Seven Days To DestinyBy Frances Teagle
Finally I roused myself from some vaguely threatening dream and looked around, bleary-eyed. While I was asleep, Jenna had brought me a silk kaftan and left a note directing me to the autovalet; so I showered, donned the robe, which was very pretty, dropped my clothes into the cleaner, and padded down the corridor in search of refreshments.
The ship was on night cycle, hushed and dimmed. I found Gan watching alone on the flight deck, got directions from him and made my way to the galley, hungry by now.
This was some ship, I realised, as I took in the facilities and the sheer size of everything. I'd had no opportunity to view it externally, since the ship had never approached closer than extreme teleport range, but just by looking at the interior, I could tell that it wasn't like anything I'd ever come across before. My professional interest was aroused. Casually at first, then with increasingly minute attention, I scanned everything in the galley as I ate. I was thinking about removing an inspection panel when the door slid back with a hiss. It was Avon.
He raised an eyebrow in greeting as he headed for the dispensers, and I returned a similar one but said nothing, content to sit and mull over what I'd seen. This was a warship - even my short acquaintance with the corridors indicated that - far too many cabins for a freighter's crew, ultra-high speed, a working teleport, and that elaborate flight deck with all those control consoles - like a fleet flagship. But whose fleet? It would be interesting to see what I could find out in the next few days of the voyage without being too obvious about it. It might help to take my mind off recent disasters.
"You have no questions to ask?"
I was rather startled at his query, but showed little reaction - I'm good at that.
"I'm sure Pasco and Grovane will do the asking. They're bound to tell me all about it, whether I want to know or not."
"What are you interested in, then?"
"This." I indicated our surroundings. "If your captain permits, I want to look over the ship."
"I expect he will. Blake seldom refuses people." There was a faint mocking edge to his voice, and I speculated for a moment about their relationship. Captain and first officer? Not exactly - they were a small civilian crew in a large military vessel and Avon wasn't the sort to fit into the usual hierarchies. I broke off this train of thought and asked what time the day cycle started. In about four hours, I was told.
"I do have a question," I said, after a moment. "How many days to Destiny?"
"About six more. We've just spent twelve hours recharging our power cells next to a binary star system. If you recall, Blake discovered that the neutrotope was missing when they ran into a large meteor shower. Keeping the shield up badly depleted the power. That's what comes of hurrying - this time we shall take a more sensible course."
I was quite right about Pasco. While I was sleeping he'd got together with that soul of discretion, Vila, and heard the whole story of the Liberator, which he promptly relayed to me.
Hmm... thief, smuggler, murderer, embezzler, a couple of revolutionaries and a salvaged alien ship with half of Federation Space Command after them. On the whole I liked the smuggler best, after all, freetrading is an ancient and honourable profession. After Jenna, Gan the murderer, (and who hasn't wanted to murder a Federation guard?) a strangely gentle soul struggling with legions of new concepts, determined not to be a liability to his colleagues. Blake, I probably would have liked much better but for his demolition of the Ortega. I had a share in her and I could readily visualise the insurance company refusing to pay up and Destiny's government being as stingy with the compensation as it could. Bummer! as my previous partner would say. Cally - a bit starry-eyed for me. Interesting to meet an Auron, though. Vila - just as well we hadn't brought any possessions aboard. Ingratiating, that was the word for him - very fond of female company, too. But he could teach me the rudiments of safe-breaking and lock-picking and those illicit arts which had always intrigued me and could be very useful on occasion. Yes, I'd cultivate Vila.
That left Avon - cool, sardonic, watchful Avon. Mind your p's and q's when he's around, I told myself. Watch carefully and don't say anything unnecessary.
How well would such an ill-assorted crew function? Sitting quietly among my colleagues, I watched covertly but critically as the Liberator's crew went about their daily round. With only one experienced spacer, they had formed a surprisingly efficient group in their few months together. Much of this must be due to Blake's leadership, allied with Jenna's training sessions.
Discipline was hardly military fashion, and they didn't exactly follow Ortega's rule of no quarrelling on the flight deck, either. Avon and Vila had several spats right in front of us, generally broken up by a sharp word from Jenna. Still, I had to admire the quality of their vituperation.
Blake and Jenna were partners, probably in more ways than one, often showing an unselfconscious accord. Jenna and Cally seemed to maintain an easy friendship, rather like two temperamentally dissimilar sisters. It was closer than anything I'd ever achieved with female colleagues. Maybe common peril drew them together.
Gan and Vila, too, were friends. The relationship must have sprung up in prison, probably for mutual protection. The strong man would protect the thief from predators, and the worldly-wise thief would entertain and inform the strong man. Vila was much the cleverer of the two, and when induced to carry out his duties, performed them with slapdash ease, whereas Gan laboured diligently but slowly at his.
I seldom saw Avon and Blake together, as their duty rosters generally kept them apart, but I suspected that being Avon's commanding officer would be no easy matter. I couldn't detect any of the comradely feeling between them that bound the rest of the crew, or for that matter, between Avon and any of the crew. The barriers, apparently, were up.
I rather wondered how he viewed himself - as the systems expert perhaps - a consultant rather than a subordinate. I found myself watching him, trying to assess his role. Once he turned his head and stared straight into my eyes with that hint of mockery he used so effectively. I returned his look with composure, but inwardly I felt that frisson one gets when caught watching too intently by the object of one's scrutiny.
How did he relate to the women crew members? Cally's manner was coolly asexual, and Jenna's body language indicated a preference for Blake and a slightly combative attitude towards Avon himself. Did Avon covet her, perhaps? Had he once given her the sort of trouble that Sonnheim was giving me? Or was it his resistance to Blake's authority that cast her in the role of an adversary?
Then I pulled myself up short for indulging in the kind of speculation that I despised in others. The crew's private relationships were no business of mine. However, I was not entirely successful in this, and my eyes continued to stray in his direction from time to time.
As Avon had forecast, Blake raised no objections to my exploring the Liberator, in fact he seemed pleased at my interest.
"You should study our on-line documentation first," he advised me. "We've been compiling it from Zen's databanks into a form that we can easily comprehend. Avon has worked particularly hard on it."
"Wasn't it in a form you could understand before?" I queried.
"Not really. Zen's machine code isn't Federation Standard, and like you, we wanted to study our acquisition and understand it."
He directed me to the `reading room' which they had equipped with viewers and printers and I spent most of the day browsing its contents. For hours I revolved the pictures and plans on the screen in wonder. This was a truly beautiful craft. That night it glided through my dreams like a swan on a black lake. No wonder Space Command was bent on capturing it. Disposing of a few rebels and criminals was one thing, but getting your hands on a spacecraft like this would be incomparable good fortune.
