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The Machiavelli Factor

By Lillian Sheperd

Beginning

"Blake, do you hear me? We've sent for Servalan. You will be the ransom for our planet's peace."

      I had once heard that voice as a dim rumble in the rolling thunder of my pain. There was a time when I might have thought it important, but by then I did not care. It had seemed to me that there might have been other voices, other words that I would rather have heard, but I had pushed away that thought, submerging myself in the pain. I had chosen to be here, alone, and that was worse than any physical agony.

      "He can't hear you."

      I had heard. It simply had not mattered.

      The voice had gone away then, leaving me alone on a hard stone shelf in a damp cell.

      Then the silver-blue glow had claimed me - and pain, more pain than I had ever imagined existed...

      

      

... the pain is there now... the blue-silver glow engulfs me. Am I still in that cell? The pain rages, beating me with silver staves. That cell? A year ago? A decade? A few seconds? Now?

      I'm sorry, I tell all the people I know will never hear me. I should have known that one man cannot stem the tide of history or even turn it. The Federation dies: the scramble for power begins. How could I have ever hoped for anything else? You were right, Avon. I can never tell you that now... or have I already told you?

      Never felt pain like this... and yet I can think, floating detached from torment. My body hurts, but does it still exist? How is it that I still live? There is a strange sense of the past repeating... repeating... repeating...

      I have been here before, in the blue-silver agony, yet I could not have been. This is the first/only time, the one/only place in now/always.

      Dying? Is this what it feels like to die in silver-blue fire?

      Forgive me, my friends. Forgive me for destroying/saving/destroying your lives... Forgive me.

      Oh Lord, I did not think that it could hurt so much...

      The universe tears itself apart, tearing me with it.       Coalescence.

      

      

"Welcome, Roj Blake."

      The voice was not human. It was high and musical, yet with a harsh note in it, a voice never meant to form human words.

      The pain was gone. I felt weak but well, well as I had not been since Star One. I was warm and the hard slab under me had been miraculously transformed into a soft bed.

      I opened my eyes.

      The being standing outlined against the warm cream walls was not human. It was tall and it bent in all the wrong places, its turquoise skin iridescent and full of tiny facets, and above its golden eyes swayed a tall, pale, fragile crest. Yet it was humanoid enough to be reassuring, clothed in a simple tunic that bore a symbol that I knew: a staff twined about with serpents, a caduceus - the human symbol for a healer.

      I turned my head. The wall was a curve of window and beyond it lay a garden of cool stone and dark plants and falling water, leading to an ocean beach. Despite the second alien who stood regarding me, shadowed against the dark blue sky, it also was familiar and reassuring.

      The sky itself was not, for in it hung the ghostly shapes of moons, worlds, hundreds of them, crowding the sun. I knew at once that I was nowhere in the Known Worlds, for a sky like that would have been renowned throughout the galaxy.

      The second alien spoke. "Do you feel well?"

      I sat up. There was still no pain. I was naked and unscarred. Even the ragged red tear above the elbow that I had borne from childhood had vanished.

      "Well? I seem to be completely well," I replied. "I think, I must thank you... whoever you are."

      "I am Silkay and, when you know all, you may not be so grateful. Yet I repeat, 'Welcome, Roj Blake', for we have great need of your help."

      "My help?" I smiled wryly. My help had been no help at all to everyone who had trusted me. Even so, I knew that I would try to give whatever help Silkay wanted. I needed to have a purpose again, something to drive my loss from my mind.

      I said, "You'd better tell me about it."

      

      

Before the Dawn

A red line flashed across the top of the computer screen, interrupting my useless contemplation of the meagre information that the Scitech computers would provide on the Yard Barriers. I touched the comspek button and addressed the central computer. "What is it?" I asked.

      "Routine scanning of Main Galaxy communications traffic has located messages containing keywords 'Blake', 'Avon' and 'Liberator'. This information is conveyed in accordance with your standing instructions."

      "Decode and display."

      As the words appeared on the screen I felt as if I had swallowed a litre of ice-water.

      "How long ago was that last message transmitted?" I demanded.

      "Four standard hours."

      I told the computer exactly what I thought of that information.

      "That instruction is physically impossible."

      "Is the Scoop in operation?"

      "No."

      "Is it ready for operation?"

      "Power build-up is almost complete. The Scoop will be ready for operation in approximately four hours."

      "Compute Scoop co-ordinate equivalents of those given for teleport in the message numbered S643/UR1041/5 and pass them to Jake Harun at Scoop Control. Tell him to stand by for a major pickup."

      "Co-ordinates computed and transmitted."

      "Is the Director free?

      There was short pause. Then, "The Director is free. She will accept your image-contact."

      "No. This is too important. I must see her face to face. Now."

      Again I sweated out the silence.

      "The Director will see you in five minutes,"

      As I jumped to my feet, the computer added, "Jake Harun wishes to speak with you-"

      "Tell him... tell him he'll find out soon enough-" I dived out of the door before the computer could reply.

      

      

"We've tried to scoop Liberator before, Ricel," the Director said, lacing her pudgy fingers. "For some reason, its hull is resistant to the E-space projection field."

      "I know that. I also know that we need Liberator technology. Correct? Ship design. Teleport. Force field. Computer. All of them would complement and help explain what we already have."

      "Yes, yes. Come to the point."

      "The point is that, while we can't scoop the ship, we may now have a chance to scoop its crew."

      "Who may or may not be able to tell us anything we want to know."

      "Kerr Avon certainly will."

      The Director considered. "Kerr Avon..."

      "And I need him. The key to the Yard Barriers may well be in the computers here at Scitech Central. They are still pretty much of a mystery to our scientists-"

      "Can we pick up Avon?" she interrupted.

      "Yes. Look at those messages, Director." I pointed towards the computer screen. "You know and I know that Roj Blake is dead, but that information came to us from a Federation atmospheric tight-beam signal which Liberator couldn't have picked up. This message purports to come from Blake. Someone is laying a trap."

      "And Avon has fallen into it. I don't like the look of this last message, the one telling Vila Restal to take the Liberator away. Why, Van? Why did Avon fall into the trap?"

      That was the question that I had been asking myself for the last fifteen minutes. "I'm no psychologist. On the other hand, the Federation has its psychostrategists - puppeteers, they call them - and I think that those messages have been tailored by one of them to lure Avon into the trap. The discovery 'Blake' is supposed to have made must be part of it. If that message does come from the Federation we may never have another chance to pick up Avon. Of course, we may get some of the information we want through Federation inter-computer communications traffic but if Avon is killed we lose the opportunity to recruit a unique and brilliant mind: one that can tell us all we want to know about Liberator."

      The Director's tight grey curls bounced absurdly as she shook her head. "Van, we can't scoop at all if there is any chance of giving away our existence and disrupting the situation in the Main Galaxy."

      "Director, those co-ordinates do not correspond with any known Federation planet or installation. I don't know what's there but it can't be very big. We can go in with a wide scoop and minimal risk. Avon is important enough for us to take it. Also, do you want to risk the Federation gaining access to Liberator technology? They haven't abandoned their project to construct an intergalactic drive."

      She was still hesitating. "We'll be leaving a lot of bodies behind."

      "Accidents will happen. Let the Federation try and puzzle it out." Even as I spoke, I moved a hand towards my hidden gun. If she refused my request I would have to kill her. This would ruin my cover identity and all the plans that Silkay, Stali and I had so carefully constructed but my first loyalty must lie with Avon. Perhaps he could escape from the trap, perhaps he already had, perhaps he was already dead but, quite simply, I could not take the risk. His life and those of his companions meant far too much to me to let the chance to save them slip by.

      The Director nodded, "Very well. Scoop at those co-ordinates and see what you bring in. And Van... for your own sake, what you bring in had better include Kerr Avon."

      

      

      The floater platform took me high into a receiving area huge enough to accommodate the biggest spaceship, or even an asteroid. In fact, it had accommodated both. Now it was empty except for the AG generators suspended by their own power at the angles of the chamber, which would hold whatever we scooped intact and well away from the walls.

      The floater drifted downwards towards the balcony that housed Scoop Control. Behind it, the E-space generator screens rose upwards for fully thirty metres, glowing faintly with a blue-silver light that deepened even as I watched. The incredible power needed to penetrate E-space was already building.

      The balcony was swarming with people, both human and wi'h, though they weren't all needed to operate the Scoop. That ancient, alien-built equipment could be controlled by a single person, functioning as it had been designed to function. Even after five hundred years of research it had proved impossible to duplicate the Scoop, though the basic principles were clear.

      The back-up teams, though, were far from superfluous. Any living entity re-created by the Scoop needed attention within minutes, if it was not to die from transfer shock.

      Jake Harun stood waiting for me as the floater came to rest. Short, stocky, with red curls and snapping blue eyes, he looked twice his size by sheer power of personality as he placed his fists on his hips and regarded me with his chin and lower lip jutting forward. "Okay, Van, this had better be good. The Scoop isn't your private toy..."

      "No, it's yours," I told him, grinning in response. I liked Jake.

      "I'm just the Chief Technician here, that's all. I'm just the one who's supposed to co-ordinate this mess without even knowing what I'm supposed to be co-ordinating, that's all. I'm just-"

      "Jake, please, we don't have time. This may be our last chance."

      "Our last chance for what?" Jake howled. I think it was sheer willpower that kept him from dancing up and down on the spot.

      "To get our hands on Liberator technology. Specifically, on Kerr Avon. When will we be ready to scoop?"

      When Jake had stopped opening and closing his mouth, he found an answer. "Two... two and a half standard hours."

      It was a reply that dismayed me. "Too long. Liberator's crew are in a Federation trap. It may already be too late."

      "You can't shorten Scoop recharge time simply by wishing," Jake retorted. "Of course, if you could narrow the co-ordinates..."

      "No. We have only one chance and that's slim enough as it is. We have to cover as wide an area as possible."

      "Then we may pick up a very large chunk of something. No idea what, I suppose?"

      "None. It could be a ship, an asteroid or a satellite. There isn't supposed to be anything there at all... and by the time you're ready, there may not be."

      "Two hours," Jake said, implacably. "I can't change the way Builders' technology works, even for you, Van."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

Cally made her way through the dimness of the cruiser's main corridor, stumbling over an area of metal floor that had buckled upwards in the crash. Edging into the chaos of the engine room, she spoke to the two dark shadows crouching over the glow of a hand lamp. "There is nothing you can do until dawn when we can start recharging the solar batteries. I think you had better come outside. I have prepared a meal from the ship's concentrates."

      The taller and thinner of the two shadows turned towards her, though he could see even less of her than she could of him. "We should be rationing those. This thing may never be spaceworthy again."

      "In which case, Tarrant, we must start living off the land as soon as possible," Cally retorted. "Dayna and I will hunt in the morning. Now we must eat and sleep."

      "Got it all worked out, haven't you, Cally?" Tarrant muttered loudly.

      She ignored him. "Avon?"

      "Yes. Perhaps you are right." Avon straightened, swaying slightly. Cally watched him anxiously as she moved aside to let him pass but he seemed steady enough as he made his way towards the yellow glint of fire beyond the open hatch.

      Tarrant hadn't moved.

      Cally decided to try just one more time. "You can't see anything in here until we fix the power, Tarrant. What are you trying to prove? That you are more stubborn than Avon or more stupid?

      There was a pause, then Tarrant snapped: "What's that supposed to mean?"

      "Whatever you want it to mean," said Cally, and was gone, back out into the twilight.

      Tarrant scowled as he followed her. Damn it, he didn't have to prove anything. Avon had led them into this trap and had lost Liberator in the process. Surely there could no longer be doubt in anyone's mind as to who was the right person to lead them? Avon would just have to accept that.

      He came out into a noisy Terminal evening. The afterglow of the sunset was beginning to fade into the darkening sky. Cold air with a hint of rain in it slapped him fully awake.

      The others were sitting about a small fire, except for Dayna, who was standing looking outwards towards the scrub-covered slopes, plainly on guard.

      Tarrant inclined his head towards her and asked, "Expecting visitors?" as he took the small bowl and spoon that Cally offered him.

      Dayna did not look round. "The creatures Servalan spoke of may attack."

      "Our future descendants," said Cally, with a tiny shudder.

      "Not yours," said Vila. "It must be a comfort, not to be human."

      "It all hardly seems worthwhile, somehow, if the human race is going to end up like the things Cally and I saw," Tarrant commented.

      Avon, who had been staring blankly into the fire, roused himself at this. "Unlikely."

      "Servalan said that they were what mankind will become," Tarrant pointed out.

      "Servalan is... wasn't a scientist. Her ignorance of the forces of evolution is obviously as profound as yours. Those creatures are what mankind might become if all of the human race was isolated on Terminal. In any other environment... who knows?" Despite the opportunity to lecture, Avon sounded disinterested. He lapsed into silence again, the meal in his hands untouched.

      Vila and Cally looked at each other, then at Avon, then back at each other.

      "I'm going to get some sleep," Vila announced loudly. "Coming, anyone?" He stared hard at Avon, willing him to get up, but Avon's chin just dropped even further towards his chest.

      It was Tarrant who reacted to Vila's words. "Wait a minute, Vila," he said sharply. "We've still got to arrange the watches."

      "We will be safe inside the ship if we lock the hatches," said Cally.

      "I still want a watch set."

      "Then watch." Cally glanced across at Avon but, though his eyes were still open, he did not seem to have heard.

      Tarrant glared at Cally. "Very well. I'll take first watch. You can follow me, then Avon, then Vila and finally Dayna."

      "But-" Cally began, ready to argue, when Vila got in first:

      "I saw something." He jumped to his feet, staring out into the darkness in a pantomime of surprise and fear. "They must be sneaking up on us."

      "What?" Tarrant, also on his feet, shook Vila's arm. "Where? What did you see?"

      "Eyes. Over there. Look! There they are again."

      "I can't see anything."

      "There!" Vila made a dramatic gesture with his free arm, pointing into the darkness.

      Tarrant freed Vila and snatched up a brand from the fire. "We'll take a look. Come on, Vila."

      Surprisingly, Vila did not protest. As he copied Tarrant's action in taking a piece of burning wood from the fire, he looked at Cally, winked, and jerked his head at Avon.

      Cally looked startled, then smiled and nodded.

      When all she could see of Vila and Tarrant was the red flicker of their improvised torches, Cally crossed to kneel beside Avon. She said, gently, "Come on, into the ship, before you go to sleep right here."

      He raised his head very slowly and blinked at her. "Does... it... matter?"

      "You will feel better in the morning. Come on, Avon. You don't want me to have to ask Tarrant to carry you, do you?"

      Avon gave her a dark look. He tried to get to his feet, but had to catch hold of her shoulder to stop himself from falling. When she put her arm around his waist, he did not protest, just leaned heavily against her.

      Dayna appeared out of the dark. Her black skin, lined in red by the firelight, made her seem like a warrior from the far past, but her expression was concerned. "Avon?"

      "He is all right. All that has happened is that his body is finally reacting to the demands he has made on it during the last few days."

      "Do you need help?"

      "No, thank you. I can manage. You'd better wait here for Vila and Tarrant."

      In the dim glow of the emergency permalights, Cally supported Avon into the ship. She steered him into the nearest cabin and settled him onto the bunk, helping him take off his jacket and boots. It was as she was covering him with a thermoblanket that he opened his eyes and looked up at her, his pupils huge and unfocused.

      "Cally?" he whispered

      "Yes. I am here."

      "He's dead, Cally. Blake's dead."

      "Yes, Avon, I know."

      "He's dead... and I'm free of him. Free forever."

      "Yes, you are free. Go to sleep."

      "We... we've... done... perfectly well with... without him."

      "Shhhh. Go to sleep, now."

      "Perfectly well," Avon insisted.

      "Yes. Of course we have."

      "Then why... why...?"

      "Why does it hurt?" Cally sat on the edge of the bunk and gently stroked Avon's cheek with the backs of her fingers. "If they cut off a hand or a leg you would expect it to hurt, wouldn't you, Avon? We were all part of each other: you and I and Blake and Vila and Jenna and Gan. We've lost another part of ourselves today, perhaps the most important part."

      "I wanted to find him..." Avon whispered. "Tell him..." His voice faded away. His eyes, still fixed on Cally's face, closed slowly.

      Cally was still sitting looking down at Avon's face when, a few minutes later, Vila's head poked into the room.

      "Cally?" he asked softly.

      She started rather guiltily then, recovering, smiled. "It's all right. I think it would take an earthquake to wake him."

      Vila came into the room and stood beside Cally, who had risen to her feet.

      "Did you find anything out there?" she asked.

      "No. Isn't that odd?" Vila was grinning.

      "Very. Thank you, Vila."

      Vila shuffled his feet and avoided meeting her eyes. "Didn't do anything. Er... look, Cally, wake me when it's Avon's watch, will you. I wouldn't trust him to watch a stripper in this state."

      "Stripper? No, never mind, Vila. I will stand half of Avon's watch. I did not intend to wake him, anyway. He will be ill, if he pushes himself any harder. As it is, he came close to collapse from lack of sleep and shock."

      "Not to mention being manhandled by Servalan's minions. Well, at least we're rid of her. If it wasn't for the news about Blake, it might almost be worth - oh, damn." Abruptly, Vila spun round and fled the cabin.

      Cally looked down at Avon, thinking: I will also weep for Blake tonight. I wish that you could, Avon, for I think that you miss him most. She sighed.

      You might have left us hope, Servalan. Well, we are revenged, at least. We are revenged.

      

      

Servalan lay in the bracken and stared down at the red glow that marked the dying fire. The President of the Terran Federation, Ruler of the High Council, Lord of the Inner and Outer Worlds, High Admiral of the Galactic Fleet, Lord General of the Six Armies and the Defender of the Earth was somewhat uncomfortable. She detested the musty smell of bracken and the dampness soaking into her clothes, making her even colder than she already was, but she knew that her present position was a necessary one. That fact did not improve her temper. Someone was going to have to pay.

      She squinted along the paragun at the figure she could see dimly, sitting in the hatch of the wrecked cruiser, silhouetted against the feeble light from within.

      Tarrant, she thought. I can kill him now. A difficult shot, but not impossible.

      It was a strong temptation, but she resisted it. Tarrant was a pilot. She would need a pilot.

      The cruiser. She had thought it wrecked beyond repair, had flung it to Avon because of the amusement it gave her to think of him trying to piece it back together, but now it was her only hope. She should never have sabotaged the equipment at the Terminal base. Then, her only thought had been to make sure that Avon could not use it. She had not imagined that she might need it herself. It was pity she had been unable to return in time to disarm the demolition devices. She had miscalculated... it was to be hoped that she had also miscalculated the ability of Blake's people to repair the ship. Certainly, she could not repair it herself.

      Blake. Servalan smiled to herself. Dead, he had served her well. She remembered Avon's expression as she had told him how he had been fooled. That had been satisfying at the time but, again, it had been a mistake, though one that she could not have foreseen. Now she would have to deal with him, this man whom she had duped, humiliated and hurt. He would certainly not forgive her.

      The others too: the child Dayna, who had sworn vengeance for the killing - correction, execution - of her father. This time it was unlikely that Avon would restrain her. Cally. Cally had been Blake's loyal follower. She might also be ready to kill. Vila. She could dismiss Vila. He was a fool and a coward, though there was that nagging doubt: how had they arranged for Liberator to disintegrate under her? No, that could not have been Vila... Tarrant. Ahhh... Tarrant, she understood. She had bent so many like him to her will. And it was Tarrant who would lead the group now that Avon had shown himself fallible. It was Tarrant she must convince, must work through to dominate the others. That would not be too difficult.

      She picked herself up, fastidiously brushed away the dead leaves clinging to her skirt, and began the circle that would allow her to reach the ship from the far side of the valley. The airlock would open to her handprint. She would kill Dayna - the child was a psychopathic murderer, unnecessary for repairing the ship - then surprise Tarrant to make her offer. By the time the others awoke, she would be in control.

      As she slid down the muddy slope, the prickly undergrowth caught at her dress. She tore it free with a snarl, only to hit her head on a low branch.

      Servalan sat down heavily in the mud, snarling a word that would have brought a reprimand if uttered by one of her troopers. As she wiped the trickle of blood from her eyes, she wondered if she should not, after all, wait for light...

      ...but there was light. A hazy blue glow was building towards brightness in the west. She tried to remember what lay in that direction. The shaft by which Avon had entered the Terminal base was to the north-west... Wait. The glow was forming close to the position where he had first landed on the planet.

      That was not half so important as the fact that it was growing; the brightness was increasing, the area it covered widening even as she watched.

      It was blue and silver and in it swirled another colour, deeper than both, that Servalan could not name, that she seemed to see not with her eyes but deep within her mind. The night noises were stilled, but the very air was humming with power, sending eddies of dizziness into whirlpools behind her eyes.

      Memory stirred. As she had stood outside Blake's cell, ready to take him prisoner, there had been the faintest touch of such a sensation - and when she had entered the cell, Blake had been dead.

      Dead... and something of this feeling had lingered in the room...

      Servalan clawed her way to her feet and scrambled back up the slope, away from the strange, glowing hemisphere that lit every rock, every tree about her with azure light. She was panting as she ran, panic lending her speed.

      At the top of the slope she glanced back.

      The glowing area had stabilised. The blue-silver mist had formed an opaque barrier perhaps thirty metres behind her. It was no longer moving, though its radiance was reflected in the sky from horizon to horizon.

      Servalan gasped, unable to look away, her mind retreating from the impact of the unbelievable depth and colour in the pulsing misty fire that domed over an area ten kilometres in diameter, submerging the wrecked cruiser as it had submerged the Terminal base. The brightness blinded her, yet she could still see every molecule with a super-vivid clarity.

      No human mind could stand that sight. Servalan, her sanity ripping into shreds about her, screamed and fell to the ground, wrapping her arms above her head, her face buried in the cold embrace of the wet earth.

      The universe burst, shredded, compacted, vanished.

      Then there was nothing but silence. Servalan lay still.

      After a while, an owl hooted. Some creature barked, and another of the same species answered.

      Finally, Servalan found the courage to raise her head. Around her was nothing but night, no light except the scatter of distant stars. Not even the glow of the fire outside the wrecked ship penetrated the gloom. She decided to go no further that night. Nothing would persuade her to go down into that valley again until she could see what it held. She would formulate a new plan in the morning. It was plain that Terminal held threats none of them had suspected. If she could convince Tarrant that she knew more about those threats than he did, he might well be glad to make an alliance with her.

      It was with that thought drifting in her mind that she succumbed to exhaustion and fell asleep on the wet grass.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

Even the normal space-time end of an E-space tube is a sanity-destroying experience. The human mind cannot accept a place where mass and space do not exist and entropy flows sideways. Men have been destroyed trying to encompass that strangeness. It is said that only the truly sane can emerge unscathed, but sometimes I think it is those with a touch of madness who face it best.

      Perhaps those beings we call the Builders, who created the Scoop and the world on which it stands, among other things, could look into the tube as it functioned. The wi'h can... but then they were designed to do so. It was they who were operating the instruments as the signals came back instantaneously from the Milky Way Galaxy. In a single milli-nanosecond, more power than that generated by a star would be employed to recreate the matter scanned on the other side of the E-space interface and replace the energy the Scoop had torn from the original within it.

      Once that process was in operation nothing could halt it. It was computer controlled, but the operators had to confirm that the receiving chamber was a total vacuum, that the scooped object would be held firmly in position by the AG beams and that any hostile force or weapons it contained were nullified. Those nullifiers could absorb and muffle a positron explosion.

      The Scoop would normally be used to bring through a spaceship. If the co-ordinates were precise enough it could retrieve a single man, as the wi'h had retrieved me. This time, I expected a starship or a space station, and a large lump of pure vacuum.

      What I got was a piece of planet.

      It came close to filling the vast chamber and, as the blue-silver field flare died away, we saw that it was, from our viewpoint, floating on its side, the planet surface facing towards us so we looked out onto green moorland and bushy treetops. We had taken a hunk of atmosphere too, so the great sphere we had cut from the next galaxy seemed hemispherical.

      "Life forms?" I heard Jake ask.

      "You can see the plant life. Lots of animal life, mostly small and unidentified. Humanoids... about fifty to sixty of them... concentrated on co-ordinates 542/314/820. Could be human."

      "Send the teams in, Jake," I ordered urgently. "No. Wait." I had seen a gleam of metal as I scanned the planetary surface through the magnifying viewers. Now I brought it closer. "There's a spaceship at co-ordinates 542/303/820."

      "Got it," Jake grunted. "That can't be Liberator."

      It wasn't. It had been a Federation cruiser. Now it was scrap metal.

      "Send the recovery teams to the ship first," I decided.

      "They're away," Jake reported.

      Those teams had been waiting outside the chamber since before materialisation began. Now their aircars sped towards the planet's surface. They had to act swiftly. The shock of what was, after all, a sort of death - and, from personal experience I knew it to be a painful death - was so great that ninety-five percent of human transferees died if not put on life support within fifteen minutes of transfer.

      I headed back to the floater and was not surprised to find Jake beside me as I jumped onto the platform. "Co-ordinates 542/303/820," he said.

      "Yes."

      The floater rose up and began a long, swinging sweep towards the planet, slowly twisting through ninety degrees so that we came in with the planetary segment under our feet.

      As the floater settled to the ground in the valley bottom we saw that the recovery teams had arrived before us. One of their aircars was parked beside the wrecked cruiser.

      There was a fire burning in front of the spaceship's open hatch. That, at least, indicated that the Scoop was functioning perfectly. I could only hope that it had transferred life energy as efficiently as it had transferred that of combustion.

      Two wi'h medical technicians were at the hatchway, placing a limp body in a life-support pod. I started forwards but Jake grabbed my arm. "What the hell's that?"

      'That' was a humanoid creature sprawling out from the bushes. It had a simian face and thick black fur. A human medic was peering down at it. He stirred it with his foot, then looked at us. "This place is crawling with these things. Bio'd love 'em. You want 'em saved?"

      "The humans first!" I said sharply.

      The medic shrugged. "They're in the ship."

      "Take as many of the aliens as you have space for to Bio," Jake ordered, as I resumed my rush towards to wrecked cruiser. At last able to look down into the pod, I realised with disappointment that I had never met the man it contained. He was human; lean, tall, dark haired, young... but he was not one of the people I wanted to see. I hoped that the anxiety I was feeling was not showing on my face, though if it was there was a good chance it would be interpreted as worry over what the Director would do to me if I failed.

      I dived into the hatch, almost hitting another life-support pod coming out. The identity of the man inside was both a relief and a shock. Vila. He was unconscious and, for the first time, it occurred to me how lucky I was that shock knocked out all transferees for many hours. It would not have been wise to have anyone recognise me in front of Jake - or anyone else, for that matter.

      There were three more pods exiting after Vila's. I stood aside so I could peer down into them as they passed.

      Cally. I had forgotten that she was beautiful. What I remembered most were her understanding, her support, and the gentleness of her voice.

      Then another woman, one I did not know. Black, good looking, very young. Too young, really, to be in such company.

      Then Avon. He was even paler than the others and I was suddenly afraid for him. Scoop transfer repaired physical injury in a way no-one understood, but the psychic shock could be terrible.

      "That one doesn't seem to have taken to transfer too well," the supervising human medic commented to me as the pod bearing Avon disappeared through the hatch. "Lucky for him that you spotted this ship. He should be all right now."

      "He'd better be," I replied. "Unless I'm very much mistaken, he's the man we arranged all this to catch."

      "Well, you caught him," said Jake, arriving at that moment. "The next question is: what are we goin' to do with this 'ere hunk of planet?"

      "Nothing until we find out what it is," I replied. "There might be anything here."

      There certainly was something. In a corner of one of the cabins I found a carrying box that contained a glowing cube. Before Jake could catch up with me, I removed the activation key. Orac would recognise me as readily as Avon, Cally or Vila. I locked the case and left it where it lay. I would requisition it later.

      The discovery of Orac was the final proof that my gamble had worked. If there had been a trap, the prey had now been removed from the snare. That thought gave me a lot of satisfaction, for I had a good idea as to who the trapper might be.

      

Link

The morning light on her eyelids awakened Servalan. Sitting up, she looked with distaste at her ripped and muddied dress. She was hungry and stiff and cold and in no mood for sweet reason. Someone would have to pay.

      Holding firmly on to her gun, she looked down into the valley.

      Everything seemed peaceful. In the grey light she could see the cruiser lying amid the trees exactly as it had lain the night before. The hatch was still open, and Tarrant was still slumped in it, as if he had gone to sleep there, or...

      Suddenly making up her mind, she started down the slope.

      There was no sound in the valley except for the low moan of the wind and her own crashing progress through the vegetation. The air was very cold, oddly so in this relatively sheltered valley.

      Far away, a few birds dotted the sky, but there were none here. The insects that had troubled her the evening before were gone too.

      The small hairs on the back of her neck began to bristle and she clutched her gun more tightly in suddenly sweaty hands. There was something wrong with this place, wrong about the silence and stillness, wrong about the vegetation.

      She didn't puzzle it out until, in a small clearing, she came across an expanse of fallen yellow petals. A few metres away, two small saplings lay flat, cracked off at the base. Now she realised that all the leaves on the trees were beginning to brown at the edges, like paper at the edge of a fire. When she pulled at a branch hanging near her head, it broke away in her hand. The grass beneath her feet was yellowed and its flattened blades did not rise when she lifted her foot.

      Unnatural. Or perhaps far too natural.

      She considered going back, but did not really have a choice. Her only hope of leaving Terminal lay with that wrecked cruiser.

      She moved on.

      Her foot knocked a dead bird and she jumped back. Fastidiously, she pushed it with the barrel of her gun. Its curved bill and huge eyes indicated a night hunter, and every bone in its body was broken. As if it had plummeted from a great height?

      Very cautiously, Servalan advanced.

      There was a stream in the valley bottom. An animal, a water-dweller from its webbed feet, lay glassy-eyed and limp, caught in an eddy near the bank. Servalan looked hard at it, but left it where it floated as she pulled up her skirt and waded through the icy water. Normally, she would have sought some other way to cross but a mixture of apprehension and curiosity made her ignore the physical discomfort.

      She was quite close to the ship when she saw her first link, a huddle of black fur, as dead as everything else.

      As she strolled up to the ship, she knew she had nothing to fear from the man slumped in the hatchway, though it was possible that those inside had been protected from the blue light - and whatever it signified. The fire was dead but there was unburned wood in the ashes. Tarrant was dead too. Servalan touched his throat to make sure, and found the skin icy. She pushed him to one side with her gun and stepped up into the hatch, only to pause in surprise on the rim; the interior of the ship was totally dark. The power lines had been severed in the crash but the emergency permalights should have been in operation, independent of the main or emergency power sources and guaranteed to keep glowing for five centuries. Though these had been installed less than a year ago, now they were dark, without even a glow-worm flicker.

      Servalan unhooked the pocket-light from the side of the paragun she had taken from the Terminal base. That, at least, was working.

      A woman lay on the floor outside the first cabin. Cally. As dead and cold as Tarrant had been. Servalan smiled.

      Inside the room, there was a body on the bed. Servalan turned the light on its face.

      Avon.

      So now she had nothing to fear from him. As she looked at his bloodless face she felt a slight pang of regret, remembering the taste of his mouth on hers. He had really been a most attractive man. A pity that they had had no chance to take things further. She would have enjoyed him... and then enjoyed destroying him.

      Well, that was impossible now.

      It did not take her long to find Dayna and Vila. The latter had not even made it to his bed.

      Triumph filled her. They were dead now. Blake's people. These troublemakers who had caused her so many problems. They were dead and she was alive.

      Her laughter was euphoric.

      The next place that she explored was the flight deck and the first thing she noticed as she came through the door was the absence of light. All the instruments were dead. All of them. Every permanent source of energy was gone.

      Thoughtfully, she retraced her steps into the daylight, a numbness inside her. The cruiser was useless. Even if she could still have called on the expertise of Liberator's crew, they could have done nothing in the face of such a complete power shutdown. What had struck here in the night had drained away every erg of energy above molecular level. It had also struck the area of the Terminal base. She had nothing now but what she held in her hands.

      There was a snarl from behind her. She whirled, into the hurtling body of a link as it came leaping for her throat. Even as she tried desperately to raise her gun, the creature struck.

      Servalan screamed and went on screaming. Finally, the noise died to a whimper and then it ceased. After that there was no sound except the satisfied grunting of the links and the crunch of teeth on bone.

      

      

Tarrant drifted slowly towards consciousness. For a while he lay still, not bothering to open his eyes, savouring the comfort of his bunk on board the Liberator.

      Wait... no, Liberator was lost. Terminal... they had been stranded on Terminal. He had been... standing watch... then there had been a strange light, blue and silver... and other things it hurt even to remember... and pain. He had never felt such pain. It had been as if his mind and body were being ground down to their component atoms.

      Well, he wasn't in pain now. Neither was he on the deck of the wrecked cruiser or on the ground outside. He was quite definitely in a comfortable bed.

      Cautiously, he opened his eyes a slit, then closed them again quickly as someone he didn't know moved into his field of vision. The one glimpse, though, had revealed what appeared to be a medical centre.

      A firm voice asked. "How long before he regains consciousness?"

      "It depends." This voice was also male but lighter, with a singsong note. "As you know the effect of transfer shock varies with the individual. Generally, the younger and stronger the person, the quicker the recovery. This one could wake at any time. The Negro girl, Dayna Mellanby, woke a few hours ago. She's sleeping again, under sedation. The other three will take longer. The unknown factor is that any extra repair needed during re-creation also slows recovery from transfer shock."

      "None of them are in any danger, though?"

      "No. Don't sound so worried, Ricel. After all, they aren't personal friends of yours."

      "No, but if anything untoward happens to Avon, the Director will have my hide nailed to the wall of her office. I insisted on a major Scoop operation to bring the man here, and at the risk of giving away our existence to the Terran Federation at that."

      "Is he worth it?"

      "Yes, Chan. He's worth it. He can't have spent three years on board Liberator without learning the way it functions - and the man is a genius in his own right. I need him on the Yard Barrier project. If he lives, that is."

      "He will, though it may be a day or so before he wakes up. What about the others?"

      "I suspect that we'll leave that up to Avon. They probably aren't much use to us, but he may not co-operate without them. Certainly, they know far too much to let the Guild or the Cloud Worlds have them. The Mellanby girl is reputed to be a weapons technician. We may be able to put her under contract. I'll speak to the Director about it."

      "Hmmm. Seems like a big operation for one, or perhaps two, technicians."

      "Avon would be worth it even without his knowledge of Liberator technology."

      "If you say so. What about the humanoid creatures we picked up?"

      "As soon as they're fully recovered from transfer shock we'll let Bio have them."

      "Good. I'll be thankful to see them go. Bio may be fascinated by all that unprovoked aggression, but my staff are not..."

      The voices faded as their owners moved on. Tarrant relaxed a little and thought about what he had heard.

      They were no longer on Terminal, then, and safe, but prisoners, and the idea that his fate might rest in Avon's hands was too galling to contemplate. They were going to have to escape as soon as possible.

      He opened his eyes fully and looked about him. Yes. This was some kind of medical centre.

      An alien moved into view. It was tall and a light, greeny-blue colour, with a cream crest and golden eyes. Realising that Tarrant was conscious, it came closer.

      "It is all right," the creature said, in a voice meant to be reassuring, but which grated on Tarrant's nerves. "You are safe now, at Scitech Central in the Hoop Worlds. I know that this information means nothing to you at present, but be assured that my masters mean you no harm. Now you must rest quietly."

      Tarrant started to sit up, but fell back, his head whirling. Perhaps an escape attempt would have to wait. He tried a charming smile for the alien's benefit. "Perhaps you could explain..."

      "What is it that you wish me to explain, sir?"

      Tarrant opened his mouth, but for a moment, nothing came out. "Everything," he finally managed.

      "You will have to be more specific, sir."

      "Where am I?"

      "I have already answered that question. You are in a medical centre on the planet called Scitech Cen-"

      "Okay. Okay." It was with an effort that Tarrant stopped himself from grinding his teeth. "Where are my friends?"

      "In this building, sir. The-"

      "That's enough, Weeril." The voice was the lighter, singsong one of his overheard conversation. "Go and attend to the patient in room ninety-four."

      "Yes, sir." The alien left at once.

      The human came forward. He was small, slight and yellow-skinned, but his eyes, startlingly, were hazel and his hair was chestnut-brown. "I am Dr Chan. You must rest now, Captain Tarrant." He touched a control by the bed, and that was all Tarrant knew for a long time as he was swept under by dreamless sleep.

      

      

d regarded the man sitting opposite her with a certain wariness. She had been told that his name was Vanor Ricel and that he was responsible for her being here, wherever 'here' was.

      He did not look in any way extraordinary. He was in his thirties, she estimated. Tall, broad and powerful, with thick, dark hair curling about a square, determined face, and a short beard as thick and curly as his hair. He looked like a man it would be better not to cross, but his brown eyes held a surprising warmth as they met hers and held them almost hypnotically.

      He said, "Welcome to Scitech, Dayna. My name is Vanor Ricel. Please call me Van."

      "I'm more interested in knowing what exactly Scitech is than in pleasantries," Dayna replied stiffly.

      Ricel smiled. "Good. That sounds like the reaction of someone I can use. I hear that you're a weapons technician. How good are you?"

      "Good enough. What about my friends? I've been awake two days now and all that anyone will tell me is that they're 'all right'."

      "They are all right."

      "Convince me."

      "Easily done. Watch that screen." Ricel waved a hand at the wall. He touched a control panel on the arm of his chair and the wall suddenly seemed to dissolve. She could see Tarrant, hanging onto the arm of a pretty young woman wearing a medic's tunic, as one of the already familiar blue-green skinned aliens supported him on the other. The view changed, and now it was Cally, sitting up in bed, then Vila, asleep, and Avon, the same.

      "You see," said Ricel, as the wall went blank again. "They're fine - or they will be. You are the youngest, so you recovered more quickly from transfer shock, though Tarrant is not far behind you. Avon and Vila... Restal have yet to regain consciousness, but I can assure you that they will do so soon."

      "I suppose I ought to thank you," Dayna said, grudgingly. "For getting us away from Terminal, I mean."

      "Did you?" Ricel smiled again. Dayna found herself, reluctantly, liking him. "We knew you were in a Federation trap, but no other details. Tell me about... Terminal, Dayna."

      "Tell me about this place first."

      "Very well. You are on a planet called Scitech Central, in the Hoop."

      "I've never heard of it."

      "No-one in the Federation has. You are far beyond the Known Worlds, Dayna, further than you imagine. You were brought here because we need your help. All your help, but Avon's help in particular. I'm an engineer working on a project that needs his skills. I hope he will agree to help me. Would you rather have stayed on Terminal?"

      "Far from it," Dayna replied, with a little shudder.

      "So tell me about it."

      Dayna could see no reason not to do so. She could not know if Ricel was being frank with her, but she impulsively decided she would be frank with him. She felt a need to talk, to put her feelings about what had happened to her in the past year into words and not since the death of her father had she felt such easy sympathy from anyone, even Cally. She was quietly, instinctively, sure that Ricel would understand everything she told him. "You know about us? About the Liberator? About Blake?"

      "As much as we could glean from Federation broadcasts."

      Dayna laughed. "They'd hardly tell you the truth... All right then. It started with Avon. Avon's... difficult. You're never quite sure what he's going to do, but this time he surpassed himself. He practically threw us all off the flight deck..."

      

      

"...and the next thing I remember is waking up here at Scitech Central, as you call it. Wherever that is."

      Ricel was silent for a while, his face impassive, yet Dayna was oddly certain that something about her story had moved him.

      As the silence became overlong, she decided to break it. "What is it?"

      Ricel jumped slightly. "What is what?"

      "What is Scitech Central? You're just giving me names, not information."

      "I'll show you something," Ricel said briskly, getting to his feet and offering Dayna his hand. She was rather flattered and also glad of his support as he guided her through the door, along a short hallway, and out into the open air.

      It was early evening, when artificial lighting has little effect on fading daylight and bright moonlight. Dayna could see little except the low boxes of the surrounding buildings, with their haphazard window-studs of light.

      Van was looking up at the sky. Dayna looked too. Despite herself, she gasped and clung more tightly his arm.

      The sky was dark, unclouded, and it was full of worlds, some tiny pinpoints, others huge and close; white and green and red and grey and blue against the navy sky, like spherical lamps hung from its arching dome.

      "Oh," said Dayna, in a very small voice.

      "We call it the Hoop," Ricel said, matter-of-factly. "It's artificial: a vast ring of small worlds orbiting a yellow dwarf slightly smaller than Sol. None of the worlds are bigger than Titan. Many are as small as Phobos, but they all have very regular, stable orbits, as if they had no influence on each other. They will never collide. A majority have a gravity of nine point four Earth normal and biospheres compatible with human life, though some have stranger atmospheres and gravities."

      "That's incredible."

      "Yes, it is. And it's only part of the story. Whoever built the Hoop left its installations intact when they abandoned it, hundreds of years ago. Those installations are still working. One of them is a kind of transmission device. We call it the Scoop. It creates a bridge through a dimension where only energy can exist and space, as we know it, does not. That... bridge... carries a scanning beam which makes a complete pattern, down to quark level, of whatever is being scooped and also captures its energy field. Both are brought here, and the matter is re-created from the scan-pattern and the energy field installed within it. When the Builders left, they also left a subject race, the wi'h, who experimented with the Scoop. Years ago, they brought the first human spacecraft here."

      "Where is 'here'? In relation to the Federation, that is?"

      "Look there, Dayna, thirty degrees above the horizon. To the right of the blue-green world. What do you see?"

      "I'm... not sure..." Dayna admitted. "It's not a nebula... too hazy to be a multiple star-system... besides, it's too big..."

      "Bigger than you think. That's the Milky Way Galaxy, Dayna. We're looking at it from the Greater Magellanic Cloud."

      Dayna felt a rush of total panic. "You expect me to believe that?"

      "Not expect. But facts are facts and, in time, you will have to believe."

      "I don't want to hear any more of this!" Dayna cried, pulling herself away from his supporting hand.

      "I'm sorry that you feel that way, Dayna. I had hoped that we could be friends. A contract with us would offer you opportunities you've never even dreamed existed. We need you here. We think that you need us. After all, what would have happened to you if we had left you on Terminal? You said yourself that there was no way for you to get off that planet."

      "Avon would have found a way!" Dayna shouted.

      "He can't work miracles."

      "You don't know Avon!" Dayna whirled on her heel and stalked back into the building, leaving Ricel standing, looking after her, with a very odd smile on his face.

      "Maybe I don't, at that," he murmured, "but I'm learning..."

      

      

Dayna sat down gingerly an "I wish to see my friends," Cally repeated.

      Dr Chan shook his head. "No. You are still too weak."

      "Can I bring you anything, Mistress?" the white-crested alien asked in its high voice as it cleared away the remains of the meal it had brought earlier.

      "Do not call me 'Mistress'."

      "As you command, Lady."

      Cally noticed Chan's smothered grin and gave up. "I have all that I need, thank you, except my friends."

      "That will be all," Chan said sharply to the alien.

      It left silently. Cally wondered why, though the aliens did all the menial jobs and many of the skilled ones she had seen so far, they were never left alone with her. Another puzzle in this most puzzling place.

      "You still need rest," Chan told her. "Try to sleep."

      "Thank you. I will try." Later, Cally added to herself, as Chan disappeared through the door.

      As soon as she was sure that he had gone, Cally got up and padded after him. The door was locked. Cally glared at it in frustration. If only Vila...

      Ah.

      //Vila.// She reached out into nothingness, calling. If only Vila was in range. //Vila, I am locked in. Can you get me out?//

      Naturally, there was no reply.

      Cally sat down on the edge of the bed and waited.

      It was over an hour later that the door slid open.

      "Ah, there you are," said Vila, standing aside as Cally hurried past him and into the corridor beyond. "I must say that you look better in the standard outfit than I do, but then, you would."

      Cally seemed puzzled for a moment, then glanced down at herself. She was wearing a loose, light green tunic that fell to mid-thigh, and nothing else. So was Vila. Dismissing the comment as unimportant, she said, "What took you so long?"

      "Long? I wasn't even sure I could get out of bed. I've been ill, you know. Then those blue alien thingies kept flitting in and out, sneaking about the place... enough to give anyone the creeps... but I thought you might be in trouble, so... here I am."

      Cally examined his face carefully. He was certainly very pale. "Do you want to go back to your room?"

      "I think I prefer you to the aliens. Let's go find the others."

      Cally looked up and down the corridor. She had seen a lot of corridors in her short but eventful career and they didn't differ very much from one another. This one was longer than some she had been in, and it had a rather large number of doors.

      "Which room were you in?" she asked.

      "That one," said Vila, pointing to a door two rooms up from Cally's. "That one next to yours is empty. The one opposite is unlocked, so I didn't bother with it."

      "Let's try the next one."

      "That's unlocked too."

      "The one over there, then."

      Vila examined it. "Locked," he said, with satisfaction, and set to work. "Hope it's Dayna in there. With my luck it'll be Avon or Tarrant. Ah..." The door slid open.

      Cally peered round the edge, then disappeared inside with a glad cry. Vila followed her.

      Avon lay in the bed, propped up by pillows. As she reached him, Cally bent down and hugged him, much to his, and Vila's, surprise. "Are you all right?" she demanded, as she let him go.

      "I'm better than Chan tells me I am... you've met Chan?... but I wouldn't want to attempt a fifty kilometre hike."

      Vila closed the door and crossed to the bed. He peered hard at Avon. "You don't look like you could hike to the door," he said bluntly. "In fact... I don't think I could, either." He sat down hurriedly.

      Cally was instantly concerned. "I'm sorry, Vila. I shouldn't have made you get out of bed."

      "I don't like being locked up. Avon, did you know that we were locked up?"

      "No, but it does not surprise me. The locks do not appear to be particularly effective. If this is a Federation base, it is plainly not an efficient one."

      "Humph. Myself, I don't think even an inefficient Federation base would try and keep me in with the locks on these doors," Vila contributed. "Besides, they haven't brought out the thumbscrews. What's a Federation base without a torture machine or three?"

      Avon ignored the babble. "What about Tarrant and Dayna?" he asked Cally.

      "All I have been told is that they are well. I have not seen them."

      "Were... were they with us when we were captured?" The uncharacteristic hesitation in Avon's voice made Cally look at him anxiously. "I remember leaving the base on Terminal," he went on, in response to the look, "and finding the wrecked cruiser, but after that it's blank."

      "I'm not surprised," said Vila. "You were asleep on your feet."

      "I am glad that you do not remember the pain," said Cally.

      Avon's expression grew grim. "Unfortunately, I remember that rather well."

      Cally reached out to touch his hand, then thought better of it. "There is not much to tell. We were on board the wrecked cruiser. You were asleep. There was a strange light, blue and silver, coming from everywhere and nowhere. I was paralysed by it. Then there was nothing but pain and I blacked out. When I woke I was here, in a room like this one, and no-one would tell me anything except that you were alive."

      There was silence for a time, then Avon said, "Yes, we are alive. Unless Tarrant has offended our hosts too drastically, I think we can assume that he and Dayna are also alive. If they are in the same condition as we are it is useless to plan a physical escape at this point, but we cannot assume that we are safe. Our first step must be to acquire knowledge, where we are, why we are here, and what these people want of us."

      "Good," said Vila. "I'm all for a bit of peace and quiet. It's been a long while since we had any."

      "You're willing to take my advice?"

      Vila and Cally exchanged startled glances. Cally decided to challenge the astonishing question. "Why this sudden attack of diffidence, Avon?" she demanded. "What are you trying to make us do?" Instantly, she knew that she was wrong. The hurt on Avon's face was quickly covered, but it was real all the same.

      His voice was icy as he explained. "I made a bad mistake, taking Liberator through that cloud. It cost us the ship."

      "It cost Servalan the ship," Cally corrected. "Would you rather have her alive and free and in control of Liberator?"

      "That would not have happened. Vila would have taken the ship out of the system on my order."

      "Like hell I would!" Vila snapped. Then, "I mean... oh, damn it, Avon, why didn't you tell us you were going after Blake?"

      Avon did not answer.

      Cally was smiling. "Well, then we would certainly not have left Terminal. That was the reason, wasn't it, Avon? You knew that Vila and I would never leave without Blake..." She stopped, and her voice was gentle as she added, "You can work out for yourself why we would never have left, knowing the little that we did know."

      Avon closed his eyes for a moment. "Irrational. You either trust my judgement or you do not."

      "Whether we trust your judgement depends on what you are trying to accomplish."

      "That is not trust." Avon sighed heavily, then his eyes snapped open. "Very well. What I am trying to accomplish is to save our lives and gain our freedom. I suppose you approve of that?"

      "You know that we do."

      "Then go back to your rooms and, if you are well enough, start collecting information."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

"I suppose we should have anticipated this," I commented, watching the little tableau on the screen. "We had Restal's criminal record to warn us."

      "But those locks are supposed to be tamperproof!" Chev Manster was enraged, but as this was quite often the case I took no notice. Scitech's Chief of Security was a fiery little man with more than a touch of paranoia. "Restal broke into that room in twenty seconds flat!" He glared at me as if it was my fault. I refrained from remarking that Vila must be out of practice. Manster has never liked me. I doubt if he liked his mother.

      "It's hardly important," I said, trying to soothe him. Everyone who came into contact with Chev Manster spent a lot of time soothing him. "What is important is that Restal and Cally, at least, seem prepared to follow Avon's lead. So after we recruit Avon we should have no further trouble from them. It also shows that we will have to treat them well if we are to ensure his co-operation."

      Manster growled, then scowled at me from under lowered eyebrows. "None of this gels with his reputation," he pointed out.

      "No, it doesn't, does it?" I agreed, still watching the screen. Part of me was deeply ashamed of spying on people who had been my close friends, but there was another that could not bear to look away.

      "Will you tackle Avon's recruitment yourself?"

      I tried to be casual about answering that question, but my heart was suddenly pounding. "Oh, I think that that's the Director's job. Avon warrants the Red Carpet treatment."

      When was I going to get the opportunity to speak to Avon in complete privacy? Here at Scitech Central there was always a chance of being overheard... and I was beginning to wonder if I ought to speak to him at all. I had already interfered far too much in his life already. How was he going to react to this further interference? I had sworn to leave him alone to find his own destiny. He did not know of that oath, or that I had already broken it, but I did - and I was not sure that I could face him with that knowledge.

      A terrible screech, too high pitched to be human, shattered my train of thought. For a couple of seconds I looked about wildly then, realising that it had come from the speaker, I turned my attention to the screen.

      Avon and Vila were also looking startled and Cally was already halfway to the door.

      A touch of the control buttons took me outside the door before her, into the corridor where a group of wi'h cowered before the onslaught of half a dozen of the hairy humanoids - links, Dayna had called them - that had come with the Terminal package. Two of the wi'h lay on the floor, seeping their pale pink blood. The other, a female, had had her head literally ripped from her shoulders.

      The door slid open and Cally came through it.

      Manster hit the intercom. "Guards! Medical Centre. Corridor four. Humanoids attacking humans."

      As he started to lift his hand from the control I brought mine down on top of it. "Kill the humanoids!" I ordered. "They've killed wi'h and will kill humans. Kill them."

      "Bio won't like that," Manster commented, taking my hand in his other hand and removing it.

      "Damn Bio."

      "I'm not sure that I like it, either." Manster's voice held a barely controlled fury. "I'm not at all sure that I like you giving my men orders, Ricel."

      I did not take my eyes from the screen. "Later. This is more important."

* * * * * * * * * * *

      Cally paused in the door for an instant, weighing up the situation, aware, by some instinct, that Vila was just behind her.

      The links did not see her. They had pulled another of the crested aliens from the little huddle and were casually pulling it to pieces. It was screaming, a high-pitched shriek that hammered at Cally's ears.

      She leaped forward, her hand striking down at the nearest link's neck. Vila, seizing the opportunity, kicked another up the backside so hard that it sprawled straight into the wall.

      The links turned to face the new threat, hurling themselves straight at Cally and Vila. Cally shoved her companion to one side and shifted her balance, catching a leaping link in mid-air and using its own momentum to hurl it onwards. It hit the floor hard, wailing as it rolled and skidded along the polished surface.

      The blue-green aliens had not moved.

      "Go!" Cally shouted at them. "Leave us!"

      Vila yelped a warning as he danced around an enraged link. The beast caught him by the arm but Vila fought back furiously, lashing out with fists, elbows, feet and knees just as wildly and desperately as the beast itself. Then Cally came in with a hard punch to what would have been a nerve centre if the link had still been human. This tactic proved effective and the link went down.

      "Vila... get the injured... alien..." she panted, turning a neat pirouette to kick another link in the genital area.

      Vila was only too glad to get out of the action. He dropped down beside the injured alien and gripped it under the armpits, pulling it towards the door. Then a link got past Cally's defence and she went down under its weight.

      "Cally!"

      Vila dropped the alien and leaped to her aid, kicking repeatedly at the link's head.

      Avon's voice said, loudly, from behind them, "Get back in here. Now!"

      Cally rolled free of the unconscious link. She and Vila picked up the wounded alien between them and scurried back into Avon's room. The remaining links charged after them as the last of the living aliens disappeared from view.

      Avon stepped past them as they plunged through the door, shaking out the glittering thermal blanket he had stripped from his bed. It billowed out in the breeze that seemed to be coming through the door.

      The strangeness of the colour and movement startled the links, as it would have done any wild animal, and they retreated, gibbering. Avon tossed the blanket at them. Without waiting to see what effect this had, he jumped backwards through the open door.

      The movement made his head spin, his own voice was distant in the encroaching greyness. "Vila... close... lock... door."

      "It's done." Vila's voice was close and Avon felt an arm supporting him. "Thanks, Avon. Are you all right?"

      "Yes. Of course I'm all right." He managed to get a snap into his voice as his vision began to clear but Vila didn't let him go until he straightened and pulled himself free.

      "Good," said Vila, "because I'm not. I don't like getting into fights, Avon, especially not with hairy monsters. What the hell were they?"

      "Links. From Terminal." It was Cally who spoke from where she was kneeling on the floor, trying to stem the blood pumping from the side of the wounded alien. "Get me something to use as a compress, Vila."

      "Pillow. From the bed," said Avon.

      "Why me?" Vila complained, but he was already on the move. As he crossed to the bed, he noticed that the brisk breeze was coming from the air conditioning. The local controls had been stripped and bore evidence of hasty tampering. Vila grinned. Trust Avon to leave nothing to chance.

      There was a heavy thump at the door, as if a body had crashed against it. Then another. The metal door was beginning to bulge inwards, straining against the frame. Vila thrust the pillow at Cally, snatched up the nearest heavy object - a table lamp with a cylindrical stone base - and hurried to join Avon beside the door.

      The door shook with another thump, then another, and there was a whining electronic noise in the background.

      Avon held out his hand. "Give me that."

      "No, thanks. Get your own weapon." Vila clutched the heavy lamp even tighter.

      The door burst inwards. Vila, with a coolness he was later to find inexplicable, stepped in front of Avon and brought the lamp down with all his strength on the head of the onrushing link. There was a dull crack, followed by a squelching noise as the skull caved in.

      Ignoring the whining noises and the thuds from outside, Vila raised his bloodstained weapon again. Movement in the door made him lash out, but this time his wrist was intercepted by Avon and the lamp wrested from his fingers.

      Vila started a howl of protest, then realised that what he had been about to hit was not a link at all but a man in a grey uniform, carrying a gun in his hand.

      "You people all right?" he asked.

      "No thanks to you?" Avon snarled. "What the hell is happening in this place?"

      "I don't know, sir," the man in uniform said stiffly. "I don't know how those beasts could have escaped."

      "Well, you'd better fin-"

      "Wait, Avon," Cally interrupted. "This one is dying. She needs a medic. Quickly,"

      The guard glanced towards them. "Oh, that. It's only a wi'h. Don't worry about it."

      Cally's eyes blazed at him. "She is a living, intelligent creature and she is in pain. Get a medic or be judged less human than this being you despise."

      The man retreated out into the corridor, as if Cally's stare had physically repelled him.

      "Careful, Cally," Avon warned. "Our lives may depend on not antagonising our hosts."

      Cally ignored him. The wi'h was whimpering as she lay in Cally's arms, and she guessed that there was little that she could do to help... little than anyone could do. Avon watched impassively. Vila looked down at the dead link and the growing pool of blood and pulverised brain, then at the dying wi'h, and closed his eyes, gulping frantically to stop himself from being sick.

      "What are you doing?" The voice was Chan's. Vila opened his eyes to see the medic framed in the doorway. He bustled into the room and went straight to Avon. "You shouldn't be on your feet. You were particularly badly affected by the transfer shock..."

      "I am perfectly well. It is the alien who needs your attention."

      Chan glanced down with an expression of disgust. "I don't work with wi'h. Besides-" He stopped with his hand on Avon's arm as the look in the glacial brown eyes froze him where he stood.

      "I told you that I am perfectly well."

      "What sort of medic are you?" Cally cried. "How can you let any creature suffer so? Are you a man or a robot?"

      "Go and help it." Avon's voice was quiet but commanding. Then he added, "I am certainly not going to do anything you say until you do."

      Chan hesitated, then snapped, "If you don't lie down, man, you'll fall down. If I help that... creature... will you go back to bed?"

      "Perhaps."

      Chan glared at him then, recognising the implacability of Avon's expression, went to look at the wi'h. Seconds later, he was calling for assistance and equipment.

      As the stretcher arrived, Cally rejoined Avon and Vila. "I think that they will be too late, but thank you, Avon."

      "The alien is not important, but I cannot have you restrained for assault."

      "I would not have hurt Chan, Avon. That would not have helped. He was right about you, though. Come and sit down. You look exhausted, and so do you, Vila."

      "I just feel sick," Vila complained.

      "Come on." Cally tugged gently at Avon's arm and he let her lead him over to the bed. His legs felt as if they weren't there at all. It took tremendous effort to lift his feet onto the bed. Cally sat down beside him and he leaned against her. He decided that she was more comfortable than a pillow and was grateful. He felt the slight movement of the bed as Vila sat down beside them, and he was grateful for that, too. If only he wasn't so tired...

      Chan came back into the room, accompanied by a small, slim, brown-skinned, fair-haired man in the same grey uniform that the guard had worn, but with rather more insignia. Chan said, "This is Security Chief Manster."

      Almost-colourless eyes surveyed them. "I apologise for this occurrence. Someone... let those... creatures escape."

      "Pumped them full of stimulants to wake them up, too," Chan added.

      Manster gave him a look of total contempt. Plainly, he did not like being interrupted. "It still isn't clear what he meant to accomplish. Van Ricel thinks that the attack was aimed at you. I'm not sure that I agree. You would have been safe if you had stayed in your rooms. Be kind enough to do so in the future."

      "I think that you would be more comfortable if you went back to your rooms," Chan agreed, looking disapprovingly at the trio on the bed. "And you, young lady, could do with a change of clothing." Cally looked down at herself, noticing for the first time the cerise stains of blood that covered the front of her tunic. Her hands were deep pink too. Avon, though, did not seem to mind, and had gone to sleep, his head resting against the bloodstained tunic stretched across her thighs. He looked drained, much younger than he was, and very vulnerable. Cally felt an aching tenderness for him.

      Chan's voice was more gentle as he said, "We'll move Avon to another room close by. You can all see each other as often as you wish... and your other friends, too, though they've already been moved out of the Medical Centre into more comfortable quarters. Come, Cally. Everything will be explained when Avon sees the Scitech Director."

      "When will that be?" Avon asked, without opening his eyes, startling Cally, who had been quite sure that he slept.

      "Soon enough," Manster snapped.

      "Tomorrow, if you are well enough," said Chan.

      "I will be," said Avon.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

"So we now know that someone had tapped into the surveillance devices at the Medical Centres," Manster said. He was making his report to the Scitech Director, and he was on the defensive, which meant he was being very aggressive indeed. "That person must have revived and released the links as soon as he realised that Cally and Restal were out of their rooms and had opened Avon's door."

      "It is clear that we have an enemy agent - probably a Fraternity agent - here at Scitech Central. I expect you to find him or her at once, Security Chief."

      Manster glowered at the Director. She was certainly right, but she was also impugning his efficiency. "We're checking the background of everyone at the Medical Centre, but I might point out, Director, that the only person who knew of the Liberator's crew's presence who was not born here in the Hoop is sitting right across from you."

      "And who was sitting beside you when the links were released," I pointed out, as everyone looked at me.

      "Which proves nothing," said Manster. "You could have had an accomplice."

      "Me, maybe?" Jake enquired, with a disgusted look in Manster's direction. "Give it up, Chev. The Liberator crew wouldn't be here at all if it weren't for Van, so he'd hardly try and get 'em killed. Anyway, he's far too intelligent to do anything in such a hit and miss fashion. Suppose the creatures had taken off in the opposite direction?"

      "Impossible. All the other exits were deliberately blocked."

      "Even so, I suggest that you look elsewhere for your culprit, Manster," said the Director coldly. "Ricel's innocence is quite obvious to everyone but you. This seems to be the work of an outside organisation and the only one that probably has agents inside Scitech Central is the Fraternity. Since the woman Valonia took over, they have become an increasing nuisance. Find the agent. Alive, please."

      Manster's face froze at the rebuke. "We can't be too obvious. There are ten Guild ships in the spaceport now. If the agent has retreated to the Freeport and we go in after him, the Guild will-"

      "Find the agent. I want whoever it was here for interrogation. Yesterday, Manster! Your job was to protect Avon. You failed at that. I do not expect you to fail at this."

      As Manster bowed stiffly, Jake whispered to me. "Ten to one he will. Boy, does that guy hate you, Van."

      I said, "He hates everyone. I think he hates himself," but even as I spoke I knew I could not dismiss his threat so easily. Manster was a dangerous enemy. I hoped his hatred could be diverted in the direction of the Fraternity. If not, I might have to do something about him... and that would be both dangerous and difficult.

      

      

Sirens

Tarrant leaned back on the lounger and stared up at the dark blue sky with its impossible scattering of worlds... Wherever this place was, it was certainly beyond the Known Worlds... beyond Federation influence. Where was he? Well, he had been promised that he would 'soon know'. Later that day, in fact, Avon was apparently scheduled to talk to the Director - whoever he was. Why Avon? It was galling that no-one wanted to talk to him.

      He sat up and looked about him.

      The terrace was bright with early morning sunlight, its gardens and small pink houses almost empty of life. He had been left here alone to rest in the sunshine, though he had protested that he was perfectly well. This little cluster of dwellings was some kind of convalescent home, he fancied, but there were no other temporary tenants. He'd seen a number of wi'h, but they seemed to avoid him unless another human was present.

      I'm alone, Tarrant thought. I can leave whenever I like... but where do I go? I don't even know what planet this is. Yet... maybe I can find out where we are and what is going on here. Yes. If I can yet those facts, I'll already know what's going on when Avon presents his version. That should give me an edge. In fact, if I can get in first...

      It was a pleasing prospect.

      Having made his decision, Tarrant got up off the lounger and took the path through the silvery-pink shrubbery.

      It was as he left the dwellings and found himself crossing a side, golden lawn, when he heard a yell, then pounding footsteps behind him.

      Tarrant took to his heels. Within seconds he was panting, his legs weighed down by fatigue. A grey mist rose before his eyes... then through it he saw trees... dense undergrowth...

      He plunged into it, threading his way through the thick-growing vegetation. Falling to his knees, he burrowed into a clump of bright-red stalks and plate-shaped yellow leaves. The space underneath was full of prickly dead stalks, but it was dry... and concealing. Tarrant lay very still, trying to still his harsh breathing. He felt as if he had run for kilometres, not just for a few metres. He must be much weaker than he had supposed.

      He could hear crashing noises now, and cursing, as whoever was following him started to search the undergrowth. Tarrant remained where he was. He was acutely uncomfortable. Not only were the stalks sticking into him, but they gave off a most disgusting smell. He did not want to remember what they reminded him of.

      It was a long time before the noises went away. Even then, Tarrant waited a long time before he moved; when he did, cramp shot through him. He yelped and fell over, cursing. He spent the next five minutes massaging the cramps out of his legs and thinking that there must be an easier way to find out what was going on.

      Finally, though, he got back to his feet and stamped through the miniature jungle. Seconds later, he found himself a pathway. He followed this through the trees until he came out onto a wider road. He stopped, not knowing which way to go.

      It was then that he saw the spaceship burning its way down through the sky. A spacecraft meant a spaceport. Home.

      Tarrant turned in the direction it had taken.

      He soon grew very hot and very tired, and began to think that he had made a bad mistake. The road stretched on forever over the flat, golden countryside. Also, his feet were sore. His clothes had been returned to him, but he had been wearing soft slippers when he had made his escape. He hoped he would not be too conspicuous among the local population - he would not, if most people wore what the people at the medical centre had been wearing - of course, that was always assuming that he would eventually find a population...

      He was still brooding on this when he saw the tip of a spaceport control tower peeping over the close horizon. He stood in the middle of the roadway and stared at it longingly, no longer sure of his ability to walk that that far.

      A siren wail interrupted his reverie. He whirled, crouching, hand going to his non-existent gun, to find himself face to face with the shuddering nose of a ground car. The driver, a wi'h, stared at him out of wide, golden eyes. The man in the rear passenger seat flung open the door and leaped out to face Tarrant pugnaciously.

      "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he shouted, grabbing a handful of Tarrant's tunic and shaking him.

      Tarrant seized the wrist and pushed it away, though it took all the strength he had. "I'm going to the spaceport," he replied.

      "On foot? What's a Hoopie doing travelling around Scitech Central on foot?" There was disbelief and contempt in the man's voice.

      Tarrant was stuck for an answer, mainly because he hadn't understood a word the man had said. "Maybe I like walking..." was the best he could manage.

      The newcomer laughed harshly. "Have you escaped from a lunatic asylum, Hoopie?" he asked, letting Tarrant go. "Who'd walk when they've got these bloody ground shuttles?" He jerked a thumb at the ground car and the patient wi'h at the controls. "With a personal pilot, yet. Try another, Hoopie."

      "What does it matter to you?" Tarrant challenged.

      "I don't like being stopped when I'm trying to shake the dust of this stinking planet off my feet... and I don't like Hoopies. You got anything to say about that?"

      Tarrant ignored the question. Something else about what the man had said struck him as being much more important. "Shake the..." He also noticed, for the first time, that the man standing in front of him wore black coveralls with a stylistic spaceship emblazoned in gold on the breast. "You're a spacer..."

      The man's grey eyes grew angry. "Even a Hoopie should be able to identify Guild uniform."

      Tarrant tried a charming smile. It had about as much effect on the man in front of him as it usually had on Avon. "I'm sorry. I'm not very good at uniforms. The Guild... you say?"

      The other man was looking at him with a very odd expression. "Now you tell me you don't know about the Guild of Shipcrew...? I'm beginning to think that you are a lunatic." He turned back towards the groundcar.

      "What are you going to do?" Tarrant asked. He felt that he ought to do something... attack the other man and steal the groundcar, perhaps, but the man did not look a pushover and there was always the wi'h. Maybe he ought to take to his heels, but he felt too weak to do that, either.

      "Call the authorities back there and have you picked up. I don't see why a Guildsman should be bothered with you."

      "No... wait..." Tarrant moved forward. "Listen, I can't go back. I'm not one of them. I was a sort of prisoner..."

      "What is a 'sort of' prisoner?"

      Tarrant took a deep breath and plunged in: "I was brought here by some sort of matter transmission device. The people here have all been very solicitous but I've not been allowed to see my crew..."

      "Crew?" The other man regarded him with sudden interest. "Spaceship crew?"

      "Yes."

      "You mean to tell me that Scitech have brought a spaceship through on the Scoop and haven't informed us?"

      "Well, not exactly. My ship - Liberator - was destroyed before we were brought through the Scoop."

      "Liberator? Your ship? You were a ship's captain?"

      Tarrant hesitated for only a split second. "Yes."

      "Then Scitech have no right to keep you here, and they've broken agreements by not informing us. That is... very, very dangerous. I think that you'd better come with me. Get in the groundcar, Captain-?" He raised a questioning eyebrow.

      "Tarrant. Del Tarrant."

      "I'm Geor Ardron, Captain of the Guild Ship, Cloudstalker. I think we're going to be useful to each other, Captain Tarrant, very useful indeed. But first, we need to talk. Get in the groundcar."

      

      

The short, grey-haired woman rose from her seat. "Avon, it's very good to meet you at last. I trust that you're feeling better."

      "Much better, thank you." Avon squeezed the plump hand that was offered him very briefly, noting that the grip was firm, then sat in the indicated chair. "I would feel even better if you would explain how I come to be here."

      "I thought that Chan had explain-"

      "That I had been brought to the Greater Magellanic Cloud by some sort of long-range E-space transmission device, yes, but he was not very clear on its function."

      "I'm not surprised. He's a medic, not a physicist. There are others who will give you the technical details - not that we understand everything about it, even now. The aliens who constructed the Hoop - we call them the Builders for obvious reasons - were thousands of years in advance of man."

      "Yes, I thought that this system must be a construct. It is most impressive. These... Builders... are gone, then?"

      "Yes, long ago. Only their slaves, the wi'h, remain. It was they who brought the first humans through the Scoop. They can operate and repair most of the Builders' technology, but they seem to know very little of the principles behind it."

      "All that may explain the physical means by which I came here and what 'here' actually is, but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Firstly: how did you know where and when to aim your 'Scoop'? Plainly, chance was not involved."

      "No, it was not. For their own unfathomable reasons, the Builders constructed a listening device in that section of the Milky Way Galaxy occupied by mankind. It picks up transmissions: human, alien, robotic... even those made between two points on the same planet... and it transmits them through E-space to the computers here."

      Avon laughed harshly. "For that you would need a device the size of a star."

      "It could be that big. We simply do not know. It took our ancestors some time to understand what it was doing and to get the computers to sort out the human language signals for our use."

      "I would," Avon said carefully, "very much like to see these computers."

      "We want you to see them. We can operate them, of course, but their engineering has baffled our scientists. Anyway, one of our project engineers, Vanor Ricel, had an interest in you and your ship. He had the computers set to sort out and relay to him any transmitted information concerning you, your crew, or the Liberator. That information included the messages between you and Servalan, though we did not know then that she was involved, only that Blake could not be."

      Avon's expression was closed. "Blake could not be?"

      "Over a standard year ago there was a coded transmission sent between two Federation bases on the planet Jevron. It reported that Blake was dead."

      Something was finally extinguished in Avon at that moment, though his face remained impassive. "So you knew that I'd walked into a trap?"

      "Yes. And that you, one of the people in the Milky Way Galaxy that we wanted most to scoop, were suddenly available. As the co-ordinates were so far out of Federation space we were willing to take the risk."

      "So there's a risk?"

      "We do not want to attract the attention of the Federation. At present, they do not have the means to reach us, but we do not want them to look in this direction once they have perfected their intergalactic ships."

      "The war with the Andromedans has stopped research in that direction."

      "Temporarily. Here, Avon, we think in decades and centuries. We have been here a long time."

      "How long?"

      "Five centuries." The Director settled back in her chair. Plainly, she was about to embark on a prepared speech. "When the wi'h operated the Scoop to bring the first ships here, there was a... difference of opinion... among the crew and passengers. The scientists and technologists wanted to stay here in the Hoop to learn the Builders' secrets. They founded the Association of Scientists and Technologists - Scitech - I am its Director, and this is our headquarters, Scitech Central. It was the Builders' technical centre - they didn't have a headquarters or capital in our sense of the words. Scitech now supplies all the technology for the human-occupied worlds in the Cloud. Some of it is Builders' technology, of course, and some is gained via the people we scoop and from the listening device but a lot of it comes from our own research..."

      

      

Ardron said: "This planet is Scitech Central. It's the capital of the Hoop Worlds, which are controlled by Scitech. It was colonised by people who were more interested in scavenging the technology of the Builders - the aliens who constructed the Hoop system and the matter transmitter that brought you here - than in exploring and colonising the Cloud. What they found out about the Builders they've kept strictly to themselves, just letting us have crumbs of it at a vastly inflated price: our co-operation for transport of food and raw materials from the Cloud Worlds."

      "So there are other settled worlds in the Cloud?"

      "Yes. Thirty-three of them. Anyway, when Scitech scoop anything, they get first chance at recruiting any technicians, but they can't use the spaceships and any spacecrew they bring through would not take kindly to being confined to this single system, big though it is... just like the men and women who founded the Guild. They saw the sterility of remaining in the Hoop and moved outwards. And we're still the explorers, the out-reachers, the only people with any real guts and curiosity in the Cloud. We're also still the only people with interstellar travel, and neither the Hoop nor the Cloud Worlds could exist without us to carry trade goods and information..."

      

      

"Our main problem is the Guild. They were formed from the crews of the ships brought here by the Scoop. Once they realised that they would have to take second place to the technicians here in the Hoop they moved on, thinking they would find something better. Most of the non-technicians who came through the Scoop went with them, but they'd had enough of the Guild by the time they reached the habitable worlds. They colonised them while the Guild ships carried on with their plundering.

      "Soon, though, the Guild realised that it needed us if it was going to keep its ships spaceworthy, but they were terrified of us breaking their monopoly on interstellar travel. They insisted that all the ships and shipcrew brought through the Scoop be handed over to them. We comply because, though the Hoop itself has automatic defences which make its capture or destruction impossible, we are reliant on the Cloud Worlds for raw materials and food. All those supplies are carried on Guild ships and, even if we managed to build or retain a few ships for ourselves, the Guild has enough firepower to lay siege to the Hoop and starve us into surrender."

      "What about bringing supplies through the Scoop?" Avon suggested.

      "The power build-up for a single scoop takes up to twenty days and the mass we can bring through is limited. It would prolong the time we could hold out, but no more than that."

      "Didn't the Builders have ships?"

      "Yes, but they left only short range shuttles behind. Those can't operate over interstellar distances. They also left... but I'll let Vanor Ricel tell you about that. There is a chance of building our own fleet but to get at the equipment we have to pass a very sophisticated force barrier. Ricel thinks you can help him do it."

      "Who is this Vanor Ricel?"

      "Perhaps our best engineer. I also want you to talk to him because he comes from the Cloud Worlds. He's an outsider here, like yourself, if not from so far afield, and he has found just how lucrative a contract with Scitech can be. We don't limit advancement to those born in the Hoop, Avon. We work by results. Ricel comes from a farming family on a world called Creolm, but one of our technicians on contract there recognised his potential and gave him basic technical training. Strictly illegal, of course, but it paid off. After the technician died, Ricel made his way to us. He's given us a completely new understanding of force field technology. You'll be working with him, if you agree.

      "As for the rewards... we will pay a commensurate price for your skills. Your own world, perhaps. There are ten thousand of them in the Hoop, most of them uninhabited. Every luxury the Cloud can provide and a seat on the governing board, if you are interested in power."

      "Who isn't?" said Avon. "What about the others?"

      "The woman Dayna Mellanby is reputed to be a weapons technician..."

      "A brilliant one."

      "Then we will offer her a contract. The others... Scitech has no need of them but, of course, they know too much to be allowed to leave the Hoop. We could kill them; we could imprison them... or you can take them under your personal protection. You may prefer human servants to the wi'h."

      

      

"So you and your crew should have been passed to the Guild by right," said Ardron, "and, normally, you would have been. What's so special about you, Captain Tarrant?"

      "From what I've overheard, it's Avon they want. He's... one of my crew... an electronics and computer genius. He could virtually reconstruct the galaxy's most advanced computer systems from scratch, he invented the first detector shield, and he knows more than anyone about the construction of my ship."

      "And this ship was special?"

      "The fastest and most powerful ship in the Known Worlds. We had a matter transmission system of our own, too, though it was pretty short range compared with your Scoop. Wait. Why don't Scitech use the Scoop to bring in the goods they need and by-pass you entirely?"

      "Because there is only one Scoop, it can only be used infrequently, and only on an intergalactic scale. It won't work inside the Cloud."

      "So why don't you attack Scitech?"

      "Go in against Builder defences? You have to be kidding..." Ardron was silent for a few moments, apparently brooding on the injustice of life, then he spoke to the wi'h at the controls of the groundcar. "Take us back to the city."

      "What! I just escaped from there!"

      "You want to bring your crew out with you, don't you? Save them from slavery?"

      "Slavery?" Tarrant repeated stupidly.

      "They'll probably offer this crewman of yours, Avon, a contract, but the rest of you will be bound into slavery. That's what Scitech does to you if you aren't one of the chosen few who they regard as of high enough intelligence and technical training to become part of their organisation."

      "Then we have to get away."

      "You will," said Ardron, "but first you have to go back. Listen, this is what you have to do..."

      

      

"I'm glad this discussion has been so fruitful, Avon," the Director purred.

      "So am I," said Avon. "There is just one more thing, Director." His voice suddenly hardened. "As I see it, your aim is to destroy the Guild and gain control of the whole of the human occupied section of the Cloud."

      The Director's face was suddenly angry. "Who told you-?"

      "No-one told me. It is quite obvious that that is your plan. I have one question: if you needed me and needed a superior spaceship technology, why didn't you scoop Liberator?"

      The Director had recovered her composure. "To give it to the Guild?"

      "I'm sure that you could have found some way to hide it from them."

      "That would have been most unethical, Avon."

      "You have no more ethics than I have. Why didn't you scoop Liberator, Director?"

      She smiled suddenly. "We tried. It didn't work. Something about the ship was resistant to the E-space field."

      "Thank you, Director." Avon was smiling too. "I appreciate frankness. Now, do you want my answer to your earlier offer?"

      

      

Tarrant's loudly protesting voice could be heard long before he arrived in the quiet lounge where Cally, Vila and Dayna were waiting. "I just went for a walk. I'm allowed to go for a walk, aren't I? You said that I wasn't a prisoner..." He was pushed into the lounge, looking annoyed and dishevelled, his face flushed. When the door closed behind him, he turned and glared at it as if that might disintegrate it.

      "What happened to you?" Dayna asked.

      "I went for a look around, that's all."

      "Plainly without permission. Why didn't you just ask our hosts, Tarrant? I did, and I got the full conducted tour." Dayna grinned. "You do everything the hard way, don't you?"

      Tarrant turned the glare on her. "Well, at least I could see more than just what they wanted me to see!"

      "And what was that?" Vila asked, too-innocently curious.

      The question flustered Tarrant. Despite his long and fascinating conversation with Ardron, he had seen very little other than vegetation. "There's a spaceport here," he offered.

      "I toured it," Dayna told him smugly.

      "And, in case you didn't know, we're not in the Known Worlds."

      "We're in the Greater Magellanic Cloud, brought here by a sort of matter transmission device called the Scoop," Dayna explained. "As far as I can make out, it took a full pattern of our body structures and re-created them here. It also took our life forces and memories to bring here too, leaving a dead shell behind."

      "You mean we're dead, back on Terminal?" Vila questioned incredulously.

      "Apparently."

      "But that's... that's..."

      "Ghoulish," Dayna agreed.

      "You seem to know a lot," said Tarrant, looking at her accusingly.

      "I've had a couple of conversations with one of the project engineers, a man called Vanor Ricel. They're supposed to be offering me a contract."

      "A contract for what?"

      "I wish I knew. Perhaps Avon'll be able to tell us when he comes back from his meeting with the Scitech Director."

      "And why Avon?" Tarrant demanded.

      No-one answered him.

      "Do they think he can take decisions for all of us?"

      "I don't know what they think," said Vila. "Anyhow, if it's a trap, Avon'll see it."

      "As he did on Terminal?" Tarrant asked nastily.

      "Avon knew that Terminal was probably a trap," Cally said in her most deceptively gentle voice. "Why else would he have taken such careful precautions to see that we were not caught in it?"

      "Then why walk into it in the first place?"

      "Because there was a chance that the bait was genuine, I suspect."

      "Not so that he could keep whatever spoils were going for himself?"

      "Blake wouldn't have let him," said Vila.

      "And Avon knew Blake very well," Cally added.

      "What are you all defending him for?" Tarrant shouted.

      "He is not here to defend himself," said Cally.

      "He cost us Liberator."

      "I am aware of that," Avon's voice said quietly from the doorway. He came into the suddenly silent room and sank tiredly into a chair. "It is not relevant to our present situation. I think you had better listen to what I have to say."

      "Not relevant? Oh, I think it is. We don't take orders from you, Avon. You asked us to trust you once; we did, and you blew it."

      Avon's eyes met Tarrant's unflinchingly. "I made an error of judgement in taking the Liberator into the cloud that destroyed her. You made one yourself in following me to the surface of Terminal, something I had specifically told you not to do. That gave Servalan a lever at precisely the wrong moment."

      "So now it's my fault?"

      "No. The blame is mine. I am willing to accept it."

      "Oh, that makes it all right, does it, that you're willing to accept the blame?"

      Cally got up and went to stand behind Avon. "It helps," she said. "What is done is done. This is no time to fight among ourselves, Tarrant. Avon did what he had to do. In his place, you might have done the same thing."

      Avon looked up at her with a strange feeling of déj{\224} vu. How many times had he heard Cally defend Blake in much the same fashion, and how many times had he been the attacker? He realised with a shock that he might well have spoken as Tarrant had spoken. Had Blake felt this way: unsure that he was right, wanting the wholehearted support of his crew but realising that he could never have it?

      I could easily have said to Blake what Tarrant has just said to me, Avon thought. If he had been sitting in this chair, I would have said it. The thought sent a tremor through the very foundations of Avon's existence, a realisation that he was standing on the edge of a truth he did not want to acknowledge. If he plunged down the precipice, everything would change.

      The moment passed. He put the disquieting thought aside.

      "I doubt that Tarrant would have had enough intelligence to do anything I have done," he stated cuttingly. "Do you want me to catalogue the rest of your mistakes, Tarrant? The fiascos on Obsidian and Kairos? The incident with Bayban the Butcher? Your experiences with Moloch?"

      "I didn't lose us Liberator!"

      Inwardly, Avon winced. Aloud, he said, "No. You didn't. You just came close to losing us all our lives. I happen to value mine rather more than Liberator. I don't know what value you put on yours. However, we are alive and in a very dangerous situation. As Cally says, we cannot afford to fight between ourselves." His voice rose, command crackling in it: "So sit down, shut up and listen!"

      As Tarrant started a furious retort, Dayna interrupted: "Do as he says, Tarrant."

      "Avon is right," said Cally.

      Vila simply chortled.

      Aware of the lack of support, Tarrant shut up and sat, fuming.

      "So what exactly did the Director tell you?" asked Dayna.

      "It's a long story," said Avon.

      

      

"So," Avon said finally, "I told the Director that I accepted the contract provisionally and that you were under my protection. Dayna too, until she decides what to do next."

      "You mean we're all your slaves? That is so kind of you, Avon," Tarrant snarled.

      "You have a choice of either that, or imprisonment, or death. I can easily withdraw my protection if you prefer the second or third options. I did not have much choice, either. It is obvious that none of us will be allowed to leave. We know too much."

      "We could escape," Tarrant suggested.

      "To where?" Avon asked.

      "So you accept the Director's version as the whole truth?"

      "I accept nothing told to me as 'truth', but we must make a decision now on what data we have, not on conjecture. Certainly, Scitech has the technology it claims, and that must give it a very strong position in this society. Escape looks impossible, even if we were sure that we wanted to escape and, from what I have seen, escape seems far from being the most lucrative option."

