firmly shut behind her, the smile vanished from Lenore Wing's face. She whirled and glared at the door, then pulled off her expensive cloak and flung it angrily over a chair.

      Fool! Thrice damned and triple fool that she was! By the Soul, to have to simper and smile and play the idiot when a comrade was in danger. It was insufferable.

      Whose silly idea had this ridiculous masquerade been in the first place? Here she was, an experienced warrior, bedecked and painted like a harlot, knocked flying by a dolt of a Federation officer as she made her one attempt to help.

      No. This raging would not help. She had to think, to plan. She must find calm within herself.

      Furiously, she stripped off the stupid, traitorous dress that had hampered her movement and allowed Patel to catch her. Naked, she stalked towards the bathroom, pulling away the tiny, jewelled generators that held her hair in its elaborate style. Then, as an idea struck her, she turned, went back into the lounge, and crossed to a large piece of equipment set on a table. This resembled one of the SCRZ series portable business computer-interstellarcom transceivers, which could be programmed to deal with any and every requirement a travelling business executive might need, from current company values to local transport. The keyboard, screen, vocoder and printout were conventional enough but the contents of the metre cube were, like Lenore herself, not exactly what they seemed.

      Picking up the keyboard she tapped in the letters, DELPHI.

      The screen lit up.

      INSTRUCTION, she typed. LOCATE ALL AVAILABLE INFORMATION ON THE FOLLOWING TOPICS:

      1. OTTAN CAVERN, ARARAT.

      2. SECURITY COMMANDER KATRIN SHAW AND SECURITY CAPTAIN DREW PATEL, ASSIGNED, ARARAT.

      3. UNSOLVED KIDNAPPINGS AND DISAPPEARANCES ON ARARAT SINCE SURVEY. IN PARTICULAR, ALL DETAILS REQUIRED OF KIDNAPPING OF ALI RANIT. WHY WAS RANIT SO IMPORTANT TO THE FEDERATION?

      COLLATE ALL INFORMATION FOR POSSIBLE LINKS, COMMON FACTORS, AND ANOMALIES.

      There was only the tiniest of pauses before more words appeared on the screen. WHY DON'T YOU USE THE VOCODER?

      NOT EXPEDIENT, she replied. THERE ARE NO VISUAL DEVICES IN THIS ROOM BUT WE COULD BE UNDER AUDIO SURVEILLANCE.

      IT WILL TAKE SOME TIME TO GATHER THE INFORMATION THAT YOU REQUIRE.

      IT IS IMPORTANT THAT I HAVE THE INFORMATION AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

      HOW IMPORTANT? I CANNOT WASTE MY TIME ON YOUR FOOLISH TRIVIALITIES.

      IT IS VERY IMPORTANT. IT IS ALSO AN ORDER.

      There was another little pause, not long to a living being, but very long indeed to a computer that measured time in millionths of nanoseconds.

      VERY WELL.

      Leaving the computer, she resumed her journey to the bathroom and stood under the cold cascade-shower for a long time, as if washing the events of the night from her body and with it her anger. Finally, dressed in a soft white robe, her hair in fluffy curls about her head. she went into the small courtyard garden of the penthouse and sat cross-legged under the open sky, letting the tension drain from her body and her mind.

      At last, she was ready to consider what had led to this moment.

      It was she herself who had started the chain of events that led here. What was it that she had said?

      

      They had been limping away from a flotilla of Federation pursuit ships that had come far too close to destroying them.

      Vila had asked Avon when he was going to repair the detector shield.

      Avon's reply had been angry. "Whenever we stumble across the parts I need."

      She had said, "Maybe we should give priority to getting them," and, as they believed that the Federation had developed a detector shield themselves, there had been a general feeling on board Liberator that perhaps she was right.

      But then there had been Exbar, and a frantic series of events that had led, at last, to Albian. It was only after they had left that planet that Blake had put forward his plan to obtain the parts they needed, not only for the detector shield, but for the Liberator herself. The Spaceworld affair had left them dangerously short of material. There was, however, a special problem. Liberator's technology was not that of the Known Worlds so the parts could not be stolen or bought on the ordinary markets. They would have to be specially fabricated.

      By the time that Blake had told them what he intended to do, he and Orac had laid the groundwork and checked most of the details.

      Quite simply, Blake planned to have the parts manufactured openly, as part of a legitimate business deal. Only their own identities would be concealed.

      Ararat had not been an immediately obvious choice of supplier. One of the first colonies founded by the newly-created Federation at the end of the Csrill wars, it had remained fiercely loyal during the Expansion, the Inkri Revolt, the Moton invasion and the present internal troubles. On the other hand, it did enjoy a large degree of autonomy, with only a token Security presence and no large military bases. It also had the necessary expertise and, as the commercial centre for several sectors of the Federation, it had a large transient population. Strangers would attract no suspicion.

      It had been obvious from the first that Avon would have to go to Ararat. He knew better than any of them what parts were required and would be best equipped to make sure that they were manufactured to the required standard, dealing with any problems that arose on the spot. She had been chosen to go with him for reasons that Blake had made clear to her in private.

      

      

"A man and woman travelling together arouse far less suspicion than a man or a woman alone, or two men or two women, Cally," he had said. "And no one will question the fact that you are not an expert in either commerce or technology."

      "Avon isn't an expert in commerce, either."

      "He knows more about it than any of us. He's moved in those circles and he has the necessary ruthlessness. That isn't true of the rest of us. But if you go with him, everyone will simply assume that you're his mistress-"

      "I know. I see that. I am not always sure about how humans will react to a situation, but I trust your judgement. I am not complaining about this assignment, Blake. I am simply curious as to why you are sending me and not Jenna."

      "Oh, come on, Cally! Put Jenna and Avon into a situation where they have to work that closely and someone is going to be murdered. You and Avon make a good team. Besides, if trouble does break, you have skills that Avon will find very useful."

      "Are those the only reasons, Blake?"

      He had been silent for so long that she had thought that he was not going to answer. "No," he had said, at last. "Look, Cally, there's been a lot of pressure on Avon recently. He was more upset than he'll ever admit over the way Tynus betrayed him on Fosforon. Then he was wounded on Exbar and, however quickly you heal an injury, there's always a lingering effect from the shock, particularly with a personality like Avon's. He's so sure he's perfect that... oh, never mind.

      "Then there was Albian. Albian roused a lot of bad memories for Avon, put a lot of pressure on him, and now I'm sending him on this mission, where the pressure will last a lot longer. I hope that there'll be no real danger on Ararat, but the threat is always there. And I want him to relax a little, Cally. I think you can help him to do that..."

      

      So Avon had become Ras Quibell, as she had become Lenore Wing. Quibell and Wing were quite real, if 'their' mission to Ararat was not.

      It had been Avon himself who had suggested a final twist to their cover story.

      

      "People are at their least suspicious not when they see apparent innocence, but when they think that they can understand the particular deception that is being perpetrated. If I can convince the men I am dealing with that I am working secretly behind the backs of the Terraformers' board by bringing out new technological developments without their knowledge, then they will have no other suspicions. As my advancement in the Terraformers will apparently advance their own business interests, they'll co-operate to the full."

      

      It had seemed overly complex to Cally, but it had also appeared to work. That had been the danger, how well everything had worked. They had arrived, quite openly, on a passenger ship from Sigma Thetis, a planet where there had been some slight adjustments to a small number of computer programs. Both she and Avon had been tense. So much could go wrong. An ordinary check would verify their identities, but a more thorough one might find a flaw and, while their documentation was impeccable, their disguises had, of necessity, been superficial. The aim had been simply to stop an immediate thought of 'Avon and Cally' in the minds of any Federation personnel they had encountered.

      So Avon's hair had been re-styled, brushed off his forehead, and lightened to an innocuous mouse-brown, heavily flecked with grey. His skin had been darkened to an almost identical shade of brown and the shape of his nose and chin changed slightly by inserts of synthaflesh. The aim had been to make him look less striking but had only partially succeeded.

      Her own hair had been given a new, metallic colour and styled in the most fashionable mode, and her skin had been dyed too, becoming a radiant creamy-gold. The hardest part, though, had been Jenna's instruction on how she was to dress, behave, talk, make up her face, and even walk in her new role. She could still hear the other woman:

      

      

"Don't stride, Cally!"

      "You stride."

      "Lenore Wing wouldn't. You move like a cat - a hunting animal. Graceful, but dangerous. You have to stay graceful but also look weak and vulnerable."

      "Why should any man want a weak woman?"

      "Cally..."

      "I doubt that Avon would want a weak woman-"

      "We're not talking about Avon. We're talking about Ras Quibell. For heaven's sake, Cally, I've seen you look vulnerable."

      "If you have, then it was when I was vulnerable, not because I was pretending to be something that I am not."

      "The whole point is that you are going to pretend to be someone that you are not! Look, try to move like a dancer, not like a warrior."

      "On Auron, a warrior could also be a dancer... Very well, Jenna, I will try, though I know very little about how humans dance."

      "Hmmm. That's a good point. We've no time to teach you formal dancing. If you're asked to dance you'd better say you can't, that you've no sense of rhythm, or something. I'll have a word with Avon and get him to cover for you."

      "I do not think that I am going to be very good at this," Cally had said mournfully.

      Jenna had given her a cool look. "It's your life, and Avon's, and we need those parts. You had better be."

      

      In the end, she had found the deception much easier than she had expected. Everything had been easier than expected. They had been accepted without question as Quibell and Wing, representatives of Terraformers Incorporated. Avon's odd double-bluff had worked perfectly. Strophel had filled their order with speed and efficiency, and not a single suspicion appeared to have been roused. Orac had confirmed their safety. Taking the computer along had been Blake's idea. With his unique ability to read other computers, Orac had been able to tell them that only routine checks had been made on their identity and credit.

      After a while they had started to relax. Blake contacted them several times, by programming Zen with a message tagged for Orac's attention. Orac watched for the messages, grumbling, as usual, that he was not a communicator even when disguised as one. Blake had attacked the Federation base on Manib, as planned, to divert attention from his crew members on Ararat. Though he had been chased by pursuit ships, he had recently reported that Liberator and her crew were safe.

      Avon replied with terse comments on their progress.

      So, until this night, all had gone smoothly. How could they have suspected that such a thing might happen? The day had started so well. Somehow, an air of holiday had developed. It was the first time that Avon had completely relaxed in the way that Blake had wanted him to do...

      

      

Avon and Cally had made their way through Canaan's glittering market centre, strolling along the silvery-grey pathways between displays that varied from the opulently discreet to the flashily vulgar. Cally had never seen anything quite like it before. Her astonishment had appeared to afford Avon a great deal of quiet amusement while she had not been able to decide whether to be fascinated and delighted, or shocked at the extravagance.

      It had been her idea to buy gifts for the other members of the Liberator's crew. It was an Auronar custom to give gifts to close friends and immediate family members after being absent for a time, showing how their company had been missed and how one's thoughts had been with them. Avon had snorted, but had seemed willing enough to indulge her.

      So he had followed her readily enough into a shop specialising in alien curios, ducking under a display of sankat skins and beaten brass tail-bells from Tarquin. While she had begun bargaining with the proprietor, a greenish-skinned Malparian, he had moved away through the shop, listening to scraps of conversation and studying the goods on display.

      When Cally had rejoined him she had found him staring at a mummified crocodile-with-fur that could have come from anywhere beyond the Coal Sack and should have been shipped back on the first craft out.

      "Finished?" he had asked.

      "Yes." She had smiled a secretive smile, then noticed the furry crocodile. "Valska! What is that?"

      "I hope we never find out," Avon had replied, with feeling. "Let's get out of here before someone tries to sell it to us."

      As they had stepped out into the rose-silver light, Cally had telepathed to him, //Avon?//

      He looked at her questioningly. She was good at remembering to use his assumed name, even when they were alone, and no doubt he found it strange that she should use his real name now, even telepathically.

      //Have your people any custom against giving gifts to someone when there is no particular reason to do so?//

      "No. Of course not."

      "Good," she had replied, aloud. "I have something for you." Then she had taken his hand and pressed something hard into the palm.

      He had looked at the small figurine as if it might bite him. Carved from an auburn coloured wood and humanoid, save for an extra pair of arms and a face that seemed large in comparison to the body, it was grotesque, despite the exquisite workmanship.

      She had watched Avon twisting it in the light, trying to understand why she had given it to him, until he had burst out laughing as he realised that from a certain angle the non-human face bore an astonishing resemblance to Vila Restal in a fit of pique.

      "Do you like it?" she had asked anxiously.

      "Of course," he had told her. "A telling likeness. I wonder how long it will take him to see it? I'll keep it with me always to remind me that life can never be perfect, but always full of trials. Thank you. There is one custom, though, that I'd like to follow. Gifts should be exchanged."

      "To hear you laugh was a gift in itself. You do it far too rarely."

      "I don't always have much to laugh about," Avon had replied grimly. Then his expression had softened. "Nevertheless, Lenore, I'm thinking of something a little more substantial. Come on."

      "Where are we going?"

      Avon had just grinned.

      

      

The result had been the firesilk dress and cloak, tailored on the spot by one of the finest couturiers in this part of the galaxy. Cally had been astounded that anyone would wish to put such technology and artistic expertise into such a thing as a dress. Avon had insisted on the firesilk, overruling her unease about the colour and the enormous expense. She had the feeling that he was also looking forward to overruling any protests from Blake on that subject. Of course, since Avon had adjusted their credit rating on Sigma Thetis, it would be Terraformers who would eventually have to foot the bill. He had overruled the couturier, too, and somehow the final result of his arguments had been the dress she had worn to Boler's party, the dress that had cost her any chance to rescue Avon. Yet, earlier, his admiration had been very sweet, and she knew that she had never looked better. Security Captain Patel had plainly thought so, too. His appearance had given her a shock but she was sure that he suspected nothing... yet.

      

      

Cally looked up at the strange stars. She had two responsibilities: Blake and Avon. Blake needed the spares to continue their fight against the Federation, but Avon was her friend and in trouble. That was enough to make him her chief priority now. If action wrecked her cover story, it wrecked it. That possibility was simply another problem to be faced.

      There was a soft chime from the lounge, Orac's only method, at present, of calling for attention. Cally rose to her feet and went back to the disguised computer. Sitting before the screen, she typed, DELPHI. READY.

      The information came quickly.

      THE DATA YOU REQUESTED IS NOW AVAILABLE.

      THE OTTAN CAVERN, ARARAT. PLANETARY CO-ORDINATES 60 DEGREES 21 MINUTES NORTH, 24 DEGREES 30 MINUTES WEST. INFORMATION IS CONTRADICTORY. LOCAL SOURCES SPEAK OF A SINGLE CAVERN 260 METRES LONG AND UP TO 50 METRES IN HEIGHT. HOWEVER, THE ORIGINAL SURVEY RECORD AT THE PLANETOGRAPHY CENTRE, EARTH, SHOWS A HUGE COMPLEX OF CAVERNS RUNNING FOR OVER 150 KILOMETRES.

      INTERRUPT. CAN YOU OBTAIN HARD PRINTS OF THE MAPS OF THESE CAVERNS?

      YES. THE INFORMATION WILL BE PRINTED ON THIS STUPID MACHINE AS SOON AS YOU STOP INTERRUPTING ME AND ALLOW ME TO FINISH MY REPORT.

      Cally had to smile. GO ON.

      The information on Katrin Shaw and Drew Patel was routine. Cally skimmed through it, looking for any indication that they could be involved in the abductions. She found none and told Orac to continue with his data on the kidnappings themselves.

      THERE HAVE BEEN 243 UNSOLVED KIDNAPPINGS ON ARARAT SINCE THE PLANET WAS COLONISED, CHARACTERISED BY THE TOTAL DISAPPEARANCE OF THE VICTIMS AND WITH NO INDICATION OF THE REASONS BEHIND THE CRIMES. THESE ARE THE ONLY COMMON FACTORS, THOUGH TRAINED ANIMALS HAVE BEEN INVOLVED IN 41% OF THE CRIMES WHERE THE ACTUAL METHOD OF ABDUCTION IS KNOWN. THESE KIDNAPPINGS HAVE RECENTLY INCREASED IN FREQUENCY. THERE HAVE BEEN 12 IN THE LAST 2 STANDARD YEARS. ALSO, IN THE PAST THERE HAVE BEEN LARGE NUMBERS OF ACCIDENTS WHERE THE BODIES WERE NOT RECOVERED. SOME OF THESE MAY BE UNNOTICED ABDUCTIONS.

      ALI RANIT WAS A FEDERATION CITIZEN, BORN 143 S.C. MARTIAN COLONIES. VANISHED ARARAT, 208 S.C. RANIT WAS A HUMAN PSI, A SHORT RANGE TELEPATH AND CLAIRAUDIANT IN THE SERVICE OF FEDERATION INTELLIGENCE.

