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Kriegspielen

By Neil Faulkner
Page 3 of 3

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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