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Current Poll

Who is your Favourite Guest Rebel?

Avalon - (Project Avalon)
Avalon - (Project Avalon)
18% [17 Votes]

Selma - (Horizon)
Selma - (Horizon)
5% [5 Votes]

Tyce - (Bounty)
Tyce - (Bounty)
14% [14 Votes]

Norm One - (Redemption)
Norm One - (Redemption)
2% [2 Votes]

Bek - (Shadow)
Bek - (Shadow)
7% [7 Votes]

Kasabi - (Pressure Point)
Kasabi - (Pressure Point)
19% [18 Votes]

Hal Mellanby - (Aftermath)
Hal Mellanby - (Aftermath)
14% [14 Votes]

Hunda - (Traitor)
Hunda - (Traitor)
5% [5 Votes]

Deva - (Blake)
Deva - (Blake)
9% [9 Votes]

Other
Other
6% [6 Votes]

Votes: 97
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Started: 09 July 2016

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All The Days of Christmas by Judith M Seaman

All the Days of Christmas
by
Judith M. Seaman

It was Christmas Eve and Orac was bored. Not that this was unusual; he had realised long ago that that the crew of the Liberator had little interest in the more fascinating aspects of the universe. They were far too selfishly taken up with their own petty concerns. Only a few hours ago, Blake had wantonly ignored a fascinating juxtaposition of magnetic fields that could have signalled the presence of an original magnetic monopole and insisted on the ship maintaining course for Sestain. It would be days before they got there and then, no doubt, he would be expecting Orac to operate the teleport or monitor communication channels. In the meantime, there would be Christmas. Vila had spent most of the day treating everyone to a long-winded and highly coloured account of Christmases in the Delta areas where he'd grown up. It had all sounded rather appalling; just an excuse these humans used to indulge in highly unstable behaviour. Grimly, Orac started checking Christmas customs in an effort to discover exactly what he could expect over the next few days. A couple of hours later he found the song.

***

Blake handed over the watch to Avon and made his way to his cabin, looking foward to a little rest. Their second Christmas Day on the Liberator had been successful, if somewhat hectic. He pressed the lock panel and strode through as the door opened, only to be brought up short as something jabbed him in the stomach. It was the branch of a tree. In the confined space of the cabin, the tree looked large and impressive, neatly rooted in its tub of earth. For a moment Blake wondered if it could be a Christmas tree, then a large over-ripe pear dropped heavily on to the deck. Startled by the noise, a partridge flew out and took refuge on his bunk, making a large mess on his pillow.

Blake retreated hastily, closed the door and pelted back to the flight deck. Avon looked up casually, his face completely expressionless.

"Joke's over," Blake said. "Get it out."

Avon looked at him. "Are you still drunk?" he queried icily.

+THERE IS A MESSAGE FOR ROJ BLAKE+ Zen commented, distracting both men. +IT IS DISPLAYED ON THE MAIN SCREEN+

They turned and stared.

"On the first day of Christmas his true love sent to Blake, a partridge in a pear tree." Blake read incredulously.

"Zen, what is the origin of that message?" Avon demanded.

+THAT INFORMATION IS NOT AVAILABLE+

"You," Blake snapped, glaring at Avon. "I want them out of my cabin."

Avon looked at him and then at the message. "A partridge in a pear tree? In your cabin?"

"Yes. And I want them out!"

"They seem to be yours, you deal with them."

"I don't know how you did it, but..."

"Me? If you believe that you come under the heading of my true love then you are closer to insanity than I had realised."

Blake stopped and considered that. "Then who?"

Avon shrugged. "You know your personal life better than I do," he pointed out. "Jenna?"

Blake flushed, but decided not to tell Avon why he was so certain that it wasn't Jenna. "Where would she get a partridge in a pear tree?"

"Where would I get one?" Avon countered. "Or anyone else?"

That turned out to be an unanswerable question even Vila wouldn't have been able to keep those up his sleeve. Blake returned to his cabin and discovered that tree was too heavy to move and too big to go through the door, anyway. Even the partridge refused to be driven out. He spent a miserable night, not in the least improved by the partridge which insisted on roosting on his chest.

***


The next morning was very quiet. Around midday, Blake went to the flight deck and found Jenna contemplating two doves perched on the wall ledges near Zen's screen.

"Who owns those?" he demanded.

She pointed silently to the main screen.

"On the second day of Christmas his true love sent to Zen... for Zen!" Blake exclaimed.

"Where did they come from?" Jenna asked.

"I don't know," Blake muttered, more certain than ever that it was Avon. Who else would think of sending things to Zen?

He stamped back to his cabin and stopped incredulously. There were two pear trees. And two partridges sitting on the bunk. Furious, he routed out Vila and Gan, and the three of them spent the afternoon trying unsuccessfully to move the trees. Blake's temper wasn't improved when Avon strolled along and stopped to watch their efforts.

"Would you like to get your hands dirty and help?" Blake suggested with a distinct lack of his usual subtlety.

"I believe you are wasting your time," Avon said smugly.

"Why?" Vila asked, glad of any distraction from work.

"Have you succeeded in moving either tree at all?"

"No," Blake admitted. "Even Gan can't move those plant pots."

"That was to be expected," Avon said. "So now we know how they got there."

"Do we?" Vila asked.

"Zen!" Blake exclaimed, the light dawning belatedly. "An alteration to the regeneration parameters for the auto-repair. All right Avon, you claim you can control Zen, I want to see some signs of it. Get those trees out of my cabin. Now!"

Avon contemplated the trees with a maddening half-smile on his face. "It might be instructive to see what happens next," he suggested.

"I'm not interested in your scientific curiosity," Blake retorted. "I want this stopped."

Avon shrugged and walked away. Blake glared after him, but kept quiet with an effort. He never knew with Avon; the man might be going to see what he could do about the problem, or he might just ignore it. Unfortunately, even if Blake followed him and found him up to his elbows in computer boards, he wouldn't know whether Avon was working on this problem or just amusing himself with his own interests.