Finding myself alone with Vila in the galley next morning, I decided to take the opportunity to persuade him to give me some basic instruction on lock-picking. How to put it delicately?
"Vila," I began, with a hesitation which wasn't all assumed, "where I come from, we don't get any training in certain `handicrafts' of the sort that I hear you're so good at."
He twigged immediately and responded with a wide grin.
"Our instructors would have fainted with horror at the very suggestion they should teach any useful techniques like opening locks."
"Puritanical sort of place, is it?"
"Mmm... Genteel - nice young persons aren't supposed to know these things, or to want to know."
"Well, if you want to learn, you've come to the right man." He gave me a meaningful look. "I take it, you don't want your colleagues to know about it?"
"You're absolutely right, Vila. You see, I'm rather upset that I never spotted anything wrong about Sara. I want to be ready another time. I want to know what's behind locked doors, how things can be tampered with and how to spot that things have been tampered with."
"Yes," he responded, looking remarkably serious, "I hadn't thought of it like that. A lady's got to know how to avoid trouble. It's a rough universe."
Behind locked doors in an equipment store where we wouldn't be disturbed, he produced a collection of locks and tools and proceeded to initiate me into their mysteries. He was quite a good teacher and I'm a quick learner, so we made steady progress. He had made many of his tools himself, a skill at which, he assured me, most good thieves were adept. We scanned all the tools and the dismembered locks, both mechanical and electronic, into one of the computers and transferred the files onto a datadisk.
"It's important to keep up-to-date," he told me earnestly. "I'm always looking for new ones."
We finished up at the strong-room door, which was quite a challenge, but after a few tries I got the hang of it and could open it in less than a minute.
"That's good," said Vila happily. "Now there isn't a door on this ship that you can't open. Which is more than one can say for Avon."
I couldn't help noticing that when he was absorbed in professional matters, he completely dropped his usual rather clownish manner and demonstrated a sharp intelligence, to the extent that even his speech took on a loftier tone. So Vila hid from an unfriendly universe behind the shield of a jester's motley? Not a bad ploy.
Sonnheim was looking positively thunderous when we rejoined the group in the diner. The thought of the woman he loved to hate being on friendly terms with four more men was clearly giving him a pain. Well, serve him right, I thought, if he starts up again with his ludicrous jealousy, he'll get the same treatment as before. I went over and sat beside Gan at the opposite end of the table. We soon started a quiet conversation, mostly about Gan's difficulties with space-flight and navigation, which I normally would have found rather dull, but conscious of Sonnheim's sullen eyes fixed on us, I paid careful attention to Gan's problems and made a point of being as patient and helpful as I could. As I expected, it infuriated Sonnheim to be unable to complain or interrupt. I also became aware that Avon's eyes were also upon us with a dark, unfathomable gaze. What that did betoken? Was he just paying me back for watching him the day before? I couldn't guess what his opinion of me was, but I didn't want him to think me a fool, so I endeavoured to make my explanations as lucid as possible.
"You explained that ever so well," Gan said, as we finished. "I really feel I'm beginning to understand it now."
I gave him a grateful smile. Not only had he shielded me from Sonnheim, but for the first time I felt a teacher's satisfaction with a pupil's breakthrough.
Later on I was conducted around by Jenna - into the crawl-ways in overalls, and up to the drive chambers in protective suits. Finally, tired, flushed and dishevelled, we collapsed into `the pit' for a rest. I think Jenna enjoyed it as much as I did.
"Get Avon to show you the systems in the subcontrol rooms," she advised. "That's his province."
Hearing his name, Avon swung his head round and cocked an eyebrow.
"The subcontrol room systems," Jenna repeated. "Levett would like to see them."
He shrugged. "She might be disappointed with them. They're nothing remarkable, merely complex. Still, no time like the present. Come along."
I got stiffly to my feet.
"Why all this interest in the minutiae?" he asked, as we headed out of the flight deck.
"Why not?" I countered. "I don't mean to just sit around on this voyage. Kendall and the others may be entranced by Blake's political debates, but I'm not. Besides, I shall never have another opportunity to inspect a ship like this."
I didn't add the rest; that keeping busy was the only way to fend off the vile feeling of betrayal, loss and insecurity that I was struggling with. I felt that Avon was hardly the kind of person to confide one's innermost thoughts to, and I was accustomed to keeping my feelings to myself.
"You'd better be discreet about what you've seen," he remarked, opening a door. "If Federation security got wind of your knowledge, they'd kidnap you for interrogation. At least, that's what I'd do in their shoes." And he gave me that smile of his that was both charming and slightly sinister.
"You must be most useful to Blake with your ability to second-guess the Federation," I said sweetly, as I passed through.
"Even more so, if he'd actually listen to me," came the dry response.
In spite of some verbal fencing, which I found rather enjoyable, we had a good session until he announced that he was due on watch in fifteen minutes.
"Come back tomorrow morning and I'll show you the battle computers," he promised, evidently tolerating the role of instructor quite well.
I promised I would. Actually, wild horses wouldn't have kept me away. I was beginning to find his company intriguing and attractive, maybe too attractive.
Watch that, I told myself. You could make an awful fool of yourself over the likes of him.
"Ah, there you are, Levett," said Dr Kendal, entering the galley where I was sleepily munching some food. "I've been getting rather anxious about you."
"No need," I replied. "I'm getting on fine."
"You're not avoiding us, then?"
"Well, to a certain extent I'm avoiding Sonnheim," I admitted, "but it's nothing to worry about."
"Then why do I have the feeling that you're far more upset than you're letting on? Pasco and Grovane are obviously miserable about the loss of the Ortega and all the deaths, but you seem as cool and self-possessed as ever." He looked at me earnestly and sympathetically. "I don't believe you're a callous sort of person, so you must be licking your wounds in private behind that facade."
This was uncomfortably near the mark, I hung my head and stared at the table.
"It does no good to parade your feelings," I said wearily, "especially if you're a woman. I shall get over it. I'll pick myself up and start again."
I looked up again. "What about you? You look as if you're coping well enough."
This seemed to take him rather by surprise and it was his turn to look a bit downcast.
"I'm terribly shocked that my own assistant should have done such terrible things. I trusted her implicitly, you know. But, as to coping, maybe it's a function of middle age that we don't suffer as much as the young. We learn to withstand the shocks. Our problem is to avoid becoming hard and indifferent."
