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A meeting of minds - and the significance of teddybears.
Notes and references at the end of Part IV
Still feeling nauseous from the after-effects of being purged of the green-tinted oxygen-carrier, Freeman trudged down the corridor with his captors grouped around him. He was taken to a small chamber which reminded him irresistibly of a shower cubicle; and indeed that was what it proved to be.
Well, he'd learned a couple of things, at least. The aliens had not intended to take over the Eagles, they had tried to destroy them. And they hadn't got what they wanted from Ed. Probably, Freeman thought, his heart sinking, Ed had died under 'questioning'.
He did not resist as two of the aliens removed his spacesuit and underlayer, leaving him in his bare skin. Curiously, they were not brutal or even clumsy about doing so. Cynically he put this down to a desire not to damage valuable merchandise.
The aliens withdrew. The door slid silently closed behind them. There was a hum and a growing roar that was all too familiar; then jets of water, smelling of something he thought might be a cleanser, shot out of arrays of nozzles and soaked him from head to toe and from all directions.
He held his breath. The jets continued to flow for perhaps fifteen seconds, as far as he could judge. They shut off, the water drained away through the floor, and then he was blasted with air that was hot enough to sting if not to burn.
The airflow slowed, and the door opened once more. The two aliens entered. They dressed him in a tan-coloured one-piece garment and light slippers, and manacled his wrists with restraints made of some kind of plastic; then they took him outside, and led him along another corridor. They stopped at yet another door. It opened, and he was urged inside, into an unlighted room.
The door closed. It was not completely dark, he realised. A dim yellowish light seemed to be coming from overhead; and around him there were shapes moving in the dimness. It was a little like one of those walk-in aquarium displays.
The lights came on, cold, harsh, leaving no shadows in this bare chamber. It was shaped like a sphere with a diameter of perhaps five yards whose bottom quarter had been cut off by a flat floor. The shapes vanished; perhaps the wall had been translucent -
"Colonel Freeman. What the f**k are you doing here?"
He swung round at the sound of the voice that he knew so very well. Before him, lying on the floor by the wall, dressed in a coverall similar to the one Freeman was wearing, propped up on one elbow with his arms behind him, his face as pale as death under a slight green tint, was an extremely angry Commander Edward Straker.
* * *
Kotte was waiting for the guards in the evaluation room. He looked up from his workstation as they entered. "Report."
"It has had its initial processing. It is ready for you to proceed."
"And the primary subject?"
"Very well… You will wait for one quarter, and then bring both specimens here. And advise the Devas that we are about to resume analysis."
The guards indicated their understanding and readiness to comply, and departed.
* * *
Straker was close to collapse with exhaustion.
He had no idea how long he had been held captive. There was no routine that he could discern. He had been brought to this chamber and left here in this totally bare chamber, his hands shackled behind his back, only to be collected from time to time for what he had to think of as interrogation, though the methods his captors used were utterly unfamiliar. He had tried again and again to talk to his captors, but he was ignored completely.
The chamber had been left unlighted for the most part, but it was not completely dark; and as his eyes grew accustomed to the dimness, he could make out a few details through the translucent walls. From time to time he would gaze out into what had to be an ocean, wondering what was out there. The concentration needed helped to push back a resurgence of his claustrophobia… There was movement. Some of it had a living fluidity, some was obviously mechanical. There were specks of light, also moving, which he supposed were some kind of luminescence. There was also a dim yellowish light from above, which waxed and waned over a short cycle. He had no reference to judge the length of that cycle, not even his bodily rhythms, disrupted as they were. His best guess was a few days.
At least the place was kept clean, and so was he. Neither was he naked. They had dressed him in a light coverall, which he suspected incorporated life-function sensors. The floor was more resilient than hard, a little like the flooring in Moonbase. The gravity was also Moon-like, which helped a little when he tried to sleep - and also suggested a possible location for this place.
He was not aware of being fed, though they must have made arrangements of some kind, or he would be dead by now. There was no furniture in here, not even a 'comfort station', so they must have made similar arrangements in that department. Opportunities for exercise were limited, but he did his best. After each session, he had been brought back here. He had given himself a short period to pull himself together, and occasionally to weep; but then he had forced himself upright, and gone through a series of short walks around this chamber, running on the spot, isometrics, and stretches. Once or twice, knowing they had to be observing him, he had demanded that they free his hands so that he could do pushups; but he had been ignored. Still, at least he could do sit-ups.
He tried to keep his mind active. Sometimes he would try to recall the text of a work of literature, in as much detail as possible. He thought through physical theories and mathematical conjectures, trying to visualise equations on a mental blackboard. He recited poetry aloud, and plays. If the aliens were listening in, he'd do his best to educate them…
But he tried not to think about what might be happening back on Earth.
His exhaustion grew steadily, but was more emotional than physical. They had not physically assaulted him; but the psychological onslaught had been savage. He had been forced to relive a number of thoroughly unpleasant experiences, a little reminiscent of the effects of that 'mindbender' crystal. His attempts to talk to his captors were still being ignored, and the emotional attacks went on, relentlessly. That couldn't just be sadism, or revenge. They must have wanted information from him, and this was their means - unusual though it seemed - of trying to get it.
Twice the sessions had ended abruptly. He was sure he had passed out, only to regain awareness in this domed chamber once more, feeling too weak to move, utterly drained. But still, it was apparent that his captors had not achieved their purpose, for - after a somewhat longer interval - the sessions began again.
He wanted this to end; but he knew it would not end until they succeeded in their objective, or his mind cracked under the strain, or there was a miracle.
He wanted to die.
He prayed, for relief, and for strength not to give way.
And then it happened. He was silently reciting the Rosary, and had reached the third decade of the Sorrowful Mysteries, when the door to his cell opened, and someone else was brought in. Someone he knew. Someone he never expected to see here, or indeed anywhere.
The miracle. Alec Freeman.
But he thought: if Alec's here, he's made some kind of mistake, just like I did - and does that mean we've lost, they've broken through…
* * *
There were so many emotions fighting for expression in Freeman's head that he could not speak.
He thought: Ed, you never bloody swear.
He thought: thank all the gods there are, you're alive.
He thought: you look utterly dreadful.
He thought: you ungrateful b#stard, I came to rescue you.
And then he saw the look of dread and fear in his friend's eyes, and knew the fear was not for Straker himself, or even for Freeman; it was for those in Ed's charge. Those whom he could not help. Those for whom their very presence here, at his enemies' mercy, could spell the end.
"I asked you a question, Freeman!"
Freeman came to attention, as best he could under the circumstances, eyes straight ahead. "I had a… systems malfunction, sir."
"Haven't you sharpened up your procedures yet, dammit?"
"It was in progress when I was taken, sir. Commander, I apologise for my errors. I accept the reprimand. It was deserved."
"Are you humouring me, mister?"
"No, sir." Freeman turned and looked his friend in the eyes. He continued, gently: "No, Ed, I certainly am not."
Straker snorted softly; then his gaze dropped. "No, Alec, you aren't. I'm sorry. Really."
"Forget it," Freeman advised. He walked to where his friend lay propped up painfully on one elbow, and squatted down beside him. "Settle back… This is a bloody stupid question I know, but how are you?"
Indeed, Straker looked like death warmed over. Normally slim, he now seemed skeletal, the flesh on his face drawn tightly over cheekbones more prominent than ever. The effect was heightened by the haunted look in his eyes.
"It's a stupid question," he agreed. Gratefully, he let himself sag back against the curving wall. "Though I have to say, this isn't like any grilling in my direct or indirect experience. It seems to be a development of their 'mind-bending' technique, where they externalised my thoughts and feelings. They use what seems to be a kind of virtual-reality setup, and I think drugs are involved. They don't deliberately inflict pain, though that's frequently a by-product… Mostly they seem to be rummaging through my thoughts, which is not a comfortable experience - we all have things we'd rather not remember, after all."
Freeman thought, but did not say: Yes, SkyDiver and Johnny, for two… "Any idea what they're looking for, apart from the obvious?"
"No… apart, as you say, from the obvious. I think I don't witness all of the search consciously, though. But I have the feeling I've got them puzzled, somehow. And I've been trying to talk to them, to begin a discussion, but they don't respond. When I persist, they just turn me off."
Freeman took a little time to compose his response with great care not to tell the aliens anything they did not already know. "Did you know you've been absent for about six weeks as far as we can tell? And in all that time, there have only been two incursions? And we fought them both off?"
"Well, that's something, at any rate… No, I don't get to see that kind of detail."
"I suppose not… Do you have any idea where we are?"
"It won't give away any secrets to say that I know there are two possibilities - a way station within the Solar System, or a station at the other end of a wormhole or similar. Neither is it secret that all the rooms I've seen or been in are semi-spherical, or possibly complete spheres below the floor, and all the corridors are tubes or tori, which suggests they're built to withstand a pressure difference between internal and external environments. Like Moonbase. Some of the rooms seem to be made of translucent glass or plastic, and there's movement outside. The external lighting suggests there's a diurnal cycle lasting several days, I guess. And I'd say the gravity is about that of Earth's Moon… But I think that particular discussion ends here, for lack of data."
"Understood." And Freeman did understand; Straker knew he was on the edge of very insecure ground indeed… "I notice they shave you. I suppose they feed you?"
"Somehow, or I'd be dead by now. I've no idea how. I think they may do it by tube when I'm under sedation, or whatever they use. As for shaving, I didn't notice that either, but I suspect that green gloop has an inhibiting effect. They can't afford to have their beards grow for four months inside a helmet - "
He stopped, and turned his head. "We're about to have company… Alec, don't say anything, don't respond to anything I say or do, even if I beg you for help - "
The door opened once more, and four of the aliens entered. Two to each Earthman, they pulled the prisoners to their feet, Straker staggering a little, and marched them purposefully from the room.
* * *
The Devas and his subordinates waited in the small antechamber while the two terrans were brought in. Kotte seemed confident as ever; but Pavlor was sure he could detect a certain uneasiness in the manager's manner. Perhaps this was because of the presence of Pavlor's companion.
He could understand that, he thought, much as he despised the man. He felt quite uneasy himself.
He had believed - they all had - that by focussing on this 'shado commander', they would break the deadlock imposed by the 'shado' group. Earlier attempts to destroy the creature having failed, he had devised a long-term plan to remove it from the planet and bring it here for inspection and extraction of its stored information.
Only somehow, that had not worked.
Investigations into the creature's cerebral processing failed, and failed again, time after time, even though they used so much force that the creature's life processes nearly ceased on two occasions, and they were compelled to withdraw. Even Kotte had apparently become alarmed at the thought they might lose the subject. When Pavlor analysed the creature's responses in some detail, he was surprised and alarmed to find that they could almost be analogues of emotion.
But that was impossible, as Kotte's studies seemed to confirm. These creatures were mere animals, degenerate forms of the species, exiled to an isolated world far out of the way of the main avenues of commerce. They were not capable of the higher emotions.
More and more, Pavlor was becoming suspicious of Kotte. On the face of it, the man was co-operative if not overly helpful. It was true that some of his decisions about the terrans had been ill-advised, and one of those was quite reckless. At first Pavlor thought the manager had at the very least allowed his feelings to control his actions, in the matter of that nerve-gas he had designed and tried to release into the terran atmosphere, to hold the terrans hostage against the promise of an antidote. When the Devas had investigated in more detail, he had found several major discrepancies in Kotte's records. The manager had attributed this to incompetence by his staff; but, somehow, Pavlor was not convinced.
But he was now convinced that the manager was dragging his feet, in the matter of the investigation of the 'shado commander'. He wondered, suddenly, if Kotte had found something, and was keeping it to himself…
Well, there was a way in which Pavlor could gain further information, and that was to employ the services of an Empath, an emotion-sensitive. To do this, he would have to approach the Guild, and satisfy them that he had a genuine need. The Guild was very protective of its charges, and with good reason: they could be easily damaged, even destroyed, by over-exposure.
No-one from the Guild had visited Dyaus for a long time, perhaps great-dozens of Isvar-cycles. That was perhaps not surprising. It was common knowledge that the terran colonists had regressed seriously, and all evidence suggested that they no longer had true emotion of a type that would interest an Empath, or indeed justify the risks of exposure to the basal instincts to which, seemingly, the terrans had been reduced.
Except that Pavlor's own observations had cast serious doubt on that.
While he was considering whether he might possibly have grounds to consult the Guild, he was pre-empted.
This morning, he had been sitting in his chamber, reading the preliminary evaluations of the new specimen that had so obligingly presented itself to them. He looked up as the door chime sounded, thinking: if that's Kotte, I'll kick him all the way from here to Callisto…
He marched to the door and pushed it open. But it was not Kotte; it was not even Pavlor's kinsman Tyl Merrel. It was a young Empath, whom he had met briefly once at Proxima, some cycles before. Her name was Elanor. She was tiny, only coming up to about his shoulders. Her pale hair shone oddly against her greenish skin. She seemed ethereal, not quite real.
Pavlor was astonished. The journey from Proxima took some four or five terran months. What had attracted her attention so, causing her to make this hazardous journey?
He stood back and invited her to enter, and to take a seat. She declined the latter.
"Elanor," he said gently, "I mean no disrespect, the Deity knows… I ask this only out of concern for your well-being. Does the Master know you have come to see me?"
"I informed him of this. He did not object."
No, Pavlor thought, he wouldn't… Aloud he said: "Then how may I serve you?"
"I wish to consult the Kei."
"Yes." Elanor looked around the room, and her gaze settled on the inlaid box on its pedestal. "Perhaps half a terran year ago, I felt the Kei rouse. Did something happen here?"
Pavlor's thoughts flew back to that moment when he had taken a most terrible risk. Consumed by a need to reassure himself of the Keimon's continued existence, even if dormant, he had done that which was strictly forbidden, and touched the Kei.
He had survived. Just.
Through dry lips, he said: "Yes. I… I touched the Kei. It reacted."
The Empath merely nodded. "I see," she said, softly. She transferred her gaze to Pavlor. "I must tell you that I have been having… dreams. Strange dreams. You may say, this is not unusual for an Empath, and indeed this is true. But the content of the dreams is… most unusual. The dreams started during my journey here some weeks ago, and seemed to coincide with the delivery here of a new terran specimen. I invite you to comment."
"Can you… can you tell me anything of the… content of these dreams?"
"Pain. Not physical pain. Complex emotion, of a type and intensity that I have seldom encountered."
"And… can you determine the origin?"
"No. And that itself is unusual."
It was surprisingly easy to make the decision. In his function as Keeper, he was one of the few who could legitimately refuse a request from an Empath; but he did not intend to do so now. "You may consult the Kei. I cannot promise that it will respond; but you may try. I counsel you to take great care."
Elanor walked to the pedestal, looked down at the box. The iridescent inlay seemed to shimmer under the lights. She put out a delicate hand, and raised the lid. She gasped.
Inside the box, the slim shaft of crystal was no longer dark and quiescent. It glimmered with unworldly light.
Elanor looked up, and her eyes met Pavlor's. She said: "Where is the specimen?"
"It is being taken to the evaluation room. The new specimen will be brought there also. Elanor… what does this mean? Surely not - "
"That the Keimon has returned? I do not yet know. That remains to be seen. But at the least, it does mean that there is perhaps a Companion present."
"Then we had better hurry." Pavlor closed the box, and reverently placed it in an inner pocket of his tunic.
* * *
Now in the antechamber, they watched as the session was initiated. In the evaluation chamber, the entity self-designated 'commander' was placed inside the cage. The second, newly-acquired entity, which Pavlor labelled as 'servant', was placed, with two guards, in a position where it could observe both its fellow terran, and the large screen on which the subject's thoughts could be displayed.
From her stool, Elanor watched through the uniview curtain. Kotte had not been pleased to see her, but she ignored him. She observed the creature in the cage closely, frowning. It was already showing physiological signs that, in any of her people, would be indicative of strong emotion, even distress. And yet, she knew - or more accurately, she had been told - that they were meaningless.
As a pure intellectual exercise, she tried analysing those signs.
If it had been one of her people, she would have said that they were terrified, but holding it under firm control. And not terrified for themselves, but for others.
She transferred her gaze to the 'servant' entity, and noted, with a small shock, that it was showing similar signs. And its own fear was likewise for others, most of all for the being about to undergo investigation.
Pavlor joined her behind the curtain, and explained: "The objective here is to extract the deep memories of this entity, those concerned with what it calls 'security', so that we may gain detailed knowledge of this 'shado group'. This knowledge is essential for us to to bypass that security and so destroy this group, or at the least to render it impotent. At present, this group is a serious and so far intractable obstacle to us."
"How do you approach this task?" Elanor asked, softly.
"In the usual way. These creatures do have the basic emotional states, particularly fear of personal extinction. We evoke its memories of situations in which those states are most active, to stimulate them to the point where they overwhelm the creature's defences, and give us passage into the basic levels of its psyche, such as it is."
"And you have not yet succeeded? After many cycles?"
"No. That is why I am glad you are here… There is, I am convinced, something fundamental that we are missing here. Certain aspects of the creature's responses are both unexpected and puzzling. Accordingly, I have ordered that those aspects be investigated in more detail. But I will say no more on that at present; I do not wish to influence your own reading of the situation."
"I understand." Elanor fell silent.
The 'commander' spoke, and Elanor was thankful that she had thought to study a few of the terran 'languages' during the journey from Proxima. She noded as the text on the viewscreen supplied a translation. It had said: 'You know, it would be easier just to ask me. We would like to talk to you. Tell me what you want. Tell me what you need. We might be able to help.'.
