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Kriegspielen

By Neil Faulkner
Twenty seven days now, and still no let up.

      "Are you sure you're all right, Cally?"

      I nod. Eyes pricking. Time to force down another popper of narcocide. No time to dwell on it, keep concentrating, watch the panels, keep track of the output, it all means something. Thing is, I can't seem to make too much sense of it all right now. There's a hiss of cross-band static blasting through my head, like my brain's being dug out by a pick-axe. No signals though, nothing out there, nothing and nobody. No excuse to stop looking.

      Then I see it, dancing right before my eyes, an echo on the passives. There's something out there after all, not too far. Can't have just crept on screen. Could have been there for...

      "Blake, I've got something."

      He stops pacing the flight deck, tenses like a worn out spring. Which might be what he is.

      "Three three zero by zero two nine. Range..." Pause to unblur. "Twenty two thousand."

      "WHAT?" Jenna snaps out of a half awake state and turns to her own readouts. "That's damn near right on top of us!" If she sounds accusing I can't say I blame her. Blake swings himself up to Avon's position, cursing, bringing to bear all the detectors we can afford to keep up. With Zen still offline he has to tune them in manually and it takes time. Precious time. We draw parallel in less than two hundred seconds.

      We're all eyes on him as he works. Stupid. We've each of us got enough to keep ourselves occupied. I force myself back to my own panels, the unknown's signature winking back, range diminishing by the second. We don't normally go this fast. Four weeks should have given us time to adjust, but it hasn't.

      Blake swings round on me, bloodshot eyes overshadowed as he slaps his hand down on the console. "This time we're lucky," he snarls, in the way only Blake can. "But we wouldn't have needed any luck if you'd been doing your fucking job properly."

      I bridle. I would at the best of times and this is not the best of times. "Oh yes? Well why don't you come up here and see if you can't do a better fucking job than me?" Shouldn't do that. It hurts to scream.

      There's something feral in Blake's eyes. That near-fatal wound he took from Travis on Star One is still hurting him and that can't help. He's really spoiling for it. Then Jenna breaks in.

      "What is it, Blake?" It takes his eyes off me for a second but they come straight back.

      She persists. "Blake, if I've got to deviate to intercept then I've got to do it now." She's trying so hard to stay collected, and compared to the rest of us she's doing very well. But there's a crack in her voice. She's ready to break.

      Blake is gripping the back of Avon's empty position, the fingertips pressing hard into the headrest, each vein on the back of his hand standing out like a mountain range. Then he lets go and punches it. "It's a Type 49c," he tells Jenna. Tells her, not me.

      "Oh, thank God!"

      "That's good is it?" Vila's been keeping quiet the past minute, as he always does when tensions run high. He's hardly spoken at all for days.

      Blake shoots him a withering look. "It means they're on our side," he says, each word dripping contempt. "They're Federation."

      

      

Avon's not long in appearing back on the flight deck. He wants to know why we've slowed and changed course. Blake tells him.

      "We're getting a distress signal from a Federation ship. It's not moving and most of its systems seem to be out. Cally," he adds, "was rather slow on picking up on it."

      "Was she now?" mutters Avon, walking past him, ignoring him, ignoring all of us. "She could have missed it completely for all I care. It's the Aliens I'm more concerned about, and the slower we go the more of an easy target we make, so why are you turning us into a sitting one?"

      Is that really the best name we can find for them? The Aliens? The best name they can find for the enemy? While they still think of me as an alien?

      Blake slaps a hand on Avon's shoulder and swings him around about face. "I was the one who decided to head back at maximum speed. Likewise I'll be the one to say if we stop."

      Avon's face is blank, his voice chillingly level. "And very nice it would be too, if we weren't surrounded by hostiles intent on entering the galaxy before we do. No matter what speed we go, we can't operate any detectors a damn. Or hold reserves for the blasters, or for the force wall - which we've been using rather a lot lately, or hadn't you noticed?" He lifts Blake's hand off his shoulder and throws it aside. "We also need power - and rather a lot of it - for the autorepair."

      "Which you're supposed to be bringing back up to full capacity."

      "Well now, I can do that, or I can bring Zen back online. You said Zen was more important. Sorry, no: you agreed with me, when I suggested Zen might be more important."

      It's been like that all the way back from Star One. There's something in Blake that won't let him admit he's broken. Something of it in all of us, even Avon, but only Avon really wants to find out. He's pushing Blake, stretching him to the limit, as if things weren't doing that to all of us anyway. I know I can't go on much longer, the constant knife-edge of waiting, waiting for another contact, another skirmish, another life-or-death duel with the enemy. Jenna's just about had enough of it too. She can't have had any more sleep than I have the past few days, probably less and it's showing. There's that hysterical edge to everything she says and she's more or less given up hiding it. I doubt if I come across any better, but then I'm hardly one to judge, am I?

