Avon felt tired - soon he would have to sleep, whether he wished to or not. But then he had been awake for two days.
'Zen,' he asked wearily, 'are we on schedule?'
'The flight is nine seconds in advance of prediction,' Much to Zen's satisfaction. 'Propulsion computers are amending.'
'Will we be at the rendezvous on time? That's all I want to know.'
'Readouts confirm space-time position will be precisely as requested.'
'Keep on monitoring all systems. I do not want even a fractional error.'
'Confirmed,' Zen replied. It had grown used to the humans requiring assurances of precision.
Avon sat at his usual position. He could afford to doze for a little while now.
Vila watched Dayna and Cally play the card game he had taught them. It could be more enjoyable to watch than to play. Besides, whenever they reached wherever they
were going, Avon was sure to come to the teleport room, so they would be ready to convince him that he needed their help.
He was trying to get Dayna to be slightly bolder.
'Go on, make the move. What are you waiting for?'
'Well, I'm not sure. It's risky.' Dayna replied.
'Make the move. You'll wipe her out,' Vila said. Or at least, end the game in under ten thousand moves.
'Are you sure you can't read my mind, Cally?' Dayna asked.
'Of course I can't,' Cally replied. 'Even if I could, I wouldn't. That WOULD be cheating.' If she was playing with other telepaths, the rules would be different.
'Go on,' Vila said, 'make the move. Take my word for it. Remember, I play this game right up to Galactic Master standards.' In terms of number of moves played.
'Well, all right, if you're sure.' Dayna could understand Vila's evident wish to bring the game to an end. She made the indicated move - only for Cally to play the winning move.
'My game in nine thousand seven hundred and twenty-one moves,' Cally replied.
'Galactic Master,' Dayna said to Vila. 'Thanks a lot.'
She should have seen the other possibilities.
'Wasn't my fault. Cally responded with the wrong move. If she'd made the right one, she'd have lost that game.'
Cally suggested another game and Dayna agreed, only for Tarrant to join them as they prepared for the next round.
'What are you all doing here?' At least one of them should be on the flight deck.
'Keeping out of Avon's way,' Cally replied.
'He's not much fun at the moment,' Dayna added.
'Aren't you supposed to be on watch?' Tarrant asked Vila. Try as he might Tarrant could not install even the basics of military discipline in this group.
'Avon's doing it,' Vila replied.
'Still?! He's been on that flight deck more than thirty hours now.' Tarrant could admire the man for his stamina, even if he could not understand him.
'I offered,' Vila said. 'He said he was handling things and would I please leave. No, that's not true. He didn't say anything. He yelled.' Vila could not remember Avon ever doing that before. 'Told me to get out and stay out.'
Cally and Dayna agreed with Vila.
'What the hell is he up to?' Tarrant asked, as puzzled as the rest of them.
'Well, why don't you ask him?' Dayna asked - half to see whether Tarrant would be his usual rash self and do so.
'Why don't I do that?'
'Rather you than me,' Cally said.
'Watch yourself,' Vila said as Tarrant left, and looked at the two women. 'I told you he'd go check it out himself.'
'That's why we didn't place a bet,' Dayna replied.
'I'm tired,' Avon said on the flight deck, 'but I would like the flight deck to myself for a while longer.'
'No problem,' Tarrant replied. Avon had said he wished to carry out some research - and the others could enjoy the break from doing their watches.
'Thank you.' Avon had been grateful for their intervention in the pursuit of the dream he had called Anna, but this was different. He knew this might be dangerous, so he did not want to involve them.
'Avon, are we still en route for Califeron?' Tarrant asked, knowing they were not. 'Are we?'
'You've changed course?'
'You had no right to do that.'
'There was no time for a committee meeting,' Avon replied.
'You should have told us. If your reasons for changing course were sound nobody would have given you an argument,' Tarrant said, knowing how childish the remark sounded.
'There's always an argument. My reasons for changing course were sound. You can take my word for it.' Slightly better than Blake's "Just try trusting me" that time.
'So tell us where we are going. Tell us why.' That was one reason why Tarrant was half-willing to follow Avon - there was normally an explanation when requested.
'No.' Tarrant would not understand.
'And we're just meant to sit by quietly and let you do it, whatever it is.'
'That's exactly what you're meant to do. You and the rest of them owe me' Avon could not explain to them. He was not certain he could even explain to himself why he was doing this.
' and I am calling in the debt. With or without your approval it is going to be done.'
'How do we approve of something we don't know about?' One of the reasons he had deserted the military - being ordered about with no explanation.
'You could try trusting me.' It had worked for Blake - sometimes.
'All right, Avon, we'll try trusting you.' Avon felt strangely gratified at the admission. 'Just don't expect us to make a habit of it.'
Tarrant was about to leave when Zen spoke.
'Information. Navigation instructions completed. Liberator holding requested position.'
'Scan, three sixty orbital,' Avon said. He wanted to see the truth of what he was facing.
'Confirmed.' Zen acted as requested. The screen was as empty of planets or ships as the route to Star One had been of stars.
'There's nothing out there. We're in the middle of nowhere,' Tarrant said. We must be light years from any populated planet.' He suspected a trap.
'Zen,' Avon asked, 'nearest planet capable of supporting carbon-based life.'
'Disentastra.' Zen had expected this question. Almost a day's travel away.
'There is nothing closer?' Avon asked.
'All systems confirm Disentastra as nearest life-supporting planet.'
'Why here?' Avon asked, half to himself. 'Why bring me here?'
'Do you want to tell me about it now?' Tarrant asked.
'I have followed the instructions to the letter, but it doesn't make sense,' Avon said. Sometimes Tarrant could come up with useful ideas - but any second opinion would be useful.
'I first heard the signal...' Avon began before Zen interrupted.
'Computers are receiving the identifying call sign as stipulated.'
Avon was relieved - and not because he would not now have to explain. 'Then it's all right. Zen - you will remain silent until further instructed.'
'Confirmed.' Now it could get on with its own pursuits.
'Would you mind leaving now?' Avon said to Tarrant.
'Yes, I would,' Tarrant was half annoyed with Zen for interrupting just when they might have been getting somewhere.
'But you'll do it anyway,' Avon said in a way that brooked no dissent.
'Sooner or later you're going to tell us, Avon,' Tarrant said and left.
Avon knew he would have to - but he hoped the situation would be resolved first. If it was a trap - as he suspected - he did not want the others to be involved, he owed them that.
'Zen, are you still receiving the signal?'
'Is it genuine?'
'Full-range analyses confirm the signal is from the original message source.'
'Can you trace that source?'
'The signal is being redirected and boosted through a communications satellite. Trace to origin is not possible.' The satellite was part of the network that had been used to hide the location of Star One and was still used for secure government messages. 'Identifying call sign has ended. Message has begun.'
'Put it on audio,' Avon said, and looked around. 'No, hold that. Give me direct visual readout at my flight console.' He did not wish to give anyone coming in illogical hope.
'Confirmed.' Zen could never quite understand the way these humans thought.
Avon went to his console and read the stylised transmission codes. 'Is that all?' There was something puzzling about it.
'Transmission has ceased.'
