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The Wit and Wisdom of the Dead

By Neil Faulkner
What turns a man into a traitor? I should know. I feel like one now as I load the chip. Slot it, anyway. After all it's been through, there's no guarantee it will actually load.

      Perfidy! That's what Servalan would say, or something very like it. It rather sums up the way she's locked in her wistful dreams of Old Calendar elegance. What I say is, if you have to find your truth in the past, you're admitting the present is a pack of lies. Some people can't seem to find any worth in themselves.

      Perhaps I'm one of them now.

      ...that I shall at all times and in all ways enact my loyalty to the Terran Federation, to its President and Supreme Commander, to its furtherance, that it may endure forever.

      I took that oath when I was seventeen. That was a long time ago now. Times have changed, I have changed, and I'm not sure which is the greater pack of lies. Time to find out.

      The chip loads smoothly. I've got it slotted in the main computer, the one with a voice synth. Hopefully I can talk to it. And it can talk to me.

      <Hello?> It sounds exactly like the comp acknowledging routine instructions. A standard electronic voice, sexless, impersonal. But there's an edge, a hint of something that might be called life. A bit like a bad actor over a long-range relay.

      <What is this? Where am I?>

      All in due course. First I want to make sure I've got what I really came for. "What's your name?"

      <Name? Name's Lurgen. Who are you?>

      "Travis, Space Commander. Seconded to Supreme Commander's personal staff." Not strictly true any more, but he's in no position to know.

      <Are you really? Any chance of telling me where the hell I am?>

      "You're on solid state ROM. A brainprint chip."

      A long pause. Then, <I remember. He came to do the op.>

      "Docholli?"

      <That's right. You know Docholli?>

      "We've met. Briefly. He told me all about it."

      Lurgen sounds cautious. <Everything?>

      "He told me you arranged to fake the operation between you. The brainscan was taken, but the second stage wasn't followed through. Then you both made a run for it."

      <He told you that?>

      "Oh yes. And it worked, too. You both got clean away. Gave Central Intelligence quite a headache. In the end they gave you up for lost."

      <Have you come to arrest me or something?>

      "No, just to talk. I need some information. Need it very badly."

      <How badly?>

      "You're the last one, Lurgen. All the other brainprints were destroyed. The original technicians are burnt-out zombies. You're all that's left."

      The ROMstruct falls silent, stays silent. In the intervening time it strikes me that I've been talking to it as if it were the man himself, not just a recording of his brain. Why not? To all intents and purposes, it is.

      <So?>

      "So nobody knows where Star One is. Don't tell me you hadn't realised. I've been to a lot of trouble to get you."

      <I see,> it grunts. <What makes you think I'm going to tell you anything?>

      

      

      

Knowledge of Star One was the most closely guarded secret in the whole of the Federation. Details of its construction, operational parameters, and most especially its location, only existed on thirty brainprint chips, and they were securely locked away in the bowels of Central Intelligence's headquarters on Earth. The repository managers themselves didn't know what they were guarding, only that they could only grant access on hearing certain passwords from certain authorised personnel. The brainprints in turn could only release the information after being given additional passwords to verify security clearance. It was about as foolproof as anyone could devise.

      Nobody reckoned on the Nova Republiko suicide squad blasting in to plant a home-made nuke.

      I remember the incident well. It was shortly after I had secured Blake's capture and put an end to his activities on Earth. The NR bombing was supposedly a retaliation. In a pre-recorded declaration, they said they were doing it in the name of 'freedom'. I'm sure the thirty thousand plus citizens who died in the blast were gratified to know that.

      Not that there was any real panic among those who knew. Star One, as far as they were concerned, was now even more inaccessible than ever. The brainprint chips were just a failsafe anyway. Star One was self-monitoring, largely self-repairing, and there were technicians there to deal with any short-term crisis or broadcast the location if anything truly serious happened. And eventually, of course, Star One would, like Central Control before it, become obsolete, and need replacing. It would, in its time, tell those who needed to know that.

      That only left the Lurgen chip, but that had been a security headache for a long time by then. The hunt for Lurgen and Docholli had never officially ended, but as time had passed and nothing undue seemed to have happened, the search had been wound down. There were simply too many places for either or both of them to hide. In the absence of anything to worry about, Central Intelligence effectively stopped worrying.

      Most of that I pieced together for myself. I wasn't going to go crawling to Servalan for information, and simply asking would have aroused her suspicions. It was only after my court martial that, for the very first time, I exploited the security clearance my appointment to Servalan's staff had given me. The codes to the really sensitive data were changed regularly, out of my reach since I gained outlaw status, but others I could access with little or no trouble. Le{\160}Grand, fool that she was, told me what little she knew, and the Arbiter General was most helpful. Fortunately he didn't think to bring the matter up with Blake. I was closing in on Docholli before Blake even knew who he was looking for.

      That was my one real stroke of real luck in this whole sordid affair. My authorised search for Blake had brought me into contact with a man by the name of Vidor. I knew the name was an alias, but that was nothing unusual, nor was his obvious nervousness in dealing with me. As it turned out, he proved to be a dead end, and would have ended up dead in other respects if he hadn't disappeared by the time I went back for him. It was only later that I realised Vidor was in fact Docholli. And although he was long gone, I now had a reason to devote real effort to tracking him down. Elusive he certainly was, but not untraceable. I found him.

      

      

      

      Time Distort 9 puts the rendezvous point just over two hundred hours away. There's that nagging temptation to shave off that little bit more by exceeding the safety maximum, but the last thing I need now is a blown-out drive. I've got to be there, and before they start. There's no guarantee they'll send a ship, like they promised. I can't even be sure they got my last transmission. Blake blew my command ship away over Goth. One more reason to kill him.

      Later, though. Much later. Other things are more important right now.

      The Lurgen construct is evasive. It knows all too well there's nothing I can do to threaten it, not while it's got the information I need. It doubts my credentials and there's no way I can prove them. If I had the equipment, I could read the information direct, but I haven't got it. If Servalan bought anything of the kind, she didn't tell me, and it's certainly not on her ship. This ship. I should know, I've looked hard enough.

      It all comes down to how much I can afford to tell the ROMstruct.

      "You know about the Andromedans?"

      <Know what about them?>

      It's like that all the time. Challenging, querying, refusing to give anything away. No doubt the real Lurgen was much the same.

      I need patience.

      "Aliens from M31. Initial contact in the late twenties. Cryptographers decoded their first transmission to humanity. It was a declaration of war."

      <Really? Might be your kind of story, but I prefer proper literature.>

      "It's fact, Lurgen, and you know it. They're out there and they mean to invade. They've got forward bases in the Magellanic Clouds. Their fleet is ready and only one thing's stopping them."

      <Star One.>

      "That's right. Once they know where that is, they can destroy it. Paralyse the Federation. There'll be no stopping them after that."

      <So all they've got to do is find Star One. Shouldn't take them long. They've only got a couple of billion stars to check out.>

      The nuances of irony disappear in a standard voice synth.

      "They'll know soon enough, Lurgen. Because you are going to tell me where, and then I'll pass it on to them."

      <You're not serious.>

      "I've never been more so."