      Vila's the one that's surprised me, probably the others too. He's lived so long in the shadow of fears, real or otherwise. Mostly otherwise. He's endured all this amazingly well so far. Constantly whining, of course, and there's been times we'd all have cheerfully killed him for it, but he's the only one left with anything remotely resembling a sense of humour. His jokes may be a shade blacker, but they're still coming. Less often now, though. I think he's reaching his limit. I dread to think what'll happen to him when he does.

      

      

Blake sends me down to the hatchway with Avon. It's a sound decision. Jenna's needed on the flight deck, to get us underway as soon as possible. Vila's best kept out of any potential face-to-face confrontations. Blake must stay on the deck to command. Sound reasoning, but is it really Blake's?

      We're both armed, but we keep our weapons holstered. The Federation are supposed to be on our side, for the moment. Thing is, do they all know that? We're about to find out. The hatch is sliding open.

      There are three of them, and they're a pathetic sight. Gaunt, hollow-eyed, the two men unshaven, the woman propped up on one of them, her helmet still sealed on, all of them blinking in the light. They're all armed as well, regulation issue laser pistols jammed ready in their belts. Just a precaution. We all know from the moment we see each other in the flesh that we're none of us going to start any shooting.

      I wonder how we look in their eyes. None too good, I should think.

      "Welcome aboard the Liberator." Avon takes the initiative, which is just as well because I can't see me doing it. "Kerr Avon," he adds, hand extended. He can play the part when he has to.

      One of the Federals shambles forward and takes Avon's hand. Takes it firmly, and doesn't so much shake it as just give his wrist a twitch before letting go. "Fleet Lieutenant Rogan." Somehow he still manages to look like a fleet lieutenant, even after days living in his pressure suit. He rubs a hand through his sandy hair, lanky with grease, and cracks a smile. "Tech Officer McCrae," he says, indicating the other man, shorter and darker, with a face etched by a haunted look, "and Able Spacewoman Klye." Klye manages to force a bashful grin at us, or maybe just at me. She's very young, very white in the face. She can't walk without McCrae's support.

      Avon deftly plucks Rogan's pistol from out of his belt. "You won't be needing these." There was, for a moment, a kind of bond forming between us, a sense of trust. Rely on Avon to demolish it. There's a hardening of the air between him and Rogan, and I tense up, hardly able to believe this is really happening. Last thing I want right now is a fight.

      The tension breaks. Rogan looks down at Avon and nods. "Reckon not." He understands. Under the caked sweat and starvation there's something eternal, even noble. I remind myself that this is a Space Fleet officer, a volunteer, a professional warrior, not a garrison conscript. He gestures, and McCrae and Klye hand over their weapons. I take them, clumsily, one in each hand, and fall in behind as Avon leads the way to the flight deck.

      "I thought your class of ship had a crew of nine," says Avon.

      "First hit took out the primary weapon bay. We had two more critically wounded. With the medbay beyond repair and the shortage of oxygen..." There's no need for him to expand on that. Avon questions him further. They've been drifting for nearly twelve days. A quick calculation: some of the Aliens are fifteen days ahead of us. They'll have reached the outer edge of colonised space by now. We're getting close ourselves. But what was Rogan doing so far out?

      "Mine shipment." Adding to the antimatter barrier beyond Star One. He tells us about it. The mine-layer, his cruiser, three pursuit ships as escort, or relief for the outer patrols. The signal came through to turn back, then to carry on, rendezvous with the Eighth Fleet at what we know as Star One. Then to turn back again. Space Command has responded well to the situation but not in detail. They're pulling up everything they can spare and probably more besides, but they don't seem too sure what to do with it. The Aliens are very much an unknown quantity. Rogan's was one of five ships. One alien vessel took them all out bar one, and left that one for dead. We can fill in some of the gaps on the Aliens. They're good. Too good.

      "They weren't expecting any resistance at Star One, and they were slow to respond." Avon gives Rogan a quick summary of our side of events. The Federals look blank. They haven't even heard of Star One. Avon doesn't explain further. "We were outnumbered and outgunned but we still managed to scatter them. The fact that they don't seem to have regrouped yet suggests they're poorly organised, at least by our standards. If the performance of their individual warships is anything to go by, it could be the one thing we've got on our side." Rogan nods, taking it in but not really concentrating. His eyes are wandering everywhere, and so are McCrae's and Klye's. They don't say anything, but it's fairly obvious what they're thinking. They're on board the Liberator. Actually on board the Liberator. If anything they look... let down.

      "Well," says Rogan, looking round the flight deck, "it's certainly roomier than the Torricelli." Blake comes across, looking them over, uncertain, sticks out a hand for Rogan. I hear mumbled mindless pleasantries from both of them. Blake doesn't handle it too well. He's too concerned with looking like he's in command. He shifts his glance over to me. "Get back to your position, Cally." I nod, stupidly, only half aware of what he's saying, before it sinks in and I climb back up to the detector field monitors. There are readouts all over the screens, and none of them mean anything to me. I fall into my seat and try to sort out what they're telling me. Nothing. There's nothing out there. The Torricelli ought to be out there, behind us, well behind now Jenna's kicked the drives back in. And it is. It takes me a while to find it, nestled in a scroll of blank data quietly shifting up the screen. How the hell I'm supposed to find something I don't know's out there...

