Rumours of Life part 2 - Tinker, Tailor, TraitorBy Marian de Haan
"I'd have thought you would have had that eye fixed by now." Even if the sight in the eye was lost, a good plastic surgeon should be able to make it presentable.
"Why don't you mind your own business?"
Blake shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of appeasement. "Fair enough."
"Seriously, Blake, " Avon continued in his sharp, aggressive voice, "I hope you didn't make me travel all this way to Earth, calling me away from a very promising line of investigation, just to enquire after my health."
"Yeah," Vila said. "We've found some more secret funds. You've no idea how many different accounts Servalan has used to hide her money."
Their criminal records ruling them out for a place in his government, Blake had appointed them as his Special Advisors. Not intending to let them fly away in Liberator and waste their talents on crime, he had proposed they take up the task of retrieving the money Servalan had stashed away into a number of secret bank accounts all over the galaxy. As expected, Avon had risen to the challenge - demanding half the money they would be able to retrieve as his fee. Blake had managed to bring down that amount to fifteen percent, ten for Avon and five for Vila.
"I'm not surprised, Vila," he replied. "Servalan has been bleeding the Federation dry since her accession to the Presidency."
"Oh, she was already at it when Supreme Commander," Avon said. "She used some of the best financial brains in the Federation to set up her schemes."
"And then made sure they wouldn't be able to talk," Vila added. "That's how we started, by compiling a list of financial geniuses who died under suspicious circumstances. Then we looked where they'd been working last, and that gave us a lead to where to start digging."
"Thank you, Vila," Avon said. "I'm sure Blake is thrilled to learn about our methods of deduction."
"Right, I'll leave you to chat about the good old times, then." Vila began to move to the exit. "Now I'm here, I want to visit some old friends." He opened the door and slid out.
"Of the bottled kind, no doubt," Avon remarked. Although undoubtedly irritated, he seemed more relaxed than Blake could remember from their time together on the London and Liberator.
Avon moved to stand in front of him, his platform boots bringing him up to Blake's height. "Now, what is it you want of me?"
Blake took a folded paper from his pocket and handed it over. "This is a transcription of a message Orac has picked up. It was sent via OPEN RELAY, so no point of origin can be determined, nor its destination."
Avon studied the paper. "A monthly update of Space Command's strength."
"This information is top secret," Blake said, anger rising in him again. "It is only circulated to members of the Inner Cabinet. It means there must be a traitor amongst them."
"Unless this was sent by the compilers."
"No, Avon! It's done by one of my government members. I'm sure of it!"
He braced himself for a cutting remark about the folly of trusting one's instincts, but Avon merely shrugged, folding the paper again.
"This kind of information isn't too hard to compile, Blake. Any intelligent person with a half-decent computer can do it. He might not get the exact figures, but he can make an educated guess that comes close enough to be reliable." He waved the piece of paper. "Whatever Intelligence Agency this is intended for, these figures will only confirm what they must know already."
"That's not the point!" Blake snatched the paper from his hand. "Someone is BETRAYING me, someone on the Cabinet. I appointed them, trusted them, and now someone is betraying that trust. I want to know who it is, Avon." Blake grabbed him by the tunic, the thick silver dye of the diagonal stripes feeling cold to the touch. "Find me the traitor!"
He found the other's calm gaze on him. "All right."
Blake let go of the tunic.
"Who exactly is eligible to receive this information?" Avon asked.
"As I said, the Inner Cabinet members, and the Permanent and Private Secretaries." Blake began to tick off the names on his fingers. "Cally, the Foreign Secretary. Avalon, the Home Secretary. Jenna, the Minister for Trade. Tarrant, the Minister for Transport. Dayna, the Minister for Science and Education. Bercol, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Rontane, the Permanent Secretary. Jarriere, my Private Secretary. And of course Del Grant, as Supreme Commander. Nine people in all."
"You replaced Tarrant as Supreme Commander," Avon observed. "Why?"
"Space Command wouldn't accept a deserter as Supreme Commander."
"A rather sudden change of heart. I can't remember them objecting to Tarrant when he took up the post."
"They must have had time to think it over. Or maybe they weren't aware of his desertion at the time. Anyway, I couldn't afford to alienate them." Blake dismissed the matter with an impatient wave of his hand. "Now, about the traitor. How are we going to find him?"
"Simple." Avon gazed at Orac, who stood on a side table, deactivated. "When is the new Space Command update due?"
"In four days, at the end of the month."
"How is it distributed?"
"Secretary Rontane gets the data from the compilers. He shows it to me, I then hand it to Jarriere for copying and distribution."
"Excellent." For a moment Avon's face lit up in a smug smile. "We can assume that the traitor, thinking his ploy to have gone unnoticed, will want to send out the new update to his chums. What you must do, when Rontane has given you the list, is to copy it yourself, changing a figure in each copy. Choose some unimportant figure, for example the number of new recruits, that could be 1731, 1732, 1733 et cetera - something like that. Make a list of which version is addressed to which member. Oh, and don't forget to designate the original list to Rontane, he's bound to have looked at the figures when he got them. Then have Jarriere distribute the copies. If the new update gets transmitted, Orac can pick up the message again and the version used will tell us who the sender is."
Some of the heaviness lifted from Blake's shoulders. "Simple indeed."
"Yes, you should have thought of it yourself."
Blake gave him a mischievous grin. "Then why employ a Special Advisor? Will you stay to await the outcome?"
"I might as well. Servalan's accounts will keep. I must confess, Blake, I AM curious to see which of your worthy Inner Cabinet members is intent on stabbing you in the back."
- - - 2 - - -
Avon slipped into Blake's bedroom. Ah, there Orac was, on a side table, its key beside it. For five days he'd been trying to access the machine in private, only to find it constantly being carried after Blake by the long-suffering Jarriere. Now Blake was in session with some Committee or other, which should give him about half an hour. By the look of its tidiness, the room had already been serviced, so no-one was likely to disturb him. Avon locked the bedroom door, just in case, then picked up Orac's key and pushed it in its slot. "Orac, what have you found out about my bank fraud scheme?"
"I have managed to penetrate the Central Security Computers..."
"Well, you've had three months for that."
"It was not easy. They've tried to erase the files; retrieving them took time."
Avon wasn't going to applaud the machine. "So, what did you find?"
"Nothing. I have decoded and studied the relevant files, but there is no mention of a tip-off in the weeks before the warrant for your arrest went out."
Avon frowned. "Then search further back." It might have taken Security some time to react to the information. "There MUST be a reference. Someone, sometime, must have started to suspect me and warned Security. It is the only possible explanation. I want to find out who betrayed me, Orac!"
He smiled grimly, realising he was echoing Blake.
Orac made a sound that could be taken as a deep sigh. "If you insist, I shall do as you say. I must point out, however, that this will slow down and possibly impede my work on other projects."
"Too bad." Avon felt totally unsympathetic. "And don't tell anyone about this, Orac. The information is to be released only to me."
"You have already told me so when you gave me the original instruction."
"True. This is just a reminder."
He was about to extract Orac's key when the machine said: "You may be interested to learn that I am now picking up another OPEN-RELAY message, consisting of the latest Space Command figures update."
"Oh, good." No need to get excited, Avon told himself, but he succumbed to a pleasant anticipation all the same. "What does it say?"
"The variable figure is given as 1806."
"Which we now only have to compare with Blake's list, to nail the traitor. Well done, Orac."
Avon removed the key, unlocked the door, went to Blake's Private Office, and sat down to await his arrival. It wouldn't be long. Blake's idea of a conference was to tell the other participants what to do. The committee members would find themselves dismissed with a list of instructions before they knew what had happened.
Blake had offered him a room in the palace complex, but he preferred to sleep aboard Liberator. Blake having appropriated Orac, Avon had built a remote control for the teleport, enabling him and Vila to leave the ship and return without the need for someone to stay behind to work the controls. Between his bouts of chasing after the good life, Vila too returned to Liberator to sleep off his hangovers. Actually, Avon mused, Vila usually knew his limit, and managed to avoid getting really drunk. Presumably his experience at Space City had taught him a lesson he still vividly remembered.
He was still mulling over this entertaining thought when Blake entered the room. "Avon, what are you doing here?"
"Waiting for you, what else?" He rose. "Orac has intercepted another message."
"THE message?" Blake asked.
Avon nodded. "The number in question being 1806."
"Right." Blake took a paper from his pocket. Let's see, 06, that is..." He lowered his hand. "This must be a mistake."
"Check it with Orac, if you don't believe me," Avon said.
"But..." Blake sank into a chair. "That can't be. 1806, that's Cally's copy."
Avon refused to acknowledge the sudden pain in his chest. "You asked the question. It's no use complaining if you don't like the answer."
Blake doggedly shook his head. "I don't believe it! It must be a misunderstanding."
"I wasn't aware you had a list of members above suspicion."
Blake glared at him. "Cally has no reason for treason."
"No?" Avon challenged him. "What about the massacre of her people?"
"That was Servalan's doing."
"It was the FEDERATION'S doing. You are the Federation now."
"That's ridiculous - she's part of the Government. She initiated it."
A strong argument, but refutable. "The loss of her people may have unhinged her. Remember, Blake, as a telepath she was dependant on their spiritual support. No-one knows what she's going through now that is no longer available."
"But not all her people were wiped out," Blake said. "Some of the Auronar survived, Avon."
"I know, the two we took to Kaarn along with the gene stocks.
"No." Blake's eyes were shining now. "On Auron itself. Many of the elder people have proven to be resistant to Servalan's plague. And Orac's cure you left behind has managed to save most youngsters in the outer regions."
That was good news - if it was true. "Why didn't we hear about this sooner?"
"At first the Auronar didn't dare to make contact with the outside world, for fear Servalan would come back and finish the job. But now they've heard about the change in Government, and Cally's position as Foreign Secretary, and they've decided to restore diplomatic relations. They ask for aid and compensation."
"A reasonable request, albeit impossible to comply with. You know every credit will be needed to restore the economics, ruined by the Andromedan War and Servalan's misrule."
"That's where you come in. As Servalan caused the decimation of the Auronar, it seems apt to use her secret funds to aid them. Cally's set to go to Auron to assess the need. I want you to go with her, Avon. You have a clear insight into Servalan's assets. Make sure Cally doesn't promise her people more Credits than we have available. And we'll have to ensure the undertaking is kept secret, else we'll get compensation claims from every other planet with a grievance against the Federation"
NICE TRY TO DISTRACT ME, BLAKE! "What about the message? You can't ignore it."
"I don't intend to." Blake rose and moved to the intercom on his desk. "We'll have it out with her."
The direct approach, Avon reflected. Yes, that was Blake's way.
Blake pressed the intercom button. "Jarriere. JARRIERE!" He turned away from the desk. "He's supposed to keep his beeper with him at all times." At an acknowledgement from the intercom, he spoke into the machine: "Jarriere, find the Foreign Secretary for me and ask her to come to my private office. Now!"
Releasing the button, Blake turned his attention back to Avon. "The message about Auron's survival came in yesterday morning, before the distribution of the bait. Even if Cally has been harbouring thoughts of revenge, she would have abandoned them after hearing the news."
"Yes, she would realise that the best way to help her people would be to support your Government," Avon had to concede. He gave Blake a penetrating stare. "You do realise that the news about Auron's survival could be a trap?"
"Yes, I did," Blake replied. "I had Orac double check it."
Something the computer might have mentioned. But then, computers were supposed to give only the information requested.
Avon found Blake's hand on his shoulder. "Will you accompany Cally to Auron?"
Damn Blake; he knew the answer! "Yes, if she can give us a satisfactory explanation for the message." He was aware of the other's secret satisfaction. "Don't presume too often on my goodwill, Blake!"
- - - 3 - - -
Surprised about the urgent summons, Cally hurried to the President's Office Room. There must be something he wanted to discuss with her about her imminent trip. She was still dazed about the good news. Her people were too far away to pick up their vibes, otherwise she would have known about their survival sooner.
A bit distracted, she knocked on the door. //Blake, it's me.//
Entering at his reply, she saw Avon seated in a chair at the back of the room.
Blake stepped forward to greet her. "Cally, there's something I have to ask."
"Yes?" His seriousness was unsettling, as was Avon's cold stare.
Blake seemed unsure how to begin. After a silence it was Avon who said: "What can you tell us about yesterday's Space Command update?"
"What?" Then it dawned. They must have heard about the upheaval. "You mean the cock up of the figures? I wouldn't be too hard on Jarriere, Blake, Rontane gave him quite a grilling."
"Tell us about it," Blake said, and she perceived a change in the atmosphere.
A bit bewildered, she complied. "Jarriere distributed the documents yesterday at the end of the Inner Cabinet Meeting, just after you left. You were in a hurry, remember, the Lindorian Ambassador was waiting..."
"I told Jarriere to hand the update privately to each member," Blake said. "He shouldn't have gone against my orders!"
Cally shrugged. "As it turned out, it was fortunate he did, because there was some error made in the figures. Rontane spotted it, he stood talking to Bercol just when the Chancellor opened the envelop and took out the paper. Rontane glanced at it and said that Jarriere must have muddled things up, as one of the figures in Bercol's copy differed from the original he'd handed to Jarriere. We all started comparing notes, and found we each had a different figure for the recruitment data. It wasn't really important but Rontane got very worked up about it, lecturing Jarriere on the necessity for accuracy. I thought he was overreacting."
"You were all there?" Avon asked.
She cast her mind back to the event: "I was standing next to Tarrant - we were the only ones still at our side of the table. The others were all at the other side, ready to leave. Tarrant and I put our papers down on the table to compare them. His said 1809 and mine 1806." She paused, trying to recall the position of the others. "I think Jenna had already left. I'm not sure about Avalon. Dayna was still around. Grant also, I remember him saying that the copier computer must have had a hiccup, spouting out successive figures for each document."
"Typical Grant," Avon mumbled. "The only thing HE knows about computers is how to blow them up!"
Blake smiled. "Of course, you must have got to know Grant quite well, before you fell out with him."
"Not really," Avon said. "We bumped into each other a few times at Anna's place, that's all."
"I gather he and his sister were very close," Cally remarked. In the past months Grant had been talking about Anna to her, and she'd lent him a sympathetic ear. "He's still missing her as much as you do, Avon."
"Oh yes, he worshipped the ground she walked on." Avon produced a cold smile. "He considered me not worthy of her and made no secret of his opinion. Of course, I didn't know about his resistance activities at the time. Anna said he was working as a mining engineer, which accounted for his long periods of absence, when he was supposed to be overseeing work on other planets."
"An excellent cover," Cally said with professional admiration.
"Yes." She found Blake's arm round her shoulders. "Thanks for clearing up the matter of the update figures, Cally. Now you'd better go and get kitted up for the journey. Avon has agreed to take you with Liberator."
"That is good, it will reduce the travelling time." //Thank you, Avon.//
Stretched out in his chair, Avon gave her a curt nod. "Make sure you're ready for teleport in an hour."
She gave him her special smile, the one indicating she could see through him, and was rewarded with a sudden flickering of humour in his dark eye.
- - - 4 - - -
"Well," Blake said, feeling a mixture of relief and frustration, "that's been cleared up."
