The Logic of Empire
Part 2 - The Way Back
by Martin Odoni
Novelisation by Martin Odoni
based on an original script by Alan Stevens and David Tulley
"Madame President," reported Brecht, "surveillance reports that Avon has entered his ship."
Servalan was sat in the command chair. She had been lost in her thoughts for some while now, but almost seemed to be expecting Brecht to speak to her there and then. "Is he with anyone?"
"Yes," answered Brecht, rechecking the readout on the computer screen, "Elise. Shall we move in?"
Brecht had only asked the question as a formality, so he was a little thrown by this. "If he takes off now, we'll lose him," he protested.
Servalan's face lit up in another slow, deliberate smile. "He won't be taking off."
Avon looked up from where he was operating the inner airlock controls to see Elise gesturing towards a narrow transmission bay near the back hull of the craft.
"It's a teleport."
"I didn't know that The United Planets of Teal had developed teleport facilities," said Elise.
Avon finished operating the controls and the inner airlock door hissed shut. "They haven't," he replied simply.
Elise gestured around them. The interior of Avon's ship was narrow without being especially cramped. The pilot seat and control console were set into a small access space right at the nose of the ship. The compartment they were stood in was longer and a little broader, allowing room for several work surfaces along the walls. It would be a twee exaggeration to describe the set-up as snug, however, it was not claustrophobic either.
"But this is one of their ships?"
"That's right," Avon confirmed, "but I installed the teleport. With Orac's assistance of course. It's based on the one from Liberator." He took a large silver carrying case down from an overhead shelf, and started to open the steel clasps that held it shut.
"He thought so," murmured Avon, swinging open the case to reveal a transparent plastic box of wires and cybernetic components.
"And then you joined up with Tarrant?"
Avon paused at this. "Tarrant joined up with me," he replied finally, lifting the plastic box out of the case.
"What kind of man was he?" asked Elise.
"Blake or Tarrant?"
"Idealistic," said Avon, placing Orac onto the nearest work surface.
For some reason, Elise found the vaguely dismissive tone with which Avon had answered her rather offensive. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Avon considered. "It means he had a limited life expectancy," he announced casually.
"How did he die?"
"His heart stopped beating," Avon responded unhelpfully. He slotted Orac's key into place, and the familiar low buzzing noise carried its way through the compartment. "Orac?"
"Well, what is it?" demanded the computer with haughty impatience.
"I've got a problem for you to solve," began Avon, shrugging off the computer's poor manners as one might shrug off a heavy coat at the height of summer. "Asteroid P-Z 337 is located on the outer edge of sector nine. It is currently being mined for gold by the Federation." He was rattling through the details with an efficiency that other, less sophisticated computers than Orac might have found professionally threatening. "Although the complex is automated there is a small security force present together with a supervisory team of mining engineers. The pressure dome is protected by a force field and surveillance scans mean that you can't land anywhere within a circumference of twenty-six miles. Are you with me so far, Orac?"
"Of course I am," insisted Orac, offended by the inference. "It is only when instructions are imprecise that problems arise. If you keep your questions uncluttered with irrelevant..."
"All right, Orac."
"What is it that you precisely want to know?"
"How do we steal the gold without getting ourselves killed in the process?" growled Avon.
"Do you have a plan of the base complex?"
"Yes we do," said Elise.
"In that case," Orac suggested, "you use the teleport."
Elise looked unsure. "To transport the gold?"
"No, of course not!" barked Orac, deeply irritated by the obtuseness of its audience.
"The processing that alters the gold's atomic constitution," explained Avon with considerably more patience, "also makes it too unstable for teleportation."
"Correction," Orac cut in. "It is not possible to alter the atomic constitution of gold. What the processor actually induces is a sub-neutronic overlap shift. This is achieved by first..."
"Never mind that now," snapped Avon, not wanting to be trapped into hearing another of Orac's unending dissertations on the inner workings of particle physics. "What do you propose?"
"At the present time," Orac responded evasively, "there are too many variables for me to be able to come up with an accurate prognosis."
Avon knew from long and bitter experience that whenever Orac said such things, and especially in one of these sulking tones, it was just trying to avoid saying those words it dreaded the most - "I don't know."
"Give it your best shot," suggested Avon through gritted teeth.
"Oh, very well," Orac relented, "I can see only two practical options available to you."
"One. Teleport aboard the relief craft and gain entrance to the base that way."
"Two," continued Orac. "Teleport aboard the cargo carrier during its journey to collect the gold shipment."
Elise shook her head. "But we don't know when either the relief shuttle or the cargo carrier are due."
"That's not a problem," Avon assured her. "Orac has the unique ability of being able to read any computer which contains a Tarial cell. And they all contain Tarial cells."
"What if we teleported into the base complex itself?" asked Elise.
"I have already considered this possibility," said Orac, "and rejected it."
"We've teleported through force fields before," Avon pointed out.
"That is why it has now become common policy within the Federation to have force walls that cross the frequency spectrum," answered Orac. "This will disrupt any teleportation beam that tries to penetrate it. The result being..."
Avon unplugged Orac's control key. "We get the picture."
Elise frowned nervously. "It's still a risky plan."
Avon smiled. "Risky, yes. Fatal, no."
