The Logic of Empire
Part 1 - Fool's Gold
by Martin Odoni
Novelisation by Martin Odoni
based on an original script by Alan Stevens and David Tulley
In the moments before its destruction, Xenon Base had an eerie quality. That was hardly unusual, as the dark and menacing nature of its own deceased creator had left behind a perpetual air of apprehension, even where at its brightest and most untainted.
But still this was different. The base had very little power, and was mostly unlit as a result. That was not it though. The base was practically unoccupied, and the sound of every step taken seemed to bounce off the walls and return to source amplified. That was not it either. Large parts of the base were inaccessible because of the cave-in triggered by the treacherous plans of Zukan, the insidious President of Betafarl, and the air of ruin and termination pervaded every facet of every room. But even that was not what was causing the eerie impression.
What Avon could sense was some way beneath his feet. He had usually been able to keep it from his own attention by the constant vigour of quiet activity in the base's machinery and computers, most of which were no longer functioning, or the petty activities of the rest of the crew, none of whom were now here. Instead, the atmosphere was oppressively silent, and offered nothing that could drown out the distant pleadings that Avon could sense far below.
He did not want to think about them. He did not have time to think about them, not now.
He walked to the table in the middle of the chamber, where he had left Orac while placing the charges. Avon paused, ordering his thoughts into their usual, mathematical precision, then pushed into place the control key. With its usual low, persistent buzz, the computer switched on.
Avon still had not finished repairing the damage that Orac had suffered during the cave-in, but its status was still more than adequate for his current purposes.
"Yes, Avon?" the computer responded in its yapping but formal voice.
"Once we've teleported aboard Scorpio," Avon instructed with his usual briskness, "programme Gauda Prime's co-ordinates directly into the Slave computer. Do not use verbal commands," he added with a warning undertone creeping into his voice, "I don't want an argument with the rest of the crew about our destination." He paused, then added with the barest stiffening of the shoulders, "Not at the moment anyway."
Orac processed the commands into memory. "As you wish," it answered. "I will use direct sensory link. Is there anything else?"
Avon narrowed his eyes, weighing up for roughly the millionth time in his life how far he trusted a computer, even this one. Since early in his education, he had learned to trust computers far more than anything else. The problem was, that did not mean that he trusted them very much.
He decided to double-check the information once more. This was a very dangerous destination he was opting for, after all, so he might as well try to be as sure as possible. "You're sure that Blake is still on Gauda Prime?"
"Yes, Avon," confirmed Orac with an electronic affectation of confidence that did little to allay Avon's concerns, "that is Blake's present location. There has only been one occasion when he has left the planet, and that took place five months ago."
Avon assumed that that was the end of the discussion and was about to speak into his bracelet. But Orac, with its infuriating insistence on giving anything other than precisely the information it was asked for, chose to carry on.
"Apparently, he was investigating the possibility that..."
"That's enough information, Orac," snapped Avon irritably. He was not interested in the minutiae right now. He picked up the computer, braced it between his arm and chest, and pushed down on the communicator button on his teleport bracelet. "Dayna? Teleport. Now."
There was a vibrant screech of transmission power as Avon and Orac were dissolved into pure energy, then another as their solid forms rematerialised a subjective instant later in the teleport bay aboard Scorpio. The shoddy old freighter had looked the worse for wear for as long as Avon had known it. Now, after all the recent tangles with Federation ships, it looked like it could break up as soon as anybody sneezed.
The rest of the crew were at their stations, looking at Avon with sullen, questioning eyes. They were clearly unhappy with everything that had happened recently. It was also clear who they believed was to blame.
Avon ignored them and walked toward a side-table, on which he placed Orac. "Slave?"
"Yes, illustrious Master?" responded the ever-adoring flight computer.
"Are all explosive charges primed and ready for immediate detonation?" asked Avon.
"All the charges have been primed and set with consummate skill, Master," answered Slave. "The total destruction of the Xenon Base complex is assured. All that is now awaited is your command."
Avon felt a strange mixture of empowerment and loss of energy as he heard this. A single word of command and he could destroy the entire base. That was gratifying. It was, however, their base, and that made the prospect of destroying it seem rather less than practical. However, Avon had taught himself a very long time before to ignore such instinctive regrets. It may have all sounded impractical, but he knew that it was not.
"Thank you, Slave," he said softly. "When Scorpio is clear of Xenon Base, activate charge sequence."
"Yes, Master." As usual, Slave sounded more like it was making a solemn vow than just acknowledging a straightforward command. "It is always an honour to serve."
Avon nodded, then turned to the flight control chair, where sat a young man who had more reason than any of the others to feel bitter about recent events. His curly hair and cheerful, handsome face gave lie to the anger that he was still feeling about the death of Zeeona - Zukan's daughter, but also Del Tarrant's lover.
Avon wasted no time with apologies or sympathy. "Tarrant," he ordered, "get us out of here."
Tarrant barely acknowledged the instruction, but started operating the controls, powering up the engines. Avon unplugged Orac's key, then strapped himself into his own flight seat while the docking platform began to rise through the rocky take-off shaft within the caverns above.
Once the platform had reached the peak of its climb, the ship lifted clear, exited through the narrow mouth of the cavern, and launched into the sky above Xenon.
"All main drives and boosters running," reported Tarrant.