Avon nodded. "The traitor must have guessed it was a trap. All he had to do was to replace the relevant figure in his copy with a random one before sending out his message. He wouldn't care on whom suspicion would fall, as long as it led away from him."
Blake sighed. "And we're no nearer to catching the traitor."
"Who's warned now, and will be on the alert for further traps," Avon observed.
Blake slapped his fist into his palm. "But who?
"And why?" Avon said. "Even with the battering it got from the Andromedans, our Space fleet is still too strong for any potential enemy to take on." He began to rub his hands in thought. "Maybe someone has the idea to strike while part of the fleet is still away on the Terminal mission."
Blake shrugged, not really concerned about an attack; no known force was strong enough to defeat the Federation Fleet. "Then whoever it is, has left it too late. Word has come through that the Eighth Fleet located Terminal. They put a party down before destroying it. Apparently the planet was teeming with extremely aggressive life forms, so they quickly left and blew it out of existence. They're on their way back now."
"Say goodbye to one failed experiment," Avon commented dryly.
Blake went back to the problem in hand. "It's not an outside attack we have to fear, but the traitor in our midst. I still want him smoked out."
"Does your use of the word 'him' means you rule out the women?" Avon enquired.
"Of course not." Blake began to consider the suspects one for one. "Cally's in the clear..."
"Is she?" Avon asked. "She may be playing a double bluff, knowing you'd never want to believe her capable of treason."
Blake gave that suggestion the ridicule it deserved: "Don't be an idiot!" Not giving Avon the chance to respond, he continued: "We can eliminate Jenna, too. She wasn't present when the variation in the data came to light."
"She may have heard about it later," Avon pointed out. Blake just gave him a withering look. Avon responded with a stare of patient exasperation, then shrugged. "What about Avalon? Is she also on your list of persons above suspicion?"
"No, but she has no reason to turn against me. What about Dayna?" Blake asked. "You've known her longer than I have. Do you consider her capable of treason?"
Avon seemed willing to consider the possibility. "Not as such, but as a move to liven things up a bit...?" Then he shook his head. "No, it's not her kind of action. I wouldn't put it past her to blow up your best bit of furniture, just for the hell of it, but I can't see her sending out treacherous messages for a joke. Her heart's in explosives, not communication. Besides, she has no motive. She revered her father, and you are acting in his spirit, finishing the revolution he began. For that reason alone, you can rely on her loyalty."
That was more or less Blake's own assessment. "And Tarrant? Would he be capable of treason?"
"You certainly provided him with a motive."
"I told you," Blake replied, "the Space Command Officers refused to serve under a deserter. Tarrant accepted this."
"Yes, but you could have compensated him with a more glamorous position. I gather that in civil service circles he is now referred to as Supreme Traffic Warden. I assume you know what a traffic warden is - a relic from the days of privately owned transport. They were responsible for booking people who left their vehicles at unauthorised places."
"His is an important job," Blake said. "With eighty percent of the galaxy's spacecraft destroyed, the infrastructure has to be built up from scratch."
"The Transport Department was part of Jenna's portfolio, wasn't it?" Avon asked. "Yes, she was minister for Trade and Transport. I split the Department to give Tarrant a suitable task." Time to get back to the issue, Blake decided. "So you do think him capable of treason?"
"Difficult to say." Again Avon seemed willing to treat the question with an open mind. "He isn't one for sulking in silence; Tarrant's grievances are uttered loudly and often. For that reason I'd say that secret planning is not his style." He frowned, adding as if speaking to himself: "On the other hand, his power play with Clegg's death squad proves he is capable of subterfuge..." He shook his head. "No, Blake, the one thing you can rely on with Tarrant is his loyalty to his team-mates. He won't hesitate to get them into trouble, but then he'll do all in his power to get them out again. I can see him resigning his post in a huff, but not turning against you in this manner."
That also concurred with Blake's assessment. "So it's down to Bercol or Rontane."
"Or Grant or Jarriere," Avon said.
Blake shook his head. "I can't see any motive for Grant. And Jarriere is too stupid."
"Almost too stupid to be true," Avon remarked. "Frankly, I'm surprised you still retain him."
"Oh, I did consider sacking him. But if I do, Rontane will provide another Private Secretary, one who will be loyal to the civil service and not necessarily to me. Whatever Jarriere's faults, he has no roots in the civil service. Also, Rontane's treatment of him isn't likely to earn him Jarriere's personal loyalty."
"So you hope you can count on Jarriere's loyalty instead," Avon finished his reasoning. "I knew you must have SOME reason for hanging on to him."
"So it has to be," Blake said, returning to their problem, "either Rontane or Bercol."
"Or they could be in it together," Avon suggested.
"Yes, I hadn't thought of that." Blake found himself warming to the idea. "They seem very chummy.
"I can see them entertaining the thought of having Bercol take your place," Avon said pensively. "But I doubt they'd want to enlist the help of a foreign power to achieve it. Remember, the messages must be intended for a foreign agent. Both Rontane and Bercol are intelligent enough to foresee that, once brought in, a foreign power isn't going to leave again after a thank-you and a handshake. The Federation ruled by outsiders must appeal to them a lot less than the Federation ruled by you. After all, you left Rontane in his position and gave Bercol the second most important job in the Federation. A foreign ruler might be far less generous."
Which all made sense. Damn Avon and his cold logic! "So, what do you propose?"
"Doing nothing for the moment. Well, there's nothing much we CAN do, is there? We'll just have to see whether any further developments occur. Perhaps the knowledge we're on to him will deter the traitor, in which case nothing will happen. Or he'll find another way to send his messages."
"All right, we'll keep Orac monitoring," Blake decided.
Avon rose. "Right. I'd better go and extract Vila from the arms of the nearest barmaid."
"Oh, leave him," Blake said, adding quickly in answer to Avon's raised eyebrows: "The man deserves some relaxation!"
This earned him a glare of suspicion.
Blake gave him a broad grin. "It will be nice for you and Cally to have some time together."
He saw the suspicion dissolve, replaced by mild amusement. Good, let Avon regard it as a clumsy coupling attempt. Blake wasn't going to sit quietly waiting for the traitor's next move! He's was going to act - and for that he would need Vila's talents.
- - - 5 - - -
"Are you sure this is a good idea, Blake?" Vila asked, nervously picking the door lock of an apartment on one of the Dome's upper levels. The door sprung open and he stood aside, then followed his companion into a spacious, richly furnished room. "They might be at home."
"Bercol and his wife are out," Blake replied. "Like Rontane and the other Council Members, they're attending the gala night of the Kaleidoscope at the Performance Hall. I encouraged everyone to go. Actually, I should have been the guest of honour but I backed out at the last moment." He gave a sudden, boyish grin. "Pressing matters of state."
Vila wasn't reassured. "Their children could be in."
"The son's a student at Belhangria and the daughter is married and lives elsewhere." Blake moved to the large, ornate desk. "Now quickly, Vila, find the safe and open it for me."
Vila eyed the room with professional interest; he'd never been on this level before. "I didn't know they had such large apartments in the Dome. I might have done a few burglaries here worth my while."
Blake began to look through the contents of the desk-drawers. "Mind you don't take anything! We don't want them to know anyone has been here. Leave everything as you find it."
Vila sighed. "What's the fun of breaking and entering if I can't steal anything?" He studied the three large paintings hanging on the wall. "Hey, this one seems to move."
Blake looked up from his task. "What?"
"That painting." Vila shuffled towards him. "It moves! Look!"
Blake began to laugh. "It's a THREE-DIM. The picture changes according to your angle of view."
"It does?" Vila moved to the painting. What had been a boat on a stormy sea changed into a mother and child, then into a vase of flowers. "It does!"
"They were very popular during the last century of the Old Calendar," Blake said. "This one must be worth quite a sum."
"I bet it wouldn't be saleable, though," Vila muttered, losing interest. Following his instincts, he selected a painting with an abstract colour swirl. A close look at its fastenings confirmed his hunch. "There, what did I say?"
He quickly deactivated the alarm system linked to the fastening, then removed the painting from the wall, revealing a metal door. Happily he began to work on the lock.
"There," he said again, pulling the door open.
Blake came over to him. "Nothing suspicious in his desk. Maybe we have more luck here."
"We have," Vila said, stretching out a hand to the neat wads of bank notes. "Look at that!"
"Leave it," Blake ordered. "We're not here to steal anything."
"I wish I knew what we were here for," Vila mumbled, huffed.
"To find something incriminating. Evidence of treason." Blake lifted a metal box from the safe and handed it to him. "See what's in here, Vila."
He took the box to the desk and tackled the lock. "Must hold something valuable - this lock's very complicated."
It took him two whole minutes. Heart beating in anticipation, he opened the lid.
"Some kind of album, with pictures." He idly flipped a few pages, then took in the images.
"Pornography," Blake hissed, looking over his shoulder.
Vila whistled, then began to grin. "Imagine, the high-and-mighty Chancellor Bercol goggling at dirty pictures!"
"Put them back," Blake said. "And lock up the box again, and the safe. I'm going to search the rest of the place."
He was back soon. "Nothing. Come, let's go to the next one."
"Whose is this?" Vila asked a few moments later, working on another door lock.
"Rontane's. And before you ask: he's divorced and his daughter is living with her mother."
They entered. "Another posh place," Vila mumbled, looking the room over. After the velvet drapes and cushioned settees of the Bercols, the streamlined steel furniture provided a sense of utility. "Warm in here, isn't it?"
"Find me the safe, Vila," Blake said.
He complied, looking the walls over with a professional eye. The framed drawings of insects decorating the walls were too small to hide a safe. Going for the next obvious place, the large in-built wardrobe, he located the safe at its bottom. The lock posed no problem.
"Nothing," Blake said after a quick skim through the papers.
"Nah, not even money." Vila felt disappointed despite the veto on stealing. "He must be a loyal citizen who keeps all his money in the bank."
Blake went to search the rest of the apartment. "Vila, open this door, will you. It seems to be locked."
"Must be where he keeps his secrets, then." Vila applied his tools and talents. "Here we are." He swung open the door.
Immediately something was all over him. Something hairy, coiling around his body, pinning his arms to his sides. Terror engulfed him. "Help, Blake! I'm attacked!"
He caught the other's laughter. "Don't worry, Vila. It's only an Overonian catserpent. They're harmless."
"Does it know that? Ugh!" He felt a rasping tongue on his cheek.
"And very affectionate," Blake said, chuckling.
"Get it off me! Please, Blake!"
Blake came with a large padded pole he must have found in the room. With relief Vila saw the catserpent slide onto the pole, coiling its snake-like body round and round. From this perch it cast them curious glances from its golden bead-like eyes. Now he was relieved of the animal, Vila could appreciate its beauty. It must be more than three metres long, with a silver sheen over its turquoise pelt. Above the long limb-less body sat a black, cat-like head, with silver whiskers and tuffs of turquoise fur on the pointed ears.
Hesitating, he followed Blake into the room, noticing it was even warmer in here. Boxes of transparent material were situated on tables along the walls. Each box was filled with one or more reptiles or insects, many of which seemed alien.
"Nice hobby," he remarked.
"A Borean fieldsnake, Lindorian lizard, midget cayman, giant grasssnake of the Prentulan Belts..." Blake reeled off the names while moving along the boxes. "These are all threatened species! There's a law against their trade AND possession!"
Vila eyed a particularly nasty looking red-and-black striped spider that sat in the centre of a giant web that filled its large cage. Staring back from its small green eyes, the arachnid seemed to be contemplating how he might taste. "Maybe he keeps them as guard-dogs." He wasn't interested in the plight of threatened species - except for that of talented thieves.
Blake put the pole with the catserpent in a stand that was clearly meant to hold it. The animal began to make a sound between purring and cooing. "Let's go."
Vila wasn't sorry to follow him out of the apartment.
Blake next led him to another level. The few people they met did not seem interested in them at all. Although the water was no longer laced with suppressants, minding their own business must be ingrained into the Dome's inhabitants.
"Whose's this?" Vila asked, tackling another lock.
"Jarriere's. Don't worry, Vila, he's a bachelor - no wife or children."
"He could have a woman tucked away in his apartment."
But they found the dwelling empty. It was the standard bachelor apartment, consisting of a living room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom, albeit larger than the average flats.
"What style is this then?" Vila muttered, taking in the combination of heavy wooden pieces of furniture that could be genuine Old Calendar antiques, and the large simple bare metal table in the centre of the living room. Against the walls were metal cabinets, covering every available space from floor to ceiling. "Advanced Schizophrenial?"
"See if you can find a safe," Blake said.
"Must be in one of those cabinets - there isn't any other place for it." Vila tried the nearest, finding it locked. Quickly rectifying that, he pulled open the double doors.
The ledges held neat rows of big glass jars filled with a variation of objects floating in a transparent fluid. Vila found himself staring at them in horrid fascination. One jar held a human foot - shoe size XL by his estimation. Another contained a human foetus. A single blue eye stared at him from the next. "Hey, do you think that could be Travis's?"
A puffy, grey mass brought on a surge of nausea. He turned his head away. "Yuk!"
Blake closed the doors. "Lock these again and open the next pair."
Vila set to the task. "Are you sure you want to know what's in there?" He stood aside, so Blake could open them, but couldn't help looking over his shoulder.
The ledges were filled with brown, shrivelled tissue.
"Mummified human remains," Blake said.
Now Vila recognised a hand, the nails beautifully preserved. In a corner stood a head, topped with tangled red hair, the retracted lips showing a set of large shiny teeth. "Tarrant should be jealous of those!" He turned to Blake, who was walking to a desk that held a computer and a pile of prints. "Another nice hobby. Where would he get that stuff?"
"From hospitals?" Blake was skimming through the prints. "These are all texts on the various mummification processes."
"You think he nicks corpses to dissect and mummify them?" Vila felt a shiver run down his spine. "I've heard of skeletons in the cupboard, but this..."
"He studied for surgeon," Blake remarked.
"Yeah, but he made such a hash of his operations even his mother couldn't prevent him being kicked out." Vila had heard the gossip. "So now he's specialising in patients who can't complain."
Blake closed the doors. "Let's get on with it."
They found more preserved human body parts but no safe. The last three cabinets were empty.
"Room for more then," Vila mumbled, re-locking the last pair of doors. "I'll make sure to stay out of his way."
"Nothing in the bedroom either," Blake said. "Come on, Vila."
"After this I need a drink!"
"Later." Blake set a brisk pace along the Dome's well lit corridors. "We've got four more places to visit."
"Oh no," Vila said morosely. "Going by this rate, next we're bound to stumble on a complete corpse!"
But the next flat held nothing of the sort. Most space in the tiny, sparsely furnished living room was taken up by a large computer on a desk and a contraption that resembled the cockpit of a very small spacecraft. Vila recognised the jacket flung over the desk chair. "This must be Tarrant's place. Hey, that's a games computer."
"A sophisticated one," Blake confirmed, activating it. "This menu gives a choice of famous space battles to reconstruct." He frowned. "These games are not readily available, the Federation isn't forthcoming about military matters."
"He probably got the info from the Space Command computers," Vila said. "As Supreme Commander he had access to them."
