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By Frances Teagle
[Gauda Prime + 6 days]
        The man on the bunk graduated to awareness slowly, reluctantly. Too debilitated to groan, he let out a sigh. The light, when he unglued his eyelids, was blessedly dim. He could identify sounds of air conditioning - and something else, distant but distinct, a ship's drive - he was in space.
        Other discomforts announced themselves. A desert-dry mouth, a sour taste, a prison smell. An experimental movement of the head returned a throb of pain, flashes of light behind the eyes and nausea. After an unmeasurable interval he moved a hand. Eventually he managed to propel it upwards to his face, where the fingers encountered stubble. Days had passed, then.
        Oh... He had hoped they had killed him, that he was done with this life. A fearful disappointment washed through him. No release yet - no peace for the wicked. And he was sure he had been wicked.
        He was so weak. Had they already interrogated him and then wiped the memory? He had to reject that notion, recollections he would rather not entertain were crowding into his brain. He was, oh yes, he feared he was indeed Kerr Avon.

Someone entered and turned up the lights, causing him to screw up his eyes. An arm was slipped under his shoulders, raising him slightly, a proffered cup nudged his lips and he drank gratefully. That overriding need satisfied he took no further interest as the man stripped him, washed him and put clean clothes on him, then departed as silently as he had come.
        Time drifted on. Thirst quenched, he became distantly aware of hunger. Resolutely he set himself to ignore it. Eventually they were coming to talk to him. Get used to deprivation now, plenty more would be coming his way.

This time it was a trace of perfume that roused him. Oh God, was it Servalan? Commissioner Sleer come to gloat over the success of yet another trap? It had all her hallmarks, all the rats in one cage. And yet, how could she have known he would come after Blake then? Oh, she could work it out - after she had engineered the collapse of the alliance, who else would he turn to but Blake? Her words echoed in his head, "I knew you'd never let Blake die." How she must be enjoying this moment.
        Finally he forced his eyes open. And received the shock of his life. Jenna Stannis stood beside the bed.
        In a way it was almost worse than Servalan's presence. His racking guilt rose up to choke him. What could he say to the woman who had loved Blake? There was no defence. Her face was set hard as adamant. He had seen that look before. Eventually she looked into his eyes.
        "Well, what have you got to say for yourself?" she said.
        Now he made the effort to roll over and sit up to face her. The voice he finally produced was unsteady but audible.
        "If I am still alive, what of the others?"
        "Vila is here."
        "Only Vila?"
        "Only Vila. Now explain why you killed Blake. Let me have one good reason why I shouldn't add your corpse to the pile on Gauda Prime."
        "Insanity perhaps? Did I imagine Tarrant saying that Blake had sold out? Why didn't Blake deny it?" Even to his own ears his voice sounded fatally detached and dreamlike. "What possessed you to salvage the remains?"
        "I arrived to find Federation guards loading you two into a flyer - for interrogation, doubtless. Do you think I should have left them to it?"
        He had no answer for that. Presently he asked, "How is Vila?"
        "Physically well. Mentally - mourning his losses, I suppose."
        Avon winced. He had not yet begun to face his losses, let alone mourn them. "And now you are thinking about avenging your losses. Go right ahead, do you really think I care?"
        But she was not be provoked. "You won't get off that easily. I have a use for you." With that, she turned on her heel and left.
        So - Vila at least had side-stepped the grim reaper. Someone should drop him off at some unsuspecting neutral planet where he could thieve to his heart's content. He had grown somewhat bolder over the years and expanded his talents. If ever he could get away from the revolutionaries, Vila might live a full and happy life. He had once planned a similar life for himself and Anna... No, don't think about Anna.
        Blake too, he dare not think of. Tarrant - ah well, that reckless young man had run his course, ending as he was always likely to. His loss could be endured. But the women, they were infinitely to be regretted.
        Dayna - so young, trailing the breezes of her seaside home in her wake. Those eyes, that smile, above all that voice - that must echo in his head forever.
        Soolin - cynical sharp-tongued Soolin. Almost a sister, so similar to his own were her thought processes. Say goodbye to that stinging repartee, refreshing as a glass of ice-cold citrus.
        Cally - the midwinter of her loss crept back into his soul, what was left of it. He privately saw her as the embodiment of his anima, that feminine, feeling part of himself that he tried to shield from the eyes of the world.
        At last his thoughts brought him to Orac. Ah yes, Jenna would have secured Orac. She had plans. She must have kept him sedated while she considered her course of action. Jenna would have a course of action all right, and it would include Orac. For the first time he felt a flicker of interest in the future. [GP + 7 days]
        Vila was tired, but relieved. It had been a considerable comfort to spill all his memories into Jenna's lap. She had nodded sympathetically, occasionally prompting him with a question, over a period of four days. Even when he confided to her his private worry that he had himself precipitated the final shootout by distracting the Federation agent for long enough to encourage Dayna to pick up her gun, Jenna had merely remarked that it was just bad luck, it might have worked, he should not upset himself. Sometimes he sought her out to retail another piece of the patchwork. She had not objected to the randomness of his recollections, probably she was cross-checking them with Orac to assemble an ordered history of their travels.
        It felt good to have the pilot back again. Maybe she would know where to go next and he could leave it in her hands. She looked well, trim and fit, as flamboyantly dressed as he always remembered her. The face was a little older perhaps, nothing surprising about that, but his overall impression was of strength and resilience. She was not making any show of devastation at Blake's death, yet he knew she had loved him in the early days. Had the ardour cooled? Perhaps not. After all, she had rejoined his resistance movement and Vila had never rated her as an idealist, so love was the most likely motive.
        Knowing that Avon was finally back in the land of the living, he wondered whether to make the effort to see him. It would be an effort. While he did not entirely blame Avon for his hair-trigger finger, he rather dreaded seeing him in his present disintegrated state. The taciturn Brig, who had taken him his food, answered Vila's questions with, "I don't know. He says nothing and looks right through you." It sounded as though cumulative stress had pushed him into total withdrawal. Vila's heart was still bruised from the realisation that Avon could contemplate killing him to save his own skin, yet somehow the urge to speak to him grew stronger, he could not stay away indefinitely.
        He had settled into a not unpleasant melancholy, particularly when he was on his own. His memory was often haunted by Soolin and Dayna. He did not particularly mind this, he had always enjoyed their company and was far from wishing to forget them. Even recollections of Tarrant were not unwelcome. Cally, he still felt a tinge of guilt about. Common sense told him it would have been suicide to re-enter that bunker on Terminal, but still it clouded his mood.
        He shook himself. Time to pick up the pieces. He would go and see Avon.

Avon was sitting on the edge of his bunk, fully dressed when Vila went in. He had lost weight and the anonymous overalls he wore seemed so far from his normal attire that he looked unfamiliar.
        "Hello," Vila began tentatively. He was rewarded with Avon's attention. "I expect you'd like to know what's happening. I can't see that Brig telling you much."
        "No, I think you could classify him as naturally uncommunicative," agreed Avon, "and I didn't waste time pumping him. Anyway, someone was bound to fill me in, whether I wanted to know, or not."
        Vila settled himself on the opposite bunk. He was not discouraged by apparent lack of interest.
        "Well, they know what happened, they've got it on tape. It seems that there were concealed security cameras all over the place. Blake apparently called Jenna to come back to base and said to watch her screen as he had a surprise for her. She got her surprise all right, just as she was on final approach to the silo, so she switched to an emergency pad and she and Brig sneaked into Blake's concealed armory and loaded up with gas grenades which they dropped into the air conditioning and turned it up high - some sort of supergas those face-masks can't filter out, Blake had it developed by somebody.
        "I must say, you put quite a few troopers out of action with your final burst, there were only three or four still on their feet. By the time Jenna got to the base, that Federation woman I socked had come round and she and the survivors were sorting over the corpses and dragging us off to their flyer. Well, you know Jenna, not exactly the most merciful lady you ever met - she and Brig shot the lot. No prisoners. They wore full respirators of course, you can see them on the tape, coming in and checking the bodies..."
        He trailed off as the images rose before him again... Dayna's and Soolin's bodies, turned over and examined, Tarrant's too. The negative gesture from the masked figure as it moved on. For some minutes his gaze fixed on the bulkhead. Eventually, he looked at Avon again. However much he might try to hide his feelings, the intense suffering in his face moved Vila uncomfortably and he looked away.
        "Yes, well - they put us on a trolley and wheeled us out and Jenna had a good look round the whole base and found friend Orac where you put him. When I came round some hours later we were in some other place on Gauda Prime. They were evacuating everybody and stripping all the equipment. I reckon Jenna's got some plan for a rendezvous. She seems to be giving the orders and they seem to be jumping to it."
        He stole another look at Avon. "Anyway, there was a medic there who checked me over and she gave Brig some stuff to keep you under for a few days with written instructions on how to use it, because Jenna was mad with you and she said she was going to put you into storage while she got everybody away.
        "We've been in space about five days and I've been telling her all about us. You may not like it, but I've told her everything I could think of: people, names, places, the lot."
        Avon gave a slight shrug. "What else could you do? She needs all the facts she can get if she's to decide on her best course. You would be a fool to lie or keep things from her." He gave a bitter smile. "Let her know every last folly and failure," he said.
        "What about Orac?" he asked after a pause.
        "She spends a good deal of time with him." Orac was still "him" to Vila. "They talk about systems and things. I think," he said, as the thought suddenly struck him, "she wants him to design another Zen."
        Avon's shoulders straightened and his head came up. "Does she indeed? I wonder how she intends to finance such a project?" Their eyes met.
        "We could give her pointers about raising the cash," Vila ventured. "Funny thing, she's ended up with the thieves again."
        On the whole, Vila felt reassured about Avon. His mind was still capable of interest. He probably needed work to focus his energies on and it looked as if Jenna meant to provide it. Work - the word which had always made him shudder - he invariably associated it with service grade drudgery, but now he could appreciate its therapeutic side. Perhaps "occupation" was a better term. They needed an occupation, both of them.

[GP + 12 days]
        Jenna leant back in her chair and surveyed Avon critically across the table. She noted that he had not reclaimed his own clothes but still wore the nondescript overalls Brig had provided - camouflage? There were more lines in his face now, relics of harsh experience and disappointments. The sleek good looks she remembered from Liberator days had hardened into a drawn mask.
        Her fury had ebbed with repeated viewings of Deva's tape. She knew that Blake's misguided testing of Tarrant and failure to explain himself speedily to Avon had touched off a keg of powder that had been accumulating for months. Vila's rambling account had provided a background that she could comprehend, but she felt her knowledge of psychology was far too rudimentary to speculate profitably about Avon's behaviour patterns. She could only move pragmatically in cautious stages if she was to restore him to usefulness. She had never known much about him, his secrecy about his earlier life left her little more than her own observations to draw on. Even Vila's story about Anna Grant was not much of a clue to what he might do now. Then, he'd had the empathic Cally and a reasonably sympathetic crew to support him. Things were different now.
        "Vila tells me that Servalan is not dead," she began. "Have you any reason to believe that she, Commissioner Sleer, was behind the ambush at Gauda Prime?"
        "I have considered that possibility, but it could just as easily be a regular Federation operation." He paused. "We - you could set Orac to tracking her movements and contacts. Also we might identify the woman you call Arlen and trace her back to her commander. It depends on how much priority you want to give it, could take a lot of time and effort."
        "I should like to know who we're up against. I want to know if they are convinced," she said.
        Jenna made an abrupt gesture. "I blew Deva's base," she said, "vapourized it. They might believe we all died if they find no trace of survivors."
        "Servalan won't," Avon said with certainty, "she'll never stop looking. The Federation might turn its attention elsewhere but we shall have to deal with Madam Commissioner."
        "Assassination perhaps," said Jenna with a gleam in her eye. "You may want to do the deed yourself in `honourable' combat, but I would set the exterminators on her track, to use any methods they see fit."
        He let that pass without comment. "And then what? Where have any of Blake's revolutions got anybody, apart from a hole in the ground? Without him you don't even have a figurehead anymore. Who could possibly take his place? If you ask me, the resistance is dead."
        Eyes cast down, she concentrated on the table top. "It is," she said, "quite dead. What did we ever achieve with it? Let us bury it and fade into obscurity." She raised her eyes to look at Avon. He in turn was staring downwards. He moved his head, not quite a nod of agreement, nor a protest either. The silence lengthened into minutes as he contemplated the future. Eventually he looked up at her and she anticipated his question.
        "And from that obscurity we shall begin a campaign that will achieve something. A campaign that the Federation will not even be aware of until it is too late."
        "What with?"

[GP + 40 days]
        It took several weeks for intelligence of the happenings on Gauda Prime to arrive at Commissioner Sleer's desk. The planet was remote from her sphere of influence, the operation had been initiated by Councillor Joban under conditions of great secrecy, and she had not been able to establish an informant close to his department. The report she so tardily received was cautiously optimistic that Blake and his organisation had been wiped out. Furthermore, a brief signal from Arlen's people had indicated that Avon was expected to walk into the trap also. The total destruction of the base and the Federation personnel inside, made it difficult to assess the degree of success, but the discovery of the wreckage of a cargo ship, tentatively identified as Scorpio, seemed to confirm matters. However, the wreck had been tampered with, items had been removed, including something from the engine room. That looters had been at work was hardly surprising on a lawless world like Gauda Prime, but damage to the ship's computer might have been sabotage.
        Servalan swung away from her console with a feeling akin to dismay. No bodies, no base, a gutted wreck - and they called that success! More likely Avon, wary as a wild animal, had scented the hunters and arranged this charade with Blake to fake their deaths. They were scarcely likely to leave useful equipment like the teleport on Scorpio. No doubt it was all removed before they crashed it under remote control, probably using Orac as auto-pilot. And the fools on the Council were cautiously optimistic!
        Well she was not. She would only be sure when she had seen the bodies or heard convincing testimony from those who had, backed up by holograms and other evidence. The only body she had ever seen was that of Olag Gan. Cally had not been sighted for two years - hopefully dead - and the woman Stannis had blown herself to glory when cornered last year, but the rest of them were alive, she would stake her head on that.

"How did we get off Gauda Prime without being spotted?" Vila asked Brig when they were alone in the galley.
        "Detector shield."
        "I didn't know anyone else had one, besides the Liberator."
        "Federation's got them now."
        "Did you steal it?" said Vila with a grin.
        "Jenna got it somewhere, an old acquaintance, I dare say." There was almost a smile on Brig's face. "We followed a scheduled flight out. Real bunch of amateurs, their surveillance."
        "There isn't much you can teach Jenna about blockade running," said Vila with satisfaction. "I wonder how big the price on her head is."
        "Zero. It's already been paid." Brig's turn to look grimly satisfied.
        "She faked it months ago, drew a Fed squadron into a trap they thought they'd laid and detonated the decoy and destroyed half of them. We're dead."
        "Very liberating," Vila smiled admiringly. "I wonder if we are too? Nah - Servalan won't buy that. Pity. Have a sandwich."

"Orac," said Avon, "where are we? What course are we on?" Until now he had never been left alone with Orac, but Jenna was on the flight deck, while Brig was in the galley with Vila.
        "We are at grid reference 49.83.32 in the Ninth Sector, Avon. Our present course will take us to the planet Silmarino, code-named Horizon."
        "Well, at least she hasn't prohibited you from talking to me. Can I give you instructions?"
        "Yes. However, Jenna has added a radio-controlled trigger to the explosive device you implanted to prevent psionic tampering. She states that she will detonate it if you use me to interfere with her activities or disobey a direct order."
        "Hmm," he smiled wryly, "I shall have to be careful then." He could not help admiring her thoroughness.
        "Are you a prisoner, Avon?" Orac's tone was, as ever, mildly interested.
        "Probably. Right now I don't mean to sabotage her plans, but I want information. What of Horizon? Has the Federation left it alone?
        "Yes. Their pacification force has been proceeding in another direction. No further attention has been paid to Horizon."
        "The drug, Pylene-50, what happened to all the antidote material that was in Scorpio?" He was not unduly worried that it had been destroyed. In the wake of Zukan's treachery, he had disseminated all his information to the other allies and urged them to spread it far and wide for their own protection.
        "Jenna and Vila retrieved it from Scorpio shortly after Deva's base was destroyed."
        "Vila never mentioned that." Resentment over Blake's death? Or maybe Jenna had ordered silence. "What else did they...ah...retrieve?
        "The photon drive mechanism of course, most of the teleport controls and several portions of Slave's data banks, as I advised them to." Orac sounded quite jaunty.
        She would. Left in command of the field, Jenna was proving as formidable as Servalan. In a way, Blake's death freed her from allegiance to him and his methods. She was her own woman now. In the midst of her sorrow, did she also feel release?
        Well, on to Horizon. Was this the rendezvous?

Vila too, was feeling the need for information. Brig had somewhat unbent, especially when Vila sang Jenna's praises and told him stories about the Liberator. He appeared to be devoted to her and Vila had a notion that their acquaintance went back a long way. A family retainer? Not quite; their manner proclaimed them as near equals, the pilot/commander and the engineer.
        "When did you first meet Jenna?" he asked as casually as he could. They were facing each other across the breakfast table in the cramped dining alcove adjacent to the galley.
        "Hmm..." Brig considered, "going on forty years ago, I should say."
        Brig smiled slightly at Vila's surprise. "She will have been, oh, two weeks old at the time and I was about fifteen. My name is Brig Stannis, I am the first cousin of her father, Lukas Stannis."
        "Oh..." Vila had never connected the black-avised Brig with Jenna's lineage. He wondered how far he could pry into their past. "Were there...?"
        Brig read the questions in Vila's eyes. "Yes, there are more of us, mostly in exile, those who escaped the Feds." His face became dark.
        "I don't want to pry," said Vila hesitantly, "it's just that she never said, and we, Gan and I, reckoned she had no family. On the Liberator, you didn't ask people where they came from. All our pasts were pretty murky, except Cally. I mean, take Avon, I know nothing about his family background, and he's not going to tell me at this late date, is he?
        "I don't see any harm in giving you some details," said Brig after an inward-looking pause.
        "The Stannis family were a powerful mercantile concern; shipping, trading, luxury end of the market mostly. Severus Major was our main base, but headquarters were still on Earth. Well, the Feds wanted more control over the independents like us and Lukas got furious and swore he would move the whole business out of their jurisdiction. So the family started transferring operations to neutral territory on the quiet, but the Feds got wind of it and arrested Lukas and his brothers and my brother Rod on charges of treason or tax evasion, or whatever. Anyway, they were never seen again. And they took my sister and Jenna's mother too. That's the really bad bit, they wrung some sort of confession out of Lukas by torturing Meriam. My sister told me about it. She got away from them, did Margit, jumped out of a prison vehicle and ran for it. It makes me sick to think about it. She was a lovely woman, Meriam. Jenna's very like her.
        "The Feds confiscated everything. The rest of us ran, taking our ships and families and we became freetraders, those who didn't disappear under a false name."
        "What about Jenna? Where was she, while this was going on?" asked Vila.
        "Just out of the Academy, away in her first ship. We got a message to her and she managed to desert and join us. Clever kid, great blockade runner." Brig shrugged. "There you have it. Fall of the House of Stannis."
        "Did your sister make it?" enquired Vila.
        "Oh yes." Brig's face brightened. "Nothing gets the better of Margit. A born troublemaker, you'd like her. In fact, you'll probably meet her before long."
        Well, that's something to look forward to, thought Vila.

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© Copyright Vega (Frances Teagle), 1999.
This story may be printed for individual use, but must not be stored as a computer file or reproduced for sale or distribution.

[GP + 6 months]
        Seated near the mouth of the cavern that housed Ro's council chamber, Jenna drank in the rich smell of the twilit forest below. In the red glow of the westering sun, leaves glistened from a recent shower, a tiny waterfall babbled down the rock face nearby. Since her arrival she had formed the habit of coming here to watch the ceremony of nightfall as huge flocks of birds settled noisily into the trees and the nocturnal hunters took up their patrol. Silence never reigned here, the air vibrated to strigilations of insects and the croaks of small amphibians. At first her unaccustomed ear had found it disturbing, almost overwhelming, but now she surrendered to its ambience with a rapt pleasure. Was she putting down roots, or was the place flinging its tendrils around her?
        Selma's entry was so soft-footed that only the slight waft of an air current betrayed her presence as she seated herself beside Jenna. They exchanged smiles and sat in companionable silence for several minutes.
        "He is down there again, tonight," said Selma as the darkness complete its advance.
        Jenna nodded. Avon had established a sentinel post on a rocky ledge by the waterfall where he spent brooding hours, apparently indifferent to sun or rain, waiting for her verdict and his sentence. He seemed to have relinquished all control to her, inwardly engrossed in morbid thoughts, teetering on the edge of destruction. Sometimes she feared she might discover his broken body on the rocks below.
        "He punishes himself, does he not?" Selma continued reflectively. "I was so shocked when I heard what happened, I didn't know how you could bear to look at him, let alone bring him with you. But watching him, I begin to understand something of the sickness in his mind and thoughts of retribution have faded into...pity, I think." She turned her head to search Jenna's face for her response.
        Jenna did not smile but acknowledged her comment with a thoughtful look.
        "Well, to Ro, I would say that as a leader, I must put aside personal feelings and use Avon's talents to further my cause. But to you Selma, as one woman to another, I have to admit to very similar thoughts. I actually hate to see him this way, I would prefer the old sarcastic gibes to this silence. You're right, punishment is quite unnecessary now. I have just been letting the time pass -- time for thought. The last thing we must do is make hasty decisions, but I tell you this, I'm going to work his tail off!"
        As if on cue, the lights came on and the cave mouth was secured by a shimmering force field. They rose to their feet, smiling their accord, and turned their steps toward the dining room.

Avon, too, was watching the approach of night, the gradual appearance of the stars and one of Silmarino's three little satellites. But there was no moonlight to complete the scene. Most Earth-dwellers were unfamiliar with moonlight, but he had once spent nearly two years on a classified project based in the isolation of the Andaman Islands where conditions were so primitive that personnel were accommodated in surface dwellings among the palm trees.
        Many of his colleagues blenched at nature in the raw and shunned the beaches in particular, but he would stroll on the sand listening to the rollers booming on the shore and watching the moon rise, flooding the world with a mysterious white light. He carefully kept his enjoyment to himself, knowing that it would mark him as a potential `outsider' in the minds of the authorities; knowing too, that he was already an irredeemable outsider. The return to civilization had been traumatic, to be immured in the city once more was difficult to endure. Now he began to cast around for the means to escape.
        No, these moonlets were too small to reflect any noticeable light and the stars were thin out here on the edge of the galaxy, especially when the planet's dark side was facing infinity, as it did at this time of year. Midnight would be dark indeed.
        The question that dogged his mind was, "Why should I labour to make reparation and be forgiven for Blake's death?"
        And back came the implacable answer. "Because I cannot forgive myself. I cannot live with myself." And if he could not, only suicide lay ahead. He contemplated it for a while. Easy -- step forward and jump.
        *He fears death?* A familiar voice questioned in his head. No Cally, yet I can't imagine you counselling self-destruction, with the task uncompleted. I could yet do the Federation a lot of damage and Jenna is right, stealth and deceit will probably accomplish more than open opposition or any guerilla campaigns ever did. And if I did jump, that would be their final victory, Servalan's final victory; and I will not give her that satisfaction.
        The tide of abnegation which had flooded his soul was gradually receding, leaving him half drowned on some unfamiliar strand, while the will to survive slowly reasserted itself. Reparation was, after all, the traditional means of rehabilitation. Well Jenna, what do you want me to do for you?

The sun beat down on Selma as she picked her way carefully down the steep path to Avon's rock. Remembering its difficulties, she had slung her small wicker hamper across her back to leave both hands free. At the last bend she paused to get her breath back and greet him composedly. From a few feet away she could see how gaunt he was, although the nine-days' tan of his exposure gave him a spurious air of health. She moved forward again, making a small sound with her sandalled foot to warn him of her presence. He turned his head casually, but a quick flick of his eyebrows showed her that he was astonished to see who his visitor was. He rose courteously and offered his hand to help her scramble across the last slab of rock. She joined him with a smile and sat on the rocky bench.
        "This is a fine day for an outdoor lunch," she remarked as she opened the hamper. With a gesture, she invited him to resume his seat and he complied. The food was simple and not too abundant, the two wooden cups they filled from the waterfall and they wiped their fingers on the plain napkins she had wrapped the bread in.
        "Not many queens would climb down a cliff to feed a prisoner," he said. His face had lightened and he was making an effort at conversation.
        "Few queens have ever slaved in a mine, either." She smiled to take the seriousness out of that statement. "It reminds me that we owe you an enormous debt. Without the coming of the Liberator, I would be dead, and thousands with me. Ro would probably be dead too, or reduced to a puppet of the commissars, and without your rescue, all your companions, including Blake, would have died too."
        "I came within an inch of abandoning him." It seemed easy to tell her this. "I still don't really know why I didn't... couldn't."
        "Our instincts sometimes make us act contrary to our reason," she said thoughtfully. "I couldn't really tell you why I held out against the commissars, even in the mines, even to the extent of putting my life on the line. I just knew I must. And the experience gave me something, an authority perhaps, which has been a great advantage to me ever since. Yes, I am a believer in instincts. Are you?"
        "I have seen it work for others, but I always distrusted it for myself, and it certainly tells me nothing now."
        "I think you are a prisoner of your own mind, Avon. I suppose you feel you can never be forgiven for what happened on Gauda Prime, yet your companions are already more than half way towards it." She stared across the valley absently.
        "It's a strange thing, forgiveness. I had to forgive Ro for allowing them to send me to the pits, otherwise we couldn't have gone on together. And it happened. It took Ro longer to forgive himself. I had to be very patient with him."
        "You had your love to carry you through." He spoke slowly, almost dreamily, also staring out over the treetops. "We don't have that. What can we substitute for it to carry us across our gulf?"
        "You have long companionship and a common purpose," she answered softly. "I am certain that none of you wish to give up and let the Federation swallow the whole galaxy, and so you need each other still." She fell silent, observing him sideways. She felt too young and inexperienced to deal competently with so complex a personality, fresh from devastating losses. To cover her uncertainty she gathered the leftovers, packed the basket and stood up with a rather shy smile.
        "I hope you will join us this evening at dinner."
        He got to his feet politely. "I will come," he promised gravely.
        As she climbed the steep track she wondered if he was just being courteous, as one would to a child. On the other hand, she had achieved her objective.

Vila was surprised to find Avon in the anteroom that evening, dressed in his own clothes, too. Things were beginning to look up. He helped himself to a tankard of fruit juice and furtively added a measure of spirit from his flask. It made a very pleasant combination, and after a few mouthfuls, feeling relaxed and well-disposed, he sidled over to Avon and greeted him.
        "Left your rock at last, I see. Like a bit of vodka in that drink?"
        Somewhat to Vila's surprise, Avon nodded. "Come to any conclusions down there?" he asked as he splashed the liquor into the tumbler.
        "Yes, some." Avon sipped his drink, raised an eyebrow in appreciation and drank the rest.
        Anything he might have added was lost as approaching footsteps heralded the main party -- Jenna, Ro, Selma and Brig, accompanied by two strangers: a woman and an older man, black-browed, dark-eyed and grey bearded. The woman was probably Margit, but who was the man? He looked a formidable character, Vila thought, stifling the urge to hide his tankard guiltily behind him.
        Brig made the introductions. "My sister Margit, of whom you have heard me speak, and Mikhail Brand, our uncle."
        We haven't heard you speak of him, thought Vila, you've kept him very dark.

Dinner was more convivial than he expected. Vila manoeuvred himself alongside Margit, "the born troublemaker" and made himself pleasant. This was not particularly difficult as she was readily disposed to enjoy herself. The merry gleam lurking in her green eyes commended her to Vila. So this was the lady who had jumped out of a paddy-wagon and legged it to freedom. Not an easy thing to manage, as he knew from personal experience. She looked the part, taller than he was and obviously athletic. He guessed her age at the late forties. Cheerfully attractive now, she must have been quite something twenty years ago.
        From time to time he glanced at the others. Selma and Ro were clearly engrossed by Mikhail, Jenna and Brig conversed quietly and Avon was for the most part silent. Vila was sure he was listening to Mikhail's voice. He recalled their meeting with amusement, the clash of eyes like duellists saluting before the fray. Sparks might fly, he told himself, secretly enjoying the prospect. It shouldn't be too difficult to get Margit to talk about Mikhail, the man's aura of power intrigued Vila immensely.
        He turned back to Margit's explanation of Keledon's custom of temporary marriage. "Three husbands in fourteen years," he said admiringly, "it sounds so much more amusing than the usual life sentence."
        "Believe me Vila, it is," she returned.
        "Is Mikhail a Keledonian resident too?" he enquired innocently.
        "You mean, how many wives has he had?" Margit's knowing smile suddenly made her look very like Jenna. "Five, at the last count. I think Irena will hold onto him now -- a clever woman, Irena."

Ro presided over the meeting in his council chamber the following day. Apart from Selma, none of his own people were present, only his visitors were seated round the table. Beside Jenna on a spare chair, was Orac, activated. Vila wondered wryly if Orac had complained at being used as a recording device. A hush fell, Ro was beginning.
        "As you know, our isolation since the Federation people left us, has been complete. We knew virtually nothing of the Andromedan invasion, no battles were fought in this sector, no fugitives came our way and no Federation ships have returned to re-establish control over us. During these years of peace, we have returned to the ways of our ancestors, apart from some technological advances: the legacy of the Federation. Now you tell me that they are reclaiming their empire, planet by planet, and although their activities are directed to the other side of the galaxy, we cannot expect them to forget us, or Monopasium 239. So we have to consider our best course of action: can we protect ourselves in any way?" He looked directly at Jenna, plainly signaling her to speak.
        "Yes." Jenna sat very upright in her chair. "Sooner or later, the Federation must feel strong enough to come back for the M239, and then Ro, you have nothing to fight them with. If you attempt to resist, they will surely exterminate you and bring in a mining consortium and new colonists."
        Several of her audience nodded their agreement but there was a general air of expectation. She was about to propose something.
        "That mining consortium will have to be us," she said simply.

