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The Wanderers

By Ros Williams
Page 3 of 4

"They're not very friendly, are they?" remarked Vila as the Prime Minister of Pellastra faded from the screen.

"They're bound to be cautions. If they've no advanced space technology, they must feel totally isolated, far more than any of us could ever imagine." Cally's eyes were dark at the very thought of it. "But at least, they are not quite alone," she added softly, "They do have each other."

One hour later, the Premier's answer came via his aide. "You can stay" she said, "but only on the condition that two of your people come here as hostages."

Avon treated her to a choice example of his most insincere, tooth-laden smile. "By all means," he said smoothly, "That'll be no problem at all. It will, of course, mean that we shall have to stay here longer--but perhaps that is what you intend?" He smiled again, "Two of our valuable crew members will be pleased to join you," he said. "Cally, our Communications Officer, and Vila, our Public Relations Officer."

"You can't be serious," Tarrant grinned as the connection was cut. "Vila's the last person...."

"Not if he behaves himself," Avon said coolly. "No thieving, Vila--not on this trip, if you please. Try to behave like one of the reprehensible moralistic classes for once."

"That," Vila grumbled, "will be sheer mental torture. No wonder you chose me; it pleases your sadistic nature."

"Quite right," Avon murmured. "I shall gloat throughout. Get yourselves ready to go down."

"Avon," Cally said quietly, "you wouldn't leave without us, would you?

He saw the shadow in her eyes and shook his head. "No," he said. "We won't leave without you...but at the same time we aren't going to agree to ship out the planet's entire population. Is that clear?"

She stared at him with hostility. "Did I suggest it?"

"No, but I wouldn't be surprised if your tender emotions lead you to do so later."

"I am sure there are limits to my 'tender emotions'," Cally snapped, and she strode angrily out.

They departed an hour later and teleported to the only definite coordinates they had, the small television studio.

"Welcome," Jadelle said. "You will imagine what an excitement this is for us."

""We are sure that we will find our visit to your planet interesting," Cally said hesitantly. She had learned the sentence laboriously on Orac's instruction. She stared at the other woman, wondering what she had said. Strangely, the words had a familiar ring to them, as though the woman spoke a distant, awkward dialect. Then the woman spoke again and Cally picked out words which she was sure made sense, something about them meeting the Premier. She nodded and, with Vila, followed the woman out of the studio and through the corridors of the complex.

Carmion Ren made a polite but hurried speech of welcome of which Cally understood virtually nothing and she replied to him briefly. "I thank you for your welcome. I regret that without our computer I cannot converse with you."

"So much for your 'exciting conversations' that you were looking forward to," Carmion remarked tartly to his aide, before she departed with his unwanted visitors for a guided tour of the city. "You aren't going to learn much are you?"

"This is our museum," Jadelle said as they walked through the vast doorway of an imposing building.

"Museum?" Cally understood that word and her eyes brightened with delight. Time and time again throughout the tour her memory seemed to have been jogged by the words of their hostess and the sights they had seen and now it occurred to her that the museum might provide some explanations. It was quickly obvious to her that Jadelle found the museum fascinating and was willing to spend a great deal of time there, and by means of signs and a few remembered words Cally succeeded in indicating--that she was interested in the history of the planet.

Jadelle nodded and with a smile led them to a section near the back of the building. "History," she said. "Same word. But why?"

The two women stared at one another for a moment. "Books?" Cally said hopefully, and again Jadelle seemed to understand her. They moved into a long, quiet room where numbers of precious volumes were laid out for inspection and Cally pored over one of them, her eyes widening as she went through it. Then she looked up at Vila who was gazing around the room with little enthusiasm and wishing that--someone would provide him with a good, cool drink. "I'm glad we came here," Cally said softly. "Vila, I think I have found a legend."

"Whatever do you mean by that?" Vila enquired, not really wanting to know but remembering Avon's orders to cooperate.

"Look," Cally pointed to the book.

"A humanoid," Vila said after a casual glance. "So what?"

"It's the Thaarn," Cally said.

"Oh, no," Vila exclaimed, "I don't want to hear anything about that maniac, thank you very much. Anyway, it can't be the Thaarn. He belongs to Auron."

Jadelle was staring at Cally in astonishment. "What do you know of the Thaarn? she demanded. "And why have you mentioned Auron?" she asked Vila, sparing him a brief glance before returning her attention to Cally.

"I have to talk to her properly," Cally exclaimed to Vila. "This is so extraordinary... I'm going to open the communicator and ask Zen or Orac to translate."

