The atmosphere on Liberator's flight deck could be described as distrust bordering on hostility. The new crewmembers Dayna and Tarrant were still wary of the others, especially of the alien Cally. In his desire to be rid of the boring task of running the ship, Avon had given Tarrant a free hand. Regrettably Tarrant's need to prove himself clashed with Vila's longing for a safe and easy life.
Even when they were playing a game together to alleviate the boredom of long-distance space travel, the animosity remained. It was no coincidence they'd chosen Galactic Monopoly, a game that allowed for conspiracy and backstabbing.
"Now that's not fair!" Seated between Dayna and Cally on the couch, Vila stared at his dice coming to a halt on the board. "I'm twenty thousand credits down."
"Come on, Vila," Cally said. "Pay up!"
He gave her a morose glare. "Why don't I ever win?"
"Being a born loser may have something to do with it," Avon, sitting at Dayna's other side, said.
"And a bad one at that," Dayna added.
Orac's flickering lights betrayed an almost human enthusiasm. "Rule 10: a player may miss two turns while on a penal colony planet. On his third turn, he must pay a ten thousand credit fine and leave the colony."
The game required a minimum of five players. Since Tarrant was occupied at the pilot's position, trying to get to grips with the ship's advanced systems, they'd drafted in the computer.
"Now's your chance to come out fighting, Vila," Dayna said.
"Oh, sure!" He cast Avon a spiteful glance. "One miserable little space shuttle while he's got an entire battle fleet waiting for me."
"One cruiser, if you check," Avon told him. "I didn't consider you worth a battle fleet."
Vila scowled at him. "And if I got past it, where could I go?"
An alarm began to sound at Tarrant's console. He studied the reading, then made a manual correction. The sound stopped. None of the others had taken any notice of the incident.
"Come and stay at my hotel in Space City, Vila," Dayna invited. "Only five thousand credits per night, with all your favourite extras thrown in."
Vila sighed. "I might as well give up."
"Don't you always?" Avon said. The alarm started again. Avon raised his voice. "What's the matter, Tarrant?"
Tarrant made another correction and the alarm stopped. "I'm getting a zero-zero-five course deflection."
Avon threw down his counters and rose.
"What about the game?" Orac asked in a childishly petulant voice.
Avon strode to the pilot's position. "What was the deviation the first time?"
"Very little. Zero-zero-two."
"Even a course deflection of zero-zero-one is significant if it hasn't been programmed by the navigation computers, which it hasn't." Avon halted at the console and pressed a button. "Auron is still the reference point, according to this."
"What about the game?" Orac insisted.
"Zen," Tarrant said, "why have we had three course deflections that we have had to correct manually?"
"Analysis of navigation and main drive control computers is proceeding," the computer replied.
"Not very helpful," Tarrant observed.
Avon climbed into his own console, frowning. "But significant. Usually Zen can check all systems in milliseconds. The fact that he is taking longer, suggests that tests are being carried out right down to component level."
The fact that Avon broke his rule to refer to Zen as 'it' was a sure sign of his worry.
Eager to show his competence, Tarrant became decisive: "Vila, Cally, Dayna..." He stepped from his position. "A full manual check on all systems, weapons, force wall, everything!"
They rose. Avon returned to the pilot's position. Dayna took his, while Vila went to his own console. Cally took position at the forward console.
"Information," Zen announced. "Analysis at all function levels indicates that all systems are functioning normally."
"Wonderful," Vila commented. "There's nothing wrong with the Liberator, therefore we must have imagined those alarms going off."
"Orac," Tarrant said, placing his hands on the machine's edges. "A small problem for you. What is the possibility of a directional control fault arising on the Liberator without Zen knowing about it?"
"The chances are that had the game continued as it should have done, I would have won control of the galaxy on a probability of ten thousand four hundred and fifty to one."
Tarrant rolled his eyes. "Orac, it was only a game."
"Orac with delusions of grandeur," Dayna said, "Zen unable to control the ship - I'd say we've a lot of little problems on our hands."
While she spoke the alarm started again.
Avon pressed a button and the sound stopped. "Course deflection is zero-zero-five," he reported. "Speed standard by five and increasing. I'd say we have one large problem on our hands."
Cally turned from the forward console. "According to this, Zen is correct. There's nothing wrong with the ship. I just don't understand it."
"Orac," Tarrant said, "I'm waiting for an answer."
"The ship is behaving normally, and I can offer a high-status prediction that it will continue to behave normally."
Cally watched the computer, frowning; Orac's predictions could be devious.
The ship rocked, bringing her nearly off her feet.
"Course deflection is zero-one-five, speed standard by seven," Avon said. "Zen, put the asymmetric thrust computer on-line and set to automatic course correction!"
"Confirmed," Zen replied. The ship made a gentle turn. "Course now established."
"So," Dayna asked, "who do we believe? Zen or Orac?"
Cally shrugged. "We felt the ship veer off course, therefore we must believe Zen."
"Yet the Orac computer is infallible," Dayna remarked.
Avon left the pilot's position, moving towards Zen's fascia. "Orac has a weakness: a thirst for knowledge. Infallibility depends upon your point of view."
"How about testing his infallibility in the recycling machine?" Tarrant suggested.
"I have already made perfectly clear," Orac snapped, "that the ship is behaving normally. It is obeying Newton's First Law of Motion and will continue to obey it. Further discussion of the subject is now closed."
"Newton's first law," Avon observed, "states that a moving body will continue to move in a straight line and at a constant speed." Both of which Liberator wasn't doing.
"There's more," Tarrant said, the bright pupil correcting the master. "A moving body will continue to move in a straight line and at a constant speed unless it is acted upon by an outside force." He let go of Orac. "Someone or something has got a traction beam on us! Cally, I want a telemetric band-sweep. If you pick up any signals from any ships within ten million spacials, jam them!"
"Right." Cally hurried to her position.
"Zen," Tarrant said, "report any ship or unaccountable object within ten million spacials!"
The reply came at once: "Detector analysis indicates no ship or unidentified object within specified distance."
"Double the distance," Tarrant ordered.
Avon moved a few paces to stand at his side. "There is no known power in the universe that can operate a traction beam over that distance."
"Detector analysis result: negative," Zen said.
"Just because you don't know how to build a high-energy traction beam," Tarrant told Avon, "doesn't mean that no one else knows how to build one."
Avon's look at him conveyed his thoughts very eloquently.
"Information," Zen announced. "Speed now standard by eight. Course deviation-zero-two-zero. Sustained asymmetric thrust draining energy banks at depletion rate nine."
"We'll be in trouble if we have to activate the force wall," Dayna said while Tarrant returned to his position.
Cally looked up from her console: "I'm picking up absolutely nothing."
Tarrant turned round to face her aggressively: "How close were we going to Auron, Cally?"
A superfluous question. "Well, you know how close."
"It's just that if the Aurons are responsible for this," he said, "I wonder what it is you did to upset them before you left."
"I'll tell you sometime." Struggling to keep her temper, she stepped from her position and moved to confront him. "Anyway, Tarrant, this is not the doing of my people. For one thing, they're not hostile. And for another, they haven't developed the traction beam."