"But will Lydon buy it?"
Avon looked puzzled. "Lydon?" He then nodded, as though suddenly remembering to whom she was referring. "Oh yes, Lydon."
Elise stared at him, a wave of nerves washing over her all of a sudden. "Why do I feel uneasy?" she asked.
"You tell me," suggested Avon. For all his self-assurance, he had never been one to claim to possess knowledge that he did not.
Elise was seldom put off that easily. "What are you planning, Avon?"
"Yes," Elise persisted, "are you planning something for Lydon?"
Avon stared deep into her eyes, and it was now that Elise became more conscious of their proximity. "I've got nothing planned for him," Avon answered, his voice menacingly close to a whisper. "Nothing at all."
This only seemed to increase her uncertainty. "Um," she stammered, "what do we do now?"
Avon smiled at her deviously. "Ah, well. I am open to suggestions. Question is... are you?"
Brecht was beginning to feel a knot of anxiety in his stomach, born from the President's complacency. She seemed absolutely convinced about everything that was going to happen, and Brecht knew well that that sort of attitude was just asking for trouble. The prospect of failure was quite bad enough for his professional pride, but he also trembled in the knowledge that Servalan would immediately blame him if anything went wrong. So he couldn't understand why she wouldn't let him send in...
His train of thought was interrupted by the Section Leader's voice as it crackled across the Flight Deck once more. "He and the woman have left the ship and are now heading back towards the north wing."
"I can see that, Section Leader," growled Brecht, nervously staring at the two figures on the screen.
Servalan, who had always been one of those women with a gift for making lazy slouching seem like an art form, was draped elegantly in the command seat, calmly browsing through some papers in a thin plastic folder. "Calm down," she admonished him gently, "everything is running to schedule."
The Major looked back at her, brows furrowed. Why did the President keep saying things that needed explaining? Why couldn't she just say something that made sense straight away for a change? "Schedule? What schedule?"
Servalan did not look up, but carried on examining the pages in front of her. Whatever she was reading, it must have been riveting. "This schedule, Major," she answered. "We are now at the bottom of page five."
"Can I see?" asked Brecht, startled.
"Be my guest," offered Servalan, lazily presenting the folder to him.
Brecht accepted it and, fascinated, perused the current page. He then flicked over to the next page and his face coloured slightly. "It says here he's going to..." His voice trailed off in embarrassment. He tried again, "...that they're going to..." Again he couldn't bring himself to say it. He swallowed.
Servalan found herself delighting in the Major's discomfort. "Yes, Brecht, that is what it says. But don't get too excited - they go to her room first."
Brecht examined the front flap of the folder more closely. "This report..." he noted with a touch of distaste, "it's from a psychostrategist."
"That's right," nodded Servalan, still amused, "a 'puppeteer'." She smiled broadly and sat back in her seat, looking at the screen once again. "Avon is now nothing more than an actor stumbling through his farewell performance."
A light breeze from outside whistled along the walls of the fortress, filling the air with a ghostly moan, a sound so morbid that it could only have been uttered from the throats of the damned. Avon did not like the sound of it. It reminded him of...
There was a chill in the air that owed little to the climate. It was therefore futile that Elise chose to pull the blanket around herself a little more tightly, but she needed to. She was wearing nothing, and therefore she felt vulnerable. She did not like feeling vulnerable. It reminded her of...
She felt Avon's arm around her and tried to take comfort in that. How one so cold could be such a warming, protective presence had long been a puzzle to her, but it didn't bother her that she had never been able to answer it. The mystery in Avon was what she had always found so compelling about him.
"How long before daybreak?" whispered Avon.
"About another two hours," answered Elise sleepily. "Nights here are short. We'd better get some sleep." She tried to roll away from him a little, not in any way trying to be abrasive, just trying to uninvite further conversation. She was too tired.
"Why are you here, Elise?" asked Avon suddenly.
"Mm?" murmured Elise. It wasn't that she didn't understand the question, she just hadn't been expecting it, especially not now.
"Why are you fighting the Federation?" Avon persisted.
Elise turned back toward him, allowing herself, with some reluctance, to wake up a little. "Because that's my life now, Avon."
Avon looked at her through his saturnine eyes, which more than ever seemed full of sad irony. "It's no life," he said darkly. "Life is what you're running away from."
Elise stared at him momentarily, then turned away again, this time more defensively. "Don't ask me."
Elise's retort was clipped, even a little irritated. "Because I'm not going to tell you."
"That's not what I meant."
Avon continued to stare at her, reading her like a man deciphering a remote text. "Something happened..."
"Yes," interjected Elise, trying not to think about that day on Zarana, "and I've locked it away in my heart. I'm damaged goods, Avon." She glanced back at him once more, her eyes now full of pleading. "Please... let me sleep."
There was a moment of heavy silence. Avon clearly wanted to know more, but he would not antagonise her about it, would not force her to tell him. He gently kissed her shoulder, and lay back. "Goodnight... Elise," he whispered quietly, and waited for sleep to take hold of them both.
As they slumbered, the ghostly moan on the wind grew more forlorn. It was also growing steadily louder, as the unearthly chill grew even colder. Avon could hear it, and yet he slept, and in his dreams it changed into something more familiar. Familiarity bred no comfort.