      <You do that and you let the aliens in.>

      I smile. "So you do admit they're out there, after all?"

      Another pause. The ROMstruct often pauses. <Travis?>

      "Yes?"

      <You're a swine.>

It's a strange universe, and I've seen some strange things in journeying through it, but one of the strangest has to be what I saw on a wharfside in the immigrant quarter of Sherman City, Acadiros. The city lies at a nexus of ancient canal routes (it was renamed during recolonisation), and all through the night the immigrant quarter rumbles with the passage of container barges. I was looking for Docholli, who by then I knew as Garrant. The trail was only beginning to warm, so I knew he had almost certainly left Acadiros, but I still had to find out where he might have gone to. Careful questioning had led me to discover that I wasn't the only one looking for Docholli, and I immediately guessed who my rivals were. Central Intelligence, still trying after all these years to plug the gap in their security. I arranged a meet, and made sure I brought my Space Command credentials with me. There was a good chance they knew nothing about my change of status.

      The woman who met me on the wharfside looked about forty, very timeworn and hardened. She had the typical mongrel appearance of the sub-Delta degenerates who infest places like this. If she was a Central agent, I decided, she had to be a very deep cover recruit. In her peel-on leggings and thick sleeveless two-stud jacket, she could have passed for any one of a thousand ten-credit desperantinos.

      She refused to talk at our rendezvous point. Elsewhere, she insisted, and pointed towards a block of warehouses, gutted shells with roof-girder ribs black against the spaceport lights. I had to walk ahead of her. A hydrofoil barge rolled past, a hundred metres of featureless hull. It churned the sluggish canal waters, left a shining wake of pollution-eating phosphorescent algae. The sharp high heels of her calfhugger boots clacked on the concrete behind me. And then she stopped, very suddenly.

      I turned around. She was standing very still, head slightly cocked as if listening for some small half-heard noise. Then she span round, fingers groping at her waistpouch. With my left eye, I could pick out movement against a shadowed wall. She pulled out a pocket laser, and sent a needle-thin beam arcing along the wall's length. With so much mist in the air, I doubt if it could have scalded at anything more than ten metres. Then she ran, clattering past me as if I wasn't there, but stopped again after just a few steps. Whoever was hunting her, there were two more of them dead ahead. I thumbed the palm dial of my lazeron up to maximum and looked for the nearest cover. All I could see was a graffiti-smeared bollard. Then she turned the laser on herself. Burnt her own throat out.

      I hung back as she fell. Outnumbered four to one, the last thing I wanted was a shoot-out. I could hear the sound of running feet pitching muffled echoes off the walls, drawing closer, but my attention was entirely distracted by something I could never have believed if I hadn't seen it for myself. The woman's skin split, invisible seams bursting up her cheeks, across the back of her head, down the line of her arm. Something green and amorphous spilled out, expanding like a balloon. Then her skin, her hair, and everything she wore, even her thick leather boots, began to dissolve, turn into a flowing, steaming, dark sludge that mingled with the green. The whole revolting thing was phosphorescent, reminding me of the algae in the canal.

      By the time I'd got over the shock, I was no longer alone. There were four of them right beside me, and two were pointing pistols at my head.

      "Quite a sight," I remarked.

      "You should feel privileged," said the nearest. He was a lean black with a chinmat of coarse, frizzy hair. The slumside patchwork of third-hand casuals he wore failed to disguise his Alpha origins. "It's something few people get to see."

      The other one drawing a bead on me, a dark-haired woman in a tasteless mix of mock leather and coarseweave, smiled grimly. "And even fewer get to see it twice." She was an obvious Alpha too. I knew who they were now.

      I gave them my name, and my identity chip. The black ran it through his palmtop. He was satisfied with what it told him, and by the way he looked at me, glancing only briefly at my left arm and eye, I suspected he knew me by reputation. He asked me what I was doing on Acadiros. I told him I was looking for Blake, which elicited no surprise, and asked in return what the shapeless thing on the ground might be.

      "Andromedan," he said, after careful consideration. "You may not believe it, Space Commander, but our galaxy is under threat of alien invasion."

      He was right, I couldn't believe it. Not at first. We talked more while two of his colleagues shunted the body into the back of a skimmer van. Very impressive, they brought it in by remote control. I noted that they wore protective gloves when handling the remains.

      By mentioning the alien's coincidental interest in Garrant with my own, I convinced the black - his name, or at least his current alias, was Lonardo, Operations Field Leader - that Blake might have connections with the Andromedans. That led him to open up further. The Andromedans had somehow managed to sneak in teams of agents and were looking for Star One. Lonardo knew about Star One, though probably not its full significance. He and his team were members of a secret Central Intelligence department trying to stall the alien threat. So far they had failed to capture one alive.

      "They seem to conceal themselves very effectively," I said. "I took that one to be human."

      "Elastomorph," Lonardo told me. "We still don't know if it's innate or technological. They can pass themselves off as anybody."

      "How do you know I'm not one myself?"

      Lonardo winked. "We've got apparatus for that. Checked you out straight away. You're clean."

      I was impressed. I hadn't noticed.

      Lonardo offered me a ride back to their headquarters. On the way I picked up a little more information, but not much. Lonardo watched what he said. In return, I had to feed him scraps of my own activities, which required some fast thinking. I don't think he was entirely satisfied. He seemed to think it strange I was working alone and undercover.

      Headquarters was a derelict workshop filled with the rusting shells of scavenged vehicles. Over a plate of tank-grown chicken, Sinoi-style, we agreed to pool information of mutual interest. Lonardo gave me a contact number, a rented exchange box. I had one of my own to pass him in return. Within an hour I was leaving, to resume my hunt for Garrant, and I knew I had left no small amount of suspicion behind me.

      

      

      Something I've overlooked about the ROMstruct. It has a limited floating memory. When it hits capacity, it starts to lilo. Without a regular recap, it loses the fundamentals. Such as what it is, where, who it's talking to. Between us, we learn to cope with that. It taps into the flight computer's memory store and dumps everything in there, then sifts the essentials at leisure.

      It wants to know about Lurgen, the real Lurgen. Yes, as far as I know, he is still alive. Surprisingly, at least to me, it refers to him as someone else, distinctly different. Not 'I'. 'He'.

      It wants to know a lot of things. Sometimes I tell it, sometimes I don't. The flight to the rendezvous grinds on. To pass the time, we talk. Sometimes we argue, or play evasive games with each other. But on the whole, we just talk. And the more the ROMstruct comes to terms with what it is, the more it tells me about Lurgen.

      <Taking the brainprint with him, that's exactly the kind of stupid thing he would do. I wouldn't do it myself if I were him.>

      Nothing sounds more disconcerting than a computer with a sense of humour.

      "Why would he do it if it's so stupid? He's a cybersurgeon. Intelligent by definition." By tacit convention, the man is never named, by either of us. Lurgen - the only Lurgen - sits in a chipscan slot.

      <Not that line of smart. He's very attached to himself. Like those people who like to take their gallstones home with them. Did you know he kept his academy notes for twenty years before his wife threw them out?>

      "I didn't even know he was married."

      <He isn't, not now. She divorced him. That cut him up a bit. I know it would me.>

      "Yet they assigned him to the Star One project."

