The Taxonometer

A science fiction short story told by a female narrator and set in the very near future, or perhaps already happening somewhere now.

“What is it?” I asked.
“The very latest development in electronics, chemistry and biology!” Ben replied, with more than a touch of theatricality.
“Made by you?”
“Of course not,” said Ben. “You know that I have no practical skills. This was a team effort. Our technicians put the thing together; the Prof and I provided the theoretical stuff and, oh yes, the Department coughed up the funds.”
“I’m not very impressed,” I said. And I wasn’t. I wasn’t sure that I approved of Ben bringing his work home and, in spite of his dramatic flourish, the object he had just placed on our dining table didn’t seem like an example of cutting edge technology to me. “It looks like a one-slice toaster with an iPad slapped on the side.”
“Rather a thick slice,” Ben responded.
“Well,” I said, “an open-topped microwave then, not wide enough for a full-size dish, and with an iPad slapped on the side.”
“Put your hand in it,” said Ben, adopting his authoritative voice. “Go on, put your hand in and rest one or two of your fingers against the bottom plate.”
I looked at him doubtfully.
“You’ve been telling me lately that you want to keep your hand in,” he continued, “so, here’s a chance to have a go.”
I grimaced at the feeble joke, but I began to insert my hand.
“I hope I’m not going get a nasty shock,” I said. My fingers touched the floor of the box. “It feels a little bit rough.”
“Anything else?”
“No,” I said. “Is that all?”
“Fine,” said Ben. “Now take your hand out, and let’s check the monitor. That iPad screen of yours is lighting up.”
He was right. A multicoloured bar chart was dancing across most of the screen, the individual columns fluctuating in height and hue. It was a fascinating display to watch and, for a moment, I failed to notice the static message that had appeared above it in dull blue lettering: ‘Subject 20150510-1 HUMAN Probability 92.9%’.
“Hmm,” said Ben. He looked slightly puzzled. “It’s usually a bit more positive than that but, hey, you’re good enough for me. How do you fancy trying it out on your beetles?”

For about three years, before I was interrupted by George’s arrival, I had spent most of my time cataloguing the large beetle collection bequeathed to the University by a distinguished former Professor of Zoology who was supposed to have been researching African lizards. Perhaps because of the paucity of the British lizard fauna, he had developed this alternative interest to occupy his spare time when he was at home but, unfortunately, he had never got round to identifying more than a fraction of his specimens. Pregnancy had come to me as a welcome distraction from the weevils, longhorns and ladybirds.
“When I said that I would like to keep in touch with my subject, I was really thinking about looking at something different, jellyfish perhaps, or squirrels, or maybe dinosaurs”.
“Dinosaurs are no good,” said Ben, taking me seriously, “there’s no way of getting DNA from the fossils. We need a large group of modern organisms, quite well known but with the possibility of including a few unknown species. That way we can calibrate and develop the taxonometer, and we might achieve one or two breakthroughs for the biologists even before we’re ready to publish an account of how the thing works. Those beetles of yours would be ideal.”
“They’re definitely not ‘my’ beetles,” I replied. “’Taxonometer’, is that what you call it? How does it work?”
“You said the surface inside felt rough; that’s because it’s perforated by thousands of microscopic holes, and behind each of the holes is an even more microscopic needle. When you touched the plate, just one of those needles was activated; it made a minute incision in your finger and sampled your DNA. A tiny chemistry set under the plate replicated your DNA a few hundred times and then the sample was scanned by some microelectronic device, this is the part I don’t understand, that can work out the precise structure of the DNA molecules it senses there. Finally, another system compares the DNA result with a database and generates the display on the monitor identifying the species of animal or plant that has been sampled”.
By now I was definitely beginning to feel impressed, but: “Only 92.9% human?” I enquired.
“It’s 92.9% probability,” Ben corrected me. “The machine’s still compiling statistics and learning how to extrapolate results from them. At the moment it can only distinguish between human, laboratory rat and parrot DNA; Tony let us use his tame parrot for a test sample. It would be a surprise if it rated anyone 100% human; it has to compare each new sample with all the others it’s processed and, of course, we’re all slightly different. Mind you, 92.9% is a bit low, we’ve averaged 98.5 with the students we’ve tried it on.”     A brief, incoherent cry carried across to us from the other side of the room.
“It’s feeding time,” I said, “at least, for some of us. And you can take a turn reading to him this evening.”
“Claire, he’s not a year old yet. He doesn’t understand a word we say.”
‘That,” I retorted, “is your opinion. I’m with him all day, and I can assure you that he’s got the smartest intellect of all the babies I’ve ever met. Not too much of a surprise, I suppose, with parents like us!”

*                                                         *                                                  *

Much as I initially disliked returning to my work on the beetle collection, it did indeed provide me with some intellectual stimulation and a sense of being a little bit useful beyond the restricted world of domesticity and child rearing. Once I had perfected a routine and accumulated a few results I even found it quite interesting to compare the taxonometer’s results with the beetle classifications used in the standard identification guides. After a couple of months I was telling Ben that two or three genera of weevils badly needed revising as their DNA was too diverse for the close relationships implied by the current nomenclature. After six months I was convinced that I had found a handful of ‘new’ species, with distinctive DNA signatures that separated them from apparently identical specimens in the same collection. Each time I introduced the taxonometer to a different species I had to advise it by entering double zero on a keypad and the scientific name that I had determined from elsewhere; the taxonometer would treat that specimen as a reference sample for comparison with all subsequent samples it analysed. The more samples of a particular species that were analysed, the higher the probability levels of the identifications offered by the taxonometer. Because I only had a few specimens of each of the different beetles in the collection, the taxonometer’s confidence ratings tended to be relatively low, even when there was no obvious reason to doubt that an identification was correct. By trial and error, and by sometimes deliberately trying to pass off one species as another, I determined that anything less than a 70% probability was a good indication that a particular identification was incorrect.

Meanwhile, Ben was taking the device to the University now and again to build up its database of human samples. One day he said: “I think we may have tested enough people now to have stabilised the taxonometer’s ability to identify human DNA. For the past month every student we’ve tried has scored a probability of at least 99.8% of being human, even though we’ve been deliberately seeking out the most diverse individuals we can find.”
“That’s nice, dear,” I replied. With, at most, no more than twenty specimens of any one kind of beetle to investigate, the highest level of probability I had recorded was only 88.6%. “By the way,” I added, “you might need to reset that electronic chess board of yours. George was playing with it yesterday; I hope you weren’t in the middle of a game.”
Ben grunted. He didn’t seem too concerned, so it came as a surprise when he returned to the subject some time later.
“You know the chess board…” he began
“Oh yes,” I responded.
“You didn’t touch it yourself, did you?”
“No,” I said, “I wouldn’t, you know that.”
“Funny,” he said, “he’s certainly tinkered with it, but the position he’s left it in is, well, it’s quite… sensible.’
“He has been watching you playing with it lately,” I pointed out. “In fact you’ve been sitting with him on your knee while you play.”
“For goodness’ sake,” said Ben, “he’s only just started trying to talk!”
“And he makes a lot of sense,” I replied, but I realised that he did have a point.

I had left the big ground beetles until last. Partly this was because I realised that they would be relatively easy to identify, partly it was because I didn’t really fancy handling them. I was sure that some of them resembled the large beetles that I had sometimes found around my gran’s cottage in the hills when I was a girl. In those days I was more likely to scream at the sight of such things rather than consult an entomological handbook. Unlike me, George stared at the alien shapes of the beetles with blatant fascination. Some reflected elusive violet hues, others had their bodies hidden under rough, knobbly carapaces; all of them carried armoured heads with conspicuous compound eyes, antennae and ferocious mouthparts. He sat at my shoulder in the old-fashioned high chair that Ben’s mother had passed on to us, carefully watching me at work.
“Here we go,” I chanted, “pick it up by the pin and pop it in quick; watch the screen glow; pick it out with the tweezers and put it back in the box.” I reached for the logbook. “Check!” I said, looking at George, and then, taking my pen, “Carabus violaceus. Probability 83.9%.” I put down the pen. “I need a cup of tea,” I said. “You stay there.” I kissed George lightly on the forehead and headed for the kitchen.
I filled the kettle, switched it on, paused for a moment to consider the biscuit situation and then headed back towards the dining room. As I came through the door I saw that George had somehow managed to stand up in his high chair and was putting a hand into the open top of the taxonometer. “George!” I called out. “Careful!” I reached out to grip him by his waist, worried that he would topple the chair.
“Check!” he said, cheerfully.

