The volcano was spewing out flames with violent magnificence. Plumes of smoke rose high into the clear sky. An ominous rumble accompanied the fireworks. Suddenly there was another sound and two people materialised on the rocky flank of the mountain, guns drawn.
Dayna and Tarrant looked around. The good news was that they had landed a safe distance from the crater, the bad news that there was no sign of life. Dayna moved her feet to find a more stable foothold on the slippery wet moss that covered the rocks. Boots with stiletto heels weren't the most suitable footwear here, but when she'd come upon them in Liberator's wardrobe room she'd simply had to try them.
Tarrant brought his bracelet to his mouth and spoke into the communicator: "Safely down."
In Liberator's teleport bay Cally received the message with relief. "Keep us informed of what's happening."
In front of her console Avon and Vila stood following the conversation.
"Right. Out," came Tarrant's reply.
On the planet's surface Tarrant became aware of the rumble. "What's that?"
"The volcano," Dayna said.
They moved over the crest that had blocked their view. Now they could see the smoke in the distance, intermittently lit by flames that were hurled into the sky.
Dayna consulted her small sensor. Its beeps only confirmed what she had worked out already: "I think we've come down on the wrong side."
Tarrant eyed the volcano with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. "Terrific!"
He followed Dayna who set out determinedly to find a way round the crater. Here on the lower levels grass and low bushes struggled from the scarce soil, higher up the rocks were bare of vegetation. The going was tough, the climbing dangerous.
"When were you last here?" Tarrant asked after negotiating a particularly tricky passage. Dayna didn't seem any better at rock-climbing than he was.
"I've never been here before.""You said you had."
"I didn't," Dayna maintained. "I said one of the people here knew my father."
Tarrant's enthusiasm for their mission was diminishing by the minute. "Then let's hope they remember him."
Some more arduous climbing brought them to a plateau from which they could look down into the volcano.
"Zen told us it was here," Dayna said, standing precariously close to the edge.
Tarrant took care to stay well away from the rim. "He didn't tell us how big it was. I don't have much faith in Zen, or anything else on the Liberator."
A burst of smoke fluttered over Dayna and she took a step back. "Then why didn't you stay up there and leave this mission to me?"
"I don't trust anybody except myself," Tarrant told her. "That's why I'm still alive. Which way?"
Dayna consulted her sensor again. "Zen's ground plot said due north. And don't look so warlike!"
Tarrant snorted. "Coming from you, that's almost funny."
"These people are our friends," Dayna reminded him.
"So you keep saying." Tarrant turned and set off in the indicated direction. Neither he nor Dayna had noticed the scanner set in the rock wall.
* * * * * * *
The inside of the base on the other side of the volcano had a cosy, homely appearance. The streamlined, functional equipment should clash with the wall panels with their carved geometrical decorations but the orange-brown earth tints of both served to blend them into a unity.
Two men were watching a screen showing the intruders into their world. Hower, a stern looking man with grey hair, was seated. His son Bershar stood leaning over the surveillance console.
"Who are they?" Hower asked, looking at his son. "You know?"
Bershar shook his head. But one thing he did know: "They mean trouble! Look at their weapons."
"I thought we'd kept them at bay," Hower remarked, returning his gaze to the screen. "The Federation High Command know our position as far as their foolish wars are concerned."
"These people look more like mercenaries," Bershar said.
"Obviously they come from that ship," Hower observed.
Bershar flipped a switch on the console. The picture on the screen changed to that of the Liberator.
"The satellite's got a clear picture now." Hower studied the picture. "Do we know anything about this type of ship?"
"Nothing," his son replied. He didn't like what he saw. "Looks powerful. Shall we approach these mercenaries?"
The look of concern on Hower's stern face deepened. "They're heading towards us, anyway."
That was all the encouragement Bershar needed. "Excuse me," he said, having been taught good manners, and quickly left the room. He nearly collided with a domestic robot that had silently entered, carrying a glass and a tablet.
Catching the robot's soft, melodious clanging, Hower turned to accept the tablet. He swallowed it, and then drank from the glass. The medicine, a suppressant of the human aggressive instincts, was part of the daily dose subscribed to every inhabitant of the planet.
* * * * * * *
On the volcano slope, Tarrant and Dayna kept up a fast pace. Suddenly Tarrant stopped to make a progress report, Dayna nearly colliding into him.
"No contact so far," Tarrant said into his bracelet communicator. "We're following Zen's ground plot as agreed."
"Understood," Cally replied. She was still behind the teleport console, patiently waiting. Avon and Vila had long gone to the flight deck. On a small portable table next to the console, Orac sat minding its own business.
"It all seems quiet enough, if you don't count the volcano," Tarrant continued. "I should let Orac take over. I think it's going to be some time before we find these friends of Dayna's."
"All right," Cally said. "But keep in touch. Heroic rescues can be embarrassing if you're not actually in danger." She still knew very little about Tarrant. Still wasn't sure, even, if Avon's idea to invite him to join them had been a good one.
"Right," came Tarrant's voice through the communicator.
Cally rose, took Orac's key and activated the computer. "Orac, operate teleport as instructed." She turned to go, but halted on getting no reply. "Orac?"
"Yes," the machine said curtly.
"Did you hear what I said?"
"Teleport operation is a menial task much more suited to one such as yourself."
Cally stifled the sudden longing to smash the machine's light bulbs one by one. "Just do it, please, Orac."
"Very well." Orac made it sound as a favour.
Cally left the teleport room.
* * * * * * *
On the flight deck Avon was working on a piece of equipment, studiously ignoring Vila who was lounging at his position while giving air to his latest worry.
"It is odd, though, isn't it?" A lack of reaction never stopped Vila talking. "An unusual phenomenon. We haven't come across it before, have we?" Still getting no reaction, he raised his voice: "I said it's odd, isn't it."
"What is odd?" Cally asked, entering.
"That damn great volcano." Vila glared at the planet shown on the main screen. He didn't like its poisonous green colour, nor the fiery crater that seemed waiting to suck in the ship. "Right in the middle of the planet. The only active one in the entire place, according to Zen, sitting there bubbling away."
Cally couldn't resist a bit of teasing. "What, Zen?"
Vila wasn't amused. "The volcano."
Cally shrugged. "Well, Zen also said it has been bubbling away for at least twenty years."
"Just the same, sooner them than me!" But Vila had more on his chest. "Does anyone know why this planet--what's it called?"
"Obsidian," Cally told him.
"Obsidian." Vila gave the planet another sour look. "Even the name sounds nasty. Do you know why it escaped the galactic war?"
"If it did." Cally looked at Avon, who sat at his position working on his gadget. He'd already refrained from comment for longer than could be expected.
"Well, Zen says there's no sign of any battle fleet wreckage on the surface," Vila argued.
"Not as far as we can see," Cally said.
"Nobody wanted it, that's what I reckon!" Getting agitated, Vila jumped from his console. "And very sensible, too."
Avon's patience snapped at last. He put down his equipment and rose. "Let us settle this neurotic little worry." He moved to stand in front of the board-computer's fascia. "Zen, do you have sufficient information to be able to tell us when the next major volcanic eruption on the planet Obsidian is to be expected?"
The reply came at once: "Federation report one-zero-sub-five, date code three-zero-three..."
"That's a long time ago," Vila said, determined not be reassured.
"Atmospheric and ground tests undertaken by Federation assessment team," Zen continued, "collated in Federation teletext, predicted no heavy volcanic activity for some years."
"How many years is some years?" Vila wanted to know.
"No more detailed prediction was made," Zen said.
"Wonderful," Vila commented. "And why did the Federation assessment team stop bothering, does anybody know that? Zen, do you know?"
"That information is not available."
"Very helpful," Vila muttered.
Cally turned to Avon, who had been listening to Zen in unusual silence.
"Avon, those Federation assessment teams were always followed up by invasion and colonisation."
"Usually," he said.
"Do you know of another case when they weren't?" she insisted.
"No." His gaze came to rest on her face. "And the phrase 'some years' is meaningless. Perhaps it was meant to be. The Federation came and looked at Obsidian and decided it wasn't worth colonising, simple as that."
Cally wasn't convinced. "But if you are right, those two are wasting their time down there."
"That's always a possibility." Avon was rubbing his hands, a sign he was more worried than he pretended. "Dayna says the people are friendly, but then sometimes one's friends can be more of a liability than one's enemies."
"They're going to check out that rumour too, don't forget." Vila said.
"That Blake was here?" Avon spoke the name in his special tone of contempt. He began to move back to his position. "It's getting to be a fairly common rumour. We could spend the rest of our lives chasing down the ones we've picked up so far."
Which was all too true. But Cally refused to give in to defeatism. "Still, now we're here."
"Oh, yes," Avon said, climbing into his position. "Now we're here."
* * * * * * *
On the planet, Dayna and Tarrant had reached the lower levels. Here the volcano's lava had caused rich meadowland to sprout. But the long grass, hiding the uneven ground from view, made the going even more treacherous than the bare rocks had done. Needing all their attention on where to put their feet, neither Dayna nor Tarrant were aware of the three men appearing on the rocky outcrop above them.