He patted my hand encouragingly. "Well, I won't press you to confide, but don't bottle everything up. Cally is a most sympathetic person, maybe she can help you." He stood up to leave. "And don't worry too much about the loss of the ship. I'm going to insist on the government giving adequate compensation, and also pensions to the families of the victims."
What about Sara's family? I wondered, as I watched him go. Did she have any? How would they feel when the tale of her treachery was told?
As to unbottling my feelings, somehow I didn't see myself consulting Cally, however much empathy she might generate. I'd carry my own can of worms, as usual.
That night the worms came wriggling out of the can with a vengeance and I slept very badly. As soon as I shut my eyes the flashbacks began - brief jerky episodes of bloodstained bodies and menacing guns, incongruously punctuated by Avon's slight smile as he decoded the puzzle.
Eventually I couldn't stand any more and got up to go to the galley for a drink, passing through the flight deck on the way. Gan was on night watch again, but Cally was also there, bending over some equipment. A moment later she followed me into the galley.
"Can't sleep, eh?"
"Bad dreams," I acknowledged.
"I can give you a sedative," she offered. "That might help."
"What about you?" I asked, curious. "How do you feel about bodies dropping on your head? Or are resistance fighters thoroughly used to that sort of thing?"
"It gave me a terrible fright," Cally admitted. "And Sonnheim sneaking up behind me like that - I nearly jumped out of my skin. Looking back at it though, I mostly wonder how Sara got the corpse up there in the first place."
"Oh, there's some lifting gear - we all know how to use it," I said. "What I'm wondering about is when and why she killed Dortmun. Before or after she killed Rafford? His eyes were open, remember? Did he see her kill Rafford, perhaps?"
"I suppose we'll never know," Cally said slowly. "Maybe Dortmun was in the store when he was overcome by the drug and she found him as he was recovering and decided to kill him and fake his escape in the pod - stalling for time whilst her pirate friends arrived."
"If I were them, I'd have killed her and taken the neutrotope for myself," I speculated. "I wonder if that occurred to her?"
"Possibly. Yes, I think she'd be ready for a doublecross. Was she a partner in the ship like you?"
"No. She was Dr Kendal's personal assistant. She was the person who recruited Mandrian and Sonnheim as bodyguards when the government insisted on extra security cover when they chartered us. And, of course, there was nothing dishonest about them."
"Oh, I though you were all crew members, except Dr Kendal perhaps. You were all wearing similar clothes."
"It was a very secret mission, you see," I explained. "The ministry party were travelling in disguise and took the places of Trissa and Bly, our other two crew members. They went on leave because we didn't have cabin space for everybody. Sarah and Co. did general duties and made themselves useful, and we were sworn in as temporary special agents. Thank goodness it wasn't one of us that turned traitor." I yawned. Perhaps I could sleep now.
"Come with me to the infirmary," Cally ordered. "I'll get you the pills. You've probably got a post traumatic stress disorder. It should go away quite soon, but if it doesn't, get professional help. Don't let it mess your life up."
Back in my cabin I took half a tablet of soma and set the alarm buzzer.
The next day, feeling dopey and unsociable, I began with another intensive session among the document readers, but after about an hour, I made myself go and join the others. Ortega's survivors were more cheerful today, conversing easily with their hosts. Cally was paying attention to Sonnheim, who for once wasn't wearing his usual scowl, which I thought was very public-spirited of her. Kendal and Blake were deep in discussion, as usual, so I sat down beside Pasco and Grovane.
"Glad to see you back," said Grovane. "We were a bit concerned about you."
Pasco nodded his confirmation. They were always a kind-hearted pair. So were Rafford and Dortmun, I thought, with an inward sigh.
"I just wanted a bit of time to myself," I assured them. "I'm fine now."
"I hear you've been exploring the ship," said Pasco.
Grovane smiled eagerly. "Cally has been showing me the communications systems. Very advanced - some of the concepts seem quite alien."
"I wonder where the civilization that built the ship is hiding itself," said Pasco.
"A long way from here, I hope," I said dryly.
"Zen must know," Grovane speculated, "but they can't drag anything out of him - not even Avon."
"The ship is obviously furnished for humanoids, and the keyboards have the standard layout," I pointed out. "Probably some isolated group from the First Expansion that's recently made big strides in technology, but isn't numerically strong enough to challenge the Federation... Yet."
"You think we might be hearing from them before long?" enquired Pasco.
"If I were them," said Grovane, "I'd be looking for this ship."
After lunch I ran Avon to earth and reminded him of his promise to show me the battle computers.
"We haven't had much combat experience as yet," he remarked, as we studied the weaponry specifications. "Jenna's blockade-running know-how is invaluable, but it's naturally geared towards evasion and deception. Fighting is something she's always managed to avoid - for which I commend her good sense."
"Have you tried any practice sessions?"
"A few. The results were hardly reassuring."
"Maybe Zen, with its much better response rates and accuracy, would be the best battle commander."
"Up to a point. Its grasp of tactics is rudimentary and it is very profligate with the energy banks, which leads me to suppose that the builders didn't have much military experience either."
"Presumably Zen can improve these skills as it acquires experience?"
"Provided we live through the learning phase," he agreed.
He then embarked upon a series of rapid questions to see if I'd understood the lesson so far. Obviously he liked the role of inquisitor, I reflected, as I struggled to answer coherently; his investigations aboard the Ortega showed that clearly enough. In my determination not appear dumb, I forgot to be careful. Abruptly his manner changed.
"So you keep it a secret then?"
"Your eidetic memory."
He had me cornered. Arms folded across his chest, he loomed over me in an intimidating manner. And he was right. I had seen almost everything, and, even worse, understood it. With the ability to remember every detail, I was dangerous - I had to admit it.
There was a strained pause.
"I... don't often forget things," I ventured finally. It was feeble, but the best I could do at the time.
His eyebrows went up mockingly.
"I've learned to be very discreet about it. It makes most people uneasy."
"I'm sure you have." His voice was dryly triumphant. Then his arms slid swiftly around me. "Here's something else to remember," he said, as he bent his head and kissed me.
It was a forceful salute - you could call it domineering, even, but I made no protest, partly because he would have been amused by it, and also because maidenly outrage was never my style. In fact, after the first surprise, I felt remarkably composed about it, and when he finally raised his head and looked at me to gauge his effect, I went on the offensive.
"These things improve with practice." I pulled his head back down again. The lips that met mine twitched in a smile, and he shifted his grip to a more friendly embrace. It was indeed a big improvement and I enjoyed it shamelessly.