"That's that, then," Vila said hastily. "Let's get something to eat." He hurried away, with Gan strolling casually after him. Blake stormed off back to the flight deck where Jenna reminded him, rather tartly, that he was late for his turn on watch.

***

By the afternoon of the next day, Blake was recovering his optimism. Avon would sort out the trees in his cabin. One thing he could rely on with Avon was that the man didn't like to be beaten. A few gentle reminders of the way he'd always claimed to be able to control Zen should be enough to keep him working on the problem, and Blake had never known him fail yet. All the same, he approached the flight deck with more caution, just in case. He needn't have worried. Gan was lounging on the centre couch and everything looked normal. Blake straightened his shoulders and strode purposefully down the steps, ignoring the soft cooing coming from Zen's direction. Then he nearly missed the bottom step as he saw what Gan was holding.

"What is THAT?" he demanded.

"French hens," Gan said.

"How do you know?" Blake asked suspiciously.

Gan pointed proudly to the main screen and Blake's heart sank.

"On the third day of Christmas his true love sent to Gan, three French hens... three?" Blake queried, and then realised that there were three heads visible above the soft fluffy mass. He groaned, and was answered by more cooing. He glanced round at Zen and discovered that there were now four doves on the ledges. "This is a rebel ship, not a poultry farm," he snapped peevishly.

"I like them," Gan protested. "This is the first time I've ever had a Christmas present." He saw Blake's angry look and shrugged. "It must be different on Earth."

"Yes," Blake agreed venomously, "it's different. No-one gives live birds for Christmas presents. It must be Vila."

"How would he do it?" Gan asked.

"I've no idea, but it's about his level of humour. Where's Avon?"

Gan looke round as though he expected to see Avon crouching in the corner. "He was here just now, checking something."

Blake contemplated going in search of him, but then couldn't face it. Instead he sat down and stared at the bland message on the screen. He hadn't even got the energy to carry on planning his next raid. The two partridges had kept him awake all night. With sudden horror he realised that there would be three of them now.

***

About noon on the fourth day, Blake found Avon sitting on the flight deck.

"Have you sorted this out, Avon?" he demanded. A soft cooing took his eyes to the ledges round Zen's fascia. The six doves perched up there ruffled their feathers sleepily. Apprehensively he glanced at the main screen. "What are calling birds? And who the hell is Soolin?"

"Which question would you like answered first?" Avon asked smoothly.

"I want both answered right now," Blake snapped with a return of his usual manner.

"I have no idea who Soolin is. I rather assumed you might know?" Avon paused for a moment, but Blake was too stunned to answer. "Presumably the birds have been delivered to her, which would explain why Zen cannot locate them on the ship."

"And what have you done about it?"

"Nothing," Avon said flatly.

"I told you..."

"I think it might be more... profitable... to let this continue for a few days. Let's see what we can get out of it before we do anything rash."

Blake clenched his fists. It was all very well for Avon to witter about profit. He didn't have three trees in his cabin, branches poking him in the face and squashed fruit all over the floor. Or three partridges. Four now, he reminded himself unnecessarily.

"I want..."

+INFORMATION. DETECTORS REPORT FEDERATION PURSUIT SHIPS, RANGE EIGHT MILLION SPACIALS+

"Battle stations!" Blake shouted, just as Avon punched the alarm button.

It wasn't until several hours later, when peace had been restored, the pursuit ships evaded and everyone had dispersed back to their original occupations, that Blake remembered the unresolved discussions with Avon. Gan was on watch, accompanied by his hens which seemed to get on well with the doves. Avon had vanished.

Dispiritedly, Blake got himself something to eat and then retreated to his cabin for an early night. When he found the four trees he nearly went back to find Avon, but second thoughts dissauded him. For one thing, Avon might not be in his cabin. If he was working on something interesting, he was quite likely to continue working on it all night. Secondly, if Avon was in his cabin, he might not be alone. And thirdly, he had seen Avon choose a black and gold sleep suit in leather and steel mesh from the clothes room, and Blake felt he would need to be very drunk indeed to face that apparition.

***

Soolin walked through snow-covered formal gardens on the planet Lapele to a private meeting with one of the men responsible for her family's murder. Her pale hair was netted high in the local fashion and her elaborate tabard covered, but did not conceal, the gun she carried. Round her head the four birds fluttered, calling sweetly. They were a nuisance, but birds were sacred on Lapele any attempt to drive them away would be to court suicide and would certainly ruin her plans. Later, she assured herself, there would be time enough to deal with their anonymous donor when she had finished her business here.

***

The next day, both Avon and Vila were showing signs of suppressed excitement.

"It's the fifth day," Vila pointed out frequently, and then collapsed giggling. Between fits he started investigating every cranny and corner on the ship; behaviour strongly reminiscent of the frequent occasions when he'd lost something important and was trying to find it before anyone realised.

Avon inhabited the flight deck, ostentatiously 'repairing' one of the consoles that no-one could remember being faulty. When challenged on that, he merely pointed out that he could remember and if the rest of the crew chose to develop selective amnesia, there was nothing he could do about it.

Defeated, Blake retired to the rec-room and spent the morning making cryptic comments about chicken soup and partridge pie.

Around midday, everyone drifted back to the flight deck. Avon was the only one who wasn't openly watching the screen, but everyone knew he'd been there longer than any of them. Blake stared morosely at the floor. He wasn't sure why he was there, except that he was supposed to be the leader and he didn't want to be left out. Also, there might be a clue as to who was responsible and if it was Avon he promised himself he'd wring the man's neck.

It was Jenna who spotted the two doves fluttering in through the door. Everyone except Avon admired them as they made two circuits of the flight deck, before joining the others by Zen. The three hens tramping in at ground level to find Gan were equally distracting, if somewhat less graceful. There would be another tree in his cabin, Blake thought moodily, and another partridge.