      <Perfect choice, given the end they had in mind for him. No ties, you see. A one-track professional, buried in the big machine. No-one to notice him disappear. You know what I mean?>

      "Oh yes." My right hand balls into a fist. I feel my fingernails gouging the soft flesh of my palm. I can't feel that with the left. I don't have a left hand, only a prosthetic. "I know exactly what you mean."

      I think, if I had any gallstones out, that I probably would take them home with me.

      

      

       There was a time when I thought I knew how to hate. How to hate, and how to handle it. Focus it, turn it into a pinpoint beam of single-minded malice and aim it at the cause. Point Zero, the root of it all, the reason for it all. Wipe that out, and you're still in control. Point Zero was a man named Blake.

      But when I left Exbar, knowing that Servalan was out there somewhere in her command ship, watching me go, noting which way I went, it was as if I had never hated before. Blake had a rival, the worst kind. Not someone I could blast away, not someone at all. A web of lies and deceits, self-healing, self-protecting. It was everywhere, but invisible. I could walk through its heart, but I could never touch it. It was like a machine, each part in motion, playing its role in the grand design, but it offered no target. A ghost of a machine. Space Command.

      And I was part of it. I wore its uniform. Of course, I knew my history. Space Command existed to protect the Federation, to secure the borders, to serve in the maintenance of the Ultimate Order. Past presidents had abused the military power at their disposal, and Space Command had had to take steps. It needed its autonomy to fulfil its function. In order to serve the rulers, it had to be able to threaten them. But as with any other means to an end, Space Command's means of survival became an end in itself. I, as a humble field officer, could hardly be unaware of that, but I refused to be compromised in the fulfilment of my duties, in my oath of allegiance to President and Supreme Commander alike.

      I took my first step into that rotten web of a ghost when I agreed to assist Servalan in securing Orac. Later, I could salve my conscience in finding Blake on Aristo. The therapist helped as well, though I never told her that. On the whole she spouted nothing but bull. Like all mindwarpers, she could have done with a dose of her own therapy. According to her, I had turned my frustration at not being able to reach Blake into a monomaniacal sense of duty. Everything I did was supposedly refigured in my mind to conform with that. Furthermore, I had - again, according to her - come to identify myself with that sense of duty so closely, I could not distinguish between it and me and the rest of Space Command. Space Command was always right, she argued, because I always obeyed orders, and since by obeying orders I could not be wrong, so Space Command was never wrong either. Absurd, of course. I was only doing my job in the way I'd been trained. Just like everyone else.

      I'm surprised she wasn't there to testify at my court martial.

      She was wrong, anyway. After the IMIPAK affair I began to see through Servalan. Blake had escaped again. There was the usual outcry in the political ranks, but there was also the usual release of more funds, more powers, more resources. I gained little benefit from it. My Starburst flotilla had already been taken away from me, and I was forced to work in association with Central Intelligence and the covert security forces. I can see the need for these disreputable creatures, but they fall under the joint control of the Administration and the military, and ultimately answer to neither. Meanwhile the resources that should have been mine, and with which I would almost certainly have put an end to Blake, were diverted 'elsewhere'. At first I thought Servalan was merely interested in petty self-aggrandisement. She is, after all, a petty specimen in many respects, with only a token military background. Little more than a civilian, really, so I couldn't help but wonder. Suppose...

      Space Command is bound by the 104 Charter to serve the President and the people. There was a certain irony in sensing that it was a civilian Supreme Commander, appointed by the President to be his personal lackey in charge of the military he feared, who was planning to stop serving him and replace him instead. Naturally, I harboured doubts, but when Blake eluded me yet again, and on Earth itself, I couldn't help but wonder if she had had him penetrate Central Control in order to gain access to it herself.

      Not that I had much time to ponder on this. It was only as I awaited trial that I realised the extent to which I'd been trapped. An incident in the past, hitherto ignored, had been exhumed to destroy me. The failure to terminate Blake was accredited to me, rather than to her, though she had gained so much from it, and I had lost all but everything. I placed little faith in the tribunal, and I soon saw that Samor would play the game. He was a Space Fleet man anyway, with little time or interest for the doings of lowly surface soldiers like me. Or Par. Samor was part of the web that had made me, used me, pushed me aside and tried to bury me. They failed in the last.

      But my universe had already crumbled.

      

      

      

One hundred hours. Halfway there. If the aliens have a ship waiting for me, that is. If they haven't...

      It'll be there. They need the location, and only I can give it to them. And only then if Lurgen gives in. There's no sign of that yet.

      "I could always wipe you clean. Or just take you out and stamp on you."

      <Yes, you could do that. Or zap me, if you're that way inclined. Hell, dunking me in hot coffee would probably do the trick.>

      "That doesn't bother you?"

      <Not a lot. I think being a ROMstruct gives you a new perspective on life. There's no pain. No sensation at all, even. Like being in a sense dep tank. You ever tried one of those?>

      "I haven't. "

      <I'm developing this theory. I'm surprised he didn't think of it himself, being a surgeon. The impulse of life is the pathological pursuit of sensation. How does that sound?>

      "It sounds rather sweeping to me."

      <I was afraid you'd say that. But it strikes me that this total absence of sensation equates to an absence of a sense of being alive.>

      "You're not alive. You're nothing but microcircuitry."

      <I still talk. I still think. I can still generate abstract concepts. I'm doing that right now. But I can't feel. It occurs to me that I'll never, ever, sip a brandy, take a shower, get toothache, stroke the cat or have an orgasm again. And do you know what?>

      "I daresay you'll tell me regardless." He always does when he's in this mood. If it can be called a mood.

      <Damn right. What I've come to realise is - it doesn't matter. I don't miss these things. I know he experienced them, but it's all rather theoretical. I think I can safely say that I now know what it feels like to be dead.>

      "And how does it feel?"

      <That's just the point. It doesn't. And that's why you can't threaten me.>

      So it doesn't feel like anything to be dead. Isn't that what Servalan promised me - to make me a dead man? She thought she was being magnanimous.

      "So why should it matter if you tell me where Star One is?"

      <Ah, that's different. I took the oath, see?>

      "He took the oath."

      <True. But he took it for me as well. It's hard to explain.>

      "We've got time."

      <It's not really a question of time. You see->

      "Damn it! Just tell me where!"

      <Sorry, Travis. No can do.>

      

      Obsession is no refuge from the need to sleep, and when the dawn of another short day on Acadiros finally crept in I needed sleep. At least I had ascertained where Garrant - Docholli - was headed when he left planet, and there was nothing I could do except lie low until the next flight left a day later. I passed none of this on to Lonardo, and as far as I knew he had made no attempt to contact me. I did consider changing my lodgings, just as a precaution, but ultimately decided against - I was simply too distinctive to stay hidden for long.

      I went out like a light. I might have stayed that way for hours, but other people had other plans. It seemed like I'd barely dropped off before I felt the cold metal of a gun muzzle pressing hard against my cheek.