      Well, Cally thought, that certainly explained why the Federation had been upset by his disappearance... wait. What had Patel said? Two of her own people and a Montalid had been among those kidnapped. Montalids were often telepaths.

      HOLD, she ordered Orac. She had to think this through. Four telepaths. Had there been more?

      HOW MANY OF THE KIDNAP VICTIMS WERE PSIS? HOW MANY OF THOSE WERE TELEPATHS?

      THIS IS AN UNKNOWN FACTOR. HOWEVER, 26% OF THE OFF-WORLD VICTIMS WERE PSIS. OF THOSE, 87% WERE TELEPATHS.

      HOLD.

      Cally rested her chin on her hands. A very high percentage, considering the microscopic percentage of psis in the population of the Federation. How many of the other 74% had been psis or latent psis? Such powers were often undeveloped or unacknowledged in humans. And human psi powers often showed most strongly in the young.

      Avon isn't a psi, she reminded herself.

      But I am.

      They did not try to take me.

      Why?

      The figurine. In the shop it had caught her eye at once, though it had been hidden at the rear of the display. She had been attracted to it very strongly and had been trying to find an excuse to buy it when she had noticed the resemblance to Vila. She had wanted to give Avon something and...

      She ran to where she had thrown her clothes. When Avon had been taken, she had automatically scanned the ground and had found the figurine, apparently lost in the struggle. She had put it in a pocket of her cloak.

      Now, as she held it in her hands, she again felt its attraction. Taking it between them, she snapped it in two. Inside there was a gleam of crystal amid the splintered wood.

      A telepathic lure. She had never seen one before, but had heard of them. The crystal was a telepathic-empathic radiator, set to be attractive to psi-talented minds. This one also contained a small directional transmitter. Cally crushed the mechanisms.

      So. Someone was collecting psis and had collected Avon by mistake. No, probably not 'someone'. Too long a time period was involved. An organisation, then. But the figurine had been a mistake.

      Smiling dangerously, Cally returned to Orac. Quickly, she typed up a brief report of the situation, ending it with an instruction to Orac to transmit it to Zen for Blake's attention the instant he himself was removed from Ararat. Then she told him to prepare her maps.

      Orac chimed insistently at her.

      YES?

      THE CAVERNS OF OTTAN MAY PROVE EXTREMELY DANGEROUS.

      YOU HAVE A PREDICTION?

      NO, BUT THERE IS A CERTAIN POSSIBILITY. YOU ARE A TELEPATH. FOR A TELEPATH THERE MAY BE EVEN GREATER DANGER.

      THEY HAVE TAKEN AVON. PREPARE THE MAPS.

      As she began packing her own gear, and Avon's, Cally wondered if she should try to force his suspicions out of Orac, but that would take time and she had none to waste. Besides, since Spaceworld, no one liked to ask Orac for a prediction.

      She would need equipment. She did not even have suitable combat clothing. More time wasted.

      That was what Orac said too, when she demanded his co-operation in a little rejigging of security computers, to go along with the list of Federation-licensed arms dealers. She had no time to find unlicensed ones.

      When everything was packed away and Orac silenced and boxed, Cally called the Imperial Hotel's management computer. "This is Lenore Wing, Penthouse Suite. Ras Quibell and I will terminate our stay at 0600 hours. Please transport our luggage to the spacecraft Aquarius. Debit C1A. T. MjXV1236972. Confirm with voice print."

      That was all she needed to do to discharge her responsibility to Blake. Now only the one to Avon remained.

      

      

The first thing of which Avon was clearly aware was a cold wind rushing past his face. Something warm and alive was curled about him, holding him firmly. He could hear the whine of an aircar's engines under strain.

      Alarmed, he opened his eyes.

      There was nothing but darkness.

      Grimly, he quelled panic. There had been a blinding light, he remembered now, then whatever was still holding him had looped itself about him, throwing him to the ground. He had struggled, but the thing had increased the pressure on his neck and chest until the outer blackness had dissolved into a nauseous inner one. He did not think that he had lost consciousness completely, but full awareness was only just returning.

      //Avon,// Cally's telepathic voice spoke urgently into his head. //I will find you. I am free and safe. I will find you.//

      Then it was gone. He might be out of range. Possibly, Cally had flung the thought at him at random, not knowing if he would receive it or not, but even so, it made him feel better.

      Very well. The bright light had blinded him. Hopefully his vision would return slowly with chemical replacement in the retina.

      With luck, there would be no permanent damage. Apparently he was being held by an animal. Logic suggested that it was one of the beasts that he had seen earlier - a gern. One demonstration of its strength had been sufficient. There would be no point in struggling.

      Why had he been taken? It was ridiculous! Could someone have discovered who he really was? The Federation? No. Cally was 'free and safe'. The Federation would have taken her too. And the Security Commander he had met had had no suspicions. He was sure of that.

      Ras Quibell then, not Kerr Avon.

      Ransom? But why Quibell and not Boler?

      That was unanswerable.

      It occurred to him that if a demand for ransom was made directly to Terraformers Incorporated it was going to cause problems. Terraformers' managers and board knew quite well that Ras Quibell was not on Ararat.

      But where was he being taken? He listened intently, hoping to find some clue, but there was nothing except the hum of the aircar engines and the rush of wind. He realised that he had not heard his captors speak a word. How many of them were there? There seemed no point in remaining silent when he needed data.

      "Who are you?" he asked belligerently.

      There was no answer.

      "I'm co-operating fully, so you might as well answer me. After all, it's my life and my freedom and I'm as interested as you are in seeing the ransom - or whatever else you require - paid in full."

      Silence.

      In that silence, the note of the aircar's engines changed. It sounded hollow now, as if it was echoing in a walled space. The wind dropped away. It also became colder.

      "Where are you taking me?" he demanded.

      No reaction. It was as if he spoke to an aircar full of gerns.

      He pushed the fancy aside and considered the situation. If Commander Shaw had acted with reasonable speed she would have been able to track the aircar. If so, he could hope for rescue by Federation Security - however galling that might be - quite soon, especially if his captors had flown into a dead end...

      Wait. Replay that. He didn't know they were at a dead end. He couldn't know they were at a dead end. He didn't know where they were and he was still blind. True, the aircar was now moving very slowly, but it was still moving. Yet the feeling they were heading towards a blank wall was growing into conviction.

      "No!" The shout was forced from him against all reason. "Wait! We-" Despite his blindness, he instinctively closed his eyes and tensed against the coils of the gern. They were going to hit - now!

      Then relief flowed through him, leaving him limp. The aircar was continuing unscathed, and the certainty that they were in a dead-ended place was gone as if it had never been.

      Most odd.

      His captors still hadn't spoken, but the noise of the aircar's engines had again changed in pitch, suggesting that they were in an even more confined space and travelling slowly.

      Time passed. His sight did not return. There was no sound but the unchanging whine of the engines. The only change was that the air now held a foul stench.

      He had just begun the process of accepting his blindness as at least semi-permanent when suddenly there was such brightness about him that he had to shut his eyes tightly.

      His first reaction was sheer relief. They must have been travelling in total darkness. That thought brought a return of curiosity.

      He opened his eyes slowly, cat-slitting them to give him time to adjust to the light.

      He was, as he had guessed, in the back seat of an open-topped aircar with a sinuous, red-furred gern wrapped about him. Its big eyes watched him alertly from a head well equipped with teeth. A man - one of the gern-dancers from his lack of clothing and abundance of body paint - was seated beside him. Another gern-dancer sat in the front seat next to the driver, who was wearing coveralls that had seen better days. All three men stared stonily ahead. Their lack of interest in him disconcerted their prisoner, who turned his attention to his surroundings.

      They were travelling down a passageway that seemed to have been cut through solid rock. It was just possible that it might have once been a natural cave but now the walls were too rounded and regular, and the shiny grey limestone showed the signs of a laser borer. A narrow lighting strip ran along the roof of the tunnel, reflected dully in the small river flowing beneath. It was from its foul water that the smell came. Avon wrinkled his nose fastidiously. All the same, the return of his sight made him feel a great deal more cheerful. Whatever happened, he was no longer totally helpless.

      

      

Twenty minutes later, the passage suddenly widened and the aircar rose higher. Avon thought for a moment that they had come out into the open. Then he realised that they were still underground, inside a cavern perhaps twenty-five hectares in extent and fifty metres in height. The roof was studded with solar-lamps and the air seemed very hot after the cold of the tunnel. Avon wondered at the amount of power being used. It occurred to him that it represented a wealth that was unlikely to need any ransom that Terraformers would pay for Ras Quibell. So why had he been kidnapped?

      The stream up which they travelled came from the outfall of a reservoir whose waters spread across almost the whole cave floor, greenish-brown and thick with microscopic life. There was some kind of plant house at one side of the lake, but he did not get a good look at it as the aircar skimmed quickly over the water-surface to plunge down another well-lit tunnel.

      

They had passed through half a dozen more caves, each almost identical to the first, and were now travelling along a wider tunnel, plainly well used. There was no water in this one, but the air was still foul, the stench coming from what appeared to be a thick layer of old animal droppings, beaten flat to the floor over a long period of time. Here and there in the muck there were lighter patches that Avon thought might be the remains of carcasses of some sort.

      Without warning, the aircar slewed sideways and upward, then settled like some cave-nesting bird in an alcove high in the tunnel wall. The men promptly slumped like under-stuffed toys in their seats but the gern holding Avon remained alert.

      Yet nothing happened for what seemed like a long time. The intense light was hurting Avon's eyes. He closed them, trying to ease the irritation...

      The next thing he remembered was being woken by a heavy, continuous rumbling noise. He tried several possibilities - thunder? A rock fall? - before he realised that it was the sound of many moving feet. A herd noise. He tried to see what was below, but he and the gern were on the side of the aircar nearest the rock wall and his view on the other was blocked by the slumped figure of the man beside him.

      However, whatever was making the noise, there were a lot of them and they were moving fast. A musky smell was added to that of decaying faeces. Avon felt sick, but somehow held his nausea in check.

      It was some time before the rumbling died away and even longer before the three human occupants of the aircar came simultaneously alert. Instantly, the machine took off and continued its interrupted journey.

      

      

When the aircar finally stopped and settled to the ground, the gern promptly released its prisoner and looped to the floor. The man seated behind Avon gave him a shove after it. It seemed wisest to obey the silent order, but when Avon tried to get out of the vehicle he toppled to the ground, writhing with cramp.

      The two gern-dancers hauled him back to his feet and dragged him in the direction of yet another tunnel. He was sick of tunnels. He was also tired, cold, in pain, and thoroughly annoyed.

      At first he tried a polite request to his captors to release him for a minute so that he could massage away the cramp. When they did not listen to him, he insulted their intelligence, heredity, personal appearance, and morals in the most cutting and sarcastic manner he could devise. This also failed to have any effect whatsoever, and he finally stopped cursing and forced his legs to work.

      They were walking down a tunnel that had narrowed until it was not wide enough to take the aircar, when a ten-legged animal with a pointed face and thick brown fur trundled into view. Startled and horrified, Avon attempted to stop but was firmly hustled onward by his guards, who didn't even break step. He struggled against them, sure that the oncoming beast was a yunlkthal from the planet Bane, renowned as one of the most ferociously savage killers in the Known Worlds, the most dangerous of big game. Yunlkthals were reputed to attack anything that moved and to become more savage with age and size. This one was massive. It would need to kill a score of times in one day just to stay alive.

      Yet this yunlkthal marched past them as if it did not even see them, and Avon's guards were untroubled by its presence, save that they made sure that he was not trampled under its feet.

      One more piece of this increasingly strange puzzle. Avon had the feeling that he should be able to fit the facts together, yet they remained obstinately separate and unique. He gave his mind to the problem as he was herded onward.

      

      

Drew was whistling under his breath as he buzzed the penthouse suite. Maybe it was a cold, grey morning with the sun not yet risen, maybe he had not slept, maybe he had a hard, difficult day ahead of him, but he had an excuse to see Lenore again. She would be lonely now, more fully aware of her plight, and very glad to see him. And she would have to stay on Ararat for some time, perhaps long enough for Drew to persuade her to stay for ever now that Quibell was out of the picture.

      Drew reconsidered that thought and admitted that it was unworthy of a Federation officer. He did not really want Quibell dead, he told himself, and he really did want to solve the mystery of these abductions, but it was satisfying that Lenore was not leaving.

      The call was still unanswered. Faintly alarmed, Drew decided to call up the hotel management computer and get the door opened.

      He explained the situation tersely to the compoint and presented his identification. The answer was a shock.

      "Lenore Wing is no{kern 0 50} longer registered at this hotel. The Quibell-Wing account has been settled."

      "What about their baggage?" Drew demanded.

      There was a slight pause as the machine checked his right to ask any such question, then it said, "All personal baggage has been transferred to the spacecraft Aquarius."

      Running. Lenore was running. Drew guessed that she must be terrified of suffering the same fate as Quibell but he also knew that Katrin would see this as evidence of complicity in the kidnapping. He had to find Lenore, stop her.

      He bolted for the aircar.

      

      

One of Avon's guards stepped forward and opened a metal door. A push between the shoulder blades from the other sent him stumbling through into a shadowy room. An aisle led between rows of vertical cylinders. In those transparent columns... things... floated and moved. As his eyes began to adjust, Avon realised that he was looking at ontogenetal development tanks. It was a very old-fashioned set-up, linked by antiquated service rods carrying power lines and chemicals above the tanks, but it was plainly in working order and contained beings growing in the sustaining fluids.

      There were fetuses of only a few months and humanoid children who must have been nearly eight years old. And not just humanoids. He could see three Montalids, for example.

      There was nothing of the sophistication of the Clone Masters' laboratories, where full adult development of any individual could be forced within hours, and development in these tanks would take place at almost normal speed, yet it was efficient enough, given its age.

      Avon walked as slowly as he could, trying to see as much as possible before he reached the far door, some thirty metres away. Something important was nagging at his mind, purely instinctive, beneath memory. He should know what was happening here, he was sure.

      A lab technician dressed in rags was adjusting the inflow to one of the tanks and two more were working over some equipment on a lab bench. They did not raise their heads to look at Avon and his guards. No hint of curiosity crossed their features... their features. Good Lord, their features were identical. All three of the lab technicians were exactly alike, though the one adjusting the inflow was at least twenty years older than the other two. Clones? If so, his captors were treading on dangerous ground. Humanoid cloning was very strictly controlled...

      Something moved in the corner of the room. As Avon drew closer he saw that it was a small, green, velvety-scaled creature with a single eye and a long, bushy prehensile tail with a plume at the end. A tassal. Avon had seen them kept as expensive pets on half a dozen worlds. They were about as intelligent as a cat, but this one sat on the edge of the main control board, adjusting the instruments with deft movements of its hands. There was rationality in its reactions to the fluctuating readings.

      Something in the tanks stirred.

      A wave of curiosity hit Avon. It was not like his own controlled, piercing questioning, but unformed, childish, and naive. He could feel attention focused on him. For a moment a vivid but distorted picture of himself walking between two naked humans replaced his own vision and he felt, like pain, the unrestricted envy and frustration of the mind that saw him so.

      As he fought to throw the intruding thoughts out of his head there was a scream of rage that he knew he did not hear with his ears. He stumbled as a wind of fury slapped him.

      The gern-dancer behind him took hold of his arm, not in a kindly fashion, but simply to keep him moving.

      Psis! Some, if not all, of the beings in the tanks were psis: empaths and telepaths, broadcasting at him. No language. They had no experience of language. Emotions and senses were all that they knew. Despite himself, Avon was shaken. Feeling a rush of unwanted compassion for them, he checked it angrily. He could not afford to feel anything for anyone but himself if he was going to get out of here alive.

      Telepaths, he thought. Someone is breeding psis. Why?

      The nagging feeling below memory was stronger. This was significant. But in what way?

      No time for that. He was less than five metres from the next door. This might be his last chance... something irrational in his gut said so.

      The leading gern-dancer-cum-kidnapper-cum-guard reached to open the door. As he did so, Avon braked and flung himself backward, twisting violently against the second man's hand. That man should have loosened his grip at once as pain from Avon's manoeuvre shot through him, but he hung on until his wrist bones snapped. Only then did the fingers suddenly loosen, allowing Avon to slip free.

      By this time, the first guard had turned and was reaching for him. Avon groin-kicked him, but there was no reaction. The man's expression did not even change... and he kept coming.

      Pain didn't stop them. So...

      Avon slipped sideways between both advancing men. He jumped, his hand slicing down on the undamaged guard's neck with all his weight and strength behind it. Pain smashed into his hand, but he heard the sickening noise of crushed and broken bones and knew that he had killed.

