Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps,
W.S. Churchill, 1942-11-10
Country of first publication,
All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
My thanks to Matt for his timeline, which I found very useful in establishing ages. Story Timeline - Matt's Place and DebbieJ, for supplying ideas about new skimmer pilots!
It was a pleasant evening. The rain that had been threatening for most of the day had at last taken itself off, as promised by the forecasters, and was heading off eastwards to bestow its blessing on the North Sea.
A low-slung car, pale lilac in colour, purred along the tree-lined road. Inside it, driving almost negligently with one hand on the wheel, Colonel Paul Foster, SHADO liaison to the Spicor stellar group, was whistling softly to himself. His companion in the passenger seat was a man with grey hair, and a green-tinged skin.
Foster glanced at him. Azan Pavlor, the Devas of this solar system - as Pavlor had explained it, the individual in charge of all Spicor's affairs there - seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the experience. He was gazing out at the landscape, a gentle smile on his face, drinking in the view as though it were fine wine.
Earlier Foster had taken Pavlor and his kinsman Tyl, Prince of Merrel Demesne, to the initial meeting with the UN Special Committee. After the meeting Doug Jackson had returned with the Dyaus pair to the SHADO Medical Centre for a final checkup. Leaving Merrel in the capable hands of Colonel Jack Webb, Foster had collected Pavlor from there, and was now chauffeuring him to the spaceport, where Commander Freeman and Ambassador Straker would be waiting.
The object of that Committee meeting had been to consider the details of the Treaty between Earth and Spicor that, between the Devas and the Keimon, had been established in a rather skeletal form. Foster had had no doubt that bureaucrats from both parties would try to flesh out that skeleton with as much complicating meat as they could manage.
Except that, somehow, it hadn't happened that way. The Keimon himself - the representative of humanity to the cosmos at large, and Foster's former commanding officer, Ed Straker - had resisted all such attempts. He had been gentle, but quite firm, about it. Indeed, Foster's impression was that he had hardly spoken at all, but made his opinions quite clear in other, more subtle ways.
He's changed an awful lot, Foster had thought to himself, while the conversation went on around him, though he managed to take notes of various significant points. I thought he was overstating this Keimon business. But he really is different now… though there are still flashes of the 'old man' in there.
Is he still my brother, though?
Some months ago, following the death of Ed's stepmother, a woman called Marion Knight, at the alien-inspired hands of one Diane Matthews - Foster's 'old flame' from his early adulthood - they had discovered that he and Ed were related, by adoption and marriage. Though it felt good, that relationship was pretty tenuous, he had to admit. Perhaps, he mused, that's down to us both having lost the brother who was our connection, before we'd had time to get used to the idea!
The brother in question was Robert Fletcher, who had been adopted by Marion Knight, who in turn had later married Ed's father after he had been widowed while Ed was quite young. Thus, Robert became Ed's step-brother. But Robert, it seemed, was also full brother to Paul Foster, who was born to their mother after she had divorced their father - though already pregnant by him - and re-married.
And then Robert had been 'zommed', to use a term coined by Doug Jackson; taken over and brain-altered by the aliens, and used as a conduit to influence Paul. Robert and an alien agent had kidnapped Paul, and laid a trap for Ed himself, using Paul as bait. Robert had had died in the confrontation with Ed and Paul, when Paul had thrown a knife into him to prevent both himself and Ed from being taken by the aliens.
Paul had been gravely injured. To keep him fighting, Ed had told him about the information that Ed's stepmother had found about their relationship - information that Ed had only discovered, in Marion Knight’s effects, on the hectic dash to rescue him.
They had both survived; but since then, they had tiptoed around the subject of their relationship for many weeks, both somewhat shy about the situation. It had not helped that Ed was the C-in-C of SHADO Operations, and therefore the boss; while Foster was a mere colonel under his command, subordinate even to Colonel Freeman.
But, somehow, they had managed to edge closer. Perhaps that was because neither of us was pushing too hard, he realised.
And then this Keimon situation had exploded in their faces.
The people who Foster had been used to thinking of as 'aliens' had abducted Commander Straker, and interrogated him, trying to discover ways of finishing SHADO for good. In the process they had discovered the truth about the Earth inhabitants; that, as Devas Pavlor put it, they were not animals, but brothers. Indeed, according to the Devas, Earth had been originally a Spicor colony world.
And Ed had turned out to be the Keimon, the Leader of Humanity, of both Earth and Spicor.
Ed did not appear to think of himself in those terms, though. As he had told Commissioner Springer of the UN, he was not an emperor. Neither, he had assured Alec, was he a demigod, or even an angel.
What exactly he was, indeed, he was still discovering for himself.
At length the meeting had come to a halt. The Committee members had left with their action lists and a date for follow-up and reporting, looking more than a little bemused. But they had agreed to the first item on Straker's agenda, which was to establish a permanent embassy for Spicor at Moonbase Alpha.
Accordingly, Foster was to fly the three of them - Ambassador Straker CMG, Ambassador-Devas Pavlor, and himself, SHADO-Spicor Liaison - up to SHADO Moonbase, in one of the passenger lunar modules. They would meet with the ILFC Commissioner, Dr Sue Grant. All ILFC had been told was that SHADO wanted to 'borrow' a section of their lunar base; and only Dr Grant and her colleagues Colonel Koenig and Professor Bergman would be privy to the true purpose of the request.
Though how the Alphans will react to those green skins, Foster thought, remains to be seen!
Freeman took Straker back to SHADO to file his notes and pick up his travel bag, while Foster took the Devas to see Dr Schroeder for a final checkup before leaving for Moonbase. This was so that the medics could track the effects of the Earth environment on the Dyausan; Shroeder would then hand Pavlor back into Foster's care.
Foster's own main concern, however, was for Straker himself. Freeman had taken Foster aside and told him to look after Ed or, he had said, "I'll have your guts for garters". Not that Foster really needed telling, as he had assured the new SHADO C-in-C.
"And who's going to look after you?" Foster had enquired, somewhat irreverently. "Joan?"
Freeman had groaned, and muttered something about perhaps he should just spray-paint it on the walls. Foster departed with a grin.
Despite his light-hearted comments, though, Foster was genuinely worried. His brother had only recently emerged from deep coma, and was both physically and emotionally debilitated from his captivity on Dyaus. Foster had discussed Ed's health with Dr Breen, the Dyausan medic who had been attending him after his encounter with a Spicor energy weapon. Breen had warned Foster not to expect his patient to recover significantly for many weeks.
"Common it is," Breen had said in his randomly structured English, "for patients my with trauma similar, problems emotional and physical to experience. Occurs rarely very violence physical actual, but irritation and swings mood common."
So Ed probably won't actually thump me, Foster thought when he disentangled this pronouncement, but I may wish he had!
He wondered how, in this somewhat fragile state of mind, Ed would approach their most immediate problem. This was not the establishment of the Dyaus Embassy, which was a matter of conventional lunar logistics. Straker, and Freeman, had both been concerned mainly with the rebel faction. As Keimon, Straker had decreed that these Arkadian rebels were no longer part of Spicor, and had ordered them to be deported to their home planet, though on probation. Foster expected that Kotte, the leader of the rebels, would not go meekly, his alien tail between his legs. The rebel faction was no doubt already preparing a counterstrike.
* * *
"You must now wake, and prepare."
Jax yawned, and opened his eyes. The voice was that of a machine intelligence that all the personnel here called Avach. Indeed, many of them, he knew, called this zone itself by that name.
The panel above him was brightening, its colour shifting towards the blue end of the spectrum. He stretched a little, finding his muscles a little sore, as though they had been unused for some time.
"How long have I slept?" he asked. His voice was a little hoarse, he noted. Perhaps he should consult the medic.
"Your sleep period lasted 4.5 day-twelfths," the communicator answered. "You must now clean and clothe yourself. You may then attend the early-day food-meeting."
"I comply, Avach."
Jax recalled that Avach used a timescale different to that on Dyaus, where a 'day' was the time the small moon took to orbit its primary. But Avach time had been adapted to the Candar - or lunar - cycle. In addition he remembered being taught to convert to terran terms, using terran hours as a means for comparison.
In general, the races of Spicor had gradually shifted towards a common day length of about 22 terran hours, as used on the Avach homeworld, Varna, which the terrans called Proxima B. Varna was tidally locked to its primary, as Dyaus was to Isvar. But since the people of Varna lived in underwater habitats, again reminiscent of Dyaus, they ignored the stellar cycle and instead used an artificial diurnal rhythm based on the Varna 'year'. This period was, usefully, very nearly a multiple of 22 hours.
This Spicor 'day' was about a quarter of a Dyaus orbital period, and only slightly shorter than a terran day. And Candar's diurnal cycle was so elongated that it was mostly ignored. At Avach, the colony used Varna time, which neatly broke up the Candar day into 30 segments.
Jax pushed back the light sheet that had covered him during his sleep, and sat up, with care. His muscles were indeed sore; and he experienced a little dizziness as he came upright. Yes, a visit to the medic would be a good idea.
"Avach," he said, as he pushed himself to his feet, "I am not fully functional. Is there a slot available at Medical?"
"There are three such slots this period. Times are 3, 4.5, and 8. The time now is 2.5. Reminder: Your next flight training session is at 5."
"I will use the 4.5 slot. Please advise Medical."
Jax walked - rather unsteadily - towards the wall locker that held his clothing. He touched the sense panel, and the door slid aside, revealing sets of garments. Recalling that today would be his first cocooned flight session, he selected the blue set, and took them back to his bed, laying them across the cover. He took off his sleepsuit, folded it, and placed it on the pillow, then made his way to the cleaning cubicle.
As the cubicle door closed behind him, the air filled with a warm mist. There was a low hum as the sonics started up. His skin tingled, not unpleasantly, as surface grime was shaken off, and absorbed by the mist. He opened his mouth to allow a probe to cleanse it. The cubicle cleared, and warm air blew on him, drying his skin.
He emerged, and began dressing himself. As he pulled on his flight boots, the door to his chamber chimed, indicating a wish to enter. He released the lock. A woman whom he recognised stood there.
"May I enter, Jax?" she asked.
"Yes, Mother," he replied. "Have you slept well?"
"I have." The woman stepped forward into his chamber, and the door closed behind her. "Jax, Medical advised me that you requested a slot with them. Are you unwell?"
"A little," he admitted. "Some muscle stiffness, and a little dizziness. I cannot account for it; I have not been over-active during the last few days. And I need to be fully functional for flight training."
"Indeed." His mother smiled, warmly. "Shall we go down to the food hall?"
"Of course." He indicated that she should precede him, and together they made their way to the transfer shaft.
* * *
The medic was thorough, and reassuring. "There is no serious problem. It is simply that your exercise period yesterday was a little longer than usual, and you have strained two muscle groups. I advise that you shorten your exercise by one twelfth, and increase your folate supplements to 36 units. Return to check with me after six days."
"I comply," Jax said, closing the fastener on his tunic. "May I attend flight training today?"
The medic frowned. "I would advise against it," he said. "I will advise Crad that you should be fit to ride a skimmer after I have seen you again. In the meantime he is to send you to the advanced theory class. You may depart now."
"Thank you, sir," Jax responded, managing to hide his disappointment. He left the chamber, and headed for the flight tutor.
The medic went into his inner chamber. Bosan was seated by the desk; she looked up. "Well?"
"He has emerged from the stasis chamber in good condition," the medic said. "There is only a little deterioration in his musculoskeletal structure, and I shall pass that information to the stasis crew. The microstimulation works well. You tell me that his memory seems to be functional, though of course we need to monitor that closely."
"And how has he tolerated the ageing?"
"You specified doubling his maturing rate, and he seems to have adjusted to that well," the medic told her. "His physical age now corresponds to that of a terran youth of some 18 terra-years. We shall continue to monitor him over the next six days."
Yes, thought the woman who had once called herself Sarah Bosanquet. I shall.
Later that day, the medic was out on the surface above Avach, helping to collect samples of a new mineral. As he bent to examine the patch of regolith more closely, something struck him in the back. He fell forward, slowly under the low gravity; but as he reached out a hand to arrest his fall, a shard of rock in the patch slashed the sleeve of his vacuum suit. His suit lost pressure, and he died instantly.
* * *
"You realise, Ed," Freeman said, as he settled himself in the driving seat and pulled the gull-wing door shut, "we're going to have problems?"
"That's probably the understatement of the century," Straker grunted. He tried to relax, without much success. "Alec, be ready for trouble sooner rather than later."
Freeman started the car, and engaged drive. As they moved off, he said: "From Kotte and company?"
Freeman cast a quick glance at his friend. Straker was gazing out through the windscreen, a look of sadness on his face. "What's up?"
"We will certainly have problems with the rebels, especially Gimen, for all he's in our custody. But we can stop worrying about Kotte. He's dead."
"No great loss, I have to say… but how can you know? Did Gimen say something I missed?"
"I felt it." Straker looked across at Freeman. "When I detached the rebels from Spicor, I felt the jolt. Some of them couldn't take it… It was a bit like the encounter with the Aethon, in Antarctica. I evicted It, as well, you recall."
"Indeed," Freeman said, thoughtfully. "But why did that kill so many?"
"It's all about control." Straker took a deep breath. "The Aethon did not merely give Its - subjects - orders, It took them over, mind and body, like zoms. When it withdrew that control, they couldn't take it, and they keeled over."
"Are you saying the Aethon re-appeared on Dyaus?"
"No, I don't think so," Straker said, slowly. "Alec, the peoples of Spicor - some of them, at least - have developed their psi powers much more than we have on Earth. Remember Croxley?"
"Do I, " agreed Freeman, fervently. "You think Kotte was like him?"
"I guess so. I also think Kotte had learned a trick or two from the Aethon - possibly even been instructed by It. I think Kotte had used Its techniques to control his underlings, and was fairly successful." Straker smiled without humour. "And then I challenged him, told him to beat it. He was suddenly mind to mind with someone he was in superstitious fear of. Someone he hadn't really believed was real. Someone who he had attacked, tried to kill - and who was now seeking retribution. Or so he thought."
"And the shock was enough to kill him?" Freeman said, a little dubiously. "Why didn't Gimen react like that when he met you? He took a jolt, yes, but - "
"I think Kotte believed and accepted the concept of the Keimon, took it to heart. Gimen didn't, not to the same extent; he was more sceptical."
"So not under Kotte's direct control," Freeman said. "You're saying that Kotte's 'slaves' died, but the rest survived - and they're going to be fighting back."
"Exactly… Alec, I gave them their marching orders, detached them from Spicor. They won't take that lying down."
"Damn right," Freeman agreed, grimly. "What would you do, if you were in their position?"
"Hit back, I guess… But how, is the question. Somehow I don't think they'll mount a frontal attack, judging by their actions to date."
"They do seem to prefer subterfuge," Freeman acknowledged. "At least, they do on Earth, where they've been fighting the environment, so they've used proxies a lot. Jackson's 'zoms'. One or two willing collaborators, like Turner and Roper. And who knows how many of their moles? Here, and on Dyaus?"
These 'moles' were the members of a rebel subgroup, Pavlor had said, that Kotte had referred to as his 'Third Sector', separate from both Spicor and the Arkad contingent. When Kotte had showed his hand by attacking Pavlor and his two terran prisoners - as they were at the time - Pavlor had begun his own investigations into Kotte's actions, and had uncovered a 'nest of muddons' as he had put it. These 'Thirds' had also been inserted into strategic roles on both Earth and the Moon. There had been at least two in SHADO.
"I'm glad you brought that up," Straker agreed. "I'm wondering how many of their own they've 'zommed'. I gather Gimen hasn't been too forthcoming on that subject."
Gimen was one of the alien rebels. He had abducted Henderson's aide and taken his place, aided by a facial disguise made of a kind of gel, which allowed him to mimic the features of anyone he chose. He had been unmasked - literally - when Straker emerged from his coma, escaped from his own would-be abductors, and frustrated Gimen's attempt to restart the long war. At present the rebel was being interrogated by a team comprising both SHADO and Europa specialists.
Freeman whistled, briefly. "You're thinking they might get to Azan?"
"Not sure. If they could have 'zommed' him, I guess they would have done, by now. Perhaps he has't got the right kind of mind, as Jackson put it."
"I did read his 'Project Gamma' study," Freeman said. He gave a small, rueful smile. "Not sure I quite liked his evaluation of me… But if it means I'm Gimen-proof, I won't complain!"
"It does seem to have its advantages… Hope he manages to find an approach to detecting 'moles' quickly."
"How's he getting on?"
"He's got some ideas," Straker said. He smiled a little. "As we can't herd people into shielded cabinets to check their brainwaves, he's looking for a remote way of monitoring them."
"Is that possible?" Freeman said, puzzled.
"Well," Straker said, "he's been talking to Colonel Grey about Sir Esmond." Straker seemed to brace himself, and went on: "About their encounter with Craig Collins."
"It seems that Sir Esmond reacted oddly to meeting Craig. Said it felt like 'someone walking over his grave'."
"Sure is… And you told me that Ginny Lake said Craig gave her the creeps, as well. And then, there's Mary."
"She was frightened enough of Rutland - her 'zommed' husband - to put a bullet through him," Freeman agreed, grimly. "So three people have reacted to 'zoms' at a subconscious level. How does that help? We can't go around asking people who gives them the willies!"
"We sure can't. Apart from anything else, it would turn into a witch-hunt real fast. No, Jackson suggested we should engage an expert in these matters."
"Blind astronauts are a trifle hard to come by," Freeman said, dryly. He went on, carefully: "Or were you thinking about that lady in Ireland?"
"Mrs O'Connor, whose young grandson was abducted and returned to try to warn us? I wasn't, neither was Jackson. He had quite another type of expert in mind… Since humans are not sensitive enough, he proposes using a cat - specially 'chipped' to detect any sign of interference by the rebels."
"A cat?" Freeman laughed. "What would we use as an excuse for taking a cat to Moonbase? They don't have mice, do they?"
"Not yet they don't," Straker said. "But where humans go, our wildlife tends to accompany them, sooner or later. We may indeed end up needing to engage in this sort of biological warfare against vermin. I told Jackson to devise a research programme along those lines. It would make a good cover, and be valid of itself."
Freeman glanced over his shoulder at Straker's case in the rear. "I note you don't have a cat crate with you."
"Not yet. Jackson has to make a suitable selection. He also has to check for allergies among Azan's people as well as ours."
"Hmm," Freeman said, thoughtfully. "Could a cat detect that gelmask that Gimen used to disguise himself as Lackland? Or could a dog?"
"That one's on Jackson's checklist," Straker confirmed. "Also there is the fact that the Arkad rebels have had to use medical means to buffer themselves against our 'corrosive' environment. The compounds involved must leave detectable traces."
"Sniffer dogs and psychic cats," Freeman mused. "Quite a menagerie!"
"I guess the girls will enjoy the company… One other thought occurred to me, your 'empath' friend, Elanor. I don't believe I met her properly… I was asleep at the time."
Freeman chuckled. "That's a fine thing to say to a lady."
"Fool," Straker retorted, but he was smiling. "I must ask Azan about her ability… Though didn't you say she has to be careful about how she 'reads' people?"
"I understand so. Though Azan did say he wonders, himself, how much of that is 'disinformation' from the rebels."
"Well, we'll be careful, and I'll speak to Elanor myself, as soon as possible… She may be a target for the rebels, herself."
"Azan agrees. He got his deputy, Nepetane, to double her guard."
"Great. Alec, monitor how Jackson's getting on with his 'zom-detector', would you? We're going to need it."
"Don't worry. I won't give him a moment's peace!"
Straker smiled a little. He put his head back against the seat, and opened his mind to the Entity for whom he was a willing - if nervous - host.
* * *
The Keimon was tired.
The non-physical being that personified the fundamental identity of the human race - its 'soul', almost - could not experience physical sensation as his human hosts did. Nevertheless, he did perceive the effects that had on those hosts. Those effects were mirrored in him, so that physical tiredness caused both him and his host negative emotions. Right now those emotions were potent, and with valid reason.
The current host of the Keimon, Edward George Straker, former commander of Earth Defences, had only recently begun his recovery from his encounter with the Dyaus colonial outpost and his captivity and interrogation there. That experience had weakened him both physically and mentally, and had reached a climax when he had been rendered comatose by an energy bolt from a weapon used by the rebel faction on that moon of Isvar. He had been returned home by Devas Azan Pavlor of System Prithvi - the original name for the colony world now known by its new name, Earth - where he had recovered, and had been recognised by the Kei. He had escaped from rebels who had kidnapped him, and returned to SHADO, where he, the Devas, and a group of SHADO commandoes, had foiled an attempt by the rebel Gimen to reignite hostilities between Earth and Spicor. The Keimon had worked with his host and with the Devas to begin the process of establishing a Treaty between Earth and Spicor. It was now the Keimon's task to unify the two groups, to reunite Spicor with its sundered colony.
To do that effectively, his host Straker needed to regain his depleted vitality.
It had been barely an Earth week since the skimmer convoy from Dyaus had landed on the satellite referred to by the Earthborn as 'the Moon', to give its two passengers - Straker, and his Companion, Freeman - into the care of SHADO personnel. Straker had woken from his coma only three days ago, and after learning the details of what had been occurring during his absence, he had flatly refused to take sick leave.
It was as well, the Keimon thought, that he had prompted Straker to select some of his associates as Companions in the ancient sense. One of these would be flying the Devas and Straker up to the SHADO lunar installation, to complete a number of tasks before they continued their journey to Dyaus. This Companion, brother to his host, would help immensely in Straker's recovery.
But the Keimon's problem was not limited to the health of his host. There was another component to his weariness, one which was spiritual rather than physical or even psychological. He could not identify it precisely; but it reminded him of a time centuries ago when he had emerged briefly from his dormant state. Unusually, he had no clear recollection of what had happened to rouse him; but he knew it was momentous, if tragic; his then host had taken his own life.
But he needed now to concentrate on the present. In order to reduce the load on his present host as far as possible, he invited Straker to come to full alert during this journey, while he slept.
* * *
Sleep well, Straker thought. And stop fussing.
Freeman glanced at him. "You OK?" he asked, quietly.
"I'm fine. Really," Straker said, with a small, embarrassed smile. Since he had given each of his Companions a ring linked to the Kei - indeed, almost part of Its substance - a sensitivity had been developing between them. He could tell their feelings, if not their actual thoughts; and they, in turn, were aware of him. He rather expected that the connection would intensify as time went on.
Indeed, Freeman's answering smile had a knowing quality; but he did not make it a challenge. He changed the subject. "Paul should get to the spaceport before we do," he said. "Norma said that your meeting with the Special Committee went very well. So I will have plenty to digest."
"No doubt," Straker agreed.
* * *
The advanced theory class was held in a small chamber in the Avach complex, beside the skimmer hangar. A viewing gallery allowed students to observe the craft while the lecturer instructed them.
Jax entered the room, greeted the instructor - a female named Sappa - and was told to seat himself. He chose a pad next to a young woman who seemed familiar, though he could not recall her name.
There were six students present; four male and two female. Jax was puzzled; he seemed to recall that very few females were able to fly skimmers. Evidently, there had been changes, probably due to the continuing Emergency. Perhaps the personnel problem was worse than he had realised.
The instructor spoke. "Your attention please. No talking among yourselves; you will need all your concentration."
Obediently, Jax focussed his attention, as the display board came alight, and the training session began.
* * *
"Well, we're here," Freeman said. "And there's Paul's car."
"I see it."
Indeed, the lilac car was in one of the spaces near the control tower. Out on the launchpad, technicians were busying themselves around a red SHADO lifter, giving it final checks before its flight. The boarding gantry was in position. A gyrobus waited by the tower, ready to ferry the crew across to the gantry.
Freeman pulled in alongside the lilac car, and killed his engine. Straker pushed his gull-wing door open, and climbed out, carefully. He managed to hide - he hoped - the slight dizziness as he came upright. Freeman joined him, holding his travel bag. The commander did not pass the bag to Straker, but held it himself as they walked to the tower entrance.
You're babysitting me, Straker thought, though fondly. But at least you're being subtle about it!
Foster and Pavlor were waiting for them in the briefing room, with Lieutenant David Grey. At the Keimon's entrance, they rose to their feet. Colonel Foster and the lieutenant each gave a formal salute; Devas Pavlor bowed deeply.
"We greet you, Sire," he said.
"Thank you, Azan, Paul," Straker said. "Please, be seated… Good morning, Lieutenant. How's the family?"
"Full of energy, sir - Sire, that is," Grey said, with a nervous smile. "But I'm pleased to say that our youngest doesn't let the other two bully him, too much!"
"Good for him… Thanks, Alec," he added, as the commander handed Straker's travel bag to Colonel Foster.
"Have a good flight," Freeman smiled, and departed.
"Well, we should get on, I guess. Orbital mechanics wait for no man." Straker motioned for Pavlor to take a set, then sat down himself, beside Foster, so as not to 'hem in' the Devas.
Grey handed a sheaf of papers to Foster, who glanced through them, and then passed them round to his flight companions. They were briefings on the LM status, weather observations and forecasts, orbital paths and corrections to transfer the LM from Earth to Moon, and tracking station readiness. There was also a cargo manifest. Foster looked through it, and grinned at one item.
"Who's the champagne for?" he enquired, innocently. "And six bottles? I see you have them in a pressurised container!"
"I've been told you're to hand that straight to Captain Ellis, with a covering note."
"I'll bet… Well, thank you, Lieutenant," Foster said. He managed to conceal his smirk. He thought.
For Pavlor's benefit, Straker said: "Azan, you may be aware that we commonly celebrate special occasions with this fizzy wine?"
"I am indeed, Sire," the Devas confirmed. He went on, with a slight grimace: "Ginny introduced me to the beverage after we had completed initial talks with the Special Committee. I believe you were resting at the time."
"What did you think of it?" Straker inquired, casually.
"The bubbles invaded my nose. But I have to admit, the experience was… not unpleasant."
Straker gave a small smile. "Sounds good… Sorry, Lieutenant, now I'm the one taking up time! Please, continue."
"Thank you, Sire."
Lieutenant Grey took them through the flight details quickly and competently. At the end he invited questions. The Devas was first.
"Lieutenant, you mentioned that we would be escorted?" Pavlor asked.
"Yes, Mr Ambassador. Two of the SkyDivers will accompany the LM until it reaches escape velocity, at which point they will hand over to one of the Interceptors and a skimmer, who will accompany the LM to Moonbase. Astropilot Fiskeret will be flying the skimmer, and Astronaut North will be in the Interceptor."
"I see. Thank you."
Grey fielded other questions, and at last pronounced himself satisfied. He checked his console. "The Tower reports LM status is green. You may board, gentlemen."
* * *
At the end of the tutor period, Sappa dismissed the other students, but told Jax to remain. "You may join your companions in the rest sphere before going to acclim, but first there is something I must show you."
She tapped the board with her stylus, and the image changed, to show three people. One of these Jax recognised as being the Devas of System Prithvi. The others he did not know; but one of them looked very familiar indeed.
"He looks like me!" Jax gasped, discipline forgotten in surprise for a moment. At Sappa's stern glance, he pulled himself together."My - my apologies, ser. There is a marked resemblance between us. Who is this man?"
"He is a terran," Sappa replied, distaste in her voice. "His resemblance to you is mainly chance genetic drift, though you may indeed have shared a common ancestor many generations ago. Before the terran regression gathered pace."
Relieved to hear that he was not himself a degenerate, Jax asked: "Your pardon, ser, but what is 'genetic drift'?"
"You are aware that our genetic makeup constantly changes by random mutation?" Sappa asked, and Jax nodded. "Over time these changes can cause groups of living beings to 'drift apart', causing subdivisions in the overall group, sometimes resulting in the emergence of a new distinct species. This process can sometimes be guided by a skilled bioengineer… But since the process is essentially random, there is no reason why two groups should not drift 'towards' each other, producing a 'throwback'. This, we believe, is what has happened in your case."
Jax digested this. At last he said: "What is your purpose in telling me this?"
"One moment." Sappa tapped the board in a sensitive region. A few moments later, a man entered the room. He wore the uniform of the Arkad Guard, and the symbols on his shoulder patch indicated that he was high in the Guard command structure.
Jax bowed. The Guard nodded to him, and spoke without preamble. "This man, the Devas, is a traitor. He is colluding with some of the terrans to steal New Arkadia from us. These are two of his co-conspirators; they are designated as Straker and Foster. You have noticed the resemblance between yourself and Straker; we will wish to discuss a task with you, a task which will use this resemblance to help us regain this world and re-establish the Arkadian race on its surface. You may comment."
"Sir, the terrans are devolved, regressed. How can they have the capability to enter into a project this complex?" Jax asked.
"It is true that most terrans that we use have to be adapted, programmed. Some are less regressed, and retain some useful capability. This 'Straker' is one of the more advanced ones, though still essentially a regressive. Nevertheless, as head of their 'defence' group, it is advanced enough to cause us trouble."
"Why, then, has it not been destroyed?" Jax wanted to know.
"There have been many attempts to do this," the Guard admitted. "All have been frustrated."
"Is this the task you wish me to undertake? To destroy this terran?"
"Not primarily," the Guard said. "We wish you to assist us in removing their defence group, which they name Shado. To do that, it will certainly be necessary to destroy this creature; but that in itself will not be enough. Recent events have shown that the terran defence group 'Shado' is sufficiently resilient to survive that. But there is another way; and if that succeeds, we will have everything we want. The destruction of the terran Straker, and its co-conspirators; the end of Shado; and the restoration of New Arkadia. That is the task we, and you, shall undertake. Your instruction will begin at once."
"Yes, sir," Jax agreed.
* * *
It was, just possibly, the smoothest launch Straker had ever known. The lifter pilot was the same man who had ferried Straker's LM into lunar transfer path on the previous occasion, when Henderson had arranged for the craft to be comprehensively sabotaged, in order to test Straker's 'Plan Omega'. But Henderson's own plans had themselves been sabotaged. It turned out that the individual who had done that was the Arkad rebel Gimen, who had abducted Lackland, Henderson's aide, 'harvested' him, and taken his place. To this end Gimen had disguised himself with a close-fitting mask made of a synthetic gel, which could be made to mimic the features of a chosen person.
Evidently, Straker thought, the pilot was delighted at the chance to make this flight. He just hoped it wouldn't end the same way.
As the lifter gained altitude, two SkyDiver aircraft swooped in and took up their positions beside it. The LM separated, and its escort kept station as it climbed steeply into the upper atmosphere. They were close to SkyDiver's operational ceiling when two other craft appeared out of the heavens. The sight of a Dyaus skimmer and a SHADO Interceptor flying together in friendly formation was one he could not quite believe he was seeing… but he let himself enjoy it.
Let there be many more such, he thought to himself.
* * *
Freeman returned to his car and sat in the driver's seat, but he did not immediately start his engine. Instead, he gazed into the sky, following the launch, watching as the thunder of the LM lifter's engines died away.
He imagined he could see the tiny specks of the two escorting Sky craft; but of course that was unlikely. They would have been at high altitude to start with, climbing higher still as they followed the trajectory of the LM.
He wished he could have been with them.
But he had a great deal to do, here on Earth, if this Accord with the people of Dyaus was to succeed; and in particular, if it was not to be derailed by the rebels.
Oh well, Freeman, he thought to himself. Better get on with it.
Reluctantly, he fired up the turbine, and drove out of the spaceport gate, heading back to the studio.
* * *
"We're in cislunar transit," Colonel Foster announced. He turned to look at his passengers. "How are you doing, gentlemen?"
"Sure I can't do anything to assist?" Straker grumbled. Pavlor blinked a little at this.
"You know what Doug Jackson said, Ed," Paul reminded him, with a grin. "We're not to let you over-exert yourself for a while."
"Nuts to that," Straker said, with a snort of derision. He tried to ignore the fact that he was indeed feeling weary, a weariness of the spirit rather than the body. "Azan, sorry, my manners… How about you? I know this craft is pretty primitive by your standards."
"I will not insult you by denying it, Sire," Pavlor admitted. "I hope that the collaboration between Earth and Spicor on the Eagle Project will go some way towards improving matters. And I assure you I am fine."
"Great - and it sure will improve matters when Victor hears about it… I believe I mentioned him to you."
"You did indeed, Sire, and I look forward to meeting him," Pavlor agreed. "I have a further suggestion, if you would like to consider it. I believe, Comp- ah, Paul," he continued, glancing at Foster, "that you were formerly a test pilot, working on experimental Terran air craft?"
"I was… While we chat, would anyone like a drink? We still have some hours to go before LOI. And we're on constant boost, so we don't have to worry about coffee floating round the cabin!"
"Coffee, please," Straker agreed. "Azan? Fruit smoothie?"
"That would be most acceptable, thank you."
Foster opened the drinks hatch beside his seat, punched a few buttons. After a moment three cups appeared, two of them steaming gently. He passed them around. Relaxing into his seat, he said: "Now, Azan, you were saying, you had a suggestion?"
"Yes, Paul. I think it would be most instructive, and helpful for the Eagle Project, if you would be taught to fly a skimmer."
Foster's eyes widened, and a broad, eager grin blossomed on his face. "Terrific! When do we start?"
"As soon as your commanding officer gives the go-ahead," Pavlor told him, with a querying glance at Straker.
"Sure. I'll check with Commander Freeman, but I guess he'll think it's a great idea," Straker told him. "Who would be doing the honours?"
"Our two best pilots. That would be Prince Merrel, and his own tutor, Kyan Fiskeret. She was his co-pilot on your journey here."
"I remember she was up at Moonbase," Foster agreed. "Would it be impolite of me, Azan, to enquire after her age? If she were Earthborn, I'd say she was in her early fifth decade - say about 43, 44. But I get the impression from things you've been telling us, that on Dyaus apparent ages can be deceptive."
"That is indeed so, Paul. For example, how old would you say I was, in Terran terms?"
"Not much older than Ed, here," Foster replied, nodding at his brother. "Certainly no more than 50 or so."
"You flatter me, Paul." Pavlor gave a slight smile. "In fact I have lived nearly one hundred Earthly years. Kyan is only a few years younger than me."
"It's those longevity treatments you mentioned, I guess, Azan?" Ed commented. He sternly ordered himself not to tease Paul about Fiskeret being too old for him…
"That is so, Sire."
"I recall the first of your skimmer pilots we captured. He seemed to age very quickly. We believed that was because our atmosphere affected him."
"It would have, indeed, Sire," Pavlor confirmed. "Also your bright sunlight, and your greater gravity. Paul, the buffering treatments I and my colleagues received to protect us against these factors are, I regret, complex, and expensive in terms of resources required to make them. They are generally reserved to those who - like Gimen - are required to spend long periods in the Terran environment. And even those treatments are not permanent, nor particularly long-lasting."
"Hence the rebels' terraforming effort," Foster said, with a nod. "So permanent quarters on the Moon should help?"
"We believe so. The lighter gravity, the artificial lighting, the air purification, would all be to our benefit. For which I thank you, Sire, and your friends Professor Bergman and Colonel Koenig."
"Thank us when it works," Straker smiled. "But one thing has puzzled me for a long time. Why did your own people never establish a base on this Moon?"
"Records show that a base was indeed set up on the far side," Pavlor confirmed. "I believe it was intended for astronomical observations, in a location less affected by radiation, gravity, and magnetism than the vicinity of Isvar - that is to say, Jupiter. However, as our Emergency gathered pace, its crew was withdrawn and it was decommissioned."
"Well, we must put that place on the 'to do' list," Straker commented.
The conversation went on, and turned technical. Straker steered the subject to the colony on the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. They had learned from Prince Merrel that the planet's Spicor name was Varna, a word which meant 'forest' in the ancient Arkadian tongue. Merrel had given this name with a slightly embarrassed smile; when Foster had asked why, Merrel had said that it was wishful thinking. The planet's land life consisted mostly of organisms similar to lichen.
Straker could understand this. He knew that Proxima Centauri was a red dwarf star producing very energetic flares, whose radiation would probably sterilise the surface of its companion planets. When he had asked Pavlor about that, during their discussions at SHADO, the Devas had told him that their colony on Varna was located underwater for the protection that gave; and he had thought: No wonder you liked Europa.
"Unfortunately," he said, rather apologetically, "I slept through much of the discussion, though Alec supplied me well with transcripts. One question springs to mind. Why choose a planet with such an inclement climate to set up a colony? Was it resources, or position?"
"Initially it was for research into stars of the type you call 'red dwarfs'," Pavlor explained. "As you will know, Sire, in this home galaxy they vastly outnumber stars of other types - there are twenty-one within only a dozen light-years of Earth, compared to five of other types. A large proportion are very long-lived. Unhappily, many produce large flares, causing radiation problems similar to those on Varna. Also, their 'habitable zone' would be so close to their primary that any planets that accompany them would be tidally locked to show only one face to their star, as indeed Dyaus does to Isvar. For many of these their 'dark side' would be cold enough to freeze even their atmosphere. But Varna has some positives. It does rotate relative to Proxima, though in a 3:2 resonance – its ‘day’ is two units, its ‘year’ is three. Also it has a large ocean, and this circulates the heat. And it has a strong geomagnetic field, which shields its atmosphere from the solar wind, and that also aids heat circulation. "
"Doesn't sound like a very friendly place, even so," Foster commented, puzzled.
"Not at first sight, Paul, no indeed. But there is a large proportion of these stars in this galaxy, many of them with planets, some quite habitable, perhaps with life. And if we could learn to tame their tendency to flare, we could make many more available."
"An intriguing prospect," Straker mused. Something about this subject was tickling his memory, causing the fine hairs on the back of his neck to rise. Resolutely, he put the matter to one side, and concentrated on the discussion. “I must confess, though, that one thing puzzles me. Proxima and our own sun – let’s call it Sol – are very different types of star. Sol is bigger, and hotter – surface temperature of some 6000 kelvins, where Proxima is about 3000K. Would it flare in the same way?”
“It would, Sire, though less readily,” Pavlor confirmed. “But the differences are to our advantage. We can observe the processes in comparative safety, since we are further from the primary. The ‘habitable zone’ around Sol is much further away from it than the similar zone around Proxima. Varna’s ‘year’ is about twelve days; it is correspondingly closer to its star.”
“And this is what your outpost was doing? Observing Sol? A long-term project, I guess."
"One which has been running for many Terran centuries, Sire. We have devised several flare-control techniques in that time, and tried them at Proxima. Alas, sometimes the star is stimulated into flaring, rather than calming - but the reasons why are most, er, illuminating."
"You'll have to write a paper on the subject," Straker suggested, while Foster winced at the pun. "How are we doing, Colonel?"
Foster glanced at his readouts. "LOI in 45 minutes, sir. We should start getting ready in about twenty. Pass me your empties, and I'll do the washing-up."
Straker handed across his emptied beaker. His slight unease was increasing rather than dissipating. For some reason, he was thinking about John Bosanquet, a colleague in the construction of Moonbase, who had turned out to be an alien agent. He remembered that Bosanquet had attacked him with an alien weapon, that he had fought him off, and that in the struggle Bosanquet had been lost in a cave collapse.
Bosanquet had been a geophysicist, not an astronomer, and had never even expressed much interest in the subject; so why was Straker's mind connecting him with stellar flares?
* * *
Jax returned to his quarters, to consider in private all that he had learned about their situation.
He was beginning to feel more than a little angry. The world that was rightfully owned by the Powers of Arkadia was being withheld by mere regressives, by pirates. And by coincidence, he had been told, the leader of the pirate band was his near-twin in genetic terms. Somehow, that made him angrier, as though his own identity had been stolen by this criminal.
He sat before the terminal, and moved his hands in the sensitive space before it. Obligingly the screen lit up with his access pattern. He gestured, and the screen switched to a listing of recent files, then sorted these into a convenient grouping. He scanned through, frowned a little. This new task would need a separate zone to be set up. Another gesture turned the list into a pattern of circles of various sizes, each one with a glyph indicating its contents. Quickly he set up a new zone, marked it with the glyph of High Arkadia, and entered it.
The Arkad Guard, whom he had met earlier - and who had not supplied a name, merely a contact code - had given him instructions which, while wide-ranging, were nonetheless quite specific in nature. He was to dress in the terran fashion, including using one of their vacuum suits. He was to avoid taking any action against the terrans, unless to preserve himself. Instead he was to limit himself, in this early phase, to gathering detailed data about the 'shado' group and its personnel. The restriction chafed him mentally, though he fully understood the need for caution. But he had come up with an idea that would allow him to observe the terrans from quite close quarters - while remaining concealed himself.
He linked to another zone, one which contained details of the underground structures in various parts of this satellite body. It was quite extensive, and included charts of the 'gravity tunnels' connecting this south-polar base with three other locations on this small globe. Two of these carried a red glyph showing that they were inaccessible. The first was in the vicinity of the terran 'moonbase', and the second, one of two on the lunar far-side, had been linked to that one directly. The two far-side sites were linked to each other, through a shaft that had been constructed quite recently; and the tunnel from this polar base connected to the second, accessible far side site. Hague had added a note to the effect that this extra shaft had been necessitated by the collapse of the main tunnel to the 'moonbase' installation while that facility was being constructed.
It was a pity, Jax thought, that the first of the far-side sites could not be used as a roundabout way of accessing 'moonbase' from here. But there were other subterranean passages which could perhaps be used. The agent Hague had been able to carry out detailed scans of the rock beneath the base, showing the connections between it and the chambers used as hangars for the fleet of fighter-craft the terrans named 'interceptors'. Hague had also detected other channels in the rock, but had been unable to complete his survey before the operation to acquire the terran leader had been put into action.
Perhaps, Jax decided, that would be a good place to start.
* * *
Foster brought the LM down to the Moonbase landing pad smoothly, without even a jolt. As the engines shut down, his passengers climbed out of their seats, a little awkwardly in the suits that were now 'de rigueur' for such journeys. However, it seemed that Pavlor, at least, found the reduced gravity invigorating; and even Ed Straker was looking a little brighter.
There was a quiet 'clunk' as the personnel lift engaged with the LM access hatch. Foster checked the readouts, ensuring that the seals were good, and gave the go-ahead to disembark.The three entered the small chamber, and a minute later, they were at the lower hatch leading into the Moonbase reception sphere.
This was the second time Pavlor had visited here, but he looked about him with interest, though he kept his questions back. Foster appreciated that. No doubt, he thought, the Dyaus ambassador has plenty to ask me, but he's clearly choosing his moment!
They removed their suits, and donned more comfortable clothing. A tunic-and-pants style outfit in grey had been provided for their visitor; Straker noted that he attached the 'royal sigil' of Spicor to its breast. Foster led the way out of the reception sphere, through 'Central Park', and into Control. Pavlor followed, and Straker brought up the rear.
The control crew were on their feet, standing to attention. Their faces showed disciplined interest; but Foster had the impression they wanted to cheer.
Captain Ellis saluted. "Welcome to Moonbase, Ambassadors. We have quarters ready for you. Refreshments have been laid on in the leisure sphere. Afterwards, you will wish to see the young visitors from Dyaus, and the skimmer crews. Also, Professor Bergman has requested an audience with you both."
I'll bet he has, Straker thought. Aloud, he said: "Captain, please invite those skimmer pilots to join us in the leisure sphere. Colonel Foster will want to meet them - Azan has offered to have him train as a pilot himself… How is their English coming along?"
"Very well, sir," Ellis said, with a slight smile, "though with a slight smattering of Polish. Lieutenant Wojnycz is conducting their instruction."
"I look forward to talking with them - though my own Polish is non-existent… How are those children?"
"They are still being - well, 'woken'. They were accompanied on the trip by one of Dr Breen's colleagues, a Dr Salen. She is advising our own personnel, who are headed by Dr Charles Reed. So far, the medics are pleased with their progress."
"Great," Straker approved. "Lead the way, Captain."
* * *
Much as he hated to admit it, Straker recognised that Jackson had been entirely correct about his level of stamina. He sank gratefully onto one of the recliners that Nina had 'borrowed' from the pilots' waiting lounge. He had to hide a sympathetic smile as Pavlor gratefully took a seat on another recliner. A small table nearby held drinks, plates, and a selection of snacks.
The door through to Dome 3 opened, and Astronaut Wojnycz entered, followed by two men and a woman with green faces. On seeing Straker, the Dyausans bowed deeply to him.
"We greet you, Sire," one of the men said, "and we are pleased to see you somewhat recovered."
A little taken aback by this, Straker made to rise from his seat; but Pavlor signed to him to remain where he was. "Thank you," he said. "You know that I am Ed Straker, Ambassador for Earth. Please, introduce yourselves."
The woman responded: "Keimon Ed Straker, I am honoured… My name is Kyan Fiskeret, informally Kyan. My rank is Astropilot as Terrans would say it. I was co-pilot to Tyl, Prince of Merrel Demesne, in our skimmer, the craft which carried you home."
"Thank you, Kyan… Azan mentioned you to me," Straker said. He looked at the men, his gaze questioning.