"Do they all have your telepathic powers, Cally?" Dayna's voice was full of distrust.
"Some, to a degree, but our powers are limited. I've never made any secret about --"
"What about telekinetic powers," Dayna interrupted her. "The ability to exert a force at a distance. Maybe that's a secret you've kept?"
Avon, watching the picture on the main screen, was getting fed up with the groundless accusations. "There seems little point in blaming the Aurons for our troubles when we are nowhere near Auron."
The others turned their eyes to the screen, which showed a blood-red elongated blob that looked like the intestine of some giant monster.
"That's the spiral arm in sector twelve," Tarrant exclaimed. "That means we're on the edge of the galaxy and into spiral space."
"Hardly a healthy place," Avon said dryly.
"Why?" Vila asked from his position. Up to now he'd been uncharacteristically silent.
"Sector twelve is uncharted," Tarrant explained. "When I was at the Federation Space Academy, survey ships sent to chart Sector Twelve had a distressing habit of not returning."
That didn't serve to reassure Vila: "Let's hope it's a habit we don't pick up."
"Information," Zen said. "Speed increase to standard by nine."
"It looks as if we already have," Tarrant whispered in reply to Vila's comment.
"Information," Zen continued in its dispassionate voice. "Speed Standard by ten. Asymmetric thrust no longer able to correct course deviation."
"Why not turn the ship round," Cally suggested, "and use the main drive to slow down our acceleration?"
"Use brute force in an attempt to counter a force we do not understand?" Avon's tone dismissed the suggestion.
"Then what do you propose?" Tarrant asked.
Avon stepped forward, placing a hand on his console. "Doing nothing."
"Oh, fine!" Vila said scornfully. "I may not be the bravest man in the galaxy --"
"Are you sure?" Avon enquired, keeping a straight face.
"-- but I'd rather go down fighting than doing nothing."
Avon smiled to himself: That would be a first! "We will do nothing to counter the force acting upon the Liberator. We then plot the Liberator's course on the main battle computer flight predictor to see exactly how she is behaving." He turned his gaze upon Tarrant, implying he should have thought of it. "Once we understand how the force is operating, we may be some way toward defeating it."
They all gathered round the screen on Avon's console, on which Liberator's course was projected as a green line.
"Strange," Tarrant observed. "The Liberator's following a curve. Traction beams produce straight-line motion." He raised his voice. "Zen, I want a prediction of the Liberator's course based on existing data."
The green line on the screen was extended, curving even further.
"Slingshot orbit," Tarrant said.
Avon nodded. "Which means that the force acting upon the Liberator is nothing more than gravity. We are falling." He shifted his gaze back to the main screen. "Towards what, I wonder?"
The others followed his gaze.
"Zen," Tarrant said, "put forward co-ordinate eight-nine-zero on visual."
"Confirmed," the computer replied. "Requested co-ordinate on forward detector visual in precise centre of screen."
The screen showed a field of stars between two arms of the spiral.
"But there's nothing there," Vila exclaimed.
"Zen, use long range intensifier," Avon said.
Suddenly the centre of the screen was empty of stars.
Staring at the circle of blackness, Avon said bleakly: "Three guesses, if you need them."
"A black hole," Vila whispered. "My god, we're falling into a black hole!"
They stood rigid, unwilling to accept the grim reality.
Unable to keep quiet, Vila broke the silence: "So, what will happen when we skim round that thing?" He'd rather not know, but he couldn't stand the silence.
"If it is a collapsed white dwarf star," Avon replied matter-of-factly, "gravitational distortion will tear the Liberator apart. Our remains will spread out over the entire surface adding a thickness of a few atoms to its diameter."
"No one could accuse you of trying to hide things from us," Dayna said.
"Why," Tarrant asked, "did Orac lie when he said the Liberator was behaving normally?"
"I did not lie," Orac stated. "Considering the proximity of that fascinating black hole, the ship was - and is - behaving normally."
Avon leaned over the back of the couch to address the computer: "Orac, what is so fascinating about this particular black hole?"
"All black holes are fascinating. Their gravitational pull is so massive that not even light can escape from them. A cubic inch of black hole matter can weigh a million tonnes."
"We know all that," Avon said. "And so do you. So why this particular black hole?"
"The absence of x-ray emissions," Orac explained. "Normally, colliding particles in the vicinity of a black hole emit x-rays."
Avon gritted his teeth. "So you decided you would like a closer look."
"The absence of x-rays highlighted a gap in my knowledge of the universe which cannot be tolerated."
"So without telling us," Tarrant said, "you reprogrammed the navigation computers."
"I have noticed that the occupants of this spacecraft have a lamentable lack of interest in the more fascinating aspects of the universe." Orac sounded unrepentant. "You must excuse me, I have many observations to make."
"Why don't we switch him off," Vila suggested, "and put ourselves out of our misery."
"I would advise against it," Avon said. The absence of x-rays was an interesting feature. "Orac may be gathering information that could prove useful to us."
"Useful!" Vila spat. "He's got us into this mess!"
"Information," Zen said. All eyes automatically turned to the fascia, then to the main screen while the computer spoke: "Forward scan detectors indicate dust cloud density six in flight path. Range: one million two hundred thousand spacials."
"Activate the force wall!" Avon shouted.
"Confirmed," Zen replied.
"We can't afford a drain on the energy banks," Tarrant protested.
"At this acceleration rate, every dust particle could strike the Liberator with the force of a meteoroid," Avon said.
"Confirmed," Zen repeated.
A noise began to screech through their brains while the ship started to shake violently. Hands over their ears, they fell to their knees.
"Information. Ship's velocity now in excess of design limitations. Force wall collapse imminent." Zen's warning was drowned out by the noise.
Vila, Dayna and Cally quickly lost consciousness. Struggling to keep his wits, Avon worked himself towards the couch. Tapping into his last energy reserves, he pulled a spacesuit from its storing place under the seat and began to put it on.
"No, Avon!," Tarrant shouted. "We all go together." Suddenly Tarrant was upon him, pulling at the suit. "You hear? Together!"
Some part of his mind registered Orac's voice: "Fascinating. Fascinating!"
"We all go together!" Now Tarrant's hand was at his throat.
With his last strength, Avon tried to push him away. "There is a faint chance for one of us," he croaked.
He saw Tarrant collapse, then was overcome himself.
The light on the flight deck dimmed. In the near darkness the five humans lay unconscious while Liberator continued falling towards the black space.
* * * * * * *
Disorientated, Tarrant slowly opened his eyes. His gaze fell on Cally, stretched out on the floor unmoving. Now he remembered - the black hole, his wrestle with Avon...
He turned to where Avon was lying, the suit around his legs.
"Avon." He crawled towards him, touched his shoulder. "Avon."
Avon's hand came up in attack but stopped quickly. "What happened?"
"It looks as if we survived the slingshot orbit," Tarrant said, rising.
Avon stood up a bit shakily, stepping out of the space suit. "I would have said impossible. Would have said."
On the floor nearly under their feet, Vila moved and groaned.