      An arm hooked about Avon's throat from behind him but the guard with the broken wrist had not been quick enough. Avon snatched at the undamaged hand and used the leverage to throw him over his shoulder. He fell awkwardly, his head striking the edge of one of the tanks.

      Avon glanced back up the laboratory and saw the three lab technicians coming towards him at a run. Three of them... and the tassal, too. Too many for him to handle alone now he had lost the element of surprise.

      He looked about him, then jumped upward to the insulated service rod bridging the two cylinders between which he stood, catching hold of it with both hands. It held his weight for a moment, then broke away from its connections. He took it with him to the floor as sparks crackled in the air and fluid spurted from both sides. Avon rolled wildly away and to his feet, his improvised weapon ready in his hands, only to find that he had ceased to be the centre of attention. All three men ran past him, the tassal scuttling behind them, to try frantically to repair the damage he had caused.

      Taking advantage of the situation, Avon started back the way he had come, only to halt in horror as he saw a gern looping in through the doorway. He wasn't going to tangle with a gern - not without a gun in his hands - and his guards had left their weapons in the aircar.

      He whirled and fled in the opposite direction, through the doorway that he hadn't wanted to pass. He slammed the door shut, found that it could be sealed from the far side and did so, letting out the air from the circular seal. The pressure would hold it closed.

      Turning, he realised for the first time that he was in another well-lit passageway, the floor smoothed and parts of the tunnel widened by laser borers. It ran in both directions.

      Avon grimaced. He had no way of knowing which way he should take and pursuit would soon start.

      Choosing the right-hand passage at random, he ran down it.

      

      

"You're wanted," Section Leader Cris Ranmor told Drew as they paused in the doorway of Federation Security Headquarters in Canaan. "Boy, are you wanted..." he paused just long enough to miss being officially insulting before adding "sir." His brown eyes were dancing.

      Drew gave him a stiff look. Ranmor smiled sweetly and made his exit.

      Drew hesitated, wondering if he should chase after him or put him on report. Ranmor was Katrin's senior NCO; young, bright, and virtually indispensable. The trouble was that he knew that too and took advantage of the fact. Katrin, though, would not look kindly on Drew's insistence on correct form: she never did. And she would not take excuses for being kept waiting. Drew, as usual, decided to leave Ranmor for another time and hurried to Katrin's office.

      She was leaning back in her chair, her feet on the desk, staring up at the holos on the ceiling where white and grey clouds scudded over a blue sky. Drew always felt unprotected under it, but Katrin claimed that it helped her to think. Now she lowered her eyes from it and looked hard at Drew. Blue as the artificial sky, they held their perpetual challenge.

      "I become more and more interested in this Lenore Wing of yours, Drew," she opened, without any polite preambles.

      "Why?" Drew asked defensively. "She's not leaving on the Aquarius, not trying to get away from Ararat. If she had been making a getaway, why the dead give-away of having her luggage moved onto the ship - and Quibell's too - when she could have taken off without them at the last minute and -?"

      "Yes, I know. If she'd been as stupid as you appear to think that she is-"

      "I never said that she was stupid!"

      "-you'd have found her on the Aquarius, and I wouldn't be interested in her. I know that you can't find her, Drew, but did you know that no one else can find her, either?"

      "Look, maybe-"

      "No. You look at this." Katrin thrust a document at him. "I had the banking computer checked to see if she'd used her credit number. She had. Take a look at what she bought."

      "Huh?" Drew scanned the list in growing amazement. A two-person AG sled. Medical equipment. Perpetual lamps. Concentrates. Equipment for the most rigorous expedition, including a waterproof and thermally insulated combatsuit and a veritable arsenal of weapons. "Banachi knife... incandsa rifle - damn it, Katrin, that's an expert's weapon..."

      "It's also on the A-restricted list, but your Lenore had all the correct permits. The dealer who sold it to her shared your doubts and made the mistake of expressing them to her, after she'd dragged him out of bed, I might add. Her reply was to stage a little demonstration. Something about shooting out targets past his ear, I understand. According to him, she's the finest marksman he's ever seen. He was still shaking."

      "It can't be Lenore!" Drew protested. "Someone else, using her name and credit-"

      "About one hundred sixty centimetres tall. Slim build. Bronze-copper hair. He described it as short and curly, but it wouldn't have taken her more than a couple of minutes to cut it. Cream-gold skin. Brown eyes. Twenty-five to thirty years old, standard. 'Quite a looker' in his vernacular. Who does that sound like to you?"

      Drew was completely bewildered. "I don't understand... really don't understand," he kept repeating helplessly.

      "Nor do I," Katrin said dryly, "but either Lenore Wing was involved in this kidnapping and is running, which seems a damn silly thing to do in the circumstances, or..."

      "Or?"

      "Or she is doing what I would do in her place: she's going after Quibell."

      Drew tried to digest that, and failed. "She isn't like you, Katrin."

      "I think she's more like me than you believe. They took her man; she's going to get him back... and she knows where to go! Confound it, Drew," Katrin swung her feet to the floor "what's she spotted that we've missed?"

      Drew shook his head. He just could not picture Lenore Wing with a gun in her hand. She wouldn't know which end to hold. There had to be another explanation...

      "Ottan Cavern," Katrin said suddenly, interrupting his futile efforts to think of one.

      "What?"

      "That equipment. Lights, Drew. Those heavy-duty lights. Caves. I'll bet she's gone to the Ottan Cavern."

      "But there's nothing there," Drew protested, following Katrin to the door. "Besides, the civcops are still patrolling the area. She couldn't get through without being detected."

      "The men who grabbed Quibell went into the Ottan Cavern. I was sure of it last night and I'm just as certain now... and I'll bet my pension that that's where Wing has gone. Drew, I want two armoured aircars with full crews. You and I and Cris Ranmor to go along. Lights. Paraguns. Explosives. And I want them ten minutes ago!"

      Drew sighed, even as he departed at a run.

      

      

The AG sled was the best that money could buy. Cally was already satisfied with its performance. She would regret abandoning it, if that should become necessary, but she was convinced that even if she had to do so within a few minutes, it would be worth every credit she had paid for it.

      The sky was still early-morning grey as she passed down the street without using the sled's lights. Of the half-dozen entrances to the Ottan cave system shown on Orac's maps, one was right on the outskirts of Canaan city. She watched her instruments carefully as she steered for the exact co-ordinates.

      She stopped the sled in an area of wasteland. The Delta-grade dwellings, small and closely-packed, abutted to the West and North.

      To the South were the cliffs falling steeply to the river valley, and to the East, open moorland.

      This area was plainly in use as a dump, despite the proclaimed efficiency of the local recycling service. A score of smashed aircars were stacked on her right and in front of her was a large pile of stones and building material, covered in orange, lichen-like plants. Weeds dangled desolately from the cracks.

      Jutting out from amongst the rocks was a rectangular carlymer pipe, some two metres high and three wide. Cally drifted the sled into it and switched on the lights.

      She stopped the sled abruptly. The pipe ended in a wall of solid rock.

      Cally was stunned. There should be a great shaft here, leading downward to the caves below. Perhaps it had been blocked some time in the past... perhaps Orac's maps were wrong. This had been a waste of time.

      Waste of time... waste of time. That feeling was very strong, yet Cally knew that the shaft was here... just as she knew that a tunnel led out of the Ottan Cavern...

      Cally's head jerked up sharply. Then she smiled. Deliberately, she checked Orac's maps again, then slid the sled very slowly forward. The wall inched closer. Cally did not flinch.

      She knew that the wall ahead was hard, cold, solid, immovable rock. She knew that it would feel that way if she laid her hand on it. Yet the blunt nose of the sled sank into the rock as if it were liquid.

      Ignoring the certainties that beat at her mind, Cally closed her eyes. When she opened them again and turned her head, there was no wall behind her, only a short tunnel leading to muddy daylight. She had passed through it as if it did not exist. As, indeed, it never had existed.

      She halted the sled with its nose just over the tip of the great shaft that, she knew, fell downward for over three hundred metres. Before she descended it, there was something she must do.

      Somewhere close at hand there must be someone or something projecting the illusion.

      Taking a lamp in one hand she climbed out of the sled and began examining the cave walls. The light beam glinted on plastic. Cally gasped, putting her hand to her mouth and taking a step backward.

      In a niche in the rock rested something that had once been humanoid. Connected to a primitive life-support machine, the armless, legless being stared towards her with blank eyes in a blank face.

      //Who has done this to you?//

      There was no answer to Cally's question and no sense of contact. She was suddenly sure that there was no intelligence, no awareness left in the thing. It was... a relay point, a telepathic relay point for another mind. But who would... ?

      No! Oh, Avon. I pray that it is not that.

      Drawing her handgun. Cally blasted the living remnants of what had once been a sentient being to ashes, then leapt back into the sled. She guided the vehicle to the centre of the shaft, then let it fall.

      Faster. Faster.

      Avon... if I had known... It cannot be. It cannot. And it thinks you are a telepath and it wil- No! Not in my place. Let there be time. Please, let there be time.

      The pit rushed up at her, the walls passing in endless, dizzying blankness as the sled continued its controlled fall.

      Let there be time.

      

      Avon pulled himself on through the dark coldness. All he could hear was the rasp of his own breathing. The rock was hard and slick under his hands and body, but already he had cut his palm open on an unexpected sharp edge. He was tired and hungry and cold, and very afraid. Yet this Stygian and cramped crack in the rock had not so long ago seemed an ideal refuge.

      Well, he was safer here than he had been in the wide, well-lit tunnels. When he had noticed the slit in a portion of rock wall untouched by the laser borers, he had scrambled up to it, clawing his way inside with undignified haste. He had lain in the semi-darkness for a little while, trying to catch his breath and put his thoughts in order, but noises in the passageway outside his refuge had sent him crawling frantically further and further along the narrow tunnel, wriggling his way past obstructions.

      It had taken him some time to realise that he could not go back. He could only go on into the heart of the rock and each centimetre had to be fought for.

      He found himself thinking of the Liberator and how good it would be to be back there, and of his colleagues, even of Blake, with affection. He growled angrily to himself. It might be natural in such a situation to long for the nearest thing he had to a home and friends, but it was a sign of personal weakness and as such it annoyed him. And where was Cally? She had promised to find him, but what hope had she of doing so? How could she even look for him without breaking cover?

      He hit his head on the invisible roof and swore.

      This damn cave was getting narrower. He could feel the walls closing in on him. The darkness had weight. He began to tremble, and not from the cold.

      This was ridiculous. He had never suffered from claustrophobia. How many cramped inspection tunnels had he crawled down during his life? Only then he had known that he could go back... and even if he finally got out of this tunnel, what chance did he have of reaching the surface in safety before he died from cold and hunger? If only he had a weapon, or even a light.

      He levered himself onward on raw knees and elbows. A sharp stalactite had torn through his jacket and into his back and each movement intensified the pain. Was there no end to this -?

      His head banged into something hard, making him gasp and sprawl on the cold rock. Recovering, he felt before him, fingers encountering a pile of rough rocks. Rockfall. The roof was down.

      Avon sagged and lay still, feeling tears on his cheeks. It was over. He couldn't go on. He couldn't go back. He was trapped, dying. That thought was an icy blast of wind, slapping him back to reality.

      I'm not dead yet.

      Much more carefully this time, he began to feel over each square centimetre of the rocks before him.

      The roof of the tunnel was much higher than he thought. He knelt up slowly, reaching upward. Yes. His fingers had found a gap and, when he thrust his arm into it, he could feel no blockage.

      Fighting back elation, he forced his head and shoulders into the gap, bending his body to the contours of the crack. Rippling like an inchworm, he edged forward, pushing hard with both feet. Rock scraped both his belly and his back.

      His hands encountered a rock column, stalagmite meeting with stalactite, and he twisted onto his side to curve around it, when suddenly he realised that he could see the rock pillar as a black shadow on the blackness of the cave. There was light ahead.

      In his eagerness, he pushed forward quickly - and stuck. He shoved harder with his feet, clawing ahead with his hands to try to force himself past the obstruction, for a moment almost panicking at the thought of being wedged there forever.

      But panic was foreign to Avon's nature and he stilled his frantic struggles. He retreated. Pulled back. Changed his position. Tried again. Then again.

      His head and shoulders popped from the rock into a brightly-lit cavern. Blinded, he still continued to wriggle his way free of the tunnel, trusting to luck that there was no one watching him.

      Picking himself up, he realised that he was inside a small cave. The light was not as intense as he had first thought and it came from beyond a row of curtain-like stalactites a couple of metres away. After giving himself a minute or so to recover, he moved across to peer between them.

      He was on a balcony-like structure, high on a wall of a large cave, the floor of which lay about forty metres below. That floor was wide and flat and dry, and what he could see of it startled him, though somehow it did not really surprise him.

      He had speculated on the power needed to light and heat the cavern complex; here was the source. An odd design it might be, but there was no mistaking an ion-annihilation generator, the ultimate in fission power. Humans had never made great use of the system but it could be effective. This one, oddly designed though it looked to human eyes, was plainly very effective for it had once powered a spaceship. Such a generator could have been built for no other purpose. How had it been brought here, and why?

      Suddenly Avon realised that what he had taken for a scrap-pile at the far side of the cavern was, instead, the remains of a starship. What was left of the hull had an aureate glow that was new to him, but he could see the familiar curve of a Hy-D generator fin. There must have been a massive engine blowout to cause so much damage.

      Judging from the size of both the vent-tube and the fin, that craft had been big: as big as the Liberator, if not so advanced.

      He was going to have to take a closer look at it, which meant he would have to climb down the cave wall. Well, he would probably have had to do that anyway, and the rock looked rough enough to make the climb easy - if any forty-metre climb could be called easy.

      Why did he always end up halfway down cliffs? he asked himself, remembering Haderon and Horizon. Well, nothing for it but to start.

      If anyone had asked Avon why he was clambering down a cliff to examine a wrecked spaceship rather than taking to his heels and heading for the surface, he would not have been able to give a satisfactory reply. Luckily, there was no one there to ask him.

      Once, when a beast like a misshapen kangaroo lolloped across the cavern, Avon clung motionless to the rock. Luckily, it did not appear to notice him.

      Finally, with his feet on solid ground once again, Avon was able to examine the wreckage more closely.

      There was no doubt that it was the remains of a starship, even though all that had been left here was what was beyond salvage: broken instruments, twisted metal and melted plastic, a great pile of bones that had apparently come from a number of different species. Some of the bones were quite new, but the majority were old and brittle. Some even crumbled away as Avon examined them.

      Only about a twentieth of the hull remained and some of that golden metal was stacked to one side as if waiting to be used.

      Why do you tear a starship to pieces? Avon asked himself.

      Answer: because it is no further use to you intact - perhaps because it has been totally wrecked - and because you need the material it contains.

      But why do you bring this wrecked spaceship kilometres underground at vast expense of time and effort? Because you need the materials? Why not just transport them? And why transport a pile of bones?

      Answer: secrecy. To hide all traces of your presence on the planet.

      Why?

      Avon looked again at the bright metal with its unusual golden sheen. A huge starship, its hull glowing gold, powered by ion-annihilation, manned by...

      The memory that had eluded him earlier came like an avalanche. His stomach froze in it. Everything that he had seen formed a pattern... a pattern that could not be...

      He and Cally had to get off this planet. At once. Even being on this world was too great a risk to contemplate.

      Untold dangers lay between him and safety, yet he must face them. There was no time to waste.

      One of the tunnels that led out of the caverns seemed to have an upward incline.

      Avon took it.

      

      

The sled dropped into light. Cally stopped the descent, hovering in space just before the shaft exit. She looked about her.

      She had come out into a very large cavern. It was even bigger than had been shown on Orac's map.

      It was brightly lit, but there was an unpleasant, fetid smell in the air.

      Five metres below the sled lay a large, green-brown lake. It covered all of the cave floor and, if Orac's maps were correct, it must be at least ten metres deep. At various points the surface bubbled messily around dome-shaped artificial islets.

      Cally had never seen an algae farm before but she knew that that was what she was looking at, and her heart sank further. She laid the maps of the caverns beside her on the seat, spilling into her lap. They showed a complex network of caves, tunnels, and shafts stretching for many kilometres. This particular cave was part of an irregular double circle lying under the city. If she was right, the best place to search for Avon was within the inner circle, but she had to be sure.

      Taking the wooden figurine from her pocket, she contemplated it worriedly. As a child on Auron she had played a game, a game that she now must play in earnest. It was well known to the Auronar that objects could record emanations from those who created them or who kept them for a period of time. A psi with psychometric talent could read those emanations, giving the age and origin of the object and feeling out crises in which it had been involved. Cally was sure that the figurine had been crafted in these caverns and, by its very nature, it would be a good psychometric recorder. Though she herself had only a very small gift for psychometry, she also had a psi-link to Avon, only vaguely directional, but enough to tell her now that he still lived. Only it was not his death that she most feared. Could she tell if -?

