The whole island, you know, was one enormous hotel, complex beyond explaining, and on the other side there were miles of floating hotels, and huge floating stages to which the flying machines came. They called it a pleasure city.
H.G. Wells, 'A Dream of Armageddon'.
Space City. The space station whose name was so recognised as a byword for pleasure and vice that first contact was made there with several inquisitive alien species. A place where crime was properly organised.
One of its most powerful citizens though he held no official position was in his quarters examining the contents of a bag of gems. Dressed in a rich brown suit, and a white shirt with a high collar and ruffled cuffs, he sat cross-legged on a grey rectangular cushion, atop a pile of raised pink and orange platforms. The white walls and ceiling of the room were a counterpoint to the platforms and to the two sculptures present, one free standing, the other on one wall.
The young man and woman who entered the room were in direct contrast to it and its owner. Both were barefoot, dressed in ragged brown garments that were fading to grey, with corpse-pale skin and greying hair. Their appearance was typical of the group they belonged to, a group given, among many others, the nickname of 'the walking dead'. While the man, Bek, remained standing, the woman, Hanna, sat down on a lower platform, both waiting for the owner to speak.
The latter did not look directly at the two, sparing his gaze for the gems. "You did well," he observed.
"The owner didn't think so." Bek's voice was cynical.
"Did you kill him?"
"Were we supposed to?"
"It's tidier." The owner was in an instructive mood.
Bek's voice was more cynical. "Well, it's easy to be tidy from where you sit, Largo." He turned and moved away after finishing his statement.
Unaccustomed to this irreverent behaviour, Largo looked directly at Bek. His lips curled back as he said, "Don't get clever, dream head."
Hanna spoke for the first time, sounding as cynical as Bek. "That wasn't the deal."
Largo looked at her. "The deal was whatever I say it was," he explained, thankful that they had enough intelligence and were not too addicted to have done the job. His enforcers were too recognisable for some work; and Bek and Hanna's kind could go places the others could not. They also cost far less.
To remind the two of their proper position, he set down the gems, and took the clear top half off a spherical container on the top platform, exposing a tray whose holes were mostly filled with small, golden coloured balls, that looked only just solid. Largo picked out one. "I own you, dream heads," he explained.
Hanna's reaction was to crawl closer to Largo; but she was stopped by his raised right hand and an "Unhuhhhh. What do you say?" It sounded like a parody of a father trying to teach manners to his little daughter.
Hanna gave a faint smile. "Please, Largo."
Largo's mouth was turned down. "Awwww, come on. You need it more than that."
Hanna held out her right hand and repeated her request. "Please, Largo."
Largo now held the golden ball between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, leaving it clearly visible. "Pure shadow," he lectured unnecessarily, as all three of them knew what it was made of, his face briefly contorting with what looked like mirth that was quickly cut off. "You won't just die without it; you'll die in terrified agony." As Largo distinctly pronounced the last sentence, he placed the ball of shadow down on the top platform, out of Hanna's reach.
His provocation was too much for her; she made a half-lunge for the ball, her face a look of desperation, which was also in her one word request. "Please."
Largo was satisfied with her desperation. "Goooood. All right." He shoved her roughly backwards, then turned his gaze on Bek. "I want your brother to ask for it." Bek held out his right hand. Largo picked up the ball, displayed it to him between the fingers of his left hand. "One word from me, and your supply is gone," Largo closed his fingers over the ball, hiding it, "forever."
Bek and Hanna were as still as the room's two sculptures. The former's voice broke the silence. "You've been paid."
"Prove it." Largo still wanted to toy with them.
"I thought that honour was a big thing with the Terra Nostra." Bek sounded like a student who had been deliberately given the wrong textbook.
Largo was having none of this. "We own you, boy," he lectured, and again displayed the ball of shadow.
"Please, Largo. Please." Bek moved slowly forward, right hand outstretched and head bent.
Largo was satisfied. "That's better. We owned you from your first tiny drop of shadow." Again, he distinctly pronounced the last several words, while again placing the ball down, turning his head away from Bek; so he did not immediately notice the latter taking his own gun - which he had carelessly left beside him - and pointing it at his own head, until he turned to face him again. His surprise at such an unexpected reaction was evident on his face.
"Use shadow?" Bek's voice was contemptuous, his hidden hate at Largo and the others who ran the Organisation at last finding an outlet. They demanded that he and others carry out their dirty work - which they claimed was 'just a job' - quietly and competently, without excessive enthusiasm, and pocketed the profits gained from such 'work'. "Do I look that stupid?" Largo moved slightly. "Oh, try it!" was the response.
"Hanna." He ordered his sister, who grabbed the ball of shadow. She then moved to the gems, saying, "There are the two he promised"
Bek cut her short with another order. "Enough. The gems." Hanna obeyed, putting them in the bag, to his comment of "Good."
"Nobody steals from the Terra Nostra." It was a statement of fact from Largo, with a hint of amusement at their presumption.
"We're innovators," was Bek's explanation.
"You're dead." Again the hint of amusement.
Bek gave his sister more orders. "Out, Hanna. Casual, don't run." He then gave Largo orders. "Face down, Largo. Quickly. Quickly! Now close your eyes." Largo hastened to obey, lying down. He would have his revenge later.
"And stay like that." Bek gave his last order and left the room, first dropping a crystalline data cylinder into a recorder as he went.
A few seconds after he heard the room's doors closing, Largo started to raise his right leg. Bek had predicted such a reaction; so the recorder played an appropriate threat from the cylinder. "Go ahead and try it. Killing a Terra Nostra pusher will be the best fun I've had all day. You stupid murdering scumball." The satisfied tone betrayed the pleasure Bek had in making the recording, which had the desired effect; Largo lowered his leg quickly.
A few minutes later, Bek met Hanna in a nearby passageway, at a triangular window that looked out to space.
"They'll catch us." Hanna's voice was apathetic and hopeless.
Bek ignored her, and gave new orders. "Get Peety and meet me at Launch Grid 6 in twenty minutes."
"Nobody gets away from them." His sister sounded like a supporter of Largo.
Bek was suddenly irritated, but suppressed it. "We will," he declared. "Look, I can get a ship."
"Launch clearance, what about launch clearance?"
Bek counted out some of the gems from the bag. "The crew on Grid 6 are for sale."
"It's too late, Bek." Hanna still saw all this as hopeless. While Bek was always aware that her apathy was a normal symptom of being a dream head - a shadow addict - his patience with her began to run out, particularly as victory was in sight. Looking her in the eye, he gripped her shoulder and pointed at her with the second finger of his other hand, invoking their mother's memory, a form of emotional blackmail he hated using but felt was necessary in this case.
"Hanna, she told me to look after you and Peety. That's what I'm trying to do. Grid 6, twenty minutes. Right? Right?" The last question was almost a shout.
Hanna appeared to comprehend his urgency. "Right," she replied, nodding. Both left in different directions.
Had Bek and Hanna waited a few seconds longer and looked out the window, they would have seen approaching something that would alter their lives irrevocably: a strange, beautiful, and deadly space ship.
All the Liberator's crew were on the flight deck, in their usual positions.
"Approach completed," announced Jenna from the pilot's seat.
"All vectors are matched and holding," chimed in Gan.
"Power downnow," said Cally.
Jenna made a second announcement. "Switching to automatics."
Zen expressed his satisfaction with their performance. "Confirm. All systems functioning. Status is firm."
Gan stood up and looked at the image of Space City on the main screen. "Very pretty."
"I know." Jenna sounded a little put out. "Piloting wasn't bad either."
"So. That is Space City." said Blake, in a tone of completion.
"Also known as the Satellite of Sin." All the crew wondered at the longing in Vila's voice as well as the smile on his face; but they now knew why he had been so eager to go there.
Avon spoke for them all. "By whom?"
"It had to be someone of limited imagination."
Avon's put-down did not put off Vila's longing. "Pick a pleasure, any pleasure."
"And you'll find it for sale in Space City." Jenna turned Vila's fragment into a complete sentence.
"If you've got the money." Blake tried to change the subject.
"But we have, we have." Vila was visibly anticipating what he would spend the money on.
Gan, who had walked down from his seat, brought everyone back to why they were there, returning to a long drawn out argument. "And if you can stomach doing business with the Terra Nostra."
Blake did not look directly at Gan, but replied, "We're going to use them Gan, not do business with them."