      "For you, maybe."

      Avon's look in Tarrant's direction was deadly. "The idea of withdrawing my protection suddenly becomes very tempting indeed." As he spoke, Avon reached up and took Cally's hand as she leaned against his chair, pulling it down and fondling it. He felt immediate resistance, but she relaxed as he touched it against his ear and looked up at her warningly.

      As a signal it was remote, obscure, but Cally understood it. //They are watching us?//

      Avon squeezed her hand in confirmation.

      The next telepathic warning went out to all of them. //We are under surveillance. We must act as if we all agree with what Avon has said. It is the only way that they will come to trust him, and us.//

      Dayna spoke quickly, overriding Tarrant's protests. "I agree with Avon. I'd like to see their terms of contract."

      "They are good ones," said Avon.

      Cally sat down on the arm of Avon's chair. "Then I trust you accepted them," she purred, draping herself about his shoulders. "I knew that you would look after me, Avon." Feeling astonishment in the tension of Avon's muscles she added the telepathic rider, //Help me, Avon. I am not very good at this and I find it difficult enough without trying to make love to a stone. We have played this trick before. If they think I am your woman they will be less likely to see me as a threat. Help me.//

      Avon promptly pulled her even closer and kissed her hard, ignoring her, //I did not ask you to enjoy it quite so much!//

      They both became aware that Dayna was glaring at them, that Vila had an expression of comical surprise on his face, and that Tarrant's red-faced fury was deepening to crimson.

      Then, suddenly, Avon saw understanding dawn on Dayna's face, and guessed that Cally was explaining telepathically.

      "One thing, Avon," Dayna said. "When I take contract, Tarrant will be under my protection, not yours."

      "You can have him with pleasure."

      Tarrant began to gobble. Dayna, seeing that he had either not understood Cally's explanation or had been too angry to listen to it, and knowing that he was going to say something that they would all regret, leaped to her feet and flung herself into his arms, stopping his protests with a kiss. As he stopped struggling and started co-operating, Cally rushed in with a repeat of her telepathic explanation.

      "But Vila stays with me," Avon added, as Tarrant and Dayna drew apart.

      "Thanks," Vila said dryly. "Why?"

      "No-one else is going to have the pleasure of teaching you your rightful duties as a servant after all the trouble you've been to me in the past."

      "I think I'd rather be dead."

      "That can be arranged." Even as Avon spoke, his eyes met Vila's, and something about them reassured the thief.

      He gave a small grin. "You'll be sorry."

      "Probably."

      But Vila had relaxed and there was trust on his face as he watched Avon.

      How am I going to get us out of this? Avon asked himself. Strangely, it did not occur to him that no-one had asked him to try.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

The Director's face shone with pleasure as she watched the screen. "So Avon was won over more easily than you expected, Van. He is going to be a great asset to us. Of course, if we had known about the sexual alliances from the start we could have used them, and I would not have suggested killing them as witnesses."

      "We didn't have that information," I pointed out.

      The Director waved a hand dismissively, "It's not important. This has been a totally successful pickup, Van. My congratulations.

      Even as I thanked her, I was not so sanguine about our success. I had seen Avon signal to Cally that they were being watched and no doubt she had passed on the message telepathically. I had, of course, deprogrammed the information that Cally was from Auron from the computers; Avon might need that advantage. In fact, it looked as if he was already taking it, plainly realising that surveillance was constant, and was trying to lull the observers into a false sense of security. His behaviour - and Cally's was so out of character that, while I would normally have been quite willing to accept the idea that they were lovers, indeed had always hoped that their friendship might deepen into love, I was deeply suspicious of this display of public affection. By inference, I suspected Tarrant and Dayna too, particularly as she had shown no special concern for him when I had spoken to her earlier. Together, they made me doubt that the contract offer had been truly accepted.

      So what was I going to do about it? I could protect them here at Scitech Central. If they left, the danger to them would increase immensely. I ought to speak to Avon alone... or ought I? Hadn't I interfered enough already? The more I saw of my friends, the more reluctant I became to reveal my presence. They seemed to have formed a team as close-knit and efficient as the one I had led, of which three of them had been a part, but now Avon was their leader and I could not intrude. After all, there was my oath to consider.

      I said, "I must go back to Firel, Director, then on to the Yards. I have neglected my work there for too long."

      "I thought that you wanted Avon to work with you?"

      "Yes, of course, but you've a lot of detail to sort out first. Also, I suggest that you obtain as much information as you can from Avon about Liberator before he becomes too deeply involved in other projects to want to spend time reciting facts he already knows."

      "You may have a point there," the Director agreed.

      "I'll be back as soon as I can sort out the problem my wi'h have reported to me. You'd better make good use of your time."

      "We will... but Van, I think that you rely too much on the wi'h."

      "They are intelligent and totally obedient."

      "But without creativity - and they have no personal loyalties. Remember that, Van."

      No personal loyalties. I thought that over as I made my way out of the building towards the waiting groundcar. No personal loyalties. The Director was wrong, I knew. It wasn't true of the wi'h anymore than it had been true of Avon, despite his protests to the contrary. I wished that it was true of me. Then, perhaps, I would not be so confused, so tortured by guilt, by conflicting desires and emotions. No personal loyalties. It might be something to pray for, a way to find peace, yet I knew that it was a path I could never take. Perhaps I didn't really want to. I had given myself a breathing space, a time to think. I had to make good use of it.

      

Cloud on the Wing

//Are we still under surveillance?// Cally asked Avon. He inclined his head slightly in affirmation. Cally crossed the luxurious room she and Avon had been given, to stand by the window, as if looking out at the incredible afternoon sky. //We cannot maintain this masquerade for very long.//

      "Come here," Avon ordered.

      Annoyed at his peremptory tone, Cally hesitated for a moment, then nonetheless obeyed. Avon slid a possessive arm around her waist, amused by the instinctive stiffening of her back muscles, and pulled her round, holding her closely against his side. His other hand flew at blinding speed across the keyboard of the computer terminal, with its familiar symbols glowing on the touch sensitive panel.

      Words formed on the inset screen on the desk surface.

      NOW YOU ARE BLOCKING THE SENSOR'S VIEW OF THE TERMINAL. I COULD GAIN CONTROL OF THE SURVEILLANCE SENSORS BUT THAT MIGHT BE REGARDED AS AN UNFRIENDLY ACT BY OUR HOSTS.

      Cally relaxed, leaning against him. //Then the situation is going to become very complicated.//

      IT WAS YOUR IDEA.

      //And I admit that it was not a good one. Do they leave the sensors on all night?//

      PROBABLY. THEY MAY WELL HAVE NIGHT VISION SETTINGS, TOO.

      The words on the screen might be impersonal, but there was laughter in Avon's eyes.

      //I do not suppose that our hosts would think that our insisting on privacy tonight was an unfriendly act.//

      SPOILSPORT.

      //Avon, it is not funny. Tarrant and Dayna are furious. I did not think that they would react so violently.//

      FORGET THEM. THEY'LL GET OVER IT. SO WILL VILA, WHO IS ALMOST SPEECHLESS WITH RAGE.

      //As he has a right to be. I know that it amuses you to provoke him, but I think that you should be more gentle with him...//

      "Oh, there you are," said Vila himself, barging in through the door and glaring at the sight of Avon's and Cally's intimate-seeming pose. "Good. The last thing I need right now is to be around Tarrant and Dayna."

      "What's wrong with them?" Avon asked, blanking the screen.

      "You-" Vila stopped as Cally's telepathic reminder flashed into his mind. "You... you think it's funny, turning us into servants, don't you?"

      Avon was making great efforts to keep a straight face. Anyone else might have believed that he really was indifferent, but Cally and Vila knew him far too well.

      Vila was well into his stride, with no intention of stopping. "Tarrant doesn't like being Dayna's servant any more than I like being yours."

      "I thought that he would enjoy serving her," said Avon, straight-faced.

      Vila looked at him very sharply indeed and Cally dug her thumb into a pressure point low on his back. It hurt. He made a mental note to see that she was paid back for it.

      "I bet you meant that exactly the way it sounded," Vila commented, with a grin. "I wouldn't say it to Tarrant, though, or Dayna. She packs a mean punch when she's roused."

      "Such insolence from a delta grade," Avon mocked him. "I don't see why you should complain about doing the work of the social class you were born into."

      "Oh, shut up."

      "I also see that I may have to teach you some manners," Avon threatened.

      "Teach yourself some, while you're about it," Tarrant spat from the doorway.

      "Oh, do come in," Avon drawled. "I trust that you have Dayna's permission to be here?"

      "He has." Dayna swept in behind him.

      Tarrant glared at them both, not sure if he disliked Avon's implication or Dayna's acceptance of it more strongly.

      //We are still being watched,// Cally warned them.

      "Hell!" Tarrant said to no-one in particular and went to the window. Where the devil was Ardron? He had promised to get them out of here... but when? He could not take this kow-towing to Avon and Dayna much longer, and he did not like the way he had been automatically tossed to Dayna while Avon had assumed ownership of Cally. In fact. there was a great deal that he didn't like. Well, things would change when they reached the Guild...

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

Scitech Central's huge spaceport seemed surprisingly quiet. I parked the groundcar and went through an almost deserted concourse towards the special security area where my shuttle had its launching bay. I was checked twice by unusually jumpy guards. The second was a man I knew slightly.

      "What's the problem, Haxby?" I asked him.

      He shrugged. "Just atmosphere, Ricel... and the fact that it's so quiet at the moment. That always makes everyone edgy, even if it does mean that the Guilders aren't around, causing trouble."

      I looked at him in surprise. "No Guild ships here?"

      "Only the one, sir. Cloudstalker. And she's lifting off in a few minutes. There were three due, but they've been delayed for various reasons. The first isn't due in for three hours now."

      "Well, at least I won't have any trouble getting takeoff clearance," I replied, making a mild joke of it. "See you sometime, Haxby."

      "And you, sir."

      The hatch of the specially adapted shuttle that I had christened Moonshadow opened at my touch. It would have opened to no-one else, and any attempt to force it would have seen the ship exploding in flames. Outwardly, Moonshadow was a typical Hoop shuttle - a dart-shaped craft about thirty metres long - but inside we had changed it to something never seen before in the Hoop.

      The first thing I heard as I came through the hatch was the beep of the communicator alarm. As I settled in the control seat, Jake Harun's image materialised beside me. "Van," he said, "thank the Builders I caught you. What's with this sudden desire to leave us holding the baby? No, never mind that now. You can relax about Chev's suspicions. The paranoid has found something else to chase: to wit, the Fraternity."

      "So they were responsible for the attack on Avon, Cally and Vila?" I was aware that the last name was a slip as soon as it was out of my mouth, but Jake didn't notice it.

      "That's still... problematical. Chev's mob used a process of elimination to track down the man who revived and freed the links. They'd narrowed it down to five technicians in Bio when one of the suspects vanished. One Bil Frolik, to be precise. Chev went looking for him, and found him too - or rather the Guild did. They called him into their enclave at the spaceport to pick up the body."

      "Body?"

      "Yeah, body. He had false papers and paid passage on a Guild ship, but before he could use them he was... well, there wasn't much left of him. And this is the problem, pal. It was a Fraternity killing. They'd taken a force knife and carved a slashed V on his chest. That's the mark they use when Valonia orders the execution of a traitor, Chev tells me. Anyone killed by the order of the local boss just gets the old symbol - an F in a circle."

      "That's crazy. Why would the Fraternity kill their own agent as a traitor? Because he failed?"

      "Would have been the case once, Chev says, but not since Valonia took over. 'Sides, that failure wouldn't make him a 'traitor'."

      "Confusing," I replied. "I wish Manster joy of it."

      "You know, you're an oddball, Van. This is your triumph. Aren't you going to stay for the kudos?"

      "I've got work to do. I'll be back soon enough."

      "Yeah, well, force fields are your speciality. I wish you joy of 'em."

      "Thanks for the information, Jake. Be seeing you."

      "Soon, pal, make it soon."

      As his image vanished and I turned back to the controls, I saw a large spaceship rise out of the freeport. That would, no doubt, be Cloudstalker."

      I started on the run down of the check list.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

      Tarrant thought he must have been staring up at the sky forever, but he did not want to turn back to face the owners of the quiet voices murmuring behind him. How had Avon maintained his leadership? Or had he? Was it merely that the Scitech leadership wanted him? Well, when they were on board Cloudstalker...

      It was then that Tarrant noticed the cloud. It was high above the western horizon, large, black, spreading, moving with impossible speed and... seemingly... descending?

      The quiet voices were drowned by a more urgent, high pitched wailing, plainly electronic. Vila and Dayna covered their ears.

      The door of the room slid shut. Vila ran to try to open it.

      "Leave it," Avon ordered as he switched on the terminal screen.

      "Warning. Warning." The voice was synthetic and harsh. "A large minumal swarm is in the atmosphere of Scitech Central. All defence procedures are now in operation. Stay at your present location. All defence procedures now in operation. Warning. Warning. A large minumal swarm is in the atmosphere of Scitech Central..." As the message was plainly repeating, Avon turned off the speaker.

      "What's it talking about, Avon?" Vila asked nervously.

      "Look out here..." Tarrant whispered, awed. Three-quarters of the sky was darkened now, the setting sun blotted out by the expanding black cloud. As Cally, Vila and Dayna rushed to look out of the window, Avon addressed the computer.

      INSTRUCTION: COMMENCE VERBAL INFORMATION READOUT ON MINUMAL SWARM.

      "Minumal swarm," said the computer, in a voice more like that of the wi'h than a human. "The minumal are creatures native to the Hoop area of the Greater Magellanic Cloud. A fully grown specimen is half a metre long and three kilos in weight. When active, they fly in huge swarms by means of a natural jet-propulsion system located in the abdomen. When inactive, the minumal drift through space in cocoons excreted from glands in the outer tegument. These dissolve in an oxygen atmosphere. Minumal will eat anything that is organically based. A minumal swarm will cause vast damage to vegetation and they are extremely dangerous to all animal life, including human and wi'h. An extermination policy was introduced three hundred years ago. The adult minumal is susceptible to some chemical poisons and ultrasonics as well as more conventional methods of control. As no minumal has been seen in the Hoop for fifteen years, it can be assumed that the species is close to extinction. Despite this, full emergency protective measures remain in force on all the Hoop worlds.

      Even as the computer finished speaking, a heavy body thudded against the window, sending Vila leaping backwards with a yelp. For a moment, the rest of them stared into a sextet of red eyes, surrounded by billowing antennae, as long claws beat and scratched against the window. A circular mouth rasped at the transparent material, leaving tiny, clouded marks. It appeared that the creature did not like the taste, for suddenly it leaped away.

      "I wondered why a civilization as advanced as this used so much glass and concrete," Avon said mildly. "Of course, those materials are inorganic. Well, if anyone wanted to leave, I don't think they would be wise to follow that inclination for a while."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

As Moonshadow slid into orbit above Scitech Central on the outer edge of the atmosphere, I looked down at the dark clouds swirling like ink in water, obscuring parts of the planet's surface.

      What the hell was happening? One moment, the sky into which Moonshadow was rising had been clear indigo, red-lined by sunset and hung with Hoop planets, the next, it had been clouded by gyrating dark bodies. I had not waited to find out what they were, but had sent Moonshadow up like a feather in an AG shaft. Now I was simply glad to be alive.

      But what about Avon and the others? I toyed with the controls, wondering if it would be possible to dive down through the cloud of creatures to pick up my friends.

      Before I could make a decision, I realised that someone was calling me.

      I switched on the communicator. There was no image this time, just an urgent voice "- the Devil do you think you're doing, Ricel?" It was the voice of the Spaceport controller. "We're running a sweep on the swarm. Get down to three thousand metres and join up with the formation at co-ordinates 541: 396: 20. Do you copy, Ricel?"

      "Copied," I said. I still did not know what was going on, but it appeared that Scitech did not regard it as a unique occurrence, as I had thought it. To question orders would be to display my ignorance, so I had no alternative but to obey them. I turned Moonshadow onto her new co-ordinates and began a slow dive through the atmosphere.

      Clouds swirled past, but they were white, composed of normal water droplets; reassuring, if it had not been for the thought of what they might hide.

      The sensors were a mass of light, showing what seemed like millions of tiny, moving objects in an almost solid mass below Moonshadow. Then I began to pick out other contacts. Ships. Shuttles like my own: short range Builders' ships, built for travel in the Hoop, just as the one I was flying used to be.

      "Van?" Jake's voice said from the communicator. "Didn't think you were the type to panic, pal, even if you are from outsystem."

      "I've never seen anything like this before," I admitted, swinging into place in the formation.

      "Hell, I haven't either... very few people have. That's a minumal swarm, Van. Nothing this size has been seen in the Hoop for over a hundred years. Now, get ready to sweep. Let's fry those bastards so that no-one sees them for another thousand, let alone a hundred, years."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

"Jet propulsion systems are extremely rare in flying animals," Avon was telling Cally as they stood looking out into the maelstrom of whirling bodies beyond the windows. "Their metabolic rate must be phenomenal."

      "Who cares." Vila, sitting with his back to the window, kept stealing glances over his shoulder at the scene outside and shuddering in reflex reaction.

      "What's that?" Dayna asked, cocking her head.

      "What's what?"

      "I heard something."

      "Who can hear anything except that?" Vila retorted, jerking a thumb at the source of the muted bedlam. Automatically, everyone looked in that direction.

      So it was that they all saw the light approaching through the minumal murk. A quick flurry of glances were exchanged, then everyone began to back across the room, drawing together into a defensive group.

      The yellow light filled their vision, shadowy figures moving within it.

      The window exploded inwards, shattering into tiny, blunt-edged pieces, like solid raindrops. Three massive, silver-coated figures exploded in after them.

      Dayna, who was nearest, went into a fighting crouch. Cally moved to take guard on her flank. Vila looked about him wildly for a weapon. Avon grabbed his arm to pull him towards the locked door, then realised that the minumal were not, as he had feared, pouring in through the window opening. He, also, prepared to fight.

      "Wait!" Tarrant exclaimed. "They're friends."

      "Friends?" Vila howled, eyeing the wicked-looking weapons the intruders carried with a dubious expression.

      One of the figures pushed back the visor on his suit, thereby revealing himself as a grey haired human male. "These your crew, Tarrant?" he asked.

      "Yes. Ardron-"

      "Get these suits on." Ardron threw a bundle to Tarrant, who caught it by reflex. "We've got to lift off before the Hoopies clear out the minumal."

      Avon looked at the pack that landed at his own feet, then at Tarrant.

      "I met them at the spaceport," Tarrant explained, hurriedly and inaccurately. "They're going to get us out of here. Come on, Avon unless you want to spend the rest of your life cooped up at Scitech."

      Cally and Dayna were already opening the packs and drawing on the protective gear. Avon looked at the gun in Ardron's hands, then at his set face. He shrugged defeat and efficiently donned the suit.

      Vila, however was scared enough to be obdurate. "I'm not going outside in that!"

      The gun swung to point at him. "We can't afford to be connected with your disappearance," Ardron stated. "You either come with us, or you stay here - permanently."

      "Your presence here is already known," said Avon. "This room is under constant surveillance. I've no doubt that Scitech security is already moving in on the place."

      "Uhuh. No-one's going to be watching you in the middle of a minumal swarm. They've got more important things to do. Even if they could see you they'd never get through the swarm in time, because we're getting out of here now," said Ardron, his eyes and gun still threateningly on Vila. "Does he come with us or does he stay here?"

      Avon gave Vila a hard glare, then shrugged. "It's up to him."

      "He comes with us," said Cally, moving to help Vila who, panicked by the threat of the gun and Avon's apparent indifference, was fumbling as he hastily pulled on the protective suit. His handling of the fastenings was made even more clumsy by the frightened looks he kept casting at Ardron and at the dark, seething square of unprotected window. Again and again dozens of minumal bodies shot into the nimbus of light, only to sheer off at even greater speed, screaming their buzz-saw alarm calls.

      "Keep your visors closed," Ardron ordered. "The suit harnesses contain AG propulsors, tied into mine, but if you are more than ten metres from me, the minumal will attack. The suit will give you about thirty seconds protection, then you'll be eaten alive."

      "Ultrasonics," said Avon.

      "Right. Stay close to me and you'll be fine. Let's go." He stepped through the window opening, into space.

      Vila shrieked as he suddenly found that he had no control over his movements but he had not switched on his suit communicator, and no-one heard him. He fought unavailingly as the slaved AG unit dragged him forward and out after Ardron, the others beside him.

      They sailed into the swarm, the minumal gyrating about them like a black hailstorm driven by a tornado. As they climbed upwards, the minumal parted, seemingly in frantic haste to let them pass.

      Suddenly, the animals were gone, but still they climbed up into the night sky. Looking down, Vila could see not only the minumal swarm, but the flaring white glow of energy weapons. There were ships down there, fighting the swarm.

      They began to rise even faster as the atmosphere thinned and Vila soon lost sight of the battle. A shadow blotted out a section of stars. Gazing up at it, he finally made out the shape of a spaceship. Avon was mentally identifying it as an 'Ossian' class freighter, over a hundred years old, and slow. Tarrant identified it too, and felt the first stab of unease at the course he had chosen. Then he pushed it aside as light blazed in an opening airlock and they sailed gracefully through it, Vila stumbling as he hit the deck.

      After the airlock door closed behind them, Ardron waited thirty seconds for re-pressurisation to be completed, then pulled off his visor and hood and shook his hair back into place. He said, 'Welcome aboard the Cloudstalker."

      Avon removed his own headgear. "The warmth of that welcome remains to be seen. Who are you, and what is this all about?"

      "I told you they were friends, Avon," Tarrant broke in.

      "Friends with guns."

      "This is Captain Ardron. I met him when I escaped, while you were talking to the Scitech Director. He promised to help us escape from the Hoop."

      Avon stepped forward until he was far too close for Ardron's comfort, his impassive face a threat in itself. "And your reason for doing so?" he questioned, softly, coldly.

      Ardron stepped sideways and spoke to Tarrant, ignoring Avon. "Your crew needs discipline, Tarrant."

      Avon's eyebrows shot up, but he held his peace.

      "Your cr-" Vila began.

      "None of us will-"

      Tarrant yelled, "Shut up!" at Vila and Dayna.

      //Follow Avon's lead,// Cally advised them.

      Avon said: "Crew? We no longer have a ship, Captain. We are free agents."

      "You are trained ship crew and therefore your place is with the Guild." Ardron stated this as if there could be no argument. "You should have been handed over to us immediately."

      "I have heard of the agreement," said Avon. "Its application to some of us is problematical; however, you seem to have taken charge of the situation and we must accept that as a fait accompli."

      "Scitech was holding you prisoner!"

      "True. Perhaps we ought to be grateful for your rescue, though, I, personally, would have preferred a choice in the matter. I do not believe in altruism, Ardron. I made a simple enquiry as to the price of your intervention."

      Ardron suddenly chuckled. "Captain Tarrant didn't think to ask that. It's very simple, Avon. We want your help. The Liberator is not unknown to us. We need that technology."

      "You could certainly use it," was Avon's comment, as he looked contemptuously about him.

      Ardron bristled. "What do you mean by that?"

      "Merely that your ship is a little out of date."

      "What can you expect when Scitech starves us of technology and technicians? We may get the ships, but Scitech never releases anyone who knows more than the rudiments of the principles on which they are built."

      "You could always try basic research," Avon suggested.

      "We need people to teach us how to start the basic research. That's why you're here."

      Avon nodded slowly. "I see. Meeting Tarrant was certainly a stroke of luck for you. So was the minumal attack."

      "Damn it, man, there was no luck about that. We've been collecting dormant minumal for decades. Every Guild ship trading with the Hoop has a store of thousands of them. There were a million in store at the Guild freeport at Scitech Central. We simply laid all of them in an orbit that would intercept with the planet at the moment and place we wanted. We knew that we'd have to distract the Hoopies, if we were going to free you - and we did."

      "I see," said Avon.

      Ardron caught hold of his temper. "I've been patient with you, Avon, because you are new to the Cloud. Now you must realise that you are under Guild orders. On this ship, that means under my authority. "Will you co-operate?"

      "I do not have any choice," said Avon. "This is your ship. I bow to your authority - and power. You have yet to prove your friendship but I am not antagonistic to seeing that proof."

      "Good." Ardron was plainly relieved. "I place you under Captain Tarrant's authority. Now, if you'd like to see your new quarters..."

      * * * * * * * * * * *

      

It was late in the night when I finally set Moonshadow down at the spaceport. The skies had been swept clean of minumal, and it had been an educational experience to watch the discipline of Manster's shuttle pilots and the skill with which they had broken the swarm and blasted it to ashes. Jake and I, along with other pilots of personal shuttles, had picked off the small pockets of survivors. I suspected that the extermination tactics on the ground had been just as efficient.

      The danger was over but I could not continue my journey to Firel until I was sure my friends were safe. I wanted to see them, to make sure of that one really important fact.

      It was then that I got my first shock: my call to the surveillance team was routed to Chev Manster.

      "They're dead," he said grimly. "Or gone."

      It was the two additional words that set me breathing again.

      "Gone?"

      "Escaped. Kidnapped. If they escaped and the minumal got them, we'll find something. My teams are checking on it now."

      "But how could they have escaped?" I protested. "Jake told me that all the buildings on Scitech Central are sealed during a minumal attack."

      "They are, but the window of Avon's room was smashed from the outside. It could have been the weight of minumal on a faulty pane, of course, but I don't think so."

      "You don't think so? What about the surveillance? I know that you weren't recording but I thought a watch was being kept."

      "Think I can keep up routine surveillance during a minumal attack, Ricel?" Manster snarled. "No-one saw anything. There was no-one to see anything."

      Something else had occurred to me. "That room is five storeys up."

      "Five storeys. Correct," Manster replied.

      "I'm going to take a look."

      "Are you trying to do my job for me again, Ricel?"

      "I'm not usurping your authority, only trying to help," I told him, without much hope of being believed. "You have your hands full with the minumal, after all."

      "Mopping up operations only," Manster said, but he did sound slightly mollified.

      "This is all too damn coincidental'" I muttered.

      "Yes. Isn't it? Where were you at the time?"

      "Fighting minumal," I said, with satisfaction. "And that, Manster, you can check."

      "I will, Ricel. I will."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

"Bit cramped after Scitech Central," Vila observed, bouncing up and down on one of the bunks in the tiny cabin. "Still, you can't grumble when you've got freedom, can you, Avon? Avon, what are you doing?"

      Avon said, "Ah. Got your tools, Vila?"

      "Huh?"

      "Your tools."

      "Avon, these are Scitech clothes, right? You've got no personal possessions yourself, right? Why should I have any tools?"

      Avon looked very hard at Vila: a careful, calculating look that made him uncomfortable. The thief sat up. "Why do you want my tools?"

      "Because I have had enough of being spied on."

      Vila suddenly decided not to ask any more questions. He got to his feet, and the cabin was so small that that meant that he was standing up against Avon. Suddenly, Avon felt something hard being pressed into his hands. He nodded thanks at Vila, then proceeded to climb onto the room's single chair and examine the light fitting.

      "You be careful with that," Vila warned him, as Avon probed inside the fitment. "Too much feedback current and you'll short it out. Short yourself out too. Oh, I see. Scanner eye." He lay on his back on the bunk and watched Avon work.

      "Yes, and an ear. Not very sophisticated. I've disconnected them. Where did you get this probe, Vila?

      "Had to replace my tools, didn't I? They're very careless with their tools on this ship. Not surprising, really, when you consider the quality..."

      "Thieves can't complain."

      "You do," Vila retorted smugly.

      "Check out the rest of the room."

      "We don't have to worry about anything this primitive, do we?"

      "We don't take anything for granted. Check it out."

      "Okay, okay." Vila rolled off the bunk and began a careful search. Avon replaced the parts of the outer casing of the light fitting and jumped down from the chair. He was regarding the sensors in his hand with distaste when the door slid open and Dayna appeared.

      "Can we come in?"

      "You'd better," said Avon. "Well, Vila?"

      "As clean as a list of Servalan's good deeds," said Vila.

      By this time Dayna and Cally were in the room, which was suddenly very crowded indeed. Avon withdrew to the bunk.

      "What's going on?" Dayna asked.

      "The place was infested," Vila explained. "We had a debugging session."

      "So now we can talk freely," said Avon. "The main question is: are we better or worse off than we were before?"

      "Frying pan and firewise, you mean?" Vila asked. "We're free now - or so Tarrant says." His voice dripped irony.

      "So Tarrant says," Avon repeated, his irony drowning out Vila's. "I do not, however, see any material change in our circumstances, save that our quarters are somewhat more cramped, and that our escape must now be from a ship in space rather than from a planet with a spaceport."

      There was a long silence, then Cally said, "You do not trust Ardron?"

      "I do not trust anyone. I am not quite as gullible as Tarrant."

      "If you think we can't trust them, why didn't you resist down at Scitech Central? We were only waiting for your lead," Dayna challenged.

      "Between the minumal and the guns I did not think that we had any chance of a successful resistance. Or of survival, if we had tried."

      "But why do you think that we should not trust Ardron?" Cally persisted.

      "The political situation here in the Cloud is plainly complex and, equally plainly, our knowledge of Liberator's technology is a valuable card in this particular game. Our problem is that, while both Scitech and the Guild appear to want that knowledge, they appear to regard it as equally important that the other party does not have it. And they are willing to kill us to ensure that. Certainly, we are important to the Guild. This operation to kidnap us was large and well organised. They had collected the minumal for years for some undefined purpose but decided to expend them on creating a diversion so that we could be taken."

      "And they would certainly have killed us if we had not accompanied them," said Cally "Yes, you are right, Avon. What should we do now?"

      "For now, nothing. Go along with Ardron. Collect all the information we can and be ready to act when the opportunity arises, either to take this ship or escape from it."

      "Escape to where?" Vila asked gloomily.

      "That is another problem. Where is Tarrant, by the way?"

      "Gone up to the flight deck with Ardron."

      "Good. The more he discovers about flying this ship, the better. Meanwhile, I suggest that the rest of us get some sleep."

      "Well, at least Ardron doesn't think you and Cally have paired up," Dayna said, tartly "and I won't have to share Tarrant's cabin."

      "Ah, but as 'Captain' he's entitled to sleep alone," said Avon.

      "He snores," Vila observed. "Do you snore, Avon?"

      "I don't know, but I do know what will happen to you, if you do."

      "Let's leave them to it," Cally suggested to Dayna. "They aren't happy unless they're fighting, anyway."

      "Careful what you say to each other unless you remove the scanner," Avon warned.

      "We will. I don't like peeping Toms," Dayna said sweetly.

      "Here, take this." Avon tossed her the probe.

      "Hey!" Vila yelped. "That's mine!"

      "Steal another."

      "He will, if it isn't chained down." Dayna grinned. Her head disappeared just before Vila threw the pillow.

      

      

Tarrant looked about him, trying to conceal his disgust behind an admiring expression. The flight deck of the Cloudstalker, though well-kept, indeed shining, seemed to have been designed in the Stone Age, especially when compared to Liberator. He peered at the navigation station, failing to make sense of the ever-changing star charts. "Where are we going?" he asked Ardron.

      "To Shipmeet. Fleet Admiral Gorsky is most anxious to see you."

      "Shipmeet?" Tarrant questioned.

      "You'll see it soon enough."

      "Are there shipyards there?"

      "And where would we get the technology to build shipyards?" Ardron snapped. "We can't even repair the ships we have without Scitech assistance."

      "It's only that... it occurred to me that it's going to be difficult for you to put what we can tell you about Liberator technology into practice."

      "Leave that to us," said Ardron, "There are certainly things you could tell us that will help us now. As for the rest, well, I'm not a policy-maker, but I suppose we can make our own alliance with one of the planetary governments to get the raw materials we'll need. They don't like Scitech any more than we do."

      It seemed to Tarrant that this argument was a little vague but he decided not to question Ardron further. That might be impolitic at that stage of the proceedings. After all, he was deeply in the Captain's debt. "Are we clear of the Hoop system?" he asked instead.

      "Yes, We're clear of the detectors. We'll be going FTL in forty minutes. We're following our original flight plan - better not draw attention to ourselves. Scitech may suspect that the Guild was responsible for your disappearance but they can't act without proof. They're too scared of what we might do to them. So we'll skirt the Hinkal system and the Mare's Nest, as we planned. Once we're beyond that, no-one can see which way we're going... no matter what Builder gimmickry Scitech is hiding from us. Oh... you wouldn't know. The Mare's Nest is a dust cloud with some odd properties. It blocks every kind of energy, and it's deadly to spacecraft."

      "And the pirates use it as cover..." The mutter was very low, but it was there.

      Ardron whirled on the speaker. "No Guild ships need fear Inde pirates!" he snarled at the hapless man.

      "Who are these pirates?" Tarrant asked.

      "Scum." Ardron bit off the word. "Ramshackle spaceships carrying illegal cargoes. The Mare's Nest is dangerous. They hide in its skirts, knowing no Guild ship will come after them there."

      Tarrant said no more on the subject, but he did wonder what kind of ship could be called 'ramshackle' when compared with Cloudstalker.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

The room was shredded. Apart from the shattered window, everything organic had been devoured by the minumal. Even the computer terminal casing had been chewed away and the insulation stripped out.

      I stepped over the framework of a chair and a heap of minumal corpses to claim the attention of a security officer and ask if any trace of Avon or the others had been found. The reply was firmly negative, but a technician working in the remains of the computer terminal looked up and said, "What about the remains your people found outside the building?"

      The security officer flushed. "They only found the remains of one being," he snapped, "and that could be either wi'h or human." He looked hard at me and added, "Security Chief Manster is checking on it now."

      "I'll go down and have a word with him," I said, though I did not look forward to another confrontation with Manster. "Where was the body found?"

      "No body. Not after minumal had been at it. Round the right hand side of the building, on the pathway."

      "Thanks."

      As I fell smoothly down the AG shaft, I wondered just what stunt Avon had pulled and why. Once, I would have been able to follow his logic but, judging by this, I no longer knew him at all. Damn. I should have found some way to talk to him... Would that have done any good at all? Would anything? Too late... I was always too late. Where was he now? Where were Vila and Cally? Why had they gone where I could no longer protect them?

      My feet jolted as I hit ground level. I stepped out into the night... no, pre-dawn now, for the eastern horizon was threaded with grey. I turned into the darkness on the western side of the building and followed the curving pathway towards a pool of light, crunching through piles of brittle minumal bodies. Spotlights, floating just above head level, were focused on a technician and a pair of analysis robots which were carefully checking the area, millimetre by millimetre. Manster stood watching them, arms folded.

      "Chev?" I asked.

      He started, then looked at me. "Oh, it's you."

      "What have you found?"

      He obviously considered telling me to go to hell but, knowing I would invoke the Director's authority, conceded the point. "Something was eaten by minumal here. Might be human. Might be wi'h. The boots say it was humanoid. There was no jewellery that we've found so far, and that points to wi'h..."

      At that moment, one of the analysis robots began to beep. The technician went to examine it. Seconds later, she approached Manster. "Sir... it was carrying this."

      Manster took the small, bronze coloured cylinder that she offered him.

      "A message capsule," said the technician, unnecessarily. She made no attempt to leave. "Probably identikeyed," she suggested, as Manster turned it over in his fingers, then handed it to me. It felt cold and I could see no way to open it. For all I could tell, it was solid metal.

      Manster looked disappointed. I think he had hoped that it was identikeyed to me. I closed my fingers around it and asked the technician, "Can we open it?"

      "The computers should be able to crack it."

      "Get on with your work!" Manster snarled, unable to bear her intrusion any longer.

      I smiled at her and at him. "Let's get to work on opening this. It may give us a clue as to where the Liberator's crew could have been taken."

      "Taken?"

      "Of course," I said glibly. "Avon had everything to gain and nothing to lose by staying at Scitech and he was well aware of the fact. The window of his room was violently broken from the outside. There is an obvious conclusion: Liberator's crew were abducted." I was by no means sure of this 'fact' but I wasn't going to put my friends in danger from Scitech by letting that organisation think that they had absconded, even if they had.

      Manster's expression was not as sceptical as it was annoyed, but he could see no immediate refutation of my arguments, and no way to keep me from seeing the message capsule opened. With a last glare at the technician, he stamped off, knowing I would follow. I did.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

Tarrant opened the door of his cabin, only to find that it was not empty as he had expected. Avon was sitting in a chair waiting for him.

      "What are you doing here?" he demanded

      "Waiting to see you. Don't worry, Tarrant. I've disconnected the sensors."

      "Sensors?" Tarrant asked stupidly. He was too tired to cope with this and he found dealing Avon difficult at any time.

      "We're just as much under surveillance here as we were at Scitech Central," Avon explained. "How much did you learn from Ardron?"

      "Huh? What am I supposed to have learnt?"

      "How about what they really want from us?"

      "Ardron told you, our help to improve their fleet."

      "Don't tell me that you actually bought that, Tarrant? According to the Scitech Director, they do not have a planetary base, and the Cloud Worlds hate them too much to provide them with one. They don't have qualified engineers or technicians who can build the machines to build the machines to build starships. They know it just as well as we know it. So what do they really want?"

      Tarrant counter-attacked. "I'm wise to you, Avon. You just wanted to stay at Scitech where you'd be important..."

      "And where we had a better chance of finding some way to return home or of manufacturing ourselves a rather more efficient spaceship than the one we're standing in."

      "We need allies, Avon," Tarrant pointed out. "I'd rather we found those allies among people who haven't tried to make me a slave."

      "Yet," said Avon.

      Tarrant glared at him. "Listen, I got us out of Scitech-"

      "Before we were ready to go."

      "Ah, if you'd arranged our escape we would have been ready to go, right? Make ourselves a ship? We had a ship, Avon. Remember?"

      "I do not want an argument, Tarrant. I'm too tired. All I'm telling you to do is to be careful about what you tell Ardron. Don't reveal anything of importance."

      "You're telling me?"

      Avon closed his eyes, wondering where he had gone wrong now. Tarrant seemed determined to cause a confrontation, and Avon longed for Blake's skill in avoiding it. Some hope. "Have you a better suggestion?" he asked.

      "Yes. Co-operate with the Guild."

      "As you co-operated with Servalan to give her Liberator?"

      "You got us into a situation where there was nothing else I could do to save our lives," Tarrant retorted. "I've told you before, Avon. I don't take orders from you. And I win. I make a habit of it."

      Avon got to his feet. "None of us will win if you give away what little advantage we have," he replied. "You might remember that."

      There was a bad taste in Tarrant's mouth as he watched Avon leave. He remembered Ardron's questions and his all-too-free answers. Though he told himself that his own questions had been answered fully, he did not sleep well, despite his tiredness.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

It was a long wait. The Scitech Central computers were creations of the Builders and in advance of human technology both in our galaxy and in the Cloud but even they took time to analyse the message capsule and synthesise the characteristics needed to open it, so I found myself with plenty of time to think.

      Could this message have been meant for a member of Liberator's crew? If so, whoever carried it must have had the personal characteristics or code that would open it, for no-one in the Cloud except myself knew enough about Avon, Cally or Vila to key it to open to one of them, and no-one at all knew that much about Dayna or Tarrant.

      I paced the room. Manster sat quietly and fumed so hard that I expected to see smoke coming out of his ears...

      Finally, the 'ready' signal flashed up on the terminal screen. The capsule clicked open and the message unrolled. It was hand-written in a clear, bold, but very neat script.

      It said:

      Do not trust anyone involved with Scitech or the Guild. Be very careful. They will kill you if you cross them. This messenger has been instructed what to do next. You are now under the protection of the Fraternity. I will explain everything when we meet.

      It was signed by Valonia, the head of the Fraternity, of whom even I had heard, and the signature was followed by a small sigil or initial, difficult to make out. It appeared to be a triangle crossed by two horizontal lines, one at the apex and one across the centre.

      I only just had time to take this in before the film on which the words were written dissolved away.

      "Recorded?" Manster asked.

      "Recorded," said the computer.

      "Valonia," said Manster. "The head of the Fraternity herself, sending a personal message - to who?"

      "A Fraternity member within Scitech?" I suggested, not very hopefully.

      "No," said Manster.

      I left him to think about it and made my way back to the spaceport in the sleepy morning. The gentle light revealed a city stripped bare of every living thing. The gardens that had made Central beautiful had been eaten to bare ground, and the cultivated land around the spaceport had been reduced to lifeless dirt.

      The Fraternity. It was a force to be reckoned with. Criminals had come to the Hoop in the same way that other humans had and, like the scientists and technologists in Scitech and the spacecraft personnel in the Guild, they had banded together in self-help and self-protection. So the Fraternity had been born. At first it had been little more than a method by which big crooks had preyed on smaller ones, then Valonia had taken over. Now, members of the Fraternity travelled freely on her business, because the Guild was frightened of her power. The Cloud Worlds shielded her personnel for the same reason, and Scitech...

      I had to find out more about the Fraternity. That message had been aimed at one or more of Liberator's crew. What had caused this sudden change in policy? A Fraternity agent had released the links to try and kill Avon, Cally, and Vila. Then that agent had been executed as a traitor. Now, the Fraternity was offering protection to its erstwhile victims. Surely Valonia was not stupid enough to expect them to take her on faith? Avon certainly would not. It simply did not make sense. Nor did the fact that the message had never been delivered. And how had Avon and the others escaped? Had they been taken by the Fraternity? Or someone else?

      Whichever way I looked at it it still did not make any sense at all.

      

      

Stalking Horse

"Well, well," said Vila, as Tarrant came into the mess area on the Cloudstalker some fifteen hours after the ship had cleared the Hoop, "if it isn't Del Tarrant, captain of Liberator."

      "Shut up, Vila."

      "What are you going to do if I don't?" Vila enquired, with feigned interest. "Looks a bit odd, doesn't it? A captain whose crew won't follow his orders?

      "I suppose that you thought Liberator was yours?"

      "Actually," said Vila, in suddenly factual tones, "it was Avon's. Blake said that he could have Liberator you see, after we'd destroyed Star One."

      "Now, wait a minute..."

      "It's the truth. You can ask Cally." Vila busied himself stuffing his mouth full of hot food.

      "And you were just going to accept that?"

      "Didn't have much choice," mumbled Vila through the food. "Safer with Avon than with anyone else 'cept Blake. Didn't know where he'd gone. Avon seemed happy enough to have me stay."

      "He says a good thief is useful."

      Vila nodded. "Like a good pilot. He'll put up with anyone if he really needs the skill."

      His lack of concern annoyed Tarrant and it occurred to him that he was not getting the best of this conversation. He said, "We aren't on Liberator now."

      "True. Avon still needs a good thief, though. Wonder if he still needs a pilot?" He grinned maliciously. "I've always found that when we get into trouble the safest place to be standing is behind Avon. That's where I intend standing for the rest of this trip - behind Avon."

      "But you don't like him." Tarrant had never been able to comprehend the complexity of Vila's relationship with Avon.

      Vila grinned. "Of course not, but it's still the safest place."

      "Even after Terminal?"

      Vila's expression suddenly changed. His face and voice were cold as he said, "You wouldn't understand."

      "Damn it, Vila-"

      "I got to thinking," Vila went on, "cooped up alone in the Medical Centre back at Scitech Central with not much except the odd alien for company..."

      "That must have been a novel experience - thinking, I mean."

      "...and I came to the conclusion that when Avon tells me to do something and I do it, nine times out of ten it turns out to be right. When you tell me to do something and I do it, I get into bad trouble. Like when your 'friendly natives' turned out to be Bayban the Butcher and-"

      "You've never forgiven me for that, have you, Vila? You've got to learn to be more trusting..."

      Vila shook his head. "Avon's right. You can't trust anyone."

      "You trust him."

      "I trust him to save his own neck. If I stay close, he'll probably save mine while he's at it."

      Tarrant forced a saccharine smile. "Don't worry, Vila. I'll see that you don't get hurt."

      "I'd rather you didn't," said Vila. "People you 'help' have a habit of ending up injured, a prisoner, or dead." He pushed his plate aside and got to his feet. "See you later, 'Captain'." He walked out without looking back.

      Tarrant was silent. He had not expected opposition from Vila. Damn them all, anyway. Why didn't they react the way he'd been taught that crewmen would in the lectures on command at the Federation Space Academy? His appetite suddenly gone, he barged out after Vila and almost ran down Dayna,

      "Heeey!" She pushed him back. "Look where you're going." She paused, peering at him more closely. "Why the sour face?"

      "I suppose you're like Vila; you think Avon's always right and I'm always wrong."

      "Avon does tend to be a little less impulsive than you," Dayna replied. "That means he doesn't make as many mistakes as you do, or as I do, come to that."

      Tarrant began to feel better. "That's true. He's the original cold fish."

      "And I've known him be wrong."

      "So have I." Tarrant definitely did feel better.

      "Mind you, I've known you to be wrong too." She gave him a faint, ironical smile. "Sometimes." She hesitated, the smile dying. "He's a dangerous man to cross."

      "So am I," Tarrant said smugly. Then, "Vila isn't exactly renowned for his judgement."

      Dayna wasn't so sure. She could not help remembering the strength and courage and cool good judgement that Vila had shown as Liberator disintegrated about them in orbit above Terminal. "He's better than he was," she said.

      "Which isn't saying much,"

      They both laughed.

      "Let's go up to the flight deck," Tarrant suggested, his good humour restored.

      "Good idea." Dayna linked her arm through his. "You must introduce me properly to Ardron. We hardly got to say two words to each other yesterday."

      "I will - but why this sudden interest?"

      "Just an idea," said Dayna. Indeed, that was all she would say on the subject all the way to the flight deck.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

Moonshadow's cabin was comforting in its familiarity. The glowing cube that I took from its case had another kind of familiarity. A lot of artefacts from Terminal had been taken to the Moonshadow on my instructions, but only this was important.

      Orac.

      I put the key - which I'd found on the cruiser and kept carefully concealed from Scitech - into position. The glow brightened and the cube began to tick.

      "Hello, Orac," I said. "Remember me?"

      There was a moment's pause. I do believe that, for the very first time in his existence, Orac was startled.

      "I see that, as usual, I have been supplied with inaccurate information," he said. "Avon told me that you were dead."

      "So I am, back in our home galaxy. So is Avon, now. Perhaps even you could be considered 'dead' there, Orac."

      "Yes," Orac said, at last. "I see now. This is extraordinary. Some of the computers here I can only... touch. Others repel me, but some I can read."

      "Good."

      "This is fascinating. The situation here..."

      "Never mind that now. I've got to find Avon, Cally and Vila."

      "Have you lost them?"

      "Yes."

      "That was careless."

      I looked up at the hull over my head in despair. I had forgotten just how exasperating Orac could be. "Listen, Orac..."

      "The computers here in the Hoop are certainly worthy of further study..."

      "But not now. I'm going to brief you on what's been happening here recently. That's also worthy of further study. While I'm doing that, I want you to start a search of all the Cloud computers you can read to trace the whereabouts of Liberator's crew." As I had been speaking, I had been setting the controls. Now I engaged Moonshadow's AG generators to lift her from her pad and up into space.

      "Where are we going?" Orac asked.

      "Home, for the moment." I said. "Now, the situation is this. About nine hundred years ago, the alien race who built the Hoop left this system..."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

Tarrant had to admit to himself that Dayna had been doing a spectacular job of charming Cloudstalker's crew. For someone who had spent most of her early life in total isolation, she showed surprising skill in human relationships. It must be natural talent. Tarrant thought smugly that he was not so bad at that himself, unlike Avon.

      Dayna, meanwhile, was leaning over the navigator's shoulder and asking him about the system they were just skirting.

      "The primary's called Teller. Eight planets. The only one colonised is the fourth, Hinkal."

      "What's this contact? The one extending almost to the edges of the Teller system? It must be a couple of parsecs in extent."

      "Not much more than one. You're misjudging the size because it's a powerful transmission source. It's a dust cloud: the Mare's Nest."

      "A dust cloud shouldn't be that powerful a transmission source, unless..."

      "Unless there's something inside it; a neutron star or a small Black Hole or something else we don't know about. There's certainly something in there. No ship that has gone more than eight thousand spacials into the Mare's Nest has ever come out again."

      Dayna smiled dazzlingly at him. "I take it we're not going in?"

      "No. We're just going to use the Mare's Nest to make sure we're off Hoopie screens." He saw her puzzlement, and explained. "Scitech. They can detect us, even out here. Not that they can do anything about what they detect, but we don't want to give them any clues about the location of Shipmeet, just in case they do ever get their hands on some kind of ship or long range weapon that could-" He stopped, wondering if he had said too much.

      No, these people were on the side of the Guild. That was why Ardron had allowed them freedom of the ship... Or was it?

      Disturbed, he drew Dayna's attention to the main screen and the swirling, vivid but veiled brightness, glowing pinkly there. "That's the Mare's Nest - on telescopic."

      Dayna watched, fascinated, then turned her attention back to the sensors. In the nebulous brightness at the fringes of the dust cloud a few brighter specks were glowing.

      "What are these?" she asked, circling them with her finger. "Meteorites?"

      "Probably... but..."

      "They're ships," Dayna said with sudden certainty. "That one is changing course slightly. Look,"

      "No, it can't be..."

      Ardron appeared behind them. "Where?"

      "Here."

      "Pirates!" the navigator hissed.

      "Sound red alert!" Ardron ordered. "All crew to battle stations. Pilot, change vectors. Come to 419 603 7491. Full emergency power. Rig all systems to withstand attack."

      Tarrant was also watching the screens, seeing the Mare's Nest swing behind them as Cloudstalker looped backwards to take up her new course. "Aren't you going to make a fight of it?" he asked, as he saw the smaller ships begin to follow.

      "Can't risk it," Ardron replied grimly.

      Cloudstalker was now fleeing back towards the Teller system, with the pack of smaller ships rampaging out of the edges of the Mare's Nest after her.

      "They're closing," the navigator reported.

      "Report on weaponry?"

      "All weapon stations primed and ready to fire, sir."

      "I thought you said that no Guild ship had anything to fear from the pirates..." Ardron's replying glare was so ferocious that Tarrant shut up.

      Fire lanced from the nose of the leading pirate ship. It struck Cloudstalker in the stern, to the left of the engine pods, and glanced off the shielding. On the flight deck, the impact was felt as a tremor under their feet.

      "One strike. Shields... holding."

      "Return fire."

      Red lines blinked against the stars as the stern lasers targeted the leading pirate ship. It exploded, a single white flash against the dark, gone equally suddenly. Instantly, the pirate formation starbursted, going over, under and to either side of Cloudstalker's track. Another shot ripped home on the fleeing Guild craft, and she lurched and slid off course for an instant before the pilot regained control.

      "Where are we going?" Dayna asked.

      "Hinkal. Once we get under their defence screen the pirates will veer off."

      "Hinkal will protect you?"

      "They're too dependent on the Guild not to-" Ardron's reply was cut off by the sound of a heavy explosion aft.

      "Sir, the pirate ships are trying to contact us. They want us to surrender and to hand over our prisoners?"

      "Tell them to go to hell!" Ardron roared. "Take all-out evasive action, on a general course towards Hinkal."

      

      

Avon ran through the door of the cabin he was sharing with Vila and hauled him unceremoniously from the bed, where he had been curled up with a pillow over his head.

      "But we're under attack." Vila protested.

      "You noticed?" Avon commented, clinging to the door frame as the ship rolled under him.

      "There's nothing we can do, Avon."

      "Not to save this junk heap. She's in the process of falling apart, but I do not intend to be on board when she does. Come on."

      Still grumbling, Vila followed Avon out into the corridor just in time to see Cally come running towards them. She had a gun. Vila wasn't about to ask her how she'd got it.

      "It's clear down there," she reported. "Everyone's at Battle Stations."

      "Good. Where are Tarrant and Dayna?"

      "Dayna said that she was going up to the flight deck to try and pick up some information."

      "I think Tarrant went with her," said Vila. "At least, I passed her as I came out of the Mess and I heard her talking to him as I left."

      "Well, it's the last place we want to be. Cally, call them by telepathy. Tell them to get out of there and meet us in the main cargo hold by the escape rockets."

      "How do you know that's where the escape rockets are?" Vila wanted to know, as Cally concentrated on delivering her message.

      "I asked."

      "Didn't they want to know why?"

      "I told them we needed an escape route."

      "But-"

      "And I can be very persuasive." He looked at Cally, who said:

      "It's done."

      "Then let's get the hell out of here." He set off at a run, Cally at his heels.

      "How did I get into this?" Vila moaned, and followed them.

      

      

"We're going to make it..." Ardron whispered, more as an article of faith than in true belief, yet Tarrant thought that he might be right. The attacking ships seemed to be firing to disable, not to destroy and, though the strikes on Cloudstalker were now almost continuous, the Guild ship was not badly damaged.

      "Shields now down to forty per cent power..."

      "We have fluctuations of power flow on the port engines..."

      "Hold speed at maximum," Ardron commanded. "We have to get to Hinkal."

      //Dayna, Tarrant.// The mental voice was soft but clear. //We are going to abandon ship. Join us in the main cargo hold, at the escape rockets. Immediately. Take care.//

      As the voice ceased, Tarrant realised that Dayna's eyes were fixed on him. She touched her lips with her fingers, nodded at him, then began to back slowly towards the door. Plainly, the idea of disobeying had not entered her head. It had certainly entered Tarrant's, but he did follow her through the haze of smoke that was now drifting across the flight deck. He caught up with her just outside the door.

      "Do you really think we ought?" he began.

      "Let's get out of here... or do you really want to be destroyed along with the ship?"

      Even as Dayna spoke there was a tremendous jolt followed by a giant detonation. Behind them, light blazed from the flight deck.

      "Down!" Tarrant yelled.

      As they fell to the floor, the shock wave steamrollered them down onto it and their heads rang with the bellow of the explosion until they could no longer think or feel.

      

      

Avon paused at the entrance to the hold, signalling with an upraised hand to Cally and Vila to remain behind him and to keep silence. He was consumed by the need for haste. There had been too many hits on Cloudstalker and only a few seconds ago there had been a secondary explosion that had shaken the forward area of the ship. He hoped Dayna and Tarrant had left the flight deck in time.

      Peering out into the hold, he absorbed tactical detail almost without realising he was doing so. Most of the huge room was packed with cargo, all of it tightly secured in position, but to his right the hull bulged inwards, and a trio of hatches proclaimed the existence of the escape rockets behind them.

      There were people in the hold. In the distance, Avon could see a damage control party working on an emergency seal. More importantly, two armed guards stood beside the escape rocket hatches.

      Avon grimaced. Plainly, no-one was going to be allowed to abandon ship until Ardron gave the order to do so. He glanced back along the corridor. Still no sign of Dayna and Tarrant. Well, if they didn't arrive soon then they would be left behind.

      Problem: how to get rid of those guards? He or Cally could use the gun to shoot one of them, but the alarm would be raised by the noise, even if they could kill the other before he could get under cover. No good. Some other way, then.

      He beckoned Cally to his side. Silent as a wraith, she joined him.

      "Cover me," he ordered. "Vila can watch our rear."

      //Good luck.//

      Unarmed, Avon walked forward into the hold, making his way boldly towards the escape rockets. When the guards noticed him, he smiled at them and waved in a friendly fashion, then turned his back on them, surveying the hold with tourist-like interest, knowing that this would puzzle the guards without alarming them,

      A deep rumble of fury from his left startled him considerably, almost breaking his poise. He looked for the source and his eyes were caught by another pair the colour of deep water, set in a snarling, not-quite-feline face. Huge silvery fangs were bared in threat. It was all Avon could do to stop himself taking a step backwards, despite the presence of a heavily reinforced cage wall between himself and the creature.

      It was big. One and a half metres at the shoulder and probably ten times the weight of a man, it had thick, silvery-white fur, shading to sky and midnight blue, so that it seemed to shimmer into ghostly insubstantiality. The body was strong and lithe beneath the fur, with long, powerful legs, ending in heavy, six-clawed paws. Avon noticed that two of the claws faced rearwards and were independently retractable. The tail was long and bushy, at this moment held out low and straight behind the beast, as if to balance it when it sprang. The head containing those fabulous eyes was large and domed, but slightly pointed, eyes to the front, the ears large, triangular, and set on the sides of the head. Their tips carried high tufts of deep blue hair, plumes standing over the piercing eyes.

      It looked irritated - and dangerous. As the ship vibrated in another explosion, the rumble became thunderous. The unsheathed foreclaws tore angrily at their owner's prison, sharp enough to scratch the clear carlymer. Avon was very glad to be on the outside of the cage. The beast looked ready to kill.

      "Hey!" The shout came from behind Avon, from one of the guards on the escape rockets. "Leave it alone!"

      It occurred to Avon that he might be able use the creature. If he could separate the guards... He moved towards the cage, beginning to circle it. The captive beast followed his every move, as if waiting for a chance to attack.

      "Hey, you!" One of the guards left his post and hurried across the hold, gun swinging from his hand. "Stop annoying the icecat. That's supposed to be delivered in prime condition to the King of Toppon."

      "Why?" Avon asked, moving further away, round the back of the cage. He was trying to give a fair imitation of an idiot at a zoo. (Act like Vila, he told himself.)

      "Why? Because icecats are the most dangerous big game there is and His Majesty wants to hunt one, that's why. How the planetbound spend their credit with Scitech and the Guild is their business." The guard was now only a couple of metres from Avon, behind the cage, hidden from his partner. "And what the devil do you think you're doing?"

      Avon managed a foolish laugh. Oddly, his main regret was that Vila was probably observing his idiotic antics with some glee. "Hey, he's almost cross-eyed, isn't he?" He waved at the icecat. As he had expected, the beast reacted instantly, crashing into the side of the cage with a bellow of fury.

      The guard would not have been human if he had not glanced towards that clear, reinforced wall, simply to make sure it had not given under the impact.

      In that split second of inattention, Avon struck. A fist in the man's stomach, then a downward chop on the base of his neck, retrieving the gun even as the unconscious guard toppled to the ground.

      He'd hardly closed his fingers round the butt when a great blast set the ship rolling, the momentum sending everything flying across the floor and through the air. The power failed, the gravity with it. Avon lost contact with the floor, lost contact with reality as the lights went out and all sound was drowned in the explosion. Then the secondary generators came on line, and with them light and gravity returned. Avon's right shoulder jarred on impact with the deck, then again and again as he rolled frantically away from the cargo crates sliding towards him, torn loose in the shock,

      Then all was still. Too still. The engine vibration had ceased.

      Avon climbed painfully to his feet. The icecat's cage had torn away one set of securing bolts, been shifted sideways and tilted heavily. A corner had been crushed by a crate containing heavy machinery. The beast was clawing furiously at the split and shattered gap in the carlymer, but it was too small for the big and powerful body to force its way through.

      The second guard was coming towards him at a run. Avon thought about the gun, remembered the damage control party, and shouted instead. "Over here! Help me! He's been hurt!"

      The guard spurted forward. Avon pointed towards the cage, but stuck out his foot just as the guard passed him. The man gave a yelp of surprise as he fell, which cut off abruptly as Avon himself dropped to his knees and used linked hands to club him into unconsciousness.

      "You need any help over there?" The shout came from the direction of the damage control party.

      "No, thanks!" Avon yelled back. "All under control."

      By this time, Cally and Vila were racing to join him, catching hold of whatever equipment was still secure to steady themselves as the ship swayed and shuddered under the battering from the attacking pirate ships.

      "Into the escape rocket," Avon ordered, "and let us hope it is in working order."

      "What about Tarrant and Dayna?" Vila queried.

      

      

Dayna and Tarrant raised their hands cautiously. Both were bruised and shaken. Dayna got to her feet swiftly, ignoring Tarrant's offer of help. Together, they stood and looked down the corridor, at what should have been their escape route. A heavy door now blocked it, and a red light was flashing beside it.

      "We've been holed," Tarrant observed, unnecessarily.

      "Do you think we can circle the sealed compartments?" Dayna asked.

      "I don't know. Let's get back to the flight deck and find out." He staggered in the shock wave from another blast.

      The flight deck was not a place for the weak-stomached. Most of the instrumentation seemed to have been blown in the power surge and what was left was spotted with blood. Dayna fell over a bodyless head and turned away to be sick.

      Fighting his own nausea, Tarrant made his way to the pilot's station. The pilot himself was slumped in his seat, his head at an unnatural angle.

      "Dead."

      Dayna's voice held a shake. "Let's get out of here, Tarrant. Avon and the others will be waiting." She was trying to avoid looking at Ardron. Perhaps his body had not been turned inside out, but that was how it looked. The smell drifting through the air along with the smoke was hideous.

      "Yes... if they've got that far..."

      "Come on."

      "Let's find out what's happening first," Tarrant suggested. "Try and get me a visual." He pulled the pilot's body onto the floor and checked the controls. They were as dead as the pilot but when he switched on the auxiliaries, the telltales began to light up.

      "I have your visual." Dayna's voice was still unsteady, but it held determination. Tarrant glanced towards her. She was leaning over a dead man's shoulder at the navigation station.

      "Put it on the main screen," he ordered.

      Now he could see what was happening. Cloudstalker was still fleeing on course towards a steadily growing planet. Around them buzzed the pirate ships, continuing to harry the Guild vessel.

      Even as he watched, the pirate vessels scored another hit. This time, the main lights went out and there was a sudden absence of gravity, with ensuing sensations of vertigo and panic. Tarrant clung to the back of the pilot's chair and cursed. Dayna just held onto the nearest object - the dead navigator.

      When the lights and the gravity came back, they were not accompanied by the vibration of the engines. When Tarrant checked the instruments, there was no doubt: all power to the engines had been cut. Without power the ship could not attain orbit. She would either by-pass the planet altogether or plunge disastrously into its atmosphere. Tarrant could not be sure which without further navigational computation.

      Meanwhile, the pirate ships were closing around Cloudstalker. Tarrant was not sure if they were planning to board her or make sure of her destruction. One thing, however, was certain:

      "We can't get to the cargo hold in time," he told Dayna. He slipped into the pilot's chair and put his hands to the controls, feeling the ship respond. Then he switched on the address system, hoping that it had been damaged enough to disguise his voice without being too badly damaged to carry it.

      "This is the flight deck. All crew members stand by. Repair parties, engine room, I must have power now. We are going to make planetfall in..." He checked the figures. "...approximately five minutes. That is all."

      

      

Avon and Vila stared at each other as the voice over the address system ceased. Vila's expression was a parody of comical astonishment and Avon's eyes had rounded in the way they did when he was truly startled.

      Vila expressed their common feeling in words "He's out of his mind!"

      Avon recovered his poise. "That is nothing unusual. Well, he has plainly made his decision. As Dayna has not joined us I presume that she has made hers and is staying with him. Let's go."

      "But-" Cally began.

      "You can join Tarrant if you like." Without waiting for a reply, Avon started towards the escape rockets. Vila began to follow, then, realising that Cally was not with them, turned back to see her staring directly at the icecat. It was no longer clawing at its cage, but instead staring intently at Cally. Vila thought that it was considering how good a meal she might make. He pulled at her arm.

      "Come on, Cally."

      "No. Vila, this beast... it is... intelligent, I am sure. Not, perhaps, as intelligent as we are... though perhaps ... I don't know. We must free it."

      "Free it!" In panic, Vila grabbed Cally's wrist to pull her away, but he had not anticipated the sudden and skilled reaction which snapped her free and left him nursing a sore wrist. In the same movement, Cally raised her gun while the icecat backed to the far side of the cage. Cally blasted the damaged corner, shattering it completely. The icecat leaped through the opening.

      Vila yelped and fled towards the hatch that led to the escape rockets. Avon had turned at the noise of the gun and was watching the tableau in disbelieving fury. The sound had also attracted the attention of the damage control party at the far side of the hold, as Avon had feared all along.

      "What the hell is going on over there?" a man's voice bellowed.

      Then a shot missed Cally by centimetres as she ran to join Avon and Vila. She whirled, dropping to one knee to return fire. Avon pushed Vila at the hatch controls and fired at the repairmen.

      Suddenly, the icecat was between them. Making a noise reminiscent of a rocket exhaust, it swept out a massive paw to down one man as the others scattered. Avon drew a bead on the beast, then hesitated. The icecat was certainly keeping their enemies at bay. Then Vila called to him that the hatch was open and he turned to follow the thief into the opening.

      Cally, though, did not join them immediately. Instead, she called telepathically to the icecat. //Leave them and come with us.//

      The beast swirled like a snow-filled whirlwind, up into the stored cargo. It loped quickly along the top of the packing crates, then floated down to Cally's side. They dived through the hatch together into the airlock. Cally slammed the hatch and secured it, conscious of the warmth of the icecat pressed against her. It did not speak into her mind yet she was aware of its trust. She forced her way around its bulky body to the inner hatch.

      //Stay quiet,// she ordered as the inner door to the escape rocket opened. Together, they passed through into the cabin.

      Avon had taken the pilot's seat. Cally knew he was more than capable of flying something this simple and flying it well. Vila was at the small navigation board to his side.

      "Cally?" Avon asked, without looking round.

      "I'm here."

      "Outer moorings free," Vila reported crisply. "Locks open."

      Cally slid hurriedly into a seat and fastened the harness, warning the icecat to stay back.

      "Emergency release!" Avon ordered.

      The escape rocket shuddered. Cally was pressed back into her seat as the small ship surged forward. The hull of a spaceship loomed below, the massive arc of a planet above, a thin line of black space separating the two. The fiery darts of the attacking pirate ships burnt their way across all three. A beam lanced out to dash itself against Cloudstalker, then was gone.

      Avon advanced the power control. The escape rocket plunged under the stern of the larger ship, right between the fins. If Cloudstalker's engines had started at that moment, they would have been fried.

      The icecat howled. Avon had no time to spare a glance behind him, but Vila did. "It's in here!" he cried in horror. "It's in here!"

      "It is all right," said Cally. There was no time for further explanation as, through the forward ports, she saw the pirate ships coming in to attack. "Avon!"

      "I know." Avon was already turning the escape rocket. He added the emergency boosters to the thrust of the engines, sending the tiny craft plunging straight towards the very centre of the attacking formation. Before they could fire, the escape rocket was amongst them where, if they fired on it, they would probably hit each other. The escape rocket passed so close to the leading ship that it almost scraped its hull. Vila had time to notice the astounded expression on the face of its female pilot, before Avon rolled them upwards towards the cloud-strewn planet. Vila closed his eyes and held on tightly to the arms of his chair. He knew that it was an illusion, to feel dizzy in a null-G zone, but he still got motion sickness during violent manoeuvres. When he opened them again, the planet was filling the forward ports so that even the blackness of space was obliterated.

      Avon reached over and checked Vila's safety harness.

      "Cally, are you strapped in?" he asked.

      "Yes, but the icecat-"

      "I don't know what that beast is doing here but it will have to take its chances. If you can't control it, shoot it."

      Cally looked back at the closely tacked seats and saw that the icecat had wedged itself between two rows, its great claws hooked into the floor.

      Yes, she thought. Very intelligent.

      //Stay quiet, my friend. All will be well.//

      The darkness outside the ports became absolute, the silence replaced by the nerve-scraping scream of the atmosphere tearing past the trembling metal.

      "Hull temperature's going up," Vila reported. "Avon... it just occurred to me... if this ship's as old as Cloudstalker..."

      "I don't care if it's old, so long as it's sound." Avon could feel the heat seeping into the cabin, but it was not only that that was causing him to sweat. Vila was right. They should not be feeling this much heat. The engines were labouring and the escape rocket was sluggish in responding. The tremble had become a violent shake.

      The ebony outside was turning to midnight, then to navy. Avon decided that he could wait no longer and fired the retros. The din became even worse and for a dark minute he contemplated failure, before he saw that the airspeed had begun to drop away.

      The sky was dark blue now, and black clouds gathered far below the racing escape rocket.

      Avon pushed the damp hair off his forehead, and started breathing again.

      Cally asked, "What about the other ships?"

      "If anyone decided to chase us, we lost them," said Vila. "Hey, Avon, can you put us down in one piece?"

      

      

As the escape rocket disappeared down towards the planet, Dayna said, with relief, "Whoever they are, they're clear. The pirate ships aren't closing on the Hinkal defences. It looks like Ardron was right about that."

      "Yes."

      "Anyway, let's hope it was Avon and the others."

      "They were supposed to be waiting for us in the cargo hold."

      "But they'd've heard your announcement to the crew," Dayna pointed out.

      Tarrant was not sure he liked the implications. He thumbed the intercom. "What about power to the engines?"

      "Who is that?" a suspicious voice demanded.

      "This is the flight deck," Tarrant replied. "If you know-"

      "Tarrant!" Dayna shouted as the pirate ships again opened fire on the Cloudstalker. Tarrant thrust the power controls to full, and prayed that any gods who might have half an ear open would direct their attention to the Greater Magellanic Cloud.

      The ship responded with a surge of power. Tarrant changed course, swinging towards planetary orbit, down and under the pirate ships.

      "Done it!" Dayna shrieked,

      "Not so fast..." Tarrant muttered. "Power's fluctuating. I'm taking her straight down, Dayna. Let's just hope she holds together."

      

      

The escape rocket skimmed low over the surface of an ocean, along the path of light laid down by the red sun standing above its horizon. Sky and sea were pink and silver and green; a candyfloss world.

      In the rear of the little craft, the icecat was making chirruping noises of contentment.

      Vila glanced nervously backwards. "Is that thing safe?"

      "No," said Avon.

      "Yes," said Cally.

      "There's nothing I like better them a unanimous opinion," Vila muttered, huddling down in his seat.

      "I'd like to know what excuse you have for bringing that thing on board, Cally," Avon said stiffly.

      "He is an intelligent being who was just as much a prisoner as we were, if not more so. I need not justify freeing him to you or to anyone, Avon."

      "It is a wild animal and it is a killer," said Avon.

      "Not without cause. It is not dangerous to us."

      "Look, can we argue about this later?" Vila asked. "That looks like land ahead of us."

      By the time Avon could look, the brown smudge on the horizon had resolved itself into sand dunes with a plain behind them.

      "I'll reduce airspeed," he said. "Start looking for signs of civilization. I want to land far enough outside of any cities to avoid the local militia but I don't want to have to walk back from the middle of nowhere."

      "Oh, I agree completely," Vila told him fervently.

      The dunes whistled away under them, the rocket exhausts whipping up a sandstorm. Before the grains resettled, the craft had vanished from sight and hearing.

      On the plain, shaggy, grey-brown animals raised their heads as the strange object thundered overhead, but they were placid beasts, and stupid and, when the noise had gone, they returned to their grazing.

      "I saw buildings to the south," said Vila.

      "Good." Avon swung the escape rocket onto a southerly course, towards a ridge of mountains rising out of the sea-plain, white-hatted and skirted in blue-green.

      "We're getting low on fuel," Avon went on. "I'll put her down in the mountains. There should be plenty of cover there."

      "Can you land her?" Vila asked anxiously.

      "We'll both know soon enough," Avon replied, applying the airbrakes.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

I was woken by Silkay's hand on my shoulder. "Blake, there is news," the wi'h said.

      "Yes?" I was fully awake now, and eager.

      "The computer that you brought here says that it must speak with you at once."

      Looking at my watch, I saw that I had only been asleep for about four hours. No wonder I felt as if I had not slept at all. "I'm coming," I told Silkay, feeling for my robe. "Damn Orac, anyway."

      "I will bring you some seru," said Silkay, and retreated.

      I padded through the darkened house into the lounge where I had left Orac. In the hooplight, the room was unfamiliar, full of objects I could not identify. Only Orac stood out clearly, a faintly-lit cube that flickered in multicoloured patterns.

      "Well, Orac? What have you got for me?"

      "I would appreciate swifter attendance when I summon you," said the computer, "particularly as you informed me that the matter was of some urgency."

      "It is. Report, Orac."

      "The defence and space traffic control computers on the planet Hinkal are recording an orbital battle between a squadron of pirate vessels out of the Mare's Nest and Cloudstalker, a Guild ship. In fact, Cloudstalker was the last Guild ship to leave Scitech Central before the attack of the minumal swarm though it appears to have remained in orbit during the early part of the minumal attack. As Cloudstalker's computers are so antiquated that they do not contain tarial cells, they are closed to me, but information from other Guild computers suggests that the minumal were brought to Scitech Central by the Guild and released there at the request of the Captain of the Cloudstalker. There is a general alert for the leaders of the Guild squadrons to assemble at a place called Spacemeet. Logic suggests that Avon, Cally, Vila, Dayna and Tarrant are on board the Cloudstalker."

      "Logic certainly does. Is Cloudstalker badly damaged? Are they landing on Hinkal?"

      "Hinkal traffic control computers have recorded the release and safe descent of an escape rocket. Cloudstalker is attempting an emergency landing. The pirate craft are retreating back to the Mare's Nest."

      "Keep monitoring. Silkay!"

      He appeared at once, carrying the steaming cup of seru he had promised me. I took it automatically. "Thanks. Find two of your people who are familiar with the modifications we've made to Moonshadow, who are willing to come with me to Hinkal, and have them meet me aboard the ship."

      "I will accompany you."

      "No. I want you to go out to the Yards and take those probes we discussed before I went in to Central. This is my personal business and I ask the help of the wi'h as a favour - but I'm not going to interfere with the work on the Yard Barriers.

      "You will always have the help of the wi'h," said Silkay, "even though you are the only man who does not demand it. You have given yours freely to us; no other human I have known would have done that."

      "You've known the wrong humans," I told him. "I'm hoping to introduce you to some of the right ones - soon. Meanwhile, I'm moving as soon as I've got some clothes on."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

"Where's the damn spaceport?!" Tarrant howled above the combined scream of engines and atmosphere.

      "Steer 039," Dayna told him, as she hung on to the navigation station.

      "Hinkal Control to Guild ship Cloudstalker," an exasperated and rather frightened voice was repeating from the communicator. "You are not cleared for landing. Resume holding orbit. Repeat: resume holding orbit."

      "Shut him up!" Tarrant snarled.

      "I wish I could," Dayna snapped back, harassed.

      "Flight deck." That was the voice from the Engineering Section. "Flight deck, I'm going, to have to cut the power. It's gone into feedback, and the engines are running towards explosion point."

      "No!" Tarrant shouted. "You must hold power!"

      "Cutting powe-" The voice broke off abruptly. Seconds later, they heard the bellow of an explosion and the ship bucked wildly, then the flight deck seemed almost silent as the engine noise disappeared and all that remained was the atmospheric wail, joined now by the hitherto masked groans of the over-strained hull casing.

      "What's below us?"

      "Water!"

      "I'll try and ditch in it..." Tarrant growled, fighting to keep Cloudstalker straight. Her glide characteristics were atrocious and she was trying to spin in the shock of the explosion. "Dayna, give me an altitude countdown."

      "Eleven hundred and thirty metres," Dayna reported obediently. "...nine hundred..."

      "At one hundred, get down on the floor."

      "Seven hundred... six hundred..." Dayna was surprised to find her voice steady. We should have gone with Avon, she thought. Then, I hope they made it. "Two hundred... one hundred..." She fell flat to the deck. Tarrant abandoned the controls and followed her example.

      Cloudstalker's flat bottom slapped down hard on the water, raising a storm cloud of spray. She dipped deep, so the surface almost closed over her, but rose again like a spouting whale. Unfortunately, the impact had split her hull and she wallowed, slowly beginning to sink.

      Dayna scrambled to her feet in water that was already rising over her ankles, pouring in through a hole in the hull that was getting wider even as she watched. Hurriedly, she plashed over to Tarrant and grabbed his shoulder.

      "Tarrant!"

      He didn't move. Dayna grabbed two handfuls of his shirt and heaved him over. His eyes were closed and there was a bruise on his forehead, but she slapped his face anyway. "Tarrant!"

      Realising that it was no use, she began dragging him through the water towards the split in the hull. The floor dipped under them as the ship rolled, sending Dayna to her knees. More water spilled in, sloshing over Tarrant's supine body. Dayna guessed that she would not be able to pull him out of the ship before it sank, but she knew she could not leave him.

      It was a relief when he solved her dilemma by beginning to struggle. Promptly, she hauled him to his feet. "Come on, Tarrant."

      "Uh?" He was still leaning heavily on her, but at least his legs were moving of their own volition.

      "Can you swim?"

      "Swim?" Tarrant blinked groggily at her. "At the Federation Space Academy I was-"

      "Save your breath."

      They reached the rent in the hull, fighting their way through the onrushing water, cold and salt. Dayna grabbed the edge of the hull and pulled herself outside by main force, feeling Tarrant shove her onwards.

      Then all was confusion as water closed over her head and she was fighting her way through raging waves. She kicked off her shoes, then stroked powerfully for the surface. Within moments, her head broke through into air and light. She took a couple of deep breaths, treading water meanwhile and shaking it out of her ears and eyes. Waves were coming at her from all directions, slapping her face and buffeting her from side to side.

      Cloudstalker still loomed over her, water now more than halfway up its hull, and Dayna set about putting as much distance as possible between herself and the sinking spaceship. She had been brought up on the edge of an ocean on the planet Sarran and swam both powerfully and economically, so the ship was well behind before she found herself fighting the drag as it went under.

      Looking back, she saw a great flat expanse of foam, and nothing else. There was no sign of any other survivor... not even Tarrant.

      Dayna rolled onto her back and floated. She could see no land and no flying creatures to indicate its direction. There was nothing she could do except wait.

      Dayna waited.

      

      

Waytrack

Cally sat on the edge of a boulder, looking down the gentle, winding valley that ran towards the sea. Her hand rested on the head of the icecat that crouched beside her. Behind her, the escape rocket lay half-hidden by the trees into which Avon had steered her. The red sun was high in the sky but obscured by drifting cloud, and the day was not hot. From the angle of inclination, Cally thought they were in the temperate regions. Far away down the valley, Cally could see some sort of roadway cutting through the trees and cultivated fields surrounding buildings. They were plainly not far from whatever civilization this planet possessed.

      "Cally." Avon's voice spoke from behind her.

      The icecat grumbled warningly.

      Cally soothed it with a thought, then turned to smile at Avon. "It is quite safe. He will not harm you."

      Avon made his way cautiously round the icecat, which regarded him curiously.

      Cally said: "Touch him, Avon."

      "Wait a minute-" Avon stopped himself. "Is that thing really sentient?"

      "Does he behave like a wild animal?"

      "No," Avon admitted, then, with some reluctance, he offered the icecat his clenched fist.

      //This is Avon. He is my friend... and yours.//

      The icecat touched Avon's hand with his nose, then withdrew.

      "It is going to be very conspicuous if you insist on it staying with us."

      "Then people will notice him and not us," Cally replied.

      Avon shrugged. Though he did not like or trust the icecat, he understood Cally too well to press her when her voice took on that tone. She could be just as stubborn as... as... Blake used to be. Avon pushed away the surprisingly painful thought.

      "Where is Vila?" Cally was asking.

      "Inspecting his bruises, raiding the first aid box and complaining about my piloting. I told him he could have stayed with Tarrant and he swore at me." As Cally laughed, Avon added, "I wonder if Cloudstalker was destroyed..."

      "You are worried about Dayna and Tarrant?"

      "Tarrant is well able to take care of himself, as he keeps telling us, but Dayna... she's little more than a child... and her father said..." He halted appalled at the way his tongue had run away with him in Cally's sympathetic presence. He expected some sort of comment, but the alien woman simply sat and stroked the icecat's fur.

      After a while, she said, "I must give this one a name."

      "Really, Cally, this is neither the time nor the place for pets!" Avon exploded, glad to have something on which to vent his defensive anger.

      "He is not a pet but a person!" Cally retorted. She considered for a while. //I will call you Lanrir. It is the name of a smoky grey-blue jewel stone of my world. The word means 'sky-ice'.// She felt that the icecat approved.

      "His name is Lanrir," she stated.

      Avon raised despairing eyes to the turquoise sky. "Come on, Cally. We've got to leave this area before someone traces the escape rocket's position and comes to investigate. I've already stripped out everything we can take with us."

      Cally rose to her feet. "Good." She smiled gently at Avon and slipped her arm through his. "Now, let us go and remove Vila from the medical supplies."

      

      

Dayna had tried shouting for Tarrant but the wind whipped the words from her lips and blew them into oblivion. The sea was becoming very choppy, turning cold and grey as the clouds piled up to drape the entire sky in dark curtains. It took all Dayna's will power to stay here where Cloudstalker had crashed rather than to start swimming in the hope of finding land. It was here that her best hope of rescue lay, as the search parties would arrive at this spot more quickly than anywhere else.

      It started to drizzle. Dayna continued to tread water, laying all the Sarran curses that she knew on the local weather spirits. Then she heard another noise mixing with the wind - a high pitched whine. Looking up, she saw a bright yellow aircar coming downwards from the clouds.

      She waved frantically, then, realising that her black hair and skin would make her almost invisible against the dark-grey seas, she lay on her back and windmilled her arms, kicking wildly with her legs to raise as much spray as possible. It was very tiring, but Dayna kept it up until she saw the aircar turn towards her.

      Within three minutes she was being hauled on board by two large men in waterproof gear. She was so glad to see them and to be out of the cold water that it wasn't until she was seated in the rear cabin of the big vehicle that she realised that the faces around her were not friendly.

      Drawing the thermal blanket more closely about her, she tried to smile at them, a difficult job as her teeth were chattering. "Th...thank...y...y...you. H...h...have you...p...picked up any other s...survivors."

      She was simply and very completely ignored.

      "I...I...h...had a f...friend. I...we got...s...separated..."

      Now someone took notice of her. "Shaddap!" one of the men snarled at her before returning to his scrutiny of the ocean below.

      "Guilder bitch..." another added, under his breath.

      Dayna gave up. Ten minutes later, Tarrant was hauled aboard, dripping wet and plainly exhausted. He collapsed into the seat beside her. "I...I...see you made it," he panted.

      "Yes." Dayna looked at him warningly. "Our welcome seems a little doubtful. These people don't seem very friendly. Do you think there were any other survivors from Cloudstalker?"

      "I didn't see any."

      "Neither did I."

      "Of course, there was-" Tarrant swallowed, remembering Dayna's warning. No use in letting their captors know of the escape rocket. The others would be better off without the sort of help that they were receiving here.

      Dayna sighed. Frying pan and fire-wise, as Vila had put it, their luck continued to be all bad.

      

      

"My feet ache," Vila complained.

      "Try crawling," Avon suggested unsympathetically. He was not enjoying the trek himself, and he had a blister on one heel, but he was certainly not going to complain about it. The really infuriating thing was that Cally was plainly enjoying herself, despite the light rain that had been falling steadily for what seemed like hours, drenching the upright-branched needle-leaved trees and the broad-leaved, spreading ground cover.

      "I should have stayed with Tarrant," Vila announced.

      "Why is it that you always have these good ideas after the event?"

      "And I'm tired."

      "No more than I am - of your voice."

      "Humph," said Vila, aggrieved. He trudged on in silence, occasionally tripping over a particularly tough stem. These seemed to have a built-in mechanism for trapping his ankles that did not seem to affect the others. Perhaps it was some kind of vegetable magnetism. Cally and Lanrir glided over the rough ground as if it were a flat road, and even Avon seemed surefooted enough.

