Space travel within the Federation space was roughly divided into two parts - local, within a solar system, handled by a flight control centre on one of the planets, and interstellar, normally handled through the Federation's central computers, which had once been at Central Control on Earth. It was a standing joke that the ports based around the local control centre, the planet itself and the solar system usually bore the same name. But in most planetary systems there was only one planet with significant - or any - population, and, in the frontier worlds, that tended to congregate round the spaceport.
Keldan was one such planet. It was noted in Federation records as primarily a mining planet, with its main passenger ship - travelling mainly to the regional hub - being the Nova Queen. Or it had been - until the ship had collided with an ore carrier leaving Keldan. The Nova Queen was destroyed in the collision, its neutron drive unit being trapped by the planet's gravitational field, to explode just over the centre of Keldan City, with all the destruction and disruption that this implied. It could have been worse - space travel being expensive, all passenger ships carried cargo as well, and the Nova Queen's manifest at times included mining explosives.
Servalan considered the Keldan disaster with her latest aide, Durkim. Two things were disturbing about what had occurred. Firstly it was the latest in a series of disasters, all of which could be assigned to computer error. Secondly the rebels, Free Traders and other groups that the Federation Civil Administration and military High Command agreed should be eliminated, had given freely of their services to the rescue operation, promoting their various causes in the process.
And, since most of the planets affected by the breakdown of weather control and spaceship navigation systems were in the Outer Worlds, growing discontent was added to the physical damage.
'And,' Servalan queried, 'it's spreading?' The statisticians had covered themselves as usual - anything not to be blamed for what their political and other masters decided upon.
'Rapidly,' Durkim replied.
'Isn't that enough?' They both knew where the conversation was heading.
'No, it's impossible Durkim.'
'You mean unthinkable, don't you? Look, everything you've just seen has one common denominator.'
'Computers.' Servalan doubted Orac was involved. From what the younger Ensor had said Orac was not capable of such things. And Blake might be a fanatic, but he went for targets that had strategic or other significance - some of Blake's activities had made their way in to military training exercises. Causing the deaths of large populations, and reducing their standard of living as agricultural planets ceased to be viable was not the way to win a revolution.
'Not computers. Computer. Singular. Very singular indeed. Our unbeatable control and co-ordination centre.'
'No!' It was so implausible it had to be impossible
'Servalan, by design or accident, Star One is failing.'
If by design, who would it be? Had they spent so much time concentrating on Blake and his paltry group that they had ignored another and more deadly threat?
'There has to be another explanation.'
'There isn't.' Durkim considered whether he could manage a quick transfer to somewhere else.
'And if you want to keep your job you'll find it.' More than his job, was the implicit threat.
'Why won't you face the facts?'
'Because I'm not convinced. And even if I were, there would be nothing I could do about it.' And it would ruin her plans, to be carried into effect very shortly. Everything and everybody was in place. Just a few words and she would be President. It was too late to recalculate and work around the computers.
'Well, surely under the circumstances you could get clearance to put a team in.'
Just because it was secret, Durkim reasoned, did not mean that Star One's location was unknown.
'Star One is the most secure installation in the Federation.'
'I know that.' So did most of the rebels by now, once Blake's mission to Central
Control on Earth had proved the latter to be a sham. And they would probably discover all sorts of other things in their search to find it.
'Do you know why it's so thoroughly secure?'
'Well, presumably because knowledge of its location is severely restricted.'
'No! Knowledge of its location is non-existent. Durkim, no one knows where Star
One is! No-one at all.'
Which was a lie, she knew. Travis had discovered Lurgan's brain print on Goth, and the crew of the Liberator knew something. So did Docholli and Lurgan and it was impossible to know whether they had found ways of lodging the information they had elsewhere.
Star One did have contact of several kinds with the rest of the galaxy, of course. The scientists residing on it needed resources to live and to work, and had to be replaced at suitable intervals, but everything was handled automatically. The first group had gone to Star One over thirty years ago, to act as a reception group, and had been replaced as they ceased to be a viable group in fact just before Blake and his group acquired the Liberator. One of those strange coincidences, which had amused Avon when he and Orac worked it out from the information given by Provine, Docholli and others.
The Liberator was moving towards the edge of the galaxy.
Blake felt as nervous as the rest of them.
'So if Lurgan's coordinates are correct Star One is somewhere in there,' Blake said, indicating the map screen. He felt as nervous as the others whatever they were looking for was not part of the galaxy.
'Which makes it about the only thing that is,' Avon replied. It was illogical to be afraid of the unknown.
'At least we'll recognise it when we see it, even if we don't recognise it when we see it, if it's the only thing that's there, if you see what I mean.'
'Oh, shut up, Vila,' Cally said. This place was empty in every sense: no life in the fuzzy distance on the edge of telepathic awareness.
'I'm just trying to help.'
'What do you think, Jenna?' Blake asked, to distract all of them.
'It's riskier than it looks. These co-ordinates are not precise enough. And however they built Star One it's not going to be so big that we can't miss it.'
Free Traders and others operating on the margins of the Federation economy exchanged information about hazards and, sometimes, possible opportunities: if one had patience and knew where to go there was much to be found that even the Federation's spaceforce did not know. Once Jenna had started probing it had become clear that the System had made occasional forays into Federation territory, but there was no information about the space battle in which the London had encountered the Liberator.
'We'll probably have to search,' said Blake.
'It's a long way out, Blake - a long way from the edge of the galaxy,' Jenna said.
'It's infinity. You're asking us to plunge out into infinity.'
'Now come on Cally,' Blake said, 'that's a slight exaggeration.'
'Is it?' Cally asked. 'What, the space between the island galaxies. Its the nearest we'll come to infinity before we die.'
