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The Measure of Affection

By Ros Williams
Page 3 of 62

Carnell returned to Servalan briefly and gave her an intimation of his ideas, flirted with her outrageously...or so she thought, and then slid away before she could decide whether to have him then and there. "You'll need four months," he said, "at the very least, to drive Coser off the Base. From then on it will be quick and easy."

"There's one thing I don't like," she told him. "You are suggesting that I should wait alone for Blake. I would prefer to have a bodyguard."

"No doubt you would," he replied, "but if you want to keep your possession of the weapon secret, you must be alone: I am sure you can see that."

"I do see it. Nevertheless, I will not go alone. There is a Space Commander Travis: you'll include him in your plan and he will accompany me. See to it, Carnell."

He'd seen Travis around the base, now and again. The man was undoubtedly psychotic, though not sufficiently so to be unpredictable. On the other hand, the man was a good officer - better by far than Servalan, in his way. Travis's personal hatred of Blake was no secret. Yes, it would be possible to use the man: better him than anyone else.

It was predictable too that Servalan would kill Travis when she had finished with him. Perhaps it would be a mercy, though she would not see it that way.

"Your word is my command," he said with his usual smile and, to amuse himself, continued flirting with her. It delighted him to see how easy it was to arouse her...but he would not have her yet; she must not think she had any kind of control over him. So he left her just as she was thinking of taking him, and left her both excited and faintly relieved that she had not made the decision.

But she was determined to have him eventually, one way or another. Meantime, there was a newcomer to her staff who'd do well enough. Servalan had a weakness for attractive youths and, most important of all, they could not threaten her. Carnell was different: mature, dangerous, exciting, to be handled with great care. Like Blake's friend Avon, of course... And if she could not safely get a man, or if he let her down, he must suffer commensurate with his status. A pretty boy could be demoted and left to grieve over the loss of her charms. A man of influence must be destroyed...or killed.

Carnell returned to his Institute's headquarters reasonably satisfied with the project so far. He was still uneasy about Servalan's ability to keep to any strategy, but the rest of it would be straightforward. All he had to do now was investigate Blake and his crew, and formulate the final strategy; and whilst he was about it he'd reinvestigate Servalan in the hope that he could come up with some extra safeguards, for Carnell saw no point in condemning himself to death at her whim.

"Well," Gort said to him after he reached the Institute, "she's paid the first account. I suppose that's something."

Carnell grimaced. "I had my doubts whether she'd do even that."

"You already know the risk you are taking in dealing with her. We will do everything we can to back you, but if your strategy fails - for whatever reason - you will have to leave Federation territory. We will arrange for you to return if she loses power. If not, we will employ you on the Outer Worlds."

Carnell nodded. Like all his colleagues, he had a second base established outside Federation territory, with equipment for his work and much of his personal fortune at his disposal there. It was always wise to be prepared for the possible disastrous failure...a failure which, in the case of any strategists in the upper echelons of the Institute at least, would usually be caused by client error or factors beyond computing possibilities. It was the inevitable risk: the unexpected, something so incredible that even the best, such as Carnell or Gort, could not anticipate. If Carnell had to run, he would ensure Servalan believed he could never return: it was the wisest way. Being a consummate actor like all of his profession, he would have no difficulty in convincing Servalan of almost anything. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that," he said, "but I am very much afraid it might. She is easy to manipulate, yet difficult to control."

"The inevitable paradox of such a woman," Gort agreed gloomily, "always convinced she knows best or that some little deviation of her own won't upset the best laid plans."

"It's a pity she knew me," Carnell said, "or she might not have come to us." But there, it was difficult to avoid such a woman when you moved in the same High Alpha circles. "Catching Blake will be easy," he said. "The problem - every time - is Servalan."

He went to his private sector at the Institute and commenced with the investigation of Servalan's record. The material he used was partly from Federation Security, including a number of files to which he should have had no access but had long since entered without much difficulty, and part the special, detailed, and somewhat differently-biased Institute records which were very much more comprehensive than anything the Federation kept.

The impression was of a clever but not infallible woman, a woman with vicious tendencies yet occasional flashes of compassion, a woman who needed men and tended to take rather than be taken, who normally chose wisely amongst unimportant staff officers yet could be tempted dangerously by the more unusual of her compatriots, and then might...just might...take occasional risks in order to amuse herself. She had a weakness for games - games to trap her enemies, games which did not always succeed. She was ruthless and frequently unfair in her judgements, yet respected by her people, which suggested that she could charm when she chose and be gracious when she chose. He'd been right in his earlier impression, Carnell knew, that she was not to be trusted in any way whatsoever.

Then there was the Space Commander, Travis: a strange relationship, this. She had recalled this man because of his connection with Blake, had forced him on Space Command, had let him down more than once when he'd nearly taken Blake. But for Servalan, Travis could - it was clear - have succeeded. Yet the man was still loyal to her. What was there between these two?