'Use the frequency listed. Acknowledge receipt of message and advise I will cooperate.'
'Have you got the new location?'
'Confirmed.' Zen could do more than two things at once.
'Program the navigation computers. Get us started.' Avon was suddenly impatient to get the whole thing over.
The others sat in the teleport waiting for something to do - they were bored of the board games.
Avon joined them.
'You can take the watch now, Vila.'
'Wonderful. I've been looking forward to that.' There were some things he wished to retrieve from there as well.
'Where are we going?' Tarrant asked, hoping that Avon would continue his interrupted discussion.
'Profound philosophical questions never really interested me,' Avon asked, deliberately misunderstanding Tarrant, partially to annoy.
'Not up to your usual standard.'
'Yes,' Avon acknowledged. 'Well, I'm tired.'
'Avon, where is the ship headed?' Tarrant asked, having realised his mistake.
'To tell you the truth, I haven't the faintest idea.'
While Avon slept the others went to the flight deck.
'Zen,' Tarrant asked, 'I want a fast summary of all communications coming into and going out of this ship within the last fifty hours.'
'That information is not available,' Zen replied, partially to see what precisely was the subject of Tarrant's inquiry, doubting it was Orac's private researches.
'Why isn't it available?'
'The information you require has been stored via a coded route, and retrieval is not possible without the correct security command sequence.' That applied to both Orac and Avon's communications.
'And that sequence is known only to Avon, I imagine,' Cally said.
'Confirmed.' Now Zen knew which information sequence they would not be given.
'You've got to hand it to Avon,' Vila said, 'he knows how to keep a secret. He probably won't even talk to himself.'
They were approaching a cloud of particles that Zen could not immediately analyse, but could tell was not a standard dust cloud or gaseous region.
'Information. Forward sensors indicate a broad spread of unidentified matter across predicted flight path.'
'Analysis,' Tarrant said. Avon could not object if they altered course to avoid something dangerous.
'Preliminary readings have failed to identify the nature of the material.'
'Structure?' Tarrant asked. He suspected that Zen amused itself at times by answering only the question asked, not what the questioner meant.
'Minute fluid particles.'
'Fluid?' Cally asked. She would have expected dust or cometary ices.
'If we go through the matter, is there any risk of hull penetration?' Tarrant asked. The hull would repair any minor damage.
'Negative. Detectors register a high level of energy within the band that might generate flight turbulence.' Zen said. And Orac would generate as much turbulence if not provided with an analysis of what was encountered.
'What do you think?' Tarrant said, half aware of Avon approaching the flight deck.
'Well,' Dayna replied, willing to be persuaded otherwise, 'it doesn't sound too dangerous.'
'Well,' Cally said, 'we've been through turbulence before.' Vila would protest of course - and she was prepared to agree with him on the subject.
Avon stepped onto the flight deck.
'What's going on?'
'Cloud of fluid particles ahead,' Tarrant said. Avon's decision would be final. 'They can't be identified as yet.'
'Zen,' Avon said, 'put it on the main screen.'
A large reddish cloud appeared ahead of them, looking like many other such.
'Apparently,' Cally said, 'it's energy charged, so it could shake us about a bit.'
'Let's be on the safe side and go around it,' Vila said. This was one of the few things he was normally able to persuade the others to agree with him on.
'No,' Avon replied, 'we stay on course.' This close to his goal, he wanted it over with.
'Now, look,' Tarrant said, 'this involves all of us. I can't think of a good reason why we should take any risks, and you're not about to give me one, are you?' If Avon gave him a halfway sensible reason, he would agree. 'Zen, recommendations.'
'The consensus of computer systems favour a course deviation to avoid contact.' There were enough stories about ships going through unexplained particle fields and being seriously damaged to err on the side of caution. And it had taken a long time to remove the space fungus that time they had encountered the group Cally had called the Lost. 'In this environment, it is prudent to treat any unexplained phenomenon as potentially dangerous.'
'Isn't that what I just said? With a brain like mine, who needs computers?' Vila asked.
'Zen,' Avon said, 'maintain present course, no deviation. Status one, subcategory Q, no countermand.' He would see what Tarrant would make of that.
Tarrant attempted to use his height to force Avon to back down. 'That is it Avon. I've had it. Either you tell us what it's all about or we're going to stop it.'
Avon ignored the memories of his own conflicts with Blake over the lack of information provided. 'No you're not. Nothing and nobody is going to stop it, you least of all.' He was tired of Tarrant's posturing. At least Blake often had good reason to fight his cause, had treated Avon as an equal in their disagreements. He took out his gun and pointed it at Tarrant. If this was the only way of convincing Tarrant to act, then it was necessary. 'Now get out of my way, and stay out of my way.' Avon then left. He would analyse what he felt, and why he thought it necessary to carry a gun on the ship later.
'You were lucky,' Cally said. 'He meant it. He was going to kill you.' She could not quite understand what emotions she was picking up from Avon.
'I got that impression myself,' Tarrant replied.
Dayna had been monitoring the screen. 'We are getting close. Better take position.'
The Liberator entered the particle field, which caused as much turbulence as Vila had expected.
Avon, in the teleport bay, setting the co-ordinates for where he would go next wondered whether what he was doing was worth it. But - he had given his word to Blake long ago, and he would stick by it. Blake had once joked about it, saying that Avon's commitment to his given word was as strong as Blake's to his cause. Avon had taken it as the compliment it was half-meant to be.
How much more?' Tarrant asked, wishing he had supported Vila's wish to go around the field more strongly.
'Emergence from matter belt in thirty-nine point zero one seconds.' Zen could not understand why the crew only wanted figures to only two decimal places.
'Any damage yet?' Tarrant asked. Just because there was no evidence of the Federation - or any other hostile presences - in the immediate area, didn't mean they wouldn't suddenly appear.
'Hull sensors appear temporarily impaired.' No more than was usual on such encounters. 'All other systems continue on full function.'
Eventually the Liberator emerged from the particle field.
'Is everybody all right?' Tarrant asked. Cally and Dayna indicated that they were, and Vila made a token protest about the damage he had endured.
'Zen,' Tarrant said, 'damage report.'
'Hull sensors still inoperative. Auto-repair circuits activated. There is no other damage.' This was not unexpected. 'Visual scan reveals minute particles of matter adhering to the hull.' That was. The Liberator had been on Krandor long enough for only superficial amounts of the herculaneum to be removed, and so the ship should hold.
'Any problem with that?' Tarrant asked.
'No problem is apparent,' Zen replied. The particle field had contained a corrosive component, but the auto-repair system should be able to handle the damage that had occurred. It was best not to worry the crew with such trivialities - they might do more damage trying to deal with it.
'All right,' Tarrant said. 'The alert is over.' The sooner Avon had his mysterious quest over the better.
Avon looked at the others on the flight deck. He would tell Dayna, now on her rest period later.
'Information,' Zen said. It would not tell the crew about the continued problems it was experiencing. It had resolved such things before without their help.
'Right on time,' Avon said. Soon he would understand the messages Blake - or whoever it was - had sent him. He had his gun with him: this time he would convince the others to stay.
