The planet Atlay - year 295 of the Second Calendar
One ship each. No weapons brought to the surface. All parties had adhered to these two simple rules, or if they hadn't they all managed to get away with it without being caught. And so the conference could proceed.
Atlay was one of only a few planets which offered the facilities, had actually survived the war and were accessible and relatively safe, and in the end it was the only location that all parties could agree on as a meeting place. The basic agreements that had notionally founded the Unified Systems Alliance were long since ratified by all, but there were still a lot of clauses to be settled in detail.
Avalon was there. So too was President Scarn of the Proxima system, and a hundred other rulers, mainly former Federation officers. Having seized power in whatever system they had found themselves at the end of the war, they were all basically the last man standing, the one who had managed to kill or drive off all his rivals. Even she had been invited by open communiqué, just on the off chance that the notorious war criminal, the one most associated with the worst excesses of the late Federation, could be tempted out and captured by such a base appeal to her vanity. It did not work, surprising no one. Sleer did not come.
All attended many meetings, some important, some very trivial, but the most important meeting that took place on Atlay in the course of the three-day summit, the one with the greatest long-term repercussions, happened in secret.
"Let's make this quick." Erno Scarn shifted his bulk through the narrow doorway and eyed the small mess room with faint distaste, brushing a chair down with his great slab of a hand before settling on it.
"Yes, before we're missed..." Sol Brintun peered out into the corridor before closing the door.
"Whatever," said Scarn. "I just don't want to be here any longer than necessary."
"The Federation is finished," said Brintun resolutely, and paused to collect his thoughts.
"That's what you wanted to tell me?" Scarn raised an eyebrow. "That I could have told you years ago."
"I mean... anyone who thinks they can just rebuild along the same lines, continue as if nothing had happened, is deluding himself. A drastically new approach is needed."
"Yes, President Scarn. And I..."
"I hold the key to a weapon that may just swing the tide of history decisively in your favour. Not today, but in the years and decades to come. I suspect you and you alone have the vision to take the steps necessary."
"A vision your current masters lack?"
"Yes," Brintun replied without hesitation.
"I alone, you say?"
Brintun smirked, and looked away for a moment. "With the right advisors."
"And what's wrong with my advisors?"
"For your current needs, nothing. They have served you well enough. But they're not me."
Scarn chuckled. "And if I take this leap, to believing I need you... What then?"
"-I mean, I could just have you killed. Have you considered that?"
Scarn let that go. "What about our illustrious Chairperson? Why haven't you offered her your services?"
"Need you ask?"
"I am asking." The smile still played over Scarn's cherubic face, but the eyes were cold.
"Avalon plays well, for now," said Brintun. "There will come a day, perhaps very soon, where she is no longer needed."
"A matter on which we are in total agreement. Perhaps you are worth taking on, after all..."
The Presidential launch, en route to Storm Mountain - year 301 of the Second Calendar
"She's my wife." Scarn's face was impassive, and many would have stopped right there, perceiving the danger signals, but Brintun just moved around the President's imposing command chair to press the matter. "What would you have me do?" Scarn demanded.
"She is your wife," Brintun acknowledged. "And also a traitor."
"And a Mekatir," said Scarn. "A Mekatir! Lest we forget, a lineage far older and prouder - so much prouder! - than my own."
"This is the fourth century, now," said Brintun quickly, having clearly anticipated that and rehearsed his response. "Power, in its purest sense, is what matters. Not bloodlines."
"Tell that to the other houses."
"The other houses do not listen to me. And why would they? But they have to listen to you..."
"And I listen to you... Why do I do that, remind me...? Where is that army you promised?"
"You have an army... and you will have the even greater one promised, in time. But an army is not necessary for what has to be done today."
"You want me to kill my wife."
"I want you to do what you must, and have given my advice. Only you can decide."
Proxima II - year 308 of the Second Calendar
"What is the nature of his ailment...?" Lady Shilena had inquired, almost certainly indifferent to the subject's well-being but perhaps concerned that he might expire before reaching his audience with her.
"Myocardial infarction..." Doctor Guld had replied. "Almost unheard of in this day and age. The doctors had to consult their databases before venturing on treatment. I understand it was a very... traumatic experience, and has left him somewhat weakened."
Sol Brintun made a conscious effort to keep his pace slow and steady as he advanced along the hallway of the Presidential palace, remembering the doctors' advice, ignoring the stony faces on all sides and the almost tangible waves of hatred emanating from the assembled courtiers. That, he was used to. Being summoned, however, by anyone but President Scarn himself, was something he had not been accustomed to for many years.
He had failed. He would not admit that, dare not admit that, to anyone else, but he could and did admit it to himself. Tomorrow, he would fix that, he would find solutions to the mess they were in, and he had absolute confidence that would be possible. He had always achieved anything he had set his mind to, despite the massive obstacles placed in his path by his low birth, his poor health, and a thousand other factors that would have halted a lesser man.
That was tomorrow. Today, his goal was to survive, and he would, he had no doubt that would be possible as well. He was a man of destiny, and whatever the difficulty he faced it would be overcome. The doors were opened, and he shambled forward to face his latest obstacle.
Shilena Mekatir, First Lady of the Proxima system and of Unified Systems, was waiting to be overcome. By his wits, by his words... By the forces of destiny. Their eyes locked, and Brintun's narrowed behind the thick lenses. He moved closer, cautious but resolute - It would be necessary to pick his words with care now...
"Lady Shilena-" he began.
"You recognise me, then?"
