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Ripples

By Frances Teagle
BLAKE: Good shot, Avon.
AVON: I was aiming for his head. [Orac]

LOCAL

"You'd be singing a different tune if that bastard Avon hadn't shown up when he did," said Travis bitterly. He didn't raise his eyes to his commander, but morosely contemplated the ruin of his artificial hand. "What's more, if you hadn't prevented me from killing Blake immediately, Avon would have been too late."
          Servalan rolled her eyes upwards in exasperation. "Then Blake would not be alive to prevent Avon from killing us."
          Knowing better than to argue further, Travis lapsed into a brooding silence.
          The Supreme Commander transferred her glower to the backs of her two mutoid pilots. She need not fear their wagging tongues. At the end of this clandestine voyage they would be blanked, of course, just as they would have been if her plan to acquire Orac had succeeded. Travis, however, was another matter. He must be contained somehow.
          Meanwhile Blake had Orac. Of all the people in the universe, it had to be Blake! How? What could possibly have led him to Ensor? And did he know what he had? Did he appreciate its possibilities? If not, he would surely find out soon enough, provided that Avon was half as brilliant as he was supposed to be.
          Avon - her expression moderated to a slight frown - perhaps it was time to find out more about Avon.
          He'd been rather impressive on Aristo, appearing in the nick of time like that. Handsome, too, in an off-beat kind of way - more so than his prison photographs suggested. She called up the scene again and focussed her memory on him. Dark hair, unwavering dark eyes under level brows, contrasting strongly with a pale face that carried a mysterious hint of femininity about it, especially those sculpted lips. She smiled appreciatively; a connoisseur of male beauty herself, she was often in a position to indulge her fancies. A nicely proportioned figure, too, she recalled, set off well in black and silver, in contrast to the workaday uniformity of the other three.
          He'd handled the brief burst of action well, much more competently than might be expected of a man from his background. The sheltered alpha denizens of the city domes didn't normally take kindly to the outdoor life, but he had shown no discomfort on that windswept beach; whereas the thief, Restal, was clearly longing to be back in the safety of the spacecraft again. Blake must have been training his crew in guerilla tactics and Avon was doubtless a quick learner; but all the same, they were an odd combination, the embezzler and the revolutionary. What kept them together? Why hadn't Avon simply shifted his base of operations to independent territory and attacked the banking system again? Maybe the man and his motivation would repay study.
          She reviewed the few words that had been exchanged during the confrontation. Blake had said that Ensor, like his son, was dead. Ensor's son - that must be it. The Liberator must have been close enough to Cephlon to detect the explosion of the ship, and the younger Ensor must have evacuated in an escape pod and been picked up by Blake. Or was it Marryat, perhaps? If he had learnt some details from Ensor... What if he was still alive?
          And what was it that the thief had said about bringing the decontaminants? Ah, of course - if Ensor's pod had landed on Cephlon, some of the crew would have gone down to retrieve him - one of Blake's humanitarian gestures. All Space Command knew enough to keep away from Cephlon's contaminated surface; a few hours there would be enough to cause fatal radiation sickness if it went untreated. No wonder Avon and Restal were protecting their comrades so assiduously, their lives probably depended upon it.
          Meanwhile, she'd better send somebody to Cephlon to look for escape pods and discover their occupants' fate. The thought of Marryat surviving to tell his story was an unwelcome one. Perhaps she had better cancel the `deserter' posting, and make sure his family were not sold into slavery until she knew what had happened to him.


          "Ah Rai, I have a job for you." The Supreme Commander smiled sweetly at her reinstated adjutant as he entered her office.
          He drew himself up sharply to attention. "Yes ma'am."
          His eyes were still wary, but she had no doubt that she could restore his former admiration now that Travis was gone. Indeed, the atmosphere at Headquarters had relaxed considerably since his departure.
          "I need all the information you can find on Avon, Stannis and the rest of the Liberator's crew. Full prison records, plus recordings of their interrogation sessions and lists of their known associates - anything."
          A tinge of enthusiasm lit his face. "At once, ma'am."
          Back in his office, Rai applied himself to his task with efficiency. Travis's records revealed only Blake's data and the interrogation of the Auron woman captured on Centero, with which Servalan was already familiar. Information on the others had to be retrieved from the Terran Justice Department. It would be instructive to scan them himself, he felt. He was sometimes painfully aware of his own inexperience in matters criminal - this might be a chance to acquire a little of the worldly wisdom he longed for.
          "Can I be of assistance, Supreme Commander?" he enquired as he delivered the first batch to her desk.
          She considered a moment, then flashed him her old encouraging smile. "Yes, of course. I'm trying to get familiar with their thought processes and motivation, and also their backgrounds and contacts, plus any other useful facts that might help us to lay them by the heels. You take Stannis and Gan, and I'll do the others."


  "Jenna Stannis, it is rare for a woman to be sent to a penal colony such as Cygnus Alpha, but you have shown yourself to be a persistent and hardened miscreant, beyond repentance and rehabilitation. You are a self-confessed deserter from Space Fleet, you and other members of your family have wilfully flouted the excise laws of the Federation on numerous occasions, and you have associated with notorious outlaws and enemies of your native Terran Federation. The court, therefore, has no option but to sentence you to penal servitude on the said colony of Cygnus Alpha for the rest of your life."
          Rai couldn't help a sigh as he watched the prisoner turn away with a defiant toss of her blonde head and follow the guards out of the court. He knew he had no business to feel sympathy for her plight, but the story that had unravelled from the record disks seemed a tragic one, if only for the waste of a talented and beautiful woman. He felt a secret guilty satisfaction that she had escaped the brutal fate of life in a prison colony peopled almost exclusively by the dregs of the underworld. For all her bravado at the trial, she must have shuddered inwardly at the prospect.
          What had caused her to desert from the fleet and take up such a dangerous way of life? The reference to `other members of her family' intrigued him. If he used his temporary authority, he should be able to extract more details from Federation records. After all, he rationalised, the Supreme Commander wants to know about her thought processes and motivation.


As the visdisk containing the unedifying biography of Vila Restal reached its end and ejected from the reader, the Supreme Commander got up and helped herself to a drink while she considered its contents. The thief was undoubtedly intelligent and talented and she could see how useful Blake might find those talents, provided he could keep him under reasonable control, which he seemed to have achieved. Restal's motivation for staying with Blake would most likely be simple fear of recapture and return to Cygnus Alpha, if not worse. Well, it shouldn't be difficult to persuade an essentially cowardly petty thief to betray his leader - the offer of a pardon and a cash reward should do it nicely.
          Rai's report on Olag Gan lay before her on the desk. It, on the other hand, was not very promising. This subject had led a blameless life as a worker in one of the many hydroponic plants until the day the security services had decided to conduct a sweep through his residential block, searching for drug dealers and their wares. Two imbecile guards had decided to have their fun with Gan's woman, fatally injuring her in the course of overcoming a desperate resistance. Her massively powerful mate had burst into the room, breaking the neck of one guard and throwing his companion down the stairwell, then rampaging through the building seeking to destroy the rest of the squad, until finally subdued by a stun-gun.
          The courts had chosen to be sympathetic, waiving the virtually mandatory death sentence for killing a guard, in favour of exile and a brain-implanted limiter. They had even had the gall to demand disciplinary measures against the rest of the squad, which had enraged the military authorities. No, there was little prospect of tempting Gan to treachery; Blake's undoubted leadership qualities would have easily won his loyalty.
          Well, that disposed of the other ranks. Rai was working through the voluminous material on Stannis and her associates, now it was the turn of Kerr Avon.


Rai was feeling physically sick. The further he delved into the history of the Stannis family, the more appalling it became. What appeared to be the story of a bright but criminally-minded young woman who had deserted from Space Fleet to join her freetrader relatives soon after graduating from the academy, darkened with every step he took into a tale of unparalleled treachery and tyranny.
          Doubtless the Federation had its own reasons for seizing the assets of the larger private trading and transport companies, but to arrest the owners, all their families and most of their employees and wantonly torture them into `confessing' to anti-Federation activities was as vile as anything Travis had ever done. Children shot in front of their parents, wives tortured in front of their husbands, and for what? It was unlikely that Federation citizens had benefitted by one iota from this foul act.
          Some zealous clerk in Records had sent him everything, even the `most secret' recordings of these horrific scenes. If Jenna Stannis were ever to see them she would surely go mad. As it was, he himself shuddered as he watched. The only bright spots were the escape of one of the Stannis women, who threw herself from a moving prison vehicle and disappeared into the Delta tenements, and Jenna's successful desertion from the fleet just ahead of the order to return her to Earth for questioning.
          He no longer doubted Blake's innocence of those charges of pederasty. He knew that they were merely the most disgusting crimes encompassed by the imagination of whoever had engineered them with the aim of discrediting Blake in the eyes of the public.
          For the first time he wondered about Travis; whether that grim figure had once been an honest upright soldier before he was brutalised by the ever-worsening demands of an infamous government. If he hadn't been betrayed by his superiors, would he now be a man of honour and integrity like Fleet Warden Samor; stern perhaps, but just and respected by all? And where did his own chief fit in this pattern? Was she merely carrying out her duties honestly and conscientiously, or was she as corrupt as the rest of them?
          He closed his burning eyes and groaned. If this was worldly wisdom, he would rather be naive and ignorant. Would he ever sleep again?


In her spacious suite on the far side of Space Command's revolving wheel the Supreme Commander was also wakeful, but unlike her troubled subordinate she was enjoying her researches. Kerr Avon was definitely an interesting study.
          She passed over his early life with scant interest. His family didn't seem remarkable in any way; he seemed to have quarrelled with his father, a minor official, over the early death of his youngest brother. Nothing unusual about that, she reflected, her own family was constantly riven by feuds.
          Ah, the Andaman Project - that was where he had acquired his familiarity with the open air life. Of all the staff living in primitive hut accommodation during those three years, he was the one who had tolerated exposure to the elements best and longest. His superiors had praised him for it.
          After that, the return to civilization and work with one of the teleportation research groups, in charge of their data processing system. Again, his superiors were full of praise for his performance; he was reckoned to be particularly brilliant at fault tracing and logic. One assessor commented that although he affected to despise intuition, he probably used it a great deal. A model citizen, apparently, if inclined to sarcasm and secrecy.
          And then the anonymous tip-off - Kerr Avon has hacked into the banking system and is preparing a gigantic fraud.
          An equally brilliant tracer was brought in to entrap the would-be embezzler, but at the penultimate moment their quarry disappeared. An emergency plan was thrown into gear, banking operations were suspended until the illicit programs were disarmed, and all Avon's contacts were rounded up for questioning. The hunt was up.
          It was another eight days before they found him, just about back on his feet after a severe wound, attempting to leave the city with forged papers. The interrogation recordings were interesting, if infuriating. He had stood up to the initial rough stuff well and kept his head. Once convinced that he had no political leanings, the questioners had tried the friendly approach and he had run rings round them. Flattery, candid remorse and apparently comprehensive confessions, even to the killing of a dealer in forged passports were the tactics used to avoid the rigorous interrogation normally meted out to criminals of his calibre. He had easily managed to convince the investigators that the dealer had fired first and he had returned fire simply to save his own life, instead of the more probable scenario in which he had fired first to avoid paying for the papers and the mortally-wounded victim had managed to shoot back. That had certainly saved his life.
          The court case, so open and shut, had been prosecuted lacksadaisically; little enquiry had been made into the man and his motives, he was merely shunted off to a penal colony without any thought as to what he might organise when he got there. She personally wouldn't have put it past him to break the security system of the landing ground and seize the next prison ship on its arrival. It had been tried before, but the convicts hadn't had a real systems expert among them. With Avon on their side, who knew what they might have achieved.
          Well, the hour was late and she too, needed her sleep. Tomorrow she would get Rai to locate some of Avon's ex-colleagues - there were questions she wanted to put to them.


It was quite obvious when he presented himself at her desk next morning that Rai was not his usual self. His fresh features had grown pale and hollow-eyed. He must be overdoing things.
          "Rai, you look terrible," she said gently. "Are you unwell? Perhaps you should see the medical officer."
          He had forgotten that winning charm of hers. Taken unawares, he flushed and stammered.
          "It's nothing ma'am. Just burning the candle at both ends."
          "I'm overworking you, aren't I? You've been sitting up all night hunting through those records. I must get you some help."
          "Oh no, ma'am," he blurted out in consternation. Seeing her raised eyebrows he hastily amended his tone. "I mean, I've almost finished my report to you and I'd be ashamed to give up now. especially when you yourself have been working even harder. Please let me finish."
          Her face softened again. "Very well, but learn to pace yourself sensibly.