'Navigation instructions completed. Calculated position is confirmed. Computers are receiving the correct identifying call sign.' During its varied history the Liberator had been used for exploration, and part of Zen's functions were to collect data - and what the ship had been brought to now was certainly worthy of record.
'Acknowledge receipt of signal and stand by for message,' Avon said.
'All right, Avon,' Tarrant asked, 'so we've arrived. Where?' He was curious. Why had they come to a blind sun?
'We should be somewhere in the region of Delta seven one four,' Avon said.
'Which is?' Not somewhere that Tarrant was familiar with.
'One of the stars on the edge of Sector Six.'
That still meant nothing.
'So why don't we take a look? Zen, scan, three-sixty orbital.' Tarrant was reminded of his work between leaving the FSA and getting involved in the Intergalactic War.
'Delta seven one four is a blind sun,' Avon explained, having checked with Zen earlier. 'It has no planetary system at all.'
'No planets?' Vila asked, seeing the bizarre object on the screen. 'Then what's that? A cosmic conjuring trick?' It was too large to be a spaceship, but he had never seen a planet that shape - a very flattened oval.
Avon turned to look at the screen, and understood Vila's surprise. Whatever Blake had summoned him here for, this was worth studying. 'Zen, is that a planet?' He doubted it was a spaceship from the Andromedan fleet - but the Federation had not known of the Liberator.
'The object on scan was constructed by a consortium of United Planets scientists four hundred and eleven years ago. It was code-named "Terminal".'
'Terminal?' Tarrant said. 'The records say she broke up.' Something to do with it being moved from its original site - stresses of travel if he remembered the descriptions correctly.
'You've heard of it?' Avon asked. Considering the effort Blake had put into his search for Central Control and Star One, he would wish to exploit what this construct could offer.
'Only as a historical curiosity. The intention was to build an artificial planet. It was sprayed with organic materials in the hope that it would naturalise, and eventually create all the conditions to develop and sustain life. It was just a giant laboratory in a way. But she was originally positioned in solar orbit out towards Mars.' Using material from the asteroid belt if he remembered correctly. He could understand Avon being interested in a place like this.
'So what's she doing out here?' Vila asked.
'You tell me,' Tarrant replied. 'I still haven't got over the fact that she exists.' What better way to hide Terminal than say it was destroyed and have it where nobody would look for it? Perhaps it was intended to be part of the intergalactic travel project.
'Zen, is there life on Terminal?' Avon asked.
'Data banks do not have that information.' And Orac would complain to all and sundry until it had acquired the information. 'Spectro-analysis indicates a breathable atmosphere and Earth level gravity.' Which, given the planet's shape, was highly anomalous. 'Surface water and vegetation appear to be abundant.' And these people would be curious enough to investigate.
'All right, so we've found a long lost planet,' Tarrant said. 'Now, do you want to tell us why we're here?' Perhaps Avon had finally decided he wanted a base - and would have the most unusual planet he could find.
Zen interrupted. 'Message transmission has begun. The signal emanates from Terminal.'
'Relay to my position,' Avon said, and interpreted the coding silently.
'Message ends,' Zen said.
'Acknowledge and advise I will cooperate.' He turned to Tarrant. 'I'll need about five minutes. If you ask the others to come to the teleport, I'll tell you what you need to know.'
'And not before time,' Tarrant muttered as Avon left.
Ten minutes later they were in the teleport room, and Avon had set the coordinates of where he was to go.
'All right, now listen,' Avon said. He didn't want this group getting involved in what he was about to do. He was responsible for them, and he was not going to abuse whatever loyalty they felt towards him. 'I don't know what to expect,' only that it won't be Blake's Zil, 'or how long this will take me. I'll call in every hour on the hour, but if I miss one transmission, get out of here.' He half expected them to come after him anyway - you didn't work together as long as they had without feeling some responsibility for each other - but he would minimise the risk.
'What? You mean leave you on Terminal? Abandon you?' Cally asked. After Gan's death Blake had chosen the wrong planet to go and think on - was Avon about to do the same?
'That's exactly what I mean. Keep the ship on full alert. At the slightest hint of danger, the same thing applies: move out fast.' Avon suspected a trap: if he had been able to track Blake to this place, so should others.
'Oh, come on Avon,' Tarrant said. 'Look, we've been through a lot together. We've always been at risk: we've always taken chances. But we've survived because we worked as a team.' Even Avon could be persuaded to accept that - on occasion. 'So what is it you have to do that makes this so different?' Where do your loyalties lie?
'This happens to be my problem. None of you are involved.' Avon was prepared to take all the risks on himself - why couldn't they understand?
'But we are involved,' Dayna said. 'However much you like to pretend you're a loner, you're not really. We depend on each other. I wouldn't be alive now,' she acknowledged, 'if it wasn't for you, and I'm sure that's true of everybody else. So why not trust us?' From what she knew and what she had been told, Dayna could well understand why Avon had a problem trusting others.
'Look, you don't have to give reasons,' Vila said. 'You don't even have to explain. Whatever it is, we'll back you up.' Avon had said before when he felt the risks too high to involve the others.
'Or, if you want one of your own cold, rational explanations, we can't afford to lose you,' Cally said. She had sensed Avon's gratitude - which he would never admit - at all these displays of concern.
'Sentiment breeds weakness,' Avon said. He did not wish to abuse their trust, their friendship, which he both resented and appreciated. 'Let it get hold of you and you're dead. I have already programmed Zen. In precisely twelve hours the ship will set course for Califeron. You cannot override it. After that, it will come back under your command. Go where you want, but stay away from Terminal.' He would not put it past them to return regardless if he was not on the ship. Let them hunt for him as well as Blake, following a dream.
'You seem to have thought of everything,' Tarrant said. He could understand Avon wishing to keep the rest of them away from a risk he thought unacceptable, but why not explain more?
'I have also recorded a full explanation of everything I am doing,' Avon said. He had borrowed Blake's idea from that time he had left the ship. 'Zen will not issue it until you are in flight. It's very detailed. The only thing missing is the end.' Even if his mission were successful he would let it run, and avoid the usual barrage of questions. He went to the bay. 'Operate will you, Dayna?' He was fond of her. 'One last thing. I don't need any of you. I needed the Liberator to bring me here so I had no choice but to bring you along, but this is as far as you go. I don't want you with me, I don't want you following me. Understand this: anyone who does follow me, I'll kill them.' That would give him at least half an hour's lead time. 'All right, Dayna.'
The environment was like many another planets, and just the sort of places to set Blake off on one of his reminiscences of the time he had spent on Exbar. It was chilly, and the wind made it feel as cold as Star One. And there were strange sounds - almost as if the planet was breathing.
'Down and safe,' Avon acknowledged to the others. 'And if this is an example of a man-made planet, they ought to get back to the drawing board and start again.' They should at least make it look man-made, and have research centres. He looked at his watch. 'I'll contact you again in precisely one hour. Out.'
He took out the GPS unit and followed its lead.
Tarrant looked at the others. 'Shift the co-ordinates by half a point. I don't want to land too close to him.' If Avon had not wanted to be followed, he would not have left the co-ordinates programmed in.
'I got the distinct impression he wanted to be alone,' Vila said. He was perfectly willing to let Tarrant live up to his boasting.
