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The Haunting of Haderon

By Lillian Sheperd
Page 1 of 20

Vila Restal was bored. He wished that Blake had left him out of the Haderon landing party and, indeed, was at a loss to understand why he had been included in the first place. It was not as if Blake needed any locks picked or safes cracked - there didn't appear to be anything on the planet worth locking up in the first place - or even any back-up fire power. The natives were friendly, not to say effusive. Vila had not had much contact with official effusiveness during his long and varied criminal career, and he had quickly decided that, if this was a representative sample, he would be quite happy if he never had any more.

      Coll Banard, elected leader of the Haderon colony, was a tall, gaunt man with a passion for making speeches, or rather, for making the same speech as often as possible. He had made it at least four times, by Vila's reckoning, since the party from Liberator had teleported down into the sun-drenched main square of this, the only settlement on Haderon. That had been over two hours ago and, during the infrequent interludes when Banard had not been making his speech the conversation had been embarrassingly technical.

      At least their stay here ought to be both short and peaceful, the colonists on Haderon being remorselessly democratic and anti-Federation. Not that the Federation's leaders would find that anything but laughable, for Haderon was hardly a threat to them - or even desirable property. Seventy standard years ago, prospectors from the independent planet of Pharion had discovered a deposit of a unique super-hard form of diamond on this lifeless, desert world, and a small company had been formed to mine it. Within ten years the mine had petered out and, for some reason that no-one had been able to explain to Vila, prospecting had stopped and never re-started. However, the miners and their families had been unwilling to return to Pharion, which had been in the middle of a squabble with one of its near neighbours that had looked as if it might turn into interstellar war, and they had used the remaining profit from the mine to start making Haderon habitable.

      They had prospected for water, and found it locked deep in the rocks far below the planet's surface, but seed, organics and technical equipment had all had to be imported, and a dome raised to equalise the temperature, keep in water vapour, and keep out the dangerously high ultra-violet. Only then could the colonists start manufacturing soil.

      Vila had seen the resulting gardens and plantations on his way here to the Civic Building, and had admitted to himself that the Haderon colonists had done a good job of turning everything a variegated green. Not that the settlement was large. The domes covered less than two thousand hectares, which included the buildings of the village, a town only by courtesy title. He had been surprised by the height and thickness of the wall that surrounded the domes, but had been told that it was necessary to stop the sands encroaching on the cultivated land, which might not support the population in luxury, but at least supported it.

      There had been talk of terraforming Haderon, Avon had said. The desert sand could be made into good soil and, while the temperature tended towards both daily and seasonal extremes at present, full vegetation cover would help stabilize it. The natural atmosphere was high in oxygen, there was carbon dioxide present, and sufficient water trapped below the surface. On the other hand, the colonists had no hope of raising the capital themselves and were unlikely to find backers for such a long-term project in the uneasy political situation prevailing in the human-occupied portion of the galaxy - at least, not at present. Pity. Meanwhile, the colonists could at least comfort themselves that their world was too poor to attract the attention of the Terran Federation.

      Blake would not have given it any attention, either, if it had not been for a complex chain of events that had started when Zen had detected a trio of cargo ships under attack, apparently by space pirates. Liberator's abrupt entry into the battle had sent the pirate ships scurrying, but they had not retreated in time to stop her neutron blasters destroying one of them and disabling another.

      It had been in the safe in the Captain's cabin of the crippled pirate ship that Vila himself had discovered records that had caused Blake to offer the cargo ships escort to their home world of Pharion, headquarters of a small group of allied but independent worlds known as the Elenian Conclave.

      The offer had been accepted with alacrity and, once on Pharion, Blake had been able to present proof to Lawgiver Watterson that the Terran Federation was financing pirate attacks designed to debilitate the Conclave economically, prior to a Federation take-over.

      Liberator had remained in orbit around Pharion while Blake, and sometimes Cally, Jenna, or - reluctantly - Avon, had been closeted with Watterson and his cabinet, advising on how best the Conclave could counter the Federation threat.

      Vila had enjoyed his time on Pharion, where they had all been treated as heroes, but their time there had been short. The Conclave was preparing its defences and it had been decided that, because of the speed of his ship and the expertise of his personnel, the greatest help Blake could give in the short time he had available was in setting up the outermost of an urgently required net of detector stations between Federation and Conclave space. Watterson had contacted anti-Federation governments in the general area, explaining the situation and asking for help in siting and maintaining those bases. Haderon had been the first of those worlds to offer itself as a base, and that offer had been eagerly accepted.

      Which was why Vila was sitting in Banard's office, bored to the teeth. He let his gaze roam over the cloth-covered walls, up and out of a narrow window through which sunlight was gushing. From space, Haderon had been a silver-gilt bauble, completely uniform in colour, but through the window Vila could see jagged-sided, flat-topped mountains of such harlequin hues that they almost dazzled him with their brightness against the pale sky. They looked inimical, and Vila turned away from them in relief to study the men and women seated with him on the low, padded stools that had also been the usual type of seating on Pharion.

      Banard was still talking. Letting the voice trickle into his ears but not into his mind, Vila scanned the familiar and unfamiliar faces.

      Banard, skin burnt dark and fair hair bleached to whiteness, made a striking figure at the head of the low table, becoming even more startling when he flashed his equally-white teeth in a smile, which he did frequently. His assistant, Salli Rosen, sat next to him; a small woman, brown of skin and hair, but with intelligent grey eyes, which, Vila, felt were not altogether approving as they rested on Banard.

      Blake was opposite her, listening politely to Banard, solid and straightforward-looking as always. He could have made a fortune as a con-man, Vila thought enviously, looking as if he did not know what deceit was, when behind those honest brown eyes lived a brain as devious as any Vila had ever encountered. Pity he really was honest.

      Jenna sat between Blake and Banard, her hair glowing a rich gold in contrast with the paleness of the colony leader's, and her remarkable beauty highlighted by Rosen's plainness. The third colonist, Joss Langar, was looking hungrily at her, and Vila felt that it was as well that the conversation was constrained by convention. He could have told Langar that huge bruisers with an abundance of muscle and a paucity of wit were not exactly Jenna's type and, if cornered, she could be brutal. Vila had been ripped by the sharp edge of her tongue often enough to know that Langar wouldn't appreciate the experience. He guessed that Jenna had noticed Langar's frustrated intentions and was determined to go on ignoring them.

      Avon had certainly noticed them. Vila had seen his eyes flick over Langar's face and the quick twitch of his lips as he repressed a smile. For the most part though, he watched Banard, and the expression on his keen face suggested that he was not impressed, though he said little. He had scant patience with repetitious fools, and Vila almost hoped that that patience would run out. At least, amid the resulting fireworks, he would stop being bored.

      In combination though, as Vila had to admit, Avon, Blake and Jenna made an impressive group, particularly when contrasted with the Haderon colonists. Blake might even have been thinking of that when he made up the landing party.

      Except that he included me, Vila thought wryly. He wondered how the others saw him: a slender man, slightly stooped, with thinning brown hair and a narrow, humorous face. Not particularly handsome, though not ugly, either, his was the proverbial face in the crowd. Well, that had been useful, back on Earth, and maybe it would be useful again, but right now it contrasted strongly with the impressive appearances and blazing personalities of his companions.

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