As the ship approached the terminator between sky and space, in the distance beneath it there followed a dull roar of catalysis and flame, as Xenon Base erupted into a prolonged storm of explosive chaos.
The scraping noise was a distraction of exactly the kind that Elise had always disliked, not just because it was an annoyance but because it was the sort of annoyance that was so minor that she felt embarrassed complaining about it.
The source of the scraping was a man dragging a spade along the ground. The man was called Kelso. The spade was called a spade, which, as the ancient saying suggests, was how it was meant to be.
Elise watched as the large figure dragged his spade along the path, and wondered what he was doing with it. But then she often wondered about Kelso. Most of all, she wondered why they were persisting with him.
When God created Man, an Old Calendar prophet had once said, He was giving of Himself to the humble place beneath.
When God created Kelso, thought Elise Kapsanis, He was giving... up. Kelso was the definitive proof that if there was a God, He was suffering from disillusionment, or at least had run out of ideas. Kelso wasn't just ungainly; he was ungainliness. His broad shoulders gave no disguise to his ample waist measurement, his small ears gave no disguise to his thinning dark hair, and his beady eyes strongly underlined his lack of general awareness.
For all his haplessness, Kelso was still, in an odd way, a likeable fellow. In the old days, before some of their more chaotic recent operations, he was even quite popular with his colleagues in that he recognised his own limitations and wasn't afraid to acknowledge them, even mock himself for them. The problem was that after the horrors on Molyneux, the survivors no longer found the business of bumbling and incompetence funny, and it seemed to be taking Kelso a long time to realise that.
Still, if Elise didn't like him, it was nothing personal - she found it very difficult to like anyone these days. She was far from unpleasant by nature, but it still didn't take much to bring out the worst in her.
Kelso was checking his timekeeper as he walked. It read 8:37pm. In fact it had read 8: 37pm for the last eighteen months, but Kelso didn't care. "All right, Cicciolina?" asked Kelso with a merry smile as he saw Elise sat by the path, hugging herself against the chilly breeze.
To her annoyance, she saw that he was once again ogling her, taking in the willowy elegance of her figure and the dark waves of hair framing her expressive face. She didn't like being admired by just any man. Not since that day...
Well, certainly not by this oaf. "Kelso," she chided him, keeping her tone gentle, "I told you not to call me that." She then added as a sly, menacing afterthought, "Remember when I broke your arm?"
Kelso winced at an alarming memory, then looked apologetic. "Er, yeah. Sorry, Elise."
Elise smiled a smile of triumph, not warmth. "That's okay, Kelso," she answered in a kindergarten tone, "I forgive you. This time."
There was a moment of deafening silence while Kelso surveyed their temporary "home". It was a small fort of blocky, eccentric design, with stone walls greyer and gloomier than the volatile, cloudy skies, which were heavy with the threat of rain, but thankfully light on delivery. Most of the castle's walls were incomplete, worn by millennia of natural erosion.
"He's not here yet then?" noted Kelso, trying to sound both friendly and shrewd, and instead sounding both slow-witted and impatient.
Kelso tried again. "Why don't you wait inside where it's warmer?"
"Because I prefer to wait out here."
Kelso shrugged, finally realising that there was no point in being friendly toward the ice queen, not today. "Please yourself."
He was about to walk off, when curiosity finally got the better of Elise. "Where have you been with that spade?"
Kelso looked at her darkly, tapping the side of his nose, and made what was perhaps the single wisest remark he had ever managed in his life. "Never ask a man with a spade where he's been."
An uneasy light of understanding shone in Elise's dark, haunting eyes. "Oh."
"He's in the main hall by the fire."
Kelso nodded, stole another glance at his eternally inaccurate timekeeper, and started to head toward the entrance, the sound of the spade scraping along the ground resuming as loudly as ever. Elise swallowed her annoyance, which only increased when Kelso suddenly came to a halt and dragged the spade back towards her.
"Do you want the spade at all?" he offered sweetly.
"No!" Never had a two-letter word been so comprehensively descriptive.
Kelso sloped off again with the spade.
The great hall of the castle was wide and broad, with a high ceiling, as though the architect had had a neurosis about giving a sense of scale. Every slightest sound in the hall reverberated brutally. The crackling of the fire that had been lit at the heart of the room thus sounded like the cracking of large stones once it had bounced back off the walls.
Most of the light in the hall came from the fire. Some also filtered in through the ancient high windows, long-since deprived of glass (assuming they ever had any), just below the angle of the ceiling. But it was late in the day now, and the daylight was fading.
Few furnishings or decorations had survived the countless centuries since the castle had last been occupied. What there was had become faded and dilapidated beyond all recognition. Lydon had decided to use most of it as tinder for the fire.
Lydon's pinched, jeering face was framed by spiky reddish hair, all giving him the puckish appearance of a garden imp. It was therefore easy to notice the air of mischief surrounding him. The problem was that he was not just mischievous. He was capable of far more than that. He was capable of far worse than that.
Those who allied themselves with him against the Federation often felt considerable reluctance when they saw him in battle. He seemed totally desensitised to the idea of bloodletting violence, and for all his supposed libertarian ideals, he also seemed far from choosy about which laws he broke in his quest for victory.