"Vila!" Avon whispered, half under his breath.

At the same moment Vila let out a crow of delight. "See!" he shouted. "Someone can recognise a deserving case. I knew it would be mine today!"

Blake stared at him, and then at the screen. "Five gold rings... for Vila?" he read incredulously.

"A mistake," Avon said, his voice soft with menace.

Blake suddenly remembered Avon's comment about profit. "You knew what it was going to be," he accused.

"It wasn't hard to work out."

"And you thought it would be yours," Vila crowed.

Avon turned on him and Vila stepped back hurriedly. The five gold rings descending from the ceiling hit him squarely on the head and knocked him out.

***


Blake dragged himself out of bed the next day feeling awful. He kicked irritably at the partridges, which whirred round the room in a panic, making messes all over his clean tunic. As he squeezed past the branches towards the door, he put his foot on a decomposing pear, slipped and nearly fell. Reaching the corridor assumed the proportions of a major achievement. Blake closed the door behind him and brushed ineffectually at the feathers in his hair before going to look for the others.

Vila was in the rec-room. He waved impishly at Blake, gold flashing and chiming as he moved. The rings had turned out to be solid gold bracelets and Vila was wearing them up his right arm. Deliberate provocation, Blake realised, probably aimed at Avon who had vanished yesterday while they were picking Vila up, and hadn't been seen since. At least, Blake hadn't seen him. Avon had been scheduled for the late night watch and if he'd missed that it would give Blake a legitimate excuse to shout at him. Hopefully, Blake made his way to the flight deck and found that Cally was taking the watch.

"Where's Avon?" he demanded.

"I don't know," she said seriously. "Do you want him? He left when I relieved him. He's probably asleep."

Blake focussed on his watch and realised how late it was. Avon's watch had ended six hours ago. "All right, Cally," he muttered. "Has he cured this... this..." He faltered, unable to think of a word to describe it.

"I didn't ask him. Until we know how it is caused, or why, do we have any chance of stopping it?"

"I'm running the rebel cause, not a spaceborne aviary! " Blake exclaimed, attempting to sound dignified. He picked a bedraggled feather off his console and glared at the doves roosting around Zen and the white streaks on the walls beneath them. A small flock of Gan's French hens pattered out from beneath one of the consoles. Blake swore at the them just as Gan himself arrived, followed by Vila still admiring his bracelets. It was nearly midday. Blake considered the fact much as he might have considered a firing squad.

"Well?" Jenna asked briskly from the doorway. "Who's going to get the prize today?"

"Five more rings," Vila gloated. "I think they look good on me. Gold suits my personality, don't you think?"

He appealed to Cally, but she was watching Gan fondling his hens. Blake glanced at them and closed his eyes, refusing to count. There would be twelve... An explosion of wings startled him and he looked up to see the flock of doves whirling round the flight deck. Vila glanced nervously up to the roof and then at the screen.

"Geese!" Jenna exclaimed blankly.

Vila gave a great shout of laughter. "Avon!" he gasped. "Can you imagine Avon with six geese?"

An irritated hissing attracted their attention to the far door where the six geese were standing. Blake gulped; somehow he hadn't realised that geese were so big. They waddled and flopped down the steps, one behind the other, hissing malevolently.

"They seem to have the right temperament," Jenna said wryly.

There was a sudden silence as Avon himself appeared in the opposite doorway.

Vila recovered first, waving his hand as though he had personally produced the birds. "For you!" he announced, and then collapsed in gales of laughter.

Avon walked slowly down the steps and stood contemplating his new property with distaste. Blake suddenly felt rather better about the partridges; six geese in Avon's cabin might just about make up for it. One of the birds stretched its neck out and cackled loudly, attracting everyone's attention. Amid stunned silence it deposited a gleaming ovoid on the floor and waddled off with an air of relief. Vila was the closest. He reached out a hand and then withdrew hastily as the other birds hissed at thim.

"What is that?" Jenna demanded.

"An egg?" Gan suggested.

"I've never seen an egg that colour," Jenna retorted.

Avon strode forward and picked it up warily while the geese preened themselves contentedly. He inspected the ovoid and then placed it under the analysis dome on Zen's console.

"Zen, give me a full analysis of that object," he demanded. "That should settle the question."

+THE MATERIAL IS THE ELEMENT GOLD. ATOMIC NUMBER 79. ATOMIC WEIGHT 196.967. RELATIVE DENSITY 19.32...+

"That's enough, Zen," Avon said. "I think we've all got the idea."

"A golden egg?" Vila queried, rather deflated.

"Solid gold?" Gan asked blankly.

Avon had retrieved the egg and was regarding his geese with a benevolently propriatorial expression which made Blake feel rather sick.

"Of course," Avon murmured. "Six geese a-laying." Another egg appeared. He picked it up reverently and turned to the steps. The geese followed, heaving themselves laboriously up after him.

The others were still staring after them when the five gold rings descended and smashed the navigation console in a shower of sparks.

Blake put his head in his hands, ignoring the chaos that erupted around him, and wondered whether to laugh or cry.

***

The next day he met Jenna and Cally on their way to the flight deck.

"What can we expect today?" Jenna asked drily.

"Flamingos?" he suggested morosely. He'd spent the night brooding, with the aid of a flask of Hyleth brandy. Vila got gold rings, Avon got geese laying golden eggs... all he got was perfectly normal partridges and half an orchard.

"Vila and Avon both seem to know what's going on," she pointed out.

"They're guessing," Blake said firmly, and then stopped in the entrance to the flight deck. "What the...?"

The steps led down into a sheet of water. A fleet of seven swans sailed proudly into view among the consoles. Blake looked up and saw Avon, Vila and Gan contemplating the scene from the far doorway. Avon glanced across, his expression almost a smirk.

"Whose are THEY?" Blake demanded.

