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NYROND

The planet Schivendac had only recently succumbed, after a long and bitter struggle, to the forces of the Federation. That is to say, succumbed again: in the aftermath of the abortive Andromedan invasion, with the fleets decimated and communications in disarray, the resistance had seized its chance and launched an armed revolt. It had lasted approximately a day and a half. The rebels had not only overestimated Schivendac's distance from the centre of command, but also underestimated its perceived importance as a staging post, and it turned out there were quite enough battle-ready ships left in the area to flatten all the major cities on one planet, and with them the entire rebel force. There was, after all, no time for finesse. The survivors had been conscripted to carry out the reconstruction, and by now the capital city was practically as good as new. In fact, most of it was new, though made of prefabricated components which seemed to carry with them from the factory an air of being over forty years old and about to collapse.

The native security forces had unfortunately also been concentrated in the major cities (some losses, alas, were inevitable) and so such duties were currently being performed pro tem by a skeleton staff from off-planet. For this reason, the emphasis in civilian government was being laid on discouraging minor offences against the prevailing martial law rather than burdening the guards with them.

All of which added up in practical terms to the fact that the public benches in Schivendac's new capital city were designed to be damnably uncomfortable, to deter loiterers; and the discomfort was magnified several-fold if you happened to have a small black hole of pain nestled snugly in your lower torso, just to the left of your spine.

Blake shifted to a new and slightly more awkward position and tried to control the random twitching of his limbs. The pain was his puppeteer, jerking the strings of his sinews according to no definable pattern. Truly it would have been hard to recognise in this palsied, grey-faced, unshaven wraith the Roj Blake who had stood so solidly on the flight deck of the Liberator. Which, when you came down to it, was all to the good.

A guard approached, made as if to prod the derelict with his paragun, then shrugged and moved on. Type two, thought Blake. The apathetic as opposed to the sadistic. Most Federation troopers fell into one or the other type. He had seen a fair sample, one way and another, over the past few months.

His mind, decoyed away down the paths of reminiscence, backtracked those months to the beginning of this third—fourth?—phase of his life, the phase that had begun over Star One, when it had become obvious that even the Liberator's mighty hull could not withstand the batterings of the alien fleet's weaponry for long. He had stayed till last, stayed long enough to be sure that the ship would, after all, survive, if Zen were allowed to power down all non-essential systems. He had stayed too long. Already injured, he wasted vital seconds battling one-handed with the controls of the life capsule, and a stray bolt from something that looked like two hair dryers glued together sent him spinning helplessly away from the ship, unable to navigate his way back or even make a controlled planetfall. For days he had drifted, waiting for the capsule's rudimentary self-repair systems to provide him with limited navigational ability, and by that time his momentum had carried him far from the battle, well back into Federation space. His power and life support had been all but exhausted when he had finally located a suitable planet and coaxed the capsule into its gravity well. The gathering of speed…the drop…the landing. Oh gods, the landing. Splaat all over the landscape, no attitude control, no retro-thrusters, nothing to break the fall or prevent the capsule smashing open on impact. He had spent hours deliriously drafting outraged letters of complaint to the manufacturers as he lay amid the wreckage under a pitiless bronze-hued sun, his one coherent thought the remote, passionless realisation that he was dying.

But something, or someone, had not finished with him yet. The purple night had brought a measure of respite, and as the red sun rose he had found his way into a hollow amid a tower of irregularly shaped rocks, whether placed there by nature or design he was in no condition to tell. There he had rested for an unguessable time, catching the scanty drip of condensation from the stone above on his parched tongue, while a Federation scout patrol scanned the wreckage in a cursory manner, and its leader looked around at the desolate landscape and came to the most obvious conclusion that allowed for an early lunch break. There, under cover of the purple darkness, Blake had forced himself to his feet, put the final polish on the measured phrases of his latest letter of complaint, and set out to find a pen and paper to write it down.

