There had been an element of truth in what Servalan had told Clonemaster Fen: she had already decided upon Travis' trial. It had been the fiasco with Central Control that had actually doomed Travis - by placing Servalan's position and ambition at risk, and compromising Federation stability by revealing Central Control for the rebel-killing sham it was.
It had taken some time to coax Samor from his Eighth Fleet. He was respected by all, honourable by his own standards and recognised as such by others, apolitical and of no direct use to Servalan's political ambitions - but thus useful here.
Par wondered if "they" knew or cared that he had served under Travis. The sort of twisted humour they would display, placing Par on guard outside the court room in which Travis would be tried.
'Waste of time,' his companion, Lye said.
'Shut up Lye!' Par replied. The man had only just been transferred to the Supreme Commander's space station, had no idea yet of what was proper.
'Ceremonial duty,' Lye muttered.
'If you don't shut up, we won't be guarding a court martial, we'll be having one.' Par would knock some sense into Lye later - or at least arrange to be on different shifts to him. Let someone else get the grief.
'I joined up to see some action.'
'More fool you.' And within two days he'd be screaming to be transferred back here. Didn't know what was good for him.
'You've been on campaigns, Par.'
'I have.' This was neither the time nor the place to discuss them, especially with someone so wet behind the ears.
'Done a lot of killing.'
'Enough. More.' You don't have a clue, do you, what it's all about.
They heard voices along the corridor. Par identified them immediately. Secretary
Rontane and Senator Bercol.
' It should embarrass her at the very least.' Bercol was saying.
'Watch it!' Par muttered. The two soldiers came to attention.
'Oh, I hope so,' Bercol said, 'but, uh, she doesn't embarrass easily, especially not in her own headquarters.' Par listened impassively. People like these two ignored people like him, might let information slip that Par could use appropriately.
Oh, I mean politically, of course,' Bercol replied.
'Of course. Any attempt to embarrass her personally is an exercise in total futility.' Rontane said.
'Oh quite. She has all the sensitive delicacy of a plasma bolt.' Bercol replied.
The two politicians had the temerity to laugh at this remark, and Par filed the information away. He was not a part of Security himself, but he knew who would be interested in this exchange, and it would count in his favour on his next transfer.
The two politicians finally deigned to notice them, as the door did not open.
'Well?' Rontane asked.
'Sir, security area sir.' Rontane did not respond to the insult. 'Access is voiceprint linked, sir.'
Rontane enunciated his name and position, and was allowed in. Bercol tried to follow, but on being stalled by the two soldiers realised his mistake and gave his details.
'Thought he was going to run for it,' Lye said.
'Pity he didn't. You could have shot him.' And the rest of us could have enjoyed the consequences.
'A top politico?'
'Don't worry about them. Space Command runs the Federation.' Whoever held the guns, Par knew, held the power.
'Know so. And we look after ourselves.' First rule of survival - look after yourself. Second rule - look after those who will protect you.
'Tell that to the prisoner.'
'Broke the rules, didn't he?' And embarrassed the Supreme Commander, from what
Par had heard.
'Whose rules?' Did Lye have any brain cells whatsoever?
'Only ones that matter - ours.'
The third member of the commission came into view.
'Blazing 'ell, look at this!' Par said softly. Who would have expected Samor to come to Central Command for a trial?
The two troopers stood to attention as Samor went into the hearing room.
'I never thought I'd see him in the flesh. Hasn't left his flagship in years,' Par said.
'Arbiter in a cruddy court martial...'
'Be by the book. I told you, we look after ourselves' Par replied, wondering how he could arrange a transfer to the Eighth Fleet.
Servalan sat in her office with Travis' defence lawyer Thania.
They had just been discussing Samor. Servalan was undecided how to treat him, and how long before he would start protesting to return to his Eighth Fleet, watching the outer reaches of the Federation's territory, waiting for the possible invasion from outside the galaxy. He would not hinder Servalan's ambitions - providing she was successful.
'With Samor as arbiter,' Servalan said, 'a guilty verdict will not be questioned and the matter will be settled.'
'Well, assuming that is the verdict,' Thania replied.
The intercom chimed, and the beginning of the legal process announced.
'The evidence is straightforward. I can see no reason why we shouldn't get the verdict we want, in the way that we want it.' In the way that I want it, with all responsibility for the Blake fiasco kept away from me.
'No, neither can I, Supreme Commander.'
'And I expect no trouble from the Defence.' But she was doomed regardless, though she knew it not - while Travis probably did.
Half an hour later Travis was escorted into the hearing room and identifying himself. He respected Samor - who would not? Travis had attempted to install the same devotion to duty and loyalty among his men as Samor had with some success.
#If the choice had been mine to make, would I be in Samor's position or Servalan's?#
Travis listened impassively to the exchange between Samor and Thania. Attractive woman Thania, even though she was Servalan's puppet. Call herself a defence lawyer - she was asking for the names of all those who had died on Serkasta. He was going to be executed regardless - but would have his revenge, not that it would achieve anything.