Travis was no fool and, interestingly, he too was admired by his troopers. They did not necessarily like him but they found him totally fair - and in that he was far superior to Servalan, if fairness was to be a measure of his quality.

And what was their more intimate relationship? With Servalan's proclivities, she might have taken him to her bed in spite of his status - too senior to be the office boy she usually favoured, too junior to be her equal. But Carnell suspected that Travis would not have responded, at least not willingly. To him, Servalan was his superior, not a woman to couple with. There were always women who would like the sadistic type of man - he would not go short for companionship, if he chose to seek it.

On the subject of Servalan's proclivities, Carnell noticed in passing a strange little business of some woman called Kasabi who'd had a hand in training Servalan in her cadet days. As he read Kasabi's assessment of Servalan, he raised his eyebrows in amazement. 'Vicious,' she'd said and that was true enough; but 'unfit for command...lazy...'? Oh no, not Servalan. With all her faults, with all her prevarications and autocracy, Servalan was an excellent commander. The fact that she was an unfit client for the Institute of Psychostrategy was quite another matter. So what did Kasabi have against Servalan? Federation Security records offered no more help but the Institute files went back into her teens and there Carnell found the answer to his question. There had been no friction with Kasabi at first: quite the contrary, in fact, and secret Institute records indicated there had been a relationship. Servalan was quite capable of it, Carnell had no doubt, if it suited her purpose, though he imagined there was no more to it than that on her side. And Kasabi? There had occasionally been other favourites. Perhaps it had been no more than close friendship, but it hardly mattered, as the answer was clear.

And the answer continued with an account of Servalan's relationship with a certain Don Keller, an attractive but not very reliable officer who had, it seemed, lightly seduced Servalan when she was eighteen and then wandered off to pastures new. The love affair seemed of very little account, unless it had influenced Servalan's personality a little, and it did not matter to Carnell one way or the other, but it was significant that Keller had - quite abruptly - displaced Kasabi in Servalan's life. It suggested that whatever the feeling on Kasabi's side, Servalan had merely used her. The result, then, was that Kasabi turned on Servalan and refused to recommend her for advancement, which might have been the end of Servalan's military career but for the fact that Kasabi foolishly became involved with some freedom fighters and began to slip sedition into her lectures. Servalan seized on the unorthodox teaching...and that was the end of Kasabi's career instead. Rightly so, Carnell thought: the woman had been a fool in more ways than one and Servalan had proved, not for the first time, that she was ruthless. Carnell could admire her for that.

Could he use this information? He'd think about it, but probably not. Blackmailing Servalan would be risky. Meantime, there was Travis and the nuisance of having to fit him into the strategy. Travis could wreak havoc with Carnell's draft strategy... Well, there was a possible solution, but it would not please the people Carnell had in mind for Servalan to approach for help.

He progressed on to Blake. Blake was easy to assess: a simple revolutionary, loyal to his friends, earnest in his intentions, passionate in his ideals, with a conscience which see-sawed from an absolute conviction that he must be right to seek freedom at any cost to a desperate inability to accept emotionally the deaths that must occur if he were to succeed. He had probably passed through the first stage and was about to enter the second. He would just, Carnell conjectured dispassionately, be starting to show signs of instability, and that would help to trap him, for he'd be frantic to justify the deaths and passing destruction with a spectacular success. And Carnell needed that instability as it would help to silence the natural, sensible caution which Blake's companion Kerr Avon would undoubtedly express on every possible occasion. Blake was easy meat, but Avon was Liberator's hard man: Avon would be difficult to take.

Still, Avon seemed to be under Blake's thumb to some degree. In spite of his background, which was very similar to Carnell's, in spite of his education, his avowed avarice and his criminal interests, Avon was still with Blake and apparently helping him. It was possible that Avon stayed because he wanted Liberator or the mysterious Orac, but even that did not explain his apparent willingness to risk his life for Blake's Cause, as records showed that he had done...frequently. Avon was not an adventurous man, that was clear; or, at least, not adventurous unless it was to his own advantage. There must have been frequent arguments on Liberator, Carnell thought with a grin: he would have enjoyed listening in and assessing them all...

So what was the relationship between Avon and Blake? There was surely something, a mutual dependency? If Avon was aware of it consciously, he might find it irksome, would probably take out his inconvenient dependency on Blake. That would hardly make for an easy atmosphere.

Nothing was known of other relationships on Liberator, and they were probably immaterial in any case. The only other individual who might feature seriously in Carnell's strategy was the pilot, Jenna Stannis, and Carnell decided from her record that she would probably back Blake simply because her personality would complement his, even if some of their ideals were different - and it was likely she would find the computer expert irritating at the best of times. The telepath appeared to be another fervent revolutionary like Blake, of no serious account in this assessment, nor was the Delta thief in spite of his misgrading, nor the psychopath Gan.