As the sun rose again over the desert, a kind of sunrise came to his brain as well. He remembered, with increasing clarity, who he was, where he had been, and his purpose changed. A distant clamour of roars and screams lent urgency to his faltering steps. Two black-clad troopers passed him at a dead run, giving him barely enough time to scramble for a hiding place. The remaining trooper, standing fifty yards away from the patrol ship staring anxiously in the direction they had gone, only noticed something was amiss when the ship closed its hatches and blasted skyward.

(They never found the remains of the patrol, but a Federation helmet, much scarred by wind and sand, turned up thirty years later in a native market, where it fetched an extravagant price.)

There had been medical facilities on the ship, and these, combined with food, water and rest, had restored Blake to partial functioning. But somewhere inside him was a dark rebellion of organs, and the manuscript of his memory from that time on consisted of hasty jottings much overlaid by inkblots of pain. The planets…the stolen ships…the occasional waylaying of a prosperous-looking, empty-eyed citizen, so dulled by suppressants that death made little or no difference…the cheap rooms…the short hops, working passage on ships too old for even the most menial tasks to be mechanised…Schivendac was just one of a possibly endless series of way stations.

Except that it wasn't endless. In one cold, still corner of his mind, beyond the reach of pain, Blake knew quite clearly where he was going.

Another guard, type one, pushed him off the bench with the muzzle of his gun and snarled something Blake couldn't make out for the sudden roaring static of pain in his head. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet, eyes lowered, and hobbled away. A crowd seemed to be gathering along the edge of the park, where it bordered on the main street of the city. Twitching, gasping, he made his way towards it, forced himself into the press of people and up to the ancient iron railings.

Something white was approaching, gliding down the street flanked by helmeted outriders on motorcycles. A sleek ground-effect limousine, open-topped. Cheers spread along the crowd like heat along a knife blade. Blake craned his neck, a chill realisation already permeating his soul as he recognised the slim figure lounging in the back of the car.

Sleek, black hair, cropped cruelly short. A face like a false promise. A body of cool deception, white-clad. And eyes whose depths held nothing but the naked lust for power. Throne room eyes.

Servalan.

*

The planetary governor of Schivendac was a fool, and like all fools, was convinced that no-one could tell. His speech of welcome, carefully crafted by Servalan's communications department, had been delivered word perfect, without the slightest flicker of awareness on his part that he had contradicted, one by one and without seeming to, every assurance, every pledge and every exhortation that had formed the body of his last broadcast to the beleaguered people from the bomb-proof government shelter. "Alone at last" with Servalan in the private suite of the newly rebuilt governor's palace, he made it quite clear that he expected to retain his office as a "reward" for such "cleverness." Servalan, who found such imbecility in unimportant people curiously endearing, played up to him brilliantly, and soon had the poor little man quite dizzy, and firmly convinced that not only Schivendac, but the governorship of the entire quadrant, and Servalan herself, were his for the taking.

"Your Excellency is most kind, most kind," he burbled, pouring Her Excellency yet another glass of vile, sickly green muck. "And your visit is so opportune as well!" He glowed.

"In what way 'opportune', Governor Moglan?" Servalan made the surname sound like a term of affection, meanwhile adjusting ever so slightly her body language, making her appeal more basic as her estimate of his mental abilities plummeted. Complete conscious control of such things had long been a source of secret pride to her. In one corner of her mind an incredulous Servalan watched herself and thought: What are you doing, flirting with a nincompoop who looks twice your age?
But she knew the answer. She hadn't been herself for some time. The aberration was precisely pinpointed in her mind: though she knew perfectly well the reason for her sudden frivolity, she was powerless to alter it, and found even. in that impotence a source of perverse pleasure; possibly because she still imagined she could prevent its spreading: it could be summarised in one name:

Avon.

A two-tone chime sounded in the distance, and she called herself to order as Governor Moglan, refilling his own glass, said: "Why, for the Nyronds, of course! That will be their leader now, come to invite me to their first night at our New Reconstruction Theatre. Your Excellency--dear lady--allow me to order two tickets?"