"A subtle distinction that escapes me for the moment." Avon's tone of voice was unchanged, but his body language hinted at some difference, as he moved between Blake and Gan, standing next to the latter.
Blake's response was one of amusement. "Don't tell me that you have a moral objection to using their organisation to infiltrate Earth?"
"Of course not." Avon moved away.
"Well, I have." Gan moved to occupy Avon's previous position.
"Think Gan, think what they've got: men, material, information," declaimed Blake in reply. "Think what we could do with a fraction of the resources they control." This had been the same argument given by Blake when he first explained his idea.
Gan remembered how he had been alone in his opposition. The others had supported Blake, or at least had not opposed him. Cally was zealous in her support, seeing it as the strategy for victory; Jenna was also a supporter, but for what Gan felt were personal feelings for Blake, not for his politics; Vila supported going to Space City for personal reasons that were now quite obvious; and Avon seemed to go along with the idea, though believing that it would not work. He would, of course, not be suggesting any better idea; perhaps it was, Gan thought, because any other idea would be better.
He knew that Blake was still unconvinced by his counter-argument, which had met with indifference and a lack of support from the rest of the crew for the reasons previously given. He still felt the need to reiterate his point. His voice was cold, and his slightly turned down mouth made his face look grim.
"No, you think, Blake. Think what it is they control. Everything dirty, degrading, and cruel on just about every colonised world."
"Earth is all I'm interested in."
"The Terra Nostra aren't responsible for everything, Gan," corrected Vila. "I could go and murder somebody now and it wouldn't be their fault." He pondered for an instant before going on. "Mind you, if I picked his pocket afterwards they'd want their cut."
"It's largely academic anyway. I don't think we'll get within shouting distance of them." Avon was still sceptical.
"The Terra Nostra run Space City." Vila was emphatic on this point.
While Cally was not a sheltered person, having been brought up on Auron, an isolationist planet hostile to outsiders, she was very ignorant of the Terra Nostra. "How can you be sure of that?" she asked, puzzled. "You say that they're a criminal organisation who work in secret."
"They work in secret on Earth and the Federated worlds," explained Blake.
"Organising crime," interrupted Gan, still looking grim. Why didn't she try finding all this out earlier? he wondered silently. Because she believes he has all the answers, and trusts him to tell her when he's ready, that's why.
Blake continued with his explanation. "Space City itself is neutral territory. Not officially owned by the Terra Nostra but it's an open secret."
"A neutral base for an outlawed organisation?" asked Cally rhetorically, interested in the concept.
Blake smiled briefly. "Well, presumably it has its uses."
"Entertainment, for example," explained a grinning Vila.
"Why don't you take a cold shower or something?" Jenna asked sourly, at the same time checking her instruments. She almost instantly realised that she had sounded exactly like her mother, but kept this realisation to herself. Maybe, she wondered, she was more apprehensive about the chances of success of Blake's plan than she had cared to admit.
"And risk being left behind when we go and meet your friend?"
"Largo's no friend of mine," Jenna quickly explained. "When I met him on Callisto he forgot to mention he was a member of the Organisation. Just said he wanted me to run a cargo into Earth. He didn't tell me what it was at first."
"Drugs?" inquired Gan.
"Shadow. I turned him down."
"Very sensible," said Avon. "Possession carries a mandatory death sentence."
"That wasn't the reason." Jenna's reply carried the unspoken addition that she wasn't going to give the actual reason.
Zen then interjected, "Navigation computers are receiving interrogation signal from Space City traffic approach control".
"About time," commented Blake, who then began giving orders. "Request standoff position. Cally, stand by on the teleport. Jenna, get on the communicator and see if you can contact your friend Largo. Gan, Avon, get ready as well." He began to leave the flight deck.
"Vector coordinates received and laid in," Zen reported.
"Er, what about me?" Vila sounded nervous, wondering about his exclusion from Blake's orders.
"You're staying here."
"Where I can find you if I need you."
Vila pointed back to the main screen. "But that's Space City," he pleaded, "one of my all-time great ambitions."
Blake was polite but resolute. "You'd probably be disappointed."
"I'll take that chance."
"I would never forgive myself, Vila." Blake then turned and left the flight deck, Vila remaining with a look of dismay on his face.
Bek entered a storage compartment in Space City. Hanna was sitting on the floor, staring at nothing in particular.
"Hanna, twenty minutes I said! That launch crew goes off shift in an hour!" His angry tone of voice became a little pleading. "We may not get another chance. Where is Peety?"
Hanna turned her head; and, following her gaze, Bek now saw something he had not seen at first: a silverish blanket, covering something the size of an adult human body. She didn't need to tell him whose body it was.
"How? How?" asked Bek, his mouth wide open. His question was answered when he saw a number of drugs beside the covered body, including two balls of shadow. Bek grabbed one in his fist, went over to his sister, knelt down and shoved the fist in front of her face. "That's how!" he half-shouted, half-screamed in frustration and grief.
Hanna attempted to tell him what had happened. "He didn't take any more. He didn't need another dose for twelve hours, at least twelve hours. He justjust died."
She sounded as if he had died fifty years ago instead of a few minutes.
"Just died?" Bek dragged his sister to the blanket-covered corpse. "That's what shadow does; it kills you!"
"Think I don't know that?"
"Well then why? Why so stupid, Han? Stupid. Stupid Peety." Bek lifted the blanket and looked at the face of their dead brother. "Look after you." His voice was a mixture of hopelessness and contempt.
"It's not your fault." Hanna attempted to console him.
"Largo." Bek suddenly mentioned the name in a determined fashion, starting to get up.
"Bek?" pleaded Hanna, clutching him.
"It won't help Peety."
"It'll help me."
"What about me?" Hanna's voice was a light wail.
The compartment's door opened, and a young man appeared. Dressed in a shirt and suit similar to Largo's, he had a gun at the ready.
"You?" Bek was bitter in his manner, the despair at what had happened finally emerging in full. "It's too late, remember. You're already dead, like Peety." He turned around to leave, then saw the enforcer and his gun. Though young, this particular enforcer had already built up a considerable reputation. He was also known to be good to his parents.
"Must run in the family," the enforcer commented in the dry tone recommended for his kind to use. "Shed the gun," he ordered Bek, who complied. "Largo wants you two, very badly." He smiled slightly.
On the Liberator's flight deck, Cally was doing some calculations on a computer pad, when Vila observed, "Blake's wrong."
Cally looked up at him. "I know how you feel, Vila."
Sensing, incorrectly, that she was sympathetic, Vila went on. "I don't mean about leaving me behind. I've wanted to visit Space City ever since I was old enough to read the graffiti in the Juvenile Detention Wards. But I'm not talking about that; I don't care about that." His voice had become emphatic.
Cally suppressed her hidden amusement at Vila's rather blatant ploy, but decided to allow him to continue; it would at least help to pass the time. "No, of course not," she agreed.
"I don't!" Vila was still more emphatic.
"Am I arguing?" Cally tried to be soothing, opening her hands in a placatory gesture.
"I'm talking about his great plan to enlist the help of the Terra Nostra."
"He plans to buy their help," Cally explained, turning her back to him, and her attention back to her calculations.
"All right, buy their help. It still won't work." Vila was talking in her ear.
Cally turned to look at him. "Well, you should have spoken before."
"Who listens to me, ever? Does anyone ever listen to me? I'm telling you, it'll be a disaster." He sat down in the central seating area.
"Relax." Cally was still busy with her calculations, checking them against readings from that area's console.
"You don't know them."
"Well, I know Blake."
"Thinks of himself as a hard man. Hard? He's strictly a fluffy-cheeked amateur compared to those boys."
"I think Blake can look after himself." Cally felt that Vila was now being melodramatic, but still decided to humour him.
"He's led a very sheltered life."
Cally did not expect that last comment. "What, Blake has led a sheltered life?" she asked, not bothering to conceal her surprise.
Vila exploited this surprise, standing up and speaking persuasively. "Look, he was an Alpha grade on Earth. A highly privileged group, the Alphas. Wouldn't last five minutes among the Delta service grades where I grew up. And it's the service grades where the Terra Nostra really operates. Without anaesthetic, usually."
He's right, realised Cally, who had by this stage moved to check the readings of the navigation station's consoles. She now felt apprehensive for the others, wondering if Blake had underestimated the Organisation. But she was still not going to help Vila.