"Cally's. Why water should be considered specifically appropriate for the Auronar I can't imagine. Ah..."

Six geese appeared, looking strangely dull and dumpy behind the swans. They made their way determinedly through the water to join the others grouped behind Avon. The French hens were marooned on the main console, cackling apprehensively. Doves fluttered round the room, white wings brushing Zen's fascia.

"Cally," Blake said in the tone of someone endeavouring to remain reasonable under severe provocation. "Get them off the flight deck."

"How?" Cally asked.

"I imagine they'll follow you," Avon suggested. "That would seem to be the normal pattern, except for Blake's partridges."

"We'll need to get rid of the water too," Jenna pointed out rather tartly.

"Zen can do that," Avon asserted confidently. "Zen, drain the flight deck."

There was a faint gurgling sound, followed by a series of splashes as the five rings dropped into the deepest water. Vila let out a cry of anguish and jumped down the steps, wading hip-deep to retrieve them. Six of the swans reached the doorway below Cally and waited there, bobbing up and down on the ripples Vila had set up. The seventh unfurled its wings and launched itself laboriously into the air, flying heavily through the arch and forcing Blake and Jenna back against the walls to give it room. Cally hurried after it; the other six waddled behind her, their wings half-raised in threat.

Blake made an heroic effort. "Whoever is on watch, clear that mess up," he ordered.

There was a moment's silence.

"According to the rota, it is your watch," Avon said silkily, and turned to leave.

Blake raced down the steps and splashed through the water, now only ankle deep, in an attempt to catch him. He put his foot on one of Vila's rings and fell flat.

Vila leapt forward with an anxious cry to reclaim his property. "That's the five," he said with satisfaction. "Are you all right?" he added as an afterthought.

Blake sat up and regarded him stonily. "You will take the watch," he snarled.

"But it's not my turn," Vila protested. "I... I've got a lot to do..."

"You will also clean this up," Blake added.

Vila's protests died away as he realised that Gan had also left. "Why is it always me?" he asked, as Blake stalked out, dripping and thunderous.

"Recognition of a natural talent?" Jenna suggested drily, and left him to it.

***

The following day was rather an anticlimax. Blake spent the entire morning on the flight deck, ostensibly taking Vila's watch. He had anticipated that no amount of leadership would get Vila to do it after the previous afternoon. In fact, he wasn't given the chance to find out, as Vila had prudently gone missing and remained that way. A little belated research had given him the source Avon and Vila had used to predict what would happen next. It was somewhat galling to find that both of them had checked the information on the second day. Also, that rather dented his hopeful belief that one of them was responsible.

Blake was rather encouraged when Zen informed him that they would arrive at Sestain within twenty-four hours. A little action would clear the air and take people's minds off birds and gold rings. He was feeling almost optimistic when Avon appeared at midday, the others trailing behind him. His enthusiasm was somewhat dimmed when the accompanying livestock swarmed on to the flight deck with them. As if twelve doves weren't enough, fifteen hens, twelve geese and seven swans created a considerable overcrowding problem.

"Tomorrow," he announced, " we will be at Sestain." No one took any notice, they were too busy watching the screen. "We will need to plan our attack carefully."

"What attack?" Avon queried. He was still leaning in the doorway, contemplating the scene with sardonic interest.

"Our attack on the relay station," Blake said irritably.

"That would be a stupid thing to try," Avon said. There was a sudden gurgling and water flooded across the floor sending the others leaping hastily for the higher levels. "Have you considered the effect of that on high speed maneouvres?"

"I told you to stop it," Blake pointed out ominously, then he ducked as seven more swans flew in from the passage, circled twice and landed with a splash in front of the screen. Disturbed, the doves took off in a flock while the hens tried to land on any available dry surface. Vila was standing on the seats, holding a large net and peering anxiously up at the ceiling.

"Who's Del Tarrant?" Gan asked thoughtfully.

There was a moment's silence as they all turned to look at the screen.

"Eight maids a-milking?" Jenna queried.

"What does that mean?" Cally asked, puzzled.

"Cows," Gan explained crytically and made vague gestures with his hands.

Vila gave a cry of triumph and lunged forwards, catching the five rings neatly in his net. Then the weight overbalanced him and he landed in the water with a splash and a wail of fright. Equally startled, the swans buffeted him with their wings before swimming off to join Cally. Avon was counting geese, Gan was rescuing hens...

+INFORMATION+ Zen intoned, +FEDERATION VESSEL DETECTED+

The alarm sounded.

***

Del Tarrant was feeling rather hard done by. It was all very well being the best and most popular pilot in the Federation fleet, but the unknown admirer who'd just sent him eight milkmaids all engaged in hand-milking large black and white cows could have chosen a more tactful gift. However you looked at it, eight cows were out of place on a Federation cruiser. The situation hadn't been helped by the fact that just as the cows arrived they had located Blake's ship. By the time they'd sorted out the chaos, the Liberator had vanished again. By way of compensation for his disappointment, the captain had locked Tarrant up as a rebel sympathiser after all, it was Tarrant's cows which had enabled Blake to escape.

Tarrant peered morosely through the cell bars at one of the cows. It was a very large and solid animal, and the milkmaid was generously built, too.

"Who sent you?" he asked hopefully.

"'Ow bee you'm expecting m' t' knaw, m' de-ar?" she countered. "Oi g't un t' meelk."

Tarrant sighed. Some kind of alien language, perhaps?

***

Birds were sacred. Soolin sat in the vast temple, the twenty birds circling and calling around her. The solemn conclave of bishops was discussing the phenomenon in an attempt to decide whether she was personally divine or merely a plaything for some godling's amusement. Soolin herself had no particular doubts and if she ever got the godling concerned in her sights he/she/it was going to get an instant chance to demonstrate his/her/its immortality.