      "Ne movu, viracho!" A woman's voice, the kind that scratches glass. I did as she said and stayed still, except for opening my right eye and activating my left. A thin sun was seeping in through the blinds, throwing strips of light across the three characters crowded round my bed. A typical mix for this kind of area. On the far left was a burly caucasian with a thick head of red hair. Possibly an Erinite. Next to him was a short Sinoi with his hair tied tightly back and arms bulging under his sleeves. All I could see of the woman was one dark arm, bare to the elbow with a shapeless, fading tattoo. Too dark for a Spanic, perhaps a K'stani.

      "Bonan matenon," I greeted them lazily, and turned my head a fraction to get a better look at the woman. "Virinacho," I added, for her benefit. Mainly K'stani, but her eyes had a Togi slant. I saw she was holding a Ben Azra multi-purpose, currently stripped down to machine pistol mode. Sophisticated firepower by any standard. She took no notice of my insult.

      "To whom do I owe the pleasure?" I wondered aloud. "Terra Nostra? Mano Rojo? Union Etoile?" By now I'd had enough time to recalibrate my lazeron implant. I opted for rapid fire. Not as lethal as I'd have liked, but I couldn't afford to waste time recharging the capacitor.

      "I think you know who we are," said the Sinoi. He had his hands bunched tight in his jacket pockets, and the bunches were larger than his hands had any right to be.

      I remember smiling coldly at that. I'd already guessed. "Greetings from another galaxy."

      The K'stani smiled back. "That is correct, viracho."

      I let my gaze drift from one to the other and back and then finally up at the ceiling. I saw cracks I hadn't noticed before. "If you simply wanted me dead," I reasoned aloud, "you'd have seen to it by now."

      The red-haired oaf made a grumbling sound deep in his throat. "You assume because we look human, that we are human. That we do things the human way." Definitely Erinite.

      "Or as my original template used to think," added the K'stani, "that all you Inner World Alphas think it's a caucasian galaxy. It is not so hard to look human, and be alien." She spoke Terran fluently but very precisely. Presumably her 'original template' had done the same.

      "Very profound," I said, as drearily as I could manage. "What is it you really want?"

      There was a long pause, which suited me as it gave me more time to think. The Erinite broke the silence. "What do you know about Garrant?"

      "Garrant?" I must confess that for all my many talents, feigning innocence isn't really one of them.

      "Docholli," the Sinoi added.

      It was my turn to be silent, as realisation of the truth sank in. It only goes to show the kind of strain I'd been under recently. Lonardo had mentioned the aliens' objectives, but I'd been more concerned with feeding him a convincing cover story. Lonardo had been right, but only when I heard the Sinoi mention Docholli's name did I appreciate the true implications.

      The Sinoi was getting impatient. "Give him a leg to go with his arm," he told the K'stani. I don't believe it was an empty threat, but it was primarily voiced to start me talking. I started.

      "So you really are after Star One," I said. The reaction that induced was almost palpable. The Erinite rolled forward, round the side of my bed, and planted one meaty hand against the wall while he stared straight down into my face.

      "So what do you know about Star One, Mister Travis?"

      

<You've been lying to me, Travis.> There are times when our conversation peters out. When one or other of us runs out of things to say, when Lurgen updates his memory, when I snatch a few hours sleep. That's when the ship turns into a coffin and the bulkhead walls squeeze in. I'm no stranger to space travel, but I'm relatively new to this vagueness, this nebulosity of aim and direction. No orders, perhaps. No overall brief. Personally I doubt it, since I am first and foremost an officer and therefore largely immune to psychological wear and tear. But I can see why a civilian might go mad.

      "Lying, Lurgen?"

      <I'm afraid so. I've just found a way into the mainstruct's superuser memory.>

      "Very clever of you." I've searched the ship pretty thoroughly now, and I've failed to find anything that might arouse my interest or help to while away the hours. Most ships have at least a pack of cards or a pyramid board, but apparently not this one. It would be too much to expect Servalan to bring along anything so frivolous. If she wants to relax, she just works a little slower.

      <No, intensely clever. Of course, being an array of data strings helps. And perhaps I had a little luck. Either way, it was very revealing.>

      Over time, I've learned to detect some of Lurgen's subtle nuances. If he's about to say more, he keeps the speaker crackling over. I can just about hear it. If he's giving me a chance to speak, he backs off, and the background hiss fades. If he's prompting, he cuts off very sharp. In this case, the slight, barely audible distortion snaps off like a laser shot.

      "I take it that means you found something."

      <Something? I found lots. Item number one - you never told me this was Servalan's ship.>

      I grin. "I never said it wasn't, either. Hardly a lie."

      <This is true.> As concessions go, it sounds rather cheery. <But then there's items number two to something big. Servalan's personal files. Most of them are really boring, but there's quite a few about this Travis character. I'd stay well clear of him if I were you.>

      If I ever meet the real Lurgen, and he's anything like his brainchip, I'm going to deck him.

      <Seconded to Supreme Commander's staff? Well, I'm not denying you were. But things have changed a bit since then, haven't they?>

      "Just a bit."

      <Some of it is interesting reading. The rest of it is very interesting reading. 'Questionable reliability.' 'Monomaniacal obsessive.' 'Rapidly losing utility.' I can put it all on screen for you if you want.>

      "I think I can guess the rest for myself." To be more precise, I probably could if I had any inclination to make the effort. I have, however, experienced Servalan's self-satisfied gloating at first hand often enough, and then involuntarily. I wish her joy of what little of it she has left.

      <Fascinating though it all is,> continues Lurgen, <there are a few points she seems to have left unanswered.>

      "I'm sure that's a matter of acute distress to her."

      <To hell with her. What about me? Tell me, Former Special Purview Space Commander Travis, what possible reason could you have for wanting to find Star One?>

      

      

      I never found out their names, largely because I never asked, though if I had I don't seriously imagine they'd have told me. At least, after a while, they let me sit up and even move about a bit, but the Ben Azra never wavered and the Sinoi kept his hands in his pockets.

      They were very reluctant to admit that I might not be a sworn enemy. They wanted to know a lot of things. Why was I looking for Docholli? What did I know about Star One? What was my exact relationship with Lonardo? They were not entirely convinced by my answers.

      I was looking for Docholli because Blake was looking for him too. Once I caught up with him, I only had to wait. Unless Blake got there first, of course, but even with Orac at his disposal I considered that unlikely. I had a head start, and was on the trail now. What I knew about Star One was, not surprisingly, little, and I doubt if it was more than they had gleaned for themselves. As for Lonardo...

      Lonardo was a threat to me, since he could report my presence on Acadiros and bring unwelcome attention to bear. Without prompting, I told the aliens everything I knew about him, including the size of his contingent (which he'd thoughtlessly mentioned) and the location of their headquarters. The Andromedans were surprised.

      "If you don't believe me," I said, "go and look."

      The next few hours were, to say the least, tedious. The Erinite left (I had by now identified him as the senior of these three) and I was kept under constant armed guard. Eventually he returned with another of his kind, a very short, pinch-faced Spanic woman dressed in several conflicting styles of paramilitary casual, and calmly asked me what I expected Lonardo to do regarding myself. I said I expected him to get in touch with his superiors and proceed as advised.