      Well, Vila thought, at least we're going downhill. He wiped a wet face with a wet hand. Everything was dripping.

      Avon arranged this, he decided. He knows I hate walking. Especially walking in the cold and wet. Come to think of it, Avon doesn't like the cold and wet much, either.

      This thought cheered Vila, and he began to bounce a little as he followed Cally and the icecat.

      Suddenly, Lanrir halted, standing statue-like, ears cocked forwards. Cally stopped too, holding up her hand. Vila, halted, thankfully, but Avon moved forward to join the woman and the icecat.

      They had reached the roadway that Cally had spotted from the mountainside. At this distance, it was far from impressive. The trees had been cleared away to make a routeway, but the ground was still rough, rutted and vegetation-covered. The vehicles that travelled it were plainly not wheeled or tracked. Now, however, there was no sign of any traffic.

      "What do you think?" Cally asked Avon.

      "Rough as it is, we'll make better time along it than in the trees, but, on the other hand, we would be better off avoiding everyone at the moment. The natives might not be friendly."

      "Yes, Lanrir is the friendliest creature we have met in the Cloud so far. The humans here seem even more hostile to strangers than the ones back home. But that also means that we must get as far away from the escape rocket as quickly as we can."

      "We'll chance the road," Avon decided.

      "Very well."

      Avon turned his head. "Come on, Vila."

      The thief had just sat down on the wet ground, and it was with a mutter of complaint that he got up again. He brightened considerably when he saw the road, and even more so when, twenty minutes later, they left the woods behind and found themselves walking between cultivated fields, with a small cluster of low, red houses in a hollow below them.

      It was at that point, though, that Avon bundled him off the road and into the fields, where tall, slim-stalked plants waved their heavy, pinkly-fluffed heads more than two metres above their own.

      "What do you think you're doing?" Vila protested, shaking himself free and glaring at Avon.

      "Don't you think we were just a little conspicuous?"

      "But there's a village down there. Food. Shelter."

      "And people who must be considered enemies until they prove themselves friends. Look at it from their point of view. We're total strangers, wearing strange clothes and with odd accents, knowing nothing of local customs, accompanied by a ferocious-looking beast the size of a groundcar. By now there probably isn't a person on the planet who doesn't know about our escape rocket, so guess what will happen if we show ourselves within a couple of hundred kilometres of here?"

      "We'll be identified," Vila said glumly.

      "How clever of you to have worked it out. Cally and I would never have thought of it without you."

      "So we avoid the village?" Vila asked, in disappointed but resigned tones.

      "Not... entirely. We need information and local currency: information to get us to the nearest city and money to help us survive the first few days when we get there."

      "What about food? Transport?"

      "We have concentrates. I presume that the icecat can feed itself. Stealing transport will give away our position and make us too conspicuous. What we need is a map. You're sure to find one in the village."

      "Huh? I'm...? Oh, no, Avon. I'm not a cat burglar or a sneak thief."

      "You are a thief. A professional. The best, in your own estimation. Find a house where everyone is out, open the door, go in, lock the door behind you and then search the place for a map and money. Repeat the process until you find them, then come on out. Don't let anyone see you."

      "But Avon, suppose that someone does see me?"

      "Then you must exercise your rusting wits and talk your way out of the situation..." Avon paused. "Perhaps I'd better go with you."

      "But Avon-"

      "Just to make sure that you actually do go into the village and not just report back to me that you did and that you couldn't find a map."

      "Would I do something like-?"

      "Stay here, Cally," Avon ordered, interrupting Vila. His fingers closed tightly on the other man's wrist. "Come with me, Vila, and we'll set that so-called 'genius' of yours to work."

      

      

"Your names?"

      A security man is a security man is a security man, in any place and at any time. Tarrant and Dayna had immediately recognised the one sitting in front of them as a typical example of the breed, and the sight did not thrill them. It appeared that they were going to be questioned at once, despite the fact that they were still damp, neither had any shoes, nor had they been fed. Tarrant decided that he should not have skipped breakfast.

      "Your names?" the security man snarled.

      Dayna could not see any reason to antagonise him further, or to withhold their names at all. "I'm Dayna Mellanby and this is Del Tarrant."

      Their interrogator spoke into a box on his desk. "Check records of registered Guild citizens for the names Dayna Mellanby and Del Tarrant. Record them as survivors of the spaceship Cloudstalker, now held by the Government of Hinkal. I am ordering them transferred to Detention Level B6."

      "Wait a minute," Tarrant interposed. "I think I should explain that Dayna and I are-"

      "You'll explain nothing, Guilder! You are guilty of violating our airspace, endangering the lives of our citizens, polluting our oceans..."

      Tarrant began to laugh at that.

      Dayna said quickly, "We were under attack."

      "That is no excuse. The Guild is going to have to pay quite a large amount in reparations if it wants you back."

      "But we aren't members of the Guild," Dayna protested.

      "No? Then whose citizens are you? A Cloud World? Scitech? What?"

      "No... we... look, you can check our identities with Sc-" Dayna stopped as Tarrant stood on her foot. She glared at him, but did not resume her explanation.

      The security officer spoke to his guards. "Put this trash in the cells - and leave the woman alone for the moment. She may be worth more to the Guilder bastards if she's left intact."

      

      

How did I ever get into this? Vila asked himself. He looked behind him. No sign of Avon now, of course, but Vila knew better than to think that he wasn't watching. Vila was standing in an alleyway, with light from the newly emerged sun slanting down between the pale-red glasamt walls and reflecting off the wet stone paving. He found the buildings a little surprising. Glasamt was a material used to build temporary emergency buildings within the Federation. These structures seemed permanent. Some were even overgrown with creamy-yellow climbing plants.

      Bending low so his eyes were just on a level with a window sill, he peered into the room beyond. That was dim and apparently empty, but the little he could see of it seemed to indicate a mixture of living space and office.

      Leaving the window, Vila went silently along to the end of the alley and the door in the house wall. It was not locked. He pulled it open carefully, then stepped smartly into the hallway beyond and closed it softly behind him.

      Haven't had time to case the place, he thought resentfully, as he padded past a slightly open door, behind which he could hear voices. Low, female voices. He was glad when it was behind him. Pushing open a door on his right, he peered round it then, seeing that he was indeed looking into the room that he had seen through the window, he dived around the door and closed it behind him.

      He went straight to the desk and unlocked the drawers. There was nothing inside them but receipts and what looked like handwritten copies of computer printouts. It was only then that he realised that the room did not have a computer terminal, not even a hand held one. There were calculations in the margins of the account books. He goggled at them.

      Talk about primitive, he thought. I wonder what I'll find next? A radio set?

      What he did find was a bookcase that contained mainly printed works.

      Avon would love this, he thought. So would Blake, if he was still alive... Ah, what's this?

      An atlas of the Greater Magellanic Cloud.

      Well, we'll have that.

      He also found a much-worn map viewer, slim enough to slip into a pocket. He appropriated it and slipped it into his.

      There. That had been much easier than he had thought it would be...

      The door started to open. Vila scurried into cover behind a chair, tucking his arms and legs as close to his body as he could.

      A woman's voice said, "I'm sorry, Mi, but Joon's gone with the search parties to locate that ship that came down in the mountains."

      "If you could just find the authorisation, Reema, then I could deal with the Agriculture Department. If I'm going to expand, I'll need a subsidy, and Joon's experiences with them might help. He promised-"

      "Yes, I know." There was the sound of a drawer opening. "That man of mine. I keep telling him to lock this drawer."

      "Why? Who'd steal anything? This isn't Lomril city."

      "That's what Joon says, but I tell him that we do get travellers through here... Indes, for instance. World-hoppers. Thieves."

      "We haven't got anything they want here," Mi protested. He settled himself down in the chair behind which Vila was hiding. Vila felt the weight bulge against his knees and tried to shrink within himself, stilling his breathing.

      "Where the Devil is that AgD authorisation?" the woman grumbled. "Really, this desk is a mess. Ah, I think this is it. Would you like to look it over, Mi, while I go and make some jintree. I'm sure you'd like some."

      "Umm. That's kind of you. Thanks, Reema."

      Vila heard the door open and close. He was having problems fighting an overwhelming desire to sneeze. He held his nose and tried to breathe through his mouth, but he found this difficult to do quietly. Then his leg muscles began to jump with cramp. He gritted his teeth, took one hand away from his nose and used it to massage his legs. He began to count off seconds in his head. When he had counted to sixty five times he began to wonder about Avon.

      Would he just go off and leave him? No, he wanted those maps. Surely he wouldn't try and come after them himself? That would ruin everything.

      The woman came back into the room and brought an appetising, spicy smell with her, a smell that reminded Vila of lemons and tasquree. He hadn't realised until then how thirsty he was. His mouth was beginning to water.

      It remained watering for several more minutes while Mi and Reema sipped their drinks in silence.

      "Yes," Mi said, at last, "I think I understand it, but can I take it with me, Reema."

      "Well... I'm not sure what Joon would say..."

      Who cares? Vila thought. Get on with it, you stupid woman.

      Finally, Reema did agree, but then she and Mi remained gossiping for what seemed like years.

      Vila was the first to notice another sound. It grew until it was louder than the voices, a rumbling sound accompanied by squeaks. Finally, it came to the attention of the two gossips.

      "What's that?" Reema asked.

      "I don't know. It sounds like... but it can't be..." Mi got to his feet, much to Vila's relief, and went to the window. He opened it and leaned out. "There's something moving on the waytrack. Gods! There's a herd of galine out there."

      "But surely they can't get out of the pens?"

      "They're out! Come on!"

      Half a minute later, the house was empty, except for Vila Restal, who rose slowly to his feet, then spent the next two minutes dancing about cursing with pain as cramp shot through his legs. Clutching the atlas, he limped over to the door and looked into the hall. It was empty.

      He was about to leave when a thought struck him and he went back to the desk. Sorting out some of the vistapes, he made a mental note of the address on the packaging, drank the remains of the jintree, and made his way out into the empty alleyway.

      As he turned to go back the way he had originally come, a huge hairy beast with massive, upward curling horns came straight towards him, squeaking incongruously with massive anger. It plunged down the narrow walkway, straight at the petrified thief.

      Vila squeaked louder than the beast and whirled to run in the opposite direction, but the charging animal swiftly overtook him. With lowered horns only centimetres from his back, Vila leaped upwards, his hands hooking over the eaves of the low roof and into the gutter. His feet dabbled on the broad back as it passed, then he dropped down behind the well-padded backside with its patch of fluff in lieu of a tail.

      Though the fall jarred his ankles, he paused only to scoop up his dropped atlas before running for cover.

      Suddenly, Avon had his arm. Vila yelped and jumped, a performance which Avon ignored. "This way." Vila followed him blindly, hardly aware of the plunging animal bodies to his left, beyond Avon, in the clouds of dust, or of the yelling men and women who were much too busy to notice his existence. Then they were off the track and plunging through scrub, then into the field of tall, pink-headed plants, where Vila tripped and fell headlong. Avon grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and hauled him upright again. When he finally let him go, he didn't give Vila time to draw breath before he was demanding, "Where the hell did you get to?"

      "Woman... man... talking. What were those things?"

      "Some sort of local herd animal. We thought you might need a diversion so we smashed a few fences and that icecat of Cally's drove them into the village. They appeared to take a real dislike to the beast."

      Vila glared at him. "Next time keep your diversions to yourself. I almost got gored."

      "Did anyone see you? And did you get the maps?"

      "No and yes. Look, Avon, the next time you want me to steal something, leave me alone to do it. It's my job and I'm good at it."

      "You'd been gone too long," Avon growled.

      "You were worried?"

      "About you giving away our location? Yes."

      "Is that all you care about-? Yeow!" Vila stopped so abruptly that he sat down backwards, as he came face to face with Lanrir. The icecat licked its chops. Vila blanched.

      Cally appeared behind him. "Thank Valska. We were afraid that you'd been hurt or captured. Come this way. I have found water and cover, and Lanrir has killed. I have taken some of the meat, so we will eat well now. Come."

      

      

Vila lay sprawled on his back, looking up at the sky. A small stream burbled happily to itself as it skipped down towards the village and its sound made him drowsy, as did his happy repleteness. While he had turned away in disgust from the icecat's kill, he had found the meat palatable enough after Cally had used the hand-roaster from the escape rocket to cook it, making the concentrates unnecessary and all he wanted to do now was to sleep off the effects.

      Avon and Cally were poring over the atlas and the map-viewer. "Our first problem," Avon was saying, "is to locate our present position."

      "Above Snake Valley Township," Vila contributed, without moving.

      "What?"

      "Snake Valley Township. Saw it on a vistape address folder."

      Avon looked sharply at Vila's recumbent figure. "Sometimes I suspect that he is not as stupid as he appears."

      Cally laughed. "If you are not sure of that by now you never will be. Look, Avon, if Vila is right then this is where we landed, this is the village, and this is where we are now."

      "Hmmm. It could have been much worse. This large town, Lomril, is only about a hundred and fifty kilometres away."

      "Lomril is the capital of this planet," said Cally, who had been consulting the atlas. "The star is Teller, and this is its fourth planet, Hinkal."

      "So we're in a good situation to get where we want to be," said Avon. "There's a spaceport at Lomril and it is where Dayna and Tarrant will probably be taken, if they survived, that is."

      "A long walk. I estimate three days, at least."

      "Walk!" Cally's comment had aroused Vila. "All that way?"

      "Do you good," Avon told him. "Do I have to repeat myself? We can't afford to draw anyone's atten-"

      "I don't want to know."

      Cally broke in on the exchange with a practical question. "What do we do when we get to Lomril? We have no money."

      "We have skills," came the reply. "It'll be a novel experience for you, Cally, living by your wits. The animal will have to go, though."

      "No." There was finality in the one word.

      Avon's mouth tightened. "We'll discuss it later." He stood up and pushed at Vila with his foot. "Come on, hero."

      "For this I left Terminal..." Vila complained, but he got up. "We should have stayed at Scitech Central."

      "That," said Avon, "is what I wanted to do in the first place."

      "Poor old Tarrant." Vila grinned happily. "I wonder if he's enjoying himself. I bet you that he isn't walking his feet off."

      "There are worse things," said Cally.

      

      

Tarrant tested the strength of the restrainers for the tenth time and concluded, as he had concluded nine times before that he had no hope of breaking free of them. He flexed his muscles, trying to set the blood circulating back into his feet. He was sure that they were quite anaemic by now. He had been sitting in this hard, uncomfortable chair for what seemed like hours. He wished that he knew whether Dayna was all right; he hadn't seen her since he'd been brought to this underground interrogation room.

      "So," gloated the man bulging out of the large padded chair at the opposite side of the horizon-forming desk. "You are going to resist us. How very gratifying."

      "I am not resisting you," Tarrant lied.

      "The pirates have never ventured to attack a Guild ship so close to Hinkal before. Cloudstalker must have been carrying something that they wanted very much. What was it?"

      "I tell you I don't know-" Tarrant's sentence concluded in a shout of pain as something activated every nerve in his right leg.

      Even before the agony had passed, a guard standing behind him grabbed a handful of curls and dragged his head up and back so far that he gasped for breath. "Talk! Talk, Guilder bastard, or it won't stop here."

      As Tarrant's head was released to sag forward, the fat man asked, "You were coming from the Hoop?"

      "Yes..."

      "Going where?"

      "I don't know-" This time Tarrant saw the hand move to the controls before his world dissolved in pain. It was both legs this time, as if a fire had been lit under him and he was burning at the stake. "I tell you I don't know!" he screamed. Then, "Wait! Shipmeet! Ardron said... 'Shipmeet'."

      "Shipmeet..." The plummy voice caressed Tarrant's ears. "Shipmeet. Why?"

      "Don't... only Ardron knew. Captain Ardron."

      "Who is conveniently dead. Is Scitech in league with the Guild?"

      "No. Not... not that I know."

      "Well... but you would say that..." The pudgy fingers moved again.

      When Tarrant recovered consciousness he found his interrogator looming over him. "What an interestingly stubborn Guilder you are. I may really have to hurt you. I wonder if you realise how vulnerable you are? Do you know, Del Tarrant, that there is no mention of that name on the register of Guild citizens? So who will there be to object if you do not... stay in one piece?"

      Soft fingers lifted Tarrant's chin. "These good looks of yours can be... removed. Other things can be removed, too. You'll talk in the end, my handsome Guilder. Now, what is your real name?"

      Tarrant took a deep breath. "Bayban the Butcher."

      The fingers shoved his chin aside. Then the agony engulfed his body, and, this time, it did not cease.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

Once we were out into space, I found that the tension eased a little. The feel of a ship in flight, even a tiny converted shuttle like Moonshadow, was a palliative to my impatience, as was the sight of the starfield beyond the ports and on the screens. Darkness touched with light. Beautiful. Frightening. Reassuring. Changing and never changing in essence. Once, space had been my home and even now its familiarity comforted me.

      We had passed beyond the Hoop and were under hyperdrive, though Hinkal was still far away. Moonshadow was not fast by Federation standards. Scitech, though, had no interstellar ships at all. The wi'h and I had adapted this one to my own plans, and it had one great advantage: we had installed a version of the detector shield that Avon had designed for Liberator... so long ago it seemed now. So, even with few legs and peashooter armament, we were safe enough, as long as we relied on stealth. Not that I had any intention of relying on anything else - not with a crew constitutionally unable to fight.

      "I have a report," Orac announced.

      "Yes?"

      "The computers on Hinkal report that the wreckage of the Cloudstalker has been located and two survivors have been taken to Lomril city. Names recorded as Del Tarrant and Dayna Mellanby. The Hinkal government is negotiating with the Guild for reparations and fines."

      "What about the escape rocket?"

      "I was about to inform you that the escape rocket landed somewhere in the western mountains of the southern continent, but its occupants have not yet been located."

      "Good."

      "There is no proof that Avon, Cally or Vila were among the occupants of the escape rocket," Orac objected. "May I point out that-"

      "No you may not. I know Avon. He was on board that escape rocket."

      Even Orac's normal working hum and tick sounded exasperated. I removed his key before he could undermine my emotional assurance with logic.

      After all, Avon, Cally and Vila had to be on that escape rocket. There was nowhere else they could be. Was there?

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

It was raining again, harder now, and the trees under which they were sheltering failed to provide any real cover, their vertical leaves not being well designed for keeping rain from the ground.

      Vila lay huddled on the earth, the thin but warm waterproof blanket pulled up to cover even his head. It transmitted every thudding drop to his aching body. Exhausted though he was, he discovered that it was impossible to sleep. He found himself listening intently, but he could hear nothing except the rain and an occasional movement.

      Suddenly, the blanket cracked under a heavier impact of water. Vila lifted the corner and peered through the resultant slit. The icecat, Lanrir, was on his feet, shaking water from his starlight coloured fur. He looked as disgusted with the weather as Vila felt and, for the first time, he had sympathy for the beast.

      Avon was on watch, propped up against a tree trunk, the blanket about his shoulders glimmering faintly in the glow from the smoking embers of their tiny fire.

      Damn Avon, anyway. This was all his fault.

      Vila pulled the blanket back down again. Cally would be asleep. She could sleep anywhere, even on this rough ground where sticks poked into every square centimetre of your body.

      Lanrir made a soft, warning sound. There was an equally quiet sound as Avon got to his feet. Vila snuggled closer to the ground and tried to pretend that he was asleep, hoping that whatever had alarmed the icecat would go away. He held his breath, listening.

      There was only the hiss of the rain.

      Then Avon's voice: a whisper. "Do you hear it, Cally?"

      "Yes." Vila had not heard Cally get up, but her voice came from somewhere close to Avon. "On the waytrack."

      Vila could hear it himself, now, the soft hum of an engine, some distance away and to their left, travelling quite slowly towards them, Cally was right. It was on the road that they themselves had been following - the path the locals called the waytrack.

      It was opposite them now... going past, and on.

      There was a sharp explosion, not really loud but startling, then a louder crunching sound, then nothing at all. The sound of engines had gone.

      Vila shivered, then bit back a yelp as his blanket was pulled away from him.

      "Move!" Avon snapped.

      Vila struggled to his feet and plunged into the night after him, calling, "Avon! Avon... wait for me!" Then, as he caught him up: "What's happening?"

      "Cally and the animal have gone to help," Avon muttered. "Stupid woman."

      "But-"

      "Come on and stay quiet."

      Vila wasn't quite sure how they found the waytrack, but suddenly Avon stopped, and Vila cannoned into him, getting a hard shove to one side as a reward.

      There were lights ahead. Avon dropped to one knee and peered out between the fleshy stems. Vila peered over his shoulder.

      They were right on the edge of the waytrack. A vehicle of some kind lay on the ground, tilted slightly to one side. It, and the large AG sled it had been towing, were illuminated by powerful lights positioned in the trees on either side of the road. The sled was still in the air, lifting the back end of the wrecked towing vehicle from the ground.

      Three figures, black-clad and masked, were manhandling a woman with light blonde or white hair. Another man writhed on the ground.

      Avon thought swiftly. There was no way that Cally would stay out of this...

      "Vila, put out the light on this side of the road. If you can find Cally, tell her to hold back..." Then Avon was gone, out of the trees and onto the waytrack. Vila knew that he must be counting on the lights blinding the masked men to anything beyond their nimbus. Vila didn't wait to see if his assumption was correct. He stumbled on sideways through the undergrowth, then fell over something soft.

      From beneath him came a terrible wailing shriek, which drowned Vila's own shout of surprise and fear.

      "What the hell's that?" A voice yelled from the waytrack.

      Out in the open, Avon dropped flat as the three masked men whirled about and the lights swung across to illuminate the opposite rows of forest, then panned over the waytrack. Avon buried his face and hands in the ground cover to hide their paleness. The plants were prickly and smelt of strawberries.

      "Can you see anything?"

      "No."

      "Then do we have a ghost, or what? I've never heard anything like that before."

      A hand was over Vila's mouth and an arm over his back, holding him to the ground. //It is all right, Vila. It's all right. You fell over Lanrir just as I told him to howl.//

      "Cally..." Vila mouthed behind the muffling hand.

      "Shush," Cally ordered, but removed the hand.

      Vila dropped his voice to a suitable level. "Avon says to hold back."

      "But those people are in trouble."

      "I know. I've got to put out the light out on this side of the waytrack. Avon's gone to get the other... I think."

      Cally considered that. "Good. Let's find that lamp."

      Avon picked himself up and crouched on the waytrack. The masked men were now looking in the other direction.

      //Avon. Vila and Lanrir are with me. We are going to put out the light.//

      Avon breathed a small breath of relief, then sprinted for the safety of the trees on the far side of the waytrack.

      Cally and Vila made their way through the trees, coming up behind the light source, seeing now that it was a lamp held by someone - it was impossible to tell if it was man or woman sitting on a fallen log. There was a faint eye-gleam as he/she glanced uneasily behind him/her.

      //Hide yourself, Vila. When I tell you, make a loud noise.//

      Cally vanished silently. So did Lanrir. Vila buried himself in the undergrowth where his hand encountered a large stick. He picked it up..

      //Now!!//

      Vila hit the stick very hard against a nearby tree trunk. It broke with a loud crack. At the same time, he made an obnoxious noise through pursed lips.

      The light swung automatically towards him. Cally appeared out of the dark behind its wielder, and struck. As both human and lamp fell, Cally jumped forward to retrieve the light, picking it from the air and swinging it back to focus on the scene on the waytrack.

      //Come to me,// she told Vila. //Take the lamp. Switch it off the instant the other lamp goes out.//

      "Where's the switch?" he hissed, feeling over the smooth casing.

      //Here.// Her fingers guided his.

      //Avon. We have the lamp. Vila will switch it off as soon as you take out the other one.//

      "Thanks," Avon said to himself as he wriggled through the brush. Well, at least Vila had found Cally. It was unfortunate that the holder of his own target seemed to be ensconced in a high tree. It was probably quite easily-climbed but he would not be able to do so without making a noise, particularly in this light - or rather, lack of it. If the person in the tree heard him, the light would be turned on him and probably a gun, too. He would have to avoid that.

      He thought for a few moments, wishing that he had a gun himself, then hunted about in the bare roots under the tree. Finally, he found what he had been looking for - a rock the size of his fist, half buried in the earth.

      As he scrabbled it out of the ground, he could hear voices behind him. The attackers were gaining confidence again and there was talk of raping the woman. One man appeared to have qualms about the idea but the others maintained that no-one should worry about Indes.

      Avon picked up his stone, looking upwards towards the light. He could see the person who held it as a dim shadow against the stars, which made him realise, for the first time, that the rain had stopped and the skies were clearing. Clouds were scudding over a tiny crescent moon. There were no branches blocking out the stars between him and his quarry. Praying that his aim was as good as it once had been, Avon hurled the stone upwards with all his considerable strength, aiming at a point half a metre above and behind the light.

      There was a thud and a cry of pain. The bulky lamp came tumbling through the leaves, the beam gyrating like a Catherine wheel jerked loose from its setting. Avon ducked away in case the lamplight might actually shine onto his face. When the lamp hit the ground he pounced on it and turned it off.

      Behind him, a freezing wail that could only have come from the icecat's throat sounded in the darkness. Someone screamed.

      In the tree above Avon's head a woman's voice was sobbing and cursing, but then he heard footsteps crashing towards him and decided that she could wait.

      "Milli!"

      "Watch out!" the woman shouted, but she was too late. The first voice had given Avon the location of his target and he flung himself towards it, wielding the lamp as a club. It jarred in his hands as it struck bone. His opponent grunted and staggered, giving Avon the opportunity to hit him in the stomach, then in his head as he doubled over. Seconds later, he had the man's gun. Whirling, he aimed gun and light together, spotlighting a dark-haired, middle aged woman wedged in a tree fork. As he saw her, he fired, then snapped off the light and dived to his left.

      The woman's returned shot missed him by a metre; his hit the branch she was straddling, disintegrating it under her. She shrieked as she fell. Avon was beside her in an instant, his gun levelled to fire - but she lay quite still. As he touched her head, it rolled limply. She had broken her neck.

      Behind him, all was silent.

      

      

The instant the lights went out, Cally came like the wind through the dark.

      The group by the vehicles had scattered at Lanrir's scream and now, in the moonlight and starlight, Cally came face to face with one of them. He pulled up his gun; Cally kicked it out of his hand. He made a grab for her ankle; she pivoted away. He charged after her; she was waiting. Her throw took him over her hip and head first into the side of the vehicle. Afterwards, he lay still.

      Then an arm hooked about Cally's throat. She struggled frantically against strength far greater than her own, weakening even more as she fought for breath. Where was Avon? Vila...?

      Then suddenly the grip on her throat loosened. She felt her attacker slide to the floor and turned to face a stranger. She could see little of his face but the fact that he was not wearing a hood reassured her.

      "My thanks," she said, when she had regained a little breath.

      "My pleasure."

      Then there was light again, so close it was blinding. It moved around until it rested on the hovercar's roof, and then it stopped and Vila came from behind it.

      "Where were you?" Cally demanded.

      "I got here as quickly as I could," Vila replied defensively. "Who's he?"

      Cally looked at her rescuer, revealed in the light as a man of perhaps forty years standard, black haired and olive skinned, with narrow, handsome features ...or rather, features that would have been handsome if they had not been marred by two black eyes, a bruise that covered half his face, and blood running from his nose and lips.

      He said: "I'm one of the people whose lives you just saved."

      "And I'm the other." The woman's voice was quiet as she came and took the man's arm, smiling at Cally. She was in her early thirties, ash blonde and pretty, a prettiness enhanced by skilful hairdressing and make-up, and by her superb voluptuous figure. She looked quite horrified as she took in her companion's appearance. "Oh, Nelse... what did they do to you? Are you sure you're all right? I thought they'd killed you..."

      "So did they, luckily. Though if this young lady and her friend hadn't come to help I think I would have been-" He stopped short, sucking in his breath as Lanrir paced into the light. There was blood on his fur. The blonde woman bit back a cry of fear.

      "He will not harm you," said Cally.

      "But... but that's an icecat. They... they're supposed to be untameable."

      "Lenore has a way with animals." Avon came from the same direction as Lanrir, carrying the second lamp.

      "I should have wondered where the other light went."

      "There are two back there," Avon told Cally, ignoring the stranger's comment. "One's dead. The other's unconscious and won't wake up for hours, if at all. The cat seems to have found someone we didn't know about, but I don't think we need worry." It was only then that he turned his attention to the staring couple. "Why did they attack you?"

      "Why did they...? We're Independents. Isn't that enough? No-one's going to worry about us, so we're anyone's target. Look, just who are you?"

      "How do I know that we can trust you?" Avon parried.

      "Trust us? But you rescued us. You have to be..." His battered face became puzzled and grim. "Explain."

      "I think we can trust them," Cally contributed. She knew that Avon must have some plan in mind. Certainly, the alias he had chosen for her was no surprise; she had used it before.

      Avon make a show of thinking about it, then obviously came to a decision. "Very well. My name is Chevron. My friends and I were on board a spaceship-"

      "You're Guildcrew!" It was an accusation.

      "I don't know what you mean by that. We were passengers, prisoners, I thought - and they wouldn't even tell us where we were going. In fact, we weren't even sure where we were, then. We'd been travelling from Earth to Bellema when the ship on which we were passengers was grabbed by some sort of matter transmitter."

      "The Scoop. So you ended up at Scitech Central?"

      "There must have been some mistake. They took all the trouble to bring us here then they didn't appear to want us. Why should they? Mind you, it would have been odd if anyone with that sort of technology would have been interested in a trio of entertainers."

      "Entertainers?"

      "Yes. Well, they told us that they couldn't send us home and then they handed us over to the crew of a spaceship. That was attacked by someone. We stole an escape rocket. I'm not sure how we got down alive but, as we did, we felt that we couldn't trust anyone."

      "You were wise. The Guild would probably have sold you as slaves."

      "What about the icecat?" the woman demanded.

      "That? It was on the spaceship. Lenore made friends with it and wouldn't leave it behind."

      "I still can't believe it. No-one's ever tamed an icecat." The man shook his head, then smiled at Avon. "My name's Nelse Riordan. This is my wife, Pala. What else do you do, besides tame icecats?"

      Avon shrugged. "Does it matter?"

      "It might."

      "Shel Vistran." Avon nodded towards Vila. "He's an illusionist. He's good, too, even if I say so..."

      "And he builds my gear," Vila broke in. He had realised where Avon's words were leading and was determined to spread both work and responsibility. He'd had enough of Avon's 'suggestions' at Scitech Central. "And he and Lenore do a mentalist act," he added triumphantly.

      "Used to," Avon corrected, glaring at Vila.

      "Pretend to read minds and all that," Vila went on cheerfully. "Number tricks, that sort of thing." He gave Avon a charming smile, malice behind it.

      Avon, who had intended to claim that he was Vila's manager, conceded defeat. He returned the thief's smile threateningly.

      Unconscious of the by-play, Riordan and Pala were staring at each other with identical stunned expressions.

      "I don't believe it!" Riordan exclaimed. Then, "Prove you're what you say you are."

      Avon raised an eyebrow, then said, "Shel..."

      I might have known, Vila thought. Didn't take long for him to get his own back... and now I have to save his bacon again.

      He sidled forwards. "Watch carefully. Nothing in this hand. Nothing in this hand... Are you watching closely?" his hands twisted and snaked up to Riordan's face. "But what have we here?"

      With great ceremony he produced a coin - a Federation half-credit - from Riordan's ear, then a piece of crystal picked up on Terminal - from Pala's hair.

      "Of course, I can do better with real props," he explained apologetically.

      "Not to mention better circumstances." said Pala, with a brilliant smile in his direction. "Welcome, brother." She jumped forwards and hugged him which, owing to the state of her clothing, which was torn almost to shreds, severely embarrassed him.

      Riordan took first Avon's then Cally's hands in what was plainly a ritual clasp. "Welcome, brother, sister. You know, I still can't believe it. All I can think of is that you came to our aid out of pure instinct. There's so much to explain," he added, laughing at their puzzlement. "You see, we're entertainers too. Showmen, we call it. We're a brotherhood, a family, helping each other against the rest of humanity. Thugs like those who attacked us tonight. Your rescue was not only good luck for us, it was good luck for you. Once you're with my troupe, among your own kind, no-one will question you."

      "Good," said Avon. "We appear to have made enemies."

      "All Independents have enemies," Riordan replied grimly. "Meanwhile, we've got to get out of this mess. If any of the locals find us, we're dead men. The robbers you killed will be regarded as honest citizens by everyone on this planet except us. It's no crime to steal our money."

      "Then we'd better see if we can repair your hovercar," Avon suggested.

      "Know anything about engines?"

      "I build Shel's equipment, don't I?" As they started towards the grounded vehicle, he added, "If this place is so dangerous for us, why were you travelling alone and at night?"

      "I won't try it again. I took a chance, Chevron. We were playing a small town on the other side of the mountains. The entire troupe started back but the AG generator on my sled broke down in the pass through the mountains. Evening was drawing in, so I ordered the others to go on. No sense in all of us risking our necks."

      Avon was peering at the hole torn in the hovercar's hull and the engine behind it. "Not too bad. This wasn't a large explosion."

      "Uhuh. Distress flare. Their government doesn't trust them with anything stronger. There've been four revolutions here in the past ten years."

      "Well, that's lucky for us," said Avon. "This shouldn't take long. Let's get to work."

      It was as they were about to climb into the repaired hovercar that Cally drew Avon aside. Even so, she used telepathy. //Avon, how did you guess that Riordan and Pala were entertainers.//

      Avon gave a self-satisfied chuckle. "Guess?" His voice could not have carried further than Cally and there was immense amusement in it. "Oh no, I didn't guess. There's an ident tag on the side of the container on the sled. It says, 'Nelse Riordan: Showman and Troupe Master.' It occurred to me that entertainers tend to be clannish and social outsiders, so I took advantage of Vila's odd hobby to join a closed society, one where no-one is likely to look for us."

      //I see. Avon, I am not sure if you are a very clever man or a totally unscrupulous one.//

      Avon gave her his most beautiful smile. "Both?" he suggested.

      Cally punched him lightly on the chest, then slipped past him into the hovercar. Avon was still smiling as he followed her.

      

      

Vanishing Trick

The Guild representative had been a diplomat since the day Fleet Admiral Gorsky (who was his uncle, as it happened) had (he said) discerned this particular talent in his nephew. (Those who remarked that Gorsky hated his brother-in-law and his children almost as much as he hated his sister and that this appointment took the whole bunch of them away from the Napoleon were regarded as being overly cynical and disloyal, to boot. Also as rather too intelligent for their own good.) Yet now he was having to struggle to keep his temper with minor planetary officials.

      "We are quite ready to keep our side of the Treaty agreements," he pointed out. "Despite the fact that we have suffered much greater loss than you have, reparations will be made, if you keep to your obligations under the same treaty and return spacecrew to the Guild."

      "Spacecrew? We have no properly registered Guild citizens in our custody on Hinkal, Captain Farranti."

      "We are talking about Del Tarrant and Dayna Mellanby. Do you deny having them?"

      "Hardly. We informed you of their survival while making enquiries about their origins... but they are not Guild spacecrew, Captain. They are not on your citizens' register."

      "Of course they weren't registered, you fools They'd only just come through the Scoop."

      "Then Scitech should have informed us of the fact by now. We will have to check with them."

      This seriously alarmed Captain Farranti, something he made a bad job of concealing.

      The Hinkal official smiled wolfishly. "Produce proof of your claim, Captain."

      "Or you will contact Scitech?"

      "Perhaps. Perhaps not. We are not the ones who are making unsubstantiated claims."

      "You are dependent on the Guild," Farranti warned. "We transport your produce, bring you Scitech technology..."

      "And we pay you well for it, in goods without which the Guild could not survive."

      There was nothing new in the posturing. Both men were speaking well-known truisms, words that had passed between the Guild representatives and those of various planetary governments many times previously.

      "We have other sources of materials," Farranti blustered.

      "Really? Remember the Planetary Accord, Guilder? Refuse to trade with any one planet and none of the Cloud Worlds will allow any Guild ship to land. Just remember that, before you threaten us."

      "Oh, this conversation will be remembered. You can be sure of it."

      Both men knew that the Guild would do no more than remember, which gave the Hinkalian official great personal satisfaction. At the same time, he wondered what was so special about these two survivors from Cloudstalker, and also why the Guild wanted to keep their names from Scitech. The prisoners in question would have to be forced to reveal that information. So far they had been recalcitrant, but that would have to charge.

      

      

"This is all right," said Vila, looking about him with satisfaction.

      Lanrir made a chirruping noise from where he was sprawled on the floor, his head on his paws.

      "That seems to signify approval," Avon commented. "I wonder if the animal has a language."

      "Of course he has," Cally said sharply.

      "That has yet to be proved." Avon was the only one of the three of them who had not slept and he was feeling more than usually tetchy. It had been a long and cramped journey to Lomril. Lanrir took up more than his fair share of space. After that, they had spent over an hour being introduced to every single member of Riordan's troupe and had told their story at least half a dozen times. Then they had been fed a very late dinner that had continued long enough to become a very late breakfast.

      Still, he had to agree with Vila that their present quarters were an improvement on rain-soaked ground under a tree.

      Riordan's troupe carried all their gear in big containers on AG sleds and, because of the risk of theft, those containers were mobile strong rooms, the doors under print lock. Vila had sniffed but kept his comments to himself. The containers also held the living quarters of the troupe members. This one was a spare, being previously used for storage, but willing hands had cleared it and furnished it generously. The result was hardly stylish but definitely comfortable. There was a quite large living area, four small bedrooms, one of which Vila had quickly earmarked as a workshop, and a bathroom. Cally had observed that it was designed like a small spaceship, with the services working on similar principles.

      "I'm going to bed," Vila announced.

      Avon rather wanted to go to bed too, but he blocked Vila's path. "No, you're not. Not until we have discussed this 'performance' that we're supposed to give."

      Vila dismissed the matter with an airy wave of his hand. "Don't worry. We're going to have nearly a week to put that together. Riordan told me that he wants us to premiere at the performance that the troupe is giving for the Hinkal President, and we won't be expected to produce anything really spectacular in that short a time."

      "Vila..."

      "Don't worry," Vila repeated, grinning wickedly, "I'll tell you what to do. At last we've found your métier, Avon. I've always needed a stooge." He patted Avon on the cheek and made a very quick exit indeed.

      Avon glared at the closed door as if his stare could bore right through it, then, unable to avoid Cally's eyes, he began to laugh.

      "No-one will look for us here, remember," Cally said.

      "If Tarrant finds out about this I'll never live it down," Avon remarked, but he was still smiling.

      "Do you think that he and Dayna are still alive?"

      "I don't know. It may well be that it is just the three of us that are left now."

      Cally drew close to him and looked up into his face. "Don't blame yourself."

      "What makes you think that I would do anything that useless?"

      "I think you do," Cally said firmly. "You do because you took us to Terminal. Yet, if you did make a mistake, it was only one, and one that Vila or I would have made. Yes, and one Blake would have made too, if the circumstances had been reversed."

      "Servalan out-thought me."

      "As you out-thought her, every time before this. You are entitled to make mistakes, Avon, and you do not make many. This one led to defeat. One defeat. One that does not matter now. That is all."

      "You are very good for my ego, Cally."

      She put her fingers to his lips. "From now on it must be Lenore... and if I am Lenore, you can be Ras, as you were on Ararat."

      "Very well... Lenore."

      "Your ego does not normally need me to feed it, but you are not used to defeat. Once, I might have welcomed seeing you beaten... a little uncertainty would have been good for you, then... but now Vila and I need all the confidence in yourself that that defeat, and Blake's death, has shaken. We need your strength, Avon, your assurance. Most of all, we need your leadership."

      "Thank you." He bent to touch the top of her head with his lips, more moved than he would have believed possible. "Thank you."

      Silently, he added: You'll have it, Cally. I won't weaken again. We'll come through this, and win the game. Terminal was the last defeat. My word on that.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

I sat on the low stone wall and stared at the large, heavily fortified building some five hundred metres away. The architect seemed to have known his craft, for the exterior of the building expressed its function perfectly. Squat, dark and cold, it looked sinister even in the bright noonday sunlight. There was an aura about it that disturbed me.

      Jail, security headquarters, military barracks, interrogation Centre: this was the multi-purpose building where Del Tarrant and Dayna Mellanby were being held. Looking at it now, I understood why the Guild was still trying political rather than military tactics to repossess them. I could not use either. There was no way in which I could admit to being here; a Scitech engineer, with no access to interstellar flight, save what the Guild might choose to allow me. I had decided on stealth and this was no time to retreat from that position.

      If only I knew what had happened to Avon and Vila and Cally... but that was a useless wish. The only course of action that was open to me was to free Dayna and Tarrant, hoping that they could give me a lead to the others.

      I stared at the building again. I knew as much about it as the Hinkal Defence Committee, for Orac had given me detailed plans which included the security systems; a stroke of luck, that of the only two computers on the planet modern enough to contain tarial cells, one should contained government records. That other computer complex that Orac could tap worried me, for he had been unable to make sense of the information he was receiving. As it contained nothing of relevance to the search, I had told him to ignore it, though I could not.

      The first problem with that bastard of a building was how to get inside. One thing I had not built into the Moonshadow was a teleport system; it would have taken up too much room even if I could have obtained all the parts I needed - the metal aquitar, for example.

      Logic had solved the problem; the only people allowed into the Detention Centre were prisoners and guards. Getting in as a prisoner would be easy, but the difficulties in getting out afterwards made it of no use to me, so I would have to enter as a guard. Orac had found me an almost ideal opportunity: a security guard called Ajit Yaxley, fairly new to Lomril, had just been assigned to a new shift. He even looked a little like me, in that he was tall, heavily built and quite dark.

      Yaxley was now lying on his own bed, trussed up like the proverbial chicken, and I was wearing his uniform and carrying his identity card. Also, the skin on my fingertips was covered by a layer of synthaflesh, on which Yaxley's fingerprints were reproduced. Orac had assured me that these precautions would get me inside that forbidding-looking structure.

      I looked at my watch. The shift change took place in three minutes. Time to make my move. Getting to my feet, I straightened my uniform, then walked briskly towards the building.

      At the gate in the outer wall I inserted my stolen ident and keyed a code into the hand panel beside the slot. Yaxley had, apparently unwillingly, given me a code to go with the ident that, if I had used it, would have brought two dozen guards down upon me. Instead, I used the one supplied by Orac.

      When the gate opened, I stepped inside, retrieved the ident, and descended the short flight of steps to the sunken courtyard which Orac had said was mined. I kept to the marked pathway leading to the building's main entrance.

      Here, my handprint was checked by two large but bored guards who also ran a somewhat inadequate check on my pass. I had thought that this would be the most dangerous moment of the operation for, while my helmet shadowed my face, I was in possession of a visage that was far from being identical to Yaxley's, a copy of which adorned the corner of the pass. I was counting on human nature: that a boring job bores its occupant and that bored people are careless. Besides, these guards had never met the man I was impersonating and it seems a common factor of official pictures from one end of the galaxy to the other that they do not resemble the original in the slightest. From the reaction of the guards here, it seemed to be true from one galaxy to another too. I was waved onwards.

      Out of the five days I had spent on this planet, I had spent almost two memorising every detail of the plans Orac had obtained for me. The detention areas here were all below ground and there were only three ways of reaching them; two elevators and a service shaft. The elevators were closely guarded and Yaxley was not cleared for the detention levels, so I made my way quickly, and hopefully unobserved, to the service shaft.

      Its entrance hatch was locked but Orac had instructed me in the preparation of a computer matrix to open it. I went through it even as it was opening, reached back to retrieve the matrix, and then shut it behind me.

      I found myself standing on a platform no bigger than my two feet, within a narrow shaft that led both upwards and downwards. Handholds and footholds were moulded into the smooth walls, with egress hatches at intervals. I began my climb downwards. There were no null-G devices and my arms and legs soon began to ache as I clambered onwards. Unwillingly, I began to recall our journey down into the depths of Central Control, on Earth, and what had awaited us there. I could only hope that this time the vault would not be empty.

      After what seemed like a galactic year, I reached a hatch marked 'Level BG3'. It was also locked, but Orac's matrix unlocked it. Cautiously, I pushed it open.

      No-one in sight. "Blake's luck," Avon would have said. I opened the hatch fully and stepped out into the corridor.

      "Wha-? Halt!" The shout came from behind me.

      I spun away across the corridor, snatching out my gun. An energy bolt missed me even as I returned fire. The uniformed man who had fired it was lifted from his feet, smashed into the wall and dropped to the floor before I reached his side. Quickly, I dragged the body to the hatch and dumped it down the shaft after securing the man's gun and credentials.

      Blake's luck. That was ironic. As soon as this guard was missed, I would be the quarry of all the human hounds in the building.

      What should I do now? For a moment my mind was blank, the carefully memorised plans and security systems eluding me, then it all came rushing back and I knew what I was going to do next.

      In this High Security Area, the walls were blank metal, the doors unmarked, but I did not need signs. I knew where Tarrant and Dayna were being held.

      Two guards appeared but they walked past me without a second glance and were gone before I reached the cell I was looking for. It was unguarded, because it would open only to the handprint of one of the three guard Commanders, something I did not have. So I placed a small mine on the lock and retreated. Twenty seconds later it detonated satisfactorily and as silently as any explosive can be engineered to do.

      Gun at the ready, I kicked the door open.

      Dayna Mellanby stood before me, crouching low, her hands ready to strike. Our eyes met.

      "Van-"

      "Out of there, Dayna, if you want your freedom."

      "I want it," she confirmed, rising from her fighting pose and striding out into the corridor.

      "Take this." I thrust the weapon I had taken from the dead guard into her hands.

      "What about Tarrant?" she asked, as she checked the weapon.

      "He's next. This way."

      "How did you get here?" Dayna asked, as she followed at my heels.

      "I had inside information. What about Avon and the others?"

      "They were going to try and use an escape rocket to get away from Cloudstalker when the pirates attacked. We saw one go, but I don't know if it landed safely."

      "The locals saw it come down, but they haven't found it yet." It had taken me three agonising days to decide to stop waiting for the natives to find a lead and report it to the computer or my wi'h contacts and to act on the one lead that I did have.

      We reached the cell where Tarrant was imprisoned, but the door stood open. "Bloody hell!"

      "What is it?" Dayna asked.

      "This is Tarrant's cell, and, as you can see, he isn't in it."

      "Then they must have him in Interrogation. We've been in and out of that for what seems like months."

      "Six days. Do you know which interrogation room they're using? There are three on this level alone."

      "I don't know what it's called, but I can show you the way."

      "Then let's go."

      This time, Dayna took the lead. I followed her warily. She seemed efficient - probably was efficient if she had been working with Avon - but I had yet to see her in action, though the longer we stayed here, the more likely it became that I would do so. We were bound to be discovered, sooner or later, and it was always possible that Dayna was in the process of losing us rather than finding Tarrant.

      She halted at a corridor junction, peered around the corner, then drew back. "It's there, but there's a guard right outside."

      "All right. Give me your gun."

      "What?"

      "You're my prisoner, aren't you? Give me your gun."

      She started to protest further, then laughed, her teeth flashing white against brown skin. "Van, I'm beginning to like your style."

      So it was that when we came around that corridor junction, Dayna was walking in front of me with my gun poking into her back. She had her hands behind her, as if held by restrainers, and she was quite obviously unarmed.

      When the guard saw us he raised his gun and snarled, "Halt!"

      We halted. "Reporting with prisoner Mellanby as ordered," I snapped, in good military fashion.

      This disconcerted him. "As ordered? I don't know anything about any such orders."

      I contrived to look astonished. "But you must have... Guard Commander Byrant himself ordered me to bring her here."

      Dayna simply stood with her hands behind her and looked bored.

      "Well, I didn't get confirmation. Another bloody cock-up, I suppose. Give me your authorisation."

      "Here." I held out my stolen pass. As the guard moved to take it, Dayna's knee came up suddenly, jamming hard into his groin. Her hands moved even more quickly. Then the guard was lying quiet on the floor and Dayna was standing looking expectantly at me.

      "Impressive," I said.

      "So I've been told."

      "Get his hand gun and let's try it again."

      My special matrix opened the door. I marched Dayna through into the room beyond, stopped smartly, saluted the surprised-looking trio - two men and a woman - who sat just a few paces away.

      "Reporting with prisoner Mellanby as ordered."

      I did not look directly at Tarrant. He was strapped to a chair at the far side of the room and his face looked grey under the spotlights. Every now and then a spasm of pain would ripple across his face. A female technician sat at a control panel, her gaze flicking from Tarrant to the monitors and back again.

      The first person to recover was the fat man at the centre of the trio in front of me. "Ordered by whom, guard?"

      I blinked at him, trying to look stupid. "By the Guard Commander, sir. Who else could have given me authorisation?"

      This appeared to flummox them.

      "Damn Byrant," the fat man muttered, reaching for the intercom.

      Dayna's hands came from behind her back, carrying the handgun with them. Even as she started her move, I shot the fat man. Dayna killed the man on his right. The woman reached for a gun but my shot and Dayna's whined in unison with hers. She missed. We didn't.

      Dayna swirled to point her gun at the technician. "Don't move," she warned her as I hurried to free Tarrant from the chair.

      "Who're... you?" he asked in a slurred voice, staring at me with such intentness that, for a moment, I almost believed that he had recognised me.

      "I'll explain everything later," I told him. The time for my masquerade to end had arrived, indeed, was long past, but there were hostile ears in the room. "Can you walk?"

      "Of course."

      "Good." I looked at the technician. "You. Take off your clothes."

      Her mouth opened, presumably to scream. Tarrant exploded into action, slamming his fist across her mouth so she fell to the floor with blood streaming down her chin.

      Horrified, I caught his arm and held him away from her. "There's no need for that."

      "You weren't strapped to that thing for hours while she poured fire down every nerve in your body."

      "It was still unnecessary." I held Tarrant for a moment longer, making him realise that he did not have the strength to break free, then dropped his arm abruptly. "Dayna, undress the technician, put on her clothes and tie her up. Tarrant, come with me." I shoved him gently in the direction of the door.

      "Now, wait! I-"

      "Do you want to get out of here alive or not?"

      Dayna had moved to stand over the whimpering technician. "You heard the man. Take off your uniform and you won't be harmed."

      Tarrant decided to follow me.

      Within five minutes, he and Dayna were clad in the local uniform and possessed appropriate passes. The uniforms did not fit very well and there was even less correspondence between their faces and those on the passes than between my own and the one on Yaxley's but we locked the door on three dead people and two living but bound ones, and I led the way back to the elevators.

      These were unguarded at this level. We piled into one and sent it up to the ground floor where we trooped out into the main hall. I used my special matrix and Yaxley's ident to take us through into the vehicle pool where a blank-faced assistant looked up from his pocket vid at the third time of asking.

      "Yeah?"

      "Aircar. Transport model. The tech," I jerked a thumb towards Dayna, "has to pick up some equipment."

      "Okay. Thumbprint this and let's have your ident." Once again these passed machine scrutiny. Yaxley was an official driver, another reason why Orac and I had chosen him. "Okay, pal. Take the one in space A43. It's all yours."

      "Thanks."

      We found the specified aircar, climbed in, and I lifted her up a metre or so from the floor and crept towards the big doors. These were the last and worst obstacle because their operators were required to check the authorisation of every vehicle entering or leaving. That authorisation had to be thumbprint-keyed by one officer and confirmed by the voice print of another. The first was no problem: Orac had rifled the computer to produce an appropriate thumbprint pattern. The voice print, though, could not be produced to order.

      I said: "This is what I want you to do..."

      At the doors I stopped the aircar and left it hovering as I went to the guard post. Its occupants took the authorisation that Orac and I had forged and checked the signature and fingerprints. Behind me, I knew that Tarrant and Dayna had also left the aircar and had gone to the door. The explosives I had given them were manufactured by Scitech for mining operations in the Hoop, antimatter based and not available to the Guild or the Cloud Worlds.

      When I heard the aircar's main propulsors start up again, I turned, quite slowly, to see the aircar backing away across the floor.

      "Hey!" I yelled. "What do you think you're doing?"

      The aircar promptly swerved, scraping along the side of an expensive-looking hovercar with a nerve-rending squeal.

      "Hey!" I started after it, tossing an explanation over my shoulder at the guards. "Excuse me... back in a minute... that young idiot..."

      I ran after the gyrating aircar, yelling and waving my arms. When I reached it, the door opened, and I flung myself inside.

      The flare that followed almost blinded me, even with my eyes shut and my head down, but I could see enough in between the after-images to take control of the aircar and steer it through the hole that had been seared through the doors.

      Once outside, I flung the aircar up into the sky.

      "As I said," came Dayna's low chuckle, "I like your style, Van."

      "There'll be pursuit," Tarrant pointed out.

      "Which is why we're getting out of this thing." I slowed the aircar and came down towards the streets, steering for a flat-roofed building. "When I tell you - jump."

      "Right," said Dayna, shoving the door open so that the wind whirled into the cabin.

      The roof loomed below the aircar's nose. I went down as close to it as I dared, touching the control that opened the driver's door. "Now!"

      Dayna went out of one door, with Tarrant after her. I was a split second slower through the other, the wind sweeping me out almost before I was ready. I rolled as I hit, bruising my shoulder on the hard composite.

      When I picked myself up, Dayna was already on her feet and Tarrant was sitting on the roof, watching the aircar as it rocketed away on automatic pilot. I touched his shoulder and said, "Let's get out of here."

      I led the way down the emergency stairs and into the small apartment I had rented the day before. "I have a change of clothing for all of us and forged ident discs - don't worry, they'll pass the computer checks. Dayna, you'll find your gear in the bedroom."

      "Thanks, Van." Dayna disappeared.

      "Now, just who are you and why are you doing this for us?" Tarrant demanded as he began to strip.

      "He's Van Ricel," Dayna's voice shouted from the bedroom. "From Scitech."

      "Scitech?"

      "Yes. Remember them?"

      "So you're from Scitech. Ricel... you were responsible for bringing us to the Hoop..."

      "Yes. Yes, I was, but-"

      "And now you're rescuing us. Why?"

      I finished fastening my belt and smiled at him. "Would you believe that I didn't want to explain to Avon that I'd left you as prisoners, when I finally find him again. I've enough to explain as it is." I turned to pick up my boots. "You see, I'm-"

      A sharp pain knifed down into my neck, exploded into my skull, bringing blackness with it.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

"Tarrant!" Dayna exclaimed, bursting through the door. "What was-? What are you doing?"

      Tarrant, half-clad in local baggy trousers, was standing over Ricel, who lay unconscious on the floor. He spoke swiftly, trying to defuse Dayna's obvious anger. "Listen, Dayna, he's from Scitech. We don't want to go back there. We've got to get to the spaceport and find a Guild vessel."

      "Have we? Are you that sure about the Guild, Tarrant?"

      "Do you want to be stuck in this dump for the rest of your life?" Tarrant demanded, reaching for his tunic.

      "No, I want to find Avon, Cally and Vila."

      "If they're still alive the Guild will find them for us. You don't really think I'll abandon them, do you?"

      "No..."

      Tarrant jammed on his boots. "So let's get out of here and back among friends."

      "Wait," Dayna protested. "You can't leave him like this."

      "Why not?"

      "If anyone finds him like this, he'll be in real trouble. We've got to get rid of all the incriminating evidence, even if you're right."

      "We haven't the time, Dayna."

      The woman looked stubborn. "Van saved our lives. We've treated him badly, Tarrant. I'm still not sure that you're right, but I suppose we have to stick together. I'll go with you to the spaceport, but I won't leave until I'm sure that Van is safe here. We both owe him that."

      "All right. All right." Tarrant was ungracious because of his uneasy suspicion that she was right "Help me move him onto the bed. I hope we don't live to regret it."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

I woke to the sound of someone banging on the door, though the pounding was hardly louder than that inside my head. As I sat up, agony stabbed through my skull, and I held my head between my hands, willing the pain to stop.

      As the hammering at the door continued, so did the pain, and I came to the conclusion that I would never again turn my back on Del Tarrant. The other conclusion I came to was that I would have to answer the door, since whoever was on the other side was not going to give up making that awful racket until I did.

      Moving very slowly, I swung my feet off the couch on which I had been lying, lurched upright, and staggered over to the door. I still hadn't worked out what had happened, save that Tarrant had hit me, and that neither he nor Dayna had stayed around to explain why.

      It took me some time to free the lock for my fingers seemed twice as large as normal and the world kept going in and out of focus. It happened to be in focus when the door opened to reveal two big and impatient-looking members of the local police force.

      "Ident?" one of them snarled.

      Feeling sick inside, I made a show of searching my pockets, sure that they would be empty. My fingers encountered a smooth, plastic disc. It would be Yaxley's, of course, worse than useless to me, but I would have to play out the farce to the bitter end. I handed it over and tried to gather myself for action.

      As one of the policemen checked the ident on a portable terminal, the other glared at me. "Why didn't you answer the door? We were just about to break in."

      "I was asleep. I've got this bad headache and - what is all this about, anyway?"

      "City-wide house to house search."

      "But who are you searching for?"

      "Never you mind." The policeman pushed past me into the apartment and began a swift and none-too-thorough search. This was the moment at which I should have attempted escape but the wall was too attractive a support. It was the only reason I was still upright. I was sure that the search, however slight its nature, would reveal evidence of my complicity in the Tarrant/Mellanby rescue... uniforms... idents... passes. Yaxley's ident alone would give me away.

      The policeman came back out of the bedroom. "Hey, you really do look ill. Do you want me to call a medic?"

      "This ident checks out," his companion called from the corridor.

      "I will call a medic," the first policeman said, putting his hand under my elbow.

      "No, I'm all right," I told him.

      "Well, if you're sure..."

      "I'm sure..."

      "Guy! Anything in there?" came the call from outside.

      "Only a sick man. I'm sorry to have got you out of bed," he added quietly.

      "That's... all right. Good luck with your search." As the door closed behind him, I sank down to the floor, resting my head on my knees. Nothing. They had found nothing. Which meant ... what? Tarrant and Dayna must have... But then why had they...?

      It didn't make any sense at all.

      

      

Sleight of Hand

Avon pushed his way between a chattering group of acrobats and into the backstage area of the Golden Oasis. This special performance was being given in one of Lomril's most exclusive nightspots, which had been taken over for the evening by the planet's President and his guests. Riordan was delighted and his delight extended to the facilities available at the Golden Oasis. Avon found the place noisy, cramped, and ill equipped. It was also, at present, far too crowded. He felt very uncomfortable among these brightly and scantily dressed people whose background was so different from his own. Even the clothes he was wearing annoyed him. He might always have had a taste for striking clothing, but, while he knew that the black, sleeveless jacket, black trousers and silver shirt suited him well enough, the heavy scarlet cloak that swirled to his ankles embarrassed him. He was also becoming very nervous about his part in the evening's proceedings, despite the fact that he would require little more than the ability to look inscrutable, a part, Vila had said, that suited his talents perfectly.

      It was with a certain wry humour that Avon admitted to himself that Vila might have a point. He was letting nothing of his feelings show on his face and did not intend to do so until they were back safe in their quarters. Then... Vila had better watch himself.

      Now, though, he returned the excited greetings of the acrobats with a nod and stopped to answer Pala's enquiries as to their comfort and their readiness for the evening's performance.

      "It must be good to be back among your own kind," she was saying. "I can't imagine what it must be like to be ripped away from all this."

      "We've been very lucky," Avon agreed, "thanks to you and your husband."

      "No need for thanks. The luck's all ours, according to Nelse. He says that your act is quite remarkable."

      Avon smiled dismissively. "Not really. We've had no time to build all the equipment we need. This is simply a taste of what we'll put together when we have the time." Or so Vila kept saying. Avon hoped that he could be trusted.

      Pala touched his arm. "I'll let you join Shel and Lenore. I'm always nervous before a performance too, Ras. Good luck."

      Avon watched her go, uneasy at the fact that she had read his mood so easily, then he took her advice and went to join Vila and Cally.

      The alien woman, wearing little except fronds of glittering green that gave her a minimal decency, was sitting on a low bench with one arm around Lanrir's neck. The icecat looked disgusted, and everyone else was giving him a wide berth.

      Vila, wearing a costume that was the reverse of Avon's in that his suit was scarlet, his shirt gold, and his cloak black and patterned with gold and red stars, was examining his major prop, a seemingly simple platform floating on AG units. It had taken them three days of hard work to create it.

      "I always wondered how this illusion was performed," Avon commented.

      "Well, now you know," Vila replied tersely. "Let's hope it works more smoothly than it did at rehearsal."

      Avon shook his head. "Maybe we ought to find some excuse and call off the performance."

      "Too suspicious," said Vila. "We've got to do it sometime. If we don't, where will we go?" Having settled in with the troupe at once, he was now quite determined to stay. "Just because you've had to take a back seat-"

      "Vila..."

      "Avon, we've had this argument several times already. Illusions have been a hobby of mine since before I stole my first lockpick. I've never had the opportunity or the money to perform the big illusions before, but I made it my business to find out how they were done, sometimes legitimately, sometimes not."

      "I am not questioning your expertise."

      "I hope not. You'd also better stop questioning the fact that I know how to hold an audience. Be logical, Avon. Keep to the script and everything will be all right."

      Avon glowered at him, knowing that there was nothing he could do about the fact that Vila was laughing at him, either. "It had better be," he threatened, and moved over to Cally.

      Vila grinned after him. Giving Avon orders and having them obeyed was a new and rewarding experience. It would be nice to be able to make it a habit but he wasn't stupid enough to think that it would last.

      Riordan came striding towards them, resplendent in white and gold. "You're on in ten minutes. Good luck."

      "Thanks," said Vila. "Just don't expect - what is going on?"

      "What-?" Riordan followed Vila's stare and his face flushed with anger as he saw the uniformed policemen pushing their way through the suddenly-alarmed backstage crowd. He stormed towards the nearest, pushing his own people aside as he did so. "What do you think you're doing?"

      "You the boss of this madhouse?" the policeman enquired.

      Riordan moved closer. Avon thought that he was going to hit the policeman and wondered at the depths of the man's foolishness.

      "Yes. I'm in charge here. What about it? I trust you know exactly who is in the audience tonight?"

      "Yeah - and our orders come from him. We're looking for two escaped criminals and the man who organised the prison break. I know you Indes don't carry idents, but I want to know if you've seen any strangers."

      "We haven't," said Riordan. Avon approved of the fact that he did not even glance in their direction.

      "Specifically, these two." The policeman drew a folder from his pocket and thrust it at Riordan, who looked at it automatically.

      "I've never seen them."

      "Or another man; tall, strongly built, dark hair and beard, fair skin, dark eyes?"

      "No," Riordan repeated. He turned and tossed the folder to Avon. "Seen these people, Ras?"

      Avon glanced down at the two holoplates. None of the shock of recognition showed on his face as he shook his head, nor his satisfaction that Tarrant and Dayna were alive and free. He also wondered who had rescued them.

      "I've never seen them before," he said.

      "Well, we have orders to search the place." The policeman raised his voice: "Search everywhere." He noticed Vila's platform and moved towards it. "What's this?"

      "Just a-" Avon caught the words in his throat as Lanrir rose to his feet and padded menacingly towards the policeman, who snatched at his gun. Avon caught his wrist: "He's harmless. Lenore, take Lanrir out of here. You can see that Lenore isn't the woman you're looking for, I trust."

      "Yeah. Not much doubt about that." The policeman ran his eyes up and down Cally with every indication of lustful appreciation. Avon was surprised by the strength of his urge to hit him. Cally looked coldly back, said, "Come, Lanrir," and led the icecat away.

      "Now," Avon went on, "as you can see, this platform is merely a prop used in our act..."

      

      

Dayna sat on the sodden wooden steps, her elbows on her knees and her chin on her fists. "Any more brilliant ideas?" she asked Tarrant, who was keeping a watch at the end of the alleyway.

      "How was I to know that our pictures were going to be broadcast on every vid channel - and we had to eat, didn't we?"

      "I can't help thinking that Van had anticipated all this."

      Tarrant twisted round to glare at her. "Don't keep on about that. It's not my fault. Have you got the map?"

      "Yes, though I can't imagine what good it will do us now."

      "Just find out where we are."

      The light of the viewer cast a small glow in the darkness, gleaming off Dayna's skin as she consulted the city map . "We're about a kilometre from where we were imprisoned, It may be a cliché, but we really have been going round in circles."

      Tarrant came back to join her. "Let me look. Hmmm... we appear to be in the middle of the admin and commercial districts. They won't be looking for us here. If we make our way into this area, around the presidential palace, they're even less likely to find us."

      "Risky." Dayna's smile brightened the darkness. "Let's go."

      Tarrant grinned in reply, suddenly feeling much better. Their luck was holding. They would win through, just as they had always done. He led the way across the street. The citizens who had chased them from the eating house had vanished. Indeed, there were few people on the streets at all, allowing Tarrant and Dayna to walk more confidently, though Tarrant did have an uneasy thought about curfews. If there was one, it was all that was needed to make their day complete... that, or Ricel finding them again.

      "There they are!" The shout came from behind them. Dayna and Tarrant glanced back, then at one another in dismay: their pursuers numbered a round dozen and included two men in uniform. They took to their heels, plunging down the road and round the corner into another alley, which unfortunately ended in a high wall.

      "Up!" Tarrant gasped.

      Dayna swarmed up his bent back and leaped lithely to the top of the wall. Straddling it, she turned her attention back to Tarrant, grabbing a handful of tunic to haul him up as he leaped after her.

      There was an ominous ripping sound, but the tough fabric held long enough for Dayna to help Tarrant onto the wall.

      "Roof," she said.

      "Right."

      Rising carefully to her feet, Dayna ran along the top of the wall and vanished like a phantom into the night. Urged on by the shouts from below, Tarrant cautiously rose to balance on all fours, then edged along the wall. When a stone whistled past him, his hands left the top of the wall and he fled after Dayna onto a low roof, then up a sloping one.

      Behind them, curses followed the stones. Someone loosed off a shot in the wrong direction and Tarrant followed the light-footed dark shadow through the mountainous geometric world of the rooftops.

      

      

The audience was deeply expectant as the lamps dimmed about them, leaving only the circular stage below plashed with light, bright and golden in the centre of the glittering assembly.

      Riordan, the Troupe Master, stood in that light, announcing his new act: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Senators, Officers, Mr President; do not be alarmed by anything that follows. You will be thrilled. You will be amazed. You will be baffled and astounded... but always remember, we are Showmen and we are here to entertain you.

      "Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen... we present, The Masters of Illusion."

      "Strange, isn't it?" the Hinkal President commented to his unwilling Guild guests. "We live in a modern, highly-technical society, yet we still marvel at the skills that thrilled our ancestors millennia ago in another galaxy: dancing, acrobatics, singing, illusionists..."

      Farranti grunted.

      Had he but known it, the President was as tense as he was, but much more skilled at concealing his worry. Who the Devil had rescued Tarrant and Mellanby? Whoever he was, he knew far too much about Hinkal's internal security. And where had the three of them gone? Could the police and other security forces find them? If so, when? Confound it, no outsider could have known so much about the Security Headquarters. Yet someone had. Could it be the Guild? Well, if it was, Farranti was concealing it well. His own refusal to talk about handing back the erstwhile captives had plainly annoyed the Guild envoy.

      A man in a black cloak starred with red and gold appeared at the top of the steps at the rear of the stage, He raised his arms for a moment, pausing in greeting, then almost ran down onto the stage. Despite his flamboyant dress and theatrical manner, he was not immediately imposing. The attention of the audience began to wander and by no means all the eyes in the auditorium were turned in his direction as he came out into the semicircle of richly-dressed people.

      Matters did not stay that way for long, The tricks he performed were ancient but baffling. He worked with nothing more than a pack of cards, coloured balls, five metal rings, and what he could cadge from a more and more receptive audience, but he did everything at breakneck speed and with amusing and self-deprecating patter. Slowly, the bouts of applause grew louder and louder.

      Finally, when he materialised a shimmering bauble in the air, then burst it with a long needle to reveal a cloud of fresh flowers, one of which he ceremoniously presented to the President's wife, the room erupted in pleasure and admiration.

      Vila took his bows, his face flushed, high on the approbation. Then he turned and gave a commanding gesture. The AG platform floated into view, descending until it hovered half a metre above the stage.

      "Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen," Vila announced, "from another dimension, I bring you Chevron, the man who can see through walls." He flung up his hands. Flames billowed from the base of the platform, masking it in red fire. When they died away, Avon was standing on the platform, his arms folded. He scowled impressively at Vila.

      Don't foul it up, Avon, Vila thought.

      Avon stepped down to face Vila, surveying the audience in a lordly fashion. "I will need assistance," he told Vila.

      "Hmmm." Vila made a great show of walking around the AG platform, so that everyone could see that there was nothing behind or under it. "I could assist you."

      Avon gave him one of his do-not-be-ridiculous-Vila looks. "You mean that you have no-one suitable to assist me."

      For answer, Vila again gestured with his hands. This time, the flames were green and, when they died, Cally stood on the platform. Vila offered her his hand and assisted her down amid thunderous applause.

      "Now," said Vila, "you all must see that there is no trickery."

      The stage began to fill with equipment and volunteers from the audience, while Avon and Cally looked on. Body scanners showed that all three of the Masters of Illusion were wearing nothing but their clothes and that there were no devices buried in their flesh. Then Avon took up position, seated behind a curving screen of thick steel. The audience could see him, but they could also see that the screens were solid, and that Avon could see nothing of the stage. Neither could he hear anything, for the technicians erected a one-way null-field about him and, after members of the audience had been invited to test it, still others were invited to blindfold Avon.

      By now the audience were getting into the spirit of the proceedings and a woman contributed her scarf for use as a blindfold.

      Vila was in his element. Leaving two members of the audience standing beside Avon, he went back to the front of the stage. His amplified voice boomed about the hall. "Can you hear me? Will the listeners please say if they can hear me?" He cupped a hand to his ear and the audience howled with laughter at the obvious indifference of the witnesses.

      Vila waited until the laughter died away before he spoke again. "I'm going to ask for your help once more. I want volunteers to come down to the stage, one at a time, and give an object to Lenore. She will show it to you all, but plainly Chevron will not be able to see it. The observers standing beside him are your witnesses and, believe me, they're quite as anxious to catch him out as you are. Chevron will see through the steel and describe each object to you, in detail. Who is going to be first? You, sir? Come down and hand your object to Lenore."

      Avon, standing behind the sense depriving null-field, was feeling a growing anger. They were cheating. He would take the applause for Cally's natural ability. Yet, once Vila had discovered that there were no natural telepaths in the Cloud Worlds, he had refused to give up this idea and Cally, surprisingly, had backed him up.

      //Avon, I am holding a ring. It is made from iridium and has ten sides. Each facet has a central jewel, an indigo garat.//

      Avon repeated these facts to the audience, pretending to concentrate.

      As the act went on, the bafflement of the audience grew. The observers changed, sceptics coming forward eagerly and leaving shaking their heads.

      Vila concentrated on drawing attention away from Cally. Let them try to determine some link between Avon and himself, discern a code in his words. That was going to be particularly difficult when sometimes he didn't speak at all.

      He produced his pack of cards and a woman chose one, seemingly at random. Vila couldn't see the card, Cally couldn't see the card, indeed, only the woman could see it, but Avon identified it without any trouble. Well, he'd been told what he had to say at this point in the act, of course, the success of the trick depending on Vila's manipulation of the cards.

      When, finally, the force field was switched off and the barriers removed, and Avon whipped off the scarf from his eyes, the applause was deafening, but it only just drowned the hubbub of comment.

      Even Captain Farranti condescended to be impressed.

      No-one was prepared for the finale. As Cally returned the scarf to its owner, Avon took his last bow and stepped on the floating platform. Vila waved his hands and the scarlet flames rose, suddenly changing colour, from red to blue to white, with Vila apparently trying frantically to stop them. Clouds of smoke belched across the stage, and out through it leaped Lanrir.

      For most of the audience, Riordan's earlier warning had been unheeded and was now forgotten. There were gasps and screams. Only the in-built assurance of any audience that no-one was going to put them in any danger when they had paid good money to be entertained kept them in their seats.

      Vila, though, gave a yell of fright and began to run. he raced right around the stage, Lanrir bounding after him. Vila was only just ahead of the icecat when he came face to face with the platform from which it had appeared, and from which both Avon and the smoke had vanished. Vila leaped up onto it and down the other side, Lanrir flattened himself to skid beneath it.

      Whirling, Vila produced a bunch of flowers from nowhere and flung them at the icecat.

      The mood of the audience changed in an instant and they began to laugh.

      Lanrir snarled, flinging his head back and showing all his teeth; he crouched low, then sprang at Vila. Cally stepped between them, holding up her hands palms outwards, facing the icecat. Instantly, Lanrir changed direction in mid-spring, hit the floor like a drifting snowflake and rolled over onto his back, his paws in the air. Cally knelt beside him, putting her head between the huge paws. Lanrir batted at her playfully, then stood up, towering over Cally. She jumped to her feet, then up onto his back, and he loped around the full circle of the stage, with Cally waving to the audience. Finally, he leaped back onto the platform, where Vila stood waiting. As Cally slipped from the icecat's back, Vila took her hand and they bowed to the audience.

      The lights dimmed. The room was in total darkness, except for the flames which flared up to surround Vila, Cally and Lanrir. When they exploded into nothingness, all light vanished.

      A few seconds later the main lights illuminated a stage empty except for a simple AG platform which rose high into the air and floated away.

      Off stage, Riordan had to yell to make himself heard over the shouts of appreciation, applause and stamping of feet coming from the audience at the front of the house. "Wonderful!" He slammed his hand down hard on Vila's back. "I've never seen the 'disappearing person' act better presented. That's as old as 'magic', of course, but how the hell do you do that 'seeing through steel' trick?"

      Vila smiled and shook his head.

      "Yes, I know, professional secrets," Riordan said ruefully. "Oh, well. It was worth the question." The Troupe Master smiled at his own na{\139}{\239}veté, and headed out onto the stage to introduce his next act.

      

      

Tarrant and Dayna lay stretched out on the cold, slippery roof, far too out of breath to feel uncomfortable. Draping their arms over the ridge of the roof, they listened to their own breathing, rasping through the gentle tapping of the rain.

      "I think... we lost them."

      Dayna raised her head slowly and rotated it, scanning the roofscape. "I'm... not... sure. What's that?"

      Tarrant pulled himself up the slope of the roof. "Uh?"

      "That!"

      "Wow..." said Tarrant, inadequately. The sky on their left was the backdrop for a picture built of light, three dimensional and blindingly bright. Silver, treelike structures nodded around a shimmering waterfall and through them glided gilded figures, suggestive of human forms. "You know, Dayna, I haven't seen a display like that since... well, never mind. It must be some sort of entertainment centre... theatre, night club, whatever."

      "Good," Dayna began to sidle along, the roof, hand crossing hand along the ridge. "Let's go there."

      "Why?"

      "Because if the patrons get half as drunk as Vila would, they may be a little careless with their vehicles. If we can get down to the parking area we might be able to find transport to the spaceport."

      "Good thinking."

      Dayna led Tarrant along a hair-raising path that finally ended in a horrible three metre jump onto the roof of the nightclub.

      "Next time," he panted, "we'll not bother with the scenic route. What do you think I am - a cliffbat?"

      "You're here, aren't you? Stop sounding like Vila and help me look for a way in."

      "Suppose there isn't one?"

      "Someone has to get up here to maintain the plant for the display." Dayna poked her hand through a swaying tree trunk, pleased by the effect of the silver light on her dark skin. "If they can get up, we can get down."

      This display of logic silenced Tarrant. He joined Dayna in her task of searching the roof.

      When they did find the door it had a magnolock on it, which Tarrant promptly blasted,

      "The noise!" Dayna hissed in alarm.

      "Over that?" Tarrant jerked a thumb at the shattered entrance through which raucous music was issuing. He braved damage to his eardrums by leading the way through the door and down the steps beyond.

      Dayna followed him, reflecting that he could not have known how much noise there was going to be before he blasted the door. She longed for Avon's or Cally's comforting presence, their cautious and inventive methods. She understood her own reckless nature and the danger in this teaming with a man who was even more impetuous.

      Tarrant found a light control at the bottom of the steps and the sudden illumination revealed a bare and battered corridor.

      "Where now?"

      "Let's find that parking area. With our luck, it'll be in the basement."

      

      

"And this is Ras Chevron."

      "I'm glad to see that you aren't really from another dimension," said the President, smiling unctuously.

      "Artistic licence, sir," returned Avon, with a slight bow.

      "I'll have to make sure that our state secrets are well guarded while you're on our planet. Nothing will be safe from a man who can see through walls."

      Avon gritted his teeth. He hated being condescended to but, remembering his vulnerable position, he forced a smile. "I'm sure you realise that there is no need for that. You've probably seen right through me."

      Amid the laughter, the President said, "Indeed, I did not. I found your skills just as baffling as everyone else."

      "It's all a trick, of course," Farranti sneered.

      Avon beamed at him. "So it is. Which I'm sure you'll explain to the President, Captain."

      There was a pained silence. The President was smothering laughter. One or two of his entourage were not as successful as he was in their efforts to keep a straight face, while the Guild Captain was slowly ripening in colour, his mouth sagging.

      With a look of warning in Avon's direction, Riordan stepped into the hiatus in the conversation. "And this is Lenore..."

      "Damned Inde," Farranti muttered, his face now the same shade of magenta as his dress uniform, but the President was too plainly pleased for him to say more, particularly pleased to meet Cally, whose hand he was holding for an indecently long time.

      Avon firmly took himself away from that particular annoyance and looked around for Vila. He quickly spotted him burying his nose in a glass, along with most of the troupe. This unexpected invitation to join the President's party had brought them face to face with more alcohol than they could reasonably be expected to resist, and they had plainly reached the joint decision to drink the Golden Oasis dry. This ambition worried Avon, Vila being an overly friendly and talkative drunk. He still shuddered at the memory of the thief's performance at the Big Wheel in Freedom City. That wasn't going to happen again if he could help it. It was a pity that they could not have avoided this party altogether, but he had been unable to think of a reasonable excuse, especially as the Independents continued to survive on the goodwill of all the other inhabitants of the Clouds which sometimes thinned to void. Their absence would have provoked suspicion, though not half as much as Vila would provoke if he were allowed to talk.

      A policeman, a high ranking one if the uniform's complexity was anything to go by though he looked somewhat ill at ease, appeared at the President's side. A moment later, they moved aside to talk. Avon distinguished real fury on the politician's face and took it as a sign of hope that Dayna and Tarrant were still free.

      Farranti was also watching the proceedings and, as the President rejoined the party, he could not resist asking, "Something wrong?"

      "A minor matter."

      Avon drifted closer, keeping his back to them but listening intently to the conversation.

      "A minor matter. You can deal with that here and now, but not with me over the Guild citizens you hold as prisoners."

      "Guild citizens? Prove that, Captain, and I will deal with you, though this is hardly the time or the place. Why don't you enjoy the party? You can't find yourself in such civilized company very often. Please make the most of it."

      "Call yourselves civilized when you invite those damn Inde showmen in here?"

      "Yet they make an interesting study, don't they? And that woman, Lenore, is very beautiful..."

      At that moment, another voice within the chattering stream of conversation caught Avon's attention. "An' me an' this friend of mine, oh ages ago, we went to this casino... place you're not likely to have heard of..."

      Avon ploughed through the crowd at speed, swept up Vila, made swift apologies involving feeding Lanrir and packing their gear, located Cally and propelled him towards her.

      "What - Av-... Chevron...?"

      "Shut up. You're talking too much and the President likes the way Cally looks too much," Avon snarled in his ear. "We're getting out of here. When we reach Cally, pretend to be ill."

      "But-"

      Avon's grip on Vila tightened so much that it not only hurt, it was a threat of the violence that might follow. Vila yelped. Avon shoved him forwards, then caught him as if he had been falling and hauled him upright again. Cally pushed her glass at Pala and hurried to join her friends.

      "What's the matter?" //Avon, is Vila hurt?//

      "Shel has had a little too much to drink," Avon told her. "You'd better come with us, Lenore."

      "Of course." Cally put a sympathetic arm about Vila, then noticed Avon's almost-brutal grip. Her head came up sharply and her eyes met Avon's. His carried a warning. Cally decided to heed it, for the moment, and accompanied the silently-cursing Vila to the door.

      

      

"There," said Tarrant, "I told you we could find it."

      Dayna did not reply. She was tired and her nerves were worn raw after dodging around the Oasis for over an hour, trying to avoid being seen by staff who might realise that they were strangers and the happily drunken and drug-befogged guests, who seemed to think that everyone should join their party. It hadn't seemed to affect Tarrant, but Dayna was jumping at shadows.

      Now, she peered round his shoulder. They had come out at the rear of the building. To one side of the roofed area, a large number of big containers on AG sleds had been parked and stacked into a kind of mini-village, but most of the parking area was occupied by some very expensive-looking vehicles. Tarrant saw with surprise that three of these were guarded.

      "What now?" Dayna asked.

      "We'll get around the back. Look, see that grey hovercar, the one with the driver sleeping in the front seat?"

      "Why that one. Whoever owns that hovercar must be either very rich or very important to rate something that glitzy and a uniformed driver. Both'll be missed."

      "It's the one vehicle we can be sure of entering and starting. By the time anyone notices it's gone, we should be at the spaceport. Follow me."

      Keeping close to the wall, they slipped between the rows of containers on their AG sleds. Some of these seemed to be living quarters of a kind, but there was no sign of their inhabitants.

      The angry yowl of some wild animal sent them both ducking into cover. In one of the containers, a child began to cry.

      "What's that?"

      "Sounds like a baby to me."

      "Not that, you idiot! The other thing."

      "I don't know. It must be in one of these transport containers."

      "Well, let's hope it stays in there, whatever it is."

      They proceeded out among the hovercars, bent double and keeping their heads down, until they reached their target. Raising himself up on the back of the hovercar, Tarrant peered through the transparent cover that protected the seats. To his delight, he found the driver was fast asleep with his mouth open. Next, he checked the door lock, grimaced, and shook his head at Dayna, who came to join him.

      With Tarrant crouching on one knee, out of sight towards the hovercar's rear, Dayna unfastened the top of her tunic, then knocked hard on the cover. The driver didn't move. Dayna knocked harder.

      The driver started awake, his eyes flying open to be confronted by Dayna's softly smiling face. She moved a little closer to the window, pressing her breasts against them and giving him a look in which the invitation was quite plain.

      With regret, the driver shook his head.

      Dayna pouted, then smiled again and ran a hand caressingly over the curve of the transparent cover, as she might have run it over the skin of a lover.

      This was too much for the mesmerised driver, who straightened and opened the door. As it folded away, he reached out a hand for Dayna. She grabbed it and jerked with all her strength, pulling the driver out of his seat. His outraged howl was silenced as Tarrant pounced on him from behind.

      For perhaps thirty seconds, Tarrant and Dayna knelt beside the unconscious driver, waiting for the alarms or running footsteps that would mean that the guards had heard them, but the only noise remained the faint sound of music and laughter from inside the building. Breathing again, they got into the hovercar, Tarrant taking the driver's seat.

      "Can you drive one of these things?" Dayna asked, as she refastened her tunic.

      Tarrant gave her a look of contempt, then brought the engine to life.

