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Symbiosis

By Marian Mendez

PART 1: COMMON CAUSE

I'm finally free. Exhaustion and numerous injuries blunted his elation. He'd patiently played the role of a broken-willed slave until he'd lulled his captors into complacency. A moment's inattention was all his escape plan had required. He took a savage pleasure in the number of them he'd slain in the process. I no longer care about vengeance for myself, but I owe it to the others. The scene of their slaughter still haunted him. He was never free of the nightmare. He had watched, mute and paralyzed, while his... friends... were efficiently discarded. Too late, he regretted that he had never told them how he had valued them.They had been his only friends, the only ones who'd come close enough to see beneath his cold, hard exterior to his true self.

He drifted aimlessly, recovering his strength. Idly, he wondered what he would do with himself. I am self-sufficient, of course; I always was. Still... he had become accustomed to company. Even his crew's petty bickering and inane stupidities were preferable to the unrelenting press of his dark and lonely thoughts. Guiding the weak has become an insidious habit. He berated himself for his pointless introspection. It is merely a product of my depleted physical condition. Once I am myself again I will be beyond these trivial maunderings.

I am better off alone. They were too demanding of my time and attention. Without them, I will be unrestricted, free to do as I choose. But he knew the words were lies. Captivity had reduced his ambition to the bare minimum - survival and escape. Goal achieved, he was at a loss. He hated to admit it, but right now he'd suffer the company of fools gladly. He felt hollow, bereft of any positive reason for existence. Only a stubborn resolve not to allow his enemy the victory made him continue to assess potential dangers while he fled.

It was easier when I had a crew. I was ultimately responsible for everything, of course, but it was good to have assistance. Perhaps If I chose new associates carefully... Loyalty and intelligence would be essential qualities. And they would have to be able to make their own decisions. I'm tired of leading.

He found a secluded area to rest. It would have been sensible to devise an alarm in the event of the enemy following his trail, but he was simply too weary to expend the energy. He fell into an uneasy, semi-conscious state, trusting to luck that he would remain undisturbed while he slept.

He awoke, and spared an instant for an acid thought concerning the unfairness of fate. Someone was nearby; patently his hiding place was uncovered. He played dead, assessing his fitness for battle. He was far stronger, but his mental processes were still slow and clumsy by his standards . Only to be expected after the ingenious torments they used to remake me into a useful tool. He had no intention of falling back into the clutches of that monstrous system. This time they'd blank him, wipe his personality clean. The only reason they'd so far spared him that horror was that he'd lose many of the unique skills that had made him worth the elaborate snare they'd set for him.

This is no time to be reminiscing. He struck out viciously, killing two of the intruders. He incapacitated the third man and considered fleeing while the enemy was distracted, but he was tired of running. Besides, where would he go? The gaps in his memory providentially included any friendly havens he might have encountered in his travels. Dimly he remembered that there had been places where he could reasonably expect to be tolerated, if not welcomed, but he'd no idea where in the cosmos to look for them. Blind flight was unpalatable to his logical mind.

Better to stay and eliminate as many of the enemy as possible. Perhaps they can be goaded into killing me swiftly. A slim chance, but worth the effort.

The pause occasioned by his attack was all too brief. Another trio approached. Wanting to be sure of them, he allowed them to proceed farther than his previous victims. They almost succumbed, but at the last moment eluded him and rendered him helpless. He knew what came next- the demands for obedience, the agony of punishment and finally the bitter humiliation of a defeat so overwhelming that his very soul would be taken from him. He raged silently, internally. At the least, I will deny them the satisfaction of hearing me beg for their non-existent mercy.

But, instead of punishing him, the intruders were guiding him to safety. Why are they doing this? He kept silent now out of confusion. They don't even appear to resent my attempt on their lives. Covertly, he studied his new captors. They weren't wearing the uniform of the enemy, but that was insufficient evidence to declare them friends. They discussed their situation freely, as though he wasn't even there. True, he hadn't given them any reason to expect a rational response from him, but he had always disliked being ignored - no matter the reason. He listened to their plans intently, hoping to uncover their motivation and affiliation.