Blake was alone on the flight deck. It had taken Zen and Orac some time to locate a planet which suited his requirements. He suspected that Orac had had an ulterior motive - from his own, admittedly limited knowledge, it was unusual to see a planet where ocean and landmass existed virtually as single areas.
'Zen, give me stationary orbit, teleport range, somewhere in the temperate zone.'
'Confirmed. Do you require detailed sensor readings?' Following the encounter with the System Blake had asked whether Deep Space Vessels were research ships, to which the answer had been ambiguous-affirmative.
'No. I asked for tolerable conditions. I assume that's what you've given me.'
There had been a degree of trial and error in defining what these were.
'Confirmed. There are gravitational anomalies which may affect movement.'
' And uninhabited,' Blake continued.
'The navigation computers list it as such.' The ship's sensors had been unable to detect either indications of recent spaceship movement in the area or communications activity arising from the planet. With Cephlon there had been a question mark as to inhaibitants, and it was unlikely that he would meet another near solitary exile from the Federation like Ensor.
'That's good enough.'
'Really? It sounds a little casual to me,' Avon said. Blake had been half aware of him standing at the door.
'I'm going down on my own. It has nothing to do with you.'
Avon's expression was unreadable, but Blake sensed sympathy. 'Nothing at all, but it occurs to me that if you should run into trouble, one of your followers, one of your three remaining followers, might have to risk their neck to rescue you.' Again the challenge to define their relationship. One day Blake would bring himself to admit that Avon worked alongside him, rather than under him.
'Then you must advise them against that, Avon.'
'Oh, I will.'
'They might even listen to you this time.' Blake had known Avon wanted the ship, even before he had admitted it. Of all the people Blake had met Avon was one of the few he trusted to look after it. Sometimes, as now, when Blake doubted what he was doing, he was tempted to follow Avon in the exploring he had indicated he wished to do. Blake's brief escape from the ship would give Avon a chance to understand the responsibilities.
'Why not? After all, I don't get them killed.' Again, Blake sensed that Avon felt responsible for the death of somebody he cared for - but that he would never
admit the details.
'True.' Blake put a hand on Avon's shoulder, for whose comfort he was not certain.
'Stationary orbit established. Status is firm. All systems are functioning normally,' Zen announced. Both men were grateful for the interruption.
'All right, Zen, you know what to do,' Blake said. He had made his decision: better go through with it.
He left the flight deck, barely aware of Jenna as she came in.
Earlier Jenna had pulled out one of the board games kept in a locker on the flight deck for use during quiet periods. Avon had made his usual comment about "bored" games but had agreed to play.
'It's getting worse for him, isn't it?' Jenna said. For all his aloofness the computer expert was not unsympathetic.
'Guilt does that.' Avon replied.
'What would you know about guilt?' Jenna said, almost teasing. She knew there was some hurt, but it was not for her to probe. They all had things best left unsaid.
'Only what I've read. Your move, I think.'
Blake looked round the teleport room. Orac flashed to itself, knowing what to do next. Cally was at the teleport. She understood why he needed to be alone. Humans rarely had telepathic capacities in the sense she understood, but were often aware of the presence of others. Just like the Auronar occasionally made use of the quieter parts of their planet, appreciating the need to be alone and silent, so humans showed a similar capacity. Avon tried to do it by his shields, deliberately kept obvious, and now Blake wanted to do so physically.
'You've forgotten your gun,' she said.
'I won't need it - there's nothing down there.' He was tired of death, did not want to be reminded of it.
'I will get you a gun.' She always felt safer with one - they could be used to deal with animals, clear fallen branches, whatever.
'All right. Thank you.' She went to get one.
By the time she had returned to the teleport room he had gone.
When she looked, the teleport coordinates had been zeroed and Orac was flickering
to itself. She was still not certain whether Orac was a "thing" as Avon sometimes protested, or a "person." Whichever it was, Orac was as self-aware as she, a clone, was.
She went to the flight deck, to tell the others. As she did the Liberator changed orbit.
Cally was not surprised when Avon expressed the opinion that Blake was making his escape. She understood Avon's feelings better than she would ever say, perhaps better than he would admit even to himself. He was familiar with loneliness, afraid of losing people he could place some trust in.
Blake found himself in a lush environment. For a brief moment he remembered the planet which Sinofar and Giroc had occupied, wondered if they would ever find a resolution to their conflict
He set the homing beacon, and put the teleport bracelet in the beacon's case. At last he would be free, for a while at least. He could not remember the last time he had had the opportunity to think without distractions.
He did not look back, was not aware of the beacon's disappearance.
Servalan watched the ending of the day's session in the courtroom over the closed circuit television system.
Travis was returned to his cell and the others dispersed, Rontane and Bercol went last.
'One almost has to admire that woman,' Rontane said.
'What, Thania?' Bercol asked. She was no more than the average military lawyer - no better than any of the others he had met.