      

      

Once they were out of the Golden Oasis and into the area where the containers had been parked, Avon let Vila go. The thief jumped away from him, almost losing his balance as the cooler air had the usual effect on his alcohol-bemused brain. He managed to stop himself falling by catching hold of Cally, then opened his mouth to tell Avon exactly what he thought of him, only to be interrupted by an angry voice from behind them.

      "Turn around, Inde scum."

      Avon did not need Cally's //Avon, be careful,// to recognise the menace in the words. He kept his hands well away from his sides as he obeyed.

      Farranti was standing about a metre away, holding a small gun which he must have concealed earlier in the evening. His face was flushed and furious, and Avon suspected that he was somewhat the worse for drink.

      "Try and make a fool out of me, would you, you Inde bastard?"

      Avon said: "I did not 'try' to make a fool of you. That would have been quite superfluous," and was suddenly aware of the fear and reproof on Cally's face.

      "Shut up! You'll see... what we're going to do, Chevron, is to find out if you can see through walls when you haven't got eyes anymore..."

      That was the moment when Avon realised that he really was in deadly peril, and that Cally was also in the line of fire. Vila, standing more to one side, had begun to edge away, into the shadows.

      Avon spoke quickly to distract Farranti's attention, "Do you really think you can get away with that? In plain view of the guards over there?"

      "Who cares what happens to an Inde?"

      Avon smiled. "Perhaps someone who dislikes the Guild even more than he dislikes Independents? The President of Hinkal, for exam-"

      "You! Come back here." When the gun had swung towards Vila, Avon knew that his ploy had failed. It had been a desperate one at best depending, as it did, on the hope that Vila would act with both sense and courage, for once.

      Behind him, Avon heard the soft hum of a hovercar's engines and, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a big grey vehicle move slowly onto the brightly-lit exit ramp. There was something familiar about the driver... then he saw the dark profile on the woman in the rear passenger seat and knew why. Desperately, he looked to Cally, who had her back to the ramp, and tried to signal to her with his eyes. If she saw Tarrant and Dayna, she could call to them for aid. Look round, Cally, he told her silently, but she was watching Farranti, waiting for an opportunity to explode into action.

      Suddenly, a black hovercar burst out of the night and onto the exit ramp. Tarrant swung his vehicle in a desperate attempt to get out of its way, sideswiping a parked hovercar which cannoned into the next vehicle with a noise like an avalanche.

      Every eye in the parking area had turned towards the ramp; every eye except those belonging to Cally. In the instant of Farranti's distraction, she kicked the gun from his hand. He reeled away, clutching his wrist, as Cally snatched up the weapon.

      "Don't move!" she ordered.

      So it was that she did not see what was happening on the exit ramp. Avon and Vila, running towards Tarrant's stalled vehicle, saw the intruding black hovercar swirl to a halt, blocking the ramp. Four men piled out of it and also ran back towards the wreck, reaching it well before Avon, Vila, or the oncoming guards.

      Meanwhile, Tarrant had forced opened the door of the hovercar and somersaulted out. However, before he had time to get to his feet he was hauled to them by two large men and dragged into a run. He could hear more footsteps behind him and Dayna's protests.

      A large vehicle, also black, appeared at the head of the ramp. Tarrant saw the open side door only as a lighted circle into which he was pushed. Something landed on top of him, crushing him to the floor, then his stomach lurched as the vehicle took off vertically.

      Avon and Vila, surrounded by a group of assorted policemen and private guards, stood helplessly watching the black aircar vanish into the night sky.

      "What the hell was that all about?"

      A policeman rounded on the guard. "Fool! Didn't you recognise them? Those are the two we've all been searching for. There's a huge reward-"

      "Looks like someone claimed it," said Vila.

      "Those weren't our men." The policeman swung round savagely. "Iwan! get on the communicator. I want that aircar tracked down. Move, man."

      "I'm on it."

      "Meanwhile, let's get after it ourselves," one of the guards suggested.

      "How? There's not an atmospheric vehicle of any kind in the place," the policeman snarled. It was then that he noticed a dumbfounded Farranti standing beside Cally, who was concealing her gun behind his back. "The Guilder! Well, he's got some explaining to do."

      

Valley of Death

"The Fraternity has them." said Farranti. "There's no doubt about it. The word's all over the planet, so openly that they're even telling us about it."

      Commodore Vardil scratched his greying beard. It was a gesture that could mean he was either annoyed or puzzled. Farranti unhappily supposed that it was both.

      "The Fraternity... what could they want with Tarrant and Mellanby?"

      "The word we're getting from our intelligence sources at Scitech is that all Blake's crew were criminals," Farranti reminded his superior.

      "The Fraternity has no agreement with Scitech over letting them have scooped criminals, the way they must hand over shipcrew to us. Valonia has never asked for one. Perhaps Avon has already allied himself with the Fraternity and has employed them to find the other members of his group."

      "Perhaps. It seems unlikely to me."

      "We have to play the long shots," Vardil decided. "So we'll do the job of the Hinkal government and clear out the rats' nest for them. Where is the Fraternity HQ on this planet?"

      "We don't know - no-one does."

      Vardil glared at his younger subordinate.

      "Government security forces haven't been able to find a trace of them," Farranti amplified. "A lot of that dirtball out there is still unexplored."

      "That shouldn't be a problem. What about an orbital survey of heat and energy sources?"

      Farranti looked surprised. "Hinkal doesn't have the equipment to..." He faded out.

      "But we do," Vardil pointed out gleefully. "Prepare to lift, Captain. We have a nest of vermin to uncover."

      

      

"Yes, that is well, Gooma, but what is not well is that we cannot find out who stole the exetium in the first place. I do not like unregulated crime on this planet, and the robbery was executed with some skill. A terrorist, perhaps... but we have an even greater need to find terrorists. Valonia wishes them encouraged."

      Gooma said: "The skill in the robbery is not matched by skill in disposal of the spoils, so perhaps you are right. The exetium has been kept in a cloth bag. It has also been allowed to build up too much power and is contaminated with dust and soil."

      "We can refine it again." Kaarrss was dismissing the subject. Two of his eyes suddenly swivelled towards Gooma. "Why has Avon not contacted us?"

      Gooma shrugged. "Perhaps he has. Some of our field agents are not very efficient."

      "Their reports are being channelled through you," Kaarrss hissed, "and you are trained to read what is not written, what is not said."

      "There is nothing. The odds on his death are shortening."

      "That is not what Valonia will want to hear."

      Gooma snorted. "I don't give false data to anyone, Kaarrss, particularly to Valonia. I would not advise you to do so, either. It is part of my trade to tell the truth, and of Valonia's to accept the truth. My computation is that Avon was not on the escape rocket or that he is dead. Valonia will have to accept that - as you will."

      

      

Ten hours later, exactly fifteen after the exetium had first been scanned, Avon's transmitter sent out a single pulse on an ultra high frequency. It would repeat it every fifty-six minutes for the next three hours, then would remain dormant until fifteen hours after it was scanned again.

      

      

Avon looked down at the spot indicated on the map and shook his head to himself. The transmitter was stationary now, right in the middle of an area of mountain and desert. The exact spot was marked with a name: Madman's Forest.

      Why does it always happen to me? Avon wondered. The Fraternity headquarters ought to have been right in the middle of Lomril city, but it has to be two thousand kilometres away in the middle of one of the wildest parts of the planet. Why don't I just leave Tarrant and Dayna to their fate, whatever it is?

      The answer, as always, lay in the sightless face of the man who had extended hospitality and friendship to a stranger, only to have been repaid by death, and who had unwittingly but perhaps willingly left his only child in the hands of that stranger. Avon knew that he owed a debt to Hal Mellanby, a man who had died at the hands of Servalan, whom he himself had brought to the undersea refuge on Sarran.

      Avon shook himself out of his reverie. After all, he had already made his decision. He left a brief message for Cally and Vila, making sure it contained no clue as to his whereabouts - no-one was going to follow him to disaster this time - then picked up the bag into which he had packed tools, food and a stolen gun, pocketed the map viewer and the receiver, and went looking for some long range transport to steal.

      * * * * * * * * * * *

      

      The farmer was not, I thought, very annoyed at being interrupted. He left his robots to continue with the feather-thread harvest and hitched himself up on a stump.

      "I thought you people had talked to everyone," he grumbled. "Yet here you are, the third one who's talked to me - and I didn't see anything. I was working on the high fields with the galine herds when all the excitement occurred."

      Confident now that my forged credentials had passed muster, I seated myself beside him. "You know the bureaucrats at Lomril; nothing's official unless it's in quintuplicate. Have a zilstik." I offered him a pack of the local narcotic-impregnated gum. Not only was this a friendly gesture, but the drug encouraged a feeling of benevolence and talkativeness.

      He took a pellet. I took a harmless one from the back of the pack.

      "So what about this escape rocket?" I asked.

      He shrugged. "I only know what everyone else knows. It came low over the valley... a big, nasty-looking thing making a lot of noise. We went looking for it in the mountains. We found it, too, in the end, despite the fact that half the people on the planet were looking for the thing. The crew weren't there, of course. Oh, no, they were rampaging around the district, killing our people on the waytrack. They murdered friends of mine. Known 'em for years. They were just minding their own business, and those Guilder bastards slaughtered them."

      As the men and women in question appeared to have been out on the waytrack at night, carrying guns, I rather doubted that they had been minding their own business, but I nodded agreement.

      "Damn Guilders," the farmer rambled on. "I bet you they were responsible for the galine getting out, too. Took us all day to get 'em penned again."

      "Must have been quite a job."

      "It was. Those barbarian Guilders... slaughtering other people's galine. We found the carcasses. Tenmo! It was nasty. Like a wild animal had been at 'em... and there've been other reports... dozens of 'em." He gestured wildly, with his hands, making dozens into hundreds, when there had been only two confirmed reports of galine killed. I doubted that Avon and his party had even been responsible for those, particularly if they had been killed in the reported fashion. Everything that had happened in this area since the escape rocket had landed had been blamed on its occupants - a woman in Snake Valley Township was actually blaming the loss of a couple of maps on the survivors. Next they would be blamed for the beer going bad.

      One thing was certain: the occupants of the escape rocket had not been directly seen or heard at all, and the last possible contact had been the killings on the waytrack. Beyond that point, the vanishing trick became complete. The very slickness of the illusion suggested that Avon was the particular magician involved, or so I kept telling myself.

      

      

Avon lay face down on the edge of the low cliff and scanned the wide valley floor through his long-range viewers. According to the fix on his transmitter, he was looking directly at the place to which the exetium had been brought.

      It was barren; almost as barren as the desert worlds of Haderon and Zonda. He reminded himself that both had contained unexpected life-forms. This valley had been cut by a river winding down to an inland sea, but that had been many years ago. The climate must have changed, for the sea waves were now sand-dunes and the valley was dry. The wind that blew permanently down to the sand-sea had scoured away the soil and softer rock, leaving an array of vertical volcanic plugs posted along the flat valley floor, like tall, dead trees, stripped of their branches and shaped into grotesque pillars by a demented wood-carver, a giant leafless forest of stone.

      Avon's imagination showed him this place when those columns had been formed, long before the water came to slice out the valley: a plain pocked with hundreds of small volcanic cones, each belching red lava, glowing against the pall of smoke that would have masked the sky. Then, it would have been physically terrifying. Now, it was simply eerie, even in the merciless glare of the noonday sun.

      Avon dismissed the thought and considered the likelihood of the Fraternity being here. It did not look promising.

      Was there movement down there in Madman's Forest? Avon quickly changed the focus of the viewers but if anything had indeed moved it was no longer visible. Perhaps it had been an animal, or even his own imagination, but he didn't think so.

      Those old volcanic plugs... they ranged from three to seventy metres in height, and had diameters of up to twenty metres. An idea began to gel in Avon's mind. He moved along the cliff into the shade of a rock and sat down to wait.

      It was destined to be a long one.

      

      

"We have it pinpointed," Farranti told Vardil, "and a hell-hole of a place it is too, sir."

      "Ground assault force ready?"

      "Yes, Commodore, but..."

      "Then move out."

      "Sir... that... that's not possible..."

      Vardil glowered at his subordinate. "Not possible, Farranti? Those words should not exist in the mouth of a Guild Captain."

      "I mean... it would not be advisable. The terminator passed that point two hours ago. It's dark down there, and our ground assault forces aren't equipped or trained to cope with planetary night."

      Vardil swore. "Why anyone should choose to live on a planet I'll never know."

      "Agreed, Commodore, but that happens to be where the Fraternity base is. Our men aren't used to planets. We don't have proper planetary equipment. That's enough against us without adding darkness to the list."

      "Very well," Vardil snapped, his lips thinning and whitening. "We will attack with the coming of light."

      "Dawn."

      "Never mind what the planet-crawlers call it. We attack then, and no-one is to be allowed to escape. Have the pictures of Mellanby and Tarrant that we acquired from that Hinkal security officer circulated to our forces. They are to be taken alive. So is anyone with them, particularly anyone who answers to Avon's general description."

      "Just over medium height. Medium build. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Fair skinned. About forty years standard. It's not much to go on, sir."

      "It will eliminate a large number of Fraternity personnel, in any event. And remember that it is important that no-one else obtains what we want from Avon... more important than that we obtain it ourselves. The men are to take no chances."

      "Aye, sir," said Farranti, with satisfaction. This would be the making of his career; he knew. He imagined Fleet Admiral Gorsky's face when he marched Avon onto the Napoleon's flight deck. It was an image that would see him through the long, long night.

      

      

Avon lay still, sprawled out on the stone shelf at the edge of the cliff. He was cold now, and stiff. He had moved only once since late afternoon, to claim his jacket from the aircar as the evening chill settled over the desert. The starlight was bright and clear, and revealed nothing. Neither did the viewers, though Avon had adjusted them for night vision. The whole weird valley was disappointingly lifeless, and it was only stubborn refusal to admit defeat that kept him in his uncomfortable position.

      It was five and a half boring hours after dusk that a bright circle of light appeared for a few moments at the base of one of the lowering ebony towers. The dark, featureless outline of a man showed for an instant against the glow, then both were gone.

      Avon quickly focused his viewers on the scene and located a man making his way directly towards him. He kept on walking until the cliff on which Avon lay obscured him from view. Avon listened, half-expecting to hear the unavoidable noise of someone scrambling up the steep slope, but the night was silent, save for the wind. Yet it seemed to him that he felt a faint vibration, apparently coming directly through the rock. When it stopped, he continued to wait.

      Some ten minutes later, he felt the vibration again. It was followed by the soft hiss of a hovercar's engines. Muted lights appeared in the valley below, moving, turning north towards its mouth and the sand sea beyond.

      Avon ran back to his own hidden aircar, started the engines and sent the little craft racing along the rim, keeping the hovercar's lights in sight, though his own were dark.

      At the end of the valley, the hovercar turned east, running along flat shingle that had once been a beach. As soon as he was sure of its direction, Avon turned the aircar out over the dunes and pushed the power to full, racing ahead of his quarry.

      He landed at a point where the old sea-cliffs and the dunes compressed the shingle beach down to a strip no wider than the waytrack. Turning the aircar's lights onto that narrow road, he jumped out and spent the next few minutes placing a field generator and its strip extenders in position on the pebbles, forming a large circle between cliff and sand. Then he backed the aircar a little way down the shingle and switched off the lights.

      Exactly seven minutes later, he saw the hovercar approaching at a fair speed. He waited, his finger resting on the button of a small remote control device. As the hovercar reached the strips, he pressed it firmly.

      The field came on. Consequently, the hovercar's lights went out. As abruptly, the aircar's came on, blazing out to dazzle the hovercar's driver. He swerved violently to the left, but even as it started the turn, the hovercar's engines cut out. The vehicle slammed down into the ground, ploughing up shingle.

      Avon slipped out of the aircar, his gun in his hand. The driver of the hovercar did the same some thirty seconds later.

      "Drop the gun," Avon shouted, sending a blast after the words to emphasise them. The bolt died as it hit the field but it also made a satisfactory noise. The man tried to fire back but his gun was dead under the influence of the field. Avon gave him a few seconds to realise it, and to realise that he did not even have a target to aim at in the blinding light, then repeated the order.

      This time, the hovercar's driver, a large, heavy man whose skin shone with sweat in the cold of the night, obeyed. In fact, he threw the gun away from him as if it had been transformed into a Brazontian dog-viper.

      The field, Avon knew, was about to die. The particular device he had used drained electronic energy, but it was crude and its circuits would quickly overload, fusing into uselessness. Its purpose had been to detach the man from his vehicle and weapon before that happened and, in that, it had succeeded.

      The hovercar's engines coughed into life. With its driver boggling after it, it careered off into the desert and up the side of a dune before its nose canted too far in the air and the whole machine toppled backwards to crunch into the sand.

      Avon ignored it. He strode forward into the light, appearing to the other man as a dark, menacing shadow holding a gun. "Come over here," he ordered and his captive shambled towards him, shading his eyes with his hand to try and see more of Avon against the glare. "Stop! Your name?"

      "Atur Rolan. Who are you?"

      Avon ignored the question. "We are going back to the Fraternity base, Rolan."

      "I don't know what-"

      Avon took two steps forward and hit Rolan across the face with the butt of his gun. The man staggered and almost fell. "Shut up. You have one chance of staying alive and that is to do exactly as I order." Avon was aware that his matter-of-factness was more frightening than bluster would have been. "You are going to take me to the Fraternity base and through its defences to the computers."

      "And if I don't?"

      "I will kill you."

      "You need me," Rolan said smoothly. "Otherwise you wouldn't be here."

      "I need someone. Of course, I could kill you now and wait for the next man to come along. He might be more co-operative."

      "Look, getting into the base just isn't possible. The defences are too strong."

      "If we are detected, I'll just kill you at once," Avon stated. "Now get up."

      

      

Rolan moved down the shallow cliff ahead of Avon. He had spent the short journey back bound hand and foot in the rear seat of the aircar; now he was very conscious of the gun threatening his back. This quiet-spoken man frightened him more than anyone he had ever met, even more than Valonia. He decided that he would like to see a confrontation between them ...preferably with the man now at his back in chains.

      He said, "That is the defence line. Anything that crosses it is detected at once."

      "Where exactly does the boundary run?"

      "Two metres ahead. A straight line right across the valley floor."

      "If you were coming here normally, how would you cross it?"

      "By the main track. I'd be identified and passed before I reached the entrance."

      Avon considered. "To the right," he ordered. "Keep away from the line. Remember that if you make any attempt to attract attention, you're dead."

      They moved on over the rocky ground and back up the lower slope leading to the cliff, a manoeuvre that would have been impossible without their night-vision visors intensifying what light there was and converting infra-red to a visible wavelength They also enabled Avon to find what he had been looking for: a very large insecure-looking rock on the scree slope.

      "Push."

      "Huh?"

      "The rock, Rolan. Push it."

      Avon himself lent his strength to the job. The rock began to wobble, then to roll. As it finally tipped, Avon shoved it to one side, steering it straight towards a truncated rock column, toppled long ago. He pushed Rolan after it. "Run!"

      They trundled down the slope, slipping on the loose ground. The rock had started a small landslip which clattered angrily, masking the noise of their feet and the stones they disturbed.

      The big rock crashed into the truncated pillar and shattered it, revealing that it was not rock but a shell of some artificial material, filled with wiring and electronic components.

      "But how did you know-?" Rolan gasped.

      "It was obvious." Obvious when you noticed that there were two identical truncated pillars on opposite sides of the valley, right on the defence line and nothing similar elsewhere. "Now, let's find the computer installation."

      "There'll be people there-"

      "Good." Avon shoved the gun into Rolan's back. "There'll be some here in a minute, so move."

      Even as he spoke, light flooded the valley. Spotting a party of armed men running from one of the rock towers, Avon hooked an arm about Rolan's neck and pulled him into hiding.

      "Another damn landslip." The disgusted tones came clearly to the hidden men.

      "I thought we'd defused all the likely ones."

      "I remember this rock. It was up there, on the wall. Must have been loosened up in that tremor a few days ago."

      Still grumbling, the guards returned towards their base. After a short time, the lights went out.

      "The computer installation." Avon murmured in Rolan's ear. At the other man's nod he relaxed his grip on his throat. They moved on into the newly-returned dark. Through the visors, the landscape was an oddly structured map of black and white, with the heat sources - like themselves - standing out as pink-sheeted ghosts. Many of the rock columns also glowed, indicating that they were not entirely as they appeared in daylight.

      Rolan led the way directly to one of them. "This is it."

      "Open up," Avon ordered. "Always remembering, Rolan, that if anything goes wrong, you'll be the first to die."

      Rolan put his hand on the rock. A door slid open. Avon trundled him into the revealed cavity. As the camouflaged door shut behind them, the lights came on and another door began to open. Avon whipped off his visor and sent Rolan stumbling ahead of him.

      A fair-haired woman turned from a computer terminal. "Who-? Rolan, what are you doing in this - oh."

      "Stand very still," Avon ordered, scanning the room. It occupied nearly the whole of the interior of the pillar and there were three people amid the mass of computer equipment. Also, at the far side, he could see a passenger elevator.

      He ordered the three men and one woman to stand in a line in front of him, then coldly and efficiently rendered them unconscious by heavy and skilful blows. The gun silenced protests; no-one chose to be dead rather than unconscious. Avon then secured them with lengths of pythonbind, cut from a thong he had brought with him, before going to the elevator controls. It did not take him long to make sure that the car would not stop at this level unless he called it, then he also checked the lock on the outer door to make sure no-one could enter.

      It was only then, when he was sure that he would not be disturbed, that he turned his attention to the computers which he surveyed with some distaste. They were sadly primitive when compared with Zen and Orac, though not more than fifteen years or so behind Federation technology. Familiar, at least. Quickly, he set to work.

      * * * * * * * * * * *

      

      "They could not vanish," said Stali, "yet we cannot find them. Why are you so sure that your friends are here on Hinkal?"

      "I'm sure that they were here," I corrected. "The problem in locating them is that they are most efficient survivors."

      "Then why not leave them to survive?"

      "I can't - I told you why, Stali - but now they've gone to ground I don't know how to find them." I glared at the wi'h, who returned the stare blankly, his golden eyes glowing serenely. Glowing. It reminded me of the one real resource I had.

      I went to speak to Orac. "I want you to run an analysis of public transportation patterns-" I began.

      "So there you are, Blake. Before giving me further useless instructions, I would appreciate if you would use that which I have already obtained."

      "What are you talking about?" I asked urgently, leaning against the computer, both hands on the transparent casing. If Orac had a lead... "Specify."

      "You gave me certain instructions regarding the Fraternity computers at their base here on Hinkal."

      "So I did. Go on."

      "I have the following information: Dayna Mellanby and Del Tarrant are being held in the Fraternity complex."

      "I already know that. They can stay there as long as the Fraternity want to hold them.

      "You asked me to report on the whereabouts of Liberator's crew and on any information on that crew contained in the Fraternity's computers. I am giving you that report. Also, the Fraternity base is protected by scanners. The input from these scanners was interrupted a short time ago. This was reported to be the result of a landslip, but certain information has been requested from the Fraternity base computer banks which leads me to believe that the interruption was arranged to allow an intruder to enter the base."

      "Avon."

      "The computers are being manipulated with some skill. I would say that your identification is a logical one, particularly as the present whereabouts of Tarrant and Dayna is part of the information being requested from the data banks."

      "What other information was requested?"

      "Plans of the Hinkal Fraternity complex. Organisation of its defences. Security codes. And the computers are being reprogrammed in a way that will seriously disorganise the Fraternity defences."

      "Get a message to Avon through that computer. Tell him that I... No. Tell him the message is from you. That you have a message from... from the survivor of his bad marksmanship on Horizon. Tell him that that survivor will be waiting for him at the Fraternity base - and give me its location."

      "It is extremely doubtful that-"

      "Do it, Orac. Punch through that message and give me those co-ordinates. Now."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

      Avon took the handguns he had found on two of his captives and stowed them in his pockets. Then he instructed the computer to activate its new programs, and called up the elevator.

      Throughout the complex of hollowed rocks, caves and tunnels, all the doors closed. Now, they would only open to the precise patterns of Avon's fingerprints.

      The elevator car arrived and the doors opened. The car was empty. Avon stepped inside and keyed in the tunnel level. As he did so, the computer's speaker uttered a clear, bell-like tone and a message came up on the screen. Avon ignored it; he had no time to waste on minor mysteries.

      When the car reached its destination, Avon flattened himself against the side wall, his gun raised and ready to fire. The doors opened.

      Two women with guns were in the corridor-tunnel. Avon didn't have time to register anything else as he fired reflexively. A bolt of energy hit the wall beside him, but by that time both women were dead. He swept by them at a run.

      There was a long way to go and Avon's natural caution soon made him slow his pace. Every door had to be checked, every corner circumspectly navigated, though he met no-one else in the tunnels. It was only when he called the elevator he wanted down to his level and the doors opened to reveal an unarmed and choleric man who began to protest loudly about being trapped for over half an hour in the elevator car, that he was forced into action again.

      He grabbed the man's jacket with his left hand and hauled him out, tossing him down the corridor, before entering the car himself and keying it to the sixth - the highest - level. When the car reached its destination, he stepped out cautiously into a darkened room. Once he found the light control, it was revealed as a small, sparsely furnished lounge, empty of life. There were two other doors. Avon went to one and slid it open as slowly and silently as possible. There was further darkness beyond but the light from the lounge revealed a bed and a humped figure under the covers.

      Avon hesitated, listening, then stepped swiftly inside. There was movement to his right so he spun away leftwards, whirling to face the attacker, who turned out to be Dayna, clutching a sharp-edged piece of broken plastic.

      "If you're going to be that unfriendly," said Avon, "I'll go away quietly and leave you in peace."

      "Avon!"

      "Obviously. You didn't really expect to fool me with that pillow in the bed, did you?"

      "If I'd've known it was you I wouldn't've tri-" Dayna stopped, plainly giving up what threatened to be a very long explanation. "Where are Vila and Cally?"

      "Safe. Where's Tarrant?"

      "Here." Tarrant spoke from the doorway. "You didn't expect me to sleep through this, did you? What are you doing here, Avon?"

      "Manufacturing a chance to say 'I told you so'," Avon replied. "What else? Get dressed, both of you, unless you'd rather remain here?"

      "Not much of a choice there," Tarrant retorted and disappeared.

      "Well?" Dayna asked Avon, lifting one eyebrow.

      "Well what?"

      "I want to get dressed."

      "I'm not stopping you." He grinned into Dayna's glare, but obligingly went back into the lounge.

      Three minutes later Dayna joined him, ignoring his, "Did I miss anything?"

      When Tarrant came hurrying in, Avon handed over one of his stolen handguns. "Anyone you meet will probably be an enemy, so don't wait for them to shoot first," he instructed. "Let's go."

      They crowded into the elevator car and Avon signalled ground level. "We will have to fight our way out," he warned his companions as the car began to drop.

      "Just give us the opportunity." said Tarrant, with a wide grin.

      "You have it," said Avon, as the doors opened and he led the charge into what seemed like a whole crowd of putative enemies. He shot the first, then was forced into hand to hand combat. Being slower out of the car, Tarrant was able to steer himself to one side and to pick off three before a very large bruiser leaped on him from behind and crushed him to the floor.

      Dayna found herself facing a husky man and a woman who looked as if she practised weight training as a hobby. She shot the man, ducked under the woman's fist and took her feet out from under her, leaving the opportunity for a clear shot, which she took unhesitatingly. That obtained her a space in which to look around. Avon had downed one man and seemed quite capable of coping with his present opponent, who was already doubled up in agony, but Tarrant was almost invisible under a giant of a man intent on squashing him flat. Dayna bounded over and used the butt of her gun on the large, bare pate. After three hits, the giant went limp.

      "Get... him... off... me..." Tarrant's voice gasped, sounding somewhat muffled.

      Dayna grasped the giant's shoulders and pulled. She was a strong woman but he was even heavier than she had anticipated. She managed to lift him about ten centimetres, then had to let go. The body thumped down on Tarrant, robbing him of what little breath he had left. It wasn't until Avon came to help that they were able to roll the unconscious man to one side.

      Avon hauled Tarrant to his feet, then headed for the outer lock. Tarrant limped after him, Dayna holding his arm.

      Avon had, by now, opened the lock, revealing the grey-rose of early dawn. The cloudless sky was turquoise, deepening to aquamarine, and the tower-rocks threw long and complex shadows over the pebbles. As the hatch snicked shut behind the three of them, Dayna found it almost impossible to believe than any animal life existed within hundreds of kilometres; deserts were new to her and she had no suspicion of the density and complexity of life that Avon guessed existed in the valley.

      "We're safe now," said Dayna.

      "Until someone starts using explosives on the doors and gets into the computer complex," Avon snapped. "Follow me." He set off at a fast lope. Dayna and Tarrant followed him, the latter wincing at the pain from his bruises. The scree slid away from under their feet, making speed difficult.

      Tarrant glanced back. People were pouring out of the tower-rocks, yelling as they spotted the fugitives. He loosed off a shot in their direction then almost fell flat as he stumbled over a fair-sized rock. Avon stopped to steady him, but the look he gave him was deadly with anger. Tarrant was only too glad to pound onwards.

      Then the world exploded. Their eardrums were assaulted as fire splintered in a tower. Slivers of stone torpedoed past them, screaming as they bounced from rock to rock.

      All three found themselves flat on the ground with their arms over their heads, energy bolts hissing and crackling above them, but with no recollection as to how they had arrived in that position. Then it occurred to Avon that the bolts were not only coming from behind them, but from before and above them. He looked up at the valley side, that gentle slope that suddenly sheered upwards. There were troops coming down it. They wore black suits, and he could see a glint of gold on the breasts.

      Guild. That complicated some matters - perhaps simplified others... but how did they come to be here?

      Tarrant snaked over the stones to his side. "Those are Guild troopers, Avon. If we can contact them-"

      "No. We are not allying ourselves to any one faction in the Cloud," Avon snarled back, raising his voice to a shout to pierce the shriek and thunder of the energy bolts and exploding rocks. "I've an aircar hidden outside the valley. Come on!"

      He pulled himself into a crouch, waved a signal to Dayna to follow him, and scuttled forwards into the cover of a rock. Seconds later, Dayna joined him, Tarrant right behind her.

      "I still think we ought to-" Tarrant began, but Avon interrupted savagely:

      "Go to the Guild, if you want to, Just don't send them after us."

      "We stay together," said Tarrant.

      "Then follow me." Avon, bending low and jinking from side to side, broke away and ran towards the next piece of cover. Tarrant touched Dayna's arm to signal her to go after him, then provided covering fire that scattered Guilder and Fraternity alike as she raced to Avon's side.

      Avon's arm came up in summons. Tarrant hurried towards him, aware of the sizzle of beam fire passing dangerously close. Then he fell, panting, beside Dayna.

      The Guild force was now beyond the bottom of the cliff and driving the Fraternity back, but more Fraternity personnel were emerging from their hidden base to reinforce their decimated fellows, and they carried heavier weapons. Hovercars, strongly armoured, were lumbering from a cave in the cliff to their left. Smoke drifted past them, stinging their eyes and blurring their vision. Firing was intense but sporadic. What had been an organised frontal assault was degenerating into a personalised fire-fight.

      "We have to get out of this." Avon decided. "We'll move along the base of the cliff."

      He led the way, taking advantage of even the smallest suggestion of cover. Dayna and Tarrant followed as the battle intensified about them.

      Suddenly, Tarrant caught Avon's arm and pointed to where a Fraternity hovercar had been abandoned. "We can take that."

      Avon shook his head once. "No. It - Tarrant, come back!"

      It was too late. Tarrant was sprinting towards the hovercar that Avon suspected was too badly damaged to be of any use... it had certainly been of no use to the crew who had left it.

      As Tarrant reached the hovercar, a man erupted from behind it. Tarrant was adequate to the situation; he socked him on the jaw and he fell to one side, out cold.

      "Keep moving," Avon ordered a wide-eyed Dayna. "He'll catch up." All the same, he was keeping one eye on Tarrant himself as Dayna moved quickly along, parallel to the cliff side, the fighting now being fiercest at its base. He was about to follow her when he realised that Tarrant was a captive. A Guild officer was holding him at gun point. Tarrant's hands were in the air but he was also talking volubly and it seemed to be having some effect.

      Avon took careful aim on his captor.

      "Chevron!" Avon heard the voice but did not have time to recognise Farranti, did not have time to fire, to drop his gun, or to turn, before a bolt spat from the Guild Captain's gun. It threw Avon into the air, and when he hit the ground he lay crumpled and motionless.

      No-one saw the source of the energy bolt that blasted Farranti to ashes. Tarrant, Dayna, the Guild officer: all stood shocked into stillness by the suddenness of the events. Then Tarrant started forwards.

      "Wait!" the Guild officer snapped.

      "That's a friend... he saved me, and Dayna..."

      "Friend." A horrible thought suddenly occurred to the Guild officer and his gun drooped as Tarrant ran over the rough ground to Avon.

      Even as he knelt beside him, Tarrant was sure of what he would find. There was too much blood on the stones and the charred red wound was huge and ghastly. When he felt for a pulse in Avon's neck, the skin was cool under his fingers and he could not find even a trace of a pulse... He had not expected to do so. Avon was too limp... too... lifeless.

      Tarrant rose slowly to his feet. He saw Dayna, only a metre or so away, her face full of fear, and stepped in front of her.

      "Avon...?" she whispered.

      Tarrant took her arms and held her away. "No, Dayna."

      "But-"

      "There's nothing you can do for him."

      She read the truth in his face. With a small sob, she tried once again to go past him.

      "No," he repeated, as he saw tears gathering in the brown eyes fixed on his face. He saw them blink rapidly in response, felt her trembling and knew she was fighting not to break down.

      They were returned to reality by the crash of gunfire only metres away and realised that the Guild officer had joined them. "The Frats are regrouping," he panted. "We've got to get out of here. What about your friend?"

      "He's dead," Tarrant said flatly.

      "We can't leave him like this," Dayna protested.

      Tarrant hesitated. The words 'decent burial' drifted, of their own accord into his mind. Perhaps they owed Avon that...

      But the Guild officer was snarling, "There're scores dead already. We'll join 'em if we don't get moving-" He broke off as all three of them were staggered by the shock wave of a new explosion. Tarrant gave no further argument. He dragged Dayna in pursuit of the Guild officer as he plunged back into the smoke.

      

A Matter of Faith

I had seen the rising haze of smoke in the dawn, black spirals dancing for the rising sun, and had pushed the stolen aircar to the limits of its speed. By the time it came to a stop perhaps two hundred metres from the edge of the cliff, the haze was a black cloud swirling about me. Despite it, I could see other vehicles on the high plain. I landed well away from what appeared to be Guild landing shuttles, but next to a private aircar parked between the rocks which I rather hoped had brought Avon here.

      Taking a heavy Scitech beam-rifle with me, I hurried to the edge of the cliff and looked down into the wide, shallow valley. It was an inferno, full of steam and smoke, looking as it must have looked hundreds of millions of years ago. Through this section of hell scurried the uniformed figures of Guild assault troops and more numerous, more variously dressed men and women, who seemed to be the valley's defenders.

      My first reaction was to get my head down, my second to start looking for Avon and the others.

      It had taken me some time to locate them, but suddenly I had seen Avon appear through the smoke, followed by Tarrant and Dayna. They were making their way down the valley, probably trying to get beyond the battle zone before they climbed out onto the plain.

      What had happened next was to haunt my nightmares for a very long time. Tarrant had made a dash for a grounded hovercar. I had watched as he had been taken prisoner by the Guild, though he had soon seemed to be on good terms with his captor, then I had turned my attention back to Avon. He had been taking aim at the Guild officer with Tarrant, but he had not seen another Guild officer - a Captain - come up behind him, a gun in his hand. Even as I saw, I had brought up my gun and opened my mouth to bellow a warning to him, but I had been too late, and he had gone down under the energy bolt from the Guild Captain's gun.

      My own reaction had been purely reflexive. Fired by fury, I had blasted the Guild Captain to his component atoms...

      So I stood, numbed, watching Tarrant go to Avon, seeing him turn away, seeing him stop Dayna from going to Avon, seeing them leave with the Guild officer...

      I shook off the paralysis that had filled me and started down the slope, leaping from rock to rock with a recklessness I would normally have considered suicidal, but there was a new coldness inside me. The explosions and shock waves seemed curiously unreal, the world dreamlike.

      I had felt much like this before, when I had left Gan's body crushed in a tunnel in Central Control on Earth, but this was... worse.

      I jumped the last two metres, landing with a jolt on the stones, which slipped away under my feet. I sat down involuntarily and had to use my hands to stop myself sliding further, before I could scramble up and go on.

      The immediate area was oddly quiet. The Guild were in retreat and the Fraternity had not yet advanced into this area. There were only bodies, and only one of them counted.

      Avon lay where the shock of the energy blast had thrown him. It had struck him low on the side of his chest, tearing away a large chunk of flesh and bone. There was not a great deal of blood, either because his heart had stopped pumping immediately in the shock or because the heat of the beam had cauterised the blood vessels.

      As Tarrant had done, I felt for a pulse in his neck. Avon's skin was cool... but not as cool as it should have been. I suddenly felt hope.

      ... and then the carotid pulsed faintly under my fingers.

      But Tarrant had-

      I did not want to think about that, or what it implied. Now all my thoughts must be of Avon. First aid was going to have to be very rough indeed. He didn't ought to be moved, but the noise behind me was getting louder. I pulled off my jacket and tunic and tore them ruthlessly into more manageable pieces, binding Avon's wound to make a tight compress. He might not be bleeding now, but I knew that he would start to do so as soon as I moved him.

      His breathing was slowly growing stronger, but it was harsh and, when he gave a feeble cough, blood came to his lips. I would have to be careful or he might drown in it, though it seemed that the lung damage was not critical. Perhaps it had been cauterised too.

      I lifted Avon - far from gently - and started back towards the valley side. That I wasn't thinking straight was obvious, for it was not until I reached the steep slope that I realised my error. The ground ran upwards at an angle of sixty degrees and near the top it became a cliff. There was no way in which I would be able to carry Avon to the top.

      So here was another of the mind-wrecking decisions that my whole life seemed to have become. I could throw us both on the mercy of the Fraternity but, even if that were any mercy at all, medical facilities were primitive in the Cloud Worlds. At Scitech, Avon would not only live, he could be restored to full health. Here, even if he survived, he would probably be left with a breathing impediment for what remained of his life. Besides, I knew too well how he felt about being imprisoned.

      It was the hardest thing that I have ever done in my life, but I lowered him to the ground at the foot of the valley side, then shook him and slapped his face. "Avon. Avon! Wake up!"

      How deeply unconscious was he?

      I slapped him again.

      "Avon!"

      * * * * * * * * * * *

      

      Avon came to consciousness slowly. There was no pain in his body, but it was an effort to breathe, and even more of an effort to think. His whole torso was numb, but every few seconds there came a stinging blow to his face. He struggled to turn away.

      "Avon. Avon. Wake up. Avon. We've got to get out of here. Avon!"

      The voice was familiar, welcome. Its message was not welcome, but it was equally familiar. Avon forced himself to open his eyes, then closed them again, for light and dust stabbed into them and the world was blurred and unfocused. He made his voice work. "All right. Wh... whaddy... wan'... me... do?"

      The sentence ended in a fit of coughing. It hurt, for the first time.

      Arms supported him. The voice was quieter now, gentle. "Easy, Avon. Easy. It's all right. It's all right." Then, with force but shot through with emotional pain, "Get up, Avon. I'll help you. Come on."

      "Damn... you..." Avon muttered but made an effort to get to his feet. The arms helped, taking his weight.

      "This way. That's good. Easy now... the ground's rough here..." The familiar voice kept up an encouraging murmur against his ear as he forced his legs into motion. He stumbled at every step, only held upright by the arms around him... but he kept moving.

      "That's good. It's not far now. We're about half way up."

      Halfway up. Avon was sure that he had been walking forever. Trust Blake to force him on like...

      Blake. Blake was dead. But the voice...

      Avon sagged to his knees, almost carrying the man who held him to the ground. A stab of terrible pain forced a cry from his lips.

      "I'm sorry," Blake's voice said. "I'm sorry - but we've got to keep going."

      Avon gritted his teeth, against the pain of the wound and the pain of the voice. Memory was returning. He knew that he had been badly injured. Shock... the shock must be wearing off... but it had affected his mind... That must be why he kept hearing Blake's voice...

      "All right," that voice said. "I'll carry you. But you've got to stay conscious, Avon. You've got to hang on or we'll both be dead."

      So Blake's ghost had come to save him. He laughed weakly, and that hurt too. Blake's ghost... no, that was crazy. He was imagining the voice, that was all, imagining the voice and the physical support. Yet, however imaginary the voice might be, it was also right. He had to get away from both the Guild and the Fraternity.

      "Can... can walk..." he snarled the reply in a voice that was little more than a whisper, then reached out, clutching for support, and found imaginary, solid flesh. He used it to pull himself erect. He started forward but the other... man?.. gently turned him.

      "No, this way," said the voice of Blake's ghost. "That's it... good man... easy now..."

      Each step brought pain, shooting through him on each shock of contact with the ground. He was hardly aware of anything now, except that pain and the voice that sounded like Blake's.

      Suddenly, he could no longer move his legs. Without knowing how, he was kneeling on the ground, sobbing with pain, staving off unconsciousness by sheer willpower.

      "Avon. Listen. Hold on. You have to stay conscious. Do you hear me?"

      "Y... yes."

      "Good. It's not far now."

      "S'what... said... before..."

      The reply was almost sobbed. "It's not as far now. Two hundred metres... but we've got to go five metres up the cliff first. I'm going to lift you. It'll hurt a lot, but you must hold on to me. I need at least one arm free to climb the cliff. Do you understand?"

      Avon made his head nod. The pain came in like a tsunami, sweeping over him with agony and blackness. He screamed, and yet he still clung to a little rock of consciousness, so when the pain ebbed back he was aware that he had been slung, most uncomfortably, over someone's bare shoulders.

      "Avon! Avon..." The voice came from a peculiar angle, but its urgency penetrated his mind.

      "Still... here..." He coughed violently and felt liquid flood into his mouth. It tasted like blood. He didn't have enough strength left to spit it out, but a hand guided his own to a leather belt. He curled his fingers round it and held on tightly.

      "Good man." A hand gripped his ankles. "Here we go."

      The pain came again. He tried to block it, thinking only of his hands, which must keep on gripping, and the blackness, which had to be resisted. He must hang on, hang on... hang on...

      His position shifted abruptly and he began coughing again. He felt someone pulling at his fingers, but now the pain was so great that everything went away.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

By the time I had worked Avon's fingers loose from my belt, he had passed out again. I looked down the steep slope to the figures swarming at its foot. If Avon had not been able to stave off unconsciousness, we would have both fallen to our deaths. The man's will was truly incredible.

      Someone at the bottom of the slope glanced upwards and I ducked down out of sight. Quickly, I again lifted Avon, this time cradling him gently in my arms. The improvised compress and bandage on his side were blood-soaked and his chin was streaked red and brown where blood had run from his mouth.

      I carried him as swiftly as I could to where I had parked the aircar and lifted him inside, then settled myself beside him in the driver's seat, with one arm still supporting him. The engine started at a touch - and then I saw the man with the gun, coming towards us at a run, now perhaps twenty metres away and closing by the second.

      I gunned the engines. With the aircar less than a metre above the ground, I drove it straight at our attacker. Startled, he fired, but the bolt whistled past.

      We were on him. He tried to jump aside but the nose rammed into him, throwing him over ten metres through the air. I did not see what happened to him after that, for I had sent the aircar rocketing away over the high plain.

      I fed in the Moonshadow's co-ordinates, demanded full speed from the engines, took her to a height of five hundred metres, then left everything to the autopilot. It would take less than an hour to reach my ship but that might be too long for Avon. His skin was very hot now and his breathing was fast, laboured and very shallow, his pulse weak, erratic, and racing. It was not only the wound; my own actions had strained his body beyond normal limits... and the aircar didn't even carry a first aid kit. All I could do was to hold him and soothe him.

      After about five minutes, his eyelids began to flicker.

      "Avon?" I asked hopefully.

      He sighed deeply. "Ummm. Thought... you'd gone..."

      "You can't get rid of me that easily," I told him. "You ought to have learnt that by now."

      "Couldn't... never been... haunted... before..."

      "Haunted?" Even as I questioned him, I knew that he must be delirious. "Avon, you're not being haunted."

      "Not... important..."

      "You're not haunted. Come on, open your eyes."

      "No." It was the most definite word he had spoken.

      "Why not?" It wasn't important, of course, but I had to keep him talking, keep him conscious. I had an irrational belief that that would also keep him alive.

      "If... look. You... won't be... Blake... anymore."

      I couldn't speak, could hardly see for the tears that started in my eyes.

      "S'okay..." Avon muttered. "Just... just don't want Blake to... go away... s'all. Not real... know that. He's dead... haunting me..."

      "I won't go away," I said tightly. "Avon, I'm not going away..."

      I think his laugh would have been sardonic if it had been audible, but it stopped very suddenly, and I felt his body relax.

      We flew onwards. There was nothing I could do but listen to the harsh sound of his breathing and pray that it would not stop.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

      "Shel," said Cally, "I want to talk to you."

      "Talk away," said Vila, not raising his head from the cards that he held in his hand. The all-night gambling session had been made possible by the fact that there were no further performances before the troupe shipped out, and Vila was determined to take full advantage of the fact.

      "Not here," said Cally, and Lanrir's soft growl emphasised her words.

      "Can't it wait?"

      "No, it cannot." Cally put a firm hand on Vila's shoulder. "Come on." Her strong fingers tightened until Vila yelped.

      "All right. All right. Why don't you audition as a weight-lifter? Ow!" Vila slammed down his cards and exited with Cally, amid general laughter.

      Once they were out of earshot, Cally turned on him. "Vila, where is Avon?"

      "How should I know? I've been in there since last night..?"

      "Did you see him yesterday evening?"

      "No. I saw him at the midday meal. He didn't seem to want my company so I left him alone. Why? What's wrong?"

      "He wasn't here last night. I thought he might have come in late but Lanrir says that he left yesterday afternoon and did not come back."

      "You're really getting on with his language, aren't you?"

      "Avon's analysis programs helped... and don't try to distract me, Vila. Where is Avon?"

      "I told you, I don't know."

      "He said nothing to you of his plans?"

      "Avon? You've gotta be kidding..." Then, squirming under her penetrating stare, "Well, not said anything, exactly."

      "What do you mean, 'not exactly'? Vila, I know that something has been going on behind my back. Firstly, there was the way Avon cultivated that Thom creature, then the pair of you lock yourselves away in the workroom, and now Avon vanishes. Explain, Vila. Now."

      Vila spread his hands. "There isn't much to explain. Avon and I... er... we pulled that job at the Freeport customs warehouse."

      "You what?"

      "Avon wanted this... this exetium stuff, and a load of other electronic gear."

      "So you just went out and stole it?"

      "How else could we get it?" Vila began to back away. "Now, look, Cally, don't get mad..."

      "Why did Avon want this 'exetium'?" Cally demanded.

      "I don't know. Do you think he'd tell me? Well, would he?"

      "And why was all this kept from me?"

      "I don't know. You know Avon when he-"

      "Oh yes," Cally said grimly. "I know Avon. Vila, you are a fool."

      "Why am I a fool? Everybody calls me a fool..."

      "Because you are one - and you should have told me all this long ago. Come on."

      "Come on where?"

      "Back to our quarters. I want to check the workshop. There may be a clue there."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

      As the aircar grounded, Stali came rushing from the Moonshadow to help me. I brushed him away. Avon's breathing had stopped twice during the last ten minutes and he had spent the last fifteen minutes alternately raving deliriously and sobbing with pain. All that mattered to me now was getting him into the ship and the stasis capsule before he died. Even that held risk. Stasis could kill, if the subject was too weak to take the stress.

      Stali followed me as I carried Avon into the ship. "What shall I do about the aircar?" he asked.

      "Have someone program it and send it off into the mountains unmanned," I snapped, "but before you do that, prepare the stasis capsule for human hibernation - quickly."

      "I always do my best to obey orders given to me," the wi'h pointed out, as his hands flew over the controls.

      "I'm sorry," I said, putting Avon down on the soft base of the stasis capsule as it opened to receive him, "but it is important."

      "That it is important to you, I can see." He handed me some shears and began, himself, to slice through Avon's clothing with others. I cut away the improvised bandages and sprayed a sealant into the huge wound. By this time, Stali had finished his task and had moved back to the controls.

      The top of the capsule slid over Avon's torn and naked body, and the life sign indicators began to drop towards zero, steadying just above this figure. Avon was in stasis. He would not get any better, but it looked as if he was not going to die, either.

      I turned to Stali. "Home," I said.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

      "I can't find any trace of the exetium," said Vila, crashing through the equipment in the confined space of the workroom.

      Lanrir made a series of chirruping noises and put his front paws on the bench.

      "Avon hasn't been here for some time," Cally translated.

      "Yes. I caught that. Well, some of it."

      Cally switched on the computer terminal. Suddenly, she held up her hand. "Listen, Vila."

      "Huh?"

      "Shhh."

      Avon's voice came from the terminal's speaker. "Cally. Vila. I've located Tarrant and Dayna and I'm going to attempt to free them but, if you hear this, you must presume that I have run into difficulties. Stay with Riordan's troupe. I will try to rejoin you. Do not try and find me, or we will miss each other." There was nothing else.

      Cally and Vila stared at each other in dismay. Lanrir, catching Cally's mood, put his head on his paws and whimpered.

      "Cally, I swear... I never thought he'd do something like this..."

      "Terminal does not appear to have taught Avon to trust us," Cally said quietly. "His ego appears to have recovered from that experience, too. Vila, we will have to find out where he went."

      "But how?"

      "I do not know." There was a hint of despair in Cally's voice. She sat down slowly, shaking her head. Then she turned on Vila: "Why didn't you tell me?"

      "You know why, Cally. Avon said..."

      "Avon said. Avon is a fallible man, Vila, not some kind of super-human. I hope you will be able to live with yourself, if he does not return."

      "It wasn't my fault."

      "If you had told me what was going on I could have insisted on going with him, even if I had not been able to stop him."

      "I'm sorry, Cally, I didn't know... honestly."

      Cally glared at him, but her expression began to soften at his obvious remorse. Seeing this, he moved closer to her and gave her the benefit of his best penitent puppy imitation.

      "I am sorry," said Cally. "It was not really your fault. I know how difficult you find it to disobey Avon. I just wish that you could stand up to him a little better."

      "So do I," Vila replied simply. "Cally, we're due to pull out the day after tomorrow. What do we do if Avon doesn't come back?"

      Cally squeezed his hand and reached up to stroke Lanrir's head. There was no real comfort in either action. "I do not know, Vila," she replied. "I really do not know."

      

      

Tarrant paced the small cabin. The only door was locked. Though he and Dayna had been treated gently enough, they had been escorted to this tiny sitting room and locked in only minutes after their lander had returned to this Guild warship and that had been several hours ago.

      Dayna was curled up in a chair, her face pressed down into her arms. She had not answered when Tarrant had spoken to her and plainly wanted to be left alone. He guessed that if he had not been there she would probably have cried herself to sleep.

      For Avon. There was bitterness in that realisation. Tarrant had never understood the hold that that cold, callous, cynical, egocentric man had had over the rest of Liberator's erstwhile crew, and he could not understand it now that Avon was dead. What was it about Avon that had inspired such loyalty and... affection.

      He tried to rescue us, Tarrant told himself, trying to be fair. That was how he died, trying to rescue us. Mind you, he probably did it because he needed us. I wish we hadn't had to leave his body like that... I wonder what happened to Cally and Vila?

      He had a sudden vision of Cally's beautiful face. Such a waste. Cally was one hell of a woman, but she had firmly avoided his somewhat tentative advances. What would she have done, now that Avon was dead? He put the thought aside as unworthy and useless, crossed the floor to Dayna. Putting his arm around her shoulders, he said, "I'm sorry, Dayna."

      She lifted her head, her huge eyes flaming darkly. "No, you aren't. You wanted him dead."

      "That's not true, Dayna. We were rivals, sometimes, but we were never enemies. I respected him, even admired him, in some ways."

      "You'd be dead a dozen times over if it wasn't for Avon. So would I. We might be dead down there on Hinkal, too, if it wasn't for him."

      "True," Tarrant agreed, "but we are alive, Dayna."

      "And we have to go on living." She uncurled and stretched.

      "You all right now?"

      "Yes. I know how to bury my dead, Tarrant. I learnt to do that quickly, that day on Sarran. Avon was my last link with that past, the only other person who had met my father and sister, who knew just what I had lost. Like them, Avon was a very special person. Despite the pain, I'm glad I knew him."

      "I'm glad that I knew Avon too."

      "So you ought to be." She smiled for the first time. "Remember when I first came on board Liberator? And you pointed a gun at us, all dressed up as a Federation officer, and Avon told you I was his wife..."

      Tarrant, recognising her need to talk, joined in the reminiscences of the ship that was gone and the past that seemed so long ago. They were both laughing over their problems with Ultras when the door opened.

      The officer who had brought them aboard stood in the opening. He looked pale and strained. "Come with me," he ordered.

      "Why?" Tarrant asked.

      "Commodore Vardil wants to see you."

      "Good. I want to see him, if he's the man in charge of this ship."

      "He is in charge of this squadron, Captain Tarrant." There was reproof in the words.

      "Then we'll see him. Come on, Dayna." Tarrant bounced out. Dayna sighed and followed him.

      Commodore Vardil was waiting for them in his office. It was a small room, packed with instruments, tapes and a large desk console, behind which Vardil glowered. He did not rise to greet them but merely nodded as their escort essayed introductions.

      "So," he growled, "this is what we fished up from Hinkal: Tarrant and Mellanby." He seemed none too pleased with the fact. "Pister here says that Kerr Avon was killed down on that hell-hole. Is that true?"

      Dayna and Tarrant looked at each other in surprise.

      "Well?" Vardil demanded.

      "Yes," Dayna replied, rather angrily, "he's dead. He'd've been alive now if you hadn't launched that stupid attack. What were you trying to do? Cause as much anguish as possible?"

      "Dayna!" Tarrant exclaimed, in rebuke. "That's no way to talk to our rescuers."

      "Rescuers! Don't make me laugh. Avon rescued us... and they killed him."

      "We don't know who killed Avon," Tarrant said, reasonably.

      "It was not the Guild," said Vardil. "Shooting Avon was the last thing we intended to do. We wanted to rescue him too... and if you have any evidence that one of our troopers was involved in his killing, that man will pay with his life. I can promise you that."

      "And I will hold you to that promise," said Dayna.

      "Dayna..." Tarrant put his hand on her arm, but his eyes were on Vardil. "We are grateful for the rescue, sir. It's just that Dayna is upset about Avon's death."

      "So are we. Well, we'll soon see if anyone has cause for gratitude. For now, you are guests aboard my ship. Unfortunately, I will have to confine you to the quarters that have been prepared for you."

      "Wh-? But look, Captain Ardron didn't try and do that. He told me-"

      "Ardron is dead. He may have had reason to trust you, Captain Tarrant, but you must remember that I do not and his ship, while armed, was primarily a cargo vessel. He could afford to take a chance on you. This is a warship and I cannot. That is all."

      "But I'm a starship Captain... by your own laws-"

      "You can explain it all to Fleet Admiral Gorsky when we rendezvous with the Napoleon in eight days time. Take them away, Pister."

      Tarrant opened his mouth to protest, caught Vardil's eye, and shut it again. Vardil reminded him of the Commander of the Federation Space Academy, and it hadn't done any good to argue with him, either. He turned on his heel and stalked out. Dayna followed him, Pister hurrying to catch up.

      Vardil glared at the decoded message flashing on the screen in front of him. Tarrant might have eight days left to work out his explanation to Gorsky, but Vardil had to produce his right now, and he had no idea how he was going to explain the loss of both Avon and Farranti. Gorsky might have overlooked the loss of the latter if he had been presented with the former. As it was, Vardil had no idea as to how he was going to reply to the blistering words printed on the screen.

      

      

Kaarrss had his tail wrapped around his chair, which was always a sign of nervousness. Even Gooma was subdued, sitting quietly in a corner. The object of their respect was a tall, brown-haired woman with a commanding manner. Her expression was cold as she surveyed her two subordinates. "I came here expecting to find Kerr Avon and instead I find this headquarters invaded by the Guild, the installations in ruins, and half the staff dead or injured. What have you to say in explanation, Kaarrss?"

      Kaarrss' tail wound even more tightly about his chair. "Valonia, there was nothing wrong with our plan."

      Valonia inclined her head slightly. There was a very small smile on her lips. If Kaarrss had been warm blooded, it would have made that blood run cold. As it was, his crest spikes were slowly diffusing with purple, a sure sign of anxiety in his species.

      "Avon did come," he went on. "At least, that is what we surmise. Someone took over our computer centre and rescued Tarrant and Mellanby. His description matched Avon's. We would have captured him, but we did not anticipate him bringing the Guild assault force with him."

      "Do not lie to me, Kaarrss. Avon was already free and running when the Guild arrived. I am still waiting to hear how they found us, not to mention how Avon found us."

      "Valonia, I am still investigating... "

      "You do not know."

      "I..."

      "You do not know," Valonia repeated. "What are your plans to find Avon?"

      "I have agents searching Hinkal, of course, but if he was captured by the Guild..."

      "I am already investigating that possibility," Valonia purred. "I do hope, Kaarrss, that he is not among the dead. I shall be seriously displeased if he is."

      "No, he is not. We have identified all our own dead and all of the Guild from planetary files. There are no unidentified bodies."

      "Good."

      "But we did find an abandoned aircar on the high plain, not far from here. It seems to be the one Avon was using when he captured Rolan, a vehicle stolen in Lomril the day Avon came here. If he left, it was not by the same means as he came. I think that the Guild has him, Valonia."

      "I doubt it. That organisation is too hidebound to suit Avon. If he is with them now, he will soon leave them. Which is why I suggest that your agents widen their search to include two other people."

      "Tarrant and Mellanby, you mean?"

      "If you wish you may include them, though they were not those I had in mind. When Kerr Avon left Scitech Central he had another man and a woman with him; Vila Restal and Cally. According to your reports, Avon was alone when he came to free Tarrant and Mellanby but if you find Restal and Cally, I think you will find him. I have their descriptions."

      "But-"

      "According to my information from Scitech, they are closer to Avon than Tarrant and Mellanby. Our sources at Scitech Central say that the woman Cally is Avon's mistress. Find her and you will find him. Three people hide far less easily than one. I suggest you start with our own illegal community; the lesser thieves, fences and con men... and the Independents, of course. They may have given Avon and his friends refuge."

      "But why is it so important to find Avon?" Gooma asked softly.

      Valonia's voice was freezing. "That is a matter of policy. Policy is not your business. I want Kerr Avon and I want him alive. That should be enough for you both."

      Kaarrss' head crest was now indigo. "It is, Valonia. Of course it is."

      

      

"You have found nothing."

      Vila's face had told Cally that as he entered. When he spoke, his voice was slurred: "Nothing... been in every bar in city..."

      "I can see that. Come and sit down. I'll get you something to sober you up. So you didn't find anything new?"

      "Nothing at all. Rumours of some sort of fracas between the Fraternity and the Guild... Rumours of this... that... no rumours 'bout Avon. Cally, we can't have lost him, can we? Not so soon after Blake."

      Cally brought him a small glass of dark pink liquid. Vila grimaced, but swallowed it, though he added, "Seems a shame to waste a good binge. Cally, what are we going to do? Stay here? Go with Riordan? What?"

      "Whatever we are going to do, we must make the decision now."

      "Obviously, as we pull out in three hours." Vila was silent for a while, then he said, "Avon told us to go with them."

      "Yes." Cally straightened in her chair. "Yet, if we stay here, we may gain a clue and be able to find him. On the other hand, he may not be able to find us unless we are with Riordan."

      "He may not be on Hinkal himself anymore," Vila pointed out gloomily.

      "That is also true."

      "Avon's pretty good at looking after himself," Vila continued. "He'll find us, Cally. You know he will. Avon's indestructible and no-one keeps him prisoner... at least, if they try they'll get awfully tired of his company. They haven't had my practice at insulting him."

      "Then you think we should stay with the troupe?"

      "We're safe here," said Vila. "We have a place. Avon told us to stay. I've made a resolution to do what Avon tells me from now on. I get into too much trouble disobeying him."

      "And you think that - oh, I see." Cally smiled at him. Yes, perhaps it had come to that: an article of faith. Do what Avon ordered and he would come back to find them.

      Come back to us, Avon.

      

      

Valonia had taken over Kaarrss' desk, despite its anatomical incompatibility with humanity. She had galvanised the Fraternity on Hinkal into unprecedented action, and the desert base was well on the way back to full efficiency.

      Kaarrss skittered about, deeply disturbed by the disruption of routine. Valonia let him, knowing that he would finally bring everything back to the well-ordered normality in which Malaporians liked to exist.

      Gooma, however, was not so much interested in the restoration of routine as in Valonia herself. She knew the other woman well and had served as her personal aide before being assigned to the field. Yet it was with some trepidation that she made her way into Valonia's presence and waited, seemingly calmly, for the other woman to look up from the computer terminal. Finally, Valonia did so.

      "Well?" she asked.

      "I have analysed the reports. It is as you suspected, Valonia. Two men and a woman who fit the descriptions of Avon, Restal and Cally were performing with a troupe of showmen."

      "Performing?" Valonia's dark eyebrows were up.

      "As magicians."

      Valonia laughed softly. "How appropriate... and how embarrassing." She sobered. "Why weren't they located earlier?"

      Gooma did not try to make excuses; she simply reported the facts. "No-one keeps track of Independents. They are clannish and would not be expected to harbour outsiders. We had no data that suggested Avon and his friends had any showman skills, certainly not enough to perform successfully before the President of Hinkal, as I am now told that they did." Gooma essayed a value judgement. "That is style, Valonia."

      Valonia seemed pleased. "Isn't it. Yes, Avon has style, amongst other things. I think I will go to make contact with him myself."

      Gooma was astonished. She was also apprehensive. "The show troupe has left Hinkal. They have taken passage aboard a Guild ship to Wery."

      "Then I must be there to meet them. We will dispense with the Guild's services. Contact Henri in the Mare's Nest and have him send the Sinbad down here for me."

      "Yes, Valonia, but... would you explain your reasoning? How did you know that Avon would be with the Independents?"

      "I didn't," said Valonia, "but he has a talent for falling on his feet. If I had been in his position, I would have gone to the Independents. They move from planet to planet without restriction and no-one keeps track of their movements, names or numbers. No power bloc bothers with them - except us. Which reminds me, Gooma. Why didn't we have an agent with this troupe?"

      "We have one. Or rather, we have a contact, but he was asked to report if he had any knowledge of a computer expert called Avon, not a trio of magicians and mentalists called Ras Chevron, Shel Vistran and Lenore, accompanied by a tame icecat."

      It was not often that Gooma had seen Valonia's composure shaken, but now she showed true astonishment. "Tame icecat?"

      "Yes. That was clever. Few people are going to notice anything else when they are watching a tame icecat."

      "Style, as you said," Valonia agreed. "I will watch out for the icecat."

      Gooma spoke very carefully. "Valonia, I do not for one moment wish to interfere in policy, but you know better than anyone else that I cannot function properly if I am denied full access. Plainly, you have data on Avon that I do not and which is not contained in the Scitech reports."

      "No."

      "No you have no data or no I cannot have the data?"

      Valonia rose from Kaarrss' chair. "I want all the information you have collected on this show troupe." It meant that she would hear no more on the topic. "Next time I visit Hinkal, I expect to find everything in order." She swept out of the room.

      And I still do not know why we need Avon, Gooma thought, or why we are taking so much trouble over him. This operation has already cost us a great deal. Well, it is not often that Valonia is wrong. I hope that this time is not going to be one of the rare exceptions.

      

Nets

Riordan swirled the drink around in his glass and looked up at the starfield on the passenger lounge viewscreen. "I'm more sorry than I can say about Ras, Lenore. Someone must have decided to pass the time with some Inde-bashing: the police, the Frats, or a few 'honest citizens' out on a spree."

      "He may yet rejoin us. Shel and I think that he will. Ras is an extraordinary man, Nelse."

      "Yes. Yes." It was obvious that he was humouring her. "Can you adapt your act to work without him?"

      "Of course," Cally replied coldly.

      "I know I sound insensitive, but I've lost too many friends to keep mourning - or hoping - Lenore. Far too many. All you can be is glad that you are alive just one more day."

      "When Ras is dead, I will mourn, Nelse, and then I will... remember him."

      Riordan patted her shoulder in a fatherly fashion and went on his way. Cally stared resentfully after him. And what if it were Pala? she asked his back, then turned her attention back to the starfield. Where was Avon? And where were Dayna and Tarrant?

      She was surprised to find Vila and Lanrir beside her. Normally, she would have heard them as they crossed the floor, but the icecat was silent, for all its bulk, and Vila could be surprisingly quiet when he wished to be. Lanrir leaned hard against her, and she had to brace herself against his weight. He complained softly but plaintively.

      //You are not a captive,// Cally told him. //You chose to come with us, Lanrir. Do not be afraid.//

      He gave a small spit of disgust. Icecats were not known for lack of courage.

      Vila laughed at the icecat's tone and put his arm around Cally's shoulders. "I get the impression that he just said something rude."

      "He did. You must try harder with the language, Vila."

      "I never thought I'd be spending my life learning how to speak cat. All right, all right, I know he isn't really a cat at all, but you can see why the species was given the name, can't you?"

      "I've never seen a cat... and it is important that you learn to communicate with Lanrir," Cally persisted. "If anything happens to me then that knowledge will be vital."

      "Don't say that, Cally." Vila was horrified.

      "We must accept the possibility."

      "Well, try not to leave me on my own... please."

      "I'll try," Cally promised, with a smile.

      There was silence for a time, then Vila said, "Cally, can I ask you a personal question?"

      "There is no question that you cannot ask me, Vila."

      "Were... are you in love with Avon?"

      Cally did not answer for a long time. Vila had stopped expecting a reply when she said, "I have tried very hard not to fall in love with Avon. Any woman who loves him is asking for heartbreak... and he is human, not a telepath. He could never share... never know the union that means. By my standards, he is crippled. Yet I have always been fascinated by him, attracted by his intelligence, competence and courage... repelled by his coldness and cynicism. Then... perhaps he changed, or perhaps my knowledge of him grew... and Auron was gone. I could no longer ever dream of return. I am no longer sure of my own feelings. While Anna Grant haunted him, I did not have to crystallise my own emotions. Whatever I decided, it would have made no difference. But he has exorcised that ghost. Then I was sure that he would never trust again, but I had underestimated him. He never stopped trusting us."

      "Well, as much as he ever trusted anyone," Vila contradicted her. "Which isn't very much. I think you are in love with him."

      "I do not know. I do not think so - but perhaps I will be, someday. I want to have the chance, though."

      Vila pulled a mock-disgusted face, "I don't know what it is that the man has. You're 'fascinated' by him. Dayna acts as if she'd fall for him if he gave her an instant's encouragement. Blake trusted him totally and... oh, hell, I suppose I trusted him too. He never asked for any of those things; never wanted them."

      Cally stared at him, surprised both at his serious tone and at his insight. This new maturity would have to be encouraged. She said, "Yet I think he valued them, Vila, He values you. He has defended you to Tarrant more often than you know, for example."

      "Has he? Well, at least Tarrant's immune to whatever it is Avon has. Come to think of it, Jenna was too."

      Cally's eyes returned to the stars. "In both cases, he had something that they wanted exclusively, that they could never have while he lived."

      Vila made an encouragingly interrogative noise.

      "In Tarrant's case, it was the leadership of Liberator's crew. Us. In Jenna's it was to be the undisputed centre of Blake's attention and affection."

      "Tarrant I can understand - but Jenna? Jenna was Blake's best friend."

      "Only because Avon did not want to be close to Blake; and Jenna wanted far more than she had. Perhaps that is why she did not want to share what she did have with anyone."

      "And now Blake's dead, and Jenna's been missing for too long. And Avon... Dayna ... Tarrant... they could be dead too. It might be just you and me, Cally."

      "And Lanrir. But I will not believe it until I have to, Vila. We have lost too much already. I do not believe that we will lose more."

      "Optimist. Blake was an optimist. Look where it got him."

      The stars outside were unfamiliar; cold, alien, unwelcoming. Vila's arm was heavy on her shoulders, Lanrir warm and muscular against her side. They both had strength, intelligence, skills... the ability to survive. Yet she knew that they were relying on her to make plans, to take the decisions that would keep them alive, and keep their hopes alive too.

      I will do my best, Cally thought, for I love you both, but Blake... Avon... how much I need your strength and judgement. I am not a leader. I am an exile without a planet, without a race, and now without much hope. I must be strong, though I feel so empty. To be alone again... that, I could not bear.

      "We can find hope in Blake's memory," she said. "He accomplished what he set out to do and he never failed us. He taught us to work together, and while we are together, we will not fail either."

      

      * * * * * * * * * * *

      

I looked down at Avon's still, sleeping figure with an affection almost buried under weariness. At least he was quiet, on the road to recovery, though still very ill.

      I turned to look out of the windows to the early morning sunlight on the sea, calm after the storm that had wracked both sky and water for the past two days. It was almost as if the weather had been reflecting Avon's delirium... but that was purely fancy: this little world's most obvious characteristic was the periodic violence of its weather.

      The fading ghosts of the Hoop worlds patterned the sky, halted in their circling only by the inability of the human eye to appreciate their slow majestic dance, yet even the familiar awe, that someone should have built this great ring of worlds, even that seemed faded now, as the worlds faded in the strengthening light. I was so tired...

      It had been almost impossible to sleep when I had had the chance, on board the Moonshadow on our way to my home world of Firel, and since then I had been unable to leave Avon, though there was really little I could do to help him. The medical facilities here had been left by the Builders and the wi'h knew how to use them far better than I did.

      The wound in Avon's side was almost healed now, the cells forced into accelerated growth and patterned into the original tissue composition by the machine that spread, blanket-like, over his upper body. It had also stimulated blood replacement. Soon we would be able to remove it.

      The shock and the infection that followed it had been less easy to combat. Builders' drugs were unpredictable and often fatal to humans, so I had had to use those concocted by Scitech Bio and stolen by the wi'h when they were preparing for my arrival over a year ago.

      Those drugs had worked, but more slowly and less effectively than I had hoped. Avon's delirium during the last two days had frightened me considerably, as it had indicated a relapse. I had not dared to increase the drug dosage, for the fever could be an allergic reaction.

      I had wished many times for Liberator's medical computers since I had brought Avon here to Firel, so long ago, it seemed. Yet, though his recovery was slow, it was taking place. There had even been moments during the last few hours when he had almost seemed to know who I was. Almost. Wishful thinking, probably.

      I could have used the computers to make sense of his ravings, too, as I tried to quiet him by entering his nightmares. There was no logic to them, though some events were plainly so traumatic that he returned to them again and again.

      What was I to make of that conversation he returned to all too frequently, when he seemed to be speaking to Anna Grant, the woman he had loved and who had died at the hands of the Federation rather than betray him? For he spoke to her as though she was his betrayer, as if he himself had killed her, and as if Servalan had been present and had known him. It made no sense at all.

      That his trial haunted him, I had expected. Mine haunted me. And it was no surprise that the battle at Star One was on his mind, or that he should re-live the events on Terminal as if they had been burnt into his brain.

      One thing gladdened me: that Servalan, who had committed all the crimes ever recorded, who had destroyed the last vestiges of democracy remaining in the Federation and who had sadistically tortured Avon, among others, had finally paid the ultimate price. I could not help feeling that death was too light a sentence.

      I realised that Silkay stood beside me. "If you do not sleep, Blake, you will collapse," he said matter-of-factly.

      I shook my head. "Avon needs me. There'll be time to sleep later."

      Silkay copied my headshake, the gesture seeming strange as the white wi'h crest swayed with the movement. "You need not do all this nursing yourself. There are skilled wi'h here and if you need more I will fetch them within hours."

      "No," I insisted. It was difficult to explain to him why I could not let Avon wake surrounded by alien faces. Perhaps there was affection behind my determination that mine should be the first face he saw, or perhaps it was simply vanity.

      I turned at a noise from behind me. Avon was trying to sit up in bed, despite the restrictions the re-patterning machine placed on his movements.

      I hurried to him and pushed him back, noticing, as I did so, that his eyes were still tightly closed. "It's all right," I soothed him. "Lie still... you're all right. Quiet now... quiet..."

      "No!" He shook his head wildly. "Vila... can't stop them. They're on board Liberator. Must stop them."

      "Gently, Avon. It's all right. There's no one on board Liberator."

      "No... Servalan... Federation..."

      "They're gone, Avon. They're gone Liberator's safe. Vila's safe. Cally's safe. They're gone."

      He sighed and went limp, but I knew that the respite would not be a long one. How could I leave him? Who else was there to bring him any semblance of peace?

      I sat on the edge of the bed and held his hand, though he would be furious if he ever found out that I had taken such a liberty. Never mind. It might, just might, be of help when the next set of terrifying memories raged in.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

      The Napoleon, the Guild's flagship, was a huge and powerful vessel. Even Tarrant was impressed. He had not expected to find himself on board an 'Alexander' class cruiser. Only ten of those craft had ever been constructed, the last of those over twenty years ago. Tarrant was sure, though, that Napoleon was not this one's original name. He had a liking for military history and the scandal of the disappearance of the 7th fleet's brand new flagship had not dissipated, even after a quarter of a century. Then, her vanishing act had been blamed on faulty manufacture and her builders ruined by the lawsuits that had followed. Tarrant wondered what whoever had represented the Federation would say if they had known that she had been here in the Great Magellanic Cloud all this time, but he did not have the leisure to reflect on this speculation; not, at least, when he came face to face with Fleet Admiral Gorsky.

      The Admiral resembled his ship in that he was big and impressive. He was surprisingly young, still in his early forties, and his thinning hair was black, ungreyed, his lion-pug face not deeply lined by time or worry, but simply by his ugliness. His eyes were clear and dark, reminding Tarrant uncomfortably of Avon, as he stared at his two ...prisoners? Over the last few days Tarrant had reluctantly begun to suspect that that was their real status. Now that Gorsky sat facing them, a menacing black-clad figure against the golden spaceship symbol of the Guild on the wall behind his desk, Tarrant knew that it was true.

      Gorsky looked angry, too. "So this is what you brought out, is it, Vardil? Fifty men dead, relations with the Fraternity strained to breaking point, the government on Hinkal screaming about violation of airspace, despite all the bribe money you've paid out... and for what? This pair?"

      Tarrant drew himself up to his full height and spoke before Vardil had time to answer. "We did not ask you to rescue us from Hinkal, though we are, of course, grateful to you for doing so. Now, as trained ship's crew, we claim the protection of the Guild."

      "You have no rights here, Tarrant," Gorsky said coldly.

      Tarrant stiffened "I am a starship Captain. Captain Ardron and I had an agreement. I and my crew would join the Guild and give you the full benefit of our expertise, while the Guild would give us hospitality and protection. I believe that it would be your custom to do so anyway, as we are of your own kind."

      Gorsky swung on Vardil. "Haven't you informed this blathering fool of his situation?"

      "No, sir," said Vardil. "I understood that I had been relieved of further responsibilities in this matter."

      Gorsky grinned wolfishly. "True, Commodore, true. I'm sure I can find more suitable employment for your squadron. An escort mission to Rathole, perhaps." Leaving Vardil looking pale and stunned, he continued, "Very well, Captain Tarrant, I will explain things to you in words you can understand. We already have too many shipcrew and too few ships. Most of our people are already denied their heritage and are forced to live in the Freeports or at Spacemeet. Your ship, any ship, we would have welcomed, along with the crew who brought it. By yourselves you are useless."

      "That's not what Ardron said."

      "The situation was somewhat different then, Tarrant. Ardron was more than a ship's Captain; he was the chief contact point for our agents in the Hoop and the Cloud Worlds. He already knew a great deal about Liberator before he met you at Scitech Central. Our agents had reported that something important was happening, and he was trying to find out what it was when, by pure chance, he met you. When he agreed to rescue you from Scitech, it was understood that the agreement was for all of 'your crew' to come over to us. Of course, it was never 'your crew', was it, Tarrant? It was Blake's crew, then Avon's... but you were willing to trust us and if we could have Avon, we were prepared to take the rest of you too."

      "Avon," Tarrant repeated bitterly. "You wanted Avon. I know why Scitech wanted him, and why the Fraternity wanted him, but why did you want him?"

      "To destroy Scitech. Ardron realised that he could give us the means to do it. You told him during your first conversation at Scitech Central." He shook his head slowly and theatrically at Tarrant's puzzlement. "You told him that Avon had built the detector shield that enabled Liberator to vanish from Federation sensors and later, on board Cloudstalker, you told him that only Avon could give him details of its construction. Are you going to tell me now that it was a lie?"

      Dayna stepped forward. "No, Admiral. The secret of the detector shield died with Avon. So what do you intend to do with us?"

      "Can you give me a good reason why I shouldn't space the pair of you? No? Then-"

      "I will give you a reason," Dayna interrupted. "I take it that you need weapons, new weapons to destroy the pirates and perhaps even to attack Scitech. Weapons, at any rate, that will increase your power and prestige. Well, I'm a weapons technician. As to whether I'm any good... well, Scitech offered me one of their more generous contracts. Will you do less?"

      Gorsky's mouth twisted wryly. "No, if you can prove what you say. I'll give you until we reach Spacemeet to produce a demonstration model of a weapon - any weapon - that is an improvement on what we have now. Will you accept that challenge?"

      Dayna's teeth flashed in a feral smile. "I never refuse a challenge, Admiral."

      "Good. What about Tarrant?"

      "He too has skills you will find you will need, Admiral. There is little he doesn't know about Liberator's navigational or control systems. In the future, he will be of great use to you. For now, he can be of great use to me."

      "Very well. You will be given quarters here on board the Napoleon with access to computer time. You have five days, Mellanby. Use the time well."

      

      

Valonia stepped out into the cold fog of Wery's temperate zone and demanded, "Well?" of the woman who came to meet her. "Has the Reelorn arrived?"

      "Yesterday. On schedule." Jayleen, the head of the Fraternity on Wery, looked at the spacecraft from which Valonia had emerged with quiet awe. She knew that it was one of less than a score of ships built in the Greater Magellanic Cloud since their human occupation began. It might be quite small and clumsy, built on a hijacked Hoop shuttle frame, with her Hy-D fins looking as though they belonged to another craft entirely, but she represented something very special: independence from the Guild.

      Valonia shivered, despite her fur cape, but ignored the cold. "Riordan's troupe?"

      "Playing Portal City."

      "Avon?"

      "He is not with them."

      Valonia's stillness was a warning.

      Jayleen rushed on. "The woman calling herself Lenore and the man calling himself Shel Vistran are still with the troupe and performing as the 'Masters of Illusion'. Did you know that their act includes a tame icecat?"

      "Yes. What about Avon? Chevron, as he was calling himself."

      "According to our informant in Riordan's troupe, he vanished while they were still on Hinkal; about the time of the attack on our base there, in fact."

      "We will have to bring in Cally and Restal," Valonia decided. "They will have the information we need. See to it."

      "And the icecat?"

      Valonia said: "I confess to curiosity. Bring that too."

      

      

Lanrir nosed his way through the transparent curtain strips, shook the water from his fur, and grumbled noisily.

      "I quite agree," said Vila, who had ducked down quickly out of range of the drops. "Does it ever stop raining on this planet, Pala?"

      "Not often, in this region."

      "It's one of the most miserable places I've ever seen, and I'm an expert on miserable places."

      Pala laughed. "What are you, doing, Shel."

      "Thought I might work up an escape stunt as a variation of the act," Vila replied, fiddling with a lock, then removing a part and turning to a portable laser cutter. "We need something to replace Ras' 'seeing through steel' routine."

      Pala quickly changed the subject away from Chevron - a sensitive issue, she knew - and said, "It was a lucky day for us when we met you on that waytrack on Hinkal. You know your jobs - any number of them."

      "Thanks."

      "Are you very famous, back in the Home Galaxy? You certainly deserved to be."

      Vila chuckled. "Oh yes, quite famous." It was, he reflected, hardly a lie, though his fame had been in fields that Pala would never suspect. "Tell me, why does anyone bother to live on a planet like this?"

      "Fishing," Pala said succinctly. "Well, the creatures in the seas are not exactly 'fish'. For one thing, they're warm-blooded, which I'm told fish are not. I don't know. I've never seen a fish."

      "You haven't missed much."

      "Well, they're high protein sources. Some of them are rich in useful organic oils, and their skin makes superb leather. There are two kinds that Scitech will pay a hell of a lot for, though no-one knows why."

      They were sitting under the porch of the local meeting house in the town of Portal, the only settlement of any size on Wery, its only major port, both for space and surface ships, and the site of this evening's performance. The curtain sheets were hung from the edge of the wide roof overhang in an attempt to keep the rain and wind out and the heat in, a task at which they were not entirely successful. Through the small distortions of those curtains they could see the low, stone-clad houses of the town, each with its own version of the roof porch, and the high towers of the spaceport on the flat-topped headland behind. On the other side of that, Vila knew, lay the vast industrial docklands. The sea was invisible in the rain.

      "We won't be here long," Pala was saying. "In two days time we'll be at sea, doing the rounds of the seahavens."

      "Will it smell any better?"

      Pala laughed. "No, Shel. Sorry."

      "Thanks."

      Lanrir sat up suddenly, emitting a low rumble of anger and threat.

      "What's wrong?" Vila asked. He looked about him and, seeing nothing, he added, "Cool it, pal, or you may find yourself in a cage."

      Lanrir's growl deepened. His tail was a straight rod, held out behind him, his ears pressed down and sideways, his ruff raised and teeth bared.

      Pala scurried back out of range. Vila grabbed a handful of ruff. "Lanrir, stop - yeeow!" he yelled, as the icecat took off at full gallop. Vila was dragged forward and did not let go in time to stop himself falling.

      "Lanrir!" Scrambling to his feet, Vila pelted after the fleeing icecat, bursting through the curtain and into the rain. Some way behind Lanrir now, he rounded the corner of the meeting house into the area where the living containers had been stored.

      The first thing Vila heard was the sound of a boot connecting with bone, followed by a yell of pain. He put on a spurt and, coming into a passage between the containers, was confronted by the sight of one man writhing on the ground, clutching his kneecap, while a second tried to wrestle Cally into submission. A smashed gun lay in the mud, alongside its female owner, who was quite still. Before Vila had time to really understand what was happening, Lanrir howled, the same terrifying sound Vila had heard in the woods of Hinkal. It chilled him now as it had done then.

      No-one could have ignored the noise and no-one did. The man holding Cally swung his head to see the icecat hurtling towards him and, with remarkable presence of mind, pushed Cally straight towards the beast and leaped to one side. Lanrir changed course with eye-blurring swiftness. The huge claws raked out, silencing the man's scream almost before it started, as they gouged out his throat.

      Lanrir whirled on his own length, but by then Cally had finished dealing with her other attacker, who was curled up in a ball on the ground. She retrieved the handgun he had not had time to pull from his holster as Vila arrived by her side.