Now Carnell called up Kerr Avon's Security record. Much of it he already knew, from noticing the case at the time and from conversation with friends about it. He remembered that Avon had been marked for political crime because of his ambitious attempted fraud and because he'd had a brief relationship with a woman who had revolutionary contacts even though she herself was regarded as 'clean'. An agent had been assigned to Avon - the notorious, experienced Bartolemew - and she had been instructed to seduce Avon and cohabit with him. Carnell called up Bartolemew's official Security record, and here he found a curious anomaly: the record was incomplete, and, try as he would, he could not find any more of it. It ended shortly before Avon absconded following the passport fiasco, and there was no information at all on Bartolemew's future after that, not even an official closure of her file. Mystified for the moment, Carnell accessed the file under her real name, Anna Grant.

This time, he was not surprised to find another incomplete record. It showed merely that a woman of that name had died under torture at the hands of a certain notorious Security interrogator nicknamed Shrinker, yet there was no note of her cremation and, again, no closure of the file. So, had Bartolemew transferred her allegiance to Avon and hence been killed for her carelessness?

Carnell's experience and intuition told him this was not the case at all for, if she had reneged on her duty, the facts would have been recorded very fully, with a comprehensive vilification of her name and detail of her inevitable confession - inevitable it would have been at Shrinker's hands. Yet the sparse record on Anna Grant showed no confession to speak of. So...Anna Grant was fishy, very fishy indeed, and so was Bartolemew.

On the other hand, Bartolemew's earlier record was fully denoted and you could not doubt her reputation. How annoyed her Control must have been, Carnell thought, when it was realised that Avon was not political and an agent of Bartolemew's quality had been squandered on an over-clever, greedy criminal who could have been dealt with by simpler, cheaper means. But what had happened to Bartolemew?

There was a note in Bartolemew's file that 'Anna Grant' had an older brother. Accessing via the brother's file, Carnell discovered full details of Anna's life up to her appointment as a Security agent - yet another strange anomaly as the information should have appeared on Anna's own file. So it seemed that someone in Security had misfiled information - or sought to conceal it. Why?

Back to Bartolemew's file, and Carnell picked up the record of her marriage to a certain Chesku whom he knew socially, though only very slightly. Yes, he remembered Chesku's wife. He had met her once or twice, some years ago, and had not liked her. He had suspected that Chesku would have trouble with her, sometime or another. So Sula was Bartolemew? Had she been ordered to marry Chesku in order to keep an eye on him? It was likely, since Chesku was known to be a close friend of Supreme Commander Servalan. And what had Chesku thought of her extra-marital activities with Avon and other 'subjects'? Had he even known? What kind of a wife was she? It was a strange kind of a marriage, to a Federation agent who was still actively engaged in her work - and such work!

Over to Chesku's record, and he found that the man had been transferred abruptly away from Earth after Avon had been captured, and Sula had accompanied him. Stranger and stranger...

It was possible, Carnell mused, to make a good many theories out of such facts as he had. He checked on the Institute records but found little more of interest on Bartolemew. Well, it really did not matter. It was not relevant to his present project, any of it. He had merely been - curious.

He called up Avon's Institute record, which was very detailed and had been updated frequently since his association with Blake. Ignoring the early material, which he had seen before and knew well, he concentrated on the recent data. Yes, it was clear that Avon was working actively with Blake even though his personality would suggest an antipathy to Blake's ideals and holier-than-thou attitudes. Servalan wanted this man to come with Blake to Coser's refuge. There was, Carnell thought, an even chance that he would - and an even chance that he would not.

There was one more record to view, a visual of Avon during his interrogation and trial. It was patchy and incomplete, but there was enough to see some of his sufferings: the initial anger and disbelief immediately after his capture, the fierce resistance to torture and the eventual breaking of his spirit...briefly, but adequately enough to obtain the necessary confession. Snippets only appeared of his agony, moments seized through some spycam which had somehow been captured on film by an Institute contact. And then the official record of his trial with Avon standing throughout in spite of his obvious exhaustion: defiant again, refusing to speak even in his own defence, and eventually taking without a single flicker of emotion on his proud, shuttered face, the fearful sentence. Carnell watched it all, outwardly impassive. When it ended, he blanked the terminal and sat in silence for a long time.

Well, my friend, he thought, you have a problem, haven't you? And I don't know that I can save you - or even if I should try. If you aren't taken now, you probably will be later, and perhaps your death then would be even more unpleasant... Unfortunately, it's up to you. Can you contain your curiosity sufficiently to keep away? That's the question, Kerr Avon and, regrettably, I suspect you won't. So I'm sorry... I'll try my best, and that's all I can say, to save you.

As for myself, it gets worse and worse: strategies within strategies, and all because some Beta technician had to go and pursue a flash of inspiration...

Finally, he brought a likeness of Servalan up on the screen and stared at it. Are you really going to be my downfall? No - not if I can help it!

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