"Yes, but he must have done the programming of these games by himself."
"Keeps him out of mischief, then." Not really interested, Vila ambled over to the 'cockpit' and sat in the single chair. "What's this?"
"Some kind of flight simulator, probably." Blake switched off the computer. "See if you can find a safe, Vila."
Muttering, he rose. Of course the safe was in the last place he looked, under the bedstead in the bedroom. Its lock was of the more complicated kind, taking him nearly a minute.
The safe was empty. "Like his head," Vila commented, choosing to take it as a personal affront.
- - - 6 - - -
The route Blake had carefully planned for the search was as economical as possible, and brought them next to Dayna's flat. The tiny place was fitted out as a workshop, the tools all neatly tidied away. Blake recognised most of the equipment. With interest he studied the gadgets, in various stages of development, which had been left on the large work bench.
"There, I've got her safe open for you," Vila announced. "Wasn't easy - something of a museum piece, this, and those old guys knew their job."
Blake walked over to the old-fashioned, large, square box that filled a corner of the room. The safe was full to overflowing, the packets of black material stacked in tightly.
"These are explosives!" he exclaimed, taking one out. "There's enough in here to blow up the entire Dome."
Vila shrugged. "Dayna likes a big bang."
Was that her aim? Blake wondered, furious. Blowing up the Dome? But no, he couldn't believe that of her. More likely the explosives were meant for her inventions. "It's irresponsible!" But his fury subsided; Dayna was little more than a child. And if she was as good as Avon claimed, her inventions could be useful. "She'll have to move. I must find her a place outside the Dome. Lock it up again, Vila. VERY gently."
With cold amusement he saw the message sink in. Vila's hands trembled slightly when he re-locked the safe, but he was indeed very, VERY careful.
"Only two more to go," he told Vila while leading him to their next target.
"Whose have we here?" Vila asked, working on the lock.
Vila removed his probe and the lock clicked open. "Doesn't the Supreme Commander have his own quarters in Space Command HQ?"
"Yes." Blake stepped into the flat, his feet sinking into the thick carpet. "It's one of those senseless rules I intend to abolish. Grant didn't want to move, so I gave him permission to keep on living here."
"He likes life's luxuries, doesn't he?" Vila said. "I bet he found his military quarters too austere for comfort!"
Blake grinned. "Probably."
"But..." Vila pointed at a sofa. "That's Servalan's. Those chairs also, and that desk. He's been robbing her palace - YOUR palace."
Blake shook his head. "I gave the new Cabinet members permission to select what they needed, to settle in."
"Well, Grant certainly knows how to choose the best bits," Vila observed.
"Go and find his safe," Blake said.
Vila went straight for a large NEO-GOBELIN wall-tapestry depicting a space battle. He drew it aside and they found the safe, set into the wall. "Standard design," he observed. "I'll have this open in no time."
"Good." Blake moved to the desk. As expected, the neatly sorted papers held nothing incriminating. He was only including this and the next apartment in the search in order to eliminate their occupants from suspicion.
Meanwhile Vila was going through the contents of the safe. "These are all false papers! Must be from his mercenary days. Look, a birth certificate in the name of Del Gable. Various visas, diplomas..." He chuckled. "Here's a certificate in top grade computer technology."
"It stands to reason he needed a false identity for his travels," Blake said, not really interested. "Anything else?"
"Some large tins." Vila pulled one out and brought it over to the desk. "Doesn't feel very heavy - probably empty." With a flourish he removed the lid. "Hey, it's full of smelly stuff."
Blake studied the contents. The tin was filled to the brim with a dry brown substance.
"What is it," Vila asked. "Dried worms?"
Blake knew the smell from somewhere. He had to dig deep into his memory, back to the days when he'd been pursuing the study of natural history... "This is tobacco."
"Oh." Vila took a step backwards. "I've heard of that. It's a drug, isn't it?"
"Yes, highly addictive and the fumes are as harmful to the bystanders as to the smoker. At one time more than half of the Terran population succumbed to it. The smoking of tobacco was outlawed during the Old Calendar. Here on Earth possession is a criminal offence. I've heard that on some outer planets tobacco is still grown, though. It is said to be smoked in secret by the more unsavoury element of Space Command."
"Looks as if Grant is intent on giving them a good example."
Blake didn't know whether to feel angry with Grant or sorry for him. "He must stop this habit! I can't have one of my Cabinet members giving a bad example. He should have reported he had a drug problem."
"You can't trust anyone, can you?" Vila sounded rather cheerful.
Blake put the lid back on the tin. "Put it back in the safe and let's get on. One more to go." For a moment he contemplated going home - but no, he must complete his mission and eliminate Avalon.
The Home Secretary's abode was tastefully decorated. Carefully placed spotlights projected a variation of soft colours onto the stark white walls. Together with the few pieces of furniture painted in pastel tints, it gave the place a cosy appearance.
As expected, the standard issue safe held nothing suspicious.
"Let's go," he said.
Vila, who'd finished re-locking the safe, moved over to a bowl filled with colourful marbles decorating a small table. "These look nice. What're they're made of - not glass, is it?"
"Pseudo-glass," Blake explained, recognising the texture. "It was invented in the twenty-second Century of the Old Calendar. It has the same structure as glass but the production process is so simple it can be done at home. The adding of pigments produces the most beautiful colours, enhanced by the substance's intrinsic shining." He pointed at the bowl. "Avalon probably made these marbles herself. She told me working with pseudo-glass is a hobby of hers."
"So she's an artist." Vila idly put his hand inside the bowl and began to stir the marbles. The movement produced flashes of colours. "Must be a change from steering up revol-- Ouch!" He pulled out his hand, staring with dismay at the drop of blood on his index finger. "One of them must be damaged."
"No," Blake said. "Pseudo-glass doesn't shard like real glass. It dissolves into powdery fragments. You can't get cut by it."
He upended the bowl. The sparkling marbles rolled onto the table. A flat object appeared from between them, a gold disk perched on a slightly larger silver crescent.
"That's what cut me," Vila said. "There should be a law against such lethal objects - look at those sharp points!"
"There IS a law against these," Blake told him grimly. He felt hurt, betrayed. "This is the symbol of the Sect of the Reborn Moon."
"Those fanatics who set out to kill anybody who refused to convert?" Vila asked.
"The same," Blake replied. "The Sect sprang up about a hundred years ago, in defiance of the Federation's ban on religions. It was founded by a madman who called himself Adam the Prophet. He based his Sect on the texts of the forbidden books of some of the major religions from Earth's past - as a triple-A historian he had access to them. Adam selected texts glorifying violence and the oppression of women. He decreed that all unbelievers were to be ritually killed - men and boys beheaded, women and girls stoned to death. Being extremely charismatic, he managed to gain many followers. Scores of innocents were killed before the Federation finally managed to suppress them."
Blake picked up the disk. "This must mean that Avalon is a secret member of the Sect." The pain in his chest was acute. How could she harbour sympathy for such a nasty religion?
"I should see a doctor." Vila sucked his hurt finger. "It might get infected."
"Yes, all right," Blake said, his mind on other things. He had to deal with this! Dropping the disc into his pocket, he made for the door. "I'll have this out with Avalon."
- - - 7 - - -
In her first class box in the Dome's Alpha Performance Hall, Avalon sat enjoying the dancers' graceful movements. Ballet had been banned during the first austere decades of the New Calendar, but had been revived by a President with a liking for the performing arts. Under his patronage the art had blossomed, and attending the Federation Ballet's performances had become the vogue for the ruling class. An irreverent commentator had once observed that the reason the accompanying music was always played so loudly must stem from a desire to drown out the snoring of the less enthralled members of the audience.
The Kaleidoscope was the crowning piece of the Federation's top choreographer. The dancers revolved around the Prima Ballerina, their brightly coloured costumes causing the ever changing colour patterns that gave the ballet its name. Each dancer had a spotlight attached to her forehead and on every rousing beat of the drums, when they all turned their faces to the centre, the lights combined to produce the hologram of a sparkling star above the head of the Prima Ballerina. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
Avalon sat entranced. Only slowly did she become aware that someone was tugging at her arm.
"Blake," she whispered, the sight of his grim face braking the magic.
With growing dismay she followed him from the box, through the corridor into a small office. Something bad must have happened!
Blake carefully shut the door. Avalon saw they were alone in the office. Blake moved round the desk, facing her from the other side. "We need to talk."
Unsettled by his brusque manner, she asked: "What's happened?"
"This!" Blake took an object from his pocket and tossed it onto the desk. "A burglar discovered this hidden at your place. Do you recognise it?"
"Yes." Bewildered, she stared at the disk.
"It's the symbol of the Sect of the Reborn Moon." He spat out the words. "Cruel, mad, vicious terrorists."
"I know." She looked into his flaming eyes, and suddenly understood. Anger rose in her. "You think I BELONG to them? A sect that is hostile to women, denies them even basic rights like education and medical treatment? Did you know they locked up their women, forbidding them to leave their homes? That even inside, when they had to serve male guests, their women had to cover up their whole bodies, including their faces? The repression and maltreatment of women was the cornerstone of Prophet Adam's teachings, Blake. His proscribed punishment for a disobedient woman was to stone her to death. There were no stones in the Dome, so he organised secret expeditions outside to collect them. And the punishment wasn't restricted to their own - they preyed on every woman in the Dome who dared to show herself, regardless of whether she was a follower or not. Adam's Rule of Terror was even worse than the Federation's."
Blake's face lost some of its severity. "Why then keep the disk?"
"It belonged to my great-grandmother. She was a follower - a poor, deluded, brainwashed soul. She refused to renounce her religion, even in the face of the firing squad. Yes, Blake, her believes were utterly wrong, and not worth the sacrifice, but she stood by them, and I can admire her for that."
She picked up the disk. "Her child, my grandmother, was ten years old at that time. Imagine what she went through, growing up under such a regime. One night she heard her parents discuss Adam's plan to send children packed with explosives into crowded places, as suicide bombers to take out as many UNBELIEVERS as they could. They had offered her for the job - daughters were expendable. They saw it as the highest sacrifice, that would ensure them a place in heaven. My grandmother managed to flee and warn the authorities. As punishment for her 'treason' Adam had her father, one of his most ardent followers, beheaded. Even that did not shake her mother's beliefs, she remained loyal to Adam and his teachings to the very end."
Drawing breath, Avalon went on: "I have no affinity with fanatics, Blake, religious or otherwise! As Home Secretary, I want to make sure no mad prophet will ever again get the opportunity to force his delusions onto others. Federation citizens should be free to make their own choices, but not to force their choices onto others. If you can't agree with that, or can't find it your his heart to trust me, then sack me!"
"I'm sorry, Avalon." He rubbed his hand over his face. "I jumped to conclusions. It's been a long night for me." She found his brown eyes on her, commanding, compelling. "I trust you."
"As you should." Her anger subsided. She turned the disk over in her hands. "My grandmother had this with her when she fled. It had been given to her by her mother that same day, probably in honour of her expected sacrifice. She'd hidden it and it was never found. It was the only keepsake she had, after her mother's execution all her parents' possessions were declared forfeit. She later bequeathed it to her daughter, my mother, who gave it to me."
"Better not keep such a controversial heirloom," Blake said. "I intend to establish a museum, to show the people their past. Why not donate the disc for the Contemporary History section?"
How dared he presume to tell her what to do with her possessions! Yet such was his preponderance, she found herself almost handing it over on the spot. "I'll think about it."
"All right. Goodnight." He marched to the door and opened it. On the threshold, he turned. "I've always trusted you, Avalon."
Suddenly she was back in the Federation base, escorted from her prison cell to the room where Blake was holding Servalan and Travis hostage for her release. Escaped from the trap set for him, he'd cared enough to come back for her.
"I know, Blake. I won't let you down." She meant it.
He disappeared. Avalon left more slowly. No use going back to her box; it would be impossible to regain the magic of the performance. She'd better go home and see what damage the burglar had done. She supposed she had to be grateful he'd taken the disk to Blake and not to a personal enemy such as Grant. She should have asked Blake if he knew the burglar's identity. Did he expect her to call in the police?
Avalon smiled wryly to herself. As the Federation Police Force fell under the Home Office, the fight against crime was ultimately her responsibility.
- - - 8- - -
"Liberator will be in teleport range of the planet Auron in two hours."
Cally listened to Zen's announcement with mixed feelings. The joy of the reunion with her people would be overshadowed by the absence of loved ones.
"Thank you, Zen."
Cally looked over her shoulder; she had not heard Avon enter the flight deck. He carried two glasses, one of which he brought over to her. A bit bemused, she took it - Avon usually expected to be served. If he couldn't find anyone willing to perform the task, he would fetch just his own refreshment, leaving his companions to cater for themselves.
"You've been very quiet," she observed. He had kept himself to himself for most of the trip.
"So have you." He sat down beside her on the couch. "Don't you look forward to meeting your people?"
"Yes, but it won't be the same. It never will be now."
"Zelda won't be there."
"She made her choice, Cally." Avon's voice was harsh. "A criminally stupid one but it WAS her choice. She considered saving the children of the woman who had committed the mass murder of her people more important than saving her own life. She made the choice and paid the price."
That was no consolation to Cally.
"And you?" she challenged, riled. "You chose to avenge your lover's death. Was it worth losing an eye for?"
He cocked his head to one side, seemingly seriously considering the question. "Yes. I would have preferred to have killed her tormentor myself, but all considered, it has been worth the price."
Of course! In a flash she understood. Atonement. Suffering for Anna had alleviated some of his sorrow - his guilt. That was why he'd not yet consulted a plastic surgeon - why he would never do so. His scars served as a balm, a price paid, a means to come to terms with his lover's fate.
Cally doubted he was consciously aware of his motivation. He probably could provide lots of practical reasons for not seeking out treatment yet. Cally smiled to herself; Avon was a master in finding logical reasons for illogical decisions.
She found his mocking gaze on her. "Besides, you can't complain about the side effects of my action, Cally: we brought down the Federation and saved Blake from a fate worse than death."
"Blake, yes," she said. "But the revolt was started by Sula, remember. She might well have brought it off, if Dayna hadn't stopped her."
"I doubt it." He took a sip from his glass. "And I very much doubt if Sula was intending to hand over power to the rabble."
That managed to irritate her again. "She had the backing of the People's Council."
"Using them for her own ends, presumably." Avon snorted. "She was a Councillor's wife, wasn't she? Not the kind to willingly associate with rabbles. No, Cally, I think her intention was merely to take Servalan's place and restore the balance."
"Between the two pillars of the Federation, Space Command and Central Security - the Intelligence service. They are sworn enemies. By tradition the President, belonging to neither, is expected to maintain the balance. Supreme Commander Servalan made an end to that when she took over the Presidency. I wouldn't be surprised if Central Security was behind Sula's revolt."
Cally had to concede it sounded logical. She sipped from her drink, surprised by its sweet, fruity taste. "What is this?"
"A sorbet - ice cream blended with fruit juice."
"This doesn't come from Liberator's concentrated food supplies, does it?"
He grinned. "No, it comes from the Presidential freezer. Servalan's predecessor was a lover of ice cream. It seemed a shame to let it go to waste."