"Our hero lives," Avon observed.
Tarrant turned, nearly stumbling over Vila's legs. "At least he didn't try to get into a spacesuit!"
Avon shrugged. "I look upon self-interest as my great strength." He knelt down at the unconscious man's side. "Vila."
Tarrant gritted his teeth. "One day, Avon, I may have to kill you."
Avon looked over his shoulder and gave a sudden smile. "It has been tried." Unperturbed he returned to the task in hand. "Vila, wake up!"
Vila woke to the spectre of six faces of Avon, all staring at him sternly. "I'm in hell -- and it's full of Avons!" He sat up groggily. "What's the good news?"
Avon helped Vila up. "We survived the orbit."
"Fascinating," Orac piped up, while Tarrant helped Dayna to her feet. "Fascinating! A thousand years here would be too short."
They would deal with the machine later, Avon decided. "Zen, increase the lighting." When nothing happened he raised his voice: "Zen! Increase the light!"
The lighting returned to normal.
"Delay regretted," Zen said. "All commands now require prior verification."
"By what?" Avon asked while Tarrant bent over the still unconscious Cally.
"By me," Orac replied. "It has been necessary for me to assume control of the ship. Excuse me! I have many observations to make."
"We'll deal with Orac later," Tarrant said. "Now we have to get Cally into a resuscitation chamber."
He lifted her with the help of Dayna and carried her to the medical unit. Avon took Dayna gently by the arm and they followed.
Left alone on the flight deck, Vila pulled a hip flask from its hiding place behind the couch and took a large swig.
* * * * * * *
In the Medical unit they had placed Cally in a bed covered by a transparent plastic tent.
"Respiration, heartbeat, and blood pressure now normal," Dayna said. She frowned, staring at the pulsing squares on the medical computer's screen. "But there's a lot a brain rhythm activity I just don't understand."
None of the humans could hear the voice that came so clearly into Cally's head. A man's voice, alluring, enticing: //You came, Cally! I have waited for the time that light takes to cross a thousand galaxies. I knew that someone would come.//
"Who are you?" Cally asked.
Tarrant looked at her face, blurred by the plastic tent. "It's alright, Cally. You'll be fine."
//I am the Thaarn, Cally,// the voice said.
"The Thaarn?" she repeated in sudden agitation. That name had brought fear into every Auron child.
"Cally," Tarrant called. "It's me, Tarrant. Can you hear me?"
But the voice in her head blocked out any others. //Do you remember stories they told you about me when you were a little girl on Auron? Do you remember the children's rhymes? The songs you sang about the Thaarn?"
"I remember," she mumbled.
Tarrant knelt at the bedside, his face close to the plastic. "Cally, it's me, Tarrant! Can you hear me?"
"I hear the Thaarn," she whispered. "So near."
//So alone, Cally. So... alone,// the voice whispered. //Soon we should be together. We shall rule the universe together. But now you must sleep...// Diminishing in volume, the voice took on a hypnotic tone: //Sleep, sleep...//
Dayna had kept her eyes on the monitor. "Brain activity now normal. What was it she said?"
Tarrant shrugged. "I don't know. Something about 'tharn'?"
Dayna pulled the plastic away from the bed's head. "She'll be all right now, we should leave her to sleep."
Tarrant moved to the exit and activated the door opening control. "I've got some unfinished business with Orac to attend to!" He left the room. Dayna cast another glance at the sleeping Cally, then followed him.
* * * * * * *
At the flight deck Avon was at his position with a very worried looking Vila at his side. Ignoring them, Tarrant strode to Orac and pulled out the machine's key.
"We will need that," Avon said.
"We'll manage without it," Tarrant retorted.
"We did not complete the slingshot orbit around the black hole as we supposed," Avon told him.
Clutching the key, Tarrant asked: "Then where the hell are we now?"
Vila listened to their conversation, for once glad to leave the parting of the bad news to Avon. He was direly in need of another swig from his hidden bottle, but knew he couldn't get at it without the others seeing.
"Wherever it is," Avon said, "we are not in space."
Tarrant stepped away from Orac. "Zen, run through all the detectors on the main screen. I want an identification of every constellation."
"Confirmed," Zen replied.
Tarrant turned to watch the screen. His eyebrows went up. The screen showed an even blackness.
"There are no stars out there, Tarrant." Avon's face was grim. "There is nothing!"
"All scanners now sequencing," Zen said. "No stars or astral bodies present. Therefore unable to comply with identification request."
While Zen was speaking, Dayna entered and went to stand beside Vila.
"An unlikely possibility," Avon remarked, "is that we have fallen through the black hole into the so-called negative universe of antimatter, where time and energy no longer exist."
Vila didn't like what he was hearing. "That sounds like a way of saying we're nowhere."
Tarrant strode back to Orac and inserted the computer's key. "Orac, where the hell are we?"
"A fascinating place!" Orac sounded almost lyrical. "Fascinating! Space outside the ship has ceased to exist. It is essential that we do nothing to contaminate this place until it has been thoroughly investigated."
Vila felt a longing to smash the machine to pieces.
Tarrant became decisive again: "If space has ceased to exist, let's see how it responds to our neutron blasters! Dayna, two blasts at ten percent power."
Dayna was already running to her console. "Zen, put up the radiation flare shields." She climbed into her position, her hands pushing the relevant buttons.
"Confirmed," Zen said. "Radiation flare shields in position. Neutron blasters cleared for firing."
"Two blasts," Dayna instructed, "at ten percent power. Now!"
Liberator fired. Immediately the ship rocked vehemently. Vila had to hold on to Avon's console with all his might. Before he could regain his breath, the second shot caused another shock wave. "Someone is shooting back," he yelled.
Dayna consulted her console's data: "They fired back at the same energy level!"
"You're shooting at yourselves," Orac said. "Which is making my observations extremely difficult."
This made no sense to Vila: "How can we be shooting at ourselves?"
"Why not, if space is curved back on itself here?" came Cally's voice from behind him. He turned round in surprise - she must have entered silently while they were concentrating on the shooting.
"Cally!" Dayna exclaimed, jumping from her position. "We were worried about you." She put an arm round Cally's shoulders and led her to the couch.
"I feel perfectly all right now." Stepping from Dayna's embrace, Cally addressed Tarrant. "What's happened?"
"You were delirious," Tarrant replied.
Cally looked taken aback. "I can hardly believe that."
"You were raving about the 'tharn' or something." Tarrant's voice held no sympathy.
Cally stared at him. "Why would I talk about a mythical creature in children's stories?"
"You tell us," Dayna said, sitting down on the couch.
Cally sat down at her side. "Well, it seems absurd. The Thaarn is as mythical to me as..." a pause while she thought about a comparison "dragons and unicorns are to the people of Earth."
Vila ambled to the couch. Avon left his position and followed him.
"More important than worrying about creatures that do not exist," Avon said, "is worrying about our present situation, which most certainly does."
Tarrant glared at him. "And what do you suggest we do?"
Avon had his answer ready, of course: "Examine the outside."
"If you want to teleport into oblivion," Tarrant said, "you just go right ahead!"