      Lanrir bent his head to sniff at the body. "Good... eat..." he said, in his own language.

      "No!" Cally and Vila said together, in simultaneous repulsion, and Cally added a telepathic rider to bolster it.

      Lanrir sat back on his haunches and licked his chops with a dark blue tongue. Vila could have sworn that he looked disappointed.

      "What's going on?" Vila asked Cally.

      "These people appeared and invited me to accompany them. They were most polite, until I refused. Then this woman pulled a gun."

      "And you called Lanrir."

      "No. I didn't have time. I disarmed the woman but could not cope with the other pair together. Then Lanrir appeared."

      "Maybe he heard something."

      "Perhaps. It does not matter. Now, let us find out who they are." She knelt beside the injured man and pulled him into a sitting position. "Who sent you here? Talk, or I will feed you to the icecat. He wanted to eat your friend. I may let him have you instead."

      "What's all this, Lenore?" The question came from a newly-arrived Riordan.

      Vila jerked round, reaching for a dropped weapon, then saw that the troupe leader was accompanied by Pala and a dozen other showmen. The crowd was still growing as more decamped from the living containers.

      "Pala thought that you were in trouble," Riordan went on."

      "This lot made the mistake of trying to kidnap Lenore," Vila told him.

      "Oh, did they?" Babek, a giant of a man, moved forward with a speed reminiscent of Lanrir's and lifted the conscious prisoner from the ground with one huge hand. "Attack one of us, mister, and you attack us all."

      "Put him down." It was a woman's voice, quiet and commanding. Everyone looked towards its source and saw an unfamiliar plump, auburn-haired woman. She was flanked by ten heavily-armed men, and not a single weapon was holstered.

      Babek made no attempt to release his captive. "You want to make me?" he growled. "He'll die first."

      "No-one will die if you obey me. I want my own people and I want the woman called Lenore and the man called Vistran."

      Riordan spat at her feet. "We don't hand over Independents to anyone."

      The woman looked at him with eyes of grey-green ice. "My name is Jayleen, Riordan. That name may mean nothing to you, but this will: on Wery, I speak for Valonia."

      Neither Vila or Cally had heard the name before but it was plain that everyone else had. Babek slowly lowered his captive to the floor.

      "Well, Riordan? The Independents continue to exist because of the Fraternity and the protection we give them. I can withdraw that from this troupe at a single word. If I do, no Guild ship will carry you, for fear of our reprisals; no-one on any planet will pay you or accept your money. If I blacklist you, Riordan, most of you will die... but all I want is one man and one woman; and the beast with them."

      No-one moved or spoke.

      Jayleen spoke directly to Cally. "Come."

      //Now, Lanrir!//

      The icecat leaped straight for Jayleen's throat. The woman reacted swiftly, diving to one side, her gun snapping up, but the icecat's claws raked her arm and she dropped the weapon in reflex. By then, Cally was following Lanrir's spring. Vila hesitated, but a familiar voice spoke into his mind. //Break through them. Take the aircar.//

      Vila hadn't even noticed the vehicle, but he set off in pursuit as Cally herded a snarling Lanrir through the gap left by the scattering Fraternity heavies. Then his feet were swept out from under him. He kicked and bit and scratched at his attacker who, surprised at the fury of the response, slackened his grip for an instant. Vila squirmed free but, before he could get to his feet, someone dropped astride his back, and a gun was pressed against his ear. He stopped struggling.

      On being hauled to his feet, he saw that Cally was lying on the ground, so quiet that she must be either unconscious or dead. His heart contracted. Oh, not Cally, not now... then one of the men picked her up and slung her roughly over his shoulder. Vila sagged with relief. She must be alive, then. They wouldn't bother with a dead body.

      Lanrir was alive, too, wrapped in a tangler web that covered him with unbreakable strands that held even his jaws closed. His eyes were wild and his scimitar claws, in their webbed pads, sheathed and unsheathed in fury.

      Two of their attackers were unconscious or dead. Several more were bleeding from Lanrir's claws, including Jayleen. The red-haired woman was still fully in command of the situation, though. "Get them into the aircar," she snarled. "Clear our own casualties and move out. Thank you, Riordan," she added.

      Like all of the show troupe, he had watched, unmoving, at the abduction of his star act.

      "So much for Independent loyalty," Vila said, loudly. He gave Riordan and Pala a look of pure hatred, but allowed himself to be led to the aircar. He never saw them again.

      

Cracks in the Ice

Avon took a long time to decide that he would open his eyes. He knew that he was warm and that he was lying on something soft and that his head and body ached, but he found it hard to think and even harder to remember where he was and how he came to be there... Finally, curiosity got the better of his weakness and he opened his eyes.

      The room he was in was softly lit, and that dim golden light fell on the haggard but familiar face of a man sitting looking down at him.

      "Blake...?" Avon whispered.

      Blake smiled with unconcealed delight. "Avon." His voice was warm and full of relief. He put a hand on Avon's and pressed gently. Until that moment, Avon had half-believed he was dreaming, but Blake's touch was cool and solid, reassuring.

      Their eyes met. Making a great effort, Avon twitched his lips in a small smile. Then, suddenly, the smile faded and he tried to pull his hand from under Blake's.

      "No..." he croaked. "No. Not this time, Servalan."

      "What are you talking about?" Blake asked. "No. Wait. Let me get you a drink first."

      "Switch the machines off. I will never believe in their... this... creation." He tried to sit up, alarming Blake.

      "No. Avon, lie down. You're seriously ill."

      Avon fell back, gasping. He accepted the water Blake offered him with reluctance, though it plainly gave him real relief.

      "Better?" Blake asked.

      Avon, who was trembling, made a real effort to control himself. "Damn you," he grated.

      "Gratitude never was your strong point, was it?" Blake asked in annoyance. "I suppose the fact that I saved your life means nothing to you at all?"

      "It won't work. Not this time. I remember now: Blake is dead. Servalan told me he was dead, and the Scitech Director said..." He stopped, suddenly seeing the contradiction.

      Blake was gentle again now, as he began to understand, though he did not try to touch Avon. "Servalan had good reason to believe I was dead and the Scitech Director believes it too. It's what I wanted them to believe." He looked into Avon's stubborn face and deliberately smiled. "All right, let's take it a step at a time. I think that I understand now; Dayna told me what happened on Terminal. You were faced with some kind of computer projection of me and you believed in it. Now you are scared that that you're facing that projection again. But this... projection... could not know all my... all our... history, Avon, right?"

      Avon took a long time to think about it, but finally he nodded.

      "Fine, we've agreed on that, at least. Now, let's go over some memories. Do you recall what happened when the Lost took over Liberator? Cally was under their control and she planted a bomb. It went off, but you saved my life. I asked why. You said that it was a reflex and that you were as surprised as I was. I said that I wasn't surprised."

      "The sort of stupid statement that you... that Blake... would make."

      "I did make it, as you remember very well. You saved me on the way to Spaceworld too, when the cable came to life, risking your stupid neck even after I told you to get away. And on Horizon, in the mines. You could have killed me then. I wanted to kill you, one time, after Gan died, when you accused me of killing him."

      "Who was Zil?" Avon demanded.

      "What answer do you want? A parasite on a living planet - or a philosophical flea?"

      Avon's sick mind slowly worked it all out. This looked like Blake, sounded like Blake, knew things that only Blake could know...

      "Why the beard?" he demanded.

      Blake blinked. "Scitech gets information from Federation communication transmissions. My picture is in the central computers - or was, before I removed it. Someone might have seen it and remembered it... hence the beard, as a distraction. Why? If it bothers you that much I'll get rid of it."

      "Projection... had... beard..." Avon was growing very tired. His mind refused to work properly, making it difficult to put everything in its logical place. Servalan was dead. Or was that part of the illusion? No, wait... he had forgotten nothing that had happened on Terminal and afterwards, including all of that very special dream. It was absurd to think that all his experiences in the Cloud had been an illusion. After all, such an illusion would have been totally unprofitable to Servalan, especially as it had made him doubt this Blake even more. No. This had to be real... and if it was...

      "How'd you get here?" Avon asked.

      "It's a long story," said Blake, "and it can wait until you're stronger. You're nearly asleep as it is. You really want me to get rid of the beard?"

      Avon smiled happily. "No... improvement. Hides... part... of your face."

      "Thank you kindly," Blake replied, but he was smiling too. It was the last thing Avon saw before sleep claimed him.

      

      

The aircar had been travelling through the fog for a long time. Occasionally, the whiteness thinned enough for Vila to glimpse a grey sea below. Cally had regained consciousness but she had been obviously in pain and had finally fallen asleep against Vila's chest. He found himself feeling protective, though he knew that Cally was the last person to need, or want, protection.

      Now, as the aircar dropped towards sea level, a black shape loomed out of the murk. It seemed large enough to be an island, but Vila saw the straight lines stacking upwards and knew that it was a construction, probably one of the fishing factory ships called seahavens on which most of the planetary population lived. That would make it a kind of island, at that, home port for a fleet of smaller craft.

      The aircar set down in a flat deck area, one of the few clear spaces amid the ramshackle buildings.

      Vila shook Cally awake. "Sorry, but we've arrived. Can you walk?"

      "Yes." Cally pulled herself to her feet, holding onto the edge of her seat, and Vila rose quickly to help her. She leaned gratefully against him as they stepped out into the raw air, which carried a sweet, slightly unpleasant smell.

      "Keep moving," Jayleen snapped. Her arm was covered in some type of bandage but she was obviously still in pain.

      "Cally's hurt," Vila protested.

      "It's her own fault. Move!"

      Vila was ready to argue, but Cally started forward again and perforce he went after her, jumping to steady her as she slipped on the wet deck. She smiled quickly at him. "I can manage, Vila."

      "I'll help."

      "Thank you."

      Behind them, Lanrir was being unloaded from the aircar, but they soon lost sight of the trussed-up icecat as they were marched on in silence down a flight of steps, along corridors, and finally into a luxurious room where a dark-haired woman dressed in scarlet velvet sat waiting for them. She rose quickly to her feet, apparently concerned. "What have my people been doing to you?"

      Cally braced herself to stare the tall woman in the eyes. "Who are you?" she demanded. "What right have you to abduct us like this?"

      "I am Valonia." It was said without pride, as a statement of fact.

      "So your thugs said. It means nothing to me."

      "Such spirit." Valonia walked over to them and examined Cally minutely. "Yes. A little dishevelled, but beautiful. Not a common face."

      "I do not see what my face has to do with anything."

      "I wanted to see you, Cally. Ah, not even a flicker of surprise at the name. Beautiful, and resourceful. Very good. Where is Avon, Cally?"

      "Avon? Cally?" Cally's eyes were wide and bewildered. "Who are Avon and Cally? I have never heard the names. My own is Lenore, and this is Shel Vistran."

      "Very good," Valonia repeated, "but the game is over, Cally. I know about you and your friend, Vila Restal, and now I want to know about Kerr Avon. Where is he? Tell me, Cally, and no harm will come to you and Restal."

      "Leave her alone," Vila interrupted. "Can't you see that she's hurt? Your thugs beat her up-"

      Valonia swung on Jayleen, her dark eyes flashing. "I ordered that they were not to be harmed!"

      "They killed two of our people-"

      "I want no excuses. You should have been able to bring them here without injury on either side. That is why you are in command on this planet, Jayleen, because I believe that you are capable of such planning. If you are not, someone else will be. I want no more unnecessary deaths. Now, you may go. Cally and Restal will stay."

      Without protest, the escort vanished.

      "Sit down," Valonia said, leading Cally to a chair. "A drink, perhaps."

      "No, thank you," said Cally.

      "I wouldn't mind-" Vila began, then stopped as he became aware of Cally's glare. "er... No, thanks."

      "I think you both need it." Valonia went to a storage unit and poured a pale yellow liquid into three glasses. "This may not be Earth brandy, but it's the nearest thing to it that the Cloud produces." She handed two glasses to Vila and Cally, then picked up her own and sipped it daintily. Cally cradled her glass in her hands, but did not drink. Vila glanced at her for guidance then, getting none, took a cautious sip.

      "Not bad," he opined. "Not bad at all."

      "So." Valonia settled gracefully into a chair. "You must first realise that you were in great danger as long as you remained with Riordan."

      "So you decided to rescue us?"

      "You might say that."

      "I would prefer not to do so."

      "Perhaps not. Let us be frank, Cally. I want Avon's help. I think that he will be quite willing to give that help - in fact, I am sure of it - but first I need to contact him. And I know that he will not lose touch with you."

      Cally forced her tired brain into operation, trying to reason as logically as Avon would have done. Valonia knew too much. Her confidence was frightening, and denying their identities any longer appeared to be pointless. "Why do you want to talk to Avon," Cally asked. "And why are you so sure that he would help you?"

      Valonia inclined her head. "A good question. Well, the Fraternity needs technicians-"

      "The Fraternity. Criminals."

      "Yes. As you are."

      "Cally isn't a criminal," Vila interrupted. "She never was."

      "No?" Valonia asked sardonically

      "No," Vila repeated. "I am, though. I'm a thief. I've seen people like you before. In fact, I feel like I've known you all my life. The Fraternity. It's just the Terra Nostra under another name, and Avon wouldn't deal with them. He won't deal with you, either."

      Valonia's fingers tightened around her glass. "Avon will deal with me, Restal. So will you. As for the Terra Nostra... yes, they are a large criminal organisation, but that is all. The Fraternity is far more. Already, we are the third most important political power bloc in the Cloud, and we are growing in power."

      "Shows how much you know. The Terra Nostra are a power bloc, one controlled by the Federation. Blake said: 'To have total control, you must control totally.' The Federation does - or did, before the intergalactic war."

      "Fools..." Valonia said softly, as if she was speaking only to herself. "How could they expect us to predict and control accurately if they kept information from us?" Then, more loudly, "There are other differences: differences in attitude. The Fraternity does not see life as something to be thrown away, even the lives of those who oppose us. I am sorry about Cally's present headache, but my orders were that you were to be brought here unharmed. Apart from that, you have not been badly treated, and will not be. I want you to help me, I make no secret of that, or of the fact that I want Avon to help me too. Where is he, Vila?"

      "I wish I knew." The words popped out before Vila realised how much he had been lulled by Valonia's soothing tones, before that last sharp command.

      //Vila!//

      "Sorry, Cally, but I don't see that it matters..." Vila protested hurriedly, annoyed at himself and trying to hide it beneath bluster. "Look, Valonia, I really wish that we could help you to find Avon. We want to find him too. All we know is that Avon went to rescue two friends of ours, then he vanished and we haven't heard from him since."

      //Vila, you are a fool. She may kill us if she realises that we are of no further use to her.//

      "She may what?" Vila turned in horror to Cally.

      "What are you, Cally?" Valonia asked now. "The mentalist act... you are a telepath?"

      "I am a telepath," said Cally, but she was secretly shaken by Valonia's shrewdness. "I am of the Auronar, Valonia."

      "An alien." Something odd crossed Valonia's face.

      "No, I am not human - but why does that trouble you?"

      "It does not," said Valonia. "Human. Alien. Nothing matters to the Fraternity except skill and courage, which we reward. I was simply surprised, that was all." She tapped her fingers on the edge of the glass. "Avon has not contacted you?"

      "As Vila told you - no."

      "Then I may know more than you. He must be with the Guild and if he is, he will be back."

      "He won't deal with you," Vila insisted.

      "He will. Meanwhile, you are my guests. Let me know if there is anything that you need, and I will see that you receive it." Valonia touched a button on her desk and a man appeared in response. "Take these people to their quarters. See that they have everything they need."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

Avon lay back on the comfort of the pillows and looked out into the night sky, bright with the Hoop and the stars, and at the garden surrounding the house, serene under that silver light. I had loved that garden, with its cool colours and peaceful geometric shapes, from the moment I had first seen it. It was important to me that Avon should approve of it... perhaps even come to love it the way I did. That was an indication of how important he was to me, something I had only come to appreciate fully since Hinkal.

      Now he smiled faintly in my direction. "Thank you. This place is very peaceful... and beautiful. What's it called?"

      "Firel."

      "And it is in the Hoop. I'd like to know how we came to be here, Blake. You said that you were going to explain... everything."

      "I will. First, though, I'd like you to tell me where I can find Vila and Cally."

      "They... aren't here?" He did not quite manage to keep the alarm out of his voice.

      I sat down on the edge of the bed, facing him. "No. When I found you, you were... dying. I had to bring you back here as quickly as possible. I hardly had time to look for Vila and Cally, then."

      He said, "They are with a troupe of Showmen - Independents headed by a man called Riordan. On Hinkal... but they... were about to leave. Two days... three... I don't remember."

      "They will have left the planet some time ago, then. Where were they going after Hinkal?"

      "I... can't remember. Why... can't I remember?"

      "You've been very ill. Correction: you are very ill. You'll remember everything when you're well again. Don't worry about it now. The wi'h will find Vila and Cally. The computers will have records of Guild ships leaving Hinkal, and of the troupe's present location."

      "Good. Oh, wait. Cally and Vila aren't using their real names. You're looking for Lenore and Shel Vistran."

      "Just Lenore?"

      "Yes... I think so..."

      "Right. We'll find them. Now, are you sure you feel well enough for me to go on?"

      "You mean to listen to your explanation?"

      "Of course."

      Despite the firm assurance, I took his wrist and felt for the pulse beat. It was a little fast, and his skin was hot, though slightly cooler that it had been during the last few days. He made no protest, and I wondered if he could be grateful for the touch, for the knowledge that I cared. I doubted it, though I hoped desperately that it was true.

      "We'll try it for a while." I took a few moments to put my thoughts in order, for there were some things I would never be able to tell Avon. "After Star One, I was picked up by a ship heading for Epheron. I believed that I could transfer there for Earth."

      "We looked for you on Epheron."

      "I never got to Epheron. The ship I was on crashed on a deserted planet and I was marooned for months before the automatic distress signal was picked up by a scout ship. That took me to Pharion..."

      "Why didn't you contact us from there?"

      I sighed. "Avon, I'd promised you Liberator, remember? With the Federation fleet in ruins, the rebels at last had a chance to take over on Earth. I'd decided, when I left Liberator, that I would be most help there."

      Avon was not mollified. "It would have helped if you had informed as of this decision before you left Liberator."

      "I didn't want an argument, Avon. It seemed best for all concerned... Anyway, when I reached Pharion I found out what had been happening while I'd been marooned... the internecine fighting among the rebels when they should have been fighting the Federation, allowing Servalan to re-establish control."

      Avon's gaze was altogether too searching. "Disgusted you, did it? It should not have done. I had-"

      "Warned me often enough. I know. You were right. I admit it. But there was something else. I'd had a lot of time to think, alone on that alien planet.

      "Has it ever occurred to you, Avon, how odd some of the things were that happened to us? How many strange coincidences occurred during the two years we were on board Liberator? How Travis found us so often? Why we were so heavily delayed on our way to Star One and Goth? And when and how did the Andromedans contact Travis and how did those on Star One get through the minefield?

      "I thought about all those things and I came to the conclusion that someone or something was manipulating events, all over the Federation. We were affected because we were prime movers - or prime puppets - in those events, I think, not because the manipulators were interested in our fate. I, however, was certainly interested in them, and I set out to find them."

      "Just like that. Did you - find them, I mean?"

      "No. I found something else instead. On the planet Jevron I was captured by the local so-called rebel group. Well, not exactly captured." I shook my head. "You're going to love this, Avon. I was too trusting, sure that anyone who was against Servalan would be my friend, but they just saw me as a bargaining counter. I did not 'come quietly', and they were not gentle. I ended up in a cell, waiting to die or for the Federation to pick me up, whichever happened first."

      "Disillusion complete," Avon observed dryly.

      "You could say that... and you'd be right, I suppose. That was when Silkay and his friends intervened. Avon, the wi'h didn't evolve; they were created by the Builders. They are highly intelligent, strong, physically adept, totally obedient, totally unaggressive, totally loyal."

      "Ideal slaves."

      "Perhaps, but the wi'h didn't regard themselves as slaves of the Builders. They do regard themselves as slaves of Mankind, and they aren't too happy about it. That's why they brought me here. Though they'd carefully scanned the data about humans in the Scitech Central computers and had come to the conclusion that the only way they'd been able to remove them from the Hoop which the Builders had bequeathed to them was to use humans against humans, they could see no likely candidates to help them here in the Cloud, so they examined the reports coming in from our galaxy, and selected me to organise their freedom."

      Avon began to laugh.

      "All right, from your point of view it's funny, but remember that they were judging me from Federation communication broadcasts and from-" I broke off. Avon had been laughing so hard that he had brought on a coughing fit. I spent the next few minutes helping him to a drink of water and getting him settled again. I think we were both shocked at how it exhausted him, and he had clung to my arm for support, giving me hope that he would continue to let me help him.

      Once he was quiet again, I succumbed to the questioning look he gave me and went on with my story. "Well, they picked up the messages between the rebel group and the local Federation leaders, and between the latter and Servalan, who started coming in fast to collect whatever propaganda value she could. The wi'h pinpointed my location before she arrived and scooped me."

      "One man? I wouldn't have thought it was possible - or possible to keep the information from Scitech."

      "The wi'h understand the operating procedures of most Builders' equipment better than any human; after all, their ancestors worked for the Builders, and they have perfect memories. Tell a wi'h something and he or she will never forget it. Anyway, they operated a tight beam which just picked up the interior of my cell, draining minimum power from the Scoop. That was during a recharge period, and the regular wi'h working the Scoop knew nothing about it. The increased recharge time was assumed to be a fault on the equipment repaired by the automatic systems, or a disturbance in E-space. That's an important thing to remember when dealing with the wi'h, Avon: they do not lie but you have to ask them the right questions, and be able to interpret the answers. And not knowing answers - or questions - is sometimes even better than being able to lie.

      "Anyhow, once they had me, they put me in stasis and brought me here to recover. I am not sure why they chose Firel, because there are a great many uninhabited worlds in the Hoop. Then they told me what they wanted me to do."

      "And you agreed..." Avon muttered sarcastically.

      "What else could I do? I was here. I was alive and I was free, because of the wi'h. I owed them something and I had nothing else to do, had I?"

      "So you started on another impossible crusade." Avon's disgust was obvious.

      "Yes. When they'd explained the Cloud political set-up to me, I decided I would have to work from inside Scitech. They control the Hoop, the technology, and most of the wi'h - though there are some on the Guild ships and the Cloud worlds. Together we created a new identity for me: Vanor Ricel."

      "So you're Ricel! You brought us here." Avon's tone was accusing.

      "Of course I brought you here. I had the Scitech computers keep track of you for my own peace of mind. When I found out you'd walked into one of Servalan's traps I had to get you out somehow, particularly as she had used my name to set it. I could think of no other way to do it, so I used the Scoop."

      "Why didn't you contact me at Scitech Central?"

      "I... didn't have the opportunity. You were under continual observation and I couldn't risk any of you recognising me within range of the sensors." Because I didn't want him to pursue that line of questioning, I went on the attack. "Why the Devil did you walk into that trap on Terminal in the first place?"

      "The voice could have been yours. It promised wealth and security."

      "Oh." I did not press him, but I did remember Dayna's account of the meeting between trapster and trapped.

      "Servalan told Avon that Blake was dead and I thought he would try to kill her, then. If Tarrant hadn't held him back, he would have been gunned down..."

      If only I could believe that...

      Avon's voice brought me back to reality. "I lost Liberator. I'm sorry."

      "It's not important."

      "I'm glad you think so." There was silence for a while, then Avon's voice prompted me. "You made up the Ricel identity. What then?"

      "Ricel is supposed to be from a world called Creolm. It's a farming world, very remote. No-one from there is likely to turn up in the Hoop. The wi'h manufactured circumstantial evidence to back up the Ricel identity and I decided that, as he'd have to be a technician of some kind, I could pass muster as a force field engineer; I've had specialist training in that area and I could also use my knowledge of the Liberator's force wall system to represent a breakthrough. Also, force-field engineering was a Builder speciality. They left a number of installations sealed behind a special order of force-field that Scitech calls a Barrier. No-one has ever been able to break one of them.

      "As soon as they realised that I was a genius with force-fields... careful, don't laugh too hard or you'll start coughing again... they offered me a very generous contract. I was given full co-operation and every facility I asked for, including my choice of the uninhabited worlds. I chose this one, of course. Scitech wanted me to try to break through a force Barrier to the Yards where the Builders fabricated their spaceships. In fact, one of the reasons they wanted Liberator was as a blueprint for a fleet of ships to destroy the Guild... but that can wait. You look exhausted, Avon. Try to get some rest."

      He closed his eyes, not so much in obedience as in relief at not having to hold them open any longer. Then, as he felt me rise from the edge of the bed, he put out a hand to stop me. "Wait... what about... Dayna and Tarrant...?" He forced his eyes open again to look up at me questioningly.

      I tried to keep my own expression neutral, though I do not think that I quite succeeded. I said: "They went with the Guild."

      "Guild...? I remember... going to try and rescue them... but they hadn't been captured by... the Guild. The Fraternity. That's who... had them. I got inside... their base, I remember that... but nothing afterwards. My memory's ... patchy. What happened?"

      "You got Dayna and Tarrant out, but the Guild chose that moment to launch an attack on the base. You were hurt in the fighting. Tarrant and Dayna went with the Guild as they retreated. I got there just in time to bring you out."

      Avon looked puzzled, but he was too tired to press for further explanation. His eyes closed and his hand slipped slowly from my arm, the puzzlement leaving his face as he fell into a deep sleep.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

It was dark inside the cabin. Cally, who had dimmed the lights, was sitting cross legged on the floor, brooding on their situation. The temptation of endless free alcohol had proved too much for Vila and he lay, snoring, in a bunk behind the door. Cally had no idea where Lanrir was.

      Two days. Two long planet days since she and Vila had been brought here to this great floating city. Factory, harbour, and home for hundreds of fisher-folk, it was also the Fraternity headquarters on Wery. Jayleen was its Captain... Valonia her honoured guest.

      Cally puzzled over the problem posed by Valonia. Why was the woman so determined to find Avon? And why did Cally feel that she was also personally hostile?

      The outer door opened. A small posse of guards trooped in. Its leader bowed slightly to Cally as the lights came up. "Valonia wishes to speak to you and Restal. Would you please come with us."

      "Very well. Please give me two minutes." Cally rose, pushed open the door to the room where Vila was sleeping and shook him awake. He protested volubly, complaining about the state of his head, but at Cally's urging he pulled on his clothes and joined her.

      They were silent on the way to Valonia's quarters and, on reaching them, they were ushered inside to find Valonia and Jayleen speaking to one of the blue-skinned aliens, the wi'h. They had not seen so many of them since they had left Scitech, and none on board the seahaven. The wi'h was impassive, Jayleen puzzled, and Valonia looked angry.

      "These are the ones the ylln require," said the wi'h.

      "They have no right to demand them of me. That is not in the agreement, Haleent."

      "You do well to keep to the agreement, lady. My masters keep the agreement too. These two, Cally and Restal, are from your home galaxy. The ylln wish to examine them closely, and you have no further need of them. The ylln ask, as allies, that you give them to those who do have need of them."

      "But I do need them," said Valonia. "You can tell that to the ylln."

      "You seek the one called Avon and you believe that these two can help you find him. They cannot. The ylln have been seeking Avon too. Their informants among the Guild wi'h tell them that Avon's friends saw him die during the fight between the Guild and your own people on Hinkal, when Tarrant and Mellanby were taken from you."

      Valonia looked as if she had been slapped in the face but she recovered quickly to reply, "We did not find his body."

      "Then it must have been destroyed, for the Guild do not have it." The wi'h might not have said that Valonia was lying, but the implication was there. "My masters are no longer concerned with this; Dayna Mellanby, Del Tarrant and a Guild officer called Pister saw Avon die. He is not on Hinkal, he has not boarded a Guild vessel and he has not, obviously, rejoined Cally and Restal. If he is not dead then he has vanished from the Cloud. I suggest-"

      "Wait a minute," Vila broke in. "Let me get this straight." He glared at Valonia. "He's saying that your people killed Avon, and that it was you holding Dayna and Tarrant - and you had the nerve to ask for our help?"

      "Be quiet!" Valonia snapped, then, to Haleent, "Very well. Take them. As you say, I have no further use for them."

      Haleent bowed. "The ylln are in your debt."

      "And take the icecat with you," Jayleen added.

      "I will, mistress," said Haleent, after it had become clear that Valonia was not going to object to the order.

      "So much for your hospitality," said Cally. "Your 'guests' are now your property, to be disposed of as you please."

      Valonia lifted her shoulders, then dropped them. "If you had been more co-operative, perhaps you would not now be the property of the ylln." She raised her voice slightly as she spoke to the guard. "Take them to the landing site and put them on board Haleent's ship. He will show you where."

      When Cally and Vila had gone and Jayleen had been left alone with Valonia, the Fraternity leader sat in silence. Jayleen did not break it, recognising Valonia's barely controlled rage and certainly not wanting to bring it down on her head.

      Finally, Valonia spoke: "Issue the following instructions. Cally and Restal were never here. Riordan and his troupe are to maintain that Chevron, Lenore and Vistran never existed at all if anyone - anyone - makes enquiries about them, and if anyone does, he or she or it is to be apprehended and brought to me."

      "Of course," said Jayleen. "But did you have to let the ylln have them, Valonia?"

      "They were of no further use to us. Once they believed us responsible for Avon's death, they became hostile and would never have co-operated with us. We could never have trusted them."

      "But Cally is a telepath and Vila Restal a brilliant cracksman. Important skills, worth some small risk."

      "The goodwill of the ylln is worth more. As for Avon... if he is still alive, he will go to Riordan for help and then we will have him, and he will never learn what happened to the woman..."

      "You actually believe that Avon is still alive? After what Haleent said?"

      "I... don't know." Valonia stared at her immaculate nails. "We do not have all the data, Jayleen. There is an important factor missing. Who took Avon alive or dead - from our base on Hinkal? And why? It was not the Guild. It was not the ylln, for the ylln act through the wi'h and the wi'h can do nothing to anyone against their will. It was not the Hinkal government or any of the rebel groups on that planet. Kaarrss has all of them nicely infiltrated. The other planets would be helpless without Guild help, which they did not have, and the same applies to Scitech. So who took Avon, Jayleen? Who?"

      

      

"Don't you have anything else to do?" Avon snapped.

      Blake turned from where he had been standing watching the worlds in the dark blue sky. He had been quiet for a long time, but Avon found his constant presence galling. He felt so helpless. He had made one abortive attempt to get out of bed and his head was still spinning. Yet he felt better than he had done at any time since Blake had brought him from Hinkal, and this dichotomy made him restless and irritated.

      "What do you want me to do?" Blake asked, crossing to the bed and giving Avon the anxious look that had rarely left his face during the past few days. "Is there anything you need?"

      "To be able to get out of this damn place."

      "It won't be long now," Blake soothed him. "As soon as you're well enough, you can decide what, exactly, you want to do next."

      Avon's expression was sardonic. "I do not have a great deal of choice."

      "Don't you?" Blake seemed puzzled. "If you need transport, I can provide it, and the wi'h can collect any special information you need to make a decision."

      "Oh for-" Avon bit off the rest of what he had been going to say. "Stop this pretence, Blake. We both know that you'll decide what you want me to do and then you'll try and manipulate me into doing it."

      Blake was frozen, shocked into silence. Finally, he found his voice. "If that... was ever true... it's over now, Avon."

      The answer was a cold derisive laugh. "Stop lying, Blake - to both of us."

      "I have never lied to you," Blake said stiffly, all his hurt in his voice. "I am not lying now."

      Avon was angry, without knowing why and, astonishingly for him, without being able to channel that anger into logical argument. "Oh... just... just go away and leave me alone." He rolled over so that his back was to Blake. He felt the light touch of a hand on his shoulder and stiffened in rejection. It moved away, but Blake asked,

      "What's wrong, Avon? How can I help?"

      Avon took a deep breath. "If you really want to know, I am sick of the sight of you, sick of you fussing over me, and sick of this hypocritical concern. Just get out of here! Go to those damn wi'h of yours - they want you - and leave me in peace!"

      He heard Blake sigh. "You're sure you'll be all right?"

      "When you're gone - yes." The last word was snarled.

      There was no reply, but Avon heard Blake's retreating footsteps and the slight buzz as he walked out through the transparent force screen and into the garden.

      Hurriedly, Avon raised his head, just in time to see Blake vanish behind the rainbow glitter of a fountain. He appeared again for a few seconds as he passed between two tall, conical navy blue plants that guarded the exit to the beach and the sea beyond.

      He was gone.

      Avon waited for a feeling of satisfaction, of triumph. It didn't come.

      

      

"So this is it?" Gorsky questioned, staring down at the schematics on the display screen.

      "Yes," Dayna replied. "It's fairly simple to build, Admiral, and uses materials you must have available if you are able to fly and maintain a fleet of starships. I won't go into the scientific principles but the beam weakens the molecular bonds of any material it strikes. That beam is narrow, implying the need for a degree of accuracy on the part of its operators, and it is purely a space-to-space weapon. If you want a space-to-planet weapon, we will have to use another principle entirely, and I'll need better facilities-"

      "Don't natter, woman." Gorsky stood back. "Come with me. Oh, you can bring Tarrant too, if you want him." He stumped out and Dayna and Tarrant followed, the guards closing in behind them.

      They were escorted through the Napoleon's corridors and onto the flight deck

      "Five minutes to docking, Admiral," the ship's Captain reported from his Command desk.

      "Thank you, Captain," Gorsky acknowledged. He stopped beside his own Fleet Command Centre, a complex group of sensors, computers and communications equipment and pointed to the main screen. "There it is. Spacemeet. It'll be your home for some time to come, if your weapon works the way you say it will."

      Tarrant and Dayna said nothing. They were gawking at the extraordinary structure. It stretched for several kilometres, a maze of metal and plastic, seemingly without plan or reason, cobbled together from space stations, wrecked spaceships, asteroids, and every kind of space debris.

      "er... Very impressive," was what Dayna finally managed to say.

      "It's the largest man-made structure in the Cloud," Gorsky told her proudly.

      "I'll bet..." Tarrant muttered.

      "Once you're on board, I'll assign you technical assistance. Build a working demonstration model of your weapon. If it acts as you say it will, your future with the Guild is assured."

      "Thank you," said Dayna and Tarrant hoped fervently that Gorsky did not recognise the sarcasm in her voice. He contrasted Spacemeet with the Hoop and wondered, for the first time, if Avon had not been right. Escape from Scitech would have been so much easier.

      

Cracks in the Ice

Avon took a long time to decide that he would open his eyes. He knew that he was warm and that he was lying on something soft and that his head and body ached, but he found it hard to think and even harder to remember where he was and how he came to be there... Finally, curiosity got the better of his weakness and he opened his eyes.

      The room he was in was softly lit, and that dim golden light fell on the haggard but familiar face of a man sitting looking down at him.

      "Blake...?" Avon whispered.

      Blake smiled with unconcealed delight. "Avon." His voice was warm and full of relief. He put a hand on Avon's and pressed gently. Until that moment, Avon had half-believed he was dreaming, but Blake's touch was cool and solid, reassuring.

      Their eyes met. Making a great effort, Avon twitched his lips in a small smile. Then, suddenly, the smile faded and he tried to pull his hand from under Blake's.

      "No..." he croaked. "No. Not this time, Servalan."

      "What are you talking about?" Blake asked. "No. Wait. Let me get you a drink first."

      "Switch the machines off. I will never believe in their... this... creation." He tried to sit up, alarming Blake.

      "No. Avon, lie down. You're seriously ill."

      Avon fell back, gasping. He accepted the water Blake offered him with reluctance, though it plainly gave him real relief.

      "Better?" Blake asked.

      Avon, who was trembling, made a real effort to control himself. "Damn you," he grated.

      "Gratitude never was your strong point, was it?" Blake asked in annoyance. "I suppose the fact that I saved your life means nothing to you at all?"

      "It won't work. Not this time. I remember now: Blake is dead. Servalan told me he was dead, and the Scitech Director said..." He stopped, suddenly seeing the contradiction.

      Blake was gentle again now, as he began to understand, though he did not try to touch Avon. "Servalan had good reason to believe I was dead and the Scitech Director believes it too. It's what I wanted them to believe." He looked into Avon's stubborn face and deliberately smiled. "All right, let's take it a step at a time. I think that I understand now; Dayna told me what happened on Terminal. You were faced with some kind of computer projection of me and you believed in it. Now you are scared that that you're facing that projection again. But this... projection... could not know all my... all our... history, Avon, right?"

      Avon took a long time to think about it, but finally he nodded.

      "Fine, we've agreed on that, at least. Now, let's go over some memories. Do you recall what happened when the Lost took over Liberator? Cally was under their control and she planted a bomb. It went off, but you saved my life. I asked why. You said that it was a reflex and that you were as surprised as I was. I said that I wasn't surprised."

      "The sort of stupid statement that you... that Blake... would make."

      "I did make it, as you remember very well. You saved me on the way to Spaceworld too, when the cable came to life, risking your stupid neck even after I told you to get away. And on Horizon, in the mines. You could have killed me then. I wanted to kill you, one time, after Gan died, when you accused me of killing him."

      "Who was Zil?" Avon demanded.

      "What answer do you want? A parasite on a living planet - or a philosophical flea?"

      Avon's sick mind slowly worked it all out. This looked like Blake, sounded like Blake, knew things that only Blake could know...

      "Why the beard?" he demanded.

      Blake blinked. "Scitech gets information from Federation communication transmissions. My picture is in the central computers - or was, before I removed it. Someone might have seen it and remembered it... hence the beard, as a distraction. Why? If it bothers you that much I'll get rid of it."

      "Projection... had... beard..." Avon was growing very tired. His mind refused to work properly, making it difficult to put everything in its logical place. Servalan was dead. Or was that part of the illusion? No, wait... he had forgotten nothing that had happened on Terminal and afterwards, including all of that very special dream. It was absurd to think that all his experiences in the Cloud had been an illusion. After all, such an illusion would have been totally unprofitable to Servalan, especially as it had made him doubt this Blake even more. No. This had to be real... and if it was...

      "How'd you get here?" Avon asked.

      "It's a long story," said Blake, "and it can wait until you're stronger. You're nearly asleep as it is. You really want me to get rid of the beard?"

      Avon smiled happily. "No... improvement. Hides... part... of your face."

      "Thank you kindly," Blake replied, but he was smiling too. It was the last thing Avon saw before sleep claimed him.

      

      

The aircar had been travelling through the fog for a long time. Occasionally, the whiteness thinned enough for Vila to glimpse a grey sea below. Cally had regained consciousness but she had been obviously in pain and had finally fallen asleep against Vila's chest. He found himself feeling protective, though he knew that Cally was the last person to need, or want, protection.

      Now, as the aircar dropped towards sea level, a black shape loomed out of the murk. It seemed large enough to be an island, but Vila saw the straight lines stacking upwards and knew that it was a construction, probably one of the fishing factory ships called seahavens on which most of the planetary population lived. That would make it a kind of island, at that, home port for a fleet of smaller craft.

      The aircar set down in a flat deck area, one of the few clear spaces amid the ramshackle buildings.

      Vila shook Cally awake. "Sorry, but we've arrived. Can you walk?"

      "Yes." Cally pulled herself to her feet, holding onto the edge of her seat, and Vila rose quickly to help her. She leaned gratefully against him as they stepped out into the raw air, which carried a sweet, slightly unpleasant smell.

      "Keep moving," Jayleen snapped. Her arm was covered in some type of bandage but she was obviously still in pain.

      "Cally's hurt," Vila protested.

      "It's her own fault. Move!"

      Vila was ready to argue, but Cally started forward again and perforce he went after her, jumping to steady her as she slipped on the wet deck. She smiled quickly at him. "I can manage, Vila."

      "I'll help."

      "Thank you."

      Behind them, Lanrir was being unloaded from the aircar, but they soon lost sight of the trussed-up icecat as they were marched on in silence down a flight of steps, along corridors, and finally into a luxurious room where a dark-haired woman dressed in scarlet velvet sat waiting for them. She rose quickly to her feet, apparently concerned. "What have my people been doing to you?"

      Cally braced herself to stare the tall woman in the eyes. "Who are you?" she demanded. "What right have you to abduct us like this?"

      "I am Valonia." It was said without pride, as a statement of fact.

      "So your thugs said. It means nothing to me."

      "Such spirit." Valonia walked over to them and examined Cally minutely. "Yes. A little dishevelled, but beautiful. Not a common face."

      "I do not see what my face has to do with anything."

      "I wanted to see you, Cally. Ah, not even a flicker of surprise at the name. Beautiful, and resourceful. Very good. Where is Avon, Cally?"

      "Avon? Cally?" Cally's eyes were wide and bewildered. "Who are Avon and Cally? I have never heard the names. My own is Lenore, and this is Shel Vistran."

      "Very good," Valonia repeated, "but the game is over, Cally. I know about you and your friend, Vila Restal, and now I want to know about Kerr Avon. Where is he? Tell me, Cally, and no harm will come to you and Restal."

      "Leave her alone," Vila interrupted. "Can't you see that she's hurt? Your thugs beat her up-"

      Valonia swung on Jayleen, her dark eyes flashing. "I ordered that they were not to be harmed!"

      "They killed two of our people-"

      "I want no excuses. You should have been able to bring them here without injury on either side. That is why you are in command on this planet, Jayleen, because I believe that you are capable of such planning. If you are not, someone else will be. I want no more unnecessary deaths. Now, you may go. Cally and Restal will stay."

"Why don't you stop making a fool of yourself and let me do that?" Avon's voice was laced with acid.

      I ignored him. I had been doing nothing more provocative than inspecting the probe readouts from the sensors positioned on the Yard Barriers, but Avon had been very restless recently, and I knew that he meant to deny that he had ever needed help. He was still sick enough to want me to stay close, so he kept on needling me, knowing that I wouldn't leave. If directing barbed comments in my direction made him feel more independent, it was all to the good, but it took every scrap of patience I had to ignore him.

      "Well?" he demanded. "Are you going to sit puzzling over that until the start of the next millennium? Or are you going to let me help?"

      "I don't think so," I replied, without turning. "You'll only exhaust yourself. I'm beginning to think you have something against the idea of getting well."

      "Watching your incompetence exhausts me far more quickly than working with those will," he retorted, pleased that I had reacted to him. "Besides? it's what you really want me to do, isn't it? It's why I'm here: to help you free the wi'h."

      I rose to my feet and faced him. "You are here because you are my friend, and you were in trouble, and I am partly responsible for the fact that you were in trouble. That's all. If you lead, you can't avoid responsibility - can you, Avon?"

      "You are not my 'leader'."

      "Of course not - but I was, at one time. That was the reason you were on Terminal, and that was why I was responsible and why I had to try to save you."

      "Not to mention the fact that you needed my help."

      "The wi'h are my responsibility, not yours. If, when you are fully fit again and have all the facts, you decide that you want to help me, I... well, it will be your decision. If you decide that you want to stay on Firel but do not want to help me, well, that's fine too." I had no intention of letting him know how I felt: after all, I had promised that I would never manipulate him again. "Stay or leave. It's up to you. In either case, I'll help you."

      Avon was watching me with a very dubious expression. "Do you really think that I'd voluntarily throw in my lot with a race of manufactured slaves that have no chance at all of defeating humanity? Even - or especially - with you helping them?"

      "No."

      "What do you want from me?" he exploded angrily.

      "Nothing - except, perhaps, that you let me help you get well, and that you look after Vila and Cally when they rejoin you, the way you've been doing ever since Star One."

      "You know quite well that Cally and Vila will follow you on your newest mad crusade like a pair of suicidal sheep."

      "Then stop them. I'm not going to ask them to join me, anymore than I'm going to ask you, so you'll have a clear field... and you have more influence with them than you realise."

      "What makes you think I want to 'look after them' as you put it? Or to try to stop them from joining you?"

      "Then don't, if you don't want to. I'm willing to take responsibility for them, if that's how you want it, and if they're willing to have me do so."

      Avon was quite plainly very puzzled. "I admit that you're being very clever, Blake... but I'll work out your motives sooner or later." Then, "How do Tarrant and Dayna fit into your plans?"

      I knew my voice grew hard, much as I tried to prevent it. "No-one has to 'fit into' my plans, but I will not accept any responsibility for Tarrant."

      "What's he done to you?" Avon asked sharply.

      I did not answer.

      "Come on, Blake, tell me. Whenever you mention Tarrant you look murderous. I want to know why."

      It was difficult to find an answer. "Well, I rescued him and Dayna from detention on Hinkal..."

      "So that was you. I should have guessed."

      "... and Tarrant repaid me by hitting me over the head. Then he and Dayna vanished.

      "He must have thought you were from Scitech," said Avon. "In fact, as you said you'd met Dayna as Ricel, he must have known you were from Scitech. Tarrant doesn't like Scitech. It doesn't regard Federation Space Academy training as being of a high academic standard. He thinks the Guild would appreciate him more."

      I said, "Probably." I hoped that he would not pursue the matter further, but he kept worrying at it.

      "It's not like you to be so unforgiving." Again, there was the familiar sarcasm in his voice. "I thought that it was your policy to make allowances for other people's mistakes. Anyway, plainly, you did not explain who you were to Tarrant - not that he would have believed you, of course - so his attack on you was partly your own fault."

      "Why are you defending him? I didn't think that you were particularly fond of him."

      "I'm not - and I'm not defending him. He acted without thinking, as he usually does. That's all. I'm used to it. If you want to help Tarrant then you'll have to accept it."

      "You're the one that wants to help Tarrant." I admit that I had begun to feel jealous as well as angry. I had worked for Avon's friendship, and he still wouldn't give it to me... but Tarrant... "That's why you went into the Fraternity headquarters on Hinkal, isn't it, to help him?"

      "Dayna and Tarrant have useful skills."

      "Useful enough for you to want to risk your life on a suicidal chance? This is a new Avon to me."

      "There was nothing suicidal about my rescue attempt. According to your own account, I had succeeded when the Guild attacked, which I did not anticipate. I see no way in which I could have anticipated it. I do not commit suicide for anyone. And why didn't you stop Tarrant and Dayna from leaving with the Guild? Why didn't I stop them, come to that? And why don't you want to tell me what happened?"

      I knew now that he would have to know. I said, "All right... but I don't want you to upset yourself, Avon."

      "Why the Devil should I be upset?"

      "Because... well, Tarrant... Tarrant left you for dead on Hinkal."

      "He what?" Avon looked astonished.

      "He left you dying on the battlefield on Hinkal and went with the Guild, taking Dayna with him."

      Avon said, very quietly; "I think that it is time that you told me the whole story, don't you, Blake?"

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

They had landed on a world on the outer rim of the Hoop, after travelling on a course that seemed to have been programmed by a Mionation wobbler. From space, its impact reduced to the size of the screen in their cabin, it had seemed like a flawed jewel; sparkling white smudged by cancerous yellow stains, pocked with the live coals of vast volcanoes. It had been difficult to believe that it supported life, yet they had touched down on an ice plain melted and scarred by ships' engines. Volcanic cones smoked on the horizon, and the ice was yellowish, probably from an intermixing of sulphur. Even on the screen, it did not look promising.

      After about fifteen minutes, a high-pitched wi'h voice broke the silence from an invisible speaker. "Please put on the environmental suits you will find in the locker. In five minutes, my master will open the locks to your quarters, and the atmosphere of this planet is deadly to humans. That is all."

      Vila made a dive for the lockers. "Com'on, Cally, let's get these things on."

      "Wait, Vila."

      "Wait! You heard what he said-"

      "Yes. I heard. Let me think. If only the intercom was two-way, we could order the wi'h to take off again and let us out of here."

      "Well, it isn't, and they're going to flood this cabin with poison. Wait. Hey, Cally, why don't you telepath the order to the wi'h?"

      "Do you think I have not thought of that? I tried to do so back at Scitech Central, and I have been trying for the last four days. There is no response. Either the wi'h are telepathically blocked or they have no compulsion to obey telepathed orders. The main question is, is this a bluff or a real threat?"

      "I wouldn't have thought the wi'h capable of bluff."

      "But the ylln may be."

      "We can't afford to take the chance," Vila retorted, struggling into the transparent oversuit.

      Cally thought about it. "Perhaps you are right," she conceded, and picked up the other suit.

      Ten minutes later, the door slid open. A wi'h, also in an environmental suit, stood just outside. "Come with me, please," she said.

      "What if we refuse?"

      "Then my master will come in for you. I am told to inform you that that would not be a pleasant experience. Please come."

      Cally tried to think of an order she could give the wi'h female that would ensure their freedom. "What if I order you to raise ship?"

      "I cannot obey the order, as I do not know how to pilot this ship," was the simple reply.

      "Someone is being very clever," said Cally. "Come on, Vila." She marched out past the wi'h.

      Coldness engulfed them. The filtered air smelt foul and tasted metallic. Whatever atmosphere existed here, it contained oxygen, for the suits did not carry any. Their job was to insulate the wearer against the worst of the cold and filter out poisonous or corrosive gasses. Cally had the suspicion that this particular atmosphere contained both.

      She forgot to worry about the atmosphere as soon as she saw what waited for them. An armoured aircar sat on the ice plains just a few metres away, its pitted surface confirming Cally's suspicions as to the nature of the atmosphere. There was a wi'h at the controls, but the creature that stood beside the vehicle was like nothing they had ever seen before. Vila thought that it resembled nothing so much as a huge, dirty white crab. It had a thick double-shell, with a ring of eyes in the soft area where the upper and lower halves met. Its ten legs sprouted from that area, and four huge pincer claws and six manipulatory arms. If it had a front or back, only another such creature could have decided which was which. Unlike the wi'h, it did not wear any breathing equipment or, for that matter, any clothing.

      Neither did Lanrir, who was sitting in an open-barred cage. He did not seem troubled either by the cold or by the atmosphere, though his nostrils had suddenly been closed by transparent membranes.

      //Are you all right?// Cally asked him.

      Lanrir blinked at her. Cally got the impression that he was neither alarmed nor in difficulties.

      The crab-like creature - the ylln? - waved a gun at them, a human weapon that did not fit correctly in its ten-fingered hand.

      "You will come," said the wi'h. The ylln gestured with a claw towards the aircar, pointing the gun at Vila and Cally. They obeyed. The ylln followed, carefully avoiding Lanrir's cage. The icecat glared balefully at it as it squatted down in an open space on the vehicle's floor and withdrew its legs into its shell.

      The aircar lurched up into the sky and staggered towards the line of volcanoes. Behind it, the spaceship rose too, disappearing into the smoky sky, and with it disappeared any hope that Cally and Vila might have cherished for escape.

      

      

Avon awoke wish the distinct feeling that he was not alone in the room. There had been a noise... there was a noise; somebody was moaning and muttering. He hurriedly put his hand to the light control, knowing that he was too weak to defend himself and preparing to shout for help.

      Soft light flooded the semi-circular room. It was empty.

      The noise was coming from the intercom, Avon realised. Which was odd. The intercom was normally set on 'send' at his end during the night, as it was the only way that Blake could be persuaded to leave him, after his near breakdown. Strange... he could recall his state of mind at that time quite clearly, but it was incomprehensible, as if he was watching another individual and not himself at all.

      That still left the noise. He checked the intercom controls. Ah, someone had made a mistake and had set it for two-way and not one-way communication.

      "Blake, are you all right?" he asked.

      There was no intelligible reply.

      Avon swung his legs out of bed. They felt weak, but he was pleasantly surprised to find out that the room only took half a dozen spins before steadying to normality. It took him over a minute to find something to wear and he was about to give up and venture out of the room stark naked, when he discovered two soft robes hanging in a cupboard. He pulled on the dark blue one and went exploring.

      The internal door led to a curved atrium, paved and top lit, full of plants, soft seating and falling water. A corridor curved away, indicating that the building had been constructed on a spiral plan. He found a door, but it led into a lounge area and he withdrew. By now he was feeling dizzy again and he kept a hand on the wall as he moved along to try the next door.

      As it opened, he knew that he had found what he was seeking, for the first thing he heard was a loud groan, then Blake's voice, low and tortured. "No... please.. No! I won't..." The last word was a scream.

      Avon switched on the light and, ignoring his weakness, crossed to the bed in three swift strides. Blake was writhing on it, his face contorted, the bedcover clutched in his clenched fists, his eyes tightly closed. Avon grabbed his shoulders and shook him. "Blake! Wake up!"

      "No..." Blake whimpered, still gripped by the nightmare. "Won't tell... won't!"

      Avon slapped his face. It was not a hard blow, but Blake yelped and his eyes flew open, his hands coming up either to attack or defend. Avon caught hold of his wrists. "No," he said. "It's a dream, Blake. Just a dream."

      Blake stared at him for a moment, his eyes still wild and unknowing, his breath coming in gasps. Then, suddenly, he relaxed.

      Avon let him go.

      "Wheeee..." Blake shoved his hands through his hair and flopped back onto the pillows. "That was a bad one. Thanks."

      "A bad one. You means that this happens often?"

      "Well, yes. Occasionally... when I'm tired or... Avon? What are you doing here?"

      "You left the intercom on two-way transmission and I heard you yelling." Avon's voice was cooling in response to Blake's accusing tone.

      "You shouldn't have got out of bed."

      "You preferred to have the nightmare?"

      "You could have used the intercom to call one of the wi'h to check on me, if it worried you."

      "It did not 'worry' me. I merely wanted to be able to sleep in peace."

      "Then go back to bed, and this time put the intercom back on transmission only, so nothing will keep you awake."

      Avon got to his feet, and hesitated. "You are all right now? You... you're sure you wouldn't like some company for a while?"

      "No. Go back to bed, Avon."

      Avon's face was suddenly stony. "I see that you prefer any company to mine - aliens and nightmares included." He turned on his heel and strode out of the room. At the doorway he stumbled. Blake, until then paralysed by his own stupidity, started forward to help him, but Avon recovered quickly and was through the door in time to make sure it closed in his face.

      Blake stared at the blank surface, seeing only Avon's frozen expression.

      Stupid. Stupid. It was almost impossible to believe, but Avon had reached out to him, offering emotional help and, even more impossible to believe, he had rejected it. It was easy to see now that he had become far too protective towards Avon during his illness. His instinctive response to seeing him on his feet had cost him dearly. Avon did not give anyone a second chance...

      Why does it always go wrong? Blake asked himself. If Avon isn't acting stupidly, I am. It hurts... so why do we do it?

      He did not sleep again that night, and he did not find any answers.

      

      

Inside the mountains, the ylln waited. The great cave was filled with steam, bubbling up from brown and yellow encrusted pools. Above, daylight dribbled through cracks in the volcanic rock. Yet within this chaos could be seen signs of a quite high level of technology. Robots scuttled about, engaged in incomprehensible tasks, their metal bodies coated with peeling plastic that seemed to decay second by second, and bubbles of some transparent material shielded electronic equipment manned by unsuited wi'h. Glo-globes illuminated a platform jutting out from the cave wall and about it rose rock terraces on which squatted dozens of the ylln, their limbs withdrawn so that they resembled nothing so much as stones with eyes.

      The ylln with the guns escorted Cally and Vila onto the platform, then stood to one side.

      Vila was feeling decidedly uncomfortable. There seemed to be a ringing in his ears that he could not explain. He shook his head and swallowed several times, but it continued to trouble him.

      A wi'h in an environmental suit stepped forward to address them. "The ylln wish me to tell you that you are their prisoners and cannot escape them. If you do not answer their questions they will kill you now."

      "Instead of later..." Vila muttered.

      The wi'h looked at him sharply. "The ylln understand your words, human. Their own voices are not within the range of your hearing, so I will translate for them." Vila and Cally could not help thinking that they had just been warned to watch their tongues by this so-called slave.

      "I will question you," the wi'h went on. "You must answer. I will warn you, the ylln have ways of determining the truth." He paused, as if listening. "We begin. Have you been contacted by the one called Kerr Avon?"

      "You said that he was dead."

      "Answer the question: have you heard from him?"

      "No, we haven't," said Vila, keeping one eye on the ylln with the threatening gun.

      "Where is the computer, Orac?"

      Again, a truthful answer seemed the most appropriate. "We do not know," said Cally. "If he was brought through the Scoop, he was not returned to us at Scitech Central."

      "Why did you run from Scitech to the Guild?"

      "We were their prisoners. We wished to be free."

      Vila winced at the ultrasonic buzz that his ears picked up against his will.

      "The ylln believe this to be aberrant behaviour," said the wi'h. "Humans are not motivated by a wish for freedom but by a wish for wealth and power. The ylln have observed this."

      "I am not human," said Cally, "but I have lived among them and I say that there are many things that motivate humans: wealth and power, yes, but also a love of freedom and of each other, of compassion, of as many things as there are individual humans."

      "Do not contradict my masters," said the wi'h, but he was looking very intently at Cally. "Why did you fight against the Federation?"

      "For freedom," Cally answered. "Freedom for ourselves and for others."

      Vila swayed, putting his hands to his ears.

      It was some time before the wi'h interpreter asked the next question. "Where did you obtain your ship, the Liberator?"

      "It was found abandoned in space."

      "Can you show us how to build another?"

      "No. I am not a technician. Neither is Vila."

      The questioning went on for a long time. The ylln required information about the political situation in the human-explored part of the Milky Way, and again and again the questioning returned to the Federation's experiments with intergalactic travel. Neither Cally nor Vila knew anything more than the little they had discovered on Horizon, but the ylln did not seem to believe them. They also returned to the subject of Avon: could he be alive? Who might he have turned to for help? Would he be able to design and build a starship like Liberator? And what might have happened to Orac? What were its capabilities? Could it design a starship for Scitech?

      Cally and Vila either answered the questions truthfully or pleaded ignorance, but they gave away nothing that the ylln would not have been able to find out from other sources.

      "And Tarrant and Mellanby?" the wi'h demanded tonelessly. "What is the extent of their technical knowledge? Could they give the Guild spaceships like the Liberator?"

      Cally fielded those questions. "Tarrant is a pilot. He has a pilot's knowledge of Liberator. Not enough to build any of the Liberator's drive systems, for instance. He might be able to reconstruct part of the navigational systems, but they were extensively computer controlled and those parts would not be within his capabilities. Dayna is a weapons technician, a good one, but that is all."

      The ylln's eyes promptly disappeared into their shells. One moment Cally and Vila were ringed by saucer-shaped stones with eyes, the next they were just ringed by stones.

      The wi'h looked at Cally with obvious interest. He asked, "Can she equip the Guild with weapons to destroy Scitech?"

      "Perhaps," Cally replied. "I do not know enough about the defences of Scitech to be sure."

      The ylln eyes appeared again. For a long time Cally heard nothing, though Vila was plainly uncomfortable, and the interpreter listened intently.

      Suddenly, the ylln leaped from their terraces and scuttled away, save for the one with the gun. The wi'h interpreter also remained. "Come. The questioning will continue later," he said.

      As they were led out of the main chamber, Cally asked him, "What is your name? "

      "Ronjat - but why do you ask? My name is of no importance to you."

      "I prefer to know the names of those with whom I must deal."

      "But you deal with the ylln, not with me. We are but their eyes and ears and hands." Ronjat stopped at a door and unsealed it to reveal the interior of an airlock. "The room beyond has been adapted for your needs. The air is the same as that supplied to our quarters. So is the food. Please go inside. I will then seal the door."

      "But-"

      "Go, or my master will kill you. You are very vulnerable, lady, on this world."

      Cally swept past him into the airlock. Vila made a comical face at the wi'h and followed.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

"What are you doing?" I demanded as I walked into Avon's room. "And where the hell did you find Orac?"

      Avon looked up from where he was sitting by the force screen window, the early morning sunlight sparkling off Orac as it sat on the table in front of him. "I'm trying to discover why everyone finds the Yard Barrier so puzzling," he replied. "As for Orac, I took your advice and asked the wi'h some specific questions. They obey orders very well, don't they? They had him here in a couple of minutes."

      "What does the Yard Barrier matter to you?" I demanded.

      "Very little, but I was curious. I asked the wi'h some questions about that, too. It's an interesting problem. That big force Barrier seems to have nothing at all in common with ordinary Builder bio-shields, like this one you're using as a window. The Barrier is self-sustaining. I think its power source must be E-space itself, because a projected field from a power plant on the surface would have decayed somewhat over the centuries, and certainly would not have been able to cope with the increase in power needed to stave off gigaton explosions, such as Scitech used to try and breech it."

      "I agree... though it took me three months to come to that conclusions, rather than three minutes."

      "You do not surprise me, though actually I've been up several hours," Avon admitted.

      "Hmmm. I may not be an electronics genius but I'm not overstraining myself while recovering from serious injury, either."

      Avon made a soft hissing noise that conveyed immense disgust. "I do not think that I can take hypocrisy at this time of the morning, Blake. Keep the pseudo-concern to yourself."

      "Avon-" I stopped. He had a right to be angry, I decided guiltily. There seemed to be no way to apologise gracefully; all I could be was blunt. "I'm sorry... about last night, I mean. I was worried about you being out of bed."

      "Then stop 'worrying'." Avon gave the word a viciously sarcastic twist. "You can keep your nightmares to yourself in future. I'm all right. I might as well start working on this now as waste time waiting around until you decide on the right moment to ask for my help... that is, if you really want to break the Yard Barriers. Your attitude has made me wonder about that.

      "Of course I want to get inside the Yards. It will give me a way out for the wi'h-"

      "Then shut up. Either go away or come and help me."

      I took a breath to protest, then deliberately stopped what I had been about to say. I kept promising myself that I would no longer give Avon orders. I had no right to do so, nor did it help our troubled relationship. This was the moment I must stop backsliding and carry my resolution through. "All right. If you're that bored but... please be careful. I don't want all the trouble I've taken with you over the past couple of weeks to be wasted."

      "I'm always careful." He sounded bored with the subject and when I joined him beside Orac he looked up at me, leaning back in his chair, to ask, "Have you actually seen the Yards, Blake?"

      "Oh yes, many times. It's quite an experience. Not that you can see the Yards themselves - only the Barriers..." I paused, trying to think of a way to explain. "Did you ever see one of those carvings from the pre-atomic period, a sort of latticework carved from wood or ivory or bone, with another similar ball inside it, and yet another inside that? Well, imagine that sort of latticework formed of blue-white energy, constantly changing, with a suggestion of a similar series of spheres inside, going deeper and deeper, into infinite depths. That's the Yard Barrier. You can stand on its surface and look down into it and, even though you know you are looking into a sphere a couple of thousand kilometres in diameter, it seems bottomless, as if it were, in itself, a whole universe."

      "Very poetic," said Avon, "but it was once a working shipyard. According to the wi'h, the Builders created their spacecraft by formulating an exact blueprint within the computers, then drawing energy from E-space to convert into the matter to form the whole spaceship, in ordered sequence from the computer specifications. Orac says that he can sense those computers but that they repel his probes. I suppose that to be some kind of defence mechanism and I'm sure that, if we can get through the Barriers, Orac and I can circumvent it and key into the computers."

      I sat on the low table, resting one hand on Orac. "Interesting, but our problem is to by-pass or destroy those Barriers. We've been probing them for months, but with no success."

      "Have you got that probe information?"

      "Yes, and its analysis by the Scitech computers. Do you want it?"

      "Of course, and I will also need access to the Scitech computer system."

      "I'll explain the controls and codings... Avon, just one thing... does this mean that you've made... some sort of decision about...?"

      "Yes," he interrupted. "I've decided to stop watching you dithering, but that does not mean that I'm joining this mad crusade of yours."

      "Good," I said, and found it odd that Avon looked both puzzled and disappointed. "Let's get on with it, then."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

By the time they were summoned again to face the ylln, Cally had decided that they would have to try to escape. Vila didn't like it, but it is difficult to argue with a telepath without speaking aloud and, as Cally had been quick to point out, they were also under observation. Vila couldn't help thinking about the corrosive atmosphere outside and the fact that there was no way off this planet. He just hoped that Cally had taken that all into account. Avon would have taken it into account. That thought brought a now-familiar stab of hurt and regret. Vila was only now coming to realise how much he had depended on Avon, and how much he missed his company. Cally didn't relish an exchange of insults the way Avon had.

      Nothing seemed to have changed in the fifteen hours since their imprisonment. Ronjat - at least, Cally thought that it was Ronjat - was standing in his translator's position on the platform, the ylln stacked on their terraces like an audience at a theatre. Lanrir was imprisoned in his cage some way across the cave.

      The first relayed question showed what was troubling the ylln.

      "Will Dayna Mellanby arm the Guild?"

      "Yes," said Cally. "She is with Tarrant and Tarrant has allied himself to the Guild." Now, she thought, we will see if you can detect a lie.

      "My poor head..." Vila muttered. The ylln were plainly agitated, but Ronjat looked distinctly blasé. None of the other wi'h seemed to be taking any interest at all.

      //Lanrir. Make a loud noise... as loud and as high as you can.//

      Instantly, the icecat threw back his head and the noise that belled from his throat was not so much a howl as a shriek.

      The ylln's limbs and eyes snapped back into closing shells, though the arms of the one with the gun reappeared with some haste.

      "Be quiet, Lanrir!" Cally called across the cave, her voice making an odd, undulating sound. //Quiet. Now!//

      Lanrir's howl ended in a series of chirrups that meant the equivalent of, "I hope you know what you're doing."

      It took a long time for the echoes to subside. Ronjat waited until they did, then asked, "How do you control that creature?"

      Cally smiled. Vila wondered uneasily exactly what that smile meant. She said, "It is quite simple. Merely a trick of voice. Even you could do it."

      Lanrir was sitting on his haunches now, watching Cally through eyes that were just small slits of azure against white fur.

      "Icecats are killers. They cannot be tamed," Ronjat stated.

      "They are savage and of limited intelligence, but quite easily trained," Cally contradicted him. //Do not let me down, Lanrir. Do as I ask and I promise you will taste freedom again.//

      "How is it done?" Ronjat asked.

      Cally's smile grew sweeter. "You require the secret? Give us our freedom and you shall have it."

      "If you do not tell us you will die. Instruct us in the method of controlling icecats, then you will be rewarded, so my masters say."

      He means that they are lying, Cally thought. I do not think that Ronjat's heart is with the ylln, but he is not yet on our side. Well, we shall see.

      She spent the next ten minutes pretending to drive a bargain with the ylln. It was only when an impatient ylln guard suddenly clamped its pincers around Vila's throat that she cried, "I agree! Let him go. I'll give you the secret. Let him go!"

      As Vila was released, rubbing his throat and glaring reproachfully at Cally, Ronjat said, "You will give this secret to my masters - now."

      "I will teach you the secret, but the ylln will have to use a wi'h to control the icecat, Ronjat. Their ultrasonic voices anger him and if they cannot pitch their voices low enough for a human to hear then they cannot utter the sounds needed to control the icecat. Come with me. You too, Vila."

      As they made their way across to Lanrir's cage, Cally telepathed a message to Vila. //Position yourself close to the cage door. When I distract our guards, jam the lock mechanism open.//

      Vila fingered the improvised tool in his hand. It had once been a scooplike spoon, given to them with the mush they had been fed, but he had scraped it to probe-slimness on the rough rock wall, his movements hidden by the blanket as he appeared to sleep.

      The ylln scuttled along behind them, and Vila was very conscious of the claws and the gun at his back.

      They reached the cage all too soon. It was an improvised affair, composed of metal mesh, plastic coated to resist the atmosphere. The mesh was badly bent where Lanrir had thrown his weight against it. Now, he lay on the solid floor, his head on his paws, sapphire eyes glittering.

      //Do as I say, Lanrir. Do not attempt to leave the cage until I order it. The ylln with the gun will kill you if you do. Obey me and we will run free. This I promise.//

      Lanrir made no sound. Cally could only hope that he was convinced. She knew, from his expression, that Vila was not.

      "Open the cage," she ordered, "so that Ronjat and I may enter."

      One of the ylln summoned a wi'h to unlock the cage door. As Cally spoke softly to Lanrir, using the same undulating tone as before, the wi'h swung the door open. Vila caught it, taking a quick look at the lock, which was simple in the extreme. Then the cage door was pulled out of his hands and closed on Cally, Lanrir and Ronjat. The wi'h was plainly frightened - it was the first time that Vila had seen any of them show real emotion but he had been ordered by both Cally and the ylln to enter the cage, and he had to obey.

      "Good boy," said Cally to Lanrir. "Now, Ronjat, put your hand on his head."

      Ronjat's hand trembled as he obeyed Cally's command, but Lanrir made no move and Ronjat relaxed slightly.

      "Now that you are touching him he is becoming attuned to your psychic vibrations. When you give him an order you must deepen your voice and pitch it to fade at the end of each word. Keep your commands simple. Lanrir understands our language but is not very intelligent. Now try it."

      "Roll... over... on... your... back..." Ronjat said carefully, obeying Cally's instructions with difficulty.

      Lanrir slowly obeyed, with as much dignity as he could muster, though his eyes were murderous. Vila watched his claws and fingered his probe. Ronjat ordered Lanrir to sit up on his hind legs. He looked ridiculous and must have known it, for his eyes were crossed with rage.

      "But will he obey when you are not here?" Ronjat asked Cally.

      "Of course he will. Did I not say that he was now attuned to you?"

      Cally looked straight into the wi'h's golden eyes. "You have nothing to fear, Ronjat. This, I swear."

      Ronjat listened for a moment to something that Cally could not hear. "You are to leave the cage and return to your cell. Then we will see if what you say is true."

      "Of course." Cally turned back to the cage door. //Vila, be ready. Lanrir, do not move until I give the order, then come through the door. Do not harm the wi'h, but you may do what you will to the ylln.//

      Lanrir yawned, showing four pairs of cutting fangs, gleaming almost silver against the blue of his mouth and tongue. Ronjat did not look happy, and Cally looked back to smile reassuringly at him.

      The door swung open. Vila's hand closed round the lock, jamming the probe into it and snapping it off as the door left his hand to slam shut behind Cally.

      Another ylln came hurrying up carrying a gun and took up a position guarding the cage, while their long-time guard herded Vila and Cally towards the exit.

      //Lanrir. Be careful of the gun.//

      They were nearly at the end of the main cavern, and the exit loomed before them. There would be no other time.

      //Lanrir - now!//

      Inside the cage, the icecat catapulted himself at the door. Ronjat was bowled to one side as Lanrir cannoned into the metal and plastic mesh. That held, but the lock did not. The door flew open and Lanrir shot out, crashing to the ground but finding his feet in an instant. The ylln with the gun did not have time to remember that it held it before a paw struck out to claw it away. It snapped its pincers ineffectually on empty air before Lanrir upended it, striking into the space between the shells to disembowel it. All around, ylln shells snapped closed.

      //Go, Vila!//

      Cally dived one way, Vila the other. The ylln guarding them had been watching Lanrir in the universal paralytic horror that had affected its fellows, and it did not even realise that they were moving until Cally spun about, dived forward recklessly, and wrested its gun away. The ylln did not struggle for possession of the weapon. It retreated into its shells as Lanrir bounded to join his friends, roaring his enjoyment.

      Vila had paused to wait for Cally, and Lanrir sniffed at both of them, inspecting them to make sure that they were in one piece, then he chirruped, "Follow," at them in his own language and set off across the cave at a gallop.

      Cally and Vila raced after them, through the enshelled ylln and apparently indifferent wi'h. Lanrir chose an exit without any hesitation. They plunged into it after him and, within minutes, found themselves under the dark, smoke-hazed sky, with ice-caked rock under their feet. They were free and, for the moment, unpursued.

      

      

Blake scrubbed at his chest with one hand in an absent-minded and familiar gesture as he stared at the computer screen. "You could be right, Avon, but where does it leave us? If the Yard Barrier is partly in E-space then there is no way through it. It exists. Unless it is turned off from the inside, it always will exist."

      Avon's fingers played over the input panel. He stared at the resulting figures on the screen with dislike. "We're like stone-age savages trying to work out the controls of a starship, when we can't even touch it."

      "Hmmm." Blake got up, stretched, and smothered a yawn.

      "If only we had some other evidence. We can only see the results, not the mechanism producing them... that makes it difficult." Avon was angry at his failure to solve the mystery. "The Builders set up the Barriers to protect key installations. We know of four in the Hoop and we know what is behind them only because the wi'h can tell us. As far as we know, no such Barrier has ever failed."

      Blake looked at his watch, started, and said something rude under his breath. "For God's sake, Avon, do you realise how long you've been working? You just aren't ready for this - you only got out of bed for the first time this morning. I'd never have agreed to this if I'd know how hard you were going to work."

      "I don't see why I need your 'agreement'."

      There was a silence, then Blake said, "Nor do I, but will you accept that I do worry about you - and that you don't do your best work when you're tired?" He touched Avon's shoulder with tentative fingers. Avon looked up at him. "Bed?" Blake turned the suggestion into a question. "Leave Orac to puzzle over the problem with the Yard computers until morning. He may have some results by them."

      Avon considered. What Blake said was entirely reasonable and he was too tired to argue anyway. "All right."

      Blake smiled at him, switched off the computer terminal, and left.

      As soon as he had gone, Avon slumped a little and rubbed his eyes. His body felt almost too weary to move, but his mind was still churning. The Barrier field... the biggest scientific mystery he had ever faced. It was a challenge he could not ignore, to try and bring under his control a technology built by minds so far in advance of his own. Perhaps his determination to get through to the Yards was simply a refusal to accept that that was true... Pride, that was all. Just pride.

      He shook his head. Self analysis was only a diversion to cover his inability to solve this problem Blake had set before him. He dismissed it and rose to his feet, knowing that Blake would be back in a few minutes to check if he was in bed and, if he wasn't, to make sure he got there. He wasn't going to submit to that humiliation...

      Blake. Blake was not to be trusted, of course. No-one was to be trusted. How could he have become so reliant on the other man during his illness? So upset by the idea of his leaving? Vila... Cally... Blake could have gone to fetch them and he would have been sure of their safety... sure of their safety...

      There was a paradox in there somewhere, but he was damned if he could identify it... something about Blake...

      He dropped full length on the bed and fell asleep instantly.

      

      

Ripples

The ground was shuddering, so the landscape seemed permanently out of focus. When Vila put his hand on the rock face under which they sheltered, he could feel its radiated heat even through the environmental suit. A smoking cone lowered over them threateningly. When he observed that he did not like this place to which Lanrir had brought them, Cally had to agree.

      "Warm," was what the icecat had said, but he did not object when his companions leaned against his furry back.

      "What now?" Vila asked.

      "We get off this planet."

      "How? The spaceship we came in has gone, Cally."

      "It could not remain for long in this corrosive atmosphere. But these creatures, the ylln-"

      "Eat... good..." Lanrir rumbled.

      "What did he say?"

      "That the ylln are good to eat."

      "He would. Wait - Cally, how does he know that?"

      Both humanoids sat up and twisted to stare at the icecat.

      //Do you know these beings - the ylln?// Cally demanded.

      "Home," said Lanrir. "Eat... good." He licked his chops.

      //The ylln come from your home?//

      "No. Arrive... long ago. Ships, hurt. They attack. We kill. Eat good."

      This was a lengthy speech for Lanrir, and Cally and Vila regarded the icecat with respect. Though his language was complex, he had learned to speak very simply to Cally and Vila, developing a sort of pidgin.

      "Then the ylln are not native to Lanrir's home," Cally said slowly, "but they visited it." //How long ago did they come, Lanrir?//

      "Long... many mothers. Givers left."

      //Givers?//

      "Rulers... givers..."

      "Gods?" Vila asked. Then, "The Builders!"

      "Yes. I think so. But the Builders left nearly a thousand years ago. Lanrir speaks as if it were not very long after they had gone that the ylln came."

      "Sky... lights..." Lanrir contributed. "Givers left... blue-skins remain... then come eat-goods. Sky lights brought. We kill."

      "I can imagine," said Vila. "Bloodthirsty creatures." He scuffed Lanrir's ears playfully, getting a little grumble of pleasure in response.

      //And this was long ago?//

      "Long. Many mothers."

      "Not a very precise time scale," Vila observed.

      "No, but icecats have a strong oral tradition and good memories. So, we know that a long time ago, but after the Builders had left, there were lights in the sky and the ylln landed."

      "Or crashed?"

      "Yes. Crashed, and the icecats killed them, but that was not-"

      "-here. So there must have been-"

      "-more than one ylln ship."

      "Unless the ylln are native here. But would the Builders have tolerated then in their territory? I mean, I wouldn't have wanted those things in my backyard."

      "Sky... lights. It must have been a space battle, Vila."

      "Against the wi'h? No, that doesn't make any sense. Remember those wi'h in the hospital at Scitech? They wouldn't even fight back against the links."

      "No, they did not. They do not fight against anyone. Only humans and ylln carry guns. Yet the wi'h are trusted servants in every other way. The ylln even trusted Ronjat with learning how to control Lanrir, but they guarded us themselves."

      "Cally, what are the wi'h?"

      "If we knew that, we might be nearer to solving this problem. We have been told that they always obey, yet there are obviously limits to their obedience-"

      Lanrir jumped to his feet, throwing Cally and Vila aside. Vila cursed the icecat, but Lanrir's growled warning overrode him.

      "There!" said Cally.

      As Vila stared along the line of her pointing arm, he saw aircars in the valley and ylln on the mountainside.

      "They're coming this way!"

      "Come on," Cally ordered.

      "Oh no," Vila groaned. "I'm far too tired to run."

      "Then stay." Cally and Lanrir started up the slope.

      "Hey! Wait for me!"

      

      

"They're getting closer," Vila panted as he looked back over his shoulder.

      "This is their kind of terrain."

      Lanrir grumbled impatiently. He kept racing back and forth over the broken ice and around his toiling companions, and it was only orders from Cally that kept him from making forays against the ylln. Above, the mountains grunted and belched. Behind them, a river of lava rolled globulously towards the valley, sending steam hissing from the ice.

      "We can't go any further up," Vila gasped, glancing again at the crumbling cliff of pumice above their heads.

      "Round the mountainside then..." Cally leaped up onto a large lump of ice and offered her hand to Vila. No believer in gallantry, he accepted her help with silent gratitude. She went diagonally up-slope to her left, slipping and sliding on the broken ground, and Vila followed. They crested a ridge...

      A ylln rose up from behind it, pincers snapping. Cally fell to one knee and blasted it, but by then two others were passing the charred husk, carrying weapons. Vila screeched and fell flat as Lanrir sprang over his head. The soaring leap ended on the back of a ylln. One sweep of a paw, and a pincer was amputated. The ylln tried to withdraw into its shell, but Lanrir hooked both paws under the rim of the top half so that the shells could not close. He braced his rear paws against and jerked. The ylln's shell split and the dying creature uttered a silent scream that shattered rocks.

      The third ylln could not make up its mind where to aim the gun, and Cally shot it before it came to a conclusion.

      Peering over the smouldering and feebly kicking bodies, Vila could see more ylln coming up the slope towards them. "We can't go down there." He looked wildly about him. There seemed to be ylln everywhere, except on the impassable cliffs and where, on the left, a great glassy river stretched down the side of the volcano, its ice far too smooth for men to walk on.

      "There's nowhere to go, Cally."

      Lanrir jumped out onto the glacier. His furry feet, with their hooked retractable claws facing fore-and-aft, were well adapted for travel over ice or icy rock and he found purchase easily, then called for Cally and Vila to follow him.

      Cally levelled her gun at the advancing ylln. //We cannot cross the glacier. Go, Lanrir!//

      Lanrir chirruped angrily at her. It took some moments for her to understand. Then she replied, //No, Lanrir. We will drag you to your death. Save yourself.//

      Lanrir snarled at her and insisted, "No go. You come. Now."

      By this time Vila had worked out what Lanrir was suggesting. "Can we, Cally?" he asked hopefully.

      "No go without you. Come," Lanrir insisted.

      Cally looked at the mass of ylln eddying towards them. There was no escape past them and she could not shoot them all.

      "We will try it." She led the way to where Lanrir waited. Vila put one foot on the glacier and shrieked as he slipped. He crashed into Lanrir and grabbed a double-handful of fur.

      "On. Climb on," the icecat ordered.

      Vila hesitated, then clambered astride the icecat's back. Cally, surer on her feet, moved cautiously over the ice on the up-slope side of the beast, leaning heavily on him and holding onto his fur.

      Lanrir moved forwards, but too quickly, almost pulling Cally off her feet. All three of them skidded diagonally over the ice, Lanrir's claws shrieking as they tore long furrows in its surface. Then they found purchase and the icecat loped forwards, Cally slipping and slithering beside him. Vila hung on for dear life, wrapping his legs around the icecat's belly.

      A shot sizzled past them, and water cascaded down the glacier from where the charge struck, freezing again within seconds.

      Lanrir made angry noises at Cally.

      //You cannot carry us both.//

      The answer was a snarl.

      A second bolt missed them by centimetres.

      Vila acted, grabbing Cally and hauling her, face downwards, across the icecat's back, in front of him.

      "Stop!" Cally exclaimed. "Vila- You-" but Lanrir was already bounding over the ice, as if the double burden was no burden at all, though in fact he was straining every muscle. So was Vila, as he struggled to hold Cally in her uncomfortable position.

      The woman watched the ice sliding past beneath her head and tried to curb her anger, wondering at the icecat's loyalty and Vila's surprising decisiveness.

      Lanrir drew his haunches under him, then catapulted himself through the air. He hit the far bank of the ice-river hard, and rolled, throwing Cally and Vila from his back. When all three had picked themselves up, they could see that the ylln were attempting the crossing, but even their feet could not cope with the slickness of the ice. Like fallen silver coins, they spun and rolled towards the bottom.

      //Run!// Cally ordered.

      They ran.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

It was just before dawn that I woke, and the idea that had formed during my sleep was blazing in my head like the stars in the pre-dawn sky. I lay still, frightened that if I moved it would vanish, as those stars were already beginning to vanish.

      Avon's voice: "The Builders set up the Barriers to protect key installations. As far as we know, no such Barrier has ever failed."

      Why, in all the time I had been here, had I never thought to question that assumption?

      My own voice: "The wi'h do not lie, but you have to ask them the right questions..."

      I was going to ask them, all right.

      I jumped out of bed, grabbed my clothes and pulled them on, then hurried into the wi'h quarters to find Silkay. I blurted out my question before he could voice his surprise: "Was Scitech Central - or the Scoop - ever protected by a Barrier?"

      The answer came in the blunt, literal wi'h fashion. "Yes."

      "Come on." I took hold of his arm and hustled him away to Avon's room.

      Avon himself was still asleep. Finding him collapsed on the bed the night before, I had undressed him and tucked him in, and he looked as if he had not moved since. Suddenly, I was loath to wake him.

      But he must have heard me come in, for he stirred, then propped himself on his elbows, blinking sleepily at me. "Um.. Blake? Something wrong?"

      "I've had an idea," I said.

      "How wonderful. It had to happen sometime, but couldn't it have waited for an hour or so...?"

      "Listen." I pulled Silkay forward. "Silkay, when did the Barrier that protected Scitech Central and the Scoop cease to function?"

      "Six hundred and forty-three of your years ago," said Silkay.

      "Was it an equipment failure?"

      "I do not know, but I assume so."