Several more practice bouts left us both rather flushed and breathless, not to say thoroughly aroused.
"I think we've mastered this stage," he said, letting me go. "We could move on to the next."
"Here? And you're still on duty." Not that I cared.
"My watch ends in a little over one hour and I was about to offer you the hospitality of my cabin."
I smiled encouragingly at him.
"Also, I suggest a meal, preferably tête-à-tête in the reading room. Nobody will disturb us there."
I reached up on tiptoe to kiss him again. When I left the room I was dancing on air. Turning a corner, I met Dr Kendal, who gave me that rather sweet smile of his as he registered my unusually blithe appearance.
"I'm afraid this is the best that Liberator can offer," said Avon, as we sat down at the table. "No alcohol. To Vila's horror, the ship was completely dry, and his attempts at fermenting dried fruit have been undrinkable."
"You've had no time to lay in stores of your own?"
"None. Blake's programme doesn't allow for that kind of thing."
"You'll have to use some guile, then. Say you need some electronic components."
"The thought had occurred to me, but where?"
"Not far from Destiny is Vitellio, where you can, of course, obtain good hardware. However, they're chiefly famous for luxury goods. I'm sure Jenna and Vila would greatly appreciate it."
"In that case, we'll leave Vila aboard. We don't want him arrested for shoplifting."
"Be generous, then. Give him some gems from the strong-room to barter with."
"Vila's cabin is full of the stuff already. He steals for the fun of it. He just wouldn't be able to resist the temptation."
"Well then, use your teleport to break him out of prison."
He laughed. "You're as bad as he is. Don't think I haven't heard about those lock-picking lessons."
"You're not really afraid that I'll betray you and the ship to the Federation, are you?" I asked, after a pause.
"Probably not. Although it's a chance for you to make a fortune."
"Just like Sara, eh?"
"Oh, I'll acquit you of that. But what can you do with your knowledge? Remember what I said about the Federation getting wind of it. You could be in great danger."
Elbows on the table, I propped my chin on my hands and considered.
"I hope Blake doesn't intend to arrive at Destiny in a blaze of publicity," I said. "If we return discreetly, nobody should ever connect the Liberator with Destiny."
"I expect he could be persuaded that it was in Destiny's best interests. Go on."
"There are a number of Liberator's systems that I could adapt for use in the outer planets. We don't have the manufacturing capacity for the advanced stuff, but I could make a fortune out of some of it, not to mention providing a useful service at the same time. Nobody would know the origin of the design. How does that strike you?"
"Eminently practical. I'm sorry I'm too notorious to join you in the enterprise."
But I could tell he wasn't really tempted.
Some hours later, I propped myself up on one elbow and contemplated his recumbent form. Relaxed, eyes closed and slightly dishevelled, he looked damnably appealing. I'd expected him to be rather casual in his lovemaking, but he had surprised me with his intensity and sensuality. One could easily become addicted to a man like that. I could feel an idiotic grin on my face, as sheer pleasure bubbled out irrepressibly, fizzing like champagne. I ran my hand across his chest. There was a sizeable red scar along his ribs, dangerously close to the heart and evidently quite recent.
"Somebody tried to kill you?" I wondered, tracing along it with my finger.
"A sordid little double-crosser, a dealer in forged passports."
"Dead, is he?" I enquired.
"Oh yes." His eyes were blandly mocking, refusing to seek the slightest sympathy. "You're bedded down with a killer."
He was testing me to see if I'd recoil, but my mind, womanlike, was on the trauma such a wound must have inflicted.
"What an interesting bunch of criminals you are," I caressed the scar gently. "I think you were rather lucky to survive that one. It's healed well, but it looks as if it didn't get professional attention immediately."
"True. They didn't pick me up until I tried to leave the city some days later. I got a spell in the prison infirmary - much more comfortable than the cells."
Enough questions. I laid my cheek against his shoulder, faintly hearing the strong, even beat of his heart. After a moment I felt his hand twining in my hair.
I was careful to make no special effort to be in his company thereafter, but next morning he calmly informed me in front of the whole company that he had another tuition session for me in the afternoon. I agreed as casually as I could, and joined Jenna and Grovane, who were going over the various control consoles.
"That looks like a hand-pad," Grovane remarked, looking at the rear port-side console. "What's it for? Hand-print recognition?"
Her face clouded slightly. "More than that. When I was learning all the functions, I put my hand there and had a rather weird experience. I don't know how to explain this, but the ship, or Zen, rather, took over my mind and read from my memory. I suppose it's the nearest I'll ever get to Cally's telepathic communication."
"Is it frightening?" I asked, detecting a certain ambivalence in her attitude.
"In a way. It demands complete surrender, which is nerve-racking, but it's wonderful too."
"What do the others think of it?" Grovane asked curiously, evidently wondering it he could attempt it.
"Only Blake would try," she said, with a slight smile. "The rest were afraid of what it might find out."
Oh yes, Avon wouldn't want a machine knowing too much about him.
"However," Jenna continued, "it didn't respond to him, so I think it must have learned what it wanted from me."
"What about Cally?" I enquired. "Wouldn't it be interested in another species?"
"If she has communicated with it, she hasn't said anything."
Interesting, and probably fortunate too, that Jenna was the subject, I mused. She's probably the best-balanced and most normal member of the whole crew. Perhaps Zen's first impression of our species wasn't too bad.
My afternoon session with Avon didn't concentrate too much on technology. By now, I felt curious enough to ask a few questions about his colleagues.
"Cally said something to you telepathically, didn't she? It puzzled me when you made that remark aboard the Ortega about betting both your lives on something, but now I realise that you were responding to her. What did she say?"
"She was assuring me that Blake would keep his promise to return. Cally is inclined to trust people, you see. You might have heard her Auron proverb - a man who trusts can never be betrayed, only mistaken."
"Oh." That brought back recent betrayals all too vividly. Not that I would have trusted Sara implicitly, but I didn't expect her to turn into a murdering pirate. At that moment I was thoroughly disenchanted with trust.
"And what is trust?" I said, rather bitterly. "A belief that someone will behave the way you want them to in any given circumstance?"
"How much of that is wishful thinking? Wiser, don't you think, to keep in the back of your mind the acknowledgement that people can frequently let you down?"
He offered no comment.
"Besides," I went on, "how often do those kindly, trusting souls put their friends in danger?"
That stirred something behind his impassive face. "How do you mean? By betraying them somehow?"