"The outer teleport transducers were damaged when the force wall collapsed," Avon replied. "Someone is going to have go out through the inspection hatch in a spacesuit and replace them."
Vila snorted. "The time we've been in space without a refit that -- that hatch will be space-welded shut. Anyway, who would risk it?"
"Someone who has a talent for opening locked doors," Avon said.
"And has demonstrated a grasp of the problems involved," Tarrant added, catching on.
Finding Avon's inviting gaze on him, Vila felt icicles begin to run down his spine. "Oh no! Not me - not a space suit." He'd always been afraid of confined spaces and a space suit was as confined as you could get. "Well, it wasn't my idea! One of you can go outside! I never did trust those things."
Desperately, Vila made a last stand: "Nothing, absolutely nothing in the whole galaxy can or will persuade me to wear one! Not a chance!"
* * * * * * *
Ten minutes later the others were listening to Vila's report:
"I'm now in the inspection compartment." Indistinct sounds. "I am now depressurising." Sound of air escaping. "I am now trying to open the hatch." A grunt.
"Use your delicate skilful touch," Tarrant said.
Sound of a stomp against metal. "I used my delicate skilful boot!" A pause. "Can't see anything - nothing but darkness."
Listening to the report, Cally was seized by a sense of foreboding. As if something evil was looming... "Vila, be careful!"
"Oh argh!" His voice held terror.
"Vila, what happened?" Tarrant shouted.
* * * * * * *
In the inspection compartment, Vila was hanging from the hatch by his fingers. He swallowed. "Hey, there's gravity here!"
"Gravity?" came Avon's voice. "Are you sure?"
"Well, of course I'm sure!" Panic took a firm grip. "So would you be if you were in the mess I'm in! If I let go, God knows how far I'll fall!"
"Drop something," Tarrant said. "See how far it falls."
The advice managed to calm him down enough to put it into action. Holding on for dear life with one hand, Vila unhooked his torch and dropped it. The spot of light came to rest a few inches below his feet. Vila let go, landing safely on his knees.
Picking up the torch, he stood. He drew his gun, then tentatively shone his torch around.
"We must be on the surface of a planet." He spoke more to himself than to the others - hearing his own voice had a calming effect on his nerves. "It's hard, and even, like it's artificial." He softly stamped the ground, then did a slight jump. "Gravity feels about normal. Doesn't make sense. Unless..." Vila took a scanner from his suit pocket and activated it.
"Yes, that's it," he said, scanning the readings. "We're in a huge, underground cavern of some sort. No wonder Orac's thinking we're shooting ourselves. The walls must have reflected our blasts." He remembered his mission - better get it over quickly. "What do you want me to do now?"
"Circle out from the ship," Avon said.
"But don't go too far," Tarrant added.
Vila snorted. "I wasn't planning to. I'll call in two minutes. Out!"
* * * * * * *
On the flight deck Tarrant closed the outgoing communicator so Vila wouldn't hear them talk. "Does anyone have even a faint idea of where we are and what sort of mess we're in?"
Cally heard him as from afar. Coldness enveloped her. The sense of evil increased. She could not shut out the voice in her head:
//Cally. Come to me. Come to me, Cally. I need you. Need you.//
"No," she breathed.
//Need you,// the voice insisted.
She felt Dayna's hand on her arm. "What's the matter, Cally?"
The contact broke the spell, but she was still very shaken. "There's something out there." Cally tried to collect her thoughts, to put the impression into words: "A force - something all-powerful and evil."
* * * * * * *
Meanwhile Vila was cautiously moving forward, trying to keep his trembling at bay. He didn't like the dark - you never knew what unimaginable dangers could be lurking in it! The light of his torch was only just enough to make him see where to put his feet. Suddenly it caught the glimmer of metal. Vila knelt down, studying the pieces, some still recognisable.
"Avon," he said.
"Go ahead," came the reply.
"Someone's been here before us. There's bits of what look like part of a spacecraft scattered all over the place." He rose and took a few steps, shining his torch over the uneven surface. "There are also lumps of rock, like meteorites or something."
"All right, Vila," Avon said. "Pick up some samples and get back to the ship."
Vila nodded to himself, all too happy to return to the safety of Liberator. He picked up a large, ragged sheet of metal and put it under his arm, careful not to let it rip his spacesuit. While he bent down to pick up a smaller piece to carry in his other hand, he became aware of a slight tremor.
"Avon, Tarrant, the ground's vibrating!" His heart beating in his chest, Vila turned round. Lights were shining in the distance - pulsating, moving, approaching... "There's something coming!"
"Vila, get back to the ship!" Tarrant warned.
But Vila found himself unable to move. Fascinated, he stared into the flickering lights. "It's a beautiful light. So beautiful!"
On Liberator's flight deck they listened to Vila's voice in dismay.
"Vila, run," Tarrant shouted. "You must get back to the ship!"
"So beautiful," came Vila's voice, almost dreamlike.
They looked at each other, thinking the same: Vila seemed hypnotised.
"Cally," Tarrant said, "make him run!"
Concentrating hard, Cally telepathed: //Vila, listen to me. Run, Vila! It will kill you. Run! Run! Run!//
Her message got through to him. Suddenly freed from the hypnosis, Vila grabbed up the piece of debris and started to run. He tripped, falling forward. His oxygen hose came loose. To his horror he found the air escaping from his suit.
"Tarrant," he screamed, trying in vain to shut the hole with his hands. "I've holed my spacesuit! I'm losing pressure!"
* * * * * * *
Those on the flight deck exchanged glances, nobody willing to put the implication of Vila's sudden silence into words.
Willing himself to concentrate on their own survival, Tarrant ran to the pilot's position. "Activate the scanner and put it on the main screen."
All stared at the flashing lights that appeared on the screen.
"Put up the radiation flare shields and clear the neutron blasters for firing," Tarrant ordered.
"Neutron blasters are cleared for firing," Zen reported.
"Dayna," Tarrant said, "stand by for a fifty percent blast from forward projector. Zen, lock on to approaching target."
"Confirmed," Zen replied while Dayna followed the instructions.
For a moment they saw a metal claw on the screen, then Liberator fired and the screen went dark.
"What the hell was that?" Dayna asked.
"Whatever it was, it knocked out our scanner," Tarrant said grimly.
"Backup scanners activated," Zen announced.
The screen showed the lights retreating.
"It didn't like its taste of our neutron blaster," Avon said.
"It had a sort of claw," Dayna observed.
"Designed to tear things apart." Avon left his position, moving to the screen. "Spacecraft, for example."
"Bio-scanners indicate presence of humanoid life form in the vicinity of the ship." Zen's words brought them back to the stark reality of Vila's fate. In silence they watched the prone, unmoving body shown on the screen.
Cally stared at it, thinking back to the time of their first meeting, when she'd shooed him from his hideout, and he'd stated his wish to live forever. Poor Vila!
Dayna felt an acute longing to be back at the moment when they were playing their game - when Vila was still there to irritate them with his endless moaning.
