"Roj Blake?" The man in the doorway paused tentatively.
- Avon: Have you anything on Blake's whereabouts?
- Zen: His last voice transmission reported that he is safe and well and en route for the planet Epheron.
The figure by the window turned and surveyed his visitor, then he smiled and acknowledged his identity with a somewhat rueful gesture.
"Welcome to Epheron. I am Emeryk, President of the local council. I hope our people have been looking after you." Emeryk advanced into the room, extending his hand in greeting. He was young for a president, with an undistinguished round face and an eager, rather naive expression.
Blake shook the proffered hand, towering over the small politician.
"So, I was recognised, then."
"I'm afraid so. We sent a vessel to join the defence against the invaders, and the captain recognised you when you were picked up. He's a great admirer of yours."
"I'm much obliged to him. He never mentioned it to me while I was aboard," said Blake.
"Er, no." Emeryk gave a slight smile. "Since they had picked up some Federation citizens, he felt it wise to be discreet. We don't want to attract their displeasure, but you are among friends. Captain Vine tells me that you were quite badly injured when he picked you up. He thinks it was a single shot to the chest. Are you recovering well? Are you going to need further surgery?"
"Apparently not. I'm doing well, there is very little pain now, and I'm extremely grateful for the excellent care I've received here. The medics tell me they are satisfied with my progress and will be happy to let me go as soon as I've built up a bit more strength."
Blake gestured politely to his visitor to take the single chair. When Emeryk was seated, he sat himself on the edge of the bed. "Tell me about the planet. How long has it been settled?"
"Well, you may have noticed it's a bit primitive here." Emeryk's voice was mildly deprecating. "Although there's a reasonable atmospheric pressure, we don't yet have a sufficient ozone layer to protect life from UV radiation, hence the glass domes. But we've been working on it for nearly eighty years now, and we're hopeful that another twenty or thirty years will see us living outside."
"Hm... You need plenty of plant cover to maintain enough oxygen for a livable atmosphere without expensive artificial production," said Blake interestedly. "It looks pretty barren at present."
"Oh yes, the native species are very primitive, of course, but every year we establish another bio-dome to raise crops and develop strains which will prosper here. The soil is quite fertile when treated."
"What d'you do about water?" Blake asked, the engineer in him coming to the fore.
"Bore holes have proved disappointing," Emeryk owned, "and chemical methods aren't ideal, so we're mining some icy asteroids from the edge of the system. We've managed to capture two small ones and park them in orbit."
"Impressive," said Blake. "Expensive, though."
"Well, our main business is minerals," Emeryk responded, "and there we are well endowed: high-grade iron ore, copper, zinc, tin, silver, platinum, molybdenum, titanium, and other useful metals. So we do a very nice trade in this sector. What's more - and this is in total confidence - we've recently come across some diamond deposits."
"Yes, well, you don't want rumours of that to get around. You'd attract every rogue in the galaxy." Blake smiled inwardly at the thought of two particular rogues who would be highly interested. "If you're all living under domes, I take it that your population is quite small."
Emeryk sighed. "Yes, only about half a million. One of our worst problems is a shortage of women, you know. They won't put up with the hardships of pioneering these days. Outsiders won't settle and the native-born just dream of getting away to places like Keledon and Parthia Minor." He shook his head sadly.
Blake suppressed a laugh. "Perhaps that problem will disappear of its own accord when a normal atmosphere is established. And a reasonable degree of mechanisation should improve the settler's lot. Land and equipment grants might help too, when you're ready to expand in the open."
"That's what my uncle says," Emeryk said with a slight grimace. "But it's hard for the younger men, they often get lonely and hit the bottle. We have trouble from time to time when they fight over girls." He gave himself a little shake. "I don't know why I'm boring you with our problems. In a day or two, when you've had a good rest, we'll show you round everywhere. I think you'll be interested."
"It'll be a pleasure," said Blake heartily. "Particularly after the life I've been leading recently."
"Good." Emeryk smiled cheerfully again. "Have you adapted to our long day yet? I know space crew who are used to Standard time find it very tiring."
"Nearly. How does it compare with Standard?"
"Almost twenty-seven hours, I'm told. We divide it into twenty-five hours, and have a three-hour break in the middle of the working day."
Emeryk kept his promise and took Blake on a guided tour two days later; an expedition to one of the mines, a hydroponics plant, a large bio-dome growing cereals, and the cargo bays of a very rudimentary spaceport, including the control tower. Not a woman in sight anywhere, Blake noticed.
That evening they retired to Emeryk's private quarters adjoining the government building for dinner with a few members of the Council. Among them was Emeryk's uncle, the Minister for Economic Affairs. In contrast to his nephew's commonplace round features, Shandor was darkly impressive in a lean and aristocratic way. Quite an elegant and imposing figure, Blake thought, as they were introduced.
Before long he found himself giving an account of his part in the galactic war, up to the point where Liberator's crew had taken to the escape pods.
"What a pity such a magnificent ship was destroyed," said one of the guests. "Just think what we could do with a vessel like that."
