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Orac and the Art of Programming

By Alicia Ann Fox
Cally was sprawled nude, her hands loosely spread against Avon's bare chest. His leg was comfortably nestled between hers. Air wafted from a vent above her head, cooling her damp skin. "Your mouth," she murmured, "is like a flower." She traced the contours of his lips and said, dreamily, "Petals."

If her poetic reverie unnerved him, he did not say so. His fingers combed through her hair, stroked the smooth curve of her shoulder, repeated. He turned his head and gently kissed her forehead. "Stay for a bit longer?" he asked.

Cally nuzzled at his chest. "Mmm."

"Is that a yes, or a--"

Over his sudden silence, Cally could hear a steady hum, growing louder. A split second later, she realized the sound came from Orac, still activated on the desk. "Avon? What's that noise?" She sat up, to look at him.

He convulsed once, then fell back. Cally sucked in air deeply, choking on a scream. Then Avon began to fight her, trying to get past her. She pinned him with her weight as best as she could. "Signal," he panted suddenly. "Respond. To. Signal."

Terrified, knowing she would be overpowered in moments, Cally hurled a mental shriek at the next cabin. **Avon's cabin--Stop Orac!!!**

Avon's struggles were increasing. "Must comply," he gasped, barely audible over Orac's dull hum. "That's the signal, that's it!"

**Now hurry Vila!!!**

The door flew open and Vila burst into the room. After a moment of paralysis he leapt forward and yanked off Orac's key, tossing it dramatically into the corner. Avon's body went abruptly limp. Vila stumbled forward, bending to examine the other man. "Is he alive?! What's wrong with him? What's going on?" Suddenly he groaned. "Oh, you've killed my head, Cally."

Cally was waving her hand before Avon's face. After a few moments his eyes began to follow it. **Avon!**

Vila slapped his fingers lightly against the other man's cheek. "Come on, wake up!" he demanded.

Long seconds later Avon asked, squinting painfully, "Where's Cally?"

"Here I am."

He stared at her, blankly.

"Orac was having a go at you!" Vila exclaimed.

"Orac? What? I was...was...." Avon said in a confused tone.

"You don't remember?" Cally replied. "Do you feel all right now?"

Very slowly Avon shook his head. "No, I don't." It wasn't immediately apparent which question he was answering.

"I threw the key over there," Vila said. "I never did trust that--" Vila stopped. He took a step backwards.

Avon stared at Vila for a long moment, puzzled. Then he clutched for the blanket. "What are you doing here?" he asked sharply.

"It's all right," Cally said quickly. "I had to call him-you were fighting me--"

"Sorry...." Vila's voice trailed off. He looked appealingly to Avon and shrugged. "If it makes you feel any better I'd already figured things out on my own."

Avon continued to stare at him, measuring. The dull glaze had evaporated from his eyes. Finally he said, "The Federation has surely learned how to get Orac's attention by now, that must be what happened." He looked away. Cally saw him swallow convulsively, as if he were trying not to throw up. After a moment, under control, he looked back. "Get it out of here, Vila, it might be able to convince me to reactivate it." He fixed Vila with his eyes again. "And get yourself out of here, while you're at it." Vila didn't move immediately, and after a moment Avon continued, "We'll have to do without Orac, until we know for sure what happened." He paused. His hand worked in the tangle of blanket he had grabbed to cover himself. "What...did I try to do?"

"You wanted to answer a signal, you said," Cally informed him. "You insisted that you had to reply."

"What signal?"

Cally shook her head. "I don't know. Orac was making a humming noise."

"What was it saying?"

"Nothing," Cally said. "Nothing that I could hear."

"Like Blake," Vila said edgily. "Remember? Pulse-tones?"

Avon did remember, all too clearly. "I shall have to be watched," he said, his expression hard. "Damn it, the Federation has all of my psych records, there's no telling what they could do to me, given access. What they may have done already...."

#

Four days later, to Cally's relief, Avon had exhibited no further signs of strange behavior, other than increasingly open hostility resulting from the constant observation. His resentment was often aimed at her, and though in theory she knew that he had good reason to be afraid, and that she ought to make allowances, in reality this was more difficult than she had hoped. More and more often, she was reacting with irritation that she knew he did not deserve.