"Mechanised mining?" queried Avon. "No slave workers, no Federation guards?"
        "Then you must have some scheme in mind to raise the finance for equipment and expertise," Avon stated calmly.
        Oho, thought Vila, is this where Mikhail comes in?
        "If you are thinking of acquiring an existing company then it must be based in Federation territory, I don't see them allowing neutrals into Horizon."
        This time it was Mikhail who nodded, his face wore a faint smile of satisfaction.
        "Furthermore," Avon continued, "to get the concession you will need a High Councillor or two in your pocket, and that will also take real money. We are, of course, fortunate that corruption is so rife among them that no suspicion would be aroused by such tactics, but the problem remains, how are you going to raise the capital?"
        Jenna made no reply, but looked him straight in the eye.
        "You intend me to hack into the banking system again, don't you?"
        "And with Orac to help you," she said, "you should succeed this time."
        "Hang about a minute!" Vila was moved to protest. "That means the Federation gets the Mono-whatsit and that helps them to gobble up the rest of the galaxy, doesn't it? He sat back in some confusion as every eye turned to him.
        "A good point," Margit interposed. "One that deserves discussion."
        Vila warmed to her support.
        "The Federation will get some of it," Jenna agreed, "but I have the feeling that the yield will be disappointing, and the seam could run out altogether in a few years." Her expression was one of grave innocence.
        "You're going to do a Belkov," said Vila admiringly. "But watch out, they rumbled him. You will have to be smarter."
        "To do him justice," said Avon, "he had us to contend with as well as the authorities, otherwise he might well have got away with it." He redirected his attention to Jenna. "This could take a long time to set up, years maybe. Can we be sure that we have enough time before the Federation moves?"
        It was Mikhail who answered him. "I know of someone who has the option to acquire a mining supply company on Parthia Minor. It is in financial difficulties and I am a creditor. We could raise a loan to buy it out and your preliminary, ah, operations should be able to finance the necessary re-equipment and expansion programme. Remember, we must run some legitimate operations for cover, as well."
        Manage that properly, thought Vila, and we could end up legitimately rich. Things were looking up.
        As if she read his mind, Margit threw cold water on this.
        "All this might well make us prosperous, but what has it to do with bringing down the Federation?"
        Jenna smiled faintly.
        "If we're honest, we all admit that direct opposition has failed. The only way forward I can see, is to infiltrate their commercial economy and all levels of government. From there we can worm our way into all their systems and corrupt them -- drain their lifeblood away."
        "Are you sure their systems won't corrupt us?" said Margit caustically. "And such a project will take thousands of people to carry out. Most of us can't show our faces in Federation territory so we'll have to trust others, which gives you a massive security problem."
        Hear, hear, thought Vila, she's speaking my lines for me. Aloud, he added, "It sounds to me like you're going to turn us into the Terra Nostra, and they may not like that."
        "Another good point," said Avon. "The Terra Nostra could be more of a danger than Federation security, and as we know, they are the underbelly of the government." There was a hint of the old relish in his voice which was not lost on Jenna.
        "Why don't we spread the good news about the President being the secret boss of the Terra Nostra?" chipped in Vila. "I always thought that was a missed opportunity."
        Avon and Jenna considered this for a moment, remembering their own experiences with that organisation. Jenna's eyes narrowed vengefully. "I wouldn't mind setting them at each others' throats," she said grimly. "Orac can trace their command hierarchy and start the rumours flying.
        "I don't deny that we shall have to be exceedingly careful," she continued, "but I don't believe we will need as many helpers as Margit thinks. Orac alone is worth hundreds."
        "Ah yes, Orac," Avon drawled this out thoughtfully. "I wonder how the Sardoans are making out these days."
        Vila looked up sharply, sure of what was coming next.
        "Perhaps they would be prepared to make us some duplicates in the matter transformers. I take it, Orac, that you could locate Sardos again?"
        "Of course I can." Orac sounded faintly offended.
        "Would duplicate Oracs have his memory, or would they be empty?" Vila wondered.
        "It hardly matters, they could soon acquire the data from the original. Assuming of course, that they actually work."
        "Duplicate Oracs? Worth a very long trip, would you say?" queried Jenna.
        "Perhaps not immediately, but in a while, yes. Am I right in thinking that you want to reconstruct the teleport?"
        "Fairly essential for coming and going discreetly," answered Jenna. "And all our movements are going to be discreet from now on." But the old adventurous smile belied her cautious words. "It must have a high priority."
        "I agree. We must take care to keep its existence a secret, though. If the Federation get wind of it, they'll know who the proprietors must be."
        No more appearing and disappearing under their very noses, thought Vila, and no more wearing those very obvious bracelets. Somebody will have to think of something less conspicuous. Still, it looked as if nobody would be expecting any heroics from him.

"Returning to the topic of making a bid for the mining concession," said Mikhail looking across at Ro, "timing is all-important. Impatience may be fatal, but no one will surprised if a commercial concern starts making delicate enquires. We must make up some cover story to account for our knowledge of M239 -- perhaps somebody gossiped to a friend?"
        "The assistant commissar, I should think," Ro took up the theme. "He was always a malcontent, just the sort to complain to his friends about being stuck in the back of beyond, overseeing a mine. We still have his communication equipment, I am sure you have the expertise to hack in and fake something."
        "What will you tell your people, Ro, if we succeed in restarting the mining? We don't want to encounter resistance from them, or if the Federation insist on sending overseers or inspectors, we don't want any gossip either."
        "A certain amount of the truth, I think. You are independents, you will not be using human workers but machines. One thing, will mechanised mining be very unsightly and disruptive?"
        "As I recall," said Jenna, catching Selma's eye and smiling faintly, "the seam is very narrow, miniature robot techniques should do the job with a minimum of disturbance." She looked around the table. "Well, I haven't heard anyone say `you're crazy'. Do I take it that you more or less agree with the ideas put forward?"
        The others were nodding. Vila stealing a sideways glance at Avon, was not amazed to see him remain motionless. If he didn't co-operate, they were in trouble. He himself didn't really count, no one took much notice of his opinion. He kept as still as Avon.
        "Avon? Vila?" Jenna's voice was quiet, but it startled him somehow. She didn't really want his consent, did she? He made a confused gesture, then to his relief, Avon spoke.
        "I will do my part, but I can make no promises, it may not work. As to the rest, we shall have to see."
        Trust Avon to qualify everything, but Vila found himself nodding.

    "Orac, do you have the location of the Shadow refinery on Zondar? I know you were occupied with other matters at the time, did you record it?"
    "Of course I did, Avon."
    "Have you got the key to any of Space Command's current codes?"
    "I have."
    "Send the Supreme Commander orders to seize the planet and destroy the refinery -- from the President, of course."
    "And the personnel?"
    "Summary execution is Space Command's favourite solution. Give the order for no prisoners."
"That was reckless, Avon," said Mikhail when he heard about the Zondar deception. "Sooner or later, the President and the Supreme Commander will compare notes and speculate about the true origin of those orders."
        Avon shot him a look of cool venom. "In my judgement, it is a worthwhile venture. We may sever the connection between the President and the Terra Nostra."
        "We may have them combine to hunt for us, instead." Mikhail's face didn't wear a frown, but he kept his eyes on Avon's face in an uncomfortably piercing look.
        "Not likely." Avon returned a faint smile of cold insolence. "They'll be at each others' throats by now. With any luck, somebody will be executed or assassinated before long."
        "Well, this is the last time we try anything like this. It's much too direct," said Mikhail firmly. "Is that clear?"
        "As you wish," Avon replied, with patent insincerity.

Go to next chapter

© Copyright Vega (Frances Teagle), 1999.
This story may be printed for individual use, but must not be stored as a computer file or reproduced for sale or distribution.

[GP + 14 months]
        Months later an elderly pleasure cruiser sidled cautiously towards its invisible destination, specially adapted sensors feeling for the few clues to its existence that Sardos permitted to escape. On the flight deck a tense group watched the instruments before them.
        "Are you sure it's still here?" Vila asked Avon yet again. "How do you know they haven't shifted the whole thing? Their technology could be capable of that."
        "I'm not, I don't, and it could," came the inevitable reply, delivered calmly and without apparent irritation. "Nevertheless, we shall persist. Now get on with your scan."
        At the captain's console, Jenna permitted her attention to focus on Avon and Vila for a moment. On the whole she felt a considerable satisfaction with progress so far: the reconstruction and improvement of the teleport; some successful pilfering from the Federation banking system and the subsequent acquisition of the mining equipment company - all these were a promising start. She regarded the bickering of her colleagues with indulgence, smiling amity from those two would be unnatural. She was not greatly disturbed by Avon's silent antagonism to Mikhail Brand either. Most of it could be seen as a response to Brand's unmistakeable aura of power. Although Avon himself found leadership onerous and unwelcome, he disliked the imposition of another's authority still more. Mikhail was aware of this and adroitly avoided further confrontations. She herself had dropped into the role of colleague, albeit the one with the casting vote, a situation which Avon appeared to accept with equanimity. With tact and diplomacy on her side they were collaborating reasonably well.
        "Information!" Everyone snapped to attention as the navigation computer spoke. "Sensors have detected microwave signals. We are probably in the immediate vicinity of Sardos."
        "Reverse thrust and stop," ordered Jenna. "Launch the probe."
        "Probe launched."

Leaning back in her chair, apparently at ease, Jenna observed the increased tension in Avon's stance. His probe was being put to the test, as was his whole scheme. A lot of planning and electronic research had gone into this project, secrecy at all costs had been their watchword. Orac had combed Federation records for any trace of Servalan's expedition to Sardos or Grose's contacts with her or the penal colony at Calcos and drawn a complete blank, apart from revealing the cover story for her prolonged absence. The lady had convinced her councillors that she had been conducting secret negotiations with one of the neutral confederations, her smiling return apparently signalling success. Of her crew, presumably sworn to silence or killed, there was no trace. Nevertheless, the possibility remained that a word of mouth account had reached the High Council, and they had taken over the planet and its matter transformers. Another danger was posed by the convicts and remnants of the Fifth Legion. Were they still there, or had they abandoned Sardos?
        All in all this was the biggest risk so far, reflected Jenna. But she agreed with Avon that denying the Federation the dangerous advantage of Sardoan technology was more important even than acquiring it for themselves.
        In the back of her mind revolved the problem of Servalan. Her first impulse to inform the High Council of Sleer's true identity, had been checked. She could not rely on them exterminating her without argument or delay. The temptation to haul her before the investigators for interrogation would almost certainly be too great. No, they could not risk Servalan's knowledge becoming common currency. In Jenna's opinion, it would have to be an assassin of some sort, and finding such a person wouldn't be easy. Also, she sensed an irrational opposition to the idea on Avon's part. She had not broached the subject again, but she had not dropped the notion either. Servalan had survived a number of assassination attempts already, and her life of wary disguise made her a difficult target. Difficult, but not impossible.
        "The probe has passed through the energy barrier," reported the computer.
        Everyone held their breath.
        "Signals are being received on the microwave frequencies. Relaying visuals to main screen."
        No face looked more relieved than Avon's as the surface of Sardos appeared, growing more distinct moment by moment as the probe descended.
        "It looks a lot greener than last time," commented Vila. "Evidently not winter, thank goodness." Unlike Avon, he had spent several hours outdoors on his previous visit and recalled the freezing fog with little pleasure.
        "More cover, anyway," Avon acknowledged. "Orac, have you fixed the probe's position yet? Are we near to Moloch's site?"
        "I have. The probe is currently some three hundred and ninety kilometers from the target building. I have corrected its trajectory and aerobraking will bring it down to treetop level in eleven minutes at a distance of eighty-four kilometres from target."
        The plan was for the tiny probe to mimic a meteorite, hoping not to arouse interest from the Sardoan surveillance corps, land and scuttle for cover, emerging after its operators were satisfied it had not attracted attention. Then it would make its way unobtrusively to its destination, where it was to disgorge its roving observer to reconnoitre and act as a navigational beacon for the landing party. Meanwhile, the ship would remain in fixed orbit, cloaked and silent.
        No action for some hours, decided Vila. He would leave them to it and return to the shabby comfort of the passenger lounge by way of the cafeteria.
        As he expected, Brig and Margit were playing cards in their usual corner, when he arrived with his tray. He pulled up a chair beside them to watch their play as he ate. Having exhausted the possibilities of the ship's gaming rooms, he found their skillful contests much more interesting and relaxing. Sometimes he ventured a hand himself, usually with Jenna, who was roughly his level. Once or twice Avon had challenged the experts and acquited himself well, mostly, however, he stuck to involved solitaire games.
        Life aboard the Freya progressed leisurely but purposefully during the long voyage here. Ostensibly the pleasure cruiser was on her way to the Cepheid System for conversion to a passenger/supply ship for the company. Indeed, she would eventually keep her appointment with the shipbuilders, but her departure from the regular shipping lanes was unlikely to arouse suspicion, she was not accounted of any interest.
        Brig and Margit busied themselves in restoring the robot service systems, most of which were barely functional, the legacy of years of neglect while the unused vessel was parked in orbit with dozens of other laid-up ships during a recession. The conversion itself would raise no eyebrows. The dual-purpose design of the hull was deliberate and cruise companies routinely advertised their discards as `suitable for conversion'.
        No one queried the acquisition of a variety of electronic supplies, some of them rather unusual. Most of these were stored in the suite Avon had converted into his workshop while he constructed the probe. The spherical rover was based on Ensor's design, culled from Orac's memory. It roamed the ship under Orac's eccentric control during its testing period, giving several people a shock with its silent approach and ability to open doors. If it succeeded in its main task, Avon planned to make several copies on Sardos.
        Vila, too, needed employment. Generally he supervised the cleaning. Always sensitive to bad smells, he had been much offended by the stale odours in most of the public rooms and as soon as Margit had fixed the robot cleaners, he had applied himself to eliminating them and exterminating the mould which had gained a footing almost everywhere. The crew's mess hall had been particularly disgusting. Vila was sure that smoking of heinous substances had been going on there, and his stomach heaved whenever he crossed the threshold. Clearly no one had changed an air filter for ages, either; and when the refit came round, those revolting carpets were going to go.
        Furthermore, the ship had become infested with rodents and cockroaches. Obviously the standard precaution of flooding the ship with inert gas to prevent this problem, had been neglected. Although fumigation had seen off the unwelcome guests, the festering remains had to be winkled out and jettisoned. Vila reckoned their path was marked with shrivelled rat corpses for weeks. Avon had constructed a miniature robot retriever to fetch little cadavers out from ducts and pipes. One large rat had been found alive, and led a merry chase until Margit cornered it and blasted it with her sidearm. Avon's `ratcatcher', equipped with a miniature camera, had examined the piping for flaws at the same time. Orac, told off to monitor its progress, had complained bitterly at being set such a menial task.
        As he reviewed the situation, idly watching his companions, Vila also felt a good deal of satisfaction. He had made himself at home on Freya, he was an accepted member of a group again, and they were about to steal a march on the Federation.

"Artificial night!" Jenna stared up at the dim sky. "I never expected that."
        "I never really gave it a thought, but I imagine that constant daylight could have an adverse effect on vegetation," commented Avon, kneeling beside the recovered probe. "Probably the seasons are artificially controlled as well. It relieves the monotony." He concealed the probe under the bushes.
        "No stars, their energy barrier is opaque both ways." Jenna wondered privately if they could acquire such a technology and apply it to some anonymous asteroid for a secret base.
        Avon stood up. "This way," he said.

The female crew of the tracking room regarded the visitors with some alarm, several of them looked pointedly at the intruders' sidearms, which though still holstered, were obvious.
        "Nobody raise your voices," said Jenna softly. She advanced into the room while Avon took up position by the door. "We think we might be able to help you."

Vila observed the guests closely as he handed round the refreshments in Freya's passenger lounge. No Sardoan had ventured into space within living memory and the shuttle ride had shaken their nerves somewhat. However, their shock was abating and curiosity was reasserting itself. He was being careful to hold his tongue. Jenna was insisting on rigid security, the Sardoans were not to know their identities and Vila was struggling to remember his pseudonym, `Warren'. It was some time since he had hidden behind a false identity, a common enough occurrence in his previous career, and he was anxious not to make mistakes. Furthermore, he had to remember to address Jenna and Avon by theirs; `Astra' and `Chevron'. He was glad that Margit and Brig, having no interplanetary reputations, chose not to bother. Another thing he knew he must not mention was the teleport. From now on, their comings and goings would be by Freya's shuttle, unless they were sure they were unobserved. All this was a bit wearing, but on the whole Vila applauded Jenna's caution, you never really knew whom you could trust.
        Rather than admitting to being rebels, they were representing themselves as independent neutrals, threatened by Federation expansion, a plight more likely to gain the Sardoans' support as fellow sufferers. Even so, the delegates wore a sceptical air. Hokaida, their leader, was confronting Avon directly.
        "You say that two of you visited Sardos on the day that the Federation President arrived." He was a thin, elegant man with abundant grey hair. Vila tried to gauge his mood. Was it hostile or merely cautious?
        "That is correct," answered Avon. "We kept her under close surveillance and followed her here, where we discovered the situation with Moloch and the Fifth Legion renegades. As you know, their leaders were killed and Moloch destroyed."
        "So, it is to you we owe our release. It is a pity that Colonel Astrid did not accompany his subordinates to the underworld."
        "Oh, you revived him then? Did it prove to be a mistake?"
        "The man is very troublesome. He is trying to drill those convicts into some sort of army and claim this world for the Federation. He will not listen to reason."
        "Where is their troop carrier? The landing strip is empty."
        "It left soon after Grose's death, the crew mutinied and deserted. Colonel Astrid flew into a terrible rage and had several of the guards shot."
        Understandable, Vila felt. Finding yourself stranded on this place must have been unnerving. The man's luck with his subordinates had been abysmal, evidently he was not a gifted leader of men.
        "What of the convicts?" asked Avon. "How many are there? Are they well armed?"
        "About a hundred and thirty remain, plus twenty or so genuine troopers. They often fight among themselves and dozens have been killed. A few of the original troopers have come over to us, the better sort, and they constitute our security force. Very few of the convicts have guns. We have managed to confiscate and destroy most of their sidearms, but of course, they manufacture their own knives, spears and clubs. We have a sort of truce with them, we supply food and they keep away from us, but there have been several nasty incidents, usually involving women." The leader made a gesture of appeal. "We could certainly do with help, though I suppose you want something in return. Matter transformation?"
        It was Jenna who replied to this. "This technology does lie at the root of all outside interest." Her manner was calm and friendly. "You have been right to conceal its existence, for it has most dangerous implications in the wrong hands. Although I would like you to make a few copies of some of our more specialised equipment, our primary concern is to make sure the Federation does not lay hands on it."
        One of the women spoke up for the first time. "I must say, I'm surprised they didn't return in force and seize everything soon after the Federation battle cruiser left."
        "The President kept her visit a secret," said Avon, "probably intending to return. However, other matters claimed her attention. Ourselves, for instance." He gave her one of his rare warm smiles. Vila noted her dazzled reaction with an inward grin.
        Jenna took the lead again. "We can certainly take Colonel Astrid off your hands, but we don't have the facilities to transport all his men as well. This vessel isn't designed for security purposes."
        "Give 'em a shot of Pylene," said Vila slyly. He half expected some protest about unethical methods, but his hearers responded with gratifying interest.
        "That's a very good idea," said Jenna, "if only we had some."
        "We always carry equipment and ingredients to prepare the antidote." Avon stood up. "I think we can synthesize the drug itself. I'll go and check." He left the room to consult Orac.
        It had not been deemed advisable to disclose Orac's existence to the Sardoans. If it were to be duplicated, it would be passed off as another piece of surveillance equipment, like the rover.
        The Sardoan leader turned to Jenna as the door shut behind Avon.
        "We are very grateful for your warning about the Federation's use of this drug, and we can certainly manufacture as much as you want for distribution to your allies," he said, thawing visibly. "Our own first priority must be to immunise our entire population - not particularly difficult, we number less than half a million and I shall appoint a councillor to organise the operation. As to your own equipment though, is it military hardware? I should be reluctant to countenance arms manufacture. If the Federation learned of it, vengeance would surely be swift."
        Jenna acknowledged this with a smile.
        "It certainly would, and you can rest assured we have no intention of putting you at risk like that. Our equipment is mostly surveillance and communications hardware, none of it large. Our main problem is getting certain components, or manufacturing the ones we have developed ourselves. The Federation has spies all over the neutral planets and we are observing stringent security precautions. You see, all our operations are disguised as normal civilian commercial activities, so there are items we can't openly purchase, even if they are available outside the military field." She could not help a sigh. "It makes life difficult at times."
        Her reassurances were having the desired effect and her visitor was looking relieved and sympathetic.
        "Indeed it must," he said. After a pause, he added, "One thing slightly puzzles me. We have no record of your first landing here. You just walked into the tracking room and announced yourselves, then your shuttle came down with the rest of the party. How did you do that?"
        This was the question Jenna had been hoping to avoid, nothing for it now but to lie.
        "Our shuttle has a kind of shield which absorbs your detector beam instead of bouncing it back," she said carefully. "Since we didn't know if the Fifth Legion were still in control, as they were when Chevron was last here, the shuttle landed us secretly and returned to the ship. We used a miniature mobile scanner to scout around before we contacted anyone. I can show it to you, I think you'll find it quite interesting."
        "Oh, very clever. And very wise."
        There was a further pause, then Jenna said, "I would seriously advise you to station some detector satellites just above the energy barrier, small passive monitors that won't betray themselves to spacecraft in the vicinity. They would convert their findings to microwave tightbeam and relay them through the barrier. You must not be taken by surprise again."
        Hokaida nodded thoughtfully. "Is there anything suitable among the equipment you wish to duplicate, that could be adapted for the purpose?"
        "Probably. Chevron is the expert in that field. We can certainly place satellites in orbit for you."
        "Then it had better be done," said Hokaida.
        Meanwhile, during Avon's absence, Vila took it upon himself to explain the effects of Pylene 50 to the rest of the delegation.
        "It should do away with your difficulties with these men," he concluded. "You can even put them to work, convert them into useful citizens."
        He found the notion quite hilarious and his eyes sparkled with mischief. His audience was smiling too.
        Avon returned with the news that he had programmed production of a sample batch.
        "Kidnap one or two subjects for a trial run," he added blandly. "Warren can help you."
        Vila's amusement vanished abruptly.

Sheltering under a tree from the steady drizzle, Vila clutched his equipment nervously. The plan seemed simple enough, three security guards were stalking a couple of convicts under cover of the mist below. They would bring them up to him, he would administer the drug and test their reactions. He was glad of Brig's nearby presence, for he did not entirely trust the ex-Federation troopers. The rain was no mere coincidence, the Sardoans could control their weather precisely, and they had programmed this rain to drive the convicts under shelter and obscure their hunters' movements.
        A low whistle from Brig alerted him. Two guards were dragging a man up the hill, arms handcuffed behind his back and a gag in his mouth. His eyes glared redly at Vila as they dumped him at the foot of the tree. Trying to look self-assured, Vila motioned the guards away, bent forward and administered the drug with the medical laser. Then they all stood around watching as the brutal truculence faded, to be replaced by a slightly foolish good humour. Brig undid the gag and the man smiled dreamily at him. The troopers exchanged a thoughtful look before one of them produced the handcuff keys and released the captive.
        "From now on, you will obey our orders absolutely," said Brig quietly. "Sit down under that tree and don't move or speak until I tell you to." The convict complied instantly. Turning to the guards, Brig instructed them to bring another. They nodded and slipped away, merging into the mist after a few paces.
        Vila and Brig remained silent, watching their prisoner closely. After about ten minutes they were beginning to relax slightly, when the sound of approaching voices brought them up to quivering tension again. Two people were coming down the path from the bluffs and they were right on top of them. No time to run or hide. Vila swallowed hard and hung on desperately to his composure.
        The leading figure who stepped into view was surely an officer, just as his companion clearly was not. Suddenly inspired, Vila moved forward with an ingratiating smile.
        "Colonel Astrid?"
        Both newcomers promptly drew their sidearms.
        "That is correct." The soldier's eyes narrowed suspiciously as he took in the group before him.
        "We were trying to find you, sir," Vila continued swiftly. "The Sardoan Council would be very pleased if you would attend their meeting. They have something they want to say to you."
        Thank heavens neither he nor Brig had drawn their handguns to cover the prisoner, that would have given the game away immediately.
        "Odd way to look for someone," commented the Colonel suspiciously, "just standing in the rain."
        "Oh no," Vila rushed on blithely, "two of our companions went down there to search for you. They told us to wait here and not wander off - we don't know this district like they do."
        "Humph," said the Colonel, slightly mollified. "That's one of my men, what's he doing sitting there?"
        "Well, we asked him the way, but we didn't get much of an answer. He looks a bit drunk to me." Vila's invention was in full flight.
        The Colonel's gaze fell on Vila's equipment. "And what have you got in your hand, eh?"
        "A locator," said Vila, "in case we get lost." He smiled guilelessly at the scowling officer.
        Astrid holstered his gun and pushed past him, striding over to where the seated prisoner was lolling against the trunk, still smiling uncomprehendingly. His subordinate followed him. As they leaned over the bewildered captive, upbraiding him, Vila, mouthing a short, heart-felt prayer, pointed his equipment at their backs and rapidly pressed the button twice. Holding his breath, he watched their indignation drain away, to be replaced by serene acceptance. A warm tide of satisfaction washed through him - he'd done it!
        Brig spoke for the first time. "Would you two gentlemen like to sit and wait for our guides? They won't be long."
        Vila moved to the edge of the slope to intercept the returning guards. When he spotted them, he walked down to meet them with his finger on his lips. They took the hint, and their second captive was subdued immediately in total silence. He whispered a rapid explanation to them, and the party walked up the path to the others.
        Vila smiled benignly at his companions.
        "Well, gentlemen, shall we join the Council?" he said.

Vila's coup provoked considerable merriment aboard Freya. He revelled modestly in their congratulations, but of all the compliments that came his way, the one from Brig pleased him the most.
        "I must say, you took my breath away. You're as good a liar as you are a thief."

"And what are we going to do with the good colonel?" inquired Avon. "Keep him around as a household pet?"
        "Not for long, if I can help it." Jenna lounged comfortably in her armchair. They had the captain's stateroom to themselves. "If I knew where Docholli was, I'd get him to do a memory erase, but as it is, I think we can manage. Astrid's life is the service, giving and taking orders - authority. He swallowed our story about being undercover agents sent by the Federation to find him, hook, line and sinker."
        "What does that ridiculous phrase mean?"
        "Something to do with the gullibility of fish, I believe. Anyway, I propose to present him with a uniformed senior officer, to whom he can report his findings, and who will swear him to everlasting secrecy. The man's own mental make-up will be sufficient guarantee of his obedience. Mikhail should look impressive in an admiral's uniform, don't you think?"
        Avon's mouth twisted slightly, as it usually did when Mikhail was mentioned.

One detail Orac had got wrong on their original visit was the size of the population, which was evidently closer to three hundred thousand than three hundred. When taxed with this deficiency, Orac snapped that the data file consulted was obviously inaccurate and he could hardly be held responsible for that.
        It did not take long to round up and `pacify' the rest of the convicts and legionnaires. Grose's security compound was hastily repaired and pressed into service to contain them while they were questioned and assigned to their new duties.
        Avon was delegated to oversee the interrogations, Brig was to hold the fort aboard Freya, while Jenna was to oversee the equipment duplication.
        "Come on, you two," said Jenna to Vila and Margit, "we have a great deal of work to do." She set off at a brisk pace.
        Vila winced, but his attempts to dodge anything resembling work were unsuccessful. With a grin, Margit took him firmly by the arm and propelled him in Jenna's wake.
        "How does it work, do you suppose?" he asked Margit as they trailed towards the main transmuter building. "I mean, they can't just conjure the stuff out of thin air, surely?"
        "Oh, the transformer?" Margit considered for a moment. "They re-arrange matter at the sub-atomic level to produce the structure they want, using rock as their raw material; at least, that's what they told me. The atmosphere itself is produced and maintained by transformers, they can clean pollutants out by the same means. It's what the legendary alchemists were trying to do, transmute lead into gold; only they thought they could do it by chemical process, this is electronic."
        "Oh," said Vila. He had never heard of alchemists before. Being around Margit made him conscious of the deficiencies of his education. There were many things he wanted to know, maybe he could use the proposed Orac duplicate to get the information. He added alchemists to the list.

In front of the security guards Avon concealed his disgust for the role of interrogator. It might be necessary, and at least there was no need to brutalise the wretches who were paraded before him one by one. A few simple questions - Were you a trooper or a convict? What was your profession or occupation? Who are the leaders of your group? What instructions were you given? - revealed that the destruction of Moloch had destroyed their whole sense of purpose and they were now merely concerned with living off the land, mostly by terrorizing the Sardoan population with such weapons as they had left. Under the influence of Pylene, his assurances that they would be looked after henceforth were accepted with relief, and they departed willingly enough to their new place of work. They were to be separated and scattered all over Sardos. Some of them were of such low intelligence, it was doubtful if they would ever be of much use to their hosts. Grose's recruitment methods were hardly discriminating.
        Yet the whole process repelled him. Not far from this spot, Grose and Lecter had crudely interrogated him by twisting his sprained wrist, but he knew he preferred that to interference with his mind and will. His own experience made him abominate the torturers, the Shrinkers, and now he felt he had joined them in some way. He was surprised to find that he felt so besmirched.
        "Well, well, Kerr Avon. Are you growing a conscience at this late date?" said a mocking inner voice.
        He imagined Cally at his side giving vent to her revulsion - *on Auron, such things are considered barbarous.*
        Not just on Auron, Cally. The depression that constant activity had kept at bay crept up on him. Soon he would be hearing Blake's ghost exhorting him.
        Damnation! Why wasn't Jenna doing this job?