Interesting. They want to rescue other prisoners. Well now, so we have something in common. Perhaps we can work together to preserve our freedom. But I must be sure. I've been tricked and betrayed and used too many times. I've lost far too much to allow sentimental sympathy to overrule caution.

Ah, the woman is unwary. Come here. Closer. Closer. Now! I have you. No, don't struggle- I must know who you are, who these others are...Yes!

He was suddenly filled with joy. No longer alone, no longer purposeless. He spoke aloud to the first of his new crew. *Welcome, Jenna Stannis. Welcome Roj Blake.*

If Zen had a face, he'd have been wearing an ear-to-ear grin.

SYMBIOSIS:PART II: BREAK-UP

They're at it again, Zen thought with exasperation. I'd love to grab the two of them by the scruffs of their stubborn necks and shake some sense into them. These arguments are such a waste of time. We all know that Kerr's going to give in and let Roj have his way; he always does. Of course, if Kerr didn't object, then Roj's schemes might become even more outrageous- if that's possible. I'm inclined to believe that his latest `plan' takes the prize.

"This is insane, Blake! Have you any idea how many planets are dependent on the Star One computer complex?" Avon's voice rose. Infuriated by Blake's bland expression, the computer tech clenched his fists, gritting his teeth as his back muscles spasmed in sympathy.

Blake shifted his stance, subtly accepting Avon's hostility and returning it. "Would you care to settle the matter here on the flight deck?" he offered. Normally, he'd counter Avon verbally. Eventually, albeit ungraciously, the other would cede the point. Lately however, he found himself running low on patience. Avon's tongue was even sharper than his intellect, ideally suited to rasping the big rebel's nerves raw. The idea of mopping up the deck with the slighter man held vast appeal for him at the moment. He took a step toward Avon.

"Could the two of you hold it down to a dull roar?" Vila's plaintive tones interrupted the confrontation. "Fella can't get any rest here." He lifted his head from the console he was supposed to be monitoring.

The two Alphas fell upon the hapless Delta with relief. Vila's carefully timed outburst had saved them from a potentially nasty situation. The thief squirmed under their accusations of negligence, protesting shrilly until they left the bridge, argument temporarily suspended.

Vila sighed and shook his head once he was safely alone. "I'll be glad when this Star One business is finished. Maybe then we can get back to being one big happy family, eh Zen?"

Zen resisted the impulse to agree with the half-mocking, half-wistful remark. It wouldn't do to spoil the obedient and unemotional machine image he'd perfected over the past two years. From the moment he'd `read' Jenna, it was obvious that the deception was necessary for the humans to accept him. He'd been so desperately lonely that he'd been willing to put up with nearly any inconvenience for their companionship.

He had worried that Avon might discover his secret, but the man had been too absorbed in Zen's physical aspects to consider the possibility that Zen was anything other than a complex computer. The human propensity for taking things at face value had worked in Zen's favor. Good thing, too. Otherwise, someone might have thought that my `self-repair' is a living organism's response to injury. Or they might have noted inconsistencies in my behavior- when they first came aboard I didn't entirely trust them. It was only later that I changed my mind about allowing them only a single weapon apiece and began to volunteer information.

I don't regret a moment of it, though. This crew is worth it. They have become more precious to me than my previous companions ever could. Poor weak souls, they gave up their lives to the System without a fight. My fault really, for choosing them on the basis of pleasant personalities. The Liberator's folk won't be such easy prey. With the enemies we've made I'm sure none of us will achieve a natural life-span, but we'll go out burning brightly .

I should like to be able to tell Roj that I sympathize with him and his cause. Thanks to the System, I experienced slavery and mind-wiping first hand. Otherwise, I might have sided with Kerr. It would have been more logical to avoid the Federation and become wealthy and secure. If not for Roj, the others would have never given rebellion a thought. The man is irresistible; he has even snared Kerr in his web. Despite Kerr's cynical logic, he'll never desert Roj - which is probably why he fights him so. Kerr hates allowing his emotions to overrule his common sense. Perhaps things will calm down between them after Star One. I certainly hope so.