He rolled his eyes as he heard the sound of a spade being dragged along the stone floor of the corridor from the castle's outer antechamber. The sound increased in volume as it headed toward the heavy wooden door of the hall, which soon opened with a rusty creak. In stepped Kelso, still dragging his spade behind him like an old man walking a pet dog.
Mercifully, Kelso left the spade propped up against the wall by the door.
"He's late," he commented, once again surprised by the echo that this room provided to his own voice.
"What?" sniffed Lydon, not really concentrating.
Kelso wandered over toward him, as though imagining that, even with these powerful acoustics, Lydon had been unable to hear him speaking from the edge of the hall. "Why is he late?" He tapped his timekeeper to demonstrate the point, which of course it couldn't.
"Perhaps he likes to make an entrance," suggested Lydon, his tone full of jeering, nasal casualness.
"Or he's been captured," Kelso responded.
"Because," explained Lydon, with a slight smile of grudging admiration, "you don't live as long as he has without developing a keen sense of self-preservation."
"Well, I feel really uneasy about this whole job," insisted Kelso.
Lydon shrugged irritably, and pointed out that Kelso always felt uneasy whenever they tried anything at all.
"Perhaps I've got a reason this time," protested Kelso.
"You always say that as well!" Lydon mocked. "In fact the only time you haven't felt uneasy about a job is when we went to Molyneux."
Kelso bristled, getting a bit worked up at the memory of the shambolic hit-job they'd attempted at the Pylene-72 manufacturing plant on Molyneux. "Yeah, well, I was having an off day," he growled. "I still think it was a mistake to tell him our location," he added. "One of us should have gone and picked him up. What if he decides to turn us in for the bounty? All he'd have to do is contact the Federation and tell them where we are."
"That is not going to happen," said Lydon with a soothing confidence that could have calmed the nerves of anyone with clear, rational intelligence.
The only effect it seemed to have on Kelso was to increase his anxiety. "How can you say that?" he cried. "He's an arms dealer, he's a mercenary! People like that sell themselves to the highest bidder..."
"He was with Blake," interrupted Lydon, with a firmness that suggested that the debate should end there. He was to be disappointed.
"Blake!" spat Kelso. "That was twelve years ago. A man can change a lot in twelve years."
There was no arguing with that. "True."
"Then let's get out of here!" whined Kelso. "Back to our ship where it's warm. I don't know why we had to set up in this freezing cold dump anyway."
"I wanted to hide the ship," explained Lydon, "just in case anything went wrong."
"Lydon," objected Kelso, not unreasonably, "you've hidden it two miles away. How are we going to get to it if there is trouble? We're half way up a mountain in a crumbling wreck of a castle." He spread his arms, gesturing all around them at the murky grey walls that housed them. "Stone walls are not going to stand up to a neutron strike."
"Look, Kelso," hissed Lydon, starting to feel genuinely aggravated, "we have a flyer hidden on the roof if we need it, but we won't need it because there aren't going to be any Federation forces coming here, and so there isn't going to be any neutron strike..."
"Wait!" snapped Lydon, determined not to be put off. "Listen. Let me finish. Let me deal with your petty neuroses one by one." Once he was sure that Kelso was not going to interrupt, he continued. "Avon is not going to sell us out, because although he is a mercenary..."
Kelso interrupted anyway, "And a g-..."
Lydon interrupted him right back, "...And a gun runner, he has always supplied arms and facilities to the underdog." He put a lot of stress on the dog part of the word underdog, trying to highlight the particular relevance it bore to the nature of Kelso himself. "He has never supplied so much as a single plasma bullet to the Federation or its supporters. Now that tells me a great deal." His tone gave the air of one sticking his tongue out and challenging an opponent to "come up with an answer to that one!"
"I don't trust him," insisted Kelso stubbornly.
"Elise trusts him and I trust Elise," said Lydon.
"I don't see why we need to involve him at all."
"That's because I haven't given you the details of what I'm planning yet," Lydon pointed out.
"Have you told Elise?" asked Kelso, suddenly wondering if he was being left out.
"No," Lydon promised him. "I'll tell you all when Avon arrives."
Kelso still wasn't convinced. "What about Gauda Prime then?"
Lydon looked up at him, eyebrows furrowed in growing annoyance. "What about it?"
"I've heard it said that Avon purposely led his crew into a Federation trap..."
Kelso's voice was cut off by the sound of Lydon's patronising laugh as it echoed around the hall. "That was Federation bullshit spread after the civil war," sneered Lydon, "used to discredit him and the old regime."
"Avon was the only survivor," Kelso answered. "How do you explain that?"
"I can't explain it!" spat Lydon, getting even more irritated. "Maybe he wasn't even there. It doesn't matter." He paused for thought, then added more evenly, "Anyway, as you said yourself, a man can change a lot in twelve years."
"It didn't happen twelve years ago."
"Okay, seven then!" Lydon's exasperation grew. "It's not relevant." He looked up toward the ceiling as he heard something, Kelso failing to pick up on it.
"But that still doesn't explain what happened on Gauda Prime!" protested Kelso.
"Why don't you ask him yourself?" suggested Lydon.
Lydon pointed up toward the ceiling. There was now a very clear sound from outside, the gentle whoosh of the main drive of a star ship that was heading in on a landing approach from straight overhead.
