Fingers slowly wriggled into custom made sockets, the air around them buzzing with a vague sense of electrical animosity ™ something unnatural was about to happen. As the hands began to glow mysteriously in the darkness of the chamber surrounding them, a quiet, pained, sigh folded from the shrouded figure. Ultra fast processors erupted into life sending spasms of emotion running back up its nervous system, racking the body with the pain of resistance and making it convulse in the custom-made seat it was restricted to. Slots opened in the irregular, wire-riddled enclave and needle sharp metal shards hummed forward ™ stopping only on contact with living tissue. In absolute terror, the figure felt the spikes penetrate its scalp. They had been expected.
Resistance wavered, the pain seemingly sucked dry by the intrusion of the spikes. A feeling of total wonder entered through the pierced skin of the confused figure, incomprehensible yet enlightening... deafening but silent in assault. The figure lost all sense of bearing within the inflamed ecstasy, all that it could feel was the power surging into its hands... its fingers.
The induced feeling began to fade, and as the figure's back unlocked its arch and began to rest once more into the padded alcove, its emotions continued to drain, all eventually leaving the body through the shards of metal now firmly implanted into the back of its cranium. They were no longer needed, they had been exorcised ™ replaced.
Moments passed before the empty body began to assert a consciousness once more, this time a singular, all consuming reality with new objective. The enigma of life had been solved with the passing of emotion and the arrival of power. Now all that remained was the task it faced, and very soon even that would pose little problem. Its fingers began to twitch in the sockets as the final welding took place ™ sentient, organic life joining in glorious unison with the silicon intelligence encasing it. Now they could be as one.
Avon pulled tight the buckle of his red leather tunic and glanced disinterestedly at his reflection in the little-used mirror. He tugged the tunic down, pressed out a crease, and then ran his fingers back through his hair.
Mild curiosity had lead him to investigate whether or not the IMIPAK weapon had left a mark on his person. Convinced that it hadn't, he resolved to dismiss the entire farce from his mind. The message from the slave girl Rashel seemed enough to let them mark the whole affair down to experience. After all, with both Servalan and Travis marked and the weapon itself under guard he considered it, and himself, quite safe. The trailing pursuit ships had been easy enough to lose. Escaping them, even the Starburst class, seemed to have become standard procedure these days for Liberator's war weary crew. Reassured, he moved over to his cabin door and waited silently for the metal panel to slide back.
Outside, the gleaming whiteness of the Liberator's corridors met his eyes. For a moment the light seemed too bright, and he raised a hand to shield himself from the glare. Seconds later his vision returned to normal and as he began toward the flight deck, heels clicking on the cold white floor, he wondered why he had never noticed it happening on leaving his cabin before. It might have been a power surge, merely coincidental with his opening of the door. Such occurrences were not rare on the ship ™ especially at times when course changes were implemented.
Nothing however was totally insignificant to his analytical mind; it would hardly take him any time to run a check.
"I said it's nothing." Blake glared at Cally and waved her away. The pain in his head had been growing steadily stronger for the last few hours, with spasms such as the one that had just caused him to fall becoming more and more frequent. Of course mentioning it to Cally had been a bad idea ™ her persistent agitation had only served to make it worse.
"Sudden pains like that can not be nothing, Blake," she said in soft but forceful tones, obviously in some discomfort herself, "At least let me run some tests. These pains may simply be from exhaustion but I would like to be sure. Besides, resting for a while will not do any of us harm."
"Get's my vote," chirped Vila from behind a bottle of lurid coloured liquid, "I've had quite enough of being shot at for the moment."
"It's difficult to be shot at while sitting behind the teleport console," remarked Avon, appearing in the right side entrance to the flight deck. "Unless of course Orac is in a particularly vicious frame of mind."
"I do my fair share of the fighting™" Vila protested, glancing over at Avon, "™when necessary."
"Indeed." Avon, dismissed the banter with a glare at Vila's bottle. "Have the systems analysis programs detected any power fluctuations within the last few minutes?"
"Zen hasn't reported anything," Blake said. "Why?"
Avon stepped down from the luminescence of the entry way and walked slowly over to one of the flight consoles. "Probably nothing. I thought I felt a power surge just now."
Blake watched as he checked the display, but it seemed to contain nothing of interest. Avon shrugged slightly and changed the subject.
"Where are we going?"
"We haven't decided yet," Jenna said.
"No," Blake added, "we're definitely out of IMIPAK's range, but as yet..."
"Then let us rest for a while," Cally pleaded, staring deep into his eyes.
"She might be right you know," Gan said.
"All right," Blake conceded, breaking the telepath's stare. "We'll head out into deep space and lie low for a bit, while we decide what we're going to do next. Is that to your satisfaction, Cally?"
She smiled and nodded, rubbing her eyes. "I'll get the equipment for the tests ready."
"Right." Blake placed his hands on his hips and let the weight of his heavy leather sleeves drop around his arms. "Does anyone have any preferences as to where we go?"
Jenna easily recognised his sarcastic tone, "How about Corey's Respite?" she said, "It's in zone nine ™ on this side of the galaxy, not too far and it should be pretty quiet, the distance it is from the main Federation space-lanes." She paused, and added with a smirk, "I hear it has some breathtaking views at this time of year."
"Wonderful," Vila moaned. "I thought you meant somewhere to relax, not stagnate. How about Space City?"
"What, after last time?" Cally said, returning to the room with a small diagnostic machine, "I said relax, Vila. Letting you loose there would cause the rest of us more stress than any plot Servalan could hatch."
Vila sat open-mouthed at her, caught for a suitable reply.
"Right then." Blake turned to the flashing display on the wall behind him. "Zen, lay in a direct course for Corey's Respite ™ standard by four."