He frowned, thrown off guard. "Of course-"
"-Good." A slight nod from the First Lady brought several shots fired from behind Brintun - back arched and face contorted, he dropped to the floor like a sack of meal. Lady Shilena's eyes remained on him, watching his body twitch for several seconds, a very faint smile on her face.
"I wanted him to know it was me," she explained calmly. Business done, she clapped her hands in front of her. "Clear that away, please, someone..." she said casually, moving past the prone body on the ground, long skirts brushing over Sol Brintun's outstretched clenched fingers.
A bitter chapter of her life was over. Now, a new one could properly begin.
The Liberator, deep space
"Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up, hurry up..." Rissa murmured, silver eyes fixed on the monitor built into her station. "Hurry up!" This accelerated learning wasn't nearly accelerated enough for her taste.
"I'm not sure that's conducive..." said Blake, standing off to the side and periodically seeking reports from Zen while the others each occupied one of the five stations. "I think you're supposed to relax."
"I am relaxed..." said Rissa, smiling. "This is how I relax, haven't you noticed that yet?"
"INFORMATION..." said Zen. "PROJECTILES HAVE ALTERED TRAJECTORY AND ARE ON COURSE TO INTERCEPT LIBERATOR IN SEVEN MINUTES."
"Intercept..." said Juni. "Why doesn't it just say hit?"
"Zen...!" said Darvin. "Transfer my station to manual."
"PILOT TRAINING IS INCOMPLETE."
"I think we're all going to be pretty incomplete in a few minutes, if we leave this to you... No offence, big guy."
"Are you sure...?" asked Blake. "You think you're ready?"
"Please..." said Darvin. "Do I look like someone who ever reads the instructions?"
Blake shook her head, and waved an arm toward him in a helpless gesture. "Well... On all our heads be it!"
The missiles hurtled onward, slowly gaining despite Liberator's attempts to shake them off. Zen's evasive maneuvers were thorough and, unfortunately, entirely predictable by the missiles' automatic guidance systems even before the remote operators in the closing Pursuit Ships were taken into account. The range narrowed as they closed on their target.
"IMPACT IN FOUR-POINT-SEVEN-FIVE MINUTES," said Zen. "PILOT STATION SWITCHED TO MANUAL CONTROL." Blake wasn't sure if the computer's disapproving tone was only in her imagination - she shot an anxious look at Darvin, fierce in his concentration, leaning forward to plug his artificial hand into the waiting port.
"Darvin..." said Caul. "Do you want me to fire a few shots from the rear blasters? Try to break them up a bit?"
"Knock yourself out, my friend."
"Clearing neutron blasters for firing... Firing now!"
Caul's salvo of shots from Liberator's neutron blasters blazed their way across the space between the ship and the oncoming missiles, and though they failed to hit their target, they succeeded in forcing the missiles off course and in making their remote operators waste precious seconds correcting their trajectory... Time for Darvin to prepare.
Liberator swung round in a tight arc, straining the entire structure of the ship, and hurtled back and through the missile barrage, missing several of them narrowly, and into a collision course with the squadron of Pursuit Ships not far behind.
The crews of the Pursuit ships took precious time to realise their danger, and they did so too late. As Darvin pulled Liberator out of its death-dive onto the enemy ships, the missiles impacted on the very ships that had fired them. Liberator emerged from the expanding cloud of debris, its electronic force wall becoming visible with each impact of the wreckage, gleaming and resplendent in the fiery glow.
Suddenly, survival seemed like a real possibility. There was a kind of restrained glee on the flight-deck, and general congratulations heading in Darvin's direction, but none of it interrupted his concentration for a moment. "Not over yet!" he cautioned.
"Did we get them all?" Blake demanded.
"Don't know yet," said Juni, studying the readings. "Wait... One survivor!"
"And what will they expect us to do now...?" Blake demanded, and they all thought about that quickly.
"Retreat," said Faal. "We have barely escaped with our lives, it would be logical to retreat."
"They'll regroup and come after us," said Darvin. "Standard procedure in my day. I mean, we might be fast enough in this ship to make retreat a viable alternative, possibly."
"We're not retreating," said Blake, resolute. "Darvin, you have the deck. Caul, Rissa - with me."
The retreating Pursuit Ship found itself pursued, and under Darvin's increasingly deft handling, Liberator got very close and then matched its adversary's speed precisely. "Ready!" Darvin called over the comms. "Don't know how long we can maintain this, so best do whatever you're going to do!"
If being pursued was a surprise, that was nothing compared to the shock the crew of the Pursuit Ship received when two of the enemy crew appeared among them in a momentary blaze of white light. Rissa shot them down, one by one, with ruthless efficiency, while Blake hurried to the cramped flight-deck and, after a little more killing, a job she detached her emotions from entirely, she worked quickly, hunting through the instrument panels furiously. Trying to avoid the sightless eyes of the two men she had just killed. They would have killed you... It was necessary... Get on with it...!
"Blake...!" came Darvin's voice from her teleport bracelet. "Nowish would be a good time to come back, if you want to come back that is...!"
"Get us back," cried Blake, bringing her bracelet up close to her mouth. "Now!"
The UniS warship Xerxes rumbled onward, crew on high alert, expecting at any moment to receive news of victory, or for its sensors to register the flare from the destruction of the enemy ship. The longer they went without incident, the more tense the situation became.
"Xerxes to Pursuit Ship squadron... Xerxes to squadron... Respond, please... Respond, please..."
"Sir... Picking something up... It's..."
"Pursuit Ships? The enemy? Speak up, man!"
"Um, negative, sir... That is, not Pursuit Ships. Just one returning, sir - it seems to have suffered some damage."