      "Stupid!" Avon broke in. "I must be blind. Blake, if you ever tell anyone about this I may very well kill you. Of course a key installation like the Scoop would have to be protected by a Barrier, but..." He looked hard at Silkay. "Why didn't you tell us this before?"

      "I could not volunteer the information and you did not ask me the correct question."

      "You were ordered to keep quiet? By whom?"

      Silkay hesitated, then said, with a faintly unhappy air, "The Builders ordered us not to speak of these devices."

      "Do you know how the Barriers work?" I asked.

      "No. That is a Builders' secret. The wi'h never knew it."

      Avon's eyes were alight. "The machines that created the field? Are they still there?"

      "Yes." This time I detected relief in Silkay's voice, though Avon probably did not recognise it. "Though no wi'h or human has ever seen them."

      "Can you take us there?" Avon demanded.

      "Yes."

      "Good." Avon threw back the covers and swung his feet off the bed. "I don't suppose Moonshadow is back, but I presume you have another shuttle we can use."

      "I have, but we aren't leaving yet. Maybe in a week or two."

      "A week? I thought you wanted the Yard Barriers down as soon as possible. Why else did you come chasing round here to wake me up?"

      I had wanted to share my discovery with him, but now I wished I had waited. "Patience, Avon," I said. "The wi'h have waited for over five hundred years. They can wait a little longer; until you're well enough to undertake a complex mission to Scitech Central, at least."

      "Are you, by any chance, giving me orders again?" Avon's voice was dangerously soft.

      "No. I'm simply pointing out that you're not in any physical condition to-"

      "Good. If you're not giving me orders then I'm leaving..."

      "Not on my shuttle."

      Avon rose slowly to his feet. His eyes met mine over centimetres: deep, unblinking, challenging. "So that is your idea of 'not giving me orders', is it? We're back to you manipulating me in any way you can."

      "All I'm trying to do is to keep you alive." I held his eyes with mine, refusing to back down. "I am not manipulating you. Go kill yourself if you want to, but you're not using my shuttle to do it."

      Avon looked at me in angry puzzlement. "Make up your mind, Blake. If you're going to play God in my life, get on with it, but don't try to pretend that you aren't."

      I only just stopped myself from hitting him. "Oh no, Avon, you're the one playing God. You make declarations like 'I'm leaving for Scitech Central' as if no-one else counted. Fine. Do as you like, but don't try to order me around, because I don't take your orders, either. From now on, you're on your own. Let's see you get off this planet."

      I turned and stormed out of the room.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

Avon stared at the closed door with a sense of shock, then he became aware of Silkay's golden-eyed scrutiny. "Oh, get out of here too," he told him.

      The wi'h bowed and moved for the door. "Silkay," Avon added. "Why don't you try disobeying orders? If you want freedom, you have to fight for it or at least try to take as much of it as you can snatch."

      "I wish that I could, Avon," said Silkay, "but that was not the way I was designed."

      The door closed for a second time, behind him.

      The large, empty room suddenly seemed claustrophobic. Avon went to the window and looked out across the garden to the sea beyond, where the sun was emerging, newly washed and baby pink. With sudden resolve, he went back and pulled on the thickest of the clothes that had been provided for him, then stepped through the bio-field and into the garden that surrounded the house. The air was chill and smelt strongly of sea-salt. It was invigorating. Avon went on beyond the second bio-field surrounding the garden and found himself on a beach of alternating lines of sand and shingle, striping down to a quiet sea. Little humps of pink-lit foam shushed up and down the shingle, making a gentle, soothing sound. Around the sun were ribboned, dark-red clouds, streaming across the blue-green sky.

      The rising wind caught Avon's hair and whipped it over his face. Turning his back on it, he walked along the edge of the sea, his feet sinking slightly into the hard, wet sand.

      He began to feel better. Though he had never found it easy to analyse his own emotional motivations, even less those of other people, he began to ponder over his experiences. On Terminal, he had gone looking for Blake. Now he had found him, so why had it all gone wrong?

      

      

      

"Well, we've lost them." Vila sat down on a rock with a 'I-am-not-going-to-be-moved' air. "Now what? You realise, of course, Cally, that we have very little water and only a few concentrate tablets in these suits. We've no way of replenishing them, but we can't take them off because we can't breathe the air, right? There's no way off this stinking hole of a planet. We've got hordes of ugly aliens chasing us - so what are you going to do?"

      "We're going to bring a spaceship here," Cally announced.

      "Oh, terrific. And how, exactly, are we going to do that?"

      "We shall find someone to help us."

      "Huh?" Vila exaggerated his gawp.

      "The wi'h," said Cally.

      "But they're slaves of the ylln!"

      "And of Sci-tech, and of the Guild. Perhaps such universal servants will serve us too."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

"Blake."

      I looked up. I had been sitting for nearly an hour in the atrium, brooding on my inability to explain my motives to Avon. The speaker was Stali, whom I had sent with the Moonshadow to Wery. He was alone.

      With a real sense of foreboding, I asked, "Vila Restal? Cally? Where are they?"

      "I do not know," he said. "They are not on Wery."

      "Not there? What about Riordan's troupe?"

      "They were on Wery, as you said, but your friends were not. None of the wi'h on Wery know where they have gone, but there is Fraternity surveillance on Riordan's troupe. I considered it would not be safe to investigate too closely, in the circumstances, and decided to report back to you. I trust I acted correctly."

      "Yes. Yes, of course." The thought of Stali in Fraternity hands was too awful to contemplate, both personally, and for the sake of our joint cause. "I'll have to go. Have Silkay prepare the Moonshadow for take-off. He can come with me. I'll tell Avon where I'm going and why." He would have to know, though it would mean another fight. He would stay and I would leave and there would be bitterness for both of us, as there always had been. How could I ever have believed that it might be different?

      Apprehensively, I opened the door into his room. "Avon? I'm afraid I have some bad news..." My voice petered out as I realised that the room was empty. I would have seen him if he had come through the atrium. There was only one other exit into the garden. I ran out of the window and stopped. The garden was empty too.

      Surely he hadn't gone beyond the second bio-field, onto the beach? He couldn't have been that stupid... he had only got out of bed yesterday morning... but it was the only explanation that made sense.

      "Silkay has gone out to Moonshadow," said Stali from behind me. "Blake? Is something wrong?"

      "Avon's gone." I whirled to face him. "Get out the hovercars, Stali. We've got to form search parties - and fast."

      Stali said, "You are right. Silkay tells me that there will be a storm within hours, a big one, even by this world's standards. He wanted me to warn you that you will have to lift Moonshadow soon, if you do not want to be trapped..."

      "I can't worry about that now. We have to find Avon."

      It did not take long to ungarage the hovercars, but every moment of that time was agonising. Once the pair of them were out onto the beach, I ordered Stali to take his vehicle north into the wind. I suspected that Avon would have turned with it, and therefore headed downwind myself. Stali, if he sighted Avon, would keep him under observation and call me. I would handle it from there on.

      With Cally and Vila obviously in trouble, I begrudged even Avon this wasted time, but I could not leave Firel until I knew he was safe.

      Well, he could not have gone far, and he could not have got into much trouble in such a short time, could he?

      

      

In fact, Taamo and I found Avon within five minutes. A jagged line of rocks marched out into the sea, an impassable barrier to Avon in his weakened state. He was standing beside them, leaning against one of the larger spikes, watching the sea foam over black rock.

      I informed Stali, then left Taamo in the hovercar and made my way over to the promontory.

      Avon turned to face me as he heard my feet slipping on the piled-up shingle. "Can't you keep your word, just for once? You said that you were going to leave me to do as I liked, remember?"

      I had been working up to losing my temper ever since I had found his room empty. "I presumed you were going to show some sense!" I snarled at him. "What are you doing out here?"

      "If you can go for a walk, so can I."

      "I'm beginning to believe you've got a death wish."

      "You are suggesting that I'm suicidal?" Avon laughed harshly. "I'm not the one who abandoned Liberator and the only people I could halfway trust, to chase off across the galaxy on a stupid quest that resulted in inevitable capture by the Federation."

      "No. You're not. And I'm not the man who walked into Servalan's trap on Terminal to rescue someone I'd said I hated."

      "I do not remember saying that I hated you. You made that assumption."

      "You never denied it."

      "I'm not denying it now, but I'm not confirming it, either. You've always wanted to believe that I hated you, Blake, because it gave you a scapegoat. Venting your anger on me gave you an excuse to ignore your own self doubts. You've always been scared that I was right. Pretending that I had a personal vendetta against you made it easier to refute the doubts I'd raised about your moral stand. And the anger could cover your guilt and self-pity. That's why you ran, isn't it? Why you never contacted Liberator? Because you knew that I'd been right all along and you couldn't face me with that knowledge."

      I fought desperately against the rage rising inside me. Avon had always had the power to get under my guard and hurt me... and the fact that he was partly right was an extra goad.

      I said, as calmly as I could, "I have already faced you and admitted that you were correct in your predictions about what would happen after we destroyed Star One. That wasn't why I ran, Avon, though you were one of the reasons.

      "As you have often pointed out, I'd spent two years manipulating you into doing what I wanted, into fighting for my cause. It was morally wrong, but I needed your help. That's a very pragmatic reason, isn't it? The sort of reason you should be able to understand. After all, I was working to your rules, the rules of self-interest. After Star One, I decided that I'd start to work to my rules, and I owed you a debt, for the destruction of the Federation, our freedom, my own life. I decided that I had to repay it, and I had only two things you wanted: Liberator and your freedom.

      "So when I contacted Zen, after being picked up, I made sure that his first priority was to find you. I also gave him false information about my whereabouts. I never went near Epheron. I just tried to lose myself and succeeded far better than I had expected, or than I actually wanted. That gave you Liberator. And I swore that I'd never interfere with your life again.

      "I broke that promise, to save your life and to bring you to the Hoop, and I don't regret it, but I will no longer give you orders or manipulate you into doing what I want. You have your freedom, Avon."

      "I never had it!" Avon fired back. My explanation seemed to have done nothing to cool his anger. "Freedom? Don't make me laugh. Not interfere with my life? From the start you assumed you knew what was best for me, and made sure that it happened. I had no choice in the matter. Like I said, you've been playing God. 'I am Blake and I will decide your future-'" He ran out of breath and paused, glaring at me, his face flushed. "Do you know how much time we wasted, looking for you? Until it became clear that you were either dead or didn't want to be found? And didn't you consider, even for a moment, that it might hurt to have to come to that conclusion?"

      "You told me you wanted to be free of me. I gave you that freedom."

      "Free of you? You've haunted me every moment since Star One. In the relentless Federation pursuit. In Servalan's vendetta against us. In having to command Liberator's crew. I could feel you looking over my shoulder during every fracas we got into, laughing because I was forced to do things the way you would have done them."

      "I didn't mean-"

      "-it that way. Oh yes you did. We were 'Blake's people', even Dayna and Tarrant to whom you were only a name. You'd stamped your personality on us that deeply."

      "I'm sorry," I said.

      "Sorry? Of course you're sorry. Your whole life is an exercise in being sorry. You enjoy being a martyr, Blake. You're a total egoist. To accept so much guilt you have to believe that you are the centre of creation. Look at you now. You're not even fighting back, just wallowing in self-pity. I used to respect you Blake... you had integrity, even if you were a fool. Your mind was open enough for you to have doubts. Now... you've changed. I don't know you anymore."

      "And you don't want to." I had never felt so bleakly certain of anything in my life. "You've changed too. Perhaps it's as well that I have to leave."

      "The Blake I knew would never have abandoned a fight."

      I took a breath to steady myself. "Cally and Vila are missing from Riordan's troupe on Wery. I have to go and find them."

      "Of course. Guilt and responsibility."

      "It's the way I am."

      He thought it over. "I'm coming with you to Wery."

      "Guilt, Avon? Responsibility?"

      He glared at me "I'd like a few words with Nelse Riordan."

      "There's no reason for you to go. I'm the one wallowing in self-pity, remember? The one with the martyr complex."

      "You're giving me orders again."

      "Like hell! If you want to come with me, find Moonshadow by yourself. You don't need anyone's help, do you? Goodbye, Avon. I'll try not to intrude again. I won't say it's been a pleasure because it hasn't." I turned on my heel and stamped off towards the horizon. I did not look back.

      "What about Avon?" Taamo asked as I got into the hovercar.

      The reality of the question sucked away my anger and I realised that I had just done the very thing I had been determined not to do; I had caused an irreparable breech in the tenuous understanding we had gained since Hinkal. Well, perhaps we would be better off apart. Yet... I could not abandon him here.

      "I'll walk back to the house," I said. "Give me fifteen minutes, then pick up Avon and drive him back. Wait..." I remembered that wi'h have to obey orders, and that Avon could easily order Taamo to take him out to Moonshadow. That would mean another fight. "Drain off the energy cells so that you have just enough power to get back to the house and inform Avon of that fact when you pick him up."

      "You are trying to keep him here against his will."

      I was used to the quickness of wi'h minds, yet somehow this disconcerted me. "Yes... I suppose I am..." If I was going to force Avon into obedience one last time I might as well do it properly. "I'm going to disable the transport at the house and the interplanetary communications. I'll also seal the other shuttle under a three month time lock. Avon's to stay here until he's well again. If, by some chance, I'm not back in three months, he can leave."

      "From what I have seen of him, he will not like that."

      "Too bad." I got out of the hovercar again. "Fifteen minutes." I started along the beach. After a while, I broke into a run.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

Lanrir had not protested at being told to track down a solitary wi'h, though he had protested that he would not kill one. In the light of his earlier bloodthirsty words and actions in regard to both humans and ylln, Cally and Vila were both astonished. He had offered no explanations, but had tracked down their quarry with easy proficiency.

      They were now watching a small aircar parked in the bottom of a gully. Any ylln it had carried had disembarked, and a wi'h sat at the controls.

      Lanrir started down the slope. Though much of the ice on this planet had a yellow tinge, his own blue-white fur was good enough camouflage to make him almost invisible as he glided over the snow.

      Vila had never seen a stalk before and watched the slow movements and rock-like stillness with fascination. Cally, he knew, was working her way down the other side of the small valley but, try as he might, he could not locate her. The only reason he could see Lanrir was that he had followed his movements from the beginning of the stalk and therefore knew where he was.

      //Vila, be ready.//

      It was all very well for Cally; she knew how to deal with this sort of situation. He'd never been happy on alien planets - give him a domed city on Earth any day - and he had never seen himself as the man-of-action type. He didn't want any part in this, let alone one that exposed him to such danger. Cally could go on saying that the wi'h were totally non-violent until she was as blue in the face as they were, but suppose she was wrong? Suppose everyone was wrong about the wi'h? Suppose the whole thing was some kind of plot...?

      He'd lost sight of Lanrir now. Wherever the icecat was, he was invisible against the snow.

      //Now, Vila!//

      Vila groaned. All the same, he climbed to his feet, stood on a rock, waved his arms and shouted: "Oi! You down there in the aircar! Wake up! Oi!"

      The wi'h's head jerked towards the sound. As he did so, Lanrir reared up in front of him, jaws parted in threat. The wi'h made a grab for the controls.

      "No." Cally spoke from the other side of the aircar where she had pulled the door open to clear the aim of the gun she was pointing at the wi'h. "Stay where you are... Ronjat?" She was startled by the identity of her captive and showed it.

      "I have been expecting you," said Ronjat. "Do not fear, Cally, for there are no ylln here to harm you."

      "Is that the truth?"

      "Yes."

      //Vila, come and join us.//

      "What are you going to do now?" Ronjat asked. He sounded interested.

      "Ask you some questions. Do you like the ylln, Ronjat?"

      "No."

      "Then why do you serve them?"

      "They order; we obey. It is the way our race was made."

      "Made?" Many things were suddenly clear to Cally. "Who made you? Not the ylln..."

      "Those you call the Builders." Ronjat cast an uneasy glance at Lanrir as the icecat bounded into the rear of the aircar. Vila arrived, panting, and jumped in after him.

      Cally stared hard at the wi'h. "And you were waiting for us. Did the ylln send you?"

      "No."

      Conscious of gold and blue and brown eyes fixed on her face, Cally came to a decision. "Ronjat, I am ordering you to take us to a place where we will have good air and warmth, water and food, and where neither the ylln, nor your people will find us. Then we will talk."

      

      

Storm

I was in the middle of Moonshadow's pre-flight checks when the call came through.

      "Stali!" I exclaimed "I ordered communications disabled."

      "You gave me some leeway in the timing, Blake, and it was as well... I was about to obey you, when I thought of something you said earlier, on Hinkal, about the way you feel about Avon and the way we feel about the Builders, though I confess I am puzzled by what I have observed of your relationship-"

      "Not half as puzzled as I am," I admitted. "Forget it, Stali. So long as Avon is back-"

      "That is why I called you. You told me to disable communications before Avon arrived here, and he is still on the beach where you left him."

      "What? But I ordered Taamo to take him back to the house."

      "He would not go, Taamo says. He would accept no help and ordered her to go away and not to come back. So she returned here and reported the situation to me over the communicator before she arrived. She does not think Avon can walk far."

      "Is the man mad? Taamo should have stayed-" I pulled myself together. "No. That's not fair. Of course Taamo had to do what Avon said, but why did the fool give that order?"

      "I do not know, but I recalled what you said about emotional weight. Taamo may think that humans can throw away their lives if they wish, and does not care if they do, but I would not have you hurt, and perhaps Avon does not know that the storm is coming soon."

      "The storm... oh, Lord, Stali, I swear that I'll repay you for this. Thank you... oh, don't disable the communicators."

      "Right."

      "Thank you," I repeated before I switched off, but that was the only delay that I allowed myself. I was issuing instructions to Silkay as I raced for the hatch. "Stay here."

      "The storm is ready to break. The hovercars will be too dangerous to use-"

      "I have to go. Stay here until the storm's over." I slammed the hatch behind me and ran through the shuttle hanger to where I had left the hovercar. As I drove down the old Builder's road from the mountains towards the sea the sky darkened from iron-grey to black. The air was full of flying sand flushed up by the rising wind.

      The road turned north-west when it reached the shore but I drove over the beach out onto the sea. It was already choppy and the hovercar bucked with the wave impacts, but this was the shortest route to where I had left Avon, and it would soon be too dark to see. I switched on the hovercar's lights and peered through the spray, trying to discern the shore ahead of me.

      I was beginning to feel distinctly queasy and I was very relieved when I was able to smash through the rollers and out onto the beach.

      The black rocks that had overshadowed my conversation with Avon were now covered in boiling white foam. Avon wasn't there, though. Before I had time to panic, I saw a dark, upright shape on the sand near to the base of the low, sloping cliff and swung the hovercar towards it, praying that it wasn't just a rock. As I drew closer I saw that it was indeed Avon, sitting and watching me. He made no attempt to get up; I suspected that he couldn't.

      I slewed the hovercar to a stop about ten metres away and ran through the sand which swirled and curled about my knees. Avon's eyes lifted to meet mine as I stopped in front of him. He said: "You took your time getting here."

      "I..." I was so stunned by this reception that I just stood with my mouth open and stared at him "You're mad. Why didn't you let Taamo take you home?"

      Avon said, very slowly and carefully, "Because I will not put myself into the hands of someone I do not trust."

      I could not believe that I had heard him correctly.

      "Well," he went on, in the same calm, emotionless voice, "aren't you going to help me up?"

      I stared at him incredulously, unable to move, unable to break the spell. It was not until I saw his face freeze in the recognition of imagined rejection that I was able to act. I held out a hand to him. He caught it and I hauled him up, putting my other arm around his back to keep him upright. Let him think of that as purely physical support, if he wished. At that moment, I simply did not care.

      "You crazy, stupid... did you have any idea of the risk you were taking?" I demanded.

      "You came back, didn't you?" Avon muttered. "Knew you would. Stupid fit of pique. Anyone would have thought-"

      "That I believed you meant what you said? I did. I even think you did. Never mind that now. We have to talk - but later. This storm-"

      My voice was drowned in an ear-splitting crack of thunder. All around, the darkness was rent by light. The horizon flashed and crackled in a continuous display of jagged lines between sea and sky, so that it seemed as if thin waterfalls of light were falling from the clouds, crashing to the sea in thunder.

      In that light, I saw Avon's astounded face, and the fear on it. He must have seen even greater fear on mine for, unlike him, I knew that this violence was only the barest indication of what was to follow. The hovercar wouldn't be able to cope with it, not when the winds started sweeping in at five hundred kilometres per hour.

      Even as we took our first steps towards the vehicle, a bolt of lightning sizzled down into the sea three hundred metres away. The next shattered the hovercar. I dragged Avon back from the smoking wreckage, with our ears ringing and the air rank with the stink of ionisation.

      There had to be a way out. I looked desperately towards the cliffs, remembering something that Silkay had once told me. And there it was, a steady, soft pink guiding light six hundred metres to our right, halfway up the gentle slope of the cliff. "This way," I told Avon. "Hurry."

      He did not argue, did not protest as I forced him to run. He was stumbling at every other step, but I kept him upright with brutal, necessary strength.

      The rain came then, a solid sheet of water falling from above, turning the sand to mud. Great wind-driven rollers crunched further and further up the beach.

      It was difficult to breathe in the driving rain. I wasn't sure if I could really see the guide light, or if I was simply imagining that I could still see it. Avon was gasping as our run slowed to a plod, our feet slipping on the rain-soaked shingle or squelching in mud. The ground moved treacherously under our feet and I could hear the roar of the water closing in behind us, even above the thunder and the wind. The air tasted of salt.

      Then there was rock under our feet, a smooth, slick surface, tilting upwards at about thirty degrees. We scrambled up it. I still had to help Avon, and we moved on hands and feet like some weird, six-legged animal.

      The guide light had grown to an oval almost the height of a man, an opening in the rock face. I pushed Avon through it and dived in after him, feeling the slight tingle of a bio-field, that very special type of Builders' force field that only switched itself off when an organic life-form attempted to pass through it. It would be back in place the instant we were past. The same type of field guarded the house and garden from Firel's violent storms.

      Avon and I sat on the soft floor and stared at each other. The transition from cold wetness and violent light to warmth, dryness, soft lighting and, most beautiful of all, total silence, was astonishing. Yet, on glancing behind me, I saw water dashing itself against the bio-field. The small cave in which we sat was only three metres in depth, its walls smooth, curved, and creamy-gold. The entire floor was padded, making it more suitable as a seat or bed than a floor. The rosy light seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere but the rear wall was studded with other small lights; Builders coded controls.

      "What... is this place?" Avon gasped.

      "Refuge... there are hundreds of them on Firel... all over the planet... left by the Builders. You can see why they're necessary."

      "Does this happen often?"

      "Normally every five or six days. The last was nine days ago, which probably means that this one is going to be nastier than usual."

      "Going to be... you mean it gets worse?"

      "It's only just started." Giving him time to realise the closeness of his escape and to recover from the shock, I kept my back to him as I heaved myself to my feet and squelched to the control wall. My shoes were full of water, as were the rest of my clothes.

      I knew enough about Builder codes to open the wall storage area. As the panels slid open, I glanced back at Avon, who was watching me with a slightly bemused expression. "We'd better get dried off," I told him, throwing two neatly-folded packets at him. "Here. The Builders didn't share our ideas on fashion but they were humanoid and only slightly bigger than we are. Use one of these robes as a towel and wear the other. Need any help?"

      Avon gave me a sideways glare and set about struggling out of his clothes and into the one-piece baggy suit. I did the same, getting more clothes from the stores and checking what else they held as I did so. Finishing before Avon, I also checked the communicator. It was working. I keyed in to Stali at the house.

      "Blake?" he asked, his face appearing on the wall. I imagined that he looked surprised.

      "Avon and I are pinned down in a Refuge near the beach. Is everyone else safe?"

      "Yes."

      "Good. Well, all we can do now is to sit out the storm. How long is it predicted to last?"

      "We believe at least forty hours."

      "I'll call you when we're ready to leave." I switched off and turned back to Avon, who looked flushed and ruffled. I picked up a pile of spherical cushions, and he made no protest as I helped him to get comfortable.

      His skin felt very cold, even to me, and I was cold myself, so I went back to the storage area, retrieved a thick quilted blanket and a cup of hot veslan. Avon took the latter with a surprised expression. "After what... a thousand years?"

      "In stasis." His hands were shaking with cold. I steadied them on the cup. "Drink it."

      Avon lifted an eyebrow. "Giving orders again?" he asked, but drank.

      "That's right, and I'm going to keep on giving you orders until you stop behaving as if you need them." I tucked the blanket round him. When he had finished the veslan, I took the cup away, then settled myself down close beside him.

      "What do you think you're doing?" he grumbled.

      "Helping you get warm again - and, right now, Avon, I need to remove the chill too." I had tried every other method of communicating with him. Perhaps touch would work. "So just relax, okay?"

      To my surprise, that was exactly what he did.

      I stared over his head at the lightning beyond the bio-field. "Avon... I don't pretend to understand what it is between us, but I know that it isn't reasonable, it's emotional. I admit that there have been times when I hated you, but even then you were still my friend. It's been dreadfully lonely without you." It was not an admission I'd ever expected to make to Avon, but I gave it to him now in return for his admission of trust.

      "Ummm. I'll tell you something, Blake," he said sleepily. "I missed you. I'm not sure why... but I did miss you..."

      "I missed you too."

      "Blake... I just wanted to be free. Can't you see that? That I didn't hate you... I just wanted my freedom."

      Outside, the lightning flared and water from sea and sky spent its power futilely against the bio-field. Inside, all was warmth and quietness. Avon slept, but I could not. My mind was as alight with new understanding as the sky outside.

      Avon had told me once, with real force and passion, that he wanted to be free of me. Knowing that he despised and hated my stand against the Federation and resented what I had done to him, I had believed, then, that he hated and despised me too. I had been wrong. True, Avon had wanted to be freed from the rebellion but, more, he had wanted freedom from emotional ties neither of us wanted to admit existed. I had freed him from the Cause, but the emotions remained.

      Slowly, with the storm still raging outside, I came to an understanding; of myself, of Avon, of the complex relationship between us. To hell with trying to push him into a "freedom" that made us both unhappy... this time, I was going to make things work.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

Ronjat sat upright on the stool, regarding Cally with interest. They were in the wi'h interpreter's quarters. The air was good here, and the food and drink that Ronjat had provided were plain but good too. "You are not going to harm me, I think," he said.

      "No, but I am going to ask you some questions. How do the ylln travel from this world?"

      "The ylln do not travel from this world or any other," answered Ronjat.

      They waited, but he added nothing, so Cally said, "Explain."

      "They cannot live in any other type of atmosphere and no spaceship in our part of the Cloud is capable of containing it. They also need constant gravity and cold temperatures."

      Cally considered that. She also considered the fact that Ronjat need not have added that last sentence. "Do you feel loyalty towards the ylln?"

      "Only that that I have been ordered to feel."

      "And you have to obey all orders given to you?"

      "Yes."

      Cally said: "I order that the commands I give you now will supersede all other orders you have previously received. You are no longer loyal to the ylln. All the orders they have ever given you are void."

      "Haven't you forgotten something?" Ronjat asked.

      "Such as?" Vila queried, and Cally looked puzzled.

      "The order to be loyal to you and to obey all your orders."

      "I do not think that that is necessary," said Cally.

      "You are a most unusual human."

      "I am not human," Cally replied, "but I have known humans who would act as I have done."

      "Not in the Hoop," said Ronjat, "or in the human colonies on the Cloud worlds, or on the Fraternity or Guild ships. Ylln or human, it does not matter. All wish to use us as slaves."

      "Slavery harms the slaver more than the slave."

      "It does not feel that way when you are the slave."

      "True," Vila commented, sotto voce.

      Cally ignored him and faced Ronjat. "Will you help us?"

      "If you order it, I will have to do so."

      "We will not order it," said Cally. "We simply ask."

      "But Call-" Vila began. Cally stood hard on his toes and added a telepathic command to shut up.

      "What do you require?"

      "To leave this world. Will you help us find a spaceship?"

      Ronjat spoke slowly. "Even if I did agree to help you, or if you ordered me to do so, it is impossible for you to obtain an interstellar ship. The Guild ships do not come here. The Fraternity has a few ships, one of which it occasionally places at the disposal of the ylln, as part of their agreement. You see, the ylln... have made all wi'h their slaves. Our young are brought here to receive their orders... orders to keep the existence of the ylln a secret. We cannot even speak of them beyond this planet, save to those humans, like Valonia, who have been contacted by them. There are even questions to which we must give specific answers dictated by the ylln. We must report all that happens in the Cloud to the ylln. They are allied with the Fraternity, but the ship that brought you here has been returned to them at a special rendezvous point on the outskirts of this system... and I do not think that you could steal a Fraternity ship."

      "We don't want anything more to do with the Fraternity," said Vila grimly.

      "What about transport within the Hoop?"

      "A shuttle? That might be possible. They can travel up to a million spacials beyond the boundaries of the Hoop, and though they could not reach the nearest star system all the Hoop worlds are open to them. No-one knows how many there are in the Hoop. Wi'h fly them alone, so it might be possible to bring one here, and their outer hulls can resist the corrosive atmosphere of this planet, for they were fabricated at the Yards before the Builders left."

      "Will you help us?"

      "Voluntarily help humans? No wi'h would do that."

      Cally and Vila looked at each other, Vila dismayed, Cally reassuring. "Then we will find someone who will. Vila, get our suits, please. Ronjat, I am asking you not to talk about our presence here or our plans. Will you at least do that?"

      "Are you ordering me to do so?"

      "No."

      Ronjat tilted his head. "You are either a fool - or very clever."

      "I fought for a long time with a human who believed that freedom was the most important thing that any being could possess. He gave his trust freely to those who had not proved themselves to be his enemies: even to some who thought they were his enemies. He was not betrayed."

      "I would like to meet him," said Ronjat.

      "He is dead, but before be died he gave the people of our galaxy a real chance of freedom."

      "Did they take it?"

      "No, but that was not his fault."

      "I will try to help you," Ronjat said unexpectedly, "but I have a condition."

      "Name it."

      "When you leave this planet, I go with you."

      "We will be glad to have your company."

      "I believed that you would say that. That is why I took the aircar and waited for you at that place... it was the way that I would have come, if I had been fleeing as you had."

      "You what?" Vila was astonished. "But why all this?"

      "You were testing us," said Cally.

      "Yes. I have thought this for a long time. We wi'h will never escape the ylln or humans by ourselves, so we must have aid."

      "And you were right. Vila, Lanrir and I will aid you, Ronjat and, I promise... there will be others."

      

      

The rain had ceased for the moment. Avon watched the play of the wind as it sent tornadoes of spray and sand dancing from horizon to horizon, against a continuous backdrop of lightning. The sky was low and black and solid-looking, threatening more rain. He was glad to be where he was; warm, dry, comfortable and rested, though he did not find the food Blake had brought him to his liking. He tried another bite of the thin black wafer and grimaced. "Are you quite sure that this stuff is safe for humans?"

      "Stali says so."

      "Then the Builders had a quite appalling taste."

      "Maybe, but it's nourishing and you need to eat," Blake told him, sitting down next to him. "So eat."

      "That's an order."

      "Right. And you're going to have to get used to hearing them," Blake said firmly.

      "Oh?" Avon's eyes widened, so that he looked astonished, almost in pantomime fashion.

      Blake smiled warmly.

      Avon, staring very suspiciously at Blake, chewed on the 'appalling' wafer and waited.

      "I did a lot of thinking, while you were sleeping," said Blake. "Do you want to hear my conclusions?"

      "Judging by your present attitude, I think I'd better find out what I'm up against."

      "We may not have a chance to talk for some time, after this. As soon as the storm finishes, I'm leaving for Wery. You're running a fever again and you're far too weak to travel, so don't try to fight me, Avon. Please. I can't leave unless there's a truce between us."

      "I thought that there was."

      "Maybe, but I want it to last more than a few hours."

      "It would make life much more peaceful," Avon agreed. "I've no objections. Go on." He settled back against the wall and watched Blake's face.

      Blake took his time. He knew what he wanted to say, but it had to be said in the right way. "One thing I'm certain of is how I feel myself, so I started from there. You are special to me, Avon. Despite all our fights and all the pain we've caused each other - or perhaps because of it - I trust you. I'm fond of you." He stared steadfastly at Avon as he said it, though the urge to avert his eyes and keep some of his privacy was strong. Avon, however, showed no reaction at all, as he went on, "Out on the beach, you told me that you trusted me. I think that perhaps you have some affection for me too..."

      Avon still said nothing.

      Well, Blake had never thought that it was going to be easy. "Those are pretty unlikely feelings, aren't they?"

      "Very," Avon said dryly.

      "Though we do have some things in common; we share much the same technical background, so we talk the same language, and we like much the same people, similar music and books, and we have a similar sense of humour..."

      "We also share a high intelligence," said Avon, surprisingly, "but we're not alike in most of the important characteristics. You're an idealist, an altruist... in other words, a bloody fool."

      "Despite the 'high intelligence'?"

      "You waste it." Avon's voice was flat. Then, quite suddenly, the corners of his mouth twitched. "If you're looking for an explanation, try the attraction of opposites."

      "That comes into it too, but I'm prone to self-examination-"

      "I'm aware of that."

      "-and I'm fairly sure that I understand now. There's an... inevitability about what has happened to us since we met.

      "The best way to start explaining it is to fill in a few details of my own background. We were a very happy, very stable family, myself, my parents, my brother and sister, and we were very close. We weren't particularly wealthy, but we didn't lack for much... a typical Alpha-grade family, you might have called us. My father was a teacher, my mother a transport engineer, and our only problem was that, perhaps, we were too outspoken in our political views. Several other members of the family had been convicted of political crimes. You know that, of course. You met one of them. It wasn't until I was in my teens that I realised this or that my parents had stayed out of the rebel movement for the sake of us children. I stayed out too, for their sake, and behaved like any good little Federation citizen, though I was tempted, often enough. There was so much injustice...

      "When I was twenty-three, my father died, during the guera fever, and my brother decided to emigrate to the Outer Worlds, taking my mother and sister with him. He wanted me to go too, but... well, I believed that the real fight was on Earth. With my family safe, as I thought, on Zorlav, I could do what I had wanted to do since I was old enough to understand what the Federation was, to fight, politically, physically, any way I could.

      "You know what happened in the end. How I was caught and condemned and conditioned. What I didn't know was that my brother and sister had been executed - my mother had died the previous year - in fact, I didn't find that out until I was contacted by Bran Foster, just before I was recaptured and sent to Cygnus Alpha.

      "Avon, when I came on board the London I had just discovered that I no longer had a family. They were dead, killed by the Federation. The only friends I could remember having were dead too, murdered in the same way. My emotional relationships were the foundation of my existence and they had disintegrated. If I was going to survive I had to replace them. It's the way I am. So is it any wonder that I couldn't avoid coming to see you all you and Cally and Jenna and Vila and Gan - as my new family?"

      "Being you," said Avon, "I suppose it was inevitable."

      "Ah... but there was a catch. I'd been badly hurt. I was afraid of becoming too deeply involved. I... didn't want any of you to mean so much to me that your deaths might... destroy my ability to continue to fight.

      "So then I made a real mistake in judgement. I thought that that depth of involvement would have to be physical - sexual. I was so busy avoiding that kind of relationship with Jenna that I didn't realise how strong my... friendship ... I think that is the right word... was growing for you."

      "I never noticed it," Avon observed.

      "You never let me show it but, of all the people I've ever known, you're the one I want beside me when Hell opens its gates... By the time I realised what I wanted from you... a partnership, candid affection... it was too late. I'd needed your help too much, your skills. Once I'd started forcing you into doing what I wanted you to do, I had to continue or lose you - and I couldn't face that. So I made sure that you stayed on Liberator at the price, I came to believe, of your hatred. Now, I think I was wrong. You were certainly angry. You're a natural loner and you found my personal philosophy distasteful mainly because it was also personally dangerous. You hated taking orders or being forced into doing what I wanted. I also think that you were worried by the emotional effect we were having on you. You wanted to be free of that... that's what you meant when you said you wanted to be free, wasn't it?"

      Avon looked up at the roof, then back at Blake. He plainly did not want to answer, but Blake's expression was demanding. The choice lay between laying open his feelings or offending his personal integrity by lying... He grimaced. "You think too much, do you know that? All right. Yes. I wanted to be free of your crusade and I wanted to be free of your damn orders... and I wanted to... stop... feeling... for you. If you went away, it wouldn't hurt so much when you got yourself killed."

      Blake smiled. "Only it didn't work that way, right?"

      "Blake..." There was a warning in Avon's voice.

      "The only way we're going to stop tearing each other apart is to start understanding each other. I know it's painful. I didn't find it easy, either, but we can't afford privacy."

      "Don't push me too hard..." Avon warned him.

      "I don't think I've pushed hard enough. You never give of yourself voluntarily, and I think I know why. You don't talk much about your background but I can guess a little. You were a very bright child-"

      "Not exactly a difficult deduction."

      "-and your parents treated you as an adult, even when you were very young. You didn't spend much time with other children. Your family was wealthy and you had everything you wanted - except the physical affection I've never seen you express. I suspect that your parents were as undemonstrative as you appear to be."

      Avon shifted uneasily. Blake's 'guesses' were far too shrewd. "I don't see that it matters."

      "Then it doesn't matter if you tell me that I'm right, does it? And if you explained, then I wouldn't have to guess. It's what you've always said about the necessity of accurate data." Blake waited again, not letting his eyes wander from Avon's face.

      It was then that Avon realised that he had been trapped. Blake's openness demanded openness in return, and he was obviously willing to act on his 'guesses', however inaccurate some of them might be. "I'm not sure how you came to your conclusions," he prevaricated. "Did you have Orac check my records in the Federation computers?"

      "I'm not even sure that Orac can reach Federation computers from here. No, Avon, I haven't seen your record. I wouldn't pry in that way. All I know about you is what you've told me and what I have observed... and anything else you tell me will go no further."

      Avon braced himself. "You win. You usually do." There was a pause, then he went on. "You were right about my parents, of course. They were both intelligent and successful. Mother was from an Upper Echelon family, the Sandons."

      Blake looked surprised. "That, I didn't guess."

      Avon grinned. "Her family were not exactly pleased when she married my father. He was well known only in academic circles a mathematician who'd found he got more recognition as a philosopher... a singularly useless subject, I've always felt. Anyway, despite Sandon disapproval, we were well off - wealthy, by most people's standards. My mother was a... governmental advisor, and the Federation pay well for good advice. The Sandon connection didn't exactly hinder her career, either. You know how the Federation works: influence is everything, and Mother knew all the right people. She was a very ambitious woman."

      "Ambitious for you, too?"

      "Oh, yes. Very. And you were quite right about my parents treating me as an adult. If we did care for each other, we weren't very good at showing it. My father tried, I think. You know, I never realised that before. I wasn't very responsive, though. I didn't like being fussed, even then."

      "What about your mother?"

      "My mother... I can see now that her love for my father was... obsessive. I think that's why she was obsessive about Ian, too. He looked very like my father. I think the white-blond hair did it."

      "Ian... your brother? He was younger than you, wasn't he?" Blake prompted. He was surprised at his success in getting Avon to talk, and was now afraid that the other man would suddenly withdraw.

      "Seven years. Though by the end he looked older. I really... resented... him..." Blake let Avon's silence hang and, finally, he resumed. "I don't think that Mother and Father meant to favour Ian but that's the way it seemed to me. Odd, after they died, the last thing I wanted to do was to look after Ian but, in the end, I think he meant more to me than they had."

      "You had trouble showing him how much you cared, though."

      Avon looked sharply at Blake. "You know me very well, don't you?"

      "Well enough. When did Ian die?"

      "About six years ago. I told the fool it would be dangerous working for the Federation Diplomatic Service in the Outer Worlds, but I was the last person he was going to listen to. He really hated me, despite the fact that I'd brought him up since he was ten." Avon sighed, seemingly oblivious to Blake's presence. "I should have known he'd defy me," he murmured, almost too softly to be heard. "I think that's why he did it... because I advised him against it." He became aware of Blake again, and raised his voice a little, saying, factually, "I didn't hear from him again. Three years later I got the official next-of-kin notification of his death."

      Blake touched his hand gently. "Hate you? I don't think Ian hated you. Resented you? Certainly. You were brilliant and successful, good at everything you did. I have this sneaking suspicion he wasn't."

      Avon's eyebrows went up, but he nodded confirmation.

      "You have this bad habit of being right," Blake went on. "I can sympathise with Ian. I resent that too. Perhaps he was simply trying to prove himself to you."

      "No." Avon's voice was flat, brooking no contradiction. "You didn't know him, Blake. I did."

      "Six years ago. You must have met Anna Grant soon after his death."

      Avon sat up and glared at Blake. "What's that supposed to mean?"

      "Only that I see a pattern emerging. We all need affection, Avon, even you. I think that, when your parents died, it numbed you for a while, but you had Ian, and when you got over the pain and shock, you transferred all the emotions you had for them to him. Then, much later, Ian was killed, and I don't think it's any coincidence that a year or so later, when the shock and the numbness were wearing off, you fell heavily in love for the first time in your life. Normally, you wear a hard shell of cynicism that it's almost impossible to break through, but you subconsciously knew that you needed someone... and your need and vulnerability were undoubtedly greater just because you'd lost someone at those times... in your case the only person you actually loved. And that was also true when I met you, after Anna's death."

      "Anna wasn't dead." Avon's voice was often cold, but now it touched absolute zero. "She was a Federation agent. She betrayed me."

      "But-"

      "Oh, I didn't know. Del didn't know... still doesn't. I found out when I was trying to avenge her death. Ironical, isn't it? I ended up killing her." He gave a bitter laugh, but Blake could hear the pain behind it.

      He reached out to squeeze his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

      Avon smiled faintly in response, again not objecting to the swift touch. "It's all right. It's over."

      "But it still hurts."

      "Maybe. A little. I've... never been a good judge of what people are going to do, Blake. It's all very well for you to say that I need affection, need to care, but how can I know who to trust? Everyone I've ever trusted has eventually betrayed me."

      Blake replied, very quietly, "I'm not going to say, 'You can trust me.' I'm not even going to say, 'You can trust Cally and Vila.' All I can do is ask you to look back at the years that we spent together, and make your judgement on them - and us."

      Avon's eyes met his. "I thought I already had."

      "Good. I won't betray your trust... and I trust you too. I've told you that before."

      "I suspect it's a good sign that I never wanted to trust any of you."

      "Don't be such a pessimist," Blake chuckled. Then his face grew serious. "I never meant to hurt you, Avon. All I meant to do was to give you Liberator and your freedom. I've already told you that I swore I'd never interfere in your life again, back at Star One. Only I found out that your life meant more to me than a promise. Even after I brought you to Scitech, I kept trying to allow you to take your own path but you still needed my help. I was torn between betraying you by interfering or betraying you by letting you be hurt." Blake shook his head. "Lord, I've been confused these past few weeks."

      "You've been... you confused me completely. You weren't the man I'd learnt to... trust... any more."

      "I was simply trying to give you your freedom. Well, that's over now, you'll be sorry to hear."

      "You're going to behave normally again?"

      Blake hesitated. "I'm not sure about 'normally'. We've both changed since Star One. You've learnt the responsibilities of leadership; I'm rather wiser about humanity. We wouldn't be having this conversation if we weren't. We can continue to grow closer. I'm not saying that everything's solved. It isn't. You were right when you said we were opposites. We've always fought and I expect we'll keep on fighting, but we can acknowledge the emotion between us. I need someone I can turn to when I'm in trouble. For some reason that I don't understand, you're elected. In return, I'll always be there when you need someone on your side, even if I think you're wrong." He noticed the slightly dubious expression on Avon's face and added, "I'm not expecting you to accept this all at once. Just try, Avon. Give me a chance. Don't withdraw into that cynical shell." His voice and eyes were pleading.

      Avon was torn between the urge to answer that plea and the quiet voice of reason telling him to leave his options open, not to promise anything that he might regret later. He said, "I'll try."

      Compromise.

      The relief and joy that leaped in Blake's eyes brought an answering warmth. Avon had almost forgotten that there could be pleasure in seeing some else's joy.

      Blake said, "I'm sorry I have to go to Wery. We still have a lot to say to each other, but I have to find Vila and Cally. We have a family to put back together."

      "You... Vila... Cally... we're not a family as I knew it, Blake. I... wouldn't want us to be."

      "I don't think you know what a real family is. You know something? I'm going to enjoy teaching you."

      "I hope I enjoy it too."

      "Oh, you will. I'll make sure of that."

      

      

"So that's it?" Gorsky growled, looking at the rig that had taken over most of the Napoleon's pinnace, the Ney.

      "We can make it look pretty later, Admiral," Dayna retorted.

      "When's this target going to arrive?"

      Gorsky looked at his aide; the younger man looked at his watch.

      "Ninety seconds, sir."

      "The Swift has it in tow," Gorsky went on. "It's just a collection of junk welded together, but it'll do for you to shoot at. If that thing does shoot, that is."

      "It shoots," Dayna said grimly, "though that's a miracle, considering the shortage of materials. If you want me to arm your ships, Admiral, I'm going to need more materials - and help. Technical help."

      "Leave the logistics to me and get on with it, woman," Gorsky grumbled. "Look, there's the Swift now."

      "I have her," Tarrant reported, from where he was manning the weapon's controls. And junk is right, he added to himself. That tub is even more decrepit than what she's towing.

      Tarrant's harsh judgement was not totally justified, but the Swift certainly did not live up to her name. She was a mining tug, perhaps fifty years old, and she lumbered rather than flew, dragging behind her a rough cube of metal plates, all of them irregularly perforated, with bits of pipe and wire dangling out.

      Swift loosed the traction beam and turned aside, leaving the target moving slowly across their field of vision.

      Tarrant took aim, then fired. The weapon's beam was, in itself, invisible, but Dayna had added a low power laser tracer, and they all saw the red beam pencil itself in between pinnace and target.

      Where the beam touched, the metal simply vanished. As the target crossed the beam it was cut neatly into two pieces, which continued to drift along serenely, just a few centimetres apart.

      "What's the range on this thing?" Gorsky demanded.

      "Only about five thousand spacials."

      Gorsky had difficulty in keeping his face impassive. "Well, Dayna, that's quite interesting. I think we'll keep you both alive a little longer. Now, let's get back to Shipmeet and you can start working on plans for this planet-buster of yours."

      Dayna and Tarrant exchanged angry glances. but fear was teaching them the value of silence.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

"Well..." I looked helplessly at Avon. The new bonds between us were so fragile, it felt as if distance could snap them. "I hate goodbyes."

      "Then don't say it," Avon answered seriously. "Take care, Blake." He offered his hand, which was a rare gesture, for him.

      I took it, saying, "Look after yourself, Avon."

      "There is no need for you to worry about that. As you're aware, I'm very fond of my own skin."

      "I'm fond of your skin too. Take care," I said, and turned away.

      His voice followed me. "Good luck, Blake."

      I paused in the doorway to grin and wave at him. He smiled back. That was the last I saw of him before I forced myself to turn and follow Stali.

      As I climbed into the hovercar in the peace of the early morning stillness, Stali leaned through the open window and asked, "Do you have any instructions for me?"

      "You mean like disabling communicators or hovercars?" I laughed happily. "No, Stali. All those instructions are cancelled. They aren't necessary. Keep watching us, Stali. You may even start to understand."

      "I will try."

      "And look after Avon for me."

      "I will do that too."

      "I know you will." I offered him my hand through the window. He still found this human between-equals gesture disconcerting, but he took it after only the slightest of pauses, squeezed it, and said, "Be careful."

      We all seemed to be telling each other that.

      "I will." I sent the hovercar speeding through the evening, content that all would be well on Firel until my return.

      

Flight Paths

Avon watched the bright speck until it disappeared into the indigo sky, leaving him with a strange mixture of feelings he found impossible to analyse.

      He hadn't wanted Blake to go. That the other man should be so important to him was no longer a shock, but it still made him feel uneasy. It was so dangerous to trust... even if Blake seemed more worthy of trust than anyone he had ever met. He shook himself. Sentimentality... but he had to admit that he was glad Blake was back in his life. He would have to arrange to keep it that way, if he came back from this mission...

      He winced.

      Fear for Blake? That was unwanted and unnecessary. He could look after himself, and look after Vila and Cally too. A family? Well, they would see. He ought to locate Dayna too - she might be useful - and he wanted words with Del Tarrant. So did Blake, apparently. He had a strong protective streak that Avon found alternately comforting and annoying. Tarrant, he suspected, would find his encounter with it terrifying. Avon himself did not enjoy facing Blake when he was in a rage, and Tarrant did not have his defences. Yes, a meeting between those two would be very interesting indeed.

      So now he was on his own. He had felt almost... well, lonely... for a few minutes after Blake had gone and the feeling alarmed him. Damn it, his destiny was his own again. He ought to be pleased about that. He was pleased.

      Now, what restrictions had Blake placed on his movements? He had not considered it wise to ask; their new relationship was too delicate, too easily spoiled by suspicion... and he did not want to spoil it... at least, not yet. And whatever he decided to do now, it should be possible to accomplish it before Blake got back from Wery.

      Avon went to find Stali.

      

      

"So, Blake left no instructions other than that you were to look after me?" Avon could hardly believe his luck.

      "That was a personal instruction. He had originally given other orders, but he cancelled them before he left."

      Avon shook his head. "So much for his new doubts about humanity. The man is still far too trusting."

      "Sir?"

      "Is the second shuttle ready to fly?"

      "Yes." There was a very human suspicion in Stali's voice. "Why?"

      "Because we'll need transport to get to Scitech Central."

      "Blake said-"

      "Blake worries too much, and what he does not know won't hurt him." Avon regarded the wi'h with exasperation. "You want to get inside the Yard Barriers, don't you?"

      "Yes."

      "Then act in your own interest, for once, and come with me to take a look at the generators on Scitech Central. Well, I'm going anyway." As Avon started towards the door, he realised that Stali was staring at him and stopped. "What's the matter with you?"

      "Blake said that if I watched you I might begin to understand your relationship. This is the first time that I have seriously doubted his judgement."

      "Then you are beginning to learn sense. I've doubted it for years. Ever since I met him, in fact." Then, "You can't be any more confused about how we feel than I am. Self-interest, Stali? Remember?"

      "Yes, sir."

      Avon gave up. "Oh, come on."

      "Yes, sir."

      

      

Vila sat waiting on the bleak ice plain. Some distance away, an aircar also waited and, beside it, a group of wi'h surrounded a ylln. Ronjat had assured them that they would not be noticed but Vila was not so sure. True, he did not think that even Avon would have recognised them, Ronjat having procured blue dye for their faces and hands, and blue caps with white plastic crests to cover their heads, but they did not look like wi'h at anything less than fifty metres, and Vila knew it. Lanrir was crouched nearby, doing his trick of blending into the ice. Cally and Ronjat stood beside them.

      Vila wondered why no-one had bothered to investigate their presence here, though Ronjat had said that any ylln would simply assume that they were under orders. The wi'h would not remark on anything they had not been ordered to remark upon. The ylln, having decreed that the fugitives must be dead, were unlikely to be contradicted, and no wi'h was going to point out their presence.

      There was also a star falling vertically from the sky, resolving itself into a dark, diamond-shaped Scitech shuttle. Soon it settled silently on the ice, between the two groups, one containing Cally, Vila, Lanrir and Ronjat, and the other the ylln and its party.

      Ronjat signalled to Vila and Cally to follow him as he walked silently towards the grounded shuttle.

      On the other side of the craft, the incoming wi'h had disembarked. According to Ronjat, they comprised a routine party bringing news from Scitech Central. Perhaps it was just luck that a shuttle had signalled its arrival to the ylln within a few days on their going into hiding but Vila wasn't sure.

      The aircar rose up and headed back towards the mountains, the signal for Ronjat to walk around the shuttle to the airlock, which obligingly opened for him. He stood aside to let Cally and Vila enter, staying outside as the airlock door closed behind them.

      The inner door opened into a small cabin, with the flight deck beyond, and two wi'h rose to meet them.

      Cally pulled back the envirosuit headgear and the disguising cap in a single motion, shaking her curls loose with relief. "You are now under my orders," she told the wi'h.

      "A human-" It was the first time that Vila had seen a wi'h show surprise.

      "No," said Ronjat, appearing behind them. "No human - and a friend."

      "Should I let Lanrir in?" Vila asked.

      "Yes, if the ylln have gone."

      "They have gone," said Ronjat.

      "Then I will call him."

      Vila's fears to the contrary, it proved that simple. Ten minutes later, the shuttle took off.

      

      

"So this is it." Avon stood looking about him at the alien equipment that stretched along the long, curving room. They had arrived at the Scitech Central spaceport two hours ago, Stali having logged in their flight as a fact-finding mission for Vanor Ricel, with only wi'h on board. No-one had questioned that report, or the presence at the airport of an unknown human accompanied by a wi'h.

      They had taken a groundcar and made their way from the city to a ruined outpost, empty and seemingly stripped bare of artefacts, devoid of interest until Stali touched hidden Builders' controls and the floor had dropped, taking them down into a massive underground installation. Though its contents currently made little sense, Avon could feel the 'rightness' of good engineering.

      "This is the place," said Stali, without enthusiasm.

      "Then let's get to work."

      "Are you sure you are well enough?"

      Avon stared at him.

      "Blake gave me an order to look after you. I am not finding that easy, Avon."

      "Do you want me to countermand the order?"

      "No. I... like... Blake well enough to want to carry out his wishes. I would have thought that you liked him enough to want to obey him too." Then, at Avon's supercilious smile, "Or at least enough not to want to worry him. Blake worries. You humans need sleep, and Blake-"

      "Has nightmares. Yes, I know. But I'm not allowed to help him, Stali. He never wants to take help, only to give it."

      "Will you accept help, Avon?"

      Avon's face closed. "Yes, with these machines. Forget the psychoanalysis and start tracing circuits."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

The man standing beside me was tall and handsome, and he looked surprised to see me. That was hardly unexpected; I was a stranger standing inside his own home, even if that home was a container on an AG sled.

      "Who are you?" he demanded.

      I stepped past him and shut the door, turning so that it was against my back. "You are Nelse Riordan," I stated. "It doesn't matter who I am. What matters is that you know what happened to Shel Vistran and Lenore."

      "Who?" There was apparent puzzlement, but there had also been a momentary hesitation.

      I took a step towards him. "You know who I mean, Riordan. Remember your star act, 'The Masters of Illusion'? Chevron, Vistran and Lenore, and the icecat Lanrir. They joined you on Hinkal, which was where Chevron vanished. The others were with you when you reached this planet. They are not with you now. Where are they?"

      "I don't know what the hell you're talking about! I've never heard of anyone called Chevron, or Vistran, or Lenore. As for a tame icecat - there's no such thing. If there were, I wouldn't let it get away." I think he read the emotions behind my expression, for he began to look alarmed. "I don't know who you are, but you ask anyone, anyone at all, and they'll tell you the same thing. These people you're asking about don't exist - at least, they never existed with this troupe."

      I was in no mood to be patient. "I know they existed, Riordan. They are friends of mine and they're missing. Stop playing games and tell me what happened to them"

      Riordan shrugged, trying to look indifferent. "I've never heard of them..."

      I made a grab for him. He tried to dodge, failed, and lashed out at me. I slipped under the blow and put in a short left which did more damage to his face than to my knuckles. He grunted, shaking his head.

      "I don't want to hurt you, but I will if I have to." I warned him. "Now, tell me..."

      I was unprepared for his charge. His head rammed into my stomach, bearing me backwards to crash into the wall. Winded, I went to my knees. He threw a wild punch at me but I managed to pull my head to one side just far enough so that his fist only scraped my chin before it crashed into the wall.

      He yelled.

      In that second, I flung myself forward, hugging his knees and bearing him to the floor. We struggled, rolling over and over as we fought for supremacy, sending the furniture skidding. Finally, I managed to stabilise myself on top of him. He bucked, trying to dislodge me, fighting so violently that the only thing I could do was to hit him.

      I did, hard and scientifically. He flopped back, not unconscious, but with most of the will to fight knocked out of him.

      "Talk!" I snarled, Then, as he remained silent, I grabbed him and shook him. "Talk, blast you. Where are they? What happened to them?"

      "Don't... know..."

      The door opened and a blonde woman came through it. "Nelse!" she cried. "No! Leave him alone!" Snatching up a heavy ceramic bowl containing terbo nuts, she tried to bring it down on my head. I rolled at her feet, sending her tottering backwards. The bowl went one way and she went the other. As I got to my feet, she clawed her way over to retrieve the bowl and fling it straight at me. I didn't dodge quickly enough and it struck me a glancing blow on the side of the head, stunning me. I reeled, and she came at me again, clawing for my eyes.

      Somehow, I fended her off, my final push being hard enough to send her flying into the table. She screamed and fell. Meanwhile, Riordan had managed to climb to his feet, but I kicked his shins and he collapsed again.

      The woman was moaning. It needed a great effort of will to keep my attention on Riordan, but I loomed over him as threateningly as I could and ordered, "Stay where you are."

      "Pala... she's hurt... can't you see she's hurt?"

      "Yes. She's hurt and my friends are missing. Are they still alive, I wonder? Are they hurt? Or dead? Do you care? And why should I care about your wife?"

      Riordan's expression was anguished. "Damn you. I know... nothing... about your friends."

      "Then I know nothing about her."

      We glared at each other. There was hate in his eyes, and despair as he looked towards the woman. I tried to think of Cally and Vila, of the trust Avon had placed in me... of my own guilt...

      "And I know that Lenore and Vistran were here," I added. "All you have to tell me is where they are now."

      "They... they left. Joined... another troupe."

      "Lies, Riordan. Isn't your wife worth more than lies? Lenore and Vistran would never have left before Chevron rejoined them."

      "He did rejoin-"

      "No he did not. I told you not to lie to me, Riordan." I bent over his supine figure, placing one hand on his throat. "The truth, Riordan... Or I'll kill you, tie up your wife and leave you both here. She'll die slowly..." I prayed that he would not see the emptiness of the threat. Pala's moaning was nerve-twisting. I would have to get help for her, soon, I knew... but Cally... Vila... I hardened my heart. "And if you don't tell me, Riordan, there'll be someone in your troupe, less foolish than you, who will."

      "No... if we tell you... it's certain death... you don't understand..."

      "Death either way. It's going to be very slow for your wife. Come on, Riordan. It's not information I intend to broadcast."

      He swore at me.

      I simply waited for him to finish.

      Pala moaned again.

      Defeated, Riordan looked directly into my face and said, "The Fraternity took them. They... they ordered us to act as if they never existed. If... if Chevron appeared, we were to hold him... for the Fraternity. Now, will you let me go to my wife?!"

      "Where is the Fraternity headquarters on this planet?" I demanded, keeping my hand locked around his throat.

      "Don't know... don't be a fool, only the Frats know! Look, all I have is rumours... they say it's on one of the seahavens... let me go to my wife!"

      "How were you to contact the Fraternity if Chevron turned up?" I demanded.

      "Caan... Caan. One of the troupe... Fraternity agent..."

      I released him and stood back. "Help your wife."

      And, please, let her not be too seriously hurt. There is already too much blood on my hands.

      That thought stayed in my mind as I left the container. Soon, probably just as soon as he had found help for Pala, Riordan would try to kill me, but that still gave me a short time in which to find Caan.

      I slid down the ladder of the sled to the deck below. Silkay was waiting for me. The instructions I had for him were simple.

      "We have to find a man called Caan."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

      

The world of the ylln was far behind. The shuttle floated amid a swarm of asteroids, just beyond the perimeter of the Hoop, where the drifting worlds obscured the sun in a nebulous ring.

      "Where do you want to go, lady?" Denli asked Cally. He was the pilot of the shuttle, a wi'h who had served both Scitech and the ylln.

      "Where do you want to go?" Cally demanded in return.

      "Humans make decisions: we obey. There is no choice for us, not while there are other races to give us orders."

      "I will not give you orders," said Cally. "I did so once, to save the lives of my companions and gain their freedom from the ylln, but I will not do so again. Now, I ask only your advice. What do you think we should do?"

      "You see?" said Ronjat. Then, to Cally, "Are all your people like you?"

      "I no longer have a people... but, while they still lived, they were as any other people... individuals. Some were like me, some were not. One cannot speak for a people, Ronjat, only for oneself."

      "And, for yourself, you will not give us orders," said Ronjat. "Cally, I think that you and Vila should go to Scitech Central. From there you can take a ship to where you please. You could rejoin your friends who are with the Guild, for example."

      "I do not trust the Guild," was Cally's reply.

      "Me neither," Vila added.

      "Whatever path we take, it will not be an easy one," said Cally.

      "Why not? You are human." Denli's tone was bitter.

      Cally smiled. "Humans are against us too, Denli. We have no friends in the Cloud... nowhere to go. Yet we are free, and freedom brings responsibilities. I think Ronjat is right. We must go to Scitech Central. If we are to rescue Tarrant and Dayna we need a ship, and I see no other place where we can obtain one."

      "Then let's go!" Vila exclaimed from where he was sitting beside Lanrir, tickling the icecat's ears. "And we'd like to speak to Valonia, wouldn't we, Lanrir? About Avon, right?"

      Lanrir made a threatening noise.

      Cally smiled at that, knowing that Vila's bloodthirstiness was reaction to worry and relief. It would be gone as soon as he had to face danger. Lanrir's, though, was real. She felt rage rise in her, and fear for Avon, despair at their present position, and uneasiness at the trust in the five pairs of eyes turned towards her.

      "We will do as you say," said Ronjat, "whether you order it or not."

      "Then we go to Scitech Central. Pray that I have made the right choice."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

I found Caan on the port side of the seahaven, standing with a small group of women, watching the activities of the fishing fleet as the smaller craft returned to dock with their mother ship. I dismissed the wi'h, a personal servant of the seahaven's captain, who had identified him for me, then said to Silkay: "Go to Caan and tell him you've been sent by the seahaven's captain and Riordan. They want to see him in the captain's office. You know no more than that."

      Silkay blinked at me, the natural wi'h signal for agreement, then casually joined the party. He spoke. Caan, a slim, prematurely greying, dark-skinned man, made an angry gesture of protest. Silkay turned away. For a few moments, Caan remained where he was, then, growling to himself, he left the others and came towards me. I withdrew into cover. As he rounded the corner I hooked an arm around his chest and pressed a knife to his throat.

      "Not a word... Caan. Not yet. You are I are going for a ride to the Fraternity headquarters in this planet."

      "Me? I don't-"

      "I know that you're a Fraternity agent and that you know where they took Lenore and Vistran... and why." I pressed the knife closer, drawing a thin red line on the brown skin. "Listen, Caan. I can do anything I want to you. For instance, I could take a slice out of your spinal chord, for example, and you'd never walk again. I understand you're a dancer... but a dancer without legs isn't much of a dancer, is he?"

      "I tell you I don't know what you're talking about!"

      "Don't lie to me. You know what happened to Lenore and Vistran."

      "Who?"

      "Quiet." I slid the knife around the back of his neck and down his back so that it pressed against his lower spine. "Too loud and this knife goes in. The Fraternity took Lenore and Vistran and you are a Fraternity agent."

      "Damn Indes... can't be trusted..."

      "At least they're better than Fraternity scum... certainly better than dead Fraternity scum... " I pressed the knife a little harder into his back. "Talk! What happened to Lenore and Vistran?"

      "I don't know. No-one does. Maybe they were shipped off-planet."

      "The only craft going off planet belong to the Guild. Am I to believe that the Fraternity handed my friends over to the Guild? You'll have to come up with something better than that."

      His eyes were wild with fear as the knife moved against him. "Valonia questioned them... that's all I know, I swear. They're gone. If the Guild didn't take them, they're dead."

      "We are going to Fraternity headquarters, and someone there is going to answer my questions," I told him, shoving him forward. "Let's go."

      He went with me without sound or struggle, down the companionway and across an open deck area, heading down towards the aircar landing bays.

      "There he is!" The shout was full of angry triumph, and the voice was Riordan's. I whirled, putting Caan between us, dropping the knife and pulling out my gun.

      "Stop, or I'll kill him!" I shouted, with little hope as to the effectiveness of the threat.

      Yet the Weryians and Indes paused, until Riordan yelled, "Who cares about a Fraternity agent?" and he and his fellow Indes plunged on. Seconds later, the Weryians followed.

      I could have blasted them where they stood, but I wouldn't kill innocents, and Riordan had every right to hate me. So I shoved Caan to one side and ran towards where we had left the aircar. That mob behind me was in no mood to listen to reason.

      Hearing a scream, I looked back in time to see Caan arcing gracefully over the side of the seahaven, raising a small white spout in the dark ocean below. He must have been flung there by Riordan's posse.

      A Fraternity agent. It seemed that no-one loved them, and Riordan was wisely covering up any evidence of his treachery.

      Another ladder appeared in front of me, and I swarmed up it.

      "Stop him!"

      The boot came from nowhere, kicking at my face. Somehow, I clung on one-handed as my head reeled. The boot hit again, and this time searing pain lanced through my right shoulder. Then I was falling, the world tumbling about me.

      A rail flashed past and I grabbed it, but the force of my fall tore it from my grasp. I hit the water like a stone. It felt as if a spaceship had fallen on me, the cold shock slamming me into oblivion.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

"So the meeting has been arranged?" Gorsky questioned.

      "Yes. Valonia will meet you, though I still don't understand why."

      Gorsky ignored Vardil's implied question. "She knows it must be face to face?"

      "She insists on it."

      "Good. Good." Gorsky waved dismissal at Vardil, but the Commodore stood his ground.

      "You haven't told me why, Admiral. The Fraternity..." He wrinkled his nose in disgust.

      "The Fraternity are the only organisation besides Scitech with any real technical skills. I need technical skills."

      "But they're criminals-"

      "So they can steal for us."

      "For us?" Vardil gawped at the Admiral. "But why should they?"

      Gorsky leaned back in his chair, hands laced behind his head, and stared up at the ceiling, a smirk creasing his ugly features. "I'm sure we can find something to offer them."

      "You are talking about an alliance and the High Command Council won't stand for that."

      "The HCC will do what I tell it to do," Gorsky replied, without any noticeable sign of annoyance. "We can't let the opportunity pass us by, my dear Vardil. The weapons that Mellanby can give us will dominate the Cloud Worlds and perhaps destroy Scitech's power... or even Scitech itself."

      "We can't take Scitech," Vardil protested. "Their defences are too strong."

      "Maybe... maybe... who knows what the future holds? Meanwhile, I'll take the Napoleon to meet Valonia. Mellanby and Tarrant will remain at Shipmeet, under close guard. They are vital, Commodore. Vital to the future of the Guild."

      "And Valonia. Is she vital too?"

      "For the moment - yes. Later... we shall see."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

I leaned out of the window of the aircar, letting my stomach heave itself empty. I felt terrible.

      Silkay was driving. I did not remember him pulling me into the hovering aircar that he had flown from the landing area at breakneck speed, but I knew he had done so, without orders, and that mattered. I guessed that he had been under fire, too, but he had not spoken of that.

      So, for a second time, I owed my life to him. The Federation didn't teach the citizens of the domed cities of Earth diving or swimming, and, anyway, I had been knocked unconscious by the impact with the water.

      Worse, though, far worse than the sickness and the pain, was the knowledge of failure. Not only had I lost my one lead to Vila and Cally, but the Fraternity was now forewarned. Riordan, if he was as shrewd as I suspected, would find a way to blame me for Caan's death... with a rider that he did not know how much the Fraternity agent had told me. This planet would soon be too hot to hold an inadequately informed human and his accompanying wi'h.

      The Fraternity did not use wi'h, so it was impossible for Silkay to get me the sort of information I had on the Guild and the Cloud Worlds. All I had to go on was what Caan and Riordan had said. The story that Cally and Vila had been shipped off-planet was obviously untrue. I could only pray that the one about them being dead was equally false.

      I closed my eyes to shut out the dizzying passage of white-capped waves beneath us and rolling cloud layers above. I could not stay on Wery - but how could I go back to Avon with this news?

      The Fraternity. The Fraternity had thwarted me at every turn since their agent released the links at Scitech Central, yet the organisation remained a mystery. I knew too little about them. Once, I had thought that unimportant, believing the real powers in the Cloud to be Scitech and the Guild. Perhaps I had been wrong. I would have to find out, and that meant a visit to Scitech Central. Chev Manster would know as much as an outsider could know about the Fraternity. His paranoia would have seen to it.

      "Scitech Central..." I told Silkay. "Go to Scitech Central... fast as the Moonshadow can take us..."

      Then the world melted into misery, then, mercifully, into darkness.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

The stolen shuttle landed, without fuss, at the Scitech Central spaceport, in an area reserved for craft on official Scitech business. Wi'h being the obedient slaves they were, no-one thought to question a craft supposedly piloted by one of them.

      "Vila and I are going to try and take a Guild spaceship," Cally announced. "What do you wish to do, Ronjat?"

      Ronjat considered. "It is with people like you that the only hope of freedom for the wi'h can lie. I wish to stay with you. So do Denli and Lenu. You said that you would help us, Cally."

      "And I mean to keep that promise, but only if you wish me to do so." Cally had little hope of success, but the plight of the wi'h angered her, and it would be good to have allies again. "However, I cannot answer for Vila and Lanrir, or for my other friends, when we find them."

      Vila was perturbed by Cally's decision, but he only said, "We stay with Cally, don't we, Lanrir?"

      The icecat rumbled agreement.

      "You know, Cally, whatever ship we grab, we're going to need a pilot."

      "I think I can manage. Jenna's training was good. And Ronjat and the others dare not go out into the spaceport; some human could give them orders or ask them awkward questions which they would have to answer. I think that Vila and I had better go alone. Ronjat, I suggest you take the shuttle and hold a parking orbit at... er..." She turned to check the navigation computer. "...these co-ordinates. If we manage to take a ship we'll join you there and bring you on board. I think you'd better take Lanrir with you."

      Lanrir gave a soft, menacing growl.

      "You would attract too much attention here," Cally told him firmly, adding a mental rider to reinforce the order. "Ronjat, if we do not make rendezvous within seven days, I would be grateful if you would take Lanrir back to his home planet. Will you do that?"

      "Of course."

      "Good. Vila and I will take the guns, as you cannot use them. Now, listen, all of you. If Vila and I do not rejoin you, you must consider yourselves free agents, and do all you can to retain that freedom. You may consider that an order, if you wish," she added, with a smile. "Come on, Vila."

      They stepped outside into hot, noonday sun. Cally looked about her, shielding her eyes against the glare and the heat haze. Vila shifted his feet uncomfortably on the hot composite. He had once been on Luna, and only there had he seen so many spacecraft in one place, but here, instead of the black sky, the steadfastly glowing stars, the huge, blue-white planet above the barren grey plain and the spare technology of Lunaport, there was a sky of the deepest blue, flecked with blown rags of cloud, with the ghostly noonday discs of the Hoop worlds distorted by the heat shimmer, looking down on a strange mixture of human and alien technology.

      Cally led the way towards the main terminal. According to Denli, the spaceport was strictly segregated, for the Guild did not want its ships under Scitech scrutiny. This seemed stupid to Cally, as Scitech had obtained the ships in the first place through use of the Scoop, and the Guild still had to come to Scitech for their own spare parts, as well as trade goods for the Cloud Worlds. Anyway, Scitech had conceded the right of the Guild to build their own Freeport, which they ruled themselves. The terminal building was the dividing line between Guild and Scitech jurisdiction and, once inside, Cally and Vila felt happier as they blended with the purposeful crowds. Avon had said that Scitech Central was the axis point of the Cloud civilizations. Seeing this spaceport, a small town in its own right, Cally knew that he had been right. They should never have left with Ardron. Tarrant had made a bad mistake. Working from Scitech, they would have been safer and in a better position to find a starship of their own...

      Vila touched her arm. "Look."

      Cally came out of her reverie to find herself standing before a vast observation window, curving away for several hundred metres to either side. Beyond lay the landing field, and the Guild's interstellar ships.

      "It's like a museum," Vila whispered. "I wonder what Jenna would say if she could see that lot. Some of those ships must be four hundred years out of date."

      "But some of them are quite modern. Look, Vila, that's one of the latest Federation destroyers. I remember Avon saying that they have a first class computer control system, and that they almost fly themselves. We could certainly pilot one "

      "I've never actually stolen a spaceship before," Vila said brightly.

      "Then it must be the only thing you haven't."

      "No, there are one or two others. After all, I'm not old enough-" He broke off, grabbed Cally, and swung her about. "Look out!"

      "What is it?"

      "The uniformed party behind us... no, don't look round. You can see their reflections in the window. Remember the man Chan brought in after the link attack - Security Chief Munster or Masters or something..."

      "We must get out of here," Cally hissed urgently. "Take my arm, Vila. Walk out of here casually... and keep your back to them."

      "That's what I was trying to do."

      "Come on. Slowly."

      Together, they strolled through the crowded concourse. Cally felt as if eyes were boring into her back, yet she did not dare glance behind her. They passed through the great doors, and saw that, ahead of them, the way divided, Cally decided to go with the largest stream of people, hoping they were heading for the spaceport exit.

      Then two guards appeared from nowhere, barring their way. Cally and Vila spun, ready to run, only to find themselves face to face with Chev Manster and two more security guards.

      Cally had never thought more swiftly in her life. Responding to Vila's obvious dismay with a single curt command, //Smile, fool,// she moved towards Manster, beaming with delight. "Thank Valska! We've been trying to find someone to report to-"

      "Report to?" Manster was taken aback.

      "Vila and I have only just managed to get back here and we were afraid that the Guild were still following us. They've been searching for us ever since we escaped to Hinkal. They kidnapped us-"

      Manster finally regained his equilibrium. "Where is Avon?"

      "We don't know. We've been hoping that he'd be here to meet us."

      "Tarrant? Mellanby?"

      "The Guild recaptured them."

      "You escaped to Hinkal, you say," Manster purred. "So how did you get back here?"

      By now Vila had caught up with the situation. "We stowed away," he announced. "It wasn't fun, you know, and we're very hungry, and thirsty." He looked hopefully at the Security Chief, as if expecting him to pull a bottle from his pocket.

      Manster shook his head theatrically. "You'll come with me," he said. "You have a great deal of explaining to do. I wonder if your imaginations will be quite as inventive after a few days without sleep. We'll see, soon enough."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

I felt the slight shudder as Moonshadow hit the landing pad and then the soft noise of the engines died too. I rolled slowly off the bunk, allowing myself the luxury of a groan as my bruises and stiffening muscles reacted to the movement. I rubbed my shoulder, then my eyes. Lord, I was so tired. I'd dozed only fitfully; seeing Pala Riordan writhing on the floor, hearing Caan's scream as he went over the side of the seahaven - there had been no-one to pick him up out of the ocean, either - and other, older nightmares... Gan lying dead under a beam in Central Control, Jenna under torture on Horizon, Bran Foster facing Federation guns, the gloating look on Travis' face as he ordered the massacre of my rebel group, back on Earth, all those years ago. Most of all, though, there was the knowledge of failure... Cally, Vila, Avon... I had failed them all...

      Angrily, I put the memories aside for a while. I had work to do. I found my jacket and shoes and went to join Silkay.

      "I called Manster's office," he said. "They said he might be able to see you tomorrow."

      "He'll see me today if I have to break down his door," I told him, as we stepped into the sunlight together. I halted, blinking in the glare reflecting off the control tower and the terminal buildings. I felt faint, and was grateful for Silkay's unobtrusive, steadying hand.

      Then I felt a tremor of shock. In front of me, in one of the priority bays, was a shuttle. Very few people in Scitech were allowed to use these bays and I was sure than none of them owned a shuttle with that particular, idiosyncratic, battered appearance. I blinked rapidly, trying to focus on the identification.

      Yes. That was one of my personal shuttles - the one I had put down rather too heavily on my first attempt at landing. I had left it on Firel.

      Avon... Oh, Lord, couldn't... couldn't he just... just for once have kept faith with me?

      "Silkay," I said, "I want to go to the wrecked Barrier field generators."

      "Yes. If that is what you want."

      "Now."

      "What about Chev Manster?"

      "Damn Manster! It's Avon I want to talk to."

      

Family Reunion

Avon's dark head and Stali's white-crested one bent together over the exposed innards of the machine at the very heart of the Barrier generating system, deep within the underground tunnels under Scitech Central. Orac rested nearby, switched on and ticking quietly.

      "The generator overrides are attached to the E-space moderators by exetium links along the field lines," Avon explained.

      "Are they activated?" Orac asked.

      "They appear to be," Stali told him, cautiously.

      "Can you check that with the Scitech Central computers?"

      "I am scanning them."

      "And I," said another voice; human, and angry, "am waiting for you to tell me what you are doing here."

      "Blake!" Human and wi'h made the identification together, and it was together that they turned to face the newcomer. Oddly, it was the mobile human face that showed the least shock, and its owner rose quickly to his feet so that he could meet Blake's eyes on a level.

      Even Avon, not normally very perceptive of other people's moods, could see that the other man was on the edge of losing his temper; his face flushed as well as bruised, eyes fiery within their dark rings of exhaustion.

      "Nice identification," he said. "Your eyesight's still perfect... only you didn't expect to see me here, did you, Avon?"

      "No," Avon replied quietly. "No, I didn't. Did you find Vila and Cally?"

      Blake looked as if he had been slapped in the face. "No, I didn't find Vila and Cally. Your so-called friend, Riordan, sold them out to the Fraternity." His voice began to rise. "There was a Fraternity agent - I took him prisoner but he's dead - he said that Vila and Cally were dead too - I was going to use him to get into Fraternity HQ - but Riordan killed him..."

      "Riordan killed him?" Avon had had problems following Blake's disjointed account, and this last phrase simply did not make sense.

      "To stop the Fraternity finding out that he'd talked to me because I hurt his wife - hurt him too... Damn you, Avon, why did you leave Firel? Just... just to spite me?"

      "Don't be stupid. I came here to check the Barrier generators. Listen, Blake, we've found out that-"

      "I don't care what you've found!" Blake shouted. He grabbed Avon by the shoulders and shook him violently. "I trusted you, do you hear me-?"

      Avon shrugged him away. "And I trusted you to find Vila and Cally."

      "I know that!" Blake yelled back. "I know it..." His voice broke on the words. "And... you could... could have killed yourself... My fault... Oh, Lord... it's all my fault..." He leaned against the side of the generator and pressed his face down on his arms, his body heaving with dry sobs.

      Avon stood watching, frozen. "Blake..." he said, helplessly, "there's no need... for this... display."

      Blake didn't appear to hear him. He slid slowly down the flat metal face of the machine to end up in a heap on the floor, where he lay crying with the abandon of a child.

      Avon had known Blake for four years, and he had spent much of that time trying to break him, without any sign of success; but now Blake lay broken at his feet, and it hurt. He had come to rely on Blake's strength, without knowing he relied on it. Now that strength had gone, the world, Blake, and himself were somehow different.

      He tried again. "Blake, it wasn't your fault. I know that. I didn't manage to save Vila and Cally... why should I blame you for failing too?" It cost him much to make the admission, but Blake did not seem to notice. His helpless sobbing continued. Stali was looking at Avon as if he expected him to be able to stop it somehow...

      Somehow.

      Avon looked down at Blake and felt contempt, and unwilling pity, and anger, that Blake should also make him feel helpless...

      Blake helped me, Avon thought. He's very good at helping other people, but he can't help himself, can he? And he won't accept help from me... or will he? I wanted...

      Refusing to resolve that thought, Avon knelt down beside Blake and put his hand tentatively on his shoulder. There was no reaction, but he could feel him shaking.

      What the hell do I do now?

      Unwelcome memory answered, memories of his own recent illness, and the comfort Blake had given to him so easily. It was something he shrank from...

      The reassurance of touch. Mankind's oldest method of expression... It was a weapon Blake had used against him right from the start... but...

      With a muttered curse, Avon moved the hand on Blake's shoulder around his back, circling him with his arm, and the other man turned suddenly against him and clung to him.

      Well, he didn't have any choice now.

      "Shhh... It wasn't your fault... Please, Blake. Quiet now..." He patted Blake's back awkwardly, feeling deeply embarrassed under the steady, golden stare of the wi'h.

      Stali met his glare with what seemed to be both understanding and approval. "I will set a watch," he said, and slipped away.

      It seemed a very long time to Avon before Blake was finally quiet and, even then, he lay shuddering in Avon's grip for many minutes before he finally raised his head to look at his friend. His face was tear-stained, tortured, but there was hope in his eyes - and trust.

      Avon's face, on the other hand, was impassive, but when he spoke his voice was gentle: "Blake, what are you doing to yourself?"

      "Hurting... hurting people." Blake's voice was hoarse and cracked. "Oh Lord, Avon, why do I hurt people so much?"

      Avon wanted to say: "Don't be stupid, Blake. Why should it matter if you do hurt other people? You're wallowing in guilt again," but this time he held the cold, rational words back.

      What he did say was: "It's all right, Blake. I don't blame you. Cally and Vila won't blame you. No-one's blaming you, except yourself. Don't be harder on yourself than you'd be on them, or me." He eased Blake into a more comfortable position and leaned back against the side of the generator. It would be a long night, but he was oddly content, pleased with his own actions... and Blake slept, finally at peace.

      

      

Gorsky settled back into the soft chair with a feeling of relief. The planet chosen for his meeting with Valonia had a higher gravity than was normally maintained on the Guild ships and even the few minutes of formalities during which both sides had been checked for weapons had tired him. Gorsky did not like planets at the best of times, and would rather have arranged for this crucial meeting to take place on a starship than in this square, austere room in an office complex that was probably a Fraternity front, but Valonia had agreed to board the Ney for a demonstration, and he had had to return the courtesy by carrying on the resulting discussion on her home ground.

      The head of the Fraternity swept into the room, followed by a dark-skinned, fair-haired woman, who took up station behind her chair as Valonia seated herself.

      Handsome woman, Valonia. The shelly sheen of the wall behind her made a perfect backdrop for her striking dark beauty. How old was she? She did not look forty, but she had been a power in the Cloud since Gorsky had taken his first command, over twenty years ago. Her expression was impassive, as he had expected it to be. Valonia was a very shrewd operator.

      "Well?" he asked smugly. "What do you think of it?"

      "Impressive," said Valonia, not looking impressed. "Mellanby has achieved a real advance in your weaponry in a very short time, and with what must have been very poor facilities. Scitech were wise to offer her a contract."

      Gorsky's mouth hardened, "Your spy network is most effective."

      Valonia smiled.

      The woman standing behind her, whose name appeared to be Gooma, said, "No spies were required. Your men took Mellanby from our base on Hinkal. Mellanby is a weapons technician. Less than one month afterwards, you show us a new weapon far beyond the capabilities of anyone in the Guild to construct. We would have been stupid not to make the connection."

      Gorsky did not like that reply, but had no answer to it.

      "You want my help," Valonia went on. "What can you offer me in return, Admiral?"

      "Why do you think I want your help?"

      "Stop trying to sound stupid, Admiral. You asked for this meeting and you would not have done that or demonstrated your new weapon for me if I had not been part of your plans. I appreciate frankness, Admiral, and I would be grateful if you would stop playing games. You have this new type of weapon soon more than one, perhaps - and you do not have either the technicians or the materials to build it in quantity. You believe that the Fraternity can provide you with both. So, I repeat: what do you offer in return?"