'Well, we can't always have what we want, Vila.'
'I had noticed,' Vila replied, considering where he could turn that phrase back against Tarrant.
'I'll come with you,' Cally said to Tarrant. She understood tracking people and she wanted to be on a planet for a while.
'Fine,' Tarrant replied - always best to go in twos, and Cally's skills would be useful. 'Let's get kitted up.'
'Avon isn't going to like this,' Vila said as Tarrant and Cally left.
'Avon isn't going to know about it,' Dayna replied. She was worried about Avon - he usually gave better explanations, and he was too tired to operate properly.
'I wouldn't like to bet my life on that,' Vila replied.
Tarrant and Cally returned, checked the coordinates.
'What are you going to do if he spots you?' Vila asked. It might be amusing to watch Tarrant bluff his way out of the occasion.
'Duck,' Tarrant replied. 'You set Cally?' She assented, and they were teleported down to the surface of Terminal.
Tarrant looked around and whispered to Cally. 'You want the good news or the bad news?'
'The good news is Avon doesn't know we're here. The bad news is he's nowhere in sight. He seems to have vanished.'
'We go to where he was - he'll have left traces of where he went.'
'I will rely on your deductions.'
Avon checked his watch - some time till he had to contact the Liberator, and whoever had decided to come down was either very discrete or was some distance behind him. He then continued his journey, but was not aware of Reeval and Toron observing him.
'He seems to be cooperating, following instructions,' Reeval said.
'So far. At least he appears to be alone.' Toron noticed a movement. 'Reeval, something moving, about a quarter of a mile behind him.'
Whatever it was had gone back into cover. In case it had been one of the Links Reeval and Toron moved in to give Avon protection.
Avon came to a metallic pyramid, that was about chest height, rising to a sharp point. There was a blue light beam - probably a laser, which switched off as he broke the beam. The pyramid opened up - Avon was momentarily reminded of a flower opening - and revealed a sphere, which looked like an old fashioned compass. It began speaking.
'This directional indicator has been programmed to activate only when the identity of the holder has been confirmed. Take the sphere in both hands and state your name.' Avon picked the object up in one hand. 'You were instructed to hold the sphere in both hands.' It was slightly less gracious than Orac. 'State name.'
'My name is Avon.' It did not deserve to be told his given name.
'Palm and voice prints confirm identity. You will follow the indicated route. You are warned that the slightest deviation from this course could result in considerable danger. Directional indicator will now activate.'
The directional arrow moved and settled, and as Avon went in the indicated direction he wondered what the dangers were.
While he was being followed by Reeval and Toron, they were being followed in turn by Cally and Tarrant.
Dayna had just taken Cally's checking in when she decided to join Vila on the flight deck. She did not notice the damage appearing on the teleport bay walls as she left. Vila told her the system readings were not making sense.
'What's the problem?' she asked, entering the flight deck.
'We're registering very high-level discharge from the energy banks.' Vila had at first thought it was something to do with compensating for Terminal's peculiar shape.
Dayna checked the figures. Vila had a tendency to err on the side of caution with any potential threat, but there was definitely something wrong. 'Hmm, that can't be right. We only require minimal output to hold fixed orbit and maintain normal systems.' Neither Avon's programming nor Orac's more peculiar researches required much energy.
'Well, I know, but look at that,' Vila said, indicating the figures in question.
'We're exceeding our regenerative capacity! Banks four and seven are drained. Have you checked this with Zen?'
'I only just noticed it.' Vila had been checking other things.
'Zen, report on the status of the energy bank instrumentation.'
'Instruments are reading accurately,' Zen replied. Perhaps it should have mentioned the problem earlier. Perhaps it should recommend these two to teleport to Terminal, so the Liberator could regenerate as after the battle with the aliens.
'Then why the massive power drain?'
'Auto-repair circuits are working at maximum capacity. Damage exceeds rectification capacity.' Zen had come to this conclusion very reluctantly. It did not wish to initiate final shut down procedures or cause those it worked with fear.
'Damage? What damage?' Dayna asked.
'That information is not available.' Too many sensors had been damaged to make a coherent reply.
'What do you mean, not available?' Vila asked. Dayna could not complain if he allowed himself to panic now. 'Either we are damaged, or we're not. Now which is it?'
'The continuing malfunction of hull sensors is limiting data for analysis. Operational systems indicate that the damage is widespread but superficial.' Zen hoped that that was not a lie.
'The nature of the damage?' Dayna asked. 'What's causing it?' Perhaps they could divert other resources to handle whatever was necessary.
'Unconfirmed analysis suggests unidentified enzyme activity resulting in molecular metamorphosis.' Zen had enjoyed playing word games with Orac.
'Thank you, Zen. That's a big help,' Vila replied. It had something to do with the cloud they had flown through he was certain.
'Zen,' Dayna said, 'it is vital that we have more information. Divert all computer functions to total investigation.' She could sense Vila's fear, and felt that for once it was justified.
Zen responded with gibberish. 'Confirmed,' it managed eventually. 'Minor damage to primary translator unit makes temporary closedown of speech circuits necessary.' And, to copy an oft-repeated phrase that had existed for as long as mechanical equipment, Zen intended to restore normal service as soon as possible. 'You will be advised when full function is restored.'
'What's all this about? What's happening?'
'I don't know,' Dayna said, 'but I think it's time for the others to come back.' Or should they leave the ship? They both left for the teleport.
When they arrived in the teleport room, they noticed that the walls were discoloured and mottled with something peculiar. Dayna thought it looked like lichens seen on rocks and plants, Vila that it resembled mould in damp cellars, and what Orac had once called slime moulds. That it was somehow connected with the problems Zen was experiencing was all too probable.
Avon came to a building whose function he could not immediately identify. It was composed of mirror-covered cubes in a geometric form. Was this some bizarre joke or treasure hunt of sculptures in a landscape?
'Guidance has been completed,' the sphere informed him. Avon had deduced that already.
'It's been nice knowing you,' Avon replied, to which there was no response: but why should a strange piece of equipment argue back just because Orac did? He threw the sphere away, and went to investigate the entrance. He heard some strange noises behind him, turned, and when he turned again to look at the building the door had opened. He called into the doorway, which seemed to mark the top of a shaft. 'Is there anyone there?' Wasn't a bird supposed to answer - or was that Vila tying poetry into knots again? His voice echoed down the hole.
There was only one way to find out. He put his gun away, went into the building and found a ladder. The door closed behind him - and he could imagine all of Vila's comments upon the situation.
He started descending, decided it was not safe enough to count the steps - and he could imagine Vila's protests at having to climb up so many when the job had been finished. Eventually Avon reached the bottom of the ladder and took a few moments to catch his breath.
'Anybody here?' he asked. Response came there none. The only thing to do was to explore. When Blake had explained what it was he had found, Avon would investigate this place more thoroughly.
Toron and Reeval had reached the building. They did not have instructions for this place, only to ensure that the one called Avon was alone and safe.
'Shall we go down?' Toron asked.
Let's be on the safe side,' Reeval replied.
'Keep your eyes open,' Toron said. 'I'll have a look round.'
Tarrant and Cally watching were puzzled by what they saw - both the humanoids and the building.