"No, Vila," she said adamantly.
"No, I am not going to operate the teleport for you."
"I don't understand."
"I do. You're about to suggest that it would be a sensible idea if you went across and gave the others the benefit of your experience."
Vila smiled. "I hadn't thought of that. What a very good idea, Cally."
"No." This time her refusal was final. She left the position, and began to leave the flight deck.
"Cally?" Vila called after her.
"I'm going to get myself something to drink. Call me if anything happens." She left the flight deck, putting an intentional end to their conversation, marvelling at Vila's inability to lie properly, but also apprehensive about the others.
"Miserable alien," commented Vila, sitting down. "I just want to see what it's like."
"Information. Main visual is available." Zen showed a close up view of Space City on the main screen.
"You expressed a desire to see what it is like."
"Very funny, Zen. Chuckle chuckle." Vila was in no mood to make jokes about literal minded computers. "If you were a decent computer you'd be able to operate the teleport system like Orac can." The solution to his dilemma became evident in that instant. "Like Orac can!" he repeated, getting up and moving over to Orac, looking for the key. "Key, key, ah key." He found and inserted it. The welcome whine of Orac's circuits was heard.
"Orac, Orac? Are you in there, Orac?"
In response, Vila heard the less welcome sound of Orac's fussy, precise voice. "Am I in where? What precisely do you imagine I am? Some sort of tame rodent in a cage?"
That image lodged in Vila's mind, and he responded before he had time to think. "That's precisely what I imagine you are. A rat in a box."
"I see no point in continuing this conversation." Orac sounded surly.
"Now, don't start sulking, or I shall switch you off and throw away the key."
Orac made an unexpected announcement. "Soon, that will be no longer a problem."
"Well? What do you want?"
Vila smiled. "Orac, I've got a little job for you."
In the same passageway, at the same window where Bek and Hanna had previously met, Gan stood looking out, his gun cradled in the crook of his right arm, the hand keeping open the channel of the teleport bracelet on the wrist of his left, allowing him to listen to the conversation in Largo's quarters.
"I don't think that at this stage you really need to know specific details of our plans, do you?" asked Avon.
After the meeting with Largo had been arranged, Blake had ordered Avon to do most of the negotiations, as Jenna would be biased; and he wanted to give the impression of a leader with the confidence and resources to negotiate through subordinates. Avon had smiled at this, but agreed, though he still believed that it was a waste of time.
Largo urbanely replied, "As you say." He was lying down on the top platform, looking relaxed, a person who had some strange but interesting visitors to deal with.
Avon continued. "In effect, we want to buy co-operation and expertise from the Earth-based network."
"Oh," commented Largo, before asking, "Why are you telling me all this?"
Jenna then intervened, trying to keep her voice neutral, wondering if Gan was right all along. "We don't know who rules the Terra Nostra. Possibly you don't either. But you do know how to get our proposition to them." Her finger was on the button of her bracelet, keeping the channel to Gan open.
"A go-between." Largo understood the request.
Blake handed Avon a bag, the latter saying, "Naturally, we would be prepared to pay for your services."
Largo chuckled with amusement. "Forgive me, Blake, but one of the reasons I made my home in a free city like this is because I adore eccentrics."
Blake's face was expressionless. Jenna spoke for him. "Do we take it that you're not interested?"
"Oh, I'm fascinated. But I'm just an independent businessman." This refusal caused Avon to extract two large, white stones from the bag and place them on the platform just in front of Largo. "Are you sure?" the former asked.
Largo picked up one, but did not appear to respond to its allure. "Look, the Terra Nostra doesn't exist. Believe me, it's aaphantom."
"A shadow?" Jenna could not resist using such a provocative word, particularly as it was well known that those most closely connected with the Terra Nostra were the most frequent deniers of its existence.
"A myth, a legend." After replying to Jenna, Largo turned his gaze to Avon, and through him Blake, whose face was still expressionless.
"It's a legend a lot of people believe in," Jenna replied. Including me, she silently added.
Avon expressed his curiosity. "And yet you know it doesn't exist? Why are you so certain?"
"I've got a contact in Federation Security," was the explanation. "If the Syndicate existed, then he'd know about it, wouldn't he?" Largo still appeared amiable.
"This contact, he wouldn't be the one who arrested me after I refused your cargo, would he?" Jenna was determined to annoy Largo.
"Oh, that was a mistake, Jenna." Largo was apologetic. "I was doing a favour for a friend. If I'd known what the cargo was I wouldn't have touched it myself."
The three were fully aware of the insincerity of his apology. The atmosphere in the room appeared to have grown colder. Avon spoke for them. "You didn't answer the question."
Largo looked at both him and Jenna, sensing the coldness. "Why do I feel as if I'm on trial here, hmm?"
"Why do I feel as if you should be?" Avon picked up the gems.
"They're beautiful stones." Largo pretended some interest in the gems. "I'm a bit of a collector, in a modest way. I could make you an offer."
"They have a sentimental value for me," Avon explained.
"Oh, family heirlooms, eh?" Largo tried to smile.
Avon did not attempt to be polite. "No, I'm just sentimental about money." He then coldly turned around and spoke to Blake in a tone of impatience, treating Largo as if he was in another room. "We're wasting our time with him." Even if Largo was connected to the Terra Nostra, either he was playing with them or was genuinely indifferent to Blake's proposal.
"Yes, I think so," agreed Blake, getting up. He clicked his fingers, and Avon reluctantly handed the bag of gems back to him. "Shall we go?" (This question was addressed to the others.) Before all left the room, Blake apologised. "I'm sorry we couldn't do business."
Largo tried to be the gracious host. "Let me at least offer you some refreshment." He sat up and pressed a button on the raised control panel at the edge of the platform.
"We didn't come for refreshment, Largo." Jenna was fed up with the whole affair, wanting to leave; it had brought back bad memories.
"Oh, but I insist." The doors opened, and the enforcer entered, gun at the ready. "He insists," said the enforcer, backing up his boss.
"Maybe we should have listened to Gan," admitted Blake. "It looks as though he was right after all."
Gan, while he had heard all this, had no chance to intervene; he found another enforcer pointing a gun at his head. That enforcer would later, when socialising with his colleagues and when giving training, use Gan as an example of how not to look inconspicuous. "He wasn't even keeping a proper look out! He had a big, unconcealed weapon, pointed at the ceiling! And don't get me started on his clothes!"
Largo began to give orders, in the urbane tone that now convinced no one. "Communicators please," he said, taking Blake and Avon's teleport bracelets. "And those." He took the bag of gems. "Thank you."
Jenna tried to keep her bracelet and keep the channel open, in case Gan would intervene; but Largo swiftly struck her on the shoulder, grabbed the arm, and deftly removed the bracelet. "Amateur!" That word, issued in a dry tone, was more insulting than any abusive language Jenna had ever heard.
Gan, his hands up, was shoved through the doorway. Largo looked disapprovingly at the other three for the additional failure. "A pro keeps it simple," he explained.
Cally returned to the Liberator's flight deck and found no one there. "Vila? Vila?" she called, knowing that he was up to no good. "Zen, where is he? I left him on watch."
"He is no longer on the ship."
"But he must be." Cally did not understand.
"He teleported into the city with the assistance of the one called Orac."
"I forgot about Orac," was Cally's rueful reply. She inwardly cursed herself for not thinking about that computer.
"The one called Orac is not concerned for the safety of the Liberator." Zen sounded critical, the first time Cally had heard him express anything like an emotion; but she had no time to ponder this phenomenon.
"Well, where is Orac then?" she impatiently demanded of Zen. "He's not in the teleport section; I just came from there."
"In return for the remote activation of the teleport system, Vila conveyed the one called Orac to another part of the Liberator."
"Which part, where?"
"Be silent." It was Orac's voice, but with an unfamiliar intonation: curt, emphasising all the words, expecting that all of them would be obeyed by the listener. It was almost as if he had had some kind of new personality, or something or someone was using his voice to communicate. The flight deck and Zen went dark for a few seconds. The former's lights then came back on; but Zen's did not.
"Orac? Zen? Zen!" Cally was now extremely worried. She went over to the central console and opened a communications channel. "Vila, this is Cally. Come in please. Vila!"
Vila's voice sounded sleepy. "What do you want, Cally?"
"I want you back here. Get ready to teleport."