"In a way. Suppose you trust someone with dangerous knowledge and they are interrogated? They may sensibly let you down by talking, or they may hold out because somebody trusts them, and then suffer the unpleasant consequences. We should be very careful where we bestow our trust, in my opinion, especially with people we care for."
He didn't respond, but his face went pale and bleak. With a jolt I realised that, wrapped up in my own bad memories, I'd hit a vulnerable spot. Had he been the victim of trust? Or had another suffered for his trust? The memory was evidently painful. I cursed myself for a blundering idiot and fell silent, looking miserably at my feet rather than see the expression on his face.
"Admirably put," he said, after an uneasy silence. "I may use the argument with Cally next time she pontificates on the matter."
With relief I returned to the original subject. Did Cally use telepathy often?
"Mostly with Blake, who is much more on her wavelength than I am," he said smoothly. "It is certainly useful for sending warnings or relaying confidential information."
"But she can't pick up your thoughts?" I queried.
"No, for that she needs another Auron."
"Poor Cally," I said, moved by her isolation. "She must feel very lonely. Why did she leave Auron?"
"Idealism, mainly." His voice was not particularly unsympathetic. "I expect she became very unpopular in ruling circles with her political views."
"Ruling circles don't want anybody to have political views, in my experience," I said lightly. "It causes them endless trouble. Sometimes they even have to think about what they're doing."
He applauded me ironically. "Why, Levett, are you thinking of a political career for yourself?"
I laughed. "When I've grown rich and famous from my stolen inventions. Then I shall have ready-made political clout."
"What a cynic you are." But he drew me into his embrace again and buried his face in my hair. I sighed with happy relief, an awkward moment passed over.
You cannot keep a liaison like that secret on board ship. Soon I was conscious of eyes following me; mostly with amusement, but one pair with purple jealousy. The explosion wasn't long in coming. I had been talking over the future with Pasco and Grovane, how to put in our claim for compensation and so forth, then I went to the galley for a drink. Sonnheim was waiting in the corridor.
"You whore!" he hissed, clamping a painful grip on my upper arm. "I know what you've been up to." Just like something from a fifth-rate thousand-year-old melodrama - both ridiculous and humiliating.
"I've always understood whoring to include a financial incentive," I retorted with icy venom. "I did it for the pleasure of his company."
He went white. "Oh yes, anyone can see that you can't take your eyes off him." He shook my arm viciously.
"Why should that concern you? A woman you don't like gets friendly with a man you don't know, and suddenly it's your business? Anyone would think you had some rights in the matter." I put all the contempt I felt into my voice.
He winced slightly. "I don't dislike you, dammit. Don't you see what it is?"
I was determined not to see, all my resentment at his previous conduct coming back to the surface. "Rubbish. Of course you dislike me. You dislike all women. I haven't forgotten what you said to me at our first meeting."
"Will you never forgive that?" He was on the defensive now, a plaintive note in his voice. "I was feeling bad about breaking up with Karin, that's all."
"And you unloaded it on the first woman you met." I tried to wrench my arm away, but he held on, oblivious. "You'd better get over your habit of transferring all your own crap onto other people. I'm not surprised Karin dumped you, any sane woman would. Now if you don't let go my arm, you'll find out just how loud I can scream."
He didn't let go, and for a moment it looked as if he was about to use his free hand to gag me. I swung away as far as I was able and took a preparatory deep breath. At this potential flashpoint, we were interrupted.
"Ah, there you are, Levett. I've something to show you." Jenna threaded her arm through mine and drew me away from a confused and shamefaced Sonnheim, who released my other arm immediately. With a cool smile, she piloted me to the galley, where I collapsed rather shakily onto a bench.
"I think Blake is the person to do something about Sonnheim," she said, in answer to my stammering thanks.
Hating to admit that I couldn't handle it by myself, I muttered "Do we have to take it any further?"
"Oh yes. Discipline may be slightly eccentric on this ship, but it exists. Passengers cannot be allowed to assault people."
I felt rather foolish. I could just imagine Avon's disgust with these shenanigans.
"Don't tell Avon," I begged her.
"Don't tell Avon what?" said his voice from behind me.
After Jenna's explanation, Avon took my arm carefully and rolled up my sleeve. Red marks, precursors to black bruises, were showing. He expressed no particular indignation as he pulled the sleeve down again.
"Blake had better deal with Sonnheim," he said coolly, "if he doesn't wish me to do so, personally."
Jenna picked up the undercurrent of menace in his voice.
"Yes," she said soothingly, "I'm sure he will."
I was relieved that he seemed to let the matter drop. I could imagine Avon's idea of revenge being nastily inventive.
"Men!" said Jenna, in exasperation, as he left. "They just love to be difficult."
Yes, I reflected, a women with your looks must have attracted shoals of awkward devils in her time.
Blake listened carefully to the whole silly farce with an admirably straight face.
"I agree with Jenna that Sonnheim must be dealt with. I don't wish to be unkind to a man suffering from heart-burn, but regulations must be enforced - with confinement, if all else fails." He looked at me consideringly, with perhaps a tinge of amusement.
"You think this is all pretty ridiculous, don't you?" I said, rather gloomily.
"On the contrary. It's refreshing to see Avon acting so human for a change." The smile on his face was slightly mischievous, and very friendly.
Fortunately, Sonnheim, when presented with a choice of avoiding my company for the rest of the voyage, or berthing in an empty store-room under lock and key, chose the former, and Dr Kendal undertook to work out some sort of schedule to enable us to avoid awkward meetings.
The news soon leaked out and reactions were various. Vila was patently delighted when the tale reached his ears. The very notion of Avon in rivalry over a woman struck him as hilarious, and he giggled until the tears stood in his eyes.
The ever-kindly Gan came to my rescue.
"You're embarrassing the lady," he chided gently. "And I really wouldn't mention the subject in front of Avon, if I were you."
Dr Kendal sighed apologetically. "I'm so sorry you've had such trouble with Sonnheim," he said, when we were alone. "The man has great difficulty with women, you see, but he can't understand why. He really needs counselling, and I shall have to see that he gets it. After all, Destiny has strict laws about harassment."
Later on, Pasco was more forthright. "He's had the hots for you from the minute he saw you. I suppose a control freak like him can't stand a rejection."
Grovane nodded. "We told him to lay off weeks ago. Rafford said he'd castrate him if he tried anything. He behaved himself after that, but seeing you get friendly with Avon must have tipped him over again."
"I wouldn't like to get on the wrong side of Avon, myself," Pasco added.
By this time I was past embarrassment so I just smiled sunnily at them. "Neither would I," I acknowledged.