      "Avon, you'd better get back to work on Zen."

      I don't have to be watching to sense Avon stiffen. There's a long silence before he answers. "With respect, Blake, I think it's time you stood down for a while. You've been up here for nearly thirty hours. If anyone needs a rest, it's you." To which he adds: "It's hardly as if you haven't earned it."

      Number strings flick across the screens, all saying the same thing. We're alone out here. The war's going on at my feet. Blake hasn't been on the flight deck for thirty hours. Hasn't been here for even half that.

      "A little longer won't hurt." I can almost feel the teeth grit. Avon's got him cornered. We are Blake's Seven. We're a legend. Avon knows Blake, knows he'll be desperate to keep up appearances. We've got the Federation on board, the old enemy. Got to put on a show, make them see what we're made of, prove that we really are...

      Holy -!

      "Blake, I've got a contact!" Something clicks in my head. The screens make sense now. I can read them sweet and clear, as if I were fresh back on station. "Single reading, zero two seven by one four three, range band delta one, closing point zero three five." We're going a good bit faster. Or the other ship's going a good bit slower, but it's still too fast to be a Federation ship.

      "Avon, get me an I.D." We hardly need one, it's got to be an Alien, but Avon gets to work on the signature. I make a race of it and beat him. "One of their big snails." That feels good. Screw teamwork. I'm part of this crew and I can do my bit just as well as the rest of them. And we do need to know what we're dealing with. More than one type of alien ship. There aren't any I.D. codes or anything for them, so we've had to come up with our own. We've met big snails before. They might be some kind of support vessel or transport but that's just a guess. They're not as well armed as some but still something to be reckoned with.

      Blake absorbs this. We all know what's coming next. "Jenna, deviate to intercept. Avon, stand by the force wall. Vila, clear all neutron blasters. What's our intercept time?"

      One punch of a button and I've got it. "Seven minutes thirty four."

      Avon's voice cuts across the flight deck. "It's picked us up. Turning to engage."

      Rogan takes a few steps nearer to Blake. "What's the score with one of these?"

      Avon answers. "They've got the edge in range and manoeuvrability, but we outclass them in fire power. Unless they get in a lucky shot before they come into range of our blasters we should be able to take them out."

      "You said that last time." Vila fumbles over the blaster controls. "What happened? They got lucky."

      "Shut up, Vila."

      I manage to put the enemy up on the main screen. Still very distant, but instantly recognisable. A fat slug of a ship, slowly spinning like a falling drunk. Faster than it looks - drawing a bead on one's a tough call at long range, tougher still since the last one managed to take Zen offline.

      Observation panels start lighting up. It's scanning us in earnest, sensors hitting us right across the range.

      "Cally, jam its detectors."

      What the hell does he think I'm trying to do? The opposition's up to the same trick. The sharp pinprick image on the locational plotter goes hazy, meaningful strings start turning into lists of random numbers. This is what the war's all about. Jam and counter-jam, false echo transmission, side- shimmer generation, sneak signature punchthroughs, setting the spectrum ablaze in a vicious battle of modulated pulse signals. It's where the really hard work's at and guess who has to do it all? The others, the boys, they're just sitting back waiting for that great zapping moment of glory of theirs. Lost count of the number of times I've seen it. Avon: we're in range / Blake: fire! / Vila punching the big red button and all the lights dimming as the blasters eat up the power and spew it out in a torrent. One punch of a button for them and they think that's all there is to it. Like to see any one of them take my place even for a minute, see how they cope. It might shut even them up, no more Cally do this/Cally do that/what's the range Cally/Cally don't let it get a fix on us, harping on and on at me the juggler who makes it all happen, and I can't even scream in my head because they'll hear it anyway.

      "Cally!"

      Don't you shout at me! Rangefinder's gone haywire, telling me the hostile is getting closer moving away both at the same time, telling me there's three of them out there or maybe none. I'm sliding dials up and down and round and round like a maniac but I can't get a fix and all they can do is shout. Well, I'll show them. I'll show them I can do it. Better than they ever could. They're the incompetents, not me.

      There's something wrong with the whole detector console. It's not just giving false readings, it's moving. Must be structural damage. That last hit did more than we thought. I'm having to pull it back upright, but it doesn't want to move. I think it's going to go right over...

      The crash shakes my head back into gear. I reach out for the controls but they're not there, just Rogan gently pushing me back. Into a crash couch underneath the main vision screen.