      Firmly, Cally put all such thoughts from her mind, concentrating only on the carving in her hands. Yes, it belonged in these caverns, not in Canaan, and it would be nearer its origin - that way.

      She checked the map and nodded. Yes. That way. Into the inner circle of caves. Her internal link with Avon said that that was the right way, too.

      Turning the sled, she sent it skimming over the water. The tunnel she must take was on a heading of two six one and would be up near the roof.

      There were specks gliding in from that direction, resolving themselves quickly into smooth-skinned animals with wide double-wings, shimmering and translucent under the bright lights. Each must have weighed about ten kilos and each had a single pair of sharply taloned feet. The heads were round and neat with large, diamond-shaped eyes and tall, mobile ears. The jaw was small but had two pairs of upward-curving fangs.

      Cally did not hesitate. Putting her rifle into one hand, she fired almost casually at the leading flier. As the tiny pellet struck home it exploded in a flare of light and a cloud of pale-pink blood. By the time the first shattered body hit the water she had downed four more.

      It was clear, though, that she was fighting a losing battle. More of the fliers were arriving by the instant. Cally looked towards the tunnel entrance. The fliers were massing about it, whirling and wheeling like dust motes in sunlit air. A concerted attack might bring down the sled by sheer weight of numbers, if they did not kill her first. Those fangs might well carry poison and even if they did not...

      She reached behind her and drew out a small red ball with two flattened ends from the pile of equipment. Her thumb pressed into a small depression as she flung the sled upward and round in a tight curve. As the sled grazed the cave wall above the wheeling flock, she threw the ball over the side and into their midst.

      Even with her head averted and the spiral movement of the sled sending it back out over the lake, Cally was nearly blinded by the distress flare and the scream of the sirens. The sled trembled under her, but she continued to drive a curving course, homing in on the tunnel entrance.

      It was clear. She had been right about the fliers. The big eyes and ears had suggested audio and visual sensitivity, and the light and noise from the flare had completely incapacitated them, sending them crashing into the cave wall and tumbling into the water. A few were still in the air, flapping blindly out over the lake. Cally picked off a couple that happened to be in her way as she bucketed the sled into the tunnel mouth. Anything that followed her would be left quickly behind.

      The fliers were not really fighters, Cally decided. They served as eyes, eyes and ears for whatever was waiting for her, whatever had Avon.

      Heedless of the danger of hitting an obstruction, she pushed the sled to its top speed, banking round the sweeping corners of the tunnel as the rock walls blurred past.

      

      

For all of Katrin's confidence, Ottan Cavern was as empty and blank-ended as it had always been.

      "This is insane," she said. "I'm sure that that aircar came in here. Yet it's not here now and it didn't come out during the night. Therefore it must have left the cave by a different route."

      Drew looked about him: at the pool of dank water and the slow stream that ran into the grey daylight, at the walls of glossy limestone, pearly-pale in the bright lights that illuminated every corner, at the two armoured aircars with their Federation insignia, and at the small cluster of Federation Security personnel standing disconsolately about Katrin's small, dark-haired figure. There was a look on her face that Drew knew all too well and he exchanged a sympathetic glance with Cris Ranmor. They were going to waste a lot of time here. He did not like this cave. The very air was oppressive.

      "Perhaps they had a matter transmitter," Drew suggested, with the air of one who clutches at straws.

      Katrin gave him a startled look. She had information that was not available to anyone below the rank of Security Major. Could it be...? "No," she said, regretfully. "Only one organisation in the Known Worlds has access to matter transmission... and they are certainly not here." Blake was several days' travel from Ararat, she knew, even for his ship. A heavy cruiser had been destroyed at Manib, but pursuit ships had been chasing Blake up to twelve hours ago when the last reports had come in. Besides, kidnapping businessmen was simply not Blake's style.

      "What now, ma'am?" one of the troopers asked.

      "I don't know." Katrin stared at the solid back wall of the cave. "I hate to say it, but perhaps there's a secret passage - and I'll put the first person who laughs on report!"

      "I'm not laughing," Ranmor said softly. "That aircar went somewhere. You say it was in here, Commander, and that's good enough for me... but it's not here now and our detectors register nothing but rock beyond the cave."

      Katrin indicated the stream. "That water comes from somewhere."

      "Perhaps it wells up from underneath the cave," Drew suggested.

      Katrin looked interrogatively at Ranmor.

      "I thought of that. Nothing on the detectors."

      Katrin stared again at the exasperating wall, her hands on her hips, tapping one foot on the ground. Drew groaned silently. Katrin was in one of her stubborn moods. One time in twenty her pig-headedness would pay off, but in the other nineteen chances, life for her subordinates became hell until she got over the disappointment.

      "Right," she said. "We'll blast our way through."

      "You've gotta be kiddin', Katrin," Drew muttered, but not loudly enough for her to hear him.

      "There's nothing there, Commander," Ranmor protested. "Besides, it's a national monument."

      "And Ras Quibell is a Federation citizen in trouble. That makes him the most important being on this planet to Federation Security. Right?"

      There was no reply to that and they all knew it.

      Ranmor surrendered. "Where do you want to blast?"

      "Lay the charges just above the water line. We'll take out the cave wall in sections, starting at this side and working our way right round the back of the cave. Sooner or later, we'll find what we're looking for."

      "You still think Lenore came this way?" Drew asked. "The civcops say no one has entered the cavern since you left last night."

      Katrin snorted. "I wouldn't trust that lot to guard a child's money box. Well? What are you waiting for? The sooner we set those charges the sooner we'll find the way they took Quibell."

      

      

Avon was moving very cautiously. If his deductions were correct then this was one of the most dangerous places in the galaxy. He must not be seen by anything that moved. That was all-important.

      He had met no other living creature. The passageway meandered through the rock, unchanging except for a stretch where one wall had been lined with the same golden metal that had formed the hull of the wrecked starship. It ran from floor to roof, bulging slightly inward. Avon guessed that it was part of a larger structure which the tunnel skirted. He had been glad to leave it behind him.

      He passed through several chambers, empty except for a hodgepodge of equipment that seemed to have been assembled from junkyard rejects. He was not always sure of its present purpose but the feeling that it was functional was strong.

      Then he reached a chamber that distracted him from his flight. For one thing, it was spotless, which could not be said for the rest of this cave complex. The chamber was antiseptic in its cleanliness. Also, this equipment was alien and very old, though beautifully kept. He moved to examine it more closely.

      A cryogenic generator maintained rack upon rack of small containers in frozen stasis. None of these containers bore any label or marking. Avon considered this fact, then used the waldos to bring forward one of the containers and open it for his examination.

      It contained undifferentiated tissue of the sort preferred by the Clone Masters as an experimental medium. Avon replaced it, then randomly sampled the rest of the containers. Some held the same type of tissue as the first; others contained a milky solid; others what appeared to be frozen organs. In some cases Avon could not be positive, but he believed they were all sex organs, just as he guessed that the milky solid was frozen semen.

      Whoever - or whatever - was running this place was into reproduction in a big way. Avon remembered the ontogenetal development tanks and shuddered slightly. All the evidence added up to-

      There was a noise behind him. Avon whirled. A two-legged, feathered beast with rending claws crouched in the doorway. Identical humans, white-skinned, slender, with blank eyes stood behind it. A great snake slipped between their feet and caressed its way across the floor.

      They won't damage the tissue banks, Avon thought. With one hand he reached for the controls. The feathered creature launched itself through the air towards him. He threw himself sideways, but the beast twisted in mid-air and landed on top of him, bowling him to the floor. Avon grabbed hold of its neck to twist it and break it, but the thick feathers came out in handfuls, protecting the neck and frustrating his purpose as he rolled over and over, kicking at the beast to try to throw it away from him.

      Then his legs were encircled by a slender, muscular body.

      He saw the snake head rear up from the coils. Human hands gripped his arms and hauled him to his feet. He struggled furiously, but the gripping hands tightened until he cried out in pain and anger.

      They had him.

      

      

The sled burst from the tunnel into another large cavern so near to ground level that Cally had to jerk the nose up hurriedly as a smoky-green mass loomed ahead of her.

      Once about fifteen metres in the air and slowing slightly, Cally saw that she had almost ploughed into a herd of large, sluggish animals. They were massive beasts, with eight short legs, small heads and large slobbery mouths.

      Cally found a name that matched that description. Beetu. Meat animals bred from a creature native to a planet in the Sirius Sector. Beetu could and would eat anything and had the highest protein-conversion rate of any known animal, but they were used only in early colonisation of Federation planets because most humans did not like the oily taste of their flesh. Cally was sure that there could not have been any on Ararat for many years.

      Except that here they filled the cavern, eating continuously from a series of troughs cut into the rock floor, through which flowed a thick green mush. The soft rumbling of their digestive systems was like far-off thunder.

      There were other animals, too, though they were so much smaller and moved so much more swiftly than the beetu that Cally could not get a clear look at them as they dodged between the trunk-like legs of the herd.

      She slowed the sled again and checked her position. Her internal senses told her that she was near the point of origin for the figurine, and near to Avon. She corrected her course, heading for the next tunnel.

      Some of the fliers appeared, but they stayed at a distance, making no move to attack. The small, brown animals running amid the beetu herd were gathering below her. Cally ignored all of them.

      Then an aircar appeared, skimming swiftly towards her, the fliers planing in its wake. A beam from some form of energy weapon struck out at her, missing the sled by centimetres. Cally flung it into a tight turn and then had to duck frantically to avoid the talons of a diving flier. She fired at it and missed.

      Already the air was swarming with the beasts. The sled shuddered as one collided with it. Yet a third aircar came screaming in towards her and she threw the sled downward and under it, so close that she had to flatten herself against the controls to avoid having her head ripped away.

      A quick glance towards the passageway that she was determined to take showed that it was almost blocked by a group of beetu, herded into position and held there by a number of the smaller brown creatures. Herders, she thought. They are herders.

      Straightening the sled, she levelled the rifle and fired at the nearest aircar. The explosion ripped out the vulnerable engines, sending it plummeting. The other two aircars sheered off, but the fliers did not.

      There are too many of them, Cally thought. And this sled is too good a target. I must either run and abandon Avon, or abandon the sled.

      Even as she thought, she acted. The rifle went over one shoulder and the charts were pushed into a pouch in her belt. Everything else was already prepared, for she had anticipated this. Spinning the sled on its axis, she aimed it straight at the beetu blocking the exit.

      Less than twenty metres from collision, Cally pushed the power to full{kern -50 0}-

      -and jumped. She hit the rock with bruising force, rolling over and coming swiftly to her feet. There was a sickeningly squelchy thump and screams of pain from the beetu as the sled rammed into them. Cally was already running towards them, her handgun out.

      One of the brown, furry herders snarled and leapt for her throat, teeth bared. Cally blasted it as it came, knocking aside the limp and smoking body with her left arm while shooting another as it came running in. The beam sliced away a leg and also nicked the rump of one of the beetu, which stomped in a tight circle, trampling a herder.

      One of the big meat animals lay groaning on the ground, almost torn in half by the impact of the sled, which projected from its ribs. Cally leapt up the heaving flank, feeling it shudder beneath her, clambered over the beast, and jumped down the other side into the mouth of the tunnel.

      Once inside the entrance, she whirled about and shot two of the herders that had been following her over the dying beetu. Holding the beasts at bay with her handgun, she backed slowly down the passage.

      At least thirty of the herders had now scaled the carcass and were racing in to try to overwhelm her.

      With her left hand, Cally unshipped the rifle from her shoulder and simultaneously fired both that and the handgun at the roof. The resulting explosion flung her backward and was followed by the crash of falling rocks.

      Raising herself up, the guns still in her hands, Cally was in time to see the last of the small rocks and dust come trickling down onto the heap that now blocked the tunnel. One of the herder animals lay half-in and half-out of the rubble, still snapping its jaws feebly. Cally shot it.

      She rose slowly to her feet. That had been closer than she had expected, and now her only weapons were the handgun, the rifle, and the long blade strapped to her right thigh. Most of all, though, she regretted the loss of speedy transport. Now she had only her feet. Yet she was close to Avon now. That certainty filled her mind.

      She broke into a run.

      

      

As Drew supervised the placing of the fourteenth charge he exchanged another long-suffering look with Ranmor. As he had expected, they had found no trace of a hidden passage. His ears were ringing and sore but all they had accomplished was the redistribution of a lot of rock; something that was not going to endear them to the Araratian authorities. As most of the rock had fallen into the pool, the water had been redistributed too, so that most of it puddled round Drew's feet. He also suspected that the walls and roof were no longer safe, but it was no use trying to tell Katrin that, or that they were wasting time that could be better spent looking for Lenore and Quibell...

      Ranmor signalled to him that the charge was now in position and they splashed back across the cavern, keeping close to the wall to avoid the deeper water.

      Once they had rejoined the rest of the party, they all took cover behind the aircars. By now it was routine. Katrin nodded once. Ranmor touched the control. Another blast assaulted Drew's abused ears. There was a loud crack and part of the roof and wall split away, then an even louder crash and splash as it fell into the water.

      They waited for the dust and spray to settle, then went forward.

      Drew looked first at the spot where he had placed the charges. In the bright lights he could see that they had failed again. There was nothing but a new rock wall and a pile of wet rocks.

      "Gogod!" The voice was Ranmor's.

      "What did I tell you!" Katrin crowed.

      Drew was about to ask them if they had lost their minds entirely when he realised they were looking some way to the left. He looked too. At the edge of the blasted area there was something new. A smooth arch of rock spanned a stream flowing out into the cave from a high, artificially-widened tunnel that led away into darkness.

      "Where did that come from?" Drew exclaimed as Katrin scrambled over the wet rocks to examine it. The blast had broken away the near edge of the arch, but it should not have been powerful enough to clear a blocked tunnel. Besides, why hadn't they seen the stream?

      Katrin made a disgusted noise and Drew followed Ranmor to join her.

      "Hellfire!" the NCO gasped.

      Drew peered over his shoulder. Just inside the tunnel, the blast had demolished what had plainly been some sort of niche in the wall. It had also torn apart and crushed whatever had occupied it. Something had bled red blood. Drew suddenly realised that he was looking at part of a torso, without arms or legs. There was some equipment, too. It looked like part of a primitive life-support system.

      Ranmor spat. "I don't like this," he informed Katrin.

      She said, "Neither do I, but have you noticed that the oppressive atmosphere of this cave has also gone?"

      Drew hadn't realised that she had even noticed it. He hadn't mentioned it, for fear he would be laughed down.

      "What do we do now?" Ranmor asked.

      "We go in," said Katrin.

      "What do you expect to find?"

      "Quibell. And whoever has him. Whoever that is, they won't be friendly. Now move it!"

      

      

This time no chances were being taken with Avon. Two men held him tightly by the arms as he was frog-marched along, and a gern looped threateningly close.

      Avon knew where he was being taken. He also knew why. It was the reason he fought every millimetre of the way there, though his captors seemed indifferent to his struggles, even when his wild kicks hit home.

      He realised that he was only prolonging his life by seconds, but panic was winning. If it had been only death he faced he might have gone to his fate with dignity, but what lay before him was far worse than that.

      Despite his struggles, he was moved inexorably onward, into a small cave where the lighting was muted. Rows of long, trough-like tanks lined the walls, containing a grey-white wrinkled mass of living tissue.

      Avon's stomach heaved. If he had needed final proof it was before him now. To his left lay a blood-splattered slab, a cryogenic freezing unit and a small tissue culture tank beside it. He could hardly bear to look at them.

      Don't worry, said a part of his mind. By the time you're brought back here you won't know what's happening to you. All the higher functions of your mind will have been overwhelmed.

      That logical streak did not stop Avon struggling like a maniac, clawing and kicking at his expressionless captors. They, however, stoically withstood his every effort and pulled him towards the next door. That was heavy, built, like the whole wall, out of the golden-hued metal from the wrecked starship.

      Why does it want me? Avon demanded of himself. I'm no psi. It has better servants... younger, stronger humans... Cally. It must have mistaken me for Cally...

      The door was right in front of him.

      There was a small explosion. The man holding his right arm slumped, dragging Avon almost to the floor before his grip loosened.

      As Avon started to recover his balance there was a second explosion. He had twisted himself loose before he realised that the second guard was falling. With both his captors dead, he scrambled away, not understanding what was happening, but only glad to be free.

      //Come to the outer door. I will cover you,// said a familiar, impossible voice into his mind.