Cally arrived to hale me off to the infirmary where she worked over my bruises with an ultrasonic massager.
"There you are," she said, with obvious satisfaction. "They shouldn't go black in the usual way, but disappear quite quickly."
I put my sweater back on. "You rather like ministering to people, don't you?" I asked.
"It's much better than damaging them," she acknowledged, with a rather melancholy smile on her lips.
"Why did you leave your own kind to join in the wars of others?" I wondered. "It must be doubly lonely for a telepath, to be exiled among inferior beings who cannot communicate properly."
But she denied this strongly. "Oh no, it's very wrong to think that way. We can communicate perfectly well, and I soon got over any illusions of Auron superiority when I lived among the resistance groups."
She hesitated for a moment. "It's difficult to admit this, but Auron society has stagnated horribly. It's now run by a complaisant conservative clique, whose idea of foreign policy is complete isolationism and who regard the mildest criticism as treason. I believe they instituted their present artificial breeding programme as a method of population control rather than being genuinely concerned with the improvement of telepathic communication, which is their official reason. I should know, I'm a product of that breeding programme."
She gave a wry grimace. "We were controlled and indoctrinated from the cradle. It may have been more benign than the Federation's version, but it was just as suffocating. When I couldn't stand it any more, I left."
"Are you any happier here?" I wanted to know.
"Yes. There's a good degree of empathy between Blake and myself, and I get on reasonably well with the rest of the crew. They were suspicious of me at first, and there was an unfortunate incident as well, but I think they've come to trust me now. A close-knit crew is important, don't you think? I would be very upset if any of them were killed."
That struck home like a lance.
"We were a close-knit crew, now two of us are dead." I tried to blink away the tears pricking at my eyelids, then gave up and let them flow.
"That was clumsy of me," she said remorsefully. After a moment I felt a wad of tissues being pushed into my hand, and took them thankfully. She didn't fuss over me, just sat beside me in silent sympathy until the flood died away.
Soon I blew my nose and raised my head, feeling rather soggy, but relieved. "There, that's done with," I reassured her, with a faint smile. "It probably did me some good."
"I feel sorry for the men," she said, with an answering smile. "They can never bring themselves to let go like that."
"It's probably why so many of them take to drink." I said, fast recovering my usual composure. "That reminds me. I feel hungry."
Jenna was in the galley warming up a meal when we arrived. Feeling the need for some relatively light-hearted entertainment while we ate, I asked her what the freetrader's life was like. Probably sensing my mood, she responded with a selection of escapades, some of which were very funny. I was particularly interested in her account of the methods they used to avoid detection - following close behind legitimate flights, bribing traffic controllers, lurking in asteroid belts, frequent name changes, bringing the goods in as part of a legitimate cargo (her favourite method for small high-value consignments). Apparently, there was a big trade in pirated industrial wares. Equipment was smuggled out of Federation territory to be examined by the independents and copied if there was money in it.
"The same process also goes on in reverse," she added, "but I would never work for the Federation myself."
Seeing my questioning look, she explained: "Nearly all the freetrader dynasties owned large trading companies until about fourteen years ago, when the Federation decided to grab their assets, the Stannises' among them." Her face had become grave.
"Ah, have you got relatives in the profession?"
"Several cousins," she said, smiling again, and she moved on to tell me who was who in the freetrader universe. Cally, I noticed, was listening intently, she obviously hadn't heard most of this before.
Eventually Blake entered, just as we were laughing over the exploits of one particular rogue, and Jenna took her leave to return to her watch. He watched her go with unmistakable affection in his eyes. Turning back to us, he smiled and asked: "Has Jenna been telling you tales of her naughty past?" So he'd heard them before.
That night my dreams were full of smugglers and roistering Amagons, but gradually they darkened to piracy, and I was back on the Ortega with three dead men and Sara pointing a gun - this time at me. I flung myself away as she squeezed the trigger - and awoke abruptly to find myself sitting bolt upright in near-darkness, panting for breath.
Beside me, Avon stirred and reached for the light-switch. "More flash-backs?" he asked, in a mildly interested tone.
"Just the usual," I said, recovering my poise. "Nothing to write home about. Cally reckons they'll soon go away."
I got up and poured a glass of water from his fountain. Liberator's drinking water supply had a faint citrus taste, to disguise the recycling chemicals probably, but it was pleasant enough.
Avon sat up, rearranged the bolster and leant against the bed head. Evidently he was ready to talk. I joined him.
People are strange. After warning myself to be very careful about what I said in front of Avon, here I was, curled up with him, ready to confide my innermost thoughts and feelings.
"Why were you so devastated?" he asked. "Was Sara a friend of yours?"
"No," I said slowly. "I didn't particularly like or dislike her. She made herself useful, she was reasonably friendly with everybody, including Sonnheim, and she seemed devoted to Mandrian. We were, on the face of it, a happy ship. I could possibly understand her wanting to steal the cargo, but she betrayed us to certain death. Do you believe the pirates would have left us alive if they'd boarded the ship?"
"No. But she may have deluded herself that they wouldn't kill you."
"I doubt it. I think she meant us to be unconscious when the pirates arrived, but she didn't hesitate to kill when things went wrong. Rafford was awake and I think Dortmun was, too. The air circulation doesn't need to be very strong in the stores, so he wouldn't have got sufficient gas to put him out, maybe."
"She was unconscious when Blake and Cally found her, or do you suppose she was foxing?"
"I think she heard you arrive and realised that you weren't her pirates, so she rushed back to her cabin, took off her respirator and hid it. Of course, you disconnected the gas cylinder and increased the oxygen, otherwise it might have lasted long enough, or again, she could have had another bottle ready. We never had time to look."
"True. I'm sure the pirates had you all scheduled for termination, her included. But you escaped, why so miserable?"
"The betrayal, I suppose, and by Sara, of all people. I've never been betrayed before, I'm not used to it."
I remembered that red scar. "You've been betrayed, too. How did you cope?"
"Rather like you. Kept quiet and licked my wounds in the prison hospital, watched and waited."
This time I met his eyes and looked at the pain in them.
"I was sensible and confessed everything to the interrogators," he continued in a rather acid tone. "Or what they thought was everything. They knew I wasn't interested in politics by that time, and they even laughed when I told them how I'd shot the passport man. I'd saved them the trouble, they said, congratulations. I played along with them through the trial, gave no trouble to anybody and drew a life term on Cygnus Alpha, which turned out to be the passport to freedom I was looking for in the first place. Although if I stay here it'll probably turn out to be a death sentence in the end."