For a while they drank in silence, until Avon asked: "What exactly did happen in that cellar? I never heard the whole story."
"Sula tried to stop Dayna killing Servalan."
"So Dayna shot her?"
"Yes. We thought it better not to let that fact get out. The official version is that Sula got killed in the confusion of the revolt. Hob, the leader of the People's Council, was willing to comply. He didn't like Sula, I gather he felt she'd been patronising him."
"As can be expected from a Councillor's wife." Avon put down his empty glass. "And in the end it was Tarrant, not Dayna, who shot Servalan."
Of course, he would have heard that. Dayna had been complaining loudly about it. Cally shook her head, saddened by all the violence and hunger for revenge. Still, once she too had been eager for blood, longing to destroy until she was destroyed. "At least, many people came out of it the better."
"Blake for one," Avon said. "He can now fulfil his dream of giving power to the honest men, providing he manages to find some."
Cally nodded, ignoring the bait. "Avalon and Grant also. They got what they were fighting for."
"And Dayna," Avon said. "She may not have got the chance to shoot Servalan herself, but she did see her father's dream of toppling the Federation come true."
Cally smiled. "I was a bit concerned about Blake giving her such a responsible post. But it seems to have worked out. Even Rontane and Bercol can't complain," she continued, following the thread. "We've found evidence they were high on Servalan's death list. They wouldn't have survived much longer, had she lived."
"So in the end that leaves only Tarrant and Jenna as the ones who lost out," Avon observed. "I've always suspected Tarrant deserted because promotion didn't come his way quickly enough. And just when he'd made true his secret dream of gaining the top job in Space Command, he found himself demoted by Blake. From Supreme Commander to Traffic Warden! And Jenna has lost half of her Department to Tarrant."
"Jenna doesn't care about her Department, Avon," Cally told him. "She has come out of it the best of all, having got back the man she loves and had thought dead."
Avon raised his eyebrows. "I thought she'd got over her crush."
Cally just gave him her most enigmatic smile. She wasn't going to tell him that, on the day before they'd set out, Jenna had confided to her that she was fed up with Blake taking her for granted. Jenna had voiced her determination to take things in hand, and make Blake notice her. Cally had full confidence in the outcome.
- - - 9 - - -
"...Bercol goggling at dirty pictures... That freak Jarriere, keeping the contents of a complete mortuary lab in his cupboards... Rontane with a home full of poisonous pets..."
Impatiently Avon listened to Vila's waffling account. Immediately after reporting to Blake, he'd gone in search of Orac, finding the computer in a small room in Blake's private quarters. Regrettably, Vila had been there too, idly pestering the machine with some excruciatingly bad jokes. Avon longed to hear what Orac had been able to root up from the Security files about his bank fraud scheme, but he wasn't going to interrogate the machine in the presence of Vila.
"...You wouldn't believe it, they all have something to hide," Vila droned on. "Grant's a secret user, we found large amounts of a drug called tobacco in his safe. And false papers - even a faked computer technology certificate." That seemed to amuse him no end.
Avon listened with half an ear, wishing he would leave. But sending him away too brusquely might arouse suspicion. Vila was only so much of a fool.
"...Enough explosives to blow up the dome - Dayna's in for a grilling!"
He could well believe it. Well, Dayna would be up to it. And quite unrepentant...
"How did your trip go?" he heard Vila ask.
Avon gathered his thoughts. "Well enough. I managed to prevent Cally from promising her people the entire contents of the Treasury."
Vila grinned at him, eyes gleaming with curiosity. "Who was that tall dark handsome man I saw you and Cally take into Blake's office?"
"Lehan, an old friend of hers. He was serving as Auron's Ambassador on Lindor, that's why he survived Servalan's plague. They recalled him and he's now taking up the post of Ambassador here."
"Cally seemed very taken by him." Vila laid a finger on his nose. "I sniff a romance."
"That gives you something to celebrate, then."
"All right, I get the message." Vila moved to the door. "I'll go and find myself a few bottles. They'll be better company than you."
As soon as he'd left, Avon said: "Orac, what have you found?"
"What have I found about what?"
"You know about what. And be quick, I don't want Blake running in on us."
Orac produced something of a sigh. "I have found a reference to your scheme." The machine mentioned the date of the file.
Avon felt bewildered. "But that was nearly a year before my arrest."
"That is right. According to the report, interfering with the banking computers has been noticed and traced to you."
"That must have been when I first embarked on the scheme." Avon tried to adjust his mind to the facts. "I'd prepared a herculanium excuse, in case I would be challenged. I was working on a thesis about the vulnerability of computers to hacking."
If someone had detected his tampering, he would have told them it was for research purposes, offering his thesis as proof. When nothing had happened he'd become convinced his hacking had gone unnoticed.
"Why didn't they challenge me?"
"According to the file, they suspected your aims to be political."
"POLITICAL?" He could hardly believe his ears.
"For that reason," Orac continued, "it was decided to let you continue under discreet surveillance. To let you run, in order to get to your associates."
Avon shook his head. "Of all the stupid surmises..." He cast his mind back. Who could have been trailing him? "How did they keep me under surveillance?"
"Those files I have not yet penetrated."
"Then do so. I want the names of everyone they employed to spy on me." He still couldn't understand how they'd managed the surveillance. He'd always worked alone, until Anna had come along. His colleagues, his acquaintances, nobody had come near enough to him to be of any use to Central Security.
"I must remind you that all Security files are encoded, the deciphering of which is an extremely complicated process."
"You mean it is beyond your capabilities, Orac?" Avon asked sweetly.
"Of course not! But it is time consuming."
"Then don't waste time grumbling. Oh, and Orac." Vila's report on the contents of Jarriere's cupboards had triggered a thought. "I also want you to find what happened to Anna Grant's remains." Usually, the bodies of criminals were cremated, but in case of demand they could be sent to the Medical Academy for dissection by anatomy students. Jarriere's supply must come from somewhere. Perhaps he had a deal with the prison governor. If there was even the slightest chance of parts of Anna having ended up in Jarriere's collection, Avon wanted to know it!
- - - 10 - - -
Seated at his desk, going through a pile of papers, Blake looked up, irritated, when his door was thrown open. Jarriere, of course - the man never seemed able to remember he was supposed to knock first.
"President, your Special Advisor asks to see you."
Avon was already stepping into the room. So maybe this time one should not blame Jarriere.
"It's all right," Blake told his Private Secretary, secretly amused to imagine him trying to tell Avon to make an appointment. He shoved the papers aside, not sorry to find a valid reason for leaving the paperwork for the moment, and gestured at Avon to take a seat. As soon as Jarriere had departed, he asked. "Has Vila brought you up to date?"
"Yes." Avon sat down gingerly. His tight trousers must impede his movement, Blake surmised. "I should have guessed you had an ulterior motive when you so solicitously advised me to leave him behind."
Blake gave a short grin, not in the least perturbed. Then he became serious. "What do you think of the outcome?"
Avon shrugged. "Everybody has something to hide. It was to be expected that your Inner Cabinet members would be no exception."
His cool reaction irritated Blake. "Preserved body parts, endangered species, pornography..."
"Ah." Avon smiled. "I imagine Bercol would argue that's one of those irregular verbs: I collect erotic art, you goggle at dirty pictures, he deals in pornography. Seriously, Blake, none of their hobbies, unsavoury as they may be, can be regarded as proof that they're guilty of treason. On the contrary, if they have a passion to put all their spare time and energy into, it's unlikely they will want to spend any on plotting against you."
Which was true, Blake had to concede.
"Did Avalon," Avon asked, "give you a satisfactory explanation for the Reborn Moon symbol?"
"Yes." He gave a summary of their conversation. "I believe her."
Avon nodded. "If Avalon did belong to the Sect, she would not have been able to embark on her rebel career - or any career, as they don't allow woman any activity outside the house."
"Of course." He should have thought of that.
"What are you planning next?" Avon enquired.
Blake recognised the tone - Avon had a suggestion but wanted to be asked. All right, he'd indulge him. "What would you advise?"
"Using your findings to keep your Inner Cabinet members in check. Let them know you are aware of their lawbreaking pastimes."
"Blackmail?" Blake rose, outraged. "Tell them 'keep on supporting me or I'll prosecute'? Never! That would make me as bad as the Federation!"
"There was a time when you weren't so squeamish."
Blake knew Avon was referring to his willingness to do business with the Terra Nostra. "I had no choice then."
Avon rose. "Blake, others may not be so honourable. Anyone who gets a whiff of what your Cabinet members are doing in their spare time, can blackmail them into betraying YOU."
Blake brought his thumb to his lips. Gnawing the knuckle, he observed. "Maybe that is what happened. Maybe the traitor is being blackmailed."
"Have any more messages been detected?" Avon asked.
"No, nothing." Another cause for frustration. "But it's another week before the next update."
"We can hardly expect the traitor to use the same method again." Avon began to pace the office. "Those messages really make no sense. We were bound to pick them up sooner or later. Even if we can't trace their origin or destination, they alert us to the fact that secret information is leaked. As spying goes, that's rather amateurish."
Something to clutch onto: "So, we can rule out Avalon and Grant, they would have made a better job of it."
"And the others also. Even Jarriere must be bright enough to grasp the first rule of spying: use a code for sensitive messages." Avon stopped pacing. "THAT's what's been bothering me - I couldn't put my finger on the incongruity. Why didn't our traitor use a code? It's almost as if he WANTED to alert us to the message."
Blake leaned his head in his hands; he felt a headache coming on. "That makes no sense." A thought occurred to him: "Or can they be sent by someone on our side? A Cabinet member who's stumbled on a plot against me and wants to warn me without betraying the perpetrator." He began to warm to the idea. "Someone unwilling to tell upon a colleague."
"Or it's a bluff," Avon said, "to make us think the traitor is an amateur."
Trust Avon to come up with that supposition.
Sighing, Blake sat down at his desk again. "We seem to have no option but to wait." Reluctantly he reached for the paperwork. "I'll have to clear this pile before lunch. Are you planning to return to Servalan's accounts?"
"Not yet." Avon seemed distracted. "I think I'll stay a little longer to see what happens."
So he WAS expecting a further development. Blake sighed again; waiting had never been his strong suit.
- - - 11 - - -
Rontane stood watching his giant grasssnake devour a mouse. The process never ceased to fascinate him. The mice he bred specially to provide food for his pets.
Straight after coming home after his day's work, he had exchanged his clothes for a cool green silk dressing gown that had embroidered hems in gold and red. His pets needed warmth, so he kept the heating at full capacity all the time. Garinda, the catserpent, had coiled herself round his arm and contentedly licked his face.
The buzz of the doorbell intruded on his peace of mind. Who could see fit to disturb him at this time? All decent people should be at their evening meal - Rontane made it a habit to feed his pets before he fed himself.
Again the bell sounded. Rontane went to his intercom, Garinda clinging to him. That was all right, the camera had one-way vision.
The sight of Blake's Special Advisors increased his irritation. Rontane activated the microphone. "What do you want?"
"A word, Rontane." It was the one with the eye patch, Avon, who replied.
"Now is not convenient. We can make a lunch-appointment for tomorrow."
"Nah," the other, Vila, replied. "Canteen-food doesn't agree with me."
"The Senior Secretaries' Restaurant has an excellent kitchen..."
Avon's lips parted in a nasty smile. "Rontane, either you let us in, or we let ourselves in. You must have heard of Vila's speciality - he's cracked tougher locks than this one in less than a minute."
Vila was reaching in his pocket. "Want a demonstration?"
"NO, wait!" Rontane said quickly. "You caught me in the bath. Give me a few minutes to towel and dress, then I'll let you in."
He quickly returned to the pet room and put Garinda on her perch. After a quick check to ensure that the boxes and cages were shut, he left and locked the door. Then he walked over to his front door and let his unwelcome visitors in.
"All right, what can I do for you?"
Vila smiled at him. It reminded Rontane of the smile his midget cayman produced when presented with a particularly tasty titbit. "Oh, mister Permanent Secretary, it's more what we can do for you."
"Or," Avon added, "what we can do TO you."
Vila gestured at the closed door. "Are your snakes all snugly tucked up? Your spiders comfortably snoring in their webs? Your lizards cosily snoozing? Have you fed the catserpent?"
"You've been snooping!" Rontane's outrage overcame his natural caution. "Trespassing! I could sue you for disturbing my peace."
"You're not that stupid, Rontane!"
He glared at Avon. "What do you want?"
"Your unmitigated support and loyalty for Blake."
"Did he send you?" Rontane asked.
"Oh no," Vila said.
"If Blake knew about your hobby - OFFICIALLY - he'd have to sack you." Avon's smile was even more predatory than Vila's had been. "As Upholder of the Law, he can't afford to have lawbreakers serve in his Cabinet."
"I see." So Blake had sent his enforcers. If he was capable of that kind of mental agility, he might make a decent president. "You should have been a civil servant, Avon."
Vila had begun to prowl the room, looking at the pictures decorating the walls. "Avon," he called, pointing at Rontane's favourite drawing. "Look at this."
"It's a Tynus," Rontane said, glad to change the subject. "His portrayal of insects is highly acclaimed."
"You should hang on to it," Vila advised. "It might become a collector's item, now his production has ceased."
"Something happened to him?" Rontane asked. This knowledge could prove profitable.
"He got crisped up." Vila shook his head in exaggerated compassion. "There wasn't enough left of him to fill a sandwich."
- - - 12 - - -
Having waved his wife off to her weekly speed-bridge session, Bercol poured himself a drink from the selection of bottles on the drinks table. Sipping from his glass, he sat down on his cushioned sofa. His wife would not return before midnight, which gave him the opportunity for a long study of what he liked to think of as his Special Collection.
His feeling of content anticipation was shattered by the chiming of the doorbell. He put down his glass and reached for the intercom. "Who is there?"
"The President's Special Advisors."
Half expecting a hoax, Bercol activated the camera. It was true! There they stood, Avon resplendent in a silver tunic and Vila in inconspicuous brown. What could they want?
Better find out and get rid of them fast. Bercol opened his front door.
They sailed past him without an explanation, or even a greeting.
Vila picked up Bercol's glass and brought it to his lips. He smacked. "Good stuff, this."
"What do you want?" Silently seething, Bercol wished he had someone around he could order to throw them out.
"To talk about your art collection." Avon was studying the THREE-DIM but Bercol knew instinctively he didn't mean the art on the walls.
"The one in your safe," Vila said, as if catching his thoughts.
Bercol found his vocal cords tightening. "Art," he croaked, "comes in many forms."
"Of course." Avon's smile wasn't reassuring. "And some forms are more controversial than others. Unfortunately, rebels tend to have a narrow-minded view on art."
Vila downed his glass. "Not like us, men of the world."
"Blake," Avon said, "is the epitome of a narrow-minded rebel."
In a bout of defiance Bercol squared his shoulders. "Are you trying to blackmail me?"
Vila tut-tutted. "Such a nasty word, blackmail."
Avon produced another ominous smile. "I'm sure Blake can count on your undivided and unmitigated support and loyalty."
"Of course he can. He has no cause to doubt my loyalty."
Bercol found Avon's dark gaze on him. "You haven't by any chance been approached by someone else knowing about your... collection?"
