The Liberator was in orbit over Fosforon, a planet covered with the milky swirls of thick cloud.
Cally sat at the teleport controls, facing Avon and Vila, who were ready to go down. Avon was wearing black leather and a look to match, and Vila, who had been worried about the possibly swampy surface conditions under all that cloud, had also put on black leather trousers and knee-high boots with his grey suede tunic. They were both leaning forward over the controls, Vila compressing his lips in a failed attempt to look tough and hide his nervousness.
"Do you know where we want to be?" Avon asked.
"Yes," Cally said patiently. She wondered if Avon was in such a bad mood because of how Vila, whom he often accused of lacking in sartorial taste, had dressed.
"Let me see you locate it."
Cally controlled her annoyance and quickly pressed three buttons in rapid succession. They all watched the search grid screen as the white circle moved to intersect the black dot which marked their destination on the planet below them.
"All right, make it quick."
As the men turned and stepped into the teleport bay, Cally put her chin on her fist, smiled, and operated the controls before they had time to turn around and face her. Her smile widened in satisfaction. Do I know indeed!
Avon and Vila materialised on grassland, the wind whipping their hair about their faces; an unnerving feeling for those brought up in the domed cities of Earth. They were, of course, facing the wrong way and could see nothing but sand and rock receding into the distance beyond the waving grass they stood on. They turned, looking about them, and began to run towards the Federation Q-Base in the other direction. They stopped on the edge of the wide cleared area before the base to get their breath.
"So that's it," Vila said, singularly unimpressed.
"Not like home." The squat featureless grey dome in the distance, unlike those of Earth, appeared to have no windows and was surrounded by towering black antenna. "How are we going to get inside?"
"We'll find a way. Come on." Avon set off purposefully across the rocky ground, followed resignedly by Vila.
"They're down," Cally said as she entered the Liberator's flight deck. Blake and Jenna were side-by-side on the flight couch, staring intently at the monitor there, which was giving out the regular beeps of the proximity detectors.
"What?" Jenna looked up briefly.
"Avon and Vila, they're a mile from the Q-Base."
"Just a minute," Blake muttered, his eyes still on the screen.
"What is it?" Cally was slightly annoyed. What could be more important than the other two risking their lives in enemy territory? Whatever it was could hardly be urgent or they would be at their stations.
"We've picked something up," Jenna said.
"We think," Blake added.
Jenna's attention was back on the screen. "I swear it's moving."
"Zen," Blake said, "give us optimum range on the aft scanners."
"Confirmed." Zen showed a starfield with a white dot, its motion barely detectable.
"There it is, look," Jenna said. "The spectro says it's ferrous."
"Could still be a meteor a long way off," Blake said. "Clear vision."
Cally stared critically at the spacecraft now in view. "It's certainly not a meteor." The ship was not a design she knew. It consisted of a long central cylinder surrounded by several shorter ones, looking like the primitive drives used on the earliest interstellar explorations.
"Incredible!" Blake said.
"Well, what is it?" Jenna asked. She could recognise most ships in current service, but she had never seen anything like this.
"Probably the oldest ship you'll ever see. Wanderer class, the first Earth ships to reach deep space."
That explained it. History had never interested Jenna, but she knew it was a hobby of Blake's. "So how old?"
Blake waggled his fingers. "Six, seven hundred years." He looked up at Zen. "Close vision."
"It's hardly moving," Jenna said, puzzled.
"They were slow, Jenna, infraluminal." Blake twisted his fingers together in thought. "Question is, how did it get here?"
"Well, what do you mean?"
"Well, even travelling at maximum speed it would take--what--three thousand years for one of those things to get this far out."
"It must have been lifted here," Cally said.
"And then set adrift?" Blake said. "Why?"
This was probably the only chance Jenna would ever have to board one of the first spaceships, and as a seasoned pilot, she was eager to grasp it. "I think we should take a look."
Cally was suddenly assailed by a feeling of cold malevolence. "No!"
"Oh Cally, there can hardly be any danger," Jenna said impatiently.
What was it? Something watching and waiting, patient and implacable. "I detect life."
Blake looked at her incredulously. "Human life?"
"Yes." Cally frowned. "No, I don't know..." She shook her head. "There is something. Oh, I...I'm confused."
Avon and Vila threw themselves down on the rocky ground at the sudden roar of a lift-off, and watched a fiery trail burn rapidly upwards through the clouds.
"Attention! Sensors indicate surface launch," Zen announced.
"A missile?" Jenna, now at her station, prepared for action, punching buttons with her usual cool efficiency.
"No, it can't be," Blake said, going to stand beside her, "They can't have spotted Liberator. We've got the 'blind' down." He meant Avon's anti-detection device, but the reference was wasted as Avon was not there to be annoyed by it. The computer tech disliked the term almost as much as Vila's teasing 'Avon's gadget'.
Jenna brought the approaching craft up on the screen. "There it is, look, just leaving the ionosphere."
"They're sending up a salvager from Fosforon."
"Well, they'll get a surprise." She gave a short laugh. "Seven centuries. It just doesn't seem possible."
"It isn't," Blake said seriously. "And that is what is worrying me."
Jenna saw Cally raise her hand to her brow, her eyes unfocussed. "Are you all right Cally?"
"They're ready. They're watching."
"Who? What are you talking about?" Blake asked. When Cally did not answer, he spoke more forcefully. "Cally, what are you picking up?"
"I don't know, but Blake--there is something malignant on that ship."
Avon and Vila had moved to the other side of the dome and were now crouching in the grass in a brief burst of weak sunlight, observing the buildings there which had been hidden from their original landing point. They were in the depressing Federation style--grey, windowless, utilitarian--that Vila had encountered on other planets, though it did have the edge on 'early maniac'. Security cameras turned vigilantly on the roofs. Wonderful. Vila noticed the incongruously pretty little yellow flowers in front of his face, sprinkled about in the grass, surprised at finding beauty in such a bleak windswept place.
Avon, who had been looking about them, suddenly nudged him and ran, bent low, to the left. Vila followed him to a large pipe, overgrown with dark, dank weeds. They crouched and peered into the darkness through a grating. Vila was not happy. He didn't like narrow spaces, the dark, or for that matter, nasty smells.
"We can get inside through here," Avon said.
Vila pulled a face. "Must we?"
Avon ignored him and began to cut through the grill. Vila's face changed from disgust to mournful resignation.
Commander Tynus put his face close to the jar to observe one of the local grasshopper-like insects he had trapped, and carefully began to add yellow to his line-drawing of the insect. He was in his early thirties, with thick wavy fair hair receding at the temples and a deceptively soft face, his most noticeable feature his full lips.
A tall young man with slicked-back dark hair and the black headband of communications entered and stood in front of his desk, hands respectfully at his side.
"Have you checked with Section Six?" Tynus asked without looking up.
"Yes sir, there is something there. They're watching it sir, but it won't come nearer than two hundred thousand miles."
Tynus continued to work on his drawing. "It will now, Tak. Dr Bellfriar sent out a recovery team."
"It's only a piece of junk. It's too small to be anything important."
"Dr Bellfriar hasn't much to do. He should take up a hobby," Tynus said dryly, continuing to colour with his paint-stick. "Make sure he gets ground transportation and course co-ordination, will you, Tak?"
Finally Tynus looked up, surprised to see Tak still there and raised his colourless eyebrows. "That's all."
Tak paused at the door. "What will Dr Bellfriar do with it, sir?"
"He'll bring it back to his laboratories and analyse it, then analyse what he's analysed." Tynus smiled faintly. "I could never understand why a scientist of his eminence should choose to bury himself here."
An answering grin spread across Tak's saturnine features.
Avon crawled out of the pipe into a damp concrete drainage area, made sure Vila was still behind him, and climbed a short ladder to ground level. He looked cautiously over the edge into a large open area between buildings, paused while two guards crossed it, then leapt over and ran for cover, followed by Vila, who was trying to look for danger in all directions at once. Just as it should be--Vila was as valuable for his alertness to danger as for his lock-picking skills. They stopped at the corner of one of the buildings, guns drawn. Avon peered round, saw two more guards, and flattened himself against the wall, raising his hand to Vila in warning. When the patrol had disappeared round the side of the next building, they sprinted across another open area and into a half-open freight door. Inside was a lift, which they could hear whining as it descended towards them. They concealed themselves in a dark corridor behind some stacked barrels and waited. After another two guards had emerged and disappeared, they leapt up and ran to the lift.