'If anything goes wrong out there we won't have a prayer, because nothing and nobody goes out that far.' Jenna said. At least within the galaxy there was a theoretical hope of rescue: even if it was the Amagons or the Federation.
'I hadn't thought of it like that,' Vila said. Suddenly Cygnus Alpha seemed to have its charms.
'The Federation went out there,' Blake said.
'We've only got Lurgan's word for that. And we didn't even get it first hand,' Vila said. Orac had muttered something about an "intolerable" gap in its knowledge which would have to be rectified. Vila had told Orac it was being an intolerable nuisance, and the computer had persisted in arguing the matter.
'There is only Lurgan's word. Everybody else who knew is either dead or amnesiac. One clue. Just one and we have got it. Why are you listening to this drivel, Blake? We can take Star One, let's get on with it.' Avon wanted to get at the computers. Not that Blake would give him the chance, seeing only the power that they represented, not the endless possibilities of curiosity to be satisfied. He knew Blake would accept no compromise to his obsession.
'Very stirring. When have you become a believer?' Jenna asked.
'Are you just going to sit there? You have led them by the nose before,' Avon asked.
'Excuse me, are you going to answer her question?' Blake knew the answer but wanted to see Avon's reaction.
'Show me someone who believes in anything and I will show you a fool,' Avon replied.
Blake was tempted to ask him if he believed in gravity, but decided not to. They were all on edge now, all aware of the dangers they were facing. 'I meant what I said on Goth, Avon. We are not going to use Star One to rule the Federation, we are going to destroy it.'
Avon finally lost his temper. 'I never doubted that. I never doubted your fanaticism. As far as I am concerned you can destroy whatever you like. You can stir up a thousand revolutions, you can wade in blood up to your armpits. Oh, and you can lead the rabble to victory, whatever that might mean.' He was still not quite certain what Blake intended to replace the Federation with. He could agree with removing the more unpleasant aspects of it, including the bounty on himself and the Liberator, but he cared nothing for the political structure.
'Just so long as there is an end to it. When Star One is gone it is finished, Blake. And I want it finished. I want it over and done with. I want to be free.'
Time for Blake to think what he would do when he had achieved his goal.
'But you are free now, Avon' Cally said.
'I want to be free of him.' Avon resented the loyalty which he felt towards Blake, did not want to be at his beck and call for a lifetime.
'I never realised. You really do hate me, don't you?' Blake said in anger, though he realised this was not quite what Avon felt.
'When we have dealt with Star One, I will take you back to Earth and then the Liberator is mine, agreed?'
'Agreed. Assuming the others go along with it,' Blake reminded Avon.
'Why should we?' Jenna asked. Though she would stay on the Liberator regardless.
She was a pilot - there was no contest between staying on a ship like the Liberator and getting involved in the groundwork of Blake's rebellion. Whatever she felt towards Blake he was interested in politics alone. Avon's curiosity aligned better with her own interests.
'Yes, why should we?' Vila asked. 'It's all a bit high-handed if you ask me.' He had decided long ago that his skills lay more with Avon's than with Blake's aims. If that meant staying on the Liberator, he would agree - but he wanted to lay down the ground rules first. He would have to discuss things with Avon when the situation had calmed down. A doctor might be useful - and how many fur-clad beauties would Avon agree to?
'Liberator is approaching sector nine. Navigation computers now require further instructions,' Zen said. It had discovered that the simplest way to end these quarrels was to ask for instructions, even when not strictly necessary.
'Well,' Blake said, 'do we look for Star One?'
'We'll finish what we set out to do. Nothing else is settled,' Jenna said. She suddenly wanted to be as free of the rebellion as Avon did, to pursue her own interests.
The others consented, not without mental reservations.
'Many, many people will die without Star One,' Cally pointed out. 'Are you sure that what we're going to do is justified?' For a moment she wondered whether Blake was a fanatic, as Avon said, rather than the rebel she was.
'It has to be. Don't you see Cally? If we stop now then all we have done is senseless killing and destruction. Without purpose, without reason. We have to win. It's the only way I can be sure that I was right.' He had gone so far down this path that to go back would cost as much as to go to the end of it. Blake was uncertain as to what he would do after he reached Earth. Avon had a point: what was victory? Would it be when the Federation with all its abuses fell? When some new system had been installed - and how would he prevent it becoming corrupt in turn?
'That you were right?' Cally asked, puzzled.
'Course for sector eleven is laid in.' Jenna said, having realised Zen's trick for diverting arguments long ago.
The group returned to practical matters.
As Zen announced they were leaving the galaxy Blake ordered the ship to go at standard by twelve. He wished to get this whole business finished as soon as possible. It was easier to act now and attempt to resolve the difficult questions later.
Durkim found he could not leave Space Command: it had been placed on full security restriction. The only way he could go to the emergency meeting of the High Council was to get Servalan's express permission.
He went to her office. To his surprise he was frisked by two soldiers while Servalan finished her conversation over a comm unit.
'What's all this about?' Durkim asked: perhaps he would now get an explanation of the activity he had seen as he had come to this office.
'Time to defend ourselves.'
'Against whom?' Had the proverbial alien invasion started?
'Each other.' Servalan had adapted her plans to take into account the new situation and the hiatus in Star One's activities. Everything was now working according to plan. 'Now what is it you want? Quickly, you're wasting time.'
Durkim explained, to be met with a refusal, and a request for whatever information he had on Star One.
'That summons is a Presidential Order in Council. I have to go.'
'Space Command no longer recognises the authority of the President or of the Council,' Servalan said silkily.
'I'm not sure I understand,' Durkim replied. He was rapidly calculating his options - any information was useful.
'We are the only force capable of handling the present emergency.' That would be the standard line.
'I doubt if even we can do that.'