I glanced at the glowing screen on the side of the taxonometer. Over several months the technicians had managed to improve the quality of the lettering, and the display at the top of the screen was now stating, brightly and clearly: ‘Subject 20160404-17 HUMAN Probability 69.6%’. I stared at it for an age and then, rather automatically, reached for the logbook. After writing the entry I sat and looked thoughtfully into George’s eyes. “Just how are we going to explain this to your father?” I asked him.

Landing at Baltsarn

This is a Blake’s Seven story written between the autumn of 1984 and January 1986.

Introduction

Imagine a time in the future when the secrets of space travel have been unlocked and man has colonised habitable worlds across the galaxy. Imagine the variety of those worlds; some are little more than mining settlements or the private domains of lonely but dedicated researchers, others are populous and wealthy, centres of interstellar trade and politics. Imagine a cancer spreading through these strings of planetary realms; a power-hungry oligarchy has established the Federation, which exists only to plunder and control the resources of the universe for the benefit of itself alone.
The Federation can conquer by force of arms, or subdue a population by using psychotropic drugs. Those who try to tame the Federation by becoming its allies are skilfully manipulated and turned into its slaves.
Can any force oppose the Federation successfully and, perhaps, one day unite its victims to overturn this tyranny? Blake believes that a small group of individualists held together by complementary practical abilities and a common talent for survival might have the mobility and daring to carry out this impossible task.
Against this background was set the BBC television series Blake’s Seven, transmitted between 1978 and 1981. Each episode told a complete story about the group of renegades assembled by Blake in accordance with his plan. What follows adds another adventure to the television saga (based on the personalities and circumstances of the characters as I remembered them from the fourth, final series of episodes; only Slard and Philgar are my own inventions).

Cast of characters

Avon: cool, unemotional, decisive; the leader of Blake’s group of anti-heroes.
Vila: a safebreaker by profession; sensitive and indecisive but tolerated for his particular skill.
Soolin: blonde, pretty, independent, and a deadly shot.
Dayna: dark, slender, dependable, good with a gun and an expert with explosives.
Tarrant: quiet, unflappable; the ship’s engineer.
Scorpio: an elderly spacefreighter, outwardly unremarkable but equipped with various items of non-standard equipment, such as an exceptionally powerful rocket drive, which Avon’s group have collected during their travels.
Orac: quite simply the most advanced computer in existence, but portable.
Slave: a computer which monitors and controls Scorpio’s navigation and propulsion systems. Slave was originally designed by a megalomaniac who wanted a reliable but utterly subservient assistant.
Servalan: physically unattractive but fascinating Federation presence in the series. She is ruthless but normally uses her skill as a manipulator of other people to achieve her objectives. Once she and Avon were lovers, now they are implacable foes.
Slard: commander of a Federation military spaceship; a straightforward and unimaginative soldier.
Philgar: a mysterious loner; is he a Federation victim, or a Federation servant?

The story begins…

It was Avon, of course, who had taken the decision to attempt a landing on Baltsarn. Soolin had agreed almost immediately, although she was worried by their lack of information about the planet. Dayna and Tarrant looked uncertainly at each other, but both of them had known Avon for a long time and respected his judgement too much to oppose it openly. Only Vila wanted to argue.
“It’s a trap” he said.
“How can it be?” demanded Soolin: “Nobody knows we were coming here; we didn’t know ourselves.”
“There’s always a trap” said Vila. He was in his most doggedly pessimistic mood.
Avon appeared to be ignoring the exchange but he turned towards the pulsating box beside his seat: “Orac” he requested “is there any Federation radio traffic in the vicinity?”
“None” replied Orac.
“Where are the nearest Federation cruisers?”
There was a discernable pause before Orac responded. “It is not possible to say with certainty. As you know, the Federation uses a variety of devices to conceal both the location and identity of its craft.”
“Are there any space vehicles active in this system?” It was Tarrant who asked this question.
“Yes” said Orac.
“If I might respectfully interrupt” now Slave demanded a hearing “the forward sensors have detected indications that a pleasure craft is in stationary orbit on the far side of the planet we are now approaching. Naturally, Master, you will understand that it is difficult to obtain very much information with the planetary bulk…”
“Thank you, Slave” it was Avon reasserting his authority. “Prepare to take us down.”
“Here we go again” said Vila, summoning up all the sullen insecurity he could muster without actually appearing insubordinate. “Pleasure craft!” he muttered. “Since when have pleasure craft ventured this far from the galactic centre?”
“When we land” said Avon “I want Vila to locate a water source. Dayna, you’d better go with him; take a gun.”
Even Vila could not argue with that. It was his carelessness that had caused the leakage from Scorpio’s life support system; it would be his responsibility to secure replacement fluid. He knew that he should be grateful for Dayna’s support in that task. Soolin was marginally faster on the trigger, but Vila never felt entirely safe when alone with her; he had made too many mistakes that she found hard to forgive and when Slave had, very respectfully, told them that the life support system was malfunctioning, Soolin’s wordless but contemptuous expression had chilled Vila to the core of his being.
“Automatic landing system in operation” said Tarrant. “We will touch down in four minutes.”
Orac became active: “The pleasure craft is changing its position. It may come into visual range before we land.” Avon betrayed no response to this information; the others were strapping themselves into their seats.
“Touch down in three and a half minutes, Master” said the obsequious Slave.
“The pleasure craft will be within visual range for one minute” advised Orac.
“They’re not likely to see us” said Avon “but it would be nice to know who they are. Slave, put them up on the screens as they come round the planet.”
With immaculate timing the unidentified spaceship appeared on the screens just as Slave was announcing “One minute, Master.” Every detail of the glistening orange craft could be seen as Baltsarn’s powerful sun was shining directly onto it.
“They can’t be hostile” said Dayna “unless their incaution is a deliberate ploy.”
“Thirty seconds, Master.”
“The craft is a Federation type 12 private pleasure tourer,” said Orac “or it has been designed to look like one.”
Avon’s normally inscrutable face acquired a distinct frown of puzzlement for a moment. Then a discernable jolt told the crew of Scorpio that they had achieved a landing.
“Damn” said Tarrant “that was rough.”
“I apologise most profusely, Master; regrettably the terrain appraisal sensors misjudged the nature of the ground. With little or no information about the local geology it is is not possible to be certain…”
“Any damage?” asked Avon.
“I most certainly hope not, Master, but regretfully I must advise you that the scanning system has been rendered inoperative. I am sorry, Master; perhaps the fault will prove to be temporary.”
“That’s great” said Vila. “First the life support, now the central scanner.” He would have added more but he suddenly remembered his own part in their current situation. He glanced at Soolin and was glad to see that she was ignoring him completely.
Avon had turned to face Orac: “What’s that pleasure ship doing now?” There was a slight accent to his voice as he said ‘pleasure’; Soolin and Dayna both realised that he was not happy to accept its identity at face value.
“The vehicle is now moving in level orbit above this hemisphere” Orac advised crisply.
“All pleasure craft must be registered in the records held on Tolos Nine” said Soolin, “has Orac got access to the computer bank?”
“Well, Orac?” enquired Avon.
“Of course I have access to the systems on Tolos Nine.” Orac’s lights were flashing with visible irritation. “But I am unable to identify the ship by reference to that source. The number it displays is not recorded on Tolos Nine, nor is it listed in the more extensive records of the Federation Security Service.”
There was a long silence, and in the silence Avon’s lips could be seen forming the one word “Servalan”: then he sprang to life. “Vila, Dayna: prepare to disembark. Tarrant: make a visual inspection of the main drive and landing gear. Soolin: you and I will back up Vila and Dayna if necessary. And take no chances, any of you; where Federation spacecraft travel in disguise, even angels must fear to tread,”

