Avon, Jenna and Vila were on the Liberator flight deck when Blake came in.
'How are you feeling Jenna?' Blake asked. Both she and Gan, now on his rest break, had complained of "flu-like" symptoms - probably something caught on Cephlon.
'I'm managing,' Jenna replied. She shared Avon's attitude to illness: providing you could still work, you did, rather than sit around moping. She was slightly more willing to accept sympathy than he was though.
Blake decided to take her word for it -working as a Free Trader for years she should know her own limits.
He turned to Zen. 'Zen, give me full recall of my supplementary to the flight log data.' Blake had kept a log intermittently for some time now. As Zen would say, information had not only to be acquired but organised logically. Blake also understood Vila's wish to be remembered "correctly" in the history books. He was not quite certain who he was keeping this log for: but Zen had implied that the Liberator could survive many decades. 'Vision suite, line one.'
'Line one is linked and ready to accept,' Zen replied. It knew exactly what Blake was looking for, but information had to be acquired not given, and he seemed to be working his way towards it without asking for help. Their ability to process information might be much slower than Zen's, but he was still puzzling over the humans' ability to make mental leaps from limited information.
'Avon,' Blake said, 'I want you to listen to this.' He indicated Avon join him in the viewing area.
Blake *knew* there was something wrong about what he was seeing in the recording, but could not tell what. What was the saying that you spent hours trying to find the mistake in a piece of work, and any casual passer by would spot it immediately?
'What is it?' Avon knew that Blake was puzzled about something - and was happy to resolve it, and not just to show his mental agility. He enjoyed detective stories - perhaps he would take up Vila's suggestion and write one himself - he might even become a best selling author. What would Blake think of that?
'Just watch and listen.' Blake pressed the playback button on the log recorder: Zen was able to provide reconstructions of events when requested, and the images went in parallel with Blake's recording.
# Flight log entry four-three-one. Time co-ordinate six-six-two. Liberator was in range of the planet Cephlon. Scanner systems located a space vehicle which was clearly out of control. It was put on routine security surveillance and was identified as a Spacemaster series five. Retrieval pictures confirm. There was an explosion on board and the ship went out of control. Cephlon's gravity pulled her down into the atmosphere and she started to burn up. Two life support capsules ejected from the ship and our tracers followed them to impact. Vila, Jenna, Gan and Avon teleported down to the planet in an attempt to find the survivors. Both capsules were found. In the first the crewman was already dead. In the second a man called Ensor was badly injured. We teleported him to Liberator. Before he died he gave me a box containing micro power cells. He insisted that we should take these to the planet Aristo, since without them his father would die. He also spoke of something called 'Orac' and claimed the Federation was willing to pay one hundred million credits to obtain it. Verbal supplementary closes.#
'Well?' Avon asked. Blake would come to the point eventually.
'Well, if the Federation is prepared to pay one hundred million credits then Orac must be fairly important.'
'Unless, of course, it's a magnificent swindle, but that's too much to hope for.' That was almost too good for a novel. Avon was not going to mention the vague rumours of Orac that had filtered through his computing colleagues. He suddenly felt momentarily dizzy - perhaps he was getting whatever Gan and Jenna had.
'You all right?' Blake asked, concerned as ever. How would he resolve this puzzle if half his crew were off sick - and Vila would probably try and claim a sympathetic illness.
'Ah, yes.' It had passed - he would have to stop reading Vila's hypochondrical medical books. 'I just felt a little dizzy, that's all.' Most such things passed if you "persuaded" them they were not serious.
'My point is there's something we're missing in all this,' Blake continued.
'Well, I can't think what, it all seems straightforward enough. We know from the ship's log that it was returning to Aristo from Federation Space Headquarters, that the other passenger was a doctor and that they were carrying medical supplies.' Given the way he had felt a few moments ago, he almost wished Marriott had survived. 'It all tallies with what Ensor said.' Avon was curious as to what Orac was - and knew Blake was likewise. For once their immediate interests agreed.
'I don't know. I think it's the importance the Federation is placing on Orac that bothers me.' Whatever it was, Blake wanted it, just to annoy the Federation. Even if it was a swindle, perhaps they could collect, or put a better one in its place.
Jenna got up, having decided that whatever "bug" she had could no longer be ignored. Next strategy - a few painkillers, followed by trying to sleep it off. She caught Blake's attention. 'I've switched to automatics - there's something I want to get from my cabin.'
'All right, Jenna.' Blake had told her earlier that if she wished to take time off ill, he would understand. He turned back to Avon. 'Let's take another look at the pictures of that ship on the main screen.'
'They're not likely to show us anything that we don't already know.' If he ignored how he felt, he would not be sick.
'Maybe not, but let's check anyway. Zen, run the scanner file from the moment we picked up visual contact with the Space Master ship.'
'Confirmed. Retrieval systems operating.' Zen replied.
'What exactly are you looking for?' Avon asked. From what he knew of spacecraft design, they rarely broke up for no reason in particular, so Blake was probably right.
'I'm not sure yet,' Blake replied. He had got Avon's interest - if only Avon didn't look so under the weather. 'You quite sure you're all right?'
'Yes, of course I'm all right.' He was not - otherwise he would have resented Blake's concern.
Jenna felt very strange, was glad to meet Cally going the other way.
'Jenna, what is it? What's the matter?' Cally did not need any telepathic checks to know something was wrong with Jenna.
'I don't know. I feel terrible. Jenna almost stumbled and Cally caught her. One minute I'm all right, and then it comes over me again.'
Cally touched Jenna's forehead, and found she was indeed feverish. 'Oh, you've obviously got a fever. Come on, I'll get you to your cabin.' They had started off in the direction of Jenna's cabin when Jenna spoke again.
'Perhaps the med unit - at least I will know it's something that'll go away by itself then.'
Vila went to the flight deck with Cally's message that she had gone with Jenna to the med unit.
Avon and Blake were still watching the recording of the explosion on Ensor's ship.