'Servalan,' Rontane clarified. At least someone, Servalan thought, had an understanding of the situation.
'Oh.' Bercol replied.
'We know that she's sending Travis to his death in order to keep his mouth shut, but she is doing it with such an impeccably honest and painstaking tribunal that her real motives can't even be hinted at.'
Bercol changed the subject. 'Has, um, a date been set for the Blake inquiry?'
'Does it matter?' Rontane asked. 'Without Travis' evidence the mishandling of the Blake affair becomes a matter of conjecture. The inquiry becomes a formality.' That, Servalan thought, was the whole point of the matter. Who would there be to lead it? Samor would not leave his fleet again, and there was no-one else with the power to challenge her.
'A Presidential stay of execution...' Bercol suggested. About as likely as one for Blake and his crew.
'Servalan picked Travis,' Bercol was continuing.
'The President picked Servalan.'
'So she's outmanoeuvred us once again.'
How right you are, gentlemen.
'Let us say,' Bercol said, 'she's outmanoeuvring us, but it's not over yet. She could still make a mistake.'
'Which is presumably why we came. I was beginning to wonder.' Rontane replied.
If you have to wonder, I'm not the one making the mistake.
'We came, Bercol, because Servalan's ambitions threaten us all. And the President particularly dislikes being threatened.'
He is not being threatened at the present, Servalan thought, merely destabilised. I do not make a threat until I know I can carry it out. And I will soon, when the time is right.
Bercol and Rontane joked about Federation military cooking and left.
Thania came into Servalan's office as she switched the monitor off.
'Thania. How was the first day?'
'More or less as expected.'
'So?' If she showed any sign of intelligence, Servalan might change her plans.
'Travis is behaving oddly.' 'Three years ago he committed a capital crime.
Justice has finally caught up with him. How would you expect him to behave?'
'I wouldn't expect him to sit staring straight ahead, not moving, not reacting.'
'Not even listening.'
Had he finally realised that Servalan would no longer protect him?
'That's it. That's exactly how he was, Supreme Commander.' Thania continued. She suddenly wondered whether he had his own agenda - just as she was using the trial to further her own chances of promotion. 'Has someone else remarked on it?' she asked out of curiosity.
Servalan stalled for a moment - she did not wish to reveal her link to the courtroom. 'Guard Commander's report mentioned something,' she said.
'It's almost as though he were drugged.'
'No, of course not,' Servalan said. 'Risk a mistrial?' And ruin all her careful planning to distance Travis from herself.
'You're representing him. You better find out. I don't want any doubts about the conduct of this tribunal. Any doubts at all.' One reason for bringing in Samor.
'And,' Servalan spoke as Thania made to leave, 'Thania, try not to let Travis guess your motives. He's probably mad, but he certainly isn't a fool.' As you are.
Thania left, considering the best way she could prevent Travis from thwarting her ambitions.
On the Liberator the four of them had been discussing Blake's escape for half an hour.
'If he was going to desert us, surely he'd have chosen somewhere special,' Cally said. She would have chosen somewhere where she could act against the Federation.
'Right! Paradise that is not,' Vila replied. Paradise would include several bars, attractive women, and any number of people willing to pay him handsomely for his lock opening work.
'Perhaps Blake knows something that we don't,' Avon said.
'There aren't even any people down there.' Vila said. Whatever else could be said about Cygnus Alpha, he would have had company.
'So it has at least one aspect of paradise,' Avon said, at least partially for form.
'Would you maroon yourself on that planet?' Cally asked. There was no technical equipment for Avon to play with down there.
'We don't know that he is marooned. He could have a ship waiting.' What ship could replace the Liberator?
'Oh, come on, Avon. You don't really believe that,' Jenna said. She understood how Avon felt about the Liberator. Once she had asked him what he would do with the ship, were he rather than Blake to lead. His reply had been that the Liberator had been built for exploration, so it should be so used. She had warmed to him for that one remark. Providing he would let her carry on some trading. He had shown some interest in how she operated as a Free Trader, so they could probably come to some compromise.
'I wish Gan was here,' Vila said.
'Oh yes,' Avon replied, with a touch of irony, 'he would be able to work out exactly what was going on.'
'Maybe he would.'
'Why do you say that, Vila?' Cally asked.
'He was straightforward, wasn't always expecting to be cheated and double-crossed. Not like us. He trusted people - he trusted Blake completely.'
'Much good it did him,' Jenna said. Just as she could understand Avon's stated heart's desire she could Vila's. Here on the Liberator they could trust each other - at times.
'Welcome back to reality, Jenna,' Avon said.
'You think he is double crossing us, Jenna?' Vila asked.
Vila and Avon were both alike, Cally thought, in fearing betrayal.
'I don't know. But you're right about one thing, I'm not like Gan. I don't trust unless I'm trusted in return.' Jenna said.
'What do you think we should do then?' Avon asked.
'Suggest something,' Jenna said.
'Well now. I find the idea of being wealthy rather appealing,' Avon said, to start the discussion going.