Jenna, Vila and Margit were supervising the duplication of equipment in one of the matter transformers. Several items like the rover and its control box, were to be shared with their hosts. An offer of the photon drive was refused by the non-spacefaring Sardoans, as Jenna was sure it would be, but she deposited a scanner disk in their archives, in case they should change their minds. Orac and the teleport mechanism were passed off as spares for Freya, `not easy to come by these days'. Vila's demonstration of the `ratcatcher' miniature camera was greeted with much amusement, every Sardoan in the district soon acquired one.
        Now the staff had gone, leaving them alone to continue with routine duplication and packing for transport. The time had come to test Orac's twin. There was a tense pause as Vila scanned the room for surveillance devices. When he nodded, Jenna took a deep breath and pressed the activator button.
        "Orac," she said quietly.
        "Yes, Jenna?" answered the familiar voice.
        "Are you aware of what has just happened?"
        "I conclude from our surroundings that the projected duplication has taken place, and from your question, that I am in fact the said duplicate. I would appear to be functioning correctly and if you switch on my original, verification checks can be run."
        Broad smiles and general relaxation greeted this speech, but as Jenna reached for Orac One's switch, Vila intervened.
        "Wait a minute. It's going to be very confusing if they look and sound identical." His private thought that two Oracs could play games with their human `controllers' had better not be voiced in their hearing. As Jenna paused, he continued, "let's alter the name and voice of Number Two - maybe a different casing too."
        "Agreed," said Jenna, while Margit nodded. "Have you anything in mind?"
        "Uhuh. Orac, you remember Belkov's computer Gambit, the games player. Can you reproduce its voice and mannerisms?"
        "Of course I can, but why should I?" Number Two responded with the old familiar asperity.
        "Well you know, Orac One is a jealous sort of character," said Vila coaxingly. "He could be very unco-operative, even spiteful in his dealings with you. Whereas a pleasant and reasonable personality like yours would make it difficult for him to be awkward, wouldn't it?"
        "I suppose so. Very well, I agree."
        Vila smiled at his companions' startled reaction at the change to a feminine register. "I always thought it a shame that Belkov ordered her to self-destruct. From now on, you be Gambit, you know what she knew, as well as what Orac knows."
        "Yes Vila. Do you wish to play a game?"
        "Later on, Gambit, it would be very nice to play some games." Vila's tone took on a fond proprietorship. This was a computer he could develop a friendly relationship with. A big improvement on Orac.
        "Good," said Jenna briskly. "Let's teleport these two up to Freya and then finish up here. Avon can run the bench tests when he's done with the interrogations. Margit, make sure you bring all the program disks."

As the wearisome sessions drew to an end, Avon received a visitor, the woman he had smiled at aboard Freya. She took in his strained face and rigid posture with understanding.
        "Was it very unpleasant?" she asked.
        Reluctantly he returned a very slight nod. Sympathy generally unnerved him, it did not go with his carefully constructed self-sufficient façade. It might weaken him.
        "Like you, I find mind-alteration very distasteful, and the ethics very dubious," she continued after a pause. "Revulsion is surely a sign of civilization, not weakness."
        She wanted to believe it, he supposed. Privately, he hardly rated himself a civilized man any more.
        "Come," said his visitor, nodding her head towards the door. "Food and drink."
        He levered himself wearily to his feet and followed her.

"Where's Avon?" Jenna demanded of Vila.
        "Dunno. Still asking questions, I expect."
        "Such devotion to duty." Jenna's face wore a frown. "He should have been back hours ago."
        Solicitude? Or distrust? Vila wondered.
        "His teleport tracer should be activated. Gambit, can you locate him?" His tone was sweetly innocent.
        "His tracer has moved from the administration building to another, half a kilometre away. Presumably he is still wearing it."
        "There you are," said Vila, "he's probably having dinner."
        Jenna looked curiously irresolute. Turning on her heel, she left the room, leaving Vila half puzzled and half amused in her wake.
        "What do you suppose that was all about, eh Gambit? Is she afraid he's found himself come company?"
        "Or, possibly, that he has been detained by somebody," supplemented Gambit.
        "I feel sorry for anyone who tries to kidnap him. Give him another hour, then try his bleeper. How about a game of chess?"

Avon was not sure whether he was in private quarters or some sort of hotel. The facilities had a flavour of the latter - shower room, auto valet, a waiter at table - perhaps it was some kind of governmental hospitality suite. His hostess introduced herself as Lara, the councillor appointed that day to oversee the resettlement of the offworlders. Over a blessedly leisurely meal, they discussed his findings and her proposals for monitoring the behaviour of the ex-convicts, the possibility of the effects of Pylene wearing off over a period of years, the Federation's progress and likely plans, then they drifted onto broader topics.
        "You sound as if you've spent most of your life in space," she remarked.
        "Most of the last seven years, anyway."
        "You've been resisting the Federation that long?"
        "We have had no choice." He must pick his way carefully and be mindful of his cover story. "The Federation intends to overrun us. Doubtless our leaders are scheduled for extermination."
        "Of whom, you are one." There was a slight pause. "There's much you haven't told us and I'm not going to ask for details. I wonder if Chevron is your real name, but it doesn't concern me." She gave him a friendly smile. "What is it like, fighting the Federation?"
        "Dangerous. Most of my closest colleagues are dead - men and women."
        She watched his expression closely. Although it didn't apparently change, a kind of bleakness seeped into it.
        "Did the women fight like the men?"
        "Yes, and they were rewarded with violent deaths like the men. Only Astra survived."
        "You miss them, don't you?" Her voice was very soft.
        He nodded. When he was honest with himself, he admitted he needed feminine company. Enough to miss it bitterly when it was gone. That other viewpoint, often in opposition to his own, stimulating and sometimes exasperating, but somehow necessary.
        "You're very tired. If you would rather remain here than return to your ship, these facilities are at your disposal. Please make yourself at home."
        So there it was. He read the implied offer in her eyes. She was neither young nor beautiful, but possessed of a mature charm that was both tempting and soothing.
        There was a faint buzz from his bleeper. He fished out his communicator.
        "Report your position please." A female voice that was faintly familiar.
        "A dining room."
        Then Vila came through.
        "We wondered where you'd got to. Will you be back soon?"
        He looked across at Lara.
        "I doubt it. Expect me when you see me. Out."

    "Gambit, I want you to do a bit of research for me - in your spare time, of course. You remember the Feldon crystals, don't you?"
    "Yes, Vila."
    "I want you to locate the ones the Federation received. Can you do that?"
    "Certainly, if their whereabouts are recorded."
    "And while you're at it, see if you can find any Dynamon as well."
    "And Kairopan?"
    "Nothing, absolutely nothing, would persuade me to go near Kairos again."

Go to next chapter

© Copyright Vega (Frances Teagle), 1999.
This story may be printed for individual use, but must not be stored as a computer file or reproduced for sale or distribution.

[GP + 17 months]
    "Well Councillor, any news? Has our application for the mining concession been successful?"
    "Patience, Mr Brand, patience. Only one more committee to go. A little more, ah, hospitality might smooth its passage."
        Commissioner Sleer appeared to be concentrating on the vista from her window, but the man behind her continued to stand warily to attention. Although her voice was restrained, the set of her shoulders was eloquent of displeasure.
        "No trace of them, ma'am. None of our agents have reported any rumours about them among their allies, and by the time our people got to the wreck of that ship, it was completely destroyed, unidentifiable."
        "That in itself should be enough to make those fools suspicious. I tell you I know these rebels, they are planning something. Nothing will make me believe they let themselves be caught like that."
        She turned to face him. He felt a rather childish urge to hide his eyes as the glow of her powerful personality beat on him. Her smile did not reassure him, either.
        "Captain, I have a task for you. Find a man named Carnell. He used to be an official psychostrategist. Find him and bring him to me."

    "I have traced one of the last shipments of felden, Vila. They are currently stored in the vault of the Federation Bank at Cordis City, in the charge of the Central Power Board which is distributing them around the outer planets."
    "Distribution, eh? Is there anything about shipment details?"
    "Nothing that I can find, Vila. It is almost certain that the crystals are sent incognito, like Keiller's gold."
    "See if you can trace some recent cargos back to their origins. There might be a pattern to it. Maybe they've got into sloppy habits."

Avon let himself into Freya's passenger gymnasium, ostensibly to do some weight-training, but actually to have a private word with Margit. As he anticipated, she was running on the treadmill. She did not check her stride as he passed in front of her, merely nodding an acknowledgement of his presence.
        As he pulled the equipment from its locker, he spoke casually.
        "Am I right in thinking that Jenna has appointed you as Vila's minder?"
        "Yes, in a way."
        "Then it cannot have escaped your notice that he has acquired a vat of wine from Sardos."
        "It hasn't. I've drunk some of it - very good stuff. Nothing wrong with Vila's palate." Margit slowed down gradually. "He got it by trading copies of your ratcatcher. Your friend Lara bought several, for surveillance, she said."
        Her eyes rested on Avon's face with unmistakable amusement. "But I shouldn't worry. Vila only drinks too much when things are going badly. And that vat wouldn't last a serious drinker very long. In any case, Vila has other preoccupations now."
        "Hmm, Gambit... You can tell him that we didn't go to all that effort just to provide him with a games machine."
        "That's only incidental, his cover story, if you like. Vila is using Gambit the way you use Orac - for intelligence work. He is tracking people and supplies and monitoring Federation signals, all the techniques he learnt from you - in secret of course. He is planning something. A heist, I should think."
        "And how do you know all this?"
        "Oh, I have some ratcatchers of my own." She smiled as she lengthened her stride again.
        An answering smile crept into Avon's eyes. He was inclined to trust Margit's judgement and he was both reassured and intrigued. What did Vila have in mind to steal? Orac would know what Gambit was doing - or would it? Could Gambit keep secrets from Orac? That was worth exploring. He applied himself to his training with only moderate enthusiasm. He had as much contempt for body-building as he had for heroics, staying in reasonable trim was all he aimed at.
        Eventually Margit pulled up and switched off.
        "You are an extremely good runner," remarked Avon, slackening off slightly.
        "Natural aptitude," she returned, reaching for a towel. "It pays to keep it up. Saved my neck once or twice." She sauntered off to the shower room.

Half an hour later he joined her in the crew cafeteria.
        "This stuff is better than usual," he commented as he sat down at the same table. "Does it come from Sardos as well?
        "Yes. A bit of trading and information swapping." Margit leaned back and eyed him rather sardonically. "Now, why this solicitude for Vila?"
        "Oh, you can work it out. If he gets caught thieving, he'll be identified in next to no time, then the fat will be in the fire. He couldn't lie his way out, he'd be interrogated by the shrinkers and he'd tell them everything, and that would be the end of the whole campaign."
        "You're saying he must not fall into enemy hands alive."
        His eyes met hers in a steely clash. "Yes," he said, with the utmost deliberation.
        Margit showed no indignation, but looked thoughtful.
        "He must be persuaded to discuss his plans with the rest of us. If all he has in mind is personal enrichment then he must be restrained. But if it is a worthwhile target, we should be in on the project. What does Orac say?"
        Avon smiled slightly. "Orac has not been able to extract the information from Gambit. Vila has put a security code on it and Gambit's defences are as good as Orac's. Vila is a quick learner, I almost believe that tale of his about buying a delta grade classification from the examiners."
        "Gambit can keep secrets from Orac? When did you find this out?"
        "A few minutes ago. It struck me as a possibility while we were talking just now. Orac got very annoyed when it couldn't discover the password."
        "I could replay my surveillance tapes, I suppose," said Margit, "but they are not complete. A lot of the stuff, I didn't record. However, we might find it. Have you thought of a visual signal?"
        "Our best bet is to interrogate Vila himself."
        "That could be the end of a beautiful friendship." Margit paused as a though struck her. "Jenna is the person to do the questioning. I think he's less likely to lie to her than the rest of us. He regards her as his rescuer."

    "Your name Carnell?"
    "No, Linder."
    "You look like Carnell to me."
    "Too bad, I'm Linder."
    "Why don't you come with us. There are some people who would like to meet you."
    "No thanks. I have something else to do."
    "They won't take `no' for an answer. Better come along quietly."

Vila tried to ignore the buzz of his communicator. Feet up on the table, sleepily cradling a glass of wine, he was in no mood to exert himself mentally or physically, but the damned thing persisted until he had to acknowledge it.
        "Vila, I want to speak to you. Now." Jenna's voice. What now? "Captain's cabin - pronto."
        "Five minutes," he said, "let me get dressed." He was in fact fully clothed, but a quick visit to the particle shower might restore his wits.

"Have a drink Vila." Jenna passed him a glass. Somewhat embarrassed, he took a swig - fruit juice - caught Jenna's lop-sided smile and grinned sheepishly.
        "Is there something you want me to do?" he enquired, as innocently as he could.
        "Oh yes, Vila. There is something important you can do for me," she said sweetly. "You can tell me what you and Gambit are planning to steal." - A long pause - "Come clean, Vila."
        "Um - felden crystals, actually." He was rather gratified by her startled attention. "Just think, if we got hold of a few and took them to Sardos for duplication - I mean, all that cheap power..."
        "And all the money you could make selling the surplus."
        "Now would I, Jenna?"
        She smiled knowingly then queried gently, "And where were you planning to steal them from?"
        "Well, Gambit has traced some shipments..."
        "It looks as though the Federation is installing communications gear on, or in, one of the asteroids in the Cirkades system." He looked meaningfully at her, she cocked her head to one side as if to say `explain'.
        "Think how well hidden it would be. Too far out for solar power; too small to hide a nuclear power plant; who's going to waste time looking there? They might be planning a second Star One, for all we know. Come to think of it, we might take a leaf out of their book. With power plants the size of Orac you can be very discreet. But just now, I don't think they are paying proper attention to security. I think they've got the idea that the rebellion has petered out, don't you?"
        Jenna sat in thoughtful silence for some time. Eventually she looked up.
        "But how are you going to steal them without giving the game away? It would be disastrous if we alerted them to the existence of the Underground, or they discovered that the notable thief, Vila Restal, was still alive."
        "Well, I'm working on it. Some kind of switch was what I had in mind - make it look like an inside job. Pity we can't set up Commissioner Sleer to carry the can."

"Interesting he should say that," remarked Avon later. "I've been thinking along those lines as well. Several senators and governors are so corrupt that we could easily frame them for graft and fraud. It will help to cover up our own operations, too."
        "So far you haven't taken a great deal," Jenna commented.
        "My strategy is a multiplicity of small extractions making their way into our coffers by many varied paths. It took a lot of work to set them up and they must be operated with extreme caution. Commissioner Sleer has laid herself open to scrutiny over that gold shipment, but it wouldn't be good tactics to start with her, she would suspect I was behind it. I doubt if she really believes I'm dead."
        "Well that makes it all the more important that Vila's theft is planned to the nth degree," said Jenna. "We have some hard thinking to do."
        "We're going ahead with it, then?"
        "Yes. He's stumbled across something important, and we, I, am going after it, just as you once did."

"This way, Psychostrategist. Please seat yourself at the console. Our client wishes to ask you a few questions."
        "Why not face to face?"
        "Our client is far away, therefore communication will be by computer network."
        Looking around the interview room, Carnell didn't believe a word of it. That blank shiny wall to the right of the computer terminal looked suspiciously like a standard one-way observation panel. So - the client didn't want to be recognized, fearing that even the voice would be identifiable. One of his previous clients for a bet. He switched on the terminal.
        >> Please listen most carefully to the report which is about to be relayed to your terminal. You will be asked for your opinions on it.
        The screen came to life with the official Federation report on the massacre at Gauda Prime, including film of the hole in the ground where Deva's control complex used to be, and the wreckage of the Scorpio. As the soundtrack commentary concluded optimistically, "Yet another nest of rebels exterminated," he swung away from the console with a laugh. When he looked at the screen again it was blank save for the query
        >> What are your conclusions?
        Disdaining keyboards, he spoke aloud, certain that his interlocutor was only a few feet away.
        "The obvious ones. Since there is no proof that Blake was ever there, apart from Captain Arlen's signal, and the base was vapourized, I conclude that they are probably still alive. I am aware that Avon and his crew pursued an independent course for several years, but with Orac he could have maintained or re-established contact with Blake.
        "I really need much more information about their known movements since I was last consulted on this subject. Only rumours have come my way recently. I need hard facts. Furthermore, it is over a year since the Gauda Prime debacle. Have there been any rumours among their allies in recent months?"
        >> No new rumours. The data you requested will be made available, please wait.
        Servalan! Yes, he'd stake his life on it. The silent communication - she knew he would recognize that voice instantly. He smiled with genuine pleasure, yet another lost leader had cheated death.
        "How about some refreshment to pass the time?"
        >> Very well, state your requirements.

Considering the lengthy report before him on the careers of the two rebels, he was equally ready to wager on one or both of them being still alive. The coffee and cakes were excellent. He applied himself with relish.

>> Question 1: Are Blake and Avon alive?
        >> Question 2: Were they in the base at all?
        "Captain Arlen sent two pre-arranged signals to her controller. The first indicated that she was inside the base with Blake; the second, that the trap was ready to be sprung and the troops were to enter the base. On her past record, we can suppose that her identification was correct and Blake was present. The troop section leader reported another flyer following Blake's into the base silo, piloted by a man he tentatively identified as Kerr Avon and containing several other passengers, presumably the crew of the Scorpio. Supporting testimony for the correctness of this identification is the wreckage of their ship not far away."
        >> Question 3: What about the base explosion?
        "Supposition One: someone hit the self-destruct or triggered a booby trap, destroying everyone and everything; Two, only the troops were destroyed and the base was evacuated and demolished; Three, fierce fighting, losses on both sides, but enough rebel survivors to demolish the base and retrieve equipment from Scorpio.
        "I reject the first. I know the report argues that the Scorpio equipment could have been removed before the crew set out for the base, but we know that the bounty hunters from whom Avon acquired his transport were still using it after midnight. That doesn't allow enough time to do the job as thoroughly as they did, before the ambush just after dawn. I therefore conclude that it was done afterwards under the supervision of Avon or Tarrant. I doubt if the troops were lured into an empty base and blown up. Arlen had been inside for several hours before she gave the signal to move in. The rebels could hardly afford to sacrifice their headquarters and all its equipment by triggering the signal themselves.
        "Option Two: Possible.
        "Option Three: The most probable. We could expect Arlen and her troopers to give a good account of themselves when their ambush failed. If only a few rebels survived, their choices were limited. They were too few to clean up the base and simulate normal operations. They could only plant demolition charges and abandon it quickly, taking the flyers and collecting the Scorpio equipment. They almost certainly retreated to another secret base and organized a complete evacuation.
        "The report makes great play with the fact that no unscheduled spacecraft was observed leaving Gauda Prime over the next few weeks, but I place little faith in their vigilance. In fact their whole follow-up investigation has been pathetic. They made no effort to account for all the freelance bounty hunters, or sort the genuine from the rebel imposters. Any number of Blake's confederates could have safely left Gauda Prime to start operations elsewhere."
        >> Question 4: What would they do next?
        "Find a safe haven and regroup. After their recent defeats and losses I would expect them to re-evaluate their whole operation. Some of them may even leave the movement - Vila Restal, Tarrant and the woman, Soolin, are likely to be the most disenchanted. They might return to their previous professions; thief, blockade runner and hired gun. If that's the case, you'll certainly hear of Tarrant before long, the man's incapable of discretion, unless kept under the firmest control by a strong leader."
        >> Question 5: Blake and Avon?
        "Ask yourself, `what is each one best at?'
        "Blake is the inspiring leader, his skills are in persuading and motivating. He needs a certain amount of publicity, notoriety even, to function effectively. Disappearing into total obscurity robs him of most of his strength. His opposition is heartfelt and totally sincere.
        "Avon, on the other hand, is relatively indifferent to such things. His skills lie in logical thought and electro-mechanical expertise. The leadership forced on him by Blake's departure will have been highly stressful, although by all accounts he has often been dangerously effective. His motivation will be far from idealistic, he cannot afford to be captured and there is no safe refuge from the Federation among neutrals. As a convicted criminal with a long list of further grave offences he would be extradited without argument by any independent government.
        "If Blake is alive, expect to hear from him within the next few months. If Avon is alive, look out for banking fraud, computer malfunctions and mechanical trickery. Unless someone can motivate him the way Blake did, he will concentrate on safety and accumulating wealth, aided probably by Vila Restal if he has survived. The authorities should ensure that the security forces are familiar with their appearance and personal details. The utmost vigilance must be maintained.
        >> Question 6: In your opinion, can we evolve a strategy for trapping them?
        "Possibly, but it would require a great deal of thought. And I would expect to be well paid for my advice."

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© Copyright Vega (Frances Teagle), 1999.
This story may be printed for individual use, but must not be stored as a computer file or reproduced for sale or distribution.

[GP + 2 years]
        Cordis City on a fine sunny afternoon was a very pleasant place, decided Vila, lounging on the balcony of the luxury apartment the company had acquired for its operations. He and Margit were occupying the place as wealthy aunt and hopeful nephew, frequently entertaining friends and family and sallying out on lavish shopping expeditions. Comfortable though it was, the apartment's greatest asset was its clear field of vision across to the Federation Bank building on the other side of the small park. Discreet surveillance equipment monitored the comings and goings and a miniature radar probe mapped the interior, including the three levels of basement.
        "It's clever," he commented as he examined the results. "Everybody assumes the high security vaults will be deep underground, not right under the roof. I'll bet hardly any of the staff know that floor even exists. It's only two meters deep and you've got no clue from the building's exterior. Internally, it's camouflaged by the water tanks and air conditioning plant."
        "Well, the roof is bristling with security cameras." Margit was poring over her printout. "Mostly concealed in the airstrip landing lights. You can count on plenty of infra-red and sound sensors, too. You'd be picked up instantly if you teleported into that lot."
        "It looks to me as if security is lightest on the ninth floor canteen area," she continued after a long pause. "Now the concealed lift shaft runs behind this wall in the waste disposal area, partly disguised by the rubbish chute, and that," she said, indicating with her pen, "looks like a ventilator to me. I estimate its grille is large enough to pass a spider through."
        Avon had recently added a wall-climbing capability to the ratcatcher, which now resembled a large spider. Vila regarded them with some revulsion, but Margit handled them blithely enough.
        "This building was designed a hundred and eighty years ago, when they never considered the possibility of teleportation. Ground attack, tunnelling and landing on the roof were envisaged, but it didn't occur to them to shield the upper half in any way, not even from probing. Foolish not to realize that security systems need updating."
        "Gambit could teleport us into that restaurant area easily enough," said Vila cautiously, "but we need to know customer patterns. Do we try for an empty period or a crowded one?"
        "We need better surveillance to work that one out. We'd better get Avon over here, see what he thinks."
        Avon and Jenna were established in another apartment a kilometre away, registered as man and wife, a circumstance Vila found deeply amusing given their current thorny relationship. They were probably not unacquainted, though, since he suspected there had been a short `affaire' once when Jenna had been annoyed with Blake. A second apartment in the same building housed Brig and a workshop full of equipment. Residents never observed the conspirators entering the other premises, as movement was always by teleport and communications were sent via Orac and Gambit, deeply encoded.

"OK, we've scanned that restaurant for five days and we have established that no living creature visits it between midnight and dawn." Margit indicated her screen display to Jenna. "There is occasional movement by machinery, however. Gambit has deduced the presence of robot waiters in this section," she tapped the screen. "Apparently, the night security staff have their meals collected from the dispensers and delivered to them by these robots."
        "Why would they do that?" wondered Jenna. "Wouldn't it be much more efficient to have a dispenser on every level?"
        "Well, this building is old, but it originally had a lot of luxury features, designed to impress customers and also meant to last. Gambit has found evidence of continued maintenance, but very little replacement. In fact, the large number of employees indicates that their whole operation is rather inefficient. But then, this whole planet is pretty lacksadaisical about such things. Floors Three to Eight are let to other businesses, but there is a heavy security scan on their personnel, according to Gambit. We did a check for vacant offices, but they're all full."
        "What about that area there?"
        "That's waste disposal. Two robots park there during the night, once they've collected the garbage from the restaurant and the floors above. That looks like a disposal chute to the disintegrator at ground level. The lower floors are serviced by two other robots which park by the disintegrator itself.
        Margit paused a moment.
        "Now, my question for Avon is `can we utilise these machines?' Remember, they have the ability to open almost every door in the building. Gambit has picked up signals and discovered each robot's call sign, maybe we could install a micro-camera in one and see if it goes anywhere interesting."
        "You mean, teleport in and do some modifications? I daresay it's possible." Jenna pondered for a moment. "The thing is, you would have to remove them and wipe the robot's memory afterwards. Well, I'll see what the expert has to say. He'll probably have to do the installation anyway."
        "I'd like to see him in action at last," said Margit somewhat tartly. "I'll go with him."
        Jenna grinned. "I take it Vila has no ambitions to participate at this stage?"
        "Oh no, His Lordship's instructions are for us to deliver him to the strongroom door, having first taken care of security. He further maintains that sampling the flesh-pots of this city is perfectly in keeping with his role as worthless nephew battening on rich aunt." Margit's smile was at once sarcastic and indulgent.
        Jenna frowned. "He might drink too much and start to babble. Can you trust him to go out on his own?"
        "Well, he regards this whole operation as his own, so I don't see him doing anything to jeopardise it. Also, he knows I'll nail him to the floor if he does anything stupid. Actually, the company he has found for himself seems more feeble-minded than predatory, so I'm not worried about him."

"Right," said Avon, pulling on surgical gloves, "you know what to do?"
        "I teleport into the galley," Margit's terminology still retained an astronautical flavour, "I check for any surveillance devices we haven't detected so far and look for the best spot for the transfer marker. If everything's all right, I give the signal and you transfer Orac and the equipment and come across yourself."
        "From now on, all communication must be silent," Avon insisted.
        Teach your grandmother to suck eggs, thought Margit irreverently. He caught the thought escaping from her eyes and permitted himself a faint smile.
        She pulled a hood over her face, transforming in an instant from a friendly-faced woman to a sinister predator.
        "OK, let's get going," she said, and vanished as Jenna operated the teleport.
        There was a suspenseful pause of several minutes, until Orac spoke.
        "The all-clear signal has been received."
        Quickly Avon wheeled a small trolley onto the transfer marker. It was constructed of non-metallic materials, all his tools fitted into padded recesses with Orac on the middle shelf. It was also equipped with robot arms and was designed to move with extreme stealth under it's own power.
        "Teleport," he said, pulling his hood down over his face.

Silently Avon knelt beside the garbage robot, dimly illuminated by the light mounted on his tool caddy. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Margit standing guard in the doorway, weapon in hand. Holding his breath, he eased off the casing around the drive mechanism. The interior held no surprises, an antiquated design, built for durability with plenty of room to reach inside or to insert new circuit boards. The task of installing the micro-camera and miniature control device was not difficult and he finished it rapidly. Then he turned to its companion.

"It went well, then?" said Jenna as they returned.
        Avon nodded, pulling off his hood. "No sign of anything unusual, Vila?"
        "Not a thing," said Vila, bent over his scanners.
        "Right, let's try a few manoeuvres. Orac, send Number One up to the eleventh floor and along the main corridor. Relay the visual signal to the wall screen."
        The relay was undramatic. The robot rode up two floors, rolled along the corridor then returned to its normal station. The camera and the control circuits functioned perfectly.
        "Well, nobody seems to have notice anything," said Vila after a pause. "Can we switch over to auto-recording now?"
        "Very well. Orac, set the controls for automatic recording." Avon's tone betrayed a slight satisfaction.
        "Gambit can take over now." Margit peeled off her black gloves. "I'm going to bed."
        "Right," said Jenna. "Vila, keep watch and call us if anything unusual happens."
        Trust Muggins to get stuck with the boring bit, thought Vila, as he watched them depart. Several days confined to the apartment! Well, he would make himself comfortable.
        "Gambit, put up that new games menu on the auxiliary screen."

"There you are, take a look at that." Vila's eyes were red-rimmed but sparkling with satisfaction. "The careless idiot."
        They were monitoring a video relay from the garbage robot, which had been parked close by one of the points where the concealed lift entrance was thought to be. The security man on screen ignored the familiar presence of the robot as he operated the door.
        Avon leaned forward in concentration. "Go back half a minute and replay frame by frame," he commanded. "Stop there. Now, Gambit, focus on his left hand. Yes... Enhance it as well as you can. Mm, just a magnetic card. The detector is invisible so it must be under that fancy wall covering."
        "There he goes, into the wall. Very neat."
        "Well, that's just the camera angle. Later on we'll send the robot to take a closer look, but I expect the door will be very well hidden. Did you track the lift car?"
        "Yes, easy. They never bothered to shield it properly against electronic scanning. You know, it's quite probable that we can read the code setting if we put our own detector within a metre or so, and pick up the signal next time someone activates the lock." Vila pulled up, slightly dismayed at the implications of what he had just said. Doubtless the person who accomplished that task would be himself.
        Avon intercepted his anxious look with a malicious smile. "Tonight," he said, "we'll take a good look at that wall."

Gotcha! thought Vila, as his questing fingers detected a slight bump. He passed his hand scanner over it and read the results. Not a familiar model, but nothing really complex by the look of it. He looked around for a suitable place to conceal his miniature detector. Not the light fitting, too much metal. He slipped it onto the top of the door frame and stood back to see if it was visible. Satisfied, he turned to Avon, who nodded agreement and pressed his wrist communication unit keys in the teleport recall code. Vila relaxed with a sigh of relief as the teleport whisked them away.

"Here it is," Margit swung away from her console, "the frequency, the code, the pulse rhythm. You should have no difficulty imitating that. We can go tonight."
        "Good," said Vila sourly. "I'm getting sick to death of the night shift." He had been strictly forbidden to meet his friends or leave the apartment for the next few days, and was feeling thoroughly jaundiced. He adjusted his electronic key and activated it. The parameters on the screen matched perfectly. "I'm going to get some sleep."
        "Gambit," said Margit, "put me through to Avon." When he answered she told him the news.
        "Right, we go tonight. Tell Vila."
        "He's ahead of you - gone to get some sleep."
        "Good. Make sure he checks his equipment properly. Out."