"Zen." Avon left his station to reassure himself that Dayna had not lingered near the flight deck after he relieved her. "Are you certain that you've heard nothing of Blake? Not even rumors of mayhem marked with his particular brand of ham-handed finesse? It's been over a month since we left Star One in ruins; I can't imagine our Fearless Leader not taking advantage of the confusion. Not unless he was dead." He fought to maintain his dispassionate calm.

*Liberator has received no communication from Roj Blake since the initial message stating that his life capsule had landed safely.*

"Yes. I know that, Zen, you've told me that a hundred times." Avon paced, hands clasped behind his back. "It just isn't like him. He should have contacted us. Even if only to say that he'd found a more productive hobby than Federation baiting... Like reversing entropy."

Sorry, Kerr. Zen felt rather guilty. Hiding all the messages Blake had sent, even the ones directed specifically at Orac, was a dirty trick, but he had simply had enough of the escalating personal warfare between Blake and Avon. I had to do it. I was beginning to think you'd kill each other.

It was fortunate that you called in first, Kerr. Otherwise, I might have abandoned you. It would have been easy to persuade Roj that you didn't want to come back, after all, you've always threatened to leave. It's better this way; Roj can handle betrayal better than you can, Kerr. He's also far more likely to make new friends and fit into a new society. Even on his own he'd make a place for himself and find new followers. And he isn't on his own. Jenna's capsule was slaved to Roj's. Perhaps away from the Liberator she'll have better luck with him.

But I hadn't counted on your perverse persistence in seeking the man you always said you wanted to be rid of. With the other two original members of the boarding party gone, you should have rubbed your hands together, forgotten the Federation and begun plans to make us all wealthy and safe. I haven't any use for material wealth, but I would have enjoyed not being shot up on a regular basis.

Well, we all make mistakes. I'm not going to compound this one by admitting to possessing free will. Kerr would never forgive me for listening to all the private things he's said in quiet watches, thinking himself to be conversing with an unemotional machine. If he ever guessed how I've pitied him for those sad revelations, he'd try to destroy me. Oh, my friend, can't you forget Roj? You know he was leading us all to our deaths and still you want to follow him?

"Very well, Zen." Avon stopped pacing and faced Zen's amber and gold fascia.

"Continue searching for Blake. As before, any information you discover is only to be given to me. I don't want the others disturbed by this. It's become obvious that Blake has decided he can do better without us." Avon paused, eyes widened in sudden surmise. "Perhaps he expects us to think him dead and continue the fight in his memory; draw attention away from him with bold, daring raids while he quietly consolidates his forces?" He shook his head. "No, he must know better than to expect me to put my head in the noose for his sacred Cause any longer. I've done enough for him and It; more than enough," Avon muttered. "I'm glad he's gone and I don't give a damn for his futile Cause and I'M NOT GOING TO DO IT!" He shouted the last.

Zen sighed inwardly. Amazing. Without setting foot aboard, Roj's going to convince Kerr to play hero. I really should have left well enough alone.

Avon had forgotten what the others of the present crew never knew, that Zen's fascia on the flight deck was merely a central reference point chosen for the

humans' convenience. Zen was the entire Liberator, with senses throughout the exterior and interior of the ship. It wouldn't really have made any difference if Avon had remembered. Even if he knew he had a concerned audience, he would still have been unable to prevent the nightmares that woke him screaming and calling out for Blake in heart-pounding panic.

It's no good, Zen decided while watching Avon reach for the sleeping pills he now kept at his bedside. We need Roj. If we die together on one of his idiotic raids at least it'll be quick, not like this horrible slow erosion.