'The President and those members of the Council who are unable to accept the realities of the situation are even now being arrested, as are those of our own people whose loyalties may be divided. At a time like this complete unity is an absolute essential.'
Durkim was glad he had not taken an earlier flight to the Council meeting. He changed the subject. 'There isn't enough data. I can't even guess where Star One is.' The only place they hadn't checked was outside the galaxy itself. With the sense of humour the computer experts had that would be one option they'd think of - placing the Federation's central computers as far away from the Federation's centre as possible.
The thought had occurred to Servalan as well - but why place the Federation's computer heart in the frontline of any invasion from an extra-galactic invasion?
Information about Star One and its personnel appeared on the computer screen behind Servalan.
'Then I suggest you try harder. Or I might think you're part of the plot.'
Others had used Blake - whether in the Freedom Party or Glynd more recently.
'Plot?' One false step and he'd be arrested.
'Obviously, someone is trying to destroy the Federation, now perhaps it's you,'
Servalan said, though she doubted Durkim had the imagination to concoct such a plot.
'Why would I want to do that?'
'"Why" is always the most difficult question. At the moment I am more concerned with "how".'
Durkim recognised one of the faces being flashed on the screen.
'Is she involved?'
'You know her?' This was one way for Servalan to find out what Durkim knew.
'Her name's Lurena, I think. Isn't it. Er, we were acquainted.' There was no point in denying it now.
'You were more than just acquaintances.'
'That's a long time ago.' Which was true. 'She emigrated to one of the frontier worlds.' She had promised to get in touch but never had.
'She's on Star One.'
'She can't be, it's unmanned. The systems are automatic.' So it was said.
'A group of scientists and technicians elected to spend the rest of their lives refining, checking and guarding the systems.'
'Knowing they could never leave, never come home. That's appalling.' Durkim would rather go to one of the prison planets. At least there was contact with the rest of the galaxy, and the possibility of a pardon.
'Inspiring surely. In the best tradition of selfless devotion to the Federation.' In some cases there had been few other options.
'That's your answer then. Some or all of them have changed their minds.'
'Uh-uh. They were all screened and conditioned very carefully by our best psycho-manipulation teams. None of the group could attempt to damage the systems, identify the location or contact anyone outside Star One without going obviously insane.' It was unclear what would happen if there was an emergency - but as yet there had been none.
'How can you be certain of that?'
'The head of the psycho-manipulation team has just finished... reassuring my interrogators.' Neither Docholli nor Lurgan had the resources to get to Star One. Where was Travis? He would destroy Blake - even if it meant destroying Star One in the process, and Servalan's trick with the bomb had displeased him.
Servalan continued. 'So whatever is happening on Star One is happening against her will.' Though that was a guess like all the others.
'There's nothing I can do.'
'You get back to work, Durkim. She may still have a chance. If we can find her in time.' Give someone enough motivation and they would work harder. Why would anyone offer carrots as a temptation - there were far better things.
'May I offer you my personal congratulations and loyalty, Madam President?' That was the only logical conclusion to draw. Servalan was ambitious, and would not let anyone else take what was in her grasp.
Servalan nodded in acknowledgement. At least Durkim had shown a prompt understanding of the realities of the situation.
Then it was announced over the intercom that there was no trace of Blake, while the strategy computers could not suggest what options he would choose. Servalan wondered whether there would be a conflict between the political activist Blake and Avon. It did not take a psychostrategist to guess that he would want access to the computers for interest alone. And for all the investigations of Bartolomew there had been no indication that Kerr Avon had had a political motivation when he had attempted to undermine the banking system - but he was primarily driven by curiosity and the need for personal security. She found him interesting as a result. He would present an interesting challenge.
'Run them again!' Servalan told the strategist. 'I will not be President of a ruined empire.' If her role and Blake's were reversed, and she knew the location of Star One she would take control of it - especially with what Orac could do.
Nobody could touch her: her power would be unlimited. That anyone would want to destroy it - which had been one suggestion given for Blake's activities was incomprehensible.
Lurena came across Stot rechecking some equipment she had dealt with only an hour before. He fobbed it off as usual, saying it was all her fault.
She knew they had all changed, that despite Stot's claim that it was her conditioning breaking down, that it was she who had been tampering with the systems.
She had been prepared for some time, and when Parton came into the room she took out the gun.
'You're all against me. All of you. Whispering, plotting behind my back. You want to kill me,' Lurena said. What was the joke - you can be paranoid and still have enemies.
But this was real, and she was not mad.
'We want to help you,' Parton said.
'Don't move!' Lurena said, and saw her chance to escape, so she did.
Parton muttered a few swearwords. 'Get after her. Find her before she does any more damage. And dont bother to bring her back. Just kill her. I was right, we should have done it as soon as we knew.' These humans were more difficult to understand than they had first thought.
'Now she's running around loose,' Parton said.
'Well, at least we know what to expect, anyway. And after all, what can she do alone? She is the last one,' Stot replied.
'But - what happens if she meets this Travis person?' His presence would create a violation of Lurena's conditioning, and so provoke her to react.
'She must be found before that can happen. Arrange search parties.'
'Anything on the detectors?' Blake asked. He felt as nervous as the rest of them. Skies were meant to have stars in them, and there was supposed to be a background murmur of messages when the communications channels were on.
'No,' Avon replied. For all that the Liberator was an exploratory ship and he wished to use it so when Blake finally made it to Earth and carried through his rebellion there, Avon had decided he would stay within the galaxy. For now at least.
'Jenna, how long before we reach Lurgan's co-ordinates?' Blake asked.
'Eight minutes. If there's anything there it should be showing by now.'
Exploring, such as Avon had suggested they do, was all very well, but trade existed only within the galaxy.
'Perhaps Star One doesn't come within detector range until we reach the co-ordinates,' Cally suggested.