Vila was not interested. "Wasting your time, Cally. I'm not wearing a bracelet. I'm not going to be snatched away in the middle ofin the middle of anything. Sightseeing. And you should see some of the sights I'm seeing." He then reconsidered his former statement. "No. Perhaps you shouldn't."
He was probably right, thought Cally. Some of the advertisements were bad enough. If he wanted to stay there, he could at least tell her where to find the missing computer. "Where is Orac?" her face took on a determined look that would have frightened Vila had be been there to see it.
"Promised not to tell," Vila explained, as if to a child. "I never break a promise."
"Oh yes, you do." Cally realised much later that she had sounded like a child.
"Almost never. Orac's all right. He can't run away."
"Oh, you fool, Vila." Cally was inwardly seething at his inability to control his hormones.
Vila attempted to pacify her. "Stop worrying, Cally. I'll be back soon. Tell you what, I'll bring you back a present. What would you like, Cally? Name it and it's yours."
Cally glowered in response. "A necklace, Vila, made from your teeth!" she snapped. She closed the channel and began to leave the flight deck, determined to start the search for Orac. The starboard corridor in front of her darkened in response. "No," ordered Orac, again in that strange intonation.
"Orac?" Cally was now sure that something had taken over the computer. At least it makes a change from Jenna and me, she thought, promising to be amused by it much later.
"I will destroy the life support system if you attempt to find me," the computer's voice promised.
"Why are you doing this?" asked Cally, a question to which she received no reply.
In a compartment in Space City, Avon and Gan finished their examination of the door, the latter admitting defeat and speculating about their future. "I don't think even Vila could open that. I wonder what they'll do?"
"A pro keeps it simple." Avon recalled Largo's words. "I imagine they'll kill us. You can't get much simpler than that."
"Sorry, Avon." Gan apologised for his failure to rescue him and the others.
"That makes all the difference." Avon was not as critical as he could have been; Gan had been correct about it being a bad thing to deal with the Terra Nostra, if only on moral grounds.
"I don't know how they spotted me," Gan said ruefully.
"'I don't know how they spotted me.'" Bek mocked Gan's last remark, provoking Hanna to giggle. Both were sitting on the floor of the compartment; but they had made no earlier attempts to talk to the other two.
Avon went over to Hanna, and knelt by her. "Something amuses you?" he inquired.
Bek spoke scornfully for them both. "You were using him as a lookout? I mean, he'd really blend into the background, wouldn't he? What did you do, put up a sign?"
Avon changed the subject to him and his sister. "Is that what you did or is Largo keeping you here as a favour?"
"We made a fool of him," Hanna explained.
"That's why we haven't been killed yet. He's making an example of us." She smiled, almost with pride.
"Oh, shut up Hanna; it's none of their business." Bek rebuked his sister.
"Isn't it?" asked Gan. "I mean if they're making an example of you"
"It's not for outsiders," cut in Bek. "You don't know much about the Terra Nostra, do you?"
"Do you?" retorted Avon, the obvious insinuation being, If you know so much, why are you here?
"Leave her alone," Bek defended his sister, then attempted to be polite, explaining their situation. "We are an object lesson for their own people. Largo's on his way up in the Organisation. One sign of weakness and he'll be on his way down again, probably minus his head."
"Now there's a happy thought," observed Gan.
Avon got to his feet. "It's a pity we won't live to see it," he added.
"We're not dead yet."
Avon gave an explanation for this. "Largo hasn't got what he wants yet."
On the Liberator's flight deck, the communicator chimed, followed by Blake's voice. "Liberator, this is Blake. Come in please." Cally moved to answer him. "Blake, this is Cally. We have a problem."
Blake cut her short. "Later, Cally, this is more important. We've made a deal but we need the rest of the money as a demonstration of good faith. They don't entirely trust us yet. HaveZen collect it and bring it across."
Gan and Vila were right after all, thought Cally, who tried to buy some time. "All the money?"
"Yes, Cally, all of it," emphasised Blake, speaking into a teleport bracelet held by Largo.
The latter, correctly suspicious, turned to the enforcer. "Ah, it's a trick. Kill him." The enforcer raised his gun.
"Wait a minute," protested Blake. "Why do you think it's a trick?"
Largo was impatient. "You think I'm a fool. Zen can't leave your ship. Your shuttlecraft's here in the city."
"We carry more than one shuttle," Blake explained, glad that Largo had not bothered to check if they had come by shuttle in the first place.
"Four," repeated Largo, who then spoke into the bracelet. "Cally, this is Largo."
"Shall we send your shuttle back or one of ours?"
"Neither. It is not necessary." Cally tried to give an innocuous answer.
"We have another shuttle."
"Another shuttle. Quite a ship," observed Largo. "How many shuttles do you carry?"
"He's testing me," Cally said to herself, all too aware now that that if she got the test wrong people she cared about would die. "Probably too far away." She decided to use her telepathy despite misgivings, touching her forehead. "Blake, Blake, I shall count. When I reach the right number, call my name. One, two, three, four."
"Cally, are you still there?" asked Blake.
"Sorry, what did you ask?"
Largo intervened. "I was just wondering how many shuttles you carry."
"Four. Does it matter?"
Largo was satisfied with her answer. "We'll be expecting your man, Zen."
Largo closed the channel. "And he won't be expecting us." He then spoke to the enforcer. "We shan't be needing his other two friends after all. Kill 'em."
"What about her?" asked the enforcer, his gun now pointed at Jenna.
"We'llkeep her till we're sure."
Cally knew that time was very short. Largo's greed had been the only thing stopping him from seeing through her ploy. She wouldn't have needed that long to tell him how many shuttles Liberator carried! She remembered Blake's and Vila's comments that the Terra Nostra ran Space City. That, she decided, was where the Organisation was vulnerable. If the city was damaged, or even threats made to damage it, that might be enough to release the others. She certainly had (she hoped) the necessary firepower at her disposal.
"Orac, I need Zen," she explained aloud, knowing that the former was listening. "I will ask no questions." She hoped that this approach worked, trying an order. "Zen, put the battle computers on line." She was relieved to see Zen's lights come on, so gave more orders as she went to the navigation position, which also had weaponry as its secondary function. "Put up the force wall, activate the radiation flare shield, and clear the neutron blasters for firing."
"Completed. Neutron blasters are cleared for firing."
"Open up a voice channel to the city's central control."
The response was swift. "Central control, central control. Go ahead," said a male voice.
"This is the weaponry officer on the battle cruiser Liberator." Cally tried to sound impressive.
"Duty officer, your computer took a priority channel." The male voice sounded impatient. "Whatever you want, it had better be important."
"Four of my friends are being held prisoner in your city," announced Cally. "Unless you release them immediately I shall open fire on you."
The male voice took on a lecturing tone, indicating that he had heard many strange stories. "Listen, lady. You shouldn't drink in those cheap dives. You go blind eventually."
Cally showed that she was both sober and determined. "Zen, report battle computer status to central control."
"All right." The voice was now serious and a little incredulous. "So you're at battle stations. You don't expect us to believe that you'd"
Cally did not let him finish his sentence, giving her orders. "A man called Largo is holding my friends. You have six minutes to release them."
"You can't be serious." The voice was incredulous.
Cally went inexorably on. "I was never more so. You have five minutes and fifty-five seconds."
"Detectors report high speed approach," Zen reported.
"Gunship. It is manoeuvring for attack position."
"Warn them off."
"Compute co-ordinates, range blasters."
"Warn them again."
"Warning ignored. They are pressing their attack."
"I gave them a chance," observed Cally, who pressed the fire button. The ship's neutron blasters fired, destroying the gunship.
"Hold your fire!" shouted the voice.
Cally was inwardly triumphant that her message had now been understood. "Central, the next shot will be right down your throats. You have three minutes and thirty seconds."
The prison compartment's doors opened, revealing the enforcer, who pointed his gun at Avon and Gan. "You two, out."
"Why?" asked Avon.
"You'd prefer not to know," was the dry response.
"Your professional simplicity is beginning to irritate me."
"Well think of it as a temporary problem. Move!" As Avon and Gan began to move out of the entrance, the enforcer moved in behind them, gun at the ready.
Hanna laughed, then fell down with a cry; Bek moved over to see what the problem was. The few seconds the enforcer was distracted was enough; he was disarmed by Avon, knocked to the ground by Gan. "Simple enough for you?" was the latter's rhetorical question.