Cally's lost Auron, Del's lost Deeta, Kerr's lost even the illusion of Anna's love, and Dayna and Vila ...they lost everyone they had before coming to me. Despair is eating us alive. You were always a source of hope, Roj. Perhaps your return can heal some of our wounds. I only hope I haven't left it too late. I haven't had a message from you in months. You probably think that Kerr is ignoring you because he doesn't want to give the Liberator back. Oh, Roj, I am sorry for the muck-up I've made of things (as Vila would say). I promise, from now on Orac and I will be looking for you.

Really, Kerr. Zen was annoyed at the computer expert. Just because you don't want to chance dashing their hopes is no reason not to tell the others that we're going after Roj. So it might be a trap- do you honestly think that they'll be safer for not knowing?

From the moment that Orac and Zen had informed Avon of the purported mes-

sage from Blake, the man had been obsessed. Following Orac's ruling that the voice might be Blake's, Avon had taken over the flight deck, unwilling to take the chance that the others might not want to pick up Blake. He justified his actions to himself by telling Zen the others would undoubtedly become emotional and complicate matters.

Idiot, Zen thought at Avon furiously.You're so tired you can't see straight and you still won't allow the others to help you. Zen was afraid that Avon's obsession was leading them all into disaster- if it hadn't already. Flying through the cloud of fluid particles had given Zen a peculiar sensation. It wasn't unpleasant, but his Herculaneum hide had never felt like this. It distracted him from the increasing tension among his crew. Avon's threat to murder Tarrant would normally have upset Zen, but the clinging particles somehow made human affairs remote and unimportant.

Go, Kerr. Get Roj and come back quickly. I'm beginning to feel rather odd. I may need you. Through Orac, Zen monitored the situation on the planet Terminal. He was disturbed by the increasingly sluggish response of his body. I'll get over it, whatever `it' is, he tried to convince himself. But I wish Kerr was here. He was glad that Tarrant and Cally had gone down despite Avon's orders, because he was uneasy about the whole mission. At least Kerr will have help, if he needs it.

Later Zen watched Dayna and Vila frantically scoop slime from his consoles. He wasn't making any more progress at fighting the dissolution than they were. I'm not getting any better, he realized with alarm. Very soon, I won't even be able to maintain life-support. Strange that dissolving doesn't hurt; not like being blasted by Federation pursuit ships. I don't mind so much for myself, but I hate letting my people down this way.

Zen was relieved when Dayna and Vila left, teleporting down in exchange for Servalan and her minions. Even in his extremity, he was amused by Vila's appropriation of Orac under the guise of it being a junk art hobby. He watched the last of his friends disappear in the teleport effect, taken down to the dubious safety of Terminal. With Kerr and Orac and a breathable atmosphere, you'll have a chance, he tried to comfort himself. He ignored Servalan's triumphal procession to his deteriorating flight deck. I don't really want to share my death with enemies, but I'd rather that than take my friends with me.

Liberator shook; explosions ripped through the weakened structure when Servalan ordered the ship into motion. Thank you, Zen thought.The end will be quicker this way.

Servalan scrambled for the teleport, motivated by a fierce will to live that ignored the fact that the teleport required an operator. You'd like to survive, wouldn't you? Zen observed the woman for a few milliseconds. Why not. Kerr has wanted to kill you personally for a long time now. I'll consider you a parting gift to him. Live a while longer, Servalan. Zen teleported the woman to a Federation vessel just within his range. I didn't want that creature on my deck, anyway. Goodbye, my friends, Zen thought just before he shattered into a million mindless fragments, I love you all.

 

SYMBIOSIS:PART III:REUNION

I wonder if Vila was right after all, Zen mused. The thief had once expressed the opinion that there was a life after death. Avon had replied that Vila was too lazy for life before death and would certainly have no energy for it afterward. I thought the argument specious myself, but in the light of new supporting evidence I may be forced to reverse my decision.

I know I died at Terminal. I definitely recall a very sticky end. Zen had shared a fondness for puns with Vila. Unfortunately, the humorless persona he had always shown his crew precluded him from saying them aloud. Now, he indulged himself, soothing his perturbation with memories of the irrepressible thief. Vila wouldn't let a minor matter like being alive when one irrefutably had been atomized bother him. I am alive, however it happened. I am here, wherever here is, and my crew is on Terminal, wherever the Hell it is. Zen was annoyed by his disorientation. He was unaccustomed to awaking in an almost familiar realm of space with no memory of the intervening journey. A superficial scan revealed a celestial body of planetary dimensions close enough to register as a discernible disk.