Rai's report on Jenna Stannis was delivered promptly the following day. As in the case of Olag Gan, it held out little hope of turning her into a double agent. Its brief summary of the destruction of the Stannises and several other trading families made it quite plain that the freetrader was at blood feud with the Federation; most telling of all was a simple list of her family's dead. No, Stannis might be of use as a hostage, and ruthless interrogation should prise some valuable information out of her, but as a willing tool she was useless. Brainwashing techniques seldom produced a good result either; if the subject was returned to her comrades as a double agent the personality change was usually too marked to escape notice.
          Servalan frowned over the ugly story before her; was that why Rai was acting so strangely? If she had realised how discreditable it was to the Federation, she would have kept Stannis for herself and given him Vila Restal to investigate. Pressing her intercom button, she requested the duty officer to fetch the Stannis material immediately.
          That evening, after sampling several of the `most secret' visdisks, she sent for Rai. He had evidently taken it all deeply to heart, and he would have to be handled carefully if he was not to become disaffected and rebellious. It was important to pay attention to the matter now. When he arrived she sat him down and gave him a fruit drink laced with a mild relaxant.
          "Rai,'' she began, looking at him with an expression of serious concern, "I want to apologise for unwittingly handing you such an unpleasant assignment.''
          Embarrassed, he made a deprecating gesture.
          "I have read your report with great attention,'' she went on. "I've viewed several of the recordings for myself and also spoken to some High Council Members about the matter of the seizure of the trading companies more than ten years ago.
          "Now, I'm telling you this in confidence. It seems that this disgraceful affair was engineered by the previous President's son-in-law, with the sole aim of enriching himself and his family. The independent traders, who were good businessmen, were sacrificed to this man's greed and replaced with a bunch of lazy, corrupt and incompetent commissars who quickly ran the companies into the ground. Massive amounts of public money were poured into the failing businesses, to be siphoned off into the commissars' pockets. I regret to say that nobody has ever been brought to justice for these crimes, but if I am ever in a position to punish them, I will pursue them with a vengeance.''
          Throughout this carefully prepared little speech she watched his brow clear like magic as relief flooded in.
          And you can really believe that, she added silently. I mean to be President one day soon, and I will purge those corrupt bastards for their stupid inefficiency. They'll find out what retribution means.
          Rai was looking as if the sorrows of the universe had fallen from his shoulders. Now to deal with the future.
          "I have no wish to persecute the remnants of the Stannis clan,'' she continued, in a gently reasonable tone, "but Jenna has become a problem. If she could be persuaded to renounce Blake and his movement, then some sort of pardon might be arranged. But rest assured; if she is taken, she will be given a fair trial and every chance to co-operate. From now on it's up to her.''
          Rai heaved a great sigh and gazed at her with obvious relief.
          "All your staff know they can rely absolutely on your exemplary fairness, Supreme Commander.''
          She smiled benignly at him.
          "Now, since you've been working so hard these last few days, I'm going to bring your next leave forward to start tonight. I want to see you back here in twenty days, rested and ready for the fray again.''
          He drew himself up and saluted smartly. This time there was no wariness in his eyes.
          Servalan watched his departure with some relief. If she failed to win him over, she would have to transfer him to some high security establishment to prevent him spreading disaffection, which would be a pity, she liked having him around.
          She let her mind go back to the days of the Great Confiscation, as it was known. She had thought at the time that it was a colossal blunder. News of the event was carried throughout the galaxy by the fugitives, blackening the Federation's already tarnished reputation still further. About this time someone revived the old "Evil Empire" soubriquet which was still being thrown at the Federation to this day. It had done untold damage.
          Of course, not all the dispossessed traders were arrested by any means; many were too widely dispersed for that. The Stannises had suffered the most severely because they were the most concentrated and vulnerable. Some of the largest consortia had turned pirate and mounted raids to retrieve their lost ships and personnel. As a middle-ranking Space Fleet officer she had taken part in the hectic pursuit of the ring-leader, Aulius Vilkonen, after the Cassus raid. She smiled at the memory - a likeable villain - what a pity he wasn't one of her allies... and what a good thing he was dead.
          She dismissed the subject from her mind and turned back to the new information on Avon.


"Kerr Avon? Oh yes, Investigator, I remember him perfectly well; after all it's less than two years ago. Certainly, he was a very good worker, never any complaints about him, but I'm not that surprised he went to the bad. A malcontent, you know; sullen, always carping and criticising.
  "Mind you, I reckon that girl-friend of his had a lot to do with it - Anna... Anna... Trent, or something like that. If she didn't actually put him up to it, I'll bet she egged him on. Very sophisticated lady, a real dish to look at, but reckless. Married to some boring petty official and looking for excitement, if you ask me. Well, she certainly found it because she was the first of his associates to be arrested and questioned - never heard of again, in fact. Her brother came storming round trying to find Avon to wring his neck, swearing that he'd abandoned his sister. When he heard he was in prison he even tried to get in there to kill him. Grant - that was the name, not Trent.
  "You tell me that Avon's still with Blake, which amazes me. I'd have expected him to drop off on some unsuspecting independent planet and pursue his criminal career in their banking system. Huh, I'll bet he's giving Blake a few problems, but I suppose Blake will need his expertise; there's no denying he's a useful sort of chap.
  "Some friend of his showed up once, asking where he was - ginger-haired fellow, wouldn't give his name - very put out, he was, to find his pal was on his way to Cygnus Alpha. I've often suspected that Avon did a trial run for his fraud, and I've wondered if that man was an accomplice. Yes, I'd know him again, if you've got him on your records.
  "Sorry I can't be of more help to you, Investigator, but Avon wasn't a man you could get to know. He just never let his guard down."
          Anna Grant? Why was there no mention of this woman in any of the records?
          Servalan frowned suspiciously. It reeked of a cover-up. Maybe the husband had sufficient clout to get his wife out of prison and her name expunged from the records. If that was the case, though, her brother hadn't been forewarned. On the other hand, maybe it was Anna who had informed on Avon.
          Investigate the Grants and the husband.
          A bleep from her intercom roused her from her reverie.
          "Yes?''
          It was Communications. "Supreme Commander, I have Space Commander Travis on the security frequency for you.''
          "Put it through to my private booth.'' She rose and went to the soundproof communications booth in a corner of her office. Once she closed the lock, anti-eavesdropping systems would be activated - not even Communications could overhear her conversations. She sat down and switched on.


In the outer office, Rai, midway through tidying the desk in preparation for his departure, was riveted by the tinny sounds coming through his intercom. Something must be malfunctioning - though faint, the voices were perfectly clear, but he shouldn't be hearing them. He heard his superior's reply, and, pressing his ear to the speaker, he could make out her footsteps as she crossed to the security booth, then silence.
          He grimaced. Travis again. What villainy was being concocted now? Well, he would never know, as his transport departed in a few hours.
          Yet why shouldn't he know? Rebellion was rising in his soul again. He could find out, perhaps. The only way to do that was to bug his Supreme Commander's office, but he knew where he could lay his hands on the necessary equipment. A prickle of horror ran down his back as he contemplated what he was about to do, and the consequences if he should be discovered. Yet somehow he could not stop himself. An audacious plan was forming in his brain.

  "Ah, Travis, I trust your hand is restored to use?''
  "It is.''
  "Good. I have a task for you, which you may find congenial. As it is top secret, I am giving you your orders verbally, so pay close attention.''
  "Yes, Supreme Commander.''
  "I have been considering the possibility that Marryat is alive, and I want you to go to Cephlon to see if you can find any trace of him.''
  "If I find him alive, do I bring him here?''
  "Yes. See that he talks to nobody and bring him straight to me. We can do a brain wipe and remove the memory of his mission, then he can go back into circulation. I expect you would prefer that to the other alternative.''
  "True. What's my cover story?''
  "Anything you like. Take mutoids and see that they're blanked afterwards. A pursuit ship has been assigned to you. Depart immediately.''
  "At once, Supreme Commander.''
Rai stared down at the tiny bugging device in his hand. Smaller than a pea, it could transmit to a receiver within a radius of a hundred metres. Quite enough for his purposes. The receiver was no problem. He could connect it to his personal computer console, digitalise the signals and convert them to innocuous-looking files. But how to conceal the device from the periodical debugging sweeps that were visited on each senior official's quarters in turn? Servalan's rooms had been checked only last week and another search was unlikely this month, but he knew that sweeps were randomised and it could happen during his absence. He also knew he must report the faulty intercom, as his replacement was sure to notice it. Maybe this was his opportunity.
          Galvanised into action, he crossed to Servalan's door and tapped on it discreetly.
          "Yes?''
          He put his head round the door. "Ma'am, the intercom's making crackling sounds. Did you call me?''
          She glanced up briefly from her console. "No.''
          "It must be faulty,'' he said carefully. "I'll call Maintenance.''
          "Not now.'' Servalan considered her schedule for a moment. "This afternoon I'll be in Conference Room Three. They can come then. Be in here yourself to keep an eye on them.''
          "Yes, ma'am.''


Some four hours later he emerged from Servalan's office, flushed and flustered. The deed was done. He collapsed into a chair, trying to recover some poise before his colleague came in to relieve him.
          You're crazy to give in to such an impulse, he told himself. Even if they don't catch you at it, what could you do with the information?
          But another voice within answered sturdily, that depends on what it is that I find out.
          As soon as his spell of duty ended, he went to the personal computer in his quarters and, behind a locked door, tested its reception of the bug. After a tense few minutes he heard the Supreme Commander return, in company with another senior officer. Their voices were perfectly clear and should record well. He busied himself with testing the program that would translate and file each day's recording where he could retrieve it via a remote terminal while he was on vacation.
          Once he was satisfied, he set the passwords and disconnected the screen, leaving the processing unit unobtrusively active, then he threw some items into a backpack and raced for the evening transport. Most headquarters staff spent their leave on nearby Vananda, but he would avoid the usual holiday spots and take himself off to industrial Hesquiat, where he could rent a room and some communications equipment to retrieve those files, deleting the originals as soon as he had copied them. If anyone asked what he was doing, he would tell them that he was cramming for his next round of examinations.
         


Servalan frowned at the newly-decoded message on her screen. It was curt to the point of rudeness.

Supreme Commander, I am instructed to caution you against making further enquiries about Anna Grant. This is a matter of internal security.
Malan, Deputy Chairwoman, Public Safety.
          I knew it! The woman's an informer, or even an agent provocateur. She gave a snort of disgust. Oh well, there was no point in pursuing Grant now, but when she became President...