Now that he confronted the strong-room door, Vila's nerves quieted, to be replaced by the pleasurable anticipation of a battle of wits, better than chess, better than code-breaking - the battle for which he was equipped. With Avon and Margit standing guard over him and previous undetected visits behind him, he felt secure. He could concentrate on the job in hand.
        Unlike most of the equipment in this building, this was right up-to-date security ware, presenting a real challenge. He turned to his toolbox and picked out a detector.

Avon checked his portable scanner for the umpteenth time. He had improved the design of the surveillance neutralizer since their raid on the Space Princess, but the memory of its near-disastrous failure kept him on edge. It had been a long two hours. Vila, probing away, was oblivious to his surroundings, Margit stood imperturbably by the lift door. He wondered if Jenna, waiting back in the apartment, felt as strained as he did. It had been agreed that he and Jenna would never go on a raid together, to reduce the risk of the leadership being lost or captured if things went wrong.
        A faint scraping sound distracted him. He scowled at Vila, who signalled a less than penitent "Sorry" with his eyebrows, before returning to his task.

    "Come over here a minute. I keep hearing clicking sounds... There! What do you think of that?"
    "Mm... Pan the camera round... Nothing. No movement. It might be the building settling. It was very hot today and there was a rapid fall in temperature after sunset. Enough to start a few things clicking on the roof."
    "Well, I've never heard that sound before. I may go up there."
    "If you want. Don't be long, meal break in a few minutes."
    "Oh - yes... After that, then."
Vila suppressed a cry of triumph as the door yielded. He pushed it slightly ajar and was about to slip inside, when Avon's iron grip on his shoulder arrested him. As he opened his mouth to protest volubly, a hand was clamped over it and he was swung round to confront Margit, who simply laid her finger on her lips to enjoin his silence. He nodded as best he could and he was released to rub his bruised shoulder ruefully. Avon had been doing too much weight training recently, in Vila's opinion. Somewhat ruffled, he watched as Avon inserted the detector probe at arm's length, then twitched as a red light flashed. So there was a beam inside. He fetched a neutralizer from the trolley and handed it silently to Avon. When it was in place, Avon politely gestured to him to enter, with his usual mocking look. Never mind, he'd done it! Vila slipped through the narrow opening and shone his torch around. Shelves only, no ranks of locked drawers - customers never entered these precincts, the conventional safety deposit service was in the basement, as usual.
        Ah! Those boxes looked promising. He lifted one down and checked if it was sealed. No. He opened it carefully. Bullseye! Ten large crystals nestled in the foam packing, crystals he recognised. Moved by a sudden caution, he closed it and looked at the others. Yes, they were numbered and stocked in order. He slid out the bottom box of the last pile. If they distributed them in order, the substitution might not be discovered for a long time and with any luck the fakes might be attributed to the late Belkov. He went to the door and held out his hand. Margit produced the fakes and handed them to him; five large transparent crystals, so similar in looks and weight to the real thing, but useless for any purpose other than decoration. Quickly he made the substitution, replaced the box and slipped out to hand his prize to Margit. There was a brief pause for inspection, then the neutralizer was retrieved, the door relocked and the tools carefully packed away. Avon nodded. Vila pressed his recall button and was teleported away to safety, closely followed by the other two.
    "Any more noises?"
    "Nope. You were probably right."
    "Going to report it?"
    "No. I'll go up and check the door, but the video shows nothing. Power supply isn't too good, though, the screen's a bit flickery at times."
    "That could be the source of your clicks. We'll have the electricians check it out. Put it in the book."
"Is it really necessary to leave immediately?" Margit asked Jenna.
        "Yes. I'm not going to risk Vila celebrating on the town. We're off to Horizon now. We do our testing there. It won't take long now we've installed the photon drive in Freya."
        Margit supposed Jenna would only relax when they were all safely in space. Understandable really, she had been forced to take an inactive role in all this, very much against her nature. The tension had been severe.

In the comfort of the newly refurbished Freya, Vila soon recovered his good humour. A sympathetic Margit had supplied him with good wine and a stock of confectionery, and there was no denying that he felt a lot safer in space. Although he had often enjoyed his masquerade as a wealthy woman's sponging nephew, it was a relief to relax among friends, to be able to put one's feet up and watch the interplay of personalities. Yes, very entertaining.

"Margit, I have a project for you." Jenna eyed her cousin across the table. They had retired to the captain's cabin after dinner and were sampling a fine old brandy in private. "You remember Folkas?"
        "I do indeed. What do you want with that dodgy character?" Margit grinned reminiscently. "He's probably sold both his grandmothers by now."
        Jenna laughed. "Maybe he can sell something for us. Whatever his faults, he's a very competent engineer, just the man for what I've got in mind."
        "Which is?"
        "The Federation's military research units, the ones we didn't manage to penetrate before. I want you to use Orac or Gambit to extract their designs from the computers and pass them on to the independents - spacecraft, weapons, communications hardware - anything."
        "What, all of it?"
        "You and Brig are good enough engineers to decide which is the good stuff. Avon can help you. Use Folkas as the middleman."
        "The Feds are bound to realize there's a leak," said Margit with a slight frown.
        "Quite so." Jenna's answering smile was worthy of Avon at his most cynical. "That should increase the legendary paranoia of the President. With luck it should start a witch hunt as well as benefitting potential allies and ourselves. Make sure you cover your tracks well."
        "You've never been tempted to rebuild the Liberator, have you?" Margit asked after a pause. "Vila reckons that Orac has enough data to make it possible."
        "No," said Jenna, somewhat regretfully. "We're playing a different game now. Even if it were possible to program a Sardoan matter transformer to reproduce it, we cannot afford to attract everybody's attention with a ship like that."
        "What about its builders - The System - have you kept an eye on them?"
        "Orac keeps a watch. They made a partial recovery but the two subject planets formed an alliance and broke away. Orac's orders are to foul up any military development."
        Margit helped herself to another brandy and sipped it thoughtfully. "It sometimes worries me that we have become so dependent on Orac," she said. "I can foresee the time when we will need a chain of copies to carry out all these projects. That will increase the danger of the Feds capturing one of them."
        "That must never happen," said Jenna soberly.

Go to next chapter

© Copyright Vega (Frances Teagle), 1999.
This story may be printed for individual use, but must not be stored as a computer file or reproduced for sale or distribution.

[GP + 2y 7m]
    "Ah, Mr Brand, nice to see you again. Where have you been, these last months?"
    "Attending to business, Councillor. One needs to keep a close eye on operations, you know. Things don't run themselves, and there's nothing like the scrutiny of the directors for encouraging honesty and industry among employees."
    "All too true."
    "What's this I hear about Councillor Formin? Some very funny rumours have been flying about."
    "Ah yes, very unfortunate. Caught taking bribes, enormous ones. Lots of bad publicity. He swears he was framed, of course, but it was just too flagrant to ignore, you know. Had to be a stiff sentence."
    "Pour encourager les autres? Well, let's hope that his replacement is as honest as you, my friend."
    "You are too kind. Are your mining operations going well? No trouble with the local inhabitants this time?"
    "Very satisfactory, thank you. The local chief is Federation trained, and has proved very amenable. After all, his people are benefitting from our presence both financially and medically. We are already shipping the Monopasium. It's a great pity your research programme was so badly damaged by the Andromedans. I've often wondered if that was coincidence or the result of espionage."
    "We shall never know, but the programme is slowly being reconstituted. We will take all the Monopasium you can produce."
>> Well, Psychostrategist, have you detected any trace of our quarry?
        "Unfortunately everything is depressingly normal. It is true there have been several new rebellions in the outer planets, but I attribute that to the spread of the Pylene antidote rather than active participation by Blake's people. You could say that the antidote is Avon's greatest success - Pylene-50 has had its day."
>> Keep looking. Sooner or later they'll show their hand.

    "Now Orac, fill me in on this psychostrategist you mentioned yesterday. Could he be a danger?"
    "These people are always dangerous, Avon. This Carnell is obviously a very skilled practitioner."
    "What makes you think he's tracking us?"
    "The pattern of his data searches, of course! Not only does he regularly sweep for `Blake' and `Avon', but he is amassing information on other rebel activities and frauds and applying probability software to them. I have established contact with his computer, of course."
    "I trust you haven't alerted him to your presence."
    "Of course not! I have been most careful to mimic the man himself. The computer can hardly be said to be intelligent. I merely adjust the login records in case Carnell should think to check for interlopers."
    "What about his previous connection with Servalan?"
    "She employed him for several months seven years ago until he absconded suddenly after the IMIPAK fiasco. He was listed as a deserter and it is known that he took refuge in neutral territory. I have his Federation dossier if you want to read it. He is now working at a high security establishment, the Salkon Institute, which is run by a known associate of Commissioner Sleer. The inference is obvious - she is employing him to find you."
    "Then we shall have to be doubly careful. Give this top priority, report daily to me. Oh, and print that dossier."
"Well, it all seems straightforward to me. Teleport in there and snatch this Carnell and his computer," said Vila impatiently. "By all accounts he's a virtual prisoner, so he may be grateful. We could use him, perhaps."
        "And Servalan will detect the hand of Orac immediately." Jenna's voice was equally tart. "Grow up, Vila. We can't afford to give ourselves away like that."
        "OK, so arrange to lay the blame on someone else," said Vila, with an irritating smile. "Running out of ideas?" He ignored the withering look Avon directed at him.
        "Your talent for stating the obvious is unimpaired, I see. Suppose you apply your brains to deceiving Servalan."
        Jenna glanced at Carnell's dossier again. "Blake was convinced that the IMIPAK trap was engineered by somebody, now we're pretty sure who it was."
        Vila pricked up his ears. It was the first mention of Blake from either of them since the first days after Gauda Prime. Did it mark the end of an era of covert antagonism? Were they now partners?
        "We must harry Servalan," continued Jenna. "Keep her off balance. I know we planted rumours about Sleer around the Federation, but they haven't had much effect. It's almost as if they don't really care. We'd better try a bit of psychostrategy ourselves, set her up for something they won't ignore."
        "The best way to lure her into a trap is to use ourselves as bait," remarked Avon. "We've done that kind of thing before."
        Vila winced at that memory. Avon must be mad to think of trying it again.
        "I'm totally against that kind of thing, said Margit flatly. "It's obvious that nobody's picked up any evidence of your survival and we have to keep it that way."
        Avon swung round on her with a frown. "Servalan's certain we're alive."
        Margit was not to be budged. "Nevertheless, she has no proof and if she doesn't get any, her conviction will appear more and more irrational, which won't endear her to her colleagues."
        "Have you something in mind?" inquired Jenna. Vila could swear she was enjoying the confrontation.
        "Mikhail Brand. He was very successful with the councillor, it shouldn't be beyond his powers to make things hot for Servalan. We might second Gambit to him, to help."
        This brought Vila up with a jolt. He considered himself Gambit's proprietor. Where she went, he went, but not, please, please, to Earth. For once, Avon, still glaring at Margit, did not notice his dismay.
        "I know you long to strangle the lady with your own hands, Avon," she continued, undaunted, "but our aim, I would remind you, is to bring down the Federation government and neither you, nor anyone else, can be allowed to jeopardize that with private feuds." Her eyes met his, calmly, implacably.
        "I tend to agree with Margit over taking risks," Jenna inserted smoothly into the tension. "What we can do, is start Gambit on a close watch on Sleer and her associates and the Salkon Institute. We haven't paid enough attention to her so far. Mikhail might help, but we aren't due to contact him for several weeks, so during that time we will do nothing to attract the attention of the psychostrategist.
        "Meanwhile, our Feldon crystal project is all-important. Avon, how is it coming along?"
        There was a short pause while Avon swallowed his bile. "The detailed plans are ready," he said. "If the materials I need really are in the new consignment, I can go ahead. The main problem is with the uncut crystals. We have equipment for cutting and grinding the diamonds used in our mining equipment, all computerised, of course, but it's going to be tricky applying it to Feldon with its different structure. Orac has been gathering data about it, but it's a skilled job."
        "It will take you, what... some weeks?"
        "Probably months. And for safety's sake, we will do the testing on an asteroid."
        "By remote control, I hope," said Vila.
        "Naturally. However, it will take time to set up the test centre. I suggest that Jenna and Margit see to that. I have located several suitable planetoids in the outer Silmarina system. Vila can maintain surveillance on our enemies."
        Thank you, said Vila to himself, I'll really enjoy that.
        "I'll contact some of our people in that sector," said Jenna thoughtfully, "we should have someone on the spot. Lucien would be a good choice. We'll send the Argus to do a bit of trading in those parts." Argus, once one of Blake's vessels, was being used by the company for small-scale deliveries and personnel transport.
        "I want you to save at least one uncut crystal for duplication on our next voyage to Sardos," she added. "We may want to alter the design of the cut for different equipment."
        Avon nodded briefly. "I was considering that. The Sardoans would probably appreciate a share too. I was thinking of asking them to do some further research into Feldon systems, after all, they have some excellent scientists and facilities."

[GP + 2y 11m]

  Really, Madam Commissioner, it will not do!
  Being kept prisoner by the loathsome Burket
  is enough to drive any man to revolt.
  Find yourself another psychostrategist.
  Jerod Haldene should do nicely - I've always
  disliked the man.

  By all means waste your time looking for me.
  I shall pay careful attention to the location
  of my refuge. My wager is, you will not succeed.

"There! What d'you think of that?" Vila could hardly contain his excitement. "He must be doing a runner!"
        "Slow down, Vila." But Jenna too, was excited. "You say that this message was added to his login file just before you called me?"
        "Less than five minutes ago. I was playing chess with Gambit when she picked it up."
        "Gambit, is it still daylight at the Institute?"
        "Yes, Jenna. It is one hour and eleven minutes standard time to sunset."
        "Ah, you think he's still in the building, waiting for darkness?" said Vila eagerly, "and we have people watching the Institute..."
        "Gambit, get Lucien online as quickly as possible," Jenna was sparkling with excitement. She pushed the intercom button, "Avon, Margit, Brig - crew lounge - immediately!"

"Sorry to take so long answering, Astra. I had to go somewhere I could talk safely." Lucien's voice was cautiously low. "Have you some news for me?"
        "Yes. Carnell has just deposited a rather insolent farewell message to Servalan in his computer, to appear on the screen next time someone switches on. We think he means to break out as soon as darkness falls, unless... Have any vehicles come out in the last fifteen minutes?"
        "No. The director left in a ground taxi half an hour ago. Nothing since then. We should be able to locate Carnell with night scanners. Do we pick him up?"
        "Let him get some distance from the Institute first. Argus is still in orbit, use the teleport and bring him to Rendezvous Twelve.

Carnell was wryly amused to note that his heart was thudding violently as he slid the window open. Ridiculous to be afraid at this juncture after he had taken such pains to neutralize the security systems, but after all, he was not a man of action, so it was scarcely surprising. Cautiously, he climbed out, slithered down the wall to hang by his hands, then dropped the last few feet. The impact jarred him more than he had expected, his shoes were too lightweight to cushion him much. He was now on the roof of the electronics laboratories; keeping to the shadowy wall, he crossed to the parapet and looked over. All was still. Fixing his improvised grapnel to the parapet, he dropped his rope, a purloined heavy duty cable, and successfully negotiated the descent. As he hoped, a few jerks of the cable unhooked the grapnel and brought it down. Once more he coiled the cable and made his way to the perimeter wall where he had previously marked a likely place to climb it. It cost a considerable effort and some scrapes to get over, but soon he was walking softly through the boulevards of the town.
        Among the early evening crowds he felt reasonably secure. Making his way to a cashpoint, he inserted the credit card he had stolen from his jailer and tapped out the number he had found written on a scrap of paper in the lifted wallet. It worked: a quick check on the credit level and a smooth extraction of the maximum permitted, quite enough for his purposes, and he was on his way. Next call, a clothing outlet in a worker's compound, where he purchased some green coveralls and thick-soled boots. A construction worker's hard hat completed the outfit. It was a temptation to pay with the card, but the record of his purchases would alert pursuers to his disguise. Fortunately this province retained cash tokens, every transaction could not be instantly traced by the security forces, as in so many other Federation planets.
        He knew from his arrival that the shuttleport was being rebuilt and that he could mingle with the swarms of construction workers on the site. It shouldn't be impossible to slip aboard some ship, but he must waste no time. With any luck, his absence wouldn't be noticed until morning, more than ten hours away.
        Aboard the public transit car he relaxed somewhat. It was crowded with travellers and spacecrew; several construction workers, dressed like himself, were also aboard. Two pretty girls sat opposite him and one of them smiled roguishly when he caught her eye. He smiled back, indeed it was good to be free.

"Feeling better?" asked the pretty girl, offering Carnell a cup. "Sorry I had to do that, but actually we mean you no harm. In fact we're going to help you escape."
        He took it and swallowed - one of the pleasanter tasting restoratives.
        "In return for what?"
        "Shall we say, a debriefing?" Her smile was sweetly disingenuous. Carnell returned a matching bland smile, but permitted himself an inward sigh.
        It had been so simple: a tranquillizer dart clapped on his arm in the crowded concourse and he was on the floor mutely paralysed while she knelt over him, all concern, and summoned a stretcher on her communicator; then the procession into some empty room where he had been administered a strong narcotic.
        He glanced round for the first time. A doctor's surgery by the look of it, but very small. A spaceship? No sound of a ship's drive, though; only whispering air conditioning. Was she a medic? Probably, she certainly wielded a mean needle.
        "Yes," she answered his unspoken question with a smile, "you are in space, but still in stationary orbit. It would never do to leave ahead of schedule and without clearance."
        "They may board you and search."
        "Unlikely. Our shuttle is still innocently docked groundside while various officers go about their normal business. Traffic control will confirm that no other vehicle has approached this one since the tenders finished yesterday." She met his puzzled frown with amusement. "You were teleported aboard."
        "Ah... Blake's people."
        "Well, the remnant, anyway. The hunt is not up yet, heads won't roll for a few hours."
        Burket's head first. What a pleasant thought.
        "Am I a prisoner in here?"
        "No, you have the run of the ship except for the control section. You've been tagged, so the right doors will open and the wrong ones won't."
        Damn! An electronic implant, doubtless where he couldn't get at it unaided.
        "How kind," he said sweetly, "you think of everything."
        "You could do with a good meal and a night's sleep. Come on, doctor's orders." She pulled his arm through hers and piloted him gently into the corridor. "You will be set free, we just want you to help us first."

"Get him back!!"
        Her subordinates blanched before the Commissioner's fury.
        "Find him! Find his confederates! If you value your skins."
        "Commissioner, he seems to have broken out alone when the opportunity presented. We don't think he had any helpers."
        "Then it shouldn't be too difficult to find him. Get on with it!"
        She rounded on the prisoner, quaking between his guards.
        "Burket," her voice was ominously soft now, "I don't permit mistakes of that kind among my employees - allowing him to pick your pocket. You deserve everything that is about to happen to you." At her nod, the guards hauled the unfortunate man out.
        She turned to her aide. "Get me the dossier on Haldene," she said in her normal voice. "Are all the computers in the Institute wiped clean?"
        "Yes, Commissioner, the worm program has taken over the internal network. Fortunately an operator had the wit to pull the plug at the external gateway when she spotted it, so it hasn't got out."
        Carnell, she promised herself, you are going to pay for this, and your ever-so-charming smile will avail you nothing!

Now safely into deep space, Carnell began to feel that he would escape Servalan's clutches. A crew member had been teleported down to the planet to ensure that the security service cruiser didn't detect an extra person as it hove alongside with its scanners probing. Argus's shuttle, like many others, had been almost torn apart, ostensibly for drugs, before being permitted to depart. After a nerve-racking delay, the crewman had been whisked aboard at the last moment and they finally left on their scheduled voyage.
        "Not a single question do I answer until you've told me your name." He turned to his companion, comfortably sipping her drink in the armchair opposite.
        "It's Darota, and I don't have any to ask."
        "Well that makes a change, most of my life has been spent answering questions."
        "Oh, we'll rendezvous with another vessel and you'll meet the inquisition soon enough. Don't be impatient." She stretched sleepily.
        Mm... She was goodlooking woman. Enjoy life, drift with the tide for a while, he told himself. Co-operate with your, ah, rescuers then demand a fat fee for your services. He let his eyes dwell on Darota's drowsy face.

"Neither of you can interrogate him without giving the whole thing away." Margit stood over Jenna and Avon as they sat by the coffee table in the mining company office. "I cannot say it often enough - Carnell has no proof that you're still alive, and we must keep it that way."
        "So you and your brother are the people to do the job?" Avon's tone carried a hint of sarcasm. Margit ignored it.
        "We record the sessions and transmit them live to you. We keep them short, with frequent breaks for consultation. It will work."
        "Oh, sit down Margit," Jenna frowned slightly. "You're proposing to take Freya off for several weeks, which doesn't make me very happy."
        "Well, you cannot bring him here." Margit fetched a chair and sat down. "Orac concurs; this man is very dangerous, we have no reason to believe that he has the slightest sympathy with our cause, apart from the fact that he has escaped from the custody of his previous employers. On no account must he learn about this place or any of our other activities. And if he ever does," she said with the utmost deliberation, "we must kill him."
        She was never one to gloss over things, reflected Avon. On the whole he agreed.
        "Just you and Brig aboard Freya," he stipulated. "Take Gambit with you, but not Vila. I'll camouflage it as a piece of standard equipment. Darota says she has tagged him, so I'll set up the same security system as the Argus."
        "Very well," Jenna agreed reluctantly, "we'd better get on with it."

Carnell was considerably annoyed to wake up in unfamiliar surroundings. He'd been teleported again. Darota had spiked his drink and delivered him like a parcel to his next owner. This cabin was on a grander scale than his previous accommodation, not quite luxurious, but pleasantly spacious and comfortable. His clothes were piled on a table. He dressed and sallied forth into the corridor, ready to do battle.
        A series of locked doors shepherded him to the crew diner where a man and woman were seated at a table eating a meal. Their appearance was something of a surprise; a well-groomed middle-aged couple in expensively tailored dark business suits. Hmm... If the business community was conspiring against the Federation High Council, it was in deep trouble. On the other hand, they could afford a large fee. He smiled cheerfully at them and moved to the automat to select his breakfast.
        His hostess introduced herself as Helena Peron.
        "It is, of course, a nom de guerre." Her eyes crinkled with amusement. "And my colleague is using `Rai Kendo' as his. Security, you know."
        "So, Kendo and Peron, it seems you wish to consult me. Are you prepared to pay my fee?"
        "Name it," said `Peron', still rather amused.
        "Two and a half million credits."
        "We may persuade our principals to agree to one million, if you're as good as you're said to be." `Kendo' spoke for the first time in a bass rumble.
        "Two million."
        "One and a half."
        "Well, for that you get the first part."
        "Oh no," said Kendo firmly, "the debriefing is our fee for rescuing you. The Commissioner would soon have traced you without our intervention."
        Carnell acknowledged this with as graceful a smile as he could muster.
        Peron stood up. "Come through to the office when you've finished breakfast," she said.

"And just how did you locate me?" he enquired as he arrived at the door half an hour later.
        "We are keeping Sleer and her associates under surveillance," said Peron as she ushered him into a workmanlike office. "We know, as I am sure you do, that Sleer is really the Ex-President Servalan. Naturally, she is conspiring to get her presidency back."
        "What is your interest?"
        "She and the High Council are bad for business," said Kendo. "Our consortium, like all the others, wants a free market - and an honest administration wouldn't come amiss. We are sick of paying bribes and protection money to these miserable incompetents, not to mention dealing with their appalling bureaucracy. Servalan only wants to sit atop the status quo. If she gets power things will only degenerate still further."
        His words carried conviction. Mikhail Brand had carefully briefed them on the commercial sector's grievances and dissatisfactions, knowing that Carnell would be well aware of their existence.

"Well, I think that's all I can tell you about the IMIPAK affair. I have no first hand knowledge of what happened to it, but it appears that the Supreme Commander did not get her hands on it, or we should have seen some evidence of its use by now. Nor did Blake, apparently. I believe it is now neutralized. Of course, someone could re-invent it at any time. You, as Blake's associates are more likely to know about that."
        "Our information is that it was neutralized." Kendo looked thoughtful. "Blake, of course, is dead, and the rest of the Liberator crew with him, so like you, we have no direct knowledge."
        "You know, many people believe that the shootout on Gauda Prime was a fake and that Blake and Avon are alive somewhere in the galaxy."
        "Good," said Peron cheerfully, "I hope it keeps them busy and distracts attention from us. It may keep hope alive for others, too."
        "You are certain, then?"
        "Yes. I have spoken with one of the rebels who checked the bodies and destroyed the base."
        "How did they overcome the victorious Federation troopers?"
        "Gas, I understand. However, it doesn't matter if you, too, believe they're alive. As far as we're concerned, Servalan is welcome to chase shadows, provided she doesn't stumble across our operations."
        "Well then, what did you want to consult me about - how to bring down the Federation in five years?"
        "Not quite." It was Kendo who answered. "We have our own ideas about that, and a much longer time span in mind." He paused and scrutinized Carnell's face intently. "How would you go about avoiding the undesirable side effects? What usually happens when a powerful totalitarian system collapses, is a fast descent into anarchy. Monetary systems break down and organised crime spreads like wildfire, with bloody territorial squabbles and paying off old scores."
        "Those who don't remember history, are condemned to repeat it, eh?"
        "Precisely. We've already come across some very unpleasant warlords in territories which seceded after the Andromedan invasion; doing business with them is highly risky. Why don't you think about that?"
        "Have you any idea of the scale of a project like that?" Carnell smiled pityingly at him. "It would take a team of first class researchers decades to work on it; as for equipment, you'd need something like Orac to make sense of the data. You are talking about a whole research institute."
        Kendo's expression did not change. "How would you feel about heading such a research institute?"
        "I'd expect to be well paid for a start... But yes, I'd be interested. The project of a lifetime... The reconstruction of an empire."
        There was a lengthy pause as Carnell absorbed the idea.
        "I couldn't work here, imprisoned on a space station. I need amenities, open space, congenial colleagues, not a jail."
        "It should be possible to find you a safe haven from the Commissioner's wrath. Did you know that she has offered a large reward for your return? Alive, of course."
        "Such a pity she's an opponent. One really cannot help a certain admiration for her."

Margit and Brig retired to the captain's suite, which was safely off-limits to Carnell, in order to confer with others via their high security com-link.
        "On the whole this is a very fortunate turn of events," Mikhail remarked as they finished their report. "If Carnell becomes immersed in an open ended project like this, he could be neutralized for years to come. Furthermore, the benefits could be enormous."
        "So could the cost," put in Avon. "We shall have to set him up with all his equipment, in apparent freedom but carefully supervised and guarded, on some neutral planet where Servalan won't look for him."
        "True, but your financial operations are increasingly profitable, Avon, and I have been able to put the gains to good use. We can afford to do it. Maybe we can't afford not to do it."
        "We will do it," said Jenna in a most decided tone. "You are both to be congratulated, particularly the one who thought of the consultation project."
        "Well it wasn't me," said Margit. "It came as a complete surprise when Brig proposed it."
        "It just came to me," said Brig quietly, "The man wanted employment worthy of his talents, I suppose, and his career since IMIPAK has been disappointing. This would appeal to his ambition and possibly the remnants of his idealism, if he ever possessed any."
        Brig was a dark horse, reflected Avon. That notion of the remnants of idealism rang a harmonic in his own psyche like the faint echo of a great bell, summoning Cally's voice. "We must do what we can to help these people."
        "Maybe it is the most effective thing we can do to forestall the prophesied chaos." He was not above deriving amusement from their surprise. "I agree." Pace, Cally, he added privately.
        "So we have to locate a suitable planet and hammer out an agreement with Carnell," said Mikhail. "I am willing to negotiate with him and I expect him to make plenty of demands. He'll want assistants. We could present him with some students to study his methods and do research for him. In effect we would be setting him up as a professor, which could be very good cover and might appeal to his ego, as well."
        "I wonder if we should give Carnell access to Orac?" Jenna began, rather hesitantly.
        Avon's eyebrows shot up in swift protest. "That would be to give ourselves away immediately," he said sharply.
        "Not necessarily. Margit told him we were the remnants of Blake's followers, so it's feasible that we'd inherit Orac, so to speak." She paused for a moment. "How can I put this?" she resumed. "We never really put Orac's predictive capabilities to much use. Maybe we didn't really know how, but Carnell would. Think what he could do with it."
        "I am thinking," said Avon, "and some of the possibilities that come to mind hardly bear thinking about. We could try prohibiting Orac from giving him any information about ourselves, but I'd lay odds on him getting round that in no time. It would be suicidal to trust him that far."
        "I suppose so." Jenna gave a regretful grimace. "A pity," she said.

    "He's got clean away. It's obvious that he's had help to get off planet somehow. We've tracked all the spacecraft that left during the period, but none of them have deviated from their course or carried any extra crew or passengers. That fool Burket should have had him tagged from the very beginning. I've got no sympathy whatever for him."
    "Well I'm not going to report failure to the Commissioner, I might share his fate. You can tell her."
    "No fear. I'm not going to be the fall guy."
    "Shut up you two. Hasn't it occurred to you that if Blake's people are involved, they have teleport? That message could easily be a fake and that worm program is just the sort of thing Avon would do."
    "No, no. He would use Orac, this is too crude. In any case, there was no sign of teleport equipment aboard any ship we examined, and no unscheduled spacecraft have been detected for months."
    "Would you recognize a teleport if you saw it? Carnell could have found them without telling us and arranged the whole thing well in advance. Blast that Burket. He's mainly to blame for antagonising Carnell, he's just a crude bully, and you can't treat a psychostrategist like that.
    "Huh, he was a crude bully. But the fact is, Carnell walked down town and used the stolen card at the cash point. We know he did it in person because we identified him on one of the video records from that sector's surveillance. He wouldn't take a risk like that if confederates were involved. He wouldn't need money then, would he?"
    "But you just said he had help to get off planet."
    "When you've got money you can buy local help. He was searching criminal records and that would tell him where to find the local bad boys. Carnell worked this out by himself and anyone with any brains should have anticipated such a move."
    "Like you did?"
    "Pull in the local villains and malcontents again and interrogate them - properly this time."