      He tried to obey, but before he had gone a metre his legs were swept from under him as the gern curled about them. A second loop and his arms were trapped to his sides. He writhed desperately, but the gern's grip tightened like pythonbind.

      There were more small explosions, but Avon heard them only dimly as the gern squeezed his chest until his ribs cracked and his lungs scorched... Suddenly the grip eased. The gern was torn away from him. As Avon gulped in air and the red mists cleared from his eyes he realised Cally was kneeling at his side.

      Cally. The hair and skin might have belonged to Lenore Wing, but this woman was Cally: intensely alive, in combat gear, gun at her hip, rifle over her shoulder, and a purple-stained knife in her hand. Her other hand was behind his shoulders, supporting him.

      "Avon. Avon. Are you all right?"

      "Yes. Cally, we've-"

      "I know," she interrupted him. Putting her handgun from its holster, she thrust it into his hands. "Follow me."

      Despite the weakness he felt, a weakness of exhaustion and relief, Avon scrambled to his feet and trailed Cally past the scattered corpses. Yet, at the door, they paused and looked back.

      "I don't suppose you thought to bring any explosives," Avon said, almost wistfully.

      "I did, but I no longer have them. Only the incandsa rifle, and we will need every charge that carries to escape from this place. I do not want to leave this intact, either, but-"

      The massive door at the far end of the room began to swing open. Avon and Cally fled.

      

      

Cally seemed to know where she was going. Avon certainly hoped that she did. He had no idea how she could know her way, but he had no idea how she had found him, either. Her appearance had been little short of miraculous...

      They had passed quite a large number of corpses, which suggested that they were tracing her inward trail. Avon hadn't often seen Cally in battle and now he was beginning to wonder why Blake did not make greater use of her talents. She loped along like a hunting tigress, rifle in one hand, the long knife in the other. He kept close behind her.

      Then he heard a grinding noise ahead of them and spurted forward to catch Cally's arm. "Wait!"

      "We must leave this place as quickly as we can."

      "Agreed, but we'd be fools to run straight into some of the things prowling the-"

      "Come o-" Cally's interruption was broken off in a strangled shriek.

      Ahead the tunnel lights went out. No, something was blocking them, coming towards them out of its own darkness, a pallid bulk, filling the tunnel. It was almost shapeless, a giant bag covered in slime, with no eyes but long cilia writhing about a sucking, lipless mouth.

      Cally fell to one knee and fired straight into its maw. A series of blasts shattered flesh around and inside the mouth. Ichor spattered the rock walls, but the thing continued to grind onward.

      "Leave it!" Avon shouted, wrenching Cally round. "Even if you kill it, this tunnel will be blocked! Come on!"

      Very reluctantly, Cally came with him. It was not in her nature to run from an enemy. However, their swift retreat soon left the slow-moving creature behind them.

      "Orac gave me maps of the caves," Cally panted.

      "Good. I take it he neglected to tell you what we are up against."

      "He... dropped hints."

      "He would."

      They stopped and, though keeping a close watch on the tunnel behind them, took time to check their position on the maps.

      "Do you have transport?" Avon asked Cally.

      "Not now."

      "Pity."

      "Perhaps you would rather I had gone back to get more."

      Avon glared at her for a moment, then said: "We have to leave these widened passages and get to the untouched parts of the original cave system. That seems to be our best, if not only, chance. Look here. Just up ahead this passageway used to split into five different branches. I don't think all of them will have been cleared and enlarged."

      "Agreed. That is our path, then?"

      "Yes. You have lights?"

      "Of course."

      "Come on."

      

      

When they had flown out of the darkness into a well-lit, smooth-sided tunnel, Katrin had put her crews on full alert status. As they travelled onward, Drew found his hand straying to his gun, and the battle-light was gleaming in Katrin's eyes as she leaned forward in her seat.

      "I'd say we were on the right track, wouldn't you, Drew? This must be the way they brought Quibell."

      "I suppose so," said Drew.

      "I wonder how far Wing is ahead of us. It will be interesting to discover how she found the tunnel entrance - and how she got past the civcops guarding the cave."

      "If she went past them. I still think you're mistaken about Lenore Wing, Commander," Drew replied, doggedly.

      "She came this way," Katrin stated, no doubt in her voice, "but I'm beginning to wonder if I was wrong about her motives. Perhaps she did have a part in Quibell's kidnapping."

      "No."

      Katrin laughed. "Anyway, she shows a remarkable lack of faith in you, my dear Drew, going in alone like that. You can't have made much of an impression."

      Drew grunted.

      "Commander," said Ranmor, "according to the instruments we're moving in a curve - a steady one."

      "Interesting. Can you chart our possible destination?"

      "I can try."

      There was a long, unhappy silence. The tunnel seemed to go on for ever, despite the high speed of the aircars. They saw nothing and no one. They had engaged the air recycling systems, but not before the putrid stench had got into the aircars, and it was still not totally filtered out. Drew fancied that they were travelling through the bowels of some gargantuan animal. Soon it would begin to digest them. He did not, however, voice this fancy aloud.

      Quite suddenly, they emerged into a much larger cavern. Katrin called a halt. The aircars' gunners snapped to alertness, but there was nothing to shoot at, just a lake that looked even more vile than the stream that flowed from it into the dark passages that they had just vacated. On the edge of the lake was a small, box-shaped building.

      "Let's take a look at that," said Katrin. "Ranmor, we'll drop you on the roof." She opened the communications channel to the second aircar. "Morris, we're moving in on the installation. Cover us."

      "Yes, ma'am."

      Katrin's driver lifted the aircar, sliding through the air above the water. Ranmor hefted his paragun in one hand, opened the door, then, as the aircar hovered above the building, leapt for the flat roof, landing with a thump. He dropped from the edge of the roof to the pathway below, then disappeared into the building.

      A few seconds later they heard paragun fire. Katrin stiffened, but neither spoke nor moved until Ranmor appeared in the doorway. He gave the signal that meant "all clear" and the aircar moved in to pick him up.

      "Well?" Katrin demanded as he came through the door.

      "Some kind of organic waste processing plant," he reported as he regained his seat. "Nothing else."

      "Then what the hell were you shooting at, man?"

      "There was a mork in there. Never could stand the things."

      "What the devil is a 'mork'?"

      "If you came from the Vaiari uplands of this forsaken planet, like me, then you'd know what a mork is all right..." Both Drew and Katrin were inclined to forget that Ranmor was a native of Ararat, as he usually seemed to want to forget himself. "Beast like a big, purple rat. All teeth and appetite. Bright, though. Too damn bright. Just two points below a basic sentience rating. They're one of the worst pests Ararat has to offer."

      "Okay, so you killed it. No sign of real intelligent life."

      "None."

      "We've been lucky so far," said Drew.

      "We'll meet hostiles," Katrin said with certainty and anticipation. "Let's move on."

      "But which way?" Drew asked. "I've seen four different tunnels leading out of this place and there may well be more."

      "We'll follow the stream back to its source," Katrin decided.

      "They've all got streams!" Drew retorted. He moderated his voice to suggest, "We could split up."

      "No."

      "Excuse me, Commander," Ranmor broke in. "Maybe I can help. I've plotted the line of the corrected curve along which we were travelling. If I extend it, it passes right under Canaan."

      "What?" Katrin snatched the map from him. "So it does. Which of these tunnels leads in that direction?"

      "I don't-"

      "We'll find out, Section Leader. That'll be the way they took Quibell."

      "You're jumping to conclusions again, Katrin."

      "Playing my hunches," Katrin snapped back. "Besides, it's the only lead we've got... though I'm not sure Quibell matters quite as much now as finding out just what the hell is going on."

      

      

As they sat at the top of a heap of big stone saucers cascading down to the stream below, the lamp casting a little road of light into the sculptured, fairyland splendour of the grotto, Cally thought that Avon was perhaps regretting their decision to take this path.

      They had squeezed into the shaft with some difficulty, ascending the vertical chimney by placing their backs against one wall, bracing their feet against the one opposite and half walking, half pushing themselves upward, with fresh water pouring down on their heads from above and the cold seeping into their bodies.

      From the top of the chimney they had begun a hard trek over rough rock, often wading through pools of icy water. The first time they had plunged in up to their waists, Avon had reached out to help her, but she had firmly pushed his hand away. He was just as tired as she was and later they might really need his greater strength and endurance. He could not afford to squander his reserves. She could only hope that when that strength was needed it would be offered again, but she knew that her rejection had hurt him. He so rarely tried to give, that acceptance of any overture from him was normally considered essential by those who wanted his friendship.

      Now, when Cally wanted to help him, she knew that he would accept nothing and, while the combat suit that she wore had protected her, he was soaked to the skin. The light suit he was wearing had been designed for a warm, tropical night and provided no protection at all. She could hear his teeth chattering. She wanted to move close to him, lending him the warmth of her body, but his expression made it quite clear that he would not allow her do so.

      Instead, she searched her pockets, then pressed two concentrate discs into his hand. He looked up quickly to stare at her in the dim light.

      "Go on," she urged him. "Eat. I know that you have not done so for many hours."

      "How much food do you have with you, Cally?"

      "Enough for both of us for another six days. It will be enough."

      "To give us time to reach the surface? Dodging the opposition as we go? Do you realise how far we've come? It must be all of eight hundred metres."

      "There will be no need to reach the surface. Blake will be here within four days to teleport us out." At his questioning look, she gave him a condensed version of her actions of the previous night. "When Orac informs him, Blake will come," she finished.

      "Oh, of course he will," Avon muttered.

      "He will come. You know that, Avon, so why pretend that you believe otherwise?"

      "Well, if he comes, I take it that you haven't forgotten the teleport bracelets?"

      Cally looked at him with wide eyes. "Teleport bracelets?" she said in horror. "I knew there was something-" then burst out laughing at the expression on her companion's face. "I am sorry, Avon, but... do you have to take me for a fool? Of course I have the teleport bracelets. I did not expect that they would be needed but I had, as Blake says, to cover the angles."

      Avon leaned his head back against the rock and studied the grotesque shadows on the stalactite-studded roof. He chewed slowly on the concentrates, knowing that they would deaden the gnawing pain in his stomach and would give him enough energy for the next ten hours. He wondered if they dare sleep. He was very tired and he was sure that Cally was too... She could not have slept the night before...

      "Cally," he said after a moment, "thank you for saving my life." There was no expression in his voice or his face.

      She nodded acknowledgement, expecting no more from him.

      Then he met her eyes and his lips twitched. "Or prolonging my life, more accurately. Well, I'm grateful, even for that. If Blake is coming, we need to make our way as close to the surface as we can, otherwise the teleport may be disrupted by too great a depth of rock. Where are the maps?"

      They bent their heads together over the thin plastic sheets.

      "We have a choice ahead," said Avon. "These caverns are probably occupi-" Cally's hand suddenly reached out to gag his mouth.

      //I heard something.//

      They listened. Avon could hear nothing except dripping water and was about to say so when there was a scratching sound behind them and to their right.

      //Do not move.//

      There was a motion at the far side of the grotto. Cally swung the light on it. Avon had the impression of something the size of a large house cat, then there was a flicker of silver as Cally's knife left her hand. It was followed by a thump as a limp bundle of fur fell from the rocks to the edge of the pool.

      Cally rose, the light still in her hand. Avon followed her.

      The body was that of an animal weighing about ten kilos. It had a pointed face and small, rounded ears. The odd thing about it, from Avon's basically Terran point of view, was its colour. It was as rich a magenta as he had ever seen.

      "It saw the light," said Cally.

      "And heard our voices. I should have foreseen this. There will be spies - small nocturnal animals, probably - in every part of the cave system."

      "And that... thing... in the central cave now knows exactly where we are."

      Not another word was spoken. Cally retrieved her knife, cleaned it on the creature's fur, then let Avon take the lamp and lead the way on down the passage.

      

      

Five minutes later, as they were travelling through a narrow passageway so high that the torch beam could not find the roof, Avon suddenly switched off the light.

      //Avon?// Cally questioned, feeling his fingers touch her arm.

      "Look up," he said softly.

      As she did so, Cally realised that she could see the pale blur of his hand pointing upward and to the right. The total darkness was adulterated by light seeping from a crack high in the cave wall.

      "That isn't on the maps," Cally observed.

      "But this tunnel is marked as passing close to several of the larger caverns. If any of those have been enlarged the wall could have been breached."

      "We go through?"

      "That is probably a better idea than walking calmly into what is certainly waiting for us up ahead. Can you give me a boost, Cally? I can probably pull you up after me."

      Even as he spoke, Cally was making a stirrup of her hands. Avon took a few steps back - as far as he could go in the restricted space - then came forward at speed. His foot rested in Cally's hands for only an instant as he leapt upward. His hands clawed at the rock and he wrestled himself upward by sheer muscle power until he was lying flat along a narrow ledge.

      He reached downward and a second later Cally's hand slapped into his. He gasped as her weight dragged at him sharply, almost pulling him from the ledge, but he managed to hang on to her until her feet found purchase. With his help, she gained the ledge.

      The crack was wide enough for them to squeeze into it together.

      They found themselves looking down into a narrow cave that apparently opened into a wider and higher one. It appeared to be in use as a combined vehicle park and repair shop.

      "I think our luck just turned," Avon said quietly.

      "I thought you did not believe in luck."

      "Not as a force, I don't. Luck is a statistical probability manifesting itself in the lives of individuals... which does not make it any less real."

      "Which vehicle do we take?"

      "The blue aircar. It's about fifteen years old, but it's a faster, more reliable model than the others."

      Cally unshouldered the rifle. "I'll take the three men on the far side of the cave."

      Avon nodded, levelling the handgun at another of the purple-furred, rat-like animals, which was sitting on top of one of the aircars. A human beside it was examining the stabilisers.

      //Now!// Cally ordered, even as she fired.

      Avon took the smaller target first, his shot throwing tattered remnants of magenta fur into the air. Instantly, he changed aim and blew the man's head to smithereens. Cally's third target was falling as he swung over the edge and dropped to the floor. When Cally followed him, he was waiting at the bottom to steady her. Together they ran for the aircar.

      Then Cally saw a new danger. //To your left, Avon!//

      A group of the herder animals she had fought earlier was galloping in from the main cave. The creatures had probably been massing to move into the tunnel down which Avon and Cally had been travelling, when they had been summoned here in response to the ambush. They were already between them and the aircar.

      Avon was firing the handgun, spraying the beasts on a wide beam. Cally decided that they were too close for her to use her rifle effectively and pulled out the knife, running faster now to get in front of Avon as one of the herders leapt for him. It impaled itself on her knife. She jerked the weapon loose as Avon downed another.

      "Keep going," he panted. "Get to the aircar."

      She flung herself forward, the knife swinging. Avon backed after her. Three herders jumped at her. Avon killed one and her knife sliced another's throat, but the third locked teeth into her arm. Then Avon slammed the edge of his hand into its throat and it let go.

      Cally stumbled onward. She reached the aircar and tumbled in just as a motley group of creatures, some of them bearing weapons, came racing in from the main cave.

      As she pulled herself across the aircar's cabin and into the far seat, Avon followed her in, kicking away one of the herders and slamming the door in the snarling face of another.

      Then the engines hummed softly and Avon sent the machine flying into the main cavern.

      As Cally took out her maps to direct him, he said. "So much for 'man's best friend'."

      "What?"

      "The dogs, Cally."

      "Dogs?"

      "Those beasts back there." He was watching carefully for an attack as he spoke. "An Earth animal originally, and the first domesticated by man. Apparently their veneer of civilisation is just as thin as ours."

      "They were herding beetu."

      "They were used as herders on Earth."

      "Go up ten metres and steer thirty degrees to your right," Cally ordered.

      "You'd better open a window and get that rifle ready," Avon told her as he adjusted the course.

      A tunnel opened before them. There was a man standing at its mouth holding a weapon. Avon pushed Cally down with his arm, gunned the engines, and charged the aircar straight at him. Cally heard a dull thump. When she raised her head they were in the tunnel and the way was clear.

      "He didn't fire," Avon stated.

      "It wants you alive. You're no use to it dead."

      "I'm no use to it, anyway. No more than the man I just killed."

      "It does not know that."

      

      

"Another damn algae farm," Ranmor growled. "Do these stinking puddles go on for ever?"

      "I'm beginning to think they do," Drew agreed. "I'm also beginning to think we've lost our way... That is if one can lose one's way when one doesn't know where one was going in the first place."

      "We're not far from Canaan city," Katrin pointed out.

      "Merely half a kilometre under it," Ranmor grumbled with pardonable exaggeration. Then, "More of those flying creatures, Commander. Off to the right."

      "Well, they'll leave us alone if we leave them alone."

      "But where did they come from? They're not native, Commander, at least not to this continent. There's something very odd going on here."