"But you escaped. Why so unhappy?"
"Someone else didn't escape. You were on the right track the other day. I betrayed a woman to her death with my trust."
I couldn't go on and fell silent, leaning my head on his shoulder. But he seemed to want to pursue the subject.
"Her name was Anna, she was married to someone else, and we were going to escape to another world together - financed, of course, by the Federation Bank."
"How did it happen?"
"When I failed to return from the rendezvous with the passport dealer, she went looking for me. By that time the fraud had been discovered and the security forces were searching for me and my associates. They picked her up, and she died in custody some days later. And I fear I know what happened to her."
"And you feel guilty."
"Oh yes, the blame can be laid squarely on my shoulders."
"Do your companions know about Anna?"
"No." There was a finality in his tone. They were never going to know.
I realised that I must be the first person he'd confided the story to; something that didn't come easily to him, or to me, for that matter. I suppose he was beginning to acknowledge his own feelings again after months of suppressing them; turning to me, a chance-met stranger, for some comfort, safe in the knowledge that I would be out of his life in a few days. And I was doing something very similar, albeit on a much shorter timescale. We were an odd couple to be consoling each other, perhaps, but some chemistry between us made it work.
I wound my arms about him again, pulling him into my embrace. After a moment's hesitation, he responded avidly.
Our last day aboard the Liberator. Soon after midnight, ship time, we were to be teleported into Belmont City, alongside the Ministry building where the neutrotope was to be delivered, local time being shortly after sunset. Blake and Kendal had accepted Avon's suggestion of absolute secrecy, so no warning of our arrival was to be given, and no details of the ship that brought us back. This might not cause much real surprise to the Ministry, as our departure had also been kept secret. The fanfares could be blown if and when the neutrotope had been proven to do its job. During our voyage, its satellite mount should have been completed. However, thanks to Liberator's superior speed, we would be arriving several weeks early, so things might not be ready for an immediate launch.
Vila, fancying that I was feeling dejected at the prospect of parting from Avon, undertook to cheer me up by teaching me card tricks, sleight-of-hand and general cheating. At the end of a hilarious session, we were joined by Gan, Pasco and Grovane, to whom I demonstrated my new-found skills.
"Words fail me," said Grovane, rolling his eyes in mock horror. "Only seven days on this ship and you've acquired almost every technique known to crime."
"Yes, she's my star pupil," said Vila proudly. "Although we haven't done explosives. Nasty stuff, liable to give you unpleasant surprises."
"Thank goodness for small mercies, but how's she ever going to settle down again, back home on the farm?"
There was general laughter, but then Gan sighed.
"I envy you - farming, I mean. I used to work in a hydroponics plant and I liked growing things. How much better it must be to farm in the open air with all kinds of crops and animals. Are there animals?"
Pasco chuckled. "Oh yes. Rats made it to Destiny soon after humans did, so we imported cats to keep them under control. There are grazing animals too, for milk, meat, hides and wool. We weren't daft enough to bring in rabbits, though. I've heard tell of the damage they've done on other planets."
"Any other predators?" asked Gan, clearly fascinated by this.
"Various mustelids, like stoats and martens." said Grovane. "But nothing larger than a cat, so we don't have a problem with them."
"Tell that to the poultry farmers," said Pasco tartly. "They're devils for killing chicks and stealing eggs." I remembered then that he came from a poultry farming district.
"It sounds wonderful," said Gan wistfully.
That's where he belongs, I thought, on a farm. Aloud, I said; "Come with us, then. Help fight the fungus and maybe have your own farm. It's perfectly possible."
A look of pure longing crossed his face as he contemplated it, then it was replaced by a melancholy smile.
"I've given my allegiance to Blake," he said simply.
"Avon and I have decided to take Liberator to Vitellio," Jenna told me, as we were drinking coffee together in the galley. "And if anyone objects," she added mischievously, "they can spend the voyage in the store-room."
I raised my eyebrows. "Do I take it that Blake has a mutiny on his hands?"
"If we set it up right, he may not notice anything until we get there," she said airily. "Now, have you any recommendations for personal items?"
After leaving Jenna, I made my way to the reading room intending to transfer some of the drawings of the Liberator onto datadisks for later printing. Moments later Blake arrived. He greeted me rather absent-mindedly and sitting down at the next viewer, began to scroll through its contents until he found his target - a directory of Space Command communications and directives.
"Zen can decode many of their signals," he explained, seeing that I was interested. "I go through them regularly looking for important items hiding among the routine stuff. Avon and Jenna take turns as well. Avon's working on probability programs to help us assess them, but he says he wants some specialised AI hardware for it."
"Mm, he mentioned it to me," I said, leaning over his shoulder to watch. "Vitellio is the only place in this region where you'd get the good stuff. Can you search for references to Destiny?"
Reassuringly, there weren't any.
"I'll warn you right away if I find any," he promised.
Intrigued, I slaved my terminal to his and followed the whole session. Most of the information was about as interesting as watching grass grow, but a couple of useful nuggets were extracted over the next two hours.
Finally he switched off and turned to me, saying "That's as much as my eyes can take, although Avon can go on much longer."
He looked me up and down rather quizzically.
"Well, Levett, have you forgiven me for destroying the Ortega with my booby trap?"
No, I hadn't.
"What right did you have to do such a thing - to play the executioner? Have you asked yourself that?" I said it without heat, but I was serious.
"I have," he admitted. "And I'm willing to concede that I could have been wrong to do it. Sara, of course, was supposed to be sent back for trial, but at least you've all been spared the unpleasant necessity of testifying against her. As for the pirates, Zen says that their vessel was damaged but not destroyed by the blast, although I expect the boarding party was wiped out."
"I suppose I should be happy that a bunch of pirates have been eliminated, but I'm not."
"We were hardly in a position to take them prisoner, or to call for help," he pointed out. "I could argue that we had an obligation to prevent them from continuing to kill and rob."
"And I could argue that you are not a legally appointed law enforcement officer and they were no threat to you or the Liberator. What if they weren't professional pirates but first-timers like Sara, who hadn't yet committed any crime?"
"They were attempting to commit a most serious crime, and their accomplice had already killed three people in pursuit of their objective. That makes them co-conspirators at the very least."
"Aren't you in danger of becoming an old-fashioned vigilante?"
"I hope not. My business is with the Federation, who, of course, view me as just another pirate to be stamped out." He shrugged slightly. "It's the old dilemma isn't it? We both have our justifications, but our viewpoints and circumstances are very different."