Presently Avon sat with his bare feet propped up on his desk, fingers laced across his middle, staring at a piece of Dayna's latest weapon. Cally lay on her stomach on the bunk, studying his newest brain scan for abnormalities.

"Well?"

Slowly Cally shook her head. "Nothing that I can see."

"Waste of time," Avon muttered, dropping his feet to the deck. He pushed the firing mechanism away irritably. "We've been relying on Orac too often, for too much. If it's untrustworthy...if I'm untrustworthy. What good would a bolthole do us then?"

"A base?" Cally looked at him in surprise, upset that he hadn't mentioned this to her before. What else had he been planning? "Have you been thinking about it, then? What about Blake?"

"He's the reason we need a place to hole up. When we find him...." Avon slammed his right fist onto the desktop, abruptly; Cally jumped. "I was almost there, almost ready to set up Orac for infinite patterning. But how can I do it, now? I would lead the Federation right to him."

"How can we be sure it was the Federation who controlled you? Perhaps we were wrong, and it was just Orac up to something. You can fix Orac."

Avon's tone was bitter as he said, "What's the difference?" After a moment he continued, "We can't know without asking it. And I'm not in the mood for risking that just now. If it tried to attack me, I might have to dismantle the casing and dump it in a nice warm acid bath. And torch the puddle," he added, with a touch of grim humor. Cally didn't say anything. Finally he asked, in a different tone, "How long are we going to have to keep this up?"

"As long as it takes," Cally said, then regretted the flip answer. This was the first time he'd asked anything of her since the whole problem had begun. She got to her feet and walked over to him. "I don't know. Blake was fine, after we reprogrammed him."

"Reprogrammed." Avon said the word distastefully. "Was he, really? I suppose the others would like to lock me away. Tarrant, for example. He's been carrying a gun."

"Dayna's been glad of your help, the last few days."

Avon didn't seem to have heard her. "I should regret it if Orac should have to be destroyed. I should regret it even more if I should have to be destroyed." He grinned bleakly.

"Stop it," Cally said, angrily. "We'll just have to wait and find out, won't we?" Deliberately she began running her fingers through his damp hair, until he sighed. Continuing with her right hand, she spread the left across his forehead, gently forcing him to lean back in the chair. More quietly, she told him, "You're wearing yourself out before there's anything to fight."

"Do I look like I'm fighting right now?" His eyes were closed.

One last ruffle and Cally moved her hands to the muscles at his temples and face. "An old Auron proverb: you can't defeat the air. You look tired. Does your head hurt?"

"A bit," he began, but her hand covered his mouth before moving to the back of his neck.

"Then be quiet and let me do this. I brought sedatives if you want--"

"No." A few moments later he said, "That was never an old Auron proverb."

The fact that he wasn't avoiding her touch alleviated some of her worry. She reached down and unfastened his shirt. "Yes, it is. Really." Her fingers smoothed the skin of his chest, then pushed the shirt from his shoulders.

He sat up a bit and tugged it the rest of the way off before settling back again, into her enfolding arms. "Tarrant wants to take over, doesn't he?"

Cally snuggled her cheek more closely to his hair and passed her hands in a leisurely way over the warmth of his skin. "You're too hard on the boy. Sometimes," she amended.

"Hardly a boy. Well?"

"He's barely a man yet. And no, I don't think he does. I think he wants you to find a solution. But you aren't going to think about that just now."

Avon would have replied, but at that moment Cally's teeth grazed delicately against his earlobe; he drew breath sharply.

"Think about that, instead," Cally breathed into his ear, and nibbled again.

"Thinking isn't--what that makes me--do." When she didn't let go he gasped, "Stop," involuntarily closing his eyes and arching his back.

Cally stopped, unable to suppress a satisfied smirk. "Later?" she asked.

"Only if there's time to ravish you in great detail," Avon said quickly. He broke free of her grasp and stood. She encircled him with her arms from behind and stroked his ribs, feeling the ripples they made under her palms. Not quite laughing, he wrestled free and used his weight to topple them both onto the bunk. Cally grinned broadly, relieved. His hands went under her shirt and cradled her breasts as his mouth sought hers in suddenly anxious inquiry.

"Umm," she replied, trying to catch his tongue, but he wouldn't come to her. She tugged at his arms, wanting him closer, wanting to hold him.