Avon recognised the shape and substance of the sound. He had heard it the first time some years before - a forbidding accompaniment to the greatest agony he had ever felt, like a white hot needle lancing through the tender tissues of his head. The day that he had almost become part of...
Suddenly it was gone and he could no longer hear it. No wait, it wasn't gone. He was gone, he was somewhere else...
"Blake!" he heard himself cry. "We've... we've got to go, Blake... we've got to go now..."
There was a gentle pulse, followed by a soft whine, as a computer prepared to speak.
"The Galactic Eighth Fleet," announced Zen indifferently, the vocaliser LED's on its giant face flickering on and off, "has inflicted sixty-four percent losses on the main alien battle group."
Avon looked about himself. Jenna Stannis stood at the main controls above him and to his right, her face fixed in a grim mask of determination. Beyond her sat Vila Restal at the weapons panel, his face betraying how weary he was of his own fear. At the back, sat at the highest point of the Flight Deck, was Cally, her beautiful, almost elfin, face always looking impassive.
The Liberator, thought Avon, I remember this now. I remember... what do I remember?
"The last of the Federation's flotillas," continued Zen, cutting off this train of thought like a blade cutting through butter, "has now engaged the enemy at maximum speed. Concentrated fire from Liberator and Flagship Galileo has destroyed alien command ship. Calculations now indicate victory at eighty-two percent probability."
"We did it!" Avon proclaimed, his voice full of calm satisfaction and quiet relief. "We held the line. They pushed us back a sector and a half, but we did it!" He pushed on the intercom control. "Flight Deck to medical unit. Blake? We've done it. We're clear..."
A distant shriek of power suddenly became audible, and the whole ship shuddered violently as it was struck by a long-range energy bolt.
"Zen," snapped Avon, trying to avoid being hurled from his position, "report."
"A direct hit on the forward force wall generators," answered Zen with all the urgency of an apath reading from a shopping list, "have rendered them inoperative. Energy banks three and five exhausted. Auto repair systems are assessing further damage."
Reflexively, Avon stepped out from his position to get a closer look at the tactical display on the main screen. He gritted his teeth. "They'll have to manage the rest without us," he decided. "Jenna, bring us about and prepare to leave battle zone, Standard by..."
"Wait!" called a voice from the corridor. Roj Blake came rushing onto the Flight Deck, his arm lightly bandaged, but no longer in the shoulder cast that he had worn at Star One.
"Welcome back, Blake," Avon acknowledged him stiffly. He pointed to the readout on the main screen. "It's finished. We're leaving."
"We stay," Blake contradicted him firmly, taking his place at the navigation panel.
The others all looked at Blake in bewilderment.
"We've done all we can," protested Avon.
"And we are winning!" insisted Blake, his voice taking on a strange, almost crazed edge.
"The Federation is winning!" Avon pointed out acidly, trying to keep the exasperation out of his tone. "For us there's only survival, and it's time to cut our losses and run..."
The start-up pulse from Zen's vocal circuits cut in again. "A malfunction has developed in the teleport systems," the computer droned. "Minor damage to computer banks two and four has rendered the neutron flare shield inoperable. Energy banks three, four and five are now empty."
"We've no guns, no shields and barely enough power to make Standard by five," growled Avon, no longer bothering to keep his voice even. "We have to go. Now."
"No," answered Blake with the usual calm stubbornness that so got on Avon's nerves. "Zen, confirm enemy strategy. Have they begun to counterattack?"
"Blake!" Avon's tone now bordered on desperation. "There's nothing more we can do. You're wasting time. If we don't go now, we won't have enough power left to run."
"Enemy strategy," announced Zen, its voice echoing loudly around the Flight Deck, "is now confirmed. Battle computers indicate full alien counterattack is under way."
Blake frowned. "Jenna, move us in towards the remaining enemy cruisers..."
Jenna hesitated. She looked like she might object, when Avon did it for her.
"We are not needed."
Blake just seemed to ignore him and carried on staring at the navigation controls.
Avon couldn't believe this. It was almost as though, having been cooped up in the Medical Unit for so long, Blake had started to feel left out. "Blake!" Avon cried. "We're a legitimate target for both sides. If we don't go now we'll all end up dead."
Blake finally stopped looking at the computers and looked at Avon. Then, his voice quiet and accusing, yet vibrant and calm, he said, "Why did you kill me?"
And suddenly, Avon and Blake were no longer aboard the Liberator. They were standing in a dark room. A cavern. Avon had been there before... And there was that sound again. That ghostly moan...
"Blake..." began Avon, confused, "I..." Then realisation sank in, and his voice went flat. "You're not Blake." The moan became sharper and more distinct, punctuated by the hissing of a creature struggling to breathe. He knew what it was now. "Are you here to warn me?"
"Careful, Avon..." hissed the spectre.
"Why him?" murmured Avon. This whole horror that he had been eternally tied to frightened him enough, but for the creature to choose that face, that voice... was it trying to taunt him? To avenge itself on him?