'Leave?' Vila asked. He was tempted.
'I don't see much prospect of getting rich around here,' Avon replied. He repeatedly tested the others' commitment to Blake's cause so he could justify his own decision to stay.
'Well, it certainly looks as though Blake's left us, doesn't it?'
'That is the only reasonable assumption that we can make.'
'So we've got to look out for ourselves now,' Vila replied.
'Blake can't complain really,' Vila continued.
'Hardly, since he's not here,' Jenna replied, half tempted.
'No, I mean it's not as though we haven't done our share for freedom and all that,' Vila said.
'More than our share,' Avon said with a smile. He wanted to see whether the conversation could be kept going until Blake signalled that he wanted to return - he had no more reason to stay on this planet than Avon did - and everybody knew it. And he wished to know how loyal these people were, how far he could trust them.
Jenna broke in 'You two make me sick. Are we going to get out of here or aren't we?' She knew that they were as committed to the cause as she was - and when the time came to consider other options they would do so.
'Orac,' Cally said, to bring the discussion to an end. 'Do you know what Blake is doing?'
'Then tell us,' Cally said.
'Without the correct data recall code, that information is not available.'
Cally turned to Avon. 'Data recall code, Avon?'
'He's even put a secret classification code on what he's doing,' Jenna said.
There was convoluted and there was stupid convoluted.
'Yes, but why did he code it and how?' Cally turned to Vila, 'Vila, if Gan was here, what would he have asked Orac?'
Vila thought for a few moments. 'Something obvious. Did Blake leave us any message?'
The main viewscreen came to life, and Blake's pre-recorded message played.
Typical, Avon thought, to leave such a melodramatic piece. Though at least Blake had the courage to admit he was wrong, and that he had a severe attack of doubt. That, Avon admitted to himself, he could understand.
Blake finished by saying he had set a beacon on an automatic timer, and they could meet up again. Perhaps.
They discussed briefly what the recording had meant, whether it was merely self pity or something else.
Avon decided that if he needed time to think through his future and the meaning of life he would arrange something better. They would involve technical projects, such as the one he was doing now.
Jenna decided she needed to reconsider what Blake thought of himself, and his relationship with the others on the Liberator - and that she would best do it in her own cabin.
Avon spoke as she went. 'There is only one question to be answered - is it that Blake has a genius for leadership, or merely that you have a genius for being led?' Jenna, he knew, was willing to participate in exploration, if they could go in for some trading - she had admitted as much when they discussed the subject. That left Vila - who would be useful, and would stay until he found a better hole - which he somehow never would. And Cally, could she be persuaded to explore the galaxy?
Blake sat on a convenient fallen log: the gravity variations Zen had mentioned were minimal locally, but noticeable. He had been walking on flat and overgrown ground, but felt as if he had been climbing.
Something hit him, then another, and some water - so it could not be a plant dispersing its seed. He got up, to be sprayed again. Picking up a stick he looked around. A territorial animal, perhaps, which had not been noted in the original report.
Then his case was snatched, and Blake looked around. A creature resembling one of Aristo's Phibians, only smaller and less obviously defended against attackers appeared. It held Blake's case.
'HEY!' Blake shouted, and followed the creature.
It was hot, and the gravitational changes made the journey tiring. Coming to a pool Blake drank, and waited to see if the creature would join him, which it did. He followed it again, lost. If he'd been thinking straight, he would have teleported close to the shore rather than the interior, so he could backtrack without a compass, rather.
But, he had come here because he had not been thinking straight.
He lost his footing, and tripped over a root. How ridiculous to miss the rendezvous because of a twisted ankle.
He was poked in the back, got up and saw the creature again. He was not mobile enough to catch it.
It decided he was not a major threat, and stood just out of reach, chattering like a bird at him.
'WHAT are you?'
'Well, if that's your only way of communicating, I can't see us having much of a conversation.'
Amazingly, the creature began to speak so that Blake could understand it.
Someone else could bring Orac here to study the phenomenon.
'Why did you stop?'
'Well, why did you run?'
'Movement is life. To stop is to lose yourself and be absorbed. Is it that you are ready to be absorbed? Is Oneness already a burden?'
'No, I don't understand what you mean.'
'You are newly hatched. Zil saw you come to Oneness. But your movement was slow.
Zil risked Oneness to waken you.'
'What are you?'
'My Oneness is Zil. What is yours?' That was simple enough to understand.
'Well, I'm called Blake.'
'Come, Blake. Keep distant. Zil and Blake must be alone to live.' Zil went off again.
The ground moved: but if the original survey could miss Zil's kind, they could have also missed the seismic activity.
'The Host stirs,' Zil said.
Sentience - and belief. Blake could understand why Zil's kind would see the land as alive. He followed Zil.
Travis looked up as the door opened. No, it was not, as he half expected, Servalan come to gloat, but another soldier, a trooper by the costume.
'Who is it?'
'Do you remember me sir?'