Vila closed the old-fashioned concertina grill door and they began to ascend. He swallowed nervously.
"This is where he'll be," Avon said.
"How d'you know?"
"He's the base commander. This is the command centre. It has a certain logic wouldn't you say?"
The lift stopped several floors up, and Vila tried to relieve his tension with a joke. "Well...he might be on holiday," he said, following Avon to the door.
Avon stepped out cautiously, his gun ready. There was no-one else in sight. Vila closed the door and saw that Avon had stopped at a nearby rack of brown vinyl coveralls.
"Put this on," Avon said, taking one down and handing it back to him without looking.
Vila's sense of aesthetics was offended. One size appeared to fit all. He screwed up his face. "What d'you call this then?"
Avon ignored him and took one for himself.
Definitely no sense of style, the Federation, Vila thought.
Inserting Orac's key, Blake said, "Orac, I want to tap Central Spacecraft Registry. Can you do that?"
"Tap? What is that?" Orac asked querulously.
"Obtain information from the records," Blake said, irritated.
"That is possible, but it will take time."
"I want the histories of every Wanderer Class One spacecraft ever registered."
"Very well. This information will be relayed as obtained through the auxiliary monitor."
Frowning, Blake sat back down beside Jenna on the couch and folded his arms.
"Still worried?" she asked. "It's not our concern, you know."
"I don't like mysteries. Zen, range the aft scanners on that ship again."
"Confirmed." The ancient spacecraft reappeared on the screen.
"That salvager will be making hull contact within the hour." Blake paused, worried. "I think they should be warned."
"Well, what about?"
"There's life aboard."
"Blake, that is a Federation base down there," Jenna said indignantly. "The salvagers are manned by Federation personnel."
Blake turned to look at her in surprise. "They're human."
"I need proof of that." Jenna's face hardened, remembering what the Federation had done to her mother.
"Cally is not often wrong."
Avon and Vila were ignored by the similarly-dressed people in the base corridors. Avon, of course, looked calmly confident and acted as if he had every right to be in the base, but Vila turned to look back at everyone they passed in case they belatedly realised the two were strangers. Avon stopped at a door labelled with Tynus's name, and stood to one side, his back against the wall. Nervously, Vila flattened himself on the other side. Avon gave him a nod, kicked the door in, and rushed through it, closely followed by Vila.
Tynus was standing to the right, in front of a glowing red computer screen. "What do you men want?" he demanded, as Vila closed the door behind them.
"Hello Tynus," Avon said.
Tynus's face changed from suspicion to pleased recognition, and he came over to Avon, his hands outstretched in greeting. "Kerr Avon!" He clasped Avon's hand and arm. "How the devil did you get here?"
Vila felt that something did not ring true. The man should have been more surprised, and somehow his reaction seemed insincere, a little too effusive. Vila would have to keep an eye on him.
Avon did not return his friend's warmth. "Something called a teleport system," he said dryly. "It beats shuttles."
"Um...come into my quarters. It's safer there." Tynus led the way. "Did anyone see you?"
"Well if they did, they didn't look twice."
Tynus took them through to a larger room, as plain and functional as the office.
Avon saw there was a wash-basin. "Do you mind?" He went to it, pulling irritatedly at the high collar of his coverall, and began to wash his hands thoroughly.
"We've just been through a pipe," Vila explained.
"What?" Tynus barely acknowledged his presence, and appeared as unsympathetic as Avon had been. Vila sighed and went over to the one splash of colour in the room, a bright red plastic chair which was moulded to bit the human form and promised to be quite comfortable. He began to remove the despised coverall.
"Are you sure no-one saw you?" Tynus persisted, coming up behind Avon at the wash-basin.
"Did you hear any alarms?" Avon asked coldly. "That, by the way," he added dismissively, "is Vila."
Behind him, Vila pulled a resentful face and put the coverall on the chair.
"Yes, yes, one of your colleagues from the Liberator," Tynus said impatiently.
Avon smiled to himself. "I see they're keeping you in touch."
"Well, amongst other things Q-Base is also a radio link station. Fosforon may be a hole in the middle of nowhere, but we still get Federation gossip."
"That's why we're here." Avon turned away and Vila, who was waiting impatiently for his turn at the wash-basin, immediately took his place.
"I don't understand." Tynus followed Avon the to the dryer. "What do you mean?"
Avon held his hands in the warm air flow. "Tynus, you really didn't think that I dropped in to talk over old times?"
Tynus continued to smile. "No."
"Blake sent us. The Federation have started transmitting A-line messages using a new pulse code. We need to break that code."
Tynus's smile turned to a smirk and he shook his head. "That's impossible."
Avon turned to look at him. "Not impossible, Tynus," he said deliberately. "Remember, we trained together."
"That code is unbreakable without a TP crystal tuned into that pulse."
"Exactly. That's what we've come for."
"No. I can't do it."
Avon smiled humourlessly. "You can. And you will."
"It's more than my life's worth, Avon."
Vila pushed between them to dry his hands, eyeing Tynus with open suspicion. Avon had said they were friends, but so far he had seen little evidence of it. Not of course that Avon would be an easy friend to have. Expected a bit much, sometimes.
"We need that crystal, Tynus." Avon said. "You must have a spare. They always supply two."
"It's not that easy. I'm only the commander technician here. Federation Security is in charge of all sensitive stores."
Vila turned to Avon expectantly. Go on then. Your serve.
Avon gave him a quick grimace of acknowledgment and looked back at Tynus. "I see," he said deliberately and walked away, thinking. "All right, the TP crystal is part of the A-line converter, is that right?"
Avon stopped and turned with his hands on his hips. "Then it will have to break down."
"You can arrange a little malfunction there, then apply for the replacement crystal and we'll take the old one. We don't mind second-hand goods, do we Vila?"
Vila looked up briefly from the dryer. "No, we're not fussy."
"I don't think you know what you're asking," Tynus said, starting to lose his composure.
"I know exactly what I'm asking."
Tynus's bleeper sounded. "I'm wanted," he said with relief.
"What's your answer?" Avon pressed him.
"I'll have to think about it." Tynus started for the door. "I must go."
They both watched him leave. As the door closed, Vila went up to Avon, his face worried. "I hope you can trust him."
"I told you, he's a friend of mine."
"Yes, I always knew you had a friend," Vila said. "I used to say to people, 'I bet Avon's got a friend, somewhere in the galaxy'."
"And you were right," Avon said, adding with mock concern. "That must be a novel experience for you."
"Where did this originate?" Tynus sat at his desk, looking at the message printout Tak had brought him.
The young man stood at attention in front of him. "We don't know sir, the same message came in on all channels simultaneously."
Tynus dropped the sheet and began to write on his notepad. "Couldn't you trace the source?"
"We're trying sir, but the signal was so powerful that it knocked everything out, even the land lines."
"Well," Tynus stood up, ripping his note from the pad, "get this message--" he waved his note "--to Dr Bellfriar. I think it's intended for his department." He placed a cautionary finger to his lips, indicated the door to his quarters, and motioned to Tak to follow him out.
In the corridor, he closed his office door and gave Tak the note. "Before you do that, make sure this message is A-lined to Federation Headquarters Command."
Tak took the note and looked at it briefly, then back at Tynus in surprise. "Right sir," he said crisply and left.
Tynus went back into his office and picked up the message Tak had brought, read it through again, and looked very thoughtful.
"'All the home comforts," Vila said with satisfaction, pouring himself a drink of what he thought might be a nice robust red from a square black bottle that had never been intended to hold wine.
"Leave that stuff alone," Avon snapped.
"You live your way, I'll live mine." Vila took a sip. "Mm," he said appreciatively, "must be all of two days old."
Avon was about to reply with a suitable insult, when he heard someone at the door. He whirled, drawing his gun.
"Nervous?" Tynus asked.
"Just careful." Avon slowly put his gun away.
"We've just received this odd message. I think it's from your friends on the Liberator." Tynus handed the printout to Avon and with a brief look of annoyance, took Vila's unfinished drink from him.