"My name is Quam Dian Apat, Sire," one of them replied. "Informally Quam. My rank is Senior Astropilot. I flew the other skimmer, for Companion Alexander Freeman, and Ambassador Azan Pavlor."
"Thank you, Quam."
Straker transferred his gaze to the second man, who was clearly nervous, and trying to conceal it - and not, Straker thought, because he was facing their Keimon! "Are you the pilot of the third skimmer, the one bringing in some Earth children, that was chased here?"
"I am, Sire," the man said, a little hesitantly. "My name is Corune. My rank is also Astropilot. My co-pilot, a woman named Gyp Selan, has medical knowledge, and is helping your doctors here with the children."
"I see." Straker's first inclination had been to go to Medical at once; but he decided that it would perhaps be better to discuss the situation first, and perhaps get their visitors to relax a bit, so that they would be more forthcoming. "Please, all of you, be seated… oh, thank you, Gay," he added, as she and Karel Wojnycz handed round filled mugs. "Most welcome… Kyan, Azan has offered your services in training Colonel Foster to fly one of your craft, if you are willing?"
"Most certainly, Sire," Fiskeret agreed. She took a sip of the orange liquid in her own mug, and smiled at Gay in appreciation. "You will no doubt wish to know how long it would take him to familiarise himself with a skimmer?"
"Basic training should take no more than twenty hours," Fiskeret said. "More advanced techniques would normally take rather longer, because of the need to use our cocoon - our metabolic-support system - and also the tonal language we use to communicate. However, I think your colleague, Professor Victor Bergman, has some thoughts on how that system may be improved, perhaps even discarded altogether."
"I'll be very interested to hear what he has to say about that," Straker agreed. "But first, I want to hear about these children, Corune. Azan, here, told me they were in 'cold-storage' on the Jovian moon Ganymede - along with some thousands of others. Azan, you mentioned that you had given orders for them all to be brought home?"
"Indeed, Sire," Pavlor confirmed. "Reports from Nepetane tell me that progress is encouraging, if slow."
"Understandably… I must ask you, Azan, are all these people similar in age to the two already brought here?"
"They are similar within a terran decade or so, Sire, though their physical growth has been accelerated. You will wish to know how, and why… I have mentioned that mortality among our children was rising, and our birthrate was falling. Replacements were needed."
"I see," Straker said, evenly. "Yet Alec has told me that he didn't see any young children anywhere, not even among those we took aboard the habitat when we went sailing."
"That is because our young are denied their childhood."
There was the slightest edge to Straker's voice, and Pavlor winced. "We need functioning adults, Sire, especially on Dyaus. It is a little better on the home worlds; but in our small colony, almost as soon as they are born the infants are placed in temporal pods which accelerate their growth and development, while nourishing them and teaching them, and exercising their muscles by electrical stimulation. They emerge from the pods at maturity, about 20 terran years of age. Outside the pods, only four years or so have passed."
"I gather they can slow internal time as well as speed it up? Those stasis pods in Gimen's base in Antarctica?"
"That is so, Sire," Pavlor admitted, hesitantly. "The pods were developed from our skimmers' time-adjusters, which shorten the crew-perceived length of journeys between Proxima and Prithvi. The original purpose of these pods was to preserve individuals who had contracted diseases which we did not have the facilities to treat on Dyaus, so that they could be shipped back to our Proxima colony."
The Earthborn digested this in silence. At length, Foster said: "What about psychological effects of such a long period of, er, 'hibernation'?"
"They are able to dream. The teaching our young receive includes material from which they can construct narratives to explore their feelings. This includes taking them through puberty, the period during which their identity establishes itself."
"Do you impose an externally-generated identity on these children?" Straker asked quietly.
Pavlor met his Keimon's silver gaze. "We do not, Sire. I will not conceal from you that such a measure was tried in the early days, against the protests of those who opposed it - but the end result was to drive the subjects insane, either immediately on waking, or within a few months at best."
The Keimon gave a nod. "Were you one of those who opposed?"
"Not - not at first, Sire," Pavlor admitted. "But then - my own wife conceived. Before then, I had not appreciated the full horror of the proposal."
"How would you describe that horror?"
"The suppression of a person's true self. Of their soul. It is similar to the process you have called 'zomming'."
The Keimon held Pavlor's gaze for a few seconds, and the Devas felt as though his own soul were being stripped naked. Then Straker smiled, gently, and his eyes cleared to their customary blue. "I see you genuinely do find the whole notion horrifying… If I may ask, Azan, does your family survive?"
"My wife died of the Plague, Sire, may she rest with the Deity. My son lives in the Proxima colony. He is now some 60 terran years old. And he, at least, had a chance to play with toys."
Straker recalled Pavlor's shock on hearing that Earthborn children had such things as teddybears… and, indeed, other toys. That information had helped to convince the Devas that he was dealing with people, not creatures regressed to 'animal' level. He said, with a slight smile: "My own son, Johnny, was fond of toys, and he had a teddybear he named Growly, because it couldn't… I hope to meet your son soon, Azan."
"I have asked him to come to Dyaus. That journey, alas, will take some months… I look forward to our discussions with Professor Bergman and his colleagues. Perhaps, between us, we can develop a drive which can shorten that time still further."
"Be assured that Victor will do his very best to achieve that," Straker replied, as Pavlor took a grateful gulp of his smoothie. "Well, I think we should go take a look at these youngsters… Karel, where is Professor Bergman right now?"
"Crawling around a skimmer in the garage, sir."
"Good… Quam and Fiskeret, would you go with Karel to join Victor, please? Paul, also? Pavlor, Corune, and I will pay a quick visit to sickbay. But please, finish your drinks first!"
* * *
The chart showing access routes to the terran 'moonbase' was as complete as Jax could make it.
It showed the network of lava tubes in the area, most of which radiated outward from a nearby mascon. Agent Hague had annotated the chart to show that the mascon concerned had been the one being investigated by a terran mining team, apparently called 'dalotek'. It also showed that a tunnel had been partially constructed from the Arkad south-lunar pole enclave Avach towards this mascon. That answered a question for Jax, namely, why was there no connecting tunnel between here and the falling-terminus near the terran base. This partial tunnel been intended to mine the mascon for minerals, but that activity had evidently been suspended when the terran miners moved in.
He put that question to the back of his mind, and considered. Although this tunnel did not provide access to the terran 'moonbase', it could still be useful. It ran fairly close to one of the lava tubes he had studied earlier; and that tube itself ran towards the 'dalotek mine'. The tube was quite narrow and might have been impassable in places, but a disruptor would see to that. He would requisition one from stores and try it.
He made a print of the chart, and stood up. Time to begin.
* * *
Captain Ellis led the small party along the corridors between the domes, into the entrance to Sickbay. She pressed the buzzer, and Reed's voice answered.
"Ellis here, with the Ambassadors," she said. "May we enter?"
"Oh yes, please come in."
She pressed the button, the door slid open, and the four ducked through into the dome. Reed greeted them and led them to a side-chamber. "Greetings, Ambassadors. And Mr Corune. Ed, this is Dr Selan of Dyaus, who is guiding the revival process… I am pleased to say that one of these girls has already awakened briefly. She is under very light sedation and does not seem distressed. She understands English, though speaks with a faint continental accent. Her companion is sleeping lightly and may wake in the next few hours."
"That's good news, Doctor," Straker said. "What of their physical condition? How soon could they cope with Earth gravity?"
Reed frowned a little. "Physically their health is satisfactory, but I'd prefer to give that a few weeks. What I'd like to do is to get your friend Victor to set up a gravity chamber for them, to increase it slowly from lunar to full-earth. They will probably hate it, at first."
"No doubt." Straker gazed at the youngsters. "I'd like to assign them a nurse to work alongside Dr Selan to help with familiarisation… Azan, how long have they been in stasis?"
"No more that three terran years, Sire," Pavlor told him.
"Good, that will minimise the 'culture shock' - "
Straker broke off. The second girl was stirring, perhaps roused by their voices. He looked at Reed, with a quick jerk of his head towards the door; but the doctor shook his head, and Straker remained where he was.
Reed stepped quietly to the bed, and said softly: "Hello."
The girl turned her head on the pillow, opened her eyes. She looked up and gave a slight smile. "Ci… ciao," she whispered.
Reed smiled in return. "Mi chiamoCharles," he said. "Come ti chiami?"
"Mi chiamo An… Anna," she whispered. "Mia madre?"
Reed assured her that her mother was asleep, as it was late. Anna smiled and closed her eyes, and her breathing deepened.
Reed straightened up. "My Italian is quite rusty," he said, apologetically. "When she's a little more 'with it' we'll see how she gets on in English, but I don't want to rush things. In the meantime I'll ask Lieutenant Barry if she would assist, as I understand she is quite fluent in Italian."
"Great. May we speak with Dr Selan, please?"
"Of course." Reed gave the Dyaus medic a smile. "Doctor?"
"I greet you, Keimon Ambassador," Selan said. She did not seem in the least overawed, Straker noted. Indeed, she was giving him her professional appraisal. "I am glad to see you well, and I trust you are following your own doctors' advice?"
"As far as the situation allows, Doctor," Straker said with a slightly rueful smile. "I will be careful, I promise… Do you know Lieutenant Barry?"
"Nina? We have met. We seemed to interact well. I will be happy to work with her on this rehabilitation."
"I'll set it up, sir," Captain Ellis replied.
Straker nodded to the two doctors. "We won't take up any more of your time at the moment, but thank you. Please keep me updated?"
"Of course, Sire," Selan agreed.
* * *
According to Agent Hague's information, the transit tunnel had a functioning terminal chamber. This was quite near the lunar surface, close enough that a transit car could mate with magnetic booster couplings which would absorb its excess speed. And the Avach end of the tunnel did contain a suitable vehicle, though it had, of course, been put in static storage.
Wearing a terran-style vacuum suit and carrying a tool-case, Jax made his way to the polar terminal, and passed through the exchanger into the near-mascon tunnel. As he entered, the overhead lighting panels glowed into life. The doorway into the storage compartment was off to one side, not alongside the tunnel, which ended at the travel lock.
He tapped at the panel beside the lock hatch and it slid smoothly open. Inside, more lighting panels came to life, showing the transit car, dark and silent. Jax entered, and moved to the control panel. He quickly tapped out patterns on the displays, and gave a nod of satisfaction at the results; the screens showed the car to be in good working order. He started the testing routines, and waited.
Lights came on in the car, and Jax could feel a slight vibration in the floor. The tests ended, showed all was well. He tapped in a further set of instructions. The hatch through to the tunnel opened, and the transit car itself slid smoothly forward into the passenger access section. Jax shut down the equipment he had been using, left the storage chamber, and went into the access area. A door in the transit car side opened for him, and he entered, moving quickly to the vehicle's control board. Seating himself before it, he tapped a sensitive plate.
The transit car began to move. Silently, the travel exchanger opened, and the car entered the falling zone and began to accelerate on its way to the zone the terrans labelled - however inappropriately - 'the sea of serenity'.
* * *
Ellis led the visitors out of Sickbay and through the corridor to the lift to the 'garage'. The lift was only just large enough to accommodate the four, but the two Dyausans seemed unconcerned. The descent was short, and they emerged from the lift into another tunnel, which Straker recognised as the passageway he and Foster had used to evacuate from the former Dalotek base before it had been blown into a crater. In a rather convoluted reference to the maze of tunnels that were proliferating under the lunar surface, Bergman had adopted the codename 'Hutchinson' to label this section of the 'warren'.
There was a small car parked in a small alcove. It was rather larger than the one Straker and Foster had used to make their escape, with seating enough for six plus a driver.
"Please embark, gentlemen," Ellis said. "It's rather a long way to walk!"
She helped them to board, and slid into the driving seat. The control was a joystick with a button on the top. She took the joystick grip in her hand. Straker noted that the joystick was mounted in a slot, so that it could be slid from one side to the other for left-handers such as Alec Freeman - and, Straker recalled with some amusement, Karel Wojnycz. She pressed the button, and a slight vibration filled the vehicle. Ellis moved the stick right and forward, and the car moved out into the tunnel and began to accelerate.
"Very neat," Straker commented with appreciation. "Who's the designer? Wojnycz?"
"Yes, sir. He had a good look at the one you used originally, then he disappeared into his room muttering something in Polish. He came out again a couple of hours later with a handful of sketches."
"I should have known," Straker smiled. He glanced at the Dyausans. "Have you come across something called 'motorsport' in your studies of us?"
Corune looked puzzled, but Pavlor nodded. "I have to say, Sire, that it looks like something my son Amet would enjoy. Alas, I fear I would not myself have the necessary quick reactions."
"I'm definitely looking forward to meeting him," Straker commented.
Gay Ellis smiled to herself. She went on: "Another thing you may be interested in, sir. When the M2 chamber was formed, it intersected several channels in the surrounding rock. Victor thinks they are lava tubes, outflows from the nearby mascon."
"The one Dalotek was interested in?"
"That's right, sir. Most of the tubes are quite small, but there was one which was large enough to stand up in. We sent a crew to investigate. One direction leads more or less towards Alpha, and we were able to bore a connecting tunnel like this one through to them. It will need sealing before we can pressurise it, so we put in airlocks at both ends. The other way, it ends in a rockfall, unfortunately - but we noted it for future exploration."
"I see. Thanks, Gay. I'll be very interested to see that!"
* * *
With a slight jolt, the transit car was taken and held by the magnetic clamps at the tunnel end berth. All motion ceased, and Jax checked the external conditions; the readouts confirmed that this docking compartment had sealed and pressurised itself as the transit car had docked. Nevertheless, he did not open his helmet.
The car door opened once more, and Jax climbed out onto the access walkway. The overhead light panels had come active as the car had entered this compartment. Straightening up, he gazed around in the bluish, shadowless light, and gave a nod of satisfaction. There was a hatch at the end of the walk, beside the car, which Jax expected would lead to a maintenance bay like the one at the polar terminus. That would be a convenient place to use as his base of operations, so that he would not have to lose time travelling to and from Avach.
He hurried forward, and pressed the 'open' panel. After a short pause the hatch slid open, jerkily at first, revealing a small exchange module, with another hatch at its far end. He entered, and inspected the control panel beside the end hatch. As he had expected, the automatic controls were in working order; the panel was showing that there was atmosphere on the other side.
A small monitor screen had come alive in the panel. He inspected it carefully. It showed the sub-bays with their racks full of equipment, and another hatch in the side wall, near this entrance point. That, he realised, would have been for the crew who used to service this outpost.
Opening the hatchway, he stepped through and went to the side hatch. Its own control panel showed it as pressurised. He entered carefully, opened his faceplate, and looked around. This compartment was set up to provide living quarters for perhaps three people, with three couches stacked in a vertical array, a carrel for eating and working with three fold-out seats, and a number of lockers. There were slots to dispense food and receive waste, and an ablutions cubicle. There was a secure communications panel, which was not active.
The lockers opened easily, but were empty. Jax was not surprised; this facility had not been used since the terrans had set up their outpost. Accordingly, he had brought supplies to last him half a lunar day.
He walked over to the comms panel and inspected it, using a small tester to check its functioning. It appeared fully operational. He touched the sensor, and several small indicators glowed into life. Satisfied, he opened a small pouch on his suit and pulled out a length of connecting cable, plugging it in beside the sensor. There was a crackle in his suit receiver as the link came alive.
Knowing he would be heard by the Guard, he spoke. "Jax reporting."
"Proceed," responded the Guard.
"I have arrived at Mascon Two Station and have found it usable. I will make this my base of operations. My next move will be to evaluate possible access routes. I will report again in half a cycle."
"Very good. Continue."
Jax cut the contact. Closing his faceplate once more, he went back out into the main area. He walked around, inspecting each sub-bay. Like the habitation pod, they were designed to be self-supporting in case of a breach outside them; each had their own local exchangers, though these were currently open. All except for one, he found. The bay at the end, the furthest from the main entrance, was closed, and the monitor panel next to its access port showed vacuum within the bay.
Evidently there had been a breach here; but there was no mention of any such incident in Agent Hague's notes, so it must have occurred quite recently.
He carried out a careful check, and found that the exchanger itself was functional. The hatch opened at his touch on the control. He stepped inside, and the lighting panels overhead came on. Cycling the exchanger, he opened the hatch into the bay and looked in. Oddly, the interior lighting here had not been activated. Experimentally, he thumbed the control beside the hatch. Panels in the ceiling lit up, revealing a large compartment which led away into the darkness. Cautiously, he made his way between equipment racks, until their tidy precision gave way to tumbled chaos.
Agent Hague had found that one of the lava tunnels from the mascon led in the direction of this mining station. Sure enough, at the end of the bay, the end wall had collapsed, and beyond the rubble pile there was a ragged-edged circle of darker shadow. Jax went to investigate, clearing a way through the tumbled rocks. He carefully picked his way over the rubble, and peered into the darkness, using his light wand at full power. It was definitely an old lava tube, and the rubble pile had spilled into it, blocking it.
He checked his chart. On it he had marked the location of the 'dalotek' base. He frowned: surely its mining equipment could not have caused this collapse?
Jax took his disruptor, set it to minimum power, and aimed it at the blockage. The rubble collapsed silently into a pile of small pebbles and dust with barely a tremor. He replaced the disruptor in his tool-case and shone his light wand into the darkness.
The beam showed that the tunnel led away in two directions. One segment led back towards the mascon, while the other did indeed head for the mining base, narrowing as it went. The mascon segment was blocked; he wondered how this could have happened. Perhaps it had been caused by the 'dalotek' terrans, he thought.
But the other way was clear. Again Jax opened his tool-case. He withdrew a small hand-held scanner, and checked the walls of this tunnel. All seemed stable. He placed a small beacon just inside the tunnel opening, and set it so that he could trigger it from his suit to send a call for help in case he ran into problems he could not handle.
He walked along the tunnel. It curved slightly, and narrowed a little, but not so much that it impeded his progress. From time to time, he scanned the walls again, checked that all was well, and continued on his way.
Then one of these periodic checks caused the scanner to chirp. Jax looked at the readouts. It had found something; the anomaly seemed unusual but not, apparently, dangerous. Ahead of him, perhaps a dozen paces away, there was a change in the texture of the wall. He hurried forward, and stopped, surprised and a little alarmed.
In the side of this tunnel was a regularly-shaped and smoothed circle of some different material. Lighter in colour than the rock in which it was set, it was clearly artificial.
It was also clearly a hatchway; but not of Dyaus design.
There was a covered panel in its centre. Jax opened the panel, and pressed the green button. Silently the hatch swung open, revealing an obvious exchange pod, metal-lined. He walked the few steps to the far end. Beside this hatch there was another control panel, with a small rectangle, grey but otherwise featureless.
Jax inspected the controls, and pressed a grey button. The rectangle began to glow; then a truly incredible image appeared.
* * *
The journey was quite quick, taking a shorter time than Straker expected from his memory of his and Foster's hasty escape from the besieged Dalotek base. Evidently, he mused, Lieutenant Karel Wojnycz had paid some attention to the matter of speed - and Straker thought he could guess why!
The car arrived at the garage airlock, and passed through. The airlock was needed for occasions when, to facilitate testing of the Eagle, the air in the garage chamber had to be removed. Ellis steered the car into its parking space and turned off the motor.
The passengers climbed out. As he stood up, Straker noticed another hatchway in the garage wall, about fifty metres away. "What's that, Gay?" he asked, and pointed. "Is it the lava tunnel you mentioned?"
"It is indeed, sir. Come and have a look - or would you rather see the skimmer first?"
"The skimmer. Definitely."
"Of course… This way, everyone."
There were two ships in the garage. On the far side, there was the spidery, skeletal shape of the prototype Eagle, with a number of technicians in attendance, all doing their conscientious best to ignore the craft beside it.
* * *
They are indeed traitors, Jax thought, savagely. They have taken a skimmer, and are giving its secrets to the terrans!
He would have to pass this news back to his contact, the Guard. Perhaps he could persuade the officer to relax his instructions and permit Jax to take action rather than merely observe.
For the moment, he would have to comply. He activated his helmet imager, and scanned the screen. The quality of this copy would be poor, he knew, but he did not want to attract attention by opening this hatch. He did not even want to use the scan and zoom controls beside the screen, as the movements of the imager inside the chamber might be noticed. But at least he could gather as much evidence as possible.
After a few minutes, he turned off the screen and shut down his imager. He made his way back down the lava tube to the falling-tunnel terminus.
* * *
There were several SHADO technicians bustling purposefully around the skimmer, accompanied by green-skinned Dyausans. Behind the two ships there was an enclosed metal cube perhaps ten metres at its edges, with what appeared to be an airlock attached to one face. Beside this was a workbench, and here Professor Bergman was talking to Astropilots Fiskeret and Apat, evidently discussing some complex-looking diagrams, while Foster and Wojnycz listened. As the party climbed out of the transporter, Bergman looked up. A smile lit his face and he hurried over to them.
"Welcome, welcome, Ed - Oh. Hello," he added, on seeing Straker's companions. "Let's see - you must be Devas Pavlor? I am Professor Bergman. It is indeed wonderful to meet you."
His delight was genuine, Pavlor recognised. "Professor Bergman. I am honoured to meet you. And I believe you know Corune here?"
He held out his hand, as Ginny Lake had shown him, and Bergman took it and gave it a warm shake. Bergman shook hands with Straker also. He took a step back, and said: "Well, that's got all the boring formalities out of the way - just call me Victor."
"I am pleased to do so. And please, call me Azan," Pavlor responded. He nodded at the skimmer. "I am told our crews have been instructing you about this craft. I believe you have extensive knowledge of physics?"
"It's a major interest of mine," Bergman enthused, guiding the two men to seats at a table along the wall of the inspection bay. "This skimmer of yours is really quite fascinating. In particular, this system you have of using a buffering liquid. I am told that is, er, a rather old way of approaching flight problems - "
"'Outdated' and 'painful' are the words my kinsman Tyl Merrel has used," Pavlor agreed, with a slightly rueful smile. "However, for many dozens of years now, it has never been updated, since we have had rather more pressing matters to consider."
"Yes indeed," Bergman agreed, his face grave. "I gather that is your first topic of discussion with our own medical experts… I'll stick to physics, it's much easier! In fact," Bergman went on, his face lightening a little, "I've had a few ideas about how your life-support system might be upgraded. I've been talking to Astropilot Fiskeret about them."
He turned back towards the table, and waved a hand. Fiskeret said something briefly to her colleague, and walked over to them. "Sire, Highness," she acknowledged, with a nod. "Yes, Victor?"
"Ah, Kyan," Bergman said. "Let's show Ed here what we're doing."
"Of course. Perhaps, Sire, you would like to inspect the skimmer?"
"I sure would," Straker said, trying - unsuccessfully - to conceal his eagerness. "I've read Commander Freeman's account of the trip back here, it'll be good to put it in context."
"Then if you would follow me, Sire… Victor?"
"I'll fill these people in on our progress, here." Bergman beckoned to Apat, then turned to Captain Ellis. "Everyone take seats at the table, perhaps?"
"Of course, Professor."
The Professor waited while Ellis and Foster guided Fiskeret and Corune to places at a long table at the side of the chamber. Apat hurried over to join them. "That's fine… Yes, my dear?" Bergman added, as Gay looked a query at him.
I thought Joan had cured him of that, Ellis thought, amused. "Where's Karel, Victor? Or is that a silly question…?"
Bergman winked, and jabbed a thumb at the skimmer.
"Ah. Yes, of course. OK, Professor, it's all yours."
"Good… Well now, let's get on. I've been putting some thought into this for the Eagle Project," Bergman said to Fiskeret, "and I am aware that, as with SHADO's Interceptors, you have ways of compensating for acceleration - as you must, since otherwise the effects of going from zero to light-speed in a reasonable time would reduce pilot and craft to a paste. A very thin paste… I am told that your drive field affects everything in a sphere centred on the craft and extending perhaps a metre beyond its boundary." He smiled a little, and added in an aside: "Actually, I've been talking to a friend about something very similar he's been considering, he calls it a 'warp bubble'."
"But if it affects everything inside," Foster objected, "why is there a problem?"
"Because the drive field takes time to build up," the physicist pointed out. "That time is very short indeed, but it's 'bumpy' because of random fluctuations in the field. Those bumps are tiny in general terms, but they're big enough to do a lot of damage, so the buffer fluid Spicor astronauts use, their 'cocoon', is designed to damp those out. SHADO vessels haven't needed to do that, but the 'skimmers' do, because of the stronger field needed to reach their higher speeds."
"But you say you can prevent those fluctuations?" Fiskeret was sceptical. "How can that be? Surely they are fundamental. Noise in the waveforms of matter. Is that not so?"
Bergman gave a catlike smile. "It is - but all such noise is temperature dependent. That is why liquid helium is such a strange substance - flowing through itself, climbing out of containers, and so on. It is so cold that it is very 'quiet' indeed."
"That is indeed so," Fiskeret agreed. "However, we find it inconvenient to cool our pilots to the zero point."
I'm getting to like the Spicor sense of humour, Foster thought to himself.
Bergman's smile widened. "I think we can avoid that… The system SHADO uses in boosting the Interceptors to light-speed is to begin with a single pulse - very short, very high. It 'shocks' all particles of matter inside its sphere of influence into near immobility, not long enough to cause damage, but long enough for the Interceptor's drive field to establish itself."
"I see. Professor, you think you can modify that for higher speeds?"
"I do." Bergman gave a nod. "We can't increase the pulse itself much beyond its present limit, but we can use multiple pulses, possibly from different emitter points."
"When can you have a prototype system ready?" Foster asked.
Bergman pointed at the metal cube. "That's our test chamber - we've shielded it so that it is an effective boundary to our drive field, in case of problems. We're running tests in there, and results are promising. I'd say we can rig a prototype on an Eagle in about a week. However, if you are willing to modify a skimmer, Kyan, a couple of days."
"I am," Fiskeret told him. "I will also be the test pilot."
To Ellis's concealed - she hoped - amusement, Paul Foster was looking both rebellious and disappointed. But the colonel was not a man to give up easily. He said: "I wish to accompany you, Astropilot. It would be a useful learning experience."
"It is not unknown for such experiences to be dangerous - even fatally so," Fiskeret said, with a frown. "However, I understand that you are accustomed to such circumstances. If you have your commander's permission…"
"I think that's Alec's department," Foster said. "I'll call him when we're done here."
* * *
When Jax returned to the habitation pod at Two - taking care to cover his tracks on the way - he found the Guard waiting for him. He snapped to attention. "Sir."
The officer acknowledged this with a curt nod. "Report, Jax."
"Yes, sir. You will want to see the images I have obtained." He took a small computer from his equipment case, activated it, and linked it to his imager. "I began by investigating this service module. It is mostly intact, except for one of the sub-bays which has suffered a collapse and is open to vacuum."
"Noted… Did you determine what caused the collapse?"
"I believe it happened when we attacked the installation that our agent called M2, sir. I was able to clear away enough rubble to access a small lava tube which was formed from the mascon and runs very close to the M2 crater. I investigated this tube. It passes so close to the crater that the terrans themselves have inserted an exchange pod for future access - "
"Will they find this station?" demanded the Guard.
"No, sir. I blocked the tube again, temporarily, with rubble. But I think we should put in a more convenient access. A camouflaged exchange pod, perhaps."
"Show me," the Guard ordered.
Jax led the way to the damaged bay. The two men went inside, cycling the exchanger, and the Guard followed Jax to the pile of rubble at the rear. The officer inspected it carefully. "Yes," he said. "This may indeed be useful. For the moment, I will set up a solid-projector to give the illusion of a blockage, until we can contrive something more convenient… Jax, go back to the crew pod, and bring my equipment case."
"Yes, sir." Jax saluted, and departed.
When he had gone, the Guard carefully cleared a path through the tumbled rocks sufficient to let himself through. He walked down the lava tube in the direction Jax had indicated. At the exchanger, he entered, but did not attempt to cycle the lock. It would not be necessary for what he had to do.
Moving to the monitor panel, he activated the viewscreen, and inspected the image it displayed. Taking an instrument from his suit pouch, he held it up to the panel, and nodded in satisfaction as it used the instrument to connect to the captive skimmer. The craft's pickups showed the Devas and the light-haired terran in animated conversation. The Guard selected his target, and set up the link.
The target blinked, but did not react otherwise.
Carefully, the Guard increased power, taking a long time span. At length, the instrument reported completion. The Guard now had a degree of control over the man. He recalled that Kotte had tried this before, but had been unsuccessful; evidently this new design was rather better. Gimen would be pleased.
Turning off the viewscreen, the Guard left, and returned to the rockfall. Jax was waiting for him.
"Did you see, sir?" Jax asked.
"I saw. This will be an excellent place from which to mount an incursion, when the time comes. For now, let us install the projector. You will help."
The Guard noted the youth's slight hesitation. "Problem?"
"Sir - " Jax began. "Sir, this is a good position from which to attack or sabotage the terrans, I could - "
"You will take no action against them."
"Sir - "
"Jax," said the Guard in a firm yet understanding voice, "I am aware that you have a personal interest here. I know how strong that can be. But you must not jeopardise our efforts by premature intervention. I cannot emphasise that strongly enough. You must comply."
After a few moments in which the youth visibly struggled to control himself, he nodded, once. "I comply. Sir."
"Good… Fear not, Jax. When we begin our incursion, you will take full part in it. Until then, be patient."
"Good… now, we will set up the projector."
As they worked, the Guard considered reporting the youth's reluctance to Bosan. He had already warned her of this possibility; but she had remained adamant that Jax must not become personally involved. The Guard obeyed; but he resolved to keep a close watch on his protégé.
* * *
Eventually Foster dragged Straker away - almost literally, but the man was visibly fatigued to the point of collapse. Captain Ellis took Pavlor in charge, while the two Dyausan astropilots returned to the work on the skimmer. As the party dispersed, Bergman stood for a moment, contemplating the prototype Eagle thoughtfully. He nodded to himself, and went in search of Karel Wojnycz, who he found inside the test chamber. The astronaut was deep in conversation with Fiskeret, and Bergman waited while they finished their discussion.
Wojnycz excused himself, and went over to Bergman, while Fiskeret conferred with the Dyausan techs. "Hi, Victor. What's on your mind?"
"I've been thinking," Bergman said slowly. "Any way we can speed things up with the Eagle?"
"We can get it down to four days," Wojnycz told him. "I've already started installing the field pulsor arrays. All we have to do is calibrate them with the results from the skimmer tests. If all goes well, we should be able to hit at least SOL 8. And I've also started to modify one of our Interceptors."
"That's very forward-thinking of you!"
Wojnycz grinned. "After you've been with Commander Straker for a while, you find that it pays to try to anticipate him… Talking of which, I've been beefing up their defensive systems, as well - we may need them!"
* * *
While Gay Ellis delivered Pavlor to the room set aside for him - the same one that he had used on his first visit to Moonbase to bring home Straker and Freeman - Paul Foster led his brother to his own room and ordered him to rest. To Foster’s surprise, and some alarm, Straker did not object. He removed his jacket, lay down and closed his eyes. Foster dimmed the lights, and departed.
In fact Ed was grateful for the respite. He urgently needed to relax. He contemplated the Kei-mediated linkage with the Companions, and - somewhat apologetically - he eased it down to a bare minimum.
* * *
Pavlor found it less easy to relax; he felt both agitated and uneasy, though he could not pinpoint a cause. Partly, of course, it was true that events were happening too quickly - had it really been less than half a Terran month since the Keimon had appeared, and Dyaus had been thrown into turmoil, and they had been forced to re-evaluate the Terran peoples? And the Keimon was certain that the rebels would somehow take action; though Pavlor felt that was not quite the problem Ed Straker feared it might be.
Spicor Central had, it seemed, been struck dumb by the news of the Terrans' true status. Pavlor could fully understand that. He had received a terse acknowledgement of his message to them, but no detailed response. He was not at all surprised, but he had rather expected his son Amet to have contacted him immediately. That was worrying; but Nepetane had assured him that the man was travelling on 'Guild of Empaths' business, at the Master's urgent request. She had no further details; but Pavlor had strongly suspected it had to do with Elanor's visit to Dyaus.
Captain Ellis had enquired after his needs, and he had assured her that he would follow the Keimon's example and rest, perhaps read, and then sleep. This chamber, small though it was, did not give him any feelings of restriction. Indeed, the space available had been used well, and gave the impression of roominess far in excess of its actual size.
And it had been equipped with recreational facilities. There was a table bearing a chess set, a game known if rather rare on Dyaus, though with a few differences to the Terran version; a monitor screen which Ellis had shown him could be tuned to receive Terran broadcasts in both sound and vision; and a shelf containing a few books, some of whose titles he recognised from his conversations with SHADO personnel, others that he did not know. He would have liked to show the Terrans some Spicor literature, but there had not been the opportunity.
Ellis had also shown him how to operate the room's environment controls. He adjusted the temperature and lighting to more comfortable levels, then took a book at random, sat in the inflated seat, and settled down to read.
After a while, he dozed off.
* * *
The Arkad Guard left Jax to his work and rode the transit car back to Avach, where he reported to Bosan.
She seemed satisfied rather than concerned at his evaluation of Jax, however. "It is to be expected," she said. "And it will, as you say, build his frustration. That is what I want. Now, tell me. What of your own assignment?"
"The primary target sleeps. I am able to 'touch' his mind, and I have begun the process of implanting your pattern of behaviour. With the other, I have been less successful, as you expected - his psyche is strong. Whether Kotte tried to 'adjust' him I do not know."
"Can you detect signs of such attempts?"
"I cannot. At the level I am able to 'read', there are no perceptible effects of any such investigations. I am puzzled."
I am not, Bosan thought. Aloud, she said: "Are there any indications of interactions with our agent?"
"There are, at a level below his conscious awareness. He is reacting to emotion, to mood."
Bosan nodded. She dismissed the Guard, with instructions to continue to monitor Jax, and to report back in two terras.
She was greatly pleased. The project was progressing well, with both targets responding satisfactorily. And the next phase would bring her closer to her revenge upon the terrans, one of whom had stolen her world, and the other who had humiliated her.
* * *
Pavlor was aroused by a chime from the door. He sat up, shaking his head a little to clear away the strands of sleep. "Pavlor answering."
"Mr Ambassador, this is Lieutenant Joan Harrington," a voice he recognised replied. "May I enter? I have information for you."
Pavlor rose to his feet, and touched the panel. The door opened. "Please, Lieutenant, enter, and tell me of this information."
"Yes, sir." Joan stepped inside the small chamber. "Mr Ambassador, we have received a Utronic transmission from your deputy on Dyaus, Nepetane. She has news which she describes as 'alarming'. Do you wish to respond here, or in the Control dome?"
"I will come to the dome," Pavlor replied, reaching for his tunic. "Any 'alarming' news concerns us all… Has the Keimon been advised?"
"We shall advise him if you wish," Joan said. "Perhaps when you have spoken with your deputy?"
Pavlor thought. The Keimon was resting, and Pavlor was reluctant to disturb him needlessly. Perhaps he would hear Nepetane's news, and then decide whether the matter could be left until morning. "Yes," he said. "That would be suitable."
"Then if you would come with me?"
* * *
Nepetane's description of her news as 'alarming' was indeed accurate – there had been an outbreak of disease at Dyaus. Thankfully, however, Pavlor thought, the malady did not seem severe, so it was not a Level One emergency.
Pavlor closed the link, and looked up at Captain Ellis with worried eyes. "Captain, this matter is a curious one. It does not at first sound serious, but I fear it may develop further. Perhaps indeed we should inform the Keimon, yet I am reluctant to interrupt his rest."
Gay thought for a moment. In the days before the Treaty, Commander Straker would not have been pleased - to put it mildly - if news of this importance had been kept from him, for whatever reason; but things were rather different now.
"At present, there's very little any of us can do," she said. "Except advise… Do your medics wish to consult with ours about this matter?"
"That would indeed be helpful. Captain Ellis, may I ask you to set up a conference call, including Earth, Moon, and Dyaus? I would urge high-security."
"Of course." Gay gave Joan a nod, and the lieutenant hurried to her console. "We'll tell Ed tomorrow, unless this escalates. For now, let him sleep."
* * *
Bosan studied the notes the Guard had left with her, considering her next move.
Her project - to subvert this 'Keimon' - appeared to be progressing smoothly. It would soon be possible to move to the next stage. If the terrans reacted as she predicted, the creature would become effectively isolated, and she could move in.
And there was a means to hand, to accomplish that; using the terrans' own actions against them.
First, however, she needed more information. Agent Hague had not had an opportunity to complete his analysis of the Moonbase layout; but what he had been able to find suggested that the final structure differed in certain significant ways from its original blueprint, which had been drawn up under the direction of her parent. She suspected that the 'shado commander' had made certain changes but kept them secret from even its colleagues.
Her own agent was well placed to investigate that. She thumbed the call panel, opened a link to Mascon 2, and gave Jax his instructions.
* * *
The next morning - by Earth time - there was encouraging news from Dyaus.
Ellis found a message on her pad from Pavlor asking her to contact him. She checked the whereabouts of the two ambassadors, and found that Pavlor was in the mess having breakfast with Nina and Gyp. Straker was shown as still in his quarters - asleep, she hoped, though she admitted to herself that it was unlikely. Quickly, she made her way down to join the three.
Pavlor rose to greet her as she entered. "Companion, would you like to join us?"
"Thank you." She collected a coffee from the slot, and pulled a stool over to the table. "Good morning, everyone… Azan, you said you have an update on Dyaus' status?"
"Indeed, Gay. Nepetane advises me that the situation, while not improving, has not greatly deteriorated," Pavlor said. "There have been a few more cases, but no deaths."
"That's a relief," Gay said. "Well, let's wake the Ambassador now, and inform him - "
"Inform me of what?"
Captain Ellis turned. Straker was stepping into the dome through the pressure door. He was fully dressed. "We have had a call from Dyaus, during the night, Sire. Ambassador Pavlor handled it."
"Tell me." Straker looked at Pavlor.
"Sire, Deputy Nepetane advises me that there has been an outbreak of sickness on Dyaus. Not the Plague, it seems, or even a particularly severe malady, but its origin and cause are unknown. Accordingly, she advises me that we should postpone our visit there until more is known about the situation. In the meantime our respective medical staffs are consulting together. We have also informed Companion Commander Freeman."
"Very wise," Straker agreed. "But why did you not bring this to me at once?"
"Mr Ambassador," Captain Ellis said firmly, "we are trying to ensure your recovery. There was nothing you could have done; you were better off sleeping."
Did Pavlor tell them to keep this from me? Straker thought. No, I'm being silly, of course not… He suppressed his momentary irritation. The captain was undeniably correct, as indeed Alec had been when he pointed out that although he realised there were undoubtedly things only Straker - wearing his Keimon hat - could do, to do them effectively he had to recharge his batteries.
He didn't have to like it, though.
"My apologies," he said quietly. "You were quite right… Have the medics made any comments yet?"
"I have just this moment spoken with your Dr Reed, and with Selan of Dyaus," Pavlor replied. "They are devising tests that may be performed on those afflicted. And there is one other aspect, Sire. One of the people affected by the sickness is the Empath, Elanor. You would not remember her, I suspect."
"I don't, but Alec told me about her." Straker's eyes narrowed. "Somehow, Azan, I find that the most alarming aspect of the situation."
"I too, Sire. I had already directed that she be placed under protective guard for fear of reprisals from the rebels."
"You fear this - malady - may be just such a reprisal?"
"We cannot ignore the possibility, Sire."
"We sure can't… Gay, please call Paul, tell him what's happened, and to go talk with Dr Selan, about this bug and the Empath. Get him out of the sack if you have to… Azan, we've talked about a rebel counterstrike, and I think you're right - this may be the start of it."
Pavlor nodded, and Ellis said: "I'll do that. And now, Mr Ambassador, Sire, have some breakfast!"
* * *
Commander Freeman strode into Jackson's office. The psychiatrist was at his desk, conferring with a woman Freeman recognised as one of his biochemistry specialists. Jackson invited him to take a seat, and Freeman settled himself so that he could see the monitor. It showed an image he could not quite identify.
"Hullo, Doctor," Freeman said. "And Lieutenant Karen Lacey, I believe… You have something to show me?"
"Yes, sir," Lacey replied. She was rather easier on the eye than that image, Freeman thought, which was trying to give him a migraine. "I've been talking with Doug here about his gelmask detection problem."
"That's what that is?" Freeman asked, indicating the screen. "A gelmask?"
The image did not look any more sensible even knowing what it was; his eyes still kept trying to turn it inside out, like the 'hollow face' illusion. SHADO had learned that some of the aliens - Dyausans, Freeman mentally corrected himself - wore such masks to conceal their true identity. Jackson had taken on the task of detecting such disguises.
"Indeed. Lieutenant Lacey has come up with a promising approach… Please tell the commander, Lieutenant."
Lacey punched several keys, and a list of chemical names appeared beside the mask image. "Commander, many plastics give off substances into the air around them. These are known as volatile organic compounds, VOCs for short. We already monitor the air quality here and at Moonbase for such vapours, as there are a lot of plastics involved in their constructions. The monitors will set an alarm if they detect any excess of VOCs, either accumulating over time or as sudden emissions, as you would get in the case of an equipment malfunction."
"Do I take it," Freeman commented, "that these masks produce their own set of these VOCs?"
"Yes, sir," Lacey replied. "Quite a specific set… It should be possible to reprogram the monitors here to watch for such combinations. They would get most of them as a first approximation, and then we fine-tune them by adding sensors to detect the more unusual ones."
"How good would your 'first approximation' be?" Freeman asked.
"The detectors would get about 85% of the substances in Gimen's mask, sir. I can send up the specifications by radio. And it should take Moonbase no more than a week to do the 'fine-tuning'."
"You'll get Moonbase to build them?"
"Certainly, sir," Lacey said. "They already have most of the basic materials they will need. Anything more exotic can be supplied by Factory 1, or by Moonbase Alpha. My staff will make their own gear for use here and in the SkyDivers, and compare results."
"Excellent work, Lieutenant," Freeman approved. "How soon can they get started?"
"In about half an hour, sir. I wished to have someone double-check my results."
"Go right ahead." Freeman glanced across at Jackson. "Talking of Gimen - "
"Ah, yes." Jackson took a typed sheet from his in-tray and passed it across. "I have been discussing him with Professor Bergman, who proposes to set up an isolation chamber attached to Alpha. Or, rather, associated with it, since there would be no direct physical connection… It would be an 'igloo' away from the main base, equipped with life-support, but surrounded on all sides by the lunar vacuum. No spacesuit would be provided, nor its own airlock - we would use a detachable unit, which would be integrated with a modified hopper. The occupant could not possibly escape alive, at least not without considerable help."
"Sounds ideal," Freeman commented, scanning the sheet. "We'll just have to make sure he doesn't get any such help… Anything further on this mysterious illness they've suddenly got at Dyaus?"
"The good news is, it's no worse," Jackson said. "The bad news is, they haven't identified it yet, but there are several possibilities."
"I see… Well, thank you, Doctor, Lieutenant. Carry on."
* * *
Commander Freeman put matters in motion immediately. He decided that Gimen should be sedated for the trip to Alpha, as he did not wish to take the chance of a hijack of the LM.
Accordingly, Breen administered a drug which - he explained rather apologetically - was one frequently used to control prospective 'harvests'. Freeman, however, found that more ironic than offensive.
The renegade was placed in a rescue pod, similar to the one used to transfer Commander Straker back to Earth after his arrival at Moonbase from Dyaus. Monitors attached to the pod showed his vital signs, which Jackson confirmed as consistent with deep anaesthesia. The pod was loaded into a cargo shuttle, accompanied by two security guards, in addition to the usual shuttle crew of pilot and co-pilot.
The trip to Alpha was uneventful. When the shuttle had touched down on Alpha's landing pad, the pod with its sleeping occupant was taken from the shuttle cargo hold to the Alpha sickbay. The rebel was checked over by a Dyausan medic, while the two guards and Dr Grant, commander of Alpha, watched on.
There was a chime from the wall communicator. Dr Grant moved to it to respond. "Grant."
The screen lit, to show the face of one of the Dyausan technicians. "Dr Grant, I have to report a slight delay in preparing your 'igloo'. One of the observer cameras has developed a malfunction, it is being replaced. The delay will be - some fifteen minutes."
"Thank you, Mr Hibon. One moment." Grant turned to the Dyaus medic. "Dr Spessar, will that be a problem?"
"Negative, Dr Grant," Spessar replied. His English was slow and careful, but not stilted. "This person will remain unaware for some hours yet. I will use the time to refill the feeders."
"Do you require anything for that?"
"Negative. I have everything I need."
* * *
In the cargo hold of the shuttle that had brought the captive rebel, the service crew were busy with their checks, ensuring the shuttle was ready for its next journey. One of the technicians opened the suit locker and connected his diagnostic unit to the suit readouts. He read the report that appeared on the small screen. Satisfied, he disconnected, closed the locker, and left.
He did not look back as behind him a figure emerged from the cargo hold and moved silently to the locker.