Searchers

“Baltsarn,” Vila paused for a moment to take in the view. “What kind of a name is that?”
“It’s the one that will be on your death certificate if we don’t find water.”
Vila grunted. “Does anybody live here?” he asked: “or any thing?” he added.
“You heard Orac; there has never been a permanent settlement here, and no hostile life forms either.” In spite of herself Dayna found that she wanted to relieve Vila’s unremitting anxieties. “The planet hasn’t sufficient resources to attract independent colonists, and it’s too remote to have attracted the attention of the Federation.”
“Until now” muttered Vila.
“Come on, Vila, it will be dark soon. If there’s any water around here it will be down in that valley ahead. Move!”
Reluctantly Vila started walking on across the stony plateau on which the Scorpio had come to rest. The spaceship lay about two miles behind them now, and Vila was fervently wishing that he had stayed inside it. “Forcing locks, that’s my business” he said to himself. “What do I know about water divining?”
“Come on, Vila!” Dayna called.
“All right, all right” he replied. “If this place is so harmless, why are you waving that gun around? Answer me that!”
“To save Soolin a job” said Dayna, with an emphasis Vila did not like.
“I thought we were friends today” he laughed nervously.
“You haven’t got any friends, Vila.”
“Dayna!” It was Avon’s voice. Dayna raised her communicator: “Yes, Avon?”
“Any luck?”
“Not yet. The meter hasn’t registered at all. We’ll drop drop down over the edge of this plain soon; if there’s any water on the lower ground we should detect it easily.”
“That’s what you think” said Vila. “I don’t believe this thing’s been used for twenty years. It’s probably not working.”
Avon must have heard his remark. “There’s water out there somewhere; Scorpio’s sensors detected it from space. Hurry if you can; we’re effectively immobilised until the water supply is restored. When you’ve found a source, check that we can land the ship close by; there’s less than a hundred meters of inlet hose and we can hardly do this job with a chain of buckets.”
“Ask him what that pleasure craft is doing” said Vila. Dayna obliged.
“Nothing” replied Avon. His voice betrayed no emotion.
Vila and Dayna walked on in silence.
                                    *                                          *                                         *
At the ship, Tarrant had completed his inspection quite rapidly. There was no damage to the main drive but part of the landing gear was badly twisted. If Scorpio had been a spaceliner she would have been grounded until a team of mechanics could carry out repairs. As a renegade freighter she would have to fly, and land, many times before the crew would attend to the damage. Tarrant returned to the main cabin.
“The landing gear’s in trouble” he said “but with a bit of care we can get her home.” Only an almost imperceptible nod showed that Avon had heard him.
Orac suddenly came to life: “The orbiting craft is transmitting on a Federation frequency.” Avon leaned forward expectantly; Soolin began trying switches on the communication system.
“What is it saying, Orac?” demanded Avon.
“I can’t find the channel” said Soolin “are you sure it’s a standard frequency?”
“The craft is reporting its position” continued Orac, unperturbed. “It intends to effect a landing.”
Soolin and Tarrant looked at each other and then both looked at Avon who was staring into a point well beyond the banks of instruments that lined the wall.
“Slave!” Avon’s voice was at its most urgent. “Track its descent. We’ll watch on the main screen if it comes within range.”
“Yes, Master” responded Slave, quite unnecessarily.
The three humans sat at their separate consoles looking up at the main screen. For several minutes it remained dark.
“Shouldn’t we warn the others?” asked Tarrant.
“No” replied Avon. “They must not be distracted from their task.”
“We may not need to warn them” said Soolin. “That ship is going to come down between us and them: look!”
There was no doubt about it; the orange craft was clearly visible on the screen now and the landscape below it was the stony plain outside Scorpio. The ship drifted downwards, behaving exactly as would any pleasure cruiser approaching touchdown. The descent was almost vertical and at a carefully judged altitude two large, orange stabilisers spread out from the sides of the vehicle, transforming its shape from a stubby cigar to a hovering bird.
“No obvious sign of weapons” said Avon.
“Honeymoon couple” said Tarrant quietly. Soolin glared at him.
“Any transmissions, Orac?” said Avon.
“None.”
“Have they seen us?” asked Soolin; she did not expect any reply.
“No information” said Orac.
They sat in silence again. The orange craft almost filled Scorpio’s screen and shimmered, perhaps in its own heat, as it continued its slow descent.
“Surely the others have seen it by now” said Tarrant.
“They might not see it from that valley” said Avon. He pushed a button on his console: “Dayna!” There was no reply.
“She’s almost down.” It was Tarrant speaking: “A perfect landing.”
Avon was on his feet: “Soolin! Fetch the guns. What ammunition are they carrying?”
“Rechargeable energy beam cartridges” Soolin replied. She was already running to the weapons locker.
“Tarrant! Stay here and watch that screen. Soolin, you and I are going for a stroll.”
Avon led the way to the airlock. Soolin paused to throw a gun to Tarrant. “Don’t forget to lock the door” she said.
Tarrant made himself comfortable in his chair and glanced across at Orac. “Tell me at once if there are any transmissions” he instructed the gently pulsating box.
“Of course” replied Orac.
                                    *                                          *                                         *
Meanwhile, Dayna was making faster progress down the slope than her less agile companion.
“Come on, Vila, come on!” she called.
“Hang on” said Vila, who had stopped altogether, “this thing’s giving a reading.” He stared intently at the old-fashioned dial on the meter. “Funny sort of reading, but there’s definitely something there.” His voice almost contained a trace of excitement. “Where can it be?” he added.
Around them the ground was still dry and stony; lower down the slope the surface appeared to change and become smoother, with small humps and a darker colour. “Down there” said Dayna, and she moved on again towards the darker ground. Realising that he would soon be left a long way behind, Vila actually started to run. He caught up with Dayna just as she reached the edge of the familiar, stony terrain. They stood together and stared at the strange material lying at their feet. In the twilight they had thought, as they moved downhill, that they were looking at an expanse of black, glassy rock below them; as they got closer their judgement had become less certain.
“It’s not really black” commented Vila “more like a dark green, or it would be if the light was better.”
“It’s not geological” said Dayna. “Look, it’s resting on the ground like a cushion. The surface is just a skin.”
“Are you suggesting that it’s alive?” asked Vila. He pushed the dark mass with his foot, and then bent down to push it with a finger. Dayna stepped back and tensed, instinctively. Vila prodded again, in another place.
“Cushion’s about the right word” he said. “Wonder if it will take my weight…”
“No, Vila!” but Dayna’s alarm was too late. Vila had already thrown himself down in a sitting position and was rocking clumsily as the spongy, obliging mattress adjusted to the weight of his body.
“Vila! You can have your rest later; we’re looking for water, remember?”
“Water” Vila echoed happily. “That’s what it is, water! There would be no point in this thing trapping air inside itself.”
Vila’s unexpected inspiration struck Dayna with the force of a hyperdrive. She looked past Vila across the darkening landscape. The thing was huge, it covered the whole valley floor; if he was right, only a tiny fraction of the bulk contained here would replenish Scorpio’s life support system and top up the ship’s ballast as well. Dayna moved quickly forward and pulled Vila roughly to his feet.
“The meter! The probes! Where are the probes, Vila?”
“In here” replied Vila. He opened a small compartment in the meter’s case and, resisting Dayna’s attempts to assist, pushed the two needle-shaped probes into their sockets. “Here goes” he said and, taking up a crouching position, unhooked the meter from around his neck to push the probes into the flexible surface where he had just been sitting. The skin did not break. “Harder!” said Dayna. Vila pushed again then, realising that the delicate touch of a safebreaker wasn’t appropriate for this task, gave the back of the meter a sharp blow with his fist and felt the skin suddenly give way. The meter reading was unambiguous; they had found a source of remarkably pure water.
Vila pulled the meter away from the punctured organism and watched as liquid flowed for a few moments from its wounds. Dayna was already standing up, her wrist communicator raised to her lips. “Avon, are you there?”
“I can hear you, Dayna.”
“We’ve found water. There must be enough here to replenish the entire Federation battle fleet.”
“Is it on the surface?” asked Avon.
“Almost as good; it’s in a sack.”
“A sack?”
“A huge organic sack; a plant of some kind, an alga perhaps. It covers the ground as far into the distance as we can see.”
“Right” said Avon. “Now listen, Dayna. That spacecraft has landed between you and Scorpio; I’m on my way to look at it with Soolin. Vila can go back to the ship and prepare the hoses; you had better join us near the pleasure craft.”
“Come on, Vila” said Dayna. “You’ve got a hose to unreel.”
“It’s moved” said Vila. “It’s crept backwards where I was sitting.”
Dayna glanced at the ground around Vila. He was right; the aqueous sack had drawn back a few inches, revealing a small area of stony ground that, even in the murky light,appeared a different colour from the sun-bleached surroundings. “If someone stuck two long needles into you, six inches apart, you would probably move too” Dayna retorted and began to climb back up the slope towards the Scorpio. Vila stood for a few moments staring at the strange organism he had assaulted and then he turned away and followed Dayna.