"That sounds like his ship." There followed a series of pulses on a com-link that was lying on the floor next to Lydon. "And that's the identifying call sign," he confirmed. He pointed to the door. "Go on, Kelso, go and tell Elise to bring him here, before she starts chewing on his face."
"What if it isn't him?" asked Kelso nervously.
"It will be."
Kelso turned and headed for the door, then pulled up and placed hand on hip, grimacing. "Oooh... my back's starting to play up again."
Lydon wasn't fooled. "Kelso, get out there!"
"But my back...?"
"My heart pumps piss," sniffed Lydon.
"You're rotten you are," scowled Kelso, lumbering to the door.
Rotten to the core, Kelso ol' son, thought Lydon as he watched his oafish companion wander off. Rotten to the core.
The ship that completed its landing right outside the walls of the fort was an oasis of modern sleekness in the dingy gloom of the landscape. It was small, compact, and lightly armed, designed for stealth and speed more than combat, but still looked capable of holding its own in a fire fight.
"Elise? Is that his ship?" asked Kelso eagerly as he re-emerged from the main doors of the fort.
"It was when we last met."
"I've got a few questions for him..."
Elise looked up at him sharply, her eyes full of warning. "You'll keep your mouth shut," she instructed him, inviting no argument.
Kelso argued anyway. "But it's important."
"Nothing you say is ever important, Kelso," sniffed Elise with a fair degree of accuracy.
There was a low hum from the side of the ship as a ramp extended down to ground level. Then there was a sharp hiss of hydraulics and shifting air pressure as, at the top of the ramp, the main hatch of the craft opened.
Out stepped a man with large, dark eyes that were so heavily lined by the saturnine suspicion with which he glowered at the world about him that they made him look rather older than he really was. His high, domed forehead gave the impression of a man who believed himself to be a cut above the rest of the universe. Which of course, Kerr Avon always did.
"Avon, it's been too long," Elise greeted the newcomer, sounding like she meant every word ten times over. "It's good to see you again."
"Elise," responded Avon, looking deep into her eyes. It was only the briefest of acknowledgements, one that betrayed no affection whatsoever.
Elise did not seem at all put out by it. In fact she seemed to be expecting it, even enjoying it. "Well go on then," she challenged him playfully. "Kiss me, you fool." She then added, affecting a cod Italian voice, "Or dontcha' love me anymore?"
Avon raised his eyebrows slightly as she embraced him. "Love, Elise, was never the word."
They kissed for a lingering moment. A man of greater awareness than Kelso would have been self-conscious or even embarrassed about standing there and watching them. Kelso just looked slightly bemused.
"Did you miss me?" Elise asked Avon teasingly.
Avon, never one to provide an answer to an inconsequential question when another question would do instead, gave her a fulsome look and asked, "What do you think?"
Kelso clearly felt that he had been excluded from the conversation for quite long enough and stepped forward, offering a handshake. "Er... hello, my name's Kelso," he said idiotically. "I'm very pleased to meet you."
There was a frosty pause while Avon regarded the hand with disdain. "I wish the feeling was mutual," was all he gave by way of a response - and even that sounded a little unlikely. "Where's Lydon?"
"He's..." began Elise.
Kelso cut in again, still feeling insecure about getting left out of any important proceedings. "He's inside by the fire." He gave Avon a look that was, if not actually accusing or unfriendly, then certainly disapproving, and pointed to his timekeeper. "What kept you?" he demanded. "You're two hours late."
Avon stared at Kelso, offering no response of a vocal sort at all, and yet still managing to convey the total derision he felt for this dumpy man who did not seem to understand when his opinions were unwanted.
"Kelso..." cooed Elise gently.
Kelso turned to look at her. "Yeah?"
The sound of the slap of Elise's palm against the fleshy jowls of Kelso's cheek was sharp enough to be painful in its own right. The sting on his cheek blotted out any pain in his eardrums though.
Kelso looked completely shocked. "What was that for?" he protested.
"For being a bastard with no manners!" answered Elise sternly. "Avon," she continued in an altogether more congenial tone, gesturing toward the main doors of the castle, "come in and meet Lydon."
"Lydon, this is Avon. Avon, this is Lydon."
As introductions go, this one was very simple and hurried. But it got straight to the point, which was a quality that Elise knew both Avon and Lydon would always appreciate.
Lydon was still sat by the fire in the main hall of the castle. His smile of greeting was more cautious than welcoming, but that was probably understandable. "I've been looking forward to meeting you," he said, making a not-altogether-successful effort to sound jovial. "What's it like to be a living legend?"
"I wouldn't know," answered Avon.
"Come on, Avon," Lydon cajoled him, "you're being modest..."
"I'm not," Avon contradicted him flatly. Even a little rudely.
Lydon seemed slightly put out by this, and didn't seem entirely sure how to respond. "Ah..."
Seeing that his host had been disarmed with appropriate swiftness, Avon decided to take the opportunity to assume command of the conversation. "How many of you are there?"
"Three," answered Lydon.
"Three?" Avon was not easy to impress at the best of times, and possessing an army of three could never be described as the best of times. "Even Blake managed more than that."
"Well," admitted Lydon with an embarrassed little cough, "we've had some problems."
"So did he," pointed out Avon.
"There were ten of us," insisted Lydon, "but you know, we've been quite..." He searched for the right word, "...'active' of late."