* * *
Spessar made his adjustments quickly. At last he looked up. "We are ready to transfer when your engineers say, Dr Grant."
As he spoke, the communicator chimed again, and Hibon confirmed that the repairs had been completed. Spessar closed the pod, making sure it was darkened against exposure to the glare of the naked sun. The guards placed it on a trolley, and took it to the main airlock, where it was loaded onto a hopper which delivered it directly to the confinement 'igloo'. The security guards removed their captive from the pod and placed him on the sleeping couch. They checked his vital signs. Satisfied, they carried the pod back to the hopper, sealing the hatch and detaching the airlock, and leaving the captive rebel alone to the igloo monitor cameras.
It took the renegade several hours to wake. He roused, turned on the couch, and blinked at his surroundings. He could tell from the low gravity that he was no longer on the terran planet. He got up, a little unsteadily, and made his way to a viewport. Outside he could see a rock-strewn regolith, and in the sky, a blue and white-streaked globe in gibbous phase.
He was indeed on the terran moon, as he had been told; and the interrogation would begin shortly. He hoped he would be retrieved before that happened.
His thoughts were interrupted as Gimen opened a mind-link to him. Examine the habitat thoroughly and report.
As a prison, this place is near-perfect, the rebel sent. This habitation module does not even have an airlock.
The agent did so. Gimen noted that the terrans - with their usual cunning - had used a transfer conduit from the land vehicle that had conveyed their captive here as a detachable airlock. Oddly, however, they had taken care over even this. The hatchway would not open directly onto the surface, but into a small compartment furnished with another hatch. Even though this space could not be independently pressurised or evacuated, it nevertheless acted as a backup keeping internal pressure should the inner door fail for any reason.
He did not doubt that the doors were equipped with alarms should either hatch be breached. Or, of course, if the occupant should try to interfere with them.
Acknowledged. Await further instructions.
Gimen broke contact. Now suited, he left the shuttle and made his way to the personnel lock, but did not enter immediately. He waited. Before too long the exchanger opened, and Dr Spessar beckoned to him, silently, and he entered.
What is the route? he sent, mind to mind.
My lord, the terrans have opened a connecting tunnel to the blast crater they call M2, Spessar responded, as the exchanger cycled. Their tunnel intersects with one that leads to the Avach falling transit. The terrans are unaware of this; the intersection is blocked off from them by a rockfall.
Is the Avach transit operational?
It is, my lord.
Spessar guided him through the short corridor and out once more through another exchanger into the tunnel connecting Alpha to M2. This was still unfinished; it had not been pressurised, and it had only been roughly shaped, though a floor had been laid to give a flat even surface for walking. A surveillance camera had been installed to watch the entry.
Is that active?
It is not, my lord, Spessar assured him. I saw to that myself. It will report a fault shortly, so I urge you to hurry. Transit time to the mascon station should be about a day-twelfth.
Good. You may resume your duties.
He turned, and began the long journey to Avach, wondering what he would find there.
* * *
"Call from Dr Jackson for you, Captain."
"I'll be right there… If you will excuse me, gentlemen?"
Captain Ellis left the conference table and walked over to the test chamber, where Bergman was deep in conversation with Fiskeret and Wojnycz."Professor," she said, "I have to take a call from Dr Jackson. May I use the phone box?"
"Of course, my dear," Bergman said. "Do tell them we hope to try a test run in about an hour or so, on the pulsor array."
"I'll do that, old chap," Ellis replied.
She managed to hide her grin at the physicist's shrug of puzzlement, and opened the small cubicle. Bergman had installed this so that the people in the 'Eagle hangar' could talk to Moonbase or to Alpha without being troubled by the noises of testing. It was perhaps inevitable, she thought, that it should acquire this nickname.
Perching on the stool, she touched the switch. "Ellis here."
The small screen lit to show Jackson's face. "Good morning, Captain. I have news for your Dyaus colleagues about a possible method of treating this malady that has appeared."
"Good news, indeed, doctor," Ellis replied. "Do you wish to speak with Dr Selan?"
"I have done so already, and discussed my findings with her. I now need to transfer a shipment to Dyaus as quickly as possible. The cargo is something they do not have on Dyaus, but which we have here in quantity. I refer to magnolia tea."
"Seriously?" Ellis queried, startled.
Jackson smiled. "That really should not surprise you, Captain. Recall that this beverage was instrumental in frustrating Gimen's attempts to alter terran ecology and the biochemistry of his rebel colleagues so that they could move in and take over this planet."
"I remember… but wouldn't the 'tea' be harmful to them?"
"Not in small refined doses," Jackson assured her. "Dr Breen and I were led to consider this substance following investigation of the foods and other substances available on Dyaus. They have similar beverages, including one which contains many of the compounds found in magnolia infusions, and which has been helpful to those afflicted with the malady. We tried various 'recipes' on our Dyaus volunteers here. Although these people are not ill, yet, they are lacking in certain micronutrients which the tea provides, and they have been showing slight symptoms similar to those reported by Nepetane. The magnolia infusion helped them greatly."
"Doctor, is this Dyaus malady a deficiency disease, then?"
"Entirely possible," Jackson confirmed. "The situation resembles that of scurvy, the scourge of sailors for centuries from Columbus to Cook, thought to be caused by everything from homesickness to demonic possession. Then they discovered that all sailors needed to protect them from this terrible illness was an apple a day."
"But things like scurvy and rickets affect us in a matter of weeks at the most. Dyaus has been operating for millennia. Surely this deficiency hasn't just happened?" Ellis objected.
Jackson frowned. "It seems that the beverage they use is made from plants which appear to have suffered a number of mutations over the centuries, which have slowly reduced its quality. It seems that it has now dropped below a threshold where it is not able to provide enough of those nutrients for the inhabitants of Dyaus."
Ellis thought, very privately: What a coincidence. Not.
Not privately enough, she thought… "I'll… bear that in mind. Thank you, Doctor."
Breaking the connection, she sat for a few moments, thinking. This was certainly news to be passed on to the ambassadors; but at least it was not serious enough to worry them. She put a call through to Medical, advising Foster that she would come over shortly, then went back to where Bergman and his colleagues were deep in conference. They had been joined, she noted, by Astropilot Corune. The group seemed to be discussing final setup for the forthcoming test run.
I'll wait for them to reach a break-point, she thought; but Bergman saw her, and excused himself. "Yes, Captain? Not bad news, I trust?"
"Quite good news, apparently," she assured him, with a smile. "Kyan, Corune, we think we may know what is causing the problem on Dyaus."
"That is good news indeed, Companion," Fiskeret said, warmly. "Please, tell us."
Ellis explained. She finished: "Dr Jackson is arranging for a consignment of, er, 'tea-pills' to be sent here, where we can load them onto a skimmer and send them on. Azan and I will need to discuss this with Dr Selan; she will want the process closely monitored, to confirm there are no unwelcome side-effects."
"Of course. My thanks, Companion."
"I'll go now - why, Professor, whatever is the matter?"
Bergman was slowly shaking his head, a look of sadness on his face. "Oh dear, oh dear," he said, mournfully. "So technology has brought us to this. Tea in pills. What a disaster."
They all looked at him; Corune puzzled, Wojnycz grinning, Ellis herself trying not to giggle. But Kyan Fiskeret's face was a picture. Her eyes widened; then she burst out laughing.
Well, what d'you know, Ellis thought to herself, mischievously. They're human after all!
"Oh good," Bergman said, grinning himself. "Someone who shares my aversion to such monstrosities! Thank you, Kyan."
"My apologies, Victor," the Dyausan said, wiping her eyes, "I hope you will not take this amiss - but you reminded me irresistibly of my father, may he rest with the Deity."
"Not at all - but tell me, how so?"
"He was a farmer," Fiskeret explained. "Also he was a botanist with expertise in hydroponics. He did acknowledge our need for such measures - but he did not enjoy having to use them. He kept a small area for cultivating some plants naturally. I have to say, they were truly delicious."
"I can well imagine," Bergman agreed. "Gay, can we - "
"I'll get a selection sent up on the next shuttle," Ellis smiled. "We could all do with it!"
* * *
He would not have to walk this section of his journey after all, Gimen realised.
Showing surprising ingenuity, the terrans had provided transport, consisting of two overhead rods firmly attached to the tunnel roof with handholds dangling from them over a wide channel in the floor. The holds moved at a comfortable speed, so a person could reach up, grasp one, step off the walkway alongside the channel, and be pulled along in either direction. For beings used to the far greater gravity of the terran homeworld it was no strain, and surprisingly rapid.
All the users of this facility had to be suited against vacuum, but this was to Gimen's advantage - he simply kept his shield visor down. A few people coming the other were doing likewise; he wondered briefly what they had to hide.
He had managed to delay until he was the last in a short sequence of people wishing to disembark at the exchange chamber into the pressurised area referred to by the terrans as M2. He was able to leave the overhead line and proceed on foot without needing to distract them, and so avoid being observed.
There was a short, dark tunnel leading onward to the mascon station. He made his way along this, taking care with the surface underfoot, which had not been smoothed or even cleared; it was still lava in the state into which it had congealed countless ultra-twelves of cycles ago. There were, however, small drifts of dust and pebbles, which surprised him as there was no weathering here - but then he remembered that this moon was not a totally dead world. There would have been some slight seismic activity, from tidal stresses from the nearby planet, from meteoritic impact, from the tremendous solar temperature changes at the surface.
He kicked a small pebble out of the way, and went on.
The rockfall was as he had been told. The Guard had set up a disguise field, hiding the opening he had made. Gimen was able to push through without any problem. Behind the fall he could see the outlines of fallen equipment racks in the light from his helmet lamp. He clambered over these and made his way to the exchange pod at the entrance to this chamber, and from there into the central corridor.
He checked the habitation pod; it was occupied. Casting ahead with his mind, he recognised the occupant. Oddly, the youth was autonomous, which surprised and perturbed him. Why had Bosan done this? It was very dangerous. The youth might break free of control. He read the surface emotions, and was reassured, slightly; the youth was angry, desiring revenge, and his anger was directed at the terrans.
Even so, Gimen needed to talk to Bosan, urgently.
He hurried to the falling-transit station, put the tunnel in boost mode, and set off to Avach.
* * *
In the control dome, Foster and Joan Harrington were deep in conversation, when Straker walked in. Foster glanced up, and greeted his brother with a smile.
"Ah, Ed, hi," he said. "Sleep well?"
"Yes, thanks. Paul, any news on this sickness problem at Dyaus?"
"There is indeed." Quickly, Foster recounted the news from Jackson. He concluded: "The problem there is no worse, no-one has died, and Elanor is a little better if anything."
"Great! What of Gimen? How's the interrogation proceeding?"
Lieutenant Harrington reached for a slim folder on her desk. Checking the title page, she handed it across. "This is the latest report from Commander Freeman," she said, as he took it from her and began to leaf through the pages. "Gimen is becoming reluctant to speak, especially about Kotte - "
"Understandably," Straker agreed.
" - so Prince Merrel's team has occasionally resorted to pharmaceutical agents. They have obtained quite a lot of information which the analysis team is checking, with promising results."
"Great." Straker frowned. "Azan was worried that the rebels might also wish to reach Gimen, to take or kill him, to prevent him giving everything away… What measures have been taken about that?"
"He's in strict isolation, with only Merrel's people allowed access - and they've been thoroughly vetted by both the prince and Jackson. Also, we have received an instruction from Dr Jackson regarding those 'gel-masks'. He says to adjust our air quality sensors to pick up certain substances the gel gives off, with an 85% efficiency, and suggests ways of improving that detection rate. Here is the spec."
Straker thanked her. He took the folder and scanned it briefly. "We need those enhancements ASAP. Your estimate?"
"24 hours to install most of the extra sensors," Harrington told him, "another two days to decide what else we need and get them from Factory One, then another 24 hours to get the system fully online."
"And Doug is sending up a specimen from Gimen's mask for us to test with," Foster added. "It'll be on the next shuttle, which is due tomorrow morning."
"Great… One moment. Do I read this correctly?" Straker was staring at the Gimen file. "Gimen's up here? On the Moon? At Alpha? When did this happen?"
"Last night, sir - "
"And you didn't see fit to tell me?"
"Not at that time, sir," Foster said. "The rebel was brought up under sedation and installed in an isolation module outside the base proper - "
"So I see. When did Bergman arrange this?"
Foster noted the use of the Professor's surname, an unfriendly formality. Watch your step, Paul, he thought, and went on aloud: "Professor Bergman used a system he had been developing since you informed him of Plan Delta, strategies for handling alien contact up here on the Moon. This isolation chamber was not originally intended as a prison, but was quickly adapted for that purpose."
I do remember telling him about Delta, Straker admitted to himself. I should have expected he'd make his own arrangements… but someone should have said!
"Very well," he said, shortly. "But as from now, I want all actions you take under Delta - which, I remind you, has now gone beyond 'first contact' and metamorphosed into Plan Zeta, full interaction - reported back to me. There need not be exhaustive detail; brief summaries will be sufficient."
"Yes, Mr Ambassador, Sire."
Straker strode out of Control. Foster and Ellis exchanged glances.
"That was… a bit odd," the captain said, slowly. "We've all seen the commander - I mean, the ambassador - when he's been angry, even furious. And he is now. But it's different."
"He isn't usually as quiet," Foster agreed, ruefully. He glanced at his finger, where a circle of silvery faceted metal glimmered. "Gay, you and I both wear these rings, and they're linked to the Kei, somehow. Had you noticed anything? In yourself, or others?"
"I seem to be more - aware - somehow, of people's feelings, and the general tone of their thoughts," Gay said. "At least, with you and Alec, and any of the Companions. And with Ed himself, of course. How about you?"
"So it's not just me, then." Paul's smile was crooked. "But lately, it's been as though Ed's unplugged himself from that - well, network."
"But you find that disturbing? So do I."
"I keep reminding myself he's tired, he's recovering from his recent experiences," Gay said. "And of course that's true, and some emotional disturbances are only to be expected."
"Dr Breen did warn me about that," Paul confirmed. "I thought I'd better not say too much, though. It won't help him at all to have people tiptoeing around him for fear of touching off an explosion!"
"That's exactly what they'll get," Gay agreed. "Well, our best bet is to act as normally as possible - and help Nepetane and her colleagues sort out their problem!"
"Excuse me, Captain?" said Lieutenant Chan, from her console. "Call for you, from Professor Bergman."
"Thanks, Chan. Please, patch him through."
The image of Bergman's face appeared on the monitor. Ambassador Pavlor was beside him. "Ah, Captain. Is Colonel Foster available?"
"Right here, Victor," Foster said, at a nod from Ellis. "What's new?"
Bergman smiled. "Do you fancy a 'trip round the lighthouse'? We're setting up for a trial in about an hour."
"I'll be right there," Foster said, enthusiastically. "Er… Shall I bring Ed? I don't think he'll want to miss this."
"Do that," Bergman agreed. "Be seeing you."
* * *
The captive became aware of activity at the airlock. He glanced at the monitors, and noted that there were two of his captors ready to make entry. One was armed; the other held a small covered dish. Neither wore a vacuum suit; each was dressed in a simple coverall, just as he was.
The hatch slid open, and the armed figure raised his weapon and aimed it at the prisoner. The device was familiar to him; it was a sonic pistol, capable of inflicting injury from stunning through paralysis to death, but it would not damage the fabric of this pod. At a gesture, the prisoner placed his hands on his head, then turned away, gazing at the wall.
"Here is a meal for you." There was a soft clack as the dish was set down on the small table. "You may eat it after we leave. We must check your health. Are you experiencing any negative symptoms?"
"None." Apart from impatience, he thought.
"Noted. Remain still while I download from your sensor array."
He complied. There was a brief hum, a tingle from the skin contacts, and the voice said: "That is all. We will now leave. You will be visited again after a short interval."
A few moments later, the door to the pod closed, the conduit detached, and he was once more alone. He sat at the table, and investigated his food, wondering as he ate whether he could use these visits to make his escape. A number of possibilities presented themselves to him; none was ideal, and all were dangerous.
* * *
Foster found Straker not in his quarters, but - a trifle unexpectedly - in 'Central Park'. Well, at least he hasn't curled up sulking in a corner, Foster thought, irreverently.
Straker was seated on a bench, gazing at the greenery in contemplation. He looked up as Foster came in. He was not smiling; but somehow his face was looking a little more relaxed.
"Paul," he said. "Join me?"
"Of course. Coffee?"
Foster collected two cups from the dispenser, and sat on the bench. He handed his brother a cup; but before he could say anything, Ed spoke first.
"Paul," he said quietly, "I'm sorry for the tantrum. It was uncalled-for."
"So you should be," Foster said, with a grin. "Forget it. We're all under a lot of pressure right now."
"Mmm… I'll have to talk to Gay, as well. Is she still up in Control?"
"She's on her way to the 'hangar'," Foster told him. "I'm going there myself, and you may like to join us. Victor and his Astropilot colleague are about to try a test flight."
Straker swallowed his coffee in a single gulp, spluttered a little, and shot to his feet. "Lead the way!"
"I thought that might cheer you up," Paul smiled.
* * *
They hurried to the 'Hutchinson tunnel', with Straker striding ahead so that Foster had to hurry to keep up. But when they arrived at the parking bay, Straker did not take the driver's seat.
"Care to be chauffeur, Paul?" he asked, lightly. "You sure look eager to get there!"
"Thanks, Ed." Foster helped his brother into a seat, and took the driver's position. As he started the motor, Straker braced himself; but their departure was unhurried, even gentle.
"You've been taking lessons," he smiled.
"Let's say Karel and I have been conferring… This Amet seems a good guy, as well. When's he due, do we know?"
"Not sure. He may have to bypass Dyaus altogether, to avoid being quarantined while Nepetane and her colleagues deal with the situation."
"Of course." Foster hesitated, then added: "Ed - I know Jackson and Nepetane are both reasonably sure this wasn't a bug that originated at Spicor and was then brought here, even if unwittingly, but… Do we know how often Dyaus gets visits from Spicor Central?"
"Not often, Azan tells me. Perhaps once or twice a Jupiter-year - six to twelve of ours," Straker said, but his eyes were shadowed. "And yes, Nepetane is seriously considering that. She's looking into the possibility that the - let's call them tea-plants - might themselves have been attacked."
Foster whistled. "Nasty… and of course, what if they don't stop at the tea-plants?"
"With a little judicious sabotage the rebel faction could kill Dyaus in a very short space of time," Straker said, grimly. "Because it wouldn't be food only. Their life-support is based on biological cycles, just as ours is on Earth, but far less robust. Wreck those, their environment collapses, and they die. They couldn't possibly evacuate everyone in time, not even to Earth."
"But if the rebels did that," Foster objected, "they'd be killing themselves, as well - Oh."
"'Oh' exactly… I ordered the rebels to be deported to Arkadia. A transport is coming in, it'll arrive in a few months. The rebels will go - and quite possibly leave a 'parting gift'!"
"I'm very glad Nepetane's on top of it… I'd really like to meet that lady," Foster said. "Or is she too old for me as well?" he added with a wink.
Straker gave a slight smile. "We'll just have to see, won't we?"
Foster returned the smile, but his thoughts were elsewhere. Since Chrysanthea Jones - the first woman he had truly loved, he thought, since teen-hood - had been retired from SHADO on health grounds following a near-fatal attack by one of the rebels, and as a consequence had had her memories of Paul deleted, he had been very lonely. He had tried a few half-hearted liaisons since, but not only had they not helped, they seemed to have made matters worse. He would have loved to talk to Ed about it, but they had both been too busy.
For his part Straker was also a little saddened. He had found that he really missed those long conversations with Robert, a man who had been adopted by Ed's own stepmother Marion Knight, and who had turned out to be Paul's full brother. Robert had been 'zommed' by the aliens, then died in a rebel 'incident' - at Paul's own hands. Straker recognised that none of that was Paul's fault; indeed if he had not acted as he had, both of them would have been taken by the rebels for interrogation and 'harvesting'. Nevertheless, the incident had driven something of a wedge between them, and that would take time and patience to repair.
Time that we don't seem to have, Straker said to himself.
"We're here," Foster said, breaking into his thoughts.
"Great… well, let's go see what Victor's been getting up to!"
* * *
Slightly startled, Bosan turned in her seat. "Gimen. You have arrived."
"The boy is carrying out his instructions, with an escort - one of the Guard," Bosan said. "I have impressed on him that he may not intervene in any way, but only observe, and report."
"I know that Kotte has died. I… felt his death. You are following his plan?" Gimen queried.
"With certain modifications," Bosan said.
Gimen frowned. He had granted this altered-terran rather more autonomy than was usual, so that 'she' could carry out 'her' tasks in a way that would not look unnatural to the terrans of their marine task force. That was no longer necessary, of course; but perhaps this capability could be useful. He decided to investigate further. "What are these modifications?" he demanded.
"Kotte desired to subvert this Keimon, turn it to ourselves," Bosan said. "His death at the Keimon's hands shows that is no longer possible. I am using a different approach. I will ensure that the Keimon hands us the terran homeworld, and we can then remake it for our own needs."
"By what means?"
"I will use the boy to destroy the Keimon's view of its 'humanity'. It will then destroy that humanity."
"Show me," Gimen commanded. "Open your mind!"
Bosan lowered her mental shield. Gimen inspected her mind, thoroughly. He satisfied himself that Bosan was sincere, and truthful; though there were regions in her mental landscape that seemed fogged. But then, he reminded himself, that happened with this level of autonomy.
He withdrew. "Very well. You will summon the Guard; I shall take over his function. I shall allow your strategy to proceed, but if it deviates, I shall take control."
"Of course, my lord," Bosan said.
Gimen departed with the Guard who had been supervising Bosan's agent. She drew a cautious sigh of relief, thankful that she had not revealed the details of her strategy to anyone. Gimen would have tried to take control, and been destroyed as Kotte had been.
She knew, from her father, about the far-side installation. As soon as she could, she had investigated - only to find that the way to the controller was blocked, impenetrably.
She also knew of one being who could find a way through, if suitably persuaded to try - the man who had killed her father. The man who claimed to be the keimon.
And she would use Jax to do the persuading.
* * *
The skimmer that had been undergoing the modifications sat on a circular platform in the centre of the 'garage' space. Pavlor was there, talking to Wojnycz. Straker and Foster hurried over, and Pavlor bowed to them. He looked a little strained, Straker thought; and put it down to worry about the forthcoming test flight.
"I greet you, Sire," Pavlor said.
"I greet you also," Straker responded. Foster gave the ambassador a smile, and the Dyausan seemed to relax a little. They were joined by Bergman and Astropilot Fiskeret, the Astropilot already garbed in one of the red Dyausan vacuum suits.
She bowed to Straker. "I greet you, Keimon Ambassador," she said. "We are about to try a short test run. I will be accompanied by my colleague Apat, and by your Astronaut Wojnycz, who will observe. We will perform a sequence of tests on Professor Bergman's configuration. If all is satisfactory we will return here and make any final adjustments; then we shall invite the Companion Brother aboard for his first lesson."
Foster put his question aside - for the moment. I really must ask them how they know about that, but later, perhaps, he thought. Aloud he went on: "May I see the test schedule? I have a professional interest as well as a personal one."
"Of course, Companion." Fiskeret handed him her data-board.
Foster looked at it. The device appeared to be much more than a simple pad of paper clamped to a piece of plastic. Instead it was clearly an electronic display screen, similar to the LCD screens that were beginning to appear on small TV sets - but this one was much larger, and even seemed to be flexible!
Fiskeret showed Foster how to move down through the text by stroking his finger across the screen, while Straker looked on, fascinated. Foster read through the schedule. "You're going to ascend to an altitude of - "
"Eight hundred of your metres," the Astropilot supplied.
"Thanks… and then you will move off to the - northeast, away from this area. Just in case… And then you will try the pulsor array."
"That is so, Companion."
"What are the likely problems?"
"That which concerned us most," Fiskeret replied, "was ensuring that all the pulsors became active within the required space of time, which is very short indeed - " She concentrated for a moment, then resumed: "No more than ten picoseconds at the most. Our tests on the ground, within the test chamber, show us well within those limits. Now we shall see if our drive field affects that."
"What would be the consequences of any such problems?" Straker asked, quietly.
"If the pulsors fail to synchronise," Fiskeret said steadily, "the skimmer will experience severe vibration. So will the pilots. The vibration will only last a very short time, and both the craft and its crew may survive."
"Have you seen any sign this might happen?"
"We ran tests with the pulsors deliberately de-synchronised, up to the point where our test rig came apart." Fiskeret smiled, but without humour. "Little remained of it… But this occurred well outside the tolerance limit I mentioned."
Straker nodded, and glanced at Foster. "Well, Colonel?"
"Have you told Commander Freeman this? How did he comment?"
"I spoke with him, and Professor Bergman here, and Astronaut Wojnycz. They seemed satisfied, but the Companion Commander left the decision to you."
Foster grinned, and said: "Then let's do it."
"Very well," said Bergman. "Kyan, you may begin the test."
The crew of three entered the skimmer, and it was lifted up on its platform into the upper chamber by a hydraulic pillar of the type used to launch the Interceptors. It locked into place, making an airtight seal, and turning the upper section into an airlock. Bergman, however, ordered everyone out of the lower chamber, in case there should be any problem. "No point in taking chances," he said; and Straker agreed, wholeheartedly.
* * *
The exchanger to this habitation pod began to cycle. Expecting the guard, Jax rose to his feet. A suited figure entered and removed its helmet, revealing a face that was certainly not that of his Guard. Even so, he recognised the man before him.
"My lord Gimen," he said, with a slight bow. "You wish?"
"I am taking over from the Guard as your mentor."
"Yes, my lord. Do you have instructions for me?"
"Report on your activities."
Jax gave an account of his investigations. Gimen nodded, thoughtfully. "You say they have stolen a skimmer? They are making changes to it?"
"They attempt to alter the drive so that our cocoon is not needed. I regret I do not understand the details."
"You do not need to understand them," Gimen told him, "but we can use them - or rather, the fact that the terrans are making changes. Tap into the audio stream from the skimmer."
"At once, my lord."
Jax turned to his console, and switched on his audio link. Voices, both terran and human, sounded clearly over the link. Thankful that he had trained in the principal terran languages, he followed the discussion between the technicians.
"They are planning a test flight," he said to Gimen. "Should we intervene?"
"Not yet. We will observe only. I will consider how we shall proceed."
"Very well, my lord."
They listened as the astropilots took control. In his thoughts Jax was going through the pre-flight checks from his training sessions. As the craft rose from its platform he felt oddly dizzy, as though he was anticipating movement that had not come. Strange, he thought. I should be well used to that by now.
He took note of the evacuation of the construction chamber, reporting it back to his mentor. The flight continued, and all seemed to be well.
As the skimmer approached for landing, Gimen spoke. "I have instructions for you," he said. "Note them carefully, and do only that which I specify. You are to observe, not act."
"As you wish, my lord." Jax hoped he had concealed his disappointment successfully.
* * *
Foster waited with barely suppressed impatience for the modified skimmer to complete its test run. Straker's own attention was split between the readouts and Foster himself. His amusement at the younger man's eagerness was tempered slightly by disappointment that he would not himself be taking part - a feeling which, he told himself sternly, was really quite childish.
They watched the test on the bank of monitors, Bergman and Corune intent on the telemetry, with Pavlor watching. The skimmer performed its manoeuvres, and - at Bergman's suggestion - a few more. At length Bergman turned to his colleague.
"What d'you think, Corune?" he enquired.
"I am satisfied," the pilot replied. "All the units are interfacing smoothly. The skimmer achieved three lights on that last phase without mishap."
"Then we'll ask them to come in," Bergman smiled, "and you can have your turn, Paul."
The skimmer returned, Fiskeret guiding it through the airlock chamber onto the lifting pad. The chamber sealed, and the skimmer came down to the work level. Bergman led his people back into the chamber, to greet the crew as they stepped down to the floor.
"It looked fine to us," he said. "How was it at your end?"
"All went well," Fiskeret confirmed, and Wojnycz agreed. "You will wish to make your inspection, I believe?"
"Of course… Paul, you had better come too, I think."
"You bet!" He threw a quick smile at his brother, and almost ran to the craft.
* * *
The terrans had provided their captive with a video feed. This appeared to be tunable to their information transmissions; though he had no doubt that it was highly censored. Accordingly, he treated the material it provided with extreme caution.
He was not sure, though, what to make of the 'cultural' and 'artistic' programmes. He had occasionally observed some of these at the domicile of the being Lackland, lately used by Gimen; but they made no more sense now than they had at the time. One of these, he remembered, seemed to deal with happenings in the governing body of the terran island 'britain'; but if it was a factual account, the agent thought, it was scarcely a surprise that this planet was so chaotic. And that historical documentary series dealing with their 'second world war' from the point of view of a small town in the region known as 'occupied france' was nothing short of bizarre. Strangely, the soundtrack for both included audience reaction, which seemed to be favourable, even amused.
What could you expect from such degenerates, he mused.
Rather better - surprisingly so, he thought - were the programmes featuring an entity named 'the open university'. As far as he could tell, these were genuinely educational - though, of course, very primitive. He adjusted the tuning control to this channel, and sat back to observe.
Abruptly, a wave of dizziness struck him.
He sat for a few moments, performing a self-check. Its findings were mildly alarming. Perhaps he should notify his captors. He pushed himself to his feet, trying to ignore the response from his balancing organs, and took a step towards the comms panel.
He never reached it.
* * *
Bergman did not rush his inspection, and neither - to his credit, Straker acknowledged - did Foster. Paul's in full test-pilot mode, he thought. He's putting his life on the line. He's not about to cut corners, no matter how eager he is.
The inspection took more than an hour. At length, Bergman and Fiskeret pronounced themselves satisfied, and told Foster to get himself suited up. The colonel dived into the suit room, while Straker talked with the crew.
Wearing his own suit rather than one of the Dyausan outfits, and holding his helmet, Foster came back into the work area. "We ready to go?" he asked.
Bergman blinked a little. The change in the man was really quite striking. Gone was the near-impatience of waiting to make this trip, the almost trembling anticipation. Now Colonel Foster was icy cool, ready for anything.
Actually, no, Straker realised. He's afraid. And that really should not surprise me. But he's not letting it get to him. He's using it. It's making him sharper.
"Your pardon, Keimon?" Fiskeret said to him.
"Many thousands of your years ago, we gave names to those of our ships of space which were significant in some way. I understand that people of Earth do the same… This practice fell out of use during our Emergency; but I would like to revive it. I would be honoured, Sire, if you would suggest a name for this new skimmer."
"The honour is mine," Straker answered, a little shaken. "We do indeed name our space vessels… The first of our craft to land a human crew on this moon we named 'Eagle', and so we have chosen that as the name of this construction project and of the craft themselves. Perhaps we should also name this skimmer for a bird… Maybe 'Swift'? These are birds which are more aerial than they are land-dwellers, and which are both fast and agile."
"I thank you, Sire," Fiskeret smiled. "'Swift' it shall be."
Hmmm, Bergman thought to himself in amusement, very privately. Somehow I can't see you as a reader of comics, Ed…
* * *
From his place of concealment, Jax watched as the skimmer was again lifted into the upper compartment. He checked his readouts; the terrans had once more evacuated the lower section, leaving the way clear.
The Guard had informed him that his appearance, so similar to the being 'straker' - especially dressed as he was - would not activate the terran detector systems. This exchange pod was pressurised, and he was dressed and ready for his excursion. He opened the hatch, and no alarms sounded. Quickly he made his way to the test module and entered it. Using his imager, he recorded the appearance of the test equipment, especially the controls. He set them to disable the internal sensors, as instructed.
That was sufficient; but he hesitated, looking at those controls. Gimen had been quite specific here. It would be so easy to turn off the shielding circuitry, so that the next time the equipment was energised, the field would permeate the whole area, with devastating consequences…
* * *
Fiskeret and Wojnycz took the skimmer named 'Swift' into space, and ascended to an altitude of 800 metres, where they hovered.
"Companion Brother," Fiskeret said, "would you take over the co-pilot slot from Astronaut Wojnycz?"
"Of course. But please call me Paul."
"I am pleased to do so… Paul. And I am Kyan."
She loosened the restraints holding Foster in his flight cradle. The seat held him nearly upright, but with sufficient supporting curvature to feel like a couch.
"Your initial comments, Com - that is, Paul?" Fiskeret asked.
"A little disconcerting," Foster admitted. "I am accustomed to 'feeling' the craft I am flying, but I didn't get that as we took off. I suppose that's down to your drive field."
"It is," she confirmed. "However, like you, we find a tactile interface with the craft to be greatly useful in controlling the skimmer. Therefore, we simulate the effects - rather than allowing the drive variations to come through to the pilot, which is not controllable enough to be safe."
I can imagine, Foster thought. They could only let through the tiniest of tiny fractions of their acceleration - and even a small error would liquefy the pilots!
Aloud he said merely "Understood."
"Let me help you into the cradle." Fiskeret slid him into the couch and its restraints with with practiced ease of an instructor. She raised two projecting arms into position. "Please place your hands here," she directed; and Foster complied. The rests were not horizontal, but angled slightly downwards, and they had a strange surface texture. It was almost furry, Foster thought.
"To control the craft," Fiskeret said, "you must visualise its motion. This will cause the muscles in your hands to contract, slightly, in a way which is not normally perceptible to yourself, but which the flight sensors can read. In a moment I will enable the system, and give you control within a restricted range of directions and velocities. These are chosen to disallow unsafe manoeuvres. I will myself monitor your actions, and can take back control if necessary. At this stage you will not experience any tactile feedback."
Foster recognised the system as being a bit like the way airliners were flown. The autopilot did most of the work, while the human controllers could operate only within a specified 'safety envelope' - so that they would not make the plane unstable and fall out of the sky!
"Good. You will feel a slight vibration as you are given control."
"Rog - I mean, understood."
The control pads tingled, briefly, under his fingers. He gazed into the viewscreen, which was showing the lunar surface, and willed the craft to move slowly forwards. The image began to expand.
"Move left a little," Fiskeret directed, and Foster complied. "Good. Now, ahead… good… up… level… ahead…"
This went on for some minutes. Foster enjoyed the flight; but it felt more like a flight simulator video game than reality. He acknowledged this was due to the lack of tactile effects.
Even so, it beat games like 'Elite' hollow!
"Level out and continue forward more slowly," Fiskeret said; and Foster complied. "Now I will engage the feedback. You may experience some dizziness."
"Understood - Ooof!! No, I'm fine," Foster said, quickly. "Just a bit startled… Oh my word that is SO much better!"
It felt as though he had merged with the craft. The simulated 'feel' was that good. Tentatively, he tried a few movements, and it felt as though he himself was flying. He threw a sidelong glance at his instructor, and noted that she was almost smiling - the first 'real' expression he could remember seeing on her face.
"Proceed, Paul," she said. "Ah - Do something interesting. The safety envelope will catch you if it needs to."
"Right! Brace yourself…"
* * *
When Tyl Merrel arrived at the igloo, he found the prisoner unresponsive on the floor, but still alive. He stood back, making way for his medics to move in and inspect the fallen man.
"Gimen lives," the medic Barit reported. "His sensors report that his life signs are considerably impaired, but there is no apparent injury. There are, however, substances in his tissues which are toxic. He needs treatment urgently. I will have the pod brought in."
Merrel thought, carefully. Evidently Azan's fears had been justified; Gimen was a target for the rebels, who would wish to retrieve him before he could reveal his knowledge, or - failing that - silence him. They must have administered a poison, managing to defeat the safeguards intended to prevent such an occurrence.
The prince considered whether he should move the sick man to the Alpha medical facility, but decided against it. It was not impossible that the rebel was 'faking it', in the Terrans' colourful idiom, for exactly that purpose, giving himself an opportunity to make his escape. Merrel could bring in all the help he might need to this igloo.
He watched closely while the medics used their test equipment to inspect the treatment pod. This was a transparent cylinder fitted with diagnostic and therapeutic equipment. It was also airtight when closed, and its panels darkened against solar radiation and proof against vacuum, in case its occupant needed to be moved.
Barit watched the readouts, frowning a little. He said: "My prince, I regret that the prisoner is dying. I am unable to halt the process."
* * *
Bergman watched, somewhat alarmed, as the modified skimmer performed a series of spectacular 'aerobatics'. "What on earth - ? Is Paul flying that?"
"He sure is," Straker confirmed. His mood had lifted with the sheer exuberance of the flight. "I get the impression he's enjoying himself!"
"So it seems - Why, Joan, hello. What's up?"
"Excuse me, Professor… Ambassadors, I have news for you, from Prince Merrel."
"Carry on, Ed, I'll finish up here."
"Great." Straker beckoned to Pavlor, and the pair drew Lieutenant Harrington aside a few paces. "Is there trouble, Lieutenant?"
"I fear so, Ambassadors," Harrington replied. She was not yet accustomed to addressing her former commanding officer as - effectively - a civilian. "Prince Merrel reports that Gimen, who is in custody at Alpha, has been taken ill. He is alive but in a serious condition. Prince Merrel suspects either an attack by rebels anxious to silence him, or he's faking it in an attempt to escape. I understand that the former rebel chief, Kotte, tried something similar."
"Have they moved him out of the 'igloo'?" Straker wanted to know.
"No, sir. Merrel believes they can treat him in situ."
"Great… Azan, do you wish to go over there, talk to Tyl direct?"
"Thank you, Sire, but no," Pavlor answered. "I will stay out of the way, and wait for the situation to develop."
"Probably wise," Straker agreed. It had occurred to him - and no doubt to Pavlor also, he thought - that, if this was indeed the work of the rebels, the three of them gathering together would present a tempting target… "Joan, does Alec know of this yet?"
"Yes, sir," Harrington assured him. "He too is awaiting developments."
"Great. And we'd better tell Paul, as well."
* * *
"You returned tardily. Did you encounter any difficulty?" Gimen said.
"No, my lord. All was well. And I did exactly as you asked," Jax assured him.
Jax downloaded the images he had captured from the test chamber, and Gimen examined them carefully. "You made no changes?"
"No, sir, only to disable the alarms."
"Very well. Return to the Mascon Two station and await me there."
Quickly, Jax and Gimen suited up so that the exchanger could be decompressed. When the boy had departed, Gimen switched on his own equipment, and it began to transmit.
* * *
Fiskeret watched her instruments, frowning slightly. "Karel," she said, "I have some vibration here. Do you see it?"
"Yes… Very slight, but we'd better go down and check."
"Agreed. Paul, I will resume control at this point; you will try a landing on another occasion. Please stay in the cradle."
"Understood. Releasing to you."
Smoothly, Foster withdrew from the pads, and Fiskeret re-engaged. The craft slowed, headed for the open hangar hatchway, and settled on the platform.
As the faint, almost inaudible whine of the drive faded into silence, Foster said: "Kyan, may I ask you something?"
"Of course, Paul."
"You and Azan, and a few others, address me as 'Companion Brother'. I am indeed Ed's brother - sort of - but we only discovered this a few months ago. Would it be impertinent of me to ask how you knew?"
"Not at all, Paul - " Fiskeret stopped, abruptly. "May we discuss this later? The rebel prisoner, Gimen, has died!"
* * *
The skimmer came down on the platform lift. As soon as it was inside, its crew made a swift exit, hurrying to the conference table. Bergman and the two ambassadors were waiting for them.
"How did that happen?" Foster demanded.
"We think Gimen was killed by one of his rebel associates," Straker told him. "That was always a risk, I'm afraid. Tyl is doing a post-mortem as we speak… so there's no chance of Gimen 'faking it'!"
Bergman shivered a little. "No indeed. So what next?"
"Well, there's not a lot we can do for the moment until Tyl reports back, except be watchful, so let's get back to the business in hand." Straker looked at Foster, with a slight smile. "Enjoy yourself out there, Paul?"
"Yeah, it was great… Thanks for that, Kyan," Foster added, with a nod to the astropilot. "Ed, if you'll excuse us, we have to report to the Professor on how the drive behaved."
Foster turned to Bergman, who led the group over to his desk. "Kyan, Paul," the physicist said, pointing to the display, "we saw a few oddities on the telemetry. Did you notice anything unusual?"
"I thought it was very slightly rough," Foster said. "Kyan, what was your impression?"
"I too," Fiskeret agreed. "The roughness is characteristic of misalignment of a field generator. Only one, though, I believe."
Bergman took a printout from the machine. "I agree… I think it's emitter 2. I'll ask the boys to haul it out and we'll check it over, on the test rig."
"Could we watch that?" Straker asked.
"You can certainly watch us set it up - but we'll have to monitor it from outside." Bergman waved a hand in the direction of the test bench. "Also, Pilots, we will need to scan you two, to see if the phased field did anything to you."
"Such as turning our insides to jelly?" Foster suggested, with a grimace.
"More or less," Fiskeret agreed, her face straight. "Is that not so, Professor?"
Bergman smiled; he was becoming accustomed to the astropilot's unusual sense of humour. "Rather less than more, I hope… We have already determined that this system does indeed improve on the standard Dyaus setup, even without the 'cocoon' fluid. I believe it can be improved still further, and indeed this slight malfunction should give us valuable data."
"Fine," Bergman said. "So - Paul, Kyan, go and talk to the medics, would you? Karel as well. Ed, Azan, come this way, and Quam will show you how it's done."
The two ambassadors followed the physicist to the test chamber. Bergman checked the door, and opened it. "Please, gentlemen, enter. Mind your heads, it's a little cramped."
You're not kidding, Straker thought, as he ducked into the enclosure. "You mentioned that the wall of this chamber blocks the drive field? How does it do that?"
"By setting up its own counter-acting field," Quam explained. His nervousness at addressing the two ambassadors, one of them the Keimon of Mankind, was diminished a little by his professional enthusiasm. "This wall is not metal alone; there is a lattice in it linked to its own generator, and synchronised to the pulsors. Fail-safes ensure that both have to be energised simultaneously. As an added safeguard, we close the blast doors. And there is an emergency cut-off switch at the test bench."
"Very thorough," Straker approved.
There was a chime from the chamber door. Bergman touched a green pad on a control bank, and a few seconds later, the door opened once more. Two technicians, one of them a green-skinned Dyausan, brought the emitter module into the cubicle and settled it into the clamps. They checked the readouts, and, satisfied, the Dyausan signed to Bergman. "This unit is ready for you to set it up for testing, Professor."
"Thanks, that's all for now… Ambassadors, please come to the controller, and we will explain what we are doing. OK, Quam, all yours."
Quam took them through the setup procedure. Pavlor asked a number of questions, which seemed to Straker to be quite probing. He himself wanted to know if this modification would increase the craft's range and top speed.
"Potentially, Sire, yes," the astropilot assured him. "We expect increases of ten to fifteen percent in both."
"Without affecting power consumption?" Pavlor asked. Straker suppressed a momentary irritation; he should have asked that himself. Don't be picky, Ed, he told himself silently. OK, so you want a try yourself, and you can't, not yet. But don't let that get to you. That's plain childish.
He dragged himself mentally back to the business in hand. Pavlor and Quam were discussing with Bergman the technique the skimmers used for tapping into universal energy - the same source, Straker knew, that the 'psychobombs' had used in the rebel attacks on SHADO. Pavlor called that source 'invisible' or 'dark' energy. It was in no way limitless, as far as puny humans' attempts to make use of it was concerned; but that, Straker knew, was down to ingenuity, not physics!
Bergman was explaining that there would indeed be in increase in power usage. "But," he added, "only a few percent or so. The equipment was originally built with high tolerance margins, and we will not encroach much on those, though our next phase will be to increase those margins."
Quam looked up from his equipment. "Ambassadors, I am ready to begin the test. We should all leave this chamber."
"Certainly," Bergman answered. "This way, please, gentlemen?"
The group followed him outside, though Pavlor hung back a little, taking a close look at Quam's instruments before he left.
Once they were out of the test chamber - as verified by both Bergman and Quam - Quam started the test routine. Straker expected to hear the typical flight noise made by the skimmers, but all was silent. Good shielding, he thought. Just as well… remembering some of the incidents we had when we were developing our system for the Interceptors!
At that point, however, Wojnycz hurried up to the group. "Your pardon, gentlemen," he said urgently, "but I have just had a message from Prince Merrel. He informs me that the man held captive and who died in the 'igloo' was not Gimen at all. It was someone he doesn't know - wearing a gelmask."
"And I suppose the sensor mods aren't in place yet," Straker said. "At what point was the substitution made, do we know?"
"The mods are not in place, regrettably, Mr Ambassador, only the initial adjustments - which are still only 85% effective, I am advised," Wojnycz told him. "As for the swap - Prince Merrel checked with Dr Breen, who is satisfied that it was indeed Gimen who was loaded onto the shuttle, placed in its cargo hold. It's likely that the swap was made in the shuttle itself, when it arrived. And the Alpha director, Dr Sue Grant, has put Alpha under lockdown while they search for Gimen."
