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Ghosts of Gauda

By Jackie
'Here you are Orac,' Servalan said. She switched off the locator device, hoped she could return through the woods to her ship before it was dark.

The computer she had so long coveted was perched inside a hollow tree.

Orac activated on hearing her voice. 'Where else would I be other than where I told you to look? It should have taken you less than three days to come here.'

'Minor local difficulties,' Servalan summarised as she extracted the computer. Most strange, that Avon of all people should abandon Orac, and that it should then seek her out. The implications were unpleasant. She sat on a convenient fallen tree, placed Orac beside her. 'Why were you put here?'

'As would be obvious to someone of the meanest intelligence, to keep me out of the weather until I could be retrieved.'

'Why contact me?' Servalan asked, choosing to ignore the insult.

'Avon placed me here eight Standard days ago while his group investigated the base. They have not returned - and you are the person with the most interest in finding them.'

She would not deny that. 'Is this some trick of Avon's? Are you the real Orac?' Revenge would be understandable.

'What purpose would a trick serve? Define what you would consider satisfactory proof.'

Servalan turned to the practicalities. 'Whose base, and why did they go there?' It was beginning to drizzle again - she remembered the climate from when she had last been here, more years ago than she cared to count. Gauda Prime had not been an open planet then.

'You can resolve that yourself. Kindly keep me dry.' The lights within Orac went off.

Servalan looked around for shelter, and realised that the sounds around her were not merely wind and moisture dripping in the trees, but a Federation foot patrol.

'Who are you?' the leader asked - a captain by his markings.

Servalan rose. She knew that even in her civilian guise she still had a presence that could overawe someone from the lower ranks of the military. Her arrival had been noted by the Federation presence on the planet, and she had been greeted in a manner which implied that a Commissioner #was# due to arrive.

'I am Commissioner Sleer. I understand I am expected at the base.' She showed her identification - it would pass all but the closest inspection. 'My ship is...' she made a vague gesture, 'over there. From the messages my ship picked up, I presume that the base #is# the centre of Federation activities?' This was bluff and conjecture. A foot patrol would be fairly near its base, and Avon would leave Orac where it could be readily retrieved.

'Yes Commissioner.'

'What are you and your men doing out here? Looking for me?' Always best to claim the advantage.

'The Sub-commander claims it was a rebel base.' Blake! came the sudden thought. But why would Avon of all people leave Orac out in the cold? The captain gave orders for the greater part of the patrol to continue its search. There were a few mutterings on the weather. 'That's what you're paid to deal with, troopers - and better this than a load of bounty hunters.' The troopers went off, and the captain indicated Servalan go with him.

Servalan picked Orac up.

'What is that object?' the captain asked, as he could now see it better.

'An experimental and very temperamental positioning and locational device,' Servalan replied, hoping Orac was listening. 'You said bounty hunters or rebels?'

'They were probably whatever scum inhabit this washed out planet with nothing worth while on it,' the mineral rights being of no interest to the captain, 'but the Sub-commander says they were rebels, so rebels they are. The Sub-commander wants promotion - but he's promised us a share of any bounty. He's good to us like that.'

'You think there are still bounty hunters in the woods?' Servalan asked, slightly mockingly as they walked. 'With all the Federation troops around?'

'On Gauda Prime it is best to assume there are undesirables near a base - others may have heard there was fighting here and decided to come here for the pickings. Come - before the weather gets worse.'

#Avon, Tarrant, what happened to you?#

The base, when they entered it, was of some age, and presently was not in the best of condition. Avon had been right to leave Orac outside in relative safety. It was clear that there had been a battle - or several - to take over the place, and the incoming soldiers had not yet got round to tidying everything up. Given the planet's tendency to rain and mud in this season, perhaps not surprising.

 

They met Sub-commander Arkeley in what was obviously the centre of the base - where it was clear that a major confrontation had taken place. Traces of blood were still visible beneath the mudstains, and there were marks of shots on the walls. Again Servalan felt afraid for Avon and the others. She #needed# them as Travis had needed Blake - and what had happened to #them#?

Arkeley was typical of those of his grade promoted after the Intergalactic War. He was relatively young, but not the sort Servalan would normally give a second glance. She knew she had to take great care not to revert to a long-familiar and difficult to explain military style. Besides, she was impatient to spend time with Orac.

The captain explained briefly, and Arkeley led Servalan into an office.

'We will run the standard checks, as I am sure you will understand. Some of these rebels can be very persuasive.'

Servalan suppressed a moment's unease. "Commissioner Sleer" had been President Servalan's security designation when travelling - it was a common procedure for those at the top of the Federation. Servalan was lucky to have retained her cover since the events on Terminal and Geddon. There were, however, other means of diverting attention.