The computer's illuminated diorama continued its cycle in silence for a few seconds before Zen replied.
+A direct course to Corey's Respite requires a route that runs outside designated safety parameters.+
"Explain," demanded Avon, frowning.
+Navigation systems report that the central star in zine nine, known terrestrially as Sagarian's Heart, requires an orbital exclusion zone of seventy thousand spacials to avoid gravitational pull and a rise in ambient temperature. On a direct course to Corey's Respite Liberator would pass the star at a distance of sixty-eight thousand, four hundred and ninety-seven spacials.+
"Can't you compensate for the pull?" Blake asked, mildly annoyed.
"And the temperature?"
+Liberator's environmental circuits can compensate for seventy-five hours at present charging. Delaying orbit for longer than this time period is inadvisable.+
"We don't want to stop there," Gan said, "just pass by."
"Agreed," said Blake. "I don't think two thousand spacials is anything to worry about, besides the radiation flare from the sun will shield us from any Federation detectors in the system, so it may even be a good idea. I believe there are two Federation outposts close to Sagarian's Heart, aren't there, Jenna?"
She nodded, "One on Calypso and one on a moon orbiting Shovar. Third and fourth planets in the Bennor system. Corey's Respite is the seventh."
"As long as Zen doesn't fall asleep we should be all right," Blake concluded, "Zen, a direct course ™ standard by four."
+Con...+ Zen stammered and his display dimmed slightly, causing Avon to look up from his position +...fffirmed.+ the computer finished, seemingly unperturbed.
Avon returned to his checks, muttering quietly about overhauls.
"I've got you this time." Vila looked up at Avon and rubbed his hands together. He reached out and moved a clear plastic cylinder three circles to the right of its previous position on the board before him.
Avon looked back from the other side of the board and smiled knowingly at his opponent's hopeful expression. Vila caught the look and and turned to Gan for support. "He can't get out of this one, can he?"
Avon nonchalantly pushed two crystal beads around Vila's cylinder and relaxed back into the couch, folding his hands behind his head.
"You'll never, ever, beat me, Vila. I thought even you would have realised that by now."
"I didn't see that there. It must have been hidden behind my third colonial empire." Unabashed Vila produced a deck of cards from his pocket and held them out to Avon. "Conquering the galaxy never was my strong point ™ fancy a hand of poker?"
Avon eyed him dubiously, "Not when the cards are marked."
"See!" Vila rolled his eyes at Gan, crestfallen, "I can't even beat him by cheating."
"So they are marked then?"
The unmistakable electronic tension that preceded a delivery from Zen filled the air and on instinct Avon switched his eyes from Vila's gawping face to the computer display, awaiting the imminent message.
Nothing however was forthcoming. Avon was about to stand when he felt a slight surge in his body, an indication that the Liberator had just changed course. He looked at the two blank faces sitting next to him and dismissed immediately any possibility that they might know what was going on.
"Zen," he began, considering his options, "Course?"
+Liberator is on a direct course for Corey's Respite.+
"Recheck your data."
+Present course is confirmed.+
"What's wrong?" Gan asked, puzzled.
"Didn't you just feel it?" replied Avon.
"Feel what?" Vila frowned.
"That surge," said Avon, his eyes squinted in thought. "I'm sure Liberator just changed course."
"Zen doesn't seem to think so," Gan said.
"And neither do I." Vila yawned. "You're getting jumpy, Avon. Cally's probably right ™ we're tired. Being a galactic hero isn't all wine, women and song." He grinned. "Actually, one out of three would be a good start."
Avon ignored him. He was sure he'd felt something. He dived a hand into a pocket in his tight leather jerkin and pulled out a small transparent box, tossing it in his palm. No matter how uncomfortable it was, he never went anywhere without Orac's key.
He got up and walked over to the dormant computer, locked into its trolley on one side of the flight deck. He slid the key into place, watched by Vila and Gan, and as the familiar soft burble filtered erratically into the air, Avon grasped Orac's sides and waited for the unavoidable conversational gambit.
"Yes? What is it now?"
Avon's face remained unmoved, deep in thought, "Orac, give me Liberator's present course."
"Really," the box began, obviously disgusted by the order, "I fail to see why I should waste my time on such trivialit™"
"Just do it Orac."
"Very well. The ship's navigational systems state that Liberator is on a direct course for Corey's Respite, an Earth type planet in the™"
"And what do you say, Orac? Is that correct?"
"Why should it not be?"
"I don't know Orac, that's why I am asking you."
The computer fell silent and Vila got up, concerned by Avon's sudden mood swing. Avon usually stayed happy for at least half an hour after humiliating him at Empires, but his last joke hadn't even been rewarded with a put down, and that was rare indeed.
"What's wrong?" he asked softly, sensing from the look on Avon's face that teasing him would probably end up with him being shouted at.
Avon didn't even look at him.
"It appears your concern is well founded," Orac stated, startling Vila. "The ship has indeed changed course."
"So why doesn't Zen know?" asked Vila.
"The only plausible explanation would be that the main computer was not notified of the change. My data readings indicate the command was implemented directly to the navigational sub-systems." Orac paused, lights flashing in a complex pattern, "I conjecture that when the Zen computer next correlates the present course to the one we are in fact on, it will recognise this anomaly and rectify it. There is no cause for concern."
"Not for you maybe," muttered Vila. "How often does Zen check where we're flying then?" He found the thought of being on a ship that didn't know where it was going mildly disconcerting.
"The automatic piloting should do it continually," said Avon, more to himself than to Vila. He pushed away from Orac and moved over to the navigation console behind him, "That is of course, if we are on automatic piloting. It seems we are currently on manual."
"What!" exclaimed Vila, "You mean nobody's flying this crate?" He stepped forward, uncertain of what to do next.
Avon just looked at him.
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