"Great," Straker said, "but somehow I doubt whether they'll find him… We need to talk to Tyl, Victor. Can you set that up, please?"
"Of course. We can use the 'phone booth', if you will follow me, Ambassadors." Bergman hurried to the small cubicle, and switched on the equipment. Straker and Pavlor entered; there was just enough room for the three of them.
"My deepest regrets, Sire, Azan," Merrel said over the radio link, his fury barely contained. "Gimen must have been taken from the pod while it was still inside the shuttle. He must have had help, to revive him from the sedative drug, and to guide him to a place of hiding. We know that at least two persons must have been involved - the one who helped Gimen in the shuttle, and the substitute who died. I am investigating the service crew as my prime suspects. Dr Grant has verified the identities of the service crew and confirmed that the substitute was not one of them."
"Don't forget to suspect the victim," Straker warned. "That substitute may have drugged himself, under orders to commit suicide."
Merrel blinked, startled. "Indeed, Sire. I shall advise Dr Grant accordingly."
"I gather she has Alpha under lockdown?"
"She has, Sire. All paths of exit from Alpha are being closely monitored, including the tunnel to M2. And Captain Ellis has been advised, and is monitoring Moonbase."
"And the next question is - where would he go?" Straker turned to Pavlor. "Azan, might the rebels have a base here on the Moon that you don't know about?"
"There is the far-side station that I mentioned, Sire," Pavlor agreed. "But it is difficult to see how he could reach it by skimmer undetected. A search of our records on Dyaus has begun, to determine whether there are others, that the rebels have hidden from us. Nepetane - who is as yet unaffected by the malady - will advise us if she finds anything."
"Very well." Straker turned back to the communicator. "Thank you, Tyl. I do not hold you responsible for Gimen's escape - but we need to know more about how and when he did it!"
"Noted, Sire. My thanks. I shall report back when I have information for you."
Merrel signed off, and Straker turned to Bergman. "Well, we can do nothing ourselves, here - so I suggest we proceed with the test."
"As you wish," Bergman answered.
They returned to the bench, and began the test. Quam and Bergman watched the readouts closely as it proceeded, a process which took a little less than half an hour. At length, Quam gave a satisfied nod, and threw the main switch.
"Well, that went well," Bergman said, happily. "It seems that one of the output transducers was slightly misaligned, as Kyan suspected, is all. We'll make the adjustments and run the test again. Would you like to watch?"
"Please," Straker agreed.
This time, Bergman stayed by the test bench while Quam led the two others back inside. Again, Pavlor watched closely as Quam did rapid things on his instrument panel, while Straker examined the emitter itself, looking for signs of damage however slight. He saw none. Reassured, he straightened up, just as Quam finished his task.
Once more, they made for the outside, Pavlor bringing up the rear. Straker stepped out onto the garage deck, and turned, to await Pavlor.
The door closed. Pavlor was still inside.
A warning light flashed urgently on the test bench. A klaxon sounded. Bergman slapped the emergency cutoff.
"The test cycle's starting," Bergman said, through his teeth. "It won't shut off. Quam!" he shouted. "Cut power!"
By main force, Quam tugged the main power connector free of its receptacle. The test bench went dark, the klaxon silenced. Bergman had the door to the chamber open, looked inside, and swore.
"Medics," he ordered curtly. "Now!"
Straker was behind him, peering past. Azan Pavlor was lying in a heap by Quam's setup panel. His eyes were slightly open, and he lay too still.
Bergman hurried to the fallen man. He felt for the neck pulse, put his ear to the chest, and straightened up slowly, his eyes on Straker's.
The medical team pushed past. They pulled open the Ambassador's tunic, and applied shock paddles to his chest. His body jerked, once. Another quick glance at the defibrillator, another shock. Then a third. One of them thrust a hypodermic of adrenalin into the fallen man's chest, without effect.
The medic examined Pavlor quickly but thoroughly. He glanced up at Straker, then at Bergman. "He's gone, I'm afraid, gentlemen."
"Cause of death?" Straker asked, quietly.
"It… seems to be shock," the medic said, slowly.
Bergman tore his eyes from the body. "I will have this test rig sealed off and investigated thoroughly. Ed, I will have to ask you and Quam, and Karel, to be questioned about this."
"Sure. Call Security, have them put us somewhere until you're ready."
* * *
Gimen turned off the monitor, then withdrew from the exchanger. He made his way back down the lava tube and through the service area to the habitat module. Jax was there, still in his vacuum suit.
"Most satisfactory," Gimen said. "An excellent result, Jax."
"But I - "
Gimen lifted his hand, and Jax fell silent. "We have achieved the desired result. You may proceed with the next stage. I am told you have the necessary information, prepared by Agent Hague?"
"Yes, sir," Jax said; but he was still disconcerted. "I will monitor the terrans' actions, and act at the most opportune moment."
"Yes. And then you will collect what you need from here, and return to Avach."
"Should I - "
"No. You will take no direct action against the subject. No," Gimen added, as Jax seemed about to protest. "You will comply."
Jax took a breath. "I will comply," he said, quietly.
* * *
It only took a brief check of the security systems to turn up a suspect - but Captain Ellis could not bring herself to believe what they were apparently telling her. She and Bergman went to the Control sphere and put through a priority call to SHADO. Anderson took the call, and passed it through to the command office.
"Hello Gay," Freeman said, trying to suppress a yawn. "What's up?"
"Bad news, sir, I am afraid," Ellis told him. "Ambassador Azan Pavlor has been killed. We believe, murdered."
Freeman was clearly shocked - but equally clearly, was not surprised, Ellis noted. "How?" he demanded. "What the h#ll went wrong?"
Bergman faced the monitor, his face pale. "Ambassador Pavlor was in the test chamber when it began operating without my switching it on. It was sabotage of our drive test rig. By person or persons unknown."
…"You sure of that?"
"Quite sure, Commander. Lieutenant Chan checked our logs, and they show that someone entered the test chamber last night and examined the test rig closely."
…"Was there an intended target, or was this a random attack?"
"Random, we believe, sir," Captain Ellis said. "No-one could predict who would be inside at that point. However, that very randomness makes this attack even worse, since we'll all be blaming each other, if we're not very careful indeed."
…"Any leads on who did this?"
The group all looked at each other, then Foster cleared his throat. "Our partly modified detectors didn't pick up any gel-masks; but Chan also checked the security cameras. They do show someone near the test chamber, at the same time as on the logs."
…"Did Chan say who it was?"
"She did, Commander. And the cameras verified it. The man was Ambassador Straker."
There was a silence that was rather longer than the transmission delay. Then Freeman said: "Surely he was just inspecting. On his own."
"Exactly the sort of thing he would do. But…"
…"You're thinking that a prosecutor would point out that that would make good camouflage," Freeman supplied.
"That's right," Foster agreed, reluctantly. "But he could have avoided being noticed altogether. You told me how he'd 'changed his clothes', using the Kei."
Freeman remembered. Ed had been wearing - or seemed to be wearing - an outfit that Freeman had said made him look like a 'greek god on steroids', and had used the Kei to 'alter Freeman's perception' of it, so that it changed to look like a standard business suit. "Ah yes. His diplomat's suit… And didn't you tell me how you and he had walked past a crowd of eager reporters and weren't even noticed?"
"Exactly," Foster said.
…"But that same prosecutor," Freeman said slowly, "could assume he was relying on that, to put us off his scent."
Foster did not answer. Ellis said: "At least it leaves the question open."
"All that's going to do is just confuse matters," Bergman pointed out.
"Which could be exactly what 'they' want," Foster returned. "Whoever 'they' are."
Freeman straightened up in his seat. "Even so," he said, "we do have to follow our established procedures in investigating crime. So far, we have to accept that Ed is our prime suspect. Captain Ellis, please place Ambassador Straker under 'house arrest' on suspicion of the murder of Ambassador Pavlor while we investigate. And please pass a copy of the camera records to Major Ford, to analyse."
…"And try to find another suspect, won't you!"
"Of course, Commander." Gimen would have been favourite, she thought.
…"One other thing," Freeman said. "I understand that Prince Merrel takes over from Azan as Ambassador at this point. Please advise him that I am ready to speak with him about this, whenever he wishes to do so. I understand that he may at present be concentrating on the problem of Gimen, so if he wishes to appoint a deputy that's fine also."
"I'll pass that on, Commander," Ellis acknowledged.
* * *
Do this thing properly, Ellis thought. Right.
The three who had been present at the test chamber were being held in Moonbase Isolation, below the leisure sphere. It had been set up in anticipation of Plan Delta, and was designed to be secure. It could hold half a dozen people in separate cubicles, in fair comfort. Currently it was occupied by Ambassador Straker, Karel Wojnycz, and the Dyausan pilot, Quam Dian Apat. Their cubicles had not been locked, so they could mingle. Karel and Quam were discussing the tests, while Straker listened with interest; but Azan Pavlor was very much in their thoughts.
Ellis summoned two security guards, and instructed them to bring the Ambassador to her in Control; and to release the others.
When he heard this, Straker raised an eyebrow, then got to his feet. "Lead on, gentlemen… Quam, Karel, we'll have to continue this fascinating discussion another time."
With a nod, Karel led his colleague out of the unit, and took him back to the leisure sphere in search of company and refreshment. For his part, Straker allowed the two guards to conduct him to Control. Captain Ellis was seated by her desk.
Captain Ellis stood up. Even at the best of times, she had always been slightly in awe of the man who had been her commanding officer. He had now become the Avatar of Mankind, and that made her feel even more fearful.
Though perhaps 'fearful' wasn't quite the word.
She replied: "Mr Ambassador, our preliminary investigations indicate that you are the prime suspect. Our records show that you were near the test chamber during the night before the test. I must inform you that you are under arrest on suspicion of - "
"You're saying," Straker said, harshly, "that I killed Azan?"
Captain Ellis braced herself. "Mr Ambassador," she said, carefully, "that is what the evidence says. You were recorded on the surveillance cameras. There are no signs of those cameras or their records, or the chamber logs, being tampered with. The 'gelmask sensors' show no signs of their VOCs present, though I acknowledge they are as yet not fully efficient. Nevertheless, we have to accept that evidence."
"Of course you do." Straker's face was completely without expression. "I have no motive for such acts, nor any memory of them. I suggest you turn me over to Dr Jackson and his colleagues to check whether I've gone nuts."
"I have already contacted him about this, sir. He has recommended that you be confined to quarters until he can get here. Under guard, sir."
"I shall go to my chamber at once." Straker glanced at his escort. "Let's go, Lieutenant."
The trio left the control dome. "Captain," Foster said, "with your permission I will - "
"Sorry to interrupt," Joan said from her desk, "but I have a priority signal for you, Gay. It's from one of our skimmers, parked at Delta Contact."
Ellis recalled that 'Delta Contact' was the officially-approved name for the place they had been calling informally 'Area 52'; the place where Ambassador Pavlor had touched down when he had returned Freeman and Straker to their home. "Put it through," Ellis ordered.
Her monitor screen lit up, showing a green Dyausan face. "Captain Gay Ellis, this is Astropilot Corune, monitoring communications from Dyaus. Deputy Nepetane reports that the skimmer conveying Diplomat Amet Pavlor is proceeding directly towards Moonbase, avoiding Dyaus because of the medical problem there. He approaches slowly, and will be within your scanner range in - " He glanced away, then resumed: " - thirty minutes. I regret that there is no practical direct contact because of our 'cocoon'. What are your instructions, Captain?"
"He may land beside you, Corune," Ellis replied. "When he has reverted to normal breathing, advise me, and I will send a hopper for him. Have you told him of - of the tragic event here?"
"We have given him the facts, no more."
"And we'll give him an explanation," Ellis said. "Just as soon as we can… Thank you, Corune. Listening out."
* * *
Back at the habitation pod, Jax consulted his charts. He managed to control his frustration and impatience, reminding himself that this next phase was an essential part of Bosan's plan.
He had already made a preliminary excursion into this particular zone of the terran 'moonbase'. To facilitate this, he had installed a temporary entry hatch from a nearby lava tube which came quite close to the area. He had camouflaged the hatch effectively. On that earlier trip, he had verified that his target would be taken to an enclosure in that zone after it was arrested. It would also be unaccompanied, though guarded.
Gimen had given him Bosan's instructions for action. They were quite precise, yet oddly simple; and they seemed to Jax to ignore an opportunity which might not come again.
* * *
Pleased to see that Captain Ellis had not switched off his view-panel, Straker used the controls to bring up views of the outside through Moonbase's cameras. More than once, he had thought to himself that it would be good to be able to use such screens in lieu of the vulnerable viewports. But he would never have been able to ask General Henderson to bear the cost of such a measure; and Major-General Lake, now holding IAC's purse strings, would be no easier to persuade.
But now he had more serious problems on his hands.
He sat on the inflatable chair and communed with the Kei. That Entity was not helpful; Its own memory held no record of the recent events. It was aware only that Azan Pavlor had died, and did not recall the Keimon being present or involved.
Might he, Straker wondered, have been 'zommed' during his imprisonment on Dyaus? Azan had denied doing that. He had admitted that Kotte might have tried it, but considered it unlikely, since it would have made it very difficult to extract the information Kotte wanted from Straker's brain. And Jackson's thorough and careful investigations had shown no sign of any such change.
That left the unpalatable probability that Straker's actual sanity was impaired.
It was not at all unlikely, he had to admit, though unwillingly. He had been held prisoner for many weeks, and interrogated, twice nearly to the point of death. He had been kept literally in the dark, a circumstance which had threatened a resurgence of his claustrophobia. In the fight against the rebel forces, he had sustained a near-miss from an energy weapon which had put him into a coma for many days. Gimen had brought him out of that coma using a drug that was banned even on Dyaus because it was extremely dangerous. Indeed, that same drug had been used on General Henderson, and had hastened his death from heart disease. Straker himself had been saved from a similar fate by the intervention of Dr Breen, the Dyaus medic who had been treating him after that incident with the weapon.
And Straker had allowed himself no time to recover from the multiple assaults. He could not; the need to reach an accord with Spicor was urgent in the extreme, for both Spicor and its colony world Earth.
But now, with Azan's death apparently at his hands, that accord was in severe jeopardy. His status as the Keimon of Humanity would not help; it was too shaky, too unknown.
He thought: Let's see what Jackson makes of this -
A slight sound stopped his thoughts in their tracks. There had been a light scraping noise, apparently from the light panel above his bed.
He watched in surprise as the panel slid down into a concealed slot. He knew of this; he'd designed and installed it himself, back when Moonbase had been built. No-one else knew about it - probably not even Paul Foster, even though the colonel had deduced the hidden purpose of the light panel in the command office.
Perhaps, he thought, it is Paul. Maybe he's come to ask me - in private - what the h#ll I thought I was doing!
He was suddenly angry. What right has Foster got to quiz me? Robert wouldn't have done that. I really missed my kid brother. Foster's no substitute, and he killed Robert -
Shocked at the violence of his feelings, Straker grabbed at his self-control. Paul, I'm sorry, if you hadn't killed our - the Robert-zom, we'd both have been dead meat. What the f**k am I thinking?? AM I nuts?
He rose to his feet and took a deep breath, trying to calm himself.
In the gloom of the chamber behind the panel, someone moved into sight. The figure was wearing a spacesuit, and Straker could not see the face behind the mirrored visor. The visitor slid gracefully out of the opening, and lifted gauntleted hands to unlatch the helmet.
Straker smiled. "Hello, Paul," he said, as pleasantly as he could manage. "Nice of you to drop in - "
His voice stopped as abruptly as if his throat had been cut. The man had removed his helmet, revealing his face. Straker knew that face very well indeed; he saw it in the mirror every day.
That's it, he thought wildly. I have gone mad…
An alarm sounded, but he did not hear it.
* * *
A few moments later, the door to Straker's quarters slid open, and Lieutenant Chan strode in. She looked around, seeing nothing unusual; all was in its accustomed place, except for the ambassador, who was collapsed across the bed. Quickly she moved to him, checked his vital signs, and sighed with relief.
"Mr Ambassador? Can you hear me?" she said, shaking his shoulder.
Straker moved a little. His eyes came open, unseeingly, and he blinked a little. "Sorry," he whispered. "I… I think I…"
"Let me settle you properly, sir."
Deftly, the tiny Oriental helped him into a more comfortable position. As she did so, Dr Reed entered. He closed the door behind him. "What happened here, sir?" he asked, his voice neutral.
"Not sure," Straker muttered. "Think I may have passed out… Think I dreamed…"
"I see." Reed motioned for Chan to move aside, and he moved closer to the bed. He made a quick examination. "Mr Ambassador, you are still recovering from your recent experiences. I must insist that you stay in bed until tomorrow morning. I will give you a mild sedative to relax you. It will not itself make you sleep, though you may well wish to do so."
"As you wish," Straker agreed. "My… apologies."
He pushed up his sleeve and held out his arm, and Reed administered the injection. The sedative took effect quickly. Straker relaxed, and closed his eyes. "Thank you, Doctor," he murmured, and drifted off into sleep.
Reed watched for a few minutes, then nodded to Chan, and the two withdrew, locking the chamber door.
* * *
Jax waited until the terrans had left the chamber, then he emerged once more from his hiding place behind the panel.
He gazed down at the sleeping terran. How vulnerable it was, he thought. He could kill it, now, and no-one would suspect him. If he were careful, indeed, he could leave no sign of violence.
It was so tempting an opportunity…
He spread his fingers in their gauntlet, and reached out for the sleeping creature's throat.
He hesitated. No. This is not right.
Something was amiss. He wanted to complete the action; but he could not make himself do it. This being looked so much like him…
He withdrew his hand, took a step back. Gimen has directed me to show myself and then return to the mascon station. I should comply, he reminded himself. Oddly, he felt vastly relieved. However, with this terran drugged and inactive, at least this is an excellent chance to learn about this enemy of Arkadia, from the objects it surrounds itself with. They will be mostly weapons, but there might also be reading matter, probably technical information, possibly also strategic plans.
Jax had thought it strange that these regressed terrans nevertheless could handle the complex information necessary for space travel, even if limited to their own natural satellite. When he raised the question, the instructor had pointed out that robotic AIs could do as much, and also use violence without thought for the consequences, much as the terrans did.
The chamber lighting was set to a low level, but was sufficient for vision. Jax inspected the room, thoughtfully. The terran occupant was recumbent on a bed constructed from clear synthetic, and inflated to near-rigidity. There were lockers in the walls. He opened them carefully, inspected their contents, which appeared to be mainly intended for clothing and for personal hygiene. There was a basin for ablutions, with a small mirror. There was a shelf, holding what appeared to be a dispenser for hot beverages.
So far, none of this was unexpected; but there were a couple of strange features. For one thing, the walls were coloured, in broad stripes of two shades of brown, for no apparent functional reason; but the effect was aesthetically effective.
But how could that be? These creatures had no appreciation of such things.
And there was the panel above the bed, where he had gained entry. Now closed, it was illuminated; but not in featureless white. Coloured patches slowly drifted across it, in a way that Jax found oddly pleasing.
And they reminded him of something, of similar fuzzy shapes, white on blue, brightly lit…
He tried to chase the memory down; but it was from too long ago, and he could not drag it out into the full light of his attention. He put the problem to one side, and looked around the chamber once more.
There was a small ledge beside the bed, within easy reach of its occupant. On the shelf was a glass apparently containing water, a book, and a small folder opened so that its contents were visible. It held two images. One was of a terran female adult, with light-coloured hair. The second was of a terran child… with a very familiar face.
Moving very carefully, he picked up the folder, and studied the image. He glanced at the mirror over the basin, then at the terran on the bed, then back at the image in the folder.
He needed time to think about this, and about the implications. He scanned the folder with his recorder, then replaced it on the ledge where he had found it, taking care to position it as before. He thumbed the hidden switch, and the light panel slid open so that he could re-enter the small chamber behind it. As he climbed down into the tunnels, the panel slid silently shut once more.
A faint crystalline glitter on the Keimon's wrist faded into his skin, as the Kei relaxed into watch mode.
* * *
"Prince Merrel has asked me to deputise for him," Astropilot Fiskeret said, "since he considers the escape of the rebel leader Gimen to be the more urgent matter. As soon as he may, however, he will seek audience with those involved, including the Keimon himself."
"Very well," Bergman said, heavily. "Then I suggest we continue with the work here. We will re-install the pulsor and perform another test run. Then we will resume Colonel Foster's training. How do you feel about that?"
The two Dyausan astropilots exchanged glances. "We are possibly biased," Fiskeret admitted, "yet we can neither of us believe that the Keimon could have done this murder, nor prompted his human host to do so. Neither is it likely that Ed Straker himself, as himself, would have so jeopardised the Treaty he worked so hard to establish. We therefore conclude that there is another agent involved, who is trying to endanger our embryonic accord."
"I agree," Wojnycz said. "Someone's stirring it. One of the rebels, for sure. I'd bet on Gimen, or one of his - Thirds, you called them?"
Fiskeret nodded, frowning.
"Someone disguised as Ed, and not with a gelmask," Bergman said. "Though Commander Freeman did warn us the detectors aren't 100% effective yet. Karel, Chan looked at the logs. How certain is she about the person recorded?"
"She said he did have light-coloured hair like the ambassador - but so do several others up here. His clothing looked about right. But she also says she might only have been seeing who she expected to see, someone doing what she would not be surprised by Com - Ambassador Straker doing."
"Mmm." Bergman fingered his lips. "Kyan, like you I simply can't believe Ed did anything so suicidally stupid. It's not like him at all. Yes I know he's still recovering, but even so… No, I think we have a 'mole' - sorry, Kyan, you would use the term 'sleeper'. I've already asked our security to review, find a 'best fit'. Possibly someone wearing a wig, but not a purple one!"
"Then, Victor," Fiskeret said, "we are agreed… We proceed with the test schedule."
"Very good… I'll let Paul know," Bergman acknowledged.
* * *
Walking back through the labyrinth of tunnels mapped by Hague, Jax was deep in thought.
The whole situation was deeply puzzling, and worrying. The image carrier at the terran's bedside was a problem from two angles. Why would a regressed terran have such a thing? And who were the two individuals pictured?
What was more, he was sure he recognised the female; and the child looked too much like Jax himself. Could his 'throwback' status produced such similar beings? Was that even possible?
The alternative was even less likely: that they were the same person. But how had the terran 'straker' come by, and kept, an image of Jax?
And, apparently, valued that image?
Too many questions, Jax thought, savagely. I need more information!
He decided not to ask Bosan. His mother would certainly know how this had come about - but why had she not told him, already?
He was still pushing the problem around in his head when he reached the mascon station. Gimen would be there; but aside from making his report, he did not want to discuss his thoughts with the Prithvi lord, either. Nor did he want to use the computer to seek his answers, where his searching could be noted, and logged. If anything at all was clear to him, it was that he should keep this problem entirely to himself.
Until he knew what Gimen and Bosan were planning for the terrans, and for him.
* * *
Gay Ellis's pager sounded, and she went to the intercom. "Ellis."
"Lieutenant Barry here. Captain, I have Diplomat Amet Pavlor online for you."
"Thank you, Nina." There was a click, and then she heard a new voice.
"Captain Gay Ellis, Amet Pavlor speaks. I am presently with Astropilot Corune, at the location you designate as Delta Contact. May I come to you?"
"I welcome you, Ambassador. I offer my condolences on the death of your father. I am sending transport for you, and I will be pleased to meet and speak with you here at Moonbase."
"My thanks, Captain."
* * *
When Straker awoke once more, he was not feeling rested. Despite the mild sedative, his slumber had been disturbed by formless dreams that nevertheless filled him with an odd apprehension.
He sat up, and sipped from the glass of water on the bedside ledge, while he tried to think. His doubts about his own sanity were almost overwhelming, and that in itself frightened him. As the Keimon, the Avatar of Humanity, he would be a serious danger to the entire race if he lost control.
Of course, he reminded himself, it's a truism that if you're sane enough for such doubts, you're not mad… but perhaps you might be on the edge!
He forced himself to recall the dream - for such it must surely have been - that his dead son had appeared in this room.
It had been vivid, almost real… but there was a major, puzzling problem. By now, if by some miracle Johnny had indeed survived, he would have been some fourteen years old. This youth had clearly reached adulthood. Was his dream fast-forwarding to an imagined adulthood -
Straker's thoughts stopped. A dreadful suspicion had roused in him. Hadn't Azan confirmed that the 'hibernation pods' could adjust their internal time, speeding up physical maturation?
But what would Johnny be doing in a -
Because the rebels put him there, Straker realised, with a surge of rage. They took him like they took young David O'Connor, at the hospital, and told us he was dead! But like I said to Alec when we heard about David, they altered him, to use against us!
He leapt to his feet, and reached out, intending to hit the intercom button, to call Alec; but he never finished the movement. Something struck him in the back, and he dropped like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
Gimen lifted the limp body towards the opened light panel, and bundled it into the chamber behind. He stepped in himself and closed the panel. For a moment he stood motionless, absorbing the jolt the encounter had given him. He had felt that before, when he had first encountered this 'keimon', and it was worse now. Clearly, the creature was recovering its strength; and clearly, he had acted only just in time…
Carefully he wrapped Straker in a tubular plastic bubble, closed and inflated it. He touched a button on a control panel at his waist, and the bubble floated. He opened the hatch into the exchange chamber. Towing the bubble behind him, he made his way through the catacomb tunnels, heading for the disguised hatchway leading to the transit car station.
* * *
It took the hopper some twenty minutes to deliver its passenger and his escort. When they stepped out of the entrance lock, Captain Ellis and Colonel Foster were waiting for them, at attention.
Amet Pavlor looked much like his father, though the age difference seemed slight, more so than Foster had expected. This Spicoran's green skin was lined, and he was visibly tired.
"This is Oparel, my - aide, you would say." Amet Pavlor nodded to his companion, who was visibly rather older than the ambassador. "Oparel is an expert on the history of the Keimon. We were asked to visit Dyaus to meet with the empath, Elanor. That will now be delayed - but now that the Keimon is manifest, all has changed."
"Indeed." Ellis welcomed their visitors, and introduced Foster. "The colonel is our appointed liaison officer, with the duty of supervising all contact between our peoples," she explained.
Foster held out a hand, and after a moment, Pavlor jr. shook it. Oparel did likewise. "It pleases me to meet with you, Colonel Foster," the diplomat said. "My first objective is to see my - my father's body. My second is to meet with the Keimon, to seek from him an explanation of how this death occurred."
"Of course," Foster said. "We have placed the body in a cold cabinet, below our medical facility. Would you come this way, please?"
Pavlor walked beside Foster, with Ellis and Oparel bringing up the rear. "You will have many questions, sir," Foster said. "I'm happy to try to answer them."
"You wear the emblem of a Companion of the Kei. Tell me how so."
"When the Keimon became manifest," Foster said, "he chose some of us as his Companions. You father was one such. So was I, and also Captain Ellis here. The emblems allow us a sort of contact with each other, and with the Keimon himself. Lately, however, that contact has diminished. We think this is because the host - Ed Straker - is not in his accustomed good health."
"Understood. What investigations are you making into my father's death?"
"We have examined our electronic records. Indications are that the prime suspect is Ed himself."
Pavlor stopped dead, and stared at Foster in horror. Oparel suppressed a gasp. "That simply cannot be, Companion. Not the Keimon, nor his host, would do such a thing."
"We agree, sir," Ellis said. "Yet no other possible suspect has presented himself. Nevertheless, we are proceeding on the assumption that this was the work of a member of the rebel group. We are developing ways of detecting incursions by these people, but they are as yet incomplete."
"We are working with Corune and Prince Merrel on these systems," Foster added, "and would be pleased to work with you also."
"And I happy to do likewise," Pavlor said. The quartet resumed their passage. "Another question. I heard you had the rebel Gimen held captive, but he escaped?"
"I can only offer our apologies for our clumsiness," Foster said, ruefully. "But we are reasonably confident he had no part in your father's death… Our latest report is that he has not been found at Alpha, but it is difficult to see how he could survive on the lunar surface."
"That is unlikely, I agree."
You so remind me of Kyan, Foster thought, irreverently… "This is the place," he said aloud. "Captain, would you lead the way?"
Ellis touched the control plate, and the door slid open. She stepped through. Beckoning the others to follow, she led the way to the morgue section.
She stopped before a steel door. "Diplomat Amet Pavlor, in the chamber behind this door lies the body of your father, Ambassador Azan Pavlor. We who came to know him also came to like him, and to revere him as the person who made the accord between Earth and Spicor possible. He signed the Treaty alongside the Keimon. We owe him more than we can possibly say, and we greatly regret his death, however it happened."
Amet Pavlor nodded, silently. Captain Ellis opened the door and led him inside. His father's body lay upon a steel trestle, and was covered by a thin metallised sheet. With reverential care, she folded the sheet back to reveal the face. "Diplomat, I shall wait for you, outside, with Colonel Foster and Oparel. Please call if you need anything."
"Thank you, Captain."
The captain made her departure. Amet Pavlor stood there, gazing down at his father's face, which was still and oddly peaceful. Memories passed through his mind, regrets for what had been lost, but also hope for the future his father had helped to make.
No, he thought. No, this cannot possibly be the Keimon's doing. It has to be one of the rebels. They would not want his future.
Something glinted under the sheet. Puzzled, he carefully peeled back the cover from Azan's right hand, and he gasped. "Captain Ellis! Colonel Foster! May I speak with you?"
In a moment, Ellis was by his side, Foster and Oparel on her heels. She too took in her breath sharply, and Foster stared.
On Azan Pavlor's right hand, the Emblem of the Kei glimmered.
"Diplomat Pavlor," Ellis said, "we did not see that when we laid your father here. I must confess the significance of that escapes us. What does this mean, can you tell us?"
"When a Companion dies," Oparel said, "his Emblem usually evaporates. Sometimes it rejoins the Kei, from which it was budded. If it remains with the Companion, that may be because it bears a message."
"To the next of kin? To you, Diplomat?" Foster asked.
"To me, certainly. It registered my presence… With your permission, Captain, I shall attempt to read that message."
"Of course." As if you needed my say-so, Ellis thought.
"I will ask this Emblem to share its message with you, Captain, and with Oparel and Colonel Foster."
Pavlor put out his hand, a little hesitantly. As he touched the Emblem, a scene seemed to explode in their minds…
I shall not do this thing. I shall not murder him…
You shall. I so instruct you.
I can resist a little… Please, Keimon, leave this chamber, before I kill you… Please…
He has gone… I cannot stop myself from pressing the button… I shall allow myself to die, here…
Pain, and blackness, and nothing…
The images faded. Foster and Oparel were leaning against the wall, gasping. Amet Pavlor remained upright for a few seconds, then sagged into Ellis's waiting arms. A little shaky herself, she managed to drag him out of the chamber, and settle him into a chair. Foster pulled himself together. He glanced down at the body, and was not in the least surprised to see that the Emblem had gone. Carefully, he spread the sheet once more over the dead man, then guided the aide outside.
Gay was holding a cup of water to Amet's lips. She looked up. "He'll be OK, Paul," she said. "It was Azan himself! He killed himself rather than be forced to murder Ed!"
"So it seems… But who was trying to force him? Gimen?"
"It was," Amet whispered. "He… he has tried before, to influence Azan… unsuccessfully. But Azan's defences were low…"
"I can imagine," Paul muttered. "He's had to - well, 'reformat' his head, to cope with what has happened. With the news of what we are, and what they've been doing to us all this time. That's enough to knock anyone sideways. But Azan had the courage to do it - in buckets!"
"I thank you for the compliment to Azan," Amet murmured, with the ghost of a smile. He straightened up in the seat, and gently pushed aside the cup. "Oparel, are you well?"
"I am, sir, thank you. Just a little shaken."
"Good… Colonel, how did Gimen react on meeting the Keimon?"
"He seemed shocked, Alec told me," Paul said. "At first he was - well, confident. Then Ed looked at him, and he crumbled."
"Almost certainly, he was trying for control," Oparel said, grimly. "But he was rebuffed. It is a wonder that he did not break. But it seems the Keimon's own defences are currently impaired."
"Indeed," Amet agreed. "Captain, Colonel, we must go to him. We must tell him that we now know he is indeed blameless in this affair. And we must find Gimen, as a matter of priority."
"Agreed," Gay said, helping Amet to his feet. "And please, call us Gay, and Paul, as your father did."
"Thank you, Gay. And I am Amet, and my aide has his single name-form."
"I'll call ahead," Gay said. "We'd better get moving."
She strode to the communicator panel. "Lieutenant Chan? This is Captain Ellis. Would you please inform the ambassador that he has been exonerated. He is no longer under suspicion, nor is he under 'house arrest'. He may move around as he pleases… But tell him we are coming to speak with him, and I am bringing Colonel Foster, and Diplomat Amet Pavlor with his aide Oparel."
"At once, Captain." The note of relief in Chan's voice was clearly audible.
"We'll be there in ten minutes. Out." Gay turned to the others. "We must hurry, gentlemen."
She set off at a fast pace, and the others hurried to keep up. Foster said: "I can't imagine how they hoped to get away with this, whoever 'they' are. They must have known we'd find out the truth quickly. What did they hope to gain? We wouldn't execute him, not like we tried last time!"
He was referring, Ellis knew, to the incident when the rebels had used subliminal techniques in their attack. Then, as now, the attack had been intense but short-lived. But it lasted long enough for them to try to execute Commander Straker - and it was only by the grace of Providence that Doug Jackson had not been exposed to the attack, and had rescued Ed Straker, who then mounted a counter-strategy.
"Ask yourself, Paul, what is the primary objective of the rebels," Amet suggested, "and consider how your actions may have assisted, though unwittingly."
"They want Earth," Paul said. "They think Ed - the Keimon - can give it to them. We isolated Ed, both physically and psychologically. That had to have - well, given him 'negative feelings'. Something they could build on - as they've done with me," he added, recalling his encounter with a UFO, where the rebels had taken him over and made him furious with the commander. Murderously so.
"You mean, they tried to annoy Ed so much he'd attack Earth?" Gay said, sceptically. "I don't - "
She was interrupted as a wall communicator chimed, urgently. Gay hit the switch. "Ellis."
"This is Lieutenant Chan. I have to inform you that Ambassador Straker is not in his quarters. I have advised Control, and requested a lockdown and a search."
They broke into a run. Twice they encountered others in the passageways; the crew took one look at their captain's face and moved hurriedly aside.
Chan and Dr Reed were waiting by the open door to the Ambassador's quarters. "Any sign?" Ellis demanded.
"No, ma'am," Chan replied. "I have also put out a general call asking the ambassador to contact us. There has been no response."
"What was his status, Doctor?" Ellis asked.
"After his apparent collapse," the medic said, "we had made him comfortable on the bed. I gave him a sedative, and he slept, for some time. The lieutenant here looked in occasionally, but he seemed to be resting peacefully. When she entered to tell him he had been cleared of blame, he was not here."
"I see. Thank you, Doctor." Ellis turned to look at her two companions. "Amet, could we ask the Kei where he is?"
The Dyausans exchanged glances. Oparel said: "The attempt would be worthwhile. Though It may have been forbidden to answer."
"We really need to know a lot more about the Kei," Foster muttered. "Azan and Tyl have been trying to explain it, but their own knowledge was far from complete. I'm glad you're here, Oparel, because I'm not sure at all how to go about 'talking' to it!"
"Try anyway," Oparel suggested.
Foster lifted his right hand, and contemplated the silvery ring he wore. Feeling a little self-conscious, he tried to 'touch' it with his mind. "Can… can you hear me?" he said, aloud.
A voice not unlike that of his brother echoed in his mind. The Kei hears you.
"Do you know where… where your human host is?"
The Kei can say only that Edward George Straker is not within the confines of this base.
Foster's face and voice hardened. "What is his status?"
Edward George Straker lives and is uninjured. But he currently lacks awareness.
"Did Gimen take him?" Foster demanded, as Amet and Ellis came alert.
The Kei knows not.
"Right!" Foster transferred his attention to the others. "Did you get that?"
"No, Companion," Amet said. Ellis shook her head, as did Oparel. "I deduce that the Kei has news?"
"Apparently Ed isn't here - at Moonbase, that is. And he's alive but not conscious. The Kei doesn't know if Gimen took him. Oparel, if Ed had been attacked, would we have felt something, as we did with you, Amet?"
"Not necessarily," the aide answered. "Gimen is highly skilled."
"Well, it's for certain he didn't walk out of here in his 'stealth' mode," Ellis said. "Not if he's been drugged or something… We must go up to Control. Amet, Oparel, would you accompany us?"
"We are pleased to do so."
"I'll have a look round here," Foster said. "See if I can pick up any clues. I'll be in touch."
"Very well. Lieutenant Chan, you may consider yourself under arrest - temporarily, I hope! Report to Detention at once."
"Yes, Captain," Chan said, meekly.
* * *
Alone in Ed's quarters, Foster looked around, noting the items in the room. Clearly, Ed had been taken from here against his will, certainly by the rebels, possibly by Gimen. The obvious suspect here was none other than Chan herself, as his guardian - and just possibly, Foster knew, that was too obvious. Still, they couldn't afford to miss a trick.
The room had not been visibly disturbed. Even the bedcover was neatly folded back, as though Ed had tidied it after rising. The photoframe on the bedside shelf lay flat -
- and slightly out of position, on the edge of the shelf.
Foster grabbed it and opened it; but there was no hidden message.
It must have been knocked over, by an intruder, he realised, gazing thoughtfully into the colour panel. But how did -
He thumped his forehead in a classic 'facepalm' gesture. You idiot, Foster. That's how it was done!
He laid the photoframe down on the shelf, and began to investigate the panel edges. Now where would Ed put a switch - Ah.
A small part of the brown stripe on the wall depressed very slightly under his searching fingers, and after a moment, the panel's colours changed to pale green and it began to slide down into the wall, leaving an opening easily large enough to admit someone. I'll bet he's got a spacesuit hidden in here, Foster thought. Just hope he has a spare as well… There must be a whole rabbit warren down here, with tunnels out to the Interceptor hangars, and probably M2 as well.
Thing is… should I tell anyone else about this?
Foster did not doubt that Ed had kept this information to himself on the basis that what his staff didn't know could not be taken from them, by whatever means. He decided to keep that secret - for a while, at least. But he should tell Gay something.
He tapped the intercom panel. "Foster to Ellis."
"Go ahead, Paul. Anything?"
"Nothing concrete," he said, fighting the urge to cross his fingers at the fib. Fib? It's a downright lie… "But I'm following a bit of a hunch."
"OK, Paul. Keep in touch."
"Will do. Foster out." She sounds a bit miffed, he thought. Not surprising, really. Sorry, Gay.
Foster climbed through the opening, and as his weight touched the floor, the panel rose smoothly back into position. It still provided enough light for him to see by. He explored the small space. To one side, away from the panel, rungs were set into the walls. He peered down - wishing he had brought a torch - and noted that they descended perhaps three or four metres.
And in a small cubbyhole beside them, was a torch!
Of course, he thought. Ed must have planned this very carefully – like he did in Jersey.
Collecting the torch, he made his way down the ladder. At the base was a storage locker, and an obvious airlock. Sure enough, the locker contained a vacuum suit.
Hmm, Foster thought, frowning. Only the one? And no space for a spare? So how did he move from here?
Oh well, only one way to find out…/p>
Quickly, Foster donned the suit, attached a fresh life-pack, and entered the airlock.
* * *
"I was successful. As you see."
"Then Jax's chart was accurate?"
"It was," Gimen confirmed. That assurance is redundant, he thought, mildly irritated. The target is here, is he not? Aloud, he continued: "How do you propose to induce this terran to give us what we want?"
Bosan contemplated the terran Gimen had brought in. "I crave your pardon, lord," she said quietly. "I will explain a little more clearly… You indicated that you were followed through the tunnels? By whom, do you know?"
"As you predicted," Gimen said, "by the terran self-designated 'foster'."
"And is Jax still at the mascon station?" As Gimen gave a nod, Bosan went on: "I ask you to please return there, before this 'foster' catches up. Advise Jax that it must be killed… and arrange matters so that Jax performs the act. I will monitor from here… and ensure that this 'Keimon' sees all."
"Ah," breathed Gimen. "I do indeed understand. I shall go at once."
* * *
When the group arrived in Control, Joan was waiting for them, with news that Major Ford wanted to speak to them urgently. Gay quickly made introductions, and then excused herself and took the call, while Joan attended to the Dyaus pair.
"SHADO, this is Moonbase. Captain Ellis speaking. How may I help you, Major?"
…"Ah, Gay, hello. It's about those camera records you asked me to check."
…"Two things. First off, you were correct, they have been altered, and very clumsily. The time-codes have been changed. The intrusion did not take place last night - but while Paul was having his flying lesson!"
"You're certain?" Ellis said, sharply. "No, silly question, I'm sorry -"
…"Not at all. I got Lieutenant Lacey to double-check. And it does indeed clear Ed - he was watching the test at the time!"
"So he was." Gay Ellis took a breath. "And the second thing?"
"I'm sure that person on the film isn't Ambassador Straker. His walk is all wrong. He walks hesitantly, as though he were out of practice. Which is very odd indeed."
"Very. Someone from Earth, perhaps, or Moonbase Alpha, where they have Victor's artificial gravity… Is Alec available?"
…"I'm right here." Freeman moved into pickup range. "How can I help, Gay?"
"Keith said it was clumsy, and he's right. In fact the whole thing is clumsy. It's a bit like that time when we were railroaded into trying to execute the commander. The rebels had only a very narrow window to do what they intended - and that seems to have been, to take the Ambassador. Which leaves us with the questions - where, and why? Paul suggests they may be trying to turn him against Earth itself, but I can't see that happening!"
…"Nor can I," Freeman said, slowly. "But they might be trying to destroy him. I remember Azan saying there was a long-standing plot against the Keimon. He said that the only way to do this was not to kill the host - Ed - but to destroy his faith in himself. Azan said that the technique apparently used by the rebels is to force him to manifest, then manipulate him into an impossible personal situation. We - Jackson and I - think they may have already tried that one - and it nearly succeeded."
Gay threw a quick glance at Oparel, whose face was very grim indeed. "You think they'll try again?"
…"Yes, I do. But what that impossible situation is, I couldn't guess - " He broke off.
The expression on Freeman's face was one of utter horror. It's one of those situations where all the bits of the jigsaw fall into place at once, he realised, agonised. Why in the name of all that's holy didn't I work it out before??
"Yes I can," he breathed. "Oh my god no… Gay, confirm this link is secure?"
Ellis quickly checked her readouts, glanced across at Joan, who gave a quick nod. "Secure this end, sir."
…"Who is currently in Control with you?"
Alec's attitude was beginning to frighten Gay. She pulled herself together.
"Diplomat Amet Pavlor and his aide, Oparel, who is an expert on the Keimon. Also myself and Joan. No-one else is with us."
…"Good… Diplomat, Captain, everyone, I must insist on secrecy on what I am about to say. At least for the moment. You too, Keith… Gay, Joan, you know Ed had been married?"
"We did," Gay confirmed, after a glance at her colleague.
…"Diplomat, did you also know this?"
"We did," Amet said, his voice guarded. Beside him, Oparel was looking thoughtful.
…"Did you know he had a son? Who we thought had been killed by the rebels, a few years ago?"
"You thought he had been killed?" Gay said, slowly.
Beside her Oparel drew in his breath sharply, and Amet threw him a glance; then it hit him. Visibly, he forced himself to remain silent, to let Commander Freeman speak.
…"We did. Now I'm not so sure. Didn't you say you recognised Ed on those tapes - despite the fact that he was with Bergman all along?"
"Are you saying it was actually the Ambassador's son?" Gay demanded. "But that would mean - "
"May I answer, please, Companion Commander?" Amet said, urgently.
"If you are suggesting," Amet went on, carefully, "that the boy was taken by the rebels to be used against his father, I have to say that you are almost certainly correct."
"That seems unlikely," Gay said, doubtfully. "If the boy is alive, he couldn't be any more than thirteen or fourteen years old. The person on the tapes was an adult."
…"We encountered hibernation pods in the rebel base in Antarctica," Freeman said. "They seemed to be capable of changing the rate of a person's life processes. Is that in fact what they do, Amet?"
"It is. If you are thinking that the boy's maturation was accelerated, to bring him to adulthood early, this too is almost certainly the case."
"So how does this bear on our problem?" Gay wanted to know. "What is this 'impossible situation' Gimen is trying to set up? I take it that it is indeed Gimen whose doing this?"
"I invite Oparel to comment."
At a sign from the diplomat, Oparel took a step forward. "Companions," he said in his slow careful English, "the bond between parent and child is a very strong one, as you are aware. This is said to be true even in those whom we thought of as 'regressives' - for which I ask your pardon… A father, by example, invests a great amount of his hopes for the future in his son, as does a mother in her daughter. The rebels would seek to damage the boy in a way which would destroy those hopes."
He glanced at his colleague, and Gay was intrigued to note that the glance held compassion and understanding. I wonder what's going on there, she thought, fleetingly.