      "Powers!" Katrin exploded. "Has that only just dawned on you, man?"

      Ranmor subsided, looking hurt.

      "Commander!" It was the rear-gunner, Saine, who spoke. "Look, at two forty degrees relative."

      Katrin and Ranmor abandoned their argument and looked.

      A disc-shaped craft had emerged from one of the tunnels. Now it scudded out over the surface of the lake, raising clouds of spray.

      "I don't believe it!" Katrin yelped. "Is that or is that not a ground-effect vehicle?"

      One of Drew's hobbies was military history and there was an uneasy feeling in his stomach as he watched the craft churning its way towards them. "That's a ground-effect vehicle all right."

      "Well, it's down there and we're up here," Katrin commented. "We have the advantage, so let's use it. We'll take a closer look." She spoke into her command microphone. "Morris. We're going to make a visual scan on the antique. Move in on her left so that she's bracketed between us."

      "Yes, Commander."

      Katrin nodded to her driver. The two Federation aircars split formation and flew from differing angles towards the surface craft.

      Suddenly Drew cried out, reached across Katrin and the driver and slammed the controls to one side. The aircar tilted violently, almost going into a roll before the cursing driver shoved Drew back and flung the aircar the other way.

      Katrin was screaming at Drew, demanding to know what the hell he thought he was doing when the air was filled with noise and light. The aircar was hurled sideways. Drew, who had freed himself from his restraints, fell on top of Katrin, who held him away from the driver and the controls by main force, her fingers hooked tightly into his belt. Then the aircar rolled back the opposite way and Drew fell hard into his seat as it slewed about.

      The monitors showed the other aircar falling in flames. It hit the water, raising a spout of dirty white spray, then sank.

      "Knew... I... recognised that," Drew panted. "Planetary tank... maybe two... three hundred years old."

      Ranmor said, from the rear seat, "They used them to exterminate the marsh-dragons. Took them away... oh... two hundred years ago."

      "This one didn't go," Katrin snapped. "Ranmor - scans. Drew - on the nose lasers."

      "We're losing power, Commander," the driver warned, as the note of the engines wavered for a moment and the aircar dipped towards the water.

      "Just keep her flying," Katrin snarled.

      "I can see the hostile," Ranmor reported. "Bearing one-three-five. It seems to be retreating."

      "Get after it."

      "I'm still losing power," the driver insisted. "I don't know how long-"

      "Get after them."

      The driver dragged up the plunging nose and did as she was ordered.

      The tank was now some way to their right. Not much lower in the air than the aircar, it raised a cloud of spray as it hovered, almost stationary, facing a tunnel entrance. Whoever was driving it did not seem greatly concerned about Katrin's aircar, even when it began to limp towards it. Perhaps the smoke pouring from the damaged engine made it seem less of a threat.

      But the battle-lust gleamed in Katrin's eyes and her animated face was as near as it ever came to being beautiful as she stalked her prey. Drew had never completely understood her joy in killing. His own response was to become completely detached.

      "Targeted on the hostile," he reported.

      "Fire!"

      The twin beams of the aircar's forward lasers converged on the tank. That armour was tough. It reddened and peeled away only slowly. As if in response to pain, the tank's turrets reacted by swinging towards the aircar.

      But Katrin's driver was experienced. She slipped the aircar sideways as Drew, not as experienced but well drilled, compensated for the movement, keeping the lasers trained on one spot. The tank's energy guns pulsed blue flame. Missing the aircar by over three metres, the charged plasma exploded and the vehicle shuddered in response. The driver fought to keep it steady, swearing monotonously as she did so.

      Then the lasers finally penetrated the tank's armour. Something detonated and the tank exploded from the inside, fire gushing from the laser-torn hole. The tank quivered in its joints, then collapsed in on itself. Its power died, and it crashed down into the water. Tilting on one side it began, slowly, to sink. No one made any attempt to leave it.

      Katrin was smiling smugly. "Very nice. Now, let's find out what's down that tunnel..."

      "I can't hold her. We're losing power too fast," the driver interrupted.

      Katrin scanned the monitors. They were still fifty metres from the tunnel and almost on the water. "Can you gain any height?"

      "No. We hit the water in... maybe thirty seconds."

      "Steer twenty degrees," Katrin ordered. "The aeration island... it's our only chance. Steer for it and keep her going as long as you can."

      The driver was already heading for the small, dome-shaped artificial island, now less than twenty metres away. Her plump face was grim and beaded with sweat as she sent every erg of power into the dying engines, cosseting them as best she could.

      The aircar's nose dipped again, kissing the water, and it shook with the impact. Its nose coming up and its tail slapping down on the water, the aircar jumped under its last surge of power, then the engines died completely. It bellyflopped on the very edge of the aeration island, jarring everyone's teeth.

      "Report status," Katrin ordered.

      A quiet quartet of voices recorded their survival.

      "Right. Cris, you and I and Li will check the engines. Drew, Saine, guard duty. Watch particularly for another of those damn tanks. Now, everybody out."

      

      

None of the Federation personnel had seen the blue aircar burst from the tunnel the tank had been guarding and rise up towards the cavern roof.

      "What's going on down there?" Avon asked.

      "I'm not- Avon, that's a Federation Security aircar. They must have come after us."

      Avon grinned. "And they appear to have found something they didn't expect."

      "They need help," Cally decided. "Take us down, Avon."

      Avon made no move to obey. "They are Federation Security," he pointed out.

      "They are here to rescue Ras Quibell," Cally said sharply. "We are in their debt - and you cannot leave any intelligent being to that."

      "I can leave Federation Security to anything."

      Cally's strong fingers closed tightly on Avon's wrist. "I do not believe that, Avon. I do not believe that you are no better than Servalan or Travis. These people came here to rescue you..."

      Avon stared at her.

      "And I will not navigate you out of here without them."

      Avon continued to stare at her, then suddenly swung the aircar around.

      Cally smiled.

      Avon glared at her. "It just occurred to me that we may need the Security Commander's help to get off this planet," he said stonily. "And someone has to destroy that thing in the caves. I'd rather it wasn't us - but Blake may feel otherwise unless we can get the Federation to destroy it first."

      "Of course," said Cally.

      Avon did not reply. He was sure that he was being humoured and he did not like the feeling. He also suspected that he had been manoeuvred. It was bad enough that Blake did it... if Cally started too...

      

      

Drew took one side of the island, scanning over one hundred and eighty degrees. Saine was on the other side watching just as carefully. Katrin, Ranmor, and the driver, Li, were working on the aircar's innards. Drew's eyes moved over the rough rock of the cavern walls, seeing nothing. He assumed the 'third guard' position, on one knee, paragun at the ready, all the time wondering if it was really possible to repair the aircar. Katrin plainly thought so, but she was always over-optimistic. This expedition of hers had certainly proved disastrous.

      There was a soft plashing noise behind him.

      "Saine!" he called, without turning.

      There was no answer.

      Instinct sent Drew spinning. He saw a long tentacle slithering towards him and blasted it, but kept turning.

      Saine was gone, and in his place loomed a massive animal bulk covered in green and brown scales the size of dinner plates. In the row of strange red eyes under the edges of the carapace that lay over the creature's back, lights glowed in strange patterns. Drew froze, staring into the weird eyes, oblivious of a shout of warning from Katrin.

      A tentacle snaked out of the water, reaching for him...

      An aircar came racing in, right over the top of the creature's carapace, but Drew did not see it. All he could see was a whirling red pattern...

      Something hit Drew, knocking him flat and breaking the hypnotic spell. Instantly, he rolled to one side, raising his head in time to see a woman slice a tentacle in half with a single blow from what appeared to be a young sword.

      Someone was shooting over Drew's head and each shot exploded in one of the creature's eyes. A nest of tentacles lay over their own aircar, but Katrin and Ranmor were running across the tiny island towards him, taking pot shots at the creature as they went. There was no sign of Li.

      Tentacles writhed towards them, but the woman - Drew realised with a painful shock that it was Lenore Wing - came leaping in, the knife a weaving, dancing net of steel, cutting through tentacle after tentacle as she blasted others with the gun in her left hand.

      Katrin and Ranmor reached Drew, grabbed his arms and hauled him up and around. The first thing he saw was an aircar hovering a metre or so above the island. Both near doors were open. A man sat in the driver's seat taking a series of calm shots at the creature with an incandsa rifle.

      "Inside!" he shouted, and Drew got a second shock as he recognised Ras Quibell. Somehow, covered in mud with his hair plastered to his forehead and a gun in his hand, he looked a completely different man from the one Drew had seen at Boler's party only a few hours before.

      Ranmor dived into the rear seat, followed by Drew himself and then Katrin. Even before she was fully inside, the aircar was moving again, drifting in towards Lenore and rising. Quibell leaned out of the door. Lenore leapt upward and caught his outstretched hand. She was hauled inside as the aircar went up like a rocket.

      "What the hell was that thing?" Katrin demanded.

      "Marsh-dragon. They're supposed to be extinct," Ranmor gasped.

      "That one isn't," Quibell remarked calmly. He seemed singularly unruffled, Drew thought with annoyance. He also seemed to have no difficulty in controlling the aircar as Lenore clambered across him to the far seat. "Where now?" he asked her.

      Lenore picked up a sheaf of what looked like computer printouts. "Steer one-eight-three. There's a shaft that comes up close to Canaan."

      "You have a map. Where did you get it?" Ranmor asked.

      "These caverns were charted by Planetary Survey before Ararat was colonised," said Lenore. "I checked with them."

      "One bloody step ahead, like I said," Katrin growled. "What did you think you were doing, Wing?"

      "Rescuing Ras."

      "Why the blazes didn't you ask us for help? It isn't your job-"

      "But it is," Quibell corrected calmly as he lifted the aircar upward into the shaft. "She's my bodyguard. I imagine professional pride was involved. Lenore?"

      Cally picked up her cue. "Yes. I was unable to stop them from taking you, so I had to bring you back."

      Drew couldn't believe it. "A professional bodyguard! You didn't... you're supposed to be... I mean..."

      Lenore and Quibell both laughed.

      "That was what you were meant to think... but I had let down my guard. That was your fault, Ras."

      "I wanted you to enjoy the party."

      "Well, I will not wear that dress again."

      "That," said Quibell, "would be a great pity."

      Drew simply scowled.

      

      Avon sat quietly in the corner of Katrin Shaw's office. They had reached Security HQ only a few minutes ago and had come straight here. Though he was warm for the first time in hours and his injuries had been treated, he felt drained. Cally had pushed a cup of very sweet tasquree into his hands. He had protested feebly that he didn't like his tasquree sweetened, but she had stood over him and made sure that he drank it. Though it had been simpler not to argue with her, he had the uneasy suspicion that there might have been something more than tasquree in the cup. He hoped that whatever it was would not knock him out.

      He had also noticed Drew Patel's half-puzzled glare in his direction at Cally's solicitousness and let amusement run through his fatigue, particularly when Ranmor winked knowingly at him.

      It was all so normal. He had sat in scores of offices like this one, among highly trained Federation personnel. He had forgotten how good it could be, this camaraderie among professionals who knew they had done a job well. No one had any suspicions about Cally and himself, merely admiration for them and gratitude for their rescue. Yes, it felt good - but these people were sitting on a time bomb.

      He sighed. He would have to spell it out for them. There was no other way to avoid being trapped here, to face the greater catastrophe to follow.

      //We must tell them,// Cally's voice said in his mind. //Avon, we cannot delay.//

      He held his hand out to her. She crossed to him. He pulled her down as if he was going to kiss her, but instead spoke softly in her ear. "Let me handle it."

      She inclined her head slightly, which he hoped meant acquiescence. More likely it meant that she would go along with him while it suited her. Cally had the bad habit of following her own conscience.

      He rose wearily to his feet and moved to Katrin's desk. Somehow, with no more than a single glance about him, he gained both total silence and the attention of everyone in the room.

      "Commander," he said. "We cannot sit here arguing about what we should do next. Even now it may not be too late to save our own lives, and the rest of the galaxy should be warned."

      "Warned against what? We've no idea what we're facing, Quibell."

      "Lenore and I both know what we faced in the caverns. So do you, Commander, if you look at the evidence with an open mind."

      "What evidence?" Katrin asked as Drew and Ranmor bristled on her behalf.

      "We know that whatever is in the caverns came here between the original planetary survey and the founding of the colony. That suggests that it is not native to Ararat, but has been here nearly three hundred standard years. The time scale is significant. So is the large number of people who have disappeared without trace in the period since then."

      "And many of the off-worlders who vanished were telepaths," said Cally. "Like the two Auronar and the Montalid, of which Captain Patel told me. That's why Ras was taken, too. He is not a telepath, but he was carrying a wooden carving that contained a telepathic lure and a directional transmitter."

      Avon flashed her an angry look. Cally was giving away information that could conceivably rouse suspicions about their identities. He wished that he had some way to shut her up.

      "That's significant, too," he agreed swiftly, "as are the thefts of exotic animals which Captain Patel was also investigating."

      "One of those animals was used in your kidnapping," Drew said.

      Avon nodded approvingly. "Right. And you've seen the algae farms - which are used to feed beetu herds - and an alien technology cannibalised from the human using vast amounts of power. You've also seen humans who never speak and who act with no regard for their own comfort or safety, and animals which behave rationally."

      "Like the marsh-dragon!" Ranmor exclaimed. "And the mork."

      "And the cavern entrances were guarded," said Cally. "Guarded by illusions of impassability, projected by hidden telepaths, living beings truncated down to their essential organs."

      "So what," Avon asked, "is alien, long-lived, needs vast supplies of meat, uses humans and animals as slaves - humans and animals that act in a fashion neither human nor animal - kidnaps telepaths, and has had a reason to live underground in deep secrecy for nearly three hundred years?"

      Katrin sat down very slowly. All the blood had drained from her face. When she spoke, her voice was a whisper. "Csrill."

      Avon nodded. "Csrill."

      Ranmor was cursing. Drew was silent, utterly stunned, clutching at the edge of the desk for support. Csrill. It was impossible, yet it fitted. Gods! It fitted.

      Natives of the planet Rilla, the Csrill were huge, intelligent and incredibly long-lived carnivores with a very high metabolic rate. Almost totally sedentary when adult, they used other living creatures as hands and eyes - once their individuality had been destroyed by burning out the higher centres of their brains. The implanting of Csrill tissue enabled a two-way telepathic link to be formed and the creature became a slave-extension of the Csrill. With its multi-consciousness, a single Csrill could have hundreds of these extensions, controlling them to a distance of thirty-five kilometres. On Rilla, specialised slave-extensions had been bred for millennia to perform the tasks the Csrill required.

      Then the Csrill had discovered that they could use telepathic tissue to boost their own controlling power. With a bank of brain cells dissected from telepathic minds, a Csrill could boost its control to several thousand slave-extensions over a distance of hundreds of kilometres. So had dawned their Golden Age.

      But the Csrill found themselves unable to breed or clone enough telepathic creatures at the speed or in the numbers that their ambitions demanded.

      With their newly developed starships, the Csrill moved out into the galaxy, searching for minds they could use.

      It was unlucky that the first ship they encountered should have been from Auron. Believing that they had found a perfect, inexhaustible source of ready-grown telepathic nervous tissue, the Csrill rampaged out from Rilla to seize it. Unable or unwilling to tell one humanoid species from another, they had attacked everything that moved, slaughtering everyone they could not use and taking the telepaths to Rilla for dissection and insertion into the telepathic-tissue relay banks.

      The Csrill wars had been the bloodiest in galactic history. The people of the Known Worlds had united to exterminate the Csrill. Finally, Rilla was reduced to an asteroid ring around its star.

      The Earth Federation had sprung from the alliance that had fought that war, though, oddly, some of those who had most benefited from that alliance, like the Auronar, had refused to join.

      One more thing had come from that war. The word 'Csrill' had become a curse throughout the Known Worlds.

      Avon said, "Csrill. There is no doubt. I know that the Federation believed that the Csrill had been totally destroyed, but consider the facts. Apart from what you yourselves have seen, remember that Lenore and I have been into the inner caverns.

      "I've seen the wreckage of a starship in those caverns, dragged into hiding before the colonists came. I've seen the skeletons of the Csrill's slave-extensions, too, their bones stacked beneath the ruins of the starship's hull. That hull was coloured gold, and it was powered by ion-annihilators. The power in the caves still comes from them. There is no doubt; it was a Csrill starship.

      "I've also seen telepathic humanoids being grown in ontogenetal development tanks and I've seen the biolabs where there are huge stores of cloning samples and reproductive cells-"

      "You're jumping to conclusions," Drew protested. "Other species use cloning techniques and store sex cells."