Philgar

Soolin and Avon stood together in front of the orange spacecraft. They were still some distance away from it but the lack of cover on the level plain was making them both uncharacteristically nervous. They gripped their weapons tightly and Soolin held hers pointed directly at the ship without relaxing her concentration for a second.
“Sunset” said Avon. As he spoke Baltsarn’s distant sun slipped below the horizon leaving them in darkness. The orange paint on the spacecraft’s shell, however, glowed with a fluorescent power of its own. An eerie aura of orange light surrounded the ship and spread out tentatively into the night. “Colouful, isn’t it?” said Avon. “Hostile” thought Soolin, but she said nothing.
Avon lifted his communicator to his lips and spoke without allowing his eyes to leave the glowing vehicle. “Tarrant: any transmissions?”
“No, there’s nothing happening at all.”
“Vila’s on his way back to you. We’ll wait here for Dayna.”
Soolin wondered why Avon was content to observe from a distance rather than take a closer look at the strange ship. If the occupants proved to be hostile it would be better to take them by surprise than give them time to implement their own plans. “They don’t want to come out” she said.
“They haven’t even put down a ramp” said Avon thoughtfully. Soolin frowned. Avon was right; pleasure craft were designed to require the minimum of manual control and normally a ramp would be released automatically on touchdown. “Whatever it is” said Avon “it certainly isn’t a pleasure craft.”
Beside him Soolin suddenly half turned and dropped to a crouching position. Startled by her movement Avon looked across the plain in the direction she was now facing. There was a shimmering swirl of light just above the ground; it hovered in the air and was quickly forming a shape only a few yards away. Avon shifted his feet but remained standing. He raised his gun and pointed it towards the figure that was emerging as a silhouette against the faintly orange air.
“A teleport!” Avon hissed; his surprise was genuine. The figure began walking towards them. “Keep him covered” whispered Avon and then, aloud: “Keep your distance, and drop your weapon.”
The man stopped walking. His face was invisible in the darkness, Soolin and Avon could only see that he wore a long, loose cloak with a hood. “I am unarmed” he said in a gentle, cultured voice, and he spread out his arms to demonstrate that this was true.
In the dim glow from his spaceship it was difficult to see whether or not he was holding anything. Avon began to move slowly towards him, keeping his gun levelled at the man’s chest. Soolin rose to her feet, equally carefully; she looked around to see if any further figures were going to teleport out and join them, then she followed Avon. While Soolin watched like a hawk, her finger tensed on the trigger of her gun, Avon rapidly searched the man for weapons. The long cloak did not appear to be concealing any firearms. Soolin relaxed slightly but kept her gun pointed at the stranger.
“Who are you?” asked Avon.
“I am Philgar” the man replied. If the rough welcome had upset him the good-natured tone of his voice did not betray it.
“What are you, Philgar?”
There was a pause while Philgar considered his reply. “I am a player of games, a philosopher, and a solitary explorer of the universe.” He spoke slowly, pausing between each item of his list.
“And your companions?”
“Companions?”
“Someone must be operating your teleport, Philgar, player of games.”
“Oh?” Philgar smiled and gently pulled back the sleeve of his cloak, revealing a small control box strapped to his left arm. With his right hand he made an entry on its digital display. “Watch!” he said, disappearing before their eyes. A few seconds later he reappeared, a few feet further away. As Soolin and Avon turned to face him again, Philgar laughed. “When you travel alone for year after year” he said “you either go mad or learn to use your ingenuity. This controller is my own invention; I believe it is the only remote control for a teleport that has ever been made.”
“It must be very useful” said Soolin; she knew that the crew of Scorpio would find it very useful indeed.
Philgar laughed again. His laugh was soft and unconcerned. “There is a recognition code known only to me. If it isn’t used the controller will not function. After three successive failures the device self-destructs.”
“What are you doing on Baltsarn?” asked Avon.
There was a momentary silence. Philgar always considered his answers before giving them. “I am watching.” He paused again. “It is my function to watch remote planets in this quadrant.”
“Who employs you to watch?” asked Avon. He already knew the answer.
The pause before Philgar answered was exceptionally long. “I am more than a little hesitant to answer that question; there are people who would kill me instantly…” He looked directly into Avon’s eyes, searching for some hint of his interrogator’s reaction. Avon’s face remained expressionless. “I am” he continued “a slave of the Federation Council. I have to act on their orders.”
“Here’s Dayna” said Soolin. Dayna had left Vila stumbling towards Scorpio and made her way to join the tableau silhouetted by Philgar’s luminous ship.
“Dayna” Philgar echoed. “So it’s Avon’s group that have come to Baltsarn.”
“And you will report our arrival to your masters” said Avon, “or is it your mistress?” His weapon was still poised.
“I am not required to volunteer information to the Council” replied Philgar, “it is only necessary for me to answer any questions they may ask.”
“Why not just disappear into a remote corner of the galaxy?” asked Avon, without lowering his gun. “You could join us and live beyond their reach.”
“I would not live for long, my friend.” Philgar lifted his hands carefully to the edge of his hood and slowly pushed it back. “Who knows what devilry they have built in to their work” he said, and he stood imperturbably while the eyes of his three antagonists absorbed the sight he had revealed. The back of Philgar’s head was a translucent hemisphere through which could be discerned the outline of a complex bioelectronic cerebellum, some of its components glowing faintly with their own blue and orange light.
“That is very expensive surgery” said Dayna at last.
Philgar pulled the hood back to its usual position. “I was on board a spaceliner when it exploded. It was still on the ground, preparing for takeoff. There were three other survivors but they all died later. I was the only one to be given neurosubstitutory treatment; they must have thought I had some importance…”
Soolin had suddenly moved closer to Philgar. She was holding her gun to his face, but her hand was shaking. “Philgar!” she said, her voice filled with disbelief, “but nobody knows you are still alive…”
“Except the Council, and now you of course.”
“You know him?” asked Avon.
“Ten years ago he was the galactic tri-mensi chess champion; he was known everywhere back then.”
“We met, did we not” said Philgar quietly “several times, Soolin.”
“Yes.”
“You were even prettier then and, of course, that was your only protection on…”
“No!” screamed Soolin.
“Baxentl Four” he concluded, smiling.
Soolin could feel Avon’s cold stare from one side and Dayna’s intense surprise from the other. Baxentl Four is a Federation Fiefdom, a place of pleasure and delight for the privileged, a place of inescapable toil for the slaves and criminals sent to service its amenities.
“Only the most loyal servants of the Council can leave Baxentl Four” said Avon; his gun was touching Soolin just below her left breast. “No exit permits are ever granted to ordinary citizens or slaves.”
Soolin fought to quench her anger. Her finger was trembling on the trigger of her weapon which was still at the level of Philgar’s neck, but she knew that Avon would not hesitate to kill her if he suspected treachery. Dayna watched them in horror: although she was not directly involved in the confrontation she was quite unable to move. Only Philgar seemed relaxed. He stood just as still as the other three, but his was the stillness of a patient mind; he had already calculated his chances of survival and he knew that as long as he made no move he would be safe.
Finally, Avon spoke: “Take her gun, Dayna.”
Dayna moved forward quickly and took the blaster from Soolin’s hand. Soolin offered no resistance but she unexpectedly slumped to the ground. Dayna discharged Soolin’s weapon, slipped it into her own holster and then helped Soolin to her feet. Philgar remained impassive; his life still depended on inaction.
“Now” said Avon “I think we will all spend rest of the night on Scorpio.” He had emphasised the the word ‘all’, and Philgar smiled a discreet half-smile to himself.
                                    *                                          *                                         *
 The night is short on Baltsarn, but tension and uncertainty made the time pass slowly. On board Scorpio Avon was moody and uncommunicative; Soolin could feel him watching her and slipped into a repressed, silent state that the others had not seen before. Vila was not sure what had happened after he had left Dayna, but he soon decided that it would be better not to ask. Dayna moved quietly around the ship; from time to time she glanced at Avon, wondering when and how he would question Soolin about her activities on Baxentl Four.
Philgar sat alone for a while, observing each of the crew in turn. Then he smiled at Tarrant: “Chess?” Tarrant readily agreed. Like Vila, he had no idea what events had strained the atmosphere between Soolin and Avon. The name ‘Philgar’ seemed slightly familiar, but he was more intrigued by the stranger’s cloak and wondered why Philgar kept it on, with the hood over his head.
Tarrant produced a battered old chessboard from a recess beneath his console; it was a traditional two-dimensional board. Only Philgar himself realised that he had unerringly selected the keenest chess player on the Scorpio as his opponent. Avon could also play well, but it was many years since he had shown any interest in the playing of games. Philgar shrewdly lost the first game, but he won the second and third with increasing ease.
“You’re too good for me” Tarrant conceded.
“Well, I was a 3-D grandmaster once” said Philgar. “Do you play the tri-mensional game?”
Tarrant laughed: “Not at your level!” He glanced across the room and made a slight gesture towards the box beside Avon’s seat. “Only Orac could cope with that” he added.
“Orac” said Philgar thoughtfully “of course.” He called across the room with a previously unsuspected tone of authority in his voice: “Orac, a game of tri-mensi chess!”
Orac’s circuits flickered in anticipation. “I have never lost to a human opponent, but I am always glad to accept a challenge.”
“We haven’t got a board” said Tarrant.
“We will have to hold the position in our heads then” replied Philgar.
“That will not be a problem for me” said Orac, using a sharp, superior tone.
The sound of Orac’s synthetic voice breached Avon’s barrier of silence. Instinctively he reacted to reassert his own relationship with the computer and derive Philgar of the opportunity to explore Orac’s potential. “Orac! Are there any transmissions?”
“There are no transmissions at this time” replied Orac “but Slave has detected a craft approaching this system. On its present course, the ship will arrive in the vicinity of Baltsarn in approximately three and a half standard hours.”
“Slave!”
“I must regretfully confirm, Master, that this information is correct.”
“What kind of ship?”
“I regret, Master, that it is not possible…”
“Orac?”
“Without transmissions I have no means of identifying the craft at this distance.”
“There’s no reason to think that it will find us” said Tarrant, but his voice was not as certain as his words suggested.
“There’s no reason to think that it’s looking for us” said Dayna “but it’s heading straight here.” There was a momentary silence while they all considered this.
“We should avoid attracting attention” said Avon. “It’s unlikely we’re visible on infra-red scanners, but we must be careful not to use any radio equipment, even the wrist communicators.”
Philgar moved uneasily in his seat: “My ship, well, I am afraid that it transmits an automatic signal from time to time. The Federation… they like to know… I am sorry.”
“How often?” It was Avon who asked.
“Every few hours. There is a random function in the timing control so I cannot say exactly.”
“It will be light again in three hours” said Dayna. “We can’t afford to sit here and do nothing.”
“It will take at least an hour to fill the tanks” muttered Tarrant.
“Then we must start now” Avon responded.
“I thought we had decided it would be too dark out there before dawn” said Vila. He could guess who was going to be stumbling across the rough ground outside carrying Scorpio’s emergency hose.
Avon was frowning. “We’ll have to move the ship first. Let’s hope it doesn’t warm her up too much.”
“A short hop shouldn’t have much effect on our heat profile” said Tarrant. “We won’t be noticed unless we give away some other clues.”
“The orange craft is transmitting.” announced Orac.
“I’m sorry” said Philgar.