"What?" It took a moment to catch his meaning. "No, definitely not."
"Good." Now Avon became brisk and businesslike. "If someone does approach you, let me know immediately."
"I will, I will." His defiance had evaporated quickly. Now he only wanted to have them gone.
To his relief they began to move to the door. In passing, Vila grabbed up a near full bottle from the drinks table. "You don't mind, do you?"
Wishing he had the courage to snatch the bottle back and make it forcefully connect with Vila's head, Bercol let them out.
- - - 13 - - -
Frowning in concentration, Jarriere unwrapped the bundle he had collected from his supplier at the hospital's post mortem department. It was a lower leg, detached just below the knee. Now what would he do with it? Dissect, preserve in formaldehyde, mummify, embalm... Yes, it had been some time since he'd done any embalming. He placed the leg and its plastic wrap on the table and went into his kitchen to dig out his flask of embalming fluid. He was just returning when his doorbell beeped. In panic, he put the flask down on the nearest corner of the table and went to the intercom. "Who's there?"
He took a peep through the spyhole. Blake's Special Advisors! He couldn't remember their names but knew their faces: the arrogant bastard with the eye patch and the comical sot.
"Oh, yes, I'll let you in." His hand went to the doorknob, then he remembered the bundle on the table. "One moment. I'll have to find the key."
He wrapped the limb up again and took the bundle to his refrigerator. It just fitted in. Heaving a sigh of relief, Jarriere closed the fridge door and went to let in his visitors.
"Vila," the comical sot introduced himself, pumping Jarriere's hand.
"Avon," the arrogant bastard said, making no move to shake hands.
"Nice place you've got," Vila remarked
"A bit on the cold side," Avon observed.
It had to be, to keep his collection intact. "I don't like heat," Jarriere explained. His heart missed a beat when his eye fell on the flask with embalming fluid. He'd forgotten all about it.
"Yeah, heat's bad for bodies," Vila drawled.
"Especially dead ones," Avon said.
Jarriere stood rigid, willing them not to look at the table. In his agitation, he didn't quite take in what was said. "I don't understand."
"Oh, I think you do, Jarriere." Avon advanced upon him.
Vila waved a hand at the walls. "All those skeletons in the cupboards. Well, more than skeletons, most of them."
He felt panic rise. "My mother says nobody is to know."
"Nobody." Vila began to giggle. "No BODY, that's a good one!"
Avon smiled. "Oh, she wouldn't mind us knowing, Jarriere."
"That's right." Vila nodded. "We're your friends."
"Your secret is safe with us," Avon said.
Vila put his hands on his hips. "And if someone starts pestering you about it..."
"Trying to blackmail you," Avon added.
"You come to us," Vila finished.
Jarriere found his arm grabbed by Avon. "HAS someone been pestering you?"
He shook his head.
"Good." Avon let go of his arm.
Having ambled over to the table, Vila picked up the flask. "You should always share a drink with friends." He undid the cap. A sickly sweet smell filled the room. "What's this then?" He squinted at the label, reading out the formula.
"It's embalming fluid," Jarriere said.
Avon began to grin. "Just what your stomach needs, Vila."
"Oh, very funny!" Vila put the bottle down with a thud.
Jarriere quickly recapped it. "Actually, I do have a bottle of Vilurian Delight in the..." His voice faltered as he remembered what else was in the fridge.
"Another time," Avon said, heading for the door. "We have another visit to make."
"Now Avon," Vila protested, "we can't let a friend drink alone."
"No, really, I don't want to keep you from your work," Jarriere assured them quickly. "You must have so much to do, as the President's Special Advisors."
"Indeed." Avon took Vila by the arm and hauled him to the door. "Goodbye, Jarriere."
"We'll help you finish off that bottle of Vilurian Delight another time," Vila said.
With a sigh of relief Jarriere closed the door on them. Then he hurried to retrieve the leg from among the snacks and drinks in his fridge.
- - - 14 - - -
"You're sure you'd not rather wait for him here?" Vila asked, working on the lock of Grant's flat. "It's impolite, you know, to enter someone's home uninvited."
He caught Avon's smile, for once mischievous. "Why wait here in the corridor when we can lounge on Servalan's sofa. You told me Grant appropriated her best bits of furniture, didn't you? Have you never longed to try them, Vila?"
"Not THAT much! Grant isn't a bag of wet spineless bones like the others. He can put up a fight!" The lock clicked open. "What if he takes offence at us trespassing upon his premises?"
"Don't forget he and I are old acquaintances."
Vila immediately changed tactics: "Yeah, right, then I'd better leave you alone with him, to talk about old times." He tried to slip away but found himself pushed through the doorway. "Ouch!" The momentum brought him right up to the enormous sofa. Rubbing his shoulder, he sat down. "There was no need for that."
Avon gave the room a critical look, then went to check the bedroom and kitchen. He returned almost immediately. "Why don't you see if you can find a drink, Vila?"
"I bet he's a teetotaller. Those rebel types thrive on austerity."
"Grant's a mercenary, not a rebel. And I can't see any signs of austerity here."
"You're right." Vila rose, instinctively heading for a small elegant cabinet. He'd not had the chance to take a peek in it last time, as Blake had been doing the search. Finding the cabinet unlocked, Vila scanned the contents. His mouth fell open. "Would you believe it!" He pulled a bottle from the tightly stacked pack. Triumphantly he held it up, savouring the soft pink colour and the characteristic turquoise label. "Vilurian Delight! A full flask!"
He unscrewed the cap and took a swig, then held the bottle out to Avon, who'd seated himself on the sofa. "The best! Want to try?"
"No, I'd better keep my wits about me."
"Suit yourself." Vila fell down into a large, heavily cushioned chair. "Ouch!" He jumped up again, rubbing his backside with his free hand. "Something hard stuck me."
"A faulty spring, probably."
"Why does this always happen to me?" Aggrieved, Vila pulled away the cushions. "Hey, it's a gun!"
"Put it back," Avon said. "There's no need to let him know we've found it."
Vila rearranged the cushions, then took a large swig form the bottle he'd been holding onto all through the process. He nearly choked on hearing the click of the door lock. He was still coughing when Grant, looking preoccupied, took three steps into the room, then stopped dead on perceiving his visitors.
"I don't remember having invited you," Grant snarled at Avon.
Vila found the bottle being snatched from his hand.
Avon rose, with deliberate nonchalance it seemed to Vila. "This isn't a social call, Grant."
"Indeed, you're not welcome here, Avon. I told you nothing has changed between us."
"There's the matter of the tobacco in your safe," Avon continued, not showing any indication he'd heard the other. "Blake can't afford to have a junkie as Supreme Commander."
"What tobacco?" Grant raged. He strode to the space-battle tapestry and flung it aside. "Go ahead, show me!"
Vila reached for his tools.
"Leave it, Vila," Avon said calmly, eyeing Grant. "We won't find any tobacco in there."
"You mean he smoked it all? All twelve tins full?" Vila began to panic. "The atmosphere here must be poisoned! Blake said the smoke's as lethal for the bystanders as for the user."
He made for the door. Avon's voice arrested him. "But the air here is clean, Vila."
Vila took a cautious sniff. "He must have a superior air conditioner."
Avon shook his head, his eye still on Grant, who had folded his arms and stood waiting, a smile of mocking superiority on his face. "The smell would have lingered. I've heard it is most persistent. Go and sniff out his clothes, Vila."
Remembering the unpleasant smell from the opened tin, Vila reluctantly went to the bedroom. But the clothes in the wardrobe smelled clean, apart from a whiff of a familiar fragrance.
Vila returned to the sitting room, where the scene had not changed. "Nothing, unless he managed to make it smell of Virility." The expensive perfume for men held unpleasant associations for Vila. He'd once managed to nick a boxful of the stuff, forty-eight flacons, only to get caught when he tried to sell them on. It had resulted in the first of the mind-adjustment treatments the authorities had subjected him to.
"So," Avon told Grant, "you're not a user - you're a PUSHER! Is that how you got the Space Command Officers to insist Blake dropped Tarrant in your favour? Are you supplying them with the drug?"
Grant shrugged, still maintaining his pose of haughty indifference. "Don't be a hypocrite, Avon. It's a simple matter of demand and supply. They demand, I supply. If I don't do it, someone else will."
"I'm not concerned for the health of Space Command Officers stupid enough to get themselves addicted," Avon spat. "They can smoke until their lungs burst! But we can't have Blake's government seen to be tainted with criminals."
Grant gave a hollow laugh. "Is that why you and Vila didn't get a post?"
That was too much for Vila. He squared his shoulders, lifted his chin and stretched himself to his full length. "For your information, Grant, I was offered a post. Blake gave me first choice - I could have had your job if I'd wanted. But I didn't want a Cabinet post, it's too much hard work."
With that he left the flat, managing a dignified retreat. He left the door ajar, gleefully set to eavesdrop on a delightful row. But Avon just warned Grant not to bring Blake's government into discredit. Vila had to jump aside when Avon came striding out. Still, he mused, leading the way through the corridor, it felt good to have Avon following him for a change.
- - - 15 - - -
"I have already told you," Orac said, "that I have not been able to find any file relating to the disposal of the body of Anna Grant."
Avon doggedly shook his head. "That's impossible. One thing you can rely on is the Federation's bureaucracy." He put his mind to finding another line of approach. "What about her death certificate?"
"No death certificate has been issued under that name."
"But there must be! Unless it was issued under a false name..." Avon shook his head. "No, they had no reason for that. Besides, Grant would have mentioned it."
"I agree," Orac said. "There is only one logical conclusion to draw from the document's absence: the subject did not die."
Stupefied, Avon listened to the machine uttering the impossible. In vain he tried to fight the surge of hope rising in him. "Then she must be still in prison..." Could it be possible? "Search the prisoner lists, Orac!"
"Anticipating your insistence to keep me engaged on this, I have already done so. No prisoner under the name of Anna Grant has been listed."
"Impossible," Avon repeated. "She was arrested on the day I got shot. She MUST have be registered!"
"All your acquaintances were brought in for questioning on that day. Their names and interrogation reports are all there - except for Anna Grant's."
"WHAT?" Increasingly, Avon felt as if he was in a bad dream - a nightmare. "She was their main target - they suspected her of knowing where I was. Her name must be among those who were arrested - must be on top of the list!"
"It is not. The inference is clear," Orac stated. "I see no use in continuing this conversation. You have wasted enough of my time--"
"All right, Orac," Avon said quickly, forestalling the machine's shut down. Time for some rational thinking. "What about the files on my surveillance?"
"I am still working on the decoding of them."
Avon gritted his teeth. "You've had more than a week!"
"The cipher systems used are very complicated, and were changed often. Besides, I have been set other tasks to perform. It might interest you to learn that half an hour ago I picked up a message containing the latest Space Command update."
"Good." Grateful for something tangible to deal with, Avon forced his mind to concentrate on this new development. "Was it again sent via OPEN RELAY?"
"No, I managed to trace the origins of this message."
"It was sent from a computer in the Government Complex here in the Dome."
"The one designated for the use of the Minister for Trade."
"JENNA?" Avon felt as if he was back in the dream.
"She is the Minister for Trade."
"All right, Orac." Avon put his hand on the machine's key. "Keep monitoring. And keep working on the surveillance files." He extracted the key before Orac could embark on its customary complaint about the workload.
Avon left the small room in the President's quarters where he'd found Orac. He went straight to Blake's Private Office, finding cold satisfaction in ignoring Jarriere's protest that the President was not to be disturbed. He barged in, finding Blake in conference with his Chancellor.
"There's been a development you should know about, Blake," he said, enjoying the angry glare of pompous Bercol who felt clearly insulted by being ignored.
Blake's face contracted in worry. "All right, Bercol. We'll continue this discussion later."
"With respect, Prime Minister," the Chancellor spluttered, sounding anything but respectful, "these propositions the Transport Minister has put forward are far too expensive." He waved a flabby hand at a file on the desk. "There's no way we can make the budget stretch--"
Blake's curtness caused his chancellor to depart in overt hurt dignity. He all but slammed the door.
"You should learn some tact, Blake," Avon drawled; annoying Blake was always a good way to relieve his own vexation.
"Remind me to take some lessons from you." Blake sounded stressed. "What is it, Avon? Another message?"
"Yes. The latest update, send from Jenna's computer."
"Jenna?" Blake jumped up. "Impossible."
Avon agreed, but wasn't going to tell him so - yet. "Why?"
"She's in the clear. She wasn't present last month when the discrepancy in the figures were discussed, remember. If she had sent that message, she would have used her own copy."
"Unless she heard about the fracas."
Blake's eyes flashed. "I know you don't like her, Avon, but at least give Jenna her due! If she wanted to send treacherous messages, she wouldn't be so stupid as to use her own computer."
Calmly, Avon returned his gaze. "She might be banking on you reasoning like that."
"She has no REASON to betray me!"
Avon smiled; ever since Cally had told him of Jenna's continuing infatuation he'd been waiting for a chance to bring it up. "She may feel she has every reason - a woman scorned."
He was unprepared for Blake's reaction. The President gave a roar of laughter. "You're barking up the wrong tree, Avon. Jenna and I, well..."
Suddenly Blake seemed self-conscious. That must be a new experience for him; Avon watched it with interest.
"The people expect their President to have a mate, someone to share the burden of office with. So, Jenna and I have bonded."
"I see. Congratulations, Blake." He wondered how long the relationship would last. Jenna had always seemed to him the type to tire quickly of a goal, once it was achieved. That was probably what had made her such a good smuggler: always another cargo to run, another customs patrol to evade.
"So you see, Avon," Blake was continuing, "Jenna has no reason for betrayal."
Avon inclined his head, conceding the point. "Which means that someone else must have used her computer, probably by means of a bug inserted into the network."
"How difficult would that be to program?" Blake asked.
"That depends on the method used." Avon was on familiar terrain here. "The simplest method would be to use a cube, pre-programmed to send out the message as soon as it is inserted into Jenna's computer. Anyone with some basic insight into computer programming would be able to do that. The alternative, a bug sent from another computer, would need an expert. Anyway, it should be traceable. I'll go and look into it."
Blake raised an eyebrow. "Why not let Orac do it?"
Because that machine had enough to do already! "Better not distract it from its lofty work for you, Blake. I imagine I'll be able to do it by myself. After all, computers ARE my field."
With that he left the office, quickly, before Blake could bring up any more unwelcome suggestions.
- - - 16 - - -
With growing irritation Jenna was working her way through the latest report that had landed in her in-tray . Why did civil servants insist on putting so many long words and unintelligible jargon into a report? She was perfectly capable of reading between the lines, and deduce what was really said or withheld, but she resented the amount of time wasted on the process.
She stretched in her seat in front of the large desk with the computer. At least the Department's chairs were comfortable. Like all ministries, the Trade Department had its own conglomerate of offices on the Dome's Government Level. The system was very flexible, offices could be added from other Departments, or ceded to them, according to need.
Realising her thoughts were drifting, she firmly returned to her report. She wished the writer would come to the point - up until now the report seemed to deal more with infrastructure than logistics...
She looked up when her door was thrown open. Avon and Vila entered, followed by a flushed secretary.