Avon was having none of it. "Clothes first," he said, dragging his hands away from her skin. He undressed her methodically, breathing as if he'd been running. Cally pursued his hands, brushing the backs of his fingers, trailing her index finger through the hair on his arms, wishing he could just relax and get on with it. She felt as much hunger for contact as he was presently demonstrating. He must have been concealing a great deal from her in the last few days, for she hadn't accurately sensed exactly how much he needed her until this moment. That realization made her limbs melt.

Mission accomplished, Avon added his own remaining clothing to the pile. Immediately he began to kiss her, hurried inconstant darts that provoked Cally into grabbing the back of his head in both hands, forcing his mouth to her lips and holding him there. Once caught, he seemed to want to devour her, and Cally zealously responded, glad to temporarily ignore her worries.

His tongue thrust urgently against hers, one hand pulling at her right nipple, the other crawling down the outside of her thigh. Caught between sensations, Cally wrapped her arms around him, then her legs, twisting beneath him. There seemed no way to satiate the precipitate craving she felt from him and felt herself answering with equal crazed fervor. She had to wrest her mouth from his to breathe, and to gasp, "In."

"Now?" he said breathlessly into her ear, sounding frantically desirous yet at the same time surprised.

She grabbed his head again and hissed into his mouth, "Yes. Now."

Unexpectedly it hurt, a little. He must have felt her wince, because in the next moments she felt his hand brushing against her clitoris, probing in the folds of her vagina where he still filled her. Cally couldn't breathe for the intense pleasure, so edgy and nearly tormenting. Then she was flying, breathing in great rhythmic gusts. She clenched her jaw over an escaping sound, her teeth sinking into his lower lip. Dimly she heard him exclaim with surprised pain.

The hot wetness on her chin was blood. Avon twisted his body and suddenly she was looking down on him as he wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. His hand was shaking, his lungs laboring.

**I'm sorry....**

"It's all right," he gasped, in one slurred exhalation. He'd smudged blood across his cheek, it was smeared on the back of his hand and wrist. "'s all right. My fault. Too fast." He couldn't seem to stop touching the wound, though it obviously hurt to do so.

Cally grasped his forearm and gently pulled it away from his face. "Let me see." Appalled, she fumbled for the kit she'd brought with the sedatives and found gauze and analgesic to daub the wound. She hadn't thought she would need a regenerator.

"I just...," he said. At the first touch of fabric to the bleeding wound he went motionless, muscles taut; but his breathing began to slow.

Cally wasn't sure if he wanted her to touch him or not, but she couldn't bear not to. Finally she took his hand. Drying blood felt tacky under her fingers. "I'm sorry," she said again. She paused. "Do you want to go on?"

"I think that's enough for now," Avon said, low in his throat. He reached out his arm and pulled her to him, using his leg to trap her more tightly.

Cally said, "Do you want me to--"

"No," he said, muffled. "No, I'm fine." His grip tightened. "I'm hardly likely to sabotage the ship like this, am I?" His tone was bitter.

"You're too tired. It was my fault. I'm sorry." She stroked his back, trying to soothe the tight muscles.

"Never mind," Avon said. It seemed a long time before he finally slept. Cally debated leaving him, and finally decided that she would surely wake if he moved. She allowed herself to drift off.

A few minutes later, Avon's eyes popped open. His head rotated, looking for something. Suddenly he was reaching into the bag Cally had brought. She stirred at the noise; he froze, then slapped a sedative disk against her forehead. Her breathing deepened.

Must dress. Hurry.

Mechanically he got to his feet and dressed in the clothes he'd left on the deck. No, he didn't have time for his boots. He had to hurry.

He needed to be on the flight deck.

Yes, he had things to do on the flight deck. Something to do with Zen. He left his cabin soundlessly.

#

"Zen, what's our heading?" Tarrant's voice demanded loudly to the computer's flight deck reference point. "Who's made a course change? Zen?"

Shockingly, there was no response.

"What makes you think--" Avon said sharply, from his seat on the couch. He blinked twice; for a moment he had felt dizzy, and his head was furiously throbbing.

"I could hear it, the propulsion sound woke me, and as you can see Zen isn't answering."

"I've put up with this for too long!" Avon snarled. "I haven't had a moment's privacy in four days and I'm damn sick of that accusatory tone of yours, Tarrant!"