Servalan

“Baltsarn” said Slard “I don’t believe any landing has been recorded in the last fifty years. Why should Philgar go there?”
“Philgar is expected to go wherever the enemies of the Federation may be hiding” replied his starkly unattractive yet unavoidably fascinating female companion. “It is not surprising that he should visit a remote and apparently uninhabited planet” she continued “but it is interesting that he should decide to land there.”
“Perhaps his ship is in trouble” said Slard.
“Slard, you are a fool.” There was no mistaking the menace in the woman’s soft voice.
“I’m sorry, Commissioner” the man replied. His tone was genuinely apologetic and, in spite of the gold braid snaking over his blue uniform, it was obvious that with this passenger on the ship his authority was strictly limited.
“If Philgar was in any difficulty, he would have called for help. No; he has landed because there is something of interest on the surface. He has no means of detecting precious metals, and the planet has never been colonised; what else could lure him down?”
“Another spacecraft?”
“Brilliant!” said Servalan sarcastically, “and which spacecraft would be most likely to stray so far from the commercial lanes?”
“You think it’s the Scorpio” said Slard “but it could be any trader with a faulty navigation system, or a mineral prospector with a damaged engine.”
“Then why is there no distress signal?”
Slard grunted. “Forgive me, Commissioner, your reasoning is excellent, but why should Avon choose to visit such an impoverished place? We are quite certain that his base isn’t in this sector.”
Servalan replied with a sneer: “Perhaps his ship is in trouble” she said. “Go back to your bridge, Commander. The men will talk if you spend all your time with me.”
Slard left the cabin without a further word. He had felt honoured by the presence of a Federation Commissioner on the ship when his passenger had embarked, but now he thought of her as tricky and dangerous. He would be glad to see the back of her.
Servalan laid on her cushions, sipping from a small tumbler. She was sure that Scorpio was on Baltsarn, and she was sure that the ship must have been disabled. She closed her eyes and saw the face of her old adversary, Avon. “We’ll soon meet again” she whispered “and this time you won’t escape from me.”

Soolin

Vila’s premonition had been correct. Once Tarrant and Avon had struggled to release the stiff, mechanical capstan and start unrolling the hose, Vila was pushed out on his way with the free end of the hose in one hand and a feeble torch of obsolete design in the other. After a few turns the capstan began to turn freely. Tarrant and Avon returned to the control room where Dayna had been left to keep watch on Philgar and Soolin.
“You’ve sent Vila alone?” asked Dayna.
“Not for long; now that he’s got moving you had better go after him.”
“There’s another torch at the back of the locker in the galley” said Tarrant. Dayna set off with a quick, light-footed walk.
“I have been thinking” said Philgar “that I may be able to help. There is a device on my ship that could be used to throw a protective field around us, camouflaging us from Federation sensors.”
Avon stared intently at Philgar’s face. He distrusted any contact with even unwilling servants of the Federation, but he recognised the technical brilliance of Philgar’s teleport control.
“I cannot be sure that it will work, but if you will allow me to fetch it… We can but try.”
Avon was still staring, and thinking hard. If Philgar teleported to his own ship he would be free; free to communicate with the Federation, free to fire his engines and disappear…
“First” said Avon “you have a story to tell, about Soolin and Baxentl Four.”
Philgar shrugged. “She was just a girl” he said “working in a Councilman’s household. There were many others like her, orphans, hostages… There is nothing special to say.”
“Nothing special?” Avon’s voice expressed mock surprise. “Somehow this slave, or orphan, escaped… or perhaps she was allowed to leave as a Federation spy!”
“You know that my parents…”
“Were killed” Avon interrupted Soolin who had made her first attempt to defend herself. ”A Federation agent wouldn’t be sent out without a good cover story.”
Philgar had watched this exchange in silence. Now he moved slightly on his feet and spread his hands in a characteristic gesture: “I don’t know how she left the planet” he said “or when. Perhaps a friend helped her.”
“Friend?” enquired Avon, who had kept his eyes on Philgar even when Soolin was speaking.
“Well” said Philgar; he was hesitant, as if he might have already gone too far: “She must have been popular with the younger councilmen. There are not many blonde girls in the Baxentl sector.”
Soolin was sat in her usual place. She had been quiet and subdued ever since the first encounter with Philgar, but her old self-confidence was beginning to stir again. “Avon, it’s not true” she said. She spoke softly but her tone was hard and distant. “I don’t care whether you believe it or not” she continued “everything I’ve told you about my past is true.”
“You’ve never mentioned Baxentl Four” said Avon, his eyes still fixed on Philgar.
“You wouldn’t have believed me” said Soolin, her voice still very small. “you won’t believe me now.” She paused. “I escaped from that place by boarding a freighter and hiding in the hold. Nobody noticed me except the crew; I hid for three standard days, then I was so hungry that I gave myself up by crawling to the bridge.”
Philgar’s face expressed open astonishment: “But the security, the guards! Every ship is searched before takeoff!”
“I was lucky.”
Soolin knew that Avon would be weighing up her story in his mind but, as usual, his manner gave nothing away. “The crew” he said carefully “would surely have handed you over to Federation guards at the first opportunity.”
“It was an off-planet ship; the crew were from the old Sol sector. All they wanted was to get away from the Federation centre as quickly as possible. The first planetfall was on Tolos Three; there they lent me a suit and I pretended to be one of the crew myself. The authorities only checked documents if you wanted to leave the ship. When the usual search party inspected the hold I even went with them to open the hatches.” Soolin was addressing her explanation to the console in front of her. She did not dare to look at Avon’s face. Even so, she allowed herself a slight smile at the recollection of a team of Federation guards examining the freighter’s hold under the guidance of the only stowaway ever to have escaped from Baxentl Four.
“It’s a story from a comic” said Avon brusquely. “Quite unbelievable.”