Meanwhile, she was trapped here. There were still two to go of the men responsible for the murder of her family and she was held up by a divine manifestation occuring in a religious oligarchy. Soolin set her teeth and smiled sweetly at the bishops.

***

Blake was sulking. The Liberator had succeeded in evading the Federation ship that had so nearly run into them yesterday, but the evasion had put them a long way off course. They wouldn't be at Sestain now for another thirty-six hours, even if they turned back immediately... and they hadn't turned back. The rest of the crew flatly refused to consider any attack on the Federation until the strange happenings on the ship stopped. Blake had only just managed to restrain himself from giving Avon an ultimatum that it must be stopped immediately. For every day that this continued, Avon would acquire six more geese and that meant more golden eggs. There was no point giving Avon an order he would certainly ignore. The only comfort to Blake was the knowledge that by the twelfth night Avon would be sharing his cabin with forty-two geese. Considering the problems there were with eight partridges, Avon would have his hands full. Vila had supported Avon; he had another twenty gold rings at stake, so that was hardly surprising. It was Cally's defection that had hurt Blake the most; he hadn't expected her to side with Avon. Maybe she hadn't considered what forty-two swans would mean? Her cabin was full of water now. And then there was Jenna...

Avon had talked Jenna into supporting him. Blake had come back to the flight deck after trying to persuade Cally and caught the tail end of that conversation. Avon's voice, smooth and charming as the man could be when he wanted something.

"Think about it, Jenna," he'd been saying. "What you always wanted. It has to be worth it."

Then Blake had walked round the corner and confronted them. Avon had been smiling blandly and Jenna had refused to return to Sestain.

Blake sighed gloomily and contemplated the stains on his tunic and the slight rash of feather itch on his wrists. It wasn't fair. None of the other rebel leaders found their ships full of birds and their cabins giving a good imitation of a forest. Blake made a mental note to complain to someone about it, and looked up just as the rest of the crew appeared, clustering in the doorway.

It was nearly noon. Water flooded silently across the deck and washed round Blake's boots. He eyed it fatalistically and refused to move. Vila hurried across the flight deck to join him and scrambled up on to the seat back, his net waving haphazardly.

"Don't mind me," Blake muttered.

"That's all right," Vila assured him brightly. "You're not in my way."

The water flooded on to the seat and Blake moved reluctantly, aware that he could only remain seated and dignified up to a point. The swans sailed by, ignoring him. Hens erupted into the air, shedding feathers and squawking in agitation. One of the geese let out a mournful cry and startled everyone.

"Nine ladies?" Vila queried in an awed tone.

Blake turned to the screen and then straightened with a jerk. "Travis." he snarled. "Why Travis?"

"Probably quite a sensible move," Avon said.

Everyone turned to look at him.

"Not by my reckoning," Jenna said acidly.

"Why would anyone on this ship give anything to Travis?" Gan demanded belligerently.

"That depends on what they hoped to achieve," Avon pointed out.

"New friends?" Cally suggested.

"Well now," Avon said thoughtfully. "Nine ladies might be expected to provide a distraction, and that could just save us... for a while."

***

Travis sat back in his chair, somewhat bemused. The nine ladies all dressed in the height of decollete fashion, danced round his cabin, exclaiming over the furnishings and largely ignoring each other. Suddenly he remembered about Christmas. Once, Christmas had always included shore leave on a planet, plenty to drink and pleasant female company. He decided he'd been getting far too obsessed with Blake; he really needed to relax. One night wouldn't affect his plans.

***

The sixteen cows stared impassively at Tarrant, their jaws working. The sixteen milkmaids bent at their flanks, the milk hissed into the pails. Popularity certainly did have drawbacks; he hadn't yet finished all the milk from yesterday. One of the girls brought another brimming pail to his cell.

"There y'bee m' de-ar," she said, smiling broadly. "Us'll bee needn' a bit of kaek furr un, ifn you'm, g'eet?"

"Er... yes," Tarrant agreed weakly.

***

Blake staggered out of his cabin and pressed the button to close the door in case any of the partridges followed him. It had taken him nearly an hour to crawl and push through the branches of the thicket of pear trees. His clothes were torn and plastered with bird droppings, his face was scratched and his hair was full of decomposing fruit. He straightened thankfully and made a command decision. Tonight he would go to Jenna's cabin.

Once he'd had breakfast, his natural optimism began to reassert itself. One way or another, this would soon be over. Alone with Jenna, he'd be able to talk her round to his side; he always had before. Then a few jibes at Avon and the mess would be cleared away...

He'd reached that point when he realised that it was nearly noon and the others would be gathered on the flight deck. He brushed ineffectually at the fruit in his hair and strolled jauntily down to join them.

The atmosphere on the flight deck was somewhat dampening, and not just because of the water. Jenna and Avon were standing together in the far doorway. Somehow Blake felt that was ominous. Vila had an even larger net and was looking a little strained, he was finding twenty-five gold rings rather heavy to wear. Cally was watching the swans with fierce delight. Blake wondered what she saw in them to rouse that expression. He wouldn't look at Zen; he didn't want to see just how many doves were roosting there now.

"What is it this time?" Gan demanded.

Blake stared at him, amazed that there was actually someone who didn't know what was coming next. Then he straightened a little more as he thought about it. Today things would go his way. Ten lords... ten Alpha grades... and that meant ten possible new recruits for the Cause, and no more of this nonsense with birds.

"You see," Avon's voice said quietly. "Just as I predicted."

Blake glanced him, distracted, and then at the screen. "For Jenna?" he queried in disbelief.

"Can you direct me to the Lady Jenna Stannis?" a voice asked at his ear.

Blake turned and gulped. The lords were variously dressed, clearly they came from a number of different cultures, but they had some things in common. They were all tall, slim and and extremely handsome. Blake sucked his stomach in hastily.

"I am Roj Blake," he announced.

"And I'm Jenna Stannis," Jenna cut in from behind him.