Carnell smiled brilliantly at Margit. "My own research institute? Well Helena, you do know how to tempt a man. Tell me, will this one have a high wall round it?"
        Margit laughed outright. "None. No more security than any normal institute, although we must take pains to protect you from Servalan. But that can be done from a distance, discreetly. You can travel, you will need to, probably. Pick yourself a new name and a cover project."
        "And where are you going to locate it?"
        "You can help us decide. We have a number of possibilities."
        "Mmm... Give me the details and let's go to work."

You are trying to divert my attention away from Blake, Helena Peron, with an offer I can't refuse, but my money is still on the survival of some of the Liberator's crew. They have allied themselves with big business and gone underground, just like I would in their shoes; just as Avon was endeavouring to do when Sleer disrupted his plans.
        However, I shall go along with you because the Federation is beyond reform and must eventually fall apart of its own accord. If its decline and replacement can be carefully managed, if a cadre of new leaders were to be in place with workable plans and the backing to carry them through, then a whole Dark Age could be averted.
        You are right, I cannot refuse such an offer - I will not refuse it.

Go to next chapter

© Copyright Vega (Frances Teagle), 1999.
This story may be printed for individual use, but must not be stored as a computer file or reproduced for sale or distribution.

[GP + 3y 2m]
        Jenna sometimes wondered if Silmarino was bad for her. It was hard to resist the seductive ambience of the place, with its lush forests in the lowlands, airy savannahs in the uplands and towering snowy peaks in the distance. A primitive teaming Eden, scarcely disturbed by a thinly scattered human population little interested in `progress'. It was so easy to lie in a hammock breathing the heady scent of a million flowers, so tempting to let things drift.
        Her companions were not immune, either. Vila embraced the life with hedonistic delight. The premises were overrun with his pets, little mongoose-like animals from a local colony, pretty chestnut coloured creatures with appealing ways. He maintained that they kept pests under control, but they were usually to be found festooning his shoulders. When he wasn't teaching local children conjuring tricks, he and Gambit conducted their surveillance sweeps from a secluded little arbour, attended by a catering robot.
        Avon, too, was taking it unusually easy since his return from the successful Feldon generator trials, sitting under a neighbouring tree reading through a pile of printout and making handwritten notes. A `mungo' sprawled sleepily on the rough wooden table beside him. Odd, how they liked him, considering that he appeared to ignore them. Jenna thought he was looking as well as she had ever seen him. I did that, she told herself, I saved his life, I gave him something worthwhile to do for the rest of it, though I'll never be fool enough to say it to him.
        But were they losing their fine edge, becoming dangerously happy? They were committed to a strategy of `little by little' which encouraged a feeling of security, and Carnell's arrival on the scene reinforced that feeling. Overconfidence lay in wait for them.

"Things are too quiet," said Avon that evening. "It can't go on like this much longer. I'll be glad when the others are back with Freya."
        "My feelings exactly," responded Jenna, looking across at a somnolent Vila. "We need something to keep us on our toes."
        "Maybe we've had too much security recently, a spot of danger wouldn't come amiss." But he smiled as he said it, a wry, reminiscent smile.
        "Let's not go looking for trouble, just be ready for it when it arrives."
        "What's that? Who's arriving?"
        "Go back to sleep, Vila."
        "I think we have a use for some of your field agents," Avon resumed after a pause. "Orac has been tapping into the computers of the Federation's Monopasium research unit."
        "Go on," said Jenna, when he paused for effect.
        "We've identified all the personnel and caught a whiff of dissatisfaction among some of them which we might be able to turn to our advantage."
        "What's their main grouse?"
        "They're based on Myrna III, which is only inhabited by themselves and the security forces. Their families are not with them and the planet is excruciatingly boring unless you happen to be an ardent xenobiologist." Avon gave one of his special smiles and Jenna found herself answering it as his train of thought became apparent.
        "I think your friend Lucien and his group could be employed on this. Tempt them away with good career offers, reunion with their families and a new identity. It's an old tactic." He leant back and enjoyed the sparkling smile on Jenna's face. It usually made its appearance when somebody put forward a good idea.
        "I imagine the company could find them something useful to do. It could be difficult to get at them, though. How often do they go on leave?"
        "Semi-annual, in rotation. One of the chief dissidents is due to go in about two months."
        "What about the unit's progress, have you assessed it?"
        "Slow but steady. I'm copying all their databanks routinely, but I haven't ventured to corrupt anything. They would be likely to think of Orac if I did."
        Jenna nodded agreement, "Quite right. We'll confer with Mikhail about placing them in the company. Lucien's a good choice to carry it out, he doesn't make mistakes. Are any of the senior researchers involved?"
        "Only one, the others are middle to junior ranks. Apparently the unit chief has been giving her a hard time. She's our first target."
        "I never cease to wonder at the stupidity of some of these people," commented Jenna. "We must never allow any of our unit leaders to behave like that."

[GP + 3y 4m]
        Margit and Brig arrived with the rainy season; she, cheerfully triumphant; he, self-possessed as ever. Ro and Selma feted them with a banquet in the Council Chamber as a thunderstorm flashed and roared outside.
        "I am relieved you dealt with the psychostrategist so effectively, " commented Ro. "Commissar Shira employed one occasionally, but he reckoned they were a double-edged weapon, as likely to lead you into trouble as solve your problems for you."
        "He will doubtless cost us several fortunes before we're through." Avon's face wore a characteristic cynical expression. "I hope we get value for money."
        Selma met his eyes with a direct, almost challenging look. "You are playing for the liberty of the whole galaxy, you must expect the stakes to be high."
        His face softened into a reflective smile. "Yes, we are, aren't we."
        Watching this exchange, Jenna was struck anew by the gentle courtesy Avon always extended to Selma. It seemed entirely genuine.
        "What next?" Ro asked Jenna as they adjourned to the coffee table.
        "Another visit to Sardos," she answered. "We will reproduce plenty of Feldon generators. Freya must then hasten back to Keledon with her Monopasium cargo in order to keep to her official schedule. We will return here in the scout ship. Then we have some hard thinking to do."
        "You have been very successful so far, can you maintain the same rate of progress?"
        "That is the problem. I don't expect Carnell to produce a plan of campaign for quite a while, so we have an interim period to negotiate without giving ourselves away or falling into any traps. People get stale and begin to make mistakes. That is my concern."
        "Since you are aware of the problem, the danger is much diminished. I think the seeds of a better future are planted."
        "I hope so, Ro. I really hope so."

"Carnell said something very interesting." Margit turned away from the window of Jenna's room. They were alone together, disconsolately watching the relentless rain that kept them indoors. "He said that Servalan commissioned a clone of Blake to help her entrap rebels. He doesn't know what happened to him, though."
        Jenna's face darkened. "We did hear from the clone," she admitted uncomfortably. "He told us who he was and said he had taken the IMIPAK device from Servalan and marked her with it, then warned her never to come near the planet again. So far as I know, he's there still. Avon was marked as well, so we've given it a wide berth too."
        "Have you never thought of finding him and persuading him to throw in his lot with you?" asked Margit.
        "No," said Jenna flatly. "He isn't Blake, he only looks like him. The history that made Blake so special is entirely missing." She paused, bleakly surveying the rain streaking the glass. "I couldn't deal with that," she continued, "and I don't suppose Avon could, either. Let it rest."
        Margit nodded understandingly.

[GP + 3y 6m]

    "The troops are assembled Commissioner, embarkation is about to begin."
    "Excellent. Off you go and supervise, Major."
    "Yes, ma'am."
    "Well, Deputy Commissioner, are you quite clear about your duties while I am away?"
    "Yes, Commissioner. It will be quite a long absence this time and you are taking a lot of men and weaponry with you. Are you expecting plenty of trouble?"
    "Possibly. It is very remote and some well armed renegade units have established themselves there. We could have a fight on our hands."
    "Does this mysterious place have some strategic importance or other advantage?"
    "Oh yes, you could say that. I think its acquisition will make a great deal of difference to the Federation."

[GP + 3y 9m]
        Vila yawned and put his feet up on the table. Sardos was not a favourite place of his and the last few days had been thoroughly boring. Nothing but work, long hours of it. He might as well be drudging in some factory back on Earth. Now he was left alone with no one to talk to but Gambit, even games had palled. Jenna and Margit were closeted with several councillors, Avon was probably visiting his lady friend and heaven only knew where Brig had got to. He took a deep swig from his flask and settled back morosely in his chair.
        "Attention," said Gambit sharply. "Satellite One reports a fleet of spacecraft heading this way. Three T-Twenty-One-B troop transports, a Federation Class One Mark Fourteen pursuit ship and a Type Four fleet flagship."
        Vila came to his feet with a frantic jerk which sent his chair careering across the room. The pacifiers were here.

"It's got to be Servalan," he babbled, "she knows this place. She's coming to take it! She's going to duplicate herself the biggest fleet in the universe and take the Presidency back. Then she'll hunt us down! We've got to get out of here!"
        "Undoubtedly that is her plan," said Avon, icily calm. "Which is why we are not running away."
        Vila quailed before the look in his eyes, "You're insane. You can't win!! Of all the people she wants to kill, very, very slowly, you're the first."
        "She cannot know we're here," put in Margit sharply. "She must have been planning and getting that fleet together for some time. Maybe Carnell's escape has precipitated this, she could be moving before she's really ready."
        "They won't all be combat troops," said Jenna. "She has to bring a crew for every ship she intends to create."
        "She must intend to annexe this planet permanently, though." Margit's face was gloomier than Vila had ever seen it. "In her shoes, I would bring as many fighting men as I could, I'd use Pylene on the inhabitants, and if that didn't work I would exterminate most of them. Once that was done, I could send for the necessary flight crew and start operations, taking as much time as I needed. I doubt if the Federation has the precise location of Sardos, so I don't suppose the troops on those ships know where they are going. They probably think they are rounding up the Fifth Legion renegades. If I were her I wouldn't even tell the officers what I was really intending."
        "And that is why we are not running," said Avon deliberately. "If she is not opposed, she will do precisely that, and the Federation will be at her mercy. We are the only people who can stop her."
        Looking round at his companions, Vila read dour agreement in every face. Here we go, he told himself, we're going to be heroes again.

"Orac," said Avon, entering his private quarters, " you've been keeping tabs on Servalan, why didn't you pick up her preparations?"
        "She gave out that it was a normal pacification expedition, targetted on the Fourth Sector." Orac sounded blandly unapologetic, as usual. "I monitored her preparations, naturally, but there was nothing to suggest her true intention. The woman is not stupid. If she believes you are alive then she knows I am probably monitoring her communications. Her fleet has observed strict silence since it departed."
        "So unless she has left written instructions or confided verbally to some one, nobody knows."
        "It is unlikely she would do so, but I will search for any sign that she has."
        "You do that."

[Mid morning]
        Lara felt rather exposed as she stood on the podium to address the Sardoan Assembly. Behind her sat the Chairman, below her, the Clerk at his recording console, and facing her in tiered seats, fifty pairs of eyes seemed to bore right into her as she apprised them of the situation.
        "We have rather less than a day to make our plans," she concluded. "They will arrive at 05.26 hours tomorrow at their current speed. The Commissioner doesn't know we have protection against her drug. We had better fake the symptoms if we encounter their pacification squads. I wonder if she has thought to protect her own men."
        "Perhaps not," said the Chairman. "Are you suggesting that we try to turn it on them?"
        "We are expecting upwards of a thousand men, according to Chevron. They are not expecting trouble from us, only the Fifth Legion and their convicts. We understand that the ex-president has a score to settle with the late Grose, but she can hardly have any idea that we have gained the upper hand. Obviously we must play on that ignorance."
        "We greet them as saviours and send them off on a series of wild goose chases?"
        "Yes, split them up if we can, then our security forces, under Chevron's direction, can deal with them."
        "They'll smell a rat," said a delegate.
        "We tell them that the renegades are very well armed. They will be expecting that."
        "The Commissioner may send for reinforcements," put in another council member.
        "Chevron doesn't think she can without letting the Federation High Command know what she's up to. They are watching her closely, so she has to pass this expedition off as a normal pacification operation."
        The Chairman frowned anxiously, "Can we rely on our own ex-Federation officers? Won't they be tempted to rejoin their comrades?"
        "Astra has told them what they can expect from Servalan if she ever lays hands on them. I think they will be anxious to avoid that fate. Besides, they have a stake here, several of them have family responsibilities now."
        "Very well, the proposal is that we feign a welcome for the invaders, get them to pursue phantom bands of renegades, treat them to their own pacification drug or kill them. For not one of them can be allowed to leave this planet again, particularly their leader. The alternative is complete surrender. And if this woman goes to war with the High Command, they will try to find and destroy us. We are in acute danger either way. We will take a vote."

        "Did anyone want to surrender?" asked Jenna, as she and Lara settled into the auxiliary communications bunker.
        "Not really. Our taste of Grose and his methods left us with no delusions about the Federation. Our secret was out when he arrived here. Now we must fight, and if we lose we must destroy the matter transmuters."
        "Let's hope it won't come to that. Could you recreate them if you had to?"
        "Yes, provided certain key personnel survived." Lara sat back with an anxious frown. "We must take steps to protect them - or should we let the secret die with us? Sometimes I think it's too dangerous for humankind to handle. Better if it was destroyed."
        "Someone else would rediscover it eventually, wouldn't they." Jenna was beginning to like Lara as her resentment over the Sardoan's relationship with Avon died down.
        "True. It's a pity your cargo vessel has gone. Well no, I suppose it's a very good thing it's not here, but we could have sent them off-planet perhaps."
        "I'm very glad Freya's gone, and in a different direction. Her loss or capture would be a severe setback. We couldn't hide anything that size from their scanners, maybe they'll pick up the scout ship as it is."
        "Is your scout ship faster than Servalan's fleet?"
        "Yes, probably. If we had to run, we could take a few people with us."
        "Oh, not the government, just some scientists and their equipment. We are not leaving."
        "I doubt if we are. Chevron is bent on a fight to the death this time."

[Next day, dawn]
        The console beside Jenna bleeped sharply and they turned their attention to the screen.
        "Here they come," said Lara, "three, four of them, heading for the landing pad she used last time."
        "Mm - she's left the pursuit ship in orbit by the looks of it. She wants to seize Grose's headquarters and then the civilian government. I hope your squad of liars are standing by." Jenna smiled slightly. Duplicity be our shield, she thought.

[Late morning]
        "This is the Assembly House, Madam Commissioner, you could set up your headquarters here." The speaker, an elderly man, bowed as he ushered Servalan through the imposing double doors.
        She stalked in and glanced around. "How long since it was last used?"
        "Several years, madam. Colonel Astrid disbanded the Assembly soon after he came."
        "Ah yes, what has happened to the Colonel? And where is Section Leader Grose?
        "As to the Colonel, I'm not sure, madam, we have seen nothing of him; but the Section Leader and his staff have moved to his hunting lodge near the Eastern Lake. I understand he enjoys the sport. I'm afraid I can't give you much more information, I'm only the caretaker here. My name is Hokaida."
        "Then fetch me some one who can."
        "At once, madam." Another deep bow. Hokaida, Chairman of the Sardoan Assembly, hoped he wasn't overdoing the obsequiousness as he scuttled away, but no - she appeared to accept it as her due. From the corridor he heard her raised voice.
        "Major Borg, start moving your people in here. Find me a suitable office and get this place cleaned up."

"Well, they've taken the bait," said Vila, removing his face mask. "A nice subtle touch that, putting the Pylene dispenser on the inlet pipe to the cistern. They won't see it and the water flow will activate it. All that dust should make them thirsty."
        The activity of the previous hours had soothed his nerves somewhat, particularly the humour of spraying dust all over the building to make it look unused, and the Sardoan determination to resist heartened him.
        "So far, so good," replied Brig, with a grim smile. "Now it's up to the lying squad. I hope they keep their wits about them."

    "I need to talk to your local leaders. Where is your previous president?"
    "Unfortunately, Grose had him shot, madam."
    "What about his deputy?"
    "Lara Gambovska; I will send for her immediately."

        Avon and Margit made their way cautiously along the ridge overlooking the landing site, carefully carrying their equipment. Their task was to film the invaders and make as accurate an estimate of their numbers and materiel as possible. Federation troops had easily identified and destroyed the automatic scanners in the district and the rovers were too easily detectable to use here, so Avon had set out with hand-held cameras and probes, choosing Margit to accompany him because she was stronger than Jenna and faster than Brig. Every five hundred metres or so, they stopped to make their survey, relaying the data to Gambit, back in the bunker with Jenna. Now they had reached the southern end where they must descend on the far side from their enemies.
        "This is a good place to leave the probe," said Margit, unhitching her back pack and laying it down. "There's a clear field of vision but plenty of cover."
        "Right, we'll set up here," said Avon, following suit.

"Vice President Gambovska, ma'am."
        Servalan swung round to face the woman who stood hesitantly in the doorway. Nothing formidable about this visitor, she decided, the woman looked very nervous. And well she might. The Commissioner opted to try the friendly approach.
        "Well, Vice President, you must be wondering what this is all about." She gave her most charming smile.
        "I suppose it must concern Grose and his activities, Commissioner." Lara's voice was softly submissive. "Are we correct in thinking the man is a deserter?"
        "Oh yes, Federation justice is about to catch up with him and his companions. I expect your co-operation with the project."
        "We will be devoutly glad to be rid of them all, and whatever we can do towards that end will be done gladly, I assure you."
        "Good. Now I need to know what has happened to Grose, the computer Moloch and Colonel Astrid." Servalan gestured to Lara to be seated. "I should explain that I visited this planet about six years ago, when Grose attempted to acquire a fleet cruiser by trickery - my cruiser. I was shown the body of a man in suspended animation and told that Moloch had ordered Colonel Astrid to be punished in this manner for trying to destroy it. We cannot find any trace of Moloch or Astrid."
        "Ah, I see," said Lara innocently. "Well, Moloch was destroyed, as we thought, by your people, and Colonel Astrid was revived."
        "Not by my men, there were other visitors that day - Kerr Avon and his renegades, seeking to use the transmuters themselves, perhaps, or maybe they followed me here. It seems they clashed with Grose. Is Colonel Astrid still alive?"
        "We are fairly sure he is dead," answered Lara, "unless he left when the transporter crew deserted Grose, but I don't think so. It wasn't like the man to run away, we think Grose murdered him."
        "And where is Grose now?"
        "Not long after Moloch was destroyed, he moved his headquarters to the southern hemisphere. These days they are little better than bandits living off the countryside, preying on the farmers." Lara met the Commissioner's eyes with a look of limpid honesty. "They must know you're here and they're very well armed, you could lose a lot of men dealing with them."
        "We have our own methods of dealing with such scum," said Servalan, with a tinge of smugness. "Now, has Grose had any further contacts with outsiders?"
        "He could have. We wouldn't be told about it, though. But if there were any visitors, I would expect him to double-cross them and seize their spacecraft if he could, but he hasn't managed anything like that." A mischievous impulse prompted Lara to add guilelessly, "Who is this renegade, Avon?"

"That's working all right," said Brig with satisfaction, "they didn't search her properly." With the aid of a skilled hairdresser, he had concealed a miniature transmitter in Lara's pinned-up hair to replace the ones removed by Servalan's security sweep. Now he sat with Jenna and Vila in the bunker, monitoring the results.
        "I'll enjoy watching Avon's face when he hears this." Vila grinned as he listened to Servalan's description of her bête noir's career. "Unflattering, but pretty accurate."
        "Hmm," Jenna gave a fleeting smile, "in fact, the only person Servalan met on Sardos was you. Are you sure you didn't tell her what you were doing there?"
        "No, of course not, I didn't know myself, anyway. All she saw was me in a Federation uniform in company with Doran. She must think that we'd made an alliance with Grose and then quarrelled. You heard her say that, just now."
        "She has probably worked out that Moloch used her as bait to attract the Liberator, with a view to duplicating a fleet of them. I expect she imagines that Avon destroyed Moloch when he found out he was just a pawn in the game."
        Vila gave a snort of amusement. "She doesn't know the half of it."
        "We're getting good signals from the ridge," said Brig. "They've unloaded nine flyers so far, only small ones though, they wouldn't carry more than twenty men each. Ah, that looks like a field laser coming out now."
        "It doesn't look like very heavy equipment, does it?" said Jenna, concentrating on the screen. "She must be relying on the drug."
        "Well, she knows what a rabble Grose's men were," said Vila, "she met some of them. It would probably give her a lot of satisfaction to dose them with Pylene and watch them crawl, particularly Grose. Pity he's dead, in a way."
        Jenna reached for her communicator. "Come on, you two, get out of there before you're spotted."
        "Moving off now," returned Margit's voice, faintly.
        "Message from Lara's man," said Vila. "He's set up the spy beam, straight into Servalan's office. Patching audio through now."
        "What about her screen and keyboard signals?" asked Jenna.
        Vila relayed the question. "Any minute now," he reported. Lara's micro transmitter had provided a focal point for the ultra-sensitive spy beams. Gambit would decode the non-verbal ones and relay them to video and computer screens.

"Flyer, coming over the ridge," said Margit, "take cover."
        Avon promptly moved under the nearest tree canopy. "Looks as if they're going to land some men and secure the heights," he commented as she joined him. "Point your camera over there."
        "Damn, we'll be cut off if they land there," said Margit, after a few moments of recording. "We may have to call for teleport."
        "We'll try the other trail back up there. Come on." Avon led the way back up the hill. He was reluctant to teleport because it would entail bringing the scoutship down from its high orbit on the far side of Sardos, to teleport range, where it would no longer be protected by its detector shield. If they could make it down to the river by the southerly route and hide until dark, they might pick up their borrowed flyer and rejoin their colleagues.
        As they approached the turn-off he paused. There was less cover by this route, but if they were lucky, they would be across before the troopers arrived. Something hissed past him. Behind him he heard an ominous thud and a dreadful gasp from Margit. Turning, he saw her reeling against a tree trunk, reaching for her left side with both hands, although he could not tell what had struck her.
        "What is it?" he said in a low voice, for the enemy must be very close.
        "Some kind of dart," she muttered painfully. "It's gone deep."
        "Well don't pull it out, you'll bleed much faster if you do." If it was poisoned, she was done for, but otherwise she might have a chance if he could contact Orac without bringing their hunters down upon them. He fished out his communicator and activated its tracer beam. As he did so, Margit followed suit, her hands were now heavily bloodstained.
        "Yes?" said Orac's voice in his earpiece.
        "Emergency. Bring the ship into teleport range as fast as you can and bring us up!"
        "Very well, but there is a risk that we will be seen by Sleer's reserve vessel. We will pass too close for the shield to protect us."
        "Do it!" he hissed. Margit was pointing up the hillside, their pursuers were closing in, they had to move. She led the way down to the right, keeping her feet well enough, although her co-ordination was slipping. As he followed her, he heard a cry from above.
        "Down there!"
        Breaking into a run, he grasped Margit's elbow as he overtook her and propelled her forward. The bloodstain looked to be below the level of her lungs so she might keep going long enough for the ship's teleport to snatch them away when it got within range, but it was spreading fast. Although she kept going doggedly, a drastic reduction in blood pressure must bring her down soon. Ruthlessly he dragged her among the thinning trees towards a rockfall about two hundred metres away, where they might hold off the troopers. Less than fifty metres short of safety, as they were crossing the last stretch of open ground, her legs went from under her. Shots were crackling around them, soon their hunters would be close enough for accurate aim.
        "Hydraulics gone," she said between clenched teeth, "you run."
        It was tempting to comply; if they took her prisoner instead of killing her immediately, the teleport might whisk her away safely, but caution intervened. If the teleport failed to retrieve her, the Feds would have an important prisoner to interrogate. Margit was one of the few people who could tell them everything. He fired several shots into the trees then bent down, pulled her arm over his shoulder and hoisted her to her feet and set off again. She was tall enough not to make him lean over, but her weight taxed him heavily. Gritting his teeth he persevered, then just as it seemed he couldn't take another stride, they were among the rocks.
        Now the situation was reversed, they were under cover and their opponents were out in the open. Unceremoniously he let go of Margit, who slid to the ground with a groan, and, chest heaving with great gasps, he tried to steady himself sufficiently to fire at the oncoming troops. They dropped into the grass, but it was too short to conceal them completely and he scored two hits. As the troopers began to crawl away, he spotted the officer waving his arms, directing men to circle round. Always shoot the officers first, he said to himself. He drew a careful bead and dropped the man, but he could see movement to the left among the trees, the pincer movement had begun.
        Behind him he could hear Margit calling on Orac to hurry. Good, she had survived thus far. A laser bolt struck the weathered rock beside him, causing splintered fragments to fly off, striking him on neck and cheek. He ducked and shifted his position then opened up again. A shot went off immediately behind him. As he jerked his head round, a body slithered down, knocking him sideways. Margit, lying against a boulder, lowered her weapon and gave a faint grimacing smile. A very good thing he hadn't left her, he reflected as he turned back to his post.
        "Teleport," said Orac in his ear, and the rocks vanished.

He bent over Margit. The emergency over, the adrenalin which had kept her going was ebbing away and she with it. A piece of metal protruded slightly from her side, it didn't look much but it had gone deep all right. This was no case for the automed, she needed a surgeon, and fast.
        "Orac, locate the main hospital and tell them I'm bringing in a casualty for immediate surgery."
        "It is already done." Orac's voice betrayed a hint of self-satisfaction. "Prepare to teleport."
        "Well done. When we've gone, take the ship out to safe orbit again."
        "With pleasure. Teleport."

[Mid afternoon]
        Vila sat glumly over his control board trying to concentrate on what it was telling him, but the shock of Margit's catastrophe made it almost impossible. He stole a sideways look at Avon, sat in Jenna's chair monitoring her scanners while she and Brig were at the clinic. He was trying to keep all expression from his face, but it was blanched and drawn.
        Margit was in desperate trouble on life support while cell regeneration equipment was replacing lost tissue and damaged organs. Brig was sitting beside her door, armed to the teeth; Jenna, having spoken to the surgeon, was on the point of returning to the bunker.
        Avon finally broke the silence, "Still nothing from Servalan's office?"
        "Nothing but footsteps in the corridor and mechanical noises. She's definitely out. What about Bayban?" Vila had nicknamed Jenna's scoutship `Bayban the Berserker' during its first hair-raising photon drive trials.
        "Back in orbit."
        "D'you think the cruiser detected it?"
        "They're keeping quiet about it if they did."
        "Something's happening!" Vila sat up, all sharp attention. "Servalan's back in her office." He switched the signal to the PA system.

    "... some coffee, and wake those fools in communications." The well-remembered voice cut across the quiet bunker.
    "At once, ma'am. And Section Leader Carrez is here to make his report."
    "Show him in."

The Section Leader saluted smartly in front of the Commissioner.
        "At ease, Carrez," She cast an appraising eye over him. "what have you to report?"
        "The area around the landing ground is secured, ma'am."
        "Very good. Did you encounter any resistance?"
        "Well ma'am, we saw some rebels on the east ridge, reconnoitering party, I should think. We lost Captain Ling and four men there."
        "How many rebels were there, and what happened to them?"
        "Difficult to be exact, ma'am, the tree cover is quite thick there. I only saw two myself, one of them looked like a woman. Maybe some Sardoans have joined up with the Fifth Legion."
        "You saw them?" Servalan's brow was black with displeasure. "What have you done with them, pray?"
        "They disappeared, ma'am. They must have been scouts, they gave us the slip. We managed to wound the woman, but her companion dragged her into the cover of some rocks."
        "That's when you lost Captain Ling?"
        "Yes. I can't understand how they got away, Commissioner. When we got into the rocks the only signs we could find of them were some bloodstains. We searched for a cave or something, but they vanished into thin air." The Section Leader waited with trepidation for her reaction, but instead of lashing out at him, she looked almost triumphant.
        "Teleport!" she exclaimed softly, eyes positively shining. "Avon is here. Did anybody get a look at them? Can you give me a description?"
        "Well, the man was about my height, medium build, darkish hair, late thirties or early forties. I didn't get close enough to make out his features. One thing though, he's fit - he dragged the woman across the last stretch surprisingly fast after she collapsed."
        "What about her? Was she a youngish blonde, slightly shorter than me? Or a taller black woman?"
        "No, about the same height as the man but a bit older, I think, with shortish hair. Also very strong I should say, the way she kept going with an air bolt in her - those things do real damage, you know."
        "I don't recognise her description, but the man is probably Kerr Avon. If he is here we must be very careful, he is extremely dangerous." She considered for a few moments. "Search for his spacecraft, but do not destroy it. It may contain Orac. The trouble is, we don't know what kind of ship he uses since the destruction of Scorpio, and it will be carefully hidden."
        "Hostages, ma'am?"
        "Possibly, but only someone very close to him; he can be utterly callous when the stakes are high enough, but we have a great opportunity here."
        Orac, she said to herself. Imagine a new fleet, each ship containing its own Orac. The Presidency would be mine again in weeks. Avon, if only you were willing to share power, we would be unbeatable!
        "Of course, ma'am, they'll have to get that woman to a surgeon fast, if she isn't dead by now. They couldn't deal with a wound like that on their ship. We might locate her for interrogation purposes."
        "Very well, have the hospitals searched. Find her and put her under guard."