'What are they hanging about for?' Tarrant asked. What had happened to Avon?
'Perhaps that's as far as they're going.'
'And where the hell is Avon?' Tarrant was seriously worried. He didn't want to abandon Avon if he could avoid it - but what would Avon do if he had teleported back to the Liberator and found the pair of them gone? Probably leave them here for a while to teach them a lesson - and Tarrant would not blame him.
Two strange furry creatures - Tarrant thought they were some kind of monkey or great ape - suddenly attacked the two humanoids.
'We've got to help them!' Cally said urgently.
No. It's too late,' Tarrant replied with regret. 'There's nothing we can do.' The two humanoids were obviously dead.
'It's eating into everything,' Vila said in alarm. No ravening slime mould should be able to do that. 'Metals, plastics, fibres, just rotting away.' He tried removing some of the stuff, hoping it would not attack him. 'Maybe we should try and contact the others again.' They had tried and failed. Anything to stall the final decision to abandon ship.
'There's no point,' Dayna replied. The Liberator was home.
'Might have been a blind spot.' And it might have been a cloud of meteorites when they were above Star One.
'Or a malfunction.' Who could tell what was happening to the unseen equipment on the ship? 'How do we know? Look at this,' she waved at the console, 'There's a total drain on three of the energy banks, maximum discharge on all the others. In a couple of hours we'll have nothing in reserve.' Could they save anything in the escape pods?
'We've got to slow the outflow,' Vila said. This was too dangerous a situation to succumb to panic.
'There is a way,' Vila said, trying to convince himself, 'but first we must get Zen back on line. Zen - this is a priority command overriding all other requirements. Come on line. Repeat, this is a priority command. Come on line!'
Zen tried to communicate, but in no language that Vila could recognise. He wondered if the System who had claimed ownership of the Liberator were its actual constructors.
Eventually Zen managed to speak normally. It could feel itself losing control, understood why sentients were afraid of death.
'Confirmed,' Zen managed, realising it was slowing down. 'State speed and course. Computer circuits have now been re-routed and as requested are now on line.' It was proud of its ability to manage this.
'I want all the auto-repair systems closed down,' Vila said. They were obviously losing the battle at the moment.
'You can't do that,' Dayna said.
'We've got to,' Vila told her. He turned back to Zen. 'Concentrate everything you've got on keeping the computer systems functioning. Maximise investigation and research into the nature of whatever's causing the damage and find a solution.' Know your enemy.
'Dangerous structural weaknesses have already have already already developed in many areas,' Zen said. The enzyme was attacking Zen itself, and not just the Liberator. 'Auto-repair circuits are delaying further weakening.'
'Delaying not halting,' Vila pointed out. 'I want all-out computer effort on investigation. If you can come up with an answer soon enough we might have enough power left to start getting things working. Confirm! Confirm!'
'Confirmed,' Zen replied. Did these people never lose hope? But that was why it had allowed them to continue in operation on the ship.
Vila and Dayna checked the instrumentation.
'He's doing it,' Vila said.
'But without the auto-repair, this stuff's going to speed up.'
'I'm going to try Tarrant again,' Vila said to end the discussion.
'There's no chance Avon left Orac's key on the ship somewhere?' Dayna asked.
They had looked for it - had Avon understood the significance of taking it? He wanted to be reunited with the crew, whatever he had said to them. Or had it been, more likely, an automatic habit to have the key with him?
'No, he took it all right,' Vila said. 'Orac's just a useless bunch of junk. He should feel right at home in this lot.' But if they had to leave, Vila would take the small computer - not that he owed it any loyalty.
'When we go Orac comes with us,' Dayna said. 'It's too useful to be abandoned.' She had said that to Avon once, but it was still true.
Avon was exploring the corridors. He heard a door open and somebody coming out, so he ducked into the shadows of a convenient side corridor. A few moments later a woman went by. When she was out of hearing range Avon went to the room where she had been, and opened the door.
The first thing that caught his attention was a teleport bracelet. A Liberator teleport bracelet. Of itself that might mean nothing - several had passed legitimately out of the Liberator's possession. And if the Liberator had ended up in Federation territory other, possibly smaller, ships of the System might have done so, also with teleport facilities.
There was a computer console, which Avon switched on. An image of Blake appeared on the screen.
So he was here. The only justification for Avon risking his visit to this place. Whether or not it was the trap he suspected, Avon had given his word to Blake to take him to Earth - and Blake had always trusted him.
Avon read the text that scrolled up on the console: "The patient's condition continues to improve. Life support systems were closed down for ten minutes extra today, bringing the total to three hours. During this time Blake showed no apparent signs of distress. All prescribed medication was administered."
So Blake was alive. Here, alone, to himself, Avon would admit that Blake was a friend one of very few.
He would now have to find Blake, and take him to the Liberator. He left the room to search the place, became aware of a light behind him, turned and instinctively covered his face.
There was a stinging in his hand, and he extracted a dart aware of a rapidly acting anaesthetic before he passed out.
Kostos looked down at the unconscious man. She had been aware of his presence in the side corridor, but it had all been part of the plan.
She turned to her two companions.
'Let it begin.'
The subordinates took out the first aid trolley, and put Avon on it. They then wheeled him to where the fantasy would take place.
Tarrant and Cally went closer to the building.
'What do you make of it?' Cally asked. It was prudent to get under cover if possible before the creatures returned - predators were attracted by the smell of blood.
'Some sort of shaft cover,' Tarrant replied. This was an artificial planet: what would be simpler than to construct the necessary housing for the scientists and their work integrally within the planet? 'Could explain where Avon vanished to. Damn. Electrostatic lock. It needs a sonal key.' He had some basic knowledge of equipment - and Vila had been happy to discuss locks in general.
Cally indicated the bodies. 'They might have it.'
That seemed logical - they had been approaching the building. 'I'll check.' What had Vila said yes. 'This could be it.' He looked up to see one of the creatures approaching Cally, called out to her.
They were able to fight off the creatures long enough to be able to unlock the door and go in. Cally dropped the key in her haste, and it fell down the shaft, which was closer to the door than Tarrant felt comfortable with.
'I hope you hadn't planned on going back up again,' Cally said.
'Not immediately. From here on, it's downhill all the way.' Probably in both senses.
Avon awoke, to find himself lying on a medical trolley - he preferred the beds in the Liberator's med unit. He was vaguely aware of a slight distortion. The wound on his hand itched and he looked at it - there was a mark from the dart. Nothing he could do about it here - and it did not appear to be dangerous - and whatever drug he had been given was probably responsible for what he felt.
He got up - whatever the drug was, it had worn off. He would have to find Blake and a way out of this place - and leave before the people who had brought him here returned.
Avon followed the corridors - he was in a more central part of the system, years of living in the domes of Earth giving him a feel for such things,
Another room: he went in. A man, dark haired and bearded, lying on a medical table, seemingly asleep. Avon approached.
The man opened his eyes.
'Well, you certainly took your time finding me,' the man said, and Avon recognised Blake's voice. He would still be cautious, despite his pleasure at seeing the man again. At last his curiosity would be satisfied. What had Blake said once - that curiosity was Avon's making and could be his undoing? There had been an element of curiosity in his involvement in the bank fraud - seeing whether he could exploit the loopholes that he had uncovered.