"Who are these Nyronds?" Servalan inquired.

"Why -" Governor Moglan was lost for words. "Showmen! Performers! Unparalleled throughout the Galaxy, so I bear. They have appeared on four planets so far, and taken them by storm. What is it?" as a liveried flunky—actually a Federation guard in mufti—appeared at the door.

"Jubal Nyrond, Governor," the flunky said, and stepped back as a tall, imposing individual with a bulbous nose loped into the room and abased himself extravagantly before the Governor and Servalan. His hair and beard were silver and neatly trimmed, his garb prosperous yet tasteful.

"The Nyrond greets you," he said in deferential tones.

"Schivendac returns your greeting," Moglan said loftily.

Servalan inclined her head. Something in the eyes of the Nyrond—suppressed hilarity or rage, she could not tell which—both irritated and intrigued her.

"The Governor and I are looking forward to your performance with great interest," she said.

*

"Excuse me."

The voice roused Blake from a contemplative stupor. The reason for Servalan's presence here was obvious, a show of power and friendly intent to a newly rehabilitated planet. It need not have anything to do with him. But the sight of his enemy at such close quarters had triggered off a combination of dreamy reminiscence and vague speculation which had quickly taken over his numbed brain and had left him hanging on the rope barrier long after the crowd had dispersed.

He jerked awake, turned. No guard. A tall fellow, thin-faced, bearded.

A slightly blobby nose, detracting from the overall impression of sinister power. Dressed in black: what had panicked him in the first place. He turned away, emphasising his twitch; I'm just a poor old man, ignore me.

"Ah, but you are the one we seek, Blake." The stranger spoke low, but loud enough to be heard if anyone were listening. His voice was light, precise, capital letters and punctuation clearly defined. "Fear not, we are Unobserved. My name is Clement Nyrond. Would you care to return with me to the bench from which you were so Unceremoniously Ejected some time ago?"

He'd been half-expecting this: recognition by some tin-pot rebel group, the appeal for support. "If it's Blake the rebel you want, he's dead. I'm sorry." He didn't move. Neither did Clement Nyrond.

"Blake the ex-rebel will do Very Nicely, thank you. I might point out that we can offer you healing for your Obvious Internal Injuries."

The words at first made no sense to Blake. Then, at last, under the friendly yet calculating gaze of the Nyrond, he let go of the rope barrier and stood as upright as he could.

"What do you want?"

Clement gestured gracefully toward the bench and offered Blake the other arm. "I and my brothers run a—well, a Touring Company. We travel through the galaxy performing for our living, undertaking the Odd Job: we are good at certain...Slightly Unorthodox...types of work."

Blake waited politely while Clement made a precisely judged pause.

"It...pleases us, on each planet we visit, to provide something...of Local Interest, shall we say. A special item of limited appeal, that no-one else can match. Now here we have something Entirely Apt."

"You can't put me on show," Blake said, sitting down nevertheless on the bench. "Even if I were about to let you...which I'm not...I'd be arrested immediately. The Federation doesn't forget that quickly."

"Oh, we wouldn't bill you as The Blake," Clement said smoothly, "But as 'the Blake'. An Imitation, possibly Crazed and imagining himself real. You have to understand that you are a Legend, Blake. Rather like Robin Hood. Or better still, William Tell."

"Who?"

"Let it pass. I study Ancient Manuscripts, and from time to time Forgotten Flotsam rises to the surface of my conversation." Clement laughed ruefully. "Before you ask what a manuscript is, let me proceed.

"You would be a combination Mentalist and Mad Prophet. Here, far from Auron, telepathy is as much the Province of the Mystics as ever, and clairvoyance even more so. You would give 'Spirit Messages' to members of the audience whom you would identify by initials. We would supply the messages, of course. Among them, well hidden, would be certain communications of a ... Rather More Important Nature. Finally—"

"Hold it there," Blake said. "Rebel messages?"