FURTHER AFIELD

Travis scowled at the leafless trees, mournfully dripping moisture from every twig. What a hole! His movements were impeded by his radiation protection suit, and the face plate of his helmet kept misting up from the fine drizzle that greeted Cephlon's visitors today. He was also uncomfortably warm.
          His search party had already come across the main drive unit from the sort ship they were looking for. Drive units often survived the descent through the atmosphere, and the aerial survey had managed to pinpoint this one by its slight radioactivity. However, no sign of any escape pod was to be seen. Since the terrain was too rough for the ground car, the rest of the search had to be done the hard way, so four mutoids were combing the rocky valley below him with their various sensors.
          Was that a movement over to his right? Some animal, perhaps, or a humanoid. He had heard that a degenerate remnant of the original inhabitants eked out a living in these parts. Well, if they tried to cause him any trouble, they would be blasted for their pains.
          "Commander! Over here!'' Down to his left, two mutoids were flashing their lights at him. He descended the crumbling slope and made his way over to them.
          The soot-streaked pod lay forlornly open to the elements. Its contents had been rifled and fragments were scattered about the area among faint impressions of many footprints.
          "Evidently the local inhabitants have been taking an interest,'' he said. "We may have to investigate their settlements to see if they've taken prisoners.''
          The mutoids nodded. One of them busied herself recording the scene with her holocam.
          "Dust the interior for fingerprints,'' he instructed, "then we may learn who travelled in this one.''
          But the mass of smudges revealed by the powder looked distinctly unpromising. The primitives had dabbled their fingers everywhere.
          "Commander, we have found a pod.'' The other search party.
          "I'm coming. Switch on your trackers, I can't see you from here.''
          Hmm... Two kilometres away. It would take him half an hour at least across this terrain. "Don't touch anything until I arrive.''
          Beckoning the mutoids to follow, he set out as briskly as he could in his cumbersome gear. Normally he didn't mind walking across country, reckoning himself to be a hard man of action, despising the soft indoor life of the city-dwellers. Today might test that hardihood, but he would not complain, nor would the mutoids following at his heels. That was one of the reasons why he preferred their company to that of regular troopers.
          By the time he arrived, he was hot enough to wish he could remove his flimsy helmet to mop his brow, but he must endure the trickling sweat.
          A sealed pod lay before him. Beside it, he could make out two sets of boot prints, one larger than his own, and the other smaller than his mutoids' feet. Jenna Stannis and Olag Gan in all probability. So, they had opened the pod and sealed it up again: was there a dead man inside?
          Steeling himself for what he might find, he opened the hatch.
          It was Marryat.
          The features were blurred by decomposition, but recognisable. Considering that the body had been here for more than fifteen days, it was in quite good condition, despite the relatively warm ambient temperature.
          Once more Travis experienced that anger he had felt as Servalan had blithely explained how she had sacrificed the surgeon who had once saved his life. The memory of how he had stifled his natural revulsion, even when she proposed to post Marryat as a deserter and send his family into slavery, rose up to sicken him, and he cursed himself for meekly acquiescing to her abominable designs.
          A man of honour would have reported her to the High Council. But he was no longer a man of honour. Nor were most of the High Council, come to that - hypocrites, lickspittles and toadies, no more fitted to govern an empire than a pack of mutoids. With a shudder of self-loathing, he leaned down to retrieve the identity cards of his one-time saviour.
          They were gone.
          Wallet, pass-cards, dog-tags - Blake had them. Blake had seen those Triple-A security passes. Blake had talked to Ensor. Blake had Orac. Soon the Federation would learn what Orac was capable of.
          He stepped back. "Record that,'' he instructed the mutoid with the holocam.
          As she obeyed, he considered how to dispose of the body decently. The pod would make a good coffin, he concluded. Let it serve as Marryat's tomb. To keep the primitives from violating an officer's grave, he could weld the hatch closed by adjusting his hand-blaster ray. He would also burn the dead man's name and epitaph into the pod's surface.

Marryat

Surgeon
Federation Space Command

Died on active duty.


          A small gesture in the face of Servalan's inhumanity.


The first stone was thrown as they were filing through a narrow gully on their return journey. It struck the rearmost mutoid between the shoulder blades, causing her to stumble forward with a grunt of pained surprise. Her companions, hearing her clearly through their helmet communicators, wheeled about, guns at the ready, as several more missiles thudded down among them, one catching Travis painfully on his right shoulder.
          There was no need for orders; the mutoids threw themselves behind whatever cover they could find and returned fire with deadly effect, as a score of ragged men lumbered down the track towards them, or dropped from the sides of the ravine. In a few minutes the gully was choked with bodies, most completely motionless, but a few still twitching.
          Rising to his feet, Travis walked over to the wretched heap, followed by his mutoids. Three or four primitives were alive. he bent to check their injuries, then hauled out the one with the least severe wound.
          "Finish them off,'' he ordered curtly, gesturing towards the rest. The mutoids were thorough and efficient.


Somewhat to his surprise, Rai was having a pleasant holiday in Hesquiat. True, it wasn't a holiday resort, but it was lively and bustling, with plenty of attractions. For the last six days, he had been comfortably established in a study suite in a small hotel near the university, where his hired communications equipment aroused not a flicker of interest and his cover story was accepted without question.
          He took pleasure in standing at his open window watching the breeze stirring the early summer foliage of the ornamental trees in the hotel's little rear courtyard. Between two buildings he could see part of the campus grounds and processions of students moving between lectures, or shoals of bodies lying on the grass when the sun was warm. It made a delightful contrast to the sterile life of Space Command's arid compartments.
          So far, his voice-operated system had recorded little of interest; apart from answering her intercom, Servalan generally worked in silence. He was normally able to work through each day's file by mid-morning, which left the rest of the day for other pursuits. He even went so far as to do an hour or two's genuine study towards his exams, but in the afternoons and evenings he merged into the campus life and forgot many of his anxieties in carefree company.
          The lack of incriminating material and the complete absence of Travis or any mention of his name, combined with this pleasant life-style to induce a mood of relaxation as he strolled back from a hearty breakfast on the seventh morning. He switched on his computer and settled back with his headphones on to listen to the latest recording.

  "You sent for me, Supreme Commander?''
  "Come in Major Imry - take a seat. Now, I have been considering ways of decoying the Liberator into our territory.''
  "Does it involve Amagons this time, Ma'am?''
  "Not this project, you'll be glad to hear. That method is unlikely to succeed again. It's a pity Tarvin wasn't a more efficient jailer... Did you hear that his mother tried to get compensation from the Federation for his death?''
  "Oh yes, Ma'am. We had a good laugh about that. The surviving crewman told me that the Stannis woman had once been Tarvin's mistress and she easily persuaded him to believe that she wanted to change sides; then she killed several guards and released the prisoners - simple as that.''
  "That's one of the reasons I don't mean to try that one again. By all accounts she's distributed her favours pretty generously around the Croziers and the Vilkonens as well. However, it is through her that I mean to bait the trap. She is the only member of the crew who has the family connections that we shall need.''
  "Indeed, Ma'am?''
  "Our researches into her background reveal that a number of her cousins are trading around the independents, with occasional forays into Federation Territory. They are: Brig Stannis, often accompanied by his sister Margit, running the freighter Sointula; Tod Baran in the Raynor; and Logan Stannis and his wife Milana in the Texada, a converted fast cruise ship. As Stannis is the pilot of the Liberator, where she goes, it goes, so our aim is to bring her to meet one of her relatives in a suitable place. Your task is to track down those relatives, select a suitable set and lure them to `Planet X'.''
  "I take your drift, Supreme Commander, but how is this relative to make contact with her? It's been more than a year since she joined up with Blake and she seems to have kept away from her old associates completely, apart from the Avalon woman.''
  "This bit of information is for your ears only, Major. Blake has acquired a supercomputer, Orac, from its inventor. Travis and I recently tried to frustrate the deal, but owing to Liberator's superior speed, we were too late. We believe this machine has greatly enhanced networking and data collection capabilities. If we were to place information on certain computers, it could retrieve it.''
  "Are you telling me that Orac can tap into our most secure databases?''
  "I am. It also intercepts messages. Blake and his crew are only human, so I expect they have instructed Orac to report any references to themselves and their families that it may come across. A threat to a relative, or an attractive business offer from one of them, should draw Stannis in.''
          Rai sat in frozen stillness for a long time after the voices ceased. Eventually he roused himself to pour a stiff drink from the liqueur bottle he had bought at some bar. As he drank it slowly, sip by sip, a resolve was born in him - he was going to warn Jenna Stannis of the trap being prepared for her.
          Then he was going to desert.
          He knew, as every fleet officer knew, that their families were sent into slavery if they deserted, therefore he must fake his own death. From now on, he was a resister. Yet he knew almost nothing of resisters, apart from the crew of the Liberator. Well, he would have to make contacts and learn.
          The drink warmed him. He poured another. Behind his revulsion, he realised, there lurked another, more reprehensible feeling - satisfaction.
          Well, Madam High and Mighty, what would you do if you knew that a lowly adjutant was listening to all your plots and working to frustrate them? Who'd have thought that your pretty boy Rai had it in him, eh? Oh yes, I know what they say in the officers' mess, and I know what those looks and touches of your are leading up to. Do you imagine that I want to bed down with a tarantula old enough to be my mother? And to think that I worried about hurting your feelings with a rejection. What a laugh!
          He caught sight of his face in the mirror. It looked unfamiliar, something had happened to it.


"This is it,'' mumbled the prisoner through swollen lips. He jerked his head towards the metal door in the rock face. "They ran in here and we never saw them again.''
          Travis tried the door; it was securely bolted from within.
          "Locked,'' he muttered.
          "The Guardians let them in.''
          "What Guardians?''
          "The women who guard the sanctuary. In there.''
          "And then, you say, they flew away in a rocket.''
          "A great flaming tube. It rose out of the hill over there. Its thunder shook the ground and it burned brighter than the sun.''
          Travis looked up at the hillside. A rocket silo would be easy to excavate in this soft chalk, but this one must have been constructed generations ago before the wars that had wrecked a civilisation. Why would they launch a spaceship when Avon and the others were equipped with their teleport bracelets? Was it worth investigation? Probably not. Liberator and its crew were far from here. Following their trail across this unimportant planet would be mere curiosity. He shrugged and turned away, signalling to the others to follow him.
          They had gone about five paces when there came a metallic scraping sound from behind them. Six heads swivelled in unison; the door was opening inwards. A woman in blue robes appeared on the threshold.
          "Welcome, lords,'' she said, smiling beatifically.


Once inside the room at the end of the tunnel, a mutoid consulted her instruments and pronounced it safe to remove their helmets. They did so, and looked about them at the banks of instrumentation and the grimy glass panes of the windows overlooking the blackened empty silo. The caverns were bright with artificial lighting, but the stumps of candles stood on many surfaces. All very primitive, Travis decided.
          He gestured to the mutoids to lower their weapons, then he turned to the woman. "This primitive says that a rocket was launched from here a few days ago.''
          She nodded. "The Lord Avon called it a `chemical rocket'. It was he who sent it on its way, as it was foretold. Our deliverance.'' Her smile grew dreamily romantic. "Are you friends of his?''
          This was too easy, Travis reflected with an ironic inner smile. "Yes,'' he said, "we were hoping to catch up with him. I trust he is in good health?''
          She nodded again, entirely missing the note of mockery in his voice.
          "Who was aboard the rocket?'' he enquired.
          "No living souls. The Lord Gan referred to them as `genetic banks and brood units'. They will come to life when the rocket reaches its destination, many hundreds of years from now.''
          "So now you guard an empty sanctuary.''
          "Not for long,'' said a new voice. A newcomer had entered the room; an older woman clad in dark blue, coolly assured in contrast to the other's naive enthusiasm. Meegat made a hasty reverence, which was accepted with a regal nod.
          Travis sketched a respectful bow. He was reminded of Servalan in one of her more lofty moods. "What will you do, now your task is fulfilled?''
          "A messenger was sent to the city, five day's journey to the south, and he has returned with instructions. An escort will come for us and we will go back to our people. There will be a final celebration and Meegat will recount her meeting with the strangers and the fulfilment of the prophecy.''
          Well, well. So Avon was an instrument of fate. Travis suppressed an appreciative smile. "Would the Lady Meegat be so kind as to relate the story to us?'' he asked.
          Meegat would. Reciting every word of conversation with the fluency of one accustomed to an oral tradition, she described the arrival of three men, their examination of the control room and identification of its contents, the expedition to rescue Jenna Stannis from the village and the launch of the ancient rocket. They had used the old communications equipment to contact Blake, who was returning from somewhere, and they had rejoined their ship some hours later, using their magical bracelets.
          "Now tell us how you come to be here,'' interposed the older woman, as Meegat finished.
          "Like the crew of the Liberator, we were searching for some missing comrades, Ensor and Marryat. We believed their spaceship had crashed in this area. The primitive tells us that Ensor was rescued by Avon and his followers and transported to their ship, but Marryat was killed in the accident. He was my particular friend,'' he added somberly. "We have found his body and sealed it for ever in the escape pod that became his tomb.''
          The woman inclined her head in dignified sympathy. "It is a sacred duty,'' she said. Then she extended her hand. "I am Esta, Director of the College of Guardians. I greet you on their behalf.''
          She transferred her gaze to the prisoner, who had subsided on the floor, huddled against a control desk. "You have brought a tribesman in here. What is wrong with him?''
          "His tribe attacked us,'' said Travis blandly. "We were forced to use our weapons in self-defence and some were wounded. We have questioned this man about Avon, and he alleges that when the primitives attacked the Liberator's party, they took refuge in here. Since we have heard no news of Avon or Ensor, we are anxious about them.''
          "Why haven't your women tended his wounds?'' she asked sharply, eyeing the impassive mutoids.
          "They are trained as soldiers, not medics.''
          "Unfortunate for you, should you be wounded yourself,'' she commented ironically, looking directly at his eyepatch.
          "I have had that experience,'' he conceded.
          She turned to Meegat. "Fetch Zara,'' she commanded.
          Meegat disappeared.
          "Our infirmarer can see to him.'' She turned those uncomfortably penetrating eyes back to Travis. "And now that you know what became of your friends, what will you do?''
          Leave now, her manner implied.
          They might as well, Travis reflected. There was nothing further to discover here and the Federation had no interest in this wretched hole. He smiled faintly.
          "If we can leave this man in your care, Madam, we should make haste back to our ship.'' He signalled the mutoids to follow him. "Helmets on,'' he ordered.