'Our detectors are better than anything the Federation have got. We should be able to see it by now.' Vila had read somewhere that the first sailors thought the world was flat and if they sailed far enough they would fall off. He could almost understand that here. Besides, there was nothing for his skills this far out.
'I think we can,' Avon said. He had been studying the screen. 'There, you see,' he indicated, 'at the extreme edge of the range.'
'What is it?' Jenna asked: the image was still unclear.
'The readings say that it is a star, small, pale and very dense.' Avon would ask Orac later how this star would have got here, what else there was in the void between the galaxies. What had brought the explorers of their galaxy out this far? The same curiosity, no doubt, that led him to ask the question. An astronomical observatory, perhaps?
'A white dwarf by the look of it,' Blake said.
'You couldn't put a computer complex on that could you?' Vila asked. Perhaps they had been misled yet again.
'Hardly,' Avon confirmed.
'Does it have a planetary system?' Cally asked.
'Probably not a system, more likely a single planet,' Avon said. Given the choice between a lifetime on technologically backward Cygnus Alpha - from what Vila had said of the place - and the computers here, even he would choose Cygnus Alpha probably.
'A single planet orbiting an isolated, dying star,' Blake said.
'Star One,' Vila suggested. He wouldn't want to live here, back of beyond and some.
'Seems reasonable,' Blake said. There was a certain logic to selecting this place, the complete antithesis of Earth's Central Control.
They were still searching for Lurena. They had gone through the entire base, but still she had eluded them.
'Maybe,' Stot suggested, 'she went out onto the surface?'
'She won't last long if she has, there's nothing out there for her,' Parton replied. Some of those humans they had replaced had undertaken an activity they called camping, taking temporary housing so they could explore further afield.
Well, if they were isolated here, Parton thought, they would have to find some means of amusing themselves. Not that there was much to see here.
'Better send a search party anyway,' Stot insisted. Parton could be insolent at times.
'Maintenance takes effort. If we could revert to ourselves...' Normally they alternated periods in their normal forms with short periods as whatever forms they chose to adopt.
'No, not while she's free,' Stot replied. 'If she realised, her conditioning might break down completely.' And it was better to wait until after Travis had appeared.
Lurena had guessed that the others would think of looking outside, and had backtracked into the inner levels of the base.
She was aware of someone ahead of her, used her gun before she realised it was Zhokov.
But it was not Zhokov: as she watched the body changed into something that resembled a green jellyfish. Horror intermingled with the satisfaction of suspicions proved right. She would have to think what to do next - out of sight. She went into a storage room - to find the walls covered in bodies. She realised that they were of people she had shared the base with - but she had just been talking to them.
At that moment those checking the surface of the planet realised she must be in the base.
'Put the planet on visual,' Blake said. At last he would see the end of his quest.
'Confirmed,' Zen replied.
'Looks like yet another garden paradise.'
Zen filed Vila's remark under humour ironic. One day it and Orac would understand how to construct jokes.
'The atmosphere is breathable. Surface temperatures are low. Calculations suggest that they rise above freezing point only during daylight hours at the equator.' Zen said. Vila had explained the principles of placing bets to Zen and Orac, and Zen was now calculating who would go down. Jenna the pilot would probably stay - an explosion such as Blake planned might need a quick getaway, teleport up and run. Vila would complain bitterly about the cold
'Good,' said Blake.
'It is?' Vila asked. 'You like planets with dying suns?'
'I do when I'm looking for a complex underground installation. Jenna, program a course to orbit the planet's equator.'
'You don't have to explain it to me,' Vila said, remembering Albian, with the population based in the equatorial zone. 'I only came here for the ride.' He was thinking of excuses not to go down.
'With surface conditions like that where would *you* build the main installation?' Avon asked as Jenna set the course. Vila had obviously made the same deduction.
'Maximum scan, Cally,' Blake said. 'Look for anything unusual or out of place, sudden temperature variation, anything. They're bound to have left some clue as to where they put that installation.' There would have to be an equivalent to the Horizon supply ship for a place like this. Perhaps that was how Horizon had been discovered originally. 'A door would be nice if you could manage it,' Blake added.
'I'll do my best.'
'Preferably one marked "Entrance",' Blake said jocularly.
'Ready on the scan, Jenna,' Cally said.
Within a few moments the scan was running, thorough and therefore slow.
'I have been doing some calculations, if this is Star One' Avon said to Blake a while later.
'If it is?'
'First catch your computer.' Avon had a sudden vision of Orac on wheels or would it prefer bouncy springs like the toy he had had as a child? 'But all right, it probably is, and that being the case the choice of location is fascinating.'
'I'm glad you're enjoying it.'
'The nearest large galaxy to our own is Andromeda.'
'So?' That might explain why this back of beyond place had been found.
'So, this is the nearest point to Andromeda. If anyone could cross intergalactic space in less than a lifetime we are now precisely upon the route that they would take,' Avon explained. Orac had said something about an astronomical survey program of several centuries before, and had had to be persuaded to leave that line of research till later.
'What are you trying to say, Avon?' Blake asked. Avon sometimes preferred dramatics to the necessities of the rebellion.
'I directed the detectors towards the Andromeda galaxy.' In case there was any evidence of the next supply base out. If the crews of any intergalactic ship were anything like those on the Liberator, they'd prefer to have intermediate goals en route to their final destination. 'There are thousands of satellite generators out there, beyond Star One.'
'What?' Blake began to have doubts about destroying Star One.
'Even with the Federation's resources it must have taken them years.' When Avon had seen the array he had realised some of his student research had tied in with it.
'That must have been the biggest antimatter minefield ever put together.'
'Minefield, what minefield?' Vila asked in alarm, hearing the last part of the conversation as he joined them.