Clement nodded almost imperceptibly. "Finally," he said, "you would end your act with Prophecies. People love to hear predictions, whether they eventually prove right or wrong, and government, being Essentially Cynical, grants to prophets a Certain Licence. This will serve to reassure those of the authorities who may monitor our performance that you are mostly harmless, and therefore so is your Act, and so are We."

"How long are you here for?" Blake said bluntly.

"Five nights: then we move on to Golant."

"Suppose my treatment takes longer?"

"In that case..." Clement dropped his gaze momentarily. "...would you be prepared to Travel with us, performing a similar function on other planets? Our Connections are Quite Extensive, and you would be Recompensed."

Blake checked himself. "How can I trust you?"

"I don't know," Clement said. "You can not trust us by leaving the bench, keeping the pain...just there, isn't it?"

His fingers were damnably deft. Somehow Blake found the strength to nod.

"Or you can come with us and see what happens. For what it may be worth to you, I pledge my Oath as; a Nyrond that we will not throw you to the Federation Wolves if we can avoid it."

Blake considered, through the thinning mists of pain. Strangely, Clement's touch seemed to have quieted the demon within. He hardly twitched at all as he stood up and said:

"It's a deal."

*

Servalan made herself a little more comfortable in the seat, which was designed on the opposite principle from the park benches. Beside her, Governor Moglan stirred fretfully. A joke was a joke, the President thought to herself, but if she was ever going to start withdrawing now was the time. She hadn't believed the pudgy little Governor capable of such antics as he had perpetrated in the lift on the way up. It was only her feeling that, in some ways, she deserved the lesson that had spared his life.

The show was average, no more interesting than any other. Nyronds came on, went off, told long and involved jokes, did passably incredible conjuring tricks and acrobatics. Servalan's mind was parsecs and weeks away, working on her schedule of appearances. Golant had to be fitted in somewhere, and Troxel, Sammas, Kalibraxes...

A Nyrond came on stage. The prismatic letters on his chest spelt SOREN. Where do they get their names from, reflected Servalan idly.

"Gentlepeople!" Soren bellowed, and Servalan thought, Blah. "You have been most forbearing. We thank you for your courtesy. To end our evening of entertainment we now present a hitherto unheard-of event." Oh yes? "Could we have the lights down please." The lights, manned by Nyronds, obediently dimmed, all but one which began to sink towards the floor. Soren raised his eyes to Servalan's box and implored forgiveness, before making off for a noisy altercation with "Tully" on the offending light. Such supposedly amusing "mistakes" had been Tully's part throughout the evening. Trite.

Soren returned. "I do beg your pardon, gentlepeople. It is all too easy to disrupt the calm, contemplative atmosphere which this our next guest requires, Once famous in the field of action—or perhaps given the current political climate in general, and the presence of our noble guest in particular, I should say 'once infamous'—he has been long ensconced within a remote cave on a desert planet far away, and has been brought here at great expense so that we--and you, gentlepeople --may share the gifts of supernatural power to which he has attained by dint of constant spiritual mortification. No mechanical trickery, gentlepeople, no technological aid whatsoever. Merely the unaided power of a man's mind. The Nyrond proudly presents, for your mystification—ROJ BLAKE!"

The lights went out, and Servalan came wide awake. Surely— But the man picked out by a single spotlight was far too old, beyond any doubt. She had studied Blake carefully. He had had no more character than a Federation tax officer; no fire had stripped his soul of dross. This was an altogether different proposition. Blake as the masses see him, she thought, with condescending amusement. He was robed in sackcloth, long¬-haired and bearded, and his eyes held a tale of suffering and solitude that would have driven the real Blake over the edge into insanity.

With him stood Soren. "Roj Blake, are you prepared to reveal to us the secrets that lie beyond the veil?"