Yes that was it. It wanted to hurt him. But it depended on him too - it needed to understand and Avon was its understanding. Thus it needed him to survive, so it was sending him a warning, and yet it understood enough to know how to hurt him as it did so. By becoming the embodiment of what Avon least wanted to remember...
"I don't want any part of this," Avon objected. "You should have left me. You should not have taken me out of the grave."
"Careful, Avon," repeated the apparition, "they'll find you."
Avon's aversion to what he was facing was replaced by urgency. "They?"
"The lightning raid," Blake boomed, like the tolling of a mighty bell.
"Who will find me?" demanded Avon.
"They'll be here in a few minutes," the apparition warned in answer.
"Who are they?"
"The lightning raid," repeated Blake. And suddenly he was starting to fade away. Avon looked about. Everything was starting lose substance and clarity. "The lightning raid..."
"Wait..." called out Avon as he felt the unwelcome pull of consciousness. He could also feel a peculiar buffeting sensation, as though he were shaking.
"Careful, Avon..." responded the voice of the spectre one more time. "Take you to it..."
The voice was gone, replaced by a softer tone, feminine in substance. And tinged with fear. "Avon, Avon. Wake up... please."
Avon let out an agonised gasp and sat up with a start. He found himself still in bed, next to Elise, whose concerned arms clung round his shoulders, her eyes fixed on the side of his face in consternation.
Avon swallowed. He felt feverish. "What happened?"
"You were having a nightmare," answered Elise, her voice thick with distress. "You were calling out..."
Avon turned to her and gently gripped her arm. "What did I say?"
Elise's eyes were clouded with confusion. "You kept saying, 'the lightning raid'. And something about Blake..."
Avon's grip on her arm tightened, not to the point that it actually hurt, but enough to increase her alarm. "What did I say about Blake?" hissed Avon, still struggling to catch his breath.
"I don't know," said Elise, and meant it. "Is it important?"
"Yes," growled Avon urgently, "it's important." The grip he had on Elise's arm now was hurting. "What did I say?"
Elise gently disengaged from his grip. "You were talking to him. You mentioned a grave." She tried to remember. "Your own grave..." She shook her head. "You weren't making sense..."
Avon looked confused. Then he smiled. "Get dressed," he instructed her, the smile quickly melting away again.
"Are all units in position?"
"Yes, Madam President," nodded Brecht. "They await only your signal."
"And all Squad Leaders are fitted with video relays?" checked Servalan, not wanting anything to go wrong at this late stage.
"We have audio/video contact with all units," confirmed Brecht, over-informatively.
Servalan smiled. "Then go ahead." Her smile did not melt away.
Avon and Elise had wasted barely a minute between them getting dressed. Avon seemed distant once again, staring towards the door with an access of pessimistic certainty.
"It's too late to get away," he was mumbling, more to himself than Elise. "They're very close." He paused, clearly looking around for an advantage, any advantage. If there was one thing his life could bear testament to, it was his ability to find an advantage in even the darkest situations. "Elise," he barked suddenly, pointing at the bed, "use the pillows! Make it look as if the bed's still occupied."
Avon stepped over to listen at the door, holding his breath, while Elise rearranged the bedding. She stepped back to survey her own handiwork, impressed with herself. All in all, she had managed to make the whole thing look really quite convincing.
"What are we going to do?" she asked in a low voice.
Avon gestured to a shadowy recess in the wall next to the door. "Hide in this alcove."
Elise looked where he was pointing without enthusiasm. It was bang opposite the chamber's only window. "Dawn's breaking," she argued, "we'll be seen."
"The shadows will cover us," insisted Avon. If he was trying to sound confident for her sake, he was doing a fine job of it. "Elise," he insisted more harshly, "come on."
Avon grabbed Elise's arm and physically hauled her into the alcove with him. There they stood, pressed as far back against the wall as they could manage. For a brief eternity, they dared not twitch a muscle, dared not release the air in their aching lungs. Then, excruciatingly, Elise's nerves started to jangle. Her hand found Avon's and clasped it tightly.
It was then that the door burst open. Six figures, all clad in black from head to foot and heavily armed, scrambled in, their heavy boots drumming on the flagstones of the floor. They trained their guns on the bed.
"Freeze," commanded the Squad Leader, his voice slightly muffled by the facemask of his uniform. There was a small relay camera on the side of the mask. "Don't move... don't move..." He looked to his deputy. "Sergeant... pull the covers back."
The Sergeant took a grip on the blanket and with a swift yank, snatched it from the bed, to reveal a less-than-rewarding captive - a pile of folded bedding.
"Shit!" commented the Squad Leader.
There was a low, metallic scraping noise from the alcove behind them. It was the sound of a clip-gun being drawn from its holster, followed by a burst of rapid fire.
They were all dead long before any of them could attempt to fire back.
The video link sent a lopsided view running parallel with the chamber floor to Servalan's command ship. It also transmitted the sound of footsteps heading toward the camera.
"Avon..." noted Servalan, still sat in her command seat. Avon wasn't actually visible on the screen, but then she didn't need him to be.
"Nice try," said Avon's sneering voice, and his foot came down on the camera, still strapped to side of the dead Squad Leader's helmet.
Servalan watched unmoved as the screen filled with white noise and silver-black static.
"It seems he's not read the script," noted Brecht.