'Perhaps the intergalactic drive has been developed,' Avon said. If that were so, he might be tempted to get involved - and not just to avoid being involved in some of Blake's more dubious plans. 'Question is, by whom.'
'A defence zone to keep mankind in, or something else out?' Blake wondered.
Another example, Avon thought, of Blake's obsession. It was more logical to assume that a threat would come from one of their own galaxy's satellites because they were nearer than Andromeda.
'I don't like explosives, very crude. Difficult to reason with a bomb,' Vila protested shortly thereafter.
'Blake?' Cally asked. She understood some of Vila's protests.
'They won't explode until they are primed,' Avon said. Where explosives were concerned Vila's estimations of a safe distance were reasonable.
'And if it was faulty? Bit late to complain to the manufacturer.' Picking locks required skill: placing explosives rarely did.
'Stationary orbit is established and confirmed,' Jenna said a few minutes later.
'Teleport, Vila,' Blake said, and left with Cally.
'Avon?' Jenna said.
'Watch yourselves. Blake's rushing things. I get the feeling he's not giving himself time to think.' There had to be some reason for the minefield, and as a pilot she realised the uses of Star One.
'Blake is an idealist Jenna. He cannot afford to think.' He regretted the destruction of Star One without being given the chance to explore it. Pure curiosity, not greed. Visiting the place would be the only chance he would get to study it.
A few minutes later Avon, Blake and Cally were on the surface of the planet. It was the middle of the day and it was chilly.
Blake might have spent the occasional night out of doors when on Exbar, but at least the valleys remained warmer at night than it was here now. He would not have done it here, not even with his youth then and the novelty of it after life in the domes of Earth.
He let Vila know they were safe, then asked Avon and Cally for their views on this place being defended.
'They've relied on secrecy,' Avon said. Scans had given no evidence of advanced lifeforms, predatory or otherwise, and this was not a planet which people were likely to come across unexpectedly. If he'd been in charge of operations here he would've installed monitoring devices. There were defences against the supposed Andromedans in one direction, and occasional supply ships coming from the other, so it would make sense to have something at ground level. 'I don't think they've tricked the place out, but it won't do any harm to be careful.'
'Let's look for that entrance,' Blake said. It would have to be warmer inside.
They spotted a group of people going along a track ahead of them.
'I thought this place was unmanned,' Cally said.
'More idealists,' Avon muttered. Why would anyone wish to stay here otherwise?
'They must have volunteered to be marooned for life,' Blake said. He agreed with Vila about the relative charms of Cygnus Alpha.
'Makes you proud to be human, doesn't it?' Avon was less sarcastic than he intended. He might dislike relying on other people, but they could be stimulating at times. Besides, spending forty years or more with only the same people for company would get slightly boring.
The Liberator trio followed the locals who after a few minutes went through a door in the hillside. For the sake of form Avon complained that the door they reached was not marked "entrance."
'Nobody's perfect,' Cally said, not even implying "even you."
Blake and Cally went in, but Avon held back. He became aware of pebbles rattling down the gully, turned to see what had caused them. Avon had started investigating the disturbance, intending to follow the other two within moments, only to get Cally's telepathic warning of a trap almost immediately.
Avon immediately contacted Vila to teleport Cally and Blake up. It proved to be not possible. Well, those who had constructed this place would have built shielding around it. Dying star it might be but it could still flare up, or some unforeseen piece of space debris could hit the base through perverse chance.
Vila asked if Avon wished to return: Avon decided he did not. Then Jenna said there was a ship coming to land, which she could not identify. Travis - or whoever the minefield was aimed against? Or someone else who had learnt of this place? The only way he could find out would be to stay.
Vila repeated his offer to teleport Avon up.
'No. Let's see who else knows about this place.' He could actually hear it coming through the atmosphere now. When he tried to track the ship visually it blinded him momentarily and he paused to clear the spots in front of his eyes. He chose to ignore Vila's repeated attempt at contact and go to investigate.
Blake could understand why the people they had encountered had restrained him - they did not know who he was or why he was there. Briefly, he wondered if they even knew of the Liberator and himself at all. He asked to be taken to the head of the base - though the two of them would probably have been taken there anyway.
'You're here,' the man introduced to them as Stot said.
'Apparently,' Blake replied. Stot seemed to have no sense of humour. But the
Bellfriars of the galaxy would probably not opt for a place like this.
'I was told you would be alone.' Who was Blake being confused with?
'Obviously you were misinformed.'
'Who is this woman?'
'She is my mother.' Blake knew he would get an earful off Cally later, but it was the first thing that came to mind.
'May I see your identification?' Stot asked. Definitely no sense of humour.
'What for?' Blake asked. 'After all, who else knows about this place?'
'I was told you could be difficult.'
'You seem to have been told rather a lot about me,' Blake said, trying to work out quickly who was expected.
'I was interested. I am not unfamiliar with traitors,' Stot said, 'but the scale of your treachery is unusual. And your insistence on carrying out the final act personally must make you unique.'
Avon might call him an obsessive, the Federation use less pleasant words, but traitor? And whoever Blake was now talking to was definitely not a Federation man.
'Your disapproval would carry more conviction if you were not going to benefit from my treachery. Now when do I get to perform the final act?'
'Which of your hands is artificial?'
Travis? What have you done? You hate me, and I you, for reasons we both understand. I can see you hating Servalan after what she did to your arm, but from that, to do this? Is this where obsession leads?
Blake realised he was expected to answer, raised his left arm. 'This one - rather good, don't you think?'
'And the eye patch, what happened to that?'
'My eye is artificial disconcerts some people.' The first thing that came to mind.
Avon, who had scrambled up the side of the path cut into the hillside saw Travis approach, go to the door.
'Hold it, touch that, and I'll drop you where you stand,' Avon came to the level with Travis. 'Well, now Travis. Fancy meeting you here.'