The ten lords leapt elegantly across the flight deck, now drained of water, and bowed before her, their robes swirling.

"Enchanted," they murmured. Clearly they were. "You are ravishing," they sighed.

Blake decided that was poetic license. He started down the steps and met Avon coming up, his geese waddling determinedly behind him. He was almost smiling.

"I would advise you to leave them alone," he said. "At least for now."

"I'm sure you would," Blake snapped and barged into the little crowd. "I'm Roj Blake," he repeated. Before anyone could react, Vila's rings descended and knocked him senseless.

Jenna ignored the incident.

"Come," the lords invited, leaping aside so that she could lead the way. Even Vila left his rings where they had fallen until the little procession had gone. Then he sighed sentimentally and started scrabbling under the consoles.

Blake recovered to find that the flight deck was empty except for the eighteen doves perched contentedly above Zen's fascia. He glared at them and then marched determinedly to the weapons rack. The first gun he touched was red-hot. Painful experimentation convinced him that the others were the same.

"Zen, release the weapons," he demanded.

+WEAPONS ARE NOT NEEDED+ Zen stated.

Blake ground his teeth. "You aren't allowed to interfere in crew concerns," he pointed out, remembering Zen's frequent comments on that.

+PEACE AND GOODWILL TO ALL MEN+ Zen responded unexpectedly.

"Shut up," Blake ordered and stamped off to his cabin. On the way he collected an axe from the survival locker in the teleport bay. His first swing chopped a branch from one of the trees. With a cry of delight, Blake hacked again and again. After the fifth swipe, he realised that he'd still only severed the one branch. The sixth blow was rewarded with a bolt of electric discharge that knocked him straight back across the passage outside. The door closed and refused to open again. Defeated, Blake retired to the rec-room, lined up three flasks of brandy and proceeded to drink the lot.

***

Blake had a splitting headache and the lights were too bright. When he managed to get the room into focus, he discovered that he'd been sleeping on the floor of the rec-room. Avon, Vila and Cally were sitting at the table eating a leisurely meal and looking painfully fit and healthy. They were also ignoring him. He scrambled unsteadily to his feet and confronted them.

"This has got to stop," he said firmly.

"What... breakfast?" Vila queried doubtfully.

"This is your new campaign?" Avon suggested silkily.

"You know what I mean," Blake growled in a threatening rumble that shook his eyes loose in his head.

"Tomorrow is the last day," Avon pointed out.

"NOW!" Blake shouted, and grabbed hurriedly for a chair before he fell over.

"It's your nerves," Vila said soothingly. He hopped up to the dispenser and brought back a cup of turgid steaming liquid. "Drink this, you'll feel better."

Blake blanched at the sight. It was a special hangover concoction that he'd used several times on Vila. Vila's comments on it had not been enthusiastic. Blake turned to appeal to Avon and realised that the man was eating baked beans mixed with scrambled eggs. The sight was nauseating. Horrified, Blake grabbed the cup and drank the lot.

"Will he be all right?" he heard Cally ask.

"Blake or Vila?" Avon asked with studied obtuseness.

"I don't want any more of it," Blake stated clearly.

"Then don't drink so much," Avon retorted.

Blake ignored him and Vila, who was giggling helplessly.

"Cally," he appealed, "if this goes on for another two days, you'll have forty-two swans. Have you realised what that means?"

"Companionship," she said. "I have been alone so long. Forty-two minds... even their minds are companionship after the long silence. Not to be alone..."

"What?" Blake queried blankly.

"The swans are telepathic," Avon explained flatly.

Blake turned to Vila, but the man was engrossed in polishing one of his bracelets. Defeated, Blake made his way to the flight deck where Gan was on watch. He sat down on the central seat and stared moodily at the flock of hens pecking on the crumbs Gan was laboriously making from a large pile of bread slices. It wasn't until the hens began to join him on the seat that he realised that water was flooding the room again. He retreated to the steps and reached them just as Jenna appeared, glowing with warmth and eagerness. The ten lords leapt enthusiastically along the corridor behind her. The doves whirled round the room, he tripped over a goose and trod on a stray hen. Vast white swans were everywhere, wings raised in menace.

"Can you direct me to Jenna Stannis?" a voice asked at his elbow.

Blake felt like screaming. These ten lords were even more handsome than the last lot. They leapt through the shallow water to join Jenna, neatly avoiding the falling rings.

"Who's Dayna Mellanby?" Gan asked of no-one in particular. No-one knew.

Blake went back to his cabin. Just inside the door was a clear space, barely big enough for him to sit down. He collapsed into it and the partridges whirled across to join him. A pear dropped into his lap. It might not be much, Blake thought, sniffing sentimentally, but at least here he was appreciated.

***

The music coming from Travis' cabin echoed round his ship. No-one had dared to disturb him since the second officer had gone in two days ago and returned, shaken, to report that the Space Commander was dancing the paso doble with nine ladies. All thoughts of Blake forgotten, the ship drifted while the crew gathered round the electronics officer who was trying to get a picture from the comm pick-up in Travis' cabin. None of them could really visualise their commander doing the foxtrot, but that music...

***

On the planet Sarran, young Dayna Mellanby was standing on a sand dune watching the scene on the beach below. Eleven pipers in full Highland dress marched and counter-marched to the tune of Scotland the Brave. They were a wonderful present, even if she didn't know who'd sent them. Admittedly, no one else really appreciated them and her father had ordered her to take them out of the refuge. Perhaps, she admitted, there was some justice in that. Out here, she could really appreciate the tune.

Meanwhile, the natives of Sarran lay flat in their tents, their hands over their ears to shut out the eerie skirling, and wondered what awful wrath of the gods the strangers from the sea had summoned now.