"I'll go and fetch him," Tarrant said, repressing a faint regret about getting at Vila at every occasion. But a crew need discipline! "We can deep freeze his body until we're back into space, where we can give him a decent star orbit burial."
"Assuming we ever get back into space!" Avon mumbled. Worrying about his own fate served to take his mind away from the loss of someone he'd never acknowledge as a friend . It should not hurt, Vila had been an irritating little nuisance. But useful at times. One could regret his loss on the strength of that.
* * * * * * *
Having donned a spacesuit, Tarrant went on his grim task. Lighting himself with his torch, he cautiously made his way to Vila's body. There he was. Tarrant knelt at the head of the prone figure - and got the shock of his life!
The body moved. It sat up. Vila removed his helmet, an inane grin on his face. "Orac was absolutely right when he said that space had ceased to exist outside the ship. This place has a breathable atmosphere!"
Tarrant was too occupied with getting his breath back for any comment, but silently he swore to get him for this.
Back on the flight deck, they wasted no time on exclamations of joy, relief or welcome; their situation was still perilous. If they couldn't find out quickly in what kind of mess they were - and what to do about it - they might well all end up dead. The first step was to let Zen analyse the bits of debris gathered by Vila.
Vila placed them on the analyser pad and Avon switched it on.
Zen began to speak almost at once: "This item was once part of a main drive stabiliser on a Type Six survey ship. Atomic resonance analysis shows that all the herculanium alloy in the component has been drained away. This accounts for the component's low tensile strength." Symbols of the chemicals scrolled down the main screen. "The piece of rock is a fragment from a beta-class asteroid. All the naturally occurring minerals are present with the exception of herculanium, which appears to have been removed by a process which is not understood."
"Herculanium is the strongest known metal in the universe," Avon observed.
"Correct," Orac said. "The Liberator's outer skin is fabricated from it. It is a contributing factor to this ship's invincibility."
Vila began to look worried. "So whoever-or-whatever-runs-this-place hauled the Liberator in to melt it down for scrap."
Tarrant turned to Avon: "It looks as if you're right about that thing wanting to tear the ship apart."
Before Avon could reply, Orac volunteered another opinion: "We are dealing with a highly advanced technology, far more advanced than previously encountered. They must require the herculanium for a very special purpose."
The frown of worry on Vila's face deepened. "Which means that thing will be back with its friends!"
"Which means," Tarrant said grimly, "that we'd better be ready for them!"
* * * * * * *
Like ancient knights preparing for battle, Avon, Vila, Cally and Tarrant girded themselves and ventured outside. They took up position at the place where the attack had been made, ready to defend their ship. Left on the flight deck, Dayna manned the weapons position.
They didn't have to wait long. Two spots of light - like giant half-moon-shaped eyes - appeared in the distance, rapidly growing. The accompanying sound made clear it was a kind of vehicle.
"It's not the thing they sent before," Vila remarked.
"Stand by, Dayna," Tarrant said into his bracelet communicator. "Something nasty this way comes."
"Tarrant!" came her voice in alarm. "All the energy's draining from the banks. The blasters are useless!"
They had no time to take the message in. The vehicle was now near enough to see its outline. It was square and black, with two rows of large white teeth painted at the front below the lights.
"It would seem," Avon said dryly, "that this crude device is intended to frighten primitive people from underdeveloped worlds."
"It's doing a pretty good job on me," Vila confessed.
Tarrant aimed his gun. "Let's see if it thinks our neutron blasters primitive."
A green light shot from the vehicle, engulfing their guns before quickly dying out.
Mustering all his courage, Vila aimed his gun. Closing his eyes, he pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. "It's been neutralised," he exclaimed, meaning his gun.
The vehicle kept advancing. They waited until the last moment, then jumped aside. The vehicle changed course. Apparently unsure which of them to chase, it kept going in a circle, like a kitten chasing its own tail. Suddenly it ground to a halt. Instinctively, they went to stand close together, warily watching the vehicle.
"Welcome to Krandor, my friends."
They turned to face the voice behind them. Focused on the vehicle, they'd missed the approach of the man behind their backs.
He was human, a man of average length with dark hair and brown eyes. His clothes reminded Tarrant of those of some boring Old Calendar period he'd seen pictures of at school: a tall black hat, short dark green jacket and cape, and white trousers cut in a very unflattering manner that made even the slimmest person appear to have a fat belly.
"An artificial planet, which is the palace of the Lord Thaarn, Master of the Universe," the man continued, waving a decorated walking stick. "I am the Caliph of Krandor. Among other things, it is my duty as the Lord Thaarn's chief executive, to negotiate a purchase price for your ship."
Tarrant took a glance at Avon, whose face bore thunder.
The Caliph moved to the vehicle, waving his stick at it. "We usually use this for rounding up runaway slaves. Oh, quite inappropriate in this instance, but it was nearest at the time. I do hope you understand."
Tarrant had had enough. "We don't understand anything!"
"Of course, of course, my friends," the Caliph said glibly. He raised his hand invitingly. "You will come with me, and all will be made clear."
"No one moves," Tarrant warned. "Any explaining will be done here."
The Caliph did something to the knob of his stick, then aimed it. Pain seared through Tarrant's body. He wanted to scream, but couldn't produce any sound. He fell to his knees.
Through his tears of agony Tarrant saw the Caliph lower his stick. The pain stopped.
"A neuronic whip," the Caliph said, caressing the stick. "It can turn an aggressive man into a gibbering idiot, an uncooperative man into the most willing slave - temporally, or permanently. But then, you've already had an effective demonstration of the Lord Thaarn's powers while aboard your spacecraft, which is to us a thousand cubic cobars of much needed herculanium alloy. We must see that you get a fair price. Double the normal slave rations until the debt is discharged, yes?"
Tarrant saw Avon move his hand stealthily to his bracelet. Well, time he did something! Up to now he seemed to want to leave things to Tarrant.
The move didn't go unnoticed: "You may keep your handguns and bangles," the Caliph said, "if it makes you feel happier." He produced a subtly superior smile. "Only the technology of the Lord Thaarn prevails on Krandor."
* * * * * * *
Aboard Liberator Dayna was desperately trying to regain contact with the others. Leaning over the forward console's microphone, she called: "Tarrant, Avon, answer please. Where are you? Answer me! Tarrant!"
"They won't hear you, child."
Startled, she turned, and took in the strange man in the flamboyant clothes. "Who are you? How did you get aboard?"
"Are you the one that they call Cally?" he asked, ignoring her questions.
Dayna went for her gun. Her hand never reached it. The man raised his walking stick and a searing pain made her body cringe. She fell to her knees, covering her ears with her hands in a vain attempt to shut out the agony.
"In the presence of this you can neither lie nor resist," the man said. "Are you the one that they call Cally? The Lord Thaarn is most anxious to meet you."
"My name is Dayna," she said unwillingly. "Cally is with the others."
The Caliph switched off his stick. The pain stopped.
"Very well, Dayna." He helped her up. "Come with me. Come."
Gritting her teeth, she obeyed.
"The Lord Thaarn sensed the presence of another aboard this ship," he said when they reached the corridor. "One called Orac. Where is he - or she?"