Vila hardly noticed; he was much more interested in why Blake had contacted a Federation base. He went to peer over Avon's shoulder.
"'Advise your recovery team to proceed with utmost caution, derelict spacecraft may contain hostile life'," Avon read aloud. He looked up, puzzled. "What does it mean?"
"A few hours ago our detectors picked up some space debris. We sent a ship to investigate."
Vila looked worriedly from the note to Tynus. Marvellous. Something else to complicate matters.
"Well, I suppose it could be from Blake," Avon said dryly. "He has these generous impulses."
"By the way, why don't our detectors pick up the Liberator?"
"Anti-detection screen, one of Avon's gadgets," Vila said. "We're expecting it to break down any time." He gave Tynus a quizzical look. Even though he disliked the oily little git, it was a good chance to get at old Avon.
Avon threw a cold glance at the thief, wasted on him as he didn't see it. "Let's get back to the TP crystal. That's what we're here for."
"You know you're asking me to commit suicide."
Avon raised his eyebrows and his lips twitched into a brief smile. "Is there something wrong with your memory, Tynus? You owe me. Remember?"
"Not enough to put my head on the block."
"We were in a fraud together," Avon said in an aside to Vila, who was surprised to be included in the conversation. "When I was arrested, I kept my mouth shut. If I hadn't, old friend," he said, turning back to Tynus, "you would be sweating out the rest of your life on a convict planet. And that could still happen if I were to let the authorities know."
"So that's the way it is."
"Well, let's just say I did you a favour and now I'm collecting."
"Nice," Vila said to Tynus, enjoying his discomfort. "When Avon holds out the hand of friendship, watch his other hand. That's the one with the hammer."
Dr Bellfriar, a middle-aged man with iron-grey hair, entered his laboratory with anticipation. He enjoyed both the intellectual challenge of his work and the company of his assistant, Gambrill, who seemed to regard the universe as having been created for his own amusement.
Gambrill was shaking a test tube. "Ah, sir." He put the test-tube down in its rack, seemingly glad of the distraction. "Uh, this came about the recovery team." He got up and went over to a black cabinet to show Bellfriar the note on its top.
Bellfriar picked it up, sat down at his desk, and read it out loud. "'Derelict spacecraft may contain hostile life."' He looked suspiciously at the fair, curly-haired young man. "This a joke?" He tossed the paper onto the desk and began to unbutton his white vinyl protective jacket.
"That's the message." Gambrill's pixyish face was alight with mischief.
"Who sent it?"
"Nobody seems to know." Gambrill smiled with pleasure at the interesting turn life was taking.
"What's Tynus doing?"
"Painting, I imagine," Gambrill said. "That's how he spends most of his time." He raised his eyebrows in expectation of Bellfriar's response.
Bellfriar snorted. "Oh, the man's space-happy, of course. This base is full of psychotics."
"You think the signal is a hoax?"
"No, this message was sent before anyone could have known what that recovery team would find and it does say quite categorically--" he looked again to make sure "--'derelict spacecraft."'
"You're going to take it seriously then?" Gambrill leaned forward eagerly across the cabinet.
"Well, I think it would be wise, Gambrill," Bellfriar said wryly. "Somebody out there seems to know more than we do." He began to look through the papers on his desk. "How's the recovery going?"
"In approach orbit, should be docking in about twenty minutes."
"Good. Alert the station. We want full quarantine around the landing bay, the whole operation to be remote-videoed." He looked up at Gambrill. "Everything we practised."
"All right, sir." Gambrill went to the desk, pressed the intercom button with a flourish, and said with relish. "Chief medic instruction, all personnel. Landing alert, routine one, full quarantine restrictions at the landing bay." He ran up the stairs to the door, opened it, then turned to face Bellfriar. "If there's anything in this message, sir, I suppose this could be a little piece of history."
Examining a test-tube, Bellfriar said, "A high point in your scientific career, Gambrill. Just think of it, in less than twenty minutes you could be shaking hands with an exomorph."
"Not if it's hostile sir." Gambrill said, putting on a serious look. "I've got my pension to think about." He went out.
Amused, Bellfriar smiled and began to shake the tube.
Tynus and Avon stood face-to-face. "No! No, I can't do it. Apart from anything else, it's practically impossible technically," Tynus said.
"It isn't and you know it," Avon said evenly.
Petulantly, Tynus brushed past Avon, who turned to follow him.
"The crystal runs the spectrum from bands L to Y up to thirty thousand megahertz.," Avon continued. "All you have to do is mess up the feedback from the converter and the effect will show a fault on the crystal."
Vila, slumped bonelessly in a semi-reclining position in the red chair, hands clasped over his stomach, listened with exaggerated patience as they walked around him.
"I see you haven't forgotten your stuff," Tynus said.
"I don't see any problem."
"The problem is getting to the converter," Tynus snapped. "I can't do it, I'm the commander. If I were to be seen to get my hands dirty, people would remember."
Avon blinked and considered this. "Is there any time that the section is unattended?" he asked slowly.
"No, it's manned all the time, three operators night and day. The only chance I can see..."
"No," Tynus shook his head, "no, I can't do it." He turned away and walked distractedly past Vila, who looked anxiously up at Avon.
"Would you rather the convict planet, Tynus?" Avon asked coldly.
Tynus compressed his lips and came to a decision. "Fire," he said, "is the greatest hazard here. Oxygen-rich atmosphere. If I started a small electrical fire near the section, the men on duty would run to their fire-drill positions."
"Good." Avon nodded, giving a slight smile of satisfaction. At last they were getting somewhere.
Tynus said resignedly, "That would leave the converter unattended for about ten minutes, long enough to give you the chance to get a malfunction organised."
"What will you be doing?" Avon demanded.
"Directing the fire-fighting."
"I shall need to look the job over first."
"That can be arranged."
Alarmed at the delays, Vila leaped up and pushed between them. "Avon, this whole thing is stretching out," he said urgently. "Blake won't want to wait."
"Blake will have to wait," Avon snapped at Vila, who looked exasperated and glared at Tynus. Avon turned his attention back to his old friend. "How long before we get our hands on the crystal, Tynus?"
"An hour to check the course of the fire, make sure the malfunction is working. Then, of course, I'd better get Security to release the spare crystal...ah...I would say...ten hours at least."
"Ten hours?" Blake said incredulously.
"That is what Avon has reported." Cally's voice came over the intercom from the teleport room.
"That's a long time."
"Shall I call them back?"
Jenna, at the other end of the couch, stared at him in surprise. The longer they stayed in orbit over a Federation base, the more dangerous it was.
Blake guessed what she was thinking. "Without that crystal we'll never break the Federation pulse code." He heaved a sigh. "We need to read their messages if we're to stay ahead of Servalan."
"Sticking around here's no way to stay ahead," Jenna said, looking at the cloud-covered planet on Zen's viewscreen.
"Why?" Blake demanded. "Zen's got the scanners at maximum range. The first sign of trouble, we pull out."
"If they come at us from behind Fosforon, they're going to be on us before we know it."
"Well there's no chance of that," Blake shook his head, then raised his eyebrows teasingly at Jenna. "Unless they already have our position plotted."
"Optimist." Jenna's lips twitched in amusement. She gave a start as a warning signal went off. "What's that?"
The viewscreen now showed the derelict, with a constantly-changing range readout below it.
"We're tracking that Wanderer. I might go down there."
"To Fosforon?" Jenna asked sharply.
"As I said before, I don't like mysteries." Blake slapped his hands on his knees and stood up. "Listen, Orac's done his stuff. The histories of every Wanderer Class One ever built." He inserted Orac's key, and Jenna came over to stand beside him. "Orac, repeat the information you've just given me."
"The only ship not accounted for is K-47. That went missing seven hundred years ago in the vicinity of 61-Cygnii. The names of the crew were Kemp, Wardin, and Tober. Furthermore--"
Blake removed the key. "Thank you, Orac."
Blake rested his arm on Orac. "Well, those old ships couldn't take any more. Living in them was like living in a pickle barrel for thirty years."
Jenna laughed at the thought. "I don't know how they stood it."
"Some of them didn't. Mind you, hibernation pills helped." He lifted a finger and waggled it at her. "Does 61-Cygnii mean anything to you?"
"That's the Darkling Zone, isn't it?"