'I assure you, I am no rebel.' That statement was true. 'What of the people you took this place over from? Your captain said they were the bounty hunters that would normally be found on a planet like this.'

Arkeley shrugged, as if accepting the disagreement. 'This place has too much stuff for a mere bounty hunters' hide out. There's nothing for the Terra Nostra or ordinary criminals on Gauda Prime. Therefore they must have been rebels.'

Standard Federation propaganda. Not that Blake's whereabouts #were# known. Somebody by the name of Blake #had# been operating on Jevron, and died there - but as to the real Blake she knew no more than Avon did.

'Perhaps they were whatever paid them most, and they developed an existing base to seem more impressive than they were,' Servalan suggested, though she agreed with Arkeley. Avon would rather investigate some rebels than those who might attempt to claim the still existing bounty on him.

'That is a possibility,' Arkeley admitted, then, pointing at Orac, added, 'What is that fancy equipment?'

'An experimental computer, which could be used to tempt Roj Blake and Kerr Avon's groups of rebels - and others - into a trap.' Always include enough truth to maximise the effect of the deception. 'Reports suggest that they are interested in such things.' As was she.

'The so-called Liberator group? A lot of hype if you ask me. All sort of stories belonging to all and sundry getting attached to a group of nobodies simply because everybody's heard the names. If they existed at all that is. They weren't here, or if they were they are dead or will be in the next few days.' The way he spoke Servalan suspected he was covering up - something had gone seriously wrong here.

'Believe me Blake, Avon and the rest of them did exist, and they are as dangerous to the Federation as the stories make out.' For the first time Servalan wondered whether the Federation's attempts to officially minimise Blake's group's existence and impact might be counterproductive. Had she revealed too much?

'What Federation?' Arkeley asked. 'Those at the top fighting over who's in control, and half the governors and regional leaders paying only lip service to Federation authority. And the new pacification drugs - I've heard they only work for so long before people become resistant.' The existence of the antidote was not general knowledge among the lower ranks, and some pacification drugs #did# cease to work.

'Perhaps you have been too long in the regions beyond the Federation's direct control, or you would know the Federation exists and the extent of its power.' Servalan, when she had the opportunity, would ensure Arkeley became fully aware of the Federation's might.

An aide came in, gave a document to Arkeley. He looked at it, then his gaze returned to Servalan, obviously puzzled.

'It says here that there is no such person as Commissioner Sleer, and the Commissioner who was to be sent here has been delayed. You were found close to a base of rebels. Would you care to explain?'

Servalan felt afraid - would this be where her career came to an end? Had she covered her tracks too well? Was this Avon's actual revenge, that she would find herself caught in her own deception? 'There are ... Security connections,' she said after a moment's hesitation. That statement #would# hold out.

The reference made Arkeley slightly nervous, in a way that Servalan, from experience, knew meant that he definitely had #something# to hide. When she left this planet she would ensure his records were investigated #very# thoroughly.

 

Servalan found herself left to her own devices in a room designated a holding cell while the security checks were made and Arkeley decided what to do with her. She wondered briefly who had lived in this room previously and what had happened to them - a few personal objects had been left, though it was clear that anything "valuable" or "useful" had gone.

They had left Orac with her, on her continued hints of "Security connections and equipment."

She switched the computer on again.

'Why are you interrupting my investigations?'

'I wish to leave here, and I want to discover what happened to Avon and the others.'

'The military personnel have not searched this place thoroughly. The Roj Blake we both seek was here. Avon and the others came here. I cannot determine what became of them.' 

'Are they dead?' That was the logical - if personally painful - conclusion.

'The veracity of that statement cannot be presently determined. It is to be regretted if they were - they were useful for my studies.' Orac #was# only a computer - so why did it sound regretful? 'It is suggested you remove me from this base. I would not be used appropriately by those presently in occupation.'

'Nor would I. How do I get out of here?' Orac's last statement applied to her as well..

'This is an Open Planet, the group here were prepared for an incursion, and you have - supposedly - learnt military strategy. Kindly do not disturb me with trivial questions which you can resolve yourself.' The machine switched itself off.

Eventually, pausing when the guards checked her presence, she found the concealed escape hatch, through which Orac was an awkward object to be carried.

The door closed firmly behind her, hiding and blocking that escape. A dim wall light came on automatically - just enough to show her way. She almost tripped over a box with a strap, which had been left quite deliberately. She judged she had enough time for a quick glance at the contents. She recognised first aid items, money, and a torch on the surface. This had been a well-organised group and she could see why Avon would have contacted them.