Not willing the yield the point entirely, I said: "Well, let's agree to differ."
"I can live with that," he remarked with a slight smile. "My crew seldom agree with me on such matters."
An unwelcome thought had occurred to me. What if Sara didn't die quickly in the blast, but lingered still aboard a crippled ship?
"Did Zen say if the Ortega broke up?" I enquired urgently.
He understood my anxiety. "Yes, it did. I don't think there was any possibility of Sara surviving. No escape pod left the ship, either."
So that was that. Many people would agree with Blake's actions - kill pirates whenever you can, it's what they'd do to you. Destiny's rulers would be glad. No awkward trials, nothing to tarnish their wonderful neutrotope. The deaths would be skimmed over as lightly as possible. Some compensation perhaps to the relatives of the victims of a pirate attack, maybe even to Sara's relatives, if they chose not to acknowledge her crimes. Yes, some convenient story would be fabricated and we would all be sworn to silence again.
I caught Blake's eye on me. Time to offer the hand of friendship.
"I don't hold any grudge against you, Blake," I said finally. "I believe you acted in good faith, and as you say, you only had a limited number of choices."
I held out my hand and he took it with genuine pleasure.
"Tell me about life in the Federation," I said. "We hear lots of rumours, but nobody really seems to know what's happening."
And for the next hour he told me, in normal dispassionate tones, about the underground cities, the doped food, the resistance movements, prisons, black-uniformed security guards, interrogators, phony trials and penal colonies.
I listened in silent revulsion. At the end of that recital, I forgave him unreservedly for everything.
I spent the rest of the day with Avon until everyone gathered that evening for a late meal before preparing to disembark. At first I pretended carefree normality, but eventually I came to acknowledge that I would miss him sorely and didn't greatly look forward to returning home. He wasn't displeased with this; after all, almost every man likes to think that there's a woman somewhere who remembers him a little wistfully.
"I know you couldn't forget me if you tried," he remarked as we lay entwined on that bunk that was rather too narrow for total security, "but I'd like to think you'd want to remember."
I said nothing, but ruffled his hair gently. I preferred him a trifle dishevelled.
"I shall remember you as the woman who pretended she didn't want to ask any questions, and then proceeded to investigate every last microchip." He tugged a lock of my hair. "Quite the brightest spot of the voyage so far, even if she did get a little closer than I anticipated."
We both turned our heads and gazed into each other's eyes. My heart always went thud when he looked at me like that.
"Purely unintentional," I murmured. "I was just blundering around."
His lips touched mine. "Heaven help us when you're really trying," he said between kisses.
"What will you do after you get home?" he enquired during one of those intervals when we came up for air.
"I'll play it completely normal," I said slowly. "I've been thinking about it a lot. We'll make our claim for the Ortega, and if we're lucky, we'll get enough compensation for another vessel. If not, I'll ship with someone else. I mean to give it a couple more years while I lay my plans and look for finance and some production expertise. If that works out, I'll start with the relatively simple designs and build up to the higher technology discreetly, step by step."
"You might find the Federation a good customer," he said provocatively.
I pulled a face at that. "I wouldn't want them getting too interested, even if they didn't know where the design originated. It might increase their desire to annexe Destiny."
"There are problems whichever way you turn," he murmured, blandly amused.
"I'll overcome them."
He laughed softly. "I'm sure you will."
The supper, held in the crew's diner rather than the cramped galley, was a mixed affair; episodes of bonhomie interspersed with awkward silences. Dr Kendal was keenly anticipating the triumphal delivery of his precious charge, Cally was once again keeping Sonnheim entertained and Jenna was debating the merits of various cargo carrier designs with Pasco and Grovane. Avon and I sat in silence for the most part, content to feel one another's presence, occasionally answering to some remark from Blake or Gan who sat opposite us.
All too soon, Zen announced the proximity of Destiny, and we dispersed reluctantly to collect the few items we had acquired aboard the Liberator.
I was in the reading room forlornly gathering up datadisks and bits and pieces when Avon came to find me.
"Here," he said, presenting me with a small case, "they should fit in there."
It was a rather handsome affair, obviously made for some special equipment.
"It used to hold medical instruments which are now kept in a cabinet," he explained.
"Just what I needed," I said, opening it. "There's a box inside."
"A selection of items that you may find useful," he said smoothly.
I thanked him rather abstractedly, shovelled my things into it and closed the lid.
"Time to go," I said.
He nodded and took my hand. I craned up for a last kiss, then we made our way hand-in-hand to the teleport bay. Most of the others had assembled there; Dr Kendal carrying the neutrotope case, with Sonnheim in close attendance, looking in any direction but mine, and Grovane with a small bag of datadisks. Zen was evidently in charge of the ship, as the entire crew were gathered to see us off. Cally was in charge of the teleport and Blake was preparing to come down with us to bring the bracelets back. There was a bustle as the bracelets were passed round. Avon intercepted one, raised my hand that was still clasped in his, and snapped it onto my wrist.
Pasco trotted in rather breathlessly, lugging a large cloth holdall of stuff he'd acquired, panting apologies for keeping us waiting; and then the departure could be delayed no longer. Avon released my hand and I backed into the bay, keeping my eyes fixed on his. Around us farewells were being said, but we just looked at each other until the scene blinked out and I was deposited on the pavement outside the Ministry of Agriculture Building in the chill winter dusk.
Taking leave of my colleagues as soon as I decently could, I made my way homewards, home being a small chalet in the wintry fields outside town. The household robot detected my approach and activated the lights and raised the heating as usual. This was the signal for the neighbourhood cats to gather hopefully on my verandah. I could always be sure of being greeted by a welcoming committee of waving tails. The robot had instructions to feed them when I was away, but they were only allowed inside the house when I was there.
That evening before retiring, I poured myself a liberal brandy and emptied the case on the table. Picking up Avon's box, I opened it, curious to see what he had deemed useful. To my surprise, there was a lump of rock inside, packed round with what appeared to be pebbles. Catching my breath, I pulled the table lamp closer and poured the contents onto a plate.
The rock was a large piece of opal and the pebbles were precious stones - diamonds, rubies, emeralds - cut and uncut.
I stared at them. A fortune lay glinting before me. `Useful' he'd said; so he meant me to sell them to finance my engineering projects. But dwarfing the rest sat the opal, flashing iridescence from rough conchoidal facets. That was his personal gift to me - the one I would never sell. On Vitellio, where they understood these things, I would take it to a first-class jeweller who would design, cut, polish and mount the most magnificent set of opals you ever saw, and I would never, never part with them.
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