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By Neil Faulkner
Page 3 of 24

"Vila!" Dayna's eyes glared stern disapproval. "I told you to check out the state of our food stores, not bring half of them back with you."

      "I get nibbly when I've got nothing to do," he protested. "And this is nowhere near half. One thousand year's worth for one, that's what we've got. We could keep the Colombia sick as pigs for three years. And sick's what they would be, too. Look at it. Cheap grade slop, and that's the best of it."

      Dayna sighed. Vila was a natural bon viveur, quick to complain about anything. The food was perfectly palatable. But she had to admit it didn't quite belong on the Liberator. The labelling was all in Terran. One of those things, like the strongroom, and the ship's apparently inexhaustible wardrobe, that raised interesting questions about Liberator's past. Questions not even Avon seemed terribly inclined to delve into.

      "While you've been raiding the larder," she said, "I've been putting Orac to good use."

      "That'll be a first," said Vila, peeling the top off a can of stew and then remembering he should have pressed the heating stud first. Not that he seemed to mind, by the way he set to with a fork.

      Dayna ignored that remark. She spent most of her time with Vila doing her best to ignore him as much as possible, and she was getting rather good at it. "Orac's come up with some interesting conclusions, haven't you, Orac?"

      "My assessment of the Colombia's external damage is most revealing," agreed the computer. "No collision with any known particulate matter could be responsible, either at sublight speed or in time distort mode. Neither can any known energy weapon be responsible."

      "So we're stumped," said Vila. "We'd already worked that out for ourselves. You just make it sound cleverer."

      "If you would allow me to finish," whined Orac, "I was going to add that such external distortion could only be achieved by a heavy duty industrial robot, the kind that is generally used for starship construction."

      "Which makes sense," said Dayna. "Something's got to be able to cut herculanium or they'd never build ships out of it."

      "So tell Avon," suggested Vila, talking with his mouth full.

      "I'm just going to," she said, looking at him with disgust and wishing she hadn't. Looked at him, that was. The disgust she didn't regret in the slightest.



Data collation.

      "You say the first two crew members to be found dead - Grebbins and Storsky - were definitely still alive before the drives packed up." Avon leaned back heavily in the chair, cross-legged, watching the tip of a light pen as it swung in his fingers like a metronome. Droge's office was big enough to hold a conference of four, even if it was a tight squeeze. Everything was orderly enough at a glance, but quite untidy in detail, as if efforts to keeps things where they belonged had petered out somewhere along the line.

      "If they weren't still alive I couldn't have sent them down to see what was wrong," Droge pointed out. "I can put two and two together, you know. Whatever killed them was the same thing that cut its way out of the drive chamber."

      "We all know what Orac thinks it might have been," said Cally.

      Tarrant leant on the back of a chair and swayed with it. "And we all know Orac's got to be wrong. A ship construction bot? I've seen one of those mothers, they're big. With a capital B-I-G. Even if one could fit in the drive chamber it couldn't get through the airlock, which it would have had to do to kill Grebbins."

      "And later the other man," noted Cally.

      "Karpov," supplied Droge.

      Cally nodded. "Yes, Karpov. That was between the recycling plant and the paraneutronic generators."

      "More doors to go through," said Tarrant, "and corridors that narrow." He spread his hands, made walls of them. "Definitely not a bot."

      "The robots are big," agreed Avon, "but they are also multifunctional. Could the cutting equipment on its own be carried through the corridors?"

      Tarrant thought for a moment. "Possibly," he said, clearly unsure. "But not easily. It would weigh a tonne. Not the type of gear you would dice people up with, even if you wanted to."

      Droge leaned forward, hands clasped, brows hanging heavy. "You're suggesting someone on board? A stowaway?"

      "Or one of the crew," said Avon.

      Droge looked up with a start. "The crew? Why should any of them want to do something like this?"

      Avon smiled coldly. "Your crew, your problem."

      "It could also be one of the passengers," suggested Cally.

      Droge gave the idea minimal consideration. "No, impossible. The passenger section is sealed off from the rest of the ship. There's no way any of them could leave it without me knowing."

      The door suddenly hissed open and Chu-Lao took a step inside. She had her hands on her hips and was chewing a thick wad of gum. Droge half rose and then sat down again.

      "It's considered polite to knock, Ms Lao."

      "Sorry, Captain," she replied with a hint of a grin, "but I've got one of the passengers here. He insists on seeing you this minute."

      "You were just saying," murmured Tarrant to himself. A broad, slab-faced man squeezed through the narrow doorway. What remained of his hair was impeccably groomed. He wore the kind of perfectly fitting suit that would have set Tarrant back half a year's pay in his piloting days. He took Avon, Cally and Tarrant in with a sweeping glance and clearly decided they were unimportant. All his attention was on Droge.

      "My apologies for intruding on you like this, Captain," he said, in a voice that sounded as if it had never uttered an apology in its life, "but I've just been informed by one of your stewards that this ship won't be moving an inch for some days. Is this true?"

      Droge stood up and planted his hands on the desk. "I'm afraid it is, mister...?"

      "Lassiter." He rolled the name out as if having to produce it were an insult. "Konrad Lassiter, boarded at Westman's World. Now, I'm not one to cut around the core of the matter, I have to be on San Bernard within eight days for a connecting flight to Uila Segunda."

      Droge pulled a tight face, deepening the lines around his eyes. "I'm sure you'll find you're not the only passenger on board who has to be on San Bernard -"

      "I daresay," interrupted Lassiter. "But I'm afraid this is a little more crucial than aunty's birthday or some time-wasting corporate junket. I'm testifying as a key character witness in a murder trial on Uila Segunda and if I miss my connection I've no chance of being there on time."

      Tarrant felt it was time he butted in. "That makes all the difference, does it?"

      Lassiter turned his head slowly and narrowed his eyes in disgust. "Some people might not think so. Some people might not think it makes any difference at all. Personally I consider a young man's future and quite possibly his life to make rather a lot of difference." He strode up to Droge's desk and put his own hands down on the cluttered surface. "He's a former employee of mine, took advantage of the War to make his own future in the Outer Worlds. Screwed it up, of course, always knew he would, and ended up trying to shoot his way out of debt. No doubt about it, he's guilty, but I'll be damned if I see him frazzle for spineless incompetence. Now, I'm a registered Federation citizen with bona fide authorization to travel." He tapped his breast pocket. "I've got the release permit on me if you can't be bothered to check your flight roster. You have got to get me to San Bernard within the next eight days."

      Cally had been making rough calculations in her head. "Liberator could make it in less than five," she thought aloud.

      Tarrant flung his head up in despair. "Thank you, Cally," he said through clenched teeth.

      Lassiter stood up straight and regarded Droge's three companions more intently.

      "Liberator?" He chewed the name over. "Yes, I've heard of you people. You there must be Kerr Avon."

      Avon cocked his head slightly to one side. "I'm flattered."

      "Hardly the word for it," snapped Lassiter, interlocking fingers and flexing his palms together. "However, the first rule of politics has always been expediency. If I can get there on time or sooner, I'm prepared to overlook the how."

      "Very generous," muttered Tarrant.

      "Why couldn't you arrange to testify by viscast?" asked Cally. "The relay time delay wouldn't be all that much. They have special sub-beam channels for such purposes."

      Lassiter looked as if he was about to splutter with contempt, but he managed to bottle it down. "Do you seriously think that if I could do that, I would be travelling on a bucket like this? Uila Segundan law demands that I be there to give my testimony in person. And you can check that on your Orac computer."

      Avon stood up. "Thank you," he said, and pushed past Lassiter for the door. "We will."



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Neil Faulkner

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