"Xerxes to Pursuit Ship, Xerxes to Pursuit ship, report situation... Report situation..."
"Comms must be down, sir... Receiving signals... Old code, sir... Indicating their comms system... Yes, it's down... Short range radio is functioning..."
"It won't work at this range... Let it come in closer..."
"What is it?"
"Sir! Destroy it, sir! No, too late! We have to-!" The Pursuit Ship's engines overloaded, and the explosion devastated Xerxes, almost ripping it in half. Within seconds, a chain reaction of further explosions completely engulfed the UniS warship.
If Liberator's crew had expected to feel any kind of triumph at their victory, complete though it was, they were to be disappointed. In fact, they just quietly completed the learning programs and ran their stations through a diagnostic process, before all responding with quiet relief to Blake's softly-spoken suggestion, "Let's get some rest."
Caul volunteered to stand the first watch, and, after offering to do it herself, Blake accepted his insistence. When both Juni and Rissa volunteered to stay too, it momentarily looked like conflict might flare up, but Darvin defused the situation with a few quiet words.
Blake left the flight-deck on her first day in command of the Liberator with a lot to think about.
In one of the districts of the Kapital known colloquially as Downtown, in the shadows between the massive monolithic Extractors, lived a significant proportion of Proxima II's population, and therefore of the Proxima system as a whole. And therefore, it followed, and this was a sobering enough thought for those to whom it occurred, a significantly large proportion of the entire human race.
Best not to think about that, on the whole.
It was an ideal place to get lost, or more precisely to hide oneself. For criminals, both minor and major, for the disgraced, the dispossessed and the disinherited, as well as flat out enemies of the state. One of those enemies made her way by the darkest and most fetid of alleys, snaking her way through puddles of the condensation that ran down the walls of the buildings on either side, to a watering hole that could charitably be described as... quite dangerous.
Nodding to a couple of familiar faces on the way in, the young woman kept to the edges of the dank interior till she found a suitable booth, one that was quiet enough for her purpose. Then she waited.
It wasn't very long before he arrived, and the young woman, straight-backed and contained, calm and disciplined, was very aware of her surroundings the whole time. None would sneak up on her - it had been tried, and the attacker had always come to grief. She may not look very threatening, this slender, pale-skinned girl who if anything looked a little younger than her twenty years, but she was well-known enough not to be trifled with.
"Why now...?" he said abruptly, before slumping down into the bench seat opposite and hunching forward. The man was in his sixties, and did not particularly look younger than that - his craggy face was one that had been lived in. He ran a hand over his sparse, cropped grey hair and scratched his stubbly chin. "We weren't supposed to meet for another-"
"-Why wasn't I informed we had lost our contact in the palace?" Avral leaned forward a little, lowering her hood, and the muted lighting shone on her fine dark-brown shoulder-length hair, and were reflected as bright dots in brown eyes currently stern with contained anger. The sleeves of her dark-red leather tunic emerged from the folds of the traveling cloak as she tapped her slender fingers on the damp tabletop.
"I only just found out myself," said Del Grant, and signaled for a drink. She shook her head slightly to decline one for herself, and he sighed. "You'll draw less attention if you behave like everyone else in here. It's bad enough you don't look like anyone likely to frequent this place."
"Like you do?" It wasn't entirely an angry retort - there was genuine concern for him there too, and a sort of rueful affection. "You need to look after yourself, Del."
"Why?" One word, spoken plainly, but she knew the pain behind it.
"For the cause?" That was said with a cynical smile. "Like it or not, Del, and let's be honest, I know you don't, I'm a senior operative now." Ignoring his quiet chuckle at the word senior, Avral continued. "I'm not happy about your attempts to sideline me. I understand why, which is the only reason-"
"-Do you? Understand why? Or do you only think you do?" They looked at each other across the booth for a long moment.
"I need to find out as soon as you do, if not before..." she said, calm again. "It's not for the sake of my ego, it's not to somehow get one up on you, it's because others depend on me too." She looked away, and then back. "Also, I recruited her. I need to find out what happened."
"As a senior operative, why don't you make your own periodic reports?" asked Grant with the air of a man who already knew the answer.
"Walar, he's... Walar is better at them, and if she wants to talk to me directly then she knows where I am."
"And what does Walar think of that?"
"You should!" Aware his voice had carried a little, Grant made himself speak more quietly. "Think about it." Another long stare-out, before she relented.
"I'm going in," she said straightforwardly and sat back, ready for his objections. "I'm sorry to do this to you, I really am... but if I ask her, you know what she'll say."
"She'll say yes." His response was so low it was almost a whisper.
"She'll always say yes... You could try to overrule her, of course, but how do you think that would play...? The great Avalon overruled... What would Walar think of that...?"
He looked at her without speaking, and his gaze was, she thought, more sad than angry. She had expected anger, but this she had dreaded. "You need to see something," he said at last.
"I'm not sure what you'll make of this..." said Grant, leading Avral across the murky main floor of the establishment. "I'm not even sure what I make of it." They stopped, and he indicated one of the three-dimensional holographic displays broadcasting the news media to mostly indifferent patrons. "Wait, it'll come around again shortly."
"What are we-?"
"That's one of the independent vid services..."
"Is this the one that claims the world is going to end in four and a bit years?"
"Possibly... Here it is." To Avral's astonishment, the muted report was accompanied by a few seconds of video footage - on a loop - that purported to show the identity of the infamous insurgent space vessel responsible for the recent attacks on UniS ships in the vicinity of Earth. Her mouth fell open at the sight of the vessel, eyes wide, and she turned to Grant. "Careful," he warned, and she contained her excitement for the benefit of those who might be watching.