      "You passed out." It sinks in slowly, I can't quite grasp what he's saying. My eyes drift to the screen, the Alien filling it. Someone must have put the magnification right up, either that or...

      The ship bucks again, the lights flicker. Vila squeals in panic.

      "That one got through!"

      Blake wheels round to face my position, only it's Avon there now, glued to the controls. Everything's in place like it ought to be.

      "Damage?"

      Avon doesn't look up. "How the fuck do I know? Jenna, compensate zero zero one. Vila stand by."

      "One of the blasters is out!"

      "Then stand by on the other two! We're coming back into range."

      Jenna's eyes are narrowed, bloodshot. I can see the sweat from her hands gleaming on the flight controls.

      "They've launched another salvo."

      The ship lurches, Blake falls back onto Avon's empty console. Klye slams into me with a cry of pain. That wasn't another hit, though. It's Jenna's doing. She's rolling the ship. She snaps out an order to Vila.

      "Open fire, continuous beam!"

      Avon's head snaps up. "We haven't got the power!"

      "If we don't we haven't got a chance. Vila, do it!"

      "I'm not getting a reading on the "

      "For fuck's sake just do it!"

      The last thing I see before the lights go out is Jenna's hands, locked tight on the laterals, fine-shifting our line of fire. Then the only thing to look at is the main screen, two hair thin beams reaching out into the void, ever closer to the enemy ship, not quite getting there, never quite touching...

      "Vila, cease fire!" It's the closest I've ever heard Avon get to hysteria. Jenna gainsays, hoarse and urgent.

      "Keep it going, Vila!"

      The beams make contact, and a spot on the alien hull flares brilliant. Then the whole ship explodes. A scream rips through my head, a shapeless deathjerk of undefined souls. The Aliens have some psi ability. It feels terrible, and the death of their ship is a terrible sight, but it's beautiful too, like factory plumes in a winter sunset, a boiling incandescent cloud arcing across the empty black. It goes off screen as we pass it by. Vila cuts out the blasters and light returns to the flight deck. Comes back on by degrees, as the tension drains out of all of us.

      Blake gets himself back on his feet. "Nice one, Jenna." Hard to be sure quite what he means by that. Avon's less ambiguous.

      "That nice one took out ninety per cent of our power reserves. If we hadn't had one blaster down it would have drained the lot. Vila, next time I tell you to stop firing, you stop firing."

      Vila isn't listening. He's taken out a pocket datapad and making an entry. "That's my seventeenth personal kill, you know. I deserve to go down on the list of great aces for this. Somewhere near the top, at this rate. I see it now: V. Restal, 17 and still zapping."

      "Vila!" Blake growls, undisguised menace in every stride as he crosses the flight deck.

      "'Course, 27 would look better." He shuts up, and I wonder if it isn't some game he's playing, goading us, seeing how far we can be pushed. For all his professed desire for safety, he needs a sense of danger, goes out of his way to cultivate it. If he ever found himself in command of his environment he'd be lost. Just so long as he can choose his troubles.

      Blake's coming over to me. "All right, Cally, I want you to get off this flight deck and get yourself some rest right now."

      I shake my head. "I'll be all right."

      "I'm not so sure about that."

      I shouldn't feel guilty. There's some scrap of common sense in the back of my head trying to tell me he's right. There's a great wide stubborn streak that won't admit it. "It won't happen again."

      "Oh, it won't," he says, and he towers over me, blocking out the light. "Because you're not going back to your position until you're fit to."

      "And that's an order, is it?"

      "If you like."

      "Well, maybe I don't like." I'm up on my feet now. Still a bit unsteady? Not at all. I've never stood straighter. My legs are firm, but my hands are shaking like mad. I feel I've got to do something with them, and putting them round his neck isn't bottom of my list. "Maybe, if I say I feel up to carrying on, then I do actually feel up to carrying on. Maybe I do just happen to be the one who can do a better job of it than the rest of you put together. And maybe, just maybe, I don't like being described as some sort of incapable "-

      "Cally, no-one's saying you're "-

      "You are, aren't you? Aren't you?"

      "Cally." Avon creeps in like a ghost. "Blake is right. Tactless as ever, but right all the same. In your current condition you're a liability, to all of us. Take a break, a short one - just a few hours - and then see how you feel. If you think you can come back on station then, do so."

      It makes so much more sense coming from him. I could almost agree. "But the detectors..."

      "I can handle them. Not as well as you, I agree, but well enough for the time being."

      I'm still not convinced. I can be a perverse bitch when I get the inclination. "You're meant to be working on Zen and the auto-repair."

      "Well, they'll just have to take a back seat for a while."

      "And if we run into any Aliens?"

      "Then we do what we've been doing from the start: take our chances. If we come off badly you'll be the lucky one, you won't know anything about it."

      I nod. Eyes follow me off the flight deck. As I go I think I hear Rogan mutter something to McCrae.

      "Just who the hell's running this outfit?"