      "Have you ever seen such a store where every container was unlabelled?" Avon inquired. "Where there were no records, computed or otherwise? But Csrill have perfect memories and total recall. They don't need records.

      "I've also seen the telepathic relay banks. In fact, I nearly became part of them. The slave-extensions were already making preparations to remove my brain and what other tissues they wanted to store for cloning and reproduction."

      "I saw that, too. For a moment I thought that I had arrived too late," Cally added.

      "I still can't believe it," Drew muttered.

      Katrin said, "Oh, I can. But why the urgency, Quibell? Once we bring in Space Command-"

      "We don't have time," Avon interrupted. "Commander, this Csrill seems to have arrived on Ararat just after the Csrill wars. It must have been immature, still able to move by itself. At the end the Csrill flung even their newly-sentient young into the fight. This one lost control of its ship and crashed. Most of its own slaves would have been killed, but it takes more than a crashing starship to kill a Csrill. It must have appropriated the local fauna as slaves and food, and by the time the colonists arrived it was settled deep in the caves. Since then, with inadequate knowledge and tools, it has built itself an approximation of a Csrill self-city. The colonists were a useful source of equipment and slaves and the Csrill had time. It could afford to be cunning, to build up its telepathic relay banks slowly, so that no one would suspect its presence.

      "But that has changed. Recently, it has stepped up its search for psis and it has started taking risks, as Patel's records testify. Why? Also, it is consuming vast quantities of beetu.

      "What is most worrying, though, is that this Csrill came here about three hundred years ago, and it was young. Csrill first spawn when they are three to four hundred standard years old."

      Again, the room was silent. All knew the peril of a Csrill swarm. The winged, voracious young Csrill were nearly invulnerable and ate anything that moved. They started to take their first slaves when they reached about twenty kilos, a couple of months from the time of spawning. On Rilla, many young Csrill were killed by each other and older Csrill until a balance was achieved, but here on Ararat, only Csrill slaves and meat animals would finally be left alive.

      "That is why the adult Csrill is collecting and growing telepaths at an almost frantic pace. It will have to protect itself and its slave extensions from its own offspring by a telepathic broadcast. I also suspect that it means to take and hold the spaceport. For that it will need as much boosting power as it can get from its telepathic relay banks. It needs vast quantities of food before reproduction, too, hence the beetu," Avon explained.

      No one had any doubts left. "You're right, Quibell," said Katrin. "I have standing orders for such a contingency. Captain Patel, prepare for an evacuation of all Security Forces. Quibell, Wing. You go out on the first ship. The Federation owes you that much. I'll call in Space Command and bring in the Fifth Fleet to vaporise Ararat."

      "But what about the colonists?" Cally demanded.

      "Expendable. My orders are to destroy Csrill, whatever the cost," Katrin stated.

      "And she doesn't have time," Avon added, supporting her. "We can't evacuate a planet before the Csrill spawns."

      "It may be weeks yet!" Drew cried.

      "Prove it."

      "The Federation is supposed to protect its citizens!" Drew protested. "You've been telling us that for years - Commander."

      "And, not that I have much time for the citizens of this planet but, begging your pardon, ma'am, this will not do the Federation's reputation any good at all," Ranmor pointed out.

      Avon said, "The Commander has no choice. The Csrill is sitting right under this city. It has used the metal from the hull of its starship to line its nest chamber. Csrill starships were constructed of a special alloy that we have never been able to duplicate: light, malleable, and damn nearly indestructible. Once the Csrill closes the doors of that nest chamber, nothing we have, short of a space fleet, will be able to touch it. If we attack, it will merely seal itself in until it spawns, and then we face not a single Csrill but a swarm."

      "And we dare not let them gain control of a spacecraft," Katrin added. "That is why we must destroy the spaceport."

      "The destruction of the spaceport will not delay the Csrill for long. This planet has to be destroyed, Commander. You have your orders. What are you waiting for?"

      "Nothing, Quibell. Patel, I thought I told you-"

      "Wait." It was Cally who spoke.

      Avon stared at her. "You want to wait with a Csrill about to spawn?"

      "We cannot let a planet and its people be destroyed if we can prevent it."

      "We cannot prevent it."

      "I think I can."

      "You?!" Drew exploded.

      But Cally was speaking to Avon and Katrin. "If we can destroy this Csrill before it spawns the danger will be over. Ras, is it possible to construct a device about the size of a... a coin that could destroy an adult Csrill?"

      "Don't be ridiculous," said Ranmor.

      "That's impossible..." Drew added.

      Avon shot them both an annoyed glance. "I might have an idea how it could be done, but to use such a device you would have to penetrate its defences and get into the nest chamber itself."

      "And that is impossible," Katrin finished.

      "I can do it," said Cally. "When the Csrill took Ras it made a mistake. He was carrying a telepathic lure, but it is I who am the psi. A telepath of a minor order-" (A calculated lie to placate Avon's worries about giving away their identities.) "-but I can reach the Csrill, mind to mind, if I am close enough." She could sense Avon's intense disapproval, but the thought of the death of Ararat was more than she could bear. Once, she had seen a planetary popu{kern 0 50}lation die. She was determined not to do so again.

      "But how would that help?" Katrin asked.

      "I will offer the Csrill an accommodation, a truce. The Csrill will remember that humans are inclined to talk first, then fight."

      "It won't make a truce, even if we could offer one," Katrin retorted. "It doesn't even see us as intelligent."

      "It has no concept of intelligence," said Avon, "only of Csrill and non-Csrill. But I see where Lenore is leading me. The Csrill won't compromise, but it needs time - and it will pretend to compromise."

      "It also needs telepaths. It will bring me alive before it so it can take my mind - then I will destroy it."

      "You may not have the time to do so before it destroys you," Avon pointed out. He was surprised by how deeply Cally's plan dismayed him, though he could see its possibilities.

      "I will. I can call telepathically to you, Ras, and to Drew and the Commander, and you can strike at the Csrill, distracting it for long enough for me to use my weapon."

      "If they haven't searched you and removed it."

      "They didn't search Ras. Besides, I have an idea about that."

      "This is suicidal," Avon said quietly. "I can put a delay fuse on the device - in fact, the device I am thinking about will need one, anyway - but, once you use it, you will be a target for every slave-extension in the nest, as well as the Csrill itself."

      "Then you must distract it for long enough to give me a chance to escape," said Cally. Mentally, she added, //I trust you, Avon.//

      "Now, wait a minute," Drew yelped. "Quibell, you can't let her do this!"

      "Why not?" Avon asked.

      "Damn it, she's your... friend."

      "Employee," Avon corrected, with a straight face.

      //Friend, you liar.//

      "Then order her not to go!"

      "Why?" Avon asked. Then, as Drew spluttered, "She has the best qualifications of any of us, and it is her idea. Besides, what would you do, Lenore, if I ordered you to leave Ararat, now?"

      "Resign - and go after the Csrill," Cally replied promptly.

      Katrin shook her head slowly. "You must excuse Drew, Lenore. He comes from a planet with quaint ideas about women." The first name was acceptance. "Ras, I don't know how good a weapons tech you are, or even how you come to know anything about the subject, but my labs and techs are yours. Cris, take care of it. We'll join you as soon as we can. Drew, arrange to put a ship into orbit. If this doesn't work, someone has to inform Space Command..."

      

      

That was the last thing Avon and Ranmor heard as the door slid shut behind them. As they turned down the corridor, Avon said, "What worries me is how we are going to distract that Csrill long enough to give Lenore a chance to destroy it and escape. If only there was some way of getting to the telepathic relay banks without alarming it, but if we try to fight our way that close it will simply seal itself in the nest chamber and wait-"

      "Hey!" Ranmor clutched at Avon's arm. "Quibell, there may be a way - the mines!"

      "What mines?"

      "They've been mining bismuth and copper in this area for the past ten years. The ore-bearing strata lie below the limestone and the caves, but the mine tunnels must pass beneath it."

      "What sort of equipment are they using?"

      "The latest. Lode-following laser borers-"

      "Can we get maps of those mines?"

      Ranmor nodded enthusiastically. "You bet we can."

      "Good. We may be in luck. If one of those shafts goes close enough..."

      

      

As Katrin and Cally came into the lab, Avon turned and demanded, "What's the situation?"

      "Going as planned. Drew has all the cave exits guarded and mined."

      "That won't stop a Csrill swarm."

      Katrin glared at him. "Nothing stops a Csrill swarm, Quibell."

      "As I said."

      "Listen, buster, Drew Patel is in there, risking his neck-"

      "To give Lenore a chance to risk hers and to save this planet."

      Katrin subsided, but made no move to apologise.

      "What's the Csrill done in response?"

      "Withdrawn to defend its inner installations."

      "Then Patel had better realise he mustn't push in any further."

      "He knows his job, Quibell. I just hope you and Lenore know yours."

      "What about Ranmor?" Avon questioned.

      "At the mines, supervising the bore."

      "Good. I trust they are being silent."

      "As silent as possible."

      "If they alert the Csrill then we are all going to be silent - as silent as death, Commander."

      "It will go as planned," Cally interrupted calmly. "Have you finished, Ras?"

      "Yes."

      "Then why didn't you say so?" Katrin howled.

      "You didn't ask." Turning his back on her, Avon made his way to the lab bench where the technicians were clearing up. "This is crude, but it will work," he told Cally, lifting a small disc from the bench by a thin chain attached to it.

      "What is it, exactly?" Katrin asked.

      "The core is a standard AM mini-grenade with a crystal timer that will ensure an explosion exactly sixty seconds after impact. That core is encased in a thin shell of essatine, coloured and moulded to resemble a medallion, as Lenore requested. Essatine is brittle and will shatter under an impact of more than 3G, so be very careful with it. The phaeston-"

      "The what?"

      "A chemical used in industry, one of the most powerful corrosive agents known. Essatine is one of the few substances that resists the attack of phaeston, but Csrill flesh and plate will not. When the essatine shatters, the phaeston will corrode its way deep into the Csrill's body, maximising the effect of the AM explosion. That is the reason for the delay fuse."

      "I thought that was to enable Lenore to get away."

      "That's secondary to destroying the Csrill," Cally herself put in. She held the medallion cupped in her hands. "Ras, what is the device on this?"

      "I don't know. We moulded it from an old one belonging to one of the weapons technicians. I don't see how it matters."

      Katrin peered over Cally's shoulder. "Linked rayed circles. It's a local symbol for lovers. The rayed circles represent the human spirit."

      Avon snorted.

      Cally slipped the chain over her head. Her tunic was open at the top and the small, gleaming disc lay between the upper curves of her breasts, in plain sight and totally innocuous.

      "I'll be going." Avon moved towards the door. "Lenore, remember that all this depends on swift, decisive and co-ordinated action. Keep your head."

      "You know I will. Good luck, Ras."

      He paused in the doorway. "We are trusting too much to luck," he said.

      After he had gone, Katrin said, "Cold devil. You're taking a suicidal risk, Lenore, and he didn't even wish you luck."

      "That is not his way," said Cally. "But I will tell you one thing, Commander. There is no companion I would rather take into danger and, when I walk into the Csrill's nest chamber, the knowledge that my life rests with him will be a strength."

      

      

Once the aircar had deposited Avon at the minehead, an AG transit shaft took him to the main reception level. The robot mining machines were still and silent now, withdrawn by Federation order to the bottom of the shaft. A group of mining technicians and engineers had also been recalled to that point, but they were far from silent, and were having to be restrained by the drafted civilian police.

      Avon didn't have time to listen to their complaints as he was transferred to a runnercar which screamed off down a switchbacking tunnel. The mining machines followed ore seams, making tunnels no wider than was necessary for transport and maintenance. It was nerve-wracking to sit in the darkness and know that you were travelling through a wormhole in rough-hewn rock at close to a hundred kilometres per hour, with no way of steering or stopping the machine, but Avon's nerves had taken so much strain that day that now he was numb.

      The tunnel rose steeply and his stomach lurched, but a couple of minutes later the runnercar drew to a bone-shaking stop. He clambered out slowly into a brightly-lit tunnel, just high enough for him to stand upright, carved out of an igneous rock that resembled a larger-grained granite.

      Ranmor came running back to greet him, a grin on his face. "Good to see you, sir. We're running short of time."

      "We don't know when it's going to run out," Avon replied. "How close are you to the caves?"

      "If your map is accurate, about eight hundred metres, but we've got the biggest laser borer you ever saw working near destruct level and it's going through this rock like a ship through hyperspace. It'll go through the limestone even more quickly when we hit that, which should be any time now - we're just below the lowest level of the caves. We're twenty minutes from breaking in on the telepathic relay banks."

      Avon was about to follow Ranmor when he noticed another tunnel rising rapidly to his right. "What's that?"

      "Oh... that. Well, we had half a dozen laser borers at our disposal and I had no use for more than one and a standby here, so I sent one to cut a tunnel to the nearest of the big caves in the outer ring. When the fighting starts we can break through there to help-"

      "Are you crazy? If you break out there before we're ready you will alarm the Csrill and ruin any chances we have of succeeding here."

      "Sometimes I think I am crazy, but I'm not that crazy. No one breaks out there until after your lady-friend sets off the big bang, sir. I've a couple of my best men down there ready to shoot anyone who thinks otherwise."

      The tunnel in front of them curved sharply. Ranmor pulled a visor from his belt. "You'll need this..." he paused. "You'll also need help setting those mines. I've worked-"

      "No," Avon said shortly. Then, as Ranmor began to protest, "This is strictly a one-man job. I've been in the cave with the telepathic relay banks. I know the layout and I know explosives."

      "Damn well, for a chair-bound executive."

      Avon's stare was steely. "Terraformers don't keep their executives 'chair-bound'. I've worked in places that make this look like paradise."

      "No offence," Ranmor said quickly.

      Avon nodded acknowledgement.

      Ahead, red light filled the passage. Avon and Ranmor snapped down their visors and went forward to where the lasers were vaporising the rock.

      

      

Drew Patel was waiting for Katrin and Cally at the shaft entrance above the city. A large group of uneasy-looking civilian police and Federation Security troopers, all armed to the teeth, were waiting with him.

      "All exits from the caverns are secure," Drew reported to Katrin. "The Csrill has withdrawn most of its slaves into the caverns around the nest. There is nothing in the algae caves but a few of those flying creatures, observing us. Our parties are advancing from the East Hole and through Ottan Cavern."

      Katrin jerked her head at the civcops. "What about them?"

      "Co-operative enough. They think we're fighting terrorists."

      "Keep it that way or they may panic and run. The last thing we need is for news of this to leak out."

      "It is their planet and their lives," Cally protested. "Surely they should be told."

      "Can't risk it," Katrin snapped. "The second last thing we need is a besieged spaceport. They wouldn't be involved at all if I had enough manpower."

      "Ready, Katrin?" Drew asked, giving Cally a warning look.

      "Ready, Lenore?" the Commander asked.

      "Yes."

      "Your aircar's over there. We'll escort you down to the first cave. Let's just hope that the Csrill hasn't mined the tunnels."

      "It probably has, but it won't seal them until your forces advance into them, and even then it won't seal them until you are fully committed. To do so would restrict the freedom of its own slave-extensions, though it would not stop the swarm. It might even mean its own death from starvation. The Csrill will avoid that while it can. That is why I must go alone."

      Katrin offered her hand. "Luck, Lenore," she said gruffly.

      Cally held the hand for a moment. "And you."

      Drew said, "This may be the only chance I'll get..." leaned forward and kissed her. He found it pleasant, but somehow disappointing. This woman was not the fairytale fire-spirit of the night before, but a warrior going into battle. There was no sexual excitement for him in that.

      Cally smiled at him, climbed into the blue aircar in which she and Avon had escaped the Csrill and flew into the pipe. Towards the nest, and towards the Csrill.

      

      

"Hold it!" Avon ordered.

      "We still have three metres to go by my reckoning," Ranmor protested as the operator switched off the laser.

      "The instrument reading will be accurate, but our maps are old. The present size of the large chamber we're aiming for is pure guesswork on my part. The last thing we want to do is to break in too early. Bring up the portable laser. We'll punch a pinhole straight through the rock and measure the depth to the cave. Hopefully that won't be noticed."

      "You're the boss," the laser operator told him.

      "When we have the hole we'll set up a monitor and run a fibop thread through."

      "Do we have time?" Ranmor asked.

      "We may not have time for anything."

      

      

As Cally rode the aircar through the tunnels and the caves, she felt her fear grow. There was a familiar cold feeling inside her. She was alone now, as alone as any of her people had ever been.

      //I come,// she telepathed again, reaching out to an alien mind that could or would not answer. //We must reach an agreement. You will be allowed to live if you release your captives. I am coming, alone, to speak with you.//

      Did the Csrill hear her? Suppose it had discovered Ranmor - and Avon. Suppose it had already sealed itself in the nest, feeling itself threatened by Drew and Katrin. Suppose it had already spawned...