"It's him," she said, voice breaking a little. "He's back! I always-"
"-That's the best case scenario," said Grant, unable to quite stop the faintest of smiles appearing on his habitually grim face. "Don't get too excited, though. If Blake is alive, he'll be a little creaky these days. Like me."
"I hope he's just like you, Del," Avral said playfully, gripping his arm. He scowled at first, but soon relented. He hadn't seen Avral respond like this to anything, not for many a year, and just that was enough right now. Looking at Liberator as it flashed up again and again, he couldn't quite rid himself of that peculiar sensation. He had felt it before, fleetingly. Certainly on Albian, nearly thirty years before, but seldom since. What was it, that sensation...?
Oh, yes. Hope.
"So, you really think he's not dead...?"
In the Liberator's refectory, a long low-ceilinged room lined with gleaming white tables and bench seats, Darvin was sitting alone, picking at a square tray with various edible substances deposited in differently-shaped indents by one of the dispensers - alone till Blake came to join him. They were the only two present for now.
"You want me to show you how to get some of this..." Darvin hesitated. "Food?"
"Get hungry, Blake. You're going to need food, like all of us. You're human."
Her expression was half frown, half-smile. "Of course I'm human."
"Sorry... Just trying something out," he said, and sampled a mouthful of purple mush, finding it surprisingly pleasant. "It's just... back in the old days, I mean right back, important people, great leaders and all that, they would sometimes have people whose job it was to whisper in their ear, when they thought they needed it, You're just a man..."
"I'm not a man," said Blake lightly. "But I see your point."
"I don't really know what my point was..." said Darvin, looking down at his tray, considering what to try next. "Don't mind me. I don't know where I am any more."
"You seem to know where you are on that flight-deck," said Blake, and paused. "Will you do that for me, Stev?"
"Remind me, when I need it."
He continued eating, and it was a little while before he next spoke. "Yes, I'm pretty sure he's not dead," he replied to her original question.
"That's who you meant, wasn't it...? But I don't think we'll ever know for sure either. I think he and Servalan are far away right now. They've gone... I don't know, somewhere... Avon's been planning what happened there on Earth for years... Oh, I don't doubt some stuff went wrong and he had to make adjustments, but we were all his pawns from start to finish."
"And we still are."
"Only if you want to be."
"What do you mean?"
He pushed the tray away, and looked at her levelly. "We had good reason to go after those UniS ships today. They were a direct threat to us, probably. But now..."
"They're not pursuing us right now... I see that as a hint. And an opportunity."
"I hadn't thought about it that way. Not yet." She sat back, without breaking their eye contact. "Did Avon assume we would pick up where they left off, all those years ago...? I suppose I was assuming it too."
"Or... We could just turn this ship, the most powerful ship in existence right now, turn it around and head out there, and find something better for ourselves..."
"Leave...? Leave them all?"
"But... the others. The human race, what's left of us... How can we leave them with Scarn? And... with the Children of Light?! Had you forgotten them...? I can't. I never will!"
"That's a very complicated life right there," said Darvin. "I like a simple life, myself." He stood up. "There's a lot of sights out there, Blake. Still. Even now. A lot of places to go, and this is the ship to take us to them. We've got ourselves a good bunch of people here... a good crew... once we've sorted out a few kinks." He smiled. "I think you really should start thinking about it." With that, he left.
Alone now in the refectory, she did think about it.
"Hello, Orac." Blake thought it best to start simply, not quite sure how to handle this most awkward of AIs. Before long, it became clear that would not necessarily help.
"What is it now?"
"Now...?" she puzzled. "I've never called you before."
"I was addressing you as a species. Kindly state your intent."
The crew of the Liberator were gathered on the flight-deck, Caul and Darvin at their stations while the others sat in a semi-circle on the forward couches. The small device Avon had entrusted to Blake, or Mara as she had been then, was plugged into a convenient port and Orac's reedy, fastidious voice relayed through the same address system that produced Zen's rather more reverberating tones.
"To annoy you!" said Rissa, leaning forward and then collapsing back onto the cushioned back of her couch, giggling. She was enjoying this, a fact that may have had something to do with the nearly-empty cup of blue liquid in one hand.
"In that, you have succeeded admirably. Might I suggest, given your track record, it may be unwise to become accustomed to the sensations associated with success."
Rissa's response was one of delight. "Did it just insult me...? I can't tell...! Oh, that's brilliant! My turn... Ohhh... Your mother was a-"
"-Orac..." Blake interrupted. "Thank you for responding."
"Your platitude suggests it was a matter of choice. I am programmed to respond when called. If not, do you imagine a being as advanced as I would deign to spend my valuable time at the beck and call of such as you? Get to the point of your summons."
"Orac," began Darvin, throwing a May I? look at Blake. "You've basically told us what we wanted to know, so thank you... There was one thing I was wondering, though... Did Avon leave any message with you...? For us..."
"There is one file in my memory, marked for your attention... It is a placeholder only, no data archived."
"That's a lot of use," breathed Juni.
"Orac," said Blake. "What is the name of this file?"
"So..." Darvin considered. "You wanted a direction. This may not be it, but it's... something." He and Blake sat next to each other on the floor of one of the Liberator's corridors, leaning back supported by the hexagonal bulkhead.
"Enough to make you want to stay?"
"Who said anything about going...? I'm staying with you guys."
"Oh..." said Blake. "Good. Why the change?"