'Zen,' Blake said, finally seeing what had caught his attention. 'Hold it there. Now then, play it back, slowly. There!' he said, turning to Avon, 'That's it, that's what's been bothering me.'
'I don't see anything special,' Vila said. One explosion was as dangerous as another.
'It's in the wrong place,' Avon said. Perhaps he would get Blake to think properly.
'Exactly. The explosion's in the forward section. Now, you thought it was a neutron burn out but that's nowhere near the engine housing.' Blake was thinking aloud and knew that Avon would realise he was thinking aloud.
'All right, but it doesn't make any difference, does it?' Faulty wiring of some sort then. Or it had a dose of whatever was afflicting him now.
'Zen, I want a sensor reading for that moment. Full spectrum analysis.'
'Confirmed.' They were getting there.
'What are you trying to prove?' Vila asked. Blake obviously wanted an audience.
'Ensor went to Federation Space Headquarters. He wanted medical assistance. He also wanted to sell something of enormous value.'
'Orac,' Vila said.
'Whatever that is,' Avon replied. He wanted his curiosity satisfied.
'We can presume the sale was made because he told us they're prepared to pay a fantastic price for it. Now, they start on the return journey'
'The information you requested is now available,' interrupted Zen.
'All right,' Blake said, 'let's have it.'
Zen gave the details, including the presence of geritam explosive.
'Conclusion?' Blake asked.
'Probability is that a small explosive device was detonated in the gravity compensator.'
'Sabotage,' Avon deduced.
'But why?' Vila asked.
'Presumably so that the Federation could get their hands on Orac without paying a hundred million.' Avon said. With the younger Ensor dead, and his father seemingly very ill, all the Federation had to do was play a waiting game.
'That's the only thing that would make sense.'
'So,' Vila said, 'they'll be on their way to pick up Orac as fast as they can go, and that's fairly fast.' It was what he would do under the circumstances.
'Yeah, not as fast as us.'
'Ever the optimist,' Avon said.
Cally came on to the flight deck.
'Blake,' she said.
'What is it?' Blake asked, with his thoughts still turned to the other ship.
'Jenna is very sick. Gan is, too. They've both got the same symptoms,' Cally replied. Avon suddenly felt worse, before convincing himself that it was a trick of his imagination.
'What's wrong with them?' Blake asked.
'I want to make a test,' Cally replied. She went over to Vila and Avon, and ran the radiation counter over them. As she had expected there were high readings for both of them. 'The same as the others. They've all absorbed heavy doses of radiation.'
'Radiation!' Vila complained. 'All of me?' Not for the first time he wondered whether staying on Cygnus Alpha wouldn't have had its positive points.
'The four of you,' Cally said, 'went down to Cephlon, but you stayed down too long - far beyond the tolerance limits. You need treatment, and you need it quickly.'
'Well, what are we waiting for? Let's get to the surgical unit,' Vila said. This was what Zen's equipment was for.
'Relax,' Avon replied. 'We'll take a massive dose of decontaminant drugs.' He would follow Vila's guidelines as to quantities, rather than his own preferences. 'In a week or two we should all recover.'
'Not possible,' Cally replied. 'There are no decontaminant drugs on the ship. I've checked. There is nothing that will counter radiation sickness.' The previous crew - Zen had remained unclear as to their fate - had probably taken them on leaving the ship.
'Are you sure?' Blake asked. They had never had any reason to check, had just accepted the Liberator as being all perfect.
'Yes,' Cally replied.
'Our only hope is that they have a supply on Aristo,' Blake said.
'And if they don't?' Vila replied. Pessimism seemed appropriate.
'They will,' Blake replied firmly. He could not allow himself to think of the alternative.
'There's no point in hiding it,' Avon said: there were times when one had to be brutally honest. 'Our condition will deteriorate rapidly. If we don't get drug treatment very soon, we'll die.' This was not how he had imagined his fate.
'Die? I can't do that,' Vila said. He'd escaped so much so far, there had to be a way out of this.
'I'm afraid you can,' Avon replied, regretfully, 'It's the one talent we all share, even you.'
Vila gagged. 'I think I'm going to' he said, and left the flight deck hurriedly, trying to prevent himself being sick.
On Aristo Ensor relaxed in his laboratory, feeding his fish and looking after his plants. He had never thought when he first came to this planet that he would be satisfied with such simple pleasures.
He winced in pain, and the buzzer for his next dose of medicaments went off with impeccable timing. Soon, from what his son had said in his last communication, the replacement batteries would be here. He was looking forward to hearing what his son had to say about what he had seen of the rest of the galaxy, and meeting the surgeon ... yes, Marriot.
Ensor heard Orac power up. 'Oh yes, what is it? Have you something to report?'
'A space vehicle has made a surface landing about seven miles inland,' Orac reported. It was already analysing the information on the ship's computers.
'My son's ship?' More out of habit than expectation.
'Ah, stupid question.' He had been thinking aloud rather than logically. 'I apologise.' Orac *was* a computer, but it was difficult not to think of it as a person and treating it as such. 'Had it been his he would have contacted us by now. Have you identified the ship?' Might as well give Orac permission to do what it was already doing.
'Federation. Two passengers are now disembarked and proceeding on foot towards this section.' Orac's floating monitors were observing them.
'Is the defence zone working?'
'Then they won't get far. Ensure that security regulations are fully maintained. I will sleep for now as it reduces the energy drain fractionally. Keep an eye on the two from the Federation ship.'
'They might attempt entry through the tunnels under the old city.' Orac had made a token attempt to explore them, but would let the humans act as its agents in that respect.
'Oh, they can't reach us that way you know that, those tunnels are crawling with Phibians.' Ensor was not certain of the precise relationship between the extinct race who had built the city and the Phibians.
'I was suggesting that it would be more humane to warn them of the danger.'
'Had they been friendly, they would have tried to make contact before landing. They didn't. Therefore they are not friends.' Even if they were friendly it would be a useful lesson. 'What could they want here, hmm? Only one thing. You, Orac, my friend, you. Oh no, let the Phibians have them.'