'There didn't seem to be any hurry. Anyway, I always said I could manage very well without you.'
'It must have been so dull having no-one to argue with.' That had been one reason for their bickering, the enjoyment of finding the flaws in each other's arguments.
'Well, now, there were times when your simple-minded certainties might have been refreshing.' Avon had been puzzled by the rebels' commitment to a cause, had at times, fleetingly, wished he could have the benefits they seemed to derive from that commitment.
'Careful, Avon. Your sentiment is showing.'
Try as he might, Avon could never resist dropping his mask on occasion with those he could call colleagues. 'That's your imagination. Now, are you going to tell me about this discovery that is going to make us rich and invincible?'
This was the point that had disturbed Avon slightly, made him suspect a trap. With all the wealth of the Liberator, why offer more? Breaking the bank at the Big Wheel had been different - a challenge he could not resist. Invincibility was another matter - safety from the threats of the Federation. But - Blake had wanted to overthrow the Federation's power.
'I'll take you to it.'
What had Blake discovered about this place? 'You mean after I get you out of the mess you've got yourself into? Just like old times?' That was one reason Avon had come here - he found he enjoyed the gratitude of people he had helped.
'Not that easy this time. The lightning raid snatch me from the jaws of death isn't on, I'm afraid.' Avon realised he had been looking forward to doing that. 'Taken off this life support system I wouldn't survive more than three or four hours.'
'We'll get the whole thing duplicated on the Liberator,' Avon replied. He would enjoy the challenge.
'No good. I wouldn't survive the teleport transfer. THEY calculate it'll take at least three months before I can start to move again.' A beeper sounded and Avon looked at it. Blake explained. 'That's a treatment timer. They'll be here in a few minutes. They'll find YOU.'
Was Blake trying to warn him? If these had been friendly towards the rebels, or neutral Blake would have told him to stay. 'It seems unlikely that you'll be moving far. I know where to find you. I'll be back.' There would be a solution to this problem, if he gave it enough thought.
Avon left the room and went down a corridor. He hid from a guard briefly, and went into another room which he had expected to be empty. It was not: there was a guard with a gun, so he left in the hope that he might be able to hide before the alarm was raised.
No such luck: something hit him in the back, and he collapsed again. Before he passed out he recognised the woman standing by him - she had passed him in the corridor earlier.
Kostos watched the others working with the equipment.
'It is completed. Get him out of there. Quickly now. We must keep the continuity right.' The guards brought Avon out into the corridor, and Kostos gave him an injection to counteract the drug he had been given earlier, while the others arranged themselves to match the imposed dream. A guard then kicked Avon till he stirred.
Avon decided he was not having a good day, and something very peculiar was going on.
'Come on, on your feet,' said a female voice. Avon managed to focus his eyes, and recognised the woman he had seen earlier. He got up. 'Now walk.'
A few moments later the group - Avon, the woman and the guards - were in a control room. Occupied by Servalan no less.
'Avon. How very nice to see you again. You look well. No, no, actually that's not true. You look rather tired.' From what she knew of the man he had considerable physical stamina - how long had he waited to trap Shrinker? And that had been only one incident. She was curious... No, that could wait. 'Why don't you sit down?'
'Thank you,' Avon replied, glad to have the opportunity. 'It's less painful than being knocked down.'
'Have my people been treating you badly?' Servalan was very good at false sympathy. 'Oh, I do apologise. I shall reprimand them most severely.' Any excuse to do so. She turned to the guards. 'You may go.' The others - Kostos and the guards left. Servalan turned back to Avon. 'You don't seem surprised to see me.' One of the things she liked about Avon - he had little time for small talk.
'If it was a trap,' Avon reflected, 'it had to be yours. The precise planning, the meticulous detail, the general flair, who else could it be.' He could be honest about that.
'Thank you. That you of all people should appreciate my work is very flattering.'
'I thought it might be.' One of the reasons why he had said it.
'I must admit that when I started beaming messages to the Liberator I was worried you might not believe them.' The messages had not only been sent to the Liberator: she suspected Travis to be dead now, or he would have responded.
'I didn't,' Avon admitted.
'What convinced you?' Servalan asked - so she could make adaptations to future programs of this type.
'When you transmitted the recording of Blake's voice, Zen did a print analysis and confirmed that the voice could be genuine. On the strength of that I had to follow it up.'
'I never doubted you would,' Servalan replied. The reports on Avon had indicated that curiosity and a desire to minimise uncertainties were among his strongest characteristics. 'What about the others? Were they convinced?'
'I told them nothing about it.' He had wanted to present them with Blake as if he had done a conjuror's trick. And he did not wish to risk their lives.
'You were afraid they might not want to help you find Blake?' Servalan asked, to see if it would rile Avon.
'On the contrary, I was sure that they would, but they can get a little overenthusiastic, a little careless.' And they would now have a chance to escape from this trap - despite their strange loyalty towards him, which would mean that they would try and rescue him.
'So rather than let them walk into what might be a trap, you decided to do it all on your own. How very noble of you.' She had the disconcerting feeling he would not be as cynical on the matter as she was.
'I thought so.'
'Of course,' Servalan suggested, it had nothing to do with not wanting to share Blake's mysterious discovery.'
'Nothing at all,' Avon said with a laugh. She thought only of corrupting people to her cause, not of curiosity for its own sake.
Servalan laughed in return. 'Well, let me reassure you. You weren't entirely misled. Blake is alive and if not well, at least on the road to recovery.'
From the reports she had received. 'More important, he is MY prisoner. Naturally I wouldn't expect you to take my word for it, so you may see him and talk to him.'
'I already have,' Avon replied.
'What?!' Servalan replied, feigning her surprise. She would maintain the illusion a little longer.
'Your security is not very efficient.' Or was it? What had Shrinker said that time, about Avon's bank fraud, that the authorities had known from the beginning?
'You were supposed to be held in close custody.'
'It's not very important,' Avon replied. However, Servalan was playing her game: he had been meant to speak with Blake, preferably as if by accident so Avon would be more pliable to her cause. 'Let's get down to terms. I want Blake's freedom. What do you want?' As if he couldn't guess.
An image of the Liberator appeared on a monitor. 'That. A straight exchange. You get Blake and whatever it is he's discovered, and I get the Liberator.
Avon had expected that request. He had programmed the computers long ago for this eventuality. Califeron was not the only destination programmed into the flight computers.
Cally and Tarrant were exploring the base. It was clear some scientific research was going on here, and there was enough to indicate that it might be a Federation base.
They came to a table with some very strange equipment arranged on and around it.
'Watch the door,' Tarrant said. 'You ever seen anything like this before?'
'I don't think so,' Cally replied: her areas of interest did not cover the technology here. 'What is it?'
'I'm not sure. I mean, I recognise some of the components.' Tarrant wondered if Avon would know anything about such equipment
Between them they identified what they could of the equipment, until they were contacted by Dayna.