      Maybe I just imagined it.

      The corridors are only half-lit, maybe a result of that last strike. I'm suddenly aware of how stiff I feel, aches in every limb, every muscle tremoring. My clothes are clinging with sweat and my hair feels like an ants' nest. I ought to clean up. Too tired. I don't even close the door behind me when I stagger into my cabin. There's an unmade bunk waiting and I fling myself on it, gouging my nails into the pillow. Avon was right, and so was Blake. I need this. I can see myself standing between them, arguing like a stupid stubborn child. Or another pawn in their power game. Have I got grounds to hate the pair of them?

      Just who the hell's running this outfit? I've got a pretty good idea.

      My eyes have just closed when a hand comes down on my shoulder. It's Jenna.

      I sit bolt upright. Have we run into more trouble already? "What's up?"

      "Nothing. Just wondered if you felt up to coming back. Blake wanted to give you longer but Avon talked him down."

      Realisation hits. The bedside clock confirms it. I've been asleep for something like eight hours, perhaps more. Nice if this could be a dream, but that's too much to hope for.

      I clamber off the bed and stretch. I feel terrible and say so. Jenna says I look it. Thanks. She's no-one to talk, and knows it. Looks even worse than when I left the flight deck. Those last few minutes flood back in a sudden rush, and something in my face must betray what I'm thinking because she laughs.

      "It was some performance."

      I can't argue with that. "I did everything but stamp my foot. How am I going to walk back out there and...?"

      "I shouldn't worry about it. Blake's finally seen sense and gone to get some rest of his own, Avon just put it down to battle fatigue, Vila doesn't care anyway and I... " She pauses, and looks across at me slyly with sunken, sleepless eyes. "I'm just looking for an excuse to do the same thing myself." We both laugh at that, and she helps me to my feet. On the way to the flight deck she fills me in on the past few hours. No enemy contacts. Blake and Vila came close to blows once, until Avon stepped in. The Federation personnel are behaving themselves. Klye's condition has deteriorated, she's been put in the medical unit. Rogan and McCrae have filled in for Avon while he was working elsewhere. Blake's idea, and Avon wasn't too happy about it. He doesn't want Liberator's secrets to get too widely known.

      Right now we're on our way to rendezvous with the 14th Fleet, but communications are poor. The Aliens are seeding space with ionic reefs to disrupt signals and reroute traffic. Apparently we clipped the edge of one a few hours ago and nearly had a total systems shutdown. I never knew a thing about it.

      + Information. +

      Now there's a voice I haven't heard for a long time. Jenna smiles impishly. She obviously hasn't told me everything.

      + There is a band of ionic material ahead of the Liberator at bearing three five two by zero one four. No course deviation is required. +

      "Thanks, Zen," groans Vila. "It's amazing, isn't it? He's been back with us for a whole hour and all he can do is tell us things we don't need to know."

      Avon looks up. "Just so long as that's all it has to tell us. You'll be the first to complain when Zen picks up an Alien interceptor heading straight for us." He ignores Vila and turns to me. "It's good to have you back, Cally."

      "I just wish I could say it was good to be back." It isn't. I don't feel any better than the moment I staggered off. More tired, more drained, stiff in every limb and a pounding in my head, but certainly no better. Just seeing the flight deck makes me want to reel.

      Avon wrenches out his earpiece and hands it over. "With Zen back online the detectors aren't a priority. Concentrate on communications traffic. There's not a lot of it but every scrap of information could be vital."

      As I take his place, he squeezes out behind me. I catch his eye and hold him for a moment. It's as if it's all he can do just to stand still in one place. I murmur: "Thank-you."

      He turns a shade whiter, colder. "I didn't do it for you," he says, and shuffles away, down to where Rogan and McCrae are laid out on the crash couches. Orac's there too, back where we need it now Avon's finished with Zen.

      "Any more on the whereabouts of the 14th Fleet?"

      "I have been unable to make further contact," drones the computer. Just for once it sounds calm, friendly even. All things are relative. "Further to your other requests, my limited analysis of the ionic reefs we are now so frequently encountering leads me to conjecture that they are not deliberately placed to some tactical or strategical end. I can at present only theorise, but I consider it possible that they result from the decay of the Alien vessels' intergalactic drive."

      Avon raises an eyebrow. "Decay, Orac?"

      "It is only a preliminary hypothesis," snaps Orac, "but what little data I have been able to process, suggests that the intergalactic drive has a finite operational time span, after which it becomes non-functional. In such circumstances it would probably be jettisoned, leading to the phenomena we are currently passing. The alignment of the ionic fields is in accordance with such a hypothesis."

      Rogan stirs. He looked half asleep a minute ago but obviously wasn't. "That could explain a few things," he said.

      "It could," agreed Avon.

      "Like, why not go round the barrier?"