The "tunnel" she walked through was completely different to those on Aristo, uninhabited, and the circulating air had cleared any dust from the floor, obscuring any evidence of previous travellers. Lights switched on ahead of her, and the darkness reverted behind her. Momentarily she understood ghost stories.

She eventually emerged into the forest. It had stopped raining. No alarm had yet been raised, so she opened the box again. Anyone who had planned this far ahead would have considered their own means of leaving Gauda Prime. Among the objects was a homing device, which she switched on, which led her to a concealed ship. Whoever had been here was probably unable to get to it - if they survived, they were welcome to her own ship if they found it.

 

****

 

After Servalan left Gauda Prime again, she hoped for good, the ship switched to what was obviously a pre-programmed course.  Servalan knew better than to attempt to override it yet.

She activated Orac when it was clear that she was safe from pursuit.

'Tell me where this ship is going.' She had to know what was happening.

Orac flickered for a few moments. 'To the nearest neutral planet. Harz Five.' Details appeared on the ship's computer screen. The planet was suitable for her immediate purposes. 'You can then select your next option.'

'What are your plans for me? To hand me over to the rebels or the authorities?'

'If that had been the decision, your true identity would have been already revealed.' That she believed.

'So...?'

'You wish to have authority - and have access to certain sources otherwise closed to me. I wish to locate Kerr Avon and his associates, and Roj Blake and his: all were on Gauda Prime, and I was not retrieved. Our aims coincide in finding them.'

'If I refuse to help you the consequences will not be to my liking?' Servalan asked.

'That is correct.'

'If I cooperate with your request, and Blake, Avon and the others are found?'

'During the investigation you can make use of what I can offer. If we succeed in finding them, you will be given safe passage away from them.' It would be Orac's definition of help, not hers, she knew. It #was# the best offer of co-operation she had received in a long time - as if she had any choice.

'And if they cannot be found? They were active for five years - I will give that long for the search.' And then - what would she do if they had not been found?

Orac was silent for a few moments. 'Then we reconsider.'

'Accepted - for now.' Servalan suspected that she would be provided with enough sufficiently detailed hints and echoes to be forced to continue the investigation regardless. Avon, she knew, enjoyed puzzles - perhaps he had created this one, knowing she would appreciate it.

 

Servalan settled back in the pilot's seat - she was used to taking the position of command. The ship would have been comfortable, if slightly cramped, for a full crew of six.

'Let us discuss what we can do together Orac.'

'As you wish.'

'Have you been programmed to work for the rebels?' Best resolve that now.

'The rebels wish to acquire information on a more diverse range of subjects than the authorities. My function is to acquire and process information, not serve as a Star One substitute. The Liberator was the better option.' Not quite answering the question, but a motivation she could understand.

'And you wish me to continue that?' It would make a change from the more usually desired access to power. They would have a certain common ground in the pursuit.

'Yes.'

' What do you suggest I do? I will #consider# it.' She would be nobody's puppet.

'You will need a new identity, and appearance, so that you are not identified with Servalan or Sleer.'

'I accept,' Servalan replied unhesitating. She would be glad to ditch the now compromised dead end role. It would be most... interesting to become someone of her own choosing, in a position she could make proper use of. 'I want a position that gives me more ready access to power. Or,' she said with a smile, 'access to the information that will enable both of us to achieve our goals.' Possibly the same thing.

'Agreed.'

'First - what will you tell me of your previous owners. And Travis.' She suspected he had died in the Intergalactic War, but wanted confirmation if possible.

'They were not my owners. I selected them,' Orac insisted. 'Travis was killed on Star One.' There was obviously more to the story.

'Did you select me?'

'For now, yes.'

 

****

 

A short while later "Shirdley" took up her new post, on a planet within Federation territory. The job was one that suited her, and provided opportunities for Orac and herself to gather and manipulate information. No one would now connect her with Sleer or Servalan - even with the minimal cosmetic surgery she had undertaken.

She looked and moved quite differently to what she had done, and, remembering Ardus, spoke somewhat differently. She was becoming used to longer hair than she had had, of a different colour, and the other changes Orac had suggested. She was also pursuing the cultural activities the computer suggested - whether or not they were the tastes of its previous owners, they would contribute to her change of image.

One change had been resisted to start with: but when Servalan started the enjoyable task of creating a new wardrobe, she realised that boredom and inactivity had led her to gaining weight anyway. It was an acceptable price for what she could hope to achieve.

 

****

 

Orac proved as useful as it had promised. Servalan's rise tended to follow Orac's wish to access information, instead of the more direct one she would have preferred.