Aware of the man's lie detector, Dayna chose her words with care: "There is no person of that name aboard this ship, and never has been."
* * * * * * *
Frustrated, Avon surveyed their cell. It was of the primitive kind, but functional - the heavy iron bars of the door too strong to displace with bare hands. And they had no means to contact Dayna!
With cold amusement he watched Tarrant try out his gun, feeling an irrational satisfaction when the thing didn't work. "The technology of the Lord Thaarn," he observed.
"The Thaarn is a myth," Cally said from the bunk she'd dropped down on. "He never existed outside children's stories and legends."
"You think this cell is a myth?" Tarrant retorted. He gripped the bars and jerked, then let go in frustration.
"Tell us about the Thaarn, Cally," Vila said.
Avon was about to chide him, but thought better of it; they didn't have anything else to do.
"It's the oldest story in the Book of Auron," Cally told them.
"Well, let's hear it!" Vila sat down beside her. "I like a good story, meself."
"The story goes back to the mists of Time," Cally began, "to the Dawn of the Gods. There were seven gods who discovered the planet Auron, and on it left the first man and woman. A million years went by. The gods returned. They were no older even though a million years had past."
"Not impossible if they had a spaceship capable of travelling at near the speed of light," Avon said. Well, a million years was a bit much, but legend tellers always were masters of exaggeration.
Cally shrugged. "I did say it was just a legend. The gods returned and were pleased with what they saw. And they bestowed on the people of Auron great gifts: new types of crops, which ended hunger; constant peace--"
"And telepathy?" Tarrant asked.
"--and telepathy was promised," Cally said. "But one of the gods was very jealous. He didn't believe that the people of Auron deserved all this. He was frightened they would one day become so powerful they would challenge the supremacy of the gods themselves. And in his rage, he killed another god. The five remaining gods were so angry, they built a chariot for him and sent him beyond the threshold of space and time. The mad god swore a terrible vengeance. He said that he would return again. He said that he alone would discover the eternal secrets and become the one great master of the universe." Cally gave another shrug. "You see? A legend."
"He sounds the sort of character you should keep an eye on, not go around banishing," Vila said.
"On Auron, the name of the Thaarn is a symbol of darkness and evil..." Cally fell silent on seeing a group of people approach.
Their cell door was opened and Dayna was pushed in by the Caliph. He'd removed his silly hat, Avon noticed irrationally.
Dayna looked furious. Well, she seemed unharmed except for her pride.
The Caliph addressed Cally: "So, you're Cally."
She glared at him. "What of it?"
"You are honoured, child," the Caliph said. "The Lord Thaarn wishes to see you."
Tarrant stepped forward. "She stays with us!"
The Caliph aimed his neuronic whip, paralysing Tarrant. "Take her," he instructed one of his companions. The man, dressed in what must be the local guards uniform, silently obeyed. Avon watched them leave in silent fury. No use trying to stop them.
"She will come to no harm, provided that you co-operate, of course." The Caliph waved a hand at another of his companions, a dejected-looking man wearing an eyeshade. This seemed rather out-of-place in the dimly lit environment. Apparently the Lord Thaarn's technology didn't extend to providing decent lighting. "Groff is especially anxious that you should co-operate. He is Krandor's senior technician and has many, many targets that must be met."
"There is a member of your crew we cannot find." The man's resigned voice matched his dejected stance. "Orac. Where is he?"
They kept silent.
The Caliph aimed his stick at Tarrant: "The neuronic whip is on an automatic setting. It has only to sense one lie and it will boil your brains in your skull. Where is Orac?"
Avon held his breath, but apparently the neuronic whip enhanced the quickness of mind.
"If he's not on the ship," Tarrant replied, "I don't know where he is."
The Caliph frowned. "How tall is he?"
Tarrant indicated a height of about a metre.
"A dwarf?" the Caliph exclaimed.
Avon bit his lip.
"We never think of him as one," Tarrant replied straight-faced.
"What is the colour of his hair?" the Caliph enquired.
"He hasn't got any." Tarrant sounded thoroughly co-operative now. "A bald dwarf shouldn't be too hard to find."
Switching off his whip, the Caliph said to Groff: "I will instruct the slave masters to organise search parties."
Groff nodded, dejectedly.
* * * * * * *
On Liberator's deserted flight deck, Zen announced: "All energy banks recharged."
"Excellent. Excellent," Orac replied, happily buzzing away. "There is now little point in further communications between us by audio channels. In future we will communicate by direct sensory link."
"Confirmed," Zen said.
The ensuing sound of their sensory link communication was not unlike that of a row of wind chimes being stirred by a gentle breeze. Had there be any humans around to hear it, they would have found it pleasantly soothing.
* * * * * * *
Leaving Vila and Dayna behind in the cell, Groff took Avon and Tarrant to another dimly lit room, where many men were engaged in tasks. Some were sitting at desks, fervently writing down figures. Others were checking various pieces of equipment. One man, dressed in an orange overall, walked around, noting things down on his clipboard.
"This is where you'll be working," Groff told the new captives, waving a bunch of sheets of paper. "Provided you're as good at dynamic flux mathematics as you say you are."
"It was one of my best subjects at the Federation Space Academy," Tarrant said.
Behind his back, Avon allowed himself a cynical smile. How like Tarrant - the fool should have denied any knowledge of the subject!
Groff stared at Tarrant in open admiration. "You went to the F.S.A.?"
"I'm surprised you've heard of it," Tarrant replied, "if you're from another galaxy." He looked round the room. "What is this place?"
"This is the very nerve centre of the Lord Thaarn's great plan." While talking, Groff moved to the man in the orange overall and handed him one of the sheets. "The gravity generator control room."
Avon went straight to the point: "And what is his great plan?"
"To become master of the universe. He has promised all of us our own planets." Groff headed for a row of desks and began to deal out his sheets to their occupants. "There will be vast estates, and incalculable wealth for all of us." Over his shoulder, he continued to Avon and Tarrant: "You too, if you co-operate. There will be plenty for everyone. We will be kings, and the Lord Thaarn will be supreme emperor."
Following him, Avon looked around him with disquietude. In what kind of mess were they landed now? Master of the universe - the Lord Thaarn sounded like a prize megalomaniac!
Groff halted at an unoccupied table, on which two sheets of paper and two pencils were laid out. "Sit down. There is no reason why we should not start work immediately."
They obeyed, mainly because it seemed more comfortable than standing around.
Tarrant picked up the pencil. "Graphite writing stick? I've never seen these things outside museums!"
His life experience must be very limited, Avon reflected. Pencils were still in use all over the galaxy. Better stick to the point, though: "Start work on what?"
"On the calculations, of course." Groff dropped the last of his sheets on the table, then leaned over the nearest desk to pick up two thick bundles. Handing them one each, he continued: "You see, we have thousands of unsolved dynamic flux equations. Simple enough, but they take time."
Avon skimmed through the sheets. "Why not use calculators or computers?"
Suddenly Groff looked uneasy. "We couldn't do that." He began to move away.
"Groff," Tarrant called, holding up his index finger. "What's that?"
