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The Machiavelli Factor

By Lillian Sheperd
Page 2 of 103

Before the Dawn

A red line flashed across the top of the computer screen, interrupting my useless contemplation of the meagre information that the Scitech computers would provide on the Yard Barriers. I touched the comspek button and addressed the central computer. "What is it?" I asked.

      "Routine scanning of Main Galaxy communications traffic has located messages containing keywords 'Blake', 'Avon' and 'Liberator'. This information is conveyed in accordance with your standing instructions."

      "Decode and display."

      As the words appeared on the screen I felt as if I had swallowed a litre of ice-water.

      "How long ago was that last message transmitted?" I demanded.

      "Four standard hours."

      I told the computer exactly what I thought of that information.

      "That instruction is physically impossible."

      "Is the Scoop in operation?"

      "No."

      "Is it ready for operation?"

      "Power build-up is almost complete. The Scoop will be ready for operation in approximately four hours."

      "Compute Scoop co-ordinate equivalents of those given for teleport in the message numbered S643/UR1041/5 and pass them to Jake Harun at Scoop Control. Tell him to stand by for a major pickup."

      "Co-ordinates computed and transmitted."

      "Is the Director free?

      There was short pause. Then, "The Director is free. She will accept your image-contact."

      "No. This is too important. I must see her face to face. Now."

      Again I sweated out the silence.

      "The Director will see you in five minutes,"

      As I jumped to my feet, the computer added, "Jake Harun wishes to speak with you-"

      "Tell him... tell him he'll find out soon enough-" I dived out of the door before the computer could reply.

      

      

"We've tried to scoop Liberator before, Ricel," the Director said, lacing her pudgy fingers. "For some reason, its hull is resistant to the E-space projection field."

      "I know that. I also know that we need Liberator technology. Correct? Ship design. Teleport. Force field. Computer. All of them would complement and help explain what we already have."

      "Yes, yes. Come to the point."

      "The point is that, while we can't scoop the ship, we may now have a chance to scoop its crew."

      "Who may or may not be able to tell us anything we want to know."

      "Kerr Avon certainly will."

      The Director considered. "Kerr Avon..."

      "And I need him. The key to the Yard Barriers may well be in the computers here at Scitech Central. They are still pretty much of a mystery to our scientists-"

      "Can we pick up Avon?" she interrupted.

      "Yes. Look at those messages, Director." I pointed towards the computer screen. "You know and I know that Roj Blake is dead, but that information came to us from a Federation atmospheric tight-beam signal which Liberator couldn't have picked up. This message purports to come from Blake. Someone is laying a trap."

      "And Avon has fallen into it. I don't like the look of this last message, the one telling Vila Restal to take the Liberator away. Why, Van? Why did Avon fall into the trap?"

      That was the question that I had been asking myself for the last fifteen minutes. "I'm no psychologist. On the other hand, the Federation has its psychostrategists - puppeteers, they call them - and I think that those messages have been tailored by one of them to lure Avon into the trap. The discovery 'Blake' is supposed to have made must be part of it. If that message does come from the Federation we may never have another chance to pick up Avon. Of course, we may get some of the information we want through Federation inter-computer communications traffic but if Avon is killed we lose the opportunity to recruit a unique and brilliant mind: one that can tell us all we want to know about Liberator."

      The Director's tight grey curls bounced absurdly as she shook her head. "Van, we can't scoop at all if there is any chance of giving away our existence and disrupting the situation in the Main Galaxy."

      "Director, those co-ordinates do not correspond with any known Federation planet or installation. I don't know what's there but it can't be very big. We can go in with a wide scoop and minimal risk. Avon is important enough for us to take it. Also, do you want to risk the Federation gaining access to Liberator technology? They haven't abandoned their project to construct an intergalactic drive."

      She was still hesitating. "We'll be leaving a lot of bodies behind."

      "Accidents will happen. Let the Federation try and puzzle it out." Even as I spoke, I moved a hand towards my hidden gun. If she refused my request I would have to kill her. This would ruin my cover identity and all the plans that Silkay, Stali and I had so carefully constructed but my first loyalty must lie with Avon. Perhaps he could escape from the trap, perhaps he already had, perhaps he was already dead but, quite simply, I could not take the risk. His life and those of his companions meant far too much to me to let the chance to save them slip by.

      The Director nodded, "Very well. Scoop at those co-ordinates and see what you bring in. And Van... for your own sake, what you bring in had better include Kerr Avon."

      

      

      The floater platform took me high into a receiving area huge enough to accommodate the biggest spaceship, or even an asteroid. In fact, it had accommodated both. Now it was empty except for the AG generators suspended by their own power at the angles of the chamber, which would hold whatever we scooped intact and well away from the walls.

      The floater drifted downwards towards the balcony that housed Scoop Control. Behind it, the E-space generator screens rose upwards for fully thirty metres, glowing faintly with a blue-silver light that deepened even as I watched. The incredible power needed to penetrate E-space was already building.

      The balcony was swarming with people, both human and wi'h, though they weren't all needed to operate the Scoop. That ancient, alien-built equipment could be controlled by a single person, functioning as it had been designed to function. Even after five hundred years of research it had proved impossible to duplicate the Scoop, though the basic principles were clear.

      The back-up teams, though, were far from superfluous. Any living entity re-created by the Scoop needed attention within minutes, if it was not to die from transfer shock.

      Jake Harun stood waiting for me as the floater came to rest. Short, stocky, with red curls and snapping blue eyes, he looked twice his size by sheer power of personality as he placed his fists on his hips and regarded me with his chin and lower lip jutting forward. "Okay, Van, this had better be good. The Scoop isn't your private toy..."

      "No, it's yours," I told him, grinning in response. I liked Jake.

      "I'm just the Chief Technician here, that's all. I'm just the one who's supposed to co-ordinate this mess without even knowing what I'm supposed to be co-ordinating, that's all. I'm just-"

      "Jake, please, we don't have time. This may be our last chance."

      "Our last chance for what?" Jake howled. I think it was sheer willpower that kept him from dancing up and down on the spot.

      "To get our hands on Liberator technology. Specifically, on Kerr Avon. When will we be ready to scoop?"

      When Jake had stopped opening and closing his mouth, he found an answer. "Two... two and a half standard hours."

      It was a reply that dismayed me. "Too long. Liberator's crew are in a Federation trap. It may already be too late."

      "You can't shorten Scoop recharge time simply by wishing," Jake retorted. "Of course, if you could narrow the co-ordinates..."

      "No. We have only one chance and that's slim enough as it is. We have to cover as wide an area as possible."

      "Then we may pick up a very large chunk of something. No idea what, I suppose?"

      "None. It could be a ship, an asteroid or a satellite. There isn't supposed to be anything there at all... and by the time you're ready, there may not be."

      "Two hours," Jake said, implacably. "I can't change the way Builders' technology works, even for you, Van."

      

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