      "That's exactly what he was going to do," said a not unfamiliar voice in the corridor. I turned to see Lonardo propping up the doorway. "Luckily for you, he never got round to it."

      After a brief start (I must confess), I had to smile. "Not Lonardo, I presume."

      "One of us," the Spanic informed me. "They're all dead."

      I'm not quite sure what they were expecting. Horror, perhaps, or anger, revulsion, any one of a dozen negative reactions. When I nodded in satisfaction, they looked quite confused.

      This was, of course, before I came to learn of the Andromedan repugnance of treachery. The concept is not unknown to them, but it falls into one of those taboo categories characteristic of all sophisticated cultures. The idea of an Andromedan betraying another Andromedan apparently borders on the unthinkable. They have similar problems coping with the notion that a human might betray another human. Rather touching, if you think about it.

      My more immediately pressing concern at that time, however, was staying alive, because I was sure they were going to kill me and probably very soon. I'm not saying I couldn't have fought my way out - I have, after all, had Space Command training - and I was prepared to if the need arose, but the outcome would have been highly uncertain. I decided instead to bargain with them.

      During the hours in which Lonardo's team had been seen to, I had made the most of my opportunity to think. The aliens' disguise was very good - indeed, the harder I looked, the harder I found it to spot any visible flaw in their outer appearance - but it nevertheless carried a risk of detection. I wondered how many of them there might be, and to what extent they had infiltrated human society. Could this be their intended means of invasion?

      That idea I dismissed very quickly. To succeed they would have to substitute an incredible number of people, each one adding further to the risk of premature detection. Such a strategy would find most hope in the ranks of the Deltas and the gradeless Outer World senvochulos such as this particular crowd had adopted, and even there it had little chance. Much as the masses may like to deceive themselves, they wield very little collective power in the face of a determined establishment, as the Federation has proved on numerous occasions, and 'popular' uprisings are doomed to failure in all but the most exceptional circumstances. So I doubted very much if these Andromedans were the spearhead of a larger, covert invasion. They were certainly keen to find Star One, which indicated a more conventional strategy, but their search entailed them having to operate in one of the more dangerous strata of society, of which they could hardly be unaware. What they needed - and it was through their not having considered this option that I divined their abhorrence of treachery - was a human agent, far safer, far less likely to be discovered, and ultimately expendable.

      I won't say they were easy to convince, but they agreed in the end.

      

<You did what? I thought that was just a joke.>

      "No joke, Lurgen. I offered to find Docholli for them, and pass on the location of Star One." Did I really do that? I'm afraid I did.

      <Sweet JC on the Titan Shuttle! Who have I been talking to all this time? I had you down as one of the good people.>

      "Then you were wrong, weren't you? I'm not one of the 'good people'. Not any more."

      <Just because they went and gave you outlaw status? What kind of excuse is that?>

      "Can you think of a better one?"

      I'm short of sleep. I know that, and I know I ought to try and make up the lost hours, some of them at least, but I can't bring myself to do it. Just as I can't bring myself to eat, to wash, to shave. Obsession might not be a refuge from such needs, but this is not obsession. It is something else. It is fear.

      Not the fear of the battlefield, of a sudden, violent death. That is a healthy fear, perhaps the healthiest of all. Nor is it the prospect of surviving the violence, with which I am, of course, well acquainted.

      It is the fear of facing the consequences of one's actions, and I am not as well prepared for it as I should be.

      <No excuse at all.>

      I'm becoming progressively more tempted to seriously threaten Lurgen. Just to see if he really means all his talk about death being meaningless.

      <Listen. He went outlaw, didn't he? But did he go and sell out the whole trick? He could have. One word to the right government and he'd have been set up for life. But from what you tell me, he didn't, he hasn't, and he isn't going to. You know why? Because he took the oath. Same as you did.>

      "That was a long time ago."

      <Might seem a fair while to you, Travis, but it's no time at all in real terms.> His voice falls silent, but the background hiss continues so he's not finished yet. <Temporal dimensions take on a whole new scale when you're dead.>

      "Will you shut up about being dead!"

      More silence. Apologetic this time. <Do you want me to go offline for a while? I could always precis my memory dump, it's starting to fill up again.>

      "Do what you want."

      <What I want? I don't particularly want anything. What do you want?>

      Not a bad question, as they go.

      <Are you still there, Travis?>

      That grating voice intrudes, jolts me awake. "I'm still here."

      <Let's start from first principles. You took the oath, right?>

      "Right."

      <And now you've junked it, right?>

      "Also right."

      <Okay, can you give me any idea why?>

      Why. Such a simple question. It has seemed to me in the past that life is a recurring sequence of simple questions, perennially asked, never answered. Simple questions, but without simple answers. I've always preferred simple answers. Why do I walk through this wretched hall of carnage? (I doubt if a real soldier wrote that.) Because this is where I am.

      "I think... I think because it ceased to mean what it did when I took it."

      <Means as much now as it ever did.>

      "Then it never meant anything at all."

      <Ever thought of taking up a new profession? You can make good money as a cynic.>

      "That's one thing I've never tried to be."

      <Really? Maybe you should try not becoming a billionaire. You'd be rolling in it in no time. But seriously - what does the oath mean? What do you take it to?>

      "To the President. The Supreme Commander. To the machine."

      <Well, what's the problem?>

      "The problem?" I'm not in the best state of mind to be marshalling arguments. "The President has direct control of the Terra Nostra, with the complicit assistance of Space Command. The Supreme Commander has violated her protocol in the pursuit of power beyond her needs."

      <Figureheads, figureheads. They're just people. They've got this problem, it's called being alive.>

      "Lurgen..."

      <No, wait, hear me out. What is the Prime Article of the Mandate?>

      It's engraved on my brain so deep I hardly know it's there. "Through unity to strength, and through strength to unity."

      <Correct. Well done. Strength and unity are one and inseparable. How do you make sure you get them?>

      "Through the imposition of order. Without order, there is division, and division weakens."

      <Very good. How do you impose order?>

      "Through the application of force, as directed by law."

      <Absolutely. For?>

      "For the good of the people."

      <No, no, no. Not for the people. The people don't matter. Delta-5 welfare lifer, Alpha-1 professional loafer, all the same.>

      "I would argue that there are dissimilarities."

      <Just cosmetic. People vary. Law of nature, so don't try and fight it. But it's a false division. To impose order, and so achieve unity, the variation has to be discounted. The people in themselves are therefore unimportant. It's the machine that matters. The Federation, that's what you took the oath for.>

      "The machine is corrupt. It doesn't work."

      <Has there been a bad attack of chaos while I've been away? What about this Blake you keep going on about? If the machine wasn't working, he wouldn't be around. All right, I concede, the human part of the machine isn't all it could be, but you've got a distorted perspective. The human element is not the point of the machine, just a component.>

      "A distinctly important component, though."

      <Where do you get your confidence from?>

      "Where did you get yours?"

      <Don't think I'm unsympathetic to your point of view, but I feel you ought to reappraise it. Yes, you've been deceived. Yes, you've been betrayed. And yes, you've been tricked into misplacing your loyalties. But that doesn't mean you have to throw it all away. You took an oath. You can still stand by it. What's more, you can do it with dignity. Since I'm feeling generous, I'll even throw in a little pride. How does that sound?>

      "It sounds," I say, after long and careful thought, "as though you're still determined not to tell me where Star One is."