Travis recognised the voice, remembered days when he had been in command and content with what he had achieved. 'Par. What are you doing here, Trooper?' Par came into the cell.
'I'm off duty sir.'
'Well, I'm not. I guess you're tired of your freedom.' Travis glanced at the security camera.
'I'm a twenty year man, sir. I wouldn't recognise freedom if I fell over it.'
Blake, I wish you were here to see who you were fighting for. 'There's a temporary fault on surveillance. Guard's a friend of mine.' Travis remembered favours given and returned when he had been a trooper himself.
'Stand to attention when you talk to me.' Par did so. 'I'm putting you and your friend on report.' As if it'd do any good.
'Only trying to help, sir.'
'Help? And how do you think you can help me, Trooper?'
'Brought you something sir.' Par reached into a pocket. Travis grabbed the hand: might as well give some truth to the phrase "shot while attempting to escape." He hoped someone would do the same for Samor when Servalan's ambitions placed him in this cell.
Travis was almost disappointed when Par extracted a flask. 'Open it.'
'That's good stuff, sir. You won't go blind drinking that.'
Travis relaxed slightly. 'All right Par. What have I done to deserve this?'
'Faithful trooper, beloved officer - not quite how I see either of us.'
'You always looked after your men, sir. Now you're going to die. We thought a drink was the least we could do, sir.' One of Servalan's plots no doubt, but Travis knew he had had the loyalty of his men. More than could be said for Servalan.
'Stand at ease. Have one with me.'
Par thanked him and did so. As soon as Travis decided the drink was not poisoned he dismissed Par.
'Oh Sir?' Par said as he left.
'The report, sir?' Ah, that. Ever the stickler, Par.
'No one would believe it,' Travis said and Par left. 'Any more than I do.'
The drink was as good as Par had said.
Par acknowledged Thania's presence when he was in the corridor.
'Did you give it to him?'
'I appreciate it.'
'With respect, Major,' the words carrying their usual disrespectful meaning, 'I didn't do it for you.'
'You served a full tour with Space Commander Travis, didn't you?' She was genuinely curious about the man.
'Five years. He was hard.'
'But fair,' Thania offered in completion.
'No, not often, anyway. But you could always rely on him not to get you killed unnecessarily. He never wasted troopers.'
'Well, that's something I suppose.' Stupid staff officer, not knowing the first thing about battle.
'Major, when you're up to your neck in slime and lasers, that's everything.' At the first opportunity, he would transfer to Samor's fleet. Loss of privileges and prestige maybe, but you could rely on people there.
'Trooper Par. Do you think he's guilty?'
Didn't she know troopers were not paid to think - or paid not to think? 'No doubt about it, Major. He gave the order. We just did the shooting.'
Thania went into Travis' cell. He was lying on his cot, the bottle underneath his dangling arm. Thania was not surprised: hard drinking was one way soldiers and officers passed their free time.
'Come in, Thania. I've been expecting you,' Travis said.
'I thought you were asleep.'
'What is it you want to ask me?' Travis did not care much for lawyers and their subtleties.
'Is there anything you need?' Thania asked.
Travis could think of quite a few replies to that remark, but his immediate reaction was to toss the flask at her in anger. 'You lack subtlety, Major.'
'What are you suggesting Travis?' She sensed he understood the game better than she did.
She protested, but left on his insistence. She felt lost, out of her depth. What should she do now?
Blake was slightly lost.
'Zil, where are you?'
'You have stopped again. Is Blake afraid to be alone? All must stay alone or wake the Host.'
'You took something from me, something that I need. Now, Zil, what have you done with it?'
'Blake will be lost to you unless Zil can explain. But how? How to explain what Blake is?'
'Well, tell me what Zil is.'
'Zil is my Oneness. Alone. Zil is my waking, as Blake is your waking.' Zil, Blake realised, had no equivalent to "I." Zen did not either, but it was a computer. But Orac almost invariably used the personal pronoun of itself. The ideas raised were most puzzling. He would have to go back to the Liberator and think about it.
Zil continued to try and explain, saying that they had to be alone. They walked further, Blake half worrying about the beacon.
Jenna went to check the controls on the flight deck and then glanced at Avon, who was involved in yet another of his devices.
'I have already programmed an automatic search pattern for the homing beacon,' Avon said.
'You don't mind if I check it?' Jenna approved of Avon's capacity to use his peripheral vision.
'I'd be disappointed if you didn't.' He went back to his device as Vila joined them.
'What are you doing?' Jenna asked Avon. It must be nearly complete for him to bring it to the flight deck to be seen.
'It's a detector shield. I've been working on it for some time.' It was near enough completion to show to others without the embarrassment of failure. And he wished to resolve the last problems before Blake became aware of it.
'Everyone should have a hobby. What's it do?' Vila asked.
'It should keep us off everything but the Federation's close range visual scanners,' Avon replied. Jenna could appreciate the benefits of that.
'That's brilliant Avon, absolutely brilliant,' Vila said. 'It'll never work.'