…"I'm not a father myself, but I have some appreciation of what you mean," Freeman muttered. "We must intervene. We must find Ed, and rescue Johnny. Amet, Oparel, where do we start looking?"
"At the rebel base," Amet said. "But first we have to find it!"
* * *
His awareness returned, slowly.
He lifted a shaky hand, and explored his face, feeling the shape of a vacuum helmet. Looking down at himself, he realised the suit he wore was of Dyausan design. He glanced around; his surroundings were both strange and oddly familiar. He was in a seat a little like one from a train, in a cylindrical room. He did not know where he was; but he knew he had been here before. Or somewhere very similar.
"You are awake. Good."
That voice was also familiar. He looked up, saw a female with blonde hair that he knew he should know… He groped for the memory, and, abruptly, it came.
"Sarah," he said, thickly.
"You remember me, Straker?" The woman smiled. "Do you also recognise where you are?"
Straker searched his memory, finding resistance… and then, he had it. "It's… a gravity car. Your father found it. But…"
"He didn't find this one," Sarah said, her voice hard. "Several tunnels were built. This one links a mascon on the far side to our base here at the lunar south pole."
Straker nodded, slowly. "Did you also bring Johnny here?" he demanded.
"We did," Sarah confirmed. "You will have deduced that he was moved here from the hospital. He was not, in truth, badly injured, Gimen was most skilful… We placed him in a hiberpod, and sped up his development, just a little. His effective physical age is now eighteen, in Earth terms."
A memory came to him, of rousing in a van, of escaping, to find the 'doctor' who had 'treated' Johnny, who had to be one of the rebels, who must have lied to him about his son's death,… "Tell me why you did that."
"I think - Ah. One moment. You may wish to see this."
Sarah helped him to stand, and led him to a monitor panel. It showed an image of what appeared to be a workshop, with racks of equipment. A suited figure came into view. The visor shield was up, and Straker could see his face, clearly.
"Paul," he whispered. "He must have followed me."
"Indeed he did, Straker. We will watch him… Ah. He has been seen, by one of our Guards. And by someone you may also know."
Two other people appeared on the screen. Both wore vacuum suits, one from Dyaus and one of standard SHADO issue. They were helmeted, with their visors open. The man in the Dyaus suit was a man whom Straker recognised at once. The other, slighter figure, was…
"Johnny," Straker breathed.
* * *
At the habitation pod in the mascon station, Jax was thinking, still trying to make some sense of the situation.
Gimen had passed through, with the transport pod that apparently contained the terran leader, this Keimon. Gimen had instructed Jax to gather together the equipment he had been using and return to Avach. He bent to the task, but his mind was elsewhere. The situation in which he found himself was baffling, and alarming.
Why, he wondered, has Bosan not explained to me in more detail what are her intentions? Does she not trust me? How can that be?
And who is that man who looks so much like me -
There was a buzz from the airlock door. Someone was entering. Jax watched as Gimen emerged. That was rapid, he thought. He must have used boost mode, for the falling-car to return so swiftly… "My lord? Do you have instructions for me?"
"I do. We have information that one of the terrans has found the path and is investigating. We will await him here, and take him."
"Is he to be killed, my lord?"
"If necessary. Are you armed?"
Jax took his gun from his pack, checked its setting, and clipped it to his belt. "Yes, my lord."
"Wear your helmet, but do not close your visor, yet. The main chamber is pressurised. Watch the monitor… Ah. He comes."
A creature whom Jax recognised as one of the terran conspirators moved into view.
"Good," Gimen said, quietly. "We shall take him. Follow."
He stepped into the pod airlock. Jax followed, and closed the hatch behind him. The outer door opened, and silently they emerged into the main storage area. The Guard signed to him to go to his left, behind a rack of shelving, and took a corresponding position on the right. Together they watched as the terran came closer, gazing at its surroundings as though puzzled.
There was a tiny click as Gimen tried to adjust his position for a better view, and brushed lightly against a nearby shelf. The terran paused, alerted. It looked around, and saw Jax. For a moment, it seemed startled; and then it saw Gimen also, and took a step forward, lifting its arm.
Jax raised his gun, and fired. The creature slumped to the compartment floor.
"Check its status," Gimen ordered. He was watching the direction from which the terran had emerged. "Does it live?"
Kneeling beside the fallen terran, Jax quickly examined it. He swallowed. "N-no, my lord."
"Noted… It seemed to be alone, I detect none following. Place it in that service bay and leave it. Then, finish your task. I must report to Bosan. You will follow when you are done."
"Yes, my lord."
Gimen left, heading once more for the transit tunnel. Jax took the terran's feet and dragged it into the nearby service bay. He emerged after a few moments, closed the hatch, then re-entered the habitation pod.
* * *
"He's killed Paul," Straker whispered.
"That's right." Sarah's voice shook a little.
"Why? In the name of all that's holy, why?? Has he been zommed or something?"
"No, Straker, he hasn't."
Straker communed with the Kei, used its abilities to sense Johnny. He recoiled, in horror. Sarah was right, he realised, as his heart turned to ice. The boy was untouched.
And that meant…
"My son is… is a… murderer."
"So it seems." Sarah's voice was even, matter-of-fact. "So?"
Rounding on her, Straker spat: "'So'? Is that all you can say?"
Sarah braced herself to meet his eyes, noting that they were their usual hard sapphire, not the Keimon's silver. "What else is there to say? What can you do about it?"
What indeed, Straker asked himself, his soul flooding with despair. His son. The child he had believed dead, as a result of his own inadequacy. The child who, beyond all hope, had come back to life. Who had grown to adulthood, however artificially.
Who had murdered his brother.
The weariness of spirit that he had felt on waking from his 'coma' had not receded. It had been masked by the need to act; but it had grown rather than faded. It had increased at the knowledge of Paul's loss of his love, and multiplied by his own loss - even though that had been at his consent. Even the death of Henderson at the hands of the rebels had affected him more than he would have believed.
And so had his decision as Keimon to cut off the rebels, amputate them from the body of humanity. It had been as though he had cut off his own arm.
Now came the devastating news that his son was a murderer.
His son. His own son. His hope for the future.
Who was evil.
His anger faded into a creeping numbness. He was Keimon of a race that did not deserve to live.
He turned his sapphire gaze on the woman. "Go," he muttered, thickly. "Go. Now."
With a smile, Sarah Bosanquet left the room, left him to his despair.
* * *
So Paul was dead.
Bosan had wanted this outcome, she had planned for it, arranged matters so that the son of the Keimon would do this deed, and in so doing, destroy that entity's belief in himself.
What she had not planned for was her own reaction.
In truth, she had felt keenly the loss of Malvar Kotte, when the shock of actual contact with the Keimon had killed him. She had thought she grieved; but now she knew she had not. What she had felt then was a mere shadow of this pain.
As Sarah Bosanquet she had known Paul, had enjoyable times with him. She had even begun to feel love for him. But then, she had been discovered by SHADO to be an agent for their enemies, and she had had to flee. She returned to Avach, where she had been given the task of supervising the child. She had chosen his name, and her persona been incorporated into his dreamstate education as his mother; but she had never felt any affection for him, as was right, else she would not have been able to pursue her objective.
But she had felt affection for Paul.
But there was now no time for such things. In a few days, the world below would be theirs; and they would remake it into New Arkadia.
With an effort she pushed thoughts of the terran paul-foster away, wiped moisture from her eyes, and headed back to Avach Central, to prepare for the next stage.
* * *
Alone, the Keimon interrogated his memory, seeking knowledge that he had purposely concealed from his conscious mind, knowledge of another tunnel and its secrets.
In the early days, when SHADO had just become fully operational, Alec Freeman had dragged Ed Straker away to Rendlesham in Suffolk for a short Christmas break. It had turned out to be something of a busman's holiday: an encounter with a craft that was clearly extraterrestrial, though not from what he now called Spicor. It had come, Straker realised, to give him advice. That advice concerned the installation on the far side of the Moon, which John Bosanquet had discovered, and which he proposed to make available to the people of Spicor in their war against Earth. Straker had been helped to forget that the installation ever existed.
Now he dragged that memory back into his consciousness.
He recalled finding the chamber which held a device that, Bosanquet had boasted, could detonate the sun. Straker ordered the Kei to reveal what It knew of this thing. Though reluctant, the Entity complied. Its knowledge was incomplete; but it was enough.
Straker realised now what this device truly was.
It seemed that it was a stellar controller. It was not primarily a weapon; but it could be harnessed to become one. Its power, tapped from the energy of the vacuum itself, could be redirected. He would use it to put the human race out of its misery, cleanse it from the face of the planet it infested.
He examined the control panel of this tunnel station, reading its legends with the unwilling help of the Kei. According to a small map this tunnel was indeed one of several, and it did head for the far side, emerging close to the one he and Bosanquet had used. The map showed a short connecting link, which he had not seen on his first visit, but he had been short of time - and air.
Quickly, he checked his suit's status, finding it adequately supplied for the journey, and returned to the tunnel car, moving to the controls, setting them to boost mode.
* * *
"Nothing heard from Colonel Foster?"
"No, Captain," Joan Harrington answered. "He has not been detected anywhere on Moonbase or the hangars, or in the Alpha tunnel. Neither has Ambassador Straker."
"Have the VOC detectors shown anything?"
Harrington shook her head. "No, Captain, not even in the Ambassador's quarters. I am expecting an update from SHADO Control on their reprogramming, which should bring them up to 95% efficiency. There should still be traces of any VOCs which could affect them."
"Thank you, Lieutenant." Captain Ellis turned to where the three Dyausans were seated, observing. "Gentlemen, I thank you for your patience in this matter. Have your own checks shown anything?"
"I regret not, Captain," Prince Merrel replied, courteously. "I, too, await information. I directed Oparel to obtain historical data on other possible Dyausan installations on this Terran moon, to consider where the fugitive Gimen may have gone. Oparel, have you an update?"
"Yes, my prince," Oparel replied. "There is the far-side station. There is also mention of an installation at the south lunar pole - but the data are incomplete, and of doubtful integrity. I am investigating further, to refine these data."
"Is there any indication of connections between this far-side station and the earth-facing side?"
"Suggestions only. I found mention of a gravity tunnel between far-side and the lunar south pole. This is suggestive, but I find no supporting records. I will continue with my search."
"Thank you, Oparel. Captain, I am sorry, that is all we have at present."
"It's a start, at least." Gay gave a slight smile. "It wouldn't surprise me if that's the lead Paul said he'd found…"
* * *
His chest ached. He would have liked to rub his eyes, but he could not bring his hands to his face for the task. They seemed to be caught somehow above his head. And in any case his visor was closed.
He heard footsteps approaching. And if he could hear, even through his helmet, that meant he was in atmosphere. He cast his mind back to recent events…
He had been shot. By someone who looked like a younger version of Ed Straker -
He tensed as someone unlatched his visor, and moved into view. A voice said: "Are you awake?"
Even the voice sounded familiar… He pulled his eyes into focus, and a face swam into his awareness. Yes, it was definitely the one who had shot him.
"Hello," he said. "I think I know you, don't I?"
The youth sat back on his heels, gazing at him. "You will answer my questions."
"Then tell me your name."
"Certainly… I am Colonel Paul Michael Foster. 'Colonel' is my military rank."
"Are you a terran? One of the regressives?"
"Well, I'm certainly Earthborn," Foster replied, "but I think I'd quarrel with the term 'regressive'."
"What is your connection with the terran 'straker'?"
"Up until quite recently Ed was my commanding officer, but he's moved on… He's also my brother, and I didn't know that until quite recently."
"Why do you disagree with the term 'regressive'?"
Foster shifted a little, trying unsuccessfully to get less uncomfortable. "I'm aware that the people we saw as 'aliens' think - thought - we were little better than savages, with none of the 'higher' emotions, fit only to be used for spare parts. Ed proved otherwise."
"He told them our children played with toys," Foster said, softly. "Did you?"
"I…" Jax whispered. "I don't… remember…"
Foster recalled something Ed had mentioned. "Not even Growly?"
For a moment, Jax was puzzled - and then images began to fill his mind…
He was in a large, warm room. There were areas of the wall which seemed transparent; through them he could see an expanse of blue, with drifting white, fuzzy shapes, like those he had seen on the panel in the target terran's bedchamber… He was sitting on a soft patterned surface holding a brown, furry object. Beside him there was a crumpled mass of something colourful that rustled. And, seated next to him, was the terran, and also the female he had seen in the image carrier.
"Happy birthday, Johnny," the terran said, and kissed him, lightly.
He smiled up at his father, and snuggled the teddybear to his cheek…
"Johnny?" the terran, Foster, said.
Abruptly, Jax shot to his feet, and turned away so that this terran could not see his face. Tears were welling out of his eyes; he squeezed them tightly shut, but that didn't work. He dragged a gauntleted hand across his eyes, but that didn't help much, either.
He pulled his imager from the pouch at his belt, opened it, thumbed through the records until he found the one he wanted. Still turned away, he held it so that the terran could see the image of the female. "Who is this?" he demanded in a choked voice.
Foster glanced at it. "Her name is Mary. I think she may be your mother."
"I… This is all wrong… What has happened to me?"
"I'll help you find out, don't worry," Foster said, gently.
Jax swung round, dropped to his knees beside the terran, and tugged at the bonds holding him to the steel frame, freeing him. Gratefully, Foster flexed his arms, but did not move from his seated position. "What are you called, here?" he asked, ignoring the tear-stains on the youth's face.
"My m - Bosan - she calls me Jax."
"Then we'll go with that for the moment… What do you intend to do at this point?"
"I - I am not sure… Lord Gimen - my companion and instructor - directed me to collect my equipment and follow him, leaving you here. He believes I killed you." Jax tried a smile. "I am glad I did not."
"So am I," Foster agreed, lightly. "Jax, did you see Ed at all?"
"Yes, Gimen had taken him through to Avach. He returned to inform me that you were coming."
Foster thought quickly. He should call for backup, let Gay know this place was here - but perhaps he should go to this place 'Avach', find out what was happening to Ed…
"What communications do you have here, Jax?" he asked. "Could they reach Moonbase?"
"Yes, Colonel Paul - "
"Just 'Paul' will do… OK, show me."
Foster pulled himself to his feet, with Jax's assistance, and followed him into the pod from which the youth had emerged. "What is 'Avach', exactly?" he asked.
"It is our - that is, Bosan's - operational centre." Jax led him through the pod airlock, closing the outer door. "It is located at this moon's south rotational axis point."
"How do we get there?"
"There is a transit tunnel," Jax replied. He pointed to a chart on the wall, showing a large-scale map of this area of the lunar surface. It showed a line from this point leading to the south lunar pole; and it also showed two red circles in positions corresponding to the locations of Moonbase and Alpha. "The tunnel uses falling-cars which drop under lunar gravity, though they can be boosted to higher drop rates if speed is vital. Transit time then is - a few minutes."
"It'll be vital all right… Where's your communicator?"
"Here." Jax led him to a small grey cabinet with clusters of controls and readouts, and threw a switch. He moved a small stalk towards Foster. "Speak into this device, you will be heard."
"Thanks - "
Foster broke off. Through a grill on the wall above the communicator a bluish vapour was seeping. He grabbed Jax, lifting him completely off his feet, and with his earthborn strength threw the youth accurately into the airlock. He looked around for a means of closing the grill, but saw nothing. As a sickly-sweet odour reached his nose, making his head swim slightly, he ran for the airlock. He pulled Jax inside, hit the cycle button, and closed the youth's visor and his own. He heard the beginning of a warning siren, then it was cut off as the inner door closed and sealed.
He looked at the youth through the helmet visor, raised a querying eyebrow, and Jax nodded and touched a control. The outer door opened, and they made their exit. Jax beckoned, and Foster followed him into a corridor, which ended in another airlock. On the other side there was something which could only be a tube station, complete with train!
Jax made sure the airlock was closed, then examined the panel beside it. With a nod of satisfaction he unlatched and raised his visor, indicating that Foster should do the same.
"Thanks," Foster said. "What happened there, exactly? That vapour didn't look at all friendly."
"Indeed it was not," Jax said grimly. "You heard the contamination alert… It must have been placed there intentionally. The habitation pod detected toxin and sealed itself off so that none of the toxin would enter the air system. We would have been trapped inside - though I think we would not have lived very long."
"Then we'd better go very carefully," Foster said. "You mentioned a boost mode. I think we'd better use it."
* * *
"Bosan," Gimen said. "You must tell me, now. What are you doing? What have you done with this 'keimon'?"
Seated at the terminal, Bosan did not look up at him. "He is performing the task I set him."
"He is doing that which we could not do ourselves. He is giving New Arkadia to us. He is also destroying himself, and so will no longer be a threat to High Arkadia."
She did not elaborate. Not for the first time, Gimen regretted having given this terran so much autonomy; but it had been necessary to enable it to perform its allotted tasks on the planet below. Now it was making plans of its own, a worrying development.
It matters not, Gimen thought. I shall permit it to complete its work, and we shall have the terran homeworld. Then I can dispose of the liability it has become.
* * *
It was still some hours to new moon - the time when the Moon was exactly between Earth and the Sun, visible from Earth's surface only as a thin crescent at best. Its far side, where he was now, faced the star.
Again, the Keimon interrogated his memories and those of the Kei which concerned the history of this device. It was much more than the observatory which Azan Pavlor had mentioned. Designed to inhibit solar flares, it had been built here as an experiment, with Sol as a celestial 'guinea-pig'. Early results had been promising, bringing hopes that Spicor would be successful in its attempts to quieten the many 'flare stars' - energetic red dwarfs - in its sphere of interest. But the inhibitor was tricky to set up, and its delicate mechanism that generated the powerful force field could be disturbed too easily. The result would be, not suppression of flares, but stimulation and magnification.
The research had been placed on hold while the team reviewed its programme, re-evaluated its algorithms, rechecked its data. The apparatus had been 'moth-balled' while this was being done.
But it had never been re-activated. The Plague had struck.
In the first years of dealing with the pestilence, the project had been put on hold. As the situation worsened, resources had been diverted away from most areas of research to deal with the medical emergency. As the situation degenerated into desperation, the flare-control project had been forgotten, even the knowledge of its existence lost to all but a few - and even they had believed that the installation was an observatory only.
Then John Bosanquet had noticed oddities in data from satellites studying the lunar surface. He had investigated, and found the device, and understood what it was. He found a 'subway tunnel', and used it to drop to the site of Moonbase.
And then, before he could report his discovery, he had been taken by the people SHADO was formed to fight. Like Pat Turner, who had opted freely to help the aliens use their time-distortion device against SHADO, he had volunteered his services. Those 'aliens', members of the Arkad race whom the Keimon had declared renegade, imposed what seemed to have been a minimal influence on John Bosanquet and on his daughter Sarah. Bosanquet senior had been induced to kidnap the SHADO commander; but Straker had fought him off, and buried the inhibitor in a rockfall.
Now Straker had to find his way into the control chamber. He communed with the Kei, directed it to clear a way through the rubble.
And the Kei objected.
At first It tried to advise Its master against this course of action; but he ignored It. He exerted his authority, and won. The chamber cleared, the rubble disintegrating into a fine dust, as he watched from the hatchway; and once again, the ranks of control panels were revealed, weakly lit by their own power source.
Even the stylus that Bosanquet had used was still there, lying on the floor in a drift of dust by one of the consoles, where Straker had left it all those years ago. He strode forward, and picked it up.
* * *
The ride had indeed been quite short; but it was rough for one of its passengers.
What 'Jax' had called 'boost mode' accelerated the tunnel car to about one earth gravity, as far as Foster could judge. That felt quite normal to him; but the boy was evidently distressed. Of course, Foster thought. It's six times normal g to him!
The youth was 'flat' relative to the push, since their seats had adjusted for 'boost' to become flat couches, but Foster could hear his strained breathing. "Jax," he said, gently, "don't answer, just grunt - once for no, twice for yes. Save your breath… Can you handle this?"
Jax managed to grunt, twice.
"That's fine. Don't try to breathe too quickly or too deeply. Keep a steady rate. Don't worry too much, we can only have a few minutes to go, you tell me."
Jax managed to make a sound that indicated puzzled - even pained - enquiry. Foster tried not to smile. "If you're wondering how I'm coping," he said lightly, "it's about the same as the pull down on Earth - Terra, you call it. I've had a few decades to get accustomed to it."
This time the sound Jax made was clearly an expletive.
"Remember, you were born there," Foster said. "You'll quickly get used to it - "
With a suddenness that was almost nauseating, the acceleration dropped to zero; then normal lunar gravity took over, pulling them down at right angles to the travel forces. Jax gasped aloud, then spat a single word, a word that Foster had no difficulty in understanding. "I quite agree," he said, drily. "Can you move?"
"Yes… yes, I can move," the youth confirmed. "Though I feel as though a skimmer had landed on me… Their flight is much more gentle, I must say."
"It's all that… Can you fly a skimmer, then?"
"I have trained on them. I am - was - due to go to the next stage of that training, which concerns our liquid cocoon."
That explains why you’re not green, Foster thought. "OK - where do we go now?"
"I… I wish to confront my - Bosan, to discover what she has been doing to me."
"We'll need to go carefully with that… though I want a word with her as well. And I really do need to talk to Moonbase. Do you have anything here I can use for that?"
"There is the communications centre. But it will certainly be attended, and and it is better that we are not seen, we are both wanted dead." Jax thought for a few moments. "But perhaps we can do something from here, from the tunnel control chamber. From there I can perhaps tap into the Avach network, connect to ComCentre."
"OK. Let's try that. Lead the way."
Jax fumbled at his straps, and managed to release himself after a few moments. For his part, Foster was feeling none too well himself. That hand weapon Jax used to knock me out packed quite a punch, he thought.
He followed the youth out of the tunnel car onto a platform in this cylindrical 'station' chamber. Jax headed for a hatch in the end face. Foster looked around, noting that the place where they must have entered was closed. He wondered if this area could be pressurised independently from the transit tunnel itself, which would have been in vacuum.
Jax stopped at the hatch. There were two studs beside it, and Jax pressed the lower of the two. The hatch slid open, and beyond it, light panels flickered into life.
"Come, Paul Foster," Jax said, stepping through the opening. Foster followed. Inside there was a small space, one side of which was a wall of panels carrying controls and screens. One of the screens was glowing softly. Jax stopped beside it, and examined the controls. He touched a sensitive plate, and the screen lit up, showing a chart that looked to Foster like a highly reduced version of the London Underground.
"This is a monitoring facility for this tunnel and the adjacent one," Jax said. "That tunnel connects Avach with Far-side."
"There's a station on the back of the Moon?" Foster said, startled. "How long does it take to go there?"
"Let me see - " Jax thought for a moment. "Perhaps 53 minutes, in your units."
"It falls under gravity," Jax explained. "If a tunnel were to go straight through the centre of this moon, it would reach a peak velocity at the centre equal to that required to escape from the moon entirely - but then it is slowed as it climbs to the surface, to halt at its destination. Other tunnels taking shorter paths would not reach full speed, but do not have so far to go. It balances out, so all falling-cars should take the same time to reach their destination, regardless of route length. Though boost shortens the time considerably, as you have seen."
Ed, you'll have to explain this to me sometime… "Is it a two-way system?" Foster wanted to know. "I'd hate to crash into a car going the other way!"
"This particular route is two-track." Jax showed him on the chart. "There were plans to do the same on the mascon path, but they were postponed because of our Emergency."
"Yes." Jax studied the chart, frowning. "Paul Foster, the far-side path has been used, recently."
I'll bet that's Ed, Foster thought. But why's he going there? What's he got up his sleeve?
Aloud, he said: "OK, how do we talk to Moonbase?"
"Through this equipment. We - I mean, the people here - do not use radio for themselves, but they do monitor terran communications." Jax moved to a small console, and lowered a wall seat into position. "Please sit here, while I operate."
Foster recognised the communicator as being similar to the one he had tried to use before the contaminating gas appeared. He watched Jax do mysterious things for a few moments; then the youth said: "Your moonbase is - "
Again, he was interrupted; but this time, by a voice, one that Foster recognised with no difficulty. The voice said, in a sort of gasp: "Paul?"
Foster turned. Yes, it was. "Why, hello, Sarah," he said, brightly. "Fancy meeting you here."
"But - how did you - "
"Why aren't I dead, you mean?" Foster rose to his feet. Behind him, he made a cautionary sign to Jax, and heard the youth move quietly away. "That was what you wanted, wasn't it?"
Sarah walked towards him. She seemed to by struggling for words. At last she said: "It matters not. You will die shortly in any case… Jax, come to me, now."
"I do not wish to," Jax replied, his voice strained.
"No matter. You will also be dead soon."
"Why, Sarah?" Foster said, softly.
"Do you intend to remind me of the 'good times' we had together?"
"Obviously, I don't need to," Foster smiled. "They were way better than this, I've no doubt."
Sarah bit her lip. She took a hesitant step forward, and seemed to want to speak; but she was interrupted in her turn.
"Stop where you are!" Gimen ordered. "Bosan, you have failed. I shall attend to matters now."
He raised his gun, aiming at Foster; but Sarah threw herself forward and grabbed his gun arm, trying to force it down. The weapon discharged as they struggled, and with a scream Sarah fell to the floor, to lie still. Gimen prodded her with a foot. Foster, who had shoved Jax behind him, prepared to rush the rebel, looking for something to distract him, knowing it was hopeless, knowing he was dead…
* * *
The sun was nearly overhead. It was time.
Straker found his way to the lift that would take him up to the lunar surface, into the full glare of the sun. He had set the controls so that he could trigger the process remotely, so that he would be the first to experience the initial x-ray blast. That would be followed by a truly spectacular coronal mass ejection of charged particles; but he would not be alive to greet them. He would be the first of his sick race to die.
The huge gust of solar wind would arrive many hours after the x-ray flare, but last several days. The entire surface of the planet would be sterilised as it turned under that solar blowlamp. The icecaps would melt, perhaps totally. The sun would calm eventually, but all it would leave would be a lifeless cinder.
The lunar stations would last longer, protected as they were by the shielding mass of the moon; but they would no longer receive vital supplies from Earth, and none of them was yet self-sufficient. SHADO Moonbase might last a month. ILFC's Alpha might last six. The other, smaller, outposts would barely manage days. It was likely, of course, that Alpha would gather everyone to itself - for what good that would do.
But then despair would set in, and the situation would fall into chaos. Within a year, they would all be dead - from starvation, from lack of air, from murder, from suicide.
Humanity would be gone, as though it had never existed.
Straker opened the door of the airlock at the top of the lift shaft, and stepped out onto the lunar surface. He gazed up at the sun, blinking a little against its brilliance, strong even through the helmet visor. Pain began to grow in his eyes, his head. Tears began to trickle down his face; but they were not from the harsh sunlight.
He remembered Johnny, the child he had known for so few years. He thought of the monster the boy had become… and lifted his arm, pointing the stylus at the sun, his gauntleted finger on the control, ready to press it, ready to put humanity out of its misery…
* * *
>From a distance that was immense, yet non-physical, the Keimon watched, horrified.
The Entity did not want this. Humanity should not be destroyed. Yet the Entity could not override the host, could not intervene.
What could be done? How could this catastrophe be prevented?
The Entity reviewed the events leading up to this moment. An external being had surely been involved, taking advantage of the host's poor condition, a result of his recent experiences. That being had persuaded him of an untruth. Surely.
So the Entity must demonstrate this to him. Or, at least, prompt him to re-evaluate.
Again, the Entity searched the memories - and feelings - of the host; and a possibility presented itself.
Mustering Their resources, the Entity again probed the host's being…
* * *
In SHADO Control, Commander Freeman staggered to his feet, hands to his eyes. The blankness in his mind where Ed had been had gone, abruptly, dispelled on a gale of brightness.
At Moonbase, Captain Ellis pressed her own hands to her eyes, whimpering a little.
Prince Merrel dropped to his knees, curling up into a ball. Professor Bergman groped for the alarm switch, missed, and tried again.
Jax stared as the terran Paul Foster fell to the ground, writhing in agony, though Gimen had not fired his gun. He stood there as though paralysed, while the gale of memory swept over him…
And then, as suddenly as it had come, that mental light faded, as though the sun had been switched off.
* * *
…he's still my son.
The thought seemed to come to Ed out of nowhere.
A kaleidoscope of fragmented memories filled his mind. He recalled, in that rush of images, how it was that when the doctors were fighting to bring his son into the world, he had needed to choose. He had intended to say: "If you can't save them both, my wife would want the child to live…" But it had stabbed at him like a knife in the heart that Mary was in this desperate condition because of him, and he did not want her to die. He could not complete the sentence; but the doctor nodded, misunderstanding him, and strode back into the maze of corridors. Johnny had been delivered safely, and Mary had lived, though she was no longer able to carry children.
He recalled that dreadful night when he had tried to save his son, and had failed. The life-saving drug that had been delayed by the need to go to an 'alien' who seemed to want to make contact. The 'alien' that had died; and, he had believed, Johnny had died also.
It had seemed that the 'aliens' had murdered his child, to damage him, to induce him to commit murder, and suicide…
…and that was exactly what he was doing, right now.
He's still my son…
Sanity came back to him in a rush, as though someone had emptied a vat of ice-water over him. He shook his head a little as though to rid himself of something physical.
"Johnny," he whispered to himself. "Johnny, it's all right. You're my son. Let me be a father to you. Whatever you've done, I can rescue you - "
* * *
Gimen shrieked, and dropped his gun, clawing at his head.
He had been forcibly holding his link to the Keimon open, maintaining his influence. He had been able to do that only because the being was weakened by its experiences in captivity. Now, somehow, the being had thrown him off -
And Sarah moved. She shoved herself along the floor, grabbed the gun, and levelled it in her shaking hands at him. She pressed the stud, and a bolt of energy leapt from the weapon and struck Gimen full in the chest. His scream cut off, and he fell limply to the ground.
Foster managed to push himself to his feet. He checked Gimen; the rebel was quite dead. He glanced around. "Johnny? Are you all right?"
"I… I am unhurt… But my mother - Bosan - "
Sarah was slumped against the wall, a tiny smile on her face. "No, Johnny," she whispered. "I am… not your mother… Not even close…"
Foster had reached her. He took her in his arms. The youth crouched beside them, and she stroked his face. "I used you… dreadfully… I am… so sorry… Paul will explain…"
"First thing I'm going to do is get you to a doctor," Foster said.
"No use… Paul…"
Sarah Bosanquet went limp in his arms, her eyes glassy. He felt for the neck pulse; it was absent. Gently, he laid her down, and rose to his feet. "I'm sorry, Jax," he said, quietly. "She saved us both, and she was a mother to you. You will miss her, I know."
"I…" The youth rose to his feet. "I do not know… I do not know what has happened to me. I do not know who I am."
"We'll get you your answers, I promise," Foster said gently, putting his arm around the youth's slim shoulders. "But we must sort this mess out… I need to talk to my people at our Moonbase. You were about to set that up for me."
"Yes… I need to complete the routing. It will take a few moments."
Jax moved to the bench, and pressed a sequence of switches. He said, abruptly: "You also called me Johnny, before. Is that, then, my true name?"
"Yes it is," Foster said, with a smile. "But I think I'll let Ed explain."
"Then - please use it. Jax no longer exists, I think."
The communicator came to life, and a voice Foster knew said: "This is Moonbase. Identify yourself."
"Well, hello Gay," Foster said, brightly. "I'm at the south polar rebel base and we need backup. There's a whole nest of Azan's muddons to clean out. Details to follow. Warn them to expect resistance."
"You're down there?" Ellis said, startled. "Is Ed with you?"
"Not yet - but I rather think he will be very soon. Did you feel the jolt?"
As he spoke, Foster was studying his own memory of that mental explosion. The numbness had given way to a painful glare of brightness; then that, in turn, had been blown to shreds, and the Keimon's being had shone through it. It was Ed as he had been, the shadows had gone, the dullness dispersed, and replaced with a driving resolve.
"Oh yes. We felt it," Gay agreed.
* * *
Straker pulled his gaze from the solar disc. Half blinded by the glare even through the spacesuit visor, and by his own tears, he threw himself back into the airlock and thumped the control. The door closed, and the lift dropped.
Trying to ignore the burning pain in his eyes, struggling to see, he managed to get out of the lift into the control annexe. There was something he had to do. It was too dangerous to try to destroy that device; such a detonation would shatter the Moon - but it must be rendered harmless, or removed. He set up certain control patterns. All it would need was the trigger.
The pain was growing worse. "Kei!" he bellowed. "Bury it! Forever!"
And the Entity responded, Its relief palpable. Move quickly.
He found his way out of the control room, and headed for the transit tunnel. Behind him, there was a surge of vibration; in sound terms it would have been a deafening roar. But there was no air here to carry that sound.
Johnny, he thought. Hang on. I'm coming…
The Kei urged him onward, into the tunnel car. As he fell into a seat - slowly, under lunar gravity - the car left its anchorage and slid into the tunnel heading for the Arkad base at the south lunar pole. Then the boost coils switched on, and accelerated the car to many times lunar gravity. That made it about normal earth g, and barely noticeable to an Earthborn - but it would shorten the journey time considerably.
He kept his eyes tightly closed, hoping that they would recover a little. If I've blinded myself, he thought, that serves me bloody right… But I need to be able to see, to reach Johnny.
Kei, help me…
The Entity responded, Its mental tone sorrowful. The Kei cannot repair the damage, though the eyes may heal in time. Close them. Keep light from them. The Kei will assist.
His eyes tightly shut, Straker nevertheless could discern images in the darkness. They were little more than outlines, denoting vaguely textured areas, but he concentrated, trying to make sense of what he was 'seeing'. He overlaid the ghostly outlines with his memory of the interior of this vehicle, and a usable image formed.
Now all he could do was rest, for the endless minutes it would take to complete this trip.
* * *
"What the hell was that??" Commander Freeman demanded. He hit the comm button. "Anderson! Get me Moonbase!"
In a very few moments, Gay's image appeared on the command office monitor. "You felt it too?" she enquired.
"Felt it? It da#mn near knocked me flat! What the blazes was Ed doing??"
…"No idea, sir. But I have contact with Paul - the rebels have a base at the lunar south pole, he's down there. I've sent the troops in, Merrel's people as well."
"Is Ed there?"
…"Paul says not," Gay returned, "but he expects him to turn up shortly."
"Good," Freeman said. He forced himself to relax a little. "I want to talk to Paul, and Ed, as soon as possible - though if they're beating off rebel hordes, I accept that may take a while. Keep me informed, will you, Gay?"
…"Of course, sir."
* * *
As the seconds crawled past, Straker tried to clear away his mental fog, again reaching out with his mind to his son. In this he was assisted by the fact that the touch in his mind of the rebel, Gimen, so long in the fringes of his awareness, was notable by its absence. Johnny was there; but this time Straker felt confusion and anger in him, anger at Sarah and Gimen… and awakening memories.
What had those two been doing to the boy? And what was happening there now?
Straker remembered the jolt as he lost contact with the rebel. And he remembered the failed attempt to take over SHADO Control and restart hostilities between Earth and Spicor. He had summoned the rebel to be brought to him, after the attempted coup on SHADO had failed. Anger had given Straker strength then, and he had sensed Gimen try to impose his will, only to be rebuffed.
But not completely, he now knew. Gimen had maintained a tenuous hold, and that hold had grown, as Gimen had fed him fatigue, and depression, and anger, and despair…
Those had now gone as though blown away on a gale of sunlight. Straker knew he had not killed the man; but where the rebel had been, for so many days, there was only blankness.
And what of Sarah? She had set him up for this; she knew, probably from her father, about the far-side installation. She had goaded him into using it - but he had not. If he had, what would she have done next, while Earth burned?
She'd have brought in the rebels, to take over a dead planet, and remake it for their needs, he thought. And that means there must be a rebel presence nearby. Where?
Not Ganymede, he decided. Perhaps further out, near Saturn. Not Titan, though, not if what Earth astronomers were discovering about the place from the Voyager mission was so. A high-pressure atmosphere of nitrogen and assorted hydrocarbons was not a friendly environment.
And then he had it. Enceladus.
A moon of Saturn, it was very like Europa, with an ice shell and a subsurface ocean. About a third the size, some 500 kilometres in diameter, its gravity would be a lot lower.
They could hide anything there…
And they would go for Europa first… having weakened them with that disease!
Putting the matter to one side for the moment until he could get back to Moonbase, Straker again reached out with his mind to his son, listening for a response. He felt the faintest of puzzled replies; but also the ghostly echoes of the presence of his Companions, that he had locked out of his awareness for so long. And among those Companions, he sensed…
He scarcely dared believe it; but it was true. His brother lived. What had happened? Had Sarah lied to him?
Of course she had. And she had used the lie to trick him into attempting genocide.
The tunnel car braked to a halt, as forcibly as it had accelerated away from the far-side terminal. The door slid open, and Straker stumbled out, finding his way to the exit by the curious 'wireframe' images of his surroundings fed to him by the Kei.
Is Johnny still here? he demanded, silently. And… Paul?
The airlock was pressurised. Straker heard the door open, and managed to find his way out. He tore off his helmet. Which way? he asked the Kei; and the Entity laid out a path before him.
That path took him to a small chamber. In it was a person. He could not see; but he could make out shapes in the synthesised image. And the shape that commanded his attention was that of a young man.
"Johnny," he said, his voice strained. "Is that you?"
"My name was Jax," the young man returned. "Or so I have always thought."
As he spoke, the Kei brought his face into focus. Straker stared, remembering a small boy last seen so many years ago; but this was the face he had seen in his quarters.
He managed to speak. "Your name is John. John Edward Straker. You are my son. I want to help you. It's not too late, I can help you - "
"Yes," 'Jax' replied, his voice decisive. "You can help. I understand that you know my - friend here?"
He turned, and waved a hand. A second ghostly figure materialised out of the blankness, a shape that suddenly clarified as the Kei recognised it…
"Ed," Paul Foster said. "You took your time."
"Sorry I kept you waiting," Ed answered, huskily. "Paul… I thought - that you had been killed. Sarah was here, she made me watch, as Johnny - shot you - "
"Oh, he shot me, all right." Paul smiled at his young companion. "Tell him, Johnny."
"I was with a man whom I knew was Gimen, the lord of Prithvi," John said. "He detected Paul Foster was following us, and said we should take him, if necessary kill him. I had grave doubts about that, as I also had developed grave doubts about this whole situation. In any case I needed answers. I decided to allow Gimen to think that I had killed Paul Foster. I put him in a storage bay. Gimen departed. I questioned Paul - but we were interrupted. Gimen had placed a lethal device, a gas canister, in my habitation pod. Paul Foster took us both clear of its effects; but it was apparent to me that I had never been intended to survive."
"And so we came here," Foster added. "To cut a very long story short, Sarah and Gimen were both here, and they killed each other. I contacted Gay at Moonbase and she sent in the troops."
Straker let out a breath, shook his head, slowly, his sightless eyes on his son, seeing him only by the Kei's input. "Johnny… Paul… I am so glad, so relieved, to see you both. We clearly have a lot of catching up to do. But that must wait, we also have a job to do… Paul, who are Gay's 'troops'? Moonbase Security?"
"Yes - also Tyl Merrel and his people. And oh, I forgot to say, you've been cleared of Azan's murder - seems Gimen induced him to suicide to frame you."
"I see," Straker said, again. "Where's Tyl now?"
"Tidying up, he's got all the rebels here in custody… Come this way and see him."
Straker followed the two out of this room, along a corridor into a much larger chamber. He could sense several occupants. One of them approached, and the Kei gave him the image of Prince Tyl Merrel. The Dyausan blinked a little at seeing two 'versions' of the Keimon, but did not comment.
"I greet you, Sire," the Prince said, bowing. "I am greatly relieved that you appear unharmed. How may I serve you?"
"Thank you, Tyl… First, contact Nepetane on Dyaus. What is her situation there, with the illness?"
"It disables, but does not kill," Merrel answered. "Indeed it seems to be most debilitating, so that they are having difficulty performing general tasks as well as more specialised activities."
"Warn her that she may expect an invasion by the rebels, very shortly. Tell her that I shall come immediately - I shall need the 'Swift'. What of the medication that Drs Jackson and Selan were preparing?"
"It is at Moonbase, and Selan has completed her tests and accepted it."
"Good. Put a batch aboard the 'Swift'. Then, when you have finished here, muster your forces and follow."
"It shall be done." Merrel spoke to a Dyausan colleague, and gave rapid instructions, then turned back to Straker. "The 'Swift' shall be here in minutes, Sire. Whom shall you require as crew - it can carry three."
"How does Kyan rate you as a pilot, Paul?" Straker enquired.
"She said she'd had less competent pupils than me," Foster said, with a grin. Merrel gave an emphatic nod. "I think that was a compliment… And Johnny here has trained on skimmers."
"Then," Straker said, "I consider it appropriate for the three of us to take the 'Swift' to the aid of Dyaus. Lead the way, Tyl."
"Of course, Sire." Merrel guided the three out into the corridor. "This way leads to the rebel landing port… Sire, your pardon, I doubt you not - but may I enquire what leads you to expect a rebel attack?"
"Because they - Gimen and Sarah Bosanquet - attacked me," Straker said, grimly. "In so doing they revealed their intentions. They believed they could take Earth for their own, in a very few days. That attempt has now been frustrated. But as part of their takeover bid they also targeted Dyaus. The malady there was undoubtedly their design, though I don't know the details. It was designed to disable rather than kill, allowing them to take Dyaus captive, and allow their rebel friend to move in."
"I understand, Sire. Thank you."
As they walked, Foster observed his brother closely. Ed seemed to be choosing his path very carefully, though he was not looking around very much. Once or twice he seemed to be about to collide with the wall, but moved aside just in time. Foster also noted that the skin of his face around the eyes seemed unusually pink; and his suspicions began to harden into certainty.
"One other thing," Straker said. "Where is Amet Pavlor at this time?"
"He and his aide, Oparel, await developments with Companion Captain Gay Ellis. He sends his greetings and hopes to meet with you soon."
"Great… Tyl, please pass my apologies, and advise him of my intentions here."
"I shall, Sire."
They had arrived at what seemed to be an airlock door. Off to one side was a second hatchway, and Merrel opened it, revealing racks of vacuum suits and other equipment. "I wish to replace your life-packs with full ones," he said. He looked at John's suit, nodded, then over at Paul. "Also, Companion Brother, I regret there are none compatible with your own suit. Would you use one of these?"
"No problem," Foster answered.
"One thing, Johnny," Straker said. "Would you be a Companion, and wear a Kei emblem?"
"I - " John swallowed. "Ye - yes, sir, I would be honoured. Should I remove my gauntlet - "
Ed held up his hand, gestured. There was a tiny flash of light, and a crystal ring appeared, and floated to John's gauntleted hand. It made contact, then disappeared from view.
At once, Paul became aware of the youth's surface thoughts. They showed some confusion, some anger, a lot of regret - and a deep gratitude.
"All right, Johnny?" Ed said, gently.
"Yes. Yes, thank you."
Merrel helped the three of them to prepare. As they finished, a communicator beeped from the wall. "Merrel."
"Greetings," the voice of Kyan Fiskeret replied. "I am arrived. I bring the 'Swift'."
"We are coming," Merrel responded. "Follow me, Sire, and friends."
* * *
In the Eagle Project hangar, Bergman and Wojnycz were in conference with Apat. Gay Ellis had brought along Ambassador Amet and his aide Oparel. The diplomats were listening with interest.
"Let's just make a list," Gay said. "Lists, really… Quam, how many of your people went to the rebel outpost with Prince Tyl Merrel?"
"Astropilots Corune and Fiskeret, and Medic Breen. They were accompanied by four of Captain Ellis's persons. I believe, Captain, you called them a Q-Group?"
"That's right," Ellis confirmed. "And how many of your skimmers are here?"
"The two remaining at Delta Contact."
"That's not much of a force to put up against a rebel invasion… Diplomat, how much can your people on Dyaus help? How badly affected are they by this malady?"
"Very badly indeed, Nepetane tells me," Amet Pavlor returned, grimly. "There have been no deaths, may the Deity be thanked, but the people of Dyaus are greatly weakened - some to near-paralysis. I suspect it was the intention of the rebels that this should be so. It ensures they would meet little resistance."
"Forgive me for asking this," Bergman said quietly, "but why have they not just killed them?"
"The only sensible reason I can supply is that they will need a labour force for their attempt to takeover Te - Earth, I mean," Amet said. "But they would still be vastly outnumbered by Earth's own population - unless, of course, they intend to start with exterminating them."
"They've tried that one already," Ellis said tightly. "Amet, do you think they will try again?"
"Not in the same way. Nepetane has sent me copies of my father's notes; they include a description of the 'nerve gas' you mentioned, that they arranged for Earth's own scientists to synthesise. They also confirm that my father cancelled the project. He was satisfied that it could not be easily restarted - certainly not in this timescale." Amet mopped his face. "However, I believe they did intend something similar - and that was their purpose in acquiring the Keimon."