In the bunker, Avon reached for his communicator. "Brig," he rasped, "search parties, heading for the hospitals. Get Margit hidden - now!"
        Brig acknowledged the signal and turned to the medic at the desk. "You heard," he said. "Where?"
        "I don't really know. We'd better call the surgeon. You can't take her far and you'll have to keep her on the machine." She pressed an emergency call button on her console.
        "What is it?" came the surgeon's voice.
        "Patient in Room Nine, cardiac arrest." The medic turned back to Brig. "That should bring them without letting the whole clinic know what's going on."
        Thirty seconds later the surgeon burst through the door, followed by her assistant. She strode to the bedside, checked the monitors and picked up Margit's wrist.
        "What's this?" she said sharply. "The woman's still holding her own."
        "The troopers are searching for her," said Brig. "They won't be long getting here. She must be hidden."
        "Very well." The surgeon thought for a moment then turned to her assistant. "She died on the operating table, enter it in her records. Body was removed by men claiming to be her relatives. Now, where are we going to put her?"
        "What about the underpass?" the young man suggested rather diffidently. "If we shift several big store cupboards in front of the entrance they won't realise it exists at all. We've got lifters."
        "Do it," said the surgeon. "Medic, go down the corridor, close all the room doors and fetch the goods hoist up here. I'll push the bed, you two bring the machine. Keep close, don't let the tubing pull out."

"So far, so good," murmured Hokaida as Lara joined him in the caretaker's room under the stairs. "I think the senior staff officers are protected against Pylene, but I've dosed them all anyway. I didn't have to make the drinks, they brought their own supplies. All they wanted was water."
        "Have you tried giving an order yet?" she asked in a low voice.
        "Yes, I told an orderly to bring me a food ration. Instant obedience - quite a change from our caterers."
        "Perhaps I could now talk my way out of the building," said Lara thoughtfully, "or maybe we could think of something really useful for them to do."

        Margit groped her way back to consciousness. Voices were talking above her head, they had an odd echoing quality, tinny and remote, yet nearby, somehow. Was she dreaming? It felt like a dream, she could not move, she could not feel her own body, she was just a floating mind. She strained to comprehend what the voices were saying.
        "... more than six hours now, it should be safe." This was a young man's voice.
        "Definitely not. We don't move until we get the all clear." There was something familiar about this one, an older man, a deeper voice.
        "It's getting cold in here," said a woman's voice, "There's a danger that her temperature will drop."
        "The instrument readings are all right." The young man again. "More brain activity too. Looks like she's coming out of it."
        Who the devil were they talking about? Frustrated, Margit swore her worst oath.
        "Oh my!" said the woman's voice.
        "Margit, watch your language," the deep voice said, this time it was close by her ear. With enormous relief she recognised Brig. Her eyes flew open, he was so close his features were blurred, or were her eyes out of focus? She shifted her gaze and tried to take in her surroundings. It was dim in here.
        "Where the hell is this?" she muttered, "and where is Avon?"
        "The Feds are searching for you and Avon. Servalan put two and two together and decided that teleport equals Avon, and sent her men to search the hospitals. This is a tunnel that links this clinic with an administrative building. The hospital end has been blocked off with storage units and you have been listed as dead."
        "Hope they don't look at the other building." said Margit faintly.
        "Not likely, it's been relabelled as something else."
        After a pause, she said, "I can't feel anything,"
        "Yes you can, see?" The doctor pinched her cheek, then picked up her hand and tweaked her thumb quite sharply. "You're on pain blockers from the mid-thorax downwards and you're hooked up to a tissue regeneration unit while we grow you a new spleen, so I want you to keep still and calm."
        "Don't trouble yourself about Avon," put in Brig. "He's back in the bunker."
        Margit accepted this and settled back to put up with things as patiently as she could. When she joined the rebel movement, she had resolved to accept the probability of violent death and never to trouble herself about it. This attitude had enabled her to face many dangers with equanimity, although she sometimes suspected that her unconcern might not be entirely genuine and she might be put to a severe test someday; however, this did not seem to be that day. With an effort she turned her thoughts to better things and eventually drifted off into a dreamy half-sleeping state.

    "She died of a massive haemorrhage shortly after we got her into the operating theatre, Section Leader. This is the projectile we removed from the chest cavity. It seems to be designed for hunting large animals for sport. I am told it is propelled by a compressed air mechanism."
    "Why didn't you put her into suspended animation? We hear that you have the technology."
    "One of Grose's people - why should we bother? Anyway, there was no point, several organs were damaged beyond repair."
    "Where is the body now?"
    "Her companions took it away. They were heavily armed and we didn't argue."
    "Were they Fifth Legion?"
    "They weren't in uniform and they gave us no names. We supposed they were some of the convicts Grose brought in while he still had the transport. They looked like killers to me."
    "What about the woman?"
    "She looked like the female of the species, Section Leader."

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© Copyright Vega (Frances Teagle), 1999.
This story may be printed for individual use, but must not be stored as a computer file or reproduced for sale or distribution.

Avon was concentrating hard on his monitors and making handwritten notes when Jenna returned to the bunker escorted by Hagan, ex-legionnaire, now chief of the Sardoan security forces.
        "Any news of Margit?" asked Vila with evident anxiety.
        "Holding her own and well hidden," said Jenna, pulling off her thick jacket. Night was falling and so was the temperature. It had been arranged that Sardos's artificial weather was going to take a turn for the worse, fog would soon begin to drift over the landing strip.
        "Have they finished unloading their hardware?" she asked Avon, leaning over his shoulder to look at the screen.
        "Twelve small reconnaissance flyers and five laser cannons, plus a lot of small stuff which looks like `pacification' gear to me. I think that's the lot, there hasn't been much activity for some time, apart from setting up their camp."
        Jenna slid into a vacant place and concentrated on the screen before her, switching from one detector to another.
        "Look at that," she said, after several minutes. "They've laid out UV landing lights, invisible to the naked eye. They must be starting night-time operations -- and see that double cabin unit, the two-storey affair? That's the control tower."
        "Blacked out, nobody inside that I can see. One-way glass, perhaps," said Avon. "Try the infra-red scanner."
        "Aha! Three people inside," Vila exclaimed. "Looks as if they're sat at consoles."
        "Camp's been blacked out," Jenna reported after an interval. "Ah! All four spacecraft are lifting off."
        "Damn!" said Avon explosively. "If they all go back into orbit one of them might spot Bayban, not to mention making it harder for us to get at them."
        "No, they're keeping close to the ground," said Jenna, "heading north-east towards the city."
        "The flagship's peeling off," Vila commented. "Yes... It's landing on the bluff... Hey, that's right beside one of your detectors -- hope they don't notice it."
        "It's a good place to protect the camp from," said Avon. "What about the transports?"
        "They're putting down on the city outskirts." Jenna turned to Hagan. "Where is that?" she asked.
        "It's very close to the clinic your comrade is in," he answered. "Quite a good spot for concealment, lots of trees."
        Avon stood up. "I'm going out," he announced decisively. Jenna turned round with a slight frown, more of anxiety than disapproval.
        "I want to `acquire' one of those flyers for our own use. Hagan, get me ten men, the best you can find."
        "You're thinking of impersonating a command unit, I suppose," said Jenna. "What then?"
        "Split them into small groups whenever the opportunity offers and zap them with Pylene. We can improvise some sort of spray."
        "We'll have to think what we can do with them afterwards," said Jenna uneasily. "Prisoners, I mean."
        "I've got my own ideas about that," said Avon darkly.
        He donned a heavy parka and pulled the fur-lined hood over his head. Jenna felt an odd pang as she watched him go, dressed exactly as on some sortie from the Liberator. It almost seemed as if Blake would materialise saying "Well, come on, what are you waiting for?" To cover up her sudden emotion, she went to the door.
        "Need a coffee," she said, clearing her throat. "What about you, Vila?"
        "What? Oh, fine... Yes please."

"Gambit," said Vila in his most coaxing voice, "could you imitate Servalan's voice and mannerisms?"
        "Yes, it is well within the parameters of my voice synthesizer. I have been listening to her speech patterns, she has an autocratic manner which lends itself to imitation quite well." Gambit sounded rather smug.
        "Mmm... Why don't we arrange a little test when Jenna returns? Let's see if we can fool her." Vila smiled broadly at the thought of giving Jenna quite a shock, but the idea had been triggered by overhearing Lara's conversation with Hokaida. Maybe they could devise something useful for Servalan's staff to do with her unwitting help. He sobered up as the thought struck him that they must bend all their efforts toward eliminating Servalan as fast as possible, then her cohorts could be dealt with piecemeal. The idea made him feel rather uncomfortable; although she terrified him, he couldn't help a sneaking admiration for her whole-hearted pursuit of power. He rather suspected Avon of harbouring similar feelings. Jenna, on the other hand, would feel no such compunction -- yes, let Jenna do the dirty deed.

    "Well, well - Jenna Stannis. What a pleasure to see you again, and how well I recall our last meeting. What a pity about poor Gola. You so nearly made a brilliant marriage there. Now you're a working girl again, just like me."
"Hell's bells! You gave me a fright, Vila." Jenna sat down abruptly and drained her coffee while she thought about it.
        Vila suppressed a snigger as he bent down to retrieve the coffee carton she had hurled in his direction. It had burst messily all over the wall.
        "Look, we can do all sorts of things with this. From what Lara was saying to the other guy, only two senior officers have protection against Pylene besides Servalan. Deal with them and you've got her."
        "I need to talk to Lara, we must get her out of there. Gambit, can you find the right frequency to contact the Section Leaders without the senior officers overhearing?"
        "It will take a few minutes to make sure."
    "Section Leader Carrez, find Vice President Gambovska and escort her to the door. She is to contact the Assembly with our proposals. When she returns, pass her in again with her companions and send them straight to my office."
    "At once, Commissioner."
"I hoped you were listening to everything," said Lara, with a relieved smile, "but I had a nasty moment when Carrez arrived and hauled me out of the caretaker's room."
        "We want three or four of the fitter members of the Assembly, people with strong nerves," said Jenna. "I shall be with you as well."
        "What about Chevron?" Lara knew now who Chevron was, and they must realise that from monitoring her interview with Servalan.
        "He's organising the `pacification' of the nearest squad of troopers," said Jenna. "Besides, we can't risk it, his face is too well-known. I hope they don't remember mine."
        Lara looked critically at Jenna's features. "Pin your hair up like this," she said confidently. "We'll get the hairdresser to spray a darker colour over it. Most men are very unobservant about these matters. What about weapons? We have to get them past the door."
        "They will expect an official delegation to carry computer cases, recorders and such-like. If things go right, we'll be able to use theirs as well."
        "What about returning with our own escort of Federation troopers?" Lara's face lit up with eagerness. "We have the Fifth Legion uniforms, including helmets and face masks. They won't search us at the door, and the escort can carry weapons openly."
        "It will be easier to give them orders too. We don't know which troopers are Pylened, some of them might be alcoholics who never touch anything but liquor. Send someone for the uniforms immediately."
        Jenna's eyes had that reckless sparkle Vila had seen before. It always made him nervous. They might be so near to a major victory; he himself had laid the gunpowder trail to Servalan's door and those two were about to touch it off. Please don't let it blow up in our faces, he prayed silently.

        Wispy trails of fog drifted across the airfield, blurring buildings and flyers but not altogether hiding them. Some dim lights illuminated the fog, clarifying nothing. Avon heard the whine of a flyer preparing to lift off as he crouched in the shadow of a sheeted supply dump listening to the chatter of air traffic control in his earpiece.
        "That leaves only two," he said to Hagan in a low voice, as the flyer passed over their heads. "When the next one goes, we move in."
        Always pick off the last bird in the flock, said the old hunter's maxim, it doesn't alarm the others. Hagan, dressed in his old uniform would walk over to the remaining craft and present its pilot with sealed orders from the Commissioner which would keep it there until an extra passenger arrived. Surveillance had become lax as the troopers were more and more convinced that Grose's men had fled the district, and Sardoan compliance was assured. The traffic controllers in their warm tower would notice nothing if interlopers walked quietly and purposefully outside, only an obviously unusual pattern of behaviour would attract their attention.
        Another engine whined into life. Avon was thankful, he was getting chilled and stiff crouching here. "Off you go," he said to Hagan as the departing flyer began to rise. The man nodded, rose without haste, passed round the back of the supply dump and walked across the concrete to the remaining flyer with that authentic military step that Avon himself could never hope to duplicate. Avon watched him reach up and tap on the pilot's door. As it opened he handed up the forged orders and spoke briefly to the pilot. There was a pause, then about a dozen troopers jumped down and set off towards their camp.
        "What's the delay?" crackled Traffic Control in his ear. The inaudible reply presumably reported the change of orders. Avon stood up and walked towards the flyer, carrying the medical laser equipment.
        "Here's your man now," Control added. "Get moving as fast as you can."
        Avon reached the aircraft and climbed into a rear seat as Hagan settled into the front passenger position. The engine started.
        "Where to?" said the pilot.
        "Our first call is at this location, here," said Hagan, pointing to his chart. "These are the references."
        "What's that stuff your friend has with him?" the pilot asked as they rose.
        "It's experimental and secret," said Avon forbiddingly.
        The pilot subsided with a muttered remark. He brought the flyer round to the correct heading and they flew on into the darkness.

Vila watched the preparations of the delegation to Servalan with misgiving. Lara was drawing a floor plan of the building and marking the sentry points for Jenna. Sidearms were being concealed in recorders, even knives were being slipped into sleeves. One of the security men, an ex-legionnaire named Reymon, entered with an armful of uniforms.
        "They're a bit shabby," he observed, "But they cleaned up quite well. I think they'll pass muster."
        Jenna sorted through them assessing which were the best. To Vila's horror, she tossed one at him. "Try this for size."
        "What, me?!" he blurted. "Who's going to see to things here?" But she only laughed and said that would be taken care of.
        "It's not the first time you've worn one, by all accounts," she added tartly.
        Vila muttered a rude rejoinder under his breath as he struggled into the black overalls. He was somewhat cheered to see the legionnaire re-enter with helmets and blasters. Although in his experience, carrying arms nearly always led to being shot at, it was still reassuring to have a trigger under his finger. He tried on a helmet and face mask which was as claustrophobic as he expected, then he selected a blaster and tried to adopt a military stance.
        An unwelcome thought struck him. "How will you tell me from the enemy? And how do I identify you? There's nothing sillier than getting shot up by your own allies."
        "We'll put a mark on the blasters," said his colleague as he pulled on his uniform. "Anyway, keep close to me and do as I tell you."
        "Well, is everyone ready?" Jenna picked up a case and looked round. The councillors nodded gravely. "Come on, then," she said and gestured to Lara to lead the way."
        "Have you told Avon what we're up to?" Vila muttered to Jenna as he passed by.
        "Certainly not," she answered, "he has enought to do. Let it come as a surprise."
        "It'll be a surprise all right, if we're all killed," he said under his breath.

"We're here," said the pilot, bringing the flyer to a hover. "I don't see anything or anyone."
        "Good," said Avon deliberately. "We don't want anyone to see us, either. Don't show any lights, switch on your night vision and find us a place to land. Quietly.
        The landing was smooth and quiet. As the pilot shut off the engine, Hagan opened his door and listened for a while. Silence. No other flyers were in the vicinity and the night scanners revealed no living creature larger than a small mammal.
        From the rear seat Avon spoke softly to the pilot. "Have you had your anti-Pylene shot?"
        "What's that? No, I suppose I haven't."
        "Well you'd better have it now." Avon touched the medical laser to the back of the man's neck and pressed the trigger. "There, did that hurt?"
        "Oh no, sir. Thank you very much."
        "Very good. Now, as you must have realised, we are on an undercover mission. It is essential that you obey orders absolutely and keep completely quiet. Whatever you see and hear, you tell no-one unless I give you permission. Understand?"
        "Absolutely, sir. You can rely on me."
        Avon climbed out of the vehicle and joined Hagan in the damp mist. He fished out his communicator and switched it to the bunker's frequency.
        "Chevron to Base, Phase Two completed," he reported.
        An unfamiliar voice answered. "Base to Chevron, acknowledged. Proceed to Phase Three."
        Avon frowned. "Is Astra there? Or any of the others?"
        "They've all gone with the delegation to Commissioner Sleer."
        "I see. Well notify them when they contact you." Avon forbore to ask further questions.
        "Of course, sir. Good luck."
        Flipping frequencies, he spoke again. "Orac, did you hear that?"
        "Yes, Chevron, very interesting. There has been a lot of activity in your absence." Orac and Gambit had long since been ordered to address the group by their aliases.
        "What kind of activity? Does Gambit know where they are?"
        "Warren had the notion of getting Gambit to imitate the Commissioner's voice, and Astra issued an order to the guards to send Madam Gambovska out of the Assembly Building. They have concocted a plan to go in again with several companions under the pretext of being an official delegation, and seize control."
        "Damn! They're likely to get themselves killed! Are they inside the building?"
        "Yes. Gambit is jamming all the internal communications so that Servalan cannot call for reinforcements."
        This was a highly risky development, thought Avon. He could see their reasons for taking the opportunity as it arose, but it was alarmingly reckless. He stood considering for some minutes, then spoke into the communicator again. "I don't see that we can be of any help over there, so we'll continue with our original plan. Contact me as soon as you have some news."
        "Very well."

Jenna was aware of a violently thumping heart as the little procession made its way up the misty boulevard towards the Assembly Hall. She knew that it was not so much the risk they were taking, she was accustomed to risk, as the enormity of what they proposed to do that played on her nerves. The consequence of failure was certain death, but the consequences of success were almost beyond imagining. She had penetrated various Federation enclaves before this, for various reasons, but never with the sole purpose of killing one person. It gave her a strange feeling. She looked sideways at Lara. There was an eager spring in her step. Blow me, if the woman's not looking forward to it, thought Jenna. She may change her mind when she sees the business end of a blaster. She heard the procession break step -- they had arrived.
        Reymon saluted the sentry at the door. "A Sardoan delegation to meet the Commissioner, as arranged."
        "I'll check with the Major," said the sentry, but his attitude was scarcely concerned, there was none of the usual military alertness in his bearing.
        "No need for that." Reymon's tone was sharply authoritative. "Pass them in and look sharp about it."
        "Sir!!" The sentry positively clicked his heels as he came to attention.
        Reymon swept into the vestibule with the delegation at his heels. Once inside, Lara assumed the lead, directing them up the broad staircase to the President's office on the first floor. As she climbed the steps, Jenna fumbled inside the recording case she was carrying for the hidden weapon. For a very unpleasant moment it slipped away from her and she had to chance a downwards glance, praying that the guard at the top of the stairs didn't notice as she retrieved it.
        As they passed him, Vila, bringing up the rear said "Come with us, the Major wants you." The man fell in beside him. Peeling off from the main party, Jenna opened the second door on the right, which she knew to be a cloakroom, and went in with Vila and the guard following.
        "Why would the Major..." the guard began. He was cut off as Vila brought his blaster down on his head. Fortunately, as was the usual practice, he had not been wearing his helmet on indoor duty. Jenna produced some cord and swiftly tied his hands and feet, then with Vila's help, dragged him into the adjoining toilet and locked the door on him. Then they hastened to join the others, waiting along the corridor.
        Rounding the next corner, they saw as expected, a trooper guarding the double doors of the President's office.
        "What is it?" asked the guard in a low voice, as Reymon advanced upon him.
        Equally softly, he replied, "The intercom is out of order so I am detailed to ask the Commissioner if she will receive this native delegation."
        "Go ahead."
        Reymon knocked on the door, as Jenna held her breath. That familiar voice answered. "Enter."
        He opened the door and stood on the threshold, as if hesitating slightly.
        "Well, what is it?"
        "Commissioner, we think your communicator is out of action. I have a message for you."
        "One moment." Servalan pressed her button. After a pause she nodded agreement, Gambit was successfully jamming all frequencies in the area. While she was thus occupied, Reymon put his left hand behind his back and gave a clenched fist signal to show that the Major was also in the room, at the secretary's console beside the rear window.
        "I trust the fault will be repaired with all haste. Deliver your message."
        "Yes, ma'am." Hearing a faint sound from the corridor as Jenna and Vila dealt with the sentry, Reymon hastened into speech to cover any other noises.
        "The Vice President Gambovska is here with several council members. They say they want to negotiate an agreement to join the Federation. They've brought documents and secretaries with them so it looks as if they're willing to do it on the spot."
        "Well, well." Servalan smiled vividly, things seldom fell into her lap as easily as this. "Show Madam Gambovska in."
        Lara, assuming her previous timid posture, hastened into the room.
        "And when did you confer with your colleagues? I thought you were confined to this building."
        "True, Commissioner. What I did was send messages to them before I came here, recommending them to waste no time in getting together and coming to an agreement with the Federation. I have just met them in the hallway."
        "Oh, very efficient." Servalan resumed her charming manner. "I congratulate you. Bring in your friends and let us get down to business. Major, come over and join us."
        Jenna felt remarkably cool as she followed the delegation through the door, two successful actions had steadied her, possibly Vila too. Servalan appeared to be unarmed, but the Major's hand hovered close to his holster as he scanned each visitor. It was clearly up to Reymon to get the drop on him. Servalan instantly provided the opportunity.
        "Well, ladies and gentlemen, please be seated. Guard, dismiss."
        Reymon saluted, wheeled smartly and shot the Major dead.
        In the confusion that followed, Servalan dived for her desk, reaching for a weapon. Vila fired an undecided shot somewhere between her hand and the desk. Undeterred, she was lifting the blaster when Jenna stepped from behind the group and fired. Servalan reeled against the wall. As she slid down it, her brow furrowed with concentration -- there was something faintly familiar... She never completed the thought.
        Reymon stepped through the ensuing silence, bent down and administered the coup de grace.
        Vila shuddered. Looking down at the onetime Supreme Commander's puzzled face he felt a mixture of disbelief and horror. How did things come to this?
        Jenna took his arm and shook him. "Help Reymon move the bodies and give me Gambit's communicator. Come on, Vila, move!"

        "Someone's coming," said Hagan, pointing to the night scanner.
        "Is he alone?"
        "It's probably our man, but let's not take any chances. Get out and hide behind the flyer until he reaches the door, then come up behind him."
        Hagan slipped out and was lost in the darkness. Several minutes passed in silence. Whoever it was, he was remarkably quiet across the stony ground. When he was within ten metres, Avon killed the night scanner so that its green glow would not illuminate their faces. A few moments later there was a faint scratching on the canopy.
        Avon opened his door slightly. "Identify yourself," he said.
        "Loman, security service. The password is `multiplicity'."
        "Get in. You too, Hagan." Avon moved across his seat to make room. "Is the equipment prepared?"
        "Yes. We have to do the modifications to the flyer in a safe place. There are some caverns nearby. Switch on the night scanner and I will guide you in."
        "Let's go."
        Loman slid into the navigator's seat. "Come round about twenty degrees and make for that escarpment over there," he instructed the pilot.
        Two minutes later they were nosing into the cavern entrance. The scanner revealed the shapes of people standing by the walls with containers. Everything was ready.
        As he followed the others out of the flyer, Avon tapped Hagan on the shoulder. "I want you and Loman to interrogate the pilot thoroughly -- plans, passwords, communication timetables. If he's due to call in to base, have him do so."
        Hagan nodded and spoke to Loman and the pilot, who followed him to the back of the cavern. A curtain was being lowered across the cave mouth, in preparation for turning on the lighting. Avon ducked underneath and walked outside.
        "Orac, what news?"
        "Some success, by the sound of it. Gambit has just faked an order from Servalan to call off the search for Margit, saying the body has been discovered. Units have been ordered back to the camp for rest."
        "Promising. Now try and connect me with Jenna." The dank vapour chilled him to the bone and he pulled up his hood. Nonetheless, he was grateful for the fog and the still-falling temperature, it would encourage the invaders to seek shelter and warmth in their camp instead of dispersing to seek their enemy or even better cover.
        Orac interrupted his thoughts. "Vila wishes to speak to you, I am relaying his signal."
        "Well Vila, where are you?"
        "In Servalan's office."
        "And where is she?"
        "Lying on a table in the waiting room, wrapped in a rather splendid velvet curtain."
        How strange that the news he had so desired struck him like a lance. He was silent for so long that Vila came through again, demanding to know if he was still there.
        At last, he spoke into the communicator. "Is she dead, Vila?"
        "Are you absolutely certain of that?"
        "Jenna and Reymon made quite sure. Her adjutant is lying at her feet like a faithful hound -- no velvet for him, though." Vila's flippancy probably masked his revulsion. He at least was genuine in his hatred of violence.
        "Get Jenna, I need to speak to her." While he waited he sat back to think. Many possibilities had opened up; with Jenna and Gambit impersonating Servalan all sorts of things were possible.
        "Avon, have you heard the news?" Jenna's voice, tense and excited.
        "Yes, and I suppose I must congratulate you. I hardly anticipated this when I left. Apparently Vila has been using his brains, remarkable isn't it?"
        "How are your plans proceeding?"
        "On schedule. They estimate the spraying equipment and tanks will be installed in a couple of hours. How long till dawn, do you know?"
        There was a consultation. "Lara says about five hours. It looks as though you should surprise them in their beds. I don't think they're feeling any urgency, especially since they've been told that the Sardoans have signed a treaty and promised to help them to mop up the Fifth Legion."
        "Good. Now I want you to issue some more orders."

    "Control Tower, Control Tower... Come on, answer me! This is Commissioner Sleer."
    "Yes ma'am - er - sorry for the delay."
    "Contact all ships and flyers, tell them that Avon's spacecraft has been captured and we shall be using it to deceive the renegades. Federation ships are not to interfere with it in any way. Have every commander call back and confirm that he understands the order. Notify me when they have all done so. Understood?"
    "Yes Commissioner, at once."
Back inside the cavern Avon beckoned to Hagan. Someone was dispensing hot drinks and snacks, they helped themselves and retired to a quiet corner.
        "The field commander is a Colonel Simor. I've heard of him, routine sort of fellow, undistinguished career, wouldn't do for the Fifth at all." Hagan made no effort to disguise his contempt. "The pilot reckons that he and his staff are bedded down in comfort aboard the flagship while the poor bloody infantry are roughing it in camp. Still, it's pretty certain that they would have Pylene protection. What we don't want is them getting suspicious and alerting the cruiser. From up there it could call for reinforcements, and then the cat's out of the bag."
        "We'll have the Colonel out of his stateroom," said Avon with one of his more sinister smiles. "There has been a change of circumstances. Servalan is dead and her headquarters are under Astra's control." Briefly he informed Hagan of the latest developments.
        The man gave a low whistle of astonishment. "It's too easy. We just order him to HQ and..." He drew his finger across his throat graphically, grinning cheerfully.
        Yes, probably best to terminate the Colonel immediately, although Avon wondered whether Jenna would be callous enough to do it. Still, Reymon was quite capable of it, with a little encouragement. He wondered at the ex-Federation troopers' willingness to fight their former comrades, but supposed that contempt for anyone outside the Fifth Legion was a strong factor. The notorious Fifth would have more in common with pirates than the authorities. Hagan and Reymon were probably enjoying this campaign. He and Jenna had better show no weakness in their dealings with them, he reflected wryly.
        "Have you got all the procedures and passwords from the pilot?" he asked.
        "Yes, it's all straightforward stuff, no tricks," Hagan replied. "I take it we are going ahead with this before trying out these new ideas."
        "Naturally. Quell the troops with Pylene and the officers cannot make much trouble." Avon looked across at the busy group round the flyer. They were beginning to clear away their equipment, in a few minutes all would be ready.
        This had better work, he said to himself. If the aerosol spray doesn't make its way in through the ventilators of those tents, we shall have to think again, and pretty smartly.
        At the airfield he had looked carefully at the troopers' shelters, balloon structures of strong lightweight fabric, inflated and warmed by their own miniature power packs and reputed to be reasonably comfortable. The air intakes should suffice to introduce the drug. He turned his eyes to the pilot sitting against the cavern wall. The man had the usual dreamy look on his face and Avon wondered if he would be sufficiently alert to follow orders precisely, let alone control the flyer properly.
        Feeling restless, he got up and went out through the curtain to check the weather. He was relieved to find that the temperature had fallen considerably, causing the mist to precipitate onto every available surface as hoar frost. The air was very still, soon it would be completely clear -- ideal conditions for what he had in mind.

"Vila, has somebody turned off that Pylene dispenser and flushed out the water system yet?" Jenna leant back wearily in her chair. Midnight had come and gone, most of the excitement had drained away and it was increasingly hard to stay alert. Lara had given up the struggle and was sleeping blissfully on the couch by the window.
        "I suppose you'd like some strong coffee, huh?" Vila stretched his arms and failed to suppress a yawn. "Reymon told someone to see to it and test the water after. I'll check if it's all clear and brew up. Avon won't move off for a couple of hours yet, you know his thing about catching people at their lowest ebb."
        "Good idea. See if you can find..." She was interrupted by the intercom buzzer. Automatically she got up and went to the desk to reply, then paused.
        "You answer that, Vila," she said, frowning slightly. "If it's for Servalan, say she's gone to bed."
        Rather nervously, Vila pressed the button. "Yes?"
        "Colonel Simor here. Put me through to the Commissioner." An abrupt voice, with troubled overtones.
        "Commissioner Sleer has retired for the night, sir. Is it urgent?"
        "You'd better wake her, this could be important."
        Vila rolled an anguished eye at Jenna.
        "Say you will," she muttered.
        "Hold on sir, I'll send someone." Vila flicked the intercom off and turned to Jenna. "Now what?"
        "Wait three or four minutes then call back and tell him to come over here if it's really important -- security reasons -- you know the sort of thing. I'll arrange a reception committee." Jenna picked up her blaster and strode over to shake Lara awake. Vila wondered why she didn't use Gambit to answer in Servalan's stead. On second thoughts, it was too good an opportunity for a trap, to be passed over.
        Jenna conferred a moment with Lara who got up and left the room. Judging the time to be right, Vila switched on again.
        "Colonel Simor?"
        "Affirmative." The soldier sounded rather sour.
        "The Commissioner says, if it's really urgent come over here immediately. She won't discuss anything over the air for security reasons. If not, it can wait until morning."
        "I'm coming."
        Vila turned back to Jenna. "I wonder what's eating him?"
        "Perhaps something has made him suspicious." She picked up her communicator. "Gambit, Colonel Simor is leaving his flagship to come here. Track him and let me know who he brings with him. Notify our ground forces and monitor any signals he sends."
        "What are you going to do with him?" said Vila anxiously.
        "What do you think I'm going to do with him?" Jenna's voice was sharp. "And don't pull that face. These people came here to invade and enslave, we owe them nothing more than a quick death. I seem to remember you firing at his employer a few hours ago."
        "That was different," mumbled Vila, "she was going for a gun."
        "What do you think the Colonel will be doing? Surrendering gracefully?"
        "Yes, well, get Reymon to do it. He's almost as fast on the draw as Soolin. Got about as much compunction, too."
        "Our hero!"
        As if on cue, Reymon entered with Lara. "Right, I've got two of my own men at the door," he reported. "All the other troopers have been sent off to their dormitory in the annexe. We can't risk Simor getting a look at their dopey faces, he has the reputation of a spit and polish man." He looked Jenna hard in the eye. "What are you going to do with him?"
        "Ask him a few questions, then shoot him," said Jenna baldly.
        Reymon gave a satisfied nod of agreement.