"Don't stand around," urged Hanna, her voice lucid, thanks to her captivity keeping her away from shadow. "There's more where he came from."
In Largo's quarters, Largo had his gun trained on a handcuffed Blake and Jenna; so he was taken completely by surprise by Avon and Gan's entry. He was kicked by Blake and thrown to the ground by Gan. Avon took the handcuff keys and unlocked Blake's handcuffs.
"Your sense of timing is as impeccable as ever." Blake thanked Avon.
"I have always admired your patience," replied the latter, in what was for him a rare show of emotion, throwing the handcuff keys to Gan, who was over by Jenna.
"Are you all right, Jenna?" asked Gan, as he unlocked her handcuffs.
She was in no mood for a polite answer. "What does it look like?"
Blake, freed from his own handcuffs, saw Hanna and Bek, who had come in, Bek pointing Largo's gun at the prone form of the latter. "Leave it!" he ordered, Avon pointing his gun at Bek to emphasise this.
The communicator chimed. Blake responded. "Largo."
The male voice was to the point. "Central. You're holding prisoners. Release them."
"What?" Blake was surprised.
"There's a lunatic woman threatening to destroy the city. Get those people back to their ship."
"Must I?" Blake tried to imitate Largo's urbanity.
"Do it, Largo." The voice was insistent. Blake smiled, silently promising to tell Cally how effective her strategy had been.
"I think we've outstayed our welcome," observed Jenna nervously. All had their bracelets on. Blake spoke into his "All right, Cally. We're ready to come across."
"We'll come with you," stated Bek.
Blake looked at him. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" Bek was scornful. "Polite but inadequate." He raised his gun. "We can't stay here, so you're not going to leave without us."
Blake, Avon, Gan and Jenna seemed to disappear or dematerialise, leaving a white outline of their figures, which dispersed just as quickly.
"I think they went without us," pointed out Hanna.
"There's gratitude for you." Bek was bitter.
"Gratitude." Hanna was as scornful as her brother had been. "You point a gun at them and expect gratitude?" A thought struck her; she pointed at Largo. "Maybe we could use him as a hostage."
"Him?" Bek was again able to express his contempt for Largo, who was now also a loser. "After his foul-up you won't get a drink of water in exchange for him." He aimed his gun at Largo, intending to kill him, when Blake rematerialised, returning the same way that he and the others had left, walking over to them. "I changed my mind," he announced.
"Why?" Bek was suspicious.
"Do we care?" retorted Hanna.
"Put these on," ordered Blake, handing each of them a bracelet.
"What's in it for you?" asked Bek, still suspicious. He and Hanna did, however, put the bracelets on.
"You can help me with one of my crew," explained Blake. "His name's Vila and he's suffering from a bad attack of alcoholic remorse." He spoke into the bracelet. "All right, Cally." He then turned to Bek and Hanna. "He wants to make a necklace of his teeth." All three dematerialised.
On the Liberator's fight deck, Blake announced, "No effect on the flight systems."
Jenna was checking the instruments at the pilot station with Bek watching. "Everything seems normal enough," she confirmed. "Maybe she imagined it."
Blake was unconvinced. "That's not like Cally."
Jenna did not disagree, also pointing out, "It's not like Orac either."
Avon and Gan came onto the flight deck. "Any luck?" asked Blake.
Gan looked serious. "Can't find Orac. Even tried calling his name."
Avon took his seat, and made a sarcastic remark. "Oh, I'm sorry I missed that. It's the kind of natural stupidity no amount of training could ever hope to match."
"You found Orac?" Blake retaliated quickly.
Avon expected this question. "No, but then I never really expected to. It is one of Vila's more elaborate practical jokes."
Blake turned his attention to Bek. "Talking of Vila, how long before he comes round?"
"Oh, several hours," was the latter's gloomy diagnosis. "And he won't feel much like laughing when he does."
"Oh, I'll guarantee that." Though given in an even tone, Blake's remark had an unexpected undercurrent of menace. He then changed the subject. "All right, we've wasted enough time on it. Let's get back to the Terra Nostra."
"Back? We only just managed to get away from them." Gan was both angry and incredulous.
"We chose the wrong approach, that's all," Blake explained evenly.
Gan was in no mood to be pacified. "Is that all? I thought maybe we'd chosen the wrong people to get involved with."
"We chose the wrong approach?" Avon snapped, putting the blame where it was due.
Blake made a full admission. "I chose the wrong approach. Does it matter?"
"Yes, it does," Avon snapped back.
Blake tried to close the argument by a complete capitulation. "All right, Avon. You were right and I was wrong. You said persuasion wouldn't work and it didn't. So now we use force."
Avon sounded curious, then almost amused. "Force? Yes, of course. Law makers, law breakers, let us fight them all. Why not?"
Blake ignored this, starting to declaim. "The Terra Nostra's wealth comes from organising and controlling all sorts of crime. But their biggest profits and a lot of their control comes from one area."
"Shadow," answered Jenna.
"That is the only one that matters. That is what we attack."
Avon conceded Blake's strategy in principle, because his questions then related to the practicalities of such an attack. "And how do you propose to go about it? Where would we get the information we would need?"
Blake did not directly answer the questions, turning to Bek. "Bek, would you ask your sister to join us, please?"
A second later, the communicator chimed. "Blake," said Cally's voice.
"Has anyone found Orac yet?" Cally was in one of the Liberator's corridors, talking to a wall communicator, looking worried.
"No, I think we'll have to wait for Vila."
Cally was still worried. "Well, there may not be time for that."
"Well, has something else happened?"
"No, not exactly."
"Well, what exactly?" Blake asked impatiently.
"Aa feeling I have," Cally answered nervously.
"Come back to the flight deck."
"I should keep on searching."
"Leave it, Cally," ordered Blake.
"Yes," she replied, breaking the link; but she continued to search. "Orac?" she asked, then turned into another corridor.
"I warned you not to look for me," said that strange Orac voice, as the corridor went dark. Frightened, Cally began to run, but suddenly found herself coming to a halt, her arms clutching her body. She knelt down, as if to some kind of unspoken instruction, her body not her own to control.
Either she was shrinking or Orac was growing, because she felt drawn into him, or whatever was controlling him. All she became aware of was a sense of this new 'Orac' fading to a white outline on black, then vice versa. Her mind was no longer hers.
Back in his quarters, Largo sat cross-legged on his top platform, clutching a ball of shadow in his clasped hands, stroking it with one finger, talking to the Chairman of the Terra Nostra. "I know where to look for them, Chairman," he said reassuringly.
The Chairman, as seen by Largo on his wall screen, was playing with a spider in a clear tank. Rumours abounded in the Organisation about the Chairman and his poisonous pet. Some sources claimed that the spider had bitten him; but its bite had no effect. The majority opinion was, however, that no spider would dare do such a thing.
"Only your stupidity makes it necessary to look for them." The Chairman said dryly, his attention seemingly focussed on his spider. His seemingly innocuous behaviour frightened Largo, who went on. "I had to ensure that they took my agent with them."
The Chairman finally bothered to look at Largo. "Ah." It was an utterance that spoke gigabytes.
Largo continued, quickly but not too quickly. "When she is reporting on their movements I'll follow them and capture them."
"So." The monosyllable was an order to proceed.
"Chairman, the rewards will be threefold. The money they are carrying, which is substantial; the bounty from the authorities, which is also substantial; and more important of all, the demonstration that we can punish where the Federation itself can't even reach." Largo inwardly rejoiced at having such good reasons.
The Chairman looked at his spider and said, "Very well, Largo, a heavy cruiser will be at your disposal," he suddenly looked at Largo and his voice became a little grim; "but don't delay it too long or the rewards will be one-fold: the demonstration that we can punish." He looked back at the spider, the image of someone who had bought something due to a successful sales pitch, but who felt deceived.
"I thank you for your confidence, Chairman." Largo was as profuse as Terra Nostran etiquette allowed, his face amiable.
The Chairman's face was neutral as he looked at him. "Largo, that is too small a thing to thank me for." He closed the connection and the image faded.
"He'll pay for that," snapped Largo, who no longer needed to be polite.
"Before or after he finds out that you are lying?" The enforcer had been in the room all through Largo's conversation with the Chairman, but now moved in front of the former, looking down at him.