"Oh, no change. I'm planning to persuade you all to my point-of-view... I've got form with that, you know. I'm a very persuasive guy."
"You're a natural leader."
He waved his hand at her dismissively. "I'm just older than the rest of you."
"Not that old."
"So," she continued. "You're planning to persuade the crew to join you and see the universe... Does that include me?"
"Of course. Don't you want to be persuaded?"
"Perhaps," she said ruefully.
"Then my work is half done."
"Avalon," said Blake abruptly.
"What about her?"
"What do you know about her?"
"What everyone knows... I even met her once or twice... Well, met... I was in the same room. I doubt the high and mighty Avalon would even have noticed the likes of me. You see, things got really bad in the war... I might have mentioned that once or twice..."
"Once or twice."
"It got so bad that the Federation issued a pardon for Avalon, and for any former enemy who would be willing to join them and help... Not only that, it got so bad that not only did they mean it, but Avalon believed them. In she came."
"Did you like her?"
Darvin hesitated. "Wasn't expecting that question. Um... I didn't not like her... She was beautiful... Kind of strange, not what I expected at all, quite, I don't know, fragile-looking, like a strong gust of wind might knock her over..."
"Well, she was a mature woman when I saw her, but when she won her first battles, she was just a girl... Really, I mean... Men older than I am now, hardened, experienced soldiers, would follow this little girl into combat... There's something there, something special. Unique, possibly."
Blake saw the angst in Darvin's expression. "What's wrong?"
"I can forget it most of the time, you've seen me... Forget I was ever part of that. But... I was. That girl, she was special, and what she was doing was right... And I..."
"I was on the opposite side. The wrong side."
"I can hear you thinking. You're saying It's not too late, aren't you?"
"Was it that loud?"
"Yeah, not too late. Fair enough. But the thing is, I saw the bodies. Avalon won victories all right, against us, against the Andromedans, but it didn't last. It can never last. And it always has a price. In the end, the bodies. While she goes on to the next battle."
"I see. You don't want to be among them."
"I don't want you to be among them. Or Rissa. Or Caul. Or Juni or Faal, for that matter. You people are all I have, and you know what...? I don't want to see any of you among Avalon's noble dead. Or Blake's. Or Avon's. Is that so wrong...?"
"No, it isn't wrong."
"Have I persuaded you?" Their heads turned to look at each other, but Blake offered no reply.
"It's time! Switch it on!"
"Switch what on?!"
"You know what!"
"That rubbish again...?! Go f-"
"So...What's this we've been hearing about...?" Caster Baroon's long, androgynous features filled the holographic space in the centre of the club, light spilling into the darkest corners and a little even partially illuminating Del Grant where he sat in the shadows. "No, not that little old end of the world again... That can keep, my people, that can keep... Well, isn't the world always ending...? Or is that just my permanent hangover...?"
There was something neutral about Caster Baroon's voice, in that no two people tended to agree on whether it was the voice of a man or a woman, just as the face, from the limited view afforded, could lend itself to either interpretation. "I've got something so much better for you," Baroon crooned seductively, rhythmically. "So, while the authorities waste their time some more trying to trace the location of yours truly... let me tell you what's been happening... Well, lots of things all told, but the biggie, the whopping biggie... Oh, sorry, got distracted there... is that those naughty old rebels have got themselves a new friendy wend... Whose name is B-B-B-
-Ooh, is that the time already...? Bye, my people, love and kisses... More next time..." Ensconced in his booth, the faint ghost of a smile animated Del Grant's stony features for just the briefest moment. He took another drink.
"Shuttle launch in four minutes... mark."
The announcement, made in calm, measured tones, emanated from the speakers of the A/V unit in Lady Shilena's office just as Doctor Lenta Guld hurried in. "You're just in time..." said the First Lady, perched casually on a chair. "Just... Try to be more punctual," she admonished, looking round as her advisor joined her. Only someone who knew her as well as Dr Guld would perceived the wry humour and know not to be too troubled.
"What's this...?" She peered at the screen, where two black-clad figures picked up the pace of their task - securing a manacled prisoner to a thin metal vertical beam placed incongruously in a long tunnel. "Is that... one of the shuttle launch tubes...? Sorry, I mean, one of the extraction tubes under the launch bays..."
"Yes, indeed." Lady Shilena's eyes were fixed on the screen, fascinated.
Dr Guld folded her arms, shifting her weight more to one side than the other. She was not an engineer, but she understood the basic principles of what would soon happen in that tunnel. In just under seven minutes, the exhaust of the shuttle's launch would travel along there so that its noxious constituents could be harmlessly contained by one of the Kapital's massive Extractors. The unfortunate prisoner, chained to the beam, would be incinerated, though not, Guld suspected, all that quickly.
"An execution... Remarkable."
"Because we don't have the death penalty."
"Not officially, no..." said Lady Shilena. "What do you make of it?"
Dr Guld thought for a moment. "Cruel and unusual," she said.
"You know, I don't think I've ever heard my husband summed up quite so aptly before."
"A bad death," Dr Guld mused as the prisoner, a terrified young woman whose wiry frame was lost in her too-large prison fatigues, was left to her fate, writhing against the chain tightly circling her waist three or four times. "What's the point, if not as an example? I mean, if this isn't to be disseminated publicly..."
"I'm sure he'd love to, but as you pointed out, technically this isn't exactly legal... Even President Scarn cannot be seen to be above the law... Not yet."
"I know her, don't I...? I've seen her face somewhere."
"Wondered how long it would take. Yes, she was one of the staff here, apparently."