"Well, that's the poetic name for it, yes. No, it's the only region near Earth that's never been charted."
"Yes, I remember." Jenna frowned. "A lot of ships have disappeared there. They think it's a centre of meteor storms."
"That theory's running a little thin just now." Blake walked away, and Jenna followed curiously. "If K-47 hit the centre of a meteor storm," Blake continued, "why would it suddenly reappear thousands of light years away?"
"So what's your theory?"
"I'm not launching any theories till I've tested the water. I'm going to teleport down." He flung a flowing green overshirt across his shoulder.
Jenna looked at him worriedly. Surely two of them down there was enough. "What about Avon and Vila?" she demanded.
"Oh, they've got enough to do."
"Yes, but what about Federation Security?"
"Well, at the first sign of trouble, I'll come back up," Blake said, keeping his patience.
Jenna lost hers. "Look Blake, they know all about the teleport system. The first time they get your bracelet--"
"Jenna, I have been down before," Blake snapped, annoyed at her protectiveness. He was hardly a beginner at this game.
Jenna stared at him, tightened her lips, and looked away.
"I'm sorry," Blake said softly, putting his arm across her shoulder, realising she was only expressing concern for him. "I will be very careful."
Jenna turned and looked into his eyes, then smiled back at him. "All right."
Blake gave her shoulder a brief squeeze and left. Jenna, relieved that she had extracted that promise, and wishing he didn't matter to her as much as he did, went back to keep a careful watch on the scanners.
Night had fallen.
In a corridor near the landing area, the recovery team of four waited at attention, dressed in elaborate protective gear. Their bulky suits consisted of insulating tubes which could shield them from vacuum, launch blasts, and extreme heat or cold, and their helmets had darkened faceplates and a self-contained breathing system.
The expected announcement came over the loudspeakers. "Remote recovery unit Red Zero, approach on Site 5. Boarding teams stand by."
On a monitor opposite them, they could see the ship slowly settling on the landing area outside in the darkness.
"Approach complete, boarding team proceed."
They turned and filed out. With a flash of light, Blake materialised in the corridor and followed them out, coughing in the acrid fumes from the landing jets.
Gambrill ran down the steps into the laboratory. "Quarantine instructions are being carried out, boarding party are about to enter," he reported, delighted at the interruption to routine.
"Good." Bellfriar gave his monitor a quick glance, then, belatedly realising what he had seen, looked back at it, startled. "Gambrill, who's that fool in the evacuation tunnel?"
"I don't know, sir." Gambrill came over to look.
"Well, get him out of it!" Bellfriar said indignantly. The screen showed a man in civilian clothes, coughing and flapping his hands as he was enveloped in fumes. What was the man up to?
Gambrill pushed a comms button. "Come out of there you idiot," he shouted. "Come on, there's an access port right in front of you."
"Find out who it is," Bellfriar said.
"Hurry man!" Gambrill added, then released the button, and rushed out, muttering, "Yes, sir," to Bellfriar as he passed.
Bellfriar leaned over and pressed another button. "Vision Control? Get me vision link to the boarding party."
Gambrill found the man in the landing bay access corridor, still coughing. The fool had let a lot of fumes in with himself.
"What the hell do you think you're doing? Don't you know enough to steer clear of the exhaust vents during a landing? You could have got yourself killed in there."
The intruder managed to get his coughing under control. "I thought the ship was down."
"The engines aren't vented yet." Gambrill said, exasperated. He looked the man up and down. He was dressed rather exotically and flamboyantly in a shiny green overshirt with huge flowing sleeves over a brown shirt of similar cut and brown suede trousers. He looked like a classical actor or a pirate, though Gambrill doubted he was either. Not on this base, he thought regretfully. "You're not one of our men."
"No. I'm looking for whoever's in charge. I've got some information concerning that ship you salvaged."
"Information? What kind of information? Who are you?"
"Don't ask questions, just take me to whoever's in charge."
Bellfriar sat making notes as he listened to the recovery team and occasionally watched the monitor on his desk
"Nothing here, power deck's clear."
"Watch yourselves! Some of these fittings break off in your hands."
"Must be stinking centuries."
"Going aft. Nothing in the forward compartment."
"Bring the second spot over, will you. Watch it!"
The screen showed a murky view of a control panel.
"Can't see a damn thing in this dust. Where are we?"
"Looks like the control room...My God!"
Bellfriar looked up. The screen showed a close-up of a face which appeared to be covered in a thick leathery substance.
"We've found a body here sir. Human, I think. Things aren't too clear. He's in a compression suit."
"Any sign of life anywhere?" Bellfriar asked.
"Nothing sir. We've been over the whole ship now."
Behind Bellfriar, Gambrill came down the laboratory steps with Blake.
"All right," Bellfriar said to the recovery team, "Put the remains in an anti-contamination bag. Bring them down to Dr Wiler, will you?" He looked up at the two men standing in front of him.
"This is the one I've just fished out of the evacuation area, sir," Gambrill said, indicating Blake.
"Well, you said this base was full of psychotics. You wait till you hear this one."
Knowing Gambrill's sense of humour, Bellfriar gave him a sidelong look. "What exactly is that supposed to mean?"
"I told him I teleported here," Blake said. "He didn't believe me."
Bellfriar pursed his lips. "Well, Gambrill's like that, I'm afraid," he said, amused. "Lacks faith."
"Defined as the capacity to believe what you know isn't true? Read this." Blake handed a sheet of paper to him across the monitor.
Bellfriar took it. "What is it?"
"The service history of that ship you've got in the landing bay. I sent you a warning about it earlier."
Ah. Bellfriar and Gambrill exchanged a look. "Where did this come from?" Bellfriar asked.
Bellfriar read the printout and drew in a breath through his teeth. "Seven hundred years old?"
"And just who are you?"
Blake smiled. "Well, according to the Federation, I'm a political criminal. You may have heard of me." He looked at Gambrill, then back to Bellfriar, and decided to trust them. Besides which, Bellfriar had a slightly amused, knowing look. He suspected the scientist had recognised him straight away. "My name is Blake."
He was right. Bellfriar did not look at all surprised.
"Ye-es, but then we're absentminded scientists, you see. In fact, we've forgotten your name already." Bellfriar looked at his assistant, who was regarding Blake with fascination. "Haven't we, Gambrill?"
"Whose name, sir?" Gambrill said promptly.
The intercom beeped. "Dr Bellfriar, they're now bringing out the body."
"Body?" Blake asked, concerned.
"I'll get down there now," Gambrill said, hurrying out, unwilling to miss any excitement despite the presence in the lab of the most notorious rebel in the galaxy.
Bellfriar watched as the monitor showed two members of the recovery team carrying a body-bag through the access corridor. "That body doesn't look seven hundred years old," he said, wonderingly.
"No." Blake had come round and was leaning over the desk beside him to watch with equal interest.
"What made you think there was hostile life in that ship?"
"One of my crew comes from Auron."
"A telepath?" Bellfriar was interested.
"Yes, she sensed something malignant out there. Not necessarily human. I think you'd better be very, very careful, Dr Bellfriar."
Bellfriar picked up some file cards and looked at them absently. "We're always very, very careful," he said dryly.
Tynus, Avon, and Vila, all wearing shiny brown coveralls, dark protective goggles, and transparent face-shields, made their way to the A-line room. Tynus opened the door for them. The incandescent glow from the loudly-humming communication equipment made the room dazzlingly bright and uncomfortably hot. Two technicians, who must have been sweltering in their vinyl, sat at the front of the room, and one at the rear. This man, seeing Tynus and noting the gold headband of command, stood up, but Tynus motioned him down with a gesture and lead Avon towards the front. He nodded towards the source of the light and heat. Avon looked at it, then back at Vila, who stayed by the door, managing to show his nervousness despite how little of him was visible under his goggles and cape.
Avon went to observe the two techs at the front, deliberately knocking something to the floor. The closest man looked up at the sound, but Avon lifted a hand to tell him to stay put, then crouched down to pick it up, taking the opportunity to look at the control circuitry from the front. Puzzled at why he was taking so long, the tech stood up to check, ignoring the warble of an incoming coded message
"Lacomb, message!" Tynus snapped, and the tech sat down again.