Abruptly, it stopped speaking. The process had started. Pavlor moved beside her, looked down in reassurance, and she gave him a tiny smile.
The entity in the cage remained standing, but did not move, as the screen began to show shapes and colours. The images took on recognisable form. They showed a small chamber, which contained the creature in the cage, the 'commander', and a second terran, who was described by the text under the image as one of those whom Kotte had managed to control in one of their attempts to assassinate the commander. This terran was being attacked; it appeared at first that the commander was trying, in its turn, to kill its assassin - but, she realised, that was not so. It was taking great care to fire to miss. Finally, the 'assassin' acquired a weapon itself; but did not use it, even when a clear opportunity became available, with the commander making no attempt to defend itself.
The scene depicted shifted, to a room within a large building, apparently underground. The accompanying text denoted this as their 'headquarters', which Kotte had managed to simulate in one of his attempts to bypass their defences. There were many terrans present, but the focus was on just two of them. One was the 'commander'. The other was also male, and the older by many cycles. The body language between the two indicated that an intense disagreement was taking place, one which might at any moment erupt into violence; but somehow, it never did.
A third scene. This time, they were in an underwater vessel, which appeared to be malfunctioning; no craft of her experience was ever really expected to operate at such a tilted angle. If she perceived the indicators on the walls correctly, it was running short of breathable air. This was borne out by the way the 'commander' appeared to be trying to evacuate several persons from the vessel, a process which seemed to be happening far too slowly. It had scheduled the departures so that it would be the last to leave; but it was clear that it would probably die before it was its own turn… and yet, it did not attack anyone present and take their place. Moreover, when one of the trapped terrans seemed - oddly - about to give up its own opportunity to escape, the 'commander' ordered it to leave, even though the terran concerned was the ex-assassin.
Another change of scene. They were in another building. Other terrans were present, of both genders. One, a female, was represented as being under extreme physiological stress. She seemed about to attack.
No, she thought, suddenly. The female is weeping with grief and anger.
It was impossible, but it was true. It had to be true. The creature in the cage - the 'commander' - had fallen to its knees, its facial expression distorted. Its lips formed a word, which appeared to be a name. Clearly it was experiencing pain.
Enough. It was time.
Carefully, Elanor peeled away the screens protecting her Empathic sense, and opened herself to the emanations from the creature in the cage. She gasped, and staggered. Pavlor's hand came round her shoulders, steadying her, but he knew better than to interrupt.
She applied the disciplines of her training to sort through the avalanche. First it was necessary to screen out the interference from Pavlor and the others. That left her still with not one, but two, strong sources. She inspected these, and was horrified.
There was no doubt at all. Her surface readings had been correct; had been only too accurate. The creature in the cage - the 'commander' - was indeed capable of true emotion. And such emotion… She could detect fear, for itself and others, including the 'servant'; anger; helplessness; frustration; loneliness, that had been present and building for far longer than its period of captivity…
But it was capable of disciplining its mentality so as not to be overwhelmed. This was the barrier Pavlor had sought to penetrate; and it was clear that he would not succeed. This being would allow itself to die rather than be defeated; and the reason seemed to be linked to memories of its own offspring.
Indeed, its death seemed likely to take place before long. Its - his - life processes were low, dropping, faltering. Clearly he did not have much time, unless they intervened.
Quickly, she inspected the emanations from that servant, which was being restrained by its guards. They were similar in many ways, but the emphasis was altered. The servant was desperately worried for its friend, and angry with those who were attacking that friend.
She realised she had mentally used the word 'friend'.
"Azan," she said quietly, "stop this. At once."
To his credit, the Keeper did not argue. He stepped through the curtain and signed to the operators. The screen cleared. The low, almost subliminal, hum of the equipment declined to silence. And in the cage, the commander collapsed silently to the floor.
"Medics," ordered Pavlor, hoarsely.
Kotte gave a growl of impatient disapproval, and stalked from the room. Good, thought Elanor, that removed a disruption…. She watched the servant as the medic entered the cage to attend to the commander. Its - his - feelings had altered, showing surprise, and the beginnings of hope.
Pavlor came back to her side. "Then… it is true?" he whispered. "They… they do experience true emotion?"
"So it seems… Keeper, may I please consult the Kei, once again?"
Without a word, Pavlor opened the box for her. They both stared at its contents. The crystal blade was glittering with an intensity which Elanor could only think of as 'joyful'.
"A Companion at least," she whispered. "And who knows…"
"Yes… Elanor, will you wait here for me? I must attend to… to the commander and his… friend."
* * *
This time, Mary awoke with a scream.
She sat up with a jerk, and flung a hand out to switch on the bedside lamp. She was gasping for breath. Recognising a full-blown panic attack, she forced herself to breathe more slowly and evenly, holding her breath for a moment when her lungs were full, letting it out again as slowly as she could manage, lengthening each breathing phase, while her heartbeat slowed from its racing pace.
She checked the time. It was just after 5am. Knowing she would not now get back to sleep, she climbed shakily out of bed, and made her way to the kitchen. She decided against rousing Penny.
Over a hot restoring cup of tea, she thought back, wondering what had happened. She recalled the feelings, the overpowering sense of grief, of loneliness. But once again, she could recall no reason for those feelings. She tried prodding herself mentally, testing various possibilities, but none was quite right.
Of course, she didn't want to think about Johnny at all…
This was silly, she told herself, sharply. She had been having these nightmares more and more frequently, and they were getting worse. She wondered whether she should see a doctor; but decided that she would really rather see Alec, talk to him. He would understand her problem, and not write her off as a silly, hysterical woman.
But it was too early to be getting the man out of his bed, even if film studios were notorious for keeping long hours. She considered. At least, she thought, she could leave a message for him.
She retrieved her handbag from the living room, and delved into it for her address book. Penny's voice behind her startled her. "Mary? What on earth is the matter? I heard you cry out - "
"I had another nightmare. Much worse than before."
Penny came and sat beside her. "Look, love, I really think that - "
"I know. And you're quite right. I've decided to talk to Alec about it, to begin with. If he tells me to see the doctor, I will… May I use your phone?"
"Go right ahead… Would you like some more tea?"
Penny disappeared into the kitchen. Mary consulted her address list, lifted the handset, and dialled.
Freeman's voice answered, but it was clearly a recording. "This is Freeman. I'm sorry I'm not able to take your call at present. If it concerns any business matter, please call Norma Ealand at Harlington-Straker Studios. Otherwise, please leave a message, and I will get back to you as soon as I can."
She cleared her throat. At the beep, she spoke. "Alec, this is Mary… Look, I'm sorry to disturb you, but - but can we have a chat, sometime? I'm still in Paris, with Penny." She gave her cousin's number, and hung up.
As she did so, it rang. She snatched it up. "H - hello? Alec?"
"I'm afraid not," a voice said. "My name is Paul Foster, I'm a friend of Alec Freeman. He's out of the country at present, but he asked me to listen out for calls. You said your name was Mary?"
"Y-yes. Ed and I - Ed Straker - used to be married. D'you know him as well?"
"I do," Foster confirmed. "I also work at the studios. May I express my sincere condolences?"
"Th - thank you… Mr Foster, when will Alec be back, do you know?"
"I'm afraid I don't, no. Look, Mrs - I'm sorry, how do you prefer to be called?"
"Use 'Mrs Rutland' for now, could you?"
"Certainly… Mrs Rutland, do I get the impression that your call is urgent?"
"Yes… but it's a personal matter, not an official one."
"Mmm." Mary could hear papers rustling. "Mrs Rutland, I note that one of our directors, Jack Webb, has been in touch with you recently, on matters both legal and personal. Might he be able to help?"
"Yes - yes, possibly. Thank you."
"Shall I get him to call you?"
"Please do… but don't haul the poor man out of bed on my account."
"No problem, I know he'd be glad to help… now, I have your number from the message, will you be there for - oh, let's say until lunchtime?"
"Yes, of course."
"Fine. Well, may I wish you a very good morning."
Mary thanked him, and hung up. Penny came over, with a tray holding mugs and a teapot. As she set this down on the small table, Mary said: "He's suggested I talk to Jack Webb."
"Isn't he the one who's been helping you with the house?"
"Yes… but what you may not know is, he's a priest. A Jesuit. He must know Ed very well… but under the sort of security that would make even M.I. look talkative."
"The Seal, you mean?"
"Yes, that. But even so, he might be able to advise - "
The phone rang again. Mary snatched it up. "Hello?"
"Mrs Rutland? This is Jack Webb. Paul Foster suggested I get in touch."
"Hello, Jack," Mary said, surprised. "Look, I'm so sorry, I did tell Mr Foster not to drag you out of bed - "
"He didn't, don't worry. Now, I gather you wanted to talk to Alec Freeman, urgently. He's not available I'm afraid, and I don't know when he will be, but can I help at all?"
Mary hesitated, then decided. "Depends how you are on nightmares."
"Well, I know how disturbing they can be… Do I take it these are about something known to both you and Alec?"
"About Ed," Mary said, quietly.
"And these nightmares started, how long ago?"
"The day Alec told me about - about Ed's air crash."
"What prompted your call today? Was there something significant about one of these?"
"Well… they've been getting worse. And last night's was the worst I've had, and it was different. Mostly I just get these feelings, but with this one, I got a few images."
"Could you give me an example?"
"Well… One seemed to be in a submarine. And that's just silly, Ed's claustrophobic, wild horses wouldn't drag him onto a sub… And one was him having a row with Henderson, but it seemed to be underground, and there was this awful feeling of disaster approaching. But again, that might have been just because it was underground."
"The claustrophobia again? I see… And from what angle do you see these things? Do you see Ed at all?"
"No. It's silly, but I feel as though I'm looking through his eyes. Jack, am I going nuts?"
"We must be cautious, and allow for that possibility," answered Webb, "but somehow I don't think so. These images are far too specific. They may also be symbolic, rather than literal. They suggest being trapped, unable to escape, though whether that's you or him I cannot say."
"Jack," Mary burst out, "they never found his body, did they?"
"No, indeed… Mrs Rutland - Mary - Please try not to get your hopes up… We both know that ESP exists. Whether it is operating here I don't know. But you have told me enough for me to suggest to Mr Foster that he widens the search area. Ed was an astronaut, wasn't he?"
"Then he will have received extensive survival training. But, I must repeat, be cautious… Now I will give you my phone number. I want you to promise you will use it if you you are worried or frightened by anything at all. As for the nightmares, I suggest you keep a notebook by your bed, and when you wake up out of one, try to write down as much as you can remember of it."
"Thank you, I will… Jack, thank you so much for calling, it really has helped."
"Good… May I call you again in a few days? Will you be reachable on this number?"
They said their goodbyes, and Mary hung up. She shook her head, slowly. "He took me seriously."
"So I gather - "
Mary suddenly slammed her fists down on the table,and shot to her feet. "Just what the HELL is going on round here?" she spat.
"Mary - ?"
"What is it that Ed knows but can't tell me? That Alec knows but won't tell me? I say 'knows', he's up to his neck in it! What makes this Foster person babysit Alec's phone and alert Jack to call me straight back? Were they expecting me to call?"
"Whoa, slow down a bit," her cousin said. When Mary glared at her, Penny went on: "Look, I agree, it's weird - "
"You're bloody right it's weird!" Mary stood there, panting a little. She took hold of herself. "Penny, I'm sorry, it is weird, you're right. Something's going on, and it has been for years. Since our honeymoon, that James Henderson ruined. And suddenly Ed's working all hours, I hardly see him at all, and he comes home late and exhausted. And he's seen with that Barry woman. And a few others. He doesn't even try to contest the divorce, as though I just don't matter to him any more! And then - then he throws away all his military career, and starts making rubbish movies! And the next thing I know is, he dies in a 'copter accident - except that he apparently doesn't!"
She took a deep breath to try to calm herself. It didn't work.
"Penny, I kept asking myself - how could I have got it so wrong about someone? I thought he loved me! I really did! I thought, how could he have changed so much? And now Alec turns the whole thing on its head! I just don't know what to think now!"
"And you think Alec's involved in - whatever it is?"
"I'm bloody certain he is. He and Ed have been thick as thieves, ever since they met in Cyprus. He said he was the one who delayed the courier, because of an urgent job for Henderson. And that's another thing. Alec said they had to pick up a security VIP. I asked him what the hell that had to do with a film studio, and he didn't really answer. But there was one thing I did notice, about both of them - when I said about Ed being with other women, they were relieved! As though they were scared I'd uncovered something much worse! If that was even possible!"
"You think they'd done something?" Penny asked. "Something Henderson can't afford to go public with, but isn't enough to warrant - well - "
Mary was silent. "Silencing them altogether?" she whispered, at last.
"…Something like that." And silencing you, Penny suddenly thought, but she did not speak her suspicion aloud. She was suddenly wondering if Ed Straker had been ordered to leave his wife, for 'security reasons'…
After a few moments, Mary shook her head, with certainty. "I don't really think so. Look what happened in Cyprus, when they first met. Alec would have been shot if Ed hadn't got him cleared. They wouldn't let those two run around, free and unsupervised, with security charges hanging over their heads!"
"Then that means that Henderson is in it as well. Whatever 'it' is. How about asking him about it?" Penny suggested.
"Are you serious?"
"No, not really," Penny admitted. She handed her cousin a mug. "I wonder… If you're hiding something, why pretend to be a film studio - Oh. I see."
"You're thinking you could hide anything there? Do anything strange? And people would just say to themselves, look what those crazy movie makers are doing now?"
"Like bringing in someone and telling everyone he's an actor, playing the part of a spy, only he's not playing at all."
"That's it." Mary sank down on the couch, and took her mug in both hands. "That still leaves a question to be answered. I said it at the time - well, shouted it, actually… What on god's earth could possibly be more important to a man than his own son's life??"
* * *
Webb looked up at Paul. "Well?"
"She picked up on SkyDiver. And the 'Washington Square' incident."
"What aren't you telling me, Paul? About Alec? And Ed himself, come to that?"
Foster looked at him. "How good an actor are you, Jack?" he said, with a slight smile.
"I… see. Plausible deniability, is it? Very well, I won't press you to say anything… But don't hesitate to call me in if things get rough."
"I'll do that. For one thing, we may have to do something about Henderson."
Webb raised a thoughtful eyebrow, but did not comment aloud.
The guards pushed the two Earth-humans back into the 'holding cell', and the door slid closed. Straker stumbled, and went down on one knee, swaying. Freeman leapt forward, felt the weight on his wrists ease, and there was a clatter as the restraints dropped off. Impatiently, he kicked them aside; he'd wonder about that later… He grabbed his friend's shoulders, and eased him to the floor.
Straker sighed, his eyes closed, and his head lolled. Freeman settled his friend's head on his knees, and groped for the pulse in the side of the neck. It beat, faintly, under his fingers.
Damn, Freeman thought. Damn damn damn. He's not dead.
For a moment, he wondered whether he should do something about that. All it needed was a few minute's pressure on the carotid arteries, and Ed's problems would be over… But that was premature, he told himself, while his sense of duty and his compassion warred with pure self-loathing.
Straker's lips parted, and he breathed: "Freeman… don't you bloody dare…"
Freeman bit his lip hard enough to draw blood. "I won't, Ed. I promise."
* * *
Pavlor ushered Elanor into a side chamber and bade her take a seat. Looking at her, he thought: the Master of her Guild will have me harvested for this… but it was necessary.
She glanced at him, and smiled, weakly. "Do not fear, my Prince. We have gained important information."
"Would you tell me what you witnessed, please?"
"The subject - let us not call him that, he has a name - Straker experienced fear, but not primarily for himself. For his fellow terrans, and for his 'servant'. He felt anger, but this was linked with frustration, at his failure to communicate with us - or with our failure to respond. He was desperately lonely. He yearned for his wife, and for his son who has died. He seemed to draw strength from thinking about them. And - underlying all else - there was curiosity."
"How can that be?" Pavlor said, astounded.
"I know not - but it was unmistakable. He yearned to know more about his situation, but from a purely intellectual motivation."
"You are saying," Pavlor said, slowly, "that this - subject - is a man. Not an animal."
"That cannot be doubted."
Is this what Kotte found? Pavlor asked himself, silently. And why did he say nothing? "…What of his servant?"
"The servant - his name is Freeman - also experienced fear; but again, not primarily for himself, but for Straker. He acts like a father who is greatly concerned for a son. But the age difference is not that of a father-son pairing. He felt anger, but that was directed at us, and was strongly rooted in protectiveness. He has contemplated the possibility of killing Straker, but his motives were primarily compassion towards Straker, and protectiveness towards their people, to prevent us from gaining advantage. It cannot be doubted that Freeman is also a man."
"I instructed that the restraints should be removed from the servant - Freeman - but not from Straker. What effect has this had?"
"It has awakened hope in him. And puzzlement."
"And…" Pavlor took a breath. "What of the Kei…"
"It appears to show that these men are Companions… and that the Keimon may be manifest. I cannot know definitely, yet. They need to rest, and recover from the ordeal we have unjustly inflicted on them. Then I may be able to discern more."
Pavlor thought for a few moments. He was still far from convinced about the true nature of these terrans; but he was honest enough to admit to himself that he did not want to be guilty of such a terrible crime as the Empath was suggesting.
He urgently needed more information.
He wondered about the harvesting excursions, whether he should order those stopped, at least temporarily. He spoke to a guard outside the chamber, instructing him to summon the terran-resources manager.
"And if Kotte objects," he added, "place him under restraint and drag him to me."