Bershar aimed his gun and let off a spray of sleeping gas.
Feeling the fine drops, Tarrant halted. "Can it be raining?"
"I don't know." Standing further away, the first whiff of vapour had missed Dayna. Bershar's second landed on her and her eyes fell close.
Tarrant and Dayna stood tottering for a moment, then they fell over, landing softly on the thick layer of grass.
Bershar and his two companions, all dressed in the standard white suits of the Pyroan society, climbed down and advanced upon their helpless quarries.
* * * * * * *
On Liberator's flight deck Vila was still worrying away. "Maybe we should tell them."
"Tell who what?" Cally asked, busy on repairing a small circuit board.
"Tarrant and Dayna," Vila clarified, "about the Federation not wanting the planet."
Avon, who'd gone back to working on his gadget, looked up. "Why?"
"Because there's something wrong about it." Vila's hands were nervously kneading the black sash round his waist. "I think we should tell them."
Avon wasn't impressed. "I think you should get back to re-calibrating the weaponry systems."
"They'll be reporting in soon," Cally said in a conciliatory tone. "We can tell them then."
"That could be too late." Finding the others ignoring him, Vila sighed and reluctantly began to move to the corridor. "All right."
* * * * * * *
Hower looked down at the two unconscious prisoners who had been placed on the large bed in his guestroom. He ran his fingers over their faces, then turned their heads. As soon as he released them, their heads lolled back. Then the prisoners began to stir, seemingly feeling very disorientated.
Hower took a step back. Not taking his eyes off the prisoners, he addressed his son, who stood watching silently. "Was it necessary to treat them like that?"
"Of course it was, Father," Bershar replied. "You know what these people are like."
"They are victims of their own aggressive instincts," Hower reminded him. "They have not learned to control them, that is all."
"That doesn't make them any the less dangerous, Father," Bershar said.
Watching the prisoners trying to sit up, Hower sighed. "True."
Tarrant and Dayna were now swiftly regaining their faculties. They looked round, taking in their situation--and their lack of equipment.
Needing to vent his frustration, Tarrant glared at Dayna: "So, these are your friends!" He addressed his captors: "Where are our guns?"
"We do not allow offensive weapons on Obsidian." Hower replied.
"And our wrist communicators?" Dayna asked, her tone implying those could not be considered as offensive weapons.
"All six of them," Hower observed. "Why so many, I wonder?"
"Replacements," Tarrant said glibly. "They break down easily."
"Oh." Hower's tone betrayed his scepticism. "They will be returned to you when you leave."
"Oh, we will be leaving?" Tarrant remarked. "At least that's something."
"Why should we harm you?" Hower sat down in the large wicker chair beside the bed. "You have done us no harm."
"Who are you?" Tarrant asked.
"My name is Hower, I am First Citizen on Obsidian." He raised his hand, indicating his son who remained standing and staring at them in distrust. The robot had taken up position at the other side of the chair. "This is my son, Bershar. He has special duties."
Tarrant snorted. "Like capturing us."
Hower raised his eyebrows. "Do you feel ill, or upset in any way?"
"No," Dayna had to concede. Her professional interest taking over, she asked: "What was it, some kind of narcotic spray gun?"
"Something like that," Hower said. "Quite harmless, I assure you."
"I'm glad to hear it." Tarrant's voice was thick with sarcasm.
Impatient for answers, Bershar took over the questioning: "Who are you? Why are you on Obsidian?"
Tarrant rose to his feet. "I was a Federation captain, a long time ago." Well, not that long, really, although he was older than he looked. But this wasn't the time for tedious details. "We are survivors of a galactic war." Could it really be that the news of the Andromedan Invasion had passed them by?
"If you are looking for somewhere to hide, we cannot shelter you," Bershar said immediately.
Tarrant turned to Dayna, who was still sitting on the bed. "Maybe you'd better explain it to them."
For a moment unsure how to begin, she leant forward. "Hower..."
"Yes?" His tone was far from encouraging.
"I am Dayna," she plodded on. "The daughter of Hal Mellanby."
Hower's reaction was disappointing. "Oh, are you? Your father--"
"My father is dead."
"Oh dear." Hower's words were almost an insult.
"Then how do we know you are his daughter?" Bershar asked, aggressively.
Dayna rose and walked over to the foot of the bed. "You studied with him at the Federation Central Science complex." She sat down on the bed, leaning over to Hower, offering him a view of the medallion hanging from her neck. "This is his graduate medallion. You have one like it."
"I used to have one like it," Hower said. "But unlike your father I lost faith in that sort of scientific development. I think that Homo sapiens have reached a point where further technological development is useless."
"And you are at that point?" Tarrant asked.
Hower nodded gravely. "I believe we are."
"Never mind that," Bershar cut in. "Tell us who the people are in that ship--and why you are here!"
Tarrant and Dayna exchanged looks, taken aback about Liberator having been picked up by the detectors.
"What do you want here?" Bershar asked.
* * * * * * *
Avoiding Liberator's sensors and Obsidian's surveillance system, President Servalan's personal cruiser was speeding towards the planet. Servalan entered the flight deck, her long white dress flowing around her legs. Gracefully she negotiated the steps down to the command console, where her latest favourite stood awaiting her orders.
Mori was an exception in the line of decorative staff officers. He was a field officer, had seen action in battle, and knew his worth.
"Here are your instructions." Servalan pointed an impeccably manicured finger at the chart shown on the console's large screen. "That is the target to which you are being taken." The finger moved a fraction. "That is the Liberator in orbit over the planet Obsidian in the Sixth Sector. You will go there, get the Liberator, and bring it back."
"You make it sound very simple," Mori observed, adding in a tone that was on the verge of disrespect: "Madam President."
Servalan could afford to ignore this--for the moment. "It is very simple. Two of their party are already on the planet."
"How do you know that?" he asked.
"That is not your concern. They are there."
"Why should they land there?" Mori could think of a space atlas full of more attractive places. "I mean, what's so special about the planet Obsidian?"
"They are investigating its strategic value, which is real," Servalan said. "And a rumour, which is not." She'd known they would go to investigate the rumour that Blake had been seen on Obsidian. It had been easy to plant the bait.
While talking, Servalan began to walk towards the two mutoids who were sitting at the controls. "Obsidian is at a vital point in the Sixth Sector. It could control command and supplies and be a real acquisition for us. But--" She halted between the mutoids' seats and turned, facing Mori again. "Your immediate mission is to capture the Liberator and bring it back."
Face impassive, he asked: "And those on board?"
Servalan produced her viper's smile. "Kill them."
* * * * * * *
On Liberator's flight deck, Cally returned from her latest check in the teleport room. "Orac hasn't picked up anything," she reported. "They've been out of contact for an hour now. I think it's time to start worrying."
"I've been worried all along," Vila said, joining her at Avon's console.
Seated at his position, Avon rubbed his hands. "We agreed to wait for them to contact us."
"But not this long," Cally protested.
Avon was inexorable: "We don't draw attention to the bracelets without a good enough reason."
"I think this is a good enough reason," Cally said.
Vila followed the battle of wills with interest. Avon would need to come up with a very good argument to prevent Cally from getting her way.
Avon had one, of course: "Zen was picking up a signal from the ground. It could have been some kind of beam approach detector."
Cally stared at him, outraged. "You didn't say anything at the time."
Avon sighed and rose. "No, I didn't."
"Why was that?" Cally demanded.
Avon stepped from his position, halting in front of her. "Because I wasn't sure."
Cally returned his gaze. "That wasn't the reason, Avon."
"No, it wasn't." The knowledge might have deterred Tarrant and Dayna. Avon had wanted them to go, to check out the rumour of Blake's appearance on the planet if nothing else.
"Are you going to let me in on the secret?" Vila never liked to be left in the dark--in both senses.
Avon dealt him a look of disdain. "You wouldn't understand it if we did."
That served to rouse Vila. His imagination running away with him, he squared his shoulders. "My classification might be grade four ignorant but I'm not stupid! I bought that classification from a friend at the testing centre."
Riled by Avon's sceptical face, he went on: "I didn't want to be a Space Captain now, did I? And I was right. They all ended up getting killed, didn't they?"
"Tarrant survived," Cally said.
Vila had his answer ready: "Oh, yes, Tarrant says he was a Space Captain. But then he says a lot of things, and you don't have to believe it all, do you?"
"I'd be more inclined," Avon said, "to believe that he was a Captain than that you could have been."
"Well, never mind about me," Vila smoothly changed the subject. "But it's Tarrant you should be worried about. And not just because he's been out of contact for an hour."
He'd really love it if Tarrant--invited to join the crew by Avon without consultation with the others--turned out to be a traitor. As long as it didn't bring the ship into danger, that was.
"And what about Dayna?" Cally asked with deceptive sweetness. "Don't you trust her either?"
Vila gave that suggestion the ridicule it deserved. "Dayna's a different case entirely."
Cally produced a subtle smile that could vie with Avon's best attempts at nastiness. "Well, she's pretty, for one thing."
Feeling he was going to lose this argument, Vila reverted to his tested defence of innocence and ignorance: "Pretty? Yes, I suppose she is. I hadn't really noticed."