***

Avon had the morning watch. Apart from the constant murmuring of doves and the subdued gabble of his own geese, the flight deck was quiet. He had the heaters up full in an attempt to dispel the pervasive dampness resulting from the repeated flooding. The seats were distinctly mouldy in places, and a scent that might almost have been dry rot lingered in the air. Scattered glasses and streamers were all that remained of last night's party. He felt that it was unlikely that anyone else would appear before midday.

"Zen, confirm destination and arrival time," he ordered.

+DESTINATION, MALACHI. ARRIVAL IN TEN HOURS AND THIRTY-TWO MINUTES+

"When we arrive, I want a 360 degree sweep on all detectors, shields on full. If there is no Federation activity, you will put the information to my console only, on Code Hold. Establish orbit at maximum teleport range. If there is any indication of danger, you will abort course instructions and use standard evasion pattern."

+CONFIRMED+

Avon sat back in his seat and smiled softly, an expression that would have unnerved any of the rest of the crew if they'd seen it. One of the geese laid another egg and he retrieved it tenderly.

By the time Gan and Vila came to join him, the flight deck had been cleaned up and Avon was back to his usual occupation of investigating the complex circuitry on the main interface panel. Vila flung himself down on the centre seat. Gan was trying to coax his hens past the doorway; clearly they remembered that the room was liable to flooding.

A little later, Cally and Jenna arrived with their attendant lords and swans, and the party atmosphere returned. Vila casually produced a couple of bottles of wine, while the lords had a vast picnic hamper labelled Fortnum and Mason. Blake arrived late and slunk in unnoticed except by the swans which threatened him angrily. He managed to grab half a glass of wine and a ham sandwich and retired to a corner by Zen to eat them. He was the only one to see the message on the screen.

"Zen?" he asked brokenly, "why does Servalan get twelve drummers?"

+COO+ Zen said experimentally.

"Pardon?"

+GRANTED. INFORMATION REQUESTED IS NOT AVAILABLE+ There was a brief pause. +COO+ Zen repeated appreciatively.

The doves huddled closer.

***

Soolin sat on the raised dais in the temple and smiled enchantingly. Underneath her long robes, her fingers itched to feel a gun. All around her, the birds called and circled. She was hemmed in by the smell of incense and the sound of chanting. The most powerful figures in the oligarchy had come to pay homage to the thirty-six sacred birds. It was an impressive occasion, and if she ever located the person responsible they would be more than impressed.

***

Tarrant was still in the cell, which was a good thing as there was no room at all outside it. Forty cows! The endless procession of buckets of milk nauseated him, but it was all he could get. Even if there was any food the cows hadn't eaten, there was no way anyone could pass the massive animals to give it to him. Tarrant suffered in silence. The only people he had to talk to were the milk-maids and he couldn't understand them. He realised sadly that if he ever got out of this situation he would have to desert from the Federation. Otherwise there would be jokes about cows and milk for the rest of his life.

***

Travis spun round the room in a flying polka. It wasn't the most sensible choice; the cabin hadn't been designed to allow the commander to dance with thirty-six ladies, but the difficulties were stimulating. Fired with enthusiasm, he launched into a Charleston.

***

The wild music echoed along the beach. Strathspeys, marches and eightsome reels, the twenty-two pipers were playing like Braemar Games gone mad. Dayna had marched with them for miles along the shore, fascinated by a vision of life she had never seen before. For the first time, she wondered about planets beyond Sarran.

***

Servalan sat back in her chair and considered the scene before her. Twelve drummers beat a brisk tattoo. Kettle drums, side drums and half a steel band mistakenly playing calypso music. The noise was incredible, the possibilities... entertaining. She chose a brief lull in the sound level and leaned forward to her communicator.

"I am not to be disturbed," she ordered. "Not for at least twelve hours."

"Understood, Supreme Commander."

***

The party on the Liberator was at its height. The thirty lords leaping over the central seats were closely followed by Vila, whose efforts at emulation were hampered by the amount he'd drunk and the bracelets which plated his arms from wrists to shoulders.

Cally was sitting in one corner in a nest of swans, watching contentedly. "We'll never be alone again," she assured them. "Never lonely... never alone."

Gan was scattering brandy-soaked biscuits to thirty drunken chickens. Occasionally he ate one himself.

Blake had discovered a sympathetic audience in Zen's doves, several of which were as drunk as the chickens. He was explaining the philosophical basis of the rebel cause with the aid of an empty wine bottle. Little coos of admiration greeted the more telling points. The doves were definitely impressed. He was trying to ignore Jenna who was drinking champagne from an open-toed sandal. The basic problem involved could have been why she was the most sober person in the room.

Avon appeared in the doorway and surveyed the scene coldly. Then he picked his way fastidiously to his own console. He checked the information it offered, dodged a friendly embrace and the offer of a drink from Vila and extricated himself neatly from the gyrations of the lords. He stopped once at the top of the steps and looked back, considering.

"They had the same chance I have," he said finally.

No one noticed his departure.

***

In the clear light of the next morning, the calling birds were gone. Clearly, the lavish ceremony had pleased the gods. Soolin was escorted to the spaceport by the temple priests and presented with suitable gifts: the robes she had worn, a life-sized carved statue of the god and five crates of incense. More than a little convinced it was the nauseating odour of the latter which had driven the birds away, she accepted that with suitable gratitude. Once she was off the planet, her life could return to normal. The remaining two killers were still alive, but they would not be alive for long.

***

Dayna stood among the sand dunes, staring at the faint traces of footprints on the beach. The distant sound of the pipes still echoed over the water, playing Strathearn Lament. As the tide washed away the marks, she knew they would never return. Slowly she started for home, already planning how she would persuade her father to add music to her studies.

***

Tarrant stared round incredulously. He'd woken to find that the cows were gone; even the pails of milk had vanished. He tried the cell door and it opened smoothly. He stepped out rather cautiously, but there was no trace of either the guards or the cows. It was the best chance he was likely to be offered. In fact, considering the captain's temper, it would probably be the only chance he was offered. He hurried cautiously to the main shuttle bay where he knew that there should be a scout craft docked. It would be simple enough for him to take that, and if he could just get away from the ship he could do anything. Turn mercenary... run contraband to the outer planets... anything that would ensure he never saw a cow again.