"I am prepared," Blake replied tonelessly, and Servalan flinched. Moglan put his hand on her knee to find out what was the matter, and she twitched it off. That voice had been almost perfect. Strained, too strained to sound natural, but almost perfect.

"F. and W., " Blake said clearly, "your parents will never consent to your marriage, but there are those in your houses who are sympathetic to your desires. Seek help from the lowest of the low.

"G., your monograph will not be well received at the institute. The Free Press on Malmont will, however, pay well for it. Visit Schanith village for your holidays this year. The shoes there are highly durable.

M, you are playing with plutonium. If a mouse climbs up the back of a leopardess, he will be thrown off. Take warning."

That one hit the mark, thought Servalan as her companion shifted nervously away, rather better than anything I could have done. This "Blake" certainly carried conviction in his voice. The rest of the messages seemed run-of-the-mill, probably based on information gathered by Nyronds on some pretext or other before the performance.

Finally Soren stepped in. "Thank you, Roj Blake," he said. "Gentlepeople, Roj Blake now has things to say to all of you, concerning matters of great import. Roj Blake."

Blake stood straight before the pulsing lights and wondered whether he'd last to the end. Clement had massaged him shortly before he had come on and five minutes of raging agony had given way to a beautiful painlessness, the first real absence of pain for countless centuries, or so it seemed. He had felt truly inspired as he reeled off the prepared list of messages. Now black shapes were flitting from bush to bush outside his mind's fortress: mordant forces were gathering again. And as he turned his head slowly from left to right, surveying all the theatre with the sightless gaze they had told him worked well in prophets, his eyes locked with Servalan's.

And moved on. If nothing else, his wounds had taught him self-control: at that moment he rivalled Avon in sheer expressionlessness. But he now knew exactly what he would say.

"After summer comes winter," he began, "and after winter, summer. But who is to say how short shall be the winter? I speak to many; but shall any truly hear? The beehive is run by a leopardess. Is this right for either? Can a leopardess change her spots, or a bee his habits? I say to you, beware, for more blood shall be shed ere peace is permitted to raise her bloodied head. The high shall fall, that the low may rise: beware both, lest the difference in climate kill you.

"And let S. especially beware deception: things are not what they seem. A constant grip wearies the hand and crushes the object. The Wheel turns, and change is the only constant."

"Enough," came from Soren, ventriloquially. "Take a dive."

Blake gratefully folded at the waist and knees, in only half-pretended collapse: the pain was back.

"Gentlepeople, do not be alarmed. Roj Blake has not seriously overtaxed himself, but now he must rest. Thank you once again for attending our little performance, we hope to see you once more before we quit this planet, and if you have enjoyed yourselves, we hope you will tell your friends. Goodnight."

The curtain fell on a growing buzz of conversation and gathering of outer garments amid scattered applause. Moglan opened his mouth, but Servalan was gone.

A Nyrond met her at the dressing room door. "I'm sorry, your Excellency, the dressing room is closed."

"Then open it," the President said icily.

"I'm afraid that's not possible," said another Nyrond, joining the first from a side door, as yet a third rounded the corner.

Servalan cursed inwardly. If only she hadn't left her guards behind, at the insistence of that fat little twerp of a Governor! What was the matter with her?

"Very well." She smiled. "I wouldn't want to cause you any trouble. Yet."

Inside, Clement listened as her footsteps faded.

"From now on, I think you'd better change on board our ship," he said. "We have a teleport system somewhat analogous to the one you had on Liberator."

You know about the Liberator? Where is it?" Blake raised himself on one elbow and was immediately pushed down by the other Nyrond in the room, who was fussing over an internal holograph machine.

"We don't know that. At last report, it was following a signal purporting to come from you. That was months ago and we've heard nothing since. Sit still."

"Pretty bad," the other Nyrond said. "Internal bleeding set off again if not careful. With us for the next five planets at least."

"How do you feel about that, Blake?"