"We've seen you not really noticing," Avon observed. "Frequently."
* * * * * * *
At the Obsidian base, Bershar was persisting in his questioning: "How many are you?"
Tarrant decided that openness was the best tactic. "There aren't many of us yet, but we do have an advantage that no one else has: the most powerful fighting ship in the galaxy. Our armament, offensive and defensive, is better than any other mercenary group can muster."
"Then why do you come here?" Bershar asked.
From his chair, his father was following their conversation attentively.
Tarrant raised his eyebrows. "Surely we're not the first?"
That served to rouse Bershar's suspicion further. "What do you mean?"
Dayna rose. "A man called Blake. Hasn't he contacted you? We heard he'd been here."
"No one has been here," Bershar replied.
"We need a planet as a home base," Tarrant said. "Somewhere that's not been ruined by the war. And we need recruits. This might do. You are situated in a very important strategic position."
"Obsidian?" Bershar's tone held a mixture of incredulity and indignation. "This is to be your base?"
"Temporarily." Tarrant flashed him a smile. "If you were to agree, naturally."
Hower rose and moved over to the surveillance screen. Stiffly he leant on the console, one hand on his back, as if he was feeling a sudden pain there.
"And what would you offer us for this favour?" Bershar asked.
Insensitive to the steady drop of warmth in the atmosphere, Tarrant blithely continued to dig his own grave: "A portion of any spoils. And there will be spoils, once we're strong enough to take them."
Hower had had enough. Still staring at the screen, he said: "You were once a Federation Space Captain, you said."
"Yes, I was," Tarrant replied proudly. "For a time, until I deserted."
"You still sound like one," Hower remarked, keeping his back to him.
Tarrant took a step towards Hower. "And you, sir--with great respect--" he reverted to the tested phrase preceding an offensive remark, "sound like somebody who doesn't realise the danger he's in."
"Tarrant!" Dayna warned, quickly moving to his side. "Be careful. These are friends."
"Then they deserve the truth," Tarrant said. "How they've escaped occupation by somebody before now is beyond me!"
Hower at last deigned to look at him. "Perhaps we are cleverer than you think, Captain Tarrant."
"What is this danger to us that you speak of?" Bershar asked. "Where does it come from?"
"Any petty warlord," Tarrant replied heatedly, "any mercenary, anybody with enough ships and weaponry to take you over."
Time to interfere, Dayna decided: "What Tarrant is saying is that your pacific attitude is all very well in theory, but not much use against a battle fleet with ruthless leaders."
"And you are not in this category?" Bershar challenged.
"No, we're not," Dayna said. "If you say no to us, then we will go peaceably." She gave her companion a hard stare. "Won't we, Tarrant?"
He wasn't prepared to give up so easily. "But I hope we can convince you, things being in the state they are, that you need friends."
"Who are you afraid of, Captain Tarrant?" Hower suddenly asked.
The question threw Tarrant: "I'm sorry?"
"You must be afraid of somebody." Hower's stern voice became increasingly pompous. "People who need recruits, allies, whatever--they wouldn't need them if they didn't have enemies. Who exactly are your enemies?"
* * * * * * *
On Servalan's ship, the mutoid acting as navigator reported: "Long range sensors are registering a slight volcanic tremor from the planet Obsidian."
So close to her objective, Servalan wasn't going to let a natural occurrence deter her. "That's all right, it's normal."
"You're quite sure about that, I suppose?" Mori enquired, not at all reassured. He didn't like the look of that volcano. You knew where you were with machines; nature couldn't be controlled.
"Of course I'm sure--I'm going there, aren't I?" Dismissing the silly question, she instructed the mutoid: "Approach the planet Obsidian on a bearing of one-four-five. And prepare for planet fall on grid reference zero-one-three-seven."
"Approach bearing one-four-five," the mutoid said. "Planet fall on grid reference zero-one-three-seven."
Mori might be a seasoned warrior, he was also a cautious one--the reason he was still alive. He sensed Servalan was keeping something from him, information that could be the difference between life and death. "What's so special about that bearing and grid reference? So we don't land in the volcano?"
Servalan sat down in the commander's chair. "So the Liberator does not pick us up as we approach."
Which might be true. Mori tried another approach: "Are the people down there likely to give us trouble?"
"Most unlikely," Servalan said.
Again, this didn't reassure him. "They were right in the middle of the war zone, where some of the greatest battles of the Galactic War took place, yet the planet survived untouched. Why?"
Servalan hung on to her patience; she needed this man--yet. "I promise you it had nothing to do with fear of the inhabitants. You'll be safe."
Mori gave her an insincere smile. "I don't doubt it." He'd make sure of that--get out at the first sign of trouble.
"You'll have no problem with the Pyroans," Servalan said. "They have outlawed war."
"Oh, really? How interesting."
Servalan's patience snapped. "Mori, it is because they have outlawed war that they are still alive!"
Her outburst made no impression on Mori. "Well, let's hope we are, at the end of it."
Servalan rose. "Remember, you will be my Supreme Commander, if you succeed." A promise she didn't intend to keep. But it served to make him do what she wanted; ambition is a useful lever. "And your ship will be the Liberator."
Mori eyed her coolly. "That, Madam President, is why I am going at all. That, and my personal loyalty to you." His smile was wholly insincere.
"Quite," Servalan commented dryly.
Mori stared at the screen. "With that ship, the Liberator..." He kept the rest of his thoughts to himself.
"So," Servalan said, satisfied now she had him where she wanted. "Careful at first, then you know what to do."
"Yes." Mori's slight bow to her wasn't meant as a sign of respect.
* * * * * * *
In Liberator's teleport room Cally and Vila were sitting behind the console when Avon entered, fastening his gun belt.
"Respond, please," Cally repeated again and again. "Tarrant, Dayna, this is Cally. Respond please."
"It could be a communications blind spot--the volcano," Vila said while Avon took a bracelet and put in around his wrist.
Cally shook her head, then rested her chin on her hand. "They are not wearing the bracelets."
Avon took a tracer from the console. "It would seem that Dayna's friends are not so friendly after all." He looked at Cally: "Have you set the co-ordinates?"
"Yes." She checked them. "I still think you're too near the volcano."
That was the least of his worries. "At least I know what to expect from that."
"A bootful of burning lava," Vila said.
Avon went to stand in the teleport bay. "If they have been picked up, perhaps I won't be."
"I'd rather be picked up than burned up," Vila commented.
"Ready?" Cally asked.
"Yes." Avon drew his gun. "Put me down.
Cally activated the teleport and Avon found himself on the rocky rim of the volcano. The mountain spewed out a column of fire and he hastily ran for cover, finding shelter behind a rock.
He activated his communicator. "Down and safe--well, just about," he added while a gust of hot smoke engulfed him. Better not stay here! "I'm going to make my way to where Dayna and Tarrant came down." Not waiting for confirmation, he released the button. He checked his tracer, then swiftly went on his way.
In the teleport room, the message had come over garbled. "Avon, repeat that," Cally said. "Message indistinct. Repeat that."
Vila shrugged. "Communications blind spot." While he moved to lean on the front of the console, an agreeable thought hit him. "Or maybe he landed in the volcano."
"No," Cally replied. "I think he's all right."
"Yes, of course he is." Vila hadn't really believed it either. "There isn't a volcano alive that would dare to swallow Avon."
Cally wasn't in the mood for his sarcasm. "Be quiet, Vila!"
"He's cold enough to put out the fire anyway."
Cally took a deep breath. "Look, why don't you go down and keep an eye on those long range detectors? We aren't the only ship in space, you know."
Suggestions he do some work never went down well with Vila. "Zen's got it covered."
"Well, perhaps he'd like some help."
"His trusty battle computers never sleep." Vila remained, idly leaning on the console with his backside.
Deciding to ignore him, Cally tried to make contact again: "Avon, confirm contact. Confirm contact." She turned up the volume of the channel, but all she got was silence.
* * * * * * *
Servalan's ship had made a safe landing on Obsidian. Constantly checking a small tracer, she led Mori and his squad of three troopers over the rocky grass. The volcano rumbled in the background.
"That volcano sounds pretty active to me," Mori remarked.
"I'm told it's a regular small tremor, nothing to worry about." Servalan couldn't hide her look of contempt. Was he going to worry about the volcano during their entire stay?
Mori climbed the grassy hill until he had an unrestricted view over the mountain's slope. Far away, two running figures were approaching, their white suits standing out against the green of the grass.
"What about those over there?" he asked. "Are they something to worry about?"
Impatiently he watched the figures come nearer. Sometimes they disappeared behind a hillock in the undulating landscape but each time they reappeared they were closer. Now he could see they were two men, probably in their thirties.
"Let me speak to them," Servalan said, when at last they were within hailing range. She raised her voice. "We're friends."
Mori kept scanning the landscape. "Must be more of them."
Meanwhile the troopers surrounded the two Pyroans.
Servalan stepped forward until she was face to face with them. One was tall and fair, the other shorter and brown-haired. They stood patiently waiting, showing no emotion.
"Are either of you called Milus?" Servalan asked.