"They've gone!'' Meegat exclaimed, re-entering the room with Zara in tow. "So soon?''
          "They had what they came for,'' Esta replied austerely. She gave a grimace of distaste. "There's something about that man that I don't entirely like.''
          "Oh yes!'' said Meegat fervently. "He's nothing compared to the Lord Avon. If only you could have met him.''
          Esta gave her a long-suffering look. Meegat's ecstasies were becoming rather wearing.
          "How is your patient, Zara?''
          The Infirmarer was busy with lotions and dressings. "He's been severely beaten as well as wounded, and these look like small burns. He'll need several days care, if not weeks, but he should make a reasonable recovery.''
          Esta bent over their unexpected guest, wrinkling her nose slightly at his strong body odour. His eyes were tightly shut and his teeth clenched so hard that his neck muscles stood out.
          "He is only young,'' she said. "Give him every care and clean him up and shave him. Now that our traditional mission is fulfilled, it is time we made a serious effort to help the tribes.'' And a grateful young man should make a very useful emissary, she added to herself.


"What course, Commander?'' enquired the mutoid pilot, as Travis's pursuit ship cleared Cephlon's atmosphere.
          "Vananda, top speed. We have a little matter to attend to there.''
          She nodded and keyed the destination into the auto-navigator.
          Travis sat back and brooded on his next move. Before he reported to Servalan that Marryat was indeed dead, he had time to remove his family to safety. Marryat's wife, he had discovered, worked as an industrial chemist at a plant in Hesquiat; all he had to do was land unobtrusively in the countryside and fetch her. He knew a couple of people he could blackmail into smuggling her away to independent territory. After that she would have to shift for herself. Better than slavery, though.


Isola Marryat was clearing away the supper dishes when the sharp rap sounded at her apartment door. Surprised but not disquieted, she exchanged a look with her young daughter.
          "Answer the door dear, I've got my hands full.'' She bustled into the kitchen and deposited her tray. A moment later she was chilled to hear a cry of dismay from the child. She rushed out to investigate, but pulled up sharply at the sight of two mutoids in the entrance vestibule, blasters levelled straight at her child.
          "Into the room,'' said one.
          Dumbstruck, she reached out for her daughter's arm and drew her back into the living room. As they entered, her son leaped to his feet with a cry of protest.
          "Sit down, Jamie,'' she hissed, frantic to prevent him from irritating their visitors. Everyone know that mutoids would kill anybody without blinking an eye. Her husband had once solemnly warned her never to argue with one, just to obey instantly. To her relief he subsided into his chair. "You too, Caro,'' she said to her daughter. "Go and sit beside Jamie.''
          This seemed to win the mutoids' approval.
          "Here are your instructions,'' said the leader. "Pack a light bag of clothing for yourself and one for each child.'' She motioned her to move. "The children will stay here, I will come with you. You have five minutes.''
          On shaking legs, Isola stumbled into the children's sleeping quarters and opened their cupboard. As she stuffed things into their holiday backpacks, she heard Jamie cry, "Bring my spaceship!''
          "Where is it?'' she called back, flustered.
          "On my bunk.''
          As she swung round to look for it, the mutoid coolly reached over and handed the toy to her. "Thank you,'' she stammered, wondering what to make of the gesture.
          The mutoid's beautiful features remained impassively composed. "Bring all your financial documents and identity cards,'' she said.
          A few minutes later, after the subordinate had checked that the stairs were deserted, the little procession stole out of the rear exit and round the corner to a small ground car.
          Instead of starting the vehicle as soon as they were inside, the leader turned to Isola in the back seat. "Where do you normally collect your cash tokens?''
          Isola blinked - they wanted money?
          "At the till by the factory gate. But it'll look odd if I go there at this time of night.'' She recollected her scattered wits. "If I were in town for the evening, I would use the one by the Victory Theatre.''
          "Direct the driver to it. When you get there, withdraw as much as you can. You will need it.''
          Isola felt faintly reassured by this instruction. If she needed money, maybe they weren't heading for prison after all.
          She had to queue among the evening crowds looking for entertainment in Hesquiat's theatres, clubs and bars, but no-one paid any attention to her. Since her children were prisoners in the car, she made no attempt to appeal for help or to use one of the public communications booths. From now on she must bend all her efforts towards protecting Caro and Jamie.
          Finally it was her turn; with a few key-strokes she emptied the account and closed it. Unlike the general public, families of Fleet officers were permitted do this easily because they were liable to be transferred at short notice. As she made her way back to the vehicle, she paused in a doorway and slid half the money into the secret pocket in the back of her coat. Would mutoids know about this favourite device of migrating Fleet wives? She had learnt it from others, years before. "Don't even tell your husband,'' they said.
          Her husband. What had become of him? It must be bad news to warrant this sudden descent, she thought despairingly. He surely couldn't have deserted? He never would; at least, not without first getting his family to safety. Was he dead? Fleet surgeons of his rank didn't normally accompany troops into dangerous situations, but there was that top security rating of his - maybe some top secret mission had come to grief, or could he have been killed in some kind of coup? No whisper of any such event had leaked out. Was he a prisoner for his part in some such coup? Were they going to be used as hostages to pry information out of him, or force him to surrender if he wasn't already in their hands? Everyone had heard awful stories about the unfortunates who fell foul of the security forces. She shivered as she walked towards her fate.


"They are aboard, Commander. I have locked them in the aft cabin as you ordered.''
          "Good.'' Travis turned to the pilot. "Take off. Destination, the main cargo export station.'' This was the large orbiting station where outgoing goods were loaded aboard the deep-space freighters. The station's security chief owed Travis a favour for not reporting some irregularities a few months ago. He would do as he was told and keep his mouth shut afterwards. The mutoids, of course, would be sent for blanking as soon as they arrived at headquarters - Servalan herself had commanded it.
          As soon as they had achieved orbit, he handed an envelope to a mutoid and instructed her to deliver it to Isola. It's contents were brief and to the point.

  "Your husband was killed on a secret mission that failed. Space Command is covering up by posting him as a deserter. To prevent his family being sent into slavery, some of his colleagues are smuggling you away to independent territory. Take a new name and change your appearance. The rest is up to you.''
          Isola leant back against the wall and closed her eyes, letting the tears course silently down her face. As bad as she had feared - and yet not quite. Somebody with the authority to command mutoids was sending them to safety. At least her husband's colleagues honoured his memory, she could derive a little comfort from that. So the rest was up to her? Well, many a Fleet wife was used to running a household and a career single-handed between brief visits from her husband. She would find work.
          The paper was twitched out of her hand.
          She sat up with a start. Caro, whom she had thought asleep, was standing before her, reading it. It was piteous to see the lines of misery and restraint settle on a child's face; silently, before her unhappy eyes, her daughter seemed to put away her childhood. Isola reached out and drew her down beside her. There they spent the rest of the short voyage, arms around each other, watching over the sleeping Jamie on the other bunk.


  "Well, Travis, what news?''
  "We found some wreckage from Ensor's ship and two escape pods. One pod was empty, but the other contained Marryat's body.''
  "So he's definitely dead. Any trace of Ensor?''
  "We questioned some local inhabitants who reported that Avon, Stannis, Restal and Gan searched the area and removed Ensor, who was alive but seriously injured. Apparently they teleported him back to the Liberator, but the savages had captured Stannis, so they came back to look for her, which took several hours. There was a further delay, according to one informant, because Blake took the ship away for some reason. Altogether, they were on the planet for more than ten hours. Quite enough to give them radiation sickness, as you supposed.''
  "Evidently Ensor died aboard the Liberator, but not before telling Blake about his mission.''
  "And Blake went to investigate. If the explosive charges hadn't gone off so close to the planet, all this would never have happened. Somebody miscalculated.''
  "Are you on your way back here?''
  "Yes.''
  "Report to me when you arrive. Over and out.''
          Rai frowned - what was that all about? Why that insolent edge to Travis's voice. Marryat had certainly left the station, but why send a surgeon on a special mission? And who was Ensor?


Servalan, unusually for her, was a prey to indecision. Should she post Marryat as a deserter after all, or could she weave his disappearance into the fabrication she was preparing to counter any allegations Blake might make about Orac? Any day now some infernal busybody from the High Council could show up, or she could be summoned back to Earth to face a tribunal. She must think of a good defence. Meanwhile, she would have Marryat's family taken into custody as a precaution. She pressed the button to summon the adjutant.
          "Tell Major Imry I want him."


A tap on the door. "Rai, are you in there?''
          Rai blanked his screen before rising and opening his door. Pernel, a post-graduate biochemist, stood there, her pretty face furrowed with concern. She was the favourite companion of his social life, a gentle, humorous girl with whom he'd clicked immediately. He already felt a great affection for her, and the thought of their inevitable parting was painful. He moved aside for her to enter.
          "What's up, Rai? You've suddenly gone all quiet.''
          Impossible to confide in her, it would put both of them in danger. Rai cast around for an explanation while he poured her a mug of coffee.
          "I've just hit a difficult part in my studies,'' he managed, hoping he didn't sound as unconvincing as he felt. After all, there was a certain truth in his excuse. "I don't really understand it.''
          "Is that why you've been shut up here for days? Perhaps someone in one of the faculties could explain it to you. What subject is it?''
          "I was coming to that conclusion myself,'' he answered, wishing to head her off from the subject itself. "Drink up. Let's go out for some fresh air.''
          She smiled happily and tucked her arm through his.
          In the lobby, they met the hotel proprietress, Ottilie, who gave them a nod and a smile. She was apt to chide Rai for working too long at his computer. Evidently this expedition had her approval.
          Pernel elected to head for the riverside walks, which took them down one of the wide residential boulevards. As they approached the far end, four security troopers came out of an apartment block. Rai stifled an urge to run in the opposite direction and stretched his ears to catch their conversation as they passed by.
          "It was the right address, sir,'' one of the troopers was insisting. "It said `Marryat' on the door.''
          "She's not at work, the children aren't at school. They're gone. She's been warned.''
          Then they were out of earshot.
          "I hate to see that,'' said Pernel, with a shudder. "You realise they meant to arrest a whole family?'' She heaved a sigh. "At least your work in Space Command doesn't have to do with thugs like that.''
          "I see them around sometimes,'' he answered, preoccupied with what he had just heard. Marryat, the dead surgeon. If they were rounding up his family, they must have posted him as a deserter to keep the mission secret. That meant slavery for his wife and children. Not for the first time, the discovery made him feel ill.
          "Rai, you look dreadful,'' Pernel was saying urgently. "Sit down here.''
          They had reached the river bank and she had led him over to a bench among the willows. He sat down shakily.
          "What is it?''
          "Oh Pernel, I feel so ashamed to belong to the service. I can't stand it any more. I know - I can't tell you - don't ask - it's not safe for you to know.''
          Pernel put a comforting arm around his shoulders. "Calm down,'' she said. "I think I know some people who may be able to help you.''


  "Where are they?''
  "Who?''
  "The Marryat family!''
  "Disappeared, have they?''
  "You spirited them away.''
  "Did I?''
  "Don't even think of lying to me, Travis!''
  "Very well, I sent them a warning. Evidently it was heeded.''
  "You'll pay for this.''
  "I'm in so much trouble that a bit more can hardly matter.''
  "Where are they?''
  "I deliberately didn't ask or make any suggestions. Independent territory, don't you think?''
  "Oh, get out!''
          It was high time she sent Travis on that `retraining' course, Servalan reflected. With a strong recommendation that they should attempt to instill a little more obedience and loyalty into his character. But for all his problems, he was still the best agent she had. She wouldn't wish to lose his services.


Rai felt rather comforted after listening to this exchange. Whoever would have thought that the grim Travis could give way to a humanitarian impulse? Marryat must have been a friend, if Travis had any friends. No wonder he'd sounded rather insubordinate last time. Doubtless Servalan would carry out her threat to make him pay for it, but at least the surgeon's family were safe.
          He was finding his surveillance oddly addictive. These glimpses of his Supreme Commander's modus operandi had a certain horrid fascination. Were all Federation senior officials like this? Probably, said his newly-cynical alter ego.
          Well, now he could turn all his attention to Imry's plot to entrap the Stannises.