Vila wiped his forehead in relief. Avon stood up, showed the retrieved object to the tech, carefully replaced it on his desk, and they left.
"How do you feel?" Tynus asked as they entered his office, removing their goggles.
"Thirsty!" Vila pushed past him, making for the hand-basin.
Tynus turned to Avon. "Do you think you can handle that?"
"Maybe. It's a new model, since my time."
Vila bent over the basin, drinking from his hand, then splashing his hot face with water.
"No, it's just the way the converter's packaged." Tynus assured Avon. "The circuitry's the same."
"I shall need more than ten minutes."
Tynus was annoyed; Avon had always been a stubborn and demanding bastard. "That's all the time you've got, Avon, and I can't even guarantee that."
Vila turned from the basin and gave Avon an anxious look. Avon acknowledged him with a slight nod, then grabbed Tynus by the shoulder and smiled.
"Tynus. You will give us all the time we need."
In the mortuary, Second Pathologist Wiler prepared, with his habitual almost pedantic care, to examine the corpse the recovery team had removed from the derelict ship. He was an older man with light grey hair and pointed beard, and was dressed in the white protective gear and white headband of the medical section. He moved, as always, slowly and deliberately as he turned the EEG monitor on, and brought a tray of instruments over to the examination table.
The corpse was covered in what looked like thick layers of skin-coloured parchment, with a few remnants of red clothing. Wiler observed the feet with interest. With their veins and colour, they resembled crumbly blue cheese. "Hmm." He went up the steps and closed the door.
Gambrill entered the attached viewing room, and switched on a monitor for a close-up view. Two medical techs came in and went straight to the window.
"There's nothing to see yet," Gambrill told them, sitting down. The other two joined him and they looked through the glass into the mortuary as Wiler checked that the camera was recording, put on a mask, and slowly began to draw on his surgical gloves.
"Oh, come on, Wiler!" Bellfriar said impatiently, turning away from the window. "He's a good man, this, but he's slow, like all pathologists."
"What's happening?" Blake asked.
"Well, it's standard drill with a space death. The autopsy's carried out in a sealed mortuary in case there are any alien micro-organisms around." He sat down at his desk and turned the intercom on. "Are you all set, Dr Wiler?"
"I'll--er--tell you when I'm ready, sir."
"Thank you, Dr Wiler." Bellfriar turned to Blake. "Do you want to watch this?"
"Mm." Blake went to get a chair from the corner.
Bellfriar regarded him with interest. "So you really do teleport, do you?"
"Over short distances, yes." Blake sat down.
Bellfriar began to sort through some data cards while he was waiting. "Well of course, the theory's as old as physics," he said, "but I didn't know it had been cracked yet."
"The Liberator's a very advanced ship. Of course, you have to know the surface conditions, otherwise teleporting's a bit like a jump in the dark. You're quite liable to surface in a fission reactor."
Bellfriar was amused. "Not a mistake you could learn by, really."
"All ready, Dr Bellfriar." Wiler reported.
"Thank you Dr Wiler, go ahead."
In the mortuary, Wiler began his examination. "Second Pathologist Wiler, Q Base. Autopsy report coded one four niner niner zero six. The clinical presentation is of a well-nourished male Caucasian, aged between--oh--thirty-five and forty-five. There are no surface wounds or lesions that would indicate death by violence. I am now examining the clothing on the torso and upper section of the body." He carefully picked at the red cloth using forceps. "It's extremely old, it disintegrates when touched. Ah, there is a neck chain with a metal disc, which I now examine. The disc is embossed with a number, six figures, possibly a service number..."
In the viewing room, Gambrill got up and went over to the monitor to get a closer look.
Wiler continued, "..and a name: Wa--Wardin. W-A-R-D-I-N."
Bellfriar unfolded the report Blake had brought with him and checked the names on it. "Are you ... are you quite sure about that, Dr Wiler?"
"It's slightly corroded sir, but it's perfectly clear."
Blake pointed to the relevant lines. "Kemp, Wardin, Tober, missing in the constellation of 61-Cygnii, seven hundred years ago."
"May I continue?" Wiler asked, somewhat annoyed.
"Sorry," Bellfriar said contritely.
In his lab, Wiler went on with his examination. "There is an old surgical scar extending from behind the left ear in the region of the supra-mastoid crest, up over the cranium. The eyeballs are...soft...and the tissue of the upper extremities is also soft, and there is extensive maceration of the skin over the neck."
"That's a degree of biolysis you get after one or two weeks, not after hundreds of years," Bellfriar said wonderingly, staring at the screen.
"I now raise the left arm of the cadaver to examine the hand," Wiler said, taking one of the corpse's hands in his, and palpating it. "The fingers are dehydrated and mummified, and the nails are loose."
"Suppose the body's been frozen," Blake said.
"What, cryogenically stored?" Bellfriar asked incredulously.
"Who on earth'd want to do a thing like that?"
"I've no idea, but it's a possible explanation, isn't it?"
Wiler removed his mask. "Before proceeding to examine the internal organs, I now, in accordance with the law, check the EEG reading to verify that life is extinct." He walked over to the screen with deliberation, and checked the flat line shown there. "Which it is. I shall now mark the tissue and blood samples for laboratory analysis."
In the viewing room, Gambrill went to the window. "My God! Look!" The once flat line on the EEG screen was now fluctuating wildly.
Bellfriar had also seen. He leant over the intercom as Blake put a finger to his lips, worried. "Wiler! You've got brain life."
"That's quite impossible, Dr Bellfriar," Wiler said, wishing Bellfriar would stick to his viruses and his own business. "May I suggest that you adjust your monitor." He heard the clatter of his instrument tray hitting the floor, and as he began to turn, felt a hand on his back. He spun round, gasping in horror as the corpse's hands closed about his throat, and stared, terrified, into that ghastly and impassive face as the life was throttled out of him.
In the viewing room, the two panicking techs fought to open the door. Gambrill pulled them away and kicked it in. The techs rushed in and grabbed the corpse, which released Wiler, who fell to the floor, his face suffused with blood. Gambrill ran to him to check for life, then out to the corridor where he punched Bellfriar's code on the intercom.
"Dr Bellfriar! Dr Wiler's neck's broken!"
"I'm coming down." Bellfriar stood up.
"Dr Bellfriar! Look at the screen!" Blake pointed.
"The EEG screen."
Once again, it showed a flat line.
Avon sat behind Tynus's desk doing calculations, while Vila sat across from him.
Bored, Vila was entertaining himself with Tynus's insect. "Give us a smile." He tapped the jar gently with his fingernails. "Show us a leg." The insect ignored him. "I wonder if these make good pets."
Avon stopped what he was doing. "Vila!"
"You're a fool."
Avon's insults were usually a little more inventive. "Nerves getting a little frayed?" Vila teased.
"There are a quarter of a million volts running through that converter. I make one false move, I'll be so crisped up what's left of me won't fit into a sandwich."
"I'm a vegetarian." Vila said. "Thanks for the offer, though." He tipped his chair back and put his boots on the desk. "What did Cally say about Blake being here?"
"Something to do with that derelict spacecraft," Avon said dismissively. "As long as he doesn't mess up our job, I don't care what he does."
"You don't have a lot of time for Blake, do you?"
"I could never stand heroes."
Vila's eyes lit up with amusement. "A quarter of a million volts and you're putting your hand in it?"
"Ah, but that is self-interest." Avon pointed his pen at Vila. "We need that crystal. Blake takes risks to help other people. Sometimes people he doesn't even know. One day that great big bleeding heart of his will get us all killed."
"Unless somebody ditches him first." Vila looked at Avon expectantly.
Avon stared at him, then dropped his eyes to his calculations. Vila smiled knowingly and rather fondly at his friend. He suspected that for all his hard cynical talk, Avon liked Blake as much as he did.
"Poor devil!" Bellfriar said, coming in. "His cervical vertebrae had been crushed as if they'd been in a vice. No ordinary human being could exert that sort of pressure." He sat down.
Blake left the window where he had been standing looking out, and leaned over the screen. "It wasn't an ordinary human being."
"It was the body of one."
"I think it had been adapted."
"Well, when Cally detected life on that ship, at first she thought it was human. Then she changed her mind and thought it was alien. I think she was picking up emanations from a cybernetic implant."