'Put the gun down, Avon: it's too late to stop it now.'
'Be polite, and I may let you live.' Travis wanted companionship once he had carried through what had been arranged. And where Avon was Blake was presumably close by.
'Be informative and I may let you die. You'll want that after I've shot off an arm and a leg or two.' Avon wanted to give Blake his final chance to kill Travis.
'I thought you were supposed to be the one with brains,'
'Brains but no heart.' Not that he would show anyone, least of all Travis. 'Now talk or scream, Travis, the choice is yours.'
Jenna followed her Free Trader instincts, and told Vila to handle the weaponry. Orac could deal with the teleport, and she told it to find what it could about the galactic defence zone. One day she would see how many different things Orac could handle - probably fewer than it thought it could.
It took Orac some time to come up with an answer. This was one of the few occasions on which humans managed to make use of more than a fraction of a percent of its capacities.
'My preliminary examination of the defence zone indicates that it is made of a network of satellite generators'
'We could have told you that,' Vila interrupted. He felt nervous. He suspected that this time was one of those occasions when it was justified.
'each of which performs a dual function, namely to indicate the approach of an intruder and then to destroy that intruder by a powerful anti-matter explosion.'
Orac would have to work out what was the best strategy for its own explorations outside the galaxy.
'So it's a combined alarm system and minefield,' Jenna said.
'Correct.' It appeared humans could be trained to think logically. 'If I may continue'
'He always makes me feel as if I should be taking notes,' Vila complained.
'IF I may continue The defence zone is controlled and monitored from the computer complex known as Star One.'
'Ah,' Vila replied. So the rebellion was damned if the computer base was blown up, and damned if it wasn't.
'A cursory examination of the relevant Star One systems indicates that this defence zone is one of a number of such zones located at strategic points on the rim of that section of the galaxy colonised by mankind.' In view of the proximate destruction of Star One Orac was downloading as much information as it could into Zen's spare memory.
'Then they are expecting an alien invasion. A horde of hairy aliens...' Vila said. Like some of the "people" in CF1.
'There is no logical reason why aliens should be hairy.' They would probably look like Phibians.
'There is no logical reason why people should be hairy. I don't like this Jenna, we could be sitting in the front line.' Leaving this place as fast as possible made sense.
'I see no cause for alarm. From the design and construction patterns it would appear that the defence zones have been built up very gradually over a long period of time. My conclusion is that they are merely precautionary rather than a response to some specific threat.' Orac was stalling slightly, as it had not found the relevant records yet.
'Well,' said Jenna, 'if there's no threat why bother with precautions?' An equivalent to the Horizon magnetic barrier, or another XK-72 further out to serve as a guidance beacon, for the next stage of the journey to Andromeda, would be logical under the circumstances, not this.
'If the resources are available to eliminate even the vaguest threat, it would seem logical to do so.'
'I'd agree with that,' Vila said. A problem eliminated before you started, saves five problems later. 'What do you call a vague threat?'
Orac stumbled in its reply. 'A contact, er, some time in the past, either a communication or a physical contact.'
'A physical contact?' Vila asked.
'A scoutship perhaps.' Orac tut-tutted. It was perfectly obvious to the computer that the ship they were looking for was of Federation origin.
Jenna had Zen put the battle computers on line, and search space around them.
'What do you think is going on?' Cally asked.
'Well, they were waiting for Travis, so obviously he's expected to take over.'
Unless he was acting as Servalan's catspaw again. Blake briefly wondered what would make Travis go back to Servalan after what she had done to him.
'Except that there's more to it than that.' Cally suspected destruction: and these whoever they were didn't feel human.
'Yes, the final act. Well, whatever that is we've got a final act of our own to arrange. You work your way through the other control rooms. If anyone questions you, be arrogant - you're with Travis, and he's about to become Emperor of the galaxy.' Would any residual instilled loyalty to the Federation Supreme Commander have influence over Travis now? Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
'What about you?'
'I'll wait for Stot.' Whoever, or whatever, he was. 'As long as he thinks I am Travis we'll have no problems. Huh, besides I might even find out the rest of
it.' He took out one of the explosive devices. 'I'm going to set this timer for one hour.'
Cally nodded and left with the case. Stot returned.
'Most of the systems have been modified already. The chaos and destruction should already be sufficient to ensure that resistance is slight.'
'When will you be ready for the ultimatum?' Blake asked, wondering if he could use what was happening for his own ends. Attempting to use the Terra Nostra had been different.
'Ultimatum?' Stot was puzzled.
'Laying out of our terms for the restoration of order.'
'Policy is not our concern, Travis. It is sufficient to serve.' The creature calling itself Stot was increasingly puzzled. Surely a military man of the rank Travis claimed to be would have no interest in policy.
'I hope,' Avon said, as Travis opened the door, 'these people will really do as you tell them, Travis.'
'They will.' Travis could not quite understand what motivated Avon here. Who wouldn't want to be on the Liberator, and what computer expert would not want access to Orac, or the resources of Star One? But - offer him the power that Star One and working with these aliens offered, and there was no response.
'The first one who doesn't will cost you your head.'
They entered the base, and looked around.
'Don't move,' Avon said, before a door opened and someone collided with him, knocking him to the floor. It took Avon a moment to regain his breath. He looked at his new companion. An attractive young woman - Vila would complain about Avon getting all the luck - though Travis had made use of the opportunity to escape. Whoever she was she was clearly upset, and dragged him into what looked like a storage room but for the contents. Corpses were arranged around the walls.
'They're all dead,' the young woman said.
'Yes I can see that. Did you kill them?' Implausible but he had to ask.
'No. They are trying to kill me.'
By scaring her to death? 'They have a novel approach to the job,' Avon said. Had their paths taken slightly different directions, he thought, he might have been in this room - alive or dead - and this woman would have been on the Liberator.