* * *
How long Freeman knelt there, his arm round his friend's thin shoulders, he did not know. Remembering the interrogation, his thoughts had gone back to the SkyDiver 'sub-smash' incident…
They had resorted to using explosives to free Diver from the obstruction holding her down, and clear a way into the sub through the missile tubes. He had been the first one to enter, dreading what he might see. In all probability, his friend had died - but what if Ed were still alive, but insane from claustrophobia?
He had wriggled through the tube, trying to prevent haste from defeating speed. That confined space was not a comfortable one even for him. For the first time, he thought he understood one reason, at least, why Ed did not drink except on special occasions. "Self-control," he had said, offering it as a reason; but had declined to explain further. As well he might, Freeman had abruptly realised. Ed was claustrophobic - and his place of work was underground. How much self-control did it take for him to come down into those enclosed spaces, to function there, to work there, with the demons of fear at his shoulders, seeking a way into his mind, waiting for him to break? To put it mildly, alcohol would not help keep those demons at bay.
When Freeman arrived in the control room, Ed was sprawled on the floor, unconscious, but alive - and to his overwhelming relief, Nina was there also.
"Nina's here," he had reported. "I need some backup, and another rescue set."
"On my way."
He had checked Ed first. His pulse was fast, thready, his breathing rapid, shallow. Nina's was faltering; she was the one in more urgent need. Freeman held the mask to her face, looped the straps around her head to hold it in place, pressed her chest a few times to get the air flowing into her.
It would, he knew, take several minutes for the diver to wriggle through the missile tube, cycle the water out of it, and make his way to the control room. In the meantime, Freeman would have to try 'buddy breathing'. He took several long, deep breaths to fill his system with oxygen, then transferred the mask to his friend's face. Again he pressed the man's chest, made him take a few deeper breaths. When his own lungs were bursting, he snatched the mask back, took another long deep breath, then replaced it.
This process went on for what seemed an age. From time to time he checked on Nina, whose breathing was definitely easing. He was thinking: for the love of god, hurry up -
And then Lieutenant Ross had reached them. He gave Freeman a second rescue set. Straker's eyes opened as Freeman was strapping on the mask. Recognition dawned in them slowly; then he moved his head, just a little, and whispered "Nina?"
Thank god, Freeman thought, he's still sane… Freeman assured him that she was doing OK, she was breathing well, though still unconscious. He explained that they were attaching air-hoses to the external blow ports, to force water out of the buoyancy chambers and help Diver to rise to the surface.
"And if that doesn't work," he added, with a grin, "we'll tow you out through the missile tube feet first."
Straker had managed to glare at him; but there had been a distinct twinkle in his eyes.
There would be no rescue from this underwater chamber, Freeman knew. If it was indeed underwater, which seemed likely if they were on Europa as they suspected. They had only their own resources, such as they were, to extricate themselves from their predicament.
There was the very faintest glimmer of hope. Something about that last session had altered the aliens' attitude -
Behind him, the door to the cell opened once more. Footsteps came towards them. Freeman looked up, his eyes wild. "For god's sake leave him alone! Can't you see he needs rest? Haven't you done enough - "
Freeman blinked, unsure what he was seeing. There were three aliens in the room. Two of them were moving a low trolley-bed into place beside the Earthmen. The third was the one in the black tunic with gold insignia, colours that, on Earth, would have suggested royalty. Freeman had recognised him as the one who had supervised the 'interrogation' - and had then called it off.
"Have no fear. We are pausing the process. I wish to gather other information of a different type… Please help us place this - man - on the bed."
Jerkily, Freeman nodded. He raised Straker's limp form by the shoulders. There was a quiet click, and the restraints dropped from his friend's wrists. Assisted by one of the aliens, he settled his friend on the pallet. The supervisor handed him a small pillow and a light sheet. With infinite gentleness he placed the pillow under Straker's head, and spread the sheet over his body. The commander sighed a little, and seemed to snuggle into the comfort of the bedding.
"I just wish they'd thought to provide a teddybear," Freeman muttered to himself. He looked up. The supervisor's gaze was fixed on him, unblinking. Could that possibly be compassion he saw in those un-earthly depths?
"Rest," said the alien, indicating a second pallet. He rose and walked from the chamber.
"Well, Ed old chap," Freeman murmured, "it would seem you may indeed have got their attention…"
* * *
Pavlor summoned his kinsman, Tyl Merrel, to escort Elanor back to her quarters for rest and meditation, which would help her to reformat her mind after the encounter with the two terrans. He also directed Tyl to set an unobtrusive, trusted guard on her.
And then he went to his own chamber, and awaited Kotte's arrival.
The manager arrived with his own escort, Pavlor's deputy Nepetane, but he had not been restrained. He shook off Nepetane's guiding hand at the door to Pavlor's chamber, glared at her as he left, and stalked in.
"You asked to see me, my lord Devas?"
Pavlor chose to ignore the man's thinly-disguised insolence. "Report on the status of skimmer excursions to the terran planet."
"As per your instructions," Kotte said, "we have reduced them to the minimum that will occupy the terrans' attention. We are proceeding with bringing the skimmer fleet to full invasion capability. At present we are at 72%."
Pavlor came to a decision. "Halt the excursions."
"The excursions are to be halted, temporarily. I have information regarding the terrans which I need to check, as a matter of some urgency… Hold the excursion group on standby, and continue with preparation of the fleet. When I want them, I'll let you know." And I'm not going to ask you what you may know - yet, he added silently to himself.
Kotte swallowed his anger. "I will issue the necessary instructions at once, my lord."
He marched out. Pavlor watched him go, his eyes shadowed and thoughtful.
* * *
The nightmare was receding at last. Straker stirred, opened his eyes, blinking against the subdued lighting, wondering why it was not dark in here. He became aware that his hands were free of restraint, and that, unbelievably, he really was lying on a bed of some kind. A few feet away, Alec Freeman was also sleeping, on a second bed.
Well, this was something new.
He felt drained, exhausted. And hungry, for perhaps the first time since he had been brought here. He sat up, and the movement aroused Freeman.
"Ed? You're awake? How - how d'you feel?"
"Hungry," Straker croaked. He cleared his throat, tried again. "What about you? Did they have a go - ?"
"No, no." Freeman sat up as well, and inspected his friend closely. "Ed, I had the impression they cut that session short?"
"I think so too," Straker answered. "I've had worse. Twice… As I recall - they tried four scenarios - "
"I saw. They put them up on a monitor," Freeman explained. "There was the one where you were using Paul as not a target, to sort him out. Then I think there was that argument you had with Henderson about space junk decoys."
"And then - then there was Skydiver - "
He was interrupted by a soft sound from the wall. They looked around. A circular panel had opened, and a shelf had extruded itself from the opening. On the shelf there appeared to be a number of bowls.
"Well, what d'you know… Room service?" Freeman commented, a slight, bemused smile on his lips.
"So it seems… I'd say this confirms that they can hear us, and understand."
"Indeed… Well let's see what they've given us, shall we?"
Freeman climbed to his feet, and walked across to the shelf. Its contents included two trays with dished recesses, a number of bowls containing various 'biscuits' and pastes, items of cutlery, and two tall beakers of a cool, cloudy liquid.
"Well, it's not exactly a full English, but let's give it a go… No, no. Stay there, I'll bring some over."
"Breakfast in bed, yet." Straker gave a weak smile.
Freeman felt around under the pallet on which his friend lay, found a control, and used it to set the bed into a 'lounger' mode. Gratefully Straker settled back, and Freeman placed a tray on his knees. "Here you go… I've no idea what it all is, but it certainly smells OK."
"They're unlikely to go to the trouble of poisoning us," Straker agreed. He looked at the contents of the tray, and tried a 'biscuit'. For a wonder, it had some flavour, though an unfamiliar one. "They're certainly listening, and watching… but for the moment, let's just try to forget that, and as far as possible, act naturally."
"I wonder what they're making of it," Freeman said.
"So do I… For example, they must know something about our command structure, they've had a go at me often enough, in preference to other targets… so what on earth do they make of you tucking me in like a concerned father?"
"A father who's concerned that his wayward offspring has spent too many nights on the tiles, you mean?" Freeman's grin was tinged with mischief. "And you a good Catholic boy, too."
"You never met Father Quinn," Straker said. "Now there was a chaplain who was a real party animal. And he enjoyed his whiskey… but he was like you."
"Yes… He'd pour a healthy shot of Irish into his glass… and then just sip at it. He made one glass last all evening, and nobody ever noticed. Alec, you're blushing."
"Am I…?" Hastily, Freeman changed the subject. He said, carefully: "You know you said they were looking for something?"
"I think so… But I can't find any common thread between those four scenes. Can you?"
"Perhaps. Three of them, at least. With Paul and Henderson, you were in a position and had cause to attack someone, but you didn't. In Skydiver, you could have easily just told them all to stand aside while you had first go at the escape hatch, or even laying out anyone who objected. With the last scene, you - you were unlikely to attack Mary - "
"Not then, no," Straker answered. He swallowed the biscuit, and tried a second, using it to scoop up some paste. He did not look at Freeman. "But - I did slap her, once, some years previously… Just before Johnny was born."
"Why on earth?" said Freeman, astonished.
"She suspected me of having an affair. With Nina. I don't have to tell you that was when we were recruiting for Moonbase… Her parents persuaded her to employ a private eye, and they took some pretty damning photos. And of course, I couldn't possibly explain… but I tried. Bad move, but I was desperate. I met her as she was coming downstairs with her suitcase. I took the case. I tried to get her to come down and listen, that I'd tell her everything, but she wouldn't. She accused me of infidelity, and I was so relieved it wasn't that the P.I. had found out about SHADO that I smiled. She must have thought I was mocking her. She became hysterical. I slapped her, hard enough to sting. She seemed to faint. She fell, down the rest of the stairs. The labour started. They took her to hospital, did the emergency C-section, and Johnny arrived. What a hell of a start in life for a kid… Now tell me I'm a bloody fool."
"You are," answered Freeman; but his voice was gentle. "Yes it was a hell of a thing to do to a woman - but you've punished yourself enough for it. It's time you forgave yourself. Mary has."
Straker looked up, startled. "What? How d'you know?"
"Omega, Phase 3. The mopping-up phase. I went to see Mary. You may know she's back at your place? Well, hers really, I gather?"
"That's right. I put the whole thing in her name. Least I could do."
"I told her what had happened, or rather, what we thought had - the public version, anyway. I started by asking her if you two were still in contact, and I got an earful. She sounded off about your caring more about your girlfriends and your job than you did about her, but she never said anything about you hitting her. She said that all she wanted to hear about was you dying… then she realised that was exactly what I had come to tell her. Even then, I thought her response was off-key, somehow." Freeman raised his eyes and looked at his friend gravely. "Sorry, but I have to mention this… She told me what had happened to Johnny."
"Go on." Straker's voice was barely audible. He stared unseeingly down into his beaker.
"I gave her a very heavily edited version of the incident - and explained that I was the one who had diverted the courier. Not you."
"But - "
"No 'buts'. It's true and you know it. Now tell me why you didn't explain."
Straker looked up. "Because," he said quietly, "he was my son."
"Exactly… And Mary accepted the fact that the blame was mine. She was puzzled, certainly, and yes she's got questions, of course she has - but she's left the door open to you. She came to the memorial at the studio."
The silence went on for several moments. Straker said: "Alec, I don't deserve her. Or you either."
"Take it as a gift," Freeman smiled. He took a long swig from his beaker, and regarded it thoughtfully. "Could indeed do with a shot of Scotch… So where does that leave us? With a set of scenarios in which you could have become violent, but didn't?"
"Guess so," Straker agreed. "What does that tell them that they consider important?"
"I have absolutely no idea."
"Nor I… so what say we ask them?"
"……I like it," said Freeman, with a grin.
"Well, there's no time like the present," Straker said. He set down his tray, swung his feet to the floor, and carefully stood up. "Finished?"
"You bet. How shall we do this?"
"Well, there's something I've always wanted to say." Straker turned to face the door, and said, in a clear voice: "Take me to your leader."
* * *
Kotte was furious, and nervous, which he knew was a dangerous combination. His careful plan could be neutralised at any moment, and he seemed powerless to stop it.
The Devas' mercy to these terrans would surely attract the nebulous attention of the manifesting Keimon, and cause him to view with favour not Kotte and his fellow Arkadians, but Spicor itself.
He should have had that Empath quietly assassinated when he had the chance. Now he would have to take out her, the Devas, and the programme techs, an escalation which would probably only make matters worse.
So instead, he would have to take the more difficult path. He would have to make it quite clear that this Companion - if that was what it was - was under his protection. To do this, he would have to allow one of his Third Sector - that small group of rebels who sought power over all of Spicor - to initiate this most destructive of attacks against the terrans. He would offer his help to the 'commander', and call back the squadrons, perhaps assassinating the Devas in the process.
To do that, he would have to let the planned invasion go ahead, and then step in and halt it. The first was a simple matter of steering in the right direction the Third whom he had manipulated into taking overall control of the invasion fleet. For the second, all he had to do was execute that man as a traitor… if possible, after the 'commander' had begged him to intervene.
Now he had to get that fool Pavlor off his back. So far, he had had to appear to co-operate. He had responded to the Devas' summons, had noted the man's instructions to suspend harvest operations, and had quietly ignored them. That would only give him a little time before Pavlor noticed what was happening and used his authority to close those operations down altogether.
It was time for diversionary tactics. Kotte directed his Third to order a mass attack against Planet Earth… while he turned his attentions closer to home.
* * *
As Straker finished speaking, the floor shook under them. A low rumble sounded, seeming to come from a distance.
"Now what d'you suppose that was?" muttered Freeman.
"A malfunction? Somehow, I don't think it's the Interceptors!"
"Now that would be a miracle."
They looked around, and Freeman's eyes widened. He pointed. "Water's coming in."
He was right. A puddle was forming on the floor by the door, and growing. "If this is an underwater habitat on Europa, that is seriously bad news," Straker said. "Let's see if there's any way we can get this door open… Hey! If you're listening out there, we have a problem, open up!"
There was no response.
Freeman was checking over the door and its surrounds, looking for controls. "Nothing. It'll be locked from outside of course, but it was worth a try in case there was an emergency release."
"What about the serving hatch?"
"Worth another try," Freeman said. They hurried over for a look. "It'll be a squeeze, but we can do it. How's that puddle doing?"
"It's a miniature lake. Ankle deep I'd say."
"Right. I'll go first." Before Straker could protest, Freeman had squeezed into the opening. "It looks good," he called back. "It slopes up a little. I can see light in the distance."
"I'm right behind you."
They must have crawled no more than a few metres before Freeman arrived at an exit of sorts. He eased out of it, and swung himself to the floor. Straker emerged a few moments later. "Let's see if we can close this hatch," he said. "Ah… how about this?"
There was a small panel beside the hatch. Straker touched it, and the hatch slid closed silently.
"Good… Wonder how watertight it is?" Freeman commented.
"If we're where I think we are, and if I were designing this setup, very… I'd guess each of these chambers is designed to be self-contained in case of leaks, like Moonbase. So if that other door was leaking, there's been some serious disruption."
"Did you notice the surface of that tube?"
"Sure. Ribbed, possibly flexible… reasonable if each of these bubbles is floating. Free, but tethered."
They looked around. The lighting was dim, and yellowish, and seemed to be coming mostly from above, though it was augmented by panels in the walls at intervals. It showed a huge space, again shaped like a sphere with the bottom quarter or so cut off by a floor. They seemed to be on a catwalk, a few feet wide, at about the equator. Ramps led alternately upwards and downwards into a set of levels at the centre of the sphere.
"Where now? Upwards?"
"I think so. Look out for anything that might be a control board. And remember that they might still be watching us."
"OK… Ed, where is everybody?"
"Feels deserted, doesn't it?" Straker agreed. "But who supplied the food?"
"One of those?"
Freeman pointed. Ahead of them, a wheeled device with handlers and carry spaces sat by the wall, unmoving. The pair walked over to examine it, and Straker squatted down for a closer look. He said to it: "Can you hear me?"
There was no response.
He tried giving it a gentle push, but it would not move. "Sociable type," Freeman commented.
"Yes… Let's move on, shall we?" Suiting action to word, Straker rose to his feet and set off, Freeman falling in behind him.
* * *
The door to their erstwhile cell was thrown open. Kotte entered swiftly, stepping over the prone body of the Third who had performed this sabotage, and who he had shot down in order to mount a 'rescue'. He and his trio of soldiers splashed through the growing pool of water from the Dyausan sea outside, but then halted. To his consternation, the cell was empty.
"They must have gone out through the supply tube," he muttered. He pointed to a soldier. "You. Check."
The soldier moved quickly to the hatch through which Straker and Freeman had indeed made their escape, checked it quickly. He shook his head. "They may have passed this way, sir, but the tube is now full of water. It was connected to Storage Nine, but has now detached."
"Breathers on," Kotte ordered swiftly. "Order the squad to head for Storage Nine. Breach the tube. Follow me out."
The two Earthmen walked on, to one of the upward ramps. Straker looked at the handrail, wiped a forefinger along it, and examined the fingertip. "Dust."
"Odd," Freeman said, with a frown. "You'd expect them to use precipitators."
"I think you were right. This particular zone hasn't been inhabited for a very long time. Wonder what they used it for? And why is there so much wasted space around this central area?"
They had reached one of the central levels. "Privacy," Freeman said, quietly. "Or imprisonment."
Straker looked around. This was unmistakably a dormitory area, with double-stacked bunks of a utilitarian design. "Yes… There may be food stores here, as well. OK, let's head for the centre. There may be a staircase or something."
He set off, and Freeman followed. There was indeed a staircase, its double strands winding round a central column for all the world like a ball-and-stick model of a DNA molecule.