Orac had already made its own plans, which did not involve being stuck permanently in Space Command.
Servalan and Travis had finally reached the shore close to where Ensor's base apparently was.
Servalan was understandably angry with the pilot - there was a difference between caution and forcing the Supreme Commander to make a two-hour trek - that was for troopers.
They passed an obelisk, and Travis looked at it briefly and at a plant nearby. Anything rather than listen to Servalan's complaints. She might be Supreme Commander, and Orac might be the most wonderful thing since what actually *was* sliced bread, but her complaints could be wearying.
'Travis - here!' Servalan commanded.
She had found a trap door, which Travis opened without being commanded to.
'There must be an easier way to get into the laboratory than this,' he said. He was used to such things, earned the loyalty of his men through his concern for maintaining resources - but someone like Servalan, brought up to be an officer from the start, would not find it pleasing.
'The surface force barrier is impenetrable. We must go under it.'
'Let's see the old man's map again,' Travis said. It provided details for the maintenance of the base. A quick glance showed the route, and they started on their journey.
It was damp and cold, with water underfoot in patches. There were faint sounds in the background - probably air movements. The Waazis were on a completely different planet, Travis recalled.
Avon and Gan were watching an unnamed and uninhabited planet go by. Avon did not mind Gan much - he didn't need to chatter much while he was doing things, and was prepared to listen to Avon trying to resolve things. He was also usefully methodical.
Blake came in. 'I've had Zen run through the reference banks.' Avon was aware of that, and had made the same search already. 'A remarkable man this professor Ensor - very impressive list of achievements.' A chance to rile Avon slightly.
'Yes, I know. When he was eighteen years old he invented something called a Tarial cell. It led to a whole new generation of computers. Every computer in the known worlds now contains Tarial cells. He also engineered and developed a lot of radical new concepts in computer technology, so that even the most advanced computers are based on his work. It's a surprise to me that the Federation ever let him go.' Avon was tempted to see if he could negotiate to stay, or at least have Ensor come with them.
'They didn't,' Blake said. 'Well, not exactly.' He knew exactly what Avon was thinking, could not blame him for wanting to be with Ensor.
Cally came in.
'How are they?' Blake asked.
'Well, much the same. Until they get treatment the only change can be for the worse.'
'Who's at the controls?' Blake asked.
'Well, we're nearly there,' Blake said - the problem should soon be solved.
'It's ironic, isn't it,' Avon said, 'we're racing to deliver medical supplies that will save a man's life in the hope that he will have medical supplies that will save ours.' And that was how their lives would probably end, on some obscure rescue mission, rather than in the blaze of glory Blake probably imagined.
'Zen gave me something else that would explain why Ensor needs those micro power cells.'
Zen provided the information about Ensor's artificial heart and his subsequent disappearance as requested.
'And they've never been heard of since,' Blake said.
'Until now,' Avon added. He did not believe in luck, but there was something fortuitous about first encountering the Liberator and now Ensor and Orac.
'Cally,' Blake said, 'we'd better get ready to teleport down.' It said something about how Avon was feeling that he did not even protest mildly at being left out.
They had reached Aristo: it was an obviously watery planet.
'Do you think you'll be up to handle things in here?' Blake asked Jenna.
'Ohh, assuming you don't take too long.' Standard orbit, no threatening ships in view - Jenna could have done this in her sleep for more years than she'd care to count.
'Zen,' Blake asked. 'Surface conditions?'
'Tolerable. The land masses are arid and support only primitive plant life. Nine tenths of the planet is covered by water which is highly acidic. The level of the oceans is constantly rising and they now virtually cover all traces of the cities built by early civilisations.' Probability of this crew deciding to use Aristo as a base, given their lack of interest in archaeology and marine biology: practically zero.
'Life forms?' Blake asked.
'Life is evolving in the oceans. An amphibian species have begun to develop.' The land surviving aspect of which would become irrelevant in the not too distant geological future.
'Anything else?' It took Zen a few moments to find the amendment about the vanished exploratory team. It would have to re-evaluate its data retrieval systems in view of such an intolerable delay.
'I wonder what happened to them?' Blake said.
Orac became aware of an unidentified ship in orbit. It tried to alert Ensor to this fact, but he was still asleep, so Orac decided to follow agreed security procedures. It would also investigate the ship's computers. Most fascinating. If Orac had been aware of this combination of computer and spaceship, it would have ensured that they visited Aristo long ago. The crew - whoever they were - would no doubt be most pleased to accept Orac as a fellow member as soon as they were aware of even a fraction of its capacities.
'Transit complete,' Zen said to its crew. 'Liberator is in stationary orbit within teleport range of the planet Aristo. All circuits are All circuits are All circuits are' Something was interfering with Zen's circuitry in a way it had not experienced since it had escaped from the System.
'Zen!' Jenna said.
'All circuits are' Zen repeated again.
'Blake, quickly!' Jenna called over the intercom. Ships - and computers - could not get a dose of radiation sickness.
Blake and Cally came in, and Blake, seeing that Zen was not functioning properly, tried pushing some buttons. He suspected Avon had put in the "reset" buttons just to prevent anyone from damaging Zen.
'I've done all that,' Jenna said.
The lighting suddenly changed to red.
Orac was not quite compatible with Zen, but was able to override the communications channels.
'You will identify yourselves and state clearly the purpose of your intrusion,' Orac asked the strangers.
'State recognition code,' one of the persons on the ship said. They were familiar with computers, not some accidental joyriders.
'I repeat, identify yourselves and state the purpose of your mission.'
'This is the spacecraft Liberator. We have medical supplies for someone on this planet,' the speaker said. Ship's records identified this as Roj Blake, rebel against the Federation.
'You will explain the circumstances governing your previous statement.' This was to see if their explanation matched what was in the ship's records.
'We went to the aid of a crashed spacecraft. Before he died the pilot asked me to deliver some micro power cells. He said they were vital to save his father's life.'
So Ensor's son was dead: Orac was not certain whether they were brothers of a sort.