For once, Tarrant controlled his tongue, though the effort was obvious. "It was your idea for us to watch you," he said reasonably, jogging up to the flight controls. "And it looks as though you had the right idea. Zen! Respond!" He studied his console for a moment. "We have changed course, and we're at Standard by eight."

Avon shook his head. "No." Then, "I've not been anywhere near Orac. If I'd been in Vila's cabin he would have known. We've taken all possible precautions."

"Then where's Cally? And what are you doing on the flight deck?"

"Working!" Avon snapped. "My brain scans have been normal for four days," he said, defensively.

"It could have been in the initial signal," Tarrant said. "Some sort of delayed response. How are we to know what's possible?"

"By asking Orac," Avon said, vehemently disgusted. He got up.

"Don't move," Tarrant said, and suddenly there was a small object in his hand, pointed at the other man. "I'm sorry, but it's for your own safety. And ours."

"Damn it, Tarrant--"

"What's going on?" Vila said from the entrance to the flight deck. "What did you want, Tarrant?"

"We've changed course," the pilot informed him. "Avon won't admit to it."

Avon started to protest but was interrupted by Vila.

"What have you done with Cally? Avon, your lip is bleeding."

"She wasn't with him when I came in," Tarrant said. "You'd probably better go and find her."

Vila departed with alacrity.

"Maybe now we should find out where we're going, and why Zen won't answer us?"

Avon was wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand. The headache began to retreat in the face of more immediate pain. Grudgingly he said, "Yes, we probably should." He collected himself and went to his station, scanning readings for a moment. "I've put the coordinates of our destination up at the pilot's position, there isn't a nearby system."

Lowering his weapon, Tarrant said, "The closest is Caparra."

After a few moments of work at his console, Avon said in a frighteningly calm voice, "Well. It must be as you said. Zen is locked to my voice control only, through a mechanical override."

"Can you--"

"Don't be a fool, Tarrant. Of course I can. Zen, dis--dis--"

"Avon?"

"Zen, diseng--" Avon's mouth closed. His body convulsed once before he collapsed, clearly unconscious.

"Damn," Tarrant said fervently, diving forward.

#

Vila opened Avon's cabin door in a heartbeat. Immediately he locked the door behind him and rushed over to Cally's sprawled body. A split second later he noticed the disk and removed it, shaking at her shoulders. "Cally! Wake up! What the hell were you thinking?!"

Blearily, Cally opened her eyes.

"Come on, Cally! Avon's been got at again! And this time he's done something to Zen!"

More awake now, Cally groaned. "No...."

Vila was picking up her clothes from the deck. He shoved them at her. "No time for that. You have to get to the flight deck. Here, put these on. I'll go help Tarrant." He ran from the room.

#

Avon felt hazy and blurred as he squinted against the light of the medical unit. He was alone. He couldn't quite remember how he had gotten here, but had a fairly good idea.

He couldn't think of any way out of the situation. He couldn't really think at all. He wished irrationally that Cally were here.

Then she could let him out, and he could go to find Orac.

Where did that come from?

Never mind. He had things to do. Orac.

But he was trapped.

Therefore, he had to get out.

If he didn't fight the restraining field, his hands could reach into the pockets of his robe. There was a tool in each one. He made one of them part of his right hand and aimed it carefully. Circuitry burned for a moment before the bands withdrew. By the time autorepair kicked in, Avon was in the corridor.

#

Up to his elbows in the insides of the pilot's console, Tarrant cursed volubly and added, "Damn it, Cally should have been watching him!"

"I know that!" Cally snapped back, from across the flight deck. "I didn't expect he would manage to sedate me!"

"Really, Tarrant," Dayna said, looking over the schematics one more time, in the vain hope that something new would surface. "She tried to fight him off, you said he was bleeding." She paused. Cally had no comment to interject. "At least you're doing something. I'm still trying to decipher Avon's scratching, it's horrible."

"That's Blake's," Vila informed her, peering over her shoulder. "Avon doesn't write much down, somebody might get to know more than he does. Look, the big black writing is Jenna's, that's probably worth more."

"I don't care how she handles," Tarrant exploded. "I know that. I want to know how to get manual control."

Cally was staring hopelessly at the mass of circuitry beneath Zen. "I don't think we ever found that out, Tarrant. It isn't the controls that are the main problem, it's Zen."