"Was I lying?"
The enforcer's voice was suspicious. "It would make me very unhappy to think that you tried to use me, like some fool."
Largo gave him a look of contempt. "You're just an enforcer. Pay for your gun, not your brain." He gave a smile that had no warmth. "Of course I was lying. Except about the girl."
"She's not your agent."
"Ohh, but she is. That dream head," Largo said, looking at his ball of shadow, "is going to tell us exactly where Blake and his friends decide to go."
On the Liberator's flight deck, Hanna's ball of shadow was under the dome of Zen's analyser. "Don't worry," Blake reassured Hanna.
"It's all I have," she explained.
"You'll get it back," Blake further reassured her. Because it was her last ball of shadow, he would let her keep it with a clear conscience. "Zen. Analyse. I want the derivation."
"The main constituent is an organic compound, probably derived from the xerophyte of the genus corda."
"A cactus," said Avon.
"Confirmed. The species is alpha seven oblique five. Known as the moon disc, it was greatly prized for its partial telepathy and its ability to move short distances to avoid direct sunlight."
"It stayed in the shadows." Hanna saw the connection.
"So that's where the name comes from," concluded Blake.
"Commercial collectors rendered the moon disc extinct on its native planet."
"Which planet, Zen?"
"Zondar. And when it proved impossible to grow in any other environment the total extinction of the species followed logically."
"Only it didn't." Blake updated the entry.
"There are traces of an element"
"All right, Zen, we've got enough." Blake stopped the computer. "Have the navigation computers set in a course for the planet Zondar."
"Wait." Something had occurred to Avon.
"It has to be the source, the key to all the Terra Nostra's power," Blake urgently explained to him and Jenna. "If we control that, we control them."
"Right." Jenna was convinced and ready to go. As Blake turned away, however,
another crew member was still unconvinced. Gan came from behind and faced Blake. "The drug in return for their help?" He did not keep a tone of disgust from his voice. "Blake, that would make us pushers."
"Well, maybe we won't keep our end of the bargain." Blake tried to be conciliatory.
"And that would make us cheats." Gan was appalled.
Blake declaimed his reason. "That will make us winners, Gan. That's the only excuse for fighting."
"It's too good a chance to miss, Gan." Jenna put in her support for Blake before she went to the pilot's seat.
Bek then intervened. "I'd like to see that, to see them grovel." The opportunity to avenge his family and others had now been given to him.
Avon went over to Blake. "When the Federation introduced the death penalty for possession, the President described shadow as 'the greatest single threat to the welfare of mankind.'"
Blake was interested at this. "Don't tell me you agree with Gan."
"No, no, no. I'm justinterested." Avon was all curiosity. "It seems to me that we have identified the source of that threat rather easily."
"So why haven't they?" Blake was now infected with the same curiosity.
"Maybe we're about to find out."
"Maybe we already know." With that comment, Avon left. Blake suppressed the urge to ask him for the answer; he would find out soon enough.
Vila slowly staggered from his cabin to the flight deck, clutching his head and groaning, "Never again. I'm dying." He came across Cally lying in the corridor, next to Orac, and knelt down, asking, "Cally, what's the matter?"
Cally looked at him, her eyes open but with nothing behind him. Vila was afraid of the look that wasn't. "Cally? Cally? It's only me. What's the matter with her?" The last question was levelled at Orac.
Cally's mind screamed in agony, but Vila heard nothing. Orac ignored this, stating emphatically, "Obviously, she's insane."
Later, on the flight deck, Blake asked Avon, who had returned, "How is she?"
Avon had no new news. "The same. I left the girl with her." He went over to Orac.
"Have you run the diagnostic checks again?" Blake wanted to be sure that everything had been tried.
"Still nothing. There is no physical explanation for her condition unless somehow," he indicated Orac, "it's locked up in here and I don't see how that can be."
"She is an alien." Blake offered an explanation.
"She is more human than I am." Avon rejected this in an unexpected manner.
"That's not difficult." Vila finally spoke.
"Have you remembered anything yet?" Avon was interested.
"It's a complete blank," Vila replied carefully, "from the time you left to meet Largo to when I woke up back on the ship."
"With what you drank you're lucky to remember who you are." Bek sounded sardonic, though he was secretly impressed at Vila's powers of recovery.
"I would hardly call that lucky," was Avon's rejoinder.
"This is not helping Cally," Blake said, annoyed. He went to sit down in the central seating area.
"Orac's told you what happened," pointed out Vila.
"Nothing, according to him," Gan said when Blake sat down.
"I don't believe it." Jenna made her contribution.
"Computers do not lie," Avon explained.
"Orac is not a computer."
"That was its creator's vanity," Avon further explained. "Orac is a computer. It is a highly sophisticated tool, and that is all."
"Well, something frightened Cally." Jenna retreated to what she felt she could safely assert.
"Yes, and so badly she may never come back from wherever she's hiding." A worried Gan supported her.
"It was not Orac," persisted Avon.
"Maybe it wasn't anythinganything real." Blake offered a new suggestion.
Zen's announcement interrupted the argument. "Information. Flight time remaining is forty-eight minutes. Visual and detector readouts are now available."
"Let's see it, Zen," ordered Blake. The main screen showed a planet that looked sandy and rocky, in hues of various colours, particularly red, orange, and yellow.
"It's a pretty colour," was Vila's hung-over opinion.
"Oh, considering what it is," was Bek's remark.
"Let's hope they don't know we're coming," Gan hoped.
"There's no reason why they should." Blake was reassuring.
Hanna, who had come onto the flight deck, stared at the screen.
Back in Space City, the Chairman was again seen on the wall screen in Largo's quarters, this time talking to the enforcer.
"They'll be making planetfall anytime now," was the latter's dry statement.
"Excellent," was the Chairman's silky response. "Are all Largo's addicts so available?"
"Yes, Chairman. It seems he's been adding it to all the shadow that we supplied."
"Radioactive, you say?"
"Not exactly. Controlled particle emission," distinguished the enforcer. "Detectable only with the right equipment, which Largo's got of course."
"Surely it damages the addicts?" The Chairman's question was obviously provoked by utility, not compassion.
"Kills them a little sooner. But at least if you need one you always know where to look."
The Chairman smiled slightly. "What a clever idea." He looked away, a little pensive. "We must consider it for general use."
"What about Blake and his friends, Chairman?"
The Chairman looked up. "You can leave all that to me."
"You've done well." The Chairman's mind already appeared to be thinking of something else. "Dispose of the body. His assets are now yours." He closed the channel.
"Thank you, Chairman." The ghost of a smile on his face, the former enforcer looked down at Largo's body, reminding himself to call his parents.
On the Liberator's flight deck, Jenna went over to Blake. She, like him and Avon, was dressed in the white protective clothing - with high open collars and plunging necklines - they would need to brave Zondar's scorching heat. "Cally's still the same," she announced. "Hanna's singing to her now."
"I don't think she's going to come out of it, Blake."
"She will," Blake said reassuringly.
Jenna was not reassured, starting to lose her patience. "I don't think you care whether she does or she doesn't."
"One thing at a time, Jenna!" was Blake's brusque response. Jenna did not reply, but turned around and left.
"I've been thinking." Vila was curious. "If it's that hot down there, why don't you try landing on the night side?"
Blake's anger at Vila's irresponsible activities in Space City finally came to the surface. "Why don't you try listening? The system has twin suns; there is no night side!"
Vila winced. "I wish you wouldn't shout."
"Gan, have you got everything clear?" Blake then demanded.
"Yes," was the reply.
"Well, Zen's doing the flying; I'm just monitoring it."
"Well, monitoring what?" Jenna, as the ship's pilot, wanted to be sure that the person sitting in her seat would properly handle everything while she was away.
"Maintaining a powered orbit on the edge of the atmosphere."
"Why?" Blake's question verged on a shout.
"For maximum cover."
Avon was impatient. "From defences that should be there but aren't. Are you ready to go? There's nothing you can do for Cally. Even shouting at everybody else is not going to help her."
Blake spoke in a softer voice. "A powered orbit can be tricky, Gan. You need to stay alert."
Leaning forward, Gan used words that could have come from Zen. "All systems are functioning normally. Status is firm."
"Good, then let's go. Jenna. Vila." His voice became soft. "Teleport."