I wonder if he knows I have a tap on the video feed..." At her advisor's questioning look, Lady Shilena chuckled. "That's the phrase the nice young man who set it up for me used." She shifted position in her chair. "The security sweeps prior to my arrival caught her with some rather unusual communications equipment... It didn't take too much persuasion to extract a confession."
The two secret executioners, bulky in their heavy black uniforms made of a coarse synthetic fibre, heads covered by cowl-like hoods that left only their grim, anonymous faces visible, hurriedly made their escape from the tunnel, their feet crunching on a floor coated like the rest of the tunnel with carbonised residue. Leaving via a large, heavy round hatch, they locked it securely behind them, no panic in their hurry, merely calm efficiency - they had done this before, and expected to again.
The clang as the hatch was sealed echoed loudly along the tunnel. The prisoner closed her eyes, trying to control her ragged breathing, before abandoning that and giving into her panic - the manacles rattled against the metal beam as she made a futile effort to topple it, rubbing her wrists agonisingly raw...
Dr Guld smiled. "Avalon?"
"By all accounts, that name was not specifically mentioned... But..."
"It didn't need to be... Will that woman never give up? What will it take?"
"Killing her, I expect. It has been tried, you know. Successfully, it was believed, but the problem is, she just won't stay dead."
"Even if they do die, no one will believe it... as with Roj Blake."
"Oh, Blake..." mused Lady Shilena. "Fine man, that. If only he had been a little more... pragmatic. A pity."
"They'll wonder why their reports have suddenly stopped, won't they...?" Though she usually prided herself on being imperturbable, Dr Guld involuntarily flinched as a flare of light made the screen white out. The link did not have sound, but she could imagine the screams for herself only too well.
"Yes, my dear," said Lady Shilena. "They will. And then, we shall see the response."
"How soon...?" demanded Avral, speaking quietly into the hand-held comm-device. She waited impatiently, settling, or at least trying to settle, into a more comfortable position. Crouching on the ruined stairway of one of Downtown's many dilapidated - or in the case of this one, abandoned - tenement buildings, she did her best to stay hidden from any possible observers.
To the average citizen, this building was insignificant, and she wanted it to remain that way.
"There may be a way..." the laconic reply crackled. "How are you at bed-making?"
"How are you at not wasting my time?" Avral shot back. "Can you get me in there or can't you?"
"Maybe... It's going to be a bit tricky. Leave it with me."
"I did leave it with you, I seem to remember. Where has that gotten us?"
"You know why you're so irritable...? It's your suppressed desire for my body."
Despite herself, Avral smiled, thoroughly disarmed. "That would explain so much, wouldn't it...? All right, I'll let you get on with it. Just don't take too long, please... This is very important."
"Out." Switching the device off, Avral stood and, after making sure there were no hidden observers, climbed the stairwell to the top.
It was not the only abandoned building in Downtown - or even in this specific district - to be unofficially occupied, but it was almost certainly the only one to have a mobile paramilitary headquarters on the top floor, crammed with stores and makeshift living quarters. Over it all, the musty smell of too many people living in a confined space with not entirely adequate facilities. Acknowledging several hurried greetings as she went, Avral made her way to her own tiny quarters.
A few minutes later, a tall man somewhere around thirty, sturdy and stolid with sturdily and stolidly handsome features, took the same route through the HQ. "Where is she...?" he demanded. "Have you-?" Before he could finish the question, a casual nod directed Walar where he wanted to go.
Discarding the transparent plastic knee-length coat he wore outside - to protect his light cotton and linen clothing from the excess moisture in the atmosphere, and to blend in with the many Proximans who did the same - he went there in such a hurry that, to his horror when he realised it, he forgot the basic etiquette essential to make this sort of living arrangement tenable.
"Sorry..." he said, as soon as he had lifted the curtain aside, just too late to stop himself ducking under it. "Sorry, sorry, sorry..." He ended up hunched awkwardly in the narrow doorway. "Sorry," he said one more time.
"Why?" asked Avral. "What's wrong?" Her boots were discarded on the floor, the cloak hanging on a peg jutting from the flimsy partition wall, and as she spoke, she continued to remove her dark-red leather breeches before laying them on the bed with the matching tunic. That done, unconcerned, she stood facing him in her underwear.
Walar looked off to the side as he spoke. "I'm... I just heard. Look, I'll just let you finish, all right... I'll come back." Absently, he scratched his head - the waxy concoction used to sculpt his hair into a short fin, the style of the average middle-class Proximan male, was making his scalp itch, especially under stress.
"No, tell me now," she said impatiently. "What is it?"
"You just... You can't do it. Go yourself, I mean. You're too important." Walar's rehearsed speech fell apart before he even opened his mouth, so off-balance was he.
"Oh... I see. I think you mean my mother is too important, don't you?"
He paused. "That's not what I mean," he said, sounding wounded.
"Why don't you try contacting her? Maybe she'll put a stop to my foolish behavior." That was said with a slight edge.
"There's no point," he said. "I know she doesn't like to show favoritism, and that's good, that's admirable, but sometimes... Sometimes, it's like she doesn't care."
Avral's expression changed to one of amusement at that, like someone enjoying a private joke not possible to share. "Yes... Sometimes, it does seem a little like that."
"I- We just don't want to lose you. Without you, we-"
"-I'd like to finish getting changed now, please."
"Wha- Yes, of course..." He turned to go.
"Walar..." Avral said gently, stopping him on his way. "It's just me, almost, but not actually, naked. We're soldiers. Yes, you should knock, but it's really not that big a thing."