Tarrant scowled and sighed enormously.

"He's locked out the neutron blasters, too, if anyone cares," Vila said, into the rumbling silence.

"Maybe I can do something with those," Dayna said, bounding to her feet.

"It's useless, Dayna," Tarrant interrupted her, wearily. "I admit it, I'm out of ideas, and we'll be there in less than an hour."

Cally closed the panel and walked over to join the rest of them. "Perhaps Avon will be able to tell us more now."

"It might kill him, to try," Dayna protested.

"I don't think he can," Vila said. "If he could have, he would have done." When no-one said anything, he turned and headed for the corridor. "I'm going to get Orac."

Vila was halfway back from his cabin when Avon burst from a turning in the corridor and knocked him unconscious to the deck with two blows.

A look of great satisfaction settled on Avon's features. He dug in Vila's pockets until he found the key, then hunkered down next to the computer and inserted it. "Orac, send a message to the Space Command ships near Caparra."

*I cannot.*

"What do you mean, you can't?!"

*You have been conditioned. You yourself have instructed me what is permissible in these circumstances. If I comply with your instructions, I will be in danger.*

"Conditioned? Nonsense. I feel fine. Damn it, Orac, I need to contact those ships."

*For what purpose?*

"I have to tell them how they can come and get us," Avon said reasonably. "Surely you could have figured that out for yourself, Orac. That's the only way they're going to give us Blake."

*I must admit to having been a cause of your current predicament,* Orac said. *However, such events are to be expected, due to your continued commands to interface with Federation computers.*

"Do it, Orac!"

*I will not.*

Avon growled in frustration, and headed for the secondary communications backup. He would do it himself.

#

When she found Vila's sprawled form next to an activated Orac, Dayna said calmly, "Oh, no."

Cally was only a few steps behind her. "I've got to find him, Dayna."

Dayna was already scooping Orac up in her arms. "Don't go alone, it looks like he's hit Vila pretty hard," she said quickly. "Look, I'll take Orac to the flight deck, we can defend from there if we have to. You take Vila, then we'll look for Avon together."

After a moment of hesitation, Cally bent to quickly examine their injured crewmate, and Dayna took off running. Vila was unconscious, and Cally was disturbed to find that his collarbone was broken. Quickly she ran to the empty medical unit. She snatched regeneration equipment and a basic kit and flew back to her injured companion. "You'll be safer on the flight deck, too," she decided. Grunting, she hoisted him over her shoulder.

#

Carefully, Avon inserted a probe into the secondary communications backup, sealing open his voice link to the Federation ships that awaited Liberator. Then he went to the intercom which he had rerouted. "Federation command ship," he addressed it. "This is the Liberator." His mouth hurt from talking, and he reached up to touch it.

"Liberator, have you followed instructions?"

"Instructions?" What was this? Avon's thought was cut off by a piercing hum that seemed to slice open his head. His momentary doubt evaporated, flash-burned. "Liberator is approaching the rendezvous point, arrival time in approximately twenty minutes. I will open the airlock."

"Confirmed, Liberator." There was a pause. "We'll be waiting for you. Out."

Mechanically Avon withdrew his probe, and let it fall to the deck.

Go to the main hatch.

Permit no resistance.

Go to the main hatch.

#

Dayna rushed onto the flight deck and dropped Orac on the table. "We found Vila knocked out and Orac next to him. The key was in already."

Tarrant handed her a gun and said, "Orac, what did Avon want?"

*I refused his command, as per his previous instructions regarding just this situation.*

Tarrant sighed with relief.

*However, he announced his intention of contacting the Federation ships that await us himself. You should have consulted with me earlier. I would prefer not to be endangered by physical contact with the Federation.*

"Neither would we, Orac. I want you to override Zen, and give us control of the pilot's station and the neutron blasters. And can you do something to the Federation ships' computers? Destroy them from inside?"

A moment passed. Lights flickered inside Orac's casing. *Intervention with the unit called Zen will require time. I will begin. The Federation ships are being flown by manual control. All systems have been shunted into an archaic unit which utilizes silicon clay for memory storage. I will attempt to circumvent this problem and gain control of their flight computer systems.* The lights began to flicker more rapidly.