As they ascended, the yellowish light grew brighter. The staircase ended near the top of the sphere, and they came up out of the stairwell into a wide space that seemed to be under a completely transparent dome. Outside the clear wall there was an unmistakable seascape. Long streamlined silvery forms moved through the liquid in which this sphere was suspended, forms with pointed snouts at one end and flaps at the other, horizontal like those of dolphins rather than the vertical tail of a fish. Near the sphere there was a rocky cliff-face, with long streamers attached to it, waving in the currents like mediaeval pennants. Here and there on the rock they could see things like six-armed starfish, crawling slowly over the surface. Occasional streams of bubbles came up from far below, clinging to the rock. The streams seemed to follow established courses, like inverted sub-aquatic waterfalls, and there were clusters of 'starfish' and things like flat centipedes along their edges, apparently feeding on nutrients brought up from the murky depths. There were tiny phosphorescent glows everywhere, making a starfield of the rock-face.
"Wow," Freeman whispered.
"Wow indeed… Seems a fish is a fish, wherever you are. Function dictates form… And that's seaweed or I'm Gay Ellis."
"No air-breathers, like whales, I suppose?"
"I doubt it, even if there are fissures in the surface. Europa doesn't have much of an atmosphere, by all accounts… I'm wondering how large their sea-life gets. On the one hand, I wouldn't care to guess how much oxygen there is available. But on the other hand, the low gravity might help. And of course, they may well have other little metabolic tricks up their aquatic sleeves."
Freeman had to hide a smile. That was pure Ed Straker - cut off from home, among implacable enemies, in a truly unearthly and alien place… and his scientific curiosity was still well to the fore.
"Daddy," he said with a grin, "why is the sky yellow?"
"Fool," snorted Straker, but he was also smiling. "That must be the surface ice layer. It's yellow because of the light from Jupiter. Europa - if that's what this is, and I'm pretty sure - is tidally locked, like the Moon is to Earth, so it always keeps the same face to the planet. It has a day-night cycle like the Moon, but it's about three and a half Earth days long, not four weeks. And if light from Jupiter is getting through, the ice shell must be a lot thinner than the astronomers had thought."
His voice faltered a little. Freeman glanced at him. It was difficult to tell under this light, but Straker's face seemed paler than ever, and he was sweating a little. Damn, Freeman thought, recalling the long climb up that helical stair.
"For goodness' sake sit down," he ordered, grabbing his friend's arm, and steering him to one of the bench seats around the perimeter of this gallery.
"I'm all right…"
"No you aren't." And, indeed, Straker's legs were threatening to give way. Freeman eased him down onto the seat. "Just sit quietly for a bit… Think about what we do next."
"Do you… do you know how to fly one of their craft?"
"Nor me… And I don't think we have much chance of stowing away… or of surviving the trip if we do… That limits our options a bit." He dragged the back of his hand over his forehead.
"It certainly does," Freeman agreed, grimly. "We either deny ourselves to them - ideally doing as much damage as we can in the process - or we try to talk to them."
"I'd favour the second option, for all sorts of reasons. It's slightly more likely to result in a permanent solution, for one thing… What about that supervisor, Alec? How - sincere - would you say he was?"
"I think that at the very least, he's taken pause for thought. He said he wanted to gather other information of a 'different type'… Of course, he may be doing that right now."
"Wouldn't surprise me," Straker muttered. He looked around. "We should gather some information ourselves… Can you see anything like a control panel? This place would make a good conning tower."
"Stay here, I'll see what I can find."
Freeman set off around the circle, walking slowly, looking at everything. After only a few minutes he called: "I think I've found something. Don't rush."
He was standing beside the central stairway, looking upwards. Straker joined him. There was another small platform about a man's height above their heads, with no immediately visible access.
"Hmm… see that hole in the centre? And look at this." Straker pointed to the top of the stair column. "Someone could stand on that… Let's see."
He stepped onto the small circle. There was a click, and it rose up on its shaft, carrying him through the hole in the overhead platform.
"Very interesting," Straker called. "I'll get off, perhaps it will come down again."
Sure enough, the shaft lowered itself obligingly. Freeman stepped on it, and was transported upwards. He looked around, and whistled. "This is a ship's bridge, or I'm Gay Ellis."
"You're not good-looking enough… Let's have a look round."
The platform held a ring-shaped panel around its perimeter, at about waist height to someone sitting on the bench that also circled the structure. It was divided into many square and rectangular areas, with what were obviously text labels, though in a script unfamiliar to Freeman. Several of the panels glowed softly, showing graphical symbols that were not too difficult to interpret. Behind the bench there were three thick columns, equally spaced around the circle, and each easily big enough to admit an adult human. Thinner columns reached from them down into the gallery floor.
"It's live," Straker observed. "And… notice how simple and intuitive everything is? This was designed for untrained personnel to use."
The bench had several squabs mounted on it. Straker chose one, and sat down. He pointed to a large rectangular area that was showing a view of the outside 'seascape'. On each side of the rectangle was a small glyph, a wedge-shape containing an arc, that suggested an eye. The glyphs were oriented to indicate direction.
"Pan controls," Straker murmured. He touched the left-hand glyph, and the view obligingly swung slowly left, to halt when he removed his finger. Touching the display itself, he said: "To zoom, you might do this…" Sure enough, the image enlarged. He lifted his hand, and touched the screen again, and was rewarded with a zoom out.
Freeman took a seat beside him. "D'you think this sphere is mobile? A globe isn't a very streamlined shape."
"Indeed it isn't, but there are ways and means. I wouldn't think this was a regular transport, but it may have been made to be manoeuvrable. If so… Let's see. I'd expect the movement controls to be below this main screen."
Sure enough, there was a group of squares marked with arrows, again oriented to the four compass points. These were positioned around a circle divided into two halves. "Speed control?" wondered Freeman.
"Quite likely," Straker agreed. "What we need now is something to disconnect this module from other spheres. I don't want to do too much damage if I don't have to."
"What have you got in mind?" Freeman enquired. "A sightseeing tour?"
"Exactly that… I wonder if this seat moves?" He felt around under the squab, found a lever, pressed it. "Ah yes."
"Mine does as well," Freeman discovered. He pushed himself sideways around the circle, the squab tracking along the rail smoothly. Straker tried the opposite direction.
"Oho," Freeman said after a few moments. "I think I've found some airlocks."
"Let's have a look." Straker slid back to join him.
Freeman was looking at a 3D display which showed a large sphere, with a set of six smaller circles set into its outer wall near a floor set about a quarter-diameter above the sphere's lowest point. Beside each small circle there was a group of three buttons. One of these was marked with an upward chevron, the one next to it with a downward, and one below them was a plain square. Two of the small circles were showing solid colour. A third was flashing.
"Personnel locks, rather than cargo, I think," Straker said, thoughtfully.
"Yes… I wonder if they indicate when they're occupied?"
The flashing slowed, and stopped, leaving the circle fully coloured. "Finished filling, perhaps," Straker commented. "I think we might expect company shortly."
"Mmm… Did you see anything that could have been that small cargo chute?"
"Not yet. I'll keep looking."
Straker pushed his squab back the way he had come. He wondered about monitors for power, and for environmental conditions such as air pressure and temperature. There were a number of possible candidates for these, but they were less easy to interpret.
He was looking for a graphical representation of the 'equatorial' catwalk onto which they had emerged, when he came across something that stopped him in his tracks. It was another 3D view, again apparently of the whole sphere. It had a glowing blue centre, from which a number of channels were traced, also glowing blue.
He called: "I think I've found the power source."
"Let's have a look."
Freeman hurried around to him, and peered at the image. "Yes… That's a nuclear reactor, or I'm Henderson."
"Please, no," muttered Straker. "Alec, d'you get the impression that the power level is down?"
Freeman studied the image. "I think I see what you mean. The blue colour is graded towards the middle. At full power it might be solid colour."
"Agreed… I wonder how old this thing is? How long it took to deteriorate this much?"
"Hundreds of years," Freeman suggested. "No, thousands."
"Right… OK, let's keep looking for those chutes."
Freeman started to walk back to his seat, then halted, by one of the three columns. He examined it carefully, looking for entry controls. There was a likely-looking panel at about shoulder height. He pressed it, and a segment of the cylinder's shell rotated out of sight.
Inside was an unmistakable toilet. Freeman grinned, and announced: "I think I've found the head."
Straker turned, and looked. His eyebrows arched. "They're expecting people to spend serious time up here. I'd guess this station was manned continuously."
"Then there might be other facilities." Freeman tried the next column, and found a stock of familiar-looking biscuits, and bottles of liquid. He took one of the biscuits, and bit off a piece. "Seems this place has been restocked recently, it's not stale."
"Alec - " Straker protested.
"Don't worry. It tastes the same."
"That's not always a reliable guide… But you're probably right," Straker admitted. "What's in the third column?"
"Let's see." Freeman opened it. "Hmm. Electronic spares, by the looks of it."
"Very interesting indeed… wish I could get some of that into an electronics lab," Straker said, wistfully. "Well, let's get back to it… I guess these may be what I was looking for."
Freeman went over to him. "What have you found?"
The panel Straker had found showed the equatorial catwalk in the same stylised form as the other controls. At intervals there were circles which seemed to be hatches, because one or two of them were clearly open. Beside each one was a trio of buttons. Two of them were triangular, pointing up and down, which suggested they might have been 'open' and 'close'. The third was circular, and most of these were unfilled rings; but two of them were solid colour.
"I'd guess one of those is the one we came through - and it's cut itself off," Straker said. "Let's see if I can detach the others."
He worked his way around the catwalk display, touching the controls so that all the hatches showed what he assumed was 'detached'.
"You mentioned tethers?" Freeman said.
"Yes, but not anchors, I think. Europa's water layer has been estimated at tens of miles deep, at least. Anchors would be useless… Those tubes may function as tethers. OK, I'd say that's it. Shall we go cruising?"
The two moved to the directional panel they had found. Straker seated himself in front of it, and Freeman slid a second squab next to him. He took a long, intent look at his friend. Straker's expression was totally absorbed, but his skin was tinged with grey, and was slightly clammy.
"OK," he said. "Brace yourself. Let's start by having a look round."
He touched the left pan control, and the view slowly shifted left. It was surprisingly clear in the yellow Jupiter-light, clear enough for them to see a small cluster of spheres come into view at the screen edge. His lips tightened. "Trouble," he muttered.
"Not good," Freeman agreed, grimly.
Several of the spheres were clearly damaged. Bodies appeared to be floating nearby. One or two of the spheres had transparent upper shells, and through them could be seen many people who had apparently crowded in, seeking safety - a safety which was all too clearly short-lived.
"OK, let's go get them… Alec, make sure all the airlocks are ready to take survivors on board, would you? Assume they have some kind of portable air supply available, they would need it for this kind of emergency."
With a fleeting grimace at the irony of the situation, Freeman complied. As he did so, he felt the floor surge slightly under their feet as Straker engaged the drive. He glanced across the circle, watched the view expanding as they moved closer.
"Are we setting up a bow wave?" he called.
"No, I don't think so. Whatever drives us seems to suck water from around the front and route it to the back - a sort of external jet. But I'll keep the approach as slow as possible just in case."
"Right… All airlocks flooded, I'd say. Say when to open the outer hatches."
"Slowing her," Straker reported. "OK… open hatches. They've seen us coming."
"Hatches open… They do indicate when they're occupied. A stick-man. One of those is flashing, I'm guessing that means it's up to capacity."
"Try emptying it," Straker said.
"Outer door closed… Emptying now… Empty. And someone's alert enough to open the inner door themselves."
"Great. I'd think you can let them deal with that one… There are more people coming across, I'll let you know when we've got everyone."
* * *
Kotte watched as the Devas emerged from an entry lock, shaking water from his uniform, and helping his crew out of the lock. They clustered around him as he gave swift orders. Good, Kotte thought. Let him go ahead. Let him take the terrans. Then I shall take them from him.
Others were emerging from the locks, some being helped by their fellows. Kotte recognised Nepetane; the deputy was taking charge, organising the refugees. Good. They would be too busy to worry about anything else. He brought his squad together with a gesture, and sent them to search the habitat for the terrans.
* * *
The transfer process seemed to complete in a remarkably short time. At last, when they had rescued all they could, Freeman got up from his seat and walked across to Straker, who was still seated at what they had to think of as the conning station. "So what do we do now?" he enquired.
"I guess we can expect visitors shortly." Straker rose to his feet. He looked gravely at Freeman. "I can only hope that supervisor's with them… Alec, we can't make a stand. We don't have weapons, and we're outnumbered in any case. And if by some remote chance we were to hold them off, or take control, what can we do? Can you see us forcing them to take us home? Our only hope is a parley."
"I'm afraid you're right," Freeman agreed, heavily. "Well, let's go down and say hello, shall we?"
"Guess so. It would give a good impression - " Straker broke off. "Here they come. And the supervisor is with them."
"Good," murmured Freeman, with a half-smile. He put on his best Butch Cassidy voice. "For a moment there, I thought we were in trouble."
Straker gave a soft snort of amusement at the quote, and stepped onto the central circle. He reached floor level, stepped off, and the circle rose. Above him, Freeman followed his example. He reached the floor just as the supervisor and three armed guards came out of the helical stairwell.
* * *
One level down the staircase from the control deck, the Empath perched on a stool, behind a uniview panel. Pavlor had sent her ahead to this habitat when she had told him that the terrans had boarded it, and he had granted her request to take the Kei with her. Her eyes were half-closed as she entered meditation, the better to sort and discriminate between the feelings of those around her.
The strength of the emanations from the two terrans had increased considerably since the aborted session. Evidently the period of rest and nutrition had been beneficial, particularly to the prime subject, although he was still near a critical level. She could not yet be certain that he was a Companion; but the evidence was mounting.
In her lap, the Kei glimmered in its opened casket. Its light took on strength, and depth. She concentrated, trying to localise it to one of the pair, without noticeable success. Of course, she thought, they could both be Companions… Once again, she longed to reach out and try to touch the crystal; once again, she recalled the strictures and warnings voiced by the Master of her Guild; and once again, she put the longing to one side.
She turned her attention back to the task in hand. She was grateful that Kotte was not present; but she could feel his approach. She estimated that they had perhaps a segment before he arrived. Although she had not read him, she had seen his surface, and was disturbed. But Kotte had insisted on being present at the investigations, and Pavlor had no grounds on which to refuse. Still, at least the Devas could use this brief interval of his absence to advantage.
As she had done many times, she wished that this empathic sense could send as well as receive; but it was strictly one-way. She checked her armband, which was linked with an identical one worn by Pavlor, through which she could send certain signals.
She augmented her hearing, so that she could listen to their voices.
* * *
Slowly, the earth-humans lifted their hands, palms forward, to shoulder height in what they hoped would be seen as a gesture of surrender. The supervisor halted, and the guards levelled their weapons, but did not fire.
"Good morning," Straker said.
The supervisor looked at him. He motioned, and one of the guards took manacles from a pouch at his belt, and walked around behind the pair. Straker did not resist as his hands were pulled down behind him - surprisingly gently - and fastened together. The guard then turned his attention to Freeman.
The supervisor indicated the bench seat at the edge of the gallery, and said: "Sit."
They obeyed. Straker said: "We wish to speak with you. There are things we should discuss."
"There are… I am called Pavlor. Do you have designations also?"
"We do. I am called Straker. This man is called Freeman… May I ask a question?"
"Shortly… As you have surmised, we were indeed watching you. We found your interaction most curious - "
"That's one way of describing it," Freeman said in a low voice.
" - and I have some questions of my own. First: Why did you rescue us?"
"Because you were in danger, of course," Straker said.
The supervisor regarded him thoughtfully for a few moments. Turning to one of the guards, he gave swift orders. The guard saluted, and went up to the control level. There was a surge under their feet, and the sphere started to move.
"Before we start, my friend here needs medical attention," Freeman said.
"It shall be supplied. We are moving to the work zone," the supervisor told them. "The study zone, where you were kept, is badly damaged, I know not why at this time. I intend to find out. There are other things I wish to know also. As you say, there are things we should discuss."
* * *
A soldier hurried up to Kotte, and saluted. "The terrans are located, my lord," he said, in a low, hurried voice. "They have climbed to the motion control deck. The Devas has followed them."
This would require very careful handling indeed, Kotte thought, grimly. But it was still possible to gain the prize - and the victory.
"Then we must follow also… Section 4, remain here, admit no-one. Section 1, go up ahead, take the Devas but do not injure the terrans, I require them alive. Sections 2 and 3, follow us, be prepared to defend against Guards. Move!"
* * *
The supervisor stepped closer to Straker, and looked searchingly at him. Straker tried not to flinch as the alien grasped his face by the chin, though the hold was very gentle, and turned his head carefully from side to side. Fingertips touched his forehead briefly. The alien stepped away, and repeated the inspection with Freeman. He spoke into a comms unit, and waited for a reply. He looked back at the earth-humans. "I have sent for transport, since we have some distance to travel."
"Thank you," Straker said. "Now, tell me. Why do you attack Earth? Why do you take our body parts, and implant them in yourselves? What do you hope to achieve?"
"Survival," Pavlor answered. "Our race was infected with a plague organism which nearly wiped us out. The organism was defeated, but its effects on us are lasting. Those effects include damage to our bodily repair abilities. We started to use longevity treatments in an attempt to restore these, which prolonged individual lives, but impaired our capacity to reproduce. Fewer and fewer live children are born each cycle, and their mortality rate is high."
So we were right - and you really are in a bind, Straker thought. "Why didn't you just ask us for our help? We would be willing to work with you on the problem."