      Cally calmed herself, quelling panic. She was bait, very tempting for a Csrill desperate for telepaths. If the Csrill took the bait, it did not matter if she was also caught in the trap. The life or death of the bait was not important.

      All was ominously quiet. The wide backs of the beetu at their troughs milled in irregular patterns below her, but the... dogs... had been withdrawn. There were no fliers.

      //I am returning this aircar to the repair area. I do this as a token of our good faith. You will be allowed to live if you release the humans you hold captive. I must speak with you.//

      She landed in the repair area, which was now empty of vehicles. Two dogs lay sprawled in identical menace beside a human and a gern. There was no other sign of life. Cally guessed, though, that neither vehicles nor slave-extensions were far away. She felt the Csrill's trap closing about her.

      Climbing out of the aircar, she took her knife, her only weapon, from her belt. Holding it with the blade pointing at her own breast, she walked slowly forward towards the human slave-extension. She bowed, offering the hilt. //I hand my weapon to your man. Now let us talk.//

      The man took the knife and turned away. The dogs closed in on either side. The implication, as the gern blocked her retreat, was quite plain. She was to follow.

      Trapped.

      She walked confidently on behind the human, her head high, conscious of the cold disc lying between her breasts. So small a thing, but so deadly, in the form of a lover's token, something common to her world, to Ararat, and to Earth.

      //Avon. It has taken the bait. I have just left the vehicle service cave.//

      

      

The fibop probe had to be slid 2.84 metres into the rock before the screen showed light. Avon instantly recognised the cave containing the telepathic relay banks.

      Beside him, Ranmor chuckled. "On the nose, sir. You guess very accurately. Is that the entrance to the nest?"

      "Yes. We're higher than I planned. Too near the roof." He turned to the laser operator. "I want a hole large enough for a man to crawl through, dropping two metres before it breaks into the cave. Be very careful. We don't want to break through yet, and when we do it must be low down, hidden by the equipment. As you can see, the room is not unoccupied."

      "That's just a mork," the laser operator protested. "Damn nuisance, but-"

      "Act as if that mork was as intelligent as you are, in fact, a good deal more intelligent."

      Another of the miners looked very shrewdly at Avon. "What, exactly, are we going up against?"

      Avon said, "A Csrill about to spawn."

      Amid the collective gasp, Ranmor turned on Avon in outrage. "The Commander issued orders that-"

      "By the time anyone can get word to the surface we will already know whether we are going to live or die. Meanwhile, if warning these men makes them more careful, I will warn them, Section Leader."

      "Get on with it!" one of the miners snarled at the laser operator. "At least we can do something to help save our world!"

      The laser began to cut downward.

      "Ranmor, get everyone else out of here," Avon ordered.

      "Listen, sir, I still think-"

      "Get them out. If Lenore succeeds, the explosion may bring down the roof in here. If she fails and the Csrill finds this tunnel, you will have no chance at all. Get them back and into position to break through and join Commander Shaw."

      Their eyes locked, then Ranmor turned away to give the orders. Soon, only he, Avon, and the laser operator were left. Avon strapped on a gun belt, then snapped half a dozen explosive devices along it.

      "Through," the laser operator reported.

      Avon glanced at the monitor screen. The mork hadn't moved. "That creature hasn't noticed anything."

      "Get back to the others," Ranmor told the laser operator.

      "And you," said Avon.

      "You still could need my help."

      "You would only hinder me. I've no time to waste."

      "Sure..." Ranmor smiled unbelievingly. "Well, if this fails- I'm glad I knew you." He held out his hand.

      Surprised, Avon hesitated, then took it.

      Ranmor vanished into the gloom.

      Avon slipped headfirst into the newly-cut tunnel. He had not expected the rock to be slippery, but it was fused into a glasslike substance and he found himself sliding down the tunnel like a seal on ice. He flung out his elbows, knees, and feet at the most acute angles he could manage. The warm rock slid by, tearing at his clothes. He was slowing, but the bright light of the cave was very close.

      He was wedged in the passage now, still slipping gently downward.

      His head thrust into the open. He stopped sliding. At least he was still hidden by the telepathic relay banks. Very cautiously, he inched himself down to the floor.

      Slowly, he lifted his head, then raised himself up to his hands and knees, unclipped one mine from his belt, reached an arm underneath the banks, and attached the explosives to the supporting steel structure.

      One down. Five to go.

      Bent almost double, he padded along next to the wall, placing one charge at one end of the bank, then moving back towards the other. That would take care of this side. It was the other side of the cave that was the problem.

      

      

"Thanks," Drew said into his communicator. Then, to Katrin, "That was Ranmor. Quibell's gone in after the telepathic relay banks."

      "Good."

      "I wish we knew what was happening to Lenore."

      "She seemed confident that she could reach the interior of the nest."

      "That's not what I meant."

      "I know." Katrin smiled a little.

      Drew drummed his fingers along the aircar's control board. "Our troops are in position in the outer cave. We could attack now."

      "Not until we hear from Quibell."

      

      

Avon flattened himself to the floor behind the banks as he heard footsteps. Peering round the edge of the structure, he saw Cally enter between two dogs, with a human leading the way. She walked as if she did not know what fear was, yet he was sure that, internally, she was shaking with terror. Crazy woman. Yet, at the same time, he had to admire her. The thought that she might not escape the Csrill was more painful than he could have thought possible... and there were still three more charges to plant.

      Stall, Cally, he told her silently, wishing - not for the first time - for her power of telepathy.

      Suddenly, her voice spoke in his mind. //Be careful, Avon. Risk nothing.//

      Then the golden door swung open in the golden wall. Cally stepped through it, followed by her escort. Then the door closed behind her, the thud echoing around the oppressive room.

      Pressed against the wall, Avon took out his communicator, jabbing the button on the side three times in quick succession.

      

      

A light flashed three times on the panel in front of them.

      "She's inside!" Katrin crowed. "Drew, give the signal to attack."

      The aircars leapt forward.

      

      

His task done, Avon threw a murderous glance across the room. Damn that mork! There was no way he could plant the last three charges without the creature - and therefore the Csrill - seeing him. Despite Cally's injunction, he must take a desperate chance...

      Surely the Csrill's slave-extensions must occasionally die on the job from natural causes...

      Even as he tried to rationalise his action, Avon drew his gun, took very careful aim at the mork's head, and fired. The shot vaporised the beast, but by that time Avon was sprinting across the room.

      Stall, Cally... stall.

      

      

As the door closed behind her, Cally stood, staring at the Csrill. She had known what to expect, but the sight was still overwhelming.

      Her people's worst nightmare lay sprawled on a dais the size of a small island, raised less than a metre above the rock floor. The creature was almost impossible to take in at a single glance, the mind rejecting its size. A huge blot in the golden room, it seemed to flow on for ever. There were no sense organs, just black hide that would resist even a laser beam. Yes, this was a young Csrill. Cally could see the hundreds of shrivelled limbs sprawled in the soft material on which the alien lay. A narrow, enclosed ramp led up to its gaping mouth. That would be for the beetu.

      Worse, its skin was not smooth. There were hundreds of swellings over the entire expanse, beginning to turn white. Avon was right. This Csrill was within hours of spawning.

      Cally stepped forward firmly, moving closer to the Csrill.

      //I have come,// she told it. //We must have an agreement. Give up your human captives, or we will destroy you.//

      A long, narrow tentacle exuded itself from the lower part of the Csrill's body and wavered towards her.

      Instinctively, she stepped backwards. That tentacle carried a neuro-chemical charge that would wipe her mind clean, injecting a fragment of Csrill tissue to carry its telepathic control. Once that was done, it would have her brain removed and transferred to the telepathic relay banks.

      The backwards step was a mistake. At once, two humans grabbed her arms, forcing her towards the Csrill. She couldn't free herself... couldn't reach the medallion...

      This unplanned problem almost made Cally panic. For a moment her reason was lost in terror as she struggled to break free.

      //No!// she screamed mentally at the Csrill. //I came here to negotiate!//

      Suddenly, inspiration came. //Avon! Now!//

      

      

The urgency of the thought told Avon of Cally's peril. There was no time for him to get into proper cover. He was still running for the far door as his thumb rammed down on the control button. Even as he flung himself towards the safety of the tunnel, the charges detonated, blasting the telepathic relay banks to flame and ruin.

      

      

Cally heard the muted thud of the explosions and felt the grip on her arms slacken as the shock of destruction reached the Csrill. She twisted loose from the hands, tore the medallion from her throat, and hurled it on top of the Csrill's bloated body. Then she ran for the door.

      Deprived of its telepathic relay banks, the Csrill lost control of all its slave-extensions beyond its unboosted range. Even within it, there were far too many of them for it to handle with its unaided power. While it chose which to shed, its control over all of them wavered and, even as it made its decisions, the phaeston ate into its flesh. For the first time, the Csrill felt pain.

      Cally had reached the door. When she pulled at the handgrip, it swung towards her on finely balanced hinges. She leapt through the opening.

      A tassal followed. Back in control, the Csrill had hurled its nearest slave-extension at her feet, making it bite and claw at her ankles. She stumbled and fell.

      A human bounded through the door in pursuit, snatching at her hair to haul her erect. Then Cally sprawled forward to the floor again as a burst of paragun fire blew the man aside. She kicked the tassal into the air, where it was blasted before it hit the ground.

      Avon came running towards her, fast, despite a slight limp. He hauled her up and half-pulled, half-carried her towards the far door. They could hear pounding footsteps behind them as Cally recovered from the shock and began to run.

      A dog loped into the doorway ahead of them. Avon shot it, not even breaking step. They jumped over the body and were through-

      A flash of brilliant light reflected back and forth on the shiny rock walls and the smoking wreckage, followed by a boom like a tidal wave crashing down on a shingle shore. Before Avon and Cally could react, they were caught up in the blast and hurled along the passageway. Where it curved, they crashed into the rock wall. Cally cried out as her shoulder took the impact, with both her weight and Avon's behind it.

      Avon grabbed a handhold on the rock and held on tightly to Cally as the hot wind seared over them. Cally's face was buried against his jacket, her uninjured arm clinging desperately to his waist. The other arm hung uselessly at her side.

      Finally, even the echoes of the explosion died away.

      Avon drew back a little and looked down into Cally's face. "Are you all right?"

      "I think I have sprained my shoulder." She was still holding him tightly, her brown eyes looking up seriously into his. "My thanks, Avon. I did not think I would get clear in time. I would not have done so without you."

      "I repay my debts, Cally... and I cannot have been any more timely than you were a few hours ago. Right, let's immobilise that arm." He unfastened his gun belt and used it to form a makeshift sling. "Come on. The Commander will be waiting."

      

      

The gern curled itself into a knot on the ground. A human sat next to it, staring with vacant eyes. Out in the feeding grounds, the beetu shifted uneasily.

      The Federation aircar, its sides blackened by laser fire, landed beside them, where Ranmor stood waving. There was blood - not his own - on his uniform.

      Katrin and Drew climbed out of the aircar to survey the ruin of the cave. The fight had been short, but it had been savage until the enemy had suddenly wavered, renewed the fight for perhaps sixty seconds, then stopped for good.

      "They got the bastard!" Ranmor yelled at Katrin.

      "I can see that," she said dryly. "What about Wing and Quibell?"

      "I don't know. Quibell ordered us out-"

      "He has no authority to give you orders, Section Leader!"

      "Commander, with respect, when that man gives an order, you'd be a fool not to obey him. I'll never say a word about fat businessmen again. Terraformers don't know how lucky they are."

      "But what about Lenore?" Drew demanded.

      "Here." Avon jumped down from a pile of rubble and turned to help Cally, easing her over the steep ground. Cally winced and leaned against him. There was no harm now in relying on his strength.

      Ranmor was across to help them in an instant, Drew and Katrin not far behind him.

      "You really did for that bastard," Ranmor told them. "Begging your pardon, ma'am."

      "What happened to your arm, Lenore?" Katrin asked.

      "Sprained. No more."

      "She needs a medic," Avon put in.

      "She'll get one."

      Drew slammed a fist into Avon's shoulder. "Ras, my friend, you and Lenore'll get a medal for this if I have to mint it myself."

      "You seem to have been involved in quite a fight out here, too," Avon observed.

      "Oh, they didn't give us that much trouble."

      "They stopped our advance," Katrin corrected.

      "We would never have got out if you hadn't engaged the Csrill's attention and its slave-extensions so that it could not recall them to tackle us," said Cally.

      "That was nothing, compared with what you and Ras did."

      "If," said Katrin, "the mutual admiration society has finished its meeting, I think Ras and Lenore would rather have a square meal than that medal, Drew."

      Avon bowed slightly. "You are a discerning woman, Commander."

      "Don't flatter her, Ras. Her head's big enough as it is," Drew advised him, as they headed back to Katrin's aircar.

      

      

Avon and Cally rose to their feet as Katrin came into the room. She regarded them soberly, yet with a tiny smile. She said, "You have twenty minutes to make the Aquarius before she lifts off. My personal aircar is parked just outside this building. Take it. No one will question you, here or at the spaceport. You have clearance and your baggage is loaded. Good luck."

      They stared at her. It was Avon who asked, "How long have you known?"

      "Positively? Since I looked at the reports on my desk a few minutes ago, but I've known that you weren't who you were supposed to be for hours. When you disappeared, it seemed to me that there might be something in your background to help us. I therefore ran a check on Ras Quibell and found that he was not here on Ararat at all, but supervising the terraforming of Ranin. There have been problems on that planet and Terraformers Incorporated have had to secretly send in their best troubleshooter - and his current mistress. Luckily, the Federation Kommissar on Ranin is a friend of mine. But I think that you've always known where Quibell was. After that... well, I can use computers too. It wasn't all that hard to find out who you really are."

      "And you're letting us go?" Avon asked incredulously. "Why? We represent a great deal to you... fame, promotion, a huge reward... and you are a loyal Federation officer... aren't you?"

      "Don't ever doubt it, Avon. However, you saved this planet from a terrible fate. You may also have saved the Federation from another Csrill war. Most of all, though, when you could have escaped, you came back to save us... your deadly enemies. One of those enemies was Drew Patel. For his life, a little treachery does not seem too high a price to pay."

      "You love him very much," said Cally.

      "But I-" Avon went silent as Cally's voice snapped, //Be quiet, fool,// in his mind.

      "I love him," said Katrin. "Even though he's stupid, prejudiced, fettered by his upbringing, and liable to fall in love with the first pretty face he sees - as he did with you, Cally."

      "He no longer thinks himself in love with me."

      "No." Katrin's voice was bitter. "You're not only beautiful, you're strong and clever and brave. Those things, Drew won't forgive... but I won't become something I'm not, even for him. There'll be other women, but all I can do is go on hoping. At least he remains my friend."

      Cally took both her hands and held them. "That can be a great strength. Good luck, Katrin."

      "If we meet again, it will be as enemies."

      "It need not be so."

      "It must be."

      Cally shook her head. "Consider the Csrill, Katrin, then look about you. You are shielded here on Ararat, but soon you will be posted elsewhere. Look at the Federation. It grows as the Csrill grew, destroying freedom in the way that the Csrill destroyed minds, absorbing all living beings whether they will it or not."

      "There's a difference," said Katrin.

      "Yes," agreed Avon, surprising both women. "You are right. The Csrill were what they were. There was no way in which they could become anything else. But the Federation is what it has become because the human race has willed it to be so. It could have been otherwise; it still could be otherwise. The Federation grows because those members of the human race who are not apathetic are thirsty for power."

      "You sound like Blake," Cally told him.

      "If you are going to be insulting you can stay here with Drew Patel."

      "I do not think either Drew or Katrin would appreciate that any more than I do."

      They were still arguing mildly as they left the room. Katrin went to the window. After a short time, she saw them leave the building and descend the steps together. As they broke into a run, Avon took Cally's hand to steady her, for her injured shoulder unbalanced her.

      Drew had come up beside Katrin. "They're leaving?"

      "Yes."

      "I'm glad. I like them, but there's something about them that makes me... uncomfortable."

      "I thought you were in love with... Lenore."

      Drew shook his head. "She's Ras's bodyguard, remember? And you saw her; murder in combat, just like you. Not my type at all." He put his arm around her shoulders. "You know I still can't figure out if they are just colleagues, or lovers after all, or..."

      "Friends," Katrin said.

      Drew considered. "They belong with each other, anyway," he said at last. "Yes. Working partners. Friends. Belonging. Sort of like us."

      Katrin looked up at the dark, handsome face with a mixture of happiness and heartbreak. "Yes, Drew," she agreed. "Like us."


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