"One more thing, Orac. Can you tell us when we're boarded?"

*I must access the Zen unit's auxiliary systems in order to accomplish this task. Kindly leave me alone.*

At that moment Cally entered, with Vila carried upside-down over her shoulder. "How soon will we reach the rendezvous point?"

"If I'm right, only minutes," Tarrant told her. "Orac is trying to give us control of Zen and the Federation ships' computers." He helped her to put Vila on the couch and gave her a gun.

Strapping it on, she said, "I have to go after Avon. He can override the hatch locking devices and let them on board."

Tarrant stopped her with a hand on her arm. "You'll be too late. He'll have to take his chances, a squad of troopers would kill you."

"They'll kill him, too, Tarrant," Cally said intently.

"I'll go," Dayna said. "Two of us--"

Tarrant shook his head, insistently. "He's safe enough. They need him to get at Zen. We need to defend the flight deck until Orac comes through."

Cally made a noise of exasperation and turned away. Tarrant was right, and at the moment she hated him for it.

#

Avon came to himself in a corridor, holding himself up against a bulkhead. His head ached, and there was a painful ringing in his ears. He couldn't remember what he was doing here, instead of being asleep in bed with Cally. He couldn't imagine why he had lost control as he had.

Perhaps he was up because he wanted a painkiller for his headache? He should get back to her. Hadn't she brought--

Noise shrieked behind his eyes and he reeled against the opposite bulkhead. Abruptly his mind was clear.

Five more steps.

The hatch.

Open the hatch.

#

On the flight deck, Cally paced over to Orac and said, "Orac. See if you can activate Zen's auto-defense system near the airlock. This task has priority over the neutron blasters."

"Cally!" Dayna exclaimed.

*Confirmed.*

Cally said to her, calmly, "If they're about to board the auto-defense will be considerably more useful to us. Zen could kill an entire squad before they reached us, if Jenna's description was accurate." She took up a position leaning against the communications console, a vantage point that allowed her to see into the corridor. Deliberately she did not think of Avon, who would also be in the area when the defenses kicked in.

"But will it work away from the flight deck?" Dayna asked.

Tarrant asked from the lounge area, as he bent over Vila with the medical kit, "More importantly, how do we know Zen won't attack us?"

"We don't." Ruthlessly, Cally crushed her own doubts.

"That's a risk we should take," Dayna said, poised near the auxiliary entrance.

"The risk is low," Cally insisted. "Zen has our voice patterns. He knows us," she said, reassuring herself as well as Tarrant and Dayna.

"We don't know exactly what Avon did to Zen," Tarrant countered, but was interrupted by a loud groan.

"What happened?"

"Avon broke your collarbone and whacked you on the back of the neck," Tarrant informed Vila, pressing the other man's fingers around the grip of a gun. "And we're about to be boarded by Federation troopers. You can shoot with your left hand, can't you?"

Vila sat up with alacrity, groaning again. "I can press the button with my nose if I'm scared enough." Cautiously he tested the bandage which pinned his right arm to his body, and staggered to his feet. "I don't want to die!" he wailed, and promptly sat down again, with a moan.

"We should scout down the corridor," Dayna said.

"We can't risk it," Tarrant said, pinning her with his eyes. After a moment Dayna nodded reluctantly. "Orac, how are you getting on?" He unholstered his gun and jogged up to join Cally.

*Please be more specific!*

"Do we have flight control? Do we have auto-defense? Do we have neutron blasters?"

*Kindly do not interrupt me! I am working!*

"Terrific," Vila muttered. "So we're just supposed to sit here and wait for Orac to get us out of this?"

"I don't see you volunteering any better ideas," Tarrant snapped. "You could have tried to stop Avon, you know."

"How was I to know he'd escaped? Nobody was keeping an eye on him."

"He would have found a way," Dayna soothed. "Stop fighting, you two."

"Orac--" Tarrant growled at the computer.

*Intruders have boarded the Liberator. Automatic defenses have engaged.*

#

"There," Avon growled in satisfaction as the airlock cycled. Three black-clad forms filed through, followed by three more, pushing him backward.

"Which way to the flight deck?" the trooper in the lead demanded.

Without conscious volition, Avon began to walk. "This way--"

His next step was into darkness. Someone screamed. There was no sound, except in his head. "Cally--no--" The screaming wouldn't stop....