The question seemed to stop the supervisor in his mental tracks. After a few moments, he said: "We did not think you had that capacity."
"You may be surprised," Straker said, dryly. "We need to discuss that question in more detail. For the moment, do you have other things you wish to know about us?"
"Many," Pavlor said. "For example: what is a 'teddybear'?"
To Elanor's surprise, this query elicited a strange mix of emotion. Puzzlement, and something very like amusement, chiefly from Freeman.
"It is a child's toy," Straker explained. "It is made from cloth with a fluffy surface, stuffed with soft filling, and it is generally styled to suggest an animal from Earth called a bear. Children like to hug these items; they are very tactile."
"A child's toy?" Pavlor was astonished. "You give your offspring toys?"
"Sure we do! Don't you?"
Elanor could feel the being Straker's genuine surprise, and the Devas's confusion, and rising apprehension. Kotte was closer now, and angry, but it was not clear why. She touched the sensitive surface on her armband in a pattern that conveyed warning, and noted Pavlor's response.
"Yes… of course… " Pavlor took a breath. "But that is not all… We have been monitoring your - emotions… We were surprised that you do indeed have them."
"You thought we didn't? Is that possible?"
"We knew you had the mental states that are associated with satisfying your basic needs - air, food, shelter, mating, and so on… but we thought - we had long believed - that you knew nothing of higher states. Friendship, for example. This you appear to have?"
"Sure we do," Straker said quietly. He was thinking: where on Earth or off it did this misunderstanding arise?
"Please describe your understanding of the term 'friend'."
Go carefully, Ed, Straker told himself. This could be the breakthrough… He glanced across at Freeman. "This man is my friend. Though heaven knows why he puts up with me, I don't… He is a source of advice, companionship, support, occasional constructive criticism. I try to respond in like fashion… I find the relationship deeply satisfying, and I would be devastated by his loss."
"Steady on, Ed," murmured Freeman, in a choked voice. "You'll have me in tears in a minute."
"I meant every word, Alec." Straker was smiling gently.
"Straker," Pavlor said, in the voice of a man feeling his way very carefully indeed, "you were presented with four scenarios in which you could have become violent but did not - as you perceived. Why did you not respond with violence in those situations?"
"Generally I prefer to avoid violence wherever possible. Sometimes that isn't possible, but mostly it's unnecessary and counterproductive. It certainly is unnecessary in the relationship between our two races. I would much prefer to establish a treaty between us, for mutual aid and development."
"A - treaty?" Pavlor repeated, hoarsely.
"Sure." Straker ordered himself not to cross his fingers…
"Even though you - you know what we have believed about your race…?"
"Yes," Straker said, grimly. "We hope that will change."
This time, the pattern Elanor sent was one of confirmation, and of caution. She could feel Kotte's anger increasing as he approached. Pavlor's own emotions were in turmoil. There was astonishment, swift re-evaluation of his earlier models, leading to guilt, and consternation. He turned and strode to the comms panel.
"Prince Merrel. Respond please," he ordered, in his own language. Merrel's knowledge of terran was still limited.
"My lord Devas?"
"Are you safe? Where is Kotte?"
"I am safe in the work zone. I believe Kotte is in that habitat, and approaching you."
"Noted. Report status of terran excursions."
There was a short silence. "Level 1 excursion in process, my lord. Terrans are responding, so far successfully."
Pavlor swore. "I order all excursions terminated at once, unless and until I personally say otherwise. Order the skimmers to withdraw and return to Dyaus. Find Kotte and arrest him. Tyl, I'll need reinforcements."
"Complying, my lord."
Now Elanor could see as well as sense Kotte. He was hurrying up the stairway, and he was accompanied by armed guards, their weapons ready to use. Kotte's own intention was all too clear. She sent a warning to Pavlor.
In the gallery, the supervisor swung round, looking at the stairwell. He barked a swift order. The manacles fell from the prisoners' wrists, and two of Pavlor's guards moved to take up station beside them.
"Pavlor, what is happening?" Straker demanded, coming to his feet.
"We are about to be attacked, by members of a group whom you may think of as rebels," Pavlor returned. "I have instructed my lieutenants to guard you most carefully. Help is on its way, but we may need to defend ourselves with arms - "
A head appeared in the stairwell, followed by an unmistakable weapon muzzle. It spat a bolt of energy, and the guard nearest Straker cried out and fell, dropping his own weapon. He gestured urgently. Without hesitation, Straker grabbed the gun and levelled it at the figure who was now pushing his way out of the stairwell opening. He found the trigger, took careful aim, and pressed it. At the same time, Freeman's guard fired also. The attacker yelped, dropped his own weapon, and fell back out of sight.
"You OK, Alec?" Straker snapped.
"Yeah. Cover me… I'll get the other one."
But Pavlor reached the fallen weapon first. He kicked it back towards Freeman, and drew his own sidearm. "Fire at any showing a blue shoulder patch," he instructed, as Freeman retrieved it.
"Will do. Ed, what are you - "
Straker was crawling forward towards the stairwell. Keeping most of himself out of view, he aimed down the stairs. He fired three times, each shot finding its target in an arm or a leg. "Is there any other access to this level?" he said, quickly. He was thinking: we don't need an ambush right now…
"None," Pavlor replied, moving up beside him, his own weapon at the ready. His third guard had moved back to cover Straker, taking over from his fallen comrade, who was sitting with his back against the ringseat, groaning a little and clutching his shoulder. "Nor can the power be cut off readily. They may use gas grenades, of course. If so, there are breathers in the locker, there."
Freeman was nearest the locker, with his own guard. Between them they dragged it open, revealing a number of face masks with small attached capsules. They collected several of these, and ran to the stairwell. One of the guards below fired up at them, and Freeman gave a yelp of pain.
"I'm fine," Freeman called. "Just a graze." It was; but it burned like fire along his arm.
Another man had appeared on the lower level, wearing a tunic similar to Pavlor's, though rather more ornate. It had blue patches decorated with red on the shoulders. "Who's that?" Straker asked him quietly.
"That is Kotte," Pavlor told him, grimly. "He is leader of the group which has turned rebel. We will allow him to come up. Please keep well back - "
But Kotte moved, throwing his own weapon to his shoulder. He's aiming at Pavlor, Straker realised, we can't have that, we can't lose our only contact, not now, not when we're so close…
He came to his feet, pushing Pavlor safely out of range, bringing his own weapon to bear on Kotte. And then his mind seemed to explode in a shower of sparks, fading to black….
Freeman watched, horrified, as Kotte fired. A shaft of energy flashed upward, narrowly missing Straker's head.
Without a sound, Straker collapsed, the weapon falling from his hand, head and one arm dangling over the stairwell edge. As he fell, there was a brief and clearly feminine scream from below.
"Ed!!" Freeman shouted. He threw himself forward, grabbing Straker's ankle to stop him falling over the edge, ignoring the flare of pain from his own injury. Pavlor spat what was unmistakably an expletive, and helped Freeman drag the fallen man clear of Kotte's line of fire. A shot from Freeman's guard struck Kotte in the shoulder, and he screamed himself, crumpling to the floor. Freeman could see more armed men coming up onto the level below them; but these were wearing tunics like those of the supervisor, black and trimmed in gold - colours that said 'royal' in any language. They were moving to the 'blues', taking and disarming them.
"Reinforcements?" he snapped, as he dragged his friend away from the stairwell.
"Indeed," Pavlor confirmed. "Let them come through."
"Right." Freeman turned his attention back to Straker. He rolled the injured man onto his back. The eyes were half open but sightless; the lips were parted. He felt for the pulse in the side of the neck.
He flung himself down, his head to Straker's chest, listening for a heartbeat. He heard nothing. Swearing, he pulled Straker flat, arms and legs spread, and tipped his head so that the jaw was forward, the airway straight. He clasped his hands, raised them high, and brought them down with a thump on Straker's chest with all the force he could muster. A jolt of pain seared through his burned arm. Again he ignored it.
Again he listened for a heartbeat. Still nothing.
Pavlor was speaking urgently to one of the 'royal guard'. The man saluted, turned, and gave orders. "I have sent for medical staff to attend him," Pavlor said.
Freeman put his hands together, interlacing his fingers, and began to push down rhythmically with their heels as hard as he could on his friend's breastbone. Beside him, one of their guards was supporting Straker's head and holding a breather to his face, with its control turned all the way up to obvious maximum.
Someone handed Pavlor a small case. The supervisor opened it, withdrew a short cylinder, fitted a needle. He motioned, and Freeman moved his hands away. Pavlor stabbed the syringe into Straker's chest and thumbed the top. There was a hiss. Straker gasped, and his back arched. He flopped back down, his eyes closing. Freeman felt for the pulse in the side of the neck; it was there. Fast and faint, but it was there. His chest was rising and falling, its movement slow and shallow, but he was breathing again.
"I think he's back with us," Freeman whispered. He was sweating; CPR was hard physical work, and he had given it everything he had, partly to compensate for the low gravity here. He just hoped he hadn't cracked any ribs; but that was the least of Ed's problems right then.
Three more aliens emerged into the gallery, and clustered around the limp form. Freeman made room for them, reluctantly. One of them moved a medical trolley into position, while the others began a quick but careful examination.
"What happened to him?" he demanded. "There's no wound, no burn."
Pavlor spoke quickly with one of the medics. "It appears that he experienced a near miss from one of our weapons. Not close enough to cause physical burning, but enough to disrupt his cerebral processes."
"Can you help him?"
"We shall certainly try… Freeman, I owe you, and your friend, and indeed your entire race, an apology beyond words. But I shall discuss that with you later, when we have attended to Straker's needs. In the meantime, I have terminated all attacks on your planet."
"So I should bloody hope!"
"You are also hurt?" Pavlor indicated Freeman's arm, where a black-edged red gash showed under a rip in the fabric of his coverall. The gash was bleeding freely from his exertions.
"It'll wait. See to Ed first."
Pavlor gave a nod, and walked over to check on their own injured guard. He helped the man to his feet, and brought him over to the stairwell, where one of the 'royal guard' took him in charge.
The alien medics had completed their initial evaluation. They lifted Straker onto the trolley, and wheeled it towards the stairway. One of them touched a control, and the stairs sank out of sight, to be replaced by a broad platform disc. Pavlor signed to Freeman to accompany him, and they followed the medical trolley with its motionless occupant onto the disc. It descended, carrying the small group down to the lower level, where a cleanup party was removing the groaning victims of the firefight. Two vehicles were waiting; each had a row of seats on each side along its length, behind the obvious driving seat. The trolley was lifted on board one of these. One of the medics helped Freeman into a seat beside it, and began to examine his arm. Pavlor took a seat opposite. Another guard climbed in, sat in the driving position, pressed a button, and the 'jeep' started up with a low hum.
As they moved off towards one of the airlocks, a panel in the wall shimmered, and someone came through it, and sat beside Pavlor. Freeman's first thought was: my god, it's an elf.
Certainly the being was small for a humanoid, though not elf-sized. She was clearly though not overtly female, of indeterminate age, and unusual - to earthly eyes - colouring, with skin a darker green than the other aliens, and hair as pale as Straker's. There was about her an impression of an aura. Freeman found himself looking for her wings.
She said: "Pavlor, I have taken the liberty of bringing the Kei… May we all be introduced?"
"Certainly… This is Elanor, of the Guild of Empaths, or emotion-sensitives. She has been monitoring your responses, and those of your friend. I, of course, am Azan Pavlor, Prince of Spicor, and Devas of this domain. You are…?"
"My friend here," Freeman said, indicating the man on the trolley, "is Edward Straker, whom I address in familiar mode as Ed, in formal mode as Commander Straker, in charge of Earth Defences. My name is Alexander Freeman, whose familiar form is Alec. My military rank is colonel, and I am second in command to Ed Straker. But please, call us Alec and Ed."
"I think you should see the Kei." Elanor lifted the lid of the inlaid box that she held. A pale light still gleamed in the crystal depths, but it flickered uncertainly. "Earlier, it was responding to your presence and your friend's, Alec. When Ed was injured, this happened."
"What is this? What does it mean?"
"The Kei is an item of legend. It is said to be linked to a mythological entity known as the Keimon, a royal figure, who is not immortal as an individual, but whose bloodline is intermingled with our race. Occasionally, or so it is said, the genetic pattern of the Keimon emerges in an individual; but this has not been seen for many thousands of cycles."
They were through the outer door, into a corridor, with a ribbed surface that Freeman recognised. "Are you telling me," he said carefully, "that the - Kei - wakes up, so to speak, when this Keimon is around?"
"Or one of his Companions, we believe. Yes. It is not yet clear which Ed is."
"We should know when he rouses," Pavlor put in. "Only the Keimon, or one whom he authorises, may touch the Kei with impunity."
They had exited the tunnel, through a second airlock. The driver turned right, and increased speed, but cautiously. Freeman said: "You sure it shouldn't be called 'Excalibur'? Never mind… Thank you, I will try to make sense of that."
"For the moment," Elanor said, "I will return the Kei to the custody of the Keeper."
The vehicle had stopped in front of large double doors, which were marked with a hexagon coloured in graduated shades of red. Elanor closed the box, handed it to Pavlor, and departed.
The Devas tucked the box away in the folds of his clothing. "We have arrived at what you would call our medical centre," he said. "While your friend Straker is being treated, you should come this way, and have your own injury tended. There is a transparent wall through which you may observe your friend. I will answer any questions you may have."
"I've got just one right now," Freeman replied. "When do we go home?"
"When we have done what we can for him here. I should warn you, that may not be a great deal; but at the least, we can prepare him for the journey."
Freeman nodded, silently. He took the seat beside the window into the treatment area, and watched while the alien medics examined his friend. At least the readouts were familiar in form, if not in detail. Another medic cut away the damaged sleeve of his own coverall, and sprayed something from a small bottle onto the burn. The searing pain began to recede. "That's better," he said. "Thanks."
Pavlor said, carefully: "I have probably no right to ask you this, but… He offered us his help? To establish a treaty? Can you… can you comment?"
Freeman said, not taking his eyes off the sick man: "We do indeed seek a treaty. A cessation of hostilities. Mutual assistance. For that we will need to know something about this war - its background, the reasons for it. You told Ed a little about that, about your problems… We also need to know why you did not simply talk to us instead of harvesting us like cattle - and what it was in your investigations that changed your mind. If it was just that we knew how to be friends - "
"It is rather more than that," Pavlor said. "It is rather more than your reluctance to use violence, though you do not shrink from it when it is necessary. It is the underlying reason, the quality which informed your friend's actions, and which you yourself possess in large amounts."
"What quality is that?" Freeman said, puzzled. He was doing his best to ignore what the alien doctor was doing to his arm, though the anaesthetic was very effective. The aliens' knowledge of the human body, derived from their 'harvests', was good, he had to admit.
"In that first test scenario," Pavlor explained, "Ed Straker was trying to rescue the other being - Foster? - from an otherwise inevitable death, when simply killing him would have been the easier and far less risky option.
"In the second, he was attempting to convince the being Henderson to adopt a certain course of action to reduce the risk to others in his charge, one of whom had already died. He was angry with Henderson, but did not attempt to impose his will by violent means, even when under threat of removal. He even offered Henderson the chance to leave when your base was threatened with destruction.
"In the underwater vessel, he was again under imminent threat of death, and possibly also insanity, but he allowed others to escape first.
"In the last scene, he tried his hardest to save the life of someone who he was never likely to meet again even if the boy had lived, for the love of that child and his mother. The common factor, which is so much a part of you and Straker that you are not even consciously aware of it, is nothing less than compassion."
Freeman did not know what to say to that.
"What this means," Pavlor resumed, "is that we were wrong about your people, dreadfully so. For millennia, we have been led to believe that you were - well, not really human. Ed Straker theorised early on that you were thought of as animals, and he was correct. Now we know otherwise, and we must try to repair the damage, as far as we can. I should warn you, however, that my people will not be unanimous in this. I can say that I can rely on convincing perhaps half a dozen of my Devas colleagues, but they would still be in the minority."
The doctor had apparently finished, and was covering the injury with a dressing. He handed Freeman a beaker, and made 'drink me' motions. Freeman thanked him, and swallowed the liquid. He gasped; it had a kick like scotch.
He commented: "That's a hell of a lot better than one against the rest… and I suppose the one who attacked you is one of those?"
"What's his agenda?"
"Believe me," returned Pavlor, "I intend to find out."
Kotte tried desperately to twist free of the guards, but his right arm was useless, despite the basic attention it had received from the medical staff, and he was unable to shake off their implacably firm grip.
At least his Thirds had their instructions, whose origin was still carefully disguised.. They were to retrieve the two terrans from the Devas, and ship them from Dyaus to Kotte's secret chamber on the south pole of the terran satellite, where he held his other trophy. Other agents were on hand to rescue him, and he was confident they would do so, such was their trust in his promises - and their fear of retribution from his 'allies'.
The explosives that his Thirds had planted had disabled the evaluation chamber and its cage, so he would have to be held in secure quarters until it could be repaired, or a replacement constructed. That would take time, and give him a chance to make good his escape. He had designed the apparatus himself; he knew how to evade its attempts to dig into his mind. But he could not afford even a brief exposure to the device.
He was led into a room furnished only with a single chair; but the chair had straps attached, and it was firmly bolted to the floor. Kotte was pushed down into the seat, and securely strapped in. But there was a technique he could use, which - risky though it was - would persuade them to release him.
He subvocalised a short word sequence, and collapsed in the seat.