"And Ed seems to have spiked that particular gun, whatever it was," Bergman noted. "Well, I think that Dyaus could do with all the help we can give them… What do you say, Karel?"
Wojnycz gave a conspiratorial grin. "I think we may be able to come up with something, Captain, Diplomat. I'll speak with Tyl."
* * *
Foster thumbed a panel in the craft's side, and a hatch opened smoothly. "I know my way around the controls," he said, as he guided his brother into the flight cabin. A large carton was secured to the deck, to one side; it was labelled 'Medical supplies. Urgent'. "And so does Johnny here," he added, as the youth went to a vertical couch before the controls.
"Of course you do," Straker said softly.
"Yes… and that's just as well, isn't it, Ed?"
"You can't see, can you? What happened? D'you want Dr Selan to take a look?"
"No time. No, Paul, I can't see… and that's no more than my own stupid fault. I exposed them to the sun for too long. Our helmet visors just aren't up to that kind of mistreatment!"
"What does the Kei say?" Paul persisted.
"Ask It yourself," Ed returned.
"OK." Paul opened himself to the Kei through his own Emblem. Well? he asked silently. How bad is it?
The damage is beyond repair. The Kei can only help the Host to perceive his surroundings enough that he may function.
Foster thought. "The Kei links us," he said, carefully. "Ed, can It let you look through my eyes?"
The Kei can do this, with the Companion's consent.
"You've got my consent," Foster said, at once.
Straker thought: I couldn't ask Johnny to do this, it's too much of an invasion - But if Paul is willing… Let's do it.
As you wish. Prepare yourselves.
"Go ahead," Straker said. His mouth was dry.
And then, an image formed before him. Unmistakably it was from Foster's viewpoint. Oddly, the colours were unfamiliar, as though Paul's subjective perceptions - his 'qualia' - differed from his own.
The Kei will align perception.
The image changed, gently, moving from the not-colours to ones more familiar to Straker. The picture stabilised. "Thank you, Paul, Kei," he said gratefully.
"Well, we'd better get this done quickly, hadn't we?" Paul said, his tone light. He was thinking privately: I bet Ed wouldn't accept a transplant… Come to that, neither would I in his place!
He was still not feeling too bright himself. He found that a little odd; he'd dealt with far worse damage than a simple stunning on many occasions…
"Yes." Ed took a breath. "Johnny… Are we indeed expecting a rebel invasion?"
"Confirmed." The youth's voice was preoccupied as he went through pre-flight.
"Noted. What can you tell us about the invaders?"
"Those you call 'rebels' have been coming to the Saturnian moon Varun, which you name Enceladus, where a temporary base had been set up some time ago," John said. He was still finding it just a little difficult to think of himself by that name. "They have been gathering in expectation of a takeover of Dyaus, and thence of Prithvi - Earth, that is. Something has caused them to quicken their plans. My 'mother' - I mean, Bosan - called them in. They have a large carrier craft with a dozen deployable skimmers. The carrier is heavily armed, and is easily capable of destroying the monitor station on Dyaus."
While he was talking, Paul had settled Ed into the vertical flight couch and adjusted the buffers to hold him firmly in place. "OK, Ed?" he enquired.
"Sure." Ed could not see his brother, but the enhanced perception from the Kei was giving him alarming information. He decided against a comment - for now. "Thanks for that, John… Paul, you said this thing was fast?"
"It will get us to Enceladus in about ten minutes at maximum thrust… Once we get air - I mean, spaceborne."
"Then, gentlemen," the Keimon said, "let us go."
John's hands danced over the controls. The hatchway from the launch-bay to Avach closed. There was a sound of air movement from outside the skimmer, dying away quickly as the bay was evacuated. Above them a circle opened to space. The 'Swift' lifted gracefully off its platform and shot upwards.
Both Paul and Ed felt the sensory bubble form around them. Paul placed his gauntleted hands on the rests as he had been shown; he could feel John's own touch on the controls.
This lad's good, he thought. "Ed? You ok back there?"
"Opening communications," Paul said. "Swift calling Moonbase. Do you read me?"
"Receiving you, Colonel," Gay Ellis's voice responded. "What is your status, and what are your intentions?"
"Status is good. All systems nominal including weaponry and the drive enhancements. For the other I'll pass you to the Keimon."
"Thank you, Colonel," Straker said. "Captain Ellis, I am advised that the rebels have established themselves on the Saturn moon Enceladus, which is structurally similar to Europa, though smaller. We should be able to make that journey in ten minutes at SOL 10 - but we may not have to go all that way. I have no doubt they are already coming. Please ask Dyaus to monitor as best they can and keep us updated."
Straker gave a nod of satisfaction. "Johnny, what's the range of our own sensors? How much prior warning are we likely to have?"
"We should be able to pick up emissions from their drives, their 'signatures', from a distance of one-twelfth of the mean distance between Isvar and Sol," John told him. "Their inter-craft links are much shorter-range, barely a light-second. I am scanning for both, nothing detected yet."
"So when we do, er, 'see' them - by Utronics, or something like it," Paul commented, "they'll be about three and a half light-minutes away… What sort of speed can that 'aircraft carrier' make, do you know, John?"
"I regret I have no information on that, sir - Paul."
"Assume a worst-case of SOL 10," Ed said, thoughtfully. "That gives us something like twenty seconds' warning. How long to energise our own weapons?"
"No more than five seconds, sir - "
"Message from Dyaus," Paul cut in. "Their remote monitors report detection at ten light-minutes range. Our own ETA is now four minutes."
"They will have to slow for attack," Ed said. "When the rebel skimmers reached our moon, they were sublight. Even with their cocoon there must be a limit on stopping time. Any ideas, John?"
"A skimmer can drop from twelve lights to one-twelfth in three seconds. This larger vessel will be much slower, perhaps fifteen seconds."
"Great. Will we be able to see them 'putting the brakes on'?"
"There will be observable ripples," John agreed. "I will monitor, and instruct Dyaus to do likewise."
"So they'll arrive in about eighty seconds," Paul said, tightly. "How much damage can they do in a couple of minutes?"
"They will try to blast through the ice shell," Ed said. "That will be thinner over the colony than elsewhere on Europa, because of the relative warmth it generates. They may try to penetrate the 'water-locks' Alec told me about - but those will be as heavily guarded as Dyaus can manage. But it's not as easy as you might think to shoot your way through ice. The blast will - Oh."
"Dyaus, and possibly Varna their homeworld, use sonic weapons," Ed explained. "Put a few high-powered sound emitters down on the ice and they could shake Dyaus to pieces! Paul, contact Nepetane, warn her. Ask her if that's a likely form of attack."
"Johnny, prepare our own weapons. Do we have any sort of shield?"
"We do, sir," his son answered. "But it will not hold for long against the firepower that the carrier is likely to have."
"Very well. Give me a few seconds; I'll see what the Kei can do."
Paul and John exchanged glances. Ed concentrated, preparing to address the Kei, mustering his resources.
Kei. I need to project some sort of shield against enemy weapons fire. Is this within your capabilities?
The Kei can do this. Please specify hostile weapon strength, came the reply.
Ed gave this one a few seconds' thought. A sonic weapon would certainly disable Dyaus, but the rebels would still need to get through the ice-shell to invade the place at their leisure. Sufficient to penetrate ten metres of water ice at average temperature of one hundred kelvins.
The reply felt to Ed as though the Entity were almost insulted. It is well within the capabilities of the Kei.
Then await my command - unless danger threatens the colony before we can act.
The Kei awaits the command.
"Contact from Dyaus," Paul announced. "Nepetane reports the incoming is braking to sublight, and says yes a sonic attack is feasible and likely. Our ETA still three minutes. Dyaus is launching four skimmers against the attackers, which is as many as they can muster, and even those pilots are almost too sick to move."
"They'll be slaughtered," muttered Ed. "Kei! How far can you project an effective shield?"
The present range is not excessive.
"Shield those pilots as well as ourselves. Allow their own weapons through. Go."
The Keimon lifted his hand. There was a brilliant flash. A streak of light leapt from Ed's hand and went through the Swift's cabin wall as though it were not there. An instant later, the viewscreen showed the cluster of skimmers enclosed by a sparkling, transparent ball. The hostile vessel could be seen behind them, slowed to sublight, its own weapons beginning fire. But the invader's beams were being scattered away from the developing battle into empty space.
"ETA now two minutes," Paul announced. "That includes our braking phase."
"Noted… Johnny, how are our skimmers doing?"
"Their fire penetrates your screen and reaches the carrier, but does little damage. Conversely, the carrier's weapons do not affect them."
"Great." Ed took a moment to consult with the Kei. What is your status? Are you able to maintain at this level?
The Kei maintains, and can increase output by 150% without difficulty. Further increase requires more input.
What sort of input? Ed enquired, puzzled.
At present the Kei draws only on the resources of the host. Increase would require input from one or more Companions.
Noted. Stand by.
Ed surfaced from his communication. "Paul, did you pick up on that?"
"No… What do you have in mind?"
"I'd like to put a shield around our visitor, if the Kei can do it." Kei, is that feasible?
With the host and two Companions it is feasible. With just one Companion a partial shield is possible, placed between the attacker and its target.
"I certainly heard that," Paul said.
"I too," Johnny chipped in.
"John," Ed said, "we will need you to control the skimmer, so I will not ask you to join with us on this occasion… Paul, with me?"
Straker gave a nod. That part of his perception which was tuned to his brother was making itself felt more urgently. It was becoming obvious that Paul had been injured in some way, and the damage was worsening… but equally obviously, Paul had put that small matter on hold.
Now they were close enough to see the attackers normally. Two smaller vessels were leading one much larger; Straker thought of it as a battleship, accompanied by two MTBs. But there was no clue as to their firepower. The 'MTB's could be carrying the heavy guns, and be acting as escort to a troopship.
"Enemy within attack range," Paul reported. "Enemy attacking."
The 'battleship' had activated its beam weapons, and was firing on the surface of Dyaus. Huge explosions tore chunks out of the ice-shell, hurled them skywards on jets of steam.
"They can't take that for long," Paul muttered.
"Agreed… John, take over. Get us between them and the surface."
"Moving in," John acknowledged.
The skimmer changed course. As it did so, the Keimon gestured with his upraised hand. A glittering crystal shell formed around the small craft, protecting it from the beam weapons of the enemy ship, directing them away into empty space.
They were now between the attackers and the colony. The Keimon extended his senses, communing with his Companion. "Paul, join with me, we will put up a shield on the carrier," he said, softly.
Foster felt energy drain from him as the Keimon built a new, larger shield, shaped like a shallow dome, between their small craft and the enemy vessel. "John, warn them, their fire may rebound upon them - "
"Sir, they ignore me!"
Indeed, multiple beams stabbed out from the 'battleship'. Straker felt the jolts as they met the huge crystalline shield that hung now before them. Its bowl-shape dispersed most of the beams outwards; but a few made contact, tearing great gashes in the fabric of the vessel.
"All weapons have ceased fire, sir," John reported. "Indications are they are disabled… The ship is launching skimmers. I believe they are abandoning - "
A huge explosion flung chunks of debris from the 'battleship' in all directions. The departing skimmers tried to evade, with some success. Instead of running, they hurtled towards Dyaus, followed by the 'MTB's. Black specks coursed from the attackers, curving down towards the surface of Dyaus.
"Enemy launching sonic emitters," John reported. "Your shield slows them but does not affect them otherwise."
"Fire on the emitters," Ed said, his voice almost dreamy. "Do not allow them to make contact."
The lights of the detonations filled the sky above Dyaus. The Swift was joined by Dyaus' own craft, and the small fleet moved to meet the attack. Despite their efforts, two of the devices made it to the surface, and began to send powerful subsonics through the ice.
* * *
In the monitor chamber below the ice-shell, Nepetane and as many of her colleagues that could stand were gathered around the display sphere. Its field of view was centred on the sky directly overhead. They watched as a lone skimmer approached the giant invader, its hull obscured by a sparkling corona. Similar veils sprang into being around the skimmers launched from Dyaus, and then, before the invader itself.
The giant vessel continued to fire, though its weapons could not breach the veil that hung in their way. The defenders, on the other hand, were making every shot count. Nepetane watched as the invader's own weapons struck the Keimon's shield, rebounding to inflict damage. They ceased firing at last, launching their own skimmers.
Then the enemy deployed its sonic bombs. The defending skimmers stopped all but two, and those settled onto the ice.
At once the monitor crew all heard it - a low-pitched, almost inaudible buzz, that set up an unbearable vibration. Destructively painful, it forced the observers to their knees, while around them the equipment racks started to shake themselves to pieces.
Nepetane forced herself to remain upright. She watched through blurred eyes as the Keimon's skimmer went after the attackers.
* * *
Ed said: "Paul, hand over weapons control to me, maintain our shield. John, take us down after the emitters."
The Swift dived towards the brown-streaked ice-shell of Europa. John aimed the craft to intercept the nearest device, but they did not have time to reach it before it touched down. Foster tried not to imagine what it was doing to the occupants of Dyaus.
Then he felt Ed's awareness reach out to the weapon, locating it, bringing their own weapons to bear, and with a single precise burst he blew the emitter to atoms. John changed course; but before they could reach the second emitter, a missile came seemingly out of nowhere. The emitter died in a cloud of nuclear fire.
John said: "Sir, we have company. I think they are friendly."
"Too right," Paul said softly. "Ed, you will not believe who's come to join the party!"
Indeed, John had turned the screen pickups to focus on a small group of craft that were approaching rapidly, and firing as they came. As the image grew, their identities became apparent. The largest was the Eagle prototype; two were Interceptors; and there were three skimmers.
The skimmer's radio link crackled into life. "This is Astronaut Wojnycz calling Ambassador Straker. Do you read me?"
Foster gave Straker a thumbs-up, and Straker said: "Hello, Karel. Who else is with you?"
"Astronaut Alan Carter and Astropilot Fiskeret in the Eagle, and Astronaut North in the other Interceptor. Also Prince Merrel, Astropilot Corune, and Astropilot Apat, in the skimmers. Need any help, Sire?"
"Go get 'em, Karel. You can explain later!"
* * *
The battle was over quickly. The rebel skimmers, hampered as they were by the Kei shield, were no match for the incoming fighters from Earth, fresh and fit as they were. Three of the rebel craft struck the ice and exploded; several were caught in the defenders' fire; and two fled the area.
"No prizes for guessing where they're going," muttered Paul.
"Agreed," Ed said. "But first we had better check out their ship… Karel, everyone, well done. Is the carrier at all active?"
"Mr Ambassador, we can detect no activity, their power levels are dropping. Prince Merrel intends to put down a 'boarding party'."
"I need to go aboard that myself," Paul said. He added, as Ed made to speak: "I'm fine. Really. Well, OK, I'll last."
"As you wish," Ed said, heavily. "Go ahead, Tyl. We will join you, but first we must make our delivery… John, please contact Nepetane. Ask her if she can send someone over to us to collect our package."
John used the Swift's comms equipment, spoke to Nepetane in the Dyaus tongue. "She says that one of her skimmer pilots will rendezvous with us in a few moments, sir. He will enter by our exchanger. He is cocooned, so will not speak, but he will be able to hear us."
In a very few moments a Dyaus skimmer came up alongside. A dark slot appeared in its side as a hatchway opened. A red-suited figure drifted out and headed for them. "Airlock open, sir," John reported. "The pilot's name is Pyrit. He is normally one of the Dyaus medical staff, but is one of the few who are less badly affected by the affliction."
Ed felt for the man's mind, using Kei perception. The pilot Pyrit was clearly exhausted, but was desperately anxious about his patients in the colony below. He saluted the Keimon, collected the consignment, and hurried back to his craft. The Swift's crew watched as it streaked down to the entrance tunnels.
"Nepetane reports she has received our gift," John reported after a few minutes. "She sends her grateful thanks."
"Tell her we'll talk later," Ed replied. "Let's go see what Tyl has for us."
* * *
The Swift touched down on the outer surface of the carrier, beside a skimmer which was carrying the Merrel sigil. The Prince and one of the other pilots were examining an entry hatch, preparing to enter the vessel. Paul went out onto the carrier, closing the Swift's own airlock behind him. To his surprise, Tyl greeted him in ordinary words over the suit's link.
"You are a welcome sight, Companion,' he said, warmly. "Is the Keimon also well?"
"Mostly. He has a slight injury, but he says that must wait." A slight injury, Paul thought wryly. "Do I gather your own skimmer has Victor's modifications, also?"
"It does. As do those of my colleagues Corune and Apat, and also your Eagle and the Interceptors."
"Karel's been busy," Paul said, appreciatively. "OK, Tyl, what do we have here?"
"Very little resistance, I am pleased to say. But we will enter with great care."
>From the Swift, the two Terrans watched as Tyl's people opened the hatch and dived inside. Ed still had his vision-link with Paul, and was able to follow the action - what there was of it. Many of the rebels were dead, killed by decompression when the hull of the vessel split open. Some were suited and so had survived; but they were no match for the boarders.
"They're going to be a little while," Ed commented. "Paul will give us a shout when he's ready to report."
* * *
Foster followed Prince Merrel and Astropilot Fiskeret through the chambers and corridors of this carrier vessel. Atmospheric pressure mostly held here, though a few doors were closed and showing obvious warning signs. Injured and dying crewmen lay here and there, but surprisingly few of them. The group met little resistance; occasionally a figure would stir, trying to bring a weapon to bear, but Fiskeret's own fire quickly dissuaded them.
"Companion, I will send in a clean-up party, to attend to those still living," Merrel explained, for Foster's benefit. He spoke briefly into his communicator, then resumed: "At present I seek signs of cargo and passengers. I suspect the passengers will be in stasis. The plan would have been, once the Dyaus defences were down, to revive them and bring them down to the colony."
"How many do you expect to find?" Foster asked.
"Enough to establish a new Terran colony," Merrel replied. "Perhaps several million."
"So they were counting on having us wiped off the planet," Foster said, grimly.
"Indeed - Ah."
Merrel had stopped by a large hatchway. The characters engraved on it meant nothing to Paul, but Merrel found the lock and opened it, to reveal a large storage chamber, filled with racks of translucent boxes. Air wafted out in a brief cloud of mist; evidently this chamber was refrigerated, though the trio could not sense the cold through their vacuum suits.
Fiskeret walked in, carefully, and examined some of the boxes. "This is a seed store," she explained. "Plant seed, and viable animal embryos. The emphasis is on food production. I doubt not that this was to be used to restart Terran ecology - after all native life on the planet had been extinguished."
"Extinguished how?" Foster demanded.
"I suspect that only the altered-human Bosan could have told us that… though the Keimon may know, of course. He may choose to remain silent on that matter."
"OK." Foster exhaled heavily. "Well, let's see what else we can find, shall we? Where next?"
"I think we must find a way further down towards the centre of this craft," Merrel suggested. "The intended colonists would be sheltered by the outer decks, in case of mishap, or attack."
"Lead the way," Foster suggested.
They moved along a short passageway, which was deserted. Merrel noted that crewmen on this level would have been summoned up to help defend the carrier and protect its colonists. "I think we are nearing our objective," he finished.
"Indeed, my prince," Fiskeret agreed. She had stopped beside a wide panel, clearly an entrance, and wide enough to admit two people side by side. In the centre of the panel was a device which looked to Foster like - and probably was - a security lock. "I shall check for defence mechanisms."
"Proceed," Merrel directed.
Fiskeret took a small cylinder from her belt pouch. Thumbing a button on its side, she waved it over the panel. "Clear," she reported.
"Very well." Merrel pondered the lock for a few moments. With a shrug, he aimed his weapon at the device, and fired. The lock disintegrated in a shower of sparks. He pushed at the panel, and it parted down the middle, the two halves sliding sideways out of sight.
Inside was a room full of electronics - or its Arkadian equivalent. Cautiously, Merrel eased past the entry panel, the snout of his weapon pointing ahead of him. Fiskeret followed his example, checking the other side.
Satisfied but still careful, Merrel turned his attention to an inner door. It opened as he approached. A hand appeared around the edge, holding a weapon. Merrel reacted instantly, throwing his weight against the door so that the hand was trapped. There was a yelp from the other side. Fiskeret took a step forward and removed the weapon from the hand grasping it. As she did so, Merrel slid the door wide, and a man in a grey coverall fell forwards into Foster's waiting arms. Their captive fought to get free from Foster's lockhold, without success.
"Allow me," Fiskeret said. She adjusted her weapon, aimed, and fired. The man jerked, then crumpled to the floor as Foster let go. "He is but rendered inactive. We will want to question him."
"We will indeed… OK, what's in here?"
"Observe," Merrel said, quietly.
Foster went to the doorway, looked inside, and let out a low whistle. "I've seen something like this before. In Antarctica, on Earth. Gimen's crew had a place like this, people in cold storage. Only a few thousand, though."
"What should we do with them?" Fiskeret asked.
"We would need advice from the Keimon," Merrel said. "For now, we must ensure that they remain in hibernation… Companion, can I ask you to keep guard, while Kyan and I check the equipment, and ensure it is functional?"
"Go right ahead," Foster agreed.
* * *
"Seems that's it. It's a lot," Ed said. Paul, I am disengaging, my thanks. He withdrew from the visual link.
Ed 'looked' at his son, gathering himself. "John," he asked, carefully, "can we talk?"
John checked his controls; then he said formally: "Yes. Please, tell me. You say I am your son. If that is so, how did I come to be at Avach?"
Ed drew a breath. The Kei was showing an image to his brain's visual centre that was a vaguely human outline, except for the youth's face, which was achingly vivid. "Your mother's name is Mary. We married some fifteen years ago, around the time our organisation was being set up. Our marriage did not survive the stress of setting up SHADO and getting it running, and Mary and I divorced. I was granted monthly access visits - should I explain that now?"
"OK… You were born within a year of our marriage. Your true age is thus fourteen. When you were eight, you were involved in a car accident, and we - we thought you had been killed… But you had not. Instead - you had been taken by those whom we thought of as aliens, who we now know are the Arkad rebels. You were artificially aged to add another four years… and told that you were yourself of Arkad origin."
John heard the strain in Ed's voice. He turned. The older man was evidently fighting for control. "How was I taken?" he asked, carefully. "And why did you think I had died?"
"You - you were struck by a car as you tried to run down a narrow road near your home… You were hurt, we thought badly… We called an ambulance, it took you to hospital… The doctor there said - you needed antibiotics, but you were allergic… I used SHADO resources to bring in a special new antibiotic from the States… As our transport crossed the Atlantic Ocean, two skimmers came in, one chasing the other, which tried to land and make contact… The airplane carrying the medication which would have saved your life - was diverted to try to meet the incoming, it didn't reach the hospital in time…"
Ed's control was shattering. The youth looked on, unbelieving, as the man who had said he was his father contorted in agony.
>From somewhere Ed found the strength to continue. He drew a long shuddering breath.
"When - when I reached the hospital after - after making the pickup… Mary was coming out, I thought it was all over, that you - you had died… We buried your - your body… Then we discovered that the car had struck you deliberately… It was driven by - by one of the Arkad rebels, called Gimen… The doctors who had treated you were also Arkad agents… I - I thought they had intended to ensure your death… It never occurred to me that they would have taken you…
"And - and then, you turned up in my quarters… I - I thought I had - had finally gone mad…"
Unable to continue, Ed covered his face with his hands.
John stared. Memories of dreams came to him, flooding though him, breaking down barriers, demolishing them. A big, dark building, yet full of activity. Strange scenes being played out, exciting though he knew they were not real. Outside, in the sunshine, in a small vehicle, this man driving, himself ringing a small bell. Then in another vehicle, arriving at his… his home. His mother was there… He dashed inside, wanting to get the little boat, to show it to his father, but his father was leaving. He ran down the lane after the departing car. There was a loud screeching, a thump which threw him to the ground, his mother screaming…
And he had woken up, in Avach, with a new past… A past that he now knew, beyond question, was synthetic.
And Bosan, as she had admitted, was not his mother. His true mother was the woman in the picture that his father had kept by his bedside.
He tried to speak, but it took him several attempts. At last he managed to say: "D-daddy?"
He took his hands from his face. He gazed at the boy with Kei-induced vision. He whispered: "Johnny?"
The youth tried a smile. "That fire-engine was good fun, Daddy. Can we do it again? Please?"
Their eyes met. Then they were out of their restraining harnesses, and hugging each other desperately.
"It's all right," Johnny was whispering. "It's all right. I'm back. I'm really me…"
* * *
Knowing that Merrel and Fiskeret were far more familiar with this equipment than he was, Foster took up station by the entrance, his weapon at the ready, one eye on the recumbent 'guardian'. Fiskeret examined the monitor desk, while Merrel checked several of the 'hiberpods'. The process did not take long.
"The installation is undamaged," Merrel said, when they had finished. "There is a separate segment, possibly for the crew of this vessel. We must report our findings to the Keimon."
"What about our friend here?" Foster said.
"I suggest we place him in one of the unoccupied pods," Fiskeret suggested. "We can then retrieve him and interrogate him at our leisure."
"Let us also do that with the vessel crew," Merrel agreed. "I will instruct Apat to organise it."
Foster helped Kyan insert the guardian into one of his own pods. He was grateful for the low gravity in here; it made it easier to stand up!
Apat arrived in response to Merrel's summons. They conversed quickly in Dyausan; then Merrel turned to Foster. "My apologies, but it was quicker for Apat to use his own tongue… Companion, are you ill?"
"I've felt better," Foster admitted. "It can wait… We need to get back and tell Ed what's going on!"
* * *
Slowly, father and son disengaged, moved back from each other a little. John looked into Ed's blind eyes, knowing the Kei was showing images. He smiled a watery smile.
"All this leaves me with just one problem," Ed murmured.
"W - what is that, sir?"
"How in blazes am I going to explain all this to your mother?!"
"Yes, sir… Hey, I cannot keep calling you that, can I! 'Father' would be worse, and 'Daddy' does not feel right, somehow."
"And 'pop' would make me feel like a bottle of soda," Ed smiled. "Just plain 'dad' would do. Or my name, Ed."
"Very well - Ed." The youth smiled, then became serious once more. "There would be security problems, would there not… This whole situation must be top secret?"
"It sure is," Ed agreed, grimly. "I will have to ask Jackson for his advice - "
And then Ed tensed, as he felt the Kei-presence of Paul Foster. "Ed. I need pickup. I need to report…"
"Paul! Paul what's wrong?"
There was a chime from the communicator. John lunged for the controls. "Swift here. Is that Prince Merrel?"
"It is… Does the Keimon listen?"
"I'm here, Tyl," Ed answered. "What's happening? How is Paul?"
"We return to the entry point. I fear the Companion Brother is gravely unwell. He can barely stand. We need to take him down to Dyaus for medical attention."
"Noted. What is the problem? Injury?"
"Negative," Merrel said. He was supporting Foster on one side, and Karel Wojnycz was helping on the other. "My reader shows the presence of an unknown toxin. He did not acquire that here, we have not opened our suits."
"I think…" Paul whispered. "I think it… was at the mascon…"
John let out an expletive. "Gimen set a trap for me, a toxic gas. Paul threw me clear. He must have ingested some of it."
"Great," Ed muttered. "OK, Paul, come aboard, we'll get Pyrit or someone to have a look. In the meantime take it easy."
A few moments later the trio emerged from the entry hatch. Two of them were towing the third, who was attached to them by short lines. The helpers pulled themselves towards the Swift using the handholds on the outer shell of the carrier.
John and Ed made sure their own helmets were closed, for caution, then John cycled the vessel's airlock. Merrel entered, pulling Foster behind him, with Wojnycz guiding from behind. Between them they secured Foster into his flight cradle.
"We must report," Foster whispered.
"Let me, Companion… Sire, we found persons and supplies in stasis, enough to colonise a world."
"Or recolonise one," Straker acknowledged, his voice level. "What of the vessel's crew?"
"We placed those in stasis also, Sire, to await your pleasure."
"And the vessel? Is it safe?"
"Its weapons have been destroyed. The vessel itself can be repaired. I have left a small crew aboard to attend to matters."
"Good, Tyl, thank you… We must go. Please, finish up here; then you must go to Enceladus in force, check on a possible rebel enclave there."
"Noted, Sire." Merrel saluted, beckoned to Wojnycz, and the pair left the Swift.
"John," Ed said, "we need to go down to Dyaus. Can you handle that?"
"Yes, my training has covered it, I know the procedure."
"Call ahead, ask for a medic to stand by, then take us down."
* * *
John guided their skimmer down to the entrance portal in the ice of Dyaus. Foster could not help; he was barely able to stay conscious. Straker was able to give his brother some energy, but they both knew he needed urgent medical attention.
As indeed did Straker himself; but he decided that could wait.
A medical team was waiting as they arrived on the hangar deck. Between them, Ed and Johnny carried Paul out of the skimmer and removed his helmet. They were shocked at what they saw. Paul's face was deathly pale, and there were dark shadows under his eyes. The medics took charge and laid him gently onto a trolley. One of them passed a scanner over his body, frowning at the readouts. He spoke urgently, and the team wheeled Paul out of the hangar, then he turned to the waiting pair.
"I am Pyrit, Sire," he said. "I fear the Companion Brother is in urgent need of treatment, and we will do everything we can for him. But I perceive that you are also injured? And what of your other friend…" He glanced at the boy.
"I am John Straker," the boy replied, a little hesitantly. Straker put an arm across his shoulders. "I… I seem to be son to this man."
"Quite right," Straker said, with a small smile. "Pyrit, you are exhausted… should you not be resting?"
"I will rest presently, and I have taken some of your restorative, for which I thank you, Sire - but there is much to do."
Straker gave a nod. "Then would you check John, please? Johnny, is that OK?"
Johnny nodded. Pyrit beckoned, and another medic came over to them. "John, this is Medic Donyx. Would you go with her for a check? It is not far, and you will rejoin your father afterwards."
Donyx took him out of the deck through an exchange pod. As the two departed, Pyrit turned back to his Keimon. "Sire, your pardon, but it is apparent that your eyes are not functioning properly. Do you wish me to investigate?"
"I think perhaps you'd better," Straker said, ruefully. "Though I'm not sure you'll be able to do much… I looked into the sun for too long. Even behind a spacesuit visor, it was a stupid thing to do."
"Do they pain you? How much are you able to discern?"
Straker gave a half-shrug. "Practically nothing," he admitted. "Vague areas of light and shade is all. At the moment the Kei is playing guide-dog, for which It has my thanks. And they hurt like h- I mean, there is considerable pain, yes."
"Then may I invite you to come and let me examine them?"
"I'd be glad if you would! But first, tell me - what progress with the people here? You mentioned the 'tea pills'; what results have you had with them?"
"Early signs are encouraging, Sire. Even the empath, Elanor, is showing marked signs of recovery. It will take - a few days - to be quite sure, and then there will be a period of recovery, perhaps two twelves of days."
"That's good to hear," Ed agreed.
* * *
Donyx checked over the youth quickly but thoroughly. At last she said: "John, you are in good health. What are your feelings at present?"
The youth hesitated. "Confused. Much has happened to me in a very short space of time. I believe I have begun to adjust my picture of my situation - I now know that Ed Straker is definitely my father, and that - the rebels - took me from him against our will. Yet there is much about this situation that disturbs me. I need some time, to 'catch up'."
"There is someone here who may be able to help, if you are willing," Donyx said, thoughtfully. "Her name is Elanor. She is a member of the Guild of Empaths, a reader of emotions. She will do this only with your consent. Would you like to meet her?"
After a moment, John nodded.
"Good. She has expressed a wish to meet you, also. Please come."
When they arrived at Elanor's chamber, Donyx was startled to see that the Empath had risen from her couch and dressed herself. Although pale still, she was smiling. She answered the medic's questions briefly but with assurance, though she used a version of the Dyaus tongue with which John was unfamiliar.
She turned to John. "Welcome, Companion Heir. I am Elanor. I saw your father when he was brought here by the rebels, though he will not remember the encounter… I am eager to meet him properly. But what of you? Can I help you in any way?"
Haltingly, John explained his problem. Elanor said: "May I read you, John?"
"I…" John hesitated. "Yes… Yes, please."
Elanor encouraged him to sit down, on a seat sculpted to his form. After a few moments, he relaxed. "I… I am ready."
"Call to mind your earliest knowledge of your parents," Elanor murmured, "and give your memories free reign…"
* * *
The Dyaus medic, Pyrit, came and sat by Foster's pallet. Straker remained standing.
"OK, Doc," Foster whispered. "Let's have it."
"Companion Brother," Pyrit replied in English as good as Pavlor's, "as you may realise, you have ingested a substance which has badly damaged the blood-making tissue in your bone marrow. I have neutralised it, and I am infusing synthetic circulatory fluid into you, but without repairs to your marrow, you will die in a few days. We can transplant new marrow into you - "
"No way!" Foster shouted. The effort made him gasp, and he sagged back onto the pallet. "I won't take one of your 'harvests', you hear me?"
"I understand that," Pyrit said gently, "but you will not need to. The necessary tissue can be supplied by a living donor with their consent."
Foster subsided. "OK, if you can find someone willing to do it," he muttered. "But who? The tissue would have to be matched. My blood type's unusual enough as it is… my tissue type'll be worse."
Straker recalled that Foster was the very rare B-negative, only occurring in about two percent of donors in Britain. He himself was O-negative, the so-called 'universal' donor type. But would it be close enough for a marrow transplant?
"Doctor," he said quietly, "would I be a suitable donor?"
"Almost certainly, Sire, if you are willing. We can make slight adjustments to the matching, if necessary."
Pyrit's calm answer surprised them both. Putting his questions aside, Straker said: "I do consent. OK, how do we do this?"
"Sire," Pyrit said, "we will need to extract your marrow stem cells as they circulate in your blood. To do this, I will access a vein in each of your arms, and pass your blood through an analyser. First, a small amount of your marrow will be matched with those of the Companion. If the match is a good one, I will proceed to extract as much as we need… The effects on your own marrow will be slight, and will primarily affect your ability to resist infection. We will therefore recommend that the two of you spend the next few days in an isolation chamber."
"No problem," Straker said, and Foster nodded his agreement. "Lead the way."
With two attendants pushing Foster's pallet, they went to an area which was unmistakably a medical facility. The instrumentation was less unfamiliar than Straker had expected. The party entered through a pair of sliding doors. A Dyausan rose from his seat by a bank of monitors, bowed apologetically to Straker, and spoke rapidly to Pyrit in their own tongue.
The medic nodded his thanks, and turned to the two Terrans. "Sire, I have a call for you, from Prince Merrel. Would you like to take it here, while we settle our patient?"
"Of course. Thank you, Pyrit."
"Please be seated. Keruss here will operate the equipment for you."
At a nod from Pyrit, Keruss moved a small microphone to face Straker, and adjusted a sound control. Merrel's voice issued from the panel. "Sire, we have secured the carrier and made it spaceworthy, though at somewhat reduced capacity."
While he was speaking Elanor entered, guiding John. Ed noted that the youngster seemed somewhat more relaxed, and he gave a quick smile of welcome before turning back to the microphone. "That is good to hear, Tyl. Are you ready for an approach to Enceladus yet?"
"I would much prefer to wait for a cycle or so to give my pilots time to regain their strength," admitted Merrel, "but I fear we lack that luxury. I propose to send a scout to assess the situation there. The journey should take only - a few minutes. The scout can advise us and summon help if need be."
"Tyl, you realise this could be a suicide mission?"
"I do, Sire. That is why I alone will go."
Straker was silent for a moment. Then he said: "Tyl, Prince of Merrel Demesne, Our shield is in your hand."
"…My most grateful thanks, Sire."
They signed off. The royal We? Paul thought. He raised an eyebrow. "All the way to Saturn?"
"Distance is a factor," Ed admitted, "but not physical distance. It's more psychological… But physical distance can affect things - a sort of 'out of sight, out of mind'."
"I'll get Jackson to translate sometime," Paul said. "But in physical distance, I suppose it's only a few minutes away at top speed."
"No more than twelve or thirteen minutes at SOL 10, worst-case planet positions," Ed confirmed. One last thing… Pyrit, if Tyl finds what I think he will, I have instructions for him. Would you contact Amet Pavlor for me?"
"We shall." Pyrit spoke swiftly to Keruss, who gave a nod and turned back to his equipment.
"Great," Ed said. "Very well, Pyrit, let's do this… Johnny, Elanor, would you excuse us? Paul urgently requires treatment, and I will be helping. It will take us some time, possibly a couple of Terran days. Elanor, will you see to John, while we are occupied?"
"Of course, Sire." The empath smiled at the youth. "Would you come with me, John? Even without using my empathic sense, I can tell that you are hungry."
"Will… will they be OK?"
"We'll be fine, John," his father answered. Foster smiled weakly, gave John a thumbs-up. Elanor took the youth's arm and guided him from the room.
"Great. Enough chat, Pyrit is getting restless… Sorry, Doctor. Please, proceed."
"No apologies needed, Sire," Pyrit assured him.
* * *
It was only the second time Tyl Merrel had seen the gas giant known to the Terrans as Saturn, and to Spicor as Saktar. The planet's ring-system was awe-inspiring; but there was no time for sightseeing.
His finder flashed a message at him. The position of the tiny moon Enceladus, which the colonists had known as Saktar-6, or Varun, was pinpointed on his screen by a red starburst. As yet, however, the moon itself was not visible.
He contemplated the Kei-Emblem that he wore on his right hand for a moment. Then, with an almost impatient shrug at himself, he lifted the hand and gestured, visualising an impenetrable shell around his skimmer. There was a sensation almost of enlargement, as though his bodily senses were connecting to the void around him. On the screen there appeared a faint, elusive sparkle, a shell of crystal with Tyl Merrel at its heart.
Saktar-6 orbited within the outermost of its primary's major rings. As Merrel turned his thought towards the small world, he became aware that he could 'sense' the material of the ring, as though it were a strong wind. And there were ripples in the ring, centred in the moon. Many of them were linked to outflows of gases from its surface - but some, he realised, were not. Their signature was artificial, and seemed to be made by skimmers.
Merrel brought his weapons online.
So far, it seemed, his presence had not been noticed. None of the ring-ripples were headed his way; they seemed merely to be circling the tiny moon. His long-range sensors picked up occasional communication traces, but these were between the moon-surface and the 'enemy' skimmers. He counted three of the enemy craft. At least one of these skimmers had to have fled here from Dyaus when that carrier had been neutralised. They would surely be expecting visitors.
He was closing on Saktar-6 rapidly. Carefully, so as not to attract attention with his braking-trail, he brought his speed down to approach pace. Still the skimmers did not see him. It seemed that the shield of the Kei conferred some stealthing ability.
Now his sensors were picking up something of the moon's surface features. Mostly this was simply ice, though at a temperature not far from zero absolute, and was therefore as hard as igneous rock. It was not a promising surface to try to penetrate - except for the area around the south pole. This was streaked with bluish cracks which could easily have hidden a settlement.
On the thought, Merrel noticed an anomaly. In one of the wider cracks, a shallow dome projected from the icy surface. The flight-paths of the skimmers were clearly centred on this object. Their base - for such it evidently was - seemed to be rather larger than the carrier now at Dyaus.
Merrel knew that the Terrans had sent out their own spacecraft to examine the four largest planetary members of their system. Surely they would have noticed this artefact - but perhaps it had been hidden below the surface of this moon, for the protection that gave from what the Terrans had whimsically named 'space weather'.
Needing a closer look, Merrel came in as close as he dared, and still the Kei-shield held. He deployed several remotes, and directed his Emblem to shield them as well, then steered them towards the dome.
One of the enemy skimmers had at last noticed him. It changed course abruptly, heading directly towards the interloper. Merrel activated his communicator, sending a request for identification. He was ignored. Instead the skimmer opened fire.
The beams dissipated harmlessly against his Shield.
The two other skimmers joined the battle, firing as they came; but their weapons were no more effective than those of the first. Merrel held his fire, again sending his IFF, again without response. Finally the three skimmers came at him together, concentrating their fire; but the Shield held. They tried once more. Merrel's instruments reported that the beam strength had been turned up beyond a safe maximum. A warning flashed on his monitors, then one of the skimmers exploded as its weapon overheated; but all he felt through the Kei-shield was a slight jolting. A second skimmer went past him in a headlong dive that impacted heavily on the surface of the small moon, sending up a cloud of smoke, steam, and particles of debris.
Still there was no response to Merrel's IFF. Instead the surviving skimmer turned and headed for the dome. Merrel's first thought was that it sought safety; but instead, it began to fire on the dome itself!
It seeks to deny me a prize. The thought flashed through his mind as he raced for the dome himself. I shield it…
A sparkling crystal shell formed between the dome and its assailant as Merrel consciously made his own resources available to the Kei-Emblem. Although the enemy craft must know its efforts were ineffective, it continued to fire on the dome, increasing speed, heading straight for it…
The explosion as they struck the dome hid it from sight for long seconds; but Merrel could sense that the dome was intact. Gratefully, and rather shakily, he released the Shield, and the sparkle faded.
He moved to hover overhead, and sent his remotes in to seek entrance.
* * *
Foster's pallet was pushed into a small chamber, and Straker followed him inside. Another pallet was being moved into place alongside, positioned so that the occupants of the two beds could face each other, albeit at an angle. Another medic wheeled in a small trolley carrying a box that was obviously medical equipment. A number of leads and hoses from it were held by clamps on the trolley. It was set up between the two pallets.
"Please remove your tunic and lie on the bed, Sire," Pyrit requested.
Straker did as asked, settling himself comfortably on the pallet. Another medic was helping remove Foster's own clothing.
"Thank you… Now we need a sample from each of you?"
Straker held out his arm, and the attendant inserted a cannula into a vein in his elbow. The attendant filled a small tube from the vein, then left the cannula where it was. Beside the other pallet, another tech was doing the same with Foster.
"Ed," Paul said, "d'you think I was being an ungrateful idiot? After all, there's the point of view that if these sort of resources are available, it's a shame to waste them, and possibly an insult to their owner's memory not to try and get some good out of the situation - "
"For people who have not been so closely associated with trying to stop the 'harvesting', perhaps," Ed said, slowly. "But for you and me, it's a bit different. It may interest you to know that I refused it as well."
"They offered you new eyes?" Paul said, in disbelief. "Wasn't that a bit - "
"No, no. I pre-empted any offer, told them I would not even consider it. That did not seem to surprise you, Pyrit," Straker added to the medic.
"No, Sire, it did not," Pyrit agreed, with a slight smile.
"But you mentioned that you could provide me with artificial lenses and corneas, to replace the 'cooked' ones?"
"Indeed… That had best be done when your retinas have settled, I think, so that there are no further changes. That may be some weeks away."
"No problem," Ed said.
The two tubes were handed to Pyrit, who placed them in a holder on the analyser. He studied the readouts intently. After only a few minutes, he gave a nod of satisfaction.
"It is as I expected, Sire. You are indeed a good match. Shall we continue with the procedure?"
"Sure." "Of course." The two men's replies came together, and both were in slightly puzzled voices.
"I shall describe the technique we shall use," Pyrit said, as he connected tubes from the equipment to the cannulas in his patients' arms. "This device contains an interface, consisting of a thin membrane which will allow only certain types of cells to pass in a specified direction. Blood from you, Sire, will be conducted to one side of this membrane, then back to your body; blood from you, Companion Brother, will go past the other side and be returned to your own body. At no time will the two streams mix; but cells from the donor will migrate across the membrane to the receiver. The membrane has been - programmed - to pass only marrow cells circulating in the blood… Is that sufficiently clear to you?"
"Entirely, thank you. Paul?"
"Yes… but there's just one thing that puzzles me, Doctor."
"Yes?" Pyrit glanced up from the machine.
"You were very sure we'd be compatible… and you people keep calling me 'Companion Brother'… We are brothers, but it's by marriage and adoption… so how did you know?"
The medic frowned. "Your cell-coding shows clearly that you share a common ancestor from the previous generation. Did you not know this?"
They both stared at him. "No, we didn't know," Straker said, slowly. "Doctor… can you tell which was our common parent?"
"Yes, Sire. You both had the same mother."
Foster and Straker exchanged glances. Pyrit said, with what Straker considered to be magnificent understatement: "You will wish to investigate this, I think… Should I set up a call to your friend, Companion Alec Freeman?"
"Please do… but there's no rush. We need to give this some thought. I'd like to send him a quick note about it, though."
"Of course, Sire. I shall supply a message pad." Pyrit checked the equipment once more, then looked back at Straker. "All seems in order, here. As I mentioned, this is a lengthy process. You are both quite tired, so I recommend sleep. An attendant will be on hand at all times, you may contact her as required. You may adjust your environment from this panel. You may also disable the external feed for privacy, though we will continue to monitor your life-signs. We will provide refreshment and entertainment on request. Do you require anything at this point?"
"How is my son? And Tyl?" Straker asked.
