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Conscience of the Queen

By Marian Mendez
Page 3 of 8

Sleer caressed Orac's casing with much the same pride she'd felt in Avon's capture. It was hers to do with as she would. She could use Orac to destroy her enemies, to subjugate entire systems . . . Or to rehabilitate the Federation. With Orac, one could rule benevolently. The rewards would be the same, but resistance would be less. How could people fight you, if life was better under your leadership? The idea was a novel one. For centuries the Federation had ruled by repression. And for centuries, opposition has strengthened, and productivity has declined. The Pylene-treated worlds produce nothing, not even children. The galactic economy is in constant decline. Sleer didn't like the thought of ruling a rotting empire. If giving people more freedom was the answer, then she'd consider it. But the interim between taking power and impressing the populace with her benevolence would be hazardous in the extreme. Not if you had capable, trustworthy assistants. That nonsense again. She could afford to keep Avon for a while, perhaps, under suitable restraints, but freeing him and his crew of lunatics? That would be suicide. Not if you had their word. Particularly if you had Avon's word. He clings to his honor, even now. Orac's whine droned on, a mildly irritating background to her thoughts. Still, one could put up with a bit of irritation from the most valuable piece of computer equipment in the known worlds.

"Orac, I have some questions for you," she said. Avon had given her Orac, it was only fitting that Orac should give her Avon. The computer must know a way to assure her of Avon's loyalty.

*My circuits are otherwise engaged. Your petty concerns will have to wait.*

"Orac, do you know who I am?"

The computer sounded smug.* Of course I do. You are the ex-supreme commander Sevalan, once president of the Federation, previous ruler of the high council, former lord of the seven armies...*

"Enough!" Sleer said, angered more the reminder of past glories than the present threat of exposure. "I am Commissioner Sleer. You will refer to me by that name, and no other. Do you understand?"

*Certainly,* Orac replied, a smug tone in his electronic voice. *You do not wish your identity revealed. If I were to broadcast this data...*

"You would discover that President Servalan and I bear a striking superficial resemblance, but my retina patterns, brain-print and fingerprints are all different to hers. It is in the official records." Sleer smiled. "Why do you think Avon never ordered you to give your petty broadcast? He doesn't underestimate me. If Blake or Avon had been brought to trial, and lived long enough to testify--which, somehow, I doubt--then there is the remote possibility that I might have to assume yet another identity. No other rebel who knows me is any possible threat. They simply wouldn't be believed. And by the way, Orac, all my men have been conditioned to total loyalty, and a complete inability to think of me as anyone other than Commissioner Sleer. Now that we have that nonsense out of the way, are you going to obey me?"

Orac squealed, then its operating hum smoothed out. *My circuits are now free,*

She asked in suddenly sweet, dulcet tones, "what do you think Avon would say if I offered him an alliance?"

The computer hurumphed. *I am not a psychostrategist.*

"Does that mean you can't answer the question? I'm disappointed in you. Avon said you could do anything." It felt odd to attempt the seduction of a computer, but Orac was no ordinary computer. The few times she had been heard the machine converse had convinced her of that. Unlike an ordinary computer, Orac could choose the manner of its response. It was well within its design capabilities, as she had learned from Ensor, for Orac to deliberately give misleading, although technically true, information to an operator it 'disliked'. She wondered if the crew of the Liberator had known that. Of course, she'd gotten off to a bad start, but it was only natural that Orac would share the personal views of its most frequent user. If Orac thought about her as Avon did, the possibility of seduction was not utterly remote, despite a few arguments along the way.

*Of course I can answer the question,* Orac huffed. *Avon would refuse. He has repeatedly stated his belief that an alliance with you is tantamount to committing suicide.*

"But what if I could prove that I have changed, that I will keep my word?" The more she thought about it, the more she wanted this alliance to work. She honestly believed it would be worth any number of concessions. Power is meaningless if it the price is constant vigilance. Shared power and increased stability would be an equitable exchange. And there would be more time to enjoy the luxuries, and suitable companionship. It has been a long time since you have had a relationship with an equal. Sensuously, she stroked the cool, smooth sides of the plastic box, tracing a path around the key in unthinking mimicry of her possessive play with Orac's master, Avon. Now she was the master of both--or the mistress, depending on her mood. "What then?"

*It would be difficult to convince Avon,* Orac stated.

"Tell me how," Sleer purred.

*In the past, I had observed that Avon occasionally listened to his crew.*

"Does he indeed? Whose advice does he take most seriously?"

Orac's hum deepened. *'Listening' does not necessarily imply accepting advice.*

"Well, what do you mean, then?" Servalan snapped, then controlled her temper and said, softly, "Really, Orac, you do not seem to grasp the importance of my questions. I put it to you; if Avon is not convinced to cooperate with me, then I will be forced to turn you over to my best computer experts for duplication. Dismantling you would be necessary. Reassembling you would not." Seduction is all very well and good, but it is slow.

*That would not be an optimum decision. I am more than the sum of my parts. It is not possible to duplicate my design in such a random fashion. You would only succeed in destroying me.* Orac's protest had a near-hysterical overtone, proving the computer was capable of emotional reactions, thus reinforcing her determination to have both Avon and Orac working for her willingly.