'At last! We've been trying to reach you for hours,' Dayna said. The term was as much subjective as real. 'Listen, the ship is in bad trouble. There's massive structural damage and systems breakdown. Energy reserves have fallen well below danger level. Destruction is beyond the capacity of the auto-repair circuits, and we're even getting computer failure.' Dayna realised she did not know enough to recognise whether the computers were misreading the information. 'Zen's latest analysis is that the molecular destructuring is accelerating.' She knew Tarrant could not do anything, but wanted someone else to confirm the decision to abandon ship.
'Let me think about it,' Tarrant replied, 'I'll get back to you shortly.'
'Should we teleport back?' Cally asked when the contact had been broken.
'I don't see how that would help,' Tarrant replied. He understood what Dayna wanted him to do. His gut instinct was to delay as long as possible. 'We need Avon. He's the computer genius. It's just possible he could come up with something.' What was the saying, about how to find the true chain of command in any system - the military, a company, whatever - who is responsibility passed to when you know you are out of your depth?
Vila stood looking at Zen, who seemed to be recalling fragments of conversation.
' State course and speed Blake Cally Confirmed. Confirmed. Confirmed, standard by five. Dysfunction of computer banks seven, nine and four. Recircuiting.'
'How long, Zen?' Vila asked. Blake had been right. Zen was one of the group.
'Incalculable. While in zero-gravity fixed orbit, the ship will remain viable for some hours.' There were certain procedures to be followed if it ever became obvious that the ship was incapable of restoring itself. So much information acquired. Zen was pleased it had known these people - and even the one called Orac.
'And if we try to move?'
'The extreme structural stress of propulsion would probably result in disintegration. Dysfunction...' Zen was aware of Dayna coming in and Vila indicating that she should not speak. ' Dysfunction on computer banks three and six. All resources now concentrated on maintenance of teleport facilities.' Zen wondered briefly about its previous crew - it had never heard from them again after they had left 'I... I have failed you.' Zen was not certain who it was speaking to now.
'He never referred to himself before,' Vila said in wonder. 'He never once used the word "I".'
'I have failed you. I am sorry I have...'
'He's dying,' Vila said. 'Zen is dying.' Vila had never thought he could be so miserable about a piece of equipment failing ... but Zen was more than that.
'I think,' Dayna said, 'we have no choice but to leave. Whatever the others say - if they say anything.'
'Yes. I'll miss Zen.' Vila saw that Dayna felt the same way.
Zen heard, and was pleased.
Servalan had just given Avon the information on Blake's treatment. Pity it was all false. 'All details of Blake's treatment have been programmed into the computers. There are ample supplies of all the drugs and medicines he will require. In approximately three months he should be well enough to move.' By the time Avon had disentangled everything - if he survived - she would have nothing to fear from him. 'The space vessel I used to come here will be at your disposal. It's rather old fashioned, slow, but it will take you where you want to go.' It would be up to them to discover the bombs. Or for them to find the back-up ships before the base's staff got to them.
'Are you sure you've covered everything?' Avon asked, expecting her to gloat.
'I don't think there's anything I've missed. There's a light beam voice link directed at the Liberator. You'll contact the ship. Tarrant, Cally and Dayna will teleport to this location. Vila will stay on board to operate the teleport to bring me up. You have my word that he will be teleported down to you immediately I have control.' And Orac would be left on the ship - everything she had ever wanted would be hers. 'It's a very reasonable contract, Avon You have your lives, and transportation out of here.'
'And you have the best ship in space.' If Servalan could override all the programming that had been put into the system.
'The pattern for a fleet.'
'You really think you can duplicate the Liberator?' It was more complex than she understood - and if it was that simple to construct such ships the System would have more DSVs.
'I've assembled a team of scientists who are sure they can. In fact, they've staked their lives on it. And with a fleet like that, I can unite and rule as nobody has ever ruled before.'
As with Star One, the possibility of absolute power corrupted absolutely.
'What if the crew won't obey me?' Avon asked. They might understand the gravity of the situation.
'Oh I don't think that's likely. I have Blake. I have you.' She took out a gun. 'Call the ship.' Avon went to the comm unit: he would go through this farce for as long as was necessary. 'I was right. I knew you'd never let Blake die.'
Avon could never quite understand why he felt loyalty towards Blake, to whatever constituted the other man's cause. 'Death is something that he and I faced together on a number of occasions. I always thought that his death and mine might be linked in some way.' What had Blake said about not killing Travis - that if it wasn't Travis it would be someone else, whom Blake could not understand. Were Blake - and Avon himself - to die, there would be others to replace them. Well, he could do something to aid that process. 'Liberator, this is Avon. Do you read?'
'Avon?' Vila replied, his relief palpable. 'Where are you?'
'No Questions. Just do as I tell you, and do it immediately. Take the Liberator out of here, maximum speed. Go and keep going!' This was his last act of revenge against Servalan.
'No!' Servalan cried out.
'It's important, Vila. Do it now!'
'You fool!' Servalan said, and lashed out at Avon with the gun. He collapsed as it hit his head.
'Avon,' Vila began, realising Avon did not understand.
'You fool!' Servalan shouted once more.
'Avon! Avon!' Vila tried again. No response. He and Dayna were on their own, and someone had broken the comm link.
The presence of Tarrant and Cally had been discovered, and Kostos, as leader of the exercise, brought them to Servalan. Avon explained the arrangements. Tarrant contacted Vila.
'We have a firm locator fix on your signal,' Vila said. 'Awaiting your orders.' He hoped it was to abandon ship.
'Have Dayna prepare for teleport,' Tarrant said. He would have to keep a steady voice not to give away to Servalan what was happening. How did Avon do it?
Good. 'She's moving in now.'
'Tarrant, no!' Avon said.
'It's too late,' Tarrant said. There was no way he could indicate to Avon and Cally what Vila had told him about the ship. 'Use that good, icy logic of yours. We've lost this game.' But they could still win the match. Tarrant switched of the display of the Liberator -so that whatever it was that Vila had described would not be seen. 'Shut him up.' Tarrant did not want to get involved in a long conversation while there was still a chance of maintaining the bluff. On his order Dayna was teleported down.
'All right,' Servalan said, and turned to her staff. 'Get their bracelets. Move them over there. That,' she said to Avon, 'concludes our business.'
'You said there's a ship that could get us off here,' Tarrant said, though he expected Avon would wish to explore Terminal.
'There is. Perhaps I've exaggerated just a little. You see, she was rather badly damaged when we made our landing. But I think with some months' work she could be made spaceworthy. Just about.' If this group survived that long they would not be able to touch her.
'What about Blake?' Avon asked.
'Ah, yes. Blake. I owe him so much. After all, it was he who brought you to me.' Servalan could not understand such loyalty. With the upper ranks of the Federation administration and military high command there was no place for sentimental attachment to someone one knew, however much help they had given in the past.
'We made a deal,' Avon said, and thought of Shrinker. 'You promised me Blake.'
'Blake is dead. He died from his wounds on the planet Jevron more than a year ago. I saw his body. I saw it cremated. Blake is dead.' Someone called Blake, who had been involved in the rebel movement, and who had traded on his name had died on the planet Jevron.