      <That's unfair. I've got nothing to gain from trying to manipulate you. In fact, I've got nothing to gain at all.>

      "If you carry on like this, I might just wipe your chip."

      <Fine by me. Any time you like.>

      I wonder if Blake ever feels the same towards Orac. I sincerely hope so.

      <It's not the real problem, though, is it?>

      "What isn't?"

      <Selling out. Pulling yourself down even further just to prove they couldn't kick you all the way themselves.>

      "No." He is, as usual, right. "It's not the real problem."

      <Want to tell me about it?>

      

Blake was down there, on Goth. I knew that - I knew that - and yet I left him behind. It rankled then and it rankles now, but I really had no other choice.

      At least, that's the way it seemed at the time.

      I could have been stranded in Freedom City for a depressingly long time. In fact, I could have been stuck there permanently, in the morgue. Fortunately Servalan had brought along that effeminate weasel from her staff - I believe he may have been her personal surgeon - and he had harboured qualms about killing Docholli. Docholli certainly remembered him, when I gave a description. So the nitre grenade in my arm wasn't primed, and I could return to Servalan very much alive and in some position to bargain. She turned over a pursuit ship to my command, but only after I'd told her Lurgen was on Goth. I did consider lying, but that wouldn't have achieved anything since she was obviously intending to monitor my movements, and I had to head directly for Goth to stand any chance of catching Blake there.

      They were waiting for me at the starport, as I headed towards the lander to take me up to the ship parked in orbit. This time they were in the shape of that decadent business breed that likes to dip its toes in the sordid for a week before heading back to the grind of respectability. They were, however, as I swiftly ascertained, two of the group that had so rudely interrupted me in my Acadiros lodgings.

      I gave them a full update, after making sure I wasn't under observation from any of Servalan's spies. I doubt, to be honest, that she had any there, but I felt the precaution was justifiable. Of course, they wanted to go to Goth as well, and I had a hard time talking them out of it. For their benefit, I might add. Goth offered no anonymous masses to infiltrate, and they could expect to be slaughtered the moment they were discovered. I must admit I was uneasy about going there myself - such primitive colonies are best left untouched, abandoned to their barbarous inbred natives. If I'd had a section of crack marines behind me it would have been different, but such days were very firmly a thing of the past.

      I finally convinced them to let me go to Goth, in association with Servalan, and there secure either Lurgen or his brainprint and so acquire the location of Star One. We established a rendezvous on the grounds that I would succeed, though they made it clear that they would intervene themselves if they had reason to suspect I failed. I neglected to mention Blake, who would almost certainly reach Goth before I could hope to do so. The last thing I wanted was someone else depriving me of my prize.

      I also extracted one further promise from them. That if I succeeded, and delivered on schedule, I should then be permitted to accompany them to Star One and pave the way for the invasion fleet. They were, understandably, uneasy, but agreed in the end. As I pointed out, I would be alone, and there would be any number of them, so at the first sign of treachery on my part they only had to start shooting.

      I can only say that at the time I had never asked for anything more sincerely. The more contact I had with Servalan, her underlings and indeed her rivals, the more convinced I became that the Federation was nothing more than the private game of petty powermongers who could find nothing better to do than betray all the principles on which their power was founded. Even I was not entirely free of that stain, but at least I had managed to escape the worst of its excesses and was now in a position to show them what real treachery was. I was, in all honesty, rather looking forward to it.

      At first things could not have proceeded better. We actually arrived on Goth before Blake (presumably he was delayed, but how or why I shall probably never know). Servalan's credentials were enough to impress the Goths and we were treated as royal guests. I'd rather not imagine how unroyal guests are treated. Thankfully my military training has acclimatised me to insalubrious conditions and I suffered no real discomfort. Servalan, as usual, put a brave face on everything.

      Much to my chagrin, she insisted on adopting a tediously diplomatic approach to our quest. There was some logic in this, of course, since Goth is beyond the Federation's jurisdiction and any undue activity would have annoying (to her) legal repercussions should word emerge. That was why our visit was discreetly covert when what we really needed was a Rapid Pacification Team. They'd have got the job done much faster. In the event, though, I was to be glad that such an approach was out of the question.

      The appearance of Blake (since the presence of two of his crew meant that he was also present himself) necessarily forced my hand. By judicious questioning I had discovered the probable location of Lurgen's brainprint chip, though gaining access to it would have gone somewhat against Servalan's chosen modus operandi. When I started to hint at what I'd found, she brushed me aside, and that really was the final straw. I broke into the old Sharl's cell (leaving minimal evidence, for all that matters) and found my suspicions were correct. Within an hour I was in my lander and heading into orbit with the brainprint securely in my possession. It contained the information the Andromedans needed to know, our rendezvous was arranged, my initiation of the final act (as the aliens called it) had been promised.

      All I had to do now was get there on time.

      

      <Only it's not that simple, is it?>

      "I never said that."

      <You don't need to say it. It's obvious. I can't believe it's guilt at swiping me off some flea-ridden geriatric.>

      "You're right there."

      <Possibly a deep annoyance, bordering on a sense of self-betrayal, at having left Blake behind unattended to.>

      "You're beginning to sound like my therapist."

      <When I want flattery I'll ask for it. No, I don't think it was Blake. You'd already resigned yourself to putting him on the back seat. Something Servalan said?>

      I've tried to prepare myself a meal. Technically I've succeeded. It's lying there on the plate, slabs of meat and vegetable tissue from out of the culture tanks. I don't need to taste it to know it's gone cold.

      <So it was something Servalan said.>

      "She left her crew on the ship." With the prongs of a fork I draw furrows in the right-angled rectangle of no-fat beef. First lengthways, then across at a perpendicular. Diagonal strokes, left-to-right and right-to-left, and it finally looks like a corpse. "Human crew, not mutoids. Shoved their bodies out the airlock. They let me in without question."

      <Am I sure I've read your file? Since when did you let a few stiffs get in the way?>

      "They were good men and women, Lurgen. They were loyal to their Supreme Commander. The ones I didn't take by surprise were prepared to fight to the death. And they did."

      <They're professionals. It's what they're paid for.>

      "Just whose side are you on?"

      <Any side that takes my fancy. What was it Servalan said?>

      "Was he so capricious?"

      <One of his ambitions. I think he'd be glad to know I fulfilled it. What did Servalan say to you?>

      "What makes you think she said anything?"

      <Trust me, I'm a doctor. What exactly did she->

      "Lurgen!"

      Ceramic cracks as the fork hits. There's a crack running the width of the plate. One prong is buried in the beef.

      <All right, all right, so I get a bit pushy. Just put it down to professional curiosity. Just forget I ever mentioned it.>

      Which is, of course, the oldest trick in the book.

      "I tested her out. I offered her all of it. Star One. All that power." I let go of the fork. It teeters but it doesn't fall. "She refused."

      <Say again.>

      "You heard."

      <Oh yes, I heard. I just want you to say it again.>

      "She refused it, Lurgen. She never wanted it. All she'd put herself to, it wasn't to take Star One at all. Just to protect it."