Chess

 Dayna and Vila made faster progress than they had anticipated. Tarrant had employed all his skill as the ship’s engineer to move Scorpio closer to the edge of the ravine that held the living water-sac. Using only the auxiliary drive, and with minimal directional variation, he had taken the ship a few yards off the ground, pointed her nose in the right direction and allowed her to glide a few hundred yards before slithering to a stop parallel to the lip of the slope above the great alga. The brief burst of power from Scorpio might have been detected by the approaching spacecraft, but an automatic scanner would be unlikely to raise an alert on the basis of such a tiny heat signal, and a human observer would probably wait for at least one repetition before taking any action.
In the starlight the two humans stumbled down the loose, stony slope towards their objective. Dayna soon adjusted to slipping and occasionally tripping on the unstable surface. Vila was less comfortable but, as his companion was setting the pace, he necessarily struggled along, gripping the hose with one hand and his torch with the other.
They reached the edge of the alga unexpectedly quickly. “It’s moved up the slope” said Vila in surprise.
“You’ve got a vivid imagination, Vila.”
“No, really; it was a lot lower down before. This thing is not only alive, it’s mobile.”
“That’s convenient for us then” said Dayna, without any real interest. “Come on, let’s get on with it.”
Vila put down his torch and let Dayna take the hose. He crouched down and felt the surface of the plant with his hand. “I wonder if it will let me make a hole in its skin” he said.
“It doesn’t have much choice” said Dayna sarcastically. “Do plants normally object to being pruned or picked?”
Vila ignored her. He had his own, instinctive feelings about this organism; to call it an alga was a gross simplification, seaweeds don’t shrink away when you touch them, or march up the beach overnight. He fumbled in his pocket and produced a folding knife. He opened the blade and leaned forward above the dark mass in front of him. “Sorry” he said and then he cut through the algal skin with a swift, surgical sweep. Dayna pushed the hose through the slit made by Vila’s knife, forcing the living tissue to accommodate the circular intrusion. The surface in front of them pulled back; apparently the organism was responding to its injury. As the algal skin had already sealed itself around the end of the hose, Dayna was almost jolted off her feet by the sudden movement.
“Look at that!” said Vila.”I’m glad I apologised in advance.”
Having made its reflex response the alga was quiescent again. The hose seemed to be secure; Dayna took it in her hands and tugged gently. The algal grip was firm. Dayna raised her communicator to her lips: “Tarrant?”
“Yes.”
“Ready?”
They had agreed to keep their communications to a minimum. On board Scorpio Tarrant moved quickly to the hold and started the water pump.
“Time to go home” said Vila.
“You can go” Dayna replied, with a discernible hint of contempt. “I’ll wait here for now and make sure the hose stays in place.”
“As you please” said Vila. He was not sure whether it would be worse to set off alone with his inadequate torch or remain close to the silent but sensitive mega-organism he had rudely violated for a second time. The implied dismissal in Dayna’s voice settled the matter and propelled him back towards Scorpio.
                                    *                                          *                                         *
Soolin sat thinking in silent helplessness. Damn Philgar! He had destroyed both her credibility and her fearless nerves with just two words: Baxentl Four. Surely Avon did not trust him, but with ambiguous words and clumsy implications Philgar had succeeded in driving a wedge between Avon and herself, deprived her of her blaster, and created a massive distraction while an unidentified spacecraft was approaching the disabled Scorpio.
Avon was equally unhappy. Scorpio had been in danger many times, but never before had the ship been in such obvious imminent peril. And what of the crew? It was Vila’s fumbling that had landed them in trouble; why hadn’t they left him to die in the gas pools of Trarn or exchanged him for one of the fighting slaves from Incolos Two? Tarrant was a brilliant engineer, but even his skills wouldn’t take them away from Baltsarn until the ship’s water levels had been restored. Dayna he knew he could trust, but Soolin had suddenly become an uncertain factor. Was it coincidence that Philgar had found them on this remote planet or was there a traitor among them, someone who had waited patiently for many months until circumstances had put them at the mercy of their pursuers?
“Nothing is happening” said Orac. “Shall we start our game, Philgar?”
“Nothing is happening?” Avon almost roared. Then he realised that it might be good to have Philgar distracted:”Oh, go on, play your game!”
Philgar smiled his half-smile. “You make the first move, Orac.”
                                    *                                          *                                         *
Servalan had joined Slard on the bridge.
“How long, Commander?”
“We should be in orbit above Baltsarn within a standard hour, Commissioner.”
“Have we detected any signs of life?”
“Nothing positive, Commissioner, but we should be close enough to get an accurate reading of Philgar’s position next time his ship makes a transmission.”
Servalan scowled. “Nothing positive, what is that supposed to mean, Slard?”
“The sensors detected a brief heat burst in the night sector some time ago. It may have been a natural phenomenon or even a fault in our own equipment; we are maintaining a manual watch in case there is a recurrence.”
Servalan said nothing and Slard took her silence as approval. “How do you wish us to proceed when we arrive at the planet?” he asked.
“I will give my orders” Servalan emphasised the last two words “as and when necessary, Commander.”
Slard bowed slightly in acknowledgement and bit his tongue. He had been told that Commissioner Sleer exercised a peculiar sexual fascination in most men; he was beginning to think that either this was not true or else he was one of the rare exceptions.
Servalan suddenly smiled. It was not a warm smile, but it scored by its unexpectedness. “You must forgive me, Slard, if I sometimes sound like a Commissioner first and a woman a distant second. For the moment I am absorbed by the chase, but later” she paused and smiled again “there will be time to relax.”
In spite of himself, Slard felt a tremor of elation. Perhaps he was not an exception after all; he would concentrate his efforts on the matter in hand and enjoy the subsequent relaxation all the more.
“I will leave you at your watch, Commander” said Servalan. She turned towards the door and walked out slowly so that Slard could admire her retreating back. In the doorway she paused and half-turned to speak to him again: “I expect to be informed as soon as we are in orbit” she said.
Slard bowed again as she left his bridge, but this time the gesture was a willing one, gracefully performed.
                                    *                                          *                                         *
 Faint traces of light were beginning to appear over the horizon. Tarrant was checking the pump and measuring the water levels in Scorpio’s tanks. Orac and Philgar were still engaged in mental conflict. Avon sent Soolin to prepare food in the galley; this was a job that he knew she hated, but he wanted to talk to Dayna and Vila.
“Is that ship within range yet?” asked Vila.
“Yes” said Avon. “Even if they don’t spot us visually it’s certain that Philgar’s ship will give us away next time it transmits, and we will have to go on pumping water for at least another half-hour, probably longer.”
“They’ll blast us from space” said Vila.
“No” said Avon. “They will probably want to make sure that Philgar is alive and they will will certainly want to be sure that we are dead.”
Dayna remembered the time they had thought Servalan was dead, abandoned in a burning spaceship. Avon was right; nothing short of a close-range examination of their bodies would satisfy the Federation that Blake’s Seven had been destroyed.
“For once” Avon continued “the Federation battle drill may be useful to us. Their instructions for coping with a disabled ship under attack on a non-hostile planet are clear and sensible.” He looked at them intently. “Abandon ship!” Vila and Dayna both looked startled, but said nothing. “Outside, we are harder targets to find and, if they decide to blast the ship anyway, we may at least survive.”
“But we need to make a fast get-away” said Dayna.
“We’ll leave Tarrant on board, and Soolin, for now, but we must make them think that we are all out there. Dayna, you must plant some charges, well away from Scorpio.”
Tarrant appeared from the hold. “Filling slowly” he announced. “If we ever get out of this, I’m going to overhaul the pumps.”
Orac’s voice broke in from across the cabin: “Philgar’s craft is transmitting…”
“Slave!”
“Yes, Master?”
“Where is the orbiting ship?”
“Master, it is just over the southern horizon and moving away from us in an easterly direction.”
Avon and Dayna relaxed, but not for long.
“Master, I must advise you… regretfully… that sensors indicate…”
“Yes?” demanded Avon.
“The ship is manoeuvring, Master. It is preparing to turn. I am very much afraid, Master, that we have been located.”
Dayna needed no orders, she was already on her way to the explosives locker.
“Fifteen minutes” Avon called after her. “Fifteen minutes, if we’re lucky. Tarrant, man the ship. Vila, come with me, and bring him with you” said Avon indicating that Philgar was also to come outside.
As he rose, Philgar hesitated for a moment and then picked up Orac. Vila was too surprised to speak, Tarrant was at the gun locker looking the other way and Avon was striding towards the airlock. Philgar set off after Avon, and Vila turned to follow them.
Tarrant threw a blaster to Vila as he passed, and gasped when he saw Orac in Philgar’s grasp. “Vila” he called, but the trio had left Scorpio, and were striding quickly towards the algal ravine.
Tarrant became aware of Soolin standing behind him. “Tarrant, what’s going on now?” she asked. Her voice was listless although she had been distracted by the sound of movement from the main cabin.
“They’re about to arrive” Tarrant replied.” Dayna has gone to plant some surprises for them; Avon and Vila have gone to practise heroics in the open.”
“Vila!” said Soolin contemptuously. She glanced around: “Where’s Philgar?”
“Philgar’s with Vila and Avon. He took Orac with him.”
“Philgar took Orac?”
“Yes.”
“And Avon didn’t stop him?”
“Avon was in front; he didn’t see.”
“And Vila?”
Tarrant shrugged.
“I’ll tear out Vila’s guts with my bare hands” said Soolin with sudden venom “after I’ve disposed of that walking fishbowl…” She was by the door of the gun locker now.
“What can you do, Soolin?” asked Tarrant. “At any moment a whole platoon of Federation troopers is going to touch down…”
“You don’t need a hammer to smash an egg, Tarrant. They’ll send out ten or twelve men at most, and they’ll be careful, trying to avoid Dayna’s bombs.” She had a blaster in her hand now. “Keep the pump going, we’re not dead yet.”
Tarrant was taken completely by surprise at Soolin’s rapid change of mood. It was not until she was going out through the hatch that he remembered Avon had been careful to separate Soolin from her weapons, and leave her on Scorpio. “Too late now” he thought. “Anyway, they’ll need her fighting skills out there before long”