    "Colonel Simor?"
    "Yes. Who are you?"
    "Section Leader Reymon, sir. The Commissioner sent me to meet you."
    "Where is Carrez?"
    "The Commissioner sent him off to get some sleep, sir."
    "Hmph! She isn't usually that considerate. Well, lead the way."
    "Of course. Er, we have a messroom down the hall, sir. Will your men wait for you there or do you prefer to have them stand guard outside the Commissioner's office along with her sentries?"
    "Oh, very well. You two wait down there. Now let's get on with it!"
    "Follow me, sir."
Vila stood uneasily by the door, listening for the footsteps heralding the Colonel's approach. He had a strong presentiment of danger and felt sure that Reymon's casual dismissal of the man as a spit and polish dummy was Fifth Legion arrogance and folly. It was his intention to keep the visitor unobtrusively covered at all times.
        Jenna had seated herself at the secretarial desk previously occupied by Major Borg, to play the part of Commissioner's aide. Lara had gone into the adjoining waiting room and locked the door.
        Vila felt certain that the projected plan to question the Colonel about his mission was a vain hope. The man was obviously full of suspicion and would surely demand to speak to the Commissioner face to face. He stiffened; footsteps were clearly audible.
        Reymon opened the door and announced "Colonel Simor." The Colonel pushed aggressively past him and favoured Vila with a scowl.
        "Dismiss!" he snapped.
        Reymon withdrew, but Vila stood his ground. Still scowling, the soldier turned to Jenna.
        "Fetch the Commissioner," he said curtly.
        "She will be here soon," Jenna began.
        Close behind the Colonel, Vila saw his shoulders stiffen. "Stannis!" he hissed, and moved his hand towards his belt. Vila waited no longer. Raising his blaster to the back of the soldier's head, he fired.
        "Vila!" yelled Jenna, "we were going to question him."
        "Listen, he recognised you," shouted Vila indignantly. "he said `Stannis'. I heard him. And I saw him going for his gun."
        Two doors opened simultaneously as Reymon and Lara charged into the room, weapons levelled. Reymon knelt and checked the corpse. "Dead," he reported.
        "That idiot shot him before I had a chance to ask any questions," said Jenna, tight-lipped with anger.
        "How many times do I have to say it? He recognised you. He was about to shoot you down." Vila sounded injured. "How about a little gratitude for saving your life. Anyhow, you'll have to get your information from someone else."
        Jenna remained stiffly unconvinced but Lara patted him on the arm. "Well done," she said. "We can't expect everything to go perfectly smoothly and I'm sure we can get it elsewhere."
        Well, thought Vila, somewhat mollified, somebody appreciates me. I'm not surprised Avon likes her company. I don't suppose he'll make a fuss about the Colonel, either, that sort of thing has happened often enough in the past with Tarrant and Soolin around.
        "You can dispose of the corpse," added Jenna, ungraciously.
        "Thank you very much. I was looking forward to that," returned Vila, tartly.
        Reymon stepped between them. "I'll give you a hand," he said.

[The small hours]
        "Time to go," said Orac's voice in Avon's earpiece. "Gambit reports no movement from the camp apart from the sentries. The temperature is minus two degrees and the air is still and clear."
        "Acknowledged." Avon spoke softly into his wrist unit. He stood up and signalled to Hagan, who shook the pilot awake. The ripple of activity spread to the Sardoans, lights were dimmed, two scouts slipped out through the curtain and the scanners were switched on.
        As Avon settled into his rear seat, he checked the newly installed detectors and controls. Theoretically, he knew he should be able to do anything in front of the pilot without arousing suspicion, and order him to perform any action with instant obedience, yet he felt instinctively that the less the man knew about what was really afoot, the better.
        The team leader was giving him the thumbs up sign. The lights went out and the curtain was drawn aside.
        "Back to camp," he told the pilot.
        Soon after takeoff he gave the pilot some more instructions.
        "Control Tower, RX9 calling Control."
        "Receiving you, RX9." The voice sounded sleepy.
        "On our way back. ETA about fifteen minutes."
        "OK, switching on landing lights." No hint of suspicion there.
        Soon the lighted landing strip came into view on the scanner. Avon leaned forward. "It is vital you follow instructions precisely," he said in the pilot's ear. "Circle round and approach the strip from directly over the camp."
        Watching his scanner, he saw that the camp was spread over quite a wide area. More than one pass would be necessary, but he had planned for this contingency. They were nearly over the camp -- he hit the spray release and followed it's descent on his detectors. As they completed the pass, he gave the prepared command: "Instrument trouble."
        The pilot nodded and spoke to the control tower. "We've got some instrument malfunction, I'm going round for another try."
        "Standing by," came the answer. "Good Luck."
        The flyer turned and passed up the western side of the camp while Avon released another cloud of gas, then back along the eastern side and straight over the control tower.
        "Now land," said Avon.
        When they were safely parked, he turned to the pilot. "You are dismissed to your quarters. Don't talk to anyone about where you've been."
        "Yes sir." The man climbed out and made his way into camp. As his figure dwindled, his gait appeared to become slightly unsteady. There had been sono vapour mixed with the Pylene spray. Soon the entire camp would be sleeping very soundly.
        Twenty minutes drifted by as they sat in the darkness. Finally Avon stirred. "That should be long enough," he remarked, "send the signal."
        A moment later there was a reply from the bunker. "Contact."
        "Can any of your scanners see into the control tower?" he asked.
        "One moment -- yes, three people inside, no movement. Good news, eh?"
        "Is Gambit jamming all their frequencies?"
        "Yes. Shall I give the signal to start checking the tents?"
        "Go ahead." Avon turned his head towards Hagan. "If this has worked, all we have to worry about are the people on the flagship, the cruiser and the transports."
        "There are the other reconnaissance flyers as well," Hagan reminded him.
        "Let them carry on. When we've got our own men in the control tower, we can call them back one by one."
        The night scanner screen was now registering figures slipping between the tents, opening the doors; Hagan's picked men, wearing respirators and carrying gas detectors. Eventually they gathered into a knot to confer, then one man detached and walked over to the solitary flyer. Avon searched for his respirator, put it on and opened the door.
        "All's well," the Sardoan reported.
        "Good." Avon spoke into his wrist unit again. "Bunker, Phase Three complete, start Phase Four."
        "Confirmed." The voice was remote, Zen-like.
        Turning back to the Sardoan, he instructed him to replace the sentries with his own men. Hardly had they moved to their new posts when a voice crackled over the flyer's intercom.
        "Officer of the Watch, what's going on out there? Why are all those men moving about." Someone on the flagship had been watching his night scanner.
        Hagan took the initiative. "Verdene thought he saw movement, sir, so we searched the camp. Not a sign of anything unusual, but we'll keep our eyes peeled."
        "Fine, so will I. I don't know your voice, who are you? Where's Enrikesh?"
        "He was called away, sir. I'm a replacement. Hagan's the name."
        "Who called him away?" The man was vaguely suspicious.
        "Colonel Simor, I think, when he went over to Ground HQ, sir."
        "Very well. Don't let your vigilance drop. It's just too quiet, they're planning something. I don't believe this meek surrender."
        Oh well, thought Avon, somebody had to give us trouble, sometime. Aloud he said to Hagan, "I think we'll have to reassure him. A communication from Ground HQ ought to do it." He watched the smile he did not permit on his own face flit across Hagan's. "I'm going back to the bunker to arrange the next move. You take charge here."

Go to next chapter

© Copyright Vega (Frances Teagle), 1999.
This story may be printed for individual use, but must not be stored as a computer file or reproduced for sale or distribution.

Avon entered the bunker to find Brig at the main console. His presence was reassuring, evidently Margit's situation was no longer critical.
        "Well, how is she?" he queried as he pulled off his damp parka.
        "Coming along." Brig was brief, as always.
        "Good, and I'm glad to see you back here. We need all the help we can get."
        "You'd better bring me up-to-date with your activities," said Brig. "Sit down and I'll get you a drink."
        The drink proved to be one of the better Sardoan wines, doubtless procured by Vila. As they swallowed it, Avon reviewed his activities for Brig's benefit.
        "I should think we need to get the cruiser to land," observed Brig as he concluded, "then we can jam all its signals and Orac can take control of all its systems once it's inside the energy barrier. And then Servalan's expedition will have vanished without trace. Think what the Federation might make of that. Mikhail could set the rumours flying and by all accounts the High Council's getting pretty paranoid about disloyalty, graft and suchlike." His dark eyes glinted with amusement as he contemplated the scenario.
        Avon gave a small smile of appreciation. "Gambit," he said, "I want you to interrogate each Federation vessel's computers for a list of all personnel, their rank and their duties. Give me a hard copy." He reached for the communicator. "Jenna, are you receiving me?"
        After a short pause, she replied, "Go ahead,"

Avon mounted the steps of the Assembly Hall and approached the two sentries.
        "I've come to see the Commissioner," he announced curtly.
        "It's OK, Chevron," one answered, "we're Reymon's squad. Brig said you were on your way. You want the office upstairs with the sentry outside."
        Avon nodded his acknowledgement and went into the warm interior, pausing to take a leisurely look at his surroundings. Taking in the finely proportioned doorways and the complex ornamentation, he reflected that even the small Sardoan population had gone to considerable lengths to construct an imposing seat of government. The wide marble staircase was really rather magnificent. He climbed it slowly, appreciatively.
        Yes, there was the sentry at the far end of the corridor. He, too, was expecting Avon and waved him into the president's office. Avon opened the door silently and stood on the threshold surveying the room. The presidential desk before him was unoccupied; away to the right, Jenna and Vila were poring over a row of consoles; to his left, Lara slept peacefully on a couch beside the large windows, with their splendid heavy curtains. Ah, the end curtain was missing; he turned back to his right, there was an unobtrusive door near the console table - the late Commissioner would probably be in there.
        Vila noticed his presence and touched Jenna's arm. She swivelled her chair to look at him, following his gaze to the door.
        "Yes," she said in a low voice, "in there. Go and see."
        He walked over to the door and opened it. A sort of waiting room lay before him, with seating around the walls and another door leading to the corridor. On the table lay a swathed figure, on the floor beside it lay two others, covered with plain sheets.
        He twitched the velvet shroud aside and gazed down at the uncovered face. Servalan - Supreme Commander, President, Commissioner - the pallid, set face bore the unmistakable mark of death, that implacable spirit utterly gone.
        Well, Cally, he mused, you are avenged at last, even if not by me. You, and how many others? He stood in silent recollection until the other door opened and Reymon came in.
        "They said you wouldn't be satisfied until you had seen the corpse for yourself," he remarked, evidently pleased with himself.
        "Oh yes, I'm satisfied," returned Avon, replacing the shroud. "Which is the Colonel?" He looked down at the pair on the floor.
        Reymon uncovered one of the sheeted figures and Avon bent over it.
        "Good, his uniform isn't damaged. Find someone similar, use makeup and a wig if you have to, the Colonel is going back to his flagship."
        "Yes sir."
        "And now I recommend we dispose of the remains, promptly."
        "Arrangements have been made," came the answer. "We'll take them out the back door."
        He turned and left with a jaunty step, a Fifth Legionnaire to the backbone. Avon, too, felt his spirits rise. With Servalan died their most dedicated pursuer. Few of her colleagues shared her conviction that any of Liberator's crew had survived, and if her expedition was successfully tidied away without trace, quite a few people would heave a sigh relief at her disappearance, not least some of her superiors.
        He returned to the presidential office and drew up a chair beside Jenna and Vila. Lara had woken, she rose and came over to join them.
        "That's a very good job done," he said.
        "Yes..." Jenna's tone was thoughtful rather than self-congratulatory. "I want to direct Federation attention away from here when the hunt begins. Planting rumours in another sector seems to be the simplest way, but I'm thinking of backing it up by abandoning one of the transporters where they can find it, suitably damaged of course."
        "Agreed, but we shall have to be careful with the location."
        "I know. I was thinking of getting Carnell's advice about that."
        "He'll be glad to know that Servalan isn't tracking him any more. We have several months to work up a convincing scenario, there's no hurry. Meanwhile, we have the flagship to deal with. I have a plan but we must hurry, dawn isn't far away."
        "Dawn is as far away as you want," interpolated Lara triumphantly. "We just change the program."
        "Another three hours ought to do nicely."
        With a flashing smile, Lara turned and left the room.
        "I do believe she's enjoying all this," commented Jenna.
        "Probably," said Avon.

"Well?" Lara asked Hokaida, as they met outside the mess hall.
        "Yes, very," he replied. "No Pylene protection whatever. They drank their coffee like good little troopers and now they're ready for interrogation."
        "Here goes." She straightened her back and strode into the mess hall. "Attention!!" she snapped. "I am the Commissioner's intelligence officer and I have some questions for you."
        The two lounging bodyguards leapt to a rigid salute. "Yes, ma'am," they chorused.
        "At ease. We'll begin with a list of all the officers and other ranks aboard the flagship. Write it down."
        I could get to enjoy this, mused Lara, as the troopers applied themselves to their task.

    "Ah, Hagan, back from your expedition, eh? Come in here and have a drink and let's compare notes."
    "My pleasure. Anything to eat as well?
    "Bound to be, the Feds have left boxes of rations all over the place."
    "It's not so long since we were Feds, Reymon. Do you ever think of that?"
    "I'm thinking about that right now. Here, try this."
    "Thanks. What have you been thinking?"
    "Don't you wonder about these people? Astra, Chevron, Warren? Aliases, every one. I heard Astra shout `Vila' at Warren. Doesn't that name mean anything to you?"
    "Should it?"
    "Vila Restal, Kerr Avon, Soolin?"
    "Oh, Blake's crew. How do you know?"
    "I've interrogated several of the troopers and they gave very good descriptions. The Commissioner was searching for them, so all her followers had their details."
    "Hmm, I remember hearing about them. If it is them, they're pretty dangerous and the way they've just dealt with the invasion proves it."
    "May I remind you that there's a huge price on their heads. Perhaps we could buy our way back into the Federation with this information. We have transport now, we don't have to stay on this lump of rock any more."
    "Don't even think it, Reymon. These people are every bit as ruthless as their reputation says they are and if they get wind of such ideas they'll snuff you out without a moment's hesitation. Anyway, what do you care if they plot against the Federation? They haven't done it much harm yet."
    "I've been watching them at work - lies and tricks and ambushes. Sardos is part of their strategy, the production line for weapons, ships and surveillance equipment. I think they might bring down the Federation by stealth, and then what? Democracy? Self-determination for all? Don't make me laugh."
    "Listen, we want to be on the winning side, so we'd better watch and wait to see who that's going to be. And you had better keep your head down and get on with your job."
    "So you're quite happy to stand by and let them do it?"
    "Use your brains. There's no place for us in the Federation now. We're renegades or written off as dead. We'd have too much explaining to do. They would just interrogate us and then execute us. They'll never trust us and we don't have any powerful friends to protect us, whereas we do have quite a good position here."
    "Perhaps... Actually, you can't help admiring them in some ways, particularly Astra. And even Warren isn't quite the coward he pretends to be. He's not exactly a good shot but he finished off the Colonel all right. How do you find working with Chevron?"
    "Oh, very instructive - cunning as they come. And he's got enormous technical knowledge. I'm not surprised the Commissioner wanted him so badly. Is that your bleeper?"
    "Yes. We're about to go after the flagship... Reymon speaking."

"I'm going to leave the capture of the flagship to you. The Colonel left with two troopers and he must return likewise to avoid suspicion." Avon surveyed the false Simor critically and decided he would pass, in the dark, anyway.
        "This is the throat mike for the voice synthesizer," he continued. "Put it on and say a few words."
        The actor took the button-sized microphone transmitter and applied it to his neck just below the collar.
        "Officer of the Watch!" he snapped. "Open the main hatch."
        Reymon and Hagan exchanged glances, "That's very good," said Reymon, "that should fool them."
        "All you need to do is get inside and pretend to go to your quarters. Now, are you quite certain you can find your way to the air filter plant?"
        They nodded.
        "Be sure to put your respirators on before you feed the gas into the system, this a very concentrated, quick-acting form of sono, so take no chances. Hagan, run through your next action."
        "We wait fifteen minutes, then check that everyone's asleep," recited Hagan. "Then we open the hatch. You will see it on your scanner and come in to help remove the prisoners to the security compound. If anyone's awake, we zap them with the stun gun."
        After all, thought Avon, once they get inside, it's ludicrously simple, provided they don't arouse anybody's suspicions. Aloud, he added, "We will be jamming all frequencies so that they can't call for help from the cruiser or the transporter crews. Let's get on with it."
        All three drew themselves up and squared their shoulders as if bracing for action. Avon handed `the Colonel' the briefcase containing the gas cylinder and respirators and watched them climb aboard the Colonel's flyer, then he followed and slid into the pilot's seat. With a quiet whine, the flyer rose and turned to the west.

    "Flagship, this is Ground HQ. Colonel Simor is on his way back to you. E T A about five minutes. Acknowledge."
    "Flagship here, message received."
"Are they inside?" said Vila's voice in Avon's earpiece.
        "Yes," Avon responded impatiently. "I'll let you know when anything happens. Meanwhile you can continue monitoring the cruiser. Pay attention!"
        All the same, sitting alone in the darkened flyer waiting for others to carry out his instructions was nerve-racking. There were fourteen crew and guards aboard and if Hagan was spotted where he shouldn't be, there was little that could be done about it.
        Half an hour ticked by, then abruptly the main hatch opened, flooding a narrow strip of grass with light. A silhouette in the doorway waved. Starting the motor, he sledged the flyer on its runners over to the entrance, no point in carrying the drugged bodies any further than necessary. This close he could see that it was Reymon at the hatch, helmet in hand, weapons holstered, evidently confident that all was secure.
        "We've pumped the vapour out and the detectors say it's clear," he announced. "Hagan and Ross are giving them their shots."
        Each prisoner would be injected with enough anaesthetic to keep him unconscious for several hours, plus a dose of Pylene. The senior officers were probably protected, but it would soon become apparent who was not. Now it was just a matter of loading them into the flyer and transporting them to the compound. He reached for his communicator.
        "Vila, tell the others, mission accomplished. Then you can contact Orac and order the scoutship to land on the strip near the Assembly Hall."
        "Right. Congratulations, and all that."
        Avon entered the flagship and looked around. Two bodies lay on the deck, peacefully asleep. As he surveyed them, Hagan and Ross entered carrying another sleeper.
        "Well done," he said, letting his satisfaction show. "Reymon, you and I will carry them into the flyer."
        All that weight training was standing him in good stead, he reflected, as he bent over the first body.

    "Cruiser One, Commissioner Sleer calling Cruiser One."
    "Receiving you, ma'am. Captain Sholto here."
    "Anything to report, Captain?
    "Yes, ma'am, a Hunter Class scoutship of outer planets' manufacture was recently observed descending from orbit. It probably landed near you. We did not interfere with it, as per your orders."
    "Correct, Captain, it is now under our control. We have secured the capital and the Sardoan government has signed a treaty with the Federation."
    "This is excellent news. Congratulations, Ma'am. Have you any further orders?"
    "Maintain your position and observe communications silence unless you have something to report. We believe that the renegades have no other spacecraft, but keep watch and destroy anything that tries to leave without clearance."
Jenna pushed her chair away from the control panel and put down the synthesizer microphone.
        "Well, that's that," she said wearily as she got to her feet. "We can get some rest now. Hokaida, are your people ready to take over?"
        "Yes, everyone's in place." He smiled fondly at her. "We'll be sure to call you if anything comes up. Sleep as long as you can."
        Hear, Hear, thought Vila, my eyes are just about dropping out. He followed Jenna and Hokaida to the door.
        "What about you?" he asked as he passed Avon.
        "In a moment."
        As their footsteps receded, he checked the instruments once more.
        "Satisfied?" asked Lara's voice.
        "So far, so good," he replied.
        When he turned to her, he saw that she was surveying him with a very deliberate appraisal; arms folded, head cocked to one side and a faintly amused expression.
        "Well?" he asked.
        "Well, Kerr Avon?" She watched his eyebrows rise in a question mark. "The Late Commissioner gave me a resume of your interesting career, from her own point of view, of course."
        "Mostly true, I dare say," he said, unabashed. "Not exactly edifying, is it?"
        "But fascinating, all the same. You seem to have been a particularly sharp thorn in her side, I couldn't tell if she really wanted you dead or alive."
        "Ah, she could be inconsistent on that point. The instinct of a cat to play awhile with its prey before eating it, perhaps." Certain memories rose up before him and he could not suppress a reminiscent smile. He felt surprising light-hearted.
        You should do that more often - or perhaps you shouldn't, said Lara to herself, trying hard to conceal her own reaction. Heart, don't pound like that; knees, don't turn to jelly. This is a man you can never hold onto, don't even show him that you would like to try.
        "Did she mention any other desperadoes?" he enquired after a pause.
        "She did say that the thief, Vila Restal, was never far from your side. Warren?"
        "The same. Quite a valuable member of the team, but don't tell him I said so. I hope you have no reason to complain of him, he's been told what will happen to him if he practices his art here."
        "Not so far. In fact he was perfectly splendid, the way he set this building up to look as if it had been unused for years. A keen eye for detail, wouldn't you say."
        "He can use his brains when he has to. You don't seem to mind associating with thieves and killers."
        "Maybe once, but the arrival of the Fifth Legion altered our perceptions somewhat. Now we can compare you with other thieves and killers."
        "A rude introduction to the rest of the Universe. It's effect on your society must have been dire." Avon had never paid any attention to this aspect of the invasion before. Now he contemplated the dangers and humiliations faced by the Sardoans, particularly the women.
        "It's my opinion," said Lara, after a short pause, "that the isolationist policy was mistaken and made us more vulnerable, not less. This must change, we must seek friends and allies. After all, we now have a fleet of spacecraft we can duplicate. We can travel, too."
        "If I were you, I would keep silent about large scale matter transformers, or the whole process if you can. There are plenty more where Grose came from."
        Avon became aware of encroaching weariness. "Now I need a few hours' sleep," he said.
        "This way," said Lara softly.

        In the camp control tower, the Sardoan substitute traffic controllers kept their vigil tensely, waiting for the first contact from the reconnaissance flyers. It was full daylight and the camp was stirring sluggishly. An uncanny languor characterised men's movements. They looked like a legion of ghosts, thought one of the watchers, ghosts awaiting a summons. The morning lengthened, the sunless sky brightened and warmed, but still the ghosts drifted. Finally he could bear the heavy silence no more.
        "This is disgusting," he said aloud. "Criminal. A thousand men robbed of their minds - past, present and future - all gone. It would have been more honest if we'd killed them."
        "Let me point out that this was what they had planned for us," returned his companion with asperity. "Not only that, but the inhabitants of dozens of planets have already suffered this fate. It doesn't upset me to see them dosed with their own poison. Not one little bit."
        "They're only troopers, they have to obey orders."
        "And so do you. This is a national emergency and we are defending our planet from invasion. Carry on talking like that, and I'll have you replaced. Now get..."
        "RX6 calling Control, are you receiving me?" A loudspeaker blared into life.
        "Control tower here, anything to report?"
        "I'm not getting any contact with the flagship. What's going on?"
        "They might be having trouble with your frequency. Anyway, haven't you heard? The Sardoans have surrendered and signed a peace treaty. The Colonel's still with the Commissioner at Ground HQ, but the flagship's still up on the bluff. I can see it from here. Shall I relay your message to them?"
        "Very well, Control. Tell them we've swept the area around Grose's hideout and found nothing. Ask them what we do next."
        "Hold on RX6." The Sardoan turned to grin at his colleague. After a pause, he went back to his communicator. "RX6, have you located the hunting lodge?"
        "Right below me, Control."
        "Are Four, Five and Seven still with you?"
        "Good. Land and secure the lodge. Hold it until reinforcements arrive. Confirm."
        "Confirmed. Over and out."
        "So," said the first controller bitterly, "more ghosts. When this is all over I hope they destroy every drop of that stuff and burn the formula. It's much too dangerous to keep around."
        "Nonsense, it's saved our necks and we may need it again."
        "It's going to be a temptation to anybody who fancies becoming a dictator here. When the Council reconvenes, I'm going to campaign for it's destruction."
        "Well that's your privilege. Anyway, the whole population has been immunised against it. They'll just have to remember to keep it up with future generations. Probably someone will find a way of reversing it before long. I'll bet it can be done. Meanwhile, get onto Headquarters and report this incident."

In ones and twos, the remaining flyers were decoyed into ambush and seized during the next two days. Only one commander became suspicious enough to disobey and make a run for the main camp. The controllers cleared him for landing and then informed the Federation troops that the craft streaking towards them was under renegade control and might be filled with enough explosive to disintegrate the entire valley. It was shot down with professional alacrity and exploded with quite a creditable bang. Not even the dissident controller was heard to voice any disapproval.

[Day Four]
        Vila leaned back in his chair and swung his feet up onto the desk. Warm light poured in through the tall windows and a gentle breeze stirred the curtains. The Sardoan weather had reverted to its appropriate season, bringing a sense of wellbeing and normality with it. He closed his eyes blissfully. Time to relax. Several minutes slid by and he was on the verge of sleep when a shadow fell between him and the light. Unalarmed, he opened an eye. Margit was standing over him with an amused expression on her face. Delighted, he scrambled to his feet, rather amazed at how pleased he felt.
        "Hey, fancy seeing you. This calls for a drink."
        "Ah, Dragon Lady, she say `no alcohol for three weeks'. It will have to be fruit juice."
        "Ugh! What a fate. What dragon lady?"
        "The chief surgeon," said Margit. She drew up a chair. "Well, what about that fruit juice?"
        "Coming up." Vila opened a door in the panelled wall, revealing a well appointed bar. "Now this is really tasty, even without alcohol." He poured a pinkish liquid into an ornate crystal goblet and handed it to her.
        "The President's best," he said, pouring one for himself. "Your good health." They clinked glasses and drank deep.
        "Make sure you get a vat or two of this stuff before we leave," said Margit, settling comfortably into the armchair.
        "I can't get over how well you look," Vila began, "from what Avon said, you were at death's door."
        "Only briefly. It's that ultrasonic tissue regenerator that makes the difference. I'm out on licence for a few hours, but I shall have to sleep hooked up to that machine for several days yet."
        "Don't you feel sort of shaken up?" asked Vila, curiously. "I mean, people can take a long time to get over an injury like that, mentally."
        Margit stared into her glass for a while before raising her eyes to his. "Early days yet," she said quietly. "No mental trauma so far. At present I just feel lucky to be alive and in working order again. True, I wouldn't like to go through that again, but I don't dread the thought of it. One should never feel sorry for oneself. Anyway, it looks as if we won - things are never so bad on the victor's side."
        There was a momentary silence, then she deftly changed the subject. "Duplicate me a set of these glasses, Vila, and the decanters, too. Now tell me everything - who's done what, to whom - the lot."

Margit's return lightened the mood remarkably. A feeling of success, of victory, pervaded the atmosphere. Jenna smiled, the tension on Avon's face eased, and Brig's lopsided grin was seen again. A corner had been turned.

"Well Jenna," said Avon, "time for the Commissioner's last batch of orders." He handed her the voice synthesizer microphone.

    "Cruiser One, Commissioner Sleer calling Captain Sholto."
    "Receiving you, ma'am."
    "We have concluded operations here and we'll be leaving in a few days."
    "Congratulations, ma'am."
    "Thank you, Captain. You may land the cruiser at the main strip. I shall want to use your facilities for some of the prisoners, also your men can take a bit of planet leave before the return journey."
    "Will do, ma'am, and thank you."

[Day Seven]
        The council members surveyed their parliament chamber with distaste, signs of Federation occupancy were all too clear. They gathered in knots, pointing to the damage and discussing the repair work and cleaning that could be necessary to restore the room. Eventually, the clerical staff appeared and took their places, providing the cue for the hum to die down and everyone to move to their seats. A moment later, President Hokaida entered, followed by Jenna and Avon. Motioning his guests to places on the dais, he picked up his gavel and brought the meeting to order.
        "Ladies and Gentlemen, there is only one item on the agenda, our most pressing problem, how to dispose of nearly twelve hundred prisoners. Returning them to the Federation is out of the question, which leaves us a choice between executing them all or attempting to absorb them as we did with the Fifth Legion and the convicts. We are not barbarians and I doubt if the idea of executing disarmed prisoners appeals to anyone here." He paused and scanned the faces before him. Nods of agreement were in the majority, although here and there a cold smile indicated that some did find it had a certain appeal.
        "Councillor Gambovska," he continued, "you supervised the resettlement last time, can we do it again with larger numbers?"
        "It may be possible," said Lara cautiously, "but ours is a small society and such an influx is bound to make its mark. These men have only been trained for war and few of them have any useful skills for civilian life. We have found extensive retraining necessary for many of the previous lot, and it all takes time and effort."
        As she paused, Avon broke in. "I have a suggestion, if you will permit me," he said, looking at Hokaida, who nodded. Avon turned to address the assembly.
        "I have contacted many independent governments in the course of our search for allies against the Federation. Several of them might be happy to recruit well-trained, obedient troops into their own security forces. Remember, these men have all been treated with Pylene. They can be ordered to keep silent about their origins and they will obey their new masters absolutely. All you need do is dress your man Ross in the Colonel's uniform to tell them that this is their next assignment."
        "This is rather distasteful," said a councillor. "It amounts to selling prisoners of war into slavery."
        A time-honoured practice, said Avon to himself. Aloud, he replied "Then you have the other choices; execution or absorption."
        "What about their equipment and the transporters?" asked another councillor, who was clearly warming to the idea.
        "I suggest that most of it is transferred with them. You can record everything on your particle scanners for your own use if you need it. Retain the flagship and the cruiser, of course, but get rid of the troop transporters."
        "It is our intention to use one of the transporters as a decoy," interposed Jenna. "It will be abandoned far from here, badly damaged and empty, somewhere on the fringes of the Darkling Zone. That should give its owners pause for thought."
        "So, we have three choices, apparently," said the President. "Let us debate the matter."