'You don't understand. In here they're dead, but out there, out there, they're still alive, walking about.'
Perhaps the aliens had arrived - or some rival of the Federation within the galaxy or these people had been replaced by robots as Avalon had been.
'Trying to kill you?' If they were friendly, why kill all these people?
'Yes.' She would have to trust this stranger - he did not appear ill-disposed towards her. 'Look out!' she cried to the stranger, as another of the creatures masquerading as one of the base staff entered the room. The stranger fired his weapon, and the body reverted to the jellyfish form of the other corpse.
'What are they?' Lurena asked. Not all information went through Star One, and the stranger might have encountered some creature like this before.
'Unfriendly,' Avon replied, disconcerted by the transformation. Judging by this woman's reaction most people would prefer robots to these creatures. 'Which is fortunate really. They'd be difficult to love. Come on.' She knew the base, and he had the gun - and she was clearly not one of these shapechangers. 'I'm Avon.' No reaction.
'There's nothing there. I knew we were panicking unnecessarily. Alien hordes, I mean to say,' Vila said to calm himself, aware he was chattering on.
'There they are,' Jenna said pointing at the visual display.
'Just coming into detector range.'
'They're too far off to be sure. They could be meteors.' Might as well start from the least dangerous possibility.
'No, they couldn't be, there's too many of them. That's a cloud of meteors. Well, come on Jenna, you can see that, admit it. That's a cloud of big meteors. Very big meteors. And it's slowing down.' This was going to be a thousand times worse than being on the London that time. There would be no super-Liberator to come and rescue them.
'They know about the defence zone,' Jenna replied. She had already decided what to do - if it appeared that the threat would be too great.
'Jenna, let's run for it.' This was what the Federation for all its unpleasantness was for, defending its populations against threats like this.
Blake watched the one called Parton rearrange the circuitry.
'Is it nearly complete?' Stot asked. Whoever, whatever, these were, they were not the people the Federation had sent here.
'As you see,' Parton replied.
Stot turned to Blake. 'Constructing the circuits required to deactivate the defence zone was difficult, but we were able to keep the technicians alive long enough to duplicate their entire brain patterns as well as their physical shape.'
Ironic if Docholli and Lurgan's creation of the brainprints had served the purpose of these creatures.
'Their physical shape?' #What# was he talking to?
'Why do we still retain it? The woman Lurena has escaped. It's just a precaution.' And there had been one more human than they had expected. 'May I ask you an impertinent question?'
'If you don't mind an impertinent answer,' Blake was stalling, trying to think what to do next. What would serve his cause best? What would serve humanity best? Was that one decision or two?
'I have taken the shape of your species,' Stot said. They were practical for a fixed form species - this human shape might be a useful one to add to those used by his kind elsewhere. 'I use your words, and yet I cannot understand you. The woman Lurena and the other technicians that were here, these I could understand.' Science and defence were always necessary. 'But you. Why have you betrayed your own kind? Why have you given us the means to eradicate your species?'
'Eradicate humanity?' Blake was appalled. Was this what his quarrel with Travis had led to? Then he remembered Sinofar and Giroc. Perhaps you did have something to teach me, which I had not learnt.
'Well, maybe I just don't like crowds.'
The door opened and someone fired a gun. Blake collapsed in agony, but managed to look around.
'You are Travis?' Stot was confused - but this stranger did have an eyepatch and what appeared to be an artificial hand. He could not understand this impersonation either.
'Then who is this?' He indicated Blake, who had fainted with shock.
'His name is Blake. Hm,' Given the body shot Blake had received 'His name was
Avon and Lurena met Cally in one of the rooms.
'Where's Blake?' Avon asked after introducing the two women.
'Well I left him in here.' Cally replied. 'What's that?' "It" was something organic and luridly coloured.
'We seem to have stumbled over an alien invasion.' Avon turned to Lurena. 'Which of these control sections handles the defence zone?' Here was something he could do with his skills.
'I can't tell you that.'
'You must know,' Avon said angrily. The people here must know each other's jobs. Even if boredom did not force them to do so, they could not be replaced at will.
'Now think woman.'
'I can't tell you that because you haven't been cleared by security.'
'Well, neither had that!' Avon indicated the alien.
'She's been conditioned, Avon. She wants to tell you but she can't,' Cally said. She could understand something of Blake's mind better now.
Avon cursed the stupidity of the Federation - if he had been involved in something like this, he would have included some form of emergency override. He could think of many reasons why it would be necessary without invoking aliens.
'Come on,' he said. He would have to work it out logically.
'Your people are well trained,' Travis said, as he watched the aliens work, much as Blake had done a little while before.
'They serve, as do we all.'
'How much longer?' Now that the process was so close to completion he could no longer wait.
'Each of these keys will close down one sector of the defence zone. When I've connected this last one, you can begin.'
'My one regret,' Travis mused, is that they'll never know who really killed them.' At least Blake had known.
'Why are they just sitting there?' Vila asked. The inactivity made him more nervous than any battle.
'They're waiting for someone to clear that defence zone.'
'Do you think Blake knows what's happening? Why hasnt he come back yet? What are we supposed to do, Jenna?'
'Give the alarm.'
'Terrific idea. Who do you suggest we tell?'
'Oh now, wait a minute' But - he realised as Jenna had, that Servalan must have been expecting such a message, one day. Probably hoping it did not come during her tenure of office, hoping that she had the forces to deal with it if it did. He would not want her position now.
'I just hope Blake understands why we betrayed him.' This was one case where one's enemy's enemy was most definitely not one's friend. 'Orac, I want you to punch through a message to the strategy computer in Space Command headquarters.