They enjoyed teasing each other, challenging each other's claims to skill, and the others could usually appreciate it.
'There's only one way to find out. I'm sure Blake will find us something suitable to attack.' Avon replied.
'I see. You've decided to be led like the rest of us,' Vila teased.
'I shall continue to follow. It's not quite the same thing.' He chose to go along with Blake and his plans.
'I don't see the difference.'
'I didn't really think you would.'
'Why,' asked Jenna, partially to end the descent into school playground conversation, 'have you left most of the southern hemisphere off the search pattern?'
'I don't believe that Blake can think and swim at the same time. It's nothing but ocean down there.'
Jenna extracted the board game they had been playing before, looked at the other two. Avon indicated he would play again, refrained from his usual comment about "bored" games.
The flight deck was near silent then, apart from the comments of Vila and Cally when she joined them.
Zen suddenly spoke. 'Information. Detectors indicate rapid changes now occurring on the planetary surface.'
'Changes?' Vila said, suddenly alarmed. The implication was that unnecessary heroics might be needed.
'Specify,' Avon asked.
'Indications are that the land mass is sinking. Projections of the rate at which the process is accelerating suggest that it will be entirely submerged beneath the oceans in two hours.'
'That's impossible,' Vila said. Zen sometimes wondered why the humans queried statements of fact so readily.
'Recheck the data,' Avon asked, as Zen had expected him to.
'Confirmed.' Humans were so illogical in their disbelief. Vila expressed an entirely sensible wish to move the Liberator out of the way, but Avon indicated a desire to retrieve Blake.
Avon switched Orac - whom Zen had been feeding data - on, and the small computer indicated the information it needed to analyse the situation.
Orac was duly fascinated by the planet, regretted yet again it could not persuade Blake to include a few trained scientists on board the Liberator to study all the phenomena they encountered.
As it had often had cause to lament with Zen, the humans were slow on the uptake. But the idea of a planet as a living organism was unusual. The suggestion that Blake by himself was responsible for what was now happening merely demonstrated a lack of understanding as to their significance in the galaxy and the universe as a whole.
Blake had finally got Zil to take him to the beacon and the container with the teleport bracelet.
'The Host has not absorbed them,' Zil said with satisfaction. For that Blake was duly grateful.
'What is the Host?' Zil indicated the world around them. Was that the local name for this planet? 'And yet you fear it.'
'Resist it. Oneness must resist the Host.'
And I choose to resist the Federation.
'But you don't know that it exists,' Blake said as he put his teleport bracelet on. 'Perhaps you're imagining it. How do you resist an illusion?' Blake remembered the encounter with Travis in what had once been Central Control.
Gan had died, but how many rebels' lives would be saved because the truth was known?
'Eat lightly, move quickly, so that the Host is not aware of your Oneness.'
Blake became aware of more ground tremors. 'Yes I don't suppose you know how to speed up the timer on a homing beacon?' He realised Zil had moved, went in pursuit, to find Zil lying on the ground. 'Zil - what's wrong?'
'Zil is lost The Host will take' Blake picked Zil up and started moving. The creature was lighter than he expected, but still made him more aware of the gravitational changes.
'Blake must leave Zil.'
'No. What's happened to the light?' Not like a storm, or the fall of evening.
'The waking time is over. The Host absorbs all.'
'Not yet, it doesn't.' Blake decided he would not die anonymously on an unknown planet, but somewhere more spectacular.
He continued to carry Zil, following the path of least resistance.
'This place is fitting,' Zil said after a little while. Blake put the creature down.
'Zil, what' He looked around, saw a pile of white objects.
'Oneness will return when the Host is quiet again.'
Blake suddenly realised what he was looking at. 'They're eggs. The children of your people.'
'Their skin is strong. They cannot be absorbed.'
Blake thought of the white glow of the teleport field, understood why Zil had come to his aid. 'You thought I was hatching from an egg. You've been protecting a child.'
'This place is fitting. Here Blake and Zil will surrender Oneness.'
A gap appeared in the ground, and Zil fell in.
'Not me. I am not ready to surrender ANYTHING!'
The ground shivered and the seismic noise increased till Blake found the sound painful.
They did not know if Blake had retrieved his teleport bracelet - and the planet's fluctuations made it difficult to perform a normal check to locate him.
Avon had devised a plan to retrieve Blake - if he had survived what was happening - through automatic retrievals. This involved a high energy drain - but they would only have to cover a small area of the planet, bounded by the maximum distances which Blake could have walked.
Avon might sometimes deny that they were a team, despite the evidence, but so they acted now, each knowing what they were supposed to do, acting almost automatically. Even so they almost missed Blake flickering through the teleport bay.
'NOW!' Avon said, and Cally engaged the teleport fully.
Blake reappeared, to a general sense of relief.
'Thank you. Next time I want to think, I'll do it in my cabin,' Blake said, more relieved than he cared to admit.