"I am Milus," the tall man replied. "This is my brother Nettin."
"I am Servalan." She held out her hand. "You have a message for me."
"Yes, it is here." Milus handed her the small disk he'd carried in his fist.
"Thank you, Milus." Servalan gestured at one of the troopers, who handed her a reader. She quickly inserted the disk and read the message. Then she turned to Mori. "Kill them," she said nonchalantly.
"What?" For a moment he thought he'd misheard. When it dawned she was serious, he told the Pyroans: "Well, run! Go on!"
Thus he could pretend he'd given them a chance.
The Pyroans didn't move. Bewildered, Mori shot Nettin in the chest, then Milus. They fell on their backs while their blood stained the chests of their white suits blue due to its reaction with the charge.
Mori stared at them, then at Servalan. "They didn't run. They weren't even scared." To himself, he added: "They're like tame animals."
Smiling in satisfaction, Servalan turned her back to the corpses and resumed her way.
* * * * * * *
On the Obsidian base, Hower had relented his stern attitude somewhat. He'd offered Dayna a chair in the hospitality corner of the surveillance room, and sat down himself in another. The cushioned wicker chairs were large and comfortable. Next to Hower's chair the robot stood patiently waiting with another glass and tablet. At the other side of the room Bershar was showing Tarrant some of the base's equipment.
"I am very sorry to hear of your father's death," Hower told Dayna. "If there is anything I can do for you, I will."
He paused to take the glass and tablet from the robot. "But you will not get any recruits here."
Dayna's gaze went to Tarrant and Bershar, who were bent over a console, deep in conversation. "Your son seems interested."
Hower swallowed the tablet, then gave her a confident smile. "Oh, no, he isn't." He brought the glass to his mouth and downed it with an air of finality.
At the console, a screen showed a diagram of the volcano. Tarrant studied the readouts with dismay. "Your levels of volcanic activity are high."
"Not dangerously so," Bershar replied. "We monitor the volcano constantly."
That didn't seem much of a reassurance to Tarrant. "Could you control it, if it became necessary?"
"In a way, if it became necessary." Bershar placed a hand on Tarrant's arm, gently guiding him away. "Come, let me show you our operational complex. And then perhaps you will see we are not as helpless as we seem."
They came face to face with Hower and Dayna, who had risen from their chairs.
"You will excuse us, Father?" Bershar asked, ever the polite son.
"Yes, of course," Hower replied graciously.
While they'd left the room, Hower explained to Dayna: "My son, like the rest of us, hates war, conflict, aggression."
"Who doesn't?" she remarked. "But as the Galactic War has just demonstrated, aggression seems to be programmed into the human psyche."
"It can be programmed out, perhaps," Hower said.
That seemed a bleak prospect to Dayna. "Would that be wise, even if it could? Would Homo Sapiens be able to live without conflict? Wouldn't they just die from lack of excitement?"
"We have not found it so." Hower took her gently by the arm, much as his son had done Tarrant, and began to lead her in the direction of the monitoring console. "It is our belief that every man is at war with himself. His reason is at war with his instinct, his animal and his spiritual natures clash together and the brain of Homo Sapiens has developed too much for the animal to bear."
Letting go of her arm, Hower stopped at a table behind which a woman sat docilely working on a piece of embroidery. Engrossed in her work, she didn't acknowledge them. The robot had followed them and now halted, as if waiting for orders.
Dayna tried to work out the meaning of Hower's words: "You mean your people have become passive because you have reduced their brain power? Is that it?"
The faintest of smiles slid over his face. "On the contrary. We have taught them peace from the cradle. And we have blocked, usually with a minute electric shock," he indicated the size with his fingers, "every tendency towards an aggressive act. Plus of course, daily psychological propaganda."
"Does it work?" Dayna asked.
"We have no war," Hower replied. "No fights among ourselves, no lawlessness, no crime. Our people devote themselves to creation and not destruction. We are at peace here on Obsidian."
Dayna found that hard to believe. "No violence at all? It's breathtaking--if it's true."
"The truth," Hower declared, "is absolute."
* * * * * * *
Meanwhile, Avon had reached the lower slopes of the mountain, moving carefully over the uneven terrain. His eye was caught by a shimmer of white amongst the green grass. Cautiously he approached, keeping as much as he could in the shadow of the rocks, until he was sure there was nobody around. Nobody living, that was. Avon knelt down to examine the bodies lying side by side on their backs. One look at the bluish bloodstains was enough. He activated his communicator: "This is Avon."
In Liberator's teleport room Cally received the announcement with relief. She leaned over the communicator: "Avon, are you all right?"
"Yes," came his voice, "but I think there is a Federation patrol down here somewhere."
Cally frowned. This was far from welcome news. "Why do you say that?"
"Because I've seen people killed with Federation handguns before."
Shocked, Cally exchanged a look with Vila, who was still lounging against the console.
"Stay by the teleport, Cally," Avon said. "Out."
"Federation patrols," she repeated. "How would they have got there?"
Vila shrugged. "Probably survivors from the war. We're not the only ones looking for a home base, you know."
* * * * * * *
On Obsidian, Bershar was leading Tarrant into another part of the base. A door slid open on their approach and they entered a dimly lit room. Bershar waved at a row of monitors, each watched by a person dressed in the standard white suit.
"We have an efficient detector system. We picked you up very early in your approach."
Tarrant was too occupied with his own thoughts to take in the implication of Bershar's words regarding Liberator: "Look, I know you have to toe the party line with your father, but can I talk to you independently?"
"Go on," Bershar said while moving along the consoles, studying each monitor in turn.
"You have responsibility for the defence of Obsidian," Tarrant said.
Bershar's attention remained on the monitors. "That is so."
Tarrant decided to plunge in: "I don't think you're as idealistic as your father is, or am I wrong?"
Now Bershar turned to look at him. He refrained from comment, though.
"I don't think," Tarrant ploughed on valiantly, "you believe in your heart that you are safe here on Obsidian forever."
Bershar took a step past him and stood with his back to him. "Perhaps not."
Tarrant was nothing if not persistent: "Look, there's a sizeable remnant of the Federation battle fleet still functioning. We need a base and you need protection." He was still talking to Bershar's back. "Is it possible to do a deal of some kind without involving your father?"
Without turning, Bershar said: "It will be difficult, but not impossible."
That was all the encouragement Tarrant needed. "Let me tell you what I can offer you."
"You talk of a battle fleet." At last Bershar turned to face him. "Do you know a woman called Servalan?"
* * * * * * *
Servalan had halted on a part of the slope that was shielded on all sides by rocks. Mori went a few paces further along the path until he found a foothold on a small ridge. He wasn't a tall man but now she would have to look up at him when talking.
"What now?" he asked, surveying the near vertical rock walls uneasily. He didn't like to be hemmed in like this.
"Follow the tone." Servalan handed Mori her reader. "As it gets louder, you're closer to the point. When you get there, everything will be as I told you."
Mori couldn't get rid of the feeling she was keeping something from him. "It's too easy."
"There will be difficulties," she said. "I expect you to overcome them."
"And you?" he asked.
"I shall return to the cruiser." She turned, quickly going the way they had come.
* * * * * * *
Hiding behind some large rocks, Avon lowered his gun. Servalan had formed a perfect target but with those troopers around, killing her would have been suicide. Servalan's death wasn't worth his own. Now she was moving out of his aim and he couldn't follow her without showing himself.
He hastily flattened himself against the rocks while the troopers passed below him--one, two three four. As soon as he was certain there weren't any more, he contacted Liberator:
"Cally, bring me up, quickly!"
He'd hardly stopped speaking before he found himself back aboard.
Cally jumped from her seat at the teleport console. "What happened?"
"Still no contact with Tarrant?" Avon asked, stepping from the teleport bay.
"Nothing," she said.
"Keep trying." Avon pulled off his bracelet with more force than necessary. "Servalan is down there."
"Servalan!?" Cally exclaimed.
"And a patrol."
"Why?" Vila asked from his seat behind the console.
"Ask her," Avon snapped. "But something big is happening. Tarrant and Dayna are probably prisoners."
"But these Pyroans are supposed to be friendly," Vila protested.
"That," Avon said grimly, "is what I mean."
* * * * * * *
Meanwhile, the tone emitted by the reader had lead Mori and his troopers to a metal door in the rock wall. Mori looked around him. Seeing nothing but rock, he eyed the door again and came to the obvious conclusion: "This is the place, and this is the time."
He gestured at the troopers to hide themselves behind the rocks, then followed their example.
They'd hardly gone out of sight before the door was opened and Dayna, Tarrant and Bershar stepped out. The latter was carrying his spray gun in one hand and four teleport bracelets, tied together, in the other.
"We do not come to the surface any more than we have to," Bershar observed. "The air is not very pleasant."
"I've noticed," Tarrant commented.
Bershar politely gestured at his guests to proceed, then turned to close the door.
Suddenly they found their way blocked by four Federation soldiers pointing guns at them.
Furiously Dayna turned to confront Bershar. "You!"
"I'm afraid so." His face was impassive. "I had no choice."