"Elanor is attending to the Companion Heir. She has arranged a meal, and provided sleeping quarters. She will - One moment, Sire. It seems Keruss has news of Prince Merrel."
Straker fought down the urge to interrupt as Keruss' voice issued from a speaker on the instrument panel. Pyrit listened, spoke once, then the voice changed to Merrel's.
"All is well here, Sire. Your shield was very helpful indeed, and the opposition was slight. There is indeed a settlement here but with only a small garrison, which is no longer functional. We have sufficient time for Kyan to assemble a task force from Dyaus. I will report in full in due course."
While he was speaking, Elanor appeared in the doorway to the facility, John by her side. They kept silent, also.
"Please, Tyl, proceed. I'd like to take a look myself, but that must wait - "
At this point John did interrupt. "Sir, I volunteer to accompany the task force. I will be your eyes, as did Paul coming here."
Ed frowned for a moment; then he gave a tiny smile. "Thank you, John, I accept your offer… Please report to Kyan Fiskeret; perhaps, Elanor, you would make the introductions?"
"Of course, Sire. I will keep you advised… John, this way."
Ed 'watched' them go; then Pyrit said: "Can I do anything further for you, Sire, Companion?"
Ed and Paul exchanged glances, and Ed turned his sightless gaze back to the medic, handing back the pad on which he had written a few sentences. "Here is a note for Alec. Otherwise, that's all… And thanks for everything, Pyrit."
"It is my honour, Sire. I will leave you to rest, now."
He left, and the door slid shut behind him. They watched him pass the window to their pod, giving them a nod as he did so.
Ed turned his attention back to Paul. "That was a bit of a surprise," he said, quietly. "We share a mother… The question is, who?"
"I have to admit, I didn't go very deep into that," Paul said. "You've said one or two things about it…"
Paul's voice tailed off. Ed said: "Paul, this isn't the time, not right now. The doc's right, you need to rest - "
"I will, don't worry. But there's one thing we need to sort out, right now… or you won't be able to sleep."
"What d'you mean?"
"What's eating you? And don't tell me it's your eyes… it's obviously something a lot worse. Out with it, Ed. "
Ed stared down at the floor - or, at least, his sightless eyes were pointed that way. He gave a short sigh. Should I really burden Paul with this, he asked himself.
Paul watched his brother's face. "Ed," he said lightly, "we're stuck in this goldfish bowl for the next few days… Tell me about it or I'll keep on bothering you… And you won't be able to escape."
No, Ed thought, I won't be… probably not ever. And… it's true, I suppose. I really do need to talk about this with someone. And if not my brother, then who?
"Yes," he said, softly. "I will tell you… But you may end up hating me for it."
Paul reached across and thumbed the 'privacy' switch, cutting off the monitor feed to sickbay. "It's ok, Ed. It's just the two of us… Tell me."
Ed thought: Right now, I really don't want anyone else to hear this… Tyl and Amet, and Alec, later, perhaps. A faint sparkle appeared in the air surrounding them. "I… I've done a really terrible thing. I…" Ed hesitated, then forced himself to go on. "I - nearly committed genocide, myself."
Badly shaken, Paul asked himself: Should I believe him? He's less than a month out of a coma… Is he delusional?
His link to the Kei dismissed that. He was filled with the heart-freezing knowledge that his brother had spoken nothing less than the truth.
But there were still uncertainties. The situation was by no means that straightforward - if the word could be used, in this context.
He said, carefully: "I won't say I don't believe it. I do - though I don't want to. Please tell me what happened."
Ed's fists clenched. "I thought… I thought I'd produced a - a monster. I thought my - my son was… evil. I thought I was mad. And I thought… if I was the best humanity could do… we - the human race - did not deserve to exist."
"What made you think that?" Paul asked, keeping his voice as neutral as he could.
"I - I found that Johnny was still alive. I watched while - he shot you, killed you, as I believed… I could sense him. There was not a - a trace of guilt, of sorrow, in him. Just - just satisfaction that he had completed a task."
"What did you do about that? How would you have destroyed us?"
Ed lifted his head, his sightless eyes gazing into infinity. "I knew where there was a weapon. I found it years ago, while Moonbase was being built. It was on the far-side of the moon. Though I did not then know its exact intended purpose, I knew how dangerous it was. I had not dared try to destroy it, that might have set it off… I shut it down, blocked off all access. I made myself forget it even existed."
"Go on," Paul said. "You remembered it was there?"
"I did… I went down the blocked access tunnel, after I ordered the Kei to clear the way. I turned on the device. Then I went up to the surface, to wait for 'new moon', which was due shortly, when the far-side was in full view of the sun, ready to trigger it."
Paul thought: So that's how you fried your retinas… "What was its original purpose?"
"You remember Azan was telling us, about Spicor's experiments in flare control?"
"I do," Paul confirmed. "But I'm sure he said it was only an observatory. Though he did say something about they hadn't quite got the technique right - sometimes their gadgets would set off flares rather than prevent them."
"That's right." Ed drew a long, shuddering breath. "It wasn't just an observatory, it was a stellar controller. I set the device to initiate a huge flare, that would be big enough and last long enough to sterilise Earth. People in the nearside moon colonies would not be affected by the flare, but they would die off later. Of grief, if nothing else."
Paul thought this over, trying to control the sickness in his soul. "Is it still active?"
"Yes… but it's inaccessible. No-one can find it. Sometime, it will have to be removed, but for now it's harmless."
"You told me," Paul went on, slowly, "that you were essentially two persons - my brother Ed, and the Keimon. Which of you was in charge at that moment?"
"Me. Your brother." He was silent for a moment, marshalling his thoughts. "The Keimon cannot override my actions. He can only observe. He can do nothing without my invitation. But he can comment… and he was horrified."
"So if not the Keimon… what stopped you?" Paul said, his voice quite without expression.
Paul blinked. "How? Did he know what you were doing?"
"No. No, he didn't. It's just that… I was reminded that he was still my son. And I had a father's duty to help him, not condemn him…"
Ed's voice trailed off. His Kei-link with Paul was reporting his brother's feelings. And those were not hatred, or disgust, or fury…
"What on earth's so funny about that?" he said, mystified.
"Tell you in a minute… I note that you're scared."
"Damn right I'm scared!! OK, I didn't go through with it, not then, but what if I'm in a situation like that again? Or worse? I might do it next time! I'm not fit to be Keimon - "
"I don't agree." Paul was almost laughing, but with relief, Ed noted, unbelieving. "Look, Ed, I'm going to think aloud for a bit. It may - will - be painful, but please bear with me, OK?"
"Go right ahead!"
"OK." Paul paused a moment, gathering his thoughts. "Let's go back to the time of the 'accident', when you thought Johnny had been killed. You dashed out of the hospital and drove away. You parked your car in a hedge and went on by foot. You stopped at Pine Head Cliff."
The memory of that night struck at him. He forced it down. "Yes?"
"We found your gun at the foot of the cliff," Paul went on. "You'd thrown it there. Tell me why that was."
Ed swallowed. "I… I wanted to die. To end it, get some peace… But… I didn't deserve to. I had to… try and make some sort of reparation…"
"When I started looking back through our family history," Paul said, "and I realised what had happened that night, I wondered how it was that you hadn't gone and killed Alec for murdering Johnny, and then suicided. SHADO would have unravelled… But you didn't do that. You came back to us.
"And now… you've done the same thing. You could have wiped us all out. But you didn't. Instead, you went to rescue Johnny."
Slowly, Ed turned his face towards Paul. "You're saying…" he whispered.
"Ed," Paul said, gently, "I'm saying that you hit a dreadful low, when you thought Johnny had died because of you. But you recovered, came back. It's a cliche - but a true one - that what does not kill makes stronger. That experience strengthened you - so that you were able to climb out of an even deeper and nastier pit."
"You're right," Ed whispered at last, softly.
"And though I can't guarantee there won't be something even worse ahead - no-one can - I can, and do, guarantee that this one has indeed made you stronger still."
Ed closed his eyes for an instant, lifted his head. His taut shoulders relaxed, and a faint smile appeared on his lips. "It's also said, to quote Churchill: if you're going through hell - keep going."
"Right now," Paul said, smiling himself, "I'm going to sleep. I recommend you do the same."
"Damn right." Ed settled back on the padding. "Good night, Paul. And… thanks."
"My pleasure," Paul murmured, his eyes closing. "G'night."
Straker reached out for the control panel, and lowered the lights. He closed his eyes, thanked the Kei, who withdrew Its input; but he could not sleep, not yet. His mind was too full. There was Johnny, and the problem of 'rehabilitating' him. There was the problem of how - and what - he should tell Mary, the boy's mother. And speaking of mothers, what of his own parents?
We - Paul and I - share a mother, he thought. Not a father as well, of course, or the rebels would have tried that trick on me, of controlling me through Robert. Or even Paul. So it's either Kara Straker - or, more likely, Caroline Fletcher.
How similar those names are…
He wondered about his own mother, Kara. He didn't actually recall much about her. He did remember her death, even though he was very young at the time, and how, years later, his father had married Marion Knight, Robert's adoptive mother, after Caroline had left Robert's father and vanished - pregnant with Paul - to England as it had turned out.
Kara was a bit of a mystery, it was true. He had asked Alec, who he could certainly trust to be discreet in his enquiries, to investigate.
He opened a Kei-link to his son, and lay back to rest. His dreams would be interesting…
* * *
Elanor sent for a transport to take them to the launch bay. While they rode in the small vehicle, she invited Johnny to ask questions. He smiled, a little ruefully. "I have many," he admitted. "But mainly, I am concerned about my mother - my true mother. I do remember her a little. I suppose that you would not know much more than I."
"I know little," Elanor confirmed. "I fear that the perception of Terrans by the people here was not favourable - and not accurate. I am aware that, once you were taken from your home, the leaders here rather lost interest in your mother… and your father, for his own reasons, did not speak of her to his own colleagues. But perhaps, while you are travelling to Saktar-6, I can gather some information from your Lunar colony."
"That would be helpful," John said, gratefully. "I - ah. We seem to have arrived."
The vehicle drew up at a pair of wide double-doors. These opened as they approached, and a Dyausan pilot stood there, wearing a red coverall. "I greet you, Elanor, Companion Heir," he said, in passable English. "I name self Hamet. Please, enter here."
"Thank you, Hamet. We wish to speak with Astropilot Fiskeret, if she is free to talk?"
"Yes. Please follow me, this way."
* * *
The astropilot was with a man John did not recognise. His skin was not green like that of a Dyausan, and the two were conversing in the Terran tongue. They broke off as Hamet approached. The Terran man seemed surprised to see him, John thought; perhaps he had recognised him.
"Astropilot Fiskeret, I wish to introduce you and your companion to Elanor, our Empath, and to John Edward Straker, son of the Keimon."
"We are truly honoured to meet you both," Fiskeret smiled. "This Terran is Astronaut Karel Wojnycz, a colleague with whom we have been working to upgrade our skimmers so that the cocoon is no longer necessary."
Still blinking a little, Wojnycz held out his hand, and John shook it as he had been taught. "Do you know my father, then, Astronaut?" he asked.
"I do. He was my commanding officer at SHADO. He's moved on a bit now, I think."
"How can we assist you, Elanor?" Fiskeret asked.
"The Keimon has requested that his son accompanies you to Saktar to act as his observer, since he cannot at this time go in person," Elanor explained. "He is assisting with the treatment of your colleague Colonel Paul Foster, who is sick."
"I… see." Wojnycz postponed his questions; no doubt he'd get to hear all about it in due course. He hoped. "We have so far modified three more skimmers, in addition to the Swift. And Alan's itching to bring his Eagle. But Gary and I said it should be taken back to the Eyrie to be checked out after its excursion here. It's still a prototype, after all."
"I endorse that suggestion," Fiskeret added.
"Thank you, Kyan," Wojnycz smiled. "I'll send him home, with Gary escorting him. I'll be in one of the skimmers with Corune. If you would excuse me?" He keyed his radio and spoke into it briefly, making a show of wincing at Carter's reply. "He can't really complain… he got to see Jupiter close up, after all!"
Fiskeret led John to the suiting chamber and helped him don his suit, before going over to one of the Swift-class skimmers at the exit port. Hamet took Elanor and Wojnycz to the pressurised viewing gallery. The two voyagers boarded the craft, and shortly were on their way to the ringed gas giant Saktar.
* * *
In the command office on Earth, Freeman looked up at a knock on his door. He invited the caller in, and Major Ford entered, carrying a printout.
"Sit down, Keith," Freeman said. "What do you have there?"
"A note from Ambassador Straker, sir. It came encrypted, so I attended to it myself."
Ford handed the printout across, and Freeman took it, with a nod of thanks. The printout looked blank at first; but he retrieved the goggles from their shelf in the desk, and the printing on the page became visible. He read it through, and whistled.
"Shall I go, sir…" Ford began.
"No, no. Ed wants some investigations made, and you're the best we have at this sort of thing."
"Yes, sir?" Ford said guardedly, and Freeman chuckled.
"It's some family history. Ed's, that is. Seems he really is a b*stard."
Ford looked at him for long moments; then he turned and stared pointedly at the mini-bar. "How's that, sir?" he asked, turning back to gaze at his commander.
"The people on Dyaus tested the two of them to make sure Ed was compatible as a donor for Paul. He is. They are half-brothers. They have the same mother."
"…How did that happen, sir?"
"That," said Freeman, "is what Ed wants you to find out."
"I'll do my best," Ford answered, rising to his feet. "I take it this is confidential? As in 'burn-before-reading'?"
"Exactly. Go for it, Keith. Keep me informed."
"I certainly will, sir. Oh - one other thing… Do you know a lady named Elanor, at Dyaus?"
"Indeed I do," Freeman smiled. "Does she want a word?"
"She does indeed. I gather it's confidential as well… Shall I use a secure link?"
"I thought as much… She's on line 2." Ford winked, and left the office.
Freeman keyed the comms line, and after a moment Elanor's face appeared on the small screen. Thank heaven for the Utronic link, or it would take us an hour and a half just to say hello! he thought. "Hello, Elanor, It is good to see you again! How is your health, with this curious malady?"
"I greet you, Companion," Elanor answered. "My health is improving greatly, thank you for your enquiry. I also thank the Deity that it has not deprived me of my empathic senses."
"That's good news," Freeman agreed. "How can I help you, Elanor?"
"I am currently attending to John, son of the Keimon," Elanor explained. "As you will know, the Keimon himself is donating bone marrow cells to the Companion Brother. All seems to be proceeding well, though it will take many Terran hours to complete. Concerning John himself, I believe you are aware that he was thought dead until quite recently?"
"Yes," Freeman confirmed, a little grimly. "Turns out he had been taken by the rebels."
"Indeed. As a consequence of their plans, his development was artificially accelerated, and he was also indoctrinated to believe he was himself a rebel. He has recovered from that, and now knows who he is."
Carefully, Freeman said: "Is he comfortable with that knowledge?"
"I believe so. Nevertheless," Elanor continued, "there are complications. Physically he is a normal terran-type youth of some eighteen years of age. Emotionally it is less clear. Although he is anxious to re-establish contact with his mother, as he has with his father, he will have problems settling into the role of a son."
"Reminds me a little of the time I finished my university education," Freeman said, ruefully. "I wanted to get back to the comforts of home… but I didn't enjoy it at all. OK it was comfortable, and I did make sure I helped with the chores, but I'd had a taste of living independently and I wanted to go back to it."
"Might I ask how your own parents reacted?"
"Quite well, as it happens, on the whole," Freeman said. "We stuck it for about six months - half of a Terran year, that is. Then I started to have disagreements, mostly with Mother. Dad seemed at first to just watch - but when we started shouting at each other he intervened. Got us both to see sense. So I moved out; but it was a friendly move. He found me a flat and provided six months' rent - payment to use accommodation. The three of us became the best of friends - I even invited them over for the occasional meal, and my cooking improved enormously. I joined the Royal Air Force as a cadet; they were as pleased as Punch - sorry, very pleased indeed."
"How well do you know the Companion Consort? Can you predict how she might react to the reappearance of her 'dead' son?"
"I met her years ago, before they married," Freeman said, thoughtfully. "She was a good mother, and would have made Ed a very good wife if circumstances had been different. I refer to matters of security concerning the conflict with the rebels… The break-up was amicable enough, though they became mere acquaintances."
As he spoke, Freeman remembered that Henderson had wrecked that marriage, because he believed it made Ed a serious security risk. Who knows, Freeman mused, he might even have been right…
He resumed: "Then the rebels took Ed, and me, and we were rescued by Azan Pavlor… may he rest with the Deity. In the meantime Ed had been believed to have died. When Mary realised that he had not, as he demonstrated by arriving on her doorstep at dead of night… her reaction was positive, extremely so. We adjusted her memory to give her time to catch up with the situation… but she retains the knowledge that Ed survives, though in poor health, so that he needs continuing treatment at a 'residential facility'.
"I think, though, that it would be slightly different with John. He's her son. It's a different relationship."
Elanor smiled. "I thank you, Companion, that is very helpful… John will of course need help with re-adjusting to life on Terra, both physically and emotionally. I propose to act as his medical attendant. In doing so I can monitor and assist with his family relationship. How would you comment? Would the Keimon approve?"
"I think it's a great idea," Freeman assured her, "and Ed will be very grateful, I am sure."
"Then I shall put the proposal to him. My thanks, Companion."
She closed the link. Freeman leaned back in his chair, his smile fading a little. Somehow, he reflected, I can't see it being quite that simple…
* * *
Fiskeret led the small fleet to Saktar at a fairly gentle pace; even so, the trip took no more than a twelve of Terran minutes. They slowed to be stationary relative to the small moon Saktar-6. Fiskeret made contact with Prince Merrel at the rebel station, and was directed to approach. She switched the view area to show Saktar against the stellar backdrop.
John drew in a soft breath of amazement at the sight.
Fiskeret smiled. She said, in the tongue of Dyaus: "Companion Heir, you are the first Earthborn to see this at close hand. Is it not spectacular?"
"Truly," John whispered. "What causes those bands around Saktar?"
His tutor gave a quick summary of the rings, their structure, and their theorised mode of formation. She finished: "Alas, we have little time for - er - 'sightseeing' at present. We must land, and report to the Prince. Are you recording this for the Keimon?"
"I am," John confirmed. "I am also relaying it to him. He sleeps, at present, but it will pervade his dreams."
"Noted. Prepare to descend; we will land on the ledge of the dome."
John looked. About a sixth of the dome projected above Saktar-6's ice-shell. There were three dark ovals spaced evenly about its rim, and a narrow disc around the dome just beneath these, in an echo of Saktar itself. The disc was easily broad enough for a skimmer to land on it.
The descent was uneventful. They touched down on the disc near one of the dark panels, which slid open on their approach.
"Tyl awaits us. Ensure your suit is sealed."
"Confirmed, ser," John said.
They left the skimmer and walked - carefully, under the moon's light gravity - to the hatchway. Merrel beckoned them inside, then cycled the exchange pod so that they could pass through into the habitat. As he walked, John continued to gaze around, trying to see everything.
Don't unscrew your neck, John, came the drowsy but slightly amused 'voice' of his father. But it's a great view, thanks.
As they went along, Merrel gave a vocal description - in English, for the Keimon's benefit - of their surroundings. They passed several compartments which contained familiar equipment that Merrel confirmed as hiberpods. Prompted by Ed, John asked: "Can we tell how long these people have been here?"
"A few decades only," Merrel said. "I suspect they have been gathered here in anticipation of a successful takeover of Earth."
"My father asks, is the entire complement in hibernation? And how long can they remain in that state?"
"I have checked using my remotes, and the only people here who are not in hibernation are ourselves. I am running an equipment check as we speak. I do not expect more than minor equipment problems, if at all. This installation can be left to run with only a few staff from Dyaus for several years, if so required."
"My father thanks you, and asks you to await further instructions, which should not take long. He asks that we continue this tour."
As they did so, it became increasingly apparent that the installation was a huge hiberpod. Like the carrier that had attacked Dyaus, it contained both personnel and supplies, sufficient to maintain a colony of several millions. It was also mobile, and capable of interstellar flight. Merrel linked to his skimmer's comms channel, and requested advice from Amet Pavlor, Ambassador-designate. It did not take long for a reply.
"I have received guidance from the Keimon," Pavlor confirmed. "He wants the vessel brought to Dyaus, so that the complement of the craft already here - and the rebels confined here - may be transferred. He will then send them on their way."
"Acknowledged… How soon may a guard be despatched, to bring the vessel in? Six crew would be needed."
"Nepetane advises that three from Dyaus are available for this task - Corune, Apat, and Hamet. Companion Captain Ellis is happy to provide the balance. She suggests Wojnycz, Harrington, and North. They can use two of the adapted skimmers. They can be with you in about a great-twelth of a cycle."
That made it a little more than half an hour, John thought, as he translated to Earth timescale terms.
"Good. I request their presence."
"They shall be dispatched immediately," Amet Pavlor assured him.
* * *
Paul roused, becoming drowsily aware that the Dyaus medic, dressed in a light transparent coverall with an air-pack, was inspecting the blood filter box. He murmured: "Hello, Pyrit… how are we doing?"
"Very well indeed, Companion," the medic assured him, keeping his voice quiet. "The cell transfer nears completion, and there are no signs of rejection. It will take a while yet, however, before you notice significant improvement."
"Thanks… how's Ed? I don't think he really slept."
A sleepy voice came from the other bed. "I did doze… But I was watching the show from Saturn, it was terrific. Thanks for the update, Pyrit, by the way."
"I greet you, Sire," Pyrit said. "Do either of you require refreshment at this time?"
"I don't suppose you do coffee?" Paul said, hopefully.
"Alas, no, Companion. However I can offer you a nutrient drink, which Companion Alec Freeman seemed to enjoy while we were treating him. I would advise against solid food for the present, though… What can I offer you, Sire?"
"I would enjoy some of that myself," Ed confirmed. "Thank you."
Pyrit acknowledged this with a nod, then tapped a sense-plate on the comm panel. after a few moments a hatch opened in the wall behind the beds, and a tray was revealed. Pyrit collected it and laid it on the table between the beds, so that both the Earthborn could reach it. The tray contained several covered beakers and dishes of biscuits and paste, which Ed recognised from his previous encounter with the colony. Pyrit adjusted their beds to 'recline' so that they could eat, then placed a beaker on each of their bedside ledges.
"I will leave you to your meal, Sire, Companion."
The Dyausan medic departed through the exchange pod. Ed lifted his beaker. "Cheers, Paul," he smiled. "You're sounding a bit better, I must say."
"I think I am improving… How about you? Cheers yourself, by the way."
"Rested, surprisingly," Ed told him. He swallowed half the contents of the beaker almost in one gulp. "That was quite good, I guess they added some flavouring. I must ask for the recipe."
"And then we can have a chat," Paul said, his tone light. "We haven't really had a chance to do that, after Marion's revelations."
"No indeed." Ed grimaced. "And I'll admit I've been just a shade nervous about the whole thing."
"I know what you mean," Paul agreed. "To find out we were brothers… and you're my boss! And now we find it's more than just a legal-paper relationship."
"Hmm," Ed said, slowly. "I'd been thinking that if Robert had still been with us, he could have smoothed the way a bit… but there was no chance of that once the rebels had taken him."
Very carefully, Paul said: "Tell me about him?"
"Sure." Ed took another mouthful of his drink, set the beaker down. "I'll take it from the beginning, let me know if you've heard any of this… It really starts with Marion Knight. Of course, you met her when she came to the studio."
"Yes I did."
Paul was doing his best not to giggle, Ed noted. He sighed, but with amusement himself. "Yes, I do remember you found it funny… And it's even funnier now."
"It certainly is," Paul admitted, his grin broadening. "But this time the joke's on both of us!"
Paul's reaction to meeting his then-commanding officer's step-mother had been a nearly uncontrollable urge to laugh. When Straker had asked him about it, he had admitted that he had found it hard to imagine the commander actually having a mother. Mercifully, Straker had himself seen the funny side; he had commented that he'd often been called a b#stard, but never quite so politely!
Ed cleared his throat. "Marion told me she had things she needed to discuss. I invited her home, cooked her a steak, then we talked. Turned out she wanted to talk wills, and Robert."
"I did look through the papers you lent me," Paul confirmed. "I saw that Robert's parents - my natural parents, so it seems - had separated, and my mother - our mother, that is - went to England with new hubby. Though she was already pregnant with me."
"That's right. Marion adopted Robert, but her husband Grant Tyler died. In due course and after a lot of bullying, my father married her. And that's when Robert and I became relatives."
Ed became silent for a while, thinking, then resumed: "The age gap between us was about eight years, which makes Robert some two or three years older than you. Perhaps surprisingly, we got on quite well together, with a lot of help from 'Aunty' Marion, as she was to both of us. We were too far apart in age to be at school together, and we had different interests - but that helped rather than hindered, because it meant we had a lot to tell each other about - and we discovered a common interest in extraterrestrial biology."
Paul smiled. "Ironic, isn't it?"
"Robert would have given his right arm to explore Dyaus… as a human and not a 'zom'. I wonder occasionally whether the strength of that interest may have helped him resist the 'zomming'. He didn't have to wait for me to arrive when he had taken you - he could have, er, acted. But he didn't, and that gave us the only chance we had."
Grimly, Paul said: "And he needn't have presented me with such a good target."
"Exactly. I think some tiny part of him was still there… as there was with Craig, and with Croxley. They both resisted, just enough to give us a chance to act. So did Azan - but I have a suspicion Gimen knew he would and used the fact."
"Wouldn't surprise me… You were saying, you weren't at school together?"
"No. I went on to major in astrophysics, but one of my course units was in astrobiology, so when I was home on vacation we had even more to talk about!"
Paul chuckled. "I'll bet!"
Ed cleared his throat. "Some of those 'bull sessions' got quite heated… but I rather miss them. Inevitably, we grew apart… there was the difference in career paths as well as the age gap. I got myself attached to Henderson and ended up in England as his aide. Robert graduated and took his interest in biology to the US government, moving to security work. When SHADO started I seriously considered bringing him in to join us, he'd have been very useful. But that wasn't to be, alas."
"The car crash," Paul agreed.
"Exactly." After a slight pause, Ed went on, lightly: "Pity… I'd been looking forward to, er, discussing it with Henderson."
"He wouldn't have approved of such nepotism," Paul said, mischievously. "I wonder what he would have said now!"
Ed groaned. "I shudder to think!"
"Were we much alike, Robert and I?" Paul asked.
"You were complete opposites," Ed said, "at least on the surface. You come across as an adventurer, a risk-taker, if you'll pardon my saying so. Robert seemed much more cautious, though perhaps that isn't the right word. On looking back, Robert was more thorough than cautious in his assessment of risks - just as you are really more thorough than reckless. You won't take risks without studying them in depth first. But when you do go ahead, you give it everything you've got. I often wonder how you and Robert would have got on."
"Yes," Paul said, thoughtfully. He remained silent for a few moments, then moved to another subject. "Can I ask you about Mary, if it isn't too painful?"
Paul decided to lead into the subject very carefully. "How did you two meet?"
"Blame Alec," Ed said, with a smile of fond reminiscence. "I didn't realise he was matchmaking, not at the time… turned out we, Mary and I, were both shooting enthusiasts. Alec suggested I try for the London Games, he invited me along for a try-out. He's no mean shot himself, you won't be surprised to hear… I did well enough to get into the heats, and in due course I was selected for the England team, as I had citizenship. Mary was there. She was impressive. And I don't just mean her marksmanship!"
"I'll bet," Paul said, trying to suppress a slight snigger. "Alec did mention those Games - but he didn't say he was playing Cupid!"
Ed smiled again, and went on: "We did quite well, and not just in the Games - OK, Paul, snigger if you want! We saw each other at contest practice sessions. Then I asked her out. I met her parents, and introduced her to Marion. I was already thinking about marriage… but in view of my position as an MI officer, she had to be vetted by Security. No problems there… I proposed, and she accepted. We were doing fine… until Fate took a hand."
"Heavily disguised as Henderson?" Paul queried.
"Too true." Ed took another sip of his drink. "For 'security reasons'. He effectively put an end to our marriage. He'd been stirring things between Mary and her mother, so that they set a P.I. on me, got photos with me and Nina at a flat somewhere. That was the first meeting of SHADO primary personnel, of course. When I realised what he'd been up to - with other SHADO staff as well as Mary and me - I had it out with him."
"You were lucky not to stop a bullet!"
"I'd taken measures. A bluff, essentially - Henderson would have survived; I had a 'suicide' device, actually a scent spray as he would have discovered, and I intended it to shock him into a re-think. Luckily, he saw sense, so I didn't need to use it."
"One moment," Paul said, his voice straight. "Which of us did you say was reckless?"
"Good point," Ed agreed. He drew a breath. "Well, you know most of the rest."
"If I had married Chrys," Paul asked, his tone level, "what would Henderson have done?"
"I'd been asking myself that." Ed took another sip of his drink. "I'd kept an eye on things… You may have seen the report on Gay Ellis and Mark Bradley when we lost Ken Matthews. I suspected that they were in a relationship, and that this affected Gay's alertness, making her more protective of Mark than the other Interceptor pilots. They brought in a UFO pilot. I tried to interrogate him, but I rushed it, and he died. Alec was furious. He threatened to resign."
"What stopped him?"
Ed smiled, ruefully. "I had been right - and wrong. I was right because Mark and Gay admitted to being an 'item'. They phoned Alec, he took the call in the command office, after he'd talked to me about it. He tore up his resignation letter. But then I read the second, more detailed analysis of the incident - and it turned out that under normal procedure, before Gay changed the attack strategy, we'd have lost all three astronauts."
"But surely - "
"Love does strange things to people," Ed said, slowly, "as you may well have noticed. It can blind you - but it can also open your eyes wide."
Paul was silent for a few moments. He really means that, he realised. He wouldn't have interfered… because he thought we were good for each other.
My god, Chrys, I miss you…
"I'm so sorry, Paul." As Paul looked up, sharply, he went on: "No, I'm not reading your mind, I'm not even speaking as the Keimon. I'm speaking as someone who was once your commanding officer, who was - and is - concerned for your welfare, and Chrys's as well."
Paul turned his head, and gazed straight at his brother. "Thank you, Ed," he said, quietly.
* * *
The group from Moonbase and Dyaus arrived at Enceladus as promised. They entered the docking bay of the hiberpod, where Merrel and John met them. Introductions were made quickly, though John was the target of many interested glances.
"Do you all know my father, Ed Straker, then?" he asked.
"We do indeed," Joan Harrington replied, with a smile. "Perhaps we can chat about that later?"
"I would enjoy that," the youth said, with feeling. "But first we must finish here."
Merrel led them to a chamber which he described as a flight room. The four Dyausans conferred, with Hamet providing translations for the Earthborn, with John's assistance. The walls here were covered with control arrays, though of a form unfamiliar to the Earthborn and only slightly less so to the pilots from Dyaus.
"Designed and built by the rebels, covertly," Merrel commented. "Over a period of many Isvar-cycles, I believe."
"We agree," Hamet said. "This has been long in preparation."
"Can we fly it?" North asked.
"Yes," Merrel said. "Kyan, you agree?"
"The concept is not greatly different," the astropilot confirmed. "We will try a short flight above the plane of the Saktar ring-system. My prince, do you wish to bring your own skimmer inboard, or do you prefer to fly escort?"
"Since this craft possesses adequate weapons I will move aboard. John, you are in contact with the Keimon. I request the use of the shield if needed, once again, if it will not tire him."
After a moment John said: "Your request is granted, Prince Tyl of Merrel Demesne."
"My most grateful thanks, once again, Sire."
* * *
Hamet and Merrel took the controls of the huge craft, while Wojnycz and North watched with hungry interest. Bringing its engines up to half output - as Merrel judged it - they lifted the vessel to an altitude above the Enceladus ice-shell of about four miles, as he explained to the two Earthborn. "From here," he added, "we can locate any signs of further rebel occupation."
"How likely do you think that would be, sir?" John said.
"Minimal, I would estimate, Companion Heir," Merrel answered, "since it would be costly of their resources to establish other habitats here. Nevertheless, we should not dismiss the possibility."
Joan glanced down at the youth. He seemed to be almost enjoying himself, gazing at the view-panel, which was set to a close-up of the surface of this small icy moon. Joan had rather expected it to be somewhat boring; but occasional plumes of ice and rock dust from geysers here and there grabbed their attention. Indeed, the pilots had to take occasional evasive action.
At length Merrel pronounced himself satisfied that there was no indication of rebel presence or activity. He conferred with his colleagues, who agreed. Hamet set a course across the ring system, and tried the controls cautiously. At length, satisfied, he headed back towards Dyaus.
"That's a view you could never get tired of watching," Joan said, softly.
"The rings?" John asked, and she nodded. "I am glad I came."
"So am I," Joan agreed, emphatically. "Have you not seen it before, then?"
"Regrettably, no. I spent my entire time with the rebels at Avach - the south lunar pole. In truth, though, that only amounts to a few days of being awake."
Joan noted the suppressed anger in the youth's voice. "John," she said, carefully, "what will you do now? What would you like to do?"
"Explore. My situation, my position in this 'new world', as it is to me. Decide on a direction to take." John drew a breath. "But first, I must reach an understanding with my father… and decide about my mother."
"I… think I understand," Joan said, thoughtfully. "John, if there's anything I can do to help, please let me know."
"Thank you," John said, softly. "I will."
* * *
The shuttle lowered itself smoothly onto the grid. Its engines shut off, and the vibration faded away.
Freeman unstrapped himself from his flight seat. "Thanks, Mark," he said. "Smooth flight!"
Bradley grimaced. "Why do I miss out on all the fun?" he said, plaintively. "New ships, visits to Jupiter, fun with the rebels, and I've been stuck in good old Aus!"
"'Fun' he calls it… Not to worry, Mark. Gay will bring you up to speed. And then you'll have all the 'fun' you can handle!"
"I can't wait," Mark admitted. "But right now I'd better get your luggage unloaded. There should be a couple of porters waiting."
"Very highly-paid ones," Gay's voice sounded over the intercom. "Are you two going to disembark, or hang around chatting?"
"We're on our way," Freeman said, hastily.
The two descended to the reception sphere, where they removed their vacuum suits, and retrieved their flight cases. The 'porters' - actually Nina Barry and Technician Ray Collins - were there with a trolley which was already half loaded with pressurised cases.
Nina consulted her pad. "Sir, are you by any chance planning to open a greengrocer's shop up here? Or set up a market garden?" she enquired.
"These were all hand-picked by Doug Jackson," Freeman informed her. "Guaranteed Dyausan-compatible. So is the Chinese takeaway!"
"Then we'd better hurry them down to the prep area," Nina said, briskly. "It's very good to see you, sir… I wonder, may I have a private word sometime?"
"Of course, Lieutenant. But first, I need to see Gay, and meet our new ambassador."
"They're in the leisure sphere, sir. We'll meet you there."
For a few moments, Freeman watched Nina as she conferred with Mark and Ray. He was pretty sure he had seen a distinct twinkle in her eyes. Shaking his head in a little amusement, he headed for the leisure sphere.
* * *
Pyrit waited courteously while the two Earthborn finished their third game of chess. The Companion Brother gave a somewhat rueful smile. "For a while there I thought I might win one," he said, "but you really thrashed me."
"Sorry about that." The Keimon sounded genuinely regretful. "I must confess I was trying something. At first I didn't realise I was doing it…"
"What were you doing? Consulting your crystal ball?"
"Not quite." The Keimon smiled. "I was tracing probability chains, trying to predict the course of the game."
"A useful skill," the Brother said, his tone dry. "We must have a chat about it sometime - but not now, I think Pyrit wants a word."
He nodded to the medic, who came through the exchanger at the entrance to the isolation pod. "I greet you, Keimon, Companion," Pyrit said with a bow. "I have news. Prince Merrel and his group have returned from Enceladus with the rebel transport. All are well, and await your further instructions."
"Thank you, Pyrit. Please let Tyl know I'll speak with him shortly… How is Paul doing?"
"I am pleased greatly with his progress. I would value your own self assessments?"
"Of course," the Keimon said. "Paul?"
"Still a bit short of energy," the Brother admitted. "But less so than last night."
"That is good… Sire, how are you?"
"My eyes are comfortable, though they still feel a little bruised. Do you wish to examine us?"
"I do, Sire, in a moment… I have further news for you. We have definitely identified the toxin that was used on the Companion Brother. It is somewhat puzzling."
"Tell us," Paul invited.
Pyrit took a breath. "I know you will feel - uncomfortable - hearing this… It is very similar to a compound that we have used in the past to enable our people to receive donated organs without rejecting them. It does this by suppressing growth of certain cells in the bone marrow. It is not very selective, and will suppress all types of such cells. Usually this does not matter as it is given in conjunction with a second drug which encourages red cell formation to replace the ones lost; this process is usually much slower than those which restore other blood components, as you may know."
"I was told that white cells regrow in a few days, but red ones take about three months," Paul commented.
"That is indeed so, Companion. This second drug was of course not present in the compound you ingested. However, I do assure you that we have included it in your therapy."
"I see," said Paul, with a slight frown. "I get the impression this toxin acted quite quickly, didn't it? Less than a day?"
"It did, sir. Also you received a very small amount of the compound. Clearly it had been enhanced in some way."
"Clearly," the Keimon agreed, his tone grim. "Thank you for telling us this, Pyrit. Paul, you said Gay had been warned of possible contamination…? Good. There'll be some to analyse, then."
He turned back to the medic. "Pyrit, I need to get back to Moonbase as soon as possible. When can you let us out?"
"You, Sire, as soon as I have evaluated your eyes, which I shall do now." Pyrit told him. Ed gave a nod. The medic held a small device to his face, and inspected the readouts. “I will need to process these, I will advise in due course… Companion, I would advise you to remain in this pod for another half-cycle, about two Terran days, while your lymphocyte count improves to a safe level. Prince Merrel will then convey you home. Your three colleagues from your Moonbase will be ferried by another skimmer."
"And is John ready to come?"
"The group investigating Saktar-6 has reported, Sire, and your son waits outside," Pyrit said, nodding through the transparent partition. Indeed, the boy was there, with the Empath; the Keimon waved, and he smiled.
"Then let's get to it," the Keimon said, coming to his feet. "No, don't get up, Paul. Take it easy, don't rush things. You'll be home before you know it!"
Father and son hugged briefly, while Elanor looked away, appearing to take an interest in the equipment banks.
At length, John pulled away a little; and, turning to the empath, "Elanor - I would like to speak to my father briefly, but in private. Could you arrange this?"
"Certainly, John. We can go to my quarters. In any case there are preparations I wish to make."
Elanor led them to her chambers, offered them refreshment, and invited them to sit, while she went into the inner sleeping room. The door slid closed behind her.
A faint sparkle appeared in the air around the two, as Ed raised his privacy shield. "I'm all yours, John," he said. "Go right ahead."
John looked down at his hands. "Sir, there is something I must tell you… I came very close to killing you, quite deliberately."
"Yes?" Ed prompted, keeping his tone neutral. "What were the circumstances? When you came to my quarters?"
"Yes." The youth drew a deep breath. "I had been instructed to show myself only, to make sure that you recognised me, and then to leave. I did so, and when you reacted, I went back behind your hatch panel.
"Your guard entered, and summoned your medical attendant. They ensured you were alive, and the medic gave you a soporific. They left. I came out again.
"I studied you. I wondered why I had been told not to - to kill you, I thought it - it was far too good an opportunity to - to dispose of one of our enemies…
"But I could not do it. We looked so much alike. I knew of this; I had been told I was a genetic throwback… But I was not satisfied. I was beginning to realise that there was much that I had not been told.
"And then I saw the image carrier beside your bed, and I recognised myself, and a woman I knew that I knew…
"So I left. I went back to the mascon station. Paul arrived. I pretended to kill him."
"But you didn't," his father said, quietly. He smiled faintly. "It is quite likely that, had you acted, you would have hurt yourself more than me… The Kei is an excellent guardian, It would have prevented you from harming me, but, I think, It would not have killed you. It has just told me that there was in any case no need. You withdrew of your own accord."
"I am glad I did," John said, with feeling. He was aware of Ed's feelings, through the Kei-link, though not of his father's thoughts. There was slight amusement, ironic in tone, though not at him; as though the older man was making a comparison between events.
He decided not to look deeper. Whatever this was, it was Ed's business alone.
"Thank you for telling me this, John," his father said. "Don't worry about it. All went well in the end - and no little thanks to you… Shall we see if Elanor has packed her case?"
* * *
Merrel was waiting in the skimmer bay, with Hamet, when Elanor brought the two Terrans along. The Dyaus pair bowed to the Keimon, and Hamet smiled at John.
"It is good to see you once more, Sire. And you also, Companion," he added to the youth. "It is my hope, Sire, that you return here, when events permit, to observe our home."
"I'd love to," the Keimon smiled. "In fact I intend to make a stop here on my way out to Spicor Central, if Nepetane permits."
"She is here, Sire, if you will make your wishes known."
Hamet turned, and lifted a hand. Two people who were standing beside the 'Swift' approached them. Through the Kei, Straker noted their faces. One was clearly the deputy to the late Devas; she looked pale and as though she had lost some weight, but her mood was evidently one of relief.
"I am Nepetane, Sire, as you may know," she said, bowing. "You are most welcome here at any time… as are you, Companion John Straker. I have been advised, Sire, that you wish to inspect the 'mobile habitat' used by the rebels, which was brought here from Saktar-6?"
"I do, if it is convenient for you."
"Always, Sire. Prince Merrel here has offered his services as pilot."
"Most suitable." Straker gave Merrel a smile. "Good to see you safely back from Saktar, Tyl."
"Thank you, Sire… I am advised that, after your inspection, you wish to travel to Candar - the Terran moon. The skimmer you have named 'Swift' is ready for the journey, having been overhauled and restocked with flight consumables. Do you wish a pilot?"
"Normally I'd say yes," Straker said, 'but Elanor wishes to accompany us. Would there be room for four?"
Merrel sent Nepetane a glance of enquiry. She said: "We can provide a fourth flight couch, and there would be only a short delay, perhaps - two hours. The work can be carried out while you are on your journey of inspection."
Straker considered. Much as he would have loved to try his hand at piloting a skimmer, he would need some time to become accustomed to his blindness. John was a competent pilot, but flying solo was always problematic, especially with passengers.
"The delay is acceptable," he told the Deputy. "Who would be available as pilot?"
"Prince Merrel once again, Sire. Anticipating your need, he insisted." Merrel gave a sharp, emphatic nod. "He would also welcome the opportunity to meet his kinsman Amet Pavlor, who has now been appointed Spicor Ambassador to Earth."
"Sounds great! Go right ahead - but please, tell me how your work on the malady progresses?"
"The 'tea pills' supplied by Doctors Jackson and Selan have eliminated it, giving us time to attend to our growth units. Commander Freeman has offered help from Earth with supplies of viable seeds to replenish our stock."
"That's great news. Then perhaps we had better make a start. Is that ok, Tyl?"
"Of course, Sire. My skimmer has the modifications, so that we will not need the cocoon. Would you all come this way, to don your suits?"
* * *
The mobile hiberpod held a stationary orbit above the colony. Merrel brought his skimmer in to dock with the craft at the entrance they had used before. With John acting once again as his father's eyes, Merrel led the party into the craft, heading for the control deck. The Keimon then asked to be taken to the storage chambers. All the rebels who had been detained on both Dyaus and Earth's moon, which the Dyausans named Candar, had been transferred aboard and put into hibernation.
"Is that all of the rebels, at least from this system?" the Keimon enquired.
"All that we have identified, Sire," Merrel confirmed. "However, it would be foolish of me to suppose that we have not missed any. A watch shall be kept."
"As you say," the Keimon agreed. "In that case, We will send them on their way. Let us return to the control deck."
They made a last check of the life support controls, then made their way back. At the control deck, the Keimon walked unerringly to the navigation panel. He inspected it briefly, using John's proxy vision; then he stood for a few moments in silence.
His companions watched, wondering; but they did not interrupt.
Straker was using his new-found skill at tracing paths of probability, considering various courses of action. Each such would have one or more consequences, both negative and positive; and then would branch off into further paths, themselves branching. It would only take a few such junctions for the number of possible outcomes to become unmanageably huge. Nevertheless, they did not become infinite; and some of them converged, to form a well-defined path.
Reaching out to the controls, the Keimon, his sightless eyes glowing silver, tapped in a short sequence of flight commands.
"Tyl," he said, "how long would in take us to return to our skimmer?"
"Perhaps - twenty minutes, Sire."
"Thank you. I shall set a delay of one hour from keying the departure sequence… Have you collected all that you require from this vessel?"
"We have, Sire," Merrel confirmed.
"Then there is no further need for delay."
The Keimon gently tapped a sense plate. A light began to flash orange, its pace starting slowly but gradually increasing. He led the way back along the corridors, to the skimmer. Merrel made sure his three companions were secure in their flight couches, then with speed but without haste, he took off from the landing apron.