If she heard his murmured reply as he left, she never acknowledged it. "Why can't it be?"
"Make this quick, all right... Oh. You're not Walar."
"No," Del Grant acknowledged, face illuminated by the glow of the small holoscreen in front of him in the dingy, sparsely-furnished office.
"Why the subterfuge?"
"That's what it takes to get you to take my call in person, without wasting too much of my time. Is this secure?"
"All our communications are securely encrypted, Grant," said the dark-haired woman at the other end of the long-range call, her features relatively indistinct due to the image compression. "I think what you mean is, am I alone...? And the answer is, no, I'm not." He heard a slightly distorted laugh off to the side, that of another woman. "I'm never alone."
Grant was having to force himself to look at her, as if it was a painful experience. "If it's just your attendant, then that's... acceptable."
"Acceptable...?" crackled the unseen attendant's voice. "Oh... Thank you, Del Grant...! I knew he liked me really."
He remained focused. "You are aware that your daughter has volunteered herself for a dangerous mission at the very heart of enemy territory."
"Is that a statement of fact, or a question?" inquired Avalon. "I'm confused."
"So is she," Grant muttered to himself, looking away for a moment. "That's the problem."
"If it's a question, the answer is yes, I do know. Walar has already expressed his reservations. Aaaawww, isn't he sweet? Shall you tell him, or shall-"
"-If you ask to speak with her, she can't refuse."
"Brave, isn't she...? I don't have anything I want to talk to her about." Avalon looked away from the screen for a moment. "And the reverse is certainly true. Avral doesn't want to talk to me. She never did. I can't say I blame her."
"I just..." He was struggling more and more with enduring this. "You know what I mean."
"You're the one in charge," she said, with a slightly bitter tone. "Order her to send someone else."
"I seem to remember an agreement we had," he breathed.
"I don't see how I can help," she concluded abruptly. "And I don't see how this comes under the terms of our agreement. Is that all?"
Grant took a few seconds before he responded. "I think it probably is," he said heavily.
The Liberator, deep space
"Avon wants us to find Avalon," said Blake, turning to face the others assembled on the flight-deck. There it was. They all looked around each other, and mostly the reaction was the same. Bemusement. "Join up with her, if that turns out to be the best route. Or certainly form a joint strategy to tackle UniS."
"Wants us to...?" queried Rissa. "Don't you mean, wanted?"
"She means wants..." said Darvin, perched on the end of one of the couches. "Avon is still with us... at least in spirit."
"Spirit...?" Rissa laughed. "You mean he's a ghost?"
"Can we just get to what you do mean...?" Juni demanded shortly, leaning forward across her duty station.
"Well, what I mean," said Blake, "We've reached a point where a decision has to be made... We have something here. Perhaps something quite enviable. A highly advanced ship, capable of self-repair and more or less self-sufficient. Advanced medical facilities, weapons, high-value trinkets that can easily be converted into any currency we want... We have the means to-"
"-Be rich." That was Darvin. "All of us, many times over. Individually, we can be rich, and more to the point, safe. When you're rich, no one can touch you. You all know that..." He paused. "But together, and with this ship... You know what we have...?" He looked around them all. "Power."
"Power...?" scoffed Rissa. "Darvin... What are you becoming?"
"Older," he said without hesitation. "And a little slower than I used to be. I know you can't imagine that, not quite yet, but one day if you're lucky, you'll get there too. I don't necessarily want to be safe, not yet, but I don't want to die in a pointless, endless war that might already be lost to all intents and purposes. I want to be free."
"Beat that," Blake breathed quietly, and then spoke to them all. "I'm glad you mentioned the word free. We are free already. But how many out there aren't...? Don't they deserve to enjoy something like the freedom we have?"
"What do you want, Darvin?" asked Caul calmly, picking up on an earlier point.
"I... I want to go out there and explore. See if there's something better out there. Help people, or help beings generally, yeah... All for that. Adventure, excitement, yeah... Well up for that, before I really do get old. But I think staying in our own neighbourhood, just going over the same old insoluble problems, again and again... I think it can only end one way..."
He looked at Blake. "Gauda Prime..." he said quietly.
1 hour later
"Fancy meeting you here..." Darvin came to sit down heavily in the same spot in the corridor next to Blake. This was getting to be a habit. "We need a private office for you, I think. One with comfy seats."
"How do you feel?"
He thought for a moment. "Free... Is that strange? Now the decision's been made... I do feel free. You disappointed?"
"A little." She looked over at him. "The ship is yours."
He met her gaze, and let the silence continue for a few seconds. "And the mission is yours. Till it's over."
Blake smiled faintly. "Then that's yours too. And hopefully we'll all be able to join you."
"Faal was the one who surprised me, actually..." mused Darvin wryly. "I thought I had him. I took his complete silence as agreement. But then, I'm like that." He frowned a little. "You mean that? You'll come with me, when this is all done?"
"Try and stop me." Blake drew her knees up against her chin and held them there, face half-hidden. "I'm going to bring down UniS, somehow, I don't know how... and then the Children of Light too. But when it's over, someone else is going to have to rebuild something worthwhile. Roj Blake might have been able to do that, but that's not me. Best I disappear, I think."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," came her muffled reply, her eyes smiling at him.
The shift on the flight-deck changed, Rissa and Faal taking over from Juni and Caul, and Juni left without a word. She and Rissa exchanged a brief glance - no snipes, no mockery, no grudges. Their truce was holding. More tired than she expected to be, Juni ran a hand through waves of red-gold hair as she climbed the steps leading to the rest of the ship.
Leading to her quarters. Of course. Where else would she be going?