"I've been hearing about your 'activities'," growled Avon, his voice dripping with something very close to contempt. "Weren't you responsible for what happened on Cassiona?"
"Cassiona was a complete fiasco," sniffed Lydon rather defensively, "and therefore nothing to do with me."
The use of the word therefore was plenty of indication of just how much Cassiona had had to do with Lydon. Elise swallowed. This conversation was not going exactly as she had pictured.
"Oh really?" sneered Avon. "What about the Molyneux massacre then? That was one of yours, surely?"
"The Molyneux massacre was a journalistic invention," explained Lydon, protesting just a bit too much. "Only three civilians were killed during that one..."
"Where did the other thirty-five bodies come from then?"
"Twenty-eight of them were Federation personnel so they don't count, obviously."
"Obviously," grunted Avon. "They're now the 'honoured dead'. And the remaining seven?"
Lydon looked slightly... well, not guilty, that was an emotion he was not very familiar with. But he did look embarrassed. "They were my lot," he conceded.
"I see," hissed Avon. "Hence the fact, there are now only three of you."
"Yes," confirmed Lydon wearily.
There was the sound of the heavy wooden door creaking open and in lumbered Kelso, wearing his usual expression of friendly stupidity. "Hope I haven't missed anything?"
"Shut up, Kelso," suggested Elise. Neither Avon nor Lydon said anything, but it was clear that the expressed sentiment was a unanimous one.
Lydon looked at Avon, his voice taking on a distinctly terser edge. "Do you want to see the plans for our next 'activity' now, or would you rather Elise showed you to your room?"
"I plan to spend the night aboard my ship," answered Avon, the politeness of his tone only serving to underline the lack of trust in his decision, "but Elise can show me around if she wants to." He looked about himself again, his face showing passionless puzzlement. "What's this planet called? I could find no name for it."
Lydon's somewhat alarming response was to hawk an enormous gobbet of mucus to the back of his throat, and launch it with impressive precision and force into the flames of the fire, which jumped and remonstrated brightly for a moment in protest at the invasion of its space.
"But I don't know the translation," added Lydon with a shrug.
Avon's expression flickered derisively at this. "Delightful."
Elise had heard enough. "Avon," she muttered nervously, "if you follow me, I'll..."
She hurriedly led Avon back to the door. Once they had gone, Kelso decided to try and lighten the atmosphere. "Well, he seems a nice enough chap," he opined, with what he hoped was endearing sarcasm.
Lydon, however, was not in the mood for banter, or for any of Kelso's other attempts at humour. "You know when Garrovick got his head blown off back on Molyneux?"
"Why couldn't it have been you?"
It was only after she and Avon had progressed far enough down the corridor to be well out of earshot that Elise finally spoke up. She sounded even more incredulous than she looked. "What the hell were you doing in there, Avon? Lydon is not a man to annoy, and you were winding him up like a spring."
"Really?" said Avon sardonically as they stepped into the antechamber and headed towards the outer doors. "I thought it went rather well."
Avon looked at her. "I was being ironic."
"Saying 'I was being ironic' is not a universal get-out," Elise admonished him fondly as they reached the doors.
"It works for me."
Dusk was approaching, and there was a light breeze blowing as they stepped out into the open air once more. Avon looked around at the dour landscape. He did not seem to find it any more agreeable than Elise or Kelso had done. "Why are we going outside again?"
"We have to go outside to gain entry to the north wing," explained Elise, leading him along a narrow path winding along the front wall.
To Elise's pleasure, Avon looked amazed - it was some achievement to induce such a reaction in him. "For a supposed fortification, that's insane."
"Maybe," mused Elise, as though taking the scorn in Avon's voice personally, "but I didn't build the place."
"I know that," acknowledged Avon, "but who did?"
"The natives, presumably."
"There's indigenous life on this planet?"
"Oh yes," nodded Elise, "there's life. It's just that none of it is intelligent enough to have actually built this." She gestured toward the castle and added, "At least..."
"...Not anymore," Avon finished for her.
"Exactly." Elise gestured to the high battlements towering above them. "This castle is a leftover. A piece of a civilization that's come and gone." She looked at Avon thoughtfully as they walked. "All intelligent life came from Earth, isn't that what they say?"
"I've heard it said."
"But the galaxy's littered with relics," continued Elise. "All sorts of things which prove that there was life on many different worlds long before there was on Earth."
This was not news to Avon, of course. "What are you saying?"
"It's like the human race turned up too late," suggested Elise. "The party's over and whoever threw it has long since gone. Do you ever feel that?" There was no response from Avon to this question. In fact, he no longer seemed to be listening to her. Elise nudged him gently. "Avon? Do you ever get that feeling?"
Avon looked at her, trying to clear a strange, distracted fog in his eyes. "What?"
"The feeling that we are alone," repeated Elise, staying patient at being made to repeat herself.
Avon still did not answer immediately. He suddenly looked haunted, occasionally glancing skywards, as though responding to a sound that only he could hear. When at last he looked back at her and answered, it was in a whispered voice almost devoid of substance. "Oh no, Elise," he assured her, "that's one feeling I never get."
Elise suddenly felt apprehensive. "What's wrong?"
"Don't lie!" insisted Elise.
Avon looked away again. "Do you hear it?"
Elise was startled and started scanning the horizon to try and discern what Avon was looking out for. "Hear what?"