      <True to the machine.>

      "Yes. I'd misjudged her all along."

      <Can't believe you're the first. Of course, I'd never heard of her until you slotted me, but you painted a pretty vivid picture.>

      "It means I was wrong, you see."

      "<Yes, I can see that. Fall, fall, you house of cards. Obsessions built on misunderstandings are bound to end in tears.>

      "Of course, she was still being underhand about it. Dealing with the matter secretly, to protect her position. That's what made me think she was out to get Star One for herself."

      <Plenty of others would have made the same mistake. They wouldn't even have needed your deluded sense of conviction to make the facts fit the theory.>

      "Are you sure you haven't talked to my therapist?"

      <Doubt it. Psycho variety?>

      "She was."

      <Psycho's not what you need.>

      "You're probably the first person ever to say that."

      <What you need is physio. Big date coming up, you want to feel your best. How far away's the rendezvous?>

      "Twelve hours."

      <Intensive physio, then. Let's see... You've got a prosthetic arm. What model is it?>

      "Standard."

      <Replex series? Good, know 'em with my eyes shut. Implants?>

      "Lazeron destroyer."

      <Not heard of it. Togoshima?>

      "Ferranchi. Cybanetique SA."

      <Wise choice. If you're going to spend money, buy the best. So, one implant. That leaves some space to play with. Is there a palmtop on this ship?>

      There is. A standard Space Fleet pocket computer. Lurgen wants a few details, and seems satisfied with what I tell him.

      <All we need is the central processor. I can interface with that.>

      "What's the point of all this?"

      <Should leave space for an intercom mike. Hand communicator might be too tight a squeeze. We'll see. You're about to get busy, Travis.>

      I'm slow to realise. Lack of food and rest has dulled my brain. In twelve hours time, Lurgen and I part company unless I take him with me. I can't take the ship's computer, and anything smaller doesn't have the interface sophistication, so Lurgen is improvising.

      Lurgen doesn't want to say goodbye.

      "I still won't be able to hear you."

      <Don't sound so disappointed. Your left eye's got a rangefinder, so there's a connection there with the arm, right?>

      "There is, but I don't see..."

      <What are the readout specs?>

      "Ten digit, full alphanumeric."

      <Should be able to patch into that. It'll work, you'll see.>

      I can't share his sense of optimism. "Lurgen, I'm a field combat officer. I've had some technical training but it doesn't go anywhere near this kind of thing."

      <You know your way round a standard probe set, don't you?>

      "Just about." Well, I did once. "But that hardly helps, does it? I don't know the first thing about cybersurgery."

      <You don't.> If anyone in the flesh talked to me like that, they'd be dead before they got the third word out. <But I do.>

      

      

When I pull the ship out of time distort, I feel clean. The cleanliness of the soldier is very much a myth, fostered by those sentimental escapists who revel in the parade ground glory and refuse to address the butchery it stands for. I harbour no such illusions. I signed up knowing that righteousness has its price. It is, however, important to morale to feel appropriate for the occasion. I have slept, I have eaten, and I have worked in preparation for this moment. I do it silently, but I thank Lurgen all the same. Without him, I would never have been half as presentable.

THEY + KEPT + THEIR + SIDE + THEN

      Much to my surprise, it works. As he guessed, there's no room for a voice synthesizer, so he has to speak through the tacheoscope readout. Unnerving, at first, seeing words scroll across my vision. But I'm getting used to it. In return, he sees everything I do.

      "Yes, they're there. Just as we arranged." He can just about hear me through the mike implanted in my arm. Everything I hear goes through the mike, to the palmtop processor, and hence to the brainchip. The strange thing is, I don't resent this intense level of intimacy. Perhaps because it's not a human being I share my senses with. And it's still in the teething stage.

      The alien ship is the first I've seen. Quite unlike anything I've ever set eyes on before. Small, distinctly unmenacing except in its strangeness. I open a comm channel, announce my presence.

      <We have you on all screens. Close for docking. We are interfacing with your flight computer. Surrender flight control to us.>

I + DON'T + LIKE + THE + SOUND + OF + THAT

      "Neither do I, Lurgen. Neither do I."

      But I do it anyway. There is no obvious armament on the alien ship, but the Andromedans have in the past seemed completely confident of their ability to eradicate anything humanity can put against their fleet. To come this far and get blown away for bloody-mindedness...

      The pursuit ship comes to perfect rest alongside the alien.

OKAY + TRAVIS + WHAT + NOW

      "We go across, if they ask us. Or let them aboard if that's what they want."

      Lurgen still doesn't seem to have made up his mind which side he's on. Possibly because I'm no longer sure myself. We're both playing this by ear. He has not, however, given me the one thing I need to bargain with the aliens. Nor do I think he intends to.

      Then the hull clangs from the direction of the main hatch. Transfer tube.

      <We have made linkage. You may come across. You will come alone and unarmed. Acknowledge this.>

      I acknowledge, then get up. And as I do so all my doubts fall away. I can walk squarely and firmly through the ship, knowing that I've arrived somewhere, come to the brink of something meaningful, perhaps even something magnificent.

RECKON + WE'LL + SEE + THEM + AS + THEY + REALLY + ARE

      I'm not sure Lurgen shares this sense of the moment.

      There are three of them on the far side of the tube. In human guise, as I expected. Two of them are wearing the uniform of Space Command Fleet officers, complete with senior rank insignia. They stand in the background. The one who greets me is a boyish-looking Togi in spotless white overalls. He bows as I enter.

      "Hajimemashite, Turavis-san."

      I don't think a withering look goes completely amiss. The Togi just smiles.

      "Always so supercilious, are you not? You were the same when I held you at gunpoint on Acadiros. You may thank us for keeping this rendezvous - we felt we owed you that much, for your past assistance."

      "I'm grateful," I reply, and my nerves are already tightening. Something is wrong here. "And I've got what you wanted. Star One can be yours."

      Togi keeps the smile on, a tight-lipped contortion of the lips arcing under hard, cold eyes. "You are most generous, Turavis-san, but Star One is ours already. Our technicians should be there by now."

HEY + WHAT'S + THIS ++ THERE'S + NO + WAY + THEY + COULD + HAVE + FOUND + IT

      "I'm not sure," I say, "whether to be surprised, or impressed."

      One of the officers, tall and burly with FSA stamped all over him, glowers down at me as he might a guilty cadet. "One or the other or both, as you prefer. Or neither. It makes no difference."

      "You see, Turavis-san, circumstance has made you... redundant."

      There is movement in the corridor behind them. A fourth alien. A surprising choice of new persona, I decide, as I get a clear look at him. Very short, somewhat stooped with age, with a ring of long grey hair round a smooth crown. The short-trimmed beard and deep-set eyes suggest a sense of wicked humour that somehow doesn't seem to be there.

0000000000

      "Redundant?" I echo, trying not to sound as wary as I feel. None of them seem to be armed, but that does nothing to reassure me. They all look too confident.

HELL + TRAVIS + WHAT'S + GOING + ON

      The old gnome pulls a sick travesty of a grin. "I'm afraid so, Travis. We don't deny you tried hard, and we're not ungrateful, but I'm afraid it was all for nothing."

