|In their council chamber Emeryk and Shandor were also reading the
"It seems as if our guest was not entirely frank with us." Shandor observed coolly. But his face registered a suave pleasure. "Apparently the Liberator was not damaged beyond repair after all. No wonder we couldn't find any trace of her."
Emeryk chuckled appreciatively. "Do you suppose they'll come looking for their lost leader? I wouldn't in their shoes. If I had a past like theirs, I'd be looting the galaxy."
"They might be persuaded to come for him," said Shandor slowly, "if we can lure them here with promises of fat pickings. Blake can tell us how to contact them, I'm sure." He directed a sardonic smile at his nephew. "Then we can loot the galaxy."
Since his move from the infirmary to a guest room in the council buildings, Blake had occasionally glimpsed a woman who seemed to have supervisory duties around the compound. The morning after the interception of Servalan's edict he was surprised to find her outside his door.
"We must talk," she murmured. "Follow a few metres behind me. If we meet anyone, we are not together."
Somewhat baffled, he trailed her down several corridors and up a flight of stairs. Eventually she unlocked a door and entered. It was a housekeeper's store-room lined with cupboards and the usual robotic cleaning equipment. As soon as Blake was inside, she locked the door again. He looked at her curiously. She was quite young: petite, black-haired and almond-eyed. Her normally impassive expression was replaced by a determined urgency.
"You must get away from here immediately," she began abruptly. "They're going to use you to trap the Liberator."
"Who are 'they'?" he asked, knowing the answer instinctively.
"Shandor and Emeryk. I heard them. It's what they've been after all along. They never believed the ship was destroyed. They've had ships searching for it, in case they could repair it and use it for piracy."
Arms folded, Blake leaned against the door in frozen silence. Of course. He might have known that such easy friendship was false. They'd bided their time, keeping him entertained and occupied all these weeks, while they waited for their opportunity once the tides of war had receded. What would he have done if they had offered to salvage the Liberator? He might easily have gone along with it. Did they know about its auto-repair system? Probably not. He doubted if even Servalan knew of it, although she might have guessed something by now.
"You're right," he said finally. "I must get away, but how?"
"The big open-cast iron mines at Breyer have their own spaceport. They shift really large quantities, so that's where most ore carriers land. You've got no chance of getting away from the official spaceport here."
"I know. I've been there." He looked down at her with a smile. "What's your name? Why are you helping me?"
"I am Soong Ma. As you can see, I'm not a native of this place. I was bought from the slave-traders at Domo. I am a slave."
Blake took her hand gently and held it while she told her story.
"This planet is a hell for women. Two generations ago, the Council decided to stop them leaving the colony to work and settle on better planets. They denied them any education and passed laws to bar them from owning property, leaving Epheron or moving around internally on their own."
"No education at all?"
"Not academic, certainly. Only the old women and incomers like myself can read. Their education consists of the domestic sort; cooking, cleaning and raising children. Naturally, they do not vote.
"Since women are in such demand, a man has to buy one from her father or a slaver, so only the rich can afford one." She gave a bitter laugh. "One, did I say? Oh no, if you are really wealthy you can afford several. My owner, Shandor, has twenty-one and Emeryk more than a dozen."
Blake bowed his head in sympathy and disgust.
"Every woman is expected to have five or six children," Soong Ma resumed. "I've only been here four years, but I have two. They're both boys, so they were taken away from me to be raised at one of the children's domes where the sons of the wealthy are educated. They will never know me." Her head bowed with sudden grief. "The girls, of course, stay with their mothers until they are bought by some man. They seldom have any further contact with their families, as a rule."
She straightened her back and looked up defiantly. "I am a well-educated woman. On my own planet I held a responsible post." A note of suppressed passion crept into her voice. "I haven't knuckled under without a fight. There are things a slave can do when her masters don't suspect her of resistance. I've been secretly teaching some of the women to read, I picked locks and broke codes, and I stole communications equipment so that we could monitor what's going on. That's how I overheard them - Shandor and Emeryk - I bugged the Council Chamber."
"Have you been planning your escape all this time?" Blake asked, admiringly.
"Yes. I was sure an opportunity would come along if I was ready for it." After a pause, she became businesslike. "Now, you should travel to Breyer as a miner, or better still, a mining inspector. I will come with you as your daughter. It's quite easy," she added, catching his surprised look. "Women travel covered up in veils - usually black for married and green for unmarried - and I'm small enough to pass for a twelve-year-old. That's my price, to get away from here with you."
"Would they let a girl near the spaceport?" Blake wondered.
"No. Perhaps I'll cut my hair and become a boy, or try some other way. We'll find male helpers. There's a lot of discontent and opposition among the rank and file who want a normal open society. Anyone who could help them against the present ruling clique would be welcomed."
"How do we contact them?"
"I've written a few names here. I know you're helping at the ComBureau, so you'll have opportunities to make contact."
"This will take time and organisation," said Blake. "I'll go along with Shandor and Emeryk if they propose that I should contact the Liberator and bring it here. However, I suspect that will prove difficult and unsuccessful."