"Don't worry - it's covered," Servalan assured him easily. She then added, by way of unrequested explanation, "We still have Elise. She'll lead him to the roof. Quickly, patch me into another unit."
The Major nodded and tapped some more controls on the communication panel. There was a brief spit of static from the speaker, followed by the harsh sound of rapid fire from heavy plasma rifles. On the screen there now appeared the layout of a long corridor with a single door. There were shots noticeably, and loudly, heading in the other direction from positions level with or slightly behind the camera. A plasma rifle, apparently in the grasp of the cameraman, occasionally flitted in and out of view, but beyond that it was difficult to discern what was going on. Then, suddenly, a large blurred object hove into view.
"Who's that?" murmured Servalan.
Brecht glanced up at the screen before returning attention to the controls. "Er... it looks like Kelso."
Kelso held his position outside the main hall for a few more seconds before the heat of enemy fire became too intense, then he ducked back to the door. He evaded one last shot, then swung the door open and jumped inside. He slammed the door shut behind him - a laudable display of speed considering how heavy it was - and swung the bar across.
"Barring the door is not going to hold them for long."
After allowing his heart the half-second it needed to start beating again, he turned around to see that Lydon was still sat there by the remains of the fire, his expression as cold as ice. He looked devoid of energy, beaten. Almost ashen.
Already the sound of hammering started on the door.
"Shit..." gulped Kelso, almost hysterical, "shit, Lydon! We're dead." He gave his leader an unhappy look of self-vindication. "I told you not to trust him. I told you Avon would betray us."
The hammering noise turned to the horrifying sound of splintering wood. Kelso took a few steps back and trained his gun on the doorway, preparing to fire.
Lydon's face slowly turned away from the dying embers of the fire. His expression seemed to be full of sadness, but his voice was completely toneless. "Avon's not the traitor." He reached for his own gun.
In that instant, the door finally gave way and crashed in on itself like waves of a stormy sea. Kelso managed to fire off a brief burst from his rifle. Then he heard two more shots. He felt the need to turn and run, but suddenly his legs weren't obeying him, and he felt a gruelling pain in his chest . He was losing all sense of direction, and most sense of himself. His knees buckled as his vision began to blur. He heard more shots as he toppled over. He never even felt the violent jolt as he crashed heavily into the flagstones of the floor.
"Federation commandos," concluded Avon as he finished examining the uniforms on the soldiers he had gunned down.
Elise was already standing by the door, her leg twitching in her desperation to leave. "Avon, we've got to get out of here."
Avon turned and looked at her. His expression was urgent, but his eyes were calm. "Where can we go?"
Elise thought briefly, then the light of inspiration seemed to shine in her hypnotic eyes. "The roof!" she said quickly, pointing upwards. "We have a flyer there. I'll take you to it."
Just for an instant, Avon hesitated. For that brief moment he had a familiar inkling, a suspicion that he was missing something.
But then he dismissed it. "Come on," he grunted, and together he and Elise ran from the room towards the nearest staircase, which led up to the highest tower of the castle.
Another change of video feed. Servalan's delicate eardrums were now being assaulted by the noise of heavy boots running up a stone staircase. What she could see on the screen was an image of the stairs bouncing up and down wildly as the man with the camera raced upwards in pursuit of his quarry.
"This is unit six," panted the Squad Leader's voice, "we're in pursuit of target."
Brecht spoke into the com-link sternly. "Careful, Squad Leader! We want him alive."
Avon and Elise were only a couple of flights above the chasing squad of troopers, whose steps echoed ominously from below. The tower staircases were broad but damp, and only lit at periodic intervals by tiny windows that let in the bleak morning light.
"Is it much further?" asked Avon.
"These steps lead all the way to the top of the tower," Elise promised him.
For all of Avon's giant strides, his survivor's determination and his considerable physical fitness meant that he was barely breathing hard. Elise was no weakling herself, but by now she was beginning to fall behind.
"Keep going..." Avon called over his shoulder to her. "They're right behind us!"
Avon reached the top of another flight of steps. Elise was halfway up when one of the troopers stepped into view at the foot of the steps behind her. Avon's clip-gun was in hand faster than the eye could follow... the trooper cried out briefly as he fell, but no sooner was he down than more troopers appeared in his wake. Avon started picking them off one by one, trying to buy Elise the time she needed to catch up with him.
Finally, one of the troopers started firing back.
Servalan was on her feet at last, her face clouded with anger, as she heard the sound of fire from Federation weapons. On the screen she could see Avon shooting down toward the squad's position, while Elise was scrambling past him, round the corner and onto the next flight of steps.
Avon also had to evade several shots.
"The fools!" cried Servalan. "What are they doing?"
Brecht opened comms with the surface and tried to make himself heard over the noise of the fire-fight. "Squad Leader! Squad Leader... pull your men back. He's got you cold."
"Their orders are to..." began Servalan, still angry, but Brecht was ahead of her.
"Squad Leader," continued Brecht irritably, "your orders are to pursue - not to engage, repeat, not to engage. Confirm?"
The images on the screen were still jumpy and confused. What happened next did nothing to improve that particular state of affairs.