Confrontation

Dayna had moved rapidly, placing and priming at least a dozen charges before taking up her chosen position beneath the stabilisers of Philgar’s ship. Here she had a little concealment and could easily detonate any of her charges with a directional radio signal from her wrist communicator.
Avon had walked swiftly and directly to the lip of the ravine. Once there he looked for a spot where he could lie with only the top of his head showing above the ground level of the surrounding plain. Vila and Philgar followed him; Philgar burdened by Orac, Vila covering Philgar with his gun.
“Orac!” said Avon. “What are you doing with Orac?”
“He’ll be safer out here” said Philgar.
“Put him down!” Avon ordered. “Here, beside me.”
Philgar complied but was careful not to move away from the computer.
“Keep him covered” said Avon “and if he touches Orac again, shoot to kill… And keep your head down, you fool!”
Above them they heard the sound of an approaching scout craft.
“They must have seen us” said Vila.
“No” said Avon. “They’ll be watching the ships. Keep still!”
The black scout ship passed low overhead. From their barely adequate concealment the three men listened to the sound of its engines until they cut out when it commenced its landing glide.
“They’ve gone well beyond Scorpio” said Avon.
“The further the better” said Vila to himself. Aloud, he asked: “What now?”
“We wait” replied Avon. “That sounded like a twelve-man scouter; the odds could be a lot worse.”
“Yes indeed” said Vila. If Avon recognised the sarcasm in Vila’s voice he gave no sign of it.
An eerie silence settled over this crowded corner of Baltsarn. Dayna fretted behind a fin of Philgar’s ship, her whole body tensed for action. Soolin was lying flat on the ground among a group of small boulders some distance from Scorpio, praying fervently that she had not been seen from the descending scout ship. On board Scorpio Tarrant sealed the crew door and the freight hatch and then busied himself checking the water level again. Tarrant knew that a determined assault would not take long to gain entry to the ship, but only a few more minutes of uninterrupted pumping were needed for the water tanks to fill to a minimum safe level.
A movement on the viewscreen caught Tarrant’s eye. He quickly set the Scorpio’s radio to match the frequency of the crew’s wrist communicators. “They’re coming out. Eight, no, ten troopers” he paused “and two others.” While he watched, the troopers formed two groups of five. Each group set off in turn, approaching Scorpio by separate routes.
Tarrant decided to risk a further transmission, “Five are moving to starboard; they’ll come round past Philgar’s ship. The rest of them will be on the other side.”
The troopers moved slowly and carefully. The groups spread out as they walked, perhaps conscious of their absurdly conspicuous black uniforms. The last two figures to emerge from the scoutship remained close to its black hull for some time before following the troopers on a different course of their own.
Tarrant wondered whether Dayna had heard him. He watched in impotent fascination as  five troopers seemed to be getting dangerously close to her hiding place. Suddenly the leading trooper stopped, raised a pair of binoculars and scanned the ground behind  Scorpio. “It’s the hose” said Tarrant to himself. “He’s spotted the hose.” Instinctively, Tarrant got up and moved towards the hold. He glanced at the pump and then at the water levels. He was about to return to the main cabin when the pressure gauge on the pump flickered for a moment before settling at an uncomfortable low reading. Quickly Tarrant checked the pump; it still seemed to be working exactly as before. He ran back to the main radio and pressed a switch: “The line’s broken!” he said.
“It’s here” Avon replied a few seconds later. “There’s a slit in the… Vila! That’s your knife beside the hose!”
Avon, reacting to Tarrant’s call, had looked round at the hose behind him. First he had noticed water spilling from a slit, then he saw Vila’s incriminating knife lying close by.
“I…” said Vila feebly. He rose from his crouching position and felt his pockets.
Perhaps the troopers had picked up Avon’s uncharacteristically careless transmission and located its source. Certainly, the appearance of Vila’s head and shoulders above the natural parapet at the top of the ravine prompted an immediate response. The leading trooper gave a shout and, while he was lowering his glasses, the second man was already firing his blaster and running towards Vila’s exposed figure.
Dayna’s moment for action had arrived. She let the first trooper run across her field of view and then transmitted a detonation signal to one of her grenades just as the next man passed in front of her. The blast caught both the second man and another trooper close behind him, knocking them off their feet. The first trooper also threw himself to the ground, uncertain where this assault was coming from.
Dayna could now see the second group of troopers moving towards the Scorpio. They had been running, in response to the shout from the leader of the nearer squad, but when the grenade exploded they hesitated and then moved forward more cautiously. Their slower pace made them easy targets for Soolin when they came within range of her blaster. Dayna saw two discharge flashes and two men fall; the other three in the group dropped instantly to the ground.
The trooper’s shout had also spurred Avon’s reflexes to work. “Down!” he shouted, grabbing Vila’s arm and pulling him back to a safer position. Vila tripped, and the two men tumbled down the slope. They came to rest lying on their sides with Avon’s gun pointing into Vila’s face. They heard Dayna’s grenade explode in the distance. Sweat glistened on Vila’s forehead.
“Are you a Federation spy, Vila? You might as well be honest, because I’m going to kill you anyway!”
“No!” said Vila. “Look there!” He gestured up the slope behind Avon who turned his head just in time to see the smiling figure of Philgar disappearing in a swirl of light with Orac in his arms.
Dayna knew that Soolin’s insubstantial concealment would not protect her for much longer. The troopers she had attacked may have already realised that her shots had come from among the group of small boulders which were the only cover in the vicinity. Perhaps if Avon and Vila came out now and diverted the troopers’ attention… A shimmer of light appeared in front of Dayna and formed itself into the shape of Philgar, clasping Orac against his chest.  Dayna activated her wrist communicator. “Philgar’s here” she hissed.
“Get Orac!” came Avon’s terse reply.
Philgar changed his grip on Orac, taking the handle in one hand and bending as if to put the box down. Simultaneously, he brought his free hand across to the other wrist and Dayna realised, too late, that he was about to use his teleport again. With Philgar vanishing as suddenly as he had appeared, Dayna put him out of her mind and resumed her confrontation with the troopers. She set off another grenade, at some distance from her shelter, and then ran out into the open area between Philgar’s ship and the Scorpio, firing her blaster instinctively in whatever directions she sensed the movement of black uniforms. She was soon aware that Avon was running towards her from the ravine, and then Soolin too was on her feet.
Dayna detonated more grenades as she ran, causing confusing swirls of smoke across the battlefield. The trooper who had run past her only a few moments earlier was soon dealt with. He had lain still for a few seconds after the first explosion and then risen hesitantly to a crouching stance in time to see Philgar appear from nowhere, and disappear again. He was moving unsteadily towards Philgar’s ship when, distracted by a second explosion, he had caught the full force of Dayna’s blaster as she emerged from hiding.
The man with binoculars, originally the leader of his group, was now its sole effective survivor. He had dropped onto one knee and prepared to give covering fire while his group ran to attack the ravine; now three of his men were lying dead or injured in front of him and the fourth, changing course at the first grenade explosion, had moved across the scene and joined the three survivors of the other assault party.
When Dayna mounted her attack, the troopers approaching Soolin’s position were at a disadvantage, still being uncomfortably prone on the ground and unable to direct their fire accurately. With Soolin, Avon and Dayna all on the offensive, and Dayna’s grenades bursting around them, they soon decided to withdraw; only two of them succeeded in escaping from the battle, running for their lives from Soolin’s deadly shooting until they were out of range across the open plain.