At the med officer's order, one of the guards stepped forwards, checked vital signs. He looked up, gave a brief head-shake. "Merrel must be told," he said, in his own language. "Kotte has self-destructed, I know not how. His life-signs are absent."
The officer stepped to the wall panel, touched a sense plate, spoke a few words. "Merrel comes," he reported. "Do not release Kotte from the chair, not yet."
It took Prince Merrel some five twelfths to arrive. He conferred briefly with the supervising med officer, who had been examining the seemingly lifeless Kotte in careful detail. "You are satisfied that metabolic processes have ceased?"
"I am, my prince. There is some primal cerebral activity, but that is all."
"Put the body in static storage. Devas Pavlor will wish to inspect it."
"Yes, my prince, I comply. But if I may inquire - "
"On what subject?"
The med officer looked round at his colleagues. "My prince, we have heard a rumour, that - that the Kei is active."
"I have heard this rumour also," Merrel said, slowly.
"Are you able, and willing, to comment, sir?"
"From what source did you obtain this rumour?"
"From my colleague, who was called to treat one of the terrans held by Devas Pavlor, sir. There was an Empath present. My colleague speaks not the terran tongue; but the Empath was most interested in the Kei, and she was talking with the other terran. This is strange. Are not the terrans but animals? What interest in them could an Empath possibly have?"
Merrel drew a long, slow breath. "Avin, I do not know - yet - what this may mean. I dare not speculate, even to express the hope that one or both of the terrans is a Companion. You must know what that would imply."
"Yes… but is it - possible, my prince? That would mean - "
"That a terrible crime has been committed. Yes." Merrel's face was grim. "Avin, you are knowledgeable of history. I suggest you put that to extensive use."
"I shall, my prince."
The guards brought in a trolley, and transferred Kotte from the chair. Avin led the way from the cell to the stasis chamber, where individual pods were used to store harvesting resources. Less than a third of these were occupied. Kotte was placed in a pod two levels up from the floor, at the end of a row. Avin went to the control desk, and set the temperature to drop to stasis level. The process would take a few minutes. At last the telltale showed orange. Avin gave a nod of satisfaction, and left the chamber.
A few moments later, Kotte, shivering violently, pushed himself out of the pod, and headed swiftly for a little-used door at the back of the stasis chamber.
* * *
Freeman looked up quickly, as the door to the treatment room opened. One of the medics emerged, and spoke to Pavlor.
"Use their own language," the Devas ordered.
"I comply." The man's accent was heavy, but he spoke slowly and clearly, and Freeman could follow his words without too much difficulty.
His syntax was another matter.
"Terran Alec Freeman, I name self Breen. Of companion your, life functions his continuing, assisted, though at a minimum. Includes this oxygen, nutrition, excretion. Includes this not, heart stimulation, lung inflation, because autonomous both. Condition of body his is part good. Of substance his, damage physical slight is there. Includes this, ribs part-break, quantity three. Cause likely, activity to restore function heart. All organ systems main, functional. Includes this sensory, audio and visual and tactile, by response measurement shown. Resources physiological, below minimum ideal, restoration initiated. Activity cerebral at minimum. Damage cerebral none major, level cellular none major, some minor. Hypothesise, need stimulus external, from environment familiar and congenial."
"I wouldn't mind a walk along a nice sunny beach somewhere myself," Freeman said dryly. "When can he travel, Breen?"
"Recommendation no sooner, cycle half. Preference longer."
A couple of days at least, Freeman thought. Could be worse… "Understood. Thank you."
"Health your, may be problem."
"Me?" Freeman said, startled. "I'm fine, it's just the arm, and your people have seen to that - "
"Resources physiological your, also near minimum ideal. Resources psychological your unknown, data insufficient. Hypothesise, if comparative with ourselves, below minimum."
"OK, I'm a bit tired - "
"It is rather more than 'tired', Alec Freeman," Pavlor interrupted. "You are in shock, both physical and psychological, and you require rest urgently. Will you accept treatment for this?"
Freeman was suddenly aware that he was desperately tired. He'd had a bit of sleep, but nowhere near enough. He had been half out of his mind with terror for Ed. If he did not get some decent sleep, now, he would be no use at all if things did turn nasty. Well, nastier.
He was not sure how much he could really trust these people…
On the other hand… They had not needed to treat his arm. In fact, if they were planning further 'questioning' sessions, with him, it would be to their advantage to leave the injury untreated, to weaken his resistance.
He threw in his hand. "Yes, thank you. I will accept treatment."
"A wise decision," Pavlor smiled. "There is a couch here on which you may rest. Medic Breen will give you a potion. It will relax you so that you can sleep."
"I might not need it," Freeman yawned. "But yes, I'll have it, thanks."
He drank from the proffered beaker, and allowed himself to be led to the cot, which was in a curtained-off alcove. It was larger than he expected, but was obviously a temporary, even portable, unit. He lay down with a sigh, and closed his eyes. "Wake me if anything happens with Ed, would you, Pavlor?" he murmured.
"I shall." Pavlor dimmed the light over the cot, and drew the curtain across. He took the box containing the Kei from his robes, and entered the treatment room.
Freeman closed his eyes. The 'potion' seemed to be quick-acting; or maybe he really was that tired… A warmth spread through him, relaxing him.
He thought: I could do with a teddybear myself. A human one, female and cuddly.
Few people at home knew he had once been married, and that Samantha, his wife of only three months, had been killed in a plane crash. He had never remarried, unable to face the possibility of more loss.
But right now, he wished he had.
He would not want a wife with him at this point; he would not want her in this sort of danger. It would be enough to know that there was a pair of welcoming arms awaiting his return. But what hope was there of that? None of the girls he had 'entertained' over the years since he had been widowed had seemed that interested.
Except Ginny, perhaps. Or Sandy. Or Joan…
In fact, he suddenly realised, each of those three had been interested. It was he who had retreated from them.
He realised that it had been that way more times than he could count. Every time he had felt himself getting too close, he had backed off. And why? What was he so afraid of?
Alec Freeman, you are a prize fool, he berated himself. If - when - we get out of this, when you get home, you are going to do something about that…
"Joan," he whispered, as sleep overtook him.
* * *
It was night-time on Europa. The moon's orbit had taken it round behind Jupiter, into the shadow of the gas giant. Above the ice layer, on Europa's true surface, the temperature was falling rapidly, dropping to a chilly 50 degrees above absolute zero. But Europa's ocean was kept comparatively warm, enough to be liquid, by the tidal squeezing from its passage around its parent, and from the other moons.
Deep below the ice-shell, shielded from Jupiter's intense radiation belts. the spherical habitats held life, in water warm from the tidal heating and from the moon's still-molten interior. Within one sphere in particular, there was a surge of activity. A group of humanoids was making their way towards the medical centre, intent on reaching their quarry, who lay unmoving, defenceless.
Pavlor had set guards against this very possibility. He was sitting in a chair beside the treatment bed when there was the muffled whine of an energy gun outside. He started up, drawing his own weapon. Three men came in though the door, and they were met by the concentrated fire from himself and two of his own guards. Two of the intruders fell. One managed to stay on his feet, and reached out for the inlaid box, where Pavlor had placed it on a small table beside the bed. There was a blinding flash. The attacker dropped his weapon, and fell, curling up into a tight ball.
* * *
Freeman was dreaming.
In the dream, he was running, though whether towards or away was not clear. Possibly both.
Someone was speaking to him. Not Joan. The voice had an odd timbre, but was familiar, and friendly. Which, in the dream, was unexpected.
The voice came again. "Alec Freeman?"
He dragged himself to the surface, opened his eyes. Memory flooded back at the sight of the man beside his cot. It was Pavlor.
He sat up with a jerk. "Is Ed - "
"His status is encouraging," Pavlor hastened to assure him. "Although he is still without awareness, he is maintaining his life functions without direct assistance, and his overall condition has improved."
Freeman sagged back. "Thank god."
"How is your own injury?"
Freeman brought his forearm around so that he could see it. He prodded carefully at the dressing. "Seems comfortable enough… This dressing was changed? While I was asleep?"
"That is correct… You have slept for about half of an orbit. That is perhaps two of Earth's days. You are undoubtedly hungry, a meal will be provided, as will more suitable clothing."
"Good heavens! It's just as well you woke me… What's been happening?"
"Much," Pavlor said, grimly. "It has become essential that we return you and your friend to Earth as swiftly as possible. I will do my utmost to establish friendly relations with your world. For that I will need all your help."
"You'd better tell me all about it - Ambassador," Freeman said; and his own grimness matched Pavlor's. "While I shower, and get dressed, and have breakfast."
After his shower with his arm in a waterproof sleeve, in a wet-room like the one he had been put in on his arrival, they provided Freeman with a one-piece garment that he recognised as being the type worn by the few 'aliens' that SHADO had managed to recover, under their vacuum suits. They also gave him soft, close-fitting boots. He donned the garments with Pavlor's help. This 'Prince of Spicor' was, he noted, no stranger to what many would have thought of as menial work; but maybe they had a different outlook at his home world.
While he ate his breakfast - which was rather more tasty than the 'prison fare' they had given him and Ed before - Pavlor told him of the night's events.
"It is clear now that Kotte has been following his own agenda for a very long time, years, perhaps decades," Pavlor said. "He has been aided in this by agents from Arkadia, a planet in the Spicor group. I have given orders that these rebels should be found and apprehended, a process which will inevitably take time. For your safety and that of Straker it is best that we bring you to Terra, so that you are out of reach of most of Kotte's group - though I am certain he has agents there also, including a man called Gimen."
"I get the impression they want us alive, even so," Freeman commented. "Why would that be?"
"I confess that is not clear, though we are questioning those rebels that we have taken. There are indications that Kotte wished to use you as a bargaining item of some kind - though with whom, we do not yet know."
"Is it likely to involve this Keimon of yours?"
"Possibly," Pavlor agreed, "though the Keimon is not yet manifest… But even as Companions, which you and Straker clearly are, you would be of interest to Kotte. We need more information - and the rebels are clearly active still. They will try to impede our progress, of that I am sure."
Freeman nodded, and finished his meal. Then they took him in to see Straker.
Ed was lying quietly, motionless but for the slight rise and fall of his chest. His face was still but, somehow, not peaceful. Freeman wondered just how much awareness he had; on Earth, coma patients, when they emerged at last into full consciousness, frequently said that they had retained their hearing, and often their sense of touch. Though - mercifully - not their awareness of pain.
He laid his good hand on Straker's, squeezing it a little. "Ed?" he said, a touch self-consciously. "Ed, we're going home. They're sending us back to Earth. There is hope of a treaty. Hope of peace."
There was no response. He hadn't really expected any.
Pavlor picked up a small sealed case, bearing what Freeman was coming to think of as the royal sigil, from a table. He said: "We will put him into a transit pod for the journey. It will be the safest way… Now, you have suggested that we approach in two separate craft, and do so slowly, until we can make direct contact. I agree. We will also be escorted by my squadron for as much of the journey as you deem advisable, in terms of not alerting Earth defences. Communications will be a problem; our systems are incompatible, though I have directed that a piece of old-style 'radio' be provided which we can try. Is there any further way we can declare our peaceful intent?"
"Short of flying a white flag, which would be a bit difficult… If I think of any I'll let you know. Pavlor, I want to thank you, for being so open-minded about everything. How did that come about?"
"I think," answered the Prince, "that my - suspicions - have been gestating for quite some time… But there was nothing definite on which I could base my actions. Until you two were brought here - and an Empath offered to monitor."
"I'm glad… but it's not over yet," Freeman warned him. "Not by a long way."
"I would have to agree," Pavlor admitted. "But we have at least made a start… Do you wish to observe while we prepare Ed Straker for his journey?"
"I certainly do! As long as I won't be in the way."
"Then please sit over here."
Freeman sat. A door opened at the far end of the room, and two technicians wheeled in a trolley carrying a long cylinder of dark-grey metal. He recognised it as being the same type of device as the 'cargo pod' that had been intended to transport the showjumper Russ Stone back to this station. Freeman had not been present; at the time he had been serving a tour of duty in Australia, helping to set up SHADO's Woomera base; but he had kept in touch with developments at home.
The cylinder was opened, by sliding back two panels along its top surface. The inside was padded. At one end there was a bulkhead, with a small panel on which were mounted several covered sockets.
The medic, Breen, entered, nodded to Freeman, and bent to inspect his patient. He spoke briefly to the technicians. Carefully, they drew back the cover over Straker's unmoving form, and detached several tubes from the surrounding equipment, two of which entered his nostrils. The trolley was positioned beside the bed. The techs lifted Straker carefully at shoulders and knees, keeping his head supported, and transferred him into the cylinder. The padding seemed to flow up around him, cushioning his body, keeping it from the hard sides of the cylinder. The doctor connected up the tubes to the sockets in the bulkhead. He checked his patient carefully. Satisfied, he touched a control, and a green liquid began to seep down the tube leading into Straker's lungs.
"We must close the pod now," Pavlor said. Freeman acknowledged this with a nod. He could see clear liquid coming up from the base of the compartment.
The panels along the cylinder closed. A smaller panel at the head end lit, showing obvious life-sign traces. Though Freeman lacked the medical knowledge to interpret them in detail, he could recognise heart and breathing signals. All seemed good.
The doctor seemed to agree. He moved a protective cover over the monitor panel, and said a few words to Pavlor.
"All is well," the Prince said to Freeman. "We will now go to the skimmer deck."
A 'jeep' was waiting for them outside the medical room. The driver brought it inside, and the transit pod was loaded into the back. Freeman was invited to sit beside the driver, and Pavlor sat beside him. Breen sat in the rear, with the pod. Several armed guards climbed aboard, and they moved off.
The trip took perhaps twenty minutes as far as Freeman could estimate, heading upwards. They emerged into a wide domed space that reminded him of the 'gallery' in that other sphere, but here there was no transparent viewing zone. Instead, there were perhaps a dozen craft that he recognised at once, spaced out in a circle near the edge, each one beside an exit port. Two of these were surrounded by groups of technicians, who were apparently giving them a white coating.
"We cannot 'fly a flag'," Pavlor explained, "but perhaps this may help."
Freeman gave a nod. "Ed," he whispered, "if only you were awake… You don't know what you're missing!"
Pavlor beckoned to two 'aliens' who were wearing similar robes to the Prince, with the black-and-gold royal sigil. He said: "Alec Freeman, this is Tyl Merrel, my kinsman and my second-in-command. He will be accompanying Ed Straker in the second skimmer. We will be escorted by skimmers flown by men from my personal guard… And this is my deputy, Nepetane, who will take charge of matters here while we are away."
"Hello," Freeman said.
He put out his good hand. After a moment, Merrel grasped it. "I greet you also, Companion."
"The white coating is a good idea," Freeman said. "Can you put some small red crosses - like our plus sign - on Ed's skimmer as well? To show it's a medical transport? Three or four should do."
"I greet you also, Companion," Nepetane said, as Freeman turned to her and again shook hands. The deputy bowed to Pavlor, and withdrew.
"Please come this way," Pavlor said. "We must now be suited."
Freeman followed him into a chamber, Merrel and Breen bringing up the rear. Here they were each helped to don one of the red-and-silver vacuum suits, and the life-support backpack. A technician applied a small disc to either side of Pavlor's larynx; Freeman supposed they were sound pickups of some kind.
"This next part has never been comfortable, I regret to say," Pavlor said, apologetically.
"No problem… How do you communicate with each other, with your throat full of liquid?"
"We sing." As Freeman blinked, Pavlor went on: "That is, we use a tone-based language, which unfortunately there has not been time to teach you. The fluid has a low viscosity and density, and is an excellent sound conductor."
"I see." They hum in Morse? he thought, a little amused. Or perhaps it's more like 'whale song'…
"We also use hand gestures. I ask you to do this - " He lifted his hand, fingers pointing up and palm outwards - "to signal when the escort should fall back. Shortly after that, we shall reduce speed to sublight."
"Very well," Freeman answered. "I will need an indication of distance from Earth, in terms of astronomical units - that is, Earth's distance from the Sun. And I would like us to use these gestures to, er, talk with each other."
He gave a thumbs-up sign, then a thumbs-down, and explained their meaning. He added a horizontal wave, to indicate a 'maybe'.
"And if I do this," he said, holding out his open palm, it means 'how are we doing'."
"I understand. Thank you."
Following Pavlor's example, Freeman sat in a high-backed chair, and let the technician insert hollow tubes through his nostrils. He was worried he might gag, but was able to control himself.
Next came the really scary bit.
A helmet was placed on his head. A familiar green liquid began to flow along one of the tubes. A cold sensation crept up his chest as it entered his lungs. He did not feel as though he were drowning, felt no reminder of that dreadful time when he had been held captive by those terrorists…
Savagely, he dragged himself back to the present by the scruff of his own mental neck.
As the liquid began to show in the outflow tube, both tubes were withdrawn, and the helmet was closed. More fluid began to fill it, until Freeman was completely immersed.
He made himself breathe. It was harder than breathing air, but not too much. And he was getting enough oxygen. He didn't feel as though he was stifling.
He turned to look at Pavlor. Through the green liquid, the Prince's face was enquiring. Freeman nodded, and held up a thumb.
There was a click in his helmet as the sound channel came up. He could hear the crews 'talking' with each other and with their controllers. Somehow, he had expected to hear a cageful of canaries; but it was much more like an orchestral percussion section consisting mainly of tubular bells, like musical ASDIC.
Pavlor stood up, and Freeman pushed himself upright, with help from Merrel. The three walked out of the chamber. Merrel went to one of the whitened 'skimmers', where the jeep with the transit pod was parked. Pavlor stopped, putting a hand on Freeman's arm, and together they watched as the pod was taken on board.