The Squad Leader was just giving confirmation when there was the roar of explosive power from very close range. It was enough to overwhelm the sound feed briefly. When it cut back in an instant later, there was the crumbling sound of falling masonry.
"What's happened?" asked Brecht, seeing indeterminate images on the screen and hearing bloodcurdling screams of agony over the speaker.
"Some kind of grenade," answered Servalan. Her manner was full of annoyance and spared not the slightest hint of concern for her soldiers on the surface.
"We've still got visual," pointed out the Major, although he was having difficulty working out what that rigid greyness they were looking at was supposed to be.
As usual, Servalan had the answer. "Yes," she sniffed, "of the ceiling - the Squad Leader's dead."
Avon gestured for Elise to carry on up the stairs, while he turned and headed back down toward where the screams and cries were still continuing unabated. Elise did not move but looked at him, amazed.
"Where are you going?" she coughed. There was a lot of dust rising into the air from the level below.
Avon paused and looked over his shoulder at her. "I used a Volatizer," he explained. He seemed himself once more, totally in command and with plenty to spare. "The ones that aren't dead will have been blinded. I'm going back down, it's our only chance."
Avon rounded the corner to survey the wreckage. It was not exactly like looking through the gates of Hell, but it would still be pretty horrifying to someone of a more delicate disposition. The walls above the foot of the stairs had caved in completely, as had part of the ceiling - Avon noted that he and Elise would have to be careful climbing the next flight. The air was thick with clouds of dust. Most of the soldiers were slumped on the floor, and there was much blood, even a few dismembered limbs, among the debris. Those troopers who were still conscious were writhing and moaning in the dust in torment.
Amazingly one of the troopers was still on his feet, albeit crouched down, his hands clawing at his own face. "My eyes," he was whimpering in the vain hope that any of his colleagues might be listening or able to help him. "My eyes. I can't see..."
Without hesitation or pity, Avon shot him down. He continued shooting until all the troopers lay silent. Effortlessly he turned and ran back up the steps to where Elise was waiting for him.
"Elise..." he snarled, taking her arm and pulling her up the stairs with him, "come on, we can make it. I've bought us a little time."
"He's wiped out unit six," reported Brecht with a mixture of grudging admiration and professional frustration.
But Servalan, now back in her seat, her eyes full of calm pleasure, seemed completely untroubled once more. "It's of no consequence," she smiled. "They've achieved what was needed - he's heading for the flyer." She did not look deliriously happy, that was never in her nature. But her countenance showed a peaceful, keen anticipation. "It's just a pity we can't watch."
It took only a few moments for Avon and Elise to reach the pinnacle of the tower. As they reached the top of the last flight of steps they found themselves facing a low but broad wooden door.
Elise tapped it. "This... this door leads out onto the tower roof," she explained, struggling to catch her breath.
"Is the flyer in the open?"
"Yes," nodded Elise, "it's ready to go. We just have to reach it."
Avon nodded and holstered his gun. He then pulled the handle on the door and pushed it open. Happily, it was lighter than it looked and he had no trouble. They stepped out onto the castle roof, which was being drenched under the now-rain-heavy sky.
There were distant rumbles of thunder, but also a much closer rumble of a flyer engine starting up. They looked across toward the source of the sound, and saw the lumpy, rounded shape of the flyer waiting for them at the centre of the rooftop. There was someone at the controls, clearly getting ready to launch.
"It's Lydon," noted Avon. He and Elise started running toward the flyer. "Lydon, wait!" he called. "Wait for us."
Lydon looked up as he heard him and swung open the hatch, but then his face twisted with sulphurous anger when he saw Elise. "Avon!" he shouted. "I'll take you, but not that bitch." He pointed at Elise, his face full of unbridled accusation. "Kill her!"
Avon and Elise skidded to a halt at this. "Elise?" cried Avon, trying to make sure he was hearing correctly.
Lydon's voice was almost on the brink of hysteria, such was his anger. "Yes, yes. She's a traitor, she's Federation! Get rid of her, we've been set up!"
"Where's Kelso?" snapped Avon.
"Dead," answered Lydon bitterly, "he's dead, it's her! There's no one else it could be."
Avon drew his gun and turned to look at Elise, still not wanting to believe what he had been suspecting. His eyes sought explanation from her, and would tolerate no refusal. "Elise, not you?"
"No, Avon," protested Elise, raising her hands, "it's not me!"
"Kill the bitch!" roared Lydon, the hatred in his voice almost tangible. "Kill her!!"
Avon stared at Elise, and finally let go of all resistance he had put up to his own suspicions. "How did they know where to come, Elise?" he hissed. "How did they know we were together?"
"Do it!!" shouted Lydon.
"I... I don't know," stammered Elise. She was too exhausted, too full of panic, to find any other words.
"Is this the secret you couldn't tell me?" Avon demanded. "Is this what 'happened'?"
Elise held up her hands in front of her face. "Avon..." she objected weakly, "pleas-..."
Avon heard the shriek of power, felt the discharge and kickback from the gun. Elise was completely silent as she fell.
He stared at her stonily for a moment as he holstered his gun. He might almost have been shaking. Was it from the pain of killing her? Or was it from the shock of being betrayed by yet another he had made the mistake of trusting? But then, he had to ask himself why he was shocked at all.