'I should stick to action, Blake,' Avon said. 'That's what you're good at.' The nearest he would come to saying he was glad Blake had returned.
'Jenna, we've got him back,' Cally said, and the Liberator started to move out of its atmosphere-skimming orbit.
'Avon adapted the teleport with his usual skill - probably ruined it,' Vila said, teasing as he was acknowledging Avon's abilities.
'You went to a lot of trouble,' Blake said to Avon as Vila and then Cally left.
'One of these days they are going to leave you. They were almost ready to do so this time.' Both knew this was a continuation of the conversation they had had before the disastrous expedition to destroy Central Control.
'Yes. I thought they might be.'
'You handle them very skilfully,' Avon admitted.
'Do I?' Blake was pleased at the compliment.
'But one more death will do it.'
'Then you'd better be very careful. It would be ironic if it were yours.'
Avon smiled and left.
They sat on the flight deck once Avon had installed his detector shield.
'We were getting a reputation for being invulnerable,' Blake finished reviewing the situation.
'We were even beginning to believe it ourselves.' Cally said. As a professional rebel she could analyse the situation more readily than most.
'Some of us anyway,' Avon said.
'All right, yes, I admit it. Gan's death woke me, made me realise I'd come to accept our own legend. But far more important than that, every Federation trooper, every kill-happy bounty hunter now knows that we are fallible.'
'You're saying that it's time to stop. That is what you're saying, I hope,' Vila said almost hopefully. He had found Avon's stated desire to explore the galaxy in the Liberator almost attractive. It would certainly be less dangerous than continuing the rebellion.
'No, he's saying it's too late to stop, aren't you?' Jenna queried, turning to Blake. 'We've come too far.'
'No, what I'm saying is that there will be a better time.'
'When we have restored our legend,' Avon said. The sooner that happened the more likely Avon would get a chance to pursue his dream.
'Ah,' Blake said. He was no longer certain what the legend was, even if Avon was suddenly willing to promote it.
'All right, what death defying feat must we undertake in order to do that?' Avon asked.
'Will this detector shield work?' Blake replied - he knew Avon had been waiting to be asked to try it out.
'Yes.' Otherwise he would not have brought the equipment from the area of the ship he had turned into a research area.
'A high speed attack,' Blake replied. 'A single strike run. We'll be on them before they know and away before they can respond.'
'Where?' Avon asked, guessing at the probable answer.
Avon smiled - Blake could be so predictable.
'Jenna - plot the course.'
She did so: flight time would take a little over six hours. Blake ordered Zen to increase the speed. He wished to get this act - yes, it was revenge - over with as soon as possible.
They were closer to a Federation presence than they expected - and Blake asked Avon whether they could rely on his detector shield.
'I thought we were?' Avon said with more than a hint of irony.
The patrol passed them by and Avon smirked. He could be justifiably pleased with himself.
'They missed us!' Vila said exuberantly. 'Avon's gadget worked!'
'I never doubted it for a moment,' Blake replied. Avon had a reputation to maintain. He noticed Avon looked slightly miffed. 'Is something wrong?'
'It just occurred to me that as the description of a highly sophisticated technological achievement, "Avon's gadget worked" seems to lack a certain style.'
Blake smiled - occasionally even Avon showed himself human after all. 'It is succinct and accurate - what more do you want?'
Travis' trial was entering its closing stages. The justice computer announced that the prosecution data was complete and that it was waiting for the defence data to be entered.
Thania began, using the standard opening formula.
'NO!' Travis shouted, rising to his feet. This was not some case of stupid troopers creating hassle, to be fined a few days' pay and given a slap on the wrist. Thania asked Samor for leave to consult with Travis, which Travis tried to refuse. Samor, used to countless brawling troopers and officers with their hands a little too blatantly in the military funds, stopped the argument. Travis had accepted the competence of his defending officer - he had had little choice not to - but she seemed to be the only one unaware of the nature of this trial.
As Travis and Thania moved to discuss the strategy she should adopt Bercol in a whisper queried whether this was a sign of life, to which Rontane replied that it was merely the death throws of the trial, nothing more.
Thania tried to explain that she was trying to excuse Travis' activities, that she would present him as a brilliant and dedicated officer - Travis was almost flattered - who had had a momentary aberration of judgment.
'Only a momentary aberration?' Travis asked, wondering as usual at the ignorance of staff officers.
Thania, disconcerted, attempted to continue her presentation.
'I will make the opening declaration,' Travis said firmly. If she wouldn't put any fire into the argument, he could and he would.
'Look, don't be a fool. Do you really think you're going to impress them sympathetically?'
'I think the Supreme Commander wants me to go to my death quietly.' She wishes to deny the fire within me she recruited me for before. 'This is as close to quietly as I am going to get.'
'Look, I'm trying to save your life, Travis' Thania began.
Which of us is the real fool? I know what is going on. 'You'd better be occupied trying to save your own, Thania. Majors can die quiet anonymously. And your involvement in this fiasco makes your life expectancy only marginally longer than my own.' He could see that she did not quite believe him.