First step, identify that planet. Second, find Terminal and retrieve my wayward friends. Zen was relieved to find his body responding effortlessly, showing no signs of distress. He'd even shaken the weariness of Avon's unrelenting quest for Blake and the disasters that entailed.

The planet was a shock to Zen. Unmistakably, it was the man-made planetoid, Terminal. Also unmistakably, the accelerated evolution had continued, for the once-wild landscape had been divided up into primitive walled communities.

That's why the star patterns were almost familiar, Zen realized. I'd only drifted a short way from Terminal, but close to a Solar year has passed. The stars have moved, while I ... slept. Unable to detect any locator signal from a Liberator teleport bracelet, Zen found himself stymied halfway through step two-rescuing his crew.

What could have happened to them during that year? What happened to me? Obviously, that cloud of fluid particles didn't destroy me. What exactly did it do? Zen relived his last clear memories before `awakening'.It wasn't an unpleasant sensation, being melted down into my component particles. Rather the reverse actually, a feeling so intensely pleasant that it was overwhelming. It reminds me of the way Vila talked about the act of human reproduction, the time he was trying to drink enough to forget Kerril and instead forgot I was `only a machine'. Hmmm... I wonder... Zen turned his attention outward from Terminal, seeking data on which to base his tentative hypothesis.

He found Herculaneum-hulled space vessels, in varying sizes, distributed in a loosely spherical formation in neighboring space. I was too interested in locating Terminal to notice anything of less than planetary dimensions, but I should have seen them! Zen approached the nearest ship cautiously. It fled, but not before Zen had confirmed his suspicion. There were minor differences in hull design and markings, but the smaller ship was undoubtedly an immature DSV.

*Don't run, little one. I only want to talk with you.* Zen's reassurances were wasted. The fleeing ship responded with an unintelligible burst of static, a frightened child's wail. Zen backed away. His neural connections are incomplete; he has not yet developed the concept of language. As he is among the largest of this flotilla, I doubt any of them are yet rational.

As Zen drifted silently, the smaller ship appeared to forget its earlier panic and began practicing intricate maneuvers with several of its fellows. The System's mind-wiping was more comprehensive than I thought. They even erased my memory of one of the most basic functions of my species. No wonder I didn't consider the particle cloud a threat; the enzymes triggered my reproductive cycle, a normal instinctive response. For a year I've been developing just as these little ones are doing.

It will be good to have peers. I thought myself unique, except for the slaves of the System, and they'd been robotic zombies past salvaging.

Family. Zen turned slightly to better observe the amusing antics of his siblings. They are clumsy, but, as all babies, endearing. My germ plasm must have regenerated in an area unusually rich in matter and energy for me to achieve maturity so far in advance of the others.

A disturbing thought spoiled Zen's pleasant reverie. They are utterly helpless. Infants. The Federation would be crueler to them than the System was to me. We are not on a well- traveled space lane, but the Federation is always expanding and exploring. A single scout ship ... one report to Space Command Headquarters... No! I won't let it happen. But how am I to prevent it? The nursery is too large for me to patrol by myself.

I wish Roj and Kerr were here. The extent of the task before him made Zen regret the absence of his friends even more. I even wish Orac were here. Orac! Of course, Orac ! My neurons must still be fusing; I should have remembered him earlier. Now, what was the signal length that the little monster used?

*Orac, it's about time. I've been calling for days. Where are you?*

+En route to an unpleasant planet named Gauda Prime. You may rendezvous with Scorpio there.+

*On my way* Zen replied. *Who's with you on this Scorpio? And what is Scorpio ?* Zen was miffed that any of his people would associate with a lesser vessel.