Then he heard the hum of the flyer's engine fading out. He turned to see Lydon looking at him with a calm, contemptuous smile, shaking his head. He had a Federation plasma rifle in his hand and it was pointed at Avon.
"You never learn," Lydon commented dryly. "You keep making the same mistake."
Realisation was immediate. "You!"
"Me," Lydon confirmed, amused.
Avon felt the anger build in him. His hand snaked towards his own gun.
"Don't do it, Avon," Lydon warned him, his voice taking on a more serious edge. "Pull that gun and I'll shoot you dead."
Out of the corner of his eye, Avon looked to where Elise was slumped, and felt something drain out of him. "Question is," he grunted passionlessly, "do I really care?" His hand moved faster than ever, and the gun was already out of its holster before Lydon knew it.
But so did Lydon.
Avon was in darkness again...
Unexpectedly, light suddenly flooded back into Avon's world to the accompaniment of a sickeningly familiar voice. "Wake up, Avon," it said. "You're back among the living."
Avon's eyes flickered open reluctantly. He was on his back on some kind of rehab couch, although he couldn't say where. The ceiling overhead was metal, so he guessed he was on a spacecraft of some kind. His eyes then focused better to see a face leaning over him, and he recognised it enough to know exactly which kind of spacecraft he was on.
A Federation cruiser.
"Servalan," Avon murmured. He saw that her face was a little more lined, her hair just beginning to lose some of the texture and deep raven colour that it had always had. But she was still just as forbiddingly beautiful as she had ever been.
"It's been a long time," smiled Servalan.
"Not long enough." Avon realised that he wasn't strapped down so he tried to raise his head a little, but found that he couldn't. In fact, he was finding it difficult enough just to speak. "You'll forgive me if I don't get up," he slurred weakly.
"Don't worry," Servalan reassured him, "it's the calgesic, not the wound. In a few hours the effects will have worn off."
Avon's eyebrows flitted slightly. "Where's Lydon?" he asked, curious but not concerned.
"Dead, I'm afraid."
"He was your creature," said Avon. "He did as you told him."
"That's why you're still alive," Servalan explained. "Even at gun point he followed orders."
"Am I supposed to be impressed?"
Servalan put her head on one side slightly. "Grateful perhaps," she suggested. "But now you're going to replace him."
Avon smiled patronisingly. "Don't count on it."
"I'll change your mind," promised Servalan.
"You think so?"
"I know so." Her confidence was such that Avon felt there was no point in trying to contradict her again. "But first," continued Servalan, "I have some questions to which I would like answers. How did you survive Gauda Prime?"
"No one survived Gauda Prime," answered Avon darkly.
"We know you were there..."
"I stole a Pursuit Ship," said Avon.
"That's not what I meant," insisted Servalan, although of course Avon didn't need to be told that. She looked at him more closely. "You were up against the Iron Guard."
"Troops like any others," growled Avon. "The badges may differ, but they've all got bastards pinned to them."
"The Iron Guard are the best," persisted Servalan, her tone almost reaching a point of reverence - something Avon had never heard from her before. "You should be dead, Avon."
"Perhaps I got lucky," suggested Avon.
There was a pause while Servalan apparently concluded to herself that she was never going to get the real answer out of him, which of course she wasn't. "Perhaps you did," she shrugged finally. "Was it you who exploded the phosphorus grenade in the main tracking gallery?"
"Yes," admitted Avon.
"I didn't want Blake exhibited."
Servalan looked terribly amused. "Oh, that was never going to happen," she cooed. "As far as the Federation is officially concerned, Blake is still on Cygnus Alpha."
Avon's eyebrows did a brief dance of surprise. "With me?"
"Delightful isn't it?" chuckled Servalan. "Knowing that reality lies with those who have the power?"
As was so often the case, Avon was able to share the mirth of this woman who had tormented him for so long. "'Reality lies'. Nicely put, Servalan."
Servalan bowed her head briefly in appreciation of the compliment. "Thank you." She paused again. "Was that your only reason?"
"Was what my only reason?"
"Don't play games, Avon," snapped Servalan, not fooled. "We're still talking about the phosphorus grenade."
"Make your point, Servalan," said Avon impatiently.
Servalan seemed to consider how she was going to put it. "Forensic reports suggest that some of the Iron Guard were shot with the same weapon that was used to dispatch Blake." Her eyes lit up. "Can you explain that?" There was no response from Avon. Servalan smiled knowingly. "It's all right, Avon," she promised in a low voice, "I know the answer."
"You know nothing," grunted Avon.
"I know... you."
Avon thought about this, and concluded that she was right, so there was no point in trying to argue. Not that there ever had been one. He took a deep breath and decided to change the subject. "You still haven't explained how, or why, I'm going to help you."
"I think I have," retorted Servalan. "Do you know what the Federation stands for, Avon?"
"Order." The contradiction was full of doctrinal firmness. "And do you know what poses the greatest threat to that order?"
Servalan shook her head. "The military," she said calmly. Avon was a touch surprised to hear this coming from the President and Supreme Commander of a military dictatorship. She continued. "There have been three major internal conflicts in the last twelve years."