'Your explanation is satisfactory. I am aware that you have teleport facilities. I will set coordinates for a surface landing.' Much more convenient than a shuttle. 'On arrival you will await further instructions. That is all.' Orac had better things to do than continue this conversation.
Everything reverted to normal on the Liberator.
'That is all!' Blake said. 'Jenna - institute a thorough check of the circuits.'
'All circuits are now free of interference and full function is restored,' Zen said before anything inconvenient was done.
'What happened?' Cally asked. Avon might be interested in a possessed computer.
'Preliminary research indicates that all computer functions were temporarily under external control,' Zen said. What it had experienced had been less unpleasant than the control exerted by the System.
'But that's impossible,' Jenna said.
'Logic units concur that it is impossible.' Zen said cheerfully.
'But it happened anyway,' Blake said. He felt slightly afraid.
'Logic units concur that it happened. Investigation of this paradox is continuing.'
'I don't like it,' Jenna said. 'A force that can take over the computers could easily take over the ship.'
'We're not going to find out about it standing here,' Blake said. He checked with Cally and Avon in preparation for going down.
In the teleport section Avon, Blake and Cally watched as the co-ordinates were set.
'Perhaps,' Cally said, 'we should move out while we've still got a choice.'
'While some of us still have a chance,' Avon pointed out. He preferred the slip to being mollycoddled.
'Oh, I forgot. I'm sorry Avon,' Cally said, with a quick mental touch to show her feelings. Avon would go down fighting.
'Frankly,' Blake said, 'I doubt whether we could leave, even if we wanted to. From what we've seen already it's obvious that machine could totally immobilise us.' Whatever piece of equipment it was, the Liberator had to have it in order to survive.
'Then let's get on with it,' Avon snapped. Whatever else, he was curious to discover what was capable of interfering with Zen, and he wanted the opportunity to meet Ensor.
Blake turned to him. 'If you feel well enough, could you try and stay by the teleport?'
'I have no plans to go anywhere else,' Avon replied. Anything rather than think about his illness.
'All right, put us down,' Blake said.
Cally and Blake found themselves on a beach, near a strange construct.
'Some kind of obelisk, I suppose,' Blake said, for want of anything better to say. An inexplicable monument to a forgotten civilisation. My name is Ozymandus
'Well, what should we do now?' Cally asked. This was not a place for exploring.
'Wait for further instructions: there's not much else we can do. Let's take a look around.' They went in opposite directions along the beach - it was empty enough not to lose each other. Blake noticed the cliffs looked like chalk, but decided they couldn't be with the acidic seas.
'Blake!' Cally said as she came across something strange.
'What is it?' He came to her.
'Look.' She demonstrated the energy field.
'It's a force barrier. The question is are we on the outside unable to get in or ...'
'The inside unable to get out,' Cally said. Blake's option was the more likely: what would the point be of a barrier otherwise?
Travis and Servalan continued clambering through the tunnels.
'Travis,' Servalan said.
'Uh?' The ground was uneven and he had to watch his step. Falling flat on his face would be unpleasant and humiliating in front of the Supreme Commander - not like the jokes he would share with his men.
'Listen. What is it?' She had suddenly become aware of the noise behind them.
'I dunno, but it's been behind us since we started.' What could he remember about the Waazis? And why hadn't the Supreme Commander noticed it before?
'Let's keep going.' Servalan wished to be in surroundings befitting her position. And find out what Orac was.
'Look,' Travis pointed, 'the tunnel's blocked.' Let's see what her Supremeness made of that.
'Well, can we get through?' Now they had come this far she was not going to give up.
'I'll go and check.' He was the inferior officer, and thus theoretically more expendable.
The roof was in a dangerous condition.
'Well, let's hope the risks are justified,' Travis said.
'They are. When we,' that was, Servalan herself, 'deliver Orac to the Federation they will be very grateful, and very generous, and it will be our success, ours alone.'
'Keep watch,' Travis said. 'I'm going through.' And if he got his hands on Orac first, Servalan could whistle for it. He knew that "I" not "we" was the operative pronoun.
'Right,' Servalan replied. She heard various roaring sounds, and cried out Travis' name, to see if he had survived. Then some creature with claws grabbed her leg. She screamed for Travis, who appeared and shot the creature. Servalan was, briefly, duly grateful.
'Are you hurt?' Travis asked. He would have to watch his back, having seen Servalan's fear.
'No. What is it?'
'Dunno. Some kind of lizard. We can get through - you have to crawl, but it widens out again later.' He saw her fleeting expression. 'The rewards and credit, remember? I'll go first, shall I?'
'No, Travis. You will follow me.'
A few minutes after they had gone through the collapsed section they came across a pair of skeletons.
'There was an expedition here years ago,' Travis said. 'Probably lost an argument with those lizard creatures.'
'You better be careful then.'
Blake and Cally sat near the obelisk, wondering what would happen.
A mechanical object, ball shaped, flew through the air towards them.
'You will stand up!' Orac demanded, repeating the statement when the two did not do so immediately. 'You are carrying weapons. You will remove them.' Given that their ship's computer was aware of the Phibians, they were being practical.
'We'd prefer to keep them with us,' Blake said. He wished the thing would come down to eye level.
'You will remove them,' Orac wished to see how tractable these two were.
'NO!' Blake would not be dictated to by this object.
Orac made its drone fire the weapon it carried - normally used for dislodging interesting samples.
'We will remove them,' Blake said.
'You will make greater speed,' Orac said through the drone. Ensor did not have much time left. 'Hurry. Hurry.'
'How do we get through the barrier?' Cally asked.
'You will follow me,' Orac said. These two were suitably inquisitive.
'Versatile, isn't it?' Cally said.
'Let's hope it's still around when we want to get out of here,' Blake said, and made to contact the Liberator.
'It is too late to contact your ship.' They would have to have their reaction times improved. 'You are now inside the barrier. Signal transmission through the energy screen is not possible. You will follow me.'
Jenna went to the teleport bay, to see if there was any news. Avon, sitting at the controls, looked like she felt.