"Get rid of the pain and I'll jump through hoops for you," Blake ground out as his entire body screamed at him. "But if you betray me," he added, looking Clement squarely in the eyes, "I'll break you apart, all of you."

"I have given my oath," Clement replied serenely.

"Which is worth?"

"As much as I want it to be."

Blake lay back and closed his eyes. He was committed. Why make a fuss now? Wasn't it time to trust someone again?

*

Those on far Earth whose task it was to monitor the President in her travels had several surprises coming over the next few weeks. One by one, her scheduled stops were rearranged, postponed, or cancelled altogether. Golant was visited a week earlier than expected, Troxel went unheeded. She seemed to be following, of all things, a travelling show.

Some of the wise heads at Control averred that it was that fellow Avon who had unhinged her. Others, still wiser, kept silent and hoped to survive her eventual return that way. All filed these events away as a possibly hopeful sign of weakness.

And, at the other end of these particular tendrils of surveillance, Servalan was becoming increasingly disturbed by "Roj Blake." Not that she imagined for one moment that it was he: no, it was just that she could not definitely, once and for all, satisfy herself that it was not. If she had been thinking, she would have recognised the beginning of Travis' sickness: but her rational mind had abdicated for the first time in her spare, reptilian, upward-mobile career and she pursued this affront to her senses with all the fervour of—

Of Blake himself, in pursuit of the falsehoods in his society.

She had attempted to storm the dressing rooms once again, with half a dozen guards, and found "Blake" not there, and the Nyronds so smilingly, helpfully blank that she had retired in defeat. The research she had done had shown her that the Nyronds, in turn, had done theirs: attempts to obtain "Blake" by force would be (as Clement might have put it) Most Unwise.

The President of the Federation sat in her private yacht en route for the independent planet Darshwane and nursed her first headache in more years than she could remember.

*

"Good news," Clement greeted Blake, on the day before Darshwane. "Our message-carrying has aided the Organisation of Resistance on four of the five planets we've visited, and Servalan is still following us."

"That's good?" Blake replied, in mid push-up. From the floor he added, "She can take us any time, you know, without making it seem like her work."

"Oh, we're fairly well protected. Besides she isn't thinking of it. We've actually got her Confused, which I for one never expected." Clement: knitted his brows. "It's true it puts a variable into the equation which we Don't Really Need...but then, this is your last hop anyway. After Darshwane we can drop you anywhere and carry on, innocent strolling players...who, us?" He addressed an imaginary Federation guard, covered with outraged innocence. "Us, shelter a Dangerous Rebel? Blameless Thespians...how can you suggest such a thing? Yes, we carried a Lunatic as part of our show for a while...surely you don't imagine we would have taken on the Genuine Roj Blake? Was he? Well, fancy that. Took me in completely. It just goes to show, you Never Can Tell."

Blake chuckled. It took little to amuse and delight him, in the first glorious freedom from his incubus. The pain had finally vanished the previous week, and he had been exercising continually ever since, driving himself, restoring his lost mass. Now he felt once again the man he had been, now he could get back to business...

"Any news of the Liberator?"

"None. Sorry." Clement turned away. "Are you ready for Darshwane?"

"Yes," Blake said, clenching his teeth as he pushed against the artificial
gravity once more. "I know exactly what I'm going to do."

*

The Nyronds had obviously not designed their show to be followed from planet to planet. Servalan was ready to scream as joke followed trick followed elaborate tumble, exactly as she had seen it twenty or thirty times before. The only thing that was always different was "Roj Blake"'s act, and she hardly listened to that anyway. All her concentration was bent on studying the man in the sackcloth robe, piercing the darkness with her eyes, trying, trying, to come to a decision about the bastard. She hated him already as much as Travis had—had hated the real Blake, she meant.