The hatch was closed and sealed. Pavlor beckoned Freeman to follow him, walked up the ramp into the second white skimmer. More than a little nervously, Freeman stepped onto the ramp, and made his way up into the interior. A hatch closed behind them, and they passed through the vessel's 'airlock' into its interior.
Pavlor guided Freeman into a vertical couch, strapped him in place, then moved to his own flight station. The interior chamber filled with liquid, but this was clear, transparent.
Freeman's view to either side was a little restricted, but ahead of him he had an unobstructed view of a huge display panel, with control pads below it. There were two crew members standing ready, against their own couches. The view shown was clearly that of the launch deck.
A row of six orange lights appeared on the display. The leftmost light changed to green. Perhaps two seconds later, the next one also changed. Freeman thought: A countdown.
With only one light still showing orange, there was a sound Freeman could only describe as a 'chime', apparently from one of the pilots. Here we go, he thought. We still have to get through the ice-shell…
The last light changed, and the view expanded. Evidently the craft was moving forwards.
They entered a small chamber, evidently a 'water-lock'. The screen showed a circular aperture beginning to open ahead, and through it, Freeman could see the Europan seascape, with the ice-shell just coming into view at the top. The craft moved out into the ocean. Ahead of them, something glinted in the yellowish Jovelight. It seemed to be a metallic cylinder, projecting downwards. Probably a tunnel through the ice, Freeman thought; and indeed it was. The skimmer moved to a position directly below. One section of the viewscreen showed a dark circle against a yellow-lit background. The circle expanded as the skimmer moved up into the tube.
The liquid surface appeared on the viewscreen, and fell. A few droplets on the pickup lens fizzed into vapour; evidently the tube was being evacuated of gas as well as liquid. Above them another hatch opened, and they rose into what Freeman supposed he should think of as the air, though as he recalled it was far thinner than even the atmosphere on Mars. Another section of the viewscreen gave what was obviously a rear view. Freeman could see the cylinder from which they had emerged, and beside it were two more, in a triangular formation. From one of these, three more craft emerged. After a short wait, a second white skimmer appeared, a red cross in clear view. It took up station behind them. A further wait, and the other three escort craft joined the group.
They're expecting lots of trouble, Freeman realised. And not from the Interceptors - though how Paul and Gay will react when they see this little fleet coming at them, I dread to think!
They ascended slowly, until Europa was showing as a half circle, like a quarter moon on Earth. Evidently, Freeman noted, they were moving along its orbit, so that Jupiter would be off to one side.
In one corner of the viewscreen, a square in pale blue with a thin black edge outlined itself. Eight red circles moved into it. Freeman saw that the display was tracking the skimmers in 3D as they took up formation. The six escorts formed a hexagonal ring around one of their number, which changed to green. A second green circle moved in front of it.
That's us, Freeman thought. It seems we're ready to move. Brace yourself…
All he felt was a very slight jerk; and then the yellow-lit half-circle of Europa vanished.
A blue rectangle lit up at the lower edge of the screen. A single black dot appeared at its centre. A few seconds later a second dot joined it; then a third, and a fourth…
Four SOL, Freeman thought. If he remembered correctly, Jupiter averaged some forty-three light-minutes from Earth. At four times light-speed it should take them only about eleven minutes - with Einstein spinning in his grave all the way.
A second rectangle lit up below the first; this one was green. It showed two circles, the left-hand one larger and yellow, the other blue. A short line connected the two. A row of five black dots appeared below the line. As the minutes passed, the yellow circle - which he supposed was Jupiter - receded to the left, eventually leaving the plot. After perhaps two minutes one of the larger black dots disappeared.
Distance plot, Freeman realised. Jupiter is about five AU from Earth. I hope we get there before the rebels catch up with us…
Enclosed in the transit pod, Straker could not see his surroundings, even had his eyes been open; but at some level, he was aware of his situation. He knew that he was in space, approaching Earth.
He dreamed of that last trip to Moonbase, aboard the lunar module. He had rotated the vehicle, contemplated his world.
There was that strange sense of déjà-vu. He recalled having done this before; which of course he had, many times. Yet, this was different. The ship was much larger. And he was seeing this world for the first time…
The Arkadian task force had completed their work, and the colony was firmly established, with humans, livestock breed-groups, and crops, in a sub-tropical zone between two large rivers. The monitor station had been built, on one of the moons of this system's largest planet. The location had been chosen carefully. It was far enough up the local stellar 'gravity well' to be accessible from outside the system with comparative ease, yet not too remote from the colony world for convenient in-system travel. The moon itself had several advantages; its entire surface was water, warmed from tidal effects above and from geothermal below, a thick ice shell overhead for protection from interplanetary debris and radiation. It had some life of its own, and the engineers were able to protect and even nurture this, and adjust it genetically to provide a food source.
It was time for their Keimon to join his colony. He had had to do so disguised; there had already been attempts on his life, by members of a secretive Arkadian group, and one had nearly succeeded. Only one person knew he had been aboard the ship; his friend and Companion, Paval. To everyone else, he was just another colonist - unless he wished to appear otherwise.
The Arkadian pilot landed the ship neatly near the summit of a mountain at the edge of the region. The Keimon and his wife Arya and child Mich disembarked, with a number of other small families, their luggage in hand trailers, and began to make their way down the slope. Behind them there was a roar of engines. The Keimon, and his family, turned to watch, as the Arkadian vessel lifted off and rose high into the air. It disappeared into the cloud layer. Slowly, the sound of its passage faded into silence.
The Keimon turned, hoping no-one could see the tears in his eyes, and set out down the slope, guiding his family towards the main colony settlement. The tears were for his people, and for the disaster that was about to befall them. A disaster which only this colony, on this out-of-the-way, isolated world, could hope to avoid.
* * *
"UFO bearing 147 blue. Multiple contacts. Speed SOL three decimal eight."
The Moonbase control group came to attention as SID's calm, almost mellow, voice sounded through the room. The signal was automatically relayed to SHADO Control. Weary officers came to attention; some of them had dozed off at their posts. Major Ford was talking to one of the technicians; at the alert, he moved to stand beside Anderson at the comms desk, ready to assist. Anderson gave him a quick, grateful nod.
Acting-Commander Foster came out of the command office, his pace unhurried, his face without expression. "Here we go again," he muttered. His first real command, and already the aliens had apparently thrown at them everything they could. Although the attack had largely been unsuccessful, it seemed to him to mean that Freeman's expedition had been fruitless. He just hoped it had not made matters worse.
Fat chance of that now, he thought, as he saw the readout on the plotting screen. It showed no fewer than eight craft, with six of them grouped around a seventh, and led by the remaining UFO. Behind them, the plot revealed another group of four more craft, though not in such a tight, regular formation. He thought, fleetingly: odd.
But his heart was plunging towards his boots. Surely this second attack, following so closely on the first, meant not only that Freeman had failed, but that the aliens had finally broken down Commander Straker. Ed. His brother.
He would not have believed that was possible; but who knew what horrors these monsters could inflict?
He hoped that the two had died quickly, that they had not been dismantled, butchered. He knew there was no such chance.
Grief struck at him. He only hoped he could keep it off his face.
He gave the order for red alert. His voice was steady. He did not realise that tears were streaming down his cheeks.
* * *
In the leading skimmer, the viewscreen showed the four chasers, coming up rapidly behind them. Freeman watched them approach, their intent all too clear. He heard the pilots 'talking' to each other, in brief clicks and pings. The sounds managed to convey urgency even to his untutored ears.
He looked across at Pavlor, gave him the question gesture. Pavlor responded with an emphatic thumbs-down.
Targeting circles appeared on the viewscreen. Lights flashed across the display. Three of the traces vanished. One of them came onward, aiming for the skimmer carrying Straker.
A blinding flash of light erupted within their own skimmer.
* * *
At Moonbase, three Interceptors climbed wearily into space. A grim Nina Barry read off the data streaming down to her from SID, and a frown creased her brows.
"Speed, please, Lieutenant?" Gay's voice was harsh. She was thinking: please, not again. They had only barely managed to fight off the last incursion. Twenty ships, was it? Thirty? They had not had such an attack since the underwater dome incident, and they had been ready for that one.
She tried to persuade herself that such a massive attack did not mean what she knew it must mean; that Alec's quixotic mission had indeed failed.
"Lieutenant, I asked you a question - "
"I'm sorry, Gay, I was rechecking… There's something odd here. I think they're shooting at each other!"
"Confirmed," Joan put in, from her station, her voice cracking with incredulity.
And indeed, the plot showed energy bolts flashing between the leading group and the four pursuers. As the Moonbase personnel watched, two of the bolts found their targets, and the pursuers were reduced to two. A third vanished a moment later. The last one was closing on the UFO at the centre of the leading formation, trying to evade their fire. There was a burst of light, flooding the screen. When it cleared, the central craft was still there, but its attacker had vanished.
"What the hell was all that about?" wondered Gay.
…"More to the point," said Foster grimly, his voice delayed in transmission, "whose side is this lot on?"
"This gets odder," Nina commented. "That group is travelling very slowly indeed. Speed is SOL decimal 01 and dropping."
"Confirmed," added Joan. "They've stopped… but the leader is coming on. Very slowly."
Mark Bradley's astonished voice sounded over the radio. "Have visual contact with the leading craft. It's been painted white."
Gay came to a quick decision. "Interceptors, hold your fire. Repeat, do not fire. All ground defences, target intruder, but do not - repeat NOT - fire except on my direct order. Interceptors 2 and 3, be ready to escort our visitor… Stand by, everyone."
She did not dare let herself hope. Neither did Paul Foster, but he did not countermand Gay's orders. Both of them did their best to ignore the looks they were getting.
* * *
Freeman's vision cleared. Wondering what had just happened, he checked the distance readout, then gave the 'slow' signal. Pavlor responded with a thumbs-up, and spoke to the pilots. The starfield on the viewscreen changed from streaks to points of light, slowly drifting.
Inside the skimmer, pumps were apparently removing the clear buffer fluid from the cabin. Pavlor signed to Freeman, touching his helmet. He showed a thumbs-up in return. One of the pilots reached out and adjusted a control on his life- support pack. The level of the fluid in his helmet began to drop, and he felt his suit inflate. He coughed a little as the fluid was extracted from his lungs, but it was not as uncomfortable as he had feared. Beside him, Pavlor was also being reverted to air-breathing.
"Are you well, Alec Freeman?" he asked, his voice a little husky.
"Yes - " Freeman coughed once more, tried again. "Yes. Thank you. What was that flash?"
"I do not yet know, but we all seem unharmed… What are your instructions?"
"The Interceptors haven't fired at us yet… what are they doing?"
"Holding station just within estimated range. They do not respond to our attempts to make contact."
"OK… As slowly as possible, set course for these co-ordinates." Freeman gave them. He had not needed to write them down. He doubted whether he would ever forget them… "And then send out a general recognition signal, and listen for communications with every channel you have. I will have to persuade them not to shoot us out of the sky."
* * *
Joan spoke again, suddenly. "Gay, I have a trajectory termination, and you will not believe where."
"Well… you know the epicentre of the impact from the Incident? They're going to land right on it. That can't be a coincidence."
"What are they doing? Thumbing their little green noses at us?" Nina snarled. "Why don't we just - Gay! Whatever is the matter?"
It took Gay several seconds to get back some of her shredded self-control. When she spoke again, her voice was shaking as it had not done during that last savage attack. "Commander Foster? Do you wish to take direct command?"
…"I wouldn't dream of it, Gay. It's all yours." Foster turned to Major Ford. In a swift aside he muttered: "Get Dr Jackson in here, now. And get Lew Waterman online."
"Yes, sir." Ford looked as if he would have argued, but a glare from Foster persuaded him otherwise. He made the calls; then he handed Foster a tissue. Without comment, the commander used it to mop the tear-stains from his cheeks.
On Moonbase, Gay moved her hands over her board. She said in a clear voice: "Joan. I want an all-bands, all-modes signal, as much power as you can muster. Laser as well. I want to talk to that craft!"
Joan Harrington set up the controls, then turned to look at her commanding officer. "All channels open, Gay. Directionals beamed at the UFO. Ready."
"Thank you, Joan." Gay drew a long breath, and said: "This is Moonbase calling UFO. Repeat, this is Moonbase calling occupants of interplanetary craft. Answer, please. We know that you can hear and understand us. We've been observing your craft, and we'd like to make a contact with you."
"You have to be kidding," Joan whispered. She thought: I didn't know you liked The Carpenters, Gay…
In SHADO Control, eyes flicked to Commander Foster's face. One or two people made to speak, but he cut them off with a sharp gesture.
The UFO touched down, with two Interceptors circling overhead, ready to strike.
And then, in Moonbase and in SHADO Control, monitors came alive in a growing storm of noise and colour. The noise slowly cleared. The image steadied, became the craggy and greenish features of Commander Alexander Freeman. He spoke. "Gay, for god's sake don't shoot! Hold your fire!"
"Holding, sir," Captain Ellis replied. Of all SHADO personnel watching at that moment, she seemed the only one capable of movement. "I should advise you to make no sudden moves, though."
"I wouldn't dare, Gay… Captain, I request permission to have a second craft land here. I also request permission to make a delivery."
"One item at one time. You may instruct the second craft to land, beside you."
"Thank you. They should be within your range shortly."
"Confirmed," Joan Harrington put in. "Trajectory as before. Interceptor 2 escorting. Wojnycz reports this one's also white. With - wait for it - a red cross."
The calm computer voice sounded again. "This is SID. Six UFOs retreating. Speed SOL 2. Course: returning to apparent origin."
In SHADO Control, Paul Foster wanted to yell with sheer relief. He quashed the impulse; he remembered Craig Collins…
Gay held back the question she desperately wanted to ask, and concentrated on making sure the second UFO set down safely. Safely? she asked herself silently. Yesterday we'd have blown it out of the sky. Today… that just might be a very bad idea indeed. "How many persons are aboard these two craft, sir?"
"In this one, two pilots, an Ambassador named Pavlor, and myself." Freeman looked the question at Pavlor, who held up three fingers, then added another. "On the second craft there are also three occupants, including a man named Merrel who is Pavlor's second in command, and a medical attendant named Breen. Oh yes… and a transit pod, which is occupied."
An Ambassador, Gay Ellis noted… "You mentioned a delivery, Commander Freeman? Is this the… transit pod?" she asked.
His reply tested her self-control to its limits. "Yes, Gay. It's the results of my fishing trip. Request a hopper to collect it, plus three passengers - Pavlor, Breen, and myself. I also request a second hopper to collect our pilots, Merrel, and his pilot. Recommend you provide security escort."
"Believe me I intend to, sir… Any special provisions?"
"It would be a good idea to let medical know," Freeman said dryly.
"…Yes, sir. Hoppers are on their way, Carter and North piloting. ETA twenty minutes."
* * *
"We will wait for the hopper to arrive," Freeman said to Pavlor. "Please advise Merrel to be ready to disembark with the Commander's pod."
"As you wish."
Pavlor was thinking about that flash of light, which had accompanied the destruction of the final defector craft. He remembered the similar flash that had occurred in the battle in the medical centre. Had the Kei somehow come to the defence of… of its master?
Perhaps he would soon know.
* * *
"Are you going to tell us what's going on?" Joan demanded.
"I rather think Commander Freeman will do that." Gay moved the desk microphone to her lips, and thumbed the call button. "All Moonbase personnel, this is Captain Ellis. We are shortly expecting arrival of persons and cargo, at Dome 5. Security and medical on standby. Treat this cargo as potentially dangerous and disruptive to Moonbase structure and contents."
"Not that you don't trust him or anything," Joan murmured. She swapped glances with Nina; both of them were trying not to hope…
…"Captain Ellis, this is Foster. Are you able to give any update?"
"Not so far, sir, but it's all looking… hopeful. Would you excuse me…?"
Gay watched the progress of the two hoppers as they headed for the pair of parked UFOs. They drew up alongside. "Alec, your taxi is there."
"Thanks, Gay, we're coming out now."
Long minutes passed. At last, a dark space appeared on the side of the UFO near them, and two figures in red spacesuits emerged. One was carrying a small case. A hatch opened in the second craft, and another three aliens came out. Two of them were carrying what must be the 'transit pod'. It was a cylinder the right size to hold a grown man, and it reminded Gay irresistibly of a coffin. Which, she realised unwillingly, might just be not so far from the truth.
The hatches on the hoppers opened also, and armed Moonbase personnel jumped down to the regolith. Two of them took the pod and manoeuvred it into the first hopper, with its attendant. Its two alien porters were taken in charge by the crew of the second hopper. The two from the first UFO were urged up into the hopper behind the pod, and the hatch closed.
"Good," Gay said. "Commander Freeman, those two UFOs will stay exactly where they are until I say otherwise. They will not attempt to take off even under remote control, nor make any hostile move. If they do I will have them. Clear?"
"Perfectly, Captain. By the way, this gentleman is a medic named Breen. And this is Ambassador Azan Pavlor, Prince of Spicor."
Gay's eyes widened at this. "I greet you, Mr Ambassador," she said. "What is in that box you carry?"
"It contains certain personal items which are the property of Ed Straker and Alec Freeman. It also contains an artefact called the Kei."
Gay thought: The property of Ed Straker, is it indeed… "Open it, please."
The overhead monitor switched to the feed from the hopper. An overhead camera focussed on the box as Pavlor complied, lifting its lid. Cushioned inside were two wristwatches, a small rectangular metal box marked with the chi-rho, and a second box some 20 centimetres long, black, but with a shimmering pattern of some iridescent mineral inlaid into its surface. Pavlor opened it, to reveal a sword-shaped shaft of crystal. The beautiful thing was glimmering with more than the reflections of the hopper's interior lighting; but its own light was weak, uneven.