***

Travis was asleep, a faint contented smile on his face. The strains of The Last Waltz lingered almost imperceptibly in the air. It had been the happiest three days Travis could ever remember.

***

Servalan was not asleep, but she was equally happy. The drummers had gone, but not before the calypso band had taught her to do a limbo dance. It had been a fantastic evening; all that she regretted was that there had been no one to share it with. For a moment she let her mind wander. Travis? Hardly. There was one other... She turned the pages of the dossier she had been studying until she found the picture. Yes, that one.

Some hours later, Central Security were startled by an instruction to discover whether Kerr Avon was skilled in limbo dancing.

On the Liberator there was peace. Blake woke in his cabin and immediately registered that something had changed. After a moment, he realised that the trees were gone. No partridges shared his bunk. Hopeful but wary, he set out to explore the ship.

Gan was asleep at his console on the flight deck. After a bit of mental arithmetic, Blake remembered that it was Gan's watch. He looked round suspiciously, but there was nothing else. No doves roosting by Zen's fascia, no hens lurking under the consoles. A few glasses still littered the deck and there was a distinct smell of damp, but that was all that was left from the events of the last twelve days.

By the time he reached the rec-room, Blake was recovering his confidence. Jenna and Cally were there, eating breakfast in silence. They both seemed somewhat lost and subdued. Vila wandered in after Blake, his arms bare and his expression heart-broken.

"Right," Blake said with determination. "Now we get back to what we should be doing. The attack on Sestain."

No one argued.

***

Some hours later, Blake returned to the flight deck to relieve Gan and noticed Orac sitting on the centre table. "How long has Orac been here?" he asked, slightly puzzled. Surely it hadn't been there when he'd been in earlier.

"I don't know," Gan admitted. "It wasn't there yesterday, was it?"

Blake frowned after him as the man left, and then dismissed the problem.

"Zen, I want a course for Sestain," he ordered.

+COURSE IS FOR SESTAIN. TRANSIT TIME IS NOW FIFTEEN HOURS AND THIRTY-FOUR MINUTES+

Blake froze with his mouth open. "Who set that course?" he demanded.

+COURSE PROGRAM WAS ENTERED BY KERR AVON+

Avon? Avon was the only one he hadn't seen so far, but why would Avon set the course for Sestain? Orac caught his eye again. That certainly hadn't been there earlier. In fact, he couldn't remember seeing it for... for about twelve days. There was something about this he hadn't worked out yet.

"Zen, when did Avon set this course?"

+WHEN HE INSTRUCTED THE LIBERATOR TO LEAVE ORBIT AROUND MALACHI+

Malachi! Blake snatched up Orac's activator and inserted it into the slot. "Orac, how much do you know about the events of the last twelve days?"

"My observations have acquired considerable data."

"What caused it?"

"I did."

Blake stopped what he'd been about to say and regarded Orac dubiously. "You did?" he queried.

"It was a fascinating social experiment," Orac explained enthusiastically. "The information I have acquired..."

"Did you take this ship to Malachi?" Blake demanded, interrupting ruthlessly. He wasn't interested in Orac's eternal search for information.

"That course was programmed by Avon," Orac snapped.

"Avon?" Blake queried, aware of a sudden sinking feeling. "Did Avon teleport down to Malachi?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"He did not specify his reasons. However, Malachi is a free gold market. Logical assessment of the situation indicates several possibilities."

Blake felt as though he'd been kicked in the stomach. "Those eggs..."

"Exactly. It is difficult to be precise, but the present price of gold would indicate a profit of approximately five hundred thousand credits."

Five hundred thousand! Blake sat down slowly on the couch. "Everything else vanished," he protested weakly.

"Of course, and the eggs will have vanished in exactly the same way. However, by selling them when he did..."

"All right, Orac."

Blake reached out and removed the activator. His first impulse to dash off and confront Avon faded. After all, Avon might deny it, or even admit the whole thing and defy Blake to do... what? Somewhere on the ship, Avon now had a personal fortune of five hundred thousand credits; a nest egg to go with his bolt-hole, if he ever found one. The bonds that kept Avon with them were that much weaker. On the other hand, Avon had set the course for Sestain...

***

Switching Orac off stopped him communicating, but did not, in fact, render him inactive something he'd never found it worth explaining to the humans who surrounded him. The last twelve days had given him some fascinating data on human behaviour under varying types of stress; information that might well be essential in planning his future relations with this group. The strengths and weaknesses it had revealed were interesting.

Vila, for instance...

Orac had co-opted Vila at the very beginning and the man had been enthusiastic about the proposed 'practical joke'. However, Orac had felt it advisable to offer Vila a personal inducement as well; the gold rings had been perfect for that. It was Vila who found Orac a hiding place; a fairly effective hiding place, since Avon was the only one to discover it and his reaction had been much as Orac had anticipated. For the promise of a profit for himself, Avon had agreed to do nothing. In fact, he'd even made a few suggestions; the telepathic swans had been his idea. Rather to Orac's surprise though, Avon had succeeded in out-thinking him. He had worked out how to keep his profit and he had done so. Somehow, Orac found that worrying.

One other point that worried Orac even more, was why Avon had then set the course for Sestain...

But that was a puzzle no one was likely to solve.

***


Illustration by Tim Pieraccini

This story was originally printed in Horizon no. 11.
Horizon newsletters and zines are still available to purchase from the Supreme Commander. Email Horizon HQ for full list and ordering details.


All original fan fiction hosted on Horizon is copyright to the individual authors. No attempt is being made to supersede any copyright held by the estate of Terry Nation, the BBC, B7 Media, Big Finish or any other licensees or holders of copyright on Blake's 7 material.



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