      "The only route to the colonised galaxy within range of their drives." Avon nodded. "We can presume they have a more conventional - slower - supralight technology to take over when their high speed drives stop working. Just how much slower... well, I dare say we'll find out soon enough."

      Jenna leans forward, interested. "Makes their invasion something of one-way trip, though, doesn't it?"

      "Well, they may have a back-up to take them home."

      Rogan looks thoughtful. "Always assuming," he says absently, "that going home is part of the plan."

      "Oh wonderful." Vila sighs in weary resignation. "They've come to stay and they seem to think they can get away with it. Do you ever get the idea they know something we don't?"

      Jenna turns away from him in equally weary resignation. "Everyone knows something you don't." It brings a trace of a smile to Avon's face, the first I've seen for a long time.

      Vila slumps back in his seat. "Terrific. Admiration of one's peers. Nothing like it to make you feel indispensable."

      "Now we've got Zen back," says Jenna coldly, "we're none of us indispensable. We can get back to a proper stand-down rota. And yes, that is a hint."

      There is something in Avon's eyes that might be understanding. Sympathy at least. He's always had a... well, maybe not a soft spot, but something, certainly... for Jenna. He was the first to offer to go back for her on Cephlon. Strange, but now I come to think of it, he's never really let us down, run off and left us when we needed him. Could it be that he feels responsible for us, for all of us? Even Blake? Especially Blake?

      On the other hand, it could be that I'm just not thinking straight. I've more or less forgotten what that feels like.

      He turns his back on us and stands before Zen. He surveys the interface panel like an emperor surveying his realm, or a conqueror gazing out on virgin territory. Or both. There's two Avons there...

      - blink -

      ...no, just the one. No proud warlord, just a tired man pondering an uncertain future. He holds some instrument, it looks like an ultrafine beam probe, in one hand, and absent-mindedly taps it into his open palm, backwards and forwards in a lulling hypnotic rhythm. Nobody speaks.

      "I don't want more than one of us off station at any one time," he says finally. "We'll give Blake a few more hours, then... Then you can take your turn, Jenna."

      She accepts this with a hint of a mock bow of the head. "And you?"

      "There is still the auto-repair to see to."

      "It's not that crucial," she says, softly. "The scoops are making up some of our losses. We've enough reserves for another encounter." She speaks as though she's treading taboo ground. She's admitting she cares about him.

      Avon still stares up at Zen's interface panel. "Well now, that's a pretty poor assessment. You might as well say we don't need a crutch so long as we can crawl. That kind of rhetoric I'd expect to hear from Blake."

      Jenna bridles. "What's Blake got to do with it?"

      "Oh, Blake's got everything to do with it."

      "Avon, I'm just trying to "-

      "Then don't!" He wheels round, his face contorted, savage. "Don't try. Don't even bother. You said you wanted time off, so you take it." He snatches up a toolbox and storms off the flight deck. Jenna swallows and slaps her hand against the console so hard I have to wince.

      Rogan and McCrae share knowing glances. Only then does it really occur to me. They're planning something! They mean to take the Liberator and hand it over to the Federation. And us with it. Why didn't I think of it earlier? I must have been too heady with ideas of allies against the common foe. I've got an idealistic streak that pushes common sense aside from time to time. But Avon hasn't. So why hasn't he realised?

      Then again, perhaps he has.

      

      

Time crawls. Beyond the ship's thin hull is an emptiness. Somewhere ahead is the galaxy. Behind and left and right, there is nothing. It doesn't feel as if we're moving. According to Jenna we're exceeding Standard By Ten. That's twice the speed of all but the fastest Federation ships, faster than some of the Aliens. It still doesn't feel as if we're moving. I see a vision of our track through space, a silver edge, deadly straight and razor thin, cutting into us as we travel its length. Sooner or later, it will cut us in two.

      I've looked for Avon. He's disappeared. I would take Jenna aside but I don't want to arouse their suspicions. I'm not wasting time on Vila. Blake's in no state to be saddled with this.

      The more I watch Rogan and McCrae the more I'm convinced they'll be making their move soon. There's still no signal from the 14th Fleet. Maybe they don't exist anymore. Some of the aliens must have got past them by now. Vila's nodding off at his post.

      I'm not paranoid, just crazy.

      Eyelids are starting to droop again. Another battlefield crater on my body chemistry and they're propped back up. I find myself looking at the twin chronometers at the edge of my console. One shows ship time, the other real time outside the ship. One's going unbelievably slow and the other's hardly moving at all. I try to shake some life back into my head. It's about then that Rogan gets up.

      "I'd like to see how Klye's getting on." It sounds innocent enough, and damn it he looks innocent, but I don't like the way McCrae's leaning back on the couch, tense, and poised to move at an instant's notice.

      "She'll still be under sedation," I reply. It's true. Her injuries aren't too bad, but she's less trouble to all of us kept well out of the way. Rogan had agreed at the time.