Major Imry was smiling wolfishly at his screen. The message on it was most satisfactory:

The Texada is expected to dock at Orensa in five days time to deliver an electronics shipment. I shall let it be known that we have a cargo they might be interested in.
          That cargo would bring Logan Stannis to Federation territory, and then a little duplicity or pressure should persuade him to summon his famous relative to his side. Bringing one's wife along on these adventures was sheer folly, wasn't it?


"Er - Secretary Rontane to see you, Ma'am.'' The adjutant sounded apologetic, and well he might, for everyone on the base was acquainted with their Supreme Commander's opinion of Rontane.
          "Has he got Bercol with him?''
          "No Ma'am.''
          That was something to be grateful for. A visit from the weasely Rontane was bad enough, but putting up with Bercol's stupidity as well was enough to drive one to drink. Did the President pick these two in order to assess how well she could cope with irritants?
          "Tell him I'll be available in twenty minutes. Make him comfortable, offer him refreshments and so forth.''
          "Yes Ma'am.''
          Now for it. Servalan braced herself, her story had better be fireproof.

  "Well Secretary, to what do I owe the honour of this visit?''
  "The President has received a strange communication, purporting to come from Blake himself, alleging that you allowed him to make off with a revolutionary new supercomputer code-named `Orac'.''
  "Does it seem likely to you that I would do such a thing?''
  "It does not. However, the timing does coincide with a recent absence of yours in the company of Travis, or so we are informed. Would you care to explain what you were doing, and why you haven't reported your expedition? It does smack of some sort of cover-up, particularly as we are informed that Travis came back with his artificial hand badly damaged.''
  "Very well. I had hoped to pursue this matter to a successful conclusion before making my report, but so be it. A man named Ensor made contact with Space Command to request our help in obtaining power cells for his father's artificial heart.''
  "Why Space Command instead of a medical supply warehouse?''
  "Two reasons; the artificial heart is now obsolete so he was having difficulty in obtaining the power cells, and he also needed a surgeon to install the power cells if he could find them.''
  "So who is this father, that Space Command should take any interest in him?''
  "The inventor of Orac. Ensor senior is the long-lost inventor of the Tariel Cell. You look blank, Secretary. Well, communications hardware is of little interest to you, perhaps. Suffice it to say that all our modern computers contain them. With such credentials behind him, I was prepared to investigate his offer to sell Orac to the Federation for two million credits. Since I judged it necessary to maintain strict secrecy, I selected Space Surgeon Marryat, who carried the highest level security clearance, to go to Ensor, perform the operation, assess their claims about Orac and report back to me.''
  "What went wrong?''
  "Marryat discovered that the Liberator was on its way to Ensor's planet. Blake had made a bigger offer and Ensor was preparing to do a deal. Marryat sent me a message and Travis and I left post-haste to forestall it. When we arrived, Blake and the Auron woman were there, both Ensors were dead and Marryat too. We attempted to stop them but Avon and Restal came round behind us. Travis's hand was blasted by Avon when he tried to shoot Blake.''
  "I'm surprised you're alive to tell the tale, if what you say is true.''
  "So am I, but Blake is oddly squeamish about shedding blood. He prefers to get the Federation to do his dirty work for him. Hence this attempt to discredit me.''
  "Where is Travis, by the way?''
  "Away on a mission.''
  "Hmm. And may one enquire what this `successful conclusion' you mentioned earlier would be?''
  "Of course. Major Imry and I are working on a plan to use Orac's capabilities against Blake. Orac will `discover' a message that we hope will bring Blake hot-foot into our trap.''
  "I see. Well, I shall not enquire into the details, so you can be sure that if things do go wrong, it was not through my agency.''
  "Very thoughtful of you, Secretary.''
What a liar the woman was, Rai told himself as he listened to this. How quickly a little knowledge had dispelled every last vestige of the respect in which he had once held her. He discovered that he could even smile mockingly at her shifts and evasions. When he was safely `dead' he might send Rontane some of his recordings. He found the thought of holding such power over Servalan highly stimulating. Lord only knew what he might find out tomorrow.
          Meanwhile, how much should he confide in Pernel's young revolutionary friend, Gage? Not a lot. It was all too tempting to pour out his troubles to sympathetic ears, but he would be a fool to risk telling more than they already knew. He was well aware that most student groups had been infiltrated by the intelligence services. Not a word about his surveillance activities or the plot against the Stannises must pass his lips, but if the boy had the connections to get him off the planet and help fake his death, he would use them.
          His worst problem was that he had no knowledge of Imry's progress. Any report made to Servalan had not been in a form he could pick up with his equipment - a handwritten note, a computer message, a conversation in a corridor - none of these were accessible to him. If he heard nothing over the next few days he would have to take the risk of broadcasting a message in the hopes that the supercomputer Orac would pick it up, and pray that the security forces didn't do likewise.
          For the present he must keep up his cover story and draw no attention to himself. An opportunity might present itself.


  "You wanted to see me, Major?''
  "Yes ma'am. This is for your ears only, so as a precaution would you please disconnect the intercom?''
  "Very well. Now, what is it?''
  "I have located two of the Stannises and I want my agent to pose as an arms dealer wishing to engage their services in smuggling a cargo to a rebellious Federation planet.''
  "You'd better fill me in.''
  "Logan and Milana Stannis will arrive at Orensa in a few days time with a cargo of electronics for the armaments warehouse there. Our agent will ask them to pick up her cargo and take it to wherever. Our troops can seize them when they come for it.''
  "Make sure you don't damage them.''
  "Certainly, ma'am. We mean to take them and their ship undamaged.''
  "If you succeed, there should be a promotion in it for you.''
  "That would be very gratifying, Supreme Commander.''
Rai felt quite weak with relief on hearing this - at last, names, places and times. He knew that Orensa was the foremost commercial city on Regis Two and he had access to most levels of the Federation's information services. Finding the main arms dealers should be possible and contacting them, through intermediaries if necessary, shouldn't tax his ingenuity too much. He turned to his console and got busy.


The cafe was dimly lit and crowded for lunch when Rai and Pernel entered. It dispensed cheap food and was obviously popular with the student body and manual workers. Pernel steered him through the hubbub to a booth which was already occupied by her friend Gage and two other students. Gage greeted them with a wave. "Room for both of you here,'' he said, with a smile. "You've just time for a snack before lectures.''
          Shortly before the cheerful little meal ended, Rai felt a prod on his side. Looking down, he saw a piece of paper beside his leg. He slipped it into his pocket.
          "Well, I don't have to attend lectures,'' he said, grinning, as the others rose to go. "I shall stay and have some of that fruit thingy with cream on it.''
          They laughed. "You'll regret it,'' said one. "Pernel could tell you some awful stories about what goes into that alleged cream.''
          The note said: "Go to the clothing shop across the road and look in the window. You will be contacted.''
          Actually, the stuff in the crowded window wasn't bad, and Rai was quite absorbed in the display when he became aware of another reflection in the glass beside him. He recognised one of the men who had been standing at the cafe bar - too old to be a student, a technician by the look of him - mild rounded features, thinning hair, not very tall, nobody you'd notice in a crowd.
          "Follow a few paces behind me until I give you a signal to join me,'' he murmured.
          Rai was led through the city centre streets to a large museum where they took an escalator to the top and wandered through a long room full of ancient sculpture. At the far end was a door labelled `Staff Only'. His guide produced a key and unlocked it.
          "The security cameras will have recorded us,'' said Rai, when the door was locked behind them.
          The man produced a small box from his pocket. "They're always going on the blink. The whole system needs replacing.'' He smiled conspiratorially.
          Rai gave an answering smile and relaxed somewhat. They climbed a stairway that took them into a vast attic lit by skylights, which ran the length of the wing. Evidently it was some kind of laboratory, full of littered benches, microscanners and strange chemical smells.
          "Conservation and Repair,'' the man said with a wave of the hand. "There used to be ten people employed up here, now it's just me. You may call me Nevin, by the way.'' He turned and gave Rai an uncomfortably searching look. "Now, what do you really want?''
          Rai took a deep breath.
          "It's true I am going to desert. I'm genuinely sickened by the Federation and its activities, but as you guessed, that's not all of it. I don't want those students drawn into it - I'm sure I don't have to tell you how dangerous it might be for them.'' He gave a bitter smile. "Student groups are riddled with informers. Once suspicion settled on them, they'd be done for. Travis or Imry would get the information out of them in minutes.''
          He paused for a moment, fiddling with a piece of equipment while he marshalled his thoughts.
          "I have come across a plot to trap some prominent resistance leaders with an elaborate deception. I need to get a message to an arms supplier on Regis Two warning somebody not to take the bait. The Federation has an agent there who is setting the trap, so I need to very sure that she doesn't intercept it.''
          Nevin smiled comprehendingly. "Ah, the famous BG's Warehouse, eh? Armorer to the galaxy's dissidents.''
          "That's the one. Have you any contacts?''
          "You need someone who can give the message to BG himself. It can be done if we consider it worthwhile. Who are these prominent leaders?''
          "Blake and the crew of the Liberator.''
          He had scored a hit. Nevin's eyebrows shot up. "Roj Blake, Jenna Stannis, Kerr Avon, Olag Gan and Vila Restal,'' he enumerated. "But it's the ship they want, isn't it?''
          Rai nodded. "Jenna Stannis is a freetrader and so are most of her relatives. It's one of her cousins, Logan Stannis, whom they mean to use to lure the Liberator into a trap. They're going to hire him to pick up an arms cargo for some fake dissidents, arrest him and force him to contact her.'' He produced a datadisk from his pocket. "It's all on here.''
          Nevin took it and fed into a computer terminal on the desk. He ran through Imry's conversation with Servalan twice, then looked up.
          "You're right - it must be stopped. We will send the message.''
          He smiled at Rai's sigh of relief. "What about you?''
          "I need help in faking my own death, otherwise my family will pay dearly for my desertion. Then I want to get away to neutral territory and maybe join up with the rebels.''
          "Hmm... Tell me how you came by this recording.''
          Rai explained about his surveillance methods and cover story at the hotel.
          "Very good for a beginner,'' said Nevin appreciatively, "particularly for someone working alone. You must have a talent for it. Perhaps you could have a career in front of you. The freetraders employ spies and hackers for their own massive database about Federation troop movements and security services. With your knowledge of the system, you could be very useful to them. You should head for BG's yourself, he is almost certainly one of the leading organisers.''
          Spying? Rai pulled a face at that, but what else had he been doing these last twelve days? It would be wise to take advantage of any such offer, however, if it got him safely away from here.
          "How would I get there?'' he asked. "I've only a junior officer's pay.''
          "Don't worry about that. We can smuggle you out as freighter crew. Meanwhile, there's a great deal you can tell us about Space Command headquarters.''
          Here it comes, thought Rai, I'm to be grilled by their experts to make sure I'm not a double-agent. The prospect made him wince.

WIDER STILL

Logan Stannis was smiling lightheartedly as he stepped out into the sunshine. There was no pleasanter feeling than being paid promptly on delivery of a cargo, and BG's Warehouse, supplier of arms and surveillance equipment to independents and Federation rebels, was the promptest and most reliable of payers. He and Milana would celebrate tonight.
          "Pardon me,'' said a soft voice beside him, "are you the captain of the Texada?''
          He turned to see a small woman looking up at him with an uncertain smile.
          "Uhuh. How may I serve you?'' he enquired good-humouredly.
          "Well, we are looking for a ship to transport a large cargo for us and yours is the biggest freighter in dock at the moment, according to my information.''
          "I expect your information is correct,'' he said with a happy grin. "Let's discuss the matter in that bar over there.''


"My name is Chandirasikar,'' said his companion, settling into a booth with her glass, "usually known as Madam Chan.'' She paused for a sip at her drink and eyed him appraisingly. "I must be frank with you - this cargo consists of heavy armaments, ah, liberated from a Federation supply base. Would you be prepared to run it into a Federation planet?''
          "Hmm... risky.''
          "You'd be well paid, and we hear that you've done it before.''
          "Well now, who exactly do you represent?''
          "A group of freedom fighters, allies of the great leader, Avalon. Our commander's name is Zoltan. It may be known to you.''
          "Sounds familiar. I'll have the agency check him out for reliability, credit-worthiness and so forth. My wife will insist on it.'' A smile was seldom far from Logan's lips and his mouth twitched again. Milana Stannis was famous for her bargaining powers and the thoroughness of her security checks. With her by his side to do the negotiating he could relax in the happy confidence that his interests were being well looked after.
          "Certainly,'' said Madam Chan smoothly. "We want you to have complete confidence in our good faith. We may have other jobs for you if this goes well.''
          Logan took a long pull at his beer. "So, tell me what you want me to do.''