Mori had no time for niceties: "If you even so much as move an eyelid, you're dead!" He looked at Bershar: "Have you got the bracelets?"
Bershar came forward. Mori held out his hand. Instead of handing them over, Bershar dropped the bracelets.
For a moment Mori's eyes narrowed, but he decided this man wasn't worth his wrath. Shrugging, he picked up the bunch.
"Four?" This was an unexpected piece of luck; he now could double his invasion force.
"They were recruiting," Bershar said, omitting to mention the two bracelets he'd kept back.
Containing his rage with difficulty, Tarrant eyed the troopers. "You weren't quite what we had in mind."
* * * * * * *
On the President's ship, the navigator mutoid pointed a black-gloved finger at a red triangle on the chart. "Computers confirm that we are clear of the planet's detectors and screened from the Liberator's detectors by the planet itself. We are maintaining relative orbital position as instructed."
"Where is the battle fleet?" Servalan asked.
"Battle fleet is holding at nine-eight-six grid four awaiting instructions."
"Good," Servalan said. "Patch me into the Battle Fleet Commander."
The mutoid gestured at the communication console. "Command frequency is open."
Servalan leaned over the console. "This is Servalan calling Federation Battle Fleet Commander."
On the command ship the man in charge sat up straighter. "Battle Commander."
"Your position is confirmed," Servalan reported. "Maintain until further instructions."
The Battle Commander, another seasoned warrior who had survived because of his caution, frowned. He wasn't convinced of the wisdom of the intended action. But one doesn't argue with the President of the Terran Federation--especially not with one who's also Supreme Commander.
"Very well, Madam President." He did a quick check of his instruments. "But I would remind you I do have fuel problems. Can you bring me nearer the objective?"
"We cannot risk them detecting your presence," Servalan said. Forestalling his protests, she added quickly: "Hold position until advised. It won't be long, commander. Out."
Smiling, she closed the channel before he could reply.
* * * * * * *
On Obsidian Mori's troopers made a good job of restraining Dayna and Tarrant. The captives had been forced on their knees and had to suffer their hands being tied behind their backs.
Still furious, Dayna spat at Bershar: "Why are you doing this?"
His face remained impassive. "As I told you, I have no choice."
"I suppose you're going to kill us?" Tarrant enquired, determined to keep a stiff upper lip.
It was Mori who replied, equally matter-of-factly: "Yes."
Dayna saw no need for detachment. She glared at Bershar. "So much for your principles! All that was just talk, was it?"
"No killing," Bershar said in a flat voice. Avoiding Mori's gaze as well as Dayna's, he went on: "They will remain with me. You know what to do. Do it!"
"My orders," Mori protested, "were to--"
"Do it," Bershar repeated, still staring straight ahead. "Or I alert the Liberator. I mean it!"
Again, Mori decided not to waste time on this tiresome man. "Very well, you can argue it out with Servalan." He gestured at his troopers. "Come."
The troopers rose. The man holding the rope tossed the unused end onto the rocks. They followed Mori, disappearing behind a ridge.
Bershar remained guarding the prisoners, his gun aimed at them, his face unreadable.
* * * * * * *
On Servalan's ship the mutoid announced: "Signal from the planet Obsidian on channel four."
Locking her fingers, Servalan walked over to the communication console while listening to the report: "Mori here. First stage of operation accomplished. Second stage begins now."
Smiling, Servalan spoke into the microphone: "Very well. We'll begin approach now. Estimate units will be in firing range in approximately seven minutes forty seconds from..." she checked her timer, "now."
* * * * * * *
On the Liberator Avon had gone to the flight deck, leaving Cally and Vila in the teleport room. A frown of worry clouding his face, he stared at the information appearing on his console's small screen. "Zen, have the detectors registered any firing on the planet surface?"
Well, that was something--but highly unlikely if Tarrant and Dayna had run into a Federation patrol. "Is there any weaponry activity of any kind registering on Obsidian?"
"None whatsoever?" Surely they wouldn't have surrendered without a fight? He stepped from his position. "Run the scan again."
"Scan completed," Zen reported almost at once. "Data is confirmed. The Liberator's present geo-stationary orbit makes the far side of the planet permanently inaccessible to the detectors. Data therefore refers to approximately half the planetary surface only."
Avon rolled his eyes--trust a computer to state the obvious! "I am aware of that."
* * * * * * *
Meanwhile, in the teleport room, Cally was doggedly persisting in her attempts to contact the missing crewmembers: "Tarrant, Dayna, respond please."
Vila had already given up hope. "You're wasting your time. The friendly hostiles have probably eaten them." When Cally didn't respond, he leaned further over the console to stress his point: "And I'm not joking! There's been cannibalism on some of the planets."
He turned to leave the room, halting as the communicator came to life.
"Teleport!" The sound was very faint but the urgency came over clearly. "Teleport!"
"Tarrant?" Cally asked, reaching for the volume button.
"Teleport!" The sound was still indistinct, the voice unrecognisable.
"Tarrant?" Cally repeated.
"It's them," Vila said.
Cally frowned in concentration. "I don't know."
"What's the matter?" Vila asked, irritated by her dithering.
"I don't know." Cally's psychic powers were sending shivers down her spine. "Something's wrong."
"Of course something's wrong! They're in trouble. Bring them up!" Vila flipped the switches.
The teleport sound started and four shimmering black forms appeared in the teleport bay. With horror Cally and Vila saw them consolidate into armed Federation troopers.
* * * * * * *
On the flight deck Avon was still trying to make sense of the situation. Unclasping his gun belt, he said: "Zen, there were three major battles in this sector during the galactic war." He removed the belt, complete with gun, and tossed it onto the couch. "Is that correct?"
"That is correct," Zen affirmed.
"Did either side land survivors or damaged ships on the surface of the planet Obsidian?"
"Available data suggests that they did not."
Leaning with his hand on the couch's back, Avon nodded to himself. "That's what I thought. Zen, do you have any information as to any neutral status accorded the planet Obsidian?"
"No official neutral status was accorded the planet Obsidian."
In frustration Avon returned to his position for another check of the instruments on his console. "Then what have they got that protects them?"
"Information," Zen said. "Medium range detectors indicate eight Federation cruisers approaching at attack speed from orbital blind side."
Avon pushed the alarm button on his console. A siren started wailing. With dismay he saw Zen's message confirmed on his screen.
* * * * * * *
In the teleport room the atmosphere was tense.
"We're under attack!" Vila shouted, backing away with Cally from the advancing troopers.
"Quick of you to notice," Mori observed, smirking.
Cally was furious. Yet she saw no option but to obey these invaders--for the moment. The time to take companions for her death had not yet come. "Who are you?"
"The winner and new champion." Mori made an arresting motion with his gun. "That's far enough."
"We are under attack," Vila repeated, his panic rapidly rising.
"I know," Mori snapped.
"Friend, that means you are under attack as well!" Vila pointed out.
Deciding this trembling piece of jelly could be ignored, Mori aimed his gun at Cally. "Who's operating this ship?"
* * * * * * *
On the flight deck, Avon told Zen: "Put them on the main screen."
Avon looked at the screen. Eight specks of light, in close formation, appeared from behind the planet. "Speed of approach?"
"Time distort eight."
"How long before they reach their attack range?"
Avon quickly moved to the pilot's position. "Put up the radiation flare shields. Clear the main blasters for firing."
"Main blasters are cleared for firing."
"Battle and navigation computers on line."
No time to wait for the others! "Compute an initial evasion course to take the flank ship in delta seven out of line and into strike range."
"Grid one-zero-four, standard by six."
"Execute," Avon ordered, his eyes on the screen that showed the quickly approaching attack force. "Stand by the force wall."
"Confirmed." Zen's voice was as impassive as ever.
Meanwhile in the teleport room, the troopers were binding and gagging their captives.
//Avon,// Cally telepathed. //Please listen to me.//
But Avon's mind was too occupied with the impending battle. He jumped from the pilot's position, strode to the forward console and activated the internal communicator. "Cally, Vila, where are you?" Saving the ship was more important right now than retrieving Dayna and Tarrant! Eyes glued to the screen, he waited for the right moment, then told Zen: "Fire main blasters."
Immediately a green bolt left Liberator, vaporising its target.
* * * * * * *
On the command ship, the Commander watched the destruction with a feeling of shock. This wasn't according to the President's predictions! He activated his communicator. "Servalan, I have a ship destroyed. Do I continue the attack?"
"Yes," came the reply. "But do exactly as instructed. I repeat, do not deviate from your instructions."
The Commander felt relieved. "Will comply." Having given the specific order, Servalan now could not blame him if anything went wrong. Covering your back was an essential surviving trait--in combat as well as in dealing with superiors. "Out."
* * * * * * *
In the teleport room, Cally was sending out her warnings: //Avon, listen! The enemy are on board. Avon!//
Too occupied with fighting off the attack single-handedly, Avon was unreceptive. Having returned to the pilot's position, he checked the various readouts, then addressed Zen: "Are they maintaining formation?"
"When will they be in range?"
" They have been in range for one minute, eight seconds."
Avon raised his eyebrows. "Then why aren't they firing?"