"It's all right," Jenna assured the secretary, who departed with a sniff of disapproval.
"You've got a bug in your computer," Avon said, advancing upon her desk. "Blake has asked me to look into it. Would you mind?"
"Be my guest." She wheeled her chair sideways to give him room. Catching a gleam of humour in the dark eye, she wondered if the news of her bonding had got out. They'd decided to make the announcement at the next Cabinet meeting, but Blake might have decided to tell his Special Advisors in advance.
"Vila," Avon said, positioning himself in front of the computer, "get me a chair."
Muttering about being used as a slave, Vila complied. Avon sat down and set to work.
One could assume Avon to know what he was doing regarding computers, so she left him to it and returned to her report. Ten minutes later she decided to do what she should have done at once. She returned to the first page and read the heading. "Damn!"
"That oaf Jarriere," she explained, finding the others' eyes on her. "He's confused the Departments of Trade and Transport again! This is the second time this week he's given me a paper intended for Tarrant."
"You need to check the heading, then." Avon returned to the computer.
"Yes," Jenna said, stung because he was right.
Vila, lounging in the office's third and last chair, asked: "What do you think of Tarrant, Jenna?"
Of course, he'd spent time with him on Liberator. "Tell me, Vila, is he really such a good pilot as he claims to be?"
"Only with his mouth." It came out rather vindictively; Tarrant must have given the lazy Vila a tough time.
"He can be a bit precipitous," Avon remarked without looking up from the screen.
"And nasty," Vila said.
"I know. He's been rather vicious to Jarriere." She remembered the scene. "Not that the oaf didn't deserve it - he'd omitted to give Tarrant a copy of the Space Command update. That was shortly after the reshuffle that made Tarrant Transport Minister. I suppose Jarriere simply forgot to put him on the Inner Cabinet mailing list."
"There," Avon said, "I've located the bug." He held up a datacube. "Tell me, Jenna, did you insert this into your computer this morning?"
"If it's the one marked STATISTICS, yes. Jarriere delivered it along with the other stuff. It turned out not to be very interesting. You mean it's infected?"
"Not any more, the programme deleted itself after having run its course. But I've found traces of it having been there."
Jenna walked over to her desk. "Let's ask Jarriere where he got it from." She activated the intercom, instructing her Private Secretary to find her Jarriere, and send him to her.
"Shouldn't take too long," she commented to her visitors. "They're very efficient."
Jarriere presented himself within five minutes. Jenna asked him about the cube.
"I don't know." His forehead creased from the exercise of trying to remember. "It must have been in the basket." He'd simply distributed it along with the other mail for the Inner Cabinet members, as was his job.
Jenna looked at Avon, who shook his head, indicating he had no questions. Well, trying to get some sense out of Jarriere seemed a futile exercise! She held out the report. "This is for the Transport Minister, Jarriere."
He took it, looking bewildered. "Oh, yes, I see. I'm sorry, Ma'am."
"All right, you can go."
"Well," Avon remarked when Jarriere had left, "it's clear that anyone could have added the cube to the distribution tray."
Jenna wasn't really interested in the bug, or catching the perpetrator. "Some slimy nerd with a longing to gloat in secret about the havoc he's wrecked."
"Hey, maybe Jarriere did it," Vila said.
Avon gave him a look of contempt. "Don't be an idiot! He's too stupid."
Vila shook his head. "Nah, he must be pretending; nobody can be as stupid as that."
"You claim to be an expert?" Avon enquired, moving to the door.
Jenna was glad to see them go. She'd wasted enough time on the damn transport report.
In the doorway Avon looked over his shoulder. "By the way, Jenna, I understand congratulations are in order. You must feel very satisfied to have reached your goal."
Furiously, she glared at his vanishing back. His words had stung, for they brought home the fact that she wasn't feeling happy at all.
- - - 17 - - -
Jarriere positioned himself behind a large artificial plant in the Restaurant that catered for the government members and senior civil servants. Through the plant's lush foliage he could keep an eye on the entrance without being noticed. Earlier that day he'd by chance overheard Dayna agreeing to take lunch with Tarrant. That was something he was not happy about. For some time he'd been tormenting himself with the thought that something must have been going on between Dayna and Tarrant before they fell out over him killing Servalan.
There they were - together. They went to the counter and punched up their menu choice. Very soon two filled trays appeared on the conveyor belt from the kitchen. They took one each and settled at a table. Of course they chose a table at the far end of the room!
Now Jarriere had to move, from here it would be impossible to overhear what they said. His heart burned from jealousy - he couldn't bear the thought of those two making it up.
Jarriere left his hiding place and made his way across the room in a circumspect way. To his relief his Dayna and Tarrant took not the slightest notice of him, apparently taking more interest in their food than in their surroundings. Finding the table next to theirs empty, Jarriere sat down, keeping his back to them.
"Well, Dayna," he heard Tarrant say, "do you still enjoy being a Cabinet Minister?"
"Don't rub it in! All the boring paperwork those civil servants keep pestering me with! I've told Blake I want to quit - I'd much rather have a post at Belhangria, doing scientific research and development work. But he hugged me and told me I'm doing such a wonderful job in keeping the academies in check, and I found myself agreeing to plod on."
"Yes, Blake has that knack."
"It isn't that he's putting on pressure or anything," Dayna continued, reflecting. "It's just that you find yourself unable to say no to him."
Tarrant gave a short laugh. "It explains why Avon put up with him. He must have found it equally impossible to refuse him."
"Avon doing as he's told..." Dayna giggled. "I wish I'd been there."
Jarriere sat fidgeting in impatience; he wasn't interested in Blake - or Avon. What were Dayna and Tarrant planning?
"I heard you've moved," Tarrant said.
"Yes, Blake has found me a place outside the Dome. An old base, or something. It has lots of space, I can fit up a proper workshop there. And a firing range. There's even some small wildlife to hunt. If only I had some time for my hobbies!"
Jarriere almost jumped up to propose to her on the spot. As his wife she wouldn't have to do a job. He would gladly let her devote herself to her hobbies all day long. But his instinct, sharpened by his infatuation, told him to hold back. Dayna would need a careful approach.
He heard her sigh. "You know, sometimes I find myself longing back to our time on Liberator. At least Zen never bothered us with paperwork!"
"Blake had no right to give Liberator to Avon," Tarrant said. "I have as much right to the ship as he has!" His words were followed by a thud, as if his fist had come down on the table. "First he takes away my ship. Then he takes away my post as Supreme Commander. And now he lets that bureaucratic buttonpusher Rontane and that slimy creeper Bercol thwart my attempts to set up a decent transport system. It will be too expensive, they say!"
Calmer, Tarrant continued: "What I'd really like is to be back in the Space Fleet. But I'm not going to serve under Grant!"
"Why not? YOU can't reproach him for having been a mercenary, can you?"
"He doesn't belong. I can't explain it, Dayna, but that's how it is. Blake should never have given him the post."
Just jealousy, Jarriere thought gleefully, because Blake had taken the post away from Tarrant.
"But his days as Supreme Commander are numbered," Tarrant went on. "The flotillas taking part in the Terminal mission are on their way back. When their Commanders return, Grant's supporters will be in the minority. The Fleet Wardens will put pressure on Blake to replace Grant as Supreme Commander."
"Return the post to you?"
"Not necessary, any from their ranks will do. I'm willing to serve under any real Officer."
Dayna laughed; a pearly sound to Jarriere's ears. "Or you could steal another pursuit ship, and take up your old life as mercenary again."
"Or do a proper job," Tarrant replied, "and take Liberator."
Jarriere's heart leapt up. Yes! That would take him away from Dayna...
"Mind you don't go without me! Liberator's mine as much as yours, Tarrant!"
Jarriere's heart fell down painfully, sinking right to his feet. No, he wouldn't let that happen! He rose and made for the exit. He'd go and tell Blake about Tarrant's plan. It was clearly treason. Blake would have to have Tarrant arrested, convicted and executed. Which left the way free for Jarriere.
- - - 18 - - -
"WELL, Orac? And don't tell me you don't know what I mean!" Avon was tetchy; from the early morning he'd been trying to get hold of Orac, but the machine had been claimed by Blake for most of the day. Only now, in late afternoon, had he found the opportunity for a private conversation.
"The task of your surveillance was put in the hands of Security's best agent."
"I suppose I should feel flattered," Avon mumbled.
"I have succeeded in decoding the relevant files. They are complete up until the day before your arrest. They are also very detailed."
Appalled, Avon listened to the machine reciting the reports. This wasn't just about who he met, there were lots of details about his private life. Intimate details about his daily routine, his sleeping habits, bathing, eating... As if they'd had a spy camera in every room of his apartment. But no, he would have found them. He'd regularly checked the place for bugs, as a matter of routine. But how else could they have found out all these details? Only from someone very close to him, intimately close. Only one person had ever been that close - Anna. Had she been bribed to grass on him? No, he could not believe that. The agent must have gained her confidence, she must have told these things during friendly chats, not realising she was being used.
"The agent, Orac, who was it?"
"That I have not been able to ascertain. All Security's agents are referred to by codenames in the files. The one assigned to your case was codenamed Bartholomew."
"Bartholomew? A strange name."
"It is the name of one of the Saints of an old Earth religion. One of the many Saints, they had one for every day of the year."
Avon opened his mouth to tell the machine not to pester him with irrelevant information. The words never got out. He suddenly remembered a conversation he'd had with Anna, about parents choosing the most bizarre names for their children.
Anna's sweet voice came back in his mind: 'You know, Avon, in the old times people never had problems with finding names for their children. Every day of the year was dedicated to a specific Saint, and they simply named a child after its birthday Saint.'
'Very simple,' he'd commented, adding out of a vague sense of curiosity: 'What name would I've had to call you by, then, my love?'
But she had just given him her sweet, faintly mocking smile, shaking her head. Assuming she didn't know, he'd quickly forgotten all about it.
Now the memory was back, and stuck relentlessly.
"Orac, what day of the year was the saint Bartholomew associated with?" Let it be any day but August the 24th...
"The 24th of August."
"Are you sure? Check again!" He stared into the case of flashing lamps, willing the machine to make a correction.
"The data given is correct. August 24 was the name day of Saint Bartholomew, though I do not see what relevance this has."
Avon did. Pain seared through his heart. It had been Anna's birthday.
No, it must be a coincidence! But no-one but Anna could have known the details--
"Ah, Avon, just the man I need."
He looked up, the afterglow of Orac's lights causing black spots on his retina. Then his vision cleared, and he saw a large woman advance from the doorway. He must have been too preoccupied to have heard her enter.
The woman, who appeared to be in her late sixties, had enveloped her bulging body in a blue-and-gold jump-suit. She wore no makeup. Avon took in the rather masculine face with the large nose and black eyes. "You wouldn't be Dame Jarriere?"
"Of course I am." She halted in front of him. Avon found her towering about half a head above him - and he was wearing his platform boots! "I want you to talk to Blake, Avon. He needs to find my son a job more in accordance with his talents - I won't have him used as a messenger boy!"
Avon desperately tried to concentrate on her words - everything was better than thinking of Anna, Bartholomew, birthdays, betrayal... "I'm sure if you tell Blake about your misgivings--"
"I have done so. He won't listen. They say he listens to you. So you tell him!"
"Does your son have a specific job in mind?"
"No, but I have. Supreme Commander would do fine for him."
Again Avon felt as though he was in a dream. Or on a stage, participating in some hideous farce. "It may have escaped your attention that the post is already occupied."
"Not for long. With the return of the Space Fleet, Grant's days are numbered."
He found some detached part of his brain idly wondering where she'd got that information.
"You must have heard the old joke, Avon," the Dame said. "The Officer Corps will forgive anything it can understand, which makes only intelligence unacceptable."
With that she sailed out.
Avon stood staring at the door, amazed at her realistic assessment of her son's mental capacities. Indeed, if nothing but intelligence was ruled out, that would make Jarriere the ideal candidate...
Then her meaning hit him - she had NOT been referring to her son.
He forced himself to return to his enquiries. He'd gone too far to stop now, even if it would destroy him.
"Orac, two more things." He mentioned a date. "Find out which Saint was designated to that day, then see whether an agent using that name is mentioned in the Security files."
He placed his hands on Orac's case, impatiently waiting while the machine buzzed away.
"The answer is yes to both. The agent's name is Nicholas, he's the only other agent with an ancient saint as codename."
Avon nodded. It was logical. Heart-piercing, but logical. "One last thing. Get me the reports covering the exploits of that agent over the last three years."
- - - 19 - - -
"We should have a larger bedroom, Blake," Jenna observed while rolling her hair into the soft autocurlers that would not only style the hair while she slept but also impregnate it with nutrients.
Receiving only a grunt for reply, she turned to look at her bondmate. He sat on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands, apparently deep in thought.
Jenna gritted her teeth. This was what she had been working to achieve for more than two years. Now she had reached her aim, she found herself increasingly wondering whether it had been worth it. "You could at least make an effort!"
He looked up. "I'm sorry, Jenna. I was thinking about Tarrant. According to Jarriere, he's planning to abscond with Liberator."
Good for Tarrant, Jenna thought, still resenting the casual way Blake had promised the ship to Avon, disregarding her claim. "It won't do Avon any harm to experience how it feels having your ship taken away."
"That's not the point, Jenna. It could mean that he's the traitor."
"What traitor? WHAT have you been withholding from me, Blake?"
With rising fury she listened to his explanation. "You thought I could be the traitor, didn't you? That's why you didn't tell me."
"I didn't tell anybody, Jenna." She found his hand on her bare arm, like on those early days on Liberator, when he'd been close and companionable. "I've always trusted you."
"Yes, we've heard that before." She tore herself free. But her anger subsided. "You think Tarrant sent those messages?"
"It's possible. He seems to be doing a lot of programming on his computer games, so he must have been able to program that bug."
"The one that ended up in my computer?" Jenna frowned in thought. She had not thought of asking Avon what exactly the bug had done. Nor had she been interested to know, at the time. "But those updates, they may be top-secret but they're not all that sensitive. Someone with an interest in current military affairs should be able to come up with an educated estimation."
Blake nodded. "That's what Avon says. He thinks the transmissions make no sense."
"Can they hold some other information?" Jenna wondered. "A message in a message. Maybe we're supposed to look no further than the update."
"While the traitor uses it as code for his real message." Now she had his attention. "You're right, Jenna. We'll have to take a closer look at them."
He turned to Orac, silently sitting on a small table in the corner of the bedroom. This was another thing that had to be changed; she wasn't going to share her bondmate with a computer!
Blake inserted the key. "Orac, I want you to check the treason messages again."
"For what?" The machine sounded irritated.
"For a secret message, some kind of code, anything out of the ordinary."
"They contain nothing of the kind, Blake. The only thing out of the ordinary is that the first message was out of date at the time of transmission."
"What do you mean," Blake asked.
"It was the update of the previous month. At the date of transmission, a new update was already available."
Jenna whistled. "The update Tarrant didn't get!"