She waited just off one of the main corridors, heart thumping. Not quite sure why she was here, or exactly what she was going to do, but feeling alive for the first time in... Well, as it turned out, this might be the first time she had felt alive ever.
Having closed her eyes and breathed slowly and steadily for several minutes, she opened them again and looked up at the faint sound of footsteps getting closer. "Caul..." she said quietly.
It was just loud enough, and he came off the main corridor to join her, curious and wary - She could not blame him. "Which one are you again...? I've forgotten." She remembered saying that, and cringed slightly.
"Juni..." he said, still wary. "Are you all right?" A look of genuine concern. "Can I help?"
She approached slowly and deliberately, giving him lots of chances to object if he was of a mind to, making her intentions sufficiently clear even for him. He was a little taller, just a little, but with her heels they were the same height. She put her arms around his neck and drew him in close, and held on to him tightly. A few seconds later, his arms closed around her too, holding a little less tight. Then nothing for a very long time, just standing there holding on.
Soft hair against his cheek, Caul gradually relaxed, though his mind was obviously working furiously. Eventually, hesitantly, he brought up one hand and smoothed down rogue strands of her hair gently until the movement settled into a motion that was regular and soothing, for both of them.
They said nothing.
97 days later
Liberator settled into orbit around the green planetoid and made the tiny adjustments necessary to maintain geostationary orbit for the foreseeable future, before powering down its engines. The place was without a name, at least formally, known merely as TNDM-1939, and surface readings were automatically collated.
"INFORMATION..." said Zen. "SURFACE TEMPERATURES AND OXYGEN LEVELS ARE LOW, BUT WELL WITHIN TOLERABLE PARAMETERS. RADIATION LEVELS ARE ACCEPTABLE FOR SHORT TERM EXPOSURE."
"Thank you, Zen," said Darvin from the pilot's station, looking up. His tightly-curled black hair had grown out into a bit of a mane, and the ever-present stubble was a neat salt-and-pepper beard. He looked over at Caul. "They'll be all right."
Caul nodded, pretending to be unconcerned. He looked more or less exactly as he had since they boarded the ship, though in common with all of them, perhaps, his choice of clothes was becoming more flamboyant thanks to the choices offered by the wardrobe room.
"Of course we'll be all right..." crackled a familiar voice from the speakers. "Why wouldn't we be all right?" Darvin and Caul looked up to see Faal walk slowly down the stairs and over to join them, and Darvin leaned over to speak into a discreetly-mounted microphone.
"I think you mean Down and safe, don't you?" he said. "Can we have at least the pretense of a little discipline, here?"
"Sorry, yes... Of Course. Down and safe... captain. Sir My lord, my liege, my... everything..." Three pairs of feet were creating prints in the dust of planetoid TNDM-1939, carefully working their way down the gravelly slope into the main valley below the ridge they had arrived on. "Seriously, though," Rissa continued. "If we can't make this fun, what's the point?"
"Any chance we could put a grownup in charge of communications?" came Darvin's reply through her teleport bracelet.
Blake held down the switch on her own bracelet - she, too, had let her hair grow, hers into a slightly curly mop that obscured the tiny port high on her temple. "Down and safe, Darvin," she enunciated carefully. "Satisfied?" She looked over at Rissa and Juni with a faint smile. All three wore padded jackets over their choice from the wardrobe room, and even so they shivered against the cold. "Let's just find what we came here for and get back in the warm. How does that sound?"
"Like the best idea I've heard... Well, that's it really. The best idea I've ever heard," said Juni. "No wonder you're our leader."
"It's only because I wasn't interested in standing," said Rissa. "You want to hear my platform, just for the sake of it?"
"Actually..." said Blake, peering ahead of them and looking a little alarmed. "You wanted fun, Rissa... Well, does this count?"
"That's an interesting definition of fun," said Juni. "Teleport back up?"
"I don't think they've seen us."
"Darvin..." said Blake, holding up the bracelet to her mouth again. "I think this just got a little more fun."
"Things they don't want you to know, number fifty-three thousand, nine-hundred and sixty-five..." mocked Caster Baroon. "The big B, that curly-headed scourge of the Man, is back... and he's bad! He might be a little long in the tooth, but word is Blakey Boy has a new crew of bright young things doing his leg work, and... You know what, this time it might just work out..."
"Have you heard from her at all...?" Walar's question, hissed across the booth, was urgent, and he was getting somewhat rattled as it became clear that Del Grant was apparently more interested in listening to that silly rogue news channel. "I said, have you heard from her? Does she report to you? I've asked her mother, again and again, but she says to ask you."
Grant tore himself away, just for a moment. "If so, I couldn't talk about it," he said. "You know that." He was pleased to note that, compromised as his feelings might be, even Walar was too much of a professional to utter Avalon's name in a public place.
"I... I know... It's just-" Walar made himself calm down. "I don't want anything to happen to her. I've heard things... Horrible things." He took a breath. "I want to go in after her."
That got Grant's attention, and he stared at Walar fiercely. "That's not happening." There was a long pause. "You hear me?"
"I hear," Walar finally conceded, his choice of words precise. He too found himself listening to Caster Baroon, and frowned. "This thing's a front, you know... 'Word is that UniS are behind it themselves."
"Perhaps," said Grant distantly.
"Latest developments will be shared as they occur..." said Caster Baroon dramatically in a forced deep voice, mocking the severe tones of the mainstream channels. "And don't any of you out there dare to look anywhere else... I, and I alone, will keep you informed about this momentous event... The return of the Blake Seven."