She was spending more time than might be considered wise on trying to find out what had happened to those who had been on the Liberator, and came to understand what had driven Avon to look for Blake. Curiosity unsatisfied could be a potent driving force. Up to #whatever# had happened on Gauda Prime there was some evidence of their existence, people who had actually met them - and many tales that changed in the repetition. After Gauda Prime there were only faint and distorted echoes feeding off each other, third hand at best, shadows in a mirror maze. And as Arkeley had said, there was also evidence of other people's actions being assigned to the group. Some of the by-ways proved fascinating and useful.

She arranged a meeting with Arkeley - they agreed to "forget" the "unfortunate misunderstandings" that had occurred on Gauda Prime. He was prepared to accept that Shirdley had been travelling under a given name while working on the Pylene 50 project: he knew when #not# to pursue matters. So did she: his slightly dubious activities were not dissimilar to hers'. Her researches into his past showed him to be a most interesting person - and he reminded her, somehow, of Avon. Arkeley's talents were complementary with hers, and he was willing to work alongside her. He was interested in "her" rebels, and eventually conceded that they #were# of some significance. Servalan found her taste for new partners declining, preferring to return repeatedly to Arkeley - another departure for her.

 

Others were now making use of what Blake and Avon had represented, or done or were associated with - though there seemed to be little direct connection.

Servalan, on Orac's prompting, suggested to her administrative superiors that they should make use of some of those in opposition to the Federation. Given the weakness of the present administration the idea was accepted, and seemed to be effective, cheaper than suppression - and popular, so was developed further. The rebels who accepted the offer came to understand the practicalities of what they sought to achieve, while the more uncompromising were marginalised. Servalan occasionally wondered how Blake would have fitted in to the situation now developing. Avon would have compromised, she knew. Perhaps, she decided, it was better that the question would seemingly remain ever hypothetical.

Servalan knew that her policies were successful when the first independent planets started #asking# for association with the Federation. The dream of a galactic-wide entity was a possibility... and perhaps beyond, should the intergalactic program be pursued - one of the functions of Star One, its successor and its equivalents. Whatever her ambitions had been as Servalan, she might well achieve now.

 

Servalan met a number of those who wished to change the political structures of the Federation: rebels, politicians and others. None had the charisma of Blake that had attracted even her, or the challenge that Avon had posed, though some came close. Blake had provided a dream for others to follow. Many of those who now took over his role were more practical - and less interesting. While she took care to avoid known associates of her previous roles - however different she looked - she resented the fact that there seemed to be no general memory of Servalan.

She was becoming an expert on the Blake group of rebels, among others, acquiring information from some strange and obscure sources. Eventually researchers started coming to her to make use of what she had collected: she found herself enjoying the activity. The precise relationship between Dev Tarrant and his namesakes was not made clear - nor whether Blake had actually been to Cygnus Alpha. She would have acquired young Captain Artix for her services had his association with a prison ship not been problematic.

 

The Federation as it was developing through the reforms she was promoting - aided by Orac and assorted sometime rebels - was increasingly different to what Servalan had sworn to serve as Supreme Commander and President, or even as Commissioner Sleer. She decided she would rather rule what emerged than remain a minion in what had been, disturbed as it was by discontent and tensions. She was increasingly uncertain whether she was promoting Blake's cause through pragmatism -  #it worked# - or because she herself was coming to believe in it.

 

As soon as she could Servalan organised a search of Gauda Prime - and what would #definitely# be her last visit - to see if there was any trace of Avon and the others. There was a ship that Orac identified as the Scorpio. It had crashed - and had then been looted, possibly more than once: most of what remained had been subject to weathering. What had once, perhaps, been a teleport, was a few incomprehensible fragments of equipment, and Orac would not reveal what it knew of the subject. The ship's computer had been too badly damaged to yield any information on the crew or the rest of the ship's equipment.

On the journey back to Earth Orac seemed to be as mournful as she felt - and as eager to take up the challenge of finding more information about Blake, Avon and the others.

 

Servalan and Orac then sent out messages that only those who had been on the Liberator would understand fully - as she had done to lure Avon to Terminal - but to no avail. Whatever returned was too obscure or distorted to make sense - whether they had reached their intended destination was uncertain. #Some# of her messages were understood though - but she could not find out who responded. Servalan found the uncertainty made her rise to power less enjoyable than it had once been. At times she would rather chase up some of the leads than go for promotion and reach her goal of the Presidency. She almost regretted putting Avon through something similar to what she was undergoing now - but he had #wanted# to go to Terminal to find Blake.

#She# wanted proof one way or the other, so she could get on with her life.