Bellfriar rubbed his face. "Virology's my field, I'm afraid. I'm not following you."
"Wiler noticed a surgical scar on the head, didn't he? Now suppose some control device had been linked into the nervous system. That would explain the electrical activity in the brain."
"Yes, but it stopped and went dead, didn't it?"
"Well, perhaps its task had been done." Blake straightened up. "The job it was programmed for."
"Killing Wiler?" Bellfriar snorted disbelievingly. "It doesn't make sense. Why kill him?"
"That I wish I knew."
Bellfriar sighed and stood up. "Oh well, I suppose now we've got to have an autopsy on Wiler. As if we hadn't got enough to do. And what about the post-mortem on Wardin?" He went over and looked longingly at the rows of test-tubes waiting for analysis.
Gambrill came in. "I'm afraid we've got more trouble, sir."
"What is it?"
"The two technicians who went in to rescue Wiler. They've been taken ill."
"They have? What's the matter with them?"
Gambrill spread his arms helplessly. "They just started to act strangely, vague, wandering about, then they went into convulsions. They're in the sick bay now." All of his usual jauntiness had disappeared.
"That could be a space contamination." Bellfriar said thoughtfully. "You'd better get me the sick bay at once."
"Right, sir." Gambrill went over to the desk and pressed the intercom buttons. "Biolab, get me Dr Bax."
"Yes, Doctor?" Dr Bax's round face appeared on the screen.
Bellfriar went to the intercom, and Blake joined him. "Dr Bax," Bellfriar said, sitting down. "Those two boys you've just admitted, I want them isolated."
"Too late, I'm afraid."
"They died within minutes of admission. Poisoned, I'd say."
"There's nothing else that fast. We've taken swabs, I'm running tests now. I'll let you have the results as soon as we get them."
"Twelve to fifteen minutes..." Gambrill said, horrified. Those techs, people he'd known, had been alive such a short time before.
"Well, if it's a poison, it must be diapedesistic," Bellfriar said. "Something they got on their skins when they were bringing Wiler out."
"What about the four who went into the spaceship?" Blake asked.
"They're all right, I checked."
Bax reappeared on the monitor. "Dr Bellfriar."
"Three of my men are showing signs of infection."
"Good God! Well that knocks your poison theory on the head, doesn't it?"
"Maybe." Bax raised his hand to his forehead, looking unwell. "I'm putting this whole sick bay into isolation as of now."
"Do you want any help, Dr Bax?"
"It's a medical problem. I think we can handle it."
"Very well. If there's anything you want, let me know."
"I'll check in gnotobiotics," Gambrill said. "There might be more cases."
"Gambrill, I want this whole section sealed off from the rest of the base. Absolute isolation from now on, prophylaxis of all contacts, sterilisation screens in every department."
"Right sir," Gambrill said, subdued, and hurried out.
Bellfriar looked at Blake. "Well, now might be a good time for you to leave."
"No, I'm getting curious."
Bellfriar punched up Tynus's office on the intercom.
Tynus's face appeared. "Yes, Doctor?"
"Commander Tynus, we have an infection alert. It's nothing to worry about, but the landing zone is quarantined until further notice."
"What's happened?" Tynus asked.
"We've had a few casualties. There seems to be a link with that spaceship we landed. That's all I know at the moment. We're working on it."
"I understand. Good luck." Tynus looked up at Avon and Vila who stood in front of him, side by side. They looked as if they were presenting a united front against him. "That could help us," he said to Vila, whom he picked as the more malleable one.
"How?" Avon asked.
Tynus's eyes swivelled to him. "Only our section to handle the fire. Bellfriar's team's out of action."
"You sure there's going to be a fire?" Vila demanded.
"The thermal pack I planted should be going off any minute...now."
There was a series of distant explosions. Vila, eager to get this mission over, led the way into Tynus's quarters where he and Avon put on their brown coveralls and dark goggles.
"It's up to you now," Tynus said.
Avon opened the door just as a group of people pounded past. He watched them disappear, then beckoned to Vila. "Come on." As the fire alarms wailed, they raced down the corridors to the A-line room. It was deserted, and all the comms equipment was switched off. Panting, they removed their goggles.
"Watch the door," Avon said to Vila, who nodded. Avon went straight to the front of the room, dropped his goggles, and took the cover off the central processor. He gave it a cursory examination, then turned and flicked his fingers at Vila who promptly threw him a probe. Avon went round the front as he had done earlier, where access was easier. He was just removing the panel when he heard Vila's voice, much closer than it should have been.
Avon popped up. "What?"
The fool had abandoned his post and was right there, his back to the door. Avon wondered how he had survived in the criminal underworld back on Earth.
"Why are we stringing along with Tynus? Look, we've come this far. Forget about setting up the malfunction. Grab the crystal and let's get back to the Liberator." Vila looked at him eagerly.
"Use your head. " Avon snapped. "If we take the crystal now, how long do you think it will take the Federation to figure out who's got it? Five seconds? They will merely issue a new pulse code and we'll be back where we started." He gritted his teeth. "Now get back to the door."
Pulling an exasperated face, Vila did.
The smoke was getting worse. As fire-fighters rushed by, a guard staggered and collapsed. Two medical staff stopped to help him, puzzled that his gasmask had not protected him. They crouched beside him and began to remove his helmet.
Vila waited at the door, his nerves stretched almost to breaking point. Avon was carefully splicing two cables together and seemed to be taking his time.
"Nearly ten minutes, Avon. Get a move on!"
"All right, I think I've done it," Avon said calmly.
Vila went over and looked at the exposed wires Avon held. It didn't look as if Avon had done it. He cast a nervous glance at the door, then back to the cables "Hurry up!" he begged.
Avon looked at his desperate face, and decided that getting annoyed with him would only upset him more, rendering him less useful. He went back to work.
Bellfriar watched the chemical formula scroll across the screen. "Embalming fluid, as near as dammit."
"Mm?" Blake looked up. "What?"
"The blood sample Wiler took. These are the lab results coming through."
Gambrill came in. "It's spreading quickly, sir. We've got eight cases in gnotobiotics and several more in the main lab."
"Well, have you traced the contacts?"
"That's the point, sir. There don't seem to have been any."
"But there must have been. Somebody's lying."
"I don't think so, sir."
"Well then, it must have spread from the sick bay." Bellfriar pressed Bax's access code on the monitor. "Dr Bax? Oh, come on man."
"My God!" Gambrill said, staring at the screen which showed Bax's face, covered in ugly red blisters. Bax was slumped in his chair and it was obvious he was dead.
Bellfriar was appalled. "Nothing we know could do that," he said, pointing at the screen.
"How's it spreading?" Blake asked practically. "Through the air?"
"Not necessarily," Gambrill said.
"It must be airborne," Blake said. "That would explain why the four that went into the spaceship were not infected--they had their own air systems."
"Well, if it's a virus, its biotic potential must be incredible." Bellfriar said. "I mean, to kill its host as quickly as that, it must multiply a thousand times faster than anything we know."
"It seems to attack the nervous system, destroying the memory," Gambrill said. He sounded on the edge of panic.
"The memory?" Bellfriar was surprised.
"What, just the memory?" Blake asked.
Gambrill shook his head miserably. "No, no, that's the first thing, then the motor centre. Then there's a rapid rise in temperature resulting in fulminating blisters all over the body, then the heart packs up."
"Are the viral filters all activated?"
"We should be getting the first test results through any minute now." Gambrill muttered, eyes down.
"Well, nothing we can do then, is there? Just sit here and sweat it out."
Gambrill finally looked up. "That won't be so easy sir. The men are on the edge of panic. You can smell it."
"Yes, well we can't move towards an antiserum until we've identified the organism and typed its morphology," Bellfriar said briskly.
"There might not be that much time, sir."
"I presume the station is air-conditioned," Blake said slowly.
Bellfriar looked at him in surprise. "Yes, why?"
"Shut it down. If you stop the air circulating, you might at least slow the spread of infection."
"That's a good idea." Bellfriar nodded. "Well go on man," he said to Gambrill, "get a move on."
"Right, sir." Gambrill ran out.
Bellfriar looked up at the vents above him. "Well, we're really going to have to sweat it out."