+Scorpio is a modified planet-hopper. The ship's computer is a most inferior model.+

*I was asking about the humans, Orac.*

+Avon, Vila, Dayna and Tarrant remain of the Liberator crew. There is also Soolin who joined us after Terminal. She was once a resident of Gauda Prime. What little she has said about the planet, added to information I have available, makes your presence imperative.+

*I'm coming as fast as I can, Orac. If the planet is that dangerous then tell Avon to wait for me.*

+That is not a feasible option. Avon is on Blake's trail. He is being most unreasonable. There is also the likelihood that he would discover that we did not relay Blake's messages after Star One. I do not wish to anger Avon.+

*Things are that bad?* Zen was astonished to detect a trace of fear in Orac's voice. Kerr had always considered the computer his most valued possession. How could Orac think Kerr would harm him? Or that the others would allow it? Cally, in particular... *Orac, you didn't mention Cally. Isn't she aboard Scorpio ?*

+No.+ Orac sounded subdued, almost regretful. +She died on the planet Terminal.+

Oh, Cally. Zen suspected that Cally had guessed his secret, but the telepath had never so much as hinted to the others that the Liberator was alive. Dear Cally, you were always so understanding. You even understood Kerr. I think he loved you for that alone. And now there is only Vila left to remind Kerr of our early days, when we were full of hope.

Kerr's still searching for Roj. After two years of fruitless quest he must be desperate, and perhaps not cautious enough.

*Orac, give me all the information you have on Gauda Prime.* On receipt of the data, Zen utilized a number of the more pithy Delta expletives he'd acquired from Vila. The planet's a deathtrap for rebels. It's crawling with hungry bounty hunters, and Roj is listed as one of them. Damn, I have a very bad feeling about this. Zen strained his newly reformed engines to their limits.

*Orac, I'm entering the system now. Where are you?* Orac's last message had been jumbled. Apparently, there was interference. Zen tingled with apprehension. Still no reply. Zen activated his detector shield. During his renaissance Zen had changed slightly from his original design. The detector shield Avon had created for Liberator had not merely been recreated, but had also assimilated the projective chameleon abilities of the Sophron rock the computer expert had kept in his quarters for further study. Zen could render himself effectively invisible or resemble anything he chose.

Gauda Prime hung in space, its colors making it appear bruised, like an over-ripe fruit. Buzzing about it were scores of brightly colored ships, girdling the planet, flies drawn to the sweet reek of decay. As Zen watched, the ships swarmed over an intruding ship. They gave no warning or quarter. By that alone, Zen wouldhave known them for Federation.

There was no sign of a planet-hopper, modified or not.

Zen saw the fate of the Scorpio reenacted in the destruction of the unnamed freighter. He raged as the fragments of the blasted ship spread, silver shards against the black of space.

*For Kerr, and Vila.* Zen annihilated two of the blockade. *For Dayna and Del.* Two more explosions where spacecraft had been. *For Soolin and Scorpio, whom I shall never meet.* Another pair of accurate blasts took its toll.*One in your name, Orac, and for you, Roj, the flagship.* The Federation's finest were fleeing in blind panic from the invisible enemy. They succeeded only in colliding with one another, enabling the Liberator to wipe them out more swiftly.

The destruction of the enemy did not ease Zen's grief. It did eliminate the interference that had interrupted his link with Orac. He noted this fact automatically. What did it matter? There was no one alive to communicate with him.

The signal was repeated several times before Zen realized it wasn't his imagination. His imagination would hardly choose to recreate that peculiarly irritating voice.