"Yes, well, if I can't have you, then my second choice is for no one to have you. You see, I realize that Avon is the only one presently capable of commanding your loyalty, such as it is. I will not have you scheming behind my back."

*I do not 'scheme'.*

"Or lie?" Sleer laughed. "Oh, Orac, you are very close to human, aren't you?"

*There is no necessity to resort to insult. I was created to answer questions, regardless of their source. I will answer yours, provided they are properly phrased.*

The computer sounded sufficiently cowed, for the moment, Sleer decided. She said, "Then tell me how Avon 'occasionally listening' to his crew would enable me to prove to him that I would honor the terms of an alliance."

Orac made several grumbling noises, then said, slowly, as if reluctant, *While Avon seldom relies on others' opinions, over the years he has come to accept his crew members' judgment in their particular areas of expertise, as Avon sees them. Vila in the fields of locks, Tarrant as pilot, Dayna as weaponry expert, Soolin as...*

"This is not pertinent, Orac. I am losing patience."

*If you would stop interrupting! It is pertinent! This acceptance of their expertise has extended to less technical areas. Avon sincerely believes that Vila can 'read' people's trustworthiness. As in the incident of the 'black gold' when Vila distrusted Keiller, and Avon followed suit, although he had been given every reason to believe that Keiller's best interests were served by cooperating with Avon's plan. Dayna has impressed Avon with her sincerity, and in particular with her sincere hatred and desire for vengeance against you. As evidenced by your continued survival, Dayna considers Avon's best interest even more important than revenge, so it should be possible to convince her to support your proposal, provided there are sufficient guarantees of Avon's safety. Soolin impressed Avon with her perception and intelligence when she deduced Cancer's identity. He will believe that she could see through any attempted deception. While Avon considers Tarrant impulsive, he has taken Tarrant into his confidence on more than one occasion, such as the incident on Malodaar, in which Avon traded a false version of myself to Egrorian. Tarrant had been told about the switch in advance, even though there was no need to share this information. Despite himself, Avon has been forced to learn to trust those four people, at the same time he has learned to distrust every other human being. If they express belief in your sincerity, then Avon will hesitate to go against their combined judgment. He will have doubts, but he will be influenced by them.

*You have seen evidence of this yourself. I have perused the security tapes on Gauda Prime. Avon believed Tarrant when he said that Blake had betrayed them.*

"And Tarrant was wrong. Won't that shake Avon's belief in him?"

*Was he wrong? Blake did not openly request Avon's presence. He did not warn Avon of the blockade around Gauda Prime which destroyed the Scorpio and came very close to killing all of the crew. He did not tell Tarrant the truth. He behaved in a manner which Avon could only characterize as deceitful and manipulative. It is possible that Blake wished Avon to rejoin the rebellion, rather than be captured by the Federation, but he did not express this clearly. Under the circumstances, Tarrant's accusation was quite sensible. Indeed, lacking any direct evidence to the contrary, Blake could have intended to turn Avon's entire crew over to the Federation, only to have his plan turn awry.*

"But Blake didn't."

*Avon does not know this.*

"Oh, yes he does. I did see the surveillance tapes. Avon knew that Blake was innocent of any betrayal. He knows Tarrant was wrong."

*He knows Tarrant was mistaken. That is not the same thing. He knows that Tarrant did not lie to him. If you can obtain the willing consent of all four of Avon's crew, he will cooperate with you. Even if he does not fully believe them, he will still cooperate with you in order to gain sufficient freedom to arrange an escape, or your demise. It will be up to you to prove yourself trustworthy by trusting Avon first.*

Sleer shook her head. "You are stating, in effect, that the only way to gain Avon's cooperation is to bare my neck to his sword and count on his gentlemanly instincts not to chop my head off? That's suicide."

*Not necessarily. Not if you are sincere in your desire to ally with Avon. Emotional considerations aside, Avon has respect for your abilities. If it is made apparent that you all stand to gain by honoring the alliance, he will help you to maintain it.*

If you do not gain capable lieutenants very soon, you will lose all. Already your credibility with the Federation is weakening, with every Pylene-Fifty controlled world that fails to meet its quotas. You are running out of options. "I need him if I am to survive," Sleer said, with a simple honesty that surprised her. "There is nothing more sincere than that."

She made up her mind. It was dangerous, but so was anything worth doing. "So I should approach his crew first. You said Avon particularly believes in Vila's sense of 'trustworthiness'." She smiled. "Perhaps a thief is more experienced at recognizing dishonesty. I should have no difficulty with Vila, should I, Orac? He will eagerly agree to anything that gets him out of his cell."

The machine sounded grumpy. *Vila is irrational. It is difficult to predict his response in any given situation.*

"We shall see." Sleer snapped off the computer and took the key with her. Her troops were all recalled, her prisoners were secured, Orac was safely under lock and key in her cabin--it was time to leave Gauda Prime to its scruffy natives. Why the Federation wanted this planet back in the fold was beyond her. Still, if her plans worked, a cabin in the mountains would make a pleasant Presidential retreat. Nothing on the scale of her previous Residence on Earth. A simple thirty-room shack should suffice. Once they had lifted off, she would begin work on the weakest link in Avon's chain of companions.

* * * * * * *

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