Avon looked back at her, then up at the sky. "It's getting dark."
Elise was suddenly unsure whether she wanted to know what was wrong. She had seen some unreadable expressions on Avon's face in the years that she had known him, but this was different. Not only did she not know what he was talking about, this time she couldn't even begin to imagine what it was. While he could undoubtedly be cryptic, it was not like Avon to spout nonsense - how could he ask her to listen to the non-existent sound of night falling? Or was that not what he was referring to?
Perhaps it would be best to accept the opening for a change of subject? Yes, perhaps it would. "It's a clear night," she enthused, pointing toward the heavens. "Look at all the stars. Are those the Clouds of Magellan?"
"I wouldn't know," answered Avon, scarcely looking.
Not very romantic, thought Elise with a very quiet sigh. Still, at least that meant Avon was starting to sound like his usual self again.
"Anyway," continued Avon, brightening just a little, "you were going to show me round?"
"Yes," nodded Elise, happy that the momentary sense of foreboding had passed.
"Then show me," suggested Avon.
"Then show me."
Avon's words were not just heard by Elise. They had been picked up by advanced surveillance equipment and transmitted to a position hundreds of spacials above. Avon's face, albeit from a near-vertical angle, and his voice had been brought into electronic life on a video monitor.
The monitor was located on the flight deck of a military cruiser.
The cruiser was the command ship of a Terran Federation flotilla.
The flotilla was commanded by the President, Supreme Commander, and Supreme Empress of the Terran Federation.
The signal reception was somewhat choppy, distorting the sound and picture at infrequent intervals, but both were still clear enough.
Major Brecht, a Federation officer of humourless formality and with an affection for starched uniforms and shiny boots, studied the images briefly, and then spoke into the communicator. "We have visual, Section Leader," he confirmed. "Stand by." He switched off the communicator and looked over his shoulder at the woman who was perhaps the most powerful figure in the history of the human race. "Madam President, is it him?"
Servalan's burning dark eyes were almost transfixed on the screen. "Oh yes, Major," she said as a smile of anticipation played its way across her rich red lips. "That's him."
Brecht reopened communications. "Subject's identity confirmed."
The reply from the Section Leader at ground level was slightly grainy and distorted. "Target subject is now entering building on north side."
"Maintain position, Section Leader, and await further orders," Brecht instructed. "Out." He closed contact again and pushed a button on the control panel, calling up a still image of the last clear view they had received of Avon's face, from before he and Elise had gone inside the north wing of the castle. Brecht perused the image on the screen with a professional eye. "He looks pretty good for a man who, by all rights, should be dead."
"Yes," agreed Servalan thoughtfully.
"That's if he was on Gauda Prime at all."
Servalan looked at him. Not that old argument, she was thinking. "Oh, he was there all right."
"How do you know?" The question was not a challenge, just a straightforward request for knowledge.
Servalan had never been particularly reluctant to show off her intellectual prowess whenever the opportunity arose. "He couldn't have been anywhere else," she explained. "They found his ship, they found the bodies of known associates..." She looked a little amused, "...they even found a trail of Iron Guard corpses leading from the bunker to the outside..."
"The Iron Guard?" interjected Brecht, surprised. It normally didn't do for an officer to interrupt an Empress, but sometimes it couldn't be helped. "The President's personal security force? What were they doing on active service?"
"It was a secret, oral-only operation," answered Servalan. "It seems Central Security felt that only the Iron Guard could be trusted to complete the strike successfully and with total discretion."
Brecht seemed to roll the idea over in his head, before snickering. "But obviously they couldn't. Not one of Central's finest moments then, letting the main man get away like that."
"No, Brecht," Servalan corrected him with her usual regal firmness, "Avon was not the man they were after. The actual target in question was another terrorist - Roj Blake."
The Major blinked sharply at hearing this. "Blake? But wasn't he supposed to have died on Jevron?"
"Yes, that was the unofficial announcement," Servalan conceded, "but then some years later it was discovered that an error had been made." Her expression was very sober. "That's why Central Security were called in. Martyrs are bad enough, but martyrs that come back from the dead..." She shook her head. "As I'm sure you can imagine, it was all rather embarrassing for them."
"So what were Avon and his crew doing there?"
"I don't know," admitted Servalan, sounding as though this particular detail did not interest her at all. "In fact it was only after the civil war, when Central Security staff were being interrogated, that any details of the operation came to light."
The Major nodded quietly, then narrowed his eyes. "All of Avon's crew were killed though, weren't they?"
"Oh yes," said Servalan. "In fact the forensic reports still exist. Everyone was accounted for." Her expression turned slightly colder. "Everyone, that is, except Avon."
There was a brief silence while Brecht considered this. He wasn't sure he liked the way the President had said that last bit. It suggested there were personal issues in this for her, of the kind that were not constructive on the flight deck of a Federation cruiser.
Still, it was not his place to worry about such things, let alone to question them. So he maintained a polite silence, which was only broken when a fresh communication was received from ground level.
"Target has exited north wing and is now returning to south."
"Thank you, Section Leader," replied Brecht, restarting the live feed.
Lydon was taken a little by surprise when the door opened and Elise led Avon back into the main hall. He hadn't expected them back quite so soon. "Ah... Avon... Elise," he acknowledged, "make yourselves comfortable." He gestured toward some very crude furniture that he had set out by the fire - several loose remnants of ancient tapestries that had doubtless adorned the walls once in the distant past, now folded over several times and stuffed with heathers from outside, each forming makeshift cushions.