Vila was first in the door, eager to get back to the closest thing to a safe place an enemy base could offer. His spirits were rising; the fire had gone as planned, and Avon had successfully sabotaged the converter without anything going wrong.
Tynus was standing by his desk, crumbling something in his hand. "Have you fixed the converter?"
"I reckon so."
Vila went over to him, disposed to be friendlier now. "You did a good job with that fire," he said enthusiastically.
"Yes, it went better than I planned. It almost got out of control."
Vila looked at Tynus's sooty hands. "What's that?" he asked curiously.
"All that's left of the incendiary mechanism. I don't want that found."
"It wouldn't be recognised."
"Maybe not, but there's no point in taking any chances." Tynus opened his hands and let the charred scraps fall to the desk. "Get rid of it," he ordered Vila.
Vila nodded, resigned. Typical--did he have 'Delta' stamped on his forehead?
"I'd better make my report to Security," Tynus said to Avon. "Wait in my quarters, will you, and I'll bring you back a food package."
"Make it a big one," Avon said.
Vila picked up a sheet of paper from the desk and brushed the sooty remains onto it, then tipped them into the bin. He put the paper back on the desk, then took a second look at it. That looked like writing. Curiously, Vila got a handful of ashes from the bin, spread them across the paper, then shook them off and looked at the indentations revealed by the soot trapped in them. He paled, and quickly checked the door Tynus had just gone out.
"Avon, come here!" he said urgently.
"What's the matter?"
"That old friend of yours should go a long way in the service, the further the better. Listen to this: 'Servalan, Federation HQ, Urgent. Liberator in orbit, Fosforon. Detaining ten hours. Make speed. Tynus, Q-Base."'
Avon took the paper, read it for himself, and crumpled it, his expression turning several degrees colder.
Bellfriar capped his pen and threw it aside. "Well, I've worked in virology for twenty years. I've never come across anything like this before." He sighed and rubbed his face wearily. "If it does turn out to be a virus, it's going to make us change all our ideas."
Blake was sitting on the window-seat on the other side of the room, elbows on his thighs as he thought. "Do you want to hear a theory?" he asked, getting up.
"At the moment, I'd listen to anybody."
"My idea that Wardin was adapted. 'Why kill Wiler?' you asked. Why go to such lengths to kill one man?"
"Wiler was killed to release the virus, to make people go into the sealed-off mortuary to help him."
"What, do you mean it was a deliberate plan? That's a bit far-fetched isn't it, Blake?"
"Have you ever heard of Lord Jeffrey Ashley?"
"Um, pre-space-age, planet Earth. He was the commander of a British garrison in America, having trouble with hostile natives, redskins. Ashley ordered blankets from smallpox victims to be baled up and sent to the hostile tribes."
"You mean we've picked up a bale of blankets, do you?"
"Seems to make sense."
"Sent from where?"
"May I use your star chart?" Blake flipped through the pages until he found what he wanted. "Here. 61-Cygnii. You notice the area's not charted. I think there's an alien civilisation, highly advanced, deeply distrustful of mankind, avoiding all contact, so that if our ships go too near, they simply vanish. I think K-47 was returned to us, baited with a skilfully preserved human being and loaded with a virus biologically engineered to destroy the human species. It's a trap we fell into with both feet."
"Well you could be right, but the virus is an unreliable weapon."
"This one seems effective enough."
The intercom bleeper went off. "Dr Bellfriar, Dr Bellfriar." It was Gambrill, his voice urgent.
Bellfriar pressed a button. "Yes, Gambrill?"
"I can't see us finding a vaccine sir. We've tried everything, but there's no way we can process these results."
Bellfriar sat down. "What about the online console?"
"Dead, sir. Probably the fire."
"You mean you haven't got a computer here?" Blake asked incredulously.
"Well, there are several of them on the base but they're not in the quarantine area. I can't get at them."
"All right, give the tapes to me. Tell me what you want to know and I'll get the answer for you."
"On board the Liberator, I have the most advanced computer ever designed. The way the infection's spreading here, you'll all be dead before you're half way to getting the answer."
"All right Blake. These data blocks--" Bellfriar said, gathering five of them together, "--contain lab tests on about five thousand micro-organisms. I need them scanned for known characteristics and the stranger, the paratype organism, picked out." He gave them to Blake.
"It shouldn't take Orac too long. Keep your receptor open, I'll set up a communications link."
"Good luck," Blake said, and Bellfriar smiled back at him. "Cally, this is Blake. Bring me up."
With a flash of light, he dematerialised.
Gambrill stood in the corridor with both arms spread in a desperate attempt to prevent anyone from leaving the quarantined area. Two men ran towards him, and he tried to stop them, but they pushed past him.
"Where do you think you're going?" he asked, trying to block the path of two more. "Where d'you think you're going? Get back to your post!" He saw his friend Tak weaving towards him. Surely he would listen to reason. Tak was a good man; people would follow his example if he behaved calmly. "Tak! Get back to your post!"
"I'm getting out while I've got a chance." The normally calm Tak was wild-eyed with panic.
"Orders are that nobody leaves this section."
"To hell with orders!" Tak shouted. "I'm not staying here to die!"
Gambrill grabbed him by the shoulders. "Listen, Cal--" he begged. Tak punched him viciously in the stomach, and he doubled up, staggering away as Tak made his escape. Gasping, Gambrill made his way to the intercom on the wall and called Bellfriar. "Dr Bellfriar, it's Gambrill here...I'm in the observation room area...There's total panic down here...It's not just the technicians, it's the medics as well, they're all getting out...breaking quarantine."
"Damn fools! They'll spread the infection right through the base."
"I tried to stop them. They're mad with fear, they wouldn't listen."
"Tell the guards on the main entrance, nobody leaves. They can shoot if necessary."
Gambrill punched a button, then paused with his hand hovering over the keypad, his mind suddenly blank. What was the next number? He had something important to do, but what was it? He shut his eyes and shook his head, trying to clear it. "God," he muttered, "I...the guards..." Disoriented, he stumbled into the middle of the corridor. "Guar..." There was something he had to do with the guards, but he couldn't remember. He suddenly stiffened with pain, then fell, and was overcome with violent convulsions, his back arching. Then, his strength failing, he collapsed and lay trembling, as huge red blisters erupted on his face and body.
His last coherent thought, oddly enough, was that he would never collect his pension now.
Vila sat hunched in the red chair in Tynus's quarters. "I wonder what plans he has for you?"
"What?" Avon looked straight ahead, seemingly as impassive as ever, his arms folded.
"Tynus. He hopes to get a medal for catching us, but he won't want you picked up, not with what you've got on him. I think you're going to have an accident, Avon."
"We shall see who has the accident."
"A man who sketches insects must have an eye for detail. He's probably worked out a very ingenious solution."
At the sound of Tynus opening the door, Vila leapt up and Avon rose more slowly.
"I've got one for each of you. Hydrolysed protein," Tynus said. He held two food packs, a drinking tube attached to each.
Hydrolysed poison more like. "Thanks," Vila said, reaching for the closest one, intending to drop it on the floor seemingly by accident and stand on it.
Tynus whipped it out of his reach. "I've got to put it in the oven first."
"Don't bother," Avon said.
Avon exchanged a significant glance with Vila.
"Lost our appetites suddenly," Vila said innocently.
"It's all this hanging about," Avon said. "When do we get the crystal, Tynus?"
"As soon as the fault in the A-line shows up. Then I can send to Security for a replacement crystal, but it all takes time," Tynus said soothingly. "Relax--" A bleeper began to sound from his office. "You've nothing to worry about," he said, going to answer it.
"And if you believe that," Vila said to Avon, "you'll believe anything."
"Plague?" Tynus demanded.
"Yes, sir, it seems so. The men are falling like flies. The rest are cutting out, getting off the base." Behind Tynus, Vila and Avon eased the door open to listen. "It's reached the security section...they're dying."
Tynus called up Bellfriar. "Bellfriar, we've an epidemic here. What're you doing about it?"
"There's nothing I can do. It's a new virus. We've got no defence against it."
"That's ridiculous. You're the medical section. My men are dying. You must do something!"
"All I can advise you is to turn off your air pumps and order your people to stay at their posts. The less they move around, the better their chances."
"But I thought you were supposed to be the greatest living authority on viruses, Bellfriar."