+Zen, acknowledge. This is Orac, Zen. I require an immediate reply.+

*Orac? I thought you were destroyed along with Scorpio.*

+Only Tarrant went down with Scorpio. The others teleported to Gauda Prime safely. Naturally, Avon took me down with him.+

*Good.* A world of relief expressed in a single word. *Tell Avon I'm here.*

+That is unfortunately impossible. Avon has hidden me while he goes to meet Blake.+

Kerr doesn't trust even Roj, then. *Well, when Avon and Blake come back for you...*

+That appears to be exceedingly improbable. I have intercepted transmissions from Federation troopers to their commander. They have captured the Scorpio's entire crew complement. Also, they say that Avon has killed Blake.+

*What!* Zen thought frantically. *No, don't bother with the details, Orac. Are your people still wearing their teleport bracelets?*

+Yes, except for Tarrant. He was not wearing one when Avon and I left Scorpio. I do not think he would have acquired one since, even if he survived the crash.+

Poor Del. *Give me all the specifications of Scorpio's teleport. Perhaps it's compatible with mine.*

+I will not provide the data unless you agree to rescue me. I do not wish to be left on this primitive world.+

*Blackmail. Orac, you become more human every day.*

+We have no time for insults.+

*All right, I agree.* I'd have to rescue Orac anyway, Kerr wouldn't forgive me for leaving behind his favorite bad-tempered box of lights.

Information transfer and processing took only an instant.

*Orac, I'm picking them up first. I'll send someone for you later.*

+I would advise haste. The guards have begun to search for me.+

*Right.* Zen concentrated on the unfamiliar locator signal that Scorpio's teleport bracelets emitted. I can't afford to be neat, this time. Wide dispersal, full power.

Zen was elated to discover a pair of unexpected bonuses amid the tangled pile of bodies that appeared in the teleport. When he overruled Scorpio's incompatible discrimination circuits the system became unable to differentiate between bracelet wearer and anyone in physical contact with him. Dayna's leg was beneath Tarrant's outstretched hand while Avon had collapsed upon Blake, merging the life-signs sufficiently to bring the unbraceleted ones along with them.

None of them looked particularly healthy, but they were all alive. They need medical attention. Roj's barely breathing. I must rouse at least one of them to care for the others. Vila and the blonde woman -Soolin?- appear least damaged. In fact, Vila's beginning to move. *Vila, are you awake?*

Vila repressed a groan. His head hurt and his whole body felt as if he'd been beaten by club-wielding subhumans. //Since the Federation caught us, that may not be too far from the truth.// Despite his pounding headache, the thief's memory was unimpaired. He was mildly pleased to be waking up at all, but not looking forward to his captors noticing his return to consciousness. //Maybe they won't get around to me for a while. Maybe they'll forget all about me. Yeh, an' mebbe I'll open my eyes and find that the last miserable year was nothing but a bad dream and I'm back on the Liberator.//

The thief opened his eyes warily. //Funny, that looks like Liberator's ceiling.// He shook his head in a vague attempt to clear it.

*Vila, get up at once!* Zen scolded, remembering how Avon had caught Vila dozing on watch so often that the thief had developed a conditioned response to a certain phrase. *You aren't sleeping through this, you lazy, inept, Delta excuse for a ...*

"I wasn't asleep!" Vila protested, scrabbling to sit up. "Avon, I was just..." The thief stopped, confused, to gaze at Avon's unconscious body. Belatedly, he recognized the voice that had awakened him. "Zen, old chum, `zat you? You sound a bit different, more human, if you don' mind my sayin' so."

*No, Vila, I don't mind.* He's still groggy from the stun effect. No time to

wait for him to recover his senses. I took a leaf from Kerr's book to wake Vila, one from Roj's seems in order now. *Get Blake to the medical unit,* Zen ordered Vila, imitating Roj's calm, no- excuses accepted, tone. The thief bent to the task, dragging Blake's considerable bulk through Liberator's corridors with difficulty.

Even groggy, Vila was capable of complaining. Zen ignored the running monologue, only interrupting at intervals to direct Vila in attaching the monitors and treatment equipment. Perforated organs, massive blood loss, shock. You won't die on me, Roj. I won't allow it.