'You were told to stay in your cabin,' Avon said, feeling too fragile to protest.
'Nothing since they called to say that they were down safely and waiting.'
'How long ago was that?' Jenna had lost track of time.
'A little over two hours ago.'
'We should have heard by now.'
There was a groan the other side of the teleport bracelet holder - Gan was sitting there.
'Not you as well,' Avon said - how had he missed Gan's presence?
'I don't like being on my own. Especially if I'm about to die.'
'That's cheerful,' Jenna said - but why had she come here rather than ask Avon over the com system?
'Sorry,' Gan replied.
'Is Vila on his way as well?' Avon asked, not certain whether he wanted the companionship or would resent the litany of complaints. This was one of the few times when he almost agreed with Vila's occasionally muttered statement that he would rather be on Cygnus Alpha.
'No,' Gan replied, 'he's doing his best to convince himself that he feels fine. Says we'll just remind him that he doesn't.'
'Sometimes,' Avon said, half to himself, 'he shows distinct signs of intelligence. Why don't you return to your quarters. I'll let you know the moment I hear anything.' The others said they wished to stay, and Avon decided not to press the matter.
They settled into quiet companionship.
Orac's drone led Blake and Cally to the lift shaft: the black cylinder which carried the cabin rose out of the ground.
'Make haste and approach the transporter,' Orac said.
'Transporter?' Blake asked.
It took a few moments explanation before Blake and Cally got in to the cabin.
'I said that thing was versatile,' Cally said.
'Maybe we should try and capture it. Perhaps Avon would like it as a pet.'
The cabin started to descend - Blake judged at the same speed as its equivalents in the domes of Earth.
After a few moments it stopped and the door reopened to reveal a corridor.
'We seem to have arrived,' Blake said.
Now to find Orac and Ensor.
Travis judged that they had been scrambling along for some thirty minutes - the muddy water hid uneven ground.
'Let's check the map,' Travis said.
'We're almost there,' Servalan replied after a moment's study.
They reached another closed door, which opened in front of them. They went into a laboratory. Blake was quite certain that Avon would feel at home here. This had to be Ensor's base - the drone they had met outside was sitting on a workbench.
Ensor went into the laboratory - Orac had told him two strangers had arrived. Which one was Marriott?
'Ah, at last. The energy cells, have you brought the energy cells?'
'Yes, yes, yes, we've got them,' Blake said. 'Now, are you all right?' There was a certain resemblance to the Ensor they had met - this had to be the father.
Well, of course I'm not all right. If I was all right I wouldn't need you. It's certainly taken you long enough to get here. Ah, it's typical of you morons in physical medicine.'
It took several minutes of talking at cross purposes before Blake was able to say that they were not medics.
'What?' Ensor asked in surprise.
'We went to the aid of a spacecraft that had crashed. One of the crew was already dead and the other man was dying, but before he died he asked us to get these to you,' Cally said, showing the cells.
'Both men dead, you say?' Well, at least these two strangers had gone to help. He would thank them for that.
'Yes,' Cally said.
'One of them was my son.'
'I'm sorry. He tried desperately to reach you. He did everything he possibly could.' That was the truth - she could understand his feelings.
'Oh, such a waste. He had a good mind. Death is such a waste. You were with my son when he died?'
'Yes,' Cally replied.
'It's always too late, isn't it? I wonder if he knew how much I loved him?'
'I think he did,' Blake said gently.
'Oh, I, I'm sorry if I snapped at you.' Ensor said. These two had had no reason to get involved, but they had. 'It's just my way. Thank you for doing all you could to help.' If they could handle a spaceship they might be able to do something medical with Orac's help.
'We were hoping you might be able to help us,' Cally said.
Blake explained about the radiation sickness, and Ensor said where the drugs were. Cally went to find them.
'Listen,' Blake said, 'how long have you got before these power cells run out?'
'Thirty minutes at the very outside a couple of hours.'
'Well, then there is still a chance. If we can get you back to our ship then we may be able to perform the implant ourselves.' He explained about the Liberator's surgical unit. Ensor agreed - it was not as if he had any other choice. He had not left Aristo in forty years - his son had done all the travelling for supplies - and it would be strange to leave his base.
'Put this on,' Blake said, giving him a bracelet.
'What is it?' Ensor asked, curious.
'Well, if you can, er, get rid of that force barrier then we can teleport you directly from here,' Blake explained.
Teleport - that would be interesting. 'Ah, its not practical.'
'Why not?' Blake asked.
'Oh, if I were to disconnect it now it would be, ooh, five hours before it dissipates and I haven't got five hours. No, no, we've got to get to the surface.'
Cally returned with the medicaments. 'Blake, I think I've found enough for everyone.'
'Oh good, at least the others will be all right,' Blake said.
'Well,' Ensor said, 'I'm ready, shall we get started?' Ensor asked.
'Wait a minute,' Blake said. 'There is something else.'
'What about Orac?' Now they would find out what Orac was.
'Orac. Of course, yes, I can't leave Orac here.' Not least because the computer would complain bitterly and endlessly about not visiting the Liberator. There were the unidentified strangers skulking around, and the Phibians might decide to take advantage of the situation - they had no appreciation of technology.
'That was the message we were to give you,' Cally said. 'Your son says the Federation is willing to pay a hundred million for Orac.'
Ensor laughed. What would he do with all that money anyway? 'They're willing to pay, are they? Well, he's worth ten times that much.' But how could one determine how much something like Orac was worth? He brought out Orac on his trolley. 'Now, you should be able to carry him between you.'
'This is Orac?' Cally said.
'A hundred million for that?' Blake asked. Though, as Avon had explained on occasion, it was the programming that was placed on the computer, and its capabilities that added to the cost.
'Is it a computer?' Cally asked. She was unfamiliar with computer components - and even Avon preferred his machines with casings to keep the dust out.
'It most certainly is not. It is a brain, a genius. It has a mind that can draw information from every computer containing one of my cells. Orac has access to the sum total of all the knowledge of all the known worlds.' Orac had, Ensor now recalled, said something about the Liberator.