Gan and Bek were the only ones left on the flight deck. The latter, unused to such shipboard arguments, observed, "I don't know why they're all so jumpy. Show me the planet."
"Visual," ordered Gan. Zondar again appeared on the main screen.
"I mean, look at it," continued Bek. "It's nothing. I mean why should anybody draw attention to it with heavy defences. They don't expect it to be found."
Blake, Avon and Jenna rematerialised on the outcrop of what looked like a range of rocky hills. "Down and safe," Blake said into his bracelet. "Stay by the teleport, Vila." He then gave an order to the others. "Cover me." As he moved out, Avon and Jenna drew their guns.
"It's enough to fry your eyeballs," remarked Jenna, looking around. While the protective clothing was doing its job, she, like the others, was aware of the heat it kept at bay.
"Daintily put," replied Avon.
"Must be the company I keep." Both followed Blake.
Blake was staring into the distance. "Zen's right," he announced. "It looks to be about half a mile away."
"That's far enough to walk in this heat." Avon knew that the clothing gave them a margin of safety, but not a generous one.
"Far enough to crawl." Blake corrected him. "There's no cover."
There was a call from Jenna. "Blake, over here. Look." He and Avon went over to her. They saw a large number of concave discs of various sizes and colours.
"Moon discs." Avon identified them, moving a large, orange-coloured, one with his gun. "Prized by collectors."
"People collect odd things." Blake was interested in seeing the innocuous source of so much misery.
"Look what you ended up with." Jenna's remark was meant for him.
"You process those, you'll get a liquid that'll kill you."
"Only if you're stupid enough to use it." Avon's contemptuous remark embraced all shadow users.
"Listen," said Jenna. Avon and Blake looked to where she seemed to be looking. "No, not over there." She pointed her gun at the moon discs. "It's coming from them. It's a sort of whispering. They're supposed to be telepathic."
"They're supposed to move." Avon was dismissive. While he heard the sound, he did not think it worth bothering about, they not having come for botanical reasons.
"So are we," reminded Blake. "Come on." He began to move off.
"It could have been frying eyeballs you heard," remarked Avon as he began to follow.
"Daintily put," was Jenna's final remark. As all three began their journey, the moon disc touched by Avon's gun began to move slowly.
On the Liberator's flight deck, Gan was annoyed to see Vila coming down the port corridor. "Vila! Get back to the teleport," he ordered impatiently, fed up with the consequences of his antics.
"Five minutes," was Vila's plea. "I must get something for my head."
"You can't leave the teleport now!" Gan was now angry.
"Five minutes," repeated Vila.
"Don't be stupid!"
"My head is killing me."
Vila's plea received no sympathy. "And you may be killing Blake and the others!"
Vila capitulated. "All right." He inserted Orac's key. "Orac, operate the teleport as instructed." He then turned to Gan. "Satisfied?"
Gan was not in a forgiving mood. "Well, not really!"
"I'll only be five minutes!"
"Orac, did you understand the instruction?" asked Gan.
"It was quite explicit," answered the computer.
Cally heard the not quite Orac's voice in her mind, infusing itself like a liquid. "Child of Auron," it began to explain. "Listen to the voice of Orac. Remember the touch of hands at laughter and the warmth of open minds. Remember these things for they are gone. You are alone."
"No," Cally replied mentally. She knew that it was not Orac speaking; that computer would have been indignant at the idea of wasting time playing mind games. Also, he might be irritating, but was never evil.
"You are alone," repeated the voice. "You are the last of the humankind."
"Orac, don't," pleaded Cally, trying to stop herself panicking.
This led the voice to persist. "I am the darkness," it intoned. "Orac brings my darkness. You are alone, in me. Run, last of the humans. Run, before my darkness engulfs you. Run, run run, run run." Cally could not stop herself running blindly past an astonished Vila to the teleport, putting on a bracelet, and being teleported to the surface of Zondar. She continued to run blindly, in no particular direction, dropping her bracelet.
Elsewhere on the same planet's, Blake, Avon and Jenna came across a moon disc garden, made up of a network of shallow pools, surrounded by arrays of reflective mirrors. The moon discs were in thick clusters.
"They probably collect them in deep desert and bring them here to boost their growth." Blake made a calculated guess.
"With surface water in the area there will be a whole network of these gardens," Avon added.
Jenna's remark was unexpected by the others. "I almost feel sorry for them." She had crouched down.
"They're plants." Avon could understand people feeling compassionate about animals, but not plants, who had no say about their composition and what supposedly more intelligent beings used them for.
"These are singing," she insisted.
"You should have stayed in the cool." Avon restricted himself to a general suggestion.
Blake pointed. "The collection and processing plant should be somewhere over there."
"Seems logical," agreed Avon.
"Yes, well don't get too close." Blake took out some thin, silverish cylinders from a pocket, passing them to the others. "All we've got to do is plant these sensors in some form of rough circle," he explained. "The battle computers will put together a complete picture of what's there."
"And then the ship's main blasters will pick off anything we care to nominate," added Avon.
"Yes. Back in an hour." Jenna nodded at Blake's order; and all three went off in different directions.
Cally ran, not knowing where, until she fell down in a gully. Later, when looking back, she could not be sure whether the being let her collapse, or whether the fierce heat overcame its instructions, making her too exhausted to obey. A moon disc slowly came to her, making small, barely audible noises.
On the Liberator's flight deck, Hanna was telling the others what she knew of Cally's flight. She was sitting in the central seating area, hugging her knees. "No, she didn't hit me; she ran straight over me," was her bewildered narration. "I was just in the way. I never saw anyone so scared."
"You couldn't tell why?" asked Vila.
"You couldn't see what was driving her?" Gan asked an instant later.
Hanna looked as if the memory made her want to shrink into herself. "I don't think I'd want to. You can't share someone's madness." She sounded as if she spoke from experience.
"They can on Auron," explained Gan. "Cally told me her people can share any experience. And telepathy means they never have to be alone. Makes them very strong."
Bek was curious. "Well, when they're together. I mean, what happens when one's isolated?"
Gan looked serious. "I think that's what we're finding out."
"I'm going to the teleport," announced Vila. "All right Orac, you can go back to sleep." He touched the key, but withdrew his hand instantly with a cry. "That key's electrified," he said. "Did you do that purposely?" he asked the computer.
"You will not disconnect," said the Orac-like voice.
Vila was not convinced. "Is that right?" he said challengingly, trying to remove the key again. "Ow!" He pulled his hand back. "That hurts!"
"The bridge is almost complete," announced the voice. "You will not disconnect."
Blake, Jenna and Avon were planting the sensors around the gardens, when Avon saw something reflected in one of the mirrors: a guard in a silverish thermal protection suit, one, Avon briefly noted, far superior to his. This forewarning gave him the chance to shoot the guard before the latter could open fire.
Conscious that there would at least be another guard around, Avon quickly ran up the escarpment where the first guard had been. Yes; there was a second guard, similarly dressed. So close was he to Avon that the latter was able to kill him, then throw him down the escarpment. "Next, please," said Avon, wondering why that last guard looked a little overweight.
"This is silly," observed Hanna. "It's just a machine." She did not, however, appear eager to try to take Orac's key.
"Of course it is," said Vila, "If it wasn't so expensive, I'd kick it to pieces."
"Yes, if it didn't bite," contributed Bek nervously.
"Avon'll fix it when he gets back." Like the others, Gan was happy to leave it alone.
"Yes," said Vila.
"The bridge is complete," announced the voice.
"What? What did he say?" Vila was confused.
"Something's wrong." Gan spoke for all of them.
"No, that wasn't it."
"Information. Liberator is losing power from all systems. Orbital maintenance is threatened."
"Switch off all auxiliary systems," Gan ordered Zen.
"Power drain is increasing. Orbit is decaying."
"What's happening?" asked Vila, looking at a readout.
"Switch to main boosters. Zen!" Gan's order was louder than the last.
Zen's announcement gave no reassurance. "Automatic flight control is now aborted."
"The manual controls won't respond," announced Gan, after trying to use them.
"Do something, Gan!" said Vila.
"Something's draining off the power." The lights on the flight deck dimmed to a red glow, and there was an increasing sound coming from outside the ship.
"Orac, it has to be Orac." Vila identified the source of the problem.
"Disconnect him, Vila," ordered Gan. "Do it!" he shouted when the latter hesitated. "We're heading toward the atmosphere. We'll burn up, explode."