      "An alliance," Gorsky answered crisply, realising that further prevarication would only weaken his position. "The Guild has interstellar transport, fighting strength, and Mellanby's new weapon. We control all interplanetary trade, which gives us immense strategic power, and we are invulnerable in interstellar space. You, on the other hand, have the only technical expertise outside Scitech. Not much, but more than we have. And you also have the skills and organisation the Guild requires within all the other Cloud powers, even Scitech Central itself. Of course, with our help, it would be much easier for your agents to travel from world to world, obtaining what we both require."

      "You have power in space. We have power on all the Cloud Worlds and in the Hoop."

      "Precisely. That is why an alliance makes sense for both of us, Valonia. We are both dominated by Scitech; the Guild is shackled, deprived of new spaceships, the Fraternity persecuted, outlawed on every world but, together, we have to means to dominate the Cloud... something that neither of us can do alone."

      "And what do you expect Scitech's reaction to be?" Valonia asked.

      "That's not important. Scitech is confined to the Hoop. With these new weapons of Mellanby's, the balance of power will swing in our favour in the rest of the Cloud and Scitech had better do... as we ask."

      "It is impossible to attack Scitech and Scitech knows it. They won't listen to our threats, Gorsky. I must warn you that your plan seems undeveloped and foolhardy to me. I would need to be convinced..."

      "Scitech isn't invulnerable!" Gorsky shot back. "With our new weapons we can-" He stopped himself and spoke more calmly. "With your help we can stockpile our technical needs and lay siege to Scitech's supply lines. We simply cut off their food and wait until they surrender."

      "Is this part of your plan for our alliance, Gorsky?" Valonia queried sharply. "Because I am not sure I can agree to something that risky."

      "No. No. That... might... come later. Our first aim must be the domination of the Cloud Worlds. Do you agree?"

      "There are details to be discussed. Safeguards, for both sides. But yes, I agree, in principle, to our alliance." She stood and offered her hand.

      Gorsky looked surprised. He had expected hours of detailed bargaining but, challenged, he rose, rather heavily, and gripped Valonia's hand. "Agreed."

      "Good. Gooma will bring us a drink to celebrate our new alliance. She will be my negotiator from now on."

      "Fine. Fine," Gorsky replied heartily. "er... one thing, Valonia. I don't really want to bring up that unfortunate business on Hinkal..."

      "That is over. We were enemies, we are allies. The past is forgotten. No explanations or apologies, but if you have a question to ask, ask it."

      "Yes. I'd just as soon forget it, but Mellanby and Tarrant asked me to find out something. Their friend, Avon, who was killed in the battle between us on Hinkal... they had to leave his body and Tarrant, in particular, seemed somewhat concerned that it had had what he called 'a decent burial'."

      "We are not barbarians, Admiral," Valonia said coldly. "The dead were all treated with respect."

      "Just so, Valonia. I assured them that that would be the case. Now, what about this toast...?"

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

"Easy now..." The voice was Avon's and it was the first thing that I heard as I woke. As I opened my eyes he asked, "Feeling better?"

      "Yes." I sat up, shoving aside the blanket - where the hell had that come from? - and noticed, for the first time, that we were still in the curving Barrier generator tunnel. Avon was sitting watching me, his face impassive.

      Stali joined us and offered me a cup full of pale green liquid.

      "Drink it," Avon ordered. "Don't try to talk until you've finished it." He then turned his attention to Stali. "No report from Silkay?"

      "No. I am beginning to wonder what could have happened to delay him. I will go and look."

      He left, but Avon remained, sitting silently, watching me drink. The liquid was cool and slightly acid, unfamiliar, but I trusted Avon and Stali too much to worry about what it was. Despite its coldness, it warmed me, and gave me a feeling of strength, sweeping away my headache and the weakness in my limbs, though I still felt mentally exhausted and dull witted as I puzzled over the problem of what I was going to say to Avon.

      As it happened, he spoke first. "Silkay gave me the details of what happened on Wery. I do not see how you can blame yourself. Firstly, if you had left for Wery when you first discovered that Cally and Vila had gone there, you would not have found them, for the Fraternity already had them. Secondly, you had to question Riordan, for you had no other lead to follow. Personally, I am surprised that you managed to obtain any information from him. Your actions were perfectly rational, save that you should have shot Riordan and his party when they attacked you and Caan. But you are what you are, and such an action would probably have been impossible for you. Thirdly, it is highly unlikely that Caan would have taken you to Fraternity headquarters and, if he had, you could not have penetrated it alone. I was very lucky on Hinkal, Blake. Lucky, and almost certain that the Fraternity wanted to take me alive. It gave me an edge that you would not have had.

      "Finally, with the Fraternity warned, you had to leave Hinkal. They would have killed you at the first opportunity. No guilt, Blake, except in your own mind."

      "Have you finished?" I demanded.

      "Not quite. If you ever say one more word to me about exerting myself after injury, I am going to be very angry indeed. Silkay does not understand how you make it here before you collapsed, but then he does not appreciate your capacity for self-punishment, or your willpower. I do. That does not mean to say that I approve of them."

      "Now have you finished?"

      "For the moment."

      "Good. Because I have something to say."

      "Yes?" There was the slightest note of apprehension in his voice.

      "Yes. Thank you, Avon. Thank you for being here and for understanding. I'm not sure how I've survived without you for the last eighteen months."

      He looked rather taken aback, perhaps even slightly embarrassed. "You seemed to have managed perfectly well," he said.

      "No, I just stopped feeling."

      "Sentiment is a killer, Blake."

      "Is it?" I asked. "Sentiment made me bring you from Terminal to the Hoop. It took me to Hinkal in time to save you. You are alive because of sentiment, Avon." I knew that I had trapped him. He could not deny the logic without admitting that it was sentiment that had sent him into danger in both cases and that, he would not do. I gave him time to realise this, then said, "I needed you, and I'm deeply grateful, but why did you leave Firel? It's dangerous here, and breaking the Yard Barriers is not that urgent."

      Avon was now plainly uncomfortable. "I was curious, and I..." He broke off, then started again. "Did you know, Blake, that the Barrier here did not 'fail'. A timing device activated and shut it down. Everything here is intact."

      "You didn't answer the question."

      "Aren't you at least interested?" Avon was suddenly angry. "You don't want to let me help you in any way at all, do you?"

      Suddenly, I understood, and cursed myself for not seeing it earlier. "Not want help? Avon, I want all the help you're willing to give: personally, professionally..."

      "I've heard you say that before, but your actions speak louder than your words.."

      "What did I do last night? Tell you to go away? Is that all that's bothering you, Avon, that when you offered me help back on Firel I rejected it? Look, I'd just spent about twenty days worrying frantically about you and therefore was over-protective. If you give me another chance, I'll try to make sure it won't happen again."

      Avon let out a long breath. "'What is between us is emotional' is right. You're the only person in the universe who can make me feel as if I've been scrambled by a malfunctioning teleport. Yes, damn you. I'll give you another chance... but how the hell do you know these things without reading my mind?"

      "How do you know the way a strange computer functions? I've seen you working far too often not to know that you have a particular genius for electronic machines that transcends conscious logic. It must be a parallel subconscious process to the rational, educated one that your conscious mind follows. Well, that's the way I am with people. Some of what I do is conscious, rational, what you think of as manipulation - but below that is an instinctive understanding. Intuition. Yours works with machines; mine with people. Don't think of them as opposed, but complementary. I'm a good engineer, but I'll never be in your class because I can't shift that extra gear to your operating level. You can deal with people, but it's hard work for you. You have to use logic, because your intuition doesn't work in that direction, and that makes it even more difficult because people aren't logical. Mostly, of course, you don't even bother to try.

      "Don't you see, Avon? That's why we ought... have... to stay together, even without this... crazy friendship of ours. We need each other to function."

      "At a higher level than anyone else. Super-efficient."

      "Yes. You're like... a... a part of me that's been missing. It's almost frightening. We've done some impossible things."

      "Yes."

      "Want to try for some more?"

      "I'm not sure I have any choice," Avon said sharply, but he was smiling. "I'm not sure I've had any choice from the moment I met you on the London."

      There was a long and, on my part, at least, a very happy silence. There wasn't anything more to say.

      When I did speak I deliberately changed the subject: "Well, I came here to see Chev Manster, to find out more about the Fraternity, so I suppose I'd better go and do that."

      "Orac can help you with the Fraternity."

      "He could, but you need him here."

      "He has the capacity to do both."

      "Then..." I looked at my watch. "Stars! How long have I been asleep?"

      "Long enough for me to get bored."

      "I'd better go. Manster said he would see me today, and I still want to hear what he can tell me about the Fraternity. If you've been awake all this time, I suggest that you borrow this blanket and get some sleep. You've had a hard time too."

      "All right. If it'll stop you feeling guilty."

      I touched his shoulder fleetingly. "It stops me feeling worried."

      "If I were you," he added, picking up the blanket, "I'd wash your face before you see Manster. Stali will show you where."

      "Avon..." I began threateningly, but he rolled himself up in his blanket with his back to me. I laughed. "Have a good sleep," I told him, getting to my feet. "I should be back before you wake up."

      There was no response, and I started walking in the direction in which Stali had disappeared. Then I spotted both him and Silkay hurrying up the tunnel towards me. You did not often see wi'h run, but my friends were running - very fast. I began to run myself.

      "Blake!" Silkay called. "I have news."

      "Quietly, Silkay," I said, as we met. "Avon's asleep..." I looked back towards him, but he had not stirred.

      "But we have found your friends, Blake."

      "What!?" I think my chin must have bounced a couple of times on the floor.

      "The ones called Vila Restal and Cally were picked up thirty four hours ago at the spaceport terminal here on Scitech Central. They are being held by Manster."

      "Have they been harmed?"

      "No. Not yet. The Director is holding Manster in check, according to their wi'h."

      It seemed impossible. After all the heartache and all the problems, the very last thing that either Avon or I had expected had happened, and Cally and Vila were within easy reach.

      "You'd better wake Avon," I ordered. "Tell him all you've told me and that I'm quite sure I can get Cally and Vila turned over to me. Point out that if he tries to help he may interfere with that. All of you had better go back to the Moonshadow. I'll contact you there." Even as I spoke, I started to run down the long tunnel, towards the lift that led to the surface. This time, I did not intend to be too late to help Cally and Vila.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

"I understand now why you brought me here from Hinkal," said Gooma to Valonia, as soon as they were alone. "This situation did not appear in the calculations."

      "We underestimated Mellanby. That was my fault. I was too involved with finding Avon," Valonia admitted. "I do not like this development, Gooma."

      "We've been working towards an alliance with the Guild. It's in the overall strategy calculations."

      "Yes, but an alliance on our terms, not on Gorsky's. We're building enough influence on the High Command Council to take over within three years, but Gorsky is a wild card. He's clever, but he's a hothead. Our plan saw him controlled by our sympathisers and agents on the HCC, but now he will dominate that, using Mellanby and our alliance. His personal power is growing and it may be too late to stop him.

      "Assassination?"

      "Only as a last resort. It would be very difficult - well nigh impossible for he protects himself well - and we might not be able to pay enough in bribes to keep our part in his death a secret. If we were identified as his killers it would completely upset the balance of power and produce an emotional reaction against us which would set back our plans for decades. We would lose much of our internal power in the Guild. Besides, I do not want to waste Gorsky's intelligence and initiative. Which is one of the reasons I accepted the offer of alliance. As Gorsky's partners, we may be able to exercise enough influence over him to stop this crazy plan to attack Scitech.."

      "It would be... good... to capture Scitech sooner than we planned."

      "It is also impossible. A frontal attack on Scitech by the Guild would result in the almost total destruction of the Guild fleet. If that happened, the Cloud economy would collapse. We don't have enough ships to hold trade together."

      "With the Guild gone, Scitech would be able to start building ships."

      "Which would take a long time, and then they would have to train crew to fly them. They could scoop more ships, but how would they control them? The situation would be unmanageable. And there's another point; Gorsky's first target is going to be the so-called 'pirates'. Our ships. You'd better order all our vessels to retreat to the Mare's Nest, Gooma. He won't send his ships into that."

      "We can't venture very far into it ourselves."

      "Far enough to shield them, no more. We can manage without our ships for a short time. This new alliance includes an offer of transport whenever we need it, openly. We will accept any help that the Guild will give. One of the conditions of the alliance is to be a ship at my command; take note of that. Meanwhile, we must drain off some of Gorsky's power. Arrange it so that the woman Mellanby is of no further use to him."

      "How?" Gooma asked, not questioning that it could be done, but only the method by which they would achieve it.

      "Mellanby must become our agent, and our first step must be to convince her that the Guild are her enemies."

      "How?" Gooma repeated.

      "What better way than by the unprovoked murder of a friend?"

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

Like all bureaucracies, the one at Scitech Central could be exasperating. The first thing I discovered was that Manster had cancelled his appointment with me.

      Well, the direct approach was probably the wrong one, anyway, given Manster's personal dislike of Van Ricel. It was without much regret that I made my way to the Director's office. I had to pressurise a couple of aides but, finally, I was allowed into the inner sanctum.

      Jake Harum was already there, in close conversation with the Director.

      "I'm sorry to interrupt," I began.

      "Not at all, Van," said Jake, grinning. "We were just wondering if we should contact you. Did you hear that two of our errant birds have flown back to the roost?"

      "Uh? Oh, I see. That's why I'm here, Director. I apologise for the intrusion, but-"

      "Not at all, Van. What's happening on the Yard Barrier project? You seem to have been out of touch recently." There was shrewd calculation in her eyes. She might well be growing suspicious. It seemed to be time to feed her a sop.

      "The reason I came back to Central was to check out some Builders' technology with the computers. We may be on the verge of a breakthrough. Three months, and I hope you'll see results you could hardly have imagined... but that's not why I'm here. Cally and Restal. I'd like them released into my custody. I think they have information I can use."

      The Director's face gave nothing away as she touched a control on her desk. Within seconds, Manster's form appeared in the air.

      He did not look pleased.

      "Well?" he snarled, then, recognising his caller, "Sorry, Director, but-"

      "I have Van Ricel here, Chief. He wants your prisoners, Restal and Cally, released into his custody."

      "He-" Manster was enraged. He fairly gobbled. "Damn it, Director, I have to find out what Cally and Restal were plotting. They're spies for the Guild, I'm sure of it, and I'll bet that Ricel is in it with them."

      The Director ignored the accusation and asked, "Have you made any progress with the interrogation?"

      "No. They're still insisting that they were kidnapped by the Guild-"

      "As I told you when they vanished," I interposed.

      "-and that they came here of their own free will. If you would give me the authority to use stronger and more effective methods, Director, I'd soon break down that ridiculous story,"

      The Director looked at me questioningly.

      Cally, I thought, I love you. I said, "You don't use strong arm methods on people who are basically on our side, Director."

      "They won't tell us anything about Avon," Manster protested.

      I smiled. "Won't or can't?"

      "They say that they don't know where he is," Jake put in, helpfully.

      The Director turned to me. "It was Avon we wanted, Van, Avon we expended Scoop energy and time to bring here, and Avon we have not got."

      This was the moment to play my trump card.

      "Director," I said, "there is something that I must tell you, but I am not sure that even Jake and Chev should hear it."

      Manster spluttered and snarled. Jake just smiled.

      The Director said, "You know that Jake and Chev are trustworthy, Van. If you have information, give it."

      "When the Guild kidnapped Liberator's crew, some of them managed to escape. Avon, like Cally and Restal, made his way to Scitech-"

      "He what?" Manster bellowed.

      "But because he realised that there must have been a traitor here, someone who betrayed his whereabouts to the Guild, he wasn't sure who he could trust. Then he remembered my name and that you, Director, had said that I had been instrumental in bringing him here, that we were to have worked together. He decided to take a chance on me. He got one of the wi'h to contact me for him, and I agreed to keep his presence a secret." I smiled at the Director, then at Chev Manster. "Why do you think I'm so confident about breaking through the Yard Barriers, Director? Avon is all that everyone has said of him. The electronics involved are incredibly complex, but he seems-"

      "Prove it!" Manster howled. "It's a fine story, Ricel, but just prove it!"

      "With your permission, Director...?" I gestured towards the controls on the desk. The Director nodded, so I came forward and opened a comspek channel, keying in the Moonshadow's special code.

      Silkay's image appeared beside Manster's.

      "Silkay, put Avon on, will you?"

      "At once, sir." Silkay could see all of us, including Manster, and he knew better than anyone that he must give nothing away. His face disappeared as he stepped out of range, to be replaced, seconds later, by Avon's. The Builders' communicators did not transmit background images so I was not sure if he was still in the generator tunnels or on board Moonshadow, though I hoped it was the latter.

      "Yes?" he asked, looking tired and irritable. I hoped that he was fully alert.

      "I had to tell the Director that you were with me, or she would not consider releasing Cally and Restal to me."

      Avon suddenly became very cool. "I thought that you said you could arrange that easily, Ricel."

      "It's what I'm trying to do."

      Avon looked straight at the Director and said, "We had an agreement, Madame."

      "We did. We do. Are you happy with Ricel's treatment?"

      "Very," he snapped. "Ricel, when are we going to get back to work?"

      "As soon as possible." I looked at the Director, "What about Cally and Restal?"

      "They're yours," she said, ignoring Manster's angry protests. "They're at Security Headquarters. You can pick them up there, Van. Avon, welcome back to Scitech."

      "Pick me up here at the spaceport," said Avon, and vanished before I had finished my assurance that I would co-operate.

      "With your leave, Director, I'll get back to doing what you employ me to do," I said, bowing my way out. Chev was still making angry noises and I was glad to leave it to the Director to calm him.

      Jake followed me. "You're a deep one, Van," he observed, eyeing me interestedly.

      "No. Avon is."

      "He certainly must be. Kidnapped by the Guild, he escapes, gets back to the Hoop, and contacts you. How? He must have come back on a Guild ship..."

      "Perhaps. Perhaps not."

      "Oh well, I suppose I'll find out what you're up to in the end. Only... Van, remember who your friends are."

      "You will... and I will, Jake. I always remember my friends."

      

      

"So where are they?" I asked Manster - in the flesh, this time ignoring the fury on his face.

      "I'll find out what you're up to, Ricel, if it's the last thing I do. And you, Avon. If you trust him, you're a fool."

      "Cally and Restal," I repeated. "Where are they?"

      Before he could answer - if, indeed, he had been going to - he was interrupted by one of his own assistants. "Sir, the Director just called. She wants you to report to her, in person. She's also called in Deputy Unon."

      I had never known anyone actually grind their teeth before, but I finally identified the noise coming from Manster when I saw his jaws moving. Unon was ruthless, ambitious, and had coveted Manster's job for years. It had not occurred to me that my actions might shake Manster's position, but I would not be sorry if the Director decided to replace him. He had been my enemy ever since I had arrived at Scitech.

      Now, he snarled and bounced down towards his groundcar.

      "Where are they?" I asked the security officer, who was looking rather too closely at Avon, who was obeying my request for silence though glowering at both of us from under lowered eyebrows.

      "Restal and Cally? They're in the holding area, sir. Waiting for you."

      "Under surveillance?"

      "Yes, sir."

      "Cancel it."

      "Yes, sir." He led the way into the surveillance section, where we soon identified Cally and Vila on one of the screens. They were sitting together, looking out of a window above the gardens. Both seemed well, but tired.

      The picture on the screen soon vanished under the officer's control. "The Director has ordered that we forget their existence. It is forgotten. They're all yours."

      "Thank you." I signalled to Avon to follow me out of the room. I led the way down two flights of steps, opened the door to the holding area for him, and stepped back and to one side as I did so. Cally had heard the noise of the door. She turned, her face showing shock, then a joy that gave it almost transcendent beauty. Her gasp made Vila turn too.

      "Avon!" he yelped.

      As if it were a trigger, the word set Cally in motion. She and Vila raced each other to him, but Cally reached him first, to fling her arms round him. Vila, only just behind her, almost knocked them both off their feet.

      Avon held them both. Though I could not see his face, even his back was deeply expressive of emotion.

      I turned and walked slowly down towards the garden, fighting my own feelings. I did not entirely trust the promise of no surveillance and so, in an effort to protect my Ricel identity, had decided to let Avon greet Cally and Vila. Their joy on seeing him had brought back other memories, including an early conclusion I had come to when I had first brought them to Scitech; that Cally and Vila now belonged to Avon, in that he was their leader, as I had once been. I could not destroy that special relationship. Would not. I had no right to intrude. No rights at all.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

"Of all the stupid... Do you realise how worried Cally's been? How could you leave us alone like that? Just what I expected of you, mind you," Vila babbled. "How did you expect us to carry on with the act without you? I bet you vanished just to get out of it..."

      Cally spoke directly into Avon's mind. //I am so glad to see you,//

      Avon finally found his voice. "You fools! What are you doing here? I told you to stay under cover with Riordan."

      "We tried!" Vila retorted, letting Avon go. "We weren't going to stick out our necks for you, you know. We were getting along just fine, when the Fraternity decided we could give them some information on your whereabouts. Not that we had any to give, seeing as you'd skipped off without so much as a word. They didn't believe us." He looked pained "I can't imagine why."

      "I can," Avon told him promptly. "They took one look at your 'innocent' expression."

      "Typical. No appreciation of my finer qualities."

      "You haven't got any for them to appreciate."

      Smiling, Cally finally interrupted the exchange of insults. "Avon, are you a prisoner too?"

      "No. None of us are prisoners, thanks to... wait a minute." It had suddenly occurred to Avon that Cally and Vila should have suffered an even greater and more pleasant shock than the one caused by his own appearance. He looked back to the door. It was still open, but there was no sign of Blake.

      "Where the devil has he gone?"

      "Who?"

      Avon's expression suddenly hooded, but Cally had the impression that he was holding his reply back with the greatest of difficulty. "Come with me and find out," he suggested.

      Outside, in the corridor, they ran into a guard. Cally and Vila both tensed, but Avon stopped him to ask, "Did anyone come down here past you?"

      "You mean Ricel? He went down into the garden, sir."

      "Thank you. Come on." Avon led the way down the stairs.

      "Who is this Ricel, anyway?" Vila asked. "There was this character who kept asking us about him. He wouldn't believe us when we said we'd never heard of him. Mind you, he also thought we were Guild agents. I mean, can you see me as a Guild agent?"

      "I don't suppose that even the Guild would be stupid enough to try and use you for espionage. I doubt if you could remember which side you were on."

      "Well, I wouldn't change sides as often as you would. Cally, he's insulting me again. I don't know why I was so pleased to see him in the first place."

      "Were you?" Avon asked interestedly.

      "No, of course I wasn't..."

      They came out of the building and into the garden, only to be halted by Avon's hands on their arms as they turned into a small paved area.

      There was a stone bench, and a man sitting on it with his back to them, staring down at his clasped hands, his head bowed. There was something familiar about him. Cally felt instinctively that it only needed a tiny movement, a single word, to bring back something important that she had somehow forgotten.

      "Aren't you even going to say, 'Hello'?" Avon asked.

      The man turned.

      For a moment, neither Cally nor Vila could believe their eyes. Then they moved.

      Blake was never quite sure how it happened but finally he became aware that both Vila and Cally were in his arms, and that he was looking at a grinning Avon over their heads. Their eyes met for a long moment, and what was exchanged in that look only increased Blake's already overflowing happiness, so much that he had to hang on to Vila and Cally as much for support as from affection.

      Cally looked up at him with tears on her cheeks and her eyes shining with joy. "Blake... oh, Blake..." She touched his face with her fingers, as if she still could not believe in his reality.

      "We... we thought you were dead." Vila's voice shook with emotion.

      "But how did you get here?" Cally asked, then hugged him tightly. "No. It does not matter. You are here. That is what matters."

      Vila swung on Avon. "How long have you known?"

      "Since Blake rescued me on Hinkal."

      Vila looked from Avon back to Blake, then at Avon again. "Then why didn't he rescue us? We've been worried out of our minds, and you just let us sit out there, in danger, let the Fraternity get to us..."

      "Vila," Blake interrupted quietly. "Avon was so badly hurt on Hinkal that he almost died. By the time he recovered consciousness and could tell me where you were so I could send help to you, you'd been taken by the Fraternity on Wery. I'm sorry. Believe me, if I'd've known where to find you, I'd have got you to safety."

      "I was only fooling, Blake..."

      Cally, meanwhile, left Blake and moved to Avon. She gripped his upper arms and held him, scrutinising his face with anxious eyes. "You're very pale," she decided.

      "I'm all right."

      "You look ill. Blake, have you been working him too hard?"

      "Blake," said Avon, "has been fussing over me like the proverbial mother hen."

      Cally blinked. "Mother hen?"

      "It's too complicated to explain now, but you can take it from me that I'm alive and well because of Blake. You couldn't have done any better yourself, Cally - and don't set him off again by telling him I look ill. I can't cope with both of you." He looked to Blake. "Hadn't we better go home?"

      "Good idea." Blake slapped Vila on the shoulder. "Come on." As he passed Avon, he reached out to take his arm. "You too. I promise not to 'fuss' if you promise to sleep when we get back to Moonshadow."

      "He will, if I have to hit him on the head," said Cally.

      "Can I do it? Please, Cally..." Vila asked, as they left the garden for the parking area and the waiting groundcar.

      Avon said, softly, for Blake alone, "So now you have your 'family' back, Blake. I'm glad for you."

      "They're your family too."

      Avon did not deny it. "You may not realise this, but we're also going to have to retrieve one young weapons tech and a very large cat."

      "Cat? Oh, you mean the icecat you were using in the illusionist act?"

      "Lanrir is safe," said Cally, overhearing Blake's comment. "What are we going to do about Tarrant and Dayna?"

      She was surprised by the expression of cold fury on Blake's face. Avon's was immobile.

      "We'll rescue Dayna," said Blake.

      "Maybe Tarrant too," Avon added, his voice as expressionless as his face, watching Blake as he spoke.

      "And maybe he won't be too happy when we do," Blake finished grimly as he slammed the door of the groundcar and started the engine.

      Cally and Vila looked at each other, and found nothing to say.

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

      

There seemed to be a lot of us in Moonshadow's cabin. Avon took the pilot's seat with a proprietary air as I introduced Vila and Cally to Silkay.

      "...you couldn't have a better friend," I finished. "Silkay, these are my friends Cally and Vila." I noticed with surprise that human and Auronar were exchanging unhappy glances, but ploughed on. "Where are the others?"

      "In the Barrier generator tunnels, doing some work on Avon's orders. You will have to ask him what it is."

      I looked at Avon. He met my eyes squarely, though his expression gave nothing away. I was about to ask for an explanation, when Vila said, in a voice dripping with sarcasm, "Really? Or are they on their way to tell the ylln all about us?"

      "They are not," Silkay answered flatly, not seeming as puzzled by this turn of the conversation as I certainly was. Looking at Avon, I saw that he was staring at Vila and Silkay as if he had never seen them before.

      "What are you talking about, Vila?" I demanded.

      "All wi'h work for the ylln," Vila stated, glaring at Silkay. "They report everything to them."

      "They can't help it" said Cally, "but they are given orders when they are young to report to the ylln on everything that happens in the Cloud.

      "Just who or what are the ylln?" It was an exasperated Avon who asked the pertinent question.

      "Horrible things," Vila told us enthusiastically, waving his hands in an attempt at elaboration. "All shell and pincers and temper. They gave me a headache."

      Cally's explanation was simpler: "They're aliens, living on a Hoop world with a poisonous atmosphere. Cold. Volcanic. They are not native there, though."

      Silkay's voice added quietly, "They are aliens from another part of the Cloud, with a metabolism that needs an atmosphere high in sulphur, carbon monoxide and other substances poisonous to both humans and wi'h. They are intelligent, about six on your scale, but are completely non-innovative."

      "Nothing can achieve a civilization, or indeed any level of technology, without innovation," Avon objected. "How did they reach the Hoop, Silkay? By magic carpet?"

      "By spaceships, Avon. But I am sure that they stole them, as they have stolen the Hoop. They have stolen the whole of their technology, probably starting with another civilization on their home planet."

      "You see!" Vila exclaimed. "He knows all about them."

      "All wi'h know of the ylln."

      "And he admits it!"

      "Tell me about the ylln, Silkay," I ordered. "All you know, all you speculate. Everything."

      "But not here," said Avon "If there's a chance that our movements are being reported to hostile aliens, we would be wise to vacate this planet."

      

      

The dark surrounded Moonshadow and worlds rolled slowly and silently by, but no-one was watching them. The hostile eyes of my friends were on Silkay, who stood in the centre of the cabin, seemingly untroubled by them.

      He said: "We cannot fathom the motives of those you call 'The Builders'. They constructed the Hoop and they ruled it for many of your centuries. They also created us and we served them as friends, not slaves. Then, nearly a thousand of your years ago, they built a fleet of spaceships, sealed certain of their installations behind their strongest Barriers, told us that the Hoop was ours, and left. In vain we protested that we only existed to serve them, for they said that that was no longer possible. They left; we remained.

      "Many years passed, and then the ylln came. They ignored the warnings of the computers and their ships crossed into Hoop space. The computers identified them as armed intruders, and the defences were activated to destroy them. We could do nothing but watch as the ylln craft were blasted from the skies. Finally, the computers reported the total destruction of their fleet.

      "Yet some disabled ylln ships did land on the Hoop worlds. Those ylln that survived did not last long in our type of atmosphere. We knew of only one world where they survived for a little time, but there they encountered a life form of high intelligence and unparalleled savagery."

      "The icecats," said Cally.

      "Yes. The Builders brought the icecats here when their native planet was destroyed in a solar flare. They served us, and the Builders, well when the ylln landed."

      Vila chuckled suddenly. "Eat-goods."

      "What none of us knew then was that the ylln flagship had crashed on one of the few Hoop worlds that could support its occupants.

      "Time passed. The ylln waited, stranded, doing nothing but eat and breed, though we did not know of the fact. We just lived on, at peace, as happy as we could be with the Builders gone."

      "Why didn't you follow them?" Avon asked.

      "In short range shuttles? With the Yards Barriered against us? And the Scoop also placed beyond our reach?"

      Avon nodded. I suspected that he was simply testing Silkay, looking for flaws in his story or trying to trap him into a mistake.

      Silkay continued: "It was some seven hundred years ago that one of our people, passing that world where the ylln had survived, picked up a weak automatic signal. Thinking it was a distress call from a crashed shuttle, he landed and found the ylln. He sought to learn their language, but the ylln also learned something - that we must obey. That wi'h unwillingly brought others to the ylln and our race became their hands and eyes. Our orders soon included an instruction to take all our young to their planet to receive their primary instructions from them.

      "Yet we could not give them the interstellar spaceships they demanded. They could not even use the Hoop shuttles, as their internal circuits cannot stand up to contact with the atmosphere the ylln need.

      "Then the Barrier surrounding the planet you call Scitech Central vanished. Avon says that it shut down in response to a time signal. I have been considering this and I think that perhaps the Builders wished to give us the Scoop and other artefacts at Scitech Central, though I do not understand why they wished to delay such a gift.

      "Once we had Scitech Central, we could listen to the voices of your galaxy, though we did not understand your languages. Still, it was proof to the ylln of the existence of a technologically advanced civilization in the Milky Way galaxy. They ordered us to reach out with the Scoop to find the owners of those voices and bring them to the Hoop, hoping that they could give them the spaceships that we could not... and so we brought humans here.

      "Not all the humans wished to enslave us, and there was fighting over this, and over the spoils of the Hoop. The ylln had insisted that we learn your language, so there was no escape for us, and we came to serve two masters.

      "Yet, we learned much, once the humans had instructed the computers in your languages and the machines began to sort through the information coming from your galaxy.

      "Then the ylln began to use us to try and influence events among humans. They did not dare let them know of their existence; they had already had full proof of human aggressiveness. Yet humans could not build ships for the ylln without knowledge that they existed, and the ylln have not solved this problem in over four hundred years."

      "Oh yes they have," Cally contradicted him. "They have allied themselves with the Fraternity."

      "That I did not know," said Silkay, "but then I have had little contact with the wi'h working directly for the ylln for years, and none with the ylln themselves or with the Fraternity. I find it difficult to accept that the ylln could have allied themselves with humans. Revealing themselves could be very dangerous for them, as they have no means of striking back at an attack from space."

      "The Fraternity don't have the means of launching one," I pointed out. "They'd need the Guild's spaceships for that."

      "The Fraternity does have spaceships," said Cally, "but if the one we saw was typical, they could not launch an attack on anything at all."

      "The ylln must feel that the Fraternity has enough need of them not to betray them," I suggested, not altogether surprised by Cally's news. There was a lot more to the Fraternity than I had ever suspected. "If they were going to ally themselves with anyone it had to be the Fraternity. They have, I think, more influence in the Cloud than we have given them credit for but, unlike Scitech and the Guild, they probably don't have the power to destroy the ylln."

      "True," said Silkay, "and the ylln are naturally cautious. They prefer to act through others, often at second or third remove."

      "Yes," Avon agreed. "As they used you to bring us here so that we could break through the Yard Barriers and build starships for them."

      "That is not so! We want to be rid of both the ylln and humans and we cannot do that alone. Stali and I decided we needed human help to free us - from both humans and ylln, Avon - and we reached out to the Milky Way to find it. We reached out for hope, Avon. Blake was that hope. Stali believes you to be part of that hope too. We planned this for years and, with myself and Stali, the only wi'h who knew of it are those working with Blake ...Darvil, Taamo and the others. None of us have reported to the ylln since the idea of bringing Blake here was conceived. The order to report to them does not specify when that report should be made. Another twenty years or so will suffice, I think. We could be summoned, but we have tried not to let the opportunity arise. It is why we usually avoid our own kind, who might be ylln messengers. If we failed to do so... well, there are ways for even the non-violent to die... and to cheat the ylln."

      "Oh Lord... Apput..." I whispered, remembering an aircar, out of fuel, crashing on the surface of Cretorn in a ball of fire.

      "Just so. It was as he wished, Blake."

      I turned to Avon. "I was the one who suggested trying to break through the Yard Barriers, Avon. They had nothing to do with it."

      "Much as I dislike admitting it," he answered, "I think that Silkay may be telling the truth. Of all the men and women in our galaxy, you might well be the one person that someone who knew of you only from Federation reports might pick to save a race of slaves. No one in his right mind would pick you out as the only man to be able to break through a sophisticated alien force field."

      "Thank you." I smiled at him. "As it happens, I agree with you. When we set up the Ricel identity, I had to have a specialist field to impress Scitech. I'd worked on force field technology on Earth and could also use what I'd learned of Spaceworld's technology from Liberator's force wall to represent my 'breakthrough' in the field. Also, it seemed a much safer thing to give Scitech than the drive or the neutron blasters; a purely defensive device. When Stali told me about the Yards, I decided that I could use the hope of breaching that Barrier to gain an almost unchallengeable position in Scitech. It was only after I actually started work that I realised that the Yards could also be the key to freeing the wi'h."

      "The ylln know of Vanor Ricel and of Kerr Avon. What I have heard suggests they are impressed, but both they and I know no more than that," Silkay added. "The new human/Builder technology that Scitech is making in the Hoop is the ylln's best hope, and they encourage its growth, as they encourage dissension among the various human factions in the Cloud to divert attention from their own existence. Of course, this also encourages the growth of technology, and would do so even more strongly if Scitech did not take such pains to confine research to the Hoop. You do not... cannot... know, Blake, how desperately I have hoped that you would ask a question that I could answer with information that would hint at the existence of the ylln, but Stali and I, along with all wi'h, have orders never to speak of them or to reveal any information about them. It was only when you asked me a direct question, so countermanding the order, that I could tell you this. Even now, there are still orders restricting what I say."

      "Silkay: this is an order. Consider all orders you have ever been given by and about the ylln null and void."

      "No, Avon, that won't work," I protested. "You have to deal in specifics. Silkay, you must not report to the ylln, now, or ever. I order you to tell me all you have been ordered not to tell any human about by the ylln. Firstly, are there any other orders I must countermand to free you from the ylln?"

      "No, Blake. That does adequately. Firstly, I want to tell you that it was the ylln who gave the order that we were not to volunteer the information that the Barrier at Scitech Central ever existed, and that, if any human did find out, we were to say that the Builders had told us to conceal the information."

      "So that no-one would suspect that the ylln were involved in using the Scoop to bring humans to the Hoop." said Cally.

      "Yes. And there is something more you should know."

      "Go on."

      "The Builders sent out many intergalactic probes. These contained E-space transceivers - indeed, they exist in E-space themselves, though they are able to extrude probes into our dimension via any electronic equipment existing in this universe. The probes control any computer or robotic installation to which they attach themselves.

      "All the intergalactic probes are controlled from a single planet in the Hoop. We wi'h had never been involved in work with the probes, and did not know how to operate the equipment, but a human found that planet and learned how to control the probes. She was also the first human to journey to see the ylln, for they revealed their presence and offered her power. As soon as they had extracted all the information she possessed, they killed her. Then they instructed selected wi'h to return to the probe planet, to set about influencing events in your galaxy, and others."

      "What?!" I exclaimed.

      "It seems that you were right about alien influence in our galaxy, Blake," Avon observed.

      "How many of these probes are there?" I asked.

      "In your galaxy - five. And two in the galaxy you call Andromeda. The ylln have concentrated on accelerating technology and, as your own experts say that technology advances more quickly in time of war, they have tried to encourage rebellion, while also encouraging your Federation. They admire the Federation."

      "I bet they do..." Vila muttered.

      "But they are terrified of bringing it to the Cloud. They have therefore tried to discourage any experiments in intergalactic travel."

      "They haven't been too successful in tha-" Avon broke off short. "Andromeda! They organised the intergalactic war!"

      "No. I understand that the Andromedans detected the probes and attacked your galaxy in the mistaken belief that you sent then," Silkay told him. "The ylln are not particularly clever or subtle, Avon, always remember that."

      "I will," Avon replied, looking annoyed at the rebuke.

      "So now we know our real enemy," I said, "or another one, in any event. Cally, Vila, are you satisfied?"

      "Yes," said Cally. "Silkay, I am glad to meet you. I am sorry I doubted you. I know that the wi'h hate the ylln. Indeed, I know three more wi'h who have done what you have done - enlisted human help to gain their freedom. They are waiting for us not ten thousand spacials from here. Let us call them."

      

Through the Barriers

Avon was sitting on a rock, watching Firel's blue-grey sea rolling onshore. I had missed him during the wild and noisy greetings between Cally, Vila, and the icecat Lanrir, a huge, beautiful, but dangerous-looking beast, who had almost overwhelmed Cally in its joy, and realised that he had slipped away.

      I had gone to the beach by instinct. Since discovering the soothing effect of simply looking at waves and smelling salt air, I had spent many hours on the beaches of Firel. Not everything - or even most things - affected Avon in the same way that they affected me, but I had a suspicion that oceans might. This time, it appeared, I had been right.

      I sat down beside him on the rock, and we waited in companionable silence,

      "I suppose you want to know what I am going to do about the Yard Barriers," Avon said at last.

      "Not urgently. I just... wanted to know that you were all right." At the long-suffering look he turned in my direction, I added quickly, "Of course, if you want to tell me what Stali is doing, go right ahead."

      "Stali is heading for the Yards, but the Barriers there cannot be breached from the outside."

      "Damn. Oh well, you tried - far more successfully than I did. Thank you, Avon."

      He was watching me trying to conceal my disappointment with a hint of amusement on his lips. "I didn't say that it was impossible for us to reach the Yards. What Stali has done, under Orac's instructions, is to take one of the Barrier field generators from the installation at Scitech Central to the Yards."

      "But what can he do with it when he gets there?"

      "Very little. Orac is instructing Stali in the procedure for reversing the field, but there is so little power available that all we can do is to negate a very small area of the Barrier field, one less than five centimetres in diameter."

      "Nothing can get through a hole that size."

      "A teleport beam can."

      I was startled, then annoyed at my stupidity. "Avon, you... Yes. It might work... Except that we haven't got a teleport, though I suppose we could build one... Our problem will be obtaining aquitar. The Builders never used a teleport system, so had no need for the alloy."

      "We can cast aquitar ourselves. Orac found the formula." He paused, then added, "The Barriers can be deactivated from the inside."

      "What the hell have I been doing without you? But Avon-" I broke off with a shout of surprise as a huge, furry body bowled us both from the rock and onto the wet sand.

      As I picked myself up, I saw that Avon was trying to do the same, but was prevented from doing so by Lanrir, who was butting him and making small noises of delight while Avon cursed him fluently.

      "Get off!" he ordered, trying to push the icecat away. "Lanrir, stop it."

      "He is simply pleased to see you," said Cally, from where she was standing beside Vila, who was doubled up with laughter.

      "At this moment I am not at all pleased to see him."

      At Avon's words, the icecat sat back on its haunches and snarled.

      Undaunted by this display of temper, Avon got to his feet and brushed the sand from his clothes, then turned to face Lanrir and made a series of chirruping noises that sounded like the icecat's own language. Lanrir replied. Avon held out his fist to the icecat, who sniffed it, then made another soft, musical noise. Avon looked at me: a summons. Rather nervously, I joined him, as Cally came up on my other side.

      "This is Blake," she said aloud. "He is a friend."

      As Avon had done, I held out my hand to the icecat, and I felt the soft, dry touch of his furry nose. Then, quite suddenly, he offered me his right paw, human fashion.

      I took it, then let go. "Cally, tell him that he is my friend and that he is very welcome here."

      "He understands you," said Cally.

      Lanrir stood up and rubbed his head against my chest, almost knocking me over again. He uttered a series of noises that Vila interpreted as: "You've made a hit, Blake. He says that he likes you, and this place."

      "I'm glad to hear it, but will you please ask him to stop trying to stave in my ribs."

      "Now you know what it feels like," Avon told me, laughing.

      "I don't mind." I put an arm round Avon's shoulders and the other round the icecat's neck. "Let's go and have something to eat, then get some sleep. After that, well, we have a lot of work to do."

      "I knew it!" Vila yelped. "I just knew it. I tell you, Cally, I should never have left Cygnus Alpha..."

      It was good to be home.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

Tarrant trailed along behind Dayna as she inspected the small production line built by the 'borrowed' Fraternity technicians, and wallowed in feeling useless. While he and Dayna had been working alone he had felt that his technical skills were making some sort of contribution, but once these so-called 'experts' had arrived, he had become redundant. Of course, once Dayna's space-to-planet weapon got beyond the initial design stage he could again be of some use - for a while. But no-one really needed him. The Guild tolerated him because it needed Dayna, and Dayna had insisted that he remained alive and at her side. The future looked very bleak. His skills were not wanted, not appreciated. Most officer appointments in the Guild were a result of nepotism and he and Dayna, not being Guild born, were social pariahs.

      I underestimated Ardron, he told himself. I shouldn't have done, not after he kidnapped us during that minumal attack. Was that where I went wrong? Or was it when we got separated from Avon, Cally and Vila above Hinkal? Or was it when we slugged Ricel? If we'd stayed with him, Avon would still be alive...

      Dayna had stopped to talk to one of the Fraternity technicians whose name, as far as Tarrant remembered, was Iona. He wondered how she felt, knowing that she was hostage to the Guild. If the Fraternity had had spaceships, she would have had no chance of survival at all, for the Guild would not have allowed anyone with the knowledge of her new weapon to take it away with them.

      The women moved into the shadow of the machinery, perilously close to rather too much free electricity for Tarrant's taste, but the guard that the Admiral had assigned to them, a bruiser called Lieutenant Olvet, loomed over him, forcing him forward to join them.

      Iona shouted, "Look out!" and swept Dayna to one side. Tarrant jumped sideways, spinning, instinctively reaching for the hidden, forbidden gun. As he completed the turn, he was almost blinded by the flash of a firing weapon, feeling the heat of an energy bolt sizzling over his head. He fired instinctively at the source, as hot metal and plastic showered down from above.

      Slowly, his vision cleared. Lieutenant Olvet lay close to the seething electricity that Tarrant himself had feared. He must have dived for cover in the wrong direction; a metre closer and he would have been incinerated but no more dead than he was now, with the hole from Tarrant's shot black and red in his chest, reminding him vividly of Avon's body lying on the desert stones. Tarrant felt sick.

      Then the feeling was lost as the whole production area was filled with shouting, swearing, gun-waving men and woman and he had no time to feel anything at all, before every single one appeared to pile on top of him.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

Moonshadow hung in synchronous orbit above the glowing latticework that shielded the Yards. Its main cabin was even more cramped than usual because a makeshift teleport platform and its associated equipment took up about one third of the available cabin space. Cally was at the controls, frowning as she rechecked the co-ordinates. They were a calculated guess, based on accumulated wi'h memory. Those memories were superb but if the guess had been wrong...

      Try as I might, I could not turn aside from what that might mean.

      Avon had said: "I know it is dangerous, and it is not a risk I would normally take, but I am plainly the right man, indeed the only man, for the job."

      That was unarguable, but the last few weeks had held an indication of the companionship... happiness... that might be ahead for all of us.

      Cally said, "Do not worry so much, Blake. I am sure that Avon would not have volunteered to go if he had thought the risk unreasonable."

      "So tell me that the idea doesn't worry you," I challenged.

      "Of course I am worried, but you see Avon as someone who is your responsibility, someone to be protected. He is not. Avon is more likely than you are to live through the next year, Blake. He has a genius for self-preservation."

      "Yes. I know."

      "Your head knows, not your heart."

      "That may be true, but I can't help it. It's the way I am."

      "And, of course, you are still adjusting to the change in your relationship with Avon."

      I looked at her. "You see that?"

      "Even Vila has seen that things have changed between you. You are ready for it - but go slowly with Avon, Blake. He has been our leader in all but name since you left us and will not find that easy to relinquish."

      At that moment, the voice of the man we were discussing interrupted us. "Bring us up, Cally."

      She moved the controls and the spacesuited figures of Avon and Vila materialised on the platform.

      "Okay?" I asked.

      "It will do. Stali has done a decent job."

      "But will it work? If that device doesn't neutralise the field, the teleport beam will be so distorted that nothing will put you back together again." We had been over this point time and time again, but I could not let it alone.

      Avon shrugged away the question and turned to Cally. "I estimate that we have perhaps fifteen seconds before the generator burns out. Get it right."

      "I will."

      "Suppose that you can't shut down the Barriers?" I asked helplessly. Another repetitive question, probably annoying Avon even more thoroughly.

      "That is my problem," he answered, looking at his watch. "We have precisely one minute." He stepped back onto the platform, pulled his helmet into place and picked up the heavy bag that he himself had packed back on Firel, ready for this mission.

      "There's supposed to be air on the surface," said Vila.

      "If there is, I'll take the helmet off."

      Stali's voice issued from the speaker. "Thirty seconds to activation... now."

      Cally's slender fingers hovered over the controls. "Co-ordinates set, Avon."

      "Twenty seconds... ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six..."

      I felt my heart begin to race, though I was in no danger, and the prickle of sweat tickling my neck.

      "...Four. Three. Two. One. Activated."

      Cally's hands moved.

      Avon was gone.

      I looked out of the forward observation ports, down to the shining, changing, force-enwrapped sphere, and saw the tiny, intense speck of light, so bright it outshone the glowing ball of which it was a part. Then it exploded with nova-like brilliance, and was gone, existing for a little while as the ghostly after-images that floated, red and dim, across my vision.

      "The generator has burnt out," Stali reported, matter-of-factly.

      I opened my end of the communication channel. "Did you see anything?"

      "Only the explosion when the generator burned out. It was rather spectacular. Avon was quite right about us needing protection."

      "Are you all right? What about the shuttle?"

      "We have sustained no damage."

      "Good. Get yourselves and that shuttle out of there. When Avon lowers the Barrier you'll be sitting on nothing."

      "Avon made it down to the Yards?"

      "We hope so. Get out of there."

      "We are already on our way to join you in orbit."

      * * * * * * * * * * *

      

As Avon had stood on the teleport platform, he had found time to wonder why he was behaving in such a stupid fashion. Then he had looked at Blake's worried face and, just for an instant, had known part of the reason. How had he got into this situation with Blake? This agreement? And did he want to keep it?

      There was no sure answer, then, or now, for there was suddenly the familiar feeling of disorientation, and then the glittering bauble of the Yards, seen through the observation ports, had merged into a new reality.

      And the only reason Avon could acknowledge in his own mind for what he was doing was curiosity.

      Light blazed about him. The sky above was a network of blue against blue. Knitted streams of light the colour of an icecat's fur shifted, strand across strand, in the royal blue sky. It was sense stunning.

      And it was over a minute later that Avon made the mental effort to heave himself back to reality. He was standing in a wide square, surrounded by high buildings. All were deserted.

      The white road was resilient under his feet, and his steps made no sound. Noise would have seemed sacrilegious in the total silence. It was as if he had stepped out of the real universe and into a place somewhere outside time and space. The centuries lay comatose on the pristine pastel city. He tried not to look behind him. Any fear was irrational, but the absence of movement, of sound, combed and pulled at his nerves.

      The building he was seeking, that the wi'h had instructed him to seek, was easy to find. It dominated the horizon; a long, shimmering arc of grey towers reaching upwards to organpipe pyramids of impossible slenderness.

      Control antennae, Avon thought, as he made his way towards it.

      At the edge of the square, he found a group of small, round platforms, each with a semicircular handrail at about waist height, clustered together on a raised block with steps leading up to them.

      Avon smiled. He had been told about those platforms. Leaping up the steps and onto the nearest, he gripped the handrail and said, "Tan sith open-hil." He hoped that he had pitched his voice correctly, and that he had got the pronunciation right. Builders' command language was not an easy one for humans to learn, and Silkay and Stali had not had much time to teach him even all the common phrases that they had thought he might need...

      The platform lifted into the air and carried him high above the surface of the Yards. Away to his right, on the horizon, he could see the black line that marked the edge of the pit, many kilometres in extent, that led down into the great underground chambers where the Builders' spaceships had been fabricated. To his left was a spaceport so vast in extent that his mind rebelled at the size of the little he could see.

      It was empty.

      Then the platform whisked him into the grey building and down a shaft to finally deposit him in a generator room identical to the one at Scitech Central.

      Avon sighed. This one was going to take time. He checked the composition of the atmosphere, then pushed back his helmet.

      The air was cool and spicy. Avon began to pull off the spacesuit. He would be more comfortable without it during the hours of work that were all he could anticipate. Well, the sooner he started, the sooner he would be finished.

      He picked up his bag and set out to find the timing device.

      

      

"Iona saved my life," said Dayna, for the sixth time. "You cannot blame her, or the Fraternity, for the attack on us... especially as it was a Guild officer who made the attack. A man you had assigned to us yourself."

      "Damn it, woman! What reason would the Guild have to try and kill you?" Gorsky roared. "We need you. We need your new weapons. You know that as well as I do."

      "He was one of your men, one of your personal staff," Dayna repeated.

      "And Tarrant killed him, so we can't find out who gave him the orders to kill you, can we? Very convenient for you. And where did he get that gun, Mellanby? Where did you get the one we found on you? They aren't standard issue."

      "I built them," said Dayna.

      "Why?"

      "We felt safer armed."

      "You don't need arms. Not here among the Guild."

      "I didn't think that you had the nerve to say that, you hypocrite!" Dayna flared. "Tarrant and I could have been killed by one of your officers."

      The intercom warbled and Gorsky switched it on. "I said I was not to be interrupted!" he barked.

      "Admiral. We have the post mortem results on Lieutenant Olvet."

      Gorsky stilled. "Go on," he said quietly.

      "We found traces of ronortium in his bloodstream, sir. That's a suppressive, sir, used in brainwashing techniques-"

      "I know how it is used. Thank you." Gorsky switched off and turned back to Dayna. "Olvet was drugged, with an order implanted in his mind to kill you and Tarrant. Hell, I could have given orders to kill you without all this trouble, at any time "

      "You are not the whole Guild, Admiral."

      "I am all of it that matters," he corrected her, glaring out from under bushy eyebrows. "None of the Guild would try to kill you; you are our future."

      Dayna stared back, her face now emotionless.

      "I think," said Gorsky, almost as if talking to himself, "that I will move you and Tarrant back to the Napoleon. Security is better there than here at Shipmeet."

      "The production line-"

      Gorsky started at her voice, then interrupted, "That can get along well enough without you. We can't expose you to danger again, can we, Dayna?"

      Dayna knew then that there would not be a chance to escape. Tarrant had blown any hope that they had had of freedom clean out of the window when he had pulled his gun, though she could hardly blame him. What was more important, life or freedom? She wondered how Avon would have answered that question, because she could not answer it herself. Right now, life seemed more important... but how long would that last, as their imprisonment dragged on?

      

      

Vila dropped the scriber and probe which he had been juggling with a clatter.

      "Stop that!" Blake turned on him angrily. "Put those down and keep quiet, Vila."

      "Keep quiet! That's just wonderful, isn't it? You sent Avon down there to his death, and I'm the one who has to keep quiet!"

      In three strides, Blake was across the cabin. Vila backed away hurriedly, but not quickly enough. Blake caught his shoulders and pinned him against the wall. Vila struggled, but made no impression on the more powerful man.

      "Blake!" Cally tried to restrain him, but he flung her away. "Blake, he didn't mean it!"

      "No! No, I didn't" Vila squawked. He looked terrified. "Only it's been twenty hours now... and Avon..." The last word was a sob.

      Blake released him abruptly. He stood looking down at his hands as if he had never seen them before; then swallowed hard. "Vila... I'm sorry..." He groped for a seat and collapsed into it.

      "You're right. It's all my fault... it's always my fault."

      Cally went to him and put her hands on his shoulders. "Avon is alive. I am sure of that."

      "Alive, maybe. Trapped forever behind that damn force field. I should never have let him go, Cally. Never."

      "Right," Vila agreed grimly.

      "I would have liked to have seen either of you stop him!" Cally retorted. "Stop blaming yourselves. Avon is his own man."

      "It wasn't me who sent him..." Vila muttered.

      Blake put his head down and rubbed his eyes with the base of his hands.

      Cally's grip tightened. "Blake," she said. "Blake, look at me." As he raised his head, she went on. "Would you want Avon to feel like this about you?"

      "Avon wouldn't..."

      "Would you want him to feel this way?" Her gaze compelled honesty.

      "No."

      "And you know that he would consider it ridiculous for you to blame yourself. He would see no reason for it. Vila is simply worried, as you are, but Avon has a difficult job. He will rejoin us. I know it."

      "I don't." That was Vila again. He knew he was being unfair, but every time he looked at that big beautiful bastard of a world floating serenely outside the observation port, he felt such anger that he didn't know how to express it. "Why can't you do something?"

      "If there was something I could do, do you think I wouldn't do it?" Blake cried. "For Avon-"

      "Builder Yards to Moonshadow. Come in, Moonshadow."

      All of them dived for the communicator. Cally's reactions gave her a very slight advantage and she got there first.

      "Avon. Avon, this is Moonshadow. Are you all right?" The urgency in her voice told how much of her former confidence had been faked.

      "I am opening the landing hatch for you," Avon's voice replied calmly. "Come straight in and land at the northern edge of the spaceport. I have lit the appropriate navigation beacons."

      "Landing hatches! Navigation beacons!" Vila exclaimed. "He's gone mad!"

      "And Vila is plainly qualified to judge - one madman can undoubtedly recognise another. I'm opening the door for you, Moonshadow. Come on in."

      Blake looked towards the observation window, seeing the nets of light that formed the Yard Barriers swirl and then part to reveal a blackness surrounded by a sapphire ring of light, brighter than the glittering, reticulated strings that covered the rest of the sphere.

      It was Cally who slipped into the pilot's seat and moved the Moonshadow towards that opening.

      Silkay's voice said, "Shuttle 841926 to Builder Yards. May we enter?"

      "Yards to 841926. With pleasure, Silkay. Follow Moonshadow."

      "Confirmed."

      They passed between the strands, through the ring, and into the blackness, which lightened quickly until they could see the wide expanse of the spaceport below and the two violet lights blinking a welcome, the promised guiding beacons.

      "I knew it!" Vila crowed. "I knew he'd do it." Then, more quietly, "Blake, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."

      "Didn't you, Vila?" Blake asked softly, as Moonshadow fell towards the beacons. "I think I did."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      The Yards, even to those of us experienced in alien technologies, were a frightening engineering wonderland, left in perfect order, as if they had been abandoned only hours before. Even the wi'h seemed awed by this part of their heritage. I was now surprised that it had taken Avon so short a time as twenty hours to find and operate the Barrier controls.

      He had been waiting for us when the Moonshadow landed, looking tired but triumphant. He had been 'startled' (he said) to find that the Yard Barriers, unlike those at Scitech Central, were not controlled by a timing device. He had added that this had 'bothered' him for a 'few minutes'. Anyone else would probably have panicked, but Avon had simply picked up his bag of tools and ordered one of the floating platforms to take him to the spaceport control room. He was, he had admitted, glad that he had taken Silkay's crash course in Builders' Command language. Even hearing his dry description had twisted my stomach. Feeling sick with relief, I had insisted on all of us getting some sleep.

      Mine had been troubled. I had woken, sweating, from a nightmare to find both Avon and Cally beside me. We had done nothing more than talk quietly and inconsequentially, but an hour or so later I had been able to fall into untroubled slumber. Refreshed and relaxed, we had set out to explore, and it was not long before we realised the vastness of the task in front of us...

      

      

Vila flung himself into a chair that was too large for him and spun himself round and upwards in a spiral, before the chair drifted down again towards the floor. The performance seemed to please him, and he repeated it, a huge grin on his face. Avon gave him a disgusted look, then walked slowly round the room, his expression fascinated. I followed him.

      This, if our instructions to the transport platforms had been correctly obeyed, was the centre that controlled the computers that ran the shipyards themselves.

      The large oval room was silent, empty and blank. The walls were lined with low level control boards, but above chest level there was nothing except dark, grey-green wall. The controls themselves were unlit, shut down.

      The floor under our feet was deep, woodland green, soft and resilient, like carpet but seemingly solid. The roof was simply the upper walls curved over to form a dome. Some of the chairs were like the one that Vila had appropriated, a scooped-out egg-shape, floating free of the floor, but others were like low couches, with a canopy that held some sort of mechanism. Cally tried lying on one, but nothing happened.

      Avon stood in the centre of the room with his hands on his hips, surveying his newly-claimed territory. He said, "We are going to have to trace all the major circuits before starting to test the controls. That could take years. We need a short cut. Silkay? Stali? Can you help?"

      'No, Avon," Silkay said, replying for both wi'h. "I am sorry. This was always a place of the Builders. Very few wi'h came here."

      Avon looked questioningly at me. I stared back, trying to give nothing away.

      He smiled wryly. "I suppose. we'd better start, then."

      "I agree. Silkay, why don't you and Vila go and try to find the construction chambers and the mechanism halls. Oh, and the computer banks, too. Avon will want to see those."

      "And don't touch anything," Avon added, as he took Orac from his case and pressed the computer's key into place. "Orac, can you read the computers here?"

      "Now we are inside the Barrier I can sense them more easily," Orac replied, "but they are dormant. They keep the air fresh, the lights working and the Barriers in place, but no more. There is a vast unused capacity, but it is sealed against me."

      "Oh, great," Vila complained.

      "I thought that I told you to go with Silkay."

      "I'm going. I'm going." Vila flung himself out of the chair, but he had not expected that it would give him a helpful push out of the deep seat. With a yelp of surprise, he toppled forwards, grabbing at one of the control panels to try and save himself.

      The panel lit up. Others around the room followed it. Then walls and dome blazed to life, becoming a giant viewscreen on which was pictured an enormous, brightly lit chamber containing a giant starship docking cradle. Above that, in an empty space in the centre of the chamber, a boiling mass of unrestrained energy writhed like Medusa's hair, bubbling with blinding light. I looked away hurriedly, calling out to the others to do the same, for it felt as if I was looking into the end of the E-space tube in the Scoop chamber.

      "That's it," said Avon. "That's the fabrication chamber, Vila's accident has activated the surveillance screens."

      "Accident!" Vila exclaimed, sounding outraged. "Accident! I knew what I was doing all along. I just-"

      "He has activated more than that," said Orac. "The computer banks controlling the Yard operations are now active. More banks are following."

      Avon looked about him, then met my eyes. "Your luck is holding."

      "I thought it had gone forever... until you and Cally and Vila came back to me. Now I don't think that it was 'my' luck at all..."

      "Well, Vila could have killed us all. As it is, he has saved us months of work. I saw which of the controls he touched, and their operation can give us a strong lead to the logic of this whole system. Stali, you understand the Builders' thought processes better than I do. Blake, you too. I'll need you both here."

      "And I will join the explorers," said Cally. "Come on, Vila. You've fallen over your feet enough for one day."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      The whole of the exploration party had regrouped in the central control room, but it was Avon who dominated the meeting. He was in his element now, with a new technology to explore and explain.

      Above their heads, the dome still showed the interior of the fabrication chamber but all about them, circling the walls, were the schematics of a spaceship. The part of the screen directly in front of them showed a holo of a spaceship, so real that it seemed they only had to take one of the transport platforms to journey to it.

      None of them, not even the wi'h, had ever seen or imagined a ship like it before with its latticework of hulls tied into a loose knot. It was plainly big. Huge. Enormous...

      "This is a Builders' colony ship," Avon said, his fingers touching a series of controls that blurred the walls about them sickeningly before another holo formed in front of them, this time a picture of a needle-nosed craft with a much fluted hull.

      "A deep space exploration vessel," Avon explained. "There are at least three hundred detailed designs for standard types of spacecraft and there is no difficulty about adapting and changing the specifications, or programming our own. Once the design is complete, energy is drawn from E-space in almost unlimited quantity and transmuted and patterned into the matter that forms the new spaceship, atom by atom, as specified."

      "Incredible," said Blake.

      "I've seen something like it before, on a planet called Sardos," said Avon. "That system was designed primarily to create exact copies of scanned matter. It was more advanced than this one, in some respects."

      "I remember... it created that awful thing... Moloch," Vila contributed.

      "A computer evolutionary prediction made flesh," Avon explained to Blake.

      "But what are we going to do now?" Vila asked.

      Avon shrugged. "Blake wanted the Yards. They're his - but I don't know what he intends to do with them. We could create ships, but we've no-one to man them except the wi'h, and they can't fight."

      "We don't want a war," Blake said flatly.

      "I don't intend to fight in one," Avon retorted.

      "Me neither. We might not win," Vila put in.

      "Even if we could, we would not wish to fight," Silkay added.

      Blake looked towards him. "You're still determined to follow the Builders?"

      "Yes, and the Yards can give us the ships to do so, as you promised. It is what the wi'h have always wanted to do. We would have done so long ago, if we had not been confined to the Hoop."

      "But Ronjat says you don't even know where the Builders went!" Cally protested.

      "We can take the first step; we can follow them through the stargate."

      "Stargate?"

      "That is the literal translation of the word 'Hllanttmn.'" Blake stumbled over it, then chuckled. "That would be enough to put humans off using the wi'h name for it. It's a kind of E-space distance-crossing device, to take a spaceship over intergalactic distances. There is only one, and no-one knows if it works. The Builders themselves only used it once. They vanished through it and didn't return. Where it took them is a mystery... a dangerous mystery. This end of the E-space tube destroys any human spaceship that ventures too close. Humans never asked the wi'h about it - I doubt that the ylln care - but it's buried in the middle of the dust cloud that the Guild call 'The Mare's Nest'."

      Avon was operating the computers. "The hulls of the Builders' ships are much stronger than any ship I've ever known. They must have been designed to stand the stresses of the stargate. The forces unleashed by an intrusion into E-space are tremendous. No wonder no human ship has ever survived."

      "But how will you get all your people on board your ships?" Cally asked Silkay.

      "I do not know."

      "It's a problem that's been troubling me," Blake admitted. "If the wi'h are ordered to stay then they will not go, and as soon as any single human or ylln realises what is happening, that is exactly what will be done. We can solve part of the problem by giving the ships detector shields, but how we are going to get the whole wi'h population of the Cloud on board those ships..." He shook his head.

      Vila nudged Avon. "Come on, genius. Think of something."

      "The answer to your problem is obvious, once the necessary logistical problems have been solved," said Avon. He smiled slightly at Blake. "We have the technology to hand. You simply have to think in large enough terms."

      Vila could almost see Blake's mind working as he sought for the answer. Then he said, "The teleport? But... oh yes, logistics. How are we going to get enough bracelets?"

      "That's not even the main difficulty. We can put those into the design program for our first colony ship. We're going to have to make some adaptations to that, anyway. A massive teleportation area. Detector shields. As for the bracelets, we can pare the specification down to minimal requirements. They won't need communication and location circuits, for a start, so they can be a lot less bulky than the ones we're used to. Our problem will be with the distribution and in avoiding discovery."

      "They need not be bracelets," said Cally. "Disguise them as tool belts or necklets; all wi'h wear one or the other. No human will notice them."

      "A good idea," Stali agreed. "We simply distribute them to all our people, without telling them what they are, or why they must wear them."

      "But will they?"

      "Oh yes. We trust each other that far, Cally."

      "It won't be reported to the ylln?"

      "Why should anyone report the gift of an article of clothing to the ylln?" Stali enquired innocently.

      Blake said, "You've been around Avon too much recently, Stali. Parts of his personality are rubbing off."

      "Be careful, Stali, or you may start wanting to make love to computers," Vila added, keeping well out of Avon's reach.

      "This is getting away from the point," said Silkay. "I can guarantee that the teleport belts or bracelets or whatever you decide to use will be distributed throughout the Hoop, and neither humans nor ylln will know of it."

      "I can deal with the wi'h on the ylln planet," put in Ronjat, who had thus far remained silent.

      "And once we have a ship, the Cloud world wi'h will be no problem," said Stali.

      "Yes," Blake agreed. "With enough ships, it might just work, but the distribution must be complete before we can teleport a single wi'h."

      "It cannot be complete," said Stali. "We have no means of distributing the equipment to more than a very few wi'h on the Guild ships, or of finding those ships when we need to teleport our people out. Avon spoke of logistics. The logistics of rescuing the Guild wi'h are beyond our capabilities, and we cannot risk an encounter between our ships and the Guild."

      "You realise what might happen to the wi'h left behind?" Blake demanded.

      "Of course. We would take them if we could, but we cannot. Some ninety-five per cent of our people will be rescued. That will suffice."

      "Not to me it won't," Blake retorted. "I was right. You have been around Avon too much."

      "He is right and you know it," said Avon.

      "There must be another way!"

      "There is not," said Silkay.

      "Do you know another?" Avon asked Blake.

      "No, damn you, but there must be one."

      "I cannot see it," said Avon, "and we are short of time, Blake. You told the Director that we would break through the Yard Barriers in three months. Perhaps we can extend that deadline, but not by very much. And there are other problems. What about crewing the ships we fabricate?"

      "We must recruit wi'h," said Silkay. "That will not be too great a problem if one of you humans will accompany me to give the orders."

      "Vila will," said Avon. 'There's nothing else he's good for, anyway."

      "Ha! Just you wait... the next time you lock yourself in somewhere I'm going to sit outside the door and laugh."

      Blake watched helplessly, thinking of the intelligent, feeling beings who would be left behind when the rest of their race vanished on their long-delayed quest. He knew that they would always haunt him, but he also knew that he would carry on as if they did not exist. He had to, if the wi'h were to go free... and, once again, there was pain.

      

      

"Did he believe you when you said we knew nothing of this?" Valonia asked.

      "No - but there was no way in which he could prove our involvement," Gooma replied. "Valonia, we made a calculation error."

      "Yes. We overestimated the Guild. No efficient organisation would have allowed Mellanby to arm herself, or Tarrant."

      "They must have been planning an escape."

      "Yes. There our data was in error. Obviously, they are prisoners, not willing allies of the Guild." Valonia drummed her fingers on the table, her expression withdrawn.

      Gooma ventured a question. "Do we try again?"

      "No. Not while they are on board the Napoleon. Security will be very tight there now, and I will not risk our own people's lives with so little chance of success. Besides, if we tried again it would be almost impossible to avoid the blame. Tarrant killing Olvet threw all our plans into disarray. Branham was unable to push him into the arcs and vaporise his body. That made it possible for the Guild to hold a post mortem, leading Gorsky to suspect, correctly, that we brainwashed Olvet. He will, of course, have informed Tarrant and Mellanby. Even if they suspect he is lying, they will not trust us. We will simply have to go along with Gorsky's plan until we can formulate a new one."

      

      "Gooma denied it totally," said Vardil.

      "She would, of course. She had to. Valonia would deny it too. Which does not mean that the Fraternity was not responsible for the attack," Gorsky growled.

      "Iona saved Mellanby."

      Gorsky snorted. "A ploy to make Mellanby trust them, as we had killed Tarrant and the Fraternity had saved her."

      Vardil chuckled. "Quite plainly, she trusts none of us."

      "Hmmm. The guns that she and Tarrant had worry me. We mustn't allow them to build hand weapons again. I've ordered that every piece of equipment Mellanby orders is to be accounted for, and there are to be numerous spot checks. No-one enters or leaves that section without my personal authorisation and I've tripled the guards. I don't see what more I can do."

      "Nor do I... but can we be sure that it was the Fraternity, Admiral? There are factions opposed to you within the Guild."

      "Ha! Name me one of those enemies with access to ronortium. You know as well as I do that the Fraternity controls all trade in drugs."

      "Trade in drugs? What trade in drugs? Surely you must realise that since Valonia took over the Fraternity there hasn't been a trade in drugs at all. When the purge ended, there wasn't a live narcotics dealer from Totin to Dransbaben."

      "Maybe the Fraternity doesn't deal in drugs any more, but it has confiscated a hell of a lot of them over the years. Well, Vardil, could you lay your hands on ronortium?"

      "Not easily," Vardil admitted, tugging at his beard.

      "Neither could I. Neither could any member of the Guild. But Valonia could. We must be careful about how much power we give her, Vardil."

      "She has quite enough power already. What about this ship she has demanded?"

      "We have to let her have something. I've decided on Kali. She's large enough and fast enough not to be an insult to Valonia, but she is only lightly armed. Her captain is personally loyal to me. It's a risk we can take."

      "The HCC won't like it," Vardil observed.

      Gorsky grinned. "Now that I have Mellanby and her weapons I have the HCC like this." He held up his hand and slowly closed it into a fist. "And soon I will have the Cloud worlds, and Scitech... and the Fraternity too."

      

A Fine Italian Hand

The giant control room was deserted, dominated by the fires boiling on the screen. In the midst of that terrible cloud I could just discern the insubstantial, flickering lines of the modified colony spaceship, the third of the class that Avon had named 'Wraiths'. The other two were already crewed and out beyond the Hoop, distributing the teleport belts, bracelets and necklets among the scattered wi'h of the Cloud worlds.

      We needed twelve colony ships to accommodate all the wi'h we could reach and still leave room for those in the Guild ships, the ones that it still seemed we would have to leave behind... That thought was still torturing me and I knew that Cally shared my doubts. Avon, however, had snapped that the wi'h were not worried, that I was a fool to be, and that one should not expect human morality from aliens since one very rarely got it from humans. He was right; the wi'h did not understand why I was so worried, and Vila and Lanrir did not care either.

      Twelve ships. Each one took ten days to fabricate, even after Avon had modified the plans. Ten days. Eight of them to build up enough energy from E-space and two more for the fabrication itself. Yet the creation of the ship would seem instantaneous to a passing observer; one second there was just the blue-burning E-space cloud, with only a suggestion of the spaceship form, writhing in the darkness, as it writhed now; the next and the ship would be floating in the vacuum of the chamber. Less than a day now and it would happen here.

      Twelve ships... enough to take the whole race of the wi'h... and so many left behind... I shivered, loneliness chilling me.

      Where was Avon? I wondered. Cally and Vila were with the Wraith ships on their daunting task of distribution - and incidentally recruiting the wi'h ship crews. Avon and I were supervising the running of the Yards, but it seemed that I never saw him except at crucial moments. I had hoped that we had made a bargain back on Firel and confirmed it at Scitech Central but now that I needed him, he wasn't there. Well, I wanted human company, his company, and I was going to find him.

      I did not find it easy. He was not in any of the places he might have been expected to be. Finally, I gave up and wandered disconsolately back into the area we were using as living quarters. Avon had not returned, but Lanrir raised his head from the couch, which he overhung like a too-large fur blanket.

      I looked hopefully at the icecat, an idea stirring. I had not had time to learn more than a smattering of his complex language, but I also knew that he was growing daily more proficient in understanding ours.

      "Avon?" I asked hopefully. "Where is Avon, Lanrir? Can you find him?"

      The icecat yawned, then waterfalled to the floor, his coat sparkling like spray in sunlight, blue-silver, like E-space... He padded to the door, then looked back at me.

      I followed him since he seemed to know exactly where he was going, descending steps in preference to the AG shafts, keeping to a track where he did not have to operate any equipment more complex than a door.

      Finally, we reached the computer section.

      "I've already checked here," I told Lanrir, annoyed, but he ignored me and padded onwards, turning into a doorway I had not explored. It led into an empty chamber, then down a short corridor and into an almost circular room from which small bays fanned, each containing a standard access unit - a lounger with a screen above it, controls inset on the padded arms.

      One of the units was in operation. I approached it silently, with Lanrir beside me, his paws noiseless on the resilient floor.

      Avon was lying on his back, staring at the screen, far too interested in what it was showing to notice me. Orac sat on the floor beside him. I crouched down beside Avon's head, so I could see what he was seeing.

      There was part of the plans for a spaceship on the screen, but it was not one of the now-familiar Wraith class. As I watched, a hull section took its place, modifications outlined in bright yellow.

      "Orac," said Avon, "I think we are going to have to bring the docking bay forwards..."

      Lanrir coughed.

      Avon's head moved at the noise, and his eyes were round and startled as they met mine. Then he covered his surprise and sat up, pushing the screen to one side. "What the devil are you doing here? Spying on me?"

      I was deeply hurt by this reaction and did not try to hide the fact. Avon looked a little uncomfortable, but met my eyes defiantly.

      I said, "I just... I just wanted to see if you were all right. You'd been missing for so long..."

      "You're still 'worrying' about me?" His voice was mocking.

      "Yes. I always will. And I was lonely. Strange as it may seem, I miss you." I knew I was pressuring him unfairly, but I was annoyed enough not to care. "Why are you so touchy, anyway? What are you doing here?"

      Avon hesitated, then said, "Have you considered what will happen in the Cloud after the wi'h leave? And what we are going to do then?"

      I sighed. "Haven't we got enough problems? Let's deal with the ones we have now first, Avon."

      "You are still worrying about the wi'h on the Guild ships." It was not a question. "That's a waste of time. I'm concerned with possibilities, not with wishful thinking, or guilt. Now, if your plans are successful, the loss of the wi'h will seriously dislocate Cloud society for a while. Perhaps the time will be short, perhaps not, but the Yards give us the means to hold the balance of power during that period of instability, and come out of it as the dominant force in the Cloud."

      "No," I said.

      "We will never have a better chance."

      "I don't like the situation here, either, but I am not going to interfere. I have no right to do so, and neither do you."

      "It is not a question of right, but of opportunity."

      "Power destroys," I retorted. "I won't have any of us destroyed."

      Avon inclined his head, seemingly unsurprised. "I expected that that would be your attitude. Well, I cannot force you to take power. Certainly, that power would be difficult to hold, and perhaps... but only perhaps... not worth the effort of gaining and holding it. So I am arranging an alternative." He gestured at the screen. "That."

      "And that is?"

      "Basically, a Builders' exploration craft, a ship designed to be used by a small number of crew over a very long period. It's very fast, self-sustaining, and built to last for centuries. I've been modifying the design specifications to make it more suitable for human use and replacing Builder technology with either human or Spaceworld technology where either seems more efficient. After the wi'h have gone we can make ourselves a ship to replace Liberator. A ship even better than Liberator."

      I felt stunned. "Why didn't you tell me what you were doing?"

      "I was going to, but I'm not the only one who has been inaccessible."

      "And you thought I might object to attention being diverted away from our efforts on the Wraith ships?"

      Avon said nothing.

      "Well, suppose you let me take a look at this modified exploration ship of yours. I'd like to have some say in the design of a vessel I'm going to spend most of my life aboard in future."

      Avon's quick smile lit his face, surprised out of him by my enthusiasm. "Good. I've been wishing I could have your advice on some of the engineering problems."

      

      

Cally sat on the floor, leaning against Lanrir's warm body. She had returned only a few hours ago and would be gone again as soon as the next Wraith ship was ready. Avon had been quietly but obviously glad to see her, and so was I.

      When we had told her about our ship, her tired eyes had sparkled with enthusiasm, and she was still talking happily on the subject. "You must show me the specifications. There are things we will need that neither of you will think of, and I must look over the communication systems."

      "I'll go over them with you," said Avon, sounding pleased.

      "Does she have a name? The ship, I mean."

      "Not yet."

      "I will think about it."

      "A name is the least of our worries. What's happening in the rest of the Cloud, Cally?" Avon asked.

      "There is... tension. Vila says it is there on the Hoop worlds too. Everyone is fearful of something... the Guild... the Fraternity. Perhaps it is the Fraternity that is most feared."

      "The Fraternity is the wild card in the situation," I said, "and I think it will reap the benefit when the wi'h go. It has never used them at all."

      "Not if the Guild wi'h remain," said Avon.

      I pulled a wry face at him; I had been trying to forget that. "I'm not so sure. It seems to me that the Fraternity is a factor in every plot... it's pervasive. I wish I was sure of its motives."

      "Its leader, Valonia, is a most impressive woman," said Cally, twisting her fingers in Lanrir's fur. "I am not sure of her motives, either, but I know that she did not like me."

      "Why not?" Avon asked, plainly curious.

      "I'm not sure. It seemed to have something to do with the fact that I am not human. Anyway, she was not interested in me, but in you, Avon."

      I laughed. "Everyone is interested in Avon. Scitech, the Guild, the Fraternity.. "

      "They would be, wouldn't they?" Avon said smugly. "In all modesty..."

      "You don't know what the word means," I observed, in a mild attempt at deflation.

      "...they would hardly be interested in Vila," he finished. We all laughed.

      "You wanted my help yourself," Avon pointed out.

      "No. I wanted your company."

      "That will hardly by Valonia's motive," said Cally. "It's strange. Valonia could well have been interested in Vila, despite what Avon said. He is a very skilful thief - but Valonia was not concerned with Vila: she was simply interested in using us to find Avon."

      "The Fraternity's attitude to Avon is... ambivalent. It was one of its agents who released the links to try and kill you two and Vila back at Scitech Central, but he was executed as a traitor by the Fraternity themselves. Then Valonia tried to contact you-"

      "Valonia did?" Avon was astonished.

      "Yes. I'd forgotten about it until Cally mentioned her, but the minumal killed a messenger who was making his way to see you, Avon. Mind you, the 'he' is problematical. When the minumal have finished with a body there's nothing left. It was probably humanoid, that's all I know, but the message it was carrying was signed by Valonia and I rather think it was meant for Avon."

      "It could have been a ylln controlled wi'h. The Fraternity don't have a lot of human agents in Scitech, so they sometimes use them, according to Silkay."

      "They've even fewer agents since the purge," I said. "Manster's method of keeping his position involves a lot of effort on his part and is probably costing a great many innocent lives."

      "What did the message say?" Avon asked, obviously far more interested in that than in lives lost, however innocent. "After all, it was apparently meant for me."

      "Yes. Only the Guild got you, the minumal got the messenger, and Scitech got the message. The computers recorded it, so Orac can retrieve it for you but I'm pretty sure I can remember what it said: 'Do not trust anyone involved with Scitech or the Guild. Be very careful. They will kill you if you cross them. This messenger has been instructed in what to do next. You are now under the protection of the Fraternity. I will explain everything when we meet.'"

      "That's all?" Avon sounded surprised.

      "It was signed by Valonia, but that's all."

      Avon considered this. "The advice about Scitech and the Guild is good but I would not have acted on the rest of the message. Valonia must be a fool if she expected me to trust her on the strength of that."

      "It was what I thought at the time," I agreed. "You aren't the type to take people on trust."

      "Yet Valonia is a very, very intelligent woman," said Cally, "and she seemed to understand Avon very well."

      "You're sure that that was all there was in the message?" Avon persisted. "It seems very naive. Surely Valonia wouldn't be melodramatic enough to try a cipher or a hidden micro-message."

      {"right_head" on}"Wait... maybe there was something else..." I thought deeply, trying to recall what was bothering me. Then I had it. I picked up a scriber and switched on the table-top that acted as screen, communicator and computer. "There was a mark or sigil under the signature. I think I can remember it..." I sketched, erased, and sketched again. A triangle with an extended base line and two more parallel lines, one through the apex and one through the centre.

      {"right_head" off}

      "I... think that's right, but we can check through Orac."

      "It's right," Avon stated, his voice strained. Cally and I looked at him, and I, at least, was astonished by the expression on his face. It frightened me before he shielded it. Surprise, incredulity, pain... and... was there a hint of joy? Then it was blank, as rigid as the muscles of his body.

      Cally reached out to him. "Avon...?"

      "Blake," he said, ignoring her and turning to me. "Can you manage without me for a short time?"

      "Yes. If I have to."

      "And I need to borrow Moonshadow."

      "All right."

      Avon blinked slowly at me. "All right?"

      "Yes."

      He seemed about to say something, but stopped himself. It was some moments before he spoke again, and all he said then was, "I'll be back in a few days."

      "Take a wi'h with you, unless you'd rather have Cally or me."

      "No. I'll take one of the wi'h. Stali, if he'll come." He rose to his feet. "I have to consult Orac... and Blake... thank you for trusting me."

      Trust him? That was easy. It was letting him go alone into what might be real danger that was not.

      But he would be all right, I told myself, after all we had been through, he had to be.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

Valonia stopped dead, one hand steadyingly on the door frame, staring at the dark-haired man seated in the overstuffed chair directly in front of her, his feet on the low table. His stare was challenging, seemingly both unmoved and unafraid. Valonia was profoundly startled, but only for an instant. She said, absently, "I won't be needing you for while, Gooma," and walked on into the room. The door slid closed behind her.

      "I see that you're not dead after all," she said.

      "It appears not," Avon agreed.

      "How did you get in here?"

      "Oh, once I found out who you were, I tracked down this apartment fairly easily. You ought to change the locks. They're far too simple to be of real protection."

      Valonia was smiling very slightly. "And the guards?"

      "I didn't lay a hand on them." Avon was watching the woman narrowly. He had no intention of underestimating her, and he did not want her to form any suspicions about his method of arriving here. Orac had located the apartment for him and he had teleported in from the Moonshadow. The teleport remained his escape route if the situation got out of hand.

      "I'm sure you didn't, but you needn't have worried about them. They have orders not to harm you."

      "As they didn't harm me on Hinkal?"

      "You were hurt during the Guild attack?"

      "Slightly. Don't tell me that you were concerned?"

      Valonia said, "Of course I was concerned, Kerr. I'm not inhuman, and you are my son."

      "It's a little late for you to pretend to be overwhelmed by mother-love," Avon commented dryly. "I can recall your last message to me quite clearly. Father was dead. I was to look after Ian. Nothing else."

      "I was coming back," Valonia protested. "I just... needed time... to come to terms with your father's death. Then the ship on which I was travelling was scooped. There was no way back. I had to build a new life for myself here, but I would never have left you and Ian by choice."