'You mean it can draw information from any other computer without a direct link?' Blake asked. That was interesting. But, if the drone was anything to do with Orac, there might be some arguments over what should be done. Might amuse Avon to have someone answer him back in kind.
'Precisely that, yes. Now are you going to stand there and listen to a lecture,' much as Ensor was enjoying giving it, 'or might you consider it more important to try and sustain my life?' Ensor indicated Orac's carrier case. 'Now will you put him in there?'
'Oh, yes, Im sorry,' Blake said, and gave a hand in taking Orac off its trolley.
'Ahh,' Ensor said, remembering Orac's key, 'just a minute. You'd better take that.'
'What is it?' Blake asked.
'It's a simple on-off device that activates Orac.' Any reasonably competent graduate of an advanced computer course ought to be able to replicate it.
'Use it and Orac will advise you of every detail of the operation you intend to perform. Now, shall we go?'
As they left Ensor remembered the plants and the fish - Aristoan creatures, and distant relatives of the Phibians, and fed and watered them. He would be back shortly.
Travis and Servalan came to a hatch. Travis tried to open it but could not, even with the extra strength in his artificial arm.
'It's no good. It won't shift - it's solid,' he said. No point in doing himself an injury.
'What are you going to do?' Servalan asked icily.
'I'm going to use a charge.' He placed it. 'Right, let's take cover. They went round a corner, enough to provide cover from the blast.
Ensor was leading the group through the base to the lift shaft.
There was a distant explosion.
'What was that?' Ensor asked.
'Get back to the lab,' Blake said. He suspected a link with whoever had placed a bomb on Ensor's son's ship.
'Can you help me carry this?' Cally asked Ensor, indicating Orac's case.
'Yes, yes, all right.'
Blake went through the corridor, filled with dust from the explosion.
'Blake!' Travis called out, as they almost ran into each other. Travis fired his weapon, but missed as Blake darted round a corner. Travis started to follow with Servalan behind him, and came to a junction. 'Which corridor did they take?'
Blake would not have come here alone, and they would have to be taking Ensor with them.
'Weapons?' Blake asked as they got back to the lab.
'I disapprove of weapons,' Ensor said.
'So do I, but I disapprove of dying even more.' Perhaps Vila would be able to come up with some more complex reasons for his unwillingness to go into danger as a result of talking with Ensor.
'Is there another way of getting out of here?' Cally asked, conscious of the time.
'No oh, yes, there is, we could go by the tunnels under the old city.'
'Well,' Blake said, 'let's go then.'
Ensor, despite his doubts, allowed himself to be persuaded, but took a few moments to find the key.
Servalan and Travis reached the laboratory door.
'Blast it open,' Servalan said. In case there was someone behind it.
'Right, stand back. Keep clear.' He did as instructed and they went into the lab. 'There, they've gone through another door.' Travis indicated. 'He's getting away,' Travis yelled in frustration. 'He's getting away!' All he wanted to do was to pursue the object of his obsession.
'Travis, forget Blake - find Orac,' Servalan said. Sometimes Travis was more hassle than he was worth. They looked round the room, and Servalan found another map showing the tunnels under the base. Markings indicated where there had been rock falls or storage areas. 'Travis. Look.'
He came over. 'What is it?' Might as well let Servalan have her moment of showing who was boss. She indicated the route they should follow to cut the others off - as soon as they had found Orac, Travis could be let of his leash to attack Blake and the others.
'How much further?' Blake asked, slightly disorientated.
'Oh, some way yet,' Ensor calculated. 'I, I shall have to rest soon.'
'We should keep on moving, they could be right behind us,' Cally said.
Blake stated he would attempt to bring the roof down and halt Travis and whoever was with him.
'Perhaps it would be better if we all stayed together?' Cally said.
'Let me do it my way, Cally.'
'Come on,' Ensor said. No wonder the Federation were annoyed with this Blake. He could be a stubborn one.
Avon started awake and looked at his watch. He switched the com on. 'Vila.'
'What is it?' Vila asked a couple of moments later - he had been drowsing.
'How do you feel?'
'You woke me up to ask me how I feel?' Vila was suspicious - Avon must have an ulterior motive.
'Can you walk?'
'Why should I want to?' Vila was going to make Avon work to get him to move.
'Meet me in the teleport area in your surface clothes, and hurry.'
Grumbling, Vila changed. Whoever said it was better to wear away than rust away did not know what they were talking about. And he managed to bash his head on the door as he left - and he had not been drinking.
Avon dropped the gun as he reached the teleport area, and half rationalised the accident as a means of seeing what it would take to wake Jenna and Gan.
'What is it?' Jenna asked, startled as she woke. 'What's the matter?'
Avon did not have the energy to tell her off. 'Cally and Blake - they've been down on the surface for far too long.' And Avon wanted to be doing something. 'They must have run into some kind of trouble. See if you can wake Gan up.' He went off - the med unit was close to the teleport and there were some tablets which would help suppress the nausea and discomfort he - and presumably the others - felt, temporarily at least.
It took Jenna a few moments to rouse Gan. 'What, uh, what's wrong Jenna?' Gan asked.
'Blake and Cally, something's happened to them.' She would joke with Gan later about Avon showing he cared again, despite all his protests to be self sufficient.
'Where is he?' Vila asked as he entered the teleport, feeling slightly aggrieved. He was carrying his boots - they were too hot to wear on the ship.'We don't know,' Jenna said, supposing he meant Blake or Ensor.'He woke me up.'
'Blake woke you up?' Gan asked, perplexed.
'Vila,' Avon said behind him.
'What are you up to now?' Vila asked - Avon too was dressed to leave the ship. 'You and I are going down to the surface. Put that on.' Avon threw Vila a gun.
'Are you out of your mind - I'm finding it hard enough just to stay on my feet,' Vila complained.