He smiled blandly, and her face lit with an answering smile which erased years of care from it.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"Well, it may take some weeks, but we'll get you back to your own home. Now, how shall we communicate?"
"Leave a note under the clothes on the bottom shelf in your cabinet, and I shall use the same spot."
Soong Ma unlocked the door and peered out, then signalled for him to leave. Quickly he slipped past her and made his way back to his room.
Following Soong Ma's revelations, Blake took every opportunity to move around Epheron society surreptitiously, his previous experience as a resister coming in very useful. It only took a short while to confirm the truth of her disclosures, the only women on the streets were always veiled and always escorted by a man.
- "Good news, isn't it, Blake? All this furore must mean that the Liberator's back in action."
- "So it seems, Shandor. I shall be trying to make contact. Mind you, if they're not in this sector it'll be very difficult."
- "All our equipment will be at your disposal. How do you suppose they repaired the ship?"
- "It was the life support systems failure that forced us to abandon ship, but if anyone could repair it, Avon is the one. Cally would help him I'm sure, but I can't imagine Vila playing the hero, so Avon must have dragooned him into staying."
- "They took a terrible risk, though. They could have been blasted or boarded at any time."
- "Well, Avon affects to despise heroics, but he'll play boldly for high stakes."
- "Hm, that being so, perhaps he'll keep the ship instead of coming for you."
- "Quite probably. He'll only come if he thinks it worth his while."
- "You interest me, Blake. How would you describe Avon?"
- "Extremely competent, but rather too complex for any words of mine, I'm afraid."
- "Well, I rather look forward to meeting him."
His main problem was to appear unconscious of the fact that he was under virtual house arrest. Fortunately, some parts of the government compound were not under close electronic surveillance and a rear delivery gate was his usual exit, key by courtesy of Soong Ma. Also, since women did manage to visit one another occasionally if they could persuade their menfolk to arrange it, she established some contacts for him, one of whom smuggled in a set of miner's overalls and boots. With these, he was able to circulate unnoticed.
He often posed as a disappointed man whose efforts to secure a wife had failed because her damnable father had sold the girl to a richer man. Among the younger men who frequented the bars, this seldom failed to attract sympathy. Many said they knew people who had left Epheron in disgust for more normal societies, or they had heard that you could acquire a woman off-planet and bring her back.
This had its dangers, apparently. A cheerful lad related with relish the story of how one official had decoyed a Vilkonen woman to Epheron, who, on fully appreciating the society in which she found herself, had disembowelled him, shot her way out of the city, and made off with the President's personal cruiser. Her piratical clan chief, Aulius Vilkonen, had rubbed in the lesson still further by capturing two freighters and selling them and their contents to compensate his relative for her distressing experience.
"No doubt he kept ninety percent for himself," said one wag, amid the laughter that greeted this tale.
Blake was inclined to think that this story was apocryphal, but on the other hand, from some of Jenna's reminiscences about the Vilkonens, old freetrading associates of the Stannis family, it could easily be true.
He was frequently advised to travel to the busy mining town of Breyer if he wanted to get off-planet easily, and soon he had the names of several likely helpers. Money was going to be a problem, though. Stealing private transport was out of the question, which left a choice between airbus and landcruiser.
"Landcruiser is much safer," Soong Ma opined, when he reported his progress to her. "It's unrestricted, and women and children can use it without attracting any attention - so long as they have a man with them. Several of my friends have been on it. I believe it takes about twenty hours to reach Breyer."
"Then we must have a long start before our absence is discovered," Blake reminded her. "We should get away by late morning."
"I shall be ill and take to my bed," she said. "One of my friends will cover for me. What about you?"
"I'll go to the ComBureau as usual, then depart for a special appointment. I've been taken on various guided tours, so I can pass this off as another. Since I've been so co-operative, they aren't keeping a close watch on me. With any luck, nobody'll miss us until the next day. But, what about money? All I have is a voucher disk for buying food and drink from the dispensers."
Soong Ma smiled and produced a charge account disk on a metal chain.
"Is that Shandor's?" he asked cautiously.
"His deputy's. I stole this from his office nearly a year ago. When no money was taken, he thought it was lost and just applied for another. I intercepted it, read the code on a magnetic scanner and reset this one to match it. Then I passed the new one through to him. I've tested it at the autobank on the other side of the compound and it works. Also, I've got a sample of his signature, in case you need to sign anything manually."
"Wonderful!" Blake examined the disk she handed to him. "D'you think it will be safe to buy the tickets with it, or will it be safer to use it for cash?"
"Most people would use the disk for such a transaction . Anyway, the amount won't be noticed until we're long gone, and even then, he probably won't make the connection. I should buy the tickets a day or so in advance. Most people do, and if he notices and makes a fuss, I'll know about it - I've got his office bugged."
Blake smiled warmly. "You've been working on this for a long time, haven't you?" he asked, admiringly.
"Yes," she said emphatically. "I'm going to get away from here, no matter what I have to do. So take it, and don't make a mess of things."
"I'll be careful," he promised.