As Avon and Elise both made themselves as comfortable on these as possible, Kelso spoke up, feeling that it was high time he started asserting himself a little better. "Hello, Avon. I'm afraid Elise didn't introduce us properly earlier on..."
"Didn't she?" murmured Avon, not even looking up at him. He cared little how assertive others chose to be - the slap in the face that Kelso had got from Elise seemed all the introduction that was necessary.
"No," said Kelso, proffering a hand that was oblivious to all such contempt. "My name's Kelso - people call me 'Slim'."
Avon looked him up and down very briefly, and once again did not accept the handshake. He just stared back into the fire. "Who do? The blind?"
Lydon couldn't resist a cruel laugh at this - not that he tried to. Even Elise, usually above such petty name-calling, was grinning smugly. For his own part, Kelso looked initially confused, then latterly offended. "Eh? What are you inferring?"
Still Avon did not look back up. "I'm not inferring anything," he explained slowly, like a teacher making sure that all the children were keeping up, "I'm implying. You're the one who is inferring."
Kelso looked nonplussed. "Um, could you say that again?"
Kelso waited for the reiteration, which of course was not forthcoming. Lydon rolled his eyes and pointed to one of the other heather sacks. "Sit down, Kelso, keep your brains warm."
"What's this plan then?" asked Avon. "It must be profitable - you're paying me enough."
"Gold, Avon," declared Lydon proudly.
If Lydon was expecting Avon to be impressed, he was to be disappointed. "What about it?"
"That's what we intend to get," said Lydon, licking his thin lips avariciously. "Gold, and lots of it."
Avon was still not impressed. In fact he looked distinctly scornful. "You're not going to attack that high security vessel from Zerok are you? I can tell you now it's not worth it."
"Oh?" Elise looked at him blankly. "Why is that, Avon?"
"Because it doesn't carry gold at all," Avon explained, "it carries..."
"...Fresh fruit," cut in Lydon, his turn to sound unimpressed. "I know all that. This plan has got nothing to do with Zerok gold."
Avon looked puzzled. "Well, that's the only gold producing planet left."
Lydon smiled craftily at finally getting one over on Avon's supposed intellectual superiority. "This isn't a planet," he said with triumph, "it's an asteroid."
Avon allowed this to sink in with the barest shrug of doubt. "I thought all other gold reserves had been mined out?"
"So did the Federation until recently," admitted Lydon.
"I see," Avon accepted. He was not really interested in competing with Lydon one way or the other - his scepticism was based purely on harsh common sense. But the fact that Lydon did seem interested in competing with him had not gone unnoticed, and not just by Avon. "And how will your acquisition of vast personal wealth assist the revolution, towards which we are all so diligently fighting?"
"We're going to buy a planet," announced Lydon, "establish its independence and declare it open."
Avon kept his expression neutral, but the sarcasm in his tone left no one present in any doubt as to what he thought of that idea. "Oh yes," he drawled, "that will do the cause no end of good."
Lydon looked at Avon in annoyance. If there was a time and a place for sarcasm, he didn't know what they were, but he was sure that this wasn't it. The problem was that Avon didn't seem to care about that, and his whole attitude was proving painfully obstructive.
"Go on, Lydon," Elise encouraged, perhaps sensing the nasty edge in the atmosphere and trying to defuse things before they got out of hand.
"P-Z 337," continued Lydon, keeping his voice even. "It's a free-floating asteroid located on the outer edge of the Ninth Sector."
"That's way outside Federation frontiers," said Elise in some alarm.
"Yes," nodded Lydon. "And that's why they're keen to keep the whole operation very hush-hush."
Avon looked suspicious. "How did you get to know about it?"
"That would be telling."
"Yes it would," agreed Avon, refusing to be put off. "How did you get to know about it?"
Lydon decided to just ignore the unhelpful remarks for the time being. "The Federation have set up an automated mining complex..."
"And you want to attack it?"
"Yes," answered Lydon, very firmly.
"Well now, how do you propose to do that?"
"The Federation are relying mainly on secrecy to protect their investment," explained Lydon, "but that doesn't mean the complex is undefended."
"Naturally." Avon clearly felt that Lydon was just underlining the problem rather than resolving it.
But then Lydon didn't much care what Avon was thinking at that moment, he just wanted everyone to shut up and listen. "The pressure dome that houses the mining complex is protected by a force field," he continued doggedly, "and there's no way that we can land a ship near the dome without being detected."
"You said the mining was automated," Elise reminded him, "does that mean there's no Federation personnel present?"
"There's a small team of engineers there to monitor equipment, and also a token security force, but nothing we can't handle."
"I admire your optimism," said Avon with considerable irony.
"If we can't land a ship, how are we going to get into the base?" asked Elise, who by now was starting to share Lydon's desperation not to become side-tracked by Avon's forceful scepticism.
"We can land a ship," Lydon corrected her, "but touchdown will have to be a considerable distance from the complex."
"How far exactly?" snapped Avon.
"Twenty-six miles," answered Lydon, a little hurriedly.
"We then walk to the base in pressure suits?"