The man turned round, frowning in bewilderment. "A finger?"
"A finger," Tarrant confirmed. "And as you can see, it is better designed for pressing buttons than holding writing implements. So why can't we use computers?"
Groff looked to his left and right as if making sure that no one could hear him, then sat down at their table, bending towards them in a conspiring manner. "The Lord Thaarn will not permit their development on Krandor. He will allow no superior intellects to his."
A weakness which might be exploited, Avon thought with a glimmer of hope.
"Why not?" Tarrant asked.
"I don't know," Groff whispered. "It is better not to ask such questions!
"Perhaps he had an unfortunate experience with a computer," Avon said, savouring the thought.
"Haven't we all?" Tarrant muttered.
Avon sighed. No help there - he'd have to take things in hand if they were to escape. "Groff, where does the Lord Thaarn come from?"
The question appeared to make the man even more uneasy. "I don't know. No one does. No one has ever seen him except the Caliph. Now you must do these equations--"
"And where do you come from, Groff?" Tarrant suddenly asked. Maybe he might not be totally useless after all, Avon thought.
"Xaranor," Groff replied.
"A Federation world that specialised in the building of survey ships and providing them with crews," Avon classified.
"Yes," Tarrant said, playing with the pencil, "all the best exploration missions went to Xaranor."
"I am not a traitor," Groff stated in his dejected voice. "One has to make a new life here, you have no choice."
"Then how did you come to be here?" Tarrant asked.
Groff shrugged. "The same way as you. We lost control over our ship, the gravity generator dragged us down."
"Does it generate a beam or a total field?" Avon asked as casually as he could. Catching Groff's sudden glance of suspicion, he quickly added: "We will need to know that if we are to work on these equations."
The reply came reluctantly: "Total field."
Avon made a point of noting this down. "Clever. It must require a great deal of energy."
"And the new shields require a great deal of herculanium," Groff said, "if the power is to be increased. And the design of the shields requires the answers to many equations."
"You had a family on Xaranor?" Tarrant asked, going up a few more points in Avon's esteem.
"A wife and two children," Groff said resignedly. "I do not think of them anymore. The work of the Lord Thaarn is more important."
"Help us to escape, Groff," Tarrant said, "and we will return you to Xaranor. I promise."
"How could you?" Groff scoffed.
"Don't forget, we have our ship," Tarrant said.
Groff shook his head. "The Caliph has sent out a salvage team to slice it up. Very soon your ship will be no more than a pile of scrap metal."
* * * * * * *
But slicing up the Liberator would turn out to be a more difficult task than the Caliph had anticipated. As soon as two slaves, covered in protective suits, began to cut through a console, a purple ball appeared, floating over the flight deck. The slaves stopped their demolition work and began to move towards it.
Orac, thoroughly enjoying itself, decided to give them what the humans called a fair warning: "I would strongly advise against going too near that. I must warn you that it is a defence mechanism generated by the ship's computers."
The slaves gave no sign of hearing them, but that didn't deter Orac. "Please, gentlemen, I must earnestly implore you not to come any closer. It is extremely dangerous!" Orac's sensors detected the men collapsing. Their heartbeat stopped. "Fascinating!"
"Confirmed," Zen said.
* * * * * * *
Left in the cell with Dayna, Vila once again studied the lock on their cell door. If his special probe had worked in here, he'd have had the lock open in no time. But that fine piece of equipment - the result of hours of careful designing - was useless in here, being neutralised like their guns. Frustrated, he shook his head and returned to the bench.
From his hideout in a room in his inner sanctum, the Thaarn watched Cally who lay stretched out on a circle bed covered with a fleece of thick white wool. The guard's tranquilliser pad had brought her to sleep before she knew what was happening. The Thaarn did not want her to suffer. For a moment he sat enjoying the sight of her pretty face, at ease in sleep, surrounded by the dark curls. Then he stirred himself. Time to make contact, wake her up slowly and show her the great honour he was going to bestow upon her.
"Cally," he whispered. "Cally, you came. I needed you and you came. I've been alone with my plans for so long, Cally. Plans to build a new universe, with no one to share them with, until now." He began to telepath visions to her of the birth of a star system. "The universe, Cally. And the great universal force that controls the universe is gravity. The orbit of the planets, the slow turn of the galaxies." He projected the images to her. "I have built a machine that can generate gravity. When it's complete, it will be powerful enough to move planets, and stars. He who controls gravity, controls everything. We will be rulers of the universe, Cally."
Still sleeping, she began to shake her head violently. "No!"
Taken aback, he began to change the images: a waterfall, a beautiful sunset, a lake surrounded by mountains. He brought up soft music to accompany the images. "You will be the queen of a thousand worlds."
Cally sat up, wide-awake now. "No! I'll have nothing from you! Nothing! If you don't understand that, you're not fit to rule anything!"
"Please, Cally!" Surprised by her reaction, the Thaarn found himself pleading. But all was not lost. She would come round. Clearly she needed a bit more time to get used to the idea. And a reminder of his power! "Don't make me destroy you!" An appeal on her compassion might also help: "I'm so alone. I need you! So alone. Sleep now, Cally, decide when you have slept. Sleep."
His beguiling, hypnotising voice did its job. He saw her recline on the bed, her eyes closing even before her head hit the fleece.
* * * * * * *
In the control room the Caliph approached Tarrant: "You tell me what it is you have aboard your ship!" He aimed his neuronic whip. "Otherwise you'll be dead in three seconds!"
Tarrant, who'd been checking some data on a console with Groff, turned to face him. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Two men sent to smash the Liberator have been found dead."
"The Liberator?" Groff whispered.
The Caliph ignored him. "Was it Orac that killed them?"
"I don't know," Tarrant replied.
The Caliph frowned. "What manner of weapons does he have that can work while the energy isolators are switched on?"
"We don't know," Tarrant said. "None of us knows what type of arms Orac has. He keeps himself to himself."
With an angry gesture the Caliph switched off his whip. "I shall turn out every slave to search for him. He will be found and destroyed. Then it will be your turn." His ominous gaze circled the room. "All of you!"
He strode out.
"The Liberator," Groff repeated, while Tarrant returned to his seat. "They said it was invincible."
"Propaganda that we find useful," Avon said. Ostentatiously engrossed in his sums, he'd been following the exchange with much interest.
Tarrant echoed his thoughts: "Thanks to Orac it sounds as if the Liberator is still intact." To Groff he added: "A trip to Xaranor wouldn't take too long."
Groff leaned on the table in his usual stance of resignation. "Escape is impossible. While the energy isolators are on, your handguns won't work. And it is not possible to put the gravity generator into the negative field mode."
Avon had given this some thought. "But putting the gravity generator into reverse would collapse the floor beneath the Liberator and allow her to fall out into free space."
Groff nodded. "It would weaken the atomic structure of the floor. It's the same way you came in."
"And putting the gravity generator into full reverse," Avon said with rising agitation, "would cause Krandor to disintegrate."
"Worse than that, it would blow up."
Avon decided this wasn't the time to point out that this amounted to the same thing. "Gravity in reverse," he repeated.