"Plasma bolt launched and running," Zen said.
Avon grimaced. "Should have kept my mouth shut!" He raised his voice: "How many bolts?"
"One only, running true. Five seconds to strike."
"Activate the force wall." Avon braced himself for the impact. The ship rocked violently.
Avon breathed out in relief; clearly the force wall had held. But the danger was far from over. "Are they all in range?"
"All hostiles are in range."
This made no sense. "Then why aren't they all firing?"
"Battle computers can offer no explanation."
"They must be holding back for a concerted effort." It seemed the only explanation. "They are all going to fire at once."
"Wrong," a voice behind him said.
Avon nearly jumped from his seat. With a sinking heart he saw a Federation officer enter, accompanied by a helmeted trooper. Both their guns were aimed at his chest.
"If they did that," the officer continued, "they would destroy the ship. And we don't want that, do we, Avon?"
Avon glared at them, reviewing his options. There seemed to be only one: to surrender.
"That battle command is coming in to corner you," the officer said. "And if you don't let him, I'm going to kill you."
//Avon//, came Cally's voice in his head, // there are three of them.//
So at least she was still alive! Vila too, probably--he'd have surrendered at the first opportunity.
"What do you want?" he asked the officer.
"I want you to get away from that control panel."
Avon stepped down.
"Battle fleet," Zen reported. "Seven elements, closing fast."
"They will ram us," Avon said.
"No they won't." The officer climbed into the pilot's position, clearly taken back by the alien systems.
The trooper kept his gun on Avon. No chance to jump him.
"Where's your open channel?" the officer asked.
Jaws set, Avon indicated the button. The officer pushed it and spoke into the microphone: "This is Commander Mori. I have taken control of the Liberator. Do not fire!"
"Message received. Battle fleet, withhold action."
The voice was unmistakable. Anger rose in Avon but he was distracted by the entering of two more troopers, one of them carrying Orac. Of course, that was what Servalan was after! For a moment Avon wished he had taken the risk and shot her when he had the chance.
And what was Cally playing at, telling him there were three of them while he counted four? Did she mean three troopers? How many bracelets had Tarrant been carrying?
"Servalan's people, aren't you?" Avon remarked.
Mori's gun came up to his chest. "I ask the questions!"
The trooper placed Orac on the armrest of the couch. Avon held his breath, remembering the gun he'd left there. Apparently not noticing the weapon, the trooper stepped aside.
Mori advanced to study the computer. Avon followed him. If he could reach the gun... He needed a distraction.
"So, this is your magic computer," Mori said. "Orac, isn't it?"
"I assume," the machine replied, "your use of the word magic means that I am incomprehensible to you. While that may well be the case, your use of the word is inappropriate."
Slowly, a frown of bewilderment appeared on Mori's face. "What?"
"Your use of the word magic is inappropriate," Orac repeated in its impatient manner. "I am simply the sum of the thousands of data stores which are available to me."
Mori turned to Avon. "Impressive."
"Yes, he's very efficient." Avon saw a chance and grabbed it. "But then, so is the whole ship." While talking he began to move nonchalantly towards the central section of the couch. "The greatest single factor is our armament, together with our main computer--Zen." His subtle stressing of the name seemed to go unnoticed. Good! Now came the tricky bit--he needed to complete the order before the others caught on. Although quickening his speech, he kept up the conversational tone: "As targets bear, main blasters will fire. Nine-zero, full thrust!"
Mori's eyebrows went up. Realisation struck. Mouthing a curse, he aimed his gun at Avon. The sudden recoil of Liberator's blast brought him off his feet. While Mori tried to regain his balance, Avon grabbed his gun from the couch. He let off a shot at the nearest trooper, then ducked behind the couch. Just in time--Mori's shot went over his head. Avon risked another shot. A second trooper fell. Before he could duck again, Avon felt a searing pain in his arm. Damn!
His world blacking out, Avon fell to the floor.
Mori had no time for him. "They'll blast us!" He ran to the corridor. In passing he pointed at Orac, shouting: "Grab that!"
The remaining trooper picked up the machine.
"Come on, get out of this!" Mori urged.
The trooper followed him to the teleport room.
Meanwhile Zen was carrying out Avon's instruction with an almost human zeal. "Targets bearing one-zero." Twice in rapid succession Liberator's neutron blasters fired. Two Federation ships exploded.
Avon lay on the floor, unconscious.
In the teleport room Mori frantically untied his prisoners' feet. The trooper, carrying Orac, positioned himself in the teleport bay.
"Teleport us down!" Mori said, untying Vila's hands. He grabbed Cally by her tied arms and hauled her to her feet. "Get up!" With his free hand he aimed his gun at Vila. "Teleport us down!"
Vila pulled the gag from his mouth. "All right. All right!" He hurried to get a bracelet.
//Vila, no!// Cally telepathed.
"Be reasonable, Cally!" Vila saw no point in arguing with an enemy who was holding a gun against his chest. He put the bracelet on her wrist, fumbling in his haste to obey Mori, while his mind came up with an excuse: "You'll be safer down there."
"Come on," Mori said, pulling Cally with him into the bay.
Vila moved the switches. "Teleport now." With relief he saw their forms shimmer and disappear. He breathed out a deep sigh of relief. "I just hope I was right."
Liberator rocked violently. Vila grabbed the console. The ship rocked again.
"Two plasma bolts struck midsection," Zen reported. "Force wall was not penetrated. Target bearing one-five-one."
On the flight deck the voice and movement penetrated Avon's mind. He began to stir.
Liberator's neutron blasters spewed out another deadly charge. Another Federation ship exploded in a spectacular fireworks display.
* * * * * * *
On the President's ship the communicator came to life: "Battle Fleet Commander to Servalan. I am breaking off the attack."
Frowning, Servalan watched his face on her viewscreen. "What has gone wrong?"
"Liberator is still firing." The commander's voice left no room for discussion. "I'm retreating out of range. All ships take evasion course! I repeat, all ships disengage."
Keeping her fury in check, Servalan switched channels. "This is Servalan calling Commander Mori. Are you still on the Liberator?"
Her voice resounded over the flight deck, where Avon had managed to get himself into a sitting position. With his back against the forward console, he sat clutching his left arm, waiting for the pain and nausea to subdue.
Vila came rushing in, a deep frown of worry on his face. He took in the bodies of the troopers and the flames flaring up from his position. Could be worse: the troopers were unquestionably dead and the sprinkler system would deal with the fire.
"Servalan calling Commander Mori on open channel. Are you on the Liberator? Reply."
Vila ran to the forward console and leaned over the microphone. "No, he isn't. But I am. What can I do for you, Servalan?"
"Vila!" Servalan's surprise came over clearly. "Are you in command of the Liberator?"
For once Vila's mind reacted quickly: "For your information, Madam President, we are all here, ready and waiting. I think I can see you on the screen..."
Not having had time to adjust the sensors, Zen was rewinding the image of the fleet's approach, making it seem as if the retreating fleet was still complete.
"Yes, I know exactly where you are," Vila said. "You are at grid reference one-three-seven-zero. Better start running!"
Vila broke the connection. He dropped to his knees at Avon's side, grabbing him by the wounded arm. Avon let out a groan.
"Where does it hurt?" Vila asked solicitously.
* * * * * * *
On the President's ship Servalan was pacing the flight deck, her fury still under tight control. "Eight ships! Picked men!" She stopped, coming to a decision. "Course for Space Command Headquarters. Speed time distort ten."
"Course computed and laid in," the navigator mutoid replied. "Speed time distort ten."
Servalan calmed down. She'd make the Battle Commander take the blame! "Without that ship we've lost a strategic advantage."
"Madam?" the mutoid asked, unsure whether she was addressed or not.
"But, no one else has gained it," Servalan continued. "Without Blake, the Liberator's no immediate threat to our plans."
"No, Madam President." Agreeing with one's superiors was programmed into the mutoid's system.
Servalan locked her fingers, their nails the colour of blood. "Well, the crew have no political ambitions."
"They are merely criminals," the mutoid said.
"So they'll keep." Servalan sat down. "Until the rule of law has been restored. Until my rule of law has been restored!"
* * * * * * *
On the flight deck Vila had finished applying First Aid, which included pouring a large drink for himself.
Hampered by the large regeneration pad on his left arm, Avon laboriously got up from the floor and dropped down on the couch. "What's happening?"
"All gone," Vila said.
"Orac?" Avon asked.
"Gone as well." Vila sat down beside him, raising his glass. "Cheers." He took a large swig.
Avon recognised the signs: Vila was being evasive. "The battle fleet?"
"Ran away. Expect they'll be back."
"Cally?" The fact she wasn't here to do the First Aid must mean something had happened to her.
"They took her when they took Orac."
Then she might be still alive! Unwilling to raise his hopes, Avon summarised their situation: "A mess."
"Never mind." Vila produced an encouraging smile. "We're still here."
A great consolation! Avon rolled his eyes. Sensing the warmth on his arm as the pad began its work, he gently touched the bandage.
"It's not serious," Vila said. "The pad'll take care of it, if you don't fiddle with it." He paused, then added: "You did very well there, I must say."