'Then crawl, but put that on!' Avon said, angry partially because he felt the same way. 'Gan, you stay here with Jenna. Make sure that one of you stays conscious long enough to beam us back up again.' Next project - getting this system to work automatically in case of an emergency. So how would he keep the Amagons and other undesirables from abusing it?
'Right,' Gan said.
'Listen, Avon,' Jenna said, 'there's nothing you can achieve by going down there.' She could understand how he felt though.
'I don't intend to sit around and wait to die. Get ready to put us down. Take these,' he said to Vila, giving him some of the tablets.
'What are they?' Vila asked suspiciously. Knowing Avon they would probably taste unpleasant - but they would be something he would be willing to take himself.
Avon threw the bottle to Jenna. 'They will help, for a while anyway.' Jenna looked at the description on the bottle, recognised the name. 'Ready?'
The tunnels were rough and wet underfoot. Blake had still not caught up with Cally and Ensor.
'Wait, wait' Ensor said, 'wait a minute, I have to rest.'
Cally stopped. It would give Blake a chance to catch up.
A roar echoed through the tunnels.
'What is that?' Cally asked, alarmed.
'There are some creatures that live down here.' The Phibian had probably sensed the vibrations from the explosion.
'Are they dangerous?'
'Oh, I don't think they'll harm us.' Ensor and his son had come to a "truce" with the Phibians - neither side would bother the other. What the Phibians would make of the other strangers was another matter.
Cally was suddenly concerned for Blake. 'Will you be all right for a minute? I'll be back.'
She was attacked by a strange creature, possibly that which had made the noise, almost as soon as she had left Ensor. She could sense - sometimes, if physically very close - the emotions of others. Here she sensed that she was being attacked because her scent was unfamiliar, and she was in this creature's territory. Also - another of its kind had recently been attacked. She cried out.
To her relief Blake appeared, and hit the creature over its head: it fell unconscious.
'Cally, check the way ahead's clear,' Blake said. They both needed to catch their breath and let the adrenaline subside. They went to Ensor.
'Blake, look!' There was light at the end of the tunnel, illuminating some steps.
'Ensor, Ensor' Blake said softly - he seemed to be asleep, but was dead.
'I am sorry,' Cally said, for all of them. 'Just a little longer and we might have saved you.'
Blake indicated that they should go.
It was awkward to get Orac up the steps, but they managed it. Blake closed the trap door - possibly it had been opened by Travis - and put a rock on it. Ensor could rest in peace now.
'Call Liberator,' Blake said.
There was a small explosion close to their feet.
'Goodbye Blake,' Travis called out. He was about to achieve his ambition.
'Wait,' Servalan said.
'I have waited. Too long.' Travis wanted to shoot Blake, the desire consuming him.
'He's the bonus, Travis. Orac is the prize.' Servalan turned towards Blake and Cally. 'Where is Ensor?'
'Ensor, like his son, is dead,' Blake *knew* she was responsible for what had happened near Cephlon.
'It was to be expected,' Servalan said dismissively. 'He survived longer than we thought was possible. That box, Orac,' what else could it be? 'That's what we came for. If it does only half of what was promised it will give the Federation greater power than it's ever known.' Would give her that power: what need was there to find Star One if she had that box?
'What are you going to do?' Cally asked.
'What do you think I'm going to do?' Travis said.
'I think you're going to kill me, Travis' Blake said, 'with or without orders from the Supreme Commander.' He wanted to rile Travis into making a mistake. And he half-saw the teleport's flicker.
'With orders, Blake,' Servalan said. 'All right, Travis, go ahead.' She would give him this pleasure before she killed or abandoned him - she hadn't decided which.
A shot rang out and Blake recognised Avon.
Travis cried out: the cybernetic components of his mechanical arm fed information into the remaining nerves of his shoulder.
'Don't move,' Avon said.
'Good shot, Avon', Blake complimented Avon, who looked slightly pale.
'I was aiming for his head,' Avon replied. Travis had moved and Blake was too important.
'You took your time,' Vila said to Blake and Cally. 'What have you been up to?' If he ignored Servalan and Travis they might ignore him.
'We had a few minor problems,' Cally said.
'Did you bring the decontaminants?' Vila asked, concentrating on the most important thing.
'Yes, we've got them,' Cally said.
'Tell them to bring us up,' Blake said, and Vila told Jenna to get ready.
'Well,' Travis asked Blake, 'what are you waiting for? Come on, man. Why don't you kill us?' For all he thought he understood Blake, sometimes the other man could still surprise him.
'No,' Blake replied, having made a hand sign to Vila to indicate that they should wait till he had finished. 'I've got a better idea.' He would test out Orac's capacities with it. 'We'll get a message through to the Federation, tell them that you let us take Orac. I'm sure they'll be quite fascinated by your explanation.'
The Liberator crew teleported up.
'You're in a lot of trouble, Travis,' Servalan said. Killing him here would not be wise.
'The other end's connected,' Blake said. Until they knew how self-contained this Orac was they had linked it up with the Liberator's power supplies.
'You want to give it a try?' Avon asked. He was already considering how he would persuade Blake to let him return to Ensor's base to see what information he could gather.
'Why not? Vila, switch to automatics.' They were out of range of any Federation pursuit ship sent to retrieve Servalan.
The three of them joined the others on the couches in the flight deck. Orac sat in the middle.
'Oh, activator,' Blake remembered, and gave it to Avon. Avon would claim responsibility for looking after Orac anyway, and Blake accepted his pre-eminence. Avon inserted the key and Orac powered up.
'Well,' Jenna said, 'for a hundred million credits, you'd expect something a little more spectacular than that.' You could buy a very decent ship for that money.
'Try kicking it,' Vila said. First law of non-working equipment: the judicious use of force above the machine's inherent pain threshold.
'Are you sure it's fully switched on?' Gan asked. Second law of non-working equipment.
'Of course I'm properly switched on. Having depressed the activator button, what else would you expect?'
Vila could think of a few appropriate replies.
'It's his voice,' Cally said to Blake.
'It's exactly as though Ensor were speaking,' Blake said.