  "What is it, Major?''
  "We've run into a problem with the Stannis project, ma'am. They seem to be very suspicious, and insist that the arms are left on a different asteroid, where they can check that there's no ship within a million spacials when they come in."
  "So land the security troops and take the ships out of range."
  "I'm afraid that won't do, Supreme Commander. They also say they will scan for traces of animal life, so we won't get them that way. If we are going to capture them, we need an actual cargo, then we can seize them as they deliver the arms. They'll be expecting to detect animal life signs at their rendezvous with the rebels, so we can have an army to meet them if we like. I need your authority to put one together.''
  "Use empty crates, man."
  "Again, that won't work. You can be sure they'll run a scanner over every crate - these smugglers always do."
  "You're asking me to take a big risk. It could fall into the wrong hands.''
  "I'm not suggesting state of the art equipment, ma'am. Old stuff from the stores will do perfectly well. We don't have to conceal its Federation origins since thefts of this sort are commonplace. Most rebels are armed with our old equipment.''
  "Which is why I've always argued that it should be destroyed rather than stockpiled.''
  "Quite so, ma'am. Our agent has compiled a list of the sort of items they would want. She says we should get them to Asteroid Viglos 81 in nine days time if we want to succeed. May I have your authority to requisition them from stores?''
  "Let me see the list... Good grief! This had better not go astray. It may be obsolescent in our terms, but it's still deadly in knowledgeable hands.''
  "Anything less and they'll be suspicious, ma'am. They know their business.''
  "Very well. If we play for high stakes I suppose we must put up a credible opening bid. Have your agent record all contacts and interviews - I shall want to see them.''
  "Certainly, ma'am. There is one possible bonus. I believe we can catch several birds in one net by interesting a rebel group in receiving the cargo. We know where to contact one of Avalon's group leaders, Zoltan. It would be amusing to round him up at the same time, don't you think?''
  "Very. He may even pay us for the stuff.''


It was long after midnight when Rai staggered back to his room dizzy and disoriented from the drugs he had been given. The next morning's sun was a most unwelcome sight to his overtaxed eyes, awakening a vicious throb in his befogged brain. He groaned and tried burying his face in the pillows, but it was no use, a pounding headache and a bone-dry mouth drove him to get up and stumble downstairs in search of relief.
          The hotel proprietress grinned as she handed over a packet of capsules. "Where were you last night?''
          "Don't ask. I can't remember most of it, anyway. Ohhh.... Never again.''
          "Well, anyone can see you're not used to it. Knock those back and go to bed.'' Rai's air of youthful innocence made him a favourite with her, but she affected to be hard-boiled, so she concealed her solicitude behind a knowing smile.
          By mid-afternoon the worst was over and he had recollected quite a lot of the evening before. His chief feeling was one of embarrassment at some of the things he could recall telling them under the influence of the drugs they had pumped into him. However, they must have been persuaded of his bona fides or he would never have made it back here.
          A vague memory nagged at him - there was something he must do when the signal came. What was the signal? That woman who had taken command of the inquisition, the Commandant, had she practised hypnosis on him? For a moment she came into focus again - those green eyes under dark brows and silver hair, that had caught and held his gaze so compellingly. What had he told her? And what had she commanded him to do?
          Perplexed, he dialled a coffee and sat down in front of his computer. He might as well run through the latest files as usual. Checking the directory, he noticed that there was only one short file, so little had happened during yesterday. Good, he wasn't up to lengthy concentration today. He put in his earphones and sat back.
          Moments later he was on his feet, galvanised, as knowledge surged into his brain. So that was it - post-hypnotic suggestion, triggered by the sound of Servalan's voice. Now he knew what he must do: transfer all his files and programs onto datadisks, leaving no hint of his activities apart from his legitimate studies. This evening he was to put the disks in his pocket and sally forth into the city centre, never to return. From now on he would reside at a safe house in another town, continuing his surveillance and briefing his hosts on security personnel at Space Command, and such access codes for the information databases as a junior officer would know.
          He sat down again to think over his own situation. His new allies had made it plain that he was to carry on with the surveillance as long as possible, but he knew that if the control and re-routing program were to be discovered in his computer at Space Command he would be revealed as a spy and deserter and his parents and sisters would pay the price. Well, there was a simple solution at his command. Prepare a worm program to be triggered from his new computer; either actively by sending a signal himself, or passively by his failure to input a password for longer than one day, in case he was moved on by his controllers without notice. He must obliterate his tracks in six days time, anyway, when he was due back at his desk, so he would build in that date as well.
          He felt much better once he had reached this decision. He would listen to this short recording, then unless it contained important revelations, he had time to dine at one of the better restaurants before reporting to his contact. If he was lucky, he would catch Pernel as she came out of her tutorial. He had a proposition to make to her. A proposal, even. His hangover had quite disappeared.
          Imry's conversation with Servalan caused him a certain sardonic amusement. So, the proposed victims were making life hard for the Major, were they? Well, details of this new development would be forwarded to them tonight. He copied everything onto a disk and erased the originals, as he had planned.
          "Going out again?'' said the proprietress, meeting him in the vestibule as he left. "You're looking better. They're very good, those pills.''
          "Yes,'' he replied, smiling cheerfully. "I'm hungry again, so I'm going to treat myself to a first class meal.'' And he strolled out with a jaunty wave of his hand. She smiled indulgently at his departing back.


  "Logan Stannis, BG? He may still be in town, but he's fixed up a cargo, so he might have left by now. I'll call Traffic Control and find out.''
  "Straight away, please. If he's gone, get his call sign and send a message for him to contact me immediately. Give him the High Security address.''
  "That urgent, huh?''
  "Yes. Get on with it!''

          "All right, I'm coming,'' muttered Logan. He shambled sleepily onto the bridge of the Texada, intent only on shutting off the infernal racket of his communications alarm. What was so urgent at this time of day?
          "Logan? Glad I caught you. Venner here.'' BG's manager. "Message from the boss - call him at once on KRE.13.12.9.14. Don't lose a minute.''
          "Acknowledged. Will do.''
          Well, if BG wants me to do a trip for him, he's going to have to outbid Madam Chan, Logan reflected, as he keyed in the address. Maybe there was a lucrative deal in the offing. He hoped Milana would soon be back from her shopping expedition. She was the financial brains of the outfit and he would need her with him if it came to haggling. Let's hope she's wearing her bleeper. He reached over and activated its controller.
  "Stannis here. What is it BG?''
  "Have you been offered an arms cargo, to be picked up at the Viglos asteroids?''
  "Damn and blast! Does everyone know?''
  "It's a trap. Supreme Commander Servalan is setting you up as bait to fetch Jenna and the Liberator.''
  "Shit!!''
  "Come to the warehouse and ask for me. We must talk.''
  "OK, just as soon as I've located Milana. She's on a shopping spree down town.''
          Logan was not really amazed at BG's knowledge of his dealings, the man's intelligence service was legendary. A few moments later his wife called in and promptly agreed to meet him at the warehouse. She seemed unperturbed by his news, merely saying that she would think things over and see what could be done to salvage the situation.
          Entering the cavernous warehouse, he felt his usual twinge of nervous awe of the place and its formidable proprietor. As soon as he crossed the threshold the surveillance system would focus on him, check his person for weapons and compare his face with the identity files in the databanks. The glass lobby contained two doors, separated by a hand-print sensor and communications unit. Beyond the glass, ordinary business premises and their occupants were visible - ranks of catalogue consoles for customers through the right-hand doorway, a squad of elevator doors behind the left-hand entrance - very normal. Except that everybody knew that any breach of security would trigger the force-field protection system and lock off the premises as impenetrably as if they had been transported to another planet. Little was known about this system, its power had been demonstrated once, and once only.
          He placed his hand on the sensor.
          "Logan Stannis is recognised and expected,'' said a soft female voice from the com-unit. "Please enter Lift Number Three.'' The left-hand door swung open.
          Number Three was the middle elevator. It looked identical to the other four, but inside there were no buttons or floor indicators. He stepped inside. To his surprise, he felt the lift start downwards. Either it was going slowly, or it travelled to a considerable depth, but it took half a minute to reach its destination.
          Sure enough there was a gleam in Milana's eye when he joined her in BG's outer office. Some people wondered that the handsome Logan, with more than his fair share of the Stannis looks, should have actually married the swarthy, snub-nosed Milana Jaroslavna, with her salty tongue and disrespectful ways. What was more, he was still with her eleven years later.
          She did not appear the least bit intimidated by her surroundings, greeting him with a wide grin. "Sit down, my love. I think we're going to make a tidy profit. Follow my lead.'' She patted the seat beside her.
          Logan had hardly started across the floor when the inner door opened and BG himself beckoned them inside. The grandson of the original founder, he was the subject of many rumours and legends, but his appearance was unimpressive and his manner mild, almost to diffidence. Only when crossed, did the herculaneum show through.
          "Who set up this deal,'' he enquired gently, as soon as they were seated. "Anyone I know?''
          "Madam Chan.''
          "Hmm. I can't say I'm too surprised to find that she is a Federation agent. What were your instructions?''
          "We were told that the stuff had been stolen from a Fed storage dump and deposited on Viglos 81 at an old mine. We were to take it to Sandoz Three and deliver it to a chap called Zoltan.''
          BG frowned. "One of Avalon's allies.''
          "Exactly. We've checked him out, and it all seems OK. We told them we'd take all the usual precautions - check for animal life presence on the asteroid - no ships within a million spacials - examine the cargo, and all that - half the money up front and the rest on delivery - the standard arrangements. They agreed without a murmur.''
          "Have you had a cargo manifest?''
          "Here it is.''
          BG read it carefully. "Perfectly good stuff,'' he commented. "Whoever put this together knew what they were doing.''
          Milana chose this moment to cut in. "Now we've established that, let's talk about turning this to our own advantage. We sell the stuff to some real rebels and keep well away from Sandoz, of course.'' She flashed a cheerful grin at their host, who returned a restrained smile.
          "And what do you propose?''
          "If we go to fetch it in the Texada we'll wind up on Servalan's death list.''
          "If we're not already on it,'' muttered Logan.
          "So we get delayed by engine trouble for a day or two, and when we finally arrive, the cargo will be gone, stolen by some villain who sabotaged our ship. We curse Madam Chan loudly for her rotten security and swear never to deal with her again.''
          "How much?'' asked BG with a smoothly unreadable face.
          "A three-way split between you, us and the other ship. Cousin Brig, I think, if we can get him there in time.''
          "Keeping it all in the family?''
          "Quite right, too,'' chipped in Logan. "It's our Jenna they're trying to catch. What d'you suppose they'll do with her when they've got her? Slap her wrists?''
          "It is Jenna's welfare I am particularly concerned with,'' said BG with a slight smile. "I have a considerable fondness for her. She and her associates have been valued customers. Furthermore, if the Liberator's crew were ever to engage in our, ah, trade, they would be a most welcome addition to our ranks.''
          I'll just bet they would, said Logan to himself. His wife's face reflected the identical thought.


"Er... Supreme Commander...'' There was an apologetic cough from the duty officer in the doorway. "I may have some bad news for you.''
          "What is it now?'' Servalan looked up from her desk with an impatient air.
          "It's Rai. He seems to have disappeared. Vananda Security Police are afraid there's been some foul play.''
          That caught her attention - her handsome young favourite missing. He concealed a smile. Wait for the explosion.
          However, her first reaction was disappointing. "Well, he's on leave. He can go where he pleases. Why should they be concerned?''
          "I have their report on visdisk, it does look worrying.'' He offered her the coin-sized disk.
          For a moment she was tempted to say "take it to Major Imry,'' but after a brief hesitation she took it.
          "You may go,'' she said curtly.