"Certainly not," Shandor retorted with a lift of his eyebrows. "The Federation Fleet would be down on us like a pack of wolves, wouldn't they, Blake?"
"I'm afraid you're right," Blake said ruefully. "They'd never tolerate such a warship in the hands of the independents. They would strike at your planet with everything they had to obliterate your home bases." He carefully avoided saying anything about Liberator's self-repair capabilities.
Shandor skillfully moved the conversation along to other topics, but later on, when he had manoeuvred Blake away from the rest of the company, he reverted to the theme.
"Who could have built such a vessel?" he wondered. "Did you ever find out?"
Blake thought it safe to impart a few details about the original proprietors' attempt to retake Liberator. "It's a great shame we were forced to destroy their fleet capability," he finished, "but in their way, they were an even greater threat to civilisation than the Federation."
"Yes, I suppose you are right," said Shandor regretfully. "But how did you manage it?"
Blake had no intention of mentioning Orac's existence which he devoutely hoped was still a secret, so he prevaricated. "Well, the ship's computer, Zen, could access The System itself, so once we managed to regain control of Zen, we could strike back. Fortunately, our computer officer, Avon, is an adept at these procedures." He paused rather painfully. "Maybe I should be saying he was an adept. I have no idea whether any of my crew survived. I was sent off first because I was injured, but I have no idea as to whether they managed to follow me."
Shandor murmured sympathetically and let the subject drop.
Some days later, Blake approached Emeryk with the matter that was uppermost in his mind - moving on.
"But where would you go, Blake?" Emeryk made no attempt to hide his dismay. "Everything's in total chaos. Andromedan squadrons are still roaming around and it's dangerous out there. Stay a bit longer until things are safer. Please."
"I can't just leave the scene and retire here," said Blake, feeling rather awkward in the face of this opposition. "I need to contact some associates and find out what's become of my crew. I can hardly sleep for thinking about them."
Emeryk nodded sympathetically. "Well, I have a suggestion. Why don't you spend some time listening for news at our communications centre? You could help our people make some sense of the reports that are flying about on all sides. Each bulletin seem to contradict another, maybe your experience will help to clarify things."
"That sounds like a good idea," Blake acknowledged. "I need as much information as I can get."
"Yes, and cargo flights will be resumed as soon as it's safe, which will give you the chance to travel unobtrusively," Emeryk added eagerly. "Did you know that more than half of this sector's merchant fleet was destroyed or damaged during the main battle? One thing, if you do contact anyone, will you be discreet? In fact, we should give you a false identity as cover. We don't want a Federation cruiser coming to get you, do we?"
Blake sighed. "I feel as if I'm missing the biggest opportunity to bring down the Federation that I'll ever be given."
"Maybe others are grasping that opportunity with both hands," offered Emeryk.
Blake was not sure that it was an entirely comforting thought.
A keen thirst for news made Blake a constant visitor to the communications bureau where friendly juniors gave him bulletins as they arrived, and allowed him a console where he could scour the wavelengths on his own account, since the Liberator was evidently far beyond the range of his teleport bracelet's communicator. As the last of the invaders were being hunted down, he began to keep a tally of Federation losses. The Andromedans had split into squadrons and diffused all over the galaxy. Only a few sectors had not seen any action. One enemy squadron was known to have passed right across the galaxy, regrouping its remnants and skirting round the outer sectors, to flee across unimaginable distances to bear the news of defeat back home. Blake wondered what kind of reception they would get in that duty-bound society. Perhaps they would do better to fall on their swords.
Watching his compilations mount, he realised that the Federation must be in dire straits. More than seventy-five percent of their fleet was destroyed and whole legions had vanished. "Their finest hour," he could imagine Avon saying, with that typical twist to his lips.
Many planets were regaining their independence without striking a blow because their garrisons would never return from the wars. Some were struggling towards self-government, while others, adrift on a sea of uncertainty, were clamouring for the Federation to take the helm once more. Many of the weather-conditioned planets were experiencing devastation since the destruction of Star One's computer control. However, Servalan was firmly in the saddle now, and Space Command directives were beginning to refer to her as the 'Supreme Empress'. How the ex-president and his high council must have prayed that her personal brush with the Andromedan fleet should prove fatal. But, even as the last of the invaders were being destroyed or harried out of the galaxy, she was setting about her programme of disaster recovery with typical energy and decision, and her minions were leaping to do her bidding.
More than ever Blake chafed at his enforced inactivity. His hosts were very kind and his health was more or less restored, but he must get back into the thick of things soon.
"Thought you'd like to see this." One of the staff dropped a hard copy onto his desk. It was a presidential decree issued by Servalan to the fleet, doubling the reward for Avon, Cally and Vila, and offering ten million credits for the capture of the Liberator. Madam President must have been badly stung recently, he reflected, exhilarated by the thought. So, the ship was evidently in action again.
Oh, but where was Jenna? His exultation ebbed away. Absorbed in his own predicament, he had given small thought to hers. Now a sharp longing swept over him to see her, to hear her voice and run his fingers through her hair. He remembered those discreet meetings and their lovemaking with an aching clarity. How could he bear never to see her again?