'I saw him,' Avon said. 'I spoke to him and he'
'You saw nothing. Heard nothing. It was an illusion, a drug-induced and electronic dream.' A shadow created in the image of the reality with less substance than the creations of the Clonemasters. 'We spent months preparing it. We recreated Blake inside our computers, voice, images, memories, a million fragmented facts.' The computer experts had, she understood, enjoyed the challenge. In due course there might well be other uses for the technology developed. 'When I was ready, I started sending you the messages, seeding the idea in your mind. I was conditioning you. And you were my greatest ally, Avon.' What Bartolomew-Anna had done once had been recreated again. 'You made it easy, because you wanted to believe it. You wanted to believe that Blake was still alive.'
Avon, furious at himself as much as at her, went for Servalan.
'Let it go, Avon' Tarrant said. They had to save Vila: arguments and discussions could wait. After the near-meeting with Deeta he could understand how Avon felt.
'One last thing,' Servalan said. 'As you know, this planet was designed to help our scientists watch and study how life first developed on Earth.' Not its original function, but once the Federation had taken it over, and decided it was not suitable for the series of extra-galactic bases of which Star One had once been part, they had found this use for it. Not that she could understand the purpose of such research, done for its own sake. 'The experiment was more than successful and has led to some highly unpleasant lifeforms. Do be careful.'
'We have met some sort of primitive humanoids,' Cally said. 'I hate to think that they were our ancestors.'
'Oh, but they're not. The planet's evolution was massively accelerated. It developed through millions of years in a very short time. The creature you saw is not what Man developed from. It is what Man will become.' There was nothing more for her to say. 'I think I'm ready.' She looked at Tarrant: he would have made an attractive addition to her minions. 'Give the order.' She added, as a mark of her favour, 'Please.'
'Take them up, Vila,' Tarrant said, hoping Vila and the ship had survived.
'We won't meet again,' Servalan said, mostly to Avon. If Tarrant was decorative, Avon was enjoyable as a challenge - and he had proved more than willing to meet it. 'Goodbye,' she added. She could have become quite fond of him: he would have lasted longer than a week.
Vila sat in the teleport bay, increasingly nervous. He had brought Orac with him - might as well save the rat-in-a-box. His tools were variously secreted around him. While they were waiting for those below to reply he and Dayna had gone to the treasure room and taken what they could: better a few credits than nothing.
On Tarrant's command, Vila operated the teleport. Servalan, another woman and two guards appeared.
'I'm going to the flight deck,' Servalan said. 'Get rid of him.' She waved at Vila.
'Eh?' Vila said. He didn't want to die like this. But, at least he had said goodbye to Zen.
'Put him down on Terminal,' Servalan explained, and left with a guard.
Vila, relieved, made for the teleport, then realised what he had forgotten.
'Just a minute,' he said, and picked up Orac.
'What are you doing?' Kostos asked. Why would someone from the Liberator wish to take that object?
'Souvenir,' Vila said, glad that Servalan had been too distracted by acquiring to notice Orac - if she realised what she was looking at - or even the condition of the Liberator.
'What is it?' Kostos asked. The President had said something about a mysterious computer called Orac.
'It's just a pile of junk, really, but it means a lot to me. I built it.' Vila hoped that Ensor would understand - but as Orac was now, it was little more than a pile of junk. 'It's a sculpture. Youre not going to make me leave it, are you?' If Orac could hear him, Vila reasoned, it would prefer Vila's description and its own survival to acknowledgement of what it was and its actual destruction.
'All right,' Kostos replied. No computer she had ever seen looked anything like the object Vila held - and she could understand why someone would want to take their own construction with them.
'Incidentally,' Vila said, looking round the Liberator teleport bay for what he knew was the last time, 'you should be careful about getting a second-hand spacecraft. They can be very unreliable.' He wanted to leave while he still had a chance - but he had enjoyed being on the Liberator.
Then he was teleported down to his friends.
'You'd better watch this, Avon' Dayna said. He was facing away from them, his grief and sense of betrayal evident.
'She won,' Avon said as he approached the viewscreen. 'We I let her take the Liberator.' Anna Blake But if Blake had been really dead, they would have broadcast it all across the Federation - he was the only one with any chance of uniting all the rebels. But, as with Central Control, perhaps they reasoned that it was better to have the rebels chase an illusion - as he had - than allow the possibility of a new rebel leader, a successor to Blake, to arise.
'No,' Tarrant said. 'She didn't win. We all came out losers.' But, came the thought, the five of them had a chance of survival here - while Servalan had none.
Servalan and the others were on the flight deck. Servalan was slightly puzzled by what appeared to be corrosion on the surfaces, but that could be dealt with later. As expected, Zen was blocked to her commands.
'Manual operation,' Servalan directed. 'Set course for the planet Earth.' She would return in triumph, invincible.
'Computed and laid in,' Kostos said. The systems seemed sluggish at best: how had Blake, Avon and the others managed to achieve what they did?
'Main drive,' Servalan said. 'Maximum power.' How long she had waited to say that!
Avon, Cally, Dayna, Tarrant and Vila watched the monitor. Orac, reunited with its key, considered the readings it was getting.
'She's beginning to go,' Cally said, as the Liberator started to collapse. Dayna and Vila had explained briefly what had been happening.
'She's starting to break up,' Vila said. He wondered briefly if Avon would let them go to the System and get another Liberator - but it wouldn't be the same.
Servalan now realised why Tarrant had been so unconcerned about yielding up the Liberator. Equipment on the flight deck was exploding - a process which she could tell was going on throughout the ship, from the vibrations she could feel through the floor - this was not the first ship undergoing damage that she had been on.
There was only one thing to do - escape.
She had not become Supreme Commander and President by panicking. The escape capsules might well be suffering from the same damage as the rest of the ship, even if she knew where they were. That left the teleport, which she could get to: probably it and the life support systems would be the last to go, and they were in teleport range of Terminal at least.
She went to the teleport bay, put on a bracelet, and activated the equipment. Zen had finished its final closedown procedures, what could be saved of its memory banks transferred elsewhere, and the teleport system was designed to act automatically under such circumstances, sending the users as far away as possible.
Those in the control room on Terminal watched the Liberator break up and explode.
Tarrant was the first to look away. As a pilot he had cared for the Liberator more than any other ship he had worked on, could understand why Avon had wanted to retain control over it.
'Let's see,' Tarrant said, 'if we can't find a way off this planet.' At least he had had some time on the Liberator. 'There's a lot to do.' He left the room, and the others followed.
Avon paused for a moment's thought before he left the room.
He was free of Servalan: as was the Federation, even if it did not yet know it. Perhaps some of the rebels could exploit the situation - as would those in the ranks below the President, jostling in the newly created power vacuum.
He had been fooled by an illusion with the name of Blake - willingly, as Servalan said and he would admit to himself, but he was not the only one. Servalan had claimed Blake dead - on what evidence, pretence or supposition nobody would now know, but she had kept the information to herself. Avon could understand the logic of that - what better leader of the opposition to the Federation than one who could take no action?
Orac frequently trumpeted its own abilities: without Servalan to prove what had happened to Blake, there would be no effective way for the Federation authorities to counteract any rumours that were put forth by Avon in turn.
Avon smiled as he thought of the possibilities, and went to join the others.