The security police had recorded their entire investigation, starting with a survey of the empty hotel room - some clothing strewn across the bed, writing materials and data disks on the work top and a screenful of information on the computer - as if ready for its occupant to return at any moment.
          Next, an interview with the owner of the hotel, who had reported her guest's disappearance.
          "Such a pleasant boy,'' she was saying. "He would spend most of the morning studying and usually went out on the river in the afternoons, then spent his evenings with the students mostly. He was never very late back, except that last evening.''
          "Tell me about that evening.''
          "Well, it was long past midnight and he was really staggering when he came back - you can see him on the security video - he could hardly stand upright. He came down next morning for some pills, looking absolutely dreadful, but he didn't say where he'd been and I never pry into my guests' affairs. Anyway, he came down again in the late afternoon feeling much better and said he was off to get a decent meal. That was four days ago, and I'm worried.''
          "Why?''
          "He was an officer from Space Command HQ and he was alone. What if the dissidents kidnapped him for interrogation? You know that's happened before now. I hate to think of that poor boy being maltreated and murdered. If you don't find him quickly, I've got a feeling that he'll be in real trouble.'' And indeed, she looked most unhappy.
          A compilation of video clips from the lobby camera followed, showing the times of Rai's comings and goings. It froze on a shot of Rai and a girl heading for the hotel's main door.
          "This young woman visited him two days before his disappearance. She has been identified as Pernel Ostrova, a postgraduate student at the university. Her interview is appended," intoned the narrator as the picture was enhanced to show the girl's face in detail. The film rolled on for a few more brief episodes then lingered on the subject's last stumbling nocturnal arrival, his conversation with his hostess the following morning and his cheerful departure in the late afternoon.
          Next, the interview with the girl, Pernel. Anxious, lachrymose and rather vague, all she could say was that she hadn't seen him since last week when he told her that he was having difficulties with his studies and must spend more time on them. He seemed to take them very seriously, so she had decided to keep away until she heard from him again.
          Interviews with several other students followed. Yes, he had used the libraries, as Fleet officers were authorised to do, and he appeared to join in the local social life without a care in the world, never talking about his professional duties or asking any strange questions. They summed him up as a rather naive and conventional youngster with no harm in him.
          Finally, the police narrator assured his audience that they were taking the officer's disappearance with the utmost seriousness and searching high and low for him. However, their agents and underworld contacts had failed to come across any trace of him so far.
          Servalan compressed her lips tightly, partly in concern for Rai's fate and partly in anxiety at what he might tell a skilled interrogator. After a moment's consideration, she summoned the duty officer and handed him the visdisk.
          "Take it to Major Imry and tell him to have the matter investigated properly. He can interrogate those students for a start. They know more than they're saying.''


Rai's reaction to this, when he ran through his files some hours later, was sheer consternation. The jig was up. He cursed himself for becoming so engrossed in his eavesdropping. He should have stopped as soon as he had the details of the ambush. Praying that Imry had not yet thought to check his personal console and its contents, he sent the signal to activate his worm program, then he contacted Nevin and implored him to get Pernel and Gage to safety.
          Nevin took the news altogether too casually for his liking. "Relax, we've got a contingency plan for all this. They're in no danger.''
          "You'd better be right,'' said Rai, tight-lipped.
          "Of course I am,'' Nevin replied, in those soothing tones generally addressed to fractious infants. "You just carry on with the good work.''
          Rai bit back the sharp retort that rose to his lips and forbore to tell him that no more information would coming in from Headquarters.

  "What is this, Captain Stannis? I thought you had left."
  "Er, no. We're having to come back with engine trouble. Look, Madam Chan, warn your friends that we'll probably be two or three days late."
  "Engine trouble? I understood that your ship was the most reliable on the circuit."
  "It is. I've never had this sort of trouble before. Frankly, this looks rather like sabotage to me. Who else knows about this deal?"
  "What? D'you think I've been blabbing?"
  "No, but did you approach anyone else before me?"
  "Certainly not!"
  "Well, it'll take a day or two to replace the part. We're heading for the maintenance and repair orbiter and we'll arrange for full security cover. OK?"
  "Very well, Captain. And I'll warn my associates."

"Commandant, it appears that Rai's bug has been put out of action, so we shan't have a direct line into Servalan's office any more." Nevin gave his superior an apologetic smile.
          Her face betrayed little disappointment. "It had to happen sooner or later," she commented. "Do we know if it has been discovered, or simply malfunctioned?"
          "No. We'll get our contacts to listen for any signs of a manhunt or security drive at Space Command, but so far there's been no hint of anything unusual."
          The Commandant took a few thoughtful sips at her coffee. "Very well. It's time we sent him on his way. You will hand him over to Group Four, who will see to smuggling him off planet."
          She rose and went into her kitchen, returning with a packet of powder. "Make sure he's asleep before they arrive, that way he won't see anything or recognise anybody."
          Nevin took the packet. "What about his future?" he asked.
          "We have a plan for faking his death - you can tell him that. As to future employment, your suggestion about the freetrader information service is quite a good one." She sat again down. "Thank you for coming."
          Nevin took his dismissal with a polite nod and left.
          The Commandant drained her coffee cup and pressed one of her intercom buttons. "Send Geisler in," she said, then poured herself another cup.
          Geisler was a tall, spare sort of man, the eldest of her followers by a considerable margin, and the most trusted. He entered quietly and gave her questioning look.
          "Geisler, we must see to our deserter. I want you to deal with it."
          "We can't just send him to Keledon? His information about Space Command has been very valuable."
          "Too risky, I'm afraid. Federation agents would track him down sooner or later. And there's always the possibility that he's a plant, operating under deep conditioning. We have to give them the body now."
          "Pity. What about the students?"
          "They'll be told that it was a successful fake to protect the man's family, and we'll be moving Nevin to another post. We can't risk losing a valuable man like him."
          "You won't be letting him know what really happened to the lad?"
          "No. I don't want to distress him. He'll be ordered forget he ever saw him and he'll obey."
          As Geisler disappeared, the Commandant sat back with a sigh. Age-old phrases like `cruel necessity' and `black ingratitude' came into her mind as she contemplated the sacrifice of Rai. But that was the price she must pay to protect her network, and that was what really mattered.

  "Supreme Commander, our shipment is on the move.''
  "At last! Is it going in the right direction?''
  "Yes ma'am, the tracer is following the correct course. I've ordered a squadron with a fully equipped anti-terrorist ground unit to the rendezvous point.''
When Nevin entered, Rai was amusing himself on the computer, hacking into various Space Command bulletin boards in search of news about his own disappearance. He turned a smiling face towards him. "They don't suspect anything yet," he said happily.
          "Great." Nevin returned heartily. "Listen, you'll be glad to know that we've arranged to send you off tonight."
          "Oh. That's good news." Rai absorbed this for a moment, then said rather shyly, "do you suppose I could send a message to Pernel? Just to let her know everything's fine?"
          Nevin grinned. "The boss would scalp me if ever I was found out... but OK, write a short note and I'll deliver it. Now, what's in the icebox? I could do with a drink. And let's have something to eat. Your escort could turn up as soon as it gets dark, which isn't long."


Rai yawned prodigiously and settled back on the couch with his feet up. "That was some meal. Lord, I'm sleepy."
          After a moment he raised his head and looked hard into Nevin's eyes. "Have you drugged me again?"
          "Afraid so," said Nevin with a comical grimace. "Those guys are paranoid about anybody seeing them or where they take you. They'll probably roll you up in a carpet or something just as melodramatic."
          "Yuk! I felt sick as a dog after the last time."
          "Sorry." Nevin went to the cupboard and fetched a small jar. "Take these with you - headache pills - they may help."
          Rai put them in his pocket. "You'll see them, though."
          "No. They'll give me a bleep and I shall leave the house for an hour. They won't come in until they know I'm well away."
          "Better paranoid than careless, I suppose." Rai gave a drowsy smile and pulled a cushion under his head. "'Night." he said.


For the attention of Logan and Milana Stannis, Texada. Message reads: Your order has been collected. Delivery will take place as per schedule.
B Stannis - Sointula
It was Milana who broke the bad news to Madam Chan. Logan, she insisted, was a rotten liar.
          Madam Chan was predictably aghast. "Gone?!'' she spluttered. "You expect me to believe that!''
          "Before you start accusing us of double-dealing, take a look at this.'' Milana switched channels to an external camera and panned it across the desolate scene outside, providing a running commentary. "Record this to show your backers and then ask them about their own security. Those are the camouflage nets that covered the crates. Here you can see human footprints and loader tracks. They're more recent than those of the crew who deposited the stuff here because they cross over them and they're a different type.'' She zoomed in on the tracks, which showed up well in the grey dust. Brig and his crew had done a very convincing job, she thought.
          "Now, over here is the imprint of one leg of a ship's landing gear.'' She panned across to the Sointula's broad footprint. "It's noticeably different from ours, as I can show you.'' She switched to another camera and focussed on the Texada's landing gear.
          "So your confederate's ship was different to yours,'' said Chan bitterly.
          "You're trying to blame us for your lousy security,'' retorted Milana. "Somebody was tipped off, sabotaged our ship, and got here first. Maybe you planned it. If I were your partners, I'd be investigating your bank account.''
          With a hiss of rage, Madam Chan broke the connection.
  "It looks as if we've found your missing Space Fleet officer, Major."
  "Oh? Where was he?"
  "The body of a young man was found on a farm at Ghadri, about three hundred and fifty kilometres from here. It answers his description."
  "Dead, eh? The Supreme Commander is going to be very displeased. We'll need a full enquiry into this matter. It has serious security implications."
  "Hmm. Looks as if the hotel manager was right, then. The Dissidents snatched him for interrogation."
  "Haven't you got any agents among them?"
  "This local unit is very efficient - all our attempted infiltrations have failed. We've lost several agents that way."
  "Maybe they've infiltrated you."
  "Don't say that, Major, even in jest."
The security receptionist glanced at the identity card held up to the camera by the woman standing before the glass doors in the station vestibule. "Feed it into the slot on your right," he instructed.
          She did so, and the computer's chilly tones announced, "Citizen Ottilie Zingler, owner-manager of the College Hotel, is identified. You are permitted access to the mortuary." The glass doors parted. "Follow the illuminated arrows along the corridor. Only the permitted doors will open for you. Do not delay."
          Retrieving her card from the reader, Ottilie passed through. Arriving at the door marked Mortuary, she hesitated for a moment before reaching out to tap on it. As she extended her hand, the door swung back, revealing a small office. The two uniformed men inside turned towards her.
          "Ah, Zingler," said the senior of the two, "there is a body in here that we believe to be your missing guest. Come through and give us your opinion." He opened a small door and beckoned her through. By his detached manner, he might have been inviting her to pronounce on the quality of a piece of furniture.
          Taking a deep breath, she followed him into the mortuary. It looked exactly like the ones portrayed in the thrillers she was addicted to watching - concrete floor, refrigerated drawers and several slabs, one containing a sheeted figure. Her guide twitched aside the sheet and she found herself staring down at Rai's pallid features.
          Her throat tightened into an aching knot and her eyes misted over and she could only nod. Her own son had never been a source of pleasure to her, with his dull, humourless temperament and graceless manners. Why couldn't she have had this one instead? She could not resist reaching out to touch his hair with all the tenderness of her long-denied maternal heart.
          "He looks so peaceful," she said at last. "How did he die?"
          "Drug overdose."
          She felt a monstrous sense of shock. "Drugs? Oh no, he'd never... He wasn't the sort. I don't believe it!"
          The officer shrugged.
          "It's true!" she insisted vehemently, outraged by his indifference.
          "Perfectly true, I daresay," said a voice behind her.
          Another officer had entered the room. She swung round on him and surveyed him narrowly, taking in a hard face and a Space Fleet uniform. He crossed over to the table and stared down at the uncovered face.
          "Do you identify this body as Fleet Officer Sheldon Rai, lately boarding at your hotel?" he asked formally.
          Her tears seemed to have dried up. "I do," she said firmly.
          "I also identify him as the Supreme Commander's junior adjutant at Headquarters, and known to me personally.''
          "So recorded,'' said the police officer, tapping the keys of his notebook. "May I have your name and rank, sir?''
          "Imry. Major. Fleet Intelligence Corps,'' came the crisp reply. "Don't record that.''
          Ottilie broke in again. "It's my belief that he was kidnapped and murdered by enemies of the state." She glared combatively at the newcomer. "He didn't run around with drug addicts or pushers. He would never take that stuff knowingly. He was murdered, and you should be out looking for the killers."
          "I am in agreement with you, Madam," he replied calmly. "I shall start by interviewing all his known contacts again." He shot a contemptuous glance at the police officer. "Thoroughly, this time."
          "Good! Start with me," snapped Ottilie.