Tonight, she was determined, would be the end of it one way or another; the last night on Darshwane. Six guards sat disguised in the front row. They would storm the stage on her given signal, seize "Blake" and remove him for examination. She clutched nervously at a small pendant round her neck, which she positively refused to think of as in any way "lucky" but which she always wore nowadays when a situation seemed likely to turn critical.

Soren went through his spiel, including the light joke with Tully, exactly as he had weeks ago on Schivendac, and "Blake" appeared. Tonight he seemed different from that first time, though: taller, bigger, more the right size.

"Tonight," he said clearly, "I have no messages for any single one of you. Tonight I speak to all, for all.

"You have accepted me as Roj Blake these past four nights, or if not, you have gone along with the deception. People are very easily fooled, aren't they?

"Yet you aren't the only ones. One person I know has followed our show across half a dozen worlds, thinking that she was on the trail of Roj Blake the rebel. Tonight she plans to have me seized by her bully-boys in the front row—whose disguises are about as effective as solid plastic rifles—because she thinks I am Roj Blake. There she sits!"

To Servalan's horror, a spotlight—Tully's spotlight—pinned her where she sat. Heads turned, and the whole theatre burst into laughter.

"Yes, people are very easily fooled." Even "Blake"'s voice showed grim humour. "And President Servalan is also a person, with all a person's weaknesses. You all recognise the lady, I think. Here on an independent planet, under a false name, to see a mad prophet in a travelling show. Your Excellency, will you stand up?"

Hating herself, hating him, but determined to cling to her dignity, Servalan rose. In the front row, her men stolidly waited for the signal.

"Would you like to come onto the stage, Madam President?" Blake said. "Just to satisfy yourself that I am—or am not—the great Roj Blake?"

Servalan walked to the footlights and mutely accepted Soren's hand up. Behind her back, Soren made great play of breathing on his hand to warm it.

"Well, Madam President?" Blake said gently, knowing she knew now. "Am I the legendary Blake?"

It was a dilemma. Whatever she said would be audible all over the theatre. If she said "Yes," it would be another proof to the people that Blake was alive and well; if "No," it would destroy what was left of her dignity.

There was only one chance. "Now!" she called.

At once, six husky Federation guards stormed on to the stage and seized Blake.

"Yes," Servalan said, triumph searing away all the doubt and hurt and. frustration from her mind, "you are Blake. But you won't be for long. After we get you back to Earth..."

"Tell me just one thing," Blake said defeatedly. Inside herself she crowed, At last. "What's happened to the Liberator?"

"It was destroyed," she said offhandedly.

"And the crew?"

"Dead," she lied, not caring whether he saw the lie or not, simply trying to exact some more punishment. "Not on the ship. I saw them cremated."

"All right," Blake said. "Now." And he vanished. So did Soren.

The guards looked wildly around, milled together momentarily and then ran off to search a theatre suddenly empty of Nyronds, while the audience tried to suppress another burst of laughter and Servalan, on the verge of unfeigned tears, put her hand to her bare throat and knew why she had failed.

*

"Anywhere will do," said Blake, as the Nyrond ship sped out of the system. "Best make it quick in case she organised pursuit."

"I have confirmation of her first statements," Clement said. "The Liberator passed through some sort of cloud that corroded its fabric. It exploded soon after. As for her second claim, nothing is known.

"There have been rumours of some of your former crew being seen in the region, but you know how it is with 'Blake's Seven.'"

"Yes, I do know," Blake answered. "Months after his death, we were still hearing reports of Gan being sighted here and there."

"I may have something a bit stronger here," Soren said, tossing a river of silver chain from hand to hand. "As I helped Her Excellency up, I took the liberty of unclasping it."

He spilled it into Blake's open hand. A small locket on a chain. And inside—

A tiny but perfect holographic likeness of Kerr Avon.

Blake stared at it for a long time, while the Nyronds silently quitted the room. It was still in his pocket when he was set down on a dusty road not far from the main city of Sideru.

"You wait till I find you," he muttered. "I'll teach you to lose my ship."

*END*