"Mr Pavlor, you will explain what this is, please."
"As you wish," Pavlor answered. "It is the artefact we name the Kei, and it is associated with one of our royal figures, the Keimon, who has been thought long dead. I am its Keeper, against the time when the Keimon might re-emerge. There are signs that this may have occurred."
"I see. Very well, bring it with you. We'll talk more on this later."
…"Ellis, this is Foster. I take it you intend to implement Plan Delta?"
"You bet your socks I do, sir… But first - Hopper One, you will come back to Moonbase. Slowly."
The hopper pilot, Alan Carter, acknowledged, and the small spidery craft lifted off from the regolith on its under-jets and headed back southwards. The second hopper followed in its wake. The two craft had barely gone half a kilometre when Gay ordered: "Stop."
The pilots complied. The hoppers came to rest on the regolith once more. Inside his cabin, though Gay could not see, Alec's face was split by a grin of pure admiration.
"Alec, may I suggest that you get off at this point?"
"Not bloody likely, Captain!" Alec snapped. "I appreciate the thought - but I've come too many billions of bloody kilometres to abandon him now!"
Gay closed her eyes for a moment. "Very well, sir. If you insist… But you will now show me the contents of that pod."
"With the very greatest of pleasure, Gay."
The camera tilted, focussed on the pod, on a readout showing what were obviously vital sign traces: ECG, pulse rate, breathing, EEG.
In SHADO Control, Foster said, swiftly, to Jackson: "Comments?"
"Pulse rate 60… breathing 10… ECG normal… EEG consistent with deep coma."
"Thank you." Foster fell silent once more.
In the hopper, Freeman murmured: "Open the pod please, Hal."
The alien beside him looked puzzled. "My… my name is Pavlor, Alec Freeman."
"So it is… I'll explain later, OK?" He thought: I wonder what you'd make of the film '2001'…
"As you wish."
Pavlor touched an area beside the monitor. The traces flickered and vanished. A long dark line appeared along the length of the pod. It widened, as the two halves of the pod cover moved apart.
Inside, clearly visible to the overhead camera, was the motionless figure of a man. A man who Paul Foster recognised immediately; as did Gay Ellis, Joan Harrington, and every operational member of SHADO. His eyes were closed in a face pale under the faint green tint, his features were gaunt, but the fine blond hair was tidily combed.
Foster squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, hard, to suppress his tears. Around him, people were coming to their feet. Once again Gay was the only one to speak. "Confirm identity," she croaked.
"It really is Commander Edward George Straker."
"And - his status?"
"He's alive," answered Freeman, "and likely to stay that way. But he was injured - it's a form of concussion - and so Ambassador Pavlor's people decided it was best to send him home, where he has a better chance of recovery."
"Very well… Now listen carefully. Hopper Two will stay where it is for the moment. Hopper One will approach Moonbase to a distance of 500 meters. I will come out to the hopper myself. When I have arrived, Commander Freeman, you will leave the pod and any devices you may be carrying in the hopper under guard, while you, Mr Pavlor, and Mr Breen enter Dome 5. There you will be thoroughly checked over to ensure that you are who and what you appear to be. Dr Jackson will be supervising from HQ."
"Thought he might be," Freeman said, with a resigned grin. "Gay?"
"Why the hell didn't we make you a General years ago?"
"I really couldn't say, sir… I'm on my way." Gay rose to her feet. "Lieutenant Barry, you are in control here. There is a task to do at the hopper - and I'm not going to ask for volunteers."
Her colleagues watched silently as she thumbed the sensitive plate on a cupboard marked with the Greek symbol Delta, opened the door, removed an equipment case and a long-barrelled gun, sealed the door once more, and walked from the room.
* * *
The silence in SHADO Control was broken only by the quiet electronic symphony emanating from the equipment. Everyone was staring at the image on the monitor. Once or twice, eyes would flick to Paul Foster's face, then back to the screen.
Foster spoke. "Would someone for god's sake get me a coffee?"
A plastic cup was pressed into his hand. He looked around, into Colonel Virginia Lake's face. For the first time in how many weeks, that face had lost its haunted expression. Indeed, she was grinning fiercely.
"I wonder what Henderson will say," she murmured.
"Nothing printable," Foster returned. "What's wrong with Alec's arm?"
"He's left-handed… but he's using his right, and his left arm seems to be anchored to his waist."
"And the Commander has concussion," added Ford. "They've been in a fight."
"Indeed," Foster agreed. "And those other craft were an armed escort… Someone back home didn't want them to get here, did they?"
"Evidently not." Ford straightened up, and glared at Foster. "Well, Acting-Commander? What's going on, exactly? What do you know about this? Come on, give!"
"I can't say," Foster said. As Ford's expression hardened, he added: "We'll just have to wait to hear from Commander Freeman, I'm afraid. All I can tell you is that it was only a couple of weeks ago that we - Alec, Lew, Gay, and I, that is - realised that Commander Straker had been abducted, not killed. I'll let Lew tell you about that part of it…"
* * *
Captain Ellis covered the half-kilometre distance to the hopper in what must have been record time. She had brought two more security guards, and they had trouble keeping up. Alan Carter was waiting for them. He helped her up the ladder into the airlock, and cycled it, following her inside. Medic Breen waited by the pod, and the hopper copilot stood watchfully beside him. The two guards waited on the regolith.
"Hello, Gay," Freeman said. His eyes were fixed on the gun clipped to her belt. "He's all yours."
"Thank you." Gay moved to stand beside the pod, out of the way of a possible attempt by its occupant to make a grab for her weapon, her helmet still closed. She unclipped her gun, pointed it at the head of the pod's occupant, and held it in a rock-steady hand. "Proceed to Dome 5, please, gentlemen."
Freeman and Pavlor donned their helmets and left through the hopper airlock. Breen followed. The guards escorted them to Moonbase entrance, and inside to the medical bay, then returned to the hopper.
* * *
The tale of Commander Straker's abduction had a mixed reception.
Major Keith Ford got his reaction in first. "Why the HELL didn't you tell us?" fumed the normally cool and calm comms specialist. "Did you think we couldn't take it?"
"We weren't certain ourselves what had happened," Foster pointed out. "We didn't think we had the right to put you all through that uncertainty."
"And besides," Waterman added from SkyDiver, "there was the possibility of leaks. OK, Henderson had authorised the sabotage of the Commander's lunar module, but not the mods to his pod."
Foster looked around the room. "Everyone here has been thoroughly checked out since we realised what had really happened. You're all clean. We aren't sure about anyone else."
"Has anyone checked out Henderson?" Ford demanded.
"I did," Jackson said, a little abstractedly. He was concentrating on Moonbase.
"Well, that's something," Ford said. "Paul, this is… well, it's incredible, that's all. When will we know if… if the Commander will be all right?"
"First," Foster answered, "we have to know what happened to him."
* * *
The tests to which Freeman and the two Europans were subjected were both prolonged and uncomfortable; but at length, after what must have been a couple of hours, Jackson pronounced himself satisfied.
"You might be but I'm not," growled Paul Foster. "As acting commander of SHADO in the absence or unavailability of designated personnel, Commander Freeman, I'm requiring you to give a formal account of your actions, as soon as feasible."
…"Paul, what, exactly, are you doing?" Freeman enquired.
"I'm detaining you for questioning. I must remind you that your actions demand a formal enquiry at the very least, and just possibly, Henderson will insist on a court-martial. For desertion."
A storm of protest erupted at both ends of the comms link. Freeman held up his hand for silence. "Acting-Commander Foster is perfectly correct," he confirmed. "But don't worry, Paul… I believe I can mount an effective defence!"
"I'm delighted to hear it, Alec," Foster said, sincerely. He turned his attention back to Gay. "Captain Ellis, we are ready for you."
…"Thank you, sir. All right, Mr Carter," she said to the hopper pilot, "let's get him into a rescue capsule. I don't want that pod inside the dome just yet."
The capsule was a semirigid cylinder with domed ends, pressurisable, and with room inside for an adult male human on a stretcher. While one of the guards stood alertly beside the alien medic, Gay checked Straker's limp form for life-support connections, finding two intravenous feeds, an oxygen line, and a catheter. She consulted Jackson, who advised her to put a medical monitor in place first, then carefully detach the lines. She complied, and between them she and Carter lifted Straker out of the pod onto the stretcher. They strapped him in place at head, shoulders, hips, and ankles, then rolled it into the capsule, latching it in place.
"Gay, this is Alec. Pavlor recommends that you check that sword now, and if you are happy, bring it along with him. Seems they're linked, somehow."
"Will do." Gay handed the equipment case she had brought to the hopper pilot. Carter opened it, and brought out a radiation meter. He scanned the box; there was no more than a typical background reading. He repeated the scan with an RF detector, again with no result. Ultrasonics and a chemical sniffer also showed clear. He opened the box, reached out a hand for the blade, but after a moment withdrew.
"Problem?" said Gay, sharply.
"No… not really," Carter said, puzzled. "It's… it's like it doesn't want to be touched."
"Alec, ask your Mr Pavlor, is this thing alive?"
There was a pause. "He says that has never been clear, but you should treat it as though it were."
Gay thought for a moment, then decided. "Let's try something… I'll put it in the capsule with him."
She placed the opened box on the stretcher at Straker's feet. Its internal light strengthened noticeably. At the same time, the vital signs traces on the medical monitor came up a little.
"Some teddybear," she murmured. "All right… Let's get him moving."
She spoke to Freeman. "Alec? We haven't asked you yet… Are you OK?"
"Of course, I'm fine - oof!!"
At the same moment, Joan and Nina had launched themselves at him. Both of them were weeping. Cheers and whistles echoed through SHADO Control. Pavlor watched, bemused.
"Put me down, ladies," Freeman said, laughing. "No, I take it back… go right ahead!"
"If anyone's interested," Gay Ellis said, "we're coming in. And you can bring Gary North and his mates in now as well."
* * *
They brought the rescue capsule into Moonbase, where the medical staff were waiting. Silence fell, in both SHADO Control, and Moonbase Ops. Everyone was gazing at the monitors.
"Pavlor?" Freeman asked, softly. "What can you tell us about Ed's condition?"
"To summarise," Pavlor answered, "Ed Straker experienced a near miss to the cranial region from one of our energy beam projectors. There was no physical contact, and hence no gross injury. However, there was an induced shock, which was sufficient to disable temporarily his brain processes."
"I see why you called it 'concussion'… How might he be helped to recover?"
"Medic Breen will need to discuss that in detail with your own medical operatives."
"Of course. But you will remain with your escort at all times, Dr Breen."
Pavlor nodded, and the medic said: "I comply, happy." A security guard led him into Medical.
From Earth, Jackson commented: "Comas in humans tend to be unpredictable. They can last for years or hours. However, it has often been found that a patient emerges from a comatose state more readily when in a familiar and friendly environment."
"Should we take him to his own quarters, here?" Gay asked.
…"That would be helpful, yes."
Pavlor brushed his hand across his forehead. "I must inform your medical staff that Ed Straker's physiological resources are considerably depleted by - by our attempts to extract information from him. We have begun the process of restoring these resources, but I would suggest that you investigate them as a matter of priority."
…"You mean you tortured him nearly to death!" Foster snarled.
"In fact it was Pavlor who stopped them from doing exactly that," Freeman interposed. "The person you should be tearing to pieces right now is a nasty piece of work named Kotte. It seems that Ed's original assessment was spot on - there is a separate faction, led by this Kotte character, which does indeed seem to think we're no more than clever animals, fit only to supply them with spare parts… Pavlor here wasn't satisfied, and investigated Ed and me in rather more detail. And rather more gently. He realised the truth about us. Without him we wouldn't have made it. But he brought us home, and has every intention of concluding a treaty with Earth. We owe him more than we can know."
"You will have me in tears in a moment," Pavlor murmured. He was smiling, slightly.
"I mean every word," Freeman said, gently.
…"I… see." Foster had managed to regain control of himself. "Alec, when Ed has been settled in, I will need to interview you and Mr Pavlor. Separately. Be advised that I have just now informed Henderson of these developments - which means we will have a fire-breathing general on our doorstep shortly." And how, he thought to himself. Well, Alec, you did make it home, and with Ed… but I'll have to put in some fancy footwork myself to stop you getting a bullet in the neck!
"Oh boy." Seeing Pavlor's startled expression, Freeman added: "It's OK, he didn't mean that literally!"
"I confess I am relieved," Pavlor murmured. His face was quite straight, and Freeman wondered: is that a sense of humour I detect there?
Gay's voice sounded over the speakers. "This is Captain Ellis. I can report that we have Commander Straker settled in bed in his quarters, and attended by our medical staff. Although he is still unconscious, his physical condition is fair and improving."
A cheer went up, echoed on Earth a moment later. Jackson spoke as it died away. "Please patch me in to the monitors, Captain."
"Will do… Paul? Permission to invite Alec and Pavlor in for a brief visit, before you start grilling them?"
…"Hmm… Oh, very well," Foster said; but he was smiling.
"You're enjoying this, you b - " Freeman bit off the word with a chuckle, grabbed Pavlor's arm, and headed for the corridor to the living quarters.
* * *
The sleep chamber was a little crowded. A mobile cradle, carrying various monitors, was placed by the bedside, at the head end. One of the Moonbase medical staff was stationed beside it. He wore a headset, and was talking softly into its microphone. Another doctor was attaching EEG leads to his own equipment. Breen looked on, occasionally giving comments and answering queries in his own somewhat exotic version of English. In the middle of all this, Ed Straker lay still and quiet on the transparent bed, covered to the throat in a light but warm sheet, but his hands were clear of the cover at his sides. His face was, somehow, rather calmer than when Freeman had seen it that morning in the medical facility on Europa.
And someone had switched on the light show panel behind the bed.
"Hello, Ed," Freeman said. "Welcome home… I hope you're not going to be snoozing for too long, I may need your help. Henderson is after my blood."
There was no visible response. Freeman wondered again how much Ed could hear.
Pavlor indicated the black inlaid box containing the Kei, which was open on one of the shelves beside the bed. "I think it best if I take the Kei back into my keeping," he said. "For the moment, at least."
"OK by me."
Cautiously, Pavlor lifted the box. A ripple of light ran down the crystal shaft, but nothing else happened. The Prince's face relaxed a little. He closed the box, and tucked it once more inside his clothing. He glanced at the man in the bed, who had not stirred.
"I am afraid I must now take you to the interview room, gentlemen," a voice said. Freeman turned, to see a somewhat embarrassed Mark Bradley.
"Very well, Lieutenant." Freeman reached out and squeezed Ed's hand, briefly. "See you later, Ed. Lead the way, Mark."
As they left, Pavlor looked at Freeman. "Companion, have I your permission to contact Nepetane, to advise her of our arrival, and that matters are progressing satisfactorily?"
"Of course. Mark, could you clear that with Gay?"
"No problem, sir."
* * *
………………I am home………………
* * *
"Miss Gunn!" Henderson barked. "Get Lackland, immediately!"
"Yes, sir," the secretary answered. She was more than a little alarmed; the general was very agitated. "Can I get you some coffee, sir?"
"Very well, sir." She exited, hurriedly.
Henderson sank into his chair, his feelings in turmoil. The news of Straker's survival had brought an incredible, overwhelming release of the grief and anger that had been building up in him over the weeks. It was almost too much to take in. He felt physically weak, breathless.
He reached for the water glass, and lifted it to his lips with a shaking hand.
What, he asked himself silently, had prompted this amazing turnaround in the aliens' attitude to Earth? Did this really mean the end of their long war? Or was it, indeed, too good to be true?
Miss Gunn reappeared. "Mr Lackland is on his way up now, sir."
* * *
Gimen had been meditating, in lieu of sleep, when Kotte opened a link to him. The information passed was unexpected and horrifying. Kotte himself had been arrested; and the Devas intended to establish diplomatic relations with these regressed terrans! To assist in this process, Pavlor intended to return the two latest specimens, one of whom - the 'shado commander' - was disabled. Kotte instructed Gimen to acquire this terran, and arrange to return it to Dyaus; or, if that proved to be impossible, to kill it. But this was only as a final resort; this creature appeared to be favoured by the Kei.
This news from Kotte had left Gimen with decidedly mixed feelings. Though he had managed to evade his captors, Kotte had been effectively neutralised, and could only be helped now by his Third Sector, less than totally reliable as they were. On the one hand this meant that Kotte's plans for the Arkad race were in serious jeopardy. On the other hand, Gimen had his own plans for them, and he could now pursue these - and he intended to ignore Kotte's obsession with this Keimon.
It had been a fairly simple task to persuade Henderson to take an appropriate stance. Gimen had ensured that the general's relationship with Straker had become increasingly hostile, and even Henderson's genuine relief at his subordinate's survival had proved an easy barrier to overcome. He had never quite got over his suspicion of the commander's motives, despite the failure of the 'collaboration' project, which Doctor Jackson had sabotaged. All Lackland had had to do was play the 'trusty aide' role… and carefully suggest some doubts of his own.
He had considered loading the general's body with the drug they had used on the terran 'marion-knight', together with its antidote; then all he had to do was withhold that antidote, and the general would be incapacitated. As it happened, however, the general's own health was not good and was deteriorating. Gimen took measures to ensure that this continued, while taking care that he would live, long enough to do what Gimen required of him.
Destiny Part III
The Works of Snowleopard
The Library Entrance