Stamping back to her hotel after the interview, Ottilie headed straight for her bar and opened a bottle of strong liquor. She was well into her fourth large glass and giving free rein to the tears coursing down her face, when a shadow fell across the table top in front of her.
          It was Pernel - anxious and embarrassed, but persistent.
          "I don't like to disturb you," she ventured. "It's just... well, I've been ordered to report to Central Security, and I wondered... It must be about Rai. Have they been on to you?"
          "Rai!" Ottilie's rage exploded in the girl's face. "I've just seen Rai, young lady, lying stone cold dead in their mortuary. One of his friends gave him an overdose of drugs. I told that Major Imry it was murder and he agreed with me." She thrust her tear-streaked face at Pernel's. "He's going to interrogate everybody again, and he's going to do a proper job this time. He knows how to do it."
          With a sob of terror, the girl turned and fled.
          Ottilie watched her go in sodden triumph, then turned to her bottle once more.
          "Yes. He knows how to do it," she said to the empty room.

  "Well, Major?"
  "It's definitely Rai, ma'am. I have identified the body personally."
  "How did he die?"
  "The pathologist says he was given a strong narcotic some hours prior to death, then a lethal injection was administered straight into the heart. A very professional job."
  "Damn them! Were there any signs of torture?"
  "None. Of course, they held him for five days before killing him - ample time for any of the usual interrogation drugs to clear his system. I have a visdisk of the pathology report if you wish to see it."
  "No, thank you."
  "Er, what about the body?"
  "He'll have a full military funeral and the ashes will be sent to his parents, as usual."
  "Yes, ma'am."
  "Oh, and Imry, see to it that all our personnel are warned to avoid Vananda in future. It is no longer safe."
Servalan experienced a bitter surge of rage as she cut the connection with Major Imry. Rai dead! Her adjutant murdered, by a squalid little gang of rebels, right under the noses of Federation security! She was aware, too, that she missed the boy. She had been drawn to his youth, so refreshing to her jaded palate at times.
          She sat brooding over her loss for a while, then mentally shook herself and resumed her task.


"Nevin! Stop! Wait!"
          Alarmed, Nevin turned towards the frantic voice. Pernel was racing own the street towards him. Heads began to turn and he made urgent shushing motions.
          "For Pete's sake, don't shout that name all over town," he muttered, as she came up with him. "What is it?" Privately, he cursed his luck. In another five minutes he would have been speeding away from the city in the private groundcar that was waiting for him in a side street.
          "Rai's dead!" she whimpered.
          "No he isn't. That's just a fake - cover for his escape."
          "No, no! It's really true!" Her voice rose to a strangled squeak. "The hotel manager went to the mortuary to identify his body."
          Nevin felt sick. It could be true. His commandant was perfectly capable of ordering the boy's death as a precaution - and all that song and dance with the drug...
          "Come with me," he said in an urgent undertone. "And keep quiet."
          The groundcar was parked where it was supposed to be. With relief, he bundled her inside and set the window glass to opaque.
          "First we must find out if it's true," he said, clamping on his seat belt. "Calm down and tell me what you've heard."
          She sobbed out the story of her meeting with the drunken Ottilie. "They're going to interrogate me - really interrogate me!" she clutched at him. "I couldn't possibly hold out. I'd tell them everything and Gage and I would be executed or imprisoned, and they'd send Rai's family into slavery."
          He nodded soberly. That was all too possible. Damn the Boss!
          Pernel was trying to pull herself together.
          "I shall commit suicide, if I have to" she said, mopping her eyes and straightening her back. "You must get me the poison. A drug overdose, like they gave Rai. Anything's better than being tortured by those psychopaths, and what have I got to live for?"
          Nevin grimaced. "Let's not rush into things," he said, in an attempt to sooth her. "I've got a journalist contact who should be able to discover the facts. We'll call him up.


The journalist easily confirmed the facts by contacting the mortuary attendant and offering money. In any case, the security police were releasing details of the murder to the news services and investigations were afoot. A furious Supreme Commander had ordered a full enquiry into the death of her adjutant and the whole town would be turned over.
          "Time to go," said Nevin, activating the auto-navigator on the groundcar. As it gathered speed he turned to his companion. "Don't panic. I know how to get you away from this planet. I shan't tell even my superiors about it." I couldn't trust them not to serve her as they served young Rai, he added to himself, bitterly.
          "We were going to be together,'' said Pernel desolately. She lay back in her seat, beyond tears now.
          That was what that note was about, Nevin supposed unhappily.
          "I was going to finish my studies this year,'' she continued wearily, "then contact you for directions and quietly slip away. He said I was to report to somebody called BG.''
          There was a lengthy pause, as if she was working up to something.
          "Was it your people?'' she asked finally, in a tight voice. "Did they kill him because they didn't trust him?''
          Nevin was dismayed to feel tears pricking at his eyelids. He must have developed a fondness for the boy.
          "I reckon so,'' he said eventually, when he felt he could command his voice properly. Rai had been easy to like.
          As the groundcar floated through the dark countryside, he gloomily surveyed his options. It occurred to him that he might be in danger himself. He knew that his ruthless commandant would order his death without a qualm if she thought it necessary. Pernel's absence would be noticed and investigated very soon. The security services would probably hear about her hectic pursuit of the man called Nevin, and the Boss would learn from her spies that he had been informed of Rai's death. She would be expecting disaffection and she would be prepared to deal with it. He'd better leave on the same ship as Pernel.


Milana grinned with satisfaction as she surveyed the Texada Company's displayed bank balance. "That's what I call a good profit.''
          Logan stared at the screen, slightly awed by more money than he'd ever seen before. "That's what I call wealth. How are we going to spend it?''
          "We don't. We invest it.''
          "Huh?''
          "We're quitting the business and settling down groundside.''
          Logan felt a stab of dismay. "Why should we do that? You've never said you were fed up with the life.''
          Milana sighed regretfully. "I'm not. It suits me fine. But in spite of our precautions we're on some Federation list now, and it's time to change our names and disappear until they forget about us. And if Brig has any sense, he'll do likewise. They'll be after all of us.''
          She stood up and walked over to stand behind him.
          "Don't look so depressed,'' she said, laying her hands gently on his shoulders. "We'll find something pleasant to do - a different kind of business. We can take our time and look around.''
          "Perhaps,'' Logan said, with a show of firmness. "We'll think it over.''
          Milana planted a kiss on the top of his head. They both knew she would get her way.


Sorry to run out on you like this, Boss, but I'm afraid you'll kill Pernel and me like you killed Rai. That was a big mistake. It's made you look like a butcher, which is a great pity because I wanted to go on working for the Resistance, but I could never trust you again, could I? Also, I really liked that boy, and what you did was shameful. However, I won't betray you if you don't make the mistake of sending someone after us.
Nevin.


"You sent the girl a message to report to you?" said Imry in tones of rather theatrical incredulity. "And now you're surprised that she didn't show up." He fixed the unfortunate police officer with the baleful stare he normally turned on the prisoners he interrogated. He knew from long experience that it terrified all but the hardiest.
          The policeman reddened and began a blustering defence about shortage of manpower which Imry cut off with a contemptuous gesture.
          "Well, now we know she was in it up to her neck," he remarked coolly. "Do we know anything about this Nevin she was heard running after?"
          "Not much. He was a technician at the Museum, good at his work, no convictions. No family either."
          "Present whereabouts unknown, eh?"
          The man nodded miserably.
          Imry gave a callous smile. "It will be interesting to see if their corpses turn up on a farm three hundred kilometres away. Meanwhile, do I really have to remind you to check the spaceports, particularly the cargo ships?"
          To his victim's relief, a trooper put his head round the door.
          "Message for Major Imry from Agent Chan. Use security booth two."
          Imry's face cleared. "Coming," he said, and strode confidently after the messenger.


Imry's face was set in grim lines as he progressed toward his Supreme Commander's office. Pride stiffened his spine and masked his inner trepidation. Some ancient verse rattled absurdly round his brain, something about being wounded and left for dead on the plains "and the women come out to cut up the remains, roll on your rifle and blow out your brains, and go to your death like a soldier". Servalan was going to cut up his remains, all right. Travis must have felt like this, but he had his obsession to keep him alive - killing Blake. Imry felt he would rather blow out his brains than share Travis's fate. He'd seen men after they'd been through the hands of those psychotherapists.
          He had reached the outer office. The adjutant greeted him with a sly smirk before reaching for the intercom button. Smarmy bastard, reflected Imry sourly. I preferred Rai, even if he was a naive young idiot. Life's a bitch and then you die.
          Servalan eyed him appraisingly as he entered. "From your expression, I conclude that you are not bringing glad tidings," she said dryly.
          He drew in a deep breath. "I have to report the failure of the Stannis trap, ma'am."
          The fact that she took it so calmly did not reassure him. She was reputed to consider her vengeance carefully before visiting it upon the wretched object of her displeasure.
          "Tell me what happened."
          Imry's pride forbade him to offer excuses. "The Stannises returned to base soon after they started out, saying that they had engine trouble which looked like sabotage. Repairs took two days, then they set out again. When they arrived at Viglos 81 the entire shipment was gone. They filmed some tracks and the landing marks of another ship, then they accused Chan of setting them up for her own profit. Chan accused them of doing the same with the help of accomplices." He paused to watch her reaction, but her face did not change noticeably.
          "What about the tracer?" she enquired.
          "I sent a fast scoutship after it. The thieves had found the tracer and fired it off aboard a garbage pod before they turned to another heading - typical smuggler's trick."
          "No doubt it was the Stannises, but why should they suddenly bilk a customer?" Servalan wondered. "Your initial report said they had a good reputation for reliability. Could they have got wind of the trap?"
          "Difficult. It was only known to you, me and Chan," said Imry, consideringly. "The troops who delivered the arms to Viglos only knew the cover story.''
          He paused. "I did wonder if the kidnappers had got something out of Rai. He must have told them a great deal, but he left Headquarters before the plan was thought of."
          "That leaves Chan." Servalan frowned thoughtfully, but she was still uncannily calm. "She could have colluded with the Stannises or another set of smugglers. Transfer her back to this sector for interrogation. Trace all her contacts and search for a personal bank account."
          Imry felt a puzzled kind of hope. "Do you wish me to take charge of the investigation, ma'am?"
          "For the time being." She favoured him with a cold stare, more alarming than anything he could muster. "I shall decide on your future in the intelligence service after due thought. Dismissed!"
          For some moments after the major had left, Servalan sat in silent thought, reviewing what Rai might have told an interrogator. He could give the names of the personnel at headquarters, information about their duties and a thousand and one details of life on the space station. He would know who had visited her, the dates when she was absent from her office, most of the meetings she had attended or organised.
          And what of herself? He could talk about her habits and methods, about the projects she had employed him for... Ah, that included his most recent task - the research into the life histories of Liberator's crew. The dissidents would be very interested in anything concerning Blake, a potential ally, and it would be quite obvious what use she might try to make of the information. Yes, they would try to warn him of her interest, using Jenna Stannis's well-known freetrader contacts, which Rai could have told them about if they didn't already know. It looked as if they had succeeded. Maybe the failure of Imry's plan could be attributed to this.
          A whole shipload of arms lost! She could probably cover up its disappearance with a little creative book-keeping, but it was galling to think of it falling into rebel hands; even more so to contemplate the fine profit those damned Stannises must have made out of it.
          They'd better keep out of my way from now on, she growled to herself. They'll be sorry if ever they come within my reach.
          Well, enough of that. Clearly Imry had shot his bolt and little more could be expected from him. She must get Travis back and find somebody capable of real planning, which meant a psychostrategist. It was about time she got one assigned to her. She had refused a recent offer of a puppeteer's services for fear that his searching gaze would be directed at her and her private schemes, but now she must have one, if only to disarm criticism from Rontane and his cronies.
          She turned to her console and retrieved the dossiers of the candidates she had been offered: Yang, Carnell, Haldene and Ashra. Any one of them would do, there was little to choose between them. She mailed a request to the address on the page.

AND WIDER

  "There you are, Jenna, Didn't you hear me? I've been looking all over for you. You look very serious. What is it?"
  "Oh, hello Cally. Yes, I'm a bit worried. Orac has picked up a message for me. It's from one of my relatives."
  "This must be your first contact with them since you joined Blake. Was it bad news?"
  "Maybe. Servalan has tried to use them to lure me and the Liberator into a trap. They've warned me to double check with the freetraders' intelligence service if I get another contact purporting to come from one of them."
  "I envy you having such a large family, even though I know you've decided to keep away from them. For this very reason, I suppose.''
  "They'd make good hostages, wouldn't they?"
  "You're right. By the way, how did they find out about the plot?"
  "I've no idea. Perhaps the intelligence service got wind of something. What was it you wanted?''


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Frances Teagle

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