"Yes, " Blake hissed. "This points straight to him. Tarrant must be the traitor." Blake began to tick off the points on his fingers. He sounded reluctant to Jenna, as if he didn't want it to be true. "Motive: his grief about being deposed as Supreme Commander. Means: he knows about computer programming. Opportunity: he was standing next to Cally when Rontane remarked upon the differing figures in the bait-update. The traitor did not use a random figure, as Avon thought, but he used the one from Cally's copy."
"What do we do now?" Jenna asked.
"Confront him." Still dressed, Blake reached for his shoes.
Jenna threw her tunic back over her head and slid her arms into the sleeves. "I'm coming with you."
"All right." He sat down on the bed to put on his shoes.
//Blake, Jenna, listen.//
"Cally?" Blake exclaimed. So he was getting the message too.
//This is important. Come to Grant's apartment. Please hurry.//
Blake was already disappearing through the doorway. Jenna slipped into her boots and ran after him.
- - - 20 - - -
Yawning, Grant inserted his key card into the door lock. He was tired - why was it that the Officer Corps insisted on letting meetings drag on far into the evening? Weren't soldiers supposed to be brisk and efficient?
He stepped in, flipped the light switch, closed the door, then stood, taking in the man seated on his sofa. "Left your dog at home this time, Avon?"
"I need to talk to you, Grant." Avon's voice sounded strange. He seemed upset, agitated.
Grant walked over to the drinks cabinet and poured himself a glass of Vilurian Delight, deliberately omitting to offer his guest any. "I suppose it's no use to tell you to come back another time?" He gingerly lowered himself into his chair, carefully avoiding contact with the gun hidden under the cushions against the back.
"Anna," Avon mumbled, as if not having heard him. "I need to talk to you about Anna."
As always, the mentioning of his sister caused an acute stab of pain in Grant's chest. "You are not fit to utter her name!"
"She was working for Central Security."
"Avon, are you drunk?" But eyeing his old enemy, he shook his head. "No, you would never do something so human as to get drunk."
"Bartholomew, their best agent - that's who she was."
"Your brain must have got damaged along with your eye. It seems to have impeded your faculty for reasoning." Grant put down his glass on the side table next to his chair. "Even if what you said could be true, they'd never kill one of their own agents."
Now Avon looked up. "How did you find out she was dead, Grant?"
"I was shown her body. I bribed one of the prison wardens."
Avon shook his head, looking at the carpet again. "There was no body. Orac has found no proof of its disposal."
"Then it must have been cremated in secret. I was too upset to ask."
"Orac also found no proof of her imprisonment. She was never there, Grant. Never arrested, imprisoned, or tortured."
Grant brought up all the disdain he could muster: "Is this your latest way to deal with your guilt? Are you now denying her death so you don't need to feel responsible for it?"
"Anna is not dead."
"She is." He jumped up, the pain of her loss almost becoming too much to bear. "My beloved sister is dead!"
He found the other's gaze on him again, coldly assessing. "Yes, you and Anna have always been close. Too close for her to want to cause you the sorrow of thinking her dead."
"Precisely!" Grant folded his arms. "And for that reason she can't have been working for Central Security."
"There's one other explanation," Avon said calmly. "That you were in league with her from the beginning. You were both working for Central Security."
Grant sat down again. Heavily. "You've really gone out of your mind!"
"That was what Dame Jarriere meant," Avon went on.
"What?" Now he really began to feel confused. "What has she got to do with it?"
"She has set her mind on her son becoming Supreme Commander. She came to me this afternoon to persuade me to whisper the idea into Blake's ear. When I pointed out that the post was already occupied, she told me your days were numbered. Then she cited the old joke about Space Command being prepared to forgive anything they can understand, making intelligence the only thing unacceptable to them."
Grant shrugged. The idea of Blake ever agreeing to have Jarriere take over as Supreme Commander was too ridiculous for worry. "She must be very desperate, to resort to that kind of argument."
Avon nodded slowly. "That's what I thought at first. But then I realised she wasn't referring to her son's IQ, she was referring to Central Security, the Federation Intelligence Bureau. YOU are Intelligence, and therefor unacceptable to Space Command, once they have become aware of your connection."
"The ravings of a doting mother." Grant gave a disdainful laugh. "Don't tell me you fell for them, Avon."
Avon uncrossed his legs, stretched them and crossed them the other way round. "I have proof, Grant."
"I'm thrilled to hear it."
"Anna's codename, Bartholomew, is based on the ancient saint celebrated on her birthday, August 24."
"You think that will stand up in court? A simple coincidence?"
"So you've heard about the old saints and their namedays," Avon remarked. "It's not information the Federation makes freely available."
"Anna had access to data withheld from the public. She was interested in history."
"And of course she shared her findings with her beloved brother. You know, Grant, Orac has found one other agent working for Security who uses the codename of an ancient saint. Can you guess which one, Grant? Nicholas, the saint whose day was celebrated on December 6th - your birthday."
"A double coincidence. They happen."
"Yes, but the files show that Nicholas has been active on exactly the same planets, at exactly the same time, as you, Grant. He was sending reports from Albian when you got yourself hired by the rebels. YOU were working as undercover agent for Central Security."
"You're crazy! I would have been killed by the bomb along with the others."
"At the last moment you would have taken refuge in the rocket."
"I didn't know about the rocket."
"Oh, yes, you did. You weren't surprised when it was mentioned."
Damn! He cast his mind back... "You can't know that - you weren't there!"
"True. I was bluffing." Avon gave smug smile. "But you've just confirmed it."
Grant clenched his fists.
"It's all in the files, Grant," Avon said. "Albian was to be an example, an object lesson for other planets harbouring thoughts of rebellion. You made sure to be hired by the rebels - just turning up at the right time did the trick, I presume. You goaded them on, telling them the Federation were bluffing and would never dare to detonate the sodium device. But then our arrival ruined your plans, you had to co-operate with us to keep up the pretence. And once the rebels knew about the rocket, you found your chances of using it gone. Offering your help in dismantling the bomb became the only safe option for you. Either we brought it off, or Blake would teleport us both out in time."
"I followed your example and took off my teleport bracelet," Grant reminded him.
Avon snorted. "It would have taken you only a second to pick it up and put it on again. I wouldn't be surprised if you had some idea of arranging an accident for me at the last moment - something that wouldn't make Blake suspicious. But you got trapped under the beam."
Grant gritted his teeth. "I urged you to leave me and save yourself, remember!"
"Yes." Another brief smile, this one icy. "You knew me well enough to foresee that the more you urged me to leave you behind, the more I would feel obliged to try to save you."
"You always were a fool!" Grant reached behind him, under the cushions...
"Yes, you and Anna must have had some good laughs about my gullibility." Again, Avon was staring at the carpet. "Your cover of posing as a mercenary, who's in it for the money rather than ideals, was brilliant, Grant."
"It was Anna's idea." Grant drew out the gun and aimed it. "Hands up! Stand!"
He was satisfied to see his victim obey. Quickly he searched him for weapons, fishing a multi-functional laser probe from his left boot.
Avon's gaze went up to the watch on his raised hand. "My friends know where I am. If I'm not back soon, they'll come for you."
"Nice try, Avon." Grant shook his head. "I know you, you're a loner. Besides, you have no friends."
"While YOU are implicitly trusted." Now Avon sounded bitter. "Blake is never going to believe that you are the traitor."
Grant allowed himself a smile. "So you worked it out."
"Can I lower my hands?" Avon asked.
"Yes, but stay there." In the centre of the room, away from any furniture he might want to hurl at him. Grant sat down in his chair again, keeping his gun trained on his captive. He would have to kill him, but not yet. First let him do his tale, Avon was so obviously dying to explain his clever deductions. The plan had been simple and straightforward; Grant wanted to hear what had gone wrong.
"We were supposed to think the updates were meant for some foreign power, wanting to invade the Federation," Avon declared. "But they were not, they were just a means to make it appear there was a traitor in Blake's government."
"Oh, there was more to it than that," Grant said. "The content of the first message combined with the date of despatch should have lead you straight to the traitor. It was the update of the previous month, which pointed straight to Tarrant. He had not yet been put on Jarriere's mailing list and for that reason failed to receive the new update. I'd not thought it possible both Blake AND you would be too thick to catch that!"
Avon nodded slowly. "I see."
"The new update came out just after I had taken over as Supreme Commander. It took Tarrant nearly three weeks to get himself onto the list. We weren't spared his displeasure during the process. Jarriere kept 'forgetting' it - I think he did it on purpose, he doesn't seem to like Tarrant very much. Of course you weren't there, so you can't be blamed too much." Grant felt he could be magnanimous to the man he was going to kill. "But I'd have expected Blake to spot the clue."
"Well, he didn't," Avon said. "He drafted me in to find the traitor for him, but I also failed to spot the clue. That must have been very frustrating for you."
"Very," Grant agreed.
"So you decided to try again."
"Actually, I had not yet decided on my next move. But when I heard Rontane remark upon the different figures in the next update, I realised it was a trap. Tarrant had obligingly put his copy on the table, so I took a quick glance at it and--"
"Ah," Avon cut in. "But there you made an error. The same kind of error that nearly cost us our life while dismantling the bomb on Albian, when you mixed up left and right."
In a flash he understood: "Of course, I read the number upside down. It wasn't a 6, it was a 9!"
Avon gave another of his brief, superior smiles. "Presumably you would have spotted your mistake if the number had included different figures, but by coincidence they all made sense when read upside down. The number was still mirrored of course, but I imagine you concentrated just on the one figure."
"I only took a quick glance, I didn't want to be seen taking an interest." A lame excuse; he should have realised the figure was upside down.
"Because of your error," Avon said calmly, "the new message, which we obligingly intercepted, pointed to Cally's copy. Blake squarely refused to believe in her guilt. He summoned her to explain, and she told us about Rontane's observation. That told us the traitor must have guessed the trap and turned it to his own advantage. Ironically, we were assuming the traitor's aim was to lure suspicion away from him, using a random figure, while in reality the intent was to nail Tarrant even more firmly."
Ironic indeed. "I couldn't understand why Tarrant was still allowed to go his way. I supposed Blake was letting him run, to see if he would lead him to the conspirators."
"Which was awkward for you, as of course there weren't any. So you decided to waste no more time on subtleties. Your next move would point the finger at Tarrant in a way that would force Blake into action. You wrote a computer bug that would send a prepared message as soon as the cube was inserted into a computer. Oh yes, Grant, you know how to do that! Vila found a certificate for advanced computer technology in your safe. Yes, it was under an alias, presumably for one of your undercover operations, but in order to be able to pose as a computer expert, you must know the job."
Grant grinned. "I'm almost as good as you, Avon. It was great fun pretending to be a computer moron, especially with you around to show off your genius!"
"I imagine. Anyway, you simply put the cube into the basket for Jarriere to distribute."
"Yes, I put it in one of those preaddressed envelopes, so it couldn't be traced in case things went wrong."
Avon slowly shook his head, looking almost as if he felt sorry. "But fate struck again. Jarriere tends to confuse the Departments of Trade and Transport - or maybe, as you said, he does it on purpose, to annoy Tarrant. Anyway, the cube ended up in Jenna's in-tray instead of Tarrant's. She inserted it without noticing Jarriere's mistake, the bug was activated and the message sent from her computer."
"Pure bad luck," Grant observed. It was clear now how his carefully planned schemes had kept failing. He would deal with Jarriere later! "But this time I'll succeed! I'll kill you, Avon, and leave a string of clues pointing unequivocally to Tarrant's guilt."
- - - 21 - - -
Forcing himself to show no emotion, Avon stared at the gun pointing at his chest.
"Why are you so desperate to get rid of Tarrant?" he asked, concentrating on the one thing he'd not been able to work out. "With you as Supreme Commander, Security now controls both pillars of the Federation. I assume your loyalties still lie with Central Security?"
"What's left of it." Grant sounded bitter. "Security was the main target of the Rebellion after the War. The mob concentrated on hunting down and tearing to pieces every member they could find."
"Leaving only the secret members, the undercover agents, to carry on the job," Avon said. It made sense. "Still, your secret was safe - no-one was ever going to suspect you of being a member of Central Security. I suppose it was you who suggested to Blake that Space Command didn't want to accept a deserter as Supreme Commander?"
Grant grinned in his boyish, boasting manner. "It wasn't difficult. After all, Tarrant IS a deserter, as I had some senior Space Command Officers reminding Blake."
"The ones who are indebted to you for supplying them with the tobacco drug."
"Of course! Addiction provides a sound reason for supporting the supplier."
"It must have been a profitable sideline," Avon reflected. "Your travels made it easy to acquire the drug."
"Another of Anna's ideas," Grant said proudly. "It enabled us to weaken our enemies and make a bit on the side at the same time."
"I assume those Commanders left behind when the bulk of the fleet was sent on the Terminal mission were the ones on your supply list?"
"Most of them. Pure coincidence, but very useful."
"Yes, and I can see why you fear the return of the others because that will bring your supporters into a minority. I imagine they will resent serving under an outsider, someone with no military background." Avon returned to his original question: "But it doesn't explain your eagerness to get rid of Tarrant. Even with him gone, Space Command can provide other suitable candidates for Supreme Commander from their own ranks."
Grant shook his head. "That has nothing to do with it." Emotion clouded his voice, although the aim of his gun remained rock-solid. "You wanted to avenge Anna's death. They say you let yourself be arrested and endured five days of torture in order to trap the man you held responsible for her death."
All for nothing! Anna wasn't dead, had never been tortured... Avon swallowed his bitterness. "So?"
Grant gave a hollow laugh. "This is the one thing we see eye to eye to, Avon. I too want to avenge her death."
"But she isn't dead!"
"Not then but she is now. I want to avenge her death, Avon. I owe it to her to destroy the man who killed her." He hissed out the name: "Tarrant!"
"Tarrant?" Now Avon felt totally bewildered. "TARRANT killed Anna?"
"Sula. She had to change identities after we faked her death for your benefit. Her next assignment was to befriend and marry a High Council member, to give Security a foothold into the president's circle."
"Chesku," Avon whispered.
"Yes, a slimy crawling limpet who'd attach himself to anyone in power. When Servalan declared herself president, he immediately changed his allegiance to her."
"But Security couldn't allow a member of Space Command to usurp the presidency," Avon said. "So you decided to do something about it."
"Sula did." Again his voice denoted the pride in his sister's cleverness. "She worked out the plan to depose Servalan and take her place as President. She made contact with Hob's mob - the idiots thought she would help THEM to power! All went well, but then Tarrant came along. Oh, I know you're all shielding him, being vague about how Sula met her end, but I can guess. She was in the cellar with Tarrant and Servalan. We know Tarrant shot Servalan, Dayna keeps harping on about it. It follows he also killed my sister!"
Avon began to laugh loudly. So he was responsible for Anna's death after all. If he hadn't started the string of actions by going after the man he held responsible for her death, all of the ensuing events wouldn't have happened. Another of life's ironies.
Realising he was on the border of hysterics, he pulled himself together. "You're mistaken, Grant. It was Dayna who shot Sula because Sula tried to prevent her from killing Servalan. Then Tarrant shot Servalan, whom Dayna had wanted to kill. Earlier, Dayna had shot Shrinker, whom I had wanted to kill. Your killing Tarrant for a deed he didn't do would have nicely closed the circle of misplaced revenge."