I want you to tell it that there's an alien battlefleet estimated at six hundred ships about to enter Federation space. Give it these co-ordinates. Tell it that the information comes from Blake on the Liberator. Can you do that, Orac?'
'I would remind you that I am not a communicator,' Orac grumbled. It wanted to get as much information as possible out of Star One while it had the chance.
'Your carrier beam is the fastest way to contact Servalan.'
'That is not the purpose for which it was developed.' Orac was doing so anyway, just to keep these two happy and quiet. The Space Command computer replied promptly, and complained about its own researches being interrupted by this "trivial" invasion.
'It is finished,' Parton said to Travis. 'Now you can open the way for our fleet to enter.'
'The final act,' Travis said to himself as he turned the key. It did not feel as much the triumph he had hoped.
Travis was not aware that Blake had survived, and recovered somewhat, until he himself was shot.
Avon, Cally and Lurena came into the room as Blake shot Stott and Avon shot another. The two women went immediately to Blake, while Avon stood over Travis and smiled faintly to himself. Blake had won - after a fashion.
'Avon!' Cally called.
'How bad is he?' Avon asked as he came over.
'Bad enough,' Cally replied. Blake was alive, and as far as she could tell no major organs had been damaged - but human anatomy was different from Auronar.
'Is he dead, Avon? Is Travis dead?' Blake whispered.
Avon turned to check. Travis had not been killed, was supporting himself on the railing surrounding Avon guessed it was some form of access well.
Automatically he fired the gun, shot Travis, who fell into the well.
'He is now.' Who would be chasing Blake now? 'Are you?'
'I've had better days,' Blake managed. He did not wish to know what had been damaged - but while his breathing was laboured there was no blood, and his spine was undamaged.
'We must get him back to the ship,' Cally said.
'No, the aliens were closing down the defence zone. There must be a fleet out there. We must warn the Federation,' Blake said. The Federation was one thing - but these creatures wanted to destroy the whole of humanity. Between us Travis and I have out-done Sinofar and Giroc.
'From the ship,' Cally said firmly.
'The charges, Cally. We cannot blow this place up Humanity is going to need all the resources it can get'
With some little persuasion Cally and Avon went off. Blake, drifting back into consciousness, remembered the bomb he had first set, told Lurena to go and deal with it.
A few moments later Blake thought he felt the explosion outside.
It was actually the bomb Lurena had found, killing her and the aliens who had surrounded her.
Blake was only dimly aware of Avon and Cally's return and then the journey to the Liberator's medical unit.
Durkim brought the message to Servalan immediately.
'When did this come in?' she asked. She was no longer Servalan, but Supreme Commander, in command of all the military power of the Federation - and the civilian, even if she had not taken over the Presidency. This was no longer the stuff of strategy and simulations, but the war long expected and prepared for.
She had wanted this position - now she would have to take the full responsibilities it bore.
'It showed up on the strategy readout.' The whispers were already going through the Command Headquarters: fear being overcome by training.
'All right, Durkim. Red One mobilisation.' The President and his council were forgotten trivialities. Here was the opportunity to prove herself. And Blake understood where the true danger was.
'You believe it?'
Servalan went to the comm unit. Durkim was an irrelevance. She checked that the information as to the location was being circulated. 'All fighting ships to make maximum speed. Patch this office into the fleet co-ordination suite. Well, get on with it!' This was the job she had been trained to do - not chasing some rebels round and round in circles.
Soon the reports came in from the various battlefleets: everything was going pell-mell to the location given by the Liberator.
But it would take time for any of them - let alone sufficient forces to hold the gap - to get there. The Liberator had promised to do what it could - nobody knew what would happen if the invaders could get through the breach.
'I gave him my word,' Avon said. Blake had even joked about the matter while being treated - asking if Avon wanted half a dozen of the aliens impersonating him - especially as they were hostile.
'To fight until the Federation get here?' Vila asked. If he was going to get involved in heroics he wished others to know what he had done.
'That is what I promised.' Avon could understand why there was a price on his head, could understand why the System wanted the Liberator back - but he could not understand the logic of these aliens seeking to build an empire in this galaxy. Co-operation of some form would be better.
'Why, Avon?' Jenna asked. Had Avon finally found a cause he believed in?
As their Federation counterparts were doing, Zen and the group on the flight deck prepared to do battle.
Blake joined them. He needed to show he was part of this.
'Why didn't you stay in the medical unit? Couldn't you bring yourself to trust me just this once?' Avon asked, and Blake suddenly understood much about their relationship.
'I thought I might be able to help.'
Avon let his mask down sufficiently to show he appreciated the gesture. He too disliked being in the med unit - especially when the Liberator was under threat.
'In that condition?'
'All right, I'll go back,' Blake replied. He had made the gesture. He would return later, when the others needed a break.
'Can you manage alone?' Avon asked.
'Yes.' They had worked together for three years - since the first plans on the London - and the companionship that implied lay between them, had always been silently acknowledged. 'Avon - for what it is worth, I have always trusted you, from the very beginning.'
Avon was disorientated as Blake left for the med unit - he finally knew what Blake felt about him.
'One minute to strike range,' Cally said, once the battle computers had moved the ship into the optimum position to hold the breach. Zen indicated on her monitor that Blake was safely back in the med unit.
'We can't hold all of them,' Vila said.
'They can't all come through that gap at once,' Jenna pointed out. From what Orac was relaying the Federation's forces would begin to arrive in just over an hour. After all they'd been through, here they were fighting on the same side.
'Stand by to fire,' Avon said.
'Avon - this is stupid!' Vila complained.
'When did that ever stop us?' Avon asked. Blake's cause meant nothing to him. Most of humanity cared as little for him as he did for them. But he saw a threat that would overwhelm all he was interested in and curious about. And he had promised to do this job, and he was a man of his word - and that was why Blake trusted him. 'Fire!