Avon sighed. "Must you?"
"Here, go on." Vila held out his drink. "Adrenalin and soma. It's very relaxing."
"No thanks," Avon said while a panel at one of the consoles exploded, sending sparks flying. "I need my wits about me."
"If you say so." Vila downed his glass.
* * * * * * *
On Obsidian Bershar had taken his prisoners back to the surveillance room, where they now sat with their hands tied behind their backs. All attempts to wriggle free from the cords had been in vain.
The Pyroan surveillance system had picked up the exchange between Servalan and the Battle Commander. In silence they'd listened to the Commander's order for the ships to disengage.
"So," Tarrant observed, "no battle fleet."
"They'll be back," Bershar said, staring at a surveillance screen.
His certainty threw Tarrant. "How do you know?"
"You're not the only one who wants Obsidian. Servalan will regroup and rearm her battle fleet."
"You made a mistake, Bershar," Dayna said, intent on shattering his complacency. "You backed Servalan and you lost."
"Not yet." Still staring at the screen, he repeated to himself: "Not yet!"
"You know what Servalan is," Dayna continued.
Bershar turned away from the screen, confronting her. "And are you any better?" He stormed to the door, shouting "Out of my way!" to the man standing guard there.
The man stepped aside. The door slid open but before Bershar could pass, his father entered, followed by the robot. "You are not going anywhere, my son!"
"Let me go!" Bershar's upbringing prevented him from making a run for it.
"You somehow overcame your peaceful conditioning." Hower stepped into the room, past his son who stood as if paralysed. "When you were a child, the therapists said that you were at risk. I welcomed this possibility because I needed, I thought, one man who could think aggressively like my enemies."
"I have not renounced the theory of peace," Bershar said, desperately trying to find the words to convince his father. "Servalan is more powerful than these people. Tomorrow or the next day they will go, and Servalan will be back with her battle fleet."
"Guided here again by you, no doubt," Tarrant observed. "It is very plain what has happened, Hower!"
"My choice was to make Servalan our ally," Bershar went on. "I never took these people seriously. Nor should you, Father!" Seeing his father's unrelenting face, he cried out: "I don't want to die!"
"You have taken the vow," Hower said.
"What choice did I have?" Bershar spat. "What choice have any of us had? You've turned us all into peace puppets. We're at anybody's mercy! And I tell you, Servalan will return!"
"Then the vow will be put into effect."
Hearing the calm purpose in his father's voice, Bershar cried: "You're mad. You're all mad! We've no way of keeping the vandals out. We must defend ourselves or we'll die, all of us! I don't want to die, not for a stupid ideal that can never work!" He drew breath, then uttered the unforgivable words: "Homo Sapiens cannot be changed, don't you understand that?"
As soon as the words were out, Bershar knew he was lost.
"My son, the animal rules you!" Hower raised his hand. The robot drew a silver-coloured gun.
Bershar backed away. "Oh, no, for pity's sake!"
But pity had no place in the Pyroan society. The gun flashed and Bershar collapsed. Two Pyroans silently stepped forward, their faces expressionless. They picked up the body and carried it away.
Hower sank down in a chair. "Before you ask, it was a lethal dose."
Dayna could hardly believe it--a father killing his own child? No wonder she'd failed to bring over to these people the pain her father's death had brought her.
Better stick to practical matters. "You heard what he said. Servalan will be back."
Ignoring her words, Hower gestured at the robot. "Release them."
The robot emitted a purple ray and the prisoners' bonds fell away. Dayna and Tarrant rubbed their wrists--the cords had been tight.
"Give them their bracelets." Hower said. Two Pyroans hurried to hand them their guns and the two bracelets Bershar had kept from Mori. Dayna and Tarrant swiftly rose and put on their gun-belts, relieved to be armed again.
"You are free to go," Hower told them. "If you stay any longer you will be in danger. Come."
While they followed him, Tarrant asked: "What is this vow you spoke of?"
"We are all dying, very slowly," Hower replied, moving towards a side panel. "The whole planet is contaminated with radioactive fallout."
"But you've had no wars here," Dayna exclaimed.
"There is a nuclear device buried deep in the heart of the planet." Hower pointed at a button encased by a transparent cover. "One touch of that button and it blows."
Dayna stared at him in disbelief: "You'd never do that!"
"Yes, we would," Hower said. "We warned the Federation of it and we warned Servalan of it. How do you think we survived the war? We warned any fleet that landed that we'd blow them up and ourselves with it. So they never landed."
"But you'd never do it," Dayna repeated.
"We would," Hower stated. "It is the truth we live by."
Tarrant had his mind on other things. He didn't like this talk about contamination--Zen should have warned them about the danger! "But this radioactive fallout, why? The device in the core of the planet--is it seeping? Is it defective? Is that why you are all dying? Is the volcano spraying it out?"
"No more questions." Hower sat down in front of the panel, his back to them. "You must go while you can."
The sooner the better! "Goodbye," Tarrant said. "And good luck."
Dayna was already leaving. Tarrant quickly followed her from the room.
When they'd gone, Hower said softly to himself: "My son was wrong. There must be peace!"
Outside, Dayna scanned the surroundings while Tarrant closed the door in the rocks. The coast seemed clear. "What now?," she asked. "Back to the ship?"
"If we've still got a ship to go back to." Only one way to find out: Tarrant raised his arm to speak into his bracelet communicator.
* * * * * * *
On the flight deck Avon and Vila were busy on repairing Vila's console. Suddenly Tarrant's voice came over the open channel: "Tarrant to Liberator."
Avon handed his laser probe to Vila and dashed to the communicator; he'd not really expected to hear from him again. "Yes. Are you all right?"
"Yes," Tarrant said. "Are you?"
"Not really, we took some heavy shots," Avon replied. "Our steering control is damaged and the energy banks are almost exhausted. Zen got a little over-enthusiastic."
"My information," Tarrant reported, "is that the battle fleet will be back, probably reinforced, possibly very soon. Are you in a position to take them on?"
"I will be very lucky to be in a position to run! Suggest you come back aboard immediately, except..." Avon hesitated; they needed Orac--and there was still a chance that Cally was alive.
"Yes, what?" Tarrant prompted.
"The Federation Commandos got Orac and Cally."
"Where did they teleport?" Tarrant asked.
"About two miles due north of your present position."
"That brings us near the volcano," Tarrant said.
"What do you want to do?" Avon's voice was neutral, leaving the decision to him.
Tarrant nodded. "We'll look for them."
Dayna glared at him. He could have asked her before committing them both!
"All right, but you haven't much time," Avon warned. "If you are not back here in an hour I shall have to consider the safety of the Liberator as the first priority. Do you understand me?"
All too well! Dayna grimaced; he'd leave without them.
"Yes, I do," Tarrant said. "One hour."
"Let's move." Dayna checked her sensor, which had been returned to her along with the gun and bracelet, then set off at a brisk pace. Tarrant followed her. Their route went up, nearer to the crater. They climbed up a ridge. From the top they could see the flames and smoke--nearer than was comfortable. The sight of nature's violence brought up a thought in Dayna: "I hope that old man's wrong about Homo Sapiens."
* * * * * * *
In a cave near the volcano's crater the trooper was retying Cally's feet. She sat suffering his ministrations in silent fury. Mori sat further back, a buzzing Orac at his feet.
"I don't know why we brought you," Mori remarked, morosely eyeing the trooper's handiwork.
"I'm useful as a hostage, aren't I?," Cally replied. She found herself staring into the barrel of Mori's gun. Cally forced herself to show no fear. "If the Pyroans get you, you'll be killed."
Mori shook his head. "They wouldn't kill us; they wouldn't kill anybody. Besides, no one's going to come this close to that!" He indicated the crater with his gun.
Cally did not reply.
Stung by her silence, Mori pointed out: "We know that Servalan is coming with more reinforcements. We know that we're safe here until she does. We also know that we're going to get at least a million credits from her for this little toy." But he wasn't as sure of Servalan's plans as he pretended. The last thing he needed was being marooned here. The pacifist natives might form no threat, the same couldn't be said of the planet's wildlife. And there was that nasty volcano... Better try to even the odds.
Mori raised his voice: "So, Orac."
The machine buzzed on.
"I'm talking to you," Mori snapped. "You can provide Servalan with a flight path that evades the long range detectors on this planet. That will come in very useful. Can you do that?"
"I have access to the necessary data banks." Orac sounded brisk and businesslike, a far cry from its usual obstructiveness. "It is really quite simple. If an attacking force comes in at zero-three-seven degrees approach they will find the blind spot in the detectors and thence can use tactical missiles with impunity."
Listening to the machine's glib co-operation, Cally wished she had her hands free to hurl it into the volcano.
* * * * * * *
"If you come in at that approach, you will find no detectors to pick you up. And no opposition."
On her ship, Servalan listened to Mori's words with rising satisfaction. "Excellent."
Seated at her command chair, she locked her fingers while assessing the situation. It didn't take her long to reach a decision: "We will regroup immediately and approach on that bearing."
"Right," came Mori's voice. "And don't forget us."