"Here, let me." Hanna's nervousness fully overcome by the prospect of dying, she rushed to Orac and grabbed the key, but was hurled to the floor by an electrical charge.
"Hanna!" cried Bek, who crouched over her. "She's dead," he announced in a voice stricken with grief at another family tragedy. He moved towards Orac. "That thing killed her!"
Vila held him back. "Don't go! It'll kill you too!"
"We're falling towards the atmosphere!" cried a helpless Gan.
Blake hid and saw two guards pass, dressed the same as the other two killed by Avon. He then broke cover after they left, going in the opposite direction.
Elsewhere on Zondar, Cally was surrounded and partly covered by moon discs, all calling out to her. While her body remained prone, she mentally got to her feet, smiled and said "Hello" to them. She was among friends.
"You cannot stop me, child of Auron," said the voice, in a tone Cally now regarded as rasping. Heartened by this sudden realisation and by the discs' support, she picked up one. "Then why do you threaten me?" she asked.
"Orac is my bridge," explained the voice. "You stand before it, puny telepath."
Cally was able to fill in the gaps in her knowledge of this being. "Yes, I know you now. My powers are in your dimension, and Orac's carrier waves are your bridge."
"The energy is building," rasped the voice. "I am ready to cross. Hungry dark to absorb the blazing suns."
"I will deny you." Cally was quiet but resolute.
"You are alone," mocked the voice.
"No. The warmth you mock me with is here." Cally held out the moon disc, through which she was linked to the others. "I am not alone. You will stay in your universe of darkness."
"You will not disconnect. You will not dis" The voice stopped as Cally's hand pulled out Orac's key, it then appearing in her hand on Zondar. She slowly got to her feet, spilling the moon discs who had got on top of her.
On the Liberator's flight deck, the sounds began to return to normal.
"We're getting power," said Gan gratefully. "The power's coming back."
"Orac. The key's gone," noted Vila.
Meanwhile, on Zondar, Blake and Avon were throwing two guards into one of the garden's ponds.
Jenna ran over to them. "There's two more over there," she announced, a little breathless.
Blake spoke into his bracelet as those guards came into view. "Vila, bring us up now." All three dematerialised.
Cally ran back and found her bracelet, put it on, and arrived at the place where she had rematerialised, mentally thanking the discs for the information. "Liberator, come in Liberator," she called into the bracelet.
"Cally, what are you doing down there?" Vila was now hoping that he would get an answer to that question.
He would get one soon. "Waiting to come up," was her reply, looking at Orac's key in her hands, "again." She dematerialised.
Back on the Liberator's flight deck, the crew and their guest were gathered around, trying to make sense of what had happened. Bek, after being handed a drink by Vila, asked for confirmation from Cally. "So it was an alien life form that killed her?" His face was taut with grief.
"Yes," confirmed Cally. "It was trying to use Orac as a bridge to cross from its own universe into ours."
"That's why it needed so much power." Jenna understood.
Blake was still unsure. "But a quantum jump would need much more energy potential than Liberator could develop."
Avon, working on Orac, filled in the gap in Blake's knowledge. "The explosion in the planet's atmosphere would have provided the rest."
"Yes, I hadn't thought of that," Blake admitted.
"So you see Bek, this thing tapped into Orac's channels, sucked up all his energy, so that it could come squirting out and swallow us all." Vila tried to condense all he had heard.
Avon let out an almost soundless sigh before defining what Vila had just said. "The plain man's guide to alien invasions."
Vila still had questions, however. "But, where did Cally fit in? Why did it attack you, Cally?"
Cally quietly answered. "I was a threat to it. I knew it was there because of my telepathy. Orac uses special communication waves, which pass into another dimension. And it is the same dimension which allows thought transference."
"Orac's telepathic?" asked an interested Jenna.
"No, telepathy is conscious," clarified Cally. "Orac has no consciousness in that dimension. He merelydrives a beam through it. Which is why he could be controlled by this force."
"And why you couldn't; you fought it telepathically," completed Blake.
"Yes. Once the moon discs had broken through my isolation; as soon as I was no longer all alone, I could fight it."
Vila still had questions. "But what about the key?" he demanded. "How did you get Orac's key while he was up here and you were down there? Long arms?"
"Telekinesis." Blake answered for Cally.
"The power to move objects by thought alone," answered Avon. He paused. "That seems unlikely."
"Yes, it does," agreed Cally. "Even among my people such power is rare. Maybethe moon discs. Their telepathy gave me courage. Perhaps it gave me strength, too."
"So," concluded Gan. "Either we all become telepathic, or we dump Orac."
"Destroy rather than dump, surely." Jenna did not want even Orac's components falling into the wrong hands.
"I'll do it." Bek eagerly got to his feet.
Avon made him stop. "It isn't necessary." He laid down his tools.
"Will it work?" asked Blake
"Of course it will work." Avon was supremely confident. "I have set a small disruption bomb to precise limits within Orac's energy range. Any variation above or below and there will be a rather satisfying little explosion. The slightest attempt to temper with the communication channels will reduce Orac to a heap of spare parts."
Bek realised the implications of this. "So Hanna died for nothing." His voice was full of bitterness and contempt. "Just her. Even that machine survives."
"I'm sorry, Bek." Blake tried to offer him some consolation.
Avon thought this gesture useless, so decided on plain facts. "She was dying anyway."
"Oh I know, yes." Bek was suddenly quieter. "Just another dream head."
His voice grew louder, demanding, "But what about the low-life scum that really killed her? What about the Terra Nostra?"
"That is who we're waiting for now," was Blake's unexpected reply.
"We're what?" Gan was too surprised to be angry.
"Why?" was Vila's simple response.
"We want them to realise that we know who they are," Blake explained.
Avon supplied the rest of the explanation, holding up an identity card. "This is the ID of a guard I killed. He was a member of Federation security," Avon handed Gan the card, "a very special member. He was one of the President's personal security force."
"The President of the Federation runs the shadow operation," Blake added.
"And since shadow is the basis of the Terra Nostra" Avon left everyone to add the conclusion.
"I don't believe it." Gan was astounded at the cynicism of this picture.
Bek went relentlessly on in his explanation. "It's quite logical. To have total control, you must control totally. Both sides of the law. The Terra Nostra, the Federation: two sides of the same power. The same men of power."
Avon expressed the thoughts of all on the flight deck. "Ironic, isn't it? We were hoping to use the Terra Nostra to attack the Federation only to discover that it is already being used to support it."
"Where are all the good guys?" Vila asked rhetorically.
"You could be looking at them," replied Blake, half jokingly.
"What a very depressing thought," observed Avon in a cold voice. Blake chuckled.
Avon then noticed a tray filled with sand, containing a moon disc. "Whose is this?" he asked, picking the tray up.
"Mine," said Cally, coming over to him. Avon put the tray down.
"Is it alive?" asked Jenna, who had followed her over.
"I thought they died if they left the planet."
"No, you have to talk to them," Cally explained. She held out her hand and the disc began to move towards it.
"It's like talking to Vila, a complete waste of time." Avon was still dismissive. Cally did not reply, but still held out her hand, and the disc still moved towards it.
Blake was talking to Bek. "When we've finished here, we'll get you back to Space City."
Bek did not understand. "What for? There's nothing left there."
Blake replied, "Well, it's your territory. At least you know who you're fighting now."
"What have I got left to fight for?" Bek's question was addressed mostly to himself, remembering the devastation caused to his family, and thinking of the might of the Federation, the revealed enemy.
Blake knew he had to give Bek a new purpose. "I'll give you three years, then I'll come looking," he said with confidence. "I expect you to be able to help me."
"Information," Zen said. "Detectors report seven Federation pursuit ships approaching in attack formation."
All the crew except Blake ran to their stations. "Seven?" commented Blake in an amused tone. "One for each of us. How very generous of the President."
Avon announced, "Blasters are cleared for firing, sensors are functioning, planetary targets are identified and ranged."
"Wait a minute, Avon," ordered Blake. "Bek," he indicated a nearby button, "that button burns the President's garden. It won't hurt him much, but it'll sting a bit." He then spoke to Jenna. "Stand by to take us out, Jenna, when it's done."
Bek pressed the button, wishing that the President, the Chairman, and all the responsible Federation and Terra Nostra personnel were down on the planet along with the moon discs.