      I know that voice.

      "And the final act?" They're about to cut me out. After all I've done for them.

WHAT'S + HE + DOING + HERE

      "We have decided," the officer says, "that your presence is unnecessary. We can inform our technical team that you failed to make the rendezvous."

      "It will satisfy them," says the gnome. "They are relatively unhabituated to human ways and prefer promises to be kept. We've had more time to learn the value of expediency."

DAMMIT + TRAVIS + LISTEN + TO + ME

      The Togi shakes his arm. Something small and dark tumbles out of his sleeve and into his palm. "We are, of course, most sorry."

TRAVIS + THAT'S + HIM ++ THAT'S + HOW + THEY + MANAGED + TO + FIND + THE + PLACE

      I let a dark, brooding anger cross my face, which I must admit they find very satisfying. Good. Let them gloat, let them think I'm beaten. Not that it's feigned, that anger. It's very, very real.

WHAT + HAVE + THEY + DONE + WITH + HIM

      Lazeron to rapid fire. Whatever that Togi's got, it's a weapon of some sort. He - it - is my primary target. Get the capacitor charged to overload, I'm going to need every shot it can give me. Lurgen knows. He can read the signals coursing through my arm.

DO + IT + TRAVIS ++ FOR + GOD'S + SAKE + DO + IT

      So I do. My arm moves like lightning, just as it was built to. Three shots straight into the Togi's chest. At this range I can't miss, don't need the crosshairs on my vision. Togi bucks like he's hanging on a string and his mouth yawns open as he drops. The two officers are fumbling for sidearms. Too slow. One takes a bolt that blows half his head away, the other one tries to duck. Tries, and fails.

      Which just leaves one, standing in stunned shock, unable to move. I zero in.

NO + NOT + HIM

      "No?"

NO

      and for a moment I misunderstand, until the text winks in front of my eyes.

THIS + ONE + IS + MINE

      He gives the capacitor a second to recharge, then switches to full beam. The old man in front of me recovers enough to turn, start running.

      The image of him racks up as Lurgen adjusts the magnification. He doesn't want to miss. The range reading spirals up, correct to the nearest centimetre. Then there's a single shot.

      I have nothing to do with it.

      There are no others on the ship. We check very carefully, but the interior layout is so straightforward and utilitarian that we feel sure we've overlooked no hiding places. Within a few minutes we're back at the access hatch, alone but for four shapeless, fuming puddles of green oozing across the floor. And I was going to help them, I think, as I scan them one by one. It's almost as if Lurgen can read my mind.

YOU + WERE + GOING + TO + HELP + THEM ++

WHERE'S + YOUR + PSYCHO + THERAPIST + THESE + DAYS

      

<Strange. It feels good to be talking again.> For the moment, he's back in the flight computer.

      "You're dead. You're not supposed to feel anything."

      <Don't hit me with the 'd' word. It picks up sensibilities I never knew I had.>

      "But do you feel better for having them?"

      He doesn't answer that. <You know, I think we've got the makings of a good team here.>

      "I take it that means you're coming with me."

      <Damn right. What kind of stunt do you expect to pull on your own? I helped build that place, remember?>

      Something I always meant to ask. "How did a cybersurgeon end up building the Federation's central control complex?"

      <Who's a cybersurgeon?>

      "I rather thought you were."

      <Used to be, until I got struck off. Negligent malpractice. Retrained as a cybernetic systems engineer, whole new branch of the tree. That's where I found my vocation, no flesh and blood to make a mess of.>

      I pause in my packing. I've allowed a professional bungler to play about with my anatomy. Not the living part, admittedly, but all the same...

      "You could have mentioned that earlier."

      <And end up stuck in this thing? That would get boring.>

      "That might just happen yet."

      <No it won't. You're going to need me. You're going to stop the invasion, right?>

      "I recall saying something along those lines."

      <Then you'll need someone who knows the place. I've got keys to all the back doors in the programming. Once I'm in, I can change anything the Andros have done.>

      "That would put a stop to them."

      <Or even better, we could wipe them out. Get them in range of the minefield.>

      "Minefield?"

      <That's right. Antimatter generators. Whole stack of them right across the entry zone. You didn't know about them? You're really going to need me.>

      Perhaps he's right. So far my plans are undetailed. "You think we can do that?"

      <Can't be sure. Have to assess the situation once we get there. But if I can access the defence systems, and then we lure them in close, maybe just start to switch the minefield off... I'd say we've got a good chance. We'll be heroes, you and me. Ever wanted to be a hero?>

      Have I? Oh yes. Right from the very start. But, as always, it's not that simple. "You realise it'll be a one-way trip?"

      <Once they catch on, then yes, they'll kill you. Luck can only take you so far.>

      "And you?"

      <How do you kill someone who's already...?>

      "Dead?"

      <Okay, dead. Twice now. I think I'm getting used to it.>

      It means, of course, that Blake will have to be abandoned. Some other officer will have to take the honour of despatching him. If I'd had to face that fact even a few days ago, I think I would have denied it. Blake was everything. But only to me. In the end, he is just one man, just one threat to the machine, and by no means the greatest. I'm an officer, I took the oath, and I know where my priorities must lie. Knowing that, I can face anything. By losing Blake, I've not been cheated. Quite the reverse.

      Ideally I would take steps to alert Space Command to the immediate threat, but Lurgen has gone through the options and decided against. We're too far out from civilisation, and even if I could get a warning through, there's no guarantee it would be believed. And I must admit I like the idea of doing the job alone. The irony appeals to me. To Lurgen, too. Like me, he's a traitor and an outlaw. Going to save the system that betrayed him.

      "You realise they'll never know."

      <Who won't?>

      "The President. Supreme Commander. The Federation. They'll never know it was us."

      <Probably not. Does that bother you?>

      "It won't. Not when it's all over."

      <I can guarantee that. And if I don't know, who does?>

      And so I'm finally packed. Supplies for the flight, a laptop for Lurgen to sift his memory, communicators and other technical gear. And a Space Commander's uniform, courtesy of one of the crewmen I killed. It's a small way of vindicating his death, but it fits me and it means I can face the end as what I really am. Now we find out what the aliens' ship can do.

      "Time to go, Lurgen."

      <Aren't you forgetting something?>

      "Very possibly." I'm still tired, still crawling out of the well. "So tell me."

      <Grid reference C17320. 11th Sector.>

      Still very tired. What does he mean?

      <Star One. That's the location. You want to get there, don't you?>

      I can only murmur numb agreement as I unslot him. Once I've mastered the alien ship - I've already taken a cursory look at the controls, it shouldn't be too difficult - I can reinstall him in my arm. Then we can discuss our options.

      In accordance with General Article 19/v of the Officer Conduct Code, I've rigged the pursuit ship to self-destruct shortly after our departure. The likes of pirates and other wastrels must not be allowed to get their hands on it. From there it's simply a matter of laying in a course and hoping we get there in time. For the final act. For the President and the Supreme Commander. For the Federation.

      For the sake of the machine.

      

      

      

      My one regret is that they'll never know who really killed them.

      Travis, Star One

      


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