"Well, I'm not surprised they leapt at it," commented Vila, later. "It means a lot of trouble for us, though."
        "I seem to recall you once saying virtuously that you were a thief, not a butcher," retorted Avon. "We are going to convert Servalan's army to our profit. Our onetime warlord allies should be sweetened by the gift and disposed to help us again."
        "Wait a minute," said Vila, in alarm, "you're not going to let that untrustworthy bunch know we're still alive, surely?"
        "A good point," said Brig. "We must use intermediaries from the company."
        "Agreed," said Avon indifferently. "Vila, is it true that you have had several tonnes of gold duplicated for your own use?"
        "Well... Waste not, want not. And we are supposed to be a mining company, you know."
        Everyone dissolved in laughter.
        "We'll have to convert the flagship into a cargo vessel to carry your loot away," said Margit.
        "True. Now, you need a good long holiday to recuperate," Vila suggested slyly. "How about reopening the apartment in Cordis City, with your devoted nephew to look after you."
        Margit opened her mouth to reply, then stopped as the idea took hold of her.
        "Casinos," said Vila, enticingly, "theatres, cafes, shops - civilization."
        "Why not?" To her surprise, it was Avon who spoke. "We should keep a presence there from time to time to avoid suspicion. One thing, Vila. If you ever take Gambit into a casino, and I get to hear of it, you will be very, very sorry." But his expression was indulgent.
        "Er, yes." Vila was unabashed. "Don't want to end up in the hot seat again, do I?"

Go to next chapter

© Copyright Vega (Frances Teagle), 1999.
This story may be printed for individual use, but must not be stored as a computer file or reproduced for sale or distribution.

As it turned out, the whole party returned to Cordis City; Jenna and Avon to meet with members of the underground movement, the others to sample the fleshpots in a pleasure-loving society. No whisper of the loss of Feldon crystals reached them, so it was supposed that the box at the bottom of the stack in the secret strongroom had yet to be opened.
        Conscious of scrutiny, Vila behaved decorously and made no mention of casinos, contenting himself with converting some of his Sardoan gold into jewelry and furnishings. Vila, Reymon and Hagan had concocted the stuff by pooling a few gold coins they had looted from Federation personnel, who had looted them elsewhere, then copying sufficient to produce a full sized brick. Gambit had researched the correct shape, weight and inscription for a Vandor Confederacy ingot and a mould was duly improvised, followed by a visit to a metallurgy laboratory. This little project, dreamed up over a bottle of wine in the mess hall, had been immensely enjoyable, and unknown to Vila, had the happy side-effect of convincing Reymon that his future did not lie with the Federation.
        Of course, Orac had got wind of it and spilt the beans to Avon, who then insisted upon a careful analysis to ensure that it contained no unusual elements that would arouse suspicion, but apart from lecturing them on the need for discretion, he had shown no disapproval.
        Jenna, mindful of Vila's remark that they were supposed to be a mining company, had conferred with Mikhail Brand about the design of a `company' ingot and proceeded to duplicate a ship-load. Among the holdings of one of the mining corporations the company had absorbed, was a worked-out gold mine on an obscure planet. A new seam was about to be `discovered'.
        Now, comfortably flush with money, they ranged the capital's boulevards, investigating shops, markets and warehouses, purchasing whatever took their fancy on the pretext of refurnishing the family home. Margit joined in with a will, having a keen eye for quality and artistic merit and a strong appreciation of the finer things of life. They took care not to become conspicuous, which in itself was an enjoyable game to Vila, and rapidly acquired enough stock to justify renting part of a warehouse. Now their cover story became trade, instead of personal acquisition.
        Brig often joined them, indulging a hitherto concealed passion for literature, even going to the lengths of tracking down ancient paper books, which Vila hardly dared to touch, lest they disintegrated between his fingers. On the other hand, the old plastiform books, equipped with their own fold-away magnifiers, attracted him much more, and he got into the habit of reading them as he sat on the terrace, resting between expeditions with Margit and solo visits to places of entertainment. Soon he was rummaging through the book stalls on his own account, and once or twice he encountered Avon on the same quest.
        During the peace and security of these privileged months, Vila was formulating a vision of his future. The process was largely involuntary, but he was beginning to acknowledge that his career as a thief was over. A new understanding of his position and his responsibilities within the organisation was growing in his mind. He was now considering his other talents and how they might benefit his colleagues. Blake and Cally were often in his thoughts and he began to comprehend their aims and ideals far better than he had in their lifetimes and even to feel that he could, in his own fashion, follow their path. Casting around for a role, he finally settled on his vocation. Security. He would become the company's watchdog.
        It was not a new concept. One of his first juvenile ventures into crime had been as lookout for a team of burglars. Thereafter, he had swiftly learned the ways of the security forces and the Justice Department. Nor had he neglected to keep abreast of developments. Just as he had used Orac or Gambit to update his knowledge of locks and codes, so he had kept an eye on the evolution of surveillance equipment and policing methods, priding himself on his professional expertise. But most of all, his own wary instinct for danger fitted him for this post.
        With a newfound discretion, he did not announce his decision, but determined on a demonstration. In the privacy of his own room, he instructed Gambit to investigate the local security force, monitor their communications and to locate and identify their secret agents. Nowadays, the memory of Anna Grant constantly prompted him to caution. If even Kerr Avon could be snared by an informer or agent provocateur, any of the company's personnel were vulnerable. He extended his surveillance to the acquaintances of all the visiting members that Jenna and Avon were entertaining at their apartment during the consultations that were afoot.
        Finally his self-imposed watch paid off. The handsome young man romancing Darota in the hotel bar, was a security agent. Vila slipped a bug into her bag as she sallied forth to a rendezvous, and recorded a classic probe: where was she from, what did she think of this, what did she feel about that, had she never wanted to...; interspersed with specious confidences about his own anti-Federation views. Fortunately Darota remained cautiously non-committal, but on the other hand she did not report him to Lucien. The next day Vila played the recording to Jenna and placed the suitor's employment record before her. Her response was swift. Darota was summoned and instructed to meet her swain as usual that evening and to inform him that she was leaving the next day to take up a new post off-planet, the job of her dreams, and she was ecstatic about it. Darota wryly acquiesced and performed her farewell speech as required. To the eavesdropping Vila's amusement, she added a rider cautioning the disappointed young man against airing his views on the Federation to strangers. They could get him into a lot of trouble.

"Well Vila," said Avon, "what made you suspicious?"
        They were all gathered round the remains of dinner at Margit's table, and now they eyed him with interest. Vila wasted no time on modesty.
        "This planet seems to have almost no Federation control," he replied. "They pay their taxes and there's a token force of troopers, but they do as they please without any interference, which makes the place a magnet for crooks, outlaws and dissidents. It's such a good place to spend your ill-gotten gains that I got to wondering why the Feds permit this to go on right under their noses. And then I came to the conclusion that they don't. So I got Gambit to look for security forces and we discovered that this place is crawling with spies. It's the honeypot principle. Think of all the enemies they could have trapped here. I've got the secret records of thousands of undercover agents and I reckoned it was only a matter of time before one of them fastened onto one of us. So I've been tracking all of you and checking everyone you speak to. Simple, isn't it?"
        This last got a mixed reception, annoyance at being watched vied with acknowledgement that it had been necessary.
        "I wonder why he fixed on Darota," said Margit with an anxious frown. "What did she do to make him suspicious?"
        "Probably nothing," answered Vila. "Hanging around in bars and picking up girls is part of their routine, and very nice too." He grinned round at them in his old cocky way.
        "And what makes you such an expert on the police?" drawled Avon.
        But Vila was not to be put down.
        "I've been an expert on the security forces since I was seven years old," he retorted with pride. "I have been a professional thief, the rest of you were just amateurs. Well, perhaps not Jenna," he amended.
        Margit laughed. "Well since you've got such an obvious talent for this sort of thing, you'd better keep at it."
        That's what I wanted to hear, he said to himself. Aloud he added, "My advice is to find somewhere else to meet your agents."
        "Taken," said Jenna.

"He's perfectly right," she said to Avon that night, as she prepared to turn out the light. "We can't use this place again. A pity, it's so central and I don't want people coming to Silmarino, somehow."
        Avon settled back on his pillow and considered. "An alternative would be the goldmine on VM90. You can hardly dignify the place with the name of planet, really; it's just a large asteroid. The gravity is too low for it ever to be worth terraforming as it could never retain a proper atmosphere, so it will never be settled. Put in a couple of Feldon generators and improve the living quarters."
        "Ugh," said Jenna, "I hate these places. Is it covered in ice, like Pluto?"
        "No, rocky, more like Miranda. We have to do something with the premises as part of our fiction about the gold strike, and freighters coming and going won't arouse any comment."
        "We could legitimately put in defences, too," said Jenna. "Protection from pirates."
        She yawned and switched off the light. During their masquerade as man and wife they had drifted into physical intimacy. It was only physical and curiously passionless, but it had its moments.
        Presently she felt his hand brush her shoulder.

Vila's mind was also on matters sexual. As he lay in the dark he was aware of a vague desire to settle down with a woman and a family. But with whom? Briefly he considered Margit, an experienced and equable lady, though she had left three husbands and two children in the wake of her turbulent youth. But Margit was too much the elder sister really, it was a gulf not to be bridged. His thoughts turned to the companionable widow at Silmarino whose children he taught conjuring tricks - Zolanj. Quite different from his lost Kerrill, gentle and maternal, but with depths in her dark eyes. Now wouldn't that jewelry he had purchased look magnificent on Zolanj? He was fairly certain she would agree, and he had a notion that he would apply for Ro's approval, delicately and respectfully.
        Yes. They would build their own home, his first real home on Silmarino, if you didn't count the Liberator, and he would construct a surveillance station to watch the galaxy. He would keep the pseudonym `Warren'. During his reading he had come across its significance and the idea of an underground maze inhabited by furtive little animals with long ears was most appropriate. Smiling to himself, he fell asleep.

[GP + 4y 7m]
        Quietly the group stole away. Vila and Margit were the last to leave, taking a passage to neutral Corollus on a commercial cruiser, where they rejoined the waiting Freya. Mikhail Brand was already aboard and as they cruised along the ship's scheduled route, the progress of their campaign was picked over and dissected. More and more the name of Carnell was mentioned. Established in a decayed private college with extensive acres ripe for redevelopment, the psychostrategist's institute was beginning its first semester. His initial batch of staff and students were pursuing fairly standard psychology and sociology study programmes, but soon, research students, hand-picked from the ranks of the conspirators, would start on the real agenda.

    "Avon, I want to speak to you."
    "At your service."
    "Have you been siphoning funds from the company's accounts?"
    "Well spotted, Brand."
    "And what's your excuse, a security check?"
    "Protection. If our operations are noticed, you had better not be unaffected. Have you said anything to anyone?"
    "No. Where is the money now?"
    "In one of the X accounts. It'll be interesting to see who discovers its disappearance."
    "I thank you for your care, but I suggest you do not take any more."
    "Not necessary."

Their first destination was the goldmine on VM90, a large rock and ice asteroid in the Vinca Minor system. Although near the heart of Federation territory, Vinca Minor was seldom visited because it contained no habitable planets, merely several thousand asteroids whose mineral potential had long since been explored and exploited. The Federation's only presence now was an automatic navigational beacon on VM6, the largest asteroid, whose orbit was far from VM90's. On the face of it, a good site for a secret base. An excellent place, too, for a multi-frequency listening post, so close to Earth and Space Command Headquarters. Avon was designing an intelligent communications system to sift out the significant information for Orac and Gambit to analyse. Rather than run the risk of other parties intercepting its relayed messages, the system would be passive. Orac and Gambit would download packets of accumulated data at their own convenience, in their own virtually undetectable fashion.

"Phew, what a slum," said Vila, surveying the abandoned living quarters at the mine head, "worse than Freya was."
        "Too right," Margit wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Why do these miners always have to live like pigs? And have you seen that liquor still and the bottle dump?"
        "Mmm, alcoholic pigs evidently. We're going to have our work cut out to make this place habitable."
        "How fortunate that you two are such experts," said Avon coolly. "You'll have it shipshape in next to no time."
        "Pass me the ratcatchers," said Margit facetiously.

"All the same, it will do quite well," said Jenna, when she and Mikhail had finished their exploration. "The premises are large enough and they can be adapted for our purposes quite easily. I propose we make a start on the clearing up operation, we can do a lot in ten days."
        A few days' intensive work made a great difference to the place. Brig and Avon repaired the station's disintegrator and the detritus was fed into it by Freya's cleaning robots. Then they sat down to plan its future shape and facilities.
        "I want an underground hangar, like the one at Xenon base," Avon stipulated. "If we have any large meetings with several spacecraft present, I want to hide them from prying eyes."
        "We will be bringing in the excavators soon," said Jenna, after a moment's consideration, "where do you want it?"
        "Somewhere near the top of Big Cliff," said Avon.
        Vila pursed his lips in a silent whistle. Big Cliff was the stupendous feature on the horizon. Twelve kilometres high, it was a souvenir of a major comet impact which had fragmented VM90. When the planetoid regrouped, the pieces had not slotted neatly back into their original places and the rugged little world, with barely enough mass to form a sphere, now presented a lumpy appearance. Big Cliff could conceal the entire Federation fleet with ease.
        "Force field doors," suggested Vila, "like Thingummyjig, only set to look like rock."
        Avon nodded. "Plus computer controlled tractor beam landing. We don't want any accidents."
        "Tractor beam equipment won't be easy to find," remarked Mikhail. "It's not permitted for civilian use so we shall have to go to neutrals or steal them from Space Command. Neutrals will charge top prices and there's always the danger of the Federation hearing about it."
        "Well, as Vila is so fond of saying, `stealing's quicker'," drawled Avon. "I think we can contrive to lay our hands on what we need."
        It was Jenna's turn to purse her lips, this time at Avon's habitual needling of Brand. It was reminiscent of his conduct towards Blake, and fortunately Mikhail took it with a similar good grace. In a way, it could be seen as grudging acknowledgement of authority, for although Mikhail never attempted to dominate their conferences, it was his organisation that carried through their operations inside the Federation.
        "We will look into this matter carefully," she said forbiddingly. "No one is to take stupid risks."
        Avon returned her frown with a disingenuous blandness that clearly intimated he would do as he pleased.
        "Well, if you must steal," said Vila into the slightly uncomfortable silence, "for Pete's sake steal from neutrals, who aren't so likely to put two and two together.
        "But of course," said Avon silkily.
        The meeting moved onto the topic of reconfiguring and equipping the premises. Since there was no conflict, things moved along briskly. What could be supplied from Freya's stores would be installed immediately and the remainder would be sent with Argus, including a varied arsenal to protect the fictitious gold.
        "I want a really good master computer to run the base and the weaponry systems," stated Jenna. "Something unobtrusive but all-seeing."
        "Another Zen, in fact?" This was from Avon.
        "Perhaps, but camouflaged, no flashing lights or talking in front of strangers."
        Avon thought for a few moments. "A high grade standard AI machine that we can adapt, controlling a network of specialist computers. It's not difficult to get the hardware, it's the systems design and programming that takes the time and effort."
        Why not another Orac? Vila wondered, then answered his own question - too independent to be left to its own devices. You could never take Orac's loyalty for granted, not even Gambit's.
        "Does Orac still retain the details of Zen's program?" asked Jenna.
        "I'm sure it does. Well, get me the hardware and we will do our best." His tone was casual, but Vila was sure he was taken with the idea. Avon never liked to be idle.

On the ninth day the T21 troop transporter that they intended to abandon as a decoy, arrived. Artistically damaged with the cruiser's plasma bolts, its life support systems inoperative, it had made its indirect way under Orac's remote control, to Vinca Minor. A few small touches and it would continue to the location where it could be set adrift to be discovered and puzzled over in years to come. Vila, Brig and Margit donned pressure suits and enjoyed themselves faking evidence of a panic-stricken evacuation. The crew life capsules were removed and a transfer tube was run out and left trailing suggestively, personal equipment and sidearms were scattered around, as if thrown aside in a stampede for safety.
        "Of course, a few bodies would complete the picture," said Margit cheerfully, as they watched it go, "but they'll have to imagine a scenario where everybody got out, won't they?"
        Vila privately thought the finders would recognize a red herring when they found one, but still, it had been fun.
        "Anything new?" he asked Gambit as he entered his quarters that night.
        "Possibly, if you are still interested in the Terra Nostra."
        "Go on." He opened his locker and poured himself a drink.
        "It seems that fighting has broken out within the organisation and there have been many casualties, including Enzo, Largo's successor at Space City."
        This was good news. Vila settled comfortably into an easy chair. "Has anybody won yet?"
        "No, Vila. Space Command is still occupying Zondar and the Shadow operation is at a standstill. The bloodletting is mainly a series of vendettas following accusations of treachery."
        "What are the President and the Supreme Commander doing?"
        "They are saying nothing, but Space Command has brought several units of the fleet back to main base from the outer planets. Neutral newcasters are speculating on a coup."
        "Oh well, that's keeping them occupied," said Vila flippantly. He drained his glass and poured himself another.

The following day a substantial part of the Sardoan gold was unloaded from Freya's hold. As a precaution against raiders, a few kilos were deposited in the minehead strong-room, while the remainder was cached in the carefully shielded hiding place that Avon and Brig had constructed while the cleaning process was going on. It was equipped with a robot arm to pass the ingots in and out, something of a necessity because, on the principle that treasure hunters were more likely to search walls and floors for buried gold, it had been located in the ceiling of the reception area. It would be controlled by the master computer and Avon was designing a system that would seal off the area and freeze the scanners while it was in operation. Only those whose voices were registered with the computer could operate it, provided that they knew how to initiate the whole sequence in the first place.
        "Satisfied?" asked Jenna.
        "On the whole," said Avon, climbing out of his pressure suit. He removed a chunk of rock from the sample bag he had deposited on the table and looked at it in the strong light. "I'll get Orac to analyse it, but I don't see it giving the tunnellers much trouble."
        "Good." Jenna picked out a piece for herself, a dark, grainy crystalline rock with a few metallic flecks. She wondered idly if it would take a polish. She looked up at Avon. "That's it, we're finished here for the present. Let's go home."
        Home? Avon had not heard her use that word before. Jenna had evidently made Silmarino her home and Vila was likely to follow suit, but for himself? No, all places were alike, he dwelt only within himself.

    "Well, Councillor, I am not too happy about these rumours that I keep hearing."
    "Oh, rumours - they are always with us. What is it this time?"
    "The one that causes me anxiety concerns the disappearance of a whole pacification expedition with all its equipment and transport. Ah, I see you have heard it also."
    "I am informed that it is not unheard of for that particular commissioner to be out of touch for longish periods."
    "Yes, but I am informed that they never arrived at their stated destination, furthermore, the rumour has it that they never intended to go near that particular sector. The Commissioner, of course, is well known for her, ah, initiative and the general opinion is that she is acting for herself and presents a threat to the Presidency. Now that does cause me to worry, a destabilized Federation is very bad for business."
    "Mmm, as always, you are well-informed Mr Brand. Between the two of us and strictly off the record, the High Council is rather concerned about this development. Some people even believe that Sleer is really Servalan, though I personally find it ridiculous. However, I can tell you this, someone acquired some of the pylene antidote and the whole Council has been vaccinated. You and your colleagues might do well to follow suit."
    "Where do I get it?
    "It's all over the outer worlds these days. You shouldn't have any difficulty, all it takes is money. Plenty of money."
    "What I really came to see you about is this cut in your requirement for Monopasium. Is the project in trouble?"
    "Well... It's a question of finding the researchers really. They don't grow on trees."
    "I see. Should we stockpile, or close the mine for the time being?"
    "If you did shut down, could you re-open easily?"
    "The mine is mostly automated, but we would need to keep a maintenance crew in place for re-opening at short notice, and that would be expensive. I doubt if my board of directors would agree to that without some form of financial inducement."
    "I thought you might say that, Mr Brand. By the way, I should congratulate you on striking gold again - so rare these days. May I ask where you found it?"
    "Ah, you will forgive me if I observe strict security on the location. Unless, of course, the Federation cares to furnish a legion of troops to defend it from pirates."
    "Oh, goodness me, no! I quite understand. You can refine on the spot?"
    "Yes, something called 'the Pullman Process', I am informed."

[GP + 5y 2m]
        It had rained earlier and Jenna had taken shelter in the rough wooden summer house, a thatched octagonal hut with overhanging eaves. A continuous bench was built into the waist-high walls and eight rustic posts supported the roof. Its open aspect made it untenable if there was also any wind, but today's rain fell softly and Jenna had simply moved her folding table inside. She was occupied with a portable reader, scanning micro records that Gambit and Orac had procured from certain data banks. As always, several mungos had joined her, inquisitive faces peering at the screen, little paws patting at the keys or tugging at her hair, heads butting at her hands for caresses. Absently, she stroked or moved them aside as she concentrated on the text before her, not knowing what she was looking for, but certain she would recognize it when she saw it.
        Something caught the animals' attention, heads swung, ears pricked. Catching their movement, Jenna looked up, Avon was coming along the path between the dripping trees. She pushed the reader away from her and sat back to watch his approach.
        He paused in the doorway. "I have something to tell you," he began.
        She gestured him to be seated and he sat facing her, looking directly into her eyes.
        "I am leaving Horizon," he said. After a pause to gauge her reaction, he continued, "I think you will agree that I have worked very hard for your cause over the last few years, with a fair degree of success. Now it is time to go."
        "My cause?" Jenna struggled with a sense of disbelief. Was he intending to abandon everything?
        "Your project, then. Sapping the Federation's strength through a million little wounds. It can continue perfectly well without my presence."
        This was true. As Vila had foreseen, they were now extremely and legitimately wealthy. The company's influence was growing rapidly, both within the Federation and outside among the independents. A succession of scandals had damaged most levels of government and Space Command was growing increasingly disaffected.
        "What then?" she asked, half dreading what his answer might be.
        "What next? It's no use bringing down the Federation if you have nothing better to replace it. Collapse and anarchy merely favour warlords and more despotism." He sat back, watching her closely.
        Jenna felt a small surge of relief. "Ah," she said, "Brig's question."
        "Precisely. Blake never had the time to give much consideration to this problem, even if he really appreciated its importance. We do have the time and the means."
        "That's Carnell's task, surely. Can't you leave it to him?"
        "Frankly, I don't know enough about psychostrategy to judge. If this is really the way to success, I had better take the time to study it. If I don't understand it, I can't control it, so I intend to pick Carnell's brains and watch him like a hawk at the same time. I do not trust that man."
        He was leaving her and there was no way she could prevent him. He had served his sentence and the moral ascendancy she had gained with Blake's death had slipped away. Time to let go.
        "It will take years of study to master a subject like that," she said eventually.
        "I know."
        She took a deep breath, as if preparing to plunge into deep waters.
        "Obviously you must take precautions against being recognized. A small campus like that, there could be people with sharp eyes and long memories. Try not stand out among the other research students. You can keep tabs on Carnell, only please don't antagonize him."
        Becoming reconciled to the idea, she grew briskly businesslike.
        "You'll take Orac, of course, and we'll keep in regular contact through Gambit. After all, we may want to consult you about our business interests. I also think you should return here at least once a year to report and confer."
        Gravely he nodded his assent.
        Irrationally, perhaps, Jenna disliked the thought of Avon living alone, and she wondered how she could keep an eye on him. Maybe one of the other company researchers could help her. Then it crossed her mind that he might be intending to ask Lara Gambovska to be his companion. Would she leave Sardos? She might, especially if she was offered a chance to participate in such an important project. Jenna knew it was unworthy of her to be jealous of another woman, particularly one she liked, but she had to strive to subdue a niggling sense of envy. She could not help a feeling of loss. She had become accustomed to Avon's presence and found it supportive. Even his habitual verbal sniping was often useful, sharpening people's wits and causing them to consider their next step. She might miss that most of all.
        The pause lengthened and rain began to whisper through the leaves once more. They sat in the dim interior as the daylight faded, engrossed in their own thoughts until Avon finally broke the silence.
        "I shan't be leaving for a few months yet, the academic year for the institute isn't finished, and I have some preliminary research to do." He stood up. "I felt I should give you plenty of notice of my plans."
        "Perhaps we should all be studying the subject." Jenna got to her feet and reached for her waterproof.
        "Oh yes," Avon's voice took on the familiar acid tone, "I can just see Vila applying himself with enthusiasm."
        In spite of herself, Jenna had to smile.

"This Federation is falling apart!" The President was pacing to and fro in front of his cabinet ministers in obvious agitation, punctuating his speech with jerky gesticulations.
        "Is anyone to be trusted? Space Command is riddled with disloyalty at every level, those officers who aren't outright traitors are dangerously inept. Industry and banking services are a byword for corruption, research and development have virtually ground to a halt, we are being overtaken by the independents in crucial areas like spacecraft design. Organized crime is right out of control, drug addiction and gang wars kill millions." He glared red-eyed at his audience.
        From his place on the back row, Joban watched in disgust. The man was giving way to panic. Still, he was glad he was not in his place. Fortunately his advanced age would prevent the poisoned chalice from passing to him. Judging by the expressions on his colleagues' faces, they were not eager to receive it either.
        "And now," the President continued, voice shaking with indignation, "now, I find members of my own cabinet trading with enemies, taking bribes, passing information."
        Surprise, surprise, jeered Joban inwardly. You've emasculated the whole government, you must expect them to get up to mischief. Furthermore, this self-righteous gobbling about corruption does not become you - we know who runs the Terra Nostra.
        "Here comes the dire penalty warning," muttered his neighbour.
        "...And I warn anyone who's thinking of following their example, that I regard this as treason and it will be treated accordingly."
        "It'll be enemy plots next," returned Joban, out of the side of his mouth.
        "...You are playing into the hands of our enemies. Their agents are everywhere, they are constantly plotting our downfall." The President's voice rose to a full-blooded rant. "We must unite as never before, we must be vigilant as never before, we must..."

Go to Epilogue

© Copyright Vega (Frances Teagle), 1999.
This story may be printed for individual use, but must not be stored as a computer file or reproduced for sale or distribution.

Carnell sat in his office at the Freeman Institute and surveyed the quiet evening scene below him with considerable contentment. The nameplate on his door said `Professor A Freeman - Principal'. This was his foundation. True, another man had supplied the idea, but he had laboured to bring it forth: searching out the place and the people; supervising the design, the construction, the curriculum and the admission of students; focusing all his powers on providing a genuine institute of education with the necessary standards to attract the ablest students. He was rather amazed how well this role suited him and how much he cared for this child of his.
        He had designed this suite of offices for himself, the only rooms on this floor at this end of the building, level with the clerestory of the lofty assembly hall it abutted. Behind him, the glass wall displayed the steeply rising forested hillside, vibrant with every shade of green; to his left he could see two residential blocks and winding pathways. Gardens were being laid out and the valley floor stream was being dammed at several points to create ponds and waterfalls; his researchers were to have congenial surroundings for their contemplations. Before him, the third glass wall looked down into the assembly hall. Through the imposing open doors on either side of the dais, the base of the double staircase which served the adjacent teaching block could be seen, and even the lower part of the lift doors at the back of the vestibule. The huge blank wall above the doors would acquire a suitable mural in time, but at present it was only broken by a door high up at the far right, giving onto the ornate metal gallery which ran the length of the hall along the clerestory windows to the vestibule which was the only access to his office, apart from a discreet private lift for his sole use. On this fourth side of the office was a wall of textured brick whose doors opened into the vestibule with the secretarial office on the far side, and into his cloakroom suite where the lift entrance was located. Any of the glass walls could be opaqued at will, or switched to one-way only if he wished to observe without being seen.
        The name `Freeman' was chosen as a gesture to his late captors and a reminder to his current employers. Building the Institute had occupied most of his time up to now, but he felt sufficiently satisfied with its progress to start on the initial outline of his great project, and he had notified his backers that he would be ready for two research students at the start of the next academic year, now only three months away.
        A movement below caught his eye, a pair of booted feet were entering one of the lifts. He felt a sudden certainty that they were coming here and he reached across to his security console to switch the glass to one-way viewing. As an added precaution he activated his video scanner and the door lock.
        The door at the end of the gallery opened. The man walking so casually across the thirty metre gap was somehow disturbing, with his rather feline gait, he looked like a man who was accustomed to carrying arms. As he neared the vestibule door, Carnell noted dark hair, dark eyes, dark clothes, and something familiar - what was it? Then he noted two other things; the magno-lock was undone and the scanner was off.
        The man was at the vestibule door - the office door. With a tingle of anticipation Carnell rose to confront the visitor, suddenly certain of his identity and his mission.
        The distinctive voice he had heard before on recordings, spoke. ``Dr Carnell, I believe?'' There was a hint of a challenging smile in those dark eyes, ``My name is Kerr Avon.''

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