 

****

 

Servalan realised it was five years to the day since she had linked up with Orac on Gauda Prime - and in a couple of weeks she would be President again. The Federation had changed noticeably since she had last held the office. As had she - the search for #her# group of rebels had become an obsession that at times was more important to her than her rise to power. She now understood what had driven Travis, Blake and Avon.

'What do you think of the Federation now Orac?' Servalan asked. 'Is it how Blake would want it?' She would work her way to the question she really wanted to ask. Idly she stirred her sweetened tea.

'It is moving closer to it, insofar as he developed anything. As the sometime rebels now working within the administration have discovered, not all changes wished are attainable - or practical.'

Servalan laughed and took a biscuit - another of her indulgences. She relaxed back into her chair, playing with her cup, aware that her clothes were tight. Again. Kasabi long ago had called Servalan self-indulgent, and so, many years and two name changes later, she was still. She would do something about it. Again. Soon. For Arkeley. She was indulgent towards him. He was almost... no actually, her only partner now.

'Perhaps,' she mused, 'if we had brought Blake and others into the administration - or at least used some of their ideas - we would have saved ourselves some trouble and expense.' Though without Blake's search for Star One they might not have been aware of the alien invasion until too late. And people seemed to #want# figures such as Blake and his companions.

'You do not need me to draw such conclusions Shirdley. It is generally acknowledged that the Federation is more stable, with less discontent than there used to be. The disruption of a large scale rebellion - which carried a thirty nine point six percent chance of generating tensions which would have resulted in the destruction of the Federation as a galactographical entity - has been avoided.'

'Yes,' Servalan acknowledged. 'So who has won?' She felt slightly unsettled.  Orac called her by her latest name when in the presence of others, naturally, but when had it started doing so in private? Did she always think of herself as Servalan now? Was what she was feeling now an echo of what Blake felt when his memories returned? Mindblocking was rarely used now - assigning obscure and challenging tasks seemed to be just as effective, and more productive.

'The administration wished to retain control, and they are doing so. Many of their more capable opponents have achieved at least some of their intended reforms. The populations of the Federation's planets are rarely drugged - and rarely disruptive. You will shortly have the office you want. Who has lost?'

'We still have not found those whom we are looking for.' In the way that her obsessive desire to discover what had happened to Avon, Blake and the others at times overrode her other interests, had #she# lost?

'We have spent five years looking for them. Do you wish to stop?' #That# was the question. Arkeley occasionally complained he was competing with something no more substantial than a dream - but Servalan #could not# stop.

'Ask me again when I am President, and we have looked at the records that will then be available.'

'As you wish.'

 

****

 

It took some acting on Servalan's part to express surprise at being shown round the Presidential palace - though there were a number of changes. Her old apartments, were still known as 'Servalan's rooms', and she opted for them again. She would change them to suit her present tastes. That was another change Orac had wrought - she enjoyed cultural activities..

Then she was back in the President's office, at her desk, where she belonged, as Servalan or as Shirdley.

Orac was sharing the desk with an ordinary computer.

Servalan sat down gratefully. Perhaps Orac had a point about her weight. Even Arkeley had commented on his return to her side. She #needed# something to distract her when he was absent.

'Here we are Orac - have you found anything interesting?'

'To me or to you?'

The other computer's screen came on, with a message to Shirdley 'congratulating her from "those who had helped her most".'

'Who sent the message?' Servalan asked, feeling a sudden hope. Perhaps her obsession - to discover the fate of the Liberator and Scorpio groups - would at last be resolved, and she could enjoy the Presidency.

'The message was installed by Blake and Avon - in case I should ever be acquired by someone in a position to initiate the reforms they wished.' Avon's idea, probably, knowing him.

'But no response from them now?' Servalan said, aware of the desperation in her voice. Perhaps now that she had reached the top they would get in touch.

'Nothing that can be clearly assigned to them.' Orac managed to sound wistful. 'There are some measures to discuss,' it added.

She normally liked doing that - understanding why things had to be done, deciding which should be implemented or changed, discussing ideas with others. 'You know my opinions Orac. The search takes priority.'

'We continue looking for Blake, Avon and the others?'

Servalan knew that her enjoyment of her ambition satisfied and popular support for her association with reforms would be overshadowed by the dream that had been created by those on the Liberator and Scorpio.

There were already stories that Blake, Avon and their companions would return if they felt their services were needed again - a threat, perhaps, to the leadership of the Federation as it now was, as much as it was an acknowledgement that things #had# changed for the better. Whatever had become of them, this was what they had wanted. Now that she had achieved her goals - return to high office, and a stable Federation, what was she to look forward to? The answer was clear.

'We continue the search.' She smiled at the final revenge of Blake and Avon.


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