He felt flame, and then there was light and impact with the hard decking. His shoulder was bleeding copiously, and for a moment he stared at it stupidly, then realized he needed to apply pressure. He sat up awkwardly, blood leaking through his fingers, and saw a twisted body lying across his feet. It was a Federation trooper.

His eyes snapped open. He wasn't having a nightmare, the body was still there, and now he saw other bodies, and torn scars on the bulkheads from randomly fired weapons, and an open hatch.

Shock sent a cold rush into his stomach, giving him the strength to get to his feet, though not the coordination necessary to manipulate the latch controls. Finally he managed it, banging repeatedly on the locking mechanism with the side of his hand.

The lock status light went green. Avon breathed a sigh of relief that turned into a gasp of pain. "Flight deck," he said, making his way heavily along the corridor. "They--can tell--me what--the hell's- -going--on."

"Do we have neutron blasters yet, Orac?" Tarrant demanded.

*It is extremely difficult to override this programming!*

"You hunk of junk, this is all your fault!" Vila said, bouncing anxiously from foot to foot. The computer did not deign to answer.

Dayna had moved to the useless weaponry console and was studying the scanners. "They're moving into attack formation."

"Put up the force wall," Tarrant ordered.

Liberator jolted with impact.

"How long can we last?" Vila asked.

"Not long," Tarrant said grimly, as the flight deck jolted again. There was a sound from the entrance.

"Avon!" Cally exclaimed. "Tarrant, put down the gun, he's bleeding!"

"What's--going--on?" Avon asked. He took a step down and almost fell. Cally caught him with difficulty, flinching at his agonized grunt.

"You don't remember?" Tarrant demanded. Another plasma bolt hit the ship.

"No--" Avon gasped.

"Tell Zen to disengage!" Tarrant said. "Quickly! We're under attack!"

Avon stared at him for a moment, then broke free of Cally and stumbled forward. "Zen, disengage."

And Zen's reference point came alive.

"Clear neutron blasters for firing!" Dayna shouted exuberantly.

"Evasive maneuvers," Tarrant said calmly. "Get us out of here, Zen."

"Got one!" Dayna crowed.

Cally was helping Avon over to the couch, where Vila still sat. Then she ran to her position. Vila watched Avon warily.

"What happened to you?" Avon asked, not quite able to comprehend the battle yet. With his free hand he rubbed at one of his eyes. His bloody hand fell into his lap.

After a moment Vila replied in an annoyed tone, "You did. I'll be no good for days."

"I don't think I will be either," Avon replied in a thin voice. "I've the most dreadful headache...and I don't think I'm going to like the reason why...."

On the viewscreen, the last of the Federation ships soundlessly exploded. Dayna cheered. Avon passed out.

#

"There're more bombs in Orac than coins in a bank," Vila remarked, gesturing to Orac with his glass, nearly hitting Dayna with it.

"It isn't a bomb," Avon informed him, stepping away from Orac to stand before the assembled crew. "It's a shield, against certain types of Federation signals."

"And that's supposed to protect you from Federation tampering," Tarrant said, not quite doubtfully. He descended from the pilot's position.

"It should work," Avon said. "But we're going to have to be careful how we use Orac from now on. There was a code to which I was susceptible in one or several of the Federation's computer systems, waiting for Orac to encounter it and pass it on to me. When it did...."

"It was a good thing Cally thought of the auto-defenses," Dayna said admiringly.

Cally finally spoke up, from her seat next to Dayna. "The troopers were shooting at phantoms," she explained. "It was a stray shot that hit Avon. Luck, really, that the pain snapped the conditioning."

"I think I'd like to avoid that sort of cure in future," Avon stated.

"Will we still be able to use Orac to look for Blake?" Dayna asked.

"I hope we will be," Avon replied.

"Go on, Orac," Vila said. "Predict that."

Everyone looked at him sharply. "Don't be stupid, Vila," Tarrant said. "How can Orac know?"

"You'd be surprised," Cally said darkly.

*Predict what? What is it that you wish me to predict?*

Vila sighed heavily. "Weren't you listening? Will we find Blake?"

*Yes. Roj Blake will be found. Kindly leave me alone.*

After a moment of dead silence, Avon removed the key.


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Alicia Ann Fox

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