Grant doggedly shook his head. "It's not true. You're protecting Tarrant. It was HIM! Dayna's not important - no woman is, except for Anna."
Suddenly Avon was sick and tired of the whole sordid business. "It's over, Grant."
"Yes." Grant pulled the trigger.
Avon felt his muscles contract in spite of himself. He breathed out in relief when the gun did not respond.
"Damn! DAMN!" Frantically Grant was trying to make his gun fire.
"It's no use," Avon told him. "I removed the charge before you arrived. You see, Vila found the gun last time we were here. It seemed logical to assume this was the gun you'd want to use on me. I doubted you'd be carrying one. The former President was rather security-conscious, as a result you can't go about here in the complex with a gun in your pocket without setting off all kinds of alarms."
Grant jumped him, arms outstretched, fingers clawing for his eye. Cursing himself for his lapse of attention, Avon threw himself aside. He lost his footing, landing hard on his elbow. Grant was on top of him. Desperately Avon tried to fight him off. He felt his throat being squeezed.
Suddenly the room exploded in sound and movement as people rushed in from the bedroom. Avon found the weight being pulled off him. He could breath again.
Cally was bending over him. "Are you all right?"
Gulping in air, he took in Tarrant and Dayna restraining a struggling Grant between them. Vila was busy at the drinks cabinet.
"Yes." Avon rubbed his throat. "You took your time."
Tarrant's teeth flashed. "We were tempted not to bother at all."
Vila swaggered up to him, a glass in each hand. He held one out. "This'll soothe your throat."
"Thanks." Avon took the proffered glass and drank gratefully.
Vila held up his glass to Grant in a mocking salute. "Your health."
Grant's head became purple. He startled gurgling. Then his body slumped.
"What?" Tarrant exclaimed, lowering the suddenly limp weight.
"He's dead," Dayna said, releasing her hold on the body.
Cally bent over Grant's corpse. "He must have had a poison capsule."
"Yes, standard Security practice." Avon had heard about them. "Implanted in a tooth, specially adapted so the capsule couldn't be broken accidentally whilst eating." Anna must have had one too. He wondered whether she'd had it in while they made love.
Better not think of her. Avon walked over to the body and looked down at his old enemy. Grant's rotund face seemed even more bloated, his lips were blue, the eyes wide open and nearly bulging from their sockets. "At least this will spare Blake the heartbreak of having to sign the warrant for his execution."
As if on cue a hammering started on the front door.
"Grant," Blake's voice bellowed.
"Cally?" Jenna's asked more quietly.
Avon sighed. "Go and open the door, Vila, before he breaks it down."
- - - 22 - - -
In the Cabinet Room Jarriere joined in the mumble of congratulations following Blake and Jenna's announcement of their bonding.
"The bride looks somewhat less than radiant," he heard Rontane whisper to Bercol. In the sudden outbreak of applause he didn't catch the Chancellor's reply.
They were seated round the large table, Jarriere between the President and Rontane. Bercol sat at Rontane's other side, with Avalon in the next seat. At Blake's other side were Jenna, Tarrant, Cally and Dayna. >From his seat Jarriere had an excellent view of Dayna, and scarcely took his eyes off her.
The place right opposite Blake - between Dayna and Avalon - that was normally reserved for the Supreme Commander, was now occupied by three persons. Two Jarriere recognised as Avon and Vila, the President's Special Advisors who had been so friendly to him. The third, seated between them, was a young woman with long blond hair whom he'd never seen before. Vila was dividing his gallant attention between her and Avalon who sat at his other elbow.
Blake called for silence. On a nudge from Rontane Jarriere checked that the recording tape was running and Blake opened the Inner Cabinet meeting.
"Item one," Blake said. "The re-appointment of Tarrant as Supreme Commander."
"With respect, President," Bercol observed, "are we going to be told what exactly happened to the previous Supreme Commander?"
Blake glared at him. "I've already told you. Grant turned out to be an undercover agent working for the remnants of Central Security."
"Indeed, and we all agree that is a valid reason to sack him," Rontane drawled. "I imagine what the Chancellor means is: Where is he now?"
"Dead," Blake replied.
"When he saw his game was over," Cally said, "he committed suicide."
"How very convenient," Bercol remarked.
"Very," commented Avalon rather cheerfully. "It saves the Home Office the trouble of prosecuting him."
Hardly taking in the discussion, Jarriere sat weathering the blow of having been passed over for the post of Supreme Commander. He wasn't quite sure he'd wanted the job, but his mother would be displeased.
"Who will take over at the Transport Office?" Rontane asked.
Jarriere sat up - that was it, of course. The President would appoint him as Transport Minister.
"Nobody," he heard Blake say. "It will be reunited with the Department of Trade."
"A practical decision," Tarrant commented. "Most aspects of Trade and Transport are interlinked."
"Item two," Blake went on. "The re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the Auronar. Their new Ambassador has presented his credentials. In compensation for the genocide inflicted on them by Servalan, we will pay them ten million credits."
"Ten m-m-million!" Bercol seemed to have trouble getting the word out. "Preposterous! Impossible. The budget won't stand it!"
"It will be paid out of Servalan's private means." Blake's eyes roved over his audience. "Since, at the moment we won't be able to honour claims from other victims of Federation brutality, no word of our aid to the Auronar must get out."
"With the utmost respect, President," Rontane said, "those so-called private means of the former President belong to the Treasury."
"Unquestionably," Bercol stated. "They fall under the budget."
Avalon shook her head. "They don't, Chancellor. As the President's Fund, they are for the President to dispose of as he sees fit."
"Compare it to, for example, the curator of a museum," Avon said smoothly. "Suppose someone who owns a private collection of art is appointed curator of an art museum. Surely you would not suggest that he then has to donate his collection to the museum?"
Bercol's manner suddenly became flushed. "What? No, of course not! But that is something totally different."
"Or, to take another analogy," Avon continued in the same sweet voice, "one wouldn't expect the managing director of a zoo to have his pets incorporated into the zoo's collection."
Jarriere noticed the word PETS being subtly stressed.
"The Special Advisor may have a point." Secretary Rontane's voice sounded slightly constricted.
Vila began to grin. "A pointed one, hey?"
"Item three," Blake announced. "The replacement of Jarriere as the President's Private Secretary."
"What? How..." Jarriere began to feel confused. As in a haze he heard Blake introduce the strange woman as Veron, the daughter of the late rebel Kasabi.
"Veron will act as my Private Secretary."
"With the greatest possible respect, President," Rontane bleated. Respect must be the word most frequently used during Cabinet meetings, Jarriere thought irrationally. "It is an old custom to select the President's Private Secretary from among the ranks of the civil service." Jarriere found the Permanent Secretary's angry gaze on him. "One should not follow up an unfortunate precedent, which only served to show the necessity of proper training for such an important post."
Blake beamed at the Permanent Secretary. "You'll find Veron has the necessary qualifications, Rontane. My decision has been made."
Well, that was it. Jarriere hunched his shoulders. No more opportunity to speak to Dayna; to watch her beautiful eyes; to hear her sweet voice...
"Item four. A suitable job for my former Private Secretary."
Jarriere became aware of discreet snickering. He tried to concentrate his mind on Blake's words. The President was talking about the need for the people to learn about their past.
"For that purpose, the quarters that used to be occupied by Central Security will be converted into a museum. It will cover all aspects of life: history, art, science, natural history, medicine. Of course, such a complex and important establishment will need a capable and decisive curator. Jarriere, I think you are the right man for the job."
Faintly suspecting he was being taken, Jarriere stared at him. "But I know nothing about history." More fiercely he added: "I'm not interested in history!"
He caught Blake's smile. It was friendly, reassuring. "Subdirectors will be appointed for the different divisions."
"The museum will also need a 'naturalia' section," Avon said. "Bones of early men, mummies, preserved organs, that kind of things. Your medical knowledge will be invaluable there."
"Yeah," Vila grinned. "You must know a real mummy from a fake."
Suddenly Jarriere saw the beauty of it. He would be allowed to show his collection. He could donate it, and add to it - all in the open! Through his elation he heard Blake close the meeting. Then he saw Dayna rise and head for the door.
Jarriere's heart cried out in protest. He leapt up and hurried towards her, bumping into Bercol and pushing him impatiently aside. "Dayna," he called, ignoring the Chancellor's indignant protest.
She halted in the doorway, turning her big, beautiful eyes on him.
"Dayna..." For a moment his mind was totally blank, then inspiration hit. "The museum, it will have a section dedicated to famous freedom fighters. Your father was the best, he must have centre stage. For that I'll need your advice. Come and have lunch with me, then we can discuss it."
To his delight he saw her smile at him. "All right."
"Now?" Jarriere hardly dared to believe his luck.
Feeling as if he was treading on air, Jarriere followed her out.
- - - 23 - - -
Blake rose from his desk, glad to leave the financial report he'd been studying, when Veron let a visitor into his office. "Avon."
"I've come to say goodbye."
Blake tried to ignore the sudden stab of hurt. In his determination to deal with Grant, Avon had turned to Cally and Vila, even Tarrant and Dayna, but left him out. That rankled, despite Cally's explanation that they'd feared Blake would not be able to keep quietly in hiding during the confrontation. "You're off then, back to Servalan's accounts."
"Yes, I've finished clearing out Grant's computer." Avon tossed a data cube onto the desk. "It's all in there, enough to hang him had he not spared us the trouble."
Avon seemed preoccupied. Not surprising, the pain of the revelation that he'd been fooled by the woman he loved must still be very raw.
"Grant had grand plans, Blake. Tarrant wasn't his only target, you were next on his list. Having his eyes on the presidency, he planned to discredit you." Avon paused, as if reluctant to go on, then said quickly: "He intended to revive the accusation of child molestation."
"But everyone knows those accusations were false!" As always, their mentioning brought a bad taste in his mouth. "It was so obvious the case, that nobody fell for it. Not one rebel, not one honest person we ever met believed them."
"They could still be damaging, if it came to a prosecution." Avon's voice was harsh. "The children in question will testify to your guilt. The false memories they've been given will make them come through the lie-detector test."
Blake felt appalled. "False memories? You mean they used them to frame me?"
"Did you really not know?" Blake found Avon's hand on his arm, fiercely supporting and belying his scathing voice. "Or did you simply choose to close your eyes to a truth too horrible to face?"
"Probably." Blake glared at him. "We have to deal with this."
"That is already in hand," Avon said. "I've had Orac do some research. All three children were admitted to the hospital on the same day. The man responsible for the operations was doctor Havant, who's also the leader of the Federation Brain Surgery Research Team. So we set up a Cabinet Committee for inquiry into the recent development of brain surgery. The Committee is chaired by Dayna, who as Minister for Science and education is the logical choice. The other members are Bercol and Rontane, chosen especially because they wouldn't raise any suspicion in Havant. When summoned to bring the Committee up to date, Havant was eager to show off. Proud of his achievements, he revealed all his projects, expecting to be applauded. By the time it dawned on him he was digging his own grave, it was too late for him to retract. We can leave the prosecution to Avalon. There won't be any sympathy for Havant, even Rontane and Bercol were appalled." Avon produced a cynical smile. "The realisation that the children used were randomly chosen, and could just as easily have been THEIR offspring, may have had something to do with that, of course."
Blake hated the idea of the whole affair being raked up again. But it must be even more painful for the other victims... "I must compensate those children."
"I imagine that it must be possible to erase the implanted memories." Avon let go of his arm. "Now I'd better be off to retrieve some more of Servalan's secret bank accounts. I can see where the next compensation payment is going to be made."
"You're still my Special Advisor," Blake reminded him in an attempt to lift his own spirits. "I may need you to advise me again before long."
"Don't presume too much on my time, Blake. Now Liberator is mine, I want the opportunity to enjoy its possession."
But if asked, he would come. Blake knew it, and so did Avon.
As if sensing his thoughts, Avon strode to the door. "Goodbye, Blake."
Blake smiled at him. It wasn't goodbye, it was: "See you again, Avon."
- - - 24 - - -
It was interesting, Avon reflected, surveying the scene in the dusky establishment, that the first things to have sprung up after the Revolution were bars and brothels. The dim light made it difficult to recognise any of the occupants, but then he heard Vila's voice. Frowning, Avon followed his ears; Vila sounded pretty drunk.
There he was, reciting a lewd limerick while being supported by a blond, broad-shouldered man who seemed to be struggling to keep him upright. About to accost Vila, Avon halted when he caught the man's hand disappearing into Vila's pocket. While Avon watched, the hand reappeared again, with a wallet that was swiftly dumped into the man's own pocket. The movement had been so quick Avon found himself almost doubting he'd really seen it. Apparently none of the others had noticed it.
Well now, a master pickpocket who had his pockets picked. Avon smiled to himself - he'd make sure Vila would never live this down.
He walked over to the pair. "Excuse me." Avon grabbed the man's free arm and wrenched it behind his back, the way Cally had taught him during their early days on Liberator when he'd been taking self-defence lessons from her. Howling, the man let go of Vila, who stumbled backwards, trying to keep his balance. "I saw you take something that belongs to my friend."
Too late he realised his choice of words. He should have said acquaintance! Fortunately Vila was too drunk to notice his slip of the tongue.
Heads were turning their way. Better end this fast. With his free hand Avon retrieved the wallet. He let go of the man's arm, shoving him into a group of drinkers who looked as if they might want to interfere. While the man collided with them, Avon made for the door, tugging Vila along. In the Dome's corridor, he pushed Vila into a quiet corner. Seeing he was wearing his bracelet, Avon employed his remote control to bring them up.
"Idiot!" he said as soon as they had rematerialised in Liberator's teleport bay. "You should know better than to get drunk."
"Who says I'm drunk?" Removing his bracelet, Vila walked over to the rack to put it away. His steps were firm.
Avon tossed the wallet at him. "You were robbed."
"I know." Vila caught the wallet. "It's empty. I'm not so stupid as to keep my money in an outside pocket!" He dropped the wallet, then brought up another from his pocket. "While he was nicking the dud, I took his."
For once stuck for words, Avon saw Vila open the very thick wallet. It was filled with banknotes.
Vila expertly counted them. "Six hundred and seventy two credits - not bad for an hour of leisure!" He grinned. "I saw him doing the rounds, nicking other people's things. It seemed a nice idea to sit back and let him do the work. When he went to the gents', I knew it was to switch the money to his own wallet and get rid of the empties so they wouldn't be found on him. When he returned, ready to leave, I put myself in his path, pretending to be drunk."
Avon began to laugh. The simplicity of Vila's antics was refreshing after his dealings with Blake.
He went to the flight deck. Climbing into his position, he told Zen to set course for the planet where they'd been working when Blake's summons had come.
Vila ambled in. "Are you sure, Avon, about that special fund we found?"
"Of course I am. It's clear it was set up by Servalan to give her a chance to take up a new identity."
Vila sat down on the couch. "She could have chosen a more pleasant name - Sleer sounds nasty."
"Which is in accordance with its prospective bearer." Avon smiled to himself. As the account was not in Servalan's name, he didn't feel compelled to let Blake know about it. They could keep the whole sum themselves. It would be enough to give him security for life!
- - - the end - - -
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