"How could I?" Her voice was honey-sweet. Smiling, she switched off the speaker. "You have Orac." And once he had handed over the computer, his usefulness would have ended. Mori was far too ambitious! How fortunate that his skills did not match his aspirations.
"Battle Fleet Commander," she called, activating the vid-and-voice link. "You heard that?"
The commander's face appeared on her viewscreen. "Yes."
He displayed no enthusiasm. All right, she'd give him some safe action. "I think it's time we tested the determination of the Pyroans."
His face lit up and he sat up a bit straighter. "I agree."
"Use limited tactical missiles," Servalan said. "You should get a ninety percent kill on the first strike."
"Thank you for the honour. We will not fail you this time." He was almost smiling now. "What about the Liberator? Is it damaged beyond possibility of repair in the time? We can destroy it for you, Servalan."
Take his revenge on the ship that had destroyed half of his fleet--she could understand his feelings. But there were more important things than an officer's hurt pride. "No."
On the other hand, the ship might become a threat again one day. If she could not have it, better make sure no-one else did. Servalan rose and began to move gracefully to the control panel. "Yes, destroy it, Commander. Destroy it completely!"
* * * * * * *
On Liberator's flight deck Avon had finished the repairs on Vila's console and was now checking the damage to the pilot's position. His arm healed, he'd discarded the regeneration pad. "Zen," he said, "correction thirteen-twenty-seven on steering calculation. Is function restored yet?"
"Autorepair systems are still operating."
Not the answer he'd wanted to hear. "What is the state of the energy banks?"
"One fifth of capacity only."
"Using emergency boosters, can I set a course?"
At his position, Vila sat listening to the conversation. He scowled, seeing his opinion of computers confirmed once more: never there when you needed them!
"All right," Avon said. "That means I have to take a chance. Zen, put all emergency circuits into action."
"Zen, do you hear me?" Avon asked. "Put all emergency circuits into action!"
"Emergency circuits are not yet available."
Vila exchanged a look with Avon. Well, computers were useless--he'd said so all along, hadn't he?
* * * * * * *
In the cave Mori became increasingly jumpy. It was taking too long! The constant rumble of the volcano was getting on his nerves. Besides, here in this cave they were a sitting target.
The faint sound of rolling pebbles made him jump up. "What's that?" He stormed from the cave. "I thought I heard someone."
In the cave the trooper hastened to gag Cally.
Mori looked around, trying to gauge a sound over the volcano's noise. The fact that there was no-one in sight did not reassure him. "Come on," he shouted to the trooper while starting to negotiate the rocks. "Or we'll have no room to manoeuvre. Outside!"
The trooper emerged from the cave and began to climb after him.
Left alone in the cave, Cally tried to concentrate. If any people were out there, they had to be warned. But the drug treatment on Chenga seemed to have weakened her telepathy. Desperately she began to send out her thoughts: //By the rim, they're waiting by the rim.//
Although close, neither Dayna nor Tarrant heard her. They had reached the edge of the crater, taking cover in a dip in the rocks.
Meanwhile Cally repeated the warning over and over again: //By the rim. By the rim...//
"Is this it?" Tarrant asked, casting a sceptical eye over the bare rocks just when another eruption flamed up. Boiling pieces of lava landed only a few metres away from them.
The hot smoke blowing against her face, Dayna consulted her sensor. "Round here, yes. They can't last long in this heat."
"They can if coming out means they're dead." Tarrant made to move. "Come on."
//They are waiting by the rim.// The voice was so faint Dayna wasn't sure if it was real. Nevertheless she placed her hand on Tarrant's arm, arresting his movement. "Just a minute."
"What?" Tarrant asked.
//By the rim!// There it was again, just audible above the volcano's noise: //By the rim!//
"I can hear something--a voice."
"No," Tarrant said. "It's the heat."
Dayna shook her head. "No, can't you hear it?"
"Not a thing."
"I can." Tarrant's denial only served to strengthen her conviction. Suddenly she remembered the abilities of the Auronar. "Maybe it's in my mind--Cally!"
"What does it say, this voice?" Tarrant asked.
Dayna concentrated and the voice seemed to become stronger. "It--it says to go forward--there." She pointed, hearing again: //By the rim.//
"That's towards the centre of the volcano," Tarrant protested.
"To the rim," Dayna said. "That's what the voice says."
Tarrant rose. "All right, that's what we'll do."
They moved cautiously forward.
//Look out, to your left!//
Dayna reacted at once, pulling Tarrant away. Two troopers appeared. Their guns flashed.
"Aaaah!" Clutching his leg, Tarrant fell down, landing behind a large boulder.
Dayna scrambled after him; the boulder provided some kind of cover. "Are you all right?"
Tarrant gritted his teeth. "Don't mind me--get them!"
"Right, you only had to ask." Dayna took a grenade from her boot and hurled it at their assailants. It exploded just before hitting them, killing the trooper. Mori was blown over the edge. Screaming, he fell into the crater. For a moment his dark form was visible against the red flames, then he was swallowed by the burning lava.
Tarrant and Dayna stood staring into the crater, where no trace was left of the tragedy. Turning his back to the scene, Tarrant began to search the rocks. The shot had only grazed his leg, he could walk well enough. "Cally?" he called. "Are you there?"
* * * * * * *
Having gone to the teleport room to operate the switches, Vila was thrown by the sudden teleport sound--of course, Orac was able to operate the system!
In the bay, three forms appeared, quickly solidifying. Tarrant, carrying Orac, was flanked by Cally and Dayna.
Vila let out a sigh of relief. "I get an eerie feeling every time Orac does that." While the others stepped from the bay, he added: "You're just in time, we've company coming."
"What?" Tarrant asked.
"The battle fleet's on its way." Vila felt a perverse satisfaction in imparting the bad news. "It's been moving for two minutes!"
"Why aren't we moving?" Tarrant enquired.
"Because we can't." Gripped by a sudden panic, Vila ran from the room. The women followed him to the flight deck. Tarrant quickly placed Orac on the console, then went after the others.
On the flight deck Avon was manfully trying to remain calm. He pushed button after button on his console but none produced a reaction. Hearing the others enter, he turned to look. One, two, three, four--all there. But, unless they got the ship moving, it would only be a stay of execution.
"Zen, flight status?" he asked.
The others gathered round his console.
"The energy banks still require two minutes before power will be available to make navigation speed," Zen replied.
Avon fought his panic. "We'll be dead by then!"
"One minute fifty-nine seconds," Zen reported impassively.
"We are sitting here waiting," Avon commented, just to have something to say.
Tarrant made for the pilot's console. "We'd better take our combat positions."
The others remained where they stood, watching the main screen. It showed Obsidian in the centre. At one side the white dots that indicated the battle fleet gradually increased in size as they approached.
"Look!" Dayna exclaimed. "One of them's peeling off. It's the lead ship. It's going to make an attack on Obsidian!"
"Voice contact from the planet Obsidian," Zen announced.
"Put it on the main speaker," Avon said, while Cally, Dayna and Vila took up their positions.
The voice was known only to Dayna and Tarrant, who recognised it immediately:
"Hower calling Liberator."
"This is the Liberator," Tarrant replied. "Go ahead."
* * * * * * *
In his control room on Obsidian, Hower was deadly calm. "My friends, the Federation have launched an attack. We do not intend to give in. We will not be colonised by the Federation or by anybody else! We will honour our sacred vow."
No need to warn his people; they had taken the vow, like him. But the outsiders in the ship had not. They had not been a threat. Mistaken in their assumption that the Pyroans would want to provide them with a base, but no threat. They deserved a warning. "Withdraw immediately. We bid you farewell."
His hand went to the button.
* * * * * * *
On Liberator's flight deck, Avon asked: "What was that about?"
Tarrant had a sudden image of Hower's hand coming down on the button. "Zen, put up the force wall!"
The flare on Liberator's main screen was so strong it momentarily blinded the watchers. Then the shock wave hit the ship, hurling Cally from her position.
"They did it." Tarrant stared at the screen, unwilling to take the image in. "They really did it!"
"Rather than live as slaves," Dayna said.
Tarrant remembered Hower's reluctance to talk about the source of the radiation contamination. If the bomb had been leaking, the Pyroans' fate had already been sealed. Better go out in a blaze than in prolonged suffering. "They were going to die anyway, remember."
Vila had kept his eyes on his console's screen. Almost unable to believe what he saw, he reported: "Servalan's battle fleet's moving away."
"Any damaged?" Tarrant asked.
Vila frowned. "Hard to tell."
"Zen," Avon said, "flight status."
"Energy banks are now at the lowest workable capacity."
"Well, let's go while we can," Tarrant suggested.
Avon raised his voice: "Execute pre-programmed course."
"Confirmed," Zen said.
Dayna had still trouble accepting the event. "I didn't believe they'd do it."
"Neither did Servalan," Tarrant said.
Avon snorted. "She just didn't care. Her options were to take it or to destroy it. Either way, she won."
Cally shook her head. "I don't think so. She lost, and we lost. Only the Pyroans won."
Vila stared at her, then worded the opinion of all the humans aboard: "If that's winning, I'll take losing every time!"