They arrived back at the skimmer hangar deck without incident. They reached the external monitor in time to see the habitat make its departure.
"Perhaps we should have given it a name," Straker murmured. "Not 'Mayflower', I think… A ship carrying pilgrim colonists to a new continent on Earth," he added, for the Dyausans' benefit. "It is a prison ship, after all."
"'Northumberland'," John said, suddenly.
"You remember that?" his father said, with a fond smile. "You always did have an interest in history… Tyl, have you heard of a guy called Napoleon?"
"I have, Sire. A military leader, I believe, who did not prevail, but was exiled not killed?"
At a nod from Ed, John said: "That's right. He was sent in exile to an island called Saint Helena, on board a ship called the 'Northumberland'."
"Appropriate," Merrel commented. "As I recall, this leader did not return, at least not in strength."
"Things moved on," Straker commented. "It shall be the 'Northumberland' in the records of this day."
"If I may enquire," Merrel said, "where will it go?"
"Back home, Tyl. Back to the real Arkadia, where it started. Its complement may find their colonisation stocks useful… And now it is time we went home also. Is the 'Swift' ready for the trip?"
"One moment, Sire." Merrel lifted a hand, and Nepetane walked over to join them. "Deputy, is the conversion complete?"
"It is," she said, "and you may board."
"Thank you, Deputy." The Keimon turned to his son. "Well, John, shall we go home?"
* * *
Merrel took them back to the Moon at a fairly leisurely pace - Ed estimated it at about SOL 4. John assisted as copilot, although the Prince gave him time to absorb the view of the Earth and its satellite. As the youth was once again allowing Ed to 'borrow his eyes', the Keimon was also watching; and remembering his own flight across cislunar space, when he had accepted his vocation as Guardian of Humanity.
Had that only been a few short weeks ago…
So much had happened in those weeks - captivity and interrogation; Azan Pavlor's realisation of the truth about the Terran branch of the human race; the return to Earth; the spiking of Gimen's guns as the rebel tried to restart hostilities; the signing of the Earth - Spicor Treaty…
And - not least - his reconciliation with Mary… and the return of his son from the dead.
Ed rather suspected that the thread of his life would not tie itself up in a neat bow. He could feel his son's reluctance to fall back into an everyday groove, as he had felt - and agreed with - Mary's own need for time to accept the full truth of the situation.
He promised himself to do everything he could to smooth their paths; even if he was not around in person. As indeed he would not be, much - at least until he had brought Earth and Spicor together in a firm accord. Or, at the very least, begun the process, which would certainly take decades, if not centuries, to complete.
* * *
There was a welcoming group in the Reception sphere. When the four of them emerged from the suiting annexe, Captain Gay Ellis was waiting. With her were two pilots; Astronaut Mark Bradley of Earth, and Astropilot Corune of Dyaus. All three saluted.
"Thank you, Gay," Straker responded. "May I introduce? You know Prince Merrel of course. This lady is Elanor of the Spicor Guild of Empaths." Gay gave a smile, and a nod. "And this young man is John Edward Straker, of Earth, and my son."
"You are all most welcome," Gay said, though her eyes were on the boy. She introduced her two companions. "Mr Ambassador, Sire, Commander Freeman awaits you in the Leisure sphere. With him are Amet, son of Azan Pavlor, and his aide, Oparel. Amet Pavlor has offered to take over the role of Spicor Ambassador to Earth from his father, if it pleases you."
"Most suitable… I look forward to meeting with him. May I ask, what of his father?"
"He has asked that Azan's cremated remains be interred here in our vault," Gay said. "A ceremony has been arranged for 15:00 GMT. Do any of you wish to rest beforehand?"
Straker glanced at the others, who all gave slight head-shakes. "Thank you, Gay, that won't be necessary. Let's go and meet the others."
Gay smiled, and led them through the corridors to the Leisure sphere. She said: "We have arranged a small reception to be held after the funeral," she explained. "Alec brought some special supplies with him."
When they reached the sphere, the bulkhead door slid open to reveal a small crowd. Commander Freeman was there, and beside him were a man who was unmistakeably the younger Pavlor, and a somewhat older man. There were also the Dyausans Astropilot Kyan Fiskeret and Dr Gyp Selan, with Lieutenant Wojnycz and Dr Charles Reed. Lieutenant Joan Harrington hovered in the background. The Kei-vision showed him those faces he knew in fair detail; the others, less so.
Freeman stepped forward, took Straker's hand, and shook it vigorously. "Marvellous to see you, Ed. Hello, Tyl… Welcome, Elanor. And - you must be Johnny. I'm Alec Freeman - you may remember me?"
"I do, sir," John replied.
"Then let me introduce everyone." Freeman presented them all, finishing with the new Ambassador. "Amet Pavlor, may I commend you to Ambassador Ed Straker, Keimon of Humanity."
Amet bowed. "I am honoured to meet you, Sire."
"And I you, Amet. My condolences on the death of your father."
"Thank you, Sire."
"And I am advised that Commander Freeman has accepted your offer to assume the role of Ambassador to Earth, successor to Devas Azan Pavlor?"
"He has, Sire, if it pleases you," Amet agreed.
"You are indeed welcome, Mr Ambassador." Straker turned to Oparel. "I am told that you are Spicor's leading expert on me?" he enquired, lightly.
"The Keimon has been a great fascination to me, Sire," Oparel agreed. "I have studied his history in as much depth as I can."
"Great! I look forward to hearing more on that… Gay, how are we doing for time?"
"It would be convenient to make our way to the vault now, Mr Ambassador," Gay agreed. "Shall we lead the way?"
* * *
The vault was deep underground, beneath Central Park. Those SHADO personnel whose duty tours included Moonbase had been invited to state a preference for the disposal of their remains in the event of death in service, a not infrequent occurrence. Many of the younger, unattached, staff had opted for lunar burial - even if that was only of a small plaque in the event that those remains were 'not available'. As, indeed, had happened in the case of Captain James Regan, who had been blown to bits when he had crashed his Interceptor rather than ram it into Moonbase.
Amet Pavlor had requested that his father be interred with the people who had defended their planet so valiantly. Touched, Freeman had agreed; he knew this would have met with Azan's approval, going some way towards the reparations the ambassador had wanted to make to the Earth branch of humanity.
The service was short but multicultural, having been designed by Jack Webb and his clerical colleagues, and approved by Amet and Oparel. Commander Freeman led the proceedings; and when he had finished, at a gesture from Webb, Amet Pavlor walked to the microphone.
"I would like to give my thanks," he began, "to the leader of this stronghold, Captain Gay Ellis, for generously permitting my father to be interred here on this Moon of Earth, which we of Spicor have known as Candar.
"If I am to be quite honest, my father and I were not always on friendly terms. But I did respect him, and I recognise that he always did the best he could for his family. I feel his loss keenly. Yet I know that he died in the defence of that in which he believed most strongly; and his death was not in vain."
He raised his hand. "Azan, I salute you."
He stepped away from the lectern. Captain Ellis accompanied him to his seat.
The eulogy was given by Ambassador Straker, Keimon of Humanity.
"When I met Azan, on Dyaus," he said, "I was impressed in many ways; principally by his readiness to accept the new situation, and the courage that took. I regret deeply that I did not have nearly enough time to get to know him, before his life was taken. He was a great man. Earth and Spicor owe their new Accord to him; he made it possible, ably assisted by the Empath, Elanor. He gave his life to preserve it. We will remember him."
His words were echoed by the assembly, then the group rose to its collective feet. Captain Ellis pressed the button, and the coffin rolled away through the curtains. The sounds of a lone bugle echoed over the speakers. 'The Last Post.'
The notes died away. Silence fell, for perhaps a minute; then Straker closed the book, placed it on the lectern, and headed for the door. Behind him people were moving to follow.
* * *
The group walked through the corridors of Moonbase, making for the leisure sphere. John was beside his father, with Elanor close by. Freeman hung back a little, allowing Joan to catch up with him; and as she did so, he said softly: "Joan, would you come up to Control with me for a moment? We can join the others shortly."
"Of course, Commander," Joan said, with a brief smile. "Lead the way."
Straker, who was in conversation with Amet, and Drs Selan and Reed, heard, and permitted himself a slight smile. "Go on, Charles," he said. "You have an analysis of the compound which was used to try to kill Johnny and Paul?"
"We have," Reed agreed, and Selan gave a nod. They both looked rather grim, Straker thought. "Gyp here confirms what Medic Pyrit told you - it is indeed a concentrated and enhanced form of a drug which they have used extensively in the past to ensure that transplanted organs are not rejected by the recipient's immune system."
"Enhanced how?" Straker asked.
"By adding a modified form of the original plague virus," Selan explained. "This viroid infects cells from the host, but does not reproduce. It is not a vaccine - its presence is not detected by the host immune system, which would otherwise attack and destroy the infected cells. Instead it causes those cells to deteriorate and die. Pyrit has been informed and has taken the necessary measures."
"I'm very glad to hear it," Straker said, "but I sense a 'but'?"
"You do, Sire," Selan said, grimly. "We have asked Pyrit to check his stocks of this drug to determine whether they contain this viroid. Early indications are that it does."
"You're thinking that this was a deliberate ploy by the rebels - to ensure their genocide was successful."
"I do, Sire."
"I must agree… Can anything be done for the Spicor victims?" Straker wanted to know.
"We must prepare new stocks of uncontaminated medication as swiftly as possible," Selan told him. "We must also ensure that they receive enough of the buffer given to Paul to slow the deterioration. That in itself will not completely restore health to the pre-transplant level, though it will buy us some time."
"We will assist in any way we can," Straker said. "I am told that our research into the problem continues at speed. We will collaborate with you and your medical colleagues in detail."
"Thank you, Sire," Selan said.
* * *
The Control dome was almost empty. Only Nina Barry and Chan were manning the stations, watching for attack by any rebels who had remained in hiding. When Nina saw the pair come in, she gave a small smile, and began to talk solemnly to Chan about trivialities of routine.
"How can I help you, sir?" Joan enquired.
Freeman looked distinctly nervous, she thought. He cleared his throat. "Well, first we're off-duty, so call me Alec."
"Of course, s- Alec."
"And please, do sit down."
Joan quirked an eyebrow. She perched on one of the seats. "OK?"
"I - I think so."
Freeman was fiddling with something in his pocket. He began: "Joan, you may know that I was married, many years ago, to a lovely lady called Samantha. We were together for three months. She - she was killed in an air crash. I don't think the rebels were involved… But I've never wanted to try again. That is, not until quite recently.
"When Ed and I were being held captive on Dyaus, and were then - you might call it rescued - by Azan, many things became clear to me. I realised that I was unhappy, and worse, that I had been wasting a lot of time."
And he knelt before her. He held out the small box he had taken from his pocket and opened. "Joan, will you make me happy again? Will you marry me?"
Joan stared. Although this was not entirely unexpected - indeed she had been hoping for it - it still came as a slight shock. An entirely pleasurable one.
She looked at the diamond band glittering in the lights of Moonbase Control. She said: "Alec, you idiot! Of course I'll marry you! If you'd left it any longer I'd have asked you - "
Alec leapt to his feet, grabbed her, and kissed her thoroughly. The kiss lasted for some time; it was interrupted by applause from Nina and Chan.
* * *
The refreshments set out on the tables in the Leisure Sphere were impressive. They included many tree fruits from Earth, and some foods from the skimmer stocks. There were chicken, fillet steak, and salmon, cooked simply, without too much seasoning. Straker knew that all the foods on offer had been thoroughly checked by Jackson and his colleagues for compatibility with Dyausan digestion.
Taking John and Elanor discreetly in charge, Captain Ellis steered the guests towards the spread, handing them plates and beakers, and encouraging them to help themselves. Amet Pavlor led his countrymen by example, followed by Kyan Fiskeret. Straker carefully hid his smile at the look on her face as she bit into a ripe apple; it was one of sheer bliss.
"This is so good, Gay," she breathed. "Would that my father could have been here - he would have been greatly envious!"
Amet was equally impressed, and compared notes with his aide. Straker heard him comment on the lack of trees on Dyaus, and moved to join them. He gathered that the Dyaus crop-growing areas - which Kyan referred to as 'gardens', with not a little sarcasm - concentrated on hydroponic cultivation. They could manage a few bush fruits like strawberries, but little else.
This was not his area of expertise, but he listened carefully, until someone tapped on his shoulder. He turned; it was Alec Freeman, with Joan Harrington at his side.
"You look as though an Interceptor had landed on you," Straker observed, listening to input from the Kei. "Do I take it, Joan, you said yes?"
"I did indeed," Joan smiled, showing her finger, "but how did you know, sir?"
"Blame the Kei… but never mind. Congratulations - and may I say, Alec, it's about time!"
"Thanks, Ed," Freeman said, as his friend shook his hand, smiling warmly. Not a little nervously as this was her former commanding officer, Joan presented her cheek for a kiss.
"Now tell us," Freeman said, his voice mock-stern. "What have you been doing to yourself? Your face looks cooked!"
Straker cleared his throat. Joan patted her fiancé's arm, and moved off to talk to an eager Gay Ellis. "Well," Ed began, a little hesitantly, "you know you said blind astronauts were a trifle hard to come by? Well, I've got you one."
It took Alec a second, and then it sank in. "How the blazes did that happen?" he demanded.
"Gimen got to me. He tried to force me to - to do something terrible. Paul already knows about it, and I need to tell you and Amet in more detail… I managed to fight him off, with help from Johnny, but in the process I exposed my eyes to the sun for too long.… The medics on Dyaus have examined me, but there's not much they can do. I need to talk to Charles Reed."
"I take it they didn't offer you a transplant," Alec agreed. "How are you finding your way around?"
Ed explained about the Kei, and its help, and about 'borrowing' vision from Paul and from John. "It's a bit strange, as you can probably imagine - but it works."
"Delighted to hear it! But how are you going to manage - "
"I'll have two pilots," Ed explained. "Tyl insisted, and Paul pointed out that he has been appointed Spicor Liaison, so he'll come as well. He still needs time to recover a bit from that toxin, so we'll give it a week or so before we leave Prithvi system."
Alec digested this. At length he said: "Poor Tyl is going to have his work cut out keeping you two in line… And what about Johnny? I was delighted, and it was great to meet him again. But Mary - "
Ed gave a nod. "Well," he said, "I guess I'll wait to ask Johnny what he wants to do."
"Very wise," Alec agreed. "Do you think he'll - "
He was interrupted by a loud popping sound, and a cheer. "Come on, you two," Gay called, "before we drink all the fizz!"
* * *
John was chatting with Gay and Joan - or at least, Ed noted, was mostly listening while they talked, though they included him as much as they could. Elanor was observing the gathering with interest. She and Alec had exchanged a few words, while she nibbled appreciatively at the foods on offer.
She was slowly drifting in his direction, Ed realised.
On the way, she collected John, with a smile, and together they moved slightly away from the group. She glanced at Ed, gave a tiny nod, and he handed the new ambassador over to Victor, then excused himself. He strolled over to join the two.
He looked at his son, and he knew.
"Sire," Elanor said, in a low voice, "John has a request to make."
"Go ahead," Ed invited, making his tone encouraging.
"I do not wish to go to Earth." John drew a breath. "That is, not yet. I know it is my home… but I do not feel that way. I will visit in the future… but not yet. I know that - that my mother deserves to know that her son lives… but I am not yet ready to see her."
"I understand," Ed agreed. Truthfully, he was not surprised. "Where do you wish to go? Dyaus?"
"If Nepetane will have me."
Elanor interposed: "I am unsurprised, Sire. John knows that I have 'read' him, and I am aware of his confusion. If it pleases you, I will accompany him to Dyaus and be his guardian for as long as he needs."
"How d'you feel about that, John?" Ed asked.
"That would be good," John said, gratefully. "Thank you, Elanor."
"It is my honour," Elanor told him.
"What - what about my mother?" John said. "Will she - be OK?"
"I have linked her into the Kei, as I have linked both of you," his father said. "I will ensure that she is aware of your existence at a subconscious level. Over time, that will become stronger, until you two are ready to meet."
John nodded. "Thank you," he said.
"I will be leaving for Dyaus myself, in the morning, after I have attended to some matters here… Or do you wish to depart now?"
"I am content to accompany you… Ed."
"Then it shall be so. I need to talk with Alec, and Amet. Afterwards, I want a chat with Oparel. Would you like to be present for that part, John?"
"I would indeed, Ed," John agreed.
"Great…Elanor, would you tend to John until we are ready? I would welcome your presence also."
"I am very pleased to do this, Sire," Elanor agreed.
Ed caught Gay's eye, and she smiled to Joan, then came over. "How can I help, Sire?"
"I would like you to arrange a meeting in the secure unit. Please ensure that Alec attends, with Amet, Tyl, and Oparel. I have something I need to tell them… My apologies, John," he added, "but this is, for the moment, a very private matter indeed. Gay, would you look after John and Elanor while we do this? I'm not sure how long it will take."
"Of course, Sire," Gay said. She beckoned to Joan, who was chatting with Kyan. "Joan could you take over here? The Keimon wishes to hold a conference." She smiled a little. "He wants to borrow Alec, I'm afraid."
"No problem," Joan smiled.
* * *
At the secure zone - where Straker had been held, temporarily, while they considered Azan's death - Gay showed them in, and then closed the door. An ominous red light showed that they were locked down.
"Don't worry," Ed said, "that's just to keep people out. I don't want what I have to tell you to be overheard. Would you sit down, please?"
They sat, and he told them of the way Gimen had manipulated him, and of how - and why - he had resisted. Their reaction was rather more restrained than he had feared.
Freeman was first to speak."How??" he demanded.
"A - weapon - was available. I put it 'beyond use', " Ed said, quietly. "It would not have been possible to destroy it without wrecking the Moon."
Amet said nothing, but Oparel gave a thoughtful nod. "I should advise you, Sire," he said, "that a device which could have been used for this purpose was known to us. The machine I have in mind was a stellar flare control system. Few now know of it; the research was suspended when the Emergency came upon us."
"I certainly knew nothing of this device," Merrel said. He looked badly shaken.
"Your father, Azan, mentioned an installation which was set up on Candar's far-side, to observe solar flare activity," Ed said to the ambassador. "He was not aware that it had other functions. Do you also know of this?"
Amet swallowed. "I know of the flare monitor, Sire," he managed to say. "My father passed the knowledge to me. As far as we knew, only the three of us - my father, me, and Oparel here - knew about it. And we all believed it was an observing facility only - though the research included plans to upgrade it.."
"John Bosanquet found it, and investigated it," Ed told them. "But he did not fully understand it, and he died trying to use it to kill me. I think the knowledge must have been acquired somehow by his daughter, Sarah - and she set me up to use it to destroy all life on Earth."
"Do the rebels know about it?" Alec said, sharply.
Ed considered. "I think it unlikely," he said, at last. "Sarah must have kept it from them, somehow. They would have used it, as a quicker and arguably more certain method of wiping us off the face of the planet. The Keimon would then have manifested as a pure Arkad."
"Then we have to make sure they don't find out… Ed, is it just us here who know?"
"I told Paul. I made quite sure we were not overheard." Ed took a breath. "Right now… I have to know something. I'm not asking for a 'vote of confidence'… And I'm not sure I can actually resign?" he added, looking at Oparel.
"I can recall no such instance, Sire - "
He was interrupted. "Ed, don't you dare!!" Alec exploded.
"What - Oh. Sire, there is no need for you to take such a drastic action as self-termination," Amet said. "My Emblem informs me that your integrity as Keimon is unimpaired by your actions, since you yourself resisted successfully. The Companion Brother agrees with me."
"You can hear him too?" Ed smiled, a little ruefully.
"Yes. And now that's settled…" Alec drew a long breath. "What's next? You said you wanted a chat with Oparel here… Should we go, and leave you to it?"
Ed released the privacy lock. "No need - on the contrary, I'd like you here, and I've asked Joan to come, and to bring Johnny and Elanor. With any luck, she'll also bring a tray."
"I have indeed," Joan smiled. She entered, pushing a trolley, followed by John and the Empath. Alec got to his feet, and helped her seat the two newcomers, and hand round refreshments. As she made to leave, Ed shook his head, and nodded to a spare seat.
When they were all settled, Oparel turned his attention to his Keimon. "Sire, you asked me to instruct you on what we know of you, now and in the past. Shall I begin?"
"Please, Oparel. Go right ahead. Do you mind if I record? I rather suspect there will be a lot to digest!"
* * *
The discussion lasted more than two hours, with Ed keeping his questions short and to the point. Alec followed his example, while the others remained mostly silent. At length Ed said that he was satisfied.
"For the moment," he added. "Oparel, your pardon, I am sure I will have many more questions for you while I consider what I have heard - but I thank you for a most thorough briefing."
Oparel bowed. "It is my honour, Sire."
"You weren't wrong about there being a lot to digest," Alec said, with a rueful smile. "I would like to pass a copy of this to Gay, to keep her in the loop, if that's OK?"
"Of course, Companion."
"I'lll bring Paul up to date…And we'd better think about some sort of presentation to those who need to know," Ed said, thoughtfully. "Alec, perhaps you could delegate that to Major Ford."
"He'll be delighted," Alec said, drily. "And speaking of Keith, I've got something for you, from his investigations."
"About this brother of mine?" Ed settled back in his seat. "Tell us, please!"
* * *
The meeting broke up, and Joan took the copy of the recording for Captain Ellis up to the Control dome. Gay greeted her with a smile, and accepted the tape.
"A long session," she commented. "And full of surprises, I warn you!"
"I'll bet… I'll listen to this later. So, Joan," Gay smiled, handing her a beaker of coffee, "made any plans yet?"
"I'm full of plans," her newly-engaged colleague chuckled. "OK, I'm a bit up in the air at the moment - to be honest, I didn't think this day would ever happen! I thought I'd have to take a fencing foil to him or something."
"Now that would have been a thing to watch."
"I'll talk to Alec," Joan went on, "but I'd really like to 'tie the knot' up here. Perhaps we could invite some of our Dyaus friends - and I never thought I'd be calling them that!!"
"Nor me," Gay agreed. "Was it all really just a month ago that we were about to annihilate each other?"
"Thank the Deity we didn't!"
Gay sipped at her coffee. "Joan, I hope you don't mind, but I've asked Jack Webb about the situation. I wasn't specific - but he did say, yes I could officiate. If you and Alec would like me to."
"I'd love it, thank you so much! I'll certainly check with Alec - but I'm sure he would as well!"
"In any case," Gay said mischievously, "it is the bride's day, after all!"
* * *
Later, in the quarters reserved for the Ambassadors, Straker was packing two small cases for their trip to Dyaus. The journey itself would take only minutes; but then he expected to stay on the colony moon for a number of days, perhaps weeks, getting to know the place.
The question of what to take had required considerable thought. Clean underwear and a change of clothing was a given; but what then? What did you wear for going star-hopping?
He had consulted Amet, who had assured him that their basic needs would be supplied by Nepetane. Amet had also advised him to take a stock of dietary supplements; the overhaul and renewal of the 'farms' on Dyaus had barely begun, and would likely take months to complete. Commander Freeman was assembling a workforce from SHADO personnel to assist in this task.
Straker took a few books, in electronic format to save space; but he had also asked to be shown the artistic works of Spicor. Amet had assured him that they had an extensive stock, though it had fallen out of use over recent centuries, as the need to survive had taken up all their energy. John asked for advice on reading matter, a question which threw him a little. After some thought, he settled on a few 'classics' by authors such as Jules Verne, Arthur Clarke, and Isaac Asimov, as well as some books on Earth history and geography. Perhaps some Douglas Adams would be a good idea also, he thought - if Johnny's sense of humour could cope!
John accepted the choice. As he stowed the reader safely in his own case, he asked: "Ed, what d'you think you'll find at Proxima? Will there still be a colony? For that matter, does Spicor itself still exist as a recognisable entity?"
"I sure hope so," Ed returned. "But Dyaus is in contact with them still, and reports are encouraging."
He thought, but carefully did not say, that the reports might have been a 'smokescreen'.
John checked over the contents of his own case. "This should be enough, at least to start off."
"Good… What plans have you made so far?"
"I want to go down to Earth - to see Mary, if not to speak to her yet. For that I will need to spend some time acclimatising myself. Dyaus must have such a facility, surely; if not I'll ask them to set one up for myself and Elanor."
"Great." Ed closed his own case, and stood up. "Well, shall we go see if Tyl is ready for us?"
* * *
Straker was still trying to get used to the short timescale of these interplanetary journeyings. He understood the physics of it well enough; but appreciating it on a human level was more difficult. It was as though a sea captain like Francis Drake, who in the 16th century had had taken three years to circumnavigate the globe, had been fast-forwarded to the 20th century and sent on daily trips to the Moon!
That's something I haven't given enough thought to, yet, Straker reminded himself. How to cope with 'culture shock'.
It was a quick trip; Merrel was not dallying. On their arrival, Pyrit was waiting on the hangar deck. He reassured Straker immediately. "Sire, have no fear for the Companion Brother; he recovers well. I advised him that you were due, and that you had news. Also, my prince, I believe Deputy Nepetane wishes to speak with you."
"Which do you prefer to do first, Sire?" Merrel enquired. "Would you accompany me, or visit Colonel Foster?"
"Perhaps I'd better to talk to Nepetane first," Straker said. "Pyrit, is Paul able to meet us there?"
"He has progressed enough to emerge from quarantine," the medic told him. "If you will excuse me, I will ask one of the techs to conduct him to Nepetane's workroom."
"Thank you," Straker said.
Pyrit led the four of them to a bay beside the hangar deck. It housed a number of small wheeled vehicles; Straker recalled the 'jeep' that Alec had described, that had transferred him and Alec from the 'dormitory' habitat to the medical centre, after Kotte's attempt to take them from Azan Pavlor. They climbed aboard, and Pyrit took the controls. The 'jeep' motor started up, with a low hum, and headed for the exit.
Straker 'looked' around, accepting the loss of detail in the Kei image from his own unfamiliarity with this area. Merrel noticed. "I fear, Sire, that little consideration is currently given to aesthetic values in our living and working spaces, because of the Emergency," he said, a little apologetically. "We would welcome suggestions for improvement, though that is a low priority - "
"I don't entirely agree, Tyl," Straker told him. "It should improve the morale of Dyaus immensely, and so aid in its recovery. I'll speak to Alec about it - and to Captain Ellis."
"I thank you, Sire - ah, I think we have arrived."
The jeep pulled up at a pair of double doors, marked with two symbols. One of these Straker could see clearly, and he recognised it as the 'royal' sigil worn by Azan and Amet. The other was less clear; he concentrated, and with the Kei's help, realised that it was a stylised representation of the solar system.
They disembarked. Merrel touched a small metal plate beside the doors. It glowed green, and the doors slid open. A figure stood there; from the Kei, Straker knew that this was Deputy Nepetane, though her features were unclear.
"I greet you, Sire," she said, and bowed. "Please, enter."
"Thank you… I must offer my apologies; my eyes were injured, through my own carelessness. I perceive unfamiliar things only vaguely."
"The Companion Brother has warned me of that. Please, enter."
He stepped inside, followed by the others, and the doors closed. The Kei showed him that this inner chamber seemed to be an airlock; he understood that it could be sealed against water entry from leakage - in either direction.
Ahead of them, another pair of doors opened smoothly, and Nepetane led them forward into a large spherical space. Straker remembered the compartment in which he had been held captive. This seems to be similar in structure, though larger, with a flat floor cutting off the lower quarter or so of the sphere; but this place had a broad panoramic window, showing the Europan ocean in which this habitat floated. It also contained a desk, and various items of unmistakeable office furniture.
"Perhaps, Sire, you, the Companion Heir, and the Empath Elanor would like to join Paul Foster? He sits in that annexe, and I have provided refreshments. I must speak with Prince Merrel, if you would excuse us, "
Straker thanked her, and followed her into the annexe. Paul Foster was indeed there; he stood up as Straker entered. Nepetane withdrew, and the pair shook hands warmly.
"You're looking better, I can tell," Ed said. "But please, do sit down… Johnny came with us, he's going with Elanor presently to arrange permanent quarters here."
"You're not going back to Earth then, John?" Paul smiled.
John gave a quick head-shake. "Not yet," Ed confirmed. "Like Mary, he needs time to think."
"I can imagine." Paul lowered himself into a chair, motioning for the visitors to do likewise; then he handed round filled goblets. "I think they've changed the recipe for this one, it's rather good."
"Sure is." Ed leaned forward in his seat, a little. "Now, about this sibling business."
"John and Elanor have already heard this, though not many others have… Alec had Keith investigate, under strict confidentiality. He's been very busy. He's located a Kara Straker - and her medical records. Seems she was infertile. Caroline Fletcher was her first cousin. Although she was somewhat the younger of the two, they were very fond of each other - very fond indeed."
"How fond, exactly?" Paul said, his tone even.
"Fond enough," Ed replied, "for Caroline to offer to have a baby by John Charles for Kara - and for Kara to have accepted it."
"And your father agreed to this?"
Paul was surprised rather than shocked, Ed noted. "I guess he would have had to be persuaded," he admitted. "But Keith thinks he was desperate for a child. So in the end he agreed. In order to avoid unpleasant speculation, it was arranged that the two women would go on a 'trip' together after Caroline had conceived, and return with baby. Me."
"There's a curious convergence here," Ed continued. "Amet told me that his own birth was as - unconventional - as mine. His father, Azan, was infertile… and his uncle, Azan's brother, volunteered his services, in vitro. Though it seems that such surrogate measures were not so uncommon across Spicor, with the high rates of infertility they had been experiencing. Fertile men and women were offering their services to many mates, perhaps as many as four or five each. Their spouses did not like it, but generally they accepted the need."
"Did the Arkads have such problems?" Paul said, abruptly.
"As it turned out, when Amet investigated in more detail," Ed returned, "they did not."
Paul took a deep breath. "No surprises there. Who was Amet's biological mother? Does he know?"
Ed said, carefully: "Yes, she was Azan's wife. Paul - " He hesitated for a moment. "I am shaken obviously, as you must be at this news. But it is something we both needed to know. I have thanked Keith for his efforts… I guess this was the reason why Caroline left the States. She must have been having very strong feelings for Father, and they were affecting her marriage."
"Seems likely," Paul agreed. "Well… I knew I was adopted, at least - my mother and father made sure I knew from an early age, and that I was happy with the idea. They didn't know my biological parents, though. I did a lot of 'background reading' about your side of the family - but not in this sort of detail. Keith really knows his stuff! I sometimes wonder how many contacts he's got!"
"Best not to enquire too closely," Ed said, drily. "Of course, we did check him out rather thoroughly when we recruited him, back when SHADO was being set up. He was clean, needless to say. Though we did notice that he had - well - a bit of a talent in that area."
"I'll say," Paul smiled.
A chime sounded at the door, and Ed signalled for entry. Pyrit came in. "Your pardon, Sire, Companion," he said, "but following consultations with your own Doctor Reed, I have prepared for surgery on your eyes. I understand you have spoken with him about this matter?"
"I have, Doctor." To Paul, he explained: "Charles is worried - the burns to the eye are affecting the retinas too much. If they are to have any chance at all of healing, something must be done; and he recommended implants of lens and cornea. He asked me if I wanted him or Pyrit to do it… Pyrit, as you examined me in the initial stages, I'm happy for you to complete the task."
"It is my honour, Sire. The procedure should take less than an hour, followed by perhaps another four hours of monitoring."
"Great," Ed said. "Will you excuse us, everyone? I'll see you all for supper!"
"Perhaps," Elanor said, rising, "I will see John settled?" She looked a question at the youth, who nodded. "Good… We will also meet you there, later."
The small group followed Pyrit from the room. Paul leaned back in his chair, poured himself another goblet from the jug, and sipped it slowly, thoughtfully.
* * *
The surgical procedure was quick and painless. Afterwards, Ed was taken to another of those spherical rooms; but this one was rather larger than Nepetane's quarters, and more decoratively furnished. Indeed, it was as close to luxury as he had met here on Dyaus.
He said as much to Pyrit, who smiled with gratification. "I am happy that you are pleased, Sire," he said. "We have been considering your comments on the benefits of improving our surroundings. Here you will 'see' some of the items which had been consigned to long-term storage, from which I asked Elanor to select."
"Pass her my thanks," Ed said. His eyes were closed and bandaged; but the Kei was scanning the room, and conveying impressions of colour and shape. The floor was dark green; the walls a sandy beige; and the ceiling was the blue of an Earthly sky. There were what he decided must be sculptures placed here and there, and panels of colour on some of the curved walls. One of these, he thought, was not a picture, but a window to the outside. Lights moved and twinkled out there; he remembered the rock-face he and Alec had seen on their 'rescue' trip on the mobile habitat, while they were held captive.
"It's truly delightful, thank you," he said.
"I am glad… I would recommend you take the opportunity to rest. Also, you may enjoy this." He touched something on a side panel, and sound crept into the room; the sound of waves on sand, with a distant cry of gulls.
Pyrit left; but Ed had noticed a slight catch in his voice; and he knew the Dyausan was weeping.
I don't think they would have seagulls on Varna, he thought. Or beaches.
* * *
The next morning, Ed roused from a dreamless sleep. He was feeling much rested; in fact, it had been easily the best night he had had since that diverted visit to Moonbase.
After Pyrit had examined him, he had declared that the implants were settling in well. Ed had then been joined by Paul - who had also been declared sufficiently fit by Pyrit - and later by Elanor and Johnny, for an evening meal; evening by colony time. Johnny had explained to them how this worked, and about the 22-hour day that was used here.
Paul had brought news.
"I've been talking to Alec, and he will be here tomorrow, to see us on our way," he said. "He's also bringing a gardening task force. Not to mention a platoon of interior decorators."
Elanor had brought kit for the two Earthborn. It consisted of suitable clothing, comms equipment, and personal weapons. To this Ed added the dietary supplements and readers he had brought from Earth, for himself and Paul, and some extras for Johnny. At length they retired to bed. Paul shared Ed's rom,and Johnny went back with Elanor.
Now they waited with Prince Merrel in the skimmer hangar, while a craft came in from Moonbase.
Johnny was listening to the comms channel and giving a translation. "The vessel carries Commander Freeman, and Captain Ellis, and is flown by Astropilot Fiskeret," he reported. "The restoration crew follows them, in two other craft."
"Great. Thanks, John."
It took the party in the first skimmer a very short time to come through the landing zone. Only a few minutes passed, it seemed to Ed and Paul, for Freeman and Ellis to emerge from the corridor connecting the hangar deck to the observation level.
They shook hands fervently with each other. Gay added a quick hug, then stood back a little, and gazed around. "We came only just in time," she smiled. "This place definitely needs a lick of paint!"
"We are happy to be guided by yourselves in this matter," Merrel said. There was a slight twinkle in his eye. He looked at the Keimon, and his son. "Perhaps, Sire, I could show your friends the craft we have prepared for this journey?"
"Thank you, Tyl."
He glanced at John, and noted that the young man seemed almost as nervous as he was himself. Or maybe it isn't nervousness, not quite… he thought. Taking john by the shoulder, he led him into a side annexe, and slid the door closed.
"I'm sorry, John. We haven't had nearly as much time together as I had hoped," he said, softly. "I expect to be away for about a year, maximum, on this particular occasion. Gay will give you any support you need, and Elanor will look after you. And - of course - we have the Kei-link."
Johnny nodded. "I know that you have to go, urgently, sir, to find out what has been happening at Varna. I do not pretend that I like it - but…"
"Me too… Johnny, if you manage to make contact with Mary, give her my love… and say I ask her forgiveness, for leaving you both so suddenly…
"I'll wait until you return," Johnny managed, in a choked voice.
Ed reached out, and took his son in his arms. They stood silently, for long moments.
At length, they stood back, a little. Ed glanced at the door, and cleared his throat. "I think Elanor waits outside," he said, shakily. "Please, Elanor, come in."
The door opened once more, and the Empath entered. She stepped to Johnny, and placed an arm around his shoulders. "Come."
Ed watched them depart. Then, he wiped his face, and went to rejoin his crew.
Alec and Gay were in conversation with Tyl Merrel, with Paul listening carefully. "Ed," Alec said, "I've been asking Tyl how you two will manage to put up with each other for a few months. I gather it's some kind of hibernation?"
"That's right," Ed confirmed, with a glance at Tyl, who gave a nod. "It's similar to their 'stasis pods' - adjusts our personal time perception so that it will only seem like a few days."
"Quite correct, Sire," Tyl agreed. "We usually lapse back into 'real' time at intervals, so that we can perform systems checks, on both the skimmer and ourselves. This journey will involve six such pauses; Nepetane has our timetable."
"And you'll have an escort, as we did on our first trip back to Moonbase?" Alec queried.
"That is correct, Companion."
"And Johnny?" Alec asked, carefully.
"He stays on Dyaus while he re-acclimatises himself to Earth conditions," Ed explained. "Elanor will be helping him… He plans to go down there, have a look round - but he'll wait until I'm back before he makes any kind of contact."
"And, Alec - I expect you to be married by the time we get back!"
"I was going to postpone the wedding - "
"Don't you dare," Ed said, mock-scolding. "Joan would be less than pleased, with both of us!"
"You're not wrong," Alec agreed, a shade ruefully.
The Keimon took a deep breath, and turned to Prince Merrel. "Then I suggest, Tyl, that we get going? Don't want to hold up the decorators!"
"As you wish, Sire."
Ed and Alec shook hands, gave each other a quick hug; then Paul took his own turn, while Ed gave Gay a friendly kiss on the cheek. "I'm relying on you to make sure he behaves, Gay," he smiled.
"Doubt whether that's possible," she chuckled.
"Goodbye, Alec. The very best to you and Joan. Save us some cake!"
"I'll try." Alec's smile was a little shaky.
Prince Merrel turned, and led the way into the skimmer. Within a few minutes, they had made their exit through the ice tunnel, followed by an escort of three of the 'royal guard' that had seen Alec and Ed safely home on that earlier occasion.
Paul turned his head to look at his brother. He said, softly: “Well, here we go.”
“Where no man has gone before, as they say,” Ed agreed. His Kei-senses were telling him that the man was almost quivering with anticipation. He sympathised… “Well ok, no earthborn, not for millennia.”
“I never thought I’d be doing this. Not in my wildest dreams.”
“You and me both… Alec must be luminous with envy!”
Tyl, Prince of Merrel Demesne, smiled to himself, and caressed the controls. Less than two hours later at its maximum speed, the skimmer reached the outer limits of the sun's influence, and entered interstellar space, on the way to Proxima Centauri.
How much time had passed, Johnny was not quite sure. The subliminal training that he had experienced had overlaid his sense of Earthly time with the 22-hour day of both Avach, the lunar outpost, and Varna, the planet of the star Terrans knew as Proxima Centauri. Johnny had asked for facilities to be set up here on Dyaus to help him adapt to both Earth time and - with the assistance of the Terran scholar, Professor Bergman -Earth gravity. Of the two, he was not sure which was worse! Both left him tired, both physically and mentally. But his Earthborn heritage helped, with mineral supplements to his diet, to replace lost calcium and other substances.
A few of the Dyaus astropilots joined him in the conditioning chamber for days at a time, as did Elanor. They were welcome company, and used some of the time to practice their terran languages. They would also watch the terran communication channels; though they tended to find 'comedy' confusing. preferring factual and arts subjects.
Then at last came the time when Pyrit cleared him for a trip to Earth.
The conditioning chamber had been placed a short walk away from the skimmer hangar. As Johnny walked beside Pyrit down the connecting corridor, he was aware of an unaccustomed feeing of lightness. He was about to ask how long he had spent becoming acclimatised; but then decided not to - he should be able to work it out for himself!
"I would calculate," he ventured, "that it has been some fifteen Dyaus cycles since I began my adaptation?"
"That is so, Companion Heir," Pyrit confirmed. "You have adapted well."
"My father must be halfway to Varna by now. What news?"
"You are aware that they are making the journey under time-compression, as used in the hiberpods?" Pyrit said, and Johnny gave a nod. "And that they 'coast' in normal time at regular intervals? Good… This occurred most recently last night. Prince Merrel reported that all was well, and that they were still in contact with Varna."
"That's good, thank you."
They entered the hangar deck. Elanor was waiting, with Astropilot Fiskeret. John greeted them, noting that they were both wearing vacuum suits. He had requested Fiskeret as co-pilot, and had asked Elanor if she wished to accompany them.
Nepetane was also there. She conducted the party to their skimmer; it had been modified to 'Swift' configuration, so there would be no need for the 'cocoon', for which John was grateful. The Deputy oversaw the launch herself, and soon Earth was growing in the skimmer viewer.
John called Moonbase, announcing their arrival, and Captain Ellis responded. He advised her that they would approach the planet in stealth mode, heading for Britain, which was currently in night phase. The captain told him that she had made arrangements for his accommodation and mobility at his chosen destination. Once he had left the skimmer, Fiskeret and Elanor would fly back to Moonbase, and await his call.
* * *
The gargoyle on the plinth stood guard at the head of the tree-lined avenue to the centuries-old granite cottage that was now Mary Nightingale's new home, on the island of Jersey in a stretch of water between Britain and the multiplex continent of Eurasia. John inspected it, thoughtfully, wondering if it was any more than a simple marker. He doubted it.
He used the mental gesture that would effectively render him invisible. People would look but not see, would not even register his presence. With this privacy shield in place, he walked along the drive, listening carefully for any oncoming vehicles, so he could step out of their way.
None came. His legs still slightly aching, even after his time in acclim, he arrived at the end of the slight curve in the avenue which concealed the cottage from direct view. It was set in a large green lawn; beyond it, through gaps in the surrounding trees, a glint of blue spoke of the sea.
The pictures he had asked for, and that Paul Foster had supplied, had been helpful. He knew that a gate by the side of the cottage led to a rear garden which backed on to the water. He knew he would find an old magnolia tree, and other plants that he should recognise. Vague memories of the inside of this place were awakening; he recalled that his mother, Mary, had brought him here once or twice to visit his step-grandmother, Marion. Paul had told him that Marion had died a short time ago, but had not gone into details; and the cottage had been passed to his parents in her will.
He pushed open the gate, and entered the garden space. His mother was there. She was working at a bed of earth planted with flowers, apparently removing unwanted growth.
John watched, absorbing every detail.
After a few moments, Mary straightened up from her kneeling position, and glanced around, her face showing puzzlement. She knows I'm here, John thought, even if she doesn't actually see me.
Unaccountably his eyes were blurred with tears.
He knew her thoughts, through their Kei-link. Not the form of them, only the feel. They were calm if not peaceful; underneath there was a sense of regret, of longing. He did not intend to intrude further - but there came unbidden a sense of contact with his father.
With the contact came knowledge.
He turned, and left through the gate, then hurried to retrace his steps back up the avenue, back to where he had parked his hire bicycle in the nearby village. He needed to be private somewhere, while he digested the knowledge he had received.
The small vehicle was where he had left it, padlocked to a rack containing a few similar ones. With hands that trembled, he unfastened the padlock, then remembered that he was still effectively invisible. He cut the shield, and set off down the road to the guest house he had chosen for accommodation while he was here.
On arrival he headed straight for his room. He poured himself a glass of fresh water from the covered jug in the cold cabinet, and sank into a chair.
Carefully, he inspected the memory. How had it come to him? Had it been awakened by John's own contact with his mother? Had Mary unwittingly made contact with Ed Straker herself, motivated by a dual regret?
And what of the memory itself? Had his father really become angry enough to try to destroy all of humanity?
Was he still under attack by one of the rebels, at Dyaus, still hidden here on Earth, or at Varna itself? Or was he motivated by anger still?
Either way, John thought, I have to go to him. To warn him… or to stop him.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
I have used the honorifics 'sir' in male greetings and 'ser' in female ones. I may have borrowed this from the author David Brin.
Apologies to all respectable physicists (and biologists) for the dreadful liberties I have taken with their disciplines. Einstein, Boltzmann and Helmholtz (to name but three) must be waltzing in their graves!
Companion of St Michael and St George
This Order includes Major Tim Peake and Helen Sharman
Lunar Orbit Insertion
Not just Star Trek!
My Italian is not just rusty, it's non-existent - but this is Anna Davis from 'Testament of Arkadia'. (And she may not be Italian anyway!)
Entertainment for the rebel captive
'Yes, Minister / Yes, Prime Minister'
(Spoof of 'Secret Army'!)
Gravities of various astronomical bodies
What does 'red' look like to other people? Not being telepathic, or having access to a Kei, I haven't the faintest idea!
Napoleon's exile to St Helena
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Sanskrit primer (with apologies to experts out there for any errors!)
Deva = deity
Prithvi = Earth
Candar = Moon (Chandra)
Isvar = Jupiter (Ishvara)
Saktar = Saturn
Dyaus = Europa
Varun = Enceladus
Varna = Proxima Centauri b
Udich = North
Prach = East
Pratich = West
Avach = South
The Works of Snowleopard
The Library Entrance