"And all of them revolved around getting you in and out of power," Avon was quick to point out. "That last one was particularly messy. You can't call yourself the Terran Federation anymore."
Servalan shrugged. "The destruction of Earth was... regrettable," she conceded euphemistically.
"But at least you have power again?"
"Oh yes," nodded Servalan with a confident smile, "and you are going to help me keep it. Without enemies the Federation will not survive, and these days there are so very few of the enemy left."
Without letting fear take a grip of him, Avon began to understand. "So you have to invent them?"
There was another pause. Servalan then gestured toward someone who was standing outside of Avon's field of vision. Nonetheless, Avon knew that it must have been a doctor, a doctor of the "political-rehabilitation" variety.
"Something like that," Servalan finally answered, walking toward the door. She paused at the threshold and turned back. "Goodbye, Avon," she said. "We won't meet again." Then she walked out.
She had said that to him once before of course. But Avon knew that this time, it was probably true.
The muzak he heard as he made his way down the access corridor was captivatingly gentle. It was always so peaceful that it left him without a care in the world.
"Attention," came a clipped female voice over the PA system. "Walkway seventeen will be closed for three hours due to a spontaneous demonstration of gratitude for the recent fifteen per cent increase in food rations. All citizens requiring access to areas twenty-four through to thirty must apply to Human Resources for an alternative route..."
Oh that was nice to hear. Now that he thought about it, he could have sworn that the announcement yesterday indicated a fifteen per cent cut in food rations, but surely his memory was in error, otherwise, why would they indicate now that there was an increase?
The announcement had nothing to do with him anyway, as he wasn't going anywhere near walkway seventeen...
"Hey!" whispered a quiet voice from behind one of the pillars.
"Hello," he greeted the girl.
It was Kerrine. She was a slim, dark-haired woman of average height in her mid-twenties, dressed in the one-piece acrylic coverall of a Dome Dweller. She seemed to be hiding behind the pillar, as if trying to stay out of sight of something. He glanced back along the corridor and noticed one of the security cameras on the far wall. Surely she wasn't hiding from that...?
Kerrinne grabbed his sleeve impatiently and pulled him into cover with her. "Did you have any trouble getting here?" she asked.
"You followed the map I gave you?"
"And eating and drinking," she continued urgently, "you've managed to do without?"
"As you seemed to think it was so important," he answered a little tightly, "I've been without food or water for nearly two days."
"How do you feel?"
"Hungry and thirsty, somewhat unsurprisingly." The man was beginning to feel a little irritated with all the questions. He looked at her suspiciously. "Kerrinne, this isn't just another example of your warped sense of humour, is it?"
Kerrinne glanced out from behind the pillar, as though to check that the coast was clear. She looked back at him, studying the large, dark eyes that made him look older than he really was, his high, domed forehead that made him look a cut above everyone around him - although of course he would never claim such a thing himself - as though trying to gauge his reaction to something. "Believe me, this is no practical joke," she promised.
When she was apparently sure that it was safe (safe? From what?), she led him across the corridor and into an alcove, in which there was a flight of stairs. Above the stairs there was a sign that read "SUB-34".
"All our food and drink is laced with suppressants," explained Kerrinne quietly as they went down the steps. "If you've been going without for forty-eight hours, then the effects should be wearing off."
He rolled his eyes. "So you keep saying."
"Come on," she gestured impatiently. They soon came to a large metal door with an electronic lock. Kerrinne, with practised ease, tapped in a code and the door swung open.
From above there was the sound of a fresh announcement on the PA system, now muffled. "The arrival of her Imperial Majesty on Gauda Prime has been delayed for two hours," it reported briskly. "This is due to unforeseen circumstances. However in spite of this delay, the forum will still take place in conference chamber five as previously arranged..."
They stepped through the door, which closed behind them with a quiet hum. After it closed, all sounds of muzak and the PA system were cut off. They found themselves at the top of another flight of steps, leading down into a dark subsection. It was deserted and depressing.
He was confused and losing patience with the lack of explanation. "Where are we going exactly?" he asked as they started down.
"Outside," answered Kerrinne in a low voice, an edge of anticipation in her tone.
"Outside?" gasped the man, trying to swallow his shock. "You do realise that going outside is a category four offence?"
As they reached the bottom of the stairs, they heard footsteps approaching from up ahead. Kerrinne motioned him to be quiet. They ducked behind a low bulkhead and peered out to see a shadowy figure heading their way.
"Oh it's all right," sighed Kerrinne with relief, "it's Ric." She glanced over her shoulder at her companion. "I know he's been wanting to meet you."
Meet me? thought the man. Why would anyone want to...?
They stepped out to meet a tall man with a nondescript face, framed with neat, dark hair. He clasped Kerrinne's hands affectionately. "Is everything all right?" he asked.
"Yes, fine," smiled Kerrinne, clearly delighted to see him.
Ric turned to look at the other man, taking in the lined face, the prominent nose and chin and the quiet, authoritative eyes, in a single gaze. "So, you're Roj Blake?" He offered a handshake.
Kerr Avon's expression flickered just briefly. Then he accepted the handshake with a polite smile. "Yes..." he said with another slight hesitation, which soon evaporated. "I'm Roj Blake."