      Avon raised an eyebrow. "I doubt you would have left Ian, but I also remember you telling me that it was about time I stood on my own feet."

      "Ian was only ten," Valonia pointed out. "But he... he was too like your father. I couldn't face him... not for a while... and then it was too late. How is Ian, Kerr?"

      "He's dead," said Avon. "He ignored everything I'd tried to teach him and got himself killed in an ignominious skirmish on a backwater planet. The locals weren't even trying to kill him. He just got in their way."

      "You were supposed to look after him!"

      "He was twenty-seven," Avon answered coldly. "Nine years older than I was when you issued that order to me. What was I supposed to do? Restrain an adult Federation citizen by force from joining the Federation political service."

      There was silence. Valonia went to a drink dispenser and punched herself a glass of dark liquid. She looked back at Avon. "Do you want a drink?"

      "Not at the moment."

      She turned to face him, her glass cradled in both hands. "Kerr, I'm sorry. I still see Ian as I last saw him, when he was still a boy. You knew him as a man, capable of making his own decisions. I find that very hard to imagine. For me he will always be ten years old."

      "You seem to be ageing remarkably well yourself," Avon commented. "You look no older than when I last saw you."

      "In a way, I am no older than when last saw me. Didn't they tell you at Scitech? The Scoop conducts molecular level body repair, to optimum level. Pass through the Scoop at forty-two, as I did, and you are returned to your highest physical level, giving you another twenty years or so of life, youth and health. The physical appearance of someone that age changes very little but on an older person it can be quite startling - if they survive, of course. Physically, you are now back at your peak, and you have an extra twenty years of life to live."

      "Hmm," said Avon. "Well, I can't say I'm entirely surprised. It certainly helps to explain the speed at which I recovered from injury. So what do you want from me, mother? Or would you rather be called Estar? Or Valonia?"

      "You had better make it Valonia. Estar Avon is dead, and our relationship might be more useful if concealed, at least for the moment. As for what I want... what makes you sure I want anything?"

      "Everyone here wants something from me, Valonia. You always did in the past. Why should it be any different now?"

      "You've grown very cynical, but you were always the true child of our marriage, weren't you, Kerr? Ian looked like your father, and was very like him in character, though without his brilliance. Scot would never admit that, you know, not when you had an IQ higher than either mine or his. Ian had to have that too - only he didn't. You have characteristics from both of us. I might wish for less of myself in you... though perhaps not, in the circumstances. Listen, Kerr..."

      "I am listening."

      "The socio-political situation here in the Cloud is very complex, but also nearly stagnant. The Cloud worlds need Scitech's technology. Scitech needs raw materials and food from the Cloud worlds. Both need the Guild to trade with each other and the Guild cannot exist without spares from Scitech and food from the Cloud worlds. A triple power balance, a closed circuit, and none of its components either worthy of or interested in my particular talents. There was no room for an outsider to gain power within that balance without upsetting it and possibly destroying it too."

      "That is obvious," said Avon, "as it is obvious that you have been building a fourth power bloc, turning the triangle into a square."

      "Of course. The Fraternity already existed, but I united it and made it into a power, though that has taken me twenty years. Now I control virtually all the Cloud worlds and have come close to the control of the High Command Council of the Guild. My main problem has been Scitech. I have been unable to penetrate that on the highest levels, for I am not enough of a scientist to train men and women well enough for the Guild to adopt them and offer them contracts, and I have been unable to bribe any of its high officials. There is far more dissatisfaction in the Guild; they have population pressures and a declining standard of living while Scitech rewards its people well. The Guild is an irritant, but Scitech thinks it can wait. Indeed, Scitech is the great power of the Cloud, but it is too lazy to act.

      "My calculations also indicated that there must be another, hidden factor, an unknown power influencing events. I put out feelers. I searched. Finally, the ylln contacted me."

      "Ah yes, the ylln." Though Avon had not moved, he suddenly seemed very dangerous. "Why did you hand my friends over to the ylln?"

      This really did startle Valonia. "How did you know about that?"

      "Cally and Vila escaped from the planet of the ylln and made their way back to Scitech. At the moment, I am working at Scitech."

      "Kerr, I depend on the ylln for much of my information, which comes from their wi'h agents. They demanded that I give them your... friends... and they also assured me that you were dead. Suddenly, it did not seem to matter. Do they really mean that much to you? I find it difficult to believe. The man is a fool. The woman is beautiful, but also alien. If you are thinking of a permanent relationship, then it should be with a human. Your genetic inheritance is too good to waste."

      "Cally and Vila have been my companions in great danger," Avon replied stiffly. "I do not wish to see them harmed."

      "So noted."

      "Fair enough."

      "Ah, your feelings do not run that deeply, then."

      "As you said, Valonia, I am like you in many ways - especially in the fact that my feelings do not rule my reason."

      Valonia regarded her son for a long time. "You may find someone who will make you change your mind - I did." She got no response. "Very well then, Kerr, listen to reason. Your inheritance could be a personal empire, here in the Cloud. The Guild is desperate to destroy Scitech. They tried to capture you because they believed that you could give them the means to do so. Their information is that your ship, the Liberator could mysteriously vanish from detector screens."

      "Yes," said Avon, "but the Federation had a similar device. Scitech might have had access to it via the Federation communications traffic."

      "No." Valonia spoke with authority. "If they had, I would have known of it. I doubt that Scitech has tried seriously to discover the secret of its construction; they have no spaceships and no means of constructing them, so they hardly need a device to negate a sensor probe. The Guild, on the other hand, see that if they had such a device they could make their fleet vanish from the Scitech defence detectors and move against the Hoop with impunity.

      "But you escaped and apparently died. All they had were your friends Mellanby and Tarrant. They made the best of them; Mellanby has been designing new weapons for the ships and, as I have the only technicians outside Scitech and control most of the sources of the materials they need, the Guild offered me an alliance if I would help them build those weapons."

      "So you did."

      "There was a certain amount of pressure. I need to keep my leverage within the Guild and I would have lost that if I had not agreed. Gorsky, the Fleet Admiral, is a hothead. He wants to attack Scitech. Like most Guild crew, he has a pathological dislike of that organisation and that has given him false hopes. Scitech defences would totally destroy the Guild fleet. That would also destroy all trade between Scitech and the Cloud worlds. There would be chaos. Someone has to restrain Gorsky and I'm under pressure from the ylln to put a stop to the whole enterprise."

      "But if I gave you the detector shield, it would give you enough leverage to insist on a joint command with Gorsky. Then you could let the Guild destroy Scitech defences. After which, of course, you could remove Gorsky and take over command."

      "You really should have gone into psychostrategy, Kerr... oh, all right, you're better with computers and I know it. I admit that I need your help to take over the Cloud. And the specifications of this detector shield, naturally."

      "Naturally." Avon took his time considering the offer. Valonia watched patiently. Then he smiled at her, suddenly reminding her painfully of her husband. "I think that I will have that drink."

      It was not until he had the glass in his hand that he said, "Yes. I think you might succeed. If I'm going to help you, though, I have some suggestions."

      "I thought you might have. Name them, and we'll see."

      "I've been working with a Scitech engineer called Vanor Ricel to try to break through the force shields protecting the old Builders' shipyards. Anyone who had control of those Yards would be invincible in the Cloud."

      "Can you do it?"

      "Probably, but not without Ricel's help... and I need time. You'll have to hold off the Guild for as long as you can. I know it won't be easy, but you must buy me that time."

      "It will take time to equip the Guild fleet with the detector shields, perhaps more time than is strictly necessary."

      "Yes. Second problem: the ylln. They are going to object very strongly to Guild ships striking anywhere near their planet."

      "They will be wise to do so. It's high on my list of targets when the fleet goes in."

      "The wi'h may find a way to report what is happening to the ylln. If they do, it may become very difficult for you."

      "There are no wi'h in my organisation."

      "The Guild uses them," Avon countered.

      Valonia grimaced. "I know."

      "I don't suppose the Guild would agree to their destruction?"

      "No. They are far too useful. Besides, I intend to use the wi'h myself and you will need them, if you break through into the Yards. So will I, as Guild crew. We may be a little short on pilots after my agents have weeded out the troublemakers."

      "And you don't like unnecessary bloodshed."

      "I don't believe that you do, either," said Valonia. 'Not unless you have changed."

      "Deaths are inelegant," said Avon. "Murder has no style. So, have the Guild put all their wi'h down on an uninhabited world. There are Earth-type inhabited worlds not far from the Hoop?"

      "Yes, but do you have any ideas as to how I can persuade them to do that?"

      "Point out the fact that the wi'h are a liability in a battle. Tell them that they might unwittingly give away information to a Scitech agent. If necessary, tell them that you suspect aliens of using the wi'h as agents. Persuade them that, once grounded, the wi'h won't be in the way, and that they can be picked up again once Scitech is taken."

      Valonia looked at him with respect. "Good reasons. They would even make sense if the ylln did not exist. Any more suggestions?"

      "No, but one condition. It concerns Dayna Mellanby and Del Tarrant. I do hope that they are unharmed."

      "They are."

      "See that they stay that way. Keep them out of the battle with Scitech, when it comes."

      "I will try."

      "Try," said Avon, "is not good enough. 'Only success is good enough.' I am quoting one Estar Avon, a woman for whom I have a great deal of respect."

      "I hope so. I have a lot of respect for one Kerr Avon, too. I will succeed. We will succeed. In every way."

      "Good." For the first time, Avon tasted his drink and visibly relaxed. "I'd like to hear your plans in more detail, then I'll see about producing the detector shield schematics. We'd better start now. There's a lot to do."

      

      

"Did it go well?" Stali asked.

      "Well enough," Avon answered, stepping down from the teleport platform. "I think I may have solved the problem of the Guild wi'h."

      "That is good news. Blake will be pleased."

      "Yes. I suppose he will." Avon looked uncomfortable. "Let's go back to the Yards and tell him."

      Yes, but tell him what? Avon asked himself as Stali sent Moonshadow speeding back towards the Hoop. The meeting with his mother had gone better than he had hoped. She was using him, of course. Avon smiled dangerously. Well, he was also using her. He had broadened his options considerably. He could now, if he wished, take power here, as he had suggested to Blake. He could even force Blake to join him.

      His mind shied away from the consequences of any such action and returned to Valonia. She had not wanted him to go back to the Hoop, and instead had suggested that the Yard Barriers could wait until after the conquest of Scitech, but he had insisted that he needed Vanor Ricel's help in bringing then down and that she needed an agent she could trust to provide the components for the detector shield. Finally, she had agreed, though she had warned him to be careful.

      Was she really concerned? Avon thought so. She was certainly pleased to have him with her.

      Did she trust him?

      Certainly not.

      Avon recalled somewhat wryly that when he had left after they had toasted their new alliance, she had kissed his cheek and told him again that he must keep out of the fighting. Then she had had him followed. He had been expecting it and had removed himself from the surveillance before signalling to Stali to teleport him back to Moonshadow. He had understood her reasons - she was curious about how he had travelled across interstellar space from Scitech - but he had been oddly disappointed. He could not help remembering Blake's simple agreement to his request to take Moonshadow. That had been stupid, but it had spoken of complete trust.

      "I trust you."

      Avon's self-satisfaction faded. He had opened out his options, yes, but which of those options could he bear to give up?

      Trust.

      Loyalty.

      Who had a right to his?

      

      

"I'm still not at all sure about this," said Gorsky, peering down at the Ney's navigation screens. "We're off the trade lanes and travelling fast enough to alert Scitech's defence systems to the fact that we're not a Hoop shuttle - and then they'll challenge and we don't have a shuttle's automatic-response systems, so they'll blow us out of space. Are you sure that this 'sensor deflector' of yours is going to work, Valonia?"

      "Would I be on board, Admiral, if I was not sure that it was going to work?"

      This was unanswerable and Gorsky did not answer it. He just muttered, "I hope that this technician of yours is as reliable as you think."

      "He is," said Valonia.

      "We'll be crossing the notional perimeter in ten seconds," the Ney's pilot reported. She sounded tense.

      Valonia pressed a switch. "Sensor deflectors on."

      "Four... three... two... crossing perimeter now." The pilot's voice was rising a little, but she was not the only one whose stomach muscles knotted as the Ney rushed headlong across the invisible line that marked the beginning of the Hoop's defence sphere.

      The seconds counted themselves onwards.

      "Nothing," the pilot gasped, in astonishment and relief.

      Gorsky whistled through his teeth. "Well, let's go and take a look at Scitech Central. If we are not spotted there, you'll have a deal, Valonia."

      "Yes. Just remember that this device is booby trapped, and that there are to be no wi'h involved in any of this."

      "You have a reason for that," Gorsky observed dryly. "I shall be interested in hearing it."

      Valonia smiled faintly but did not answer. She wondered where her son was. Divided loyalties were not something she wanted to have bothering Kerr. Cally and Restal were beyond her reach... for now... but there might be some... accidents... during the attack on Scitech. It would be unfortunate if the victims should include Mellanby and Tarrant, unfortunate if she could not persuade the Guild to keep them out of the oncoming battle. Unfortunate, but very convenient.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      "The last of them," Silkay said with pride as he stood looking at the great Wraith ship lying in its cradle. "Our freedom, and our chance to follow the Builders." He turned to face me. "Blake, I thank you. When we brought you here I had no idea... no hope... that you could accomplish so much so quickly. Are you sure that you and your friends will not come with us? You would be welcome."

      "I know that but... no, thank you. Though anything is possible in this universe, so perhaps we may meet again."

      Silkay spread out his arms to indicate the whole of the Yard control room. "This is yours now. I think that the Builders would approve. Use it well."

      He shook hands with me, then moved his hands to my waist and embraced me in his people's fashion.

      "I wish you all the luck and happiness there is, Silkay."

      "And I you. We are ready to go now, Blake. We will sweep the Hoop clean of wi'h within twenty hours. In five days we will be ready to brave the stargate. I must also ask you to thank your friends again, particularly Avon. The watch ship reports that all the wi'h enslaved by the Guild are either in the freeports or have been put down on Tyranus 3. How did he accomplish this?"

      "I wish I knew."

      As I watched Silkay leave I repeated that comment to myself. Avon was up to something. When he had returned, over three months ago, from the first of what had now become a quartet of private expeditions, he had been totally uncommunicative. I could have found out his destination from Stali, but had refrained from questioning either of them, though I had given Avon every opportunity to talk.

      He had not taken it. Instead, he had flung himself into the design of the ship we now called Phoenix. Oddly, the highly appropriate suggestion had been Cally's. When I had asked her how she came to know of an Earth legend, she had replied that Auron had a similar one, and that she had read about it when she had researched the origin of her own people's myth. It plainly meant something special to her.

      If Avon had withdrawn from us in any other way I would have been worried but, though something was obviously bothering him, he had seemed to seek out my company, and Cally's and Vila's, when they were here. Lanrir was often with him. Yet at times he vanished into the computer section for hours; not abnormal behaviour for him but, nevertheless, it made me feel uneasy. I wished that he could confide in me... or Cally... or anyone.

      I sighed. No doubt he would tell me, sooner or later, and I had other problems. I went to find my friends.

      As I approached the lounge, I heard raised voices, Cally's predominating: "Avon, the Guild ships are massing just outside the Hoop. As you knew about them depositing the wi'h on Tyranus 3, I suspect you knew about the rendezvous too."

      "If I did," Avon replied quietly, "you would have been told about it at the appropriate time."

      "Dayna and Tarrant could be on one of those ships."

      "As a matter of fact, they are, but they'll be taken back to Shipmeet soon. We can pick them up from there without very much risk."

      "So you did know!"

      "Obviously."

      "You're double-crossing us!" Vila shouted at him.

      "If I was double-crossing you, you would never have known about the Guild wi'h. In fact, they'd all have been dead by now."

      "All right. Stop this!" I ordered. "We've no time to quarrel. Cally, you're committed to going with the wi'h on the pickup sweep, so you'd better be off. We've loaded Moonshadow on board the last Wraith ship."

      Cally did not deflect her glare from Avon's face. "Will you never learn to trust, you fool?" She whirled on me, her face angry. "Blake, as soon as the wi'h enter the stargate I am going to rescue Tarrant and Dayna. I will need Vila and Lanrir."

      "Cally..." Avon began.

      "Why me?" Vila squealed.

      "Because I shall need doors opened and you can open doors. Besides, Blake is needed here and I no longer trust Avon's motives."

      "Cally..." Avon began again.

      I interrupted him. "Avon will not betray us." I made it a flat statement and wished I was as certain as I sounded.

      "But he may attempt to make us do something we do not want to do. Besides, if Tarrant's life depended on either of you, I am not sure that he would go on living."

      "What makes you think that I'd help him?" Vila demanded.

      "He wouldn't expect you to." Cally took hold of Vila's arm. Lanrir uncurled himself to follow. Yet now Cally hesitated, looking at me for approval.

      "Be careful," I said. "We'll have Orac relay any information he can find to the Moonshadow's computer. Avon has modified his carrier beam to penetrate the Barrier, but it's the only thing that can."

      "Thank you." She looked again at Avon, then abruptly turned and left, pulling Vila with her, Lanrir padding behind.

      I saw a hint of desperation deep in Avon's eyes. "Do you want to tell me about it?" I asked.

      "Why aren't you angry?" was his response.

      "Do I have anything to be angry about?"

      "You still trust me? After all this?"

      "I trust you completely, and so does Cally, despite what she just said, but there are times when you don't make it easy for us."

      Avon answered very carefully. "Blake, I give you my word that I have done nothing that will harm you or Cally or Vila or Lanrir or Dayna or Tarrant, or any of the wi'h. Is that enough for you?"

      "More than enough. In fact, totally unnecessary. Can you handle things here on your own for the next few days?"

      "Yes. Why?"

      "Because there is something I have to do before we leave the Hoop: I must destroy the controls of the intergalactic probes and the Scoop so they can no longer affect events in our home galaxy."

      "You can't be serious! You'll be killed. It's a lunatic idea, and it would be suicidal to attempt it alone."

      "I don't think so. The shuttle I'm using is one I've had specially adapted for this mission. It has a teleport with an automatic recall system. This is my job, Avon. It was bad enough involving you all in the liberation of the wi'h, but this is something which I have to do alone. Stay here. Give me the Phoenix to return to. That is all I ask."

      Avon shook his head. "I wish that I could amputate your conscience."

      "No you don't."

      "Don't I?" He did not seem very sure. "I'll walk with you down to the shuttle... see you off."

      "Thanks, I'd like that."

      "Just try to stay alive, Blake."

      "I intend to." It was true. I still had far too much to do.

      

Treacherous Choices

Cally watched impatiently as another group of a hundred wi'h were rushed from the teleport platform in the Wraith ship's main hold. The twelve huge ships had swept through the Hoop, starting with Scitech Central and the other major centres of population, picking up every single wi'h on the great ring of worlds.

      Scitech had been unable to react. The Wraith ships were undetectable except visually, and all Scitech communications were being jammed. It was only after they had left the Hoop, starbursting out into the Cloud worlds, that Cally had heard the excited chatter start to fill the communications channels behind them.

      Then that stopped abruptly. From that moment, Scitech was silent about the vanishing wi'h. Blake had suggested that that might happen, Cally remembered, that the Scitech Director would order that their sudden weakness should be concealed from the rest of the Cloud. A civilization that relied on its wi'h slaves, Scitech was reeling from the blow of their loss.

      Out on the Cloud Worlds, the attitude was much the same. Each one distrusted the others far too much to admit weakness. The Guild ships had also mysteriously vanished and their citizens in the freeports were blocked from contacting them. It had taken the Fraternity some time to realise what was happening but when they did their headquarters was flooded with coded reports. Afraid that any report to Valonia - who was still with Gorsky - would be intercepted by the Guild, Fraternity leaders came to the conclusion that the secret of the vanishing wi'h should remain just that. So the Fraternity did nothing. Humans on the Cloud Worlds were dismayed and frightened. What the ylln thought, no-one knew or cared.

      Cally was surprised by the silence on the communication channels but did not hesitate to take advantage of it. Now the ship on which she travelled was orbiting Tyranus 3, gathering in the Guild wi'h. Next, it would journey to the farming world of Illyria to take aboard the fifty or so wi'h of that small community. Then it would rendezvous with the rest of the Wraith ships at the Mare's Nest.

      Cally tapped her fingers impatiently against the edge of the control panel. She wondered what Blake and Avon were doing. This situation was dangerous. Orac's latest message had stated that the Guild attack fleet was now complete, waiting close to the Hoop, and that Tarrant and Dayna were still with them. So much for Avon's promise that they would be taken to Shipmeet.

      This fact had plainly worried Avon too, for he had added a rider to Orac's message, telling Cally to go ahead, but instructing her to be careful.

      That had warmed Cally. The hectoring tone in the message could have been either Avon or Orac - it had sounded like both of them - and the information that accompanied the messages included a precise fix on the ship holding Tarrant and Dayna: its name, description and detailed plans.

      Cally felt happier about Avon now. Whatever he was hiding, it was not something that would harm them - but she still wished she knew what it was.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      The world that controlled the interplanetary probes was like the legendary Mary Celeste, since the ylln-controlled wi'h had been snatched away four days ago, some of the last to be taken from the hoop.

      I had destroyed the mechanisms quickly and with ease, using a few carefully placed explosive charges. Now I was nearly ready to leave, with just one more port of call before I returned to the Yards. I took one look back at the wrecked and smoking ruins of the installation, then touched the recall button on the teleport bracelet under my sleeve.

      Instants later, I was back on the shuttle.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      Avon made yet another thorough inspection of the Yard installations. Phoenix seethed in its pre-life fires, yet he felt as if the birth of the ship - his ship - would never happen.

      Phoenix. His ship. She had been born from his mind; Builder technology, Spaceworld technology, human and Auronar technology... the combined work of Blake and Cally and Vila, as well as himself... and yet it was his ship. She had been conceived in his mind. He might lend her, even give her, to someone he cared for enough, but she would, somehow, always remain his.

      Well, just what was he going to do with her? The problem of his future actions still nagged at him. He had thought, not so long ago, that he had solved it. Here, with Blake and Cally and Vila, everything had seemed simple. He would take Phoenix and let the Cloud look after itself... but now...

      Mother, what have you done to me? I do not love you - at least, I do not think I love you. I certainly do not trust you. Yet you have offered me power, wealth and security. I want them... but I... want my friends, too. Forcing Blake into joining us is probably beyond my ability. Even if I did, would I want to face the result? I never liked the changes in him... and Cally and Vila would follow his lead. I don't have that kind of hold over them... but I could try... it might work...

      And if I follow my original plan and leave with Blake, what do I have to look forward to except exile from the rest of humanity? Do I even care about the rest of humanity? It will be dangerous out there in the cold and loneliness of unknown space but it will... would... not be without interest.

      What am I going to do? I must choose very soon. Which option should it be?

      Avon shook himself out of his introspective study and marched through the corridors until he found Orac. "Give me a report on the status of the shuttle Blake is using," he ordered.

      "Blake is on board the shuttle which is on its way to Scitech Central."

      "What about Moonshadow?"

      "It is standing a short distance off the wi'h fleet which is about to depart through the stargate."

      "Status of the Guild fleet?"

      "It remains in the region of the Tilurn asteroids, just outside detection range from the Hoop. I have given you this information several times already. While aware of the inadequacy of human memory, I must-"

      "Shut up, Orac!"

      "Tarrant and Dayna are still with the Guild fleet. I give you that information in case you have also forgotten what I told you less than an hour ago." Orac paused for a reply, but Avon did not display an interest in telling him to shut up again, so he continued, "Do you also wish for an update on the attack plans stored in the Guild computers?"

      "Shut up, Orac!"

      "It is relevant information for one whose memory is so inade-" Orac's voice cut off abruptly as Avon removed his key.

      Damn it, which option was he going to choose?

      

      

      Moonshadow was a speck in the void, dwarfed into insignificance by the massive dust cloud that lay within twenty spacials. She had waited, a lone observer, as the twelve ships, a fleet more powerful than any seen in the Cloud for nearly a thousand years, had passed into the vortex, never to return.

      She waited still, a final sentinel to the departure of the true inheritors of the Hoop, who had lost everything, but had finally won what they most desired, the chance to serve, once again, their beloved creators.

      So the crew of the Moonshadow kept vigil, standing silently, gazing out into the glowing, hazy mass of the Mare's Nest. No word had been spoken between Cally and Vila since the wi'h had departed, and Lanrir lay like a statue at their feet.

      It was the ending of the second era of the history of the Hoop, the parting of friends, and there had been sadness. The friends had gone; the sadness remained.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      I had teleported down directly into the Scoop maintenance area, where only recently there would have been half a dozen wi'h on permanent standby. Now it was deserted. I doubted that there were enough trained humans in Scitech to operate the Scoop, but there would be, in time, if I did not act. The humans back in the Federation and, indeed, all life in the worlds within the Scoop's range had to be protected.

      My target was Scoop Control. From there it would be possible to destroy the Scoop itself.

      I peered out into the corridor, then strode boldly along it. A couple of technicians passed me but they recognised the emblems on my tunic and ignored me.

      I was not ignored when I stepped out onto the Scoop control balcony, but I was relieved that Jake Harum was absent. I worried about Jake. He had helped me so much in my first days at Scitech, becoming my closest friend in that organisation. Now I was going to betray his trust, destroy his main reason for living. It hurt, but I understood the order of imperatives now. Avon had tried to teach it to me, but it had taken the Federation and Scitech between them to do so fully.

      As Crix came towards me, saying, "Ricel, I didn't know you were back at Central," I made a quick head-count. Four of them. This might not be as difficult as I had anticipated.

      "Crix. Good. I was just in the Scoop maintenance area, looking for Jake. There seemed to be a lot of activity in the E-field control computers. I knew you were shut down, so..."

      "We are. The E-field control computers? Are you sure about that, Ricel?"

      "Sure that the banks are in operational mode, yes, but computers aren't my speciality. That's why I'm up here. I hoped that Jake would be here too."

      Crix was checking the tell-tales. "Nothing showing here. I'd better check it out. Is your reason for wanting Jake important?"

      I made a show of hesitation. "Important but not desperate. If you need my help-"

      "No, but I'll probably need Jake's. When you find him, tell him that, will you? Ziger, Firminger, with me. Beckett, stay here. Watch the E-space control boards."

      As Crix led his assistants out at a dead run, Beckett, a plump, redheaded woman, moved position. I shifted to stand behind her, pretending curiosity.

      I do not think that many men find it easy to hit a helpless woman. The old instincts go deep. But I hit this one quickly and cleanly, rendering her unconscious, and pulled her onto the floor, taking her place at the controls. Crix was going to find activity in the E-space control banks all right.

      Hands flying across the control panels, I called the E-space receiver field into being, but made no attempt to open the tube. Within a few minutes, the stresses at the interface would cause permanent damage, burning out every circuit and generator in the whole Scoop complex.

      Warning alarms began to flash on the boards. I overrode them and silenced the audio alarms, then fixed a small charge to the controls and a second to the back-ups.

      Suddenly, the secondary alarms blared out, assaulting my eardrums. That I could not silence these wasn't important, for I had disarmed the fail-safes. All that remained was the woman, Beckett. I heaved her over my shoulder and ran for the door. As I reached it I heard an almost simultaneous group of thuds as the charges exploded, followed by the splutter of damaged circuitry and the crackle of flame. Far away there were other, louder, explosions. If Crix and his assistants had not been fairly lively in their retreat they were going to have their eyebrows singed.

      Looking back, I was almost blinded by the flare of the E-space field, a glare that made the flames in front of it seem dim and lifeless.

      I fled, bearing the woman with me.

      There were more detonations and the roar of fire underlying them was growing all the time. The air was heavy with smoke and fumes, and mind-shattering alarms still bellowing their warning.

      I came out into the open air, gasping in coolness and oxygen. The alarm stopped, and the silence was deafening. There had been no more explosions. The Scoop mechanisms were slag, the computers fused, all the control systems burnt to ashes.

      I eased Beckett down to the ground, resting her on the new, bright grass.

      "Ricel... stand very still." The voice was harsh, breathless, coming from behind me, and it belonged to Jake Harum. Damn. "Turn around, Ricel, very slowly."

      I did so, keeping my hands well away from my sides. Jake stood in front of me, dirty and red-eyed. He held a gun in a white-knuckled fist.

      He said, bitterly, "So Manster was right."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      Moonshadow was as silent and invisible as her name as she stalked the combined Guild fleet, masked in the effective nothingness of the detector shield.

      "Which is the Napoleon?" Vila asked, peering at the screen

      "The large orange contact in the second rank, at the apex of the fleet," said Cally. "It's an 'Alexander' class battle cruiser, anything up to sixty years old. According to Orac, they were the largest warships ever built in the Known Worlds. A planet-buster with a crew of nearly two thousand."

      "Big," said Vila. "Must be slow, though. She can't have a lot of power relative to her mass."

      "She hasn't. We would outrun her, even in this converted shuttle."

      "And she could blow us out of space if one of her gun-crew sneezed."

      "Well, we have her specs. Orac has transferred them to our own ship's computer."

      "Yes. And where did Orac get them?" Vila grumbled. "He couldn't read a computer way back in the Federation, could he?"

      "I do not know. The message did not say. He could have drawn them from the Napoleon's own computers, I suppose. That is where he must have obtained the information about Dayna and Tarrant."

      "Well, I don't trust any of it," said Vila mutinously.

      "It makes no difference, Vila. We must use what we have. So, let us study these plans. We have no information about where on the Napoleon Tarrant and Dayna are being held and we must decide which is the most likely place before we attempt to free them."

      "You're a worse bully than Avon," said Vila, and meant it.

      Lanrir coughed. Vila looked at the icecat suspiciously. He had the distinct impression that the beast was laughing.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      I had been searched and my gun and teleport bracelet removed before I was marched into the Director's office. This process had given me a little time to consider my situation, which was not a promising one. I was lucky to be alive and now, as I stood before the Director and Jake, I knew that it would take very little provocation to make them decide to kill me.

      "Why?" the Director raged, "Why, Ricel? We took you in, gave you everything you wanted, made you an honoured member of Scitech, and you betray us. Why?"

      It seemed wisest to say nothing.

      "You destroyed the Scoop. Manster thinks you arranged the disappearance of the wi'h and I believe him. What did happen to the wi'h, Ricel? Where are they?"

      That question, I would answer. "Beyond your reach, Director. Beyond anyone's reach. You've lost your slaves. Be thankful you can keep your stolen property: the Hoop, and all it contains."

      "The wi'h kidnapped our ancestors, Ricel. Yours too. It is only right-"

      "Haven't you ever asked yourself who ordered the wi'h to bring humans here, Director? Not the Builders. They left long before that. You do not even know who your enemies really are, far less that they dwell within the Hoop itself."

      Before the Director could reply, Jake exploded, "You think we don't know anything, right, Ricel? Well, I know something you'd rather I didn't. You came here from the Yards. You and Avon have broken through the Barriers, haven't you? And now you're trying to destroy every other source of power in the Hoop. Well, it won't work. We're going to destroy your power base and this unlikely alliance of yours with it. Chev Manster is on his way to the Yards, Ricel, and his shuttle is carrying enough AM missiles to blast everything there to smithereens."

      "Are you trying to frighten me, Jake? You've made a poor choice of threat. Manster's already thrown everything he has at the Yard Barriers to try and break them - and they're still there."

      "You said that Avon could break the Yard Barriers," the Director pointed out.

      "He has done it!" Jake shouted. "Listen, Ricel. Chev's flying a shuttle identical to your personal toy - Moonshadow, or whatever you call it. When Avon spots it, he'll open the Barriers for you, right? Oh, we know he's at the Yards. Chev's been to your home on Firel. It was deserted. It's been deserted for months. You had to be at the Yards, Ricel, and when that Barrier opens, Avon and the rest of them are going to die."

      "Unless," the Director interposed smoothly, "you tell us, now, how to open the Yard Barriers and operate the Yards."

      "You bloody fool!" I yelled at her. "Nothing you can say will stop Manster firing those missiles. The man's a psychopath."

      "You will tell us," she said, as if I had not interrupted. "It's the only way that you can save their lives and, incidentally, your own."

      I let my eyes move to the table and to the gun and teleport bracelet that lay there. Perhaps there was still a chance to reach the Yards in time to stop Manster.

      Noticing my stare, Jake snatched up the bracelet and brandished it. "What is this, Ricel?"

      "Why don't you push the button and find out?"

      Jake stared at it. Of course, if he did push the button, he would be teleported to my shuttle, an action that would not help me at all.

      "No," said the Director. "Ricel, you push it."

      "Wait!" Jake protested. "You don't understand how devious this man is, Director. Perhaps he wants to push the button."

      "Give it to me," the Director ordered. She took the reluctantly offered bracelet and examined it, her fat fingers showing surprising delicacy. She watched me covertly as she let her touch hover over the recall button. I had to get my response to that exactly right. There would be no second chance.

      I did not flinch, did not drop my eyes from her face, showed no expression. Avon himself could not have presented a stonier face than I did then.

      "You." The word summoned one of my guards. Looking apprehensive, he shouldered his gun and stepped forward.

      The Director handed him the bracelet. "Stand next to Ricel. When I give the order, you will press this button. Come over here, Jake."

      As the guard returned, somewhat reluctantly, to my side, the Director and Jake retreated to the far corner of the office.

      "Now!"

      I stiffened as the guard pressed the button, letting the Director see my reaction. I also began counting. It took exactly nine seconds for the automatic recall to work.

      Three... four... five...

      "Nothing happened, Director," said the relieved guard, holding the bracelet at arm's length.

      Six... seven... eight....

      I snatched the bracelet from the guard's hand, linking my fingers through its circle.

      "Kill him!" the Director screamed, as Jake threw her to the floor.

      I saw the flash of the guns, but by then the teleport was in operation. There was the usual moment of disorientation, and then I was back on board the shuttle. I leaped for the controls, fed in the co-ordinates of the Yards and started the engines, pushing them to full power. No use trying to call Avon on the communicator. The Barrier field would block it. If Orac scanned the computer he would pick up any message.

      I hurriedly fed information into the shuttle's computer, warning Avon to keep the Barriers up, whoever and whatever came close, but I could not count on Orac scanning the computer soon and in sufficient depth. Avon, no doubt, had ordered him to make periodic checks on my position, but for that he needed only a minimal scan. The real answer was for me to catch Manster.

      There was no sign of his shuttle on the scanner but, behind me a whole fleet, some thirty or so craft, followed in my tracks. There was no way that they could be following me, hidden as I was by the detector shield, but they already knew where I was going. The lack of contact might puzzle them but that would not stop them heading straight for the Yards.

      I remembered the minumal sweep, and just how effective the weaponry of a fleet of shuttles could be. Suddenly, I was afraid that I would not catch Manster before my pursuers caught me.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      Cally, Vila and Lanrir materialised just outside the Napoleon's detention area, seriously startling a young crewwoman who gave an undignified squeal and turned to run.

      Lanrir surged past her and did a neat turn, showing all his teeth. The girl opened her mouth, taking a deep breath to scream, only to find Cally's hand clamped over it.

      "Be quiet," Cally ordered, "or I will feed you to the icecat. Do you understand?"

      The girl nodded, and Cally took her hand away.

      "Vila, what about that door?"

      "It's open."

      "You were very quick."

      "No, I mean that the door was already open"

      "What?" Cally herded the girl back towards the door into the detention area. "Through it. Yes, you first, woman."

      Looking very puzzled, the girl stepped through the door. Cally and Lanrir followed, with Vila cautiously bringing up the rear.

      They were in the centre aisle of a wide room divided up into a series of cells all of which had doors of an unbreakable transparent material. The partitions between the cells were also transparent above a one metre height.

      Two of the cells were occupied, but neither occupant bore the remotest resemblance to Tarrant and Dayna.

      Cally and Vila stared at each other.

      "Now can we go home?" Vila asked hopefully.

      Cally ignored the question. "It is possible that they are no longer on board this ship, but have been taken back to Shipmeet as Avon said. However, I think it unlikely. Orac would have reported it to us,"

      "Maybe they aren't prisoners at all. Maybe they don't want to be rescued."

      Cally pushed the woman back against the wall. "Where are Del Tarrant and Dayna Mellanby?"

      "Who?"

      "Tarrant and Mellanby. They were prisoners on board this ship. I want to know where they are now."

      "I... don't know what you're talking about. I don't know about any..." She paused, her eyes widening. "...prisoners..." she finished lamely.

      "I think you do," said Cally. "You just remembered something. What was it?"

      "I don't kn - ow."

      "You do know," said Cally, keeping up the pressure on the girl's twisted wrist. Lanrir snarled.

      Cally could feel the girl trembling. Now, she let her go. "She will not talk," she stated. "Lanrir, she is yours." She turned away, taking Vila's arm.

      "No!" the girl screeched. "Wait!" Cally kept on walking. "Wait! They... they're on Deck 5... I think... wait... please... please..."

      Cally stopped, but did not turn. "Explain," she ordered.

      "Deck 5... sections 8 and 9 have been sealed off for months. I've never known such tight security. Your friends could be there."

      "I do not believe you." Cally started forwards again.

      "It's true. It's true. They must be there. You... you... c... c... can't... They must be there!" The girl fell, sobbing, to the floor, cringing away as Lanrir nosed at her hair.

      Cally came back to them. "Open a cell door, Vila," she ordered. Then, "Not an occupied one, idiot."

      Muttering that Cally sounded just like Avon, Vila had a cell door open in seconds. Cally thrust the girl inside.

      "Now lock it."

      As they left the detention area, Vila asked, "Do you think she was telling the truth?"

      "I think so, but we will question some more members of Napoleon's crew and see which stories tally."

      Vila groaned. "Cally, can't we go home?"

      Cally smiled at him consolingly. "Never mind, Vila. Just hold the gun and try to look reasonably impressive. Lanrir and I will do the rest."

      "Oh. You will. Yes, I know you will, but I still wish we were somewhere else... heading back for the Yards... Yes. Heading back to the Yards."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      I had Manster on my screens now. He was heading towards the Yards at a steady pace, plainly not wishing to alarm Avon. I could see the Yards themselves as a glowing coin of a world through the ports, but Manster's shuttle was still not close enough to be visible. The fleet was close behind me, but the communication channels were silent.

      Why hadn't they contacted Manster? The only explanation I could think of was that, as they had no way of knowing that the Barriers blocked communications, they did not want to take the risk of a message being overheard.

      Manster's craft now began transmitting the Moonshadow's recognition signal. Avon could not hear it until he opened the Barriers, but Moonshadow's presence ought to make him suspicious. I had tried to teach him trust. Now I could only hope that he had not learned the lesson too well.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      Avon stared at the great spaceship that hung before him, for once in his life totally awed. The Phoenix had been born from the fires. The fluted hull was a red so dark it was nearly black, and in that depth was a golden glitter that indicated the force shield that protected it.

      "There is a shuttle approaching the Yards. There is a shuttle approaching the Yards." It took several repetitions from the automatic computer device to break his reverie.

      Shuttle? Blake? He asked himself as he ran for one of the transport platforms. This urge to see the reality of his ship meant it would take him several minutes to reach the Barrier controls. He hoped that the summons was not urgent.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      Manster's ship was now in orbit about the Yards but, though I knew that the observation eyes that floated in the Barrier fields would have pinpointed the shuttle by now and signalled its presence to the computers below, the Barrier had not opened. Perhaps... oh Lord, let it be true... Avon had spotted the deception.

      I tried the viewscreen again. If I set maximum power on visual I could just make out Manster's shuttle, a dark diamond against the glowing silver net of the Barrier.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      Avon was surprised by the picture on the screen. A shuttle. No, not just any shuttle: Moonshadow. How could Cally and Vila have rescued Dayna and Tarrant so quickly?

      "Second shuttle approaching," the computer informed him.

      "On visual," Avon ordered, checking the screen again. Yes, there was another tiny speck coming in towards the Yards at what must be a shuttle's maximum speed.

      Avon made a quick decision. His hands flew over the controls.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

I was nearly on top of Manster now. Though I would be visible both on his screens and to the naked eye, perhaps I could blow him apart before he spotted me.

      Then the patterns of the Barrier field swirled and drew into a circle, a black pit forming at its centre.

      I hit the communicator. "Avon! This is Blake. Close the Barriers and keep them closed. Now!"

      Even as I spoke, I saw the missile leave Manster's shuttle, the burning red of its engine specked on the black of the opening in the Barriers.

      The force lines drew together, constricting the dark circle. The red flared down into the dwindling ring. The explosion turned the shuttle's screen to a rectangle of pure white light, and I had to turn my head away. When I looked again, the Barriers were back in position, inviolable.

      I leaned weakly against the hull. I had been in time... I had been in time...

      A tremendous explosion threw me to one side, sending the shuttle into a tumbling spin, so I was flung against the wall and had to claw my way to my feet. The sky toppled on the screen; the massed approaching shuttle fleet, Manster's ship, the Yards, the stars and the Hoop worlds, the blazing sun, and the massed fleet again.

      I scrambled into the pilot's chair in company of another explosion aft. Smoke was filling the forward cabin and the living quarters had already been sealed off. The power surge had destroyed most of the circuitry, one engine was gone and the other was causing the ship's mad spin. Even when I switched it off, the ship continued to spin and, with the other engine still out, there was no way to correct it.

      I was almost too dizzy to think, anyway.

      She was falling... falling into the Yards... hitting the Barrier would be like hitting the surface of a planet... there was nothing... I... could... do...

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      Avon's mind raced over every appalling possibility as the shuttle - Blake's shuttle - continued to spin towards the Yards. Open the Barriers? Whoever was in the shuttle with Moonshadow's markings would see the force lines move and send another missile to follow the first. He was still astonished at the reading of the level of energy that the Barriers had absorbed. If one of those missiles got through there would be nothing left below the Barriers. Besides, Blake's shuttle would be destroyed just as surely by hitting the surface of the Yards as hitting the fields.

      Strike back? He had no weapons.

      There was nothing he could do.

      Blake...

      The shuttle hit the Barrier and exploded. Avon watched the ball of flame without either moving or speaking. His face was expressionless, though there was no-one from whom he had to hide his emotions, but his eyes were as dark and as chill as space.

      

      

"So that's it?" said Vila, looking doubtful.

      "It appears to be." Cally looked down at the heavy airtight door and the two men who guarded it from her vantage point at the top of the inspection ladder.

      Wedging herself into position, she levelled her gun.

      "You're going to kill them," said Vila.

      "That is the only door into the security section. Would you like to go down there and ask them to let us in?"

      "I said that you sounded like Avon," said Vila. Then, "Blake won't like it."

      "He'll never know unless you tell him."

      "But-"

      "Shhhh."

      It was too late. The guards below had heard Vila's raised voice and were looking about for him, their guns at the ready.

      Then one of the guards saw them. "Stay where you-"

      Cally's shot cut him short and cut him down. Vila fired over her shoulder to blast the second guard as he tried to shoot back. Energy rocketed off the ceiling.

      It was with hands shaking with reaction that Vila followed Cally as she slid down the ladder. He hung on tightly as Lanrir's body flew past, the icecat landing with a thump on the corridor floor.

      "Open the door, Vila," Cally ordered.

      "There's a guard post just beyond it. You heard what that Security guard said - that was why you captured him, after all..."

      "Just open the door."

      Vila shot her a small, wry grin and set to work. Lanrir paced to the opposite hatch and waited there, while Cally stood watching alertly, the gun in her hands.

      "Finished," Vila announced.

      Lanrir padded quietly back to join them in response to Cally's silent summons as she took up position and nodded to Vila. He touched the control.

      The door opened.

      Lanrir went through it like an energy bolt out of a paragun, and Cally was on his tail.

      Vila heard the firing from inside and the icecat's howl of rage, but he stayed where he was.

      //Vila!// It was sharp and angry.

      He put his head round the door. Lanrir stood over a crimson-stained body. There was another beside an alarm button, but Cally's gun had not left much of that.

      "Urgh," said Vila.

      "Alarm system," Cally replied briskly, "and the doors, please, Vila."

      Vila carefully skirted the rumbling Lanrir and set to work on the control board. "Which doors do you want me to open, anyway?"

      "All of them. We don't know where Dayna and Tarrant are being held."

      "This is bound to alert someone," Vila muttered, waving a probe with careless abandon. Then, "Cally, this alarm has already been triggered."

      "The doors, Vila," Cally insisted, closing the one by which they had entered and blasting the lock with her gun to fuse it. Vila looked at her, raised his eyebrows and muttered to himself, then went back to work, trying to ignore the mess behind him. He could not, however, ignore the explosion that rocked the entire room. He whirled, seeing a shattered door and Cally kneeling behind an improvised barricade, her gun ready.

      "The doors are open!" Vila yelled at her. "Let's get out of here."

      "Go!" Cally ordered. "Find Dayna and Tarrant. I'll hold off the attack for as long as I can. Now go!"

      //Lanrir, go with Vila. Keep him safe.//

      Vila scuttled away from the firing and through the rear door, Lanrir bounding after him. Cally ignored their departure and watched for signs of movement from outside. Any of those, imaginary or otherwise, drew a quick burst of fire.

      One of them brought a smothered curse.

      Then the bombardment began.

      

      

Dayna looked up from the faulty moulding she was examining and asked, "What was that?"

      "Some sort of explosion," Tarrant answered, rising to his feet.

      Their guard glanced at the door: a reflex action. He was startled to see it open, apparently without cause.

      It was at that moment that Tarrant struck, bowling him off his feet. The two men struggled on the floor until Dayna, coming to Tarrant's aid, hit the guard over the head with the moulding.

      "You're making a habit of that," said Tarrant, getting to his feet, "It doesn't do my ego any good - but thanks, all the same." He snatched up the guard's handgun. "Come on."

      "Where?" Dayna asked, her head on one side. "This is a spaceship, Tarrant, remember?"

      "If that's another set of assassins, I don't want to be here when they find us."

      "I just hope you know what you're going to do if we find them." Dayna's remark was made to empty air. She shrugged her shoulders and followed him.

      

      

The remains of Blake's shuttle lay on the surface of the Barrier, but Avon's screen now showed the shuttle that had destroyed it.

      Moonshadow.

      Yet Orac reported Moonshadow in position near the Guild fleet. So who was on the fake Moonshadow?

      Manster?

      That guess made the most sense.

      I will destroy him, Avon thought coldly. Phoenix could blast that whole fleet of shuttles to ashes.

      He wanted to do it, to kill the people who had killed Blake, but the voice of reason, as much a part of him as the emotion, told him that to launch Phoenix he would have to open the Barrier and if he opened the Barrier, a missile would come through the opening before he could take the ship out of her dock.

      Damn them. Damn them all.

      No. That was no use.

      If I had been on that shuttle, Avon thought, I would have used the teleport to try to escape... but to where? The teleport can't work inside the Barriers and the surface of the field is in airless space. Airless space. Space suit. I'd've take a space suit and...

      "Computers! Full surface scan by the eyes. Locate any living being on the Barrier surface."

      "Working."

      Avon waited, hardly breathing. Had Blake had the intelligence to escape? Had he had the time?

      "Living human located," the computers reported.

      "On the screen."

      Blake was sprawled on the surface of the Barrier field. He was spacesuited but motionless. Then, slowly, he sat up, his movements cautious and obviously painful.

      How can I help him? Avon asked himself. I can avoid a missile attack by only opening up a very small area of the Barriers under him but then he'd just fall to the surface and die. Even if I discovered some way to catch him just inside the Barrier, the change in the force line pattern would draw attention to him and if one of those shuttle pilots spots him he won't stay alive more than a few seconds. They can sit out there forever, trapping me in here... no, not forever, just until the Guild decide to attack. Once they do, those ships will have more than me to worry about...

      Blake has perhaps five hours to live. He can't wait until the Guild decides to attack.

      But perhaps someone else can make that decision for them...

      Avon opened a special communications channel. "Orac, this is Avon. I want-"

      "I am checking out the Phoenix systems and supervising the loading robots, as you instructed. I cannot waste time on anything else."

      "This is an order, Orac. What is the present location of Moonshadow?"

      Avon could almost hear a disdainful sniff as Orac said, "Moonshadow is still standing off one thousand spacials from the Guild fleet."

      "I want the following message to be transmitted at once to the Moonshadow's computer and the control systems of that ship to activate the alarms and flash the message onto the main screen. They are to continue to do this until the message is acknowledged. Begin: 'Avon to Moonshadow. It is imperative that you obey the following instructions to the letter...'"

      

      

Tarrant and Dayna moved along cautiously, making their way towards the sound of gunfire and explosions. The last thing either of them expected to see was a huge, white-blue, cat-like animal padding towards them.

      Tarrant snatched up his gun, but a giant paw lashed out and batted it from his hand. He staggered sideways, only to be shouldered to the floor while Dayna flattened herself against the wall, trying for invisibility. Her eyes were fixed on the gun, but that was on the other side of the animal.

      Tarrant looked into the blue eyes and the snarling face, only centimetres from his own, and knew that he was dead. The creature was making a soft, frightening noise deep within its body, and its teeth were like scimitars, shining in the light against its blue mouth.

      "What are you doing, Lanrir?" The voice, incredibly, was Vila's. "Oh.. ulp..." His words faded into helpless laughter.

      "Vila!" Dayna's greeting was full of surprise and joy. Then her voice went very quiet. "Vila, be careful..."

      "Oh, you don't need to worry about Lanrir." Vila sauntered across and put his hand on the icecat's neck. Dayna was astonished to notice that the creature was wearing a collar. "Tarrant, you look ridiculous down there. It suits you. I think I might let Lanrir keep you like that."

      Tarrant wiggled out from under Lanrir and clawed his way up the wall. "Vila, you bloody fool..."

      Lanrir growled softly.

      Vila chuckled. "He doesn't like your tone. You'd better learn to speak to him politely if you want to stay alive. To me too, come to that."

      "We're very glad to see you, Vila," said Dayna, "but where the devil did you get that animal?"

      "He's not an animal; he's a friend of mine. We're rescuing you. Here, take these."

      "What are they?"

      "Can't you recognise a teleport bracelet?" Vila wanted to know. "Put them on and come with me. Cally needs our help."

      "But-"

      "Do as he says, Tarrant," Dayna urged, scooping up the fallen gun. "If Cally needs us, we have to go. Where, Vila? Show us."

      

      

Cally had retreated into the next room when her barricade had started melting in front of her, and now she lay flat on the floor, pinned down by the continuous flare of energy bolts and a wall of flame. The floor under her hands was hot and vibrating. Firing back brought down even more heavy fire in reply, and she knew that she could not hold off her attackers for much longer.

      Energy bolts were sizzling over her head, singeing her hair. She rolled to one side and a bolt tore up the floor where she had been.

      No way out.

      Cally pressed the recall button on her teleport bracelet, and suddenly, the heat and the noise were gone and she was lying on the cool surface of the teleport platform on board Moonshadow. She scrambled to her feet, aware that, despite the comparative quiet, the cabin was not completely silent; the computer alarm was buzzing. She went to the screen to switch it off and stiffened as she read the first part of the message showing there.

      It was with an effort that she tore herself away from it and went back to the teleport controls. She had expected to find Vila and Lanrir back here with Tarrant and Dayna. Well, if Vila hadn't found them she must bring him and Lanrir back here quickly, before they encountered the advancing guards.

      She set the teleport on a wide scan, to pick up anyone wearing a bracelet in the security area where she had left Vila and Lanrir, then went back to the computer screen. Behind her, she heard the sound of the operating teleport.

      "Don't tell me you've been here all this time." Vila sounded outraged.

      Cally could see him and Lanrir and Dayna and Tarrant reflected in the screen as she cleared the message into store. "I've not been back long. If you'd found Tarrant and Dayna, why didn't you teleport back?"

      "Vila said that you needed help." Dayna crossed the cabin in three swift strides and Cally turned to meet her. The two women embraced.

      "You should have told me you were going to teleport out!" Vila exploded. "Lanrir and I could have been killed!"

      "I thought you understood that you were to teleport back here just as soon as you found Dayna and Tarrant," Cally retorted. Then she smiled. "But thank you for trying to come to my aid, Vila."

      "And to ours. Vila, you were wonderful. You wouldn't believe how glad I am to see you. Even now I don't believe it." Dayna hugged him too.

      "Nor do I," said Tarrant, "but I'm very glad to see you both. How the hell did you manage to find us, Cally?"

      "Stories can come later," said Vila. "Hadn't we better get out of here, Cally?"

      "No," she answered. "There is something more we have to do, and it will be dangerous."

      "Oh no!" Vila wailed. "My nerves can't take any more of this. We've done what we came to do. Let's get out of here..."

      "Unfortunately, we cannot." Cally took the pilot's seat. "Tarrant, come and watch me. I may need your skill to pilot the ship later. Vila, stand by to drop the detector shield."

      "Drop it? Cally, have your lost your mind?"

      "No," said Cally. "It is necessary." But she added to herself: if Avon has not lost his.

      

      

      

Out of the Fires

Orac's voice spoke from the open comspek line. "Your message has been put into storage in the Moonshadow's computer. There is also a reply tagged for your attention. It reads: 'Will comply.'"

      "Thank you," Avon said absently. He looked at Blake's lonely figure on the screen. Help was coming, but it would be too late if someone in the blockading shuttles spotted him first. They had to be distracted.

      

      

"The Barrier field lines are moving," his pilot told Manster.

      "What?" Manster peered out at the changing patterns. "Line up a missile on the centre of that area. It could be that they're trying to come out, or perhaps the explosion has weakened the field."

      "But the disturbance is vanishing," the pilot told him, in disappointment.

      "Keep watching... It may... wait! Look, there!"

      

      

Avon locked in the randomiser program to the field patterns. That should keep the occupants of the shuttle fleet interested, while never weakening the Barriers dangerously. And, of course, the one place to which the field lines would never draw attention was the place where Blake was.

      

      

Cally steered the Moonshadow into position behind a large asteroid whose orbit approached the Guild fleet.

      "Vila, do you have that coded signal ready?" she asked.

      "Yes."

      "Then transmit it on a tight beam to Scitech Central on my order."

      "Okay, okay, but it's still crazy. Even if the message wasn't gibberish Scitech Central won't be listening for a coded message from us, and-"

      "The Guild does not know that," Cally pointed out. "All right, Dayna. Switch off the detector shield - now."

      "Detector shield, off."

      "It won't be long before the Guild picks us up," Tarrant pointed out, "even with the cover the asteroid gives us." He was still a little chastened by the observation that Cally and Vila had managed, between them, to procure a spaceship and adapt it with a teleport and some sort of version of Avon's detector shield. The Guild had plainly been much mistaken in ignoring them.

      "They'll just blow us to bits," Vila contributed glumly.

      "No, they'll investigate first," said Cally. "They'll want to know how a Scitech shuttle can be so far from the Hoop. Dayna, watch for a probe or a shuttle launch."

      "We're two thousand spacials from the nearest Guild vessel."

      "Where are they?" Cally whispered.

      "Probe launched. Heading straight for us!" Dayna called out.

      "Vila, transmit," Cally ordered, as she swung Moonshadow away from the Guild ships and towards the starry ring of the Hoop.

      

      

"Commodore, the contact is running!" the navigation officer called out to Vardil.

      "Have we an identification?"

      "Yes... I don't believe this, sir. It's a Scitech shuttle!"

      "That can't be. We're too far out from the Hoop!"

      "Positive confirmation, sir. Scitech shuttle."

      Vardil made an immediate decision. "Destroy it."

      "Beyond blaster range. We'll have to use seeker missiles-"

      "Then fire them, damn it!" Vardil roared.

      "Commodore, the Scitech shuttle has just started transmitting on a tight beam. Content is coded. Destination of the message is the Hoop, believed to be Scitech Central."

      "Seekers fired, sir."

      "Jam that beam. Mason, lose contact with that ship and it's the last contact you'll have with anything! And call the Fleet Admiral."

      

      

"We're being jammed," Vila reported.

      "The seeker missiles are closing, Cally."

      Cally glanced at the screen and increased speed slightly.

      "Can't this thing go any faster?" Tarrant demanded.

      "A lot faster, but I do not want the Guild to lose us. Have they started to follow yet, Dayna?"

      "No."

      "Let me know when they do." If they do, Cally added to herself. Avon, I hope that you have judged them correctly.

      

      

"The seekers are still in pursuit, Admiral, but our latest estimate suggests that it will outrun them," Vardil reported to Gorsky. "Do you want me to launch pursuit?"

      "If it has an FTL drive then it may also be armed with something we don't know about - and that message to Scitech Central may have got through. Scitech may not have Mellanby's new weapons, or the sensor deflector, but we cannot give them any time to prepare." He was thinking aloud. "The only choice we have is to retreat ignominiously, or attack. We should have gone in days ago. We will attack, Vardil. Operation Ghost Fleet goes ahead now. I'll be at my Command Station shortly."

      "Yes, sir."

      The screen was dead only for an instant as an impatient at being pre-empted security officer appeared. "Fleet Admiral, this is Security Chief Fernandez. We've searched the deck thoroughly. There's no doubt that Tarrant and Mellanby are gone."

      "Find them," Gorsky said absently. "They can't have left Napoleon. And don't disturb me with such trivial matters again. We have far greater problems than two escaped prisoners."

      "But, Fleet Admiral-" He was cut off in mid-protest.

      "...Fraternity..." Gorsky muttered. He opened his direct line to Valonia on board the Kali. The woman looked furious, which delighted Gorsky.

      "Admiral, I thought we'd agreed to delay our attack until-"

      "There's a Scitech shuttle with an FTL drive heading back towards the Hoop," Gorsky interrupted. "It saw the Fleet, Valonia. It also transmitted a tight beam coded message, some of which may have got through before we jammed it. We have to attack before Scitech can prepare a defence."

      "Against Mellanby's new weapons and my people's sensor deflector...?"

      "There is no better time to attack. Who have you been protecting by this delay, Valonia? Have you sold out to Scitech?"

      "I would not be fool enough to be here if I had sold out to Scitech, Gorsky."

      "Then who was it who sent agents into my flagship?"

      "I don't know what you're talking about."

      "When we find your agents who freed Tarrant and Mellanby, your influence won't save them."

      "Tarrant and Mell - wait, Gorsky, I tell y-" Valonia began.

      Gorsky obtained more pleasure than he had had since sending his nephew to Hinkal, by cutting her off in mid word.

      

      

"The fleet is following!" Dayna crowed. "Right at the limit of our detector range, but the whole fleet is on the move. They're travelling faster than we are, Cally."

      "Will they overtake us before or after we reach the Hoop?"

      "What?"

      Cally dismissed the question impatiently. "Vila. Compute the exact speed necessary for us to reach the Yards three minutes before any Guild ship that follows us that far."

      "Okay. Okay, but I'm not Avon. Give me a minute."

      Dayna and Tarrant looked uneasily at each other. It was quite possible that Vila and Cally did not know that Avon was dead, but somehow this did not seem the right time to tell them.

      Instead, Tarrant said, "Cally, please, if you would just explain what you're doing..."

      "It's far too complicated to explain now. You will just have to trust me."

      Tarrant said nothing, though he had unhappy memories of the last time someone had asked him to do that.

      "Got it!" Vila exclaimed. "Cally, increase speed by a factor of zero point four."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

I sat and watched the specks of light above me; the orbiting shuttle fleet. There seemed to be nothing else I could do. The shuttle that had brought me here was a total wreck, somewhere beyond the horizon. My suit communicator could only reach enemies.

      I was going to die. That was a certainty and I had learned, painfully, to face facts. Perhaps I should have been grateful that I had accomplished so much, but I was not. I was angry. I did not want to die. I had too much to live for. That was why I had taken the desperate gamble of teleporting down to the airless and barren surface.

      I tried to count the credit side. The wi'h were free and gone. Cally, Vila, and Lanrir were out of this mess and, no doubt, Avon would have already used Orac to warn them. Avon was safe too, for the moment, but unless he would make a deal with Manster he was trapped in the Yards forever.

      Neither of us would see the Phoenix fly. That was another regret, though not as painful as not being able to say goodbye.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      

      The Guild fleet charged towards the Hoop.

      And Valonia, on the flight deck of Kali, watched the approaching ring of worlds with growing concern. Not only were they moving too soon, before she could warn Kerr, but the whole situation felt wrong. Scitech did not have an FTL drive, of that she was sure, but Gorsky would not answer her calls.

      Well, Kerr would have to save himself now; he could not blame her after his own insistence on returning to the Hoop... but...

      She pushed her uneasiness aside. The fleet was committed to attack and there was nothing she could do to change Gorsky's mind.

      Her personal alarm summoned her from the flight deck to her own cabin. The call was from Teryth, her long-term sleeper agent in the Guild, coming in from the Napoleon, where he was serving as an HCC observer.

      He said: "Tarrant and Mellanby do not seem to be on this ship. The security people have found a crew member, however, who swears that a man and a woman were looking for Mellanby and Tarrant, and that they had an icecat with them. Valonia, did you hear what I said? A man, a woman and an icecat - and they've vanished into vacuum, accompanied by Mellanby and Tarrant, as far as I can tell."

      "I hear you," Valonia said slowly, "and I believe you. Can you reach the Napoleon's flight deck?"

      "I can try, but it would probably be suicidal. Gorsky suspects my connection with you and I've been barred from all critical areas. The guards have been tripled."

      Valonia made her decision quickly, even though her mind was still stunned by the conclusion she had reached. "Collect all our people and get off the Napoleon. Don't worry about what you have to destroy to do it."

      "Yes, ma'am."

      Valonia closed the circuit and turned to find Gooma at her elbow.

      "They're activating all detector shields in thirty seconds. Gorsky has ordered that any ship that breaks communicator silence will be destroyed."

      Valonia regarded the younger woman with newly kindled suspicion. It was how she would look at everyone from this moment. Gooma thought, suddenly, that Valonia looked old, haggard and somehow sad.

      She said, "This is a trap, Gooma. There is only one thing we can do. Call the others, quickly, and I will instruct you."

      

      

Dayna gasped. "The Guild fleet... it's vanished... every last one of them - gone."

      "They are still there," Cally told her. "Let us hope that they maintain the same speed."

      "But how?" Vila demanded.

      "Apparently, they are equipped with detector shields." And how they came by them, she added to herself, I really do not wish to enquire too closely.

      "We'd better go under shield ourselves," Vila suggested.

      "No," said Cally.

      "He's right," said Dayna.

      "No."

      Lanrir growled.

      No one made any further dispute of Cally's orders.

      

      

The Kali's pilot looked down the gun barrel and swallowed hard. What was most difficult to take was that a number of his own Guild crew were standing with Valonia. Six of his people were already dead... He swallowed again. "I surrender. What is it you want me to do?"

      "Sit tight and watch. Zelly, plot a course out of the fleet formation. Then head out for the Mare's Nest, as fast as we can go. I will feel much safer when we are among our own ships."

      

      

"Moonshadow and the Guild fleet have crossed into Hoop space," Orac reported. "One ship is no longer with the fleet but is travelling directly away from the Hoop."

      "Forget it," said Avon. "Keep monitoring."

      "The Guild fleet is splitting up to attack its planned targets."

      "But what about Moonshadow? Is anyone still following her?"

      "Three ships are still in pursuit."

      "Good. Inform Moonshadow's computer and trigger the onboard alarm one minute before the Guild ships come within strike range."

      "Very well, but I must remind you that I have links with only about one third of the Guild computers. The others do not contain tarial cells."

      "Cease telling me facts I already know. Is your link with the Hoop defence computers functioning?"

      "It is."

      "Good. Transmit the following co-ordinates to the Moonshadow's computer for display on the main screen. 961 403 Vector 519, 10 degrees, 20 minutes. 2683..."

      

      

"Cally, the computer's putting up figures on the main screen and I didn't even touch it," Vila reported.

      "Good. Those will be the co-ordinates for the teleport. Tarrant, can you handle these controls?"

      "Of course I can. You want me to take over?" Tarrant asked, relief plain in his voice.

      "Yes. This is our target." Cally indicated the navigation screen.

      "The other contacts are hostile spacecraft. Take her in at her top sub-light speed and make a single equatorial orbit at a thousand spacials."

      "We could be blasted to smithereens."

      "We will raise the detector shield. Then it will be up to you, Tarrant, to get us in and out of range so quickly that they are too surprised to shoot us down. We have one other advantage: they will be watching for danger from the Yards, not from us."

      "But why? Why go in at all, I mean?" Dayna asked.

      "We have someone to pick up," said Cally, vacating her seat and letting Tarrant take over.

      "Who?"

      "Cally, we'll be in detector range of those shuttles in thirty seconds," Vila warned.

      "Activate detector shield," Cally ordered, sprinting aft towards the teleport controls. "Vila, I want those co-ordinates."

      As he joined her, he asked softly, "Blake and Avon?"

      "Blake. We have to be right first time, Vila. There won't be a second chance."

      

      

To the pursuing ships, the Moonshadow simply vanished from their screens but, before the captains had time to react to that, they had spotted the massed shuttle fleet and the blindingly sharp contact of the Yards.

      They went after the shuttles like Killer Whales after seal, their former prey forgotten.

      

      

      Moonshadow's sub-light engines shuddered with power as Tarrant strained them almost to destruction. She bulleted towards the Yards and, on board her, Cally's hands rested lightly on the teleport controls. Vila leaned over her shoulder, holding his breath, waiting for the first confirmation of contact.

      

      

Avon still had not left the control room. He stood watching the main screen, his eyes never leaving Blake's dejected, spacesuited figure, as Orac counted down the distance of Moonshadow's approach.

      

      

      Moonshadow stooped through the shuttle fleet like a hawk through a flock of starlings. Tarrant whooped as he flung the little ship into a tight orbit. No fire followed them; the shuttle pilots were too stunned to react.

      Cally operated the teleport controls.

      

      

Avon saw the glow of the teleport field, then Blake was gone. He smiled slightly to himself, picked up Orac in his case, and left.

      

      

"Got him!" Vila whooped. "Tarrant, get the hell out of here!"

      Moonshadow swerved violently out of orbit, missing a shuttle by ten metres, and rocketed away into space, energy bolts crackling silently all through the vacuum where she had lately been.

      Then the shuttle pilots had something else to think about, as the Guild vessels opened fire with Dayna's weapons. They were still - just - out of visual range and the detector shields were still effective. To the shuttles, the bolts that disintegrated their ships seemed to come from empty space, and the Guild were able to destroy the Scitech vessels as if they were targets in a shooting gallery.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      One moment I had been sitting on the invisible solidity of the force Barrier, waiting for death, the next there had been an instant's disorientation, then I was sitting on Moonshadow's teleport platform, and Cally and Vila were pulling off my helmet and chorusing questions about my state of health, while Lanrir butted me enthusiastically.

      I tried to hug all three of them at once.

      "Where now?" I knew I had heard the voice before but it took me a moment to place it: Tarrant.

      "Hold us out of detector and visual range of both the Guild and Scitech ships," Cally ordered, without turning from her self-appointed task of helping me to shed my spacesuit. "The navigational co-ordinates you'll need are in the computer."

      "Judging by the fireworks back there, they've got other things on their minds," Tarrant observed. "The Scitech shuttles are being decimated."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      Avon took the control seat on the Phoenix's flight deck, a place that was both familiar and very strange. Familiar in that he had gone over every detail a thousand times, unfamiliar in that he had never seen it in reality. Oddly, the points of resemblance to Liberator's flight deck made him uneasy, as if he half-expected to hear the voice of Zen.

      It took an effort to speak the words, "Computers on."

      "Working," said a quiet, unfamiliar voice.

      "Activate all controls. Activate power."

      "Confirmed. All systems activated."

      "Prepare for take-off.

      "Freeing all locks. All systems responding. Phoenix is now ready for flight."

      "Good. Orac, how is the battle progressing in the Yard area?"

      "Eighty-two percent of the shuttles have been destroyed. The others are scattered and running."

      "Give the Scitech defence computers the information in File A."

      "Acknowledged."

      "Phoenix computers: open the Yard Barrier."

      "Barrier opening."

      

      

As the three Guild ships moved in on the fleeing shuttles, robot-controlled, missile-like ships appeared like avenging demons from their secret silos. Then there were no more Guild ships to pursue shuttles, only a trio of bright explosions, dying away.

      

      

At the devastated main city of Scitech Central, above the smouldering world of the ylln, at every point where Guild vessels were destroying Hoop worlds, ships and installations, the activated and - now - informed Hoop defences sent their robots to destroy the attackers.

      Avon's action had been devastatingly simple. He had ordered the Hoop defence computers to switch the frequencies on their detectors to a much lower wavelength, one that the detector shield did not guard against. It meant that the massive detector units on a few isolated worlds on the edge of the Hoop could pinpoint every Guild intruder. Once that was done, robots were sent to destroy them.

      The netted lines of the Yard fields writhed and opened. From the darkness of the well burst the golden-hazed form of a great spaceship. The Phoenix had hatched from its glowing egg. The robots ignored her. She was a Builders' ship. Behind her tail, the force lines swirled back into place. They would never open again, for timed circuits slammed shut and fused solid, the controls that could have opened them burning away.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      Dayna came to meet me with a smile on her face. "Van, I didn't expect it to be you."

      "It's not - exactly," Vila informed her, grinning all over his face.

      Dayna looked startled and curious.

      Vila was about to explain - a job he would have relished - when Tarrant interrupted, in a voice shot through with awe, "Dear God... what is that?"

      Phoenix blazed towards us out of the dark.

      The silence seemed to stretch forever. I had thought that I had known what Phoenix would be like, but the reality was far more... incredible. She was beyond imagination. Even now, I doubted my senses...

      It was Vila who broke the spell. "Look at her!" he whooped. "He did it! Just look at her... what a ship!"

      "There can't be a ship like that in the whole main galaxy..." Tarrant breathed.

      Phoenix was now less than a spacial away, floating serenely.

      "What are you waiting for?" I asked Tarrant.

      He turned towards me, shocked into speechlessness.

      "You're supposed to be the pilot. The entry hatch is aft, between the fins. It will open for us. Take us on board."

      As he fumbled with the controls, he said, "I guess I'm sorry I hit you over the head, Ricel. It was a mistake. I-"

      "Save it."

      "Look, I didn't realise-"

      "Just fly the ship, Tarrant." I could not keep the dislike I felt out of my voice.

      "What's eating you? I apologised for hitting you. What more do you want?"

      "Tarrant, I couldn't care less about the fact that you hit me, but I don't like the way you leave your friends in deadly danger. Particularly when they are also my friends."

      Tarrant looked confused. "What?"

      "Fly the ship."

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      Avon watched with satisfaction as the interior visuals showed Moonshadow entering the main bay and settling next to the two shuttles already there. He closed the main hatch doors, then gave the computers a new set of co-ordinates.

      Phoenix leaped away, heading out of the battle zone.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      I led the charge to the flight deck, Cally pacing me, Vila pounding behind us, complaining loudly, with Lanrir flowing beside him. Dayna and Tarrant kept us in sight, but they were motivated by a desire not to lose their way in the big ship rather than the need to find Avon that was driving us.

      The flight deck was softly lit, the arching screen showing the local starfield. Avon stood in the very centre, at the lowest level. As he heard our approach, he turned and grinned.

      I jumped down the steps, but Cally spurted past me and got to him first, hugging him hard. I grabbed his outstretched hand and squeezed it tightly.

      "Avon!" That was Dayna's astonished voice.

      She flew down the steps and Cally and I stood aside to let her through. She flung her arms around Avon's neck. He looked surprised but pleased, and I was delighted to see that he was relaxed enough to hug her back before freeing herself from the embrace.

      "Avon... but... but Tarrant said..." She whirled to face Tarrant, her huge brown eyes sparkling with tears that were a result of both joy and fury. "You said he was dead."

      Tarrant was standing, frozen, at the top of the steps, his foot on the first tread, looking down into Avon's mocking face. He was plainly stunned. "You... Avon... You... you were dead. I know you were dead."

      "You didn't check very closely, back there on Hinkal, did you, Tarrant?" I asked softly. "Perhaps you didn't want him to be alive. Or perhaps you knew that he was alive all along. Perhaps you deliberately left him to die."

      "I don't have to answer that kind of accusation!"

      "Oh, but you do, Tarrant. You have to answer to me, and no-one here is going to interfere."

      "Why you? I've done nothing to you."

      "You left my best friend to die. You'll be very lucky if I let you live after that."

      "Blake," Avon said, quietly and calmly, "this is my quarrel, not yours. I can fight my own battles."

      I turned back to him, "I know, but-"

      "Blake?" Tarrant's voice exploded on the word, and, behind it, I heard Dayna's gasp of disbelief. "But... but you're Ricel. Blake's dead..."

      "Blake," said Avon, "is very much alive. You are looking at him, Tarrant. He has been trying to save us all, ever since Terminal, but none of us have been helping him. You least of all." He walked forward and up the steps, until his eyes were level with Tarrant's. "I have one question to ask you: did you really believe that I was dead?"

      "Do you need an answer to that? Yes... yes, you do, don't you, Avon? You would. Yes, I thought you were dead, I won't say that I was grief-stricken, but I did believe that you were dead. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have left you on Hinkal. I don't leave comrades to die."

      Avon maintained eye-contact with Tarrant for a long moment; then he nodded, once. "We need a pilot," he said. "You're a good pilot, when you're following orders. Well, I'm giving you a choice. You can join the crew of the Phoenix, as our pilot, or we can put you down on one of the Cloud Worlds. Of course, no-one in the Cloud will have any use for pilots for a while. I doubt that there are more than half a dozen serviceable ships within a million light years, and no technology to build them." He looked at me questioningly as he spoke.

      "The Scoop is gone," I answered, "and the probe planet."

      "And the Yards are closed forever. With the Guild destroyed and Scitech crippled, the civilization here will have to rebuild itself, and without help. The wi'h and the ylln are gone too. Humanity in the Cloud will have to save itself."

      "Avon, what has been going on? Are you willing to explain now?" I asked.

      "It's a very long and complicated story. I doubt that anyone will ever know all of it now." He sighed, and I thought that there was pain in his voice as he went on. "My mother was a psychostrategist. She used to say that, of all the problems involved in predicting the overall galactic socio-political situation, the worst was what she called 'The Machiavelli Factor': the fact that every person whose actions you were analysing had their own secret motives and secret plots that would influence their actions, so you have a whole substructure of intrigue which defies accurate prediction. What has happened here in the Cloud was a case in point: the Machiavelli Factor run riot. Everyone here had their own plots and counter plots. We were lucky. We came out of them alive." Yet, despite his words, he looked desperately sad.

      I went to him and touched his arm, and Cally came up on his other side. We didn't say anything, but Avon must have known how much we wanted to comfort him, whatever the problem was.

      "So what do we do now?" Vila asked.

      "That is something that we have to decide," said Avon, shaking off his depression, "As I see it, we have three choices; firstly, we can stay here. With this ship we could dominate the Cloud Worlds and direct the rebuilding of civilization here. Myself, I don't find it a particularly attractive prospect, but I put it to you as a possibility."

      "I don't find it very attractive either," I agreed. "There has been too much meddling in the Cloud. I'd be happier if events were allowed to follow their own course."

      "I was thinking more of the discomfort of spending the rest of our lives in a barbarian culture. There are other choices. Shall I continue?"

      "Yes."

      "The other two choices are variations on each other. We have a superb spaceship, and human civilization is only a small part of the Cloud. Who knows what we might find elsewhere. Perhaps even a way back into our own galaxy."

      "It sounds good to me," said Cally.

      "I never thought I'd get to see two different galaxies while I was plaguing the natives on Sarran," said Dayna. "Or that I'd ever get to meet Roj Blake, come to that."

      "You'll regret the latter," Avon commented, but he smiled at me as he said it.

      Vila put an arm round Lanrir's neck. "We're going where you go, right 'Rir?"

      The icecat made a noise of agreement.

      "I don't fancy staying here. Not when there's a ship like this on offer," said Tarrant.

      Avon was looking at me.

      "Third choice, Avon?"

      "The Mare's Nest stargate. I don't advise it. To travel it might be fatal to humans."

      "But it is very tempting, isn't it? To find out what's on the other side."

      "Not to me," said Vila firmly. "The Scoop was quite enough. I'm sick of starting out on journeys without knowing where I'll end up."

      "What is this 'stargate'?" Dayna asked.

      Avon ignored her. "I thought we might take a look at it before we leave. Orac has been nagging me about it and I admit I'm curious."

      "You knew all along what we'd choose to do," I accused him.

      Avon gave me a haughty stare.

      "It is a way of life we understand," said Cally. "We like it. There are no better reasons for following it."

      I laughed. "Interstellar gypsies."

      "Interstellar meddlers," Avon corrected.

      Cally looked puzzled. "What are gypsies?" she asked.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      "So that is it," said Dayna, eyeing the Mare's Nest's cloudy, glowing swirl in a jaundiced fashion. "I've seen it before, of course. Somehow, I thought it would look different now that I know what it is."

      Cally said, "The wi'h suggested that we follow them."

      "Too dangerous," Avon stated. "Phoenix's hull would stand the stress but human flesh might not. Orac, are you processing those readings?"

      "Indeed. This is a most interesting construction," Orac responded. "Please allow me to continue with my collection of data and its analysis without further interruption."

      Avon said, "I knew that this suddenly co-operative effort on Orac's part was too good to last."

      "We've plenty of time," said Blake, taking the central co-ordinator's chair, above the pilot's seat. "After all, we still have to decide which way we're going."

      "How long would it take this ship to cross intergalactic space?" Tarrant asked.

      "Too long," Avon replied dryly. "At a rough guess-" He broke off with a shout, thrown from his feet by an unexpected, violent lurching of the deck under him, and the shout itself was almost drowned by the sound of an explosion.

      "Computer: force wall up!" Blake shouted. "Avon, what was that about there being no serviceable ships around here?"

      "The Mare's Nest pirates!" Tarrant exclaimed, as the ship juddered slightly under a second attack.

      Avon was back on his feet. "Computer: locate attacking ships."

      "There are no ships within detector range."

      "Those blasts aren't coming from empty space!" Avon snarled at it.

      "Avon, just how many people in the Cloud do have detector shields?" Cally demanded.

      Avon glared at her. "Your precious Guild wi'h would have been stranded forever if I hadn't paid that price."

      "Never mind the accusations. Avon, who does have access to the detector shield?" Blake asked.

      "The Guild, through the Fraternity."

      "The Phoenix is receiving a communication from the attacking ships," the computer announced.

      "On audio," Blake ordered.

      The voice was one that Blake had not heard before, but everyone else on the flight deck recognised Valonia's unmistakable contralto: "This is the Fraternity fleet. You are surrounded and helpless. Surrender your ship or we shall destroy it." There was a note of anger and bitterness in her voice that was new to all of them.

      "Computer," said Avon; "locate the source of that signal and put the area on visual - the main screen. Then reprogram the detector frequencies to their lowest possible setting."

      "That will severely limit the range," the machine pointed out.

      "Our targets are not that far away. Do it."

      "Confirmed."

      Valonia's voice said, "You have exactly one minute before we destroy you."

      "I have them on the detectors," Vila reported. "Twenty small ships and one large one."

      "And there it is," said Cally, as the screen showed a sleek spacecraft.

      "Starwing class," Tarrant identified. "Courier ship, but if she's been converted by the Guild she'll pack a wallop. She may have Dayna's new molecular-bond splitting weapon, too."

      "The force wall won't hold up forever against that," Dayna added.

      Avon said: "The other ships are in a hemisphere, pinning us against the edge of the dust cloud. We can't go past them; we have to go through them. Phoenix has the power to blast them aside." His face, though, was set.

      "We're flying under computer control," said Blake, "and we haven't had time to run even basic checks on those systems."

      "You have thirty seconds. Let Kerr Avon tell you that I do not bluff. Nor do I deal lightly with traitors."

      Avon took half a dozen seconds to find the communicator controls. "You broke our agreement, Valonia, when you didn't send Tarrant and Dayna back to Shipmeet. Get your ships out of here before we destroy them."

      Blake had been watching the expression on Avon's face and now he made his decision. "No. There'll be no more bloodshed."

      "You're going to surrender?" Tarrant's voice oozed incredulity.

      Blake's reply was lost in the thunder of the bombardment against the force wall. Phoenix trembled continuously.

      "We can't take this for long!" Vila shouted.

      "We have to attack!" Tarrant yelled.

      How? An untried computer could not take an untried ship against odds of twenty to one, Blake told himself. He remembered the expression on Avon's face. The answer was now obvious but perilous.

      "Computer: take us into the Mare's Nest and through the stargate," he ordered.

      Phoenix swung round, her engines accelerating her towards the glowing, masked centre of the Mare's Nest.

      "Blake, are you crazy?" Vila cried.

      "What is on the other side cannot be worse than this," said Cally.

      Tarrant was staring upwards at Blake. "That was a stupid decision." He was wondering how a man who would rather run than fight had become a legend in his own lifetime. "We could have fought our way out."

      "In a ship only the computers can fly?" Blake asked sarcastically. "Keep your opinions to yourself until you know all the facts."

      "Blake, they're still following us," Vila told him.

      "Cally, contact them and warn them off."

      "No, wait," Tarrant protested. "Why should we save them?"

      "Computer," said Cally, "reopen the communications channel to the pursuing ships."

      "Channel open."

      "Phoenix to Fraternity fleet. Valonia, this is Cally. Our ship's hull can take the stresses in the Mare's Nest. Yours cannot. Remember all the ships that have been destroyed and go back. Now."

      Ahead of them, the dust-haze was thinning, clearing. Rings of spectral fire burned like a target against the inner bowl of masking dust, seemingly disappearing into a blue and silver infinity.

      Racked by incomprehensible stresses, Phoenix drove towards the centre of the target, picking up speed as she went.

      As he stood beside Vila, one steadying hand on his shoulder, Avon flashed a look of gratitude at Blake and promised himself that, if they came through this alive, he would tell him the whole story. Cally too... perhaps Cally had a right to know.

      The rings of light that filled the screen continued on their endless journey. Avon wondered how they were generated, but he could see nothing beyond them now. The filters could no longer cope so the huge main screen, covering most of the wall of the flight deck, was a blaze of light.

      Through the interference which was almost completely fogging the detector screen, Avon saw that the Fraternity ships were still following. One vanished... and another... then, mercifully, the screen was useless.

      They entered the cone and the rings flowed round them. The light before them, even filtered through the screen, was so intense that they had to cover their eyes and turn away.

      "Computer: cancel forward vision," Blake ordered, reaching out to hold Dayna upright. Lanrir's howl matched that of the engines. The flight deck glowed, each panel and instrument shining with more than its own light. Tarrant lifted a blazing arm to cover a phosphorescent face.

      There was a wrench that seemed to dislocate the universe.

      Then pain.

      Darkness.

      Blue-silver, gleaming darkness.

      

* * * * * * * * * * *

      I pick myself up, slowly, from the deck. The computer is announcing that the Phoenix has passed safely through the stargate.

      Avon starts to ask it for a systems check but I take his arm and tell him that it can wait. He is supporting Vila, and he is trembling. So am I.

      Cally has her arms round Dayna and Lanrir. Only Tarrant is isolated. I realise now that he should not be and I hold out my hand to him.

      He ignores it.

      I say, "Computer, spherical visual."

      The stars shine about us. Unknown. Unknowing. Strange.

      We do not know where we are, but it does not matter. We have a ship. We are together. We are home.

      


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