"Avon won't like that," Vila protested. "You know he doesn't want us to be too friendly with these people."

"I can't help it. I have to know why a wandering sun losing itself in the intergalactic void knows of the Thaarn and Auron. Look--there's the word 'Auron' on the page, and there are many other words I recognise. I sensed it and yet I could not believe it; even now I hardly can. The language of Auron, that's what it is, Vila, an old dialect, but Auron nonetheless." She paced across the room and looked in another volume, her excitement mounting. "See--I can understand even more of this. It's probably an older book, nearer to the common language our planets must have shared at some time."

"You think this is an Auron colony?" Vila asked. "Is that possible? Are they telepaths?"

"There were a few Auron colonies," Cally replied. "By the time we were ready for serious space travel, the Federation's tentacles had spread in our direction and opportunities became limited. But right at the beginning, there were said to be ships which left Auron carrying groups of brave people who traveled at sub-light speed, looking for habitable planets. Auron suffered a population explosion and was in serious difficulties, so these explorers elected to leave on the early ships. They disappeared forever but it seems reasonable to suppose that some of the missing ships finally found planets on which the occupants could make a new life. As to telepathy, that's a fairly recently--developed Auron attribute, I have not sensed it here."

"But this planet?" said Vila. "It's a terrible place for the Auronar to choose, remembering how you all feel about loneliness...."

"You must tell me what you are saying," Jadelle was exclaiming frantically. "This is intolerable, Cally!"

"Intolerable," Cally repeated, nodding to indicate that she understood the word. "Wait!" she turned again to Vila. "I don't care what Avon says," she declared. "If these are my people, I have to talk to them. Surely you understand that."

Vila nodded gloomily. "I suppose this is going to delay our return to bearable life even more," he grumbled, but his eyes were faintly sympathetic and he made no further attempt to protest.

Cally spoke into her communicator. "Orac?"

"Well?" snapped the little machine tetchily. "What do you want? Surely you realise I am fully occupied...."

"Yes, I know," Cally soothed, "but this is also different. The language of the Palladion people...can you specify its root, Orac?"

"Of course I can," Orac retorted. "It is Auronar, as you should have realised by now if you have made any effort to understand."

"Good," Cally said, suppressing a sudden desire to fling her arms around the Premier's aide. "Please listen and translate the conversation."

"I would prefer," Orac said irritably, "to continue with far more important work...."

"Just do it!" Cally flared. "You will now be able to understand me," she said to Jadelle. "Copy me and speak into the communicator."

"That's amazing!" Jadelle declared, fascinated. "Now--tell me about the Thaarn and Auron."

"Presumably you know all about the Thaarn," Cally said, "and surely your history is well documented here. It is I who am surprised, not you, to discover our common ancestry, for I too am from Auron."

"We know nothing of Auron," Jadelle said, "except that it is some paradise lost in the mists of time. The Thaarn is one of the gods who lives on Auron, or so the legends say."

"But you must know the whole history of your planet. It is not many centuries since it was colonised--if my theory is correct."

There was a sudden silence. Jadelle stared away from Cally, sadness clouding her normally cheerful expression. "The whole history of Palladion commences eight thousand units before this time," she said, "Everything before that is lost--unknown."

"I would deduce from what I have ascertained through Palladion's data banks that eight thousand time units would equal approximately four hundred years," Orac interrupted, "which would be nearly two hundred years after Palladion obviously commenced its eccentric path out of the Milky Way's ambience. It would appear that some cataclysmic event occurred previous to the last four hundred years, an event which the Palladions can neither explain nor fully recall."

Jadelle was staring now at the communicator on Cally's wrist. "What is that?" she demanded. "How can it know?"

Swiftly Cally explained something of Orac's function. "Even if they cannot explain nor recall," she said to Orac, "I'm sure you have some theories."

"I will investigate the matter, and when I have some answers, or conjectures, I will tell you," Orac replied repressively. "At the moment, I do not imagine I can enlighten you any further than to suggest you question your hosts."

"Your machine mentioned Palladion's eccentric path out of the Milky Way galaxy," Jadelle remarked. "What did it mean?"

Cally explained. "On Auron, we call the galaxy the Star Crown," she added as an afterthought.

"So it's true," Jadelle breathed. "Our planet does come from the Star Crown. Why, even the name is similar."

"Palladion is moving further and further away from the Star Crown," Cally said. "Have you come to terms with that?"