      He pulls a wry grin. He's got a strong boyish look that he knows how to exploit. I dare say he's broken more than his fair share of hearts in spacers' bars. I'm more than immune to that sort of charm.

      "I'd still like to see her," he persists.

      I pause, unsure. I don't want to have him wandering loose about the ship. On the other hand, I've no good reason to stop him seeing Klye. No reason except my suspicions, and making them clear might force him to act. Jenna catches my eye. She looks uneasy, and that's reassuring. She doesn't trust them either. Could she handle McCrae, with only a half-dead Vila to back her up? Possibly. Could I handle Rogan in this state? Possibly not. I try to communicate this to her, but all she gets is mindgarbage. I need a clear head to use my telepathy, and my head is currently anything but clear.

      I decide to chance stalling for time.

      "Very well. I'll take you to see her."

      "You're needed here," he points out, all too reasonably. "I can find my own way."

      "Liberator's a big ship," I answer, trying not to blush at the lameness of this excuse. "It's easy to get lost."

      He defers amicably, and waves at me to lead on. How can I refuse? As I walk down the corridor I am very aware of his footsteps right behind me. I am very aware of the fact that I'm completely unarmed.

      It's not far to the medical unit. Klye is still sedated, out cold. Rogan checks readouts on monitors, but makes little sense of them. He needs me to explain. I'm forced to talk him through them, and that makes it hard for me to keep an eye on him. I do so badly want to keep an eye on him. I'd be very surprised if he didn't know that.

      He makes non-committal noises at appropriate moments. He clearly isn't all that interested, assuming he can make sense of most, or even some of it.

      "Very impressive," he says when I finish. Pure platitude. "And what does this do?" He literally picks a piece of equipment at random and points to it.

      I challenge him. "Why should you want to know?"

      "Curiosity." That winning smile is lost on me. "I might never get another chance to see all this. I don't see why I should waste the opportunity."

      "That doesn't sound very convincing."

      He shrugs. "Probably not. Actually I was... well, more interested in you."

      "Really?" Not thinking, I take a step back. And corner myself. He moves to cover the doorway, blocking my escape, and comes closer. My heart begins to race, I feel it thudding. Fear grips, but not a paralysing fear. Quite the reverse. I've been expecting trouble. Here it is.

      "Yes, really. I've heard a lot about you, all of you, but especially you. Propaganda bull, mostly. I find you very intriguing."

      I take a deep breath. Somewhere in the back of my mind old lessons are waking up, shaken out of dormancy. Keep him talking, maintain eye contact, don't let him see you're afraid. He's not the only one who's been fed on propaganda bull.

      "You see, I thought you Auronar were all pacifists."

      "That's just a point of policy." Am I really to believe he brought me here to talk politics? Not that I could if he did. I'm switching into automatic mode now and see a chance. I take it. My hand flies out to the biomonitor controls. "You take one step closer I'll kill her."

      He shakes his head slowly, mocking. "That's just a life sign sensor. You told me that yourself." He takes that one step closer. Then another. "You should feel flattered. It's not often I feel tempted to fraternise with the enemy." Such a soothing, lulling voice he has, so overtly menacing. I tense, ready to make my move. "Of course, given the current situation, we're not really enemies, are we? You could almost say we're friends."

      He reaches out to touch my face, pinprick eyes drilling down into the core of my soul. Transfixing. It's time to show him I'm not as small and helpless as he'd like to think. Launch with a double feint, a knee for the groin and a wild lash with my right, then cut in with my left. It's worked more than once.

      But not with him. Maybe I'm just too tired or maybe he's seen it before, but I've barely started to move and he's got me pinned against the wall, both of my wrists held in the grip of one hand. One attempt to struggle and I know I'm wasting my time.

      "You're very beautiful, Cally," he says, in a hoarse whisper. His eyes are wide and piercing, lit with something primeval, bestial. They turn my mouth dry. He bends down, bringing his face ever closer to mine. And then he lets me go.

      "On the other hand," he snaps sharply, self-reproaching, "I could do a lot better than make a total fool of myself." He steps back, and half turns, without taking his eyes off me. They are the eyes of a shameful man. "I'm sorry, Cally."

      "Which is more than I can say for me." The cold voice in the doorway takes us both by surprise, and Rogan wheels round. Avon is there, holding a Space Command pistol at arm's length, aimed straight at Rogan.

      "Avon, I can "-

      "You don't need to explain anything." Avon clamps a second hand on the pistol butt as Rogan shifts in his direction. Despite that, his aim is unsteady. It's all Avon can do to stay on his feet.

      "Now," he snarls, carefully stepping round to take me out of his line of fire, "put it down. Gently."

      Rogan shrugs an admission of defeat and shakes one arm. A plas scalpel slithers out into his hand. He places it on the work bench, and moves away. So that's why. I never even noticed...

      "Nearly got away with it," he observes, forcing a grin.