"I'm going to see that the Federation Medical Council hears of this."
"I don't think that's going to matter to me, Tynus. Or to any of us."
It was Bellfriar's department. Tynus had other things on his mind. He left.
"That does it! Let's go!" Vila strode across the room, one hand gripping his bracelet to call for teleport.
"Not so fast!" Avon grasped him by the elbow. "We came for that crystal."
"Forget the crystal, they're dying like flies out there, didn't you hear?"
Avon spoke with deliberate calm. "So there will be a lot of panic and confusion. Tynus will have his hands full. If we destroy the converter, destroy it completely, it will look like a result of the fire. When they come to rebuild it, they will not suspect that we have taken the crystal."
Vila thought about it. "Well, you may be right," he said cautiously.
Avon gave him a brief look of approval. For all his voluble profession of cowardice, Vila wasn't quite as fearful as he made out. "Let's go," Avon said, drawing his gun, and left, not bothering to check that Vila was behind him. Vila, his own gun in his hand, followed.
"I've got that result for you," Blake said over the communications link Cally had set up between the Liberator and the Q-base.
"Good man," Bellfriar said, taking his head out of his hands.
"According to our scan, the paratype organism is number 9-2-6 in your batch of samples."
Bellfriar's spirits rose. Perhaps there was now a chance. "Now we're getting somewhere. 9-2-6..." He stood up and went to get a portable electronic microscope. It hummed loudly as he trained it on a sample of 9-2-6 in a beaker.
"Dr Bellfriar, anything else I can do to help?" Blake asked. He listened for a reply. All he could hear was a loud hum.
"Obviously not," Jenna said, coming over to stand beside him.
Blake looked at her, worried. "I hope we got that through to him in time."
"Keep an eye on the corridor," Avon said to Vila, and went straight to the converter and removed its cover.
The announcement over the public address system did little for Vila's peace of mind. "Attention! All personnel are instructed to remain at their posts. The situation is under control."
"Under control?" Vila echoed, running over to Avon. "You know this could be another Casarus."
"What?" Avon was examining the crystal he had removed.
"You remember the Casarus swamp fever. Killed millions." Vila wondered if it was getting warmer, or whether it was him.
"Well there aren't millions here, so don't worry about it."
That was supposed to be reassuring? "Well I'm here, and I do worry about it. I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead."
"We'll be out of here in a few minutes." Avon said. "Get back to the corridor."
At the same time, Tynus entered his office, checked that no-one was there, and carefully removed a handgun from his desk.
And in his laboratory, Bellfriar had isolated the organism. "Beautiful!" he said admiringly, looking at a sample through his microscope. "And so simple!"
Vila stood in the doorway. He felt unwell. He knew it was probably a combination of nerves, lack of food, and Tynus's wine, but all the same...
"Detonator!" Avon said, appearing beside him.
Vila handed it over. Any minute now they'd be back on the Liberator. Nice safe place the Lib, all you had to worry about there was the occasional plasma bolt and whether Cally had noticed he'd topped up some of the adrenaline and soma bottles with coloured water. He heard a groan from behind and turned. A man in a black headband was pulling himself along the floor. His mouth dry with fear, Vila backed away, then felt a heavy blow on the back of his head. With a sharp cry of pain, he fell, not far from the dying Tak.
Avon finished setting the charge and stood up to see Tynus facing him with a gun in his hand.
"I thought I'd find you here." Tynus said, almost gently.
"I got tired of waiting."
"Raise your hands. Carefully."
Avon did so.
"Come round here."
As Avon moved around the converter, Vila groaned and sat up, holding the back of his neck.
Avon hoped that Tynus had not heard him. "So you're going to kill me?"
"It's nothing personal."
Avon smiled. "I shall try not to hold it against you."
"You know too much about me."
"I should have turned you in when I had the chance."
Vila groaned again and staggered through the doorway, gun dangling from his hand. As Tynus started to turn, Avon leaped at him and punched him. Tynus got him in the stomach, and Avon doubled up with a cry of pain. Tynus made a grab for the crystal but Avon, recovering, grasped his wrist and they struggled. Vila, still not seeing straight after the blow to his head, swayed and tried to train his gun on one of the two Tynuses fighting the two Avons, afraid to make a mistake. Avon hit Tynus again, and he fell face-forward into the live communications arrays. Vila stared, appalled, as the circuitry shorted and glowed dazzlingly, lighting the whole room, and Tynus twitched, then finally went limp and fell to the floor.
"Thanks for your help," Avon said.
"Never come between friends, that's my motto."
Avon threw Tynus's gun down beside his body and lifted his bracelet to his mouth. "All right Cally, get us out of here fast!"
They teleported just before the explosives Avon had set went off.
"Well done," Blake said, looking at the crystal in Avon's hand.
"I can't say that it was a pleasure. Now are we going to stand here and look at it, or are we going to move?"
"Why?" Blake was puzzled at the urgency in Avon's voice.
"Tynus tried to trap us," said Vila. "He sent a message to Servalan."
"There'll be a Federation fleet here at any time," Avon said.
There was a bleep, and Cally leaned over the teleport controls. "There's a transmission from Fosforon."
"Jenna," Blake ordered, and Jenna, who was sitting at the controls, threw a switch. Blake sat down beside her. "Go ahead."
It was Bellfriar. "Blake, I think I've found the answer. Too late, I'm afraid, for anybody here, but it's absolutely vital that you record the following information."
"Jenna," Blake said again, and she switched on the recorder. "You are being recorded, doctor. Go ahead."
Bellfriar sat at his desk, looking exhausted. "Everybody who's been into deep space has had the Terran ague, or the three-day sweat as it's commonly known as. It's a sort of a...sort of a mild infection. It slightly, ah, alters the body's nucleic structure. It seems to be a metabolic reaction to space travel. Well this new virus, Paratype 9-2-6, attacks those altered cells and acts as a catalyst, they burst and, well, the effects are literally a series of explosions that race through the body's neural cell structure. The, ah, virus is easily cultured in human tissue...or in nucleic acid solution." He paused, swayed slightly, and closed his eyes briefly. "Now, uh, here is the formula for the antiserum--"
Blake interrupted. "Dr Bellfriar, are you saying that this virus is only effective against human beings who've been in deep space?"
"Precisely. It fits your theory. But I don't think that the virus was designed to destroy man, merely to confine him to his own planet. Now here is--is the--the formula."
"H-N, H-N-O...oh my God!"
"Dr Bellfriar! Dr Bellfriar!"
"I've forgotten how to read." Bellfriar looked with horror at the back of his hands, which were covered in red blisters. He closed his eyes in despair, groaned, clapped his hands over his face, and arched back in his chair.
Blake felt a chill run down his spine. Bellfriar had been a good man. "Transmission ends," he said solemnly and formally.
"Fosforon ends," Vila said dolefully.
Cally glared at him reprovingly. "It's no joke, Vila."
Vila looked at her, hurt. He had not meant it as a joke. He knew it would take a long time to forget the face of that man in the corridor. He had been like a wounded animal, terrified and mutely begging for help that Vila was both unable and too frightened to give.
"Cally, Jenna, get the ship moving," Blake said. "I'm going to put out a plague warning."
Jenna slid out from behind the teleport controls and headed for the flight deck.
As Blake started to follow her, Avon stepped in front of him. This time the idiot idealist had outdone himself. "Are you crazy?"
"I've got to warn all traffic to stay away from Fosforon until that virus burns itself out."
"Listen, Blake, Servalan is on her way here. She lands on Fosforon, she gets the plague, she's off our backs for good. You cannot put out a warning."
"Suppose some of them don't die. Suppose some of them get off in a ship. That plague goes out to all the galaxies, millions will die because of it. That is the one responsibility that I will not take."
On the flight deck, Jenna was efficiently preparing to break orbit when Blake came in. He went to stand in front of Zen's fascia.
"Zen, I want to put a plague warning transmitter into orbit round Fosforon." He turned and continued to speak as he went to stand beside Jenna. "Then set a course for the constellation Sauros, speed standard by ten."
Blake knew Jenna had little sympathy for anyone who worked for the Federation, but he hoped she would understand. "There has to be a warning, Jenna. There has to be."
Jenna looked at him searchingly, then nodded.