"I believe that most of us have not, although it is undesirable to say so," Jadelle replied. "We have no means of escape, and our technology offers us little hope of it in the near future. We are forced to accept the situation and yet we cannot bear to think about it. Cally, I believe that all of us are afraid, deep down, although the Realists refuse to admit it. There is a tradition that we were once part of a group of many suns and no amount of cheerful Realism has ever persuaded me to accept isolation contentedly... Cally, tell me about Auron."

Cally's eyes darkened and her face set hard. How can I tell her the truth, she asked herself bitterly, that it had isolated itself from all other planets, including its own colonies; that in spite of our fear of loneliness, Auron had cut itself off from the rest of the galaxy; and then it was destroyed at the whim of one vicious woman...

"Suddenly you look so sad," Jadelle said, "what is wrong?"

"It is a long time since I have lived on Auron," Cally replied. "I miss my home so much."

"The cataclysm," Orac announced when Cally questioned him a day later, "might have been some form of planet--wide mental derangement. There is indeed no other explanation for what appears to be a case of total amnesia. There was no war, apart from isolated skirmishes, and certainly nothing violent enough to have killed approximately seventy percent of the planet's population, and driven memory from the rest. It is obvious that some vague memories remained, and in the usual way of primitive societies these became myths--a recollection of Auron as somewhere marvelous or safe, of the Thaarn and other deities, of the galaxy from whence the people of Palladion originated, and so on. I assume that this distressing occurrence was the result of the panic, agoraphobia on a massive scale and the realisation that the populace lacked the scientific data needed to avert the disaster."

"You really think it could have been averted?" Cally enquired.

"Obviously. It is perfectly feasible, as you know, to move a planet to another location if you have the technology available."

"I see," Cally said. "And what would you, Orac, if you were the Premier of Pallastra?"

"I would request information on suitable technology for planet relocation and the hyperspace driver," Orac responded simply. "I believe that the scientists of Pallastra and the Nether Continent are quite capable of developing their own solutions from that information within a century or two."

"Could you feed that information into Pallastra's data banks right away, if I asked it?" Cally enquired.

"Certainly, I could, but I would advise caution. Pallastra and Kellermon are technically in a state of war, and to give information partially would cause immense problems. Every action taken by one or other side is coloured on account of this confrontation. You will realise that we have already caused considerable friction when I was forced to make an arbitrary decision which Premier to approach originally."

"Let's hope you made the right decision, or they might decide to murder us as a justified reprisal," Vila muttered. "Orac, how much longer do we have to stay on this godforsaken planet?"

"The Liberator's functions should be fully restored in sixteen hours and thirty minutes from now," Orac replied. "However it must be understood that the Palladions may not wish the Liberator to depart if they have understood that the ship represents a form of escape from their doomed planet."

"You don't seriously think they'd try to steal the Liberator?" Vila demanded.

"Indeed I do. Even now, Kellermon is preparing missiles to launch at the Liberator and Pallastra has started its countdown on two primitive space vehicles in the hope that one might reach the Liberator. I must say that this spirit of cooperation between the two continents in the face of an external force may be heartening, although...."

"Thanks!" Vila exclaimed. "I am pleased you think their threats against us are admirable. How pleased will you be if one of their precious missiles manages to destroy the Liberator--with you in it?"

"The Liberator is well equipped to deal with such minor threats--or, at least, it will be when functions are fully restored. In the meantime, it would be advisable to avoid provoking the Palladions."

"We don't want to provoke them, we want to help them," Cally protested angrily. "Surely they'll understand that."

"Perhaps," Orac replied, "but my monitors suggest that the Realist parties on Palladion are so indoctrinated with the need to resist the agoraphobia which continually threatens the people of this planet that they may well reject our assistance rather than admit their fears of the future Palladion faces alone in the void."

"That's petty foolishness," Cally said scornfully.

"It may be," Vila commented, "but it's a natural reaction to fear. How do you think I suppress my own fear, Cally? I tell myself it's illogical and try and make the best of this planet and its people while I can. Imagine that in all the people here, except those few who were not cursed with the Auron fear of loneliness! And worse, imagine it extending over centuries and centuries with no hope of respite. They have to resist safety or they could never live with their failure to achieve it."

"I suppose you are right," Cally said sadly. "Perhaps Avon was wiser than he knew when he named you 'Public Relations Officer', Vila. On this occasion, it seems that he was only too right--if for the wrong reasons." She paced the room impatiently, cudgelling her brain to deal with the problem. "What are we going to do about it, Vila? I can't leave them to face that doom without trying to avert it, yet if I endanger the Liberator, all our lives will be at stake."

"Whatever you do, don't risk the ship," Vila said. "It's our only escape from here. If you must help your people, be practical. Without us they have no chance at all...."

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