Departure

Vila had taken no part in the fight. Avon had risen rapidly to his feet at the sight of Philgar teleporting with Orac and then, quickly assessing the situation on the plain, had run out into the open in support of Dayna. Vila was left nursing his wounded pride and a few minor bruises.
“Federation spy!” he spat at Avon’s back: “After all that we’ve been through.”
He looked at the strange, green growth they were tapping for its water. “It’s moving again.”
The giant alga was indeed heaving itself up the slope, moving now at a quite perceptible speed. Vila realised that the temperature was rising rapidly as Baltsarn’s sun grew stronger through the day. Perhaps the plant was using that heat to fuel an active response to its assailants.
There was a shimmering of light. Vila looked up. Philgar reappeared, very close to the spot from which he had previously disappeared. “I thought you’d gone” said Vila. He could see his blaster lying on the ground between them; he must have dropped it during his tussle with Avon.
“I didn’t have time to connect properly with my ship because of the battle raging up there.”
“Oh” said Vila. “I thought that with your teleport…”
“From this distance it is almost impossible” said Philgar. “I did well to get close, but…”
Vila lunged at the blaster. As he did so he felt a firm grip round one of his ankles, but his forward momentum pulled him free. He picked up the weapon and, still struggling to balance, turned to see what had momentarily trapped his foot. Green pseudopods were extending out from the algal mass; one was moving towards him, another seemed to be climbing the hose towards Philgar.
Vila stumbled away from this unexpected assailant, the blaster was in his hand but he was offering no threat to Philgar who was now attempting to reprogramme his teleport control. Philgar was absorbed in his task when the algal pseudopod reached him; he gasped as the sensile plant embraced his foot and pulled him down. As he was falling, Orac dropped from his hand. “Orac!” he shouted. He tried to stab at the teleport control but he had fallen on his side and a slender green sliver had immediately crept over his left arm between the elbow and the wrist; it was impossible for him to touch some of the contact points.
Vila was standing above Philgar now and tried to pull him up by the shoulders. Orac was resting, unscathed, on the surface of the spongy plant cushion while Philgar’s body was being sucked into a slimy algal tube.
Philgar managed to free the teleport control from his wrist. He pulled it out from beneath his trapped arm and tried to work it with his free hand. Vila let go of Philgar with one hand and used it to pick up Orac. Philgar groaned as the irresistible suction of the alga dragged him away from his precious teleport control, Orac, and Vila, who could only watch helplessly as Philgar, his face contorted in terror, was smothered by a green, digestive blanket.
The alga paused, as if to recover from its exertions, before sending out a fresh pseudopod inVila’s direction. The creature was moving with increasing speed and an uncanny attraction towards living flesh. Vila saw that it was ignoring the teleport control and picked that up before running to the top of the ravine.
                                    *                                          *                                         *
 Servalan and Slard had watched the battle from the distance. They had been helpless to assist or direct either group of troopers once the fighting had started. Now they stood in silence, listening to the Scorpio crew’s radio transmissions while their own men rested on the rocky ground nearby.
“You are a miserable fool. Slard” said Servalan. “Your men attacked too soon and fought like donkeys!”
“We can call down reinforcements, Commissioner.”
“Do you think Avon will wait for them to arrive, Slard?”
The communicator in Slard’s hand came to life. It was Avon’s voice: “Tarrant, how are the water levels?”
“Just about there. The inflow is poor, but we’ve got enough to get by.”
“Open up, we’re coming in.”
Servalan pulled the communicator from Slard’s hand and pressed the ‘transmit’ point. “Congratulations, Avon.”
“Thank you, Servalan.”
“What have you done with Philgar, Avon?”
Avon hesitated; there was no sign of Philgar, or of Orac.
Dayna intervened: “He did his disappearing trick” she said.
“Nothing” said Avon. “I’m sure you’ll find him somewhere.”
“No she won’t” Vila’s voice broke in. “He’s been eaten by a vegetable, but I’ve got his teleport control, and Orac.”
Avon began to laugh, but Dayna pointed in the direction of the ravine and said: “Look!”
Vila was trudging towards them, followed by a bulging green mass, now ten feet high and equally wide. The slithering, green pseudopod was gaining on its prey.
“Run, Vila!” Soolin shouted.
Whether or not he had heard Soolin’s advice, Vila sensed the approaching menace, glanced over his shoulder, and began to run a lot faster.
Scorpio’s hatch was open. Avon waved Soolin and Dayna on board and then ran out to relieve Vila of Orac.
Across the plain, Slard was looking puzzled. Although he was an experienced space traveller, he had never before encountered anthropophagous vegetation. Servalan broke into his reverie: “Today we should have seen the end of Avon and his contemptible little band. Instead, we have gained nothing, lost Philgar, and left a mobile teleport control in the hands of those bandits.”
The roar of Scorpio’s engines interrupted Servalan.
“They won’t evade us, Commissioner. I’ll order the flagship to intercept.”
“Fool, they’ll outrun her easily.”
“In that old freighter, Commissioner?”
A shadow passed over them, the shadow of a spacecraft climbing skyward at escape velocity.
“That’s not any old freighter, Slard; that’s Scorpio!”
Servalan opened a channel on Slard’s communicator again for a moment.
“Au revoir” she said.