Groff shook his head mournfully. "That is why only the Lord Thaarn alone has control of the energy isolators."
He left them with dejected steps.
Avon exchanged a look with Tarrant. Realism was one thing, but Groff's defeatism was beginning to irritate.
* * * * * * *
"Cally." The voice she'd come to detest entered her consciousness. "Wake up!" She did, but refrained from moving. She needed time to think. Ever since she was a child, the Thaarn had been presented to her as the personification of evil. And the legends were right. She must stop him!
"Have you decided?" The voice gave no sign of being aware of her thoughts. So, his telepathic powers were limited - like her, he could send out thoughts but not receive them. Good! The idiot had let her keep her gun, she could feel it in its holster. Of course, with his energy-blocking device switched on, the weapon was of no use to her.
"Yes, Thaarn," she said, opening her eyes as if she'd just woken. "We will rule the universe together" Sitting up, she added slowly, hesitant: "But there's something troubling me..."
"About your friends?" the enticing voice asked. "They will come to no harm."
"No, why should I care about them?" She rose to her knees, turning her head from left to right as if trying to gauge something. "You're using a field, I can sense you are. How can I be sure that I am making the decision of my own free will?"
"It's only the energy isolators, Cally. They have no effect on your free will. I promise."
As if she'd ever believe a word from him! Cally took a deep breath. "If you want me to trust you, switch off the energy isolators. Then I can find out for myself." And blow you to pieces!
"It's too dangerous, Cally." But she could sense the voice wavering.
Stealthily she reached for her gun, shielding her hand with her other arm. "Then I will never be able to trust you."
"Very well." A bubbling sound, then a triumphant: "You see, your feelings are no different!"
Cally drew her gun and began to shoot randomly around her.
* * * * * * *
In the control room an alarm began to wail.
Groff looked up from his console. "The energy isolators have been switched off!"
Avon and Tarrant drew their guns and shot the guards in one sweeping move.
"Get to the others," Groff said. "Get back to your ship quickly!"
"What about you?" Tarrant asked.
"I'll be alright. Get going!" Someone had to work the gravity control switch. Seeing they weren't going to waste time arguing, Groff quickly added: "But if you could tell them - my family - they were always in my thoughts."
"We'll tell them, Groff," Tarrant said.
Then they were gone. Groff hurried to the switch. In the room the other slaves, sensing freedom, were running for the doors.
Groff began to pull the switch. It was hard work. Suddenly he felt arms round his throat. A guard! He must have escaped the shots and was now clearly intent on stopping him. Desperately Groff tried to fight him off...
* * * * * * *
The sound of the alarm had not reached the cell. Vila and Dayna were still sitting on their bench when the lock of the door was blasted.
"Come on," Tarrant shouted while the door swung open.
"What kept you?" Vila asked, stumbling in his haste to get out.
Drawing her gun, Dayna asked: "What about Cally?"
"We'll have to leave without her." Avon's voice was flat.
"Come on, move!" Tarrant said, taking the lead.
* * * * * * *
"Cally. Cally. You've hurt me. Why?"
Ignoring the plaintive voice, Cally continued her search of the inner sanctum. The Thaarn had to be here - she could feel his evil presence.
"No, Cally!" The voice suddenly got agitated. "Stay away! I beg you, you mustn't see me!"
The voice was coming from straight-ahead. Cally cautiously moved to the thick curtain. "I have to see you if I am to kill you." Gun aimed, she pulled away the curtain.
She didn't know how she had expected the Thaarn to look, but not like this - a bald, ugly dwarf.
"I have been conquering time," he said. "But the price has been high; so very high."
Disgusted, Cally turned her back to him and fled the room.
* * * * * * *
In the control room Groff at last managed to knock down the guard. He returned to the switch, forcing it down centimetre by centimetre.
Meanwhile Avon and his group had found the exit of the base. Outside, they found the vehicle ready to chase them again. A few shots at it and they were past. All but Vila. Mesmerised by its lights again, he halted - straight in its path.
Entering the control room, the Caliph saw Groff at the control switch. What was the man doing? He sneaked up on him. "Groff?"
Groff started and turned round. Now the Caliph could see the switch, halfway to the negative. He aimed his neurotic whip. Groff ducked, came up again and kicked the whip from his hand. The Caliph dived after it, retrieving the whip just before Groff could grab it.
Outside, Cally's heart leapt up when she saw the others. Catching up with them, she assessed the situation. Quickly she let off a shot at the approaching vehicle, then grabbed Vila by the arm. "Come on!"
As before it broke the spell. Vila began to run to the Liberator.
In the control room Groff was desperately trying to wrench the whip from the Caliph's hands. He had to finish his task! As it was, Liberator could escape through the opened floor. But the Thaarn could haul it in again with the traction beam. The only way to prevent this was to put the gravity generator into full reverse and destroy the whole base.
* * * * * * *
With relief Cally followed the others through Liberator's airlock. While the lock closed automatically, they ran on to the flight deck.
"Zen," Tarrant said, climbing into the pilot's position, "stand by to activate the main drive, if and when we enter free space."
"Confirmed," the computer replied. "Main drive standing by."
At her own position, Cally silently counted the seconds until Zen announced: "The ship is now in free space. Main drive activated.
"Zen, standard by eight," Tarrant instructed. "Put the rear scanner on the main screen."
Cally looked at the image of the Thaarn's planet, quickly decreasing in size while they sped away from it.
"Information," Zen said. "Detectors indicate that a small spacecraft has left object centred on main screen and is flying on a reciprocal course."
"That must be the Thaarn." Cally began to regret sparing his life. "I should have killed him!"
"What did he look like?" Vila asked.
How could she even begin to describe him? Cally decided this was an occasion to be economical with the truth. "I never saw him."
* * * * * * *
In the control room Groff and the Caliph were still grappling. The Caliph managed to tear his whip from Groff's grip. In pure desperation Groff threw himself on the control switch.
The Caliph activated his whip. Groff held on to the switch with all his might. The weight of his body pulled it down while he collapsed.
Krandor blew up in a mighty explosion.
Liberator's main screen showed the destruction in full colour. When the last sparkle had died, Tarrant left his position. "Zen, I want a course for Xaranor."
"Xaranor?" Cally asked.
"We promised to take a message there," Tarrant said, moving to Avon's position. "Didn't we, Avon?"
Avon wasn't going to show open gratitude, or relief about them not having had to abandon Cally after all. Grudgingly he said: "I suppose we owe Groff that much."
"I'd say so!" Tarrant's voice held a faint threat.
Ignoring this, Avon stepped from his position. "So, the Lord Thaarn escaped. I suspect we have made another enemy." He produced his bleakest smile. "A pity."
"A pity?" Orac erupted. "A pity? It is intolerable! There is insufficient room in the galaxy for his intellect and mine."
"I don't know," Tarrant said, removing Orac's key. "He did have one redeeming feature: he didn't like computers."
"Course for Xaranor laid in," Zen reported.
"Thank you, Zen," Tarrant said.
Deprived of its capability of speech by the removal of its key, Orac fumed on in silence.