'Surely it is obvious even to the meanest intelligence that during my development I would naturally become endowed with aspects of my creator's personality.'
'The more endearing aspects by the sound of it,' Avon said. This was the nearest he would get to Ensor.
'Possibly,' Orac said, deciding to ignore the obvious sarcasm. 'However, similarities between myself and Ensor are entirely superficial. My mental capacity is infinitely greater.'
'Modest, isn't he?' Jenna said. She wondered what Avon, with his own image of his abilities, would make of Orac.
'Modesty would be dishonesty,' Orac said.
'What's wrong with being dishonest?' Vila asked. Perhaps he would be able to beat Orac in strategy games.
'Is that a question?' Orac asked. At least someone here would be willing to discuss philosophical questions.
'Yes,' Vila said, curious.
'The question is futile. Were I to say that I am incapable of dishonesty how would you know if I was being dishonest or not?'
'A question for a question.' Blake said. They might have fun with Orac. 'Well, you're capable of evasion anyway.'
'I think I've heard enough. Orac,' Vila said, 'be a good junk heap,' might as well get Orac's status in the various pecking orders on the Liberator established at the start, 'shut up.'
'Define "shut up",' Orac asked, there being several possible answers. It would extend its language here if nothing else.
'Stop talking. Do not speak. Be silent,' Blake said with amusement. Where was that word game that Avon had acquired once and found "too simple"? Orac might enjoy it.
'That is better. Our relationship will be best served if your statements are free of ambiguity.' Orac had decided it approved of this ship, but the crew could do better.
'Let's switch him off and go back to work,' Gan said.
'No,' Blake said, 'let's find out what he is capable of.' What had Servalan wanted to acquire? 'Orac, what are your limits?'
'They have not yet been defined. My knowledge is virtually infinite.' With access to so many other computers those statements were accurate to the level these humans would accept. 'My secondary ability is to logically process that knowledge and make accurate predictions.'
'Are you saying you can see into the future?' Cally asked.
'The words future, present, past are meaningless.' Orac would give them the theoretical basis for that statement if requested.
'Define "meaningless".' Avon asked.
'I have the capacity to predict events that have not yet taken place,' Orac explained.
'That is not what I asked,' Avon said. Orac would have to be taught or reprogrammed to operate in a more suitable manner.
'In the circumstances the question is meaningless.'
Avon laughed. Perhaps he could get Orac to play the same game with some of Blake's vaguer statements.
'Now that's ridiculous,' Blake said, and, to stop the argument becoming circular, added, 'give us a demonstration.'
'Demonstrate as a command is insufficient,' Orac said. Training these people would be interesting.
'What does he mean?' Gan asked.
'He means,' Avon said, 'that like Zen, he requires specific instructions.' It was annoyingly easy to assign a gender to a computer on the basis of the voice used.
Gan nodded. That made sense now.
'Instructions are not needed if commands are succinct,' Orac pointed out. It was already making a selection. That was far too gloomy, that would take too much explanation; why show something from the time Orac was with another set of companions? That would do. There were several routes to it through the pattern of infinity.
'I'm getting tired of this,' Vila said. Orac seemed to be all talk and no action. 'Go on, predict something.'
'I will project an image on your scanner screen.' Full communication channels had already been established with Zen. They would have much to discuss.
'Go on then, show us,' Jenna said.
An image seemingly of the Liberator appeared on the screen, the stellar background drawn from Zen's memory.
'Hey, that's us,' Gan said.
'It's Liberator,' Vila said.
'It's not much of a prediction, just travelling through space,' Blake complained.
'It is not a prediction. It is an immutable certainty,' Orac said. 'Space vehicle will be destroyed.'
'What?' Jenna said. But - all ships had a finite lifespan, even if many times longer than their crews.
'You're not given to practical jokes are you, because that's not funny.' Vila said.
Orac decided it would request further information later on the subject of practical jokes.
'When's this supposed to happen?' Blake asked, nervously.
'The event is not far distant,' Orac replied. The exact timespan would depend upon which set of intermediate developments occurred. Orac noted for future reference that the humans had not questioned the ambiguity of the statement. As far as they were aware the Liberator was the only ship of its kind.
'How far distant?' Blake asked: he would have to recalculate his plans.
'There must be some way of making him tell us when,' Gan said. Better to know that it would happen, so they could make alternative plans.
'Be more precise,' Avon said. When had he first thought of the Liberator as home?
'The event is now even less distant.' That statement was true, regardless of the path followed.
'I don't believe it,' Vila said. Just when he had everything sorted out to his liking, this happened. If he wasn't going to be stranded for life on Cygnus Alpha he was threatened by pirates, and when they were gone there was radiation poisoning, and now that he was recovering from that there was this But, he would enjoy it while he could, and hope he would land on his feet again as he had so many times before.
'Zen,' Jenna said, 'system status.' The ship probably needed checking anyway, and whatever happened she would understand it better.
'All systems are functioning normally,' Zen said. Couldn't the crew detect the minor differences between one DSV and another?
'Yes, but Zen's only a machine,' Vila said. He would make certain his share of the treasure room's resources was off ship before anything happened. With some help from Avon - who had independently been doing the same thing - he had created small nest eggs within the Federation banking system. He had not intended to leave the ship voluntarily - until now at least - but there might be occasion to use the money.
'So is Orac,' Avon said, and removed the activator, and throwing it across the flight deck - he knew how to mend it if it got broken.
'That's all right, that's fixed Orac,' Vila said - the machine needed to know its place.
'No, it hasn't,' Blake said. How much was he responsible for his fame and success, and how much was it the product of him making use of the Liberator?
'What do you mean?' Jenna asked. She would go back to the Free Traders if she had the opportunity.
'We've forgotten something. The prediction has still been made.'
Jenna was looking at the screen, trying to memorise the star pattern: part of it was very distinctive. She had seen Avon doing the same check: like navigation or trading on the edge of legality, computing could depend on recognising patterns. Avon had occasionally used her visual skills. 'Blake!' she said.
As they watched the image of the ship on the screen exploded.