Avon tried to summarise, the tone of his voice garnished with ridicule. "We walk twenty-six miles in an airless, low-gravity environment?"
"You've got it," confirmed Lydon, scarcely pausing for breath. "Now, the force wall is made up of a series of overlapping energy squares. Avon, if you collapse one of these with a low energy probe, you'll then be able to get to work on the access chamber door."
Avon rolled his eyes. "I'm glad my talents are not being wasted. Vila could have done this."
"Yeah," Lydon nodded, spotting an opportunity to give Avon a taste of his own medicine, "if it wasn't for the fact that he's dead, we would have asked him." He looked Avon right in the eye and added, "You're our second choice."
The insult was never going to be lost on Avon of course. That anyone could name him as second fiddle to Vila...
"Have we got plans of the layout of the base?" Elise cut in quickly, again trying to keep egotistical male tempers from fraying.
"Yes, that's all sorted," Lydon assured her confidently.
"Why don't we just attack the transport shuttle when it leaves with the next gold shipment?" suggested Kelso.
"Ah, that won't work I'm afraid," said Lydon, quietly impressed that Kelso had managed to ask a sensible question.
"I imagine," Avon interjected, "it's because the gold has undergone a sub-neutronic overlap shift."
Kelso looked perplexed. "What does that mean?"
"It means that the Federation have a processor that alters the gold's atomic structure and turns it black," answered Avon patiently. "I've been down this road before."
"Also," added Lydon, not wanting Avon to steal his thunder, "we have no idea when the pickups take place. If we want the gold, this is the only plan that's going to work." He looked at each of the three faces ahead of him. "What do you think?"
There was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm in their expressions. Elise fidgeted awkwardly, while Avon looked thoroughly derisive.
"Well I dunno," muttered Kelso, trying to sound polite. "It's a bit risky."
"A bit risky?!" snorted Avon. "It's suicidal. To walk twenty-six miles you'll need more oxygen than any suit could provide."
"We carry extra cylinders..." answered Lydon, exasperated.
"We carry extra?" Avon let out a disparaging chuckle. "The more we carry the longer it will take to walk. It'll get exponentially more dangerous every time you try and make it safer."
Lydon seemed to give up trying to defend his thinking, and gave challenge instead. "You got a better idea?"
"I couldn't have come up with one much worse," growled Avon.
"Have you got a better plan?" Lydon repeated.
Avon considered very briefly then nodded. "Yes. Shoot Kelso."
Lydon, Elise and Kelso exchanged bewildered looks.
"That's your plan?" cried Lydon.
"It's better than yours," said Avon, clearly believing that his was a plan that would leave more of them alive at the end of it.
Lydon seemed to go purple in the face. "You fu-...!" he began.
Mercifully, Elise once again saw that this was an expedient time to interrupt. "I think we should call it a night and get some sleep," she suggested soothingly.
"It's only half past eight!" protested Kelso.
"Shut up, Kelso!" growled Avon and Lydon together. They then looked at each other, apparently surprised to see that they did share some common ground after all.
"Avon?" hinted Elise, gesturing towards the door.
Avon looked at her, then shrugged. "Why not?"
"What Avon doesn't realise," grumbled Lydon after they had gone, "is his pissing people off makes them want to kill him."
Kelso wasn't paying attention however. He had got to his feet and was glancing down at his own belly as he assumed several different, rather elaborate, stances. After a moment he settled on a pose he liked best. "Lydon?" he asked. "Do I look slimmer to you?"
Lydon glanced up at him. "No."
Avon and Elise had stepped outside, and walked towards his ship under a night sky far more beautiful and captivating than this miserable planet had any right to see wasted on it.
"Do you really think Lydon's plan is unworkable?" asked Elise, unable to keep an edge of disappointment from insinuating its way into her voice.
"Utterly," spat Avon.
Elise looked at Avon sadly. "You despise him, don't you?"
Avon's reply would have been well accompanied by a shrug, but shrugging was not really in his nature. "Well if I gave him any thought, I probably would."
"He's a killer."
"So are you," said Elise.
"I've killed," retorted Avon.
"There's a difference?"
"I think so."
"He was prepared to like you," protested Elise, not willing to leave things at that, "he wanted to be your friend."
Avon gave a hollow laugh. "Sometimes one's friends can be a greater liability than one's enemies," he replied, once more giving voice to one of his great philosophies on life.
The disappointment in Elise's voice seemed to grow. "So you're going to leave us then."
"No," Avon decided, leading Elise to look up at him with renewed hope. "I believe I can devise a plan which will work. With a little help from Orac."
"Your super computer," nodded Elise. "You brought it with you?"
"It's aboard my ship," answered Avon, pulling out a small com-link. He pressed a button on its side and a quiet pulse was sent out toward the ship just ahead. The ramp lowered once again. In response to a second signal from the com-link, the airlock door hissed open. Together Avon and Elise started to walk up the ramp. Elise stopped at the airlock, and studied the ship from nose to tail as she remembered that there was something she had always been meaning to ask.
"What do you call your ship?"
Avon, who had stepped into the airlock, glanced back at her. "My ship."
"What do you call it?" insisted Elise.
"My ship," Avon repeated tonelessly. "Are you coming?"
Ever the poet, Elise thought with a smile. "Yes," she nodded. She followed Avon through the hatch into the ship, and the airlock door hissed shut behind them.