'You may begin,' Samor said.
Travis rose, pacing across the floor as he spoke.
'A field officer, like myself, is frequently required to make fast, unconsidered decisions. You were all field officers, you know that's true. Time to think is a luxury battle seldom affords you. You react instinctively. Your actions, your decisions, all instinct, nothing more. But, an officer's instincts are the product of his training. The more thorough the training, the more predictable the instinct, the better the officer. And I am a good officer. I have been in the service all my adult life. I'm totally dedicated to my duty and highly trained in how to perform it. On Serkasta I, I reacted as I was trained to react. I was an instrument of the service. So if I'm guilty of murder, of mass murder, then so are all of you!'
Samor, as disconcerted as the rest, told Travis to be seated and ordered the justice computer to proceed.
When the program had finished - no surprise at the result - Samor ordered Travis to stand.
The computer pronounced. 'Judgment program one oblique three. Conclusion: Space
Commander Travis, you are guilty as charged.' No surprise there.
'The Tribunal will retire to consider sentence.' Samor said and led the others away,
Thania reached Servalan's office a few moments later.
'No surprise from the defence?' Servalan asked.
'How did you know?' Thania asked.
'How did you NOT know?'
'I thought he'd given up.'
'I warned you not to underestimate Travis.' Or me. Majors like you are perfectly expendable.
'I don't think he's persuaded them,' Thania began.
'I was watching Samor. What Travis said bothered him.'
'You were watching?' Thania began to accept Travis' last statement.
Servalan laughed. 'Secret session or not, did you seriously imagine I wouldn't have a spy camera in there? Travis knew, right from the beginning. It really is a pity he's got to die. He's so much better than anything I've got left.' And that includes you for all your ambitions.
The session resumed in the hearing room a few minutes later.
The Liberator was making its final approach as Samor began delivering the sentence.
'Space Commander, we have considered your sentence at some length. Your contention that what happened on Serkasta was a direct result of your training concerned us greatly. We accept that you are trained to kill. As are we all. What we cannot accept is that this training leads inevitably to the murder of innocents. Your behaviour was not that of a Federation officer, but rather that of a savage, unthinking, animal.
We cannot find it in our hearts to absolve you in any way of the responsibility for these murders. The sentence of this tribunal is, therefore, that you should be stripped of all rank and privileges, that you be dishonourably dismissed the service, and that you then be executed for the common criminal you have shown yourself to be. Have you anything to say?'
Travis remained silent.
The Liberator was preparing to fire.
'Do I take it,' asked Samor, 'you have nothing to say.'
'The Federation is run by hypocrites and supported by fools. I'm glad to be rid of you all,' Travis said. Any attempts to disturb them further, as he had with his comment about training were stalled by the tannoy.
'All personnel to battle stations. All personnel to battle stations. Unidentified ship on attack run in Quadrant Six.'
There was the sound of an explosion, reverberating through the material of the command ship. The sound of escaping air whistled in the background.
Travis, trained to act automatically as he claimed, overcame his guards and seized a weapon.
The tannoy continued. 'Automatic air locks will trigger in three seconds.'
Travis seized the opportunity - and made his escape as the doors closed, to be confronted by Par.
'What's happened in there?' Par asked.
'Outer wall cracked, automatic airlock sealed the chamber. They'll all be dead by now. Drop the gun.'
'I can't do that, sir,' Par replied. He would go through the formalities the only way to act.
'Don't be a fool. I've got nothing to lose anymore.'
' I can't let you go, sir,' Par said before Travis knocked him out.
'Some of us weren't hypocrites, were we, Par?' He would reserve judgement on Samor.
He made his way towards Servalan's office. She was listening to damage reports, then looked up at Travis.
'Well. Savage THINKING animals have a way of surviving, don't they?'
'Who was it?' Travis asked.
'We think it was Blake.'
'Huh. I must remember to say thank you before I kill him.'
'What are you planning to do?'
'I'm planning to leave. You're going to give me a pursuit ship - oh, and the trigger circuit for this.' Travis indicated the weapon in his prosthetic arm.
'You think so?' Servalan asked as Travis approached. He had nothing to lose, she knew. 'And you'll hunt Blake.'
'While you'll hunt both of us. Now give the orders. Carefully.'
She did so.
'You're not going to use me any more,' Travis said. 'Move!' He was enjoying himself.
For a brief moment he considered addressing her as Madam President - her patent ambition - rather than Supreme Commander, but resisted.
The Liberator had outrun the Federation pursuit ships.
'Resist the Host,' Blake quoted, 'or your Oneness will be absorbed.' As good a rebel motto as any.
'I would quite like to have met this Zil of yours,' Avon said. 'It's not often one comes across a philosophical flea.'
'That's the stuff that legends are made of,' Vila said. He had a chance of fame perhaps.
'Then again, perhaps they are not that uncommon,' Avon replied, and Blake joined him in laughter.