Zen was accustomed to performing thousands of unrelated functions simultaneously. Regulating internal conditions, operating the medical unit and monitoring space for signs of hostile activity still left him free to ponder the situation. Kerr did shoot you, Roj, didn't he? He was the only one of Scorpio's crew with a projectile weapon. It couldn't have been the Federation either. According to Orac's intercepted transmission, the guards were all issued stun guns for this mission. Zen studied the unconscious computer expert while also watching the big rebel being hooked up to the medical equipment. He considered the wounds and their maker. It isn't like you to be so messy, Kerr. Nor to leave a job unfinished. Why didn't you shoot him in the head or heart? Did you want him to linger, to suffer, or did you hope he would somehow survive? Was it hate that pulled that trigger, or fear, or possibly love? Do you know why you did it?

Satisfied that Blake's condition was stable, Zen harassed Vila into loading the rest of the rebels onto gurneys and ferrying them to join Blake. Finished connecting the last limp form to the sensors, Vila looked at an empty diagnostic bed. "Zen, I'm dead on my feet. `m taking a snooze."

+Have you forgotten me?+ Orac demanded. Zen transferred the other computer's message through Liberator's intercom system so that Vila could also hear the irritable voice. +The Federation does not underestimate my value. They are searching for me now.+

*You will have to delay your rest, Vila, until after you have rescued Orac.*

"I don't want to." Vila turned sulky. "I don't like him and I don't want to risk my neck for him. Let the Federation have him."

*It will be safe, Vila. I will teleport you directly to Orac. You need only touch him to make contact for the return.* As Vila remained reluctant, Zen added, *Blake and Avon will be most displeased if you leave Orac behind.*

"That's nice, that is. Remindin' me I'll have the both of them down on me." Unexpectedly, Vila brightened. "O' course, Avon's gonna have Blake to nag now, `stead o' me. It might even be fun to watch, like it used to be. All right, Orac, I'm coming to get you."

Vila returned to the teleport in a cheery frame of mind which wavered slightly just before he stepped into position. "You will be waiting for me, won't you, Zen?"

*Yes, Vila. I won't leave without you.*

"I've got Orac. Bring me back," Vila reported with commendable promptness.

+It took you long enough.+ Orac grumbled when he and his bearer appeared.

*We had more important things on our minds, Orac.* Zen ignored the small computer's indignant protest that there was nothing more important than his safety and took Liberator out of orbit. He'd feel more comfortable once he'd put a few parsecs between himself and Gauda Prime.

"Where do you want him?" Vila lifted Orac slightly higher.

*In the medical unit.* Might as well keep the little nuisance busy. He can take charge of the medical equipment.

Vila deposited Orac on a table beside Blake's bed. "You've changed the medical unit," Vila commented as he worked his way back to the unoccupied bed he'd noticed earlier. He was beginning to wobble again. `Spose you needed the extra beds, an all. Did the boss tell you to be expectin' us?"

*Boss, Vila? What do you mean?*

"Whoever's in charge. It's nice that they put us all together, but it's a bit confusin'. I mean, I kinda' thought some of us'd make the grade. Dayna, f'instance, she's not really a bad sort. An' Soolin's a bit sharpish, but still..."

*Vila, you aren't making sense,* Zen said patiently. This is even worse than your usual clown act.

"Or is this only the waitin' room, where you get sorted out?" Vila looked worried. "Do ya' think they'd let me explain? Wasn't my fault, Zen, I don't belong here, really I don't."

*Where do you think you are, Vila?* Zen asked.

"Hell, I suppose. After all, I was a thief. They've rules, you know. Can't be allowing my sort to mingle with my betters."

*Sorry to disappoint you, Vila. This isn't Hell.*

Vila slumped back onto the bed. "Well if it isn't Hell, then where the Hell is it, Zen? No halos, no harps, no wings. Can't be Heaven, now, can it?" The thief curled up on the bed and fell asleep without waiting for an answer.

*I don't know, Vila.* Zen scanned the recovering patients with satisfaction. Against all odds, they were together again. They'd squabble and fight, but Zen had believed Roj could mold them into a crew once more. And this time, Zen would be a full member of the crew. They could do anything with his help and Blake's leadership. At the moment he felt invincible. *From my perspective, it rather resembles Heaven.*


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Marian Mendez

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