      "Not nearly as much as you'd like to think. I've been monitoring all conversation on the flight deck and started to make my way here as soon as you approached Cally." He looks over to me. "I'm sorry I couldn't get here sooner, it might have saved us all a lot of trouble."

      There's something fractionally softer in the way he says those last words. I think he actually means it.

      Rogan stares down at the floor despondently. "You didn't trust us, then?"

      "I didn't when you first came aboard and I don't see any reason to now. Unless, of course, you can find reasons of your own why I shouldn't kill you." He definitely means that, and I'm not going to be one to argue.

      I move to join him, giving Rogan a wide detour. "I'll call the flight deck."

      Avon disagrees. "That would alert the other one."

      "Assuming, of course," says Rogan, adopting a cunning smile, "he's still actually on the flight deck."

      Avon blinks, trying to decide exactly what the Space Fleet officer means by that. He's just coming to the same conclusions I am when Rogan glares past the pair of us and snaps out an order: "Now, McCrae!"

      It's enough. We both glance back at the open door and Rogan's into us before we've realised there's nobody there. I get a kick in the guts that sends me stumbling over a casualty couch to land in a heap on the floor. As I clamber back up to my feet Rogan's got Avon pinned between him and me, the pistol ready to take either of us out at the slightest provocation.

      "Well," he sneers, "you two certainly didn't train at the FSA. I've seen one-legged tortoises move faster." He steps away from Avon, grabs his wrist and slams the pistol into Avon's hand. Avon's too dazed to realise what's going on as Rogan pulls out another surgical instrument. "And you'd better have this as well."

      My mind reels with blank confusion. He seems a different man altogether now, standing there tall and proud, but visibly shaking. He looks afraid, and... disappointed? Of himself, to an extent, but that's not the whole of it. I can't help but think he's disappointed in us.

      "You're surrendering." Even as I say it I can't believe it's happening. He had every advantage, and now he's throwing it all away.

      "I surrendered," he says, "the moment I stepped on board." Leaving the surgical unit, he pauses in the doorway to give us a full blast of his contempt. "You didn't trust us? What the fuck do you think we made of you?"

      He's gone, and I rush to prevent Avon falling to the floor. Propping him up against the wall, I help him sweep the sweat off from over his eyes as he gets his breath back. He looks up into my face with gaunt, hollow eyes, filled with pain and anger.

      "That one didn't go exactly as planned, did it?"

      "I thought much the same as you did," I say, trying to reassure him. It's a strange experience, having to reassure Avon. Normally he wouldn't stand for it, but now he just registers mute agreement. Difficult as he can be at times, he won't shy away from admitting he's made a mistake.

      "He wanted the weapons for his own self-protection, for himself and his fellow crew members." Avon reasons it out aloud to himself. "We're not a military vessel, we're not bound by any of the conventions on prisoners of war. We're renegades, outlaws. No wonder he didn't feel safe."

      "I think he trusts Blake," I offer, cautiously. It pays to be cautious when discussing Blake with Avon. "But I get the impression he doesn't really see Blake as being in charge."

      "He's not the only one," is Avon's caustic reply.

      He struggles back up to his feet, refusing to admit he needs the wall as a prop. "Go to Blake," he tells me, "and get him back on the flight deck. Tell Jenna she'll have to hang on for a few hours more. I'm just about..." I understand. "And tell Blake... tell him I've done all I can with the autorepair. Enough for it to repair itself eventually, anyway. It won't help our energy regeneration capacity for some time but... if we can stay out of trouble we should be near full operational status within forty eight hours."

      I promise to pass this on. He doesn't refuse my help in getting him to his cabin, but insists I leave him once we get there. As the door slides shut I move on to Blake's cabin. His door opens as I get there, and Blake comes out. He doesn't look in much better shape, but he manages a smile when he sees me.

      "Beat you to it," he says, and though his chuckle has a sharp edge to it, I know he'd rather that edge wasn't there. "No trouble while I've been out, I take it?"

      His face hardens as I pause, wonder how I'm going to tell him what's happened. It's more a matter of embarrassment than anything else. Then the intercom rings. Blake answers it. It's Jenna.

      "Blake, I'm going to have to alter course."

      A sense of something approaching relief has been creeping over me for the past few minutes. It disappears in an instant. All kinds of possibilities spring to mind. Perhaps the Federation officers have managed to take the flight deck after all...

      "Why's that, Jenna?"

      There's a brief moment of silence, then: "Well, if I don't, we go a bit too close to a star for my peace of mind." Even through the distortion of the intercom speakers, her overwhelming joy rings through bright and clear. It comes over Blake and I at the same time. A star! We're almost back in the galaxy!

      "All right, I'm exaggerating a bit," she continues, slightly teasing. "It's still more than five hours away and we don't go all that near it, but it's a star and I'm going to damn well deviate for it. Are you on your way up here?" When he affirms that he is, she tells him to pick up a bottle on the way.

      

      


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